Magicka: Wizard Wars hands-on preview

Imagine a game of Dota 2 in which everyone on both teams is playing Invoker, set on League of Legends ' Dominion map, and you'll have a rough idea of the general PvP insanity that is Magicka: Wizard Wars . Combining a handful of arcane elements in three-key invocations, the object is to work with your team to secure all three of the radially-placed control points on the map, preventing the enemy from respawning. I found myself thrust into the middle of it all, a simple country skull-basher with little in the way of magical education, to blast, soak, and zap my way through a 4v4 with a few other journalists and some of the game's developers. It took less than 10 minutes to become terminally on fire.

Wizard Wars eschews enough of the standard fare to dodge the "MOBA" label—minions don't play much of a role, and towers, in-game shops, and ability leveling are nonexistent. What it has in common with the Dota-likes, however, is the fact that I found myself calculating odds and planning ahead to the next potential team fight every time I wasn't actively engaged in freezing or burning an enemy conjurer's non-face off. As a matter of fact, Wizard Wars is probably one of the most cognitive games of its kind I've ever played.

Among the spells your wizard can cast is a shield that can give you 50 percent resistance to two different elements, or make you immune to one. I found that a large part of winning the game was anticipating what elements I was most likely to get hit with from which players, and tuning my shield accordingly before the first shot was fired. An enemy's active shield is displayed by colored rings around his feet, meaning that one-on-one fights often become a dance of juggling attack and defense elements until somebody's rock bashes up the other's scissors. Things get even more complicated when you factor in attacks using multiple elements, as well as special combos that can create area effects, impede movement, or block enemy projectiles altogether.

Outside of a match, you can customize your wizard's gear (Staff, Robes, Melee Weapon, and a trinket of some sort), as well as his roster of Magicks. Magicks are non-elemental special skills which can be used once you've built up a fighting game-esque super meter—the devs cited Street Fighter as a big inspiration for Wizard Wars' combat. Magicks become progressively more powerful as you fill more of the bar, culminating in being able to drop a meteor storm that can (and in one match, did) kill the entire enemy team in one shot. Or, you know, your entire team. This is Magicka, after all. Friendly fire is enabled in all of its rage-inducing glory, adding one more element you need to keep track of in big teamfights.

With all of its layers of complexity, Paradox North is taking a surprisingly simple framework and building a tactically complex and fairly unique PvP experience. More of your important decisions are moved out of the item shop and ability bar, and onto the battlefield, creating a meta that has more to do with intuition and mind games than optimization and spreadsheets. If you'd like to leap into the cloak-clothed fray yourself, sign-ups for the alpha have already begun. According to Paradox, the game will "probably" launch free-to-play, and a founder's program is under consideration.

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