It's like a Warcraft and Ultima fruit-roll-up!
"For a thousand years, peace reigned on the pastoral lands of Urak. Then forces of darkness, led by the the [sic] (someone didn't bother proof-reading the manual) evil sorcerer Balkoth, unleashed a nightmare of war and terrorism that destroyed the people and laid waste to the land. Now the cities are defenseless. The people are starving. The Great Temples of the land, once the centers of beauty and learning, lie crumbling, overrun by worshippers of Balkoth. The people pray for a leader who can defeat Balkoth. The people pray for a leader who can defeat Balkoth and end this nightmare." If I had a nickel for every time I've heard this story...
Lords of Magic, by Sierra and Impressions, is best described as the offspring of the mating real-time and turn-based, strategy games. As one can infer from the story, the game takes place in a fantasy world filled with mythical monsters, thieves, magic, and warriors. You play the role of the leader of one of eight warring races: Earth, Fire, Water, Air, Life, Death, Order, and Chaos. It is your duty to build an empire and to eventually overthrow the sorcerer Balkoth, who commands the Death race. This is no easy task, because seven other races are also vying for power.
The game is played from a three-quarters, overhead perspective, which can be zoomed in and out. During combat sequences, the game switches from a turn-based system to real-time combat, like Warcraft or Command and Conquer. For those who can't deal with the stress of real-time, you have the option of pausing battles and making commands while the action is stopped. Or even better, you can have the computer calculate the outcomes of the battles for you.
Don't expect to pop this baby into your CD-ROM and wing it, like one can do in most war/strategy games. Lords of Magic is complex, and attempting to play without reading the 100 pages of instructions will result in a big headache. Fortunately there are three short tutorials that speed up the learning process. After a few trial runs, the rest of the game is easy to pick up.
What makes Lords of Magic interesting is the way that you build up your army. Your units (up to 80 different kinds available) can gain experience and go up levels, so it seems a bit like a role-playing game. It's certainly not like most other games, where you have a machine that pumps out hordes of mindless minions that you march off to be slaughtered (you can do that too if you want). In Lords of Magic, however, after a while you actually care if certain units die or not.
Trying to describe all the stuff you can do in this game would make this review far too long and boring, so I'll just give you the main points. You basically have three types of units: mages, warriors, and thieves. Much of your time is spent making these three groups stronger, whether it be by researching magic spells or by having one of your leaders train the others. You also wander around and reclaim locations that are controlled by other races. You gain fame, fortune, and experience from winning battles, and this in turn allows you to build a stronger empire. Eventually you get so big and famous that people come and join you, you have statues of yourself erected, you get a big stronghold, you make and break alliances, and you fight Balkoth. Some other things involved are spying, torture, politics, parleying, and searching for special artifacts.
Lords of Magic is especially strong in the depth department. There is so much to do that you can approach the game many ways. You can be a peacemaker, warmonger, backstabber, or whatever you like to be called. There is room for tons of strategy. Since there are eight different races and varying difficulty levels, you could play this game forever. You can also design your own maps with the nice map editor or you can play multi-player games via modem or network (up to five people). This game pretty much covers all bases for the strategy fanatic. The real-time combat offers another area of strategy to develop. Your troops have numerous commands to follow, such as rallying, going berserk, aiming attacks, defending others, flanking, parrying, making all-out attacks. Pretty much everything seen in Warcraft or Command and Conquer takes place in the combat scenes of Lords of Magic.
Of course I can't end a review without dishing out some criticism. One thing that bothered me about the game was the graphical quality in some parts. The map is awesome and the units are nicely done, but the video and some still shots look kind of cheesy. It isn't really a big deal, but I've seen a lot better art elsewhere. I was also dismayed at the huge system requirements for the game. You need a decently quick computer, 100mhz at least, but I wouldn't play it on anything less than a 166mhz. Since there are eight races playing at the same time, you have to wait for all the calculations, and this can take forever. The worst part is that the game sucks up 360 megs of hard drive space. You can get by with only a 100 megs or so, but that would make the game even slower. There are also awfully long load times to load the game, load a saved game, to enter combat, and to exit combat.
Another complaint is that the eight races are inherently the same. They have small differences, but it's like Warcraft in the way that the units of different races look different, but they do the same thing. So in the end, the 80 units aren't entirely unique. A little more variety would have helped.
Overall, Lords of Magic is very well done. It takes the good qualities from different types of games and combines them nicely. This isn't the end-all-be-all of strategy games, but it is very good. Hopefully you'll have a fast enough computer to play it. Lords of Magic gets a B+.