Sunday, July 09, 2006

Avast! Review

Avast!, developed and published by Primate Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, interesting power-ups, diverse feasible strategies, fun to play
The Not So Good: Lack of in-game tooltips, skirmish maps don’t say maximum player limit, AI not aggressive enough, no network/Internet multiplayer
What say you? A little strategy and a little luck combine in this entertaining game that could use some additional polish: 5/8

I think we can all agree that Johnny Depp is single-handedly responsible for the reemergence of pirates in pop culture. Sure, there was always a pirate undertone, coming to surface every once in a while, but it never came as strong as when his big budget movie was released. I am of course talking about the smash motion picture Secret Window. Pirates have had their place in computer gaming as well, including Sid Meier’s Pirates! and my personal favorite Sea Dogs (I got a friend of mine addicted to that game: mission accomplished!). Avast! is a turn-based strategy game with a pirate flavor, where you move ships around a map, collecting power-ups, sinking enemy ships, and sail towards the goal. Is Avast! full of swashbuckling fun, or stricken with scurvy?

Avast! doesn’t have the best graphics in the world, but they get the job done. Avast! has the pixilated graphics feel of some older titles, and it falls into place along with other early generation isometric perspective games (think SimCity 2000). None of the objects in the game are overly detailed, and certainly don’t look as good as, say, Sid Meier’s game, but they do an adequate job, and the graphics are certainly better than overhead 2-D graphics that could have been used. There are some basic sounds that accompany the graphics (explosions and shaking dice) and some good pirate theme music, as prerequisite for any game such as this. Avast! certainly shows its small developer roots in terms of graphics and sound, but they are merely trapping to surround the gameplay, and that’s fine with me.

Avast! plays a lot like a board game: you’ll roll three dice and move your fleet of three ships around the map. There are three game types: sinking all the other ships, collecting the most gold, collecting the most power-ups, or reaching the goal first. The trick with the dice rolls is that you must move if a ship if you can, even if you don’t want to. This causes some games to last a really long time as you wait for a good roll and you’re ships keep moving back and forth around the map. Because of this, Avast! requires a little luck, but you can improve your luck by using good strategy in placing your ships for the next turn to maximize the number of “good” rolls you could get. Sinking enemy ships is a simple as landing on them during your turn, so there is some strategy in trying to avoid enemy fleets yet positioning yours for the next turn. One of the major aspects of Avast! is the use of power-ups. Power-ups are gained by ending a dice roll adjacent to objects such as whales, mermaids, barrels, or stranded sailors. There are a whole bunch (28) of power-ups available in the game that can greatly affect gameplay. Most of them fall into several categories: changing enemy ship movement, adding impassible terrain to the map, changing dice values, or straight up cash. There are so many power-ups, it’s hard to remember which does which: the icons are a little help, but tooltips inside the game would be greatly beneficial. Sometimes I activate a power-up and the result isn’t the one I expected because I forgot what that power-up does. Games have tended towards giving the user a lot of information that is easily accessible, and I wish Avast! fell along the same lines.

Avast! features a forty map “solo adventure,” where you engage different pirate foes in the game types I outlined earlier (you remember earlier, don’t you?). The solo adventure has a pretty forgettable story, except that you are a woman and it involves a monkey. The solo adventure is average: it’s really just a collection of the different maps in the game in a linear order. You can also play skirmish games using some specialized balanced maps. The player limits for the skirmish maps are not shown in the game, so you can assign four players to play in a match, but once you enter the game, only two players may be playing. Avast! doesn’t have any Internet multiplayer or play by e-mail (just hot seat games on the same computer); Avast! would make an entertaining multiplayer game, so it’s sad that these features aren’t included. Because of this, you’ll be playing most of your games against the AI. The AI players have some issues, mostly stemming from not being aggressive enough. The AI does do a good job using power-ups, but the AI could be a lot better in taking out player ships when good rolls come up, collecting power-ups, or generally moving towards or accomplishing the goal. There are specific behaviors you can give the AI players in skirmish games (like collecting the most cash), but they don’t execute these very well. Part of this has to do with the fact that Avast! is a difficult game for human players, let alone a coded computer player. I have a hard time getting my ships positioned at the finish line sometimes, so I can imagine why the AI of Avast! isn’t the best. Still, the AI in Avast! is generally disappointing and won’t provide an adequate challenge to most experienced players.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game exactly like Avast! The strategy elements in the game are certainly unique: a good combination of required dice rolls, luck, power-up usage, and overall tactical genius. The game is both a challenge and fun to play, which is a rare combination these days. The game features such simple rules, but successfully playing the game requires some skill instead of mindless dice play. The single player campaign/adventure is fun enough, and skirmish modes will extend the gameplay further. There aren’t that many skirmish maps in the game, but there is an editor planned for the near future. The graphics aside, the AI is probably the most disappointing part of the game. A completely solid AI would make for a really fun game, but this is where the strategic complexity of the game comes back to bite it. Thus, Avast! really works better as a multiplayer game against other people, but unless you want to crowd around the same monitor, playing with others is impossible because of the lack of multiplayer support. Avast! is a few short additions away from being a great game (AI improvements and the addition of Internet multiplayer). The base game is solid and fun to play, but there is some room for improvement.