“Savage Empire” is an Ultima game that was released in 1990 – less that a year after Ultima VI, and which to say the least really came as a surprise title. Indeed, it and its sequel Martian Dreams are probably amongst the most underplayer games in the series… mostly on account that many people haven’t even heard of them!
The logic behind the creation of Worlds of Ultima series is mostly economic but rather sound: since the next numeral Ultima still had a long way to go before its completion, Origin thought it would be a good idea to create a spin off series whose episodes would be released between two majors Ultima products and that to cut on cost it could reuse pre-existing engines.
So the game as it is basically takes the Ultima VI engine, gameplay and interface and puts it in a new context and story.
The context of the Worlds of Ultima series is rather simple but effective: taking the Earth as it backdrops, it uses the premise that the Avatar doesn’t just sit around doing nothing while on Earth and that he also leaves wonderful adventures them, thanks to the help of his Orb of the Moon. The basic idea behind Savage Empire was actually thought up by Warren Spector (who happens to appear as a playable character within the game), altough he didn’t end up developping the game (but would a go and develop Martian Dreams a few month later).
So the game takes place in the lost valley of Eodon, a place on Earth out of time where primitive tribes inspired by various ancient Earth cultures coexists with gigantic Dinosaurs. The tone is mostly inspired by old pulp stories though, and one can notably feel inspiration for the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs – we’re still in fantasy land, but not in a medieval one.
As it uses its engine, the game admitedly feels a lot like Ultima VI. It does some small cosmetic differences however, notably with a camera that feels farther away from the character and a new UI look to fit more with the tone of the game. It doesn’t mean the game doesn’t bring anything new to the table however as it notably has a pretty mindblowing level of interactivity, surpassing any other episode in the series (like for instance snapping a branch from a tree to make a torch and so on…). There are also some changes in terme of inventory since it is now limited to a fixed amount of slots in addition to the weight.
One of the neatest addition however was that the game used the OriginFX cutscene engine (which was used for the Wing Commander games at the time) in addition to the Ultima VI one, which allowed for the use of actual cutscenes to tel some aspects of the story.
Savage Empire did have one very controversial feature though: for the first time in the series you could not chose your sex and were stuck with the blonde white male Avatar that would soon become the standard of the series. While this choice was mostly because of the presence of a romance inside the game, it did not sit well with some fans though.
But in spite of this, it was a trully great game though.
Personally, Savage Empire was one these game i dreamt of playing someday and feared I never would. When I first read of it (in the french videogame magazine TILT), I was just mindblowed : a new Ultima with the Avatar but NOT set on Britannia? My mind had trouble wrapping around the concept really, but that sounded exciting.
Of course at the time I was still awaiting the Atari ST version of Ultima VI, and I figure a part of me hope Savage Empire would come as well (note: it didn’t). Once we finally got a PC later, it was one of those game I really wish to play but could never find anywhere.
Keep in mind that this was an era before Internet so no abandonwares site of any kind and any hope of finding a game was to stumble upon it in a videogame shop. It took many years before I could finally get to play Savage Empire. I don’t remember precisely what year, but it was probably a couple of years or so after Ultima VIII – so it did take quite a while!
You see, we had in France this videotex service called Minitel (which I guess you could compare to BBS in the US) which allowed multiple forums and services. So I put an ad there on one of them, saying that I basically was looking desperatly for Savage Empire and Martian Dreams.
I actual got an answer for both. There was first a guy who got me a copy (as in illigitimate copy) of his Martian Dreams, because he knew the game would not be available anywhere. But a couple weeks later (while I was already deep playing Martian Dreams) I got another answere from a guy who sold me a (legitimate this time) copy of the EA Creative CD Compilation… a Compilation which was sold with some Creative Sound Cards and included notably three Ultima games: Savage Empire, Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld. And it had the documenation as well: Yay !
So I got the chance the play both World of Ultima games at basically the same time which was a very neat experience at a time where I was still eagerly waiting for some game called Ultima IX…
I really enjoyed Savage Empire, altough I would admit not as much as Martian Dreams which I had played before – notably due to the fact that I liked the atmosphere of Martian Dreams more – but to this day I still feel this game to be a marvel of design, with very creative ideas in terme of quests and puzzles and an interactivity that still remains mindblowing to this day.
So I really look forward to sharing this playthrough with you all !