I just beat the first Ultima Underworld game and I wanted to share my experience as someone who was too young for those games when they came out. See it as impressions from a modern gamer if you will. What really got me interested in the Ultima series was Spoony’s review series; sure I knew that Ultima existed before, but seeing the games in motion and having someone explain the context in which they existed was much more interesting than reading a Wikipedia article or looking up random screenshots on Google. The thing one needs to keep in mind when watching Spoony is that Spoony is not an actual critic, he’s an entertainer and part of a new movement of “angry reviewing”, people like the Angry Video Game Nerd, Zero Punctuation or the Nostalgia Critic, who do reviews just for laughs and nitpick or blow issues way out of proportions and “the Spoony One” is just an exaggeration of Noah Antwiler. When watching Spoony you have to keep in mind that often things he points out are exaggerated or taken out of context. So I knew that my actual Ultima experience wouldn’t be like his “reviews” because those “reviews” are not meant to be actual reviews. Of course some reviews completely fail to entertain, I personally found the Ultima IX videos to be horrible (what’s a palladin?), but that’s what they are.
I will also be comparing ultima Underworld to a game from 2002 called Arx Fatalis. Arx Fatalis was developed by Arkane Studios, a French video game developer, as Ultima Underworld 3, but they couldn’t get the license, so they made it into their own original game. you can still see the similarities though, the protagonist comes from another world, the villain is an evil god from another dimension who has been building up a cult to allow him to step over into the world, you have similar races to UUW like goblings (grey and green ones), trolls, dwarfes and snake women and you have the king sitting on his throne in Caste Arx. Arx Fatalis is available on GoG and it’s even open source (but not freeware, similar to Duke Nukem 3D, Doom or Descent), there is a port for Windows and Linux called Arx Libertatis (the game could run on Macs as well, but on one has compiled it yet, there is a Wine wrapper though).
OK, let’s get started with the actual game. I’ll focus on inividual aspects first, then I’ll give my overall impression.
- INTERFACE -
This the part that scared me most. I tried The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which is free on Bethesda’s website, before and the interace really annoyed me. You do everything with the mouse, including walking. Sure, you could use the keyboard as well, but movement is on the arrow keys, I have no idea who thought that was a comfortable choice. When I tried the demo of UUW I was glad to find out the game has WASD controls (it’s not exactly those keys, but it uses keys on the left side of the keyboard). I know this might sound weird, but interface can make or break a game for me. Especially old games are suffering from poor choices where everything is driven by the mouse. It’s physically painfull for me to move the mouse around for everthing, my shoulder stars hurting. Putting movement on the keyboard really removes a lot of stress and makes the game much more enjoyable. I didn’t like the toolbar at the left though, but once i leared of default mode (which is explained in the manual) I never had to use it, this is a real stroke of genious. Inventory management is OK, i never found myself having to fiddle around with it too much.
Interface was really the biggest barrier to me. I have no proble with low fidelity sound and graphics, but when the act of playing the game is causing me pain I simply cannot get over it. Some people suffer from headache in FPS games with too low field of view and I suffer from poor interface. It just shows how much thought was put into something that seems trivial to most people, when even years later other develoeprs would still get it wrog (like Bethesda in Arena). If any company had had the right not to get it right it would have been Origin for being one of the first.
- SOUND AND GRAPHICS -
There is not much to say, the game still looks very nive to the eyes and with Roland sound enabled it even sounds nice. I can always tell what is what and the dynamic lighting gives the game a great atmosphere. I like how vibrant the colours are, I know it is due to the limitations of hardware at that time, but I much prefer it over the grey brown in Arx Fatalis where the only vibrant things are the spells.
Speaking of lighting, how some I can still see when I have no lights on me? I’m underground, where does that light come from? It’s probably the same light that allows plants and moss to grow underground.
- DOCUMENTATION -
Yes, I read the whole thing and it was awesome! See, I like manuals, they draw you into the game even before you turn it on, they create a sense of immersion that simply cannot be achieved with any amount of cutscene and graphics. In fact those things are doing the opposite, they make me passive while a book is something I read actively. I am reading this book and learning about the world instead of having it spoon-fed to me. I whish I had the real thing though, PDF is nice but I do appreciate the sensation of turning pages and holding it in my hands. When i was a child I liked how Nintendo manuals were always this well written (while other games had crappy manuals that barely taught you how the game worked), but Origin manuals are even beyond that. They are written like something that actually came from the game world, a book, a journal, a guide or a magazine. It teaches you about the game in the same way it would teach someone fromt the game world about the world. To not break immersion the technical details are contained whithin a separate manual. Other games do a similar thing, but they make the mistake of combining the fluff (lore) material with the crunch (mechanics) material and usually the crunch takes over.
- STORY AND AMTOSPHERE -
I have to agree with Spoony on this one, the whole premise of a colony in the Abyss is just stupid. Then again, I’m currently living in a city that used to be a Malaria infested swamp (no, really) and was turned into a city of brick and mortar like any other city and there hasn’t been any Malaria for centuries. What I will say though is that it make for a great setting with excellent atmosphere. You are tossed into the Abyss, which is basically a world on its own and the general mood is just despair. Almost everyone has essentially given up and the world is dying, there is no hope of ever leaving. Then out of nothing you come, you are different, you have a clear objective in mind and you have the power and will to break this eternal melancholy. The Avatar is the one who collects the eight talismans, defeats monsters and helps those in need. But you are not just the chosen hero, well you are kind of, but you still have the same limiations as everyone else, you too need light and food and need to sleep. You start with nothing like the rest but through your wits and your hope you overcome the odds and accomplish what no one else was capable of.
Now compare it to Arx Fatalis. In AF the sun starts to fade and the king decides to move the entire city underground to escape fromt the eternal ice that’s to come. Sure it sucks to be underground, but it sucks for everyone, including the king, and it’s better than the alternative, which is freezing on the surface. You have a fully working society with royalty, guards, peasants, farmers, craftsmen and merchants underground. When you meet a merchant you always trade in gold, but in UUW you trade in whatever the other party is interested in. All your gold might be completely worthless when no one wants it and food can become the most valuable ressource (even worse, gold has actual weight). This further drives the feeling of despair in the Abyss, while in Arx people are more like “meh, could be worse”.
I still don’t get Tyball’s motivation though, at first it seems simple, evil wizard wants to bring demon into the world in exchange for power. Then he says he just wanted to bind the demon into the girl (how does that even work?), but according to the cluebook he wanted to sacrifice the girl to break the seal. OK, maybe he was lying to me, but why would he lie when he was dying? And why is there a note in his back room where he says he will resurrect Garamond once it’s over and apologizes to his brother? Why is there is even such a note, did he write it for the player to find? Or maybe he being was honest and something went wrong during the second banishment, so he wanted to try another way, then the Avatar burst into his lab and killed him without reasoning. Then the writers of the cluebook (in the world of Britannia) changed a few details to make Tyball look like the bad guy instead of writing “and the Avatar burst into the good wizard’s lair and shoved the “Sword of Justice” down his throat like a self-righteous asshole, dooming all of Britannia”. Then again, why did Tyball attack me on sight and why did he throw Garamond’s bones away? Was Garamond the bad guy all along? Yes, I know I’m thinking more about this than the actual writers, but when you have to walk the same corridor for the 50th time you start thinking about this sort of stuff.
- THE DIFFICULTY -
The game is way too easy. Arx Fatalis had an excellent atmosphere but once you realized nothing could really hurt you it all fell apart. I felt similar in UUW, up until level 7 there is nothing that could pose any serious threat and that was with a character who was skilled like a total mess. I really whish the game was more like level 7 and 8 where I genuinely felt like avoiding combat. On the previous levels monsters felt more like something put in there in a sense of obligation rather than something that could actually stop you. What I found genuinely scary was when I had to find one of the three keys near the end and I had to go upstairs with monsters like gazers, deep lurkers, black ghosts and even shadow beasts. Getting the key was really scary when three shadow beasts jumped out of the door. I ended up just using invisbility and flying to grab the key and get out there as soon as possible and even then I barely survived it. That was cool, because I had to be ressourceful, I had to use the things I had collected instead of just swinging my sword at stuff. Level 8 was scary whith all those fire elementals (BTW, f’ the manual and fire elementals being almost blind, those things were sniping me whith fireballs even when they were way out of my sight!). For the most part though the game felt more like wall hugging simulator and backtracking was really starting to get on my nerves near the end. I didn’t even do all the quests I was given, there just was no point. At the end all I cared about was just getting out of that hole.
- CRYPTIC STUFF -
I’m glad I was give a cluebook by GoG, the game has some really obscure stuff. I don’t mind secrets, the cluebook doesn’t even reveal all the magic items such as rings and wands, and I do like finding clues about things rather than having the answer just give to me. That said though there are times when i was stuck, so the cluebook was a good help. Plus it contained some cool lore and it was also written as in in-world item. The dragonscale boots and the rotworm stew are good examples; sure, it’s possible to beat the game without, but it becomes a real pain.
- THE PHYSICS -
Yes, this needs mentioning as well. For the most part they work pretty well, but the platforming drove me really mad. First-person platforming is bad enough in modern games, but in UUW it was something to be avoided as much as possible whith its small view window and weird ollision detection. When I found the ring of flying on level 7 I thought it was finally over, but somehow flying is glitched like cracy. Sometimes i wouldn’t move at all and sometimes only slowly. Maybe it was intentional, to simulate wind, because it only worked in certain directions, but it was just stupid.
- LACK OF FEEDBACK -
I do understand what the Ultima series wants to do. instead of being an exercise in mathematical optimization, like Diablo, it focuses on immersion, interactivity and world building instead. I appreciate that, but when you start removing too much you can miss the goal. There is very little indication given to me about what is “good” in terms of mechanics. My character had a strength of 19, but I don’t know if 19 is low, average, high or whatever. If I was really living in the world of Britannia i would be able to judge the quality of something by intuition, I would know what a better weapon is and i would know what strong means. However, when I’m sitting in front of a computer I need stats to compensate. When I’m playing UUW I don’t know if an excellent shortsword is better than a serviceable longsword. In the same way leveling up is really annoying whith all those random bonuses, but it doesn’t matter since the game is not hard. There are also skills that sound useful, like lockpicking, repair or stealth, but are totally worthless.
- THE SLASHER OF VEILS -
I don’t really know what to think of the final boss. I mean, yeah, it is kind of a letdown to just throw some stuff into a pool and then run like crazy, but on the other hand this *is* how you would fight a demon. You wouldn’t bash it over the head with a mace, you would use holy powers instead. The end scene was really cool where you run through the demon world with all those bizarre things floating around and whatever you do, you must never stop. On the one hand you are not really doing anything, on the other hand I can’t really fault the developers for making me fight a demon the way you would actually fight a demon instead of having me charge at it with regular swords and spears as it were just a big red goblin.
- CONCLUSION -
Despite the negative things I wrote near the end I still had fun with UUW. While backtracking sounds annoying the game is fast enough that it doesn’t really matter much and the content is really good. I played a few Origin games before and the general impression I get is that Origin was always ahead of their time and consequently the games often lack polish, but in return their content is even today some of the best. I would still recommend this game for people with enough patience for a dungeon simlator and its unscripted nature makes the game a good candidate for replaying with different characters. This is the kind of game that doesn’t hold your hand, you are thrown into a death pit and you have to use your brains to not die. I’m going to play Underworld 2 as well, despite what Spoony said, but I think I need something else inbetween, I had enough wall hugging for now.
I think Ultima Underworld was easy for the first few floors because you are used to 3d dungeon movement. No one was used to it before Underworld. There wasn’t any 3d dungeon movement obviously. Not even Doom had come out yet. Just wrapping our heads around the 3d movement and perspectives took some getting used to.
One very important note with Underworld is that it featured automatic map tracking. As you traveled through the abyss, it would draw the map for you. You could type in lines or labels wherever you wanted on the map. It was really cool and blew us away at the time. Before then, I remember every PC game RPG requiring you to ‘make your own map’.
There’s some neat easter eggs in Underworld. There is one part where you transport to another area where there are like pellets all throughout and ghosts in the area. You’re in the Pac-Man maze.
I always greatly enjoyed the atmosphere of Underworld.
Damn, I still get chills up my spine! I remember being scared as hell playing Underworld for the first time twenty one years ago in 1992. It came out right before the SNES did. Imagine NES games compared to something like Underworld.
And, of course, there is Underworld II. So much value for only a few bucks. I truly think the best value in gaming are those legendary PC games on GOG.
I do need to review Underworld I and II soon. Thanks for the fantastic email.