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Back to the Underworld: the Ultima spin-off’s successor, 20 years in the making

Underworld Ascendant

System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, BioShock – there’s a good chance that I’ve just listed one of your favourite games as if I was a videogame Derren Brown. Each of them, along with a significant number of other games, share a large amount of DNA with antediluvian dungeon-delving classic, Ultima Underworld. And thanks to Kickstarter, the long-lost series has been given new life in the form of Underworld Ascendant. 

Ultima Underworld and its sequel are now well over 20 years old, thus their spiritual successor enters a world that’s changed a great deal. The impossible made possible, technology completely altering not just how games are constructed, but the expectations of players as well.

Paul Neurath, who designed the originals, founded Thief developer Looking Glass Studios and is now leading the team behind Underworld Ascendant, notes the impact of modern hardware. “[It’s] pretty astonishing,” he says, compared to what they had to work with two decades ago. But, and this is perhaps the impetus for this resurrection, he doesn’t believe game design has moved as far forward.

“There has certainly been innovation as the game industry has moved forward and more modern games, the Deus Ex series or Dishonored or Bioshock, those are are games that have pushed in various ways, but 20 years ago I would have thought things would have moved along further in terms of game design and innovation. For us that’s good because it still leaves a lot of open territory to explore in the game design space.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that OtherSide Entertainment includes a number of developers from the games that Neurath believes have innovated. As well as thosewho worked on BioShock and Dishonored, Warren Spector is lending his expertise as design advisor.

Despite the changes of the last 20 years, a lot has remained the same, or at least become popular once more. Most notably there’s the idea that players should be the authors of their own adventures.

Richard ‘Lord British’ Garriott’s Ultima series, which the original Underworlds were based on, put players in the shoes of ‘the Avatar’, a hero that is essentially you or me – a person from our world, transported into a fantasy realm. The hero, then, was a tabula rasa, whose history, skills and persona were directed only by the player. This has been carried over to Ascendent.

“Unlike Thief, where you’re given a character, this is a true RPG, so you come as the Avatar. It’s you as a human coming into the world and we don’t want to voice your character, we want to imagine you’re them when you want to be,” Neurath explains.

Players entering the Stygian Abyss will be able to craft their version of the Avatar freely, but to stop the start of the game getting bogged down in stats and decisions that players aren’t yet informed enough to make, there will be three presets: a fighter, mage and a rogue. But from there, players will be able to grow them in any way they see fit.

“Even if you chose to start as a mage,” Neurath tells me, “in not too long you could be a powerful fighter who happens to have a couple of spells, and you can kind of mix and match whatever skill package and experience package you want. The only real constraint is that as you get more powerful you have to specialise if you’re going to become a super powerful mage.”

When discussing first-person fantasy games, these days you’d be hard pressed to avoid talking about The Elder Scrolls. Yet, for all their ambition, for all the things they do right, they are still laden with rather pedestrian combat. With conflict being such an important part of Ascendant, what approach are Neurath and his team were taking with the action in order to avoid the mashy, sometimes thoughtless brawling and spell-flinging of Skyrim?

“We don’t want it to be a button mashing game. This is an RPG, so your decisions as a character, how you develop your character and your abilities are central,” says Neurath. “It’s more tactical… if you focus on fighting skills, you’d have a package of skills and abilities that would include some fairly straight-up weapons and combat skills, you’d have different types of weapons like swords and defensive manoeuvres, but also what we’re calling agility class manoeuvres that give you extra moves and abilities that aren’t strictly a weapon strike or defence, but allow you to get a leg up during running combat.”

This ‘running combat’ is an exciting prospect, evoking the kinetic, leaping, swinging duels of Errol Flynn. The halls, chambers and caverns of the Stygian underworld are designed for travelling fights, with verticality, places to climb and crawl and jump, where traps and doors and ledges give players an edge just as much as a sharp sword. It’s the swashbuckling school of fighting.

Neurath emphasises the physicality of the environment; it’s a character you’ll be interacting with, a place you’ll become intimately familiar with.

“From the Underworlds through System Shock and Thief, one of the things we did that was very distinctive from a lot of games today was we created these very close and richly interactive spaces. You could reach out, there were things you could move or shift, or levers you could pull, or things you could jump on or swing on and ropes you could climb, there was a lot of rich interaction with the space around you, then you use that space and those kinds of interaction as part of solving any challenge or riddle you were faced with.”

Like fighter-type characters, magic users will be able to take advantage of the environment, using spells to move objects around, manipulate the path of an enemy and paralyse them so that they get stuck in a trap. Speaking of traps, tricky, deadly devices will pepper the Stygian Abyss, creating fatal threats for both players and their enemies. And these are serious business. When you see a blade falling from a ceiling or a gory, spiked, spinning number, you’re not just seeing scripted animation with a small set of predetermined outcomes; you’re seeing a device with gears and systems and guts you can interact with and affect in myriad ways.

“We actually construct [traps] in a way that might work if you really had a dungeon and traps,” explains Neurath. “There’s a column with spikes on it [referring to the demo that you can watch above], it’s spinning, it’s on a track and it moves back and forth with a force and springs. So, for instance, as you’ve seen it going back and forth in the corridor, you can take a big log or something hefty, jam it against the wall and stop it swinging back and forth and pass under it freely without any risk of getting hit by it. Or you can jam it and there’s this monster that wants to get onto the other side, so you can unjam it just in time for it to nail that creature. So you can use traps both ways. You can think about ways to disarm or to get an edge on a trap then use that trap against a monster.”

The impact of traps, as well as weapon strikes, is determined by physics. Ascendent moves away from pen-and-paper conventions, so damage is no longer calculated by dice rolls and the like. The type of weapon or trap, the force of the swing, the wind up, the environment – this is what determines damage. If a boulder falls on your skull, there’s no set number of HP it takes off. How far it’s fallen, its weight and size, all the things that would have an impact in the real world have an impact in the Stygian Abyss.

The end result of the liberating amount of interactivity and the realistic physics is the ‘Improvisation Engine’. Ascendent is all about experimentation and uncovering unconventional solutions to problems, and not just puzzles, but anything from combat to crossing a river. There could be ten or 20 ways to solve a problem in a room, varying in difficulty, and each is as valid as the others.

Neurath hopes that, by offering so many solutions – so many that the team is certain that players will end up doing things that the developers never even anticipated – Ascendent will tempt people back for more, once they’ve finished the game for the first time. A magic user is probably going to come up with different solutions from a melee fighter, giving new life to each encounter.

It’s not just the Improvisation Engine that lends Ascendent replayability, though. Three big factions dwell in the underworld – Dwarves, Shamblers and Dark Elves, who have actually come from the world of Shroud of the Avatar, Richard Garriott’s in-development MMO – and players can choose which one to ultimately support, altering the trajectory of the game. Supporting one faction over another won’t make enemies out of the other factions, Neurath notes. There’s an uneasy tension between them, but they aren’t in an all-out war. The things players do to win favour will have a tangible impact on the world, however, even altering the ecosystem of the Stygian Abyss.

“Seeing how your actions change the world I think is very powerful,” Neurath tells me. “We have subterranean rivers that run in sections of the Stygian Abyss and you’ll have the ability to change the course or open up gates and flood certain sections, and that’s going to change the geology or physiology of that section, so creatures that don’t deal well with water and flooding will be pushed out and creatures that like the water are going move in. You’ll change the ecology, the setting, and that has repercussions.”

Underworld Ascendant’s Kickstarter ended earlier this year, hitting its initial target and six stretch goals. The funding push continues through PayPal, as Neurath and his team are keen to see more of those targets reached. OtherSide didn’t have a lot of crowdfunding experience, but Neurath had spoken with inXile’s Brian Fargo – who has been involved in more Kickstarters than most – and came to the conclusion that a lot of people don’t find out about these crowdfunding projects until they’re over, hence the post-Kickstarter campaign.

As evidenced by our time spent with Larian during the final hours of Divinity: Original Sin 2’s crowdfunding campaign, there’s a real sense of community present across Kickstarter nowadays. Is this something that Neurath and his team have noticed, or perhaps benefited from?

“One of the things which is great is that myself and other team members have been in the games industry for quite a long time now, and we’ve developed a community over the years. So I’ve worked pretty closely with Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts and Brian Fargo and others and so when we thought of Kickstarter, I went to these colleagues who had already done Kickstarters and they were very generous in providing insight and sharing what they would do if they had to do it again. So there really is this community.”

Garriott provided more than advice, it turns out, as Shroud of the Avatar and Underworld Ascendant are now inextricably linked through their fiction, just as Ultima and Ultima Underworld were. The Dark Elves from Shroud’s New Britannia travelled through a portal and found themselves in the Stygian Abyss, and Neurath also points out that players in Shroud will be able to find a Dark Elf shield that glows with a mysterious light if the player has a character in both games. It will glow “with the bond of friendship between the two worlds,” he says.

It’s appropriate that both Shroud of the Avatar and Underworld Ascendant are being developed at the same time, and are connected just as their progenitors were, so many years ago, before the IPs were gobbled up by EA.

“We’re having great fun bringing this back again,” says Neurath. “It’s pretty unique to be able to take a franchise that had been in the EA vault for all these years and revisit it. We had planned on doing an Underworld 3 going way back, and it’s been a long delay, but now it’s happening.”

We’ll have to wait just a little bit longer, though. Underworld Ascendant is due out in November 2016.