How Paradox is teleporting its way onto the PlayStation 4 with Magicka 2
Not all who wand are lost.
One of the reasons Magicka works so well, and remains so popular, is its complete subversion of all those wizardly tropes that high fantasy has so firmly established. In lieu of pensive scholars with wise words of reflection, we have faceless idiots setting huge tracts of land alight, giggling at the cooked corpses. Instead of stuffy, bearded old codgers locked in cold stone towers, there are psychotic mages hurling lighting and firing machine guns. In Vietnam. While you can argue that it's hardly subtle, to its credit, it's certainly not staid.
Similarly, Magicka went against type for Paradox Interactive. Traditionally associated with complex, slow-moving games of sombre strategy, management and economics, it stood out in their catalogue like an enchanted thumb and yet it brought the publisher tremendous success, becoming one of their defining titles. The game's robed and faceless wizards are now a central part of the Paradox brand, turning up in some form at every other event.
So it's fitting that the first Paradox game I play on a console is Magicka 2. It's the unexpected game on the unexpected platform: the PlayStation 4 (Paradox were announced as a partner two years ago, to the surprise of some). Yet the experience is exactly what I'd anticipate. The body counts are high, the spellcasting is slapstick and my fellow wizards are as contrary as they are co-operative.
While Paradox and their catalogue have been synonymous with PC gaming, associate producer Peter Cornelius insists the platform is not only a comfortable fit for the game, it's also a return to Magicka's roots: "Actually, the first Magicka was made to be played with a gamepad anyway. That was the initial idea," he says. "The first time [Magicka 1 developers Arrowhead] ever showed it, they showed it with a gamepad. Now my co-producer, she'll never leave her mouse and keyboard, but I swear by the gamepad now. This is a game that works so well when you play it on the couch. It just made sense to go in that direction."
It's not so difficult to understand his conviction. The PS4 controller almost turns Magicka 2 into a twin-stick shooter. The action buttons are each tied to four of the game's eight spellcasting elements, it's thaumaturgical Lego blocks, while holding down a shoulder button gives access to the other four. It's a moment's work to assemble a spell and blast it toward its target. It makes for a faster, meaner Magicka and while I wouldn't call it intuitive, it's a straightforward technique that certainly comes with practice. A further tap or two of the controller affects how you cast, whether the magic is directed at yourself (ideal for healing), blasted outward (perfect for fire) or in barrier form (just right for a wall of stone).
Of course, a simple change of controls isn't all that Paradox want for one of their flagship titles. Magicka was not only notoriously buggy, it also constantly sabotaged its own multiplayer efforts; it was a co-operative game where players were unable to meet. Naturally, Cornelius says the sequel will have far better netcode, adding that players will also be able to casually drop in and out of games at will. More significantly, he sees Magicka 2 as a game whose mix of comedy and co-op perfectly suits the PlayStation 4's philosophy of sharing and celebrating play. It's almost as much a spectator's game as a participant's, he says, and it's the ideal platform for showing off devious plays, disastrous defeats or clever new tricks.
"We loved the idea of sharing from the get go," he says. "I'm stoked to see what sort of things players come up with and to watch them sharing them with each other. I would love to see a 'Twitch Plays Magicka,' too. It's just the right flavour of game for that." While he does touch on a substantial single-player campaign, the focus of the demo and the discussion is team play and all the possibilities it presents. Paradox aren't just hoping Magicka 2 will become successful, they're hoping it'll become popular. They want it to be seen.
In many ways, it looks like Magicka 2 is developing into exactly the sequel that Paradox would want it to be: it looks better, it performs better and should reliably reach many more players. The thing is, Paradox already have something of a sequel in Magicka: Wizard Wars. A PvP flavour of Magicka developed in the same BitSquid engine, it's already offering PC gamers the chance to burn, soak and electrocute one another without any pretense that it may have happened "by accident." I ask, aren't Paradox concerned that the titles overlap, or even plagiarise one another?
Cornelius, naturally, doesn't believe so."We're not worried about it," he says. "There's obviously a little similarity, but there isn't any cannibalisation going on. We've learned a lot from the team at Paradox North, from their execution and balancing, but Wizard Wars is PvP. It's balanced as PvP, and it's very balanced just for that, with lots of twitch play."
Magicka 2, on the other hand, has far fewer concerns there. A system of what Cornelius calls Artefacts, for example, are really just a series of customisation options that alter the way the game plays. Some are subtle. Others are much less so. One causes dying creatures to heal everything around them, while another teleports wizards across the screen. Others drastically increase or decrease the effectiveness of different magics and one simply underlies the action with appropriately-timed canned laughter. It sounds like all this could destabilise the whole game, I suggest, and he agrees. Almost gleefully. "I think we need to get away from balancing games like this too much," Cornelius replies. "When you play board games at home, who doesn't have house rules?"
Magicka 2 is not just a flagship title for Paradox, it's a flagship title for Paradox on a new platform and a chance to make a strong first impression. It will still see a PC release and Cornelius insists the team are "not stepping away from the PC, we're not going to let down our PC fans," but it's easy to see that they're excited about the possibilities that a new platform presents.
Perhaps it will give Paradox a chance to finally step into territory that they've been tiptoeing around for some time now. Both War of the Roses and Dungeonland were multiplayer games that never quite found their audience on the PC and may have been more at home somewhere else. Magicka 2 might just do the trick.
This article is based on a press trip to Stockholm. Paradox Interactive paid for flights and accommodation.