Pride comes before a fall. Worse, actually. In this game, pride comes before a meteor shower to the face, an icy blast to the particulars and a death ray to the heart. Magicka: Wizard Wars continues to entertain me on a daily basis but it has been cruel to me these past weeks and I can't help but feel that I brought some of the suffering on myself. The tale I have to tell is one of ice and fire, and of cruelty and claws. It is a tale of cat and mouse.
I'd taken to my Twitter perch and crowed about my Wizard Wars capabilities, and it was right around then that everything started to go wrong. My intention hadn't been to brag – far from it – I was quite honestly amazed that I didn't consistently rank as the worst player on either of the four-wizard teams in a Magicka match. Instead, I was often the most valued pyromancer, extracting my allies from the jaws of defeat or leading the charge to the enemy's final spawn point.
Wizard Wars demands many skills but it rewards instinct far more readily than preparation. While teamwork will often win the day, it's the sort of collaboration that requires little more than an awareness of allies' positions and the vaguest grasp of their intentions. Understand the single map and the rules of respawning and you'll soon be capable of predicting behaviours.
Useful players swiftly realise that it's usually best to play the numbers game, backing up team mates when the odds are against them. With the correct application of healing spells, chain lightning and summoned incarnations of Death Itself, it's possible to ensure that the local battle is won without your own side suffering casualties.
Preventing wizards from exploding might seem to go against everything that Magicka stands for but the ability to survive, and to ensure the survival of team mates, is the key to victory. Killing people is easy when you're body bristles with raw elemental power. Staying alive - and thereby preserving position and respawn tokens – is the greatest trick of all, and it was my mastery of death-dealing while team-healing that had made me rather pleased with myself.
I didn't just help my team to win, I helped them to win in style and in every way imaginable. There were matches that lasted less than a minute, as my companions scurried to separate spawn points, claiming them while I eliminated our befuddled enemies who were stranded between rock walls and hard glaciers. The fight usually lasts for at least a few minutes though and is either won through careful management of spawn points or by a team capable of out-killing the opposition. The sweetest victories, as in any sport, are the comebacks, and Wizard Wars is designed in such a way that victory is rarely certain.
Where did it all go wrong? The Duel mode, that’s where. I’d already toyed with Magicka’s one-on-one arena at the Paradox Convention, where I exploded other writers, had to buy a new hat for my rapidly inflating head and stepped ever closer to the banana peel of pride. Rather than writing about what a wonderful warlock I am, I decided to wait until the Duel mode was live so that I could play against the masses. That way rather than writing about the roomful of people I’d frozen, smashed, frazzled and electrocuted, I could write about the hundreds of people I’d frozen, smashed, frazzled and electrocuted.
Things did not go to plan. Things did not go to plan at all.
Within an hour of playing Duel mode online I had seen my wizard die in so many new and exciting ways that I was tempted to start taking notes. The arena floor might as well have been a blender that he was lobbed into whenever his number came up. The experience was brutal, disheartening and humiliating. And then I met the most unpleasant character I’ve ever encountered in my years of online gaming. Forget the musical maniacs of DayZ and the naked assailants of Rust – this is a tale of sadism and cruelty like no other.
My story is so terrible that I must utilise a Tom and Jerry analogy to illustrate the horror of it all.
If you’re anything like me, you felt sorry for Tom. He never came out on top so we never had to think about what would happen if he did. We never had to imagine Jerry’s tiny guts hanging from Tom’s whispers like loops of spaghetti. Never had to think about the smarmy little git dissolving in a pool of stomach acid.
Jerry was a dick because he always won and it wasn’t enough just to survive. He’d lay traps and pull pranks that made a royal mess of Tom’s house and, of course, it wasn’t Tom’s house at all. It was his owner’s house – he wasn’t free like Jerry – and he’d be yelled at, beaten and thrown out in the snow for the damage that the little smarm of a mouse had caused.
When playing against the good people at the Paradox Convention, I had become a horrible mouse in a roomful of cartoon cats. I used every trick in the book to destroy them, switching tactics and elements on the fly to demonstrate my superiority. In Duel mode, the winner stays on so I’d be there on the inside, feasting on a block of cheese and a jar of chutney, while the poor bastards I’d destroyed sat out in the cold. Occasionally, somebody would obliterate me but, hey, I’m a cartoon mouse. I bounce back into shape and I’m as good as new.
It was during my second or third hour of online duelling that I finally met a real cat. Duel mode involves four players – at any one time, two are spectators and the others are in the arena. The winner of the battle has a few seconds to heal and prepare shields/traps before the next contender arrives, plucked from the spectators. First to reach the point limit wins.
I first saw The Cat’s claws from the safety of the spectators’ balcony. He threw up an ice and rock shield, and ran straight at the poor sod in front of him. A cone of cold spilled from his staff and the victim was frozen before he could even fire off a spell. The Cat stepped back, surveying the ice sculpture, and then he shattered it with a blow from his sword. The aftermath looked like an R-rated version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman’s final scene.
But the horror wasn’t over. A quick kill isn’t unusual in Duel mode, where mismatched opponents don’t have teammates or escape routes to prolong the inevitable. This round of combat wasn’t over though. The green sparkle of a healing magick flickered across the corpse-bits and I frowned a Grand Canyon into my forehead as I witnessed The Cat resurrecting its prey.
Discombombulated, Lazarus span around on the spot and didn’t bother to throw up a shield. Maybe he was too confused to react or maybe he wanted to thank The Cat for sparing him. It took seconds for another volley of ice, rock and sword to demolish him again. And then, with a shimmering sound that curdled the blood, the victim lived again.
The cycle continued until a countdown timer appeared and the round was seconds away from being declared a draw. No more resurrections for the victim then, who had barely been able to react to the ferocity of attack. As I watched, I realised The Cat was good but I made the mistake of assuming his opponent was weak and untrained in the ways of Magicka. I saw that ice attacks were favoured – he liked to slow his prey down so that they struggled to react as he pinned and dissected them – and I noted a fondness for death by the sword.
As I appeared in the arena, my fingers keyed in an ice shield and a flaming hunk of rock to hurl in the general direction of the enemy. I charged the projectile and unleashed it, only to see it clatter against a wall that had been hastily thrown up. And then I was on fire, surrounded by necromantic explosives and blasted by lightning.
I died within seconds and then alive again. No longer a cartoon, I was a small, fragile living plaything. Tom and Jerry by way of Davids Attenborough and Cronenberg. A Promethemouse bound to his rock.
Every effort to fight back was countered and I didn’t kill The Cat a single time during our first meeting. For a while, I thought that he was resurrecting his victims so that they could learn, like the cruel sports teacher who has ‘no pain no gain’ tattooed beneath his tracksuit, and prays for hailstone and frozen shin-shattering fields every winter morning.
Perhaps it was intended to be a learning experience. The Duel mode can certainly be educational, allowing spectators to pick up on new tricks and attempt to exploit them. I even borrowed some of The Cat’s behaviour when the regular team mode returned – he was a master of harming and healing in almost equal measure. The assaults didn’t cease even while the resurrect magick recharged, and The Cat was capable of keeping a poor mouse like me alive even while he swatted and tore at my innards.
And that’s my story. I’m not sure that it has a point but I did play Wizard Wars for around five hours that day, occasionally offered up to The Cat as a sacrifice once again. I can’t imagine ever casting as fast as he does or having so many wizardly routines accessible in the memories of my finger muscles, but I realised the importance of unpredictability. The Cat was good but he followed certain routines – by the end of the day, I was convinced that if I’d have been able to match his speed, I could have beaten him.
I was probably wrong. The repeated humiliation didn’t drive me away though – it made me more determined than ever to turn the tables and to become the cartoon again.