Old Game Reviews: Ultima 7 The Black Gate

This is the last of the great Ultima games as the last two were buggy disasters with poor stories. Unfortunately, for myself I wasn’t able to play this one on release due to hardware requirements. Also, I must admit to not finishing it for a variety of reasons. Some feel that this might be the be the best in the entire series, but I tend to disagree.

Ultima 7 massively had evolved everything from Ultima 6 and looked to set the stage for the engine leading to the online version of the game. The world of Britannia was truly alive at this point with tremendous attention to detail, driving a very immersive experience. Things felt more at scale than ever and was certainly one of the most cutting edge games at its time.

However, all the bleeding edge features also made the game suffer. Tons of bugs were abound and the hardware requirements when it debut only allowed the high end gamers to get a shot at this. For someone like me with a limited budget, there wasn’t anyway I would spend a fortune on a computer just to play one game.

Beyond the bugs I felt that game was overwhelming in scope. There’s simply too much to do and very distracting with the way things are setup. At the same time, I felt the game was dumbed down in some ways too. Combat was reduced to being AI driven while dialog no longer had free form text. Instead, you get classic flavor text with multiple choice answers. I never enjoyed the multiple choice style just because it converts you into a passive reader. Even when keywords are highlighted, free form input forces you to engage with the text directly.

The game supposedly had skills but those mostly were for combat. Since everything is AI driven, it felt pointless to have them in the game rather than offering meaningful depth. Usually, skill based games are ways to provide more character depth. Here, it felt like it’s just a gold sink/grind that only affects whether you hit something or not. Other games like Might and Magic 6-8, Wasteland and Wizardry 6-7 offer more interesting implementations of skills.

One of the most hated features in this game is the inventory management. While 6 was a semi-clusterfuck of micromanaging items, 7 makes this situation 100x worse because of container placement. 6 neatly had individual spots in the container for each item. Here, you can have stacks upon stacks of items where you end up burying critical pieces as a result of a clunky UI. To get to items, you have to sift through using a drag-n-drop interface. Fortunately, in my experience in gaming I have never seen such a system implemented anywhere else. But it honestly made no sense and could cause the utter failure of the end game.

Of course, the real key to this game is the story. Because Ultima had created the notion of a virtuous character via the avatar, the series had attempted to play with this concept by creating characters that oppose these notions or take pop culture and create an allegorical version in the game. Here, we see a cult-like group that is supported by Lord British who are very obviously responsible for the on going murders. I’ve always found that the Ultima series generally had decent storylines up until this point.

I think the two things that prevented me from pushing this game that far were the bugs and the size of the game. Over time, I just felt unmotivated to finish because I would easily lose track of my progress. Honestly, I was more interested in just seeing the world at work and goofing around with the interface. The game itself had little appeal for me to finish. I didn’t care for the grind compared to previous games. Also, the size of the world made questing a pain in the ass just because I hated walking between point A to point B. Immersion for me only works for a very limited period as almost all games claiming to have a sense of immersion end up become walking simulations. There’s really nothing fun going from point A to point B if that’s your only goal.

Beyond that, I never tried Ultima 8. Everyone wrote bad reviews and by then the magic of the original Ultima was destroyed. The 3D version of Ultima 9 piqued my interest for a few minutes. I even bought a version while I was in Japan. However, it was impossible to understand and a game like that requires your native language to appreciate. Still, I read about the disaster of a game it was so I would say that Ultima 7 really had been my last of the series.

I think the problems with Ultima was that the game maker tried to be too ambitious at the end of the day. The focus was misplaced on graphics, the clunky UI and small immersive elements like baking to make gold. The quests by this point were either too complex or just hunting and gathering style tasks. Sure, the game is non-linear but in some ways the size of the world hurt this idea just because everything feels really unfocused. It’s not fun traveling across a continent to complete a single quest then getting distracted half way in between to start a new chain.

Again, the selling point for me was just seeing what you could do in the game as well as exploring the world. The end game never really appealed to me. However, checking out all the dungeons and seeing the nooks and crannies that this world has to offer are what makes a game like this enjoyable for me. I don’t know if I ever would feel the desire to start it up ever again just to complete it. There are tons of videos that show people completing the game and the way you reach that point is more about solving quests as opposed to developing your characters. So a lot of the appeal of playing this in a standard RPG context loses its luster for me.

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