Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic Preview

Is Art of Magic nothing more than a 3D version of Magic & Mayhem? Read on to find out.

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Way back in 1984, Julian Gollop wrote a game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was called Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, a simple strategy game that pitted you against up to seven other wizards in a spellcasting duel, one in which you summoned creatures and attacked your enemies with fireballs and other conjurations. Almost 15 years later, after designing the classic X-Com: UFO Defense, Gollop's company, Mythos Games, developed Magic & Mayhem, which was essentially remake of Chaos. The game had advanced far beyond its predecessor in its presentation, but its gameplay had the same core elements.

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Two years later, Bethesda Softworks (the publisher of Magic & Mayhem) is publishing a sequel. With Mythos Games deep into the development of Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge, responsibility for the new game has been placed in the hands of Charybdis, another British development house. Entitled Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic, the sequel is essentially an expanded version of the original, with a stunning new 3D engine and a more involved campaign. Advances in technology since the release of Magic & Mayhem make it possible to render the entire game in 3D and endow it with some spectacular special effects. It's a bit like Sacrifice - it's played on the tactical scale of Myth: The Fallen Lords, with a little Magic: The Gathering-style spell selection thrown in.

The basic premise behind the Magic & Mayhem series is that you control a wizard and, through him, manage an arsenal of spells that you use to defeat your enemies. There is a significant RPG element to the game: As you gain experience, you can increase your health, mana, and spellcasting abilities. The game maps depict a variety of terrain, and you traverse them in real time - you interact with characters to advance the story while you're in the solo campaign mode or just in straight combat when you're playing in skirmish mode or multiplayer.

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Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Magic & Mayhem system is the way in which spells are selected. Your character has a number of talismans, which are chaotic, lawful, or neutral in alignment. At various points in the game, you'll find spell ingredients like herbs, as well as precious stones like lapis lazuli or iron pyrite. The trick is that these ingredients can be used to cast different spells, depending on which talisman they are assigned to. For example, brimstone can be used to cast meteor shower (chaos), summon troll (neutral), or lightning (law), while deadly nightshade makes summon skeleton (chaos), fireball (neutral), and bury (law) available. Each ingredient can be combined with only one talisman, though, and each talisman can hold only one ingredient. So if you have only one brimstone, you'll have to choose between the three aforementioned spells, and you might not even have access to one or more if you don't have the proper alignment of talisman. This makes spell selection require a good deal of strategy, since you'll want to choose a range of spells that work well together.

Graphics for the New Millennium

The biggest change between the original Magic & Mayhem and the sequel is the new 3D engine. Whereas the original Magic & Mayhem took place on a 2D map and was presented from an isometric perspective with sprite-based graphics, Art of Magic will feature a full 3D engine that will allow complete 360-degree camera control, zooming in and out, panning, and everything you come to expect from this kind of presentation. When you play on the village maps, a single click removes the hut roofs so that you can see inside, and, in general, care is being taken to create a vibrant atmosphere - which doesn't get in the way of playing - in the way that some other 3D real-time strategy games have done.

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One place that the 3D engine really makes a difference is in the spell effects. The animation for apocalypse (an area-effect spell of mass destruction) features a flaming demon rising high over the battlefield before exploding into a huge wave of fire that damages anything in its effect radius. The creatures are also nicely done - they include monsters, like dragons, with dramatic breath-weapon effects. Visually, Art of Magic will go a long way in convincing you that you're in the middle of a melee of conjurers.

The Art of Magic has a variety of spells, all of which can be classified as belonging to the attack, defense, or summoning categories. Most of the combat in Art of Magic is done by summoned fantasy creatures, such as minotaurs, dragons, giants, and elves, with the wizards themselves playing the role of generals directing their troops and providing support through either healing, direct attacks (like with fireballs or meteor showers), or protective spells to increase a creature's defense.

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Much of Art of Magic involves the race to control "places of power," which are magical areas that provide mana to whomever controls them. These areas look like magic circles of stone or metal on the ground, and standing on them with your wizard or one of your creatures funnels the mana to you. The more of these you control, the faster your wizard can replenish his mana - thus, the more spells he can cast. Mana is the only resource in Art of Magic, and controlling it is the key to victory. The larger creatures, such as dragons and storm giants, cost a lot of mana to summon, and you'll have to control a lot of places of power to keep summoning these monsters. Since monsters can take control of these mana centers as well, there's a balance to be struck between using powerful creatures to keep from losing control of places of power and using them to attack the opposing wizard and his forces.

The skirmish mode in Art of Magic lets you go head-to-head with up to seven opposing wizards and lets you control various parameters, like the number and type of talismans available. There are multiple victory conditions, as well as a wide variety of maps to choose from. An interesting feature is the time limit involved in selecting your spells. This limit can be set in the skirmish mode screen, and it is most applicable to multiplayer. Once you have agreed on the game parameters and clicked the "configure spells" button, you have a set amount of time for placing your spell ingredients in the appropriate talismans so that you can select your arsenal of spells. This will probably present a challenge to players at first, but as you become more familiar with the game and the way the spells work together, you'll probably develop your own favorite set of spells, which will reflect your preferred tactics.

Real-time Gameplay with a Twist

While Art of Magic may sound simply like a real-time strategy game in which you summon creatures instead of building them at a base, the presence of your wizard has a significant effect on the game dynamics. For example, early in a mission, it's vital to scout the territory so that you can pinpoint the locations of the places of power, since the battle will center on controlling them. Since your wizard walks fairly slowly, one tactic is to cast a haste spell to make you move faster. However, since killing an opposing wizard is the whole point of the game, a wandering spellcaster will attract a lot of attention. An alternative is to morph your wizard so that he takes the shape of a fast-moving creature like a faerie and explore the map in that form. Shape-changing like this can also be an effective tactical weapon that lets you sneak up on opposing mages. Because of the limited nature of talismans and spell ingredients, however, not every wizard will be able to carry this kind of combination, and players will need to develop effective spell arsenals with limited resources.

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The campaign story in Magic & Mayhem was presented through text. In Art of Magic, the cutscenes are rendered in the game with the game engine, and the cumbersome text windows have been replaced by spoken dialogue. Much effort has been made to keep the story in the game rather than break it up into scenarios separated by cutscenes: Walking up to a character who has something to say will bring up an icon that you can click on if you wish to, and doing so will momentarily relinquish control to the scripted dialogue. The progression between scenarios is also smoother, thanks to the introduction of a realm map, which shows you where your character is and what scenarios you need to complete. The story in Art of Magic will follow your character, Aurax, through more than 30 scenarios that will include branching points, where you can choose to take different paths through the game.

While Charybdis seems to be making good progress with Art of Magic, a number of features in our build were still not implemented. One of the best things about the original Magic & Mayhem was the superb background music. The beta version we previewed did not contain any music, unfortunately, so we'll have to wait and see if it remains as infectious as before. Art of Magic will be playable via the MSN Zone, as well as by direct Internet connection or on a LAN.

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Magic & Mayhem was an innovative game that was hamstrung by its frantic pace, and this pace was then exacerbated by the fixed isometric map. With the institution of a full 3D engine and a free-moving camera for giving players more control over the action, Art of Magic could be one of those rare games in which improved graphics not only make the game look better, but also contribute significantly to improved gameplay. Charybdis is also working on refining the spell and creature mix for better balance and devising a compelling single-player campaign. Magic & Mayhem is getting a complete facelift, and it's scheduled to debut in March.

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