In 1993, the Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast unleashed its Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. One of the game’s most appealing factors was its classic, no-computer-or-board-necessary gameplay; you simply carried around your tournament deck and booster packs and went to battle wherever you found opposition. The game quickly became the obsession of the post-D&D generation, eventually leading to national tournaments.
Magic: The Gathering saw at least one unsuccessful attempt at crossing over into the videogame world, when Japanese Dreamcast owners were treated to the first console adaptation. Those of us in the land of NTSC (North America), though, were never graced with the release. With that backdrop, console gamers eagerly anticipated Atari’s use of the Magic: The Gathering license in an Xbox game, quietly wondering whether the company could pull if off without alienating the die-hard fans of the card game.
The end result, Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds, is a very strategic adaptation of the popular card game, but there are quite a few differences in this digital iteration. The one that most influences the gameplay is that battles are not conducted in traditional turn-based style, but in real time. Such a real-time battle of course calls for strategy and advance planning, but you’ll often find yourself racing to see who can initiate the attacks the fastest. As a result, it’s slightly less strategic than the stackable “real time” combat in Knights of the Old Republic, but it involves just as much planning and split-second decision-making.
The other differences from the original card-based game include no four-card limit for spells, spells not being stackable, the lack of a graveyard, the inability to enchant creatures and no artifacts. Rather than detract from the game, these omissions help make the real-time aspects more balanced and fluid. For players new to Magic: the Gathering, these things will not be an issue like they will for some of the unforgiving die-hards.
All the characters in Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds focus on magic and gathering spells for their battle books. Although you can’t create custom characters, you do create a profile that saves all your spell-book configurations, which is essentially saving “your” character. The spells at your battle books’ disposal number more than 70, each categorized into one of five different color-coded styles. For example, black spells are used for destruction while white spells are used for defense. With the easy controls and the ability to equip your spell book to match your personality, it’s quite fun playing out the destructive nature of evil or the righteousness of good.
The actual play doesn’t unfold in a “campaign” of any sort, mostly because, like the card game, there isn’t much of a story to be found. Instead, the main focus is on learning more spells, expanding your spell book and becoming even more powerful for multiplayer battles. There are more than 60 single-player quests to help you achieve this goal, which by extension helps you succeed in multiplayer battles.
The arenas in which these battles take place feel very much like a tennis or volleyball court. Each duelist has an assigned side, with the arena types varying from ice and fire to outdoor settings and castles. During battle, it’s best to stay on your own side of the battleground to collect magic-replenishing mana crystals and cast spells. You can cross over to your opponents’ side, but if you stay too long, you’ll start to receive damage. And nobody likes to see their spell-caster die.
Magic the Gathering – Battlegrounds excels in the online arena. In fact, being able to pit your skills against players nationwide may be the factor that wins over the hearts of die-hard card owners who may at first be hesitant to embrace the videogame. If they happen to own Xbox Live, they’ll also be able to download more arenas, spells and characters, helping transition them from booster packs to downloads. The Xbox Live multiplayer, though, is where Battlegrounds players will inevitably spend most of their time. Competing for the best rank in your favored spell discipline and taking on anyone who dares enter your game is outstanding.
Graphically speaking, Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds doesn’t sport the best eye candy, as its focus is on gameplay and online replayability. The cutscenes add to the lore of the game, but the in-game arenas are detailed just enough to not look generic but not enough to stand out, either. Generally speaking, the character models follow the same formula; however, a good number of the creatures you can summon are very detailed and really entertain the eyes as they rush off into battle. With the mid-range graphics, the game flows as it should, with not one flaw or choppy frame.
Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds offers slightly above-average audio, with an epic soundtrack and exciting Dolby-Digital sound effects. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by the clashing of weapons and casting of spells, even if the sounds themselves are nothing to write home about. Still, they’re good enough to keep you entertained as you take on every challenger you can scrape up in the Arena.
On the whole, Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds has just enough oomph to win over the hearts of the die-hard card players and more than enough pizzazz to appeal to strategy fans as well. If you’re not a fan of real-time strategy or a dedicated fan of the Magic series, though, you may want to pass on this title.
- Gameplay: 8.8
- Graphics: 7.5
- Sound: 7
- Replay: 9
- Overall: 7.9
- Not traditional, but good just the same.
— Sylvia Gallardo