Not content to remain firmly entrenched in the world of 2D top-down CRPGs, Origin Systems marches forward in the technological war and goes fully 3D for Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Though it's quite easy to get caught up with innovation in a project like this, the design team manages to keep the joy of exploration found in other Ultima titles intact and comes through with a very satisfying new installation of the popular series.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, like many epic quests throughout history, begins with a case of mistaken identity. The Avatar is accused of being an accomplice in the kidnapping of a local lord's daughter and is sentenced to death. His claim of being the Avatar falls on deaf ears and, to prove his identity, he must descend into the deadly Stygian Abyss and rescue the girl to win his freedom. Instead of taking the easy way out and killing his unjust captors, he embarks on yet another mission of self-improvement, bearing the burden of guilt as he delves into the depths of the dungeon.
Upon arrival in the Abyss, nearly naked and unarmed, the first order of business is to grab some gear and search for other equipment to help in his quest. The game features the only first-person perspective in an Ultima game since Ultima III: Exodus and the orcs and skeletons look much more menacing. Like everything else in the game, the monsters are presented in full VGA graphics and, unlike games such as Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, the objects truly are 3D. This aspect brings the traditional dungeon crawl to an entirely new level of immersion and realism.
Exploring the mysterious expanses of the Stygian Abyss is but a small part of the game (though the game boasts of 25 miles of terrain) while finding and exterminating whole species of creatures plays a much larger role. To that end, a good assortment of weapons and armor is available. In previous Ultima titles, combat was more a process of sitting back and waiting to see the results but, here, more thought goes into it as you choose what kind of attack to make and where on the opponent to strike. This is further modified by the kind of weapon you're using and is, all things considered, a far cry from the "Attack with axe -- which direction? West! Thief killed!" system of previous games.
The magic system, however, is vaguely familiar in a good way. A new runic system for casting spells is introduced, though the spells are often similar to those found in previous games. As his efforts to prove his innocence continues, the quest gets progressively harder with more and more monsters popping up as you plunge deeper into the Abyss and puzzles and traps become more difficult. But, our hero's powers continue to grow and his ascension to super- Avatar is steady. As usual, the gentlemanly Avatar goes out of his way to help solve smaller quests along the way.
In addition to taking the graphical engine to a new level, the designers spruced up the sound as well. The use of Sound Blaster support for monsters and other ambient environmental effects brings the world alive and the sparse (but wholly effective) musical score strikes the right chord for crawling through the slimy depths. The interface is quite good for maintaining the feel of a dungeon crawl and the gritty textures establish the mood nicely. The character inventory system is similar to the approach used in Ultima VI: The False Prophet, with a "paper doll" system used for equipping the Avatar.
Single-handedly clearing out an immense cavern of all its nasty inhabitants is no easy task. No quest is too daunting for the Avatar, especially when the incentive is to clear his name rather than die alone in a stony prison. Origin Systems and Looking Glass Studios have created a very interesting game, although some gamers may feel the plot to be possibly the weakest of any Ultima title in recent memory.
Graphics: Visually, the mere realization of a true 3D dungeon is a sight to behold. While up-close graphics aren't particularly great, many locales and denizens viewed from afar are breathtaking.
Sound: The music contains the usual excellent Ultima compositions and sound effects provided by the Sound Blaster are of very high quality, enhancing the game.
Enjoyment: Thoroughly fun from start to finish, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss provides a healthy amount of inspired hack-and-slash gameplay combined with plenty of interesting exploration and some puzzle-solving as well.
Replay Value: The fully fleshed out world and the 3D functionality of everything contained within makes for a very easy (and enjoyable) replay upon completion of the game. You never know what corners you might have left unexplored or what secrets lay undiscovered.
People who downloaded Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss have also downloaded:
Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima 9: Ascension, Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima III: Exodus, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress
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