Thursday, March 29, 2007

CRPG Review: Ultima

Ultima (now known as Ultima 1) is the sequel to Akallabeth, described in an earlier review here. Richard Garriot, still a teenager in high school, broke new ground in inventing the "tile graphic" concept for Ultima. He divided the screen into small areas or tiles, then created a library of tiles. He then used these tiles to build worlds by drawing them on screen. This greatly sped up graphics, as he only had to redraw changed tiles (instead of an entire screen) when an event was happening in the world. He kept the dungeon 3D wire view from Akallabeth, and these two graphic engines became the staple for the next ten years of CRPG's (see the screenshot, showing how a rich world of grasslands, water, mountains and forests can be created with just a handful of unique tiles; my laser-armed aircar is in the middle of the screen)

While a bit naive by today's standards, Ultima was quite sophisticated for 1980 computer gaming. The setting is a lost kingdom/post-apocalypse/swords & sorcery-style setting a la Lin Carter or Robert Howard (Conan or Cerebus the Aardvark), where most people live at a medieval level of technology, but the adventurer can find such space-age equipment as phasers, hovercrafts and power armor. The wizard Mondain is spreading an evil influence through the land, corrupting people and animals, and spawning monsters, and your job is to track down Mondain and put a stop to it! This game also features the first appearance of Lord British, Garriott's alter-ego, and the most famous NPC (non-Player character) in CRPG history, who will re-appear in most of the sequels as the benevolent ruler of Britannia.

This game showcases Garriott's unique approach to game design - he likes to give people different things to do, so that they can advance the plot in different ways at different times depending upon their preference. If you feel like dungeon crawling, there are 36 dungeons in the game, all ten levels deep (I once mapped the lot of them!). If you like exploring, there are four continents to discover, plus some special islands. For minimaxing (a game term meaning getting the most bang for your buck) your character, you can seek out all 40 towns and compare their shops to get the best items and the best prices. If you like questing, there are eight castles whose rulers will dispense quests. For those who prefer an indirect approach, you can pilfer from shops with thieving skills, and bust princesses out of dungeons. There is even a space arcade game that you can unlock once you have the correct items!

While you can do whatever you like, the game design ties these activities together to make them meaningful. Dungeon crawling is the fastest way to get gold and hitpoints. Exploring is necessary to find the towns and people and special sites that boost your abilities and items. Shopping provides the necessary food and survival gear, plus various magic spell stores. Completing the quests boosts your stats, and gets you items needed to activate the Time Machine. Stealing is a quick way for a thief character to get a head start on the game to make him even with the fighetr and cleric. Rescuing princesses gets you gold and hit points. The space arcade game is needed for you to become a Space Ace, which will impress the princess enough for her to reveal the location of the time machine.

Ultimately, you must raise your hit points, get the best items, boost your stats, become a Space Ace, complete the quests, rescue the princess, find the Time Machine, and go back to a pocket universe before time started, where Mondain is hiding, and bring him to justice. But the freedom of choice is yours. I once completed the game from start to finish in one (long) evening just to see how fast it COULD be completed, but I have also spent countless hours just having fun.

I haven't talked about the character generation, the races that can be played, the spells, the monsters, the treasure - that is all to be discovered, and secondary to this review. Let's just say in the fast game that I exploited the sytem by maxing my DEX at start and creating an Elf Female Thief, then stealing power armor and a phaser from the first merchant to turn his back, and GALADRIAL was off to the races!

So three cheers for Ultima, which is still fun in the 21st century!

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