Magic: The Gathering
You'll have to forgive me if this review tends to get a bit bizarre in places. If sentences suddenly end for no reason or I start drifting off on precarious tangents, then please just bear with me and hopefully we'll get through to the end in one piece. The reason for this is that I'm still slightly in shock. You see, it's actually here. I've got the manual in my hand. The shiny disc is sitting right over there, in my cd-rom tray. Magic: The Gathering is actually, finally, here. And I still can't quite believe it. It's been a long journey. Many, many, many phone calls to MicroProse. More pre-release screenshots and rolling, if unstable, demos than I've had hot dinners. Even a so-called world exclusive review in another magazine that somehow managed to get hold of a finished, playable version almost half a year before the programmers had even finished writing it.
Unless you've been having a life for the past couple of years, you can't help but have heard about Magic: The Gathering. At its most basic level it's a game of cards that's had more success around the world than Tony Bullimore. And it's most definitely not your usual 52 Cace of diamonds, queen of hearts, pair of jokers, strange table of bridge scores, get 'em out when your uncle wants to show you a trick at Christmas' type pack of cards though.
Not at all. Magic card lets you build personalised decks out of the hundreds, nay thousands, of cards available, to take on opponents in a battle of spellcasting and, if you're committed, to make a fortune buying and selling valuable (read: rare) cards at conventions and so on. The basics of the game are explained in a panel somewhere on these pages. My job is to concentrate on this long-awaited computer version and to see if it's up to scratch.
The game covers the three basic aspects of playing Magic: deck construction, card trading and the actual duelling. Rather than just present them as a straight conversion though, they've all been entwined into a larger storyline about powerful wizards, an ultimate spell of power and a land being conquered. You play the part of a young spellcaster, roaming the land of Shandalar (sounds like a caravan site in North Wales), trying to build up your collection of spell cards in order to defeat the evil forces at work. The actual duelling side of things is pretty much a straight conversion of the card game, but the overall idea works quite nicely.
You can just play standalone duels though and this is essentially the core of the whole product. It's akin to a chess simulator (you know, that game with the pawns, the bishops and the horsies). There are a large number of pre-built decks to play with if your own construction skills are somewhat less than that of an Irish brickie, or you can use the Deck Construction tools to start designing your own Ckiller decks' (as aficionados call them to sound hard), j This is one of the main areas where MicroProse have managed to score points over the original card game. You're given every card in the basic game to play with, plus over 20 rare ones (one of which is worth over $250 in the real world) and a dozen cards specially created for the computer game alone. To get this many cards in real life would take a great deal of both time and money. So having instant access to all of them lets you get to play with Cdream' decks right from the start.
Of course all this wouldn't mean a thing if the computer didn't play a decent game. Luckily, like all good chess simulators, the ai is pretty smart. You have five levels to play against, but these are combined with an almost unlimited combination of cards and mean that each individual duel is challenging and different enough to have the kind of long-term appeal that tv soap operas can only dream about. There are noticeable differences too. At the lower levels the computer will make mistakes (although you'll only really know this if you're a pretty experienced Duellist yourself). It will miss obvious card combinations, not make full use of every special ability on offer and occasionally leave gaps in its defences. At the other end of the scale, the expert settings know just about every possible way of using the cards in its deck, have plans for all sorts of different eventualities and basically slaughter you in minutes.
The campaign game has been designed to introduce newcomers to the elements of Magic by simulating what life for the typical collector is like when they start (the only difference being that it all takes place in a magical world under the threat of destruction as opposed to the bedrooms, schoolyards and tiny little gaming shops that make up the real world). Your wandering magician starts with just a handful of basic cards and has to explore Shandalar - building up his library by duelling enemy creatures, trading in cities and villages and exploring dungeons and castles.
Ultimately you have to become powerful enough to defeat the five evil wizards who are all - as per usual in most games - desperate to gain control over the whole world. Each wizard corresponds to one of the basic colours of Magic and everything in the world reflects one colour or another - for example, monsters, castles and treasures belonging to the green wizard tend to hang around in forests.
The basics of Magic
A single deck of Magic cards contains any number of spells you care to choose from. Although the computerised version lets you build decks out of every available card in the basic sets, in real life you have to continually add to your initial collection by buying booster packs of up to 12 random cards at a time. Either that or you can find other Magic players and trade cards with them much in the same way that you used to do with Panini football stickers.
The basic game of Magic requires you to build up reservoirs of magical energy by playing Cland' cards and with them, cast powerful spells with which to defeat your opponent. Spells can take the form of creatures with different strengths and abilities that can be sent off to attack your enemy's forces, spells of conflict like Fireballs and Lightning Bolts that attack your opponent directly and more subtle effects that try to shape the course of each game to your advantage.
Ideally, each game you play is enhanced by an ante - a random card from your deck that goes to the winner of each duel. This way you can build up your collection of cards by playing well and mastering the game and gives the whole enterprise that kind of Highlander feel - you wander through your life, occasionally meeting other players whom you challenge to a duel until only one person in the world owns every card. In reality you tend to just skip the ante and play against your mates or meet up at semiregular conventions when it's a bank holiday, while spending your hard-earned cash on more packs. Still, it's a romantic idea. The Highlander bit, that is.
I have to say at this point that I'm somewhat in two minds regarding how effective this side of the game is. On the one hand you've got a well thought-out representation of Magic life, with an engaging plot and plenty of nice ideas. On the other, well, it just seems to be a little basic. The presentation style is somewhat more primitive than I was expecting and I can't help but shake the feeling that the myriad of delays combined with the constant public demand that affected the game's release led to a sort of Look, let's just try and get it out as quickly as we possibly can attitude. Don't get me wrong, it works. It's perfectly playable, enjoyable and I'd heartily recommend it. It's just that, well, you know. Rushed. The look of the game seems... rushed.
Other than that minor (and admittedly superficial) complaint, Magic: 'rhe Gathering has done everything it should have and has done it well. It works on every level, from first-time player (thanks to the superb fmv tutorial that takes you through the game) to experienced deck construction techniques for hardcore duellists.
The unfortunate delays have sadly meant that it's a single player game only. The much heralded multi-player networking and Internet options won't see the light of day for some time yet. Future enhancements will come in three waves. First up will be add-on disks for this version that mirror the various expansion packs you can get in real life. Next up will come a complete update that allows you to participate in network and Internet duels (available as an upgrade for owners of this version) and finally MicroProse are planning an entire on-line Magic environment (a la Diablo's BattleNet) that allows you to build up territory and the like.
For now though, this game is a totally worthwhile purchase for hardened Magic fans and newcomers to the game alike, and I'm happy to say that it's actually been worth the wait. To be honest, I can see the standalone duelling part of the game getting more use than the main campaign as it's one of those things that you can just load up during a quick 20-minute break during work, have a quick duel, and then turn off again. Well, it's what I keep doing anyway.
Download Magic: The Gathering
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode