Magic & Mayhem 2: The Art of Magic Review
By Michael Richter |
What goes into a fantasy game? Trolls, giants, elves, and dragons, usually. Throw in saving the world, coming of age, and revenge. Magic spells and wizard duels, definitely. And they come in all sorts of flavors: real time strategy, role playing, tactical combat and adventure. With Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic, the sequel to Magic & Mayhem, Climax and Bethesda have released a game that puts all these elements together. I know what you're thinking -- puts them together?!?! Danger, danger! Yes, it could easily have been a tired mish-mash of bits and pieces, but instead turns out to be a solid, integrated game that keeps you playing for that "one more mission".
What really ties this game together is its story. Every game has a story of some sort, but most seem to involve a convoluted plot scribbled on half a page in the manual, there only to justify your killing hordes of enemies. Maybe it's a sad commentary on the state of games today that you sit up and take notice when a game comes along with a story that makes sense, or that actually keeps you playing the game -- but that's what Art of Magic makes you do. The story has an epic scope that starts in a wee village with your wee, powerless self, and progresses into giant clashes of mighty armies and wizard duels. The game paints a world in which you're not always the center of attention; while you're building up your powers and achieving your own goals, there are other forces and players moving in the world. This was a refreshing change of viewpoint from many other games (and from real life) and made the story much more believable; despite the occasional forced plot, playing the game can feel at times like reading a good fantasy book. Perhaps the most telling point is that there are occasional non-action missions completely dedicated to advancing the plot, and you find yourself enjoying them rather than being annoyed. Don't get me wrong -- the story is not in danger of winning a Pulitzer or revealing profound insights into your personal psyche, but it's good enough to keep you involved and wanting to find out what happens next.
The game itself is an interesting blend of real time strategy, role playing and tactical gameplay that should be very familiar to fans of the original. You have full control of Aurax, the main character, who can summon creatures to fight for you and cast offensive and defensive spells. You also have partial control of party members in the scenario, who can do neat things for you like turning you invisible and healing your units. But be careful, because if you or any party members die, you've got to reload (which isn't too bad since you can save at any time).
Of course it wouldn't be very fair if you could summon an army of 100 minotaurs at the beginning of each scenario to slice your enemies into small, bite-size pieces, so there are a few things keeping your powers in check. The number one limiting factor is your mana; each creature summoned or spell cast drains your mana pool until you are helpless as a wee babe. Luckily you can regain mana either by collecting mana sprites that give you a quick shot of mana or by controlling "places of power", which constantly but slowly recharge you. The more places of power you or your creatures control, the faster you recharge. There's also a limit on the number of creatures you can control, making that massive army even harder to build.
You have some control over these limits, though, and that's where the RPG element of the game comes in. After each scenario you get experience for completing certain goals, like killing an enemy wizard or talking up the local wenches in the tavern (ok the last part of that isn't quite true but should be... it is a "coming of age" story after all). You can use this experience to increase your maximum mana, health, or the number of creatures you can control. It's a far cry from complete customization, and you probably won't play the game again just to try out a different character path, but it's nice to have some control over how your character progresses and it gives you a reason to finish all the goals in a scenario. Still, it would have been nice to see a more developed RPG element in this game.
As it is, the game plays out more like a real-time strategy game, though there's no micromanaging peons or hunting deer for food (though your trolls can regenerate from eating the bodies of dead enemies, which is a nice though gruesome touch). Scenarios generally end up with you gaining control of a few places of power and then finishing whatever objectives the scenario demands. There's a decent variety of missions, from the standard kill-the-enemy-wizard to the less common morphing-into-a-troll-to-steal-an-artifact, though the difficulty level of the missions doesn't seem to follow any understandable progression. The gameplay is solid though unexceptional, as the different units aren't differentiated quite enough to provide a deep tactical element.
One of the most interesting parts of the game is selecting your spells between missions. Your spellbook (or "portmanteau" as it's called, which I believe is an obscure French vulgarity) contains talismans that are lawful, neutral or chaotic, and ingredients, which produce different spells depending on which type of talisman you put it in. Ingredients differ in power, so putting your strong ones in the right talismans for the scenario can make life a lot easier.
AI in the game was a mixed bag. Your units seem surprisingly intelligent at times: they'll move onto a place of power nearby, attack any enemies attacking you or them, try to attack from a distance if they have a ranged attack, and usually pathfind pretty well even in tight corridors. However, the enemy AI often leaves a lot to be desired: enemy units often don't change their path or attack you even if you're attacking them, and sometimes they just sit on places of power allowing you to pick them off. This happens more with ranged attacks than melee. Also, if you have a lot of units attacking an enemy they can bunch up and get in each other's way. But the most aggravating AI behavior by far was the way that bosses act in many scenarios: instead of confronting you head-on they often just run around the level willy-nilly, even running right past you. Especially in the early scenarios where you don't have fast units this can degenerate into chasing the boss around the whole level until you can somehow corner him (and hope he doesn't run away again). Strangely enough, the computer doesn't have this problem in multiplayer battle mode, and comes at you with lightning bolts blazing -- I wish the scenario bosses did the same.
Multiplayer battle mode is deathmatch format: when you get killed you respawn to fight again (but your killer scores a point). Control of places of power is important, but (depending on the settings) there can be plenty of power-ups scattered around which can be even more important to collect. Play can get pretty furious, with all the elements of a good mage duel thrown in: fireballs, lightning bolts, fire-spitting dragons and even nifty tornados that toss enemies around the level. Selection of spells in your portmanteau is crucial.
One of the poor points of the game is its interface. It looks good on paper: a simple point-and-click system that doesn't take up a lot of screen real estate and allows you to pause to issue commands. Unfortunately it ends up being pretty clunky, with a slow scroll rate using the mouse, lack of hotkeys for spells, and a strange inventory system that throws all the items you've collected at the bottom of the screen with your spells with no clear organization. It can be difficult to see things in indoor areas; while occluding objects like trees and house-tops can be toggled off it would have been better if they became translucent. Real time strategy games have come a long way in terms of interface and control but these lessons apparently skipped this game by.
The graphics in the game get the job done, but won't win any awards. Everything is fully 3D, and most units have a simplistic, cartoonish look to them that actually fits in pretty well with the atmosphere. Animation is good, and it's always an enjoyable experience watching your trolls pound an enemy wizard with their giant sledgehammers. The spell effects are a cut above the rest of the graphics, with some sweet flame effects and meteor strikes. My favorite is probably the tornado, in which you can actually see any creatures it sucks up spinning around in the air before being spit out somewhere else on the level. What is especially impressive is that the game runs smoothly at its default settings even on a low-end system.
Sound is similarly functional; it won't leave you with much of an impression, either good or bad. Sound effects are pretty good, especially for spells like lightning strikes, and the voice acting isn't bad either. The music is rather forgettable.
In the end Art of Magic ends up being a solid game that takes a number of elements from different genres. It doesn't go into a lot of depth on any of them, but nevertheless manages to be fun and entertaining. If you're looking for a fantasy-themed game which puts you into the middle of an epic story, Art of Magic is a good choice.
-- Niki Kittur
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