Mirage: Arcane Warfare offers a few new twists on the multiplayer FPS

Last year I was shown but could not play a game called Mirage: Arcane Warfare, which is trying to replicate the rapid choices of “speed chess” in a 3D combat game. This week I was able to try it myself, in the hope of figuring out whether it succeeds.

Mirage is the new project from Torn Banner, a Canadian indie studio who developed Chivalry: Medieval Warfare from a Half-Life 2 mod into a standalone game. Like Chivalry, Mirage involves fast-paced melee combat between online players, but it’s transposed to a fantastical setting drawn from Islamic rather than western history – in which plate armour and longbows are superceded by a colourful confusion of offensive and defensive magic.

Not to sound like a high fantasy paperback blurb, but games like this are a perpetual battle between order and chaos. On one side, you have the system of moves and counter-moves which players manipulate against each other, whose twists must be readable if not always correctly read. In chess, this is easy enough because the moves are discrete, clear, and abstract and the pace is set by the players. But in 3D, in real time, with so many possible micro-variations of position and speed, that system is always in danger of being engulfed or obscured by the slapdash jousting of impulsive players. So which side does Mirage come down on?

Bearing in mind that I’m new to the game and can’t yet read it like a veteran can, the most striking thing at first was how slowly each weapon swings. Even the Vypress, a light, fast class with ‘blink’-style teleportation powers, has a wind-up way beyond what you’d expect in a single-player game. This is deliberate, aimed at letting players identify attacks before they come. As in a fighting game the block button is crucial (mapped to the right mouse button by default). There is a feint button you can press to arrest your attack so you can fake people into blocking too early, and stabs and overhead strikes for fast and heavy attacks respectively.

Even so, when playing with bots – which won’t be in the final game, but were necessary for a preview – things tend towards chaos. The silhouettes of each class are clear and readable; in the case of the plump Entropist, where Mirage’s generally very pretty Arabian Nights veers towards racial stereotype, perhaps too readable.  They charge back and forth around a TF2-style magical payload hurling fireballs and scattering each other’s heads and limbs across the painterly staircases. I’m having fun, but most of my kills come from strafing round the side of large mobs of battling enemies and hacking unsophisticatedly at their backsides.

Playing against humans is a little different. I engage Torn Banner’s PR man Alex Hayter in a series of duels in which I’m not sure whether he’s holding back or really trying to hurt me. Suddenly blocking comes into its own, as does magic. Each class has three ability slots with two options for each, and most of the abilities can be chained. A heavy-class Taurant could combine the “push” ability with a close-range whirlwind, driving multiple enemies into close proximity before striking them all together; a basic Tinker technique is to plant mines and then pull enemies into them with her grapple. These powers are really made for team combat: the Taurant using crowd control to “corral” enemies “like a sheepdog” for an Alchemancer’s magical smart bomb, or mages sheltering within the bubble shield of the defence-oriented Vigilist.

Hayter and I circle each other doing that twitchy distance-management so common to fighting games, making liberal use of the game’s breezy wall-jumping controls to gain height on each other. The system is still relatively opaque to me and it’s hard to see how well our sparring will scale, but it’s clear how the powers let us psyche each other out. Hayter says there are several thousand players in closed alpha who are wielding this system against each other and exploiting the “class synergies” it was designed to present.

It gets nerdier. Hayter switches on a debugging mode (above) which makes all my weapon swings leave technicolor traces through the air. I can see the zones of low and high damage; it’s like a rainbow with only a corpse at the end. By moving my character or my mouse while swinging I can twist and reweave the damage paths – pulling the mouse against the swing to slow it down (and cause someone to block too early) or with the swing to speed it up. Likewise my enemies can duck under my swings if they are too high up. “A lot of our early alpha testers were competitive Chivalry players, and the kind of stuff that they can do in it is just crazy,” says Hayter. “I stand no chance against them; I cannot kill them.”

That does raise the question of how easily new players can get in. If speed chess only happens between high-level trace-path-exploiters, and newbies are consigned to haphazard melee, how many will persevere? Torn Banner is relying heavily on a new matchmaking system to ensure people are mostly playing against their peers, and Hayter thinks the inexperienced will have enough handholds (“there are rules, and you can learn them”). But the studio is also sanguine about Mirage not being for everyone. It is pitched primarily to the four million people who bought Chivalry, and to fans of Dark Souls who find high-level play alluring even before they can join it.

Mirage: Arcane Warfare is available for pre-order from March 27, which will give access to a closed beta (Chivalry owners get 10% off). The full game will then be released some time in 2017. There is a special edition whose bonuses you can see here. It’s hard to say at this point, but I would cautiously say the forces of order have reached a favourable truce.