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Ask any fan of computer-based RPGs what their favourite series of games is, and you can make a pretty accurate guess by their answer how old they are. If the answer is the Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age, then they're probably in their teens. If they reply with 'Final Fantasy', then they're probably now in their 20s. And if the answer cometh 'Hail Ultima, king of adventure games!', then they are probably well in the grasp of their second mid-life crisis, or are one of the peculiar cult of jaded players that are currently abandoning the vapid slew of current releases in favour of the vintage classic. Hopefully I fall into the latter category and haven't become too existential just yet.
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny had a lot to live up to. Its 1985 predecessor, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, had done as much to shake up the whole concept and potential of video games as Elite had done a few years earlier. Up until that point, RPGs typically revolved around the predictable and paper-thin premise of 'you must save the land from the Evil Skull-Wizard because, err, you just have to, OK?!'. Ultimas I-III fell foul of this unimaginative rent-a-plot, but IV turned everything on its head by introducing a moral crisis as the main villain, and as the hero you had to do genuinely heroic things and master the 8 virtues that constituted the new philosophy put in place to become 'the Avatar', a spiritual leader for the people of Britannia. From this point on, the Ultima series set the bar stratospherically high for games that challenged the player to make tough moral decisions during a deep, character driven story.
The game starts with you, the newly appointed Avatar of Britannia, having returned to Earth and not been summoned or able to travel back to Britannia for a long time. All but ready to give up hope of ever returning, a moongate appears in the mysterious stone circle in your back garden, beckoning you to step through it as you sense Britannia is in peril. Returning, you find that the land you came to call home for so long has been corrupted, with Lord British (the ruler of Britannia) missing, and the unjust ruler Lord Blackthorn having taken his place. The principles of Love, Truth and Courage which you help to found having been corrupted by the emergence of the three Shadowlords (who look a bit like Nazgul from Lord of the Rings), with Blackthorn perverting the humanist virtues to their most extreme interpretation to use as a political tool to oppress everyone. With a bounty on your head, as well as those of your old companions, it is up to you evade the tyrannical armies after you and to restore the freedom and peace of the land. But things are no longer black and white in the world of Ultima.. Are Blackthorn and his cronies really evil, or have the Shadowlords corrupted them? And if so, are they really responsible for their actions? Should they be shown compassion and forgiveness, or the hard edge of justice for their crimes? It is the moral dilemmas like this that make Ultima V stand out so well.
The game plays in exactly the same way as Ultima IV did, which means anyone familiar with the series could drop straight in. The top-down tile set view is the same, with inventory and statistic windows on the right to give information about your party of characters. Commands are given through the arrow keys to move, direct combat and interact with people in the world of Britannia, including dialogue and spending your hard-earned loot on better armour and equipment. The gaming world is huge, with forests and castles and towns to explore, as well as monster-filled dungeons which can be punishingly difficult to conquer.
The story unfolds mainly through talking to people, and this is where it falls down a bit. Too much is given away too early, as it is established what the Shadowlords are, and what they are are up to, within the first few minutes of playing. Ever heard of building suspense? One redeeming feature of this setup though is that it does give the player the feeling that Britannia is a living, breathing world that continues on in your absence, and doesn't just have the inhabitants hanging around waiting for you to turn up and solve all their problems (like in the abomination that is Ultima IX). Where it does get more interesting is talking to your former companions, as they are all on the run, quite desperate and all have different opinions about how to tackle the challenges that face you. Wanted posters with their faces are pasted all over the towns and cities you visit; the crash from hero to outlaw here is all too real. All of this calls for you to be all decisive and Avatar-y, which is good.
Your status as Avatar is also in need of constant maintenance, having you lead by example and be all virtuous still in a society which has a horribly twisted view of the virtues. Of course, you always have the choice to act like a total jerk to people and go on mad killing sprees, but it's not really recommended, especially as you are treated as something less than heroic by much of the population. With Lord British gone, your delayed absence has been noted and the population are now either entranced by Blackthorn and his interpretation of the virtues, or so fearful of his rule that they dare not speak out against him. Winning over the people of Britannia is not easy, and is the most human part of the story. For much of this game the Avatar is treated as an outsider, with Blackthorn and his puppet politicans less than thrilled to see you turn up. This is a really cool twist given the ending of Ultima IV, where you essentially become a demi-god. Ultima V brings you crashing back down to earth with a bump.
All the usual RPG elements are present, with dungeons full of monsters and treasure, systems of magic and levelling up and so on, all of which is fairly intuitive and nicely laid out. The combat system is very demanding though, and requires an awful lot of patience as you will no doubt get wiped out on a regular basis. Fortunately, you can save your game, which was a luxury back in the 80s.
Modern gamers are almost certainly going to struggle with this title though, as it is so antiquated it will alienate almost everyone, if you can even get the thing to walk in DOSBox properly. If you are interested in vintage games with good stories it is worth a look, and can be found on the now very rare 'Ultima Collection' box set, or downloaded as abandonware.
However, this review isn't just one big nostalgia fest, it comes with a bonus section. Hurrah!
~Ultima V: Lazarus~
In 2005, an extremely talented and dedicated team of independent modders breathed new life into Ultima V. With EA Games sitting on the rights to Ultima and all its content, there is virtually no hope for fans of the series seeing another single player Ultima game as EA squeeze all the cash they can out of Ultima Online. Not that any fan of the game would meet a new title with anything other than a sense of creeping dread after the gut-churningly horrible eighth and ninth games.
Anyway, Team Lazarus, as they are known, put in an enormous amount of work to create a total conversion mod for the hack n' slash game Dungeon Siege. With its adaptable engine and game mechanics, it provided a logical platform with which to work. The original story of Ultima V remains unchanged, as do much of the side quests, and it is easy to tell that the team really know the backstory and characters of the Ultima world. The dialogue is really well written, with new characters and quests added to flesh out the experience, and the whole of Britannia is realised well, with familiar towns and landmarks instantly recognisable. Encounters with the Shadowlords are creepy and atmospheric, and there is a palpable sense of fear amongst the population of not only these new demons, but also the political tyrant on the throne.
The game mechanics are easy to use, with spell casting, interaction with the world and inventory management all mouse-friendly and intuitive. The attention to detail is great, with everything from swamp boots and moongates, to the Underworld and headless monsters being present and as every fan would want them. Freedom to choose the gender, race and name of the Avatar is implemented, and there are nearly always different options to solve the problems at hand, though the game does tend to steer you towards diplomacy where it is viable. Combat can be paused at any point, which is useful, as it does require some micro-management during the tougher fights to change tactics, formation and chuck spells at enemies.
Graphically, it's a bit dated and clunky, but it doesn't really matter as the story is so strong and the game world lovingly realised. The character portraits are my favourite, drawing inspiration from the ones shown in Ultima VII, but with their own twist and style to them.
To play this wonderful remake of Ultima V, all you need is a copy of Dungeon Siege (the first one mind, the Dungeon Siege II will NOT work) and a decent internet connection to download the hefty zip file that contains all the Lazarus mod resources needed to convert it. You can pick up a copy of Dungeon Siege from Amazon for mere pence these days, so this is a must for anyone who enjoyed Ultima games back in the day. It's a hell of a lot better than the last two official Ultima titles, that's for sure.
The Lazarus website with all its resources is here: http://www.u5lazarus.com/ - I can't praise the team enough for what they've achieved. If only EA had just a fraction of the respect for the fans.