Monday, October 24, 2005

Cross Racing Championship 2005 Review

Cross Racing Championship 2005, developed by Invictus and published by Graphsim Entertainment.
The Good: Happy medium between arcade and simulation, great graphics, different kinds of racing, variable difficulty, well implemented career mode, aggressive AI, hit and swap racing
The Not So Good: System hog, must unlock additional tracks and cars using career mode, no multiplayer matchmaking, sensitive controls
What say you? A fun to drive racing game: 7/8

One of my favorite neglected racing games of the past was 1nsane, which I reviewed in the distant past. It was a simple off-road racing game with multiple game modes and good racing action. I liked it. The developer of that game, Invictus, is back with a new offering for racers everywhere: Cross Racing Championship 2005. This is a more traditional racing game that takes place on various on-road and off-road tracks in exotic (meaning Hungary) locations throughout the world.

The graphics in Cross Racing Championship 2005 are first-rate, if you have the system to run them. The car models are well done, although wrecks could have resulted in more (any?) sheet metal damage and frame contortions, rather than a gradual addition of dirt on the shiny paint job. The environments are varied, and a lot of the levels have a distinct difference between lighted and shadowed areas, something that a lot of games miss. It is quite difficult to see in the shade, and you may lose track of where the road actually is located. The environments are well detailed in terms of textures, although there could have been slightly more done with roadside extras. You do need to heed the system requirements for this game, especially with several cars on the screen at once. It looks nice, but comes at a price. The sound for Cross Racing Championship 2005 is quite typical for a racing game: throaty engines backed by dance/techno music. Overall, a rather average affair in the sound department.

Cross Racing Championship 2005’s main feature is the career mode, where you start out as a young racer with only a dream and a semi-decent car. The career mode sells itself as being “non-linear,” but this is a bit misleading. By finishing well in each race (usually third or higher), you unlock the next race or upgrades to your vehicle. A good thing about the career mode is that you do not need to win every race in order to advance to the next one, something that can prove to be quite frustrating in other racing games. However, you really need to get all the upgrades you can for the final race of each series, where the AI is the toughest. If you gain upgrades in later races, you can go back and reattempt earlier events in order to maximize your car’s abilities, which is an interesting dynamic. You can also try and unlock each race at any difficulty level, although more difficult races will result in more prestige for your driver. The “non-linear” method of the career mode really means that after the first series of races, you have a choice between several series that you can compete in. All told, there are 65 races in the career mode, all of which take place on pavement, dirt, or off-road. Once you unlock the races and cars in career mode (I hate unlocking stuff), you can play quick races at a single track, time trials against the clock, free rides to practice any particular circuit, and against other opponents over direct IP (no matchmaking…grrr). There are some (well, one) very interesting race types in quick race mode. You can do the classic circuit race, or play knockout (where the last place car is eliminated each lap until one remains) or my new favorite hit and swap. In hit and swap, if you collide into another car, you take control of their car and vice versa. This means to pass someone, you only need to run into the back of him. You can imagine the strategies you can employ, intentionally spinning out your car as you run into theirs to get a big lead. This makes for some intense racing, and is something I don’t think I’ve seen in other racing games. Also, you can play hot seat mode among several players at the same computer controlling the same car for a specified number of laps each during a race, which is another unique addition to the genre. There are eight different cars to choose from (but only 1 unlocked initially), including rally-style cars, trucks, buggies, and roadsters. They could have made a greater variety of similar vehicles, but it’s not really needed and would probably be a waste of hard drive space. There are tools available to make new cars that can be driven in the game, so hopefully we’ll see some mods that will expand the features of the game further.

Cross Racing Championship 2005 has a driving model that is somewhere in between arcade and simulation. The cars have realistic speeds and acceleration, but typically have higher grip than their real world counterparts would. Personally, I like the physics in the game, as they are easy to learn without being too exaggerated. In order to fully enjoy the game, you do need to drive with some kind of analog input (dual analog gamepad, joystick, wheel). The cars tend to spin out if you make hard turns at speed, so subtle adjustments are needed, which can only be done through non-digital means. And honestly, if you’re playing a PC racing game with the keyboard, you are an idiot. Spend $15 and get a joystick, cheapskate! The cars are normally fun to drive, although some of the models require manual upshifting even with automatic transmission engines; cars tend to stay at high RPMs without upshifting while traversing uneven terrain, so you need to give them a nudge. The AI in Cross Racing Championship 2005 plays very dirty, intentionally running into your car even at their detriment. It’s actually quite fun to drive against them, as winning a race may not reflect who has the fastest car, but which driver successfully wrecked out the others. The joy in eliminating half the field with a well-placed pick maneuver is something that is not matched by most racing games that discourage contact between cars (NASCAR sims for one). The AI will also make mistakes, usually in the places that you would expect human opponents to do so (in tight corners, for instance). This type of realism simulating how novice human drivers would behave is quite refreshing to see in an AI. It does seem that the AI does catch-up with a couple of laps to go, however, which makes me think it cheats some of the time to make for a more exciting race.

Cross Racing Championship 2005 is an interesting arcade-simulation racing game. Although it has a short list of available cars, it has enough different kinds of races to satisfy most racing junkies. Since finding an opponent will prove to be difficult, it’s good that the game features some aggressive but error-prone AI that is fun to race against. The game also has some above average graphics (if your system can handle them) and variable difficulty levels, which you can use to complete the not-so-non-linear career mode. Hopefully, arcade racers won’t be discouraged by slightly difficult driving and simulation racers won’t be discouraged by slightly unrealistic physics, because Cross Racing Championship 2005 is a much better than average racing experience.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps Review

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps, developed by and published by CDV.
The Good: Many strategic options, turn based/real time hybrid gameplay, quick mission builder, good unit AI
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics, sometimes hard to identify troop locations, opposing AI becomes easy to beat, exactly the same as earlier Combat Mission games but with different missions
What say you? One of the best strategy games available, but hardly any changes over previous offerings: 6/8

One of my all-time favorite strategy games is Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin. It had the right mix of original gameplay elements and strategy that makes a good game. Since that game was released, has come out with Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (also known as CMAK), which uses the same game engine as CMBB but adds some new units and theatres of operation, namely the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. recently allowed CDV to publish the game and release it worldwide in stores a year or two after the game was first released (I believe the same agreement was made with CMBB). Armed with my intimate and dirty knowledge of CMBB, we’ll dive into the newest iteration of the franchise and see how it compares.

Unfortunately, Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps uses the same graphics as CMBB, with hardly any new enhancements, which means it looks very old. The graphics in the game were passable if you look at it from a wargame perspective in 2000, but that’s means they are way behind the times now. Up close, the units look OK, with some detail with the textures on both the infantry and tanks. The explosion effects are underwhelming, as pixilated puffs of smoke rise into the air. From a large distance, the game shows its age, with rough ground textures and jagged structures littering the landscape. The unit animations are absolutely horrible, as units slide across the ground, run in place, and fall to the ground. The animations look more like placeholders for unit conditions than actualy components of the game. The graphics are very similar to those found in another, similar game I reviewed, Squad Assault: Second Wave, and I essentially said the same things about the graphics in that game. Neither of these games comes close to the graphics seen in Codename Panzers, probably the benchmark for tactical RTS games of late. The sound also has the same problem, in that it’s the game as five years ago. I do like how all of the infantry units communicate using their native language, but the rest of the sound is missing the brawn of huge explosions and dynamic environments. The game in these two aspects certainly feels outdated.

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has several ways to play the game. There is single player action against the AI, hotseat mode for two players using the game computer, play by e-mail (a wargame staple), and Internet play over direct IP. In each of these modes, you will play one of the included battles or operations (series of battles with experienced troops carrying over). This version of Afrika Korps includes over 80 scenarios designed by fans of the game and the scenario builder, a quick way of customizing a battle for easy play in any situation. You can change the available credits for purchasing troops, the location, time of year, combat experience of the units, and much more. You can also provide bonuses to either player as a sort of handicap. There is a great deal of replay value in Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps, from the immense number of included missions to the infinitely repeatable random mission generator.

Each battle in Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps takes place on a designed or random battlefield, where troops will jockey for position. Each mission has an attacker and a defender, or both countries are attacking. Defenders are allowed to purchase defensive units such as land mines, barbed wire fences, and other fun stuff. The battle is assigned a certain date, which has a great affect on gameplay. The month of engagement will determine the weather conditions that are possible during play, and the year establishes which units are available for use. The weather on your particular day can cause different ground conditions (like snow, mud, and the like), which obviously affects the movement characteristics of your units. The battlefield is populated with several kinds of terrain, each of which provides different amount of cover and attacking ability. Forests, hedges, walls, brush, marsh, and houses are all modeled realistically in the game, and appropriate use of the landscape can determine the victor. The game lasts a certain number of turns, which can be flexible, sending the game into overtime if any number of victory locations is still under dispute. Speaking of victory locations, the primary purpose of the game is to capture strategic locations on the map, each indicated on the map with a giant flag (like Battlefield 2). The player who controls these locations at the end of the battle will usually win.

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has a complete suite of units at your disposal, including infantry, tanks, anti-tank, artillery, mortars, and more. All of these are excruciatingly accurate for each of the involved countries, and rated for attack and defense capabilities. Each unit at each moment is performing a particular action, such as reloading, taking cover, or being destroyed. The proximity of each unit to its commander provides several morale bonuses, so it is important to keep your commanders close to their troops. The units are also rated according to their experience (which carries over in operations), from useless conscript troops to elite forces. An important aspect of Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is the morale model (which all games seem to have now). As the unit engages enemy units and received or gives damage, their morale can change within eight different levels (from OK to routed), which determines whether they press on or run away. The fact that there are eight different levels is helpful, as you can identify units that are becoming increasingly scared and move them away, instead of units that become instantaneously routed.

Each of your units are issued orders, usually to move to a waypoint using a set of behaviors or fire at a specific enemy unit. Typically, the faster a unit moves, the less able it is to return fire or take cover. Units can be instructed to march until they encounter an enemy unit (make contact), run (ignoring all enemy fire), advance using cover, assault a position, crawl along the ground, or withdraw from a position. While they are moving, your units may sense enemy units, depending on the current level of fog of war. Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps has several levels of contact, something that other games do not model. Units can sometimes identify units only by hearing them, and they provide the type of unit (tanks sound different from infantry) and their approximate location. Units can see an enemy unit but not be completely sure what kind of unit it is, especially if it’s far away. Once an identified unit is lost, a marker will be displayed where it was last seen, so you can track enemy movements as they use cover. Once enemy units come within range, your troops will automatically engage them (unless ordered to run) with appropriate weaponry. Your individual units behave pretty realistically, as they will follow their orders to a point and act according to their current morale level. This makes the level of micromanagement low, especially when the bullets start flying. Where the unit AI is good, the overall enemy AI is not so good from an overall tactical perspective. The enemy commander, after you’ve played the game a while, is not too quick, especially at the beginning of the battle. If you are playing a meeting engagement with an important objective located in the middle of the map, I am almost always the first to reach it with no enemy resistance along the way, so I generally win those kinds of missions. Of course, I initially set all my units to move towards the central flag, and I suppose the enemy AI commander does not do this, and because of this indecision, he loses. All of the handicapping bonuses in the game really just adjust the experience and number of units, so there is no way to make the AI better, which is unfortunate.

Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is a good game, but it’s also the same as Combat Mission: Barbarrossa to Berlin. Same graphics. Same sounds. Same AI. Same gameplay. Same overall features. New missions, which means Combat Mission 3: Afrika Korps is really just a stand-alone expansion pack of CMBB, which is fine if that’s all you’re looking for. The game still has the small AI shortcomings the previous game had, but the game is still fun to play, it’s just not different at all. If you’ve never play a Combat Mission game before, this would be the place to start, especially if you want to play the underrepresented Mediterranean theatre. Previous owners of any Combat Mission game will not find anything new here other than the missions, and a strong sense of déja vu will dominate the game. Sure, they skinned the user interface from green to red to reflect the predominately desert environments, but I don’t consider a color change a new feature. This is a good final chapter in the Combat Missions series, as the engine has now covered most of the European battlegrounds. I’m sure at some point they’ll release The Complete Combat Mission with all the scenarios from all three theatres in one game, so previous owners should probably wait for that instead of purchasing this glorified expansion pack.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Diplomacy Review

Diplomacy, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Creative and simple game mechanics lead to engrossing gameplay, splendid graphics for a map-based game, competent AI opponents, multiplayer matching service
The Not So Good: Annoying avatar reaction animations, will own your soul
What say you? A simple to learn but deeply strategic game of European domination: 7/8

Paradox Interactive has gotten a lot of run of out its Europa Universalis game style. Besides the original EU and its sequal (coincidentally titled Europa Universalis II), Paradox has produced no less than 3,451 games using slightly modified versions of that style, including Hearts of Iron (I and II), Victoria, Two Thrones, Crown of the North, The Battle for New Jersey, Rock Paper Scissors: Hardcore, and The Ashlee Simpson Simulator. Now, Paradox takes its global domination experience and applies it to a classic board game: Diplomacy.

Diplomacy has some of the best graphics for a board game ever. The developers have tried their hardest to make a game look good that takes place on a giant map, and they have succeeded. The game map looks good without being confusing (except for German controlled territories, where it’s hard to read black text on a black background), featuring clear borders and units with reflective surfaces and shimmering oceans. You can also tilt the game board to any perspective in order to get a greater view of the landscape. With the exception of the sometimes difficult to read province names, Diplomacy does an excellent job of making a map look first-rate. The sound is slightly less good, with a basic arrangement of combat and movement sounds. The background music is orchestral and appropriately over the top. The primary dilemma with the sound is the avatars’ reactions to every movement. Whenever any unit is moved during the reaction phase of the game, one or more avatars chimes in with a confusing gasp that sounds more like a sneeze, and never varies. This gets quite annoying close to the end of the game, since a lot of units by one side will be moving one after another that results in a repeated reaction noise by the opposition.

Diplomacy features both single player and multiplayer options for the game. Although there have been several hundred variations (rules and maps) of the board game, the PC version only has the standard map and one rule variation (a naval unit for Italy); I’m hoping that modding some of the more popular rules changes is possible. In order to learn the game, there are seven tutorials (one playing for each country) that cover all the game basics. The tutorials are thorough, but involve a lot of reading smallish text on the screen (which is still better than reading a manual). After you complete the tutorials and play one or two games against the AI, you’ll be good to go. You can play single games against six AI countries controlled by different profiles modeled after animals (sneaky snake, etc). You can test out scenarios using the sandbox mode, where you control all countries on the map; I suppose you could convert the sandbox mode into a sort of hot seat game with no AI opponents. You can also play other humans using the metaserver, which is Paradox’s matchmaking utility. Games run really smooth as long as everyone has a fast connection, especially considering the great distances between opponents (playing from Florida against Ontario and England went smoothly). The metaserver software makes it fairly easy to find a game, and will become even easier when more people get the game. Even though I’d really like to see more variations on the basic gameplay, the features of Diplomacy cover all the bases.

In Diplomacy, the object is to control the most supply centers, which are located on 34 of the 76 map divisions. The first person to control a simple majority of the supply centers wins (that’s 18). Each side has the same number of units as the number of supply centers, and larger forces are only gained through capturing additional supply centers. The map is divided into provinces that were present at the onset of World War I (back when we hung an onion on our belt), and classified as marine, coastal, or inland. Marine provinces can be traversed only by fleet (naval) units, inland provinces only by armies, and coastal provinces by both. The primary rule that governs the game is that only one unit can occupy a province at a time. Also, units can only be given one order per turn, whether they be instructed to hold, move, support, or convoy. If two units try to occupy the same province, the one with the most support wins, rather than using some abstract random dice roll like most games. Nothing in Diplomacy is random, which puts the end result in the hand of the players instead of some plastic cubes. After each fall turn (there are 2 turns each year), the supply centers change hands and new troops are born, and extra troops are lost (if you have less supply centers this year than last). Diplomacy, just like the board game, uses a WEGO turn format, where everyone makes their moves, and all moves are executed at the same time (like Combat Mission). This fits the computer platform well.

As I mentioned earlier, the number of control centers you own is the maximum number of units you can have, which is a global population cap; there will never be more than 34 total units on the map, unlike other RTS games where they think lots of units equals good gameplay (fools!). In order to capture more control centers, you must move your troops around the map. You can instruct your units to hold in place, move to an adjacent province, convoy any unit, or support any unit. Convoys can be used to transport units across the map, which means you can string out several naval units and transport land units long distances for surprise attacks. A unit can also support any movement to an adjacent province, which is the only way to capture a province that contains an enemy unit. This results in careful positioning of units to make sure you maximize the support of friendly units.

Since the game is called Diplomacy, there is diplomacy. There are several agreements you can make between different sides, and are either long-term treaties or turn-long movements. You can agree to demilitarized zones, non-agression pacts, offensive alliance, and full alliances, which remain active until either side violates the conditions of the agreement. With the alliances, you need to inform your partner of EVERY move that takes places in a province that borders one of their, which gets very annoying. I have unintentionally broken countless treaties by moving units that never actually traveled in their territory, just next to it. This isn’t such a big deal against human players, but can really mess you up against AI opponents. All treaties are graphical, which means you can easily make agreements with people speaking other languages; this level of international support is rarely seen. Alliances are also secret, so you won’t know who is aligned other than assuming the alliances from whom attacked whom last turn. You can only have one agreement per opponent, so you must modify or append standing treaties to make a new one. Not only can you make alliances and the like, but also you can coordinate movements between countries. Especially in the beginning of the game, you will need the support of other countries in order to defeat a common foe because the number of units is small. You can use draft movements to also sweeten a treaty you’d like to see go through. Once a treaty is accepted, you can convert the orders from a treaty and give them to your units, which eliminates giving orders twice or missing a component of an ally’s proposal. One of the shortcomings of the diplomatic model is that you can’t develop movement plans or overall strategies that take place over several turns, such as this turn I take this country and next turn I’ll help you take this other country. This is crucial in the middle of the game, as coordination between two friendly countries is needed to eliminate a semi-decent common foe.

In a game such as this, the AI makes or breaks the single player experience. Considering how complex the game may become, the AI in Diplomacy does an OK job of playing the game, but is no replacement for a human opponent. The main problem with the AI is with accepting and proposing appropriate treaties. The AI will present treaties to you, but they are only non-aggression pacts, full alliances, or support orders for their units. You will rarely see any complex combinations, or supporting your units or making long convoys. The AI also doesn’t accept any treaties other than simple ones, and since you must submit your moves in adjacent countries to allied nations, the AI breaks alliances far too often. The AI is good at playing the game and exploiting holes in your defense, but sometimes is reluctant in finishing off an opponent, especially a human one. Apparently, when you break treaties, it lowers your relationship with the AI nations, but there is no way to see a concrete value of relationships between countries; Diplomacy could use a scale from 0 to 100 rating the relationships between each side.

Diplomacy is a great board game, and the PC version is a very nice adaptation of the table top version. The game has simple overall rules and is easy to learn, but has much depth and multiple strategies during the game. Each turn, you’ll most likely have to make one or more decisions that could win the game or destroy your country; you will feel this constant pressure in both single player and multiplayer play. The graphics are very nice for a board game, and, although the game could use more variations in the rules and maps, the features are nice. For a small change, after you press the next turn button in multiplayer, I'd like to see a way to undo it as long as everyone has not punched in, so you can respond to treaties. I didn’t really know where to put that in the review, so I’ll stick it here. The AI plays the game well enough, but could be better at suggesting and accepting more complex treaties. The game is definitely multiplayer oriented, and the metaserver makes finding opponents easy. Diplomacy has awesome, deep gameplay that any honest strategy fan shouldn’t miss.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Battle Carry Review

Battle Carry, developed and published by AFSL Games.
The Good: Numerous game modes, remarkable weaponry, good variety of levels, some team strategy
The Not So Good: Tanks are extremely difficult to control, less than spectacular graphics
What say you? A promising tank battle game that’s marred by bothersome tank handling: 5/8

I don’t normally write previews, because I’d much rather have a look at the finished product rather than partially complete buggy code that sours my impression of a game. It’s much better to imagine what a game will be like than to play a beta version and get your hopes dashed. Nevertheless, I did write a preview of Battle Carry, a tank battle game developed by independent developer A Few Screws Loose. Make sure you read the preview first, because I’m going to concentrate on the changes from the beta demo and the overall impression of the game in this review. No need to repeat information and waste your time, right? That’s just the kind of guy I am!

Not much has changed since the beta version, except for some optimization and additional weapons effects of the graphics. The graphics are simplistic 3-D levels with lots of bumps and numerous changes in elevation. There is a good selection of environments in the game (there are 11 different levels), showing off at least some variety of locations and some different buildings in the game. The smoke from weapon hits has a slightly cartoony feel (whether that is intentional or not), and for the most part, the levels are bare with pixilated trees and shrubbery. The sounds suffer from the same fate, being truly basic in nature, spanning just weapon firing and tank movements.

In Battle Carry, there are two teams of tanks bent on mutual destruction. There are several game modes available in the game: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and a objective mode where each team attempts to control locations on the map (like Battlefield 2). The third game mode opens up the possibility of some team strategy in the game; since locations are captured instantaneously, you must guard each location in order to win. The maps are also large enough so that you can’t run across the map in time to save the last base your team holds. Since the maps have varied elevations, there is usually at least one location that overlooks each base from a height, so you could watch the base from a distance and engage enemy tanks on their way in. Anything that supports team-orientated play is a plus in my book (which is coming out this Winter…look for it at your local bookstore).

The game features four different tanks to control, each with slightly different stats, suiting different driving styles. Every tank has the main cannon standard on most armored vehicles, and can obtain up to five secondary weapons at a time. They include rocket launchers, rapid-fire cannons, mines, guided missiles, flamethrowers, mortars, and air strikes. The weapons are easy to see against the background of the maps, and explicitly named for easy selection purposes. You can also get several power-ups that resupply ammunition or armor. The main problem with Battle Carry is the physics of the tanks. For whatever reason, the developers decided to make each tank weight less than ten pounds and bounce up in the air every time a slight bump is encountered. This becomes annoying and frustrating very quickly, as most maps are designed with as many bumps as humanly possible. This results in the tanks being almost impossible to control for people new to the game, and probably results in most people quitting. The tanks accelerate far too fast for how much they bounce, and this disparity makes the gameplay much harder than it needs to be. If they weighed down the tanks with some kind of modification, then the game will be much more fun and playable. Taking a realistic bent, tanks can turn much more effectively when stopped, which is a good feature. I wonder why they would incorporate realistic turning physics but allow the tanks to fly through the air like they are on the Moon. As it stands, the tanks are too difficult to control to recommend.

Battle Carry has the trimmings of a good, action packed game. The arcade nature of the tank battles works well, and there are enough game styles to provide for some needed variety. The graphics and sound are substandard, but this can be forgiven if the gameplay is good. And it is, except for the fact that the tanks are airborne far too much. The selection of tanks, weapons, and fast-paced gameplay are all there, but the most important aspect of tank control is not to my liking, and most people I’ve talked to who tried out the release demo feel the same way. Bottom line: Battle Carry is great except for the weightless tanks, which all but ruins the experience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Glider: Collect’n Kill Review

Glider: Collect’n Kill, developed and published by REVOgames.
The Good: Fun and different gameplay, high-quality graphics, adequate bots
The Not So Good: Low variety of maps, only one match style
What say you? A distinct shooter with rapid, appealing gameplay: 6/8

One reason why I like reviewing PC games is that you have the chance to play some interesting products by small developers, something that would never happen in the evil world of console games, where everything is homogenized in order to maximize sales. You also can play games from developers all over the world from strange, far away lands that apparently have computers. Glider: Collect’n Kill is of German descent, and if you have a game where the uninstall menu item is called “Deinstallieren,” you know it’s going to be fun. If they don’t bother to translate everything in the game, it has to be good! Funny thing is, as I loaded up the game, I felt like I’ve played this game before. Glider: Collect’n Kill is very similar to a game that I reviewed long ago and really liked, Clusterball. The basic gameplay model in Glider: Collect’n Kill is derived from this five-year-old game. So, how does this unofficial update play?

Glider: Collect’n Kill has some pretty good graphics. The detail in the levels is quite high, and although the objects are not as numerous as other first person shooters, this is actually a good thing, because then it would prove too difficult to drive around the levels. Each of the ships has a colored trail behind them so that you can easily spot them; sometimes, it is difficult to differentiate between power-ups and ships, so this is a nice added feature. The explosion effects are also well done; it is very satisfying to see an enemy ship disintegrate into many flaming pieces when you destroy them. The graphics are pretty enough and render smoothly enough to make the game enjoyable. The sound effects are also well done, with auditory cues when you hit an enemy craft (a satisfying clunking sound) and techno background music. None of the sounds are over the top and annoying, which is always a plus. Glider: Collect’n Kill has both good sound and graphics, something that is usually missing in a title from a small developer.

In Glider: Collect’n Kill, you pilot a flying aircraft (Glider) in three-dimensional maps collecting balls (Collect) and shooting other players (Kill). Glider: Collect’n Kill features both single player and multiplayer gameplay, both of which can involve the capable AI pilots. They are available on three difficulty levels and will both engage you and other players. There isn’t a grand assortment of maps and ships, only five of each. Each of the five maps are nicely constructed and appropriately sized for semi-constant action, and have a variety of environments, sporting wide-open terrain, close-quarters action, and deep valleys. The five available ships have variable levels of speed, acceleration, armor, and handling to suit all styles of driving. Each match can end after a certain amount of time or at a maximum score. You can score points in two ways: shooting down enemy units, or returning collected balls by passing through the center ring (exactly like Clusterball). There are a variety of weapons to play with. A standard laser, a guided rocket, a multiple rocket launcher, a ball stealer, a railgun, mines, a minigun, and health and armor upgrades. None of these weapons are particularly original (you’d see the same in UT or Quake), but they get the job done. The ships handle pretty good, and the developers have decided to tone down the Newtonian physics a bit so that the ships turn and stop more quickly than other games, which results in satisfying gameplay.

Glider: Collect’n Kill is a fine shooter that has an interesting premise, although the gameplay is similar to Clusterball. The game could use more variety of maps and different scoring rules, but the game is fast paced, action packed, and, most importantly, fun to play. Once I got used to the pacing of the game, the more I played Glider: Collect’n Kill, the more I enjoyed it. Although I would like to see difference scoring methods (more points for balls or kills, etc) and different available weapon loadouts (for games with more collecting or more killing), I do like how the ships handle in Glider: Collect’n Kill a lot, especially for beginning players. One of the biggest problems with Clusterball is the learning curve associated with learning to pilot the planes; in Glider: Collect’n Kill, this is not an issue. Glider: Collect’n Kill is easy to play and quite entertaining, but it could use some additional maps and gameplay modes to make it even better.

Monday, October 10, 2005

PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition Review

PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition, developed by Shaun Sullivan and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Insane customization, support for real baseball stats, realistic simulation of statistics
The Not So Good: Data overload for some, not exactly action packed
What say you? A feature-filled baseball management simulation: 6/8

I loathe baseball. It takes precious time away from the real sports, which are (in order): NFL football, NASCAR, hockey, and college football. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city that doesn’t have a major league team or because it’s oppressively boring, but baseball doesn’t interest me in the slightest. It is strange, then, that I enjoy baseball management games. It think this is because the actual amount of baseball is kept to a minimum, and these are the best management games around and involve players that I’ve actually heard of (which means not soccer nor cricket management). I played Season Ticket Baseball 2003 a lot (which is actually Out of the Park Baseball), twiddling my lineups in an attempt to not suck. So along comes PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition, another text-based baseball simulation game that’s had several iterations. Will it [insert positive baseball metaphor] or will it [insert negative baseball metaphor]?

Since PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition is a classic text-based management game, the graphics are page after page of text. Surprise! But actually, PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition is one of the most well organized management games I’ve seen in a while. All of the important pages are accessible from the bottom menu bar (which have pictorial icons!), so navigating the excess of information is quite easy. It’s still like looking at a spreadsheet, because, in essence, it is a spreadsheet, but at least PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition attempts to make it easy on the user, and it succeeds for the majority of the time. Some of the menu items are a few too many clicks away from the main page, or laid out in a confusing way, but it mostly works. The game simulations are actually better than most other games of the genre, graphically displaying where each hit goes on a picture of a ballfield. As for the sound, there isn’t much variety to be seen here. In fact, there are a total of 24 sounds for the entire game, and most of those are menu navigation effects. A computerized voice does text to speech for the player currently at bat, which is a nice addition, but the sound is still extremely basic in PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition.

PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition features a level of custom options that is just staggering. You can essentially replicate any season of baseball from the beginning of the major leagues to the present, and even make a custom league of your own. The custom league options are some of the best I’ve seen in any game, and gives the user ultimate control on their league. The game supports a number (say, 30) of different league configurations, each with different numbers of teams, leagues, and divisions. Each of your teams can be located in essentially any major and minor city in America, and corresponding financial support from each metropolitan area is calculated by the game. If you want to see how much a New York City team would dominate the other cities in the state, you can certainly do that. The financial options even scale salaries to the year you are playing (for example, in 1901, they pay you in cheese). You can also incorporate real MLB players by using the Lahman Database, a free spreadsheet of players from every year of professional baseball. For each association, you can customize the starting year, finances, engine settings (such as deadball era), roster size, minor leagues, injuries, trades, expansion, schedule length, and designated hitter rules. You can even play the game as a multiplayer affair, which each player controlling a different team. Obviously, PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition has some comprehensive options for creating the league you want.

The gameplay in a game such as PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition is managing your team. There is much information to be gathered in this game, presented in almost perfectly organized menus and spreadsheets. What makes navigating the game easy is one-click access to the most important menus, which includes information on the current day’s games, standings, statistics, highlights, a league almanac, injuries, trades, and coverage, a website parody that highlights rankings of players and other strange statistics (like RC/27). There is almost too much information in the game, but most of it is superfluous information that you’ll never really need, but it’s interesting to peruse. Some of the more original elements of the game include eight levels of fatigue, changing manager tendencies, and modifying the dimensions of your ball park (which is really cool). You don’t have to mess with stupid editors in most games that let you change where seats are located (Madden); the changes you make here actually affect the statistics of your team, making your home field favorable for either hitters or pitchers. Want to increase your hitting? Move the walls in! Ha!

PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition features three ways to play the games. You can simulate each game quickly in quick sim; it takes about a second to simulate each game. You can also watch the game unfold in PSPNCast, which, I have made clearly aware in the introduction, is not the way I do it. You can also manage the game, which is like watching it except you press enter and substitute players. You can order your players to steal bases or intentionally walk a batter, but it’s up to the stats for the most part. Thankfully, the game skips to the pitches where something happens (a hit, strikeout, walk, or stolen base), and this cuts down on the time involved in the game considerably. For most people, watching or managing the games is not the most exciting endeavor of their day, but really playing the games is just a required aspect of managing a club, and most of the time you’ll just want to quick sim the games until the end of the season rolls around.

PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition is a good baseball management game. The amount of options that are given to the user is quite exciting, far beyond what competitor’s offer. If you can customize the dimensions of your ball park, you can count me in. PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition tries its best to make the flood of stats easy on the user, and does so for the most part. The data are organized in a reasonable fashion and are easily accessible. As long as the game is easy to navigate, the text-based nature of the game becomes bearable. The level of league customization is also appreciated, as you can simulate pretty much any real and fictional baseball league in the history of mankind (I’m currently doing a Southern League). I was quite impressed by the amount of bells and whistles that PureSim Baseball 2005 Gold Edition brings to the table, and it results in one of the best management games ever.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

No Brakes: 4x4 Racing Review

No Brakes: 4x4 Racing, developed and published by Exotypos.
The Good: Good arcade physics model, realistic and fallible AI, variety of track environments
The Not So Good: Generic suite of cars, poor performance for the low graphical quality, not polished
What say you? A fun but unrefined arcade racing game with engaging AI: 5/8

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Without it, we wouldn’t have the constant deluge of information that attempts to cripple our daily lives. In addition, we wouldn’t have access to games developed by small developers without a large budget to warrant pressing CDs and shipping them to stores. No Brakes: 4x4 Racing is a racing game developed by Exotypos that tries to bring back the (good) old days of arcade racing around simple tracks.

No Brakes: 4x4 Racing features some very outdated graphics. The game has blocky environments with some detail elements, such as fencing and houses. The cars fare slightly better, but are still box-like Eastern European budget automobiles. They do have some dynamic damage, but this is just some dirt of the cars rather than vertex bending and sheet metal damage. The graphics in No Brakes: 4x4 Racing are very similar to those seen in the original The Need for Speed, which was released in 1995. That means the graphics in No Brakes: 4x4 Racing are about 10 years behind the times, but luckily cutting-edge pretty pictures are not the draw of No Brakes: 4x4 Racing. Complicating this low graphical quality is the fact that the game severly lags when a lot of cars are drawn. This is quite surprising, considering how bad the game looks when compared with, say, Battlefield 2 or NASCAR SimRacing, both of whuch run much faster on the same machine. The sound is slightly better, but only because car racing games are not known for their awesome effects. As long as you have the rumble of automobiles present, not many people will complain, and this is what you can expect from No Brakes: 4x4 Racing. The background music is techo, which seems to be a requirement for a racing game. No Brakes: 4x4 Racing has fairly basic sounds, but there isn’t much variety to see in a racing game anyway.

No Brakes: 4x4 Racing has four game “modes,” if you can call them that. The game suffers somewhat in translation and from the lack of a manual, as there is much guessing as to what the game modes actually are. There are trial races (quick races), evolution (career mode), tournament (a series of specific tracks), and leaving (I have no idea). In evolution mode, you are given an amount of cash, and can trade new and used racing vehicles, which is original. You select the car of your choice, and head out for the track. Tournament mode is a series of tracks, but there is no point system, so it’s actually pointless. There is also multiplayer, but only through direct IP or LAN. It seems like the alternative racing modes were put in with the intention of adding some depth later on, but it is not present in the game’s current form.

The cars themselves are a painfully generic collection of vehicles, with pick-up trucks, wagons, SUVs, and sedans. All of the cars are given confusing names and are not assigned performance statistics in the game as they all pretty much drive the same. If anyone can tell me the difference between the Vaz 2120 and the Vaz 21213, let me know. Apparently there is some differentiation because they are priced differently in the evolution mode, but I don’t know what it is. I’m just assuming that higher numbers are better cars, but I don’t know for sure. The tracks are designed with the game in mind: simple, easy to navigate with minor jumps and blind turns. Each track takes place in a different environment, such as forests, tropics, and hills, which adds some variety to the game, because otherwise you wouldn’t know the difference between each track. The tracks are more of an arena for the races to take place in, rather than signature environments.

If No Brakes: 4x4 Racing doesn’t have graphics, sound, and features going for it, the rest of the game takes up the slack. First, the game has a pretty good arcade physics model. The tracks are designed to take advantage of this, as they are littered with small bumps and rises to throw your car around. Since the game is called No Brakes, you’d expect never to use the brakes, and this is true. At most, you’ll need to let off the accelerator once during a race for a tight turn. The cars handling is actually pretty good, as you won’t constantly spin out unless you hold down the turn controls. You can make small adjustments easily, and because of the wide-open nature of the tracks, this is what you’ll be doing most of the time. I liken the physics engine to a slightly more realistic version of Trackmania Sunrise, which is a compliment.

The highlight of No Brakes: 4x4 Racing is the AI. This game has some of the most realistic and human-like drivers I have ever seen in any racing game, and this includes recent big-budget games. In most games, the AI follows the pre-programmed line, reacts slightly to other objects and other drivers, but basically drives each track the same every time and never makes any mistakes unless caused by the player. This results in very boring racing where you essentially are racing against the clock instead of other drivers, since the best computer driver will finish the race in about the same amount of time every race. I’m looking directly at you Need for Speed, taking my money and giving me identical racing every time. Jerks. The AI here makes mistakes on their own, running into objects when it takes a turn too close of overcorrects. The AI here races other drivers, sometimes causing a big wreck. For once, the AI behaves like a human opponent, making mistakes and providing an interesting race. They are actually fun to race against, unlike perfect opponents seen in other games. I’m looking directly at you NASCAR SimRacing, taking my money and giving me robotic AI. Jerks. The AI is easily the draw of No Brakes: 4x4 Racing.

No Brakes: 4x4 Racing is the opposite of almost every other racing game. Most high-budget games feature spectacular graphics and multiple racing modes with simplistic AI and erroneous physics. No Brakes: 4x4 Racing focuses on the more important parts of a racing game that makes it fun: good AI and physics. It does look and sound rough, but I’m willing to forgive some of this for the above average gameplay. I could only imagine what No Brakes: 4x4 Racing would be like if it had an inflated budget and could afford upgraded graphics. If that were the case it’d probably be bought by EA in a hostile takeover, so I suppose it’s better off like it is. If you’re not turned off by sub-par graphics (and if you are, you are a shallow, brainless console gamer), then check out the AI of No Brakes: 4x4 Racing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Down in Flames Review

Down in Flames, developed by DVG and published by
The Good: Very quick games, easy to play, integrated online components including pilot career tracking and opponent matchmaking, multiple winning strategies, capable AI
The Not So Good: Mediocre sound effects, each game is essentially the same
What say you? A superior card game adaptation, but may be too monotonous for some: 7/8

Before there were computers, how did people play games? Apparently, the public predominately played ancient entertainment devices called “board games” and “card games,” which involved using cardboard pieces instead of a mouse and keyboard (weird). In an effort to bring some the card game mechanics into the digital age, Down In Flames has been turned into a computer game. This was originally produced as a card game in the early 1990s, and have been revamped and adapted to the new medium.

Since Down In Flames is a reproduction of a card game, you might expect that the graphics and sound are rudimentary, and you’d be mostly correct. The user interface where you play each of the game is actually well done, providing an intuitive method of controlling the action. Playable cards are highlighted, the current conditions of all the planes is clearly represented. Of course, more could have been done, especially since the game is all about airplane dogfighting; you could imagine an adaptation of IL-2’s engine showing the results of the play in full 3-D. The 2-D airplanes are good enough, but won’t win any awards for graphical excellence. The sound is quite horrendous, mainly because the same sound effects are used over and over and over again. After a while, I just can’t stand the Japanese acknowledgement cry, and I just turn my speakers off. Despite the number of sound effects in the game (239), the sound becomes old and repetitious far too quickly, bordering on annoying. I do like the menu music, a collection of historically important radio broadcasts. Other than this, however, the sound is not so great.

Down in Flames is an online game with AI components. For some reason, there is a local mode, where you can play the AI, but there is no real reason to do this. The pilots from local mode do not carry over to the online mode, and you can play against the AI online anyway, so I have no idea why it was included. Local pilots are not given online stat tracking, so this essentially renders this mode of play useless. Fortunately, the online play is well done. There are single missions that can be played against other players through the online lobby and campaigns that can be played as a set of linked scenarios against either the AI or online foes. Currently, there are five campaigns, with future ones being added about once per month according to the developers. There is also a multitude of plane available, each with improving statistics that are unlocked by your pilots’ experience points. All of your pilots are tracked online, issued awards and rankings, and available for comparison on the official site. You can even purchase certain cards or attributes to begin the next game with using your experience points. This is all part of the great integration of online components in the game; the website and the game are intertwined to give full-featured online play, with all the stats that most games require third party applications in order to access. It looks like Down In Flames was intended for this purpose long ago, and it shows in the presentation; in some games, you can tell that multiplayer is a buggy afterthought, and this is certainly not the case in Down in Flames.

Down in Flames is a card game with five stages to each turn (wingman, altitude, leader, discard, and draw). First, your wingman can engage any enemy aircraft as long as they are at the same altitude. Your wingman draws a number of cards (for beginning pilots it’s 1 card) and immediately plays them, discarding them all at the end of the turn. The strategy of using the wingman seems to be making a quick attack on the enemy or to improve the positioning of your leader. Since your wingman can only draw a limited number of cards, some of it is luck (as with most card games) that you get the cards you wanted. After the wingman plays, you can adjust your altitude. Raising the altitude requires a discard (and two discards of the enemy if they want to follow you can keep their advantage) whereas lowering the altitude results in an extra card in your hand. There is also a set of strategies dealing with using altitude to your advantage. The main portion of the game comes when your leader can attack the enemy. There are three types of cards: action, reaction, and action/reaction. Action cards are used to damage the enemy or improve your position. You have a position relative to the enemy aircraft, and this determines whether either aircraft can attack their enemy. Reaction cards are used to prevent the enemy from attacking you or improving their position. Some cards can be used for both purposes. The learning curve of the game results from determining which cards counter which other cards, and I’ve made a handy table to remember which cards do what. It pays to read the manual! After you play, you can discard and draw new cards; the maximum number of cards in your hand and the number of new cards you can draw is determined by your aircraft’s stats. The game is easy to learn once you understand the purpose of each card. Even with its simple design, Down in Flames has multiple strategies that can be successful, and this is a very important aspect of a good card game.

Down in Flames is excellent. It has the right mix of simple mechanics and strategy that makes an outstanding game. Now, the developers could have stopped here, but they added great multiplayer capabilities to further enhance the gameplay. The AI opponents are no slouches, but playing against human opponents is much more satisfying. The game is very fast paced (a single game can take around 10 minutes or less) and great for people who can only play for a short amount of time. Down in Flames is a good “quickie” game, as you can play it during lunch or before you leave for something far less important (like shopping for food). It’s also a relaxing game, as you won’t be pumped full of adrenaline during every card draw. Some might call this boring, but I like it as a good alternative to over-the-top shooters. The only drawback of the game is that each match is essentially the same, except for the randomness of the card draws. This is countered by the RPG-like pilot career model; there is something satisfying in building a pilot’s statistics over time and watching him/her/it grow. Since pilots accrue fatigue over time, you’ll need to build a team of flyers, and this makes the depth even greater. It is important to build up your pilots online, because you’ll unlock better aircraft with experienced pilots, resulting in an overall better appreciation of the game. Sure, the sound is bad, but that’s not very important when everything else is so good. The active online community only enhances the wonderful attributes of the game. Down in Flames is a great computer game that strategy fans should not overlook. Now where’s that Ace Pilot hiding?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Creature Conflict Review

Creature Conflict, developed by Mithis Entertainment and published by Cenega Publishing.
The Good: Good themed graphics
The Not So Good: Frustratingly difficult spherical maps, essentially no customization, restricted strategies
What say you? An inferior Worms clone: 4/8

They say that copyright infringement is the sincerest form of flattery (or something like that). As with most things, in the computer gaming world, if one idea is proven to work, then countless others will try to siphon off some of the success in their own similar innovation. Creature Conflict: The Clan Wars (I am banning subtitles in games, so we will simply refer to this game as Creature Conflict) tries its best to copy the turn-based mayhem of Worms, the venerable Team 17 franchise. Teams of animals square off with an arsenal of weapons for the domination of a map, taking turns unleashing the violence. Will Creature Conflict make enough changes to differentiate it from the crowd? Short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but (name the Simpsons episode for extra credit).

The best part of Creature Conflict is the graphical design; the developers nail the slightly cartoonish bent of this genre. All of the characters are presented in a cell-shading technique (like Ultimate Spider-Man) that serves to relay its toon roots. The maps that you play on are beautiful to behold, with nice touches in both the elements on the map and the spacey backgrounds. It’s very evident that a lot of work and care went into the graphics of Creature Conflict, and it shows. The sound, not so much. There is only the basic arrangement of quips and weapon effects found here, and greater variety is found in other games. A game of this type has carte blanche to incorporate good jokes and funny phrases, but Creature Conflict misses the boat.

Creature Conflict has basic game modes: a linear campaign against the AI, a skirmish mode, and multiplayer options. I was quite surprised in the lack of customization to the games, other than the victory conditions. In other games, you can tweak the basic rules to your heart’s content, but Creature Conflict keeps the leash on the user, keeping you tied to the default settings. And I dislike the default settings, especially the short game turns that lead to limited strategies. They are especially hard on beginners, as you can’t have more time to learn the game and which weapons do what during your first games. The game has three different clans to play with: dogs, monkeys, and small mammals. Each has slightly different advantages and disadvantages, but they are pretty much the same. Other than the names of your team members, you cannot customize them further (more limitations…grrr). The weapons the animals use, although there are over 60 weapons, don’t have the appeal of those found in Worms. They are a generic collection of grenades, launched weapons, poison weapons, exploding stationary weapons, and movement modifiers. The joy I experienced using these weapons never equated the pleasure of using an air strike, holy hand grenade, or mad cow in Worms. The arsenal in Creature Conflict is neither distinctive nor impressive.

The main difference between Creature Conflict and Worms is that this game takes place on a 3-D globe. This is an original idea that is horribly executed. I like the premise of playing on a realistic earth, but the game uses the same targeting system used on a flat map. It is extremely difficult to aim any long-range weapon at an enemy due to the curvature of the landscape. On top of this, the game rarely shows you where you weapon landed (since your running away time starts as soon as your weapon is launched, not as soon as it explodes), so you don’t know how good or bad your angle and power settings were. Not giving this information to the user is a cardinal sin in a game such as this, where minute changes in trajectory are needed to successfully complete missions. Most of the game is spent running to an enemy (you only have 25 seconds to do so), getting stuck in water or behind objects, attempting to shoot something, and running away to a safe location. Since the gleeful pleasure of unleashing destruction upon your foes is not present in Creature Conflict, the gameplay becomes boring and repetitious far too quickly. To make things worse, the AI is very good at launching objects on a curved earth, and rarely misses you. Due to the spherical maps, the strategies you can use are very limited, and make Creature Conflict rather pointless.

Creature Conflict is not fun. I do like the innovation of using a 3-D globe as a playing surface, but it’s so poorly executed that Creature Conflict suffers because of it. Just because you can do a game in 3-D doesn’t mean you should; Worms has suffered from the same added complexities since that franchise has moved to 3-D, but at least Worms is playable. For me, the pinnacle of Worms is World Party, the last major 2-D version of the game. Creature Conflict has so few customization options compared to Worms, and this means your stuck with the difficult and bland game as the developers designed it. Creature Conflict is an exercise in frustration, where you spend your time trying to figure out the spherical maps instead of having fun blowing up some enemies with exotic weapons. There is no reason to leave the fun of Worms for this lesser replica. If you’re going to rip a game off, at least make the few innovations you decide to use good. In Creature Conflict, the new additions deduct from the overall game experience, resulting in no real motivation to play this game.