Magic 2014 | Zombiegamer Review

Magic 2014_Logo

Let’s begin by explaining what Magic: The Gathering is, for the uninitiated.

You remember back in high school when your teachers referred to a certain demographic as satanists performing occult rituals on school property? Well more than likely those were nothing more than normal geeks playing the very popular and world famous trading/strategy  card game known as Magic: The Gathering.

At the most basic level Magic is a turn-based strategy game played with various cards that have different attributes that define their type, abilities, power/defense, cost and a myriad other things that lead to an extremely simple yet infinitely complex system that is probably the most fun you’ll ever have with a bit of printed cardboard.

Without going into too much detail the system is broken down into Mana (Lands), various spells and creature cards which I’ve illustrated below.

Magic 2014_01

If you’ve read up to this point and you are even mildly interested then by all means keep on reading but be warned the rest of this review will be geared towards MTG veterans. As I always encourage newcomers to the game, visit http://magicthegathering.com/ which has a wealth of information on how the game works and how to play it. The game itself is *free* on all formats in a limited capacity so by all means give it a try and see if you like it.

Developer: Stainless Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Distributor: Downlad
Reviewed on: Xbox 360 and iOS

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Onwards then…

Zombiegamer was nice enough to provide me with the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game but I also procured the iOS version for my iPad 2 so there will be a bit of commentary regarding both platforms.

Gameplay should be instantly familiar to veterans of the real world card game as well as previous Magic: Duels Of The Planeswalkers games in the series, as it’s pretty much identical to the real thing. Apart from having some automation in place which actually makes life a hell of a lot easier.

Compared to the previous games they’ve made a few very small changes to make things a little bit easier, but at the same time also changed a couple of buttons around which does mess with the muscle memory somewhat and doesn’t always come naturally to the flow of things. A welcome addition is the new“Attack All” button so you don’t need to manually tap each and every creature for a full blown assault.

Apart from those little changes the game operates exactly the same as before and the core difference to the gameplay itself is really just an update in the decks available to the player and the various card strategies that need to be employed.

The touchscreen interface is really the best way to experience the game as it feels the most like the real deal and I suspect using a mouse won’t be too much different. It’s just so much easier to point at a card and immediately select it, without the rather laborious task that is using a controller. Not that there’s anything wrong with using the controller if that’s the only option available to you, rather just that the game is naturally inclined towards the touchscreen experience. A simple pointing of the finger and double tap of a card on the other player’s grid brings it up instantly, while the same action requires multiple waggles of the analog stick and figuring out which trigger to pull to get the same thing done using a controller.

Unfortunately as much as the touchscreen is superior as an interface, I found it non-responsive at times, which could be a case of my ageing iPad 2 not being up to the task and just missing the inputs. I’m pretty sure in this regard the PC version will be far superior.

There is an overall feeling of multi-platform compromise, especially in the menu interfaces which are obviously geared for point and click or touch users. Therefore it isn’t always obvious where exactly you find yourself in the menu and I found myself playing the same match over again many times expecting it to have jumped to the next automatically.

In fact I have a sneaking suspicion the primary focus of the developer was on the PC version and everything else got the ham-fisted porting treatment to barely make it work on other platforms, but I’ll get into that a little bit later.

Magic 2014_03The campaign is longer and larger than ever before, now also including a Sealed Play mode. It still makes use of “encounters” as it did in Magic 2013, something I personally dislike because it breaks the most common rules of Magic to meet it’s end goals. Unlike Magic 2013 though it doesn’t quite feel like a cheap trick to make the campaign longer.

Sealed Play follows the natural rules of MTG whereby you draw a number of boosters and then compose your own deck from the randomly drawn selection. You then play against the AI’s sealed decks and every second match scores you another booster. It is however very short lived and the pool of cards remains quite small meaning you see largely the same decks appear from the AI as well as other players in multiplayer matches. Hopefully this is just a taste of things to come and with future updates and/or DLC we’ll see this mode getting the expansion it deserves.

Other modes of play like the puzzle Challenges and Two-Headed Giant remain as before, so everyone should find something to keep them entertained. There doesn’t appear to be a co-op campaign as in the past, but you do have the option to play together under Custom game modes.

They’ve made a lot of effort with the music this time round,  so it’s less monotonous and borderline irritating than before and there’s a lot more of it. Oddly enough though the multiplatform notions creep in again here due to the fact that the game outputs pure Stereo sound on the Xbox 360 even though it reports itself to be 5.1 Dolby Digital. Smells of sheer laziness to me and they could at least have duplicated the sound across all channels if they didn’t want to make a genuine surround sound track.

So everything is fine and dandy on the surface, what’s wrong under the hood?

First things first, the game is hard as nails which isn’t a good thing.

I started the iPad version on the lowest “I have never played Magic before” Mage difficulty, while I went straight to Archmage on the Xbox, being a Magic veteran.

The tutorials are better than ever and go to great lengths of explaining the game and it’s seemingly complex systems, which is fantastic for newcomers who have never experienced the game before. In the real world I’ve always found that if the wrong person teaches someone how to play they are put off for life thinking it’s much more difficult than it really is.

Sadly as great as the tutorial is, the very first encounter is ruthless and as a someone who has played this game for a great many years I needed to do it twice and then only barely made it the second time. On the higher difficulty using the Xbox I made it first time…leading me to believe there are some balance issues.

It’s not helped by the fact that the game forces you into using one single deck to start off with, which I would find very frustrating as a newcomer since it forces you into one way of playing.

Largely I’m sure this difficulty imbalance has everything to do with the fact that this game revolves around exploiting every opportunity available to you. Unlike the real world where human error or not seeing a specific opportunity would give you an advantage in this case you always get the feeling the AI knows exactly which cards are in your hand and exploits you fully for it.

I can only imagine that the different difficulties might make use of slightly different decks or maybe just takes the lesser of two options available to it when set to a lower difficulty.

As a veteran I don’t mind losing and starting again or changing decks for different enemies, which is seemingly what the game forces you to do. I do feel that if I was just starting out with Magic it would be utterly frustrating to constantly lose and I would probably put it down very quickly, never to return again.

Then there is the quantity over quality equation. Magic 2014 doesn’t do either.

This is the fourth game on Xbox 360 and the second on iOS. The game has been pretty much identical since the first because the card game it’s based on has been fundamentally the same for twenty years.

So then one has to ask why after four games of almost exactly the same thing there is still a utterly shocking amount of stutter and lag. I don’t mean a drop of frame rate here and there, I mean a full blown audio/video stutter pause which most shockingly of all can be experienced before the game even starts and the Wizards of the Coast logo is presented…stall stall stall.

What makes it even worse is that this wasn’t even understandable when the very first game came out, considering the game isn’t very complex at all. It renders maybe fifty unique card textures at any one time on a very flat surface with a few animations here and there…hardly a work out for a Playstation 1.

On the iPad it was almost unplayable with a stutter every five seconds. I eventually switched off all the animations which helped ever so slightly, and then went further to switch off the unexplained “server driven content” option in the menu which didn’t change much of anything. Miraculously I decided to switch off WiFi on my iPad in an attempt to kill all background internet traffic and mysteriously the game settled down to a playable condition which leads me to believe it’s either broken to the point of “leaking” data or they are doing something dodgy in the background. Judging by some iTunes reviews this appears to be an iPad 2 specific problem though.

Then there’s the quantity equation. Another year and another $10 for what is effectively a few new decks and not much else. Why can’t I have access to all the decks that came before? Why couldn’t’ this be released as an expansion to Magic 2013 instead?

Granted at $10 it’s pretty cheap for about the same price as a real world Magic Intro Pack 60-card deck. The difference being that in the real world I could use my new $10 deck against last year’s $10 deck and every other deck that came before it which offers me a value proposition that the game does not.

Making the cash cow notion even worse is the fact that there are little microtransactions hidden everywhere. Some are just lazy/cheater shortcuts in the form of deck unlocks and other cosmetic nonsense which I don’t have too much of a problem with. But then there’s the inexcusable need to charge you for unlocking a third Sealed Deck slot…daylight robbery.

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Conclusion

So you shouldn’t buy it then?

Of course you should, it’s the best bloody Magic : The Gathering game out there and you don’t really have any other options if you want to experience the wonderful world of Magic on a console or tablet.

Just be warned that if $10 is that precious to you and you’ve had your fill with previous Magic Planeswalkers games then you might not want to splash more cash on this one. If you’ve never played or owned a Magic Planeswalkers game before, then by all means this is the one to get.

Verdict : 8 and half a zombie leg if this was the only Magic Planeswalkers game out there, or the first one in your own collection.

7 minus a few limbs if you’ve been here before.

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