Monday, July 19, 2010

Antagonists: Ultima Underworld 2

When I played Ultima Underworld 2 (which I actually played before the original Ultima Underworld), I came to realise that I loved this style of game. At the time, I probably didn't even think about gaming genres... At the time I think I might have described it to a friend as "like Dungeon Master, except you can move around like Wolfenstein, and you can jump!" At that time, games were games - there wasn't anything more for me except answering the question "Is it fun?" Now, I still expect games to be fun, but I also expect a lot more from them - yes, I'm a demanding gamer. Anyway, plot overview and spoilers to follow...

The game starts with an introduction via a letter acting as written narration for the video. The letter is addressed to "The Avatar", and I quickly assume that must be me. Apparently I defeated "The Guardian" a year ago, and have been invited by one "Lord British" to attend a feast in honour of that victory. But the next morning, a giant black dome forms over the top of the castle, trapping everyone inside. As the game starts, I am the Avatar, and I meet Lord British and along with a host of people who are apparently my friends, try to form a plan to escape the castle. No sooner have we finished talking than an eerie red face appears "Yes, British, hasten to thy vain struggle" it taunts. Obviously this is The Guardian, the one who has sprung this trap.

Like a rat caught in a... big black rock.

As a player, you must then venture beneath the castle, where you find a strange glowing black rock, which appears to be made of the same substance that forms the giant dome around the castle. In a stroke of simplicity, it's called "blackrock". Walking into a lit facet of this octagonal gem, you find yourself teleported to another land, a prison tower manned by goblins. Either fighting or talking your way past them, you find that this tower has its own troubles, and that it too has felt the influence of The Guardian. Within, you find a small blackrock gem and eventually retreat. Returning to the keep, you find the Nystul, a mage, is able to treat the gem, allowing you to fuse it with the blackrock beneath the castle.

The blackrock changes and the ground shakes as you do so, which then allows you to access more worlds through the gem, each of which has been tainted by The Guardian's influence in some way. However, something is amiss in the castle, as one of the inhabitants is murdered by someone or something. You are unable to identify the killer, but tensions are high. You travel to a land called Killorn Keep, which is in a land controlled by The Guardians servants, yet even there you find an ally to your cause. She eventually gives you a rod that allows you to dispel The Guardian's influence. Thus in each land, you discover that you must find a Blackrock Gem to fuse the rock beneath the castle, and use the rod in a specific location to diminish The Guardian's influence.

"What is it?" "It's a hole through time." "Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn't you say?"

Yet as your quest progresses, you discovered that you are betrayed within, as a man named Patterson murders your friend Nelson before you as he is about to tell you something important. You deal with the unrepentant Patterson, but The Guardian has already demonstrated his power once more. The places you visit include: a destroyed mage training academy, a city destroyed by ice, the tomb of a king who does not know he is dead, a glorified gladatioral arena and the mysterious "Ethereal Void". Eventually, you discover that weakening the Blackrock will not be enough, and instead you must perform a ritual... You must capture the essence of an earth djinn in your body, and then using a magical horn, release the djinn with a furious blast that will shatter the blackrock dome.

Even when you are prepared, The Guardian has a last gasp effort to stop you, as his servant Mors Gotha from Killorn Keep invades the castle through the Blackrock gem and attempts to take you and the others hostage. You kill Mors Gotha and make your way to the Throne room, where you destroy the blackrock dome in its entirety. Now, if you want a really long version of the game, complete with screenshots and amusing commentary try this link. It's not complete, but it's still gold.

Ahh, there's nothing like a big angry tree to get you in a fighting mood

First things first - I'd never played (and still have never played) an Ultima game, so I came into the game with zero knowledge of The Guardian, or the world of Britannia. Did that impact on my enjoyment of the game? Not one bit. It felt strange to be told by all these people that I was their friend, and I probably wouldn't be happy with that from a modern game, but I was young and didn't complain. Even now, I'll give the game a pass because of its age and because they probably assumed (incorrectly) that their audience would have familiarity with the series. Yet, right from the start, I got the impression that I didn't like "The Guardian". I've defeated him before, now while I'm celebrating my triumph, he has the gall to strike a grave blow and imprison in the castle with the Lord of the land. Then he taunts me as I seek to find a way out of his trap. Audibly. That's right, he has a voice I can hear rather than just read. In fact, he is the only character in the entire game that is voiced.

So I immediately have a reason to dislike The Guardian - he's placed me in a giant prison that he says will also be my tomb. What's more is that everything you hear about The Guardian is bad. He's always killing, controlling, capturing, enslaving... to the point where when I reached Killorn Keep, which contained his apparently loyal subjects, I wanted to kill them all. In my righteous fury, I would smite all allies of The Guardian. While this proved to be very difficult, I succeeded... eventually... but then found that I couldn't really do much more in the game... good thing I saved beforehand and can reload...

Time for the "stab first and ask questions later" policy

The great thing about the game was that everywhere (else) I went, The Guardian had done something to destroy or corrupt it. He ruined an entire city by turning it into an ice cavern, he annihilated a once bustling mage academy, he created a society in which he who kills the most in brutal combat rules the land. He even tainted the "Ethereal Void" a land of dreams in which nothing makes sense, and a place that should belong to no one. And occasionally he would taunt me... laughing as he sprang a trap, or gloating over the destruction he had wrought within a world. He was even able to turn one of my supposed friends to his fold (or more accurately, back to his fold, as apparently Patterson had served the Guardian before) and have him kill my friends within the castle.

You know what, Guardian? Nobody likes a braggart.

The funny thing about the game is that I never actually get to defeat The Guardian. I destroyed his blackrock dome, but I never faced him. I also have no idea what he might have in store for me (or Brittania) in the future, yet I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I had thwarted his plans and weakened his influence not only in Brittania, but many other lands besides.

The Guardian worked as a antagonist on several levels. Firstly, he gives you a reason to hate him right from the start. He has you imprisoned; you are at his mercy, but even better, he can't kill you. He's not underestimating you, he's just eliminating you from the picture entirely. By the time he realises you're about to defeat him, he sends his best, Mors Gotha, to dispatch you, but she can't stand up to you. He also has his hand in everything and has caused (either directly or indirectly) most of the wrongs that you have to right during the game.

This city sure has gone to the dogs... ehhh, I mean yeti.

For me, I'd say it was the best RPG around until Baldur's Gate was released. The Guardian wasn't the primary reason the game was great, but he was just another good addition to the myriad of places you visited, quests you finished, monsters you vanquished, puzzles you solved... Actually, on that note, at one point I ate a "Mandrake root" and then went to sleep - and woke up in the "Ethereal Void". This allowed me drop a "moonrock" in my dream, which I could then teleport to in order to reach an otherwise unreachable location. Sounds like "drug use related to incentives or rewards" - whoops, I guess it should have been banned in Australia!

But I digress - the fact remains that Ultima Underworld 2 was a great game - and if you're able to deal with "outdated" games, probably still worth a play even now. Otherwise, check out that link giving a run down of (most) of the game. The only suggestion I might give is to not give into the temptation that so freely exists on the Internet nowadays. Don't look for a walkthrough. Tough it out and figure out the puzzles for yourself. When I played this game, I had no walkthrough (heck, I had no Internet!). You don't want to be outsmarted by a teenager, do you?

PS Yes, I know there's some nostalgia reviewing in this post. If looked at with modern standards, the game has significant flaws beyond its outdated graphics and controls, but it is still an interesting game.


  1. I played Ultima 8: Pagan (which happens to be the one all the ultima fans hate) and no other game in the series before it. Apparently Ultima 7 was the "best".

    But U8: What I liked about it is what they all hated; it was an rpg with arcade tricks (jumping from sinking rock to rock, lots of ways to insta die based on skill not stats).
    Certain monsters were always a threat no matter what your stats: fighting a troll was a calculated risk because he will kill you half the time. There was as much reason to avoid combat as anything once your stats maxed.

    The guardian seemed very familiar to what you are saying, I didnt know who he was. But in Ultima 8 you are in a new world so no one knows you unlike the other games apparently. The game starts outs with a giant hand dropping you into the world of Pagan (the guardians hand I later found).

    The whole world of pagan was based on old pagan ideas about the four elements. They had the "Hall of the Mountain King" just like the symphony orchestra song, and other things like that. I never really knew what my goal was in the game; the place just seemed rule by this tyrant queen of the "Water element". Apparently you have to master all the powers of each element but you give them up as quick as u get them to continue on. And you never can master water as it is innate by birth. The mystery was a great pull but in the end it was TOO great as I only managed to master earth before I had to find a walkthrough cuz I just had no idea what I was doing or why.

    The weird thing is Ultima 8 actually somehow explained how the guardian came, something about him offering to defeat the titans of each element, and when he did he turned on everyone, if I'm not mistaken. This was strange coming from a stand alone part of the series that was unrelated to earth/britannia.

  2. I wanted to add that the ethereal void was also present in U8: you had to return there at the end to beat all the titans. It was a strange place... lit was just a small street complete with lanterns and just a few changeling enemies who would attack you pointlessly. Deathly silent.