Marvel Trading Card Game Review

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Publisher: Konami
Developer: Vicious Cycle


Platforms: PSP, PC and DS
Reviewed on PSP

The trading card game that allows comic fans to engage in super-powered battles has made it to Sony's handheld, allowing PSP owners everywhere to battle online or hone their deck construction techniques and practice against an AI opponent. Puzzles and tutorials expand the possible trading card play beyond matches against both human and AI foes.

Rating:
Kyle Ackerman


The Marvel Trading Card Game exists both to give fans of the Vs. system something to play offline and to give players an online venue to play this electronic version of the tabletop card game. While many of the problems are forgivable in principle, the offline version of the game is deeply flawed, and the online version is handicapped compared to the PC version.

If you're already a fan of the Vs. system from hobby publisher Upper Deck, or looking to learn the game, the Marvel Trading Card Game does offer a good way to get into the game. It does a great job of fitting everything you need onto the PSP's screen, letting you manage a full game of Vs., all the attendant information, and even splendidly rendered play mats. It's convenient to allow the PSP to handle issues like stack order (the order in which effects are resolved) or tokens, making the game about play and strategy, rather than throwing bookkeeping into the mix.

Flawed Offline Play


To the developer's credit, the Marvel Trading Card Game tries to create something very ambitious – an AI opponent capable of playing a collectible card game against a human foe. Most computer versions of collectible hobby games don't even make the attempt and are content to simply program the game's rules (a complex enough task). Such games (and Vs. is no exception) operate according to a very simple set of rules, and then allow nearly every card to break those rules in a specific way. The interactions between various cards (and broken rules) make it incredibly ambitious to program an AI opponent that can play well.

The AI in the Marvel Trading Card Game can play competently, but it makes a lot of mistakes that make offline play ultimately unsatisfying. But given the vast number of choices the AI must make, it's no surprise that it can't deal with the complexity of this system. For example, the AI will add +1/+1 tokens to characters it's about to sacrifice, and expend all its bonus cards to attack characters it can't KO.

The mistakes the AI can make are very particular, but can make the difference between a good game and an easy win. As another example, when multiple characters are KO'd, a player must usually pick one to survive. At the same time, players can only have one of any particular superhero on the board. Play a new Human Torch, and other versions of the Human Torch are eliminated. On multiple occasions, the AI chose to pick a character to survive from a group of stunned heroes, only to immediately eliminate it by playing a card the AI had been holding in hand for some time. In many ways, the Marvel Trading Card Game is like the old Microprose Magic: The Gathering game for the PC. It can be entertaining when you can't play the collectible card game of your choice, but its flaws will ultimately become grating.

(Mostly) Good for Learning


The Vs. system is complex, and the Marvel Trading Card Game does accurately implement the game's rule system, making it both a great learning tool for new players and a good way to test strategies for seasoned players. Of course, the software has to ensure that every possible action (even suicidally foolish ones) can be performed, and that can lead to mistakes while you get used to the interface. In my first game, I accidentally exhausted a character to KO one of my other characters. But the learning curve is easily climbed. While the game will inevitably pause at points casual gamers would gloss over (you have the option to decide how strictly the game awaits your commands), novices could learn a lot about the exact sequence of play and how effects resolve in the chain.

The manual includes little in the way of rules, but the game itself includes a series of tutorials to explain the game's more complex keywords, such as "Evasion" or "Concealed." While most of the tutorials are elegant, the Evasion and Reservist Tutorial was broken in such a way that the tutorial could not be completed. There is an extensive single-player campaign that plunges you into a series of battles against Marvel foes. As you progress, more complex cards become available, puzzles become available, enemies' decks become more challenging and you earn points with which to purchase more (offline-only) cards. (As an aside, it would be nice if you could purchase multiple decks at once. It would save dozens of button presses.) Of course, you'll battle so many foes that you'll have played for dozens of hours before even unlocking the more recent card packs with more complex key words.

There's a lot of game time, for those with the stamina to keep playing. But quickly, veterans of the Vs. system and novices alike will want to take their play online. After getting used to the interface, most of the incentive to play offline is to unlock additional play mats and avatars.

Take the Small Screen Online


Online play is where it's at for the Marvel Trading Card Game. Finally a developer has taken the obvious step that will change gaming, making the PSP version compatible with the PC game client, so PSP owners can collect cards, build their own decks, and then play with the larger pool of gamers that span both the PSP and PC. The big caveat here is that this is an online version of a collectible game – so you'll have to buy cards. The PSP version will give you a starter deck, but after that you'll need to purchase card packs at $2.50 a pop. More details on the store can be found at the Marvel TCG Online site.

The online play is mostly a good experience, as strong players with well-stocked libraries are far more interesting opponents than the AI in the offline game. As always, online play is only as good as its players, so expect polite, sophisticated players along with the dregs of gaming.

The problems with online play aren't limitations of the game – they're the limitations of the PSP. Everything takes a little longer, given the smaller screen and the speed of the PSP's wireless connection, than it would with the PC client. Signing up for an account and purchasing cards using the PSP requires filling in web forms using the PSP's controls, and that's just a pain in the ass. So while the PSP is great if you either don't have a PC or prefer to play on your PSP in the local coffee shop, the PC is a better play option for serious online Vs. enthusiasts. Also keep in mind that those enthusiasts are out there. And they've bought more cards than you. A lot more cards.

Overall, it's worth picking up the Marvel Trading Card Game on the PSP if you plan on playing online (and purchasing more than a few cards to compete), but don't want to be limited to your PC. The offline play is a useful tutorial, and can offer passing entertainment, but isn't enough to hold a serious card player's interest. Lastly, this game is only the Marvel side of the Vs. system. That's only half of the Vs. compatible cards available. Presumably, Konami will release the DC cards as well. It's not clear how the PSP version of the Marvel Trading Card Game will be integrated with the DC cards (as they can be in hobby play), so the PC interface may be a safer bet in the long term.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 12, 2007 2:22 PM.

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