It's hard to believe that it's been four years since Sony's EyeToy, a glorified webcam for the PlayStation 2, had kids immodestly hopping, dancing, and flailing in front of TV screens well before the Nintendo Wii muscled in on motion-control turf.
While the EyeToy failed to grow beyond a handful of "designed for" singing and dancing games, it hailed a new group of players waiting in the wings to "get physical" with their home entertainment.
It's therefore hard to imagine a weirder way to inaugurate Sony's new all-grown-up sounding PlayStation Eye -- the EyeToy's enhanced successor for the PlayStation 3 -- than with a counter-intuitively sedentary fantasy card game called Eye of Judgment.
A card game? That's right, an honest-to-goodness deck-shuffler with physical playing cards that you actually hold in your hand. Needless to say, if sitting five or six feet from your TV hunched over a table and feeding those cards to an overhanging camera aimed at a cloth map (not you) sounds like the height of ho-hum-ness, Sony's new PlayStation 3 fantasy strategy game Eye of Judgment (which comes bundled with the Eye, or is it the other way around?) may not be for you.
It's certainly an odd way to usher in a peripheral at least some gamers were hoping might turn their PlayStation 3 into a PlayStation "Wii.
Instead, Eye of Judgment bids you assemble an 11-inch-tall plastic stand, slip the new PlayStation Eye camera in at a 45-degree angle, place that stand along one side of a two-colour 18 square inch cloth "battle mat" positioned in front of your TV, and plug the Eye's six foot USB cable into your PlayStation 3.
After watching a few clear and easy to follow videos explaining the rules of the game (including a session that walks you through a few rounds) you're ready to go. (To better understand how this works, watch our sister publication PC World's video of the Eye in action.)
Eye see you (or your cards, anyway)
Think "collectible card game" meets a scan device that can read those cards and supplement a simulated 3D version of the game on your TV -- replete with dozens of ritzy battle animations. On a grid composed of nine "fields," players take turns drawing creature or spell cards from a prebuilt deck of 30 and then positioning them in various ways to initiate battle actions.
Most require magical energy or "mana," which automatically increases as rounds tick by. Each space corresponds to a major and minor element (fire, water, earth, wood, and one neutral called "Biolith"), which either help or hinder occupying creatures by augmenting or curtailing their elemental abilities.
Spells like "Fissures of Goghlie" can be employed to "flip" spaces, reversing major and minor elements, something that can benefit a poorly placed allied unit. You'll more often employ it to cripple your opponent's army. While turn time can be adjusted up from one minute to "infinite," games generally resolve quickly -- typically in 15-20 minutes -- ending when one player successfully occupies five of the game's nine fields.
As a card game, Eye of Judgment doesn't distinguish itself from other more established franchises like Magic the Gathering with its spells and summoned creatures and mana-driven mechanics, relying instead on the Eye to radicalize gameplay.
In the "Battle Arena," placing cards face up on the map automatically triggers the Eye, which reads a quasi-runic 2D barcode on each card to input which unit you've selected, where it's at on the board, and in which direction it's facing.
Intentionally cheesy "Mortal Kombat!"-style voices echo, battles ensue, stagy combat animations play on-screen (these can be disabled for faster turns), annoying heavy metal music grinds or plays up-tempo to complement pacing, and so on. Occasionally special "action" cards can be held up to the Eye (or, in melodramatic game lingo, "offered") to trigger special actions, check a card's status, or end your turn prematurely for strategic purposes.
On a technical note, where the EyeToy required bright ambient or direct light, the Eye can function as well in naturally-lit daytime interiors as indirect nighttime lamplight, though it's crucial that the lighting be even. I tested the game mostly using lamps with average-brightness light bulbs positioned approximately five feet to either side of the battle mat. I only had to readjust a card to get it to scan properly once.
It's impossible to tell how competitive the Eye may eventually be with the Wii in terms of motion detection and camera resolution, but its light sensitivity has clearly been improved over the EyeToy's.
Online play works essentially the same as offline. After registering your deck by scanning in your cards, the computer automatically shuffles and draws for both sides to prevent cheating, though you still position your cards on the board itself.
While Sony claims to be devising a "plan of action" to deal with counterfeiting, i.e., players willing to use high-quality color reproduction technology to fool the camera by printing off cards they don't own, it's not clear how this would work. (Though at just US$4 per booster pack, the cost of printing at high-enough resolution on expensive paper may deter would-be thieves).
In any event, the game itself seems cheat-proof thanks to the check-and-balance deck registration system and ironclad process by which turns proceed.
Novelty card game
Is the Eye really necessary here? Not at all. Would Eye of Judgment work just as well if you were tapping buttons on a gamepad to manipulate virtual 3D cards? Technically speaking, sure. But like Nintendo, Sony's betting we'll get a kick out of physically shuffling and slapping cards down on a table. In essence, Sony Japan has merely come up with a clever way to pair the familiar physicality of collecting and handling real cards with the offbeat peculiarity of playing a pseudo-robotic computer opponent.
It's therefore tough to identify who is in the audience for since its appeal seems more novelty- than necessity-driven. If you're into collectible card games, $400 to $500 for a PlayStation 3 and another $70 for the game and Eye hardware make Eye of Judgment the most expensive card game in history.
On the other hand, I can't say I've ever enjoyed a collectible card game as much, if only for the inexplicable satisfaction derived from watching your TV screen respond in elaborate detail to basic physical gestures with fluid animations and flashy explosions and plenty of cheesy, booming fantasy voiceovers.