Tuesday, August 30, 2005

ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern Review

ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern PC, developed by Kheops Studio and published by The Adventure Company.
The Good: Original setting, some good graphics, high-quality music
The Not So Good: Frustrating gameplay with some bizarre and nonsense puzzles, tremendously short
What say you? An average puzzle-heavy point-and-click adventure: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Adventure games, where have you gone? There was a time in PC gaming where the most successful games were adventures, where you walk in the shoes of the main character and follow a story line wrought with exciting exploits. These have given way to adventure games where you shoot people indiscriminately (called "first person shooters") and have replaced puzzles requiring thought with mindless violence and reflex action. ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Caverns tries to resurrect the adventure genre with an original storyline and improved gameplay.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in ECHO are a combination of computer-rendered cutscenes and 3-D backgrounds that you click on. This is a very old-school way of presenting the game, relied on by software produced before computers could handle full-on 3-D environments. The quality of the backgrounds is very high and appropriately detailed, but it still feels like you are interacting with a slide show and not a complete world. Thankfully, the game is first person, so you won’t see any 3-D people on 2-D surfaces, which always looks bad. The music in ECHO is very well done, and one of the highlights of the game. The background music is appropriately orchestral for the game, and adds to the mood well. The sound effects are less well done (medium-rare?), and are basic and few and far between while you interact with the environment.

ET AL.
ECHO does have an original setting, and I give much credit for that. Most adventure games deal with someone dying and you trying to solve the mystery, but ECHO is set in prehistoric times, and you play Arok, who stumbles across a cave from his past during a routine hunting trip. I’m glad to see some variety in storylines from other games. However, the actual gameplay is where ECHO stumbles some. Most of the gameplay involves searching around every square inch of each screen (which pans a full 360; this just adds to the fun/frustration) for small objects the game wants you to pick up. Some of these objects or clickable areas are very small and difficult to find; you can spend minutes finding a stick in the dark, which for obvious reasons is not very enjoyable. The game is very puzzle-driven, as most of the time you will be sorting, moving, or combining various elements found in the game’s world. You are not left totally in the dark in figuring out how to proceed in the puzzles, as a documentary database lists historically accurate methods of completing various tasks that enable themselves when appropriate. For example, assembly instructions for a spear will tell you which specific objects you need to collect in order to create said spear. While some of these tasks make perfect sense (building a fire, drawing a painting), the methods of completing these puzzles are not always readily apparent, which can result in confusing and wearisome gameplay. A lot of the time, most of the actions in the game will be locked until you retrieve all the needed objects and place them in the right order. If you click on the appropriate area, you will not be told what object you need to get to complete the puzzle, so getting stuck is a common problem. It would be nice if the game helped you along, offering advice such as “pick up some brown pigment” or “animate the painting.” All of the realistic puzzles go out the window when you start to encounter the fantasy elements in the game, and as a result, some of the solutions make no sense at all. Of course, I could just be stupid for not knowing how to reassemble broken tablets or to make slingshots to shoot down stalactites (duh!). I guess I’m just tired of playing adventure games with annoying puzzles that need not be so convoluted.

IN CLOSING
ECHO is a very short adventure game that harkens back to the days of point-and-click. The story just serves as a transition between puzzle elements, and the puzzles range from the easy to the infuriating. At least some of the solutions make sense, but we still have some answers that only the developers and a select few will successfully complete. Problem is, outside of the unique location, there isn’t much that ECHO improves upon that older adventure games haven’t already done. Credit is due for the music and distinctive locality, but overall, ECHO will probably only appeal to adventure gamers who need a quick fix of clicking some puzzles.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Battles in Italy Review

Battles in Italy PC, developed by Strategic Studies Group and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Excellent battle system, scenario editor, complex but easy to learn, good music
The Not So Good: Only three scenarios, primitive sound effects, not worth it for owners of Korsun Pocket or Battles in Normandy
What say you? The pinnacle of hex-based wargames: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Wargames. The word strikes fear in the empty souls of console gamers everywhere. But for us real, PC players, the many strategic layers found in wargames satisfy even the most hardcore grognard. Recently, wargames have been making a combat, being published by smaller publishers who can attract the more sophisticated gamer. A while ago, a very well done wargame by the name of Korsun Pocket debuted, developed by SSG, an Australian company. They have released two follow-ups to the game, using the same Decisive Battles game engine but set in different theaters of battle during World War II. Today, we’ll examine Battles in Italy.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Battles in Italy has about the best graphics you could expect for a top-down 2-D wargame. The interface is cluttered without being cumbersome, and the icons are clean and understandable. You will be playing the game from a zoomed-out map perspective, so don’t expect any unit details; everything in Battles in Italy is handled using unit cards (square representations of each unit). Battles in Italy has better graphics than most of its competition, but obviously pales in comparison to most contemporary PC games. The sound effects are essentially the same as in all the Decisive Battles games, and that is to say very basic. You’ll have a unit movement sound (marching for troops, vehicles for tanks), and a generic battle sound. This is all the variety to expect, as the sound effects are extremely unadorned. The music, however, is very well done. It fits the time period of the game well, and is a welcome background distraction while you make your moves. I actually missed hearing the music once I left the game, and that’s a sign of a good job in that department.

FEATURES
Battles in Italy features the three main operations of the Allied invasion of Italy: Avalanche, Husky, and Shingle. There are only three scenarios included in the game, but all three are very long and very large, and you can spend half an hour (or more, depending on your skill level) on a single turn. You can also get involved in the map and scenario editor that is included with the game. Since the game concerns itself with World War II, all of the scenarios pit the Allied forces (US, UK, and France) vs. the Axis forces (Germany and Italy). In this game, each country is treated as a separate player on the same side, so replacements, supply, and some combat cannot be shared by members of different countries on the same side. This realistic approach makes things more complex. Each game can be customized according to weather conditions, hidden units, supply, replacements, combat model, and handicaps between players. You can play the AI (on any number of skill levels), by e-mail, or even on the same computer in a hot seat mode. To learn the game, there are nine tutorials to play through, which are usually one sided-matches against the opponent that teaches you 3-5 game concepts. There is a manual with instructions on what to do in each tutorial in electronic format, but no in-game instructions.

OBJECTIVES
The object of Battles in Italy is to amass the most Victory Points. These are earned by occupying objective locations on the map and destroying enemy units. You will accomplish this by moving your units on a tactical map in a turn-based mode. During your turn, you can watch a replay of the previous turn, move units, engage in combat, move supplies around, reinforce units, and interdict the enemy.

UNIT ACTIONS
During each turn, every unit is given a certain number of operation points based on what type of unit it is. Every unit in the game can move, and do one additional action. These additional actions can include attacking other units, moving a couple of extra spaces, or blowing up bridges. This is a very nice facet of the combat model, as you don’t have to remember to save six movement points in order to attack, as the game won’t let you move too far until you spend your reserve action points. To assist in moving across the large maps (the largest is the entire country of Italy), you can utilize several methods of transport: truck, naval, and rail. This makes moving reinforcements easier, as you don’t have to spend weeks getting a troop down the country to the battle lines. Combat in the game is also very interested in how it is handled. For each battle, odds are calculated, using the terrain, number of attackers, and other aspects. During each turn, you are allocated special bonuses you can use to improve the odds, but only during one battle; once you use your air bombardment, it’s gone for the rest of the turn. Based on the advantage level of the attacker (which can run from 10:1 to 2:1), there are six results, corresponding to the six sides of a die, that can occur. These vary from nothing (a draw) to either the defender or attacker suffering losses (and usually both). These odds are very verbose in the game, and make it simple to access how successful an attack may be.

DEFENSE
Defense wins championships, and there are several ways of annoying the opposing army in Battles in Italy. First, you can provide interdiction by using airplanes, which will slow down the movement of any unit attempting to cross through that territory. This could also be used to slow down the retreat of a defeated foe. You can also lay minefields, construct strongpoints, and mess with bridges. There is a whole strategy in determining which bridges to keep open and which to destroy (this was the entire last act of Saving Private Ryan, after all). Engineers can destroy or repair bridges that connect the locations about the map. You can also entrench units to receive a defense bonus, and deploy small skirmish groups called detachments to slow down an advance.

ADDITIONAL GAME CONCEPTS
Supply is an important concept in Battles in Italy. Each turn, all of your units are resupplied, provided they are within range of a supply truck. The range is displayed graphically on the map by selecting a truck, and it is extended along roads, where it’s easier to supply troops. Essentially, you supply troops by making sure a supply truck covers all of the territory your troops occupy. If you get too zealous and invade too far past the supply unit, your troops will be in deep trouble. Other than this, you don’t need to worry about supply, as it’s handled automatically. One of the best features of the game is the combat advisor. This neat little tool figures out the odds of every possible battle that could take place on the map, and displays it in the appropriate locations. If you click on an odds location, the game will highlight which troops need to be moved in order to accomplish those favorable odds. This is very cool, and a tool greatly appreciated by newer wargamers. This way, you can access where the most success could be found, and commit your troops in that direction, instead of aimlessly moving troops around, without really knowing which way is the best for your side. When you engage in combat, you can deselect troops and save them for other battles. All of this information is wonderful in making the game easier to play.

IN CLOSING
Despite being a complex game, Battles in Italy tries it hardest to make it easy on the player. The micromanagement is kept at a minimum, and the combat advisor makes overall strategy a piece of cake. Although the graphics and sound effects are sub-par, most gamers interested in wargames will be able to look past those shortcomings and see the creamy center of gaming goodness. If you have never played a Decisive Battles games and are looking to play a turn-based strategy wargame, look no further than Battles in Italy: it is the best tactical wargame I have seen. However, if you are a proud owner of either Korsun Pocket or Battles in Normandy, hardly anything has changed in Battles in Italy other than the new scenarios, and I cannot see spending $50 on three scenarios, when you could design them yourself. Fifty big ones is on the high-end of PC game prices these days, but those interested in the games like Battles in Italy will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Battle Carry Preview

Battle Carry PC, developed and published by AFSL Games.
The Good: Seemingly realistic physics, location-specific damage
The Not So Good:Lightweight tanks, slow performance, spartan graphics

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I love independent developers. I think that they ensure the future of PC gaming, as fun, simple games can be created on miniscule budgets and released to the Internet. This brings us to Battle Carry, an arcade tank combat multiplayer game currently being developed by AFSL Games. They had previously worked on a mod for the second Serious Sam, and then turned their attention to tank mayhem. The game is currently in beta, and a demo is available for download. Let’s check it out!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics and sound in Battle Carry are frugal to say the least. The graphics show their independent roots, as the game world is rendered in a 3-D world of straight lines and a small amount of special effects. However, Battle Carry is not designed as a technology demo, so the graphics just serve as a way to show the action. Problem is, I have gotten fairly bad performance on my machine, even with these relatively low-quality graphics. This is probably due to the fact that they game is still in development, and hopefully the speed of the graphics will be improved in the future. There are a handful of good elements in the graphics, such as dirt and snow trails behind tanks and burning wreckage. The sounds are also very basic; there are no environmental effects that I found, just the sound of traveling tanks and the bass-induced rumble of shells being lobbed across the map.

ET AL.
Battle Carry is an arcade tank combat game. The object is to destroy the opposing team’s tanks using a variety of weapons. Each tank has its primary AT gun, and can pick up a secondary weapon from various locations on the map. Secondary weapons include rockets and the like. You can also pick up health (called armor in the game) along with the secondary weapons and ammo around the map. Battle Carry has an interesting mix of realistic and arcade elements. The tank damage models are accurate, as the most armor is in the front of the vehicle. Also, the best position to fire from is hull-down, a tactic used by real tank commanders to minimize the amount of exposed tank while still being able to engage the enemy. Battle Carry uses a lifelike physics model which takes some getting used to. All of the tanks have inertia, meaning they have weight when accelerating and braking that causes them to brake over long distances and shift forward and backwards. There are some liberties taken with these tanks, however. First, they seem to way no more than a golf cart; the tanks can get easily airborne and float in the air for a long period of time. This can get very frustrating when you are traveling at high speed and hit a bump, and go tumbling through the air. Secondly, the tanks can whip around entirely too quick. If you decelerate and turn at the same time, most of the tanks will spin out, and good players can time the move so that they end up facing the direction they intended. The tanks are intended to be controlled while coasting, and some of the models can travel almost across the entire map without applying the gas. You greatly increase your accuracy if you are traveling at a slow, constant speed, which is a very nice aspect of the game. Overall, the physics model in Battle Carry really takes some getting used to, and may not appeal to everyone.
In the released demo, there are two teams with two tanks on one map. Each tank handles slightly different, and each person should find a favorite. The game is pure deathmatch, with two opposing teams. You cannot tell how many players are on each team when you join, and there is no auto-balance option in the game, so you can have a 5 on 1 game and not really know it. It is also sometimes very difficult to tell who is on which team, as the colored nametags only appear when you are directly targeting another tank. All of the tanks look the same from a distance, so shadowing a tank is really the only way to see which team it’s on. There is also no mini-map in the game to tell where other tanks, friend or foe, or any of the powerups are currently located. This may be on purpose to make the game more strategic, however.
For the final release, the developers state that there will be a “total of eight secondary weapons” and “another couple of game play options” including “deathmatch, objective match,” and possible a tag team like game. Also, there will be two additional tanks, one more heavily armored and another smaller tanks that can handle more secondary weapons.

IN CLOSING
Battle Carry is an interesting game. It has a mix of arcade and realistic elements that may prove to strike a good balance for each type of gamer. Battle Carry is more tactical than Battlefield 2, but easier to handle than T-72. The game misses some features that comparable games have, but those are highly funded and in development for several years. I’m willing to forgive some of the shortcomings if Battle Carry proves to be fun. We’ll see how it turns out when the game is released.

Monday, August 22, 2005

T-72: Balkans on Fire Review

T-72: Balkans on Fire PC, developed by IDDK and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Variety of targets, dynamic environments, multi-job tanks, platoon command, realistic ballistics, thorough damage model
The Not So Good: Atrocious documentation, average graphics with high requirements, small number of missions, limited multiplayer
What say you? A very average tank simulation: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ever since nerds who didn’t want to become casualties got their hands on a computer, simulation games have been around. There have been a lot of technical sims on the PC, replicating everything from planes, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and trains. T-72: Balkans on Fire focuses on the tank warfare of the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s. In the game, you are given command of three playable tanks, and are ordered to drive around and blow stuff up.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
T-72 looks like it came from the period of computer gaming where simulations ruled, specifically during the time all those Jane’s games came out (along with about 50 games with the name "Panzer" in them). The graphics don’t have the modern polish that other games have, such as Battlefield 2, which also features tanks. The tanks and environments look much, much better in Battlefield 2, and actually run a lot smoother. I get about 10 frames per second better in Battlefield using medium-high settings than in T-72 using the lowest settings at the same resolution. Looks like some more optimization of the graphics engine was needed, eh? In another annoyance, the entire level must be reloaded all over again if you decide you want to retry a level. This process can take upwards of one minute. There are some good effects in the game, however. T-72 has day to night changes, dynamic weather, deformable terrain, and destroyable structures, something BF2 does not have. Still, why does it run so slow? In the sound department, you are given Russian-accented voices (since you’re playing a Russian squad, and, coincidentally, the game was developed by Russians) and basic tank noises, like the grinding of the tracks and firing of shells. There is also subdued background music that I never really noticed much.

FEATURES
T-72 ships with a single player campaign of 18 missions, where you play a Russian volunteer for Serbian forces to take on those evil Croatians (but I like their flag). To get you started, there are seven training missions. I guess this is a good place as any to say that the training missions and manual are woefully vague for this game. If you are a beginner to tank games, you’ll have an extremely difficult time trying to learn some of the aspects of commanding an armored vehicle. For instance, I’d like to know how to use the vertical scale, so that I can actually hit something. So, I take a look in the manual and it says to set the sight mark at the target and report the range. So far, so good. So, how do I incorporate the range into the vertical scale? The manual says, and I quote: “Fire.” Well, thanks! Maybe the training missions will inform me. Once you get to a place where you can fire on enemy positions, it says exactly the same thing: “Fire!” Why must people make things pointlessly difficult? By the way, you can also encounter the frustration over a LAN. T-72 features three controllable tanks: the T-72 (surprise!), T-55, and T-34. There are 13 vehicles that will serve as targets, ranging from jeeps to helicopters. Each tank has a comprehensive damage model: different locations in the tank have different armor, and the damage received depends on what systems are housed in the specific location that was hit. The developers have tried to stay true to a realistic simulation, but have made some concessions for improved gameplay, such as additional AA machineguns or thermal vision in tanks that don’t really have them. The website also states that a “powerful mission, map and structure editor [is] available.” Too bad the location of the editor(s) is not mentioned in the manual or in documentation on the disks. The tutorial on how to use the mission editor begins with: “open the mission editor.” I would if I knew where it was!

TANK OPERATIONS
Each tank has three main positions: driver, gunner, and commander. The driver is responsible for, uh, driving, and gunner fires the weapons, and the commander sights targets. Each of these areas appears to be fairly realistic in approach; for example, you have to shift gears as the driver. Since you can only control one position at a time, you must give orders to other members of the crew, such as “open fire” or “find hull-down position.” The AI will try their best to fulfill your orders, so they can be commended for that. Of course, the obsessive person in all of us will want to hop between positions during the game, and this is allowed: you’re not stuck being commander the entire round, unless you are playing a cooperative multiplayer mission and decided to do so, then it’s all your fault. You can also command attached units (infantry and armor) up to a full tank platoon in the same method. T-72 features realistic ballistics, which for some means bothersome ballistics, with wind effects and shell aerodynamics. As I mentioned earlier, the damage model in T-72 is quite complete: the game calculates detailed armor penetration results and individual system damage modeling including track damage, engine overheats, fuel leaks, turret jams, and crew casualties. There are so many ways to die!

ET AL. AND IN CLOSING
Despite all the realism, T-72 ends up being not that much fun. For every good thing the game has, there is something else that balances it out, resulting in an average attempt. I suppose that those with more experience in tank simulations might find more enjoyment in T-72, but novices will be left scratching their heads. T-72 needs much better documentation and tutorials for beginners and the graphics don’t look as well as they should for how slow the game runs. To extend the value of the game, it could use some more missions, or a quick mission generator, instead of the phantom mission editor. However, the dynamic environments are nice and AI commands works well most of the time. For me, it is a lot more fun to play tanks in other games (see BF2). I can go for a super technical sim (see Dangerous Waters), but T-72 is just not user-friendly enough for the majority of gamers.

Friday, August 19, 2005

AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder Review

AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder PC, developed and published by Divo Games.
The Good: Tons of weapons, constant action, cooperative play, tremendous graphics and effects, challenging
The Not So Good: Low replay value, repetitious for some
What say you? Innovative arsenal and fabulous graphics make for a satisfying vertical scrolling shooter: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Scrolling shooters have had a long and distinguished presence in PC gaming. Since the first computers were built that could handle the graphical load, action-packed scrolling shooters have delivered non-stop thrills for fans of the genre. I can remember playing Apogee’s Raptor back in the early days of shareware, and have a special place in my heart for arcade games that feature blowing lots of stuff up.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder features very good graphics for a top-down perspective. All of the units in the game are detailed, and there are some high-quality lighting effects when enemies explode or weapons are fired. The game does feature 3-D models of all the units in the game, as you can see them from various viewpoints while turning. There are some very satisfying moments when the screen fills with the destroyed metal of opposing foes. I can’t see scrolling games getting much more detailed than AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder. The sounds are very basic, as you would expect: sounds of weapon fire and military-themed background music are found within the game. The sound in AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder doesn’t add nor subtract from the gameplay.

ET AL.
AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder features 24 operations (or missions) to play through, each of which needs to be unlocked by completing the previous mission. You are given two goals in the game: survive, and shoot as much as possible to increase your score. Your helicopter is equipped with three weapons: a primary gun, cannon, or laser with infinite ammunition, secondary missiles of various varieties (small, heat-seeking), and wonderful power-ups, with are very powerful low-use weapons that can level everything in your path. Using the power-ups can bring a smile across your face, as the seemingly daunting task of eliminating tens of enemies at once can be reduced to rubble. The game features five difficulty levels, and the game can become quite a challenge on even the moderate settings. You are given a set number of lives per mission (usually three to four), and respawn at the same location with the same score assuming you have at least one life left. As you progress through the game, you are given access to different helicopters that trade more speed for less armor. If you find that you can’t beat the game alone, cooperative play on the same computer is available. You can set up two separate control sets for each player, and rack up the points together. An interesting sidenote to the cooperative play is that you can run into your partner and move them (rubbin’s racin’), so some coordination is needed. Since you can use the mouse (which is very nice, by the way) and the keyboard to play, you can set up cooperative play and still have some room to maneuver. It may seem like on the surface that the gameplay is fairly straightforward, as you basically need to hold down the fire button and dodge the incoming rounds. Some strategy is found in AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder, however, as you are limited in the number of missiles and power-ups you can receive, and not all bonuses that spring up on the map can be picked up at once. This makes saving your more powerful weapons for the more powerful enemies important.

IN CLOSING
Overall, I really liked AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder. At first, I sarcastically thought, “Great, another helicopter shooter.” But after I started playing, the advantages of this game over others became apparent. The graphics were nice, but the variety of weapons not really seen in other games works to the game’s credit. Cooperative play is handled very well, and giving the option to control the game with the mouse is an added bonus. AirStrike II: Gulf Thunder is a very fun arcade scrolling shooter, and is recommended to anyone who is interested in this type of game. The only possible features that are missing are on-line cooperative play and a map editor, but those are easily forgotten as you have too much fun blowing stuff up in the desert.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 Review

The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 PC, developed by Mad Minute Games and published by Activision Value.
The Good: Complete representation of Bull Run, fantastic AI, realistic unit control, accurate sound effects
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics with long load times, no multiplayer, alarmingly long name
What say you? An excellent command-level Civil War strategy game at a budget price: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Real-time strategy games have always revolved around war. Whether it’s World War II, futuristic locations, or fictitious fantasy settings, most locations and time periods have been covered by the RTS genre. One period of history that has been neglected for quite a long time is the American Civil War. The last well-known game that covered this time period was Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (which came out in 1997, for goodness sakes). Thankfully, we have a new game with an extremely long name: The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. All those colons! Just a note to developers and publishers: enough with subtitle after subtitle. If another game has the same name, come up with a better one. I fondly remember the days when games had one name (Warcraft) instead of at minimum a main title and subtitle. Nevertheless, I still will refer to this game using the same, non-abbreviated title throughout the entire review. Cut and paste is wonderful fun! Anyway, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 lets you be the commander (Take Command) of troops (Civil War) during the Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Bull Run) in 1861 (1861) as seen on The History Channel (The History Channel).

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 are optimized for having a lot of units on the screen at once, which is one way of saying they look pretty bad up close. In fact, they look quite similar to the graphics found in Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, although at higher resolution. Zoomed far out, however, and they don’t look too terrible. Strangely, even with the relatively low-quality graphics, load time are extremely long, on-par with Battlefield 2. The units themselves have some good animations, although there is not much variety in each subset. The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 does have some good sound effects. The ambient noise is very well done; it reminds me of many a camping trip during the summer months with the various insects buzzing around you. No doubt the developers went out with a microphone and recorded some real outdoor sounds, which not many games do. During the battles themselves, the sound turns into a cacophony of firing guns and passionate screams, as you would expect. I feel that this game (The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861) does a very good job in delivering a realistic sound environment, especially when so many other games include sound as an afterthought.

GAME MODES
The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 simulates the Battle of Bull Run (shocking!). There are several ways of playing the game, and they are:
1st Bull Run
You can play the entire battle as a number of historically important military leaders. There are three levels of command found in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861: brigade, division, and army. Each successive level is responsible for controlling more men. If you’re interested in controlling fewer men, the brigade modes include a tutorial in both infantry and artillery, and the ability of controlling CSA’s Evans or (Stonewall) Jackson and USA’s Burnside or Sherman. Division-level control includes yet another tutorial, and Beauregard, Longstreet, Hunter, and Tyler. Army-level control includes Beauregard or McDowell.
Custom Scenario
If you want to expand the available commanders, custom scenarios are available. Here, you can choose whoever you want and control their troops for the entire battle, from the entire army to one brigade.
Open Play
Open Play is similar to a custom scenario, but you can change the battlefield, the size of battle, the length, and even have the game choose a random leader for you. Sadly, there is no multiplayer in The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. I could see some awesome battles if, say, eight players per side each controlled one brigade. Maybe next time.

UNIT ATTRIBUTES AND COMMANDS
As the commander, you are responsible for controlling your men by issuing orders. You are provided with information about their characteristics: quality, strength, morale, fatigue, grade (how good the unit is) and current terrain location. The morale can be improved by being positioned near their commander, and units fatigue if they are pressed into marching over long distances. The main crux of the game is issuing orders to your troops. This is fairly easy to do, and The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 does a very good job in organizing your men so the game doesn’t devolve into a mass of humanity. The easiest way of issuing orders to your entire brigade is to select the leader (you), double click on a destination, and then select a formation. Your troops then will automatically be given appropriate destinations around you depending on the formation you chose. You can also instruct them to use available roads to expedite their travel. There are several formations you can arrange your troops in: battle line (ready to fight), double line (to boost morale), and column (for movement). You can also instruct individual battalions to run, which fatigues them quickly, but may be needed if you’re currently being flanked. It is important in this style of fighting to make sure our troops are facing the correct way, and this can be done by wheeling left or right. A very convenient addition to the game is that your troops will automatically wheel during combat to face the enemy they are current engaging. This takes out a whole bunch of unneeded micromanagement, and is one of the highlights of the game. During the time they are engaged, they can be order to advance or fall back while firing, charge, or retreat. You can also resupply your troops if they are in need of ammo and near an ammo wagon. It is also possible to set the general behavior of your troops, and how close the enemy must come in order for them to engage.

ET AL.
There are different types of terrain that your units will encounter, each with their own traits. For instance, grass has moderate movement speed, but makes troops vulnerable to fire. Conversely, forests provide good cover, but hinder advancement. Realistic line of sight is simulated, and having an elevation advantage results in a bonus given to your troops. During each scenario, you will be issued orders from your superiors, either to hold a specific location (objective) or move to a place on the map. A courier on horseback, whom takes some time to arrive, delivers these orders. Sometimes the game can drag along, especially if you are being held in reserve or scouting an area with no enemy units. You can accelerate time, but only if there is no fighting in your vicinity, and the current level of time acceleration is not displayed on the screen. The main objective of battle is to flank the enemy. Attacking from the side reduces the morale of your enemy, and can also result in high losses. You can capture artillery and individual units that are unable to retreat. Overall, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 features some realistic yet exciting strategy in a genuine setting.

IN CLOSING
I was fairly impressed by The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. This game does not skimp on the features, allowing you to control every single battalion that was engaged in the Civil War’s first real battle. Some of the aspects of the game are designed to make playing the game easier, such as wonderful and pleasingly difficult AI, units that actually stay in formation, and an easy to use interface. The tutorials serve as a good introduction to the game, and the on-disk manual can fit any gaps. Although the graphics are sketchy and cause long load times, the sound is quite well done, and the overall game is of high quality. Oh, did I mention this game is $20? At that price, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 is definitely worth the money. There’s a better strategic simulation here than most games twice the price. If you are interested in strategy games, the Civil War, or both, The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861 is a excellent choice. Just make sure you ask for it by name.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Darwinia Review

Darwinia PC, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Interesting and original, clever graphical design
The Not So Good: Very short, mouse gesture system can be unwieldy, a little repetitious
What say you? A very short but very unique puzzle game with a great theme: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the advance of computing technology, some people have increased their concern about artificial intelligence and what impacts it may make in the future. Most of these forecasts predict a bleak future where mankind will be ultimately destroyed by the technology it created (see The Terminator, The Matrix, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure). But what if AI was helpful and friendly, and slowly being destroyed by evil computer viruses bent on destruction? That is the premise of Darwinia. As a person who hacked into the virtual Darwinia universe, you are charged with helping the AI inhabitants and defeating the virus threat. Are you up to the task?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Darwinia derives its graphics from the early days of 3-D graphics. The landscapes in Darwinia look like late 80s vertex landscapes, covered in amber hues of color. The environments really fit the overall scheme of the game well, and also look very original. Everything in the game is pixilated, from the old-school font to the units you will be in charge of. Even though the resolution of various units may be low, the game does not suffer from a cumbersome presentation. The sound in Darwinia is a collection of computer beeps and effects, which also goes with the theme of the game.

UNITS AND BUILDINGS
The inhabitants of Darwinia are Darwinians, which are green stick figures that are created at a spawn point or an incubator. They have a mind of their own (they are AI, by the way), but can be directed by officers to perform specific tasks you need. Darwinians can be upgraded to carry weapons. The officers are promoted Darwinians that issue commands to other Darwinians. The basic military unit is the squad, which has three members equipped with lasers and various secondary weapons. If squads are upgraded with research, they are composed of more members, which means they can attack more often and collectively have more health. The engineer unit takes over control towers, which are attached to buildings. They can also harvest souls to produce more Darwinians. Armour (yeah, British) units carry Darwinians and can transform into a stationary Battle Cannon. These are created at a friendly Truck Port (essentially a warp gate between maps). Each unit is a program, and you can only have a certain number of programs running at once (between 3 and 5, depending on the number of upgrades), so strategic decisions on which programs to run is key.
As I stated earlier, each control tower is attached to another building, and can be captured by engineers. Control towers are the only locations that squads can be created, and since it takes time to travel across the map (and squads cannot cross water), you need to capture forward bases. Radar dishes can be connected to send squads (and other units) across bodies of water. Incubators create new Darwinians from harvested souls. Trunk Ports are where armour units are created, and are usually the main objectives of each map.

GAMEPLAY MECHANICS
Each unit in Darwinia has a soul, including the enemy viruses. Thus, defeating enemy units will result in you having more Darwinians to play with. They must be harvested by engineers and taken to an incubator. Because of this, it’s usually a good idea to take control of an incubator early on; most levels are designed where you must harvest additional souls to win. Creating all of the programs in the same is done by using mouse gestures. As an Opera user, I am used to using mouse gestures, and a similar system was seen in Black & White. The mouse gestures are easy to perform, but they’re really a gimmick. A single key press could have performed the same actions. To execute a program, you must hold down alternate while performing the command. To stop a program, you have to hold down alternate and press control-C. The system means the screen isn’t cluttered with menus, but performing tasks could have been easier. Preventing you from completing each level are various viruses, in the form of centipedes, spiders, and army ants, to name a few. Each behaves in a slightly different fashion, and require different tactics to defeat. Research is automatically conducted by capturing control towers; all you have to do is select which category to apply the upgrades to.

ET AL.
Darwinia really plays like a platformer or puzzle game. Each game consists of producing units through mouse gestures, some action elements by manually controlling squads, and ordering engineers and officers around. Each map has primary and secondary objectives; objectives may include taking control of trunk ports, destroying certain enemies, or producing units. Darwinia has only ten levels in the entire game. Even though some levels may take a couple of hours to complete, the game goes by quickly, and there’s not much replay value in each of the levels. Most of the levels are essentially the same thing, although you are introduced to new weapons and upgrades as the game progresses. Once you beat the game, you are rewarded with a mod and map editor.

IN CLOSING
Darwinia is an original idea for a game. The overall design is great, really immersing you in the setting. The game plays like an action puzzle, requiring you to shoot enemy units and figure out each map. It’s an interesting mix, albeit somewhat repetitious. Darwinia is awfully short, and since the maps are the same each time, there really isn’t any reason to play the game again, unless you employ the map editor. There is a demo available for the game, so you can evaluate the game yourself. Those people interested in an original action/puzzle game should be satisfied by the residents of Darwinia.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Crown of Glory: Europe in the Age of Napoleon Review

Crown of Glory: Europe in the Age of Napoleon PC, developed by Western Civilization Software and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Detailed, empire-builder and military sim, both quick and detailed combat available
The Not So Good: Old graphics, slow pace, somewhat unmanageable
What say you? A combination of classic wargame and empire management that doesn’t have enough elegance: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In general, there are two types of wargames for the turn-based aficionado: managing a world empire, or conducting small-scale, strategic battles. There have been eminent games in both genres (Paradox’s Europa Universalis and SSG’s Korsun Pocket, respectively) against which all others are judged. Crown of Glory attempts to combine the best of both worlds, combining those two elements in a game set during Napoleon’s quest of Europe.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Crown of Glory is standard for wargames, which means primitive and mundane. The strategic map tries to be an artful rendition of Europe, but ends up being of lower quality (and somewhat more confusing) than comparable offerings, such as Europa/Hearts of Iron. The detailed combat screen is a plain 2-D hex map with some features such as cities, rivers, and the like. Again, Crown of Glory won’t wow you with graphical glory. It is strange, therefore, to see Crown of Glory really chugging on a computer that can handle Battlefield 2 on medium-high settings. I’m not sure what all the CPU cycles and RAM are going towards, but the game sure is lethargic. The background music is appropriate for the time period of the game, and the sound in the game is the most very bare collection of guns firing and horses galloping.

GAME MODES
The game consists of playing several different scenarios, all of which start in a different year and have slightly altered starting conditions. You can choose to play as one of eight countries (France, Britain, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Spain), although there are smaller countries that can be taken over…BY FORCE. Most will play against the AI in a local game, but you can also play remote games over a LAN or a known IP (no browser or game finder) or using play-by-e-mail (PBEM). The object of the game is to try to get the most glory, by winning battles, conquering countries, having high morale or culture, or making alliances. For each game, you can set the overall difficulty (though some is inherit in which country you pick), the game length, and the amount of glory required to win. Each turn during the game takes place in two phases. During Order Phase, can move troops, send diplomats, and deal with provinces. Afterwards, units are moved in increments, and battles are fought.

PROVINCES
The game map is divided into provinces, each with specific properties. Each province is a source of resources of varying quantities. Men for your fighting armies are recruited from each province, and you collect the resources you need to produce weapons and maintain a happy population. Each province has a forage size, which is the maximum army size it can support without additional supply units. You can increase the forage value of a province by building a supply depot in a newly acquired territory. There are nine areas of development in each province, and choosing to upgrade each particular area provides different bonuses. Guns and walls protect cities during sieges, roads increase the maximum population and faster travel, barracks build better units, banks increase monetary output, culture keeps your population happy, farms increase food production, factories produce artillery and labor production, courts produce diplomats, and docks build better ships. Each province also has an attitude toward different countries and trade routes that can be displayed in the main map.

ADVISORS
There are four main areas of controlling your country, each of which is controllable through the use of your advisors. You can choose any of these advisors to be completely controlled by the AI, so you can concentrate on other areas. Your economic advisor controls tax rate, federal dues (from nobility), welfare rate, military readiness, draft age, trade, and borrowing money. The development advisor is responsible for labor allocation to produce developments, military units, wood, iron, textiles, agriculture, and luxuries. The military advisor is where you can control and organize all your loyal troops. The diplomatic advisor maintains relations with foreign countries, forging treaties on your way to becoming an empire to be reckoned with.

UNITS AND COMBAT
Men are initially organized into divisions, which can be arranged into corps and armies. Leaders can be assigned to groups, and new commanders may be promoted after large victories. When armies collide, there are two methods of combat available to you: quick and detailed. In quick combat, units are placed on a checkerboard in either charge, attack, defend, or routed positions, and then engage in battle. It’s a simple method that works much more quickly than detailed combat. If you choose the latter, you get hex-based movement of armies with formations. Each are given a set of movement points per unit each turn, which they can use to move, change facing, or attack. You need to move the units around so they can maintain line of sight and keep supplied.

ET AL. AND IN CLOSING
Crown of Glory has some good ideas, but just lacks execution. During the whole time that I played the game, I didn’t really experience any awesome moments. The battles, especially using detailed mode, are extremely drawn out: you can take up to two hours completing one battle. Considering each game turn may consists of several battles, that’s just too much time to require. Plus, you can’t even save the battles in the middle. Do we not have things to do? Crown of Glory have a lot of detail in its mechanics, but just because there’s more doesn’t mean it’s better. The game doesn’t feel as complete as Rome Total War, Paradox’s games, or Korsun Pocket, even though it borrows the conventions from them. The polish is overall fun feeling is missing from Crown of Glory, resulting in a game that had potential, but fails to fully deliver.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Dangerous Waters Review

Dangerous Waters PC, developed by Sonalysts Combat Simulations and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Insanely comprehensive, AI can control most ship operations, great manual, several platforms to control
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, boring to those not interested in technical command and operations
What say you? An ultra-realistic simulation of modern naval warfare: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ve had a long history with military simulations. One of the first games I got was F-15 Strike Eagle III (yeah, baby), and I played the mess out of it. Some of my favorite military games of the past carried the Jane’s name: 688(I) Hunter/Killer, F/A-18, and Fleet Command. So, as you can imagine, I was very pleased to find out that the developers behind Fleet Command were delivering an updated version of the game, Dangerous Waters. Most of the Jane’s series of games were uber-realistic and not for the n00b. Will Dangerous Waters satisfy my need for hardcore, sweaty naval action?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Dangerous Waters look eerily reminiscent of Fleet Command (who would have thought?). First, there is a 3-D view of the game world, with ships and waves and such. The system requirements are not very high, as I was able to crank up the settings to the maximum and still hold a respectable 60 FPS (Athlon XP 1500, Radeon 9550). Each of the platforms (that’s what the cool kids call the ships and planes) has realistic (I am assuming) panels for each position on the ship/plane/helicopter. There is also a 2-D map representation of all the contacts you have found. The graphics in Dangerous Waters are satisfying and above most technical military simulations.

FEATURES
Dangerous Waters has 25 single missions and a campaign of 11 missions. In addition, there is a mission editor, and I was able to download 34 more missions. Each of the missions are the same each time (each enemy spawns in the same location), although you may be permitted to play the mission with a different platform. Dangerous Waters features seven different controllable platforms: Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7) class surface ship, MH-60R helicopter, P-3C Orion aircraft, and four submarines: Kilo, Akula, Seawolf, and 688(i). Multiplayer is available, but you need to use a third-party application for matchmaking purposes. Since Dangerous Waters is an involved game, it comes with an involved manual. The manual is one of the highlights of the game, 550 pages of easy-to-read instructions on every platform in the game. After reading through it, I understood almost everything to do with the game. Sometimes, it’s hard to convey easy-to-understand instructions to others (I know, I’m a teacher), so the manual writer(s) need to be commended. I strongly suggest that if you plan on being serious with this game, spend the extra $10 to get the printed manual.

FINDING THE ENEMY
The first step of Dangerous Waters, and what you’ll primarily be doing most of the game, is finding and classifying contacts. This can be done through a variety of methods.
Navigation
The navigation map shows the locations of ships and other objects, and also houses the 3-D display. If all the other stations are on autocrew, you can run the game from this screen, issuing orders with the click of the mouse. You can do a lot from this screen, such as classifying contacts or ordering attacks.
Acoustic
You can drop sonobuoys into the water, which can detect the presence of water-bound platforms and relay the information back to you. First, you can deploy passive VLAD buoys, then DIFAR to narrow the signals, and finally DICASS set to active mode to pinpoint the location of the enemy. Having a sonobuoy in active mode is a definite advantage, since putting your submarine on active sonar will mean a quick detection. Sonobuoys find enemies through triangulation, just like a GPS receiver.
Sonar
Your submarine or ship is equipped with several forms of sonar, found in the hull, sides of the ship, or towed a distance behind. When you use sonar, it is strongly suggested that you use passive (receive only) sonar as much as possible, and use only active sonar if you’re in imminent danger of being blown up. Active sonar can easily be traced back to your sub, and your location will quickly be discovered. There are several methods of processing the sonar data. Broadband filtering can be used to detect and track contact, while narrowband filtering is used to identify and classify contacts (as a geophysicist, I painfully know all about bandpass filters). DEMON sonar classifies contacts according to propeller speed and the number of fans. Active sonar is a last resort, active intercept informs you when others are using active sonar, and sound speed profile (SSP) can determine depths of thermal layers, which can be used to evade the enemy.
Radar
Radar is used to find air platforms, and is the same as active sonar, meaning bad.
Electronic warfare
Electronic warfare is used to detect and classify contacts when you’re at periscope depth.
Periscope
And, of course, you could always just look for them.

TRACKING THE ENEMY
The next step is determining where the enemy will be in the future, so that you can send a torpedo to greet them. This is done through TMA, which stands for TNA. Essentially, you play connect the dots to find a contact’s bearing and speed. Every two minutes, a line is drawn from your ship to the enemy, indicating the bearing to the other ship. After enough lines are drawn, you can connect the lines with a ruler: the spacing of the lines indicates the speed, and the orientation of the ruler indicates the course. Changing the speed and direction of your ship will help eliminate possible solutions hopefully down to one. Once you have a good solution to the speed and course of the enemy ship, you can send it to the fire control room.

DESTROYING THE ENEMY
Firing weapons in Dangerous Waters is fairly simple (at least comparatively speaking). Assuming you have a good solution from the TMA guy, you essentially pick the target and click some buttons to fire the torpedo. In most subs, this entails flooding the tube, equalizing the pressure, opening the muzzle door, and firing. You really need to make sure you have a good TMA for the object you intend firing upon, because on realistic settings, reloading a torpedo tube can take anywhere from 6 to 30 minutes, depending on which platform you’re talking about. Since the game can be played in real-time (or accelerated up to 16x), this is a long time. So make it count! Additionally, if surfaced, you can engage foes with a machine gun or surface to air missile, intended for those pesky planes (think they’re so big, flying around like that). Launching SAMs is just like Battlefield 2: find your target, lock on, and launch.

ET AL.
Dangerous Waters has a very realistic, slow, and deliberate pace. Actions in this game are measured in minutes, not seconds. You can spend up to an hour (or real time) following a single contact. This may appeal to some people, but those with itchy trigger fingers should look elsewhere. The game can be frustrating, as being destroyed by a torpedo from a ship you didn’t know existed isn’t fun. But, it can also be rewarding, as finding a contact, tracking it, and destroying it successfully is very gratifying.

IN CLOSING
Dangerous Waters is not an arcade game. It is a serious simulation for serious people serious about getting serious. If you want to pull the trigger and launch torpedo after torpedo into the sides of opposing ships in an action packed game, Dangerous Waters is not for you. If you want to experience the tension of searching the dark water for hidden enemies, then this is a great experience. Personally, I’ve been looking for a game like this, a really technical game that I can sink my nerdy little teeth into. A complex and rewarding modern naval simulation, Dangerous Waters is worthwhile for those gamers looking for a accurate gaming encounter.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Inago Rage Review

Inago Rage PC, developed and published by Dejobaan Games.
The Good: Easy to learn, lots of levels, map editor, can be challenging
The Not So Good: Not the sharpest AI, nothing new brought to the table
What say you? An average shooter with some nice special effects: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Inago Rage is a first person shooter that takes place in a space-type environment with gravity and geometric enemies. The goal of the game is to accumulate a number of points before time expires, by shooting enemies or collecting jewels. The game is kind of a throwback to the early days of 3-D shooters, with simple but elegant graphics and easy to learn controls.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Inago Rage bear some mention, because they are by far the most original aspect of the game. The small arenas are a collection of platforms and enemies, each rendered in a sci-fi theme, mainly metal and neon. Each of the enemies and other objects are rendered in bright colors that hold definition against the dark of space. Inago Rage has a definite mood and theme they are trying to accomplish in the game, and it works well. The sound in the game only serves to enhance the atmosphere, providing basic effects and techno background music.

ET AL.
Inago Rage features 50 different levels to complete. The controls are very simple to learn, as there is only one type of run with no reload, and jumping is accomplished by using rockets, much like the Tribes series. All of the levels are very small, and can take seconds to fly or walk from one side to the other. This may actually work to the benefit of the game, as there is no place to run and hide if the action becomes too intense. The game has 31 different types of enemies that you will encounter, each some kind of geometric shape or other strange creation of light. You can have over 100 enemies in the level at one time, so the game can get hectic. You are penalized for falling off the map with a time penalty, not dying and having to restart the level from scratch. Each of the levels is tied together by a graphic novel story: real pictures with bubbled text. These don’t really matter to the gameplay, and their addition is neutral to the overall experience. While you encounter the enemies, there are several powerups available on the map, such as the ability to slow time or gain some health if you’ve been hit. There is also a map editor so that you can create your own levels to play with. Overall, Inago Rage ends up being an average game. There were no moments in the game where is was impressed with any particular feature, just a sense of general delight at the sci-fi graphics. The AI is not really a challenge unless massed, as they wander slowly towards you. Since most don’t shoot, they must come into contact with you to do any damage, so the tactics the AI can use are reduced. It’s a simple shooter with some nice peripherals, but that’s all.

IN CLOSING
Inago Rage is a strange game to review: it’s not a bad game, it just doesn’t really offer much new material to the already jam-packed shooter genre. The graphics are definitely a signature of the game, but the gameplay itself is a little too repetitious to make the game otherwise stand out. This is a straight-up single player game, so if you’re in to older, simpler shooters without obscene system requirements, you might want to check out Inago Rage.

Monday, August 08, 2005

War World Review

War World PC, developed and published by Third Wave Games.
The Good: Variety of weapons with custom loadouts leads to many different strategies, good AI, good graphics
The Not So Good: Only deathmatch, multiplayer browser isn’t the best, only a few small maps
What say you? A good mech shooter that is a couple of additional features from being great: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There is a slightly significant section of the population that desires to live in the future. This can be seen by the wealth of entertainment (TV, movies, computer games) that takes place in the future, with advanced technologies and sexy story lines (like the awkward tension between Spock and Bones…you know what I’m talking about). One area that has gotten fair coverage is battle mechs. There are several series of games, such as MechCommander, MechWarrior, and the whole BattleTech deal, that tells the tales of huge, bulky contraptions that do battle in far away locations. War World is another entrant into the mech universe. How will it fare?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in War World are pretty good; I would say they are between Unreal Tournament 2003 and 2004 (more comparisons between War World and UT will crop up later, and that’s a good thing) in terms of quality. There aren’t any nice shiny surface for light to reflect off, but the mechs and environments are detailed, along with some spectacular effects for the more powerful weapons. The maps in War World don’t try to stray from the closed arena feel, so they are not going to real-life accuracy like Battlefield 2, but the included features do their job in relaying a convincing set of environments. The sound is nothing too impressive, just the clunking of robot feet and sounds of guns being fired. I did not notice any background sounds, but the music fits the theme of the game well.

GAME MODES
There are three game modes in War World. First, there is a single player campaign with over 100 missions, although these are just linked custom games with AI opponents. No story lines here, but you do get prize money for winning a round, so you can spend it on upgrades later. Custom games against the AI can be customized fully. You can choose the enemy body type and loadout, such as infantry, sniper, and gunner. The enemy IQ can also be changed, and matches can take place over seven maps. Since you can customize the level of the AI and there are no imposed restrictions on your loadout, you can pit a top of the line mech against ten low quality mechs and duke it out. Sometimes, remembering what level the enemy will be at is difficult, so you may have matches that are too easy or too hard. There is also multiplayer play over the Internet. There is an in-game browser, but sometimes it is difficult to find a game that will work. I’m guessing that pings are too high, but the game doesn’t really give any indication of what the problem is other than a general “connection isn’t possible” warning. Multiplayer games take place on the same seven maps as the custom games, and can support up to eight players. You can select the round to end at a certain amount of frags or after a certain time, and also restrict the amount of credits available to pimp your ride. Sadly, there is only deathmatch available in War World. I really would have liked to have seen some Battlefield 2 or Unreal Tournament-style games here, such as Capture the Flag, Bombing Run, Onslaught/Conquest, Domination, Assault, or even Team Deathmatch.

CUSTOM MECHS
One of the hallmarks of mech games is the ability to customize your mech, and War World is no different. First, you can select from three types of armor: light, medium, and heavy. Picking larger mechs results in having more armor and ammunition, but less jump height and lower running speed. For each hand, you have a selection of nine miniguns and nine lasers, each with increasing prices and firing ability. In something I am impressed in, you can strap thrusters onto your mech, which can cause you to jump, sprint, or strafe higher/faster. Since you can only pick one of these choices, different players will decide depending on their specific play style. You can also mount missile launchers, mortars (my favorite), or mine launchers on your mech. Having a restriction in funds leads to some interesting decisions on what to pick and what not. Your success is therefore not just dependent on your trigger finger, but also on how well you match up against your opponents and if you can exploit their weaknesses.

ET AL.
War World takes a very tactical approach to first person shooting. Because ammo does not regenerate and ammo is eaten very quickly, you must be accurate with shots. Commonly in Unreal Tournament, the game turns into a hail of bullets where people hold down the trigger, because ammunition is readily available. In War World, once it’s picked up, it’s gone forever until the round finishes. This eliminates the advantage spammers have that constantly shoot with no respect for tactics. Also, you can only get health from defeating mechs, so engaging in combat is the only way you can reheal yourself. Of course, anyone can pick up the health from a fallen foe, so you could swoop down and heal before the rightful owner can arrive, really pissing some people off. The variety of weapons gives many different strategies, and supports play by all kinds of players: snipers have their lasers, long-range support have their mortars, and so forth. You can pick the setup that’s right for you, but unlike some other games, you can mix the best attributes, not just be restricted to arbitrary classes. I like to think of War World as a more tactical version of Unreal Tournament, where careful planning and careful aiming take precedence over reaction time and twitchy gameplay.

IN CLOSING
War World is a tactical shooter with mechs. The amount of customization is a definite draw, along with the overall style of gameplay. Thinkers are rewarded here, rather than 12 year olds with good reflexes. The only thing missing from War World is the addition of more gameplay modes, like those found in Unreal Tournament. That would flesh out the game even more and add some bonus content and replay value. If you like your mechs with a side of strategy, you might want to check out War World.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Lugaru Review

Lugaru PC, developed and published by Wolfire Software.
The Good: Simple controls, action-packed combat, fighting rabbits
The Not So Good: Simple controls, rudimentary graphics, no multiplayer, short
What say you? Fighting fun, with rabbits! 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There really aren’t many fighting games for the PC. So when one comes along, it’s nice to see it is not a port or derivative of a console title. Lugaru (pronounced “Rabbit gonna kick yo ass”) is a very interesting third-person action game telling the tale of Turner, a large rabbit who is on a trail of revenge and blood. With fighting rabbits, how could you go wrong?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics exemplify the limitations of independent developers with inadequate budgets. The animal models have low polygon count, but do have some detailed texturing, complete with facial expressions. Some of the effects are quite nice, however, with flying teeth and dripping blood. The level design is as simplistic as it gets. A bare hilly landscape with flat hills is punctuated with trees (all the same type) and rocks. The levels just serve as an area where the fighting can take place, but more detailed or more realistic forest environments would be appreciated. Some night levels are really dark, and there are no gamma corrections in the game. There were times I couldn’t see much of anything. The game does have a Matrix-style blur slowdown when you deliver a finishing blow on an opponent, which is a nice touch. The sound effects are fairly well done, with convincing impact sounds when fist meets face. The background music is very reminiscent of the movie Memento. The Japanese-inspired music when engaged in battles almost never gets old.

FEATURES
Lugaru features two main types of single player action: a story driven campaign of linked levels, and single challenges. Really, the only difference between the two is that you talk to people in the campaign; both involve defeating a certain number of enemies on a map. The story in the campaign mode isn’t Pulitzer quality material, but it doesn’t need to be: it’s a classic tale of rabbit revenge, like Peter Cottontail with knives. I was very disappointed to find that there is no multiplayer in Lugaru. The thought of eight rabbits sparring online in a giant royal rumble makes me excited, gassy, and a little light-headed. Man, that would be cool.

FIGHTING MODEL
Lugaru has a very simple combat system, which appeals to some, but may reduce the strategies available for fighting veterans. Essentially, there is one attack button, and the type of attack depends on whether you are standing still, running, jumping, or crouching, or some combination. There are also one button counters: just press the crouch key when someone attacks you and it’s automatically reversed, giving you the upper hand. Lugaru not only involves hand-to-hand combat, but also several types of weapons: knives, swords, and that thing Donatello uses. Once you deliver your punches, slightly over-the-top rag doll physics rear their head, making the characters fly backwards and slide down hills to the delight of the player. You can also receive bonuses for pulling special moves, such as sneaking up behind an enemy and slitting their throat. Lugaru features fast combat, where most one on one encounter won’t last more than 15 seconds against lesser foes. This is part of the reason why the game seems so short; you can plow through the levels, assuming you can overcome the difficulty of the game.

ET AL.
To play well in Lugaru, you need to time your attacks and counters. One of the inherent difficulties in a game like this is that the AI can cheat. A lot. Since the game knows when you’re pressing in key, the AI could theoretically reverse every attack you make. The AI in Lugaru doesn’t go this far, but the game can get extremely difficult. You need to vary your attacks; if you throw down four sweep kicks in a row, expect the last couple to be blocked by the computer opponents. This is needed in Lugaru, since some attacks are hard to anticipate and difficult to counter. Plus, some attacks are much more powerful than others, but you can’t rely on these all the time, or you’ll eventually lose. Taking on more than one AI opponent at once amplifies the difficulty greatly. The AI will double team you: for example, one opponent will knock you to the ground while the second stabs you while you’re down. Enemies are more susceptible to powerful attacks after being wounded, and stabbed foes may actually bleed to death. If you throw a knife at powerful rivals, they can pull the knife out and then use it against you, like some invincible character in an action movie.

IN CLOSING
A one-man team developed Lugaru, and it shows in some places. The maps are very simple, the game is short, and there is no multiplayer. However, Lugaru is pretty fun to play, especially because of the dearth of non-RPG fighters on the PC. What can I say; I have a soft spot for pugilistic bunnies. The simple combat model will probably divide users on this game, and your placement on the fence will depend on whether you like memorizing seven button combinations, or easy to play fast action. Lugaru is certainly a breath of fresh…hare. Get it? I’m freakin’ hilarious!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Deadhunt Review

Deadhunt PC, developed and published by Rel Games.
The Good: Action packed, cool weapons, nifty bonuses
The Not So Good: No AI, few environments, repetitious gameplay
What say you? An inferior Serious Sam clone: 4/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In that case, the developers of Serious Sam should be extremely flattered by Deadhunt. Serious Sam revived the mindless shooter, where you heroically take on hundreds of opponents at once. Deadhunt strives to recapture the glory of the past with numerous weapons and loads of enemies.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Deadhunt are a mixed bag. First, the weapon models look very good; they can almost rival the quality found in Battlefield 2. This was my first impression when I started playing the game. There is also a variety of weapons available in the game, including shotguns, submachine guns, and gauss rifles. As for the rest of the graphics, they seem outdated. The environments, few that there are, are sparse and unexciting. The enemies you’ll encounter look good, but nothing that would be considered stunning. The sounds in the game consist of the requisite action background music playing behind gun noises and monster cries. The guns don’t sound powerful enough, as there is not enough bass to complement the arsenal you have at your disposal.

ET AL.
The game features three methods of gameplay: campaign, survival, and greed. Campaign is a linked set of levels divided into four episodes, one per enemy type. Survival mode is continuous play until you die, and greed instructs you to quit right before you die and try to get the maximum score (dying results in your score being reset). All of these modes take place in the same four levels. Most games that come out feature hundreds of expansive levels where you can bring the pain. Deadhunt has four, and they are really small to boot. The gameplay consists of shooting enemies that spawn in semi-random locations in the arena and picking up bonuses. One of the pleasant things about Deadhunt is the bonus system. At certain times, bonuses will spawn on the map, giving you advantages such as a maximum health increase or faster run speed. These bonuses are either timed or held indefinitely, but you can only hold a certain number of bonuses at once, so there is some strategy in deciding which upgrades to choose. You can also pick up bonuses by pointing the cursor at them and pressing the “use” key, helpful if that live-saving rune is just a little out of reach. The gameplay itself is not very good, mainly because of the structure of the game. The AI is very poor, as the enemies run in a straight line towards you, and attack once they get close. Given, they are zombies or giant cockroaches, but I’ve seen some crafty zombies at the movies. The game’s difficulty is determined by how many enemies are thrown at you at one time, not by tactical decisions by the computer. Because of this, every level of the game is essentially the same: run backwards, fire constantly, pick up bonuses. It is fun to waste down some foes, but only for the first ten minutes or so.

IN CLOSING
There are some good and some bad characteristics in Deadhunt. Weapon models, constant action, and the innovative bonus system scores points. But, poor AI, the lack of real levels, and no strategy exposes Deadhunt for what it really is: a lesser version of Serious Sam. To make this game competitive, more variety of levels would be needed, as this may mask the generic AI scripting. But as it stands, Deadhunt is unfavorable due to poor level design and the lack of variety.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lux Review

Lux PC, developed and published by Sillysoft Games.
The Good: Online play, map editor, smart AI, in-game radio, user-created plugins
The Not So Good: Lux spelled backwards is Xul, which is hard to pronounce
What say you? The definitive game of world domination: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ll make this simple: if you want to play a Risk computer game, buy Lux. It’s got the features that not many other games of this ilk have. You want to know more? All right, Mr. Greedy Pants, read on.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Being a Risk game, the game takes place on a map. Lux has some really nice effects for a game that uses a 2D map, such as blinking countries and explosions. Everything about the interface is very clean and polished. Too often, game developers seem to think that adding 3D will make their game better. It’s nice to see some people who’d rather perfect 2D and make it look really good. The sound effects do their job, informing the player of their turn, and giving a cry when defeated. Nothing special, but they accomplish their goal.

ET AL.
Lux has a ton of features for a Risk game. First, the game comes with a good number of maps, not just the classic Risk layout (although that is there as well). If you don’t like the maps, you can design your own using the extremely easy to use map editor. Creating maps is as easy as connecting lines or importing pictures and defining the boundaries. Some people have made some spectacular maps, covering the American Revolution, the D-Day invasion, Turner Field, the Roman Empire, Vietnam, World War I, and even some hex based maps. There are literally hundreds of maps available, and installing them is one click away using the in-game plugin manager. The plugin manager tells you all the maps that have been uploaded, and even if there is a newer version of a map you have installed. The community has really latched on to this one, creating some outstanding maps. And if creating a map isn’t your thing, the game can generate a random one on the spot to a specific size. Connecting to an Internet game is easy as well, using the in-game browser. I’ve had no issues with the browser in Lux, and it gives complete information about the games, from the number of players left in the match to a rundown of all the rules. This is far beyond the bug-ridden browser included with Battlefield 2. Once you complete an on-line game, your score is recorded and uploaded to the world wide rankings list, similar to Battlefield 2. The AI in Lux is very crafty, each employing a different strategy to win the game. These strategies were derived from winning tactics of human players, and the AI can adapt to any strange map you throw at it. And if you don’t like the AI, there is an AI editor where you can create your own. Finally, there’s even a radio (although most of the stations don’t work) so you can listen to live music using an installed media player.

IN CLOSING
Lux is easily the best Risk clone available for the PC. It has tons of features that extend the longevity of the title past the ten-minute attention span other games have. The robust map editor would be reason enough to recommend the game, but excellent AI, online play, and other features move Lux in to the upper echelon of computer games. If you have no friends to play Risk with you (or even if you do), don’t hesitate to shell out the $25 for Lux: it’s half the price for more than double the fun.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

DreamStripper Review

DreamStripper PC, developed and published by Ensign Games.
The Good: Very detailed performer, good variety of moves
The Not So Good: Only one model, tends to get old quickly
What say you? What you’d expect from a nightclub simulation: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There has been a lot of controversy recently concerning video games and inappropriate content. I think, from all the evidence we can gather, there is only one conclusion: gamers want to see naked people. Of course, gameplay usually gets in the way, usually in the form of a people simulator where you actually have to TALK beforehand. The nerve! Well, DreamStripper removes all the stuff that women like to do (conversation, a rewarding partnership, shopping) and cut straight to the chase: naughty bits!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
In a game such as this, the graphics are very important. If your model does not look good, the game won’t sell very well. The one included model in DreamStripper is very detailed, with high-resolution textures. No doubt, the developers snapped some close-up pictures of a real person, and applied them to a 3-D model. You can see details such as goose bumps and small imperfections in the skin if you zoom in really close. There is only one area that is not fully detailed, and this was to preserve the equivalent of a R rating, although there may be plans to change this in the future. The sound in the game consists of background music. One of the features of the game is that you can use your own MP3s in the game. Some suggestions include:
- Pee Wee’s Playhouse
- Sesame Street
- Baby Got Back
or others. The possibilities are endless!

ET AL.
There are two game modes in DreamStripper, although they are essentially the same thing. In Game Mode, you use money to pay the dancer to perform for you, change outfits, or alter the lighting. Total Control Mode removes the extra clicking. Either way results in the same outcome, and all of the actions can be completed with a mouse (if you don’t know why that’s important, this is the wrong game for you). There are 24 different moves the dancer can perform; you can either queue them up, much like actions in The Sims, or after a certain amount of time, she will perform them in a random order. She has five outfits to choose from: school girl, swimsuit, leather, nurse, and maid. All of these selections are comprised of several different parts (tops and bottoms). If you ask the artist to remove a specific item of clothing, it just magically disappears, instead of her stripping it off (which is part of the fun, apparently, I wouldn’t know, I’m just saying I heard, somewhere). Isn’t this the whole point of a “stripper?” Currently, there is only one model in the game, so DreamStripper tends to get old very quickly, since you’re always admiring the same girl. Variety is the spice of life!

IN CLOSING
I’m not sure if DreamStripper really qualifies as a game. There is some interactivity, but mostly you’re just watching what happens. It’s more of a technology demo, showing the effects of high-end graphics cars and how well they can render certain objects. These objects just happen to be naked women. Ultimately, how much enjoyment could someone get from a piece of software like DreamStripper? I suppose that’s up to the user. I feel that its novelty would wear off after a couple of days or so, at least until more moves, outfits, or models are added (which there are plans for). But if you’re interested in a gentlemen’s club experience without leaving the comfort (or solitude) of your own computer, then DreamStripper may be right up your alley.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tribal Trouble Review

Tribal Trouble PC, developed and published by Oddlabs.
The Good: Random maps, colorful graphics, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Peon supervision, not much depth
What say you? Some nice features, but the gameplay is too simple: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Throughout time, mankind has struggled to achieve dominance over other cultures. Tribal Trouble highlights this ongoing conflict, where “natives” and “vikings” duke it out for control of lush islands. Tribal Trouble adapts the classic RTS method of gathering resources and assembling an army to crush the opposition. Will the game make enough changes to the formula to make it unique?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tribal Trouble features some bright and sunny graphics that fit well with the overall theme. Since you can zoom really tight to the ground, it is important that the characters look good up close, and they do in Tribal Trouble, without significantly high system requirements. This is a full 3-D game, with nice effects (thrown arrows, trees being chopped down) a some beautifully rendered environments. The graphics is definitely one of the draws of the game. The sound is on par with most RTS games, with sound effects accompanying most of the actions in the game. The background music has a nice tribal theme, but tends to get irritating after several hours of play. Overall, the graphics and sound of Tribal Trouble can compete with most “major” RTS releases.

FEATURES
Tribal Trouble has several game modes. First, a tutorial teaches the eager student the basics of the game. For those lonely players, there are skirmish games against the computer and a campaign mode. Skirmish games are played on random maps, and Tribal Trouble has a powerful random map generator. The generator actually produces some convincing maps, as opposed to other games that do a less than spectacular job. Skirmish games can support up to six players. You can play a set of linked skirmish games in a campaign. The campaign is represented on a treasure map, where you can select (with some restrictions) the next map you wish to play. Unlike some RTS games, there is not much variety to the missions: all of them are essentially skirmish missions against varied levels of AI intelligence. There aren’t any “hold out for x amount of time” or “collect x amount of a resource” missions. You must play the vikings first, and then the natives. You can also engage against people in multiplayer matches, using the in-game browser. The same random map generator used in the single player skirmish matches is available here as well.

UNITS AND RESOURCES
There are four resources to gather in Tribal Trouble: trees, rocks, iron, and chickens. Trees are required for constructing buildings, while the other three are each for a specific unit (rock warriors, iron warriors, and chicken warriors). These are all gathered by peons, the basic unit of the game. Peons construct buildings, produce weapons, gather resources, and convert into military units. There are only three buildings in the game: the quarters produces peons and a chieftain, the armory collects resources, manufactures weapons, and produces warriors, and watch towers can hold one military unit who can attack enemies from a distance. The more peons are located within the quarters or armory, the faster units and weapons are produced. This is the primary strategy in the game: balancing the number of peons collecting resources with those manufacturing weapons and training into warriors.

ET AL.
Unfortunately, this is essentially the only real strategic decision in the game. You use the same basic build order every game (since there’s only three buildings in the game), and once you get a handle on how fast resources are collected, you’ve figured Tribal Trouble out. There are some problems with the game that makes peon management needlessly complex. First, peons that are produced in a quarters can’t be ordered to automatically move to another building or gather resources: delivering this order requires one click per peon, which gets repetitious very quickly. Also, there is no idle peon button, so you can have peons sitting around doing nothing and not notice (there are also no “idle military” or “select all” buttons either). You also cannot tell how many peons are collecting each resource, just the amount you currently own. On top of the peon troubles, there is not much strategic depth to the game. Since there are only three military units, you mass the warriors corresponding to the resources you’ve gathered, send them to the enemy base on an attack move order, and sit back and watch. There are no formations to use in the game, so the battles quickly degenerate into a test of who has the most numerous powerful units.

IN CLOSING
Tribal Trouble has the features of a good strategy game, the lacks the execution. This game might be good for children, but the low numbers of units, buildings, and viable strategies makes it too straightforward for the discernable strategy gamer. The random maps and picturesque graphics elevate the quality of Tribal Trouble slightly, but at least for me, it doesn’t have enough tribal meat in the gameplay.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Trackmania Sunrise Review

Trackmania Sunrise PC, developed by Nadeo and published by Enlight.
The Good: Fun to drive, robust track editor, different modes of play
The Not So Good: Unlockables, poor game browser, can become difficult/frustrating
What say you? Awesome stunt driving and custom tracks make this a great arcade racer: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Most racing games on the PC today strive to emulate all the realistic aspects of common racing series, whether they be NASCAR, F1, or touring cars. Trackmania Sunrise is not one of these games. Rather, Trackmania Sunrise is all about over-the-top arcade racing, with high speeds, high jumps, and stunts galore. This game could be considered a stand-alone expansion of the original Trackmania, now available in North America.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Trackmania Sunrise have greatly improved since the original game. The environments are very bright and colorful, and well-designed tracks do not seem like a puzzle piece editor created them. The textures on most objects are sharp and detailed, or at least detailed enough with you whizzing by at 500 miles per hour. There are three different environments present in the game: the fast Island paradise, crowded Bay city center, and Mediterranean road course Coast. Each of these is different with no recycled textures and their own personality. Tracks can also take place during different times of the day (dawn, day, dusk, and night) to add ambiance. The sound essentially consists of engine noises and background techno music (the European influence is readily apparent). The sounds are by no means spectacular, but only provide for something coming out of your speakers.

GAME FEATURES
Trackmania Sunrise can be played in solo and multiplayer modes. There are four types of races available in solo mode: standard checkpoint races, stunt-heavy platforms, track building puzzles, and elimination crazy mode. These modes demonstrate the primary ways to enjoy Trackmania Sunrise: building strange, garish tracks and then racing on them. There are goals to meet for each of the provided tracks, and placing better results in having more credits to spend in the track editor. Multiplayer modes are all based on the race solo mode, in that all the drivers compete rally-style to finish the tracks in the shortest amount of time. Since there is no collision detection with other cars, you are simply racing against the clock. Most multiplayer games involve time attack mode, where the fastest completion time during a set time period wins. Also, round mode is available, which has a points system. All racers start at the same time, and the first player to reach the finish line gets 10 points, 8 for second, and so on. The races repeat until one player reaches the pre-determined maximum. During multiplayer races, you can enter official mode, which records your finished and ranks you on a worldwide ladder. Trackmania Sunrise includes an in-game multiplayer browser that is very rudimentary. You cannot sort the games by ping, so finding a low ping server requires clicking on every server in the random order it appears and remembering which was the best. There are several editors in the game, the most important being the track editor. This powerful but slightly unwieldy tool is where you can design the track of your dreams, assuming that you’ve unlocked enough coppers (credits) in solo mode. The track editor is fairly easy to use considering how flexible it is. There are also ghost, campaign, replay, and skin editors available.

ET AL.
Each environment has a specific car associated with it, so all drivers are in the same machine; there is no advantage to be gained through setups or the like. The Island cars are very fast, the Bay SUVs have tight cornering, and the Coast GT cars are road racers. The Coast cars are very annoying to drive, as they have very little downforce and cannot corner nearly as well as the other two car types. Because of the nature of the game, the driving model is all the way arcade in nature, since you will be performing large jumps, full pipe maneuvers, and driving at insane speeds. Overall, the game is very fun to play, with relatively easy to drive cars. You constantly try to improve at each track, observing places where time can be gained, much like a technical racer. It’s nice to see a game where the winner is the best driver, and not the best mechanic, like NASCAR and its setup-determined racing. Some people have created some really inventive tracks, but you’ll occasionally find one that is pure frustration due to poor design. Or that you just suck at the game. Whichever.

IN CLOSING
Trackmania Sunrise could be classified as an arcade racer with a simplified driving model. But it’s slightly deeper than that: driving the tracks to their absolute best requires skill, and not just reflexes. There are few problems with the game (multiplayer game browser limitations and the initial difficulty of using the track editor), but overall it’s a very pleasing experience for gamers who want to drive fast and perform outrageous stunts while doing so.