Review - Magic Carpet (DOS, 1994)

When I first heard of an upcoming Electronic Arts release called Magic Carpet, I didn't think too much of it. A flight sim where you ride a magic carpet. Okay. Sure. Big deal. Well . . . yes, actually it IS a big deal. Magic Carpet came out of nowhere to surprise the hell out of me. Although it hadn't been hyped up much in the media prior to its release, Magic Carpet has all the elements necessary to become a huge hit. Dare I say (Dare! Dare!) that classic status is not out of reach? Yeah, I'll be that bold. Magic Carpet is a lot cooler than I expected it to be. In fact, it's a lot cooler than most games can even dream of being.

Although I originally heard Magic Carpet was a flight sim, it is not. It's an action game through and through, an airborne shooter that actually has a hint of strategy in it as well. The game is set in a magical world torn apart from the greed-driven warfare between powerful mages. Fearing attack from his rivals, your mentor prepared a horrifyingly powerful spell, which he lost control of; the spell killed the mage and upset the natural balance of magic in the world. It is your task to restore the world's equilibrium.

Magic Carpet was developed by Bullfrog, the makers of such highly-renowned games as Populous and Syndicate, and Magic Carpet has one thing in common with its predecessors – lots of levels to play through. There are fifty – count 'em, fifty – scenarios you must master in Magic Carpet. These usually are won by capturing a specific amount of the level's mana. Before I get too far ahead of myself here, let me describe the gameplay.

You start out on your magic carpet, but with no spells to cast. The first thing you see is a small red urn, and flying through it gives you your first spell – possess; this spell allows you to claim mana as your own. Most of the world's mana has been used by the warring mages to create hideous creatures to defend themselves with, so you must kill these monsters to liberate the mana. Since your possess spell is not useful in combat, you'll have to find something else by exploring the countryside a little. Controlling your carpet is a breeze. The mouse is used to climb, dive, and control left and right pitch; although the mouse may not sound like the ideal controller ("Why not a Thrustmaster FCS Pro?" you might ask), in practice it's an ideal interface for this game, allowing you to maneuver your carpet with startling precision. In addition to the rodental control, the four directional arrow keys are used for controlling your speed (forward and backward) and strafing left and right, a very handy maneuver for ducking enemy fire.

After flying around a while (and making good use of your overhead map) you'll discover another spell, your fireball, which is the basic attack spell of the game. The fireballs you cast aren't very powerful, but you can rattle off a string of them with a few frantic clicks of the mouse button. When you kill a monster, it bursts into a shower of golden blobs of mana. Shooting this "neutral" mana with your possession spell turns it white, marking it as yours. To gather the mana you'll have to build a castle, which you can do once you find the create castle spell. Firing this at the ground causes a fortress to erupt up from the earth; building a castle also launches a hot air balloon, which scours the landscape, picking up any mana you've tagged and taking it back to your castle for storage. At first, your castle is nothing more than a few towers, but casting the spell repeatedly at the same location can build it up to a mighty fortress complete with an army to defend it.

You aren't always alone in the world, either. Computer-controlled mages will challenge you for the world's mana, resulting in some wonderful border wars. Mages can change "tagged" mana to their color, and the computer really likes to steal from you. This can lead to frantic contests, with dueling mages rushing around possessing all the mana they can while simultaneously trying to blast each other out of the sky. It gets even hairier if you have a network, since Magic Carpet supports up to eight human players. It also has a 3D mode which can be used with the provided red and blue glasses, which is an amusing feature but slows the game down noticeably.

Magic Carpet's gameplay is frighteningly addictive, but its terrain is most impressive. You fly over detailed, handsomely-drawn terrain at amazing speeds, and can fly as close to the ground as you like. You can even fly in between the battlements of castles. Magic Carpet is as impressive today as Comanche Maximum Overkill was when it introduced Voxel graphics to the computer gaming industry. The speed and clarity of the landscape is phenomenal. After playing the game for many hours (too many if you ask my editor) I still found myself dumbfounded by the amazing nap-of-the-earth flying the program is capable of. If you have a Pentium system (almost a must for this game), Magic Carpet is the game to show it off with.

If you don't like good shooters, Magic Carpet probably won't appeal to you, but it WILL impress you. This is a remarkable game, and action fans will devour it ravenously. Not only is it a fantastic, ultra-addictive game, it's a ground-breaking technical achievement in the tradition of NovaLogic's Comanche. A dizzying array of games float through our office, and after the review period the vast majority of them are relegated to the library cabinet, rarely if ever to be heard from again. Magic Carpet is one of those rare games that I'll keep coming back to whenever I have a moment to spare (and many times when I don't, much to my editor's dismay). Once you pick it up, you just won't put it down until exhaustion claims you. You owe it to yourself to give Magic Carpet a try.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser