The Art of Magic is an interesting game whose every strength seems to be hurt by a related weakness.
When you play a fantasy game, it can be great fun to bash heads as an ax-wielding barbarian, but when you think of the fantasy genre, you probably first think of magic. If anything symbolizes the escape from the ordinary into a wondrous world of high adventure, it's a wizard or sorceress bending natural laws to summon strange creatures or harness the elements. If that's true, then Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic taps directly into the core appeal of the fantasy genre by letting you play as a wizard whose chief goal is combating fellow spellcasters. The Art of Magic is a sequel to Magic & Mayhem (1999), designed by Mythos Games of X-COM fame. This time around, developers Charybdis and later Climax were at the helm, creating a real-time strategy/role-playing hybrid. The Art of Magic takes many of the core concepts of its predecessor, adds a new 3D engine, and comes up with an interesting game whose every strength seems to be hurt by a related weakness.
In The Art of Magic, you play as Aurax, a young man who has just woken up after a long night of celebrating his coming of age with fellow villagers. He's also awakened to troubled times. In years past, three magic orbs created by a great wizard kept the world's three realms of law, chaos, and neutrality in balance. With the mysterious death of the neutral druid leader and the destruction of the orb he guarded, the forces of chaos begin a campaign of aggression. When the game opens, they're on the rampage in Aurax's homeland, the druids' neutral realm. Against this backdrop of warfare, Aurax has a more personal problem: His sister, Nadia, has recently disappeared. To Aurax's surprise, it turns out that she's skilled in the ways of magic, and now it's Aurax's turn to learn these arcane secrets and rescue his sister.
In real time, you lead Aurax across this fantasy landscape, dueling other wizards and their followers. You'll have the aid of NPC companions, as well as magical minions you learn to summon, such as eagles, dragons, and boulder-hurling giants. Aurax's quest unfolds as part of a branching campaign with more than 30 reasonably diverse missions. Some play like big strategic battles, while stealth missions give the game some puzzlelike elements, as in Pyro Studios' Commandos games. In addition to the campaign, you can play a highly configurable "battle" (skirmish) mode on 25 different maps with up to seven competing wizards. These can be controlled by the computer, which plays with welcome aggression, or by other humans online or over a LAN.
Akin to a character from an RPG, Aurax has three stats that you boost with experience gained from completing each of the campaign's levels. Health determines the damage that Aurax can sustain. Control limit determines the number of creatures you can command at once. Mana, the fantasy genre's sloppy catchall term for some sort of mysterious magical power, determines the power and number of spells you can cast in a short span. Also like in an RPG, you pick up items scattered across the landscape, including spell ingredients, "mana sprites" to boost your mana reserves, and food to replenish health. It can be pretty funny to see two powerful sorcerers furiously munching apples and fish during a magic duel.
The Art of Magic's spell system is the game's most interesting element and features more than 50 different spells. The game emphasizes strategic and creative forethought in its magic system. Between levels of the campaign or before you begin a skirmish, you access a portmanteau (spell book) to ready the spells you think you'll need in the coming level. Your portmanteau has talismans aligned in columns according to law, chaos, and neutrality. Into these talismans you place spell ingredients--like deadly nightshade, brimstone, or psilocybin--that you find during missions, thereby creating new spells. Depending on the alignment of the chosen talisman, the same ingredient can create totally different spells. So, psilocybin (from "magic mushrooms," no less) can be used to create spells that summon zombies, eagles, or fairies. Other spells can heal units, call down meteors, morph a wizard into another creature, and more. You really see the full possibilities of the spell system much more readily in battle mode than in the campaign, where you're stuck with very limited powers for quite a while.
Despite the emphasis on sorcery, The Art of Magic feels much like a traditional RTS too, with simple point-and-click attacks, green/red health bars over characters' heads, control-click unit grouping, and so forth. You'll fight to control vital resources, but instead of the usual RTS crystals or ore, you try to find mana-generating "places of power" and then hold them by placing at least one of your units on it. The more places of power you control at once, the greater your mana recharge rate, which is a key to winning battles. Fighting for and holding these mana sources forms the core strategic concern of the game, and it nicely balances and works in concert with the game's tactical-level combat. Fighting for places of power can proceed at a slow pace, though, regardless of the game speed setting you choose. It can sometimes feel like a dull war of attrition.