A great start to a great series.
Ultima 1 is a product of the stone age of computer gaming, back in the day when your typical game developer was usually some kid or early 20-something who was writing a game for the fun of it and maybe to share it with a few friends. The industry was so primitive that when Richard Garriott finished this game, he sold them in ziplock bags and with a cheaply printed manual, in a computer store where he worked and was reliant entirely on word-of-mouth to boost his sales.
I don't think he expected it to be nearly as successful as it was, hence explaining the somewhat bizaare setting. Anyways, enough of this meandering! On to the review!
Sosaria is under the evil control of the wizard Mondain, a man so evil that no one in Sosaria can beat him, so they call forth some dude from Austin, Texas known only as the Weirdo in an attempt that maybe he might go Cowboy on his heiny. OK, so it wasn't exactly established at that time, but it laid some great foundation work so that the 'Stranger from another world' became the Avatar from Earth in later games. I always found concepts like that intriguing because it easly allowed the player to 'become' the hero and envision themselves as the ones who were called to this world to save it.
The game itself, like many games from the 80's, required a lot of imagination from the player. The isn't particularly long or demanding on the player, especially if they know how to to raise their statistics and get the most powerful weapons in the game... all of which can be done almost at the beginning of the game, allowing for a super powered player to plow through the enemies. Performing quests for the kings in the game in hopes of getting the important items to finish the game can range from the fairly silly to the mundane, and doesn't do much in terms of advancing the plot, but it does allow for some excuse to explore the dungeons in the world, which would otherwise be fairly unnecessary.
There is something else about this game that sets it apart from most other RPG series (save for perhaps the Might and Magic series) was it's combination of pure sci-fi and fantasy. While the world appears to be your standard fantasy setting, there are actually space shuttles and flying cars available, and the most powerful weapons in the game are blasters and phaser pistols! Also there's a part of the game that involves you going into outspace to shoot down TIE-fighters from Star Wars (though later retcon made it clear that they're actually Kilrathi from the Wing Commander series). You need to do this because a princess tells you she won't help you unless you're a space ace!
Just imagine if Ultima was a movie, and up to that point, it had been a generic fantasy movie... until someone says that you need to suit up, fly a space fighter, and blow up star destroyers. The sheer awesomeness of that would explode the heads of anyone in the auidence! The best part of it is, there's no segue between the fantasy and sci-fi, they just exist side to side as if there's nothing wrong or off with that. This fact does set Ultima apart from any other game even today, which you'd think had been surpassed by now, but hasn't, save for the Might and Magic series.
So what's wrong with this game? Well, there is one minorly wrong thing with it... you're supposed to be a hero, but at the same time, you're required to do things that are very decidedly unheroic things, like murdering jesters for keys to liberate princesses, and then killing the guards who come after you at that point. While almost every RPG game today has a morality system, it just seems off that this game requires you to be decidedly evil when you're supposed to be a good guy.
The towns and castles could have used more interactivity with the ordinary people, but other than that, the game really didn't have much flaws as compared to the following game in the series
The Bottom Line
The Ultima series, along with Origin systems games and Sierra Online games, basically represent the birth and evolution of PC games, and for anyone who wants to see that history in action should play this game the other games in the series.