Magic The Gathering: Battlemage
When MicroProse announced it was creating a PC version of the insanely popular card game Magic: The Gathering, gamers rejoiced. What better way to play the complex, often confusing strategy contest than electronically, where a computer can worry about the rules? Unfortunately, the game shipped without multiplayer capability, leaving one of the world's best two-player games one player short.
At long last, MicroProse has released ManaLink, Magic's multiplayer element, which you can download for free and which is also included as part of the game's second CD-ROM expansion, Duels of the Planeswalkers. If you have the software for TEN, Magic's official online service, and the desire to shoot lightning bolts at complete strangers from around the world, ManaLink will make you very happy, indeed.
Pick A Card, Any Card
Traditional paper-card Magic is a game for the rich. Rare, out-of-print cards like the Black Lotus and Mox Sapphire can easily cost hundreds of dollars each. But the PC version comes stocked with these killer cards and many more, so your strategies are no longer limited by your wallet.
Assembling an online deck is extremely easy; simply choose your cards from Magic's collection of 700 or so at the bottom of the screen and drag them into the main window. Save your deck to a disk and you can trade it with your friends, or just use it to trade blows with your enemies.
When you log onto TEN, ManaLink automatically launches and registers your name with the server. A window opens to let you chat and challenge other players; once two people agree on the parameters of the game (which decks are allowed, how many rounds, etc.), it's off to war on the magical planes.
The free Magic lobby of TEN matches up players from around the world. Fortunately, latency isn't much of a problem, even in international matches; finding a quick-playing opponent, however, is another matter. Magic strategy demands player concentration, and most usually take their time. However, it's a bummer that you can't do simple, local things like adjust your desktop settings or card layout while you wait for your opponent. These may be fixed, however, as player feedback pours in.
The Aduentures or ManaLink
ManaLink is currently available from MicroProse's Web site.
Download Magic The Gathering: Battlemage
An immensely popular card game. Magic: The Gathering descends on the PC with snazzy teatures and gameplay. New players can learn the fundamentals via a thorough multimedia tutorial, then duel the A.I. in a variety of modes.
More than 100 beautifully drawn decks prepare you for battle, and the useful Deck Builder utility organizes the whole deal. MicroProse also threw in an adventure game where players battle wizards and other mythical creatures with their Magic cards, building up their decks and characters along the way.
I was skeptical when I first heard that Acclaim was going to attempt to transform Magic: The Gathering into a PC game. I'll admit it -- I was among those throngs of people that funneled paycheck after paycheck into the procurement of Magic cards (and occasionally food), watching the trade magazines for the release dates on the next collection in the series, planning my strategies, looking for some poor sucker with a few Hurloon Minotaurs and a Scryb Sprite to take to the mystical cleaners. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you're among the lucky ones, for the original Magic: The Gathering was, and is, an amazing phenomenon.
Magic is a turn-based card game released by a Seattle area company called Wizards of the Coast. It combines just the right amount of luck, strategy, and quick thinking into a game that, amazingly, is never the same twice.
It was aptly named. Magic quickly swept the nation and the world, increasing in popularity until Wizards had released over a thousand different cards! Selling and trading was out of this world. The cards, sold in packs of 10 and 60 and starting initially at only a few pennies apiece, began to gain in value. Today, some of the more valuable ones can go for several thousand dollars each. I can't get that much for my car!
But aside from the value of the cards, Magic is fun. Continuously. My friends and I would play for as long as we could without sleep and sustenance. Then, as soon as we recharged, we'd be right back at it. I hear they're experimenting with using this game as an alternative for Methadone! It's that good.
But I tell you all this to give you an idea of the barrier Acclaim approached, right from the get-go, in taking on the task of successfully converting Magic: The Gathering into Magic The Gathering: BATTLEMAGE.
They almost pulled it off.
Here's the plot: the powerful planeswalker (magic user), Ravidel, has summoned the seven most powerful mages in the world of Dominaria to gather in Corondor, a continent of diverse creatures and domains which is divided, temporarily, into 30 neutral territories. The mages, of course, all know each other -- two women, three men, a minotaur and a demon, with more sub-plots between them than the staff of. They have been well written, however, and the conflicts between them give them a good sense of individual identity and solidify the story behind the game.
The magic in the Battlemage universe draws its power from different terrain, resulting in five different types of available power: Black (death magic, drawn from swamps), White (life magic, from plains), Red (fire magic, from the mountains), Blue (water magic, from the oceans) and Green (earth magic, from the forests). Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Red, for example, has some incredibly devastating spells, but it's not much for flying creatures. To counter this, most successful players use two different colors to construct their deck, and that's what Acclaim has done with these seven mages. You can play a campaign from each mage's point of view, using their particular color combination. This option gives the game a lot of replayability.
You start each campaign with a set number of spells, creatures and land in your tome, and select from these to create the combination you will use in your battles around Corondor. Turn by turn, you and your adversaries negotiate with neighboring neutral territories for alliance and goodies, and fight each other for the territories that have already fallen under one mage or another's control. As you progress, capturing land, you will gain new cards to add to your arsenal.
Each turn, you may make one attack on a new territory. Initially, each player has one territory and all the others are neutral. When you attack these neutral territories, you often encounter the local denizens and engage in detailed conversations with them. The interaction here is of thetype. The individual you're dealing with makes a statement, then you get a choice of three responses. Choose correctly throughout the conversation, and they'll give you information, or spells and creatures, or they might even turn the territory over to you, no battle required! This even works when one of your opponents controls the space. Of course, say the wrong thing to them and they'll send you packing, sometimes leaving your spell book or your purse a bit lighter for your troubles. This system works very well, with a few noticeable exceptions that I'll get to later. Right now, I want to get to the real meat of the game: the battle system.
Eventually, you'll come across a territory that you want and your opponent has, and no amount of bargaining is going to get it for you. You're going to have to fight for it. But that's what you're playing for, isn't it?
You get to look at seven cards from your deck at a time, adding new ones as you use them up. Just as in the card game, you bring out land cards from your deck for use in summoning creatures and casting spells. As I said before, Magic the card game uses a turn-based system, which gives you plenty of time to plot each move, budget your resources and plan strategy. In Battlemage, Acclaim has taken the risky step of changing that aspect. Everything is real-time, although you may pause the game to peruse your cards. You bring land out, cast spells, and "sic" your various nasty monsters on your enemies in an attempt to drain their life points as quickly and efficiently as possible. There's a limit on how fast you can bring out land, and casting spells temporarily uses up this land power (called mana). Also, each time you cast a spell or summon a monster, it takes a few seconds, so there are controls on how fast you can attack. It's a tricky switch for veterans of the card game, but once you get used to it, I think you'll enjoy the pace. If Acclaim had stuck with the original system, this would be one seriously long game, and I doubt they could create an AI smart enough to give human players a decent challenge. So this new, high-speed Magic relies on human fallibility under pressure to even the score between person and machine.
Controls are a bit confusing at first, but once you get used to them they're actually quite well laid out. "A" and "D" scroll through the cards in your hand, and "T" activates them. With your mouse, you select the creatures you wish to command and designate targets for attack. Some creatures have special abilities which you access by selecting them, then right-clicking. A menu pops up showing what power you can use and how you use it, as well as listing any enchantments that might be on that creature. You become quite adept at doing one thing with your keyboard hand, while attending to another simultaneously on the mouse.
The battle continues until either you or your opponent has lost 20 life points. Lose on offense, and you lose nothing overall, except your turn. Lose on defense, and you lose whatever territory was attacked, along with the land magic it provides to your arsenal.
Acclaim's real-time system has captured much of the strategy and counter-strategy that made the card game so great, although because of the limits of the medium, some nuances cannot be exploited.
Magic is a pretty game. The artwork for the characters is straight out of the comic pages, giving them a dynamic feel. The interfaces are beautifully constructed in SVGA. Best of all, several hundred of the most popular Magic cards have been used for the game with their original artwork.
You can enter the archive and view all the cards, with an explanation of what they do and any special powers they have. You can also enter the Tome Builder, where you can construct custom decks from all the available cards to be used in single duel mode against one of the computer opponents, or with a friend via modem.
Each new land in the campaign mode has a specific painting, which you see when you attack the first time. Corondor is a nice place, with majestic mountains, frozen wastes, sweeping valleys containing sprawling villages, and massive floating cities. Most are paintings with a little animation for water effects, but they're delightfully detailed. The artist responsible for these illustrations should be commended for doing such beautiful work.
The introduction for the game is also terrific. It's about four minutes long, briefly explaining the plot and then taking full advantage of DirectX to create a fantastic 3D battle between two perturbed sorcerers. It's wicked! The two hooded mages furiously weave spells of light between their undulating hands as the earth cracks around them, belching fire and smoke. Skeletons clamber from the cracks, with swords and malicious grins that putcompletely to shame. A huge Djinn is summoned from the air to take care of the skeletons and kick one of the mages off a cliff. Then, just when you think it's over, the fallen mage comes back up over the precipice, riding on the back of a giant tarantula! This is a truly great scene.
Perhaps the weakest link, graphically, is the combat. You view the battlefield from directly overhead, scrolling around with your mouse to find your enemies and send your creatures to them. Each territory you fight in has a different terrain, beautifully detailed, with trees and rocks and ruins to hinder your land creatures as they stomp and claw around taking chunks out of your foes. Each creature summoned has its own little icon, fully animated, and each spell you cast has a specific shape as well. "Steal Artifact" is a tiny, grasping hand that flies across the screen and grabs your opponent's current toy. "Mana Short" is a rose that settles on your enemy, then wilts away its petals. Clever and mystical -- a lot of time has been spent to make you feel like you're really summoning these creatures and spells. Where they fall short is in size. You could fit most of your army on a quarter, and still read the minting date. They're just not big enough. It's more like summoning a stick to poke into your backyard anthill. It's too bad, because what they've done with the tiny space they've allotted for themselves is impressive. Despite this, the different items are distinct enough that you can effectively play the game, and the graphic feel overall is excellent.
The music is great -- ethereal, wispy, with deep resonating bass and orchestral scores that are a constant presence wherever you are in the game. There is never a period of silence, which I appreciate, and the music has no noticeable repetition to it.
In battle, whenever you summon or cast, a voice says the name of the spell. It not only sounds cool, but it lets you know what your opponent is whipping up for you, just off screen. The creatures grunt and snort at each other. You can hear the tink of claw on metal and the death cries of the vanquished. Here again, Acclaim has spent a great deal of time to create the right atmosphere for this game.
I said that Acclaim almost accomplished the task they set out to do, and so far, it seems I've had only minor complaints. Well, get comfy, because this section will take a bit. With all its beautiful graphics, well-developed storyline and clever adaptations, Magic The Gathering: Battlemage has some serious flaws.
First of all, although the box says that anyone can play, if you've never played Magic before, it will take you a very long time to figure out what on earth you're supposed to do. The manual gives a general idea, but trial and error will be your best bet -- and in a game with as many subtle nuances as Magic, you may end up using the CD as a coaster before you get to the point where you can win a battle. Acclaim is fooling themselves if they think this game is easily accessible to everyone.
The interface is well laid out, but interacting with your creatures is very difficult. Most of your monsters move really fast, and grabbing them in the heat of battle takes a steady hand and keen coordination. Using their special powers takes too much time, and finding just the right place to click on the screen is frustrating when you're being slaughtered by a gang of goblins.
Any time you want to attack your opponent with a newly-summoned creature, you have to select your minuscule beastie (a chore in itself), then scroll all the way across the screen to target the bad guy. A "quick-key" should have been included to allow you to send newly-summoned monsters on the warpath right away, since rarely will you find yourself targeting something besides your opponent's icon. Should you forget to assign a creature to attack, it will sit there dumbly until you DO give it a job. If they had made unassigned creatures automatically block, it would be a great enhancement to the game.
Spellcasting has its quirks as well. Most of the spells work fine, but a few are really annoying. Death Ward, the cornerstone of many a Magic deck in my youth, can be cast on a creature to prevent its demise. Unfortunately, it has been rendered useless in Battlemage because you can't cast it in time. The spell takes some three to four seconds to cast while your creature languishes on the field, and by the time it gets to the corpse, it's rotted away into the sod -- a complete waste of a spell.
When an opponent charms one of your creatures and sends it after you, there is a dispel you can cast. This little number has the effect of removing the enchantment icon, a little ball that orbits your creature, but the little bugger keeps coming! So once your opponent gets hold of one of your team members, he's got them and you're done for. Kind of like professional basketball.
Another thing that bugs me is that during campaigns there is no way to access the archive, except to save and quit your game, then go back to the main screen. This means that every time you get a new card, you have to quit to find out what it does. It seems to me a better solution would have been to have a direct link from the campaign screen to the archives.
The Artificial Intelligence is also poor. All your land creatures get totally confused by the terrain. There's too much going on at once in this game for you to have to coddle your creatures to their target. Countless battles were lost because my huge legion of fire-breathing, snarling, bloodthirsty Death-On-Claws was being held off single-handedly by a tree! Fortunately, flying creatures go right over everything, which saved my butt more than once.
Wait! I'm not done!
While I liked the idea of having non-player characters to interact with when you enter a new territory, sometimes they can be a bit tedious. You have to attack some territories three or four times, talking to different characters, before you actually get anything for your trouble. After fighting a zillion duels, with Ravidel on the ropes and one slimy little territory remaining before your ultimate victory, this aspect gets completely frustrating. Especially when you have to fight a defense against your opponent between each interaction.
But what finally turned me against this game, what made me say that Acclaim has not accomplished their goal successfully, is the fact that after fighting countless duels, dealing with tons of characters and blowing off all your other work for three days so you can finish the game, THERE ARE NO END SCENES! I don't care what era of PC gaming you're from -- the good games have always had some kind of reward for a job well done. Battlemage prints a little green sign at the bottom of the screen which says "You Have Won The Game." That just plain doesn't cut it -- especially after the incredible intro. They can't say that they didn't have the talent on their staff. It stinks heavily of rushing the release date, and completely ruined for me what would have otherwise been a well-rounded, enjoyable game.
Windows: Windows 95, Pentium 75 (90 MHz recommended), 16 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, 2 MB DirectX compatible PCI video card, and at least 50 MB free hard drive space (110 for a full install). Modem or LAN for network play
Reviewed on: P-133 with all the aforementioned stuff and then some. It ran great!
Obviously, I had problems with this game, but I don't think it's a total loss. It's beautifully constructed, and most of the interface is nicely done. Acclaim did far better than I expected with a tough project like this. Magic players will still like this game for its fast pace and the ability to play by modem. The combat also is not bad, but because of the AI and other difficulties I mentioned, I think it could be a lot better. If Acclaim went back and corrected the glaring problems, as well as throwing in cut-scenes for the end, I would be the first one in line to buy a copy. Until then, this game reaps a meager 79, and I sit back to await Microprose's version of Magic: The Gathering.