It feels like only a couple of months ago that we were reporting EA had pulled four of the all-time greatest PC games from sale on GOG. Because it was. At the time, the peculiar publisher ignored our questions as to why. Now, just over six weeks later, Ultima Underworlds 1 & 2, Syndicate, and Syndicate Wars are back—and until September 3, they’re free.
It was a strange decision at the time, back in June, when EA yoinked the four games from GOG, PC gaming’s natural home for ancient classics. While the Ultima Underworlds and Syndicate remained on their own cursed Origin store, 1996's Syndicate Wars was—and still is—not. It meant the Bullfrog magnum opus wasn’t available to buy anywhere.
Clearly this is indicative of an ongoing problem with maintaining publisher libraries, where access to classic games is at the mercy of the mercurial whim of giant mega-corps, who are far more interested in shifting copies of their latest than ensuring the survival of those which bring in a trickle of profit at best. So it’s certainly good news that EA have appeared to volte-face and return the games to at least one digital shop.
It’s even better news that they’re currently free (which of course any game over 25 years old should be anyway, by any reasonable measure of a functioning society). If you haven’t before, it’s certainly worth playing any of the four games, albeit with some advance warning that they are all—of course—extremely dated.
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth Of Worlds is an especially important game to me, being the very first game I ever played on a PC, back in 1993. What a way to enter a new format, with a game created by Looking Glass, they who would go on to create two Thiefs, two System Shocks and Deus Ex (surely the best record of any developer ever?). It’s certainly jarring on return to realize these games don’t offer a free mouse-look, which certainly takes some getting used to. But do so and you’ll see how Warren Spector, Paul Neurath, Doug Church et al took the “blobber” dungeon crawling format and built it into a far more complex and involved RPG, while leaving out all the worst elements of Richard Garriot’s Ultima franchise.
1993's Syndicate is probably even more significant and important to the development of modern gaming. Created by Bullfrog at their absolute peak—the studio inventing genres with almost every release—it was an isometric strategy game, with real-time tactical combat, set in a dystopian, satirical future. It was dark, clever and set the tone for decades of games to come. Something taken even further with Syndicate Wars in 1996, a true sequel that maintained the core elements, but set 95 years later.
It would be sheer folly not to grab all four games for free while you can. They’re so old you’ll get them working on even the crappiest of laptops, and because they’re on GOG (for all their other issues) they are DRM-free, so you can install them wherever you like. And there’s no knowing when EA might take them away again for no given reason.