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Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planewalkers 2014 Review: dynamic, digital magic romp returns with a slight identity crisis

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on 5 July 2013

Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 will need little introduction for many. It is the fourth instalment of this series, which is based on twenty-year strong trading card game Magic: The Gathering. The card game's next Core Set will have its pre-release this month, meaning that DoTP 2014 will be the first opportunity for the public to play it. The game therefore has a lot to live up to. It needs to avoid undermining the release of the card game, undoubtedly the brand's core product, and souring an important anniversary.

The game is known to be complex and is certainly not a pick up and play title. As such, it is definitely appropriate that the player's experience with Magic is gauged before they can have a go, even though this release will likely attract fans more than anyone else. Whatever option the player selects, the tutorial will be presented to them. It isn't a daunting process, but it is a long, tedious one. There is a voiceover which will occasionally guide you through, but most of the time you are left to your own devices. This proves disconcerting when each tutorial starts. Some of the tutorials feel lacking in content, too, with basics like phases and the position of strength and toughness on the card not clearly laid out for a beginner.

Moving out of the tutorial and on to the game's front end tells you a lot, and also nothing, about what the meat of the title is going to be like. The main menu has been given a paring down from the 3D backdrops of the last instalment, which is disappointing, and could suggest that the game was a rush job. However, it could equally suggest that gameplay has been put the forefront of the release rather than aesthetics. Rousing, epic music, instills excitement from near enough the outset, the music remaining enjoyable right into the actual gameplay, though it has yet to be proven whether the same will be said when the game is put to bed next Summer.

Whichever game mode you'll move in to, you'll have to play within the confines of an interface that only varies to accommodate each mode. Before you arrive at that you receive the treat of a loading screen with beautiful full screen artwork. Sadly, that treat proves to be a tease. The player is greeted by a blue tabletop that is apparently set within a darkened room. To see it time and time again becomes mind-numbing. More important, though, is that the interface is near-perfect when it comes to the unique gameplay mechanics such as the timer, a feature which stops players from spending too much time dawdling. The beauty of the artwork on the cards also can't be overstated.

The beginner will probably want to start with one of the single-player game modes before reaching the multiplayer, and perhaps the most likely would be the campaign. For the first time in the series, the campaign has a story, though it can only be loosely referred to as a 'story mode'. There are occasional cutscenes, and some players will be interested in the focus on Planeswalker Chandra Nalaar. At its core, though, it is a series of duels threaded by a very loose narrative. Nonetheless, the duels are worth playing in order to hone beginners skills, especially as the AI moves are pre-configured. The more experienced player may have temporary fun with the duels. However, they hold little replay value for anyone, though, as the AI will make the same moves in all the duels, bar boss battles.

The campaign is, sadly, essential if you want to complete your deck collection. The alternative is to pay for deck keys to unlock the cards and decks you don't have, which would be okay if the game was free-to-play. It is frustrating because it prevents players from enjoying single and multiplayer modes that they might like to the fullest. Two-Headed Giant and Free For All require the use of campaign decks. Without strong decks, the game becomes very difficult.

Free For All is as it says on the tin, whereas Two-Headed Giant provides the excitement of two versus two. That changes the game somewhat as players share a life total. It is better suited to multiplayer than single-player, as you can communicate with your ally. As well as providing the opportunity to talk about strategy, it also makes the battle feel more alive. The other returning single-player mode is Challenge, which is a solid game mode and a worthy distraction. Its purpose is working out how to win in certain pre-set scenarios. It is appealing, but it is only bite-sized, and obviously the battles don't have the dynamic nature of a traditional Magic battle.

The new Sealed Play mode is new and much wanted. It is probably the best mode in the entirety of the game, as it gives you total freedom to build your deck, since you receive random cards. Building your deck is one of the most exciting aspects of Magic, and is ultimately very rewarding if the built decks brings success. It feels somewhat stingy that you are only given two slots for decks, the opportunity to earn three more booster packs in single-player not making up for this. The limit undermines the benefit of a computer-based Magic game, in which you could potentially have a near-unlimited array of cards. You also don't get free reign with your deck in single player, as you can only play with it in a Sealed Play campaign, which puts brakes on the fun.

Multiplayer is where the game really comes into its own. Fighting against AI can't replicate the thrill of playing against real people, who you know are responding to your actions because of programming rather than thought. The modes available are Free For All, Two-Headed Giant and Sealed Play. The latter gives multiplayer even more longevity than the single-player modes, since you don't have to fight a series of duels as in the single-player version of Sealed Play, or use pre-constructed decks.

The game is difficult whether online or off, and it may seem to be impenetrably so for beginners. Certain battles are very difficult when you're not using an appropriate decks. To stand a chance of winning, you will have to customise your decks, you might have to play to unlock more cards, and, indeed, the player might find it easier with one of the decks that has to be unlocked. The only benefit of beginning online is that there will likely also be inexperienced places, whereas the AI seems tough competition offline on whatever difficulty you choose. Lower difficulties do have the benefit of hints as to what cards to play, which might be necessary in order to keep motivation.

DoTP 2014 builds on the successes of previous instalments, with Sealed Pack being a brilliant introduction that really deserved to be there from the start. However, this represents how the game is torn between being focused on duels and appealing to those who want to play a standard Magic game, and the latter certainly seems the better, more long-lasting attraction. On top of that, hurdles stop the game from being able to be fully experienced from the start. For a game that has all the brilliant gameplay it needs, it is a shame that it can't be rated as highly as it could have been.

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planewalker 2014 Review by Lee Millington

-The Final Word-

DoTP has brilliant core gameplay and a near-perfect interface, but it's hampered by locked content, and not knowing what game it wants to be.
  • The core gameplay is well-replicated
  • Standout multiplayer
  • Sealed Deck is a great addition
  • The dull interface
  • Lazy tutorial
  • Feels directionless
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic, Gamerankings and Opencritic