This review originally appeared in E15, December 1994.
Virtually every successful software company has made it big by carving out a specific niche for itself. LucasArts dominates the graphic adventure genre with hits like Monkey Island and Sam ’n’ Max. Maxis depends entirely on its Sim series for sales revenue. And Electronic Arts is the undisputed champion of the sports sim. So when a developer eschews the style of game it is best known for and flies off in a completely unexpected direction, people sit up and take notice. Especially when that company is the sickeningly successful Bullfrog.
Bullfrog made its name with intensely playable strategy games like Populous, Powermonger and Syndicate. However, its new creation is a full-on arcade trip whose main strength is its luscious graphics. In fact, in Magic Carpet Bullfrog has managed to create one of the finest realtime environments ever seen. As you explore on the magic carpet which is your mode of transport throughout the game, the landscape scrolls beneath you with breathtaking speed and smoothness. The texture-mapped polygons are expertly depth cued and shade off into a beautiful mist effect in the near distance – this not only softens the whole view, making it more realistic, but it also obviates the need to draw to the horizon, allowing the game to run faster and use less memory. A similar effect was seen in the Novalogic shoot ’em up Comanche, but the results of the proprietary ‘Voxel Space’ technique used in that game were far inferior.
You don’t need a top-of-the-range Pentium to make the earth move, either: even on a 486DX2/66 the frame rate is very fast. If you have a lower-spec machine, you can speed the game up considerably by selecting one of the lower-detail options, but many players will decide that the game’s full graphical finery enriches the atmosphere so much that it easily compensates for the slightly reduced feeling of motion.
Magic Carpet is also blessed with a model control system. It’s sufficiently sensitive to permit fine adjustments but still allows violent evasive action. Moving the mouse affects pitch and roll and the cursor keys control sideways movement and speed. You automatically rise over hills and feel no ill effects if you collide with a wall, which makes the game less of a flight sim and more of an arcade experience.
But, of course, games live or die by their gameplay. And the gameplay in Magic Carpet is bloody marvellous. You play a wizard who has to do battle with up to seven other wizards in each of the game’s 50 worlds as well as all that world’s other inhabitants. Killing a sentient being (peasants don’t count) releases its mana (magical energy) in the form of a ball. Casting a spell turns these balls from a neutral gold into your playing colour (eg blue), which allows you to dispatch a balloon from your castle to collect them. As your balloon drifts around gathering mana, it becomes a target for other wizards looking to steal your gains. Defending it while maintaining pressure on your opponents is an art in itself. As you collect more mana your spells become more effective and your castle becomes more heavily fortified – archers even appear on the ramparts to ward off attacks.
There are 12 different types of enemy on which you can unleash your spells. All possess an array of magic and physical attacks which they employ with unnerving intelligence. Some attack as individuals while others swarm towards you in a collective attempt to knock you out of the sky.
All this means that Magic Carpet is the best of all worlds. Not only is it a visual treat, a thoroughly exhilarating experience and a frantic blast, but it incorporates just the right amount of strategy to ensure that you never get bored. Bullfrog has distilled all the highly addictive elements of its God sims into a single game, and added raw pace. At its most basic, it’s an inspired mix of Populous and an arcade game, combining the best graphics outside an arcade with freeform gameplay. It’s also a seriously longterm challenge, especially with the superb network option which allows up to eight players to contest the airspace in a frantic orgy of multiplayer violence.
Magic Carpet more than vindicates Bullfrog’s change of course. It’s a game that’s as addictive, demanding and visually impressive as Doom II. And that’s some achievement.