Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Ultima Underworld: Introduction

Once again we return to the RPG sphere for the second big outside influence on FPS titles, Ultima Underworld, beloved RPG and debut of Looking Glass Studios under the name of Blue Sky Productions. Looking Glass needs no introduction, owing to the beloved nature of System Shock, Thief and indeed this. And the story goes that John Carmack, after having heard about this game having texture mapping, added it to Catacomb 3D, believing he could do better.

Its also the combination of several famous and not-so-famous development staff. We have Richard Garriott and Warren Spector, two Origin employees and the most famous of the bunch. The actual meat of the engine, a 3D world with texture mapping, was done by Paul Neurath, Doug Church, Chris Green and a host of other programmers, mostly known for later work.
The engine itself was combined from work on previous Origin space simulation Space Rogue, and Chris Green's code from the Lerner Research* game Car and Driver. The end result was apparently a very Wolfenstein 3D looking game. As with many Origin games around this time, they went the extra mile, and went for ceilings and floors of different heights, and a bit of trickery, but no true room-over-room. An approach that one has to love, and hate, Origin for.
*Who would apparently go on to merge with Blue Sky to form Looking Glass Studios proper. I don't actually know what effect that had in practical terms.

Now that I'm a little bit wiser, I'm not nearly as impressed with this as you'd think. Considering that the journey to this started in 1982 with Wayout and that we've already seen floor heights, true room-over-room, and even texture mapping done before this. However, we are going to see it play smoothly, and we're going to see texture mapping and floor heights together, which is what counts. Cool technology is starting to wear out its welcome when there are half a dozen with floor heights and TROR, and dozens of Wolf-clones. They are interesting, but it is not a mystery why few play them to this day.

Perusing the manual, its mostly about information for this newfangled 3D RPG thing. How to perform actions, assuming you're a complete fool, telling you what to do starting out. I miss when this information was in manuals and not told through a mandatory in-game tutorial that takes six hours. The important part I'm reading in here is that this doesn't control how I'm used to in the slightest. Keyboard controls are an afterthought and mostly for hotkeys. That is, no Wolfenstein-style keyboard controls, not even the funky keyboard movement and separate mouse aiming I've seen quite a bit of. Pure mouse moving and aiming. Hopefully I'm missing something or they added something.
There is also a document detailing the backstory of the location I am about to enter, but per my usual behavior, I don't really care for out-of-game story documents. It doesn't even tell us the events leading up to the game. Through osmosis I understand it'll give me a few hints once I'm in-game, but I think I prefer to find out myself.

The game starts off surprisingly silent, before the title screen and then an intro cutscene. Its fairly involved. The player is the Avatar, the reoccurring hero of the Ultima games. He dreams of a strange man speaking of treachery and doom from his brother, before getting whisked away into Britannica, the setting of the series, into some bedroom. A cloaked man wonders who you are, before mentioning his dead brother, and saying you will be a worthy scapegoat.

It seems an ogre has run off with the local baron's daughter, and you are naturally suspected of assisting with the kidnapping. The baron's men died trying to save his daughter, and to prove that you are the Avatar, the baron sends you off into The Stygian Abyss. Those doors aren't being opened until the baron's man hears his daughter. Cheesy, but effective. Before I can begin I have to create my character.

This would probably make more sense if I had seriously played an Ultima game before

Character creation is incredibly simple. Select a class, which hand you use, and three skills. I chose sword, and appraise. Hopefully that won't screw myself over. The game begins, and there actually is keyboard movement. SZXC move and AD turn, which is just fine. Otherwise it controls like most games did before mouse aiming, except we have a bunch of adventure game options for interacting with things. Options, speak, pick up, look, attack and use. Its a bit more complex than I'm used to, and controls weirdly even for this kind of thing. You have to hold right click to pick something up.

Finding a note in a pack on the ground

Speaking of picking something up, the inventory is weird. You have 8 slots+4 items you can hold. Fair enough, but you also get bags, which give you more inventory space. Also fair, except, getting items out of the bags is a bit of a pain. To do so properly you have to drag the item to the bag icon. Left clicking uses an item, and considering that most items inside a bag are food items, not the best way of getting used to the controls. Food remains an unknown.

Combat music plays whenever you have the sword out, which isn't annoying at all
The magic system seems confusing at first glance. To cast a spell you click on the bag of runes, that is, an inventory item, not a separate thing. At first, nothing will be in the bag, because you need to add the runes. Some are on the ground. These are very difficult to distinguish from the dirt floor. Black on brown is very distinguishable. Hopefully that will change at some point. All the spells, at least I hope all the spells, are described in the manual.
A lot of these HUD elements are superficial, those dragons animate and I'm not quite sure why

Nearby there's a giant rat. He's not hostile, but the nearby pieces of food belong to him, and taking them would result in him becoming hostile. (food is a concern in this game, but we're just starting out) The game's manual takes pains to tell me I don't have to kill him. This is part of the big selling point of the game, violence is avoidable. If I really want the food he has but don't want to kill him, I can just take it when he isn't looking. Which is useful knowledge for if I need to take something from someone sentient, and that I can't crush like a bug with no repercussions. Fighting is fairly simple, hold down right click while in attack mode, release, and you attack something. Its not interesting, but it works. A bigger issue is that with the GOG version I have no sound or music. Which is funny, since that's usually where there isn't such an issue.
After getting a different version, and hearing the intro with music is quite a different experience. To this I should relate that so far I am reminded heavily of Shadowcaster, or rather Shadowcaster is very obviously a partial product of UU*. We have the same control scheme, the exact same sound framework and the save system works the same way. The controls are better in Shadowcaster, but the music seems better here. Sound is a joke here, no doubt using midi for sounds rather than digital effects. For a game credited as being the first immersive sim, this sure is lame on the environmental factor.
This whole intro section reminds me a bit of Tomb Raider's. That is, trapped inside a strange cave, fighting wildlife. Well, just the rat anyway.
*One might say that Shadowcaster is Ultima Underworld in Wolfenstein 3D's engine. Or an action spinoff of Ultima Underworld. In either event while it isn't a clone of UU, its very closely related.

Inhabitants of the Abyss are certainly verbose
After a bit more exploring, mostly finding items and unlocking doors, I find a man wandering around. This is also mentioned in the manual. Compared to Midwinter 2 and Galactic Empire, there's a sentence for you, its more straightforward. You say something precisely, he returns it with a wall of text. The gist of it is that I'm not to first person the baron cast down here, and that the Abyss is a dangerous place. Firstly we have wildlife, worms and spiders. Then we have the sentients, two tribes of different colored goblins, humans, and then "mountainmen". No idea who the mountainmen are. He also tells me to grab everything I can that doesn't belong to someone. Which sounds stupid, but this is a true RPG, wherein I can actually buy things.

A curiously 3D object situated in a gap
He tells me where I should go to find the other humans, but I don't pay too much attention to that. If the level design in this game is anything like anything else I've played, it won't be too difficult. It seems that the area right next to him was where I needed to go, because he was talking about jumping over a pit. You do that, exclusively to my knowledge, by pressing J. Speaking of Tomb Raider, the PC has an impressive vertical leap. However, I go down first, suspecting that there's a useful item down here. I also find a bedroll...which reminds me that I didn't know how to naturally heal myself yet.

I didn't fully realize I was being attacked until I checked my health
Jumping over a pit into a wall, which damages me, probably more than falling down would have. After trying a door, not unlocking with my key, (which I had previously used, but you never know with keys) I then jump across a river. Oh, I'm getting attacked by a worm. Joy. You look up and down with 1 & 3. I don't think there's a mouse command for it, but it doesn't matter. Its all awful. There's a lack of feedback to fighting that makes me question if I'm doing damage or not, but I am. Its a rotworm. The rotworm was guarding a lever that opened the door.
That's very curved compared to what the sprite of my weapon looks like

Inside is another section much like this one, but with more water. A red bat attacks me. A red bat...? I'm poisoned and this guy is annoying. Very annoying. He's hard to hit, flying away when I attack and then chasing me when I'm not. Combined with the game's poor feedback, makes fighting him annoying. I beat him and then check the manual for a cure poison spell. I'm missing a rune and its probably too high level for a class that doesn't primarily use magic anyway.

"Mildly poisoned"
I'm dead. There's a cool little animation for this, showing a bunch of skulls. I hadn't saved for a bit, but that doesn't matter, because not much time has passed. Nevertheless, this seems to be a fairly solid block. It seems a safe assumption that the upper level also leads here, and thus within reach of the red bats. Clearly, I must go somewhere else first.
So...not friendly then
That was the western area from the entrance, but luckily there's another door, closed by a chain, that leads to two doors locked by the key I have. South leads to a silver sapling, the area I start in if I die in combat. Sort of like System Shock, but north leads to a goblin. At first I think, since this is Ultima Underworld, he's not going to be hostile, but he shoots a sling bullet at me. Oh, well, stabbing time. I charge him. He switches to a sword and backs away. Huh, I guess that's consistent. I back away when he's about to stab me...he switches back to his sling. I...wasn't expecting this. He's actually smart. As I deal more damage to him he starts running away completely. After I finish him off it occurs to me this might have serious repercussions.
As I search the things he dropped, including having to type in how many gold coins I want to pick up from a pile, I ponder this development. I haven't seen an action game with AI like this...ever. I guess Shadowcaster had enemies fleeing. This feels genuinely smart, and yet it can't be that advanced. Its gotta be more simplistic on a technical level than things I've played before. Like, enemies have had melee and ranged attacks before, but it doesn't feel like they're switching between them, just that there's arbitrary conditions that chooses which one. This feels like its choosing it in response to my actions somehow. Perhaps I'm exaggerating things, but that's what I felt after finishing it off, a genuine sense that this game is amazing.
Whatever do you mean, game?
I end this session after a rest, since I don't have the runes for any healing spells and I probably can't cast it yet anyway. I see the man from the intro again, this time without a voiceover, saying I should seek out the civilized inhabitants of this place. Considering how intelligent the uncivilized ones are, I shutter to think how clever they'll be, or perhaps they'll just be more walls of text.

This Session: 30 minutes

No comments:

Post a Comment