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Forgotten Gems: A look back at Ultima V

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Forgotten Gems: A look back at Ultima V

Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Wed 17 November 2010, 15:33:10

Tags: Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

Review by BLOBERT, with thanks to Jaesun and a quick thank you to racofer for photo-shopping the AvBROtar.

I think everyone has a game that they remember as the defining moment that brought them into CRPG's. While I had some fun with Phantasie III and Questron, it wasn't until I played Ultima V that I thought I had found exactly what a computer role-playing game could and should be. The environment was interactive, all the NPC's had their own schedules, and hell it even turned dark at night. The game simply amazed me, and colored my expectations of games for years to come.

The Story so far...



We return once again to Britannia as The AvBROtar

You are the Avatar, the hero of the land, virtuous beyond compare and a of course a human weapon of mass destruction. Lord British and a few bros took off to the underworld that was recently created, and has not returned for a very long time. In his absence, Lord Blackthorne has decided to go all Taliban about the virtues, upholding a harsh and distorted code of laws. Your job is to gather as much information from all of the various NPC's and The Shrines, and figure out a way to find and save Lord British and Britannia. There is no hand-holding or quest compass. You will need to pay attention to what people tell you, and use some good old fashioned pen and paper to write down the clues as you discover them.


The Basics


World Map travel


Ship World Map travel

As far as the mechanics, you wander around in an overhead perspective world. Grasslands, roads, and deserts offer easy travel. Swamps can poison you, hills and forests make for slow going, and mountains are impassable without special equipment. There are numerous towns, castles, lighthouses, huts, and random small dwellings. Dungeons are 3D corridors, until you hit a monster or a special room, at which point you entered into the combat view. At the end of the dungeons is the Underworld, an area about the size of Britannia with more dangerous creatures and environmental hazards. Traveling in mountains, forests, the underworld, or at night offers limited visibility.


Visibility is greatly reduced when walking through a deep forest



There is no Auto-map feature in Ultima V, but there are items and spells that can provide you with a broader map view

Combat is a straightforward affair, with each person taking a turn, and movement by squares. You can fight with melee, ranged weapons, or spells, and monsters can do the same. There is a reasonable wide variety of opponents, and a distinct progression between the difficulty of various opponents. Ranged weapons again are relatively overpowered, and at high levels combat (especially after getting complete magic resistance) becomes relatively homogeneous.


Turn based combat. Of note, it uses a description of your attacker, not numbers.

The spell system requires the purchase and premixing of reagents, all of which are available in shops (unlike Ultima 4). There are a wide variety of of combat and noncombat spell effects of varying usefulness. Magic in noncombat situations ranges from vary convenient to essential; travel into and through the underworld can involve lots of teleporation spells. In combat magic is a mixed bag; the late game availability of powerful ranged weapons renders some of the spells nearly useless.

Exploration of the world is a big part of the game. Little nooks of buildings, and small settlements in the ocean or deep in the woods can be found by diligent explorers. Searching wells and tree hollows can sometimes give valuable treasure. Also, unlike Ultima 4, there is a large gradient in the difficulty of encounters, and heading somewhere too dangerous will get your party wiped out.


If you think some old classic RPG combat will be simple, think again.

Communication with NPC's is by typing out keywords that they may respond to. While not perfect, the system allows for a scavenger hunt type of game-play that makes you travel from town to town to track down important items or information. A sense of a story is developed, but by and large you aren't getting huge blocks of text.


One NPC provides us with a very valuable clue

That is the basics of it, at least as much as I will bother with. To really get a feel for what made the game great, I have to editorialize a bit...

Maybe you can bake bread?

What grabs your attention right away is the interactivity of the world. Pianos can be played, furniture pushed around, crops picked, beds were slept in, etc. If something is in the world, odds are you can interact with it. Objects seem to have a purpose. Future Ultimas would expand on this, and later games such as Divine Divinity and Morrowind would have similar elements. If there is an object in the environment that seems as if it can be pushed, picked up, or used, odds are that it can be. This interactivity is not always a gimic; experimentation can solve quests or yield powerful items.


Looking into a near by Crystal Ball provides us with a handy view of our surroundings

Beyond that, people seem to live virtual lives; they wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, go to lunch and dinner, hang out at the pub for a drink, then went to bed. Some characters would only come out at night, making the odd midnight stroll through the town worthwhile. Every person has a bed, and for the sadistic fucks out there you can murder someone quietly in their sleep. This led to my favorite Ultima 5 sub-game of murdering the entire town by first killing half the guards in their sleep (the game had the guards work in shifts) but that is another story.

Don't just kill the Foozle

While it was harder for me to appreciate this as a kid, the Ultima games were the first to introduce the actual concept of "role playing" (ie LARPing, being a storyfag, LOLLOLOLLOL HOMO). You were the avatar, and you had to be good. There were consequences to emptying the town treasury or murdering some random prick. You wouldn't get the info from the townspeople you needed, and the shrines would reject you. You had to actively be good, giving money to homeless, not running away from battle, etc.

The story also actually attempted some level of social commentary, regarding how the virtues could be perverted for evil or self serving purposes. The avatar was an outlaw, yet could not just simply wage war against the evil Blackthorne because that would involve killing his misguided supporters. While this may not seem impressive today, again RPG's from that time period rarely evolved beyond "kill all the motherfuckers and save the world". The game allowed siding with Blackthorn, and even allowed betraying one of your companions, allowing their execution. While no "evil" plot-line was fully developed, these choices were really a sideline and only required restoring your virtues to continue the main story. The concept of "choice" between good and evil was never so clearly presented in a CRPG before.


The Virtues, twisted by Blackthorn

And final thoughts

Maybe some of the above has captured your attention, maybe not. What was really impressive about this game is that it came out in 1988. Might and Magic was on number 2, Wizardry around 5. The Gold Box games had just started. World interactivity was almost zero, and NPC's were a few static characters here and there that served as quest givers, or just some presence in a cut scene to advance the plot. The average RPG "town" was a menu, a 3d area with no features, or an overhead view with a few shops and NPCs that maybe walked back and forth.

The game was not without flaws, but again those are presented in other venues. For me the game represents a future that was largely unrealized, and most sadly abandoned by even the creators of Ultima themselves. Ultima 5 holds up well today, and in many ways is rarely matched even today.

Recent articles discussed on the codex have talked about the difficulty of getting into these older games RETARD POPAMOLE DOGFUCKER, and I do understand. The interface is much more difficult to learn, and the lack of auto-map and quest journal is hard to get used to again. I know the audience here are superior human beings who are taking precious time away from improving the Theory of Relativity, but yes the game seems archaic. Take a little time to get into it though, and you will find a CRPG experience that still has relevance.


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