Why Exult Ultima 7?

Halfway through June already, where does the time go?  Truth be told, I’ve been keeping my promise to spend less time blogging and more time trying to develop a game… this hasn’t resulted in much progress on the grounds that I’m a master procrastinator.

All things considered, I think being the frequent updater doesn’t suit me well.  I could mention what I’ve been playing lately but what is there to be said really?   I’ve already said my piece on Sims 3.  The two betas I’m involved in are under NDA.  That leaves Ultima 7 via the Exult emulator… which I’ll talk about today if only to fill the void.

First, somebody else’s video to show off a bit of the gameplay:

Alright, now that you know how the original looks and plays, it’s on to my take.

I think Exult has done a reasonably good job of emulating the original.  Back when computers could barely run it, I enjoyed Ultima 7.  However, from my current experiences in Exult, I have to say that it fairly sucks.   The troubles I’m seeing here in aren’t Exult problems, they’re Ultima 7 problems.  The game mechanics have aged terribly.  The details of my discontent follow the bump.

  • The old fashioned isometric 2D game problems are here to full effect.  If something ends up getting dropped behind a wall, kiss it goodbye: the game offers no means to even see it, so retrieving it is out of the question.  Watching my party members get injured or slain by caltrops which I can’t move because they are hidden behind walls is not so cool.
  • The five-stat system of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Magic, and Combat is ambiguously balanced in that you really can’t say what 1 point difference makes.  Two of those stats (Intelligence and Magic) are only useful for the Avatar, and yet the option to waste gold and training points to train other party members in those stats is available.
  • A lot of time is spent navigating NPC dialogue trees which are pretty much an awkward point-and-click outgrowth of the dialogue handling from earlier games.  It takes several selections to even buy something from a shopkeeper you already met before.
  • A lot of time is spent just struggling with various containers trying to find the item you need.  Between this and the dialogue, there’s not a whole lot of adventuring going on.
  • Conflict resolution would seem to be an afterthought.  Over 90% of the fights can be resolved by simply turning on combat mode, waiting a bit as the Avatar and his companions hack up everything in range, and then turning it off again.  The earlier Ultimas (particularly the turn-based ones) had more involving gameplay than that.
  • The economy is mostly an illusion to forward the narrative.  There’s no means of selling what you recover unless it is an item being collected by certain NPCs, such as serpent venom to an apothecary or gold bars to the Britannia Mint.  The only things you’re likely to ever need to buy are spells, reagents, training, and lockpicks.  Everything else is littering the landscape, so you’ll eventually find all the equipment you need without having to waste any coin on shopkeepers.

The main good thing Ultima 7 has which had stood the test of time is a solid storyline framed by an open and relatively immerse-feeling world.

Fortunately, the implicit value of this alone may be enough.  There’s some really good stories being spun in this game, sometimes layers upon layers portraying unique situations, especially in Serpent Isle.  The way you resolve these problems is still fairly cutting edge – no fetch quest really feels like a fetch quest thanks to the presentation.

It’s just a pity that there’s a lot of rather cruddy gameplay getting in the way of all that epic storytelling.  It’s a fair thing to be a  shallow game that tells a good story, but it’s a monumental thing to be a great game that tells a good story that is only further enhanced by the excellent game mechanics.

The Exult team was going for authenticity.  While they did add a few useful features, Ultima 7 largely plays the same as it did before, and the result is not all that satisfying by 2009 terms.  My thinking is that maybe the Exult team should invest some effort into blasphemy: change the holy Ultima 7 for the better.  Provide a heavily improved gameplay mode, better sound effects, better gameplay, a balance which is genuinely involving, and so on.  Now that would be something worth exulting.

3 Responses

  1. Hilarious post! Reminds me of playing it way back when and yelling at my monitor.

  2. Thanks – glad you liked it.

  3. Back in the day, when U7 was new and shiny and came right out of the box, I made the terrible mistake of putting a critical and irreplaceable item (maybe one of the blackrock artifacts?) in Iolo’s backpack.

    And we got into some kind of combat. In Yew. And Iolo, being the wuss that he was, started running away dropping everything he possibly could. And I lost said critical item. And could not find the damn thing underneath all the trees.

    It took me years and years before I returned to play U7 all the way (finally) again on the CD that Origin issued just prior to U9 that contained everything from Akalabeth to Pagan (in part this was penance for pirating U2, U3 and U4 in my Commodore 64 days).

    U7 and Serpent Isle both were and are great games. Stories were always the strength of the Ultima series (at least from U4 on, although U3 really was my first love and I’ve replayed it on emulators several times). Somehow no modern RPG has ever quite measured up to the wonderful stories in each of the Ultima games. And they are the reason that I’m willing to put up with the clunky interfaces now and then.

    I’ve never been a really religious person, even when my parents were dragging me to church when I was a teenager in the ’80s. But the Ultima series really helped give me a moral compass that’s stood me in good stead all my life. That’s also something that’s missing from most modern games. There’s a philosophy to becoming the Avatar.

    So that’s why I return to the Ultima games of my adolescence despite the problems listed above. They had a big impact on me. They had wonderful stories to tell. And I love them, lost artifacts and all.

    I do kind of wish LB would try his hand at a single-player RPG again (I’m pretty much permanently soured on MMOGs), but I also understand if he’s moved on to bigger and better things.

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