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Casting spells - and votes - in Magicka: Wizard Wars

Paradox's mad multiplayer game has its own take on democratic development.

It was a while before I discovered proper wizards. When I was young, magic was a benign thing: lighthearted entertainment for early evening television. The magicians made things disappear or convinced you that the card you were holding wasn't what you thought. In Magicka: Wizard Wars, you can cast spells that will make people explode into chunks of bloody meat. You can also drop rocks on their heads, scald them, set them on fire and even have the grim reaper chase them down, surgically removing their soul with one swift swing of a scythe. This is more like the magic of my adolescence - less about tuxedos and tails, more about rage and brutality and burning brimstone.

The difference between Magicka: Wizard Wars and the previous Magicka games is that now a team of four of you can inflict this suffering onto other teams of similarly hostile wizards who are trying to do the same back. If you're a co-ordinated team of wizards, one of you can concentrate on throwing up magical barriers, one of you might bless your comrades with healing spells and one of you might douse a burning friend with a much-needed cloudburst.

Sometimes that happens, but right now - the game is currently available in Early Access form - there aren't very many teams of co-ordinated wizards, and a lot of spellcasters are still trying to find their feet. Everything is fast and deadly and messy. Magicka: Wizard Wars is an action game where everybody is a hyper-caffeinated Gandalf. It's much quicker than its predecessor, but its chaotic lineage is still quite apparent.

Black energy isn't good energy.

"Magicka veterans will definitely recognise the game," says producer John Hargelid, Executive VP of Paradox North. "We have pretty much the same spell system as before, but I also think that they will appreciate that, in this type of game, there have to be some changes to adapt it to a faster mode of play. The biggest change we've made is obviously that players can only combine up to three spell elements instead of five."

Ah, yes, those special ingredients. Magicka: Wizard Wars uses the same sort of spell system as Magicka, with players combining any of eight different elements before unleashing the result as an eruption of magical energy. Combine earth and an energy barrier to make a wall of stone, or earth and fire to hurl a flaming rock - or panic and accidentally mix water and electricity for a nasty shock. Imagine it as a sort of prestidigitator's pic'n'mix: a pic'n'mix that kills people and that might also kill you.

But while Magicka allowed for up to five ingredients, this time around the limit is three, both to speed up the pace of play and to eliminate all-powerful combinations. It's not a compromise, explains Hargelid, but a streamlining.

"There are no longer super-combinations that beat everything else and I really believe we've made the game better in this sense," he says. "I think that, once you get playing, once you've spent a few hours with the game, you see the complexity of Magicka is still there. It's a cliché, but it's easy to learn and hard to master. You still have to learn which combinations beat which other combinations and how to counter your opponent's attacks."

You'll be able to unlock new hats, an important thing in wizard apparel.

It works, too, and the result is an unusual experience that's all about snap decisions and clever, calculated counter-spells. You don't have time to muse about which enchantment to assemble next - you aren't stirring a cauldron and plopping in another toad's leg - it's much more akin to a combination of twitch gaming and touch typing, with only split seconds for wizards to tap out attack or defence combinations. It is indeed hard to master, and I have to admit I'm not a very good wizard yet.

Your ultimate objective is to defeat the other team by exhausting all their tickets (their respawn opportunities) or by capturing and holding all the spawn points on the map to stop respawns altogether. Seizing each of these points also spawns small teams of AI minions who join you in your endeavours although, in all fairness, these guys are useless. They're a cross between cannon fodder and... no, they're just cannon fodder.

Beneath all this, a new game engine is chugging away. The original Magicka, inventive as it might have been, was a buggy and cantankerous thing. Magicka: Wizard Wars is built upon a framework which, even though it's still in its early stages, looks better, is much more reliable and provides far smoother, far better online play. Developer Paradox North has also taken the opportunity to make several other changes, such as altering how conventional weapons behave.

"We've created a new melee system, so the weapons play a quite different role now," says Hargelid. "Each weapon has a special ability. You'll be able to throw the spear, or if you're holding a dagger, that will give you the ability to do a lot of damage up close really, really fast."

Casting spells builds up a bar that allows you access to special powers, like summoning Death.

But Magicka: Wizard Wars is still in development and not all of these weapons are locked down yet. Hargelid says that, while the development team have a path that they're following, they've opened up several decisions to the community and are hoping that the game will evolve in response to their feedback.

"We present upcoming features that we believe will add the most value to the game but we let the community vote between two features at a time, to put one first in our development queue," explains Hargelid. "It's probably going to be the community's decision if they want a new level or game mode, or new game features, for example." To this end, Paradox North shared a Trello board which lists the features and improvements they're currently working on. Anyone can see what they're working on next and contribute comments or, it seems, just link to funny pictures.

However, it's not a democracy and some things aren't negotiable. What Hargelid calls the "boring" stuff, such as tweaking the game engine, isn't up for debate and Paradox North also have features they very much want to include. "Obviously, we have our own ideas," he says. "So about a third of our time is going to be spent on the must-have, 'boring' stuff and about a third is going to be spent on the stuff that we want to make. The other one third we're handing away to the community to decide. By doing that, we're sticking to our vision of the game that we want to build, but we're also adding flavour from the community that hopefully gives them what they want."

Really, it's all about chemistry.

This, Hargelid says, is the best way to keep the game coherent and, perhaps most importantly, to avoid what he calls "a compromise between a million wills. That tends to become a bland experience." It also very much fits in with the Paradox philosophy of making a particular kind of game for a particular kind of fan rather than trying to please everyone.

So far, it looks like it's working. Though Magicka: Wizard Wars feels a little limited right now, and would certainly benefit from a few more maps or game modes, the core mechanic of frantic, panicked spellcasting in all sorts of combinations is both chaotic and colourful. There's more to come and a recently introduced duel mode, which the team plan to tweak and re-release soon, offers players the chance to enjoy bare-bones battles without any of this spawn-capturing business. Paradox North is putting out a new patch every Tuesday and Hargelid says a forthcoming Elo-style matchmaking mechanic should make for much more balanced games.

Paradox North is off to a promising start. It'll be interesting to see the directions that Magicka: Wizard Wars takes and, while the developers clearly aren't interested in crowd-pleasing, middle-of-the-road magics, opening their development up to their community may yield some very interesting results. Who knows what they'll pull out of the hat next - but whatever that might be, it will very likely explode.