Published on July 24th, 2013 | by Fraser Brown1
Burning fools and murdering sheep in Magicka: Wizard Wars
I am surrounded by an oppressive wall of heat. Smack bang in the middle of a heatwave, I’m in the heart of it: London. Already feeling uncomfortable about being this far south (I hear that they eat their children), the fact that every bit of liquid I retain is seeping out of my pores is almost too much to bear. I’m Scottish — we aren’t built for this. But I have a job to do.
I am surrounded by an oppressive wall of heat. This time, it’s protecting me from a gang of robed lunatics. They run through it like an unthinking horde, eager for my death. Now they are all on fire. I whoop and yell. I almost roar. Take that, losers. I’m playing Magicka: Wizard Wars, a cooperative PvP title from Paradox North, and I’m quickly realising that my allies and adversaries are significantly more subdued than I, with my shouting and barely restrained mockery. That’s what they get for inviting a barbarian down south.
You’ve likely heard of Magicka, even if you are in the small group of people that hasn’t played it. It was a surprising hit for Arrowhead and Paradox, providing a fairly unique co-op experience built on the tried and tested foundations of screwing over friends while slaying beasties. As one of four wizards, players saunter through colourful fantasy lands, battling a menagerie of monstrosities with magical spells. Three things made it rather special: spells can be combined, creating new spells or overpowered versions of the basic ones, it’s very easy to kill your mates and it’s bloody hilarious.
Now Paradox North, a relatively new studio attached to the expansive Swedish publisher, has been passed the torch. The result is a fast-paced, competitive take on the franchise. A MOBA with exploding wizards and silly hats. The joy of killing one’s pals in the original makes PvP seem like a natural progression, and Paradox North has maintained a lot of what made Magicka so delightful — the silliness, the magic synchronicities — while giving the title a significant boost in freedom of movement, something the original lacked, but is sorely needed in PvP.
Let’s take a few steps back, to before I was laying down walls of magical fire. Two teams of four would face each other in an idyllic country map, but first we had to select our loadout. Items like weapons, robes and a staff help to define a player’s role via statistical boosts. I first opted for the shaman’s robes — with a stag skull helm and a crazy looking squirrel attached to my belt — and a druidic staff, both of which gave me significant boosts to my healing ability. My team of ne’er do well wizards opted to cover all of the bases, which each of us choosing different robes and staffs. We all selected the axe as a weapon, however, because axes are cool.
So, I was to be the healer. This was a terrible mistake.
We are deposited just beneath a spawn point, of which there are three on the map, all needing to be captured. For the first few seconds, team killing is turned off, which allowed us to start experimenting with our magical arsenal. Three spells can be queued up, the right mouse button unleashes them on a foe (or a friend) or just simply on the ground, while the mouse wheel casts them on yourself. And thus our little sanctuary became filled with flames, spider webs of electricity, flying rocks and all manner of arcane energy. Somebody wasn’t paying attention to the match countdown timer, though, and I began my battle aflame. Not a big problem — I cast water on myself, dousing the fire, and then a healing spell, calming down those third degree burns.
The first match proved to be our worst. Not a simple free-for-all, Wizard Wars is a surprisingly deep tactical experience. The map is split into lanes, all ending in the all-important spawn/victory points. Capturing them shrinks the enemy pool of respawn tokens, and securing them all will mean that enemies have nowhere to respawn even if they do have enough tokens. These victory points also generate quirky little imps that follow the wizards around and stab foes in their vulnerable knees. So there’s a lot going on, but I wasn’t paying attention to any of it.
“I need healing!” cried an ally. “Heal your bloody self!” I responded. I was at the other end of the map, surrounded by three unfriendly chaps with lasers springing forth from their staffs. With our forces spread out across the map, very little communication and most of our time being spent on figuring out spell combinations, we didn’t put on a very good show. The match was over quickly, and were rightly embarrassed. We wouldn’t be caught with our pants down again.
By the third bout, if not the second, we knew what the score was. Shortcuts between lanes were discovered — blow up a fence here, a cart there — and we were working together, keeping an eye on what spells we were using — one of us would cast water on a foe, the other lightning — and shouting out commands, pointing out places that needed defending or enemy movements. That’s not to say that we didn’t cock up from time to time. I was relaxing next to a tree, waiting for the red dot on my minimap to become a visible enemy, and I’d queued up three rock spells to greet them with. They appeared, and a large boulder was spat out from my location, impotently falling at my feet. I was informed that the extra large rock created by using all three spells was too heavy to travel far. Bloody physics.
The spell queue might be smaller than it was in Magicka, which allowed players to queue up five, but it’s a welcome shift in a game that’s significantly more frantic. Spells are cast on the move now, but there are caveats, like queued up spells causing wizards to become slower. The pace and smaller queue certainly has not diminished the flexibility of the magic, however. Far from it.
There are defensive and offensive options so varied that it’s difficult to retain all the necessary information. Mixing water and healing magic can put out flames and heal an ally; laying down a fire barrier sets a nasty trap for foes, but if they’ve cast the same spell on themselves, they become immune to the once deadly flames, and the barrier will do no damage; while laying down an energy shield will reflect attacks, making dastardly enemies injure themselves. Magic can be combined, strengthened and even used to kill sheep.
Fingers flew like Clark Kent’s when he’s writing breaking news. Arcane energy was combined with fire to create face-melting lasers, ice and flames were slapped together in an unnatural marriage, lightning was being fired off in all directions, bouncing off shields and hitting friends, and unsuspecting men in dresses were being flung all over the place by short blasts of water. And then there’s always that one wizard who just runs into the mayhem and starts hacking people up with a sword or an axe. It’s surely more tactical than its forebearer, but that doesn’t mean that Wizard Wars has sacrificed any of the chaos inherent to the franchise.
Then there are the special-ultra-awesome powers. A small meter at the bottom of the screen slowly charges up, unlocking new spells like the simple “haste” spell, perfect for legging it to capture a victory point, all the way up to a destructive meteor shower. The latter inevitably killed friends and foes alike, but what a thrill it is to unleash such an attack. The Grim Reaper even makes an appearance, being summoned for a short time to stalk terrified wizards. When he appears, everyone scatters.
Starting with only one map, Wizard Wars might seem like it’s got a dearth of content, but the map is merely a stage for all sorts of crazy, desperate plans and battles. A great play is still a great play, whether it’s held in a barn night after night, or different grandiose theatres all around the world. And Wizard Wars should have lots of opportunities to grow, the community willing. Paradox North will be adding frequent updates with new gear and new maps based on player feedback, so when it launches later this year, for free, it will just be the foundation of something that could expand considerably and something I suspect we’ll be playing quite a bit at AWESOMEoutof10.