Developed by: Obsidian Entertainment
Published by: Square Enix
Reviewed on: 17th July, 2011.
Presentation: The graphics, effects and sound are very advanced and contribute a great deal to the game. Objects, characters and environments are rendered beautifully and the spell effects, while not the most amazing I’ve seen, are certainly exceptional.
Atmosphere: The first stumbling block is the atmosphere. You won’t feel like you’re saving the world in a truly epic tale or just a small part in something much larger. You’ll feel like you are stumbling through the same trite fantasy scenario that could have could from any book in the oversaturated market of fantasy novels. The loot tables mean that you’ll never get equipment as impressive as some from Diablo or Torchlight on top of that.
Control and Mechanics: Designed for a gamepad, this game doesn’t really have excellent mechanics. What’s worse is that keyboard mechanics cannot be reconfigured and an early patch mixed up the controls to pan the camera left or right. These problems have not been fixed at time of writing. The layout isn’t ideal for everyone, so I’d avoid it. (NOTE: Shortly after posting this, I was told that an update fixing these has gone live, the blog post is here.)
Who should buy this: People who want a somewhat competent hack and slash game with a few interesting new features and can pick it up for no more than £10. People who just can’t get hold of Diablo II/Torchlight/Magicka/one of those free online hack and slash games.
Who should avoid it: Anyone not in the above list, but especially anyone who wants a bug-free game or an inheritor to the Dungeon Siege games.
If I have to give a score: Like early Magicka, it’s a very buggy take on the Diablo genre. Unlike Magicka, it has little innovative and less hope of speedy bugfixing. I wouldn’t recommend it to any but the most forgiving of Dungeon Siege fans. 1/4
I have already written about Obsidian’s problems. I think part of their problem is they seem so relaxed about their failures, even though they promised the errors of Fallout: New Vegas or Neverwinter Nights 2 would not be repeated in their next game. Here we are and bugs abound, patches add new ones and they have an “awww, shucks” attitude to it all.
Obsidian’s sloppiness aside, it’s a game that has some strengths that do shine out: it has a very polished presentation and a few interesting twists of the usual combat. Character creation has, for better or worse, been replaced by a selection of characters. Each of these has a small set of abilities and the game is very good at making you use and learn them. You cannot just pile drive through the enemies, you have you use these skills carefully and thoughtfully at times.
Another interesting feature is the transmutation of items for gold rather than selling them. This removes the haul of items back to a seller that you’d see in most roleplaying games. These few features do not really make up for the compromises needed to make the leap to the consoles and the resultant problems arising from Obsidian’s mistakes.
First, the plot is lacklustre. Evil person gains immense power, takes over a fair, just kingdom. You are one of the few survivors and you are being hunted down. It’s almost as if they got their plot ideas from TV Tropes or something. They also make definitive statements about previous games that were ambiguous because of character design or choice (i.e. the hero of the first Dungeon Siege was female).
Consoles are limited in their capabilities compared to PCs and so the adaptation of the genre to the console format brings a few necessities that are forgiveable, but for PC players to have a fixed keyboard configuration that then messes up after a day one patch is not so forgiveable. Obsidian’s attitude towards all this when they jokingly expressed that a decent tutorial system, better controls and varied loot would “make good DLC” shows a company that increasingly needs to be taken out back with a shotgun.
So the patches aren’t going to be coming quickly. In my recent downtime, Fallout: New Vegas received a new bugfix and that’s been out for ages. I know these are the people who, at their core, made Fallout, Planescape: Torment and published the Baldur’s Gate games, but they are a shadow of their former selves even if a glimmer of their lost glory sparks now and again.
The controls are set tight and a gamepad isn’t really ever going to be the best medium for controlling the action on the screen. It’s not as if control configuration would be too much to ask but the game feels rushed once you get passed the refinement and polish of the graphics. The loot system and equipment presents a really mediocre experience with none of the weighing up strengths or weakness of varied equipment you’d find in Borderlands or Torchlight.
You’re also rushed through the tutorial of the game, which is brief and gives you no hint how the combat system really uses the special abilities. You could almost discover all this by accident after missing the brief mention of special attacks in the tutorial. You won’t feel you have real knowledge of how the inventory works in the game, nor how you really improve your skills or balance your character so you’ll end up looking at online guides or just getting around for yourself. It’s not overly hard to figure out, but a more comprehensive tutorial would be nice.
Multiplayer is the real let down, however. There is no ability to form PC-only parties or get a group of friends around to play. This is a console game and you can have one extra player, who plays a kind of sidekick. The second character won’t get saved or be used as anything other than player one’s sidekick, and can often feel a little redundant. This is not attributable to error in creation, but error in design. It was not going to work so why did they make it this way?
My final line on this game is that this is the sort of game that can fill a bored weekend for a single-player experience if you pick it up for a few quid in a bargain bin, but you’re not going to see it in one for a while (on the other hand, seeing how quickly Brink fell in price…). There’s no real reason to recommend it unless you are a devotee of the Black Isle cult of Obsidian or a really committed Dungeon Siege fan. If you are the former, you probably will have switched off at my criticisms of Obsidian anyway, if you are the latter, play the demo first. If you are anyone else, give this game a wide berth.
Dungeon Siege III is out now and available at retail or digital distribution for around £29.99.
Despite receiving lukewarm reviews, Magicka sold very well and there are certainly a lot of good reasons to get it, I certainly don’t regret playing it, but it fails because of things that would be so easy to solve. There’s DLC already available and an expansion coming out in the form of Magicka: Vietnam. However, the game still sports so many bugs that makes going through an entire chapter only for the game to bug out at the boss battle (for me, that averages once a day) or having everyone bar the host get stuck in cutscene mode a nuisance, and while we are here: what is it about the beds in the inn at chapter five that makes it impossible for wizards to sleep on them properly?
These are just examples, there are more, but the game is no where near as bad as it used to be. If it was in its current state upon release, I imagine the reviews would have remained lukewarm and the mention of bugs would have still been there, but at least the game is playable. The Arrowhead team, however, had best tread carefully with this new expansion as they need to keep squashing bugs as well as adding content and that new content must not add new bugs itself.
There’s the deal breaker and what really determines whether or not Magicka will really be worthwhile in terms of continued investment for players. I think it’s already missed the opportunity to become a real gem of indie gaming in the same way Darwinia, Braid or World of Goo have, but I will admit possibility of error here. I just imagine it will take its place amongst games like And Yet It Moves, as a great B-list member of the indie games menagerie.
Still, despite all its problems, Magicka shines brightly through the murky problems and that is where it differs from Dungeons (reviewed in the last entry). Dungeons’s problems are such that the game feels like it’s made by programmers who aren’t the most committed of gamers. Magicka feels like the reverse and so the charm really is there behind the lacklustre coding. I’m normally the first to want to string up games companies that release buggy software, but something here makes me think Arrowhead deserve a second chance.
But they do need to work on a few improvements and here is my short list of things I think they really should do.
1) Check points
A lot of people were bemoaning the lack of a sufficient number of these and while I did find it irritating to get past a particularly tricky part only to die shortly afterwards and have to go through it all again, I found those moments fairly rare. What I did find especially irritating was that if your game crashes, you have to finish or you click restart thinking it will take you back to the start of the boss fight then you are propelled straight back to the beginning of the chapter. Many games, like Braid or NightSky, have the ability to select levels within chapters and there’s no reason why selecting a chapter in Magicka shouldn’t send you straight to a checkpoint selection screen.
The problem is that games obviously provide a level of frustration and irritation. These are often vital parts of the enjoyment of the game as long as they remain in the background of the overall experience most of the time. I was fighting the boss at the end of the Murky Swamp level, I’ve reached a point where I can see that I’ll win too and then an explosion sends us both flying. Before we land, the screen blanks then I see my desktop. If I could load up the game and resume my battle from the boss then I would have kept playing, but the thought of all the effort I had to put in getting through the swamps being for nothing just left me with the frustration and that just leads to a sense of burnout. I tend to turn to other games after those moments happen and I doubt I’m the only one who does that.
2) Single player games and difficulty
I learnt very quickly that Magicka was a multiplayer game. The game feels a lot emptier when playing it by oneself and what detracts from that experience is the frustration of being swamped and cornered by a vast array of opponents that would be a lot easier for multiple wizards, but just chew you down and don’t really give you much opportunity to counter them. This is actually a bit annoying in multiplayer, but it’s something the players can potentially use to their advantage.
One possible solution is AI-controlled wizards a la Left 4 Dead. The AI of enemy magic-users leads me to believe that this would require quite an overhaul of the AI, so maybe the solution is just allowing a difficulty slider in the options. If it can be dynamically adjusted in-game then all the better.
3) More bugfixes
I understand that they must be busy creating more content for Magicka but I don’t really think that Vietnam should be released with a lot of these bugs still remaining in the core game. Personally, I would be more likely to buy Vietnam a month later with all the bugs that really hinder the game squashed.
Of course, I can’t really blame developers for this rush to get out content. It seems that a model favouring earlier release dates and increased DLC and content does sell a game more successfully that one of methodical QA. Given this, I can’t really expect that all the bugs will be gone by Vietnam’s release, but what is ultimately important is whether or not Vietnam brings more bugs into the mix or the game remains a relatively stable, playable experience with it.
Developed by: Arrowhead Studios
Published by: Paradox Interactive
Reviewed on: 9th February, 2011.
Presentation: Nothing overly impressive, but expected for the small budget. The effects on the magic are good without being too flash or requiring too many resources. The graphics are somewhat cartoonish and fit the atmosphere of the game. The sound likewise fits without standing out.
Atmosphere: The light atmosphere of the game is dotted with genre-savvy humour and pop culture references that may or may not work for you, but it allows you to pretty much enjoy the gameplay and mechanics without letting the setting or story get in the way. If you’re the sort of person who absolutely cannot abide a machine gun in a fantasy setting, be forewarned though.
Control and Mechanics: The game requires some complex combinations, but with one hand on the mouse, a single finger at the keypad was enough to control the game adequately. The controls make mistakes in casting a not too uncommon occurrence, but it is very much part of the gameplay itself and rewards you as well as punishes. The mechanics are innovative and the central focus of the game.
Who should buy this: Those who don’t mind waiting after purchase for a few more bugfixes to come through and want an innovative Diablo clone that centres on the magic user with a relatively simple interface and a lighter atmosphere.
Who should avoid it: Those who want stable games or can wait for more bugfixing before making the buy, those who want more complex character variation and customization and those who want a more serious game setting or just find the humour of the game grating.
If I have to give a score: Innovative, but bugs really detract from the potential. 2.5/4
Magicka is the sort of game that I really want to like and for very good reason. It attempts to approach the cliché nature of the fantasy genre with a sense of self-awareness and possesses a tendency towards parody, albeit mostly affectionate. More importantly, it’s innovative and I cannot stress that last point enough. What it does with its magic system is something from which larger games developers should really take a few pointers.
Before I talk about what hinders this seemingly perfect romance between game and gamer, I want to discuss its strengths in greater depth. Watch it being played for a few minutes and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is a much older game, maybe from the mid-to-late nineties. True enough, the graphics aren’t anything special to look at, although it does have some nice effects for the varied magical conjurations with which you can blast your enemies.
Playing it for a very short time, you would quickly realise that this game has a lot to it that sets it apart from the clambering hordes of Diablo-inspired games out there. In essence, it is a Diablo clone; an action RPG where the players take the role of wizards. The players are guided through a world by the dark, sinister character of Vlad who asserts repeatedly that his is not one of the walking damned and continually reels off pun about his not-so-hidden vampiric nature. Very quickly, the player is beset by traps, puzzles and monsters to overcome with their array of powers.
That is exactly how it should be in an action RPG. One of the great things Torchlight did was within a few minutes of starting the game, players can be within the thick of the action. The plot is light and altogether optional for Magicka and if one wanted, one could complete ignore it in favour of just annihilating enemies. The plot of the game is the vehicle for most of the game’s humour and it contains references to a lot of popular culture as well as genre parody. For an example of the former, one of the very first jokes comes from falling into a dungeon with wizards looking over the hole through which you fell. As they board it up, they tell you to get out of the dungeon and that “the safety word is: BANANA.”
Not the sort of joke everyone is really going to get, but the humour shines more when it’s genre-savvy. For example, later on you encounter a woman who has a typical side-quest style exclamation mark above her head. Initially, she offers you a quest to kill rats in her basement before a goblin ambush changes all that. The exclamation mark does not go away and talking to her again reveals that she wishes she could get rid of it. This sort of humour is nothing new, but what added more to it was the fact that a Steam achievement popped up for the completion of all side quests.
Overall, the humour was nothing like the subtle and clever humour of Portal, but neither was it the irritating offerings of Borderlands when it tried to crack a joke. If it works for you, though, think of it as extra icing on the cake, otherwise it can be simply ignored without deterring from the game itself.
Before I talk about the magic system, I want to address the topic of going it alone versus bringing friends. The game can be played as a single-player game, but it’s a much less satisfying experience. There are a variety of magical spells and affects that really only come out when it’s played multiplayer and I found myself quickly tiring of playing it alone. A further problem of single-player is that there is no one there to revive you when you die and checkpoints can be divided by some very long periods and very tricky fights that will take several attempts when going it alone. There’s no real problem with this, the game is obviously multiplayer-centric and that is fine, no one criticises Team Fortress 2 for its poor single-player support and no one should here.
The magic system is where it really shines through as a game to make you sit up and pay attention. Most magical effects are created via a combination of spheres of magic, of which there are eight. Players can combine up to five spheres, with the option to use a sphere multiple times to increase its potency then unleash the energies at enemies, an area or the character himself. This results in all sorts of wonderful combinations that players can reel off.
For example, using fire alone hurls a spray of fire for a brief period that, at the very start, became my bread and butter attack against enemies. On the other hand, using earth throws a heavy clump of rock and dirt towards a target. Combining the two creates a fireball that has a much greater range and explosive capacity. Experimenting with this feature results in all sorts of interesting combinations, like combining fire and shield spheres to create a fire shield on yourself or a wall of flame that burns enemies. Some spheres work as jets (like fire or water), some as beams (like life or arcane) and others as thrown objects (like earth), each has its effects on the resultant spell.
Beyond this, there are a few extra features to the already varied magic system. First, there are a system of formal spells like haste or rain that require you collect their spellbook and cast the combination within. Most of these books are not found by sticking to the beaten path from beginning to end of game but are a reward for exploration and sometimes ingenuity. Haste is essential for escaping the tutorial dungeon and revive is a must in multiplayer games, but most are interesting optional spells.
There is so much more I could say about the magic system, but I want to leave a lot of it to player discovery, since the game seems to intend that. The gameplay requires rapid tapping and clicking to cast spells quickly and mistakes often yield interesting new combinations. This would sometimes get irritating as a wayward press could create a healing beams that healed my enemies rather than harmed them or doused the flames burning them.
What brings all this grinding to a halt is the vast amount of bugs that plague the game. Arrowhead are producing speedy fixes for these and it should in no way deter gamers from a future purchase unless the patches fall short and the small development model of the game allows it leniency that I would not afford a larger perpetrator of QA cardinal sins like Obsidian, but the bugs at release render it unplayable. The question I wonder is, even with a small amount of beta testing, how did these massive holes go unnoticed? Did the developers not play their own game upon reaching release candidate stage? To a certain extent, a part of me wants to punish developers who do this sort of thing, but I can’t be angry at Arrowhead, it’s a fun game all in all and the bugs just give deal grabbers like me the ability to wait until a Steam offer pops up to make it even cheaper.
Multiplayer resulted in lagging and desyncing to the extent that it was pretty much a single-player game until sufficient bugfixing was done. Minor graphical glitches were frequent and an irritation and events like players being hurled into areas where they got trapped and required starting the level again were irksome, to say the least. Others have reported events as bad as constantly requiring restarts due to save games being wiped.
One other, more minor, point I wish to raise is character development and creation. The only real variety to characters is the colour of their robes. There is no stat building or skill variation throughout the game except a very simple equipment system. You can alter your character’s melee weapon (which starts as a simple sword) or his staff. I think there was a missed opportunity here as one of the very first staves we encountered was a healing staff that had a passive heal radius. This sadly affected our enemies as well as us, which would have been great were we fighting the undead. The ability to switch different staves from an inventory would have been a welcome addition as we generally ended up sticking to the default staff for as long as possible.
So my final word is yes, this game still has potential, a lot of it and it’s good that it has been created. At the very worse, the innovative aspects of the game can be extracted from the broken mess of buggy code and it can exist as a proof of concept. On the other end of the spectrum, with these show stoppers corrected, which Arrowhead are striving to do, it will be a great addition to any gamer’s collection for the very small price tag.
Magicka is out now, available via Steam, £7.99.