bvilleneuve's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (PC) review

Technically Impressive But Shows Its Age

Here is Ultima Underworld:

Here is Wolfenstein 3D:

Let’s notice some things about the former. First off, all the stuff around the edge isn’t just decoration; on the left are different commands you can use, on the right is your character management screen, and along the bottom is information about the world around you. Notice the differing floor heights and sloped surfaces. Notice the shit just lying around that you can pick up or not. And notice that in Wolf 3D, none of that stuff is present. Ultima Underworld came out a couple months before Wolfenstein 3D, in early 1992.

None of this is to talk shit about Wolfenstein 3D. John Carmack, who programmed the graphical engine for that game, is one of the most brilliant people ever to walk the earth, and he made 3D gameplay accessible to people who didn’t have the kind of hardware that could run Ultima Underworld in 1992. But still, Ultima Underworld must have seemed absolutely insane when it came out. Skyrim was a pretty huge hit last year and it was arguably just a later iteration of a bunch of the stuff originated in Ultima Underworld.

Ultima Underworld was made before people understood how to create user interfaces in a 3D world. It features a lot of insane decisions that somehow still manage to work reasonably well for the game they made. Take character movement, for instance. The standard for 3D games today is that WSAD moves you forward, backward, left and right, but that standard wasn’t set at that point. In Ultima Underworld, get a load of this shit: S moves you forward, A and D turn you right and left, Z and C move you side to side, X moves you backwards, and W runs you forward. J jumps. Spacebar does nothing. Shift seems to unlimit the CPU and let the game run as fast as it possibly can, which I’m sure only gets more and more disastrous as PC hardware advances. Or maybe it’s just some kind of super-ultra run. All I know is it makes you move fast. Anyway.

I started Ultima Underworld, and I was in prison. Like many other Ultima titles, you play as the Avatar, which calls to mind a bunch of weird ideas about who the Avatar actually is. I just decided to assume that this is my same character from almost every other open-world RPG I’ve ever played, and that she has finally stumbled into a sensate-unfriendly land and been thrown into their “Stygian Abyss” for amorally doing whatever possible to enjoy all of their precious content, and this proved sufficiently satisfying.

This is great for me. This is a fine assumption to ask me to make. I’m totally comfortable in this territory. Once I realized how to fit this experience into the continuity of the rest of my gaming life, I was right on board and ready to roll. And then, after almost exactly three hours, I was totally ready to stop playing.

Ultima Underworld is a precursor to Skyrim, and is less enjoyable for me but is arguably just as good an RPG. Despite its antiquated graphics, it manages to put together a surprisingly serviceable atmosphere. I walked through those corridors and I could smell them and feel the damp. I just had to spend a lot of time aimlessly smelling and feeling those things, because Ultima Underworld hews hardcore in terms of guidance. There are no little map markers showing you where to go every second. There’s a system where you can write notes on your map, which came in really handy during my short time with the game, but I found myself not driven at all to care about the quest.

That’s not something that has gotten better overall in the modern age, for the record. The vast majority of quests in Skyrim, the latest CRPG I’ve played, are boring filler. But in Skyrim there was at least a nominal amount of environmental variety to keep me going. Ultima Underworld is structurally interesting, in that, though it all takes place in the titular Stygian Abyss, it’s completely open-world. You can go to any of the eight floors of the Stygian Abyss at any time, unless there’s some key you need to get blocking the way later on or something. But the visual style remains the same, and there aren’t any cool sights to see, other than the mind-bendingly simplistic polygonal models of things like benches and boulders that just serve to emphasize the sheer amount of visual trickery that must be going on to create what appears to be a 3D environment populated by mostly sprites.

I guess we’re all starting to see where my preferences and needs stand. Ultima Underworld is technically very impressive and I can appreciate where it’s coming from, but it’s still an Ultima game, with all the baggage that carries along with it. Three stars but sort of still totally worth playing if you ever have the chance and any inclination.

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