'Underworld Ascendant' Treads the Line Between 'Ultima' and 'Dishonored'

A look into the player-empowering spiritual sequel to 'Ultima Underworld'

At Dungeons & Dragons' core is the tabletop game’s ability to create a platform for both cooperative play and storytelling. The give and take of dungeon master and players as they craft an experience, results in a thing much better than its parts.

The dice rolls are incidental to the experience. Or as Otherside Entertainment studio director Warren Spector puts it, the need to roll dice to determine outcomes was the best mechanic the creators of D&D had at their disposal when they made the game. So when the folks at Looking Glass set about developing one of their first games, it was the feel of D&D they were trying to capture, not the mechanics. “My entire career has been trying to recreate that feeling of telling my own story from when I played D&D,” Spector says.

Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath says the studio didn’t know what it was making back in the early 90s when they started work on Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and later System Shock and Thief. “We knew we wanted to do something different,” he says. “We figured we would mix the simulation of a flight game with role-playing and that became Underworld.”

Now, some of the team is back together at the newly founded Otherside Entertainment, working on a successor to those early Underworld and System Shock titles and hoping to push forward what has since been called immersive simulator games.

Underworld Ascendant is the result of a decades-long discussion between the game’s original designer, Paul Neurath, and Electronic Arts. In 2014, EA granted Neurath a license to Underworld (though not Ultima). In 2015, OtherSide Entertainment, founded by Neurath, took to Kickstarter where it raised enough to develop the game. After more than two years, including a year of relative silence, the team says the game is coming out in 2018 - published by 505 Games - and that they’re ready to talk about it a bit more.

“It’s a pretty exciting, fresh, original take on RPGs and simulators,” says Joe Fielder, who is writing the game. “It’s story-driven open gameplay in a highly interactive world - an emergent RPG.”

In the game, the player takes on the role of a person plucked from the modern world and dropped into the dangerous subterranean Stygian Abyss. “It’s a place where life shouldn’t exist,” Fielder says. “And this improbable ecology has formed there.”

The hidden world has a different sort of life-cycle that revolves around mana. Many of the creatures of the world consume the mana, which floats throughout areas like motes of glowing dust, and then excrete light. So, for instance, the undead of this world aren’t evil, they’re simply parasitic creatures which have seeped in from other dimensions, subsisting off of the mana.

The player’s ultimate goal is to prevent a primordial Kraken from awakening. But to do that, you’re going to need to seek help from and work with the game’s three key factions: Dark Elves, Dwarves and Shamblers. Doing too much for one faction can through the underworld’s politics out of alignment and cause much bigger issues for you.

While the relatively short bit of gameplay I saw of Underworld featured fetch quests, the key distinguisher was how those quests were accomplished. Instead of relying on developer-constructed pathways of play, the game presents open opportunities and the ability to be creative.

“You need to think creatively,” Fielder says. “In the game, you need to grow your skills and abilities by taking on missions from the three factions. They present you with these series of challenges. How you solve them is up to you. You have combat skills, stealth, magic. There is useful flora, creatures with interesting behaviors you can exploit.”

In showing off the game, the team pre-created three different sorts of kits, which loaded out the character in different ways. One favored combat, one stealth and one magic. Magic in the game is perhaps the most interesting skill. Instead of being offensive spells, they’re sort of open-ended actions. Fielder says they give players “verbs.” So, for instance, you might have a spell that can lift objects, or pull them together in clumps. How a player uses that spell determines if it’s something that creates bridges, flattens enemies or makes bombs.

This approach to magic is strongly influenced by the world’s construction which is governed by a series of relatively easy to figure out rules. For instance, wood burns and fire spreads. When confronted with a door, you can open it, chop away at it or set it on fire. Those more conventional rules are then augmented with rules that govern the unconventional, like the game’s Ripper plant monsters. They have claws, are aggressive but also bear useful fruit and leave a trail of flammable liquid behind them. They’re essentially walking potential for mischief and creative problem-solving. In one location, I watch as the team walks up to a glue plant and plucks a glue bulb. Later, that bulb is used to set a trap.

During my time watching the game, I saw a myriad of ways to take advantage of the environment, the magic, the flora and fauna to conquer an enemy or achieve a goal. The simplest solution, hacking at a bad guy with a sword, was rarely used. Spells were used to befriend an enemy ripper, to create a floating bridge of crates or set alight a slime trail.

It’s clear the impact games like Thief, System Shock and the original Underworld has had on today’s titles. Just look at Prey or Dishonored, BioShock or Fallout and you can see the lasting influence Looking Glass and its titles had.

“We never imagined our games would still be remembered, let along fondly looked upon by so many, years later,” Neurath says. “With System Shock and Thief, we took immersive simulator genre forward, but then when Looking Glass ended, Underworld and System Shock both went fallow for many years. Getting the rights back to take things forward with Underworld and System Shock was an intriguing opportunity.”

Neurath adds that Underworld is not meant to be a nostalgic look back. Sure, things like the Silver Sapling checkpoint system are in the game, but that sort of nostalgia is only lightly used.

“It’s really trying to reimagine what an immersive sim would look like today. The same with System Shock,” he says. “We’re trying to take everything we learned from making games and show where immersive sims can go. Where can we continue to innovate and push it forward?”

The temptation to make a direct sequel is further counter-balanced by a desire to reach the largest audience possible. "Most of the audience for games today wasn’t even born when those original games (System Shock and Underworld) came out," Spector says. "You can’t really do a direct sequel. You can tap into the essence of the game, use some elements, but knowledge of those first games isn’t necessary.”

And a direct sequel would have one other major issue, Neurath adds. “It keeps you from innovating. That holds you back. We needed to feel free to innovate where we can innovate.”