by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Culdcept SAGA & r & Rated Teen; 360 & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & n old bandit confronts a hulking fire giant. The bandit's one good eye hangs twinkling from a scar on his forehead like a jewel on a crude chain. Just before the giant raises his smoldering fist, the old man desperately calls on alliances established during a lifetime of banditry. A knight appears, complete with platinum armor and sword. Together the two topple the monster. Then the bandit pulls 140 coins from the creature's corpse and settles down to defend the territory.
It's profitable to have a bandit on hand when playing Culdcept SAGA. Like the card game Magic: The Gathering, Culdcept is played with fantasy creature cards -- virtual in this case. Unlike the collectible Magic, real-world money doesn't buy advantages in Culdcept. The luck of the draw determines whether players get greedy bandits, potent fire giants or drab spudfolk, all depicted in paintings that evoke the genre without being generic. The cards summon monsters who occupy spaces on a Monopoly-style game board. As in Monopoly, players who land on opponents' spaces must pay a fee. Unlike in Monopoly, it's possible to forego the fee and fight.
Culdcept SAGA outdoes both Monopoly and Magic in terms of complexity. The Xbox 360 keeps track of each creature's health, and calculates a fluctuating system of land values. All necessary information is accessible, yet hidden enough to make detective work a satisfying part of the challenge while keeping the game from feeling statistical. Early on, gameplay is a rapid Deal-A-Meal land-grab as players try to take as much territory as their cards allow. Later Culdcept SAGA resembles a role-playing battle, with war-torn creatures littering the board. Finally economics come to the fore as players vie to accumulate the winning amount of magic power.
A single game can last hours -- an eternity in modern videogaming. Yet repetitiveness is avoided by two classic devices: dice rolling and card drawing. There's no telling how far a player is moving on the game board, and even though players use their own customized decks, there's no knowing exactly what's going to be drawn. Chance is given a bold role in Culdcept SAGA, creating a liveliness that's missing even from action titles. Whether playing against the game's idiosyncratic virtual players or real people, Culdcept SAGA relies on enough fate to make most battles a surprise.
THE GOOD: Culdcept SAGA is a largely unchanged version of the old PS2 game Culdcept, upgraded with lavish graphics and one major addition: online multiplayer. The first game required players to be in the same house. Culdcept SAGA makes it possible to find opponents on Xbox Live anywhere, any hour of the day.
THE BAD: Culdcept SAGA allows players to design custom computer-controlled opponents, game rules and decks of cards. Each of these is a meta-game in itself. ("Try beating this guy." "Play this way.") These modifications can be saved on Xbox 360 hard drives and memory units, then swapped physically, but not traded online. Using Xbox Live for only part of Culdcept SAGA's multiplayer gameplay seems a little like buying a Ferrari and not driving it fast.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Culdcept SAGA is absorbing and sophisticated enough to transform a card game into a beautifully illustrated fantasy saga.