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Throughout the 80s and early 90s, 'Ultima' meant gaming pedigree upon which you could rely. Then EA sunk its vile claws in the franchise, bit out its heart and dumped out the abominable Ultima 8 and the somehow even worse Ultima 9. Forgetting those horrid aberrations, the Ultima series had been one of assuming the role of the Avatar (the embodiment of all things virtuous and heroic) and going on quests to save Britannia, mainly because its benevolent ruler, Lord British, couldn't be bothered. Usually, this took place with a top-down or isometric view, with a few NPCs tagging along to help out. The brace of Ultima Underworld games took a different approach, with results arguably more impressive and influential than the main arc of Ultima games. I recently dug these two titles out and played them back to back, and thoroughly enjoyed them again.
~Ultima Underworld I: The Stygian Abyss~
Ultima Underworld 1 was released in 1992, and even today it is immediately apparent what a groundbreaking technical achievement it was. Abandoning the top-down view and party system, it thrusts you into the first-person view, witnessing the action unfold through the eyes of the Avatar going solo. Although first-person adventures had been done before, they had never been done to this level before. Fluid motion, full texture-mapping of walls, floors and objects, fully animated enemies, an interactive world where you could pick things up... It was all mind-boggingly impressive, and released months before the technically inferior, though more-oft lauded shooter 'Wolfenstein'.
Premise and plot:
This is where Underworld One falls down a bit, as the plot is pretty basic fare, even though it does have a bit of a surprise twist towards the end. Staying at the Isle of the Avatar in Baron Almric's castle, you are accused of kidnapping said Baron's daughter and giving her to a troll, which is seen taking her off towards the Stygian Abyss, the titular dungeon of the game. Despite being the Avatar, on the Isle of the Avatar, you are quickly chucked in after it, charged with rescuing the girl or dying in the attempt. So much for being given the benefit of the doubt. With the doors behind you firmly barred, the only recourse is to save the silly wench and be all heroic.
You start by creating your character, which gives you quite a broad range of options considering you are being thrust into the role of the Avatar. Having chosen your gender, appearance, name, skill-set and even which hand you use to swing your sword about with, it's time to go adventuring.
From the off, this game's atmosphere hits you between the eyes. Locked in a near pitch-black dungeon in nothing buy your underwear, a real feeling of isolation and dread is instilled in the player immediately. The Stygian Abyss' name is well-deserved, and anyone who was familiar with the previous Ultima games will be aware that it is the most horrid, vile, monster-infested cesspit in all Britannia. Welcome home, Avatar....
It is also apparent from just a preliminary exploration of the first two levels that this game is HUGE. The Abyss is a plethora of mines, tunnels, rivers, tombs, prisons, oubliettes... It drips with atmosphere and the whole thing does really well to pulse a sense of dread out of the monitor. Fortunately, you start with a map that auto-maps everywhere you go, and comes with the handy feature that it can be fully annotated, which is vital for marking safe places to sleep, caches of supplies and weapons, and other useful landmarks. You're going to need every advantage to survive here, and in many ways Underworld One is more of a survival horror than a straight up RPG.
It is also apparent that this isn't just some bog-standard, multi-levelled dungeon crawl/snorefest. It transpires that a knight with delusions of grandeur set about trying to make the Abyss into an habitable utopia for all races such as goblins, trolls, humans, dwarves and a weird race of dinosaur people. All very noble, but this inevitably failed and the societies became isolated from each other. With different settlements to explore and inhabitants to interact with, there is a lot of well-thought out dialogue and some quite neat quests and sub-quests to complete along the way. Interacting with these races in a diplomatic way is vital to completing the game.
One of the game's best features is the interactive environment. Objects can be moved around and thrown, doors can be smashed in, levers activate dams and floodgates, and items can be used and combined in logical manners that invite the inquisitive. Getting hungry? Make a fishing rod out of thread and a stick and use it near water to catch a fish. Been poisoned by giant spider bites? Use those leeches you found in the swamp to suck the venom out. Brains really do win over brawn in this game.
No RPG is complete without some sort of levelling up system, and this is no exception. Experience points are earned by exploring territory, solving puzzles, completing quests and whacking monsters... LOTS of monsters. The Abyss is so full of horrible creatures it's a wonder anyone bothered staying there at all. The game features a neat but limited combat system of different attack types, which suit different weapons better. Skills such as swordsmanship, repair, lockpicking and acrobatic skills are increased by visiting sacred shrines and saying a mantra specific to that skill. However, skill points are hard to come by, as are mantras.
Magic can be used as well, either by using the limited magical objects you chance upon such as potions and scrolls, but also through runic magic. This involves collecting magical rune symbols and using them in the right order to create the desired effect, although more powerful spells are limited by the player's level, amount of magic power, and their casting ability. Mastering magic is difficult, but is pretty essential to survival. Spells can heal the player, shield them from damage, hurl out magical energy to smite your foes, and do other things such as levitate and create light.
In all, Underworld One is a very challenging game, and pulls no punches in giving the player a rough time. Death comes in many forms, from drowning in the strong currents of underground rivers that criss-cross the eight levels of the Abyss, plunging into volcanic lava, dying from poisonous spider bites, or just being mauled to death by evil, moving trees. It also has some pretty obtuse puzzles as well; hurrah for the invention of the internet!
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
Underworld's sequel is arguably better. Released in 1993 with revamped graphics, a bigger playing screen and a hell of a lot more variation in its design. Did I say that Underworld was huge? Underworld 2 is FREAKING MASSIVE. But more on that in a bit.
Underworld 2 takes place in between the two parts of Ultima VII, and this is the most infuriating thing about it. At this stage, the Avatar is meant to be the most powerful hero in the land, capable of blowing up his foes with a single thought and ripping dragons to bits with his bare hands. Yet all those powers have somehow vanished, and once again the Avatar is a flabby, useless novice. Maybe he spent the year after Ultima 7 drinking all Dupre's beer and stuffing his face. The game does start with a load of cake next to the Avatar's bed....
Anyway, rant over. The story is that the Guardian, a big evil red inter-dimensional miscreant bent on world domination has encased Castle British and all its occupants inside a giant, magical gem. Stuck inside with no apparent exit, it is up to the Avatar to save everyone (again) while they all kick their heels in the castle. After being sent through the sewers (which are about a quarter of the size of all of Underworld One), you find a magic portal that leads to several different planes of existence that have already been conquered by the Guardian. Can the Avatar liberate these as well as his own lands? At times in this game it really does feel like the fate of whole nations rests squarely on your shoulders.And with the castle population pushed into panic by their predicament, how will Lord British keep order while everyone is trapped? Such people are easy targets for the Guardian to tempt, and much of the best writing in the game is the characterisation. The characters' responses and lines are believable and logical, adding a depth to the game that is much to its credit.
It plays much as the first instalment in terms of mechanics, with a couple of minor variations, the most notable being that skills are learnt from people offering training, rather than scrabbling around for mantras to learn. The game still has a massive slant towards inviting the player to explore, especially when the portal is found. This opens up to eight different worlds with a great deal of variation between them. Frozen ice caverns, a vast, sprawling tomb, and weird alien worlds full of sentient creatures that form a hive-mind are all waiting to be discovered. It is this variety that gives the game its edge, and the incentive for the player to keep going to the end, rather than the main plot which is really quite basic.
Where both Underworld games triumph though is the ease with which they entice the player to explore, but with a different motive for each game. The first is the drive to survive and escape the claustrophobic hell-hole that is the Abyss; the second game focuses more on discovering detailed worlds created with care and imagination, and the memorable characters that provoke strong reactions in the player to either save them or punish them. And while the role of the Avatar has always leaned more towards doing good, the designers put in enough room for the player to be an utter bastard as well, with options to skulk away, be rude and provoke people into outright hostility. Perhaps the Guardian has gotten to me too...
If there are any criticisms to be levelled at these games, it's that the interface can be fiddly and awkward, although movement via the familiar WASD keyboard controls makes things much easier. It's aged, of course, but not too badly given just how well realised it was. For a game that is now two decades old, the level of detail, world interaction and character design are to be lauded. And the levels are all carefully hand-crafted, which puts the cookie-cutter pseudo-random lazy rubbish that Skyrim and Oblivion spewed out to shame.
Getting them to run today is easy with the excelleny free program DOSBox, which nicely emulates a P100 with ease. It takes only a minor tweak to get them running smoothly, and my 1920x1080 HD monitor can handle these archaic games with no problem.
The two Underworld games' legacy is massive. Its influence can be seen today in Mass Effect and Deus Ex, as well as more obviously in fantasy titles like Morrowind and Gothic. Many gamers familiar with modern games might be put off by the ancient graphics, but I would encourage any RPG fan to check them out and look past the graphical limitations to the wealth of gameplay on offer here.
Two seminal titles that have made their mark on video games. Thanks for sticking to the end, I had no idea that they would provoke such a reaction from me!