Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Monday Magic - Game Review - Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 (XBLA, 2013)
With the upcoming release of Magic’s annual Core set, we also get a relatively new treat from Wizards of the Coast: a new version of the Duels of the Planeswalkers game. While Wizard’s premier Magic Online is generally the best place for computer-based Magic, but its minimalist interface and microtransaction model may prove hostile for newer players. DotP bridges that gap, giving a sleek design and a much user-friendlier electronic Magic experience. And each iteration of DotP has been better than the last; 2014 is no exception.
My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.
For those familiar with the series, you know what’s coming: new decks, new cards, and a new gameplay mode. This year’s new mode is Sealed, which finally allows you to build your own decks from scratch, albeit with a limited card pool. There are also unlockable titles and personas (in-game avatars of sorts) in addition to traditional achievements, so some fun new challenges await.
For those unfamiliar with the series, let me back up a bit. Magic is a very deep and strategic customizable card game that pits your deck against your opponent’s in the quest to be the last player standing. I unfortunately can’t comment on the efficacy of the in-game tutorials, as I am already familiar with Magic’s mechanics, but there are a series of tutorials (and pop-up messages the first time something interesting happens during a match) to help teach the basics. It’s a fun game, and I’d certainly say it’s worth learning.
I can, of course, comment on everything else. DotP is essentially an excellent Magic simulation. The state of the game is clearly laid out in front of you, with your hand displayed at the bottom of the screen, and cards and abilities that you’re able to play are highlighted. You can easily pause the normal turn progression to consider your next move or examine the cards on the battlefield (you can zoom in on every card in play or in your hand to read the text more easily). It manages to streamline a lot of the gameplay while having options to allow experienced players to fiddle with some intricate details if they want, so it seems easy to adapt to your particular familiarity with the game.
But there are a few hiccups. Selecting some cards on the field can be a little unintuitive, but some practice with the control scheme makes it second nature. Awkwardness with choosing how to spend mana is perhaps a more vital flaw, but the game’s assumptions about the best way to spend mana tend to be pretty good; I rarely found myself needing to assign mana differently than the default option.
Maybe the sexiest thing, though, is the fact that a few of the big bomb cards have animated illustrations. When you zoom in on some cards, the pictures will wriggle or pan, giving really cool effects to some of the biggest creatures in the game. While not game-changing, it’s a really cool touch.
To be fair, what happens during a match is basically the same as previous iterations of the DotP formula; the meat of the game comes in the form of preconstructed decks and the relevant game modes.
As with other DotP titles, 2014 brings along a campaign, complete with a relatively thin storyline and some moderately interesting cinematics. This game has you teaming up with Chandra Nalaar, the preeminent red mage, in her quest to find Ramaz. There’s not much there beyond a simple excuse to visit a variety of Magic’s well-known planes (Alara, Zendikar, Innistrad, and Ravnica are all there) to battle with cards drawn from the last several years of Magic. The cinematics won’t blow you away (Chandra’s face is a bit on the uncomfortable side of the uncanny valley), but there are only a couple of them, and they aren’t really that important at the end of the day.
Progressing through the campaign will pit you against a variety of “encounters,” which are enemy decks that will play the exact same cards each time you face them, and several duels with other planeswalkers. A few of the encounters are neat, employing strange tactics or starting you with some weird deficit, but most of them are just straightforward battles; once you get the hang of what’s going on, it’s easy to choose the best deck for the job. By the end of the campaign, I was just blazing through most of the encounters anyway, so they felt more like speed bumps than exciting duels.
You’ll come across a major planeswalker representing one of the planes after completing three encounters. These duels proceed as normal games, your deck against theirs, so battling planeswalkers is where you’ll really be playing Magic. As in previous DotP games, each deck follows some specific theme, this time including a big Eldrazi deck, a sliver deck, and an annoying Dimir deck that insists on returning cards to the top of your library… Defeating a planeswalker unlocks their deck for future use and also allows you to challenge one of the primary planeswalkers (Garruk, Chandra, Jace, Ajani, and Liliana) of Magic lore in a bid to earn their deck as well.
The basic campaign system is fine, although I would have liked to have seen more of the clever encounters (or just fewer encounters) and more planeswalker opponents. There are a total of 10 decks to unlock, and they’re fun to play, even if they are a bit limited – there aren’t any decks with non-standard win conditions (so no mill), but they do a decent job of spanning the heavy aggro to heavy control spectrum. Winning a match with a deck unlocks a new card that you can add to it (up to 30 new cards per deck), allowing some degree of customization even if you still can’t build a deck from scratch for the campaign.
Another disappointment is the overall difficulty – I approached the whole campaign on the hardest setting, and it seems like the only change is that your opponents manipulate luck. Even then, nothing is terribly difficult for an experienced spellslinger, so easier settings for newer players probably won’t be too tough, either.
All-in-all, the campaign is pretty fun, so the complaints aren’t too serious.
Following in DotP tradition, there’s also a challenge mode, which sticks you in the middle of a game and tasks you with winning during that turn. Very few of the challenges in this game require complex tricks, though, so they’re generally pretty easy.
The highlight of the game is the sealed mode. Sealed gives you a set of booster packs (each containing 15 random cards) and then allows you to build a deck from those cards. You can then progress through the sealed campaign, using your newly-constructed deck against six opponents. It’s an incredible mode because it finally allows you to build a deck from the ground up, a feature previously unavailable in DotP.
And it’s fun. The card pool mostly comes from the upcoming set, although there are some cards from earlier core sets shoved in there, too (probably – the new set hasn’t been completely spoiler yet).
It is, however, not unlimited. At the outset you can only start two sealed decks, and opening additional sealed slots costs $2 each. It’s sad that we still don’t have complete freedom in designing new decks as we please, but it’s a nice step in the right direction.
Of course, there are also multiplayer modes, allowing you to use the game’s preconstructed decks against other players, or you can test your sealed decks in online battlefields. My only gripe on that front is the lack of obvious matchmaking ratings – it seems like you just match up with another player, not necessarily one who is on a similar skill level. The result could be rather discouraging for newer players, particularly as time wears on and the servers are populated primarily by dedicated players.
Overall, my only other complaint is that special game modes from previous versions weren’t included in some fashion, even if only as offline custom games. I would love to see some of these decks used in archenemy or planechase, but I certainly understand that they’d drop modes to keep from making earlier DotP titles totally obsolete.
Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is a great next step for casual electronic Magic games. Although not as expansive as veteran Magic players may want, the sealed game mode brings much more freedom to the game, making it feel more like playing tabletop Magic. While it has its disappointments, the biggest flaw is that it’s over too soon, as the slick presentation and effective execution make it almost as fun as shuffling a deck yourself and giving it a go. At $10, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in trying Magic and seasoned players, and it’s at least worth a look for everyone else.