Lords of Magic Preview

Impressions' fantasy follow-up to Lords of the Realm II features complex magic systems and sophisticated diplomacy

One of the Internet's greatest potential strengths is as an interactive, multi-author, story creation medium. Lords of Magic may be the one of the first games to exploit that. While not the designers' stated purpose, Lords of Magic games played on the Internet may spawn a series of fantasy novels. That's the depth and variability one can expect from this game.

Like its namesake, Lords of the Realm, Lords of Magic is a turn-based strategy and exploration, real-time combat game. Unlike Realm, which has a pseudo-historic, western European setting, Magic plays out in a fantasy world of dragons, fairies, and magicians. It shares many characteristics of other empire builder games. "It's sort of a combination of Masters of Magic, Civilization, and Heroes of Might & Magic," says codesigner Jeff Fiske, who designed and produced Robert E. Lee Civil War General. But there are also many differences that may set this game above that crowd.

A once-vanquished dark lord has found a powerful ancient artifact. Using that, he allies himself with the world's barbarians and once again rules the land. Your task is to unite with others to stop his reign of terror or join him in his conquests. The object is to be on the conquering side at the end. You choose from one of four races (good or bad humans or good or bad elves) to lead, and then select what type of leader to be: wizard, warrior, or thief. You also choose the source of your magic. The magic types are many, including order, chaos, life, and death, and elemental types like air, water, fire, and earth.

While this is just the beginning, already you can see a trend. Lords of Magic offers a staggering number of permutations, none of which is all that complex. Good or bad. Chaos or order. Life or death. "The basic ingredients needed to make a cake can make many other things as well," says Fiske. "Much like Magic: The Gathering, every element and character is simple, but what makes it interesting is the interactions between them."

Unlike most other empire building games, you are not "god-like." Instead you are one of the pieces on the board, which immediately means you're more likely to establish a power base than to boldly venture far afield. You begin with standard exploration efforts: visiting nearby villages, discovering resources like gold mines and magic trees, encountering creatures like ogres and vampires, and meeting with minor characters like lizard-men and gnomes.

You will eventually come to control several villages, putting one of your three leaders in charge of construction, training, and morale building. In a departure from Civilization and its ilk, your village regent will handle most decision making once you outline a few goals. That leaves more time and energy for exploration and combat.

Battles take place in real time, in a close-up view where each combatant is individually controllable. Typically you'll have direct control of six to eight individuals, as opposed to several icons that represent squads or platoons.

Veteran exploration-conquest gamers may note that all of the above are fairly standard. What sets Lords of Magic apart is the details. Diplomacy heads the list. "We've turned the alliance parley system into something that accurately represents what you find in fantasy novels," says producer Glenn Oliver. Fiske concurs. "In other games diplomacy always breaks down," he says. "It's always a lie until it's convenient to kill the other person." In Lords of Magic your computer- or human-controlled allies will come to your aid in times of need. Negotiations will be much more realistic and critical to gameplay. The use of heirs, as means to guarantee commitments, comes into play, as well as ransoms, face-to-face discussions (rather than hand-to-hand combat) and trading anything you encounter or create.

Random events, like earthquakes or gnomes moving into your gold mine, create a living world. "The game is constantly evolving, not to the point where it's unmanageable, but enough to keep it interesting," says Oliver. And finally, the 16-bit graphics are gorgeous. Each race has its own unique, graphically rich environment and village types with distinctive appearances that reflect the race's characteristics. The combat is more detailed than any in this genre. And varied gameplay with adjustable difficulty settings will satisfy all levels of players. The hard-core gamer can expect ten to 15 hour single-player or multiplayer matches (the game will support up to six-person Internet, LAN, or modem-to-modem games), while those looking for a brief experience can join a 15-minute skirmish.

Those long games will be replete with unpredictable plot twists, gut-wrenching moral decisions, family intrigue, and unique characters. Playing Lords of Magic will be like creating your own fantasy novel. "We want you to come away with the feeling that 'That was a story,'" says Oliver.

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