Written by  :  Chris Wright (105)
Written on  :  Aug 31, 2007
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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A lush, vibrant medieval gameworld full of life, intrigue, and adventure

The Good

Ultima VII: The Black Gate follows in the rich tradition of the thirteen-title Ultima series. While the user interface of Ultima VI took up over half the screen, Ultima VII showcased the latest 486 technology of its day -- 1992 -- with lush, well-animated, full screen graphics. What really strikes me about this game, even today, is just how bright and colorful everything is. Along with some of the cheerier titles from Nintendo, Ultima VII sticks out as one of the most visually-pleasing games ever created, from the standpoint of color palette. Now, Ultima does have a day-night cycle, and there are miles of dungeons to crawl, so travelling without a torch may result in a dark, drab world. But hey, if it's night, you can bunk down on the nearest bed for however many hours you choose and wake up to a glorious sunlit morning.

Second most on my list of stand-out features of Ultima VII is the lively feel to the gameworld. Every one of the hundreds of NPCs in Britannia is programmed with a daily schedule. Britain's baker will go to work each morning and make his bread, in the evening head to the local watering hole for a pint of ale and some music, and retire to his home as the evening wears on. Oh yes, and you yourself can make bread: open the bag of flour, spread some on the table, add water to make a ball of dough, place it by the fire, wait a bit, and voila, one loaf of bread. The baker even pays you for your product, although trekking the wilderness looking for loot, or turning to a criminal life is far more profitable (and fun).

Further enhancing the real-life feel is exceptionally well-written NPC dialog. Characters are given real lives through dialog, instead of simply serving the plotline. And, unlike previous Ultimas, everything is mouse driven, so there's no more hunting for keywords; all the topics of conversation are laid out before you as you uncover them. The two basic topics that everyone will cover are Name and Job, which come to think of it are the two things that people in the real world and likely to ask you.

The grandest thing about Ultima VII though, is just how great it is to get out of the starting town, Trinsic, and explore the vast world of Britannia. Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, you cannot simply go wherever you please immediately. The main continent is large, but parts of it require long, winding, dangerous journey. Furthermore, there are dozens of islands that may only be reached by teleportation (which is hazardous and takes some time to figure out), by purchasing a ship (which takes a long time to afford), or by flying carpet (of which there is only one in the game, unlikely to be stumbled upon by a new player).

Monsters are varied and creative. There's your standard Ultima menagerie of gargoyles (most of whom are friendly), harpies, wolves, and then more fantastical creations like corpsers, who live underground and reveal only a biting tentacle, and headlesses, which, as the name suggests, are human in every respect except for missing one cranium. Just don't ask me how they eat or breathe.

Lastly, the plot of Ultima VII is a classic murder mystery, though the murders are particularly gruesome, and the ultimate cause of Britannia's strife is an otherworldly denizen called The Guardian. This red-skinned fellow constantly mocks and chides you throughout your adventure, with fully-functional voice acting that was groundbreaking for its time. The Guardian stands out in my mind as of the greatest villains in video game history, and your struggles with him continue for the rest of the Ultima VII-IX trilogy.

The Bad

I think that the real joy of playing through Ultima VII is the exploration. After you have discovered every cache, every secret door, every little nook of every little dungeon, what more will you do? The plot isn't really that compelling. It's alright, but you can lose track of what you need to be doing next. Or lose interest.

Combat isn't really anything special. It's more a matter of equipping your characters well, levelling them up before taking on the dragons, and playing prudently. Most of the battle is done automatically by your characters. Combat spells feel a bit inessential and may even do more harm than good. Delayed Blast... Armeggeddon? Yikes.

So in short, the gameplay is good but not great, in terms of the crucial game mechanic of fighting monsters (or people). To compare it with more interesting combat engines, we have Baldur's Gate (which is in itself problematic), or EverQuest (actually very rewarding when all goes well.) But in 1992 you wouldn't think to complain too much. You had Origin's other hit series for more visceral and engaging combat: Wing Commander.

The Bottom Line

Ultima VII: The Black Gate is an exceptionally well-put-together title from Origin, perhaps the best in their highly successful stable. Richard Garriott himself, the creator of the Ultima series, has stated that it is one of his two personal favorites, and the most masterfully-executed of the bunch. Thumbs way up, and moreso because it runs on modern machines thanks to shell program called Exult, created pro-bono by a group of dedicated fans.

This was an inspirational game for me back when I was 13... but in 2007 I could not in all honesty recommend it when the gaming industry has progressed so far, unless you are a real RPG fanatic, in which case you probably already know and love the Ultima franchise.