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PC Review - 'Magic: The Gathering - Battlegrounds'

by Justin on Jan. 17, 2004 @ 3:51 a.m. PST

Just as in the "Magic" card game, in "Magic: The Gathering - Battlegrounds" players will choose a duelist and up to two of "Magic's" five colors -- red, green, white, blue, and black -- to attempt to reduce their opponent's life to zero. Of course, getting an opponent to zero will not be easy; players will have to utilize lightning reflexes, strategic brilliance and, on occasion, raw power to overcome an enemy.

Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: November 18, 2003

Buy 'MAGIC THE GATHERING: Battlegrounds': Xbox

I admit, with some hesitation, that I know how to play Magic, own several decks of cards, and try to play on a somewhat regular occasion with some friends. There. My nerd status is out in the open! For those of you who don't know, Magic: The Gathering is what many refer to as a collectable card game - or to be more specific, THE collectable card game. With thousands of cards, a complex set of rules, and tournaments held all the time at hobby stores all over the place, it's easy to see why it's been so successful. The game is balanced, fun, and nicely produced with some really cool artwork. It's tricky to get into, but satisfying.

Unfortunately, translating the rules of the game into a video game isn't exactly an easy task. I'm sure it's something that developers have been frustrated with for a while now: how can they take a slow-paced card game, always played with more than one person, with many collectable traits, and transfer it into a single, one-player fast-paced video game?

By dumbing the game down, of course. This is both good and bad. First, the bad: the complexity and depth of card game matches is largely at a loss here. There's no time to sit and ponder your next move, or contemplate intricate strategies for winning. And the collectability isn't really here - in the card game, you can have over sixty cards; but here, you'll be lucky to ever need to use more than a dozen. Some parts of the game seem almost randomized, too - I still can't figure out why some things appear when they do.

The good news is, it's fun. It may not feel like the card game, but it's interesting in it's own little way. Before I get ahead of myself, I'd better actually explain what the game plays like.

You are placed on a court with a divider in the middle. You have the freedom to move around, but you need to stay on one side, while your opponent stays on the other. Actually, you can cross over the line, but you will rapidly lose health when you do - not a good thing. Little balls and shards of mana seem to randomly appear on the court as you play. As you collect these, you gain the ability to use magic. You can cast spells, enchantments, or summon creatures with two or three quick button presses. The idea is to use this magic to defeat your opponent while successfully surviving his own spells and creatures.

Creatures can be summoned to help defend you or attack for you. Once each creature does something - whether that be attack or defend - it dissipates and is regenerated at the same spot where you cast it (this is the equivalent of "tapping" in the card game). Each creature has its own hit points-gauge, a strength meter reminding you of how much damage it deals, and its own AI rules. Some charge forward into the nearest enemy, some go towards the main enemy, or some stay near you and guard. Some enemies also have certain attributes, like flying or trample; with flying, creatures (often dragons or birds or the like) can simply soar over any non-flying enemy and attack the enemy directly, while creatures with trample do not disintegrate upon being hit - they keep moving until they attack the enemy or lose all of their hit-points.

Enchantments are basically ways to modify the game. Enchantments can modify players, creatures, or both. They might increase speed, strength, or toughness; they might allow a creature to perform a special move; they might give a creature a special attribute like flying or trample. Spells, on the other hand, are basically instant effects in the game. They can deal damage right to your foe, or restore your health, or whatnot.

One interesting aspect where the game largely differs from it's card game brother is in the fact that you can cast spells, creatures, or enchantments over and over as long as you have the proper amount of mana (generally, more powerful magic requires more mana). In theory, you can immediately cast five of the same creature; in the card game, the rules require you to wait one turn to cast each creature, and you can't have any four of the same in your deck. In another move, the game gives you the ability to attack and defend for yourself, so if you find yourself trapped in a corner you can try to smack away an enemy or use a shield to fend off some of the damage. It's hard to time these things, and if a gang of baddies is headed straight at you, you're probably screwed no matter what. Still, it's a fairly big departure from the card game rules. So, even if you go into this game as a master of the cards, you'll have to develop an entirely different strategy to win here.

The graphics are pretty nice. Backgrounds are detailed, colorful, and rarely get in the way of the fight. Characters and creatures are also detailed, and seem to be the result of some really cool artistry; the animation is really good, too, especially with the solid framerate. Special effects aren't exactly stunning, but they can look cool from time to time. There are also some FMV sequences every time you complete a certain number of levels; unfortunately, these sequences ran extremely choppy for some reason, and the audio was entirely off. Other than that, though, the game looks very good.

Sound is fine, but not impressive. Music is reminiscent of a generic battle score for a low-budget war film. It never got on my nerves, but I never felt the need to hum along to it, or rip the game's soundtrack, or anything of that sort. Sound effects are good, though, from raspy battle cries to slashes and explosions, they helped keep things interesting. Overall, the sound is pretty much average.

This is truly one of those games that is hard to recommend or not recommend to any certain group of people. Magic players might like it as a diversion from the card game, or they might hate it with it's dumbing down and changing of the rules. People that have never played Magic may not want to touch it because they've heard horror stories about the complex card game, or they might find it easy to get into and enjoyable. Whether or not you'll like the game depends largely on your gaming tastes, not your card-gaming tastes; if you like fast paced strategy games, you're bound to enjoy it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the game, but it may not appeal to everyone. I urge you to check it out even if you're just slightly interested, though; you'll probably have a smile on your face after your first few battles.

Score : 8.4/10

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