For as many sequels and spinoffs have come off of it, the Might and Magic series never seems to get much credit in the PC RPG market. Not since Might and Magic VI has a new installment been given much fanfare, and usually then only amongst the loyal core of dedicated fans of the series. Therefore, it shouldnít surprise you that the latest installment of the series went relatively unnoticed by most casual gamers, as well as some hardcore ones. Unfortunately, this time around there may have been just cause.
With the release of Might and Magic IX (the first one in memory not to have a subtitle), John Van Caneghem and the New World Computing team begin a new saga in a new, fully 3D world, with fully 3D monsters, fully 3D environments, and fully 3D NPCs. Did I mention the game is fully 3D? If not, donít worry: both Might and Magic IXís box and manual tout it as being the seriesí big new feature, using the Lithtech engine to render the world of Chedian in full 3D. Seeing as how almost every other first-person RPG in the last two years has been fully 3D, the birdie was not impressed.
Granted, Chedian is well developed and pretty to look at with well-designed buildings and reasonable texture mapping, but the NPCs suffer from what Iíve termed S3: System Shock Syndrome. Their fingers are fused together into something resembling a grasp, and their faces are scans stretched to map onto the polygon models. They have semi-fluid movements, but itís inscrutable why they would even be making the gestures that they do. In addition, there are but a handful of character models, making the game feel bland and generic. Much like NWCís claims of full 3D, the issue of the gameís generic feel will be touted over and over in this review as the low point of this installment.
Enemy design fares slightly better, however the old RPG staple of palette swapping returns in force to haunt the player. There are usually two to three versions of the same monster design with a different color to represent difficulty. It would have been nice if they had at least thrown in size differences like in Wizardry 8, but I suppose that would have been asking too much from a team obviously too excited about their new game being fully 3D to care about anything else. Itís a harsh claim, but as youíll see, I back it up with harsh evidence.
Spells are visually impressive, I must say. Column of fire is just that: a pillar of bright red/orange flame that falls upon your opponents for some very nice damage, while Eye of Leggib puts you in the driverís seat of a flying eye that can traverse the terrain at the speed of thought. You can tell the design team put a lot of effort into how the spells looked, and thatís appreciated.
Musically, I was very pleased with M&M9ís performance. The tracks are varied and orchestral, with a very Lawrence of Arabia feel to them. Why this theme when the game is so obviously Norse-centric, I have no clue, but it never seems horribly out of place. My personal favorite tracks were the Lich Lab which is a rampant deviation from the rest of the tracks, and the dungeon theme which progresses from menacing to light, airy violin, then right back into menacing. Itís quite an accomplishment, and the NWC sound team must be congratulated for their work from a purely technical standpoint. Still, for some reason I wouldnít go out and buy the soundtrack.
Sound effects are equally impressive, especially door effects: I had my mother constantly going downstairs to check if someone was at the door. The voice acting was also very good, with the one caveat that there was very little of it. Most of what was there involved an NPC saying one line when you talked to him/her/it and then remaining silent. There were some ďFMVĒ scenes in which a narrator or an NPC would talk, but those were very infrequent and mostly all towards the very end of the game. Your characters make frequent quips throughout your journey, but I found almost all of the voice choices to be too grating; theyíre well acted, but all the female voices sound like the same Valley Girl with an attitude.
The story is pretty simple. You and your companions are on their way to raid the land of Mendossus, as all good Viking warriors do, when they are shipwrecked and unceremoniously deposited on the Isle of Ashes. After meeting up with a troll named Ysra, they are told of their destiny: to unite the 6 clans of Chedian against the hordes of the warlord Tamur Leng. In order to do that, you must complete innumerable fetch quests for the 6 Jarls of Chedian, tasks which take up the largest portion of the gameís play time. Near the end of the game thereís a plot twist and some dungeon crawling and youíre done. Shabby, I know.
The entire world of Chedian has a distinctly Norse feel to it; everything from the boats you travel on to the names of the Chedian provinces (Thjorgard, Frosgard, etc.) scream Viking, a definite change from the more Anglo-influenced fantasy setting of the previous games.
What irks me so much is how Might and Magic IX totally gets away from the great fantasy-meets-sci-fi storylines of its predecessors. Itís now solely fantasy, with no links to either previous games or the ongoing mystery of the ancients. There were even opportunities for NWC to weave in the ancients or even Enroth, but they truly wasted those chances, reducing any mention of either to jokes along the path of a minor quest. Add to that the generally lackluster plot which WAS present, and you have a recipe for a very bland and uninteresting game.
The only other thing I can say is that the dialogue was all right. There were some puns and wordplay, but nothing extremely clever or sidesplitting.
This is where Might and Magic IX really falls apart. For starters, character creation and customization has been stripped down and kicked in the pelvis a few times. There used to be many different races to choose from: now there are only 4. There used to be many different professions you could choose to star as: now there are only 2 (other professions are acquired through promotions). Iíd only be speculating as to why NWC dumbed down customization to such a degree, but it felt to me as if they were trying to simplify and streamline the game, and just managed to make it feel incomplete.
The incompleteness theme continues into the interface as well. Again, it seems as an attempt to simplify left me feeling cheated. You walk around in a first person view with the mouse controlling where you look and use the mouse buttons to fire your weapon or spell. Everything else is handled with the keyboard and hotkeys; spacebar is the use/talk/pick up button, and aside from the I or B hotkeys to get into your inventory or spellbook, thatís really the only button youíll need.
The problem isn't with the ease of use of the interface: pie's got nothing on this control scheme. It's just that when the menus were consolidated, certain things were left out. For instance, all the area maps are provided to you whenever you go into the area; however, you cannot manipulate the maps either by scrolling them or making notes on them, making them a lot less useful than they may sound. Similarly, you canít tell what day it is unless you go to the save/load screen and save your game. I mean, I REALLY tried finding the date somewhere, but all I could see was the time, which progresses in a minute per second interval. This is especially annoying when youíre trying to figure out when a boat is leaving for a certain destination. Again, this just really feels like something the programmers left out.
There are a handful of skills that your characters can develop, but I found only a few of them to be useful, and aside from blade, spear, bow, and thrown, none of the weapons skills were of any use. Similarly, the only non-weapon skills I found useful to have for my party members were Meditation, Learning, Perception, and Disarm Trap. And magic skills consisted of me bulking up Elemental and Spirit, basically turning my two magic users into ďmage cannonsĒ, firing off elemental bolt spells until they ran dry of spell points. Crude? Perhaps, but it was effective, which brings me to my next point: the battle system.
Might and Magic IX has two battle modes: real time and turn based. Think of real time as an FPS, and turn based asÖ a turn based FPS. Iím not joking when I say that this game is all about strafing your opponents with missile weapons and spells. Most of the spells in the game are unnecessary (you'll use only a handful of them ever). Maybe once or twice youíll need to go into turn-based mode, but most of the time youíll be fine just mindlessly clicking the right mouse button to attack and cast your quick spell. Itís really sad that NWC turned a series which was previously known for a little more strategy than this into a mindless FPS.
Both the battle system and the skills system lend to a feeling of this game being hurriedly rushed to stores, probably to coincide with the release of sister series title Heroes of Might and Magic 4. However, if you werenít convinced by all that evidence, thereís also the fact that the game is buggy as hell. If you exit a certain building before youíve completed your task, whoops, start the game over again because you wonít be able to complete it. The patch remedies this problem, but seriously, companies today rely way too heavily on the internet to solve the problems caused by their own short-sightedness and inattention to quality. I shouldnít have to download a patch so that I can complete my game, even with all the system incompatibility problems: this was all software.
I could also mention the fact that there are quests that you still canít complete (Orbs of Linking, anyone?) even with the patch, the fact that NPCs often still tell you the same things even after you complete their quests, and a certain bug having to do with artifact chests which, while helpful, is still a big no-no, but I think you get the idea. Grab the patch as a must, but be prepared to put up with a game that feels incomplete.
As a big fan of the Might and Magic series, I have to say that this game was a serious disappointment. Yes, I did enjoy the game once I got the patch, but thatís probably because Iím a sucker for the series and its quest-tastic nature. If youíre not a fan of the first-person RPG genre, avoid this game and pick up the new Icewind Dale. If you donít like the Might and Magic series, wait for Morrowind. If you live and die by the series, pick this one up, but be ready for a disappointment both story-wise and play-wise. Itís also good for wasting some time over a few days, but donít expect much replay value. All in all, a rather shoddy performance from a company that can do much better.