While Blizzard were blustering at ECTS 1999 about how their newly announced "Warcraft III" was going to reinvent the real-time strategy genre by adding elements more commonly found in role-playing and adventure games to the usual Warcraft formula, another company had already beaten them to it. The game was "Magic & Mayhem", and the developers behind this innovative title were the legendary Gollop brothers of "X-Com" fame.
Since then Blizzard have quietly dropped most of the exciting new features from Warcraft III, but for those of you who were quite looking forward to a quest-based role-playing strategy game, Magic & Mayhem has spawned a sequel - "The Art of Magic".
Never Mind The Gollops
The sequel isn't being developed by the Gollop brothers though - their team at Mythos Games is currently busy with 3D turn-based strategy game "Dreamland Chronicles : Freedom Ridge", and as a result most of the actual development of the game has been handed over to another British company, Charybdis. But although the torch has been passed on, the core gameplay remains similar.
At the heart of The Art of Magic is a single-player campaign in which you play a young wizard named Aurax, whose sister has been kidnapped by a dark wizard. Hardly the most imaginative of plots perhaps, but your search for her will take you across seven diverse realms, and you will have to carry out a series of tasks durings your travels to gain the information, experience and equipment that you will need to rescue her.
Along the way you will also pick up several other characters who will aid you in your quest, but your party isn't limited to these heroes. In fact, much of your growing army will be made up of creatures which you conjure out of thin air. There are limits to how many units you can control at once though, and your supply of the mana which powers your spells is also finite. To replenish your mana you must control "places of power" by standing units on the circles which mark these zones on your map. The more you control the faster your mana will return, allowing you to cast spells more frequently, and once you have gained control of a map you will soon be able to overwhelm the enemy.
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Art Of Magic
At the beginning of the game you have a limited repertoire of spells in your portmanteau, but by combining the different talismans and magical ingredients you will find during the game you gradually gain access to a much wider range of spells.
Everything from giant spiders and skeleton warriors to giants and dragons can be summoned as your powers grow throughout the game, and the sheer range of creatures which you can control is impressive. Centaurs, dwarven boar riders and wolves battle it out on the ground, while eagles, faeries and griffins fly overhead. All of the monsters are beautifully modelled, textured and animated in full 3D, and although there were some clipping problems in the pre-beta version we have been playing, hopefully this will be solved by the time the game is released early next year.
The offensive spells are even more impressive, with some of the most glorious pyrotechnics we have seen in any fantasy game to date. Volleys of fireballs can be hurled down corridors, sputtering and leaving behind flaming trails, before producing a satisfying explosion on impact. Spectacular tornados suck up everybody in the area and then spin them high into the air in a swirling grey vortex, finally flinging them out across the map at random. Not only does it look incredible in motion, but it is also very useful for scattering enemy troops and causing damage and confusion to tightly packed formations. The only problem is that if you stray too close you can find your own wizard being drawn into the maelstrom.
Safe From Harm
Although a wizard is capable of unleashing an awe-inspiring array of magic and can summon a small army to aid them in battle, at the end of the day they are very weak in combat, and if you lose your character the game is over. You must balance the benefits of having your wizard in the front line with the danger of getting killed by enemy troops or a rival wizard.
This means that you will often have to rely on your summoned creatures to take the fight to the enemy, hanging back to safeguard your own character. Luckily controlling your army is simple with the game's real-time strategy style mouse interface. Units are selected by clicking on them or dragging a box around them with your mouse, and then ordered to move or attack by right clicking on a piece of terrain or enemy unit. It lacks some of the finesse of some real-time strategy games, such as the ability to order troops to guard friendly characters or to adjust their aggressiveness, but it is flexible and easy to use.
As in any good strategy game, troops can be gathered into groups which can then be reselected using a hot-key, orders can be stacked, and waypoints can be issued to maneuver troops around potential hazards. The AI is reasonably effective most of the time though, even at this relatively early stage in development. The reactions of your units to enemy troops also varies from creature to creature, with some following your orders to the letter, while others will use their initiative and give chase to any enemies they spot, or go looking for trouble if you leave them unattended.
View To A Kill
The game also features an adjustable camera which can be zoomed in to give you a low-down and close-up view of the action, or zoomed right out to a vertical overhead view which provides a much wider picture. You can also rotate your view and scroll around the map with ease, and the whole system works smoothly and intuitively. There's even an option to remove the roofs from any buildings to give you an unobstructed view of the battlefield.
The world itself is nicely detailed, with gently rolling hills dotted with trees and interspersed with crystal clear streams and stockaded villages. The pre-beta version also included a complex of mines taken over by goblins and a vampire lair, complete with pools of blood and sinister lighting effects. The range of settings on offer certainly looks promising, and we have still only seen a fraction of the final game.
The maps aren't just for the main campaign either - the game also includes a "quick battle" option which can be used for both multiplayer and free-form skirmishes against AI wizards. Up to eight wizards can take part in a single battle, and the sheer variety of spells and creatures available in the game should make this an interesting option. At the moment the sheer frailty of your character makes these solo battles rather short, as it's all to easy to lose your wizard in the heat of an eight way fight. There are a whole range of different options though, allowing a more deathmatch style of play if you get sick of seeing your wizard getting killed in the first minutes of an epic multiplayer battle, and then having to sit around watching as the remaining players battle it out...
The Art of Magic isn't due to be released until March 2001, but already it is looking quietly impressive. While its graphics can't match the sheer splendour of the superficially similar "Sacrifice", they certainly mark a vast improvement over the original Magic & Mayhem, and look even better in motion than they do in the screenshots. And with solid gameplay, an intuitive interface and 3D camera, a reassuringly familiar deep fantasy setting, and a wide range of creatures and spells to unleash on your enemies, it is certainly shaping up to be a worthy sequel. With a little more polish and balancing it should be well worth a look for role-players and real-time strategy fans alike.