Genre: Card Battle
Release Date: February 27, 2007
Superheroes have got it fairly easy. While the police have to deal with the serial killers and sexual abuse cases in the world, the most that the typical caped crusader has to deal with is megalomaniacal mad scientists in power suits, the occasional Creature from The Abyss, or what have you. On slow days, they might beat up a few random jewel thieves. Now, it seems they have even less to do to keep up quota, as all they need to do is sit down and play some cards.
Perhaps it's a bit of a misleading introduction, though. Unlike Konami's other flagship card game, Yu-Gi-Oh!, this isn't really a case of precocious youths playing cards to save the world OMGZ. Instead, all of the cards you play with are entirely representative and symbolize the action-packed fights you find in your weekly comic books.
For those who've never heard about a real Marvel card game, the Marvel Trading Card Game is based on the Marvel-licensed cards in the widespread Vs System of card games. While not as popular as Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Vs. System is most known for its accessibility and ease of both play and collecting. The game includes all of the cards — naturally only from the Marvel sets — up to and including the X-Men expansion released roughly a year ago. True, that means that players will be roughly two expansions behind what has been officially released, but considering the package you get, it's not that bad of a deal.
For those who haven't played the Vs System, gameplay is similar to that of Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering. Cards come in four varieties: characters, equipment, plot twists, and locations. Characters are just as the name suggests, the names you've come to know and love, like Spider-Man or Magneto. Equipment are things that go onto characters to boost their stats or give them abilities like flight, and, like characters, have a resource cost to deploy. Locations add special effects into the gameplay, and plot twists are spur-of-the-moment reactions that will help you or hinder your opponent at a moment's notice. Unlike characters and equipment, they have two special properties. Firstly, they can be played from the resource row, making them a better choice than characters or equipment to play as resources, and secondly, they don't have a cost to use, but instead a "threshold" — a set amount of resources you need to control in order to use the card.
The goal, like in many other card games, is to reduce your opponent's endurance to zero. You do so in the obvious way — use your strong characters to overpower the other player's weaker characters. The stats ramp up on a bit of a curve; while characters costing one resource to deploy will have attack and defense powers of 1 or 2, characters costing five resources will have stats usually greater than 10. The results are quite different from other games of its type, as it turns the games into battles of attrition, and less focused on specific "power cards" than they are on intuitive combinations of card effects.
All of this, along with some of the more obscure card effects, are gone over in a surprisingly efficient tutorial presented to you by none other than Marvel's own Professor X. Even if it is steep, the difficulty curve is surprisingly small, and you'll never drown in obscure rules like in Magic: the Gathering or overwhelmed by cheap, broken loopholes like in Yu-Gi-Oh!. Once you get the idea of the game, it's easily accessible at pretty much any time with maybe a slight refresher course in how things play.
Unfortunately, the usual caveats for ported card games apply. Even on the high-resolution screen, cards can be sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another, especially on the game's visually distracting backdrops, and due to the way icons are represented, trying to figure out how actions resolve in an effect chain can be sometimes boggling. In addition, you get a slowly increasing choice of booster packs from which to get new cards, and as in most games of this fashion, the early boosters are all but worthless. There's also an option to buy booster packs for the game on Upper Deck's site using real cash money, but most people would see such an expenditure as sheer insanity.
Luckily, the single-player game will keep you busy for quite a while, even if it's simply to unlock things. Games take roughly 30 to 45 minutes to complete, and the game is separated into a hero and villain path, each consisting of five chapters of roughly 10 to 20 games apiece. The plot linking the duels together is simple Marvel stuff, though the authenticity is worth noting; while it may or may not be penned by anyone I know of, it truly does feel like it was written by people with a firm grasp of the comics' continuities. Each plot segment is accompanied with comic-style art, crisp and colorful on the PSP's screen.
However, where Marvel Trading Card Game truly shines is in its multiplayer. For once, a game has finally taken the smart choice, and Marvel TCG is fully Internet-capable, even so far as having both sponsored and user-run tournaments. Games played online have nearly no lag, and unlike other online games I've played recently, there has never been a problem with a player's connection suddenly dying mid-game.
The one biggest failing of the Marvel Trading Card Game is one that no programming magic could fix — namely, that the game will be overlooked simply because the Vs System is less known than its competition, and tragically, that makes finding other people to play against that much more difficult. The system is a bit unrefined, and there might be a general sense of "Why am I doing this anyway?" in the single-player story, but Marvel Trading Card Game is a worthwhile purchase for fans of Marvel or the Vs System. If you're not into card games, however, this probably won't change your mind.