Remembering the Titans — Might & Magic (Part III)

Might & Magic series entered the new millennium with a limp. The Day of the Destroyer, the eighth installation of the series, has shown severe signs of stagnation and was met rather coldly by the public, which expected a rise to a new quality level from the beloved franchise. Furthermore, the Heroes series were also walking in circles, being caught in a loop of trying to stretch further the massive success of Heroes of Might & Magic III. Considering the tough financial situation of Might & Magic’s publisher 3DO, the next game just had to be successful. So much was at the stake, that New World Computing’s two separate teams had been working simultaneously on both of franchises.

Again I will start an article with a spoiler alert: it all ended pretty bad.

Might & Magic IX: Writ of Fate

Might & Magic IX was released in March 2002. It had to be a strong reboot showcasing the beautiful future of the franchise even without Jon van Caneghem being involved in the game-making process. The whole new world, new setting, new game engine: a fresh start. But when under the pressure there is always the breaking point. Writ of Fate shows what happens, when you assume too much pressure upon the game development.

The world of Enroth died in the flames of the Reckoning. Remember all those green plains, snowy mountains, and dry deserts you’ve roamed in Might & Magic VI to VIII? Poof. Gone. Welcome to the three-dimensional lands of Axeoth.

LithTech engine acquired by 3DO had shown really nice results in the past, constantly evolving and being modified: it was forged by Monolithic for Blood 2, and later was used in No One Lives Forever, Alien vs. Predator 2, F.E.A.R., and most lately in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

New World Computing worked with LithTech 2.5 (Talon) while developing Might & Magic IX and failed to realize its potential. Writ of Fate looks fairly dated for 2002: the world of Axeoth is bleak, grey, sharp on the edges, and claustrophobic. Forget the vast open spaces of previous games, they died in the cataclysm along with the old world. Traveling through Axeoth is like walking through a narrow corridor, with dull and boring mountains serving as walls.

Character models are so ugly, that the enemies simply fall through the ground when being killed, ashamed to leave their angular bodies for a player to look at.

Yes, I know, that the game is 17 years old. Surely you can’t anticipate breathtaking 3D visuals here. But you know who else is 17 years old? Morrowind: it has been released just a couple of months after the Writ of Fate, probably putting some final nails to its coffin along the way.

Ironically enough, the game’s setting falls in line with later entry in The Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim. The story of Writ of Fate unfolds on the Axeoth’s northern continent of Rysh, which heavily inspired by Scandinavian culture. Most of the game you’ll be busy with running errands for several yarls in order to unite independent clans of Rysh into a mighty army. There is a heavy influence of the Scandinavian mythology on the plot, with the mortals being mere pawns in the gods’ games. Moreover, the main plot twist in Writ of Fate is that you’ve been lied to by a local equivalent of Loki from the beginning.

Cyber-fantasy roots of the series were somewhat abandoned in Might & Magic IX. Axeoth’s gods aren’t cybernetic guardians like Corack and Sheltem, but actual gods with no connection to the Ancients. Rare are the instances, when the game builds some sort of a lore connection to the past entries in the series: for example, Nicolai Ironfist, whom you can meet along the journey. But those instances feel not more than fan service, for old fans to giggle over.

Consequently, Might & Magic IX seems faceless, devoid of the series’ iconic individuality. Thankfully it still plays like a good old Might & Magic, and even adds some really nice ideas into the familiar formula.

First-person view, a party of characters, leveling-up costs money, cities, temples, trainers. The core have remained adamant, but it got wrapped into a peculiar new veil.

There are four characters in your party, each created individually, with four races to choose from: human, elf, dwarf, and half-orc. As for the classes, there are only two at the start: a might-based fighter and a magic-based initiate. Each of those classes is up to be promoted twice as you play, and each time you’ll have to choose one of two subclasses your character is going to evolve into. For example, a fighter will have to choose whether to turn into a mercenary or a crusader; the next choice in the case of former will have to be made between a gladiator and an assassin, and in the case of later, between a ranger and a paladin. The same scheme applies to an initiate.

Thus, you have several promotional paths for your character to choose from. To sum it up, might-based characters’ choice is either go all in close combat, or dilute it with some spellcasting; magic-based characters, on the other hand, have three options: elemental magic, spirit magic, or become a druid, that is a jack of all trades, master of none.

Skill system remained unchanged, with one minor exception. Now you can buy any skill in the book store, exactly like you buy spells. Yeah, there are no magic guilds in Might & Magic IX, but there are two types of book stores: one for skills, and the second for spells. Maybe, the idea of a public library would be more time-saving and convenient, but, alas, those northerners do like their order of things.

Magic system has changed a lot, and I believe the change was for the better. There are only four magic schools in Writ of Fate: elemental, spirit, light, and dark. But the catch is, that to cast a certain spell, your character has to master at least two of the schools, e.g. in order to cast basic Torchlight, your spellcaster will have to be proficient enough with both elemental and light magic schools; healing demands knowledge in both spirit and light magic; and the Lloyd’s Beacon demands from your spellcaster to master three magic schools at once: elemental, spirit, and light. Such a burden has been laid upon the spellcasters in order to make their progression more balanced. Now you can forget the almighty sorcerers of the previous games in the series, flying in the skies and bombarding the stars upon their feeble enemies.

Actually, you may forget about flying at all: there is no Flight spell in Writ of Fate. Nevertheless, your blob of a party can jump, swim, and even climb ladders: all that thanks to the game engine, originally built for an FPS. So platforming elements have been implemented much more smoothly, than in Might & Magic VIII.

Traveling became much easier, and that’s not just because the world became smaller. Your characters don’t need to eat anymore, so you can rest as much as you want for free. There are ships for a fast-travel option, or you can use the good old Town Portal spell, but there is a need to find and cleanse certain altars to unlock the travel points.

You can hire up to three hirelings, though one of those slots will be mostly occupied because of the plot reasons. Some hirelings give your party nice bonuses, but their main use is in combat. They fight alongside your characters, but you will never be allowed to scrabble about their inventory.

Thanks to the LithTech engine, real-time combat became more engaging: enemies try to move constantly, maneuvering over, and trying to get around from your rear. Unfortunately, all of their attempts fail the second you switch to the turn-based mode when there is much easier to control the battle. You have an option to arrange your party in formations, almost like in Wizardry 8, deciding who will stand in front, and who will remain in the back.

The most annoying thing I find in Might & Magic IX’s combat is the lack of audio-visual response while hitting enemies. Actually, to be precise, there is alway an audio-visual response: there is a scream and there are loads of red crumbs, which has to represent the blood, I think, whether your character actually dealt the damage, or did not. So even if visually it seems, that the enemy is almost done with, actually may be quite the opposite is true, and your characters have missed all their blows. Always keep an eye on the log messages at the bottom of the screen: this information is much more accurate.

Might & Magic IX could have been remembered as an average game, but not without some interesting ideas to be worthy of being played for. But, unfortunately, the development of the game was such a mess, that Writ of Fate was riddled with bugs upon release. Items and NPCs were missing, quests were unsolvable, chests were refilling, etc. The version you can buy on GOG.com, though has these problems mostly solved, thanks to the fan-patch being applied, which rids the game of the most annoying bugs.

New World Computing had the time to release just one official patch, but shortly after that 3DO went bankrupt, dragging all of their development studios along. Company assets were sold, and the rights for Might & Magic franchise were obtained by Ubisoft for cheap 1.3$ million. French publishers showed their will to continue the development of the Heroes series, but the fate of RPG series has been uncertain for almost 12 long years.

Might & Magic X: Legacy

After the acquisition of the Might & Magic franchise, Ubisoft made everyone understand the point of the purchase: Heroes of Might & Magic series, which they rebooted and continued to develop (for some time, at least). There was also a quite successful 3D Action attempt with Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, but no plans for the main series revival were insight. Until the release of Legend of Grimrock.

This retro-blobber darling showed to the publishers, that there was still a demand for an old-school RPG fun. So Ubisoft, though very cautiously, decided to give the Might & Magic a try. German studio Limbic Entertainment, which previously made a DLC for Heroes 6, were crowned as developers; in March 2013 the game was announced; in August 2013 the first beta-version was made available; and finally, in January 2014 Might & Magic X: Legacy saw the light of day.

With Axeoth being scrapped, Ashan became the new world for Might & Magic. Completely devoid of cybernetic space operatic elements, the world of Ashan is what you may call a high fantasy: dragon-demigods, order-chaos dichotomy, and overall epicness of the lore. So on the one hand, Ashan’s lore is more thoroughly written than any of the previous worlds of Might & Magic series, but on the other hand, it is quite conventional and feels much less original.

Anyhow, the game begins with your party of raiders (in Ashan such called adventurers, whose motives are not mercantile, but honorable) arrive at Agyn peninsula to bury the ashes of their deceased mentor in his home-town Karthal. But Karthal turns out to be engulfed in flames of civil war, so the heroes end up in Sorpigal-by-the-Sea to regroup and begin their journey from there.

Sorpigal, yes, you can cry now. It is the first of many many more references to the greater past of Might & Magic series. Imagine the game leaning over with a cunning smile and whispering to your ear, “Hey, remember The Secret of Inner Sanctum? You’ve started in Sorpigal there, right? Oh, and remember The Mandate of Heaven? You’ve started in New Sorpigal there, right? So here you go! It’s exactly like the good old days! Remember?”

The fanservice doesn’t end there: Maximus, Crag Hack, lord Kilburn, Falagar… Might & Magic series were known for juggling same names for fun, but in Legacy, the nostalgia soup just boils over the top. In one of the early conversations, one of the NPCs rambles about different Sorpigals, hinting to some kind of Might & Magic multiverse, but it never goes anywhere further than remaining a nostalgic reference.

Still, though, the world itself, as I’ve already stated, is quite well written. Ashan’s political intrigues are quite engaging, NPCs usually have interesting backstories, and your journal now has a separate lore department, which rapidly fills up with episodes of Ashan history, myths, and elven poetry. There is much to remember from the Agyn peninsula story and setting: a love story between an imperial paladin and a dark elf, goblin cook, samurai nagas, etc.

On the other hand, the plot feels much less epic (especially for a high fantasy setting), for you don’t save your world from Sheltem’s megalomaniac ideas of world destruction, nor you deal with planet devouring race of space devils. In Might & Magic X you just try to prevent the revolution, that would destroy the empire of the good guys.

Such a modest plot adds to an overall impression, that game was given too small of a scale. Might & Magic X lacks one of the most important aspects of the series, and it is the option to roam free and travel all across the open wide world. Instead, the map opens up gradually, following the plot. It feels very inappropriate for a Might & Magic game to restrict the player’s freedom so much.

But on the other hand (get used to it, this game is like a ping-pong of emotions), fabulous colors returned to the series! It seems really refreshing especially after the bleakness of Writ of Fate. Unfortunately, Ubisoft decided not to spend too much money, so the graphics while tolerable, still could have been much better. The game has a problem with long distances, which often look blurry; the world landscapes lack details sometimes; lots of assets came straight from Heroes 6 and were made to be looked at from a perspective, so some of them seem unpolished from up close. Still though, Limbic succeeded to compile an overall enjoyable enough aesthetic for a game. Especially the dungeons: they look great.

Emotional ping-pong continues and even becomes more aggressive when we look closely at the game mechanics. I have still not decided, whether I like this game, or not. I hope now writing this will help me make my mind.

Might & Magic X expectedly made an effort in reviving the past. But not the past of Enrothian trilogy, but that of the golden days—Isles of Terra and the World of Xeen. Again, the land is divided into tiles, everything you do is turn-based, and the world is albeit small, but wholesome (theoretically at least, if you forget about shackles of the plot). My nostalgic soul wholeheartedly welcomed this return to the roots, but not everybody would agree with me on that. Anyhow, it would be a mistake to call Might & Magic X a regressive game, because there are tons of changes into the core mechanic of the series. Some of them are even quite interesting.

There are four characters in the party; each must be created by the player; humans, elves, dwarves, orcs—you know the drill. The class system have changed again though. Overall you have 12 classes, but they are divided equally between the races—each race has three classes under a common scheme: one might-based class, one magic-based class, and one mixed class. For example, elven character may become a blade dancer (might), a druid (magic), or a ranger (mix); and the human character may choose between becoming a mercenary, a mage, or a crusader, respectively.

Parallel classes of different races never equivalent to each other: an orc shaman will never be able to reach the same magical proficiency as a human mage, but unlike the later, won’t become useless without mana, thanks to his natural skill of crushing enemy skulls with a club. So you have quite a nice freedom of choice when creating a party—there is much to think about and choose from.

All of the character skills in Might & Magic X are strictly combat ones: weapon skills, magic skills, skills which provide passive bonuses in battle, and active warfare skills for warriors. Those warfare skills are like spells but for warriors, with mana usage included. In spite of the return to the tile-based movement, such skills like a mountaineering and swimming have still remained in the past: now you have a blessing from one of the demigod dragons in order to cross a river, for example, and those blessings are given strictly when the plot needs it.

Also, forget about lockpicking, disarming traps, and identifying items—they all gone. You may identify an item with a certain spell, or by visiting a store; as for locked doors and chests—they open only when ordered by the almighty plot.

Training centers now only teach skills. This means what? That’s right: we have a classical free RPG leveling-up in our Might & Magic game! Kill a bunch of mobs, gather enough experience points, press the button, and tweak your stats as you see fit. As much as this system feels intuitive anywhere else, so much out of place it feels in a Might & Magic game.

The toolbar is another thing never seen in the series before. Each character of your party has now ten quick-access slots, which may be filled by anything you want—a skill, an item, or a spell. The inventory, though is a joint one—everything goes in one bag in your communist party. The place is still limited, so you may think about buying yourself a packhorse, though it will occupy one of the hireling slots.

The hireling system is pretty much the same as in Might & Magic VI, VII, and VIII. The main obstacle here is, again, the plot, which likes to occupy one of the slots—or even both of them—with some NPCs necessary for some quest. Those NPCs also give nice bonuses, but palpably limit the player’s freedom of choice.

There are seven magic schools: light, dark, water, fire, earth, air, and the highest one—primordial magic. Each has ten spells, being available in accordance with character’s proficiency: four available on the basic level, additional three become available to experts, another two to masters, and the last one—the most powerful—may be cast only by a grand-master. Unfortunately, all of the spells are rather generic, no iconic one for the series, like Flight and Town Portal—there is Lloyd’s Beacon, though, at least.

Overall, the game mechanics in Might & Magic X somewhat lack depth and variability. Magic schools are quite similar to each other; there are no interesting skills, which may increase replayability; rough plot limitations diminish the feel of an open world; shallow gaming systems make the game pretty easy.

There is a compensation though. Bosses—as primary, so as optional—may provide some challenge, especially for an unprepared party. Also, puzzles have returned, so you may expect some non-combat challenge, like in the old days.

All of that pros and cons ping-pong makes Might & Magic X a really problematic game for me to judge. Some of its design decisions make my heart melt, and some leave me baffled. But all in all, I just can’t call Legacy the worst Might & Magic game—it is certainly better than Writ of Fate.

But, unfortunately, Might & Magic X haven’t shown great market success. One DLC has been released, providing a huge tough dungeon to fight through, but then Ubisoft seemingly forgot about it. Limbic returned to the Heroes series, and then went to make Tropico 6.

What lays in the future of Might & Magic franchise know only the Ubisoft execs. But even if there is not everything lost for Heroes, we’ll hardly witness the revival of Might & Magic main series soon, if at all.

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