Friday, 1 April 2011

Magicka - A Rave Review

I steered clear of this game for a while, mostly because of the fantasy setting gave connotations of WoW to mind, but I was totally wrong, and it's an EXCELLENT game, the most fun I've had for years!
Embark on an adventure to prevent the world from changing... Forever!
Magicka's fictional land of MidgÄrd was conceived of by a bunch of Swedish Uni students to be vaguely Norse Mythological. But is dominated by computer game influences and popular geek culture references, from Return of the Jedi to Disc World via Monty Python and the internet. The fixed view, walk-towards-mouse-pointer format is most reminiscent of Diablo, but there's zero grind in sight; one's success in battle is determined almost entirely by raw ability and knowledge of spell combinations.

It's a game that uses boring legacy PC peripherals like a Guitar Hero controller of pure awesome: with each 'chord' one blasts out a volley of ice shards, a massive fire ball, a freezing electric death beam or random healing bombs that throw you right across the screen. [Tangential Note 1]

In terms of cultural significance, I would say it's the "Scott Pilgrim" of the games industry. The myriad hat tips to geekishness past and present are sandwiched in a satirical narrative that pokes fun at (for example) the ridiculous contrivances necessary to string such a notable story of adventure and battles together.

The overnight success of this £8 Steam wonder is probably largely to do with the multiplayer element. The trailer gave me the impression that combat would be an impenetrable clutter of mayhem; Streets of Rage and Golden Axe played concurrently in a rastafarian laundry explosion. Throw a bunch of rookie Magickians together and it's worst still. Ferment this in an alcohol fuelled LAN party for ultimate LOLZ! (And thank god for 'Revive': the first and most used multiplayer 'Magick'.)



However, multiplayer is up to 4 player co-op only, no official PvP (yet), squabbles and frequent accidents discounted. There are 2 bonus "Challenge Arenas”, but inevitably you end up only playing the campaign part multiplayer. While we're on the negatives, it has a hideous tendency not to connect. Then if you figure out a work around there were/are more bizarre coding bugs during game play than there are giant spiders, with a roughly zero percent chance you'll make it to the end of the campaign without the game fully crashing out.


8 Basic Elements
But the number of bugs should hardly be surprising when there's the capacity to combine a selection of 10 elements* in 5 slots per spell. [*N.B. ice and steam are compound elements that augment the 8 fundamentals] And that's without accounting for the more the apocalyptic 'Magicks', each garnered from one of 20 odd books found along the way. Creating a black hole singularity in the middle of the screen can cause no end of unforeseen circumstances (come a following in-game cut scene for instance).

Even when you win you can still loose the cut-scene...
The heart of the game is undoubtedly the casting system, which creates a combinatorial explosion of distinct phenomena. Each species part of a family, the most common of which being beam spells. Because each spell is a manipulation of the virtual environment, their effects combine, often unexpectedly. Friend or foe, crossing similar beams reinforces and deflects them at their point of meeting, but when composed of some opposite elements a large explosion results. Interactions also cover any elements in-hand (ready to be cast) resulting in countless more emergent experiences. Granted that initially these are mostly of the noisy + deadly mistake variety, but ultimately this mechanic yields subtle exploits and besides, the surprises are always interesting and fun. This can make enemy mages the trickiest foe to deal with, even the handful of spells they cast almost at random, you don't want to be casting ice and/or lightening when they hit you with a beam of water! [Tangential Note 2]

Magicka unleashes a level of inventiveness usually reserved for some Crazy/Incredible Machines game. And that's where this game really grabbed me: puzzling my way through single player. Even away from my PC, Magicka has monopolised my default network for hours on end, forcing it to dream of new combinations and tactics; memetic crack cocaine for my brain.

I found the challenge mode complemented the main game nicely, using it to wreak experiments upon instant waves of miscreant monsters. This helped me get through the story fro the first time, single player, over a few nights of playing (about 14 hours campaign time), only afterwards looking up the absolute-most-hit-points-possible spells on magickapedia.net. Definitely my recommended way to play; multiplayer is frantic fun 'n all, but can get tiring much more quickly because, rather than exploring combination ideas, you are inclined to exploit your existing knowledge before all the baddies are turned to minced meat.

Mayhem on "The Glade" Challenge: Druids cast lines of mini volcanoes, adding to my mess as I shield myselffrom a horde of Beast Brutes.

Large groups easily dropped by spamming AOE spells. 
Also, 'area of effect' (AOE) spells, in particular, and most powerful Magicks are best reserved for solo play: their indiscriminate effects will not please your friends. This friendly fire limitation cleverly re-balances the difficulty without the need for any different settings. Sure it can be a little frustrating at first when your wizard gets randomly flung to his death, but the checkpoints are regular enough and it's a lot more rewarding when you do succeed. I reached full achievements at just under 40 hours, only 6 of those dedicated on the task of completion itself. No ridiculous gaols, all very well crafted.

Since then I've tried modding challenge arenas (via easily accessible text files, made simpler with a third party editor) and exploring speed run techniques on YouTube and in person. Pretty sad perhaps, but thus is the inciting brilliance of this game. Very much looking forwards to the forthcoming Vietnam expansion.

Conclusion: Magicka's malfunctions are sizeable and frequent, but barely dampen the scintillating fires of it's ingenuity and high speed humour. If there's anyone out there who *hasn't* already had a go, I highly recommend you do!


[Tangent Note 1] Come to think of it, it's a bit like playing as Mo, the wife of the computer nerd protagonist in "The Atrocity Archives" series of novels. She is a 'combat epistemologist' who vanquishes hyper-dimensional daemons by playing mathematically unpleasant sounds on an white violin made of human parts. I just finished reading the 3rd novel in this 'Laundry' universe created by Charles Stross: "The Fuller Memorandum". It was pretty good, but not in danger of beating the uniqueness of the first in the batch, a book that created a genre: computer age spy thriller trips over Dilbert and crashes head first into H.P.Lovecraft. Win!



[Tangent Note 2] Upon reading "Emergence" (Steven Johnson) several years ago, I realised that I have been waiting for solid new games that build themselves around emergence, as Simcity did. Spore near totally failed in this respect, with only small niches of it (i.e. the gait of your created creatures) being generatively coded. I've no idea if Arrowhead Studios took a ridiculously brute force approach to rending the legion possible magick effects, that's beside the point, it is a clear spiritual campion for the ilk of which I've longed.

For the next step up I would quite like a competitive RTS, like Supreme Commander, that builds something as dynamic as a Simcity city by using mechanics as fun and emergent as Magicka's... Something an order of magnitude deeper than chess, but as simple to grasp as a catchy pop song... Something where the most interesting possible outcomes are totally unknown to the developers, floating out in there in game phase space for the players to create!

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