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SummaryBetter than you'd think
The GoodThe once huge popularity of one of the longest-running series in RPG history began to decline steadily after the so-called "RPG Renaissance" kicked in. Old-school games focused on party creation and gradual exploration gave way to more dynamic, streamlined RPGs as popularized by BioWare. The design school of Ultima prevailed. Might and Magic series, once a proud leader, became somewhat of a dinosaur who has mistakenly survived extinction and is trying to compete with humans.
It is no wonder then that the ninth installment was doomed to fail unless it was willing to make enormous concessions to the new fashion, which it didn't. People blamed the failure of the previous game on its outdated engine, but the sad reality was that it didn't even matter. The majority was simply not into that kind of RPG anymore. As someone who is very much into that kind of RPG, I'll try to highlight the advantages Might and Magic IX has over its contemporaries, which were created with a completely different design philosophy in mind. These advantages are, in fact, the same that were upheld by the series at least since it found its perfect tone and style in the sixth game: flexible, addictive character-building system, great balance between free-form exploration and tight questing, and loads of monsters to slay and items to find - all that without the need to possess advanced, highly specialized role-playing skills as required by Wizardry.
So, is Might and Magic IX just another take on the same old formula? Yes, it pretty much is, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a conservative game in the age of liberal changes to the ancient RPG recipe - and paradoxically, that's exactly what makes it non-mainstream and charmingly different. Might and Magic IX is indeed a throwback to the times when you didn't care about witty dialogue choices or lesbian relationships between party members, but instead wanted to immerse yourself in a world with its own clearly defined system, its set of rules. It was you against the game - you trying to outsmart it, exploit its idiosyncrasies, defeat it on its own ground. Nobody held your hand, and you had to figure out on your own how to do it, but the reward was immense. The secret of Might and Magic is that it found the golden middle ground of role-playing, without falling into over-scripting traps of BioWare, simplified monotony of Diablo, or esoteric complexity of Wizardry. It blends the difficulty of old-style RPGs with user-friendliness, depth of character development with ease of actual playing, vast combat options with fast point-and-click execution.
Might and Magic IX possesses all these qualities. Whoever says it has been dumbed down has probably not played it beyond the tutorial island, which is in no way an illustration to its actual structure and content. Once you get to the first city you gain access to almost the entire world. Of course, you'd be killed if you ventured to tougher areas straight ahead, but that was always the case with Might and Magic games: they were never free-roaming in the uniform sense of Elder Scrolls. The order in which you do quests, the way you develop your characters, the actual pace of the game is dictated by you. And there is plenty of character development to do, with a total of eight high-tier classes you can be promoted to, each with its own cleverly placed advantages and disadvantages (for example, grandmastery in particular skill is only possible when belonging to a specific class), not to mention the vast abundance of useful skills, spells of different disciplines, equipment, and items. Yes, some things were removed (more on that in the "Bad" section), but overall, the spirit of the series is there, you just have to let it shine when you get past the boring opening and accept the needless, yet minor interface changes.
Alright, so it's a typical Might and Magic game. But why should you play it if there are already eight of them that ground the same formula to death? Well, in my opinion it's worth to have the whole experience one more time in full 3D, with an actual full screen that shows a homogeneous world. Many people complained Might and Magic IX was ugly. In fact, most reviews I've read seem to focus on that point obsessively. There are two problems with that assessment: first, bad graphics have never ruined an RPG; and second, Might and Magic IX is far from being ugly. The game starts by throwing at you cloned NPCs and then guiding you through a bland open area, so you complete your tutorial without having seen a single normal city or a single dungeon, which are its highlights. As the game progresses, however, it gradually shows you its true face, and I'm not afraid to call it beautiful.
The meet and potatoes of this game - as with other Might and Magics - is dungeon exploration and combat. And that's where you begin to clearly feel the advantages of the new engine. There was always something cartoony in the "2.5D" installments of the series. Fighting sprites is just not as exciting as doing the same to 3D models. The result is that Might and Magic IX is more atmospheric. Yes, it may not seem so in the beginning, but give it a chance! The dungeons of this game are exquisitely designed. An eerie feeling surrounds you once you hear the sound of the creaking door and footsteps of an approaching monster. And once you begin the exploration you realize it's not just about the graphics, it's about the design. Every dungeon is unique and will stay in your memory. None feels like just another cave, just another old temple. They are perfect in size and length - complex and wonderfully explorable, yet without gratuitous mazes. Devious traps and other physical obstacles, secret rooms, puzzles, alternate paths - everything you need from a good dungeon is there, and it's consistent in quality.
The cities are also more interesting. Each of the seven cities has its own distinct face and structure - the quiet rural beauty of Guberland, the imposing stern architecture of Thronheim, the melancholy of the snowy Frosgard, and so on. The cities are large and also feel more coherent, less randomly designed than in the earlier games. And finally, you can explore houses - for the first time since World of Xeen. The only true graphical weakness of the game are the horrible connecting outdoors, which have driven many players away before they got the chance to know the game better.
Combat has been improved as well. Enemies have a noticeably better AI - you can't just abuse bows and spells like you did before. Enemies would use ranged attacks much more consistently, they are more aggressive, they don't tend to get stuck in the scenery, and they will try to corner and slaughter you very quickly. The difficulty level, while still on the easy side, is an improvement over the previous installment. There is more accuracy and realism in fighting - for example, you will miss more if you shoot while running. Party formation adds more tactical touches. There is more balance in your development, and your specializations matter more.
There is quite a bit of humor in the game, and I found some of the dialogues genuinely funny. Each of the Jarls you do quests for has a distinct personality, and from the dialogues with the many "unimportant" NPCs you can get a good idea about the societies in each city. Mind you, all that doesn't even begin to approach the level of BioWare-style characterization, but that's not what the game was aiming for, anyway.
The BadMost of the flaws of Might and Magic IX come courtesy of a rushed release. The latest patch eliminates most of the bugs and provides a technically smooth experience, but it could not restore lost content. It is clear that the game was released before certain things were ironed out. More often than not I felt something was missing - an item at the end of a twisted passage, a key dialogue line during a conversation that went nowhere, a more challenging solution perhaps originally intended for a quest, a different face for a reasonably important character. The good thoughts are all there, but sometimes they feel like a foundation for something to come, not like a completed, polished product.
One flaw, however, is inherent to the core concept, and that is the design of outdoor locations. These are the game's definitive weakpoint. Instead of the detailed open areas of the previous games in the series, the outdoors of Might and Magic IX consist of ugly, depressing ravines. Almost every passage is squeezed between mountains. There is little variation, and the green really begins to hurt your eyes until you are brave enough to venture to Frosgard and bask in the beautiful snowy landscape. There is also little sense of interconnectivity, with most areas feeling isolated and too neatly measured. The contrast to the gorgeous dungeons is sharp. Graphically, these areas are unfortunately on par with character faces - the same few models are nauseatingly reused over and over again, undermining any personal attachment you might have felt in the dialogue. The final member of the unholy trio is the bland inventory, with generic drawings replacing the elegant slots and paper dolls of the earlier games.
Why was it necessary to remove features? There are no minotaurs, vampires, and dragons you could proudly enlist in your party in the previous installment. Some traditional spells (such as flying) are missing. You can't use horses to travel anymore. There are many such annoying omissions, and while I was able to make peace with that after the game convinced me its system was strong enough to survive on its own, the whole experience began with frustration. Case in point: right off the bat, you are treated to character creation that allows you to choose between two classes. Never mind that the process of gradually transforming your boring fighters and initiates to powerful gladiators and liches eventually turns out to be at least as exciting as the multitude of one-tier promotions in the predecessor. The initial setup is simply a bad marketing move for the fans of the series, who, like everyone else, want more content right away.
Might and Magic IX feels unsure of itself. It should have delivered the biggest and baddest incarnation of the series yet, but that was, sadly, not the case. Subtly, it offers many improvements, but there is no substantial quality leap, and the first feeling it conveys is disappointment bordering on irritation. So the truth is that we have here a really good game that came out at the wrong time and collapsed under impossibly high expectations. It could not save the dying series, and that is perhaps the chief reason for the hatred it caused.