Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Star Trek: Legacy Review

Star Trek: Legacy, developed by Mad Doc Software and published by Bethesda Softworks.
The Good: Lots of ships covering the entire Star Trek history, control multiple ships, authentic voice acting, decent campaign, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Laggy or unresponsive commands with an inadequate user interface, dull battles with too much turning and not enough explosions, shallow tactical combat, system hog, can’t save mid-mission, server browser is useless
What say you? Limited, buggy controls and superficial gameplay ruin a potentially interesting game: 4/8

There are two main kinds of sci-fi nerds: those who like Star Wars, and those that like Star Trek (those that like Stargate or Battlestar Galactica are technically dweebs). There have been numerous computer games spawned from each of these enterprises, some of them good and some of them not so good. With the ever-rising popularity of real time strategy games, gamers would like to experience what it feels like to pilot large ships in the future. Piloting famous ships would be even better, and that’s where Star Trek: Legacy comes in. There have been tactical Star Trek games before, but Star Trek: Legacy hopes to heap on the ships from all of the ages of Star Trek history in order to bury you in a big pile of Shatner.

It’s obvious that Star Trek: Legacy has had a large emphasis on good presentation, and it shows in the quality of the graphics and sound. As you expect in a game that centers around ship combat, Star Trek: Legacy features some very detailed ships: they appear just like their TV counterparts. The ships are set in a good-looking universe of nebulae and planets, and the lasers, photon torpedoes, and dynamic damage all are impressive. Of course, the graphics come at a price: the game doesn’t run smoothly at any resolution. There are other space games that look just as good, but run much more smoothly at generally the same settings. It seems that a little bit more time could have been spent optimizing the graphics in the game. The sound is also high-quality: the game features all the captains from the real TV shows to do voice acting in the game, although some seem more interested than others. The background music is also well done and fits the mood of the game well. The high production values of Star Trek: Legacy shine through, assuming you have the system to handle it (I can’t do it, captain; I just don’t have the power!).

Star Trek: Legacy is an action game with strategy elements where you can control up to four ships at a time and blow the crap out of other ships. The game’s main draw is the fact that it covers all 5 Star Trek television shows, including all of the ships (both friendly and not-as-friendly) from all of the eras of Trekdom. The main campaign is a linear set of missions that involve commanding the five flagships from each of the shows, starting with Dr. Sam Beckett. The campaign is pretty decent, and it allows you to purchase new ships between missions so fill out your fleet. There are also multiplayer games, both over the Internet and against the AI. These games are either death matches or against a wave of AI enemies. You would think that Star Trek would lend itself to some unique or at least innovating multiplayer modes, but I guess not. You can select teams, the era, fleet size, time limit, ship types, and whether respawns are allowed. You can control ships from the Federation, Klingons, Romulans, or the Borg. Star Trek: Legacy has a useless server browser that seems to only show games that are already in progress; finding a multiplayer match is exceedingly difficult.

At it’s heart, Star Trek: Legacy is an action game that replaced first person shooting with ships. You can control scouts, destroyers, cruisers, or battleships, each of which exchange maneuverability for firepower in a linear relationship. The game was obviously designed for the consoles, as Star Trek: Legacy does not take full advantage of the PC. The user interface is almost non-existent, replacing clear indicators of weapon arcs and ranges with confusing targeting icons. The only real strategy in the game is positioning: putting your weapons in place to fire. The game makes no indication of your ships’ weapon arcs, even though they are very important. You will have to guess which directions your phasers and photon torpedoes can fire. In an effort to streamline the interface for the consoles, the developers have removed almost every useful tidbit of information that’s been present in other tactical games the past 15 years. This insanity permeates to the most important aspect of any computer game: user input. Star Trek: Legacy has so many bugs related to the basic control of your ships that the game is essentially unplayable. Even when locked on, your primary and secondary weapons only fire about half of the time when you click the appropriate mouse buttons. The throttle, controlled by the mouse wheel, rarely responds. Targeting enemy ships is cumbersome (you need to hold down spacebar, and even then a list only appears for a short amount of time) and interacting with any other object in space is done by holding down one key. Whose bright idea was it to bind every interaction command to one key? And when the command rose appears, the mouse does not respond. Non-responsive controls? Brilliant! This means it is impossible to complete the first mission in the game, since you have to select a friendly unit within a time limit. It’s nice to see that the game was extensively tested on the PC prior to release. I can’t imagine a game this flawed being released by a major publisher, but apparently I was horribly, horribly wrong. Even if the game does work, the gameplay is very shallow and devoid of almost any real strategy: turn, turn, turn, shoot, turn, turn, shoot. This may cut it on the consoles, but not on the PC. Since a lot of the ships in the game have the same turning radii, the game devolves into an endless turning match, and you’ll never be able to catch up to the enemy ship. The AI seems especially adept at frustrating you, always staying just far enough ahead where you can’t get a clear shot in. Because they had to dumb down Star Trek: Legacy for the consoles, the game on the PC is a complete mess.

Star Trek: Legacy is so buggy and frustrating that it’s not worth playing. So what if the game features ships from every Star Trek show; it doesn’t matter if the gameplay stinks. I much prefer the seven-year-old Starfleet Command to this game: it actually had a usable interface for the PC and deep gameplay. It’s pretty sad that Star Trek games have taken a step backwards in terms of usability. Star Trek: Legacy tries to sell you on its flashy graphics and grand scope, but the game is so buggy and strategically trivial that it’s not worth playing. This is too bad, since I could really go for a good Star Trek game. The campaign is somewhat interesting, but the fact that you can’t save your progress mid-mission is a concern, especially since it’s extraordinarily difficult to get the game into a usable condition. Star Trek: Legacy is a system hog, it has unresponsive controls, and it has idiotic gameplay: what more do you need to know? Star Trek: Legacy can boldly go where no man has gone before: straight into the garbage can.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Armado Review

Armado, developed and published by Tricky Software.
The Good: Very simple controls, good 3-D graphics and music
The Not So Good: Imprecise attacking makes the game difficult, tremendously repetitive gameplay and every level is essentially the same, game only saves at the beginning of each level, short
What say you? Frustrating strikes, monotonous level design, and strict linearity just doesn’t cut it: 4/8

While hedgehogs and Italians have had their time in popular platform games, the armadillo has been excluded. Why haven’t these majestic creatures been harnessed in countless computer games (my personal favorite is Chaetophractus vellerosus, or screaming hairy armadillo)? Well, their time is now! Tricky Software has finally given these armored beasts their due, featuring them prominently in their new platform game called Armado. As a plucky young armadillo, Armado must scale mountains in order to free the Queen Eagle, jumping his way past numerous foes. And there’s something about a fox in there.

For a game that was essentially made by one person, Armado looks and sounds excellent. Despite being limited to two directions of movement, the game is rendered in 3-D. The main character is well rendered, as well as all of the enemy units you will encounter. The mountains and various obstacles scattered around the maps are also quite detailed. Most of the mountains are surrounded by dense forests that add a nice touch to the overall theme of the game. The special effects are also well done. The only downside to the graphics is that the background images are low resolution, and they are definitely noticeable against the first-rate graphics. The music fits the game well, as “folksy” background music twangs in the background. The sound effects are fairly limited, however, as you won’t experience any variety in hearing the same event more than once; the ants saying “ow!” when hit is slightly amusing, at least the first time you hear it. The graphics and the sound are unquestionably the highlight of the game, and knowing the game’s independent roots makes them even more impressive.

Armado features a short campaign where you climb up mountains collecting gems and avoiding enemies, such as ants, logs, and rocks. The game has a central server scoreboard so that you can compare your results against others. Armado is really played in two dimensions, as you can only move forward, move backward, and jump. This makes the game easier to grasp, but limits the number of strategies available to the player. You also have the option to roll and strike, both of which are limited in the number of times you can use them. Armado features one of the most frustrating attacks I’ve seen in quite a while: striking an enemy involves jumping, and since most of the enemies will move while you are in the air, you must fine-tune your landing using the directional keys. More often than not, you’ll just end up missing the enemy over and over again, depleting your rolling and striking power. It’s almost impossible to consistently dispose of enemy after enemy. Since you are limited in the number of successive attacks, you will be subject to frequent untimely death: enemies will attack and you can’t attack them back. You can only recharge while standing or walking, and since enemies move faster than you do and you can’t jump to avoid them, you’ll end up losing life after life. Armado only features sporadic heath kits, so you’ll need to play nearly perfect in order to beat the game. The lack of a difficulty setting, that might grand increased health, compounds the problem. In addition, each level is the same: go up the mountain, collect gems and other items, avoid and attack enemies. You can’t save in the middle of a level; because the difficulty is so high, this is inexcusable. You must also go up AND down the mountain, so you’ll be playing each level twice: this does not help the repetitive feel of the game at all. You are given a time limit to complete each level, although since you’ll be constantly running it never becomes a factor (except when trying to strike enemies to no avail). Armado almost behaves like a rail shooter, where you are tied to a straight path for the entire game, only able to jump. If a game uses 3-D environments, why not use them to their advantage? If Armado was a side-scrolling game like Super Mario Brothers, you might forgive the restricted levels, but even Luigi could fly, swim, and enter pipes. The gameplay is Armado is monotonous yet frustrating, which is a deadly combination.

Armado’s great presentation is severely limited by its restricted and difficult gameplay. Armado could appeal to the very young, but the controls can’t be trusted: since attacking involves jumping, actually hitting an enemy is terribly difficult. Armado isn’t difficult because it’s challenging, it’s difficult because of cumbersome controls. The level design is also extremely repetitive: slightly varying combinations of enemies, jumps, and jewels scattered over a singular path up and down mountains tends to get boring after the first level. And having to repeat the level backwards just adds to the ennui. There isn’t any redeeming factor in the gameplay; I’ve never played a game with such simple controls that’s so frustrating to play (well, maybe Sky Puppy). While the concept and the accoutrements form a good surrounding to the game, the gameplay lacks solid execution and thus is not recommended.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Massive Assault Network 2 Review

Massive Assault Network 2, developed and published by
The Good: Straightforward strategy gameplay, decent graphics, flexible turn submission time constraints, pretty easy to find games, no more monthly fees
The Not So Good: Practically the same as previous versions, laughably horrible tutorial voice-overs, games against the AI must be submitted to the network each turn, limited to two players
What say you? Another online-centric iteration of the Massive Assault franchise: 6/8

The Massive Assault franchise has been around since 2003, starting with the appropriately-named Massive Assault. The game’s brand of clear-cut gameplay has a good following among the wargaming community, and it has tried to branch out into the multiplayer realm with the second version of Massive Assault Network, appropriately named Massive Assault Network 2 (or, to veterans of the game, U.N.C.L.E.). How will Massive Assault Network 2 take the game to the next level?

Massive Assault Network 2 has good graphics for the genre, but they are generally unchanged from previous versions. The game is rendered in 3-D: this is already a step ahead of most wargames that are released these days. The game features an exaggerated landscape in terms of scale, with large, continental areas containing large, easy to identify units. The maps look good and are distinctive: you’ll instantly recognize a screenshot of Massive Assault 2 as being from Massive Assault 2, which is more than can be said for the cookie-cutter World War II strategy games out there. The maps combine meaningful terrain with good visual flair, and the results are pleasing. The special effects, while repetitive, are pretty good: explosions are impressive enough, and the weapons are powerful. Massive Assault 2 has combination of cartoon and realistic elements that’s unique to the genre. The game level of quality is not equaled in the sound, however. The background music is pretty much what you’d expect and the sound effects are sporadic and generic. The voice acting during tutorials is horrendous, however, and frankly hard to listen to. It’s a real distraction from playing the game, and you’ll routinely skip or completely turn off the audio.

Massive Assault Network 2 is more of a culmination of the series rather than a completely new edition, as the changes from previous version of the game are minimal. Of course, Massive Assault Network 2 is the best version of the game, but people who have played any of the previous games (Massive Assault, Domination) will notice the striking similarities. Massive Assault Network 2 features two-player, turn-based strategy for control of a planet. There are 25 maps in the game, including some new ones to the series. I would like some random maps, but the maps in the game are well designed and the inclusion of the secret allies mode (more on that in a bit) ramps up the replay value. Being an online game, you would expect Massive Assault Network 2 to make it pretty easy to join an online game, and it does. The game lists all of the players that are currently logged in, plus allows you to challenge a specific player, including those players who are offline at the moment. Massive Assault Network 2 keeps you abreast of your current games, making it easy to play multiple contests at the same time. The turn-based structure of the game allows you to proceed as quickly or as slowly as you and your opponent wish, but Massive Assault Network 2 also gives you the ability to play “live” against another opponent, which is really nice. You also have the ability to play against one of two AI opponents, and the AI is pretty good at the game and will offer a good challenge for beginning players. There are some additional options available in creating a new game, other than the selection of the map. You can use various unit sets that unlock progressively more units and you can change the timing settings to limit turn time or activate an overall turn clock for the entire game (like chess). Massive Assault Network 2 does deserve the “network” moniker, as it makes it easy to join and play multiplayer games.

Massive Assault Network 2 concerns the struggle for control of the world through military action. The maps are divided into a number of different provinces, each of which produces money to construct more units so that you can take over more provinces. Massive Assault Network 2 features the secret allies mode, where a number of neutral provinces are actually owned by you and can be disclosed later in the game. This can result in sneak attacks on enemy forces and also varies the gameplay on any particular map somewhat. Each turn is comprised of four phases: guerilla phase permits invaded provinces place defending forces, movement phase lets you move and attack enemy units, recruitment phase let you buy new units, and disclosure phase allows you to disclose secret allies. In order to control a neutral or enemy province, you must “remove” all the enemy units from the province and capture the capital. An invaded province cannot produce any new units, which makes having a good defending force a primary strategy. Each of the game’s units have a set number of hit points, movement points, damage, fire range, and price, and they can travel on the ground, over the sea, or through the air. Massive Assault Network 2 actually has a pretty generic arrangement of forces: fast but weak units, slow but powerful units, expensive and powerful units, and units in the middle. Not surprising for a game that’s been through three complete versions, Massive Assault Network 2 features very refined gameplay: each unit in the game has a specific purpose, and the game is very straightforward in terms of mechanics. Massive Assault Network 2 hardly has any rough edges to it, and the game feels very complete and there aren’t really any improvements that could be made to the basic formula. Really, you either like the Massive Assault series or you don’t; Massive Assault Network 2 makes a great introduction to wargames, where other titles might be a bit too much to handle for new players.

Massive Assault 2 is identical to previous versions of Massive Assault with the exception of a couple of new features, most notably the option to play in “real time.” The game is obviously not revolutionary, but it is a well-designed game that features relatively simple gameplay mechanics that should appeal to new players. Massive Assault Network 2 is a solid and entertaining strategy game that should provide enjoyment for people who like the genre. The removal of monthly subscription fees sweetens the pot, and the ease of joining and playing online games makes Massive Assault Network 2 the most polished of the games in the series. This title feels more like one of the yearly updated EA Sports games, where a couple of tweaks have been made from the previous version. Thus, owners of previous version of the game might be wary to dive into this new title since it is extremely similar. But, this is a fine culmination of the series and Massive Assault Network 2 is a enjoyable strategy game if you fancied the earlier versions. 

Friday, December 15, 2006

Impulse Review

Impulse developed and published by Taparo.
The Good: Timing controls make it easy to make small changes, a lot of levels, solutions are provided, good physics model with multiple puzzle elements
The Not So Good: No level editor
What say you? A solid physics-based puzzle game: 6/8

The advent of more powerful computer has resulted in more sophisticated games that strive to simulate real life. This has extended itself into the puzzle genre, where real-world physics have become a part of the gameplay. Similar to Armadillo Run, Impulse involves sending a ball from start to finish by using exploding and imploding devices. Will Impulse prove to be the true integration of force with respect to time, or just an outdated Japanese car?

Impulse can best be described as a no-frills puzzle game. All of the puzzle elements are simple circles and faux-3-D squares and the background is essentially a sheet of graph paper. There are very few special effects in the game, which occur when bombs explode. The sound is along the same lines: bare bones sound effects that result when bombs explode. There could have been more pieces of flair in terms of graphics and sound, but really the game looks and sound just good enough to be acceptable. Impulse concentrates on the gameplay, so don’t expect any mind-boggling graphics or sound.

In Impulse, you are charged with sending a ball from the start to the finish. How do you accomplish this? By setting up bombs and other obstacles around the map to direct its path! Impulse contains a lot of levels scattered over eight episodes, and each level is well-designed where more than one solution is possible. You have four bombs at your disposal: explosion, implosion, bounce, and teleporter (each of these does exactly what you think they will). Each of the bombs can be set on a timer to go off at a specific time. If you run the simulation at least once, the ball’s placement will be indicated at each time interval; the bombs placement and timing can then be fine-tuned to an exact time (according to the time the replay is currently set to) to make precise puzzle solutions possible. Features like this are really the difference between a frustrating and enjoyable puzzle game, and thankfully Impulse falls into the enjoyable category. Impulse throws several obstacles in your way, including various blocks, keys that must be hit before the goal, bonuses, speed variations, and four kinds of fields: directional, rotational, random, and force. The gravity of the levels can also change, both in strength and direction. Your overall score is computed from the time used to complete the level minus any bonuses hit and lower is better. All of these things come together to provide just enough variety to make each successive puzzle unique and interesting throughout the game. Even though Impulse doesn’t have a large number of different elements, it has enough to make each challenge seem distinctive. The levels increase in difficulty as you go along, and since solutions are included with the game, you’ll never be totally stuck and consequently perturbed. Impulse is not an overly complicated game, but it is effective and pretty fun.

Impulse takes a relatively simple concept and makes a high-quality game out of it. The game features a high number of varied puzzles, easy to learn mechanics, and multiple solutions with answers for each level, and that’s all you really need for a pleasant puzzle game. Sure, the graphics and sound are outdated, but Impulse thrives on its gameplay, and the gameplay is successful. A level editor could have been a neat addition to the game, but there are so many puzzles included, you probably won’t even notice. Those who are interested in a good puzzle game should check out this title, a majority of which is available for free, instant play over the Internet, so there’s no reason not to!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wu Hing: The Five Elements Review

Wu Hing: The Five Elements, developed and published by Kudos Games.
The Good: Well thought out mechanics, fairly easy to learn, excellent AI opponent, helpful user interface, good graphics and music for the genre, multiple viable strategies, multiplayer on the same computer, games are short
The Not So Good: Internet multiplayer would be a great addition
What say you? A simple but deeply strategic board game with skillful AI and high replay value: 7/8

Board games translate very well into computer games. The game has already been fleshed out, typically they are easy to learn, and multiplayer on the computer has its benefits. Plus, you don’t have to worry about losing any plastic pieces underneath the couch. Taking this cue is Wu Hing: The Five Elements, based off of the Bruce Willis action movie. Oh wait, that’s The Fifth Element, my bad! In Wu Hing (a close relative to William Hung), you place hexagonal game pieces on a board, trying to match elements while eliminating your opponents’ pieces at the same time. Will this computer board become a family favorite, or get thrown into the back of the closet right next to Tickle Me Elmo?

For a board game, Wu Hing features some good graphics. The backgrounds are interesting and fit the Chinese theme of the game well, the pieces are easy to identify, and the effects when pieces are removed from the board are nice. The user interface also clearly indicates the relationships between all of the pieces and shows a running score (important for racking up bonuses) all from the main screen. There really isn’t anything else you would ask for in a game like this in terms of the graphics. In terms of the sound, while the background music is good, the sound effects can get annoying during extended game sessions. You do have the option of turning them off, however. Both the graphics and the sound of Wu Hing are well done, and they deliver a nice game atmosphere.

Wu Hing is a strategy board game based on the Five Elements from Chinese philosophy. The game is for two players and each is given a set of tiles with five elements on them, each with access to three at a time. You can score points by placing two elements next to their creation; for example, placing two earth tiles next to a metal tile will remove the metal tile and score you some points, depending on the value of the metal tile (either 1 or 2). You can also destroy the opponent’s tiles using the destruction rules: the same two earth tiles can be used to destroy an enemy water tile, removing it from play and earning you points. Additionally, you have the ability to transform tiles to your side if they are adjacent to two of the same element. Wu Hing also includes three special tiles: a wild card, the ability to switch sides on a specific tile, and moving a single tile to a new location. While it may sound like a strange game, it’s actually very fun and it requires a lot of thinking. You spend your time scouring the map for places that you can use your three available tiles, either destroying enemy tiles or forming your own. Since the game gives bonus points for both creating and destroying a single game element (in addition to creating or destroying all five elements), having a varied attack can result in more points than just using those same two fire elements over and over again.

The game is easy to learn but the mechanics are varied enough from game to game to create a somewhat new experience each time. You can set up different rules dictating where pieces can be placed (adjacent to existing pieces or anywhere) that greatly affect the flow and strategy of the game. There is also a solitaire mode where you try to eliminate fixed enemy pieces the fastest, but it’s pretty forgettable. The AI is an excellent player, and on the highest difficulty settings, you must plan your moves very well or suffer extraordinary defeat. The AI can also be scaled down to where they “miss” certain opportunities at capturing pieces, so the game can be as easy or as difficulty as you’d like. Of course, human opponents will always provide a good competitor, so multiplayer is available using the game computer. I would like to see Internet multiplayer for this game, as it lends itself well to pick-up-and-play as the games are generally short in length (less than 10 minutes).

Wu Hing should appeal to anyone who enjoys playing board games. While the game is easy to learn, there is significant depth to the mechanics of Wu Hing that should keep you interested in the game for quite a while. Wu Hing requires real skill to play effectively instead of just chance, and every game is different. The AI is a quality foe as well, and almost makes the exclusion of Internet multiplayer a non-factor. The game’s high quality graphics and sound seal the deal. Wu Hing: The Five Elements features high replay value, especially for a board game, and its low price makes it even more desirable. Strategy gamers and board game aficionados should not hesitate to pick up this title and the family friendly nature of the game makes it appeal to an even larger audience.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War 1861-1865 Review

Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War 1861-1865, developed by Western Civilization Software and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Highly customizable rules greatly lessens the learning curve, appropriate portions of the game are automated or simplified without reducing depth, potential minutiae overload due to the large map area is offset by limited city locations, realistic unit organization tools, multiple paths to victory, appropriate background music, grand strategy and tactical battles
The Not So Good: More scenarios, please, detailed battles last a really long time (but they can be skipped)
What say you? A Civil War grand strategy game with flexible complexity that’s friendly to new players while still maintaining strategic variety: 7/8

The Civil War holds a mystical place in American history, especially in certain parts of the country. The clashes between the Union and the Confederacy have been re-enacted countless times across the country, numerous movies and books have been filmed and written about those troubled times, and some people still proudly display the Confederate Navy Jack as a display of Southern pride (sure it is) on their pickup truck. There have been several notable computer games involving the War Between the States, including the semi-recent Take Command: 2nd Manassas. Most of these games have been at the tactical-level, but now Western Civilization Software brings its Crown of Glory engine to this time period, providing a grand strategy game for fans of war in the 60’s (the 1860’s, of course).

Instead of using a hex-based map like For Liberty!, Forge of Freedom uses a provincially divided map like Birth of America. The map is a combination of hand-drawn elements and computerized textures and it looks very good. Most of the objects on the map are clearly defined, and the rivers have been exaggerated in breadth so that selecting river provinces is easier. The icons are easy to understand, and the map is hardly ever cluttered, except in Maryland and northern Virginia when lots of troops are present. The map is rendered at a large enough scale to make almost everything clearly visible. The main map can’t be zoomed in or out, however, which makes locating some troops in far away places more difficult (the military overview screen shows the location of corps, divisions, and armies, but not single brigades). Still, I like the style of the game’s graphics: functional and pleasing to look at. The sound is very similar: good quality, especially for a wargame. Forge of Freedom includes an excellent selection of period music that will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the Civil War. While the sound effects are pretty bare during most of the game, they do come about during battles, although they repeat themselves too much. I do enjoy the gun loading instructions while the game starts up: that’s a nice touch. Like Crown of Glory, Forge of Freedom loves to eat up RAM, so make sure you beef up your system, as the game is more demanding than most wargames. It’s worth it, though, as Forge of Freedom looks as good as you would expect for a grand strategy game.

While most grand strategy games can prove to be overwhelming, especially to new players (see For Liberty! and Hearts of Iron II for examples), Forge of Freedom allows the player to tailor how many of the game’s rules they want to have activated. This is probably one of its greatest attributes as it changes how complicated or straightforward you want to game to function. Forge of Freedom includes three pre-set levels of difficulty, but it also allows you to customize each individual setting. Is unit attrition too annoying? Is Fog of War dumb? Don’t care about European intervention? Hate governors? Forge of Freedom allows you adjust 30 different facets of the game. This is unlike Western Civilization Software’s previous game Crown of Glory, where everything in the game was piled on top of you from the beginning. Flexibility is always a good thing in computer games as it allows a single title to appeal to a large range of people. Thus, Forge of Freedom is not just geared to grognards, but also to people who just want to order troops around and not have to worry about supply or unit attrition. Games are supposed to be fun, not a chore, and Forge of Freedom allows you to set how demanding you want the game to be. You can play against the mostly decent AI (higher difficulty levels “cheat” in its favor to compensate for some lacking intelligence), by e-mail (a wargamer’s favorite), or over a LAN or known IP address, although almost all multiplayer games will be played by e-mail, since they can take quite a while. The game ships with only three scenarios: the standard November 1861 setup, an earilier July 1861 start date, and a small setup with troops in Maryland and Virginia. I would like to have a greater variety of start dates and alternate histories avilable; starting in 1863, after a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, or even after major battles would have increased the replay value more and eliminated the repetitive feeling experienced at the beginning of each new game. Hopefully some modders will take this expansion project under their wing, as all of the scenario files are plain text files and easily changed if you know what you're doing.

Forge of Freedom has all of the states that were present during the Civil War, and each state is divided into several provinces (except for the smaller, insignificant New England states that are so insignificant that they don’t warrant multiple provinces due to their insignificant-ness). Forge of Freedom puts a great emphasis on major rivers: the game gives them their own provinces, which makes sense when you consider their historical strategic value. Some provinces contain cities, which are the only locations that can produce new buildings and units (“rural” provinces only produce resources). This cuts down on the micromanagement greatly, as the number of cities is usually small and definitely manageable. You must control a city and all of the forts in a province to control it (this is done by siege, an automated process once you give the order), and controlling a province in a state where you do not control the capital will cut the income in half. Newly “acquired” provinces only provide half of their resources until unrest is beat down with a stick. Each of your cities can produce money or labor and iron or horses; typically, a city will produce more money or more labor, and you will generally choose the one that produces the most resources. Constructing buildings, which also allow for more units and other bonuses, can increase resource levels. You can also gain a temporary boost in resources by mustering, conscripting, or impressing, but each of these actions has a negative impact on that region’s governor. Runners can also be used by the CSA to intercept naval supply chains. If you choose the more advanced rules, you also have to worry about supply, unit upkeep, upgrades, and unit attrition. Outside influences can also be a concern: governors can request certain structures and even leave your cause if relations become bad enough, and the European powers can supply resources and even fight on your side if you commit enough money to improve diplomatic matters. All of this economic information is well summarized in the game’s numerous reports, and you can perform many of the game’s tasks from these data tables. I like how Forge of Freedom gives the player many options in directing their economy without being uncontrollable, mostly due to the decreased number of unit producing cities.

Of course, what would any war be without military units? For ground forces, Forge of Freedom lets you raise infantry, cavalry, and artillery brigades. These brigades can be organized into divisions, corps, or armies, which are also constructed units in the game. In addition to being realistic, these container units are a good way of organizing your troops for battle. This eliminates 30-unit stacks that are present in most wargames: an army is essentially a 30-unit stack, but it’s treated as one single unit and organized how you see fit, placing your generals (the game has over 1,000)  in appropriate levels of command. I like it. Fleets at sea are organized in the same general fashion, as they contain frigates, ironclads, and gunboats. And the fact that there are only three basic kinds of infantry and three basic kinds of ships (there are other specialized units as well, but they are normally independent) makes producing units so much less complicated and lets you spend more time on the overall strategic picture and less time worry about whether to use infantry with Springfield or Henry rifles (unless, of course, you want to, as you can turn the weapon upgrades rule on). Units are issued movement orders, which may or may not be completed, depending on weather conditions. Rail movement is a little bit more reliable (and faster), but each side only has a limited number of rail movement points per turn. Your units can also be rated (if you choose advanced rules) for staff quality, special abilities, disposition (decreased by illness), and other attributes. When two units of opposing sides enter the same province, unless they are both given “avoid battle” orders, it’s time for MORTAL KOMBAT (cue the music). You can opt for instant, quick, or detailed combat. Quick combat involves giving each of your units charge, attack, or defend orders on a kind of chessboard. The game then automates the battle and whoever routs first loses. Detailed combat uses a more traditional wargame hex-based map approach to the game, which should be familiar to anyone who has played a hex-based wargame. It has all of the options you’d want: morale, supply, facing, formations, charging, special abilities, fatigue, and more. It’s a nice addition to Forge of Freedom, and the detailed combat is like a complete game within a game. However, detailed battles last a long time (15-90 minutes), although you can save it and come back to it later. Like most everything else in Forge of Freedom, detailed combat can be skipped if you want to worry about strategic operations more, or you can spend your time ordering around troops at a tactical level. As with all wars, there eventually has to be a victor (right, President Bush?). Victory in Forge of Freedom is calculated from national will (winning and losing large battles), captured enemy cities and capitals, lasting past December 1864 for the CSA, or successfully executing the Anaconda Plan for the USA.

Forge of Freedom offers the historical accuracy and solid strategic and tactical gameplay that you would expect in a quality grand strategy game. In addition, the rules options grant an excellent reduction to the learning curve and allows the player to adjust the complexity of the game, instead of a game developer making decisions for you. Unlike For Liberty!, which I feel throws too much at the player, Forge of Freedom is much easier to handle, especially for new players, due to the ability to select the rules you’d like in your particular game. While I did not particularly care for Crown of Glory, I enjoy Forge of Freedom a heck of a lot more. Maybe it’s because I am more familiar with the Civil War than Napoleon times, but I feel that Forge of Freedom is a more flexible and complete game. Between Forge of Freedom and the soon-to-be-released Europa Universalis III, this is a great time to be a fan of grand strategy games. The combination of grand strategy and classic detailed tactical battles gives Forge of Freedom a leg up on most of the competition in terms of game features. Forge of Freedom is a highly enjoyable title that’s recommended to anyone who wants to take his or her shot at commanding the Civil War.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Days of Sail: Wind over Waters Review

Days of Sail: Wind over Waters, developed and published by immersionFX Games.
The Good: In-game help is very useful and makes it easy to learn how to sail, races can be exciting
The Not So Good: Only a handful of locations and races greatly reduces replay value, low resolution graphics with bad object pop-in issues, random placement at the beginning of races predetermines the winner, poor collision physics, no multiplayer
What say you? A sailing simulation that is severely limited by its lack of variety: 4/8

Ah, sailing. The wind in your hair, the salt in your veins…wait a minute, didn’t I just say this about a month ago? I guess that’s what happens when you review two sailing games in quick succession. Anyway, sailing racing games have the potential to be pretty interesting: the strategy involved with harnessing the wind in the most efficient way possible while still going towards the goal can result in some fascinating sailing action. If it’s good enough for the Olympics, it’s good enough for me! Days of Sail: Wind over Waters features time trial and competitive races around the Greek islands. Will this nautical adventure sail into the horizon of greatness, or sink to the bottom like a rock of ineptitude?

The graphics of Days of Sail: Wind over Waters are pretty bad. First off, the game features a low resolution that can’t be adjusted, making the game look very old. Secondly, the game has severe object pop-in; it makes the game frustrating to play when you run into a land mass that wasn’t there two seconds earlier. The textures are also poor, as you can clearly see the different sections in the ocean textures. The game is also very clearly played inside a square box, as the corners of the world are plainly visible. I realize that the game is developed by a small company, but if you are making a 3-D sailing simulation, one of the draws of the game is at least decent looking graphics. The poor quality and especially low resolution of Days of Sail: Wind over Waters makes the game hard to look at. The sound is much along the same lines. The background music is very random and doesn’t seem to be nautical in any fashion. The sound effects are hokey and generally consist of moving sails and less than impressive collision effects. Players used to experiencing simulations like Flight Simulator will be severely disappointed by the graphics and sound of Days of Sail: Wind over Waters, and the game doesn’t even favorably compare to nautical wargames such as Distant Guns and Dangerous Waters (both of which are also published by small companies).

Days of Sail: Wind over Waters lets you command a sailboat in either time-trial simulation mode or races against AI boats. The entire game takes place around a small portion of the Greek isles (interestingly also the location of Virtual Sailor 7), and the game only includes 5 levels for simulation mode and 4 races, including one available in the free demo. This is not very much content at all, and since each scenario only takes around 5-10 minutes to finish, you’ll quickly exhaust all of the available options. You can change the wind and weather, but these are relatively superficial alterations.

Steering a sailboat is pretty easy, and the game does do a good job in explaining how to sail correctly. Essentially, you will be turning, adjusting the mainsail (firmer for wind coming towards you), and raising the spinnaker when the wind is coming from behind. There are some interesting tactical decisions on how to get to the finish line faster: is it better to tack back and forth to move the fastest, or go in a straight line at a slower speed? The one thing you don’t want to do is sail directly into the wind; races involving this wind direction can result in some interesting tactics. Unfortunately, the races involving the AI have multiple problems. First, your initial heading is completely random. In several races, I was facing away from the finish line, while three AI boats were pointed directly towards the goal: guess who won. The game also does not let you activate the map until the race start, so you can’t figure out how to correct yourself until it’s generally too late. Talk about frustrating. This is completely inexcusable and baffling as to why the developers would make it unfair from the beginning. It’s not very good strategy to be facing the other way when the race starts, and the winner of each race is predetermined based on their initial heading and placement. Days of Sail: Wind over Waters also features poor collision physics, as boats can pass through each other and there seems to be a prejudice against the human player: while you are slowed to a stop when wrecked, the AI goes on its merry way to the finish line. There is a heath rating of your boat to discourage accidents, but if you wreck the number of time necessary to sink your vessel, you’ve already lost. The AI can be a good opponent, using some advanced tactics such as blocking, but your rivals can also ram you for no particular reason. A lot of this would be avoided if Days of Sail: Wind over Waters includes multiplayer, but it sadly does not. I will say that, if you are evenly matched from the beginning, some races can be quite exciting. I’ve pulled off some pretty good moves to win in a close margin, and the different available strategies can make for some interesting results. It’s too bad you can’t test them against human competition.

Days of Sail: Wind over Waters could have been a nice little sailboat racing title, but the game has too many problems to be a worthwhile title. I’m not really concerned about the graphics (I put more value in the gameplay), but Days of Sail: Wind over Waters is pretty ugly at the game’s fixed low resolutions. And the graphics are not just ugly; they affect the gameplay with the game’s horrendous object pop-in. The races of Days of Sail are the most compelling part of the game. Thus, it is unfortunate that there are only four in the entire game and there are so many things wrong with them: random placement of ships at the beginning of races makes winning a race more luck than skill, and the AI has the propensity to collide into you. There is definite potential for Days of Sail as a regatta simulation, but the game needs more race locations, the addition of multiplayer, and the elimination of a number of glaring problems before it’s a recommended title.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

FizzBall Review

FizzBall, developed and published by Grubby Games.
The Good: Unique level design, innovative mechanics, kid friendly, lots of levels, exceptional graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: Not challenging at all due to slow initial ball speed, all 180 levels are essentially the same
What say you? As far as Breakout clones go, it’s innovative but way too easy: 6/8

One of the easiest games to clone is Breakout: lay down some bricks, put in a ball and a paddle, and you are ready to go. Since the original games were published way back in the Dark Ages, new versions of the game must add something distinctive to the formula in order to stand out against the crowd. Grubby Games brings Professor Fizzwizzle to the Breakout realm; he is charged with collecting animals using a giant bubble, reminiscent of the one used on The Prisoner. Is FizzBall a number, or a free man (that was a Prisoner reference, by the way)?

FizzBall consists of entirely 2-D graphics, but they are very good 2-D graphics, especially for this kind of game. The attention to detail is outstanding: the level of damage on certain objects is clearly visible, the animals all look disturbingly cute, and the game as a whole has a great cartoon-like feel. The trees even sway in the breeze when the fans are used during the game. Most puzzle games are moving into the realm of 3-D, but most of the time they don’t look any better than their 2-D counterparts. I would much rather have great looking 2-D graphics than muddled and ugly 3-D graphics; I don’t particularly need a sheep to be rendered in 3-D for the game to be enjoyable. The only drawback is that objects sometimes hide behind large trees (especially small animals), but this is possible part of the gameplay, and the game indicates the few remaining animals on the map if you’re stuck. FizzBall is one of the best looking puzzle games available, and it does it all in glorious 2-D. The great theme also extends into the sound department: the background music fits the style of the game very well, and it rarely becomes repetitive or annoying. The animal sounds are just varied enough to avoid repetition as well. FizzBall delivers fantastic quality in sound and graphics without being a system hog; how many games can say that these days?

FizzBall is a classic Breakout-style game with some interesting twists. Instead of breaking blocks, you are rescuing animals by collecting them in your bubble. Taking a nod from Katamari Damacy, you can only collect small fruits and nuts in the beginning; you have to “fill up” your bubble in order to save increasingly larger animals. The game features 180 different levels, but all of the levels are fundamentally the same: hit trees to collect nuts, break down fences and barrels, collect small animals, collect big animals. The game does eventually throw some variety at you in the form of enemy aliens, but those encounters are few and far between. The main campaign contains bonus levels, where you are either destroying or avoiding objects in a set time period, as well as optional side quests to make the game seem a little less linear and monotonous. There is a kids’ mode available: this includes quizzes between each level and a permanent barrier so that you can’t ever die. All of the animals you collect are placed in the animal sanctuary, which you can view during the game. Coins collected in the game are used to feed the animals, even when you aren't playing; this is a lovely but ultimately pointless addition to the game.

Most of the time you’ll be using your paddle to bounce the ball back, but you also have limited access to “super fans” to blow your bubble, useful if you are on the other side of the map. FizzBall also includes the standard assortment of power-ups, adjusting the bubble speed and size, grabbing the bubble, shooting crates, and giving score bonuses. It’s not quite the assortment seen in other games, but the power-ups are still fairly interesting. FizzBall does have some interesting level design: instead of being simple renditions of common objects, most of the levels have a farm feel, complete with fences and barrels. It’s certainly different and the level design goes a long way in differentiating FizzBall from all of the other Breakout clones. In addition, the animals commonly move around the map, and can also fly and hide up in trees (you have to hit the tree in order to get them on the ground again). This makes the gameplay a bit more interesting than a static set of blocks. Unfortunately, FizzBall is too easy. Since the bubble moves very slowly (even when using the “move faster” power-up), the only real difficulty results from placing a lot of objects close to the bottom. The game does adjust to your skill level: the ball tends to move faster the better you do. However, there are no out-of-control moments in the game, where multiple things are happening at once. You always feel able to manage the action of FizzBall, and this makes the game boring after you get the hand of it. It’s almost a chore to slog through all of the game’s levels, as each successive level doesn’t really offer anything new or different to the game, other than a slightly different arrangement of barrels. This is quite sad, since the easy difficulty makes an otherwise quite entertaining game too simple.

Despite all of the good things FizzBall has going for it, the slow bubble speed makes the game too easy to hold your attention for very long. The graphics and sound are high-quality, the game has inventive mechanics, and the overall theme is wonderful. The 180 levels seems like good value, but most of the challenges just run together after a while. I would be nice if the developers added a more advanced difficulty level with a faster ball speed (or the ability to set the ball speed yourself and scaling the score accordingly), because this is really the only tweak I can see holding this game back from being a completely recommendable title. I would imagine that children would enjoy the relaxed pace of the game, but the king of Breakout clones is still BreakQuest. FizzBall is a good Breakout-style game, but the easy difficulty prevents it from being one of the best.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

For Liberty! Review

For Liberty!, developed by Hussar Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Generally satisfactory gameplay, realistic troop recruitment and training, automated supply and naval operations, tactical battles add some variety, mostly excellent user interface
The Not So Good: Very cumbersome due to large scenario scope, high level of unit micromanagement, slow pace
What say you? A good foundation for a quality wargame that’s too overwhelming to be very fun: 5/8

Computer games are finally starting to branch out into major conflicts other than World War II: the Russo-Japanese War, the Middle East, and the Civil War have all made an appearance recently. Another increasingly popular conflict is the American Revolution, previously addressed in the excellent game Birth of America. Hussar Games brings classic wargaming conventions to this troubled time period, covering both the American and Hungarian revolutions.

For Liberty! is rendered entirely in 2-D against at 2-D hex-based map. In this sense, the game looks pretty decent: most of the units are detailed, the maps look realistic, and there are a number of small notes of detail, such as waiving flags. For a 2-D game, For Liberty! looks good and it’s generally easy to navigate. Almost all of the unit attributes and settings can be seen from the main screen, so there isn’t much navigation away from the map. The icons are clear and easy-to-read, and the game includes extensive tool tips if you aren’t quite sure what information you’re looking at. The game does need an indication of troops that have movement points left, however, as cycling through all of the available troops is awkward. The leader name is greyed out, but there needs to be some easily identifiable indication on the map that certain units have been moved. The sound is pretty much what you’d expect in a wargame: appropriate background music and generic unit movement and action effects. There are some good period pieces in the game, and the music fits the theme of well. For Liberty! offers up pretty much what you’d expect for a wargame, so as long as you’re not expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics that will make your video card weep quietly, For Liberty! should not disappoint.

For Liberty! includes scenarios depicting the American Revolutionary War in addition to the Hungarian Rakoczi Independence War (1703-1711). The game also includes the previously-free game 1848, the basis for this title. You can play the game’s scenarios as single player or with real people in hot seat, network, or play-by-e-mail modes. For Liberty! allows for players of different levels of experience to play in the same game by granting morale boosts and allowing for simple or advanced rules (advanced rules involves settings stances and formations). All of the scenarios are very huge in scale, and there are no real good ones for beginning players like in Birth of America. The tutorial was hard to follow and sometimes did not advance correctly. Plus, information may have overflowed the text chat area and could be missed, adding to the confusion. You’re better off just reading the manual, although most of the game concepts are pretty familiar if you’ve played other wargames.

The maps in For Liberty! cover the eastern seaboard of North America or Hungary, depending on your chosen scenario. Each of the maps are divided into hexes, each of which contains a specific terrain (open, hilly, swamp, mountains) that affects troops movement and cover. Weather is also an important factor, as wintry conditions will severely limit operations. Although it is realistic, the maps need to be more streamlined and contained, as the large operational area contained in each of the maps is far too large and they have way too many cities in them. Towns are used to gain victory points and generate resources (recruits, weapons, cannons, gold, horses, and supplies), but towns are taken far too easily as most are undefended; a lot of the game involves running around in circles chasing enemy troops, capturing and losing villages every turn. It costs too much money to maintain a defending force in every town, so smaller burgs will just switch allegiances on a turn-by-turn basis. There are two ways to wrestle control of defended cities: bombarding and then assaulting a town, or starving the town by placing two armies on opposite sides of the city. If blocked, a city will no longer produce supplies and the defender will eventually run out of food, although it takes a long time. Taking over towns adds to your nation zeal, which is a global morale level, raised by capturing towns, winning battles, and some random events. This is a neat application of “momentum” during the war that rewards intelligent play. Controlling cities can also produce influence that can be used to get more recruits, raise taxes, spread bad news, or provide bonuses to certain weapons. Towns will also automatically supply nearby troops, and holding seaside ports will contribute to maintaining control of the seas. Naval operations are automated, and who controls the most ports, coupled with a historical weight of British naval superiority early in the war, will determine who can bombard coastal cities and transport troops more efficiently. In these two senses, For Liberty! reduces the amount of micromanagement the player needs to worry about, which is always a good thing. However, you’ll need to spend a lot of time tweaking your armies, as they are not automated at all.

For Liberty! includes the usual array of infantry and artillery that was present during the time period. You can issue movement orders and change their stance (rest, march, defend, retreat, siege, train) and tactics (cautious, balanced, bold). You can combine stance and tactics for interesting results, but this involves a lot of micromanagement that should really be up to the individual unit commanders. Do you think troops will just stay in march formation if attacked just because the supreme commander told them to? The style of combat in the late 18th century does not lend itself surprise attacks, so this level of unit interaction is really superfluous. You can set the game to use simple rules which eliminates the need to set stances and formations, however. Units can also be assigned to bombard or repair a fort, entrench, loot, or undergo sea transportation. There is a number of management tools available as well: you can set the pay, fill up the unit with reinforcements, upgrade the soldiers, or change their leader. With 20-50 troops walking around the map, you can imagine that this level of interaction can become tedious quite quickly. It’s strange to have a game with some parts automated (supply, navy) and others not. For Liberty! has a whole host of leaders available in the game, each with their own attack, defense, and morale levels. They are also granted up to three special abilities, such as grenadier (a morale bonus to infantry) or requisitioner (a supply bonus). Since abilities are usually for a specific type of unit, it would obviously be beneficial to have leaders command troops in their specialty. New units can be recruited at friendly cities and are recruited instantaneously, although you need to train them for several months to increase experience, readiness, and morale. This is a much more realistic way of doing things and shows the importance of veteran troops in major battles.

Speaking of battles, they can be played or resolved automatically. Troops will automatically help friendly units in neighboring hexes, which can result in some large battles and fewer multi-unit stacks on the map. Simulated battles still take a long time to resolve, as the game computes targets, morale, and rallying. It is best to set the battles to the quickest setting to quicken the pace of the game. Tactical battles are a little more interesting, as you get to individually command each individual unit in the armies involved in the battle. You can issue orders to them for movement, attacking, rotating, and assuming formations. The terrain is randomly generated, although it will generally be a similar assemblage of swamps, forests, hills, and buildings. The attacker wins if he routes 1/3 of the defending army, or the battle ends if one side has a 5:1 size advantage or time runs out. While initially different, tactical battles are too slow, tedious, and repetitive. The battles take a long time to resolve, mainly due to the large battlefields: you can spend a good half of the battle just issuing movement commands before you even see an enemy unit. While the tactical battles serve as a nice diversion from the main game, they aren’t too terribly interesting and you probably won’t bother with them unless you expect a close confrontation.

The enemy AI is pretty good, as it will exploit your weaknesses and not engage in combat unless it’s fairly certain it will win (or if there is some other strategic reason). Since games last a long time, I would imagine that most people will play against the AI instead of getting involved in a multiplayer match. For Liberty! would have worked better in smaller doses: the included scenarios are just too large and involve too many units with too many management issues. Plus, there isn't anything terribly innovative about the game that we haven't seen before in other titles. For Liberty! never had a “wow” factor that grabbed me into the game, instead throwing lots of units at you from the beginning and never really offering a good set of smaller tutorials for the less experienced players. I have more enjoyment commanding smaller numbers of troops than unwieldy large operations that require half an hour of preparation per turn. At least with equally deep games such as Dominions 3, the action is ramped up slowly over the course of the game. In For Liberty!, you’re thrown into the fire from the beginning, and this may be asking too much for most players, especially those without an extensive background in strategy games.

All of the options available to aspiring commanders should make for an enjoyable game, but I found that For Liberty! was more of a chore than an satisfying experience. I like wargames, but others have delivered a more pleasurable experience than this game. There are other games that offer just as much depth without all of the unnecessary bells and whistles present in For Liberty! A lot of the options present in the game, such as stance, should be more of a local leader decision rather than a concern of the commander-in-chief. For Liberty! tries to be both a grand strategic game and a tactical simulation, but it ends up being just too much for all but the most experienced veteran players. For Liberty! suffers from the same problem I had with Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday: the game's overall scope is too much for most people to handle. I can imagine that experienced wargamers with a passion for the American Revolution will find a lot to like here, assuming you can deal with the management of each individual troop on the map. For most people, Birth of America serves as a better introduction to the American Revolution, although the inclusion of three theaters of battles and the extensive (but gratuitous) unit options of For Liberty! can’t be ignored. Nevertheless, I just did not have more fun playing For Liberty! than other similar strategy games. The game made a valiant effort, but I can’t get past the high level of management required in areas that should be automated coupled with the large size of the scenarios.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dominions 3: The Awakening Review

Dominions 3: The Awakening, developed by Illwinter Game Design and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Insane amount of depth that allows for a cornucopia of different strategies, random maps, multiplayer for 21 nations, hefty reference manual, playable on multiple operating systems, easily modified, there's always something to do, tons of nations, spells, units, and magic items
The Not So Good: Daunting to new players, unit icons are too small, large empires require lots of micromanagement
What say you? If you can tolerate the micromanagement, extremely high replay value makes this a must-have strategy title: 8/8

There have been a fair number of quality fantasy strategy games published throughout the history of computer gaming, including my favorite game ever Kohan II: Kings of War. It’s nice to take a break from the hundreds of World War II strategy games and delve into a world of wizards and archers; most role playing games have fully embraced fantasy elements. This setting allows for more freedom of expression and more interesting game components that aren’t tied to realistic limitations. Dominions 3: The Awakening is the third (surprise!) installment in Illwinter’s take on turn-based strategy in a fantasy setting. The game brings a whole lot of content to the table (support for 21 players, 50 nations, 600 spells, 1500 units), but will all of these options prove to be overkill, or will Dominions 3 grant the amount of variety that strategy gamers crave?

For a game that was essentially developed by a two-man crew, Dominions 3 looks decent, but it obviously cannot compete with heavily-funded cutting-edge strategy or role-playing games. The main game takes place on a 2-D map that has a hand-drawn feel to it; while it looks outdated, it works just as well as a full 3-D map. The user interface is pretty well done, making most of the important game elements available at the press of a button. My only real complaint is that recruiting units is way too time consuming: you must click on each of your provinces and queue up units, instead of allowing for recruit orders from the empire information screen or some other centralized location. The unit icons are also too small, making it difficult to see whether a particular unit is wielding a bow or a sword in some cases. The battles in the game take place on a 3-D battlefield (which looks good enough), although all of the units are still 2-D sprites. It looks a lot like Shogun: Total War, which of course was published six years ago. The spell effects are generally well done during the battles, and some of them look quite impressive. While the graphics might be behind the times, the fact that the game supports such a large diversity of units and spells makes the limitations in the graphics more palatable. The sound effects are pretty limited (and mostly take place during battles only), but I do enjoy the medieval and Scandinavian folk background music; it fits the mood of the game well, and it doesn’t become too repetitive or annoying. Both the sound and the graphics of Dominions 3 is good enough for the style of the game, and anyone who is too concerned about graphics probably won’t enjoy this game anyway: go play some childish console shoot-em-up instead.

Nietzsche was right: God is dead! And as one of many competing pretender gods, you must influence the world into believing that you are his/her/its proper successor. Upon entering the game, you’ll be confronted by the first part of Dominions 3’s extensive library of stuff. Creating a new game involves choosing an age (early age has more magic, while late age is more conventional), number of participants (up to 21!), map (which can be randomized, resulting in a lot of replay value), and general settings (like resources levels and victory conditions). You can play a game against the AI, by e-mail, or over the Internet, although games take such a long time that play by e-mail is the suggested multiplayer format. Dominions 3 has a good tutorial that teaches most (but not all) of the game’s concepts, although you must read what to do in the manual. Dominions 3 is slightly more expensive than most current PC games because it includes a well-written and almost required 300 page spiral-bound manual; the manual is well worth the added price, as it contains essential information on all of the game’s 600 spells, in addition to addressing all of the game concepts. You should at the very least skim over the manual before attempting to play your first game; Dominions 3 does not have a pick-up-and-play mentality. The game includes a good number of nations to control (around 20 per era), each with their own strategies, units, strengths, and weaknesses; the game can play very differently when controlling the various nations. The game is also very easy to modify; simply by changing or adding some straightforward text files, you can create new (or alter existing) nations, spells, weapons, and more. Since the game's graphics in Dominions 3 are relatively basic, you can import simple .tga files to serve as in-game representations of your new units. Add in map and 3-D battleground editors, and you can tweak the game to your liking. A little bit of effort goes a long way, and you can imagine how mods will extend the life of this wide-ranging game even further.

After you choose a nation to lead (real men choose “random”), you’ll need to design your pretender. You are allotted a certain number of points, which are applied to your pretender’s physical form (which controls their starting stats), magic knowledge, dominion strength, scales, and when they enter the game. The scales are a series of opposing effects (such as growth versus death) than can grant bonuses or penalties for areas under your influence. There is a lot of freedom in designing your pretender, which supports a number of different strategies you can implement during the game. New players might be overwhelmed by all of the options available to them even before a game starts, but the more you play the game, the more adept you become at figuring out good combinations.

The world of Dominions 3 is divided into a number of provinces, each of which provides the primary resources of the game: gold and resources. Gold is collected from your populous as taxes, and it’s used to construct buildings and recruit troops. Gold can carry over from turn to turn, while the resources do not. Resources are collected only from a single province and can only be used in that province; constructing a fortress can collect resources from surrounding provinces. Resources are also used to recruit troops, so use them or lose them! As I mentioned two sentences ago (remember?), fortresses are used to collect resources from surrounding provinces and also allow for recruiting the national troops of your empire; normally you can only recruit the “native” independent troops of a province. You can also construct temples that aid in the spread of dominion (influence) and laboratories to assist in the research of spells. You can also invest in province defense, which requires a one-time investment in gold to automatically attempt to repel invading forces. Province defense is not really intended to fend off an organized attack, but it prevents a small enemy army from coming in and taking over a province, something that’s a problem in most other strategy games. Dominions 3 really streamlines the number of buildings available to the player; this takes the focus away from boring base construction and lets the player concentrate more on overall strategy.

Dominions 3 allows for the recruitment of some really huge forces, and each of the units in the game are rated in several different areas. It seems that no two units are exactly alike, although the general class (say, infantry) behave similarly. However, most national troops have a special ability or two tied to them which makes the unit variety more than just a name and an icon. In general, units are either melee infantry, ranged archers, fast cavalry, or ranged magic users, although some variations exist (using elephants to trample enemy troops is extremely fun). Every unit must be commanded by a commander, which can be a military leader or a magic user. In fact, you can’t even more troops around unless they are directly tied to a leader. This actually works to the benefit of the game, and it allows for some huge battles. Each of your units can be issued a number of different orders: pillaging, storming a castle, patrolling for unrest, or searching for magic sites are some examples. Once two enemy troops enter the same province, combat occurs. You do not have direct control over your troops in the game, and I actually like it this way: it eliminates the use of exploits, rewards overall strategic planning over reflexes, and allows for play-by-e-mail games. Although you don’t have direct control over your troops in the game, Dominions 3 gives you lots of options for overall tactical strategies. You can issue the initial positions of each of your troops on the battlefield and give them orders (such as firing on specific troops or delaying an attack). You can also instruct your magical units to use certain spells for the first three turns of the match; the rest of the battle is up to the AI. I would like to have more freedom in telling my units which spells to use, as the AI tends to use the same spells over and over once they gain control. But overall, the number of options available to the player before battle more than makes up for the lack of direct control during a conflict.

Speaking of spells, Dominions 3 features 600 spells scattered over eight paths in seven schools. Each of your units is skilled in certain spell paths, and once you research the school requirements in your laboratories, your units are free to use the spell. As an example, Wind of Death requires a caster to have level 4 Death and level 1 Astral powers; once you research Evocation level 7, the spell is unlocked and ready to go. I’m glad that the spells are ordered somewhat, as having access to 600 spells from the beginning can be a little intimidating. As it stands, you can be pretty lost at which spells to use and which schools to research since there is so much variety. I guess part of the fun of the game is discovering new and cool spells, and after a while you’ll figure out which spells are useful and which are less so. There are some pretty cool spells in the game, and although most of them involve some sort of enemy unit damage or friendly unit protection, the specific counters to each spell makes them unique. There are some powerful spells that can affect the entire game world as well, so spells are not just limited to battlefield usage. The summoning spells (because everyone needs to summon a Jaguar Toad) require the use of magic gems, which are collected in provinces that contain magic sites. Magic gems can be transferred to commanders through your laboratories, and magic gems can also be used to unlock better path ratings, although this is extremely expensive. Much like a role-playing game, you can construct magical items that impose a bonus on the wearer; pretenders decked out with a lot of magical bling can be an imposing force on the battlefield. There are some physical limitations to forged magical items: since they must be worn, your beneficiary must have the correct appendage in order to use a forged item (a pretender with no head can't wear a helmet).

It seems as though I have gotten this far through the review without really saying how you win the game. Using the standard rules, you win by influencing all of the provinces on the map (the entire world believes that you are the real God); this is represented through your dominion (it’s in the title, people!). Contrary to most strategy games, you don’t win by conquering the most territory, but by having the most believers. This means you don’t have to take down the huge opposing army, just make their citizens believe in your pretender more. Dominion is spread by your pretender, your capital, temples, and a prophet (designed by you). Priests can also slowly raise dominion. Victory in Dominions 3 is more akin to an influence victory in Galactic Civlizations II, although controlling more territory gives you more money for a bigger army so you can take over more provinces and spread your influence, so military conquest and dominion are closely but not direcly related. Games are very long (typically for turn-based strategy games), and the game can suffer from back-and-forth switching of border provinces, although province defense eliminates this somewhat. There are other victory conditions available in the game other than wiping all of the other pretenders off the map: holding victory locations, reaching a set amount of dominion, gaining a number of provinces, or accumulating research. These can be used to greatly reduce the amount of time required to complete the game. The AI in the game is a good competitor, even at easy difficulty, and should prove to be a worthy adversary if you don’t have the time for an involved multiplayer match. Of course, human competition is the best competition, and with the amount of freedom Dominions 3 grants you, a multiplayer game will see the greatest variety of different strategies.

For gamers who enjoy deep, strategic gameplay, Dominions 3 is really sweet. Sheer complexity does not always translate into a good game, but all of the spells, units, and other options definitely works towards Dominions 3’s benefit. And if all the default content isn't enough, the game includes extensive support for mods as well. This game is great because, unlike most strategy games, it supports alsmot an infinite number of viable strategies for victory. The inclusion of 20 distinct nations in each of the game's three eras exemplifies this, and you can play the same nation more than once and use a completely different approach each time. There are no “build orders” in this game, no set strategy for success. This means that you won’t grow tired of the game for quite a while, as you’re likely to discover new spells and new strategies each time you play. Almost everything has an appropriate counter as well, so there are few (if any) exploits in the game. Despite the number of options, the game is actually quite easy to play; complexity really just results from all of the different spells and units available. There's always something to do each turn as well: between casting global spells, crafting magical items, patrolling for rebels, preaching, conducting research, pillaging provinces, performing sacrifices, and capturing slaves, you're never just sitting around in Dominions 3. Plus, Dominions 3 rewards overall strategy instead of being able to issue specific commands during battles and quickly activate special skills; we’ll leave that juvenile reflex stuff for the mindless console games. Complaints about the game are very minor: recruiting units could be easier, as having to click on each individual province to issue build orders gets tiresome near the end of the game. Nevertheless, there are so many things great about this game that any self-respecting strategy gamer should not hesitate in picking this title up, especially since it’s available on Linux and Mac in addition to Windows. There might be some side effects due to extended play sessions, but Dominions 3 is well worth the increased alienation from society. Who needs friends when you have a pretender god at your disposal?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Left Behind: Eternal Forces Review

Left Behind: Eternal Forces, developed and published by Left Behind Games.
The Good: Unique base building, resource collection, and unit production, useful tutorial, appropriate (if overdramatic) background music
The Not So Good: Difficult and frustrating until you discover pray-spamming (and even then the game does not play fair), no skirmish games against the AI (mostly due to the lack of a competent computer opponent), first few missions are boring with lots of running from location to location, tons of micromanagement, outdated graphics, horrible voice acting, New York City setting becomes repetitive quickly, unit pathfinding needs work, friendly units often block other friendly units, game does not graphically differentiate between primary and secondary objective locations, units have unrealistically small sight ranges, oodles of in-game advertising
What say you? Religious matters aside, this is simply an unentertaining and tiresome real time strategy game: 4/8

Numerous people have told of the end of the world, or the Rapture, which may or may not have occurred in 1000, 1666, 1844, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, or, most famously, in the year 2000 (my guess is next Tuesday). The apparently successful Left Behind book series tells the tale of those people “left behind” on Earth, after all of the Christians get a one-way ticket to Saginaw, Michigan, who must deal with the incoming evil invasion. Of course, this epic battle would make an excellent base for a video game; you could digitally kick some satanic ass! Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a real time strategy game where you assemble a force of good to battle the force of evil in an epic struggle over control of New York City and who gets the last cookie. You’re not going to let the Antichrist enjoy untold qualities of chocolate goodness, are you? I didn’t think so!

Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been in development for quite a while, and boy it looks like it. The entire game takes place in New York City, and I have not seen a more dreary representation of the nation’s most populous city. The maps are almost devoid completely of color (except for Central Park, which is green), as all of the streets and buildings are gray, gray, and more gray. The maps are also devoid of much detail, other than the occasional bombed-out car (or, if you’re lucky, bus). The only thing really colorful about the drab New York City of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is the in-game advertising. If you thought there was an uproar regarding the in-game advertising of Battlefield 2142, this game is literally covered with ads. What higher power do TV evangelists worship? The All Ighty Ollar! The units don’t look much better; all friendly converted units look like Ned Flanders, as Left Behind: Eternal Forces uses repetitive unit models for each unit type. Even the regular citizens that are wandering around the map don’t offer much in the way of variety. In addition, the game exhibits moments of extreme slow-down during special effects portions of the game. Some of the effects are well done, but most of them are pretty generic. While the background music of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is decent, the game features some truly horrible voice acting; I actually laughed out loud multiple times during the game (and I wasn’t laughing with the game, I was laughing at it). Most of the time, you’ll just skip past all of the painful dialogue to keep the game moving. For a game that’s been in development for so long, it’s greatly disappointing to see (and hear) how Left Behind: Eternal Forces stacks up against other contemporary real time strategy games: the game looks like it was released in 1998, not in 2006.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces features a single player campaign, where you lead the aforementioned forces of good against the aforementioned forces of evil. The game’s tutorial is well-written and informative, and it’s actually the best part about the title: you’ll learn how to play the game rather quickly. The game also has multiplayer through GameSpy, where one person can assume the forces of evil in a battle over several maps included in the campaign. Left Behind: Eternal Forces does not have skirmish games against the AI, a cardinal sin (see, that was a religion joke…ha!) in real time strategy games published in 2006. This is probably due to the fact that Left Behind: Eternal Forces lacks any sort of artificial intelligence, let alone a computer opponent capable enough to be a worthy opponent. The game’s campaign is terribly boring, especially the first missions. You should spend the first mission getting the audience interested in your game, not making them issue endless movement commands. Plus, the first mission is insanely difficult, as getting close to any one of the hundreds of bad guys scattered around the map will result in instant mission failure. Sometimes enemy forces will try to “guitar” your forces to the side of evil, sometimes they will not, so it’s hard to determine whether you can safely sneak by opposing forces during the game’s campaign. I had to restart the first mission eight times before I passed it (you can imagine the visceral excitement of issuing movement commands for 45 minutes). In fact, the dangerous bad guys seems to change depending on where you are in a particular mission, so a previously unimportant enemy unit may convert one of your hero units and end the mission 5 minutes later. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating. The campaign also moves way too slowly; you get to do more in the 3 mission tutorial than the first 6 missions in the campaign. I want to unleash some holy revenge, darn it! Plus, the mission sequencing is completely stupid: in the first mission, you issue movement commands to a church, but in the beginning of the second mission, you start in the same location as the first and must navigate through the bad guys to the church again! How did you magically transport across the map, I wonder? Could it be…..SATAN? The campaign does a really poor job in getting new players interested and excited about playing the game, as the real action doesn’t start until at least mid-way through the mission list.

The one thing Left Behind: Eternal Forces has going for it is some superficially unique resource gathering and base building elements. The primary resource in the game is people; you need people to come to your side, so that you can train them in a specific occupation. Your recruiter units can convert neutral and enemy units to fight for your cause; these units can then be trained at a number of buildings to fulfill a specific role. Builders can capture neutral buildings and covert them into a useful structure that either trains units or provides a resource. The population cap is increased by acquiring more housing, food is gained by capturing more cafes, and money is made through banks. There are also influencers (musicians) that can affect an entire area’s faith level, healers, soldiers, and vehicles. Most of the missions in the campaign stress non-violence, so soldiers are not used very much until the end. The game does offer an interesting dynamic of capturing buildings and converting units that isn’t present in other games, so in this sense the game is unique. This would be enough to make a compelling title if Left Behind: Eternal Forces wasn’t so full of problems.

Each of the units have special abilities available to them (heal, conduct an exorcism), but all of them can pray. Since units are converted by decreasing their faith level, you can continuously pray during the game and almost never lose, unless the game starts to cheat by placing tons of enemy units in your restricted path. There is a limit to how often units can pray, but since they can pray and move at the same time, most units can just pray on through enemy lines with no ill effects. Once you discover this sneaky tactic, the missions in the campaign get a whole lot easier. While the basic design of the game is fine, Left Behind: Eternal Forces requires a lot of micromanagement, and since you’ll typically have tens to hundreds of units on the screen at a time, this can get maddening. Units can be instructed to auto-perform certain tasks, but since each unit has an impractically small sight range (apparently, you can only see halfway across the street in New York City), the auto function does not work half of the time. In addition, newly converted units will follow the unit that converted them, typically blocking their path and not moving out of their way unless specifically ordered to. You can imagine how large battles involving hundreds of units can become a mess when friendly units are blocking the path of other friendly units and not moving out of the way. Also, you have to explicitly move units in and out of buildings (builder units have to be physically inside a building in order to upgrade it), and if you don’t manually set a rally point for each structure, they will exit at a strange side of the structure (not necessarily where the door is located). The game’s maps are laughably restricted; sometimes, a path is magically blocked by four buses laid end to end, but sometimes the game just doesn’t let you down that path for no reason whatsoever. Not only does this make the way to need to go laughably obvious, but the unit pathfinding gets confused by the restrictions imposed by the scenarios designers; I have seen units go up a street to its “end” (noted by an impervious dashed yellow line), turn around, and head back down the same street. If you’re going to limit where the player can go, at least make usable unit pathfinding. Left Behind: Eternal Forces also does not distinguish between primary and secondary objective locations on the game map or minimap, so you could be braving through hordes of enemy soldiers toward a blinking location and find out once you go there that this path was optional. Thanks for wasting my time, Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

While the background story and overall game elements of Left Behind: Eternal Forces are unique, the game as a whole fails in too many basic areas to make it worthwhile. It’s really sad that this game was in development for this long and it still has so many basic problems. There is absolutely no reason to play this game, as everything contained here is done much better in most every other real time strategy game. Just because you make a game with religious tones does not make it unique enough to purchase: it also has to be fun to play, and I did not have fun once while playing this game. The missions are dull and boring and the game will lose most people in the first 30 minutes of gameplay, either through the monotony of issuing movement commands or the unfair and cheating difficulty (I know…let’s put 20 new bad guys on the way to the final checkpoint: that will make it exceedingly challenging!). This game will not appeal to fans of the books or fans of real time strategy games. There might not be very many religious PC games out there (although one could make an argument for the superb Sacrifice), but Left Behind: Eternal Forces is such a broken and uninteresting real time strategy game that it’s recommended for no one. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but I’ll feel fine by not playing this game.