A good friend of mine, Tommy G., has been a big player of the Wizardry series since game one. Personally, I’ve played a sparse selection of them, maybe numbers 1, 2, and 6 - something like that – I can only specifically remember completing the second one. He’s playing the most recent in the series now, the 8th, and we’ve had a prolonged email exchange about what he thinks of it. So prolonged in fact, that I thought I could just about review it given how much he wrote to me, so I figured I would try. Keep in mind as you read this that I haven’t played so much as one second of this game. All of the following words, with the exception of some grammatical and organizational changes, are Tom’s. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to drop them on me, and I’ll forward them onto him. So, without further ado, shall we step into the dungeon together?
I went out and bought Wizardry 8 in early January. I think this game has been out since early/mid December. They have released a lot of patches; I saw about 5 on the web site. They include a little note in the manual telling you to be sure to download the latest patch before playing. From the web site, I gather that the game was probably unplayable as shipped. I did not have any trouble with the patch and have not seen anything unusual. (BTW, I no longer consider it unusual for WinME to crash on shutdown after playing a game. Wizardry 8 does cause WinME to crash on shutdown about half the time. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this. There is no correlation between playing time, save/reload activity or anything else that I can see. I chalk it up to the OS monopoly and move on.)
Wizardry 8 is a first person 3D RPG with a party of up to 8 (6 PCs and up to 2 NPC companions). The plot has a single clear goal - you're in a race against a bad guy to "learn all a cosmic lord knows," find a specific artifact and "ascend." The dialog implies that you're in a rush, but I do not think you really are. This goal eventually breaks out into a specific series of tasks, but it is very nebulous in the beginning. The game ultimately turns into a series of traveling quests – as Wizardry usually does. There are also plenty of side quests and dungeons along the way to keep you busy.
The designers seem to have expended a great deal of effort on combat mechanics and intricacies. You can specify party formations that have four quadrants (front, right flank, left flank, and rear) and a center, and can move people around in formation (before and during combat). One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that you need to watch out for positioning. Most monster groups will try to surround you, which keeps you from moving and tends to end up with people in the flanks, rear and center being hit from behind a lot. So the first thing you need to do when faced by a group is run for a wall (an inside corner is better) and turn around. The first person view (which you can rotate) is usually from the front, but you can not see the other members of your party because they are never rendered. They have added a lot of "range" logic (this goes well with the formation stuff). Enemies can be out of range, or at long, thrown, extended (weapon) or close range. The fighters up front may be at close range, while the people on the flanks are at extended weapon range and the people in back are at thrown range all to the same monster at the same time.
Combat can be either phased or "real time" and you can switch at will (which is nice). Real time combat is essentially phased combat with all the phases strung together. I generally play in phased because I like to be able to walk away to get the phone, which is easy in phased. In “real time” you can hit ‘stop’ and it will revert to phased at the end of the next phase. One advantage of real time combat is you can retarget spells and interrupt spell casters (if you're very nimble with the mouse) which you can't do in phased mode. Then again, juggling one or two spell casters in real time is OK, more than that and you'll probably wish you hadn't tried. In the manual they comment that real time combat is also good for some tough combats (I fail to see how) and easy monsters (which I understand). The combats can get a little long and tedious -- it takes a while to kill 40 ants, even if you've worn them down to the point where they aren't hurting you. One convenient thing is that in combat lots of things are done automatically for you. For instance, as monsters charge at your party, your front line fighters will use missile weapons (if they have them), but automatically switch to melee weapons when the monsters come in range. By the same token, if the monster in front of them dies, they automatically retarget and change weapons (if necessary) to hit another monster. (I think they do next closest to them, but I'm not sure.) I do some manual retargeting in phased mode to keep from doing some damage to several monsters rather than a lot to one.
The spells are about 80% old Wizardry standbys with 20% new. All spells now have power levels, (I do not remember this in Wizardry 7, but it has been several years since I played it) so you can choose to cast your electric bolt spell at first level or seventh level of power. Your ability to cast at higher levels is controlled by spell points (level is a cost multiplier) and skill with that type of spell (fire, water, air, earth, mental, or divine). So you may have the points to cast a 5th level fire ball, but no prayer of succeeding due to a lack of skill. This also means that the lower level spells are still useful at higher levels. They still have the same 4 "spell books", Wizard, Priest, Psionic & Alchemist. The spells all have ranges assigned. The area effect spells can be either a group of monsters, a 60 degree (or so) cone, a circular radius at some range, or “all” opponents. The latter only becomes available with the higher level spells.
There is a HUGE discontinuity in the difficulty of the monsters between areas. When you leave the starting dungeon, you're about 5th level and the wandering monsters in the dungeon are not a threat unless you're out of magic. The outside world has groups of "evenly matched" (to you) monsters wandering together. You can beat one group with effort, but if another group shows up the fight becomes impossible. So much so that you either have to turn the difficulty down or spend a lot of time going up a couple of levels against easier monsters. It would have been better if the difficulty level were more seamless.
I think that the world may be significantly smaller than Wizardry 7 – it sure seems that way. There are supposed to be about 20 towns + stretches in between + many dungeons and multiple levels almost everywhere. It is MUCH smaller than Elder Scrolls, and not as free form. There are specific paths between towns and you can't get too far off of a path before you run into a wall. I do not think that it is possible to "miss" a town if you're on the road and headed to it. The NPCs appear to be grouped and have reasonable interaction dynamics and memory. For instance, if you pickpocket (steal) from an NPC, you'll get away with it at the time, but he will be MUCH less friendly to you next time (he discovers the theft after the fact and may not be able to prove anything, but will hold a grudge none-the-less). If you do a favor for somebody in the town, the rest of the town hears about it pretty quickly and reacts accordingly (e.g. Betty told me that you helped Frank out -- we all appreciate your assistance). That’s neat. There is no real city economy. You can buy a store out of something (I had the problem with armor a lot in the beginning). But if you sleep (or come back tomorrow) they'll frequently get more in. If you sell tons of one thing, the price does not drop. There are several different stores in the cities. So some people sell weapons/armor, others priestly magic (the temple), others ammo, etc. They'll only buy and sell their specific areas, but I haven't seen much (if any) market variation in the areas of overlap.
The graphics are texture-mapped polygons with lighting, fogging and other visual effects. Some of the polished marble rooms are pretty cool. I've seen more impressive graphics, but this is reasonable -- probably no more than a year or two behind the cutting edge. One nit about the graphics, you never get to see your party/characters tricked out in their equipment. The equipment screen shows a nude representation of the sex/race and then has boxes off to the side where you put their pants, gloves, etc. You get an almost static (the mouth/jaw moves when it speaks) portrait of each character, but where is the fun in that? The actual combat graphics are a mixed bag. Foes dodge out of the way if the strike misses and reel a little if hit (sometimes things fall off which can be pretty funny), but there is no animation of the blow at all (though there are sounds). The "death" graphics are pretty good but not realistic, most things explode and then fade away. They have some cool spells and effects. I enjoy watching a churning ball of electricity streak toward and hit an opponent. They do some cute stuff, like when you're beating on a monster, the texture map changes to get bloodier so you can see some effect of your blows. Otherwise, graphics are nice and smooth. I see occasional graphics artifacts (incorrectly colored polygons) at the edge of the screen in certain situations, but it is pretty rare and not really a problem. The graphics engine seems to slow down if it has a bunch of monsters (or townspeople) moving on the screen at once. It has only gotten really bad when there were close to 15 or 20 which is an unusual occurrence. I "fix" it by "turning my head" until the clutter leaves.
The manual has some bizarre omissions. There are no experience advancement tables and the like that previous ones had. Each character class has some special abilities. Some of these are self-explanatory (e.g., the mage has a bonus to his Wizardry skill that gives him +25%). Others are largely undocumented (e.g., a priest can pray for divine intervention which seems to be some form of random help -- damage to a foe, healing a party member). Still others are completely undocumented, such as the Valkyrie's "Cheat Death" ability. Beyond the name and the fact that she has it, the manual is silent. I can guess that maybe she is KO'd rather than killed, but with all my playing I still don't know what it does (I have a Valkyrie in my present party, but by the time she is near death, the rest of the party is dead and I've long since given up hope by reloading the game.)
Is Wizardry 8 is better than 7? I think the answer is that it is more of a side step. The graphics are better (which isn't saying much). In fairness to #7 it is quite old now (4 years?) so the state of the art has changed a LOT. They seemed to have focused on playability (good) and combat mechanics (goofy). The puzzles are not tough, though some of them are driven off of asking specific people certain things – something that does not occur to me. It looks like they are going for the hack-n-slash crowd over the more traditional RPG crowd. BTW there are tons of in jokes if you remember the previous versions well enough. Overall, wish they'd focused more on world design (making it larger) than the jokes.
Note for players of the previous Wizardrys: the designers seem to have "fixed" some of the features that made it easy to create powerful parties. In particular, there used to be a real incentive to swap characters between multiple classes. You could take a 10th level character, start over again as a first level character and earn 10 levels before the 11th level party you were with made it to 12th level. They would restrict you to 1 HP and little/no stat improvement until you passed your old level, but you could build up an impressive array of spells, special skills and what not. Now, you keep advancing at the previous rate, so a 10th level priest turned into a 1st level Bishop takes (11th level Bishop - 10th level Bishop) experience to advance (i.e., forever). You CAN start out as any character class (you no longer have to build up to the more advanced classes), but I would rather have the old style back. I usually ended up with 3 (out of 6) very powerful spell casters. They also "fixed" some of the save, reload and try again points (e.g. character HP on leveling up).
Gameplay [42/50] -- I enjoy the game. There are lots of things they did to make it easier (e.g., found items appear on your RADAR and spin in place so you can't miss them). I found play balance to be off in areas.
Graphics [6/10] -- State of the art from a year or two ago. Nothing eye popping, but plenty of neat things to keep your attention.
Sounds [7/10] -- Again nothing spectacular. Lots of verbal dialog. Your characters make pithy comments at various moments, which are appropriate, in character and kind of fun (and hasn't gotten annoying yet). I turned the music off immediately.
Controls [9/10] -- They did a LOT of work in this area and it shows. Most static screens have right click help (e.g. the skills list). You can display/hide many different on screen elements depending on style, situation and preference.
Plotline [7/10] -- Same old same old. I gave them an extra point for continuity -- it fits in to the series nicely. (If you want to tease people, ask how many different images of past Wizardry cover art you can spot in the starting dungeon.)
Other [5/10] -- No real bugs. I enjoy the game and would recommend it to others without hesitation. The manual is largely useless. They should either spend more time on it or not bother!