Thursday, January 26, 2006

Legion Arena Review

Legion Arena, developed by Slitherine Software and published by Strategy First.
The Good: It’s just battles, streamlined troop management between battles, multiplayer, clear indication of losses, restricted order quantity, kinda fun
The Not So Good: It’s just battles, repetitious, linear campaigns
What say you? A combat-only version of Rome: Total War: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
They say, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and those people died because of multiple stab wounds. If strategy games are any indication, war is the ultimate mediator in a disagreement, and it’s a lot more fun to order troops around then come up with historical peace accords. Back in the day (you know, 100 BC), force was the primary method of gaining new territory, and Legion Arena covers this time period, featuring numerous battles covering historical events as Rome tried to take over the known world. Legion Arena is a combat-heavy strategy game where you develop an army and send it off to distant lands, meet interesting people, and kill them.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Legion Arena looks better than you’d think, holding its own both from afar and up close to the action. The models used in the game are just a notch below those seen in Rome: Total War (which was released over a year ago), and the environments are varied enough to make for a believable and realistic theatre of action. Legion Arena definitely conveys the chaos that was prevalent in this style of combat. The game does a good job of clearly displaying how well the battle is going, counting off damage using color-coded numbers that float above the action: seeing a lot of red numbers is a bad thing. This is greatly appreciated as an unrealistic but effective way of surveying the landscape for desperate troops in need of support. Far too often you need to select each group to see how they are doing, which is pretty difficult if all the troops are in one big group of sweaty men. The sound is appropriate for the action, with cries and battle yells accompanying the slashing of weapons and trampling of horses. I was slightly impressed with the quality of graphics and sound in Legion Arena, given the fact that it’s a lower budget game without the deep pockets of the evil empire.

ET AL.
Legion Arena features a tutorial campaign featuring the Latins, and two main campaigns featuring Rome and the Celts. There is also multiplayer over LAN and the Internet using Gamespy, which is a nice addition. The main game features two phases: upgrading your armies and having them fight. In the Army Camp, you use your denari and fame earned by winning battles to heal damaged troops and upgrade your equipment. You can also promote troops that gained experience in the last battle. There are a lot of skills that can be learned by your veteran forces, which all provide general bonuses (such as increased attack ratings) or against a specific foe (like cavalry). You can also spend your denari and fame on new recruits; there are a lot of different troops you can call up, including skirmishers, light and heavy infantry, archers, light and heavy cavalry, elephants, and generals. Each of these troops are best against a specific foe, but there isn’t severe countering like in other games where wrongly matched troops will be instantly decimated.

Speaking of instantly decimating enemy troops, after you have tailored your forces, they meet on the battlefield. First, you need to deploy your troops in (surprise!) deployment mode. You need to place your troops, keeping in mind the terrain. Then, you issue orders and formations. This is probably the most important part of the game, since once the battle begins, you are slightly limited in how many orders you can make. Orders include advance, charge, short hold, long hold, envelop, outflank, seek enemy, and hold fire. You can also issue waypoints to further customize the movement of your armies. Formations include balanced, offensive, defensive, wedge, square, and disciplined (advanced, more powerful) versions. There are enough options in orders and formations to satisfy any keyboard general. Once the battle begins, your armies keep fighting until their morale gets too low, and then they run like the wimps they are. You can issue orders during the battle, but there are some restrictions. Using a realistic cue, your orders are delivered by messengers, which imposes a delay between issuing an order and it being carried out. Also, you are limited in the number of orders you can give; each order you give costs command points that regenerate over time, so you must issue orders wisely. I really like this method, which rewards overall tactics and giving quality orders instead of clicking the mouse. The direct orders are either movement to a specific point or attacking a specific enemy, although troops will automatically engage enemies that move close to them. You can also give general orders to the entire army, such as retreat or a signal to charge. Your troops can also break-off and reassemble, although this can result in some severe losses for your side. Legion Arena is not overly complex but has enough options to make the game quite enjoyable.

IN CLOSING
Legion Arena takes all of the extra fat attached to strategy games and leaves us with a lean, mean, combat machine. Legion Arena has some good features, such as upgrading troops, numerous initial orders and formations, and restrictive orders during combat. You can also destroy complete strangers using Gamespy multiplayer. Some strategy gamers who are used to a more rounded approach with their games, featuring both battles and an overall strategic display they can control, may be disappointed by the limited scope of Legion Arena. However, the aspects the game does have are pretty fun, easy to learn, and quite enjoyable in the long run. It is slightly repetitious in nature, but the enemies you face are varied and there are some role-playing elements as you raise your army from new recruits to a sophisticated killing machine. Legion Arena should appeal to all fans of strategy games, but especially those beginners who want something a little bit simpler to cut their teeth on.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Total College Basketball Review

Total College Basketball, developed by Wolverine Studios and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Realistic results (both simmed and played), animated games, RPG elements, multiplayer compatible, thought out off-season
The Not So Good: Could have more in-game coaching options, no tutorial or checklist of duties to help new players
What say you? An enjoyable and (gasp!) fun management simulation: 7/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Because of the stranglehold that the evil empire has on all things sports, fresh, new ideas in sports games must come in management form using generic teams. Luckily, there are lots of text-based simulations out there that are actually quite good, if you enjoy running the team more than playing as the team. The latest entry into the fray is Total College Basketball, developed by Gary Gorski of Total Pro Basketball fame. Total College Basketball puts you in a coach’s shoes, guiding a program down the path of glory, or at least not finishing last in your conference. I recently reviewed Bowl Bound College Football (published by the same company), a similar program that dealt with the gridiron side of collegiate athletic competition, so I’ll be making some comparisons against that product while we trudge along the Road to the Final Four (insert theme music).

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Being a management simulation, Total College Basketball is primarily text-based, featuring spreadsheets of data arranged by icons. The user interface is OK; sometimes it takes more clicks than needed to access certain important parts of the game, but overall the design is well done. It’s really you’re personal preference whether you like things arranged this way, with more submenus, or where everything is on the main page, which tends to be confusing for new players. I do like the way the game portrays games, with a simple overhead view with icons representing each player moving around the court. This is a grand improvement over Bowl Bound College Football, where the plays and visual action never seemed to match up right. In Total College Basketball, I believe the results of each play because I can clearly see the action take place; this goes a long way in presenting a credible outcome at the end of the game. Sure, the players still miss baskets, but now I can see it’s because my dumbass center launched a three point shot while being double-teamed. Total College Basketball has removed the guesswork in coming up with effective strategy, as you can see if your defense has holes and is leaving key players wide open for shots.

At first I thought there was no sound in the game, but I was proved wrong; the sound is just off by default. The whole "audio" folder in the game should have tipped me off, eh? They are all appropriate for the game, including crowd reactions, chants, and some pretty silly effects for foul shots. They are meant to be used with the default game speed (which is really slow), and I really just turned them off after a while, as they don't flow well together and seem kind of hastily thrown together. You can record player and team specific audio yourself and have it used in the game; that is pretty cool. Because of this, the audio in the game screams "mod" or some kind of community enhancement, which is always a good thing.

YOUR CAREER
Total College Basketball has some RPG elements in the game; you start the game as an unhired coach, and pick your school based on the ratings you give yourself. You can “cheat” and rate yourself high initially so that you can coach at the good schools, or play out your career starting at a small school and working your way up. There is a great emphasis in the game on you, not the team you are coaching, and you’re really expected to upgrade to better schools as the years tick along. I really like this idea, and it’s not really seen in many other management games, where you pick a team instead of an alter ego. Assuming you download the MOD (and you should), you coach for one of the 3,821 Division I-A college basketball programs in these United States (that’s hyperbole, or exaggeration for comic effect: there are actually 7,396 Division I-A programs), and each school has different short-term goals depending on their prestige (the University of North Florida, for example, wants to not finish last in their conference). Total College Basketball is also friendly to the multiplayer league, making it easy to set up real human players who will duke it out for supremacy in the college ranks. In fact, there is already a league accepting coaches so that you can try out some human competition.

RECRUITING
Interestingly, you don’t start out at the beginning of the season, but the beginning of recruiting during the hot summer months. Recruiting is delightful but the game doesn’t really provide any guidance indicating that you’re doing well. You select from a list of over 1500 athletes and set options to call them each week, visit them, have them visit you, watch game tape, and eventually offer a scholarship. You can also subscribe to several scouting services to get more information on potential candidates. The problem is that I’m not sure what caliber of player you should be searching for based on your school. Top 50? Top 200? Top 500? You can filter the results according to those players who are initially interested in your school just by word of mouth that helps in determining the players you should shoot for, but players you could actually get may not be initially interested, and you don’t really know that until you waste time on recruiting them. The smaller schools usually have a handful of players (usually around 20) that are interested, but the bigger schools (those with the highest prestige) can have EVERYONE at least slightly interested in playing for that program. This actually makes recruiting for the top schools more difficult, as there are quite a number of candidates to weed through. The smaller schools must be content to find players from the small stack they are provided with or venture for better players at the risk of wasting a lot of time, money, and mouse clicks. Overall, you need to find interested players who are adept at your offensive and defensive schemes and concentrate on them, rather than spending time on players who would never consider going to your school.

THE GAMEPLAN
There are copious options coming up with a gameplan, and this is one of the two most important aspects of the game (the other being recruiting, and I just talked about that: pay attention!). You can set your depth chart, substitution times, and offensive and defensive plays. Each play comes with a description of what it works well against, although it’s not a concrete countering model like in some real time strategy games (like archers kill horses). Once you decide what’s good for your personnel, you adjust your practice time to the plays you intend to run during the games. The game provides short e-mail messages covering the tendencies of the opponent so that you can customize your approach to the upcoming games. Total College Basketball does not have an “overall” rating for each player (like some other games) that makes it cut-and-dry dealing with who are the best starters. The game rates players in fifteen different areas including passing, defensive ability, court intelligence, and drawing fouls. Each player is also more proficient at certain kinds of offense and defense, and using the plays that best suits your team will result in better outcomes.

COACHING
The third aspect of the game is coaching during games, and this is probably the least developed part of the game. I would like to see more specific options during the game; as it stands, your teams runs the plays you specified, but other than subs and a set play after timeouts, you don’t have much input into the game. There are some special commands you can give, but these are only useful at the end of the game (such as intentional fouls, taking the last shot, or shooting threes). I’d like to see more directions that you can give to your players, such as indicating which players should take shots and which should concentrate on moving the ball around. Player performance is most directly tied to their ratings, so recruiting takes a much more prominent role in Total College Basketball than coaching during game situations. This may disappoint some users who rather “coach ‘em up” than be a stellar recruiter. Also, you can only call specific plays (pick and rolls, isolations, or threes) after a timeout; I’m sure that coaches can relay to get the ball to a certain player during a real game by shouting, but Total College Basketball doesn’t have that option (although I’ve shouted at the screen, but to no avail). At first I thought there was greatly exaggerated home court advantage (my first season I began 10-0 at home and 0-6 on the road) but I recanted my feelings after playing the game more; it seems to be pretty realistic especially considering some recent results.

IN CLOSING
Total College Basketball is one of the best management games that I’ve come across. It is quite entertaining (unlike some management games) and comes with multiplayer support, robust recruiting and game planning, and coaching options. Most of the bad things I’ve mentioned in this review are nit picking, as the overall game is quite excellent. I should mention that there are some semi-random, non-repeatable bugs that have cropped up while playing this game, but it seems like the developer is working hard on fixing them; it is frustrating for the game to crash just after you’ve beaten a top 25 team, but it’s not too rampant as to retract approval for the game. A patch was released recently that addresses a lot of the problems. It should be noted that I don’t even like basketball, but I found playing the game almost exciting (or as exciting as watching squares move around a court can be) and certainly better than some management games featuring more interesting sports that I’ve played. There are a couple of areas that could be more fleshed out to make this game really great, but as long as you enjoy running a team more than moving the players with a gamepad, Total College Basketball is a great addition to your library.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath Review

Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath, developed by G5 Software and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Interesting premise, four dynamic campaigns with strategic play
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics, no skirmish, difficult
What say you? Essentially a mod for Blitzkrieg, it’s too challenging to be fun: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
George Santayana, or perhaps it was P. Diddy, once said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what if we could change history? The dream of Dr. Sam Beckett, to change the past for the better is an intriguing concept. Of course, the flip side of the equation is to wonder about bad events that could have occurred, such as the full realization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Taking its cues from this alternate reality is a new game called, coincidentally enough, Cuban Missile Crisis. This game uses Blitzkrieg as a basis for its four scenarios covering possible events of the mid-1960s. Let’s have some fun with nuclear weapons!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Cuban Missile Crisis uses the same graphics and sound of Blitzkrieg, which was released in 2003. Blitzkrieg had outdated graphics for a game released three years ago, so you can imagine how behind the times the graphics are here. Everything is done in 2-D, from the units to the buildings. The developers have not made any improvements from the original game to spice up the graphics (such as adding any new animations); Blitzkrieg 2 features newer 3-D graphics and it was released in late 2005, but Cuban Missile Crisis is stuck with the Blitzkrieg engine. In fact, Cuban Missile Crisis is more of a campaign mod of Blitzkrieg than an original game; usually when a game company uses another game’s graphical engine (such as the Unreal engine, for example), they make some changes so that the game looks and feels different. This is not the case in Cuban Missile Crisis, which both the sound and graphics are carbon copies of a three year old game.

ET AL.
Cuban Missile Crisis features four single player campaigns for the USSR, UK-USA, France-Germany, and China. The difference between these four campaigns is the graphic areas the battles take place in; otherwise they are the same (and even mostly feature the same units). There is also LAN multiplayer (no Internet matchmaking) and no AI skirmish mode to practice the battles in. The single player campaign of Cuban Missile Crisis is divided into two parts: the “strategic level,” using a campaign map to order troops around, and a “tactical level” where combat is conducted. The strategic level is the only original part of Cuban Missile Crisis not carried over from Blitzkrieg, and it works well enough. You play by moving your troops around, capturing strategic buildings in order to produce more troops. There are three resources that go into ordering more troops and armor: ammunition at armories, fuel at fuel storage facilities, and spare parts at spare parts storage facilities. You can also capture buildings that produce a constant supply of fuel or spare parts, instead of the one-time bonus a storage facility provides. Whenever enemies units occupy the same space or you intend to capture enemy buildings, you enter the “tactical level” to duke it out for supremacy. The “tactical level” of Cuban Missile Crisis is very, very similar to Blitzkrieg, using the same user interface and structure the original did. There are some updated units to more appropriately fit the time period of the game (the 1960s instead of the 1940s), but other than that, you won’t be able to tell the difference between Blitzkrieg and Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, I’d suggest reading my review of Blitzkrieg Anthology, because it’s so similar. Unfortunately, Cuban Missile Crisis has the same problems as Blitzkrieg, mostly severe countering and poor individual unit AI. On top of this, it always seems the enemy outnumbers your troops. Restrictions in the number of units you can buy in the campaign map make completing the missions even more difficult than it was in Blitzkrieg. For some reason, the AI seems to always have the weapons that disable your units with ease, shooting from locations that you can’t reach until you’re already dead. If you don’t have air support to scout from the skies, you might as well give up; the enemy artillery will just rain down on you and disable all of your tanks and make red splotches out of your infantry. Obviously, this is very discouraging and will probably cause most users to hit the quit button.

IN CLOSING
Cuban Missile Crisis is Blitzkrieg with a later timeline and a campaign map mode. Everything else is the same, namely the overly difficult nature of the combat and the AI that seems to know all too well what kind of units are coming. If you don’t have air support you can forget about winning any of the battles, as AI artillery will just rip you to shreds. Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t add any skirmish games and actually removes Gamespy support that was present in Blitzkrieg Anthology. If you do like the Blitzkrieg style of play, I’d suggest playing the two-month-older but better-looking Blitzkrieg 2 (although apparently it’s not too terribly great, although I never got to review it). Cuban Missile Crisis’s original element (the dynamic campaign mode) isn’t enough to make it better than the original Blitzkrieg, or make it king of the hill among the current slate of real time strategy titles.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Strike Ball 2 Review

Strike Ball 2, developed by Owl Studio and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: One hundred creative 3-D levels, some original bonuses, special block types, polished gameplay
The Not So Good: Still too similar to the other 50,000 arkanoid games out there
What say you? An arkanoid/breakout clone where 3-D actually matters: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the more popular arcade game genres out there is arkanoid, also known as breakout. You know, where you move a paddle, bouncing a ball upwards and destroying blocks? If you spend any time looking around on the Internet, you’ll find a flurry of these games floating around, probably because they are relatively simple to make and people seem to like them. So, it’s kind of hard to choose which one to spend your hard earned cash on. Today, we’ll look at Strike Ball 2, the sequel to, um, Strike Ball. Can Strike Ball 2 differentiate itself from the pack?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Strike Ball 2 has some really nice and clean 3-D graphics that are an integral part of the gameplay. Each of the game’s 100 levels features some sort of design that you must destroy, such as a dragon, fishtank, or windmill. The interesting thing about Strike Ball 2 is that the designs are in all three dimensions; instead of a simpler 2-D approach where after destroying a block that particular area is destroyed, the rest of the structure falls down to occupy the vacated space, which is a really neat effect. It’s quite astonishing that the developers were able to keep original ideas flowing over 100 levels, featuring some stimulating designs along the way. The effects are also well done for an arkanoid game, with nice fire effects, destroyed blocks, and the like. The sound in Strike Ball 2 is also above average, with some appropriate background music and some well-done auditory effects. Both the graphics and the sound are well done and above the curve for arkanoid games.

ET AL.
The gameplay of Strike Ball 2 is typical of an arkanoid game: use your paddle to bounce the ball and destroy the blocks. There are some things, however, to spice up the gameplay. There are 23 different bonuses in the game (a staple of the genre nowadays); these including changing the paddle size, changing the game speed, having three balls at once (which requires immediate medical attention), and various guns attached to your paddle and stationary along the wall. The power ball is a little too overpowered: it doesn’t bounce off the blocks, instead plowing through them, which makes clearing levels a little too easy. The bomber is an interesting bonus: an airplane flies overhead, dropping bombs on unsuspecting blocks. One aspect of Strike Ball 2 that I really like is the next level bonus: once you near clearing a level, a bonus appears allowing you to move on to the next one. Far too often in these types of games I’ve sit there for minutes trying to destroy that one last block stuck in the corner; in Strike Ball 2, this is not an issue assuming you can get to the next level bonus before it drops past your paddle. There are also some special block types, including destroyed blocks that can kill you and ones that can kill other blocks. There are also some moving enemies to make the game slightly more difficult. The gameplay of Strike Ball 2 follows the general trend of arkanoid games; it starts out slow, and once the bonuses start falling, the chaos increases dramatically, which makes it hard to follow the ball and collect all of the bonuses at the same time, which is essentially the difficulty of the game. Still, the pace of Strike Ball 2 is far slower than what I have experienced in other arkanoid games. There are no complaints about how the game plays: everything behaves like you would expect, which is a testament to the design of Strike Ball 2.

IN CLOSING
One of the better arkanoid games I’ve played (and actually bought) is BreakQuest, which features a full-on physics model and uses it to its fullest extent. That was it’s hook, and in order to separate yourself from the pack you need to have something starkly original in your arsenal. Strike Ball 2 features some pretty inventive 3-D levels and some original bonuses (such as the stationary guns and overhead bombers), but other than those two things, the rest of the game falls under the category of ordinary. Strike Ball 2 is not a bad game by any means and it retains the hectic feel that should be present in arkanoid games, but it’s still a little too conventional. There are other games that now have 3-D levels in them, so it’s really up to the consumer to filter through all the choices to discover the best game out there. Strike Ball 2 is a polished and above average choice to fulfill your breakout needs, and will probably entertain most people who enjoy the genre.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Core Defender Review

Core Defender, and published by Centrizone.
The Good: Constant action, some strategic elements
The Not So Good: No documentation or tutorials, high difficulty, no level restart
What say you? A combination builder/shooter that’s an inferior version of Epidemic Groove: 4/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With as many games that have been published, we’ve come to the point of PC gaming where you must come up with an original idea in order to survive. The problem is, most of the good ideas have been taken, so developers have resorted to combining genres as a way of producing seemingly fresh and new titles. Core Defender is one of those games, combining building elements from real time strategy with the action of 2-D arcade shooters. This is a very similar premise to a game I recently reviewed, Epidemic Groove. So, which amalgam will prove to be more dominant?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Core Defender plays from a fixed overhead perspective but features 3-D graphics reminiscent of first generation 3-D effects, where side scrolling shooters first started to spice up the landscape with some better looking models. The graphics in Core Defender are slightly outdated but still look good enough to make the game enjoyable from a visual standpoint. The models aren’t really that detailed, but you’re zoomed out far enough during the game that it isn’t really an issue. There is a shortcoming with the way units are represented in the game: there is no clear indicator of friendly or hostile units. As you scan the landscape, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between your units and those trying to destroy your units, which is problematic in the heat of battle. The graphical style of Core Defender is not original and wouldn’t be distinctive when held against an assortment of other games. The sound is fairly basic, and has some annoying and overly loud background music, which is more distracting that it should be. Both the graphics and the sound are too generic to make Core Defender a distinct title.

ET AL.
Core Defender features three campaigns (which all play essentially the same) where you construct defenses and then pilot a tank around a map shooting enemy units by clicking on them. You use money earned during each level to buy upgrades (laser, bombs, armor, HQ defense, or production) or additional buildings (power generator, thermal generator, laser turret, missile turret, more ammo). The upgrades result in a more powerful tank and the additional buildings make it easier to automatically defend against the enemy onslaught. One of the bigger problems with Core Defender is the complete lack of documentation. There is no manual, readme, or tutorial in order to learn the game, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes just trying to figure out how to play, constantly dying through the process. In fact, I’m still not sure what some of the buildings do or why they are important; the game certainly won’t tell me. Another knock against the game is that it is very difficult from the start; there is no simple first level to easy you into the game. The gauntlet is on from square one, and this might frustrate people trying to learn how to play. Each game doesn’t last very long because of the short lifetimes you will experience, and you can’t even restart a failed level and must start from the beginning after dying just once. Core Defender is not flexible and doesn’t seem to be designed with the user in mind.

The gameplay itself entails moving your tank around the map and engaging enemy units. There are both stationary and mobile enemies, so you must keep moving because the simplistic AI runs in a straight line towards you. You must use some tactics and strategy to fight the AI; your structures can block your weapon fire and be destroyed accidentally by your tank. There doesn’t seem to be any advanced pathing by the enemies causing you to mix up your strategies, which is disappointing. The difficulty of Core Defender relies in throwing a lot of enemies at you, using the Serious Sam approach. Here, however, the developers try to cover for poor AI by making a lot of enemies appear at once, and it results in the game not really working that well.

IN CLOSING
Core Defender is a poorer, more confusing version of Epidemic Groove involving base building followed by shooting. The graphics and sound are unremarkable, there are only three similar “campaigns,” and the AI is substandard. We’ve seen base building and we’ve seen shooting, and unfortunately for Core Defender, we’ve seen the two combined before. The complete lack of any documentation and copious number of enemy units results in an annoyingly high level of difficulty. If you’re looking for a mix of base building and action, choose the far superior Epidemic Groove instead of this second-rate title.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Elasto Mania Review

Elasto Mania, developed and published by Balazs Rozsa.
The Good: Unique puzzle gameplay, simple graphics are beneficial, tons of downloadable levels due to the level editor, split-screen multiplayer
The Not So Good: Slow pace and high difficulty may turn some off
What say you? A distinctive physics-based puzzle motorcycle game: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Before Speed Channel got its current NASCAR deal, they pretty much showed two kinds of racing: random sports cars and motorbikes. Motorbike racers are pretty nuts, hurtling around concrete tracks or dirt arenas at speeds not meant for man to attempt. Obviously, motorcycle racing is ripe for computer simulation, since most people don’t have the cash or the guts to try the real thing. Elasto Mania is a combination of motorcycles and puzzle gaming with realistic physics, challenging users to traverse gravity-defying levels by the seat of their pants.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Elasto Mania are in simple 2-D, but this does not disappoint me. Elasto Mania is one of those games where 3-D cutting-edge graphics would work against the game, making it more difficult than necessary. Elasto Mania looks low-budget, but not sad low-budget like we’ve seen. They are simplistic but effective. The sound is almost non-existent: no music to speak of, and only a couple of motorcycle sounds to cut through the silence. Elasto Mania is certainly behind the curve in terms of graphics and sound, but you won’t care.

ET AL.
The goal of Elasto Mania is to pilot a motorcycle through the game’s 53 levels. Along the way, you must collect apples, avoid crashing (defined by your head touching the ground) and “kill” objects, and make it to the exit (a sunny flower, of course): very straightforward. Elasto Mania uses an accurate physics model, which models suspension and gravity with annoying realism. The game’s controls are simple, and just consist of accelerating, braking, flipping around, and leaning the bike forward or background in order to hit the ground at the desired angle. There is some inherent difficulty in controlling the bike because of two factors: rear wheel drive causes the bike to pitch up and the bike turns cannot be fine-tuned. Thus, it takes some practice to learn how to get the bike to do what you want. Half of the game is figuring out how to drive each of the levels, and the other half is successfully driving it. Elasto Mania is one of those games where it can frustrate you to the point of quitting, but you’re back five minutes later trying to master that level again.

Elasto Mania also has some cool features that puts it above and beyond comparable offerings. First, a level editor is available to make you own levels (providing you have beaten five levels); aspiring designers have taken a shining to the editor, making over 15,000 levels available for download across the Internet. While you’re progressing through the levels, you can skip up to five at a time (and go back and finish them later to free up a spot) to get beyond those couple of levels that are giving you problems. Elasto Mania also has split-screen multiplayer (something that has almost died in PC gaming) where you can play co-op, competitive, or tag. It’s nice to see that Elasto Mania has various components that you can enjoy once you complete the main game.

IN CLOSING
Elasto Mania is a simple but very effective idea: a physics-based motorcycle puzzle game. The game’s controls are simple to use, but the realistic physics require a bit of a learning curve to master and add to the overall difficulty of the game, which may discourage some gamers. The game is quite addictive despite its difficult nature, always calling you in to complete just one more level. And there will be a bounty of levels to play, because the included level editor has lead to over 15,000 user-made puzzles. Add in multiplayer and you’ve got a pretty complete and intriguing game, despite budget-level production values in the graphics and sound departments. Elasto Mania is certainly a memorable and unique experience with the right amount of difficulty and simple but addictive gameplay.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Battleground Europe: World War II Online Review

Battleground Europe: World War II Online, developed by Playnet and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Dynamic half-scale battlefield of Western Europe
The Not So Good: Non-constant action due to large distances, outdated graphics with long load times, monthly fee
What say you? The newest version of this MMO will only appeal to those in organized clans: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the most popular genres for PC computer gamers is the first person shooter. People seem to snatch these titles up, wanting to engage in virtual warfare in a variety of exotic environments. However, the massively multiplayer online stranglehold has not really found its way to the first person shooter, mainly concentrating on role-playing games. One of the first and only MMOFPS was World War II Online, released several years ago way too early and with too many bugs. The developers have re-released the game as Battleground Europe, hoping to bring back some of the gamers who shunned the earlier effort. Will there be enough improvements made in the past five years to make the game worthwhile?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Battleground Europe are very outdated, on par with, say, Half-Life (the original). There have been some definite improvements over the original version of this game, namely slightly better textures, but the graphics still pale in comparison with other first person shooters that have been released recently (Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R., Battlefield 2). The models and buildings are square and there are hardly any environmental details. The hillsides look good from a distance, but once you see them up close, they lose some of their luster. To make it even worse, the game has some horrendously long initial load times for the low quality of the graphics. The sound is slightly better, in that all of the weapon and vehicle sounds are realistic; there is nothing overwhelmingly great about the sound, it just does an adequate job.

ET AL.
When you enter Battleground Europe, you choose a persona (army, navy, or air force) for one of the three armies (Germany, France, or Great Britain). After that, you need to choose a brigade and then select a mission set by an officer of that brigade. Missions essentially define a spawn point and a target for you, although these two things may be really far apart. You see, the map used in Battleground Europe is a half-scale rendition of Western Europe, which means the distances between two towns is half of what it is in real life. This makes the distance between most towns in the game at least ten to twenty miles. You can imagine how long it would take to run (or even drive) ten to twenty miles. This is unacceptable, and will probably turn a lot of people off who are accustomed to near-constant action like in Battlefield 2. I’m annoyed if I don’t find an enemy unit to shoot at every 30 seconds in Battlefield 2; waits in Battleground Europe can run the realm of half and hour, mainly when you capture a new town and need to move to the next one. This is somewhat solved with mobile spawn points, which are drivable trucks that can be parked near an enemy control point. This works well in principle, but you’ll still need to do a lot of walking. I spawned next to a “hot” city and spend 20 minutes running before I even saw an enemy unit. No thanks. Imagine trying to find about 100 people scattered around half of Texas. The game doesn’t have enough players to populate half of Texas, and really there’s only one city at a time that’s hotly contested, and even then it’s kinda hard to find anyone to kill. Once you do find a choke point, which is almost always a city, it needs to be captured. This is done through a long process of occupying all of the important buildings in a city and then storming the bunker. Completely taking a city can take a couple of hours: realistic, but not very good for people wanting some quick action.

In the game, you can run around as an infantryman or drive a number of different vehicles, both ground, air, and sea based. When you first enter the game, the only class of infantry that is open to you is the basic rifleman, which is discouraging. You need to register some kills and captures before you can unlock the more interesting classes. One of the easier ways to traveling to enemy bases is to parachute in (especially because of the large distance between cities), but you can’t become a paratrooper until level 3. Why restrict the game to the newcomers? It seems that you’d want to keep new gamers interested by offering multiple ways of playing the game, not arbitrarily restricting them to boring grunt roles. I probably wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it except the rifleman is at a great disadvantage playing the large map. Other classes include infantry with submachine guns, engineers, grenadiers, light machine gunners, anti-tank riflemen, and paratroopers. Your officers (who assign missions) are also present on the battlefield, although I’ve never really run across them other than their chat messages. You can also drive tanks and trucks, but since they travel quite slowly and it can take upwards of half an hour of constant driving to get to the action, it’s not an appealing proposition like in Battlefield 2. You don’t really have any vehicle spammers in Battleground Europe because just getting the equipment to the front lines is an exercise in tedium. Planes, however, are pretty popular, since they travel fast, can engage ground troops, and don’t really have any resistance, since anti-aircraft weaponry suffers from the long travel times of the other vehicles.

IN CLOSING
Battleground Europe is designed with the squad in mind. You really need to have an organized group of individuals outside the game in order to enjoy the experience. The overall game design decision of an extremely large map works against the solo soldier and also makes jumping in for a quick match impossible. I like the play of Battlefield 2 much better: no more than 10 minutes between control points, which means constant action. You are not running or driving for hours at a time like in Battleground Europe. The graphics certainly will not draw anyone into the game being so outdated. In order to enjoy the game, you need to invest some time into it, join a squad, and work towards unlocking the interesting classes. For a game that stresses teamwork, there could also have been some better solid indicators of where to attack; I almost never directly saw my commanding officer, just his orders to attack a certain city or building with no additional instructions. There is an interesting command hierarchy, but most playing coming into the game now won’t really use it since all of the high command positions are filled by people with years of play under their belt. On top of all this, Battleground Europe is $15 every month, compared with Battlefield 2 that is $0 every month. I will say that the dynamic battlefield is quite interesting, which makes you feel like you’re fighting for some overall goal. In the end, though, the cities just go back and forth with no real movement for either side. Unless you plan on playing Battleground Europe almost exclusively and forming up with other players in a structured setting, games such as Battlefield 2 are better for the casual player’s gaming dollar.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Feelers Review

Feelers, developed by I-Nova Games Team and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Hectic action, well-themed graphics, random enemies increases replay value
The Not So Good: Repetitious if you don’t acquire new weaponry or bonuses, weapons do not carry over to the next level
What say you? A satisfactory, but not great, point and click arcade shooter: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Remember the simpler days when computer games were simple and playing them simply consisted of simply shooting hundreds of simple targets using simple controls? Well, fear not, my friends, because Feelers brings back the fervor of those days long past, offering up point and click mayhem on an exterminator level. Ah, the joys of killing everything you see with absolutely no discrimination, tactics, or afterthought. Let’s shoot some bugs!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Feelers, being a 2-D game, actually has some good, cartoonish graphics, which suits the overall style of the game very well. There aren’t complicated rag-doll physics involved, but the environments are bright and colorful and there are some niche touches in the animations of all the creatures you intend to destroy. The graphics are not pixilated or bad looking, and hearken back to a time where semi-detailed backgrounds and objects were good enough to win over the crowd. This game reminds me a lot of Art is Dead, a game I reviewed in my previous days, both in the graphics and gameplay departments. The sound features some average background music and appropriate sound effects, which is what you’d expect from a title such as this.

ET AL.
The gameplay in Feelers boils down to protecting eggs from incoming enemies, which are various forms of insects (thirteen overall). There are flyers and crawlers, all with different speeds and movement tendencies. The game is as simple as pointing with your mouse and clicking, which means Feelers can be enjoyed by all skill levels. In order to spice up the contest, there are different bonuses and weapons available that helpful little scamps drop around the landscape. The better weapons fire more rounds or can engage more targets, and generally result in a higher score and finishing levels with greater ease. Unfortunately, weapons do not carry over to the next level, so you must wait for them to be dropped again in order to use them. The difficulty in the game uses the Serious Sam approach: a high number of enemies that you can’t possibly engage all at once, unless you’ve saved a specific set of bonuses or powerful weapons. I’m not sure if I have a problem with this; because of the nature of the game, there isn’t really an alternative available to the developers. Recent first person shooters have resorted to better AI that use cover and support to kill you instead of just shear numbers. I suppose they could encode some more random AI paths in Feelers, but it’s not really necessary, as long as you’re comfortable with having an insane number of enemies thrown at you. The game does have some replay value, as the specific spawn points of each enemy different on the same level, which is nice.

IN CLOSING
Feelers is a fairly average game. Those interested in the genre will probably find some fun in the point and click shooting, but most “sophisticated” gamers will probably gravitate more towards advanced first person shooters than arcade offerings. The game does try to vary the experience through the use of random enemy generation, weapons, and bonuses, which alleviates some of repetition. It just feels like you’re playing the same game over and over again, and there isn’t much here that is leaps and bounds above previous titles that would merit giving Feelers a more serious look. It’s not a bad game; Feelers is just not an outstanding game with a good hook, which is needed in today’s competitive marketplace. I would recommend this game for children, however, and they might enjoy the simple mechanics of Feelers and the colorful graphics. For most adults, however, there probably isn’t enough to sustain your attention more than five or ten minutes.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Epidemic Groove Review

Epidemic Groove, developed and published by Dejobaan Games.
The Good: Good mix of constructing defenses and action, nice graphics, numerous strategies in building bases
The Not So Good: Have to start at the beginning level each time, no standalone scenarios or room for expansion
What say you? An interesting puzzle/strategy/building/action amalgam: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If you ever watch television (and if you don’t, you’re a communist), you’ve probably noticed the ever-increasing number of drugs that are advertised. All of your problems can be solved by popping a couple of pills, be it erectile dysfunction, depression, attention deficit disorder, high blood pressure, allergies, or erectile dysfunction. There has been one disease that has not been acknowledged by the government, kept secret all these years: the Groove syndrome. Symptoms of the Groove syndrome include apathy, listlessness, indifference, and occasional drooling, and it has been spreading throughout the country since the mid 1990s. Determined to bring awareness to this growing problem, Dejobaan Games has released the first computer software designed to stop the spread of the disease: Epidemic Groove. In addition to having a really cool name, Epidemic Groove simulates the building of defenses and subsequent defense of cells during an invasion of the Groove syndrome. A combination of defensive base building and action elements, we shall see how well Epidemic Groove prevents the spread of apathy about the world.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Epidemic Groove features some crisp semi-3-D graphics from an overhead perspective. The game looks pretty good, with some nice effects coupled with clean, defined objects. I would much rather have nice 2-D graphics than muddled 3-D graphics that have no real purpose other than to have the game in 3-D, and Epidemic Groove is better suited for 2-D anyway. The graphics here are on the higher end for puzzle games: nothing that will wow your senses, but they certainly get the job done. As for the sound, Epidemic Groove has decent, middle of the road effects. Destroying each of the viruses is accompanied by a satisfyingly gross and squishy sound effect, and the background music is entertaining enough. The sound, just like the graphics, is slightly above average and both are a positive aspect of the game.

ET AL.
Epidemic Groove comes with a tutorial, survival mode, and the main campaign. The tutorial does an adequate job of explaining the game, although help boxes that pop up between each level in the main game clarify the new pieces you have unlocked. The survival mode uses a set defense and you try to fight off the pathogens for as long as possible. The real meat of the game, however, is the main game, which consists of two phases of sixty seconds each. In the construction phase, you build defenses. You earn money by destroying enemies and keeping parts of your defenses intact. Defenses are color rated according to the number of hits they can take, and more stout defenses are more expensive. Defense types include lasers, straight walls, shaped walls (rings, elbows), electric fences, and repair pylons. The variety of defenses is very nice, and results in a multitude of strategic options. Unlike some puzzle games where there is one set correct answer, Epidemic Groove opens the door for a myriad of possible solutions. You can also sell outdated structures, but because of the time limit, there usually isn’t enough time to make all the changes you want, so you’ll need to concentrate on the areas that need the most help. After the sixty seconds are up, the pathogens begin their invasion. During this time, you shoot at pathogens using the mouse to aim your laser shots. There are 10 different viruses of varying integrity (the number of laser hits it takes to destroy them) and destructiveness (the amount of damage it causes). You will usually prioritize areas that are breaking and focus your fire there. The action can come fast and furious, especially in later levels, resulting in some exciting moments as the clock ticks down and your defenses wear away. The game escalates with higher numbers of more powerful enemies that infiltrate your defenses easier and easier. Sadly, there is no single missions or expansion built into the game, so once you finish the main campaign, you’re essentially done. Fortunately, because of the nature of the game, each of the levels can be played many different ways and you’ll become more adept at quickly upgrading and building new defenses. Also, the placement of the pathogens is random each time you play the game, so you can’t concentrate on defending one side each time you encounter level 5. Both of these things help to make playing Epidemic Groove more than once a feasible possibility.

IN CLOSING
Epidemic Groove is a fun mix of building defenses and shooting at enemies. The game is along the lines of Stronghold, but a lot more straightforward, eliminating all that needless resource collection and management. The graphics and sound are well done for a budget level game, and although you must start each game from scratch and there are no standalone scenarios, and single player campaign will be different each time as you improve your construction techniques. Most important of all, Epidemic Groove is pretty damn fun. The tense nature of the time limits in both the construction and invasion modes provides a good level of excitement and anxiety that’s not really seen in many other games. Epidemic Groove should appeal to puzzle fans, strategy fans, action fans, and the general gaming public as a whole.