Thursday, November 30, 2006

For Liberty! Review

For Liberty!, developed by Hussar Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Generally satisfactory gameplay, realistic troop recruitment and training, automated supply and naval operations, tactical battles add some variety, mostly excellent user interface
The Not So Good: Very cumbersome due to large scenario scope, high level of unit micromanagement, slow pace
What say you? A good foundation for a quality wargame that’s too overwhelming to be very fun: 5/8

Computer games are finally starting to branch out into major conflicts other than World War II: the Russo-Japanese War, the Middle East, and the Civil War have all made an appearance recently. Another increasingly popular conflict is the American Revolution, previously addressed in the excellent game Birth of America. Hussar Games brings classic wargaming conventions to this troubled time period, covering both the American and Hungarian revolutions.

For Liberty! is rendered entirely in 2-D against at 2-D hex-based map. In this sense, the game looks pretty decent: most of the units are detailed, the maps look realistic, and there are a number of small notes of detail, such as waiving flags. For a 2-D game, For Liberty! looks good and it’s generally easy to navigate. Almost all of the unit attributes and settings can be seen from the main screen, so there isn’t much navigation away from the map. The icons are clear and easy-to-read, and the game includes extensive tool tips if you aren’t quite sure what information you’re looking at. The game does need an indication of troops that have movement points left, however, as cycling through all of the available troops is awkward. The leader name is greyed out, but there needs to be some easily identifiable indication on the map that certain units have been moved. The sound is pretty much what you’d expect in a wargame: appropriate background music and generic unit movement and action effects. There are some good period pieces in the game, and the music fits the theme of well. For Liberty! offers up pretty much what you’d expect for a wargame, so as long as you’re not expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics that will make your video card weep quietly, For Liberty! should not disappoint.

For Liberty! includes scenarios depicting the American Revolutionary War in addition to the Hungarian Rakoczi Independence War (1703-1711). The game also includes the previously-free game 1848, the basis for this title. You can play the game’s scenarios as single player or with real people in hot seat, network, or play-by-e-mail modes. For Liberty! allows for players of different levels of experience to play in the same game by granting morale boosts and allowing for simple or advanced rules (advanced rules involves settings stances and formations). All of the scenarios are very huge in scale, and there are no real good ones for beginning players like in Birth of America. The tutorial was hard to follow and sometimes did not advance correctly. Plus, information may have overflowed the text chat area and could be missed, adding to the confusion. You’re better off just reading the manual, although most of the game concepts are pretty familiar if you’ve played other wargames.

The maps in For Liberty! cover the eastern seaboard of North America or Hungary, depending on your chosen scenario. Each of the maps are divided into hexes, each of which contains a specific terrain (open, hilly, swamp, mountains) that affects troops movement and cover. Weather is also an important factor, as wintry conditions will severely limit operations. Although it is realistic, the maps need to be more streamlined and contained, as the large operational area contained in each of the maps is far too large and they have way too many cities in them. Towns are used to gain victory points and generate resources (recruits, weapons, cannons, gold, horses, and supplies), but towns are taken far too easily as most are undefended; a lot of the game involves running around in circles chasing enemy troops, capturing and losing villages every turn. It costs too much money to maintain a defending force in every town, so smaller burgs will just switch allegiances on a turn-by-turn basis. There are two ways to wrestle control of defended cities: bombarding and then assaulting a town, or starving the town by placing two armies on opposite sides of the city. If blocked, a city will no longer produce supplies and the defender will eventually run out of food, although it takes a long time. Taking over towns adds to your nation zeal, which is a global morale level, raised by capturing towns, winning battles, and some random events. This is a neat application of “momentum” during the war that rewards intelligent play. Controlling cities can also produce influence that can be used to get more recruits, raise taxes, spread bad news, or provide bonuses to certain weapons. Towns will also automatically supply nearby troops, and holding seaside ports will contribute to maintaining control of the seas. Naval operations are automated, and who controls the most ports, coupled with a historical weight of British naval superiority early in the war, will determine who can bombard coastal cities and transport troops more efficiently. In these two senses, For Liberty! reduces the amount of micromanagement the player needs to worry about, which is always a good thing. However, you’ll need to spend a lot of time tweaking your armies, as they are not automated at all.

For Liberty! includes the usual array of infantry and artillery that was present during the time period. You can issue movement orders and change their stance (rest, march, defend, retreat, siege, train) and tactics (cautious, balanced, bold). You can combine stance and tactics for interesting results, but this involves a lot of micromanagement that should really be up to the individual unit commanders. Do you think troops will just stay in march formation if attacked just because the supreme commander told them to? The style of combat in the late 18th century does not lend itself surprise attacks, so this level of unit interaction is really superfluous. You can set the game to use simple rules which eliminates the need to set stances and formations, however. Units can also be assigned to bombard or repair a fort, entrench, loot, or undergo sea transportation. There is a number of management tools available as well: you can set the pay, fill up the unit with reinforcements, upgrade the soldiers, or change their leader. With 20-50 troops walking around the map, you can imagine that this level of interaction can become tedious quite quickly. It’s strange to have a game with some parts automated (supply, navy) and others not. For Liberty! has a whole host of leaders available in the game, each with their own attack, defense, and morale levels. They are also granted up to three special abilities, such as grenadier (a morale bonus to infantry) or requisitioner (a supply bonus). Since abilities are usually for a specific type of unit, it would obviously be beneficial to have leaders command troops in their specialty. New units can be recruited at friendly cities and are recruited instantaneously, although you need to train them for several months to increase experience, readiness, and morale. This is a much more realistic way of doing things and shows the importance of veteran troops in major battles.

Speaking of battles, they can be played or resolved automatically. Troops will automatically help friendly units in neighboring hexes, which can result in some large battles and fewer multi-unit stacks on the map. Simulated battles still take a long time to resolve, as the game computes targets, morale, and rallying. It is best to set the battles to the quickest setting to quicken the pace of the game. Tactical battles are a little more interesting, as you get to individually command each individual unit in the armies involved in the battle. You can issue orders to them for movement, attacking, rotating, and assuming formations. The terrain is randomly generated, although it will generally be a similar assemblage of swamps, forests, hills, and buildings. The attacker wins if he routes 1/3 of the defending army, or the battle ends if one side has a 5:1 size advantage or time runs out. While initially different, tactical battles are too slow, tedious, and repetitive. The battles take a long time to resolve, mainly due to the large battlefields: you can spend a good half of the battle just issuing movement commands before you even see an enemy unit. While the tactical battles serve as a nice diversion from the main game, they aren’t too terribly interesting and you probably won’t bother with them unless you expect a close confrontation.

The enemy AI is pretty good, as it will exploit your weaknesses and not engage in combat unless it’s fairly certain it will win (or if there is some other strategic reason). Since games last a long time, I would imagine that most people will play against the AI instead of getting involved in a multiplayer match. For Liberty! would have worked better in smaller doses: the included scenarios are just too large and involve too many units with too many management issues. Plus, there isn't anything terribly innovative about the game that we haven't seen before in other titles. For Liberty! never had a “wow” factor that grabbed me into the game, instead throwing lots of units at you from the beginning and never really offering a good set of smaller tutorials for the less experienced players. I have more enjoyment commanding smaller numbers of troops than unwieldy large operations that require half an hour of preparation per turn. At least with equally deep games such as Dominions 3, the action is ramped up slowly over the course of the game. In For Liberty!, you’re thrown into the fire from the beginning, and this may be asking too much for most players, especially those without an extensive background in strategy games.

All of the options available to aspiring commanders should make for an enjoyable game, but I found that For Liberty! was more of a chore than an satisfying experience. I like wargames, but others have delivered a more pleasurable experience than this game. There are other games that offer just as much depth without all of the unnecessary bells and whistles present in For Liberty! A lot of the options present in the game, such as stance, should be more of a local leader decision rather than a concern of the commander-in-chief. For Liberty! tries to be both a grand strategic game and a tactical simulation, but it ends up being just too much for all but the most experienced veteran players. For Liberty! suffers from the same problem I had with Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday: the game's overall scope is too much for most people to handle. I can imagine that experienced wargamers with a passion for the American Revolution will find a lot to like here, assuming you can deal with the management of each individual troop on the map. For most people, Birth of America serves as a better introduction to the American Revolution, although the inclusion of three theaters of battles and the extensive (but gratuitous) unit options of For Liberty! can’t be ignored. Nevertheless, I just did not have more fun playing For Liberty! than other similar strategy games. The game made a valiant effort, but I can’t get past the high level of management required in areas that should be automated coupled with the large size of the scenarios.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dominions 3: The Awakening Review

Dominions 3: The Awakening, developed by Illwinter Game Design and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Insane amount of depth that allows for a cornucopia of different strategies, random maps, multiplayer for 21 nations, hefty reference manual, playable on multiple operating systems, easily modified, there's always something to do, tons of nations, spells, units, and magic items
The Not So Good: Daunting to new players, unit icons are too small, large empires require lots of micromanagement
What say you? If you can tolerate the micromanagement, extremely high replay value makes this a must-have strategy title: 8/8

There have been a fair number of quality fantasy strategy games published throughout the history of computer gaming, including my favorite game ever Kohan II: Kings of War. It’s nice to take a break from the hundreds of World War II strategy games and delve into a world of wizards and archers; most role playing games have fully embraced fantasy elements. This setting allows for more freedom of expression and more interesting game components that aren’t tied to realistic limitations. Dominions 3: The Awakening is the third (surprise!) installment in Illwinter’s take on turn-based strategy in a fantasy setting. The game brings a whole lot of content to the table (support for 21 players, 50 nations, 600 spells, 1500 units), but will all of these options prove to be overkill, or will Dominions 3 grant the amount of variety that strategy gamers crave?

For a game that was essentially developed by a two-man crew, Dominions 3 looks decent, but it obviously cannot compete with heavily-funded cutting-edge strategy or role-playing games. The main game takes place on a 2-D map that has a hand-drawn feel to it; while it looks outdated, it works just as well as a full 3-D map. The user interface is pretty well done, making most of the important game elements available at the press of a button. My only real complaint is that recruiting units is way too time consuming: you must click on each of your provinces and queue up units, instead of allowing for recruit orders from the empire information screen or some other centralized location. The unit icons are also too small, making it difficult to see whether a particular unit is wielding a bow or a sword in some cases. The battles in the game take place on a 3-D battlefield (which looks good enough), although all of the units are still 2-D sprites. It looks a lot like Shogun: Total War, which of course was published six years ago. The spell effects are generally well done during the battles, and some of them look quite impressive. While the graphics might be behind the times, the fact that the game supports such a large diversity of units and spells makes the limitations in the graphics more palatable. The sound effects are pretty limited (and mostly take place during battles only), but I do enjoy the medieval and Scandinavian folk background music; it fits the mood of the game well, and it doesn’t become too repetitive or annoying. Both the sound and the graphics of Dominions 3 is good enough for the style of the game, and anyone who is too concerned about graphics probably won’t enjoy this game anyway: go play some childish console shoot-em-up instead.

Nietzsche was right: God is dead! And as one of many competing pretender gods, you must influence the world into believing that you are his/her/its proper successor. Upon entering the game, you’ll be confronted by the first part of Dominions 3’s extensive library of stuff. Creating a new game involves choosing an age (early age has more magic, while late age is more conventional), number of participants (up to 21!), map (which can be randomized, resulting in a lot of replay value), and general settings (like resources levels and victory conditions). You can play a game against the AI, by e-mail, or over the Internet, although games take such a long time that play by e-mail is the suggested multiplayer format. Dominions 3 has a good tutorial that teaches most (but not all) of the game’s concepts, although you must read what to do in the manual. Dominions 3 is slightly more expensive than most current PC games because it includes a well-written and almost required 300 page spiral-bound manual; the manual is well worth the added price, as it contains essential information on all of the game’s 600 spells, in addition to addressing all of the game concepts. You should at the very least skim over the manual before attempting to play your first game; Dominions 3 does not have a pick-up-and-play mentality. The game includes a good number of nations to control (around 20 per era), each with their own strategies, units, strengths, and weaknesses; the game can play very differently when controlling the various nations. The game is also very easy to modify; simply by changing or adding some straightforward text files, you can create new (or alter existing) nations, spells, weapons, and more. Since the game's graphics in Dominions 3 are relatively basic, you can import simple .tga files to serve as in-game representations of your new units. Add in map and 3-D battleground editors, and you can tweak the game to your liking. A little bit of effort goes a long way, and you can imagine how mods will extend the life of this wide-ranging game even further.

After you choose a nation to lead (real men choose “random”), you’ll need to design your pretender. You are allotted a certain number of points, which are applied to your pretender’s physical form (which controls their starting stats), magic knowledge, dominion strength, scales, and when they enter the game. The scales are a series of opposing effects (such as growth versus death) than can grant bonuses or penalties for areas under your influence. There is a lot of freedom in designing your pretender, which supports a number of different strategies you can implement during the game. New players might be overwhelmed by all of the options available to them even before a game starts, but the more you play the game, the more adept you become at figuring out good combinations.

The world of Dominions 3 is divided into a number of provinces, each of which provides the primary resources of the game: gold and resources. Gold is collected from your populous as taxes, and it’s used to construct buildings and recruit troops. Gold can carry over from turn to turn, while the resources do not. Resources are collected only from a single province and can only be used in that province; constructing a fortress can collect resources from surrounding provinces. Resources are also used to recruit troops, so use them or lose them! As I mentioned two sentences ago (remember?), fortresses are used to collect resources from surrounding provinces and also allow for recruiting the national troops of your empire; normally you can only recruit the “native” independent troops of a province. You can also construct temples that aid in the spread of dominion (influence) and laboratories to assist in the research of spells. You can also invest in province defense, which requires a one-time investment in gold to automatically attempt to repel invading forces. Province defense is not really intended to fend off an organized attack, but it prevents a small enemy army from coming in and taking over a province, something that’s a problem in most other strategy games. Dominions 3 really streamlines the number of buildings available to the player; this takes the focus away from boring base construction and lets the player concentrate more on overall strategy.

Dominions 3 allows for the recruitment of some really huge forces, and each of the units in the game are rated in several different areas. It seems that no two units are exactly alike, although the general class (say, infantry) behave similarly. However, most national troops have a special ability or two tied to them which makes the unit variety more than just a name and an icon. In general, units are either melee infantry, ranged archers, fast cavalry, or ranged magic users, although some variations exist (using elephants to trample enemy troops is extremely fun). Every unit must be commanded by a commander, which can be a military leader or a magic user. In fact, you can’t even more troops around unless they are directly tied to a leader. This actually works to the benefit of the game, and it allows for some huge battles. Each of your units can be issued a number of different orders: pillaging, storming a castle, patrolling for unrest, or searching for magic sites are some examples. Once two enemy troops enter the same province, combat occurs. You do not have direct control over your troops in the game, and I actually like it this way: it eliminates the use of exploits, rewards overall strategic planning over reflexes, and allows for play-by-e-mail games. Although you don’t have direct control over your troops in the game, Dominions 3 gives you lots of options for overall tactical strategies. You can issue the initial positions of each of your troops on the battlefield and give them orders (such as firing on specific troops or delaying an attack). You can also instruct your magical units to use certain spells for the first three turns of the match; the rest of the battle is up to the AI. I would like to have more freedom in telling my units which spells to use, as the AI tends to use the same spells over and over once they gain control. But overall, the number of options available to the player before battle more than makes up for the lack of direct control during a conflict.

Speaking of spells, Dominions 3 features 600 spells scattered over eight paths in seven schools. Each of your units is skilled in certain spell paths, and once you research the school requirements in your laboratories, your units are free to use the spell. As an example, Wind of Death requires a caster to have level 4 Death and level 1 Astral powers; once you research Evocation level 7, the spell is unlocked and ready to go. I’m glad that the spells are ordered somewhat, as having access to 600 spells from the beginning can be a little intimidating. As it stands, you can be pretty lost at which spells to use and which schools to research since there is so much variety. I guess part of the fun of the game is discovering new and cool spells, and after a while you’ll figure out which spells are useful and which are less so. There are some pretty cool spells in the game, and although most of them involve some sort of enemy unit damage or friendly unit protection, the specific counters to each spell makes them unique. There are some powerful spells that can affect the entire game world as well, so spells are not just limited to battlefield usage. The summoning spells (because everyone needs to summon a Jaguar Toad) require the use of magic gems, which are collected in provinces that contain magic sites. Magic gems can be transferred to commanders through your laboratories, and magic gems can also be used to unlock better path ratings, although this is extremely expensive. Much like a role-playing game, you can construct magical items that impose a bonus on the wearer; pretenders decked out with a lot of magical bling can be an imposing force on the battlefield. There are some physical limitations to forged magical items: since they must be worn, your beneficiary must have the correct appendage in order to use a forged item (a pretender with no head can't wear a helmet).

It seems as though I have gotten this far through the review without really saying how you win the game. Using the standard rules, you win by influencing all of the provinces on the map (the entire world believes that you are the real God); this is represented through your dominion (it’s in the title, people!). Contrary to most strategy games, you don’t win by conquering the most territory, but by having the most believers. This means you don’t have to take down the huge opposing army, just make their citizens believe in your pretender more. Dominion is spread by your pretender, your capital, temples, and a prophet (designed by you). Priests can also slowly raise dominion. Victory in Dominions 3 is more akin to an influence victory in Galactic Civlizations II, although controlling more territory gives you more money for a bigger army so you can take over more provinces and spread your influence, so military conquest and dominion are closely but not direcly related. Games are very long (typically for turn-based strategy games), and the game can suffer from back-and-forth switching of border provinces, although province defense eliminates this somewhat. There are other victory conditions available in the game other than wiping all of the other pretenders off the map: holding victory locations, reaching a set amount of dominion, gaining a number of provinces, or accumulating research. These can be used to greatly reduce the amount of time required to complete the game. The AI in the game is a good competitor, even at easy difficulty, and should prove to be a worthy adversary if you don’t have the time for an involved multiplayer match. Of course, human competition is the best competition, and with the amount of freedom Dominions 3 grants you, a multiplayer game will see the greatest variety of different strategies.

For gamers who enjoy deep, strategic gameplay, Dominions 3 is really sweet. Sheer complexity does not always translate into a good game, but all of the spells, units, and other options definitely works towards Dominions 3’s benefit. And if all the default content isn't enough, the game includes extensive support for mods as well. This game is great because, unlike most strategy games, it supports alsmot an infinite number of viable strategies for victory. The inclusion of 20 distinct nations in each of the game's three eras exemplifies this, and you can play the same nation more than once and use a completely different approach each time. There are no “build orders” in this game, no set strategy for success. This means that you won’t grow tired of the game for quite a while, as you’re likely to discover new spells and new strategies each time you play. Almost everything has an appropriate counter as well, so there are few (if any) exploits in the game. Despite the number of options, the game is actually quite easy to play; complexity really just results from all of the different spells and units available. There's always something to do each turn as well: between casting global spells, crafting magical items, patrolling for rebels, preaching, conducting research, pillaging provinces, performing sacrifices, and capturing slaves, you're never just sitting around in Dominions 3. Plus, Dominions 3 rewards overall strategy instead of being able to issue specific commands during battles and quickly activate special skills; we’ll leave that juvenile reflex stuff for the mindless console games. Complaints about the game are very minor: recruiting units could be easier, as having to click on each individual province to issue build orders gets tiresome near the end of the game. Nevertheless, there are so many things great about this game that any self-respecting strategy gamer should not hesitate in picking this title up, especially since it’s available on Linux and Mac in addition to Windows. There might be some side effects due to extended play sessions, but Dominions 3 is well worth the increased alienation from society. Who needs friends when you have a pretender god at your disposal?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Left Behind: Eternal Forces Review

Left Behind: Eternal Forces, developed and published by Left Behind Games.
The Good: Unique base building, resource collection, and unit production, useful tutorial, appropriate (if overdramatic) background music
The Not So Good: Difficult and frustrating until you discover pray-spamming (and even then the game does not play fair), no skirmish games against the AI (mostly due to the lack of a competent computer opponent), first few missions are boring with lots of running from location to location, tons of micromanagement, outdated graphics, horrible voice acting, New York City setting becomes repetitive quickly, unit pathfinding needs work, friendly units often block other friendly units, game does not graphically differentiate between primary and secondary objective locations, units have unrealistically small sight ranges, oodles of in-game advertising
What say you? Religious matters aside, this is simply an unentertaining and tiresome real time strategy game: 4/8

Numerous people have told of the end of the world, or the Rapture, which may or may not have occurred in 1000, 1666, 1844, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, or, most famously, in the year 2000 (my guess is next Tuesday). The apparently successful Left Behind book series tells the tale of those people “left behind” on Earth, after all of the Christians get a one-way ticket to Saginaw, Michigan, who must deal with the incoming evil invasion. Of course, this epic battle would make an excellent base for a video game; you could digitally kick some satanic ass! Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a real time strategy game where you assemble a force of good to battle the force of evil in an epic struggle over control of New York City and who gets the last cookie. You’re not going to let the Antichrist enjoy untold qualities of chocolate goodness, are you? I didn’t think so!

Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been in development for quite a while, and boy it looks like it. The entire game takes place in New York City, and I have not seen a more dreary representation of the nation’s most populous city. The maps are almost devoid completely of color (except for Central Park, which is green), as all of the streets and buildings are gray, gray, and more gray. The maps are also devoid of much detail, other than the occasional bombed-out car (or, if you’re lucky, bus). The only thing really colorful about the drab New York City of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is the in-game advertising. If you thought there was an uproar regarding the in-game advertising of Battlefield 2142, this game is literally covered with ads. What higher power do TV evangelists worship? The All Ighty Ollar! The units don’t look much better; all friendly converted units look like Ned Flanders, as Left Behind: Eternal Forces uses repetitive unit models for each unit type. Even the regular citizens that are wandering around the map don’t offer much in the way of variety. In addition, the game exhibits moments of extreme slow-down during special effects portions of the game. Some of the effects are well done, but most of them are pretty generic. While the background music of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is decent, the game features some truly horrible voice acting; I actually laughed out loud multiple times during the game (and I wasn’t laughing with the game, I was laughing at it). Most of the time, you’ll just skip past all of the painful dialogue to keep the game moving. For a game that’s been in development for so long, it’s greatly disappointing to see (and hear) how Left Behind: Eternal Forces stacks up against other contemporary real time strategy games: the game looks like it was released in 1998, not in 2006.

Left Behind: Eternal Forces features a single player campaign, where you lead the aforementioned forces of good against the aforementioned forces of evil. The game’s tutorial is well-written and informative, and it’s actually the best part about the title: you’ll learn how to play the game rather quickly. The game also has multiplayer through GameSpy, where one person can assume the forces of evil in a battle over several maps included in the campaign. Left Behind: Eternal Forces does not have skirmish games against the AI, a cardinal sin (see, that was a religion joke…ha!) in real time strategy games published in 2006. This is probably due to the fact that Left Behind: Eternal Forces lacks any sort of artificial intelligence, let alone a computer opponent capable enough to be a worthy opponent. The game’s campaign is terribly boring, especially the first missions. You should spend the first mission getting the audience interested in your game, not making them issue endless movement commands. Plus, the first mission is insanely difficult, as getting close to any one of the hundreds of bad guys scattered around the map will result in instant mission failure. Sometimes enemy forces will try to “guitar” your forces to the side of evil, sometimes they will not, so it’s hard to determine whether you can safely sneak by opposing forces during the game’s campaign. I had to restart the first mission eight times before I passed it (you can imagine the visceral excitement of issuing movement commands for 45 minutes). In fact, the dangerous bad guys seems to change depending on where you are in a particular mission, so a previously unimportant enemy unit may convert one of your hero units and end the mission 5 minutes later. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating. The campaign also moves way too slowly; you get to do more in the 3 mission tutorial than the first 6 missions in the campaign. I want to unleash some holy revenge, darn it! Plus, the mission sequencing is completely stupid: in the first mission, you issue movement commands to a church, but in the beginning of the second mission, you start in the same location as the first and must navigate through the bad guys to the church again! How did you magically transport across the map, I wonder? Could it be…..SATAN? The campaign does a really poor job in getting new players interested and excited about playing the game, as the real action doesn’t start until at least mid-way through the mission list.

The one thing Left Behind: Eternal Forces has going for it is some superficially unique resource gathering and base building elements. The primary resource in the game is people; you need people to come to your side, so that you can train them in a specific occupation. Your recruiter units can convert neutral and enemy units to fight for your cause; these units can then be trained at a number of buildings to fulfill a specific role. Builders can capture neutral buildings and covert them into a useful structure that either trains units or provides a resource. The population cap is increased by acquiring more housing, food is gained by capturing more cafes, and money is made through banks. There are also influencers (musicians) that can affect an entire area’s faith level, healers, soldiers, and vehicles. Most of the missions in the campaign stress non-violence, so soldiers are not used very much until the end. The game does offer an interesting dynamic of capturing buildings and converting units that isn’t present in other games, so in this sense the game is unique. This would be enough to make a compelling title if Left Behind: Eternal Forces wasn’t so full of problems.

Each of the units have special abilities available to them (heal, conduct an exorcism), but all of them can pray. Since units are converted by decreasing their faith level, you can continuously pray during the game and almost never lose, unless the game starts to cheat by placing tons of enemy units in your restricted path. There is a limit to how often units can pray, but since they can pray and move at the same time, most units can just pray on through enemy lines with no ill effects. Once you discover this sneaky tactic, the missions in the campaign get a whole lot easier. While the basic design of the game is fine, Left Behind: Eternal Forces requires a lot of micromanagement, and since you’ll typically have tens to hundreds of units on the screen at a time, this can get maddening. Units can be instructed to auto-perform certain tasks, but since each unit has an impractically small sight range (apparently, you can only see halfway across the street in New York City), the auto function does not work half of the time. In addition, newly converted units will follow the unit that converted them, typically blocking their path and not moving out of their way unless specifically ordered to. You can imagine how large battles involving hundreds of units can become a mess when friendly units are blocking the path of other friendly units and not moving out of the way. Also, you have to explicitly move units in and out of buildings (builder units have to be physically inside a building in order to upgrade it), and if you don’t manually set a rally point for each structure, they will exit at a strange side of the structure (not necessarily where the door is located). The game’s maps are laughably restricted; sometimes, a path is magically blocked by four buses laid end to end, but sometimes the game just doesn’t let you down that path for no reason whatsoever. Not only does this make the way to need to go laughably obvious, but the unit pathfinding gets confused by the restrictions imposed by the scenarios designers; I have seen units go up a street to its “end” (noted by an impervious dashed yellow line), turn around, and head back down the same street. If you’re going to limit where the player can go, at least make usable unit pathfinding. Left Behind: Eternal Forces also does not distinguish between primary and secondary objective locations on the game map or minimap, so you could be braving through hordes of enemy soldiers toward a blinking location and find out once you go there that this path was optional. Thanks for wasting my time, Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

While the background story and overall game elements of Left Behind: Eternal Forces are unique, the game as a whole fails in too many basic areas to make it worthwhile. It’s really sad that this game was in development for this long and it still has so many basic problems. There is absolutely no reason to play this game, as everything contained here is done much better in most every other real time strategy game. Just because you make a game with religious tones does not make it unique enough to purchase: it also has to be fun to play, and I did not have fun once while playing this game. The missions are dull and boring and the game will lose most people in the first 30 minutes of gameplay, either through the monotony of issuing movement commands or the unfair and cheating difficulty (I know…let’s put 20 new bad guys on the way to the final checkpoint: that will make it exceedingly challenging!). This game will not appeal to fans of the books or fans of real time strategy games. There might not be very many religious PC games out there (although one could make an argument for the superb Sacrifice), but Left Behind: Eternal Forces is such a broken and uninteresting real time strategy game that it’s recommended for no one. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but I’ll feel fine by not playing this game.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Space Empires V Review

Space Empires V, developed by Malfador Machinations and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Tons of choices in ship design, diplomacy, empire creation, research, strategy, and more
The Not So Good: Complexity equals steep learning curve, unwieldy and outdated user interface lacks useful shortcuts to important information, early game exploring is tedious and boring due to excessively large maps, painfully slow pace, major alien civilizations start as hostile
What say you? Experienced players will appreciate the vast number of options, but most people will find it too tiresome and complicated: 6/8

Reports of the death of 4X space strategy games have been greatly exaggerated. While Master of Orion 3 tried to bury the genre, there have been numerous new released in the past year, including Galactic Civilizations II, Sword of the Stars, and the fifth iteration of the Space Empires series, coincidentally titled Space Empires V (an apparent combination of the game with aliens from the movie V). The Space Empires series appeals mostly to veteran strategy gamers, exhibiting lots of depth and options for expanding your budding empire. Will the new version of the game build upon previous versions, adding additional features while still keeping true to the spirit of the title?

While Space Empires V has taken the leap to the world of 3-D and it definitely looks better than Space Empires IV (an apparent combination of the game with emergency medical care), the game is less detailed than other space strategy games, such as Galactic Civilizations II. The planets and objects look fine, but lack the overall detail found in other titles. For example, the geometry of your ship does not change in the game if different parts are applied, unlike Galactic Civilizations II. More importantly, the user interface is outdated and frankly horrible: important things are buried within menus that take up the entire screen, even at high resolutions. Accessing frequently used data is way too difficult and requires much more clicking than necessary. Building queues for each planet are stored on a separate page; in order to access them, you must select the construction queue page, click on the planet, click on “add to queue,” then add things. Of course, you must repeat this process to remember what exactly you have queued at each planet. The problem with a game with this many options is making all of the pertinent information easily accessible, and Space Empires V fails at this fairly important task. The sound and background music are quite generic, and squarely fit into the “space game” classification. The music is not quite as memorable as other games of the genre, but it’s better than dead air. Space Empires V definitely looks and sounds like they were made by a small developer, and I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for the cumbersome user interface.

Like most 4X strategy games, Space Empires V involves colonizing new planets, forming a military force, constructing resource-producing buildings, and kicking the ever living crap out of some aliens. The game features robust options for starting a new game, some of which we’ve seen before (map size and shape, general values for technology speed and starting resources) but others that are above and beyond other titles. Space Empires V has numerous options for customizing your empire, including name, physical type (insect, anyone?), native planet and atmosphere, government, society, initial technologies, and positive and negative traits. The tools available in the game let you come up with pretty much any type of civilization you’d want to play as (or against). Space Empires V allows for multiple victory conditions and multiplayer over the Internet or e-mail (an advantage over Galactic Civilizations II). Space Empires V has equal or better game customization options than other 4X strategy games, and as you’ll see, the flexibility of the game is its greatest strength and obstacle.

Unlike Galactic Civilizations II, Space Empires V restricts colonization to native planet types (at least initially; you can research to colonize more planets, but it’s super expensive). The best colonial candidates are those planets that have the same atmosphere and surface, but you can build on planets with incompatible air (at the cost of less building space). These restrictions also mean that most planets will not be useful for you, but they will be for the enemy, which can result in some interesting skirmishes in solar systems. Exploring is typically the least exciting portion of a strategy game and it takes an exceedingly long amount of time in Space Empires V. This is a result of the absolutely huge maps in the game (even using “small” settings), and scouring the depths of space looking for habitable worlds takes forever. Although you can construct your own warp points later in the game, maps can consist of literally hundreds of planets scattered over numerous solar systems, and since detection ranges of scout aircraft are small and each individual solar system is huge (no matter how large the galaxy is), it takes 5-10 turns to explore one system. Multiply this out and the beginning portion of the game, which should be quick and painless, is the definition of tedium.

After you have survived through the monotony of exploring the galaxy, it’s time to build some ships. Space Empires V features a ton of options for completing custom ship designs, where you place some required and optional components (living quarters, engines, weapons, cargo space) on the ship up to the weight limit for the hull design. This creates a lot of flexibility to create more defensive, offensive, or speedy designs; this might overwhelm the beginning player, but the game can auto-complete designs based on your current technology and what role you wish the ship would play. The game allows for multiple types of ships: colony ships, frigates, capital ships, satellites, drones, troops, fighters, and a whole bunch more. There are a number of facilities to create on each of your planets; these conduct research, extract and store resources, construct ships, transport goods, or grant bonuses. The three resources in the game (minerals, organics, radioactives) are used to construct and maintain your empire; it’s pretty easy early on to turn a profit (in fact, you won’t even have enough storage space for your excess resources initially) but as you’re empire grows larger, increased maintenance will become an issue.

New units, weapons, and upgrades are found through research, and Space Empires V has a large research tree. Unlike most games, you can conduct research on more than one topic at a time, dividing your funding over as many areas as you want. Most research topics have several levels that grant ever-increasing bonuses to your empire, and they can unlock more advanced options later in the game. The research tree is pretty linear and rarely does a future component require multiple prerequisites. Of course, all of this research and construction would be pointless without some enemy to worry about. Space Empires V’s diplomacy options are staggering and much more than a simple peace proposal or exchange of technologies. The treaty options are very inclusive: you can negotiate trade, cultural exchange, allowing migration, sharing sensor information, disallowing cloaking of ships, and more. The AI empires of the game come up with some semi-advanced treaties on their own, which is a nice touch. You can invest in spying on the enemy empires if you’d like to know more about them as well. Unfortunately, Space Empires V treats each newly encountered civilization as hostile instead of neutral, so your scout and colony ships will most likely be destroyed while exploring the universe. This is really annoying, especially for new players who are just learning the game. Can’t we all just get along? When you do engage enemy ships, you can play the battle from a strategic perspective (where you just watch the action) or you can control your ships in tactical mode. Simple commands, such as movement and weapon firing, can be given, but most of the battle plays out automatically and the battles are not that interesting to watch; I normally just skip through them. While Space Empires V has all of the right components of a quality strategy game, it may be too huge for its own good. It should be great, as it has all of the features you’d ever want in a space strategy game, but from the beginning of each game, Space Empires V is full of repetition and monotony; most people will get turned off before the game even really gets going. The slow pace of the game doesn’t help matters, as it can take several hours just to explore the entire galaxy. Issuing movement commands to units is not my idea of a good time. Space Empires V is definitely not a pick-up-and-play game, and you have to invest a considerable amount of time in the game to get to any sort of reward.

Space Empires V includes many more options than any other 4X strategy game, which works well for experienced veterans of the genre but not so much for new players. Even though you are given many options, the game is actually one of the most boring strategy game’s I’ve played; if it wasn’t for the completely monotonous beginning game, Space Empires V might be entertaining as a whole. This is one of those games that you want to enjoy, but it just isn’t fun to play. The overly large maps and user interface makes the game difficult to recommend to any player that isn’t passionate about 4X strategy games. I like all of the customization and strategic options present in the game (empires, ships, treaties), but I enjoy the flow and relatively quick tempo of Galactic Civilizations II a whole lot better. Space Empires V has all of the options and features you could want in a 4X strategy game, but it’s just too boring and repetitive for all but the most dedicated of players.

Monday, November 13, 2006

BlockHeads Clash Review

BlockHeads Clash, developed and published by Outside the Box Software.
The Good: Simple controls, somewhat interesting graphical style, multiplayer cooperative play, appropriate background music
The Not So Good: Does not save mid-world progress, repetitive gameplay, bland environments, short
What say you? An effortless platform game that’s not challenging or varied: 4/8

Platform games have had a strong presence on consoles, starting with the popularity of Super Mario Brothers on the NES (there are others, but it’s my review). While the trend has continued on the lesser systems, the more sophisticated PC crowd doesn’t get the sheer number of platform games seen on the consoles. Every once in a while, however, a small developer comes out with a platform title invoking memories of a more simpler time, before accelerated graphics and multi-button gamepads. BlockHeads Clash is one of those games; in this title, you control a block-headed character and smash your way through the game’s various levels.

BlockHeads Clash almost appears like a cell-shaded game, with bold, think lines surrounding most objects in the game. It comes off as a 3-D cartoon of sorts, and it works well except for the fact that most of the levels are devoid of very much detail. While the character design is unique, most of the game’s rooms consist of a couple of enemies and boxes set against a bland background. It’s as though most of the game is taking place in an empty warehouse, which is not a very exciting setting for a video game. The variations that do come in the game, from rolling disks to spikes, repeat themselves too much and make each level appear to be identical to the last one. There are no memorable moments in the game and this tends to wear on the player after the first few levels. The background music fits the game well, evoking the cartoon nature of the title. The sound effects, however, are quite monotonous and the sound of smashing boxes gets old far too quickly. While I appreciate the independent nature of the title, much more could have been done to create a completely fleshed out environment for the game.

BlockHeads Clash features just twelve levels scattered across three worlds, each of which takes under 10 minutes (and usually less than 5) to complete. The default adventure mode consists of going through each level, smashing boxes, avoiding enemies, and collecting keys on your way to the exit. The much more entertaining multiplayer battle mode (unlocked after completing a portion of the adventure campaign) involves trying to eliminate fellow blockheads, while survival mode involves some kind of survival. The controls are very simple: four directional movement keys plus an attack button. Because of this, you can have four players on the same computer at once, and cooperative multiplayer (and, in the case of battle mode, competitive multiplayer) is the major draw of the game. The one attack your character has consists of banging their head against the ground, which can crack the floor to form a hole for enemies to drop through, open a box, throw a switch (conveniently located on the ground), or topple an enemy (which is essentially pointless and difficult). The enemies is either travel a set course, always move towards you (which makes using holes extremely easy), or run around in a seemingly random pattern. The levels are not challenging at all, as the game is just a matter of getting through each level and finding the way to the exit. The only difficulty in the game results from having a lot of enemies on the screen at once, and you can out run them most of the time anyway. Because all you can do is run and smash, the game becomes entirely too dull and boring rather quickly. The graphics and level design is unoriginal, and there is no real reason to keep playing the game, other than unlocking the additional game modes. In addition, the game only saves your progress at the end of each world (instead of at the end of each level), so if you have to attend to some other task, you’ll have to play through the same boring levels again and again.

Although simplicity in a computer game makes it accessible to a wide audience, BlockHeads Clash is too simple and too easy. The single attack button makes the game repetitive, and the lack of quality AI or difficult puzzles makes completing the game more of a chore than a good time. This game reminds me a lot of Sky Puppy, although BlockHeads Clash is slightly better due to its multiplayer options. While the battle mode can be enjoyable, multiplayer cooperative play makes the game even easier than it already is. The graphical style, while novel, is hampered by the overall lack of detail. The game is also tremendously short and replay value is low, since all of the levels play the same each time (no random enemy placement). BlockHeads Clash lacks a key feature that differentiates itself from the hordes of other platform games available; there is really no reason to play this game, as there are numerous titles that offer the same features in a better overall package.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union Review

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union, developed by Apeiron and published by Strategy First .
The Good: Non-linear campaign, lots of weapons, “smart pause mode,” pretty decent tactical strategy
The Not So Good: Slow pace (especially in cities), outrageously annoying music and sound, requires a lot of micromanagement
What say you? An action RPG where player freedom almost overcomes the shortcomings: 6/8

The old saying goes: if you want something done, hire a mercenary to do it. Assassins-for-hire are always a popular option for sticky situations where guns and violence are the solution. Not surprisingly, living this lifestyle vicariously through a video game is a popular, and more legal, option. Spawning from the tradition of the Jagged Alliance games, Brigade E5: New Jagged Union lets you assemble a crack team of ex-soldiers and complete missions to earn money and increase your power (because, as The Bible says, “money is power”). How will this turn-based-real-time-strategy-role-playing-game-hybrid fare? How many genres can I fit into one hyphenated term?

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features OK graphics. The game is rendered in full 3-D and you can move the camera around to view the action from any angle. The environments are OK: they are believably stereotypical for a tropical location, although there could be more detail in the individual maps. The character models are OK: they are detailed to an extent, but they end up looking the same after a while (especially for the non-playable characters). The best aspect of the graphics is the weapon models: they are usually spot-on, and that’s pretty impressive for how large the arsenal of Brigade E5: New Jagged Union is. Still, the graphics will neither impress nor disappoint. See, I told you the graphics of Brigade E5: New Jagged Union are just OK. Now, as for the sound, it is rather horrible. The background music is some of the worst, grating sets of generic songs I have heard in quite a long time. The voice acting is silly and repetitive, especially when using the same orders, as each character has just one canned expression for each command. Listening to the French chick shout, “FAIT!” one hundred times per level, each time you give her a movement order, makes you want to quit the game and burn it. You are better off just playing the game with your speakers turned off.

In Brigade E5: New Jagged Union, you start with a character landing in some tropical, war torn fictional country, accept missions from various other characters, recruit new team members, and make money to buy really sweet weapons. Most of the game will be played through the non-linear campaign, which plays a lot like Oblivion in terms of its open-ended nature. Players are free to venture to any of the cities you have discovered, talk to anyone, and complete missions in any order you choose.
New cities are added to the country map by conversing with new people, and traveling to different destinations is easy (although you may be attacked by roving gangs along the way). This amount of freedom in Brigade E5: New Jagged Union is great and it’s one of the highlights of the game. Of course, you can spend part of the time trying to find an appropriate mission for your progress level in the game, but most of the missions are easy enough that you can complete them using good tactics. There is a multiplayer aspect of the game, although I can’t tell if you can search for and join other games, since there were never any games on the list of games to join. Like Oblivion, you start by selecting a character and answering questions to set your beginning attributes. Unlike Oblivion, however, the questions in Brigade E5: New Jagged Union are off-the-wall, inane, and so obvious on their intent that they are completely ludicrous and subsequently stupidly funny. Missions are pretty easy to find in the game, as important characters are highlighted on the map of the city. You will spend a lot of time walking around, however, and a disturbing amount of the game is spent traveling between locations instead of shooting stuff. I guess this is the side effect of giving the player this amount of freedom.

Most of the game is played from the main screen, where you will issue orders to your characters. There are a lot of orders to issue; thankfully most of them are based on stance and situation, and moving between distant locations will automatically execute intermediate actions (like opening doors or climbing ladders). Most everything you’ll need to do to successfully use cover and engage your opponent is available in the game. The game plays in real-time, but Brigade E5: New Jagged Union pauses automatically whenever an important event occurs, such as finishing orders or spotting an enemy. You can set which actions cause a pause in the action, which is nice. This is a good feature, because the amount of micromanagement required in the game would require you to constantly pause the game a lot anyway, and relegating the game to turns is unrealistic. Since you’ll be normally controlling multiple characters and there is no friendly tactical AI to speak of (meaning units don’t automatically return fire or respond to being shot), people who do not enjoy micromanaging every action of their squad should steer clear of this title. Actually shooting enemies involves choosing a fire mode (single or auto), the location on the enemy (head, torso, arm), and how accurate your shot needs to be. This is a fairly linear strategy, as close combat can use quick, relatively imprecise aiming (especially with shotguns…fun), while long distance sniper action will need accurate fire. You will also need to adjust your stance, as kneeling or lying down will result in more accurate shots with certain weapons. The damage inflicted on the enemy is translated into an immediate hit point loss, short term bleeding, and long term shock. You can also inflict location-specific damage; for example, hitting someone in the arm may cause them to drop their weapon (I know I would). The combat in the game is generally slow-paced (as is the whole game in general), which works to the advantage of those players who like a more tactical approach rather than running into a room with guns blazing. The enemy AI is pretty decent: they can use cover and assume appropriate positions when attacking or being attacked. They are much more effective in large numbers, however, but they still provide a good enough challenge to make the game interesting.

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features a good amount of role-playing elements. Each of your characters is rated in 13 different areas that impact everything from damage in hand-to-hand combat to discounts on buying goods. Your mercenary will also be rated for each type of combat (like sniping or melee), and equipping your character with the right kind of weapon is paramount for success in the game. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union strives to feature a realistic inventory model. I’ve never understood how you could carry 15 knives, 4 swords, and 3 staffs around in other games, but Brigade E5: New Jagged Union solves this problem by using a realistic inventory system. You can fit one gun in your hand, one around the shoulder, and various objects in your pockets. You can purchase a belt to fit more spare ammunition or grenades, but you’ll never be able to carry every single item you need (and even if you did, it would be too heavy). Instead of imposing some arbitrary weight limit, you’ll be more restricted by how many pockets you have. And Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features a whole mess of weapons; there are over 80 real-world firearms and accessories present in the game, and each of them seems to behave pretty realistically. The prospect of outfitting your crew with a range of different weaponry should make most strategy players drool, and successfully attacking any given situation makes for some fun gameplay.

Despite all of the good things about the game, I feel that Brigade E5: New Jagged Union will ultimately only appeal to a small audience. The game is definitely rough around the edges due to its foreign roots, and the graphics and (especially) the sound are average to atrocious. Although it involves a lot of down-time and walking around, the non-linear campaign is pretty immersive and it makes the player think they have influence over the game instead of following a series of canned orders. After all, you are a mercenary-for-hire: shouldn’t you be able to pick and choose? The amount of weapons in the game is disturbingly satisfying, and the general combat is fun when you are controlling more than one character. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features solid strategy, and it’s just plain fun to sneak up on a group of unsuspecting enemies and shoot them in the head. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union does play a lot like a role playing game, with the addition of more tactical battles (instead of just hack and slash) and real-world weapons in the place of fairy dust. I found Brigade E5: New Jagged Union to be pretty enjoyable and it should appeal to strategy fans that can get past the rough issues and look at the great strategy, weapons, and non-linear campaign.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Virtual Sailor 7 Review

Virtual Sailor 7, developed and published by Quality Simulations.
The Good: Flexible game engine, good wave graphics with low system requirements, easily modified (with lots of user-made content already available), relatively low price
The Not So Good: Not much default content, no explicit tutorials, small audience
What say you? A decent simulation that will appeal to boat enthusiasts: 6/8

Ah, sailing. The wind in your hair, the salt in your veins, the iceberg off starboard: it’s a wonderful activity for the entire family! While there have been plenty of flight simulators, train simulators, and car simulators, there haven't been very many boat simulators, although this is another area ripe for a quality simulation. Speaking of which, Quality Simulations serves up their seventh iteration of their Virtual Sailor series, coincidentally titled Virtual Sailor 7. While not displaying the notoriety or publicity of other simulations, the game hopes to deliver a solid replication of boating and sailing.

Unlike competing simulations, Virtual Sailor 7 features buttery-smooth graphics that also look fairly decent. Since most of the simulation takes place at sea, you would expect the waves to be realistic, and they are. Virtual Sailor 7 includes a great engine that produces realistic (if not repetitive) waves in the ocean, from small 2-foot waves to imposing 55-foot monsters. The ship models are also well done, looking quite like real seafaring vessels. The coastal areas are generally bland for a lot of the time, although some basic textures representing docks and cities may be present in more developed areas. The skies and weather effects are also well done and quite convincing, creating an environment that is quite competitive with top-of-the-line simulations. Best of all, you can crank up the settings to the maximum; a system that ran medium settings in Flight Simulator X at 12 frames per seconds can display Virtual Sailor 7 at the highest settings (and a better resolution) at a consistent 30 frames per second, even with a lot of objects on the screen (and with sophisticated reflection and refraction of light in the ocean). The developer should be commended for making a simulation that looks good but also runs well on most people’s computers. The sound is as good as it’s going to be for a boat simulation: the wind howls and the boats make sound. Virtual Sailor 7 offers competitive graphics and sound that can be displayed on much older systems. The game may not have a high level of detail, but you’ll be staring at the water for most of the time, so as long as the boats and ocean look good (which they do), you’re in fine shape.

Virtual Sailor 7 lets you grab a boat, place it in the water, and sail around a bit. The game includes a small number of missions (called “cruises”) that usually involve sailing to a specific location. The default content is not very extensive: just one area to sail in and a handful of boats. However, there is already lots of downloadable custom content created by users for previous versions of the game that is still compatible with Virtual Sailor 7; these extra boats and scenery files expand the range of the game enormously and shows that Virtual Sailor 7 is pretty easy to edit. You can set the weather of your cruise using a number of pre-sets or defining wind speed, wave height, visibility, and cloud cover yourself. You cannot download real-time weather conditions from the Internet, although creating the conditions yourself is part of the fun. In addition, you can manually change the weather during the simulation, instantly watching your alterations; watching the ocean swell from 4-foot to 25-foot waves in one second is pretty entertaining. The game also allows for a range of realism options, such as allowing for capsizing and sinking. In addition, you have the option of fixing your view to the horizon, which takes all of the vomit-inducing fun out of boating.

The game is pretty easy to control, as the controls can be as simple as steering and setting the engine speed. Virtual Sailor 7 can automatically adjust your sails for maximum speed, or you can adjust all of the rigging yourself. Most of the objects in the game can be directly clicked in addition to using the keyboard commands. Virtual Sailor 7 does not include a tutorial to teach you how to sail, so aspiring seamen should consult an outside source. The game does feature all of the modern (and not-so-modern) tools used in marine operations: telescopes, compasses, sextants, maps, radar, echo sounders, and GPS are all included. Virtual Sailor 7 also supports the use of weapons, which allows for the development of military vessels for use in the game. There are a number of different activities you can undertake in the game, such as towing other boats, blowing up boats, traveling to a distant isle using waypoints, or looking at the marine life. Virtual Sailor 7 also supports multiplayer: you can join in on the fun with your buddies as you sail around the ocean blue.

While Virtual Sailor 7 includes most of the features you would want in a sailing simulation, it lacks the overall appeal that would make the game viable to a large audience. The number of default missions are limited and they won’t keep you interested for very long, and frankly sailing around the world is not as interesting (at least to me) as flying around. Being tied to the ocean takes away some of the allure of seeing recognizable cities pass underneath you or driving on real-world tracks: it’s just ocean. Granted, approaching a port city is a good end to a long journey, but the game is really geared towards people who really like sailing. The game has quality graphics and support for a large range of features; it compares favorably to Flight Simulator X (especially with the much lower price), but I think the fact that people are much more likely to drive a boat than pilot a plane makes the game less attractive to the masses. Nevertheless, those people who are obsessively interested in a marine simulation should look no further than Virtual Sailor 7.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Putt Mania Review

Putt Mania, developed and published by
The Good: Realistic and predictable physics, simple controls, courses vary in difficulty, very flexible hole editor
The Not So Good: Adjusting shot power requires too much mouse movement, bland environments
What say you? A lifelike and enjoyable miniature golf simulation: 6/8

Miniature golf has wide appeal because it is easy to play and almost anyone can do it. The small learning curve makes it a viable family activity. But with the growing decline in the number of miniature golf courses (the one closest to me was replaced by a Rooms To Go), the availability of a nice evening out is getting lower and lower. Computer games can fill this ever-growing void, and Putt Mania lets the entire family crowd around the monitor for some wholesome putting fun without all that needless fresh air.

The graphics in Putt Mania exemplify the game’s small developer roots. While the hole graphics are pretty good, the environments leave a lot to be desired. The individual holes in the game have good textures on the surface and the various objects in the game. There could have been smoother surfaces for ramps and curves, but the holes in Putt Mania look like holes that you would find in real life, which is the whole point of the graphics. The game, however, takes place against a featureless backdrop of colored graph paper. It would have been better to place the holes in some kind of environment, such as a forest, mountains, or a parking lot: something to at least give the impression of being location in a real place. As it stands, the graphics in Putt Mania are too disconnected from real life to deliver a complete game experience. The sounds are pretty basic: generic new-age background music, putting effects, and a female voice seductively announcing the result of each hole (my favorite sound bite is after a bad shot: “ouchhhhh!”). You won’t mistake Putt Mania for Tiger Woods 2007 anytime soon, but the graphics and sound do their job: the game doesn’t look bad and you know you’re playing a miniature golf game.

In Putt Mania, you and three friends can tackle various courses featuring typical miniature golf obstacles and design (there are no computer opponents, as the holes themselves provide the challenge). The game includes a tutorial, although playing is very straightforward. You can choose to use different scoring methods (stroke, skins, or closest to the hole), a certain number of holes (full 18, front or back 9, or a single hole), and allow for mulligans and maximum strokes per hole. Putt Mania features five courses of varying difficulty; the more difficult courses usually involve tight spaces or jumps that require finesse with shot power. The game is played by moving the mouse to set the trajectory and pushing the mouse forward for power. You are limited in the amount of time you have to assign power to your shots, so some poor decisions are made as you are competing against the clock. Applying the correct amount of power requires some practice, as the method used in Putt Mania entails faster acceleration for more powerful shots instead of pushing it further. It takes some getting used to, but it makes sense once you know how to drive the ball farther. The game shows your trajectory with an arrow, which is accurate until your ball hits a wall, which makes finishing when you’re close to the hole very simple. Putt Mania features believable physics, although the ball seems to bounce (and subsequently slow down) more when hitting a wall than in real miniature golf. Still, Putt Mania is a pretty entertaining game that does a good job in providing a convincing experience. Putt Mania includes an editor where you can construct almost any type of basic design that real miniature golf courses feature, or at least any objects the game developer used. Designing holes is simple enough and the objects are organized effectively. Lining up pieces could be a lot easier: the game displays red overlap indicators even if the pieces are lined up properly, which tends to be quite confusing. It would be nice if pieces snapped into place when close to another object. Also, like the base game, more environmental objects to spice up the hole would be welcome. The editor is powerful enough to extend the replay value of the game, and hopefully we’ll find courses floating about the Internet soon.

Putt Mania is a good enough miniature golf game that eschews the outlandish designs of other games for a more realistic and classic approach. The graphics are effective, the mechanics are easy to learn, and the game is friendly to new players, making it an ideal piece of software for the entire family unit. And most importantly, I liked it. The game offers a good deal of difficult with the more challenging courses, and it takes some practice to become proficient at the game. Anyone who has at least a passing interest in miniature golf (and who doesn’t?) should definitely check out Putt Mania. It may not have the flashiness of other games, but the core gameplay is intact and it’s an entertaining affair.