Un­der­world As­cen­dant

The creators of the im­mer­sive sim re­turn to the Abyss

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Other­side Studios Pub­lisher 505 Games For­mat PC Ori­gin US Re­lease 2018


You can’t over­state the im­por­tance of Ul­tima Un­der­world: The Sty­gian Abyss.

A fully tex­tured 3D first­per­son game re­leased in 1992, it brought the rich choice and con­se­quence of 2D RPGs into a sprawl­ing un­der­ground world of twist­ing pas­sage­ways and dark cham­bers. Ob­jects had phys­i­cal at­tributes, so they’d fall and bounce when thrown. Doors could be bro­ken, care­free ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with its spell sys­tem of verbs and nouns opened up mul­ti­ple ways of tack­ling ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, and once you’d learned their lan­guages, you’d talk with your en­e­mies as much as fight them. Open-ended, at­mo­spheric and em­bod­ied, it was the game that launched Look­ing Glass Studios and the ca­reers of de­vel­op­ers War­ren Spec­tor, Doug Church, Paul Neu­rath and many oth­ers who went on to make waves in cre­at­ing the body of games that fol­lowed – Sys­tem Shock, Thief,

Deus Ex, Bioshock – a genre which be­came known as the im­mer­sive sim.

Now some of those same de­vel­op­ers have re­turned to make a new Un­der­world game. Not an Ul­tima game, mind you. Paul Neu­rath, who led the de­sign of the orig­i­nal and went on to found Flood­gate En­ter­tain­ment, which was later ac­quired by Zynga, spent 20 years ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ul­tima IP holder EA for its li­cence. He fi­nally came away with a deal that only re­leased the Un­der­world part, but

Un­der­world As­cen­dant is set in the Great Sty­gian Abyss, just as the first game is; you once again play as the Avatar; and it fea­tures some char­ac­ters who ap­peared in the orig­i­nal.

Un­der­world’s Abyss is a net­work of un­der­ground cav­erns which bor­ders the Un­der­world it­self. Other than the un­dead which have wan­dered into its halls it should be life­less, yet some­how it flour­ishes, with an ecol­ogy which draws en­ergy from mana float­ing in the air. The raw rock and the an­cient ru­ins that stand in it glow with colour­ful bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent light, giv­ing

As­cen­dant a very dif­fer­ent look to the orig­i­nal. It was a chal­lenge to di­rect As­cen­dant’s art, given that it’s based on games which were made for such nascent 3D tech­nol­ogy. “To my mind, it’s to an ex­tent rem­i­nis­cent of the ear­lier games,” Spec­tor tells us. “There’s a colour­ful­ness that I find very ap­peal­ing, and that’s part of the at­mos­phere of the orig­i­nal, in that its dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions looked dif­fer­ent and it wasn’t a bleak world.”

“We’re try­ing to do some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to the com­mon trend of hy­per­re­al­ism in Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings,” adds game di­rec­tor and writer

Joe Fielder, who was pre­vi­ously a writer and pro­ducer for Bioshock In­fi­nite and the Medal

Of Honor se­ries. ”We’re go­ing for some­thing more raw and roughly hewn. A lot of

in­spi­ra­tion has come from early D&D and minia­tures. We’re call­ing it in­ter­nally ‘pulp fan­tasy’; we’re re­ally want­ing to play with the mythic roots of the se­ries.” If you re­mem­ber the cover of The Sty­gian Abyss, of a war­rior cau­tiously de­scend­ing Escher-like steps to­wards a mon­ster in the fore­ground, it cap­tures some of that at­mos­phere.

When Neu­rath asked Spec­tor to join Other­side, Spec­tor had spent a cou­ple of years teach­ing at the Univer­sity Of Texas since the clo­sure of his pre­vi­ous stu­dio, Junc­tion Point, and he jumped at the chance to make games again. “I’d started to get kind of antsy,” he says. He and Neu­rath went on the road to raise funds and gather a team. They took on Doug Church as an ad­vi­sor; Tim Stell­mach, who helped de­sign Sys­tem Shock, as lead de­signer; and Nate Wells, artist on Bioshock and The Last Of Us. To­gether they dis­cussed how to up­date so ven­er­a­ble a game, de­cid­ing to not only fol­low up on Un­der­world but on the im­mer­sive sim as a whole. “We’re tak­ing things fur­ther by go­ing deeper on sim­u­la­tion and giv­ing play­ers even more con­trol over the ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s true of both Ul­tima

As­cen­dant and Sys­tem Shock 3,” says Spec­tor, whose main job at Other­side is not work­ing on As­cen­dant but di­rect­ing Sys­tem Shock 3 at a se­cond stu­dio in Austin, his home town. “I’m not go­ing to name names, but I will say that most of the games that have fol­lowed since Thief and Deus Ex are highly scripted and much more lin­ear. They give play­ers fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties to tell their own sto­ries.”

Open­ing up more player choice, he says, is a mat­ter of merg­ing The Sty­gian Abyss’ orig­i­nal prin­ci­ples with mod­ern world sim­u­la­tion and sys­tems-driven de­sign – things that were en­tirely im­pos­si­ble in the early 1990s. Thus, in As­cen­dant ob­jects are im­bued with physics and ma­te­rial prop­er­ties, so that flammable things burn and heavy things fall with greater force. To­day that’s hardly rad­i­cal, but

As­cen­dant’s dif­fer­ence is giv­ing play­ers a high den­sity of dif­fer­ent ob­jects and prop­er­ties to play with, know­ing that com­plex­ity will emerge from them. Glue­balls, for ex­am­ple, are found as a seed pod on vi­cious rip­pers – hunched, tree-like plants with long claws. Pick one and throw it into the joint of a ro­tat­ing blade trap to seize it up. Throw it on to a wall, and then throw a crate onto it, and you have the start of a bridge. Many of these lit­tle feats, as the game calls them, will earn the player fac­tion rep­u­ta­tion and other rewards to en­cour­age cre­ative play.

As­cen­dant’s magic sys­tem, which has you cast­ing spells us­ing phrases made from mag­i­cal words (‘Slow Time’ or ‘Cre­ate Plant’), or with wands loaded with spe­cific spells, fur­ther sup­ports these ma­te­rial tricks. Grav­i­tate is a spell which can pick up mul­ti­ple ob­jects and ar­range them into con­fig­u­ra­tions which might act as a lad­der to as­cend a wall or a bar­rier against as­sailants. Harm Wood will in­stantly de­stroy a door; Bind Spirit will freeze a ma­raud­ing skele­ton in its tracks. Or you can take a more ag­ile ap­proach, in­vest­ing in skills such as Wall Run and Wall Jump.

And more than that, the cham­bers of the Abyss are de­signed to change over time. You might visit a lo­ca­tion sev­eral times as you em­bark on quests from the game’s three fac­tions, per­form­ing such tasks as lo­cat­ing some MacGuf­fin, map­ping out an area or rais­ing the wa­ter level, and each time it will be pop­u­lated with dif­fer­ent en­e­mies, items and struc­tures. “With our team size, we know that we’re not go­ing to do hun­dreds of miles of en­vi­ron­ment,” says Fielder. “But those places be­come static over time, so while we have this con­straint we can also make sure the en­vi­ron­ments grow and change with de­signer-cu­rated va­ri­ety.”

Over the course of the game, the threat will rise. Fielder de­scribes As­cen­dant’s cam­paign as hav­ing a boardgame-style doom counter hang­ing over it. Crea­tures from the lower depths will rise, cleared ar­eas will re­pop­u­late, and as you in­ter­act with the fac­tions you’ll have to man­age their dif­fer­ing goals. In aim­ing to re-school the im­mer­sive sim, As­cen­dant has pitched it­self a stern chal­lenge, but its so­lu­tion, in ex­chang­ing sprawl­ing open worlds for dy­namic and deep ones, is tan­ta­lis­ing.

“We can make sure the en­vi­ron­ments change with de­signer-cu­rated va­ri­ety”

Other­side Studios’ War­ren Spec­tor (top) and Joe Fielder

The quest hub is a Tang­ier­like city of packed to­gether build­ings. Here you’ll in­ter­act with NPCs from the three dif­fer­ent fac­tions

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