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Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (DOS)

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4.0
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Written by  :  WWWWolf (422)
Written on  :  Jul 21, 2004
Platform  :  DOS

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Summary

A revolutionary game that has aged well

The Good

Ultima IV is the game that has a lot of innovative stuff in it. There's a real dialogue instead of fixed responses, and there's a plot that suddenly doesn't involve killing a big bad boss.

Also, it is one of the first games to have Deep Philosophical Stuff in it. If anyone asks if there are games that make you think about things - that is, things that matter - outside of the game, this game is a good example. It is a game with a message, a *good* message.

Not only it has a great story (without actually having a big, epic story of any kind - it is more of a simple, subtle story, whose consequences will only fully unraveled in the following parts), it also has tons of monsters to kill, and a huge game world (actually the world is far bigger world than in U6-U9, though this doesn't necessarily make it any better).

Oh, and the PC version (and the xu4 rewrite) is pretty sweet-looking and good-sounding with the graphics and music patches.

The Bad

The Ultima game engines started to look credible in U4 times, but there were still things that aren't exactly polished.

To me, the worst thing about the game appears to be its unforgiveness: If I do a wrong thing, the game immediately penalizes for it. Grab a wrong thing? "Thou hast lost an eighth!" Try to cast spell when there's no magic points left? Goodbye, reagents! Hit wrong direction in combat? "Blocked!"

The combat system is pretty primitive - the tactical combat in U5 and U6 was far more interesting, and U7's "hit C and we do the rest" system was a gift from the heaven. U4, then, still stumbles with combat.

Monsters can hit people diagonally, people can't hit monsters diagonally (at least I think it was this way in the original - xu4, the program I'm right now playing U4 with, doesn't do that). Things get pretty crowded on the combat grid, which gets frustrating. The experience system is irritating as well - weak party members with bad attack skills can barely scratch enemies, who then flee, leaving the character without any experience points.

Another problem with combat is that it's both slow and frequent. (The only consolation I have is that JRPGs *still* do this and everyone thinks it's the neatest thing ever, because it keeps those games from running out of FMVs too early.) As such, it's both boring and irritating at the same time. Six gigantic orc hordes in one mountain pass is just about enough for one game session, thank you very much... Then again, it's good that the wandering monsters do actually appear on the world map and you can even blast them to bits with cannons.

While reagent-based magic is a pretty good concept, magic is still Really Expensive (at least if you value Honesty).

Finally, Poisoning is the single most annoying thing to ever be in Ultima, especially before the invention of Swamp Boots.

The dialogue on the game is very very brief - which is understandable from a game that was made before the Megalomaniac Seven Floppy Game era. A shame, really. I can only hope the people who do fan remakes understand this and expand the dialogue as necessary.

Oh, and don't try playing the original U4 on modern PCs without patching it - or using slow-down utilities with the most extreme settings imaginable. That said, the PC version is technically far more competently made than U1-U3 ports, and if patched, the best version of them all.

The Bottom Line

The Worried Parents said Ultimas were satanic. Richard Garriott got worried. The result?

A role-playing game where you travel freely around a fantasy world, kill bad bad monsters, find items, walk around dungeons, and have deep and philosophical conversations with fellow medieval peasants. Sounds familiar? Sounds boring?

A role-playing game about setting an example, about living a good life, about understanding and adopting the virtues. A role-playing game about your own spiritual growth. Now that's unusual.

It is a game that was way ahead of its time, a game that many CRPGs these days owe a lot to. Even if I had a longish "what's bad" section above, it doesn't mean any of the things were really bad - they're just like a few wrong notes in middle of a symphony performance. Those are mostly *technical* worries. Oh, this is one of the greatest CRPGs ever - the combat is just boring, that's all.

These days, the game is rather antiquated, but it's still very much playable and isn't even too difficult to make pretty and to make it work on modern machines. It's also freeware. Be sure to get it.

A fact: Very few "Christian" games are actually any good. U4's good point: Games that try to deliver an ethical message to the players can actually work, whether they actually succeed delivering any message to anybody. Ultima IV marks the start of Ultima series as a deep and thoughtful game series where ethical and sociological things are pondered and pondered and pondered, without that getting in way of the game.

It's a game that succeeds in passing its message to those who are listening, and not annoy those people who don't care about such things. Many "games with a message", by contrast, tend to be rather in-your-face about it (Metal Gear Solid comes into mind).