In today's magically delicious episode of Speak Up on Kotaku, commenter Chris P. Bacon claims that while not one video game has portrayed magic perfectly, several have come close. He should know. He is a wizard.
I've always been a fan of magic users in games. A magician who always has a bag of tricks for any situation and an ace in the sleeve should all else fail. A sorcerer who can reshape reality with unthinkable powers. But, to this date, I've never seen a magic system in a videogame without a few glaring flaws.
Why is it that a warrior or rogue can jog an unlimited distance then swing a weapon for minutes on end while never breaking a sweat or slowing down even slightly, yet wizards often find themselves out of magic and just standing there with little to do. Muscles never tire, and yet magic energy from some unknown impossible source often does.
Now, of course magic needs its limitations, otherwise there would be no reason not to blast the strongest spell all day over and over again. A cooldown system is a fine enough choice, yet it becomes very robotic, going through a consistent rotation of the same spells thoughtlessly just about everywhere.
Then, there's the D&D style, as used in, for example, Baldur's Gate 2 wherein you think of what spells you'll want tomorrow within limited slots then fall asleep until you can use them 8 hours later. It's rather clunky, yet it does cause you to go through everything in your spellbook according to the direness of the situation. It does seem rather silly that a whole party has to wait 8 hours for the wizard to take a nap before he casts one little remove curse spell. Or resurrecting a dead friend first thing in the morning before you brush your teeth.
I should add here that I do love the game Magicka. Big spells took a little time to type in as quickly as you could, practice and premeditation definitely helped, walking was slow when ready to cast so you can't instantly disintegrate enemies on sight, you never just run out of steam and stand there like a dope, and there was all sorts of interesting combinations to try, always a perfect tool for the job. The only drawback is that this system required a very particular control scheme, one that not every game will necessarily facilitate. Also, no one I know owned the game so I just played it single player about a dozen times over and over.
Another honorable mention should go to Two Worlds 2, getting the spell cards and elemental levels was a pain and it was still a mana bar system but it did allow creativity, fun experimenting, and a certain uniqueness between every mage who didn't go with a cookie cutter I-read-it-off-the-internet model.
I thought of a method that may be interesting to try which combines the D&D model and the basic mana bar. You can preselect a limited number of spells which cast instantly but at variable mana costs. But you can also cast from your entire spellbook at variable casting times which leaves you open and mostly stationary. This way you can choose between a quick burst of instant offensive magic or a collection of defensive spells to be used quickly, but non-clutch needs such as long-term damage per second and basic over-time healing can be cast without eventually getting tired and watching someone swing a 6 foot long greatsword for the rest of the fight without as much as needing to sit down in a chair to catch his breath.
What are some other games systems or your thoughts on how magic should best be handled?