Game: Magic The Gathering: Battlegrounds
System: Microsoft X-Box
Genre: Fantasy / Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: 11/18/03
Way back in the year of 1993, a little collectable card game known as Magic: The Gathering was released upon the unsuspecting public. The game quickly gained cult status, and made players out of millions all across the country. Now, after ten years and about 30+ expansions, the game itself is still going strong.
So leave it to an enterprising game company like Atari to capitalize on the popularity of the cards and create a video game based on it. The strange thing about it is that it’s NOT a card game. It’s a real-time strategy game. How does Magic The Gathering: Battlegrounds handle the transition? Only one way to find out…
The story begins as three mages duel for a special talisman, containing five jewels based upon the five colors of mana in the world: red, green, white, blue, and black. After the battle is completed, one of these mages takes the talisman, and scatters the jewels to the far winds.
This leaves you, a young woman from a small town, to take the gem-less talisman and complete it once again. Oh yeah, the fate of the world is in the balance as well.
Considering the rich stories that tie into the Magic card game, the game’s tale is mostly fluff with a few big names thrown in there for reference. In any case, the game doesn’t completely rely on you to understand the story in order for you to proceed.
The visuals mainly consist of the duelists (you and your opponent), the creatures summoned, and the locals that you battle in. The duelists included in the game do a nice job of representing the color spells they are casting, but overall aren’t too impressive. Most of them look about the same, only with different costumes placed on each one.
The creatures are another story, though. Taken directly from the TCG cards, the creatures show a lot of variety, and are rendered rather well. There are a multitude of birds, zombies, spiders, giants, goblins, and other unworldly and ungodly creatures to summon at a moment’s notice. The only problem here comes when there are too many on screen at one time. There is a bit of slowdown to consider when the action gets too intense.
The backdrops you fight on are a mixed bag. Some areas look absolutely beautiful, such as the “Mana Glade” and the coliseum-like locations. But other areas seemed a bit rushed, and not as visually appealing. It’s very odd when dueling to go from something picturesque to something bland in an instant.
There was a LOT of voice work done for the game. I can count at least ten unique voices as I went though the various Quest objectives. However, most of the time, all the characters do is announce their attacks. And they’ll cast the same attack over and over and over again. So you can imagine the annoyance of hearing something like “Suntail Hawk” 17 times in a row. Long story short, you’ll get sick of the voices in a hurry.
Music-wise, the entire soundtrack is very low-key and subdued. I could barely make out the music in the background, much less pick out a favorite track or two. Heck, there could be no music in this game AT ALL, and it would feel exactly the same going through the various duels. Very unimpressive.
As stated above, the gameplay revolves around real-time strategy rather than a traditional “card battle”. Here is how it breaks down:
Before you start your actual duel, you must first choose a “spell book”. This can be pre-constructed book (selecting a default character), or one that you created yourself (thanks to a profile and Quest Mode). Once chosen, you can edit it if you wish, selecting the spells that you think will take down your opponent the fastest. Once that is done, you begin your duel.
Each duelist is represented on the field as a playable character that can move and attack. But you’re going to need to cast spells to help you stay alive and defeat your enemy. In order to cast them, you’re going to need “mana crystals”. They’ll appear on each side of the field at random intervals. For each crystal you collect, you can generate that much mana. Each spell costs a certain amount of mana to cast, so its wise to keep an eye on your mana bar and not run low too often.
There are three main types of spells: creatures, sorceries, and enchantments. Creatures are self-explanatory, as they are your primary attackers and defenders. Each creature has an assigned attack power (how much damage they deal), and toughness (how much they can take). When you summon a creature, they’ll appear in a certain spot. After they deliver an attack on an opposing creature or duelist, they’ll respawn from that point, and begin their assault again. This process repeats until that creature is defeated. You can only have five creatures on the field at one time, so choose your combinations wisely. Plus, when any creature dies, they’ll drop mana shards that refuel your mana bar. Both duelists can collect them, so it’s best to pay attention.
Sorceries are one-time effects that can take a variety of forms. You can cast them to make your creatures stronger, to make your opponent’s creatures weaker, to damage your enemy directly, to make yourself gain life, and all sorts of other effects that can make your duel that much easier to go through.
Enchantments are the most rare spells, but they affect the entire playing field with a constant effect. Effects are mostly the same as sorceries, but they’ll last as long as they are out on the field. The only way to get rid of them is to have a spell that does just that.
Spells also come in five colors: red, green, white, blue, and black. Each color has distinct strategy behind it. Red involves direct damage, such as fire spells that target the enemy. Green involves creatures, methods of making them stronger, and quick mana gain. White is defensive, with many weak creatures, but the ability to gain life. Blue has protective magic, allowing you to stop your opponent from casting spells, and generally messing with their minds. Black involves dark magic, which includes life-draining techniques. Your spell book can either have one color, or a combination of two. Be forewarned that if you run a two-color strategy, both colors will have their own mana bar, so pay special attention to see what you can cast.
This seems rather complicated when you look at it for the first time, and it might take you a while to get used to the controls. The left analogue stick moves you around, with the X button giving you access to your sorceries, A accessing your creatures, and B accessing your enchantments. When in the menu, three spells are shown at a time. (The right analogue stick cycles through them if you have more than three.) When you find the one you want, press the corresponding button to cast it. This method left me very confused for the most part, as I constantly found myself pressing the wrong buttons, accessing the wrong set of spells, or casting the wrong spell completely, leaving me defenseless in the process. Learning this will take time, patience, and a high tolerance for pain.
The duelist you control can also defend himself or herself if you are in a dire situation. If you’re about to be attacked by an opposing creature, the L-Trigger will give you a temporary shield for as long as you hold it, reducing the damage by half. It consumes mana, though, so use it wisely. Also, the R-Trigger lets you attack creatures for 1 damage. If you’re REALLY daring, you can also go to your opponent’s side of the field, and attack your opponent directly. This is unwise, however, considering if you are in your opponent’s side long enough, you’ll take more damage than you give.
All and all, the gameplay is deep and pretty original. The controls, however, don’t lend much to your success.
This score is a real tough one to call. In order to do the best you can in this game, you’ll need to play the game a lot. You can’t just jump in to the Live scene or anything until you make a profile and go through nearly all the game’s offline modes. It’s practically a necessity.
First, there’s the Arcade Mode. Here, you can choose a pre-created character, each with their own spell set. You use this character to fight a set of duelists with opposing colors. To start off with, however, your characters all are pretty weak, and have a horrible selection of spells. You need to win with these guys in order to unlock stronger characters with a better combination of spells to work with. It’s as if the game is penalizing you if all you want to do pick a character and go online with him/her.
Then, there is the Quest Mode. Upon first glance, this follows a story and contains over 100 individual missions. However, if you get into it, this is just an overblown tutorial for the game. You MUST go through each mission in order to learn each spell for your profile. Plus, each mission is basically learning how to use the spell you’ve won from the previous mission. The story is heavily secondary here, as you trudge through a long, boring mode hoping to learn the right spells to make the perfect spell book.
Both of these modes are basically here to prepare you to fight online or with friends. The trouble is that both of these modes are hardly worth going through to begin with, but you must in order to have a better chance in the multiplayer modes. That’s where the replay value comes in. Not out of want, but of need. It almost makes the Live duels not worth having.
When talking about balance for this game, I can talk about two areas: balance with the computer AI, and balance between the color categories of spells. I’ll start with the artificial intelligence. When dueling, missions will either be incredibly easy, or mind numbingly hard. There’s really no in between. You’ll either win a mission within ten seconds, or not be able to pass it in under ten tries. It’s frustrating, to say the least.
On the other hand, the developers stuck the balance between the colored spells quite well. With the spells that are available for each strategy, no color was made too strong or two weak. I was able to take on every type of color with every other type of color and come out on top in each case. It’s not like I couldn’t beat blue with my red spells or anything. So MTG does a good job here.
I will have to say that this game is very original for the Magic universe, and not like other games I’ve played. The RTS elements are very rough, and need to be worked on a bit, but there is a lot here that’s new, fresh, and enjoyable if you take the time to master it. Magic does boast some nice, original concepts.
As stated above, the only real reason you’ll come back to the game is if you NEED to round out your spell collection. Therefore, you will NOT find the one-player mode very addicting. However, with the presence of X-Box Live, you might find that dueling other people across the world is fun enough to become addicting. That is, if you actually MAKE IT to the online world.
So far, I’ve seen no television commercials for this game. Nothing from Atari, and none of those snappy “It’s Good To Play Together” ads that showcase the Live ability. That’s one strike against getting people into the game. But considering that there is already a built-in fan base of Magic: The Gathering players to cater to, the game will be bought or rented by those of them who are curious. I doubt that many will, though.
Appeal Factor: 6/10
Finally, we come to X-Box Live play. When you actually have enough spells to develop a customized spell book that doesn’t totally blow, you’ll actually stand a chance. Each room created only holds two people, as there are only two duelists per battle. But as I played, I noticed no lag or delays between my button presses and my actions. That is a good thing, I guess.
Overall, though, the Live experience doesn’t really save this game for me. The whole point of the one-player modes was to prepare you for experiences like Live, but in the end, it didn’t want me to go Live with this game that much. Despite the friendly atmosphere and the terrific opponents, it’s something that I can honestly do without.
Appeal Factor: 6/10
OVERALL: 60/100 ABOVE AVERAGE
Reviewer’s Tilt: None