Ultima 7: The Black Gate
Way Back in 1992, when the average PC game still looked ugly as sin and dialogue consisted largely of occasional one-liners, Richard Garriott and Origin set about creating a game that would take not only RPGs. but PC games in general to the next level. The results are legendary in PC gaming circles. Ultima VII remains one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in PC gaming history, taking technological leaps and bounds that were thought impossible at the time. Graphically it was a joy to behold, while complex and interwoven plots and genuinely interesting dialogue put the game light years ahead of other titles in its genre.
Ultima VII was more than a game, it was a huge and complex world to explore and, most times, get lost in due to the sheer size of the environments. Huge cities, small towns, countless landmarks, vast wildernesses inhabited by all manner of creatures - U7 was an exercise in exploration and discovery, as much a journey as a game. This in itself is remarkable, and yet not particularly conducive to providing gripping gameplay. However, coupled with perhaps the most believable and true-to-life characters ever seen in an RPG, U7's vast game world came to life.
captivating players to the point that it's still considered one of the most addictive games ever made. "For me, Ultima VII represented the pinnacle of fully interactive virtual worlds," says Richard 'Lord British' Gamott. the mastermind of the Ultima series. "It was likely the last fully-realised Ultima, and thus in many ways the best. After that, the publisher push to 'ship now or else' began to interfere with the pure visions I had through Ultima VII.'
A Whole New World
Part of this pure vision was a revolution in terms of depth of interaction in a roleplaying game. For the first-time. NPCs had believable (and often highly amusing) dialogue, built into complex dialogue trees with multiple-choice answers. It created the most immersive and convincing roleplaying environment gamers had ever seen, and established the conventions of communicating with NPCs that are still seen in RPGs today. Of course, few games manage to pull off the tricky balancing act of U7, which drew the player into a believable environment without becoming repetitive or overtly verbose.
Creating such a detailed world was no small feat but, according to Richard Mk there were remarkably few compromises made in the game's development. "As with all the games I've developed, there were many things that changed during development, and many more ideas than we had time to put in, but nonetheless the element of U7 I'm most proud of is its completeness." Of course, with a project of this magnitude, there were some difficulties to be faced, often arising from the fact that the game design was pushing into virgin territory. "We did face problems when bringing the towns in the game to life," smiles Richard. "Principle among these was the sheer magnitude of the towns. Just managing that many features and keeping them all connected was all but impossible."
Somehow though, they managed it. The experience amassed on the preceding Ultima games had sharpened the creative team at Origin into a deadly-efficient RPG machine, and development proceeded remarkably smoothly. The production process was by now second nature, allowing more time and energy to be channelled into making the best possible game. "We had a very talented group of developers," agrees Richard. "We would spend many late nights working hard and 'partying down'. In fact, my fondest memory of making U7 would have to be the all-nighters with the team - a giddy time to be sure!" However, every success story has its skeletons in the cupboard, and U7 is no exception. As fate would have it, the biggest problem the game faced was not of its own making - Ultima VII, like all PC games of technological note released in the early '90s, had a common enemy...
Despite the huge success and critical acclaim the game received on release, there's one thing for which U7 will be remembered that Richard would perhaps rather not recall - it was an absolute bugger to run. The problem was, Origin was renowned for pushing the technology envelope with all of its games, and Ultima VII was no exception. Outstanding graphics (for the time) and excellent sound all came at a cost in hardware terms, but when U7 was released there was an even bigger barrier to contend with.
Those of you who were playing PC games in 1992 will know exactly what we're alluding to here: DOS, hated scourge of all PC gamers at the time. Struggling constantly with system files and memory managers was part and parcel of the U7 experience, particularly if you had one of those 'strange' soundcards such as the Gravis Ultrasound, and U7 became a topic for discussion in game magazines as much for the mysteries of its technological challenges as the beauty and depth of the gameplay. Richard admits: "We always shot high for hardware needs, but we usually demanded more in the end than we intended at the beginning!"
This of course made no difference to the huge following the game amassed, who were quite happy to spend as long as was necessary to take on DOS and tweak the hell out of their startup files.
But if gamers thought they were lucky when Ultima VII first appeared, they had a treat in store, as they literally only knew the half of it. So rich and complex was the world created in Ultima VII that it actually overflowed into an entire second chapter, dubbed Ultima VII: Serpent Isle. Part one of the saga, Ultima VII: The Black Gate, was a sprawling epic in itself, with a game environment that dwarfs many of today's offerings for sheer size and attention to detail. But only a year after The Black Gate first appeared in 1992, Serpent Isle took the story to its conclusion in magnificent fashion. This second chapter made no attempt to change the winning formula of the first part, concentrating instead on introducing new characters and plot elements.
An expansion for Black Gate, The Forge Of Virtue was also snuck out between these two releases, and Serpent Isle received its own expansion in due course in the form of The Silver Seed. All four of these episodes played their part in expanding one of the best stories ever seen on PC, and it's the game's masterful storytelling, more than any technical achievement, that will be remembered in years to come.
It's now generally accepted that Ultima VII is the last great single-player Ultima game. Prior to the release of U7, each game in the series had become progressively better than its predecessor, culminating finally in U7, the ultimate Ultima experience. After this, Ultima VIII introduced a more arcade approach to the series, and dropped the party-based approach that was so popular in U7 for a solo approach. However, while U8 was seen by many as an excellent game (if somewhat out of place in the Ultima canon), Ultima IX: Ascension split the entire community straight down the middle. Apart from the many bugs that plagued the game from release, the depth of gameplay that had previously been the hallmark of the series was sadly lacking.
It's now doubtful that we will ever see another true Ultima game. Richard Garriott has moved on to a new company and new projects, and the rights to the series now reside with mega-publisher EA.
It seems a shame that the series that had so many gamers enthralled for so long finished in such an anti-climatic fashion with Ascension, but Richard Garriott has left his legacy with Ultima VII, perhaps the greatest story ever told on PC.
Download Ultima 7: The Black Gate
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP