Review - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012

Duels of the Planeswalkers was released a full two years ago by Wizards of the Coast and is probably the first incarnation of the card game to fully take advantage of the social gaming networks. That version has managed to sell over 500,000 copies on XBLA and remains in the top ten list for played XBLA games. Clearly that's a warm reception.

Three expansions later WotC has just released the "sequel" to the game in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. It's essentially everything the first game was, with some improvements that you may be interested in. The following review is for the Xbox Live Arcade version, but there are no differences in gameplay across platforms.

First things first. At the end of the day, it's still Magic. The gameplay isn't that different between the two games. You still have a campaign mode, you still have challenges and you can still play online. This game isn't going to revolutionize anything, which is fine because the game of Magic itself really doesn't need much change.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 offers several multiplayer options, including Free-for-All, Quick Match, Two-Headed Giant (2 vs. 2), Archenemeny (3 vs 1) and even Custom games where you can mix and match the settings. These modes all emphasize the social aspect of the game and are all available locally and online, meaning you don't have to sit next to your friend to play Two-Headed Giant like you did in Duels of the Planeswalkers.

There is also more of a focus on the Magic mythos in this game. Loading screens will now highlight the key players in the Magic universe and their relation to one another. It's a little confusing at first because they're all intertwined and displayed randomly (from what I can tell), but play it enough and you'll learn the story.

The biggest addition to this game is the Archenemy mode, which allows you and up to two others to fight against the computer in a 3 on 1 scenario. This version of gameplay refreshes the gameplay by giving you two simultaneous objectives: defeat the one Archenemy and their Schemes while working collaboratively with your teammates. The mode works very well online.

Speaking of online, you can now play Two-Headed Giant online as well. Strangely, this feature wasn't included in the original Duels for whatever reason, but it's in this version which is great. The online play can also be applied to your Archenemy campaign, so if there's a particular opponent you're having trouble beating with the AI you can invite some friends to help. There's also an auto-AI option, meaning if one of your friends has a bad connection and gets dropped the game will automatically replace them with an AI ally (as opposed to stopping the game).

The decks in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 are different than those in the first Duals. It's not that they're more sophisticated, but they've definitely got some really powerful cards in them. Duals featured some more basic decks that feel vastly underpowered compared to the ones in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 and part of that can probably be attributed to the increased deck customization.

Deck customization is another major step forward. In the first Duels the only cards you could add or remove were those unlocked. This meant that each deck maintained its core theme at about 60 cards or so and you could only add or remove those sideboard cards. The new game still doesn't allow complete customization; however, now you can add or remove any cards in any given deck.

For example, the Dragon's Roar deck is a Black and Red deck similar to the Scales of Fury deck in the original Duels. In the first game, you could only add or remove the 18 unlocked cards, which included the likes of Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund and Hellkite Overlord. You couldn't touch the Naturalize or Plague Beetle. After completely unlocking the Dragon's Roar deck in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, I pretty much removed all the black cards because the deck hinges on summoning goblins for sacrificing to dragons for their Devour ability. This means I can get to the goblins quicker without going through the Gravediggers.

The game does come with some minor flaws. For instance, in Archenemy you can only play against an AI opponent. It would be fantastic if (I should say when because it will probably happen) there's an update that allows you and three friends to play Archenemy and one of you is the Archenemy.

AI intelligence is another thing. The game has three difficulties in Mage (Easy), Archmage (Medium) and Planeswalker (Hard). When you're playing one-on-one or even with friends it's not that big a deal what difficulty you're on. If you want a challenge bump it to Planeswalker and if you want to grind for cards drop it to Mage. When you're playing Archenemy with the AI though the setting applies to all AI players.

Sometimes on Mage the AI would not make the "smart" play against the Archenemy, which either delayed your victory or allowed another Scheme card to be played that cost you the game. When you switch to Planeswalker, then your partners start making all the right moves but the Archenemy is also ferocious, and it's hard to combat a savvy player who's pulled three straight Scheme cards that has given them 15 1/1 Saproling tokens. This is no different really than playing with three other friends, but it's just a little jarring that there's such a disparity in decision making between difficulty levels.

The screen resolution is another minor gripe. Again, in one-on-one (and even Two-Headed Giant) the screen is not a problem. But when in Archenemy everything is crammed on screen, so you have to zoom in on every card until you can memorize it based on the card's picture. What's worse though is when you win and it shows you the unlock you can't zoom in to see what you've unlocked. I have a 55" TV and I still had to get right in front of it to read what the new card does.

The AI piece is something I can't really fault WotC for but the screen resolution is. It would be nice if an update would come out that at least let's you zoom in on the newly unlocked card. Or even one that makes the Right Analog stick give you free cursor movement that snaps to a card when near it in Archenemy, just to make reading them more manageable.

Playing Duals of the Planeswalkers 2012 reminded me of playing Left 4 Dead 2. Compared to their predecessors they're the same games with improvements that make them feel different. In both cases the original and the sequel are both great, but some gamers may prefer one to the other. Duels of the Planeswalkers features Magic more at its core while Duals of the Planeswalkers 2012 is more about customization and playing with friends.

Both incarnations are great games. Most players of Duals will no doubt pick up Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. If you're looking for more of a pick up and go you're probably better off going with the first Duals. If you're looking for more of a polished, almost story driven version with improved online play then definitely check out Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. Sadly, the cards won's carry over from one game to the other, but if you've been playing Magic for a while you're used to buying new cards all the time.