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Forgotten Gems: Might & Magic III, IV, and V
Review - posted by baby arm on Tue 2 December 2008, 23:10:40Tags: Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra; Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen; Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen; New World Computing
Might & Magic III, IV, V
reviewed by Wyrmlord
The Might and Magic series might well be the longest running RPG franchise till date, having managed to outlast the very reputable Wizardry (1981-2001) and Ultima (1980-1999) series. Since its creation in 1986, there have been nine titles in the core M&M series, five titles in a spinoff turn-based strategy series (Heroes of M&M), and even a first-person action RPG from a French studio (Dark Messiah of M&M). Just imagine, a series 22 years and still running. All this is only a small part of the legacy of Jon Van Caneghem, the man who is also responsible for the original King's Bounty, a strategy game, and Planet's Edge, a space exploration game with RPG elements. Yes, this man's RPG ouput consists of party-based turn-based RPGs, strategy games with RPG elements, and other miscellaneous titles with the RPG formula. Already having done so much for singleplayer RPGs, he now makes MMOs, another diversification in his already broad range.
But the peak of Caneghem's M&M series was reached in the trilogy of Might and Magic III, IV, and V, three fantastic first-person party-based turn-based RPGs with large open worlds, lots of hard tactical combat, tons of object/clue finding, and many non-combat situations that make use of character skills, spells, and abilities. Collectively, they offer a gigantic amount of content, and would give you enough hours of playing to last several months. In all these things, this trilogy provides everything a gamer would want from a good roleplaying game. Later Might and Magic games would shift to real-time combat, and the colorful 2D graphics would be replaced by a dull and dated 3D engine. Hence, many good elements of earlier Might and Magic games would be gone, and the series would just not be the same, even though it was strong enough in its own right to go on for four more titles.
Upon opening manuals for the games of this trilogy, you will first find a description of the lore and main narrative of these games. The common plotline among these three Might and Magic games is a story of the long-running battle between two demigod-like men, Corak and Sheltem. You, the adventurers, are incidental to their story. Yes, years before Oblivion, there have been other games where you are merely the sidelined viewer of somebody else's tale, with those two men quite akin to Martin Septim. But this is not a negative. It's merely a reflection of the fact that Might and Magic is not about story. In fact, the only exposition of the story will take place in the manual. Upon starting the game, you will be immediately thrust into the game's world, and ready for business.
However, you'd first have to learn the mechanics. Whenever we play a RPG with a different unknown ruleset for the first time, we have to prepare ourself for making the effort of understanding everything before getting started. But Might and Magic's ruleset is so easy to understand, it will take you a mere five minutes to understand all the races, classes, attributes, and skills. The way it all works is, there are attribute requirements for each class, different races have different modifiers for attributes, each class and race comes with an innate skill, and that's about it. 'Skills' in this game are actually more like traits or feats. You don't allot points to it. It will merely determine your ability to a particular action. It is the attribute values that are used for making skill checks, and they correspond to those respective skills. For example, the Thievery skill will only give the ability to pick a lock, but the success of that lockpick will depend solely on the Luck attribute. Unlike D&D, skill points and attributes are essentially the same thing in the Might and Magic trilogy.
The process of creating a character is over in ten seconds. You choose a race, make a roll for attributes, exchange values of one attribute for another (if need be), choose a class, and it's finished. With such a brief and simple process, I managed to create some interesting characters like, a dwarven ninja. Being a dwarf, he had the Danger Sense skill, and being a ninja, he had Thievery skill and proficiency in certain lethal weapons. Excellent combination. Of course, creating a character is completely optional, since there is a default balanced party available immediately as you start the game, but the balanced party does not make use of the cooler or more varied classes in the game.
Movement in the world takes place on tiles, with you being able to move straight ahead, and turn in 90 degree angles. This makes for fast and easy movement, and it works well in the turn-based combat environment. The game is like a graphical roguelike, in the sense that the world is completely paused when you are still, and things change position whenever you make a move or an action. The interface is equally as easy to understand as the mechanics, with simply hotkeys assigned to every function, allowing you to do anything in an instant, without sweat. Much of what you will see on the interface is determined by skills of characters. The minimap will not draw itself unless a party member has the Cartography skill. If you have the Danger Sense skill, the gargoyle on the top of the screen will start getting excited, alerting you to an enemy ranger hiding in the woods. And then, there is one skill called Spot Secret Doors. When you are standing near particular walls, a gargoyle on the screen will ask you to bash it, and if you do so, the strongest men in the party will ram themselves onto, destroying the wall, causing minor damage to themselves, and coming across a room or a corridor hidden on the other side.
It's amazing how skills are integrated into the game's environment. As was said above, these skills are innate to a character based on his or her class and race, and you immediately start seeing the effect of the good choices you made in making your party with all the options that open up to you with them. Many of these skills are essential to finishing some very rewarding quests. But it will happen that your party will be lacking a particular useful skill that may be a barrier to you being able to find certain areas or finishing certain quests. Good news is, there are people who will train you in those skills. (Many skills are also received only by training, and not by default.) But the challenge is in finding those people to train you. And when you do, there is always a consideration, in either money or having to do a certain quest. It's quite similar to Torment, in which character creation took place in-game, based on interacting with people who gave you quests.
Skills also influence exploration of certain terrain. There is a Swimming skill which allows you to navigate shallow waters (It is innate to Humans), a Mountaineering skill to navigate mountains, and so on. But apart from skills, you will also need spells to explore the world. A fascinating thing about this game is that there are high towers in them, and if you reach their rooftops, you will be right inside the skies and can use Levitation spell to walk on clouds. If there is a large sea of lava between you and your destination, you use Teleportation. If you want a simultaneous top down view of the area, you have to use Wizard's Eye. Please note that these spells aren't merely helpful, they are essential. Sometimes a combination of spells will be needed. And you won't be told how or when to use them.
That's because Might and Magic spells nothing out for the player. Nothing. Everything you do in the game to interact with the environment is based on your intuition and guesswork. You have to see your list of spells and improvise a way of dealing with a particular situation. Sometimes, walls close down if you come near to an area. If you want to cross it, you will eventually find out that you have to use the Jump spell to get to the other side. That's the beauty of it. And the tendency to not hold your hands extends to quests as well. The quests in this game can be completely arbitrary. When Nibbler the Monkeydog asks you to find Banana-Mangos for him, you'll not even have a general idea of where to find them. Those Banana-Mangos could be in the middle of a remote part of the world, and the only thing you can do is to walk across every inch of the land until you stumble upon it. There will be zero logic behind its location. And yet, it's amazingly fun. Because this is not a linear game. When you receive a quest, just forget about it and explore the world, and eventually, what you need will be in your hands.
This extends to the main quest as well. You see, you don't know what the main quest is. You have to *find* it. The way it works is - you just keep exploring around the world, and eventually you will find pieces that point to a common end, and that end will lead you to the locations where you finish the game. It's actually quite cool, because the main quest is incidental to sidequests, rather than the other way round. Moreover, during the process of all this exploration, you will be doing alot of fighting. And that's one of the best things about the game. You have to make every decision of the moment count. If there is a spellcaster a few tiles from you, don't let him cast Sleep on you. Use a powerful offensive spell on him, knock him down with arrows, or teleport directly in front of him and hack him down, but don't give him the chance to immobilize your whole party, or you are dead. And if it's a golem that can crush you in a few blows, always remain at a distance from it, by using arrows, offensive spells, or by teleporting away from it. In combat you will be pushed to making hard choices at various moments. It is intense, even though the mechanics of turn-based combat allow you to take all your time in making decisions.
Interestingly, because Might and Magic's interface is so easy to use, fights are over in seconds. Turn-based combat is supposed to be lengthy, but Might and Magic makes it so easy and quick, it almost feels real-time. The game does not have long animations for movement or attacks, so nothing gets in the way of you simply focusing on the combat. Fights are a quick bashing of keys, and all the complicated decisions of combat are reduced to a keystroke or two.
And that's what Might and Magic does right. It's focused on keeping mechanics and rules simple, but offers challenge through the actual encounters and situations in the game. You will have little trouble convincing a non-gamer to play and enjoy this game, and all the same, he will still be able to derive the enjoyment from the challenge in the game. This is an achievement that few games manage, and it is proof of Van Caneghem's genius.