Version tested: PC
As a writer, sometimes you're glad when things aren't published. About a month ago I wrote a preview piece for Eurogamer based on the Magicka beta - but the 3DS reveal took over, so we held off running it.
In that now-lost preview I praised the game highly, but there was one caveat; the multiplayer was infested with bugs. We assumed it would be fixed in the remaining beta period,which was sure to be extensive and comprehensive.
The following day we heard that Paradox was releasing the game on the 25th of January.
Positive preview scrapped; horrified review begun.
Here are the types of crashes I've experienced since launch: a crash to desktop. A frozen screen. A screen where I'm trapped in-between screens with no way of escaping. An endless 'connecting' message. Getting trapped in someone else's game, which I've crashed by connecting. My network card spontaneously and repeatedly disconnecting from the network (I even tried running my computer through two separate networks simultaneously - it still happened).
I've also been trapped staring, poignantly, at the sausage in the opening animation. I really, really want that sausage.
When Magicka was first released, the multiplayer was a bad joke. It's almost like they made a multiplayer game then put the netcode in as an afterthought. Perhaps they didn't bother and decided to fake human interaction and install bots that pretended to be your friends, but could only maintain Turing compatibility for about 120 seconds, necessitating regular disconnects.
Since then, the network play has got much better. Now I can go an hour or more without a crash, disconnect and so on. It can still be hard to find a game and the game browser is missing a dozen basic components, but the potential for the perfect game we saw at preview is re-emerging.
This is a real boon, as so much is good about the game; the plot, the combat and the wit all combine to make it exceptional.
Taking on the role of a naive team of silent apprentices dispatched by the sinister Not-A-Vampire Vlad, the de facto head of the school of Wizardy, you bumble your way across highly varied and naturally-progressing farmland, wasteland, besieged city and the bizarre floating staircases of the World's End (which feel like they've been pulled out of Pathologic or Dr Parnassus). Your mission is to aid the kingdom of Hávindr in its battles with the hordes of the evil Khan (and you just know what parody's coming with that name).
The hugely flexible magic system, which forms the core of the game, is totally worthy of praise. Your characters can engage in melee fights, with a wide range of weaponry dropped by enemies, and can also blow lighter enemies and objects away from them (a bit like the Team Fortress 2 Pyro's concussion blast, analogy-fans!). But the main damage, and fun, of the game is in exploring the range of effects created by the various elements of magic you can combine.
There's a limit of about five elements you can put into any spell - but that can be exceeded in certain circumstances. There are eight elements to start with - water, life, fire, cold, stone, electricity, defense, and arcane. Other elements, like steam or ice, are created combining by two more elements in your chain.
So, an equation would be (8 ^ 5) + (8 ^ 4) + (8 ^ 3) + (8 ^ 2) + 8 = some ridiculously huge number of combinations. Seriously, it's around 40,000 permutations. Of course, a lot of these don't work and others are duplicates, but even after many hours I'm still finding new tricks to stave off death for a little longer - and regularly getting killed by online partners also discovering new ones.
From these elements you can make two types of spell. First, there are standard spells - so combining arcane, fire and electricity makes a Beam O' Death that makes enemies pop; combining earth, defense and fire makes flaming rocks burst out of the ground; combining water and frost makes ice (another hidden element) which is expressed as flying icicles.
If you release these one way they tend to be projectiles, or at least directional. Released another way, they affect your character. Yet another way, and they expand in a circle around you. Finally, if you melee attack while you've got an element ready, then you perform a special attack.
So there are at least four ways to release every spell. Before, that is, you add in the effects of say, lightning on wet enemies, or water on frozen ones. And also before you get to "Magicks". These are super-spells that you pick up from Grimoires as you go along, in either the adventure mode or challenge modes.
You can cycle through them with the mouse wheel but they require particularly complex combinations to trigger. They basically comprise stuff that's too powerful for you to be able to use from the beginning - summonable elementals, super-speed, grease (terrifyingly effective if set on fire), instant-kill thunderbolts from heaven and so forth.
As you combine elements before releasing them, your character slows down. So if you're going for something huge, like conflagration, you'll either need to have sped yourself up using the haste Magick, or be prepared to take evasive manoeuvres to keep yourself alive.
If you die, you can blame no one but yourself as all the tools to survive were at your disposal. Most of the time, that is; annoyingly, the most common cause of death is being thrown off the level by a huge explosion or strong enemy.
This can sometimes be avoided by turning yourself to stone, but generally these insta-kills can only be tolerated if you know you'll be resurrected in one second by your multiplayer mate. Otherwise, getting knocked off the side of the tallest staircase in the world by a blow that hardly touched you is misery, and misery squared with the game's miserly check-pointing.
The enemies are definitely worthy of praise for their variety and canny design, though they are easy to kite. Each of the troopers has immunities and weaknesses. They range from the armoured orc-types who need to be soaked in water, then electrocuted, to leviathan mortar and hammer-wielding armoured giants who are best disposed of with grease and fire. The huge range of hedge-wizards, witches and sorcerers offer the toughest battles of the game, matching you spell for spell.
Then there's the plot. [Spoiler alert: the events described in the next few paragraphs take place in the first third of the game, so skip on a bit if you're all about surprises.]
About a third of the way through, we encounter a bottomless pit. Unusually, this is a very good sign. In front of it is standing a messenger, the bearer of bad news. In front of him is the King, a raging, powerful figure who we've only seen once before.
Back then he was tied to his throne, about to be chopped up by the laser of a troll-powered Bond-styleDoomsday machine, shortly before he picked up a wizard crackling with electricity and hurled him down a pit, in an homage to Star Wars.
Now it must be time for the 300 parody, surely. The cry of "This! Is! Magicka!", shortly before booting said messenger down the inexplicably convenient bottomless pit.
The messenger says his piece about only 50 men facing unmatchable odds and the king. Then he mumbles for a second, agrees that it's lunacy, and sends in the wizards (that's you) as a disposable first wave. So not only do the Magicka boys understand the basics of a running joke - they understand how to subvert it, while creating a believable world where wizards are basically hateful idiots. In about two sentences, with one visual cue. Excellent stuff.
Paradox has been patching Magicka hugely regularly, and the patches finally seem to have fixed the netcode. It's hugely disappointing that this astounding game should be so crapulent at launch; it has the best magic system we've experienced, Pratchett-esque wit and immense variety. The arena mode alone is perfect fun, in a Team Fortress way, though it's crying out for PvP.
It's long, it's tough, it's huge fun, and it's cheap. But it will never be perfect.
8 / 10