By ahoodedfigure 3 Comments
World of Xeen is actually a combination of Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen and Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen. Both games take place on the same world, but one is on what seems to be the sunward side, while the other is the eponymous dark side. I'm not sure if there are connecting quests that link the two up, but supposedly there's some sort of bonus for combining them. Since the games were originally continuous, Darkside has a lot of the harder stuff, making world exploration much more treacherous (damned desert vultures), while Clouds is a bit more newbie friendly, at least to a point (damned Sky Golems).
What I really like about this game (and this is something coming from someone who's played through Baldur's Gate, Kotor II, Fallout, and a few other new generation titles) is that it encourages experimentation and exploration. I like that if I just randomly strike out over the mountains, I'm likely to run into something. Maybe it's just a fountain that'll give everyone a few hundred bonus hit points until they sleep, or maybe a fort of ogres that needs burning. I'm actually slogging through the wilderness, not clicking from one set piece to another. Which brings me to the point, I guess. Exploration has rewards, even if you don't find anything. I enjoy filling out an automap with terrain tiles, showing I've visited all the places. I can check that place off and stop spending my time there, and that has some feeling of accomplishment by itself. There are goals you make for yourself, in a sense, and enough wiggle room for you to fill in the details a bit where they might be sparse, but enough stuff to find that it feels more full than most of the stuff now.
Another nice touch is the monsters, and how things that you think will fit a certain mold wind up subverting the stereotype, something I think Blizzard does really well with its continuing stories in its Warcraft franchises. I think the best example of this was when I had an audience with the king of the giants. Menace and civility simultaneously :)
I have to say my favorite part of Baldur's Gate was just wandering around in the wilderness areas, finding all the little quest areas and hidden caches. I think I liked it more than worrying about rotting iron ore. Games like Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion (the latter I've never played) seem to be aiming for this crowd, but as often as I'm thrilled in Morrowind to run into a strange temple, I'm more often disappointed by the sameness of the temple's innards. Xeen doesn't bother with stuff that the designers didn't make themselves. To me this is the right balance between designer content and user discovery that I don't think many other CRPGs in my experience reached. Also, the humor and the fun puzzles help me feel like this is a conversation with the designer and the user, and not a content dump.
CRPGs are labor intensive to make, and I take each of them in the way the designers meant them to be taken, so while I don't think some of my examples above fit ME so well, I realize there are others who like them. I must say I had a bit of a perverse pleasure stomping through Daggerfall's pandemonium of procedurally generated dungeons: just when you think you have one more corridor to map out, it opens up into a huge cavern. Exhausting and intimidating, but really insanely fun in small doses. The mood of Morrowind worked nicely for me; I liked the sandstorms, and the way people regarded you as you walked past. It was rather immersive, which helped me to overlook the very small dungeons, at least for a time. Fallout's story was really fun to unravel, I liked how much an affect your character had, the actual RPG system, and the exploration was at my speed (at least when I forgot about the water problem). I can't say much about Kotor II; it was disappointing when I started to realize they had run out of stuff for the player to do before they had run out of game to play.
What Might and Magic does for me is that it encapsulates the sense of adventure and discovery in just the right doses, enough for a short run to find an emerald staff handle or a long haul through one of those creepy towers with the menacing music. I have a big barrel of criticisms (don't drink it, it's poison!) which point directly at its old-schoolness, but right now this is a little love song to Xeen, and a thank you to Jon Van Caneghem and the folks of New World Computing for their daring to do something different with fantasy RPGs. Now all I have to do is break out Wizardry 8 and see if I can get it to work... That is, after I dethrone the tyrants of Xeen.