28 January, 2011

Magicka: OCD of Ultimate Power

written by Blain Newport on Thursday, 27 January, 2011


Magicka was just barely on my radar until this piece on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Now it's taken over my brain.

The premise is simple. You are a wizard. After a five minute tutorial, you have control over all the elements. You learn other spells, but they're almost irrelevant because once you learn to control and combine the elements, you can wreak amazing devastation. Plus there's no mana to worry about. So you can throw the most powerful spells around at a whim.

It takes a lot of time and experimentation to figure out the best spells. Every element can be cast in multiple ways. You can cast it on yourself (mostly for healing or casting shields). You can cast it in a direction. You can cast it all around you, which can be handy when surrounded by enemies. You can also combine elements to change their form. Fire is usually a jet, but with earth, it's an explosive fire ball. With arcane energy it's a beam. With lightning, you can arc it along a line of enemies. There are a couple hidden elements and a hidden delivery mechanism as well. Plus certain elements cancel each other out, so there's a lot to experiment with.

Then there's the control mechanism. At first I put my hands on the keyboard like I would for most games, with my pinky resting on the shift key. But I eventually realized that my index finger wasn't fast enough to be responsible for four keys and moved up to the normal typing position. I also spent a lot of time figuring out how the game takes input so I could cast as fast as possible.

As a touch typist who used to play piano, I'm here to tell you that the power this game puts at my fingertips is madness. The damage I can dish out, the crowd control I can exercise, and the multi-level defense I can erect is absurd. I have to hold myself back to keep the game interesting.

The vast majority of games don't allow for this kind of play. Designers want players to have the same tools so they can balance the difficulty more precisely. The fact that Magicka even supports game pads makes me question if Arrowhead (the developer) understands how much more powerful the keyboard is. But if this is all an accident, why doesn't it feel like one? Why doesn't the game seem too easy?

I suspect the learning curve is the key. If the magic system had been even a tiny bit simpler, this power would have felt unearned. But because it took me over twenty hours to master, and there are still new spells to experiment with and many optimizations to learn, I feel like I'm earning this power.

I am a wizard.

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