What is it? Free-to-play multiplayer MOBA...ish
Reviewed on: Windows 8, Core i5, 8GB RAM, GTX 970
Play it on: 2.4 GhZ processor, 4GB RAM, GeForce 440 or better
Alternatively: Dota 2 (90%)
Copy protection: Steam, developer-run server login
Price: Free to play
Release date: Out now (formerly in Early Access)
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox North
Multiplayer: Up to 8 players
Link: Steam store page
One of us is going to explode, eventually. Locked in one-on-one combat, my opponent and I circle each other. He shoots a blast of arcane energy, but I counter with a shield, bouncing his beam back into his face. He’s stunned, so I take advantage by hosing him down with a water jet, then zapping his soggy body with lightning. He throws up a shield of his own, so I don stone armor and rush him. He shoots me full in the chest with a wash of flame, and as I burn alive I stab him over and over until we both fall over dead. The duel is over; it’s a tie.
In the awkward laughter that follows, I realize I rarely have as much fun with a game as I have with duel mode in Magicka: Wizard Wars. Paradox North’s newly released (formerly in Early Access) free-to-play spin-off of Magicka has some faults and features a lackluster selection of game modes, but there’s time for that later. For now, there is only the joy of a duel. We respawn again, two wizards fighting to the death for the fun of it.
Wizard Wars is a curious beast. It’s not a full sequel to 2011’s excellent Magicka (that game, Magicka 2, arrives May 26), but more of a hybrid. It takes the original’s chaotic multiplayer arena modes, slims them down a tiny bit, and shoves them deep into a free-to-play, unlockable-upgrade framework that borrows heavily from online staples like Dota 2 and World of Tanks.
First, the basics: a wizard controls eight elements, one each tied to the QWERASDF keys. By typing any combination of three and casting them on yourself or others, thousands of possible spells are born. Mix fire and water or arcane energy and frost. Summon storms of death-lightning or shield yourself behind walls of exploding stone.
Magicka allowed combinations of up to five elements, but Wizard Wars has been trimmed slightly to only three. I can see that this change was made to speed up spellcasting, but I miss some of my more elaborate incantations. The ever-reliable ARSE mines are gone, as is my beloved QRASER frost bomb.
The eight elements are still there, though, as is the rock-paper-scissors decision-making that is the beating heart of Magicka’s combat. Each element has an opposite (or opposites) that fight best against it. In a multiplayer environment, this means that at any moment I may see an opponent who warded against wet or cold or fire, and their protection dictates the response. It’s fast-typing, twitch-reaction mayhem running as fast as a competitive shooter, but with the added task of choosing a new gun every time you fire.
Pick a lane
Combat in Wizard Wars comes in three modes. The first is an immediately familiar take on a three-lane MOBA, complete with mobs to farm and enemy bases to destroy. I enjoyed my time pushing lanes and smacking mobs, but I found long walks from base back to action and underpowered mobs a bit boring. Engaging other players was more fun, but the structure of the match—first team to kill 200 mobs drops the enemy defenses—discourages PvP because it’s time spent not farming. Killing other players doesn’t disadvantage them in anyway, either. It’s got all of the pieces of a MOBA, but Magicka’s combat actively works against spreading out and covering lanes. The most effective teams I saw traveled together in a pack, looping the map in wide circles, studiously ignoring the other team. Contrast this with the highly structured, highly strategic role-based play of Dota or League of Legends and, well, three lanes alone does not a MOBA make.
The second is a team deathmatch mode based on capturing spawn points. Each team has a set number of respawns to use and scrambles for control over territory—if one team captures all four points, the other team can’t respawn. This mode is more fun, and running out of spawn tickets creates pressure familiar to anyone who’s found themselves the Last Man in Counter-Strike.
In both of these team-based modes, teammates were my single biggest complaint. Very few games finished with all eight players connected, and an early quitter guarantees a slow, painful loss for their team. Because of the small team sizes, Magicka is a game best played with reliable friends. At least it's free-to-play, so it shouldn’t be too hard to round up some allies.
Then there’s the duel mode, which is as closed to crystallized perfection as it is possible to be. Two wizards, one small arena, zero BS. No teammates to let me down and no reinforcements to stab me in the back. Duel mode put the focus entirely on Magicka’s excellent magic system, letting me dive into the thrusts and counter-thrusts and counter-counter-thrusts. Duels are by far the greatest part of Wizard Wars because they feature the shortest distance between decisions and their consequences.
Magical hand of the market
Wizard Wars is free-to-play, and uses microtransactions to make money. Everything from robes to daggers to heart-patterned boxer shorts are upgradable with experience points and real-world cash. Mostly the attraction for paying is cosmetic, and looking like a deep-hooded, flame-wreathed specter of death will cost from €3 to €10. Getting a top-of-the-line kit, including weapon, staff, robes, rings, trinkets, and an imp companion will top out at about €20.
Paying for gear could create a pay-to-win situation, but even the best gear comes with self-balancing handicaps. A robe that gives bonus to earth makes lightning weaker, for example; a ring with boost to fire makes arcane weaker. Top-tier robes may look great and give a huge bonus to one stat, but they weaken another just as much. On balance, there was basically no difference to overall power no matter what I wore. Since I don’t mind looking like a stock wizard instead of Gandalf, I didn’t see much reason to spend any money at all.
Is Wizard Wars the game that finally gets me hooked into the F2P MOBA universe? Definitely not. Still, it’s hard to turn down a free opportunity to play with a tighter, faster, better-looking version of Magicka’s combat system. The refined magic casting is great fun, and and makes me hopeful for Magicka 2. But as good as duel mode is, one truly great game mode out of only three didn’t keep me around, no matter how much fun I had with the intricacy of magical combat.