I've Been Bad

You may have noticed a distinct lack of updates regarding Bastion. I’m here to set the record straight: I have not abandoned the blog but I am VERY distracted by Wizardry 6. I’ve gotten one of those sudden itches to play a very difficult game with very tough mechanics and it just really fits the bill. Although I’ve finished it before, I lost my save game and want to complete this one so that I can bring my newer, fresher, and objectively better party into Wizardry 7 when it comes up for the blog. Thanks to Dropbox I can just put my save games in the cloud indefinitely. My Ultima 4 character is STILL in there waiting to be dug out and dusted off when Ultima 5 comes around.

What’s really holding me back from playing Bastion is that I feel like I need to square off forty minutes to an hour to really sit down, play, absorb, and take notes. The truth is I can’t afford this amount of time investment right now. With my anniversary just having passed, parties for friends coming up, and day to day life I’ve only been able to snatch twenty to thirty minutes per day divided over several sessions. This is no good for Bastion. But it is an excellent environment for Wizardry, especially since I can exchange my save game from home to the office and vice versa. I find myself playing a little at lunch or while waiting for my wife to get to the train station. It feels nice to just fight a few battles or map a few squares knowing I can quit any time and end up exactly where I stopped. And not to toot my own horn but I have effectively broken the game with class switching. All my characters can hide and most can cast mid-range spells with no difficulty. It’s pretty funny when the entire party disappears into the shadows and the monsters just sit there waiting.

I have not lost sight of my goal, but have been sidetracked by life as we all are from time to time. I promise to be better in the next week or so, but, for now, I’m about half way through Wizardry and am about to hit the River Styx so wish me luck.

--Backlog Killer

50 - Bastion

Jetlag is not nearly as difficult to shake as having to leave your home to travel halfway across the world again. Vacation was a very good experience but it also reopened memories I had cauterized over the past few years. Unfortunately, my life situation is not one such that I can immediately pick up and move again and I have an entire life with friends and, more importantly, a job waiting for me here in Hong Kong. Having income and prospects for the future goes a long way.

All in all my vacation was a good one. I was able to visit family members, friends, and even relax a little bit at the beach. I discovered a whole new world of craft (i.e. expensive) beers that actually taste pretty good and don’t give me a migraine after drinking just a small amount. I also had to go through some very strenuous times when we received news that our dog was not doing well and was in the hospital. Luckily, everything turned out well and she’s living comfortably again even though she is still quite old.
What was most affecting about the vacation is that returning home lifted a huge weight I had forgotten about off my shoulders. Even now I still feel breezy and able to face just about anything… or maybe that’s just fatigue from jetlag. In any case, I have hope that I can reduce my stress levels and live a comfortable life with fewer worries as I move along. In combination with that I am also very happy that the next game I will be tackling for the blog is the independently produced action game Bastion.


Bastion is a game I became very curious about in the past few years when I heard such rave reviews about it. Coming at an early time in the recent indie explosion, the game was renowned for its unique storytelling, good soundtrack, and narrator. I know next to nothing about the game  and am looking forward to going in fresh with no expectations.

Bastion was released by Supergiant games in 2011 and received almost universal praise from many reviewers and podcasters I read and respect. It is billed as a single player action role-playing game wherein the main character, named “The Kid”, wakes up in a world that has been destroyed by an apocalyptic event known as The Calamity. As the kid explores the world, it reassembles itself around him and is inhabited by enemies who offer many unique challenges that require different strategies and weapons to counter. It is up to The Kid to travel to the Bastion to find the secret that will enable the world to resume as normal, whatever that may turn out to be.


I know literally nothing about the game except that the art style is very interesting and the narrator is lauded for his performance. I anticipate a wealth of storytelling techniques and metaphorical imagery to explore and pontificate about, but I also am looking forward to a solid game experience. I am not usually into games such as Diablo or Torchlight, although I do get the urge to play them from time to time. I hope that Bastion will offer me a tight experience with opportunities to customize The Kid to be the kind of character I enjoy playing as.

If you have any tips or things to watch out for before I begin please let me know. This may include useless skills or weapons to avoid, things that may enhance my experience, or any other tidbits you wish me to know (excluding spoilers). I am very interested to know what any of you think about Bastion, this type of game, or any general discussion you may have. I look beginning.

It’s good to be back.

--Backlog Killer

Vacation Plans

Hey folks, sorry I've been gone so long without a peep, but I've had some stuff come up that's been unavoidable and have also been trying to decide what to do for my upcoming vacation. I have decided to put the blog on hiatus for about two months until I come back from visiting family and friends in the USA. I enjoy finishing a large chunk of something before taking a break and would hate to have a game hanging over my head half completed while I am enjoying myself. I hope you understand.

In the meantime, I have been playing other games not listed on the backlog list including Bioshock: Infinite, Dishonored, and long term strategy games like Europa Universalis 3 and Hearts of Iron. It's been a good little diversion from the classics I've been playing today and is a good way to compare the problems of yesteryear with today. I'll probably bounce between some of these until the middle of June when I come back.

I hope you all have a great spring and join me when I come back from my epic journey to the East Coast to play Bastion.

Good luck and enjoy yourselves,

--Backlog Killer

49 - Ultima Underworld

Sorry about the long wait. I had a busy Easter holiday that I spent at the hospital. Nothing is seriously wrong or even wrong at all, but we needed to get something checked out to make sure it isn’t or won’t become a problem. Luckily, everything is fine, but my wife and I have lost yet another holiday and I am really tired from constant trips home and back. I am sure we will have more fun on our trip back to the United States next month.

Ultima Underworld

“What can I say about the game that I haven’t said already?” This is what I kept thinking to myself over the last few days and I am having a hard time figuring out if there really is anything. The engine and immersiveness were astounding at the time of its release, it introduced many concepts that have become standard in modern games, and it remains a beacon of unbridled creativity and inspiration by a small studio. Discussing these may be beating a dead horse, but they require at least an honorable mention.

What remains after the completion of the game is the feeling that the plot, objectives, and game world itself are all intertwined and one cannot be removed from the others without unraveling the whole thing. I rarely get this feeling and can list only a few titles that have conveyed it… maybe Mean Streets and Might & Magic III. But what I mean is that the plot develops so organically that the player begins piecing everything together without being told anything explicitly in any serious information dump. Maybe it comes from the smaller production team or the more renegade production process, but everything comes together naturally and symmetrically. This is what I miss the most about older games, especially those made for the PC.

The importance of Ultima Underworld cannot be disputed, but I also think it has become somewhat of an artifact. I know this will be a controversial opinion, but compared to the dozens of games following its productions that have taken its notes and improved upon them, it does not hold up as well. It is true that many modern games such as The Elder Scrolls would not even be around without its legacy, but I think that being aware of its existence and influence is much more important than playing it. I wholeheartedly recommend any player who is interested in the genre complete the game, but many gamers may find it frustrating since the developers themselves were trying to suss out what they were actually doing. Even though an early car is a marvel that should be preserved and analyzed, you wouldn’t want to drive it down the road every day. Ultima Underworld most certainly has a limited appeal today compared to universal praise in the past.

I don’t mean to sound disparaging at all. In fact, I would recommend anyone remotely interested in 3D dungeon crawlers or the history of gaming to at least try playing it. But I do recognize that the game is rough around the edges. Combat is not very fun, some of the puzzles are nebulous at best, and the movement is difficult to adjust to. What is great is that the immersiveness of the game and wonder of exploring the dungeon transcend all these downfalls to provide a deep well to be drawn from over and over again by products coming out as recently as this year.

Ultima Underworld is the most important game I have played for the blog, so far.

What’s next?

Next I will be playing Bastion, but I have not decided if I should take a break from the blog until after my trip or try to squeeze it in. With the recent events, I am thinking about just waiting and taking my time. I am still very tired and having trouble producing content with all the other stuff going on, but I hope you enjoy it.

In addition, here are my final stats for the game. Enjoy!

--Backlog Killer

48 - The End

Well, we’re finally at the end. After roughly fifteen to twenty hours of game play, I have finished Ultima Underworld. This post will cover my brief backtracking to the crypts of Level 5 and my final confrontation with the Slasher of Veils. Follow me into the bowels of the Stygian Abyss to explore (part of) Level 8.

One Last Frustration

With the tri-part key, all eight talismans of Caribus, and the confidence of seven completed levels under my belt, I descended to Level 8 of the Abyss to take out the lurking evil that is the Slasher of Veils. Garamon had informed me he may be able to help me with this overwhelming task if I could acquire his bones and return them to his grave in the crypts. Putting this at the top of my list of priorities, I set forth.

Level 8 is basically a molten chasm constructed of nothing but cliffs and rivers of lava. The dragon scale boots nullified the threat of the lava, but it did not get rid of the threat that constantly respawning fire elementals posed. These things were everywhere and could make quick work of my level 16 character if I got caught by surprise. I spent most of the time searching the southwest area filled with bone piles for any sign of the correct one, but they all looked the same. I finally came across one particular nook containing a stone golem, supplies, and several magic rune stones strewn over the ground indicating a struggle. I assumed this was the site of Garamon’s final stand, but made sure by testing with other generic bone piles that stack together into piles of multiple units. Satisfied that the bones did not stack, I returned to the crypts of Level 5 to give his remains a proper burial.

[Hopefully he'll stop bothering me every time I sleep.]

After interring the bones, the ghost of Garamon appeared to thank me for stopping his brother and putting him to rest. Before leaving, he tried to brainstorm ways to take out the Slasher of Veils. Hmm… if we only had items of pure virtue… to which I responded with “what about these talismans?” That seemed correct, but “how can we destroy them to release their power?” he asked. “Drop them in lava?” Seemed good enough for him.

[Great idea! Glad I thought of it.]

So the answer is to destroy all of the items I have been working so hard to attain to force the Slasher through a dimensional rift, banishing him from Britania forever. Easy enough, right? With this information, I took one last look at the levels I had worked so hard to explore and stepped into Level 8 for the last time.


Finding the prison of the Slasher of Veils was very easy with the dragonscale boots. After just a minute of walking through the lava lake and fighting a few flame elementals, I found a large central structure with a stone door and triangular indentation matching the tripart key. I’m pretty sure I skipped roughly half the floor by doing this, but I don’t really mind since I seem to have wrapped up most of the story threads I had encountered. Nervously, I put the key into the giant door to reveal…

[Nice. Nice. Let me get another angle...]

[Excellent! Nice working with you.]

The Slasher of Veils trapped in the middle of a lava pool. Fortunately, he is unable to move allowing me to walk around getting some glamour shots for the blog. It is interesting because as an adult I had no apprehension about walking around the area and exploring the chamber, but as a child, I can imagine being very scared that the demon may spring out of his reverie at any moment. It was a fleeting thought, but one that made me think about how I interface with games now. In any case, I began the procedure of banishment by tossing all eight talismans into the pool. After disposing of the last talisman, the Sword of Justice, a moongate opened swallowing the Slasher of Veils AND me with it!

[Uh oh.]

Dumped into a chaotic landscape of mysterious paths, disembodied eyes, mouths, and constant damage, I immediately started running. There were several paths to take, but I remembered the advice I wrote down given by a crystal ball on level one saying that the green path was correct. With the Slasher in pursuit, I sprinted all the way down the path which seemed to go on forever. In fact, I was almost completely dead by the time I reached the moongate exit and was worried I would need to do the whole thing again. Fortunately, I made it just in time and the gate slammed shut behind me trapping the demon forever.

Finally thanked and given a quick “Sorry” by the Baron who had essentially sentenced me to death in the Abyss, I boarded a boat back to Britania and traveled back to Earth to sleep off the adventure. I had finally finished one of the most revered games in the history of PC gaming: Ultima Underworld.

What’s Next?

Next time I will be giving my final thoughts about Ultima Underworld, but, in the mean time, I have been playing through a few other games that were not on the list. I have just about played out The Binding of Isaac, although I would like to unlock the final levels to truly “finish” the game. I’m not sure if I will go for all of those achievements on there, even though I hate to be outdone by Gary. I also began playing Dishonored which is a pretty cool game and has been enjoyable since it strongly evokes the feeling of Thief: The Dark project. (It’s also easier to play without having to stop and take notes as I do when blogging.) In any case, I am looking forward to the next game I have picked and hope to begin writing about it soon.

What is the game? Oh, sorry. The next game in my sights is going to be a critical favorite: 2011’s Bastion. I am excited about this one and hope I can complete it before plans put temporary brakes on the blog. I will be visiting my parents in the United States in May and June and do not plan on playing too many games for the blog at that time. Anyway, stick around while I collate my thoughts about Ultima Underworld into one package for you.

Hint: I really liked it.

--Backlog Killer

47 - A Real Rug Puller

Busy busy busy the last week or so, but I’m finally back and we’re almost done with Ultima Underworld. We recently left off with me having swept through the mages’ college in the Abyss, amassing all eight talismans of Cabirus, and trudging down to Level 7. What dangers awaited me? Boy howdy, it sure was a lot.


Level 7 did not start well when I noticed my mana, represented by the blue vial, drained itself down to nothing immediately after exiting the stairwell. This was obviously part Tyball’s devious plot and made it apparent I was going to have to solve the entire area without access to any magic. Luckily, I had only been using magic to heal myself and generate food so the loss of this ability did not have much of an impact. I can imagine it being a HUGE problem for players who had focused only on magic and had not put any skill points into weapons since this disadvantage comes along with no warning. I would say this is questionable game design; much like giving players of Deus Ex: Human Revolution the option of being completely passive and then throwing them into an unavoidable boss fight.

Exploring the level turned out to be just as much of a hassle as not having access to magic. I emerged from the stairs in a grey room with several exits, but most of them were obstructed either by sheer cliffs, locked doors, or just dead ends. I spoke briefly with an escaping prisoner on his way upstairs who told me that the only way to access these areas was with a talisman of Tyball’s army. This turned out to not be exactly true as I could also be jerks to the soldiers and they would open the gates to attack me. Unfortunately, this tactic carries the disadvantage that doors may randomly close and lock themselves leaving me stranded. Learning this, I made it a priority to seek the talisman.

[It really does help to have the medallion.]

The only series of unlocked doors led me to a mine that had been abandoned by slave workers because of a gazer I easily dispatched. I found an amulet, maybe belonging to a dead guard, that I could use to access every part of level 7 opening up more possibilities. The entire area was basically a fortress with check points, encampments, and mines being tended to by slaves of Tyball. After gaining access to the mines to the northwest, I entered a prison where I was trapped by the troll guard in a small transfer room. In order to escape, I had to bribe him to release me. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I didn’t have any extra money on me. The prison contained some helpful prisoners and a few locked doors, but nothing of immediate interest. Unlocking an escape tunnel, I worked my way back to the entrance through a molten cavern filled with fire elementals which are, no doubt, the toughest creatures in the game. Even at level 15, they could still kill me with several fireballs which I used to my advantage by respawning back at the entrance to the level.

This route also led to one of several quick diversions down to three isolated parts of level 8 including: a key cheekily hidden behind a skull, an abandoned mine containing ‘orbstone’ a wizard told me could be used to restore magic to level 7, and a treasure trove guarded by an imp and several golems that I will discuss later. I immediately took the orbstone and key to open most of the remaining doors in the level.

The key brought me to a lava pit containing what looks like a jumping puzzle. A nearby map indicated the solution was actually much simpler as a teleportation square brought me to the locked door at the top off the cliff. Entering the door, I found myself at the entrance to a deadly maze that will cause instant death if the incorrect path is taken. “How can we know the right path?” you ask. Well, aside from extensive trial and error, inscriptions and hints around the level refer to a crown that can be used to reveal the way. This brings me back to the treasure trove I had found before. The stockpile contains several crowns, all except one of which have a ruby in the middle. The obvious choice for the one piece we are allowed to take according to the imp’s instructions is the crown with the white gem. This is the Crown of Maze Navigation that can be worn to reveal the golden path to victory.

[The maze without the Crown of Maze Navigation.]

[The same view with the crown on.]

Game of Death
After following the long, circuitous path, I found myself abruptly face to face with the evil mage Tyball who instantly started frying me with electric bolts and fireballs. I was able to back him into a corner of the arena to prevent him from casting spells and wailed on him with the Sword of Justice until he went down. Even though it sounds easy, I only had a sliver of HP left. Afterward, I was given a troubling speech:

 Uh-oh, looks like Tyball was responsible for kidnapping the princess, but meant to use her as a vessel for the pan-dimensional demon The Slasher of Veils! And now that I have killed him and released the princess, the hideous creature will soon escape and wreak havoc on Britania! It looks like we've really messed things up down here. I had no choice but to figure out a plan to get to level 8 and defeat the Slasher of Veils. I also took the opportunity to smash Tyball’s orb with an orbstone to restore magic abilities on level 7.

Thinking quickly, I took the keys on Tyball’s corpse and returned to the prison to access the doors that were still locked. Each of these contained a prisoner willing to help me find one piece of the three part key to access the sealed room where the Slasher was held. One simply gave me a key, another drew a map on the back of a picture of a guy named Tom, and the last simply left me with the instructions to deliver the password Folanae to Illomo at the mages’ college.

Using the provided key, I unlocked a door at the far northwest of level 7 to ascend through three floors of monsters finding the first part of the key at the top. I returned to level 5 to deliver the picture of Tom to the mourning mage Judy who shed a single tear that turned into the second part of the key. The last part of the key was very interesting. After delivering the phrase ‘Folanae’ to Illomo, he urged me to check the library for more information. At the library, I found a book titled ‘Folanae Fanlo’ which Illomo told me could be utilized at shrines. Speaking the word fanlo at the shrine yielded the final part of the key which I combined with the rest to complete my access to the Slasher of Veils. But how would I defeat him? Resting gave me one final vision from Garamon in which he told me his brother, Tyball, had killed him in a disagreement and left his bones unburied on level 8. If I could bury his bones properly, Garamon would help me think of a way to defeat the demon and save Britania once again.

[The last part of the key is mine!]

Packing my things carefully, I set off for level 8 and the final part of Ultima Underworld. I was almost done.

What’s next?

Sorry about the lack of analysis, but, aside from a few missteps, the game is mostly the same solid design throughout all eight floors. I hope to provide a short diary of what I did to complete each level, but it’s beginning to resemble a walkthrough. Hopefully I can scrape together some stuff for my final impressions.

As for now, I am trying to complete Dark Souls again and hope to finish some other games before I play the next one for the blog which I have already decided on. I won’t reveal it yet, but I am looking forward to this independently developed action game a lot. I also may try to finish Dishonored in the mean time since my wife bought it for Christmas and I’ve still only played thirty minutes of it. Anyway, join me next time for the conclusion of Ultima Underworld!

--Backlog Killer

46 - Getting Close Now

I thought things were winding down in Ultima Underworld, but they picked right back up again on Level 7 where I remain while writing this update. Things are continuing on schedule and I am looking forward to finally completing the game. I think I am almost finished and can see several story threads coming to an end. For now, though, we’ll stick to speaking about Level 6 and its consistent tone.

Fire in the Mountain

Level 6 of Ultima Underworld was the most consistent floor I had explored since Level 3. The entire area was made up of the remains of a mages’ college and laid out according to the now familiar trend of a central hub branching out into the cardinal directions. To the north and west were ruined libraries, dormitories, a shrine for leveling up, and an arena containing an indestructible golem. The east was a barren maze of fire caverns and monsters constructed by a rogue mage of the college who had since moved down to Level 7, and the southern area contained all remains of the mages’ college including students and teachers who pushed the plot of the story at hyper speed. What is really cool about the dungeon is that as I go lower and lower, more lava and cracks appear as if I were approaching the very center of the earth. The whole level gave the impression of constant earthquakes and lava seeping through the floor even though the engine couldn't demonstrate this mechanically.

[My map of Level 6.]

One NPC in the area was Dr. Owl who asked me to free his mute assistant from the clutches of the lizardmen. Since I had already accomplished this, the good doctor directed me to a loose tile in the abandoned meeting room to the west containing the Wine of Compassion, the fifth of the talismans. While in the area, I entered the golem’s arena to challenge him as the Knights and Trolls on level 4 had told me they used to do. Upon dismantling him easily with my high attack and sword skill, I was given yet ANOTHER of Cabirus’s talismans: TheShield of Valor.

[Haha. Not really, bub.]

Continuing this rapid series of discoveries, I returned to the dorms and helped a mage named Bronus deliver a book to his friend Morlock who was just down the hall. In return, I was given a hint about a secret door in an hourglass shaped room that led to the Book of Honesty. A little behind the curtains information here: I had already picked up the book when I searched the suspicious room and found the secret door without any hints. That makes seven out of eight talismans and only leaves out the trickiest one of all.

Woah, dude… woah.

I ran into another mage named Fyrgen who seemed to be stoned out of his gourd in what he described as a “lucid dream” after sniffing some incense. To do this myself, he said I only needed to light a cone over a torch and use it to attain my own visions. Having ignored the incense previously, I retraced my steps to pick up a few pieces so I could try it out.

I was rewarded with several visions of a cup bearing strange words on the side. I combined the three different syllable from these visions into one word: insahn. When used at a shrine, this mantra gives directions to a certain point on the level. I messed around with it for a while and eventually found the designated spot on Level 3 in a small section of the sewers I had explored before. After taking care of the resident gazer, I played the tune Eyesnack taught me on the flute to reveal the final talisman I needed to complete the game: the Cup ofWonder. And in case you are wondering, I did use a FAQ for this portion. I was completely stuck a little later and found out how to make this work. I am positive I would have discovered the correct location, but if I had not known to play the flute I think I would have gotten very frustrated. Hey, I’ve been good so far!

[Trippy stuff.]

With all eight talismans in tow or equipped, I proceeded down to Level 7 which turned out to be one of the most pace upsetting floors of the dungeon. Clued in by the mage Illomo that his friend, Seer Gurstang, had been captured by the evil mage Tyball, I prepared for the worst.

What’s next?

Level 7 should be finished soon. Tyball appears to be the one responsible for the kidnapping I have been blamed for. He also seems to be the brother of the strange ghost that appears when I sleep in the game, but I am not sure what it all means as I have yet to encounter Tyball. And what waits on Level 8? Find out when I get there!

Oh yeah, check out this Easter egg: a nod to legendary Origin Systems game designer Warren Spector I discovered while exploring some supply tunnels in the mages’ college. Apparently he was a pretty demanding boss!

Follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller), leave comments to let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

--Backlog Killer

45 - Gathering Steam

Level five of Ultima Underworld is definitely the most bizarre design I have experienced so far. Although the map and layout is symmetrical, the individual areas seem very disconnected and each has its own quirks. They all came together with some strange puzzles and even crazier references that were a completely surprise. This is a pretty quick one, so let’s dive right in.

Quick Advances

In the

last post

I had mentioned that I visited the tombs of Level 5 to retrieve the hilt for the sword of justice. I returned to explore the rest of the area from that starting point, but found it was actually cut off from the rest of the floor. Returning to level four, I found more stairs in the meeting hall that led to the central area of level five proper. Ripping my way through spiders and skeletons using my newly forged (and indestructible) Sword of Justice, I found myself in small room with one lever at its four corners and a pedestal in the middle. This is the site of the

Ring of Humility

that the knight had tipped me off about in return for the gem cutter. Using the correct combination, I found myself in possession of the ring and halfway to all eight of the talismans of Cabirus.

Continuing south I arrived in a large meeting room presumably used by the organization different societies attempting to create a utopia in the Abyss before it all fell apart after Cabirus’s death. Taken over by rodents and rubbish, the whole area was quite effective in conveying a feeling of ruin, decay, and tragic failure of an idealist’s plans. Sound familiar to anyone? (Bioshock)

Other than that, the other portions of the level surrounding the central hub were quite straightforward. The east was blocked and had a set of stairs heading down to level six, south led to a large cavern with a lava river and a sad mage pining for her lost boyfriend named Tom, and the west contained a shrine and an NPC named Anjor. Anjor is a wizard looking for eighty rock samples contained in the mines to the southwest to aid his magical studies. Unfortunately, the mines can only be accessed through a teleportation chamber the ghoul mine foreman knows about. I was not interested in carrying around so many rocks, but I retraced my steps to level four to return in the southeast portion of the map to talk to the ghouls.

[My map of level 5.]

Not quite the crypt keeper.

As a pleasant surprise, the ghouls were very helpful and formerly part of the larger society being formed in the Abyss. One ghoul, named Marrowsuck, converted some string and the dragon scales I had traded the trolls for into a set of dragon scale boots allowing me to walk on lava. I also spoke to a friendly ghoul named Eyesnack who taught me a song for a flute I had found in the meeting chamber that I am sure will come in handy later. After finally getting the combination to open the teleportation room for the mines, I stepped in and worried about how I would ferry all these rocks back to Anjor.

[All the other kooks with the dragon scale boots...]

What a weird surprise this turned out to be. The mines are laid out in a symmetrical grid with the required rock samples that actually have zero weight laid out as evenly spaced dots. Four ghosts flew around as I collected the dots in a giant and tonally

inconsistent Pac Man reference

. Even though this is not nearly as egregious as

Minecraft in Borderlands 2

or ‘lol bacon’ type jokes in other games, it really tore me out of the experience since the rest of the game was moderately serious.

Goofiness has always been part of the Ultima experience

, but this one was just so out of the blue it seemed strange. I imagine it was cool on release, though, and took quite a bit of quest scripting to get working. I’ll let it slide.

Returning the stones to Anjor, I was given a giant chunk of gold that I am not sure what to do with and sent on my way. I explored a few more corners that hadn’t been revealed, found a hidden door that connected to the tombs, and finally made my way down to level six.

[Anjor the mage: giver of Pac Man quests.]

Next Time

Next post I will get into my adventures on level six and my delight of how everything is coming together. I think I am actually getting really close to finishing the game (at the time of this post I am on level seven) and am looking forward to seeing its conclusion. Thanks for checking in even though this was a short level without much content besides the Pac Man reference. Level six has much more plot relevant action.

As always, follow me


on Twitter and leave any comments you have about your experiences with Ultima Underworld. It remains a joy to play and is definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had while gaming for the blog. Every session reveals more influences it has had on game design solidifying its legendary status more and more for me, personally. I can’t wait to see what it offers up next!

--Backlog Killer

[I'll just be chilling in this lava with my new footwear.]

44 - Labor of Love

Although I find myself anxious about writing the blog, or not writing to be more accurate, I feel it as more of a motivational pressure rather than a suffocating snuff out the candle flame kind of deal. When I fall behind in my normal tasks I tend to feel smothered, but not so much for this project. Every day life has begun to cascade a little bit, covering up the low priority of playing games to write for strangers: work needs to be done, obligations fulfilled, errands, & c. Pressure builds up, but never to the point of stress which is a welcome feeling for someone as high strung as me. Being able to sit down and complete two levels of Ultima Underworld in one night felt extremely good. I would estimate myself to be 60-70% finished with the game and am having a blast. That being said, I am looking forward to getting into something that doesn’t take as much investment for the next game.

DO feed the trolls!

Level 4 is very straightforward. The entire floor is symmetrically laid out into quadrants: the southwest contains a faction of knights known as the Knights of theOrder of Crux Ansata, the southeast hosts a clan of trolls, and the northern half is made up of two substantial puzzles. What is also interesting is that unlike the other levels I have experienced, the entire southern half of level four is relatively safe with no hostile monsters aside from a few spiders whereas the northern side is a death trap. Taking the time to speak with each faction, I was able to piece together a much bigger picture in terms of lore and how the abyss had been settled.

[The map of Level 4.]

The Stygian Abyss is only a dungeon because it has been retaken by nature. When it was being settled by Sir Cabirus, the entire Abyss was meant to be a shining example of understanding and virtue. Before his death, the entire colony was living in peace and working together to make life underground more comfortable, but since his death, everything has reverted back to its original state. Not to mention that this puts a very sinister slant on the entire situation of those remaining factions being locked in with prisoners being added to the population all the time. What in the heck was Lord British thinking?

Regardless, level four is in relative peace as the Knights and trolls live side by side in a sort of détente even though a few feral trolls and crazy knights have run off on their own. This is where I entered the picture. Speaking to the trolls, I found they did not have much to say but were in possession of their own shrine of virtue I was able to use to gain some more skills. I was also able to trade a rotworm stew I had made with a recipe from the goblins of level one for a set of dragon scales with one of the trolls. The Knights were more helpful and even offered to make me a member of their order if I recovered some lost artifacts. The first of these was a eulogy that was lost in the trolls’ shrine I was able to return immediately. I was then sent to find a lost golden plate in the maze to the northwest. Talking to a few of the order’s members, I was also told of another puzzle known as the “bullfrog puzzle” to the northeast.

What excited me most about this portion of the game is that the main quest finally started to gel a little bit. I love the moment in many old games where the mists begin to clear and I find seemingly unconnected pieces suddenly falling into place. Since there are no mission markers or objective lists being ticked off, it is completely up to me to gauge my own progress which can be overwhelming sometimes. I find myself missing this in modern games as everything seems to be shepherded along in fear that players will get confused, which they very well may. Ultima Underworld began this process here as I completed the Knights’ quest.

Charged with the task of killing the renegade ‘Chaos Knight’Sir Rodrick, I headed to the former feast hall of the humans and trolls to face him. I had leveled up my combat and cudgel skills to take him down and was able to after a bit of running and hiding to heal. A key he dropped opened the maze I was looking for, at the end of which I found the gold plate. I returned it in exchange for the Standard of Honor; one of the eight talismans of virtue! This luck continued as I talked to a knight lamenting the theft of the Taper ofSacrifice by a crazed madman obsessed with staving off darkness. Knowing I had talked to a guy fitting that description on level three, I quickly returned and easily traded some food for it. I was now in possession of two out of eight talismans within twenty minutes. The pace was picking up quickly.

[Rodrick is on the line, here.]

This streak continued as I traded the gem cutter I got on level two for defeating the gazer in the mines to another knight who clued me in on the switch sequence to get the ring of Humility! I used this momentum to propel myself through one of the hardest puzzles I have faced in the game so far: the bullfrog puzzle.

More platforming…

The bullfrog puzzle harkens to one of those idiosyncrasies that most games with dungeons have: weird and obtuse puzzles. This one is especially esoteric as no instructions or hints are given at all. The room is simply a platform with two rotating levers with eight positions, two buttons that are either on or off, and a giant square plot of dirt surrounded by a moat. After ten minutes of messing around and getting frustrated, I had figured out that each press of the top button moves a piece of dirt up one ‘level’ while the lower button moves it down. Despite this revelation, I was unable to see what relation the rotating dials have to do with what area is raised. As far as I can tell, one lever corresponds to the ‘x’ axis of the square while the other is the ‘y’ axis, just like on a graph. Then, each button press raises the level of the selected coordinate. The complicated part is that a few squares SURROUNDING the selected coordinate are raised too making my ‘just raise every position two levels’ strategy non-workable. Somehow, I accidentally cleared a path to the far northeastern corner of the room where another platform was made available. I still don’t understand how it worked or what I did, but it’s done.

Proceeding through this newly revealed corridor, I found stairs down to a set of tombs in level four in which I found the hilt of the sword of justice! Returning the sword to Shak, he agreed to repair the thing in an hour giving me three out of the four required talismans to complete the game! The only problem is repairs are in real time. It literally takes an hour of in game time. Luckily, I was able to use the bedroll to sleep for this one and get the sword immediately, but repairs I had done for lesser equipment had consisted of me bringing the weapon or armor to Shak and leaving the game running while I did something else for ten minutes until the repair was done. I am not a big fan of that design decision.

[I sure waited long enough.]

In the end, I had three out of the eight talismans and had completed level four of the abyss. With things coming together quickly, I am hoping I can complete the game within the next two weeks. But… we all know how my scheduling goes so this may not come to bear. Anyway, it’s time to pump my sword stat so I can use this indestructible Sword of Justice for the rest of the game. I hope all of the other items are as useful as this one.

What’s next?

I have already completed level five of the abyss and will be posting about it shortly. In the meantime I hope to work ahead of schedule and have the game finished ahead of the blog content so I can post more regularly. I apologize for the slower pace, but daily life has been hectic lately and I’m trying to play in the middle of all that. Until next time, see you on level five of the Stygian Abyss; definitely the strangest one yet.

--Backlog Killer

43 - Holidays

Well, Chinese New Year was a good chance to get away from work for a while, but not a great way to get any gaming done. I had hoped to use the five day break as an opportunity to knock out a lot of Ultima Underworld. Unfortunately, you can see by my lack of updates, this was not the case at all. Much like Christmas or Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent about twelve hours each day sitting around my in-laws' house eating, watching television, or sleeping. Ultima Underworld did not fit anywhere into this schedule. Too tired to get into a long gaming session after each day, we simply hit the sack and did it all over the next. I was left with about two truly free days to clean up the house and get various things finished which amounted to roughly forty-five minutes to one hour of actual play time. Luckily, I was able to finish Level 3 and actually acquired part of one of the talismans! Thank goodness…

“We’re right in the middle of a reptile zoo!”

Consistent with my impressions given by the previous floor and those gathered from the Looking Glass podcast, each floor of the Stygian Abyss has its own particular flavor and design. Unfortunately, Level 3 is one of my most disliked tropes in games: water levels. Stepping out of the periphery of the level into its large central area, it became immediately apparent I was located in the middle of a giant swamp.

[I hope it's better than the Crawl Stone Soup swamp.]

I blame my aversion to this kind of level on the fact that it is mostly wide open and requires ages of searching nondescript areas to find a small important item but inevitably missing some. Hopefully this is not true for Level 3 because I have been swimming around the lake for quite a while and think I have found almost everything and don’t plan on doing much more of that. But, let’s not jump ahead, before exploring the dangerous waters I skirted around to discover the circumference of the shore. While looking around this area I encountered a bizarre dead end hallway that unceremoniously teleported me to an identical hallway. Reentering this same zone then proceeded to send me to yet another identical hallway on the other side of the map! This one was only a one way trip and I was forced to start exploring after being separated from any previously mapped out exits.

[Thank goodness for automapping.]

Avoiding the water because of the dangerous squid creatures in the swamp, I found what looked like an artificially excavated dungeon with several locked storage rooms and an agitated bandit. I tried to talk politely to him, but must have made a mistake and was attacked. After an awkward battle and several degraded weapons later, I was finally able to dust myself off and move beyond their hideout to return later when I found away into those rooms.

Just beyond the hideout was another complex filled with giant lizardmen. I had been warned about these creatures before and decided to treat them with as much respect as I could. This proved difficult when they were unable to speak English. They seemed to understand what I was saying, but could not respond in kind starting one of the most interesting puzzles I have encountered in the game so far.

Deviation: Old vs. New Game Expectations – An off the cuff half baked argument.

Even though, as far as I can tell, learning the language of the lizardmen is not “required” for finishing the game (talisman hints are provided by rare English speaking lizardmen), it was certainly expected by the designers. Just a little beyond the main entrance of the compound I found a prisoner. The poor guy had his tongue cut out and was unable to speak but begged me to secure his release. To do this, I had to talk to the lizardmen whose language I have no idea how to speak, write down vocabulary, go back to the prisoner, type in the word for translation, interpret his pantomime, and piece together the language myself. While performing this task I kept thinking to myself: “Would this ever happen in modern game design?”

The quick answer for me is no; absolutely not. Many modern games place similar puzzles in players’ paths to vary game play or slow progression through a story. A lot of these modern puzzles are nothing more than slight diversions that may take clues from the environment or some short amount of thought to get through so that the player will not get frustrated and quit altogether. Very few games will demand a player think outside of what is directly presented to him or her and use systems in ways not explicitly illustrated to come to these conclusions. The lizardman puzzle has several layers of work that make it a very satisfying problem. After seeing similar conversations I was able to find commonly repeated words and take them to the prisoner. Interpreting his actions, I made a short list of words including “lizardman”, “friend”, “kill”, “trade”, etc. to test out in conversations. With a few adjustments I was able to have functional interactions with these creatures in their own language. I was even able to understand the language without consulting my notes after twenty minutes or so. I felt like I had actually learned something and I fully expect to be required to make use of that knowledge further down the road.

[Negotiating the prisoner's release.]

Some games will have quick and dirty puzzles involving physics or button patterns, but that knowledge is rarely ever touched on again in my experience. It seems like a kind of slap dash diversion from the system you are supposed to be having fun with in the first place. Unlike a ham handed slider puzzle in Resident Evil, learning a language of cultures sequestered in this dungeon seems to make sense in the context of the game. I did not feel lifted out of the world but more invested in it. These lizardmen were helping me to patiently learn to communicate with them as a people. It felt like something I had accomplished.

In my opinion, game designers (mostly AAA, sorry ) do not put enough expectations on players. It seems as if any challenge falling outside of the particular feedback loop a game is presenting will instantly be left on the cutting room floor as being "not fun". I am afraid that inflated budgets and comparmentalized production systems have diluted the feeling of authorship and intimacy with a game. In order to satisfy the huge investments in game production, the product itself must appeal to a large group of consumers. In many cases this can lead to not necessarily a "dumbing down" of games, but certainly a more bland experience. I would compare my experience to that of playing Skyrim where experiences just seem to move past me like water past a rock in a river. I barely have any meaningful influence on anything and am simply letting content wash over me. In Ultima Underworld I feel as if I have interacted and learned from the systems and environment, not just consumed them. This is the kind of design I am looking for and the recent resurgence of independent developers asserting their vision has given me hope.

Back to the adventure.

After learning a new language and freeing the prisoner, I was finally able to take care of the largest piece of business in the entire floor: discovering a piece of one of the talismans. Some English speaking black lizardmen sent me to find a lost expedition in return for a reward. All I found were a few paper scraps and bones, but I also got a clue as to where the blade of the sword talisman is. The note informed me that the piece is hidden under a pond in the southeast, but how could I find it if I couldn't swim? This caused a little bit of a problem.

I had previously discovered a suspicious area with a ramp leading down to nowhere and had noticed a glitch while walking down the hall that wouldn't let me proceed when too close to the wall. I clicked the 'look' and 'use' actions on a strange piece of vine-covered wall, but nothing seemed to happen. It turns out the player is required to 'look' at the wall multiple times before the vines are removed and a secret door is revealed. This is the first bad design decision I have run accross in the game. It is not unreasonable to think that many players may click the wall, see nothing happen, then discount it much as I did. If I had not tried several times then it would never have been found. I'll let it slide, though.

[Looks normal enough...]

[...but it's not.]

Behind the secret door was a lever that drained the pool in the southeast corner of the floor allowing me to go through a sunken door. After fighting a ghost I found a shrine and the blade I was looking for. As soon as I find the hilt I think I may have a good idea who can put it together. I also hope that I can use the sword as an unbreakable weapon for the rest of the game. That would be very welcome after going through at least ten or fifteen swords and cudgels.

[Finally, one piece of one piece of the puzzle.]

Packing up my silver resurrection tree, new found blade, and knowledge of the lizardman language, I descended further into the unknown depths of the Stygian Abyss. Level four awaits me.

[My map of Level 3.]

What's next?

Besides the obvious Level 4 content, I sincerely hope to push out the next update sooner. This one was almost finished for a week, but I couldn't quite mop up the rest of the level to have enough to write for a full post. The holiday proved to be much busier than I expected and I hope to push forward a little faster. Wish me luck, and if you have any tips about some things I may have missed feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

As always, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) for mini updates and news about what I'm doing. I also urge you to listen to the new Dark Souls podcast produced by friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield: The Bonfireside Chat. The show progresses through Dark Souls, one of the best games of the past few years, discussing gameplay, lore, and boss battles. It is one of my favorite shows that I look forward to every two weeks. Whether you are a Dark Souls expert, a new player, or someone looking to get into it, the show is great and has some good discussion and interesting guests. Give it a test run!

That's all for now. I hope to see you sooner than later for Level 4 of Ultima Underworld. Also, please get System Shock 2 from GoG.com. It's truly one of the best games I have ever played.

--Backlog Killer

42 - Dwarf Fortress

After going through the head-twisting roller coaster that is Spec Ops: The Line, I am back on board with Ultima Underworld and making progress. I explored and cleared out the second level of the Abyss and feel good about my progress. My character, Pemulis, is a level eight druid who is focused mainly on hand to hand combat and spell casting… although I haven’t used any magic besides healing spells. As combat gets tougher I may need to cast ‘Resist Blows’ or offensive spells, but that’s for later. For now, join me in my journey through the land of the dwarves.

Semi-Accurate Predictions

In the last blog post, I had commented about the shored up wooden walls and how it may indicate that I was in some sort of mine. This was not too far from the truth since it turns out almost the entire floor is populated by dwarves. What is interesting is that Ultima Underworld was released AFTER all the extra races aside from humans were retconned out of Britania in Ultima 4. Looks like some vestigial elements are showing up from the original game design. Or maybe this is what happened to all the dwarves that disappeared… Anyway, the level is a huge and organized complex with very little in common with the disjointed and ad-hoc construction of level one. I hope that each floor holds a different personality making them exciting to explore.

The first friendly entity I encountered was a crazy dwarf named Ironwit. He wasn’t much help, but was able to string enough interpretable sentences together to ask for help retrieving his blueprints. Always wanting to help in hope of rewards I agreed. The directions I received were just as mixed up as his brain and consisted of these notes I jotted down:

- Prints in store room, need flying?
- Flying potion in ‘spiral room’
- Key to potions in ‘golden maze’
- One potion is poison, the other flying. Which is which?

This is all I had to go on. Fortunately, the ‘spiral room’ was easily found and is exactly what it sounds like: a spiral walkway leading down to the potion store room. I was able to jump to the ‘golden maze’ which did not seem to be a maze at all, but rather a room with a strange golden path on the floor and a key at its end. I thought it may be a trap if I stepped off the path but nothing happened. Taking the key and opening the store room I found the red and green potions. Because Ironwit could not tell me which was which, I had to experiment on my own with the aid of leeches in case of poisoning to remove the venom. After identifying the flying potion, flying to the store room, and returning the blueprints, I did get a reward: another flying potion. Great, I already had one and it just got replaced. Fortunately, it came in handy later.

[Thanks a lot crumb bum.]

I continued exploring the level and did not find much of note architecturally. There is a central hub with hallways extending in the cardinal directions. The northern passageway leads to a group of hostile goblins I was able to take out with a lot of retreating and healing. Much less friendly and more formidable than the goblins on level one, I do not think I have much to gain from them besides experience and some loot. I had come from the west which held only a portcullis that (I thought) couldn't be opened, the mad dwarf’s fun house, and the shrine I used to level up. The eastern path led to a strange room with a crystal ball and another resilient sphere, while the southern path revealed the dwarven mines and a locked door. As I explored, I found several scraps of paper with various mantras used to level up different attributes at the shrines. Even though all of the mantras from Ultima 4 are here, there are some new words that raise different stats. Some can even be combined to level up more than one at a time.

[Level 2 of the abyss is very different from Ultima 4...]

Checking the mines led to some fortuitous discoveries. I found a blacksmith named Shak who filled me in on some seriously important information. On level one, I had been told that eight ‘talismans’ must be gathered in order to complete my mission, but I was unsure what they were. Shak informed me that at least two of them were a sword and a shield. He also said that they were split up among the factions to grant equal power but are now held out of spite. Looks like I will have to revisit these groups to find which talisman they all have. Taking this information, I attempted to find a way to enter the fortified area marked with the ankh and blocked by the portcullis.

Inside the Walls

I attempted to pick the locked door in the southern passage about fifteen times before it finally opened. Luckily, lock picks do not seem to break and I can keep one for the entire game. It turns out I had found the back door to the dwarf king’s court. A quick exploration showed that there was, in fact, a guard just behind the portcullis I could have asked to open it, but my light source was not powerful enough to reveal him. After speaking to the king for a while, he revealed that the mine was being terrorized by a gazer. You may remember these from Ultima 4 as beholder-type creatures that can put players to sleep. Fortunately, they lack this ability in Ultima Underworld making the fight much less scary. I agreed to help the dwarves with yet another hope of a reward.

Returning to the mines, I destroyed the rocks workers had caved in to trap the gazer and engaged in battle. After several minutes of swinging and a few close calls requiring cat and mouse healing, the horrible monster popped like a balloon. When I told the king the good news he rewarded me with a sacred symbol of honor for the group: a small chisel. He also asked me if I wanted to see his treasure room and gave me the password. This was unwise.

[It may look goofy to you, but this was a tense fight!]

The king’s treasure room is basically a giant pit containing an earth golem as a guard. I took the opportunity to use my flying potion to dip into the room, fly a few circles around the golem, pick up all the loot, and fly out of there. Now, this may seem a little immoral, but I’m trapped all alone down here! (I am also hoping that one of the pieces I snagged is a talisman needed for the end of the game). Having explored all that I could, I prepared myself to descend to level three.

Mechanics: Boring Conversations

Ultima Underworld is an adept dungeon simulation. The exploration of unknown mysteries, shock of monsters emerging from darkened passages, and discovery of hidden areas are things the game does exceedingly well. NPC interaction is something it does not do well. Every action in the game is built into the main user interface, including magic which is performed by organizing runes that can be clicked on to cast spells. The only action that takes the player out of the main dungeon view is starting a conversation.

This is not to say that the NPC interactions are particularly bad, but they are not very fun. I have yet to accidentally aggravate an NPC to the point of them attacking me, but I have angered them into ending conversations. What is the penalty for this? Having to reenter the conversation window, traversing the same choices, and hoping to make better use of time to get on the character’s good side revealing information. Ultima Underworld is essentially interrupting a fun and fascinating game (dungeon simulation) to play another game that is less fun (conversation tree exploration).

[An annoying mini-game.]

Even though this caused some problems in the Underworld series, Looking Glass developed a sublime solution for their other, more futuristic, dungeon crawling game called System Shock: every NPC is dead.

It’s actually genius. Instead of tracking the movements of entities and forcing the player to interact with them to get information about the world or plot, the team transferred this duty to recorded audio logs that could be filed away and listened to at the player’s leisure. This completely eliminated the need to interrupt the main game play element of simulation and still conveyed every bit of information needed to the player. This design trope continued through System Shock 2 and even into Bioshock, making the strong parts of those games shine (Action/RPG and first person shooting, respectively) while avoiding problems that may cloud or interrupt the experience. I only wish the team had figured this out earlier. Sucking me out of a dank dungeon and into a wall of text imposed on a digital parchment is not terribly fun, but it was the best they could do.

If you are interested in these kinds of things, definitely listen to this interview with Ultima Underworld programmer Dan Schmidt. He discusses how the game got started and built making it a great resource for my blog, too. I would also recommend you listen to all the other Looking Glass Podcasts. I really loved that studio and the stories are really great. Even Ken Levine, lead designer of Bioshock, got his own episode.

Next Time

Next update will be my adventures through level three of the Abyss. I was initially worried about travelling up and down between the floors to complete larger objectives because I am used to respawning enemies, but this does not seem to be the case in Ultima Underworld. Once I have cleared a floor, I am able to explore it at will without the fear of getting ambushed. I have no impression of the third floor since I only went down the stairs for a few seconds immediately after finding them out of habit from other games. (If you fall through trapdoors to lower levels, you at least know where the ascending stairs are on the map since they were marked earlier.) Hopefully I can make nice with whatever civilization is on the third floor and take that all important talisman off their hands.

--Backlog Killer

Spec Ops: The Line

After completing Spec Ops: The Line I have been thinking about it compulsively. I cannot shake it, the game is haunting me. I feel the need to write down my thoughts about it to sort everything out so please indulge me. I will not be saying many different things than what many critics and the writer of the game have said, but I need to state my opinion. I will include a ‘press package’ at the end of the post for you to check out other extremely good reactions to the game.

Also note that this blog post will be FULL of spoilers. I will not be holding back. If you intend to play the game or are in the middle of playing, please stop reading and play/finish it. As for me, business as usual will resume once I get these thoughts out of my head. I hope you all enjoy it.

Spec Ops: The Line

In my opinion, Spec Ops: The Line is the most important game to come out during this console or PC generation. I place it above the sacred cow of Bioshock. Spec Ops is the new standard, the first true fully realized exploration of a video game as a piece of art by a big budget studio. Bioshock lambasted the medium of video games. Spec Ops condemns the players who play them. Everyone who owns a piece of technology capable of running the program should play it.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person cover-based shooter that looks very similar to every other modern military game you see at the store or on Steam. The plot takes place in the immediate future where a freak sandstorm has almost completely buried the booming city of Dubai. Giving somewhat contested international aid, the United States dispatches its "Damned" 33rd infantry battalion to aid the emergency evacuation of refugees. Soon after, communication with the division's commander, Colonel Konrad, is lost when he is ordered to pull out and refuses, opting to set up a martial government to organize a new evacuation plan as more sandstorms erode the city. You, the player controlling Captain Walker, are sent in with a two man recon team to seek out any survivors and report back to headquarters. Upon reaching Dubai, the squad finds slaughtered US soldiers in the desert and is soon confronted with armed civilian resistance who open fire on the squad. You and your teammates, Lugo and Adams, take down the aggressors and push on under the impression that Colonel Konrad has established his own military force of refugees and US soldiers and is occupying the city much as Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now did. Of course, the name Konrad is an obvious reference to this.

The game only uses Heart of Darkness as an inspiration and is not an adaptation which is made evident as things fall apart. Walker declares that the recon mission has now become a rescue and leads his squad into the buried city to evacuate the refugees and seek retribution on Konrad.

Mechanics, Game Play, and Meaning

The portrayal of Spec Ops as a standard, by the numbers modern military shooter is completely intentional. The game is a honey pot meant to attract people who play these types of games all the time only to pull the rug from under their feet unexpectedly. What may not be intentional is that the mechanics of cover-based shooting feel dated and do not work well. This makes for very frustrating play and many player deaths causing combat to be tedious and unfun which I think works in the game's favor. Why should killing people be fun? What I am sure IS intentional is that each 'action node' is easily identifiable with lots of 'cover' objects like sandbags appearing and endless waves of enemies emerging. Some battles result in the deaths of dozens of soldiers, and lest we not forget these are US Army personel even though we assume they are deserters. What this does is push the player into the mindset of most shooters where killing ceases to have any meaning beyond the idea that as soon as everyone is no longer moving the game can go on. This is on purpose. I even found myself saying "Jeez, how many more guys do I need to kill?" which horrified me in this context.

Do you want to go on? Ok.

After several chapters of fighting through luxury condominiums and hotels, the team sees a white phosphorus shell detonate, showering molten metal onto innocents and soldiers alike. A front row seat for its destructive properties as people scream and writhe on the ground while their flesh falls off of their bones. Only a few minutes later, your squad is brought to a standstill by the retreating 33rd Batallion. An army is guarding the retreat and is about to open fire on you leaving only two options: one is to use conventional weapons to attack, and the other is to use a nearby white phosphorus mortar to take out the troops. This is not a choice. Using standard arms results in your position being quickly overrun as you are outnumbered. When setting up the mortar, Lugo says "We shouldn't do this! We have a choice!" to which Walker responds "No. We don't." This is the discussion between our own conscious and that of the game designer. We want a way to progress without doing this because we've seen what white phosphorus can do, but the designer says "YOU MUST" and so we do, presumably given a free guilt pass out plot necessity. This is on purpose.

Do you want to go on? Ok.

After raining hell down on the troops, the squad treks through the mangled bodies. Survivors scrabble and ask for help. I put one troop out of his misery by shooting him to which Walker states on the screen "He was going to die anyway." After traversing the scorched battlefield, it is revealed that civilian refugees were at the head of the retreating column and were also caught in the rain of fire. The camera focuses on a dead mother holding her child, their smoldering flesh falling off the bones. Walker says "We didn't have a choice. Konrad forced us to do this." I felt sick. The game has tricked me, tricked the player into doing something I didn't want to do. What a betrayal.

Do you want to go on? Ok.

The loading screens get more and more bizarre upon each death. Their previously helpful gameplay tips of "Use your squadmates to flank your opponents" and "Press Q to throw a grenade" now read "Do you feel like a hero?" "How many Americans have you killed so far?" "You are still a good person."

There are only two options: either turn off the game or keep committing atrocities at the behest of the game designer to get to its end. Do you want to go on? Ok.

The squad fights through a shopping mall to reach a helicopter it uses to destroy a radio tower filled with US troops broadcasting propaganda. Adams yells "THIS IS FUCKED UP! THESE ARE AMERICAN SOLDIERS!" Do you want to go on? Ok.

After countless battles and the eventual death his squad mates who slowly became unhinged along with him, Walker arrives at the penthouse where Konrad is based. He is dead, having shot himself several weeks earlier. The entire hero fantasy has fallen apart. All the radio communications, interactions, and admonishments of Konrad were a delusion. Walker's only orders were to find survivors and radio for backup. If he had stopped at the beginning and never entered Dubai, none of this would have happened. The 33rd battalion had been fighting Walker's squad under the impression that he was working with the CIA who were attempting to cover the whole embarrassment of Konrad's evacuation. A simple misunderstanding that we were dragged into along with the gung-ho heroism that is the center of all modern military shooters. Did I feel like a good person? No, I was the bad guy. Before disappearing, the imagined portrayal of Konrad asks Walker, asks ME, "Do you feel like a hero yet?"

We have arrived.

My critique and critique of the critics.

Spec Ops: The Line is not perfect, but it affected me so deeply that I had nightmares of failure and misplaced confidence in myself the night after finishing the game. Many players I have read reactions from feel betrayed that the game forced their hand to commit violent acts and then blamed them for it. Is this incorrect? Not if you judge it solely based on this game. You are playing and have no choice about the matter while interacting with the mechanics. What it DOES do is recontextualize all future interactions you have with video games. You DO have a choice as to what you want to play and do. Does using an attack helicopter to mow down infrared blips on a television make you feel like a big man? Go ahead, I probably won't. Do you want to unleash your heavy machine gun on a crowd of huddling innocents? I sure don't, but you can do what you want.

Spec Ops does NOT give any choices because we own it and the designers have made this the only way, but does that remove any culpability from us? Maybe it does, but having played through this experience I will certainly think more about all of my game choices. We only have the options to accomplish what the designers of games craft for us, but we also have the choice to never enter Dubai. We do not need to buy these games that upon closer examination are glorification of violence perpetrated by us through mechanics. I am not against violent video games. I am against engaging with them at the cost of forgetting what they mean. In a way, I am a paradox with respect to what Spec Ops is attempting to communicate. I do not buy military shooters, but I am very interested in using games' mechanics, narrative, and visuals to deliver a deeper meaning to the player. This is what art does. My only hope is that others who NEED to experience its message play the game.

The intentions of Spec Ops are not a resounding success, but they are closer than anyone has come so far. That gives me hope.

Walker out.

Press Package of Reviews:

Errant Signal's discussion.
(Errant Signal is one of my favorite game bloggers and meshes well with my ideas. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel.)

Yahtzee's (uncharacteristically glowing) Zero Punctuation Review 

Something Awful Discussion Thread -- Hugely Impassioned opinions both for and against the game.

Tom Bissell's Review

Horror and Badassery

Alright, let’s get one thing straight: I apologize for not posting, but I can’t really feel bad about it because I didn’t have much time to play or write this week. I have been able to explore roughly half of the second level of the Stygian Abyss, but I don’t think I have enough material to make a whole post. I don’t want to leave you high and dry, so I thought I would go back and touch on a subject I mentioned during the last entry (item degradation) and use it to attack a larger subject about empowerment in video games.

One of my favorite mechanics for evoking fear and desperation from a player is knowledge that each use of a weapon or item will bring it one step closer to destruction. The problem is that this game play element also requires some serious balancing and play testing to prevent frustration or outright invalidation of the game. If the items degrade too slowly there is no need to be careful with their use, but if they wear down even slightly faster than they should it can lead to frustration and possibly the inability to finish. I am still not sure where Ultima Underworld falls on this spectrum as my character is low level and I have only found one weapon that I would honestly say is in good shape. My ability to get more efficient use from weapons should improve as I level up in the game… hopefully. Regardless, it has made me reflect on this mechanic used in other games and how it may be one of the most effective building blocks of an experience that exists.

The Horror of Survival

“Survival Horror” is a genre that gets tossed around regularly as a misnomer for games featuring zombies and Lovecraftian abominations. These elements are scary and can be outright terrifying in some cases, but only pay service to the second half of the label. What about the capital-s survival? Many games that were developed early in this genre (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, System Shock) starve players for resources including ammunition, guns, consumable items, and all other matters of aid. While playing Silent Hill, I remember being afraid to enter the next door because I knew I only had one health drink left and my character was already bleeding from every hole in his body. What could be in there? Another health drink? Just more monsters to finish me off? That is the horror of survival that I associate with the genre.

Ultima Underworld can be classified as survival horror since it not only features darkened corridors, headless monsters, and maze-like architecture, but also stretches the player’s limits by (literally) starving him or her of resources. Old daggers lying around the dungeon snap like firewood in the middle of battle, torches burn out while traversing ledges over chasms of unknown depth, and meals must be sought out by raiding goblin camps while starving. The knowledge that each use of life giving equipment could be its last brings anxiety and outright discomfort to me in some cases. I like this feeling, but am afraid that the rapid degradation I have experienced may leave me in a lurch as I head further underground.

[The gun or the wrench? Your choice.]

System Shock 2 also walks this line, but to much better effect. Unlike Ultima Underworld, System Shock placed much more emphasis on ranged combat using pistols, grenade launchers, and even more exotic alien weapons. Unfortunately, these powerful weapons also suffer from loss of quality that you can see ticking down from ten to one until they finally jam in the middle of a deadly firefight. The genius trick up the sleeve of the developers is that melee weapons do not degrade, giving players another equally horrifying option: run into the face of these terrible creatures and begin bashing them in close combat. I enjoyed this approach much better when combined with severely limited ammunition as it made me less likely to be stuck in an unwinnable state. I had the knowledge that it is possible to defeat enemies throughout the game using melee weapons, even though it is much more dangerous. If all of my weapons turn to dust in Ultima Underworld, I may just be in serious trouble. Of course… I could rely on using more magic…

The Real Problem

A common saying these days is people ‘play games to feel like a badass’. Well, that may be true, but simply giving me tools I did not earn does not make ME feel like a badass. It makes me feel like I am playing a boring game. Let’s take two examples: God of War and Dark Souls. Now I know I keep heading back to the well of Souls, but I think it’s important to stick to similar genres when comparing games. On the surface, these two games can be described in very similar terms: you are a hero who must head into danger, fight enemies while increasing the effectiveness (i.e. ‘level) of your weapons, and become powerful enough to face the final boss in an action game focused on melee combat. Please just allow me to jettison the fact that GoW is not an RPG among other fundamental differences, but I do think they look similar to someone who has played neither and is a good starting point.

God of War chooses the more common focus of games produced recently in that it throws hundreds of weak enemies at the player making him or her feel amazing and following it up with a boss that has some puzzle or gimmick to it. This can be fun, but in my experience it ends up with me pressing X on the Playstation controller for an hour until I get bored of waiting until the next cut scene. (Please remember this is editorialized on purpose, so don’t go nuts GoW people). The ‘badass-ness’ of the game comes from killing hundreds of puny enemies, but I just feel annoyed and empty at the end. I don’t feel like I necessarily earned it.

[Even two of these 'easy' enemies together can ruin your day when you start Dark Souls.]

Contrast that with Dark Souls which makes literally every enemy in the game deadly. I’ve been killed by the lowest hollow in the game as many times as I have by the final boss. The difference is I return to the game a player who can now defeat almost every enemy with no problem and I feel like a DESERVING badass. I feel empowered because the designers gave me the opportunity to improve and grow my skill rather than copping out and tossing walking bullseyes at me that I can roll over to make me feel important.

What does all that have to do with degradation and survival horror? Well, let me hit it. The player cannot truly feel like a badass who has earned his status until he or she has truly had everything taken away. Left to scratch survival from meager resources and skill pools that grow with experience and knowledge of the rules of the game rather than being bestowed by the god of the game: the designer. Ultima Underworld and other true survival horror games do this effectively by making the player grow along with the game and trusting that he or she has enough patience to invest some time into developing skill and knowledge.

This isn’t just restricted to survival horror either. How great does it feel to return to original towns in Might & Magic to find you can slay monsters that used to eat you whole with the flick of a finger? Or what about replaying challenge stages in Peggle after trudging through the campaign to find your skill has increased to a Zen-like status when you clear an entire course that you used to struggle with. What about when you finally beat the Heat in NBA 2K when you used to struggle with whatever team is the worst? (I don’t really know basketball.)

The key is to produce a badass player and not simply make him or her ‘feel like a badass’. Provide the tools and means to become great, but do not simply grant it. This feels cheap and unearned, much like in real life.

--Backlog Killer

41 - The Next Level

I was a little worried I would end up eating some of my words after the initial gush about Ultima Underworld, but after exploring the first floor of the Stygian Abyss my hopes are high that this will not be necessary. I will divide the post into two sections: Adventuring and Mechanics to separate the story of my travels with discussion about the game itself. These adventures have revealed some things I really like about the game and others that don't sit as well with me. However, none of these are serious problems and tend to pop up in most old games.

The Adventure

When I last posted, I was flying very high while exploring Level 1 of the dungeon and had stopped after mapping about 30% of its layout. I continued the project by swimming up every branch of the river that runs through the dungeon and investigating any shores I was able to wade onto. What I did NOT count on is this little swim delivering me directly into the backyard of the Grey Goblins! When I emerged from the source of the river at the far north of the map, drenched in slimy water, I opened the first door I encountered and found a room full of the things. Remembering the advice of the human I found I was immediately on guard, but they did not attack me. In fact, the goblins seemed to be relatively intelligent.

After chatting to a few of the grunts wandering around, I actually had a chat with the leader of the Grey Goblins who was quite pleasant and also a bit under his wife's thumb. I did not find much equipment, but I was very interested in the implications of my discovery. In many old games, including famous ones like Baldur's Gate, intel you receive on potential enemies is mostly correct save for plot twists that may occur. I was not expecting to get a biased or even racist opinion that held no real consequences besides that of bringing believability to the world. The goblins had captured Bragit and held him, but they didn't attack me. Had he done something to them? Was he not what he seemed? Was there a misunderstanding? It also allowed role playing options such as trying to pry information out of the leader, lying about having talked to the Green Goblins, and other interesting choices. I kept honest and said I had not spoken to the other groups and was given a little background on the factions.

[Just like trying to get my buddy on the horn.]

After talking to the Grey Goblins, I decided to visit the Green variety that were just as amiable. I discussed the history of the groups with their leader and learned that both the humans and goblins were commissioned to colonize the abyss. Unfortunately, the leader of the expedition was killed leaving each faction to fall apart without guidance causing the current situation. I found the grave of this leader, Korianous, and several nearby items including a strange resilient sphere. I'm sure these will come into play later. I was also able to convince their chef to reveal his special recipe for "Rot Worm Stew". Yum.

Getting to Korianous’s grave was easy and involved the jumping puzzle PetrusOctavianus mentioned in the last post. The puzzle consists of a room with eight pillars, four of which are each a little higher than the last to form stepping stones going up. The other four are flush with the ground and have different textures: dirt, stone, or marble. Using levers in a nearby room, these can be raised higher or lower to form the lower set of "stairs" allowing the player to jump up to the highest. By simply setting each lever one setting higher than the last this is easily accomplished. The jumps are also aided by the use of SHIFT+J which does a standing long jump instead of having to run and jump. Sometimes this can result in a physics bug and the player bouncing off of walls and into pits. The standing long jump has a set distance and is far more stable. Retrieving the rewards listed above was also a huge help. (Especially the giant axe I got!)

[A bit of world building history to be missed if you don't talk to the goblins.]

After talking to all of the factions, including the humans, I mapped out the rest of the level as thoroughly as I could. The only event of note was a harrowing fight against a giant poisonous spider the Gray Goblins had been complaining about. After defeating it (with lots of healing spells) I picked up some of the strong thread that makes up its web. I will probably try to attach one to a pole I have to make a fishing pole, but who knows what else it may be useful for?

I also found the door to the shrine on the first level. Much like Ultima 4, the abyss contains shrines corresponding to each virtue that can be prayed to in order to increase character stats. Unfortunately, the door is locked and I cannot find a key that works anywhere. Should I come back to this later or have I missed something major? Anyway, having done all I can, I took one of the dark stairways down to Level 2 to face even nastier dangers that surely await me!

[(Almost) Complete map of Level 1. Conspicuously missing the ankh shaped shrine, though.]

The Mechanics

I discussed the mechanics of movement and manipulating items a little in the last post, but I did not mention anything about the use of the items. I have not really had any problems using items in the world. It is easy to click on food to eat it or the bedroll to sleep. Keys are selected and then used on doors in the environment to unlock them just like in a point and click adventure. One mechanic that I AM having trouble with is item degradation.

As the player uses weapons in combat or gets hit by enemies, both weapons and armor gradually degrade. If they are completely destroyed, they disappear from the game and a replacement must be found. I think this is a great mechanic that stresses the importance of items and their scarcity in the dungeon, but it could have been better balanced. Almost every swing of my weapon causes the message "Weapon damaged" to appear in the feedback window. In one battle with two goblins I went through one dagger and two cudgels. Since this battle, my backpack looks more like a kitchen drawer with all the knives and other stuff in it just in case my weapons give out. It has not caused any serious problems for me yet, but I can imagine it being a huge problem as situations get more dangerous. I will have to be more careful to avoid combat unless a more permanent solution is available. It may be time to dip into some offensive spells...

I will discuss more mechanics that interest me as they show up, but you are more than welcome to bring up any other topics you would like to discuss in the comments section. I am very impressed with the design of the game, so far, and consider these minor complaints to be nothing close to serious problems for me.

What's next?

Moving down to Level 2, I have planted my silver seed and am ready to start exploring. The level looks more like a mineshaft with wood paneled walls. I hope it is not too mazelike, but the inclusion of an automap makes this a mild annoyance. Stay tuned.

I have not had much time to play my other games, but I have started playing Spec Ops: The Line after learning that it is more than just a modern warfare shooter. I look forward to seeing what happens as I understand it is a commentary about video game violence and goes beyond what most games attempt to do to make a statement. Whether it succeeds or not still makes it admirable. I just hope that game designers don't get too mired down in irony and satire as this can lead to even bigger problems.

Follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) and feel free to leave any comments or suggestions you have. I am also thinking about getting some software to record moments of game play, but I am not sure where to start. If any of you have any experience with this, feel free to leave a message as well.

--Backlog Killer

40 - Past is Future

After playing only five minutes of Ultima Underworld, I was already floored by its brilliance.

OK, that may sound a little dramatic, but I am extremely impressed with the quality of game design and imagination that has presented itself while playing Ultima Underworld. It plays like a modern action dungeon crawler that has been stuffed into a retro game wrapper. The clunky user interface and cumbersome controls cannot weigh down the innovative game play and feeling of immersion that shines through. Although this may sound gushing, and my tune may change in the future, I can certainly see why Ultima Underworld is held up as one of the greatest PC games of all time. It is a technological marvel for the time it came out and this experience will have a huge impact on my feeling about all similar games I have played and all those I will play in the future.

The background of Ultima Underworld.

Ultima Underworld does not have much of a story, admittedly. I mentioned that the original design was hastily shoved into the Ultima canon in the last post and it shows. The introduction starts with the player being pulled into the world of Britania, much like in the other games, except this time through sleep instead of a moon gate. The player appears in the bedroom of Baron Uldrich’s daughter only to see a cloaked form kidnap her and toss her to a lumbering troll waiting below her window. As she is carried off into the woods, castle guards burst into the room and assume that I am responsible for the kidnapping. Even though I claim to be the Avatar, the savior of Britania, they do not believe me and tossed me into the Stygian Abyss to rescue the young girl. This ridiculous theme of not recognizing the most famous hero in all of Britania’s history occurs in almost every Ultima game and is often used as a cover for copy protection to make sure “thou art truly the Avatar”. To prove my worth and innocence I am thrown into the Stygian Abyss dressed only in what I can assume are my pajamas and given meager rations and a torch. It seems like they would have given me more resources if they wanted to ensure my success in the rescue of the Baron’s daughter.

[I think the voice actors were in house talent.]

I have no intention of lambasting the story of Ultima Underworld since it was added so late and was never intended to be there in the first place. The real star of the show here is the simulation of dungeon exploration and the discovery of exciting places and scary creatures. It does well enough to set up a simple plot and motivation for exploration which is more than I need. The real story emerges as the player explores the dungeon and deals with its dangers.

Exploring the Underworld

Ultima Underworld fits squarely into a family of games that I like to describe as ‘respectfully difficult’. Not that I want to be punished all the time, but I appreciate when the designers of a game give the player enough information and tools to get started while also trusting him or her to be clever enough to head off on their own. Many games I have loved do this including STALKER, Deus Ex, and Dark Souls.

This game begins the minute you step into the dungeon from the outside. Lighting up a torch, I found a bag containing several useful tools including a dagger. The wall also bore etchings describing a previous attack by a group of dungeon denizens that evidently went poorly, thus removing any hope that I can escape the way I came in. I continued down the hallway toward whatever dangers awaited me.

[Who knows what adventures await down this first darkened tunnel?]

Exploring the dungeon is both tense and exciting. Every corner reveals new secrets and possible treasures. Trash scattered on the ground can be examined to find useful equipment and items. In true Ultima fashion, almost all of the objects littering the dungeon can be picked up or moved around. Just around the corner from the entrance I found two magical runes that can be arranged to cast spells. I found more runes and a rune bag on the corpse of a previous adventurer so that I could begin experimenting with magic, although I have not had the chance to yet. It is already evident that I need a keen eye to make sure I check every item to give me the best equipment and chance of survival. I also found a silver seed that I can plant and remove on any patch of dirt so that I may be resurrected from the sprouting silver tree. It operates like the VitaChambers in Bioshock, but encourages some strategy because it must be moved to safe places so that the player may regroup and continue after each death.

[Low-tech VitaChambers!]

The twists and turns of dungeon passages guarantee that no player will follow a set path through. It is more than likely no two players will explore the space the same way giving very different experiences each time. I found myself getting lost on several occasions, even though there is a highly functional automap system in the game. Not only does it display hallways and natural features, but also allows the player to write notes on the map to remind him or her of any notable locations. I plan on using this feature liberally.

[My discoveries and various notes.]

The coolest thing I have found on the first level of the dungeon is an entire river running from East to West. I was glad to find it is not an instant death trap when I fell into it and swam up the river for quite some time discovering secret alcoves and item caches. The scope of the map blew me away. I was expecting a quick start to the game as it is only the first level, but the designers had other ideas. Not only do the mysteries of the river interest me, but I also ran into an NPC who informed me that the world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. He had wandered from an entire colony of humans living INSIDE the dungeon and warned me about warring factions of goblins that infest other parts of the level. I ran into a few green goblins and am not looking forward to the more dangerous grey breed he described. I have yet to find the human base and am just bumbling about trying doors, exploring nooks, and fighting small animals.

[Getting the low down on level one from this dude named Bragit.]

Combat in Ultima Underworld is very simplistic so far. All that is required is to enter combat mode by clicking the icon in the UI (or pressing the F5 key) and holding down the attack button until the gem glows green indicating the character’s wind-up is complete. Upon releasing the mouse button, the character will swing/thrust the weapon hitting any enemy the player is facing. So far I have only fought weak cave dwellers such as slugs, bats, rot worms, and a spider. I also ran into a green goblin that pelted me with rocks from a sling but went down without much trouble. I picked up the sling but haven’t tried ranged combat yet. A major problem is that the small window and slowness of looking up and down make awareness of monsters difficult. On several occasions I did not realize I was being attacked until I noticed my health indicator (the read vial) dwindling to almost nothing. Luckily, the game includes dynamic music that changes in the presence of monsters making this occur less often as I learn the game. I was able to heal myself by taking a nap using a bedroll I found, but I forgot to extinguish my torch. When I awoke it was completely burned out forcing me to light my only remaining torch. I need to remember this is a simulation and there is no ‘easy mode’ here. I love it.

[Bragit says the ankh represents safe areas with humans... how do I get in?]


I hope to complete the first level before the next update. My current plan is to explore the rest of the river and use a silver key I found to unlock a door marked with a skull that I had to bypass earlier. After that, I will search for the group of humans I was told about so that I can trade for more items. I am running low on torches and food and do not feel comfortable going too far until I get more. I have found pieces of armor here and there, but it is mostly leather and will need to be upgraded before I face more difficult enemies. Wish me luck on that front.

As for other news, I have been playing a few other games when I have shorter periods of time available. The Binding of Isaac is an action roguelike that has been eating lots of my fifteen to twenty minute gaps and I recommend it highly. It plays a little like The Legend of Zelda with top down dungeon exploration and items, but it is much more difficult. The challenge is refreshing and the strategy of finding and using certain items is very deep. The imagery is also haunting. Most of the art draws on the themes of mental illness, psychosis, and religion to produce a very disturbing game world consisting of deformed monsters, feces, and other darker corners of the mind. I recommend you check it out because the game is very good, but certainly not for the faint of heart.

In addition to The Binding of Isaac, I have also started replaying one of my favorite games: Dark Souls. This is in anticipation of the new show friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield are releasing later this month titled The Bonfireside Chat. The show is a podcast about any and everything Dark Souls. Each episode will be dedicated to certain areas of the game discussing their lore, monsters, and strategies. Given how deep and opaque these are in Dark Souls, I am anticipating a very stimulating conversation. Be sure to check it out and join the Facebook group to give them some support. As always, I highly recommend you check out the other shows on Duckfeed.tv as well.

Join me next time when I will (hopefully) be finished with the first floor of the Stygian Abyss and ready to dive deeper into its mysteries. Also, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) to get real time updates to my progress!

--Backlog Killer

39 - Ultima Underworld

Ultima Underworld (along with the rest of the Ultima series) is one of the major reasons I started this blog. Despite my broad experience with games, I still have major blind spots I was seeking to fill during my spending binges by buying classic games as they came out on modern distribution platforms. Ultima Underworld was one of the major games  I was unable to play when it was released because of availability or insufficient PC power. Now is my chance to finally leap into what many PC gamers consider to be one of the best (and earliest) first person adventures in gaming history.

History of Ultima Underworld

Released in 1992, Ultima Underworld is a three dimensional dungeon exploration simulator developed by Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin Systems. If Blue Sky Productions does not sound familiar, it is probably because it became more famous after a merger when it changed its name to Looking Glass Studios. Looking Glass developed many other classic games such as Thief 1 and 2 as well as System Shock 1 and 2. The influence of Ultima Underworld can easily be seen in these projects as they all set out to simulate their environments with maximum interactivity and innovative concepts. The original System Shock was even developed as a direct response to Ultima Underworld. A dungeon in space.

[A space station is awesome for a cyberpunk horror/adventure/rpg.]

Despite its many advances, Ultima Underworld was still very much a product of its time with obvious similarities to other three dimensional dungeon crawlers such as Wizardry and Might & Magic. What it did differently was attempt to remove any abstraction from game play by allowing as many actions as possible. Players were able to look up and down (this wasn't even possible in Doom), pick up or move any object, move freely without a grid system, and interact with systems in the dungeon such as fishing and traps. The game engine even featured fully texture mapped architecture and creature sprites moving around in real time! These concepts and design decisions have lived on to this very day as evidenced by the recent blockbuster Skyrim. Heck, it even did slopes and I don't remember that really happening until the Build engine.

The innovations did not come without any growing pains. Even at the time, the interface of Ultima Underworld was clunky and unwieldy, encouraging the player to use the mouse for movement, spells, and combat. When compared to the use of hotkeys and buttons on the user interface, this seemed to be a bit of a step back in terms of efficiency. But who had ever done anything like this before? The developers and players were still trying to find their legs in this new type of game. I remember playing System Shock which uses a similar user interface and only being mildly annoyed. I would do anything and fight any system to simply walk around and marvel the beautiful, interactive 3D environment.

[The UI is a little obtrusive, but it also allowed faster rendering of the 3D environment!]

Other players felt the same way, too. The game sold well enough to warrant a sequel that was released the following year, even though it is not spoken about as fondly. Another interesting fact is that the dungeon simulation was being developed on its own with no association with the Ultima brand. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series and then CEO of Origin, thought it would be a good idea to attach it to the series and the rest is history. Despite difficulties in production, implementation, and the risk of it not even being released, Ultima Underworld came out and was a hit. It truly was a "Change the world project" as Warren Spector stated as shown by the success of similar games like the Elder Scrolls series. Ultima Underworld may truly be one of the most important games ever made.

What is my history?

I have no history with Ultima Underworld. It is probably one of my largest blind spots in gaming history and will most likely color many of my opinions regarding games I've already played and will play in the future. I came to know Origin Systems through the demo for System Shock which appeared on a PC Gamer demo CD that I got along with a magazine from the grocery store. My friends and I played it endlessly, enamored by the seemingly infinite possibilities the engine and systems provided. I did end up finding the full version of System Shock, but Ultima Underworld went completely under my radar since we bought our PC around 1994 or 1995.

Incidentally, System Shock has been worked on tirelessly by modders to get it working on modern systems. It is freely available and can fit on a thumb drive to move to different computers. I highly recommend you try it!

Even though I have only performed minor play tests with Ultima Underworld to ensure its functionality, I can already see many yarns being pulled and attached to other gaming experiences. It is early in the evolution of first person action RPGs, but contains all of the required systems that make them fun: combat, NPC interaction, mapping, dangerous traps and tricks, and other goodies I will discuss as they come up. I am looking forward to stepping into the dungeon and seeing how long I can survive.

It is also apparent that the game was hastily brought into the Ultima canon and is tangential at best. I will include it with the games, but will also try to avoid any slams that relate to the game not adhering to the Ultima stories with regard to the Avatar et. all.

I look forward to seeing you next time when I finally enter the Stygian Abyss in 2013, twenty years after Ultima Underworld’s release.

If you are interested in the story of Looking Glass Studios, you simply MUST listen to the Looking Glass Podcast in which former employees of the development team talk about their projects, the culture of the studio, and tell tons of other interesting stories. The development of Ultima Underworld is frequently discussed and some of the interviews include well known names such as Ken Levine. I listened to the whole series last year and enjoyed every minute. The podcast series has finished so you can listen at your leisure.

Feel free to leave any comments or hints you have for beginning my journey, but please try to avoid spoilers. I also hope you will follow me on Twitter @backlogkiller. I like to live tweet games I am playing as well as updates about the blog. I hope you all are having a wonderful new year and I can't wait to see where it goes.

--Backlog Killer

Happy New Year!

Happy (Belated? Early?) New Year depending on where you are! I look forward to more backlong conquering in the year to come and hope you, too, finally decide to tackle your games sitting in the corner. Be sure to have a good one!

The Ultima Underworld intro will follow shortly.

--Backlog Killler

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas everyone! And if you don't celebrate Christmas, happy holidays! I've had a great year and a good time working on this blog and I really appreciate all of you, even the silent readers. I've accomplished more than I thought I would when I started writing. Heck, I'm happy I finished Planescape: Torment for the first time since high school since I've had so many false starts between then and now.

I have really come to appreciate games in a different way than I used to and enjoy weighing their pros, cons, and meaning to me in a constructive manner. I never thought I would be writing about The Nameless One representing capitulation with your past or Psychonauts being a metaphor for mental illnesses, but there it is. I have also gotten used to using a more editorial voice to add a personal touch to the blog instead of the standard "I did this then that" play through. It has helped me personally and it feels therapeutic to be as open with all of you as I can.

 I am afraid I won't be able to leave a message tomorrow (Christmas ticks over in 4 hours here), so I wanted to be sure to get it up here.

Thank you so much for reading, for your contributions, and for your interest. I really appreciate it and look forward to even more fun in the new year!

Backlog Killer

38 - Going Underground

Well I apologize for the lack of updates, but I have been doing pretty well. Christmas is coming and I finally get a nice (two day) vacation to relax and do whatever I want. In the mean time, I have been spreading myself a little thin game-wise by testing STALKER: Call of Pripyat and getting back into some games I have finished before such as Fallout 2 and Dark Souls. I have also picked up the THQ Humble Bundle to add to my list of games, but I am not too optimistic about Metro 2033 after my STALKER experience. Suffice it to say, I have plenty of games to keep me busy for a while.

So what’s up with STALKER?

Basically, I can’t get the game to work well enough for my schedule and sanity. The game looks great and runs pretty well while I am playing, but is extremely unstable when loading and unloading data. In my experience, the X-Ray engine crashed every time a map was unloaded, loaded, or reloaded after a death. Considering how threatening the game systems are and how painfully mortal the character is, this problem is a huge barrier for entry. I also experienced random crashes when just exiting to the menu making saves that are not quicksaves a dangerous prospect.

[The game looked better than it worked.]

I am very disappointed because STALKER was one of the games I was looking forward to playing the most. I completed the first game and played over thirty hours of Call of Pripyat a few years ago but never finished it. Dipping back into the game, I realized that I love it so much because it is not so much an FPS but a simulation. The game is based much more around dealing with its systems than finding stuff to shoot. It is one of my favorite set-ups for a game in which you are given a mission, dropped in the play area, and told “good luck”.

STALKER literally begins in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a few rations, a rifle, a pistol, and some ammunition. It is up to the player to get to know the area, establish contact with other STALKERS, get some better equipment, and investigate some crashed helicopters. How it is done, when it is done, and even IF it is done is entirely up to the player. It is possible to get lost in the world and become a bandit who murders and steals from STALKERS who wandered to far from the base camp if you want to. The experience does a good job simulating what it is like being alone with no authority figure telling you what to do and it works very well. The game is brutal (in violence and difficulty) and bleak, but very deep in terms of things to explore in the world and things to do. I wish I could have taken the journey with you.

What I’ve been playing.

After listening to friends of the blog Watch Out forFireballs play the original Fallout, I was inspired to begin playing Fallout 2 again for probably the first time since I beat it in high school. When I wasn't feeling so well, I would always decide to begin with the first Fallout with the intention of finishing the entire series. Of course, this never happened and, even if I completed Fallout 1, I would not want to continue. Being more patient and ready to engage has been a treat. Even though I am still currently in the first major location, the small trapper town of Klamath, I am enjoying the game immensely. The vivid descriptions and humorous writing are excellent for filling in the holes left by low fidelity graphics. It is very similar to my experience of playing Planescape: Torment for the blog in which developers recognize the limitations of their technology and play to its strengths rather than trying to pull a smoke and mirrors act to cover them up. Hopefully, my gunslinging, fast talking gamblin’ ramblin’ man will be able to save his village and unlock other sinister mysteries that may threaten the post-nuclear American southwest before it's too late!

In addition to Fallout 2, I have started a new character in one of my favorite game releases of the last few years: Dark Souls. I’m sure all of you know about this difficult game, so I won’t harp on it too much other than to say it’s great to be treated with respect by a game. Much like STALKER, Dark Souls drops the player into the world, says “good luck, jerk”, and immediately begins to assault him or her. I finished the game before with a min-maxed build that makes the game relatively easier, but this time I am using a decidedly more challenging dexterity based build relying on avoidance and backstabs. Wish me luck!

What’s next?

Ah yes, what is next? I thought about making my own choice, but I decided to leave it up to the random number generator. I was pleasantly surprised:

Well, folks, just after traversing the Stygian Abyss in Ultima 4, it looks like I need to re-enter in Ultima Underworld. This is a huge blindspot in my backlog considering I’ve never played the game at all. I assume a lot has changed in the Abyss since I found the Codex of Infinite wisdom, so join me as I investigate what has happened.

And finally…

While the blog is growing slowly but surely, I would like to thank those who have helped and encouraged me. My good friend, Nathan Madison, has been a big encouragement for my writing and has recently published his own book: Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comic Books, 1920-1960. It is being published by McFarland Books and is well worth a look if you are interested in pulp fiction and classic comics. He continues to work tirelessly and I look forward to what he does next. (Watch out for those spiders in your comics, though, buddy.)

I also want to thank Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield of the Watch Out for Fireballs podcast, once again. They produce one of the highest quality video game podcasts I’ve listened to and are continuing to have great conversations about classic games. I encourage you to listen to their recent discussion of the original Fallout and other classic games on Itunes or Stitcher. I also HIGHLY recommend you check out the other shows on their network Duckfeed.tv: The Level is a round table modern video games discussion show, Those Damn Ross Kids which is a comedy podcast featuring brothers Kris and Kole Ross, as well as Gary Butterfield’s new show The Pitch in which he and his pal discuss cockamamie schemes for new products. While you are there, please be sure to listen to Gary’s Dead Idea Valhalla Podcast which was an inspiration for my openness in this blog. It’s a great show with good stories, comedy bits, and cool music to listen to.

Finally, be sure to check out the gaming community website CheerfulGhost.com. Jon Dodson has created a community where you can easily discuss the games you own with other players. Link your account to your Steam ID, Playstation 3 account, and XBOX account to have all your games added automatically! Part of the reason I started this blog was to start discussion about what I find interesting in games and this website is a great place to do the same.

I’ll see you next time when we venture into the Stygian Abyss in Ultima Underworld.

--Backlog Killer

An Unfortunate Announcement

Well, I hate to say it, but STALKER: Call of Pripyat will not be featured for the next entry. After modding, umodding, and experimenting for several hours, I have found the game to be too unstable to play for the blog. This is probably because of my shoddy graphics card (didn't buy a "gaming rig"), but I had hoped the game was old enough to make this a non-issue. Compounded with the instability of the X-Ray engine the game runs on, the whole process has been a nightmare.

Here's the problem: STALKER crashes almost every time I die and the map needs to reload, I switch to another map, or other reasons I can't seem to determine. Seeing as dying happens a lot and has already caused serious frustration, I don't want to put undue pressure on myself. This game is going to the bottom of the pile until I get a better computer.

As a younger gamer, I used to be obsessed with keeping up with the latest technology and having everything run perfectly at maximum graphics settings, but now I just can't seem to get myself to care that much. I want to enjoy the game rather than fighting with it to get it working. I realize this is a major part of PC gaming and I learned a lot about computers by dealing with conflicts and boot orders, but I don't have time for it anymore.

I am going to take a few days to figure out where I will go next, whether it be picking another random game or doing another Player's Choice. Thanks for your patience, everyone.

--Backlog Killer