Friday, February 04, 2011

Magicka Review

Magicka, developed by Arrowhead Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Innovative speedy spell casting system, chaotic four-player cooperative play with friendly fire, no arbitrary mana or cooldown restrictions, all spells available from the start, only $10
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings and very challenging by yourself, can’t save (or join) mid-mission and infrequent checkpoints, no penalty for spamming the same couple of spells, tedious spell casting makes you wish for macros, currently sporadic online performance
What say you? A flexible instantaneous spell creation system without impediments is the focus of this cooperative action role-playing game: 6/8

One thing that has always bothered me about role-playing games is mana. I mean, you are a freakin’ wizard: how the heck can you run out of mana? Can’t you just make more out of the ether or whatever it is that gives you magical powers? And what’s with cooldowns? What, is a magical being tired of summoning fireballs? Developer Arrowhead Game Studios said the same things, and in their new action RPG Magicka (in the mystical past, everything got extrra lettterrs) you are not bound by such limitations. This fast-paced cooperative game features quick, immediate spell casting and open-ended on-the-fly recipes for maximum destruction and/or humiliation. That’s enough to get me interested in a genre I usually ignore, so let’s see if it provides enough novelty to actually make me enjoy a role-playing game.

Magicka has decent graphics for a $10 game. The highlight of the presentation is the really nice spell effects: with brightly-colored lightning, fire, beams, and explosions racing across the landscape, you do feel like a powerful wizard in digital form. The character, enemy, and map designs exhibit some detail (like clothing on the enemies or various objects in each level), but lack the overall high level of immersion typical for a role-playing game: the world of Magicka feels generic. In addition, most units have animations that fail to produce fluid movement (especially for enemies). The game is played from an overhead perspective, and there are definite camera issues during combat: the perspective locks (to prevent you from running away like a coward), but it typically places enemies off-screen, and the placement of your character can be entirely too close to the edge of the display. On the sound front, Magicka features nice effects, especially for spells, and Sims-like gibberish speech during dialogue events (easier to translate, I suppose). The game is also accompanied by dramatic adventure music that fits the theme well. Overall, I feel you get good value in terms of graphics and sound.

Magicka is an action role-playing game that focuses on four-player cooperative play. You can join a host using the in-game browser, although the choices can’t be sorted by ping (yet). The connections were initially very unpredictable, but performance has been steadily improving since release. You still can't join a game mid-mission, cutting your options significantly. The main story-based adventure takes place over thirteen levels, which presents good value for a $10 since most levels clock in at around twenty to thirty minutes a piece (longer if you die a lot, like I did). The game maintains a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor during the adventure, referencing a lot of typical RPG features. There is also a challenge mode on two maps, where successively stronger waves of enemies are introduced into an arena, but there is currently no versus mode for competitive play (previews for Magicka hinted at it). Features are lacking in some areas: you cannot save your game at any time, as your progress is only preserved if an entire level is completed successfully. There are occasional checkpoints you respawn at if (when) you die, but this is simply not good enough. If you are going to restrict when I can save my progress, you’d better do it after each and every enemy encounter, and Magicka does not. I hate having to grind through low-level enemies multiple times simply because I can’t beat the boss at the end of the section. Magicka also is very inconsistent about skipping dialogue and cut scenes: sometimes pressing “space bar” will work, and sometimes it will not. There is certainly some work to be done to make the features of Magicka more well-rounded.

The intriguing spell system of Magicka is the main attraction. There are eight basic elements to choose from: water, life, shield, cold, lightning, arcane, earth, fire. In addition, you can combine water and fire to make steam, and water and cold to make ice. What you do is queue up to five of these elements and then cast your spell, the result of which is determined by what elements you used. For example, lightning+arcane+lightning+arcane sends out a large beam of destruction, whereas lightning+arcade+fire sends out a different large beam of destruction. The possibilities are many but not technically endless: while you can make a bunch of different combinations, you’ll generally end up with sprays, projectiles, shields, beams, or area effects, just with different components. You'll have to press a lengthy combination each time you want to cast a spell, so it can get tiresome. I would like to have seen a system where you can save a couple of key spells to a number key for easy access, instead of having to pressing a five-letter (or more, if it uses steam or ice) combination every...single...time you want to cast it. Spells can be cast as often as you’d like: there is no mana conservation or cooldown periods to worry about. You can also discover Magicka spells, which are scripted recipes you can reference by cycling through them with the mouse wheel. You can right-click to cast in front of you, shift-right-click to cast around you, middle-click to cast on you, or shift-left-click to enchant a weapon. It takes some practice to become effective in the heat of battle, so your first few hours with Magicka will be spent dying a lot while pressing the wrong mouse button or spell combination.

Magicka features a lot of enemies with some variation in their attacks (ranged, melee, area) and the occasional boss fight. Unlike most role-playing games, Magicka doesn’t have an inventory: you can only have one weapon and enemies don’t drop loot. Also, you don’t have to worry about experience and leveling up: you have access to every spell from the moment you start playing; it’s just a matter of discovering the most useful combinations. Unfortunately, the tactical decisions in Magicka leave some room for improvement. Once you find a good spell, you can use it over and over again since most enemies are vulnerable to any type of attack. Sure, the components you choose and the order in which you queue them up does matter, producing different effects, but a beam attack is a beam attack, no matter what color it is. This is where cooldowns or mana (Magicka has neither) would force you to be more innovative in your tactics. Still, you can counter some enemy strengths to an extent, like using lightning against units in the water. Team play is where Magicka really shines: you can combine effects in a Ghostbusters-style cross the streams attack. It’s also important to note that friendly fire is always on, so you must exercise extreme caution when casting spells. The result is a comedy of errors as your “friends” blast each other away with poorly placed spells. The freedom the spell system grants you allows for custom classes decided on the fly, like focusing on healing and shield spells, long-range attacks, or melee fighting. Magicka is really tough for one player, as the game fails to adjust the number of enemies for the number of human players. You would think that with unlimited shields and healing buffs that Magicka would be fairly easy, but there are still a lot of enemies to deal with that engage your wizard at a variety of ranges simultaneously. But the strength of cooperative multiplayer makes Magicka a recommended title for fans of action role-playing games.

Magicka takes a really neat idea, making your own spells in real time, and runs with it, almost to the top. It is quite fun banging out spells on your keyboard, using up to five elements from a list of ten, and then using them on enemies, yourself, your weapons, or the adjacent area. The results are some nice, somewhat open-ended combinations, producing sprays, beams, projectiles, shields, and other assorted chaos. While destroying an enemy with a beam rather than a projectile essentially accomplishes the same task, making the spell creation options a bit extraneous (not to mention tedious), there are some enemies that are more susceptible to certain elements so there can be the occasional tactical decision on which element to use. There are some advanced spell combinations that are either learned by accident or spelled out in books you discover during the campaign, but there are relatively few of these to choose from. You aren’t restricted by mana and don’t need to level up to cast better spells: everything is available from the beginning and you can throw out bolts and healing buffs as often as you’d like. This, of course, can lead to a lot of spell spam, just throwing out the same combination over and over again, which takes some of the fun out of it. It also takes a lot of time and energy simply casting spells, since you must tap out the correct combination every time; sometimes I yearned for the more restricted but less tedious method of simply pressing one button to cast a spell. The game is fantastic in cooperative multiplayer, where you and up to three of your friends cast spells together; since friendly fire is always on, you need to be careful about where you aim and when you use area spells. This is how the game is supposed to be played: there are too many enemies to deal with by yourself, and the game fails to adjust the difficulty based on how many human players there are. You must also complete an entire level in one sitting and can’t save your progress wherever you’d like; this wouldn’t be as significant of a limitation if Magicka gave you more frequent checkpoints, placed after every battle. The adventure mode lasts long enough, and finding players is easier now that the initial multiplayer issues have been sorted out. Despite some limitations, for $10, fans of action role-playing games can’t go wrong.