Hear that thumping sound? That’s me banging my head against my desk in frustration. Once in a while a game comes along that is such a consummate combination of awesome and broken that I honestly don’t know whether to give it an 8 or a 3. Magicka is such a game.
When it comes to bugs, Magicka goes above and beyond. My first game was an attempt at online three-way co-op. Suffice to say that it failed epically. Let’s overlook the total system crashes and getting stuck in the scenery for now – any game can manage that boring stuff. But what about the bug where I killed an enemy and exited the screen, only to be informed over Skype that my friends were still fighting said enemy which was apparently very much alive at their end? I don’t even understand how that can happen.
To Arrowhead’s credit, they have been working relentlessly since release to get the game in working order and a string of patches have made it considerably more playable, if still far from perfect. We managed to maintain our last internet game for a good few hours before something went catastrophically wrong, and all we had to contend with in the meantime was horrendous lag and run-of-the mill bugs – our shields failing to show up on the screen, for example.
It is completely broken. But once you emerge from the shadow of its glaring technical issues, Magicka’s originality and playfully violent humour are quite charming. In appearance it’s an isometric hack-and-slash RPG along the lines of Diablo. You wander through environments, you kill stuff, you wander on, but at the heart of it all is an inventive magic system which makes it a very different beast indeed.
You have access to eight elements (fire, water, electricity, healing etc.), which are bound to keys on the keyboard. Spells are cast by combining up to five of these elements and then pressing one of three casting buttons. Unlike other games whereby you start underpowered and have to level up before you can cast a fireball larger than a cricket ball, Magicka gives you access to hundreds of spells from the outset – it’s just that it’s up to you to work out exactly what they are.
This is a great mechanic to play with, particularly from the very beginning. I’m all in favour of asking players to learn actual skills to improve at a game, as opposed to artificially increasing their character’s attributes.
But even this is problematic. While there may be hundreds of spells available, a lot of them look awfully similar, and I soon found that a couple of varieties of shields and beams are enough to overcome the bulk of encounters. There are some fun exceptions, however, such as the combination of wetting then electrifying your opponents. And there’s the occasional environmental puzzle (like using frost to freeze water so you can cross), but it seems that the potential for more in that vein, unfortunately, was not fully realised.
The story is utterly ludicrous, but admittedly the setting is quite good fun. The plot involves your mentor (who’s a vampire but is pretending not to be for some reason – don’t ask me why) sending you off to save the world from – well – I’m really not sure, to be brutally honest.
There is a gentle humour running through the presentation, from the cartoon visuals and hilarious Simlish-style dialogue, to the constant stream of nerdy jokes (my favourite is the one where you pick up a Warhammer from Graham’s Workshop), which makes the whole experience exceptionally charming.
In fact, once you get into its groove and things are working more-or-less as they should, Magicka is enormous fun. The real excitement of the magic system isn’t what you can do with it, but the hilarity that ensues when you happen to do something wrong. “Friendly fire” is most definitely on here, and you will explode both yourself and your friends at regular intervals (in between exploding goblins, trolls and numerous other beasties, which all pop very satisfyingly when melted by your beam).
I’ve spent the bulk of my time with the game playing two-player with my girlfriend over a local network (which seems to work a lot more reliably than an online game), and we’ve frequently looked up to find that’s its 2am on a school night. It is engrossing, and like other great co-op games it really does require communication and teamwork to get the best results.
There are other complaints I could make - the half-arsed tutorial, the absurd difficulty spikes, the uneven and nonsensical checkpoint system, and a really annoying bug that will randomly stop you casting certain spells until you scream, cry, and swear you’ll never, ever play it again.
But somehow, despite all of that, I’m still going to recommend this game. If you’re a traditionalist or someone that runs screaming at the thought of a single bug, then you shouldn’t touch Magicka with a ten-foot pole. But if you have any kind of interest in games that differ from mainstream conventions, then you owe it to yourself to play it.
You will bang your head against your desk – but, weirdly, you’ll still be smiling.