At last, by popular demand, Origin's venerable role-playing series is available all on one CD-ROM. Most of it, anyway. The Ultima Collection is a praiseworthy historical document, an excellent value, and paradoxically, an unfortunate disappointment. For while this collection presents ten of the most important role-playing games ever designed on a single disc, its self-conscious omissions render the Ultima Collection hopelessly incomplete.
The Ultima Collection contains every game in the Ultima series as well as creator Richard Garriott's first published release, Akalabeth. Many of these remain timeless and incredible role-playing games, while some haven't aged as well. Don't expect much from Akalabeth - it's practically 20 years old. Ultima II and III also feel pretty ancient. With somber-looking CGA graphics chock-full of drab black, gray, cyan, and magenta, these two games are much more cumbersome to play than their descendants. The Ultima Collection includes the late '80s full-color remake of Ultima I (as opposed to the original release) whose visual improvements help make it a rather pleasant dungeon hack even today, though it lacks the depth and detail embodied in the later games in the series.
Ultima IV is the most tightly woven game in the series. With clearly defined goals, an epic plot, and a powerful game engine, Ultima IV is a classic. Even so, Ultima V is its hands-down superior, with a more streamlined engine, superb graphics that retain their charm to this day, and an awesome story worthy of the Ultima tradition. Ultima VI marks perhaps the greatest graphical leap the Ultima series has ever accomplished, with the introduction of 256-color MCGA graphics. The scale of the world is many times greater than even the vast Ultima V, and the story, centered around the seemingly malicious race of Gargoyles, is thought-provoking and exciting.
Ultima VII consists of two stand-alone parts. The original Ultima VII is the most gorgeous game of the series, with its vivid and full-scale world that truly feels alive with secrets and detail. Its plot, dealing with an enigmatic new religious society and the evil being called the Guardian, is unforgettable. A real-time combat engine and fully mouse-driven interface made Ultima VII feel somewhat simpler than its ancestors, but in retrospect the game remains a marvelous achievement. Serpent Isle, the continuation of Ultima VII, is often considered the best Ultima ever made. Though its look is mostly borrowed from Ultima VII, Serpent Isle offers a huge quest and some of the most fascinating characters and situations ever to be found in a role-playing game.
In light of Ultima VII and Serpent Isle, it's little wonder why most everyone hated Ultima VIII when it was published not so long ago in 1994. The frightfully simplistic game mechanics combined with action-oriented puzzles and a loathsome combat engine frustrated most long-time fans of the series. Nonetheless, the game is not without merit; a complex spell-casting system and an uncompromising, morally ambiguous plot make Ultima VIII a worthy quest for those willing to get acquainted with its elusive gameplay. But sadly, even the once-impressive 3D-rendered graphics look practically amateurish by current standards, making Ultima VIII an infinitely cumbersome game.
The Ultima Collection is missing the two spin-off series: the outstanding 3D first-person Ultima Underworlds and the artful Worlds of Ultima games. Ultima Underworld is sold separately in stores either on the discount bin or as part of Interplay's Ultimate RPG Archives. But the Worlds of Ultima games are casualties of the times, nowhere to be found and utterly forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans. Based on the Ultima VI game engine, the Worlds of Ultima games cast the Avatar in wondrous, new lands. Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima game, pits the Avatar in a prehistoric setting filled with dinosaurs and Stone Age tribesmen. Among other things, the Avatar constructs rifles and gunpowder from natural items, sets a trap to kill an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex, and befriends an ancient reptilian race. Savage Empire, let alone any reference to its existence, is not included in the Ultima Collection. The second Worlds of Ultima game, Martian Dreams, is in several ways the most ambitious Ultima ever created. The Avatar is trapped on the planet Mars along with Earth's most important modern historical figures from Vladimir Lenin to Andrew Carnegie, and with their help he must find a way home. In doing so, he steps into his own dreams to uncover the fate of a Martian race on the brink of extinction. Martian Dreams is also entirely absent from the Ultima Collection.
Omissions notwithstanding, the Ultima Collection does a good job presenting the ten games it does contain. Akalabeth and the first six Ultimas are readily playable under Windows 95 (even in a window) and run fine even on fast machines with the help of the included speed reduction utility. Getting Ultima VII and VIII to work is more challenging because of their unorthodox DOS-based memory management, and unless you have DOS drivers installed on your computer you won't be able to play them at all. Also contained in the package is a complete atlas featuring reprints of the maps included in the Ultima games over the years. At the same time, each game's original manual may be found on the CD-ROM in Adobe Acrobat format, while copy protection and all important general information are also accessible in the Collection's printed documentation. And to sweeten the deal all the more, the Ultima Collection includes video interviews with the series' creator in which he discusses the origins of the series and where he wants it to go.
While the Ultima Collection does not necessarily promise to give you every Ultima ever made, its failure to include the Underworld and Worlds of Ultima games makes it feel painfully incomplete for the fan hoping to get his hands on a complete archive of Garriott's work. But it does contain several of the best role-playing games of all time. It's a package worth owning for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that half of these games are still perfectly worth playing for the first time, or playing all over again.