The initial release of Bungie's Myth: The Fallen Lords was almost the ideal real-time strategy game. Standing between Myth and gaming perfection were an absurd level of difficulty, a poorly implemented unit-facing command, and a handful of nitpicky flaws. Fortunately, the recently released 1.1 patch addresses the difficulty and interface issues. A few of the minor problems remain, but Myth can now rightfully claim its place among the best strategy games on the market.
This fantasy game unfolds around a richly woven plot, involving an epic struggle between the undead and spirit forces of Dark and the living forces of Light. Balor and the Fallen Lords lead the vast armies of the Dark against you, while you must lead the outnumbered Light forces in a desperate, last-ditch campaign of resistance.
Each of the 25 scenarios begins with a well-written narrative that keeps you apprised of the war effort. Unfortunately - and this is one of those nitpicky carryovers - these narratives rarely mention the specific goals of the upcoming scenario. Instead, you're usually forced to complete each level through trial and error. In the original release, this was a significant problem because the game was incredibly difficult even on the lowest of five difficulty settings. With version 1.1, however, the lowest two settings are more forgiving and you should be able to bull your way through even the toughest scenarios in two or three tries. It's still hard, but at least now the game won't drive you to violent fits of frustration.
Despite the less-than-obvious mission goals, most levels are well designed and the overall mix of objectives is nicely varied. You'll find yourself fighting a simple skirmish on one level, ambushing 100 undead archers on another, and finding ways to make the bad guys fight amongst themselves on another. You'll even get the chance to call in some dwarven paratroopers on one unforgettable mission.
Your troops include basic foot soldiers, archers, explosive-throwing dwarves, and berserks that look and sound like they came right out of Braveheart. The enemy has units that more or less match up with your own, plus a few more powerful types (such as the quick and brutal Trow and the lightning-hurling Fetch) to keep you on your toes. Commanding your troops in Myth is similar to most other real-time strategy games, except that you can organize them into groups and align them into ten different formations. Another one of the failings of the original release, the unintuitive "gesture click" command, has been corrected in the 1.1 patch. Instead of the ridiculous flick-of-the-wrist method originally required to turn your troops, the game now uses a simple, mouse-driven arrow similar to the system employed by Sid Meier's Gettysburg! - a significant improvement. Graphically, Myth is still one of the most impressive games you'll see this year. And along with Wing Commander Prophecy, it is one of the best reasons yet to own a 3Dfx board (the patch also adds support for Rendition cards). The battlefields are marvelously rendered in true 3D, with beautiful terrain that will see you battling over rolling hills, canyons, and rivers. The unit art and animation are excellent, including some spectacular deaths (killing a Fetch is especially satisfying). The game also features some amazing battlefield scarring and animated carnage (little heads and limbs flying everywhere), as well as lots and lots of blood. Rounding out the breakthrough graphics engine are impressive weather effects, an accurate physics model, and dynamic lighting. The view controls have been enhanced so that you can now zoom out much farther to get a better, bird's-eye view of the battle. You can also zoom in close enough to see the whites (or the reds) of those undead eyes.
The game offers a very good musical score but oddly plays no music during battles. This may be to ensure that you hear all of the game's killer sound effects. Your troops will shout out in triumph when they vanquish a foe or complain when they take a friendly-fire hit (which happens a lot). It can be damn frustrating to see your Dwarves annihilate half of your own troops with an errant grenade, but it is hilarious to hear them yell "My mistake!" or (better yet) "Oops" after doing so. Also, you won't soon forget the ominous thump-thump-thump sound of an approaching enemy Trow. The game also features some wonderfully animated, cartoon-style cutscenes. They're very nice to look at, but it seems a shame that most are too short and cryptic to really convey much useful information.
Myth's multiplayer options abound and include support for up to 16 players over TCP/IP or AppleTalk. Internet play is available over Bungie's free Bungie.net servers and TEN. Performance was fairly smooth over Bungie.net, with a little lag creeping in from time to time over a 56K connection. The style of play on Bungie.net can be very different from the single-player game. This is especially true of the body count mode, which plays more like Quake than any strategy game I've ever seen (except maybe Uprising). Tactics count for little in this mode, so you can forget about careful unit placement and formations. If you're a big fan of the game's tactical model, your best bet is to try one of the other - far more interesting and enjoyable - modes, including king of the hill, steal the bacon, and co-op missions against the computer. The 1.1 patch adds a number of subtle improvements to Bungie.net, including the option to play unranked games on the service (previously, you were assigned a ranking based on the results of all your games). When you combine the excellent multiplayer support, the great graphics, and the dramatic gameplay improvements offered by the 1.1 patch, you get a truly remarkable real-time strategy game. If you've been playing Myth but have been frustrated by the difficulty, make sure you get the patch. If you haven't yet tried the game, now is definitely the time to do so.