Wednesday, November 30, 2005

City of Villains Review

City of Villains, developed by Cryptic Studios and published by NCsoft.
The Good: Comprehensive player creation, high end graphics, PvP
The Not So Good: Poor camera control gets annoying fast, comparatively stiff system requirements, monthly fee, can’t change input and video options
What say you? A great idea but less than spectacular execution: 6/8

The MMORPG. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Ever since game executives discovered that they could take the hard earned money of gamers every month in exchange for a glorified chat room, massively multiplayer online role playing games have thrived. Nowadays, the gaming landscape is littered by the successful (Everquest, World of Warcraft) and the downtrodden (Motor City Online, The Sims Online). Enter the stand-alone sequel/expansion to City of Heroes called City of Villains. Yes, every comic book loving nerd’s dream has come true, as you can battle crime (or create it) online in realistic environments without showing how lonely you really are. Rejoice! I’m not a huge fan of MMORPGs; I just can’t see the justification of paying a monthly fee for a game I’d most likely get tired of (I tend to play a game heavily for a couple of weeks and then forget about it, but the medication should correct that). I have had experience with one MMORPG and that’s Guild Wars, so they’ll be a lot of comparisons between this game and the other NCsoft offering, so here’s hoping you know what I’m talking about.

City of Villains features some of the best graphics and sound available for an MMORPG and most PC games in general (console games can suck it and go crash themselves). This comes at a price, however, because the system requirements are quite high compared to other MMORPGs. The game looks great, with detailed environments, nice special effects, and a variety of different characters. The sound also follows suit, populating each map with painfully realistic auditory information. I have one major problem with City of Villains: you cannot scale down the graphics. For those of us on less than spectacular computers, this is a big problem, especially when lots of characters come on screen and the game almost becomes unplayable due to lag. MMORPGs are strange like this, as they don’t follow the regular PC archetype of having a main menu and tweaking to your heart’s content. Oh well.

By far the best aspect of City of Villains is the character creation system. You can build your player by customizing their background that determines his/her/its available powers and attributes. First, the overall archetype of your character establishes their general classification, such as brute, dominator, or stalker. The origin also shapes your character, spanning mutants or magical beings. One of the biggest parts of the game is using your special powers, and some basic spells are available at the onset of the game. Of course, no supervillain would be complete without a fear-inducing costume, and City of Villains has a pretty good selection of wardrobe options. There are really no complaints arising from this aspect of the game, and it seems like the developers have worked hard at making the character creation an important part of the overall game experience. In a neat addition from the last game, you can build your super-secret bases for you and your Superfriends once you find or create a coalition of evil. This is a nice side option for the game that organized clans will appreciate and it helps to extend the longevity of the game.

Now that you’ve created your character, it’s time to wreck some havoc. The main game boils down to two aspects: completing missions or playing versus other human opponents. The missions are available by interacting with non-playable characters (or, if you’re cool, NPCs) and possibly finding some friends on which to complete the quests. There are four basic categories of quests: those tailored for your current outfit, defeating a certain number of foes, a series of heinous tasks culminating in a final test, patrolling a given area, or the all-time favorite: errand running! Yes sir, The Flash can deliver this pizza in less than 30 minutes! There is some originality in the missions to fit the overall scope of the game better, and for that the game must be commended. However, a lot of the missions can seem like repeats, and the only real motivation for completing them is to make your character more powerful or advance the overall story (if you’re interested in that). Also, the game doesn’t really get interesting for a little while, as early on you concentrate on leveling up your character and completing straightforward missions. In addition to increasing your experience, you can also earn rewards for completing missions. Enhancements, which are earned through completing missions or defeating certain enemies, are used to make your powers more powerful by increasing their effectiveness. Each enhancement covers a specific type of power (such as healing or jumping) and can be tailored to fit your character. Inspirations are one-use bonuses that you can also earn or trade to provide that extra edge in combat. Both of these things are found in other MMORPGs (called by different names, obviously) and are just a way to spice up the combat a little bit.

I had a terribly difficult time just controlling the game, and that’s just not excusable in this day and age. The default controls cannot be changed, and the camera control is just sloppy; you’ll spend most of your time adjusting the angle so you can see what exactly is attacking you. Control issues should not cause difficulty in a game, but it is a prominent part of the gaming experience in City of Villains. I just plain don’t like the way the game’s controls are set up, and I had a much more comfortable time with Guild Wars and its point and click movement. Assuming you aren’t as dense as me regarding the controls, you can engage in one of the selling points of the game: hot, sweaty player vs. player action! Unfortunetly, you need to be playing against owners of City of Heroes in order to get the full brunt of PvP (good vs. evil), as the villain vs. villain play is somewhat hokey and confined to only one area. There’s something nice about playing human opponents who have real feelings to be hurt when you bring the pain. Again, other games now do PvP (such as, surprise, Guild Wars), and it’s sometimes difficult to get a match going, but it’s one of the foci of the game, and it’s fun for the most part.

City of Villains is a great idea for a game. Making comic book heroes come alive on the computer screen and interact in a dynamic environment is a concept that will sell some games. The character creation is complete, but the rest of the game is nothing special that separates it from other MMORPGs. Guild Wars is very similar in the execution of the game, but Guild Wars is actually slightly more polished and definitely more user friendly. The controls in City of Villains are not to my liking and the stiff system requirements make my computer cry. Guild Wars is just a more polished and more enjoyable game, and after you get past the differences on the surface, they are actually very similar. Overall, Guild Wars is much more likable, and the fact that there is no monthly fee for Guild Wars adds to its desirability. City of Villains is OK, but there are other, less expensive games that provide and equal or slightly better gaming experience. Unless you really need to play with your action figures, City of Villains could probably be skipped by most computer gamers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Starships Unlimited v3 Review

Starships Unlimited v3, developed by ApeZone and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Highly customizable games, not overwhelming: a lot of the menial tasks can be automated, easy to access pertinent information, can respond immediately and effortlessly to notices, and economics limit fleet size
The Not So Good: No interactive tutorial (although the game is easy to learn), less than spectacular graphics, no multiplayer, slow/boring in the beginning, must re-explore every system each age, outdated graphics
What say you? A tremendously easy-to-manage 4x space game that’s very accessible to all skill levels: 6/8

Another day, another strategy game. Thankfully, I do enjoy my strategy games, so I’m quite happy to look over another title in the genre, especially if they offer something new to the table. So, from Matrix Games comes the newest version of Starships Unlimited, coincidentally called Starships Unlimited v3. The original game morphed from shareware to retail due to consumer interest, and some improvements were made and repackaged for you to enjoy. Let’s see how Starships Unlimited v3 stacks up against the slightly saturated strategy field.

The graphics in Starships Unlimited v3 look like they were done about 5 years ago, which they probably were. They are simple 2-D graphics against a starry background with a minimal amount of special effects, and essentially unchanged from the first version of the game with the exception of a few details. There are many other space games that look a lot better, especially those that employ all three dimensions of graphical goodness. Luckily, the graphics don’t contribute largely to the gameplay, but you won’t be excited by spectacular views or drawn in by spacey vistas. The sound is largely along the same lines: a petite list of basic effects, such as weapons firing and not much else. I will say that I did really like the background music; it fit the mood and theme of the game well and never got annoying to listen to. As you might expect from a smallish developer, both the graphics and sound in Starships Unlimited v3 are outpaced by more recent titles.

Starships Unlimited v3 has some impressive game customization options. You can choose your race, ship style, color, and ship naming convention (trees, birds, nations, explorers, and the like) for your band of space travelers. Also, the playing map can be altered, including the number of civilizations, skill level, strength of pirates, map size, technology ages, random events, galaxy shape, and availability weapons of mass destruction. Starships Unlimited v3 only has single player action, but at least you can modify a lot of the options for each game.

Being a version of a 4x game, the gameplay of Starships Unlimited v3 entails exploring other star systems, building freighters to provide income, researching new technologies, contacting and having diplomacy with other races, building armies, and training the unskilled masses. The beginning of each game entails sending out scouts to explore other star systems. As with most aspects of Starships Unlimited v3, the interface options make this extremely easy. Instead of most games where you have to explicitly provide the destination for a unit, you can give instructions to each of your ships that change dynamically according to what the game thinks the best course of action is. For example, if a unit has finished exploring a system, one of the options for the next command will be to travel to the nearest unexplored system. The game tries its best to make playing as easy as possible, and this is just one of the examples of how it does so. Also, the game pauses from real time each instance an important event occurs, such as a completed research project or a unit completing its orders. This way, you won’t lose track or forget about all of your ships as they hurtle around the galaxy. Unfortunately, the beginning game of Starships Unlimited v3 is not very exciting: all you do is choose research projects and send your scouts to newly discovered systems. Of course, most strategy games are like this, but since Starships Unlimited v3 is largely automated (which is a good thing most of the time), it ends up being quite snooze inducing. This is about the only time the helpful game becomes a detractor to the fun. Even at the fastest time acceleration, a lot of time passes before anything exciting happens. The game picks up, however, once you come into contact with alien civilizations.

Once you have discovered all your alien opponents, the game essentially divides itself into two teams, one for each of the philosophies. Some other games (see Civilization IV) use multiple philosophies/religions to strain relations between different sides, but since Starships Unlimited v3 only uses two different ones, you’ll usually become friends with your philosophy sharers and enemies with the opposing one. When you hail opposing races, you can discuss the usual arrangement of agreements, such as mutual defense pacts, alliances, federations (multiple player alliances), give gifts, and ask for assistance in an offensive maneuver. The probability of the other nation accepting your proposal has a lot to do with the trust between the two nations, a straightforward percentage rating of relationship strength. The AI will send you requests, especially if they like you, which is something that other games lack.

Another major part of the game is research. There is quite a variety of things to research, and they all have a distinct purpose, so part of the game is deciding which thing to discover next. You can choose to improve armor, computers, drivers, generators, laws, spies, shields, sensors, stealth, and more than eight types of weapons (such as beams, death rays, guns, missiles, and torpedoes). The time it takes to research new technologies depends on how large your population is, how many scientists you employ, and whether you have laboratories or research centers. There are essentially the same upgrades available in each of the four game ages: atomic, fusion, antimatter, and singularity. You advance to the next age by researching 15 of that age’s technologies and reaching 100% wisdom. There is an annoying aspect of advancing in each age: you must re-explore each star system every time you reach a new tech level. This is because wisdom is gained by exploring, and wisdom resets to 0% once you advance. This does make scouting in the late game important (which isn’t an issue in pretty much every other strategy game), but it’s kind of a cheap way of doing it.

Every planet that you have colonized is capable of producing new units. Because of the way the economics in Starships Unlimited v3 work, you are limited in the number of ships you can produce. I like games that have fewer, more powerful units (such as Kohan II) than games that have a lot of units that you lose track of (Civ IV, Rise of Nations, Cossacks, Command and Conquer, etc, etc), and Starships Unlimited v3 falls into the former, more preferable category. Supporting hundreds of units doesn’t make a game good, and in most cases results in confusion and frustration, both of which Starships Unlimited v3 thankfully has a distinct lack. In order to support your economy, freighters are automatically built and send to profitable locations. They work a lot like merchants in Rise of Nations, producing trade routes that put more cash in your wallet. Again, this is another automated aspect of the game that results just from you exploring distant planets, meaning you don’t have to worry about it and can concentrate on other, more important things. In addition to building units, you can train specialists that add bonuses to various aspects of your empire: scientists improve research, engineers build and repair stuff, security is for defense, and navy is for offense. While exploring, you can also find alien artifacts that can provide bonuses such as undiscovered technologies or special weapons that can be used during combat. When two enemy ships come within sensor range, they engage in combat, which seems to be a set of dice rolls and damage inflicted by the weapon systems of each craft. The battle continues until one ship is destroyed (there is no retreating, wusses) and the other is crowned the victor.

Starships Unlimited v3 has enough to offer to differentiate it from the ever-growing mass of strategy games. Although the graphics and sound are certainly archaic, the game has streamlined play that should appeal to those gamers new to the genre. Starships Unlimited v3 has a really good user interface, making all of the commands easily accessible and issuing them very simple. The general game is very similar to games such as Civilization IV, but Starships Unlimited v3 is certainly easier to handle. Overall, it’s not as polished as the big budget counterparts, but it’s a nice strategy game that will provide some enjoyment for most players. Sure, there’s no multiplayer and the beginning of each game is dry, but overall Starships Unlimited v3 is enjoyable. Clearly the target audience is mostly beginners (or, if you prefer, n00bs), but most skill levels will find a slightly above average strategy game with some replay value.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space Review

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, developed by Digital Eel and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Very quick games, easy to learn, simple but effective graphics, numerous upgrades, random maps, different ship types actually alter strategy, mod-friendly, strangely addictive
The Not So Good: High score too dependant on meeting trading aliens, slightly repetitious, component information is cumbersome if loaded, radar ruins some of the surprise element, no permanent ship status during combat, nebulae stink
What say you? A fast-paced and surprisingly fun space exploration and combat game: 7/8

Independent developers are the lifeblood of PC gaming. Constantly pushing the envelope to deliver new ideas to the gaming market, they are not confined by the restrictions of big publishers that want the same game published every year with minor additions and the primary purpose of making lots of money. I have reviewed two games by developer Digital Eel in the past, the predecessor of Weird Worlds and the inspiration of an obtainable item in Weird Worlds. Of course, the problem with having sequels is making sure you stay true to the original while making enough improvements to warrant a new version. Fortunately, SAIS was published by a small company and probably flew under the radar of most people, so Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a new adventure for most. So let’s hop in a space ship, hurtle around some stars, and check out the newest version of the Infinite Space franchise.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space features an overhead 2-D view of space. When compared to the previous version of the game, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space looks great, but compared to other contemporary space games that are alive with 3-D, it falls a little short. Honestly, graphics don’t matter in a game such as this, and I’d much prefer simpler, cleaner, and easier to understand graphics (like those here) than confusing 3-D renditions with bad camera controls. I think there’s too much emphasis on cutting-edge graphics over great gameplay, and Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space leans more towards the gameplay angle, and I thank them for it. When you are talking about games with limited budgets, you really have to choose one or the other, and Weird Worlds is certainly not a tech demo with no gameplay. The sound is OK, a little bare but still fulfilling its duty in the game. You’ll notice repetition of sound effects during each game, but it doesn’t become annoying, and actually fits into the quick nature of the game.

The object of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is to explore space, discovering aliens, new technologies, interesting artifacts, allies, and generally annihilate things. This is only a single player affair, but you are allowed to customize the game. You can choose from three different ships that allow for different scoring techniques: science, pirate, and military. The science mission gives more points for collecting lifeforms and discovering interesting things. Pirate missions are all about how much stuff you can cram into your cargo hold, the more expensive the better. Choosing the military option provides bonuses for contacting alien races and collecting new technologies. You can also select from three different size maps, which also controls the length of the mission, from about 5 to 20 real time minutes of play. You can also choose the amount of nebulae (which slow you down and are commonly annoying) and the strength of opposition. The game generates a random map each time you play, so the experience is always slightly different.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space also has a battle simulator, where you can practice strategies for combat by pitting various foes against each other. This is a nice addition for those who are really interested in the game, but most people will probably never use it to its full extent. Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space also has wonderful (and highly encouraged) support for mods. The original game had several mods that were developed by fans, and almost everything in the game can be changed. The developers are developing a guide on making mods on their official site, and most of the changes involve making new text files and bitmaps, so nothing too terribly complicated. PC games have become increasingly mod-friendly, so it’s nice to see that Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space continues the trend.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is played by moving your ship from star system to star system. Your ship always travels in a straight line, so there is some strategy in choosing the most efficient path and avoiding less than desirable things such as nebulae (which slow you down considerably) and black holes (which tend to kill you, unless you’ve got a l33t ship). There are other ways of traveling to distant systems, including folding (instantaneous for short distances) and hyperspace (instantaneous for any distance) if you’ve found those upgrades. When you arrive at a system, a radar will display how many enemy units are present (if any) before you commit to orbiting that particular star, so you can gauge how well you might fare against possible foes. Of course, not all aliens are hostile, and you might be missing out on some good stuff if you constantly avoid occupied stars. During combat, you are given the option of retreating, and most of the time you can do so without receiving any damage, so there really isn’t much reason to avoid most systems.

Each star system has a number of upgrades or artifacts that are available for you to take. Upgrades come in four types: weapons, systems (like combat computers, shields, and sensors), thrusters (movement during combat), and drives (movement during travel). Each of these upgrades has their own unique shape and corresponding graphical value, so it’s somewhat easy to tell if the new thing you found is worth exchanging with your current item. The game does not make it easy to see the rating of currently installed items; a mouse over pop-up would have worked well here, as you must click on each installed item to see it’s description and value. Swapping items does take some install time away from your mission, but it’s a great necessity in the game to upgrade in order to defeat more advanced enemies.

When you visit a star system, something will happen. You may engage hostile or friendly alien units, find upgrades or other items that can be held in your cargo hold, find mercenaries whom you can hire for the cost of one item from your hold, trigger an event, cause a supernova, and more. If you do encounter unfriendly units, you will enter battle mode, where the ships will do battle and a victor will be left standing. The combat can be automated if you leave the battles alone, but you must use some simple tactics (and sometimes not to simple) to defeat larger, more impressive foes. Equipping your craft with shiny new upgrades will help your cause, but you can also give simple instructions to your vessels, such as movement, targeting, or to use an artifact. Some semi-advanced tactics can be employed by players who are determined not to die, such as using fast ships as red herrings while your main ship attacks from a distance. You can let everything run automatically, but you won’t defeat more powerful enemies. A ship is destroyed when its hull is demolished, but this information can only be obtained by hovering your mouse over the ship, not in some constant display on the side of the screen. This is cumbersome if you have a large navy and you’d like to keep tabs on each of your ships. After the battle is over, you can spend some time repairing any damage you have suffered to your hull or individual systems; repairs don’t cost any money (there isn’t really money in the game anyway), but they do take time, which can prevent you from exploring that last star system.

Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is an interesting game. It is very straightforward and easy to learn and would seem, at least on the surface, to be quite shallow. However, the game is extremely fun to play. Even though each game is essentially the same, the random maps and distribution of upgrades spices up the game just enough to make you come back for more. You’re never in a boring part of the game; since the games are so short, you’re always doing something. This cannot be said for most strategy games, where the initial build-up phase is quite uninteresting (see the first 50 turns of Civilization IV for a perfect example of this). Also, because of the three types of ships, you can actually play the same game with three different goals in mind, unlike other titles where there is a set build order that you follow every time for victory. You do, however, need to find the trading aliens every game (they are always located in an adjacent system to your home) in order to have a decent score, which is about the only constant element from game to game (thankfully). I do feel that it’s too easy to avoid death, as you can retreat from overwhelming opposition far too easily and scout how many ships there are before reaching your intended destination. Nevertheless, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is a great space strategy semi-4x game, especially good as a “quick” game to play, when you have 15 minutes to spare before some other non-computer activity (perish the thought!), and should not be overshadowed by more heavily hyped, larger budget games.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Civilization IV Review

Civilization IV, developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K Games.
The Good:Numerous winning strategies, streamlined interface, above average graphics, not much micromanagement despite the amount of options, slightly faster games, clear cut diplomatic relations
The Not So Good: Units don’t automatically upgrade, anti-climactic end game that still drags, aggressive play is not encouraged, that ATI bug really pissed me off (but it’s fixed)
What say you? Extremely polished gameplay leads to one of the best strategy games of all time: 8/8

Civilization has been around since 1991, and served as the springboard for creator Sid Meier to create a whole slew of games, including Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Sid Meier’s Bathroom Closet, and What Sid Meier Had For Breakfast. As with successful movies, computer games that sell well usually will result in a sequel or two, or sometimes an expansion pack. Unlike successful movies, the sequels to computer games usually end up being better than the original, with added features, better graphics, and a nice pine smell. For the fourth time, the Civilization empire has come around to suck the life out of gamers everywhere. Will it live up to the hype? What exactly did Sid Meier have for breakfast?

Civilization IV is about as good as an isometric perspective strategy game will look. All of the units and cities are rendered in full 3-D, the landscapes are dotted with extra effects and realistic terrain, and the whole graphics department has a nice sheen to it. With great power comes great system requirements, especially in the end game when a lot of units are present and most of the map has been revealed. Those near the minimum system requirements will experience some lag in the game in the later years. Not only does the game look good, but also the interface has undergone an overhaul. Instead of the endless pages of boring spreadsheets that were found in previous versions, most of the information you need is displayed on the main screen; you’ll rarely need to leave overall map covered up. It’s fairly easy to navigate through all the numbers and data since the developers have done a good job at portraying all of the important information in bar graphs, which most everybody can understand. My only gripe is that you can’t scroll while a dialog box is displayed; sometimes I want to see the map while I am deciding which technology to research next. The sound is also first rate, and goes to show you how good it can sound if you’re given a large budget. The music has both historical and original selections to enjoy, and the technology descriptions are read by I Am Not Spock himself. The battle effects are the same for each unit, but since you’ll usually have varied units engaging in combat, this does not become a problem. I also like how the music changes as you zoom in on a city (exactly like in Pirates!) to reflect the current attitude of the town. Taken as a whole, both the graphics and sound should be excellent, and they are.

In Civilization IV, you lead one of the world’s major civilizations toward global dominance over the course of human history. There are both single and multiplayer games available, and they play essentially the same. You can customize each game is a variety of different ways, choosing any permanent alliances, the map style, victory conditions, rule restrictions, and starting era. There is also a small suite of scenarios available, covering things such as the American Revolutionary War; they are nice little diversions that make the game slightly more filled out, but are nothing special. In the regular game, victory is achieved through one of six ways, any of which can be turned off by the user. By default, the game ends in 2050AD, and the civilization with the highest overall score wins a time victory. If you eliminate all the other countries, you win by conquest. If you control 2/3 of the land area and have 25% larger population than any other civilization, you win by domination. A cultural victory is achieved by having three cities with legendary culture. You can also be the first civilization to travel to another solar system in the space race, or be voted by the United Nations as the diplomatic winner. Each of these victory conditions covers a different strategy, thus there are several different ways to win at this game, and not just military like most strategy games.

Civilization IV takes places on a semi-random representation of a world, where all of the civilizations vie for dominance. Earth is the model here, as most maps will have tropical regions near the equator, deserts at 30 degrees latitude (because of the dry, descending Hadley cell and Ferrel cell air, don’t you know), and polar regions at the top. Cities are the foundation of your empire, and are the only locations where units and buildings are constructed. More so than any other game, city placement is of paramount importance here. In the past, city spamming was a common tactic, building as many cities as possible to overwhelm the enemy. The developers have tried hard to combat this tactic by making settlers inhibit city growth and imposing a minimum distance between cities. Around each city, each terrain square is rated for production, food, and commerce, and the population of your city determines how many squares your city can harvest per turn. Food is needed to make the population increase, commerce is used to pay for upkeep, and production is used to construct units or buildings. Squares can be improved by using workers to build a specific structure on that location. In addition to these incomes, each of your cities has a health rating. Each pollution producing building detracts from the health of the town, while some buildings (for example, a hospital) can raise the health rating back up. Each of your cities contributes to your cultural border, which expands out from them in a radius directly related to that city’s culture rating. Building amenities in a city, such as a coliseum or theater, and constricting wonders can improve culture. Cities can also harvest special resources that can provide bonuses to food, production, commerce, health, and happiness, or allow the construction of specific units.

A new addition to Civilization IV is religion. A historically important entity, religion is primarily used to influence relations between countries; civilizations with the same religion tend to be friendlier. Also, there are some bonuses granted to cities that adopt the state religion. Each city can have multiple religions present, and religion spreads on its own and through the work of missionaries. Civilization IV does a very good job with diplomacy with AI units in the game. The game clearly represents your current standing with any opposing nation through the use of tool tips and hard numbers. In most games, you may not know why certain countries like you and others are constantly at war, but in Civilization IV it is plainly spelled out, and this is very appreciated. There are a whole slew of treaties that can be agreed to, including adopting religions, trading resources and technology, and the mutual destruction of a common foe. The basic government has taken a slight change, and the user now picks from a stance in five areas: government, legal, labor, economy, and religion. Instead of having a “democracy,” you can now adopt a pagan representative bureaucracy with slavery and a free market. Nice. There are upkeep costs for each of the civics, and the more powerful ones cost more gold. The civics model allows players to tailor their government to a specific style of play.

If diplomatic relations fail (which they will), you’ll need to engage in mortal kombat by using the game’s many units. There are naval, air, and land units that span all the technology levels at your disposal. In Civilization IV, each unit is given a strength rating, which works for both attack and defense. There are formulas the game uses to calculate the winner through some rock-paper-scissors format. You can also take a quick glance at the odds of victory by selecting a stack of units and choosing the intended target. The combat in Civilization IV greatly favors the defender, as it’s very hard to invade an enemy city without an overwhelming number of units. If all nations are producing units at the same rate, most battles will end up as a stalemate, which is another reason why most games don’t end with a conquest or domination victory. This style of play also does not favor the aggressive military player, and those accustomed to steamrolling weaker nations will have a tough time in Civilization IV. Units are also given promotions and bonuses based on performance, which can increase city attack rating, health, accuracy, and more. Units that are produced in a city with a barracks receive a free promotion. This means you can specialize your units based on your enemy and the terrain you expect to be engaged in. One thing I do not like is that units do not automatically upgrade, and upgrading existing units is very expensive. In Rise of Nations, all existing units are upgraded to the current technology level when you research the upgrade. In Civilization IV, you can have archers fighting tanks. That’s just not right. Personally, I’d make an option to “build” a unit upgrade tech in a city that will change all units to their appropriate modern counterpart, much like you can build projects like the space program or the Internet.

One of the main objectives of the game is to advance your civilization through the ages by researching technology. Civilization IV has lifted some of the restrictions on the technology tree and lets the user have some variety in the order techs are researched. In the end, all the civilizations will have all of the techs, but you can hold a slight advantage for a turn or 10 if you have a desired tech that an opponent does not. In most of the games I’ve played, having a technology edge is very important. You can speed up research by assigning scientists, constructing certain buildings, and making more money so you can fund more research. Tied in with technology and culture is Great People. Each city generates Great People at a rate determined by the buildings in that city. A Great Person can be used to discover a new technology, settle in a city (to increase the production, gold, culture, or research), use their special ability (add culture points, finish production, conduct a trade mission, create a religious shrine, or build an academy of research), or two Great People can start a Golden Age of increased production and commerce. These can be powerful units, but since all the civilizations get them, the short-term bonuses are balanced out in the end.

Civilization IV is really good. I think there are enough changes to the gameplay to even convince players of Civ III to convert over to this newer version. All of the changes that have been made are designed to create a smoother experience, and for the most part they work well. The game plays faster, but is still longer than most real time strategy games; a typical game of Civilization IV on the default speed setting can last 4 to 5 hours. The end game is slightly disappointing; most of the positioning as already been made, and it’s just a matter of clicking through turns and finishing the game up. Since the game frowns upon overt military action, there isn’t a huge battle near the end of the game; rather, it’s usually a space race victory for the civilization that is most scientifically advanced. However, the different winning conditions does allow for the use of numerous winning strategies that suits all styles of play. Even though it seems like there is a lot of things to keep track of, the AI does an OK job at running most of the micromanagement, although the automatic workers sometimes do a dubious job. Still, Civilization IV is definitely an achievement in computer gaming, the collective result of 15 years of work. You would expect Civilization IV to excel given its pedigree, and it does, serving up juicy strategy for all the masses to enjoy. The developers also seem committed to the game (unlike some games that are shipped out to make money and never patched, like Madden NFL). The day of release, reports came in of ATI users not being able to run the game (I was won of them). A solution was found in about 24 hours, and the game now performs as you would expect. In general, Civilization IV seems to have enough substance for both beginners and expert Civ players to find a lot to enjoy.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Evochron Alliance Review

Evochron Alliance, developed and published by StarWraith 3D Games.
The Good: Newtonian physics, not restricted in the early game, good planetary transitions, advanced strategic combat
The Not So Good: Too freeform for beginners, low variety of careers, large learning curve
What say you? An acceptable space game for experienced players: 6/8

Space: It’s Full of Rocks. Yes, ever since Galileo ripped off some Dutch guy and made his own telescope, people have been staring towards the sky wondering what’s out there. Eventually, people will find a way to travel great distances in a short amount of time, and colonize the other realms of our universe. From what games have taught us, much of the future will be the same as the world is today, except with flying ships. Along comes Evochron Alliance, where you get to take the helm of moderately sophisticated spacecrafts and see what the galaxy holds. There is a surprising level of competition in the space simulation genre, especially given the fact that flight simulators have all but disappeared. You now have several choices for your gaming dollar, including X3, Battlecruiser, Freelancer, and several other similar games. Let’s see how Evochron Alliance stacks up.

Evochron Alliance has the feel of a game that was developed by a small team that tried hard to make it competitive with higher budget titles (mainly because that’s the case). The graphics in the game, as you would probably expect, are just about 3 years behind the curve, when compared with similar games published today. I think that Evochron Alliance’s graphics are about on par with Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos (a game I really liked), as the effects such as explosions are well done, but the textures don’t hold up, especially when viewed up close. The game has a realistic level of background colors, unlike some other space games that have too many nebulae floating around. The planets suffer from the same fate, as the textures are good when viewed from afar, but the surface becomes a garbled mess when you are entering the atmosphere. Graphics have always been just an added bonus to me, and never made or broke a game (unless the graphics inhibited gameplay). I don’t mind the graphics in Evochron Alliance, and I think they do a sufficient job of painting an appropriate setting. The sound is quite quaint as well, with the requisite battle sounds, spacey background music that’s used in every space game, and radio chatter between ships. We’ve all seen this before in pretty much every game, so no surprises here.

Evochron Alliance has both freeform and campaign missions for the single player. Typically, campaign missions are short, combat-focused affairs, while the freeform mode gives the player the freedom to do what he/she/it wants. The game encourages playing both with the same character as experience and upgrades overlap, which is something that most other games do not have. The freeform mode provides no in-game instructions on how to start, which can result in numerous deaths if you don’t stick to the beginner system (I can die with the best of them!). The text files that accompany the game along with the official website and in-game tutorial give hints on how to proceed, but some beginning players might find the start of the game too daunting. There are multiple ways of controlling your aircraft, using the mouse, joystick, or keyboard. I personally like using the mouse direction (much like the controls in Freelancer), although the mouse sensitivity is set low (and can’t be changed in-game, although this will be changed in the next update), so I have to pick up the mouse and slide it over numerous times to perform a 180-degree turn. That gets really annoying during combat, let me tell you. You can also play online in multiplayer, with both human and AI players controlling the various ships in a MMO-like environment. If enough players were online, you can imagine the interesting games that could develop.

You play Evochron Alliance entirely from the pilot seat of a spaceship, of which there are five classes. Scouts are the basic small craft, fighters are basic combat-oriented vehicles, strikers are advanced combat spacecraft, and transports and freighters are used to transport goods. You can see the basic two career options in the game from the types of ships present (combat vs. trade). During the game, you maintain relations with all the members in the galaxy, and your relationship with each ship in range is clearly indicated. In general, if you attack ships in a particular system, that system will become hostile. Friendly systems can offer you contracts, which are little missions where you go out and kill some ships or transport goods (or kill ships that are transporting goods). This adds a little variety in the freeform mode, and can provide some goals to keep the game moving.

Evochron Alliance has some alarmingly realistic physics. The game uses the Newtonian inertial model to perfection, which makes the handling of spaceships realistic and difficult. Since there is no air resistance in space, turning is handled only by firing engines sideways, which results in a sort of sliding motion. The physics would be extremely difficult to handle if it weren’t for the Inertial Dampening System, or IDS. You craft is equipped with both vertical and horizontal thrusters, and the IDS appropriately fires these thrusters in order to make your ship move in the direction you are facing. In combat, however, you’ll want to disengage the IDS to make your ship harder to hit. Overall, I liked the extremely advanced physics model of the game that holds nothing back; it’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t simplify things too far to make it appeal to beginners but alienate those experienced players.

When you do run into less than friendly opponents, Evochron Alliance offers some above average combat. Because of the nature of the physics model, the combat is more strategic than other games; you need to use varied strategies to avoid enemy fire by making your ship difficult to hit, while making it easy to engage the enemy. Each of the ships has two different kinds of weapons: cannons and missiles. This is below the variety of weapons found in some other games, which may include lasers, mines, rockets, or other assorted mayhem; there are some other weapons, but they must be discovered and are loaded as secondary devices. Essentially, all of the classes of cannons and missiles behave the same except more expensive models deal more damage. Countermeasures can be used to avoid some of the missiles, but these are less than 100% effective and require some skill in operating them correctly. If an enemy unit has launched a missile or two, it’s bad news most of the time. The user can adjust the energy ratings to give more power to either weapons or shields, tailoring their game plan to the current enemy force. There has been more thought put into the combat of Evochron Alliance, and is definitely more complex than arcade space shooters.

When not blowing things up, you’ll probably want to dock with planets or stations in order to trade and purchase new items. The economic aspects of Evochron Alliance deal with mining asteroids, selling the goods, and trading commodities between systems. Each planet has a different specialty that is of lower cost than other items, and can be sold to other planets or stations for a small profit. Fitting your ship with a mining laser is a must, and you can go to asteroid belts and search for precious stones, and even mine planets. One neat aspect of Evochron Alliance is transitioning between space and a planet. Unlike most games where you magically land on the ground once you enter the atmosphere, Evochron Alliance makes the user pilot the ship all the way to the ground. Landing on planets is really neat, as you enter low orbit, slowly descending towards the planet. As you enter the atmosphere, the gases become denser, and you can burn up if you’re traveling too fast. Each planet has only one city, which is slightly unrealistic. After a while, landing on a planet can get old and seem like an unnecessary hassle, but it’s still a nice addition that most other games ignore.

If you are experienced in space simulations, Evochron Alliance is an entertaining game. The physics strive for realism, but the game lessens the learning curve by adding systems to help you control your spaceship. Eventually, you’ll get used to handling the ships in the game anyway. I think the signature element of Evochron Alliance is the transition from space to land, something that most games show a cut scene for. The game does not have a lot of variety in career options, however, as you can only strive for combat or trade. The initial learning curve, getting started on a new career, is slightly steep and is not helped by less than descriptive documentation; a lot of the tutorials tell you how to do things, but not specifically what to do in the beginning. Players need to be held by the hand as they are learning a new game, and Evochron Alliance just throws n00bs into the deep end (by the way, Microsoft Word thinks a synonym of “n00bs” is “matrimonial.” n00bs need love too!). As long as you’re dedicated to learning the game and not easily frustrated, Evochron Alliance should prove to be a nice distraction. The multiplayer modes definitely have grand possibilities, and the AI in the game is challenging enough. Evochron Alliance is a fine and memorable edition to the space simulation genre.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa Review

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, developed and published by Pocketwatch Games.
The Good: Interesting and innovative gameplay elements, decent graphics
The Not So Good: Not enough explicit feedback, below average sound effects
What say you? A reasonably original ecosystem strategy game: 6/8

Mankind seems to be entranced by the things around us. From the dawn of time, we have tried to explain and appreciate all of nature’s gifts, and then capture them and put them in cages. Yes, zoos are a popular enterprise, and serve to be a prime destination for young and old alike. I have also been guilty of this, and even went so far as to have my wedding reception inside an aquarium. Computer games, obviously, would like to cash in on this enterprise, providing animal simulations for the people of the world. Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa is not really a zoo simulation along the lines of Zoo Tycoon, but rather an ecosystem strategy game, concerning itself with appropriate balancing of natural environments. This game concentrates more on the animals’ interactions rather than the cost of ice cream or souvenirs.

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa has some fairly decent graphics, especially for a small developer (and by small I mean one person). The animal models, of utmost importance in this kind of game, are adequate. There are some low polygon counts, but all of the animals are easily identifiable from both long and short distances. They also have animal-specific animations that bring a more realistic tone to the game. You certainly will not confuse this game with upper-end games, but the models are actually on par with Microsoft’s title. The environments are devoid of a lot of variety, but do the job, since all of the environmental elements are important to the gameplay and not just there to look pretty or make a shallow screenshot. Of course, the game certainly looks better than most titles developed by a one-man operation. The sound is generic, with appropriate animal effects and fitting background music (the theme reminded me of Busch Gardens). I really didn’t notice the sound during most of the game experience, which attests to its generally forgettable nature.

Unlike most other tycoon games, especially those animal-oriented, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa is not about building holding pens for various animals and making money. The goal in this game is to create a balanced ecosystem with a variety of animal inhabitants, all of which interact with each other on multiple levels. The game contains a 25 level story mode, where you unlock all the various creatures in the game. You can also unlock sandbox levels, where some of the restrictions (specifically the cost for reshuffling) are removed to allow for easier building of multiple animals and habitats. In either case, the object of the game is to maintain a population of a pre-determined number of several creatures; for example, you might be required to have 10 flamingoes and 15 baboons at the same time in order to complete the level. At any one time, you can choose to introduce any of four different animals by clicking on the corresponding card. The same animal can appear more than once, and if you have very few animals unlocked, you can end up having all four cards being the same creature you don’t need. Bringing a new animal into the ecosystem costs a set number of flowers, depending on how desirable the creature is. Flowers are regenerated by animals breeding (no, they don’t, sicko), and can also be used to reshuffle the deck if you have been dealt bad cards. There are only a handful of animals in the game (11), but with the method of animal availability that is used in the game, having a plethora of different fauna would just lead to frustration as the monkey card would never come up.

Environmental improvements, which are rain (for additional lakes), grass, shrubs, and trees, are made by earning jewels. Jewels are earned by maintaining a set number of a specific creature, usually not one of your overall goal animals and most likely a competitor. This encourages a balanced habitat with many different creatures. Of course, introducing an over population of one creature can and will lead to the downfall of another (and possibly one needed to complete the level), so the name of the game is preparation and balance. Each animal has different needs for both food and water, which they gain from lakes and the various foliage (or other animals, if carnivorous) around the landscape. Not fulfilling these needs leads to death, which can have drastic effects on the food chain. It is sometimes hard to gauge why or where your animals are dying, however. Of course, they are probably not getting enough food, but the only cue you have is a bloody/stinky cloud above their carcass, rather than hard numbers. As a person with a background in strategy games, I need tables, charts, and facts in order to hone my overall strategy. Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa does not have this, and the user must design the different areas of the map by feel. A good yardstick to use is the pack size (the maximum number of any one species that can live in a location), but this information is only available in the encyclopedia and not as mouse-over help during the game. It’s almost worth it to write down the pack sizes before you begin, and remember how many creatures you have living in each area. Since some of the animals are small and hard to see, you can lose track of exactly how many creatures are around the map, especially if they are not one of the current targets. I think some sort of colored overlay directly on the map (like in SimCity 4 with traffic density or population density) would work well in giving the player a better idea of what’s going on.

Coming into this, I figured Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa would just be another generic zoo strategy game where you watch animals run around and poop. I’m glad to say I was quite wrong. Don’t let the “tycoon” moniker fool you: this is an original and sophisticated strategy game. I was pleasantly surprised at the implicit workings of the game, allowing for some originality in a genre where too many games are clones of each other. Where some other games require the balancing of an economy, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa concerns balancing of animals, which is more concrete. The entire game comes down to figuring out the correct numbers of inhabitants at each level of the biomass pyramid. For example, having too many zebras will result in a shortage of plants, killing off the zebras, and eventually the animals that eat the zebras, in a sort of demonic domino effect. It is difficult to figure out what the correct balance is, and I’d like to see some sort of hard numbers in the game, such as birth/death rate or population growth. Of course, this omission may be intentional, as providing that information may make the game too easy. Overall, though, I really like the gameplay in Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa: it has enough creative components to make it stand out against the crowd and provide quite a rewarding game experience. Probably most important, I just plain had fun playing the game. The slightly difficult nature of the game coupled with multiple strategies leads to a very satisfying game, and should not be discounted against lesser, more heavily marketed offerings.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Psychoballs Review

Psychoballs, developed and published by Intermediaware.
The Good: Unique puzzle gameplay, variety of level arrangements
The Not So Good: No level editor (yet), challenging
What say you? An original puzzle game with simple controls and high difficulty: 5/8

Adjectives are fun: they can modify what would normally be quite a typical statement. For example, “I met a girl” can become “I met a skanky girl,” completely changing the meaning. Why do I bring this up? Because the game we have today doesn’t just involve balls, it involves PSYCHOBALLS. From German developer Intermediaware (a division of Compuglobalhypermeganet) comes a new puzzle game involving balls that have indeed gone psycho. Where will the madness end? Find out now!

Psychoballs features pretty standard affair in the sound and graphics departments for a puzzle game. The background music is your usual fare of techno beats, although you can play your own music from a CD while playing the game. The sound effects are very basic, but they need not be complex in a game such as this. The graphics do not have any cool effects that some other puzzle games have, just some minor explosions and flashes that were probably done in Paint. Nothing is too extravagant in these two departments of Psychoballs.

Psychoballs is a single player puzzle game, where you try to eliminate all the spinners on the board by making them contain four balls of the same color at once. Balls travel down given paths around the board, and get caught by a spinner if an available slot is facing them. Spinners are the only parts in the game that can be controlled directly by the player. Players can rotate the spinners clockwise, and can release any of the captured balls into the pipes to move them to other spinners. The gameplay involves moving the different colored balls between the spinners in order to get four balls of the same color in any specific spinner. The game adds some more complications to the game by including special sections of each map that may change its direction, transport balls to another position of the map, only allow balls of a certain color to pass, or change a balls color. The tutorial does a good job in conveying the basic gameplay to the user, much better than the poor explanation I am attempting here. There are 50 different levels in the game, and each of them can be completed in one of three ways: by destroying the balls in a specified order, placing the balls in a spinner in a given amount of time, or completing the level within the time limit. Currently, there is no level editor available for the game, but the developers have indicated that one is in beta testing and should be released soon, which will add greatly to the longevity of the game.

Psychoballs is an interesting game, and the basic premise it employs has not been attempted in any other game (as far as I know), and this must be commended. There are too many copycat games out there (especially puzzle games; how many Tetris clones are there?) and finding one with an original concept is refreshing. The game is actually very difficult, as you are both racing against the clock and trying to manage tens of different spinners all filled with different colored balls that you want to switch. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids (warranting a 10 game suspension, no doubt). It’s almost too difficult to recommend to those gamers who cannot multitask during gameplay, as you need to keep track of several things at once during the game. The slightly lower than average sound and graphics don’t really matter much in a puzzle game, as the gameplay is what’s important. Psychoballs may also prove to be a little too repetitious to some; although there is a good variety to the levels, it is essentially the same basic gameplay every time. Fans of puzzle games will find enough creativity to merit taking a good look at Psychoballs, as long as they are willing to experience some challenging (and sometimes frustrating) levels.