It would have been easy for Bungie to just leave things alone after Myth: The Fallen Lords. The game was a huge hit, met with critical acclaim at nearly every turn, and continues to be one of the most popular multiplayer games on the Internet. But thankfully for gamers, Bungie went back to the drawing board to craft a bigger, better Myth. Thus was born Myth II: Soulblighter, a game with the untainted heart and soul of its predecessor, along with slicker graphics, better gameplay, enhanced multiplayer options, a vastly improved interface, and a pair of powerful editing tools. Basically, Bungie left no stone unturned in its quest to improve an already solid product. As a result, Myth II is about as good as a computer game can possibly be.
The game takes players to a time 60 years after the events of the original Myth, when peace reigns and the once busy Legion has very little to worry about. But this pleasant state of affairs is about to change. Responding to reports of brigands terrorizing a small village, a small group of warriors stumbles across a much bigger problem: Undead creatures are popping up all over and, even worse, the Fallen Lord named Soulblighter is behind it all.
The single-player campaign comprises 25 missions, each of which is remarkably well designed and - on the harder difficulty levels especially - enormously challenging. Scenarios range from simple skirmishes and NPC escorts to the infiltration of a massive keep and even some indoor missions. Fans of the original game's Shadow of the Mountain level will love Myth II's The Great Library and Redemption levels, along with a number of other great defensive missions. The coolest (and creepiest) level in the game is one in which you must make your way through a haunted dungeon, where friendly and hostile ghosts appear and disappear without warning. One of the other memorable missions sees you wading ashore to silence the cannons of a nearby keep, all while hordes of Soulless rain their spears down on you. Another has you and your troops racing for the last bridge to safety, which you must then destroy to keep your pursuing enemy at bay.
Bridge? Keep? Yes, Myth II makes extensive use of large buildings and interactive terrain to liven up the 3D battlefield. During the game, you'll run across massive fortifications, destructible bridges, a working drawbridge, a ship, a windmill, and a slew of other eye-popping items. The enhanced 3D engine also supports a number of other new features, colored lighting and shadows, and an underlying terrain mesh that's four times finer than the one used by Myth. The result is a smoother-looking game with more realistic settings.
Other, more subtle features like the increased ambient life also help to create a more realistic environment. Chickens peck around in the villages, deer bound through the forest, and various birds soar overhead on most maps. Of course, you're not limited to looking at these creatures, you can interact with them as well (meaning that you can blow up most of them). The ambient sounds are also enhanced in Myth II. Between the sounds of wildlife in the background and Dwarven bottles exploding, there was never a moment of silence in the game. If you listen carefully, you'll even hear some really funny chatter among your human enemies (the whole bit about the world's biggest turnip had me cracking up). The music that plays during the great narrative premission screens is outstanding, but I never noticed any music at all during the missions. This was a little disappointing, but I can't say that it really detracted much from the gameplay.
Although the animated cutscenes in Myth looked good, they were too brief and cryptic to convey much of a story. The Bungie developers must have agreed, because they went out and hired a new animation studio to do the Myth II cinematics. The results are astounding. The cutscenes are still brief, but they look fantastic, and you can always tell what the heck is happening - or at least what is being implied.
As with most sequels, Myth II is chock full of new units on both sides of the battlefield. Dwarven mortars, Samurai-like Heron Guards, and friendly Trow will all chip in for your cause. There are no forest giants this time around, but believe me, the Trow more than make up for that loss. The rest of your forces comprises the familiar warriors, berserkers, and dwarves. The archers are still there also, but they now have the added (and extremely cool) ability to shoot fire arrows that ignite the countryside where they land. Soulblighter's forces include familiar foes like the Thrall, Soulless, Ghol, and Fetch. A few new and dangerous enemies have joined the ranks as well, including the werewolf-like Myrkridia, the fireball-hurling warlock, the pig-like Maul, and the black-armored Stygian Knights.
The AI and pathfinding for all units has been improved, so your troops don't mill about endlessly when they can't reach their initial destinations. There are some glitches with Myth II's pathfinding, such as the ludicrous conga line your warriors form while chasing down an enemy unit, but for the most part, units move and behave much more intelligently than in Myth.
Myth II's interface and controls are also more intelligent than those we saw in the original Myth. Players who found the keyboard camera controls confusing in Myth can now move and rotate the camera angle simply by moving the mouse. I personally found this more confusing than the old method (which you can still use), but there are undoubtedly some gamers who will welcome the mouse option. A handy control bar now runs alongside the bottom of the screen, providing easy access to commonly used commands and unit formations. Also, you can tell a unit's health status simply by passing the mouse over it. Formation facing is much, much simpler than that clunky "gesture click" system - you can either turn your troops with the left and right arrow keys, or hold the mouse button to turn your troops at will (an arrow appears on the screen to help you line up the troops properly). Perhaps the biggest interface improvement, however, is the addition of well-written, easily understood mission objectives at the beginning of each and every mission. No more stumbling around the woods looking for the mystery goal - all your objectives are clearly spelled out, plus you can even look over a few mission-specific tips to help get you through each level.
For those who found some of the levels in the original game far too difficult, Myth II features a vastly improved set of difficulty levels. These are well stepped and let gamers of any talent and interest level jump in and enjoy the world of Myth II. Kudos to Bungie for making the game so approachable for novice players without sacrificing the challenge hard-core gamers crave (and those higher difficulty settings can be pretty damn hard).
Hard-core Myth fans will also appreciate the improved multiplayer support in Myth II. The game offers a ton of new multiplayer features (such as player alliances) and scenarios (several of which involve the aforementioned ambient life in strange and unusual roles). Bungie.net has also been updated, and the performance of games over Bungie's free service seems faster and more reliable in general.
Rounding out this epic game are two of the tools Bungie used to create the game. Fear and Loathing are powerful editors that players can use to craft their own missions and maps. Though you'll need some practice to master these complex utilities, they can be used to create and modify Myth II levels in just about any way imaginable. These tools should certainly prove popular to the thousands of devoted Bungie.net users, as the service lets players easily exchange custom maps.
Myth II does have a few minor problems, but nothing that detracts seriously from the overall gameplay. An automatic save between missions would be a welcome addition. This is a common enough option in most strategy games and would eliminate the need to save your game at the beginning (or end) of every mission. Also, though a fairly thorough briefing prefaces each mission, it would be nice to get at least a hint of which direction you should move on some missions. The Deceiver was a particularly confusing level, with bad guys on all sides, and the proper path was difficult to spot. Lastly, the game did crash a few times while loading up a new level, but infrequently.
Bungie basically improved all the good features in Myth; added a number of gameplay, multiplayer, and graphical enhancements; and then threw in some slick and powerful editing tools to boot. The end result is one of the best games to be released this year, and one that should easily find a home in any serious gamer's library.