Saturday, October 21, 2017

Might and Magic III: Summary and Rating

I'm not sure there's anywhere in the game that you encounter a dude of this description. I wonder if it's supposed to be Sheltem.
      
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra
United States
New World (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS; 1992 for Amiga, FM Towns, and PC-98; 1993 for Macintosh, SEGA CD, and TurboGrafx CD; 1995 for SNES
Date Started: 27 August 2017
Date Ended: 12 October 2017
Total Hours: 68
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 52
Ranking at Time of Posting: 248/265 (94%)

Might and Magic III is a good entry in a superior lineage. It moves the game from "Wizardry done better" (which characterized the first two titles) to its own category, with an engine that is still turn-based but seems somehow action-oriented. In doing so, it preserves most of the best parts of the earlier games, including an open world, nonlinear gameplay, a hidden-but-interesting plot, and copious special encounters and side quests. There are many absurd moments in the game, but never a boring moment.

It does, unfortunately, introduce a couple of problems. The 1990s start to present an issue that is going to remain relevant all the way through the modern era: as the level of graphical detail of a game increases, we expect an equal increase in the level of content detail, and it becomes jarring when it doesn't appear.
      
Are we supposed to be envisioning hundreds of residents milling about this town square? It's hard to force yourself use your imagination to fill in the details when the water is animated and the ground tiles are cut into irregular rectangles.
      
When I say "content detail," I'm talking about the realism of the world and the way the character interacts with it. Maybe "realism" is the better term overall. I'm making this up as I go along, so forgive me if this theory isn't 100% polished, but I think it generally works, and it explains some of the problems people have with modern AAA titles like Skyrim. When developers were only capable of showing us wireframe graphics, we understood that everything was an abstraction. We didn't complain about lack of realistic layouts or an absence of obvious NPCs because we understood that we were meant to fill in those details with our minds the same way we fill in the very walls of the dungeon. But as graphics improve to show us individual bricks, we start to question the plausibility of the dungeon's very existence, how lighting and sanitation work, and so forth. This is part of the reason that Ultima Underworld will be such a breakthrough in 1992, presenting for the first time a dungeon as a (semi-) realistic ecosystem.

No one makes fun of the food systems of games like Ultima where you have an enormous feedbag with thousands of meals that deplete at a regular basis, but we do make fun of a game like Skyrim, where you can stop combat to ingest 30 cabbages. Once you get to the point that a game can graphically depict individual cabbages, you expect it to treat them like real cabbages. (In fact, let's call this whole thing my "Cabbage Theory.") Abstract hit points? No problem. But you build an engine in which you can graphically make "headshots," to the point where the arrow remains sticking out of the enemy's head? You'd better believe that I expect it to cause more damage than a torso shot. NPCs are little white icons that run around the screen? Sure, I can imagine that they only represent a fraction of who's supposed to live in this town. But when you get to the point where I can see and talk to every NPC in voiced dialogue and they all have individual homes in the city, I'm going to start to question why the capital of the entire country only has 20 people living in it.
       
Walking across an ocean that feels nothing like an ocean towards mountains that feel nothing like mountains.
      
Note that we don't seem to care the other way. Roguelikes often offer absurd content detail in the way that individual objects react with living things (and each other) but only the most abstract graphics. Thus, my theory is that you want your game to remain at or above the line in the graph below. If it is, players aren't draw out of the game by its lack of "realism." If not, the resulting dissonance will probably damage the game for some players and completely break it for others.
        
       
Thus we return to Might and Magic III, where the added detail in graphics and sound raise issues that you'd rather not think about. Why, for instance, can I see all the monsters in each city but not the residents who presumably inhabit them? Terra seems hauntingly empty of people, aside from a handful of NPCs you encounter behind desks plus the people who staff the stores. When the statues in Castle Dragontooth talk about armies of thousands clashing in the northern islands, you can't help but laugh. Individual enemies are as tall as mountains; you could fit maybe six of them on the island that the stories say held 6,000.

Look at the world size. You can walk from the top row to the bottom row in 10.5 game hours and in the process pass from icy tundra to parched desert. (And this isn't an artificial world like VARN or CRON.) The 16 x 16 standard for Might and Magic's game maps is far too small for this more detailed world. The developers took pains to try to give each map its own character and backstory, but you really can't make "Serpent's Wood" or "Enchanted Meadow" all that memorable when they consist of only 8 tiles each.
       
"Do you remember the Crystal Mountains of Might and Magic III?" -- No one.
      
Because of these issues, it's all the more disappointing that the game doesn't take itself seriously in terms of story and quest. Most of the limited NPC dialogue and quest paths that you receive are nonsensical at best and outright comedic at worst. Take the three kings, each wanting the Ultimate Power Orbs to conquer the others. You could have made a truly compelling plot out of this, with the "good" king envisioning a land of order and harmony, the "evil" king pushing for a world in which individual strength and will are paramount, and the "neutral" king looking for balance. Instead, each one is a ranting caricature of his alignment, and you end up siding with any of them only to move the plot forward, with essentially no consequences.

This lack of seriousness was present in Might and Magic II as well, and I guess it's just something we have to live with from this developer. My more important criticism of Might and Magic III is that the game went backwards in its magic and combat systems. I missed fighting battles against dozens of enemies. I missed carefully plotting battles against tough foes that would go for a dozen rounds or more. I missed launching powerful spells against wave after wave of enemies, and adventures in which I had to cast every last healing spell to keep the party on its feet. In Might and Magic III, the average offensive spell so under-performs physical attacks that you really have no reason to cast them. The developers had to make some enemies immune to physical attacks just to justify having a mage class. Mass damage spells are hardly necessary because the screen won't accommodate more than three enemies at a time--less for larger enemies against whom you'd really need those spells. Most of the spells in the game are the same as in its predecessor, when it perhaps needed a new approach to magic to go with its new engine.
      
There isn't a single enemy in this game that "Sun Ray" doesn't feel like overkill against.
      
I didn't like other aspects of combat, including the fact that all characters are in melee range and that archery--absolutely deadly in the hands of the right character in I and II--is relegated here to a "bonus" you get against approaching foes. After the first quarter of the game, it's mostly a waste of time.

Combat overall is too easy. Most foes are temporary annoyances to be brushed aside rather than true obstacles requiring just the right tactics. All the teleportation spells contribute to this lack of difficulty. If you get into a tough scrape, you just need to drop a "Lloyd's Beacon" and "Town Portal" to safety. The game isn't so big that it can easily justify these spells. Their absence, plus perhaps some nerfing of the fountains, plus perhaps an inability to save in dungeons, would have made more balanced gameplay.
     
As I often do, I've spent more time complaining about a good game than talking about its strengths. The paradox here is that a game must offer a certain level of complexity before you can complain about it in detail. Of course, the good points outweigh the bad. Might and Magic III kicks things to the next level in graphics, sound, and mechanics; it feels like a true 1990s game instead of a remnant from the 1980s like so many of its contemporaries. It's enormously addictive. I had to force myself to stop and write. The sense of character development is absolutely constant, the interface so intuitive that you could play in your sleep. It's the type of game for which you find yourself saying "just 10 more minutes" over and over again until suddenly it's 04:00 on a weeknight.
     
Nonetheless, I think the GIMLET is going to disappoint some fans. It will rank high, probably in my top 20, but I suspect it will rank a little lower than its predecessors, which in their more primitive graphics and sound offered better combat and more challenging overall games.

1. Game World. A strength that may seem like a weakness if you're not paying attention. Might and Magic III not only tells its own story but clarifies what was happening in the previous two titles. The manual's backstory and lore are well-written and complement the gameplay well, and I loved the "Corak's notes" feature that offered a little background on every map, outdoor and indoor. The party's cluelessness as to their ultimate goal is part of the charm of the series, so I won't dock any points for that. The game world could have been a little more responsive to the player's actions, but beyond that I don't have a lot of complaints. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. Someone unversed in Might and Magic could be forgiven for thinking that it draws directly from Dungeons and Dragons. During character creation, after all, you get a list of D&D-style races and classes, as well as a list of suspiciously similar attributes. But in character development, the series offers much more rapid and continual development than the typical RPG. A character might start with a might of 15 and end the game with 75. Nearly every dungeon provides a couple of character levels. The skills, while still binary (except for thievery), offer an additional means of development that most RPGs of the time didn't feature.
      
In fact, it's a little too much. I don't think I've ever complained about too much character growth before, but Might and Magic III skirts that edge if any game does. As I played, I routinely delayed training (after the first few hours) because it just didn't matter. If the developers had made Level 100 a distant maximum (instead of the actual Level 200) and essentially halved the game's experience point rewards, it would have resulted in better balance. Casses, races, and alignments still don't matter in any role-playing sense. Score: 4.
       
My ninja's final character sheet.
      
3. NPC Interaction. As with many first-person titles, what you get in Might and Magic is not so much "NPCs" as "encounters during which someone talks." Most of the NPCs are goofy, one-note characters who offer no role-playing options or dialogue choices. You don't even really learn much about the game world from them, with a couple of exceptions. I do like the NPCs who can join the party, but they're not really necessary and if I played the game again, I'd do without them. Score: 3.
   
4. Encounter and foes. Might and Magic offers a satisfying bestiary, with associated strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. Its frequent non-combat encounters with quasi-NPCs, statues, fountains, talking heads, and so forth are a highlight of the game. The riddles and puzzles are a little easy, but at least they're not frustrating. I would dock points for offering a "closed" system--you can kill every enemy in the game and have nothing left to fight--except that it ultimately doesn't hurt character development. Score: 5.
      
I should have done more with the Arena.
     
5. Magic and Combat. Discussed extensively above. A good system, but not a great one. Combat is a little too easy, magic a bit unbalanced. Offensive spells tend to fall into two categories: those so under-powered that it's a waste of time to use them and those that level with the caster and thus cost so much that you can only cast 5 or 6 before having to rest again. At least combat isn't tedious, though: even the toughest battle is over in well under a minute. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. Both a strength and a weakness. I loved all of the different types of equipment and potential slots; every treasure chest seemed to bring an upgrade for one or two characters. The "breakage" system is a little annoying but one of the only consequences to a character getting knocked unconscious. I wasn't as in love with the random generation of item materials and enchantments, and I would have liked to see some unique "artifact" weapons and armor.
       
Things got a little formulaic by the end.
     
Although they exist, I barely explored the use of magic items. You can find items that duplicate almost every spell, along with other items that recharge them, but I mostly just sold them to save inventory space. If combats had been harder, I'd probably have made more use out of them. I also didn't really explore the "Enchant" spell, which adds an effect to unenchanted items, because it doesn't work with the game's better materials. Score: 6.

7. Economy. Useful but badly balanced. After the first few hours, you don't have to worry about money except in a general sense, as you watch training costs grow and wonder where the "tipping point" will be. After your initial purchases, you really don't need money for items. You spend it on spells, training, healing, and training, and it would be nice if the whole system were both more challenging and not closed. I offer a slight bonus for the interest-earning bank accounts and the "money sink" fountain. Score: 5.
       
There's not much logic to it, but it ensures that every gold piece is worth something.
      
8. Quests. The game's primary strength. "Side quests" have still not crept into the average developer's lexicon in 1991, not even with Might and Magic showing how it's done since 1986. Might and Magic III excels at them. Even the main quest has a couple of choices--though more would be welcome--including that final optional area. Score: 6.
      
My mage's final accomplishments. What are those two blank spots and what could I have improved on?
      
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I thought the monster graphics could have used a bit more realism, but they're certainly an upgrade from II. I was less enamored with the overall graphical quality than with the creative use of graphics as part of the interface. Consider how the character portraits change to match their conditions (diseased, curse, drunk, in love), the use of colored gems to depict the character's relative hit point total, the way the gargoyle waves to signal a secret or the bat opens and closes its mouth to show that enemies are near. In melee combat, you can tell how much damage you inflict from the size of the blood splatter that appears when you hit (and none appears at all when you miss). Lots of games have good graphics, but Might and Magic III is one of the few of this era to start incorporating true graphical feedback; to make graphics a key part of the interface rather than just something nice to look at.

Sound is sparse but effective and realistic where used; honestly, no game is going to do great in this category until we start hearing more ambient sounds. The interface is one of the best I've encountered, aside from casting spells, where it would have been nice to have a shortcut or a "favorites" list or something. Score: 7.
       
The well-detailed and animated shop images will continue for the rest of the series.
     
10. Gameplay. As you know, I use this category for considerations like linearity, pacing, difficulty, and replayability. It definitely gets points in the first two categories. I'm generally happy if the number of hours doesn't far exceed the final GIMLET, and here Might and Magic III does fairly well. I personally played it longer than was warranted, spending a lot of time experimenting and dithering around; it's easily winnable in 40-50 hours. And even though I didn't do much with it, the nonlinearity was welcome. On the other hand, balance issues made it a tad too easy (as did the ability to save everywhere), and it's hard to think of it as "replayable" except perhaps for a particular challenge. Score: 6.

This gives us a final score of 52, right about where I suspected it would fall. It ends up at the #19 spot and falls below both Might and Magic I (60) and II (58). Those who would give more weight to graphics and who prefer fast action combat to tactical combat will probably invert those scores across the three games. It is the fourth-highest rated game of 1991, and again I don't dispute the order. There are things I like better about the Might and Magic series than the Gold Box series, but when it comes down to the final assessment, I prefer the relatively more serious nature of Pools of Darkness and Death Knights of Krynn, the more tactical combat, and the greater challenge that they offer.

If I could play it again, I'd try something more challenging. Perhaps only four characters, or perhaps a party of nothing but knights, forcing me to make better use of special items with magic effects. I'd like to hear from someone who gave that a shot. I resisted the temptation to try a speedrun, mostly because I saw that it had already been done a few times. One guy did it in about 5 minutes, but he used cheat codes at the teleporter to get an Ultimate Power Orb and a ton of gold early in the game. A more honest one took about half an hour. He did what I would have done: got a little money early in the game, put it in the bank to earn interest for about 10 years, collected it, and donated so much to the fountain in Fountain Head that he was able to take characters to Level 150 all at once. He then bought the necessary teleport and damage spells and a ton of might potions for smashing doors and getting the pyramid key card, visited the central pyramid for the teleportation box, and used it to zip to each dungeon to collect orbs and hologram cards.

I did spend some time trying to raise my high score, fighting about 10 arena battles and donating a few million to the experience fountain before returning to the endgame. I went from 1.1 billion points to 1.2 billion.
      
I'm sure much higher scores are possible.
      
Computer Gaming World featured Might and Magic III on the cover of the May 1991 issue, and a review by Johnny L. Wilson is all positive, focusing primarily on graphical details. It was a nominee for "Game of the Year" in the magazine's November 1992 issue, which makes no sense, but lost out to Ultima Underworld, which is hard to dispute. If it had been evaluated in its actual year, it's hard to see how it wouldn't have beaten Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (which itself was being evaluated a year too late, as it's a 1990 game). Dragon gave it 5/5, which for once I understand, but again I have to comment how a magazine dedicated primarily to tabletop role-playing never seems to focus on actual role-playing mechanics in its reviews of computer games. It's always about graphics, sound, music, interface . . . anything but combat rolls and attributes.
    
The copywriters fell down on this one. Is the title called Power and Magic? I don't think so.
     
Even Amiga magazines rated it well. Percentages range from 81% (Amiga Joker) to 93% (Amiga Action). To the extent that these reviews have complaints, it's primarily about frequency and speed of disk access on the Amiga specifically. I almost always find something that bothers me in an Amiga Action review, but here they were actually quite fair and thorough, calling it the "best role-playing adventure available on the Amiga."

In a 2012 RPG Codex interview, John Van Caneghem recalled that his team went "all out" on III, eager to meet expectations of gamers primed on two excellent predecessors. He notes that it was the "smallest seller" of all the titles, probably because many fans of the series hadn't upgraded to the 1990s platforms, but the best reviewed and highest-awarded.

To the best of my recollection, Might and Magic IV and V uses an update of the same engine, but perhaps with a better story? I honestly don't remember anything about it. It will unfortunately be the end of 1992 before I get to explore the pair, but the prospect of playing them is almost enough to get me through the rest of 1991. Before then, we'll be looking at another New World production: Planet's Edge (1992), which has a completely different interface but shows art director Louis Johnson's influence in the cut scene graphics. The title also shares several of the same programmers; I know virtually nothing about it but look forward to it.

For now, we have 13 more titles to finish in the interminable 1991. I want to do it by this blog's 8th anniversary in February.


91 comments:

  1. Does it earn a spot on the "Longest Played" list? What's the minimum time for that?

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  2. Were I rating this, I would have docked it a point on Scorpia's behalf.

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  3. Well the only category I felt you were overly harsh was in character development, only a 4? I thought the constant levelling combined with in-game stat increases was one of the best of the era.

    Other than that I probably would have given it a point more in gameplay, it’s just so addictive. I thought you might have had a couple of extra points here or there, but everything else was more or less what I expected. IMO you might have ranked the first 2 a bit highly back when you did it very early on in your blogging.

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    1. The "character development" category includes a couple of considerations that no game really does well in this era. For once, I like the choice of various races, sexes, alignments, and classes to really matter for role-playing reasons. MM3 backslid here because except for which characters fall in love with Athea, none of these factors really plays a significant role. MM1 and MM2 both had alignment-based quests, class-based quests, and areas in which sex and race made a difference.

      Aside from that, I like leveling up as much as the next person, but not so much that I want it to cheapen the sense of real character development. Leveling in MM3 never really felt like much of a reward even though I got to do it often. I think I'd prefer a game where you only have 8 levels, and each step feels like a significant improvement.

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    2. Fair enough, I agree with most of what you describe, although I think about 20 levels is a sweet spot. I see that you have never given higher than a 7 in this category anyhow.

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  4. There is one issue about M&M 4-5. Both are balanced to be beatable with the freshly created parties. World of Xeen does not re-balance anything. Therefore, if complete one game and move on to another with the winning party, you will have virtually no challenge for whole duration of the other game.

    If you want to experience both games at their full difficulty, then maybe you should play them separately. For example, playing M&M4 and completing it. Then starting new game, creating identical, or maybe different, party, and completing M&M5. Then, using the second party for a quick run through the M&M4 storyline and moving on to the endgame of World of Xeen.

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    1. Having just won "Xeen", I do not believe this is true... after beating MM4, I could still walk around MM5 and have my ass handed to me by random monsters.

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    2. M&M5 is harder than M&M4, yes. And energy dragons are a threat even by the endgame. But still, player gets a considerable head-start. It's interesting to play Darkside without it.

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    3. I think the biggest issue is that you can wander around the easier areas of both MM4 and MM5 at the start, getting experience that makes MM4 a bit too easy. It's like a double-sized starting area.

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  5. I absolutely agree with the "Cabbage Theory"! (Except, well, I had it first - http://ancient-architects.com/?page_id=30)

    Good thing I didn't use the fountains in my playthrough. Apparently, most German gaming magazines didn't either, because pretty much all of them labeled the game as rather difficult.

    IV sadly doesn't really contribute anything to the story, it's all done in V. That being said, I also agree that these games are extremely addictive, but I have a hard time to pinpoint out why. Curiosity for the story development it is not. It is probably simply the "flow", as gameplay events follow up on each other so quickly (virtually zero downtimes for resting, travelling etc.), but that is helped by combats not lasting dozens of turns against swarms of monsters. So in that regard, the smaller battles might be considered a positive.

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    1. I suspect I rarely have an idea that someone hasn't already thought of.

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    2. I agree with the fountains thing, I thought it was pretty ridiculous to use every exploit in the book (to the point of basically teleporting to all the fountains whenever buffs ran out) and THEN complain about the lack of difficulty.
      I guess the game gives you the opportunity, so it ain't cheating, but it comes pretty close.

      IMO, the GIMLET just shows that you can't break down a games merits into individual subscores like that - M&M3 was a leap forward in terms of playability (IMO it's still easily playable to this very day) and on this alone would require a much higher score. Had you liked the game better overall, you'd just have given it bonus points in several areas, here you were extremely stingy.
      However, I'm too old to get worked up about someones score of a game on the internet, and the playthrough posts were enjoyable nonetheless, so - as always - thanks for all the hard work you put in.

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    3. "IMO, the GIMLET just shows that you can't break down a games merits into individual subscores like that - M&M3 was a leap forward in terms of playability."

      I get what you're saying about the interface, but in the end, I honestly had more fun with MM1 and MM2 than MM3, and my GIMLET ranks them accordingly. You're valuing the advances in the engine more than other elements of gameplay, such as combat tactics and overall difficulty. That's perfectly within your right, if that's what you prize about a game, but I designed my rating criteria to go with my preferences.

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  6. "My mage's final accomplishments. What are those two blank spots and what could I have improved on?"

    According to the clue book, the left one is "Pearls to Pirate Queen", the right is "Greek Brothers Visited". Possibly bugged as I think you've done both?

    There are 31 Ultimate Power Orbs, so it looks like you missed one. And of course there are the Arena wins.

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    1. The Greek bothers were bugged in the original version but I think there was a patch that’s included in later anthologies.

      This is from memory of the early 90s so take it as you will.

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  7. One thing I remember distinctly about playing Wizardry 7 is the feeling of loneliness as you explore Guardia. It felt as if everyone had left, leaving only a few NPCs behind. It didn't make the game any less fun, though. Nothing in the game depended on me believing New City to be a populated place buzzing with life.

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    1. Same with Wizardry 8, though here at least they state right away that most have left the place due to the big bad

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    2. Most of the buildings in Wiz7's New City other than the shops contained combat encounters with a mob of one of the native races. And the other settlements were the same. Exploring the towns mostly consisted of kicking down doors and slaughtering whoever you found behind them, no different from a dungeon. I found that a bit jarring as a kid, having come to the game from Ultima and JRPGs.

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    3. That was my greatest disappointment in Faery Tale Adventure. This lush world, graphically gorgeous, medieval soundtrack that changed depending on time of day and what was happening, and it was almost completely empty. A few places had NPCs that would say a single line of dialogue. I mean monologue. And that was it. Graphical detail extreme, content detail almost zero. Combat quickly went from very deadly to "let them surround me and beat me, and all I have to do is hold down the mouse button to slay them all." I still went through the whole game looking for that magical part where it would all pay off, and it never happened.

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    4. I had much the same reaction playing Wizardry 7, but oddly, it almost works for me. Yes, it's disturbing, but it's also evocative in a way that the text supports--there's a lot of prose and dialogue in that game emphasizing loneliness, faded glory, and the passing of time. A bustling New City full of conversable NPCs would have been a very different thing with a very different mood and message.

      That doesn't mean the dissonance isn't real. If you want to be extremely generous, you can argue Bradley worked with the game's technical limitations to find a set of coherent themes and portrayed the world in an almost impressionistic fashion--focusing the player's attention on certain detailed elements and downplaying the ones thematically irrelevant. If you want to be less generous, you could argue that the game thinly papers over some wildly flawed elements and that the whole thing is ambitiously ill-conceived.

      I like Wizardry 7, so I fall more on the former side than the latter. But I acknowledge my bias.

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    5. A. Freed is right, in saying that Wizardry 7 is all about faded glory. New City was NOT supposed to be bustling with people. The entire game depends on an atmosphere of abandonment and decay.

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  8. "I thought the constant levelling combined with in-game stat increases was one of the best of the era"

    I get where he is coming form though. To me charcter devlopment is one of those things where too much can be detrimental, sometimes "less is more". With too constant and large character development, sometimes progression seem less like an achiviement and more like a consequence of hours played, wich lower the enjoyment derived from it.

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  9. Clouds of Xeen should be more difficult because it has a pretty low level cap if played alone without any Darkside content. Darkside doesn't have that limitation, but I still feel that it's more difficult than Terra because the experience gains from monsters are toned down (and iirc, the resistances against spells got increased, too)

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    1. That's probably a better explanation of my experience with it - I found it too easy because I dabbled in Darkside and got over-leveled.

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  10. I've been trying to nail down why I prefer the first two games better than this one but I think you nailed it, the lack of realism and shorter combats aren't as fun to me. Not to say this game isn't fun, and definitely addictive but yeah you hit the nsil on the head here.

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    1. Exploration in the first two games felt more rewarding. I rated them higher as well.

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  11. If you're worried about too much character growth in M&M, I can't wait for your reaction to Disgaea. (Well, I can wait, you won't get there for decades.)

    Are the "game of the years" you're referring to like the Oscars? The prizes given out in 1992 are for games released in 1991?

    Or is it a factor of delayed release in foreign territories? Simultaneous worldwide releases weren't necessarily a thing in the 80s and 90s...

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    1. Since CGW's GOTY awards were announced in November of each year, I'm pretty sure they were supposed to be for games released that year.

      I guess the problem is that CGW might not have gotten around to reviewing a game until several months--sometimes up to 7 or 8--after its release, so if a game came out in September 1990 but CGW didn't review it until February 1991, it couldn't have been considered for the 1990 GOTY.

      In this case, though, they clearly reviewed MM3 all the way back in May 1991, so it's a bit baffling that it came up for consideration as GOTY 18 months later in November 1992.

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  12. I am sad about this rating because of how much I enjoyed this game, but it was pretty clear early on that you didn't love this playthrough as much. I find the latter Gold Box games to be tedious so to each their own, I suppose. ("PoR" and "Bonds" remain two of my favorite games ever.)

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    1. Remember, it's still a good rating even though I focused on negative aspects in the summary.

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  13. Well, that's certainly a fair review. Thank you for all the coverage and the excellent writing, reading your blog is always a pleasure!

    I remember playing Planet's Edge from my younger years, but I have never gotten far - I remember it as being complicated, probably requiring a better understanding of the english language than I had early on, compared with standard fare fantasy RPGs.

    I'm not sure how much of an RPG it is however, wikipedia says "The game features a variety of objects, weapons, and missions, though it lacks any detailed experience or stats system for the four characters the player controls." Essentially, it looks like an early X-COM prototype. Would X-COM fit in your RPG rules? You get a main quest to save the world, parties, weapons, individual troopers even get xp and "levels" through ranks, and it's tactical turn-based combat. However to me it's much more in the strategy than the RPG genre.

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  14. You are SO RIGHT about the graphics at the beginning of this post. I think New World Computing had a pretty weird way of thinking when trying to represent a living and breathing world.
    It really hit me when Might and Magic 6 came out.
    There's this fully 3D world, with monsters roaming around everywhere. You're not stuck to a grid, everything plays out in real time, and you can see the NPCs this time...!
    Well, two of them. A lady and a dude sprite, and that's all your lot. When you talk to them though, you can see their faces, which are not only very varied and unique, they're also mostly consist of manipulated photos - which are very much in contrast with the game's generic, prerendered 3D representation with all these characters. Same thing's with the shops and other inner locations. The whole experience seems very inconsistent, disjointed and really not one bit more immersive than the previous, grid based entries.
    How's that possible? It's so odd.
    I have this weird feeling that NWC games, that their games are trying to represent boardgames which are trying to represent a real world.
    In the Heroes series, that's fine, that game works very much like boardgames. In the MM series though, it just doesn't make sense (it might do from a technical viewpoint).

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    1. Well, that's easy to explain: they did some work on it, got bored, and went and did something else. Constantly seeking novelty. This is why you get games with a charisma stat or vehicle repair stat, and it's never used in the game. They had a grand time planning it all out, but no conscientiousness to follow through. Since "creative" and "conscientious" are opposite psychological traits, it's not surprising this happens over and over again in CRPGs.

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    2. I think time & budget constraints, combined with the large teams you need to produce even a game like MM3, play a big role. E.g. if it turns out during testing that a feature doesn't really work that well. You remove it, but something may always be left behind, like a stat that now isn't used anymore.

      I can see why MM3 doesn't have NPCs roaming the landscape for design reasons, though. As it is implemented, players don't have to tell friendly & unfriendly NPCs / monsters apart. If it moves around outside, you can start pelting it with arrows.

      Delete
    3. I enjoyed the wandering NPCs in MM6-8 and I'm looking forward to talking about them. They're a bit silly, yes, but at least NWC was making an attempt to address the problem I'm talking about.

      Delete
  15. "Cabbage theory." I like it.

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  16. Your comments on "content detail" vs "graphical detail" are very welcome, since it's something that has been bugging me as well. It's all about consistency.

    With increasing technical possibilities to display realism, it became more difficult to keep game worlds consistent in themselves.

    One of the most important aspects for me is actually the scale of the game world, i.e. how large a game area is supposed to be vs how large it is - your "Royal Capital, population: 20" is a prime example of this.
    And paradoxically, OTOH many games still actually have *too much* content for their world size, it just breaks consistency to go for a large, epic fantasy world just to have different cities, landmarks, dungeons etc., even climate zones in walking distance, with important encounters every few steps.

    Sure, it's very hard to get right and not having a game with endless areas of nothing happening in between - in my experience it works best when developers deliberately limit the scale of their world. The first two Gothics are probably the best examples of nailing this aspect, or the Kaer Morhen area of Witcher 3, and the city of Novigrad to some extent. (In contrast to, say, Velen.)

    A great blog post about this problem comes from a Kingdom Come:Deliverance dev:
    https://warhorsestudios.cz/index.php?page=blog&entry=blog_011

    Nedless to say, their game is just incredible in this regard (judging from the Backer Alpha)

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  17. So, what will your first game of 1992 be? I'm voting for starting and ending with Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. We might see a pause to clean up the blog before 1992 - there are currently 60 (some of which will be rejected) games from 1987-90 to unify the list, from which point the blog could focus on 1992 alone.

      Delete
    2. Well at the rate he's playing them, the CRPG Addict will have played through them in about 3 years if he keeps alternating the games. By that time he'll still be playing 1992 games for quite a while since there are 65 of them on the list and they generally take longer than the games in the 87-90 timeframe. If he would finish the old ones first he'll finish them probably in a bit less than 2 years, but apart from a Dragonlance game they are seriously lacking in highlights and could become too boring for the Addict to push onwards.

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    3. The 1992 games are too boring or the 1987-90 games? I would imagine the "cleanup" games don't have many highlights.

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    4. I'll make the decision when I actually get to the end of 1991. If I'm deep into 1988 by then, perhaps I'll just finish 88/89. Otherwise, I'll progress as I have.

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    5. Dungy, those would be good bookends. I haven't really looked at the 1992 titles yet.

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    6. I'd like to see the Ultimas somewhere about a third and 2/3rds as heavy hitters that will get people excited when they appear on your "Upcoming" list (although '92 has a number of heavy hitters). Didn't you have a plan to play MM4/5 on the crossover of 1992 to 1993 to solve the "Worlds of Xeen" issue?

      Also I think you'll reject a whole heap of the games that you have listed for 1988, '89 might take a bit longer though. You also still have Deathlord...

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    7. Slight issue with that is that Underworld came out before, and takes place before 7. So, it would be better to reverse the order.

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    8. If the year starts and ends with Ultima, Amberstar has to be somewhere in the middle and not too close to Ultima ;)
      I like the parallel cleanup and would prefer it to be continued, 88/89 are deep in the dark ages and not every game really gets me.

      Delete
    9. One big name still on the list for 1991 is Eye of the Beholder 2... looking forward to that one, and how it will rank against the first.

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  18. The explanation of "smallest seller" admission due to fans not updating to the then latest hardware is an understatement considering the realities at the time: early multimedia computers were such a great leap forward that they were too expensive, especially since it was the first year of the early 90s recession. Moore's Law only applies to individual chips, not the amount of chips due to added capabilities with peripherals and add in circuit boards.

    An issue we can only point out in retrospect was that there wasn't a stepping stone standard between EGA and VGA, PC speaker sound and the Sound Blaster (it won the 'standards war' right at the start in 1990 and wiped out AdLib's then barely establish lead overnight), diskettes only vs. a CD-ROM drive, etc. and each of these costed a lot, in addition to 386+ 32 bit systems and related base hardware (RAM/HD/etc.).

    In the early 90s, you either had an obsolete computer that ran drastically less and less new software, or you had an expensive super system that became obsolete after 18 months, with nothing in between because the software relentlessly required new capabilities to be usable. My friends and I had to spend more years with 'obsolete' computers than one that could run any games being sold in stores, and we added multimedia peripherals over time. I was even fearing by 1993 that video games would wipe out computer gaming, but then 3D games (DOOM, etc.) and modem-based multi-player saved the day, sort of.

    All this to say it explains the 'style over substance' and drop in variety and true innovation in computer games that started in those years, and in large part why the RPG Golden Age ended.

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    Replies
    1. Origin update syndrome....(damn you Ultima and Wing Commander!)

      -Chris

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  19. It's funny, I often wondered why there weren't more NPCs milling around towns in older M&M games, then I remembered how easy it was for some random monster to come rampaging through towns killing everyone in M&M6 and 7 (usually because I kited it over, but that's neither here nor there). There was also that high level spell that hit everyone on the current map for a lot of damage. I think the version of this franchise where everyone stays indoors makes more sense, in retrospect.

    At any rate, I'm rooting for you to hit your 1991 deadline. Looks like an eclectic bunch left to go: eroge RPGs and shareware RPGs and German RPGs and C64 RPGs and at least one RPG which I'm still not sure even counts as an RPG.

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    1. "I think the version of this franchise where everyone stays indoors makes more sense, in retrospect." I agree, but there isn't really a sense of a hiding, indoor population either. The Bard's Tale, at least, had all kinds of random houses. Most were populated with monsters, of course, but it was a step forward.

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  20. The strength of the M&M series is that it is so "gamey." It's proud of the fact that it's a videogame and not a "we create worlds" attempt like the Ultima series.

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    1. YMMV right? I find it disconcerting to be wrenched from apparent seriousness to goofiness and back again.

      Delete
    2. Goofiness = gaminess. It doesn't take itself seriously, and neither should you. I'm surprised one of the enemies is not "the Knights that say Ni".

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    3. I think there are two kinds of goofiness.

      1) Silly/comical flavour: This includes caricatured NPCs, nonsensical monsters and cartoonish representations.

      2) Gamified mechanics: When 'unreal' strategies are incorporated into the game. eg The fountain buffs, portalling out of combat, things like the door closing and combat waltz of DM.

      These things aren't bad in and of themselves, but they do make it harder to create tension within the game's world, because it feels like less a representation of a world and more like a sequence of arbitrary puzzles and combats.

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  21. You most definitely could have completed MM3 in less time; I finished it in under 10 hours, with the playthrough shown on video on my You Tube channel. Granted, I didn't do a few things, and didn't bother to grind at all, as there's no point. I also essentially have the game memorized, and just had to note stat boosts again.

    I think the increasing "realism" without actually being realistic is what eventually killed this genre. While games like Dungeon Master or Grimrock get by by being focused on relatively small dungeons, the larger ones like Might and Magic and Wizardry are jarring in their emptiness. Especially Isles of Terra and World of Xeen, which display enemies so readily.

    Really, few games have ever came close to perfection, and only the Ultima series, from 4 on to 7, managed to really create the feel of a living, breathing world. None of the dungeon crawlers, as much as I love that style of play, even came close.

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  22. I remember my excitement for Diamond City in F4 and the subsequent disappointment at it's size. Still nothing on how absurdly small Mass Effect's Citadel Station was on the inside. It's a reverse Tardis.

    The new Torment had a satisfyingly populated city - but I think this is usually only feasible when the location is a significant fraction of the game's total content.

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    Replies
    1. The record breaker in that respect may be Wing Commander: Privateer. Each and every planet in the game is a small menu town... :-)

      Still a relatively good shooter/RPG hybrid.

      Delete
    2. To be fair, you were only walking around a few small areas inside it, and I'd argue that by focusing on those few they managed to make them feel much more alive due to the high NPC count.

      However, I think they had some major Star Trek syndrome, as aside from the Normandy in ME1, none of the area in the game felt like real places. They were too obviously created for a game.

      Delete
  23. I know the Uncanny Valley doesn't usually apply here, but I can't help think in an alternate universe, it would've been called the Cabbage Theory instead.

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  24. "Why, for instance, can I see all the monsters in each city but not the residents who presumably inhabit them?"

    Only reasonable answer would be that in reality they were the residents of those cities. And you went in and slaughtered them all without mercy.

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    Replies
    1. There's something to that, I think, when it come to Swamp Town specifically. The only residents mentioned by Corak's Notes are in fact enemies that you kill.

      Delete
  25. Those comments about graphical detail vs. content detail are really interesting. I know that virtually all of your blog entries relate to specific games, but I think it would be great if you devoted an entirely separate entry to discussing that issue in more detail. With the levels of graphical fidelity we see these days, it's become an exceedingly important issue for world-building.

    Interestingly, one of the graphics artists who worked on Skyrim once wrote about this issue from a different perspective, arguing that games like Skyrim employ what is basically an impressionist approach - a city in Skyrim is meant to convey the impression of a city, rather than actually be a city; the weather and special effects shaders are used to convey the impression that the mountain you'd reach by walking for five minutes, is actually miles and miles away, and so on. You may find that an interesting read: http://blog.shaneliesegang.com/2013/02/impressionist-gameplay/

    (BTW, apologies for never commenting on your final Martian Dreams entry - I wasn't in the least bothered by you "calling me out", and I found your thoughts very interesting and thought-provoking, and I wished I had time to explain my POV more clearly. It's just that it was a hectic time, when I was preparing to relocate my family halfway across the world, so I actually made a conscious decision to not read anything or post anything online for a few weeks; and afterwards, it just seemed pointless to comment on an entry that was something like a month old. Actually, even today, I mostly try to avoid online discussions, as the final stages of writing my PhD are a unique brand of excruciating torture)

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    1. Have you ever played Daggerfall? That game has a realistic size, a realistic number of towns and a realistic popualtion...but 99% of it is procedurally generated random boring-ness. That's why the devs stepped back from that and started making the smaller, hand crafted worlds of Morrowind, Skyrim and Oblivion.

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    2. Yes, I have, and Arena before that. The necessity (because it certainly is a necessity) of reductions is a really interesting aspect. It is indeed much harder to produce large quantities of content. Bethesda did make some very limited attempts to bring in more procedural generation in Oblivion, where the NPC conversations are procedurally generated out of various pre-recorded lines. It didn't work very well, in Skyrim they backed right away from it. The technology for any depth in procedural generation just isn't there yet.

      Indeed, the issue goes much further than cities. Remember how Arena and Daggerfall had seasons? By the time Morrowind came around, the amount of additional work to implement seasonal changes in the landscape was too high to justify. The fans made up for it by producing season mods, which worked pretty great. In Oblivion, as graphical complexity moved up some more, again there were no seasons, and again the fans made up for it - but the mods were not so great any more. By the time Skyrim came around, the detail and complexity of the landscape was so high, that not only did the developers leave seasons out, but the fans have (so far) not produced any convincing season mod.

      So yeah, the capacity for visual complexity is simply rising much faster than the capacity for content complexity.

      Delete
    3. Based on my limited time playing Skyrim (but also on me playing plenty of other games with similar problems) the impressionist explanation seems like a post-factum cop-out. "People are jarred by the fact that the biggest city in the province has only 20 residents, let marketing department figure out how to explain it."

      But it's probably not something that can be easily solved; after all, we still seem unable to find enough RAM to keep the freaking bodies of dead enemies on the ground in the five-minute long missions of AAA shooters. ;)

      Delete
    4. I don't think that's quite it :). I mean, this issue has been around since Morrowind. Nobody felt the need to come up with an explanation in 2002, so there was clearly no compulsion to explain it in 2011, and it would be taking "post-factum" to a very novel extreme :). And they're hardly unique with this, virtually all modern RPGs do it. I do think there is something to that impressionist idea, because indeed building a virtual world like this is more about conveying a feeling of reality than conveying reality itself.

      Delete
    5. I really liked the article, and I think this is an interesting discussion.

      The fact is, Bethesda could have doubled the size of the cities in all of the recent three ES games and they still would have seemed unrealistically small if you thought about it. So I don't think the "impressionistic" argument is an excuse; it seems to me a legitimate approach to game design.

      The only other way to go--which the author of Jakubs article discusses--is the Assassin's Creed method (used to some degree in the Bioware titles) by which you SEE a lot more buildings than you can actually enter, plus a lot of random NPCs who you cannot productively interact with. I prefer that approach for its realism value, but I also see its drawbacks. In Skyrim, you know that every building you see is explorable, every door openable, every NPC interactable. You see some awesome looking spire on a mountaintop and you know it's not just a matte painting; you can make your way there and figure out its secrets.

      Both approaches are legitimate, and gamers should understand the benefits they're getting from the "Impressionistic" approach rather than just saying "hurr durr, the capital only has 20 people."

      Delete
    6. I personally don't need simulated "decoration people" which make me search the important NPCs in a huge living city. I'm still playing a game with a story and not a fantasy midage simulation. If I wanted realism, I could go out and talk to real people. ;-)
      I also don't need every item to be simulated. Some red herrings are ok, but I don't see the point in the ability to pick up every single bucket in a game world (like in Albion for example).
      That's the same as adding food or water to a game without any balancing purpose, just for the sake of realism.

      Delete
    7. I played a game over the weekend that filled my inventory with random things like scraps of leather, bits of string, a broom, a mop, a book (that I can't read), etc. Now I could sell these to the store, but I don't know if any of them will become important to a random quest later on. The store doesn't hang on to the items, so if I do sell them, then I can't buy them back. In this case I tend to hang on to them, just in case. It might be more real to find items like this rather than bits of gold all over someone's room, but the gamer in me is reluctant to believe they're worth is only tied to their sell value, at least until I prove to myself they're no intricate crafting or barter system later on.

      Delete
    8. Yeah, it takes a while before you know what kind of a game you have in front of you. I remember the first time I played Morrowind picking up EVERYTHING in the census office because I thought it might be the solution to a puzzle later. It was a while before I realized that Bethesda games just scatter miscellaneous items everywhere.

      Delete
    9. On this discussion, I honestly find that the Witcher 3 villages/towns/cities sizes are incredibly realistic. Combined with the fact that the 3D world is continuous (you never "enter" a separate zone when you go into a house or dungeon, they have exact same proportions from the inside and the outside) it makes the physical world troublingly real. So it means it can be done. Is it "better"? Not necessarily so. I never had any problem with empty cities in old games or smaller than realistic cities in recent TES titles.

      I like to think of games as a system, and I like formalism. This is why I love "blobbers" so much because the square grid sets clear rules that both you and the game play around. Strict frameworks stimulate creativity and design.

      But to make things realistic, the Witcher 3 way, you need to fill your game world with tons and tons of useless things - useless items, useless houses, useless bridges, useless NPCs, useless dialogue, useless forests, useless mountains. To me it generates a LOT of noise that is needed in a certain amount to establish lore and ambience but can become overwhelming and unbalance the "gaming" experience.

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    10. What Georges that, exactly. Nicely put.

      Delete
  26. It always strikes me as weird that graphics are such a point of emphasis in modern RPGs because in the old days it was pretty well understood that you could either have great graphics and less content, or simple graphics and a lot more complexity. The industry has obviously gone with the former approach almost exclusively.

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    Replies
    1. The amount of depth in a typical triple-A title dwarfs that of any game we've seen so far. There's so much more world building that goes on these days, and an attention to detail that is basically unreachable without a budget of millions. The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 would have ten times the text of just about any game Chet's played for the blog.

      Delete
    2. Right. Now imagine how much more complex modern games could be if they eased off the graphical detail a bit and provided for more complexity of interaction in the game's world, more tactical depth, a wider variety of character interactions, etc.?

      Delete
    3. I imagined that, and the result looks a lot like Mount & Blade. =)

      Delete
    4. Actually, Mount & Blade is dismally limited in complexity. Come on, it's got fantastic combat and some brilliant strategic management gameplay - what else? You can't interact with the landscape at all. Named NPCs have no personality and very limited capacity for real dialogue, while most NPCs have no names and basically can offer you even less than the procedurally generated NPCs of The Elder Scrolls: Arena did back in 1994. There is no sense of depth to the world. Really, I love Mount & Blade, but let's not pretend that it's an all-across-the-board great RPG.

      In regards to the broader graphics vs. gameplay issue, though, I think I'll take a stand and say that graphical quality is not something to just lightheartedly sacrifice in favour of having more content or more complex content. There is a reason why we've been pursuing graphical quality in games for five decades. Visual immersion is a huge, huge aspect of computer RPGs. And it's really interesting, that if you look at the graph Ches included in the blog post above, he's clearly of the opinion (and I agree) that content detail has also increased significantly over time - it's just that visual detail has been making faster progress.

      Delete
  27. A small note. M&M3 can be run in EGA mode, it can be selected in the game's setup. Not very pretty, compared to VGA mode, but playable. Not sure about PC Speaker sound, but it should be available, I think. So, NWC made an option for users who hadn't upgraded, but the users just didn't use it much, apparently. A problem with marketing the game, maybe?

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  28. Guys, I must be not hardcore enough, because I love this game for being fun, in the sense of introducing new stuff that is interesting though the combat does not change too much. It is one of those where you learn the mechanics but don't get tired before you finish it.

    Unlike Skyrim, for example.

    Love these 10-15 hour games, really.

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    Replies
    1. That's fine. My experience wasn't so different from what you're saying. I don't know what the "not hardcore enough" part was about.

      Delete
    2. In the sense that you looked for much more complexity. And I think that the lack of complexity is precisely what makes the game fluid (and again, it's miles away from what modern mainstream RPGs offer)

      Delete
    3. I don't think I looked for more complexity so much as better balance. I emphasize again that the rating I gave this game was relatively high for my scale, and consistent with a simple and fun romp that doesn't take itself too seriously.

      Delete
  29. You can't run out of enemies to fight, there are always opportunities to gain experience and resources, some examples:

    One location is the Arachnoid cavern, where it's noted that you can hit the gongs to lure out more beetles and spiders to fight for gold, gems and XP.
    There is also an world map location where sprites keep respawning even if you destroyed all lairs (and also one for spiders).
    The arena is a limitless source of XP, monsters get harder after each win until you have more than 10,000,000 combat XP to share at each visit.

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  30. I finished it second time yesterday. M&M3 is perfect dungeon, probably the best in M&M series for me. I finished 1, 3, 4, 5 (+WoX), 6, 8, 10. My score in M&M III is 1347909802.

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  31. I find it interesting that Dwarf Fortress hasn't come up yet. It is the last survivor of an era of Roguelike design when everyone thought simulating everything was the next big wave. The creator started with a normal game (I don't know if Aventure Mode or Fortress Mode came first.) Anyway, for the Roguelike mode he is working on a system where artifacts will be created, civilizations will fight over them, and various characters who learn of them will want them for various reasons. So, as I understand it, he is trying to create a system where a realistic populated world exists, but isn't flat and boring like games in the past. He has been working on it for a long time, and I don't know how well it works so far, but it seems interesting that someone is trying it at least.

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    1. That sounds like Ultima Ratio Regum, but that's not by the guy who made Dwarf Fortress. So there are more "simulate all the things" games or games-in-planning out there, but there probably aren't many. Just starting to make a game like that would be a serious undertaking.

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