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Monday, December 23, 2019

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

A hugely influential game in its time, showing an unprecedented level of realism and detail in every element of its design and even serving as direct inspiration for many other games that would become legendary in their own right like Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex and Half-Life 2.  But is Ultima Underworld still a fun game to play today, or is this one groundbreaker that gets buried beneath those that it inspired?

Ultima Underworld is perhaps one of the most influential games ever made, and that's no small claim given the breadth and depth of the medium.  Conceived by Paul Neurath, who would go on to found Blue Sky Productions (later known as PC gaming darling Looking Glass Studios), it was created from the outset to be worlds beyond anything that had come before in terms of realism and overall design - not just a dungeon crawler, but a full-blown immersive simulation.  An endeavor that would lead to the game's development costs exploding to over $400,000 and taking nearly two years to complete - pretty astronomical for the early '90s.

That certainly shows through in the final game, too.  This is one of the very first 3D first-person action RPGs, even introducing some rudimentary features like being able to look up and down as well as jump.  Many simulation elements were introduced, too - differing light levels based on whether you're using a spell, candle, torch or lantern, having to eat and sleep to maintain one's health, being able to barter with various NPCs to attain useful items, simulated gravity and breakable objects - not just weapons and armor which degrade with use, but you can smash glass bottles on dungeon walls and hold corn over a fire to create popcorn.  There is even a stealth system implemented, which, unless I'm much mistaken, was the first of its kind.  There are also no real set "solutions" to many obstacles one encounters, allowing you to approach it any number of ways (fighting, stealth, breaking down a door, or just casting a spell to fly over/teleport past an obstacle, to name a few).

Befitting that, there is much more of an emphasis on stats than most Ultima games.  Your three base stats (Intelligence, Dexterity and Strength) are fixed, but skills can be powered up by gaining levels, visiting a shrine and reciting a specific mantra to gain a semi-random number of points.  Mantras are learned throughout the dungeon, usually written on scrolls or engraved on walls, and each does different things - raising combat skills, supportive skills like the ability to barter, or boosting your Mana and Spellcasting stats to give you more MP for that purpose to name a few, letting you shape your character's growth however you wish within the confines of your stats.  This emphasis would also prove to be a prominent element of Elder Scrolls, as well as several later games Warren Spector would have a hand in like Deus Ex.

Spellcasting is relatively unique in this game too.  Rather than relying on reagants per series norm, one now collects rune stones (stored in a special "rune bag" once found) and combines up to three of them together to create spell effects.  This, paired with limits imposed by their starting stats (low Mana and Casting skills) restricts the player to only a handful of low-tier spells at first, but as their skills increase and they add to their collection of stones, more gradually become available.  The usual complement of attacking, healing and defensive RPG spells appear, though many are more utilitarian as well.  Some examples of this are Telekinesis, which allows the player to grab and move items at long range and avoid some dangers they would otherwise have to deal with; Slow Fall, which can let the player jump from a great height and land without harming themselves; and Speed, which makes the player move much faster than his enemies for a short period, allowing them to run past deadly foes or escape from a bad situation.  Some forward planning is needed, though, as one can only have one spell prepared to cast at a time, and fumbling with one's inventory in the midst of danger is generally ill-advised.  Most spells are listed in the manual, though there are a handful that are undocumented and must be discovered over the course of the game (and may have extremely powerful or dangerous effects).

Another relatively fresh element of the game was the fact that Ultima Underworld's dungeon was not meant to be completed in a linear fashion.  There are several solutions to most problems one encounters, and all are equally valid.  For example, one can reach through the bars of a portcullis with a pole to activate a switch on the other side, or just use a flight spell/potion to bypass it entirely.  Locked doors can be opened with a key, lock picked, by an Open spell, or, if you have sufficient strength and a spare weapon or two, with brute force. 

Coming up with solutions to problems on your own is a big part of things too.  You also should not feel like you have to complete tasks in linear fashion - often it's far more practical to come back later, with better equipment and more levels, to overcome a strong enemy or bypass a tough obstacle rather than trying to brute-force your way through (particularly as attacking foes with a weak weapon, or one you lack sufficient skill in, will often cause them to decay or break rather than dealing damage). In fact, many enemies one encounters, even in the early parts of the game, cannot be defeated until one has gained several levels and some significantly stronger equipment that is not available until much later (one good example being the Headless enemies on level 2). Several items one finds also do not have any readily-apparent purpose until one travels further and uncovers more clues, so careful note-taking and backtracking is a significant part of the experience. You will basically have to comb over every inch of the dungeon to learn everything you need to know too, so it's a game you'll be spending a lot of time with.

Being one of the very first of its kind, the game's physics and controls are notoriously unwieldy, too.  While the control layout is fine for the most part (being one of the first I know of to use a WAXD layout for player movement), interaction is rather clunky, requiring one to swap between four modes (Speak, Look, Use and Combat) either via HUD icons or F-keys, which can be difficult to adapt to at first.  Spellcasting and using one's tracking skill are handled via more F-keys, while movement is very stiff and awkward - while you can turn 360 degrees, your movement is still essentially grid-bound, meaning that you can be walking straight ahead, but trying to jump may inexplicably cause you to curve left or right to fit to a 45-degree angle.  That can be very awkward, as can platforming when any contact with a wall causes you to bounce off, usually plunging right into whatever hazard you were trying to leap over.  Even the developers were aware of this, as holding down Shift when pressing a directional movement key will snap you to a 45-degree angle - very much advisable when doing any movement.  But because of this, I felt like I was spending far more time fighting the UI and physics than I ever did fighting any monsters or solving puzzles, and that's a lot more frustrating than fun.

It's little surprise why so many hugely popular games and developers have listed Ultima Underworld as an influence. The open-endedness of its design lends much to player creativity, it possesses a high degree of challenge that never feels "unfair" or "cheap", the amount of innovation and realism within it is simply staggering, and the fact that most of it surprisingly actually works to the game's advantage was breathtaking for 1992.  Many games that came later refined their controls and physics and addressed a lot of UU's very prominent shortcomings and guesswork elements, which can make this one look rather cumbersome in some respects.  Regardless, Ultima Underworld is an incredible achievement for its time, a gold standard for dungeon crawling experiences (to the point where I find most other games of this type blasΓ© by comparison now), and a milestone that's of definite interest for any serious genre fan.

Developer: Blue Sky Productions
Publisher: Origin Systems
Released: 1992, 1993, 1997, 2002
Platform: DOS, FM Towns, PC-98, Playstation 1, Windows Mobile (Pocket PC)
Recommended Version: I've only personally played the DOS version (which is readily available from GOG, bundled with its sequel), but I am aware of the 1997 Playstation version, which featured completely overhauled visuals (most prominently with 3D-modeled enemies instead of sprites) and a CD soundtrack.  That version was only released in Japan, although a fan translation of it now exists.