Friday, March 31, 2006

Maximum-Football Review

Maximum-Football, developed by Wintervalley Software and published by Matrix Games.
The Good:Three versions of football, custom rules and leagues, play editor, different player skill levels (pee wee, high school, college, professional), realistic results
The Not So Good: Not enough default plays, no multiplayer
What say you? A highly customizable football strategy game: 6/8

Second only to curling, football is the most popular sport in America. This is mostly due to the fact that baseball is entirely too boring to watch and football features all the hard-hitting action bloodthirsty Americans crave. Not surprisingly, most of the popular sports video games are football related, with EA’s Madden series heading the pack, mostly because they have the cash to eliminate any competition. Isn’t capitalism wonderful? But lo, is that the small, shimmering light of hope I see in the distance: another football game on the horizon? Indeed, Maximum-Football is the first 3-D sports strategy game of the new millennium, contrary to the lies of Electronic Arts. The main attraction of Maximum-Football is its high level of custom options and three rules variations: American (both college and professional), Canadian, and Indoor. Will this be enough to make it worth your while and pry you away from the siren song of Madden? His voice is so dreamy!

There are two approaches you can take in dealing with the graphics and sound of Maximum-Football: compare them to an arcade Madden-style game, or compare them to a football management game. If you are comparing them to Madden, then obviously Maximum-Football is lagging behind. Maximum-Football just doesn’t have the budget or resources to rival the cheap showiness of Madden, with its glittering helmets and sweaty armpits. However, compared to football management games, the graphics in Maximum-Football are quite good, mainly because they are in 3-D, instead of the usual 2-D text simulation. Overall, the graphics in Maximum-Football would probably fall into place around Madden 2001 or so (give or take a year or two). There are some nice graphical effects, such as muddy uniforms as the game continues and snow covered fields. The animations don’t have the realistic flow of some other games, as players can change directions rather abruptly. Still, as long as you’re not expecting high-class graphics, Maximum-Football doesn’t really disappoint, especially coming from a sports management game background. The sound falls along the same lines: there are grunts with tackles, catching effects, and some crowd reaction. There isn’t any commentary (only text play-by-play), which I actually consider a good thing; if I hear one more “when you talk about precision passing, that’s what you mean,” someone is going to pay (as you can tell, Madden has ruined my life; lawsuit pending). With Maximum-Football, it’s all about frame of reference: behind Madden but ahead of management games.

Maximum-Football features both quick games and complete seasons using Indoor, American, or Canadian rules (or some combination). Sadly, Maximum-Football lacks any online play; it would have been nice to test your play calling and play making ability against other people in real time. You can set up a league with multiple participants, however, and let the games resolve themselves automatically based on the playbook you’ve designed, so at least that’s something. Like most everything else in Maximum-Football, you can customize a league to essentially you’d desire, altering the number of teams, divisions, and conferences, the season length, skill level, roster size, and team characteristics, including name, location, stadium name and size, playbook, and any custom artwork you’ve made. Changing the skill level is really neat: this means you can simulate a pee wee league, high school region, collegiate conference, or professional association all with the same game (this also affects how many years the players are on your team in league play before they retire). This should satisfy any football fan that may have his (or her) favorite level of competition.

For each league or quick game, you can fully customize the rules. There are preset defaults for all the major types of football, but you can create any combination you desire. You can alter the field size, number of downs, number of players, fair catch rule, whether field goals are returnable, goal post location, motion before snap, rouge, two point conversions, overtime, kickoff, PAT and two point field location, scoring system (touchdown, PAT, field goal, and safety), and clock rules (play clock, warning, and quarter length). Eight players on a college field? Sure. Touchdowns worth four points? Fine. No fair catch rule? Excellent. The number of possibilities is endless, provided you are willing to create the plays for your specific rule set. Almost any league of the past can be replicated in Maximum-Football, including the glorious XFL (player skill level should be set to pee wee, also known as Tommy Maddox).

Another one of the main features of Maximum-Football is the ability to create you own playbook. This is done through the play development system, a utility that give the user the ability to create pretty much any play, as long as the formation follows the conventions of football. Because the play development system is powerful, it is also slightly difficult to learn. Each player needs to be given specific instructions on where to run, who to block, and when (or if) to expect the ball, which is slightly more complicated than drawing some routes and letting the computer fill in the blanks. Of course, creating a good play is much more rewarding this way. The game doesn’t ship with very many plays, especially for the Indoor rules (and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian rules); users familiar with a 75 play Madden playbook will need to create a lot more plays for Maximum-Football. The developer was probably relying on user-created content, and I’m sure playbooks will crop up days after the game’s release, but I’d still like to see a well-rounded default playbook.

Playing the games in Maximum-Football consists in calling plays, although you can play the game in “arcade mode.” The game wasn’t really intended to be played like Madden; Maximum-Football is a test of play calling and play design (coaching) and not of reflexes (ten-year-old attention deficit Madden arcade gameplay). Passing the ball does become easier if you can pick out the open receivers, however, as the AI quarterbacks sometimes throw the ball to the guy in triple coverage instead of the open tight end. You’ll be playing all of your games against the AI, which seems to do a fairly decent job of calling plays. For example, I was playing a game where the AI was able to run the ball against me (mostly due to the fact that the default playbooks have a lack of run defenses), so the AI continued to call running plays on 1st and 2nd down until I stopped him. That’s pretty smart. They will also learn your tendencies on offense and call more appropriate defenses to keep you guessing. Like real football, successfully playing Maximum-Football is a matter of calling the right play at the right time and making the other team unsure of what you intend to do. I’ve been able to beat the AI in Madden successfully long ago (so much so that I hardly play single player anymore); I’m still working on Maximum-Football’s computer opponent. The games seem to result in realistic stats, even on default game lengths. There is no accelerated clock in Maximum-Football (resulting in a lot of plays using American rules) but the results are believable for a defensive-oriented contest. Maximum-Football does seem to favor the defensive side of the ball (which appeals to me), resulting in 21-20 scores rather than 52-48 scores like some other games. The higher scoring in the Indoor games really results from the shorter field more than anything else. There is a small number of bugs associated with the game, mainly related to the specific rules used by the different leagues. For example, if a missed field goal goes out of the end zone using Arena rules, the ball is spotted at the line of scrimmage, instead of being treated as a punt. Also, when you are selecting plays, you cannot “back out” to the primary selection screen where you choose between a punt, field goal, or standard play. This becomes an issue if you forget which down it is (or forget that Canadian rules football only have three downs) and you’d like to punt after you’ve selected the list of standard plays; hopefully this will be fixed in a future patch. Still, the overall gameplay experience of Maximum-Football is positive, resulting in some realistic football at every level.

Maximum-Football will never compete with Madden, but it doesn’t intend to. Maximum-Football is made for those aspiring coaches who feel they could call a better game, not pre-pubescent boys who want to lob touchdowns to Terrell Owens. Maximum-Football almost plays more like a strategy game that involves sports, rather than the classic arcade sports game. The level is customization is the main draw of Maximum-Football, allowing the user to change the rules, teams, leagues, and plays. The play editor is difficult at first to handle, but given enough time and drive, most people will be able to master it. The graphics and sound won’t compete with software that’s been in development since the early 1990s and has a multi-million dollar budget, but it’s definitely better than staring at 2-D squares moving around a flat football field. People who actually think and enjoy football will probably find something to like in Maximum-Football, and the ability to mold to game into any shape you’d like (as long as it’s a prolate spheroid) only adds to the appeal.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday Review

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Extremely in-depth, game can automate a lot of menial tasks, good number of military-only scenarios (for violent people)
The Not So Good: Significant learning curve, overwhelming and hectic during war
What say you? A stand-alone expansion for hardcore strategy gamers who want a comprehensive review of World War II: 6/8

There hasn’t been a more simulated war than World War II. From movies to video games, it seems that people everywhere love to cover the last true global conflict (unless you count the Battle of the Network Stars). Personally, I’ve had enough with the whole World War II thing: essentially everything that can be done with this particular event has been. Of course, you could always take a previously-existing game and make a couple of small changes to it, and that’s what’s been done with Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. What would have happened if the Cold War had escalated into a worldwide event, full of nuclear goodness? That’s the question posed by the latest iteration of the Europa Universalis lineage, which takes the original Hearts of Iron II and adds a couple of scenarios and enhancements, all for a budget price. Will this be enough to entice owners to make the switch? Is the game still really freakin’ hard? Why do fools fall in love? Have Scientologists taken over Katie Holmes’s brain? Will this string of unrelated questions ever end?

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday still uses a modified Europa Universalis engine, which displays the game world on a 2-D map. This engine looked outdated when it was released in 2000, so it’s not surprising that Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday doesn’t hold its own against other titles in 2006. I think the EU engine has seen its last legs, and needs upgrades in several areas. The engine struggles to contain all of the data Doomsday offers to the player, and the result is a complicated array of different map overlays and multiple pages of statistics. Doomsday tries its best to have an easy to navigate user interface, but there’s just too much information that needs to be relayed to the user. Now, we can have map-based games that look good and are easy to navigate, such as Birth of America. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday feels too much like an automated board game and not a realistic or compelling wargame. The sound is much the same, offering only the basic sound effects surrounded by the trademark high quality background music (a staple in EU-based games). The EU engine is definitely showing its age, resulting in a game that looks and sounds like it was made years ago.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday has some additional features over the original game resulting from extending the game time line to 1953. This brings about an expanded technology tree to include helicopters and tactical nukes, spying, a World War III campaign, and a scenario editor. There is a large number of scenarios in the game; in addition to altering the starting year of the main campaign (1936, 38, 39, 41, 44, or 45), there are military-oriented missions covering things such as the invasion of Japan, battles in North Africa, or the much-touted conflict between Argentina and Brazil. A lot of these stand-alone missions are pure military conflicts, offering none of the research, manufacturing, or economic trappings the full campaign does. In this aspect, the game plays much like Birth of America (which is all military), although Birth of America does the military-only thing a lot better. The game can be played both against the AI and online: the in-game matchmaking makes joining games very easy. There are also tutorials available for new players; the tutorials cover a lot of the concepts found in the game, but leaves some key parts of Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday out, so reading the manual is a must. The AI you’ll be playing against can be set to one of five difficulty levels; this just gives the AI positive or negative bonuses (cheaters!), instead of making them smarter or dumber like in Galactic Civilizations II. The AI plays OK, but not at the high level you’d expect for a game that’s essentially been in development since 2000 and has been released several times over.

The goal in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is to help lead your alliance (the Allies, Axis, or Comintern) to the most victory points through diplomacy and/or (usually and) military conquest. Although you can choose to lead any of the game’s 80 or so countries, it really only pays to play as a member of one of these pre-set alliances, unless you plan to join one of them later. In order to run an efficient nation, you need to produce goods, and this is done through acquiring natural resources, either by owning land that contain these resources, or trading with other countries. There are four categories of natural resources (energy, metal, rare, and oil); the first three of these are used to produce industrial capacity, and oil is used by mechanical units to move and generally remain operational. The industrial capacity is a measure of your country’s ability to manufacture goods, which depends on the number of factories contained within your borders. You can produce a number of things with your industrial capacity: new military units, ammunition, supplies, upgrades, and consumer goods to make the people happy. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday includes an interesting concept of a “gearing bonus:” if you produce the same unit multiple times, each successive time, it’s completed faster. This is a cool concept that makes sense: people will get better at producing a certain unit the more times they practice it. Of course, the downside is that your military may become skewed towards certain units, but therein lies the strategy. You can also convert surplus industrial capacity to money to fund research. You can move sliders around to distribute the industrial capacity how you wish (the game indicated the minimum levels needs to remain at smooth levels of operation) or have the game do it for you. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday tries to take the abstract concept of production and make it a concrete game component, and overall it succeeds: the economic model is fairly easy to understand and a definite cause and effect can be seen in producing goods. You’re normally given a large amount of surplus resources at the beginning of the game so that you can rectify shortcomings in natural resources before your country grinds to a halt. As long as you don’t outpace your production, you’ll be in good shape, and the best players will be able to balance the different aspects of the economic model.

Even though you are the omnipotent leader of your country, you must still deal with government. You can set a number of domestic policies for your country that give bonuses in different areas (such as the economy, production, or combat). The policies include your government type, political leaning, amount of citizen and economic freedom, and level of isolationism. Each country has initial settings that are indicative of their overall beliefs in real life, but these can be changed over time to fit your strategy. You can also hire different members of your cabinet (head of state, head of government, foreign minister, security, military intelligence, chief of staff, and others) that can provide additional bonuses. Even if you do not subscribe to a democratic form of government, you still must worry about the people: if they don’t agree with your policies, the level of dissent grows: your troops fight more poorly and industrial capacity decreases, and eventually a rebel army can try to fight for independence. This can be offset by keeping military units present in place or dedicating a larger percentage of your industrial capacity to consumer goods. You must also deal with other countries through diplomacy. Each country has a relationship towards you (on a numerical and color-coded scale) and changes according to your decisions. There is a whole host of different diplomatic options, such as sending expeditionary forces, signing a non-aggression pact, granting military access, declaring war, and suing for peace. Peace agreements can have a number of different stipulations, such as territory demands, military disarmament, or full annexation. The AI does a fair job in negotiations; I’d like to see a better indication of what the AI would accept in a trade, like in Galactic Civilizations II. The AI sometimes is hesitant to accept some arrangements unless relations are really good, so making an alliance other than the three included in the game is sometimes difficult. You can also trade resources, cash, goods, research, or have the computer handle all of this tedious stuff.

New to Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is intelligence, namely sending spies to other countries to monitor what’s going on. Spies can be used to steal research, assassinate a minister, cause a coup, influence the global opinion against a nation, sabotage research, raise dissent, or create partisans (rebels). Spies can also be “asleep” or “awake:” active spies provide better information and results, but are more likely to be detected and “removed” by the opposition. The technology tree has also been expanded. I really like how technology is done in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. You can use several different research teams, each of which has an area of expertise that speeds up research in that particular area. For example, Messerschmitt is really good at airplanes, so assigning them research in aircraft design will produce faster results. Not only is it fun to use historically accurate companies to conduct your research, but it results in some interesting strategic decisions based on your available research teams.

Of course, researching all of these new, exciting, and deadly weapons aren’t any good if you don’t use them. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday features all of the units made famous by World War II. There are some specialized units (such as garrisons, paratroopers, and marines) that are especially good at certain tasks. The combat uses a “movement is attack” model: battles begin as soon as a unit begins moving towards an enemy territory containing bad guys. This may not be totally realistic (it assumes that opposing forces will automatically find each other the instant combat ensues), but it does result in allowing units located in adjacent territories to support an attack: this results in battles that become more varied than one stack vs. another stack, and promotes good planning on the part of the aggressor. Attacking enemy territory is almost too complicated: you can assign a particular task and a specific time to attack so that invasions can be coordinated. This is almost too much detail for a game of this scale: should I be concerned whether an army attacks at 8:00 or 9:00? It adds an extra step to the equation that makes combat more complicated that it needs to be. Defending territory can be made easier by adding stationary emplacements such as bunkers, minefields, trenches, and anti-aircraft guns.

Each of your units has a level of organization that determines their ability to respond to orders. This reduces as combat becomes more intense, but can be recovered by resting units. This prevents moving halfway around the world with a powerful stack of units. The infrastructure (roads and rails) of the game also inhibits how large a stack can be: you can’t send all the troops of the German army along the same road at the same time, you know. Supplies in the game are transported automatically, or can be done manually by boats or through the air. The weather and terrain can also affect operations: attacking during nighttime is a bad idea, and mountains provide bonuses for the defender. Although most of the game will be played with land units (at least in Europe), you can have air and naval units engage in combat. This is largely automated: you just give an area to patrol, and the unit does the rest on its own. You can give more specific instructions on what to do, such as interdiction (slowing enemy movement), naval combat patrols, shore bombardments, amphibious assaults, maintaining air superiority, or cratering runways.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday takes place in real time, although I feel the game is better suited for a turn-based affair, especially with the amount of data you need to crunch. You’ll end up pausing the game a lot: this results in essentially a turn-based game, so why not have the game do it automatically by default? The pace of the game is very erractic: you’ll end up having large period of time with not much to do, broken up with hectic times of combat. During combat, the screen will become a flutter of airplanes flying in and then disappearing; it’s hard to follow what’s going on without slowing down the game to a snail’s pace. I found the real-time gameplay to be more a hindrance than a benefit. I suppose it’s trying to portray the frenzied nature of war, but it doesn’t make for a completely enjoyable game experience. The game engine was really more suited for the slower-paced combat of Europa Universalis, not the quick-strike methods of fast-moving machines found in World War II.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday ended up being pretty much what I had expected: an all-inclusive game geared towards veteran players filled with loads of information that’s a little too much to handle in real time. The game features pretty much everything you’d ever want from a grand strategy game covering World War II: a good number of scenarios, multiplayer, advanced economics and production, interesting research, tons of units, specific combat options, diplomacy, espionage, and trade. Of course, the problem with having all these options is that it makes the game cumbersome at times: keeping tabs on all of these aspects of your empire is hard work, especially in real time. The game can run some of these areas automatically, but the game is still a lot to deal with. Also, Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is very similar to the other titles in the series (Hearts of Iron I and II, Victoria, Europa Universalis I and II, Crusader Kings, among others) so we’ve pretty much played this game out. I’m hoping this is the last game in the World War II series of the Europa Universalis engine, as I can’t see there being much more areas that haven’t been addressed. Strategy veterans will find everything they’d expect in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, while new players and those looking for a more military-inclined affair might want to check out other titles.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Evil Invasion Review

Evil Invasion, developed and published by VH Games.
The Good: Multiple spells and skills, some strategy when choosing spells
The Not So Good: Overwhelming forces remove any fun, repetitious, antique overhead graphics, poor AI
What say you? An action RPG game that relies on hordes of enemies for difficulty: 4/8

It always seems like the good guys are outnumbered. Name your movie, and you’ll find that the forces of evil almost always double the number of heroes. Why is that? Do evil forces have better retirement plans? Whatever the reason, Evil Invasion is another one of those games, where you, as the merchant of all things good, must single-handedly defeat masses of evil foes (that whole invasion thing). Armed with spells and your wits, you must survive against all odds. Can you stop the evil invasion? Would you ever want to? These questions, plus Andy Rooney, tonight on Out of Eight.

Evil Invasion is played from an overhead perspective, which I thought died out with the Super Nintendo. It wouldn’t be so bad if the game looked halfway decent or was easily playable, but it’s not. First, your character looks too much like some of the enemies; I cannot count how many times I was looking at the wrong person, wondering why he wasn’t moving down when I told him to. The graphical effects are not very good in the game, just some basic pictures that accompany each of your spells (which could be drawn in about 10 minutes or so). This also goes for the detail of the characters; most of the enemies look like blobs with arms, not the highly detailed creations we are used to in modern computer games. The sound is along the same lines: not very impressive. Evil Invasion just has some basic effects for death sequences and the different spells, but that’s about it. I’m not usually concerned if a game has lower-end graphics, but I do have a problem if it interferes with the gameplay, which the undefined characters in Evil Invasion do.

Evil Invasion features ten quests and a survival mode (where you engage an endless stream of foes). This doesn’t sound like many quests, but they are long and essentially the same; you play on a bland, blank map while packs of enemies stream towards you. The entire game consists of click on enemies to unleash your spells and moving backwards as they run toward you. Clicking. Moving. Clicking. Moving. That’s it. It’s fairly boring, and because all of the maps consist of the bland surroundings, it never gets really different, other than the more advanced enemies that come towards you. As you kill more enemies, you pause the game and level up to assign better attributes in five areas: strength (increased health), dexterity (increased speed), stamina (increased health AND speed), intelligence (increased mana capacity), and wisdom (increased mana capacity again). You can also acquire better spells to destroy more enemies. There is some strategy in dealing with spells; you can save two spells as a primary and secondary attack, but must click down in the bottom of the screen to substitute in other spells. This is about as sophisticated as Evil Invasion gets. There are seven different monster types, although they essentially behave the same (running in a line towards the player) but have different weapons. This is very similar to the AI seen in Deadhunt, which is not a good thing. When an enemy dies, there is a chance they could drop a bonus item such as improved speed or health. But since all of the enemies just run in a straight line pack towards you, they are hard to get to unless you walk in a giant circle around the map. In terms of other features, there is a central high score list you can submit to, which is the multiplayer element of the game.

The bottom line is that Evil Invasion is just not fun to play. In today’s gaming environment, we need more than just mowing down endless bodies of stupid enemies. We’ve seen this before in Serious Sam, and it was done much better. The main problem with Evil Invasion is the lack of variety. All of the environments are essentially the same. All of the enemies are essentially the same. All of the spells are essentially the same. All of the graphics are essentially the same. Speaking of the graphics, the game makes it too difficult to follow the action, resulting in confusion and death. I mean, look at this screenshot; can you find the player in all of this? Me neither, and now you feel my pain. I don’t need to be playing Where’s Waldo while trying to survive against an insane number of enemy units. Maybe some people could find this enjoyable, but I don’t. The game does have some RPG elements in it and the spell system forces you to wisely choose your best combination of weapons (probably the strongest aspect of the game), but the rest of the game is a retread mash of what we’ve seen before in other titles. Add in the constant clicking and running away from the enemies, leading them in a congo line of death, and you can see why this game falls far below acceptable expectations.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tube Twist Review

Tube Twist, developed by 21-6 Productions and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Many puzzle pieces and multiple solutions, nice graphical effects, addictive gameplay
The Not So Good: Can be frustrating and difficult at times with the few inflexible levels
What say you? An interesting puzzle game in the vein of The Incredible Machine: 6/8

Man has invented many different methods of transporting goods. Conveyor belts. Trucks. Anna Nicole Smith. But how should we transport small balls of energy? This is the quandary posed by Tube Twist, a puzzle game where you must construct a device to guide balls from start to finish, using tubes and other assorted contraptions along with the incredible force of gravity. This is along the same lines of the classic PC game The Incredible Machine, where you had to construct strange, Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms to do something (like give Dick Cheney a sponge bath, although my memory is a bit sketchy). Will Tube Twist prove a sufficient construction puzzle game? Will there be any sponge baths? Man, I hope so!

Despite being a relatively simple puzzle game, Tube Twist has some slightly impressive graphics. First, all of the levels are rendered in 3-D; this creates a believable environment where the experiments are taking place. 3-D is not really needed in a game such as this (Tube Twist could have worked just as well using 2-D graphics), but it’s a nice touch. The 3-D graphics never get in the way or complicate the game, they are just intended to make the game look a little bit better, and in this aspect they succeed. There are also some nice effects that accompany the movement of the objects through the level (namely explosions) that spice up the action. The sound effects are generally basic, mostly resulting from the different pieces that are activated during gameplay. The music fits the whimsy theme of the game well. Compared to other puzzle games, both the graphics and the sound of Tube Twist are above average.

The object of Tube Twist is to guide color-coded balls from their color-coded start to their color-coded end using tubes (and some additional effects). It is a simple concept that is easy to understand, making the game have a small initial learning curve. A game such as this lives and dies by the quality of the puzzles, and Tube Twist has a good variety. The main problem with puzzle games is that a lot of the levels have only one solution to them and it’s up to the player to figure out what the developer intended. Fortunately, these puzzles are kept to a minimum in Tube Twist, as most of the puzzles have more than one possible solution. This speaks to well-designed arrangements, and even though you are limited to the type of pieces you can use in each puzzle, there is usually more than one way to solve each experiment. Part of this results from the fact that there may be more than one ball of a single color, and you can decide which endpoint to send it to. This kind of flexibility is appreciated, and results in much less frustration in solving the puzzles. In order to solve each of the puzzles, you are given access to a set number of tubes and assorted pieces to guide and fling your balls (ewww!) across the map. There is a good assortment of 30 interesting elements that you can use, from basic straight and curved pieces, to switches and cannons and funnels. There is also a good number of default puzzles that you can unlock in any order (as long as you’ve beaten all of the previous set), and the developers plan on releasing future free experiment packs to extend the game even further.

Tube Twist has a simple idea that’s executed very well. All of the aspects of the game have a polish to them that makes playing a game a joy. Tube Twist is easy to learn, and the amount of puzzle variety makes the game fun to play. The fact that many of the puzzles have multiple solutions eliminates much of the aggravation associated with puzzle games. I felt very proud completing each of the puzzles, flinging my balls (ewww!) across the screen successfully to their destination. Tube Twist is one of the better puzzle games I have encountered: fun, challenging, and mostly enjoyable.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Magic Stones Review

Magic Stones, developed and published by Winter Wolves.
The Good: Custom druid, spell, and summoned avatar system, some strategy, tournament mode adds variety, AI will exploit your weaknesses
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult, arbitrary attack/defense/hit point relationship, no multiplayer, basic graphics and sound
What say you? A card-based role playing game that’s too hard on new players to be much fun: 4/8

Non-computer based RPGs come in two flavors: the Duneons & Dragons board game style and card-based games like Magic: The Gathering. Both styles are held highly in nerd-lore, competing for the top spot of mockery. Ever since computers came around, people have discovered that we can have the machines do all of the dice rolling and calculations for us, to minimize the need for large amounts of math. Magic Stones is a computer simulation of the card-based RPGs, based off Celtic tradition. Will Magic Stones revive the long tradition of these games and add some new life with new ideas?

The graphics in Magic Stones are diametrically opposed: they have detailed 2-D representations of creatures that look authentic and have a distinctive style, but it just looks like a card game. You’d be able to find the same quality if you purchased a card game, and having a game on computer should result in adding some benefits of the improved medium. There should be some 3-D renditions of the battles that take place in the game, like Final Fantasy or Disciples II. As it stands, the battles are very unexciting: hit points tick off the cards as the battle continues, and that’s pretty much it. The sound effects are along the same lines: a lot more could have been done. There is just the basic arrangement of sounds that accompany each type of attack, and that’s as much variety as you’ll encounter in Magic Stones. There is also not much music in the background that could have played off the action taking place on the screen. Magic Stones essentially did the bare minimum to make the game look like a card game that was taking place on a monitor, rather than making a believable and dynamic environment for the game to take place in.

In Magic Stones, you create a druid (character) and gain experience and objects on your way to becoming really powerful. The first step towards greatness is creating a druid, and this is done through the Druid Creation system (surprise!). Initially, you choose a school of magic (which determines what kinds of creatures you can summon and the spells you can cast), gender (which determines the artifacts you can use; no cross-dressing in Celtic times!), and origin (which eventually influences their stats). Your druid starts at level one, and gains experience points through battles and increases his/her skills in four areas: willpower (mana regeneration during battles), intelligence (speed at learning spells), concentration (less annoying spell failures), and wisdom (increased mana amount). There is an in-game tutorial, but it’s essentially an on-screen manual without any suggestions on overall strategy.

Once you have created your druid, it’s time to fight some bad guys. You can do so through the game’s three game modes: gather artifacts, challenge druids, and quest mode. All of these game modes are single-player only; Magic Stones could be a great multiplayer game, but it doesn’t offer that feature. You’ll want to start out in gather artifacts mode, since the other two are really intended for experienced players. In gather artifacts, you can choose between four different areas, and each of them contains several different battles ranging from lower-level enemies to impressively deadly foes. Magic Stones is not geared towards beginners: even the lowest level enemies will beat you over and over again on the default difficulty (I am assuming, of course, that on the default difficult the game plays “fair” for the player and AI; the game makes no indication of this being true) until you earn some experience points. Considering you only earn one XP in a loss and it takes around 20 to gain a level, you’ll be experiencing a lot of heartbreak starting out in Magic Stones. This is very discouraging, as it seems the game doesn’t play fair and doesn’t ramp up the action appropriately to scale to the experience of the player’s druids. Good RPGs will provide steadily increasing challenges to match your character, but Magic Stones does not. In addition, you don’t earn cool artifacts until you defeat high level enemies, so you’ll be playing a lot of the game using the same skill set, which results in some boring and repetitious gameplay. Once you get a higher level druid, you can enter the linear quest mode and the druid tournament. The tournament is actually pretty neat, an NCAA basketball-style bracket where you face better and better foes over time. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to become competitive until you complete much of the gather artifacts mode. I’d like to see a sort of NIT for lower-level druids so that beginning players and jump right in to the fray.

You’ll be spending most of the game in the battle mode, where you face you enemies in a fight to the death. In the mode, you are given five spots to fill with various creatures you can summon (called avatars) using your mana supply. Only ranged units can use the back two slots, so it’s important to gain enough experience to have a full army (of course, when you start with a new druid, none of your avatars are ranged, so you’re limited to 3 vs. 5 enemies…sigh). Once the battle begins, your avatars are selected and you can choose their target. The action is turn-based, where each side attacks with each of their units, then the other side takes its turn. There are two things available to the player to make the strategy of the battle mode a little better. First, you can use any remaining mana to cast spells (or summon additional avatars to fill vacated spots). Your spells have a probability of being casts successfully that depends on your concentration level; using a new druid, I had to cast a spell five times before it worked, costing precious mana in the process. You can also give your avatars special instructions such as power moves (increased attack at the risk of missing more), defending (regeneration of mana at the cost of not being able to attack), and using their special move, which runs a pretty good range of different abilities depending on what type of creature the avatar is. Successfully winning a battle can depend of using these special functions at the correct time. Being successful in Magic Stones is complicated by the avatar rating system. Each avatar is rated between 1 and 10 on their attack and defense level, but these values have absolutely nothing to do with how many damage they cause. For example, a 7 attack fights a 2 defense and causes 23 hit point damage. Huh? Where did these numbers some from? I’m a stats guy, and Magic Stones hides how the hit point calculations are made and hinders the user in executing a successful strategy. Games such as Galactic Civilizations II clearly state how damage is calculated, but Magic Stones leaves you guessing. How am I supposed to know when to use a special move when I’m not sure if I can wipe out an opponent in just one more turn? There’s nothing I dislike more than arbitrary results, and although I’m sure the calculations in Magic Stones are done in some concrete method, this method is hidden from the user, and this is inexcusable.

It’s clear that Magic Stones has the base for a successfully role playing game; the game just lacks successful execution. Magic Stones has a good druid creation and experience system, but the game is not nice to new players. Almost all of the features (druid tournament, quest mode, most of gathering artifacts) are geared towards experienced druids, but nobody starts as an experienced druid! The way the game is designed, it takes too long to reach a satisfactory level so that you can enjoy all the game’s features, and the path to this level is rife with defeat. On top of this, the game hides how the damage calculations are done, so creating an effective strategy is harder than it should be. Magic Stones just feels like a straight port of a card game (if that could be possible) and doesn’t have any of the flash associated with computer games. This game could have also had some longevity and more enjoyment for beginning players with multiplayer capabilities. Imagine how cool a 16-player online druid tournament would be, seeding the druids according to their experience level. Again, this is another feature that could have been in the game but is not. In the end, Magic Stones is a game with potential that fails to deliver a completely enjoyable product.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Think Tanks Review

Think Tanks, developed by BraveTree Productions and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Playable physics, sufficient AI, smooth on-line play
The Not So Good: Very odd and obtuse aiming
What say you? A fairly average tank combat game spoiled by bizarre turret controls: 5/8

Ever since they were invented near the end of World War I (also known as the War Between the States), tanks have always been a mark of power on the battlefield. Featuring thick armor and huge guns, tanks strike fear into the hearts of the opposing army. Not surprisingly, tanks have become a featured component of computer games, appearing in titles ranging from tank simulators to more arcade offerings. Think Tanks leans more heavily towards the arcade side of the equation, offering the chance to control small tanks driving around battlefields lobbing explosives at each other. Sounds like fun to me! Think Tanks is very similar to another tank combat game, Battle Carry, which I reviewed back in the Dark Ages (2005). Will Think Tanks improve where Battle Carry fell short? Only time will tell.

Think Tanks has rather average 3-D graphics compared to other titles. The graphics do run a range from bright levels to dark and gloomy ones, so that is greatly appreciated; in a lot of games, each level feels the same as the last one, but this is not the case in Think Tanks. The levels don’t have very many details to them, mostly just open areas dotted with hills and some trees and rocks. It seems strange to have intense tank battles over such a barren area. The tanks themselves look OK, with some technical achievements in the small details. I think if more time was spent to create realistic-looking levels (like those found in Battlefield 2, for example) it would add to the overall appeal of the game. I believe that Think Tanks has the power to do so using their graphics engine, it’s just a matter of doing it. The sound falls along the same lines, falling within the realm of averageness (that almost sounds like a word). The game has the basic sound effects heard in tank battles (explosions, weapons firing, et cetera), but not much else, such as environmental effects. The background music is there, but is not memorable. Considering the lower-end budget of Think Tanks, the fact that the graphics and sound ended up in the middle of the pack is a small achievement resulting in a game that won’t be scored for shortcomings in those areas.

Being a tank combat game, the object in Think Tanks is to destroy the opposition using your turreted weapons. The action is definitely arcade in nature, having fast moving tanks and quick firing weapons. You can play Think Tanks against the AI or online. The AI in the game is pretty good: they don’t exhibit any expert behavior, but will engage heavily damage opponents, chase down objectives, and generally behave like beginning players. It’s certainly a step up from the single player experience found in Battlefield 2. Joining an online game is pretty easy and is a very smooth experience; I didn’t experience any lag while playing. You can also play against bots and have them leave the server when real humans join the fray. The game can be played as a deathmatch or “scrum:” scrum is similar to the Bombing Run mode in Unreal Tournament (maybe a little too similar), where you carry a single flag (or ball) to the goal in order to score. Both of these games can be played with teams as well. This is above the number of games modes found in a lot of comparable titles, but I’d still like to see some more originality with the features. There is a single player “story” mode of sorts where you battle increasingly powerful AI tanks. This mode is kind of unfair, since all the AI tanks fight against you and you’re always outnumbered.

In order to help your cause, there are weapon and health powerups scattered throughout the map. You can use these to your advantage in your chosen tank; there are three classes of tanks (light, medium, and heavy) and each offers increased armor and weapons for decreased speed and maneuverability. Weapon powerups include area-effect projectiles or bouncing shells, although the game doesn’t tell you what a particular weapon does. You see, Think Tanks doesn’t have any indications on your current weapon ammunition, weapon type, or health level, so you’re just relying on whether your tank is smoking or not or a guess on how many bullets you have left. Control freaks will not appreciate this very much. The arcade disposition of the game is offset a bit by the fact that it takes a lot of direct hits in order to destroy opposing tanks; I would have liked it to be a much quicker path to death to keep with the overall theme of the game. Think Tanks does have some good physics, much better than those found in Battle Carry, resulting in tanks that are fairly easy to control. The game maps are scattered with jump pads and speed boosters; these can be used to your advantage in order to avoid incoming shells. The biggest (and close to only) problem with Think Tanks is the tank turret aiming. Aiming is done with the mouse, but it’s not intuitive and seems to lag heavily, making it difficult to precisely destroy enemy tanks. Since the whole point of the game is to take out conflicting tanks, this is a major deal. I had quite a difficult time just trying to get the crosshairs on a moving enemy tank. Complicating the aiming is the fact that you can only aim in front of you; for some reason, your turret cannot rotate a full 180 degrees, unlike most (if not all) modern tanks. This makes it maddeningly difficult to follow and shoot successfully at enemy tanks, and adds a level of frustration that’s not necessary.

Just like the other tank combat game, Think Tanks is a good game that’s blemished by one key deficiency: in this case, aiming. The features of Think Tanks all point towards a good game: decent AI, decent graphics, decent game modes, and decent physics add up to a decent arcade tank combat game. Add in the fact that Think Tanks is available on all three major platforms (Mac, Linux, and, uh, what’s that third one called?) and you’ve got a winner, except for the annoying aiming. Based on the fact that the online servers were pretty well populated for a smaller game, maybe you get used to the aiming over time, but I feel it should be more instinctive at first. You shouldn’t have a difficult time controlling your turret, but Think Tanks makes it an excruciating process. If you can get past the aiming, you’ll find that Think Tanks is pretty fun to play, especially for its low price and features pretty much everything you’d want to see in a tank combat game.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Titan Attacks Review

Titan Attacks, developed and published by PuppyGames.
The Good: Weapon and ship upgrades add a strategic component, multiple enemies spice up the action, available on three platforms
The Not So Good: Unoriginal
What say you? A Space Invaders clone with some remarkable elements that makes it fun to play: 6/8

Oh, those wacky aliens! They always seem to attack Earth for no apparent reason, although it’s probably because of Courtney Love. Whatever the reason, you are the last hope for humanity, and using your trusty spacecraft, must drive back the invaders from space to their home world. They think they’re so special just because they’re from the largest moon of Saturn and may have active plate tectonics just like Earth. Jerks! Thus is the premise of Titan Attacks, a successor of the classic arcade shooters such as Space Invaders or Galaga. Since these games have been around for quite a while, what improvements does Titan Attacks offer to the gaming community?

Titan Attacks features some old style graphics that hearken back to the old days of pixilated Atari action. This was probably intentional, creating a distinct visual style that makes the game easily identifiable. Of course, you could argue that the 2-D graphics are just a result of a limited budget and are behind the times, but I tend to think the choice was a conscious one. Either way, I like the overall feel of Titan Attacks; it promotes the classic arcade mantra of easy to identify objects with little flash to distract from the intense action. As I say time and time again, it’s better to have good-looking 2-D graphics than horrible 3-D graphics, and Titan Attacks has fortunately chosen the former. The sound is largely along the same lines, filled with bleeps and other assorted effects that fit the genre. The background music is pretty good (though annoying at times) and keeps the arcade feel alive. I do enjoy the scream aliens make when you shoot their escape pod: it makes me laugh every time. The presentation of Titan Attacks certainly falls within the realm of classic arcade game, and the graphics and sound squarely peg the game in this classification.

The premise of Titan Attacks is to destroy the incoming alien hordes by shooting them as they fly around the 2-D screen from your ship located on the ground. By shooting the enemies, you earn points and cash throughout the game’s 100 levels. The levels differ according to the enemy types and the background image (you start out defending Earth and slowly make your way outward towards the outer planets). There are a good number of varied enemies: fast, swooping, spinning, armored, most of which are quite challenging when grouped together. The number of different AI types breaks the gameplay up enough where it’s not totally repetitious. Sometimes when you shoot the AI, they bail out of their craft and their damaged ship careens towards the ground. You can get a bonus for completely destroying a crippled ship and a cash bounty for capturing an alien pilot. If you don’t capture the alien, you actually lose money, so it’s important to keep tabs on any pilots who have ejected from their ships. If you last a certain amount of time without being hit, you can get a multiplier that increases your score and leads to big cash and big scores. Every once in a while, you enter a challenge stage where you try to engage non-combative enemies as they cross the screen; doing well results in a special bonus, such as improved weaponry. You’ll also engage some bosses during the game, who provide somewhat of a challenge. You can also compare your high score to the rest of the world, as a central high score list is kept and is able to be accessed from within the game.

The game ends when you run out of shields; shields deplete as you get shot or run over by the aliens. You earn more shields and other upgrades by spending the cash you earn during the game. The upgrade component of Titan Attacks is quite interesting and adds a strategic layer to the game. You can spend your cash on additional shields, improved gun power, extra bullets, smart bombs (that destroy all the enemies on the screen), additional sidearms, and faster ship speed. The strategy comes on what to spend your cash on. How many shields do you need to navigate the next level? Would you rather move faster or have more powerful guns? Should you save your money for more powerful sidearms? As you can see, you can be in a large amount of trouble if you make the wrong decision (especially if you could have afforded additional shields but were saving money). This feature of Titan Attacks is above and beyond anything I remember seeing in other arcade shooters: if they did include upgrades, it was usually a linear selection rather than leaving the choice up to the user. Like other elements of the game, the ship upgrade system makes playing Titan Attacks more than once a viable option.

Sure, Titan Attacks is not very original, but the game does add a lot of new innovations to make the game seem somewhat fresh and new. The actual gameplay is pretty standard: move your ship and shoot at enemies. But the various additions to the game make it distinct: diverse enemies, ejecting alien pilots, and most importantly ship upgrades. Successfully choosing the ship upgrades is almost a game in itself and can determine whether you win or lose. The whole package Titan Attacks offers is certainly enough to make it a distinct arcade shooter, plus its available on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The graphical style of the game works well, and I feel that having Titan Attacks in 3-D would just add a layer of confusion that’s not necessary in a fast-paced action game. It may not have the depth of other games, but Titan Attacks does have some good action with extras that result in a complete game.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords Review

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, developed and published by Stardock Corporation.
The Good: Lots of custom options, multiple achievable winning conditions, high replay value, custom ship designer, micromanagement can be eliminated, deep strategic gameplay, streamlined technology tree, AI opponents are very good and “fair”
The Not So Good: Steep strategic learning curve, no multiplayer, campaign is one dimensional
What say you? Strategy veterans will find plenty to destroy the remainder of your lacking social life: 8/8

Strategy games can be divided into several broad categories, one of them being the 4X game, where you explore (that one X), expand (that’s two), exploit (that’s three), and exterminate (yay!). There are many classic examples of these games, including Master of Orion, Civilization, Imperium Galactica, and Galactic Civilizations. Arguably, Master of Orion had the corner on the space 4X game (while Civilization takes the earth) until Galactic Civilizations was released for Windows in 2003 (it was released for the OS/2 in 1994, apparently). A small company made the original game and although it had really awesome gameplay (I constantly annoyed my significant other playing Gal Civ constantly), it lacked in the bells and whistles department, mostly due to its small development budget. There’s always more room for improvement, so Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords hopes to make some needed improvements to the original game and make the series competitive with the Civilization juggernaut.

Galactic Civilizations II has made some significant improvements over the graphics of the original game, and the end result is a very respectable looking game. Each of the planets is very detailed, rotating on their axis and possibly having a moon as well. The ships also look good, especially considering that you can customize the design of each of your vessels. There have already been some impressive designs using the tools included in the game by the users. Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t rely on cheap space effects to create an ostentatious galaxy; all of the maps look realistic and not overdone with nebula and background textures. The game zooms in for the space and land battles to show an up-close perspective of the carnage. The battles look good, but are not up to the level of cinematic chaos as Star Wars: Empire at War, although it can approach it with large fleets. The user interface is mostly easy to navigate; a lot of the most important information is available from the galactic map and assorted pop-up displays you can activate. Stardock uses its proprietary DesktopX engine to design the interface and make sure it appropriately scales with higher (and weirder) resolutions, instead of just making everything smaller. The game map also provides usable information from close and far perspectives. The graphics are certainly an improvement over the original game, but the sound is essentially the same. The sound does the job of serving up auditory clues of certain events and the catchy background theme (I occasionally hum the song, mainly to annoy), but not much else. Sound is never an area that is strongly needed in a strategy game, and Galactic Civilizations II does a good enough job so that the sound is not a hindrance to the game, but there is nothing memorable about the sound effects. Still, the game has made improvement over the original in the effects categories, so that Galactic Civilizations II actually looks and feels like a modern PC game.

Galactic Civilizations II features the sandbox mode (where most people will spend their time) and a ten mission campaign. The campaign is slightly story driven, but all the missions are military oriented, so there is not much variety. Considering that one of the highlights of Galactic Civilizations II is the multiple winning conditions to satisfy all kinds of players, this is pretty disappointing. Completing the campaign takes a while, mostly because the maps become really large at the end. If you are new to the game, you can watch the non-interactive tutorial videos that explain how to do most of the actions in the game. The problem for new players is that the tutorials explain how to do things, but not why or when to do things. Because of this, beginners must learn by trail and error, figuring out what do to mostly on their own. This is probably the biggest issue with Galactic Civilizations II: the game is a little bit hard on beginning players with its learning curve. Strategy veterans will not have as many problems as they can apply techniques learned on other games. Practice makes perfect, so as long as you’re not opposed to losing some games initially, you’ll do fine eventually.

One of the most powerful aspects of Galactic Civilizations II is the customization options when creating a new game. You can change pretty much everything when creating a new game, so playing a different game each time is a definite possibility. Not only can the map size be changed, but also the probability of habitable planets, stars, and anomalies. You can also speed up the game by changing the technology rate, so research can be completed more quickly. Galactic Civilizations II gives you the option of playing a scenario, which is a special set of initial conditions. Scenarios include an accelerated start, all technologies, slow technologies, taking on the Dread Lords, Good versus Evil, or conquering known space as a certain civilization. You can also pick from one of the game’s ten civilizations (in the original game, you were restricted to the humans) or create a custom civilization. Either way, you assign abilities to a large list of skills that provide your people with specific bonuses, such as improved defense, producing more military units, increased trade, or a bonus to tax revenue. You also choose a political party, which gives you more bonuses but only if you remain in power. If you have an advanced government type that requires an election and you lose control the senate (by having a low approval rating), you actually receive a penalty corresponding to the bonus the winning party provides. I knew I should have never given them the right to vote!

Another of the strongest points of Galactic Civilizations II is the artificial intelligence, which remains at the high level achieved by the original game. There is an advanced hierarchy of decisions that the AI can make, and the higher the level of the AI, the more advanced the choice. This is in stark contrast to most games, where high difficulty is made by giving the AI more money or letting it cheat (which is really cheap and insulting). The AI will exploit your weaknesses, form alliances to their betterment, and generally act like a real human. They also do no discriminate against you, treating you the same as all the other players. The AI can be turned down for beginning players so that they are easy to handle, but when the difficulty is turned up, the stakes are raised and they become very formidable enemies (or friends). The AI will actually insult you when they observe suspicious actions, like a whole bunch of ships arriving near their home planet. Reaching the myriad of victory conditions is very possible with the AI: I like to make alliances with as many as I can and then take out the rest through influence or military. It’s fortunate that the AI is so good, because Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t have any multiplayer. There is the Metaverse, where you can upload scores and see how you compare against other players, but that’s the most interactivity you’ll have with other people. Honestly, Galactic Civilizations II probably wouldn’t work as a multiplayer game anyway; turn-based games are difficult to implement online, and part of the fun in Galactic Civilizations II is spending 20 minutes designing your own spacecraft or delving into stacks of data to finalize your next move, and multiplayer matches really doesn’t lend itself to this kind of sporadic complexity.

The goal of Galactic Civilizations II is to dominate the galaxy, but not just through military means. You can win by taking over all the other civilizations, but you can also win by forming alliances with all the remaining civilizations, ruling the galaxy through your influence, or getting the top technologies. This means that any type of player can win at Galactic Civilizations II. I especially like the alliance victory; this means you can align with the most powerful civilization that holds your same beliefs and team up to eliminate the opposition. The galaxy is made up of several sectors that contain stars and planets. Unlike the first game, more than one civilization can have colonized planets around a single star, which can result in a dramatic tug-of-war for dominance in a local sector. There are no borders in Galactic Civilizations II: as far as the game is concerned, space is akin to international waters (now we can gamble!) and anyone can traverse through any sector. The galaxy is peppered with resources that provide bonuses (such as influence or economy) and anomalies that, when explored, can give small attribute increases. The first part of the game is spent finding suitable planets to colonize. Planets are rated on a scale that determines how many spaces they have for structures, ten being good. Some of the game is luck in finding the best planets early on, but a lot of this is negated later on with increased expenses coinciding with a large empire. A colony ship is created and then sent off to a prospective planet, spreading your righteous civilization throughout the universe. Manufacturing and research is conducted on your planets, where you build structures to increase attributes such as influence, food, and manufacturing rates. Food determines the maximum number of people that can live on each planet, so it’s important to save some building locations for future farms if you intend on expanding on only your existing planets. Each planet is rated according to how fast it can produce military units, structures, and research, and building appropriate buildings increases these rates. Maintenance costs prohibit most players from building all the structures on every planet, so some players will decide to specialize each planet to serve a specific role. Sometimes, there are special squares that provide large bonuses for constructing a certain type of building on that location, so that can determine what type of colony a planet will be.

Money is earned in the game though taxes and trade. Balancing you budget is very straightforward: your tax rate determines (partly) your approval rating, and you can also set the amount of money that goes into production and research. Ideally, you want your empire to be operating at 100% efficiency, but sometimes this is not possible if you need to have lower taxes for a higher approval rate. You can also set sliders to determine how much of your income is spend on building military units, structures, and research. Later in the game, a lot of income will come from trade with other civilizations. Trade is done by first researching trade, then building freighters and sending them to a distant planet. The trade is then automated and a set income is applied to your coffers. You can also earn money through tourism, which is directly related to how much of the galaxy is under your influence. This is a really neat idea that rewards players going for the influence victory.

Speaking of the influence victory, influence is calculated from your civilization’s population, bonuses, technologies, and influence-related projects. Planets can become yours without even firing a shot: if a colony is in an area where the influence is four more times than the influence it generates, it switches sides. As you can see, this makes a non-military victory a viable alternative. Another victory condition is technology, and this is reached by conducting research. Galactic Civilizations II has a very streamlined technology tree, unlike a lot of games (namely Civilization IV) where one future technology requires four or five older technologies. Most techs in Galactic Civilizations II have just one prerequisite, which makes determining how to proceed with your research that much easier. It is difficult, however, to determine the requirements for various kinds of units in the game. For example, if I wanted to make a Battle Axe, I would want to know what I need to research in order to get it, but the game is less than forthcoming about this information. It seems that the best way to conduct research in the game is to concentrate mostly on the techs for the kind of victory you are trying to achieve (for example, research diplomatic technologies for an influence or alliance victory). As for the weapons and defense, I arbitrarily pick a type of weapon to concentrate on (they all cause the same damage) and then try to figure out (through espionage or seeing what they’ve researched) what the enemy is using and research the appropriate defense. When you research the larger ships, you can include more than one type of weapon (harpoons plus singularity drivers) to confuse and destroy the opposition. Suckers! For having such a large technology tree, Galactic Civilizations II makes it as simple as possible to navigate through the maze of technologies.

Unless you’re playing with yourself (he he!), you’ll need to interact with other civilizations at some point during the game. This is done through the diplomacy screen, which is a straightforward screen where you can request and send pretty much anything you’d ever want: money, treaties, units, technologies, and planets. The game gives a clear indication of whether the AI civilization will accept your proposal (by displaying a green or red text message), which is greatly appreciated. The AI are not stupid negotiators and will not accept lopsided proposals or give up technologies that they deem really advanced, just like human players would. You can learn more information about the enemy by spending some money on espionage; this information is very useful in determining what kinds of military units they are building so that you can construct appropriate counters. Making close friends in Galactic Civilizations II is much harder than the first game: before, you could just throw money or technologies at them and they would join an alliance. This time around, you must impress them over a long period of time by conducing profitable trade, fighting their enemies, and having the same ethics. Based on decisions you make during the game, you civilization can be good, neutral, or evil. These decisions come from random events; typically, the good option costs money and the evil option is best in the short term. It is easier to conduct diplomacy if you are a good civilization, however, so players attempting that kind of victory should be wary of giving in to the dark side. Each ethical alignment does come with certain bonuses: good civilizations are less likely to defect, neutral civilizations have more content citizens, and evil civilizations can siphon money from trade routes, just to name a few. Just to complicate all the diplomacy matters further is the United Planets, which votes once a year to institute some sort of galactic law. The number of votes is proportional to the amount of influence you have. Agreements usually deal with a tax on certain things or outlawing something, typically a way to screw over the most dominant civilizations. Thank you very much, democracy.

Obviously, Galactic Civilizations II wouldn’t be much of a space game if it didn’t have any ships, so Galactic Civilizations II has ships. A large difference from the first game is that you can now customize your ship loadout and design. As you progress through the technology tree, small improvements in weapons, defenses, and shields will be discovered. The game won’t upgrade your ships by default, so you’ll need to design a custom ship (or upgrade an existing ship) fitted with all the latest technology. This is actually pretty fun, as the game allows you to attach a lot of pieces to the craft to make each ship look unique. As I mentioned earlier, this can result in some spectacular designs if you invest enough time into it. The game has three types of attacks and three defenses for each attack. The game does come with the default ships that we saw in the last game, but in order to get the most out of your research, you’ll need to upgrade your ships. Better techs of a certain type (like Stinger III vs Stinger II) take up less room on your ship so you can cram more stuff on it, and a new weapon has one more hit point it can deliver in a nice little package for the enemy. Generally, ships have specific roles (according to the modules attached to them), such as explorer, scout, fighter, colony ship, or constructor. Constructors are used to create starbases, which are important later in the game once all the available planets have been colonized. Starbases can be constructed anywhere on the map, and can serve a military, influence, economic, or resource gathering role. Constructors are expensive to build, which cuts down on the amount of starbases on the map (thankfully), so choose your locations wisely. As for your military units, they can now be organized into fleets, the size of which is determined by your researched logistics level. Fleets have the advantage of attacking all at the same time, essentially adding their attributes together. This is important because before, ships attacked one at a time, even if you had a large stack of units at a single location. Fleets makes it possible to destroy more powerful single units with a fleet of smaller but more numerous units. Fleets are also treated as one unit, so moving around endless stacks of units like in other games (namely Civilization IV) is not a problem. When ships do attack, combat is automatically conducted (this is not a tactical game), but you can watch the action unfold and cry as your precious little planes explode. Once you have successfully crippled your enemy, it’s time to invade. Planetary invasions are conducted by researching the appropriate technology, building a transport, and sending it over to an undefended planet. The invasion is automatically conducted (this is not a tactical game) and a winner decided. Planetary invasions are not my favorite aspect of the game, because you need a whole lot of troops to invade an enemy planet, sometimes four or five separate transports (of course, you can fleet these together). It just seems like too much work to get rid of an obviously inferior opponent. Of course, this means that planets will not be changing hands back and forth during the game (unlike Civilization IV). Did all of this sound like too much to keep track of? Thankfully, there are governors in the game. They aren’t really AI, just specific instructions on what units to build and where to send them once they are done. This makes handling a large empire easier, but you can still manage each planet individually if you’d like.

You can usually tell how good a game is by how long my review is. As you can see, Galactic Civilizations II is pretty great. The game makes enough improvements over the original to warrant buying this version if you have the original, and it presents a lot of strong strategic gameplay for all players. Galactic Civilizations II prides itself on its customization and AI, and both of these are in full force. Add in multiple winning conditions to fit all playing styles, the custom ship designer, and a streamlined technology tree, and a very complete strategy game results. Galactic Civilizations II is not the easiest game to learn for newcomers to strategy games, but you’ll learn the ropes eventually. People might complain that there is not any multiplayer, but the game wouldn’t be as fun and wouldn’t be able to include all of the same options. Plus, I’d rather have an awesome single player experience than half-assed single and multiplayer modes. There will probably be a lot of comparisons made with Civilization IV and people wanting to know which is better. Since I’ve played and reviewed both of them, I’ll offer my opinion. I think that Civilization IV is geared more towards beginners and Galactic Civilizations II is for advanced players. Civilization IV is much more approachable initially and newbie-friendly, but Galactic Civilizations II has many more options that more experienced players will appreciate. Galactic Civilizations II gives you the freedom to play the game the way you want it. Civilization IV has multiplayer, but I was never a fan of playing turn-based games online anyway. I see myself playing Galactic Civilizations II more in the future than Civilization IV, mainly because I am an experienced (although perhaps not good) strategy gamer and I like all the custom options that make the game different each time. So go out and buy Galactic Civilizations II. The Dread Lords are waiting to fry your brain with their giant lasers.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle Review

Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle, developed by MediaResearchGroup and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Can import your own pictures, custom puzzle settings
The Not So Good: Piece rotation makes it so HARD!
What say you? Entertaining if you enjoy jigsaw puzzles: 6/8

Jigsaw games have gone the way of the dodo and the ichthyosaur: relative extinction. Ever since computers have come around, people have been drawn to their warm glowing warming glow, casting aside the jigsaw puzzle and its thousand pieces of frustration. But what if we could meld the two media? That’s exactly what MediaResearchGroup (no time for spaces!) and Alawar Entertainment have done in Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle, offering up some jigsaw fun on the personal computer.

The graphics are what you would expect for a puzzle game: dominated by the puzzles themselves, and they are of high quality and look good. The backgrounds have a calming effect with their soft blue hue. The graphics are sharp and defined, but the menus could have been better designed: there is too much clicking involved to access certain aspects of the game (such as puzzle deletion). The sound consists of the background song that is also relaxing (and short and on continual repeat). The game also indicates that you’ve connected two pieces correctly with some kind of munching sound. Overall, the graphics and sound in Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle are exactly what you’d expect.

Obviously, the goal of Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle is to solve jigsaw puzzles in the shortest amount of time. The originality of Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle stems from the fact that you can import you own pictures and customize each puzzle. If you install the free puzzle pack, you’ll get over 200 puzzles, which should keep you busy for a while. If that isn’t enough, you can also import any picture that is of BMP, PCX, PNG, TGA, TIFF, JPEG, or GIF format easily: you don’t even need to copy and paste it into the directory, just select it from within the game. This works pretty well, although the bottom of a lot of the pictures gets cropped in order to make the pieces fit correctly. In order to access this option, you need to first select “fun mode,” which for some reason if off by default. It took me a while to figure out that this is the key, so hopefully I have saved you some time. Each of the 200 included puzzles has default settings concerning their difficulty (more detailed pictures have more pieces), but you can customize any of the included and imported puzzles. You can change the piece shape and piece count (from 15 to an insane 1200 or so), which is the main way to up the ante. You can also turn rotation on, where the initial pieces may not be right side up, just like you dumped them out of the box. In addition, you can turn color rotation on, which may cause some pieces to become more green, blue, or red than usual, and you must adjust their color back to normal before fitting them in place. Color rotation works well on multi-colored puzzles and adds an interesting element to the mix. You can also apply some special effects, such as oil painting or sharpen. Despite the slightly confusing menus, playing the game is easy enough: you can move the pieces around the board by dragging them, and rotate them by double clicking on them. The game can offer hints if you are stuck, remove all the pieces that don’t lie on the border, and even put a ghosted image in the background (just like you’re looking at the box) to ease in identifying which piece goes where. Sometimes, pieces get hidden underneath a completed portion of the puzzle, but you can move stuff around by dragging it, so that problem is easily averted. The variation in piece shapes coupled with the ability to create both small and large puzzles from the same picture adds to the longevity of the game. In addition, the game keeps track of your best times for each rule and picture combination, so you can challenge your friends to heart pounding, action filled jigsaw clashes.

Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle has pretty much everything you’d want in a single play jigsaw game. Not only does the game ship with over 200 puzzles, but also you can import your own pictures and customize the difficulty of each puzzle. The game provides several avenues to assist you in solving each puzzle (showing the solution in the background and offering hints) as well. I’m not that huge a fan of jigsaw puzzles, but I had fun tying the included pictures, importing some of my own, and then solving the puzzles. The easy controls should appeal to beginners, and the ability to ramp up the difficulty with more pieces (and including piece rotation) will draw in the expert players. If you’ve been searching for a respectable jigsaw puzzle computer game, you don’t need to look any further than Infinite Jigsaw Puzzle.