Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: November 18, 2003
Buy 'MAGIC THE GATHERING: Battlegrounds': Xbox
The Magic: The Gathering trading card game has been around since the early nineties, and is still going strong. The franchise has led to quite a few videogame spin-offs over the years, Atari's Battlegrounds being the latest. As is usual with videogames based on non-electronic licenses, the Magic-based games have ranged from good to horrendous, usually depending on how much the formula of the original game was altered. Battlegrounds looks to alter the formula of the card game from which it is based quite a bit; can the integrity of the Magic: the Gathering license survive Secret Level's development cycle?
Magic: The Gathering Battlegrounds is not the card game we all know and may or may not love. For starters, it is real-time, not turn-based, like the card game obviously was. This drastically changes the way strategies are handled; it's surprising how much the play style is changed by the jump to real-time! Also, there are some more technical changes, which, if you did not play the original game, will be nearly meaningless to you, such as: no cards are drawn or discarded, as all spells are available at all times throughout each battle, there is no graveyard, you cannot stack spells but you can cast a spell as many times as you are able to. You are limited for two colors per deck (which limits the strategy a bit, but keeps things more streamlined for the more frantic battles) and there is a limit of ten spells per deck. The mana costs are different from those in the original card games. Sorceries and instants are listed as just sorceries. There are no creature enchantments (which I think greatly reduces the strategy, but, once again, it does keep the battles more manageable). Artifacts do not exist. Only two enchantments may be played at a time. Only five creatures may be in play at once (it would be nearly impossible to keep track of much more than that, so I see why this limit was put in place). -Your sorcerer has a shield and has a duelist attack. Creatures fight until they are dead, damage is permanent, and some of the can block. All battles take place in an arena. Spells are cast by collecting mana crystals in the battle arena, as opposed to playing lands (this works better for the action-style, but does dumb things down a bit much in my opinion).
Whether you have played the original game or not, it is easy to see that there have been a lot of changes made to the original game, almost all of which simplify things. These changes are both bad and good, depending on how much depth you like in your games; I found most of them to be beneficial to Battlegrounds' more frantic style. It may be a simplified version of the Magic TCG, but there is still more than enough quick thinking and complex decision-making to go around. As you summon creatures and cast spells, your opponent will be doing his best to drill away at your health, and you'll have to make use of every scrap of strategy at your disposal.
When the duels are “simple,” however, they get fairly intense. Each of your varieties of spell is linked to a different button on the controller: sorceries to X, creatures to A, and enchantments to B. Press one of those, and you can pick an individual spell within that group using the same variety of buttons, or, alternatively, scroll between “pages” with Black and White. It’s a decent and intuitive way for you to cast spells in real time, although it’s built to reward precision and patience under fire. I’ve lost more than one duel because I pressed the wrong button and cast the wrong spell at the wrong time.
A summoned creature spawns directly in front of your duelist and runs forward, until stopped by a spell or another creature. You can summon up to five creatures, limited by your mana supply and the color of magic you’re currently using; Red mages are given an army of goblins to play with, whereas Green planeswalkers are big fans of elves. You can pump up your creatures with various sorceries, like Giant Growth or Run Wild, or deal direct damage to the other duelist with Scorching Flames. The variety of attacks and creatures isn’t, obviously, as great as it is in the card game, but there’s still enough here to keep you busy for quite some time. Believe me, when you’re in the thick of a battle and trying frantically to counter an opponent’s nearly endless flood of Raging Goblins or Young Knights, the last thing on your mind will be how few cards you have in your hand.
Your duelist, unlike in the card game, isn’t without her own defenses. The R trigger will make her swing her staff in a simple attack that does 1 damage, while the L trigger lets her shield against incoming creatures to halve their damage. You can run around your half of the duelling field, to scoop up Mana Crystals and Shards, but unfortunately, evasion will only work for so long against a creature, and won’t work at all against incoming direct-damage sorceries. Timing is really everything, as about half a second will often make the difference between summoning a creature right in time to stop your opponent’s Volcanic Dragon, or the creature appearing right after the Dragon has already torn your face off.
The graphics are not anything special, though they are interesting enough. Magic: the Gathering has always been known for the wonderful art on its cards, but obviously, that could not translate to Battlegrounds. Instead, we have somewhat lackluster 3D models loosely based on the original art. There isn't anything especially horrible, though, and the framerate is nice and stable thanks to the low poly count of both the character models and the environments.
The sounds are very bare bones, but it's clear that they were meant to simply tell you what is going on in the game, and they do that very well. Just don't expect to flex your surround sound system with this title!
The multiplayer modes are fun, including the Live support, which is definitely the meat of the game. The single player campaign is somewhat lacking, but the amount of fun to be had in challenging your friends to a duel makes me forgive Secret Level for that. While you are limited to two players per game, Battlegrounds does not lend itself to any more than that. If you're up for having some frantic but thoughtful strategy battles with a friend, Battlegrounds is for you. If more people want to play, you'll just have to pull out your copy of Halo and have a few matches.
Battlegrounds is, in my opinion, the first Magic: the Gathering videogame to alter the formula of the classic TCG, and get away with it. Some of the limits, such as having a limit of two color types in your spellbook, are a bit irritating, but that will only matter to someone who has played the card game before. The mediocre graphics bring the quality of the game down somewhat, and, while the need for frantic strategies will probably keep you playing, the lack of any sort of selection of different game modes may reduce Battlegrounds to being a rental, at best. If you do decide to pick it up at the video store for a few days, it will definitely be worth it.