As with the Ultima 7 review, we're please to offer three, count'em, three very thorough reviews on Origin's hit, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
Enjoy all three reviews.
PROS: Great user interface, great graphics/animation during play, weeks of cheap entertainment.
CONS: Seems to have problems running on some machines. Several people have reported bugs in the first release.
MIXED: Requires 13 MBytes of hard-disk space for full installation (sound, anim- ated cut sequences, etc.), 8 MBytes for minimum configuration. Requires at least 1 Meg of expanded memory (not extended), which means that you must already have an expanded memory manager (EMM). Requires at least a 25-MHz 386 machine to get smooth action/graphics. Requires VGA display card.
All of the above requirements are neccesary evils. If you want great graphics, real-time animation, and giant play areas, you shouldn't have bought that old PC XT. To get the most out of a super game, you have to have a super computer (I have a 40-MHz 386).
OVERALL: This game provides the best "Alternate Reality" that I have seen since my drug-crazed youth. With the lights off, and SoundBlaster cranked up, the illusion is complete.
You are the Avatar, unjustly imprisoned in the Great Stygian Abyss. Your primary mission is to survive, which is not easy. There are a myriad of wonderfully animated, but extremely hostile nasties to deal with. The battles are intense, and best of all, under your complete control. You parry, thrust, dazzle 'em with fancy footwork, and occasionaly run away like crazy if the above fail. Very realistic, and fully animated.
There are also a number of fairly civilized bands of critters who make the Abyss their home. These are informative and entertaining to talk to, as well as to trade with. Just don't make them angry (always be polite, and respectful,.. like any great hero).
Your secondary mission is to clear your good name of the crime you didn't commit by locating, and dealing harshly with, the actual perpetrators. This is also not easy, as they are located on the lower levels of the dungeon, which you must fight your way down to.
The game provides 8 very large play-levels. Loaded with secret doors, hostile nasties, and wonderful treasures. You can count on spending many hours exploring and mapping each one. By the way, the automatic mapping feature is great. You never have to write down any- thing with pencil and paper,... it is already there. Everytime you venture into a new area, your map of each level is automatically updated to show where you are, and where you have been.
Unexplored areas remain blank until you check them out. In addition, there is a "pen" and an "eraser" to allow you to make extensive notes on your maps, as well as a few extra blank pages on which to record additional information that you come across in your travels (which you had better take full advantage of). Keeping track of all of the characters you meet, the hints they give you, the mini-quests that they send you on, bonus magic spells that aren't in the book, and where you left that darn recipe for worm stew,... gets hard to keep track of if you don't write it all down. All in all, I was very impressed.
TIPS FOR BEGINNERS:
First of all I would like to emphasies that overall Ultima Underworld is a superb computer game. It is definitively a great step forward in the state of the art for the FRP game genre, I don't know of anything better overall. O.k. it needs serious machine to run it on, but there are no free lunches. Big GFX, big dungeons, and fancy gameplay need megabytes and CPU cycles. The minimum level machine for the hardware to be ``invisible'' (no slowings of frame-rate etc) would, I suspect, be a cached 33 Mhz 386DX with a respectable VGA card. Slower machines would probably have to start having to trade-off texture mapping on floor and or ceiling for improvements in frame rate.
The ability to move and look around freely 360 degrees horizontally +/- 45 degree vertically adds incredibly to the feeling of ``being there''. The Dungeon becomes almost tangible. My wife, not easily impressed and *not* by no means a regular gamer, was immediately hooked and now keeps *me* up late playing ``just a few rooms more''. The lack of implausible restrictions in movement - you can jump/swim/fly as well as walk - adds an amazing feeling of ``depth'' to gameplay. E.g. why not play dirty and beat up that monster from on top of that platform where (oh how sad!) it can't reach you. Even more impressive is the fact that the games programmers have actually built a gameplay engine smart enough to cope with all variations this kind of freedom introduces.
A very positive mention must also be given to the design of the combat system. The fluent mouse-driven interface combined with fluent movement that actually influences the outcome is a real strength. No tedious grinding away of hit points at point blank. You rush about, maneuvre, strike, maneuvre, get flustered and lose track of your enemy and so on. Wonderful stuff. I was especially amused by the (in my opinion ``realistic'') frantic fumbling that occurs when you want to cast a spell in the heat of combat.
Finally, given the size of the dungeon (8 large levels), I cannot thank the programmers enough for the inclusion (why doesn't everyone do this?) of an automapping facility. As you wander around the dungeon the initially blank map is automatically extended to include the areas you have explored. No more tedious fumbling with pencil and paper when you have a fancy computer sitting in front of you. This facility also plays a key role in playability in that acts as kind of prosthesis for the ``sense of direction'' available to a real explorer of a real dungeon in real (slow) time.
However, Origin's competitors needn't close up shop quite yet. There are plenty of areas where improvements could be made.
The ``strategic'' game structure is perhaps not *quite* as good as the superb tactical level. I, personally, would have appreciated a the need for little more lateral thinking in the puzzles. So far (I haven't yet reached the end-game), all the crucial information is simply told you straight out once you find the right characters / objects / bit of the dungeon. A option for more cryptic clues to the main quests might have been nice.
My (addmitedly cheapo) AdLib clone sound-card emmitedly decidedly unimpressive noises during the game. O.k. with an AdLib you don't expect individual effects to be staggeringly good. Yet, that shouldn't impinge on the overall use of sound and its sync-ing with game. I was particularly disappointed with the small number of different sound effects used and the rather erratic foot-step effect. Your footfalls tend to run on after you have stopped moving, and don't adjust properly to the speed at which you walk/run. A flat-out sprint ticks along barely faster than a brisk walk. With multiple characters about ``footsteps'' just degenerated into a kind of random clicking.
Even an AdLib can do a rather better when its told to. Furthermore, there are a lot of AdLib's / AdLib clones out there, so it is not entirely unreasonable for a game to drive them reasonably well.
Another mild infelicity was hearing supposedly intangible ghosts (etc) banging around in rooms supposedly seperated by many feet of solid rock.
The game suffers from the well-known ``hard-drive active = monster around the next corner syndrome''. Given the availability of plenty RAM on my machine this seemed a bit silly.
The code handling mouse selection of objects in the dungeons was sometimes a little erratic. Similarly the checking for ``no room to drop item'' tends to be rather conservative. Often you can't drop something you've just picked up without moving about a bit.
The original batch of games were released with buggy inventory handling code. A patched version of the main .exe is available to fix this.
However, all complaints really are quite peripheral. Ultima Underworld's depth of gameplay grabs you by the throat, drags you into its game-world, and then keeps you there. That for me is what a FRP game is all about and ``Underworld'' it does it in spectular style. I certainly got value for money for my 40 pounds sterling ($60-ish) and I keenly await a leap-frogging response from Origin's competitors. They will have to work very hard indeed to do much better.
Graphics : VGA
Sound Cards : Roland / Soundblaster / Adlib Supported.
Recommended : 386 16 megahertz or better 2 MB RAM required
By : Origin (Blue Sky Productions)
List Price : $79.95
Review by : Jason Kuo
Reviewed on : 486 / 386-25, Sound Blaster
Once again, Origin has taken the IBM hardware to its limit with one of its newest games, Ultima Underworld. Ultima Underworld is a "Dungeon" game in the first person perspective. It is special in that it is one of the first games that actually puts you in a "virtual reality". However Ultima Underworld requires that you have at least a 386 with at least 2 megabytes of memory, and about 13 megabytes free on your hard drive.
The Plot: In this game, you are once again the Avatar, a person of the 8 virtues. You have been having a recurring nightmare where a ghost warns you of emminent danger. You draw yourself to the ghost and find yourself in a castle where you see a wizard who has just kidnapped a princess. The wizard disappears, leaving you as an obvious suspect. You are taken before the baron, who declares that to prove your innocence, you must find his daughter the princess in the Stygian Abyss where the wizard has taken her. And thus begins your quest.
The Documentation: Included in the game is a map of the first level, and background information about the Stygian Abyss. Reading the documentation is highly recommended, not just to find out about spellcasting, but to also learn how to control your character in the game. It gives you a background of the characters you can choose from such as Paladin, Magic-User, Ranger, Druid, Shepherd and Fighter to name a few. It also gives you a background of some of the races that you will encounter as well.
Virtual Reality: In Ultima Underworld, you are in a "virtual reality dungeon". So for every step you take by "moving" forward, the screen reacts by going forward and simulating the movement to portray real movement. So if you "run", the screen will simulate it by increased speed in getting to the other side, of say a corridor, right down to the detail of the screen bobbing up and down, as you take each step. Objects such as swords, shields, and monsters such as spiders, and ghosts can be viewed from any direction and are portrayed with the exact angle in which you see them. So if you run behind a spider, and if the spider has not turned around, you will see it's back. Throwing an object against the wall will cause the object to bounce before it lands, and depending on what you throw, say a ball, it may take a while before the object settles down. Lighting is portrayed realistically as well, using a candle, you cannot see as far as you would with a well-lit latern.
Graphics: There's a cost for creating a "virtual reality" on an IBM or for any machine for that matter. In this case, the cost is in the graphics. The graphics while impressive for a "virtual reality" are at times blocky, especially as you get near any object. The window (first person perspective) to "virtual reality" is about a third of your screen on your monitor. One reason is the need to keep the virtual reality in "real time". I'm sure no one would appreciate doing a jump, and having the game pause to calculate and update the graphics on the entire screen, then have a third of the screen updated exactly as you jump. And though at times blocky, each object is distinguishable.
Game Play: Although you are in a "virtual reality", the game play is not unlike many other role playing games like Eye of the Beholder 2. There are puzzles such as pulling levers in the correct sequence, and combat against monsters. The puzzles consist of visual clues, and interacting with NPC's (Non Player Character) to complete quests and gain various items. Combat is interesting, as it happens in real time, you need to take the time to swing your blade, and distance to fire your arrows.
In hand-to-hand combat, there are different types of attacks that you can do, such as slashing, and thrusting which have different effectiveness against certain monsters. As you go deeper into the 8 level underground volcano, the plot will reveal itself to be more than a simple kipnapping. And even after the "end" of your goal, you will still need to accomplish further goals as well. One nice feature is the mapping function. Ultima Underworld will automap each location which you wander off to. And you can write any comment on the map itself.
Music & Sound: The Music for Ultima Underworld isn't spectacular, and can get right down irritating at times. The sound effects are average, although there is stereo for those with a Sound Blaster Pro.
Criticism: One problem with Ultima Underworld is inventory. It's not to say this "bug" will happen on your computer, but in this reviewer's experience, items in his inventory disappeared that were critical to finish the game. Supposedly this has been fixed with newer versions of Ultima Underworld, but I've still heard of missing inventory problems in the newer versions. To help anyone out there who may have encountered these problems here is a guide to get back some of your missing items.
Of course the best way to conquer this bug, is to always check your inventory, and save, even if it means expanding your 4 save positions by backing up the old saves and using the 4 save positions as new save positions.
Overall: Ultima Underworld is a landmark game in that one gets to experience a "virtual reality". It really needs to be experienced. One way you can do this is by going to your local software dealer and trying the demo, find a friend who has Ultima VII and ask for the Ultima Underworld Demo, which is included with Ultima VII, or try ftping it if you have access to the network. Unfortunately, although one does experience a "virtual reality", the plot, puzzles, and the NPC interaction isn't really different from any other "Dungeon" game. I would recommend trying it out before buying it. It's not because it's a game that wouldn't appeal to the public,
In fact, if it weren't for the inventory "bug", I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to any RPG gamer, who have enjoyed games such as Eye of the Beholder, Wizardry VI or to anyone in general. But an inventory "bug" such as this one can ruin all the work you've done. On the plus side, if you've ever wanted to really experience what it would be like to be stuck in a dungeon, you can either buy Ultima Underworld or be locked in my room. I would say its worth a risk of buying Ultima Underworld if you can't get your hands on the demo. You just cross your fingers, and hope the inventory problem doesn't happen on your computer, try it and follow the above instructions if you have problems, and/or complain to Origin. Right now, you should be able to buy Ultima Underworlds for about $54.00 at CompUSA.
Hints: For those who would like some tips on Ultima Underworld, here they are: Choose a character with high strength. Character classes with high strength include Druids, Fighters, and Shepherds. It's not really necessary though, Rangers, Paladins, etc. are fine, you just have to be more critical about what you carry with you. Skills I would recommend investing in are : Mana, Casting, Search, One Weapon skill, Attack, Defense. The other skills have their uses but are not that important. If you ever get stuck in one situation, skip it, a solution may come along later. In fact some puzzles can be solved very easily when you gain other items on lower levels.
For those of you who must see a rating system: Ultima Underworld : The Stygian Abyss
Graphics : 8
Sound : 6
Playability : 9
Plot : 7
Overall : 8.5