Given that four years passed between the release of Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen and 1998's Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, the latest chapter in the series has arrived hot on the heels of the last. This relative haste is both good and bad. It's bad because many of the previous game's faults remain, and the engine - merely adequate last year - looks downright dated now. It's good because a number of welcome improvements have been made, and a slightly improved Might and Magic is better than no Might and Magic at all.
Might and Magic VII follows the same addictive formula of past chapters. There are lots of quests to undertake, lots of monsters to fight, and lots of levels to be gained. But this time out, New World has added something that has been lacking in the past few Might and Magic games: a cohesive story. The game takes place in Erathia (as did Heroes of Might and Magic III), as opposed to Enroth, the setting of Might and Magic VI. The elfin and human kingdoms are at war, with the major area of dispute being the small town of Harmondale. Your party has recently become lords of this war-torn area, having won it in a scavenger hunt. You must align yourself with the elves or the humans, and the game gives you a few quests that let you choose your affinity.
This gives the game a bit of depth from the beginning. But the real depth begins when the arbiter of the war dies, and as lords of the realm, you must choose his successor. Your choice will have a dramatic impact on the remainder of the game. There are two candidates for arbiter - one represents dark and the other light. Your choice of successor will also be the path you choose to walk for the rest of the game. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and both light and dark have their own quests, spells, and class promotions available (not to mention their own interface art). Areas that may be safe for followers of light are treacherous for followers of dark, and vice versa. Because this choice is made somewhat early in the game, it gives Might and Magic VII a great deal of replayability.
Might and Magic VI removed many popular features from the series. Your characters could only be human, and many character classes had been removed. These complaints have been addressed to some degree, and Might and Magic VII not only restores the thief and monk character classes, but lets you choose from dwarves, elves, humans, and goblins for your party members (though the half-orc is still absent).
Character portraits have been improved, replacing the silly photos from VI with somewhat less-silly rendered portraits. Visually, however, that's about all the improvement you get. The engine is crude by today's standards. Even with the addition of 3D-accelerator support (originally promised for VI but not included), the game doesn't look all that great. 3D hardware does add some nice lighting effects to spells and smoothes some of the game's jagged surfaces, but even in this mode the NPC and monster models are fuzzy if you get too close. On a positive note, the animated renderings when you enter a building are excellent, especially in the dark cities.
The sound in Might and Magic VII is not only unimproved, it's unchanged. For the most part, these are the same recycled sound effects from VI. They aren't bad; it's just a shame there's nothing new. The music, however, is excellent. The orchestral score is ominous and uses a light amount of opera, as did Heroes of Might and Magic II.
The combat system remains the same as in six: You can alternate between real-time combat and turn-based at the touch of a key. One minor change is the addition of a movement phase in turn-based combat, removing the need to switch back to real time when you need to reposition your fighters, a cumbersome task that was somewhat annoying in VI.
The list of improvements and unresolved problems is lengthy. There are plusses like ArcoMage, a fun card game you can play in the game's taverns. And there are minuses like the text, which is still in the nearly unreadable italic font from VI. But when you weigh the bad points against the good, it comes out strongly in the favor of good. New World Computing wisely concentrated on making enhancements that make the lengthy game much more enjoyable, and the technical enhancements can wait for Might and Magic VIII.