Have You Played… Ultima Underworld II

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

1993 was the best year of all the years. I was 16, life was splendid, music was incredible, Doom and Day Of The Tentacle were released, what a time. And it was also the year of Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth Of Worlds.

I feel like this is Looking Glass’s forgotten game. The team that brought us System Shocks, Thiefs, and kinda-sorta Deus Ex, also dished up an absolutely extraordinary entry into the hit-n-miss world of Ultima. I never played the Ultima games because I was too young/stupid, but watched my dad play an awful lot, although even that wasn’t enough for me to have had a clue that this picked up the story from the end of Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

You travelled from world to world in a groundbreakingly non-linear fashion, in your attempt to defeat the Guardian, in a world that was as lavishly constructed and smartly written as anything that extraordinary team turned their hand to. Which makes it such a shame that I can’t find the patience to play it today, with its lack of mouse-look, and peculiarly clumsy interface. However, there’s always the ridiculously underrated Arx Fatalis from Arkane, that was originally conceived as a sequel. And of course Underworld Ascendant to keep looking forward to.

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76 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Nah, it was too late in the 90s when I first came across it, and then (and now) the movement and interaction are impossible to handle.

    I still find it incredible how some people here told me that uws were more manageable than system shock. I tried to replay and replayed each of them, and they are miles away in terms of user experience.

    • Detocroix says:

      I agree! Ultima Underworld I / II can be played with only two hands, while System Shock requires minimum of three for fluid gameplay.

      • khamul says:

        I played system shock with my younger brother – one of us on keyboard, one of us on the mouse. Worked brilliantly, though got a bit tense on occasion.

        I think that was probably one of the best times in my whole life.

    • OmNomNom says:

      TIL youngsters cannot use hands

      • Premium User Badge

        Risingson says:

        Ok, you all made your point: i am the weird one. Leave me alone. In my little corner.

        • Premium User Badge

          Harlander says:

          I had the same problem with UU’s controls, so don’t worry. Just couldn’t get a handle on ’em for some reason.

    • Maxheadroom says:

      I’m the same, came to the Underworld, and the larger Ultima series as a whole, too late.

      Its one of my biggest gaming regrets actually. I’m sure if I played these and the earlier Ultima games back in the day id be a much better person today. Or something

  2. Infinitron says:

    Ultima VII, Underworld 2, and Serpent Isle collectively form the Ultima “holy trilogy” of the early 90s – the series’ zenith. As story-driven roleplaying games, they reached a level that wouldn’t be surpassed until the Black Isle and BioWare RPGs of the late 90s. And then Origin decided to flush it all down the toilet.

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      gritz says:

      Black Isle/Bioware may have been the point that they were surpassed as story-driven RPG’s, but they have yet to be surpassed in terms of world interactivity.

      • Premium User Badge

        Risingson says:

        But they inherited the good tradition of bugs! None as game breaking as the ones in black gate though.

  3. Fulby says:

    This along with the UFO: Enemy Unknown and Wing Commander: Privateer are my top three games of all time.

    Arx Fatalis was fairly clunky, for me the Elder Scrolls from Morrowind onward are the successors to UU2. They’re not as deep but fulfilled the promise teased by that locked main door in the goblin keep: beyond here lies an entire world to explore.

  4. Mr_Blastman says:

    I played through it again last year. Great game! The music wasn’t as good as the first one, though (the Fat Man composed UW 1’s). I did get stuck, however, at the very end in la la world.

    Here’s some footage from my playthrough:

  5. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    So good. The first one was better, but this one was still great. I liked the variety of the different locations, a different feel to each, some more deadly than others.

    The arena combat bit was a little silly though!

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      Yeah, I’m also one of those who never miss the opportunity to point out that UU1 was better. It’s one of those Fallout/Fallout 2 or Arkham Asylum/Arkham City kind of deals; the second one in the series is bigger in all sorts of ways, but loses the tight feel of the originals. Still great, though. That much is obvious.

      And the games have aged splendidly. I only played them about two years ago and they are perfectly manageable. And they don’t really require any knowledge of the other Ultimas to enjoy; the first one is barely even connected to the series and the second one mostly tangentially.

      • Premium User Badge

        Risingson says:

        I really think this is easy to handle only to you lucky people that played it when it was released. CRPGs are the games that age the worst :(

        • Premium User Badge

          basilisk says:

          But I haven’t, strangely enough. The Ultima series passed me by completely back in the day. And even as a first-timer, I enjoyed the heck out of UU1&2. The interface isn’t that bad, particularly compared to SShock1, or, say, Ultima 6, which I consider genuinely unplayable today.

          • ansionnach says:

            I only finished them in the last few years as well. Played the first one down to about level 4 for the first time around 1999 and it blew me away. Was disappointed with Deus Ex as it seemed unfinished and not fully-realised by comparison. Played UW2 through just over a year ago. The music is pretty uninspired. It’s also a much weaker game, while still remaining one of the finest RPGs you can play.

            Controls are perfect. You don’t really need to zip around looking up and down all the time like Quake III – the controls suit the game. Being able to do so many things at once it great – in UW2, you can jump, slide on ice past a certain blackrock gem and pick it up all in one fluid movement. With the System Shock 2 interface you couldn’t move while manipulating inventory.

          • Premium User Badge

            Risingson says:

            I haven’t felt so alienated since all my friends finished Dune2 and I couldn’t get very far in the first campaign.

          • ansionnach says:

            Perhaps the excitement of a direct mention of UW2 has caused its fans to rise from their graves? I’ve made similar noises in more general discussion and have been a lonely voice in the darkness.

            Played Dune II at the end of the nineties and didn’t really like it. The interface was a big problem, especially since you can’t multi-select units and give them orders. The AI is noticeably terrible as well (surely a 386 could do better?). Command & Conquer was a huge improvement. Played that within the last two years and really enjoyed it. It does have a serious bug in the AI – it can’t deal with being surrounded by sandbags. Because of this, perhaps Red Alert is their first eternal RTS. Warcraft II and beyond are fun from the Blizzard side.

      • Blake Casimir says:

        If I recall, LGS only had 6 months to push out UW2. That certainly explains why its dungeons are less interconnected than the EXCEPTIONAL AND BRILLIANT level design in UW1.

        Yes I am making judicious use of bold and caps. I ADORE these games and I remain utterly depressed by the lack of first person RPGs (NOT grid-based FFS!!!) of any depth being made any more.

        • DodgyG33za says:

          Ultima Underworlds is still one of my personal gaming highs. I remember walking into the dungeon, coming under fire from a goblin on the far side of the bridge, ducking down a side passage only to be pursued by a Giant rat (I think it was). Ended up in the water flowing under the bridge which swept me down to L2. Brilliant, even if it was a nightmare trying to survive down there.

      • PikaBot says:

        I think if you go back and replay it you’ll be a bit shocked by how poorly Asylum has aged compared with City.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      Also, the arenas certainly were silly, but the winner of the Incongruity Award must be that one world that feels like it came from an entirely different game. I’m sure everyone who played it knows which one I mean.

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    I obtained Ultima Underworld II as a subscription bonus for PC Format magazine. Other than briefly playing someone else’s copy of Final Fantasy in the late 80s (I didn’t care for it at the time because of the turn-based battles), UW2 was the first RPG I ever played.

    It’s also one of my all-time favorites, not just because it was my first, but because of the many features that were either

    1) Unique to itself
    2) Could only be found in the first game as well (and sometimes improved in 2)
    3) Stolen wholesale by other games and everyone forgot that UW2 did it first.

    UW1 is also really good. Like how both System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are really good and actually different enough that you can’t really say one was better in every way. But my personal favorite immersive sim of all time is UW2.

    P.S. It’s UW1 and UW2. Look at the executable names. Those are the official acronyms, not UU1 and UU2.

    • Dare_Wreck says:

      Er, what? In no uncertain terms does the executable filename dictate the “official” abbreviation. I’ve never heard anyone make an argument like that before. If I recall correctly, Dark Forces was dark.exe – you don’t hear anyone going around saying, “Hey, have you ever played Dark?” The executable is named for whatever tickled the developers’ fancy the day it needed a name – they may have called the game “Underworld” for short around the office, so naming the executable UW.EXE would make sense, due to the DOS filename limitations back then. It by no means make it the “official” acronym for the game. I find it weird that someone would even think that.

      • Detocroix says:

        I have actually heard and seen UW used more, UU seems very weird to me. Maybe it was called differently in different countries?

        • OmNomNom says:

          What he means is that this is not the way you create an acronym. If UW is used more it is still wrong.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Uh huh. So the fact that they chose UW and not UU has no meaning whatsoever. Right.

        • Kolbex says:

          It might or it might not, you really don’t know. Just because it’s a fact doesn’t mean it supports your thesis.

          • Dare_Wreck says:

            Kolbex is right – that’s pretty much what I meant to say. The developers may very well have called the game UW themselves, but if you’re only piece of evidence to an “official” abbreviation being “UW” is the name of the executable file, that’s very tenuous at best.

      • Premium User Badge

        basilisk says:

        It’s pretty well known that the first game spent most of its development as just “Underworld”. The Ultima brand was slapped on it fairly late (which is also why it violates the Ultima canon in dozens of ways). It’s very likely that UW.exe is just a holdover from that time.

        Also, arguing about an abbreviation seems profoundly silly to me.

        • PsychoWedge says:

          Well, arguing about abbreviations is not silly. Here in Germany some people call the civilization games “civi” instead of civ which is sooooo weird that they are not understood in a lot of gaming circles. Proper abbreviations must be important in some way because discussion about them crop up all the time.

          BUT, coming back around, defining the short name of a game by the name of the exe and using that as a justification is as weird as people calling civ civi. xD The exe files of both BG1 and 2 are called BGMain.exe for example.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          Well I’m done arguing about this. I was just surprised that this was an unresolved thing, and even more surprised that it could be controversial.

          • Geebs says:

            FWIW I reckon you have a perfectly good case and think the pile-on is completely unwarranted. That stuff about the abbreviation used for the .exe “not being relevant” is bafflingly obtuse.

      • lylebot says:

        Not to mention that they probably didn’t put a lot of thought into the executable filename. 70% of documents I write are called “draft.doc”, even in their final version. Because who cares?

  7. Freud says:

    It was way ahead of its time, with full 3D before Doom was doing fake 3D.

    • Detocroix says:

      It was actually 2.5D like Doom was, height was faked, though it was done much better. What it had however was physics :)

      • Mr_Blastman says:

        Underworld had bridges. Doom did not and could not.

      • welverin says:

        You had full three dimensional movement, something Doom didn’t have. That makes it more than the 2D Doom.

  8. Stevostin says:

    Played it. Still one of my top 5 games to this day. Probably even better than the 1st one – slightly better UI and crazier stuff. I’ll always remember that bit where you have to drink a mushroom, sleep on a grave to enter a dream where you can find the object you need and bring it back with you. In a game that was unique in how it let you be, for the first time, really in another world – not only with 3rd person view but with rich AI, dialog, craft, hunting (better done than nearly all games since btw) that was just jaw dropping.

    The KS of that “Ultima Underworld tribute game” (forgot the name) is right on one thing: none of the game mechanics invented for Ultima Underworld I&II has been improved since. Actually very few games have been simply able to match them.

    • welverin says:

      The Kickstarter you mention is the Underworld Ascendant John mentioned and it’s no tribute game, it’s an actual sequel.

  9. Blake Casimir says:

    WHY IS NO-ONE MAKING GAMES LIKE THIS ANY MORE!?

    Yes I’m aware Underworld “3” is in development, but that’s hardly enough. The first person NOT GRID BASED RPG is my absolute favourite gaming genre next to Thief’s hugely immersive stealth adventuring.

    But pretty much no-one seems to want to make first person immersive simulations any more. Why must the most satisfying, intelligent and creative gaming genre be so rare? WHY????????

    I can’t play Underworld 1 or 2 any more, it just makes me sad that no-one is making these types of RPGs. :(

    • Zekiel says:

      At the risk of triggering incoherent rage… why is that the enormously popular Elder Scrolls games don’t qualify?

      • Blake Casimir says:

        Daggerfall and Morrowind are not perfect but they’re both deep, rewarding RPGs and I have spent many many hours on both. Oblivion, eh, it’s okay. Dungeon design is alright but the overworld is rather tame in its generic British countrysideness.

        Skyrim is barely an RPG. It has simplistic mechanics, predictable quests and linear dungeons in an otherwise fairly compelling overworld. Wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle.

        Even then, what else is there. Please, tell me, if you know of a free-movement first person RPG like Underworld released recently, I would love to know. Because outside of a couple of rather simple indie projects (Barony, Delver), there’s NOTHING.

      • Blake Casimir says:

        Maybe next time also don’t assume people will reply to you with “incoherent rage”: your kind of projecting doesn’t encourage mature discourse.

        • Sin Vega says:

          That’s not really projecting at all. Sure it might be a little rude when directly addressed to you, but it’s hard to deny that the anti-TES camp does harbour some disproportionately angry members.

          That aside, I agree, hence saying as much when wriing about Arx Fatalis (which I’m guessing you’ve played, but if not you really should). There really needs to be some competition for TES and real modern successors to Underworld. First person RPGs are so scarce, let alone ones that make a real effort to buld a livel or interesting world.

        • Premium User Badge

          gritz says:

          I’m pretty sure that assumption was based on your earlier usage of boldface and excessive punctuation and not any kind of projecting.

        • Zekiel says:

          Ah sorry I can see that comes across as rude. It was meant lighthearted since I know Skyrim is very shallow… but it was a genuine question since I’ve never played an Underworld.

    • vorador says:

      The sad truth: while very well received by critics, the Ultima Underworld series ultimately wasn’t popular for the mainstream gamers. Proof is in the pudding that Origin denied them a third game, and AFAIK Arx Fatalis (which initially was going to be UW 3 if EA allowed it) sold badly.

      So the best you’re going to get is the under development UW 3. And if you’re open to far more simplified gameplay and/or more futuristic environments, the “Shock” series and TES series are undeniably influenced by UW.

      • fuzziest says:

        Hard to say you can pin Arx Fatalis doing poorly on the style of game just not being popular. Arx Fatalis was deeply janky and buggy even compared to UW/Shocks at release. I like Arkane but until Dishonored they struggled to put out a solid release.

        I think we are pretty primed for games like UW to do well now. The whole “roguelike” boom has shown people can like RPGs stripped of their giant worlds and epic stories and can enjoy mostly exploring mechanical systems like UW excelled at.

        From Software was always big UW fans and they tried for years to make their own version of UW (the King’s Field series) to no great success but they also produced pretty janky games in that period. The Souls games still contain a little of that UW DNA and rumors suggest they are returning to KF style games in the future.

        Something like UW could do quite well now I think.

        • Blake Casimir says:

          King’s Field were made “to no great success”? Where are you getting that information / from what are you basing that opinion?

          Okay I adore them. They’re not perfect but they’re pretty much exactly the kind of game I enjoy. Underworld Lite, perhaps. I’d argue that KF 4 in particular is a beautiful game, with a rare ashen, charnel atmosphere and its slow pace – which will of course turn off casual dullards – imparts a deep sense of forboding and immersion that few games can match. I’d easily put it on the same level as Demon’s Souls. And yes I do also adore the Shadow Tower games.

          God damnit, why must this genre be so rare? :(

          • fuzziest says:

            I meant great commercial success. I think they are interesting flawed games (I’m a particular fan of Shadow Tower Abyss). Mostly the controls are wonky and the sense of weight they want to give the combat often just makes it feel sluggish and unresponsive. Though as you said the atmosphere and immersion are amazing. The Souls games make that weighty combat actually work and if they are returning to first person games I’m excited to see what they’ll do with it now.

        • Sin Vega says:

          I think the bigger nails in Arx’s coffin were its unknown developers, fairly lightweight publishers (2002 was still fairly early days for the internet, so the latter was a huge deal) and competing directly with several RPGs that are still spoken of in hushed tones today.

        • malkav11 says:

          Well, when the new one comes out, we’ll see, won’t we? Hopefully you’re right.

      • Infinitron says:

        The Underworlds actually sold well. It was the System Shocks that kept bombing.

      • OmNomNom says:

        Arx Fatalis is such a good game too :|

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I’m late to the party, but I think the main reason why the genre is nearly dead, aside from the issue of market pressures which undoubtedly plays a role, is that these types of games are really HARD to make. To the point that it takes a visionary just to conceptualise such a game. After all, there is only one Warren Spector and a handful of other creators in the business capable of such work. It’s really an immensely complex task to create an ‘immersive-sim’/rpg starting with the basic physics engine all the way up to realm-spanning epic adventure, which includes a political and economical dimension, while at the same time keeping it playable and entertaining. And the scope and attention to detail makes it especially hard to craft such a title in a reasonable time and budget frame.

      I think this should be pretty obvious to anyone who takes the time to briefly analyse the nature of the Ultimas and games of its ilk. It really frustrates me to see that instead people fall back on strange mini-conspiracy theory as an explanation. In fact, all the hallmark of a conspiracy theory are present: an evidence-free belief of an existence of a shadowy conspiracy (involving the money elite) aiming to deprive the community of what we rightuflly deserve. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it paradoxically devalues the coveted im-sim-rpgs. They are seen not as an unique masterpiece, but as an easily reproducable product, much like any other game. As I said above, this couldn’t be further from the truth, unless we think that a wave of shallow copycats would somehow be the salvation of the genre.

  10. fish99 says:

    One of the first PC games I played.

  11. OmNomNom says:

    Literally played this and Eye of the Beholder (mainly 2) to death.

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    gritz says:

    Good pick! I’m currently re-playing the original System Shock and am seriously considering the UU’s as a follow up.

  13. nootrac4571 says:

    My grandmother once baffled me by talking about watching me play a game in which I “chased an arrow through a load of tunnels”. I eventually realised she meant UU2; she’d misinterpreted the cursor as an object within the world, and as it was always hovering in space in front of me, never getting any closer no matter how quickly I moved forward, it seemed like I was constantly running after it. I think it was the first time I realised how baffling and unintuitive videogames must seem to people who didn’t grow up playing them.

    • Zekiel says:

      It really is amazing what we take for granted as being part of the basic experience of playing video games.

    • Velthaertirden says:

      My younger cousin who played only 2d games before was befuddled by the cursor in Morrowind in the same way :)

  14. Kala says:

    I haven’t played the 2nd one (though it’s sitting on my Steam library…) but I loved the first. I struggled to get into the other games in the series (apart from Ultima Online) but Underworld was excellent. It captured very well the feeling of being dumped in a big pit and left to rot ;p

    SUMM RA

    It was also my gateway drug to Daggerfall :)

  15. savagegump says:

    Yes! One of my childhood favourites. Amazing levels of depth and flexibility. Never really played any of the standard Ultima games but this one was a gem!

  16. Boardwalker says:

    I played the original Ultima Underworld and was blown away by the first-person perspective at the time. Played it quite a bit at the time. By 1993 I was married and was starting my career, so sadly I missed out on #2.

  17. PancakeWizard says:

    Nope, never did. The whole Ultima series totally passed me by! I was a Dungeon Master player, though.

  18. Haldurson says:

    I remember playing it but never finished it. I also played a lot of ES: Arena just a year later. I think it’s interesting that Elder Scrolls was just getting started right when Ultima Underworld was ending.

    ES Arena had procedurally-generated content, including dungeons that were unfathomably huge and layed out more like a huge bowl of spaghetti than something with distinct levels that you could draw on single-pieces of graph paper. It probably was both the best AND the worst use of procedural content ever used for a non-roguelike game. At some point, you guys should write about it.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I loved the Underworlds (having played Ultima from II onwards) and Elder Scrolls Arena definitely took over as my obsession once Ultima faded away.

  19. syllopsium says:

    Brilliant games, never finished either though. I’ve got my retro PC and CM32L module to play through them very soon.

    The interface has aged badly, but it’s still playable. When UW1 came out prior to DOOM, with curved walls and texture mapping, it was amazing.

  20. bill says:

    Are there any mods to improve the interface/controls for modern gamers?

    I have always wanted to play these, after seeing them listed as the best games of all time at the back of PC Format/Gamer/whatever mag for years.
    Sadly, I came to them too late and although I’ve briefly tried UUW1, I couldn’t really get into it.

    Also, would UUW2 be any better for new players to get into? And do you need to have played UUW1 to understand UUW2?

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      The interface of the two games is more or less the same, and their stories are not connected at all. The first one is completely standalone and the sequel is very loosely linked to Ultima VII, but it’s not necessary to have played that one, either.

      I would recommend reading the manual, and getting a hang of the “universal cursor” (which is context-sensitive and surprisingly modern) instead of the icon cursors. Once you get that, the only annoyance that remains in the UI is looking up and down, and it’s not that hard to get used to that. At least in my experience.

  21. Elric666 says:

    I still have to finish Underworld 2 one of these days. It’s even harder and more complex than Underworld, due to all the backtracking to the castle and the different worlds, and the more detailed plot.

    I remember when I finished playing Underworld, in the age without quest markers or quest logs, where basically it was up to you to pay attention, go to the correct places and do the right things, it felt like such a huge accomplishment to finish the game. Also thanks to the detailed and realistic “simulation” nature of the game, I felt like I had really traversed the Underworld and defeated it. Everyone looking for a real adventure in PC gaming should play it. There’s nothing else like it.