This is an interesting one - I only discovered this game due to an ad actually on my blog at one time. For those who follow my blog, you no doubt noticed I had a string of reviews involving collectible card game titles. Usually these tie into some sort of an RPG or strategy game - two of my favorite genres. Well, the mixing of a strategy title and my favorite all time collectible card game in real-life seemed like a no-brain winner. What were my thoughts? Well...
So what is the game? Well, the idea of Magic: The Gathering for those who haven't played it is fairly simple. You start the game with 20 hit points, and you build a deck out of cards that fall into a few basic categories: creatures, spells, enchantments and mana. Mana is the fuel for these other 3 types of cards, and mana comes in four basic types: red, blue, white, black and green (fire, water, plains, swamps and forest). There are costs to casting the creature, spell and enchantment cards, and the goal is to take your opponent down to 0 hps. There is a huge variety of ways to do this.
So what is the tactics game? It builds on this premise using larger numbers (200 hps per mage, and creatures who are generally 1 hp and 1 power are now 10 hps and 10 power) - so basically they tacked a 0 onto almost everything. Mana cards are replaced by a mana pool that generates an additional mana point each turn, streamlining the process and deck building a bit. Many of the maps and all of the actual player vs. player battles are built around the premise of knocking the other spell caster to 0 hps. There is a story mode though that gives you alternate goals as well, for better or worse.
Graphics - 6:
This is a grade based on not only aesthetics, but performance as well. Most of the characters move around okay, and some of the particle effects look good on spells or creatures of fiery origins, things like that. It's fun seeing cards like Lord of the Pit brought to life. Now for the reality of things. First off, I have a pretty fast computer and this game can sometimes chug horribly. It won't even run on my kids' computer, which is an older one to be sure, but it technically meets the system requirements and I keep the drivers all up to date, and even then it usually crashes. If I shut down everything else on my computer, it goes more smoothly, but I think of an online game like this as something lightweight, and instead it sort of takes everything over.
Sound and Music - 7:
There's some okay background music, and while the voice actors are nothing amazing, there is a fair amount of voice over between scenarios. There's some cool sound effects too, like when fire spells erupt or when one of my imps cackles after attacking someone. All in all, this is pretty decent.
Gameplay - 5:
Some of this could be linked to the system performance visually, but when things get choppy, I often find myself having to click multiple times to get something to work - like targeting a spell or moving to a square. I also can't count the number of times I've found myself having to zoom in a lot just to click on a particular square, because when you don't you run the risk of clicking the wrong one and wasting a turn - some sort of a confirm/cancel to your movements would have been a life-saver. It ca also sometimes be tough to click on a target in general. What I mean is, if you are trying to click on someone's flying bird, well - it bobs up and down. This effect looks nice, but if it bobs downward as you try to click it, you may wind up clicking on something else behind it. It's odd, like it doesn't fully realize its vertical space.
Additionally, it doesn't let you save mid-battle. Huge oversight in my opinion. I realize this was probably done to keep someone from getting to a point in the map where they can save/quicksave out and come back in - try a few things, and if it goes badly, re-load it. Still, some of these battles can take a very long time, and the inability to save during can be frustrating. Worse, the single-player campaign mode requires you to be online, which means if the servers hiccup or your own ISP drops momentarily, you can be forced out of a match that you just spent 30+ minutes on, with no way to recover it. You just have to do it over again.
Intangibles - 6:
The game itself is free. From that standpoint, it's a good investment if you have some time to kill and want to give it a try. There's a few modes too - campaign, duels against other players, tournaments against other players and an auction house. Tournaments have a small entrance fee (usually 1 coin), and the auction house allows you to build your deck by purchasing cards using coins. How are coins acquired? Well, you get some right off from the campaign mode, and there are daily quests (like what you'd see from 'dailies' in World of Warcraft), and these yield experience and coins. Experience can be used to build your character up down some skill charts, adding another layer of strategy to the proceedings, and the coins can be used for the auction house or tournaments.
The catch to the auction house is that the cards can't be from the campaign mode. This encourages you to either buy packs of cards from the game using real-life money, or resell cards you have previously purchased through the auction house. This is one of the two ways Sony makes their money off of the game - card pack purchases and campaigns. When you play, you have access to chapter 1 of the campaign, which is pretty easy. You win a new card and experience with each map you beat. Problem is, the cards are not necessarily of any use to you - I had a red/black deck, so those white and green cards did me no good really. I would say out of the campaign mode, I won maybe 5 cards in total that made their way into my deck. The rest were purchased from the auction house after doing daily quests. and I did buy the campaign mode's other 4 chapters. I had enjoyed the first chapter quite a bit, and they had a nice sale going over Presidents' Day where you could get the 4 pack of levels half-off, so I bought it.
It was fun, I don't regret the purchase in and of itself, but some of the later chapters were poorly designed. The last stage of chapter five was particularly aggravating - it was clearly built with specific types of decks in mind, and I spent several hours on that one map, because my deck did not have the requisite types of cards to complete its objectives. Sometimes there objective-based maps work well, other times they do not.
It was far from all bad though. I enjoyed the overall tactics of the game, and while there were a few bugs here and there that crept up on the maps, they weren't very common and seldom created a bad gaming experience in and of themselves. Of particular note also is that you can actually build a real deck the way you like. That is something the Xbox Live version of the game has needed, and it gives you so much more power when trying to decide what you want to do with yours cards.
Overall - 6:
There's some decent value here. You don't have to pay a dime to play an okay strategy game, based on a tried-and-true fantasy world. Most of the mechanics are pretty sound, and I have run into very little downtime while playing. But, in a way, you do get what you pay for - there's some serious issues with the interface and performance, and it's definitely designed to try and get you to spend more money. Not exactly unheard of - the industry is of course trying to make money, but the experience still feels like it needs polish to make it worth further monetary investment at this point. I played pretty much daily for about a month, and it was fun, but about 2 weeks ago I just quit playing, and really haven't missed it yet. I'll no doubt poke in at a later date and see what improvements have been made, but right now it's just not drawing me back to the game and that to me is a pretty telling sign.
I made 2 videos of gameplay on the fly - obviously processing video for playback and recording at the same time can stress a machine, but this is much worse than just about any other game I've recorded as you'll see.