Wednesday, May 31, 2006

PureSim Baseball 2007 Review

PureSim Baseball 2007, developed by Shaun Sullivan and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Meticulous league options, integrated Lahman database for real MLB players from any year, realistic results
The Not So Good: Information could be better organized and easier to access, team salary limits are too high (especially for small markets)
What say you? A good baseball simulation, but only minor upgrades from the previous version: 6/8

Ah, summer. Hot temperatures. Hurricanes. Inept government. But in terms of sports, summer can only mean one thing: NASCAR! But apparently, there is a niche sport with a small following that takes place during the hottest months of the year, and that’s baseball. Computer games have long simulated this sport in both arcade and simulation modes, from the earliest stat-based text simulations to today’s 3-D reflex arcade offerings. PureSim Baseball 2007 is the sequel to PureSim Baseball 2005, a game that I reviewed a scant eight months ago. Who knew that two years could fly by so quickly (although, to be fair, it was the “gold” edition)! We’re looking for improvements on the game from the previous version: added features, improved graphics, and the like. Does PureSim Baseball 2007 deliver a grand slam, or a 6-4-3 double play?

There are very few (and by very few I mean two) graphical enhancements from the 2005 version of PureSim. The first are ball animations during simulated games, which actually work very well. In the last version of the game, the ball path was simply shown as a line, but in PureSim Baseball 2007 the ball is animated as it travels up and towards its destination. It’s kind of fun to watch the ball path and try to predict whether it’s going to be a successful hit or not; this is the peak of excitement in PureSim Baseball 2007. The other enhancement is pleasing (at least for a primarily text-based simulation) player cards that have a nice style reminiscent of some good looking Windows themes. Sadly, these are the only two changes to the graphics, as the rest of the game looks exactly like the 2005 version (because it is). The player cards almost look out of place to be honest, when compared with all the other menus and information that are bland in comparison. At least in 2005, the game’s graphics were fairly consistent; it seems odd to improve one area of the interface and leave the rest unchanged. Some of the key pages in the game are still more than one click away (such as manage lineups and a schedule calendar); adding these components to the bar along the bottom of the screen would have been a good addition.

The sound of PureSim Baseball 2007 is well done. There is a non-annoying attention sound when an important event happens in the game, and the crowd noises during simulated games are pleasing. The crowd will react to the events on the field, particularly hits by the home team and home runs by the away team. The ambient noise of the crowd is very nice and seems to have been recorded at a real ball game. You can tell it’s looped after a while, but it still delivers a plausible ballpark atmosphere. I still keep turning around when the hot dog guy makes his rounds near my section. Compared to other text-based simulations (such as Total College Basketball and Bowl Bound College Football), the sound of PureSim Baseball 2007 is much more realistic and doesn’t appear to be a set of canned, abrupt recordings like those other titles.

Probably the biggest feature of PureSim Baseball 2007 is the options available when creating a league. In addition to all of the tools available in the 2005 version, the game now has the Lahman database incorporated into the game, saving download time and making adding real MLB players from any year since 1900 easy as pie (although, with my cooking skills, pie is not so easy). You may simulates a single MLB season or create your own league. One of the things I really like about PureSim Baseball 2007 is that most American cities are hard-coded into the game with appropriate climate and financial information, so that you can pick real cities to simulate any league or have the game randomly choose cities to build a fantasy association. The game can set a lower limit of available finances in order to limit the possibility of having small market teams dominated in the game, but there is no option for setting an upper limit, in case you want to simulate a single-A type league. Any league can be played with multiplayer options, so running a virtual league is fairly simple. When creating a league, you can set the start year, and the finances are appropriately scaled to the current year (so that multi-million dollar contracts aren’t seen in 1912). The game does seem to provide some outrageous spending limits for all market sizes, especially big markets. You can acquire all of the top free agents and still have close to 50 million dollars left over, and this is with a small market team like Erie. I realize that MLB doesn’t have a salary cap, but the limits imposed in PureSim Baseball 2007 never really come into play. You can skip all of this financial stuff if you’d like, but then the excitement of free agency (a fairly big deal in MLB) is eliminated. The game can create pretty much any arrangement of teams you’d like and assigns random nicknames to each of them (which you can change). You can also customize the roster sizes (full minor leagues are supported in PureSim Baseball 2007), season length, specific rules (like designated hitters), and which year to pull real players from. When you create your dream league, you can import team graphics and even customized ball parks (with an appropriate background image) to accentuate your association. PureSim Baseball 2007 gives you the flexibility to recreate any existing league or produce the association of your liking.

You play PureSim Baseball 2007 as the general manager and coach. Winning and losing isn’t determined by how accurately your can press a button on your controller, but by how you manipulate your rosters and develop young talent. This may not be exciting to some, but those people probably shouldn’t be playing text-based simulations anyway. The game does give you all of the information you need to make educated decisions about your ball club (although, as I mentioned earlier, it could be easier to get to). You can edit your lineup and rotation, send players to the minor (and call players up), set your manager tendencies during simmed games (such as how often to bunt and when to yank pitchers), and access every single statistic you’d ever want to see. PureSim Baseball 2007 adds a new HTML almanac that generates information about every player on every team at the end of each season (which takes a while) so that you can upload it to the Internet and people can browse through your geek-ness. During the season, PureSim Baseball 2007 provides ESPN-like information, such as highlights and interesting stats in a weekly webpage. If all of the information the game gives you isn’t enough, you can import user-made modules that can provide customized statistics. Although it may not be the easiest to wade through, nobody can say PureSim Baseball 2007 doesn’t give the user all of the information they need to run a successful club.

After you’ve created the perfect roster, it’s time to play the games. You can choose to simulate the games (watching or managing 162 games can take a while), from one day at a time to the entire season. The game will pause simulation if something important comes up (such as an injury), and you can even set which events will cause the game to stop. If you’d like more control over your squad, you can step into the manager’s shoes and make decisions during the game. Like in real life, managers don’t have too much influence over what happens in a game; the games of PureSim Baseball 2007 are largely decided by the stat ratings your players have. However, you can make substitutions (pinch hitters and relief pitchers), field adjustments (outfield depth and infield alignment), and other minor instructions to the batters (such as bunting, hit and run plays, and stealing bases). The game is fun to play for the most part, although you end up pressing enter most of the time and just watching the action so it feels like the game is playing itself (although I imagine that’s how real managers feel). After the season is over, all of the stats are saved, the rookie draft is held, and free agency begins. As I mentioned earlier, the financial model of PureSim Baseball 2007 results in every team being able to afford every player. When Jamestown signs the top 15 free agent pitchers and has tons of money left over, there’s a slight realism problem.

PureSim Baseball 2007 is a fairly complete baseball simulation. The game has exhaustive league options and complete statistics, providing a good perspective on what a real GM or manager has to deal with in the big leagues. There are a couple of minor concerns with the game (mainly the financial model issues), but overall the game plays very good. There aren’t many changes from the 2005 version of the game: two graphical improvements, the HTML almanac, more efficient simulations, improved AI, and more manager options, so owners of that game (the gold version of which came out not too long ago) might be hesitant to purchase a game that’s basically the same. There could have been more done with the 2007 version of this game, principally a more consistent and improved user interface (which probably would have been enough for me, as minor improvements are pretty much expected for yearly sports games). Still, fans of management games will find plenty to enjoy with PureSim Baseball 2007.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Wild Earth Review

Wild Earth, developed and published by Super X Studios.
The Good: Unique premise, good animal models, believable environments, educational, end-of-safari newsletter featuring your photos
The Not So Good: Not exactly action packed
What say you? A safari photography simulation that’s actually quite enjoyable, especially for the youngsters: 6/8

Don’t you wish you could go back to a time when dinosaurs weren't just confined to zoos, with animals roaming around their natural habitat? Well, now you can, and without the annoying stench of Jim Carrey. In Wild Earth, you are a nature photographer, charged with scouring the African savanna, looking for huge piles of dung to take pictures of. You think I’m kidding, but that’s actually one of the tasks. Any game that involves pictures of feces must be awesome!

Since it takes place in nature, a game such as Wild Earth would hinge on believable animals and environments, and the game does not disappoint. All of the animals present in the game are realistically detailed in both appearance and behavior. Now, all of these actions are carefully scripted and not dynamic, but it’s still an authentic atmosphere. The environments aren’t too shabby either, and they serve as a convincing backdrop for the animals to frolic in. The animals look good from both close and far viewpoints, and the fact that a large number of different creatures are present in the game speaks volumes for the quality seen in the game. Wild Earth also features true to life sound effects of all the animals in the game, resulting in a genuine cacophony of noise. All of the instructions from your superiors are voiced, perfect for the younger players among us, and those who hate to read. The background music definitely has a nature documentary feel to it, and reminds me of the tunes heard at Sea World. On the whole, the quality of the sound and graphics of Wild Earth is very high, which is especially impressive for a small developer.

In Wild Earth, you roam various environments on missions to take pictures of animals. There are only eleven missions, but they last pretty long. Movement uses the classic WASD keys, and taking pictures is easy: just aim with your mouse and click. You have unlimited film so you can take as many pictures as you’d like. You are given a list of primary and secondary objectives throughout the game, which includes taking photos of animals doing various activities. The goals are obviously staged: your primary objective will usually happen in the next ten seconds or so. Some of the secondary, optional objectives are hard to find and sort of function like a treasure hunt, and they serve as a good diversion. You don’t need to successfully take pictures of every single objective, but you will need to complete around 75% of them in order to move on to the next level. Finding the next area to move to is made easy by the direction find, which indicates the location of the next objectives. You have free movement during the game and can move right up to the creatures, although they will notice your presence and the “impact meter” will tick down. If the meter is completely drained, you’ll need to restart the mission because you ruined everything. After you complete a mission, your actual pictures are featured in an article much like you’d find in a nature magazine.

Wild Earth is a very well done game. It features high-quality graphics with believable environments and realistic animals. The game is education, as it interjects your safari adventures with facts about the creatures you encounter. The game also features a newsletter at the conclusion of each mission, so that you can show off your picture taking skills. I had some fun playing the game, but I imagine that elementary school children with an interested in animals (which is pretty much all of them) would have a blast. I feel I have some expertise in this area because my wife is always telling me that I act like a 3rd grader. Wild Earth is simple to play, educational, and fun: pretty much everything you’d ask in a game such as this.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Amju Super Golf Review

Amju Super Golf, developed and published by Amju Games.
The Good: Good theme, some original components
The Not So Good: Camera control issues, not challenging, no penalty for playing over par
What say you? An arcade golf game that’s too easy to be fun: 4/8

There are several sports on television that might seem boring to some but are exciting to those who are interested in that sport. For example, not living in a baseball town, I find baseball extremely boring and vomit-inducing. Another sport like this is golf, enjoyed by old men everywhere as a way to walk outside and yell obscenities at a tiny ball in an acceptable environment. People who don’t play golf can’t understand what the fascination is watching professionals play on TV. Golf does make for some entertaining computer games, however, evidenced by the venerable Tiger Woods series published by Big Brother. There is another sect of golf games in addition to the realistic ones, and that includes arcade, cutesy games. A popular series on the console is Hot Shots Golf, and our game today, Amju Super Golf, is similar to that game. Amju Super Golf features brightly colored levels dotted with hearts and players ripped from anime. Will Amju Super Golf fill the arcade golf niche on the PC?

Amju Super Golf certainly establishes its theme in the graphics department: bright, bright, and more bright. Just looking at the game almost makes your eyes bleed from all of the clashing colors. You’ll be hardpressed to find a dark color among the arrangement of purples, yellows, blues, and whites. It’s like a pre-teen came in and decorated a video game. Amju Super Golf doesn’t have the best graphics of any sports-oriented title, but it definitely is memorable for its loud palette. I do have some issues with the camera in Amju Super Golf: it’s absolutely horrible. The game features odd and confusing camera angles, objects continually get in the way, and the camera does not orient towards hole, confusing the player. The camera points in the direction you are aiming, so the only way to move the camera is to move your shot location. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had to wrestle with a camera so much in a computer game. You can’t zoom in the game, and the only way to change your view is the use the binoculars tool. But all the binoculars do is pan backwards from the hole location to your current position; this happens way too fast and doesn’t really clear anything up. The camera should never, ever hinder the gameplay, but it does in Amju Super Golf. The game features some basic sound effects that are not memorable, and some background music that is slightly enjoyable for the first ten minutes of the game.

Amju Super Golf features 36 holes of one or two player golf action. The game is easy enough to control: you click on the ball, pull back the mouse to select your swing power, and lift up on the mouse button to swing. The “fairways” consist of platforms you must navigate during your trip to the cup. There are some locked gates along the way, which you must open by having your ball touch a crescent moon. You can get bonuses by hitting hearts or animals scattered around the map. In two player mode, the first person in the hole wins, but there is no “par” or goal score for single players, so you can take as many shots as you’d like. The only penalty in the game is falling off the side of the course, and you receive three balls per hole. You can take the strategy of shooting very small distances all the way around the course to ensure that you don’t plummet off the end, which results in a pretty boring game. Losing a ball requires you to start the level from the beginning (instead of “taking a drop”); this can frustrate players who must navigate the entire hole over again. The initial maximum shot range is also very small (you gain extra shot range as you unlock more holes), resulting in a lot of short, unchallenging shots during the game.

Amju Super Golf could have been an interesting arcade golf game, if it hadn’t lacked good execution. The overall theme is good, but the gameplay is sub-standard. The game doesn’t have a maximum shot limit to each hole, making the game far too easy. I suppose the game was intended as a multiplayer affair, but even then it’s still not much fun due to the short shot distances and weak strategies you can successfully employ. And the camera control is really bad. The only redeeming features include the interesting setting and RPG-like character skill increases. Even so, Amju Super Golf is a game you can skip over and not feel bad about it, since it is too frustrating and too easy for most of the gaming public.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach Review

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, developed by Turbine and published by Atari.
The Good: Strongly encourages team play, authentic D&D recreation
The Not So Good: Leaning curve for those not knowledgeable of D&D, classes are restrictive, keeping groups together is difficult, monthly fee
What say you? Just your average MMORPG, but a good adaptation of the D&D rules: 5/8

Another review, another MMORPG. It seems like these things are reproducing like rabbits recently, springing up at every turn and eating my lettuce. But now we have an MMORPG with quite a heritage behind it, and arguably the brightest beacon for super-nerdom: Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. There have been numerous computer games that have adapted the D&D rules (most notably Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights), but never in an MMO setting. This is the lofty goal of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach: to appease the obsessive fanboys while delivering a solid gameplay experience. How will the twelve-sided die fare in an online locale?

Like most MMORPGs, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach features upper echelon graphics. The characters are finely detailed, as are the different areas you will explore while playing the game. The spell effects are all right as well, and the water effects look really good. The game features some advanced effects to use the latest hardware devices. Overall, I doubt anyone will be disappointed in the graphics of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. The sound is pretty good as well: good environmental sounds in some areas accompany the decent battle effects. The voice acting of the Dungeon Master is a little over the top, but that’s what you would expect in this particular title. Both the graphics and the sound in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach will satisfy the expectations of all players.

The first time I fired up Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, the game needed to update 1,567 files. I made the same comment in my review of Auto Assault, so I guess it’s a standard MMORPG affair for extremely large updates, but it’s still annoying to wait 45 minutes to play for the first time. Like other MMORPGs, the game takes place on a number of different servers, and each of your characters are tied to a specific serve and cannot be moved, something that still annoys me. As you might expect (since it’s a very important part of the tabletop game), the character creation aspect of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is very thorough. You can choose from nine classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard) and five races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, and warforged), each of which is geared towards a specific fighting style and given different bonuses. The game also lets you fully customize your character’s appearance (including randomly generated looks that can be very interesting), choose a moral alignment, and customize all of the skills. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach gives you a standard set of skills when you create a character, but the more ambitious people can fine-tune their player. Each character has six different abilities (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma) that determine which actions they can successfully complete. However, the game does not prevent you from making bad choices. For example, I created a spell-caster with low spell ratings (namely wisdom) and found out I couldn’t cast any spells because I didn’t have high enough ratings. So, you really need to know what you’re doing if you’re going to attempt customizing a character’s abilities. In addition to the abilities, you can set your character’s skills, feats, and spells. The game does give tips on what to choose based on your race and class, which is nice.

After you’re done creating a new character, it’s off to Stormreach. The majority of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is played through quests (just like the tabletop game). All of these quests are instanced, meaning they are made just for your party and nobody else can interfere: this is exactly like Guild Wars (a very similar game, as you’ll see). The quests could be much clearer on what to do and where to go by using more waypoints, like in Auto Assault. A lot of the time, the vague directions will tell you to find something or kill someone, and you’ll just keep moving forward until you find them. The lack of waypoints or other indicators makes the quests last longer than needed and results in more confusion in trying to find the one area of the dungeon you didn’t explore. Also, in Guild Wars, if one person enters a quest location, the whole party is transported along with them. This is not the case in Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, where you must wait for every single person to find the correct door and then load the new level area. This can result in confusion, frustration, and people leaving the group. This game is intended to be played in large parties with people of various classes. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach tries to make finding a party easy, with a pretty good social matching utility, but after you join a party, you must find the quest locations without any assistance of waypoints (other than where your group members are located). Another player telling you “it’s near the dock” is not clear enough. In addition, you are essentially required to form groups in order to successfully complete a quest, and a lot of people who play online are either not interested in joining your group or jerks who’ll drop two minutes into the mission. That’s the problem with relying on real people. The game does allow for the formation of guilds, so that may make finding people to play with easier. As you can tell, finding and joining a quest could have been much, much smoother.

Once you do successfully start a quest, the classic D&D gameplay comes alive. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach uses all of the heart pounding excitement of rolling dice (although it does this in the background) found in the original game. I feel that Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach could have been better if the combat was done turn-based instead of real time (like the real game), because the game adds some layers of difficulty that are just unnecessary and annoying. The enemies keep moving around, so you must constantly turn to face them or your attacks and spells will not work. This is extremely irritating: D&D is based off good character creation and some luck, not whether I can turn. You can auto-attack enemies, but you still need to turn, block, use shields, use spells, and dodge on your own, as auto-attacking just means the game will slash at the bad guys as often as possible. Dungeons can contain rest areas that will regenerate health and spell points and serve as a location to resurrect fallen allies. This is a completely necessary addition, as spell points for casters will run out far too quickly. Dungeons are scattered with trucks full of stuff to steal that will go into your inventory. The inventory is not very well organized (see Oblivion for a good inventory) and it’s difficult to determine which weapons you should (or can) use. While you complete quests, you’ll gain experience (although you level up very slowly in the game) that will grant new enhancements and better skills. All of this we’ve seen before in other RPGs, and Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach doesn’t add anything new to the genre, just a marriage of past ideas and the D&D license.

Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach is just OK, and just OK is not enough when you’re competing against countless other similar games. Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach does have an advantage, and that is the license of D&D. Those people who just must play Dungeons & Dragons (because of the name) will find an average MMORPG and will probably be satisfied with it. However, for people who don’t care about the licensing, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach doesn’t have anything extraordinarily original to make it greater than any other game in the genre. Everything here is just repeated from other games. If you are a new player interested in playing an MMORPG, might I suggest Guild Wars, a surprisingly similar game that has no monthly fee (unlike this one). In a time of an overabundance of role playing games, you must have some originality that draws in players other than just a name, and Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach lacks this crucial element.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Cave Jumper Review

Cave Jumper, developed by KNPMASTER and published by Addictive 247.
The Good: Simple, classic mechanics (easy to play), old school graphics (nostalgic)
The Not So Good: Simple, classic mechanics (not challenging), old school graphics (outdated), saves only every five levels
What say you? A new platform game that looks, feels, and plays like a old platform game: 5/8

Remember the pixilated glory of Super Mario Brothers? Of course you do. The running! The jumping! The mushrooms! Well, most of that action is back in Cave Jumper, a new platform game that features all of the running, jumping, and throwing you could ever hope to imagine, all in spectacular low-resolution. Jumping is fun!

Cave Jumper plays both in 320x240 and relatively high-resolution 640x480. As you can imagine, this means the graphics are definitely old-school: high in the blockiness count and low on the detail. You won’t be turning to Cave Jumper for the latest in 3-D hardware acceleration, but this means that anyone with any computer made in the past 15-20 years can run this game. The developer could have added some nice details even at the low resolution, but instead we’re left with bland environments that are surpassed even by the earlier Nintendo games. The sound is along the same lines: few effects with some campy/annoying background music. Still, there is some amount of nostalgia in dealing with games like this, ones that feature simple graphics and effects and are much more interested in gameplay. You can argue it’s better to have a simple game that runs on essentially every computer than a buggy cutting-edge title that half the users run into problems with. As long as you go along with this kind of thinking, then the special effects of Cave Jumper won’t disappoint too terribly much.

As you might have gathered from the review so far, Cave Jumper is your basic platform game. You’ll traverse caverns in the search for gold coins while jumping over crevasses, killing extremely large cave spiders, and generally avoid dying. You can navigate the levels by walking left to right, jumping onto ledges, activating elevators (I guess someone explored the caves first and was nice enough to install working elevators), and throwing your axe to kill nearby bad guys. You can also plant dynamite (although it’s usually much easier just to axe them to death) and use your rope to scale walls. There are a number of spooky enemies in the game, including spiders, bats, skeletons, and bears. Cave Jumper doesn’t feature any expert-level AI: just baddies that walk back and forth along scripted paths. Cave Jumper features 55 different levels, although, according to the online scoreboard, most people only reach the 20’s before dying. The game saves your progress every five levels, which is a very strange mechanic. Why not save after each level? What if I need to quit after the 4th level to attend to something that needs my attending? This is extremely annoying and easily my biggest complaint in the game.

I’m all for classic arcade action, and I’ll even buy into a clone of an existing game as long as it’s well done. The problem is that Cave Jumper doesn’t feature anything new to the table of platform games, just a rehash of classic (yet slightly enjoyable) gameplay. It’s a nice little diversion, but nothing out of the ordinary that would grab your attention or make it a “must buy.” I would have liked Cave Jumper a lot better if it weren’t for the arbitrary saved games restriction. I am a very important person and sometimes can’t sit down long enough to complete a game all the way through! People who enjoy the classic arcade stylings found in Cave Jumper should get some satisfaction out of the game, but there is one major shortcoming (at least in my opinion) and no real original game elements to speak of.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Phony Ring two:five Review

Phony Ring two:five, developed and published by Volatile Assembly.
The Good: Simple game mechanics, interesting visual style, distinctive falling block adaptation
The Not So Good: Difficulty could increase faster
What say you? A Tetris variant that’s unique enough to be great fun: 7/8

After Tetris was released, countless imitations followed. Everyone wanted to cash in to the overwhelming popularity of arranging falling blocks. A lot of these direct clones have fallen by the wayside, but every so often a title comes around that changes up things just enough to make it seems fresh and inventive. This brings us to Phony Ring two:five, an oddly-named game from an oddly-named developer. So, what makes Phony Ring two:five unique? Funny I should ask myself that, because I was just about to let myself know!

Phony Ring two:five has a distinct visual style that makes the game very unique from a graphical standpoint. The game has simple graphics, but they work well and definitely stand out against the crowd. Phony Ring two:five fits neatly into a window and the backgrounds never confuse or deter from the gameplay. The background music of the game is one of the highlights of Phony Ring two:five. Some might find the minimalist techno music to the annoying, but I felt it fits the game well and served as a good backdrop to the action. Phony Ring two:five positively won’t be confused with other titles in terms of graphics and sound, as it abounds with individuality in both categories.

In Phony Ring two:five, you arrange falling blocks of two pieces into groups of five or more at the bottom of a ring. This is pretty evident from the start: it’s in the title, people! All of the direction is done using the mouse: pointing the mouse will rotate the pieces to the different columns of the ring, left clicking will switch the block positions, and right clicking will drop them. The simple controls will make the game easy to learn for all skill levels. The groups of five or more can be connected horizontally or vertically, and the game shows the blocks that are currently joined. Points are awarded for each block removed after the first four, so a straight-up removal of five will only result in one point. When blocks are eliminated, the blocks above them fall to occupy their space. Big bucks result from connecting large numbers of blocks in one turn, or eliminating additional blocks when they fall down into the empty spaces. Overall, Phony Ring two:five is a very simple game to play and actually extremely fun, even if you’ve played tons of these Tetris clones before. The unique circular arrangement of the game scores points for originality, and the lack of confusing shapes and the allowance for some advanced techniques makes Phony Ring two:five even better. My only complaint with the game is that the difficulty takes a while to ramp up. There is a lot of space to operate with in Phony Ring two:five, and it takes a long time to get to the level where blocks are falling “too fast.” You can choose quick mode (the level increases after fewer block eliminations), but even then it’s still fairly slow going. I think Phony Ring two:five would fare slightly better with an accelerated difficulty curve and consequently quicker games.

Even with my minor complaints, overall Phony Ring two:five is excellent. The game certainly looks and sounds unique. The controls are easy to learn, simple to use, and implement only the mouse (although I tend to confuse left click with right click and get myself in trouble). I wish the game moved along faster, because I feel Phony Ring two:five is best in short, controlled bursts, but this is a minor complaint. The game allows for some good strategies to maximize the points you earn. Ensuring that most “pops” eliminate more than five blocks is the key to more points, and more points means a higher score: you heard it here first. The relatively large playing surface adds a fair amount of difficulty to the game, as you try to remember what strategy you were using in each part of the board. With the simple mechanics that allow for more strategy than most Tetris clones, block-dropping fans will find a fantastically fun game in Phony Ring two:five.

Monday, May 15, 2006

StarShift: The Zaran Legacy Review

StarShift: The Zaran Legacy, developed and published by Codeco.
The Good: Easy to learn, effortless game finding through central server, large games possible (up to 40 players), inexpensive
The Not So Good: Turn-based games can last a while (upwards of a month), less than spectacular graphics, may be too simplistic for some, no single player modes
What say you? A streamlined multiplayer-only turn-based strategy game: 7/8

Despite the large numbers of massively multiplayer online role playing games (or, NAFTA), other genres have been slow in joining the revolution of paying monthly fees to interact with computerized versions of real people. One of those genres is the strategy game. Content with having small (typically no more than four) numbers of players, there hasn’t been a really successful strategy game that has a bunch of people playing at once. Enter StarShift, a turn-based strategy game with an MMO tilt: the game supports up to 40 players in a single game. Unlike most MMOs, StarShift is cheap ($25) and there is no monthly fee. Bonus! Will StarShift herald in a new age of strategy gaming, or evoke why there aren’t any massively multiplayer online strategy games?

StarShift doesn’t have the production values to stack up against the modern strategy game. The game looks and sounds old, reminiscent of the original Galactic Civilizations game (which was developed under similar circumstances). This is fine, as long as you’re not expecting greatness in graphical excellence. Thankfully for StarShift, I’ve always held gameplay and features over graphics and sound. StarShift certainly leans towards the wargame side of the strategy equation when it comes to graphical quality. Honestly, my first reaction to firing up the game and looking at the main screen was a mild “yuck.” I guess playing too much Galactic Civilizations II spoiled me (showing what a graphically good map-based space game can look like). The game has been in development for quite a while (screenshots date back to 2002), so the fact that the graphics and sound are outdated is not surprising. But, as long as the game is fun to play, who cares what it looks like? Right? Right?

StarShift is an online-only turn-based strategy game where you go out into the universe, capturing planets, trading technologies, signing treaties, and all that other good stuff. The game incorporates a central server that holds all of the games in progress. Joining a game is really easy, as StarShift lists all of the games that are open for players. You can join up to eight games at a time (which is more than plenty), and StarShift will send you e-mails when it’s time to submit your next turn. Really, StarShift plays like a massive PBEM (play by e-mail) game, except without all of the fuss of dealing with sending saved games and whatnot. Games in StarShift will automatically “tick” a turn once every 24 hours, whether everyone has played or not (turns will happen sooner if everyone is done). This is great and eliminates one bad player killing a game (this happened to me numerous times in Gary Grigsby’s World At War: uninstall). StarShift can also handle forty players at a time in one game: 40 players in a strategy game is unheard of. Beginning players are required to join one short tutorial game that may (or may not) have a mentor: a real player that can give hints on what to do next. This is a pretty good substitute for the standard tutorial; nothing can replace real human interaction. Once you play a tutorial game, you can join any other game and get owned by people better than you. If you have played enough games, you can create your own. This may seem like a limiting restriction in the game, but it’s actually a good idea. This way, every low level player won’t clog the server with unnecessary games. Once you do get the chance to make your own games, the tools for doing so are very flexible and include a multitude of options. Remember all those comments I made about the poor graphics? Luckily, most of the lost effort there went into creating one of the best multiplayer matchmaking utilities I have seen. This is how multiplayer games are supposed to be. Thanks StarShift!

So, the matchmaking components of StarShift are magnificent, what about the game itself? StarShift plays as a simplified 4x strategy game, where you explore from your home world, expand to neighboring planets, exploit the universe for resources, and exterminate the competition (there are four Xs in there somewhere). StarShift is far easier to play than most (if not all) strategy games I’ve played recently, and therefore should be accessible even to the most noobish of beginning players (Microsoft Word says I misspelled “noobish;” shows what Bill Gates knows). Now, strategic depth is not sacrificed for all of this simplicity, as the game has enough features to keep veteran players pretty happy. StarShift has nine different races of aliens, and the only difference between them is their bonuses: bigger initial ships, recycling destroyed ships, improved economy, or good starting technologies are some examples. Turns are computed simultaneously by the central server once everyone has gone (or the per turn time limit has been reached). There are only three resources in the game: credits, spy points, and research points. Credits are earned by owning asteroids and nebulae, and through your population (every 5 billion people gives one more precious credit). Maps in StarShift are extremely large, and may comprise of near 100 different planets, asteroids, nebulae, pulsars, and black holes, all connected by set paths. New locations are captured simply by moving your units to the planet, where they will automatically fight and usually beat a native population, unless you send an extremely small fleet. Moving units is straightforward. All of the units on one planet are automatically part of one single fleet and can move as one single unit. Or, you can split up your fleet and send them to different destinations (a must in the early part of the game). Moving individual units is extremely easy and done through a map showing possible destinations. Your fleet can consist of six types of ships (from fighters to motherships): the more expensive ships are better.

There are only three structures you can build in StarShift, a great contrast to most games where you have to build, build, and build some more. You can build a spaceport (construct new ships), orbital defenses, or a stargate (movement is allowed between two stargates in any two sectors, no matter the distance). Less buildings means less micromanagement and more attention to your overall strategy, at least in my opinion. The winner is determined by the player who has scored the most points through conquering new sectors and acquiring technologies. Technologies in StarShift just give bonuses, meaning they aren’t prerequisites to certain buildings or units like most games. New technologies can be gained through research (by using research points), or buying, trading, and stealing them. The game rules include an option of random research, since the technologies in the game are not balanced and certain ones are better than others. Better technologies cost more research points, so there is a strategic decision to be made: lots of low-quality technology, or just a couple high-quality techs? Once you discover a new technology, you can patent it. This gives a lot of points towards winning the game, but it makes the technology available for all the other players to buy. You will also spend time ordering around your special ops. Essentially, you can spend your spy points on any number of different actions in any sector adjacent to one of your own. There aren’t any spy units to worry about (like some other games): using special ops is as simple as ordering from a menu. You can give info about a sector, list all the technologies of an enemy, give false information to the enemy, block enemy fleets, build a link between two sectors, have a decoy unit, increase counterspying, steal technologies, and more. There is also a suite of diplomatic options in StarShift. In addition to the usual declare war options, you can enter research or commercial treaties. Commercial treaties raise both player revenues, but each player has less spy points at their disposal. You can trade most resources, and also vote on new rules (like kicking out a dominant player). Like most aspects of StarShift, the diplomatic options are well thought out and easy to implement.

StarShift is an extremely well designed game. Despite its vomit-inducing graphics, the rest of the game is excellent in almost all aspects. The online server makes joining and keeping up with games extremely painless. The game mechanics are streamlined and easy to learn. StarShift features multiple strategies for victory, and gives the player all of the tools they need to succeed in the robust technology, diplomacy, and intelligence fields. Best of all, the game is very affordable (almost budget-priced) and supports up to 40 simultaneous players in a single game. In addition, since the game is turn-based, you don’t need a fast connection to play (all of the data is uploaded and downloaded only once), so even people who are still clinging onto dial-up can join the fray. There’s no single player action, but I’d rather have vigorous multiplayer options than a hastily thrown together single player mode with poor AI. StarShift’s combination of large, easy to use multiplayer games with efficient gameplay makes it a wonderful addition to any strategy gamer’s library.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Shadowgrounds Review

Shadowgrounds, developed by Frozenbyte and published by Meridian 4.
The Good: Excellent graphics, nearly constant action, some cool weapons with customized upgrades, feels different due to overhead angle, multiplayer cooperative mode (on the same computer)
The Not So Good: Very difficult due to being greatly outnumbered, overhead viewpoint annoys me, a lot of cutscenes interrupt the gameplay, only saves at the beginning of a level if you exit, on the short side
What say you? A passable creepy action game from a refreshing perspective: 6/8

In the future, mankind will come into contact with alien creatures on faraway worlds and have to fight them to the death. Wait, wasn’t that the plot of Doom? Wait, wasn’t that also the plot of Quake? Wait, wasn’t that also the plot of Aliens? Well, it’s also the plot of Shadowgrounds, a new action game featuring battles against aliens on faraway worlds. We just can’t get enough killing strange and interesting creatures. Shadowgrounds is slightly different from the rest of the first person shooter pack because it’s not a first person shooter: it’s played from an overhead perspective, something we’ve not seen for quite a while. Will this throwback to classic action games prove enough of a novelty to make Shadowgrounds a distinctive title?

Maybe it’s because you’re playing from a fixed overhead vantage point, but Shadowgrounds looks darn impressive in the graphics department. The game uses all of the latest graphical enhancements to create a believably frightening environment. The levels are detailed, objects can be destroyed (such as windows or computer monitors), and there’s enough blood to satisfy even the most discerning violence junky. There are also some nice touches you can spot around the maps, such as dynamic lighting from your shoulder-mounted flashlight and heat ripples from areas on fire. Shadowgrounds is probably the best looking non-first person shooter I’ve seen. The sound is not quite as impressive, as just the basic weapon effects accompany the action. The voice acting could be a lot better, and it’s almost laughably bad at times during the game. Still, most people will be drawn in by the nicely presented graphical effects of Shadowgrounds.

Shadowgrounds features a handful of missions (around 10) where you battle aliens at several different locations. There is cooperative multiplayer, but only on the same computer. The game supports up to four players, but unless you have enough gamepads to go around, it’ll get quite crowded on the keyboard. The low number of missions is disappointing, as the game is quite short, although a single mission can take upwards of 30 minutes or more. Of course, Shadowgrounds only saves at the beginning of a level if you exit, something that annoys me immensely and is my biggest issue with the game. What if I have to leave? Should I be punished by having to replay parts of a level I’ve already completed? This is the kind of thing that makes you want to stop playing a game, but luckily Shadowgrounds is a pretty entertaining ride. The game plays like a first person shooter except for the nearly overhead perspective. If your health reaches zero, you can restart from the last automatic save point, which, thankfully, is not at the beginning of the level. Why it resets to the beginning of a level if you exit is beyond my level of comprehension. There are health packs scattered around the map in believable locations unlike, say, ƜberSoldier, where health was every five feet in the middle of a road. You’ll need your health packs because the game is very difficult, even on “easy” mode. This is because you are greatly outnumbered and the aliens swarm towards and back you into a corner. Adjusting to the overhead view, including effective movement and aiming, takes time to develop and re-learn from the relative easy of first person shooters. It’s not that an overhead perspective is bad: it’s just different. Because of the overhead view, the game’s cutscenes stop the flow of the game because they take place from a more conventional viewpoint. Unlike most game where the cutscenes take place during the game, they occur in between the game in Shadowgrounds, which is slightly annoying. Continuing the Aliens theme, you are equipped with a motion sensor that detects any moving objects. This is a great addition: you can “see” approaching enemies on your radar before you can actually see them, increasing the tension of the game. The sole original element of Shadowgrounds deals with the game’s weapons. Enemies can drop upgrade credits that you can spend upgrading each of the game’s ten weapons: pistol, rifle, shotgun, flamethrower, grenade launches, minigun, laser rifle, railgun, rocket launches, and electric gun. Upgrades can give more damage per shot, more bullets per clip, or allow for a secondary weapon. The order in which you choose to do upgrades (and which guns you apply them to) can change your tactics in the game. Of course, I always end up running out of ammo for the gun I just upgraded.

Despite it’s short length, Shadowgrounds is a fun game to play. Featuring outstanding graphics, Shadowgrounds goes old-school with an overhead perspective that takes some adjusting. Honestly, I think the game would have come off much worse if it stuck to a first person perspective, since there are so many games like that. The fact that Shadowgrounds uses an overhead view actually works for its benefit, making it a unique title in the current action ranks. There are some small issues with saving progress during a game, but these are relatively minor as long as you intend to play the game in semi-long stretches. The weapon upgrades are a nice change of pace and interesting strategic decision you have to make during the game. Shadowgrounds does make itself easy to play, clearly indicating important objects in the game and featuring a low number of controls. It’s nice to play a game that’s just plain fun without all that thinking required in other titles. Those looking for a slightly different but still familiar action game will find plenty to enjoy with Shadowgrounds and its almost budget price.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Auto Assault Review

Auto Assault, developed by NetDevil and published by NC Soft.
The Good:Car gameplay and theme is fairly interesting, good graphics with destructible environments, clear mission objectives, targeting requires skill
The Not So Good: Not much variety and too similar to other massively multiplayer games
What say you? A run-of-the-mill action MMORPG that features cars instead of elves: 5/8

Ah, nuclear winter. The inevitable end to man’s lust for progress, at least if movies and television have taught us anything. Countless films that take place in the future depict a gloomy outlook where mankind has destroyed most of the Earth. Continuing this theme is Auto Assault, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or, RTS) that takes place in the future after humans have destroyed the earth to eliminate the impure Mutants and Biomeks. This is primarily a car combat game, which is something different from the onslaught of knights, wizards, and orcs that seem to dominate the MMO galaxy. Will Auto Assault offer enough fresh and new content to make players switch over from their favorite current MMO? Where can I get a van with a missile launcher?

The graphics in Auto Assault are the best component of the game, and you can enjoy them if you fulfill the recommended system requirements. It’s obvious this was the area paid most attention to during development, and it’s no surprise: most gamers are drawn in by pretty pictures and shiny things. The environments are varied and detailed: snow-covered peaks, forests on fire, and generally bombed-out highways dot the landscape. Each of the models is also well done, from the individual cars to the characters. In addition, most everything can be destroyed: it’s nice to have a game with believable environmental destruction after a large battle, instead of static maps like in Battlefield 2. Everything about the graphics has a polish that years of worth went into, and it shows. The sound effects are average: the destruction sounds (including a satisfying crunch when running someone over) are good, but there is no voice-over work to speak of. You must read all the text describing the missions (which is small, causing some eye strain) instead of listening to the instructions from your superiors. Of course, not all games can be up to the level of voice-over work seen in Oblivion, but since most of the missions in Auto Assault are the same, some simple instructions could have been produced. It’s evident the developers are trying to wield in some players through the graphics and sound of Auto Assault, which is definitely understandable especially considering the bulk of the gameplay is merely average.

The first time you run the game, you’ll need to download the latest patch that takes around 40 minutes to download and install. So much for jumping right into the action! Auto Assault does feature the requisite MMO character creation options, where you can select the race, class, and appearance (which can be randomized to result in some interesting arrangements). Each of the three races has its advantages, such as the human’s holographic technology, the mutant’s natural regeneration, and the biomek’s large amount of hit points. Each of the three races has four classes that are essentially the same across the board: the grunt infantry, support unit, leader, and stealthy special ops. Unfortunately, each of the characters you choose are tied to a specific server (WHY?!?); this is especially strange considering the relatively low numbers of people playing the game. Why spread them out over four servers already? I would have just started with two servers and roll in extras if needed, but what do I know?

The controls in Auto Assault are the classic WASD first person shooter system. You can change them around if you wish, but there are a large number of keys and rebinding everything is just a pain in the butt. Selecting targets is as easy as left clicking on them, and right clicking fires all of your weapons. I do very much like the targeting system in Auto Assault, as it is both easy to use and induces some strategy into the game. Your weapons will automatically follow an enemy unit, which is necessary considering the fast moving car-based action of Auto Assault. Each of your weapons has a firing arc, so the skill in Auto Assault’s combat involves positioning the enemy cars inside your firing arcs and letting loose with a flurry of destruction. This is a lot better than, say, Oblivion, where you end up attacking friendly units more often than the enemy. Enemies that are defeated each drop precious loot, which can be money, a gadget, or crafting resource.

Gameplay in Auto Assault comes in two flavors: player versus environment missions or player versus player arena (or open air) battles. The PvE missions are not varied at all, and either consists of a fetch quest or a kill quest: that’s it. As you can imagine, this gets boring rather quickly, but it’s the only way to make your car powerful enough to stand the PvP game. The missions don’t have any hidden surprises or branching events (like Oblivion or Guild Wars) and also lack the punch or excitement of the other games. Most of the enemies you encounter are randomly generated and most of the difficulty results from extremely lopsided battles between your powerful car and 10-20 level 2 bad guys. I will say that the PvE missions have clear waypoints and objectives with no fuzzy interpretation of what you’re supposed to do. It’s great to have such explicit instructions for the user. The PvP game is just slightly better, as you can challenge real humans (that are hopefully smarter than the AI). Problem is, there are so few people playing that it’s extrodinarily difficult to find anyone to fight against. I waited for 30 minutes during what I would consider peak times for a match (and still didn’t get to play). There were other people looking (anywhere between 2-5) but I suppose the game matches up similar skill levels, and there just aren’t enough people playing. Still, it’s fun in theory. You can venture to the center of the map where anyone that is not of your race is considered an enemy, but this is really intended for high-level players, since there are no restrictions on who can venture out there.

Although most of your time will be spent out in the open environment blowing stuff up, you can get out of your vehicles in any of the game’s towns. In these areas, you can acquire raw materials and craft them together, purchase new cars, and fight in the arena PvP bouts. You can trade with other players in the towns are well, but I’ve found that most people just run around getting missions and buying stuff. One of the main aspects of Auto Assault is the crafting mode, which is essentially where you can disassemble existing parts, add parts you find scattered around the map, and reassemble a more powerful weapon. It’s an interesting idea, but I doubt that most people will mess with it, since crafting requires specific parts that are sometimes hard to find (and would require blowing up wave after wave of enemy units, and that gets boring after a while). A lot of the game mechanics are the same as other RPGs. You have a certain number of hit points and you are destroyed when they reach zero. However, unlike most RPGs, your character doesn’t die or lose any of their stuff: you just get transported back to the closest friendly base and retain your progress in your current mission. So, the only real penalty for being destroyed is the time it takes to travel back to the mission location. This is good for new players, but eliminates most of the difficulty associated with RPGs and will leave expert players feeling like the game is much too easy. Like most other RPGs, you gain experience through combat and completing missions and level up during your progress. When you level up, you can spend points to improve your attributes: combat, tech (armor), theory (power), and perception (critical hits). You also receive skill points to boost your skills, which work a lot like spells in more traditional RPGs. There are skills that are specific towards your race and your occupation. There are some cool higher-level skills available in Auto Assault, like viruses, chain damage, traps, and summoned allies. The combination of skills and weapons results in some crazy and intense PvP battles (assuming you can find one, of course). Once you do receive some damage (and you will), you can easily repair your vehicle on a repair station ramp, although since dying doesn’t cause any ill effects, it’s worth it to die and be taken back to the closest repair station instead of driving all the distance.

So what does this all mean? Auto Assault is your basic MMORPG that tries to fool you into thinking its drastically different by offering car combat. Once you play the game enough, you’ll find out that, even though there are some interesting differences in the game (such as targeting arcs and crafting), most of Auto Assault is exactly the same as every other MMO. The game is initially fun to play, but when you do the same mission 50 times over, driving around like a taxi service delivering wires and the like, it tends to wear on you. Auto Assault would be better with some more players you could challenge in PvP (where I think the real strength lies), but you still need to trudge through the sub-par PvE missions in order to compete against other players. I doubt that players who are currently subscribed to any other MMO will immediately jump over to Auto Assault, but there might be some new coverts who are drawn in by the car-based ambiance. Auto Assault is not a bad game, it’s just not as original as you’d think. Auto Assault is just missing that attention-grabbing feature that would set it apart from the rest of the MMOs already available on the market. And the fact that Auto Assault requires a monthly fee will probably repel most players who are currently investing in other games. It’s a nice game, but Auto Assault is just too late and not unique enough to gather a large following.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators Review

Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators, developed by Elemental Games and published by Cinemaware Marquee.
The Good: Different and varied gameplay elements, open-ended, dynamic universe, appealing graphics, potentially fun to play
The Not So Good: Not enough generated missions, ship components and upgrades are confusing, poor planetary battle AI, early game is trade-heavy since most military missions will result in death, action is too hectic, difficult to gauge appropriate competition
What say you? A distinctive space adventure game with some interesting embellishments but a number of deficiencies: 6/8

It seems that a lot of recent games cover the same two topics: World War II and space. I’m not quite sure why this is, but it’s a definite trend among computer games. I guess enough people are interested in World War II and space to warrant so many games covering World War II and space. Now if they could only have a World War II space game: that would sell! Here we have Space Rangers 2, a space adventure game that’s a sequel, although the first version was never published in the U.S., so it’s new as far as we’re concerned. Space Rangers 2 takes several different genre elements: role-playing character upgrades, real time strategy battles, trading, text-based adventure, piracy, and a pinch of paprika, and attempts to shape them into an appealing final product. Do too many cooks spoil the pot, or do they create the best dish ever? Either way, I’m sure it involves chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

The graphics of Space Rangers 2 are pretty good, definitely on par with most of the real time strategy games that are currently on the market. The characters within the game have animated models (much like Galactic Civilizations II) and the planetary locations have believable vistas. The space areas have nicely detailed planets, stars, ships, and other objects floating around, and the planets even revolve around their sun (satisfying the astronomer in all of us). The planetary battles are also well detailed, full of stupendous explosions, realistic structures, and complete military units. A lot of work went into upgrading the graphics from the original game, and it shows: Space Rangers 2 features some great effects. Although none of the in-game text is audible, the sound is also pretty good: powerful explosions (especially the bombs in planetary battles; these caught me off guard and actually startled me, something that hasn’t happened during a game in quite a while) and other effects, although the background music is annoying (I turned it off). Space Rangers 2 will never be faulted for having sub-par graphics or sound, as it excels in both of these arenas.

Space Rangers 2 is a single player game where you assume the role of an independent space ranger, living your life through trade, exploration, and military action, and eventually joining the fight against the evil Dominators. At the beginning of each game, you choose a race (there are five, with some differences other than appearance) and occupation: fighter, mercenary, merchant, corsair, or pirate. The occupation you choose determines your initial relations with other races in the game, something that is quite unique. You can also customize the difficulty level and initial skills, which can improve your accuracy, maneuverability, repair skills, trading, charisma, or leadership of other vessels. The main part of Space Rangers 2 plays as a turn-based game, where you give orders to your ship (such as move, attack, or follow) and then all the actions for one day pass. It’s a strange mechanic where something can happen during the execution phase of a turn and you can’t really stop time until the day is complete, sometimes resulting in some bad effects. This is similar to the method used in the Combat Mission series, and it takes some getting used to.

Your ship is outfitted with some initial gear (depending on the class you selected) that can be upgraded, repaired, or replaced on planets. In general, your ship contains weapons, movement systems, tracking systems, and additional equipment for special needs. Your first ship is very underpowered, and engaging any enemy craft early on results in certain death. Because of this, most of the early game will be spend trading goods to make money so that you can afford better equipment. This makes trader classes desirable early on, but you’ll need to switch to a more military-inclined ship as the game nears the epic final battles.

Most of you time will be spent on planets, where you can engage in several activities. The government house can provide missions, buy maps of nearby star systems, or improve relationships through bribes. The missions in the game are not very well constructed. First, they don’t scale appropriately to your current skill level, and you can’t really tell how tough they will be until you die during them. You can ask for an easier mission, but the game gives no indication about which level of difficulty is most fitting. There is also a lack of available missions in the game. Unlike games such as Freelancer where each planets has 10-20 different missions you can embark on, in Space Rangers 2 you’ll likely encounter many locations where they just don’t have any work available. Without having any missions, the player is left to wonder what they’re supposed to do (trade, I guess). You can buy equipment upgrades for your ship on planets as well, and planets sell their particular race’s wares (some races make better stuff than others). The game doesn’t make this easy, however. First, the game doesn’t simply tell you which equipment pieces you could place on your vessel or which ones are upgrades to your current technology. In order to find this out, you need to look at the numerical rating, go to the shipyard, and find the numerical rating of the component you currently have installed. This is a waste of time and could be streamlined. Also, you can’t simply replace an existing component: you must sell the old one first (from the ship info screen), then buy the new one from the equipment store, then install it in the ship info screen. A one-click process would have worked much better. Trade, however, is well executed. The game clearly states which trades are good and which trades are bad according to the current prices, so there’s no writing down what medicine costs on some random planet. Why it would work so well in trading but not ship upgrades is a mystery to me. An interesting note: you can trade illegal goods in Space Rangers 2 (namely alcohol and “stimulants”). Illegal goods reap a bigger profit but can result in some jail time if you’re caught by the authorities. Each planet also keeps you informed of various goings-on in the galaxy, so that you can keep on the lookout for good business or military opportunities. Uninhabited planets don’t have all of these options, but you can place probes on them to find hidden bonuses.

While in space, you can issue context-sensitive commands to your vessel, such as attacking enemies, landing on planets, following other ships, jumping to other star systems, or simply moving to a specific point in space. There is a mini-map that shows all of the planets and ships within radar range in the current solar system. The planets are not labeled, so you’ll need to memorize which planet is which in each solar system or go through endless clicking trying to find the right one. Battles in space are straightforward enough: you can have the game play them out for you, or let you select the weapons to use. You can assign each weapon for a specific ship (in the case of 2 on 1 battles), so leaving these decisions up to you is needed for victory against the odds. Most of the battles are uninteresting and the person that has the better-equipped ship and better skills will win; they lack the excitement or drama seen in games such as Star Wars: Empire at War or even Galactic Civilizations II. There are also arcade battles in black holes where you control the weapons and flight path of your ship, in an interesting twist. In addition to attacking other ships, you can also scan them to find out what equipment and weapons they have, or talk to them to initiate trade, a cooperative mission, or threaten them for cold, hard cash.

Some missions given by the government involve planetary battles, and these are almost another strategy game in itself. They play like a watered-down version of Command and Conquer: you must build robots and attack the enemy bases, driving them off the map. You are given an arbitrary amount of initial resources you can spend on building the robots, and new resources are gained by claiming new bases. New bases are claimed by having a robot stand on a circle for a set of time while the base changes over, like in Battlefield 2 or Dawn of War. The robot customization options are pretty robust, as you can customize the hull, chassis, and weapons to produce you own unique combination. The game assigns a specific model number to each design you create so that you can reproduce more units later. There are also defensive turrets you can build to keep pesky enemy units away from your bases. In addition, reinforcement units can be called in to assist when things get hairy. The battles themselves are very quick: even skirmishes between 30 robots are over in a matter of 15 seconds. This mostly results from the inferior AI. Units under your control are very, very dumb: they will charge straight for enemy units in a single-file line, and will slowly get picked off one by one by enemy turrets. Spending a lot of resources on top-of-the-line robots and then having them stupidly mowed down is a frustrating experience. You can directly control one robot at a time in a first person shooter format (cool), but all of the other vessels will just wither and die and a heap of smoking metal. The robots never work as a team or stay together, and have some pathfinding issues: I gave an attack order against a building, and the robot fired one shot, backed up and then never fired again. Unacceptable. Because the battles are so quick, controlling a single robot isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of good AI.

I can see how Space Rangers 2 could potentially be a very enjoyable game, but there are just too many minor issues that make the game more frustrating than it should be. Space Rangers 2 certainly has many different modes of play that keeps the game fresh: planetary battles, trading, missions, ship upgrades, and the like. Space Rangers 2 takes several different ideas and gameplay mechanics and molds them into an interesting and fluid package. The problem is that each of the areas has one or two things that annoy the heck out of you: the poor AI in planetary battles, the complex ship upgrade system, and the inappropriately difficult missions. Unfortunately, you seem to remember the bad experiences in the game due to the minor issues rather than the entertaining aspects of the title. Space Rangers 2 should be a fun game to play, but the lasting impression is a great concept that falls short on complete execution.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

American History Lux Review

American History Lux, developed and published by Sillysoft.
The Good: Interesting maps, good Lux gameplay
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, can’t play as the non-Americans, some difficulty arises only from unbalanced maps, only 10 maps and no downloadable content
What say you? An interesting use of the Lux engine, but it lacks the flexibility, replay value, and fairness of the original: 5/8

One of the classic board games of our time is Risk. Maybe it has something to do with the prospect of controlling the world, but this very popular game is known the world over. Not surprisingly, there are some knock-offs that try to capitalize on its success. One of these games is Lux, a less than subtle derivative of Risk that is actually quite good. The flexibility of Lux allows for the development of any map you desire, using a map editor or randomly generated worlds. The developers of Lux have used this flexibility to create a series of scenarios covering the major wars of the United States titled American History Lux. Will this history lesson live up to the greatness of its predecessor?

The graphics and sound of American History Lux are a lot like the original game, so go read that review. The maps in American History Lux are well designed and have some interesting strategic elements, such as impassible mountains and open seas. Other than the new maps, however, American History Lux is pretty much identical to the original title in both graphics and sound.

American History Lux features 10 battles throughout American History: the French and Indian War, American Revolution, Mexican-American War, Civil War, World War I, World War II Europe, World War II Pacific, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. The next battle in the series is unlocked once you win the previous scenario, but only for the difficulty level you are playing. The game plays exactly like Risk: place troops, move troops, attack neighboring territory, fortify your troops, get cards. You get reinforcement bonuses for controlling large territories and also key cities (on some maps); this makes combat over urban areas realistically frenzied. Most of the scenarios are unbalanced in the enemy’s favor, which obviously increases the difficulty. This is a despicable tactic: although this might be realistic for a given war, it doesn’t make it fun. The Korean War map is a perfect example. North Korea has a crazy number of initial income that you can’t compete with in the long term, so you must attack quickly with your forces, but a lot of them are far back and need a couple of turns to be fortified up front. You are given historically accurate allies in some of the scenarios, but they don’t really do much attacking. Even worse, you can’t send troops through friendly territory without attacking! This means if I want to move troops through France to get to Italy, I must attack the French troops in the way. Unacceptable. You also don’t receive territory reinforcement bonuses on some maps from your allies, so it’s almost better to eliminate friendly countries from the map to get more troops later on. Also, you can only control the United States and some allies and there is no multiplayer. Sure, the game is American History Lux, but why must we have these limitations on gameplay?

Despite the appealing content, American History Lux is a tough sell. Lux Delux is only $5 more and features multiplayer, a map editor, and a plethora of user made maps, a lot of which cover the same material seen in American History Lux. Given the fact that most of these maps are available from third party sources through the original game, it’s hard to recommend getting American History Lux and its small rules changes, despite the well designed maps. In addition, you can’t play as the opposition and you must attack friendly troops to move through their territory. It would have been better to offer American History Lux as a $5-10 expansion pack to the original game rather than a standalone title. I applaud the developers for expanding the realm of Lux, but the bottom line is that American History Lux actually has less overall features for essentially the same price as its full-featured big brother.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Star and the Crescent Review

The Star and the Crescent, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Novel subject area, convincing simulation of modern warfare, scenario editor, can run ATF engine scenarios
The Not So Good: Steep initial learning curve, less than intuitive orders, “realistic” graphics (meaning NATO symbols on a topo map), read-along tutorial, game doesn’t give hints on when or why to do something
What say you? A low frills but accurate simulation of a unique conflict that’s not very straightforward: 5/8

Throughout the ages, wars have been fought for various reasons: religion, idealism, Jennifer Aniston. This is ripe territory for video games, as you can fight the good fight without worrying about death and dismemberment. Recently, games have started to branch out from World War II and cover other conflicts around the world, such as Vietnam, the American Revolution, or Civil War. A truly untapped resource is the Arab/Israeli conflicts of recent memory, most notably the Yom Kippur War in 1973 (I remember it like it was 33 years ago). The Star and the Crescent uses the Armored Task Force tactical engine and applies it to this unique setting. This game takes the approach from a commander level, where you give orders to various groups of units to achieve an overall objective.

The Star and the Crescent uses a genuine approach to the graphics, meaning that you’ll be staring at NATO square icons on a topographical map just like real commanders do. This is realistic, but not very exciting to watch. There are some small explosions and the like, but not being able to see your troops in a real world setting detracts from some of the joy. As long as you know how to read a topographical map, you can envision what the map looks like in real life, but that’s still too much imagination left up to the user. We’ve come to the point that wargames might be expected to offer some sort of graphical goodness, or at the very least detailed static units. The Star and the Crescent takes the more realistic NATO approach and the results are underwhelming. The sound is worse off: there are only a few, annoying effects in the game that quickly become quite bothersome. It’s relatively silent until the battle begins, but then the sharply loud sound being: rocket, machine gun, explosion, tank turret, explosion, machine gun, machine gun, explosion. Although there are 37 total sounds in the game, it seems like a lot less, since the loudest effects dominate the landscape. The sound is pretty disappointing, especially since it could have taken some of the slack left from the graphics.

The Star and the Crescent is a real time tactical strategy game, but you can (and should) pause time frequently. There are 15 missions that span conflicts in the Middle East from 1956 all the way to the year 2009 (the future, Conan?). Most of the scenarios take place during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, but there are some other skirmishes, including some speculative future events. The game features multiplayer and there is a sort of matchmaking service: a website where you can contact other players to set up a match. Considering that the number of people who’ll probably play The Star and the Crescent is relatively low (compared to GameSpy Arcade offerings), this is an adequate way of doing things. Each scenario is supplemented with a history lesson and general strategy. The game overlays the topo map with areas of interest and a broad guide to what you’re supposed to do, but you can place your troops and move anywhere you’d wish: freedom that’s both welcome and strange for such a seemingly realistic and historically accurate game. The game is designed to be played by giving commands to companies, but you can instruct individual units on what to do. The game boils down to issuing movement commands and giving missions. Moving units requires right clicking, choosing “path,” then moving or creating waypoints on the map. As you’ll see, The Star and the Crescent takes an easy task and makes it much more difficult to accomplish, in the interest of allowing the user more flexibility and control. You can put your troops in different formations, but neither the game nor the manual ever says why you’d want them in formation, or which formations to use. I suppose all gamers automatically know when to employ an “echelon right” formation. Giving a mission, like movement, is also overly complex. In most games, attacking means clicking on the enemy. In The Star and the Crescent, attacking involves specifying an objective area, the mode of travel, the route, the formation they should assume when they reach the destination, when they should attack, when to abort, the formation to assume when aborting, the assaulting formation, the initial movement formation, the consolidation formation, and the assault mode. Sure, this gives hardcore gamers the flexibility to make their troops to exactly as they say, but most people won’t care. How do I know what the consolidation formation should be? The manual doesn’t offer any suggestions, so I guess it’s up to trial and error. The game is also vague in other areas; for example, the game assumes you know what a “fire mission” does and why it’s different from an attack order. The maps are also devoid of scales, so it’s difficult to determine the distances involved when moving your troops. The game does give you most the options that are available to real commanders, such as placing and breaching obstacles, deploying mines, using smoke, and calling in air support. You can also accelerate time to get past those boring parts of the scenario.

The Star and the Crescent is probably one of the hardest games to get a handle on that I’ve played. It tries to find a happy medium between realistic play and easy play, but it doesn’t accomplish this. For every part of the game that is streamlined and simple to do, there’s an underlying layer of complexity that ramps up the difficulty. It seems there should be an easier way to control forces realistically without having all the unnecessary instructions found here. In addition, you can’t attack specific targets, so it feels like the game is playing itself once the action starts, especially if you don’t understand what all the commands mean. The graphics and sound won’t attract those gamers intimidated by wargames either. As long as you know enough about modern warfare (such as appropriate formations and what orders mean in real life), you will probably find a semi-interesting game that covers a unique conflict. However, most gamers will probably be turned off by the odd combination of simplicity and complexity.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ocean Express Review

Ocean Express, developed and published by HipSoft.
The Good: Unique gameplay, easy to learn, custom puzzle designer
The Not So Good: Repetitive
What say you? An innovative derivative of Tetris that is fresh and original: 6/8

International trade is an important aspect of the world economy. For example, Germany sends us cars and we send them David Hasselhoff. It’s a fair and equal exchange! Until now, there wasn’t a game that dealt with the details of how goods are delivered around the globe. Thankfully, we now have Ocean Express, a puzzle game where you are charged with packing barges full of strangely shaped goods and send them out to sea. This concept is similar to Tetris (and features some of the same shapes), although here you place the shapes into a barge, trying to utilize all of the available space and complete the task as quickly as possible.

Ocean Express is a 2-D puzzle game shown from an overhead perspective. This game would have probably been too confusing in 3-D, so the top view works well. Ocean Express doesn’t have many flashy effects (only encouraging phrases when things are going well, and discouraging phrases when they are not), but the game is very easy to navigate and doesn’t suffer from any uncertainty resulting from the user interface. The game could have easily have come out several years ago and had the same basic graphics, but the gameplay is the thing in puzzle games (at least good puzzle games), so there’s no fault in the underwhelming graphics of Ocean Express. The sound parallels the graphics: just enough to notice them, but nothing outstanding.

In Ocean Express, you must complete a series of puzzles by placing various shapes into a barge (that also has various shapes). You continue to play until you don’t reach your shipping goal in dollars. You can only play one game at once, but you can set up multiple profiles that effectively act as separate saved games. Ocean Express also features a puzzle editor, where you can create your own barge shapes and submit them to a central server so all can enjoy (new puzzles can be automatically downloaded each time the game is started). Not only does this extend the variety of Ocean Express, but it also means that the developers didn’t have to come up with so many barge shapes (pretty sneaky!).

Packages appear on a conveyor belt at the bottom of the screen, and you generally have a choice of placing eight or so different shapes at one time. Placing packages into the barge is a simple left click pick up and drop, and right clicking rotates it. You are trying to avoid leaving single square holes around the map: they deduct from your total score. Also, you are trying to finish before time expires (“casual” play features a much slower timer), so there is some stress as you race to place your packages into the most efficient combination. Placing each package earns you money (proportional to the difficulty of that package’s shape) and earning enough money moves you on to the next set of barges. If none of the packages on your conveyor belt fit, you can drop them into the ocean (for a cash penalty) in order to make more available. The game will eventually give you the pieces you need to finish a level (typically 2 square pieces), but only after you’ve suffered through some penalties.

The speed and quality at which you do your job determines how many tokens you earn, which you can spend on unlocking additional ports with more expensive package shapes or purchasing additional barges per level (a must for higher level competition). This is an interesting aspect of the game, but it’s disappointing in some aspects: you really need to keep purchasing new barges to keep up with the ever-increasing shipping goal, so saving your money to unlock more expensive ports usually doesn’t take precedence. Each port has its own special package (lobster for Maine, oranges for Florida) that gives a much higher cash rewards, but is also very strangely shaped for added difficulty. There are several powerups that appear on the game board occasionally. Additional time can be earned by playing specially marked packages, and extra cash and tokens can be earned by placing your next package on the indicated square. You can also earn a hefty bonus for not leaving any empty squares.

Ocean Express is a pretty interesting puzzle game with an original concept that uses familiar elements. Anyone who’s played a computer game in the past 20 years will find Ocean Express easy to learn and intuitive. In addition, the game actually has a multiple layers of strategy. Do you try for the perfection bonus or place the specialty package? Which pieces do you throw away? How will you spend your tokens? All of these decisions can impact how far you progress in the game. Ocean Express also has a puzzle editor to expand the number of barges you must solve. The only problem I can see with Ocean Express is that the game gets a little repetitive after a while, especially since you’ll be spending most of your tokens on additional barges instead of unlocking new ports (new ports actually look the same, but the illusion is there and you do get new special packages to deliver). Ocean Express is a fun game, at least in the short term, and it certainly feels unique in a crowded puzzle marketplace.