Myth III: The Wolf Age Preview

The next Myth game isn't being developed by Bungie. Will it live up to fans' expectations?

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Myth III: The Wolf Age
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When Bungie released Myth: The Fallen Lords, in late 1997, the game was praised for its gorgeous graphics, well-defined storyline, and most importantly, its fresh take on the real-time strategy genre. While it wasn't the first 3D strategy game to hit the market, it was nonetheless quite original in its implementation of a free-roaming 3D camera that let you view the gameworld in all its glory while staying much closer to the action than ever before. The game was also notable for the importance it placed on terrain. Myth: The Fallen Lords featured more varied environments than most strategy games, with maps that included cliffs, bodies of water, lava pools, mud, sand, snow, and more. All these terrain features affected the gameplay and required you to rethink your strategy to adapt to your surroundings, often at a moment's notice, because battles frequently required you to retreat and regroup your forces. Bungie pulled no punches in its quest to create a believable world and went to near-Tolkienesque lengths to create a rich history and a fully realized populace. Every character had a name, and as there was no resource management of any kind, nor barracks that could produce endless drones to send into battle, every single character was important, adding a level of tension not found in ordinary strategy games.

Myth II: Soulblighter was released a year later, and with it Bungie addressed many of the problems people had with the first game. The camera system was refined, the cutscenes were longer and less mysterious, and the difficulty level was lowered significantly (although it still remained very tough). The developers added clearly defined mission objectives and thereby removed the confusion that plagued many of the larger levels in The Fallen Lords. Also new in Myth II were animated 3D models such as windmills and breakable bridges, all of which helped make the gameworld more believable. Multiplayer through Bungie.net was fun, and Bungie stayed committed to supporting its fans by arranging many tournaments and events and fostering a fan community that is still going strong more than three years since the first game's release. The community has produced a wide variety of add-ons for Myth II, including several remarkably detailed ones set during World War II. Bungie itself even produced a free add-on for Myth II. Titled Myth II: Chimera, it was released online for free and was included in Bungie's Total Codex collection, which also included both Myth games and a collection of user-made add-ons.

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Both Myth games were not without their failings, however. Before the version 1.1 patch, Myth: The Fallen Lords was virtually impossible for all but the most skilled players, and even after the update it was extremely difficult. Myth II: Soulblighter was released and quickly recalled when it was discovered that uninstalling the game in Windows could wipe your entire hard drive clean - arguably the worst bug to ship in any game to date, even if the game was recalled as soon as the bug was discovered.

When Microsoft acquired Bungie last June, it bought the company and the exclusive rights to Halo, but Oni and the rights to the Myth franchise were passed on to Take Two Interactive. Take Two subsidiary Gathering of Developers will be publishing Oni later this month, but the future of the Myth franchise seemed uncertain. That is, until just a few weeks ago, when GOD announced Myth III: The Wolf Age.

Mumbo Who?

Enter Mumbo Jumbo Games, or rather, Ritual Entertainment and Contraband Entertainment. The two have worked together in the past - Contraband created the Mac OS ports of both SiN and Heavy Metal: FAKK2, which were both developed by Ritual - but Myth III presented an entirely new opportunity for both companies. Scott Campbell, who was at Contraband and is now at the newly formed Mumbo Jumbo Games, said his company sort of happened onto the license: "When we heard that Take Two had gotten the rights for Myth, we just thought it was funny, like 'hey, wouldn't it be great if we wrote a document for Myth III and they accepted it?' So I sat down, and a week later I had a design document." Contraband submitted it to Take Two, and lo and behold, it beat out several other companies for the rights to the game.

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But Take Two was hesitant about giving out the rights to an untested developer. While Contraband had worked on some big-name titles, it hadn't actually created a major game in-house before. "And that's where Ritual came in," Campbell explained. "They not only had all these big games under their belt, but they had worked with Take Two before. Plus, they were thinking of opening an office down in Irvine [California, where Contraband is located]." And so Mumbo Jumbo Games was formed, with people from both Contraband and Ritual joining the Myth III team.

If Scott's name sounds familiar, it's probably because of his work on another well-known game, the original Fallout. He said that his approach to both games was similar: "My philosophy of game design is that the design needs to be done first... I did approach this game in the same way as Fallout, where we had the design done up front, before we really started putting our feet into it." Following this philosophy, though Mumbo Jumbo has been working on the game since last November, it only began full-scale work on the art side of things a few weeks ago. Rounding out the team, and solidifying its dedication to pleasing fans, are a few mod authors from the Myth fan community. Members of the Myth III team have worked on such well-known add-ons as the popular World War II and Jinn mods, and while they are new to the gaming industry, they certainly know their way around the Myth universe.

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The Myth III team is very conscious of the series' background, and it wasn't in any rush to push game design in a completely new direction, as Blizzard is doing with Warcraft III. "There's a lot left to explore in the Myth franchise even before we go in a somewhat different route," Mark Dochtermann, formerly of Ritual and now the president of Mumbo Jumbo, explained. "Although, we are taking a [new]route in terms of adding 3D acceleration, 3D models, and doing stuff with the terrain engine and physics that are still way beyond what the other RTS games are doing right now." However, the game will still use much of the underlying technology from Myth II: Soulblighter. This lets the designers at Mumbo Jumbo keep the core gameplay from the game's predecessors but gives them room to add lots of new bells and whistles to keep the series on the cutting edge.

Under the Hood

The biggest change to the engine itself is that the game is rendered in full OpenGL 3D. "Everything is 3D," Campbell explained enthusiastically. "When you spin [the camera] around, the trees won't always face you." The characters themselves are also in 3D, and they will be benefiting from some existing Ritual technology, specifically the Tiki character-animation system. All of the units in the game will use this skeletal modeling system, which has already been tested (to much acclaim) in Heavy Metal: FAKK2 and American McGee's Alice. And now that everything is in 3D, expect to see lots of little background touches that weren't possible before. "There's some very cool kinematics stuff," Mark Dochtermann said. "So when you have explosions, and when your units move through the world, the trees will respond. And not just blowing them up. You'll see the shock waves from explosions, and you're affecting the environment a lot more. It's a lot more realistic."

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"Imagine 3D trees that blow in the wind," Campbell added. "So you can see their branches swaying... fields of grass that tremble as your troops march by. If a warrior were to brush by a bush, it will actually deform as he walks over it. It looks really, really cool." Expect lots of detail in the terrain itself as well. Scott Campbell used an example from Myth II to illustrate this difference: "Do you remember [in Myth II] when you take the camera and zoom all the way up on the terrain, how it gets all pixely and kind of ugly? Imagine having the same-size color terrain maps, except instead of having one 8-bit pallete map, we're now going to a true 16-bit-color terrain map. And what's more is that we're having high-resolution detail textures overlaid on the color map. So that when you zoom in really close, you'll actually start to see little blades of grass, tiny little rocks, or ripples in mud."

Part of the reason for this change in the terrain system is a practical one, as Dochtermann explained. "It just wouldn't be practical to have such a huge texture in 3D hardware. This way we'll be able to use tiling and other [3D alternatives]." Though Mumbo Jumbo will be modifying Bungie's formidable scripting system, it is already working on in-game scenes using the one in the Myth II engine, and the team won't be using Ritual's scripting system, which was used in SiN and Heavy Metal: FAKK2.

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Despite these changes, for the time being, the Myth III development team is using Bungie's venerable Fear and Loathing tools, though Scott Campbell said Mumbo Jumbo won't be sticking with these for long: "We are planning on doing a merger of the tools later on, something that will be used specifically for Myth III and something that is far more robust and actually cross-platform compatible. We're actually making tools right now that we will be using for Myth III that are not only cross-platform compatible, but will also allow you to do all the neat new things, use all the new scripting commands and the new models and 3D units and stuff that we're using in this game." Though it's unknown whether these tools will actually ship with the game, Campbell promises that if they're not in the box, they will be made available later on.

Historical Perspective

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Despite its numbering (Myth Zero just doesn't have much of a ring to it), Myth III: The Wolf Age is a prequel, and it gives you the opportunity to play in some of the battles that have only been mentioned in passing in the other games. It takes place 1,000 years before Myth: The Fallen Lords and follows the exploits of Connacht the Wolf, the legendary warrior who defeated the armies of the Trow and the Myrkridia and whose exploits are referred to constantly throughout Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter. It will also give Myth fans the chance to see Damas, a lieutenant of Connacht's before he became the frenzied Soulblighter. Myth III: The Wolf Age aims to bring many of the battles that have been mentioned in the other games to life, and while it will no doubt be as accurate as possible to the existing stories, it should be accessible enough for the Myth newcomer.

Very few games have the sort of rabid online following that the Myth games do, and it's impossible to talk about any Myth game without discussing Bungie.net. As Campbell explained, the designers haven't solidified their multiplayer plans yet: "We absolutely know that Bungie.net kept the Myth games alive. Having that community out there, where [Myth fans] could go and talk and have their own forum... that just made it incredibly popular. So we have to duplicate something like that. But how exactly we go about doing it, we're still trying to come up with a solution." He continued, saying that they're experimenting, but that it's too early to release any details. "Right now, we're working on some interesting solutions, but we have to figure out which one will fit this game best." Mark Dochtermann added, "We'll probably be working in close conjunction with Microsoft as well. We're still talking with them about what their plans for Bungie.net are, but that's very important to us - to make sure that Bungie.net remains a resource for Bungie fans and Myth fans specifically."

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Mumbo Jumbo is also looking to implement new and unique gameplay modes with Myth III multiplayer, some of which should prove interesting for fans of the series, such as the mode Mumbo Jumbo is calling "tribes." Here's Scott Campbell's description of what it might be like: "Because of the new units that we have in our game, you could actually do something like say, 'I want to play the Llancarfan army,' in which case you'd get soldiers and archers and a couple of other units that are specific to that tribe. And of course someone else would say, 'I want to play the Myrkridia,' so now they have access to the units that belong to that particular tribe. And as your units compete in battles and make kills, they also get experience, and those particular characters are saved away on the server." This system would let you select more-experienced characters for particular battles. Scott does point out that the designers aren't sure if this is even going to be possible, as they haven't looked into the server-side issues, but he does say it's something they'd like to try.

But fans of the classic Myth multiplayer needn't worry. He also said that "all of the cool features in Myth I and II we are absolutely duplicating, and we're adding a couple of new things." Mumbo Jumbo is also committed to keeping cooperative multiplayer, something many games no longer support but that was very much part of the original Myth experience.

Out in 2001?

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Despite the fact that full-scale work on the game has only just begun, Mumbo Jumbo is confident that it can get the game out by Christmas 2001. Campbell credits this to his design philosophy but also to the decision to use existing technology: "The design is completely done. Six months down the road we're not going to change it. It's solid. We have the schedule done, and we're running on it. The cool thing about using the Myth II engine from day one is that we already had a solution for how we were going to make levels. We had the level designers immediately start cranking out levels. Because we had Tiki, and access to that, our modelers immediately started making 3D Studio Max models. Because we had all of these key components in place starting out, we were able to start asset production, and that's how I think we'll be able to ship a literally one-year project."

Fans of the series will be pleased to know that Mumbo Jumbo is planning a beta test, although the actual size and availability have yet to be decided. One number mentioned was 1,000 outside testers that would be chosen based on their hardware configurations. Because full-scale production is just starting up, the beta test is still a few months away, and of course the company needs to finalize its network plans before the beta test can take place. Assuming Mumbo Jumbo keeps to its planned schedule, Myth III: The Wolf Age will ship for both the PC and the Mac around Christmas 2001. While many companies tend to release a Windows version first and then a Mac OS port later, Mumbo Jumbo is continuing the Myth series' tradition of hybrid discs, so the game will be available simultaneously for both platforms. Other platforms have been discussed, however nothing is official, and no console or Linux ports are in the works at the moment.

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As for the future of the franchise, Campbell said his company is kicking around some ideas for a Myth IV, although of course at this time Mumbo Jumbo has no definite plans for a follow-up game, and it would depend entirely on how successful Myth III is. As Campbell put it, "We do have some interesting ideas for what we could do with the franchise, with the game, and with the multiplayer aspects, and there are a lot of ideas we are kicking around." He also said that any ideas that can't make it into Myth III due to the relatively short development timeline are being put away for possible inclusion in Myth IV, should it ever get made. But additional games aside, despite a brief period of uncertainty, the future of the Myth series looks bright indeed. Work is now completely under way, so we can expect Myth III: The Wolf Age to make a full public showing at this year's E3 in May.

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