Friday, September 30, 2005

Squad Assault: Second Wave Review

Squad Assault: Second Wave, developed by DAS Entertainment and published by Got Game Entertainment.
The Good: Good pathfinding and unit AI, effortless unit management, tons of battles with abundant difficulty options, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Exasperating camera control with arbitrary default angles, slightly outdated graphics, only direct IP multiplayer
What say you? A user-friendly RTS for experienced players with some issues: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Apparently, there was this war. It was so large, that it involved most of the major nations of the world. And it was so fun the first time, the world decided to do it again! There are a lot of computer games that simulate almost every aspect of World War II: flying planes, shooting enemies, moving troops, and manufacturing coffee at a profit. The latest entry into the ring is Squad Assault: Second Wave, which is actually not a very new game. It’s a slightly updated version of Squad Assault: West Front, which was a slightly updated version of G.I. Combat, which was a slightly updated version of Close Combat. So, the developers have had several attempts at perfecting the formula. Let’s see how they did.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Squad Assault: Second Wave does not feature top of the line graphics. In fact, it’s essentially the same as G.I. Combat, which is several years old. Comparing this game to, say, Battlefield 2 reveals that Squad Assault: Second Wave is world behind the top PC competition. However, compare Squad Assault: Second Wave to recent wargames, and it performs more pleasantly. Since I would tend to classify Squad Assault: Second Wave more as a wargame than a classic RTS, I’m willing to give some leeway in the graphics department that others are not so willing to grant. If it weren’t for the large icons indicating where the units are located, it would be very hard to spot friendly infantry amongst the foliage, but I guess that’s the point of camouflage. Most of the environments are bland, with scattered buildings and some variety of trees. Explosions are less than satisfying, and most death sequences consist of a soldier instantly falling to the ground and being surrounded by blood. The graphics are very reminiscent of a very similar game, Combat Mission, but that game was released a while back.

Probably the worst aspect of the graphics is the truly horrendous camera. Since Squad Assault: Second Wave is in 3-D, you can move around the screen and see all your little units running around shooting things. This is fine as long as it’s implemented well; in Squad Assault: Second Wave, it is not. First, the camera is a little more difficult to control than it should be, and is more cumbersome than the controls seen in other 3-D games. Secondly, the camera zooms too close to the selected units at a completely useless angle. If you select a unit twice, the camera defaults to an angle that is above and behind your troops, almost directly over them. You always need to move the camera in order to do anything in the game. This just should not be, and make the game needlessly difficult. I cannot relay how truly horrible the camera control is in Squad Assault: Second Wave. I would have been quite satisfied if the game used 3-D graphics shown only from an isometric prospective (like Rise of Nations) and gave the user the ability to rotate. You wouldn’t have been able to zoom in to see the units, but the graphics are low quality, so you wouldn’t really want to do this anyway.

As for the sounds, Squad Assault: Second Wave comes off somewhat bare in this respect. The sounds are realistic, but not varied: you’ll hear the same gun noises for the same class of troops along with identical death sequences, which get annoying after a while. The armies do speak in their native languages, which is a nice touch. The background music is underwhelming.

FEATURES
Squad Assault: Second Wave does have a good assortment of play modes. There are 54 battles, 26 operations (2-3 battles), six campaigns (more than three battles), and three tutorials. Some of the battles are repeated in the operations and campaigns, but the larger scenarios have the added benefit of carrying over veteran units. These battles cover the Allied invasion of France; personally, I wish people would get off this overdone theater and move onto other areas (like Combat Mission has done with Africa and Russia). Each of the games can be customized with numerous difficulty options. The difficulty level itself controls the multiplier bonus for holding an objective for the overall score. You can choose whether individual soldiers can modify your orders, have individual skill ratings, and if enemy units are revealed on the map. You can also change the lethality of the weapons in the game, which is a very neat addition. You can change the accuracy of arms from WW2-era levels to modern-day destruction. There is also an auto pause function, where the game automatically pauses every 60 seconds (or whatever the user chooses). This is much like the Combat Mission and Flashpoint Germany WEGO method, although the difference in Squad Assault: Second Wave is that you can issue orders while time is running. It would be nice if you could disallow issuing orders when the game is not paused, so that you could play Squad Assault: Second Wave using that style (this could introduce some play by e-mail ability). Speaking of multiplayer, you can play over a LAN or through direct IP, but there is no matchmaking service. Aspiring level designers can make custom levels using the scenario editor.

ET AL.
In Squad Assault: Second Wave, you are given some points at the beginning of each scenario to purchase units, and you enter the game with only these units and no reinforcements. Each unit is made of several different soldiers, each with their own morale, experience, skill, and ammunition values. The Squad Assault/Close Combat series is known for its morale simulations, and the same heritage continues in the newest version. All of your units are listed in graphical format in the bottom of the screen, and the information for each squad is clearly represented and easily accessible. I really like how all the squads’ information is shown in Squad Assault: Second Wave; it is much better than most RTS games where you must group units manually and large battles can get confusing quickly (Blitzkrieg Anthology is a perfect example of this). You can get information on all your units at a glance from the main screen; if only all RTS games made data this accessible. The only addition I would like is routed or destroyed units were moved to the bottom or completely off the list.

The game displays messages showing important information about each of your squads as the game progresses. Unfortunately, none of the information is clickable, so if your Patton tank is in trouble, you can’t click on the message and select that particular unit. Since multiple units are given the same name, this can make it hard to determine which particular Grenadiere MG42 is out of ammo. The game is played by issuing orders to each of your units. Orders include assault (moving quickly without engaging the enemy), march (moving slowly engaging enemy units), caution (crawling to conceal), defend, ambush, hide, and fire. Using the correct command at the correct time is key in keeping your units alive. You can also call in artillery, air, and naval strikes against concentrated enemy units. The units in Squad Assault: Second Wave cover much of the fighting forces involved in World War II: infantry (regular, engineers, snipers, recon, anti-tank), mortars, machine guns, flamethrowers, anti-tank guns, and vehicles (halftracks, armored cars, tanks). The units generally engage appropriate targets, but sometimes they will waste the ammunition on targets that are quite a distance away. Since units run out of ammo quickly and cannot be resupplied, this can be a problem later during the mission. The game does feature some good unit AI, as the units behave smartly and realistically. Keeping the units covered is of paramount importance, as being fired upon constantly tends to bring down the morale of the group. The units also have some pretty advanced pathfinding. Units will use cover on the way to their objective, even if the user did not order them to. In most game, you would have to manually set waypoints in order to keep the units concealed; this is not the case in Squad Assault: Second Wave, as infantry units will hug walls and stay out of cleared areas as much as they can, even if they are issued a command far across the map. It shows that the AI has some polish in the game, and the units behave very well.

IN CLOSING
Squad Assault: Second Wave is a good wargame for those players with a wargaming or RTS background. Although the graphics are not the best, the user interface and unit AI keeps Squad Assault: Second Wave above most games in the genre. I enjoyed how easy the game made controlling the units, especially when compared against other tactical strategy games. This is a game that is not obsessed with micromanagement, but rather with effective positing of troops before a battle begins. If it weren’t for the camera issues, Squad Assault: Second Wave would be a highly recommended game. Sometimes, too much freedom in controlling the views is not a good thing, and Squad Assault: Second Wave definitely suffers because of the camera controls. Nevertheless, there is an intriguing strategy game under the surface. It’s not really that much different from either West Front or G.I. Combat, but for players new to the series, this would be the place to start.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sky Bubbles Review

Sky Bubbles, developed by Visual Shape Games and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good:Interesting game mechanics, original bonuses, great graphics for this genre, addictive
The Not So Good: Lots of clicking, no multiplayer modes
What say you? Innovative procedure makes this one of the better puzzle games: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Tetris started a revolution. This Russian product tried to crush capitalism by reducing the work hours of Americans across the nation. The impact of this game can be felt today in the realm of puzzle games. There are an inordinate amount of games where you must arrange colored objects in set patterns in order to achieve the high score and move on to the next level where you arrange more colored objects in more set patterns. This brings us to Sky Bubbles, where you arrange colored bubbles into set patterns called lines. In my experience, puzzle games end up being either addictive or annoying; where will Sky Bubbles end up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sky Bubbles features some of the cleanest graphics I’ve seen in a puzzle game. It is important to have slightly flashy effects without getting in the way of the gameplay in a title such as this, and Sky Bubbles succeeds. The sum of the parts, such as rotating bubbles and explosion effects, results in above average graphics. The graphics help to make the player feel special for clearing bubbles off the map, which helps to grab the user into the game. The sound in Sky Bubbles is fairly average when compared to other games of the genre, OK background music with nice sound effects. That pretty much sums that up.

ET AL.
There are two main game modes of Sky Bubbles: single game and adventure. In single games, you can choose between two modes of play. In swap mode, you must switch the positions of two adjacent bubbles to complete lines (vertical or horizontal) of three or more. The difficulty of this game mode results from the fact that every move must result in a completed line. This is different from other games, and can cause some initial frustration before you learn the mechanics. In lines mode, several bubbles appear on an initially blank board during each move, and you get to move one bubble to another location in an attempt to make rows (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal) of five. Bubbles can only move if there is a clear path to its destination, so this is where the difficulty lies here. You can choose to play either of these modes against the clock in action mode, if you want to increase the frequency that you yell at your computer.

Adventure mode is the meat of the game. Here, you play swap mode against the clock, as you must remove a pre-determined number of special bubbles (containing souls) before time runs out. This can be very stressful, as you attempt to figure out how to remove two specific bubbles before the last five seconds runs out. Once you complete a level, you move on to the next, which usually requires the removal of more souls in the same amount of time, thus increasing the difficulty. Once you complete a level, you can assign a bonus point to earn a power-up that can be used during gameplay. There are several categories of power-ups available. Some are activated if you clear the same colored bubbles twice in a row, some add time to complete each level, and others blow up adjacent bubbles. Some of the strategy with adventure mode has to do with selecting the correct power-ups between each level; in fact, if you lose a level, the game takes you back to the store and makes suggestions as to which power-ups to use. There are 25 total levels in adventure mode, and with 16 types of power-ups, there is some additional replay value in Sky Bubbles that other puzzle games simply do not have.

IN CLOSING
Sky Bubbles clearly falls into the addictive bin of puzzle games. The game’s interesting game mechanics (requiring the completion of a row for each move) and varied bonuses makes Sky Bubbles stand out against the crowd. All too often, you can think a particular puzzle game (such as “the one with the blocks”) but not remember what it was called; this will probably not happen with Sky Bubbles, as it contains fairly unique gameplay elements. I enjoy the game’s slight complexity, which makes Sky Bubbles more interesting than other comparable games which are entirely too easy and suffer from repetition. The power-ups and progressing difficulty keeps Sky Bubbles interesting the entire time you play it (albeit sometimes frustrating when you can’t clear a level, but that’s clearly your fault). I’ll even forgive the lack of a multiplayer or battle mode. For fans of puzzle games, Sky Bubbles is definitely recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Blitzkrieg Anthology Review

Blitzkrieg Anthology, developed by Nival Interactive and published by CDV.
The Good: Full featured campaigns with explicit objectives, tons of units with specific uses, requires realistic strategies
The Not So Good: Overwhelming micromanagement, no AI skirmish, very difficult
What say you? If you can stand all the micromanagement, a fine strategy collection: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Boy, PC gamers sure love some real time strategy. Seems like most games that come down the pipe these days are an MMO, shooter, or RTS game. Hoping to cash on the eminent release of Blitzkrieg 2, CDV has released Blitzkrieg Anthology, a collection of the original Blitzkrieg and its two standalone expansions: Burning Horizon and Rolling Thunder. These two sets (the original and the expansions) are treated as separate installs to separate directories, and together clock in a around 3 ½ GB. Some of the same resources are used in both games, and I wish, to conserve disk space and the number of CDs the game comes on, they consolidated the material a bit. But I guess it’s easier to slap a new label on a CD and package it up. Well, let’s see how this two year old game stacks up.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Blitzkrieg was released all the way back in 2003 (although both expansions were released last year), and the game shows some of its age in the graphics department. Blitzkrieg Anthology uses the Rise of Nations model of 3-D units projected on a 2-D background. I don’t mind this technique, as it can lead to some impressive visuals if done correctly, but Blitzkrieg doesn’t really use enough detail in the backgrounds to make it completely believable. Personally, I’d rather have awesome 2-D graphics than crappy 3-D graphics, and Blitzkrieg is neither. It has passable effects on a lackluster landscape, although seeing the aftermath of a good artillery bombardment is appealing. In addition, some of the units can get lost in the scenery, especially tiny infantry. You can’t zoom in (or out) at all in the game, so you are forced to squint at your riflemen throughout the game. In terms of the sound department, the game is quite average. It has the overstated background music and requisite arrangement of battle sounds, including quips from individual soldiers that can get old after you play the game for a while. Overall, quite unremarkable sound is to be found in Blitzkrieg Anthology.

FEATURES
Blitzkrieg Anthology has five campaigns detailing the trials and tribulations of World War II for the Germans, Allies, Russians, Rommel, and Patton. There are also some additional chapters as a bonus in additon to the material that was from the original Blitzkrieg and the two expansions. Each scenario is comprised of several chapters, each covering a portion of the war. For each chapter, you can select to play from several different missions, usually three for each level of difficulty. The game keeps track of your progress through each mission, giving skill ratings in several areas, and compiling unit upgrades and bonuses you can use in the field. Most games have a “campaign” that is a series of loosely connected missions, with no real flow or relation between each individual contest. Blitzkrieg Anthology provides a sense that you are contributing to the overall goal of your respective side in the war, and the fact that the game keeps tabs on your progress is an added bonus. It is clear that the single player campaign was the focus of the game, especially since there is no skirmish mode against AI opponents. There are custom missions aspiring level designers can develop using the game’s utilities, but you can’t play any of the multiplayer modes against the AI. You have basic deathmatch and capture the flag modes against other human opponents online, and the game has support for GameSpy Arcade, which is nice for matchmaking purposes. The game’s focus is clearly on the campaign mode, as any other options of play are not fully developed or missing entirely.

GAMEPLAY
Blitzkrieg Anthology is a game of pure tactical skill; there is no resource management anywhere to be seen in the game, so the units you start with are the only units you can use to complete each mission. Blitzkrieg Anthology does a very good job in relaying clear, explicit objectives to the player; each objective location is clearly marked on the mini-map and is usually not vague. Too many times I have come across RTS games where the objective locations were apparently a secret the developers wanted to keep, and only supplied archaic instructions (such as “destroy all enemy units”) to the user.

The user interface has some good and bad points. I really like how the commands for each unit correlate with the layout of a keyboard. For example, any order that appears in the lower left of the screen is always Z, no matter which unit it is. It’s much easier to remember this rather than strange combinations of control, alternate, and Pig Up (all this computer hacking is making me thirsty; I think I’ll order a Tab). This is offset by the fact that the user interface’s commands are very small, and you can easily click on the wrong order and instruct your units to certain death. The game could also use some more pop-up help, as you can commonly forget which unit does which task; Rise of Nations was very good at dispatching useful information to the player. You can also adjust the game speed, which is something that is missing from most RTS games. This is especially nice when your units must march long distances with no expected enemy resistance.

Blitzkrieg Anthology has a ton of units, which are broken down into specific categories: infantry, tanks, transport, supply, engineers, artillery, anti-air, anti-tank, and air support. Unlike most RTS games, units in Blitzkrieg Anthology are super-specific, and are usually only good at one task. In other games, you can send a mixed group of units and, as long as you outnumbered the opposition, would usually win. In Blitzkrieg Anthology, you MUST have an assortment of units in each of your battles, as each unit has a powerful counter that will make quick work of you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where thinking in advance and planning your strategies was this important, and resulted in instantaneous failure if not executed properly. Capturing a location in each mission has the same general flow: send out scout planes and/or fighers, bombard the enemy with artillery, send in tanks, infantry, and their counters, and resupply. You will lose the mission if you forget to bring one specific unit along for the ride, as the AI seems to have a slight advantage in anticipating and scouting your moves. For example, I almost had a mission won, but I forgot to tow anti-aircraft weapons with my trucks to the city I was occupying. In came the enemy aircraft and eliminated all my infantry in about 10-15 seconds. Since you are never given reinforcements, I had to reload the mission in anger. You cannot forget to do anything in any mission, or the AI will take advantage and destroy you, even on easy difficulty.

Blitzkrieg Anthology is a very difficult game, and this is amplified by the extreme micromanagement and poor unit AI in the game. Your units are not very smart, and need to be guided through each mission. This would not be a big deal if you were commanding ten units, but Blitzkrieg Anthology often features hundreds of units under your command at a time, so the game can get hectic and confusing quickly. Each of the units is given multiple attacks and abilities, but since you must manually switch attack modes and behaviors for each unit, this can get tiresome quickly. I don’t like losing a battle because I forgot to switch one artillery unit from smoke bombs to armor-piercing rounds, but it can happen in Blitzkrieg Anthology. The pathfinding is somewhat suspect as well; units will sometimes take long, winding routes to their destination. Plus, grouped units will not stick together in a cohesive unit, and mixed arms cannot be given formation orders, so a group of tanks and infantry will quickly devolve into the tanks way out ahead, being attack with no support as the infantry tries to close the gap. Units can sometimes get stuck on each other; this is really evident when trying to load and unload. If two pieces of anti-air artillery are next to each other and you wish to attach them to trucks, the trucks tend to run into each other, drive in circles, and take far too long to complete their order. The game is hard enough as it is without adding layers of complication.

IN CLOSING
Blitzkrieg Anthology, like most games, has some things it does well, and some things it does horribly. The campaign mode is the highlight of the game, offering a complete single-player experience. Other game modes are lacking, and the multiplayer aspect of the game could have been developed more. I do like the realistic approach of the game, as each unit has a singular function that it can fulfill, and successful completion of each mission requires using each unit for its intended purpose. However, the insane micromanagement, handholding, and poor unit AI bogs the game down and makes the large battles that are present in some missions completely overwhelming. The game does gradually increase the amount of units you control, but some better grouping must be done. It isn’t much of a problem in other games where the counter system is less developed, but in Blitzkrieg Anthology, not accounting for a specific enemy unit results in failure. Those gamers who can keep track of the location and given orders of hundreds of units at a time will find Blitzkrieg Anthology fulfilling, but most of us will probably want to wait to see the improvements that Blitzkrieg II brings to the table.

Monday, September 19, 2005

DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold Review

DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold, developed and published by Caravel Games.
The Good: Long and pleasingly difficult, easy to learn, map editor, surprisingly not boring
The Not So Good: Below average graphics, requires much thought (me hurt brain? uh-oh!)
What say you? An intriguing and brainy puzzle game disguised as a dungeon crawler: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m not a huge fan of puzzle games. Usually there is not much depth involved; once you figure out the basic premise of the game, it becomes an exercise of repetition. Of course, these games have been some of the best sellers in history (see Tetris). I think some people are more geared towards puzzle games than others. This brings us to DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold, an updated an improved version of the original DROD, released quite a while back. This game marries the classic dungeon crawler (think Zelda) with an overall puzzle sheen. Will DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold satisfy my deep intellectual needs? Do I have deep intellectual needs?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
One word comes to mind when thinking about the graphics and sound in DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold: budget. The graphics are definitely archaic, and could be easily inserted in a similar Nintendo product. Of course, part of the reason that the graphics are so basic has to do with the map editor, but really graphics are not an area of emphasis with this type of game. There is a difference between old-fashioned graphics and bad graphics, however, and at least everything in DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold is easy to see and never becomes a hindrance in the game. I much rather have graphics such as these than confusing 3-D graphics with bad camera angles. The sound in the game is also very basic, and sounds like it was recorded by an individual at his home computer (and probably was). Like the graphics, this doesn’t mean to say that they are bad; I actually smiled a little when I heard some of the voice acting in the game, not out of pity, but actually because it was funny. I’d like to say the sound has a “personal touch.” The background music, and especially the menu music, is very well done and fits the atmosphere of the game.

FEATURES
DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold has a main, story driven campaign of 25 levels, each of which is broken up into numerous rooms. This is a very long game, and the default campaign does have enough length to satisfy most fans of the genre. With the nature of this game, there really isn’t much replay value, other than the fact that high scores on individual levels can be recorded and compared. However, once you figure out a certain level, there probably won’t be much motivation to play it again, as it’s the same every time. As I mentioned earlier, there is a map editor in the game, where you can build levels inspired by your own lunacy. If you subscribe to the CaravelNet service (an additional yearly cost), you can download other “holds” from within the game, which is an extremely nice feature and worth the extra money for people who like this game (otherwise, you can download them normally using your favorite Internet browser). You can also record demos at any time you’d wish to show off your mad skillz and upload them to the central feature. Both of these things try to make a single player game into a more community-oriented affair, and it works, as DROD has a fairly active population.

ET AL.
DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold has a very simple objective: destroy all the monsters before moving to the next room. The game is represented as a top-down view of your character and the room you are currently in. In each room, you must successfully navigate from one side of the room to the other without getting touched by any enemy unit. You won’t have a large array of weapons like other games; in DROD, you have a sword which extends straight out from you, and anything that travels into the square your sword occupies is killed. You can move into any adjacent square (straight or diagonally) and rotate the direction you are facing, which orients your sword accordingly. The enemies move one square toward you (if they are not blocked by walls) as you perform one action (either moving or rotating the sword). Gameplay involves anticipating the paths the enemies will take and developing a strategy in defeating the room. Usually, there is more than one solution to a map, especially when it comes down to the individual destruction of monsters. Some of the monsters are easier to fight than others; the basic ones move in predictable paths (always towards you), while the more advanced creatures can behave in more sophisticated and scary ways. Since each enemy has different behavior characteristics, this requires a different approach to successfully defeat them. Destroying enemies or throwing switches will open doors that will provide access to other areas, and eventually to the exit. Your character (Beethro) does have some special abilities he can collect, such as mimics that can act as a decoy or unlock various areas and invisibility potions.

IN CLOSING
DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold accomplishes what many games try to attempt: extremely straightforward gameplay that is deeply strategic. First, the game has very simple and easy to learn controls, which makes the game accessible to the masses. Second, the objectives are clear. The solutions are not adventure-like impossible, unrealistic answers. You won’t need to smash endless supplies of pots to uncover the one switch you need to unlock a door in a room three screens away. You certainly will not need to grind sea salt on a tombstone in order to make a building collapse. Third, the game is difficult without being frustrating. The levels seem easy, but some do require some upper-level thinking. In a world where simplistic shooting games are all the rage, it’s nice to find a game that exercises your brain instead of your itchy trigger finger. DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold borders on the obsessive, where you must try one more time to beat a certain area, and it soon becomes 4 A.M. I was very pleasantly surprised at the simple yet challenging nature of this game. I was initially hesitant about this one, but everything comes together in a neat little package. Plus, it’s called Deadly Rooms of Death. Needless repetition always rates high in my book. DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold is a rewarding puzzle game in all the important areas. Just watch out for The Living Tar.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Flashpoint Germany Review

Flashpoint Germany PC, developed by Simulations Canada and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Straightforward and streamlined, exceptionally easy to use scenario editor, rapid pace, supposedly dynamic AI
The Not So Good: Small number of scenarios, wargame-quality graphics, user input can feel irrelevant at times, turn resolution can be very slow
What say you? A good introductory wargame with limited micromanagement: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ah, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: a plucky little country that sent people in orbit and had a fairly decent hockey team. But nay, Russia has fallen on hard times, dividing itself into countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Mynameisnotstanitisdave. What if the U.S.S.R. had not dissolved quietly into the night? What if had lunged one last attack in the hope of preserving its union? Flashpoint Germany examines this scenario, where the Warsaw Pact countries have initiated an attack against Germany and other NATO nations in 1989. Using a wargame turn-based strategy approach, Simulations Canada hopes to deliver an intriguing and n00b-friendly game to the masses.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Flashpoint Germany is a classic wargame, and subsequently has wargame style graphics and sound. This means 2-D sprites on a 2-D map background and basic sounds of combat. The game interface is actually well designed, which is important for a data-intensive game such as this. It is easier to access information and change settings in Flashpoint Germany than in comparable wargames such as Battles in Italy, and for this the game must be commended. The sounds are a slight upgrade when compared to other wargames as well. In Flashpoint Germany, the explosions seem more muscular than in other games, and are also more varied. While you won’t confuse Flashpoint Germany for a top of the line RTS, the graphics and sound are above average for its genre.

FEATURES
Flashpoint Germany features combat against the computer, in hot seat mode against another human using the same computer, over a LAN, or play by e-mail (PBEM), a standard with wargames. Flashpoint Germany does have a very good scenario editor, which is both powerful and easy to use. You can quickly set up custom scenarios using the ad-hoc editor where, through a series of screens, you can easily set the properties of the scenario from the available choices. It takes around one minute to set up a custom scenario, which is rather quick compared to other scenario editors that most people won’t use due to their complexity.

The game features 19 scenarios (including 2 tutorials) covering various parts of the Russian invasion and NATO defense of Germany. These scenarios take place over four different maps, which I assume are realistic, as I have never been to Germany and didn’t want to look it up. Each scenario is won by accumulating the most victory points, gained by occupying objectives and killing enemy troops. You can also win if the enemy’s troops are reduced to 20% of their initial strength, which is a nice way to end a game that is essentially over.

To appeal to all levels of experience, Flashpoint Germany allows the user to customize the level of realism in the game. For example, you can choose to reveal all the enemy units on the map, automatically resupply units, or restrict the number of orders available each turn. The last option I mentioned is one of the original aspects of the game, as you can be limited in the number of orders you can issue per turn. This is due to “electronic jamming” of your radio broadcasts by the enemy, and puts a premium on only issuing important orders and planning in advance.

UNIT INTELLIGENCE
Flashpoint Germany has almost 200 different platforms (units) in the game, all of which are mechanical units. Infantry is not modeled in the game as individual units, but always tied to some sort of machinery, together called “mechanized infantry.” This is fine with me, as most modern day infantry is usually supported by some kind of hardware. Each unit has several characteristics, namely its strength, morale, ammo supply, and fatigue. All of this information is relayed to the commander (that’s you!) through situation reports submitted at time intervals you determine, not in real time (also realistic). Each of these counts against your radio activity cap; if you use the radio too much in issuing orders or getting information back, your headquarters can be discovered and destroyed by the enemy (usually not a good thing). Units can also be given standard operating procedures (SOP), which determines how close units will get to the enemy, and how far away they can be before opening fire. Also, the staff summary displays victory point locations and information, the number of spotted units on the map, and the average order delay for each side. This is a good synopsis of the current status of the battle. Most of the game, you will be…

GIVING COMMANDS
Before each battle begins, you are given the opportunity to place your units anywhere in your area of control (defined by the scenario designer). This is one of the most important parts of the game, as the initial placement of your units will go a long way in determining how successful you are. All of the commands are issued in the orders phase. Most units can be given three basic movement instructions: route march, move, and assault. Route march is used when you do not expect any enemy opposition, and can move quickly at the detriment of defense. Assaults are used when enemy contact is expected, and come at a price, as the unit’s fatigue levels will rise quickly. Air and artillery units can be ordered to strike a particular area, and you can resupply units that are running low on ammunition by ordering a rest and refit command. Since you are the commander, most of the individual unit actions (such as using cover or the unit’s formation) are done automatically, and you don’t need to worry about them. Once both sides have given orders, the orders resolution phase takes over, executing both sides’ orders at the game time. This simultaneous implementation (WEGO) of the orders is a recent trend in turn-based games that I really like, as it seems more akin to what happens in real life. You must plan what you want to accomplish along with a defense against the enemy at the same time. Once units come close enough to each other, it’s time for…

COMBAT
Every unit has a specific maximum distance they can spot units, and also a minimum distance they can be spotted. Once units are spotted, they will normally engage in combat as long as their SOP says they can. Combat is calculated in five-minute intervals, during which units that can attack engage as many units as their type allows. This means that sending a dribble of single units into the enemy encampment means certain death, as attacks will be computed every five minutes. Because of this, Flashpoint Germany has a waypoint editor where you can add delays to a unit’s orders, so that a group of units with different speeds will arrive at their destination at the same time. The game automatically calculates this on the fly as you change them, and you can verify that all your troops will do what you want when you want by previewing the turn resolution, which will move your troops as ordered in a simulation. Combat has some complications, as Flashpoint Germany features dynamic weather that can change every 20 minutes. In a cool twist, the time of dusk and dawn are realistic for the area of Germany the game covers, and changes from winter to summer (I appreciate this as a Earth Science teacher).

Unlike some other wargames, supply is done semi-automatically in Flashpoint Germany. In other games, you must order supply trucks around the map in order to ensure that all units are properly equipped. In Flashpoint Germany, all you need to do is issue a rest and refit order for the turn, and a unit will be supplied during the turn resolution. This is very beginner-friendly, as most games become painstakingly confusing when dealing with supply.

ET AL.
Flashpoint Germany is interesting, as it has some good and some not so good qualities. Overall, the mechanics of the game are very easy to learn, and the tone of the game is beginner-friendly. This will appeal to those people who do not have a background in wargaming, as most of the complications found in other games are streamlined or removed. Most of the game involves moving units around the map, placing them in proper locations, and correctly anticipating what the enemy is going to do. Since the AI does most of the work for individual units, the game can sometimes feel like it’s running itself, and that user input is limited. Once the fighting starts, since the total number of orders is limited, there isn’t much to do, other than issue a small number of commands to specific units. Flashpoint Germany is more about the preparation for battle than commanding the troops during battle. Because of this, the game can drag on, especially in the orders resolution mode. Turn resolution happens very, very slowly, as each individual battle is animated every five minutes or turn time. A single battle animation can take 10-15 seconds, and since turns (by default) are 30 minutes long and you can have clashes between 10 units at once, a single animated turn can take 15 minutes. This is entirely too long to sit there and watch the action on-screen with no way to skip it, speed it up, or exit. I like Combat Mission’s approach better, where each turn was a real-time minute and animated in real-time, but you could also fast forward or even skip to the end of the turn. I have found no way to do this in Flashpoint Germany. The game does feature fairly good AI, which changes its strategy every scenario, so no two encounters will be exactly alike (although they may be very similar). The AI is a good opponent, but of course is not match for a human foe.

IN CLOSING
Flashpoint Germany is a good wargame that’s skewed more towards the novice crowd. Since a lot micromanagement has been removed from the game, there are sometimes limits to the strategies you can employ, as you are essentially restricted to positioning units and waiting for an attack. The game has good features, such as above average graphics and an easy to use scenario editor, along with an interesting setting. There are things I like about the game, especially the user interface, WEGO combat model, and relatively quick battles (not counting the time spent in the turn resolution, of course). I suppose that I want a little more depth to my wargame than Flashpoint Germany has to offer, but I do suggest this for any person who’s never played a wargame before to acclimated to the genre. Personally, I prefer the Decisive Battles engine of Battles in Italy to Flashpoint Germany, but you’ll definitely find things to like in this package.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Armada 2250: The Rebellion Review

Armada 2250: The Rebellion, developed and published by Walter O. Krawec Games.
The Good: Easy to learn, various multiplayer modes, can be fun
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics and sound, can be repetitive
What say you? A simple action-adventure game: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Arguably, the action-adventure game is responsible for the popularity of console gaming (see Super Mario Brothers as my evidence). Simple games where you run, jump, shoot, and solve were easy to learn and appeal to all skill levels. Armada 2250: The Rebellion hopes to recapture some of that magic, featuring an action-heavy adventure game where you, as a member of the U.S. Navy in the year, oh, 2249 (approximately), go around and shoot stuff. Sounds fun!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Armada 2250: The Rebellion has some really, really old school graphics. The entire game is played from the top-down perspective, and all of the levels are tile-based arrangements representing realistic landscapes. There are also very few animations for the characters; for example, death is a quick, abrupt transition from a standing bitmap to a dead and bloody bitmap. I’m willing to give leeway in the graphics department for games made by a one man army, but you won’t be purchasing Armada 2250: The Rebellion to justify that new video card. The sound is along the same path; none of the on-screen dialog is auditory, and just basic sounds of shooting guns and death grunts are heard. Again, the sound is not one of the highlights of the game.

ET AL.
Armada 2250: The Rebellion features fourteen single player missions arranged in a story-driven campaign. Most of the levels are short, and the game does not take long to thoroughly complete. Along with the campaign, Armada 2250: The Rebellion has some multiplayer modes of play, including capture the flag and deathmatch for people on a LAN or through Direct IP. This is rare for a title of this genre, and is greatly appreciated to extend the value of the game. It was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across this little addition, and is good, quick fun to be had.

Each of the missions follows the same basic design: you must shoot enemies on the way to turning some switch, whether it is a computer or a different kind of computer. Most of these enemies spawn in the room you are currently in (how convenient that they can “beam down” into any location) and you have to use some cunning and/or strategy in order to defeat them without being killed. There is a normal range of arms at your disposal, ranging from machine guns to pistols. You can also engage the enemy in an assortment of vehicles, if they are present on the current level; these provide a little more variety in the missions. The location of your objective is displayed by holding the “C” key, so most missions it’s a matter of walking or driving to the checkpoint, taking out all of the enemies, and throwing the switch. You can’t complete an objective until you have destroyed ALL of the enemies that spawned, even if they run off to some random location and you have to hunt them down like the dogs they are. In order to assist you when cornered, you can call down super weapons once per mission to obliterate the enemy forces.

IN CLOSING
Armada 2250: The Rebellion is fun to play, albeit a bit tedious. There is not too much variety in the different missions, although you do tend to get more powerful weaponry as the game progresses. The game is not bad, as the design of the levels and overall difficulty of the game come in to play. The game can and does require some thought in approaching the different rooms, as running around with guns blazing will usually result in untimely death. It’s the slight tactical edge to Armada 2250: The Rebellion that makes the game enjoyable, and counteracts the sub-par graphics and sound. Armada 2250: The Rebellion is something to look for if you enjoy action-adventure games and don’t mind a slightly challenging game with archaic graphics at a discount price ($10). Those interested should check out the demo to see if Armada 2250: The Rebellion is right for you.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Axiomatic Review

Axiomatic PC, developed and published by Ten Ninjas.
The Good: Spectacular graphics, realistic physics
The Not So Good: Very few features
What say you? A space shooter with great graphics that needs some additional modes of play: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In the future, or so I gather from the numerous movies, television shows, and games that have covered the subject, we will live in space-age cities on far away planets and spend our days blowing the crap out of each other. Axiomatic is a spaceship shooter that involves skirmishes between ships of various classes in a grand battle of map domination. Let’s peer inside, shall we?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Easily the best feature of Axiomatic is the graphics. They are top-notch representations of a colorful solar system, complete with beautiful background, detailed ship models, and powerful weapons and explosions. However, there is a lack of environmental objects other than the ships. They are certainly a wonder to see in action, even if numerous ships can slow down your system. The sounds are also well done, with appropriate background spacey music and convincing explosion effects. Axiomatic could be confused with a technology demo for its amazing graphical feats.

ET AL.
Now, what surrounds the astonishing graphics engine? Sadly, not much. Axiomatic seems to be a work in progress; although there is a cost associated with the full version at this point, most small developers have good support and enhancements for their games. In the game, there are three ships to choose from: the fast and small Trifighter with plasma cannons and short range missiles, the long-range biased Thunderbolt, and the Starfire destroyer, with steroid-induced plasma cannons and missiles. You can play the game in either Survival or Skirmish modes. In either, you can choose how many friendly ships you have for your side, and Skirmish mode allows you to customize the enemy’s fleet (Survival mode just pits you against a whole bunch of enemies at once). You can also change the difficulty and the background environment, of which there are five. Once the game starts, you can select which ship to control for the match, and then the battle begins. Axiomatic does feature some appealing Newtonian physics: ships with spin and roll when hit with weapons, which makes recovering from an attack appropriately difficult. And that’s it: three ships and two similar games modes. There is room for the addition of more game types. For example, a “campaign” mode where you fought stronger and stronger enemies could be an easy addition to the game, and a high score list could be kept to add an edge of competition. Although maybe beyond the scope of this particular game, multiplayer could be a strong addendum; imagine six on six battles between ships of different classes dueling for dominance.

IN CLOSING
As it stands, Axiomatic is a game with fantastic graphics and a partial list of features. Hopefully, the developer will eventually add some more substance to the game. I usually give some leniency to small developers, and Axiomatic surely has potential to be a great game, but not at this time with the basic features the game has. The graphics are impressive, but there could definitely have been more done with them.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Falcon 4.0: Allied Force Review

Falcon 4.0: Allied Force PC, developed by Lead Pursuit and published by Graphsim Entertainment.
The Good: Extreme accuracy and detail, outstanding graphics, interesting game modes, including team multiplayer and a dynamic campaign
The Not So Good: Bare tutorials with no in-game instructions make the game difficult to learn, only one flyable aircraft (with variants)
What say you? A complete flight simulation with a steep learning curve: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the most celebrated flight simulations of all time is Falcon 4.0. Released in 1998 by simulation giant Microprose (how I loved that company), it received rave reviews and a rabid cult following. Lead Pursuit has decided to offer an updated version of the game, released as Falcon 4.0: Allied Force. This new version features spiffy graphics and a new theater of operations (the Balkans, located next to Bartokomous). Since the simulation genre has been in a nosedive (see, ‘cause it’s a plane sim, ha!) recently, will Falcon 4.0: Allied Force provided a shot in the arm to a dilapidated genre?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Falcon 4.0: Allied Force features some outstanding graphics; they are easily on par with leviathan civilian flight simulation Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. The amount of detail on the planes and especially the ground textures and 3D buildings is quite realistic and satisfying. Flight simulators have always been one of the games to persuade gamers to invest in a new video card, and Falcon 4.0: Allied Force keeps that tradition going. Happily, the game seems to run fine on semi-outdated hardware (at least much smoother than FS2004 at essentially the same settings). Falcon 4.0: Allied Force provides a realistic environment for you to blow things up in. The sound effects are realistic, which, being a military flight simulation, isn’t that exciting. The realistic warning noises and other functioning audio systems on the plane are in full force, as are the engine noises and explosions. You wouldn’t expect a gallery of audio delight in a flight simulation, and Falcon 4.0: Allied Force certainly doesn’t overwhelm, but the sounds are certainly sufficient.

FEATURES
Falcon 4.0: Allied Force features a slew of different flight modes, appealing to those wanting a full campaign or a short jaunt of engaging and (hopefully) destroying targets. All of the missions are flown using the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, which is certainly not surprising given the name of the game. Instant Action spawns your aircraft already in flight and pits you against ground and air aircraft looking for a fight. In Dogfight, you can play against the AI or people over the Internet (no in-game matchmaking service, though) in a head-to-head team-based match of wits; it’s a neat addition to see team play in a flight simulation. You can design your own scenarios, or engage in the Campaign that can take place in either the Balkans or Korea. The campaign is dynamic and in real-time, so missions follow the progress of the war, and are offered to you as they become available. You can even customize the kinds of missions and targets you’d like to engage, which gives the user even more control. You can also play the campaign mode in multiplayer. Bonus! Falcon 4.0: Allied Force’s campaign mode is everything other games should strive for. After you are done flying a mission, you can see how poorly you did by using the replay suite, codenamed ACMI.

There is also a full list of tutorials in the game, thirty to be exact. The training missions are by far the low point of the game. Each scenario gives you vague objectives to complete while you are flying around, shown using waypoints. Once you enter your aircraft, there are no additional instructions at all: all of the tutorials are essentially sandbox modes with some preset conditions. You will often forget which tutorial you are doing, and you won’t actually learn anything from them, as all the information must be read from the manual. It is very hard to read and fly at the same time: I know! Falcon 4.0: Allied Force really, really needs some good, scripted tutorials with on-screen instructions. Learning to fly a F-16 is hard, and not tutoring the player in the game is a bad move.

DESTROYING OTHER PLANES
Since the game only features one flyable aircraft (all right, there are three versions of the F-16, but that’s cheating), you would expect the plane to be extremely detailed, and it is. All of the buttons, levers, and other things you can accidentally press (“We need that to live”) are present, I am assuming, since I have never been in a F-16. Since there are so many different things to fiddle with, but the layout of the game is done with usability in mind: by clicking near the edge of the screen (or by holding down the right mouse button and moving the mouse), you can snap to the next screen; once you learn where all of the displays are located, moving between them is a snap. Most of the time, you’ll be engaging other, slightly more evil air targets. Falcon 4.0: Allied Force features both simplified and realistic radar modes in which to find your targets. Simplified radar gives a 360 view around the aircraft, and automatically detects which planes are friendly and not-so-friendly. Once you find a target, you can blow them up using one of the many missiles in the game: AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder (those names bring back the days of F-15 Strike Eagle III). Of course, sometimes, interesting things are located on the ground, so you may enjoy…

DESTROYING NON-FLYING THINGS
Falcon 4.0: Allied Force has some air to ground radar as well, where you can detect moving and stationary objects, and drop some bombs. There are two flavors of air to ground weapons: free-fall bombs such as the MK-82 and MK-84, which are guided using CCIP or CCRP, and fire-and-forget bombs like the AGM-65 Maverick, which is bad news for enemy tanks. You can’t blow stuff up if you’re dead, so it’s important…

NOT GETTING BLOWN UP
You are given options to disrupt your enemy’s futile attempts at destroying you. First, HARM missiles can home in and destroy enemy radar stations (which tends to make them stop tracking you). Also, RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) informs you of incoming radar transmissions so you can take evasive actions. All of these systems makes the game highly realistic, which makes Falcon 4.0: Allied Force difficult but rewarding. Tied with all of the instrumentation is an accurate flight model (at least when compared with other flight sims) that gives expected feedback to user input.

IN CLOSING
Falcon 4.0: Allied Force is a very impressive game. The game has outstanding graphics, several multiplayer modes, a dynamic campaign, accurate flight modeling, and an overall realistic feel. And it’s only $30! Double bonus! This is definitely one of the best flight simulators I have played in quite a while. If it weren’t for the barebones training missions and consequent steep learning curve, I’d find no reason not to give this game a perfect score. If you are interested at all in military flight simulators, don’t hesitate to pick this game up.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar Review

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar PC, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Strategic elements, tabletop feel, relatively simple to learn, togas
The Not So Good: Poor sound effects, no multiplayer matchmaking, very deliberate pace
What say you? A protracted but engrossing turn-based Roman strategy game: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Computers are wonderful: they can replace having real relationships with other people! A branch of this positive aspect is that computers can replace opponents in a variety of games, if you cannot find anyone that wants to play, say, a tabletop wargame (and who wouldn’t?). Thankfully, all the grognards out there are covered, as numerous wargame simulations have inserted artificial intelligence where real intelligence could not be found. Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is a computer simulation of a tabletop wargame, where two opposing sides move pieces around a game board, roll dice, and see who is the better strategist.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar fulfills the goal of accurately simulating a tabletop board game. All of the units in the game are computer renders of board game miniatures, complete with color-coded base. The maps don’t have a completely convincing 3-D diorama feel, and seems more like a 2-D texture applied to a flat surface. The game has little touches which attempt to further convey the board game feel, such as a hand descending and removing fallen pieces: this is a nice touch, but gets old after the first or second game, especially since it takes so long. The music in the game is very well done; it seems that background music is something that wargames excel in, and Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is no exception. Of course, to balance this, the sound effects are very sparse and underwhelming: aside from the occasional troop movement effect and repetitive combat sound, you won’t find much else in the audio department in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar.

FEATURES
Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar’s main feature is a campaign mode, where you can choose from a selection of battles to take and spend money on additional troops or buy strategy cards, which are special bonuses that can be used during battle, such as giving better accuracy or damage to your archers. The campaign mode looks and feels like a quick add-on to the game, just as a way to loosely tie together the individual battles you will fight. There isn’t any strategy in choosing which battles to play, and limited tactics in deciding where to allocate your funds. You will definitely not find a deep campaign mode found in other games such as Rome: Total War. You can choose to play the fourteen campaign battles individually, which really renders the campaign totally useless, except for the strategy cards. If you have friends over a network, multiplayer games are available.

GAMEPLAY
Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is a turn-based strategy game, and each game day is divided into 15-minute turns, each of which is further divided into three 5-minute phases. The first phase is the command phase, where orders are assigned to each of your units. The first aspect of your units to keep track of is the direction that they are facing. They can only attack units that are in front of them (either directly or at a slight angle), and huge negative bonuses are found when units are attacked from the side or behind. You can change the direction your units are facing, but this counts as your only move during the command phase. I’m undecided as to whether the unit’s facing should be automated or not. If enemy units are approaching from the left, would real military units automatically change the direction they are facing to better engage the enemy? Of course, in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar, all of the actions of your units must be given to them explicitly, so automatic facing doesn’t really fit in this game anyway. Your units can, obviously, move around the map; however, each square on the map can only be occupied by one unit at a time, so if many units are present on a small map, the battles can move slowly. Of course, units can attack the enemy, either by using melee attacks on adjacent units, or missile units on units further away; which attack they use is dependent of what kind of unit they are. Units can be ordered to charge the enemy, which provides bonuses, which are positive or negative, depending on the relative quality of the unit they are charging. If you need to get out of there, units can retreat, which is a combination of a backwards move and a 180-degree facing switch. After the Command Phase, certain units can be issued new orders in the Reaction Phase. To be offered the Reaction Phase, a unit must have pushed an attacked unit back, have its movement blocked, attacked an unoccupied space (such as a missile attack on a unit that moved out of range), or an archer that has an enemy unit move next to it. This is essentially a replacement for reactive AI in the game, so decisions that would be made by the computer in most games are to be made by the player in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar. Again, the level of micromanagement you can stand determines whether you’ll like this feature or not. The final phase is the Reserve Phase; if units were given a reserve order, they can perform an order here. There is some strategy to keeping units in reserve, as since they can move last, you can counteract the enemy moves made in the previous phases.

ET AL.
The number of attacks a unit can make is determined by its size: small units can attack once per stand, medium units twice, and large units four times. A successful damage reduces the enemy by one step, and once five steps of damage are received, the stand is eliminated. Essentially, since the units are eliminated very slowly, the gameplay is very drawn out. A single round takes an excruciatingly long time and requires a lot of patience. Usually, each map has at least two objectives, usually a defend point and a counter-attack point. Accomplishing both of these objectives requires moving across the map, and if you want to keep your units in some sort of arrangement, even moving can be a real hassle, since some units can only move one square per turn. You really don’t want to separate your units, since they will be picked off individually, so keeping your units in straight lines is advantageous. Each unit has a leader, which appear to be based on historical figures with headshots that may or may not be accurate. The leaders can provide bonuses (again, positive or negative) in combat and morale. Each unit has a training level along with dynamic morale, which can be analyzed to maximize your army’s effectiveness.

IN CLOSING
Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is an interesting game to evaluate. I do like the overall combat model, although it’s been done in some form or another in other wargames. Personally, I like more automation in my strategy game, so determining the individual facing of each of my units is not my cup of tea, but it is for some. The historical touches show that a good amount of research was done in assessing the units and leaders in the game. The game does successfully express the board game feel through the use of simulated units. The battles take a long, long, long time, so patience is a needed commodity. Overall, I am just not singularly impressed by any one aspect of the game. Usually, I can find something that makes a game stand out, but Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is just slightly above average in most categories. The game isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding. I wasn’t infuriated by playing Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar, but I didn’t really want to keep playing either. The game might interest those looking for a simple historic turn-based strategy game, but Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is not at the top of the strategy heap.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Will of Steel Review

Will of Steel PC, developed by Gameyus Interactive and published by GMX Media.
The Good: Voice commands, modern units
The Not So Good: Extremely inferior pathfinding, hideous AI, poor graphics and sound, only 16 missions with opaque objectives, no multiplayer, frustrating to play
What say you? An unplayable RTS ruined by the worst pathfinding in years: 2/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I like me some real time strategy. In fact, my favorite game of all time (Kohan II: Kings of War) is a RTS game. I feel that strategy games accentuate the positives of intelligent gamers everywhere, instead of glorifying who has the best reflexes. So, another addition to the RTS market is always welcome here at Out of Eight, and I was slightly excited to receive Will of Steel, which takes its clues from the recent battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Will of Steel, you command troops as they engage stereotypical terrorists forces in desert-covered lands.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Both the graphics and the sound in Will of Steel are sub-par. The graphics are very outdated, especially when they are compared with modern 3-D RTS games (Rise of Nations, Act of War). The environments have almost no detail, save for a couple of trees and rocks. The units themselves aren’t terribly detailed, and have last-generation textures. You can’t zoom in or out very far in the game, which makes the level of detail low and the game difficult to play. The unit explosions are also substandard. All of the units in the game, whether they are friend or foe, have health bars, so it can be difficult to determine which units are on which side in the heat of battle. Of course, the enemy infantry units all wear clich├ęd Islamic outfits, so that makes identification easier. Even with the poor-quality graphics, the game can run slow at times. I experienced lots of mouse lag during the game, even though what I was looking at was not impressive and other games of better graphical quality run better. The sound in Will of Steel is also bad. The units have very few order acknowledgements, all of the death sounds are the same, and the short 10-second rock background music cuts in and out at seemingly random intervals.

FEATURES
Will of Steel has a total of 16 missions in 2 scenarios, covering action in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). I’m not going to get into the politics of whether designing a game around a conflict that is ongoing is a good idea or not; after all, we have a game that simulates the Bush presidency. Will of Steel does not have multiplayer, skirmish battles, a tutorial, or even a good manual (the on-disk manual just lists the unit and voice commands). Thus, there will be no replay value with this game. Actually, playing the game once can be frustrating. For each mission, you are given vague objectives that are not indicated on the map and cannot be accessed mid-mission. Each game consists of ordering troops around the map destroying the enemy. There is no resource gathering, as the game just concerns itself with the tactical side of RTS gaming. About the only original aspect of Will of Steel is the voice commands. You can select units by team, class, or type, and issue commands to units all through the use of a microphone. This is a new addition to RTS gaming, but there is no real point, as most commands can be performed by a button combination, and you need to press spacebar to execute voice commands anyway. Good idea, though.

UNITS
The units in Will of Steel are generic military units: infantry, tanks, and missile launchers. Your forces can be issued the general slew of commands, such as move, attack, and guard. You can also hand out tactical commands, which are supposed to govern the unit movement modes and formations. These are useless, as the units will never stay in formation while moving and will in general do as they please. The game also doesn’t indicate which formation the units were issued like most other games do. To assist you in completing the game, there are several “super weapons” in the game that seem to be activated whenever the scenario designers wanted. These include things such as air strikes, laser-guided bombs, and satellite recon. This brings us to the reason why Will of Steel has destroyed my soul.

THE REASON WHY WILL OF STEEL HAS DESTOYED MY SOUL
Bad pathfinding and AI. Both of these are crucial in RTS games, as the rest of the game design relies on acceptable gains in these two areas. In a first person shooter, it is important to accurately model where the bullets go. If you shoot at an enemy, you expect some sort of result. Sadly, Will of Steel fails miserably in the AI department, which renders the game worthless, as there is no multiplayer component. Units do not work together, even if they are arranged in groups. Units can engage while moving, but will sometimes totally ignore an enemy unit that is firing upon them. Units get trapped on mountains; if there is a mountain between a unit and its move order, it will most likely get stuck on the mountain, other units, or move in the complete opposite direction. This is quite unfortunate since most of the levels, being in Afghanistan and Iraq, have mountains. Units will attack the ground where an attack order was issued even after the enemy unit is destroyed. Sometimes units will even move away from the order location. In summary, the game’s missions are extremely difficult (and sometimes impossible) to complete, since units will spread out all over the map, not respond to move orders at all, get trapped by obstacles, and get destroyed as they engage enemy units with no support.

IN CLOSING
In an alternate universe, Will of Steel could be a good game. I’m usually pretty supportive of games made by small developers, and I give some lenience in the areas of graphics and sound if the gameplay is up to snuff. Problem is, in Will of Steel, the graphics are bad, the sound is bad, the features are bad, and the gameplay is bad. I don’t even have enough spirit left to find synonyms for the word “bad.” The game could be improved, with additional graphics and sounds, and much more improved pathfinding and AI. Will of Steel is not a RTS game you should consider buying; there are too many problems with the game in its current state. There are plenty of alternatives that are much better, even considering the low price tag attached to Will of Steel. I felt strongly compelled to stop playing numerous times while plodding though Will of Steel, and if a game isn’t fun to play, then there is no reason to play it.