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The Backseat Game Designer: Wizards and Warriors

This is the addendum to my Wizards and Warriors Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Wizards and Warriors yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Wizards & Warriors

These Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game better. Hey, who knows, maybe D.W. Bradley'll be googling around for his title, read this page, and be inspired to write another old-schooler without all the interface flaws that were better left in the early 90's. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Wizards and Warriors that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Wizards and Warriors is an odd entry in the annals of computer RPG's. It was written by the same game designer who did several of the games in the Wizardry series, and succeeds at achieving the same old-school feel those classic CRPG's did. Which is always a plus in my book, but there's something pretentious about it in this case, because the game was written in the year 2000. The same year as the immersive Baldur's Gate 2. One year before the release of the elegant Wizardry 8. So why was this generically titled knockoff trying so hard to recreate the kitsch and interface annoyances of five years ago? Did its author mistakenly think that was the part we were nostalgic about? Was he trying to fool people into thinking that this was an older title they had somehow missed? Was it an older title, and it just took him five years to put it out? Why is the damn thing written for Windows 95? Why does it take 20 minutes to install? Is it written in BASIC?

All these bafflements aside, Wizards and Warriors does indeed succeed at being a very good 1995-era CRPG. Character creation and leveling is great fun, and some of the side quests really catch your attention. The graphics are quite good, and though the NPCs are uniformly bad, the gameworld itself is fairly interactive. If you move a crate, for example, it stays where you put it, and no matter where that happens to be, you can climb on top of it and get a different vantage point on the room you're in. If a vampire bites one of your characters, he'll contract vampirism, and his abilities will change.

Unfortunately, Wizards and Warriors also faithfully reproduces all the most annoying failings of the CRPG's of a decade ago: unwieldy combats, an inflexible plot, an irritating interface, and a plethora of time-wasting mundanities like repeatedly repairing worn boots. The main plot is one big boring cliche, the dialogue is hideously cheesy, and it can be a real pain in the ass getting the game to work right on Windows 2000 or XP. All of these are failings that I'm willing to suffer through for the joy of playing a well-crafted old-school classic, of which this is one.

But it was written in the year 2000. It didn't have to put me through all that aggravation, dammit. Wizards and Warriors is a very good game, but it reminded me throughout of a nine-year-old trying to draw a visiting adult's attention away from his four-year-old sister by acting like a four-year-old. And it may be cute to hear a four-year-old lisp the ABC song and keep losing her place in it and starting over from the beginning, but it's decidedly NOT cute when a third-grader does it. Wizards and Warriors, too, is deliberately pretending to be five years younger than it really is, presumably to avoid competing with contemporaries like Baldur's Gate 2 and instead be compared favorably to Wizardry 7. And OK, it's a better game than Wizardry 7... but Wizardry 7 didn't know better, and Wizards and Warriors did. It's still a fun playthrough, but I never forgave it for that.

Wizards and Warriors Game Advances

Wizards and Warriors is a game that was aggressively trying NOT to have any game advances (beyond the upgrade to modern graphics.) Accordingly, almost all of its good points are ones that are already well-known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the CRPG genre. Nonetheless, Wizards and Warriors did get a few things right that some modern games have given up on, namely:

1) Player characters who all look different from one another, including female characters, non-Caucasian characters, and characters with different hair colors. This idea was in play as far back as Might and Magic IV and the old Gold Box D&D games, but perplexingly enough, you still run into CRPG's where your choice of characters is sorely limited (I played one recently where every single female PC and NPC in the entire game looked exactly identical except for their clothing.)

2) A manipulable environment. Like the later Ultima and Might and Magic games, Wizards and Warriors lets you interact spatially with the world around you, moving treasure chests that stay moved and dropping trails of arrows that stay dropped. In fact, because the 3D environment is so capably rendered, this maneuverability actually improves gameplay--it's possible to stack crates to reach a new position, or to jam a sliding door open with a piece of furniture and crawl under it. This enhances the gaming experience significantly.

Wizards and Warriors Plot Holes

There's just one, but it's a doozy. Why the %@!*&! did Kol the Heretic get a vision from the statue of Kerah telling him he was the Chosen One, and why did the gypsy fortuneteller tell H'Thark he was destined to get the Masque of Death, when these were the destinies already assigned to the PC's? For quite a while I thought there was going to be some kind of nifty plot twist, like Kerah was secretly evil and manipulating us for her own ends, or that the PC party were not actually the Chosen Ones and were inadvertantly interfering with the prophecy. I was a little disappointed to reach the end and find that no, the plot was a completely straight cliche that just happened to have a big hole in it.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Wizards and Warriors a 6 out of 10 (rating: good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, a less aggravating interface, for starters. Wizardry Gold, updated in 1996, had a better interface than this. Granted that W&W was trying something more ambitious with the 3D environment, but except for the annoying AI problem where your characters wander around in little circles trying to pick up an object that's right in front of their faces, none of the problems have to do with the 3D environment. They're all in the minutiae. Yes, there was a total lack of automatization and shortcuts in the CRPGs of the late 80's, but that is not the part we are nostalgic about. We liked Ultima's plot and gameworld, not the chore of moving each character one-at-a-time across the battlefield whenever some uselessly weak monster bothered us. We liked Might and Magic's dungeons and character advancement, not the tedium of having to unequip all our inventory items to repair them every time they broke. Wizards and Warriors would have been SO much better if it had focused on the stuff we actually ENJOYED about old-school games, and given us a smooth modern interface to navigate it with. One where your inventory screen had, for example, a button to automatically attempt to identify everything in your pack, instead of having to right-click and select a small button on each individual item. One where you could switch between party members within a guild, rather than having to exit the guild, switch highlighted characters, and re-enter. One where the highest-level armorer automatically did the repairing on every worn-out item you clicked, rather than having to unequip it and phsyically trade it to him and repair it and trade it back and equip it again. One where you could click through an NPC's speech instead of having to sit there with your teeth gritted watching every last phrase slowly scroll off the screen. That kind of interface. Just look at what Wizardry 8 put out one year later.

Then there's gameplay issues. I've said this before, but any time a game gives an increased functionality in gameplay as a reward for gaining levels, there's a problem there. If you already know that having to waste 20 minutes trudging from dungeon to town and back to sell loot is going to bore your players enough that they'll be thrilled to get a teleportation spell, then DON'T make it a 7th-level spell, withhold it till the game is half over, and make it so that it never works in even the safe squares of dungeons! Combat, too, has come a long way since the days of Wizardry V. Gangs of wandering monsters far below the party in level should not be bothering them every five minutes. They break up the action, they waste the player's time, and they offer neither risk nor reward. Games with fewer wandering monsters closer to the party's ability level are much more exciting. More than half the fights in Wizards and Warriors were with monsters even my weakest characters could kill in one blow, yet I still had to waste my own time trying to focus the fidgety cursor on them in realtime. There is nothing fun about that.

But the biggest regard in which Wizards and Warriors fell short was its lack of, well, ambition. Except for the graphics (which looked very nice,) this was a game that was content to rehash cliches of games past, smile at its own nostalgia, and quit. The game rarely soared. The main plot was a monotonous, heavy-handed, "you are the Chosen One so go forth and save the world from EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEvil" affair. The Ultima games gave you stirring plots about revolution and divinity. The Wizardry games gave you factions of alien races to side with and alternate endings. This game gives you--a linear string of narrators instructing you about the next stage in your Destiny to destroy the EEEEEEEEEEvil One. And yeah, sure, there are side quests, but they're almost all Fed Ex deliveries, and there are never any consequences to any of them (Torin the samurai, for example, still stands there staring at the dragon's den and swearing revenge even after you've brought proof that it wasn't the dragon who slew his father. Why bother, really?)

Wizards and Warriors would have been a better game with a smoother interface. It would have been a better game if the gameplay had a higher fun-to-tedium ratio. But for it to truly be a great game, it would have needed more substance--that satisfying feeling that you discovered something you'd really wanted to know or resolved a problem for someone you'd really wanted to help. Interactiveness, maybe. A choice I had to make. An NPC I could have cared about. A plot twist. More free-hearted exploring, less of every NPC you meet announcing what the next step towards my Destiny was. Any of the dozens of things that made the real old-school games so wonderful. Because Wizards and Warriors was fun to play, but I won't remember anything about it in five years. I'll still remember playing Ultima V when I'm 80 years old... and that doesn't mean I want you to replicate its clunky rock-strewn combat grid, so don't you get any ideas.

Best Quest: The Boogre Cave. It was unexpected and cool for my characters to be turned into boogres, and I'm always a fan of 'escape'-style quests.
Lamest Quest: The one to bring back proof of the Leprechaun's existence, where the difficult task of killing the leprechaun turns out to be a badly implemented red herring. :P
Best Puzzle: Placing the rods into the sockets to get up the wall at the end of the Boogre Cave. That was a great in-game use of physical manipulation.
Worst Puzzle:
Best Plot Twist: There were no plot twists in this game that rose above the level of 'mediocre.'
Lamest Plot Twist: Kol's subplot, which was not only badly written in and of itself, but also misled me into expecting a less cliched plot resolution, leaving me disappointed. :P
High Point: Probably the full-body portraits of the party, which are highly customizable and look different when you equip different clothes, armor and weapons.
Low Point: Having to listen to the entire Mada Mabig speech six times in a row. Seriously, it's just horrible game design that you have to repeat the exact same quest sequence for every single one of your PC's. Sucks all the fun right out of it.

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