Friday, September 29, 2006

Robotopia Review

Robotopia, developed and published by Gamesare.
The Good: Pleasing 2-D graphics, constant action, co-op multiplay
The Not So Good: Extreme difficulty, lack of useful documentation
What say you? A Metroid-like platform game that is ridiculously challenging: 5/8

It's clearly evident from movies, TV, and video games that robots are poised to take over the world. Sure, today they build our cars and clean our carpets, but someday their reign of terror shall begin. In the meantime, we'll just rely on computer games to feature all of our robot-killing fantasies. Enter Robotopia, a game that, not surprisingly, features robots and a just a pinch of opia. In this game, an alien swarm of drones sent by a diabolical food conglomerate is invading peaceful Robotopia. Of course! In any event, the bottom line is that you get to shoot stuff, and shooting stuff is usually good fun had by all, except by the person being shot at.

Robotopia features above average games for a 2-D side scroller. They are detailed and provide plenty of effects to dazzle the eyes. The overall presentation is crisp and, although the environments aren’t the most detailed you’ll ever see, to do an adequate job. Despite the fact that Robotopia is developed by a smaller developer, the game doesn’t look like it, although it lacks the flash associated with big-budget productions. And I’m fine with that, as I was never displeased or annoyed by the quality of the graphics while playing the game. Robotopia is very reminiscent of a good-looking version of Super Mario Brothers or Sonic (the Hedgehog, not the drive-thru restaurant, though there are some similarities). The sound is also above average in terms of quality, with appropriate effects and a decent soundtrack. Overall, I found the quality of both the sound and the graphics to be higher than I expected, which is always a welcome surprise.

Robotopia plays like a classic platforming game with a heavy emphasis on combat, similar to the early Metroid on the evil consoles. Robotopia features both single player and cooperative multiplayer gaming through the game’s levels. The game has a steep initial learning curve due to the lack of a tutorial or manual. There is some help in-game, but it’s too short to be of any real assistance. The game also displays movement and important keys during gameplay, but only using the default control profile: if you select one of the other profiles, the game does not adjust the text even though the controls can’t be changed from the three available profiles. This makes finding the appropriate keys needed for advanced moves (that are required at certain parts of the game) nearly impossible. In general, movement is very intuitive: up, down, left, right, and a key for each type of weapon, but the special moves require keys that aren’t references for the different control profiles. Once you figure out how to actually play the game, you’ll find an array of weaponry divided into two classes: bullets (shotgun, acid, bouncing) and bombs (spider, magnet, spray). There is an appropriate weapon for each type of enemy, and using them effectively and disposing of the opposition is quite fun and makes you feel like you’re controlling a spry robot. Robotopia borrows a level system from RPGs: by collecting fruit dropped by enemies, you can improve your stats and also earn money to purchase better weaponry in the shop between levels.

Robotopia has all of the trappings to make for a good game, but the actual gameplay is way too hard. Even though health regenerates (slowly), you are greatly outmatched by numerous foes carrying much better firepower. Since it only takes a couple of hits to take you out, you’ll be restarting each level many times. Now, I’m not the best platform game player (my incompetence at Super Mario Brothers is world renowned), but repeatedly dying on the first level is kind of ridiculous. The game is made much easier if you play with allies through the multiplayer modes, however. Maybe I’m missing some special keys the game keeps secret from me, but the game is still too tricky. Not helping this issue is the fact that you can only shoot to the side, which becomes an issue when you start flying around the levels and enemies are coming at you from multiple directions. The game semi-intelligently aims for you, choosing the appropriate direction sometimes if you are backing away from the enemy onslaught (instead of simply using the direction you a traveling), but this only works some of the time and you can’t count on it at all.

Robotopia takes a solid, classic premise and updates it with RPG elements, varied weapons, and crisp graphics. It’s too bad, then, that the game is very difficult and there is almost no documentation to help beginning players. This is one of the most brutal games on new players that I’ve played in quite a while, and only those players adept at platform games will find Robotopia enjoyable instead of frustrating. This game was obviously designed with the expert player in mind, so people new to the genre without a background in platform games should steer clear of Robotopia.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D Review

Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D, developed by Brain Game and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Day and night cycles, respectable variety of animals
The Not So Good: Pace is too slow, game is very repetitive, too easy to find correct illness, hokey voice acting, terrible human character animations, just not fun to play
What say you? The rewards are not worth the effort in this tedious veterinary simulation: 4/8

For whatever reason, people seem to love animals. “Dog people” anthropomorphize their pets to a level I just can’t understand. Maybe your dog is excited to see you because you are the keeper of the food, not because you have some unspoken bond that words alone can’t describe. Not surprisingly, this disturbing fetish has spawned a number of successful computer games (and expansions to successful computer games). The next of the litter is Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D, a vet simulation that is clearly geared towards young girls (the pink box and female lead character tipped me off). The game takes a couple of aspects from The Sims and applies it to more directed interactions with animals.

The graphics of Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D are very reminiscent of The Sims. The game is played from an isometric perspective, giving you a view of your vet and her hospital of horrors. The graphics are better than the original Sims, but don’t complete with other 3-D games that are similar in nature. The hospital is not very detailed and can’t be rearranged at all, and there are serious issues with your character. While the animals exhibit some good, semi-random behaviors, the examination portion of the game is completely horrible: your character never visually picks up or uses any objects (just air) although the “appear” to: the result is comical in a very bad way. It’s odd to watch your vet examine a rabbit with a thermometer by waving at the creature with no thermometer in their hand; it’s like they are performing voodoo on the poor creature. If you’re going to be a vet simulation, you had better simulate the vet part of being a vet visually using the real instruments instead of cryptic animations involving nothing but empty space. The sound is very similar to the graphics: the voice acting is awfully corny and repetitive, and since most of the actions in the game are accompanied by talking, you’ll be hearing plenty of it. The background music actually isn’t that bad and what you’d expect in a game like this meant for a specific audience, but it’s the lone bright spot in a sea of ineptitude.

Most of Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D is played by fulfilling the objectives of a scenario. The objectives are clear, but the game doesn’t specifically state how to go about performing them. There is a tutorial available that covers most of the concepts in the game that does a pretty good job, but some of the actions in the game need to be clearer without having to delve into the manual. You’ll be instructed to treat and take care of a number of different animals along your journey, including rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, and pigs (although the game sadly does not include a “make ham and bacon” scenario). Customers will bring in their sick animals and you can choose to accept them as patients. The game then automatically goes into the examination, where you use any or all of your instruments to determine what’s wrong with Fluffy. The game gives you a choice of five to ten possibilities, and with each instruments, the probabilities of each illness change. This is a lot less fun than is sounds, however, as each sickness has a “money” instrument that will instantly tell you what’s wrong, and it’s just a matter of having and using that particular instrument. The game would have been better if examinations involved more guesswork or had some sort of hard time limit instead of being so easy. Because of the lack of difficulty, examinations become boring very quickly.

After the examination is complete, the animal may be discharged or held in the hospital for observation. If you need to keep an eye on them, you’ll need to feed, clean, and play with them until they leave your care. This is also a very simple operation, as each animal has clearly indicated needs (like in The Sims) that have a direct solution, and it’s just a matter of doing these things. All of the feed and instruments in the game are bought through the store, where you can also purchase books for better veterinary care or hiring a caretaker to watch the animals for you (although it’s so simple there’s really no reason).

Your veterinary character also has needs that must be fulfilled, although there are only two: sleeping and eating, each of which are done by clicking on the appropriate object (bed, refrigerator) and selecting a duration (depending on how tired or hungry you are). You’ll also need to purchase and read books to make more advanced medical observations, and the books give the player some superficial information about the pets in the game. There are some bugs involving character movement in the game that are frustrating. You will routinely click on far-away location to keep your vet on the move, and your character may or may not move there. It’s quite a mystery as to which locations your character will run to and which she won’t, and when there is an impatient customer waiting, time is of the essence. You also can’t stop any actions in the middle. This makes sense in some cases (like sleeping or during an examination), but the game won’t allow you to stop reading when a customer arrives. Since the customers come in at random times, this makes reading some background information a tricky proposition. People in real life would put down their book and answer the door, but not in Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D: reading is too important to be interrupted!

Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D is very similar to The Sims in terms of gameplay: you must maintain yourself and the animals by performing set tasks. However, the daily grind of veterinary science comes into play too soon, and each day becomes the same as the last in a never ending struggle of monotony. The tasks in the game are accomplished too easily to make the game challenging. In The Sims, there was a time element that made the game move along at a quick pace, but Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D involves way too much time just waiting for something to happen, especially early in the game. You can finish all of your tasks in quick succession, and then it’s just a waiting game until your next patient shows up, which may be a long period of time. You can’t make time accelerate by going to sleep because patients are almost guaranteed to show up while you take a midday nap. There are no real long-term goals either, other than unlocking new animals that behave essentially the same as the ones before them. There is just no real reason to play the game, and that’s the biggest fault of Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D.

A veterinary simulation could have resulted in a somewhat compelling game, but Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D falls short of those lofty goals. I’m not too terribly concerned about the outdated graphics and sound, although the lack of meaningful instrument use during examinations is unforgivable. My main problem is that Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D is just not fun to play. The game isn’t challenging to any level of player, as examinations are too easy and taking care of the animals is repetitive and it yields no real rewards. The game is dull except when you have lots of animals to examine and take care of, and this really doesn’t happen until the end of the game; by this time, most people would have grown tired of Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D anyway. Most of the animals behave the same and there is no concrete different between a horse and a cat except in terms of appearance. Even if you love animals, Animal Hospital: Pet Vet 3D doesn’t offer gameplay that’s exciting enough to keep you interested for very long.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


DEFCON, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Simple yet deep gameplay with multiple strategies, excellent multiplayer, useful tutorial, intuitive user interface, not much micromanagement, few but comprehensive unit types, wonderful themed graphics and sound, capable AI
The Not So Good: Defenses are exceptionally stout which may annoy overly aggressive players, AI will not sign or break treaties
What say you? It turns out total global annihilation is very fun: 8/8

There was a movie released about 20 years ago where a computer hacker accesses a government computer that launches nuclear missiles thinking it’s a computer game, almost unleashing World War III. I am, of course, talking about Terms of Endearment. Now, wouldn’t that computer game make a good computer game? That’s what the people at Introversion Software thought, bringing their pedigree of low-cost but high-fun PC games to the childish glee of thermonuclear chaos. Sure, watching nuclear detonations is good fun, but what if you were in charge of killing millions of people at the touch of a button? Sounds like a grand old time to me!

DEFCON has a wonderful theme that resonates through the game’s graphics and sound, simulating Cold-War era computing power complete with wire-frame continents and simple mock-ups of aircraft and weapons. This not only fits the mood and period of the game, but is also makes it easier to code the graphics (good for a small developer) and it allows the game to run on pretty much any system. The overall effect is very convincing in a disconnected sort of way: it’s eerie watching the world light up from countless nuclear blasts on a map, and it’s just as successful as seeing it more “realistically” through 3-D methods. DEFCON feels like you’re using authentic equipment as you rain down destruction upon your foes from the comfort of an underground bunker. Watching the world get destroyed on DEFCON’s map is just as thrilling/disturbing as any more true-to-life game with cutting-edge 3-D effects. The sound is also great, with appropriate warnings when launches occur and subdued explosions when the bombs drop. The background music is spectacular: the haunting score fits the mood of the game very well. In addition, the music will gradually change according to the action on screen instead of being set songs in a set order (becoming more somber as you turn your Mom into a pile of ash, you bastard). Introversion delivers a great visual feast while making the game accessible to all gamers. Plus, the graphics and sound are memorable: screenshots of DEFCON are easily identifiable, unlike the hordes of first person shooters or run-of-the-mill RTS games available that all look the same. DEFCON is a distinct title and delivers a alarmingly convincing atmosphere in which to destroy.

The premise of DEFCON is simple: kill people. Lots of them. You do this by launching nuclear warheads deep into enemy territory by various means and defending against incoming attacks. The game features an excellent tutorial to get you acquainted with the game in addition to the downright hilarious manual, which includes instructions on how to build your own fallout shelter and suggests wearing sunscreen (SPF 45) to prevent against radiation. All of the matches in DEFCON could be considered as skirmish games (there is no campaign, because it would last one game anyway) that can be played against the AI or online (or both). There are some custom game modes available, including Office Mode that features six hour long real time games intended for a working environment (don’t worry: pressing escape twice will minimize the game to the taskbar and the icon will flash indicating important events…awesome) and Speed DEFCON for the attention-span challenged. You can also adjust the settings of the game, altering the number of cities, assigned territories, or the victory timer settings. The default scoring mode gives points for kills and deducts points for losses, but additional modes can give points for kills only or just the number of survivors.

The game progresses in real time (that can be accelerated, thankfully) and keeps going until everyone has used a set amount of the nuclear stockpile (then a victory timer starts, allowing for some last second launches). The user interface is very well done and manageable as you can perform all of the actions in the game using the mouse and spacebar: right clicking changes unit modes and issues movement orders, while left clicking selects units and targets. DEFCON also has informative tool-tips giving the user data on the strengths and weaknesses of any selected unit. In addition, the game features a suite of overlays indicating where available nukes are located, population centers, and radar coverage. Everything you need is at your fingertips and you’ll never have to navigate away from the main screen at any point in the game.

As time progresses in the game, the DEFCON level increases and you’ll have access to more nefarious tactics. You’ll start each game by placing your units and buildings. Much like tactical RTS games, you are given a set number of units and buildings to place at the beginning of the game with no resource collection or building of units after placement. This eliminates a lot of the tedium seen in long, drawn out battles many RTS games feature where the losers can keep cranking out units and run around the map like idiots. DEFCON doesn’t feature a long list of different units, but the number of strategic options is still intact. Naval units include battleships (for naval combat), subs (for covert nuclear strikes), and carriers (for long-range bombing and sub detection), each of which have their own advantages and disadvantages (like everything in a well-balanced game). These are grouped into fleets of one to six to make moving units easier. You’ll also be able to place several installations for offensive and defensive purposes: radar to detect enemy units, airbases to launch bombers and fighters, and silos that both launch nuclear weapons and defend against incoming airborne units. Most structures and units have multiple modes of operation, such as launching nuclear weapons and running silent for subs and launching fighters and bomber and detecting subs for carriers. It takes time to switch between the different modes, so your forces can become vulnerable to an attack during transformation; this opens up a host of strategies if you have good intelligence on your opponents.

DEFCON is a very strategically interesting game as you try to counter your opponents’ strategies. There are several methods you can use to take down your enemies. Attacks will come from land-based silos and airbases as well as sea-based subs and carriers. DEFCON becomes a game of timing, as the main defensive mechanism to guard against incoming attacks (silos) is also the main offensive mechanism for forming attacks. Silos can only be set to one mode at a time and switching from defensive to offensive settings takes time. Also, all players are informed of a launch from a sub or silo, so be prepared for a retaliation attack shortly if you decide to throw your arsenal at the opposition. Silos are very sturdy defenses as well: it takes three direct hits from nuclear bombs to take out a silo, so successfully taking out an enemy may require a large number of warheads being launched at the game time (or waiting until they are in launch mode). Defensive silos seems a little bit too effective at anti-aircraft operations, but I suppose this discourages half-hearted, infantile attacks. It seems that the main goal is to send more offensive targets than the defender can handle so that some of the missiles and bombers will make their way through the air defenses to their targets. Some players will be content to wait until a launch is made against their land, knowing that the defensive silos are now vulnerable to a counter-attack. There are a number of viable strategies to the game and no clear exploits or set strategies which is always a good thing. You'll strive to counter what your opponent is bringing to the radioactive table and change your tactics on the fly.

Alliances are allowed during the game, which allows allies to share radar and concentrate on a common foe. Since alliances can be formed and broken at any time, this can make for some sneaky and downright mean tactics during the game, especially since only one person is declared the winner instead of the winning alliance. As an example, I was in second place near the end of the game, so I broke an alliance with the leader and subsequently launched about 50 nukes at them (since we were previously allied, I knew where his units were…ha ha, sucker). This made them mad but I won and that’s all that matters. For those non-social types, you can play against the AI. While the AI doesn’t participate in diplomacy (alliances) like human players, they are a challenging opponent that seems to exhibit several distinct behaviors (aggressive and passive). I have yet to consistently stomp over the AI (especially with 5 or 6 players), so even though DEFCON was made with multiplayer in mind, you can still have a grand time laying waste to the AI.

DEFCON is an extremely entertaining real time strategy game that is easy to learn and play, but contains enough strategic depth to keep most everybody interested. The game features a low number of units and wipes away a lot of the tedious micromanagement of other games (as units will automatically defend against enemy threats), making DEFCON much less daunting than a majority of strategy games. The game lets you concentrate on the big picture: building bases, positioning units, forming a plan, and selecting juicy targets. DEFCON can be adjusted to fit any requested pace, from quick matches to drawn out slugfests. Plus, the mood of the game is brilliant; there is a reason DEFCON includes a rolling demo, as the game is just plain fun to watch. Oh, and it’s under $20. DEFCON is ultimate pick-up-and-play multiplayer strategy game and I don’t know why you wasted your time reading this review instead of playing. Now go kill some innocent civilians!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sword of the Stars Review

Sword of the Stars, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Destineer Studios.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, semi-random tech tree, ship upgrades are straightforward, hardly any micromanagement, managing large fleets is easy, races have marked differences, multiplayer match flexibility
The Not So Good: 3-D map is tricky to navigate, narrow victory conditions, new alien contacts are treated as hostile
What say you? A fine introduction to the world of 4X strategy games: 6/8

After a period of time spent on life support, space 4X strategy games have been making a comeback of sorts. After the demise of the Master of Orion series, the genre needed a solid title, and Galactic Civilizations was the answer. The sequel has made the genre even more popular, and along with other recent titles like StarShift and Earth-based Civilization IV, the 4X strategy game is living well. Another entry into the fray is Sword of the Stars, which replaces the micromanagement present in other games with more hot ship-on-ship action. Is Sword of the Stars another worthy addition to the genre? Are there any pictures of this hot ship-on-ship action?

Sword of the Stars is played on a 3-D map. While this is more realistic than most games that take place on a flat plane, it results in a lot more confusion for the player: trying to estimate distances between and location of stars is extremely difficult, and the game doesn't include some sort of grid to help you out. The 3-D map looks OK, as the planets and stars are detailed enough and very similar to those found in Gal Civ II. The space backgrounds are underwhelming, as most space games fill the void with colorful nebulae. The 3-D map is not worth the effort, as the game would have been much easier to play in just two dimensions and could have looked and played the same. The combat turns have some good effects, but nothing that will astound the user. The battles are much less intense than, say, Star Wars: Empire at War but are just good enough. Again, the graphics are typical of a 4X strategy game, and Sword of the Stars offers nothing we've never seen in compeating titles. The sound is very basic, consisting of simple voice-overs and weapon effects, and the voice acting is quite horrible and annoying at best. The background music is generic and not memorable at all, and it just serves as filler to make the game not appear totally silent. Sword of the Stars does just enough to make it average in terms of graphics and sound.

Unlike some space strategy games, Sword of the Stars features both single player and multiplayer gaming modes. The cool thing about the multiplayer modes is that you can leave, have an AI player substitute for you, and join back in at a later time. You can issue general commands to the AI while you are away (such as expand or defend), and they’ll do an adequate job in maintaining your empire. If the host of the match quits, the game is saved and can be hosted by another of the remaining players. You can also host a game that’s been started in single player or vice versa. This kind of interweaving between single player and multiplayer modes is smooth and generally flawless, and the game can be persistent as long as the host remains in the game. Because of the turn- based nature of the game, online play is lag-free as well, so Sword of the Stars should satisfy those players looking for human competition. Each of the games can be customized in terms of galaxy shape and size, containing upwards of 350 explorable stars, which is quite ridiculous. This makes for an extremely long game that’s boring in the beginning while you’re exploring the galaxy, but the option is there for people who want it. You can also set the number of initial colonies and technologies (for a faster start) and the efficiency of research (for a faster start); Sword of the Stars includes a good number of options that can tailor the game to suit any preference. The game also includes a handful of scenarios, but they are extremely difficult and most people will probably stick to the random custom games.

There are four races in Sword of the Stars, which differ according to their movement method and focus. Humans can only travel fast along set routes (called nodes), much like a highway system. The Tarkas and Liir can travel between any system at a fast pace, while the Hiver travel extremely slow but use gates once they have reached a system for instant travel. To compensate for their slow initial speed, the Hivers have high population growth and more sturdy ships. The Tarkas have a military focus, the peaceful Liir specialize in research, and the Humans are good all around. In other games of this genre, the differences between the races are usually superficial things like behavior and disposition, but in Sword of the Stars the variations affect the overall strategy of your side, especially in the case of the Hiver.

Most of the game will be played from the 3-D strategic map, which, as I mentioned earlier, is tough to navigate. There is a slow-moving news ticker at the bottom of the screen that can be clicked for all events during the turn; there should be a better method of informing the user of important proceedings like an automatic pop-up. Sword of the Stars provides a simple pie graph illustrating the division of income into the fixed fleet maintenance and developing planet costs, as well as the user-set balance between research and the treasury. Most of your flexible income will initially be spent in research: you’ll only need a small amount of money for constructing new ships while your empire is young. The fact that you only need to make one setting for your empire’s economy shows the elimination of a lot of the tedium associated with 4X games: Sword of the Stars is more concerned about the big picture, rather than the small aspects of your budget. Your income is gained from your planets, which are rated according to their climate: different races can stand different levels of climate, so an inhospitable planet for you might be just right for another player. The speed at which planets can produce ships is a product of the amount of resources, infrastructure, and population. Most of your budget in the beginning of the game will be spend terraforming and improving the infrastructure of your planets in order to make them more welcoming to your citizens, and you can split funds between improving infrastructure and terraforming and your income from trade. Again, buildings and structures are constructed automatically, so you don’t need to worry about all the buildings at each of your planets.

Sword of the Stars has a semi-random technology tree that has different paths each time you play the game. This serves to eliminate the “money” technologies and set paths you’d take every time in other games, but it makes it difficult to remember the prerequisites for some important advanced technologies, and you might not even get access to those important advanced technologies at all. The game also doesn’t offer any suggestions to what research you should invest in next, but the game does classify each technology to make it a little easier on you. Ship design is also streamlined in the game, as every ship consists of three parts (command, mission, and engine) that can be outfitted with different modules to fit a specific role. New mission components are unlocked with better technology, allowing for the construction of colony ships, tankers for refueling, repair vessels, mining ships, and a host of assault and defensive craft. You will have to manually upgrade the weapons on each of your ships when research is finished; this is kind of odd that this isn’t done automatically like most of the game, but it’s still fairly easy to do. Building ships is very easy as well, and a queue can be made to have a list of desired craft. Ships are automatically placed into fleets (greatly appreciated) and can be moved into new or existing fleets simply by dragging them around. Movement commands are a simple as selecting a fleet and the destination planet; the game will also indicate if your fleet as enough fuel to make the trip (building tankers for long distance treks is a must). I really like how Sword of the Stars makes handling large numbers of ships simple with the automatic fleet options and listing of those fleets (and their current locations) on the empire summary screen. I would only like to have an indication of which fleets currently have orders and which don’t, but that’s a relatively minor complaint.

Once ships of different species come together in the same system, it’s time for combat. You have a little bit more input into the combat in Sword of the Stars than other games, as the game plays like a simplified RTS title. You can select your ships, give them movement commands, and order them to attack the enemy ships in specified locations, disabling the engines or the weapons. You can also give generic commands, such as stand-off or close to attack, so that commanding large numbers of ships is a little easier. You can also have the AI auto-resolve the combat, although most of the manual turns will result in draws (due to the combat turn time limit) and simulated turns will result in a victory for the one with the most ships. The weapons will fire automatically, assuming you’ve disabled the cease fire order. It seems that all ships start the round with cease fire on (just in case you don’t want to attack this newly-discovered race), but I still don’t remember whether the green or red light means cease fire is on. Does green mean cease fire is on, or does green mean it’s OK to fire? The game doesn’t really help in the explanation (saying “on” and “off” instead of a color in the manual). The only way to figure it out is to see if your ships are firing, and by then it might be too late. The damage during combat is purely visual, which is fine except that it’s sometime difficult to lock on enemy ships or even to spot them against the dark background.

The AI of Sword of the Stars seems to be decent enough, expanding appropriately and putting up a good fight at the default difficulty levels. You’ll really need to gather a large force in order to take them down, as building defenses in the game is cheap, easy, and effective. Sword of the Stars is pure combat, as the only way to win is to take over the galaxy. There are no alternative victory conditions, such as economic, influence, or technology victories (which puts the Liir at a disadvantage); those players, like myself, that aren’t complete warmongers might be put off a little by this. The game will also treat newly encountered enemy players as hostile, taking you into combat mode whenever you run into other exploring ships. If you auto-simulate these matches, the AI will automatically attack any other units even if you don't want it to. I realize that, because of the limited victory conditions, that you'll need to attack eventually, but I'd much rather spend the early part of the game exploring instead of attacking everything in sight. Can't we all just get along?

While Galactic Civilizations II is excellent for veteran players, Sword of the Stars is great for beginning players or those interested in military conquests. The game is very easy to use (apart from the confusing 3-D map), and I like how Sword of the Stars streamlines most of the game, making a lot of the actions automated with little user input. Of course, control freaks won’t like this very much, but nuts to them. Sword of the Stars makes getting your empire up and running easy as pie, and most of the game is designed to make overall strategy the focus. However, limiting victory to the strongest military players limits some of the options available to each player, and the game becomes a contest of who has the better ships. Still, better ships are a result of a strong economy and good research, so really a conquest victory includes portions of each part of the game. Sword of the Stars also features some fantastic multiplayer options, allowing the user to quit and rejoin the same game while the AI plays for you. The scenarios are quite difficult and not worth the effort (as alien encounters obliterate most of your ships), but there is enough replay value in the custom games (coupled with multiplauer) to keep you going for a bit. While Sword of the Stars doesn’t have a lot of the advanced options present in other titles, the game will appeal to more casual players looking for a straightforward 4X strategy game with combat-only options.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Traffic Review

Traffic, developed and published by INtex Publishing.
The Good: Real world cities, numerous operating options, custom map editing
The Not So Good: Tremendously hard to maintain a profit, lack of simple tutorial cities, user interface could be better, can’t change game speed
What say you? An intriguing public transportation simulation, but steep difficulty makes the game too frustrating: 5/8

Roads and highways are things we take for granted. We use them everyday, and then complain when the traffic is bad or there is too much construction. Well, Mr. Whiny Pants, why don’t you design the transit system, huh? See how you like it. That’s the premise behind Traffic, which lets you control the bus and train systems for several large cities around the world. Think you could do better? Let’s find out!

Traffic is played entirely on a 2-D map, and as long as you weren’t expecting SimCity or City Life 3-D graphics, then you won’t be too disappointed. The game looks like a bus or subway map you’d find posted as stops along the route, and has icons representing the vehicles as they move along their route. I think it would have been extremely difficult to model all of the world cities believably in 3-D, so I’m fine with the map view, plus it opens the door for modders to add their own creations to the mix. My only problem with the graphics is that a lot of the information would have worked better as overlays on the map (like the information presented in SimCity) instead of separate windows where you have to match up the corresponding locations. Other than that, I feel that the maps work well. The sound in Traffic is barely present: just some traffic sounds and some notification warnings, and that’s it. The real focus of the game is the underlying simulation, so not surprisingly the graphics and sound of Traffic aren’t the best, but they are adequate.

In Traffic, you are charged with maintaining a profitable transit system in the world’s largest cities. You may play each city as an open sandbox mode, or in a development mode where you work on a different part of the city and work your way onward and upward. Traffic features a good number of real world cities, but the game doesn’t offer an easy starter city or have a tutorial, so you’ll have to read the online manual like a sucker. In the game, you make bus, train, and subway routes, add vehicles, and maintain the overall system. Tracing the routes could have been easier: you need to click on each individual piece of road along the route, and each time the road makes an intersection or turns, you’ll need to click again. Plus, the game randomly selects adjacent roads without you clicking on them, which requires the user to delete part of their route. Once a route is placed, you must assign vehicles to them, which range from small (but cheap) to big (but expensive). You can also change the times the route is active (daytime only, weekends, et cetera). The game indicates which areas of the town have the most passengers, which takes some of the guesswork out of laying down some routes. You can set up buses, trams, metro lines, tram trains, and commuter trains, but most of these options are so expensive it’s not worth it unless the scenario requires it.

Once you’re done making the perfect route system, the game quits because you’ve gone bankrupt. You see, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a profit in the game. In fact, I’ve never made it past the second week of the game because I keep losing money. If you have a route that’s always full with good spacing between buses, why shouldn’t you make money? It’s the most confounding thing I’ve ever seen. In addition, it takes time for a route to make money (why?!?), so by the time you realize a route is no good, it’s too late and you’ve lost the game. This is enormously annoying, so much so that most people will just quit playing and never go back. The game requires you to make a boatload of money from the beginning of the game. This wouldn’t be as bad if the game let you pause time, but the game marches on at its fixed pace. It takes the first two game days just to lay down one route (because of the difficulty in laying routes); that’s two days of profit you’ve missed and a lost game is the result. The online manual offers some tips, but they are of no help. I’ve tried building one line at a time, increasing the ticket prices (this causes people to stop taking the bus), running only one small bus at a time, and a host of other unrealistic solutions, but nothing has worked. If I’m running an efficient system that’s transporting a solid number of travelers, why should I lose? The world may never know.

Traffic is a good idea gone horribly, horribly wrong due to excessive difficulty. I like the basic premise. I like the mechanics. But the game is so hard that I don’t see anyone really enjoying playing the game unless the figure out the trick to turning a profit. In all of the game I’ve played (and I’ve played a good number since I always have to restart because I keep losing), I’ve had one profitable line. Of course, the other six lines were unprofitable, so I was screwed. I’m connecting the most heavily demanded areas and the buses are all full: what’s the problem? I think the economics of the game and the arbitrary “payments” that must be made each Monday are the problem. Of course, since neither the game nor the manual explicitly say what the “payments” are, it’s all speculation on my part. Traffic really needs a small city where you can learn the game before you move on to the large metropolises, where victory is almost assured if you know how to build a line. But Traffic offers almost no help to the user, a death sentence if you are a tricky game to begin with. All but the most interested in public transportation will be turned away by the challenging nature of Traffic. Who knew designing bus lines would be so hard?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Total Pro Golf Review

Total Pro Golf, developed and published by Wolverine Studios.
The Good: Career mode is comprehensive, course designer, you can import real world golfers and equipment
The Not So Good: Golf scores are more dependent on ratings than user input, initial course selection is poor
What say you? A robust career and custom settings, but the actual play is lacking meaningful interaction: 5/8

For the more statistics-minded person, there is a grand selection of sports management games available on the market. Designed for people who like to act as coach and general manager more than control individual players during a game, this genre has a strong niche among PC games. From the developer of one of the better management games, Total College Basketball, comes Total Pro Golf, where you guide a new player fresh to the tour on his or her path to greatness.

Graphics are on par with what you would expect in a sports management game. The menus and data are mostly text, although they are arranged well and look better than most games of the genre. It’s generally easy to navigate through the game, although some of the options that are available from the main screen picture are not listed on the side menu. All of the golf holes are depicted from an overhead perspective, which is fine and you get a good idea of what each hole is about. The hole illustrations are basically the same as those found on a scorecard; you don’t need 3-D graphics to make a golf game, and the blimp view definitely makes it easy to create custom courses. The sound is the pure minimum: some crowd reactions to good or bad shots (that are the same each time), and the sound of the club hitting the ball. There isn’t any in-game music to speak of, which may actually be a good thing considering the low-quality scores present in some games. Total Pro Golf delivers exactly what you’d expect for a sports management game, nothing more, nothing less.

In Total Pro Golf, your primary goal is to develop a character from an amateur player to golf superstardom. When you start a new career, you can choose between a single player or multiplayer league (where you can compete against golfers controlled by other humanoids). You can then browse the three tours (amateur, men’s, and senior), which, like a lot of the things in this game, can be customized to include real, unlicensed tours. You then select the sponsors of golf equipment (again, this can be edited), the home countries of the tour players, and fill in your initial and potential ratings in areas such as putting and long iron play. During your career, there are several things to do. You’ll need to keep track of your money, as entering tournaments costs money, and the only way to earn money is by placing well in tournament or getting sponsorship deals (which requires you to place well in tournaments). Your golfer will also gain fatigue if they play or practice too much (everyone needs a day off), which will lead to more mistakes during tournament play. You will also need to hire a coach and a caddy: these two will give you bonuses or better attributes. The pro shop contains all of the golf equipment available, and keeping up to date with the latest equipment will result in better play. Finally, you’ll be able to schedule practice, either a round or a specific skill, and enter tournaments. Total Pro Golf has pretty much all of the options you’d expect in a golf management game, and the game keeps you busy in your decision making but the season doesn’t drag on, as all of the activities can be simulated if you don’t feel like actually playing a practice round but your character needs the training. Following and developing a player from his infancy through the professional and senior tours is quite fun and not as tedious as you might expect, assuming that you enjoy this type of game.

While the management aspects of Total Pro Golf are strong, the actual rounds of golf are not. Total Pro Golf comes with only a few courses to play on, but there is already a good number of real world and fictional courses available for download. During a round, you select a location, choose a club, and select a normal swing, and over swing, or an under swing. The game then decides, according to your ratings, where the ball actually goes. Other than choosing a safe spot to shoot for, the amount of user input is minimal. Unlike more traditional golf games like Tiger Woods, the result of each swing is not based on how well you “swung” the club, but what the computer gets from your stats. The game would have worked a lot better if the user has any impact on the shots other than general placement. Incorporating the mouse swing technology used in other golf games, where the direction of mouse movement simulates a swinging golf club, would have given the user a sense of actually doing something. The game could have still used the stats to determine the shot location, but in combination with some user input. As it stands, Total Pro Golf involves clicking the mouse and watching what happens, and it gets very tedious very quickly. Putting is even worse, as you don’t need to aim at all (you’re automatically aiming at the hole), and putting anything other than normal results in a poorly missed shot. The user has absolutely no affect on the putting in the game: you can make a spectacular approach shot, but if the computer decides for a three-put, it’s bogey time. Again, just letting the user do something other than clicking “swing” would have been a lot better. As with real golf, a good round is all about making putts, which is completely automated and based on your stat ratings, so what’s the point? It’s better off to save some time and completely simulate the entire tournament, since stats decide how well you do anyway.

The strong management aspects of Total Pro Golf are not enough to compensate for pointless gameplay. This is frustrating, too, because the game would have been great if playing a round of gold was actually fun, instead of watching the ball land where the computer decides, instead of using some sort of user input other than club selection and an aiming direction. Total Pro Golf does allow for a good amount of user editing, from the course layouts to the golfer names, equipment, and tours. Still, this amount of flexibility doesn’t matter if the core gameplay (playing golf) is a drag. Combining the management of Total Pro Golf with the gameplay of, say, Tiger Woods, would have resulted in quite a solid golf program, but the tournaments of Total Pro Golf fall short because the user input is minimally important.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Armadillo Run Review

Armadillo Run, developed and published by Peter Stock.
The Good: Outstanding physics engine with interactive elements, infinite solutions, easy construction, requires some thought, level editor
The Not So Good: Not as many parts as other games, bland graphics
What say you? An entertaining construction-based puzzle game with exceptional physics: 7/8

As computers have become more sophisticated, developers have been including more advanced physics in their games. From the rag-doll effects of first person shooters to realistic aerodynamics in flight simulators, games have progressively gotten closer to simulating real life. Real world physics have found their way into puzzle games as well, bringing Newtonian mechanics to the realm of solving computerized conundrums. In Armadillo Run, you will guide an armadillo/yellow ball from start to finish by constructing various Rube Goldberg–like contraptions.

Armadillo Run concentrates more on the physics of the game than the visual presentation of what’s going on, and consequently features some pretty dull graphics. The backgrounds are solid white (for the most part) and the pieces are exactly what they are (a rope is a rope and not a snake) with no fanciful enhancement. The game is presented in full 3-D, though, and you can watch from the armadillo’s point of view during the puzzle’s execution, which is pretty cool. So while the graphics have no pieces of flair, the 3-D engine saves the game from being totally dreadful in the graphics department. The sound is also frugal to say the least: there are only a few sound effects and no background music. Armadillo Run won’t win any awards for visual or audio presentation, but the minimalist nature of the game shouldn’t be too disappointing for most players.

Each level in Armadillo Run requires you to build a structure to guide your armadillo ball-of-fun to the exit portal, where it must become stationary for around five seconds. You have several materials at your disposal to construct your solutions. There are three surfaces to choose from: inflexible metal, flexible cloth, and bouncy rubber. Each of these materials must be anchored to stationary anchor points through the use of the three supports: inflexible metal bars, flexible rope, and bouncy elastic. See a pattern forming here? You can also use rockets to make stuff fly across the level or otherwise fight against the force of gravity, though they are expensive. You are limited to the amount of money you can spend on each level, which prevents an outrageously complicated solution. You can influence each of the materials by applying (or removing) tension or setting a timer for destruction purposes. The game includes 50 levels of increasing difficulty and has a level editor so that you can come up with your own crazy situations (as many people have already done). The end result is a very satisfying game even with the small number of tools at your disposal. You can create pretty much anything your budget will allow, and the great thing about a game like this is that you can come up with a solution that the puzzle builder never even thought of and still pass the level. It’s this kind of flexibility that results in high value. Some of the solutions are difficult, but the game gives small hints on which way to tailor your solutions. The number of possible ways to solving most of the puzzles varies tremendously, unlike most puzzle games where the only appropriate solution is essentially hard-coded into the game. Armadillo Run also allows for some pretty cool mechanics once you figure out how to make them: rockets, slides, trampolines, you name it, it’s probably possible to build.

Armadillo Run takes its comprehensive physics engine and comes away with a very entertaining puzzle game. The contraptions you come up with all behave as they should, with no wacky collisions or outcomes. Many different solutions are possible, so that removes a lot of the frustration present in most puzzles games of this type. The game’s 50 puzzles (plus a comprehensive and excellent tutorial) are enough to keep you busy for a while, but the community has come strong with many wacky puzzles already available for download. There’s really no reason not to purchase this game, so download the demo and check out this wonderful puzzle game.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Europa Universalis III Preview

Europa Universalis III (Preview), developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Streamlined interface with detailed tooltips, 3-D graphics, built for mods, random and unscripted gameplay, varied military units with automatic reinforcements, numerous forms of government, new national ideas, military tradition rewards aggressive nations with better leaders
The Not So Good: Not released until 2007

The best grand strategy games ever made are Europa Universalis and Europa Universalis II. In fact, I though so much of those games, I gave them both perfect scores back at my old stomping grounds. The EU2 engine has been used in a number of follow-up games, such as Victoria and the overly complicated Hearts of Iron series. The series has now returned to what brought it to the dance, as the release of Europa Universalis III is slowly creeping up on the horizon (a little too slowly for my tastes). Through questionable techniques, I have gotten my hands on a beta version of the game. Will all of the bloodshed and bribery be worth it?

The first thing to notice about Europa Universalis III is the map: it’s in 3-D! All of the graphics and sound in the preview version are still in their working stage, but the game looks pretty good so far. Personally, I’m fine with a flat, 2-D map, but actually putting the mountains and trees on the map not only looks better, but it better represents the tactical challenges your armies will face. The units are represented in 3-D as well, and we’ll see how varied they become when the game is finally released (right now, they have different colored uniforms depending on their country). Flags flying above each of the capital cities is also a nice touch, and it makes it easy to identify your territory without have to result to the political map mode. The sound in this version of the game is still being worked on, but the background music seems to carry the strong tradition of period-influences scores present in previous versions of Europa Universalis. Probably the best aspect of Europa Universalis III is the streamlined user interface: almost everything is accessible now without obscuring the map (thanks, high resolutions!) and available on one of two interfaces (country or province, reachable by clicking on the country flag or the specific province). Europa Universalis III still employs the imformative tooltips present in earlier versions. Better graphics and easy to use? Sign me up!

Europa Universalis III continues the strong pedigree established by the earlier games. The game adds several new aspects to the gameplay, and since most people who are read this preview are at least somewhat familiar with the previous games, I’ll mostly touch on what’s new so that you can start salivating now. You can control any of the game’s 170 or so countries in both single player and multiplayer matches (although multiplayer was not included in this build). There are several start dates the game suggests (important historical events) and interesting country choices for each, but you can choose any country and any starting date from January 1st, 1453 to December 31st, 1789. This means that you can play Europa Universalis III minus the Europa, concerning yourself with conflicts in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and North America. Each country is rated according to how difficult it will be to survive so that you can gauge how frustrating playing as a vassal will be. This is also a good time to talk about the mod support of Europa Universalis III. The game comes with simple text files than can be altered to a greater extent than Europa Universalis II. Everything can be changed (except for the core engine): the map, events, advisors, buildings, countries, governments, technologies, trade goods, units, cultures, religions, and more. You can alter the game to cover any period of time and any alternative historical event you’d like: a mod designers dream. With the rather large following Europa Universalis II behind the new version of the game, expect some strong mods to be developed once the game is released. The provinces mostly stay the same, as each territory is rated in terms of population, how many troops it can support, the risk of a rebel revolt, a fortress garrison, religion, and culture (which may be different from the nation as a whole, especially for conquered lands). Europa Universalis III adds a new suite of provincial buildings to construct, each of which is unlocked according to technology level and provides a unique bonus. One of the main aspects of Europa Universalis III is trade, which is still conducted by sending a merchant to a center of trade.

A lot of the game’s actions are made from the domestic affairs box, which combines a lot of the interfaces from Europa Universalis II into one handy box-o-fun. New to Europa Universalis III is the ability to hire a court: three advisors can grant bonuses (such as increased research or prestige) for a monthly fee. This can be used to compensate for shortcomings in your country and promote the overall strategy of your nation. A lot of the advisors are key historical figures: as an example, I hired Tycho Brahe because he's damn sexy. All of the income you receive from taxes, production, and trade is divided into research, military upkeep, and the treasury. You can research government, production, trade, naval, and land bonuses, and also commit money to increasing your countries stability. Higher stability means more taxes and improved production, and stability is lowered by declaring war and random events. Hiring troops and constructing buildings costs money from your treasury, but you don’t want to send a lot of your spare cash to the treasury, as it will lead to high inflation. Putting that extra dough into research is the better option for long-term growth and prosperity. Speaking of the military, Europa Universalis III now features different unit types. You can choose a preferred unit type for your country based on your goals and aspirations, although selecting a Swedish unit for the Americans is kind of weird. Europa Universalis III also changes the way units are replaced. Instead of just building more units to replace losses, regiments will receive a constant stream of reinforcements. This is meant to remove a lot of the micromanagement associated with army activities and make it easier to maintain a large country. The goal is to have each country maintain a comfortable army size without having to constantly order new troops. Also new to Europa Universalis III are military leaders. Military action will increase your tradition, and high tradition can be exchanged for sweet generals (as good generals are made on the battlefield). This makes playing the game as a warring nation pay off, as more wars will result in better leaders for subsequent wars. If you’re having a shortage of leadership, your king can take to the battlefield and lead the troops himself (like Napoleon); of course, he might die, which would be bad.

Religion is still a big part of the game, and you can set tolerance levels for heretics: typically, you’ll have two religions you like, two you hate, and the rest will be in the middle. Europa Universalis III features new forms of government (17 at the present) that grant different bonuses and allow you to change domestic policies at specific rates. The government types get really specific so that you can tailor your bonuses toward your goals. Also new to Europa Universalis III are national ideas, a set of thirty ideals that also grant different bonuses, such as a bill of rights or exploration in the new world. Diplomacy remains large the same as you still have a copious amount of options to choose from: declaring war, royal marriages, offering alliances, embargoes, trade agreements, sending warming, asking for military access, and sending an insult. However, you can now implement spies, who can support a revolt, sabotage a country’s reputation, assassinate an advisor, or sink warships. Of course, spies can be caught (even if successful), and the penalty for having spies can be severe. Once diplomatic negotiations break down, it’s time for combat. The results of combat in Europa Universalis III have a more visual method: the game now shows the armies lined up against each other similar to a hex-based wargame and the subsequent dice rolls (and any bonuses) that will result in a winner once morale for one side is low enough. Retreating armies still have to be tracked down by the aggressor still, which results in a tedious game of tag. After war, it’s time for peace. You can annex a country is it only have one province left (not considered a good thing by other nations), or ask (or give) a tribute. Tributes may include provinces, converting religions, becoming a vassal, forming a new nation, or removing a province’s core status (declaring war on a core province is not considered bad). Europa Universalis III also has two new political bodies: the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire (well, the HRE was in EU2, but it’s essentially new). Whoever gets elected as leader of these factions (through a cardinal or member vote) gets some bonuses, such as extra diplomats or extra prestige. The games of Europa Universalis III are now unscripted; in Europa Universalis II, the game generally followed a facsimile of real life, but Europa Universalis III may take history in a completely unexpected but reasonable direction. Before, you could rely on non-random random events (like the Reformation) or good leaders coming up (like Louis XIV), but it’s all random now, buddy. This will shoot the replay value of Europa Universalis III even higher than its predecessors, and make mods even more interesting.

Yeah, Europa Universalis III looks pretty damn sweet. The game takes the base established by the series and adds a host of new features one would expect in a sequel. However, the game doesn’t seem to have become bloated with these editions and it’s still reasonable easy to play for a game of this scale (more straightforward than other Paradox games). New graphics. A new interface. Excellent modification support. New military units and leaders. New forms of government. New national ideas. Random but realistic gameplay. It’s just too bad the game doesn’t come out until next year. Assuming that Europa Universalis III doesn’t suddenly change to a World War II first person shooter, I think we can pencil in a perfect score and anxiously wait for its release in early 2007 to see how it all comes together. I am very excited to see the finished product, so save up some holiday cash, kiddies!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

DarkStar One Review

DarkStar One, developed by Ascaron and published by CDV.
The Good: Dynamic universe, lots of fast-paced combat, numerous ways to make money, simplified economics, decent story, skipped cutscenes are summarized, trading is viable in fighter class ships
The Not So Good: Each system is essentially the same, missions and combat become repetitive after a while
What say you? A combat-heavy space adventure: 6/8

Space adventures are probably the most popular type of career adventure game. From Freelancer to my personal favorite Independence War II, people seem to like exploring, fighting, and trading in space more than any other setting (more than, say, Delaware). The genre has quieted down recently (as with most flight simulations), but a renewed emergence has been experienced recently, and the next entry on the list is DarkStar One. You, as badass-for-hire and all-around beefcake Kayron Jarvis (Kayron?!?), pilot your father’s ship around the galaxy, hunting for answers to his untimely death and blowing stuff up in the process.

DarkStar One features some top-notch graphics and sound, assuming you have the system to run them to their fullest extent. The ship models look superb and show a distinct engineering style, and space environments are very detailed (including a copious amount of asteroids). Running the graphics at the highest setting requires quite a meaty computer, but the game still looks good even at medium settings, and things don’t get real choppy unless you’re entering a space station. Explosions are well done and aren’t too over the top. The user interface is comprehensive without being overly confusing, making the game easy to navigate but not cluttered. Essentially every piece of text is voiced in the game, even seemingly minor side missions, and that’s a welcome feature that makes you feel more immersed in the universe. The voice acting is decent enough, but not on the same level as games such as Prey. The background music fits the game, and the airport-style intercom pages while in a space station are a nice touch. I doubt many people will be disappointed with the graphics or the sound in DarkStar One.

DarkStar One is a single player only affair where you start with a basic ship and go out into the universe. Like Oblivion, the game allows you to follow the main storyline (which is well written despite being drawn out) or do some side missions in order to make fat stacks of cash. If you don’t like watching the cutscenes (like me), you can skip them and still read the important information afterwards. Your base is the space stations that are present in each of the game’s 300 or so solar systems. You can buy new equipment, do some trading, or get missions in the stations. The game does a good job organizing and explaining the different upgrades available to you, instead of just putting them all in a list and having you sort through them. You’ll also be able to find alien artifacts that can be used to upgrade your ship, improving speed or increasing weapon mounts. Trading is a very straightforward operation, as the trading menu clearly displays the supply of each product so there’s no need to scribble down prices of each of the game’s commodities: just buy the stuff in surplus and sell it at stations that need it. The surplus goods are determined by the type of planet the station is near (like an agricultural world). There are a good number of mission types in the game when you venture away from the main campaign. There is the usual selection of escort, deliver, and kill missions, but there is some variety present, such as the picture taking missions. DarkStar One makes earning money very easy and the game seems to display reasonable missions for your current skill level. Mission can change while you’re doing them, usually resulting in somebody getting mad at you for spying on them and then shooting you. This can get kind of annoying and predictable after a while, but the player is given some choice in what to do next in some missions, although the more reasonable selection is usually pretty apparent. The game also provides clear direction on what to do, and lists all of the objective locations and important objects on the screen.

Because the DarkStar One (that’s your ship) is primarily a fighting ship, there isn’t much room for cargo. The game allows you to tow (through the use of cargo drones) good behind the ship like a tractor-trailer, albeit at a slower speed. This makes so much sense and I don’t know why nobody else has done it already. Why should a game restrict you to using merchant vessels if you want to trade? DarkStar One has the flexibility to change your career choice without having to buy different ships. Thank you DarkStar One! The game also allows you to use time acceleration to traverse the semi-large distances in some of the systems, and hyper hump a certain radius to distant systems (as long as you’re not being pursued by an enemy). As I mentioned earlier, DarkStar One includes well over 300 systems with dynamic economies and goings-on. There is a war going on while you’re playing the game (which you may eventually become involved in, wink, wink), and the AI pilots go about their daily business. It’s nice to have a dynamic universe to explore where it seems more like a living, breathing world instead of a scripted video game. Although there are a large number of systems, each of them is basically the same and not very unique: planet, trade station, and asteroids are in pretty much every system placed in almost the same locations. This cookie-cutter universe detracts from the realism the other parts of the game strive for.

DarkStar One says it features a lot of different careers, but it really boils down to traders and fighters (I’m waiting for the research scientist position to open up), and either way you’re going to end up shooting at someone. DarkStar One removes the guesswork of shooting at a moving object from a moving object in three-dimensional space by providing an aiming reticle that leads your target. The game provides a good sound effect that accompanies a direct hit, and combat in the game is generally quick and painful. The opposing AI has wavering difficulty: some AI opponents are good and some are bad, but most of them do a adequate job of trying to avoid your fire while putting themselves in better position. It takes a little bit of skill to take them down, but it’s almost too easy to plow through the enemy fighters that don’t have vastly superior ships. The game does start to grind after a while as the enemy body count starts to pile up because of the game’s emphasis on combat.

DarkStar One is a game that will be appreciated by people who enjoy space adventures. It is a solid game, and while it doesn’t do anything too terribly novel, it plays very well and will satisfy those fans. The graphics and sound are top notch and there’s enough to do in the game to keep most people satisfied. I still like the variety of the systems in Independence War II more than the copycat systems in DarkStar One, though; this makes completing missions in different sectors seem like the same thing over and over again. Still, people who enjoy this type of game will be satisfied, but I doubt DarkStar One will attract any new converts to the space adventure genre. There are a couple of things that could have been improved in the game to make it have a wider appeal, and some will be turned off by the near constant action and eventually shallow career variety, but DarkStar One will provide at least some small amount of entertainment for almost everyone.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Odyssey: Winds of Athena Review

The Odyssey: Winds of Athena, developed and published by Liquid Dragon Studios.
The Good: Use of fluid physics is very creative, easy to learn, gradually introduces new enemies and procedures, game can be tricky
The Not So Good: Graphics could be better, base mechanics are monotonous
What say you? A truly unique concept and a fun, challenging game to boot: 6/8

Ancient Greece has been the setting of numerous movies and video games: Age of Mythology, Troy, and Revenge of the Nerds to name a few. The time period is ripe with spectacular mythical events involving gods and goddesses imposing their will on defenseless humans. The Odyssey: Winds of Athena involves altering the seas to guide Odysseus (the guy in The Odyssey) on his misadventures of wackiness following the Trojan War (apparently a war about prophylactics).

The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is played from an overhead perspective and the graphics are generally 2-D in nature. They could have been more detailed, but the graphics are on par with most puzzle games. The environments are a good enough representation of rocky shorelines and the water flowing through the ocean areas looks good enough and indicates which way it is flowing. The ships are very small and hard to see sometimes when the action is mildly intense. The sound is also pretty standard fare, with appropriate background music and some sound effects to accompany the action that’s taking place. Overall, the graphics and sound of The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is exactly what’d you expect in a game such as this.

The Odyssey: Winds of Athena features a single player campaign where you are presented with a series of maps (50 to be exact) and you must guide a specified number of ships from their starting point to the goal. This is done by using two methods: wind and moving water. Producing wind is very simple: just use your mouse in a circular motion to move ships in a straight line down their path. Making currents in the water is done by dragging your mouse in the intended direction to funnel the ships down the river. The Odyssey: Winds of Athena uses a good fluid physics model, as the water behaves exactly like it should when you start to move it around. Learning the game’s mechanics is very easy, as the entire game is controlled with the mouse and the correct gestures make sense. The difficulty of the game results from the player moving too much water around and different currents colliding, causing all sorts of confusion. To make matters worse, there are a number of obstacles scattered around the maps: rocky coastlines that will destroy ships and a number of characters that will throw objects or otherwise disrupt your ships in a variety of ways if you venture too closely. These objects are introduced gradually, so the campaign also serves as a tutorial of sorts. This also lets the player experience new things over time, keeping the player interested in the game as the campaign progresses. Playing the game is pretty fun as well, and it takes some skill to properly maneuver the ocean currents in the correct path and utilize the wind effectively. The game adds new obstacles frequently enough to make each puzzle seem different, or at least more difficult than the last. The core concept of the game won’t appeal to all players, however, and you really need to enjoy the fluid physics to get the most out of the game.

The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is a very unique game and there’s nothing else quite like it available. The game is very easy to learn and control and this should appeal to all age groups. The game can become quite challenging when numerous obstacles are presented on the maps. However, the game does suffer from some repetition as the controls don’t change and consist of only two movements, so in some ways the simplicity of the game works to its disadvantage. You can interact with a lot of the objects around the map by grabbing rocks or slapping characters, but these are minor diversions in the grand scheme of things. The Odyssey: Winds of Athena gets major points for being a completely unique idea, but the gameplay might become boring after a while to people who aren’t fully enthralled by the title. Still, The Odyssey: Winds of Athena is not just another puzzle game and its originality goes a long way to making it both enjoyable and distinguished.

Friday, September 01, 2006

First Battalion Review

First Battalion, developed by ZootFly and published by DreamCatcher Games.
The Good: Situational teammate commands, simple controls, usually accompanied by allies, Battlefield-like multiplayer, unique visual style for the minimap, objective locations are clearly marked
The Not So Good: Combat is not exciting and the battles are too quick, tanks don’t sound powerful enough, “destructible terrain” limited mostly to trees, poor AI results in an easy and boring campaign, checkpoint-only saved games, historical tank combat strategies are useless, simplistic damage model
What say you? An arcade tank shooter that is not sufficiently unique or stimulating: 4/8

Ever since they were first employed during World War I, tanks have been an imposing force on the battlefield. There’s something about tons of metal with an extremely large gun on them that strikes fear in the hearts of infantry all over the world. Obviously, us civilians would like to experience some of the power associated with these beasts, so game developers have been more than willing to supply us with many tank simulations. Some of these games have strived for authenticity, while others just want you to blow stuff up. First Battalion is one of the latter games, “combining some of the best elements from first-person shooters, role-playing and strategy games” and featuring “totally destructible environments,” according to the official website. Will First Battalion (also known as Panzer Elite Action: Fields of Glory in Europe) live up to these lofty goals?

The graphics of First Battalion are quite average for a tank simulation. The tanks themselves are detailed, but the environments can be quite bland. The battlefields do look realistic, though, with dirt roads, houses, and trees, but it’s not very impressive. The explosions and fire effects are overdone and campy. The animations for the soldiers are not high-quality, as they are stuff and choppy. The “totally destructible environments” are nowhere to be found: the only things that can be destroyed are trees, fences, and objective buildings. Everything else is solid as a rock: fire into a house, and it still stands. My expectations were much higher for this (I mean, the website said “totally”), and the lacking environments are disappointing at best. The sound is not as powerful as it should be: the tank turrets sound wimpy, although artillery is suitably impressive. The music in the game is a generic mix of battlefield bravado. While “totally destructible environments” would have greatly improved the situation, the graphics and sound of First Battalion are quite average.

First Battalion features a single player campaign where you control each of the major powers in World War II, going out on missions of destroying stuff. For some reason, the game doesn’t allow you to save your progress wherever you’d like as it uses a checkpoint system. The checkpoints are numerous, but I like the option of playing the game the way I want to play it instead of having arbitrary restrictions. And besides, we’re on the mighty PC, it’s not like we have memory card issues to worry about. Once you complete the battles, you can play them as single missions, though there’s no real reason to do this. Multiplayer is available through the game’s browser, and it features a Battlefield-like spawn point mode, where you try to capture all of the control points on the map. You can choose between a number of tanks, which trade speed for armor, and each has a specific secondary weapon that may range from air strike to mines. Multiplayer is a nice addition, but it’s nothing we’ve not seen before (and now you’re restricted to tanks).

Being an arcade tank game, First Battalion has very simple tank controls. Tanks turn on a dime (and really rotate too quickly) and are very easy to operate. Aiming is also simple, as you don’t need to compensate for weapon drop, and the crosshair changes color to “green” when enemy units are in your sights. You can use a secondary machine gun to eliminate troops, but the primary shells are much more effective and reload times are minimal. There is no advanced damage model in First Battalion, as incoming shells cause a generic amount of damage that can be instantly repaired at any of the game’s numerous repair stations. Some missions allow you to call in airstrike to eliminate a large group of enemies, but the amount of damage the strike cause is almost the same as a squad of tanks. The best feature of the game (sadly) is the minimap, which shows troops as “front” symbols and uses historical-looking maps, which lends a sort of authenticity to them. Objective locations are also clearly displayed, so there is not much guessing about what to do next.

The RTS part of First Battalion consists of orders you can give your squads. The game provides two choices depending on the situation, and you can choose between an offensive choice (attack, flank, recon) or a defensive choice (stop, form up). Your partners in crime will follow your orders, so the AI is good in that aspect. The system works OK, but I’d like to have more advanced commands or control over the infantry in the game to feel like I’m having a real impact on the battle instead of just my three tanks. The gameplay itself is underwhelming. Most of the missions consist of destroying stationary anti-tank guns, enemy troops, or enemy tanks. All of the enemy locations are scripted and they will always fire on sight and won’t use any cover (unless they were placed there by the map designer). It seems like the health of your tanks greatly outweighs those of the enemy, as two hits are enough to take out an enemy tank but it can take 5-10 to die yourself. This makes the game way too easy to beat and consequently very boring. Each mission plays out the same: drive, shoot, drive, shoot, drive, shoot some more. The game tries to make you feel like a small part of a larger conflict and it succeeds some of the time: missions where hordes of other tanks and planes screaming overhead are memorable but far too infrequent. The simple physics of the game also eliminates needing skill to beat the AI, and First Battalion quickly becomes an effortless shooting gallery.

I don’t think there’s been a game I’ve been more disappointed in recently than First Battalion. The game had such potential, but it’s just another tank game. The “totally destructible environments” aren’t even there, the RTS elements are minimal, and role-playing consists of reading an introduction and playing as a character. The game would have worked much better if you had more control over friendly troops and the missions in the game were of larger scale. Nobody wants to play some insignificant skirmishes over a small town involving a tiny number of tanks: we want epic battles! There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done in other games, and, worst of all, First Battalion becomes quite boring. The multiplayer is not unique enough to save the game (essentially a rip-off of Battlefield, minus the infantry), and the game is way too easy to be enjoyable. First Battalion simply falls short of the expectations for a fun and original game.