Whoever named this game is clearly of the same school of morons who thinks if you release a movie in January and claim on the poster that some ‘reviewer’ says it’s the Most Action Packed Movie This Year, then people are too stupid to figure out how insultingly meaningless that is. It seems to me as though when I read the title, I ought to scream “Wow! Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalker 2012? That’s, like, in the future!!!!!!!!!!!! If I buy this and play now, I’ll be catapulted almost an entire year ahead! That will make me six months cooler than everyone else, and not a jerk with the IQ of some pebbles after all!”
If you haven’t heard of Magic: The Gathering, it’s a collectable card game in which you are a powerful magician. Your arcane magics, powered by the very land itself, are represented by cards (as indeed is the very land itself). It is your duty, or joy, or sole remaining purpose as you travel the planes, depending on what grim fantasy background you want to pointlessly make up for yourself, to get into fights with other similar magicians. You summon monsters and unleash sorceries to smite the enemy. Exactly what flavour text these monsters and sorceries have depends on which blend of the five colours of magic you wield. White is for goody-goody ponces who like angels and healing. In a totally unexpected twist, Black is all undead and killing, often at some cost to yourself. Red does fire, explosions and lots of nippy goblins. Green does rampaging swarms of beasts and elves. Blue just pisses everyone else off with counterspells and illusions. Ha! Now I have you! other players cry. Nope, cries Blue, it was all just a dream! Twat.
Now, I may be giving the impression that I don’t think all that much of Magic: The Gathering, in which case you’re with me so far. Perhaps you’re wondering why I bought this game if I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, it can be fun in its real-life incarnation, especially given a couple of drinks, a couple of mates, and a couple of thousand pounds worth of tiny foil packages each containing the same five effing cards over and over and over.
I know it has a lot of devoted followers, some of whom I know, and I like a game with them from time to time. Like certain games, however, I’m not very good at the particular sort of patient sport it offers. Building the decks from your stash is half the battle, and also half the fun. What spells work with what monsters, how do you balance the deck between a steady supply of land and enough powers to win, that kind of planning can be rewarding when it results in a crushing win.
At the end of the day, though, this game boils down to pure luck. Whichever Duelist gets enough land and the right spells out of their randomly shuffled deck first gets the advantage and wins. I reckon that accounts for about ninety percent of all victories I’ve ever watched, right there. The other ten percent are worth waiting for, because they’re the ones with the genuine back and forth. The ambush of instant spells that banjax your attack, the amalgamation of an unstoppable hoard, the actual sense of a magical duel. Not, as the other ninety percent are, wishing you’d mulliganed at the start as you sit behind a long row of pointless swamps.
Personally, I don’t buy the arguments of people who say that the fine tuning of the deck is what you need to be good at, that’s where the strategy lies. Cobblers. It’s like claiming that Poker is a game of skill. Yes, there is skill involved, mostly in reading the other players and keeping your own emotions veiled. But there’s none at all in what hand you get dealt, and, at the end of the day, that’s what wins a game. So how come there can be good poker players and bad poker players in the online world, where you can’t read a person’s face? Ah, my friend, the answer to that is simple. It’s behind you while I run away.
All of this rambling is little to do with this review of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, however, so, brass tacks time. This is the sequel to the virtually identical game of a couple of years ago, which held up by marketing folk as a bit of a runaway success. That success was surely due to fervent junkies of the card game obediently thinking ‘must… play… onliiiine…’ For all my whining, I was one of them. I happily paid the very affordable entry fee in order to have an online duel.
It’s just as fun against the computer as it is online, which tells you something about how much strategy is needed in the game. Computers are maths whizzes. They can figure out the odds with near perfect speed, and will always know when to attack and when to hold back, or exactly how much damage they can deal. I struggle to add everything together in my head, with all the myriad of cards and powers and abilities and exceptions and so on. Computers are deeply logical. This is a blessing and a curse. In real life, another joy of the game is the ridiculous complexity of a rules system in which almost every card breaks the rules in some way. It leads to some very entertaining arguments, trying to figure out who has priority in the race for death. Computers either nullify or enhance your pleasure, therefore, by dispassionately enforcing the rules without the slightest hint of a tantrum.
The graphics are good, very sharp and smoothly animated. I slightly miss that this iteration loses some of the customisable playing fields of its ancestor, but to balance that out, the interface here is about two hundred percent less buggy. The last version had a lot of hangups, especially in online play, that would often ruin a game by refusing to let you play a card when you needed to, or skipping over crucial parts of your turn. They all seem to be gone. The sound is adequate, crunches and slicing noises when creatures damage each other or their masters, plus a sort of tension-inducing background track like someone scratching a cymbal, but nothing to write home about. And I could personally use a little more flare in the special effects when spells go off, but this isn’t really a game about being flashy. Poker isn’t a bad analogy for it, really, it’s about making what you can out of your personal luck.
There are several different game modes – a frustrating campaign in which you play the same computer opponents over and over until chance deals you a good enough hand to beat them, online play against friends or strangers where you can either co-operate in teams of two or fight singly and a new flavour where up to three of you gang up on a computer superboss. Sigh. Superbosses. This is what ticks me off about this game in a nutshell. If your deck is full of cards which are all superpowers, rare and deadly ones that break eight or nine rules at once, it’s really hard to lose. And you as a player can only unlock decks like this by beating a boss using only a deck of vastly inferior utility. Geeks take note, that’s a minor artefact from DnD back in the day.
Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is studded with money and time sinks. Win more games with a deck to unlock more of the better cards for it. Pay hard cash to unlock a completed deck. A deck, I might add, that is already part of the game content you paid for in the first place, not something new. Pay more hard cash for shiny foil versions. Shiny foil?! This is a computer game! It’s not even real foil! Get a frikkin grip on yourself, player! They might look cheap as DLC goes, but you are literally forking out cash to change the colour of the pixels on your screen. Not even Microsoft are that tight. It’s lazy, greedy design at its worst.
And don’t even get me started that you cannot actually customize your deck. Sure, you can choose which cards to include from the pre-selected options. But actual customisation? The heart of this relentless timetrap of a game? Nope, forget about it. The programmers don’t trust you to mess with their carefully chosen decks. At least the cards themselves are mostly new, with a few old favourites lurking about. Surely this would be so easy to put in, and could add years of replayability? That’s presumably what the programmers want to avoid, though. They’d rather you fork out money for new decks later to keep the game feeling fresh. 2012, remember. That’s how far ahead they’re planning to keep bleeding you for expansions for this.
Because the worst thing is, you keep playing it. It sucks you in. Like any gambling addiction, you think next time! Next time I’ll get the cards I need and I’ll win! I’ll show that computer who’s boss then. No. Don’t. Just unplug it and get into rehab.
Is Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 value for money? Yes. Is it worthwhile? No. It’s polished, smooth, very playable and will afford hours of gameplay. Most of those hours won’t be much fun, they’ll be frustrating and repetitive to the point of fury. But they will be hours. If you like Magic, you’ll like owning this, it captures the card experience very well. I just don’t think it’s as enjoyable as it should be. Perhaps the fact that having vented all this spleen I’m probably about to go and play it again makes me a wretched addict and hypocrite. But the clever thing about that is that look over there!