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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Ultima 7

Ultima VII (Game release date: 1992)
One of the greatest CRPG's of all time, unfortunately hobbled by technical difficulties.

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Highlights: Immersive gameworld, interactive quests, and a plot that burns from the first beat Lowlights: Technical difficulties, clunky interface, dull character advancement

As computer role-playing games go, Ultima VII was at least five years ahead of its time. Not till Baldur's Gate in 1998 did any CRPG even try to attain the interactive complexity of this game's vibrant setting, memorable characters, and arresting plot. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to experience this magic properly. Older systems don't have the memory to handle its intensive graphics, and newer systems run too fast (Ultima VII's gameplay is tied to processor cycling, frustratingly enough). Windows seems to be the mortal enemy of the Avatar; if you want the game to run you need to create a boot disk to completely bypass Windows and set DOS up correctly to run it. Even then I couldn't get the audio working for love or money.

If you have the technical know-how to get this game running in the first place, it's a real gem, with everything from murder mysteries to be solved through romantic affections to be won. But even the best of games is nothing more than a pretty shiny circle if you can't get it to work. Be sure you know what you're getting into before spending any money on Ultima VII; the most difficult puzzle in the game can be getting the thing to start.

Style: Ultima VII is a classic CRPG with a third-person birds-eye interface. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy and mystery themes. The game is untimed and requires no manual dexterity. Combat is turn-based.

Series: The Ultima series has a long and storied history, particularly impressive for pushing the envelope of computer gaming with nearly every new release rather than simply kicking back and churning out more of the same. You don't need to play any given Ultima game to enjoy the others, however, there is significant plot continuity between Ultima 4, 5, 6, and 7, so if you like classic games (4, 5, and 6 have an unmistakeable retro feel, though 7 is surprisingly modern), it's fun to play them in the proper order. Ultima 1, 2, and 3 are not part of the same plot arc and are so old-school they take a lot of determination to play anymore.

Finding Ultima VII: All seven of these games (plus Ultima 8, which I'm sorry to say I never was able to get working on my computer) come bundled together in one CD set, the Ultima Collection, together with the extra software you need to get these older titles working on modern systems. It's a good bargain, if you can find it (it's out of print now). Otherwise, you could download Ultima VII as abandonware. (Note that the usual security and emulation issues inherent in downloading DOS abandonware apply if you go that route.)

Getting Ultima VII to Work: This is one of the most difficult games to get working on a modern system that I've ever encountered. It's not compatible with Windows XP, it's not compatible with Windows 2000, it requires a system reboot every time you want to play it on Windows 95 or 98, it doesn't work with most modern sound cards, and it's hard to install. I found EA tech support extremely helpful, but you'll have to have actually bought their CD collection, obviously. If you're trying to play it from the original game CD or as abandonware, you'll need MoSlo or another program to slow down your processor speed, you'll need a boot disk, and you'll need patience. There are many good sites on the web to step you through this, here's one.

Hints For Ultima VII: I don't have a page of Ultima VII hints myself at this time. There is a good hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on. If you prefer, you can buy an Ultima 7 hint book.

Pitfalls In Ultima VII: Once you manage to get the game working at all it runs pretty well; but there's one critical bug involving keys disappearing if you sleep while you have them in your possession. Stash them somewhere before sleeping, or, better yet, don't sleep at all till you've used each key.

Game Length: It takes 50-60 hours to complete the game, about standard for a CRPG, though it's easy to spend twice that long if you enjoy exploring nooks and crannies.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated M (for 17 years old and up) due to animated violence/gore. I actually don't think the game is any more violent than modern games with "T" ratings, and it's certainly much more careful about contextualizing violence (murderers are bad guys who are always eventually brought to justice, for example, and your own character must kill only in self-defense.) But there are dead bodies and blood in this game, so use your judgment.

Lora's Ultima VII Review: (Very Good)

Plot and Quests: The main plot is excellent and there are many side quests (one of the first games to make such extensive use of side quests in a game). Some of them are relatively flexible in their solution as well.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: This is a long and involved game, but not a very difficult one. There are few true puzzles in this game, but several of the quests require good detective work to complete.
Characters: You control one main character and as many NPCs as you can convince to join your cause. The main character is unfortunately highly uncustomizable, with only two possible character sprites and portraits to choose from (one male, one female). This is a puzzling step backwards from Ultima VI. The NPCs have very well-done and interesting personalities, both those who are in your party or important to the plot and those who are minor side characters briefly passed on the streets of Yew.
Gameworld: The Ultima gameworld has the weight of nostalgia behind it, but this game adds to that a wealth of detail that truly makes the cities and their inhabitants come alive. Everyday objects abound; NPCs use them as they go about their normal routines, but they can also be examined and used by the player, either for plot purposes or just on a whim. Manipulating these objects has effects--put dough into an oven and it will turn into bread, throw a dirty diaper at someone and they will scream and run away from you. Few games have settings that feel so nuanced and real.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): Character development really is not as much fun in Ultima VII as in some CRPG's, because you get very little input into them. There's not much feeling like your character is improving at what he does, nor a sense of accomplishment in gaining a level. I usually groaned when I saw assailants approaching, because I just wanted to dispatch them and get back to the plot. On the other hand, game elements like transportation and the magic system are original and interesting.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): Ultima 7 suffers from a very clunky interface. The inventory in particular is horrible, requiring extra clicks to close pop-up windows every single time you want to pick up, drop, or examine anything. Conversation is not much better; you basically get a menu of topics to run through, and have to click around a lot to accomplish this. Combat is less painful than in previous Ultima games, but the flawed AI of your NPCs makes it hard to shepherd them through fights. And the floating subtitles obscure game elements.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The graphics are quite good and the audio was excellent; regrettably, the sound doesn't work right on nearly any modern sound card, which robs you of much of the experience. Nonetheless, the detail and depth of the gameworld keep playing Ultima 7 a highly immersive experience.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend this game to anyone with DOSBox or enough knowledge of their computer system to make a boot disk. Otherwise, you may be too stymied by the technical hurdles of getting the thing to work to ever unwrap its roleplaying goodness.

If You Loved Ultima VII: There are several other collections of great classic CRPGs available on the market now, notably the Realms of Arkania Trilogy, Ultimate Wizardry Archive, and Might and Magic Millennium Edition. Or you may enjoy one of the great contemporary CRPG's like Shadows of Amn, Wizardry 8, or Morrowind.

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