Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire Review
Developed by Origin Systems, Inc.
Review By Dennis Owens
Computer Gaming World #80 (March 1991)

Terror of the Thunder Lizards
Origin's The Savage Empire
by Dennis Owens

I dream ofpteradons munching on natives, picking their teeth with the ribs of the dead. While other dinosaurs gather, attracted by the noise and the smell of the massacre, the various tribes argue. I have tried to warn them; they must work together, they must resolve their differences, but no one will listen. What does the outsider know? Let him take his magics and his friends, the one called Schweitzer and the other, Malone, and disappear back into the jungle from whence he came.

A fine solution, I decide as the tyrannosaurs approach. Clinging to their ridiculous ideologies. Not a one of the tribespeople is worth saving.

Except Aiela. She is beautiful and different. Intelligent. And lost. Maybe in danger.

I lift my knife from the backpack. Heft it in my hand. Stare at it, and sigh. I grip it tighter and plunge into the fray.

What I wouldn't give for an M-16.

The Savage Empire, by Lord British, Aaron Allston and Stephen Beeman, is the first of what Origin promises to be a series of CRPGs designed using the Ultima VI (or later, the latest Ultima) engine. Released under a "Worlds of Ultima" banner, the games will sport play similar to that in the Ultima storyline with continents to explore, NPCs to recruit and interrogate, beasties to combat, objects to find and puzzles to solve. The difference in the series is that none of the games' fictions will have anything to do with Britannia. Instead, the games will feature science fiction, horror, espionage, etc. and will be released between each new Ultima. Because each Ultima will continue to be designed with all new graphics and game-play, each "Worlds of Ultima" release will also change, depending on the evolution of the Ultimas.

Thus, The Savage Empire, although sporting slightly different graphics (as would be required by the difference in game genre) and a few new bells and whistles, plays almost exactly like Ultima VI. This is both a blessing and, at the same time, somewhat worrisome.

Its fiction is pulled right out of the pulp adventure magazines of the '30s and '40s (indeed, the game's manual, called Ultimate Adventures, resembles said magazines and includes an extensive prologue of the game). Basically, the player's character, a rough, tough archaeologist/avatar-type, is pulled, via moonstone, to a world where thunder lizards, natives and humanoid-types walk the earth.

Separated from his friends, he meets friendly villagers, not-sofriendly villagers and creatures, as well as a beautiful femme fatale (who is subsequently kidnapped). The player character must, then, find his friends, the femme, a way back to his own time/world and, along the way, solve the sub-quests and various other situations which arise. Perhaps the most significant problem is one which dozens of natives (not to mention scores of western philosophers and billions of humans) have been unable to solve for themselves: how to get along with each other.

Luckily for the adventurer, however, the problem is a little more localized. It seems that the various factions have been set against each other; no one really knows why the others are enemies, but rumors about the enemies' atrocious behaviors abound. What does become clear (fairly early in the game), though, is that the different tribes mlJoSt learn to disregard their differences and unite if all are to survive.

Seen as a fable for the modern age -which, after all, the pulp magazines frequently were fond of providing -the game's fiction holds up. Much like the most recent Ultimas, to which, of course, The Savage Empire must be compared, the game presents a sort of morality lesson within the confines of the gaming environment with a complexity which is unparalleled among current games (except, perhaps, for those in Starflight .and Starflight2).

The game's musical score, by George Sanger, is moody, evocative and uses Origin's new SoundTrax (now FIX) sequencer (compatible with Roland, AdLib and Sound Blaster boards).

The Savage Empire also features a new technique by Origin in which special events are framed in their own windows. Mostly used simply to add local color and to advance the fiction of the game, the screens are, nonetheless, impressive visually and do enhance the sense of an active, vibrant world within the valley of Eodon.

Differences from the Earlier Games

Although the valley may seem crowded with villages, townspeople and special locations, it is not really necessary to do extensive mapping beyond the careful notation on the map included with the game. Usts of the NPCs found in each village, along with a few key words from each conversation, more than sufficed for this reviewer's treks through the wilds. Dungeons are relatively small, so players will probably only need to map in the caves of the Myrmidex and in the maze in the southern end of the underground city of Kotl.

As would be expected, the natives' weapons are relatively crude (no glass swords or magic axes, alas). Well-educated (or informed) adventurers, however, might be able to find enough odds and ends to fashion more... efficient protection. Armor is also extremely crude, and not many types exist (see accompanying chart).

Gone, at least for this game, is the idea that anything lying around should not be picked up and used as needed. Perhaps this is because experienced avatar/archaeologists realize the temporal nature of ownership or perhaps, this is because necessity is the mother of picking up any 01' thing and using it. Of course, the most logical reason may be because the inhabitants of the valley of Eodon do not recognize the concept of possessions (making them susceptible to unethical outside-worlders [dramaticjungle music here)), no honor code exists here.

All Is Not Well In The Valley

For the most part, The Savage Empire's graphics, depth of fiction, ease of play and soundtracks are all impressive and the change from the Ultima mythos is welcome. The game does, however, suffer from a few problems, most of them slight but, perhaps, indicative of larger issues at work in Origin's recent releases.

Disturbing, first of all, is that The Savage Empire does play so much like all the other Ullimas. Although once upon a time, Ultima stood for innovation and surprise (remember the NPC asking, "Do you know Blackthorne? No? Then, how can you judge him?"), the games -beginning shortly after that encounter in Ultima V-seem to have devolved into copies of themselves -all requiring that worlds be explored. (often requiring zigzagging acr05S continents and repeated visits to towns and numerous conversations with NPCs), monsters be bashed and objects be found (more zigzagging).

Yes, this reviewer realizes that the very fact that The Savage Empire is based on the Ultima gameplaying system will require a certain amount of similarity with the earlier games, but the recent changes made in the games do not all seem for the best.

Though it is understandable that commands, for instance, might need to be simplified for use with the mouse, what is not quite so clear is why, when, let us say, a torch is "used," the command box does not say that it has been "ignited." Another question that has not been understood by this reviewer is why, even though the graphics have been made more complex because of the ability of technology to differentiate between ever finer and finer images, objects still must be picked up, clicked on, or sifted through, simply to determine what they are. If a bowl of grapes is sitting on a table in a game so visually impressive and innovative, why can't one see that it is a bowl of grapes simply by looking at it with his own two eyes? This might not be true in the earlier Ultimas, but one wonders why it is not true, now.

Still another concern is the apparent movement by Ultima's designers toward an ever simpler magic system. The Savage Empire features all of nine spells with such evocative names as "heal," light," "charm enemy" and six, well, basically, reagents (called "totems" and "offerings") -all of which are readily available practically anywhere. Although each village features a shaman who, supposedly, is the only villager capable of using such magics, it is hard to understand why, given the abundance of magical offerings and the ease with which certain natural berries and roots can be converted into their purer, more magical forms, each tribesman cannot simply heal himself or summon his own animals (easy way to have rabbit stew for supper). The need for the shaman is never fully justified or explained in the game. Those guys must have some kind of union.

It is just such inconsistencies, such indications that the games have not been as well thought through as the others have been, that weaken the charm and playability of what has been such a brilliantly designed gaming structure. Really, the only fair point of comparison with the Ultima system is with itself. Perhaps, no other system comes close to its length of existence, complexity, depth of fiction and clever characterization of NPC personalities. It is likely that no other system matches its attempts to reach beyond the machine and gameplaying sensibilities toward the acknowledgement that something more important exists than reflex action, monster-bashing or any of the other dozens of computergame cliches.

It is in that comparison with itself that The Savage Empire strains. The stresses of years of success have begun to show. Make no mistake; compared to any except its own brothers and sisters, The Savage Empire, despite its niggling problems (which show only because of the brilliance with which the entire line shines), must be considered dazzling and successful. Compared to its peers, however, the game presents what may be a disturbing view of a possible trend in the Ultima line: caricature.

Weapon and Armor List

Relative value of armor and weapons in descending potency.

Certain Weapons Shields Armor
Grenade Kotl shields Leather
Bamboo rifle Shields of Krukk Bark
Fire axe Stegosaurus shields Cloth
Obsidian sword Leather shields
Atl-atl Bark shields
2-handed hammer
Throwing axe
Rock/metal hammer
Various others (which don't all seem to work so well, but in a fight, even a stick is better than bare hands!)


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