Sunday, July 30, 2006

DevastationZone Troopers Review

DevastationZone Troopers, developed and published by CGS Software.
The Good: Interesting two-mode gameplay, weapon upgrades, weapon effects are nice, good soundtrack
The Not So Good: Weak and simplistic AI, totally bland level design
What say you? An action game that just doesn’t provide enough variety or challenge to maintain interest: 5/8

Independent games are one of the reasons I love PC gaming. You’ll never see a title developed by a small team released on a console because the cost is so high. With the advent of the Internet, regular programmers can now crank out their original titles without worrying about bribing stores to carry their product or pressure from large publishing houses. These independent games can be the source of some really interesting concepts. Of course, they can also be the source of some really bad games, and that’s why I’m here, I suppose (that, and to consume Cheez-Its). Today we’re going to take a look at DevastationZone Troopers, a third person action game from CGS Software. Let’s shoot stuff!

The graphics in DevastationZone Troopers are generally a mixed bag. Overall, the game looks pretty good: good models, good enemies, and really cool glowing weapon effects. The levels, however, are a quite boring mix of trees and canyon walls, devoid of any real variety that would separate each level from the next. Also, the game features a really short draw distance: this could be caused by the limitations of the game engine or to impose more difficulty on the player (especially in the dropship mode), but either way, you should be able to see further than you can in DevastationZone Troopers. The game does feature a good soundtrack by real recording artists that I’ve never heard of, but it fits the action pace of the game well. The licensed music is better than the generic background music present in most games, although if you don’t have a taste in this particular genre of music you might not like it. Overall, DevastationZone Troopers drops in directly in the middle of the pack of 3-D action games: not especially overwhelming, but not disappointing either.

DevastationZone Troopers is a single player only game that’s divided into two phases: landing your dropship and engaging enemies. Between missions you can select your next tour of duty (from a list of three or so at a time) and spend earned credits to upgrade your weapons. Adding a little RPG flavor into the mix is something we’ve seen a lot of recently in games, and it’s still a nice addition to the action genre. When you enter a mission, you’ll first need to land your ship from orbit. You’ll navigate your dropship (I use the mouse) like a flight simulator, avoiding obstacles and collecting landing path markers. You need to collect a certain number of markers before landing in the mission area. You can also collect bonus credits you can use later on to upgrade your weapons. The dropship sequence offers a nice change of pace in the game, but each mission’s sequence is essentially the same and indistinguishable from each other. The dropship sequences can be a little difficult due to the short draw distances (objects come in fast and quick), but you’ll never have a real problem with them. Once you enter the mission area, DevastationZone Troopers becomes a fairly standard action shooter. You’ll navigate around the maps, which are a collection of maze-like walls, searching for objective locations and shooting bad guys along the way. You have limited ammunition and health, but since all enemies drop additional amount of both, you’ll rarely run out. Plus, your energy weapons recharge slowly over time anyway. You also have a radar in the game; you can typically spot enemies on the radar before you can see them on the screen (again, short draw distance). The AI of DevastationZone Troopers is disappointing to say the least. There are two types of enemies: those that will stand still and shoot, and those that will come straight towards you and shoot. Because of this, strafing from side to side is all you really need to do to beat the game. Actually, because of all the health available on the maps, you really just need to shoot them semi-accurately. The only time DevastationZone Troopers becomes difficult is when lots of enemies are present in a single area, a tactic the game employs a lot to compensate for the poor AI.

DevastationZone Troopers has a couple of good ideas, but it ends up being a quite boring affair. I really like the combination of the dropship landing and ground assault, but each level uses the same indistinguishable tactics, so it all tends to run together. Add in easy AI and DevastationZone Troopers is simply too repetitive for its own good. The lack of multiplayer or anything other than the single player campaign doesn’t help things either. The weapon upgrades are a good idea, but you’ll end up doing the same upgrades each time you play the game, so there goes any real replay value. The biggest flaw with DevastationZone Troopers is that each level feels the same as the last level, and nobody wants to play the same exact game 50 times, especially if it’s not especially challenging due to lackluster AI. I did have some fun initially with the game, so it does have some potential, but the overall repetitive nature of the levels grinds away at you too much to keep playing.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Kudos Review

Kudos, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Lots of activities and content, deep gameplay, true freedom in building a character, MOD support
The Not So Good: Benefits of activities could be clearer, not all skill levels are easily accessible, just browsing job listings takes up an entire day, guidance for new players is very limited
What say you? A more strategic approach to life management: 6/8

No other PC game franchise has sold more copies than The Sims. The brainchild of Will Wright, the man behind SimCity, the game featured every woman’s dream: complete control over another human being: the clothes they wear, the friends they have, even when they go to the bathroom. As you might expect, several copy-cat games cropped up afterwards, mostly offering a more shallow experience in exchange for hardcore nudity (sign me up!). While most of these games are superficially strategy games, there hasn’t really been one coming from a sports management point of view, until Kudos. Taking the people elements of games such as The Sims and management elements of games such as Wrestling Spirit 2 and Total College Basketball, Kudos hopes to fill the void of gamers that like life management games but feel they are too “female.” Remove the house decorating aspect and add in more strategy and you get Kudos.

As long as you approach Kudos as a management game, the graphics of the title won’t disappoint too terribly much. If you’re expecting 3-D graphics and being able to choose the type of wallpaper in your kitchen, go back to The Sims, fella. Gamers familiar with sports management games will feel right at home in Kudos. The user interface is generally OK, although some information is more clicks away than it should be. Scrolling through the different activities and seeing your relationship levels should be easier and present on the front page. The game would be better at higher resolution (or with slightly smaller text), because there’s a good amount of important information I’d like to see on the main screen, but there’s just not room for it. The 3-D models of the people in the game are pretty good as static background images or placeholders, and the interface being covered by dirt when you need to clean your house is a nice touch. The sound is as basic as you’d expect for a management game: simple sound effects accompany some of the events in the game (like rain or completing a class) while other events are silent (such as watching TV). There is just enough sound in Kudos to make you notice it, but not enough to overwhelm you with emotion.

The goal of Kudos is to lead a successful life from the age of 20 to 30, starting out as a lowly waiter and slowly making your way up to corporate and social ladder through night classes and interacting with friends. To start with, you create a character by selecting one of the handful of models and starting attributes (IQ, culture, happiness, and confidence), which really determines you initial friends and their interests. There’s no real right or wrong decision here, just a different set of allies. Kudos is a turn-based game where you can complete one activity each night. The activities you choose should result from your current state, rated in 13 areas (happiness, boredom, loneliness, confidence, IQ, culture, fitness, health, stress, tiredness, weight, alcohol, and muscles). Obviously, you want to tailor your activities to maintain a high level in each of the areas, and certain activities will have an appropriate effect on your state. My main complaint about the game is that some attributes are good when they are “full” (happiness) and some are bad when they are “full” (alcohol, although that could be debated by some). Making a quick glance at the meters to see problem areas is difficult because you have to remember which ones are supposed to be on which side. This could be easily fixed by simply changing some of the names to the appropriate antonym.

Bills are automatically deducted from your pay, so the remainder of the money can be spent on activities. You are limited to one activity per night, which makes sense for the weekdays but you should be allowed for two activities on weekend days. There are several things you can do. The first is to take evening classes: there are tons of classes in five areas: drama, medicine, law, technical, and adult (not that type of adult classes: you have a dirty mind). These will unlock better paying jobs and make you more proficient at certain activities, for a fee. You can choose to do something by yourself, such a jog, watch TV, or stare at the walls. Each of these will change some of your attributes, and can be affected by the weather and your overall mood. Shopping can be a major part of the game: buying entertainment objects and improve your happiness, while purchasing books can teach you skills just like classes. You’ll need to spend most of your time doing social activities in order to keep your relationships in tip-top shape. You’ll need to reserve social activities for days that you’re in a good mood (a seemingly random event) and choose an activity that each of the friends involved enjoys, or it will actually have a negative effect on the relationship. There is a good assortment of activities available: going to the movies, playing golf, eating out at a restaurant, and others. Each friend has a list of six or so activities they like the most, so you’ll end up doing to same sorts of things with the same people. Unlike other games, your friends will actually actively invite you to a night on the town, instead of your character always being the initiator. The relationships you have with others are rated as “kudos,” and kudos are required for some high-end jobs. You can always apply for higher-paying jobs, which become available when you’ve attained the prerequisite skills. Just browsing jobs takes up an entire night; if you’d like to see what the requirements are for that high-paying job so that you can tailor your night classes accordingly, that will consume an entire night you could have spent socializing with friends.

For those that feel The Sims is too much of an arcade game, Kudos might be the life management strategy game you’ve been looking for. While I felt restricted in other games, Kudos gives you the freedom to follow pretty much any career path you’d like, although each career path is essentially the same. There are only a few minor issues with the game (browsing jobs taking all night, “good” and “bad” attributes), and the remainder of Kudos is a solid management game. Limiting the player to one action per night actually works in the game’s favor, as the fast pace of Kudos doesn’t drag along like The Sims tends to do. You won’t have to wait 15 minutes for someone to finish eating: Kudos removes a lot of the mundane activities present in other games, leaving you to consider the big picture rather than telling your character to take a shower. The sheer number of activities, random events, and juggling you must to in Kudos makes it a pretty entertaining ride, if you enjoy management games. Kudos also has some pretty good mod support where you can include your own avatars and come up with new jobs, which is more content than adding a new flower pot like the overpriced expansion packs of other games. Really, this game just needs more up-front information on your complete skills list and the relationships with your friends to eliminate some clicking to make it completely enjoyable for the management crowd. While a lot of casual gamers will get turned away by the lack of pretty 3-D graphics and not having sweaty relations in the hot tub, they will miss a good strategy adaptation of the life management game. Plus, at $23, it’s $7 cheaper than an expansion pack for The Sims 2, let alone the full game. There’s easily more content in Kudos than a lowly expansion, and you’ll probably have more fun too, if you want to get away from the arcade nature of other games and experience the more strategic approach of Kudos.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prey Review

Prey, developed by Human Head Studios, produced by 3D Realms, and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Interesting and gross setting, stunning graphics and exceptionally detailed environments, the “walks” (wall, spirit, and death) are nice gimmicks, occasionally decent AI, Native Americans kickin’ ass
The Not So Good: Uninspired multiplayer, typical core weaponry
What say you? A first person shooter that tries hard to be unique and mostly succeeds: 7/8

Did you know that Prey was announced over ten years ago (well, you are if you've read any other reviews of the game: EVERYONE seems to bring it up, myself included)? Like some other project at 3D Realms, Prey seemed to vanish from existence, only to be resurrected again and actually released. Of course, a lot has changed since 1995, so Prey incorporates the crazy ideas from long ago with newer technology and is guided by the developers of Rune. I’m all for a first person shooter offering new concepts to the genre, which Prey has in bunches. Plus, the game box warns of “partial nudity.” Count me in!

Prey uses a modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and the game looks damn good. The game is full of specular highlights as if they were going out of style: almost everything in the game, from the weapons to the aliens, has a bumpy sheen to it. Add in some bump maps, shaders, and detailed environments, and you’ve got one sweet looking game. The only bad part I’ve seen with the graphics is that some of the human faces look a little off. But this is a very minor complaint in a game that features some awesome graphics. Of course, these graphics come at a steep price: you’ll need much better than the recommended system requirements to run at high detail and high (1280x1024) resolution. My new system worked quite smoothly in Half-Life 2: Episode One, but I had to lower the resolution to make it playable for Prey. I should also note that changing the detail from “low” to “high” didn’t seem to do anything, unless you went in and manually changed each setting. The sound of Prey continues the high quality of the graphics. The voice acting is very well done and realistic. There is a lot of bad language in the game, but it’s generally pretty funny instead of being gratuitous for shock value. The aliens seem to speak English, which is kind of weird considering their consoles are written in some extraterrestrial language. The game is chock full of gross sound effects, such as when the alien ship craps human remains (seriously). When an alien door opens for the first time and Tommy says, “gross,” it is gross. The weapon effects are also believable considering the alien technology used. The background music is also appropriately great for this type of game. My only real complain about the sound is that the death cry during multiplayer matches gets really annoying after a while. The combination of the graphics and sound in Prey makes the game feel more like a movie and less like a video game, which speaks to its realistic nature in an unrealistic setting.

Prey features the single player story where you follow Tommy on his crusade against his alien abductors (involving “partial nudity”). This campaign is lengthy enough for a first person shooter, especially these days with games tending towards shorter, more action packed adventures. The game’s levels are so detailed that I’m willing to forgive a shorter campaign (around 10 hours) in exchange for more believable environments. You won’t see any square, metallic hallways in Prey like in Half-Life 2: Episode One. The multiplayer of Prey (also known as MultiPrey....aren't they clever?) fits somewhere between Half-Life 2 Deathmatch (meh) and Unreal Tournament (good): it's O.K., but with the alien setting it has more potential. There are only options for deathmatch and team deathmatch. I thought we were beyond this in first person shooters: you must add something different for a little variety. Capture the flag? Domination? Something (gasp!) original? Prey does add some original elements to multiplayer, such as changing gravity (which is great fun and the best part about the multiplayer), adapting spirit walk from the campaign, and color-coding hit enemy players according to their health level. The multiplay is frenetic and pretty enjoyable at its peak, when players are shooting from the ceiling and the walls at each other. The game uses some bad spawn locations: about half the time you spawn right next to someone with a more powerful gun without time to react, while other games will spawn you away from the action. Prey averages out to be essentially the same as every other FPS you own in terms of multiplayer, but the gravity elements make it slightly more original than the majority of the crop.

Prey plays like almost every other first person shooter, but the game adds a lot of different elements to the game to make it stand out. The first is death: once your health reaches zero, you’ll enter a mini-game where you must shoot flying objects to gain health back before the timer runs out. You’ll then return right where you left off. I like this concept: most players will reload the game from the last point anyway when they die, so really you can’t permanently die in other first person shooters. Prey just replaces reloading with a mini-game. Prey also adds some Native American inspired spirit walking: you can leave your body, access restricted areas, and sneak up on unsuspecting foes. The energy required to spirit walk is taken from the souls of fallen enemies. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but at least it’s different. The game will usually prompt you when to use the spirit walk with an emblem on the ground, and spirit walking is used infrequent enough to not make it excessively annoying.

The weaponry of Prey may look different, but they actually behave the same as classic weapons. The weapon models do look really good, a combination of alien organics and technology with pleasing blood splatter, but there are no real original weapons here. The leech gun is the pulse gun from Unreal Tournament. The wrench is the crowbar from Half-Life. The acid sprayer is a modified shotgun. And the rest are just standard weapons (sniper rifle, grenades, rocket launcher, machine gun). You’d think that will all of this technology, the aliens would develop some truly original weapons (a black hole generator or Carnie Wilson, for example), but this is not the case.

Prey features some fairly standard AI: they will use cover and throw grenades and can do some advanced moves on occasion, like rolling towards cover. But the computer opponents will rarely use team tactics and when they spawn in open areas, will tend to shoot first and look for cover later. Prey suffers from some spontaneous enemy generation, where enemies will magically appear in front of you. Of course, this is explained through the use of warp portals, but it’s still kind of annoying. Speaking of the warp portals, they are pretty cool, as they show what’s on the other side of the portal before you enter. Plus, they can make for some interesting level design, or just allow for the designers to make a quick exit.

Another important part of Prey is the use of gravity. The game includes both wall walking, where glowing paths will anchor yourself to them, no matter which direction they travel, and gravity switches, that can essentially rotate the room. This results in some interesting and disorientating levels in the game (especially in multiplayer), where you can be shooting from (or get shot from) strange locations, like the ceiling. This makes for some interesting battles where arriving fire can be coming from several different directions. You usually don’t have to worry about the ceiling in first person shooters, but Prey makes you cover all possible entry paths. The game tries to automatically reorient your view when you climb up the walls, but it just makes for more confusion, especially when you’re moving and trying to see what’s up ahead while the game is changing your view. Some of the paths are not intuitive due to the strange nature of the game: things that are bombs don’t look like bombs, and passageways you’re supposed to go through don’t look like passageways; both of these things tend to confuse simple-minded players such as myself. Still, Prey is one of the more straightforward first person shooters, as you receive some guidance in the game in the form of a ghost bird that lands on key objects. You can also enter spirit mode to see hints scattered along the ground. People who have a tough time figuring out exactly what the developers want you to do in a game (such as myself) will appreciate these subtle hints.

At its core, Prey is a standard first person shooter, but the game adds enough extras to the formula to make it a unique title. The overall theme of the game is consistent, and although most of the game takes place inside an Alien spaceship, the game never suffers from boring levels of metallic corridors. The graphics and the sound are both top notch, utilizing the power of the PC to its full potential. The game’s AI offers are decent challenge, and with the automatically adjusting difficulty and death walk, you can’t really ever die or get stuck in the game (except for the puzzles). The spirit walking and gravity elements of Prey make for some original gameplay, although the weapons are derivative of other games, despite their appearances. Prey feels genuinely dramatic, unlike other first person shooters that feel like games trying to be movies. If the multiplayer of Prey could have been more complete, the overall game would have benefited and been truly special. In all, Prey is an excellent, albeit short, single player experience with some wasted potential in multiplayer.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Gibbage Review

Gibbage, developed and published by Dan Marshall.
The Good: Simple rules, fast pace, neat power-ups, tough AI, extremely bloody
The Not So Good: Special moves are difficult to execute, outdated graphics, no Internet multiplayer, almost too challenging
What say you? An extremely hectic and slightly entertaining 2-D action game: 6/8

Shooters have had a long and storied tradition on the PC. I suppose that’s nothing more exhilarating than coming face to face to your opponent and gunning them down. While this doesn’t necessarily reflect positively on society as a whole, it does make for an entertaining game. With the advent of faster and more powerful computer, the shooter has made the move towards 3-D first person action. However, there are still some games that cling to the olden days of side-scrolling, 2-D fun. Gibbage is one of those games. As the name implies, the game features lots of killing (or “gibbing”, as the cool kids say) in an arena of death.

While the 2-D side-view graphics of Gibbage are out-of-date, the saving grace of the game is the sheer amount of blood present. The floor of each level will become literally covered by blood and severed limbs by the time the match is over, turning a pleasant crimson hue. The rest of the effects in the game are underwhelming, owing mostly to the independent nature of the title. I don’t particularly mind that the rest of the game consists of small, undetailed characters, stark environments, and basic weapon effects; this is not the focus of the game, but it does become difficult to distinguish some of the components of each level after a while. It’s difficult to find things in the game just because the objects are small. I suppose a lot of this results from being used to life-sized 3-D graphics in games, but it doesn’t change the fact that Gibbage looks old and, apart from the extreme volume of gore, just isn’t fun to look at. The sound is along the same lines: there are some effects for each weapon and some slightly exciting background music, but it’s all pretty generic. Deaths are not accompanied by very exciting sound effects, either; I was expecting some awfully gross sound when people die in the game, but it’s just a subdued squishing sound. Games such as Gibbage make their name based on gameplay rather than looks, and this title shows why.

Gibbage is an arena-style match between several players. The game features play against the AI or other players on the same computer, but sadly not over the Internet. The goal is to drain your opponent’s power level while collecting power cubes. These cubes must be brought back to your power booth, which will raise your level while decreasing those of your enemies. Gibbage has a fairly interesting core concept and I’m glad it strayed far away from the usual assortment of deathmatch and team deathmatch seen in other games. The main way to prevent your opponent from returning power cubes is to shoot them. The game features a standard weapon plus some truly interesting bonuses that can be collected on the map. Everything from more classic inclusions such as homing rockets and mines to more unique power-ups are included, like removing your opponent’s arms. Since there are no health packs in Gibbage, getting the right upgrade at the right time can prove to be quite beneficial. Dying in the game is inconvenient, but it doesn’t carry the amount of weight it should. You’re penalized by being held in your power booth for a period of time, allowing your enemy to collect power cubes at will with no resistance. The power penalty for death is almost negligible, and dying is more frustrating than damaging to your chance of success. I would like to have the option to make death more important, which would result in quicker games. While the overall pace of the game is quite fast, the games themselves last a pretty long time, which tends to get tiring after a while. The controls in the game, at least for me, took some getting used to. Because of the rapid pace of the game, precision is required in navigating the levels, which digital keyboard controls doesn’t exactly lend itself to. Executing special moves is very difficult, especially wall jumps (required in some levels) where you must press a button, let go, press it again (timing it correctly, mind you), press a direction key, and let go again, all in the span of about a second. I just don’t have the skill or reflexes to execute this move with any sort of consistency without a lot of practice. Having a control learning curve is fine in a flight simulator, but not an arcade action game where the controls should be intuitive and easy to execute. The AI you’ll play against is very good, a little too good if you ask me. They don’t have to worry about the initial leaning curve of the controls or the precision required when running and jumping around the levels, which makes the game more difficult than it actually is. I appreciate that a competent and worthy opponent is included in the game, however. The AI is really good at Gibbage (even at the easiest difficulty setting), and will challenge most players.

Gibbage has a good central idea and executes it almost very well. While the graphics and the sound are behind the times, the game does deliver enough buckets of blood to be amusing to most players. I’m glad to see an original shooter with some interesting rules that stray away from the mundane deathmatch element. The game also features some original power-ups for the genre, something that is also rare. The AI proves to be a very skilled competitor, which is good considering the lack of online multiplayer. I’m not sure what can be done about the controls in the game, but this is easily the biggest obstacle new players will experience. I suppose that practice makes perfect, but action shooters should be easy to pick up and play instead of requiring training. Still, I can get past the archaic graphics, sound, and control issues and see a game that is pretty unique: this is a true rarity. Gibbage is very close to being an excellent game if some small issues could be resolved and the “smoothness” found in other action games could be incorporated here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Half-Life 2: Episode One Review

Half-Life 2: Episode One, developed and published by Valve.
The Good: Slightly improved graphics (which are still really good), few solo missions, top-notch voice acting
The Not So Good: Short, feels the same as the original with no well-defined extras
What say you? A worthy, but short, follow up to Half-Life 2: 6/8

Half-Life 2 is really popular, and it’s no surprise, because it’s a fantastic first person shooter. The ending of Half-Life 2 left many people wondering what happened to our beloved heroes, uber-scientist Gordon Freeman and sexy (in a digital sense, of course) vixen Alyx Vance. Valve has decided to answer those questions by further confusing the gaming world with three episodes that expand upon the Half-Life 2 story. The first of these is Half-Life 2: Episode One, a stand-alone single player “campaign” of sorts where Gordon and Alyx venture out of the citadel and into City 17.

In true Half-Life 2 nature, the graphics of Episode One are outstanding. The game uses a slightly enhanced version of the Source engine, incorporating dynamic shadows and upgraded facial expressions. There are so many high points to the graphics in the game; the character models, and especially the faces, are extremely detailed and life-like. The environments are also well-done, although the metallic settings of underground sewers and cold buildings gets repetitive after a while (Episode One looks a lot better in the wide open City 17). There are tons of lighting effects as well. Half-Life 2: Episode One shows the graphical power of the PC in all of its console crushing glory. The sound is also very nice: the voice acting (which features all of the actors from Half-Life 2) is superior, and is position-based depending on which direction you are facing. The music comes in at appropriate times, and it accompanied with great sound effects from weapons and explosions. Half-Life 2: Episode One clearly continues the high production values from the original game.

There is not much difference between Half-Life 2: Episode One and the original game, however. Some would argue that this is a good thing, considering how acclaimed Half-Life 2 was, but Episode One still feels like you’re playing the original game, rather than a distinct addition that adds something new to the game. Most expansion packs add something to the core gameplay, but Half-Life 2: Episode One is just a solid set of levels that closely resembles the source material. The game’s few differences involve an enhanced gravity gun that can pick up people; this is great fun, flinging Combine soldiers across the map, but it only lasts for one of the five chapters. The rest of the weapons are standard Half-Life 2 fare. The AI in the game is slightly improved, although they still don’t use cover as much as they should and are pretty easy to defeat for skilled players. This time around, you spend most of the time paired up with other characters from the game, instead of slogging through enemies by yourself. The teamwork in the game is a welcome addition, as fighting alongside someone else feels more realistic than a Gordon versus the world scenario. Your compatriots can hold their own, too, engaging enemies pretty well with their unlimited ammo. It’s almost easier to take them out yourself, but the benefits of a moving turret with unlimited rounds are something you can’t pass up. The biggest knock against the game is its length. I know that three episodes are planned, but the game is over so quickly (you can finish it with a good day’s work, including a break for lunch) that the $20 price tag almost doesn’t hold up. If the core gameplay of Half-Life 2: Episode One wasn’t so enjoyable, some people might feel ripped off.

Half-Life 2: Episode One is designed for people who have completed the original game. Although it’s technically a stand-alone game, you won’t really understand what’s going on unless you’ve finished Half-Life 2, although you can still enjoy the action. So, is it worth it? For people who enjoyed the original, I’d say yes. The price is a little steep for the amount of content; it’s closer to one of the booster packs available for Battlefield 2 than a budget title, but still cheaper than the $30 rip-off expansion packs for The Sims 2. If you feel justified paying $20 for five hours of gameplay, go right ahead: fans of the game won’t be disappointed. People who marginally enjoy first person shooters could steer clear of this game and not feel badly about it: there are really no changes from the original game. Half-Life 2: Episode One is deserving of the Half-Life 2 moniker, and adding more team-based gameplay makes the game more enjoyable and reasonable, science fiction setting aside. Bottom line: get it if you like Half-Life 2 and you’d like to experience more single player first person shooting action. For the rest of us, it’s generally more of the same. The same is good, but the same is still the same.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm Review

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Detailed location damage model, no arbitrary time limits, initial troop placement is satisfactory, good tactical AI opponent, chain-of-command orders, open XML editing
The Not So Good: No random maps and not many scenarios
What say you? An enjoyable but fleeting tactical strategy game in the vein of (but distinct enough from) Combat Mission: 6/8

I’m getting pretty close to running out of things to say at the beginning of World War II game reviews. We know the war. We know the games. So, let’s just get to it! Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a tactical World War II strategy game by Koios Works, the same people who did the Tin Soldiers series. The game resembles Combat Mission, with the WEGO simultaneous turns, point-based unit purchasing, and general game structure. Is it better? Worse? About the same? Let’s find out!

The graphics of Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm are a slightly improved version of those seen in Combat Mission. The armored units are very detailed, complete with smoke rising from the exhaust pipes. The infantry is less detailed, and it exhibits some poor animations (where the units are “running” but really floating slowly across the ground). The environments are very boring to look at. They are sparse and flat, and the forest areas are unimpressive with their obvious 2-D sprite trees. This may partly be due to the winter setting, but the maps could have looked a lot better. Compared to other real time strategy games, the graphics disappoint, but 3-D graphics are still better than 2-D hex maps. The sound is better: the chaos of war is represented pretty well in the game. Weapon effects seem to be realistic and appropriately powerful. One thing about Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm that is distinctive is the weight of the tanks. In some other games, when tanks fire their ammunition it feels the same as when infantry fire their guns. In this game, armor-piercing rounds “slam” into the ground and other units with a force that’s way more convincing and pleasurable than other games. Even though the rounds look bad (fuzzy black circles, anyone?), they are convincing when they impact the ground or another unit. This aspect of the game almost makes up for the overall lackluster graphics. Almost.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm features two very short (five missions each) campaigns, one for the Soviets and one for the Germans, spanning December 12-29, 1942. The very specific timeline for the game could have been expanded somewhat, resulting in more replay value, but because of the narrow range of dates, we get a narrow range of scenarios. Units in the campaign carry over to the next mission, which grants some experience bonuses later on. You can also purchase reinforcements or new units between missions; the amount of points you’ll get is determined by the difficulty level. You can play any of the ten campaign missions plus two additional missions are skirmish battles. Twelve total scenarios is an extremely small number for a strategy game, and the lack of a random map generator means the amount of content Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm provides is very small. You can play any of the scenarios through PBEM, but the turns are so short that actually playing a game by e-mail would take quite a long time. One thing the game does have going for it is its open architecture: vehicle, infantry, scenario and campaign information and properties can be changed through a simple XML editor. Although the maps and models can’t be altered, you could effectively broaden the scope of Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm pretty easily. This almost makes up for the small number of scenarios. Almost.

As I alluded to earlier, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm uses a point system for buying units before the battle begins, much like Combat Mission. Not surprisingly because of the title of the game, Panzer Command has a strong emphasis on armored units. A lot of this has to do with the fact that infantry units are very expensive for their capabilities compared to armored units. It’s worth it to spend a small amount more on a tank platoon than a rifle squad. Because of this, Panzer Command really becomes a tank vs. tank battle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (of course not), but more variety is always appreciated. Your units are placed automatically at the beginning of the scenario (although you can move them a short distance), and luckily the initial troop placement is very good and takes advantage of cover. The user interface of Panzer Command is pretty standard, although I do enjoy that the game displays all of your units all of the time: finding “lost” units is never an issue. The display also highlights units that are under fire, so that you can easily find them and attend to them. This makes managing your troops really easy in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, and it’s one of the highlights of the game.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a WEGO game, meaning that both sides make their moves and then they are executed concurrently. Each turn in the game is divided into two forty-second phases: the orders phase and the reaction phase. The difference is that the reaction phase restricts you to issuing only firing and halting commands. Orders are issued to the commanding unit of a squad rather than individual units, preserving the command structure of the real forces involved. This system works very well, and I hope more games adapt this streamlined approach seen here and in other games like Conquest of the Aegean. Because of the historical organization of the German forces, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm doesn’t impose a order execution delay for the Germans, but there is a one-turn delay for the Soviets; you’ll have to keep this in mind when formulating and executing a plan. The orders themselves are an intuitive collection of standard commands: mount, advance, ruse, engage, defend, regroup. German units can “bound,” meaning that some units in the squad will cover an advance. You can also spot locations for the off-map artillery barrages, although air strikes are done autonomously.

A single “unit” in the game actually represents squad, and they are arranged into groups called platoons, each of which has a commander that receives and distributes your orders. The units in the game are very detailed: each has numerous (upwards of fifteen) different armor values at different hit locations (such as front, back, track, hull, top deck). Vehicles can therefore be damaged but not destroyed, which includes their crew. Every weapon a unit possesses is also rated for the damage it can cause at certain ranges: damage is done through dice rolls (for example, a 75-mm high explosive round has a 6/10 chance of causing damage at a range of 550 meters). Most of these calculations are never revealed to the player, but it makes positioning units with their strongest armor towards the enemy important. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm has a five-step process in determining whether a unit is spotted by another units (including the cone of sight, target type, obstacles, and experience level). Although all spotted units are shown on the map, an individual unit must spot another unit before engaging it; just because you can see it doesn’t mean your tank platoon can. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm also includes a morale model, where constantly suppressed units will eventually flee towards safety; sometimes, just firing towards a unit is enough to break them.

Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm ends when one player’s victory point total reaches their goal. There are no arbitrary time limits in the game, something I wish more games did. I hate it when I’m about to do a winning assault and the game says, “Oops, it’s noon, war’s over.” It’s not over until I say it’s over! This makes attacking in the game very difficult: not only do the defenders have the advantage of cover, but attackers must move quickly before the defender starts earning bonus points for holding objective locations. The AI opponent in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is no slouch, especially as a defender (although a lot of that may be due to good placement by the mission designer). I can consistently defeat the AI of Combat Mission, but the computer opponents of Panzer Command are just aggressive enough to be quite challenging. For once, good tactical planning is needed to win. Imagine that!

On the surface, Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm may just look like a simple clone of Combat Mission, but the game differentiates itself enough to make it unique. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm has a strong emphasis on armor and the use of cover, sophisticated armor calculations, more realistic victory conditions, and decent AI. The game’s only real weak point is the lack of content: twelve short missions are simply not enough. The game does include many editing capabilities, but since new maps or units can’t be modded as easily, you’re stuck with the few scenarios the game ships with. I do like the engine and overall feel of the game, and I imagine that it might spawn some future versions of the game. Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm is a good ride while it lasts, but lacks the staying power that other strategy games bring with their more expanded content.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Titan Quest Review

Titan Quest, developed by Iron Lore and published by THQ.
The Good: Continuous action, appropriately difficult, exceptional graphics, numerous skill paths, logical loot system, multiplayer, map editor
The Not So Good: Completed quest enemies regenerate, smallish inventory size, fairly linear, no real tutorial, finding multiplayer allies is difficult to impossible
What say you? An outstanding action-RPG for anyone who like to role play action style: 7/8

When you think of action role-playing games, you think of Diablo (and its sequel, GoDai: Elemental Force). Running around with your sword, hacking and slashing at everything in your path, and collecting piles and piles of precious loot is the name of the game. There have been numerous imitators since the original game was released 10 years ago. Titan Quest (you know, the game I’m reviewing right now) has removed the orcs and demons from fantasy games and replaces them with mythical creatures from primarily Greek legends. Joy!

Titan Quest features some top-notch graphics, including very detailed environments and night and day cycles. The areas you’ll be exploring are filled with realistic details such as wheat swaying out of your way and butterflies flying around. All of the characters in the game look really good as well. The animations of the player unit are a little over the top, however: no matter what the situation is, your character will always be in a readied attack stance, even if they are just talking to a merchant. Titan Quest also comes with a good physics system: dropped objects will bounce off rocks and chests, and all of your enemies exhibit rag doll behavior as they plummet towards the ground. In all, Titan Quest creates a beautiful and convincing game environment through its graphics. The sound is not bad, either. All of the NPC dialogue is voiced (somewhat standard for higher-level RPGs), although the battle effects get a little repetitive after a while. Overall, though, the sound is enjoyable.

Unlike some other role-playing games (like this one), you don’t decide your starting class when creating a character. Instead, you can decide one once you’ve played the game a little and have seen what kind of character you’d like to create. Titan Quest doesn’t offer suggestions based on your choices like Oblivion, but it’s still nice to get your feet wet before locking yourself in. The game assumes you’ve played an action RPG before, as the in-game “tutorial” is limited to text boxes popping up in the corner. Titan Quest can be played by yourself or on a multiplayer server, where you can undergo the same quests as in single player but with other players. This sounds great in theory, but the other players must be at the same exact point in the game in order for you to join them. Otherwise, it’s just like the single player game but with more lag. It would have been nice to feature some sort of automated matchmaking to choose allies that are the same level and at the same quest to make multiplayer more fun. There is also a maximum of six players on a server, so you might not ever run into any friendly people because you can be on a completely different quest or part of the game. The real strength of the multiplayer mode will probably come out when people start creating their own levels using the editor. You can take levels that you’ve produced online and challenge other people to beat your creation. Assuming that the community latches onto this, Titan Quest could prove to be a popular multiplayer RPG.

Action RPGs are all about action (it’s in the name, you know), and most of the actions in the game can be done with the left mouse button. Attack? Left click. Move? Left click. Talk? Left click. Trade? Left click. The only time this simplistic method becomes a problem is when you intend to attack an enemy but accidentally click on adjacent ground, issuing a move command. If you click and hold the button down, you’ll continue to attack and enemy until they are dead; this is extremely useful and makes multiple clicking obsolete (I wish I would have read the manual sooner). The weapons in Titan Quest are historically accurate (except of course for the magic weapons) items such as staffs, bows, daggers, and clubs: things that you’d expect people in ancient times to be using. Titan Quest also includes shields and many items to grant bonuses in the form of rings, leggings, and helmets. All of this is pretty standard RPG stuff. Titan Quest does allow you to have two weapon sets that can be quickly switched during battle. Like most RPG games, enemies that you defeat drop loot and other items for you to collect. However, enemies will only drop items they were using or carrying. I’ve never liked when enemies dropped really good items after they’ve died; if they were so good, why weren’t they using them? Titan Quest makes defeating powerful enemies that much sweeter, because now you take their stuff. It also means that defeating lots of lower-level enemies will result in getting lower-level items, which balances out the game and removes some of the random nature of loot drops seen in other titles. The capacity of your inventory is pretty small: you’ll almost never have enough room to keep all of the good items dropped in a quest before you return to a merchant. This means you’ll have to pick and choose which items to bring with you and which to leave behind. I guess this slows down the exponential gold increase seen in other games, but I’d still like to keep all of the stuff I rightfully won. Trading with merchants is very easy, and merchants will buy anything even if they don’t sell that type of item, eliminating the need to search around for a bookseller to sell books to.

You’ll probably die at some point in Titan Quest. Dying only costs a small amount of experience points and you respawn at the nearest rebirth fountain (usually located right before difficult areas). Your health will regenerate slowly over time, and you can also use a health potion to recover quickly; health potions are readily available in many treasure chests in enemy camps. Defeating enemies and completing quests earn experience points. When you level up, you get points you can use to upgrade maximum heatlh and energy, and increase your strength, intelligence, and dexterity skills. As most weapons have a strength, intelligence, or dexterity minimum, you’ll want to tailor your upgrades to your arsenal (at least I do). You will also get points you can use for skills in one of the game’s eight masteries, which cover pretty much any type of player you’ll want to become. You’ll eventually learn two masteries at level eight, and the combination of your two masteries will determine your specific class (there are 36 total). For example, the mixture of warfare and storm creates a melee-caster hybrid called a thane (duh!). The flexibility and number of options available in the mastery system goes beyond the simple classes found in other games: you could truly play Titan Quest multiple times and create a completely different character each time. Putting one point in a skill will activate it, and adding more points will make it more effective. You can also increase your overall mastery level that will give attribute bonuses and unlock higher-level skills. Skills can either be passive or active: active skills must be manually used by the player and they can be assigned to a numbered hotkey, while passive skills give you benefits that automatically activate. There are also some skills that can give a better chance of a more deadly attack with certain weapons and give magical spells to the player. In other RPG games, I’ve felt pigeonholed into a specific class, especially by choosing one at the beginning of the game before I’ve even started playing. Titan Quest gives you the freedom to create the specific type of character you want with the skills you’ll enjoy the most. Looking forward to the next level to see what cool powers you can unlock is part of the joy of Titan Quest.

The main quest of Titan Quest is pretty linear, but there are some other easy-to-find side quests along the way that give experience and a bonus item. There’s certainly enough content in Titan Quest to keep you busy, but the game lacks the freeform feel of other games like Oblivion. Titan Quest certainly tries to coax you along the main path down the game, and the side quests are nothing you can spend all your time on or even access without advancing on the main quest. If you finish a quest, the monsters from that quest can respawn if you go back to the same location later. This is very odd, and it makes the player feel that they have no greater impact on the game’s world. Once you find other villages, you can quickly travel between them using portals, although going back to previous locations isn’t needed much. If you do happen to beat the game, a more difficult version of the game becomes available. You get to keep your hero and do the same quests, but with tougher monsters. Titan Quest keeps you interested in the game because of its difficulty. In a lot of RPGs, I get bored with them after a while because they become either too easy or too hard. Titan Quest is appropriately difficult: the quests are hard, but not too hard where you can’t beat them. Tackling a quest using a different approach is usually the best way to completing that tricky mission, which is almost a strategy-like approach to the game.

I’m not a huge fan of role-playing games, but I do like Titan Quest. The game combines an exceptional mastery/skill system, proper difficulty, awesome graphics, and multiplayer into a fun package. There are a couple of odd things about the game, but nothing that ruins the gameplay. The flexibility of the game, including the 36 classes and the map editor, should result in Titan Quest having more staying power than your typical action RPG. The setting of the game is also pretty unique, and although you tend to forget you’re in ancient Greece at times, the overall presentation of Titan Quest is first-class. A little bit more freedom in the main campaign would be appreciated, especially for subsequent characters you’ve created, but it’s still an enjoyable game. The role-playing game has been seeing a sort of renaissance lately, and Titan Quest continues this rebirth with an engaging experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dark Matter Review

Dark Matter, developed and published by Big Toe Software.
The Good: Automatic upgrades, top notch graphics for the genre, simple but effective enemy ship behavior, inertial physics
The Not So Good: Repetitive levels, weapon upgrades reset each level
What say you? A straightforward but challenging Asteroids clone: 6/8

One of the most classic arcade games is Asteroids. Armed with only your triangular ship, you blast your way through wave after wave of space rocks in the hope of blasting more space rocks instead of dying. As you might expect, any successful game will spawn numerous clones in the hope of making some money off the popularity of the original. The dream remains alive 27 years later in the form of Dark Matter, a top-down space shooter where you engage asteroids and enemy ships and shoot them in space.

In true Asteroids tradition, Dark Matter is a top down arcade space shooter, and the game looks really nice. The backgrounds are beautiful caricatures of space vistas, complete with distant stars and multi-colored nebulae. The asteroids in the game are very detailed, complete with shadowing effects among their many craters. The ships in the game also come across with a believable flair, although the larger ships lack the detail of the smaller craft in the game. The weapon effects and explosions are neat as well: colored smoke trails missiles and ships explode convincingly. Best of all, the game’s graphics never confuse the player. It’s all too common in games of this nature to just throw a bunch of effects at you in the hope of overloading your senses, but the graphics in Dark Matter come across as detailed yet clean at the same time: well done. Even the hexagonal menus are easy to understand and look a lot better than the bare menus seen in other arcade shooters. For all of the good things about the graphics, the sound is lacking. There is no music, just sounds when weapons fire, ships explode, and new ships spawn on the screen. The game lacks a balance between the excellent graphics and the sound that really could have provided a wonderful gaming experience. As it stands, Dark Matter is pretty to look at but pretty average to listen to.

Dark Matter features a 30 level semi-linear campaign. You can choose some of the path you take during the game as the level selection is arranged like a honeycomb. Dying during one of the missions does not reset the entire campaign, thankfully. There is also a challenge mode where you try to survive long enough to earn a high score. Both of these modes play out the same: the level begins with asteroids, then ships are added, and finally a powerful boss may come into the picture. Because of this pattern, none of the game’s levels have any unique identity and they play too similarly. About the only changes are in the background images, but once you’ve played one level, you’ve pretty much played them all.

Playing Dark Matter is easy enough. You can use either the mouse or a gamepad (and apparently an Xbox 360 pad as well, although I don’t own one to test it out). You can left click to fire. Double clicking will save up your energy for a more powerful shot; it’s an interesting idea, but double clicking during the game is clumsy in practice. Right clicking will move your ship around the map. The maps are just like Asteroids: if you disappear off one end, you’ll reappear on the other. Dark Matter uses an inertial physics engine: the only way to stop moving is by firing your engines in the opposite direction. This makes moving your ship a tricky proposition, but you can pull off some cool, daring moves during the game. The middle mouse button fires a bomb, which eliminates all enemies in a close radius, useful for intense times during a match or those pesky bosses, although you’re limited to only three. Enemies will drop “dots” (that’s what I’m calling them) that will automatically float towards you; these are used to automatically upgrade your weapons, providing a more powerful arsenal or faster firing rates. The weapon upgrades start over at the beginning of each level in the campaign.

The enemies of Dark Matter consist of asteroids that just float around and a number of enemy ship types. Each type exhibits a different behavior and subsequent difficulty level. Some will just go straight for you, while others will run away when you aim at them, so you can trick them into coming too close. Although the AI of Dark Matter is simple, it is very effective are creating a challenging set of opponents. Dark Matter is difficult because of the number of enemies, but the game is not unfairly difficult. Dark Matter never throws too many enemies at you that you couldn’t possibly eliminate; the player just needs to prioritize their targets. The inclusion of bombs gets you out of sticky situations when you become closed in. The gameplay of Dark Matter compares favorably to other arcade shooters in terms of difficulty and overall fun.

Dark Matter has some pretty challenging but simple gameplay that anyone can pick up. The game can become repetitive after a while, but the upgrading weapons offset some of the recurrences. The graphics are outstanding for an arcade shooter, and although the sound lags behind in terms of quality, the overall presentation of the game is exceptional. The game’s difficulty results from having a lot of enemies, but not too many enemies, and striking that balance is the key to why Dark Matter ends up being better than your average arcade shooter. Plus, the game is super cheap: at only $10, why not check it out, especially if you enjoy clear-cut arcade action? I think I had at least $10 worth of fun in this game, and fans of the genre won’t be disappointed with Dark Matter.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Micro Machines v4 Review

Micro Machines v4, developed by Supersonic Software and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Interesting and difficult racing, very competitive AI, tons of cars to unlock and trade, multiplayer, unique track locations, limited track editor
The Not So Good: Camera view is horrible, some console port issues (mostly keyboard/gamepad input and control), perfection required for lapped races, at times too difficult and frustrating
What say you? A shockingly demanding arcade racing game with skilled AI and tough circuits ruined by camera issues: 6/8

One of my major collections when I was a child (three weeks ago) was die cast cars. We had a large cardboard box full of these things and would race them around the house, which eventually sparked my interest in NASCAR. I have fond memories of these little cars, and it’s good to see them rise again (in virtual form) in Micro Machines v4. I didn’t play any of the past iterations (most of them concentrated on the evil platforms instead of the angelic PC) and since a PC version was published 10 years ago, making comparisons between this version and past iterations is insane (I’ll leave that up to lesser review sites that copy and paste reviews of the same game for different platforms). Micro Machines v4 is a decidedly arcade racer where you pilot really small cars around real world environments, like a barber shop or a garden, and utilize weapons to blow your opponents up. How will racing tiny cars stack up against bigger competition?

The graphics of Micro Machines v4 are pretty good for an arcade racing game. The game takes place of 17 different environments (a pool table, science lab, bathroom) and each of them are distinctive and contain some unique elements. The cars themselves are as detailed as their real life counterparts, and look believable although generic in the game. The biggest issue with the graphics is the camera. The camera zooms up instead of out in battle races, which makes it extremely hard to see corners coming up. The view needs to be behind the car at all times, like in most racing games. I like how the camera anticipates upcoming corners, but in battle races, it zooms out to show all of the competitors. In one online race, I was far ahead of the other car, but then slammed into an obstacle I couldn’t see because the camera was providing a top-down view clipped at the front of my car. You are traveling so fast in these races and there are so many random obstacles on the tracks that you need to see what’s ahead of you at all times. I don’t care where the other car is located; just show me what lies in front of my vehicle. Suffice it to say I lost that race, not because of my poor driving skills, but because of the camera. That should never happen in any game on any platform and is completely inexcusable. The sound is a generally forgettable arrangement of environmental sounds and weapon effects: they do an adequate job and that’s pretty much it.

First off, getting into the actual game is a chore. Do we really need three intro videos and four splash screens every time you start the game? Pressing “enter” seven times before I even get to play is highly annoying. The first time you run the game, that’s fine, but if I’ve seen them once, I’ve seen them enough. Once you do eventually enter the game, you’ll find racing action against the AI and other humanoids. The single player mode allows you to challenge the AI to tournaments where you can unlock additional cars and tracks, or practice on existing tracks. There is an editor in the game, but it only allows you to create a track from three of the game’s 17 environments and you have to utilize existing checkpoints in your design. It’s not as cool as it could have been, but it can result in some interesting online racing. You can play on the same computer with multiple control methods (keyboard, gamepads) or online in all-against-all or team games. You can add AI racers to multiplayer matches but not to online events for some reason. Finding an online game is very simple through the game’s integrated browser. Progressing through the single player campaign will allow you to unlock some of the game’s 750 cars that you can trade online. There are only 25 different car styles in the game (the 750 total comes from different paint schemes), but 25 different cars are still more than most racing games. Trading online is as simple as creating a race, and there are several options available if you want to swap duplicate cars or have the game suggest appropriate trades. There could conceivably be a number of people who are interested in trading virtual cars, so it’s nice that the option is there. Micro Machines v4 gives players enough different features to keep them involved in the game for a while.

There are three styles of races in Micro Machines v4: the usual lapped races, single car rally-like checkpoint races, and battle mode. In battle mode, if you get far enough in front you earn points and last place loses points no matter where you are on the track. The race then begins from that point, and you keep going until someone earns a set number of points. This is probably the best way of playing the game, and it results in some intense back-and-forth action as points are earned and deducted. If a race is lasting too long, the game switches to “end game scoring” where points are only earned to decide a winner. There are a number of power-ups available in the game, which include weapons (bombs, guns, flamethrowers, cannons, hammers, missiles) and health bonuses to counteract being hit by weapons. Lowered health results in your car going slower, so you can have the strategy of slowing opposing cars or just running them off the track.

In a “known issue” (if it was known, why didn’t they fix it?), you have to use the same control method for the menus as the game. If you use the keyboard for the menus before entering a race, the game won’t allow you to use any gamepads for racing, even if you have the gamepads set as the input device. This is an odd issue that probably results from porting the game over from console land. You also can’t use the keyboard to spell out anything: thanks consoles. The game also arbitrarily decides which controller goes to which player and it can’t be switched. If you have two gamepads (for two players), you can’t switch which gamepad is for which player, as the order is decided by the Windows game controller settings. I appreciate that the developers ported this game over to the PC, but the control issues are something that just shouldn’t be a problem. There are also some other compatibility issues with the game: Micro Machines v4 seems to have some problems with dual core processors (speeding up and slowing down after a while) and the game always crashes when I exit. Of course, since I’m exiting it doesn’t really matter, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

The gameplay of Micro Machines v4 is fast paced. The tracks are very narrow and treacherous and it’s extremely easy to just fall off the edge. Because of this, battle races are much better than lapped races. If you fall off the edge once during a three-lap race, you’re screwed; during a battle race, you’ve just lost once and can rebound if you careen off-track. The tracks leave very little room for error and they require precision racing, although the camera issues prevent some of the precision from happening. The power-ups add some more variation to the racing, and racing against the track, the opponents, and the opponent’s power-ups is difficult. The AI opponents are very good and aggressive. They stay on the track pretty well (they don’t have to content with the camera) and provide a good challenge, even on easy. In fact, it took me 11 times to beat the easiest three-lap race, and there are a host of races on “rookie” level and easy difficulty I am having problems with. The more I played Micro Machines v4, the more increasingly frustrated I got with the camera issues and the cheating. “Team” races are a joke, as you need to beat two AI cars working together in order to win, which is nearly impossible even on easy difficulty. It also seems like the AI cars don’t need to lead by as much in battle races to win a round as the human player does. I can be leading by a full ten car lengths and not “win,” while the AI can pull ahead by two car lengths and end the match.

Micro Machines v4 is one of the most difficult racing games I’ve experienced. The combination of fast cars on tight tracks littered with obstacles makes for some white-knuckle racing, and the aggressive AI doesn’t make life any easier. I was going to give Micro Machines v4 a higher score, but the camera views are so hideous that I couldn’t do it. The rest of the game is pretty solid: lots of collectable cars, fun battle mode races, interesting environments, and a high level of difficulty for an arcade racing game. But the stupid camera gets in the way of the game, adding to the intricate nature of the races. Just give me a view that’s above and behind my car at all times and I’m happy, but Micro Machines v4 is content with zooming out really far while rotating and eliminating any view of anything in front of your car. It’s so exasperating because the rest of the game is pretty good and potentially fun to play, but actually playing the game often results in a maddening experience. Luckily, the camera issues could be easily resolved through a patch that gave a camera view that actually showed what’s around the bend instead of useless top-down view. You can’t have that view with cars going this fast, and that’s the major problem associated with Micro Machines v4. Porting and camera issues aside, the rest of the game is surprisingly fun, I just wish that Micro Machines v4 came with a complete package instead of wearisome gameplay.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Wrestling Spirit 2 Review

Wrestling Spirit 2, developed and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Well developed career and season modes, lots of wrestlers and moves, easy to make MODs, challenging AI
The Not So Good: Matches are tedious and defending is not fun, lack of multiplayer
What say you? An excellent set of features, but lackluster matches: 5/8

We all go through phases. For me, my “watching wrestling” phase was during college and graduate school, when I turned in twice a week to watch the sweaty competitors of the WWF/E grab each other. Ah, the late 90s. Not surprisingly, there have been numerous games that have tried to capitalize on the popularity of wrestling, but most of these have been on consoles, and us PC users have been relegated to a port of WWE Raw (why didn’t they pick a good wrestling game to port?) and wrestling management games such as Wrestling Spirit. Well, two games are twice as nice, so Wrestling Spirit is now Wrestling Spirit 2, which bills itself as “the thinking person’s fighting game.” I enjoy thinking on occasion, so how will a more strategic approach to wrestling work out?

Like most sports management games, most of Wrestling Spirit 2 is laid out in text menus. In general, the information is presented in an easily accessible manor, but it sometimes takes multiple clicks to reach important information buried in menus. All of the data is arranged in a reasonable way, it just takes a little bit more time to retrieve some of it. The matches themselves are just text with a picture describing the action. Wrestling Spirit 2 would be a lot cooler with a full 3-d view of the wrestlers and the ring during matches, even if it was just basic models. Of course, this would make it much more difficult to made MODs for the game, but I think it would deliver a more compelling wrestling experience to actually see someone receive a suplex instead of just saying so. In terms of sound, there’s not much to say: a clicking sound and that’s it. Wrestling Spirit 2 is slightly below the average mark held for sports management games these days in terms of graphics and sound.

Wrestling Spirit 2 has an impressive list of features and game modes. Besides a simple exhibition mode, the game features a career mode, where you can either create a new rookie wrestler or take control of an existing veteran grappler, a professional season mode, and a World Cup style world league, complete with round robin and elimination tournaments. If you create a new wrester, you can set their name, gender, style, nationality, and language skills. You can also establish their starting stats at several levels that change initial skills and future potential. During a season, the locker room is used to read e-mail, view morale or the region-based popularity, and change the move set. Most of the wrestler’s work is done through the several associations in the game, so you’ll need to join some in order to make some money. You can suggest feuds and tag teams to your association to keep your popularity up. Relationships are developed with other wrestlers through a blackjack-style game that’s difficult but also unique. There is also a complete financial model, where you can upgrade your skills, make some investments, and change your living quality (from sleeping in your car to five star hotels). Wrestling Spirit 2 has a full catalogue of options available during career mode that makes the game fun to play and a convincing caricature of the daily life of real wrestlers. Wrestling Spirit 2 has an active MOD community as well, and the structure of the game allows for custom wrestlers, associations, and moves. There’s already a mid-1980’s database released and a real world database in development, among several others. About the only thing Wrestling Spirit 2 doesn’t have is Internet multiplayer, although the depth of the career modes should be enough to satisfy most players.

While the features of Wrestling Spirit 2 are outstanding, the actual matches leave a little to be desired. Each match has a different style, which dictates how long the match will last and how quickly higher level moves will become available. In each match, one wrestler is the attacker and another is the defender. The attacker chooses a move or attack and the defender chooses a counter, and the game determines whether the attacker’s move was successful. All of this is mouse-driven and involves a lot of clicking; each action must be double-clicked, and the result box is in a different part of the screen, so you need to move the mouse twice per turn between the same two places. This gets annoying in 100+ move matches. Each wrestler has an energy level and the lower the energy level, the move powerful the moves that can be used against him. The moves themselves are a good assortment of striking and grappling actions, each of which has a percentage of success. You can also arrange your opponent through the use of things like Irish whips or picking them up from behind, which will open up certain position-based moves.

The general strategy of Wrestling Spirit 2 is to wear down your opponent while increasing your momentum. Eventually, you can land a finishing move and then pin your opponent. It sounds simple enough, but the actual matches are pretty monotonous. As an attacker, you just keep clicking on moves, hoping that you land them. Defending seems arbitrary and a game of chance: since all attacks have a percentage of success, it’s just a matter of waiting until you get lucky. Maybe I’m missing something, but clicking avoid, block, and break until you regain control is not strategically deep. The more powerful moves have a much lower chance of success that doesn’t seem to increase much according to the momentum of the match (maybe they do but the frequency values remain the same in the game). Because of this, a lot of matches result in a stalemate, where both competitors are exhausted but can’t execute higher moves to finish the match. The chance of getting a pinfall is essentially zero unless you execute a finishing move, but finishing moves only have a 10-20% chance of succeeding, and they are only available after successfully hitting medium and high moves with only a 30-50% of succeeding. Wrestling Spirit 2 is not a much a strategy game but a game of chance, where the luckiest person who happens to land the higher moves will win the match. As an example, I had full momentum and both wrestlers were tired. My opponent hit two moves (I pressed “block” on both, but since it’s all chance it didn’t really change anything), pinned me and won. It seems like you can just pick the higher-percentage moves and dominate the match, and I could have a computer do that for me. I like the idea of the matches in Wrestling Spirit 2, there just has to be a better way of executing them.

Wrestling Spirit 2 comes with an impressive list of features, including MOD support, deep season mode, and interesting tournaments. It’s too bad that you actually have to wrestle in the game, as the matches are underwhelming. If you can get through the click-heavy matches, Wrestling Spirit 2 has a remarkable set of features for a sports management game. You could always download the demo and see if you find that the match play is better than I thought. Maybe I just stink at the game or I don’t understand the underlying strategy of Wrestling Spirit 2, but the matches just seem devoid of any real strategy and full of clicking and lucky play. I never felt like I was making any difference in any of the matches while I was clicking away, choosing attacking and defending moves that landed according to the hard-coded percentages. Guiding your wrestler through a career is fun, but the matches themselves are too blasé to be of any interest.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

STACKED with Daniel Negreanu Review

STACKED with Daniel Negreanu, developed by 5000ft and published by Myelin Media.
The Good: Decent user interface, good number of player models, capable AI, accelerated play option for AI-only stretches, online tournaments are good fun
The Not So Good: Animation clipping issues, finding online games could be easier, online spectator mode squandered
What say you? Those who really like poker will find a competent and enjoyable game: 6/8

There’s been two oddball sports that have come into the mainstream lately: NASCAR and poker. Now, NASCAR has been around a while and just recently has gone into national prominence, but the rise in popularity of poker is a strange occurrence. It must be fairly popular because FSN and ESPN2 devote no less 87 hours of programming a day to poker. I think a lot of it has to do with the same reasons that golf is popular: regular people can do it. It’s fun to watch “professionals” do the same thing you can, and then get screwed over. Not surprisingly, computer games haven’t been too far behind the trend, as poker software has cropped up in large quantities at your local Best Buy. Most of these games are sad little titles that are just trying to cash in on the phenomena, but then there is Stacked, which is trying to make a more advanced poker experience. All of the official information regarding this game calls it STACKED. Well, there’s no need for CAPS LOCK here. I’m so sorry for shouting. Please forgive me! Anyway, Stacked uses the advanced AI developed at the University of Alberta (Go Golden Bears/Pandas!) over the past ten years, and couples it with realistic characters and environments and online tournament play. How will Stacked “stack up” against the competition? Will the horrible puns continue? You bet! (get it…bet…ha!)

The graphics in Stacked are almost really good across the board. The players and the casinos are very detailed and look excellent at the high resolutions of PCs (eat that, console losers). The players are a collection of 18 varied models that can be decked out in a variety of outfit color combinations, so spotting two players that look exactly the same is rare, although you can tell when the same base model was used. The player models look lifelike and include features such as arm and chest hair. Finally! The casinos are detailed close to the tables, but look worse the further back you look: low resolution background images that might have been passable on consoles look out of place and blurry here. There are some problems with clipping in the game, however. This crops up usually when cards are being handled, with hands going through tables and the like. None of this is really outrageous, but it is noticeable. Since dealing and handling cards is kind of a major part of poker, I wish more attention had been paid to this aspect of the graphics. Surprisingly, the actual playing cards are low resolution as well, showing the game’s console roots. They have angled corners (instead of rounded corners) and the pictures on the face cards look blurry and just plain bad. You would think some attention would be paid to the cards in a card game, but I guess not. The sounds are good enough. There is a noticeable loop of ambient sound that gets annoying after a while, and there are some strange background sounds like someone's eating the chips in some of the casinos. The player reactions are as varied as you might expect. Some of the phrases get repetitive after a while, but how many ways can someone say “fold”? I do like some of the complaints from the players when bad cards come up: they are fairly amusing. Overall, the graphics and sound in Stacked show some effort but not maximum effort, especially with complete conversion to higher resolutions seen in PC gaming.

Stacked features only Texas hold ‘em poker. Some may be disappointed by the lack of other poker modes, but nobody really plays the other variations and this is the most familiar one, so it’s fine with me. For those that aren’t familiar with the game, there is a set of tutorial videos in the game. These are non-interactive so all you can do is watch, so I doubt many people will sit through them all. Most people who buy this game already know how to play poker, so the length and mostly unentertaining tutorial videos are unnecessary. There is some good information contained in the videos, but you’ll probably be itching to actually play instead of watching some movies. A more interactive approach to the game with set hands and cards teaching the same concepts where you could really play would have worked a lot better.

Stacked features several modes of play. You can enter a quick game where you can set the rules (limit or no limit), initial blinds, how often blinds increase, and the AI difficulty level. You can also undertake a career, where you will play in cash games and tournaments against the AI. Performing well in these games will unlock more difficult tournaments featuring real poker “professionals.” The career mode is a good way of making the games you play mean something, and Stacked will track your progress as you make your way up the ranks. Stacked also features full-bodied online play over both the Internet and LAN. Online games will typically either be user created cash games, where you can sit down and get up when you please (just like in a real casino) or the official nightly tournaments. Finding games could be a little easier: it would work better with a Gamespy Arcade style listing of all the games in progress, instead of having to navigate through three or four menus to actually play a game. As it stands, the online game browser does not show the number of players in a game (just the name), so you won't know how many are playing until you join. Cash games can involve people with a lot of money playing against new players if the table limits are set high. Going head-to-head with players who have 50 times more money than you is a daunting task. This is especially exaggerated at no limit tables (which most of the online tables are) where you can lose all of your money to a high roller in a single hand. If you don't have the high cash flow, you can create a new table with lower limits and different rules. All of the created games are done through peer-to-peer connections, so you can leave a game you created and everyone else can keep playing. This has a downside: if one person at a table has a poor connection, they can disconnect other players through packet loss. This has happened to me only once (at the beginning of a tournament), but others have said it can occur more frequently. Players who lose all of their money are actually kicked from the table, which is a nice touch. If you lose all of your money in an online game, you'll get $2,000 to start over with. This is good because that means everyone can keep playing forever. Of course, this also results in a lot of mindless betting from less skilled players. You're not that concerned about wagering all of your money because you can just start over again with no penalty. This behavior is eliminated in tournaments, however, and the online tournaments are the best way of playing others. These tournaments are one of the highlights of Stacked, where any number of players can join in nightly official tournaments. There is a list of upcoming and past tournaments available on the MTV Stacked site. There is usually a good number of people playing in these tournaments (typically 40-70 for the PC), and it’s a great way of getting organized play into poker, instead of the random encounters seen in other poker games. I’ve never had an issue joining an online tournament; the process is as simple as signing up and the game prompts you when it’s about to being. I have had some issues joining user created cash games on occasion. I’m not sure if it’s because of a poor connection (no ping values are given in the game), but I’ve been able to join a particular server once and been told a connection couldn’t be made at a later time. Strange. There is also a spectator mode for online play, which could have had some definite potential. I was expecting a TV-style approach, but Stacked doesn’t show player cards or probabilities of winning like on television. As a result, spectator mode is a complete joke and waste of time. I could have been a lot better, especially watching the completion of a tournament after you’ve been eliminated.

Thankfully, there have been some accommodations for the PC in the user interface. You can use the mouse wheel or keyboard for placing bets, or grab and slide the bet amount indicator. The game does a good job of displaying how much of your current stack a given bet consumes, and also displays the stacks of the other players in several scrolling information bar. Getting a specific numerical bet is difficult, because the game scrolls numbers semi-randomly. You can use the keyboard to bet, but it only increases the bet by one, which is annoying for no limits games. You can use an in-game menu or keyboard shortcuts for looking at your cards, getting hints, changing views, showing emotion, or chatting with others. The hints are sometimes useful but most of the time they are not. Of course, if they were totally useful, that would take some of the fun out of the game, wouldn’t it? There isn’t really a point to smiling or frowning during a game (I haven’t seen the AI react to it), so I’m not quite sure why’s it’s included. Overall, the game shows that at least some interface improvements were made for the PC version, which is more than most games released for multiple platforms. You can still see the console roots in some of the game’s menus, however. They could have easily displayed all of the menu options on the screen at once, but instead you have to scroll up and down.

In general, the AI of Stacked is a very good opponent. Apparently, it will adjust to your play style over time and discover how often you bluff or when you will raise. This means you can kind of “trick” the AI for a little while, but isn’t that how real poker works? I have found that the AI could be more aggressive when they have a strong hand and they could easily win. Maybe that’s just the play style of the AI, but there were more than one occasion where they could have cleaned me out and didn’t. The AI goes all in a lot in no limit games with small blinds on cash tables (where it’s not a tournament). This causes all the other AI players to fold and results in a pretty boring game. The AI works a lot better at limit tables or in a tournament setting, where it plays a cautious, smart game (a lot smarter than some of the people I’ve played against online). The deliberate pace of Stacked might turn off some ADHD people, but I like the tension-building nature of the gameplay. It’s a refreshing difference from most poker games where a hand is over in seconds and there aren’t any exciting (well, exciting for poker) moments of anticipation. Plus, you can have the game accelerate the play when you are out of a hand, which speeds up the game considerably. The basics of hold ‘em poker shine through in Stacked, including the great strategy of the game. All told, Stacked is a good, entertaining simulation of poker.

So, what advantages does Stacked have over free online poker games? For one, it has organized, nightly tournaments for virtual cash prizes, where people will tend to act more reasonable instead of throwing away all of their money on a bad hand. This will really appeal to people who enjoy playing poker online and want to eliminate most of the riff-raff that can be seen on free sites. Secondly, Stacked will also appeal to single players because of the generally competent AI. Except for at no limit cash tables, the AI is a generally strong player, and will probably act more reasonably than most players online. Coding an AI for a poker game is difficult, especially when human players do dumb things, so creating a dynamic and adjusting AI is a pretty neat feature. Ten years of university-level work has gone into the licensed AI, and it shows for the most part. In addition to better graphics, Stacked adds some user interface enhancements for the PC version that makes playing on the computer a lot easier than the consoles. The game pace is kind of slow, and waiting for human opponents to make decisions online can become frustrating at times (taking 20 seconds to fold, anyone?), but I don’t mind it so much. The relatively low $30 price tag comes with some solid AI and enjoyable Internet and LAN play. So if you’re looking for a structured online experience coupled with decent AI, you could definitely go all in with Stacked.

Monday, July 10, 2006

NFL Head Coach Review

NFL Head Coach, developed and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: No reflex button mashing, dynamic player attributes, robust career mode, viable running game (finally)
The Not So Good: Online play removes a lot of coaching options, task substitutions are limiting, voice recognition is buggy and not useful, user interface is not built for PCs, too many interceptions, coordinators call some strange plays, team playbooks are classified incorrectly, AI trade proposals are generally garbage, motivation is a shot in the dark, AI snaps the ball quickly preventing defensive adjustments
What say you? Despite all the (easily fixed) shortcomings, it’s still a decent attempt at a more strategic approach to football: 6/8

It’s that time again. Time when the less important sports part like the Red Sea to make way for football. Time when EA releases yet another game in their Madden series. But what is this? A coaching game? As the second sports strategy game (Maximum Football was the first), NFL Head Coach hopes to deliver the goods to players, like myself, that are tired of the overly arcade nature of the Madden series and much rather win a game through good planning rather than moving the QB view cone.

NFL Head Coach uses the graphics engine of Madden from a couple of versions ago. Sure, it doesn’t look as good as the main football franchise, but since you’ll be viewing the game from a far perspective, it doesn’t really matter. As long as I can tell what players the numbers are wearing, that’s fine with me. There are some bugs with the graphics though: once, my quarterback had a black head and white body, which was kind of weird. Near the end of the game, NFL Head Coach goes into a slow-motion heartbeat fly-over before key plays that is really stupid and unnecessary. Punting on forth down is not a stressful situation that needs this kind of special effect. The menus are somewhat difficult to maneuver; it’s obvious that this is a port of the console version of the game. In real sports management games on the PC (such as Total College Basketball and PureSim Baseball), a lot of information is displayed on one screen. Because of the console roots of NFL Head Coach, the amount of information displayed is minimal (to allow for navigation through a DualShock) and getting to key information takes way too many clicks, especially during games. This area could have used a lot more improvement, but I don’t see that happening as long as EA concentrates on the consoles.

The sound is average for an EA sports game. The general sound effects are the same as Madden, with some additions made for more audibles. Your coordinators will also verbally say the plays they plan on running. The best part is that the crappy licensed music has been replaced with classic NFL Films themes, which goes great with the overall theme of the game. I was wondering how long it would take EA to get the “real” football music in their games, and thankfully it’s here in NFL Head Coach.

The main part of NFL Head Coach is the career mode, a pretty good look into the life of a NFL coach if he was greatly restricted on the number and types of activities he could do during a week. You’ll start out by getting hired, then change your assistant coaches, resign your players, sign other players, go through the draft, experience the fun of training camp and the preseason, and finish it all up with regular season action. Each day, you can complete four tasks, most of which are fixed and some of which can be substituted. You have two sets of office hours per day, where you can change the depth chart or playbook, and that’s about it. You are restricted to only two changes per office hour, so if you want to completely change your offensive line, you’re out of luck. Signing players is done through their agents, and consistently giving low offers to agents will sour your relationship with them and make signing other clients of theirs more difficult. Draft day comes with some ESPN-like enhancements, such as Mel Kiper evaluating the draft class (even for future drafts; there are forty different drafts in the game). Draft day is pretty much what it’s like in real life: extremely boring until your team picks. There aren’t many trades on draft day, especially from the AI general managers.

Once training camp rolls around, every week becomes a carbon copy of the previous week. You start with a meeting with the owner. A staff meeting is next: your coordinators give feedback about the previous game and suggest depth chart changes (which are always correct and save you time). As they try to make excuses for last week’s loss, poor performance results in lower trust with a possible knowledge gain and good performance results in higher trust and better information. You can make unlimited changes to your playbook during the gameplan task; it’s better to make alterations here than during office hours, where you are restricted to two changes. You’ll get a scouting report on your next victim and be able to scout eight players from other teams or the upcoming draft. Most of these tasks are done through the computer, which includes a calendar to view and swap tasks, e-mail to receive insane trade proposals from other GMs, your playbook, stats from, and rosters and depth charts.

The week ends with a series of practices. Each player has a dynamic range to their attributes instead of a set value. Their attributes go up during a “good” practice when they make a pass, run, block, or make an interception, and go down during a “bad” practice. This is a really neat system that not only encourages specific practices to help individual players but is also more realistic. Not only are the practices used to improve player ratings, but your team will become better at running plays you’ve practiced, which makes so much sense. There are a number of different practices you can run: inside running, passing, 11 on 11, and individual drills. You can choose between non-contact and contact drills, but injuries are so few that there’s no reason to do any non-contact drills. Even though it might become tedious to some players running multiple practices each week before the game, you’ll never want to simulate practices without being there. Simming practices not only chooses random plays you might not want practiced, but the number of injuries is insane. Despite the good format and general ideas involved in the career mode, there are some small issues, generally involving the illogical task restrictions. You are not only restricted in the number of activities per task, but most of the tasks can’t be swapped for more important tasks. Signing or trading players during the season is takes away from precious practice time, which means once the season begins, you’re stuck with the players you have, even though the trading deadline extends to week six of the regular season.

All of this preparation is for one thing: gameday. Your job consists of calling plays, making adjustments, and motivating players. Your playbook is organized by situation instead of formation (at least on offense), but some plays are in the wrong spots (dime plays in base formation, for example) or just not there. For example, Tampa Bay uses a Cover 2 defense, and the game even says this. However, there is not a single Cover 2 play in the Tampa Bay defensive playbook. Spending task time during the week reorganizing the playbook to what it should be seems like a huge waste of time, mainly because it is. Your coordinators will suggest plays to run, but their choices are very odd sometimes (an all out 4-3 blitz on 3rd and 20 against 5 wideouts? whatever). You can theoretically call plays using voice recognition, although I successfully used it once and then muted my microphone; it’s just easier to use the keyboard and mouse.

Most of the options in the game are made from the circular quick access menu. Pre-snap control lets you call fixed audibles (why can’t they be changed?), quarterback strategy, hot routes, formation changes, blocking assignments, linebacker shifts, receiver progression, and more. When playing the AI, it is difficult to make adjustments on defense because the computer snaps the ball so damn quickly (with 30 seconds on the play clock; in real life it’s under 10). You can also make changes to the depth chart and substitutions, although tired players will automatically be subbed for by your coordinators (one less micromanagement issue to worry about). Some will say that a major part of coaching is motivating your players and offering strategies. Motivating players in NFL Head Coach is a crap shoot: you have a 50-50 chance of success for the most part (unless your coach’s motivation rating is high, which is only the case after many seasons of play), so it’s recommended to just ignore this part of the game altogether. When a player who just ran 80 yards for a TD responds negatively to praise, there’s something wrong. You can offer strategies to your players to alter their behavior slightly (since you can’t directly control the players), such as throwing more quickly, running with power, or concentrating on stopping the pass. Your players seem to respond to the strategy changes, so picking good strategies for your opponent can actually make a difference in the game.

In some strange move, the developers of NFL Head Coach have removed some of the customization options from Madden. For example, you are fixed at five minute quarters and AI sliders cannot be changed. NFL Head Coach would work a lot better with an accelerated clock (which is in Madden for goodness sakes) and longer quarters so you couldn’t exploit the short periods. As it stands, teams will run around 40 plays each if you call plays and snap the ball as soon as possible, instead of the 60 plays per side in real NFL games. You don’t see baseball management games restricting the user to 6 innings, why should a football game capriciously lower the amount of game time? This results in lower offensive stats and better defensive stats. If you overall goal for the year is to increase passing and running stats (which mine was), short quarters makes it impossible to do so. While the run game in NFL Head Coach is pretty good, there are also too many interceptions in the game. If NFL Head Coach allowed the user to tweak the sliders (like in, say, Madden), this problem could be fixed, but the developers decided they know better than you.

There is a sense of accomplishment when playing NFL Head Coach when a good play results in a big gain on the field. This is kind of washed out near the end of the game when the computer player displays some heroics as catch-up mode is turned on. There are numerous accounts of being up by 14 points late in the 4th quarter and the computer team storming back to tie or take the lead. Coincidence? I think not.

NFL Head Coach also features the ability to play single coaching games against the AI or take your skills online to match wits with (sort of) real humans. Finding opponents is pretty simple, although they may be in the lobby or quick play (or neither) and it takes some time to find out where they are located. I like how the online play of NFL Head Coach seems more strategic and dependent on good play calling, but for some reason online play removes pre-snap control, roster changes, and game planning before the game and during time outs! Why remove major features of the game for online play? This means that you can’t make adjustments before the snap to audible against a defense. This means that you can’t make adjustments before the snap to audible against an offense. If you want to check out the stats, change the depth chart, or discuss strategy with players on the bench, the AI takes over calling plays (which are questionable) and calls them so quickly that you can’t change them until you exit the meny (usually consisting of three to four presses of backspace; thank you very much console interface). Plus, you’re stuck with the crappy, unorganized playbooks. While I like playing online against human opponents, the perplexing deletion of a lot of the core game elements for online play makes playing over the Internet less of a desirable proposition.

Regardless of all the complaining I’ve done in this review, I still like NFL Head Coach. It’s an enjoyable game for anyone who’s looking for an alternative to the Madden series of console arcade tomfoolery. The career mode is the highlight of the game and it’s generally easy to use and interesting to play, despite the artificial limitations. I don’t even mind the games being restricted to five-minute quarters, although the inclusion of longer time periods with the accelerated clock would result in better stats. Online play could have been a lot better if they would allow for the use of the audibles, hot routes, and the like, but it’s still better than the alternative of exploitations found in Madden. Unfortunately, you can tell that NFL Head Coach is built for multiple titles, much like the Madden series. It’s like the developers threw together a bunch of ideas without really beta testing them, and will let the community feedback decide the changes for next year’s full price version of the game. It’s sad that the gaming community almost expects there to be bugs or other inadequacies in sports games theses days; games in other genres are not given the same amount of leeway. All of this said, NFL Head Coach is still pretty fun to play. I enjoy calling the plays and making adjustments much more than using the truck stick and scrambling Michael Vick for 10-yard gains each play. Frankly, I’m sick of the arcade play in the Madden series and I’ll probably stick to the NFL Head Coach series from now on. NFL Head Coach is possibly one iteration away from being a great game, and it’s kind of disappointing that they weren’t able to hit it out of the park on the first try considering the pedigree of the Madden series and how long it’s been around. Still, for those people who rather call a game than play a game, NFL Head Coach is an enjoyable experience. Even though there is a long list, most of the problems I mention are easily fixed and probably will be, but not for this version of the game. Instead, I’m sure you’ll have to shell out another $40 for a “new” version of NFL Head Coach that’s really a patch of this year’s version. Oh well, I know I’ll be doing it.