SummaryThe best FPS you've never played
The GoodSystem Shock and Dark Forces enriched the young 3D shooter genre by adding new gameplay elements and storytelling techniques. CyberMage, released only a few months afterwards, was another innovative title that brought the genre to new heights. It is hard to understand how this game, developed by a venerable company and in many ways deeper and more advanced than Dark Forces in gameplay, was soon cast into oblivion. CyberMage did many things that would justify its inclusion into the FPS Hall of Fame; it is undeniably a landmark title, historically significant and enjoyable to play at the same time.
CyberMage has fantastic level design. Even the vast, complex areas of Dark Forces fail in comparison to the levels in this game. More importantly, those levels are incredibly detailed and varied. Every stage has its own distinct personality, with thousands of small features that make it unlike the others. From a purely technological standpoint, CyberMage was amazing: the graphics have aged better than any other pre-Build FPS I can recall. The game's high-resolution textures, rich colors and detailed characters immediately stand out when compared to other shooters of its time or even later. The graphics perfectly convey the fantastic dark sci-fi atmosphere of the game; the artistic wealth of this world is truly something to behold.
The game's graphical prowess allowed construction of large, intricate, complex areas. The huge levels of CyberMage are a pleasure to explore. There is something logical and convincing in the structure of the levels; they never feel artificial or too maze-like (something that, frankly, bothered me in Dark Forces). Many stages have a vertical structure, with stairs, ladders and elevators leading to upper areas. You can often see something in the distance and wonder how you could get there; I love this kind of approach to level design, where each stage stimulates the player's curiosity and encourages him to press forward.
Outdoor areas are particularly brilliant. CyberMage is the first FPS I recall that had truly interesting, immersive, and logically believable outdoor environments. The city streets stages must be noted as some of the most impressive 3D shooter levels ever conceived. Few of my FPS experiences were as exciting as walking through the grim, hostile city, trying to make it to the hospital while avoiding the temptation of flashing neon signs over the nightclub entrances protected by fierce robots and flying police cars.
The gameplay of CyberMage is by far richer and more varied than any other 3D shooter before (and many after) it, with the exception of System Shock. Inventory items play a significant role. There is an unusually heavy armor management (body, helmet, etc.) as well as armor-repairing items. Another interesting addition are a few segments with drivable vehicles, such as a tank or a hovercar. The game's stand-out feature is undoubtedly its incorporation of supernatural energy attacks into the genre.
Years before Requiem, CyberMage merged standard weapon-based FPS gameplay with what is the game's equivalent to magic. The main character possesses a special energy (called Mann-Ra) that he can use to cast various projectile attacks with his hands. Each type of attack expends a certain amount of Mann-Ra, which gradually regenerates afterwards. These "magic spells" are not only a good alternative to firearms, but often the preferred course of action. A cautious player might even rely on them completely, blasting enemies from afar, taking cover or running away to regenerate Mann-Ra, then coming back for more. Casting these powerful attacks is incredible satisfying; you gradually acquire more powerful ones, each with different devastating effects: you can electrocute enemies, stun them, hurl destructive energy balls, etc.
Instead of acquiring these special attacks automatically, you learn them from items scattered in the game world, or by taking damage from the same attack cast by the enemy. This opens some very interesting possibilities: you actually begin to seek out enemies, trying to learn attacks from them; you are encouraged to explore every nook and cranny, hunting for rare and well-hidden items that might teach you another powerful spell. Many levels in the game are generally very open-ended and contain optional areas with rewarding treasure.
Predating Strife, CyberMage incorporated RPG elements that enriched its gameplay even more. You can find money, gamble, purchase and sell weapons and healing items. One of the game's most brilliant concepts is character growth. Every organic enemy you defeat leaves a soul behind; consuming this soul results in random benefits to the main character's parameters. Your health and Mann-Ra get either restored or permanently increased. Naturally, this second type is the most coveted one: you can restore health with regen packs, and Mann-Ra regenerates by itself anyway; but increasing the maximum amount of those means that your character becomes more and more powerful as you advance in the game. CyberMage compels you to hunt for enemies, seek out confrontation; you get addicted to the process of building up your character and feel much more motivated.
Like most FPSs before or since, CyberMage has a simple one-man-against-evil story; but this story seemed more involving to me than the impersonal rebel missions of Dark Forces or even the hide-and-seek against a crazy female computer of System Shock. The premise is quite interesting: the protagonist is brought back in a cybernetically enhanced form after having sacrificed his life, and must now get to the big bad guy with whom he shares some sort of a connection. The game's progression is mission-based, so you'll always have contact with friendly characters who would talk to you or sometimes even fight by your side. There is coherence and logic in the story; narrative and locations are connected to each other, and you always feel you are accomplishing a task, gradually advancing towards the final objective.
The BadCyberMage can get quite challenging. Many areas have a large amount of enemies attacking from different sides; getting through those battles requires careful planning, precision, and often numerous retries. At some points it is even advisable to run away, despite the benefits you get from defeating enemies. Also, the non-linearity may not be everyone's cup of tea. The objective-based structure, optional areas and exploration possibilities do not always make it clear how to proceed to the next part.
I have experienced some minor speed issues running the game in DosBox on a pretty powerful modern machine. The problem is not that it was too slow - rather, the speed was rarely constant. Some open areas with many enemies slowed down the game somewhat. I can only assume that the game didn't run very smoothly when it came out; indeed, the graphical wealth seems like something its contemporary computers were unable to handle. This must have been the reason for the game's otherwise inexplicable lack of popularity. Nowadays there is simply no excuse not to try it: the speed issues in DosBox are negligible.
The Bottom LineSome time ago, I gave Strife the title that I used as a one-liner for this review. Now I have to hand it to CyberMage - not necessarily because it's even better than Strife, but because it seems that even fewer people have played it. Undoubtedly one of the richest, most exciting and most interesting 3D shooters of the early era, CyberMage is an absolute must for anyone who cares for the genre.