With sales of over one million and a bundle of prestigious accolades from around the world, the Ultima series of fantasy role-playing adventures from Origin are regarded as the best examples of the genre. Sadly, the Amiga adaptions of the first five games were desperate efforts. Origin therefore wanted to make sure the person handling the conversion of Ultima VI over from MS-DOS possessed the right credentials for such a seemingly impossible task. Enter programmer John Jones-Steele, who was previously responsible for the Amiga versions of 'Nam, EA's Hard Nova and Subbuteo. He phoned Mindscape six months ago and coolly asked for the job.
By now, you're probably asking what makes Ultima VI so special. Everything! There simply isn't any other game out there with the depth of the Ultima saga. It's been estimated that, even if you know exactly what do to, it would take something like 200 hours to complete the latest game. Not that there's only one way to finish it, either. The first three Ultimas were simply filled with loads of bad things to beat up, whereas the rest are a trilogy of stories exploring the demands of virtue. Nevertheless, the core of Ultima is basically a struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Play begins with a fancy animated introductory sequence which transports you through time and space to the bizarre and frequently dangerous kingdom of Britannia. Punching up the character creation option on the menu screen allows you to select the name, sex and portrait of your alter-ego. The next phase is less obvious but far more important. A series of personality-probing questions determine what kind of character you'll get on the quest to thwart those marauding hordes of Gargoyles.
Ultima VI is the first attempt to make things easier to play. The game screen is divided into four regions, the largest of which is situated in the upper left area. This map shows a close-up overhead view of the world you're moving through, and a roster of all the members of your party is located on the right of the map. Below this lies a window with text describing everything you see, hear and do. There are only ten commands necessary to handle the game. You can attack, cast spells, get something, drop something, move something and so on. As Origin points out. 'If you can touch it, you can use it'. To cast a spell, you must have a spellbook readied and possess enough magic points and the right reagents which are collected on your travels. The crucial magical help is divided into eight circles of spells, which gradually increase in complexity and strength. A simple first level spell drains one point while a fifth level spell, more difficult to cast, takes five away. Detecting a trap, for example, requires Nightshade and Sulphurous Ash but the eighth level spell to Resurrect requires both these reagents plus Garlic. Ginseng. Spider's Silk. Blood Moss and Mandrake Root.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ultima VI is the richness of the characters encountered. Clicking on the name of one of your party, for instance, reveals their portrait and a list of classic statistics. The higher a stat, the better. Strength determines how much they can carry and how effectively they can strike with bludgeoning weapons. The only way Health can be regained is by rest or healing. Dexterity reveals the speed with which they can move and attack, and how effective they are with non-bludgeoning and projectile weapons like crossbows and flasks of flaming oil. A character's bargaining ability and effectiveness as a spellcaster is shown by their Intelligence rating. Magic points certify how many spells can be cast.
Spells of the fourth circle will obviously use four magic points. These important attributes are replenished every hour by an amount linked to their Level rating. This indicates how powerful a character has become through experience gained in past adventures. Finally. Experience unveils the time when they're ready to progress to the next Level by meditating at a shrine.
The talk command allows you to converse with any people encountered. You're also able to speak with certain shrines and statues and with the other members of your party. You talk by typing single words, though most people respond to simple stuff like name, job and bye. During the course of conversation, characters will give you an idea of what they're interested in. Keywords, which could lead to you gaining further information from the person, are highlighted by a different colour. This facility can be switched off if you want to discover them all by yourself.
There are a number of diverse beasts that inhabit the plains, forests, waterways and dungeons of Britannia. These range from Acid Slugs, which dish out painful but superficial skin burns, to antagonistic Wasps. Fearless warriors will no doubt have immense fun hacking all the demons, gargoyles, and wolves. A successful adventurer, however, must employ more subtle and involved tactics to get anywhere in the game.
All the Ultima releases have so far been based around a system called tile graphics where the map is made up of 16x16 pixel blocks. John Jones-Steele has succeeded in trying to make the graphics look as good as possible, no mean feat, considering the original Ultima VI on MS-DOS had the luxury of 256-colours as opposed to the relatively paltry Amiga palette.
Origin's philosophy for audio in games is tension metered. Well-scripted music scores compliment environmental sound effects used for campfires and axes hitting body armour. The background soundtrack changes depending on where you are and what you're doing. All the pieces have been ported across from a special compact disc created by Martin Galway, who hasn't been heard of since such C64 tunes as Wizball and Hypersports. The Ultima VI hitlist includes the aptly titled Can't Remove the Pain, Black Forest, and Stones. Black Forest dates back to a 1974 composition by Todd Porter, who also provided most of the other tracks, too.
What's the catch? Ultima VI needs at least one megabyte of RAM. An extra floppy drive, and a hard drive prove useful, too. However. After sampling Ultima VI, everything else seems like a pale imitation.
WORLDS OF ULTIMA Like Opera, you either love or hate Ultima. Players who don't relish the idea of wandering through the fantastic realms of Britannia will soon be able to enjoy the silky smooth game system employed in Ultima VI without the hassle of casting spells and fighting gargoyles. The first two 'Worlds of Ultima' titles boast highly-original storylines, spectacular artwork and cinematic music scores synchronised to the on-screen action. Savage Empire throws bold adventurers into a prehistoric jungle brimming over with bloodthirsty dinosaurs while Martian Dreams hurtles them back in time on an imaginative journey to the mysterious red planet. Both these games are being re-programmed by John Jones-Steele and should be released early next year.
People who downloaded Ultima 6 have also downloaded:
Ultima 4, Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima 3: Exodus, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima 9: Ascension, Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima 6: The False Prophet
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