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We might expect that Origin would have incorporated Ultima Underworld's 3-D engine into its main Ultima series, but this was not the case.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate, released the same year as The Stygian Abyss, featured much better graphics than its predecessors, but still relied on the familiar top-down perspective. Perhaps the biggest interface change was a switch to real-time gameplay, which drastically altered the way combat is handled. It was also the first game in the series that can be controlled entirely by the mouse--the manual indicates that mouse play is "highly recommended by Lord British."
We might not think much of this issue today, but this was at a time when many PC owners didn't even own mice, much less see them as a game device.
Even though Black Gate didn't take the leap into 3D, it is still widely hailed as the best Ultima game, rivaled only by Ultima III in terms of popularity. The key assets are the game's gripping plot, well-developed characters, and painstakingly-detailed environments. Much was made of the game's high level of interactivity. How many CRPGs do you know that will let you milk cows and change a baby's diapers just for the heck of it?
To put it mildly, The Black Gate is
an unforgettable experience to those who have taken 60+ hours required
to complete it, and will probably always enjoy a loyal and dedicated
fan base. Unfortunately, the original games exploited some memory
routines that render them incompatible on modern Windows-based systems. Thankfully, gamers can play Ultima VII using Exult, a GPL-licensed program that attempts to recreate the game on modern operating systems.
The Black Gate's plot is quite sophisticated compared to most games of the era, and like most other Ultima games, it has plenty of references and allusions to religion and politics. As the game opens, the Avatar is taunted by the infamous Guardian, then whisked away to the land of Britannia some 200 years after your visit, just in time to investigate the scene of a ritualistic murder. Eventually he learns about a cult called "The Fellowship," which some critics argue satirizes the Church of Scientology.
Perhaps more endearing than the plot are the characters, who are far better developed here than in almost any other CRPG. Instead of merely standing in one place for all eternity just to offer you a thinly disguised hint or geographical tidbit, the characters are shown walking about, engaging in their daily activities--they even to go to bed at night. Conversations with these characters are also more convincing, and can speak about several topics.
The game is also praised for its open-ended gameplay. There are very few guard rails in The Black Gate, a
fact that can either thrill or intimidate inexperienced players. It's
quite easy for players to end up wandering about the game without the
faintest clue what they're "supposed" to do. Obviously, this lack of
clear direction wouldn't bother players weaned on Rogue and
other "sandbox" style games, but players more accustomed to "Do X, Y,
and then Z" type games may find themselves quite disoriented.
Just to give you some idea of how intriguing the world of Black Gate can be, I'll quote a bit from Oleg Roschin's detailed review of the game on Mobygames. At one point in the game, Roschin's party met up with a unicorn, who, as legend has it, can only communicate with virgins. The first time around, Roschin's Avatar was, in fact, a virgin, and admitted as much to the unicorn, who then talked to him.
later visit, however, the Avatar had slept with a harlot at Buccaneer's
Den, and the Unicorn refused to speak with him. As usual, we see that
Garriott subtlety; sure, you can do sinful things, but you
won't always get away with it. Later on, Bethesda would capitalize on
this high level of interactivity in its celebrated Elder Scrolls series.
Origin released an expansion for the game called The Forge of Virtue later that year, but it wasn't until 1993 that Serpent Isle appeared. Instead of calling this game Ultima VIII, Origin chose to label it as Ultima VII: Part Two. This odd naming convention seems to arise from Garriott's principle that no two Ultima games should share the same game engine.
Serpent Isle may have shared the same game engine, but was much more linear and story-based than The Black Gate, a fact which divided critics pretty evenly between the two games. The story begins 18 months after the first part, and involves traveling to a land named "Serpent Isle" to restore the balance destroyed there by the Guardian.
Apparently, the game was rushed through production by Origin's new owner, Electronic Arts, and thus contained many dead ends (players who found themselves in one had to restore to earlier saved games). Origin's struggle with Electronic Arts bear an uncanny resemblance to Garriott's earlier conflict with Sierra On-Line. That conflict had also led to a lackluster entry in the series, Ultima II. Origin did release an expansion to the game called Silver Seed in 1993.
On a side note, in 1997 released its Ultima Collection for DOS and Windows, which includes the first 9 games (including a PC port of Akalabeth)
and both expansions. Unfortunately, not all of the games run properly
in Windows, but with a little work and a tool like DOSBox can run them
In 1994, Origin released Ultima VIII: Pagan, a game with a somewhat controversial title that aroused even more controversy among long-term fans of the series. Again, Garriott seems to have returned to the drawing board and decided that what players really needed was more physical than intellectual challenges. Thus, like so many console hits of the day, in Pagan the Avatar can run, jump, and climb across moving platforms.
Combat was reduced (or, enhanced, depending on your perspective) to a series of rapid-fire mouse clicks, requiring more dexterity than strategy to win. As you might expect, the game gravely disappointed some fans and thrilled others, but the general consensus was that the game wasn't up to the Ultima standard. Many of the key innovations that had made The Black Gate so successful, such as a realistic night and day system, were abridged or altogether omitted.
As if these faults weren't enough to commit Pagan to the flames, a plethora of bugs surfaced, frustrating even fanatical Ultima fans.
Again, Garriott blamed the problems on Electronic Arts and a rushed
production schedule. However, the worst was yet to come.
The last and worst of the single-player Ultima games, Ultima IX: Ascension, was published in 1999, and fans were even more disappointed than they had been with Pagan. The problem this time seems to lie mostly in a bait-and-switch game played by Garriott, who had promised a game more in line with the classic Ultima games, and went to fans for advice—who provided it, diligently. Unfortunately, the production cycle hit gravel early on, and the code went through at least four different versions and no small amount of drama.
Ultima Online was
also in production as this time, and no doubt added to the chaos (I'll
have more to say about that game in a later section of this article).
The end product was a buggy and even more action-oriented game than Pagan, and abandoned the by-then conventional isometric perspective for a fully 3-D world in 3rd-person perspective.
Most Ultima critics bitterly dismissed Ascension out of hand, but the game has managed to attract a small but dedicated fan base. The complaints and defenses are many. One of the most often heard is that it's really more of an "action adventure" than a true CRPG, a claim based on Ascension's rather limited "leveling up" capabilities and rather linear plot structure. Fans of The Black Gate were also irritated by the rigidity of many of the game's events, such as a love story that some felt was "shoved down their throats."
At any rate, no one complained about the game's lush graphics, and the day/night cycle returned, and the music is quite excellent. There is also a high level of interactivity with objects. However, a combination of poor voice acting, lackluster dialog, and rather banal characters certainly haven't helped the game win over diehard Ultima fans, much less large audiences.
Indeed, even a special "Dragon Edition" large-box version of the game that included several trinkets--a nod towards older and more revered Ultima games--wasn't enough to win over jaded fans. Needless to say, Ascension was a sad way for this grand old series to end. It was as if George Lucas had died just after rushing Jar Jar and the Ewoks Save Christmas into theaters.
Even though Ascension failed miserably, German developer Pirahna Bytes was able to follow more successfully in its footsteps, pushing the “action” and “adventure” boundaries even further. The Gothic series debuted in November of 2001, and features a real-time, 3D world set in 3rd-person “over the shoulder” perspective. Gameplay focuses on inventory-based puzzles as well as a difficult arcade-style combat system.
The game is most noted for its dark, realistic ambiance and open-ended gameplay, which seems similar to that found in the Elder Scrolls series but with more focus on character interaction. Despite some irritating interface problems and bugs, the game attracted a loyal and dedicated following. Pirahna Bytes followed up with Gothic II in 2003 and just released Gothic 3 in 2006. Both games offered graphical and interface enhancements over their predecessors.
“When the scenery looks like a postcard, but the Hero wears his shield inside of his humerus, there are some major quality control issues going on.”
– Tim Tackett reviewing Gothic 3 on Game Revolution, Dec. 18, 2006.
In some ways, these games hark back to those aforementioned German imports, the Realms of Arkania series. The games have much to offer, but for some reason haven’t received the attention they deserve. While the strong competition has undoubtedly been a factor, there are other rationales for Gothic’s mediocre ratings. The second game suffers from bad voice acting and poor translations, and the third game has enough bugs to make an entomologist’s career.
Critics have remained unwilling to forgive the awkward combat system, though there doesn’t seem to be any hope for a general consensus on the overall quality of these games.