Magic: the Gathering - Battlegrounds Review

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Publisher: Atari
Developer: Secret Level

Platform: Xbox, PC
Reviewed on Xbox

The imaginary battles of the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game are brought to life in 3D and in real-time as Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds. The basic rules of the card game are adapted into an action-heavy, real-time format that pits your wizard against ever-stronger opponents in arena battles. And when you're done beating up on the AI, Xbox Live! compatibility lets you try your hand against real people. Come equipped with the fastest trigger finger this side of the Pecos or don't come at all. Wizards don't take prisoners.

Rob de los Reyes

An absolutely intriguing experiment, Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds will strike some as a great triumph and others as a horrid disaster. One statement should be agreeable to both camps: whatever Battlegrounds is, it's not Magic: The Gathering. Although draped in clothing recognizable to Magic players, there is no trace of the stately strategizing and advanced planning that characterizes the card game. Battlegrounds is almost pure twitch – a training exercise for a professional video game player. Not since Robotron 2084 have both your eyes and hands had to move in so many different directions at the same time. And yet, although Battlegrounds is incomparably more beautiful and sophisticated graphically, Robotron 2084 remains the more interesting spectacle because... you can see it. Battlegrounds' action is so frenetic and flipping through menus in real-time is so important to gameplay that the splendid production values are often lost on the player himself.

But let's back up a step. In some ways, Battlegrounds is an excellent realization of the world of Magic: The Gathering. Here are two wizards physically thrust into an arena and forced to survive a deadly game. It's like Gandalf vs. Saruman with less telekinesis and more 2/1 flying goblins. This is what the card game calls upon you to imagine, and here it is brought to life in vivid and attractive graphical form. But where the card game plays out in turns, Battlegrounds plays out in real-time – strike when you can, dodge when you must, and, above all else, keep your hands moving at all times. Where the card game allows for strategic blocking decisions, Battlegrounds offers a tactical choice. Blocking is achieved by physically casting a spell in the plane of an oncoming creature, so you must not only pick the best blocking spell, but move into a physically appropriate position to cast it. And since you can always recast a defeated creature, there's none of the strategic heartache of sacrificing a precious card and hoping to bounce back later. The familiar attack/defense ratings of the card creatures remain the decisive factor in attacking and blocking, but although these ratings are displayed on screen, you have no time to analyze them. Commit the stats of various creatures to heart or forget about making anything like a reasoned choice concerning what to set against a particular foe.

Ironically, then, Magic realized is Magic denied. When the imaginary world of Magic is brought to life, it produces a gameplay experience as different from the card game as Jessica Simpson is from sentient beings. A vestige of the strategic card game remains in the set-up phase. Before each battle, you must select ten spells from among all the spells you possess to bring into battle, and there are limits to the number of creatures, sorceries, enchantments and spell colors you may put in a single deck. But since, unlike in the card game, you may play each spell (mana permitting) as many times as you like during a battle, deck-crafting in Battlegrounds is different than in the card game. And with only 10 spells per deck, strategies are narrower in scope than in the card game. The resulting system, though bearing only a passing resemblance to the card game, is intriguing in concept and welcome in its fresh approach. The trouble comes when you attempt to put your strategy into play.

That a system could even be constructed to let you choose from ten spells in a deck in real-time (while doing everything else you need to do in a battle) with a gamepad is something of an achievement in itself. Unfortunately, it's not enough of an achievement to make gameplay as seamless as it needs to be in light of the pacing. You'll spend far too much time looking at the scrolling menus rather than at the screen where all the action occurs. Or worse, you'll try to look at everything at once and not get anything done at all. There are undoubtedly gamers who will pick Battlegrounds up, kick some butt, and wonder why it is that the rest of us are having such trouble. If you can manage the system, there is a great deal to enjoy in this new twist on a now classic game. And should you fall into that category, consider a career in data entry – you clearly have a gift for hand-eye coordination and sense memory. The rest of us will appreciate the appeal of what Battlegrounds is trying to do here, but be substantially unable to keep pace and enjoy it.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 3, 2004 8:02 PM.

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