Why has “free” become synonymous with “bad”?
It’s no lie that the Magic video games have been declining in standard since…well, since the first Duels of the Planeswalkers in 2011. I think I am going to largely be repeating myself from my Magic 2015 review last year, which was filled with anger and distain, but I feel that the points need to be repeated.
It’s true that Magic Duels, this year’s instalment in the Magic video game series, is free. That’s an instant plus. It seems like a tactical move, since the release and success of Blizzard’s Hearthstone, which I am largely inclined to download. And of course, as with any free game, there is a ‘pay to win’ feature. Well, I guess they have to make their dollars somehow… So what do you get from Duels if you don’t want to spend any moolah? Firstly, you have a story mode. Using the current ‘origins’ theme as inspiration, the story mode follows the awakening and subsequent sparks of some of the main Planeswalkers we know and love – Gideon, Jace, Lilliana, Chandra and Nissa. Each character features five (I think) battles using a premade deck that gets better as the campaign goes on. It’s a nice idea, and the stories are mildly interesting despite all being somewhat similar. The decks that you play with aren’t anything special and are actually pretty dull, notably Gideon’s. Additionally, the AI opponents that you fight are as easy as your mother, and don’t serve a real threat. As such, you can complete the campaign in a couple of hours tops. Each win awards you with some coins, which I will come back to later, and at the end of the campaign you are rewarded with a speechless short film that looks like it was made for an early PS2 game, and nothing else. You don’t even unlock the mediocre deck to play with. Not even a “well done!”. Hell, not even a stinking achievement besides Gideon! Gideon’s campaign, whilst on the subject, serves as the incredibly arduous tutorial, which, you know, is great if you have never played Magic the Gathering before, but if you know what you are doing then you just have to listen to the patronising lady voice (who may well be the same patronising lady voice from Magic 2015!) telling you how to make simple moves. Agh.
Once you have exhausted the campaign, you can participate in one v one battles with AI opponents, ranging from easy to medium to hard, or, as I like to call it, easy to slightly harder to you might lose a creature. There is no difficulty spike in this game. Enemy decks are completely randomised it seems, as I had a hard comp that just played lands until I killed him. No challenge whatsoever. So what about playing against other players? Firstly, you can participate in one v one fights against a random player across the globe by hitting the button and waiting for one of the six other people online to respond. Also, they have graciously brought back a two headed giant mode, in which you and another random player across the globe fight two other guys by telepathically communication. That is to say, there is no way to communicate with your team mate or even other players in general. Literally nothing. Additionally, if a player disconnects, a notification will flash up, but blink and you will miss it. After that, you fight an AI in their place, with no aesthetic indication. As a result, if you happened to sneeze or look away for a second and your opponent quits, you may have no idea. Which is especially helpful when a large percentage of the other six players online rage quit when they’re losing.
But what about the cards? You start off with a little starter pack that has some basic cards in. Playing matches unlocks coins. Coins unlock booster packs. Booster packs contain six cards (IKR?!) that you can include in one of your many decks. Completing the campaign will earn you enough to unlock around 5 boosters for you to open and enjoy. After that, you can earn coins by completing matches. However, a single booster costs 150 coins. An offline match win gives you 5/10/15 coins depending on the difficulty, where an online yields 20. As such, grinding for coinage becomes a tedious task, and once again our old pay to win friend comes a’knockin’; you can, if you so wish, spend IRL money to buy cards, which, obviously, some people do. However, seeing as the online community for this game seems dead before it’s even reached its toddler stage, it seems pointless. That, and I don’t want to spend money in a game like this. So to get tha’ good cards, you have to play tens of matches against either long, drawn out, effortless computer or grouchy, silent real life people. Editing decks is quite straightforward, and offers both a ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ mode. This allows you to tailor using the cards that you have won and/or bought. You can also autocomplete decks if you’re feeling lazy.
The interface, though an improvement on last year, is still a winding road of nonsense in some parts. For example, once you build your deck, you can change the name and art of it. To do this, you would think there would be a simple tab in the ‘edit deck’ region, but instead, you must go into your card choosy area, find the stats tab, and go from there. Why? Because.
Magic Duels is a free game, so how much can we complain really? You’ll kill a few hours from it, but don’t expect anything that’s really worth while, unfortunately. Whether they will release future DLC or not I don’t know, but at the moment Magic Duels serves as a brief and aggravating pastime and nothing else. As I believe I said last year, if you want a good Duels game, check out the 2012 and 2013 instalments.
Ok, firstly, whoever designed the menus for this game needs to be fired. You hear that, Wizards? Fire your menu man. Get a new menu man. Or menu woman. I don’t discriminate.
To coincide with the release of the core sets, Wizards of the Coast have been releasing the Duels of the Planeswalkers games yearly since 2011. If you aren’t aware, these video games are based on the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. The basic format for each game is the same – players must battle (sorry, duel) through a series of opponents in games of Magic. Whilst not as fun as playing with pals IRL, the Duels games have been a fun way to get that little bit of Magic fill when your friends aren’t about. Until now.
Duels 2015 is a bad game. As I mentioned, the menu screen is clunky and unresponsive. It takes about 4 clicks of “start” before you can actually get into the game. From there, you are greeted with an ugly ‘minimalistic’ black and white home screen. Once you have gotten over this melancholy menu, you must traverse rocky animations and perilous scrolling. You would be mistaken, after all this, for thinking that you can just jump into a game. But how wrong you are, my little cherub. Duels 2015 features a tutorial, which is very handy for new players, but if you’re a veteran of Magic then you don’t need to hear all this spiel. You can skip the five tutorials…individually. If you opt to take them, you are accompanied by a patronising female voice. It’s the kind of voice that, if you heard on the phone, you’d think “goodness, what an attractive woman!”. That isn’t what a want, Wizards of the Coast! I don’t want hot women mixing up my Magic! That’s like…antithesis. It’s confusing. I want to hear a gruff mage or something! Anyway, after the tutorial, you choose a colour from the five Magic colours – red, blue, white, green or black. From there, you are then taken to another screen where you pick a dual-colour deck centering around that first colour. I went with a blue/black, which (as you’ll know if you’re a Magic nerd) generally focuses on milling and discarding. This deck did not. As I was cast into this ‘boss’ fight, I played common after common after uncommon, with no real synergy or purpose. This deck was terrible. After a few attempts (I cranked the difficulty up to max because I’m awesome in my head) I beat him. Now the real game begins.
The story is alright – Garruk, a planeswalker, is cursed and has gone scatty and is killing other planeswalkers. You must track him down and gently soothe him into submission. Like more Magic lore, however, it’s one of those stories that reading the synopsis on Wikipedia is a lot more interesting than the actual thing. It’s basically just a chase through various planes, as was Duels 2014‘s story. The difference with 2015 is that this shit is canon. But we don’t play these games for the stories, do we?
Nah. It’s the gameplay that draws the boys to the yard. From the beginning of the game, you can only play with the deck that you chose in the tutorial. This is unlike past Duels games, in which you could choose from a variety of very different pre-made decks, each with an interesting play style. For me, this was one of the best features of the Duels game, as it enabled you to play with card combinations that you had never seen before. But unfortunately that has gone. Thrown out like yesterday’s ham. I struggled a bit, using my shit-deck to defeat the boss in the first plane, but managed to do it eventually. Afterwards you are given the option to now fully customise your shit-deck. However, unless you pay IRL money for awesome cards, your shit-deck is probably going to remain a shit-deck for a while (or a crap-deck at best). Yeah, Duels 2015 incorporates that old gamer favourite, micro transactions! Defeating enemies unlocks booster packs, which contain cards you can use. But if you want the real good’uns, you have to fork out for ‘premium packs’. This is, quite frankly, disgusting. Not only are you limited to only playing decks from a relatively small (300) card pool, you must pay for really good ones! If I wanted to pay for Magic cards, I would be playing Magic Online…or in real life! As far as the actual battles are concerned, the pace is quite quick, which makes a nice change from previous instalments. That’s about all that’s changed for the better really. They have gotten rid of the nice little animations on some of the uber cool cards from 2014, which is a shame. Also, when you enter combat, the playing board splits apart to reveal this big red…bit? I…I don’t even.
The pay-to-win situation is not even my biggest gripe with the game, as I was excited and forked out the money to buy the ‘special addition’ before the game was released, highly anticipating hours of joy, so I was rewarded with some pretty good cards. No, my main gripe is just the overall design. Duels 2012 had the Archenemy game mode: a 3 vs 1 game, where the 1 draws special archenemy cards to give themselves buffs and boosts. It was a fun addition that provided ever changing challenges. Duels 2013 had Planechase, in which players fought on different ‘planes’ that added various effects to the game, changing the dynamics completely. Even 2014 had its sealed mode, which was a complete let down and waste of time, but at least it was something. 2015 has nothing apart from the campaign. You can play a ‘practice match’ with up to four AI, but there is no option to make it a team game, only freeforalls (to my knowledge anyway – these other options may well be in the game, hidden among the tangling vines of the unforgiving and unforgivable menu screen). So the campaign is split up into 5 planes, with each plane consisting of four battles including a boss fight. There is an option to ‘explore’ the plane, which I assumed meant that you were cast into a 3D rendering or something, which would have been cool. But these are just some extra battles that you can do to unlock a couple o’ more cards. There is an achievement for completing them all, but there is no screen telling you how you are progressing. You just have to kind of guess when you have completed it, lest you be caught in an everlasting cycle of fighting spiders or minatours. There are a handful of extras features, which include looking at Magic adverts and a handful of concept art (with some information about each plane) but that’s it. I tried to jump into multiplayer too, but it seemed that no one was online…. But instead of giving me the option to quit whilst it was looking for a game to join, I was forced to wait a few minutes until it timed out by itself. What is this.
So there you have it. Save yourself some money, and go and play one of the old instalments instead of picking up Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015. With clunky menu screens, poor pacing and less features than its predecessors, 2015 is more of a brain haemorrhage than fun game. I find myself genuinely getting angry when I play. I don’t want a smoke animation when I click exit! I just want to exit! They have turned the innocent Duels series into a bad clone of Magic Online. £6.99, as it is on Steam, is an ok amount to pay for this disappointment, but unless you fork out more you’re probably not going to have a good time. The question is, when Duels 2016 comes out next year, will Wizards rectify their mistakes, or will the Duels series fall into that money grabbing pit that so many games these days tend to do?