Ultima Underworld

I set straight into Ultima Underworld after finishing Special Operations. This is possibly my favorite game of all time and because of this I know it inside out before I start playing. It was also the first Ultima I bought new when it came out although my PC really wasn’t up to running it properly. This will be something of a speedrun and I’ll just play through it in the shortest possible route without missing anything out as I already know all the quests, items, etc.

This game was the first real-time FPS-style 3D game on the PC as far as I know. It came out a month before Wolfenstein 3D but the engine used was massively more sophiscated. It was the first came from Looking Glass Studios although they were known as Blue Sky Productions at this point in time.

The intro starts with me struggling to sleep and being visited by a ghost. The intro has the usual bad voice acting but was impressive at the time.

The ghost summons me to Britannia just in time to see his brother vanish.

and witness a troll carrying away a woman.

At this point the guards burst in and blame me for the kidnap.

The head of the guards has the most stupid accent yet. I think its supposed to sound like a Cockney. He drags me off to meet Baron Olmric.

The barons accent is siller still. You have to be an American to think anyone in Britain sounds like this.

I tell him I’m the Avatar but he is not all that convinced. The kidnapped girl was his daughter and she has been carried into the Stygian Abyss. Since none of them are brave/stupid enough to go in after her he sends me instead.

The head of the guards takes me to the abyss and opens the door.

He says he will stand guard until he hears Ariels voice.

And then I’m locked in.

There is quite a lengthy character creation process. I can chose certain skills, character type etc. There is none of the questions associated with other Ultimas – I just pick what I want.

And then I’m into the game itself. The first impression is that I can’t see much but the bag on the right contains some essentials such as a torch and my map. The view window isn’t huge although not that much smaller than what we saw in earlier 2D Ultimas. The interface is very nicely designed so that everything can be done with the mouse. Movement speed and direction is based on how far the pointer is from the center of the window. Its a bit odd if you are used to the usual wasd keys but since I played this way before the FPS genre was invented this is second nature anyway.

The inventory and armor, weapons and the like are all visual and on screen at the right. If I wear anything its shown on the character. Its fairly similar to what we saw from Ultima 6 on with the doll added in and works very well. I can see my stats if I want by clicking on the chain. My health and mana is shown in the two glass jars.

The manual for the game describes the efforts to create a community in the abyss of all intelligent life across Britannia by Sir Cabirus so its a very different place to the last time I saw it in Ultima 5. Unfortunately the experiment failed when Cabirus died and the inhabitants started to turn on each other, resulting eventually in the abyss being sealed for good and used as a prison.

With a torch lit I can see a bit more. The graphics really aren’t bad at all – obviously they are basic by modern standards but compare this to Wolfenstein and its just not in the same league. For instance here we have ground and roof textures and the ground slopes away from the door smoothly. This needed a monster machine to run well however at the time. None of us even had local bus graphics cards when this came out.

The environment is quite interactive. Here I pull a chain on the wall, I see it move and the door swings open.

Down the hall I find a rune bag which I will be using for spells later in the game. The spell system here requires just the use of runes in the correct order + mana. There are no reagents. Spells are divided into levels which you can’t cast until you are twice that level if I remember correctly. There are 16 levels in this game as opposed to the usual 8.

I spot my first critter – a giant rat who is actually not agressive so I leave it alone.

Behind another door is the first person I get to talk to, Bragit.

Talking to someone brings up a conversation screen in the main view window + options right at the bottom. The system is the sort of thing used by Lucasarts and works very well. There is also a trade system using the circles by the character portraits to drag/pick items for possible trades.

Bragit gives me some general advice about the abyss. There are plenty of non-hostile areas where the civilised people live although it is still dangerous elsewhere.

My first fight is just down the hall. Its a rotworm and dies in a couple of hits. Combat is real time and fairly basic. You just hold down the mouse button and the gem on the left gradually turns green depicting blow power. You then release and attempt to strike. There are 3 areas of the screen you can click on for 3 types of blow but in general you just want to click on the monster. Notice here that I’m looking down slightly. It gets a bit distorted but you can look up and down in this game – you couldn’t even do that in Doom.

Pulling the chord on the wall opens a door and a bat flies through it and attacks me. If I’m honest they could have used a few more pixels for this thing but it looks vaguely batlike at least. It poisons me but this wears off by the time I lose half my hit points or so.

Behind the door is a river which I swim through for a bit. The view even tilts around when you swim.

I find the human settlement after jumping over a gap. No one here has anything massively useful to tell me although I’m told that Ariel has been taken lower in the abyss by the troll.

I run into my first goblin who is less than friendly. He takes a bit more killing than anything else so far.

Behind a secret door is the silver sapling. This is in essence a respawn device. If I take the sapling it withers and I get a seed instead. I can then use this to plant the sapling again and if I die I respawn at that point.

Something I haven’t mentioned is that the game comes complete with an automap. I can’t think of any of its contempories having this facility and it helps gameplay no end. I can even write notes on here if I want.

The stairway to the next level is blocked off so I will have to find another route. I’ve still not seen half this level yet anyway.

Behind another secret door is a life restoring fountain. Knowing where most of these are is going to make my life a lot easier.

There is a big settlement of goblins nearby. By being polite I talk the guard into letting me in. No one has any massively useful information again. This first level is really more introductory and scene setting if anything although there are a few important things to do.

One of which is this crystal ball. When I look in it I get to see myself running along a green path to Britannia. This bit of knowledge will come in useful at the very end of the game.

One of the puzzles on the level involves manipulating four switches which adjust the height of 4 pillars. If I get it right I can jump up a sequence of 8 pillars to get to some minor treasure. This sort of 3D environmental puzzle is again impressive and there will be a few of them throughout the game.

At the top is a grave + a sceptre which I take.

The water in Ultima Underworld contains its own monsters called Lurkers. You can’t attack unless you are on land (or using magic) but by walking to the edge and looking down I can kill them off.

There is a second settlement of goblins (green ones this time). They don’t like each other much but by being polite I can get in again to see them. Lanugo gives me permission to speak to King Vernix and also gives me a rotworm stew recipe. This will be coming in handy later.

King Vernix gives me a lot of background information and the various settlements in the abyss but nothing essential.

The grey goblins mentioned a spider called Narvey Nighteyes. I set out to kill it and run into its smaller cousin first.

After killing the spiders off I find a small hoard of spider thread. Again I know I’ll need this much later so I grab some.

That pretty much finishes off this level so its down to the Level 2.

My screenshots gone missing but I run into a shrine on Level 2. This is a full 3D ankh which I can use mantras on to raise stats. You learn mantras throughout the game but I remember the useful ones anyway. I use amo to raise my sword skill.

Next I get my first quest of the game. A confused dwarf called Ironwit wants his blueprints back and gives me some lengthy instructions on how to get them.

The next room consists of a small maze like path with big drops off the side. I attempt a jump to get to another room and miss it and fall directly onto a headless.

After some backtracking I make the jump and get into the next section. I’m attacked by a load of worms at once but get the key I need from the far end of the room.

The key lets me open a door to get a flying potion. This allows me full 3D movement around the map and I fly to an otherwise unreachable room to fetch the blueprints.

Ironwit gives me another flying potion for my trouble.

There is a great big settlement of dwarves here. I pick up a quest to kill a monster haunting their mines and also get told about the 8 talismans of virtue which Cabirus collected and are being misused. I will be needed them later and collecting them as I go.

This portuclis is locked but I can see the switch to open it on the other side. Using a pole I’m carrying I flip the switch and let myself in. This is a trick mentioned in one of the conversations on the first level.

I get a vision of a moonstone by looking in an orb here. I won’t be able to get this for ages though. I also find another healing fountain nearby. Now I’m in good health I set off to kill this monster in the mines.

Its behind a load of rocks. Using a rock hammer I smash them to bits.

The monster turns out to be a gazer. It goes down in about 3 hits.

Goldthirst rewards me with a not so useful gem cutter but I know someone down a few levels who would like it.

By giving him a gift in return I get the password to look at his treasure room. I will need this also much much later.

The treasure room is less than exciting. I suppose if I could cast telekinesis I could go in and steal his treasure. Or I could use the flying potion. I know from experience that a golum is walking around down there somewhere though and I don’t need the money so I leave well alone.

I head to level 3. I shouldn’t know about this yet but my moving some vines on this level I can clear some water and go fetch half of the Caliburn sword (one of the talismans).

The blade is sitting waiting to be picked up. The sword is seriously useful to have since it never wears out. I decide therefore to go and fetch the other half at this point.

Down on level 5 in a large series of tombs full of undead I find the other half of the sword. I’m sort of cheating a bit since I know where all this stuff is already but I can hardly forget where it is.

On the way back I run into Rodrick the chaos knight. In theory I don’t know this yet but he is a sort of rebel from the Knights on this level and the best swordsman of them all. I would have got a quest to defeat him at some point to help out an injured knight. I’m jumping the gun a bit here but he attacks me so I kill him off.

Back on Level 2 again, I head for Shak the weaponsmith. He fixes the sword in return for 20 gold pieces. I have to wait an hour for him to finish.

I’ve got my first and most useful talisman.

That pretty much finishes up Level 2 so I head for Level 3 again. This is a swampy level with the sentient race in this case being Lizardmen. First off I run into Zak who is obsessed with anything that gives off light. Later in the game I should find out that he stole one of the talismans – the taper of sacrifice. I offer to trade with him and swap him the taper for a few candles. Again I shouldn’t know that this is the taper but I do so I may as well get it while I’m here. Its a seriously useful item as it gives off light continually without ever running out.

I must have explored about half of Level 3 at this point but there is still plenty to do. This game is every bit as good as I remember it but I really know it far too well to be able to play it properly even though its years since the last time. I’m less familiar with its sequel so that will be a bit less predicatable at least when I get that far.

I love the attention to detail in this game above anything else. The technological achievement of the 3D engine is amazing enough on its own but all the extra effort put in here with the dialog, puzzles, plot and general interaction with the world just took it to another level and I can’t think of any other game I ever played that pushed the technology this much but also took gameplay to another level while doing it. Nothing came out to rival this or its sequel for many years and this game is still quite playable as far as I’m concerned. Its the best music score in any of the Ultima’s to date also – its quite downbeat and atmospheric rather than musical but this works much better as background music because of it.  The intro music is one of my favorites on the MT-32.

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