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Vol. 2, Issue 5
December 8, 1999

Beaker's Bent:

Yet More on the Future of RPGs

by Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff




his Thanksgiving, I made the mistake of being excited for Ultima IX. Regular readers of this site probably remember that I consider the Ultima series my favorite RPGs ever, and that I got into the industry because of Ultima Underworld. However Ultima VIII had done so much to ruin the series forever for me, and I had heard so many bad things about U9's development and design history, that I didn't really think Origin had any chance of reclaiming the golden years of Ultima. In fact, I was prepared for the worst: an Ultima even worse than Ultima VIII.

Nonetheless, I knew I was going to buy U9. And then the demo came out, and even though it had a truly Trespasser-equivalent framerate coupled with even worse graphics and physics, I was amazed to see that it seemed to have a design that was going to work for a 3D realtime RPG. This design wasn't particularly original: in fact it basically looked like Origin had set out to clone the core gameplay of Zelda 64. Zelda 64's puzzles consist of things like shooting specific targets with specific types of arrows, using your hammer to bash or move blocks, or sometimes even tasks as simple in concept as defeating all the enemies in the room. Zelda 64's basic combat system also turned out to be an incredibly good metaphor for 3D 3rd person games, too - players could press the trigger button to lock on to an enemy, and while in lock on mode, the player's controls were remapped to circle the targeted enemy. Fairly complicated dodging and attacks were finally possible in 3D without a complicated interface.

Clearly, U9's designers were trying to make their game feel like a deeper version of Zelda with the puzzles in the demo which consisted of shooting targets with arrows or igniting torches to open doors. I enjoyed Zelda so much it seemed from the demo like U9 would be guaranteed to be fun - of course, I also thought that the speed, bugginess and general lack of polish of the demo would be corrected before ship. I swear, this is the last time I'll believe that any developers are capable of correcting the most obvious flaws in their products. But anyway, the point of this column is not to list all the many things about Ultima IX, which make it the second worst Ultima after U8. Instead, I'm interested in what the game might signify for the future of RPGs in general.

The most important thing about U9 is that the engine, while certainly greatly flawed, is an attempt at making a true 3D environment for an RPG. As I've gone on about at great lengths in a previous column, today's "revolutionary" RPG, Baldur's Gate, has a laughably non-interactive engine. Players direct their little characters across areas that are essentially giant paintings, with annoying loads between them. The world is sprinkled with what look like piles of items and barrels and crates to dig through, but interaction with these interesting-looking things is limited: ugly highlights appear on almost randomly selected parts of the background, bluntly revealing that the game content is layered on top of a static image.

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Credits: Illustration © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it or we'll sick our lawyers on you. Muhahahahahahahah. ph3ar our [email protected] l3gal sk1lz y0.