Magicka (PC review)   2 comments

Developed by: Arrowhead Studios
Published by: Paradox Interactive
Out now
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

Review

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.

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Posted 09/02/2011 by expandingfrontier in PC, Review

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2 responses to “Magicka (PC review)

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  1. I’m still in two minds about getting this game, but your review has convinced me to maybe hold off for the time being, whatever my friends may insist. It really sounds like my sort of game and I’ll probably get it in the future but for now, at least until get a little more disposible income, I’ll be content with my Torchlight. Thanks again.

  2. Yeah, Torchlight still has a lot more replay value for me at the moment. A lot of the bugs in Magicka have been fixed now, still a few in the code and the resources it demands are quite intense given the graphics, but that should be solved pretty quickly.

    LAN-based games are certainly fine now and the new “wizards in Vietnam” DLC coming out is quite unusual and suits the madcap atmosphere. Check it out, http://gdc.gamespot.com/story/6301601/magicka-vietnam-first-look-preview I particularly like the Battlefield reference at the end and this should bring an end to a lot more bugs, but I’d wait until after this is released. Thanks for commenting.

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