Magicka? I ‘ardly know ‘er!

I’m late to the Magicka party, turning up in apologetic rain-soaked dishevelment as the final course of the meal is being cleared away and most of the enthusiastic discourse has already taken place, the room now peaceful as people move on to smoking cigars and sipping their port in comfortably quiet contemplation.

I popped on to Steam last night in order to check out the price of Bioshock 2 in the latest sale; is it just me or is Steam becoming like furniture stores here in the UK by existing in an almost permanent state of sale? Where ‘Sale must end Sunday!’ is translated through the cynical cortex of one’s mind and comes out as ‘Sale must end Sunday! Because the new sale starts Monday!’ Anyway, I managed to resist the sale price of Bioshock 2, with the Peer Pressure versus Price ratio still not quite tipping the balance onto the ‘Ah, go on then’ side of the scale. Unfortunately, instead of just running quickly out of the store with my hands blinkering my eyes, I made the mistake of taking a quick glance around to see what else was in store and on sale, and of course quite quickly found something that satisfied the ‘Ah, go on then’ criteria, and thus managed to spend my money anyway. The transaction-based endorphin high was short lived, and I was left with a copy of Magicka, the first DLC pack, a tiny vanity item expansion pack, and a post-purchase hope that the game was actually any good. One element the vanity pack grants you is the option of equipping your mage with a face-obscuring floppy hat, a tip of the hat (ahhhh!) to the iconic Black Mage from the early Final Fantasy series of games, and is thus possibly prime material for a Hat News Now Today: I Put On My Wizard Robe And Hat edition. Therefore the game justified its price before I even began to play.

I haven’t played much of the game as of yet, but so far it is very much a love and hate affair: I love the mechanics of the game, and I hate the fact that I’m not very good at it. Hopefully I will improve with practise. Mainly my poor performance stems from the fact that I have this preternatural ability which, when presented with the choice of two buttons, always picks the wrong button for what I intended to do. I say ‘preternatural’ however, and that’s because if I go into the ‘controls’ menu and rebind the buttons so that they are the opposite way around I will continue to press them incorrectly, consistently pressing the button which would have been correct originally but which I’ve rebound and is now therefore the wrong one. This issue is quite the problem in Magicka because you have one button to cast spells on an enemy and one button to cast spells on yourself, and it doesn’t matter whether that spell is Heal or Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire, you can still cast it on yourself and, in the case of the latter, barbeque yourself back to the beginning of the level faster than you can say ‘what the hell is wrong with my brain wiring?!’

I would recommend reading the Wikipedia article for a detailed explanation of how the mechanics work, but essentially it is similar in a fashion to Lord of the Rings Online’s Gambit mechanic as used by the Warden class. The very basic mechanic is thus: you have eight basic elements which you can ‘load’ in any order into five spell slots, the combination of which will create a spell which can then be cast either on yourself or on an enemy. It’s far more complex than that, however; there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of spell combinations to discover; certain opposite elements will cancel each other out, where others will combine into a new element (load Fire and Water into two consecutive slots and they’ll combine down into the single slot Steam element); you can combine the Shield element with the Earth element and when cast a huge rock formation will burst from the ground to form a protective wall, where Shield and Fire will create a wall of fire that will damage anything that walks through it; specific spells can be learnt which, when activated with the spacebar rather than the mouse buttons, will have an entirely different effect than the elements might suggest Lightning->Arcane->Fire will cast Haste when the spacebar is pressed, which gives the player a temporary buff to running speed; and there are many other intricacies.

There’s far more depth to the game than I’m presenting here, but the basic idea of the game is one that I wanted to expand on slightly with respect to MMOs. Magicka has a four player co-op mode, and what struck me about this when playing yesterday is that it has all the class structure of an MMO built into one character. Essentially all four mages in co-op will be identical, and yet each one can be played in an entirely different role depending on the spell combinations the player chooses. For example, one mage could choose to focus on healing and personal shielding spells, while another mage focuses on crowd control by setting up defensive walls (be they the blocking Earth walls or the damaging Fire walls mentioned earlier) around the mages’ position and using the Ice element to slow enemies, while another mage could be focussing on damage, and yet another mage could set themselves up as a sort of tank, using shield buffs and PBAoE spells while putting their secondary weapon (each mage carries a staff as a primary weapon and a secondary weapon such as a sword) to good use. The greatness comes from that fact that the group can change their dynamic in any way they choose in reaction to their situation, all it requires is quick thinking and tactical play on the part of the players. The healer can switch to a damage dealing role simply by switching to casting damage spells instead of healing spells, or the damage dealer could stop attacking and cast a few defensive walls if it looked as though their position was about to be overrun. It’s as simple as that, like changing tack in a boat race: a quick judgement call, an adjustment, and suddenly everything is heading in a different and, hopefully, more positive direction.

Trion have taken a brave step with their Soul system; by allowing a single class to perform multiple roles at the flick of a switch, they’ve removed a large part of the need for players to roll alt characters, something which I’m sure some MMOs have relied upon as a way to retain a portion of their player base. Turbine also took a brave step in creating the Warden class and its Gambit mechanic, and although I’m not sure whether it has been a success in terms of the number of players actively playing the class, I still find it to be the best MMO class mechanic I’ve yet encountered. Having played Magicka a little I feel that there is an exciting step yet to take, a combination of Trion’s Soul system and Turbine’s Gambit mechanic where players are free to switch roles on the fly, removing the need to form a group from a perfect balance of the right roles before a fight, and being able to switch those roles within a fight in reaction to the situation as it unfolds. It would perhaps be a positive step in the direction of Blizzard’s ideal of ‘bring the player, not the class’.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in exciting and engaging game mechanics who hasn’t tried Magicka yet: it’s very reasonably priced even outside of a Steam sale, has an excellent sense of humour, is easy to pick-up but has great depth, and is altogether to be thoroughly recommended. So, despite only having played it briefly so far, on the KiaSA Second Wilson Cabinet Rating Mechanism, I think Magicka already scores a well deserved Baroness Williams of Crosby.

10 thoughts on “Magicka? I ‘ardly know ‘er!

  1. ArcherAvatar

    The exciting next step you described is essentially Guild Wars 2 combat system, where every character is capable of healing themselves (and others) and their skills can be swapped out easily by switching weapons (or in the case of the Elementalist they switch ‘attunement’)

    Simply changing from a greatsword to a mace+shield automatically changes half of your ten skills on the hotbar.

    *sigh* unfortunately, it will still be quite some time before GW2 is released.

    Your description of Magicka will definitely push me to at least investigate the game… (I hadn’t heard very much about it previously.)

  2. Melmoth Post author

    It’s a good point. I think GW2’s system is still not quite as flexible as what I was considering, as there will still be certain limitations upon each class, but it does indeed allow for a great deal of flexibility in play style, assuming it works as ArenaNet have suggested.

    You never know, perhaps removing the class structure altogether wouldn’t work, perhaps players need that framework in order to identify with their character and their role in a group. I do wonder though whether this is the sort of tentative fear of freedom that an animal raised in captivity feels upon being introduced to a wider and more chaotic environment, yet one which is on the whole ultimately better for them.

    I can’t comment on the longevity of Magicka, but I’ve spent less on it than I would have on a cinema ticket, and already I’ve had more hours of entertainment from the game, so I feel it has earnt the tentative thumbs-up regardless.

  3. Helistar

    About the warden class: the idea is fantastic, the reality somewhat less exciting.

    If you lag, playing is a nightmare, but what is turning me off is the fact that the abilities you actually use are small in number, and with the “tree branches” becoming longer, it’s not variability which is added, but just a stronger version of the same spell.

    It’s still a completely OP class, on par with Blood DK (self-healing tanks are always OP, anyway).

  4. Melmoth Post author

    Heh, indeed; I did try to refer to the Gambit mechanic specifically for that very reason. The Warden class is a personal favourite based upon its mechanic and concept, but I can certainly see that it wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

    I see the tree branch structure as a strength, because it aids the player in memorising the various gambits: knowing that the pattern for one self-heal can be repeated further to build a stronger self-heal is a fundamental part of the system’s intuitive nature.

    There is definitely scope to expand the repertoire of abilities, but we should probably consider that at the time the Gambit mechanic was introduced it was quite unusual in the MMO space, and I expect that Turbine decided to play it safe and limit the range of abilities, in case the mechanic wasn’t intuitive enough and players had trouble picking it up. Also, specific to the Warden, it’s probably important to provide a restricted set of options so as to avoid overloading the player to the point of helmet fire, which is of particular concern for a tanking class.

    It’s an overpowered class in solo play, I grant you, but it still has a very strong susceptibility to spike damage in a group setting, and is very reliant on a capable and understanding healer (and to a lesser extent group CCers), especially at the point of the initial pull. I would say it is fairly well balanced when considering the group game; I certainly don’t have the impression that raiding groups clamour for Wardens over Guardians at every opportunity.

  5. Derrick

    Magika is a fantastic game. I’ll note, though, that there are four primary cast targets: self and directed as you noted, but also AOE and weapon. Shield+AOE surrounds you in a largish shield, dfor example, which is extremely helpful….. Unless you, say, cast it away from your friends but with a group of orcs trapped inside with you. Or just before a friend helpfully casts a steam-steam-steam-arcane-lightening beam, which is the most powerful beam spell and happens to be reflected by shields. Extremely unfortunate if the whole party happens to be inside such a bubble.

    Magic is a very entertaining game solo, but is an unparalleled experience as a co-op game.

  6. Helistar

    Again about wardens: definitely true about their weaknesses. The big problem is that survival is based on active skills, and at pull time you get to choose if to increase survival or aggro. Since casting a skill always takes multiple GCDs, the ramp up time is slow.

    The “slowness” problem is also the one I mentioned about the tree, clearing a gambit and restarting means wasting a lot of time, so some kind of “late-click” configurability would be nice, instead of just getting a stronger version of the ability you chose with the first 2-3 clicks.

    What is most depressing is that someone cooked up an add-on which creates buttons for the gambits, which populate your 1-5 quickslots with the right abilities to have the gambit, you just press 12345. I can’t even guess why someone would want to use that, since the whole point of the warden is NOT to have a zillion bars filled with buttons….

  7. Tesh

    I would *love* this sort of flexibility in an MMO. I’ve written about it before. That’s exactly the sort of dynamic, interesting *play* that I think we’re missing in MMOs. Lag is a killer, but man, the tactical flexibility just sounds so awesome. I play a Druid in WoW to get as close as I can to that sort of “MacGyver” character… but this, this is another order of magnitude that I’d really like to see hit an MMO.

  8. Whorhay

    Currently my dream game would be a Minecraft type world with the combat and spell system from Magicka.

    In magicka “SAFE” is probably one of the most important things to cast on yourself frequently along with haste.

  9. ArcherAvatar

    Follow Up:

    Thank-you for the Magicka suggestion! Further investigations revealed a wonderful little game full of interesting mechanics and a fantastic sense of humor. Sold!

    (With regards to the GW2 combat system; the move away from the ‘holy trinity’ has also significantly freed up GW2’s class system, and should allow for quite a bit more versatility than previous MMOs.)


  10. Melmoth Post author

    @Derrick: Ah yes, you’re quite right. I remember casting a shield on myself at one point in my experimentation, but I’m not sure that I’d got around to casting a weapon-targeted ability at the time of writing. I can imagine from your example of shields reflecting beams, that it’s a game where you need to go into the co-op with the expectation of comedy friendly-fire deaths, but I can also imagine that those provide some of the best and most memorable experiences. M’colleague has now picked up a copy, and assuming he gets on with it, I imagine there will be some co-op fun in the near future.

    @Helistar: It is indeed a different type of reaction time required, but it also plays into the fact that the whole class is based around X-Over-Time abilities. Whether this works or not is, of course, up for debate, but I still think it fits with the general theme of the class quite nicely. The Mastery abilities and the Gambit clearing abilities are clearly concessions on Turbine’s part that sometimes a quick change of tack is required, but perhaps these abilities aren’t quite as flexible as they could be.

    I find AddOns to be a double-edged sword, where most of them are written to get around the restrictions of game-play mechanics, sometimes they eliminate almost any need to play the character (as in your example) which seems pointless, but on the other hand sometimes they help players to circumvent poor or misguided design decisions, and these are often invaluable (and quite often ported into the game’s native UI when they prove popular).

    @Tesh: I must admit to never having experienced the lag that people say kills the Warden class. Perhaps it’s because I’m not quite the frantic button-pusher that I was in my younger days, but I find the combat in LotRO (outside of the tougher dungeons and raids) to be slow enough that I don’t need to panic over my BPM (Buttons Per Minute).

    I think the design can be taken one of two ways: you can keep the number of abilities simple, make the combat fast and frantic, and the player skill comes from having a high BPM and being able to react quickly. Or, you can have a vast number of abilities, and the combat is slower and more tactical, with player skill being expressed by picking out the right abilities for the moment and being able to put into action a plan which will come to fruition some way into the fight, and also being able to adapt when those best laid plans gang agley. In the case of the latter combat style, normal levels of latency shouldn’t be an issue.

    @Whorhay: Minecraft meets Magicka? I’d buy that in an instant. Hmmm, might be time to look at that Minecraft mod…

    I don’t believe I’ve found SAFE as of yet. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it though, I’m guessing from its name as to what it does and how incredibly useful it will be.

    @ArcherAvatar: Very glad you enjoyed it. I’m always nervous about raving about a game because the difficulty with ‘reviews’ is that they are always going to be subjective to a degree. Still, I thought the mechanics and humour were universal enough that most people would enjoy them, if only for a brief while. And for the price, the game is a bargain, in my opinion.

    I’m definitely excited about the move away from the Holy Trinity in GW2. I’m also excited about the class interactions that might be possible (archers firing through the Elementalist’s Fire Wall and adding fire damage to their arrows being the primary example given so far), I think that opens up a whole new realm of tactics and possibilities for group synergy. Exciting stuff if ArenaNet can deliver on their promises.

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