Saturday, 7 December 2013

#4 Ultima II: Revenge Of The Enchantress

Publisher: Sierra On-Line
Developers: Richard Garriott, Robert Heitman
Year: 1985

Today's entry is another first for CTB(as the cool kids will soon be calling it, probably) - the very first RPG. It's a rather unusual version of Ultima II, published by Sierra in the Autumn of 1985 for the ST and Mac.

By the time the first Ultima title arrived on the ST, this venerable RPG series was well established, and already had a loyal following amongst PC and Apple users. It was the brainchild of one man - living nerd God Richard Garriott, aka Lord British.
Note: Not actually a Lord. Or British.

Ultima II in it's original form actually debuted in 1982. The plot follows directly on from the conclusion of it's predecessor, in which your unnamed hero saved the world of Sosaria from the evil wizard Mondain by travelling back in time and destroying his Gem of Immortality(as part of a quest which involved going into space and shooting down Tie Fighters for some reason). It turns out Mondain had a female apprentice, Minax(the vengeful enchantress of the title), who, after lying low for about a thousand years, has now decided to get back at you personally by enacting a massively convoluted revenge scheme across the whole of human history. Oh yes, and for no apparent reason this game takes place on Earth rather than Sosaria, resulting in enormous continuity headaches for people who try and keep track of these things ever since.As a result of Minax's shenanigans, the history of the entire planet has been corrupted, and aside from few sparse settlements Earth is now a barren, monster-filled wasteland. Your misson is unravel the mystery of the time gates that link each age of mankind, with the eventual goal of penetrating Minax's lair(oh, stop it) at the very end of time, hopefully surviving long enough once you get there to put right what once went wrong.
All games were this complicated in 1982. Honestly.

The Ultima series established many of the basic tropes that prevail in RPGs to this day. You spend most of your time exploring a tile-based world map, visiting towns to obtain vital supplies and clues, while battling armies of tiny but very persistent monsters in order to obtain money and experience. Other innovations, such as turn-based combat and multi-character parties, would come later in the series. In Ultima II, you're still restricted to a single player character, and fighting consists of frantically hammering the attack key(or in this case of this version, the mouse button) until your opponents are despatched. This does actually make it feel more dynamic than later entries in the series, as battles are usually over extremely quickly, unlike the slower, strategic fights in the later games that can drag on for minutes at a time.

Complex character interaction is another luxury that wouldn't arrive in the series till much later. In this game, every non-player character you encounter has a single line of dialogue, often something completely unhelpful(fighters always respond with "UGH, ME TOUGH!" regardless of circumstances), but occasionally offering a very opaque clue as to what on Earth you should be doing.

As in nearly all the games in the series, Garriott himself appears in the form of his avatar Lord British, immortal ruler of the Lands of Britannia(even though they're not actually called Britannia yet. It's a little complicated). As there are no healing items or magic in this game, the only way to restore you precious Hit Points is to visit British in his castle(which is always in the same place, regardless of which time zone you happen to be in) and get him to give you refill in exchange for a goodly portion of your hard-earned monies. What a mercenary monarch he is.

You have a limited food supply which decreases continuously, and when the counter reaches zero, you health will rapidly start to deplete. In fact, in Ultima II the food situation is particularly brutal, as time continues to pass if you leave the game idle, so if you're not careful your character can end up starving to death over the course of one ill-timed phone call.

You also have little money to start off with, and earning enough for even basic subsistence is incredibly difficult. Essentially, the games forces you to rob innocent merchants in order to survive. Yes, you can literally take the food from the mouths of these poor working men by approaching the counter of a shop and using the "steal" command repeatedly until you make a successful grab. This will also alert the attention of any guards in the vicinity, who are all inhumanly strong and extremely violent, so it's important to make sure you have an escape route within easy reach. Once you make it out of town, everyone suffers a mysterious bought of amnesia, and you're free to continue your amoral lifestyle once more. Unlike the later Ultimas, where such behaviour will normally result in extremely negative karmic consequences for your character, casual murder and stealing in this game has no repercussions, provided you leave town before the locals disembowel you.

One the most baffling and hard to justify design decisions is the way in which you improve your characters ability stats. This is not done through combat or questing as you'd expect in any other game of this genre, but by approaching a totally anonymous stranger you find in the lobby of the Hotel California in New San Antonio, and offering him a bribe. If your luck is in, he will randomly increase one of your stats by one point. If you're unlucky, he will take your money and give you sod all in return. Leaving aside how you would ever even know to do this(there don't seem to be any clues in the game that might lead you to this point), you have to wonder what Garriott was thinking here. Possibly he just put this in as a place-holder, expecting to replace it with something more sensible(like the shrines in other Ultima games), but never got round to it due to rushed deadlines.

Another odd decision is that there's no way to buy items such as torches, keys and so on. The only way to get these is in random drops from thieves you kill(they're the blue stick-men as opposed to the red ones). And this includes important plot items like the blue tassle you need to commandeer a pirate ship, or the Tri-Lithium you need to power the spacecraft. But thieves can also steal these back from you, which can be especially frustrating if you lose your only tassle while on board a ship, meaning you can't disembark until you get another one.

Player, you are about to die.
The plot of the game is fascinating for just how peculiar it is, and the fact that it makes no sense on basically any level. There's a definite feeling that Garriott was just chucking in any ideas he could think of without any thought as to how this make might sense in the context of a wider mythology, because, well, there wasn't one at that point. The result is a very odd mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi elements, anything a young D&D nerd of the eighties would think was cool at the time. A world in which you go from fighting monsters in a pseudo-medieval wilderness one minute to flying a shuttle to distant planets the next. The movie Time Bandits was also a favourite of Garriott's, so time travel went in as well, with the game's bewildering network of time gates being directly inspired by the map stolen by the dwarves in Gilliam's film.

Seriously, don't worry about this guy. You will never, ever have to meet him.
Ultima II was a laudable attempt to expand on both the gameplay and size of the original Ultima, but you're left with the feeling that Garriott's ambition was outstripped by the limits of the technology, and his own skills at the time. To put it bluntly, Ultima II just doesn't seem like a finished game, although this is possibly a result of it being rushed to the shelves by Sierra before it was really complete. So you get first person multi-level dungeons which serve absolutely no purpose - you are not required to enter them at any point during the game. A magic system that is entirely redundant, because it only works in those same dungeons that you don't have to go in. An entire galaxy of planets to explore, but only one of them other than Earth has anything worth making the trip for.

Is it actually any fun? Well, that kind of depends on your tolerance for extremely basic, repetitive gameplay. Once you've figured out what to do, you soon come to realise 80% of your game time is going to be spent steering a ship around in circles, killing a small number of monsters over and over again until you've acquired enough gold for a HP top-up or a stat boost. After a while, it just feels like you're watching numbers go up and down with barely any relation to the action on screen. It's true that sometimes it can feel good or even necessary to switch off your brain and just grind mindlessly for a few hours* - that's half the reason World Of Warcraft and it's ilk are so popular after all. The negative side of this is that nagging, empty feeling that you've just wasted a couple of hours you could've been spending doing something more productive, or at least playing a slightly more fulfilling game. Or finally posting that blog entry you've been avoiding since July. Ahem.

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