Ultima 7: The Black Gate
'Know that you, too, shall kneel before me, Avatar. You, too, shall soon acknowledge my authority - for I shall be your companion...your provider...and your master!'
Ultima 7: The Black Gate was Origin's opus. That is a bold statement, when you consider all the amazing games to come out of that studio during it's historic run. Yet Ultima 7 exceeds even the quality of a Wing Commander or System Shock.
What makes U7 stand apart is the epic scope of the story and despite the twist and turns the tale takes the player is able to follow it. This in part because of the game's manual, which is brief but detailed. Most importantly though Ultima 7 is a game where you don't need to min and max your way to victory. In fact the game eschews stats on equipment or damage numbers floating above heads. Calculations are there underneath the hood, but out of sight so as to not distract from the adventure.
The attention to detail is hits the right balance of player interaction and automation. As famously known Ultima 7 allows the player to bake bread. This process is multiple steps but not so complicated or involved that it is a chore. But more importantly the avatar doesn't need a cooking skill, you just need knowledge of the process. Then from there the player can figure out the best way to go about baking bread.
The schedule that NPCs keep as they go about their daily lives is central to the story. The farmers market is open from dawn till dusk, then the citizens will make their way home while some go to the tavern. Just hanging out in a tavern listening to music or conversation really enhances the feel of being there in the world. And the cities are populated by non-generic NPCs. Other games have employed schedules to, but they tend to over complicate the gameplay. Such that day and night cycles aren't enhancing the game but another obstacle for the player who has to wait for night or day to accomplish tasks. In the Black Gate whatever time of day it is, you just go with the flow.
It is very pleasurable and voyeuristic to run into an NPC you met at his house during the day out at a tavern or Fellowship meeting at night. Sometimes the farmers will be out in their fields. The fact that you never know where all the NPCs might be makes running across them a nice surprise. Or if you know the NPC likes a drink during the evening you can wait for him at the tavern at night.
The world is open to exploration, you can follow the road or wander off into the woods. The landscape is well crafted, it is the right size to allow wandering but not so large that the land ends up with long stretches of generic wilderness.
The game draws you in with a story that unfolds with new twists and turns, but manages to keep the objective straight. Origin challenges the player to live in the world, but doesn't make it a sandbox world. Instead there is a tale to be told, but you are encouraged to role-play as the Avatar and immerse yourself in the tale. So much of the motivations and plots are enhanced once you see them from the point of view of the Avatar and his quest.