By far the best known company to follow in Arena's wake is New World Computing, which adopted Bethesda's model starting with Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998).
No doubt, Might and Magic fans were glad to see a new installment after some five years of waiting, and the game's coherent storyline and slightly more structured gameplay offered a viable alternative to Daggerfall. The box and manual sport beautiful artwork by the famed fantasy artist Larry Elmore, whose work graces many an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product. Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, however, the player controls four characters instead of one (with the option to add two non-player characters later), and combat can be played in either turn-based or real-time modes.
Mandate of Heaven also gave players considerable leeway in how they developed their characters; after an initial choice of class, players decide how to expend "skill points." Skills are divided into four basic areas: Weapon, Armor, Magic, and Miscellaneous. This last category includes some über-skills like learning, which affects all the other skills by boosting the experiences points awarded after a battle. All in all, it's an intuitive and highly customizable way to handle the "leveling" issue.
I should add that the Might and Magic series also adopted the age-old convention of requiring players to first win enough battles to qualify for training, and then come up with enough cash to hire a trainer (many games simply "give" characters a level when they gain enough experience). Since cash is relatively hard for new parties to come by, players have to make strategic decisions about how to spend it--does it make more sense to buy a new weapon, magic scroll, or level up a character?
Although the combat system isn't perfect--all four characters are always on the front line and susceptible to frontal assaults--the game nevertheless won high praise from critics, and for good reason. Who can forget the first time their wizard cast a "fly" spell, sending the party soaring high above Enroth?
"It doesn’t matter what you call these instruments: crystal ball, computer, the Scry of Silicon; the Ordered Runes of Binaria, a keyboard, the Abacus of Turing. A rat, a mouse, the Rodent of Parc. They are Artifacts of Trans-Dimensional Manipulation and, with knowledge, you can command them to do your bidding.”
– From the Mandate of Heaven manual.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Might and Magic VI was
blissfully free of bugs. At a time when almost every other major CRPG
was so riddled with errors that manuals advised players to routinely
save the game every thirty minutes, such stability is nothing short of
remarkable. Unfortunately, New World's quality assurance team soon
lowered their standards to match the competition.
New World's next entry in the series, For Blood and Honor, is often hailed as the last good Might and Magic CRPG, even though it offers few innovations over its predecessor. Only a year had passed since the previous game, but the graphics engine was already looking dated. Moreover, the voice acting is more ingratiating than enduring, particularly after hearing the same few digitized samples for the ten-thousandth time. However, the sound is redeemed by an excellent operatic score by Paul Romero, produced by Robert King. The game also offers more races to choose from and a few other nice features, such as two possible endings.
After For Blood and Honor, the series entered a steep downward spiral. The next game, Day of the Destroyer, was released in 2000, and New World again decided to rehash the Might and Magic VI engine. The result of that decision was a game hopelessly behind the times graphically, but that wasn't the only problem. At least for old fans of the series, there was little thrill in starting over once again with a new set of characters and taking them through the motions once again.
Although the earlier games had certainly had their share of dull moments, Day of the Destroyer is almost painfully repetitive. Even the surprising decision to allow the player to create only one character (the rest of the party must be recruited later) does little to affect the monotony, since the additional characters are almost entirely devoid of personality and impact on the story.
The ability to add a dragon to the party might have been a nice feature, but doing so ruins the game's balance, reducing it to an unbearably dull walk through. As if these problems weren't enough to doom the game, other features like a three-tiered teacher system (expert, master, and grand-master) made long-suffering virtues out of note-taking and tedious back-tracking. Needless to say, very few fans were pleased with the game. Sadder still is the unforgivably buggy code, of which random crashes are some of the least irksome.
"It's a safe bet that nobody will ever wax nostalgic about Might and Magic IX."
- Brett Todd in GameSpot, April 12, 2002.
Day of the Destroyer may have destroyed most fans' faith in New World, but the company must have figured the horse was still worth one more beating. Perhaps it's a testament to the 9th game's overall lack of ambition that it lacks a proper name; it's simply Might and Magic IX.
The box promised "stunning" 3D graphics, and they were--indeed, who could believe that the company would release a game in 2002 with graphics that looked little better than Mandate of Heaven's, published four years previously. The game world also feels cramped compared to its predecessors. Applying the term "artificial intelligence" to the game's non-player characters results in an oxymoron.
Finally, there are more show-stopping bugs in the code than there are blocky polygons in the game. Suffice it to say, Might and Magic IX is just as tragic a way for a grand old CRPG series to end as Ultima IX: Ascension.
One fascinating aspect of the Platinum Age is how many companies managed to reach both their apex and their nadir within such a short span of years, but for different reasons.
From my vantage point, Origin's Ultima series ultimately faltered because Garriott and his development team kept attempting radical revisions to the game engine. During each transformation, more and more fans felt betrayed, until at last they could no longer acknowledge a game like Ascension as part of their beloved series.
New World Computing, on the other hand, were a bit too comfortable with their engine and gameplay mechanics and kept recycling them, much like Sir-Tech had done nearly a decade previously with its first three Wizardry titles. Eventually, even dedicated fans of Might and Magic grew bored with the repetition, and new gamers weren't likely to be won over with graphics that looked over five years old at release.
Thus, we might sum up this part of the story as a "Tale of Two Developers," noting how the first was defeated by ambition, the second by its lack. Only Bethesda seems to have found the right balance of innovation and repetition required to keep a series going strong over a period of many years, though only time will tale if The Elder Scrolls survives as long as Ultima and Might and Magic.