Reviewed: November 16, 2001
Released: October 30, 2001
In a world where attention spans are becoming as short as computer games (or is it the other way around), it's no wonder that game developers are having to constantly think of new gimmicks to capture and hold our interest in their products. In any given month you may have a half-dozen games release in the same competing genre, so how do you make your game stand out above the rest?
One tactic that seems to be growing in popularity is to blend multiple genres together in one game. Deus Ex pulled off an amazing blend of FPS and RPG to create one of the best games ever released. But cross-genre games can also be taken too far, with each of the game types becoming such a minimal part of the game that fans of a particular genre are never fully satisfied. Such is the case of Bethesda's new release, Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic.
First and foremost, The Art of Magic is a fantasy game complete with everything that you would expect from the genre. Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Giants, and of course, Dragons all make their appearances to remind you of the game's fantasy roots. Even more surprising is the excellent story that is being told throughout the game. In fact, it's this epic tale that actually carries you throughout a game that you may otherwise lose interest in after a few missions.
Unlike most other games where the story revolves around your character, Art of Magic has its own agenda, and Aurax (that's the main character) is simply one of many people in a living, breathing world where events would probably happen even if you weren't playing.
We join the story the day after Aurax's 18th birthday party. It must have been quite the bash as he has overslept and doesn't remember much of what happened the previous evening. After a few brief encounters with a few of the party guests and a quick trip to see Dad down at the wharf, Aurax goes off in search of his sister who has been concealing the fact that she is skilled in the ways of magic; a fact that she was to reveal to Aurax this very day. Once Aurax learns he too has the ability to use magic the story takes off on an epic adventure spanning more than 30 missions.
As you might suspect from the name, this game deals heavily with spells and magical combat. Leave your sword at home and pack up your staves, wands, talismans, and other enchanted items as you head out into the magical world to become a man, or wizard at it were.
Gameplay is a clever blend of tactics, magical combat strategy, and even some RPG stat building. Aurax has the ability to cast some powerful offensive spells as well as summon a wide variety of creatures to aid him in battle. During these frequent confrontations you can also take control of other NPC's and have them work for you, either healing your injured party members or casting spells that you cannot.
Your powers are limited by that magical substance we have all come to know and love; mana. Each spell requires a requisite amount of the substance and you will use it much quicker than you get it back. Sources of mana include mana sprites and certain locations or "places of power" that will slowly replenish your mana. The more of these locations you control, the faster you regain spent mana.
Between missions you get to develop your character by spending the experience points you have earned during the previous missions. You only have a few categories you can spend these points in such as health, maximum mana, or the total number of creatures you can summon and control. This is the extent of the RPG element, and just one example of how this multi-genre game fails to explore each aspect fully.
You will also need to manage an impressive spellbook, or Portmanteau as the game calls it. You collect ingredients and talismans of various alignments then combine these items to create spells of varying powers. Creating the necessary spells for each mission can often be critical in your success of each level.
Once you start a mission they all tend to play out the same. You start off by controlling as many "places of power" as you can then complete the required objectives for each scenario. Despite objectives that vary in type and difficulty and a virtually unlimited number of ways you can approach each mission, the game starts to show some repetitiveness early on.
The AI of your units is surprising good. Summon a monster and point him in the general direction of the enemy and watch him go. Those with ranged attacks will hold back while other NPC's will use some impressive pathfinding routines to get to their target quickly and efficiently. However, the boss AI is another story.
Boss encounters resemble some sort of medieval game of flag football or tag with the bossing running around the map trying to avoid you while launching an occasional attack. Defeating a boss doesn't require you to learn his attack patterns and search for weaknesses. You only have to study the map and find a location in which to trap him so he can't dodge your attacks. Then pummel him into submission.
The graphics are excellent and unlike most games of this type that take the easy 2D isometric approach, the Art of Magic features excellent maps, detailed textures, and an amazing 3D floating camera that is under your control. The interface and visual style reminded me of Shiny's Sacrifice or Bungie's Myth series. Using the mouse or keyboard you can rotate and pan the camera or zoom in for a tight 3D close-up or zoom out to an overhead perspective that becomes quite useful in the larger battles.
There are some camera issues, but these mainly deal with when your character goes inside and the view is cut off by a wall or roof. You can toggle these objects off but in a game where 3D acceleration is required I have to wonder why these objects just cannot become transparent as necessary.
The textures are excellent and the water effects are some of the best I've seen. Landscape textures blend seamlessly together and give the entire Realm a colorful and realistic look. Special effects are abundant and each of the 50+ spells has some sort of unique and dazzling special effect. Meteor strikes, lightning, fireballs, and even a powerful tornado are just a few of the effects that will keep you testing the limits of your spellbook.
Animation is excellent and it's actually fun to zoom in and watch your summoned monsters and NPC's doing battle. Everything is acted out with detailed animations, and the characters and monsters all have a refreshing cartoon-like quality.
The menus and interface screens are all very intuitive and the HUD is functional while not eclipsing the game screen. Your available spells are presented onscreen with graphical icons that are easily understood yet slightly unorganized. It would have been nice if you could sort the icons, as there is no tangible order to the spells.
All of the dialog is spoken (and captioned) in this game with varying degrees of professionalism. Everyone talks with a Scottish accent that either sounds like someone attempting to imitate Sean Connery or Mike Myers doing Shrek. No matter how "bad" the accent gets there is always something charming about it that will keep a smile on your face.
Sound effects are actually quite good and rise above the mediocre soundtrack. Subtle effects like trickling water or burning fire bring the levels to life and the spell sound effects rival the visuals. Fortunately the music blends into the background of the game and you will soon forget it is even there, as it does little to convey emotion or intensify the action parts of the game.
With more than 30 missions you can expect some considerable gameplay. Plan on at least 25-30 hours and that's assuming you save your game often. The game is quite unforgiving if you or a party member dies, and you will be forced to load a saved game to continue. You are permitted to save anywhere and as often as you like, so how much you have to replay is entirely up to you.
The open-ended nature of the game and the seemingly endless possibilities you can use to accomplish each mission would tend to make you think this game had excellent replay value. Unfortunately, the game is quite repetitive and the story is the only thing that really keeps you interested enough to finish the game the first time. Like any good book, once you have read it and know the outcome there is little reason to re-read it anytime soon.
The Art of Magic can be played by up to 8 players over a LAN or the Internet. You can setup your own net games or use the GameSpy service that is fully supported by this title. Multiplayer modes are almost identical to the single player battle modes and are typically Deathmatch in nature. It would have been nice to have some co-op or team-wizard play, but the multiplayer modes that are available are actually quite fun and offer some amazing visuals when you have 4-8 wizards going at it with everything in their spellbook arsenal.
Despite its few flaws and genre-blurring shortcomings, this is a fun game with a rich story of epic proportions. There is nothing here that hasn't been done before, and while the Art of Magic manages to live up to the legacy of the original, there is nothing here to make it stand out from the rest of the strategy games currently available.
The Art of Magic attempts to blend in strategy, action, and even some role-playing, and in doing so fails to fully explore any of the participating genres. This is not to say the game is a failure. It just seems to have missed its target audience, or perhaps never knew who it was in the first place.