Everything pointed to Wizardry 8 being a piece of crap.
When Wiz8 first came out I was so disillusioned with M&M that I figured Wiz8 would be more of the same. I saw the box but didn't even bother taking a careful look at it. It wasn't until a couple months ago that I happened upon a review of an unrelated game, where the reviewer mentioned Wiz8 in a very favorable light, that my interest was piqued. I was able to order the game for the bargain price of $20, and I'm happy to say that it was well worth it.
Graphics- The in game graphics are full 3d first person. Graphics on menus and character screens are all hand drawn. The 3d engine is pretty good. Not on par with Morrowind in terms of environment but with as good or better character models. The environment tends to have very simple textures and while there are quite a lot of objects strewn around they are all basic and not well detailed. The colors of the environment tend to be washed out and drab. Distance fog is also handled poorly: everything beyond a certain range is sky blue, and when you get close enough objects just pop into existence out of the blueness. Spells and other special effects are all attractive but not awe inspiring. One nice thing they managed is even during massive battles with lots of effects there was never any loss of quality or slowdown.
Character and monster models are good to great. A couple monsters look a little blocky, but for the most part bodies are very smoothly rendered. Faces for humanoid races are all very detailed and lifelike. Those for the more fanciful races tend to be somewhat less interesting. If there's a major complaint with faces it's that there aren't enough of them. Besides the handful of unique characters, almost everyone of each race/gender combination looks identical. A cute if unspectacular addition to the monster models is condition-based skins. Most monsters get visibly beat up as their hit points drop, which is funny at times but generally looks rather slapdash, like someone just drew a bunch of cartoony cuts and bruises on the original skin... which is probably exactly the case. Monster models are extremely creative and interesting. Not quite to the reinventing-the-wheel point of Morrowind, but certainly much more original than 99% of fantasy games out there. I have never before seen Djinn portrayed as cyclopean snake-men with giant slavering maws, for instance.
The hand drawn graphics on the character screens and menus are all top notch. The various races have interesting, distinct looks, and there's a reasonable amount of variety in character portraits.
All in all the graphics would have been amazing if they had come out when the game was slated to be released (in 1999) but were just average when it actually was released (in 2001). By today's standards they are clumsy but still passable.
Sound- Sound is one of the game's high points. The music is eminently forgettable and so thoroughly in the background that I barely noticed its existence. Sound effects in combat and walking around are similarly muted. The voice acting is what shines, and spectacularly so. First off there's an amazing breadth of voices in the game. I imagine it's just a few very talented voice actors, but it still lends a lot more personality to the game than most. Every NPC has a very distinct voice, accent, and mannerism, and there are 18 voice sets PER GENDER for PCs. Each of the 10 or so RPCs in the game also has a unique voice set just as deep as the PCs'. In all cases the voice sets aren't just a handful of sentences. The NPCs all have a very wide array of responses, including lots of easter eggy amusing responses if you ask them about particular things. The PCs and RPCs not only have a large number of things to say when going about their day to day business, they all seem to have little speeches they can give after you accomplish something momentous.
The voice acting isn't all wonderfully done. Some of the accents are painfully fake while others have endless repertoires of grating things to say. For the most part, though, the game maintains a great balance between funny and cheesy vs understandable and relevant.
If voice acting was the only consideration this game would be a 5, but the mediocre music and effects hold it back a bit.
Controls- The interface is a mixed bag. The fundamental problem seems to be that the game does not mesh between the keyboard and mouse well. The controls have you constantly moving your hand off the mouse and back on, even with an optimal keyboard layout (which is, thankfully, totally remappable). With the default keyboard layout I found the game literally painful to play; the ergonomics of using a mouse to interact and the arrow keys to move around caused horrible pain in my left wrist after extended playing. Remapping to the standard asdw movement scheme of most FPSes fixed that.
While conversations, combat, and spell casting are all intuitive and easy, they just involve too much movement. Most modern games have interfaces that minimize the amount you need to shift hand positions or do repetitive mouse movements and clicking, Wiz8 doesn't. It reminds me of the Might and Magic 6-8 interface and other games that came out in the early days of 3d.
Besides the negative mechanical aspects of the interface it is clear and relatively simple. There weren't many instances where I couldn't figure out how to do something I wanted to do, and there are lots of features built into the interface to make the large amount of data in the game easier to parse.
Very standard 3: not great, not terrible.
Replay Value- This can be hard to judge for RPGs. Like most of them, I played through the first time without looking at any FAQs or walkthroughs, and am now going through for the second time with a FAQ in hand to find all the secrets. The big question is: will I want to play through it again after this time?
In support of replay is the spectacularly varied party creation. There are 15 classes, 11 races, and you can have anywhere between one and six PCs. This alone leads to tremendous variability, but include the 10 or so RPCs (recruitable player characters) in the game and it gets crazy. RPCs are an interesting addition. They are essentially NPCs that will join your party. Not all of them stay with you for good, and all of them refuse to enter certain areas of the game, but each is very unique in their personality and abilities (there are actually five races that you can ONLY get as RPCs). The potential to have 8 characters in the party drawn from 15 classes and 16 races is almost unbelievable. Since the different classes offer significantly varying abilities, different party makeup does make the game play very differently.
The game also features multiple opposing factions and allows you to join one or more of them, with different outcomes and events based on which you are allied with. While many of the side quests shipped unfinished, there are still a fair number of them as well as three extremely well hidden secret dungeons that present significant challenges to solve. Finally, there are three difficulty levels which determine how easily your party hits monsters and vice versa. High difficulty makes combat much more dangerous, particularly early in the game.
There are, however, some serious threats to replayability. The most basic is that it is a very long, very plot driven game. After you know everything that's going to happen the plot aspects of the game become tiresome. Even going straight through and only doing the absolutely necessary quests involves quite a lot of talking to people and running back and forth, all of which is already boring the second time through. The other major problem is the length of the battles. While they are bearable in midgame, early battles (where you don't do much damage) and late battles (where you are fighting hordes of slow-to-act spell casters) can take ridiculously long amounts of time to fight. While these fights can be tactically interesting they also involve spans (often 5 or more minutes at a stretch) of sitting there while all the enemy moves resolve. Given that until very late in the game you probably won't be able to move around the map very efficiently, you'll be running into a lot of random, time-consuming battles throughout.
So while the game has a large number of replayability features it also has some unavoidable, exceedingly boring aspects. I'm really not sure which, in the long run, will have more weight. A tentative 4 is given, but that is +/-1 depending on your ability to cope with drudgery.
Gameplay- This is one of the best single player computer RPGs ever designed. There are few flaws from a design perspective, and even those that do exist were probably "looked good on paper" ideas that just didn't translate well to the engine.
Character creation, as mentioned earlier, is remarkably deep. There are 11 races, all of which play extremely differently. There are 15 classes (!!), all of which have various degrees of aptitude at fighting, thievery, and using the four different magical schools, and each of which has several unique traits available only to that class. One of the most interesting parts of character creation is the interaction between race and class. Races have more or less aptitude at each class (humans being average across the board, as usual), so, while any race can be any class, certain races start off with much better stats than others. However, no race and class are truly exclusive, as many combinations that start off weak may end up very strong in the long run (ie- a Dwarf's natural toughness nicely complementing a Mage's lack of armor, once the Dwarf's underpowered mental skills get up to par).
Once you have selected the race/class combination for a character, you get to select their skills. These range widely from combat skills to magic skills to thievery skills to more general skills. Not all skills are available to all classes, and each class has a skill that they specialize in and can attain a higher degree of mastery than anyone else. Skills increase through use, so you have the exciting, Progress Questy feeling of constant accomplishment as your skills regularly bump up a point or two.
The skill system is notable beyond the "constant increase" that is now the standard way of doing things. Combat and magic skills are two-tiered, so there is a general skill (close or ranged combat, the various schools, such as wizardry or divinity, for magic) that governs the character's basic aptitude, and specific skills (sword, axe, bow, etc for combat, the various spheres, such as fire or mind, for magic) that govern specific ability. So a character with high sword skill but low close combat skill will do plenty of damage with a sword, but not gain extra attacks and be worthless with other melee weapons. A character with the opposite will be able to hit with a sword or any other melee weapon, but not to great effect. This adds even more depth to character creation: do you make the person super specialized in one weapon or type of magic and hope you stumble upon the appropriate item or spells, or do you make them a generalist, able to cope with any situation but with less overpowering force?
Characters can be multi-classed as in other Wizardry and D&D-rooted games. On level advancement, you can opt to switch to level 1 of a different class you qualify for, retaining all the abilities and spells of your previous class, rather than going to the next level in your current class. This is a great thing to do once you've maxed out a class's potential, power players may multi-class even earlier so they get the best abilities of several classes into one character.
The really interesting and, in my mind, daring thing they did with party creation was make the game playable with fewer than the max number of characters. This is suicide in the majority of RPGs, but in the case of Wiz8 things are balanced so that a smaller, well made party can be just as successful as a full size one. Larger parties will have more versatility and be able to make fuller use of special items, while smaller parties will level faster and have an easier time protecting their weak members from harm.
Items and equipment in the game are pretty standard. You can find them on enemies or buy them from one of the many shopkeepers in the game. Of most value are unique weapons and armor, along with high level spell books (some of which can only be found at random). There are plenty of one-shot items that have spell effects, providing a nice way for non-spell casters to contribute before they get in range of enemies.
Thievery in the game is fun if not terribly innovative. The pickpocket skill allows you to pilfer items from NPCs and shops (although you need a very high skill if you want much chance of success), traps have an interesting graphical interface but are essentially the same as Wizardry 1's "inspect then disarm" deal, and locks consist of two to eight tumblers that need to be lifted, with more skillful thieves being better at lifting tumblers without causing already-lifted ones to drop again. The thievery adds some flavor to the game and doesn't just feel like a chore as it does in some RPGs, but isn't anything ground breaking.
Combat in the game is for the most part very well designed, but does have a few flaws that stand out as some of the worst aspects of the game.
The game has a turn based combat system; you give commands which are then executed in an order based on the speed of the characters and enemies. At its heart, this is no different than Wizardry 1's combat system. Movement in combat is quite different, though: all weapons have ranges (melee, extended, missile) and you have to be at a range the weapon can reach to attack. Complicating this even further is party formation. There are five "zones" that the party is divided into (front, back, center, and flanks), with each zone accommodating 0-3 characters, and the zone a character is in further influences where their weapons will reach. A character in the rear zone needs an extended or missile weapon to hit monsters directly in front of the party, while characters in the front zone could hit the same monsters with melee weapons, for example. You can shift the characters between zones for free, but only once per round. Movement can occur at the start of any round you want, but decreases the party's combat effectiveness. This all takes getting used to, and is woefully underdocumented, but once you are comfortable with the system it works quite well.
Weapon combat is pretty well balanced early on. Someone heavily specializing in a particular fighting style (a two-handed weapon, one handed weapon + a shield, two weapons, ranged weapons) will be an effective combatant. As the game progresses, though, things tilt very heavily in the favor of swordsmen, and by the end a Fighter using a strong sword and dagger combo or a powerful two-handed sword will be almost as much damage as the rest of the party combined. This doesn't make other classes unplayable, but I felt like they were just support for the death-machine fighter. My other main beef is that over time ranged specialists (Rangers, Gadgeteers, and Ninjas) become more valuable for their instant-killing and stat-decreasing abilities than for the actual damage they do.
Magic is handled very differently than most RPGs. While most games have a "separate but equal" relation between weapons and damage-dealing magic (some enemies hard to hit but vulnerable to magic, others immune to magic but vulnerable to weapons, etc), in Wiz8 damage dealing magic is only useful in a very limited support role. Unless you go out of your way to get powerful spells relatively early in the game (this requires a combination of lots of training and power leveling), the damage spells do never comes close to the damage weapons do. If you have a lot of offensive spell casters in your party you may be able to whittle down enemies with all of the casting, but for the most part attack spells are useful to kill off swarms of weak enemies or finish off multiple weakened baddies. Late in the game, when you finally start getting really heavy damage spells, most enemies are so resistant to magic that they are practically worthless. From the other point of view, you can generally get enough resistance-boosting spells and items of your own quite early on that enemy spells do negligible damage (they do, however, waste a lot of time... see below).
Stat-effecting spells are where magicians really become helpful. There are a bevy of positive and negative stat-changing spells, adding resistance, skill, power, speed, etc to the party to deducting the same from monsters. Particularly early on when it can be very difficult to hit some monsters, the ability to incapacitate them can be invaluable. Later in the game, making your brutal tank of a fighter all the more powerful by buffing them can be a great help. All in all, magic is diverse and deep but feels somewhat more restricted in combat than in most other RPGs. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your play style.
As mentioned earlier Wiz8 does have some deep flaws in its combat. Late MM games, for all their faults, at least had the option to toggle between real time versus turn based combat. This makes weaker enemies a breeze to dispatch in real time, while tougher enemies could be methodically battled in turns. All combat is turn based in Wiz8, meaning a significant investment in time to defeat even the weakest foes. If your party of mighty demigods is spotted by a swarm of lowly ants at a great distance, you get to spend a few minutes sitting there while the ants, one by one, scuttle closer to you. If there are obstacles the monsters have to negotiate it can double the wait. If the monsters are spell casters it can make the wait unbearable. I think the worst wait for me was a battle relatively late in the game against a small army of spell casters: I timed a single turn at 18 minutes... most of that spent waiting for spell effects to resolve or enemies to pace around aimlessly.
It's possible that when designing combat the game's makers thought enemy movement would somehow be quicker, maybe they were originally going to have all the enemies move simultaneously, but whatever the reason for this system, it is definitely the lowest point of the entire game. It's one thing to need a book or something else to keep you busy if you are training skills or doing something else repetitive, but being able to take catnaps in the middle of major battles seems ridiculous.
The other major flaw in combat is difficulty-related. Early in the game, before you've had a chance to flesh out your spell books and get decent equipment, combat can be extremely chancy and difficult, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Resurrection is prohibitively expensive early on, and yet even the most mundane fight can result in the death of a character if too many enemies happen to concentrate on them. Swarms of high-hp enemies abound early, and sometimes it's nearly impossible to not get surrounded and decimated by them. I had to reload in frustration quite regularly early on, when one fight that I barely scraped through was immediately followed by another of equal or greater difficulty.
Then, suddenly, difficulty does an about face. Once you get a decent number of protective and stat enhancing spells, strong weapons and armor, and good skills, the fights are for the most part laughably easy even on high difficulty. A few bosses aside, there is a very long stretch in the middle of the game where not a single remotely challenging fight occurs. Near the end of the game the difficulty picks up somewhat, but even then healing is easy enough to acquire that it's rare your party will ever be in much jeopardy.
So combat has some pretty glaring problems. Outside of combat the game has impressively few gameplay flaws. After your party is made you plunge into the immersive world. Exploration is well accounted for, with a generally good automap (my main complaint is that sometimes different levels are difficult to discern) and large, interesting environments to wander around. The world is huge, and due to its layout (various climate zones, dramatic elevation changes, the gradual granting of access to new areas) seems even larger than it is. If I have one complaint about the world from a design standpoint, it's that civilization is pretty sparse. There is only a single human town on the entire map, which along with a big tree inhabited by squirrels, a couple of military encampments, a shack in a swamp and a couple generally hostile humanoid areas makes up the whole of polite society on the planet.
Enemies wander around the map as well, some sticking to small areas that they are "guarding", others ranging around at random, some following logical paths (for instance, highwaymen pacing up and down the highway, looking for victims). You can switch to "combat mode" at any time (sometimes allowing you to surprise opponents), otherwise you automatically enter it when an enemy notices you.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the series, the game starts you off in a dungeon. You don't have a whole lot of knowledge as to what's going on until you successfully navigate your way through it and to the first, dauntingly distant town. With a (sometimes questionable) mix of technology and magic, a deep and highly interactive story unravels. There are multiple factions vying for dominance of the planet and, ultimately, far more than that. Joining one or more of them affects how other NPCs treat you, which areas of the game you can enter unmolested, what quests and equipment you have access to, and other less apparent factors. Your allegiance(s) also affect the outcome of the game, which has four endings (besides getting killed by monsters, of course).
Communicating with NPCs is a great joy. They recognize and respond to a very wide range of queries, generally have a lot to say, and come with easy to navigate menus if you want to ask them about something another NPC might have mentioned.
Finally, as mentioned above there are three well hidden "classic dungeon" easter eggs that play like 3d versions of the dungeons in Wizardries 1-5. They are challenging and contain some very good items, but mostly seem to exist for nostalgia.
To sum up: fantastic character creation and advancement, interesting exploration and narrative aspects, better than average thievery, good combat mechanics but poor combat flow, a spellcasting system that's unique but of questionable merit, great intangibles. I really think if the game had more time/funding it could've achieved at or near a perfect mark, but even with its flaws it still manages a healthy 11.
Enjoyment- The things in the game that had the most negative impact on enjoyment have already been mentioned, the slow combat and frustrating difficulty early on, and there are just a few other minor annoyances that mar an otherwise very fun game.
Superior items appear irregularly. For my sword wielding Fighter, I found one sword very early that I used til midpoint, and a second sword at midpoint that I used for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, my Ranger seemed to upgrade his bow every few hours. The combat types could count on new armor in every new area in the game, while my faery mage never took off the armor she started with. Finding new and better equipment is a fun part of RPGs, and it can be boring when a character keeps using the same piece of equipment for half the game.
Travel is frustrating for a while. There's a period in the early-middle of the game where the game is utterly non-linear but in which you don't have any means of travel besides walking. This means that you'll be scampering all over the world on quests, which gets boring very quickly. You can find several tricks around midgame to move around faster, though.
That's it, really. The rest of the game, from the great story to the lifelike NPCs to the impressive variety in character creation to the huge world, is as entertaining as any RPG I've played. It's a solid 13, maybe higher if you keep a book or web browser open for when combat gets slow.
I only played Wizardry 7 a bit, but I can safely say that Wiz 8 is a step up. The only reason the change rating isn't higher is that Wizardry 7 was a great game in its own right. The biggest improvement is the 3d engine. While Wiz7 was a very pretty game, the difference between 3d and non-3d is immense. Races were added, there's a greater variety of spells and skills, and skill names are no longer cryptic. The different factions, an innovation of Wiz7, is kept intact, while the other interesting innovation, competing parties, isn't. The latter is the only thing that was abandoned between 7 and 8 that arguably would've made 8 better. Otherwise, 8 is a great sequel and a fine end to a classic series.
Swear word rating
Very low, mostly stemming from the extremely frustrating early battles.
Overall: 7.6/10, a fine game that deserves attention from any fan of the first person party CRPG. It is technologically dated, its combat can be painfully drawn out at times and the difficulty tends to level fluctuate between too hard and too easy, but other than these things it is an marvel of design and execution. Sadly, it was the swan song for (company) and one of the last games of a dying genre.