|Imagine a strategy game set in a Tolkeinesque fantasy world and
populated with the usual suspects--elves, dwarves, wizards, undead, elementals. Imagine
that in this game you can choose to belong to one of several different factions, each with
its own unique units and strengths. Imagine you spend a good deal of your time in this
game exploring a vast land in search of resources and treasure while encountering (and
sometimes fighting) opposing players. You're probably imagining Heroes of Might and
Magic II, a classic and deservedly revered game. At least that's what I imagined when
I opened up Impressions' latest, Lords of Magic. Hooboy, I thought, HOMM
with real-time combat and stylish-to-say-the-least graphics. I threw the disc in the
machine and away I went and three turns later I was one dead dwarf. Bad luck, I thought,
and tried again. Same results. Tried again. Same. After several more such failures (and
frankly after much frustration and wall-scorching language) I came to the belated
conclusion that this game was not what I thought it was, and that maybe I needed to change
my thinking. Slowly, ever so slowly, I came to accept the game on the game's terms, to
learn its idiom. And after I stopped trying to play the game like HOMM, I mostly
enjoyed it. Unfortunately, there are a few troublesome flaws and questionable design
decisions that temper my otherwise enthusiastic view of the game.
Lords of Magic is nothing if not ambitious--it attempts, mostly successfully, to combine strategic resource management with role-playing and a real-time combat system. You begin the game as an adventurer in the vast world of Urak, aided by only a small entourage of troops. You can choose to adhere to one of eight faiths, and to be one of three character classes--mage, warrior, of thief--each with special strengths and weaknesses. That's 24 possible character types, and they are distinctive--choose to be a Chaos Warrior and you'll ride a tiger and command powerful but poorly-armored berserkers and lousy missile troops. Choose to be a Life Mage and you'll be able to cast healing spells on your troops, made up of very dangerous archers and very bad close combat troops. Your first mission is to find and recapture your faith's temple, which has been corrupted by the forces of Death, led by the evil dark elf Balkoth. After accomplishing this task, the real fun begins as you scour the landscape for the resources that will allow you to build up an army, free other faith's temples and ally with them, and eventually defeat Balkoth. This is where most HOMM veterans will begin to notice a real difference in this game--in Lords of Magic, resources are very tough to come by. Wandering into a cave in search of easy gold, especially early in the game, will get you stonked pronto. Lords of Magic demands patience. There are no unguarded troves of treasure lying around in the land of Urak--only tenaciously defended and often disappointingly small caches. It takes a while to assemble an army, it takes a while to garner enough experience to make it viable, it takes a while to build up mages and upgrade your barracks and even to move across the map. There is plenty of depth to all this resource management, and many rewards to doing it well, but if you're the kind who thinks that Red Alert would be OK except for that boring building stuff part, you probably won't take to this game.
That's not to say that the game is all resource management--combat takes place in real-time, and it is fast andfurious. In fact, the manual suggests that you slow down the speed during combat, and that's not a bad idea. Like everything else in this game, it takes a while to get the hang of the real-time combat, and if you use the game's autocalculate battle feature early on you'll find it does much better than you. But if you hang in there, you'll discover that the combat system is actually quite deep and tactically challenging--much better than the mob rush tactics of Lords of the Realm II--and eventually you'll be outgeneraling the computer. Diplomacy also plays a large part in the game. You'll need allies to beat Balkoth, so you just can't go around being surly to everyone. The other faiths are predisposed to like or loath you, but you can do a lot to change their minds about that. Mostly diplomacy consists of trading or giving gifts, (though threatening and pleading are options) but the computer opponent drives a very hard bargain. The most effective way to gain allies is by freeing enemy temples, something best done early in the game. The game's interface is quite nice--especially since the latest patch (1.03) came out, most information on your units is only a click away, and combat commands are intuitive and easily negotiated. Sound is good, and the game's graphics are excellent. The terrain is brilliantly rendered, and while units traversing the countryside sometimes look a little cartoonish, on the combat screen they look quite nice. Magic effects in combat can be just awesome. In fact, the whole game looks awfully good, with an eye candy factor just a notch below Age of Empires.
But the game does have some problems--unfortunately, some major ones. Most seriously, the game is simply unplayable without patch 1.02; it will crash, it won't load, load times between screens are interminable, units and buildings will mysteriously disappear, killing the wrong person will end the game--it's as if someone tried to construct a computer model of Murphy's Law. Even after 1.02, some glitches remained--I remember moving a high-level mage behind a building on the overland map, only to find that I couldn't click on him afterward. He spent the rest of the game hiding behind the building, presumably smoking, while I unsuccessfully tried to overcome a serious magic deficit. There are also problems with the tactical maps. For example, the visual cues indicating what is impassable and what is not are just plain wonky--this is the only game I've ever played where a gently rolling bit of pasture is impassable to horses. The AI is erratic at best--especially in combat, pathfinding is problematic. And enemy armies will chase brownies all over the world while you ravage their towns with unicorns and Warrior Lords--in fact, I made this a large part of my battle plan--the "brownie strategy," I call it. OK, I'm not proud of it, but I did it. Finally, a few game design decisions should probably have been reconsidered. For instance, one of the most annoying, unfun things about the game is that you must have a champion in a building in order to manage it. Champions are pricey, and you really want them in the field. Given that you have four or five buildings to manage in most strongholds, this makes for either five very expensive bureaucrats or a lot of painful shuttling between buildings during your turn. Bad call, guys. Sierra has been very diligent in addressing most of these problems, which is to their credit, but still . . .
All of these problems keep me from giving Lords of Magic an unqualified recommendation. Frankly, I like the game a lot, and with a bit of scrubbing it has the potential to be a classic. It's deep, complex, and absolutely unforgiving, and is to Heroes of Might and Magic as chess is to checkers. And as in chess, you can easily blow thirty turns of scrupulous planning with one ill-conceived move. Even though the game's manual is adequate, you'll find yourself learning something new (often through painful experience) on virtually every turn of the game. LoM has a steep learning curve, but if you stay with it the game's depth is addictive. The second-best LoM tip I can give you is: save often. Unfortunately, the first-best LoM tip I can give you is: get the patch(es).