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Hands On: Magicka - Wizard Wars

The Yellow Mages

Magicka: Wizard Wars is a new venture for the inept, accident prone and shell-shocked mages who first appeared in Arrowhead's unexpected hit. Designed by Paradox North, a new internal team, it's a multiplayer team deathmatch game, with a new engine but a similar perspective. I played for a couple of hours during a hot day in London and, despite the proximity of a beer garden and a cold pint, I would have been happy to stay at the computer right through the evening. This is my kind of war.

“I can’t believe the sheep are still standing. You do know you can burn the sheep?” The man from Paradox North is unnerved by our restraint. Perhaps he thinks that our lack of eweicide is a symptom of an underlying dissatisfaction. If a group of people refrain from throwing burning meteors at sheep then is it fair to assume they have been made weary by the day’s activities.

Nonsense. There was a very good reason that the scent of frazzled cardigans and mutton hadn’t created the miasmic haze of a knitwear barbeque – everybody was concentrating on the battle. The concept of trying to win in a multiplayer game is fairly alien to me. Drop in the middle of a Planetside 2 fray and I’ll enjoy the lightshow for a while and then run for cover. I sometimes try to take screenshots, a war correspondent with an eye for the ludicrous, but I tend to assume I’ve lost before I even begin.

That wasn’t going to happen with Magicka though. These aren’t men with guns, they’re tiny wizards with comical conical hats and gnarled staffs. My kind of people. The first round was disastrous, ending with one of the least amusing team-kills possible in a game where spell combinations can cause everyone and everything within a certain circumference to burst into flames. I trained a fully charged death ray on a wizard, barely able to target and move as the charnel negation sprang from my fingertips. He didn’t fight back though and why should he? I was confused. Everything was happening so quickly. As the wizard burst into parcels of meat, one of my team mates threw his hands in the air.

“Why did you kill me?”

There was no point in denying it. Not only had I spent around five seconds focusing the beam directly on his face, turning with all the grace of a sumo wrestler in a tub of molasses, I’d charged the spell up again to finish him off, very deliberately pressing the right keys in the right order. As in the original game, spells are combinations of elements and arcane abilities. Only three ingredients can be queued at any one time, as opposed to the five of the original, and the change is a good one. Wizard Wars is often chaotic but it’s also a far more tactical game than I expected it to be.

Two teams of four compete in each round, which takes place on the game’s single map, a colourful woodland farm with paths around the outside and cutting through the middle. It’s a simple design and the three victory points spread across it – bottom-centre and top corners – make the goal and the tactical possibilities immediately obvious. Control all three to win, perhaps leaving one wizard to defend a specific lane, or trusting that your miniature mob can sprint from one to the next, overwhelming their opponents so quickly that they won’t have time to counterattack.

There are complications. The victory points are also spawn points. Lose all three and the match continues, but your wizards are now on their last legs. Death, suddenly, is final. Except it isn’t. Even if there’s only one wizard left and all of the spawn points are lost, a team can recover. The survivor can become a hero by capturing a spawn point single-staffed. As soon as he does, his team mates will rejoin him there, making a comeback a distinct possibility.

That’s provided there are enough spawn tokens remaining. Each team starts with 75 tokens and every respawn consumes one. Therefore, no matter how well the lanes are managed and how securely the points are held, conservation of life is important. By the third round, we’d realised the importance of having a dedicated healer (obviously to be played by John when we form an RPS coven), someone content to fire healing beams rather than murderous meteors. Someone with a steady hand, calm enough to keep those beams fixed on friends rather than foes.

Minimising your team’s loss rate through skilful use of shields and counters allows for a Wizard War of attrition. Let them hold two spawn points and defend your own, killing them every time they come for it, sheltering and healing as they respawn and try again. Eventually, with no spawn tokens left, their control of the points becomes futile, and they can be hunted down and slain.

Oh. I’ve just managed to make Magicka sound like an involved tactical experience. That’s because Paradox North, developing internally and independent of Arrowhead, have made just such a game. The single map may seem stingy at first, but it’s not really a map at all – it’s a tightly designed game mode, like DOTA. More areas, modes and gear will be added post-release, although additions will be decided based on community feedback. There are plenty of ideas but no definite plans.

It’s possible that the intelligent tactical design of the game may disappoint those who came here in search of explosions, magical mishaps and piles of giblets, but they have nothing to fear. Apart from explosions, magical mishaps and the very real possibility of ITALIC becoming a pile of giblets. As we shouted commands back and forth – “to the centre”, “stay here, defend that, kill him”, “BURNING –hit me with healing water jets right the fuck now” – plans developed and the matches became increasingly competitive. It’s a mark of solid design that both teams were learning quickly, adapting and improving. But in between all of that, there was mayhem.

Casting spells is haphazard, fingers attempting to pick out the strands using muscle memory as much as personal preference. Everyone will have favourites, which they automatically key in when panicked, like an emergency call or a lover’s mobile number. At the bottom of the screen, a bar fills, unique to each player, unlocking four special abilities, in order of power. Use it when the first segment has been filled to cast ‘haste’, useful when a spawn point is open for a quick steal, or to escape certain death. Let the bar charge fully and the meteor strike unlocks, capable of killing an entire team, as well as the caster if he/she doesn’t scarper quickly enough.

The individual moments involve both slapstick and skill. Death beams strike shields, ricocheting and killing the caster. A bastard with a flame-spurting tip rampages through four opponents, setting them alight and then swiftly switches spells and freezes one victim, following up with a hefty rock, shattering the poor sod into pieces. Then the Grim Reaper appears, summoned to stalk the survivors. Two mages fire identical spells, which collide, causing feedback that sends both casters somersaulting backwards and landing on their backsides, vulnerable but amused.

Wizard Wars is a distillation of the elements that made Magicka involving and hilarious, a true comedy of errors, but the backbone of the new game is an intelligent and tactical experience. It’s the most compelling of recent multiplayer Paradox releases, built by a new inhouse team, using new tech, and mixing new ideas in with the old. While the comedy is still there, I’m surprised by how intensely competitive I found the experience. Magicka’s particular brand of madness is perfectly suited to fast-paced tactical combat as well as improvised violence. Who would have imagined?

Alpha signups are already open and unless you’re allergic to multiplayer, it’d be wise to sign up as soon as possible. There’s nothing to be lost except dignity and a few hours of these long days that make up our lives. On Friday, we'll have an interview in which design choices, robes and the nature of free-to-play are discussed at some length.

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