New World Computing's classic Might and Magic games helped to define the subgenre that grizzled old RPG grognards now affectionately refer to as "traditional style" role-playing games. All of the previous Might and Magic role-playing games were set in expansive gaming worlds, filled with exotic locations, tomes of spells, armies of enemy types, and hoards of magic items. But during the past couple of years, such traditional role-playing games have been rarer than orcs in Denver. While other gaming companies have shied away from such classic game design, New World Computing has rebelled against this recent trend by creating a truly addictive role-playing game that is both faithful to the spirit of the venerable series and innovative in its own right.
The game takes place in the world of Enroth, a setting that will be familiar to veterans of the Heroes of Might and Magic spin-off strategy games. Good King Roland was apparently victorious in his battles with evil old Archibald, only to have his united lands fall prey to the ravages of an invasion of devils. When the King disappears after encountering the devilish horde, the ineffectual child prince Nicolai assumes control of the Kingdom. Your humble party of four adventurers has the onerous task of gaining the gratitude of the Kingdom's regional leaders, parlaying with a cryptic, omniscient Oracle in order to unravel the mystery behind Roland's disappearance and, along the way, carving a destructive path through a hellish legion of enemies. Welcome to the medieval jungle.
As with previous games in the series, Might and Magic VI is a first-person-perspective party-based game. In a minor break from Might and Magic tradition, all of your characters are human (elves need not apply), and there are only six available character classes. There are knights, sorcerers, and clerics, which are fairly standard fantasy role-playing game fare, and paladins (knight/cleric), archers (knight/sorcerer), and druids (sorcerer/cleric), which are essentially multi-classed derivatives of the initial three classes. While you can choose from a variety of digitized portraits to represent your characters and tinker with their initial attributes and skills, all of the character classes are preset. In another break from recent gaming trends, you won't be able to develop characters that are capable of mastering all trades, as there is a limited number of skills available to each character class. In other words, don't expect to be parading around with a party of plate armor-clad, halberd-swinging Arch-Mages.
Far more interesting is the game's character development system. Stomping monsters and completing quests will net your characters experience points. Gain enough experience points, and you'll be able to raise the levels of your characters, provided that you hook up with a capable trainer and have a few spare coins. With each increase in level, a character will gain a handful of points that can be used to increase that character's skills. Gain enough expertise in a particular skill, and you can train to become an expert and then a master in that skill, acquiring additional abilities in the process. Since there are dozens of quests in the game (most of which have relatively basic objectives such as, "clear out the evil critter nest/get my shiny bauble back from the evil critter nest") and even more monster types to squish (I lost track around 150), you'll be getting a lot of experience points in this game, which means you'll have plenty of opportunities to allocate skill points to improve your characters. Complete a few special quests for the ornery Regional Lords, and your characters can be elevated within their respective classes, from clerics to priests and then high priests, etc. It's an extremely rewarding system, as you constantly get the opportunity to strengthen your characters, and even late in the game, level advancement is rapid.
Unlike prior Might and Magic games, The Mandate of Heaven features freely scrolling, and often rolling, terrain. Gameplay generally occurs in real time, but you can make it turn-based at any point. It's a hybrid system that really offers the best of both worlds, allowing you to either hurl arrows or spells at enemies from a distance while dodging counterattacks or resolve the affair in more tactical, turn-based combat. While both options are always available, turn-based combat is often the only practicable manner to fight battles, which frequently involve dozens of enemies. Like many role-playing games (actually, like most games of all genres, other than those "Mysty" pseudo-interactive screen savers) Might and Magic VI is quite combat intensive. What sets Might and Magic VI apart from other games, however, is the sheer size of some of the battles. It's not uncommon to have a mini-army of monsters charging at you, flinging arrows and lightning bolts at you. Might and Magic VI's turn-based interface is more than up to the challenge of handling these engagements, and there's nothing quite as satisfying as casting a Meteor Shower from a hilltop, watching fireballs come from the sky to smite a pack of enemies. Some of the explosions from the more destructive spells will toss your targets back or up in the air, reminiscent of a pack of Doom imps being smacked by a rocket-launched blast. But make no mistake, Might and Magic VI is at its heart very much a turn-based tactical role-playing game and not an action game. Still, it's enjoyable to watch those Death Knights go boom....
The graphics in Might and Magic VI are the best yet seen in a 3D first-person-perspective role-playing game. At one point in the game's development, hardware support for 3D graphics cards was contemplated, which certainly would have been welcome. But even without 3D acceleration, the graphics are generally crisp and clear, with a minimum of pixelation. Like prior games in the series, the graphics are also very colorful, which takes a while to get used to for those of us accustomed to somewhat more realistic, but considerably more dreary, depictions of our fantasy gaming worlds. Although Might and Magic VI uses two separate graphics engines, one for dungeons and one for outdoor locations, they integrate seamlessly. All of the nonplayer characters, enemies, and items are represented by flat 2D "sprites," as opposed to the 3D polygonal representations seen in action games like Tomb Raider and Quake. The sprites in Might and Magic VI are often very detailed, and monsters that you would intuitively think should tower above your characters, like titans and dragons, are suitably huge. The sprites in Might and Magic VI actually have substance as well - you can't just saunter right through NPCs and trees as you could in Bethesda Softworks' Daggerfall. But it's somewhat disappointing that there is only a couple of different nonplayer character icons, degenerating cities and towns into a swarm of largely identical faceless figures. Might and Magic goes Manhattan.
My initial opinion of the graphics was lukewarm, and although I was ultimately genuinely surprised by how much I grew to like the graphics, they are still the one aspect of Might and Magic VI that is most likely to disappoint gamers. In an age when action games continue to push the envelope by providing increasingly more impressive graphics, Might and Magic VI's 3D graphics look understandably outdated. Not to say that there isn't some graphical eye candy: Dynamic lighting is used to good effect (especially when casting spells); the interiors of buildings are displayed on separate noninteractive screens that universally look good (and also include lighting effects); there's an excellent "resting" screen that vividly displays the timely rising and setting of the sun and moon; and there are some well-done weather effects. Once your characters acquire the ability to fly, you'll really begin to appreciate the artistic lay of the land, as you travel over mountain ranges, lakes, frozen wastes, and other varied terrain.
One of the best things about Might and Magic VI is that Enroth was clearly crafted with a lot of care and attention to detail. Although the game is huge, taking well over 100 hours to complete, each of the towns and dungeons was individually designed. For perhaps the first time ever in a role-playing game, dungeon layouts are consistently logical and yet varied in appearance. I also like the fact that no matter how powerful you become, you'll still occasionally run into very weak creatures when the setting is appropriate - wander into some sewers, and you'll see some rats, not just dozens of Supreme Titans because "you're powerful enough to fight them now." Enemies are also grouped together logically - no more running into a goblin in one room, next to a Medusa Enchantress, next to a specter, next to a Grand Druid, etc., ruining the immersiveness of the setting.
There are tons of other little details that make Might and Magic VI special. You can fly like a Spitfire through the air and fire arrows at packs of monsters - miss them as they run by a stream, and your arrows will splash into the water. Go into a few too many shops without purchasing or selling anything, and you'll start to be rebuked by their keepers: "See ya, tightwad!" Walk into the right thieves' guild, and you'll be confronted with a Monty Python-esque "nudge, nudge, know what I mean, know what I mean...." knowing glance from the trainer. A big metallic-looking guy loaded with vicious-looking swords who looks like a walking Ginsu knife is appropriately labeled a Cuisinart. There are some excellent sound effects as well - shoot a harpy out of the sky, and you'll be treated to the sound of it falling like a crumpled bird. Gargoyles shatter into pebbles. The sound of your footsteps reflects the nature of the ground you're walking on, whether it's hardened rock, fresh snow, or a damp beach. Music isn't used a great deal in the game, but it works well when it appears.
Might and Magic VI has both an automatic note taker and an automap function, largely allowing you to focus on playing the game instead of being relegated to a woeful "scribe character," manually taking pages and pages of notes, as in other role-playing games. Neither function works perfectly - the automap doesn't work well in complex dungeons with a lot of different levels, and it gets very blocky when "zoomed in," and the note taker doesn't keep track of some key information like the location of trainers. Still, both are welcome tools.
There are a few other minor disappointments. The interface is non-customizable, so you're stuck using the default key settings even if you find them inconvenient. Although it is basically a keyboard-controlled game, you still have to occasionally use the mouse, which is a bit cumbersome. The different geographical regions in the game don't quite integrate fully, meaning you'll occasionally be unable to loot the bodies of enemies that wandered outside of your current region. The main window for depicting the 3D gaming world is quite small, and even though there are hotkeys for all of the functions you need, there is surprisingly no "full screen" mode. The cutscene introduction is well done, but it feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the game, and the introductory dialogue seems like it was scripted after the cutscene was already completed. Your interaction with the nonplayer characters wandering around town is quite limited, although you can get such NPCs to tag along to grant your party additional abilities, but such NPCs won't otherwise directly participate in the game. You might also be disappointed with the digitized character portraits, which sometimes don't seem to fit in with the other animated graphics. The voice acting of your characters is also of mixed quality, although I generally enjoyed it. Each of the characters has his own distinct expressions ("Chalk up another for the big guy!"), which is another nice touch.
There are also a few bugs and graphical quirks. There are occasional clipping errors, which allow you to see, or even interact with, objects through walls. Certain spells, like Meteor Shower will occasionally not complete their animations if they are cast on an enemy who is on sloped terrain, causing the game to hang. Switch the game from real-time mode to turn-based while your characters are on inclined terrain, and you'll gradually trickle down the incline (as will monsters similarly placed). Some spells don't seem to work as intended - I was never able to even momentarily "Stun" the most ineffectual of enemies. Enemy AI is generally quite challenging - a pack of critters won't hesitate to try to surround your party - but it is still too easy to get your opponents trapped behind objects. Often a conveniently placed chair or chest becomes your characters' best friend, as it can render an otherwise challenging foe quite impotent, as you delicately fling arrow after arrow into your paralyzed enemy's head.
But such quirks and bugs are really quite trivial. Overall, Might and Magic VI is a remarkably stable game - one of the most bug-free role-playing games in years. Even more importantly, it's tremendously addictive. There always seems to be one more quest you just have to complete, one more skill you have to elevate to mastery, one more region to explore... one more night to forget to sleep before dragging yourself to work. It's been a long time since a Might and Magic role-playing game was released, and many gamers questioned whether or not New World Computing could recapture the magic of past games in the series. We shouldn't have worried. Might and Magic VI is a classically designed role-playing game that features both a huge gaming world and lots of attention to detail. It's a standout game in what should be a great year for role-playing game fans. Might and Magic is back, and it's better than ever.