Thursday 14 April 2011

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.

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