Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flower Quest Review

Flower Quest, developed by Bee Games and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Decent mechanics, beautiful background graphics, appropriate sound and music, sundry bonus levels
The Not So Good: Can become repetitive, limited tactics
What say you? Innovative design results in a fun puzzle game: 6/8

Flowers are pretty. There are gardens just so people can pay money to look at flowers. People (and by people I mean women) like to get flowers. So it comes as no surprise (or does it?) that flowers would eventually become the base of a puzzle game. We’ve had balls, virii, gems, tubes, bees, shipping containers, meteors, and professors; it’s about time the flowers rise and up represent! Flower Quest fulfills this prophecy of flower domination in the puzzle realm. All hail our flower overlords!

Despite their low resolution, the graphics of Flower Quest look really good for a puzzle game. The title is chock full of high-quality 2-D art in both the menus and the game space. The playing pieces, which consist of flowers and roots, are more detailed than other puzzle games. It’s obvious that a lot of attention has been paid to the graphics in the game, and Flower Quest ends up being one of the better looking puzzle games, in spite of the lack of any 3-D graphics of effects (you don’t need 3-D graphics for a game to look good). The sound maintains the high level established by the graphics: the music and the effects both fit the theme of the game well. The game’s fanciful theme is established early on and is maintained throughout the game in the graphics and the sound.

In Flower Quest, you’ll rotate root systems in order to connect a continuous path between flowers (or, in challenge mode, a root and a flower). The game highlights paths that are currently connected to a flower, so finding a match is pretty easy. The game requires you to form a path through each of the blocks on the map before moving on to the next level; in more advanced levels, you must clear paths through specific blocks more than once. There are 50 stages in the game, each of them is a different shape but plays the same. Each of these stages can be played in three modes: adventure mode has a time limit (and a story), relaxed mode has no time limit, and challenge mode adds an intermediate step to the completion process. There are some special flowers that may come up: some flowers can destroy adjacent tiles (good), and some can restore cleared tiles (bad). The game has a gradual tutorial (like most puzzle games), where each new concept is added one at a time. The game also has periodic bonus levels, which involve clicking or arranging objects; this serves to slightly break up the pace of the game. The core concept of the game is solid, but Flower Quest has few tactics that can be employed in the game. Rotating objects doesn’t require as much skill as other puzzle games; this is good as the game can be played by all ages, but more experienced players will be disappointed at the lack of depth in the game. Flower Quest also becomes repetitive after a while: even though each puzzle looks different, they all play the same. The bonus games are not enough to vary the gameplay sufficiently and keep most people interested past the first few levels. Because all of the puzzles feel the same, there isn’t much replay value in Flower Quest, so once you beat the game, there’s not much reason to play it again.

Flower Quest is a good game, but most people will grow tired of the repetition in the game after a while. The basic game concept is simple and straightforward, the art is fantastic, but the game just isn’t varied or different enough to be interesting after the first couple of rounds. This is mostly due to the small range of tactics that can be used in the game: Flower Quest is all about clicking and rotating roots, and making this more difficult entails smaller time limits rather than differentiated gameplay. For a puzzle game to be fully successful, it needs to feel different each time you play, and Flower Quest does not. The game will prove to be enjoyable at least initially, but its welcome will wear out soon enough. Whether you’ve gotten $20 worth of fun is up to the player, but there are other similarly priced puzzle games with more replay value than Flower Quest.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament Review

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament, developed by K-D Lab and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Unique RTS mechanics, challenging AI, excellent user interface
The Not So Good: Not much different from the original, AI skirmish maps need to be unlocked, emphasis on defense results in a lot of stalemates, very difficult
What say you? Still a distinctive strategy game, but the new features are few and far between: 6/8

Everyone loves original games, titles that breathe new life into a stale genre. Game developers are always looking for that something extra that will make their game rise above the rest of the pack. One of these games was Perimeter, which contained enough new mechanics (terraforming, energy shields, transforming units) to make it a very distinctive title when it was released two years ago. The developer of that game has now made a stand-alone expansion pack with the addition title of Emperor’s Testament. This stand-alone game includes a new campaign and some additional units. Will this be enough for current owners of Perimeter to make a new purchase? Is the solid gameplay from the original still intact for newcomers? What’s with all the questions?

The graphics of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament are exactly the same as the original game: a very distinctive visual style. If you see a screenshot of Perimeter, you know it’s a screenshot of Perimeter; the game looks that unique. From the irregular mountainous terrain to the shiny, reflective powered landscapes to the beams of light streaming out from energy cores, Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features a believable furturistic living environment. My only complaint about the graphics is that the units are too small and you can’t zoom in to see them close up. The weapon effects are generally pretty good, especially when beamed weapons start to wreck havoc on the landscape. The game also seems to feature support for dual-core processors (unless the setup utility is lying to me), which makes the graphics even smoother. The sound mostly consists of genre-specific background music coupled with campy digitized voices with odd pronunciations you’d expect from a foreign-developed title. Still, the sound is not generally awful, and even though the game is essentially two years old, the graphics still hold up against more recent titles.

So, what’s new in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament? Not much: just a campaign and a couple of units. Owners of the original game won’t find much to warrant purchasing this expansion, but people new to the series (which is mostly everyone, since Perimeter isn’t exactly well-known) will find a lot to enjoy. As I stated before, Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features a linear campaign that follows a storyline that’s conveyed before each mission. Most of the missions consist of building a base and either attacking the enemy or surviving for a period of time. You can also engage in single player battles against the AI or in a survival-type mode. For some reason, you are only allowed to play on maps you’ve beaten in the campaign against the AI; this is very odd to have this kind of restrictions in place for a real time strategy game. Of course, you can play against real human competition using any of the maps through multiplayer. The manual states you can use TCP/IP or Gamespy from within the game, but the Gamespy option is nowhere to be found. I’m not sure if it’s a last minute deletion, an oversight, or intended for a future patch, but we’re stuck with typing in IP addresses in the mean time. The game does not come with an explicit tutorial in the campaign or otherwise, and assumes you are familiar with the basic mechanics of the game. This is fine for a strict expansion pack that requires the original game, but not for a stand-alone title like Perimeter: Emperor's Testament. There are some odd points to the gameplay that really needs to be shown to new players in a tutorial, but no direct instruction is to be found.

Perimeter: Emperor's Testament follows the tradition real time strategy mechanics of base-building, army raising, and attacking, but adds some wrinkles to the equation that makes the title unique. The first is terraforming: you must flatten the surrounding terrain in order to build on it. Terraforming is performed by specific units (that can be in a terraforming or structure building mode) and it takes time, so careful base planning is a must. Your headquarters in the game is the large pyramidal frame. The frame can be moved to better, flatter locations if you wish, but it moves very slowly and makes for an easy target along the way. The only resource in the game is energy, and it is collected by placing energy cores around the map that draw energy from the ground beneath them. They must be within range of the frame or another energy core in order to relay the energy to the frame, so this limits placing structures all over the map and makes for a more concentrated base. Buildings can be placed anywhere that is powered by an energy core and has been flattened by your workers. The buildings are either unit-producing (or upgrading), energy transferring, or defensive in nature. The units you produce are either soldiers, officers, or technicians, and these are morphed into better units. For example, if you combine 2 soldiers, 6 officers, and 12 technicians, you get a bomber. Your units are assigned into squads and all members of a single squad are the same unit at the same time, so you’ll need to create a specific combination of basic units to produce your desired results. Because of this nanomorphing, you can change units from a land type to an air type on the fly, depending on the current strategy you intend to use. This makes for some very interesting tactics and it means that exploiting a certain enemy unit deficiency is usually impossible, because they can just morph their units if need be. Perimeter: Emperor's Testament features some robust defenses as well, from gun emplacements to the Perimeter itself. The Perimeter is a defensive shield that emcompasses all of area surrounding your power cores. It can be active as long as you have the energy to keep it up, protecting your base while your defense slaughters the enemy.

All of these new features makes for some unique successful strategies in the game. In other RTS games, you’re stuck with your units, but in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament, you can alter your strategy once you see what your enemy is doing. The AI in the game is very competitive and very tough, almost too tough. Because of the defensive nature of the game, it can be extremely difficult to finish off an enemy unless you have an overwhelming advantage on them. Building defenses is cheap and easy, and the game doesn’t prevent spamming your base with them. And these is also the perimeter itself, which makes invading an enemy base impossible. Not helping matters is the individual unit AI, as friendly units will routinely slam into a visible perimeter, destroying themselves in the process. The tactical AI is not that good, as enemy units will be ignored on occasion if they move unpredictably. The user interface is very good, as units are organized automatically and you’ll never have lost, unassigned troops roaming about the map. The energy usage is also clearly indicated in the game, showing the player whether they need to build additional power cores. The gameplay of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament is solid, I just wish the matches ended faster instead of the stalemate that plagues most real time strategy games.

While veteran players of Perimeter won’t find anything new that’s worth purchasing, new players to the game will find a lot to enjoy in Perimeter: Emperor's Testament. The game certainly has interesting game mechanics, from the terraforming to the morphing units, but it’s very difficult to win a scenario because of the emphasis on defense and the ease of building defensive structures. The game is also extremely difficult at all difficulty levels, and you’ll rarely be able to defeat and enemy AI outright, because you need to dominate them in order to take down their defenses. There are some strategies to eliminating enemy bases, but because defenses are so numerous, it is very difficult to do so. The multiplayer component of the game falls short of the expectations of the manual and there is a strange restriction on the number of maps available for skirmish games against the AI, but the core gameplay of Perimeter: Emperor's Testament is still unique and different enough to stand out. People who are tired of the game strategy game over and over again should check out Perimeter: Emperor's Testament if you haven’t before, especially for a budget price: the graphics remain good and the unique gameplay still resonates throughout the game.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pursuit of Power Review

Pursuit of Power, developed and published by Precision Games.
The Good: Straightforward resource collection, simple upgrade system, action delay reduces unit spamming, rare stalemates
The Not So Good: Not many unit types, awkward user interface, less than stellar graphics, maps are too big for the slow unit speed
What say you? An uncomplicated introduction to real time strategy games: 5/8

By this point in the development of the real time strategy game genre, almost every setting has been covered: World War II, ancient Rome, World War II, space, medieval times, and, of course, World War II. The fantasy setting has been gaining some ground lately, thanks to the Kohan series, the Lord of the Rings, and Rise of Legends. Wizards and knights are no longer restricted to role-playing games, and commanding large numbers of magical beings is now becoming more commonplace. Enter Pursuit of Power, a fantasy real time strategy game that features knights and wizards. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

Pursuit of Power is developed by a small company, and it looks and sounds like it. All of the graphics are two-dimensional and consist of animated bitmaps. This obviously doesn’t stack up against more mainstream games, but I’ve always held gameplay above graphics, and this is certainly a good thing for Pursuit of Power. The game is devoid of any special effects. The environments are a bland and confusing array of trees, rocks, and more trees. Units and buildings of the same class even have the same bitmaps, so differentiating between a swordsman and a knight is impossible without using tooltips. The sound effects are also extremely basic, consisting of 25 weapons and movement sounds that get repetitive and grating very quickly. The music in Pursuit of Power is not half bad, though. But for the rest of the game, the graphics certainly pale in comparison to other games, but it’s the gameplay that matters, right? Right?

Pursuit of Power has the usual number of features for a real time strategy game: a story-driven campaign, skirmish matches against the AI, and multiplayer over the Internet. Despite the fact that the multiplayer is by IP address only, it is smooth going with no noticeable lag. There is also a tutorial level to get you acquainted with the game, and it does a good job at this task. Pursuit of Power streamlines a lot of the more boring aspects of other real time strategy games, replacing laborious resource collection with fast troop build-up. The most important character on the screen is your leader, the only person that can summon buildings. You are usually given several resource locations at your starting point, and constructing a portal on top of them will provide a steady supply of the game’s only resource (power). Power is used to construct buildings, recruit troops, and use spells and special abilities. This is a lot better than other games that feature four to six different resources you need to collect, turning your attention to more important things like killing people. The other key concept of Pursuit of Power is the action time limitation: units and buildings are produced instantly, but you can’t construct another building or unit until the action time has passed (different for each action). This is the opposite of what many games do to limit unit and building spamming (construction time), and it works just as well, if not slightly better. The user interface of Pursuit of Power is not very good: the minimap is littered with white icons for trees and it makes it hard to see anything else, including enemy base locations and where resources are. The singular command and build menu at the bottom is also difficult to use; it would have been better to just list all of the commands at once along the bottom of the screen instead of having to select specific units somewhere on the crowded battlefield to do what you want.

Once you’ve started collecting resources with your portals (which can also be used to teleport your leader), it’s time to raise an army. This is done through your portals, and Pursuit of Power features five different types of ranged and skirmish fighters. This may not sound like many, and that’s because it’s not: Pursuit of Power features far fewer units than almost any other RTS game I can remember. On one hand, this simplifies the game, but it also limits the number of possible strategies available for each player. The number of buildings is also limited: some basic defenses are available, as well as unit upgrade structures. Pursuit of Power boils down to selecting your mix of fighters, building upgrades, and walking across the map searching for the enemy. Troop movement and positioning is at the heart of Pursuit of Power, because most of the default maps are very large and units walk extremely slow. This means having good backup defenses in place is imperative to prevent any sneak attack by the enemy. The maps are almost too large and result in a lot of walking and less fighting than I’d like to see, although leaders can teleport through allied portals. Your computer opponent is sufficient, as on easy levels they are easy to beat and on hard levels they actually employ some good overall strategy, flanking your position and sending out scouts to explore undetected. Since the maps are so large, you’ll be issuing move commands most of the time, and the “attack move” works…some of the time. Sometimes, your units will engage passing enemy units, while other times they will pass them by. This may have to do with their detection range, but it one person sees them, shouldn’t everyone else through the process of communication? Despite this, Pursuit of Power doesn’t feature much micromanagement, outside of the special abilities your troops and leader can employ. Leaders can heal allies and use spells to damage the enemies, while troops can sporadically increase their level (the same effect as constructing upgrdade buildings) for short periods of time. Pursuit of Power features semi-advanced fog of war, as trees block a portion of a unit’s ability to see beyond them, and terrain can affect movement rates. One of the problems of many real time strategy games is that a lot of matches can end in a deadlock with both sides in equal footing. Pursuit of Power eliminates a lot of this by not allowing any player to rebuild portals once they are destroyed. This serves to finish off losing players much more quickly and cuts down on the end game. The overall strategy of Pursuit of Power seems to be a decision between lots of troops and more powerful troops through the building upgrades. Either method seems to be successful, although because of the square maps a single unit can only be attacked by a finite number of enemies, so more powerful units tend to perform better.

Pursuit of Power is a little too simplified for its own good. Veteran strategy players will probably not find enough tactical depth to satisfy their needs, but new players to the genre will appreciate the streamlined nature of the game. The limited resource collection and small number of available units and buildings make the game easy to play, but eliminates some of the potential strategies you can employ while engaging the enemy. People with a wargame background will probably ignore the below average graphics and just be concerned with the gameplay of Pursuit of Power. The maps are, in general, too large to the slow pace of the troops, and while there are some novel ideas in the game (such as the action timer), the overall experience comes off a little bit short of the mark. The user interface is confusing and, most damaging, inhibits precise gameplay on occasion. Most of the game is spent exploring around the large maps looking for additional resource locations (or the enemy), which tends to be rather boring. The battles themselves are fun when they do occur, and the sight of 100 or so bitmaps coming together in an orgy of destruction is kind of impressive. Still, Pursuit of Power lacks that special component that would differentiate itself from the rest of the real time strategy games. I can imagine that the elementary mechanics of the game will appeal to some people, but most of the gaming population will find most things in Pursuit of Power are done slightly better elsewhere.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Talismania Deluxe Review

Talismania Deluxe, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, mini-games are a good diversion
The Not So Good: Each level feels the same, few tile orientations, game is too easy
What say you? The lack of challenge and variety hurts this puzzle game: 5/8

Everyone loves a good puzzle game. Well, maybe not everyone, but everyone who is interested enough in puzzle games to read this review. So there! Talismania Deluxe is a rotate-the-tiles-to-form-a-path type of game, which is a long description but I can’t really think of any way to make it smaller and still have you understand what I’m talking about. How is it, you ask? Well…

The graphics and sound in Talismania Deluxe both fall squarely in the middle of the pack. There are games that look better than Talismania Deluxe, and games that look worse. The backgrounds are detailed enough to be interesting, and the game board is clear and easy to understand. There are some special effects that are well done, like when you clear some tiles or activate a special piece. There are good sounds that accompany these graphical effects as well. The background music is good enough and fitting for the game’s overall theme. Really, the graphics and sound of Talismania Deluxe are exactly what you’d expect from a puzzle game: they aren’t awe-inspiring, but they are not disappointing either.

Talismania Deluxe features 40 levels spread over two modes: story (the main game), and hero mode that unlocks later on. In each game, you must connect a path between two animal heads that are located on the screen by rotating tiles. The game clearly indicates any present paths, so finding the connection is usually easy to do. Each path you create eliminates the tiles in the path, causing them to disappear from the map (and letting new tiles onto the map) and earning you coins. When you’ve collected enough coins, the level is over, so it’s better to make longer paths than the shortest distance in order to earn more coins in one turn. You can also earn extra coins by including bonus tiles in the path, and a column of tiles can be eliminated by having lightning blocks along the path. The faster you create paths, the more advanced animal heads you’ll get which will create better buildings (which are only score related). There are some medusa heads that will turn blocks to stone if you don’t eliminate them, which removes their ability to earn you coins. The game suffers a great deal from the lack of diversity in its gameplay. The basic premise is fine enough, but each level looks and plays identically to the last one. The only variation comes in the mini-games that crop up every once in a while; they involve clicking on flying objects for the most part. There is not much variety in tiles, either: they are either straight or angled with no real variety or crazy shapes to ramp up the difficulty. This makes finding paths and beating the game all too easy and not very exciting. Once you’ve played level one, you’ve experienced all the game has to offer. The overall goal of building structures with your coins may entertain small children, but it’s not a good motivator for older players.

While Talismania Deluxe is an adequate game at its core, the overall entertainment value is very low once you get beyond the first initial levels. There isn’t much motivation to keep players interested in the game, and the lack of variety in either shapes or tile types makes for some extremely repetitive gameplay. Talismania Deluxe is one of those games that are fun to play for about five minutes, and then you can move along to something new. There are other similar puzzle games that are much more entertaining in the long run; they offer more game modes or customized rules changes, neither of which is available with Talismania Deluxe. These slightly cheaper puzzle games just offer more replay value. Talismania Deluxe is an average puzzle game that wears out its welcome way too soon to compete with all of the quality offerings available on the market.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Ship Review

The Ship, developed by Outerlight and published on Steam.
The Good: Out of the ordinary mechanics with an amalgamation of different genres, player needs adds another dynamic to hunting your target (if you stay alive long enough), atypical Clue-like weaponry, emphasis on weapon variety for subsequent murders, realistic defecating sound effects
The Not So Good: Some graphical glitches, sluggish pace may irk some people
What say you? A slow but tactically pleasing mix of surreptitious action, snooping, and player management: 7/8

User-created modifications to commercially released computer games really started to become popular with the release of Team Fortress for Quake and especially Counter-Strike for Half-Life. Some of these mods have become so popular as to spawn full commercial titles available for a small price. The Ship was originally developed as a mod for the first Half-Life, but now it’s a standalone product utilizing the Source engine used for Half-Life 2. In The Ship, you are given a target to hunt, but an unknown assailant is charged with killing you as well in a deadly dance of death. Is The Ship a ship of fools, or a ship of…not…fools?

Despite the fact that The Ship uses the Source engine (which has been put to great use in Half-Life 2: Episode One), the game isn’t as graphically spectacular as those flagship titles. The only time you’ll really notice any Source-ness in the game is with the swimming pool water effects; otherwise, The Ship just looks like a mod for Half-Life 2. That’s not to say the game looks terrible, because the large ships look realistic and the characters in the game are detailed. The game could have looked better, but since I concentrate more on gameplay than eye candy, it doesn’t bother me that much. The six ships in the game all look the same after a while, using the same rooms and hallways (with generally the same textures) over and over again. There is also a bug currently where character models will be “stuck” doing an action even after they have finished; it is quite strange to see someone floating around the room, still using the sleeping animation even though they are really walking. These kinds of bugs show that The Ship is not completely finished, but if you can get past the graphical hiccups (I can), then everything will be OK. The sound effects in The Ship are sporadically effective. The old-time music adds to the overall setting of the game well, although most of the ship is draped in silence. All of the conversation in the same is mostly unintelligible mumbling, but The Ship does have “realistic” pooping sounds, so that’s a plus. The Ship looks and sounds like a mod, but considering the price (a budget-level $20) I don’t mind this very much.

The Ship can be played against the AI in single player competition or online over the Steam network. The single player match is really intended as practice, as the AI is not as crafty as real human competition. The I of the AI is poor, as your computer opponents will run into each other and they will generally not use advanced tactics to hunt you down, staring you down with weapons drawn as they inch ever closer. The AI also seems to “know” when you are hunting them and tend to eliminate you more quickly than human opponents would. Once you get the mechanics of the game down, you’ll want to jump online and get killed by real people. The Ship features four modes of play, although most of the servers will use two. Deathmatch really eliminated the unique premise of the game, and the ships are entirely too big for one-on-one duels. In Hunt, once anyone kills their target, a timer counts down to the end of the round; you are assigned a new target at the beginning of each new round. In Elimination mode, the last one alive is the winner. Hunt games tend to move much more quickly and involve more killing, while elimination games are slow, methodical affairs that can involve a lot of time waiting for the next round. Luckily, most of the down time can be spent searching for weapons or fulfilling needs (more on that shortly). Each of the games can be customized a number of different ways, such as adding neutral AI passengers (to serve as distractions) or increasing the importance of needs. The Ship offers a decent enough number of game types to keep players interested and stay true to the basic formula of the game.

All of the weapons you’ll need to dispose of your target are scattered around the map; they are randomly seeded but “good” weapons end up being located in the same locations each round. Finding a viable weapon is your first priority, as being hunted and having no defense is not a good thing. Each successful kill results in earning money (used to determine the winner), and different weapons earn different amounts of money, depending on how often they are used. This means you’ll have to spend time using diverse weapons during the game instead of finding and sticking to just one. Another consequence of the cash system used in The Ship is that the eventual winner may not have the most kills, just the most unique kills using a variety of the game's weapons. The types of weapons in the game consist of everyday items like golf clubs, knives, croquet mallets, frying pans, syringes, and a limited number of guns (like flare guns that set people on fire). Almost everything in the game can be used as a weapon, but The Ship doesn’t have quite the amount of freedom I’d like to see. For example, I could use numerous items in the cabins you start in (lamps, desk drawers, suitcases, radios), but I suppose this would lead to too many weapons and eliminate some of the searching required in the game. There are also some environmental traps available on the ships of The Ship, such as dropping lifeboats or enclosing your target in a freezer. These dangerous areas usually contain some pretty good weapons in them (which is why anyone would walk into a potentially deadly sauna) and add another phase to the game, although I've never personally experienced or seen one of these kinds of deaths (though others have said they have). You can also find different outfits in the game that can be used to disguise your character (making enemies positively identify you again). Your current target’s location is displayed every 30 seconds, which prevents camping and also makes the game move along faster; some of the ships are very large and it would take forever to find someone if you weren’t given additional information. The game also has maps of all the ships (and the locations of needs-fulfilling objects), so learning the layout of the ships is a simple affair. Unlike most first person shooters, The Ship has some restrictions to the killing: you can only kill your target and your hunter, or be thrown in jail and fined. This can lead to some mean exploits, such as misleading someone that you are their hunter, then having them kill you and sent to jail. You’ll also need to do all of your dirty deeds away from police officers and security cameras, as just pulling out a weapon in these locations will result in a fine and jail time. There are some measures in place to deal with those people who are just there to kill people, as those players with large negative scores are eventually kicked from the server. You will also retain all of your possessions if you are killed by a non-hunter, so suffering this fate is not that big of a deal.

You aren’t just spending time hunting and killing on The Ship, as you’ll have to attend to everyday needs just like a real person. The Ship requires everyone to sleep, eat, drink, wash, use the restroom, socialize, and be entertained during the game, although you will need to be alive for a good amount of time for any of these to become a major concern. Not only does this give you something to do between rounds, but it also means that you can be killed while fulfilling needs, as the game prohibits movement during tasks. This is a pretty cool aspect of the game, as you can stalk your target, wait for them to take a nap, and then stab them in their sleep (I murdered someone with a frying pan to win a round once; that was pretty awesome). You’ll need money to fulfill most of your tasks (buying food and drinks), and you can acquire additional funds from the bank. When you successfully make a kill, money is deposited into your account, and this amount of money is used to determine the victor. You can withdraw money to spend on needs or bribe police officers to look the other way while you dispose of a target (preventing people from camping in front of police officers). If you are killed, you lose all of the money you have on hand (you start each round with $250), so you’ll also need to make deposits from time to time. There are some other rooms you can spend some time in, such as a sick bay with medicine or various shops for new clothes. Despite the amount of time between matches (especially in elimination mode), almost all of this spare time is taken up searching for weapons and fulfilling needs, so you’re not just waiting for the next round to start.

The Ship is certainly a unique idea, and there’s really nothing quite like it available for the computer. The deliberate pace of the game might turn off those gamers used to constant action, but The Ship allows for more advanced tactics than aim and fire. The needs in the game add some variety to the gameplay and allow for some sneaky kills. The graphics of the game scream “mod,” but they are good enough to cause a low amount of displeasure. Humor also permeates throughout the game, from the weapons to the description of the Bible. The Ship certainly goes against the recent trend in shooter games, eschewing fast and furious action for more subtle and planned attacks, and I really enjoy the more relaxed pace of the game, where anyone can become successful at the game without having perfect reflexes. The Ship also has a good amount of tension, as you try to figure out who is hunting you, making you suspicious of pretty much everyone on board (I know that bench looked at me funny). It’s obvious why The Ship was selected for a Source facelift, as the core gameplay is a unique and successful mix of several different games and genres.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Video Strip Poker Supreme Review

Video Strip Poker Supreme, developed and published by Torquemada Games.
The Good: Pretty much everything you’d expect from a strip poker game, appropriate AI skill level
The Not So Good: Difficult to win, blinds are too small, video clips are repetitive
What say you? A faithful adaptation of the game, but more nudity more quickly would be much appreciated: 5/8

Everyone once in a while, I get a game to review that I try to hide from my wife. This game was one of them, and so is Video Strip Poker Supreme. With all of the hype surrounding poker these days, it’s natural to combine the love of cards with softcore nudity. Plus strip poker is a fantasy for a disturbingly large number of men around the world. Taking the game to a completely virtual setting removes all of the possible disadvantages of strip poker. Add in some opponents that you’d never be able to play against in real life (let’s be honest, shall we?) and you have Video Strip Poker Supreme.

Obviously, the most important aspect of any strip poker video game are the lovely ladies that will act as your opponents. Video Strip Poker Supreme features pre-captured video of real women which is high-quality but very repetitive. The game will show the same piece of video over and over again for the same action: for example, removing a shirt will look the same almost every time for a single character. There are only a few exceptions to this rule (and those consist mainly of additional camera angles), so once you beat every opponent in the game, there isn’t much else to see. There are seven models in the game that run a good range of different looks, although all of the models are younger and thin. The game does allow for adding new models: Video Strip Poker Supreme uses a proprietary video format for easy add-ons. The video quality in Video Strip Poker Supreme is good, but you can find the same video (albeit at lower quality) at various places around the Internet. The sound consists of whatever scripted responses the models were instructed to use, and I know I was more interested in the visual aspect of the game rather than the audio aspect of the game, but it’s there for those people who want it.

Video Strip Poker Supreme allows you to play five-card-draw poker against one opponent at a time. Because playing with a full 52-card deck would result in rarely getting anything better than high card, the game allows you to play with a 32-card deck (7 and higher). This is highly recommended and produces a much faster and “exciting” (easy there, tiger) game. Video Strip Poker Supreme follows the usual pattern of betting seen in a poker game: blinds are put in from both players, and you can bet before discarding and drawing new cards, followed by additional betting. For the amount of money given initially to each player, the blinds are extremely small; this causes the game to drag along much slower than needed. The AI is a fitting opponent for the game. The models know when to bet and when to fold, and you’ll become successful when having a very strong hand against a not-as-strong hand. The AI makes it pretty easy to figure out how strong their hand is (always betting the maximum when they have a straight), but the AI does do some bluffing every once in a while to throw you off. In fact, the AI is really too skilled for the game. Obviously, the goal of the game is to see some nakedness, and the fact that the AI plays a pretty smart game makes this goal difficult to achieve. You can make it a little easier by purchasing the models drinks, but the effect from doing this is minor at best. You can also spend your hard-earned money to catch a sneak peak at the next stage of nudity. The structure of the game makes it very difficult to win: models can buy back some clothes if they earn enough money. This means you have to win almost every hand (and especially ones with a large pot) in order to see the Full Monty. One bad hand (which happens to everyone) and all your “hard” work is gone in a flash. There aren’t any options for tailoring the amount of money or blinds in the game, which means almost every contest will be excessively drawn out. I would really like to see more “classic” strip poker, where one lost hand equals one article of clothing, instead of having to win multiple hands in order to see some naughty bits.

Video Strip Poker Supreme has the potential to fulfill all of its goals, but some design decisions holds the game back. The game has good quality video of some nice looking models, and the ability to play with a smaller deck results in better hands and more exciting gameplay. However, the inability to customize the bets in the game produces some very slow play, definitely a lot slower than people who are actively participating in the game would like. Plus, the game’s AI, while challenging, is too tough for a game where all you want to do is win and win convincingly. You’re probably just better off downloading some video from a free porn site. Faster and less frustrating games would definitely help Video Strip Poker Supreme succeed as a computer simulation of America’s favorite pastime, but as it stands, most people will find the games last too long to be completely enjoyable.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

FlatOut 2 Review

FlatOut 2, developed by Bugbear Entertainment and published by Empire Interactive and Sierra/Vivendi Universal Games.
The Good: Action packed racing, aggressive and challenging AI, very entertaining stunt modes, full featured multiplayer, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: Arcade-simulation hybrid handling takes some getting used to, some stunts are difficult at first, Gamespy-powered browser crashes when lots of servers are searched
What say you? A fast-paced, high adrenaline arcade racing game with enough variety to satisfy fans of speed-related carnage: 8/8

There are several reasons for the rise in the popularity of NASCAR. Some will note the split of the IRL and CART (Champ Car) as the beginning of the end of open wheel racing in the U.S. (with Danica Patrick being a temporary fix). Some will note the close, side-by-side racing. Some will note the use of cars that actually look like cars. And some will note the crashes. Nothing makes the fans stand up faster than billowing smoke, torn sheet metal, and screeching tires. Most racing games for the PC have tended towards the simulation/accuracy end of the equation, trying to replicate the intricacies of a particular form of racing down to every nut and bolt. But I know I was equally entertained while driving backwards on a track and slamming head-on into the pack, causing massive destruction. For those people, FlatOut 2 is your game, where you jump in a vehicle and destroy the ever-living snot out of your car, your opponents’ cars, and the track itself.

FlatOut 2 features some of the best graphics seen in any racing game, and the feat is made more impressive by the fact that everything in the game can be run into and destroyed (with the exception of solid buildings and guard rails). All of the tracks in the game are filled with copious amounts of things to slam into, and the tracks are completely trashed by the end of the race. This goes for the cars in the race as well: a comprehensive damage model is in place, showing progressive damage as the contact becomes more intense. The game runs surprisingly smooth for the amount of effects present, even at high resolutions (much smoother than some first person shooters with similar graphics in greatly smaller areas). The sound effects accompany the disturbingly pleasing visuals well: every crash and impact is clearly and painfully heard. The soundtrack of the game is a good collection of alternative rock (you need semi-aggressive music in a crash-laded racing game) from bands such as Alkaline Trio, Nickelback, and Fall Out Boy. “Symphony of Destruction” also makes an appearance, which I know how to “play” thanks to Guitar Hero (though the solo part kicks my ass). The songs will continue to play (without starting over) even if you restart a race, which greatly cuts down on the repetition element of licensed music experienced in most games. The only downside to the soundtrack is that the songs for stunt mode seem to repeat much more often than in other racing modes. Both the graphics and the sound of FlatOut 2 are definitely in the upper echelon of racing games.

There are several methods to wreak your unprovoked carnage on society in FlatOut 2. There is an enjoyable career mode, similar to most racing games in that you start out with some money to purchase a basic car, earn money through races, and purchase upgrades and better vehicles. You can pilot three classes of cars (robust derby cars, speedy race cars, and high-performance street cars) in any order of your choosing, as long as you have the money. The career mode in FlatOut 2 is much more streamlined that most games, and doesn’t relegate you to complete “beginner” races more than once in order to earn the money required for upgrades and more powerful cars. There is a ton of money to be earned in the races, and it doesn’t just go to the race winner. You can earn cash for destroying the most public property, having the fastest lap, or inflicting the most damage on the opposition. The upgrade options are comprehensive without being overkill (like in Xpand Rally). There are straightforward options in body, engine, exhaust, suspension, gearbox, tire, and brake enhancements, and you won’t lose the money you spent on your upgrades when you sell you car, either. I always hated it when I spent tons of money on upgrades for a car and then the sell price was lower than the price I spent just for the upgrades! Stupid car dealers. You can also progress through career mode by placing in the top three instead of having to win each race. This is a great thing for FlatOut 2 because of the numerous accidents that will happen during a race.

There are several kinds of races you can enter in the career mode, which are also available as single races against the AI or in hot multiplayer action. There are your basic lapped races in six environments (including city, fields, desert, and woods) which all racing games have. You can also participate in destruction derbies, where wrecking out other cars is your primary goal. The winner of the destruction derby races is not necessarily the last car remaining; points are awarded for being one of the last three cars, but more points are given for eliminating other cars and causing damage. This means that avoiding contact in order to be the last one standing won't result in a win, effectively removing that particular exploit. There are also special events, such as figure eight races (a favorite pastime at short tracks across the nation). But probably the most memorable aspect of FlatOut 2 are the stunt races. Each stunt race type has the same basic premise: you launch your driver out of the front window, aiming for some sort of target. The target varies according to the particular mode you are playing: examples include bowling pins, field goal posts, basketball hoops, dart boards, soccer nets, a baseball bat, and a curling rink. Even though each type of stunt is basically the same, it feels different because of the setting and rules changes. Some of these modes are quite challenging and require good skill and timing in order to even come close to the high marks set by the computer opponents. Each stunt is preceded by a non-interactive tutorial where you can see what you’re supposed to do, and these tutorials give adequate hints on how to accomplish your goals. The stunts are quite fun and play out a lot like the real sports; for example, in the case of curling you can knock the stones of the other competitors out of the way (as long as you're playing against human competition; for some reason, the AI turns don't appear on the game board). You won’t find any other racing game with the amount of mini-games present in FlatOut 2, which fully expands upon the basic racing of the game and takes it to new heights (well, new if you didn’t play FlatOut 1). As I alluded to earlier, there is great fun to be had with other people in FlatOut 2, as the game ships with full-featured multiplayer options through GameSpy. This makes finding and joining a game extremely easy, and you can compete in all of the game modes mentioned earlier and even set up multi-round tournaments of different events. It should be noted, however, that if Gamespy finds too many servers the game crashes, so you should limit the types of servers you're searching for. This is more of a Gamespy issue than a FlatOut 2 issue (the same issue has cropped up in other games), but it's frustrating nontheless. You can also play the mini-games against other people on the same computer using the same controller (because the mini-games are turn-based) for those people who have actual friends (I know there are a couple of you out there).

The physics of FlatOut 2 lie on the arcade side of the equation, but the cars are more difficult to control than purely arcade racing games like Trackmania or the Need for Speed series that feature unrealistic levels of grip. If you have a background in simulation racing titles, the driving model of FlatOut 2 has a slight learning curve: the game self-corrects any slides. I was counter-steering for slides (which I learned from simulation racing games), but this caused me to slide in the other direction since the game was straightening me out automatically. It takes a while to “unlearn” all of those skills from simulation racing games, but in the end, the cars in FlatOut 2 are easier to control because of it. The races of FlatOut 2 are the most frantic and action-packed events I have ever experienced in any racing game. Your cars are going entirely too fast around tracks full of dangerous obstacles and other competitors out for blood. The game rewards you for wrecking into other cars and objects scattered around the tracks through nitro, which you can use to quickly accelerate towards the front of the pack. There isn’t a single moment of any race in FlatOut 2 where you can relax and take a deep breath. Those more peaceful drivers need not apply; you’ll probably just get wrecked into a tree anyway. The AI of FlatOut 2 is very aggressive and will remember if you’ve been aggressive towards them and take action accordingly. AI in most racing games (especially simulation games) has always been to passive for my tastes and too easy to defeat, but this is definitely not the case in FlatOut 2. And the AI doesn’t just gang up on you, either: they will take each other out. You might be tempted to restart whenever you wreck badly, but the AI wrecks each other and is mistake-prone, making for a more exciting race in the end. You can end up going from first to last to first in a single lap because of the large crashes and the other cars that can become collected in them.

Those people looking for continuous action in a racing game have found a winner in FlatOut 2. Surrounded by the outstanding graphics and sound, FlatOut 2 features aggressive computer opponents, numerous game modes, multiplayer, and tons of crashes. I’ve never felt bored when playing FlatOut 2, which is always a good sign. Simulation games can get quite tedious after the first few laps of a race, but FlatOut 2 never lets up. Plus, the game is responsible for an above-average level of screaming at my computer monitor, showing that the player gets quite involved in the game (and showing that I may need some professional help). FlatOut 2 is a definitive arcade racing game, and anyone who prefers exciting racing over dreary driving should unquestionably check out this game.

Monday, August 14, 2006

And Round Again Review

And Round Again, developed and published by
The Good: Varied piece selection results in a different game each time, simple and novel mechanics, tense timed gameplay, distinctive special pieces, challenging difficulty through player mistakes and poor planning, helpful selective tutorial, games allows for multiple strategies, unlockable custom game options
The Not So Good: Not the best graphics, unlocking custom game options takes a while
What say you? An interesting “loopy” puzzle game with high replay value and flexibility: 7/8

One of the most numerous genres available on the PC is the puzzle game, which doesn’t get a lot of coverage on the “major” game review sites. Maybe it’s because those particular institutions don’t consider titles to be “real” games if they aren’t full price or released by a major developer, even if they happen to be quality titles. Luckily for you, I’ve had the privilege to review many good (and many bad) puzzle games in my day, and I like the genre for two main reasons: the games are easy to learn, and the reviews are easier to write. A wonderful combination! And Around Again is a strangely named puzzle game where you connect pipes of various shapes to form complete loops. Let’s check it out!

The most disappointing aspect of And Round Again is the graphics, and this is discouraging because the rest of the game is pretty awesome. Although the opening menu screen looks good, the game itself is not visually exciting at all. The pipes are very generic and there aren’t very many special effects other than floating numbers represented earned points. The backgrounds are non-dynamic and plain, and just add to the overall drudgery of the graphics. A lot of puzzle games pride themselves on detailed (although low resolution) visuals, but And Round Again does not. The core gameplay could have been kept intact with some added visual flair, but sadly And Round Again is devoid of any graphical panache. The sound effects are slightly better than the graphics. The background music is repetitive without being annoying, and the individual effects are good and fit the theme of the game. The ticking clock that warns you of impending doom causes an appropriate amount of stress in the player. While the sound is good enough, the graphics in And Round Again could have been a lot more enjoyable.

As I mentioned in the introduction (you do remember that, right?), And Around Again is a strangely named puzzle game where you connect pipes of various shapes to form complete loops. In fact, I just copied and pasted that directly from the introduction. See how I make my reviews appear longer? It’s magic! The pipe pieces in And Around Again consist of a straight piece, a right-angle curved piece, and over 70 combinations of straight and curved pieces, resulting in some interesting shapes. The challenge of the game is fitting all of those weirdly shaped pieces together to form a complete loop, and allowing yourself space to accommodate whatever random piece may come up next. The key to succeeding at the game is to not pigeonhole yourself into needing specific pieces, instead allowing for flexibility. Of course, saying this is a lot easier than actually doing it, and And Around Again can become quite difficult. The difficulty level of the game affects how complicated the piece shapes will be, and changes the amount of time you have to place a piece before time runs out and you lose a life. The core gameplay is very addictive and And Around Again is a good mix of frustration and accomplishment, all of which is user-induced. In order to frustrate you more, the game comes with several special pieces that can affect the game area. Examples include a balloon that lifts pieces away from the board, morphs that give you the most useful piece at a selected location, and multiplier pieces that can increase your score. Some of these are not helpful, such as the expander piece that fills in an area or the rotator that makes you change the orientation of one piece, messing up your carefully crafted loops. With its combination of special pieces and almost random pipe shapes, And Around Again definitely holds up to the old “easy to learn, hard to master” axiom. The game features a selective tutorial, where you can pick and choose which parts of the game you want to learn about and play through a simulation of that particular concept. Actually letting the user play the game is a lot better than watching a non-interactive movie like a lot of other games use. Because of the nature of the pieces, each game is different: And Around Again is not like a first person shooter where all of the enemies will spawn in the same locations each time. Thus, And Around Again has a high level of replay value, and it is extended even further with all of the special modes in the game. Each of these special game modes are unlocked through high scores (I don’t like that), but they can result in some interesting play once you’ve become adept at the basic game.

And Around Again satisfies all of the conditions needed for a great puzzle game: unique mechanics and varied play. Although the game features poor graphics, the rest of the game is splendid: simple mechanics and tense, challenging gameplay result in a compelling game experience. Add in the unlockable custom options and you’ve got a distinctive concept that’s fun to play and will be different each time you fire up the game. Plus, at $15, And Around Again is cheaper than most expansion packs that only add a couple of maps to an already existing (and $50) game. And Around Again is certainly on the high end of puzzle games, and those people who enjoy this genre shouldn’t miss it.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

CivCity: Rome Review

CivCity: Rome, developed by Firefly Studios and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Extensive citizen needs, region interaction through trade and military operations
The Not So Good: Extensive citizen needs require extensive rezoning, important feedback could be better presented, inferior sound effects, house building exploit, trivial military and research, bugged object selection is way off
What say you? Yet another respectable city builder, but it doesn’t offer anything dramatically new or innovative: 6/8

The popularity of certain kinds of computer games certainly goes through cycles. Recently, we’ve been through the World War II game, and now we’re in a Roman city building game phase. First, there was the previously reviewed Glory of the Roman Empire, and the future holds a new version of the Caesar franchise. Today, we are presented with CivCity: Rome, developed by the people responsible for Stronghold, the game that made defending pretty fun. How will Firefly do in changing their focus towards Rome?

The graphics of CivCity: Rome are fairly standard fare for a city builder. There is nothing overwhelmingly awesome about the graphics in the game, but they do a good enough job in presenting a semi-realistic visage of what Rome might have looked like back in the day. The buildings look authentic and there is enough variation in the different building styles to create a realistic looking city. You can peer into the buildings and watch your citizens perform different tasks (sleeping, cutting meat): this is probably the highlight of the graphics department. The game is played from a fixed isometric perspective, so you won’t be seeing anything from a citizens’ perspective. CivCity: Rome falls slightly beneath Glory of the Roman Empire in terms of overall quality: CivCity: Rome has more varied buildings, but the effects of Glory of the Roman Empire are much better. You should be warned that if you plan to play the game in 1280x1024 (like all good LCD monitor owners should), there is a bug when trying to select objects in the game: if you press the left mouse button, what is actually selected is several inches away from your mouse. How this bug escaped testing is beyond me, and it’s rare to see such an obvious flaw in the release version of a game. The sound of CivCity: Rome is less than decent but very reminiscent of Stronghold: each of your citizens has a funny saying when you click on them, although I miss the heartfelt thanks of your people when you increase rations or wages that was present in Stronghold. The background music is pretty decent, although a lot of the time it’s off and it seems to come back in at random times. The sound effects are sparse: there seems to be some actions that have a sound tied to them but not others, so you might be hearing meat being cut even though you are looking at the bathhouse. The sound could have been a lot better in the game.

CivCity: Rome is a single player only affair where you lead your city towards specific goals, usually collecting a certain amount of materials or leveling-up a number of houses. The main campaign is a series of linked missions where you will usually control the same city for several tasks in a row (just like Glory of the Roman Empire), building up your town and then moving on to bigger and better things. The campaign gradually introduces new types of buildings to the player, and because there is an extremely large number of structures in the game, this is a good thing. There are also some stand-alone games with varying difficulty levels and types of games (sandbox, economic, or military). There is a small number of included stand-alone scenarios in the game, but CivCity: Rome includes an editor where you can create your own maps (a random map generator would still have been nice). CivCity: Rome doesn’t have any multiplayer; for once I’d like to see some sort of competitive online city building in a game, but I guess I’m still waiting for it.

Money earned from taxing your houses are used to construct buildings in the game, which is your main task of CivCity: Rome. The game features an impressive list of buildings to construct, far more than the competition. Like that other game, houses level up into better structures (producing more taxes) by having access to certain goods and services. They will automatically upgrade until they turn into “insulae;” since they are smaller than houses, you need to manually place the location for the insulae on the map (which removes the old house). This leads to a pretty good exploit in the game, as you can then build a new house directly on the old location and just wait for it to become another insulae. When houses are ready to be upgraded, a green intermittent arrow appears over them, which you won’t notice unless you are specifically looking at the house. This shows the outdated interface of CivCity: Rome, with its full-screen menus and data screens instead of the stylish building tools of other games.

Probably the best aspect of CivCity: Rome is the sheer number of buildings available. This may be daunting for the new player, but since the campaign only introduced a couple of new structures at a time, it doesn’t really become an issue. There are transportation structures (roads, aqueducts, ferries), resource structures (wood camps, iron mines), farms (olives, grapes, fruit, dates, geese), commerce structures (carpenters, mills, wineries), shops (bakeries, fruit stands, tunic shops, barbers, glass blowers), entertainment (piazzas, theatres), spectacles (sweaty gladiatiors and their animal opponents, including alligators and giraffes), city services (hospitals, schools, libraries, trade markets), military structures (forts, weapon makers), and wonders (pantheon, coliseum, circus maximus). All of this means that CivCity: Rome requires a lot of demolition, especially of the overly large farms, to fit in all of the buildings you need for your high-class citizens. The best way to approach the game is to construct a central business district with all of the needs, surround it with houses, and put farms out on the edge, in order to maximize the access of your citizens to their shops.

Unlike Glory of the Roman Empire, CivCity: Rome doesn’t have a 1:1 ratio of people on the screen and living in your city (one person represents 100 people), which is odd and really unnecessary. You can “track” families in the game (reminiscent of Tropico), but you’re really tracking 100 families, so it’s an implausible dynamic. The amount of time your citizens work is determined by you, and they use the rest of the time to fulfill needs. There is a citizen happiness rating that is determined from the wages, rations, work time, time since the city was founded, unemployment, housed workers, wonders, research, and random events. As long as you have a positive happiness rating, people will immigrate to your city. Your civilization rating also has an affect on the happiness of your population, which is based on the available entertainment, religion, civil services, and splendor (like gardens and fountains). Your people are almost never satisfied with your city’s rating for some reason, and it always makes maintaining positive overall happiness that much harder.

You are not alone in CivCity: Rome: you can create trade routes to other cities in the region (necessary because of arbitrary restrictions the game imposes on constructing certain buildings). You can even go so far as to invade neighboring villages with your military. The military is a pretty minor part of the game: all you really need to do is build a fort, build some weapon makers, and then keep your troops stationed where the enemy units spawn. Your forces will automatically engage enemy troops, so there aren’t really any strategic or tactical decisions on your part in the game; the military just acts as another thing you must build in your city to maintain a good economy. Research is also available in the game, where you invest some money and gain some small bonuses, like faster roads or more efficient woodcutting. Like the military, the research of CivCity: Rome is very superficial and just seems to be tacked onto the game as just something else to do, rather than an integral part of the city building process.

So where does CivCity: Rome stand in the register of city building games? Well, it has more buildings and a focus on the overall region, but average graphics and an inferior user interface. Plus, the military and research are not as important as they could have been in the game. Everything cancels each other out and CivCity: Rome becomes merely average and overall about the same as Glory of the Roman Empire. If there were a way to combine the best aspects of both games, then we’d have a real winner on our hands. But both Roman city builders have flaws along with their unique advantages, but neither game ends up being worth the money for anyone other than those most interested in the time period or city buildings. You’re better off getting one of the Stronghold titles (my pick is Stronghold Crusader) and paying a lot less for a similar game.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Action WheelRacer Review

Action WheelRacer, developed and published by Ultrabizz.
The Good: Unique racing physics, varied terrain, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Difficult and sluggish controls, demanding graphics engine, slow AI drivers, hard to tell running order
What say you? Out of the ordinary mechanics makes this a unique racer, despite some rough edges: 6/8

Racing games have always been pretty popular on the PC. Most of them have tended towards the simulation side of the equation (NASCAR Racing, GTR, rFactor, Xpand Rally, Live for Speed) for the more sophisticated PC crowd. There’s been pretty much every racing series simulated at one point or another, but I have yet to see a title simulate racing in a giant ball, until now! Action WheelRacer puts the driver in the shoes of a hamster, piloting their giant American Gladiator-style ball around hilly race courses rife with obstacles. Will this novelty be enough to make Action WheelRacer worth playing?

The graphics of Action WheelRacer are pretty good. The environments are realistic enough, although the amount of detail present in other racing games is missing. The amount of detail on the WheelRacers is pleasing, complete with suspension-based cockpit (bouncing like the driver’s seat on a bus). Despite the fact that the graphics of Action WheelRacer don’t have the bells and whistles of other racing games, the game runs very slowly at any resolution. I’m not sure what is so demanding about this game, but I can run GTR 2 at the same resolution and better overall graphics at a smooth framerate. The entire game has a sluggish feel to it, especially when other drivers are rendered on the screen. The system resources required for Action WheelRacer don’t correlate well to the amount of eye candy. The sound in the game is disappointing: just the usual mix of engines, a silly wrecking sound, and campy background music. Still, Action WheelRacer doesn’t look and sound bad, and you won’t notice the bare environments much when you’re speeding around the corners at top speed.

Action WheelRacer features both single player and multiplayer racing on over 30 courses. Finding a multiplayer match is easy through the in-game browser, although I never saw anyone else playing when I attempted to join online games. There are two kinds of races: regular and endurance. Both are five laps, but endurance races take place on longer tracks and require a pit stop for fuel. The tracks are a good assortment of beginning and challenging courses that uses the physics of the game. The game spawns random obstacles (metal boxes) and flags that move you ahead or behind each map, so the maps are superficially different each time. However, the density of these obstacles and their impact on gameplay are minimal and just serve as minor annoyances. Piloting a giant sphere is an interesting experience, and Action WheelRacer I feel delivers a believable physics model. There are times where some wacky things happen to your ball, mostly when hitting other objects, but for the most part the game drives what I would perceive to be quite realistically. The controls in the game are quite lethargic, however; whether this is by design or not I’m not sure. Turning using the mouse required turning the sensitivity to the maximum, and I still needed to move the mouse quite a long way across the desk to turn. Maybe the precision I have with aiming in first person shooters has spoiled me, but I should still be able to have more control over my giant ball. I couldn’t test out using an alternate control method because Action WheelRacer didn’t recognize my analog gamepad (grrrr). Once you get used to the game, controlling the racers is easy enough, but the sensitivity I require just isn’t there. The AI drivers in the game are not that challenging as long as you stay on the racetrack and don’t run into anything. They will purposely wreck you, which is a good tactic in the game, but they are just simply too slow to be any real challenge. The game doesn’t give a running order for the race (just who’s in the lead) or indicate lapped cars, so your position during the race is a complete mystery unless you’re in first. The result after the race always put you at the top of the order instead of sorting by race time as well. I guess the racing and not the result is the concern of Action WheelRacer.

You won’t find another racing game that drives quite like this one, and the rest of the game is good enough to make playing Action WheelRacer enjoyable. There are some aspects of the game that could be improved, especially as better race stats, but the basic game is solid enough to make the game fun to play for the most part. The controls are too sluggish for my tastes, but I just might need to slow down a bit before entering those corners. The novelty of racing giant hamster cages goes a long way in making Action WheelRacer an enjoyable alternative to all of those generic car racers. Those interested in a different racing experience should take a serious gander at Action WheelRacer.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Meteor Mayhem Review

Meteor Mayhem, developed and published by Gnade Games.
The Good: Simple co-op play, varied intertwined mini games, lots of levels
The Not So Good: Strange and unpredictable physics, barrier health level is difficult to visually determine, levels are too long and generally boring, initial piece orientation is counter-intuitive, no documentation other than brief tutorial
What say you? Some odd design decisions restrict its potentially interesting ideas: 5/8

Saving the world from outside invasion has been a staple of computer gaming ever since that classic arcade game, Pong (and, to a lesser extent, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial). This has been achieved mostly through shooting at the incoming enemy forces, although most recently, games have gravitated towards a more defensive role, protecting the Earth’s inhabitants through barriers. This was done well in Epidemic Groove, where you construct walls and other obstacles for the enemies, and it’s also been used in other defensive-minded games like Stronghold. In Meteor Mayhem, you aren’t guarding against salient aliens, but rather bloodthirsty meteors bent on revenge. And I believe they said something about your mother.

The graphics of Meteor Mayhem have a certain hand-drawn flair to them, mostly because they are hand-drawn. Despite this, they surprisingly don’t look altogether terrible. The game does look like it was put together by animating MS Paint pictures, but the overall effect is an old-school look that works astonishingly well. Some of the effects could have been done a lot better (such as the burning meteorites), but overall the game is decent enough in the graphics department. See, you don’t need to have flashy effects to deliver an adequate graphical experience! The sound, on the other hand, is entirely forgettable. When you need to play the game again to remember what the sound was like, that’s usually not a good sign. The sound effects are underwhelming, especially when cities get destroyed. Lifting some chaos from those disaster movies would have gone a long way in promoting a credible atmosphere of destruction. The music is merely average as well. Considering the independent nature of the title, however, Meteor Mayhem actually comes out a lot better than expected in the graphics and sound departments.

Meteor Mayhem features a tutorial, a campaign mode, and a practice mode (the difference of which is minimal). The tutorial does an adequate job in explaining the basics of the game, but leaves a lot of the mechanics up to the user to figure out. I still don’t really know what the different modes of the trampolines do, and the game never explicitly explains it and there isn’t any other documentation or manual to speak of. There is something to be said for letting the player “discover” new things in the game, but you should still say what they are used for somewhere for those less adventurous (and more easily confused) players. I still don’t know how to exit the game. There are a good number of levels in the game, and some of the practice levels break up the monotony with mini-games, such as golf, pinball, and basketball. Although it might take a while to unlock these different levels, it helps to change the pace of the game, especially since the base game is the same for every other regular level. Meteor Mayhem also has cooperative play on the same computer, with one person placing objects and the other controlling a vehicle that speeds around the map collecting and using power-ups.

In each match, you are charged with protecting a city from incoming meteors. You do this by constructing objects that block or intercept incoming meteors before they strike your buildings. Your tool set consists of simple blocks and slides to more advanced weapons like guided missiles and grappling hooks. Placing these objects is more difficult that it should be: since they can the orientated in any direction, the game lets you rotate them. However, the rotation angle is based off the mouse pointer location, and initially, all of your objects will be tilted when most of the time you want them to be horizontal. Changing their direction requires time-consuming mouse movement that, in the heat of battle, causes more damage to your cities because of interface issues. Plus, it’s just plain annoying to have to rotate every object to place on the map. The game limits you on the number of gadgets you can have on the map at any one time: you can only place new ones when existing ones are destroyed. All of the blocks take visual damage (cracks) when they are hit, but the game doesn’t clearly indicate how many cracks it takes to crumble a block. Meteor Mayhem gives you an initial period of time to place your defenses, and the rest of the game is just a matter of replacing lost gadgets and collecting power-ups that aren’t as useful as they should be. There is also a timer that indicates how much longer the meteor onslaught is to last. The levels of Meteor Mayhem just last too long and the game gets quite boring, since building is finished when the meteors start to drop and you’re just watching for replacement areas. You’ll earn cash for protecting your cities: cash in practice mode unlocks more levels, while cash in campaign mode allows you to buy new stuff (gadgets, power-ups, and vehicles). The level is over if all of your cities are completely destroyed. Meteor Mayhem features some wacky physics that sometimes make no sense at all. Meteors may bounce off objects at weird angles or suddenly accelerate for no particular reason (the developers should brush up on Snell’s Law). This makes defending a little more difficult, because meteors may be coming in at unexpected angles.

Meteor Mayhem is a good idea, but the gameplay isn’t consistently interesting and can’t hold the player’s attention for very long. The basic defensive premise of the game is good, but the fact that once defenses are placed you’re really just waiting for your walls to break down makes for some waiting, and waiting for something to happen is never good in a computer game. Other defensive games had you do something while the attack occurred, whether it is ordering troops (Stronghold) or actively shooting at viruses (Epidemic Groove). The length of the levels doesn’t help matters either, as each level seems to last just a bit too long. The action does become more fast and furious as the difficulty increases, but more people won’t probably last that long before deciding to move on to something more stimulating. The mini-games don’t come up frequently enough to change the pace of the game away from the tedium of the primary mode, either. Meteor Mayhem could have been more interesting with faster gameplay and more interaction during the meteor shower, but it just comes up short in overall entertainment.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Professor Fizzwizzle Review

Professor Fizzwizzle, developed and published by Grubby Games.
The Good: Tons of levels at varying difficulty levels, level editor, full puzzle solutions
The Not So Good: Can’t save mid-puzzle progress, bland graphics, fewer objects than other games
What say you? Another satisfying puzzle game that’s challenging for all skill levels, although its lack of variety may turn away more experienced players: 6/8

We’ve seen a “renaissance” (French for “you stinky American”) of puzzle games lately, especially of the manipulating objects variety. Founded by such classics as The Incredible Machine and Lemmings, the genre has continued its strong tradition with newer titles such as Tube Twist, Eets, and now Professor Fizzwizzle. The good professor needs your help against his robot army turned mad! It’s a lot like The Terminator, but with less shooting. You’ll need to navigate the Professor through each puzzle, avoiding the Rage-Bots and moving objects on your way to the finish tube. Are you up to the challenge? Me neither!

The graphics of Professor Fizzwizzle are quite disappointing, especially considering the fanciful nature of the game. The game has a very cartoon feel to it, but all of the objects in the game are small and not very detailed. The Professor himself looks pretty good, but the crates and barrels look, well, like crates and barrels, which might be realistic but isn’t very exciting to look at. The level surfaces are featureless swaths of grass, sand, or ice, which look more like an older puzzle game and less like a dynamic cartoon environment. The backgrounds are just static images of clouds or space. There’s just more that could have been done with the game to make it more stimulating (see Eets) from a graphical perspective. The game features appropriate frantic background music and appropriate sound effects, but nothing that stands out or is terribly memorable. Frankly, there has to be more pizzazz in the graphics and sound department these days in the puzzle genre, with the advent of 3-D graphics and the competition that’s available.

The goal of Professor Fizzwizzle is to move the professor from the start tube to the exit tube by moving objects that are in your way. Unlike Eets and Lemmings, you actually have direct control over the Professor through the arrow keys, and all of the actions in the game are done by him, instead of placing objects ahead of time like in those other games. The Professor can’t jump, so most of the puzzles consist of moving things out of his way and into pitfalls that be might encounter. There is an extremely large number of puzzles in the game (over 230) and they have varying difficulty levels: anyone from a child to an adult can be challenged by the game, and the range of difficulty is one of the highlights of the game. The game also provides full solutions (instead of simple hints) at any time, which will also count as completing the puzzle for you. I’d like to see a shorter solution (such as what do I do in the next 10 seconds), but providing the full solution means you’ll never be stuck on a puzzle you can’t figure out. If the 230 puzzles aren’t enough, there is also a level editor so that you can create your own wacky designs; there are already over 450 user-created levels available for download, so Professor Fizzwizzle has a fair amount of replay value.

There are three types of terrain in the game that will affect the behavior of moving objects: grass will allow for continually rolling barrels and moving crates, sand will stop moving objects, and ice fulfills the conditions of intertia. Puzzles consist primarily of crates and barrels that can be pushed or rolled, respectively. You can also use magnets to attract metallic objects (or repel other magnets), trampolines for bouncing, gates with corresponding switches that must be continuously depressed (usually by placing a crate or barrel on them), pulley systems for lowering and raising objects, and those wacky Rage-Bots that will end the level if they catch you. There are also items you can use later during each level, such as inflatable items, whistles (to attract the attention of Rage-Bots), and EMP to disable magnets, and a frost gun to freeze any object. There is a fair number of different objects in Professor Fizzwizzle, but it pales in comparison to the variety seen in Eets. Because of this, the puzzles in Professor Fizzwizzle seem to run together after a while, because there are only so many ways to can push crates around. The game does provide an sufficient ordeal, but the lack of interesting puzzle elements makes the game drag along once you become accustomed to the mechanics of Professor Fizzwizzle.

It’s too bad (for the Professor’s sake) I reviewed Eets before this game, because Professor Fizzwizzle is good, but not better than Eets. However, Professor Fizzwizzle does have more appeal for a wider audience, as there are levels appropriate for both children and adults here (Eets is geared towards more experienced players). There are tons of levels, both in the game and available for download, so players who enjoy Professor Fizzwizzle can keep playing for ages to come. Professor Fizzwizzle does fall short in the graphics and sound department, and the relative small amount of object variety does hurt the overall replay ability of the game. The game also lacks those “cool” moments, where something unexpected happens during a solution, as the puzzles are pretty straightforward. However, the game does provide an adequate challenge, so that should keep at least some people interested in the title. Professor Fizzwizzle is best suited for a range of skill levels, as the game should provide a test for both young and old, but more experienced puzzle gamers will feel a little disappointed in the long run.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

TerraWars: NY Invasion Review

TerraWars: NY Invasion, developed by Ladyluck Digital Media and published by Tri Synergy.
The Good: Fairly constant action, budget price
The Not So Good: Poor enemy AI that is only difficult through numbers, only cooperative multiplayer, horrible voice acting, generic weapons, weapon upgrade system is wasted potential, no manual, invincible allies, silly stamina model, very outdated graphics (especially for a first person shooter), excruciating five minute uninstall
What say you? Maybe this derivative shooter would have been decent ten years ago. Well, probably not: 3/8

Aliens invade Earth: it’s a scenario that’s been played time and time again in movies, television, and computer gaming. And it’s always up to you to single-handedly defeat the countless hordes of alien invaders. We’ve seen this in the PC realm in arcade games such as Titan Attacks and first person shooters like Prey. TerraWars: NY Invasion falls into the first person shooter classification, where you, as an intrepid everyman, must drive off the extraterrestrials through the use of excessive force.

Wow. TerraWars: NY Invasion certain looks and feels like a budget game, although more like a budget game that came out several years ago. The game looks a lot like a poor man’s version of the original Half-Life, and that game came out seven years ago. The environments don’t really look anything like New York. The buildings are square, featureless structures. The alien modes are absolutely horrible: undetailed, poorly animated generic creatures that come in four different colors. They don’t even have a cool death sequence, as they have a seizure vanishing into a cloud of green smoke. The weapon models are poor as well. Turning up the graphics detail didn’t seem to make anything look better, and the game doesn’t even support LCD monitor resolutions (1280x1024). The cut scenes are rendered using the game engine and can’t be skipped. Sure, it’s a budget game, but the game just looks completely out of date for a first person shooter. The sound is not much better. The weapons are a collection of grating, annoying, and piercing effects. The aliens speak some sort of looped gibberish. The voice acting is comically horrible from the first uttered word to the last. There is not one thing noteworthy or original about the graphics or the sound in TerraWars: NY Invasion.

TerraWars: NY Invasion features a single player campaign that takes supposedly takes place in New York, although for the most part it’s just generic warehouses and outdoor environments. There is only cooperative multiplayer on LAN. No internet. No deathmatch (or any other player vs. player modes). There are multiple difficulty levels that will alter the amount of damage you can take (and allegedly the accuracy of the AI, although they are deadly accurate at any difficulty level). The game doesn’t seem to autosave your progress, and there is a “quick load” feature, but because the game lacks a manual, I don’t know what key it is. This is a red flag for any game: TerraWars: NY Invasion lacks any sort of documentation (paper manual, digital manual, even just a readme file), so you can imagine the high quality that will propagate through the rest of the game.

Your character is rated in three areas: health, armor, and stamina. More health is gained through using collectable medical packs. Stamina is really pointless: you lose stamina by running and gain it by standing still. Curiously, jumping does not decrease your stamina. I guess your character can jump all he wants but can’t stand to jog a little? Stamina has absolutely no impact on the gameplay, so it’s a completely superfluous addition to the game. The weapons in TerraWars: NY Invasion are a generic collection of pistols, rifles, and rocket launchers. The ammunition of each kind of weapon seems to deliver the same amount of damage, so the best weapons are the ones that have the fastest rate of fire. Reload time of each of the weapons is extremely long; this may be realistic, but it’s not fun in a game with a frantic pace. Location damage also seems to be broken: you can score a direct hit on an enemy and it can cause no damage at all. Those wacky aliens!

TerraWars: NY Invasion is just not fun to play, and the AI doesn’t help. The AI is extremely poor and the game is only difficult through multiple enemies being present at one time. The AI is tremendously accurate, scoring direct hits on every shot that isn’t blocked by another object. The AI will use the time-honored tradition of side stepping (one step at a time) at random times, and won’t use cover at all, unless specifically placed there by the level designer. The AI will also ignore you if you’re shooting from behind their hard-coded detection level. I was able to easily pick off aliens from a distance and they just stood there in one place the whole time while they died. The AI also seems to spawn out in the open, although TerraWars: NY Invasion lacks the explanation for this event that Prey has. You’ll occasionally be paired up with some allies, which makes your job a whole lot easier. See, most of the friends you’ll encounter are invincible. This is probably because they are important to the overall story of the game, but in most games you’ll lose if they don’t survive. One of your earlier objectives is to “cover” someone as they move across the map. So, I just crouched behind a box and watched as they got hit 32 times by enemy fire and didn’t lose a single health point. Hooray! This also means you can cower away while the invincible allies take out all of the enemy forces, since your health level is the only thing that matters. The game also has linear level design devoid of many puzzles outside of some jumping. There aren’t any imaginative or memorable levels in the game, just a continual sequence of: meet aliens, kill aliens, move onto the next area.

It’s almost not fair to compare TerraWars: NY Invasion against modern first person shooters like Prey and Half-Life 2 because of the budget price, but there just isn’t anything good about this game. The graphics and sound are completely antiquated. There isn’t any online multiplayer outside of LAN-only cooperative play. There’s no documentation. The weapons are generic. There are a lot of aliens to shoot, but they are dumb and extremely accurate (a bad combination), and since you can only sustain a small number of hits, dying is a fairly frequent proposition in TerraWars: NY Invasion. Of course, that means all of your allies are invincible. Fancy that! There isn’t anything in this game that hasn’t been done much better in other first person shooters. Even if you accept the fact that TerraWars: NY Invasion is just $20, there are just better uses for your green portrait of Andrew Jackson.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Distant Guns: The Russo-Japanese War at Sea Review

Distant Guns: The Russo-Japanese War at Sea, developed and published by Storm Eagle Studios.
The Good: Unique setting, mostly intuitive controls, detailed 3-D graphics, time acceleration, fun (though deliberate) tactical gameplay, meticulous ship damage, random battle generator
The Not So Good: Ludicrously expensive, no Internet matchmaking
What say you? Rabid fans will enjoy this high-quality realistic tactical naval strategy game, but the less passionate will be turned off by the high price and slow pace: 6/8

In the navy, you can sail the seven seas. In the navy, you can put your mind at ease. With all of these advantages (and more!), it’s easy to see why numerous people have developed naval simulations. In fact, some of these titles, such as the Harpoon series and Dangerous Waters (there are others but, since I didn’t review them, they don’t count), are highly regarded as top simulations of any genre. Enter Distant Guns, which covers the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (you can tell because it’s in the title), a game developed by this guy and that guy. Those people are responsible for some of the most famous (infamous?) wargames of the computer age. How will this pedigree hold up in a new franchise? Well, as I get sued by The Village People for unauthorized use of their lyrics, you can continue on and read my review of Distant Guns.

The graphics of Distant Guns are about the best we can expect for a naval simulation: they go a long way in promoting a realistic and immersive environment in a way that more traditional, hex-based games can’t. Each of the over 200 ships in the game are extremely detailed and look as good as hand-made models, without the tragedy of gluing your fingers together. During combat, parts of the ship fly off, fires get started, and thick smoke billows into the air. Watching torpedoes speed through the water is pretty cool. The oceanic environments are as exciting as the open ocean can get: the waves look good, and sunset and sunrise and beautifully rendered. Land areas are bland, though, but since the ocean is the focus of the game, you’ll rarely come close enough to coastal areas to notice. About the only way the graphics could be improved is by having an easily accessible “from the deck” view during the game, but that’s a very minor suggestion, and you can get pretty close to it by using the game’s camera controls. Distant Guns looks just as good (or better) as any other naval game, and since the game comes wrapped in a wargame-coated shell, it makes the graphics that much better. The sound effects are generally along the game lines. Most of the sounds are good, such as the whistling of incoming shells and the general chaos of war. There are no audio radio commands when issuing orders, but this is actually fine since they would probably become repetitive and boring like in most games. The background music tries to fit the period of the game, but it ends up being not very good. In fact, some of the selections seem more appropriate for church than a computer game. Hallelujah! Still, there’s nothing too terribly disappointing about the sound, and the sound effects accentuate the graphics well enough.

The base version of Distant Guns features twelve scenarios covering major conflicts of the Russo-Japanese War, an exclusive location that easily differentiates itself from all the World War II games out there. The game offers a good variety of small and large battles for play against the AI or over the Internet. The game’s multiplayer capabilities can support up to ten players per match, depending on the number of divisions in a scenario. Having multiple human players on a team in a wargame is rare, so it’s nice to see that Distant Guns supports it. Unfortunately, finding a multiplayer game requires inputting an IP address; having some type of matchmaking software like Gamespy Arcade would have made joining a game much easier. If the twelve scenarios aren’t enough (and they won’t be after a while), the game also has a random battle generator that adds some more replay value to the game. The game lets you specify the scenario size (which translates into a number of ships) and the time of the battle, but I’d like to have more options such as manually setting the order of battle and controlling the weather to have some really rough seas (the default values result in disappointingly calm oceans). The game also automatically distributes the scenario size points; this can result in some lopsided battles, especially for small one-on-one battles. The flexibility to determine the number of ships involved would give the user the option of involving powerful battleships or smaller destroyers in a particular skirmish, but Distant Guns is devoid of these options. I’m not really looking for a full-fledged scenario designer, but more custom options for the ships involved in a generated battle would be nice.

Right now (August 2006), the campaign is included in the base price ($65) for the game, but it's a promotion, so it's not really clear how long this is going to last. I don't like it when people offer special bonuses (but wait, there's more!) to pressure you into buying their product. Distant Guns could be $90 tomorrow, or it could still be $65. While most PC games are between $40 and $50, the base price for Distant Guns is already high and adding the campaign once it is no longer “free” would really make the game expensive. There aren’t many games that offer an “expansion pack” right away, and a game of this caliber deserves to have the campaign included in the base game for a reasonable price. There are two campaigns with different starting times (one just starts after the initial surprise attacks by the Japanese) that covers the Russo-Japanese War. The object of the campaign boils down to the Russian player trying to sink unarmed Japanese transport craft, and the Japanese trying to prevent the Russians from doing this. This is done by forming task forces of several divisions of ships and giving them orders such as sail, rest, or patrol. The range of your ships is determined by their coal holding capacity, and the game never lets you order task forces on prolonged missions. The campaign takes place in real time and since simulating the two year war in real time might take a little while, the game lets you accelerate the action. If opposing forces spot each other, combat automatically occurs, and the game sends you the battle mode. You can sim to the end of a battle in the campaign, if it’s obvious you’re going to win (or lose, you loser), which means lopsided battles can be “skipped.” So, is the campaign worth the extra money? I’d say if you’re going to buy a game, you might as well get the entire game. The campaign is decent, although it gets repetitive quickly. It’s just a matter of moving your forces and seeking (or avoiding) the enemy. It’s a nice addition, but it’s not as deep as the dynamic campaigns in other games like the Total War series. The campaign is a lot like a “limited edition” of a game: it’s not really necessary, but if you’re a fan of the game it’s nice to have. Personally, I don’t think the campaign is $25 worth of fun on top of the base product, but Distant Guns does seem to feel incomplete without the campaign alongside.

Distant Guns is rendered in full 3-D, and the view commands take some getting used to. Panning and moving the camera can be done through the keyboard or by moving the mouse to appropriate edges of the screen, and the lack of one-button tilting (like the middle mouse button) requires a little learning curve, but you’ll eventually become accustomed to the game. The game is pretty easy to control, as the game prompts you on what left and right clicking will do according to what is selected. Most of the commands in the game are done by issuing them to the division leader rather than individual ships, like in Conquest of the Aegean; this makes controlling large numbers of ships easy. There are a number of commands available in the game relating to movement. You can have your ships turn by succession, which means each ship will turn at the place where the leader turned; this will keep all of the ships in line (you want this). You can also have the ships turn immediately, reform the lines on the lead ship, or alter the ship speeds. The game also provides reports on the weather (the time of day affects accuracy) and current victory conditions, as well as a minimap of the battle area. New divisions can also be formed, which is good for removing damaged or fast ships.

Targeting enemy ships is also very easy, as you can instruct your fleet to bombard the enemy leader, a specific ship, or give them the freedom to choose their own adventure. Each of the ships features appropriate weapons for the time period: guns and short-range torpedoes. Distant Guns tracks every single shell fired in the game, and you can even watch them fly through the air in a ballet of death. Instead of a simplistic damage model, Distant Guns actually follows a shell as it travels through a ship’s hull, so it can penetrate the opposite side and cause some “exit wounds.” This is pretty cool, as most games just assign some damage value and keep going. The combat in the game is very realistic, and that means slow. It takes a lot of hits to bring the larger ships down, and it’ll take an hour or two of constant shelling for a significant number of ships to be sunk. Those players who are used to more arcade naval games where ships are sunk quickly will be bored to tears with Distant Guns, but those gamers who have been craving a realistic approach to naval combat will find it here. Distant Guns includes painstaking ship information, from the year the ship was placed in surface to the displacement of the vessel. The game also has damage reports on every weapon and the amount of fire and water in the ship (both bad things). Strangely, the game reports the time to sink for enemy as well as friendly ships; how are your forces are getting some inside information about the opposing fleet? Distant Guns does allow for time acceleration to speed up the multi-hour action, but it resets to a slower speed (5x) when ships automatically maneuver to avoid collisions, which happens a lot during battle. This is highly annoying when the ships are very far apart when starting the mission (a lot of the campaign missions) and the game keeps slowing down because enemy ships decide to run into each other or they are avoiding torpedoes. I would like to have an option to disable this slowdown, especially when enemy ships are the ones causing the resets to default speed. The flipside of using time acceleration is that the AI's performance seems to suffer: even though time is faster, the AI doesn't neccessarily think faster and the game becomes less challenging. Of course, if you don't use time acceleration the battles last for quite a while.

It’s hard to judge how good the AI is in a naval game, partly because I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. The AI does seem to do a good job splitting up its forces when necessary, maneuvering wounded ships out of the way, and keeping its forces arranged most of the time. The AI can run aground in shallow water scenarios when fleeing, however, and I have won a scenario by simply turning once and running like all get out. The computer player also seems to be heavily aggressive, attacking even when at a great disadvantage and ignoring overall victory conditions. For example, if the Russian AI player can win by trying to avoid combat with the Japanese, for some reason the AI will turn around and engage more superior craft even though they shouldn’t and don’t need to. The AI apparently operates in its own thread, so my multi-core processor is finally getting a workout. The computer opponent provides a good enough challenge in Distant Guns, but, of course, there is no equal for matching wits against real human competition.

Casual fans will probably be hesitant to pay $90 for one game (although the $25 campaign is included now for a smaller $65 total), but if you really enjoy naval tactical simulations, Distant Guns certainly delivers. The game is good, but it’s not twice as good as some $50 wargames, so most people won’t be able to justify the almost doubled price. If there was ever a game that deserved the “buy it if you like the genre” rating, this is it. Seriously, you should buy Distant Guns if you like the genre, and people who are only slightly interested in the game should probably look elsewhere to titles like Dangerous Waters, a less intensive but more approachable naval simulation. Distant Guns is a very deliberate and realistic approach to naval combat in the very early 20th century, a time period that has gotten almost no coverage (to the benefit of Distant Guns). Distant Guns definitely does not serve as an introduction to naval combat strategy simulations. Instead, it’s one of the best games of that genre available and intended for veteran players and people who are serious about their naval operations. The high price and ultra-realism means that Distant Guns doesn’t have the wide appeal like some other games and I can’t recommend it to everyone, but it does fit its niche very well and fans of the genre will not be disappointed.