PC Gamer Reinstalls Ultima Underworld

PC Gamer runs an infrequent feature called “Reinstall”, in which an author of theirs takes another look at a classic game of yesteryear…or yesterdecade. This time around, Ultima Underworld gets the treatment, and Ed Ricketts has tons of praise to heap upon the game:

Jumping back into the sprawling dungeons of the Stygian Abyss today is gleefully exciting. But it’s also a tiny bit depressing, because I’ll never get to play it for the very first time again.

Not only was this the first ‘proper’ PC game I ever played, but also one of the most influential PC games in terms of technology and design that has ever been released. Like its Ultima predecessors – in spirit if not in mechanics – Underworld was a genuine RPG, stuffed full of quests and magic and exploration and dialogue and weapons and stats.

Back here in the present day, I’m playing a Fighter, right-handed, swimming speciality, Str 11, Dex 8, Int 6 . And I’m struggling to move. Fortunately there’s a tutorial of sorts to follow – in the manual. This was an age when you actually needed to read them.

He goes on to note the control issues the game has, and praises its immersive gameplay and numerous technological innovations. He’s a bit dismissive of Ultima Underworld 2, but his conclusion is — I think — bang on:

For me, then, Underworld is almost the perfect RPG — control issues notwithstanding. It has influenced, directly and indirectly, the Elder Scrolls series, the Deus Ex games, Half-Life 2, System Shock (Warren Spector was the game’s later producer), BioShock, Tomb Raider and frankly just about every 3D RPG that has since appeared.

So I’m still baffled by the relative lack of interest shown in it over the years. There was a sequel — bigger, more polished, but ultimately less inspired — and that was it. Yet maybe more than any other classic PC game, Underworld is crying out for a remake. Don’t touch the systems, the content, the story or anything else, just modernise the graphics, jiggle the control scheme a bit and you have the RPG to beat all RPGs. It makes Dark Souls look like Angry Birds.

Emphasis mine.

Now, to be fair, there was one notable attempt to remake the game, although this was ultimately cancelled. Someone also went and mapped out the entirety of the Great Stygian Abyss in Unreal Tournament, and it’s not impossible that said work could be used as a template for something…more remake-y.

Still, Ricketts is basically correct: whither the interest in Ultima Underworld that it is properly due?

4 Responses

  1. Bedwyr says:

    You know, there’s so many innovations and clever developments in this game, but I think it’s the Fat Man’s music that really glued everything together and ‘sold’ the game and the setting.

    I still have fond memories of organizing my belongings in the Crux armory OCD style: gold piles over there, magic items here, torches and lights there, food in the far corner, weapons opposite the food, and armor in the middle. I don’t think a game since has generated quite the attachment and value per inventory item that game did.

  2. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    UU was a great game. I only played the demo, which turned out to be one of the most exciting gaming experiences I’ve ever had. While it only contained the first level, you had to start over when you died; effectively permadeath.

    @Bedwyr: The Fat Man’s music was outstanding, especially the MT-32 arrangement.

    What was so exciting was obviously the completely unrestrained 3D nature of the game, but also the little things like being able to throw around random objects and bounce them off walls, and being able to swim. It offered a level of physical freedom that hadn’t been seen before and an organic, gridless environment. It really was ahead of its time in so many ways.

    • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

      I laughed at Dan Schmidt’s remark about all the little features of the game, namely that they were a bunch of excited kids that nobody pulled aside and told that their ideas weren’t practical.

  3. Natreg says:

    The controls are better a bit better than what it’s said in the article. There is no need to touch the icons to interact with the world, with just click and dragging the cursor you could interact with the objects, and just clicking in them is enough for getting an item. You can draw your sword clicking on it instead of the icon. I think I have never had the need to use the icons on the sidebar at all.

    It’s true that walking in a 3D enviroment using the mouse it’s a bit cumbersome, but in the end, it’s just practice. I was used to it and it was kind of difficult going to the WASD and mouse standard for me when games started using that control scheme.