Magicka Preview (PC)

There is a principle known as Occam's Razor that states that the simplest explanation is always the best. Well, the actual principle is "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity", but that has no bearing on the point I'm trying to make, so instead we turn to Leonardo da Vinci's more poetic interpretation - "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication". No matter how deep the story line is with its many options and engaging narrative, how deep the strategy is with its complex AI or statistics, or even how extensive customization is, or even how realistic the kill models are... sometimes all it requires is four dudes and some mojo to make a good game.

All looks a bit Diablo doesn't it? Gameplay is a lot of fun though
And that's exactly what Magicka is - four dudes (Well, four very brightly coloured dudes) and some magical mojo. Even the 'dudes' part is a bit ambiguous, as they seem to be little more than the estranged cousins of Jawas or something. This is the debut brainchild of Arrowhead Games Studios, a relatively new Swedish games developer, and the game itself actually started off as a student project. It's simple, it's addictive, and so far it's been a hell of a lot of fun to test. The most surprising thing of all however is that it's being published by the masters of hardcore - Paradox Interactive - in what might be their second outing on the console market (Magicka is rumoured to be coming to the 360 and PS3).

Based around Norse Mythology, Magicka is co-operative action adventure game for up to four players, although it can be done solo as well. All you are armed with is a sword, and eight different spells with which to fight off your enemies. The trick to Magicka is to combine your spells in different combinations in order create more powerful attacks, as well as special moves. This is the core feature of the game, and it's quite well implemented, and fun to experiment with. If you read Paradox's PR blurb about that game, there are reportedly over 1 million different combinations to try. The elements are healing, shield, earth, fire, water, arcane, lighting and cold, and some elements are opposites to each other. Combine the wrong two elements and the spell will either fail or explode in your face.
Combine spells such as water and lightning for an awesome chain effect
You could almost call this a sandbox game of sorts. There are no classes in this game, no set roles, and yet all the tools are there for dynamic and diversified player-types. It will be interesting to see how gameplay tactics evolve naturally amongst the player base, whether healer or tank archetypes can emerge, and so forth. There are also power-ups and items you can collect, which stay with you until you die and can help augment your skills. The only thing worth collecting is 'Magiks', powerful spells that require specific combinations to pull off, which you can only do once you have collected that particular Magik.

As already mentioned, this is a co-operative adventure game, meaning the campaign - but there are other multiplayer modes as well, especially competitive. The 'wizards' can actually fight against each other one on one (and possibly all v all/teams of two, we're trying to find that out at the moment), trying to outwit the other in terms of spell and counter-spell - with hilarious results. In addition to this, there's a Challenges mode, which includes what is basically a Horde or Firefight equivelent where you fight off waves of enemies. The game really shines in the co-op mode, because like when you combine spells yourself, you can also combine spells with each other. If someone is firing out a bolt of arcane magic, for example, fire your own spell into theirs and watch its power grow exponentially... or explode in your face if you choose the wrong spell.

In terms of handling, we tried it with both the keyboard and a 360 USB pad. Handling is definitely better on the keyboard as there's more keys to spread the commands about, and they're less fiddly. On the 360 pad, it's more intuitive but harder to master, as you must press a button and then guide the stick in order to choose the spells you want to combine. This makes for some slow going at first, but you get the hang of it.
Whilst one heals, the other crushes
The key to this game's charm will be how it views itself. As Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt mentioned in an interview, "the game is set in a Norse inspired world... and a pretty generic one at that, but the key thing we've added is satire." These subtle and humorous twists on the established conventions on the genre, combined with its unique gameplay, should make this a great title to start the year off with. The main thing though is going to be the co-operative elements, so making sure you have friends to play with will be key. Magicka is due out Q1 2011, and is only confirmed for the PC at the moment.

Most Anticipated Feature: Combining spells to create the ultimate attacks (or ultimate backfire) is going to be sweet.