Magic Carpet (DOS)

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Written by  :  Maw (884)
Written on  :  Aug 30, 2007
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars

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Too avant-garde for its own good?

The Good

This game is years ahead of its time. While other FPS games operated under highly restricted engines and tiny game worlds Magic Carpet gave gamers huge environments, superb graphics, and advanced gameplay. But far more than that, it transcended the boundaries of the genre and become something entirely new. I've never played a game quite like this.

Like most great shooters of the time, Magic Carpet contains little plot. You are an apprentice wizard who can control a mystical energy known as mana. Wizards are fighting over this mana so fiercely that the fabric of reality is being warped, giving birth to hideous monsters. Using a flying carpet you must fly to each of the affected realms and put things back into balance.

In Magic Carpet the player is no less than a demigod. You can summon lightning storms and earthquakes, create huge volcanoes that spew fire and destruction, raise armies of undead skeletons to fight on your behalf. You are also effectively immortal; if you die you respawn back at your castle with nothing lost but a tiny amount of mana. There are also local populations of villagers that you can either protect or annihilate, depending on your disposition. To be able to defend yourself, you have to collect spells. Spells are hidden in most of the levels, and in total there are 24 different spells to find. You have unlimited ammunition, once you've got a set amount of mana stored up you can use them many times as you want.

The Magic Carpet's biggest claim to fame is its show-stopping graphical engine, which is light years ahead of Doom and practically everything else. Magic Carpet supports slopes, reflective surfaces, ocean waves (check out this video), the ability to travel along a y axis, the ability to tilt your perspective (you can do a barrel roll to avoid enemy spells) segmented sprites, fog and transparency, and highly deformable environments. When you build a castle it doesn't pop out of nowhere, you can actually see the ground rise up and morph into the shape of battlements, walls and towers. This alone is incredibly cool, to say nothing of the high-end spells like Volcano and Meteor that can drastically remodel the landscape and cause massive damage. And all of this is in real-time 3D. Games these days are still struggling to incorporate deformable environments, but Magic Carpet managed it back in 1994. Of course there are numerous technological restrictions (it's impossible to look straight up or down, for example, or to create a cave) but Magic Carpet is nothing but an improvement upon every other commercial game before it.

Although it's nominally an FPS (albeit one that Flight Simulator players would enjoy) Magic Carpet has significantly different gameplay to, say, Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. In those games, you progress through levels in a linear fashion. You pick up keys, kill enemies, navigate puzzles. Beating the game is not so much a test of your skills and reflexes as your ability to memorise enemy and weapon placement.

In comparison, Magic Carpet is free-flowing and almost completely non-linear. In each level you have a set goal (to collect a certain amount of mana, the gold-colored resource of the real that powers all your spells) but how you acquire this mana is completely up to the player. Monsters spawn randomly and can be killed for mana. There are neutral villages that can be possessed to control the mana the villagers have gathered. You can fight rival wizards if you want and ransack their castles. The call is left up to the player.

Like most early Bullfrog games, Magic Carpet is part simulation in addition to whatever else it is. It's possible to sit around and watch the neutral villagers construct houses, trade between villages, train bowmen, etc. Undead skeleton archers will kill these humans and add them to their ranks. Monsters roam around randomly, wreaking havoc upon everything in their path. Certain enemies (such as the crab) can devour mana and give birth to new enemies. Human bowmen will fight back against them, as well as enemy wizards if they happen to be on your side. It's quite fascinating to watch, almost like the ecosystem of an ant farm. And speaking of your rival wizards, they have some outstanding AI and are perhaps the precursors of multiplayer bots. They build castles, kill monsters and collect mana, and try at every turn to foil the competition (ie: you). Certain wizards have preferences for certain spells, as well as varying aggression levels. Next to its peers Magic Carpet is very sophisticated, both in programming and design.

Not to mention great ambiance, with a haunting Arabic soundtrack and even a few FMV cutscenes.

The Bad

Magic Carpet was destined to join the ranks of games that were impressive but failed to click with the general public. What could have gone wrong?

For one thing, the game's system requirements were significant (486 minimum, Pentium recommended) and CDs weren't as widespread as floppies. It also unnecessarily attaches itself to peripherals like joysticks and gamepads (imagine trying to play Flight Simulator with just a keyboard and mouse). Lastly the game shipped with numerous bugs such as a final level that is impossible to access and seriously broken multiplayer.

Those things certainly hit Magic Carpet's sales, but unfortunately they aren't the game's only problems. Magic Carpet defines hardcore. It's so progressive and unusual it's difficult to see a casual gamer taking this over the more user-accessible games of the time. Magic Carpet is a tough, tough game that is, at times, far more frustrating than it has to be.

There's no quick-save option (although you can save in between levels), forcing the player to complete each level in one go -- some of them can take hours to finish. You also can't retain any spells you collected in the previous levels, leading to aggravating scenarios where you die dozens of times just trying to pick up basic spells and build a castle. Sometimes important spells are left out of levels entirely, such as one memorable case where there is no castle spell and every time you die you must restart the level. This is just designer-devised frustration and it's remarkable the game even got past the beta stage with these issues.

Magic Carpet also suffers from bloat. There are fifty levels in the game. Yeah, fifty. Or maybe 49 since a bug locks you out of the final one. And while the game throws some variety into the level design occasionally, most of them follow the same pattern: find the castle spell, build a castle, collect mana until you win the level. This chronic repetition is made worse by the fact that Magic Carpet doesn't support custom textures like Doom and you'll be looking at the same bland rock, dirt, sand and water textures from the beginning of the game until the end.

And as a minor complaint the interface is horribly vague. Apparently Bullfrog wanted to make the lives of their international translators easier and therefore did not include any text in the game. You have to navigate the game's menus using confusing icons and buttons. You'd be amazed how long it took me to figure out which icon loads a game and which icon saves.

And for all its technical dexterity, Magic Carpet is rather sterile. It lacks the camp and humor of Wolfenstein 3D and Rise of the Triad and the whole Aladdin theme gets old pretty fast as well. Some voice acting couldn't have hurt.

The Bottom Line

A very advanced game for its time, and if you're a serious collector you should either have this game or be looking for it. Not only does it mark an important milestone in the history of PC graphics, it was one of the last games Peter Molyneux took an active role in designing before leaving Bullfrog and starting Lionhead. Ironically, it was Magic Carpet's equally unsuccessful sequel that caused the split. Magic Carpet is to FPS games what Tool is to rock, and it's a deeply trouble masterpiece.