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.