Magicka: Wizard Wars hands on: prepare for lift-off

Magicka: Wizard Wars is about this explodey at any given moment.

These things are never certain of course. There’s plenty that can and will go both right and wrong. But, having played Magicka: Wizard Wars at length, and seen first-hand the team’s obvious passion for both their game and developing it so publically… I think it’s going to go off like a rocket.

Magicka has form. The original tiny wizard fighting game, in which you rolled your face across your keyboard to produce a battery of spells that occasionally killed your enemies but mostly exploded in your face, did really, really well. Two and half-million copies sold well. Wizard Wars is a competitive multiplayer follow up; a game that uses some of the conventions of MOBAs (creeps, lanes, capturing territory) but combines them expertly with Magicka’s slapstick spellcasting.

It works because, even as the game asks you to attack objectives, or work in teams, the spellcasting remains the star: only now you’re reacting and responding to a barrage of spells from a live opponent. Or three.

It’s tactical: it’s quickly clear that the only way to survive is liberally ward yourself from certain elemental damage, and use defensive spells to deflect or absorb anything you’re not inherently resistant to. It’s blisteringly fast: players can go from feeling safe to “holy shit where did that meteor come from” in moments. And the skill ceiling is stratospheric. Imagine a MOBA where every hero ability is available to every character at once. Then let them be deployed using a system that owes more to fighting games than a traditional action RPG or strategy game.

It might be too fast for some. It might be too tactical. And it may well be that the skill required to dominate is just out of reach to all a small portion of the playerbase.


It’s just so much fun.

The latest addition to the game is an arena mode. Groups of four wizards enter the arena, and they take it in turns to fight, one on one. One pair fights, while the other watches; the winner stays on. Between rounds the waiting pair spectate from a raised platform. It reminds me of the old Quake mod, Rocket Arena. Except, you know, with wizards.

Arena is where Wizard War’s depth is really on display: good players destroy the bad in a few seconds. Yet players of roughly equal skill face off, the battles stretch out: as heals, aggressive spells and wards are frantically dropped.

After each death, exhausted players are teleported back into the spectator arena to wait for their next turn. They need the downtime: 1v1 Magicka is exhausting.

Magicka’s in Steam Early Access right now, with a full blown free-to-play release pending. Even in this limited format, there is a strong, growing community. Paradox are proud to show just how players are reacting: the most visible example being a browser plugin that will translate the community’s spellcasting codes into visible icons on sites like the Steam Community Guides. Their philosophy: as game developers they take care of the plumbing – the boring backbone and engine requirements that a game needs to grow. The Early Access community get to pick and choose priorities from a menu of priorities. Arena mode came out of exactly that process.

The full, free-to-play release of Magicka is approaching. That will be the true test of the game’s appeal. There are many Moba games in development, and most simply ape the structures of Dota and LoL. Wizard Wars’s mechanics are very different. But I think it shares a fundamental insight with the Moba pillars: players want depth. They want to be challenged, and they want to challenge others.

That’s why I think Wizard Wars will fly.