Might and Magic IX

Developer:  New World Computing
Publisher:  3DO
Year Released:  2002

Review by Rosemary Young (May, 2002)
I remember well when Might and Magic VII and then Might and Magic VIII were released just a few years back, the inevitable complaints surfaced that they didn't have state-of-the-art or true 3D graphics. The graphics just weren't good enough for some critics although I suspect that, like me, a lot of Might and Magic fans were quite content. Well Might and Magic IX does have a 3D engine and the complaints are still coming in that the graphics aren't good enough.

Let me say straight out that once more I thought they were just fine, in fact despite the 3D label, the graphics didn't strike me as being all that much different from the previous games. What is different with Might and Magic IX is that the interface is largely keyboard rather than mouse controlled. As far as I'm concerned this 'improvement' has been implemented to the detriment of the gameplay and has detracted from rather than enhanced this latest (and possibly last) Might and Magic episode.

What's it all about?
In Might and Magic IX your task is once more to save the world. At the beginning of the game Yrsa the Troll informs you that it is your mission to unite the six Clans of Chedian in order to halt the invading forces of the arch baddie Tamur Leng. Yrsa says that this is your destiny, you have no choice, so you might as well get on with the job.

You start out with four characters and during the course of your journey other helpers will join in if you ask, and one character automatically tags along for a large portion of the game. As with other Might and Magic games you can design your own party or take the default characters. There are the usual array of statistics, spells and skills, although instead of having proficiencies in a variety of melee weapons there are just two: blade and cudgel; and the categories 'personality and 'intelligence' have been subsumed under the one category: 'magic'. The spell listing is also different with some new spells and some old faithfuls such as 'flying' omitted. This was a bit disappointing but, of course, you don't need to fly in this game, and there are plenty of other offensive and defensive spells to use in combat.

At this early preparation stage of the game the most noticeable difference is the limited choice of character 'professions'. There are just two, Fighter and Initiate, and you need to plan the advancement path of each party member because when the time comes you only get one chance to nominate members for progression within the two streams. All going well your fighters can emerge as Gladiators, Assassins, Rangers or Paladins and your Initiates can take the path of Lich, Mage, Priest or Druid.

The journey
There are around nine major regions to explore, all but one consisting of a township, a surrounding area, and a small collection of dungeons. In the towns there are plenty of locals to engage in conversation to learn the latest news and to upgrade your skills. However, instead of the teachers staying at home they roam around the streets and can be elusive when you need them. Of course, there are deeds that will have to be done to gain the allegiance of the clan leaders or Jarls, and sundry other people will have minor quests so you can earn some experience and rake in some much needed cash. Then there are the familiar promotion quests and it is these quests that you must take particular care to organise so you don't miss out on improving all of your party.

The various quests come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite simple, all that is needed is a bit of diplomacy and a bit of chat, whilst others take more effort as you plough through dungeons and risk life and limb to retrieve an object or meet some other objective. As with other Might and Magic games you can choose to fight in real time or turn based mode although the combat is not quite so intensive. Having said that, there are some dungeons that are 'full on'. The Lich Lab is one with an extra degree of difficulty and another dungeon at the end of the journey is also harrowing.

Some of the dungeons are quite extensive and there are a few puzzles thrown in for a bit of variety, especially towards the end. For these lever-pulling or button-pushing puzzles you can watch out for clues or work them out for yourself. Even a knowledge of chess might come in handy.

The differences
Besides the changes mentioned above this new 3D engine has transformed the way you interact with the game. The use of 'mouse look', of course, means that there's no more pointing and clicking to select character portraits to access inventories, statistics screens and spell books. Instead you must use keyboard keys to select each character or to directly access their various information screens as well as the quest log, auto notes, journal, etc. Although the keyboard can be remapped, using keys is not as simple or as intuitive as having direct point and click access at your fingertips. I thought I would get used it but I didn't as you must use the mouse for combat and to manipulate inventory items. Because you need to switch between mouse and keyboard it's so easy to forget that the mouse is redundant in travel mode and find yourself spinning around as you try to highlight a character with the cursor. Also it takes extra effort both to remember key designations and where they are on the keyboard.

The map as well is only accessible by pressing a key. Quite annoying during exploration, made more annoying because the mapping in this game has suffered a backward step. Firstly, it's more time consuming to find places and people because there are no text tags to guide you. Might and Magic VII and VIII provided these useful tags but now they've inconveniently disappeared so that you have to commit significant locations to memory. Secondly, when you open a map it automatically displays the whole area rather than slowly growing as you explore. Not a big deal, maybe, but it takes away from the mystery and surprise of exploration when you know exactly what to expect. Some of the excitement of exploration in the outdoor areas is also limited because it is more confined than in previous games, you don't get to wander around everywhere but must keep to predefined paths.

Other things that I particularly missed in this game included the obvious indication of current spells operating on party members. If there was a clear indication that my party was 'blessed' or had been primed with 'faith' then I never found it in the scheme of things. Let me know if I missed something important here, but this did detract from the intricacies of play. And so did the fact that other than getting diseased or poisoned occasionally, my characters never seemed to suffer any 'afflictions'. Well, I recall just once having my Mage 'afraid' but whatever happened to 'insane', 'stoned', 'asleep', 'drunk' ? ... they were sadly missed and their absence sliced a degree of sophistication from the game.

Also the gameworld itself is less interactive. Although you open some things such as chests and the familiar barrels of coloured liquids that hold statistical bonuses, most of the scenery in Might and Magic IX is just decoration. Except very occasionally, you don't need to take much notice of what's around you. There's no more picking flowers or opening cupboards to see what goodies they might contain. Another small point, maybe, but it does make the gameworld more one-dimensional despite the marvels of 3D.

The verdict
So there have been quite a few changes not all for the better in Might and Magic IX making the gameplay considerably less intricate. Added to the above I have to complain that there's no printed manual, just a pdf file that you can print out for yourself if you want a hard copy. The game also has a couple of bugs so that I failed to complete some quests, and quite a few of the conversations didn't update to reflect the evolving story. But in spite of all this it nevertheless holds a lot of that Might and Magic flavour. The familiar quest log keeps you up to date with what has to be done and the game kept me coming back for more just to explore one more dungeon, complete one more quest, and pay another visit to the trainer to go up one more level.

My advice for Might and Magic fans is to expect some noticeable changes, but don't despair. After you come to terms with the interface you'll settle down and hopefully enjoy playing the hero. The story in this episode has some surprises and develops with twists and turns so that it's satisfying to wrap it all up. The strange beginning will all become clear. The best news for me was that I didn't have to play with 'modern weapons' as the ending stayed in context and didn't introduce the 'techno' flavour of its predecessors.

I'm a huge Might and Magic fan. I didn't dislike playing Might and Magic IX, in fact I got hooked as usual, but it will never be one of my favourites in the series. Whilst the new 3D engine might have brought Might and Magic into the 21st century (some would dispute this) it has changed the game in subtle ways and removed some of the magic and enjoyment. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Win 95/98/ME/XP/2000
Pentium II 400 (Pentium III 500 or faster recommended)
64MB RAM (128MB recommended)
1.0GB Hard disk space
DirectX 8.0 compatible 16MB 3D accelerator card with Direct3D© support.
DirectX 8.0 compatible sound cards
Keyboard and mouse