A Few Hours with Ultima 4

One of my first gaming magazines featured a review of Ultima 4. The only photograph was from the character creation screen, just before questions are asked, where you're hanging around in a gypsy wagon. I think the graphics were from the Atari ST version, which were no slouch for their time. I was really interested in the ideas it was talking about, but I don't even think I had a machine that could run the game at the time (story of my life), so I moved on to other things. I never did see what the actual game looked like. It wasn't until a game rental later, when my friend borrowed Ultima for the NES, that I actually got to see some semblance of the RPG. I think the graphics spoiled me a bit, given what I'd later learn about the PC version's graphics set.
 
As for actually playing Ultima, that wasn't until VII, Ultima Worlds of Adventure: Martian Dreams, and the Ultima Underworld games. The "I need a V8" slanty walking in the non-underworld titles was a bit irritating, but the graphics were decent enough to carry me a bit of the way through some of them, but it wasn't until UW2 that I really felt like I understood where the games were coming from. 
 

The Sights

 
Still, for all the praise Ultima 4's philosophy got since it was first released, it wasn't until a few hours ago that I actually PLAYED the damn thing. The graphics are a bit ugly and empty compared to other games, but they're animated, which adds to their charm. It doesn't take too long before your imagination takes over and you don't worry too much about the graphics, but every new system is sort of a jolt. It's funny how we con ourselves into believing retro stylings really reflect how these games used to look; often those seemingly simply blocks of retro-modern pixels actually have tons more colors, or are built in a way that our minds are used to now, but then would have just looked confusing. Anyway, if you're hoping that Ultima 4 has awesome graphics, you're really not doing it for the right reason anyway. 
 

The Talkin'


The game itself just sort of plops you into the world, tells you to read the (short) back story, and the manual reminds you that "talk" is very important. If you don't happen to know the talk command, you will not complete the game. Most of the puzzles are beaten by talking to the right people, which at times may feel a bit tedious considering you have to run into the right person, and few people can tell you how to find anyone in the world. Sure, it's a bit annoying I guess, but this doesn't bother me a whole lot because I like exploring. They keyword based conversation system is fine; it doesn't run into the parser problem for me because you never have to worry about complete sentences, and most of the common conversation topics will get you where you want to go. Start with stuff like "name," "job", "health", use words they give you in their responses, and you should do fine. 
 

Stenography/Cartography School


Being an older game, it doesn't keep notes for you (or draw a map), so you'd do well to at least keep Notepad open for random scribblings (I think I started a tad late, but I'm doing OK now). This reminds me of what we still get stuck with in a lot of modern games, especially adventure games: now we often picks every little bit of junk because you never know if it might be useful; in Ultima 4 we write down what may later turn out to be less than useful clue because we think it might come in handy. While I'm all for vague automatic notes, incomplete automaps, little quirks that don't make it act like an automatic hintbook, the lack of either can be a bit grating. Hey, I'm an old-schooler, but even as a kid I rejoiced when automaps started being used. General maps were fun to make, but when everything looks similar and it takes a while to get from place to place...  damn it, it's nice to have some general idea where you are in the world.
 

The Heart


From what I've seen so far, u4 totally deserves its reputation for its groundbreaking morality system. It's not a stupid see-saw; you have several different virtues that govern how well you're doing, and they affect all aspects of gameplay, from conversations to combat. This is emphasized from the very beginning at character creation: you're asked a series of questions about hypothetical situations, and all the different virtues are tested. Eventually you reach a single dominant virtue, and that one determines your class. You'll be able to check with a Seer who can tell you what you need to do to boost your virtues (or to tell you you're doing fine, which is rather rewarding, to be honest). You can still do what you want, within limits, but the game is about virtue and doing good things, and sometimes these things are not the easy route. This is absolutely the right thing to do. Being good should be a challenge.
 
Because the virtue system is several different stats at once, it makes morality interesting and complicated. While there are no complex scenarios, conversations are simple, tasks are simple, and the world doesn't feel terribly fleshed out or plausible at times, the mere presence of the morality system makes the game feel richer. I don't really feel like I'm grinding through levels of virtue. My current virtue stats reflect my playing style and each virtue gives me tiny goals to accomplish, in addition to the usual find the rune, find the stone stuff you'd expect. Man, it's so nice to see a morality system actually give a damn about the morality and not treat it like an arbitrary customization meter.  Seeing something like this on a game with more modern sensibilities would be a godsend (and no, I don't mean all games should have it. Notice the singular noun there). 
 

The Inevitable Oldschool Jank


As a game of its time, though, it's hard to escape the irritations. Poisoning is permanent until you die or get it cured; when stuck in the wilderness this can be an extreme pain, especially since camping only recovers health once in a while. If you're low but have camped recently, you're fucked. When you die you resurrect at the main castle with a bit of gold and food, which is much nicer than games both then and now, but it's a bit depressing when you realize that THAT'S you're strategy for getting rid of poison status. I'm sure once I learn how to cure poison things will be less painful, but since even walking through a damned swamp can cause poisoned status, I wish it would at least time out after a certain amount of time or damage. It's also easy to spam the controls accidentally, so that you're moving in one direction in the field of battle and then suddenly you're moving through the overworld, straight into a problem you meant to avoid. Some transition time would be nice. Also, some of the keyboard commands are redundant and damned stupid; why not one key for things that are mutually exclusive, guys? That way I don't have to memorize so many damned commands!
 
Les Lines Bottomes
 
Hell, I could list improvements, but it'd obviously be pointless-- ol' Garriott has moved on to other things. But this game's well-deserved praise for its morality system still shines through after all this time, and should inform modern game designers who want to make their social consequence systems something more than a game-able joke.
 
If you want a summary of the game, including complete spoilers, check out Noah Antweiler's mini-review at http://spoonyexperiment.com/ . I wouldn't take his Ultima Underworld 2 review too seriously, though. He trashed it without giving it a chance to open up. In general, though, I'm grateful he profiled these games. They deserve much more attention than they've been getting of late, especially 4 and 5.
3 Comments
4 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

One of my first gaming magazines featured a review of Ultima 4. The only photograph was from the character creation screen, just before questions are asked, where you're hanging around in a gypsy wagon. I think the graphics were from the Atari ST version, which were no slouch for their time. I was really interested in the ideas it was talking about, but I don't even think I had a machine that could run the game at the time (story of my life), so I moved on to other things. I never did see what the actual game looked like. It wasn't until a game rental later, when my friend borrowed Ultima for the NES, that I actually got to see some semblance of the RPG. I think the graphics spoiled me a bit, given what I'd later learn about the PC version's graphics set.
 
As for actually playing Ultima, that wasn't until VII, Ultima Worlds of Adventure: Martian Dreams, and the Ultima Underworld games. The "I need a V8" slanty walking in the non-underworld titles was a bit irritating, but the graphics were decent enough to carry me a bit of the way through some of them, but it wasn't until UW2 that I really felt like I understood where the games were coming from. 
 

The Sights

 
Still, for all the praise Ultima 4's philosophy got since it was first released, it wasn't until a few hours ago that I actually PLAYED the damn thing. The graphics are a bit ugly and empty compared to other games, but they're animated, which adds to their charm. It doesn't take too long before your imagination takes over and you don't worry too much about the graphics, but every new system is sort of a jolt. It's funny how we con ourselves into believing retro stylings really reflect how these games used to look; often those seemingly simply blocks of retro-modern pixels actually have tons more colors, or are built in a way that our minds are used to now, but then would have just looked confusing. Anyway, if you're hoping that Ultima 4 has awesome graphics, you're really not doing it for the right reason anyway. 
 

The Talkin'


The game itself just sort of plops you into the world, tells you to read the (short) back story, and the manual reminds you that "talk" is very important. If you don't happen to know the talk command, you will not complete the game. Most of the puzzles are beaten by talking to the right people, which at times may feel a bit tedious considering you have to run into the right person, and few people can tell you how to find anyone in the world. Sure, it's a bit annoying I guess, but this doesn't bother me a whole lot because I like exploring. They keyword based conversation system is fine; it doesn't run into the parser problem for me because you never have to worry about complete sentences, and most of the common conversation topics will get you where you want to go. Start with stuff like "name," "job", "health", use words they give you in their responses, and you should do fine. 
 

Stenography/Cartography School


Being an older game, it doesn't keep notes for you (or draw a map), so you'd do well to at least keep Notepad open for random scribblings (I think I started a tad late, but I'm doing OK now). This reminds me of what we still get stuck with in a lot of modern games, especially adventure games: now we often picks every little bit of junk because you never know if it might be useful; in Ultima 4 we write down what may later turn out to be less than useful clue because we think it might come in handy. While I'm all for vague automatic notes, incomplete automaps, little quirks that don't make it act like an automatic hintbook, the lack of either can be a bit grating. Hey, I'm an old-schooler, but even as a kid I rejoiced when automaps started being used. General maps were fun to make, but when everything looks similar and it takes a while to get from place to place...  damn it, it's nice to have some general idea where you are in the world.
 

The Heart


From what I've seen so far, u4 totally deserves its reputation for its groundbreaking morality system. It's not a stupid see-saw; you have several different virtues that govern how well you're doing, and they affect all aspects of gameplay, from conversations to combat. This is emphasized from the very beginning at character creation: you're asked a series of questions about hypothetical situations, and all the different virtues are tested. Eventually you reach a single dominant virtue, and that one determines your class. You'll be able to check with a Seer who can tell you what you need to do to boost your virtues (or to tell you you're doing fine, which is rather rewarding, to be honest). You can still do what you want, within limits, but the game is about virtue and doing good things, and sometimes these things are not the easy route. This is absolutely the right thing to do. Being good should be a challenge.
 
Because the virtue system is several different stats at once, it makes morality interesting and complicated. While there are no complex scenarios, conversations are simple, tasks are simple, and the world doesn't feel terribly fleshed out or plausible at times, the mere presence of the morality system makes the game feel richer. I don't really feel like I'm grinding through levels of virtue. My current virtue stats reflect my playing style and each virtue gives me tiny goals to accomplish, in addition to the usual find the rune, find the stone stuff you'd expect. Man, it's so nice to see a morality system actually give a damn about the morality and not treat it like an arbitrary customization meter.  Seeing something like this on a game with more modern sensibilities would be a godsend (and no, I don't mean all games should have it. Notice the singular noun there). 
 

The Inevitable Oldschool Jank


As a game of its time, though, it's hard to escape the irritations. Poisoning is permanent until you die or get it cured; when stuck in the wilderness this can be an extreme pain, especially since camping only recovers health once in a while. If you're low but have camped recently, you're fucked. When you die you resurrect at the main castle with a bit of gold and food, which is much nicer than games both then and now, but it's a bit depressing when you realize that THAT'S you're strategy for getting rid of poison status. I'm sure once I learn how to cure poison things will be less painful, but since even walking through a damned swamp can cause poisoned status, I wish it would at least time out after a certain amount of time or damage. It's also easy to spam the controls accidentally, so that you're moving in one direction in the field of battle and then suddenly you're moving through the overworld, straight into a problem you meant to avoid. Some transition time would be nice. Also, some of the keyboard commands are redundant and damned stupid; why not one key for things that are mutually exclusive, guys? That way I don't have to memorize so many damned commands!
 
Les Lines Bottomes
 
Hell, I could list improvements, but it'd obviously be pointless-- ol' Garriott has moved on to other things. But this game's well-deserved praise for its morality system still shines through after all this time, and should inform modern game designers who want to make their social consequence systems something more than a game-able joke.
 
If you want a summary of the game, including complete spoilers, check out Noah Antweiler's mini-review at http://spoonyexperiment.com/ . I wouldn't take his Ultima Underworld 2 review too seriously, though. He trashed it without giving it a chance to open up. In general, though, I'm grateful he profiled these games. They deserve much more attention than they've been getting of late, especially 4 and 5.
Posted by Ravenhoe

Interesting read, I still have not played any Ultima Game apart from Pagan and UO. What is a good place to start ? Ultima 1 ?

Posted by dandead

@Ravenhoe: Ultima IV actually. It's a start of a new storyline trillogy and those three games have less jank than the orignal three titles in the series. That's not to say the first trillogy games are not worth playing, but if you are to start out Ultima IV is the way forward just make sure you come back to the orignal three games after you beat IV, V and VI.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Ravenhoe: I defer to the other poster's experience on this, I think. From what I've seen there's also a bit of thematic weirdness with the first three games that feels like more of an experimental (if somewhat charming) attitude toward the setting, function following form. The plots of the three games sound cool when you recount them verbally, but I'm not sure how fun they are to play. IV is annoying in places, but the mechanics make it much more interesting than it might have otherwise been, although perhaps I'm a bit more unforgiving than I used to be. Let me know if you get the chance to play any of them.
 
@dandead: Thanks for your input! I usually feel guilty if I try games out of order, but this felt appropriate. Glad to know this is pretty much the start of this story even if IV does recognize the first three games somehow, I think.