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Thread: My adventures in Underworld (Ascendant)

  1. #1
    Registered: Jan 2001
    Location: the Sheeple Pen

    My adventures in Underworld (Ascendant)

    So I recently gave Underworld Ascendant another chance, after being totally disappointed with the initial release. A little background info first: I backed this project on Kickstarter, and must admit that I may have got a bit too excited back then. I really wanted Underworld Ascendant to be a great game and a great success, and with all the "big" names in the dev team I believed that they could fulfil the promises and fill my rather high expectations. Did they? Well...

    I decided to wait for all the hotfixes to be released until jumping in again, and I'm fairly sure that that was a good decision. The initial release was such a broken mess that I'll never understand how anyone could have thought that it would be an a good idea to release something that isn't even playable. I've never seen a "high profile" game get such bad reviews (Metascore 37%), it wasn't even Daikatana bad, it was much worse. Had they called it "early access" or something, maybe Underworld Ascendant's reputation could have been salvaged afterwards, but they really effed up the release so badly that there was no way back after that. Anyway, I was positively surprised to see all the updates and changes. The game ran much better, looked better, was a bit less buggy, and most importantly, it was playable. A proper game. My hopes were getting higher again - perhaps they had been able to fix the whole horrible mess after all? I soon noticed a couple of annoyances, but my first couple of hours in the updated Underworld were good times, I had a lot of fun exploring the place.

    I'm going to start with Underworld Ascendant's biggest strength, the Underworld itself. I actually think that they've nailed the Underworld atmosphere there. The sound design is good. The levels are generally pretty well crafted; there are often multiple ways to get from place A to place B, and I even like the art style that they decided to go with in the end. However, the levels are relatively small, and there's a lot of running back and forth in the same places. I mean, a lot. That's because the quests in this game are very simple: fetch item X from place Y, then return to the cave entrance. It's not even uncommon that you get three quests in a row where you have to visit the exact same place! Suddenly the levels that were fun to explore at first become very frustrating...

    Marcaul, the underground city in the game, also seems like a place that the developers had a lot of plans for, but it only feels like an empty shell. The place is kinda huge, but there are only a couple of merchants, a level-up lizard, and a handful of NPCs that haven't got anything to say living in there, so it doesn't exactly feel like a place where someone has ever lived. And no, the continuous banging of the drums doesn't give that impression either, it'd only drive me mad if I had to spend more than a couple of minutes in Marcaul.

    Physics simulator. I think someone labelled UA as such once. It's true that much of the game is all about playing with the physics. Setting stuff on fire is the best part of this game (even though you'll need some supercomputer if you want to start some big fires), and burning lizardmen to death is good fun for a while, but it does get old a bit too soon. Moving objects around and throwing them feels a bit awkward, which isn't good when the whole game is built around that sort of thing. But the worst part is the physics bugs. A couple of times during my play through I sank through the floor of the dungeon, and ascending from the under-underworld turned out to be an impossible task. Too many times I also got stuck in the terrain or just suddenly died without any reason when the broken physics decided so.

    The leveling up system and the magic system are different than what I'm used to, and rather interesting, but well... It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise anymore that they're also a bit broken. To gain experience points you'll have to perform certain actions (feats) in the game, such as killing a lot of enemies with a dagger or setting someone on fire or performing a long wall run. Many of them feel a bit random and even though the system sounds cool in theory and it's probably supposed to make the player experiment with things, it just doesn't work in practice. Fortunately the feats are not the only way to gain experience points, even though I thought so at first; each quest in the game also has a "side-bounty" that gives you an experience point if you complete it. From the top of my head I remember "remain unseen", "don't kill anyone", "don't take melee damage" and "don't equip a weapon". The way how the bounties trigger or don't trigger feels a bit unreliable, and you won't know for sure whether you've failed or not before you've finished the quest. So what about the skills that you get with your hard-earned experience points? They're pretty standard stuff, but not particularly well balanced. Some are just useless if not outright broken, "Nightvision" for example sounds very useful in a dark dungeon, but while there's a very minimal change, it only helps you see where your hands are. It's like no one has ever even bothered to test that skill, it's more like a cruel joke, and it feels terrible that it's still there in the latest release.

    The magic system has got a lot of potential. There are quite a few different runes that you can combine to discover new spells, many of them you can discover by just experimenting a bit. If you let your imagination fly you can come up with all sorts of fun things to do - you could bind together a bunch of wooden objects for example, set them on fire, and drop the burning stuff on a group of enemies, and you could simply watch them burn to death from a safe distance. Well, in theory you could, yes. In practice the system is a bit awkward to use, so the end result is probably far from what you were trying to achieve. And you won't have much mana to play with anyway, unless you concentrate on building your character as a sorcerer. However, my biggest gripe with the magic system is that it only feels like a bit of a gimmick - it's of course fun and satisfying when you succeed at killing a bunch of nasties by throwing a cloud of burning objects on them, but it's not particularly difficult to avoid the enemies altogether or to beat them to death with whatever weapon you're using.

    I think that the biggest problem with UA is that it tried to be way too ambitious. All the hype about the underworld ecosystem and factions and stuff, they failed to deliver most of that. Another example that comes to my mind is all the talk and blog posts about developing a language for the lizardmen. I think that in the final game the lizardmen know only one word, "bee-tsah", and even that sounds really annoying when you've heard it too many times. I think I will have to mention the Factions here too. There's a lot of talk about dwarves and elves and shamblers in the game - there are a lot of silly repeatable side-quests for example where you can gain "favor points" for each faction, so naturally I was expecting to bump into a bunch of dwarves or elves at some point in the game. It wasn't until I found some random readable when I discovered that they don't really even exist in the game. The whole factions system was one of the big selling points and something that the devs loved to brag about, and in reality the factions system is just a bunch of repeatable fetch quests on a quest billboard. It really doesn't even seem to matter what faction you decide to go with.

    Even the story doesn't save Underworld Ascendant. From what I gathered, this god called Typhon wants to destroy everything because he's super evil, and the player is summoned from another dimension to save the world. Cabirus the ghost guides you along the way, and there are floating "memora" balls all around the Underworld that provide some additional lore about the gods and factions and everything, but to be honest, I soon lost interest in it all, so I don't know what the story really is all about.

    If only they had concentrated on polishing the very core of the game and then spent the remaining resources on the fancy stuff, I have a feeling that the end product would have been a lot better then. There's some fun to be had here, but those are only fleeting moments between the endless frustration with the broken game mechanics. I only stuck with Underworld Ascendant because I really wanted to like it, and I don't regret spending around 20+ hours on it, but I wouldn't expect an average gamer to be as tolerant as me (and why should they be?). The game feels like such a missed chance - how did they underestimate the complexity of the project so badly and get some things so terribly wrong?


    P.S. I want to know what Starker did to get in the "Special Thanks" section of the credits?!

  2. #2
    Registered: May 2004
    Quote Originally Posted by Tomi View Post
    P.S. I want to know what Starker did to get in the "Special Thanks" section of the credits?!
    Spent a lot of the time in the forums? I was one of the few people to publicly give the game and the developers the benefit of a doubt. Even though my reaction to the resulting game has been mixed at best, I never thought they were out to scam people, as was the occasional accusation in the forums. Furthermore, I never made any of my criticisms personal, and I found time to also offer suggestions how to improve things and to praise what I thought the game did well, instead of just tearing it down.

    PS. I still think it contains the skeleton of a great game, if only if was fleshed out with enough story and game content.

  3. #3
    Registered: Jan 2001
    Location: the Sheeple Pen
    Quote Originally Posted by Starker View Post
    I still think it contains the skeleton of a great game, if only if was fleshed out with enough story and game content.
    I agree, and that's kind of what annoys me the most! It's a skeleton of a great game, but now it seems that it'll never be anything more than that. There are many interesting game mechanics and a lot of potential, but it's all wasted when just about everything in the game is broken to some extent, and there's not much content.

  4. #4
    Registered: May 2009
    Thanks for the long write-up, Tomi, I appreciated your perspective. Ultima Underworld is my all-time favorite, so I think one day I'll still have to try this one.

  5. #5
    Registered: Jan 2001
    Location: the Sheeple Pen
    My first post turned out to be so long that I didn't expect anyone to actually read it, but you're welcome!

    Underworld Ascendant is not a terrible game, and even though it hasn't got much to do with the old Underworld games, it's still got same sort of vibes. Wait until it's on big discount before buying it though - even the biggest fan of this game can't justify the normal price!

    I've thought some more about this all, and I think that the biggest problem with the game is that there's nothing to do in the game world. Exploration is fun at first, until you realise that there's nothing exciting to be found. By the end of my game I had so much gold that it wasn't even possible to spend it all, and I had found so many "legendary weapons" that I couldn't be bothered picking them up anymore. People often mock the loot placement in the "new" Thief, but Underworld Ascendant takes it to a whole new level. You find bags of gold lying around all over the place, there are coin purses in just about every bush, and the worst thing is that you don't really even need the gold for anything in the game. Anyway, back to the emptiness of the game world; there's no character interaction of any kind (apart from a couple of merchants), the repeatable quests are all tedious fetch quests that all follow the same pattern, and the "epic" story is mostly told via readables and I lost my interest in those fairly quickly.

    I actually think that instead of even trying to deliver an epic and complex story, Underworld Ascendant actually could have worked much better as some kind of a rogue-like dungeon crawler. Kind of like Nethack but in 3D - you would only get some vague target to strive for, and the game would mostly be about just surviving. Like I pointed out before, many of the game mechanics are broken, but I think that with little fixes the game would be a fun playground for a rogue-like game. The insta-deaths caused by buggy physics wouldn't be fun in that sort of a game though...

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