If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the team behind The Elder Scrolls: Legends [official site] must be great fans of Hearthstone. Much of this new collectible card game will be instantly familiar to those who've played Blizzard's Warcraft-based equivalent. There's a gradually increasing pool of magic points with which to play cards. The same attack value and health stats, with most creatures being unable to strike on the turn they're summoned. A slew of common special abilities that break the base rules, such as allowing for an attack immediately after being played, or having a one-hit shield to protect them from damage. Sure, everything has a different name, like "Guard" instead of "Taunt", but the initial sense of deja vu is overwhelming. Thankfully, that fades.
The respectful borrowing doesn't stop with Hearthstone. Developers Dire Wolf Digital count some hardcore Magic: the Gathering players among their team and you can see the influence of that game in Legends too. A number of the keywords used to explain rules are recognisable from Magic, such as "Breakthrough", which deals any leftover damage from an attack on a creature to the opposing player. Each card also has a colour which, like Magic, represents a broad category of play style. Red 'Strength' cards, for instance, tend to be hard-hitting and aggressive, whereas green 'Agility' cards revolve around debuffs and movement. Decks can be composed of one or two colours, and anywhere between fifty and seventy cards, allowing lots of flexibility in deck building.
After a few battles of the solo campaign, you're likely to be left with an impression of familiar ideas from other games that have been recombined into something that. It's fun, but seemingly devoid of its own creative spark.
The campaign is a series of fights against A.I controlled opponents held together by an initially forgettable narrative and the first chapter serves as the game's tutorial. By the end of those eight battles however, those initial judgements have to be revised in the light of the final mechanics to be introduced.
For starters, it becomes clear that the solitaire experience is fairly sizable. Not only does it span several chapters, each composed of encounters with a variety of decks under interesting temporary rules, but you can even play the game's draft mode solo. In yet another borrowing from Hearthstone this is called the arena and it's the same concept: build a deck from a series of card choices and see how many battles you can win with it. You might presume this would be an easy task, but this alpha version of the game presents a solid enough AI algorithm to keep you engaged as you try and grind out wins to earn bigger rewards.
There are also points in the story where you're offered a choice of how to react to a situation, and you gain a different card for your collection depending on your decision. At one point after defeating a spider I found a high elf merchant bound in the creature's web. Faced with a tempting bounty of gold for looting his pockets or a fairly weak card for rescuing him, I opted for the card out of sympathy for his grisly fate. Obviously, for me at least, these decision points helped to make the narrative more engaging.
However, the biggest new trick in Legend's book is also something it's arguably taken from outside the world of digital card games: the concept of lanes, as seen in MOBAs. The battlefield is split in two, and when you play a creature you have to decide which half it goes in. Most of the time one lane is labelled a Field lane and plays normally, with the other being a Shadow lane in which creatures are safe from attack on the turn they're played. In occasional solo games you'll also find a Wind lane which blows minions out into the other lane at random.
It's like playing two games at once from the same hand, and the impact this has on strategy is enormous. One approach, for example, is to try and overwhelm one lane while just throwing the occasional damage-controlling spell or Guard minion into the other. Or maybe you could throw high-damage, low-health creatures into the shadow lane and hope their one-turn protection lets them live long enough to swing the game. Alternatively you can riff on combos, such as placing one of the yellow Willpower cards that boost or gain boosts from summoned creatures in one lane with lots of cheap minions in the other. Or mix and match to your heart's content. It’s early days, but right now Legends looks like a deep well of potential.
There are other aspects to the game you'll have seen before, like the ability to upgrade cards in your collection and to trash cards you don't want in exchange for soul gems to spend on cards you do. And just as you think there's nothing original at all on offer, you'll get hit with runes and prophecies. See, Legends has a neat mechanic to boost the losing player because each five damage you take nets you a free card draw. And then if the card you pull has the Prophecy keyword, you get to play it for free, too, which is a far less neat mechanic that can lead to massive, game changing swings of fate. We'll see if this concept survives the beta unscathed.
Chances are it might, because in spite of all the extra depth from lanes and a bigger keyword dictionary, Legends is currently a game that can swing suddenly and hard. Limited amounts of direct damage and card removal, together with Shadow lane protection, means big creature plays that turn the tide in your favour are very much a feature. And that's okay, because most of the time you earned that swing through good planning and clever play. It's only when your opponent gets handed such a turn thanks to a powerful prophecy that it feels unfair.
Legends feels slower and more serious than the majority of its competitors. There are more things on the board, more mechanics to deal with, more to think about. Even the art and sounds have a more somber, realistic tone than Blizzard's card battler, and games take longer. At first, the thought of taking longer to climb a steeper learning curve doesn't seem too appealing, especially with less of an addictive buzz.
After a good few hours with the alpha though, I can begin to see the game unfurling before me like a map of Tamriel, and the scale is impressive. The huge scope of Betheda’s RPG’s might be offputting for some. But the same approach to a CCG has the potential to pay big dividends.
You can sign up for the upcoming Legends beta right now.