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Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181593)
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

Origin's Ultima series have always occupied a very special place in the world of role-playing games. Less "hardcore" and more loose in their adherence to the canons of the genre than the heavyweight Wizardry and the compromising Might and Magic, it has an arguably smaller, but more dedicated and passionate fanbase appreciating what those games do like no other: create worlds. True to the developers' slogan, the Ultimas know how to involve and immerse through magnanimous, beautifully interactive gameplay and utmost attention to detail.

Of all the games in this splendid series, Ultima VII remains the most accessible one to modern player without sacrificing gameplay elements that were sorely missed in its few successors. Old-time Ultima purists may accuse it of toning down RPG elements to the point of turning into a hybrid with adventure tendencies; the truth is, the game was simply way ahead of its time focusing on such aspects of RPG design that became prominent and even ubiquitous much later. For Ultima VII, role-playing is, above all, physical and mental immersion. Yes, it neglects stats - but what weight do stats have in the wake of meticulously crafted environment offering unseen interaction possibilities, and gigantic chunks of well-written text and information accessible through dialogue and books? Such is the genius of this game that almost no RPG released afterwards could escape its influence. It extends a titanic hand into the future, intimidating followers with the scope and power of its work.

Of course, we mustn't forget how much this game owes to its predecessors. The fifth game introduced a dynamic world with some interactivity; the sixth expanded it, improved the writing, increased immersion with its seamless exploration. Ultima VII goes one step further: its more advanced engine allows not only the much-needed full-screen navigation, but also a simple interface based on clicking and dragging. Instead of selecting options like "Get" or "Drop", you actually perform those actions by yourself now. This may seem like a minor enhancement, but in reality it is a highly important step towards the goal of physical immersion. Ultima VII paves the way for future 3D games by making its world consist of independent, mobile objects rather than simply be a still painting. Every object you see lives its own life; you can rearrange almost everything you see in a manner that will be later described as "sandbox" style. Today we hear a lot of such expressions as "open world", "fully interactive environments", etc.; now think of all those modern games to which those definitions apply only with serious limitations, if at all, and compare them to what was achieved in those fields by Ultima VII at the time when the entire concept and its significance were not yet grasped and defined.

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 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 in the bed instead of him. Your mouse cursor can access everything your eye meets. With all its sophisticated material, the game brilliantly caters to our basic gamer instincts: curiosity and greed. Every player 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 to it all the time you spend with other games - it has too much to offer.

Equally important is the interaction with people. In most RPGs non-playable characters are there to supply information, or, in best case, play an important role in the story. 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, on the other hand, live their own lives. Most of them have nothing to do with you and with your quest. They are there because they are. Any time you talk to an NPC, you talk to a real person who is not related to your grand quest and has his own little joys and troubles. Also, those NPCs are dynamic. You can count on one hand the amount of games that paid attention to NPC routines after Ultima VII. The inhabitants of Britannia pursue their own schedules. You can stalk any character and watch his movements - it can be a fascinating process. 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 at 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've talked enough, he will probably also refer to his city, share recent news, etc. In other words - you will have a normal conversation with a real person, not 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 game world is huge, and at any given moment you can explore it to the full and visit every spot in it. Particularly noteworthy are the towns: instead of generic little settlements composed out 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 contain useful gameplay or story tips, but most of them are there just to enhance the experience. In short, the game truly has a living, breathing world, and that is achieved through creativity and attention to detail, not through fancy 3D graphics with billions of polygons.

The freedom of action is exhilarating. 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 - explore dungeons and find treasure, work and earn it, or simply steal the cash. 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. Settle down, specialize in a profession, spend your life gambling and whoring, be as good or as bad as you want to - the choice is yours.

Ultima VII is wonderfully flexible in its treatment of hostile encounters. As far as I can recall, there are only three major battles you are required to participate in so that you'll be able to complete the game. You can run away from most regular skirmishes - but those who are nostalgic for old-school gameplay will find dungeons with enemies, traps, and loot. Ultima VII favors creative approach to problem-solving over brute force. There are often multiple solutions to the game's puzzles, and they are always natural and imaginative at the same time. Many puzzles are rather hard and require quite a bit of searching and experimenting. There are also some really original physical puzzles made possible with the fantastic engine. 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 make stairs out of crates. Another type of puzzles involves magic: if, for instance, you want to pull a lever you can't access, you can cast the spell Telekinesis on it. If a trap creates impenetrable energy fields, you should use the magic Dispel Field that will make them disappear.

The plot of Ultima VII is quite interesting and starts with a gruesome murder you, as the Avatar, must investigate. The "big bad guy" watches you from behind the stage, but never gets involved in action himself, so that your actual enemies in the game are members of a pseudo-religious organization, whose leader is very truthfully portrayed and certainly belongs to the more memorable villain characters video games have to offer. There is an abundance of sub-quests and sub-plots, some of which surpass the main story in quality. Particularly memorable is the Skara Brae quest. 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 it, 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 someone 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!

Ultima VII has some genuinely warm humor that makes us feel closer to the inhabitants of Britannia. I particularly liked the remarks of your companions. When your party sees a naked woman in one of the dungeons, the young boy Spark looks at her 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 Shamino utters with regret: "If only you were a bit bigger...", My favorite humorous situation in the game was the meeting with a unicorn. According to a popular mythological concept, unicorns can only communicate with virgins, so when he addresses you an awkward silences ensues, 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 in Buccaneer's Den, he will refuse to communicate with you! This is what you call real depth in a game.

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.

Ultima veterans would probably frown upon certain aspects that were slightly simplified in this installment. You can no longer type during conversations, and crucial keywords would pop out even if you just stumbled upon them by accident. The overworld is huge, but the dungeons are a bit underwhelming compared to the previous games, and a few well-known places (such as the sewers in Britannia) are missing.

There are 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.