Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 2

Well, time for our next meeting...mortals.

Following VI, 3DO mandated a yearly release schedule for the Might & Magic RPG games. The result of this was that the next game, For Blood & Honor, was developed in roughly nine months time. While a rushed development schedule doesn't normally bode well, the fact that I'm obligated to tell you that Majora's Mask was done in about a year should tell how good I found VII to be.

While critics of the time regarded it as fairly good, but not up to the standards of prior games, VII is the game that has aged the best of the entire series. The majority of the class and skill balance issues of VI were addressed while expanding the class system and re-adding race choics, the difficulty curve was made much more smooth (although not perfect), and it actually added branching story choices. Oh, and most of the main quests can be completed while playing pacifist style (although doing so does require a specific party setup).

I could spend a lot more time throwing praise on top of the 7th game, but you get the idea. The downsides are that the short development time forced a lot of the games' locations to be made smaller in comparison to VI, and there were fewer locations overall. And of course, it used to exact same game engine, although this isn't so bad. The graphics, while not perfect, aren't unreasonably bad by modern standards.

And so we come to the eighth entry, Day of the Destroyer, which tried to change up the formula by fusing race and class into one blend - you could be a knight, or a minotaur, or a vampire...these were all mutually exclusive. The plot of this game is actually interesting, because a lot of elements of it would crop up in World of Warcraft of all things - specifically, the backstory behind the character Algalon the Observer is very similar to the main antagonist of VIII, while said antagonist's methods are in line with what Deathwing did during the Cataclysm expansion. (Yes, I know my Warcraft lore.)

Unfortunately, the rushed development time finally showed itself. The difficulty curve is really jagged in comparison to the prior game, alternating between fairly easy at most points and extremely hard at a few critical ones. The lack of sidequests really shows too, with most of your time spent on class promotions or main story quests. It didn't help that RPGs as a genre had made a resurgence at the time, so the game faced poor reception compared to its counterparts.

And then came the disaster known as IX, aka Writ of Fate (the working title, but not actually used for the release). The game was released in an unfinished state with many bugs and quite a bit of missing content, and the story was not well tied into the overall mythology of the earlier games. Combined with poor sales of its other games, this would mark the end of 3DO, which closed its doors in 2003.

The Might and Magic license was sold to Ubisoft, who abandoned the RPG series and the original setting, but continued to release games in the Heroes of Might and Magic series (which they eventually re-titled Might & Magic Heroes). At least, until 2013, when Might & Magic X: Legacy was announced.

This game was released to mixed reviews, but was generally solid in terms of gameplay, although the annoyance of Uplay rankled quite a bit. It borrowed many elements from the prior games in the series, and in many ways was a love letter to the games of old, even if it did have some performance issues. Unfortunately, Ubisoft proved they had no real faith in the game by pulling funding and support soon after release, leaving it with a single DLC and little hope of further bug-fixes.

I sincerely doubt we will get another game in the series, as much as I would want one. (At least, unless Ubisoft sells the rights - ha, almost no one sells rights unless bankruptcy looms). Still, it was a very influential set of RPGs, and I would love to see more like them.

Catch you on the flip side Darkside of Xeen. (Yes, I brought that back, just this once.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking back: Might and Magic, part 1

One of the classic RPG series. And one of my favorites back in the day. Worth talking about, isn't it?

Might and Magic was the brainchild of Jon Van Caneghem. He created the company New World Computing in 1983,  and the first game in this series came about three years later. It and its sequel...well, to be honest, they were bad, like many games of the time. The control schemes were just too obtuse, in the days before mouse controls and better keyboard setups like WASD came into being.

The third game was where the series finally hit its stride. While the graphics were still crude - a trait all of the games in the series shared to some degree - the use of mouse-based gameplay finally made it worthwhile.

The followup is what most people remember, for a few reasons. First, the fourth and fifth games (Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen) were designed as two halves of a single story, with a bonus extended ending for those who installed them both. The second was that while the graphics were mostly the same, the game's art style took a huge leap, becoming this colorful and cartoony world that few other games even tried. And it worked; I still think this was the greatest strength of the combined World of Xeen.

Shortly thereafter, a pair of spinoffs were launched. One was basically an expansion pack RPG called Swords of Xeen, which is mostly forgotten. The other was a set of turn-based strategy games, a spiritual follow-up to NWC's earlier strategy game King's Bounty. This was Heroes of Might and Magic, and it would eventually eclipse the original series that spawned it in terms of popularity.

However, in the wake of World of Xeen, New World Computing was bought up by 3DO. Following this, they announced that the RPG series had come to an end. A shame, but it made sense, due to the main villain of the prior games getting killed off.

...yeah, you're not buying it. Eventually, they changed their minds, leading to the release of the sixth game in the series, The Mandate of Heaven.

For this game, they revamped the original style of the game, moving from turn-based and tile-based into a free-roam system with crude (I warned you) 3D environments. They also tied the plot of the RPG games more tightly to the HoMM series, by setting them on the same world of Enroth. Finally, they introduced a skill-based character system.

The result was relatively popular, although not for the obvious reasons. You see, VI came out at a time when RPGs not made in Japan were a rare breed. The five year gap between it and its predecessor had seen the genre die off. About the only competition it had was the first Baldur's Gate (impressive, but it's just one game). Thus, it did very well.

However, in retrospect, it was not a very good game. The character progression was heavily limited due to the high difficulty curve (due to poor damage scaling versus the health of enemies), forcing most players into predictable builds. The limited class variety - only six classes for a four person party - did not help either. Coupled with somewhat clunky controls (WASD had finally started to catch on, but the game didn't use it), it has not aged well.

So, where did the duo of New World Computing and 3DO go from there? You'll have to come back in a week or so for the next not-so-exciting installment of this blog.

"Until our next meeting, mortals..."