I Can Feel His Presence
Your name is Aurax, and you are an alcoholic. As the game begins you are recovering from the mother of all hangovers after celebrating your coming of age, but things are about to get much worse. First your sister reveals that she is a magician and that you too have the power of magic, then skeletons attack your town and slaughter your neighbours, and to cap it all an evil warlord kidnaps your sister to turn her to the dark side. What starts off as a rescue attempt soon becomes an epic quest to defeat the armies of chaos which are threatening your land as it becomes obvious that the force .. sorry, magic is strong in you. Sadly any impact that this might have had is marred by the game's shoddy dialogue and flat emotionless voice acting, which is about as exciting as Stephen Hawkings reading out a shopping list. The only silver lining is the occasional moments of humour (intentional or otherwise), such as the pair of evil wizards who sound uncannily like Arnold Schwarzenegger and spout lines which make Conan The Barbarian look like William Shakespeare. The game itself is a blend of real-time strategy and role-playing elements and revolves around controlling "places of power". These earn you the mana points which you need to cast spells and summon creatures to fight for you, and as a result most battles tend to devolve into grabbing as many of them as possible while chasing down an enemy hero. There is some variation in mission objectives, such as rescuing missing kids, taking part in a bar-room brawl or recovering a magical item, but generally everything boils down to finding and defeating one or more enemy wizards.
Looks Like We Got Ourselves A Convoy
Unfortunately this is often easier said than done. Maps can be huge, and as Aurax and his heroic companions move with all the pace of a geriatric snail, battles can be rather slow and longwinded. Finding an enemy wizard is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and usually your best hope is to work out which direction his creatures are coming from and try to find your way back to him by following the trail of dead spiders. What makes things really irritating though is that most of the units move at much the same speed, and there is no way to stop a determined enemy from marching straight past them. Sometimes you can end up with your men trailing along in a line behind their target, unable to catch or corner him. Even worse, the enemy wizard often acts as though he is oblivious to the traffic jam forming behind him, meandering aimlessly around the map before stopping to capture a point of power and getting pulverised as your army finally gets close enough to attack. These problems are only made worse by the appalling AI. The enemy is utterly incompetent at times and your own men can be just as problematic. Their behaviour varies drastically depending on their species, and there is no way to adjust the aggression levels of your units manually as you would in a true real time strategy game. Some troops will wander off half way across the map looking for a fight if you leave them to their own devices, while others will ignore an elven archer peppering them with arrows from just a few metres away. Throw in the pull of a nearby place of power and you may even see schizoid units which move towards a foe only to suddenly change their mind and walk away again, repeating this until they wind up dead, having never landed a single blow on the enemy.
One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back
The Art of Magic is also let down by the atrocious balancing of the single player campaign, which is less of a learning curve than a rollercoaster. The first few missions introduce you to the basics of the game gently, but after this all bets are off, with missions varying wildly between ridiculously easy and bloody hard. It's perhaps telling that the developers resorted to letting you change the difficulty level at the beginning of each mission, as if they realised what a mess they had made of it themselves. The game's fundamental AI and gameplay flaws serve to ruin the campaign flow still further. I finished a few missions within a couple of minutes because the enemy wizard inexplicably decided to walk straight towards me, while other times you will be tearing your hair out in frustration as a friendly hero who you were meant to be protecting wanders into the middle of a gaggle of enemy troops and gets himself killed. Meanwhile one of the game's few stealth missions is ruined because the trolls who are chasing you move at exactly the same speed as Aurax, so you can just wander into their fortress, steal the magical item you are meant to recover and walk out again without any of them ever managing to catch you. The campaign is also supposed to be non-linear, and at a couple of points you do get a choice of which mission to carry out next. In reality though you are more or less locked to a single route through the game, again thanks to the poor balancing of the missions. Certainly the first time you are given a choice, if you play through them in the "wrong" order it's almost impossible to win even on the easiest difficulty setting, while the "correct" choice makes finishing them all a breeze.
A Hint Of Magic
As you battle your way through the game you will gain experience, which can be spent on increasing your health, mana capacity or the number of creatures you can control at once. You will also find magical talismans and ingredients which can be combined in your portmanteau at the beginning of each mission to give you access to a wide range of spells, from fireballs and tornadoes to the ability to summon trolls, dragons, elves and pixies. There's certainly plenty of variety on offer, as each component will produce a different effect depending on whether it's combined with a chaos, lawful or neutral talisman. And depending on which kind of magic you use the most, the cost of casting spells of different alignments will change from one mission to the next. It's a nice idea, and it's just a shame that the rest of the game can't match it. The same could be said of the special effects, from the stunning smoke trails of the fiery breath spell to the huge twister which lifts creatures up into the air and throws them out across the map. Sadly these overshadow the rest of the graphics, which are rather mundane by comparison. Character models are particularly weak, looking blocky and awkward up close.
Art of Magic is bursting with novel ideas, but at the end of the day these elements just fail to gel into a rewarding game. The interface is a little clunky, the AI awful, the battles chaotic, the graphics variable and the mission balancing all wrong. The result is frustrating, as it's clear to see that this could have been a great game. Must try harder.