The Eye of Judgement is the most nerd-tastic game I've ever played. It appeals to a side of me that I regularly battle to keep from blurting out of my mouth down the pub. But it's there, fighting to be heard, in danger of humiliating me at the most inappropriate moments. EoJ is like feeding a bug with milk - it fuels this seedy underbelly of magic, dragons and orcs, forcing my stomach to go all gurgly at the site of the Biolith God Phaseus emerging from the depths of the battlefield. I'm fighting the urge to play the game right now, as I type this. There's something about it that's pulling me towards ultimate geekdom. The thing is, I'm not sure I can hold on. I'm not sure I want to hold on.
EoJ isn't a game as we know it. It's more a virtual realisation of a trading card game. Weighing in at a whopping £69.99, it comes bundled with the game disc, the PlayStation Eye camera, a battle mat and a starter deck of 30 monster and spell cards. Ever heard of the trading card game Magic the Gathering? You might have seen packs of them available to buy in Forbidden Planet, specialist game retailers and even the odd WHSmith. It's kind of like that, except the PS3, on which this is an exclusive game, provides the conduit for recognising those battles which you previously played out in your head and represents them on screen through cool animations.
So, you start by laying out the mat, which is about half a metre square, and divided up into nine fields. You then assemble the PlayStation Eye stand and click in the camera itself so it is facing down towards the mat. Through the wonders of technology, the Eye recognises what card you put down on the mat, feeds that information through to the PS3 and then displays the monster's character model on the virtual field it was placed on. While this might not sound like much, the first time I saw a Skeleton Soldier burst out from the on-screen field after I had placed the card on the mat in real life, I have to confess to thinking it might well have been the coolest thing I'd ever seen. But then I composed myself, thought better of sharing that sentiment with the others in the room and continued safe in the knowledge I had retained my cool exterior.
The aim of the game is to control five of the nine square boxes on the field of play. To do this, you need to summon creatures by placing them down on the desired field. But there's a lot more to it than simply laying down cards and watching fancy summoning animations. Almost every action you take in the game requires mana, of which you only have a certain amount. At the beginning of your turn, you receive two mana points. It's then up to you to decide what to do with them. You can order your monsters already placed on the battlefield to attack, say for example the Leapfrog Bandit, which costs one mana point. You could cast a spell on a monster or field, say the Great Tolicore Quake at four mana points, or you could summon a monster, for example the Arc Satellite Cannon, which costs five mana points. Summoned monsters automatically attack, if they can, without having to spend additional mana.
There's a decent degree of depth to the play. Each field is of a certain element, fire, water, earth, wood or biolith. By placing monsters of a certain element on a field which is of the same element, you'll give it a bonus, say for example two more points of health. However, if you place it on a field of the opposite element, your monster will lose two points of health. So you have to think carefully about where you're placing your monsters to ensure the greatest chance of success.
As a rule, the more powerful the monster, the more mana it costs to summon and the more mana it costs to make it attack. So you can either spend your mana as you get it on lots of weak monsters, or skip your turn, save up your mana then unleash the Infernal Sciondar Dragon, which kicks ass if you have enough mana to use it. Problem is, by the time you've got your best monster on the battlefield, it may be too late, because your opponent nearly has control of five fields. It's a balancing act.
The game itself feels a little light in the game mode front. You can head straight in to a duel with the computer or a second player. If you're a newcomer to trading card games, you'll probably find the computer really tough to beat, even on the beginning difficulty setting. But once you start to wrap your head around the rules of the game, you should find yourself doing fine with the starter deck that comes with the game. Veterans may want to hop straight online after you've registered your cards. Right now, the servers are pretty sparse during the week, but you shouldn't have any problem getting a game at peak times. Whatever you do, ignore the video guides to the game - they take ages to get through and you'll learn quicker by just playing a match against the computer.
We would have liked to have seen a fully fleshed out single-player story mode, which would have helped the game appeal to those who don't play online. As it is, if your PS3 isn't hooked up to the internet, then all you've got is endless one-off matches against the computer or one on one matches against a friend at your place. The cable that runs from the PlayStation Eye to the PS3 is way too short too, which means you have to place the mat up close to your TV to play. It's also a bit of a chore to set up the stand and align the mat with the Eye every time you want to play. I sometimes had trouble with the flimsy mat - whenever I touched it it would mess up the camera alignment. Getting the Eye to register cards in less than ideal light is sometimes a frustrating exercise too. And then there's the question of storage - it comes in a much bigger box than traditional disc only games.
But these niggles are outweighed by the strangely compelling experience that the game provides. EoJ makes no apology for what it is, who it is aimed at and what it's trying to do. From the metal soundtrack to the heroic fantasy setting, this is a boy's toy in every sense of the expression. The greatest compliment I can pay it is that having spent a few hours with the game I immediately felt a burning desire to buy as many booster packs as I could just to get cooler cards and improve my deck. I guess this means that it's a job well done for Sony.
Ah what the hell. I'm going to allow myself to be immersed fully in the game. I'm going to learn how all the battles are resolved (the PS3 works everything out so you don't have to roll dice, thank god). I'm going to memorise strategies, analyse play styles and delve deep into the hidden intricacies of the game. At a time when the PS3 is starting to look like a much more interesting proposition, with exclusive titles like Ratchet & Clank and Drake's Fortune on the way, EoJ may be a poorer cousin, targeted at a much more niche audience and at a price that will put off many, but it is no less engrossing. If you see past the unusual game set up, ignore the fact that what you are doing is essentially playing Top Trumps on steroids and generally keep an open mind, you'll have a cracking time with the game. From the moment you win your first duel to the moment the summoning animation of your newest and best card kicks in, you'll be bewitched by a spell you cannot possibly hope to comprehend. There are already 110 unique cards available to buy for The Eye of Judgement, with more planned for next year. I for one will have my pre-order ready.