Magicka: Wizard Wars hands-on - free to play arena battles with chaotic magic and grim reapers

Paradox North VP John Hargelid has me on the run. His little red wizard has already disintegrated a good chunk of my health counter with a hail of burning chunks of rock. I threw up an anti-fire ward and a panicky shield, but he's switched to searing arcane laser beams and he's pinning me with admirable ease, as one might a fly with a magnifying glass on a summer day. I need something big. I mash three keys to summon a handful of glowing blue energy and right-click to cast, soaking him with an almost harmless gush of water. “Shit!”

Wait a minute, I remember Magicka. Water plus electricity means, well, you can guess. A triple-tap of the lightning key and another right-click to cast has exactly the desired effect. Arcs of energy frazzle my foe for massive damage. “Hmmm, nice one” he says, and then squashes me with a big rock. Ah, those duels in Magicka's old arena modes are flooding back to me now. I remember the volatile relationships between Magicka's eight elements. I remember how the desire to deploy spells tactically battled the frantic need to build spells at max speed, and I realised how well suited the system is to a quick-fire free-to-play PvP game which, conveniently, is what Wizard Wars is all about.

Magicka Wizard Wars is a project born of piracy. Paradox's cute and delightfully violent wizardy action RPG, Magicka, sold around two million on PC, but the publisher places its download total at around ten million. Where another company might see a threat to their business, Paradox sees opportunity. Hargelid takes its underground popularity as a compliment. "If people like our game but aren't willing to pay, then we probably need to find a way to make it more attractive" he says, "or find other ways for people who are perhaps willing to pay smaller amounts."

This free-to-play PvP arena battle game is their answer. Wizard Wars is built by Paradox North, a new studio on a mission to diversify Paradox' portfolio of thinky strategy games with a game about lightning duels and mutually assured immolation. Pretty, leafy arenas invite two teams of four wizards to enter and explode each other until the enemy's respawn ticker has expire - the time-tested yardstick of superiority among wizards of yore.

In Wizard Wars, like Magicka before it, your QWERASDF keys are tied to eight separate elements that you can summon into personal orbit with a press. You combine elements to craft spells on the fly, and can deploy them in different forms, as lasers, meteor strikes, sprays, localised storms and proxy mines. Right-clicking casts the spell outwards; middle-cliking to applies spells to your wizard. That lets you heal yourself and throw up wards to soak up elemental damage. In Magicka, you could combine up to five elements into a spell, which facilitated PC Gamer favourite – the all-destroying ARSE mines . In Wizard Wars, that's been reduced to three to speed up combat.

It's in a new engine, too. Though certainly a bit prettier, the best part about the upgrade will be stable netcode borrowed from War of the Roses. Other minor changes fine-tune Magicka's system for competitive play. You can set waypoints for your wizard with the left mouse button and then cast spells in other directions as he strafes. Self-casting has been moved to the middle mouse button, which means you can't move and heal at the same time, and some extremely powerful spells have been moved onto the 1-4 keys. Dealing damage grows a power bar that unlock these numbered abilities one by one. Number one will give your wizard temporary super-speed, three unleashes a towering grim reaper that will chase your enemies around and insta-kill them with a scythe-swipe. Number four calls down a huge meteor storm. That one's especially risky. Friendly fire is always on in Magicka.

There will be microtransactions, of course. The plan at the moment is to charge for gear. You can tweak your wizard's robe, staff, weapon and ring-of-power before battle, and each of these convey stat-shifts that hike the power of particular elements. For every buff, there's a drawback. My wizard's gear made him amazing at healing, but awful at casting wards, for example. John's wizard is specced for fire - which explains the effectiveness of his opening fireball barrage – but his arcane spells suffer as a result.

When you combine the idea of microtransaction items with attached buffs and a combat system that lets you mash elemental forces together in hundreds of different combinations, it's hard to imagine that Wizard Wars will be an especially balanced game. I'm certain Paradox North will encounter some amusing player exploits when the game goes into closed alpha testing later this year. As much as Hargelid talks about crafting a competitive experience that will appeal to the hardcore, Wizard Wars' strength is that it's chaotic duels are immediately fun.

More convincingly, Hargelid pitches Wizard Wars as a malleable platform that can become whatever its community wants. “Initially we're looking at microtransactions, then we'll basically ask the community what they want to see,” he says. “If it's major expansions, that's the route we'll take.” Even now, Paradox North are busy watching their forums and turning over the community's ideas for new game modes and items. This same approach has allowed Paradox to build a collection of passionate communities around its strategy games, and it may well earn them some success here too.

For more from Gamescom 2013, check out our complete coverage.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.