Put Magicka 2 next to its 2011 predecessor and you’ve got a before-and-after comparison straight out of a weight-loss advertising campaign. The new-and-improved version is leaner, meaner, and better looking, but just like in those ad photos, at the end of the day this is still the same guy with a few less pounds and a spray-on tan. As a fan of the cult franchise, I don’t consider this a disappointment. I’m happy with more of the same because this new demonstration of wizard-bursting carnage features the same skill-based magic system and catchy co-operative modes of play that made the original play like Dungeons and Dragons on crank in a slaughterhouse. Still, there isn’t much new here aside from expected refinements, like smoother controls and better visuals, and plenty of added frustration from bugs and the extreme difficulty for single players.
Anyone who played the first Magicka will see a lot that’s familiar here. This is pretty much the same magical combat experience, with colorful cowled wizards slinging spells at a veritable Monster Manual lineup of goblins, orcs, ents, gun-toting demons, and more. As before, the essence of the game can be summed up with its control mechanics. While this looks like the usual rip-off of an action RPG, there are no experience points, no inventory, no need to smash open chests to get at the enchanted goodies inside, or anything else that might be the provenance of Diablo and its successors. All that’s between you and the bad guys are eight magical elements (accessed via the QWER and ASDF banks of keys or via the buttons on a gamepad, if you swing that way) that are called up and thrown together into combos to create dozens of spell effects you can cast on yourself, enemies, or the area at large.
As a result, combat is almost entirely skill-based, depending on how swift you are with a keyboard. You can dumb things down and hammer on single elements for spells. Hit Arcane, and you launch a death beam. Fire activates a mystical flamethrower, Water calls up a spout of H2O, and so forth. But that won’t get you very far due to the sheer number of monsters. You need to do a lot of experimenting to make the most of your spellcasting.
This means that combat quickly grows complex. You can use up to five elements at once. Some are good matches, while others are opposites (oddly enough, Water and Lightning don’t mix well). Add Cold to Shield, and you get a frozen barrier. Use Earth and Fire to launch flaming boulders at foes. But you’ve really got to play around with the spells (or do some online searching) to get a grip on the powerful spell effects generated by using more than two elements. And you’ve gotta dance on the keys like you’re a latter-day Mavis Beacon or you won’t be able to keep up with the enemy hordes.
As with the first game, Magicka 2 also features superpowered “magicks” that take incantations to the next level. The one big difference here is that these spells can be accessed via hotkeys rather than having to type in a challenging combination of three or more keys. This removes some of the skill from the game in that you don’t have to splay your fingers all over the keyboard to cast Haste or Thunderbolt. It also takes away some of the fun, especially for the overly dextrous. Before, you were only limited by the speed of your fingers. Now, each of these magicks is subject to a cooldown period.
Still, these instant-access magicks seem to make a positive change overall. Anything that eases the steep learning curve for the average player can only be a good thing, especially given the challenge of the core spell-casting system. You can still use the key combos if you want (although the cooldown period is still in effect, so there’s little point in doing things the hard way).
Speaking of a challenge, Magicka 2 is even harder than its predecessor, which is really saying something. Both the adventure campaign and the one-off Challenge scenarios against waves of monsters are brutally tough when you’re going solo. I found it unplayable after the fourth chapter, where I encountered swarms of creatures that wiped me out again and again. Casual players and those who want to go it alone desperately need an easier difficulty setting.
Aspects of the campaign are sadistically punitive. Levels have been designed as killing floors where retreat is routinely blocked off. Every battle plays out the same way. You walk over a trigger point. This kicks off a huge monster onslaught. Overwhelming enemy numbers force you to retreat. Then the game refuses to let you go any farther, even though there is no visible reason why you can’t go back down a cave tunnel or forest path that you just traversed seconds before. Seconds later, you’re dead.
I can’t understand why the developers chose to cut off escape routes like this and make battles so cramped. It is totally unnecessary and does nothing but push the game beyond any sort of reasonable difficulty level. In addition, closing down the ability to freewheel really affects the gameplay, turning battles into mindless drudgery where you constantly run away, pausing only to lay down bombs and shields in your wake or heal up.
Thank Odin for co-op. The only way to really enjoy (and survive) Magicka 2 is by joining up to three other mages either online or locally and tackling the campaign or challenges together. This doesn’t turn levels into a cakewalk, but adding even one buddy turns unwinnable scraps against giant orcs and their pals into tough but manageable battle royales that are a blast to play. It’s easy to log in and play with two or three strangers in seconds.
Every match is a chaotic free-for-all that moves swiftly, with zero to very little slowdown even in the most insane battles with mobs of monsters. The one drawback is that everything is so nuts with explosions and death beams and gibbed mages that you can easily lose track of where you are on the screen. It’s clear that the developers intended players to experience Magicka 2 in co-op, although it’s a shame that they didn’t scale the difficulty better so solo players could get the most out of the game. Incidentally, there is no versus mode here, likely because of the team-based multiplayer focus of sister game Magicka: Wizard Wars.
Magicka 2 is even harder than its predecessor, which is really saying something.
Other changes are fairly minor. Movement is now smoother, and you can cast spells and run at the same time. You can pick a location, click to run to it, and then blast away at trailing enemies as you shuffle backwards. I found this incredibly helpful when retreating from crowds of monsters (well, at least until the game decided not to let me back up any farther). The old checkpoint save system has been automated with regular save locations that prevent a fair bit of backtracking (although there are some aggravating moments, and you are always set too far back if you get killed during boss battles). You can use unlockable artifacts to tweak gameplay, offering the ability to adjust everything from your health to enemy attacks and introducing goofy frills, like adding sitcom laughter to deaths. It’s an interesting concept, although I didn’t experiment much here. Artifacts seem to hold promise in boosting replayability, though.
Visuals and sound are in the same ballpark as the original game, although the graphics are more colorful and better detailed and the sound is a little more amped up and cartoony. As with the first game, there is a pleasant atmosphere to everything, with a bright color palette, NPCs speaking gibberish, and constant self-lampooning jokes--right up until the moment the first wizard explodes into shreds of red goo. Nothing here is funny in a laugh-out-loud way, although the combination of good cheer and bloody murder is twisted enough to raise a few smiles.
Bugs are something of a concern. The game is stable enough that I didn’t experience any crashes, but I did run into a couple of glitches playing solo. Every so often, getting killed by the exit to a level’s section during the campaign would throw me into the next section as if I’d slain the bad guys. Given the spectacular difficulty of many of these fights, I wasn’t complaining. Still, there’s obviously a bug here.
Respawning is messed up in solo play. Almost without fail, getting killed once in the midst of a mob of enemies results in getting killed twice in the midst of a mob of enemies because you always respawn within inches of where you were murdered in the first place. To make matters even worse, you can sustain damage almost from the moment you appear, and magicks (including Haste, which is spectacularly useful in these situations), are greyed out for what seems like a thousand years after you pop back into existence. Because getting taken out twice sends you back to a save point, this automatic second strike is incredibly annoying.
A lot of the discussion above sounds pretty negative. That’s with good reason--I have to admit that at many times, solo Magicka 2 almost made me throw my mouse through my office window. But the terrific magic system, joyous carnage, and the ability to ditch single-player for the vastly more enjoyable co-op rescued the game and made it almost as compelling as the typical “after” model featured in a late-night infomercial. If you’re a social type, this is a must-play. But loners might want to give this one a pass, at least until the developers scale the difficulty better for single mages.