Saturday, March 26, 2011

Game 53: Might & Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988)

This game opens with a screen showing a pegasus munching grass while a thief peers out from a thicket. Thus begins New World's inexplicable tendency to start each M&M game with stories and cut scenes that turn out to have little or nothing to do with the game.

I never expected it to take this long. When I finished Might & Magic I last July, and gave it my highest final rating of any CRPG so far (the record still holds), its sequel was only about 15 games ahead on Wikipedia's chronology of CRPGs. I expected I'd be there in a couple of months. But then Arcanum pointed out that Wikipedia's list sucked, and I engaged in a series of "backtracking" postings while supplementing Wikipedia's list with other sources like MobyGames. By the time I was done, I had nearly 40 games between I and II. I'm glad to be there at last.

With all the buildup I've been giving to this game, I was afraid it might suck. (If I every played it before, it was a long time ago, and I don't remember it at all.) I'm happy to report that it does not. It's everything that Might & Magic I was, and at least a little bit more.

The Back Story

Might & Magic II takes place on the World of Cron, which, like VARN before it, has a variety of terrains, cities and ruins. Notably different is the existence of four elemental plains in the corners of the world, which we will come to in a moment.

A map of Cron. Note that it is arranged in 20 map areas--five columns and four rows.

It's impossible to start this game without remembering how, at the end of the first game, the world of VARN turned out to be a spaceship-cum-biosphere run by some advanced beings with computers. VARN stood for "Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle," and by completing the main quest, the party was given a "new assignment at the gates to another world."

"Cron" being that other world, one might assume that it's really CRON--an acronym for something like Cosmic Roving Orbital Nacelle. And I presume that the party that starts the game is supposed to be the same party from the first game, although I've long since lost the save file and and had to start over with new characters.

The manual contains a fairly long backstory divided into two parts. The first tells the story of the archmage Corak the Mysterious, in the form of a journal written by his apprentice, Gwyndon. Gwyndon is a bit clueless, but the summary of the story is that Corak discovered that Sheltem, "an alien criminal from another reality" (and the villain of the first game)...

This guy.

...had escaped from some prison and found his wan to Cron. Corak teleports himself all over the place trying to catch him and ultimately ends up disappearing completely. Given cryptic references to Corak all over the first game, one suspects he tailed Sheltem to VARN and either died there or was imprisoned. I didn't get to kill Sheltem in I (see this posting for more), so I suppose it's possible he returned to Cron, although the book leaves it open-ended.

The second part of the story tells of the creation of Cron, starting when "an ethereal substance capable of supporting life" arose in the void. The first living beings were elemental lords of great power: Acwalandar (water), Shalwend (air), Pyrannaste (fire), and Gralkor (earth), who warred with each other and accidentally ended up creating the physical world. While the elementals fought, humanoids arrived on Cron (their origin left mysterious), bringing magic with them. The elementals sought to destroy them, but the humanoids created an Orb of Power held by four talons that could control the four elements. A human wizard named Kalohn used the orb to defeat the four elemental lords in battle and banish them to barriers in the four corners of the world. Kalohn became king.

Acwalandar took his revenge by studying magic and creating the first dragon, "a creature of mindless destruction and incredible strength." The dragon and Kalohn killed each other in battle, and the Orb was lost in the Quagmire of Doom. With Kalohn slain and his ineffective daughter Lamanda on the throne, Cron's society descended into a dark age with monsters roaming the lands. Enter the party.

I wonder if the game will reveal if the story is metaphorical or literal and, either way, how the elemental lords square with the likelihood that Cron is, in fact, another spaceship. In any event, the part begins in the town of Middlegate without much direction or explanation--just like in the first game. When you take your first step, the ghost of Corak appears and offers some general encouragement but no real advice.

So I guess Corak is dead, then.

Gameplay



The basic gameplay is unchanged from I: it is a turn-based, multi-character, first-person game in which all commands are entered via the keyboard. What has changed a bit is the main adventure screen. "O" and "P" toggle between a list of commands (as in I) and the currently active spells. You also get an automatic clock and compass.

The results of the "location" spell or the automap.

All of the game maps are 16 x 16 (I didn't cheat; the manual says this) as in the first game. But new to this game is an automapping feature that activates if at least one of the characters has the "cartography" skill (see below). I don't know how I feel about it. I really like making my own maps. I can see where it might come in handy at points, though. The "clairvoyance" spell, which puts a little automap in the upper-right corner of the game screen, helps ensure that I haven't missed any steps while I'm mapping (I don't have the spell yet, but there's a fountain near the first inn that casts it for you).

The graphics are much improved, well past the point at which they're acceptable to me, but the sound remains mired in the infrequent, bloop-ish age, and I could only take it for a few minutes.

As you move about, you can adopt one of four dispositions: inconspicuous, average, aggressive, and "thrill seeker." This affects the frequency of random encounters.



Characters

You can have up to eight characters, although at least two of them must be NPCs that you find after the game begins. The races are the same as in the first game: human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and half-orc.

In addition to I's character classes (knight, paladin, sorcerer, cleric, archer, and robber), there are two new classes: ninja and barbarian. Ninjas sound very useful, with an automatic chance of assassination in each attack, and they can disarm traps and unlock doors like robbers (although apparently not quite as well). In contrast, it's hard to see the benefits of barbarians, who have weapon and armor restrictions and are balanced only by slightly more hit points.

Nothing's changed in the list of attributes--in fact, I don't think these change throughout the entire Might & Magic series. During character creation, you can re-roll to your heart's content and also swap statistics among attributes.

That has to be the worst image of a hand I've ever seen.

Finally, you choose sex and alignment (good, neutral, evil) and set your name. Overall, the game is one of the most detailed when it comes to character creation.

Remembering the advantages of speed for all characters except the healer in the original game, I gave that attribute high priority. I also made the characters all "good." I don't know if the game has the same types of puzzles as I, but in the first game a mixed-alignment group was a disadvantage. I briefly entertained the idea of trying something like an all-paladin party but ultimately decided to save that for a game I was already familiar with.

This was my final party:

  • Bolingbroc, a male human paladin
  • Valstaff, a female half-orc knight
  • Mortemar, a male gnome ninja
  • Quickly, a female elf archer
  • Peta, a female dwarf cleric. I deliberately gave her low speed so she could go last in combat and heal anyone damaged that round.
  • Glendower, a male elf sorcerer.

Also new in II is a skill system reminiscent of Shard of Spring and Demon's Winter. Each character can have two "secondary skills" that you purchase from trainers.

For 2000 gold, I expect to be taught by Tenzing Norgay.

Some of the skills sound somewhat mandatory for exploration, including mountaineering, pathfinding, navigation, and cartography (the trainer for this is named "Otto Mapper"). Others simply boost statistics, like gambling and linguistics. Either way, it's a binary thing: you have the skill or you don't. The skills include designations that would become class upgrades in later Might & Magic games (crusader, hero), and some to which VI-VIII would assign points and skill levels (diplomacy, arms mastery). It's fun to see the franchise feeling its way forward here.

Setting Out

I began in Middlegate. My starting characters had only small weapons (clubs and knives) and no gold. I started mapping the town. Within moments, I had entered the house of a wizard named Nordon, who gave me a quest to recover a goblet from goblins in the caves beneath the city.

My adventurers, being neophytes, accept a vague promise of "numerous rewards."

Nordon had a closet in his house, ominously labeled "skeleton closet," whose trapped door decimated my hit points. Inside was, quite predictably, a large group of skeletons.



The skeletons finished the job that the trap had started. Within 60 seconds of beginning my first expedition in Might & Magic II, I had suffered my first full-party death:

Some CRPG expert, huh?

But even this brief unsuccessful endeavor taught me some important things about the game:

  1. There are going to be side quests. I loved this part about the first game, and really no other CRPG in this era has offered side quests.
  2. The game is going to have Might & Magic I's difficulty. I was partly worried that they might water it down.
  3. Monster parties are bigger. In the first game, there were never more monsters than could be listed on the screen. This game allows the monsters to scroll off the bottom of the screen. I wonder if that means that only the visible monsters will be affected by group-effect spells.
  4. Just like the first game, each town probably has a dungeon beneath it.

Still, I reloaded of course and managed to map the town. A few other things I discovered:

  • The difficulty of the game seems to assume that you've brought characters from Might & Magic I. I died a lot in my exploration of Middlegate. My luck seemed to be that I defeated enemies that dropped no gold and died every time I faced an enemy with gold, so it was a couple hours before I finally had enough to buy some decent equipment.
  • Sorcerers don't automatically get all of the spells at each level. Some, they have to purchase from the mage's guild.
  • Nordon has a female counterpart at the other end of town named Nordonna who just yells "get out!" when I show up.
  • My ninja actually sucked at lockpicking and trap-disarming. The third time he blew up the party, I dumped him for a robber named Hotspur. He didn't turn out to be a lot better.
  • One of the monsters you can fight is a "cripple." That just seems mean.

The adventuring party runs afoul of the ADA.

  • There are other monsters unique to this game. Some monster names from the first town include: greedy snitches (steal food), inept wizards (true to their name), sewer rats, burglars and muggers (steal gold), and brain eaters (cast sleep).
  • There's a "brain wiping" store that makes you "forget" your secondary skills, for a fee, I guess so you can choose different ones in case you decide you chose poorly the first time around.
  • Once I was strong enough to survive them, the skeletons that killed me turned out to be a reliable source of experience and gold.
  • Like the first game, all of the squares of a 16 x 16 map are used. If you find yourself walled off, it's a sure sign of a secret door.
  • The tavern, which served up a variety of food and drink specials, included a rumor that said "children at 0,15." I'm not sure what this is talking about, since those coordinates seem to be the cartography trainer.



  • I already have my most hated enemies--worse than the sprites in Might & Magic: jugglers. These clown-looking monsters "juggle" your party, rearranging the order, and doing significant damage in the process. More than once while exploring Middlegate, they wiped out my party.

These guys are on my list.

Eventually, I got up to Level 3 and, as I reluctantly sign off for the night, I am poised to tackle Middlegate's dungeon and solve the first quest. I hope this one keeps me occupied for a good long while.

29 comments:

  1. Heh, this post sure brings back memories!

    My absolutely most hated enemy were there Crazed Natives; that have high Speed, they come in large mumbers and they have an "explode" attack which damages the entire party. And the fact that they themselves are also killed means that all that are listed as "more" will also get an attack that round.
    You won't encounter them in Middlegate, though.

    BTW, the reference to "children", I think is a clue to find two extra characters that will join you.

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  2. Memories, indeed. I played this with a couple of friends back in the day, before I really understood English. I remember we created a lot of characters and just wandered about, probably getting killed a lot, and figuring out the game bit-by-bit. Later on, I replayed it and got quite far too. I think I still have the map somewhere. Also, the graphics look a lot better than I remembered. Usually it's the other way around.

    --Eino

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  3. at least its not cga ;) My understanding is MM2 is basically a remake of mm1. everything in mm1 is tweaked up but basically the same game with different names. Thankfully they did not do what wizardry did and just pump out the same game over and over, here they did some new programming!

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  4. IIRC, in order to make use of those secondary skills [moutaineering, etc.] at least two members of your party must have the skill.

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  5. I think my Dad has a copy of this for the C64 in the basement. If you need any of the supplementary materials I can probably scan it for you, though I'm headed back to university in a couple of hours, so you may have to wait a bit.

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  6. Man I loved this game back in the day. Looking forward to these posts.

    Are you really saying that, unlike the Mac version I played, this one doesn't have the sweet "forward into battle!" voice clip when you run into monsters? Alas!

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  7. The Elemental Lords show up again in MM8. I expect you'll have a SOLID! playing experience.

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  8. nice shakespeare theme you've got going.

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  9. I was also going to comment on the naming: Henry IV, Henry V, Roger Mortimer, et al... fantastic!!

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  10. Hooray, we're playing the same game! I think your chronology is still off though, unless you're just going alphabetically within the year. There's an archive of Computer Gaming World magazine available here and I sent some postage money for a DVD of the first 100 issues (he's scanned more since), which I'm reading through as I play. By following those, I've actually already played Ultima 5, Wasteland and Pool of Radiance before getting to this one. Unfortunately I'll probably have to stop reading for a bit because I'm so spoiler-averse. Looking forward to reading your own experiences when I'm done though!

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  11. "unless you're just going alphabetically within the year"

    He is.

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  12. Okay, finally, my favorite of all time! My turn to offer some helpful (non-spoilerish) tips. This game is very breakable--in a good way. I have gotten it down to such a science that it takes me three days or so (6-8 hours) to completely level up a party. But I digress. A few things: (1) don't forget to get your ninja or robber thieves tools from the shop. They drastically help you disarm and unlock [maybe you can equip multiples?] (2) remember that all of the cities are accessible from the first, using the portals. Training in Atalantium (the 'last' city) gives slightly more hit points, which is a big advantage early on (3) the only disadvantage to a multi-alignment party is magic items. All higher magic items have an alignment, and can only be used by a character of the same alignment. Finally a note about my strategy, which you certainly don't have to follow--I get my first 20-30 levels exclusively from 'random' encounters (actually at set places on the map, but with no story effect). They're actually more efficient than sidequests. But anyway, welcome to CRON!

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  13. Petrus, I should have added "crazed natives" to my "most annoying" posting. They were in MM1, though--are you saying they're in II as well? What I hated about them is that you encountered them on anti-magic squares, so you couldn't even meteor the bastards while they frenzied and killed you.

    Evktalo, I don't remember it from playing before, but I was surprised to see how far the graphics had come in only a couple of years.

    Stu, I'm not sure what you mean by "basically the same game with different names," but that's not the case unless you just mean that the gameplay itself is basically the same. The quests, locations, and maps are completely different. So are most of the monsters, for that matter.

    Karnov, you're right, but only for two skills: mountaineering and pathfinding.

    Canageek, I appreciate the offer, but I think I've found everything online.

    Faster, etc: Keep in mind that they had another 3 years to work on the Mac version.

    Eugene, I wasn't sure anyone would notice with my subtle changes. Well done. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, but Henry IV Part 1 is a close second.

    Bunyip, I'm only going alphabetically because I don't know the exact original release dates of these games. I haven't found an authoritative source for all the release dates yet.

    Aelfric: thanks particularly for #1. I read that this morning and it improved things considerably (see my second post).

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  14. Heh, had totally forgotten about the Crazed Dwarves, although the Crazed Natives still haunt my dreams after all these years (no, not really).
    I haven't encountered them in MM1 yet (my characters have about 175,000 XP now), but then I have avoided the Vulcanian Islands, since you mentioned something about "natives" there.


    Some questions:

    Did you in MM1 ever notice if your cleric's ability to cast Turn Undead was impaired if the cleric's alignment shifted? My Good cleric keeps failing once her alignment shifts to Evil (alignment shift has happened twice).

    In MM1 my experience is that you can have random encounters when turning, but that it only happens at sea ("worse things happen at sea, you know").
    In MM2 my recollection is that the base chance of random encounters was much higher and that it could also happen when turning on any tile.
    Is that your experience too?

    BTW, making all your characters Good may have been a mistake if you can't find a way to change it, since all the best weapons are alignment restricted and you may want three different alignments for your three best fighter types in order to use the best weapons and armour you find.

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  15. Yes, I do remember in MM1 that a cleric with an alignment shift couldn't cast turn undead and possibly some other spells. You need to cast "restore alignment" or go to a temple. I remember that my alignment slipped a lot when I attacked certain creatures.

    In MM2, there is a chance of a random encounter on any rotation (at sea or otherwise). However, the chances are not all that high if you leave the default disposition at "inconspicuous."

    If there aren't any alignment-specific quests, then I see your point about the equipment. I think I'll just live with that restriction, though, rather than re-cast my characters.

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  16. I hadn't read this blog for a while, and the picture of the cripples is cracking me up! I can't imagine a game offering up foes who need two canes/crutches just to get around!

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  17. This is the best CRPG ever made, period. Don't be fooled by its simplistic look.

    Its not simply an attempt at a nice gameworld. Its an attempt to include EVERYTHING known in the RPG canon into one great game. And it suceeds.

    Its all there... an ocean full of aquatic horrors, elemental planes (for each element one of course), lush forests, tropical islands, searing deserts, frozen wastes, deep dungeons, misty mountain peaks, orc strongholds - complete with the encounters you would expect there.

    Every aspect of this game is so well worked out and contains such a staggering ammount of contend that its simply mindblowing.

    It even includes timetravel.

    There is enough contend to fill an ENTIRE edition of D&D on its own. Because that is what it is, digitized and virtualized.

    And because it uses lootables and random encounters its really replayable.

    Adding to that is the difficulty level (especially in the beginning) and the inn-rooster-save-system, wich i really like because it keeps your chars from being totally obliterated whilst still keeping you from reloading an encounter again and again to beat it with sheer luck of dice rolls and banging your head against a wall.

    You won't have time to be bored. You will be too busy and hardpressed to survive. And the game keeps this pace up.

    And you will feel the chill, because going back to the last save means going back to the inn in the city you took refuge in last. This adds a totally different layer of emotion whilst exploring a cyclopean tomb.

    And despite using a spellpoint based casting system it keeps working from level one to level nintynine. A lot of spells gain power as the levels increase, so even those won't become usless. You will amass a blazing array of spells and USE them, not just the last one aquired. Some spells age the caster, some require components - so there is even a resource system in place to encourage clever management.

    This is indeed a gate to another world.

    PS: greet the three cusinartes and the mistwarrior from me if you run into them.

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  18. "I already have my most hated enemies--worse than the sprites in Might & Magic: jugglers. These clown-looking monsters "juggle" your party, rearranging the order, and doing significant damage in the process. More than once while exploring Middlegate, they wiped out my party."

    Even my lvl 7 party outfitted with the best equipment money can buy from the local smithy, have problems with these bozos. They have at least 21 Speed which means they act before anyone in my party. With no spells of mass destruction I had to resort to Immobilize and Web and felt quite confident when I had killed two of them and 4 of the 5 remaining were Held after the first round. But then all of them shook of the spell effects in the next round and with only two characters left standing after the Jugglers had played bowling with my party, I had to run.
    This game is definitely harder than MM1!

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  19. I think it's harder at the beginning (before, say, Level 10), but it got far too easy for me at the end.

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  20. Hmm...I find the game getting harder after reaching about lvl 20. I haven't done any "cheating" though, like getting the +10 bonuses to stats more than once or repeatedly killing The Hell Cat to get the best possible items.
    The game scales to your level and I noticed the monsters getting tougher after reaching lvl 25 and I find myself needing Temple services, and resting to regain spell points, far more often.

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  21. "For 2000 gold, I expect to be taught by Tenzing Norgay."

    I can't tell from this whether you knew who Sir Edmund was or not.

    In your comment guidelines you've said 'blogged' when I think you mean 'blog'.

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    1. Yes, that was the joke. Sir Edmund Hillary was the one that got most of the credit for the climb; Tenzing Norgay was his Sherpa guide who achieved the same thing while carrying a lot more stuff.

      Thanks for the spelling correction. Nothing is more annoying than KNOWING proper English and still having your brain trip you up and make you sound illiterate.

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  22. Nice Tenzig Norgay reference. And along vaguely similar lines--when I first played this game, I was too young to understand why people found "Otto Mapper" to be a funny name. Which is also possibly related to why I could not figure out how to save my game--I would dutifully go to the inn, and shut the game off, never realizing that you had to actually leave the inn (or, you know, just not "shut the computer off" which is what I was taught to do when I was done playing a game) to save. Do you know how it feels to restart Might & Magic II every time you want to play it again? Yes, needless to say, I can probably still navigate Middlegate from memory 20 years on.

    Also for some reason my favorite thing to do, possibly because I restarted so often, was to delay seeing Corak in that first step as long as I could remember. I believe my record was not encountering the ghost of Corak until my party was like level 25 and had explored most of the game world. "Fantastic adventure awaits you! Oh, my mistake, you already know that."

    Also worth noting that in my grade school class at the time, we were trying to come up with a class nickname, and as a result of my perusal of the hintbook for this game, I put forth "Ooze Warriors," which picked up the support of nearly all the boys in the class, but we were outvoted by the girls and ultimately were the "'gators" rather than the "ooze warriors." Lame.

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    1. That's both funny and sad about starting over every time.

      How did you avoid Corak? Backing through the door?

      "Ooze warriors" is an awesome team name, as are a lot of the monster names in the next posting: "swamp dogs," "crazed dwarves," "super sprites," "bloodsuckers," etc.

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  23. Thanks for this funny first MM2 posting. I have found your blog in the Spiegel article back end of September and reading since then to all of your postings (and comments). I ve made it up here and as the amount of postings decrease over the years i'm confident to get to the actual stuff.

    It does not happen often that i have to laugh aloud while reading but your screenshot comments are great! ;-) Therefore i thought that i leave a first message.

    I have played myself a couple of games in your list but back in 1988 i had the inherited C64 of my uncle and did not spoke a single word english. It must be years later with my Amiga 500 that i played games like DM, Ultima, M&M, Pirates.
    Looking forward as well to your Pools of Radiance postings, which i intend to replay.

    Thanks for all your time spend on this!

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    1. Glad to have you with us, Sebastian. Thanks for your kind comments.

      I had a lot of fun with Pool of Radiance. I hope you find the posts up to your expectations.

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    2. ^^ As soon as i have pubhlished this comment i noticed the Pools typo. ;-)

      Delete
  24. i like this better than that bards tale 3,bt3 was crap having to sit around to restore spell points,and no automap.

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  25. well, bt3 had an automap, but it reset every tiem you entered or exited an area,so..whatvere

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