Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic
It was quite surprising to hear that a sequel to Magic & Mayhem was in development. Even more surprising was the fact that its creator Mythos (of X-COM trilogy fame) would not be involved in the coding of it. Although critically acclaimed, Magic & Mayhem failed to set the charts alight and in these days when sales mean sequels, it seemed to us that the Magic & Mayhem series would end there and then.
Thankfully, our fears were unfounded and the series continues, this time in the creative hands of Charybdis who, like Mythos, is based in the UK. Now it has to be said that Charybdis isn't the most prolific developer around - the 3D RTS Machines being its biggest game to date - but the fact that they're British bodes well, because the original game had a uniquely English charm far removed from grittier US games such as Diablo. In short, Magic & Mayhem was something of a gem, from which we hope Charybdis will fashion a glittering diamond.
As with its predecessor, Art Of Magic will place you in the velvety shoes of a young wizard apprentice whose aim in life is to extend his range of spells, keep his mana (magical energy) levels up and save the world over a series of 30 missions. Fortunately, our young Merlin won't be alone in his quest, because as his power grows new spells will become available, from issuing fireballs to summoning lightning storms or showers of meteors. There will, in fact, be in excess of 60 spells, over a third of which allow you to summon a variety of creatures - from skeletons, elven archers and goblins to giant stone golems and fire-breathing dragons. Each spell will require you to have the right ingredients to concoct it, and for it to be successful you'll need to have control over those areas of the map that produce mana in abundance.
From what we've seen so far, Art Of Magic will feature the same simple interface as the first game, although this time we will have 3D accelerated characters rather than the bit mapped sprites of old and replacing the isometric view is a configurable 3D camera, allowing you to swoop, zoom and rotate about the battlefield to catch the best views of the action. Already the game looks spectacular and yet retains the simplicity, charm and quality of the original game underneath. The scale of the characters far exceeds those of the first game and, if there's any justice in the world, Art Of Magic will become the huge selling game Magic & Mayhem could have been.
If ever there was a title that demonstrated how important addictive gameplay is in the making of a classic PC game, Magic & Mayhem was it. The visuals were good, although not particularly impressive, but it had that undefinable quality that brought you back to the game time and again, a quality that eludes the majority of PC games released. The sequel promises the same brand of highly addictive gameplay, but with some very noticeable improvements in other departments, An all new storyline (obviously) and many new creatures and spells have made their way into AOM, but so too has the arrival of 3D graphics, which will hopefully make the game look just as nice as it plays. Having seen many psuedo-3D titles in action recently, we were slightly sceptical as to how realistic the new 3D engine was going to be. Paul Whipp, project manager and designer of the sequel, quickly put our fears to rest.
"We've designed the game so that you do not need to zoom or rotate while playing, but you can always zoom in for a close look or spin the camera to see what a castle looks like from the other side," he says. "We've taken care to only deliver benefits from the 3D - better line of sight resolution and fog of war, better creatures and effects with much more variety in scale. You can summon creatures from tiny speedy fairies up to huge lumbering mountain giants."
While Art Of Magic is essentially an action-oriented role-playing game, as was the case with its predecessor, it will not feature many of the 'heavy' elements from traditional RPGs. Character development and t he magic system are kept simplistic so as not to alienate players who are not particularly keen on star-heavy role-playing games. Paul elaborates: "There are no character types as such. You develop your character as you gain experience, choosing to go for strength, magic, or the ability to control larger armies. There are people you will meet who will join your party too. We put gameplay first. A dedicated RPG player might think that just having three character attributes to spend experience points on will make things too simple... Not so! It makes the decision really interesting and means that you quickly see the effect of how you are developing your character. Do you want to sneak around in the background summoning wolves, demons or dragons to do your fighting, or do you want to charge into the thick of battle lashing out with lightning and incinerating your foes with dragon's breath?
"As well as the experience system, we have kept spell selection (the portmanteau) much the same as in the original, so your character is also defined by the spells you choose to take into battle. "There is one significant enhancement to the portmanteau for multiplayer. You can choose your alignment and thus alter the costs of the spells. This makes it possible to fight as a truly 'lawful' or 'chaotic' character - it's great fun!" development, and with much tweaking planned further down the road we expect this title to stand out as one of the best looking RPGs for some time.
The in-game music has undergone a complete overhaul, too. The music in Magic & Mayhem was atmospheric, but had no real effect on the game. Charybdis is going for a more orchestral approach in the sequel, to reflect the harsher world in which the game is set. The music will now change dynamically to reflect what is happening in the game. This was planned for the first title but was not implemented due to time restraints.
Another significant change in the sequel is the introduction of more tactical puzzles. The timing-related and switch puzzles have been dropped to make the overall experience more entertaining. This suggests a move towards a much more action-based title than the original and will surely enhance the multiplayer game considerably. Paul is keen to make the multiplayer side of the game as addictive and challenging as it was in Magic & Mayhem. "We've kept it much the same as the original, with Deathmatch, Instant kill and timed competitions,"says Paul.
"The scoring works much better than in the original, so the timed matches are great fun. We can also play with eight wizards on the map, which is true mayhem, and you can have great fun playing any of the multiplayer modes on the Net. We have multiplayer set up so you can easily find people to play, even if you are a novice to Internet gaming."
There Can Only Be One
One of the things that made Magic & Mayhem so enjoyable to play was there was nothing quite like it around ar the time, and indeed, it still stands out as a unique title even in today's overcrowded PC games market. Take a look at any of the first-person shooters or real-time strategy games around and it's easy to see where they drew their 'inspiration' from. The same can not be said for Art Of Magic, although Paul admits to having taken a look at the competition to see what they were up to.
"Almost all of our inspiration has come from playing the original," he says. "However, we spent a lot of time with other 3D RTS games like Earth 2150 and Ground Control. They are good games, but we learned a great deal from their mistakes. We've kept the AOM interface amazingly simple. You really can play the whole AOM campaign with just the mouse, the onscreen buttons are kept to an absolute minimum. We want you to play the game rather than struggle with the interface. We also spent some time with turn-based strategy games like Heroes Of Might & Magic, looking at how to give the player interesting decisions that enhance the experience." From the sound of it, Art Of Magic will be as much of a tactical challenge as a highly enjoyable slice of gaming. We have yet to see the game in action, but all the signs indicate that Charybdis is heading in the right direction.
The graphics are excellent, multiplayer has been improved, and all the elements that made the original so addictive have been retained. No prizes for guessing who's name will be top of the list when it finally comes in for review.
Getting the art right
As was the case with Magic & Mayhem, Art Of Magic will use its own game engine to trigger cut-scenes that develop the storyline when you come across key characters in the game. While this wasn't particularly impressive in the original title, the stunning visuals in Art Of Magic will offer a greater level of immersion, so the transgression from ingame action and story segments will be seamless. We don't know who the guy with the funny hat in the screenshot is, but no doubt he will play his part in the storyline at some point in the game.
A New Dimension
Zooming right along...
The developers of Art Of Magic thought long and hard before deciding to implement 3D for the sequel. Many 3D RTS titles have failed not through lack of Imagination but through poor implementation of their 3D evenvironments. For this reason, Art Of Magic will ha ve a fixed viewing angle of the gameworld for ease of play, but players will have the option to zoom and rotate the 3D environment if they want to get a better view of the action.
It's now a whole lot easier to put your might to work...
The single biggest problem with Magic & Mayhem was some of the hey characters' uncanny ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Leave one of them unattended and they would get themselves into all sorts of trouble, attacking creatures when they had no health, getting lost in the middle of an enemy encampment, etc. The problem was simple: you could not control the characters you needed to keep alive to complete a level - now you can. In addition to being able to bring other characters into your party for the first time, you can also control them and have them carry out tasks so they will now be a valuable aid during your missions, not a burden. Good thing too, we say.
There's nothing worse than building up your hopes for a big title only to find that it disappoints when it finally arrives. Yes, the screenshots in last month's preview looked great, and yes, we were secretly confident that developer Charybdis could deliver the goods when it finally finished work on Art Of Magic. But without having played the thing, we were always prepared for the possibility that it might not be quite what we were expecting when it finally arrives for review.
Fortunately, we won't have to wait for next month's review for confirmation of our faith in this title. We've had an early look at the software and although it's not finished yet, it's looking very nice indeed. The new 3D engine breathes new life into what is essentially a very similar title to its predecessor, but as we already know, that's no bad thing. Right from die outset it's obvious the new engine is designed to iron out the problems that made the first title frustrating. Characters no longer get stuck in stupid places, and characters that were previously introduced at key points only to help the story along now play an active part in the proceedings, offering considerable assistance to the player during the missions. This is particularly good news since, on the evidence of the first few levels we played, you're going to need all the help you can get. Enemy magicians are a lot smarter in the sequel dian they were in the first game. They guard key positions of power (magic circles that give mana to the player or computer NPC who controls them) and will defend them to the last. My key tactic of waiting for them to walk away from dieir one remaining position of power so I could blast their minions and control all the mana in the game no longer works. They will defend key positions until they are sure they have adequate defences before moving on. It's almost like playing a human opponent. Equally impressive are the characters who assist you in certain missions. They make new creatures and send them off to take over positions of power, leaving you free to explore the landscape and take out enemy beasties as you go along. They also seem to defend themselves well when you're not around, and they don't walk headfirst into the biggest trouble they can find (unlike the characters in the first game) which is, of course, nice.
The Same, But Somehow Different
Gameplay is pretty much the same deal as it was in the first game: launch into a level, make a few creatures, send them off exploring the map, pounce on any position of power you find and hope your enemy hasn't been quicker about it than you. From there on in it's a simple matter of rooting out your enemy and building up your forces before attacking, although it has to be said the introduction of computer characters on your side means you'll have to change your strategy considerably from the first game and consider their resources in addition to your own. In this respect, it's more of a real time strategy game than an RPG. There's the same sense of urgency you get when you play an RTS in that you know you have to get your act together quickly before your opponent has a chance to do the same. In fact, apart from the ability to distribute a few skill points in between missions based on the experience you've earned in-game, it doesn't feel much like an RPG at all. Think of it as a fantasy-based action game (not entirely dissimilar to Warcraft) and you'll get the idea. This is what gives AOM so much potential as a multiplayer title, with fast-paced action and quick-thinking playing a much bigger part in the proceedings than collecting and distributing hundreds of stats. Despite the obvious similarities to certain tides though, AOM retains a charm all of its own and takes a unique approach to the everyday business of amassing an army and unleashing it on the opposition. It's perhaps more satisfying than a standard RTS since you're taking direct control of a smaller number of units and guiding them direcdy to their destinations. The original feel of the first tide is also present in this sequel.
The main difference between AOM and its predecessor (apart from the absence of time-consuming puzzles) is its presentation. Rich and detailed environments are the norm, character models are impressive, and spell effects are suitably over the top and graphically pleasing. The game engine is used to power the cut-scenes which develop the story, and important characters in the game will pop up at crucial moments to tell you things of earth-shattering importance. It's all pleasantly unobtrusive and it manages to blend nicely with the hectic action, rather than intruding upon it, though it has to be said we were not completely convinced by some of the voice-overs, which sounded decidedly dodgy in places. On this evidence then, AOM is certainly out to improve on all the elements in the first title, as opposed to changing them drastically in any way.
This is bound to prove popular with fans of the first game, and newcomers to the series are likely to find it a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill RTS titles flooding the PC games market. While we don't want to be seen jumping the gun at this point (we've only played the first four or five levels) we can say there's every reason to be optimistic about Art Of Magic's chances of living up to its hefty expectations when it comes in for review next month, when all will be revealed.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Magic & Mayhem: The Art of Magic Screenshots
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