Underworld Ascendant wants you to break all the rules

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Underworld Ascendant is a game for anyone who has ever tormented a GM during a tabletop RPG session. The maps have been drawn up, the traps have been primed and all of the plans are coming together. You’re deep in a dungeon and the story is about to take a very unpleasant turn. And then…

“You said the spikey pillars are made of the same wood from which the ancient throne of Catharsia was carved? Fine. I’ll set fire to them.”

“You can’t do that…there are another six distinct phases of this particular peril…”

“I’m pretty sure I can. They’re wood. They’ll burn. Let’s get out of here.”

The ‘Ultima’ branding may be gone but Ascendant is as close to being a true Ultima Underworld sequel as we’re ever likely to see. It has the same recipe of Dungeons and Dragons concepts mixed with immersive sim qualities, and sees some Underworld and Looking Glass alumni reunited at OtherSide Entertainment. The studio is also working on a System Shock sequel and before watching a live playthrough of Ascendant, I was keeping my excitement in check.

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Original Underworld designer Paul Neurath and Warren Spector are among those veterans working on the game, and I wanted to see evidence that they had new ideas for this dungeon crawl rather than simply a desire to reheat old ones. In the livestream and during a Q&A afterwards, they showed plenty of evidence that Ascendant will be looking forward as well as back, and using modern tech to revitalise some old tricks.

On the surface, it’s tempting to call it Prey: D&D Edition. I’m talking about Arkane’s Prey, a game that already has DNA in common with Ultima Underworld and the Looking Glass family of games. There’s a similar emphasis on players creating solutions to problems using a variety of tools, and the environments that I saw are designed to enable as many approaches as possible.

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One interpretation of that might be the addition of ventilation systems to every dungeon, so that you can crawl through spaces unseen rather than taking guards on with your weapons and magic, but Ascendant is more inventive than that. There are various magical plants, from which seeds can be plucked. The most notable is a sort of glue plant that allows you to stick objects to walls or ceilings. It’s a hybrid of Thief’s rope arrows and Prey’s goo gun, and I enjoyed seeing steps and bridges constructed using objects that had previously seemed like background trash.

This is a game in which you can levitate a crate, move it through a fire with your mind, and then lob it over a skeleton’s shoulder-bone so that it crashes into a wooden support behind that skeleton and starts a larger fire that results in collapsing struts, falling boulders, and a dog’s delight of shattered bones to chew on.

It’s also a game in which a tester discovered that spinning blade traps can be rendered inert if you lodge something in the mechanism. That’s because traps are actual physics-driven objects rather than simply being kill-boxes surrounding an animation. It’s also a prime example of what I see as the central appeal of Ascendant: screwing with the creators of the game.

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Don’t worry. They want you to break things in interesting ways, so it’s not as if anyone’s going to be offended if you spend your time trying to stack monsters on top of one another and then pushing them into a ditch. All of the experimentation might be directed toward finding solutions to problems, because there are plenty of monsters to kill and quests to undertake, but I got the distinct impression that messing around with the physics and AI will be encouraged for its own sake.

It’s an RPG that’s about play rather than steadily rising numbers. I’m sure there’s a plot but what I’ve seen so far suggests that making my own sub-plots with titles like “Do skeletons burn?” and “The man who was glued to a boulder” will provide plenty of entertainment. The one thing I’d like to see more of is the ecosystem of monsters and factions; everything in the livestream was player-driven to an extent, and I want to know how well the game’s systems intertwine when hostile creatures encounter one another.

Ascendant is very appealing already though. There appear to be some rough edges, particularly relating to stealth which seemed a little too mechanical at times as the player character lingered just outside detection ranges in a way that made the connective tissue and triggers of the world seem just a little too obvious. That might change though, as this isn’t a finished build.

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The consequences of actions are at least clear. Even when guards started to swarm across a cavern, ruining what had seemed like a perfect infiltration, the cause was obvious. Create a ruckus and you’re going to get unwanted attention.

Fantasy Prey was my initial take and I stand by it, to an extent. The more I watched, the more Ascendant reminded me of another game though. It has something of Divinity: Original Sin about it and I think that the goals of the design might be closer to Larian’s than I originally thought.

Both are games that are, in different ways, trying to replicate elements of pen and paper roleplaying. They’re doing this by providing players with tools and then using their own systems to react as often and as convincingly as possible to the actions undertaken with those tools. In Underworld that’s in the physics of the world and the AI, and so much will depend on how well the latter works, and how well constructed the various areas of the world are.

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As a basis, it’s fascinating though. An RPG that drops you into a space and gives you freedom to explore and engage with the inhabitants with as few restrictions as possible. It’s what I want from an RPG, that sort of freedom. It’s not the freedom of an open world, it’s freedom of approach within a world that has obvious hard limits.

Ascendant has a clear ruleset and it wants you to test how far you can push those rules. I look forward to breaking it.

51 Comments

  1. Babymech says:

    Breath of the Wild is finally coming to the PC, eh?

    • Halk says:

      Giving people freedom in solving tasks. Finally this concept makes it to the PC. Coming from the consoles. Riiight.

      • Babymech says:

        If you make your comparison as abstract as possible you will never have any problem finding early examples. “Freedom in solving tasks” – yeah, tic tac toe has that. That doesn’t mean you made a relevant comparison.

    • citrusninja says:

      Breath of the Wild is playable on PC right now

      • Babymech says:

        I know, that’s goddamn crazy. When the BotW and P5 became decently playable, I too felt pretty smug about being a PC gamer.

    • Tuco says:

      What do you mean “finally”?
      I finished it on PC months ago.

      Also, emergent gameplay definitely isn’t a Nintendo invention.

    • EgoMaster says:

      Ultima, System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex… Breath of the Wild came to PC a good 30 years before it came out.

    • Admore says:

      Why do that?

  2. Halk says:

    OK, I have to admit that I had VERY little hope for this game. This article makes it sound a lot more appealing.

    >It’s what I want from an RPG, that sort of freedom.
    >It’s not the freedom of an open world, it’s freedom
    >of approach within a world that has obvious hard limits.

    Thief-brand freedom. For me, this is the only kind of freedom I want to have in any game.

    But I am still very worried because of Unity.

    • HiroTheProtagonist says:

      It’s not the engine, it’s the people working with it. Bully: Scholarship Edition was written on the same engine as the Elder Scrolls games but was far less glitchy and bug-ridden. This game looks like it’s in capable hands that are more concerned with making the gameplay engaging rather than faffing over visuals, and I can absolutely abide that sentiment.

      • grandstander says:

        Huh, I had always assumed it was made in the same engine as the GTA games. Sure enough you’re right though.

        • krimhorn says:

          Original Bully was RenderWare like the GTA III series of games. RenderWare was basically killed (though it didn’t take immediately) when Criterion was bought by EA which would have necessitated the engine change for the 360 era port.

    • Whelp says:

      Why? Unity is a pretty solid third-party engine.

    • manio22 says:

      What is everyone’s issue with Unity anyway? It’s a pretty neat engine, specially with the recent update with all the goodies and shinnies added. Sure, it isn’t Frostbite , or Unreal but still.

      • Halk says:

        That it looks like crap while being ridiculously resource demanding.

        • Thomas Foolery says:

          Unity is just an engine, it doesn’t look like anything. A game made in Unity will look as good as its art design makes it look. Ori and the Blind Forest was made in Unity and it’s one of the best looking games I can think of in recent years.

      • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

        Historically, Unity has been pretty shit. It looked ten years out of date, yet still ran like a CryEngine game. The only thing that made it appealing was that it was free; and the fact that it was free meant a lot of very small budget games used it, without technical artists that would make things look and run better in bigger titles.

        That’s largely no longer the case, the Unity team has put a lot of effort into making a powerful, modern engine, and their work has paid off. There are some absolutely stunning-looking games like Escape from Tarkov using Unity.

        But it’s really hard to evade a bad reputation once you already have it.

      • nottorp says:

        Unity is the great battery killer(tm).

        As in, back when I was playing the new x-com (1) my laptop battery could run it for 3 hours or more, without the fan going into overdrive. $random_unity_indie couldn’t reach 2 hours… and the fan was in vacuum cleaner mode.

        You don’t feel that when playing on a desktop, but it’s as badly optimized there. Or was, at least.

        • hfm says:

          Agreed. I have some pretty tame Unity games that just tax the snot out of my hardware.

      • Babymech says:

        Bagging on Unity became a lazy goto for the angry “gamer-consumer rights” crowd who want to rage about asset flips and sub-60 FPS without knowing much about how games get made. There are a lot of bad games made with Unity (and it’s unfortunately easy to tell, because if you only get the free license for Unity, you are required to put the Unity logo up front in your load screen) but it’s an amazingly versatile engine. Cuphead, Hearthstone, Life is Strange, Hollow Knight, Tides of Numenera, Pokemon GO…

        • Seyda Neen says:

          Life is Strange actually runs on Unreal, but its spin off Before the Storm is indeed Unity.

          • bill says:

            Oh good. Life is Strange might actually run on my laptop then.
            Unreal games seem to run nicely on even low end hardware, whereas I can almost never get unity games to run at a decent framerate.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      This reminds me of how some people blamed Unreal Engine 3 for the washed out aesthetics of last generation games.

      Titles ranging from Ori and the Blind Forest and Cuphead to Cities: Skyline and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak were made in Unity. It’s a versatile engine.

  3. Maxheadroom says:

    I was suffering Kickstarter RPG fatigue when this was doing the rounds having backed Wasteland, Pillars of Eternity, Bards Tale and at least 3 others im forgetting about.

    Its looking a lot better now than it did in the pitch video. If i could go back id maybe back this (instead of say, Shroud of the Avatar or The Mandate:) )

    • Whelp says:

      I didn’t even know this was on Kickstarter. Probably would’ve backed it!

    • manio22 says:

      You had to mention The Mandate, don’t you? *sighs*

      So much expectations, so much disappointment .

      • SanguineAngel says:

        As with any kickstarter I backed, I’m not bitter about the failure – that’s an understood risk at investment. I am pretty disappointed though as the Mandate looked particularly lovely.

        Still, nevermind. There have been a great many success stories too.

    • harvb says:

      Yes, this. I wish I’d never even heard of Shroud. My biggest Kickstarter regret, but at least it served to stop my KS habit.

  4. Manburger says:

    This does, in theory, sound exactly like what the doctor ordered. Fingers crossed! Great write-up, Adam!

  5. Michael Fogg says:

    I hope this turns out In Mani Ylem and not Deco Morono ;)

  6. Premium User Badge

    burn_heal says:

    I have an Underworld Ascendant T-shirt so it better be good.

  7. April March says:

    If your GM whines because you set fire to something made of wood, get a new GM. I’m available.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Exactly. It’s his fault if he lets the players walk all over the campaign with some stuff like that.
      Besides wood used for spikes isn’t exactly known to burn that well -depending on what the rulebook allows of course- but usually everyone in the party would think it ludicrous if the mage went with the argumentation.

      • jrodman says:

        As a long time game master, I *love* it when the players knock over the plans entirely and wander into the backstage. I get to think on my feet and it all ends with totally unexected shit happening.

  8. racccoon says:

    If game devs also integrate items that are fixed stuck like super glue which in the real world would easily be unstuck, that might help as well.

  9. aircool says:

    Read the ‘Critical Failures’ books by Robert Bevan. Basically some D&D players ‘trapped’ in a D&D world who abuse the rules of the game to make a day to day living (eg, dressing up as werewolves and trying to get shot with silver crossbow bolts, then selling the silver in the market etc…).

    Oh, and the constant abuse of the ‘Horse’ spell in creative and often highly destructive ways.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    We also had Arx Fatalis some years ago which was essentially an Ultima Underworld successor.

  11. syllopsium says:

    This is the first encouraging news and screenshots I’ve seen of this. I’m a big Ultima fan, and really want it to succeed, but up until now didn’t think they would do so..