Don't let the title confuse you, we're still the year 2011. Like many products aimed at multiple iterations, each with purported upgrades and changes, Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a continuation of the game series by the same name, sans the '2012', though 'series' may be the wrong term, as this iteration is only the second release. More appropriately referred to as a 'sequel', Duals of the Planeswalker 2012 is the latest revision of the 2009 title Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, a game we also reviewed. Just like the original release, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 aims to digitise the ever popular Magic: The Gathering card game for both old and new players, while also expanding on the digital specific formula present in the 2009 release.
For those not in the know, Magic: The Gathering is a rather popular table top card game. Armed with a deck of sixty cards each, players compete on the field of battle by playing mana cards to power their character cards, and using these character cards to either attack enemy character cards or the opponent themselves. Once a player has lost all of their health points its game over. Where Magic: The Gathering comes into its own is in the wide variety of playable cards, mixing and matching mana colours, and building decks. Varied magic cards allow additional spells and game changing variables to be deployed in battle, leading to a high degree of strategy in knowing when to play your best cards while juggling available mana.
Much like the original Duels of the Planeswalkers, this latest iteration offers gameplay mechanics built on the core rule set that dominates the table top card game. Many familiar decks and cards appear, with the same powers and variables that they would have in the real world. For all intents and purposes, this is Magic: The Gathering on a digital front. Though this might sound great on paper, especially to longtime Magic: The Gather fans looking for a new way to play the game, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 has a tendency to flip flop around the idea of digitalising Magic: The Gathering, missing out on some key opportunities to rise above the norm.
But rather than start on a downer, lets look at where Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 improves on the 2009 release. First and foremost, this is a bigger package. Several new decks have been introduced, each with their own unique base cards and unlockable cards to be swapped in and out, giving players a good variety of deck options. The campaign has been expanded, including not one but three main campaigns, each of which mixing in the condition specific puzzle matches as bonus challenges. The first campaign offers a fairly reasonable entry point for beginner Magic: The Gathering players, guiding them through the basic concept of decks, cards and juggling mana, while the 'Revenge' campaign packs a harder punch for seasoned veterans. Lastly, the newly introduced 'Archenemy' mode, which gets gets a campaign of its own, pits three players against a single, powerful enemy, offering a 'boss battle' like twist to the standard Magic: The Gathering formula.
The three campaigns are only further enhanced by custom battles and mutliplayer. The former allows the player to set up skirmish battles against the AI with their decks of choice, while the latter pits players against the rest of the world. Both support all game modes, including the aforementioned Archenemy battles, and as a cherry on top personal scores and stats are tracked and viewable via online leader boards. Coupling three campaigns with the two additional modes offers plenty of bang for your buck, while multiplayer alone brings real players together to compete head-to-head or as teams. Leaderboards are a wonderful incentive to keep playing, besting your own high scores as well as your friends.
A wealth of options wont be much good if the core gameplay fails, and thankfully this is another area where Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 succeeds. As mentioned earlier, the fundamental rule set is identical to that of the table top game, naturally making Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 just as good as what you'd play at home, with well balanced decks built from a choice selection of cards that allow for a wide variety of battle tactics. The developers have avoided restrictions and limitations that might otherwise be imposed on the player due to the adaptation of a real world game to a digital environment, allowing those versed in the ways of Magic: The Gathering to deploy their skills and tactics right from the get go.
Unfortunately, faithfully adapting Magic: The Gathering to a computerised environment ironically works against Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, as it creates certain expectations. As we dig into the package, we discover a number of issues and inconsistencies, most if not all in the way the game presents its various modes and mechanics, that work against these expectations, hurting the overall impact of the game on both new and veteran Magic: The Gathering players.
Veteran players will likely be disappointed to learn that, just like it's predecessor, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 does not allow rebuilding of decks from scratch, or more precisely mixing cards between decks, despite this being common practise in real world Magic: The Gathering deck building. Though a good variety of decks can be unlocked through the campaign, this restriction seems to point towards Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 being targeted at newer Magic: The Gathering players. However, the way the campaign is presented runs the risk of turning newer players away. Those who have avoided the table top game have likely done so for good reason, and unfortunately Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 does little to spice up the formula for a digital environment. Menus might be slick and easy to navigate, but battles and rounds are presented as literally 3D versions of exactly what you'd see on a table top battle. Fancy character renders and exciting battle animations are nowhere to be seen, nor is the player presented with any engaging campaign driven narrative. Compared to the recently released Runespell: Overture, which offered such things, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is lacking the presentation values and components it could benefit from in an interactive, rendered environment.
Second to these presentational issues are a few rough corners and confusing design decisions that seem to unnecessarily restrict the player. For example, the new Archenemy mode only allows players to fight an Archenemy character, never play as one. Though this is reasonable from the perspective of building a campaign around Archenemy battles, it doesn't make sense to restrict skirmish or online battles in the same way, forcing three online players to always fight an AI controlled Archenemy.
Because of these issues, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 ends up torn between the two target audiences. New players will enjoy the the smooth campaign learning curve and variety of content, but will be disappointed by the weak, bare bones presentation that hardly differs from a table top environment. Veteran players will be happy with familiar rule sets and a faithful adaptation of the table top battles, yet held back by customisation restrictions and arguably oversimplified presentation. What reason do new players have to play Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 when they've taken no interest in Magic: The Gathering before? Why would veterans chose this release over the table top game when the former is just a stripped down version of the latter? Undeniably, there is room to improve the digitisation of Magic: The Gathering, especially if the goal is to draw in new players and give veterans a viable alternative to table tops.
Yet even so, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 remains a solid game by its own merits. As frustrating as the issues we've mentioned are, they are best described as rough corners on a solid design than fundamental design issues that break the whole experience. Standing on its own two feet, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a well rounded adaptation of the popular card game, with enough content and value for money to appease both new and old Magic: The Gathering players, bound to keep addicts hooked as they chew through the three campaigns, battle friends online, and strive to be greatest Planeswalker on the leaderboards.