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U6 Project Review

by blatantninja, 2010-08-08

At the end of Thomas Wolfe's novel "You can't go home again", the protagonist, George Webber, realizes "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ….back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."  Readers of the novel can empathize with Webber in his desire to return to his hometown, to the simple joys of his childhood, but alas we all realize at some point 'you can't go home again.'

As I began playing through Team Archon's Ultima 6 Project (U6P), a mod, or siegelet, for Dungeon Siege recreating the classic RPG Ultima VI: The False Prophet, I was constantly reminded of  the moral of Wolfe's novel.  For those of us that grew up in the infancy of computer gaming, we each have several titles that hold a special place in our heart.  For me, as many, the Ultima series has always had a solid grip on that spot.  Though my favorite remains Ultima V, Ultima VI will always be a game for which I always have fond memories.

As with most older games, time and technology advancements have taken their toll on Ultima VI.  While I have played it on and off many times in the twenty years since its release, the awe and amazement that I felt when first loading it onto my 386SX were never to be found.  Recapturing that feeling simply is no longer possible with the original game.  It became merely a distraction, something to play when I had no other games installed, but needed some short entertainment.

When I first installed U6P, I was eager with anticipation.  I had downloaded one of the previous milestones and played a bit, but never had the time to dig into it deeper.  Would the game live up to the high bar set by its sister mod, Ultima V: Lazarus (U5:L)?    Would it merely be a rehashing of the old story in a new format?  Or did Team Archon expand the depth of the story as much as they had said they would?  Would the Dungeon Siege engine, nearly a decade old at this point, come across as a relic as well?  Would the story be accessible to new players as well as old?  Most importantly, would I feel the same way I did back in 1990 when I rushed home from school to play Ultima VI?

 

First Impressions

The most limiting factor of U6P is the underlying game engine, Dungeon Siege (DS).  Not that there is anything wrong with DS, but at over eight years since it's official release, it can be a bit difficult to come by.  Additionally, there are some minor issues with DS running in Windows 7.  They are easily fixable, but it can take a few runs through the message boards to find the appropriate solution.

Downloading the mod will take a while, as the total size comes in at just over 1 GB.  Once downloaded, the installation is easy and straightforward.  I've noticed that the game can take a while to load, but I believe that is a DS issue, not a U6P one.

As the Team Archon video plays, my heart literally raced.  Soon, the introduction video played.  It is a solid, modern reproduction of the original introduction, though I was slightly disappointed that the subtitles that had appeared in the original introduction were not included: in the original, the subtitles really set the stage.  From the reference of the years that have passed, to the sense of loss in no longer being with the friends that fought at your side, to the final leap of faith you take when you enter the unfamiliar, red moongate, the short one minute and thirty second video sets the tone, explains the background and gets your emotions running.

In U6P, the video runs fairly quickly with no subtitles.  While it is graphically well done, to a new player - with no experience with the original - it probably doesn't make much sense I'm afraid.  Sure, our familiar companions, as well as Nystal, Geoffrey and Lord British, do explain things once you are in the game, but it just doesn't raise the same level of emotion. 

The omnipresent gypsy is of course present when a new character is generated.  New players may find the Ultima style of character creation a bit strange, but for experienced players, it harkens back to a more simply style of gaming.  Once the character has been created and the introductions sequences completed, the player finds himself dropped into Lord British's throne room and the actions begins.

 

The Interface

To any that played U5:L, the interface will be immediately familiar, though with some welcome additions such as the journal and online compendium.  For new players, there are plenty of 'hints' that pop up and give the player a tutorial as he explores the world. 

The journal is a most welcome upgrade to previous incarnations of Project: Britannia.  While it may be more authentic to not have a journal function, two factors really necessitate one for any modern incarnation of a game.  First, players, particularly new players, simply expect them.  In order to attract the largest possible audience, a journal is a necessity.  The second is the depth of the game, to which I will go into in more detail later.  The sheer number of additional quests over the original would be cumbersome, if not impossible, for a player to keep track of off-line.

The journal is not without issues though.  It doesn't always seem to close out a quest that is complete, or perhaps it is not complete, but there is simply no indication of what to do next.  Additionally, some quests are only able to be fulfilled, apparently, by journeying down the 'evil' path that Team Archon has added into the game.  These quests might not seem evil, nor does anything in the journal indicate they are 'evil' (like one on New Magencia), and the player is left with a quest entry that he can't clear.  Additionally, many of the entries lack sufficient detail for completing the quests, necessitating a return to NPC's involved in the quest to ask the same questions again. 

Another upgrade over the original is the world and location maps.  Once the player procures a sextant, the world map will show the location of the player.  While not completely accurate, it's close enough for the player to know his approximate location.  The ability to add pins in to mark locations on the map makes it an invaluable addition to the game. 

Unfortunately, the location maps are not quite as useful.  While they can give the player a broad overview of the area he is exploring, be it a cave, dungeon or town, there is no way to display the player's location. For the towns, that is not a big deal, and the map is useful for marking locations of shops, items, or NPC's.  However, when exploring a natural structure like a cave or dungeon, it can be quite infuriating, if you can even find the map in the first place.   It's difficult to tell the difference between a path and the surrounding rock on the maps.  The dungeons are absolutely huge, which is both a blessing and a curse.  Several times, I found myself using the orb of moons to gate back to the closest location and start over after becoming hopelessly lost.

I don't know if this was a limitation of the DS engine, intentional by Team Archon or simply something that could not be completely by the release date, but it is, in my opinion, a glaring weakness.  Using the peering gems to show your location on a map, which if memory serves right they did in the original games, would have been extremely helpful.  That said, while it is a limitation, it is not a serious one and doesn't detract significantly from the overall experience.

 

The World

The world of U6P is simply huge.  While I didn't find the landmass of Britannia to be larger than in U5:L, the cities seems significantly more filled and the dungeons and other subterranean areas are significantly larger.  All added together, there is more than enough area for a player to explore for dozens of hour, yet none of it really feels wasted or empty.  Everything seems to have its place and its purpose.

While zoomed in, the polygons can seem a little rough; it's simply a limitation of the DS engine.  I find that zooming out to the maximum overhead level yields a beautifully, and intricately designed, world.  Britannia has literally never looked so good.

The cities, as mentioned, are extremely full of people, each with their own schedules, and sometimes their own agendas.  While some are missing portraits, no doubt a casualty of the self-imposed production deadline, they are in the minority and it is not significantly distracting. 

Like the source game, most NPC's the player comes across have their own story, their own lives, and their own schedule.  The schedules can be a bit infuriating when you need to wait for something, but thankfully there is a useful feature in the console that allows you to advance the game at a 10x pace.  Some might consider it a cheat, but really it's no different than holding down the space bar to pass time in the original.

As mentioned in the previous section, the dungeons are absolutely huge, well detailed and well laid out.  It can be infuriating to get lost in them, but I didn't mind that much because they were so fun, and often challenging, to explore.  Each subterranean area seems to have its own well thought out style.

Unfortunately as of this writing, I have not made it to the Gargoyle lands, but I am anxiously waiting to see them.

 

The Gameplay

The world of Ultima, at least beginning with Ultima IV, was always very different than the traditional RPG's.  Players could no longer slaughter innocent civilians simply to gather loot and experience.  Items left lying around were no longer just loot to be taken.  Simply put, how the player interacted with the world mattered.   Many RPG's since have integrated some type of reputation system, or other moral meter, but none have made it as integral as it was in Ultima.

U6P, of course, recreates this tradition of moral hazard.  New players may find in strange that when they pick up that sword lying in a chest or pick pocket an NPC, they get a stern warning from one of the companions.   Thankfully, positive Karma is easy to obtain, and new players should not find themselves too far down the Karma scale as they learn what they can, and cannot do, and stay on the 'Good' path.  Fortunately, there is no short supply of loot to be had, once the player ventures outside of Britain, or especially into most of the dungeons. 

New players may also find the idea of food to be a bit obscure.  Feeding your party is an important part of the game.  In the original games, I remember fondly trying to determine if I had enough food for a foray into one of the dungeons, especially if I ran into food-thieving gremlins.  There were many times that after an ambush of gremlins, I got the dreaded **STARVING** message. 

Unfortunately, in U6P, food is really not much of a concern.  From food that is both free and respawning in some of the most visited locations, to herds of sheep that spawn like rabbits, I never once have found my party even remotely close to starvation.  Even encountering gremlins no longer causes the pangs of fear it did in the original.  The player usually ends up with the same, if not more, food after the engagement. If it was going to be this easy to feed the party, it might as well have been left out of the game in my opinion.

Combat in the game shows some changes from what players may be familiar with from U5:L.  First, the spawning of enemies seems to be much more robust in U6P.  The spawn rate is based on both the level of the party members and the number of party members.  This can lead to an unfortunate situation where the player has acquired 5 fairly low level companions and runs into hordes of monsters.  I discovered this in making my way to Minoc.  I ran into a large group of bandits and rabid dogs.  While individually these enemies were fairly easy, the sheer number of them was overwhelming. 

I quickly developed a tactic of arming my party with bows and drawing a few of them away from the rest, letting loose a few volleys of arrows and taking them down.  A bit tedious and perhaps not the most 'fair' way to play the game, but effective.  As my party has advanced,  I've switched to having a few 'tanks' with swords and the rest of the party with magic bows and magic axes.  This combination is effective to deal with most, but not all, enemies.

There seems to be some balance issues with some of the enemies, such as gazers, flying gargoyles and sea serpents.  The damage they can inflict is so devastating, that if there is more than one or two, they will kill several members of the party, even an experienced and heavily armored on, in a very short period.  It seems that there are essentially two types of enemies, those that have virtually no effect on the party and those that can obliterate it.  For the most part, my method of drawing a few at a time, or arming all the party with range weapons, allows me to take out most enemies without significant use of magic, outside of healing and cure spells.

However, it is important to note that combat was never one of the strong points of the Ultima franchise.  While they did some innovative things (such as having dexterity determine the number of attacks per round or having AI controlled party members), the draw of the games was always the exploration, the interactive and responsive world, and the story, so it is hard to find significant fault with the combat as it is presented in U6P when it gets the rest so right.  If the player is a die-hard tactical player, then the original games were never for him and neither is U6P.

Dealing with the NPC's and related quests is a fantastic and deep experience.  Many quests have more than one way to finish them, and not all paths are always virtuous.  Even deciding how to answer a question can have ramifications.  This is not a game where the player can just always click through each response or inquiry until there are no longer any options and then look at the journal afterwards for the synopsis.  The player must pay attention and often really think about the choice he is about to make and how it might impact his Karma.  It's a refreshing return for many of us that have grown weary of games with superficial conversations with no real consequences from the choices available.

One of the most interesting aspects of the original games was the open, 'sandbox', aspect of the games.  The player could choose to go just about anywhere from the moment the game started.  He might get killed rather quickly, but he could certainly go there.  While the quest would be presented to the player, there was usually no specific place the player had to go first, second, etc.  U6P recreates this, for the most part, and where it deviates, such as the Shrine of Compassion at the very beginning or the Siege of Trinsic, it does so in a way that enhances the story, rather than makes the player feel railroaded.

 

The Story

The stories of the Ultima games, beginning with Ultima IV, always had a strong moral element to them.  Each game dealt with some specific moral issue, rather than rehashing the same dilemma over and over.  The story was an integral, and perhaps the primary, part of the game, not just a mechanism to advance the player along a path. 

U6P has taken the already excellent story of Ultima VI and given it an amazing amount of additional depth, intricacy, and flavor.  Instead of finding a world that is barely aware of the Gargoyle invasion, we find a Britannia at war, with a populace that is terrified.  There are competing agendas in many of the NPC's.  There are economic restrictions that the player would expect during a time of war.  Choices are presented that the player must make to determine the path of the game, and many of these choices are not obvious.

The original games always relied on a certain amount of creative extrapolation to fill in the rest of the world due to the limits of the technology at the time.  I find in playing U6P that it is as if the design team read my mind and recreated all the extra details that I used to imagine while playing the game. 

The most important thing to a story driven medium, whether it be a novel, a game or a movie, is that the target audience must develop an emotional attachment to the characters of the story.  That can be achieved in many ways, but ultimately, the audience has to care about what happens to those characters.  The audience can't be told to care, it has to develop naturally, and U6P succeeds in that endeavor with revealing, but not overly present, party banter.

The story is extremely detailed and neatly woven together, in a manner not often found in games. U6P is simply, in my opinion, in the top-10 games stories ever written.

 

Conclusion

Nostalgia is essentially a hopeless attempt to recapture an emotion and deluding oneself into thinking that previous times were better than current times.  Even if we could recreate those times and they were as good as we remember, we're not the same people we were back then and we'd never be able to feel that way again.  That's the primary message of Thomas Wolfe's novel and at the end George Webber finally realizes that and gives the title by stating "You can't go home again."

The Ultima 6 Project is a phenomenal game, with a few minor flaws and annoyances that provides players with dozens of hours of entertainment.  The story will draw the player in and make him keep rushing back to play until finished.  At the end, the feeling of conquest and accomplishment will most likely be tingled with the sadness that comes from knowing that, once again, that emotion has moved into the past.  Players will have a hard time finding a game that has the level of depth that U6P can provide.  It's worth it to track down a copy of Dungeon Siege just to play this game. 

While playing the original can still be fun, it's simply not the same experience that players got in 1990.  However, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Team Archon, players can once again experience that awe and amazement as if it is brand new.  So in summary, I will have to respectfully disagree with Thomas Wolfe.  Mr. Wolfe may be one of the great American authors, but, with enough effort, at least in computer games, you can go home again.

Box Art

Information about

Ultima VI Project: The False Prophet

Developer: Archon

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
Internet
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2010-07-05
· Publisher: Archon

More information


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