Okay, we'll start with a summary of my experience with Ultima 6, which is the game that started me on the Ultima series. The game was given to me by a friend of mine at the time, and it was alarming to see that such a recent game was still able to be played on my stone-aged computer. I swear, even Pong would probably have lagged on that thing. So, as slow as the game was, I was still able to play it, and was delighted at how much freedom the player had in what was quite an interactive world. There were a few logic issues, like the fact that the main character (referred to mainly as Avatar) was disallowed from sleeping in convenient beds and instead had to venture into the wilderness to find a place that is at least ten paces from earshot of any living organism other than your party. But the game was great, it was vast, you actually walked through the world square-by-square, rather than traversing a map and entering into 8-square city icons that would unravel into a large town that you could not possibly patrol the perimeter in a handful of steps.
The game was ahead of its time, enjoyable, and provided both freedom and consequences to the actions you choose. And so, when Ultima 7 came out, I was glad that my family had upgraded their computer, and immediately got the game, created the necessary boot disk, and dove right in with my buddy. And honestly, we were blown away by how large a step forward the game had taken.
The story of Ultima 7: The Black Gate starts some time after the events of Ultima 6. Though the world of Ultima takes place in a fantasy realm known (at this point in time) as Britannia, you yourself are a normal Earth-dwelling person who finds his/her way back to that place one way or another. In this case, a mysterious red-faced character speaks to you from your computer monitor as a Moongate opens up in your back yard. In what appears to the average person as a highly unwise decision, you unflinchingly enter the Moongate, knowing that it will take you back to Britannia, and that you will find some sort of quest to embark upon, on the other side. Okay, so in writing, it seems a bit silly, but... well, okay, it is
a bit silly, but once we actually get into the game, things start to go pretty well.
You appear back at Britannia and are reunited with one of your most loyal companions, Iolo, who informs you that in the time that you were back on Earth, 200 Britannian years had passed. As a result, some characters aged poorly, some aged like wine, and some didn't age at all (especially the ones that were also natives of Earth). Iolo asks for your assistance in solving a murder mystery, and takes you to a scene where a man had been ritualistically tortured and killed, and only a couple of clues vaguely point you in a direction for getting down to the bottom of it. The town is in lockdown, and nobody is allowed in or out, but after investigating the town thoroughly, the mayor makes sure that you have a strong enough lead to finding the culprits before he allows you to leave the city walls.
From that point on, you are free to explore the world as you like, taking on side quests should you choose to, or taking one or several of the different paths of the game that eventually lead you to the ending, where you discover that no matter what section of the main story you were following, they were all inter-related and lead to the same ultimate climax. Once again, the world is vast (especially for its time), and along the way, you encounter many friends, new and old, who you have the option of inviting into your party. And, through the course of the storyline, you unravel a greater conspiracy, and discover that the murder you were initially investigating was a small part of a large and complex situation that threatens all of Britannia.
The gameplay revolves around a fairly new notion of real-time RPG exploration and combat. Battles aren't the most compelling, since you have very little control over a battle other than turning combat mode on or off, and hoping that your character stats are good enough to win. But there is a little bit of depth to it; each character has their own inventory screen where you choose which armour and weapons they will wear, and what sort of attack strategy they should employ. For instance, you could tell one character to always attack the strongest enemy, or the weakest enemy, or they can try to flank, or run away until it's over. As the playable character, you have the option of just turning on combat and waiting until it's over, or you can manually double-click on the enemy you wish to attack.
When you die, you are always taken back to a run-down clinic in the small town of Paws. And each time you do so, you will be awakened by a character (provided you haven't randomly decided to kill him) who informs you that you were taken there by Elizabeth and Abraham, who are two characters that you are actively trying to search for. Amusement kicks in later in the game, when it is vitally obvious that you need to find them, and yet, when you die, you're told that they brought you back to Paws, and your not-yet-dead party members do not seem to intervene. During one moment of curiosity, once I actually tracked them down, I attacked them and allowed them to kill me, and the guy gave me the same line that they were the ones who brought me back, and my party members, who were joining in on the attack, apparently stopped fighting and came along for the ride.
Back to business: Outside of combat, you still need to manage your team a bit; over time, they will begin to get hungry and require food. Some characters will be morally outraged if you take something that does not belong to you, and will either leave your team or, in extreme cases, possibly even attack you. Those who played at least one of the previous games in the series will no doubt find it a side-quest in itself to try and track down all your old party members who stood by your side in past adventures, though they are scattered all across the map.
One of the bigger complaints I have about the game, however, is that levelling up your character seemed to be an insurmountable task. The difficulty curve in this regard was enormous. There wasn't enough action to be able to grind at a reasonable rate, and enemies were either easy to kill with a very low experience yield, or killable enough to defeat it/them after they've already destroyed half your party (making the experience you gain not worth the loss), or are so far out of your league that you cannot kill it before it kills you, since you're the strongest member of your party and therefore the primary target of the creature.
But, that said, Ultima 7 is probably one of my all-time favourite games, because of what it offered in the context of when it came out. Once you enter into the world of Britannia, the main story is involving, absorbing, and, in my experience, fairly unique. You're able to kill pretty much anything that moves (with only a very small handful of exceptions), you can take/steal almost anything that isn't bolted down (though some of your party won't like it), and between numerous side quests and several different paths in which to follow the main storyline, the game has a lot of replay value. Especially when you use cheats to bump your character up enough to get past the initial curve.