I don't think anything else has quite gripped me in the same way this year. The current version of Magicka: Wizard Wars features only one map, and is suffering some network woes, but the Early Access release of Paradox's arena-PvP reboot of slapstick spell-combinating hit Magicka is shaping up to be a triumph.
Let me combine the magic of words with the arcane energies of meaning, and use a ray of physics to put them all in your face.
I keep going back.
I'll just have another game.
And another, just to see how that turns out. I lose nine in a row, and I am still hitting the PLAY button for one more game. I am immediately hooked: and that's exactly what I had hoped for when I first saw this game in action.
As someone who generally bounces off the arena type games, and who didn't even spend that much time with Magicka itself, you might have thought I was unlikely candidate for a Wizard Wars advocate, but I knew even before I played it that 4v4 capture point game was going to grasp my attention with Bigby's Grasping Hand. It offers exactly the kind of tooth-and-nail fighting, where skill trumps all, that I love in the finest multiplayer games.
Magicka: Wizard Wars loosely follows Magicka's control system and spell-casting model, while tweaking everything for PvP, and improving the visuals. While the original game allows you to combine elements for literally hundreds of possible effects, here they've been simmered down into a useful set. There's still a large array of possibilities, but the useless, random and buggy ones have been pruned away. You'll still find yourself popping up energy shields, blasting out deathrays, creating of clouds of fire mixed with electricity, throwing up earthen walls from the ground, and blasting your enemies back with water-cannons from thin air, but this time it feels a good deal more precise.
The game starts with the teams heading out from points on opposite sides of the map. There are three control points across this map, which can be captured by your presence in them. These are your spawn locations, and if they are all lost to the opposing team, then you can't spawn. This, of course, means you get some nail-biting moments when one member of your team lives, and has to make a capture to allow everyone else to spawn. As you spawn, however, you also use up tickets. When these are depleted, you can spawn no more, and if someone on your team dies, they stay dead.
The spawn points also spawn some minions, which while not particularly powerful compared to a wizard, do liven things up. Some of them follow the player, while others guard the point. They're nothing like as integral as the creeps in MOBA games, but they do provide additional opposition or allied damage, and make an already hectic game even more chaotic.
Initially, of course, this experience comes with the same slapstick confusion that Magicka did, and likewise, as you begin to master the combinations, it steps forward into a new zone, where your comprehension of the game gives way to a feeling of mild competence. It takes time, and it takes dozens of deaths, but you begin to develop tactics. As per the finest multiplayer games, Wizard Wars is a complex set of tools that allows players to work out how to best work with their team-mates and to bring down their enemies. The pace is blistering too: in one moment you will be setting your enemies on fire, and the nest punching out a healing ray to save your buddy from certain doom.
Right now Wizard Wars is a mess of matchmade public games, which means you can end up losing people, or being on a team that gets flattened in 30 seconds. That's just how these things go, of course, and as soon as you begin to get to grips with the game yourself, the nuances begin to spring out. I've only had a couple of really tight games out of the dozens I've already played, but those were enough: when the teams are well matched, this is a commanding experience, with people pulling off amazing feats and inventive combos to win the day.
You can stack up spell elements on yourself for immediate casting, but you slow yourself down. Not doing so means you need to be quick on the keys, of course, but you will want to be anyway: you need to heal yourself in a tight spot, or put yourself out if you're on fire. Knowing when to throw down defences and retreat, and when you can leave your team on their own, are things which will only emerge as you play, but those continuous decisions, and that constant feeling of crisis juggling, makes this a gorgeous experience.
Anyway, I am ranting, and it's early days. It's also very hard to determine whether this initial game-lust is going to endure. For the price of the game it might not matter, but I suspect the fatigue may set in quickly. I've got a massive kick out of this game already, and I assume Paradox aren't going to completely fuck it up with huge systems changes, but I suppose they might be able to. It's not really clear how gear and character advancement are going to work just yet, and getting that right will mean the difference between this becoming a solid classic, and it going off the rails into one of those great but missed opportunities.
Enough with these typings! I have to get back in for another game.