All gamers have an idea of a game they want to make. It could be anything from a novel mechanic through to a fully fleshed out story, but it’s there hanging around in the back of our minds. However for those of us who’ve attempted to bring that idea into reality we often come crashing into the cold hard truth of the games industry: making games is hard. For the precious few that make it through the process (and fewer still who see success from it) the scars of game development are forever burned into their psyche. The Magic Circle is a game that chronicles this journey, with all the dark humour and self-loathing that permeates much of the game industry.
To its fans The Magic Circle was a brilliant example of interactive fiction, a game deserving of the title of cult classic. The sequel however has been one of the most beleaguered projects in the history of gaming, having been in development for some 20 years with little to show for it. The creator’s perfectionism has kept the sequel in a perpetual state of unfinishedness, never being satisfied enough to ship anything. You are one of the games’ long time fans who’s been hired as a playtester for the current iteration of the game. Whilst your experience confirms that yes, there is a game, it’s no where near complete. However when you finish the small section you’re contacted by an AI from a previous generation of the game who shows you how to take control of this unfinished world.
The Magic Circle looks and feels like an unfinished game, although under the hood it’s anything but. The choice of a bleak black and white aesthetic for one world (and a low-res, 8-bit colour palette for the other) reinforces that unfinished feeling. Interestingly though the whole world is properly textured as evidenced by the fact that your character brings colour wherever it steps. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a pre-alpha or similarly beta indie game although there’s an obvious layer of polish that would otherwise be missing from such early stage games. Suffice to say Question Games have done a good job of creating a “finished-unfinished” world.
Like most early stage games The Magic Circle is a mishmash of different ideas that are all cobbled together. The initial game starts out as something of a walking simulator with you just viewing the scenery. However it quickly transforms into a kind of puzzle game where you can modify the behaviour of enemies and objects within the world. This can be something as simple as making something your ally instead of your enemy or completely changing the way an object moves or interacts. This is how you start breaking the game, changing things around so you can access more areas that you shouldn’t be able to. Finally at the end you’re put in charge of actually developing a game level and you’ll get reviewed on how fun it is. This is all the while you’re privy to commentary from the game’s developers, giving you an insight into the creator’s vision and why it’s never quite managed to be released.
The initial game modification section of The Magic Circle is quite fun as there are numerous different ways to approach many of the puzzles when you first start out. These start to thin out a bit as you get towards the later puzzles as most of them really only have one solution. Still the rudimentary control you have over the NPCs does present some rather fun opportunities like sending wave after wave of rats at the Hive Queen in an attempt to defeat her. Of course there’s only so much mucking about you can do before you’ve found all the secrets and want to move on. Thankfully that’s not hard at all and it’s at that point the game takes on a very meta twist.
It’s at this point you’re thrust into a demo game for E4 and given the choice of whether or not to muck with it. This then leads onto you watching them playing the demo live on stage whilst all chaos breaks loose. Then after that you’re given the task of creating the sequel with a rudimentary level editor. It’s actually pretty interesting to try and figure out how to maximise the review score at the end and the commentary given to you by Old Pro is quite entertaining. You’re then thrown back to your desktop where you’re able to replay the game, redo your level or simply click around to find out some more details about the game.
It’s interesting to see a satirized version of events that are familiar to many gamers, namely sequels that seem to be forever in development due to its creator’s perfectionism. Indeed it feels like a game more for developers, industry insiders and observers more than anything. If anything the story is more like a 3 hour long treatise on the pitfalls of developing a game and the potential boons for those who manage to stick it through. Whilst I enjoyed it, even Ishmael’s long rant about how it’s all about the player and their destructive wishes, I know that kind of story isn’t for everyone.
The Magic Circle demonstrates in a beautifully satirical way the agony that is game development. The world is expertly crafted to resemble a pre-alpha game that’s a mash of too many ideas, all coexisting in the same code base which end up mashing together in unintended ways. This is reflected in the game play which is based around messing with things and changing up behaviours so you can access things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The story is one that definitely has a specific target audience in mind and, whilst it might not be for everyone, definitely plays to its strengths as a piece of commentary on the industry. It might not meet my criteria for a must-play game for everyone but if, like me, you feel like a part of the greater games industry, then there’s definitely a lot to like in The Magic Circle.
The Magic Circle is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.
If you’ll allow me to get a little hipster for a second you’ll be pleased to find out that I’ve been into the whole Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) scene since it first found its roots way back in Warcraft 3. Back then it was just another custom map that I played along with all the other customs I enjoyed, mostly because I suffered from some extreme ladder anxiety. Since then I’ve played my way through all of the DOTA clones that came out (Heroes of Newerth, Leaggue of Legends and even that ill fated experiment from GPG, Demigod) but none of them captured me quite as much as the seemingly official successor, DOTA 2, has.
Defense of the Ancients 2 should be familiar to anyone who played the original DOTA or one of the many games that followed it. In a team of 5 you compete as single heros, choosing from a wide selection who all have unique abilities and uses, pushing up one of three lanes with a bunch of NPC creeps at your side. The ultimate goal is the enemies ancient, a very well defended building that will take the concerted effort of all team members to reach and finally, destroy. There are of course many nuances to what would, on the surface, seem to be a simple game and it’s these subtleties which make the game so engrossing.
When compared to its predecessor that was limited by the graphics engine of WarCraft 3 DOTA2 stands out as a definite improvement. It’s not a graphical marvel, much like many of the MOBA genre, instead favoring heavily stylized graphics much like Blizzard does for many of their games. The recent updates to DOTA2 have seen some significant improvements over the first few initial releases both in terms of in-game graphics and the surrounding UI elements. Valve appears to be heavily committed to ensuring DOTA2’s success and the graphical improvements are just the tip of the iceberg in this regard.
Back in the old days of the original DOTA the worst aspect of it was finding a game and then hoping that no one would drop out prematurely. There were many 3rd party solutions to this problem, most of which were semi-effective but were open to abuse and misuse, but none of them could solve the problem of playing a game with similarly skilled players. DOTA2, like nearly every other MOBA title, brings in a matchmaking system that will pair you up with other players and also brings with it the ability to rejoin a game should your client crash or your connection drop out.
Unfortunately since DOTA2 is still in beta the matchmaking system is not yet entirely working as I believe it’s intended to. It does make the process of finding, joining and completing a game much more streamlined but it is blissfully unaware of how skilled a potential player is. What this means is that the games have a tendency to swing wildly in one teams favour and unlike other games where this leads to a quick demise (thus freeing you up toplay again) DOTA instead is a drawn out process and should you decide to leave prematurely you’ll be hit with a dreaded “abandoned” mark next to your record. This is not an insurmountable probelm though and I’m sure that future revision of DOTA2 will address this issue.
The core gameplay of DOTA2 is for the most part unchanged from back in the days of the original DOTA. You still get your pick from a very wide selection of heros (I believe most of the AllStars team are in there), the items have the same names and you still go through each of the main game phases (laneing, pushing, ganking) as the game progresses. There have been some improvements to take away some of the more esoteric aspects of DOTA2 and for the most part they’re quite welcome.
Gone are the days where crafting items required either in depth knowledge of what made what or squinting at the recipe text, instead you can click on the ultimate item you want to craft and see what items go in to make it. Additionally there’s a list of suggested items for you hero which, whilst not being entirely appropriate for every situation, will help to ease players into the game as they learn some of the more intricate aspects of iteming a character correctly. It’s still rather easy to draw the ire of players who think they know everything there is to know about certain characters (I’ll touch more on the community later) but at least you won’t be completely useless if you stick to the item choices the game presents for you.
Know which hero to pick is just as important as knowing how to item them and thankfully there are some improvements to the hero choosing system that should make do so a little easier for everyone. Whilst the hero picking has always made delineations between int/str/agi based heros you can now also filter for things like what kind of role the character fills like support, ganker or initiator. For public games though it seems everyone wants to play a carry (mostly because they’re the most fun) and there’s little heed paid to good group composition but this is not a fault of the game per se, but there is potential there for sexing up the lesser played types so that pub compositions don’t end up as carry on carry battles.
It’s probably due to the years of play testing that the original DOTA received but the heroes of DOTA2 are fairly well balanced with no outright broken or overpowered heroes dominating the metagame. There are of course heros that appear to be broken in certain situations (I had the pleasure of seeing Outworld Destroyer killing my entire team in the space of 10 seconds) but in reality it’s the player behind that character making them appear broken. This bodes well for the eSports scene that Valve is fostering around DOTA2 and they’re going to need to keep up this level of commitment if they want a chance of dethroning the current king, League of Legends.
The eSports focused improvements in DOTA2 are setting the bar for new game developers who have their eye on developing an eSports scene for their current and future products. The main login screen has a list of the top 3 spectated games and with a single click you can jump in and watch them with a 2 minute delay. This can be done while you’r waiting to join a game yourself and once your game is ready to play you’re just another click away from joining in on the action. It’s a fantastic way for both newcomers and veterans of the genre to get involved in the eSports scene, but that’s just he start of it.
Replays can be accessed directly from a player’s profile or downloaded from the Internet. Game casters can embed audio directly into the replay allowing users to watch the replay in game with the caster’s commentary.They can also watch the caster’s view of the game, use a free camera or using the built in smart camera that will automatically focus on the place where the most action is happening. It’s a vast improvement over how nearly all other games do their replays and Valve really has to be commended for the work they’ve done here.
For all the improvements however there’s one thing that DOTA2 can’t seem to get away from and that’s its elitist, almost poisonous community that is very hostile to new players. Whilst the scsreenshot above is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek example of the behavior that besots the DOTA2 community it still holds true that whilst many concessions have been made to make the game more palatable for newcomers the DOTA2 community still struggles with bringing in new players to the fold. League of Legends on the other hand crack this code very early on and the following success is a testament to how making the game more inviting for new users is the ultimate way to drive the game forward. I don’t have an answer as to how to fix this (and whilst I say LoL cracked the code I’m not 100% sure their solution is portable to DOTA2) and it will be very interesting to see how DOTA2 develops in the shaodw of the current MOBA king.
DOTA2 managed to engage me in a way that only one other game has managed to do recently and I belive there’s something to that. Maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia or possibly my inner eSports fan wanting to dive deep into another competitive scene but DOTA2 has really upped the MOBA experience that I first got hooked on all those years ago and failed to rekindle with all the other titles in this genre. I’d tell you to go out and buy it now but it’s still currently in beta so if you can get your hands on a key I’d definitely recommend doing so and if you’re new to this kind of game just ignore the haters, you won’t have to deal with them for long.
Defense of the Ancients 2 is currently in beta on PC. Approximately 60 hours of total game play were undertaken prior to this review with a record of 32 wins to 36 losses.