Underworld: Ascendant Wants To Let You Improvise

Oh goodness me. If Underworld Ascendant [Kickstarter] can at least match my hazy, confused memories of Ultima Underworld 2, the first game I ever played on my dad’s PC, then I’ll be a happy bunny. If it can match what’s being said by the team about their “improvisation engine”, then my jaw will hang agog. They are, it seems, attempting to create a setting where you’ll be able to – at least feel like you can – approach scenarios in your own way. Hmmm. It’s a claim I’ve heard a lot of times before, but heck, if I had to pick who was make it happen, I’d likely choose former Looking Glass members. Talking of whom, Warren Spector shows up in a new video, reminiscing on the original games.

The motive behind the improv options is to capture the sense of a pen-n-paper D&D session, where your own crazy schemes aren’t limited by what’s been programmed. Of course, common sense suggests it will be only a sense. It’s hard to imagine the game offering ways out of trouble as silly as Graham, Marsh Davies and I come up with for the trouble Jim sets up for us on Thursday evenings. Trying to throw halfling Graham across a pit, while tied to a rope, wasn’t our most successful solution, especially when after two failed attempts and a very bruised Graham, we remembered he could teleport. For instance. But the video shows how objects within the world can be destroyed rather than take on tricky fights, or how specialist skills can be deployed to find novel ways around challenges. They describe it, in a press release, like this:

“In Underworld Ascendant, instead of the designers scripting a set solution path for a player, the Improvisation Engine puts the problem solving in the player’s hands.

“Our designers lay out an encounter; setting up the monsters, traps, the physical layout, and the like. Then the world simulation is turned on. A set of fairly complex interactions and dynamics take place of their own accord. The player comes into this dynamic mix, and can permeate this situation in whole range of ways, some of which the designers may have never imagined.”

I think what comes across as the most important point is their desire to have the game adapt itself to still be approachable whichever way you’ve chosen to specialise your character. The example they use is a player who’s picked athletics and acrobatics over strength and combat skill, and being able to use this to evade a fight, rather than haplessly flail within it. They also go on to make some other more standard claims, such as your behaviour having significant effects on the world, including which creatures thrive, what conversations you’ll have, and the way NPCs feel about you.

Of course, whether any of this can really be delivered is rather dependent upon the Kickstarter being a success. They’re halfway through their time, with nearly 5/6ths of the money raised, so it seems likely they’ll make it to their basic goal. But I imagine there’s some surprise and disappointment amongst the team that nostalgia for the (truly fantastic) series, and excitement for a proper Looking Glass founder at the helm – Paul Neurath – wasn’t enough to see it go rocketing past in the early days of the campaign. Still, let’s hope they can achieve their aims within this budget.

To find out more about the plans for the game, you can read Adam’s interview with Paul Neurath.


  1. Zallgrin says:

    Somehow I thought that this game would be an isometric RPG, therefore I was rather surprised to find out it’s not the case. I never got into Ultima, put off by the whole classic fantasy angle, but I can live with a first-person RPG set in underground caverns.

    Huge part of the charm are these blockish graphics which I adored from childhood on. Looks really atmospheric!

    • Lars Westergren says:

      They are charming, but do note this, and especially the animations, are early prototypes. The team have said they are going to focus on plot and systems first, and then polish the graphics when everything is in place.

      Doing it the other way around means you risk putting time and money into work that later has to be discarded.

      • Zallgrin says:

        Still, one can probably gauge from current videos what the aesthetic style of this game will be and I like it. Bright colors such as lava or magic crystals, enough darkness to add to atmosphere… I’m not asking for much, haha

        Personally, I am a huge fan of graphic styles where the devs take low-poly graphics and add some amazing ambient light to them. Like for example Wylde Abyss.

        It’s why I hope that they will leave the textures and blocky style largely unchanged, but add a lot more beautiful lightning or water effects!

    • malkav11 says:

      Yeah, the Underworld games were a first-person spinoff (and a very very early example of that sort of thing, albeit one that doesn’t have a whole lot of heirs…Arx Fatalis is almost the only directly inspired game I can think of) of the main Ultima franchise.

  2. Lars Westergren says:

    Speaking of LookingGlass Studios, Stephen Russell, voice of Garrett in the original Thief games is now on this project, as is Terri Brosius, writer and/or designer on Thief, System Shock 2, Dishonored, and more.

    Lots of interesting Kickstarters right now. RPS writers, do you check the forum Katchup thread? If not, please do. :)

  3. aliksy says:

    Sounds interesting, but I’ve become a little jaded lately. Something to keep an eye on.

    Are they going to have a dynamic diplomacy system? I’d love to see that. I haven’t seen it in many games where you can make social checks to make hostile people go neutral, join your party, or offer services in unscripted ways. It even used the challenge rating of your ad-hoc party as a factor for future diplomacy checks, so once you got rolling with a bunch of followers you built up inertia. You could even talk down the final boss.

    • amcathlan says:

      Go tell/suggest to them to include that if they haven’t already! Sounds like just their kind of thing.
      My problem with backing these isn’t so much jadedness (though it feels like it’s on the horizon), but money. It’s hard to keep throwing money at games I won’t see for years, and I’m already up to my neck in Kingdom Come, Star Citizen, Satellite Reign, Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland, ect ect., and I’m a moneyless bum.
      Not that I didn’t just back this one too of course. I’m a retard. And this one sounds seh-he-xyyyy

  4. Babymech says:

    You like dungeon crawling? Are you… unreasonably fond of dungeon crawling? Do you think you are… a pathological dungeon crawler?

    • Steven Hutton says:

      IDGAF what anyone says. That interview was awesome.

      • Babymech says:

        It was great – both highly entertaining, and good journalism. I just want the opening (and fully valid) question to become some kind of meme.

    • Lachlan1 says:

      I’m going to go with pathological bully. I miss the days where gamers were nerds and not bullies. That interview is the reason I won’t continue to be an RPS supporter and I’d even ask for the initial sub back if I could be arsed. If Peter Molyneux were a woman or transgender person who was late with a game I can’t imagine John would’ve spoken to him like that.

      • Babymech says:

        Take it to the Molyneux article, you pathological off-topicy sort of person! (see how I bullied you there?)

  5. vorador says:

    Well, i backed a while ago. With the team behind it, i’m willing to give it an opportunity.

    I guess most people in Kickstarter have become jaded after so many games either in limbo or greatly disappointing.

    • balinor says:

      I would back this in a heart beat but unfortunately life has got in the way rather than being jaded. I really hope they can make it though so I can then pick it up down the line in a few years.

  6. derbefrier says:

    I swore off early access and kickstarter but I do hopeit makes it.

  7. Jason Moyer says:

    Holding off for Underworld 5.

    No, really, this “let’s get some of the most creative people in the history of gaming together and do a sequel” thing is getting tiring.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      A lot of times that’s really the only way to get a game in this vein made — either as a sequel or a spiritual successor to a beloved game.

      Besides, it’s been over twenty years since the last Underworld. It’s not like they’re just going to be iterating on some tired, overly-familiar formula.

      • April March says:

        I am mostly amused by how many Trademarked Title: Subtitle games are receiving sequels named Subtitle: Other Subtitle.

        Although techinically it’s just this one, isn’t it? The other one is Different Trademarked Ttile: Same Subtitle.

  8. PrinceofBees says:

    I had never backed a kick starter before this one, but broke that rule because I want to help demonstrate that there is demand for games that offer this degree of freedom in encounters. I’ve never even played either ultima underworld, but know that it’s thanks to them that we’ve got Dishonored and Deus Ex: HR.

  9. jrodman says:

    Personally I’m not much enthused about the whole “naturally allow improvisation”. I know it’s possible to achieve but I know almost everyone fails at this sort of thing. Without wiring stuff in on rails it’s often possible to get a whole myriad of unsatisfying experiences, as well as a few satisfying ones, with a majority of player time spent on the former.

  10. ffordesoon says:

    It’s worth noting that the lead designer of Thief, Tim Stellmach, is the lead designer of UA, and that Warren Spector is a creative advisor on this project. In fact, almost everyone working on this thing was a core member of the Looking Glass team, which is often not the case on Kickstalgia projects. You usually have one or two “names” and a bunch of new recruits. OtherSide is Looking Glass, at least in terms of personnel. I think they should be trumpeting this more.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Yes, exactly, this is Looking Glass 2.0. Why isn’t this on every front page?

      • Farsi Murdle says:

        I think lot of game journos/critics got started with consoles within the last 10 or 15 years, so they don’t have the knowledge that would make them interested in this. RPS is an exception given their history. There’s just not enough appreciation of the history of games, even among people who write about them for a living. In fact “the history of games” is kind of synonymous with “Mario and Sonic” for so many people. Looking Glass is this thing they hear people talk about, but they don’t know what it is, not really. Thief and Underworld are games they’ve heard of but haven’t bothered to play.

        (We all have these gaps in our knowledge due to our preferences, but most of us don’t make a living from writing about games. I think if you profess to be any kind of expert on the medium, you have an obligation to educate yourself about its history beyond the few games you played as a kid.)

        It’s frustrating because Looking Glass was and is very important, beyond the number of people who actually played their games. Current critics write about modern stealth games and modern first person fantasy games, like Bioshock, nuThief, DX: Human Revolution, the Elder Scrolls, Dishonored, etc, but they haven’t bothered to look at their ancestry and influences in any detail.

    • jnik says:

      Even after years of increasing Kickstarter cynicism, I still had no reaction other than “I trust these guys. I’m going to throw them money.” I mean, they’re notorious for wranglings with publishers over completion dates (which can be publishers are evil or could mean problems with deadlines), they went under fifteen years ago, they don’t seem to have done a lot sense, but they delivered games that both pushed the medium and were great fun. The potential reward here is so great, not just this one game but if they can get the band back together long term….

      If you can read this, DromEd crashedyou’re fired.

  11. Continuity says:

    Interesting, looks like another kickstarter gets my money.

  12. Andy_Panthro says:

    I backed it, I’m a sucker for anything Ultima-related I guess. I’m actually surprised that nobody has tried to make something similar since probably Arx Fatalis. I would have thought with the continuing success of The Elder Scrolls that someone would have been keen to make other first-person RPGs.

  13. emperor_nero says:

    A group of industry veterans wanting a lot of money for a video game developing spree. I am suspicious seeing some of the more recent, and more public, kickstarter flops. How much am I going to have to pay in real monies for my sword?

  14. caff says:

    Well and truly backed. I can’t believe they have such a great team working on this and yet so few donations so far. Rise up, RPS bretheren.

  15. ansionnach says:

    Love that music from Ultima Underworld! UW2’s was a bit naff (wasn’t by The Fat Man). On the subject of improvisation, I thought the original Underworld games did that quite well. There was often more than one way to skin a cat and since you didn’t end up maxing out all the stats, you had to think about how you wanted to play. A few skills were practically useless (like swimming – perhaps it needs an RPG all to itself?).

    A lot of guides out there say that you should always focus on strength in the UW games because of the carry limit but I’d have to disagree. In the first game I was more of a crafty character and couldn’t carry much… so I didn’t waste my time picking up stuff unless it was important. That’s something a lot of the Ultima games had – they forced you to think about what you took because it was a waste of time to take everything. For UW2 I’ve gone with hand-to-hand combat so I don’t even need to bother with a weapon…

  16. Frank says:

    I certainly see this as the best veteran team on a kickstarter so far. Too bad they weren’t doing this two years ago when people were still out there backing games.

  17. malkav11 says:

    I backed it the moment I knew it had gone live, but I must admit I am skeptical that they can actually deliver something as deep and flexible as they’re describing, especially on the very modest budget they’re asking for. I mean, I’d personally be okay with “just” another sandboxy first-person RPG with strong exploration, factions, an elaborate spell system, etc like the original Underworld games or Arx Fatalis. I’m just saying, promising more than that? Hey, if it happens, neat. I’m not real sold that it will, though.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I want there to be more Looking Glass in the world so I will probably back this, but on some level I’m disappointed they’ve gone with more Dungeons & Dragons. Would love to see what their design philosophy would do to an entirely new theme and setting. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been as much interest?

  19. bill says:

    I don’t back things on Kickstarter, but the idea of a new game by (effectively) Looking Glass might be enough to tempt me.
    I’m a bit worried about the setting. The epic stuff in the concept art looks great, if they can pull that off. But the stuff shown in action so far is basically lots of boring and very dark caves and corridors. I can see that getting old very quickly. Running around in endless brown caves and corridors doesn’t really lead to a cohesive feeling world.
    So I hope they show off a few more environments soon.

    Improvisation sounds great. It’s been what I’ve been dreaming of for CRPGs for the last 20 years. I always imagined CRPGs would get closer and closer to the freedom of choice offered by P&P rpgs and would implement some kind of AI gamesmaster, But we’ve just made lots of combat and occasionally added some physics. Most disappointing. Doesn’t sound like this’ll be going the AI gamesmaster route either, but if it has enough systems then it’ll maybe be almost as good. (eg: Deus Ex)

    I always wished more games had interactive environments. I should be able to take out bad guys by knocking down that beam/rock over their head, or kicking the table into them, or smashing them with a chair, or something.
    I know a few games have tried this (Soul Reaver? and Dark Messiah) but the options tended to be too fixed and signposted. It was fun kicking 1000 orcs into spiky panels in Dark Messiah, but it became pretty rediculous. There weren’t many cases where you thought “I know, I’ve just had a great idea!…”.

    A mix of systems and spell effects and destructible/affectable environments that can be combined and used in multiple ways would allow for more creative solutions.
    (eg: Water jars (smash/throw), puddles, rivers + freeze spells + electrical spells. Kick the table so all the water jars fall and smash and then freeze them to make the floor slippery. Freeze the river to walk over it. Freeze the beam overhead and then smash it. Smash the water channel so it spills and then electrify it. etc.. )

  20. Jahandar says:

    This was the first game to get me to back a kickstarter. It baffles me that with all the crowdfunded games being overfunded, this one hasn’t yet even met it’s first milestone.

  21. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Was Ultima Underworld really that fancy? It’s so low-fidelity; what kinds of interaction beyond combat did it even really have?