Magicka: Wizard Wars is a four versus four, spawn point capturing deathmatch MOBA in which groups of primary coloured wizards mix and match magical spells before spewing their mystical concoctions at other players, around their immediate surroundings or all over themselves like magic soup. The spell system works pretty much as it does in the original Magicka, so combining water and fire creates scalding steam, fire plus rock equals molten boulders, and water plus lightning equals comic self-electrocution. You can stack elements to create more powerful jets of arcane fizzle, or cast them on yourself to create flavours of shields. It’s creative. It’s really good.
I’m really bad at it.
Luckily, everybody I was playing with was equally terrible. Our games were hilariously slapstick, our fingers fumbled around the keys selecting ineffectual combinations of colourful spells, which would spark and cartwheel off around the screen in great magical ribbons. You can have three spells charged at once, and the only way to release those charged spells is to fire them off, as if you were degaussing your statically charged wizard fingers. I’d mistakenly fire healing jets at the enemy, before panicking and summoning a Grim Reaper, who, in the absence of other players, would chase me around the map. Friendly fire is always on, so careful targetting of your long-range spells is needed to avoid injuring teammates, as well as conscientious use of your area-of-effect powers.
The goal is to control three spawn points by sitting on them long enough to capture them. Two are situated in the top corners of the small map, while a third sits at the bottom. Narrow lanes connect these points, forcing players into short bursts of sparkling combat, and little friendly gremlin men do their best to protect them while you’re not around. These are the rules: dying will send you to back to one of your spawn points and cost your team one of your 75 spawn tickets, but if when you die your team doesn’t control a spawn point, you’re left in limbo until they do. In this situation, the remaining team members must capture a spawn point or be slain and lose the match. So, for the purposes of brevity: the idea here is pretty much to capture spawn points and not die, using magic.
Helping you to not die is your ability to enshroud yourself in a protective shield, which acts as a sort of prisoner’s dilemma as you reconcile your knowledge of the opposing team’s strengths with their knowing that you know. Before each round you’re shown every player’s strongest and weakest elemental attributes and can choose to attack and defend based on that understanding, or on the understanding that they’ll expect you to exploit their public weakness and so change up their tactics. I sort of suspect you could win at Magicka: Wizard Wars using game theory alone
In practice our game was a theory-averse free for all. Repeatedly tapping out a half-way decent spell formation (my favourite was a rock, fire, rock combo that lobbed beachball sized exploding globs of lava) soon became my preferred tactic in the face of a team of players who hadn’t yet formed the muscle memory to defend against such attacks with the appropriate type of shield. Sticking rigidly to one type of spell gives diminishing returns, however, and it takes just one player to spot your routine and counter it with tactics and magic custom-designed to splat you.
The players who’ll thrive in Magicka: Wizard Wars are the ones whose fingers don’t fall into comfortable configurations, and instead can dart across a library of potential spell mixtures to find, in fractions of a moment, the one appropriate for the given situation. Shields are even clearly coloured to denote which element they’re defending against, so the dextrous player can spot a type of defence and charge just the right spell to blast right through it. You could get really good at doing that.
Spectacular, slowly recharging abilities unlock as a round progresses. You can rain down meteor strikes across an entire screen, revive fallen allies, summon a Grim Reaper who’ll indiscriminately attack friends and foe alike, or grant yourself a temporary speed boost. These abilities punt the tactical range up by an order of magnitude: players can clear crowded spawn points and dart past lane defenders with well timed triggering of these skills. They’re also great for idiots like me because, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s summoned meteors, I get away with wreaking anonymous, repercussion-free havoc.
It’s hard to know if slapstick can survive the transition to a free to play, player versus player, tactically minded wizard fight. The original Magicka is profoundly silly, a game in which you can set yourself alight with a clumsily cast spell, but Wizard Wars (which actually blocks accidental self-immolation, as a point of interest, instead casting an area of effect spell) favours the more intelligent side of conjuration combinations and arcane wizard combat. Surprisingly, that side of Magicka has turned out to be a richly tactical multiplayer affair. Underneath the clown make-up there’s a seriously intelligent game about angry wizards waiting to be discovered.