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SummaryGreat design, great atmosphere -- still highly enjoyable today
The Good*** WARNING: Mild spoilers ***
Unlike Ultima II, whose bad game design truly appalled me, Garriott got nearly everything right here. I really was afraid that Ultima III may be just as bad, but thankfully, it's quite the contrary.
Character generation already is the first sign of some good game design. This is the first Ultima game in which you lead a party of characters, not a single maverick. Although character creation is very basic (choose name, sex [including 'other'], race and class; distribute points; done), there are enough classes that assembling a cool, balanced party is already quite challenging. There are four base classes, but several mixed classes. In fact, I created three parties in the course of playing the game, and I still haven't found the "perfect" one.
Once you start playing, you'll notice pretty soon that Garriott took MUCH more care in designing the maps and NPCs. Ultima II actually is *bigger* than Ultima III, if you just count the number of squares -- but one thing I hated about U2 was that many of those maps just were unnecessary for the game, and some of them (as in space) were even totally empty. If not, most of the NPCs just gibbered nonsense.
Here, each location serves a purpose, and each has its own feel, and often some special that only appears there. While Britain is more or less a straight fantasy setup, Yew is a small village full of clerics and dark forests. Grey is a somewhat dubious town; unlike in Britain, the guards here will bark a "Watch it Bub!" as a greeting, and the pub is crammed full of fighters, with the much-needed thieves' guild in a backroom. Or that mystical place called Dawn, which you'll try to reach in the beginning of the game. "Dawn lasts only a brief moment" -- which means that it only appears at a special time, indicated by the moons. (Yes, Ultima III introduced moongates.)
Back in 1983, this was a degree of detail and atmosphere of the game world absolutely unheard of in role-playing games. For me, atmosphere is one of the most important things in games. It helps to create an image in your mind. And even if you'll have to grind a lot in this game too (RPGs should be called "Grinding games" anyway), it didn't get boring a bit. It took me a while to find a good grinding route, and though I must have plundered this poor town dozens and dozens of time, it was fun. I mean, the guards literally invited me, telling me to bribe them.
There are many other examples of Garriott's great game design -- which I strongly started to doubt while playing U2. This game keeps surprising you. For example, I once stumbled upon an easily accessible room full of treasure chests in a town. I never dreamed of stealing it -- being level 1, I wanted no stress with the guards --, but just went to have a look. Once inside, a thief hidden in an previously unseen corner of the room attacked me. I had no choice but to defend myself -- however, the guards don't like fights in their cities and went after me. Although this example is a little unfair, I just loved it. It was a great use of the game mechanics to give the player a nasty little surprise.
Another example is that whirlpool that moves randomly out in the ocean. After I had won my first ship by fighting the pirates (using that cool "Pirate ship/land combat map" I remember well from Ultima IV), I had left it by the coast while riding to another part of Sosaria. Suddenly, the beeper makes a weird noise and I read: "A ship was destroyed." I knew that could only be the whirlpool. When, after much searching, I found another ship, I took care to always leave it at the source of the longest river I could find, so that the whirlpool is less likely to reach it. I also was terrified of that whirlpool while sailing the oceans, looking for that mystical "Ambrosia" people kept telling me about, and kept sailing away from it as soon as I saw it (it moves lightning-fast, the bastard). Of course, after some time, the pool got me... And oh, what a surprise that was! Another moment in my personal gaming history I won't forget.
I also liked the way the game unfolds. Never once I was stranded somewhere, not knowing what to do. In fact, it would have been the other way round if I hadn't kept notes (a "to do" list). While exploring, you'll learn about cards, marks, panels, shrines and whatnot, and slowly, you'll learn what they are, how they work, and what they've got to do with your quest.
Apart from the great game design, there's a lot of smaller and larger technical details that add to the experience. For example, U3 introduces line-of-sight visibility and makes great use of it. For example, many hints (or city guards) are hidden in deep forests. Although this makes exploring a little hard, it is rewarding, as -- unlike as in U2 -- if the NPCs say something, it either adds to the atmosphere, or it contains some hint.
I can't complain about the gameplay either. You'll learn the basic commands pretty soon (most are similar to other early Ultimas), and the game plays quick and smoothly. Some of the dialogues are a bit uneven (sometimes requiring player first, then direction; sometimes the other way round), but there wasn't many of those fun-killing "Huh? What the fuck does that stupid game do now!?" stuff.
One last thing I have to mention is the combat. In U2, you had simple "bash me, bash you". Here, similar to U4, a combat map opens, depending on the territory you're on, and you'll have to fight intelligently, developing several strategies and tactics, to survive. It reminds me a lot of SSI's Gold Box games, albeit much simpler.
The BadI have a few gripes about Ultima III. My main one being that leveling up is quite uneven. You level up every 100 experience points, regardless of your level. Which means you'll spend HOURS getting to second level (my party died three times) at the beginning of the game, when lowly orcs are a challenge. However, at the end of the game, when even Lord British refused to level me up any higher, it took me a mere MINUTES -- a few fights with guards -- to gain another level.
Another annoying thing was that autosave feature: The bloody game saves your characters as soon as one of them dies. I mean, being a roguelike fanatic, one should think that I'd appreciate that "permadeath" feature. But permadeath is only okay if it doesn't take hours to build up the character. Here, I just found it annoying. However, once you get past the difficult beginnings, dead characters become less of a drag, with having more money and even spells.
As mentioned, some of the user interface could have been a bit smoother, but it didn't suck. Also CGA graphics aren't my cup of tea, but then again, there's the Exodus Upgrade which gives you U4-style EGA graphics, but which I didn't use as I wanted the original.
The Bottom LineAll in all, Ultima III is actually pretty amazing for its time, and still worth playing today, after 29 years (and counting)!
It's got tons of atmosphere, a consistent, imaginative and varied game world. It's game mechanics pretty simple, so the game is easy to get into. But the game design is great, and it uses its mechanics to maximum effect, providing lots of surprises, some nasty, some nice. I really enjoyed the game from start to finish, thoroughly exploring the world. I even continued after I solved it, to answer a few open questions. Like: Can you kill Lord British? (Answer: Yes, you can, even if Garriott made him invincible in combat. But he forgot that ship in the castle.)
After Ultima II, which is extremely uneven, boring and just plain badly designed, Ultima III shows that Garriott knows how to create great games. It definitively is a big step towards Ultima IV -- in fact, I had the feeling that all basic game mechanics are already present and working in Ultima III (but I played U4 about 15 years ago, so...).
In fact, I can imagine that I may like this just as much or even better than Ultima IV. U3 isn't politically correct. And even if it's not much in my role as saviour of the world, I enjoy being evil and nasty, slaughter entire villages and rob their gold, from time to time. I also liked Lord British's luxurious torture chamber, where he burns and drowns jesters who were naughty. I think I'll miss that in Ultima IV, which I'm definitively planning to play some time soon.