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Wot I Think: Magicka - Wizard Wars

Spell it out

After a year of Early Access, Magicka: Wizard Wars [official site] has finally graduated from Hogwarts. We've already shared our thoughts on various versions of the game but there's still plenty to say about this maybe-a-MOBA and its complex combo-based elemental magic system. Here's wot I think.

I've played Wizard Wars far more often than any other multiplayer game over the last twelve months or so, but I find it easier to articulate its appeal now that I've taken my first steps into DOTA 2.

The first time I encountered Magicka's team-based free-to-play spin-off, I expected a game written in a language I don't understand. I'd heard the term MOBA chucked around in reference to it, y'see. There was talk of lanes. Creeps had been mentioned.

All of that led me to believe that Wizard Wars might require skills and knowledge that I didn't possess. I was delighted that the game proved me wrong. Paradox North's game is the elemental chaos of the original Magicka wearing Moba-themed robes rather than an actual attempt to move into the ultra-competitive territory occupied by DOTA, LOL and the like.

The spell system, as you might expect, is the game's foundation. Although slightly simplified, it's based around the core of the combo-based elemental magic that made Arrowhead's comedic action-adventure such an unexpected delight. There are eight elements – water, life, shield, cold, lightning, arcane, earth, fire – and each has a key associated with it. Press that key and the element falls into a queue of instructions, ready to cast alone or to mash together with further elements to create one of many spells.

You can lob giant boulders, fire death beams, deflect death beams, convert your staff into an impromptu flamethrower, litter the ground with healing mines, and summon the grim reaper to instagib an opponent. All of those effects, bar the last, are created by combining elements on the fly. Hammering the keys to summon the necessary mystical energies to counter an enemy's own fizzling and fumbling is sort of like playing a beat 'em up...except it's a beat 'em up where you're responsible for the wellbeing of team-mates as well as monitoring of an ongoing scoring system that decides the eventual victor. More on that later.

First, the grim reaper. Ol' bone-bonce is one of the game's charged abilities – Magicks. They are one of the main deviations from the playstyle of the original game, adding a reason to fight efficiently and to harvest enemy creeps. Basically, the more successful your wizarding, the faster your focus will charge, and the faster your focus charges, the more often you can use one of your four chosen Magicks.

They are the closest thing in Wizard Wars to the hundreds of skills in a MOBA. Rather than being tied to specific characters, however, they can be chosen at the beginning of each match. There aren't many to learn (14 at present, although more will most likely be added), but they do allow a healthy degree of customisation. You can create a support character, with haste, revival and buffing skills, or a murderous wielder of area effect catastrophes.

Everybody starts with the same four Magicks. More can be unlocked using the crystals that are dished out in a vaguely random fashion as you play. While it might be frustrating to see powers used that you're barred from equipping, the limited skillset available at the start of the game means that there's very little to learn. Wizard Wars is about as easy to pick up and play as any team-based multiplayer game I've ever seen. Partly, that's because I started early, back when everyone was more Rincewind than Gandalf, but it's also an aspect of the design.

To play Wizard Wars, you need to understand how to win (I'm assuming that you're playing the superior Warfare mode) and that's easy enough – each team of four has 100 spawn tokens and there are several spawn points on the map; every time you die, you'll spend a token to respawn unless somebody revives you in time; a team loses when they can no longer respawn, either because they're out of tokens or all wind up dead at the same time and lose control of every spawn point.

In short, if your entire team is dead and has no way to come back from the dead, you lose.

That, along the basics of the spellcasting system, is all you need to know. Spellcasting is tricky but logical. Water makes things wet and conducts electricity, right? It extinguishes flames, which otherwise cause things to burn. Shields protect you.

Easy to learn and almost impossible to master. I think Wizard Wars appeals to me because it reminds me of a youth spent in the thrall of Unreal Tournament and Quake deathmatch. In comparison, DOTA's characters and short-form levelling system are more akin to the class-based, progression-haunted style of the modern FPS, where unlocks and learning often seem more important than muscle memory and skill.

That's not to say DOTA – and other MOBAs – suffer from similar systems. It's an imperfect analogy but DOTA's match-long pursuit of experience and gold is in direct contrast to the repeated cycle of focus gain and expenditure in Wizard Wars. I've played against a team of incompetents who have somehow pulled a victory out of their pointy hats in the dying seconds. It felt good. It felt fair. The game is designed to punish mistakes and to reward brilliance, but it does so in a split second, leaving room for the jaws of defeat to cough up success. And then to swallow it, semi-digest it, then regurgitate it into the hungry, squawking mouths of the other team.

Admittedly, I've found myself less inclined to play every weekend now that the average player seems to be capable of spreading me across the floor like a Dairylea triangle, but I still manage to hold my own one game in five. I also remain convinced, as when I first played the game, that the genius of its design is in the use of spawn tokens - the tactical game that contains the cleverness of the improvised spellcasting. The Warfare mode is exquisitely crafted and beautifully paced. Even if you reckon you'll only play it once or twice, download it just to appreciate the careful flow of each match. It's a wonderful thing.

The other modes are fine. That's it. Fine. Duel, which is a four player one-on-one system (spectating and the anticipation of dueling are involved), is a great way to learn the ropes, particularly when a stronger opponent is flaying you with them. There's usually a lesson in defeat and it's genuinely useful to see high-level play up close and personal, but Duel is a sideshow rather than a main attraction.

Soul Harvest is a recent addition. Placing the MOBA elements front and centre, it's a mode with turrets, a single effigy to destroy on each side, and an emphasis on creep-killing. It hasn't gripped me at all. The tactical flow of Warfare mode is gone and there's nothing but a slow grind to replace it with. Maybe I'll find its rhythm if I stick with it for a while but I can't imagine it'll drag me away from Warfare mode. That's the heart of the game and it's as vital an organ as you could hope for. Thankfully, it's contained in a game that does free-to-play well.

Equipment can be purchased using crowns, either earned in-game or purchased with Real Cash Money. The buffs offered boost specific elements, while weakening others, making equipment a trade-off that allows for specialisation rather than making experienced or well-heeled players unstoppable. There's an advantage, yes, but it's marginal. The mastery skilltree is slightly more iffy, as it contains actual Magicks as well as some of the better equipment. You'll need Mastery Tokens to move along the tree and you gain those by increasing your level, which will happen even if you're naff but will happen much more quickly if you play well. Rather than purchasing tokens outright, you can buy experience boosters (from €1.49 for a day to €19.99 for three months).

While I'd rather have a speedier trip down the skilltree and pay for the game up front, I've never felt hindered by the (ugh) business model. If anything, I wish there were more cosmetic gimmicks that I could buy for a couple of quid to show my appreciation. As it is, I've got a massive pile of cash and don't know what to do with it. Because I used to be brilliant at Wizard Wars, see, before everybody learned how to play.

Those were the good old days but these days are splendid as well. Wizard Wars is a smart piece of design and worthy of far more attention than you probably imagine a free-to-play multiplayer spin-off deserves.

Magicka: Wizard Wars is available now.

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