Thursday, December 29, 2005

Democracy Review

Democracy, developed and published by Positech Computing.
The Good: User interface comfortably displays a lot of data, interesting dynamic mechanics, multiple playable countries
The Not So Good: No frills presentation, not exactly action packed
What say you? For those interested, a respectable political simuation: 6/8

Ever since Americans invented democracy, the United States has tried its best to force its form of government on others, obviously because it’s the best. If you don’t agree, we’ll just invade your country and steal your oil. The political system is an arena well suited for a computer game, as users can discover how inept they are at running a country and how difficult it is to appease diverse groups of stupid people. The latest (and by latest I mean it was released nine months ago) simulation to branch into politics is Democracy, developed in fellow coalition of the willing member the United Kingdom. Let’s have some fish and chips and chow down with some Democracy!

Democracy has a no frills, basic 2-D graphical interface. Luckily, there is very little text in the main screen (compared to a lot of management games), and all of the main information is presented in graphical form. The user interface works very well, and is one of the highlights of the game. The game clearly shows relationships between voting groups and policies and is also easy to navigate. It is overwhelming and scary at first, but a well-written tutorial does an excellent job in showing the different aspects of the game and clarifying the parts of the interface. There won’t be any nifty 3-D graphics or special effects here, but Democracy is very playable thanks to its interface. Sound in the game is very basic, and consists of a mouse click noise and background music that runs the gamut from slightly entertaining to deeply nauseating. I just decided to play some MP3s (all legal of course, Mr. RIAA) in the background. Don’t worry about your precious hard drive space being taken up by large sound files in Democracy!

In Democracy, you are the leader of a major country (United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, Germany, United States, Sweden, Italy, Austrailia, Russia, Spain, and the fictional country Poland) and try to get reelected by enacting policies. The game is turn-based, and each turn covers three months. The game is somewhat simplified because any policy you choose to pass are automatically ratified: no annoying Congress to get in the way of your plans for world domination. You are trying to appease all the different groups of voters, which can include liberals, smokers, commuters, environmentalists, and the like. A single person can be a member of more than one voting group, such as a liberal religious motorist middle-income drinking parent. The proportions of your population that belong in any single category are clearly indicated in the game, so your primary goal is to enact legislation that appeals to your largest demographics. You can tell how well you are doing with any one group by taking a quick glance at the approval rating, and can also hover over a group to show the policies that are affecting (both positive and negative, and how strongly) their opinion towards you. Most of the gameplay entails enacting policies that cover a multitude of different areas, such as taxation, the environment, education, and the like. Policies are in place at the beginning of the game, and can be altered (such as tax levels) or cancelled, as well as new ones being enacted. Most policies take time to take effect, so the overall results are not immediate. You can have the game restrict you to changing only two policies per turn (this is on by default), which makes you prioritize the areas of the game and makes it more difficult to get everything done you wish, and this is subsequently more realistic. Of course, everything isn’t so straightforward in the political realm, so random events can (and will) crop up, which are isolated actions that can influence the opinion of groups of voters (either positive or negative). These events can either be totally random or a result of some of the policies you’ve enacted. You are also required to address dilemmas, which are choices to make on things such as same sex marriage, the UN representative, and the nuclear test ban treaty. Usually, you’ll end up making some group mad as a result of your choice, but you try to pick the lesser of the two evils. The game also displays important occurrences (such as high pollution or tax evasion) called situations that have a greater effect on voter opinion. The game suggests ways of remedying the situation by enacting the appropriate policy. Before your next election, you must pick two promises from a list to keep during your next turn. Failure to keep these promises will result in lower voter support your next term.

Democracy is an entertaining game, assuming you’re at least slightly interested in the political simulation genre. The user interface is very helpful in determining the appropriate actions to take in order to remedy a grave situation. The results of your policies are logical, and the game clearly shows the difficulty in pleasing the majority of your voting base. The events and dilemmas provide enough randomness to make playing the same country more than once a viable option, and the different countries themselves lead to different paths down the political brick road (which is paved with lobbyist money). Democracy is intended for those people who are interested in the premise of the game; there will probably be no gamers who will develop into fans of political strategy because of Democracy, but for fans of the genre it delivers intriguing strategy that doesn’t seem arbitrary or abstract.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Acamar Rising Review

Acamar Rising, developed and published by Beteo Software and Games.
The Good: Fast pace and constant action, weapon upgrades are based on performance, some interesting bonuses, fairly long
The Not So Good: Imprecise and laggy controls make controlling ships extremely difficult, background graphics could have been a lot better, 3-D detracts from overall experience
What say you? A classic 2D side-scroller in 3D with control issues: 4/8

Remember the days of simple games where you were instructed to shoot everything in sight? No storylines, no complex rules, just run/fly/swim and shoot. The side-scrolling shooter has almost gone by the wayside, as more sophisticated 3-D gamers have become in vogue these days, mostly due to the increased power of PCs. Ah, but what if you could adapt the gameplay from a side scrolling action game and include the prominent third dimension? Acamar Rising strives to achieve this goal.

The graphics in Acamar Rising look good up close, but worse the farther you move away from them. The individual ships are well detailed, complete with appropriate lights and other niceties. The backgrounds, strangely enough, are not detailed at all, and it seems strange to have good-looking elements against a low resolution, poor quality background. Most space games usually can deliver unrealistic but spectacular space images, but for some reason Acamar Rising does not. The foreground and background do not meld together, rather resulting in an implausible feel to the graphics. The sound is limited in nature: there is a small number of effects and voice over work, nothing that you would consider astounding. The budget nature of Acamar Rising certainly rears its ugly head in the graphics and the sound.

Acamar Rising takes place in 3-D environments where you shoot enemy ships (or other objects) in order to clear a level. There is just the campaign to complete: no multiplayer or other training/skirmish modes. The money that you earn from destroying ships is used to buy better weaponry, which is a lot better than semi-randomly getting better weapons through power-ups, which is what most games do. There are bonuses in Acamar Rising, but they are mostly time-restricted smaller benefits such as invincibility or rapid fire. The user interface could be better: a game that uses 3-D needs to make it easy to navigate the maps, and Acamar Rising doesn’t do this. The minimap is in 2-D, so if you rotate yourself, you can get disorientated very easily. Enemy ship locations are also not indicated if they happen to be off-screen; most games clearly indicate this, but Acamar Rising does not. In fact, the 3-D nature of the game actually makes it unnecessarily difficult to play, and the game would probably be better in 2-D. Just because you can have three dimensions doesn’t mean you should. Adding to the frustration of the game is the sloppy control scheme. The mouse and keyboard controls are imprecise to say the least. Controlling your ship with the mouse is an exercise in frustration: the movement of the mouse and actual movement of the ship are lagged, resulting in unsatisfying control. The ship also can whip around if you navigate the in-game menu using the mouse, as the game seems to interpret selecting options on a menu as intended movement of a ship. It would have been much easier to relegate the controls to two dimensions, but we’re left with unpolished controls in a 3-D world.

Acamar Rising is a fairly average shooter with inferior controls. Most everything in the game we’ve seen before, so Acamar Rising doesn’t really offer anything new to the table to differentiate itself from other titles. The graphics are average, usually a hallmark of small, independent developers wanting to have a fresh take on the space shooter. The controls have some problems, making it difficult to navigate through the game’s levels. Overall, Acamar Rising is an indistinctive space shooter that can be skipped by most gamers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

DropTeam Preview

DropTeam (Preview), developed by TBG Software and published by
The Good: Assortment of vehicles, variable map characteristics, location-specific damage, has potential for interesting multiplayer
The Not So Good: Minimap less than clear about objective locations, weak AI

Blowing stuff up is cool. For the majority of us, unfortunately, blowing stuff up is extremely illegal, so computer games have to fill the void. Shooters are a very popular genre for the PC gamer, so each title must bring something new and exciting to the table in order to attract a new audience. Since Battlefield 1942 has come around, developers have discovered that warring infantry is not the only thing that can entertain the masses: tanks are good as well. We have rarely seen all-tank games come around, so this is a fairly new concept to have heavily armed and armored battle tanks dueling for supremacy. Today, we have a preview of DropTeam, a multiplayer shooter that involves all vehicles. Let’s take a look!

DropTeam has some run-of-the-mill graphics and sound that we’ve pretty much seen before. The map environments are generally spread out locations with very little in the way of buildings and other small details found in some other games. They seem more like a generic placeholder for the action to take place in, and don’t have the flair seen in other games. Of course, I don’t mind this at all as long as the combat is entertaining. The sound is much along the same lines, although I do like the main theme music a bit. You’ll find the usual assortment of explosions and weapon firing effects seen in most games. Nothing too spectacular, but it does an average enough job.

DropTeam is a multiplayer game of tank domination, but it has some additional nuances to the gameplay that could provide for some uniqueness. DropTeam has skirmish games against the AI, a campaign (which was not included in this preview build), and multiplayer, the primary emphasis of the game. Much like Battlefield 2, DropTeam has single player action as more of a practice mode to learn the game rather than a full-fledged skirmish mode, mainly because the AI is not the sharpest. This is fine, as long as you understand that DropTeam is a multiplayer game. There are three game types that are available: capture the flag, territory, and objective. One complaint about DropTeam is that the minimap is less than spectacular at showing objective locations, but hopefully this will be fixed before release. Each of the maps (there are 21) takes place on a number of different planets, which actually alters the gameplay: each planet has a different gravity and atmospheric density. These changes obviously modify the ballistics and actually bring different strategies into the mix depending on the map you have chosen. This is unlike most games where different maps are just superficially different and don’t drastically change the combat. The maps themselves are quite large; it can take a long time to traverse across the map, which is why it’s important to deploy your ships in a good location. DropTeam, not surprisingly, uses drop ships that bring your armor down from the heavens. This is an interesting and original procedure that prevents you from deploying deep behind enemy lines, as your rival can just shoot your drop ship down before it deploys your vessel. I like this method much better than arbitrarily preventing you from spawning in specific locations. There is a great variety of ships in DropTeam, and they work much like classes in other games. Each of the ships is rated in three areas: firepower, armor, and speed. As would expect, the most powerful tanks are also the slowest and make for easy targets if not guarded well enough. Vehicle types include fast recon, tanks (light, medium, and heavy), mortars, transport, anti-armor, command vehicles, engineering, and a number of stationary turrets. For each of the turrets (anti-air, anti-armor, mines, sensor jammers), you deploy them at your desired location and then can choose another turret or ship after a delay. Each of the vehicles in the game has location specific damage rather than a generic health bar. For example, you can get your tracks knocked out but still be able to fire until the enemy finished you off.

DropTeam definitely has potential to be a fun multiplayer game. There is a vast selection of vehicles that are available to use, and good teams will use a balance approach to engage the enemy. The different maps actually play different, with varying values of gravity and air density. Each of the vehicles do behave differently, and aren’t just different skins on the same gun. There are also three different game types and the ability to modify the game. The graphics, sound, and minimap aren’t something to write home about, but the core gameplay seems to be quite entertaining, and that’s really the whole point. We’ll see how this game shakes out as it approaches release.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bowl Bound College Football Review

Bowl Bound College Football, developed and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Most user-friendly management game in quite a while, easily moddable, comprehensive, game can handle undesirable aspects
The Not So Good: Serious problems with played game results that are arbitrary and frustrating, relatively small selection of plays with no play editor, potential opponents not arranged by interest level
What say you? An easy to handle and, for once, polished college football management game, just don’t try to actually play the games yourself: 6/8

As college football enters the bowl season, we sit and reflect on how great football is. Personally, I follow the NFL more than college, although I am going to the first ever bowl game for my South Florida Bulls and I usually end up watching it on Saturdays when nothing else is on except for E! True Hollywood Story reruns. Now that the evil empire has cornered the market on the professional leagues, we’re relegated to playing text management games to get our football fix. Enter Bowl Bound College Football, a college football management game. Now I know where I was going with that intro! It’s been several (or more) years since the semi-successful Front Page Sports series graced the marketplace, so the genre’s been looking for a good descendent. Will Bowl Bound College Football fill the empty, empty void that’s been plaguing humanity for ages?

It’s a (primarily) text management simulation, but Bowl Bound College Football has one of the best user interfaces for this kind of game, which is a very important aspect of management games since everything takes place from the menus. One of the best aspects of the game is the checklist that’s provided each week to make sure you complete all the important tasks. Far too often in management games you’re left with the feeling that you forgot something important, and don’t find out until you’re blown out in the next game. Bowl Bound College Football has a clickable, straightforward method of completing tasks that’s much appreciated. Hopefully other games of this sort will follow suit (and by that I mean steal it). Bowl Bound College Football also has clear, color-coded indications of player strength, spanning from blue (Reggie Bush) to dark red (Waterboy). About the only addition that the game could make is animated plays, but I’ll rip into that later. Oh, and there’s no sound. At all. Next!

Each season can be fully customized. First, to satisfy every college fans dream, you can have a playoff season. Yes, not even university presidents can stand in your way! You can also customize all of the conferences and divisions, even going to far to randomize each conference (Arkansas State in the ACC? Sure!). Bowl Bound College Football also is very and easily moddable: since all of the nicknames are fake when you first run the game, you’d probably want to change it and it’s as easy as opening a database in Access; some fans have already done it for you. You can also change a college’s prestige to make them more competitive and/or realistic based on this year’s results. In a side note, all of the players are alumni from real high schools, which is very neat. You can also have the game automate many of the aspects of the game; if you’re not interested in maintaining the budget, let the computer to it for you! Another big aspect of the game is multiplayer, and there are already several leagues forming with individuals controlling each team (the ultimate association would have one person per team, and they’re getting close). The tools for creating an online seem easy and work well enough without any major problems, so you can virtually control virtual teams virtually! Neat-o!

Before the season begins, you start in training camp, the favorite time of the year for all players. There are several things that need to be completed here. First, the school budget needs to be set, allocating money for recruiting, staff salaries, and scouting. The amount of income your university receives is dependent on their prestige and alumni. Your overall offensive and defensive philosophies need to be set as well, choosing the style of play that best fits your personnel and coaching staff. Each of the philosophies offers bonuses for using specific formations, discouraging a smash mouth offense from using spread formations (which is a great idea). The game seems to pick the best one to begin with once all of the athletes are seeded, so you probably won’t be changing it much unless you want to screw your team up (I am an expert at this). Strangely, you can’t choose which philosophy you want to begin with and then seed players according to that, so you’re kinda stuck if you end up with vertical passing players but you like running a balanced attack. One of the rare things that cannot be edited is the plays themselves: you are stuck with the default plays for each formation. They work OK, but with the amount of customization in the rest of the game, it’s kind of surprising that plays can’t be changed or added. This isn’t a problem with much of the game, but only two deep shotgun passes? I need more variety than that! You can also order your depth chart and assign redshirts for the freshmen with the highest potential ratings. A big part of the preseason is setting your upcoming schedule. The only games that are set are the conference opponents and a rival (if they are outside of your conferenece), so filling the schedule with 11 or 12 total games is up to you. One problem I have is that you can’t sort the potential foes by their interest in playing you, making you select each of the 117 (or whatever it is now) teams before you find someone willing to play you at home. This is one of the few problems I have with the interface, and hopefully will be fixed in the future.

After all of that preparation, it’s time to play the games. Something to concern you with during the season is a student not being able to play, either due to injury or being stupid. Those dumbasses that maintain a low GPA can be helped with additional tutoring time (of which you are given a finite amount at the onset of the season), and injuries have to be adjusted for using your depth chart. Essentially everything in the game can be adjusted using a “suggest” button, which uses the game’s best guess as to what the best decision is, and it works for the most part. You can also manually tune almost everything if you’re truly anal-retentive. For each week, you create an offensive and defensive gameplan tailored for your opponent. Gameplans cover each situation that can come up during the game and what plays should be called; it’s kind of tedious, so most users will just use the default choices. You can also set the amount of substitutions and the specific plays and formations you’ll call each down. It’s all overly complex and gives even the most intricate coach all the options they would want. You can choose to either play the game (by calling plays) or have the game results simmed.

By far the biggest problem I have with Bowl Bound College Football is how the games unfold. There doesn’t seem to be a good correlation between the offensive play, the defensive play, and the result. Here are some examples:
1. An inside run against pass defense for a gain of 0 yards
2. An inside run against dime deep zone for a gain of 1 yard
3. A completed streak pass for 3 yards
4. An inside run against dime middle zone for a gain of 0 yards
5. A 56-yard TD run off tackle to a side with 4 people run blitzing
6. A short curl route completed for 63 yards
7. A deep corner route completed for 4 yards
8. A deep post route completed for 2 yards
This is done with two evenly matched teams with mostly orange (average) players. The play by play is also sometimes incorrect, such as “for a small gain” actually being a two-yard loss. My first season, I lost three games in overtime: one fumble, one interception, and one blocked 22-yard field goal. I’m not sure if this is extremely bad luck or the game is cheating, but either way it is very frustrating. I also went down early 21-0 to a really bad team (at least worse than mine) because of a 77-yard TD pass when I was in deep zone, a fumble return, and a 65-yard run when I was in run defense. When I run a smash mouth (run oriented) offense with good linemen and running backs against a bad defense, I expect to get better than 30 rushes for 12 yards. The game provides more realistic play results when it quickly sims them without user input, however. I would tend to believe the results of the plays better if I could see the players running around, even if it was just a simple overhead view with circles walking too and fro (and that’s all I’d expect). I can’t believe the results of each play otherwise, because from my experience it just doesn’t make sense. The strange thing is that I haven’t seen other people complaining about this on the official message boards, so maybe it’s just me and my sucky play calling, but since you’re stuck reading my review, I’m going to make my complaints, darn it. The simulated results are seemingly realistic; I just get way too frustrated calling the plays myself, to the point of wanting to quit the game. That’s never good.

Once you’ve suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat, it’s time for the nail-biting excitement of the offseason. You are first given offers from other schools that you can accept to shake the game up. You also need to hire and fire your assistants, especially if they are hired by a competing university (jerks!). The biggest aspect of the offseason is recruiting, both high school players and transfers from other schools. For each potential recruit you can scout them, adjust the contact hours, accept player visits to your campus (although there’s no option for whores for some reason), and even offer a pitch to impress that hard to convince recruit. It’s almost like a mini-game getting that star quarterback to come to your stinky university, and quite a nice diversion after the season that works well.

It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into Bowl Bound College Football: it’s an almost complete college football simulation. It’s full of all the features you’d want in this kind of game, including comprehensive customization options, gameplans, opponent scheduling, recruiting, and even setting the budget. It also has a great user interface that’s both easy to use and easy on the eyes, and also provides a list of all the activities you need to complete during the week so that you don’t forget every mundane detail. I just cannot get past the game simulations: the results of each play have to make more sense then they do, and animated players would do the trick. A 45-yard “short” curl route against short zone? Show me how that works. Other than that, Bowl Bound College Football is pretty great and should satisfy the hungry palates of all those aspiring coaches and Monday morning quarterbacks out there in computer land.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga Review

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga, developed by Worlds Apart Productions and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Good meld of multi-level strategy, no “luck” battles, fairly good tutorial, multiple races and victory conditions
The Not So Good: Slightly overwhelming at first, takes some time to develop a good strategy
What say you? A strategy game spiced up with card enhancements: 6/8

Apparently, there is quite a large gathering of people who play collectable card games. You know the kind, where you buy endless amounts of decks, constructing the perfect deck so you can whoop up on other players/nerds using a level 5 paladin. Ah, but what if you could play a collectable card game without all the hassle of having actual cards, and play against other players/nerds from all over the world? Thankfully, the good people at Worlds Apart Productions have filled this void, combining a collectable card game with a board game in the form of Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga. This game was originally available as a free online download and you bought subsequent decks so you could own the competition; the newest version has been repackaged by Matrix Games and adds some new cards and other features to the lineup.

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga doesn’t need and doesn’t have impressive graphics and sound. The art on some of the virtual cards is well done, and along the lines of what you’d expect to find in physical versions of the product. The game is presented through easy-to-navigate menus and a simple 2-D game board where all the action takes place. It all works well enough and the design makes it fairly easy to find specific ships and statistics on planets, you just won’t be overcome with emotion by the gravity of the presentation. The sound falls along the same lines: there are some battle sounds of lasers firing and the like, but it’s all very generic.

As I alluded to in the introduction, the basis of Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is maintaining a deck of cards that you use to enhance play in a solar system strategy board game. This title features play against human competition, and campaigns and a practice mode with AI opponents (who are fairly tough for beginners); for multiplayers, there are casual games and structured tournaments which may have some stipulations, such as the use of unopened decks of cards. Finding a match is easy and I found that the central server was well populated during the most common gaming times. I found that building and organizing a deck, especially if you have a lot of cards, is a little more cumbersome than needed. The game does have some good filtering options so that you can include the rarest or most expensive cards in your collection for a specific deck. It would be nice to see an “auto deck” feature that would select the best cards for a particular type of victory based on the race you select. This would help out beginning players tremendously and cut down on wondering whether you’ve selected the best possible cards, especially since gauging what each card does involves a lot of reading. There is also an interface where you can trade cards with other players to get rid of some of your more common cards in exchange for more desirable offerings. I think that this game was designed with the slightly experienced player in mind, as there is a slight learning curve associated with Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga.

There are three ways to win Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga. A military victory is earned by eliminating all the other players on the map, accumulating 30 or more destiny points earns a cultural victory, and a political victory is earned by winning three votes in the Star Chamber (the galactic council of sorts). Each of the ten races in the game has their specialty, and one particular type of victory is easier with race different race. The primary difference between each race, other than a small bonus each receives, is the two techs each race earns periodically during the game that is used to play cards. For example, the Ixa race has order and entropy and can play cards with order and entropy requirements more easily. You are given a set number of tech points (which you distribute when a new tech point is earned) at the beginning of each turn, and can apply these to playing the different types of cards. The cards come in four forms: heroes, ships, modifications, and zaps. Modifications and zaps are slight rule changes (for example, increased production for three turns) that, when used effectively, can tip the balance of a tied contest. The cards aren’t an overwhelmingly important aspect of the game, and really serve to mix up the action and serve as a sort of tiebreaker.

The game board represents a portion of space, and the game entails moving ships around each of the planetary systems in order to capture and control them. Each planet is either industrial (where units are produced), artifact (which provides an additional tech point), or barren (where nothing happens) and capturing an artifact planet earns your race two destiny per turn. Each planet is connected to other planets through set paths called jump lanes, so you are not allowed to traverse the solar system in just any order. Citizens can be produced at industrial planets and provide influence so that you can capture a planet: the race with the most citizens at a particular planet wins. Three types of ships transport citizens: fast scouts, slower but more powerful cruisers, and bombers that “remove” evil citizens during wartime. Because there are set paths to navigate, winning the game involves effective management and control of the several chokepoints around the map and successful anticipation of your foe’s next move. The maps are designed so that you can’t cover all of your territory without spreading yourself too thin, so there are important decisions that must be made. Combat is initiated whenever two opposing ships occupy the same planet. Combat is conducted in several rounds where a specific weapon type is fired, and the most powerful weapons fire last (so ships that use them must be protected until late in the phase). The side that fires first is based on the possession of any hero units, and the damage doesn’t feature any dice rolls or other silly random elements: it’s purely based on the stats of the ship, so you don’t have to worry about losing a ship because you got unlucky. After you bomb the stuffing out of the competition, you can transport citizens to the Star Chamber, the intergalactic planetary voting body. Every six turns, a vote is taken at the Star Chamber and you are allowed to distribute your citizens into three voting categories: power play (three power play votes wins), alien support (a destiny bonus) or peacekeeper (a powerful ship). If you win a power play vote, you also get to choose a special bonus, such as declaring war, hiring an assassin, or purchasing tech.

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is a mostly successful combination of strategy and card game. The interface and multiplayer options are good once you learn how to effectively use them, although it’s a little daunting for beginners. I like how Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga gives some variety in the win conditions, and the game usually results in a race to two different types of victories and who plays better along the way and inhibits the opponent from gaining their victory. I’ve had a tougher time than usual developing a good strategy for winning the game, as you really have to concentrate on one victory type and changing mid-game is not recommended. Finding the correct race for your play style is kind of difficult, considering there is ten to choose from, and you also must consider for which race you hold the strongest cards. This is not a simple strategy game by any stretch, but finding your niche results in some satisfying play. The cards are a nice addition that doesn’t become a central focus of the game (which is good), just an enhancement to the overall scheme of things, and most strategy gamers will find something to like here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fish Tycoon Review

Fish Tycoon, developed and published by LDW Software.
The Good: Original semi-realistic real-time gameplay
The Not So Good: Outdated fish graphics, rather boring, too much like owning a real fish
What say you? Tamagotchi, with fish: 5/8

I was just a matter of time: the tycoon games have taken over. Beginning with the earliest tycoon titles, where you run a business of some kind, this over-proliferated genre has now covered pretty much every subject manner known to man: theme parks, marine theme parks, people, railroads, airports, zoos, construction, real estate, schools, cars, casinos, coffee, cruise chips, fast food, golf, hell, lemonade stands, dude ranches, malls, oil, pizza, prison, skateboarding, tabloids, trailer parks, and ski resorts. The sad thing is I did not make any of those up; just go to Game Rankings and search for “tycoon” yourself. And now: fish. Yes, LDW Software has captured all the heart-pounding excitement of owning a fish and turned it into a computer game. Will this game have any redeeming values that float it above the dead carcasses of the other tycoon games? Will I hold back on my sardonic comments about fish? (eh, probably not)

Fish Tycoon has some good background graphics for the tank, but the fish are way too pixilated. The low-resolution inhabitants of your tank do not look very good, with sharp, blocky edges and few details. Also, they have almost no animation, basically a looking left and a mirrored looking right. Problem is, the fish can get sick and the medicine for a particular disease is based on visual evidence, which is hard to gather because the fish look so bad. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a fish is sick or it just looks that way. There could have been a lot more done here; I could imagine a full 3-D tank where you could zoom in really close and see extreme details, but this is not the case in Fish Tycoon. As for the sound, it’s essentially the same sounds you’d hear by having a real tank, probably because they were directly recorded. There isn’t any in-game music to speak of, so you’re left with the sounds of bubbles. I just left my headphones off and didn’t notice any real difference.

The most original part of Fish Tycoon is that the game runs in real time, even if you’re not playing it. This is both a good and bad thing: good because it’s realistic, but bad because it makes playing the game extremely boring. Essentially, the game entails feeding your fish, breeding fish, adding things to your tank, selling fish so you can buy more stuff for your tank, and exiting. This whole process takes about 5 minutes, and nothing will happen for another day or two. Obviously, gamers used to constant action will be greatly disappointed here. This is not a game that you will play constantly, because you can’t: time cannot be sped up, and chemicals that speed up the growth of fish are very expensive. So, what can do you? First, there is a multitude of supplies you can buy, such as medicine, vitamins, chemicals, eggs, decorations, and other additions to your tank environment. You are supposed to breed fish by dragging them on top of each other (Biology class was way off apparently), which make new babies that may become a new species. The overall goal of the game is to breed the seven “magic” species through trial and error. Once fish grow into adults, you can sell them in order to make money so you can buy more supplies. That’s essentially it.

Fish Tycoon has all the heart-pounding excitement of having a real fish. Sometimes, games need to break from reality in order to make a game fun, and Fish Tycoon does not do this. Everything runs in real time, so raising a fish takes the appropriate amount of time. This makes a good pet, but a mind-numbing game. The game had potential to be semi-interesting, if it included 3-D graphics and faster paced gameplay, but Fish Tycoon falls a little short of these goals.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Hammer & Sickle Review

Hammer & Sickle, developed by Nival Interactive and published by CDV.
The Good: Very well thought out and complete, realistic ballistics and damage, decent graphics, comprehensive RPG elements that don’t feel tacked on, different styles of play are supported, your actions have consequences, you play as a badass Russian
The Not So Good: Ridiculously difficult, “correct” solution not always apparent due to vague objectives, only one campaign and no multiplayer
What say you? An awesome tactical role playing game, if you can weather the high level of difficulty: 6/8

Oh, those wacky Russians. Those neighbors to the west (or east, depending on which way you go) were always up to something after we teamed up for World War II: Hitler’s A Crazy Man. The newest addition to the Silent Storm franchise (which now makes a total of two) is Hammer & Sickle, a tactical role-playing game where you fill the shoes of a Russian super agent and carry out various missions using stealthy and not-so-stealthy maneuvers. The marriage of two popular genres, how will Hammer & Sickle stack up against the competition, especially in the swimsuit category?

Hammer & Sickle is viewed from an isometric perspective (think SimCity 4 or Rise of Nations) but rendered in full 3D. This eliminates annoying camera controls but still provides for stunning effects. One of the hallmarks of the game is the dynamic environments that show appropriate damage. In most RTS games, a generic “damaged” building texture will appear once a structure receives some incoming fire; in Hammer & Sickle, the specific portion of the building that was hit will show the damage, using realistic ballistics to determine where that actually is. This greatly increases the level of immersion, and trumps the attempts of most other RTS and RPG games. At first, the graphics may seem to be behind the times, using a method of showing the levels that most games have left behind. But there is more beneath the surface than just a fixed camera height. I would much rather have an isometric view than a hard to control camera that detracts away from the gameplay. The sound falls along the same path; there are effects that accompany every action that are realistic enough. All of the dialogue in the game is voiced, which is always an added bonus. The auditory elements of Hammer & Sickle neither detract nor add to the overall gameplay.

In Hammer & Sickle, you control a Russian super agent man who takes on difficult missions for the good of the motherland. This is done through a turn-based approach, where you are allotted a certain number of action points each turn you can use to do a variety of different activities, such as walking, changing posture, shooting, reloading, or moving objects. There is an extensive RPG background to the game; you earn experience points while you play that can enhance certain abilities. You start the game by creating a character much like you would for a classic RPG game. You choose the hero’s soldier class (such as medic, sniper, or scout) and head out for your first mission. Between each mission, you are housed in your “base,” a friendly underground apartment, where you can heal, recruit allies, and buy or sell weapons. You can pick up items during each mission and then sell them at your base to purchase weapon upgrades: not many RTS games have that as an option. The missions are chosen from a map of Germany, and can change depending on the choices you make during each mission. For example, if you “accidentally” kill a contact you’ll need in a subsequent mission, your task will be more difficult later on. There is an optimal path of completing each mission, keeping certain people alive who will prove beneficial in later missions. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you specifically what the path is, so it’s almost trial and error. In the very least, the dynamic nature of the campaign gives Hammer & Sickle slightly more replay value.

The missions themselves are really friggin’ hard. I started the game on easy difficulty and got killed no less than six times in the first introductory mission before I figured out what to do. Part of this has to do with my incompetence, but part of it is due to the fact that the objectives in Hammer & Sickle are not specific enough for most players. Giving the freedom to do pretty much what you want in a given level is a double-edged sword. On the good side, this allows gamers of different play styles to complete the same mission using conflicting tactics and increases the replay ability of the game. On the bad side, sometimes you can feel really lost when given a generic directive of “travel across the map.” Some gamers will become quite frustrated (as I did), especially because of the realistic damage your character takes (one shot kills are common). Because of the turn-based nature of the gameplay, you usually can’t react to an enemy threat before they’ve pumped you full of lead. It also seems like the developers have a hidden intended way of completing each mission, which is not a good thing if you allow the player a lot of freedom. Still, those people who are adept at this kind of game will probably have less problems playing that I did.

Hammer & Sickle should be highly praised for it’s ultra-realistic ballistics and damage. There is a sophisticated physics model under the hood here, and it powers some impressive damage results. As I mentioned earlier, buildings don’t just receive generic damage for the entire structure. The building is broken down into parts, and when it receives damage, calculations are made to determine the stability of the structure. So if you blow up a load-bearing pillar of a particular house, it may come crashing to the ground. You know that’s cool. In addition to sophisticated building damage, there is also full modeling of personal injury. You can receive 8 types of head injuries, 6 types of chest injuries, 7 types of arm injuries, and 5 types of leg injuries. Seriously. Most games will just accept a generic health bar, but Hammer & Sickle takes the higher road and specifically each injury type, from paralysis to an unusable limb. To inflict all this damage, Hammer & Sickle has some after-WW2 era weapons at your disposal. The arms in the game include pretty much everything you’d want in a military-inclined game: pistols, revolvers, rifles, submachine guns, tommy-guns, machine guns, grenades and grenade launchers, bazookas, knives, swords, and land mines. Of course, if you’re using these weapons a lot you’ve probably lost the mission, but it’s nice they are included. The probability of you hitting and object is computed and shown as you select targets, so you can get a feel for which targets would be most appropriate. There are a number (that number being 11) of variables that determine the hit probability: distance, cover, weapon type, shooting skill, repetition (shooting continuously at a target increases accuracy), posture, aiming time, movement, target location, weather, and time of day. Obviously lots of work went into making the damage model of Hammer & Sickle the best of any game, and it’s rather close.

Hammer & Sickle is a very intriguing game. The developers spent some man-hours honing and polishing each aspect of the game, and it shows. The graphics are well done, especially the dynamic destruction. The ballistics and damage modeling is first-rate. The RPG elements are finished and don’t feel like a cheap add-on. The only problem I have with Hammer & Sickle is the difficulty level. I know I should have fun playing this game, but man is it hard, at least for me. More specific and clearly indicated objectives would help tremendously in this shortcoming, as I often wondered, “What do I do now?” Maybe I’m just too used to games being straightforward, but I like a fun game that’s also easy to play. Complexity has its place, but once you pass the initial learning curve, it should be smooth sailing, and it isn’t in Hammer & Sickle. Still, I’m hoping this successful marriage of strategy and role-playing continues, as there are lots of time periods and different theatres that could be covered. We have a wonderful engine for a series of games here, and it’s up to the developers to make it appeal to all difficulty levels.