Platform: PC (Steam Early Access, F2P)
Developer: Paradox North
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Every game and their mum seems hell-bent on becoming a MOBA these days, and I must admit to loosing an exasperated howl when I heard that Magicka was headed down the same road. "Oh not again," I said to no-one in particular, vaguely in the direction of my cat. "We've already got League Of Legends and DOTA 2. Why does it actually need to be a genre?!" My cat seemed even less interested than I was.
However, now I've played Magicka: Wizard Wars, I can report that it's shaping up to be surprisingly brilliant.
See, the original Magicka is actually quite a good fit for a team-based arena multiplayer game. Your robed warlock walks around the battlefield in traditional clicky fashion, capturing control points and slashing with their melee weapon at imps and opponents, but the radical spell combination system allows you to concoct ridiculous cocktails of devastating abilities out of numerous elements. Flaming death beams? Freezing rocks? Water blasts that soak then shock your foes? Defensive domes or reflective shields? You'll create your own abilities on the fly... then loose them at both friend and foe with hilarious results.
Or just gleefully run around setting your friends on fire - if some of the trolls are anything to go by. Either way, it's utterly ridiculous in a very promising way.
The spell combination elevates Wizard Wars into something special since the framework is very familiar. Compact arenas, spawn points to capture and limited respawn tickets. Two teams of four brawl over these objectives while inflicting ridiculous damage on each other, so far, so very predictable. Duels act as tense 1v1 engagements as two wizards hunt each other down, but the meat of the game is to be found with three mates.
Very, very forgiving mates.
Wizard Wars doesn't give you preset spells - rather you have to make your own out of Water, Life, Shield, Cold, Lightning, Arcane, Earth and Fire elements. Each element is mapped to a specific key, with concocting a spell as simple as tapping up to three components (down from 5 in the original game), clicking the mouse and seeing what happens.
A pure water spell blasts out a stream of refreshing H20, but throwing fire into the mix creates a damaging billow of Steam. You'll then want to electrocute your sodden enemy, whether with a fork of lightning or binding it into a precise and powerful beam with the arcane element. Water and ice sends frozen shards flying everywhere. Fire beams are a personal favourite of mine, scything across the battlefield and igniting everything they touch. Erm, including a few of my team-mates from time to time.
Wizard Wars takes the term 'friendly fire' very literally. Do be quick to spray water over anyone you accidentally immolated - or better yet heal them up.
The infinitely versatile element system removes the need for preset classes, since all players can access a range of incredibly useful support abilities too. Healing beams can patch up team-mates at a distance, saving a respawn token in the process, or be applied to yourself via a click of the middle mouse button. Shields can reflect damage back upon the source or shroud your comrades in a temporary defensive dome, perhaps imbued with an element for extra protection. Alone you're incredibly powerful, but a group of organised headset-wearing pals can each concentrate on a specific task; some erecting barriers while others heal and blast
Of course, everything usually goes to hell in a hail of fireballs and pyrotechnics that scorches friend and foe alike. Cackling ensues. Usually of the insane kind.
If that isn't enough magic for you, Wizard Wars also has... Magicks. The 'k' presumably stands for 'kickass' in this case, because these more powerful abilities act as your slotted super attacks, drawing on a charging energy reserve and picked from a more limited menu of unlockables. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from speed boosts and fields of healing flowers to hordes of cannibalistic zombie imps and meteorites that indiscriminately pummel the level. Not to mention summoning the Grim Reaper himself. You'll gain access to them as you level up and participate in matches, though it's probably high time we discussed the economy.
Magicka: Wizard Wars is free-to-play, with the open beta now ready for action following paid early access and founders pack sales. It's a familiar model, though the microtransactions deserve a closer look. The store sports a range of unlockable outfits and weapons with gameplay benefits - some of which can only be purchased with real money as well as unlocked through continued play. As you can see from the screenshot, there are some very high numbers attached to both the Sterling and in-game currency price tags, though you can dish out an extraordinary amount of damage without spending a penny.
For the record, we hate the fact that Wizard Wars allows micro-transactions in beta. Betas should be used to test the economy - not start raking in the cash in a stealthy 'soft launch.' But then again, it is free.
If you're a fan of outrageous spellcasting, team-based multiplayer and unadalterated chaos, I suspect that you'll find a lot to love when Wizard Wars hits v.1.0 later this year... and you're able to get a taste of it right now.