As in the original collectible fantasy card game from Wizards of the Coast, Inc., players of this online virtual version select a duelist and two of five deck colors in an effort to defeat rivals by reducing their life to zero. The game offers a single-player Quest Mode divided into six chapters, each offering up to 15 individual quests. Quests consist of duels between rival opponents, mini-bosses, and bosses that hold under their power a specific creature or spell. By defeating powerful enemies, players can acquire magic artifacts to help in battle, along with new spells and monsters to summon. Online support includes a worldwide ranking and record-keeping function, downloadable content such as clothing and accessories for onscreen duelists, special tournaments, forums, voice chat, an active friends list, and more.
It's telling that the manual for Magic the Gathering: Battlegrounds opens with a list of ways it differs from the Magic card game. It takes about thirty bullet points to explain the obvious fact that they have almost nothing in common. The card game consists of mulling over a hand of randomly drawn cards and using them to counter whatever cards your opponent has played. It's simple, elegant, and -- with the number of unique cards at nearly 6,000 and counting -- extremely varied. But Battlegrounds, a fast-paced action game that demands mad twitch skills, is none of these things.
The gameplay consists of running around your side of a little board, plopping down monsters that trundle dutifully to the other side to attack the enemy wizard, and then zap back to their starting point to do it again. If there are other creatures over there, they trade blows in a rough approximation of Magic's blocking. You're limited to five creatures at a time, which presumably lets you focus on casting enchantments to buff your creatures and sorcery spells like blue counter-spells, red zaps, and black life drains. But you also have to replace killed creatures, gather dropped mana, whack incoming creatures with your staff, and activate your shield to prevent damage. As if you didn't have enough to do already, you're encouraged to repeatedly tap a key to speed up mana regeneration.
The main problem isn't so much the workload, but the interface provided to manage it. There's no provision for mouse support. You use the traditional W-A-S-D interface to steer your wizard around and the I-J-K-L keys to open different parts of your spell book and to cast spells. The U and O keys flip around the different pages for each category of spell.
Since Battlegrounds is a port of an Xbox game, it's clear the interface was designed for a gamepad (the spell slots are even color-coded to correspond to the buttons on an Xbox controller). Only three spells are visible at a time, so it's hard to coordinate how much mana you have in relation to how much you need for different spells. Since you're always limited to ten spells per battle, there's no good reason that each one can't have its own hotkey. Instead, you have a game that re-creates what it must be like to frantically flip through the pages of a spell book while monsters run up and punch you. Perhaps Battlegrounds deserves credit for being realistic.
This means that Battlegrounds makes it almost impossible, at its current pace, to manage ten spells at a time. Your options are very limited, unless you feel like memorizing arcane combos like K-O-L to drop a gorilla and then I-J-J to cast Giant Growth on it and I-L-J to pop off a quick Untamed Wilds for extra mana for your Silverback gorilla (I-K-J on the keyboard), with a close eye on your Tranquility enchantment destroying spell (I-L-K) depending on what the other wizard is doing. It really is an abysmal game-scuttling way to design an interface.
However, as a quick-and-dirty fighting game in which each wizard has just a couple of spells, it's manageable. The arcade mode, in which you choose a wizard and fight a series of opponents to unlock later wizards, is an example of how you can approach it as a streamlined fighting game. In fact, many of the missions in the campaign mode are like puzzles you solve by crafting your spell book before a fight.
There are only fourteen spells for each of the five colors of mana. You can combine two colors, but dual-colored spell books are often being beaten before they can get underway. This makes Battlegrounds less of a game you win by on-the-fly thinking and more of a game you win by building a strategy around a few spells and then relying on your reflexes. This means multiplayer games are fast, furious, and often won before they've even begun.
The graphics are serviceable, with a 3D engine doing a decent job of rendering a range of creatures from sniveling little goblins to large flapping dragons to old Magic standbys like Sengir vampires, Llanowar elves, and Mahamoti djinns. The backgrounds are nicely detailed and animated, but have no bearing on the gameplay. The view zooms in and out as the wizards move around. While this works in a game like Star Control where the two-player ships are the only things you really need to see, here it makes it difficult to keep track of your support creatures and the mana that you have to pick up.
Battlegrounds is ultimately an ill-conceived attempt to bring the Magic card game license to a PC action game. It goes halfway towards inventing a new genre, but it can't decide whether to invent the action-RTS or the tactical-fighting game, so it ends up just awkwardly defying any sort of established gameplay conventions.
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