Preview: Magicka

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Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios / Publisher: Paradox Interactive / ESRB: RP / Platform: PC download

If you strike me down, I shall become more referential than you can possibly imagine.

“Once upon a time in a generic fantasy world…a world which, of course, was in peril…”

So began the first official trailer—at least the first one I saw, back around the 2010 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco—for Paradox Interactive’s forthcoming Magicka. It pretty well firmly set the tone for a snarky, top-down, cooperative-play, high-fantasy, spell-slinging free-for-all—one marinated in the juices of geek-culture cross-reference, ready to riff on sword-and-sorcery worlds, popular science fiction and fantasy books/films, and even other high-fantasy-oriented videogames.

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Stockholm-based Paradox Interactive is perhaps best known for its arguably drier, history-oriented PC strategy games…but at the last Game Developer’s Conference, they were clearly in a developmentally-friskier mood. In fact, it’s safe to say that they had just about the coolest, most laid-back publisher ‘presence’ of the entire Conference: A rented apartment suite, in fact,  a short walk from the stressed convention center, featuring two new uncharacteristically action-oriented games—Lead and Gold and Magicka—and a compact but devastatingly well-stocked bar.

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Magicka looks, at first glance, somewhat reminiscent of the multiplayer classic Gauntlet’s later incarnations, only set largely in sprawling outdoor environs…and with adventure parties comprised entirely of wizards. Wizards who have no apparent concerns regarding jealously hoarded pools of Magic Points, Mana levels, or any other kinds of otherwise-limited, nonrenewable re-sorceries. Fact is, Magicka players will have the luxury of being able to crank off as many spells, in as many damaging, healing, protective and/or otherwise imaginatively elemental combinations, as quickly and repeatedly as they can—and they’re going to need that luxury because, as it turns out, Magic has quite the propensity for friendly-fire(ball) casualties.

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Typical, hobbling RPG-style ‘energy’ requirements cast aside, Magicka’s real challenge lies in the sheer time and manual-dexterity-under-pressure required to properly formulate and cast the game’s myriad, oft-elaborate spells in real time…at least while numerous and sundry grunting ogres, skittering mutant bugs, re-animated sword-wielding skeletons, floating tentacled giant eyeballs and other more traditional sorcery-slinging, ass-hat magic-users are converging on your current location. While the original (console-based) incarnation we played involved the tricky art of analog-sticking said spells into existence, the PC version is now the first slated for release—and after a few minutes’ exposure, it became clear to us that the new PC keyboard scheme of configuring spells is actually more efficient, although not nearly so kinetically- (and kinesthetically-) elegant.

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After a comparatively brief ‘indoor’ tutorial segment outlining the skeletal basics of spellcasting, you’ll be turned loose to test your creativity under pressure. The Q-R and A-F keyrows on the PC keyboard are designated as the elemental, um, elementals of five-key-combo spellcasting, and the potential resultant combinations are legion: For example, tapping the Fire key five times predictably results in a five-times-amped fire-based magic burst. Not bad, not bad at all…but combining two Earth taps with a remainder of Fire taps results in rather more satisfyingly massive fireballs, which can be more finely tuned and aimed for better effect.

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Other key/elemental combination effects (the vast majority of which are left to your own discovery and creativity) can fuse Water and Frost magicks into enemy-crippling ice-bolts, or form Fire, Earth or Lightning spells into temporary, self-standing shields, or freeze entire bodies of water into crossable ice bridges, or channel soft-focus healing auras into long-distance beams of rejuvenating energy, or mingle various elemental Forces with the very ambient weather-conditions for dramatic, area-effect, or…you get the idea. Not all the base-formative, ‘elemental’ options are obvious, or indeed immediately available, and must be discovered as you progress (I’m pretty damned sure I saw one later-level option called ‘Grease’…and in a game this packed with pop-culture references, it wouldn’t surprise me all that much if a ‘Greased Lightning’ combination became available at some point in the festivities…)

Cooperative mode among four wizards could lead to even more strategies, big and bizarre—one casting a temporary, magical defensive wall, for example, around the party while two other players frantically click up a two-parts-earth-and-two-parts-flame spell that translates to a devastating fireball attack. The same sorts of area-effect and/or focused-beam mechanics that work with attacks can also apply to defensive measures and healing, so one player can cast spells of healing on himself, or another, or all party members—provided he has the time to do so safely. However, this multiplayer interaction has just as much potential to backfire: Most of the offensive sorcery—fireballs, ice/frost detonations, Tesla-esque chain-lightning strikes—can just as easily take down one of your fellow wizards is the crossfire, thus obliging you to attempt to Magick him back to life.

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All down the line, you’ll encounter numerous nerdy references not only to other high-fantasy games, movies, and books, but also to far-flung bits of geek culture. References to the Star Wars trilogies seem particularly rampant (at one point, we encountered two skeleton-corpses outside a burned-out villager dwelling—laid out in precisely the same attitude as the bodies of Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. “This looks like the work of goblins,” one of the characters quips). Other geek-culture references are far more muted and subtle. For example: Focused beams of oppositional elemental-magicks will, upon intersection, often outright kill one or both of the casters involved, without preamble or explanation. The game never, explicitly says “Don’t cross the streams”—but, seriously, Don’t Cross the Streams.

Finally, when you’re not under actual attack by monsters or vengeful, grudge-carrying members of your own party, do expect a fairly wide range of sarcasm at the hands of numerous NPCs that populate the virtual countryside: “Maybe I, too, should put on my bathrobe and prance around in the forest!”

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Magicka will be available for PC in Q1 2011, with plans for DLC not far behind. It’s not clear at this juncture why the (originally-presented) console version will not be the first available after all, but announcements available on the internet still maintain the game’s availability at least for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade. If there is any benevolence in the mystical plane, this schedule will include PSN.

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