[15 February 2011]

By Thomas Cross

Magicka looks like a clever co-op approach to hack and slash fantasy games, and while it’s plagued by a host of instabilities and online issues, it certainly feels fresh and exciting. It may play like something new, but its dialogue sounds like a long gibberish joke and reads like a love letter to Star Wars, Diablo, and a hundred other venerable franchises.

Swedish developer Arrowhead Game Studios has created a finicky, deep real-time combat game that demands every players’ hard work and attention. Every spell and co-op-enabled attack is only as deep as the players desire it to be. Forget last year’s Lost Planet 2; Magicka is going to be this year’s game that you absolutely must play with other people to get the most out of it.

Magicka starts out in a deceptively simple fashion. I had to guide my gibberish spouting mage (weirdly, none of the mages ever show their faces) through a magick slinging tutorial that began with a few earth, fire, and electricity spells. Then I had to mix one, two, or three elements of magick together, sometimes to create a more powerful yet still basic spell, sometimes to create a special effect (like haste). That was only the tip of the iceberg.

I discovered to my delight that by creating a giant ice cloud around my mage, I could freeze most of a lake, allowing me to cross to the other side and acquire a new spell. As soon as I had crossed over, I cast my new spell (grease), accidentally stepped in it, and went careening into the lake to die a watery death (mages, the game told me authoritatively, cannot swim). Shortly thereafter I encountered a woman who pretended to give me quests while mocking RPG conventions. Then I had to fight a horde of goblins whose swarming melee tactics (and thrown bombs) necessitated furious yet controlled (and ingenious) spellcasting.

This encapsulates everything that is wonderful about Magicka, especially when played with friends. If you read between the lines, it also describes what makes Magicka horribly frustrating. Even played alone (a difficult and frustrating endeavor), Magicka’s magick system (and to a lesser degree its combat system) is like a box of toys bristling with innumerable delights. What happens when I mix earth, shield, and fire? A fiery shield of toothy rocks of course! How do I teleport myself? I still have no idea (a FAQ would surely ruin this part of the game), but I’ve killed myself tens of times trying to find out.

The game mixes its eight magical elements (and their beneficial and deadly combinations) with several entertaining combat mechanics. There are several things that I learned very quickly, like the fact that the arcane element (what turns any other element into a destructive beam) mixed with lighting both injures and slows enemies or the fact that it’s possible to imprison myself in a rocky column to earn a brief respite from the carnage around my mage. The most important thing to remember is that wet mages who cast lightning spells instantly die. Unsurprisingly, there are so many hilarious ways to kill oneself and one’s friends in Magicka, whether it’s through an accidental beam collision (never cross the streams—except when you think almost dying is a good idea) or a misplaced meteor shower. The give and take between your three online allies, your magic, and the swarming enemies leads to constantly exciting, unpredictable mayhem.

It also highlights the game’s incredible shortcomings. The interface for regular, non-combat interactions is slow and clunky. When using an item or picking up a sword, it’s just not possible to just click or double click on the icon. I actually have to hold down that click until my little mage has trundled over to enact his “use” animation with the target. It makes certain actions (like using the deep sword enchantment system) incredibly annoying—to the point where I simply don’t do things involving “use” clicks unless I have to.

Worse, the more complicated spells are completely useless in combat. Spells are tied to the four “qwerty” keys and those four keys (“asdf”) immediately below. It slows mages down to have spells in reserve, so it makes sense to plug in the proper spell combo prior to combat (which is case sensitive, so you can’t type in earth, life, water when you actually meant water, life, earth). Thus, all spells that are above three to four element chains are out of reach for all but the most nimble fingered of gamers.

This doesn’t make combat any less diverse (there are enough simple spells and simple spell combinations that this seldom happens), but it is symptomatic of the game’s inability to present certain combat situations and high level scenarios with any kind of elegance. Combat with large enemies can easily break, thanks to completely unpredictable physics and surprisingly effective knockback attacks. It’s a toss up, whether you’ll die thanks to your own shoddy play or thanks to unpredictable, broken animations, combat mechanics, and unstable internet play.

This last is by far Magicka’s greatest weakness. Arrowhead and Paradox have been desperately pumping out updates and patches. Magicka is certainly more playable now than it was. At first, I couldn’t even start a game with someone else using an internet connection (there’s no LAN that I could find). Now I get anywhere from five minutes to two hours of play before the game unceremoniously boots one player to the curb. Spending time on Magicka’s multiplayer portion is still a dangerous proposition, though. It’s the only way to make any headway (the combat is so horribly balanced that one player without backup will always lose when it comes to boss battles), and checkpoints are so far apart that one crash often means hours of lost play.

Magicka is the most interesting and exciting co-op game that I’ve recently played. The magic is (without a FAQ) endlessly surprising, and playing with friends is exciting and hilarious no matter what. No other game lets me accidentally kill my friend, resurrect her, and then watch in horror as she electrocutes us both. No other game is so ill equipped to provide the aforementioned experience. Magicka is exactly what PC games should be striving for in 2011. It’s complicated, exciting, and deeply ensconced in a culture of cooperative yet combative play. It’s also still broken to a degree that I can’t ignore. Honestly, I’d wait for several more patches before I’d pay for Magicka. Still, once it runs smoothly, it will be the boldest, most properly emergent (if I may use a term that gets thrown around far more than it has any right to) cooperative experience on computers this year.

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