A barrage of high-profile, bug-riddled games in the last several months has reignited the old arguments about whether it’s wise or ethical business practice to let uncompleted games hit the shelves. At first, Magicka doesn’t seem to fit in with the Civilizations, Fallouts, and Final Fantasys of the world—it’s cheaper and doesn’t have anywhere near the pedigree. But it’s muscled its way into that conversation because it has the makings of a sleeper hit.
You play a faceless wizard, called to complete an utterly generic world-saving quest. (The game is smugly aware of its basicness, thanks.) You proceed via Diablo-style combat, but with the focus on elemental spellcasting. The left side of the keyboard corresponds to eight specific elements, like life or water, while the mouse controls movement, as well as where and how your spell gets cast. The elements combine for different, improved effects: pressing A for lightning loads up a short-range, low-damage spell, but tap A-Q-F-S in succession, and you’ll get that lightning plus fire and water to create steam, and an arcane element to make a powerful beam spell with 10 times the range and effectiveness. Adding the shield element to the mix lets you turn any offensive spell into a defensive wall. The system’s remarkable versatility allows for all kinds of on-the-fly strategizing, seemingly perfect for the game’s four-player co-operative mode.
Theoretically, this is where Magicka should shine. Its story mode provides a series of archetypal fantasy battles, and the game mechanics are reminiscent of Left 4 Dead: both are small, party-based games with RPG-style story and item progression, but without actual role-playing mechanics. With that in mind, finding a good online game should be easy. Unfortunately, most are password-protected, and network problems can be found throughout Magicka’s patch notes, in both the “known issues” and “fixes” categories. Those patches are improving matters—it became much easier to find a playable online game over the course of a handful of days—but there’s much work left to be done.
This is the sad paradox of Magicka: what makes it so compelling as a game isn’t the finished product. Want to play online? Finding a game is hard enough without the lag. Want to play single-player? It’s balanced for multiplayer. The spell combinations and effects are fantastic, but they require a powerful video card, and there’s a notable lack of options for tweaking performance. Arrowhead Studios came up with a marvelous game, but the company’s excitement in rushing it to the market often creates more problems than they’re worth.