Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Released in 1992, roughly at the same time as Ultima VII, Ultima Underworld is the first intalment of yet another Ultima spin-off series, but this time quite different from the Worlds of Ultima games.

Oh and it’s one of the most groundbreaking and revolutionnary CRPGs of its time basically.

But let’s start with the beginning. In 1990, newly formed company Blue Sky Productions (which would later be renamed as Looking Glass Studios) under the lead of former Origin employee (and Space Roguer designer) Paul Neurath began working on a new type of dungeon crawler game called “Underworld”. The concept was to basically push forward the Dungeon type of RPG game (of which games like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder are some of the most renowned examples) with a new kind of 3D engine.

In mid-1990, Blue Sky proposed the project to Origin which immediately loved it, and lead Richard Garriott (which was still fond of the idea of 3D dungeons in spite of their removal in Ultima VI) to suggest reworking the game into the Utima universe – thus leading to its new title “Ultima Underworld”.

Due to its late implementation in the Ultima series, this lead the game to some rather unusual races in the game (such as dwarves!) and a questionable continuity with the main series that did not sit well with some Ultima fans. But the end result is a game that remains one of the most revolutionnary and beloved RPG of all time.

In essence Ultima Underworld is not radically different from game like dungeon master – you basically need to get through the 8 levels of the dungeons until you find a way to destroy the big bad guy. But Ultima Underworld is revolutionnary by the ways it handle this.

For starters: its engine was unlike anything ever seen before. While many people tend to give ID Software and Wolfenstein 3D the credit for “inventing” the 3D FPS kind of engine… this is actually not true, especially taking into account that Wolfenstein 3D (and even Doom) were basically 2,5D engine creating the illusion of 3D. Ultima Underworld however over a TRUE 3D engine: which first means you could look anywhere in 360°, swim and jump, but most importantly it meant a true 3D world with slopes of all kinds, bridges and walls that could go in any direction and not just 90°.

Now there had been actual 3D engines before – notably the Freescape engine used in some 16 Bits games (and the 3D Contrustion Kit game creation tool) which actually allowed the same kind of movement as Ultima Underworld and actual 3D worlds. But these engines were usally stuck to rather simple geometric shapes and also offered no texture whatsoever.

So Ultima Underworld basically pushed new ground in a way that had never been seen before in video game, with a fully 3D world, and fully textured game. In the end, only the creatures and items remained as 2D sprites in the world.

But Ultima Underworld was also revolutionnary in its approach of gameplay: unlike one might think the game is not linear as it looks with a lot of coming and going around between levels. But most importantly it was amongst the first RPG to bring adventure-like dialogues with full sentences and choices. Which lead to a lot of freedom in what to do in the game, and solve certains quests and events.

While the game was not perfect (the graphics were admitedly very pixelated even for its time, the view was very small and the UI has aged a whole lot), it really was and still is an awesome creation in every aspects.

Personally I came to Underworld rather late. Like Ultima VI and VII, it was one of those game that made me fantasize back when I was stuck on the Atari ST, and I couldn’t quite grasp the concept behind it either notably the way the character moved around (altough in retrospect I actually had played with those Freescape game so I should have figured it out).

By the time we finally got a PC however, Ultima Underworld II was out, so I basically went and played that one instead and was rather blown away. I would have to wait a few years to finally play Ultima Underworld (it was in fact, after Ultima VIII!), and while I couldn’t have the same novelty effect to me since I played Underworld II before I loved it as well, notably due the wonderful atmosphere it had.

I also haven’t played it in many years, so I’m really looking forward to revisiting this good ol’ Abyss. Not to mention this will make a welcome change after 3 games with the U6 engine!

Ultima V Cover

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