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Ultima VII: The Black Gate (DOS)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (171326)
Written on  :  Feb 06, 2004
Rating  :  4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars

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Dost thou understand now what a legendary game this is, milord?

The Good

It took me three years to gain enough courage to play "Ultima VII". During all this time, the game was installed on my hard drive, and several times I attempted playing it - with no avail. I was repelled by the enormous size of the game's world, by its extreme attention to small details, making it impossible for me to distinguish between the important and the unimportant, and by its gameplay, that allowed me to do everything I liked and offered freedom I was afraid of. The only Ultima game I played until then was Ultima IX: Ascension. I enjoyed playing it and was surprised to hear it was considered a huge disappointment by many Ultima fans. Because I liked "Ultima IX", I wanted to get acquainted with the other Ultimas that were supposed to be even better. The obvious choice was "Ultima VII", that was the nearest on the time scale (I decided to skip the controversial Utima VIII: Pagan for a while). By the way, I must say that completing this game helped me to appreciate "Ultima IX" even more. I am still puzzled why the fans disliked it so much...

But back to "Ultima VII". How to sum this game in a few words? I think a proper way of reviewing it would be to write a book about it. When I finally gained enough courage and plunged into the game, when I firmly decided I will finish it at all costs, I found it impossible to disconnect myself from it.

A friend of mine once told me that Ultima was a lot like Tolkien's books. Just like Tolkien created a believable universe, complete with history, geography, races, and characters, Richard "Lord British" Garriott created the world of Ultima that also had everything of the above. To make up an unusual, original setting is one thing - but to take the most standard of all settings, a medieval fantasy, and to bring it to life, is a rare accomplishment that requires a lot of thought, creativity, and hard work. Ultima has its own history, its own laws and values, but most importantly, it has its own unique personality.

Today we hear a lot of such words as immersive world or interactive environment. They appear in game commercials and on many game box covers. They are used so often that they actually have no meaning at all. But they do have a meaning if applied to "Ultima VII". Of all games I know, this one has the most immersive world, and boasts the most truly interactive environment.

You can do anything in this game. You can light candles, play harpsichords, break doors, rob banks, bake bread, make clothes, navigate ships, sleep with whores, and collect pumpkins. Note: I mentioned only the activities you can do - none of those are required from you to do in order to finish the game. Everything can be interacted with, and I do mean everything. You can go into a house, get a pair of boots and wear them, read all the books on the bookshelf, break a barrel in the kitchen, take some mutton from a crate and eat it, then take a goose quill from the table in the living room, put in on the owner's bed, wake him up, and sleep on the bed instead of him. I'm bringing silly examples here, but I just don't know how else to describe the amazing interactivity this game offers. Your mouse cursor can access everything your eye meets. The game satisfies one of the most important instincts of a gamer - curiousity. Any gamer is naturally curious and wants to see everything a game offers. But you'll never achieve this goal in "Ultima VII", unless you wish to dedicate it all the time you spend with other games - it has too much to offer.

Interacting with objects is not the only thing that makes "Ultima VII" a truly interactive game. More important that interaction with items is the interaction with people. "Ultima VII" has the most believable and interesting NPCs I ever met in a game. In most RPGs non-playable characters are just there to supply information, or, in best case, to be an important part of the plot. You always feel those NPCs are somehow connected to you and to the game you are now playing, but have no lives of their own. The NPCs in "Ultima VII" live their own lives. Most of them have nothing to do with you and with your quest. They are there because they are an integral part of the world. Any time you talk to an NPC, you talk to a real person - not a character of a game, but just a usual, normal person who is not related to your grand quest and who has his own little joys and troubles. Very important is the movement of NPCs. I don't understand how come other game designers didn't think of this: any credibility in portraying a character is drastically reduced when this character always stands on the same place and doesn't move, no matter what happens around him. The characters of "Ultima VII" behave like normal people - they move. And they don't just run around in circles - they pursue their own schedules. It is very interesting just to stay near a character for a while and to watch his movements during a day. You can witness how he wakes up in the morning. Then he probably goes to his shop (if he is a shopkeeper), or to his place of work. In the evening you can meet him in the local tavern drinking some beer and talking with friends. Then he goes back home and sleeps in the night. Sounds simple, right? But how many RPGs actually introduced such characters? And I'm talking of every single NPC in the game here, not just some "chosen" characters who have something to do with the plot.

The NPCs are interesting not only because they move or because they have their own schedules. If you talk to an NPC, he will talk to you about what is important to him, like any normal person, instead of immediately giving you information connected to the game. He will tell you his name, his occupation, and might also talk to you about his problems, his love life, his business, or his family. If you talked enough, he will probably also talk about his city, tell you the recent news, etc. In other words - you will have a normal conversation with a real person, and not with some kind of a robot who directs you towards the next goal as soon as you start talking to him, or spills out one generic phrase about the overall state of business in town. There is an enormous amount of NPCs in the game, and an enormous amount of different character types among them.

The world of "Ultima VII" is meticulously detailed. Every NPC can discuss with you many different topics, every room has many items to pick up or just to check, and the game is literally loaded with locations. The game world is huge, and at any given moment you can explore it to the full and visit every spot in it. Particularly noticeable are the towns in "Ultima VII". Instead of generic little towns composed of several houses you visit large cities with several streets and tons of various establishments. There are also plenty of books in the game. Some contains useful gameplay or story tips, but most of them are just there to enhance the experience. In short, the world of "Ultima VII" has the most magnificent structure I've ever seen in a game, it is truly a living, breathing world, and this is achieved through creativity and attention to detail, and not through fancy 3D graphics with billions of polygons.

A frequently misused concept (together with "interactivity") is real time. Many games claim to have real time gameplay, or real time environments, and it is hard to comprehend what they mean by that. The way I understand it, "real time" means that the time flows in the game world regardless of your actions, that it is not necessary for you to "trigger" a specific game time by completing an objective beforehand. If my guess is correct, then "Ultima VII" is one of the few true real time games (together with Last Express, which is even more real time, if I might say so). Of course, the time flows much faster in the game than in the real world, but it flows. It will flow regardless of your actions, even if you just stand there and do nothing. More importantly, the environments will change according to the local time, and I don't mean only graphically. Shops are open during their opening times. If you try to buy something in the middle of the night, you won't be able to do it, because the shop will be closed, and the shopkeeper asleep.

A very interesting aspect of the game is hunger. Your party member have to eat regularly, otherwise they will be starved to death. Taking food with you and "feeding" your companions (and yourself) from time to time is another one of those little decisions that add so much realism to the game.

"Ultima VII" is a game of exploration. After you complete your first quest in Trinsic, which serves as an introduction to the game, you are free to go wherever you like. No matter where you go, you will be able to do something. Perhaps you won't advance the story, but you'll get acquainted with the land and its inhabitants, learn to defend yourself against monsters, recruit party members, get some money and decent equipment, etc. The game never forces you to do anything. Its only linear parts - the dungeons - are deliberately small, so that at any given time you'll be able to continue exploring. Nothing is forced down your throat here, you can do whatever you please, and spend many hours doing stuff that has no connection to the main plot. Of course, you can also play it in a linear fashion, visiting only places you are "supposed" to visit, and doing only the things necessary to complete the game.

You can also do whatever you wish in this game. You can kill anyone or steal anything. Of course, you'll have to bear the consequences - the guards will attack you, party members will leave you - but the moral choice is yours. For example, there are three ways of getting money in the game - by exploring dungeons and finding treasure, by working and earning it, or simply by stealing. Getting food is another matter of choice - you can buy it in taverns, you can hunt wild animals, you can steal food from people in towns, or you can kill cows in villages and eat their meat (this is one game where you do have an excuse for killing cows, unlike Baldur's Gate, where hacking cows was just a matter of evil satisfaction). You can choose the way you find most suitable to you, or try them all out.

The gameplay of "Ultima VII" is a mixture of role-playing and puzzle-solving adventure. At first sight it seems that role-playing is a more important factor in the game - you have open-ended, non-linear gameplay, you can make choices, there is combat, levels, magic, heavy inventory management, ans so on. But if we judge a game's genre by the kind of challenge it presents, we can as well consider "Ultima VII" an adventure. The goal of the game is attained by correctly solving its puzzles rather than by defeating all the foes you encounter. There is in fact very little combat in the game. As far as I can recall, the only major battles you are required to participate in are the ones against the Stone Hydra (by far the most difficult battle in the game), against the red beast in the generator, and naturally, against the final group of enemies near Black Gate. You can run away from most regular enemies, and there are no other necessary boss battles except those I mentioned above. The dungeons are relatively small, there is no feeling of upgrading equipment or of true leveling up, which is also not an absolute necessity. However, as an adventure, the game is very challenging. Most RPGs challenge you with hard battles, most adventures with hard puzzles - "Ultima VII" challenges you with exploring, searching, and experimenting. It is much more difficult than it sounds, and it also resembles much more the challenges of real life. If you go somewhere in "Ultima VII", you really feel it is a journey, and not a proceeding from point A to point B. There are often multiple solutions to the game's puzzles, and they are always natural and imaginative at the same time. Many puzzles are quite hard and require a lot of trying and searching. There are also some really original physical puzzles, that were possible to introduce thanks to the game's fantastic engine. Since you can move anything that is not too heavy to any direction and place it wherever you want, you can also make simple objects serve you. For example, one puzzle involves accessing a door that is too high for you to reach. You need to put a crate near a table, climb on that table, and then to make stairs from crates by placing them one near and on another. Another type of puzzles is those that must be solved by using magical spells. For example, if you want to pull a lever you can't access, you can cast the spell Telekinesis on it in order to move it. If a trap creates impenetrable energy fields, you should use the magic Dispel Field that will make them disappear.

The story of the game resembles at first sight a typical corny tale about a big bad guy threatening the world and you being the only one able to stop him. But I never felt the plot of "Ultima VII" was corny or banal when I was playing it. Maybe it was because of the exceptional quality of the game's dialogues, their fine language and unique style: what a game tells you is often less important than how it tells it. Or maybe it was because of the more original ideas that decorated the main plot: the "big bad guy" watches you from behind the scene, but never gets involved in action himself, so that your actual enemies in the game are members of a corrupt religious organization, whose leader is very truthfully portrayed and certainly belongs to the more interesting villain characters video games have to offer. Another reason might be the abundance of sub-quests and sub-plots, many of which were so deep and original that you could easily forget the relative simplicity of the main story. Particularly memorable was the sub-plot in Skara Brae - one of the most memorable and meaningful ones ever to grace a game. An entire town has been burnt down because of an unfortunate accident - who is to blame for it? The person who started the fire puts all the blame on himself, but is he really the one morally responsible? There is also a blacksmith in the town who refuses to accept his own death because his spirit is driven by vengeance against the one who took his beloved wife away from him. In the end, one of the town's inhabitants has to sacrifice himself in order to save the town, but nobody wants to do it, and the town's mayor, who was never known for being particularly brave or virtuous, has to do it himself. Till the very end he still hopes somebody else will take this burden from him - but here it is, the last step before death, and the mayor says: "I was not a good mayor when I was alive, but at least I will be known as a good mayor after I die". It is just a minor sub-plot in a huge game, but how much care, creativity, and soul was put into it!

I already said the game's dialogues were excellent. What's more, the game has a lot of humor - not wit or sarcasm like in comedies, but a warm kind of humor - a smile, not a grin. There is something very sweet about this game, not cute, but genuinely warm. When you play the game, you feel as if it was made by really kind people. I particularly liked the remarks of the party members. Surprisingly, there is some "mature" humor in the game, not to mention mature situations - you can sleep with a whore on Buccaneer's Den, and you actually see a naked woman (in one of the dungeons). When your party sees the woman, the young boy Spark looks at her naked body with an intense interest, and Iolo sternly tells him: "Close your mouth, boy, otherwise an insect will go inside". On another occasion, you meet a love fairy who keeps telling you how much she loves you and what a bunch of handsome men you are, and even gives Iolo a big kiss. Shamino is almost ready to take some action: "If you only were a bit bigger...", Spark also remarks: "Hey, I like her!", and only Dupre shows his despise. My favorite humorous situation in the game was the meeting with a Unicorn (naturally!). According to a popular mythological concept, unicorns can only communicate with virgins, so that Unicorn introduces himself to you as a "virgin-detector". You have then to admit that you are in fact a virgin, and the confusing silence is broken only by Iolo's and Shamino's attempts to console you: "You shouldn't be ashamed of that..." "You had so much to do...". But if you visit the Unicorn after you have slept with a whore on Buccaneer's Den, he will refuse to communicate with you! This is what you call real depth in a game.

Visually, "Ultima VII" is very impressive. It still came on floppy disks, yet it had real voice (of the Guardian), and even an animated ending sequence! As for in-game graphics, they are excellent. The rich graphical detail helps to brings the game world to life. The best part of the graphics are the wonderful character portraits that add so much to the characters' personality. Weather is also graphically represented in the game, complete with lightning and falling snow. I had some problems with sound effects - there was a constant background sound for a strange reason, but I think it was because of the game's poor compatibility with modern computers. Otherwise, the sound effects were very good. The music was wonderful, as always in Ultima games - by the way, be sure to play "Ultima IX" if you are even remotely interested in great soundtracks!

The Bad

The most obvious drawback of the game is the new real-time combat. While the option to streamline battles can be a good thing under the right circumstances, it appears that the developers only went for that and neglected other aspects such as tactical management, positioning, etc. Basically, combat in the game boils down to switching to the attack mode and watching how your fairly inept companions hit each other or waste valuable arrows and bolts on a measly rat. You always have very little HP and can be killed in a few blows, but so can your opponents - a feature than often turns the battles into continuous save-and-reload affairs. Combat is also generally too easy, and even some of the later boss battles can be resolved in under one minute.

There are also a few smaller issues mostly caused by the interface. Item management can be confusing: objects that are crucial to the plot look just like any others and can be lost very easily - especially if you give them to your companions, who tend to drop items when they get wounded in combat and run away. The problem is that often you don't get enough clues as to which items are really important; even worse, you could get an important item before you actually know you need it, and then throw it out. Imagine the frustration of going through the entire game and suddenly realizing that you've thrown out something needed to complete the it and can't remember where you did that. This forces you to keep and to carry with you all kinds of weird items - half of which are probably pure junk - in fear of losing something important and therefore being unable to complete the game.

The Bottom Line

Ultima VII is an outstandingly rich and detailed game set in an enormously engrossing, marvelously interactive world. It is a monster of a game, a veritable behemoth, a wonder of programming and generous creativity. Like its predecessors, it was way ahead of its time and set new design standards for generations to come. Its nearly perfect union of open-ended exploration, physical immersion, and strong, plot-oriented writing influenced the entire further development of role-playing games like few other titles before or after it.