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by Bethesda

shot50_800-01.jpg (9649 bytes)It’s been a bleak time of late, what with terrorists, shoe bombs, and the sniffles that inevitably accompany winter, and I’d like to suggest a perfect escape from these pre-spring doldrums--an elaborate world of monsters, mayhem and magic perhaps. But The Art of Magic from Charybdis and Bethesda Software isn’t such a beast. At best it’s a distraction. At worst it’s a ponderous exercise in repetitive play and shockingly bad voice acting.

shot37_800-01.jpg (6994 bytes)Maybe I’ve become jaded, and maybe I ought not to expect an original setup from all fantasy games. Part of their allure is the ability to become an all-powerful superbeing and save the world, but I like an attempt to at least change the details. The Art of Magic keeps it cliché. Some great wizards of yore created three "magic orbs" which have the power to save or damn the universe in a non-specific manner. You, a youth named Aurax, along with your strange, I-might-be-Scottish accent, wake from your coming of age ceremony to learn that the forces of Chaos have destroyed one of the orbs, upsetting The Balance. You must then assume your wizardly heritage, secure the remaining two orbs, and return peace to the land. The game does have a branching story structure, but most of it is a stage for silly cut-scenes.

shot41_800-01.jpg (7762 bytes)A story you’ve heard before might be okay if the gameplay itself were interesting. I did not find it to be so. The Art of Magic bills itself as a role-playing/real-time strategy hybrid. For role-playing, Aurax has three attributes to which points, gained via experience, can be added: health, control limit, which determines the number of magically summoned creatures you can handle, and mana, which is your maximum amount of magic energy. As you need increases in all areas, unable to really sacrifice in any, and there are few conversation options in dialogue with NPCs, the role-playing element is minimal

shot09_800-01.jpg (8950 bytes)What you find yourself doing is fighting roving battles across different mission maps. At first, I found The Art of Magic’s campaigns interesting. Aurax is able to both cast damaging spells and summon different kinds of magical monsters, giving you access to armies without having to build towns like other RTS games. Also, each map contains a number of mana fountains. Whenever you or your creatures stands in one, your magical energy regenerates at a greater rate. In essence, you have a never-ending resource. What quickly happens is that each battle is a battle for mana fountains, and it’s this, I think, that makes things dull. Because the best way to take out an opposing mage is to take out his magic, you attack those fountains guarded by his monsters. To do this, you need to use a fair number of your own. After you skirmish and win, your opponent simply gathers his remaining monsters and attacks one of your other, now lightly guarded, fountains--back to parity. I may be a bad player, but the constant back-and-forth seemed to take more endurance and luck than strategy.

shot49_800-01.jpg (8954 bytes)The spell system is interesting in that while you may have a large number of spells, you can only carry a set number of them into any particular battle. Some spells speed you up, others summon different sorts of monsters, some heal, some do direct damage, etc. I like the swip-n-swop feel, but found it didn’t mean much in the single-player game. You always need a balance and never have access to large number as they accumulate, and rather slowly, across missions.

shot33_800-01.jpg (9139 bytes)Another significant problem is the interface. Everything is point-n-click; I often charged an enemy rather than cast the spell I wanted. Aurax and his creatures have slow reaction times, which makes battles even more frustrating. In addition, too many spells don’t have hotkeys and the hotkeys you do have can’t be reconfigured. The camera is also unwieldy, zooming into a third-person shooter perspective and zooming out to a bird’s eye view with nothing in between. Point-of-view can’t be repositioned independent of the main character. As for sound, bizarre, might-be-Sean Connery accents are either to your taste or not.

shot47_800-01.jpg (9633 bytes)I’ve come down hard on The Art of Magic and not everything about it is terrible. The 3D engine is very pretty and all the textures and maps are impressive. Spell effects and character animations are also good. Aside from that, this is a combination of the mediocre elements of many other games: bland fantasy mixed with a dull RTS. That all adds up to something not so much bad as unmemorable. 

Matt Blackburn   (02/06/2002)


Ups: Nice visuals and animation; good maps.

Downs: Repetitive play; not very strategic; clunky interface.

Platform: PC