Sunday, February 26, 2006

Birth of America Review

Birth of America, developed and published by Ageod.
The Good: Engrossing strategic play, no resource/economy management, good user interface (once you get used to it), terrific scenario variety (in both length and difficulty), supply and reinforcements are automatic, good AI, weather and terrain are extremely important, unique time period, I love the French!
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer
What say you? Probably the best grand strategy game out there: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I normally don’t write previews of games before they are released to the general public, mainly because I don’t like writing about a single game more than once. I made an exception for Birth of America, the latest grand strategy game from the mind behind Europa Universalis. The problem is I wasted all my good (well, good for me) jokes on the preview, leaving little left for this full-fledged review. So, please, read over the preview and then come back and see what’s changed (not much) now that I have the release version of Birth of America. Some stuff will be repeated from the preview, mostly to make the review longer. I am so sneaky!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Once I became accustomed to it, I found that the user interface in Birth of America is quite good. Unlike some games that bury important information deep within different menus and spreadsheets, Birth of America tries (and succeeds) to display most of the information on the main map, in the form of icons. Each stack of units is represented by a single sprite, the number of units is indicated by a series of dots, and current orders and postures are shown graphically. This removes most of the clutter associated with other games and makes navigating the map fairly easy. The playing map itself definitely has a hand-drawn style, which fits the mood of the game well. Each city has a color-coded background that indicates who owns it and its importance to the scenario. Units that are garrisoned within cities are removed the map, shown by a small numerical indicator as to the quantity of forces protecting a settlement. There are also numerous filters that can color code the map with important information such as territory ownership and geographic boundaries. With a game of this scale, I feel the developers of Birth of America did an excellent job providing an easy to navigate interface. The sound in Birth of America is very basic, consisting of only 20 sounds plus appropriate background music. Honestly, sound is not an important aspect of this kind of game, so I’m willing to let it slide. The sounds of battle and marching armies are all we really need playing from a grand perspective, so in that aspect, Birth of America delivers.

FEATURES
Birth of America is a turn-based grand strategy game that covers two major North American wars during the 18th Century: the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. The game features a good selection of 14 different scenarios, each with varying length (from 3 turns to 96 turns) and difficulty. Since a lot of conflicts in history are unbalanced, some of the scenarios in the game are as well; sometimes, the goal of a side is just to survive until a set amount of time or until reinforcements arrive. The 1775 Canada scenario is a good example of this: all the British need to do is defend Quebec and slow down the American advance, and the Americans need to reach Quebec as quickly as possible because of how short the time limit is. Birth of America caters to all skill levels: beginners can try out the smaller scenarios, while veteran players can tackle the entire war. There is a tutorial (essentially a guided version of the Carolinas scenario) that does an adequate job of teaching the game, although there are some very small features that are left out (but they are covered in the manual). The longer scenarios are usually more difficult, because they entail managing many more units over a larger area. The shorter scenarios (under 15 turns) go by very quickly (almost too quickly, I want to play more!): I remember playing a seven turn scenario and being surprised that it was over already, taking around 15 minutes to complete. Each scenario can be won two different ways: by controlling all of the required objective cities or by accumulating the most victory points. No scenario ends before time is up even if you control all of the objective cities, giving the loser time to mount a surprise attack and foil your plans. By accessing the ledger (by clicking on the globe), the game clearly lists all of your objectives and which side currently owns them, which makes it easy to plan your next course of action. After a scenario is over, you can continue to play as long as you’d like so that you can completely annihilate the competition. Overall, I am pleased with the variety of available scenarios in the game (and if they aren’t enough, a scenario editor will be released in a patch, and basic things such as scenario length can be easily edited outside of the game). Birth of America does not have online multiplayer, but does support play by e-mail, a staple of wargames for quite a long time. This is probably the most glaring omission from the game, but it’s not a huge problem since the AI plays well.

THE MAP
All of the action takes place on the strategic map, a representation of the American colonies and surrounding areas during the late 18th century. Some of the place names are different, but if you’re familiar with the geography of the United States, navigating around should be easy enough. The map is divided into regions (akin to large counties) and sea zones, which comprise the each of the colonies. Controlling states results in automatically drafting new recruits to your armed forces. Each of the regions is rated according to its level of development, from wild to civilized. This rating affects movement rate and supply (which is handled automatically, thank goodness). Units that are low on supplies can loot enemy territory for rations. Each region also has a terrain type (clear, forest, mountain, swamp, and more) that affects movement and combat. Obviously, the adept field general will use the terrain to his advantage. Each region also has an allegiance to one of the sides, which provides information about enemy forces in the region. You can slowly swing the allegiance of a region by occupying the area (muskets are good at persuasion). A region may contain a permanent city, depot (to provide supplies), fort (for defense), or port (for ships). If a prized region is in need of some extra defense, depots and forts can be built by your troops.

UNITS
Birth of America has an accurate collection of units for the time period. Units are initially placed on the map by the scenario designer and new militias are raised automatically as time advances in regions and states you control. Unlike most strategy games, you are not charged with building new units, decreasing the amount of micromanagement in the game (which I consider a good thing). Typically, an army consists of many individual units that behave as one large stack, moving as one unit and fighting together. You can merge and split units to your liking, but maintaining a couple large battalions and smaller forces as defenders is usually the best plan. During combat, only the attributes of the highest-ranking officer are used, although special abilities of other officers may come in play. The units in Birth of America are based on real-life forces engaged in battle and also use real commanders from the two wars. Not many people will notice this, but aficionados of the Revolutionary War will appreciate being able to control Washington’s Continental Army. Moving pieces is very easy, just drag and drop, and the game calculates the quickest path to the destination. You can also customize the path, in case you’d like to capture some cities along the way. Since the game’s turns are so long (one turn is one month), you will probably want to accomplish more than one goal per turn. Each unit has a stance or attitude that determines how willing they are to engage the enemy. Assaulting units will attack at all costs, aggressive units will siege enemy cities, defensive units can use the bonuses of surrounding terrain and will ignore enemy units unless attacked, and passive units can retreat. The postures add an interesting aspect of Birth of America: enemy units can occupy the same region without attacking each other. In every other strategy game (that I can remember), opposing units always fought if they were in the same area, whether you wanted them to or not. Sometimes, you want to hold your ground but wait for supplies or better weather, an important consideration in 18th century warfare. I’m glad that Birth of America supports this, adding to the realism of the game. As I mentioned before, you can also order your units to build forts and depots, entrench (for a greater defensive bonus), or attack besieging forces outside the city walls.

PLAYING THE GAME
Birth of America features some very intriguing concepts while you play the game, which results in one of the most rewarding experiences in a wargame. Birth of America gives some advantages to the sneaky nature of the Indians, making them invisible to enemy units (even in the same region) and leaving the opposition open for an ambush attack. Moving or fighting during winter is strongly discouraged, as high attrition rates will result. This is pretty realistic; most of the battles of the Revolutionary War (and even the Civil War) took place between the Spring and Fall (except for that whole surprise attack thing Washington did). Waiting for fair weather is recommended if you want to stay alive. The combat is also handled automatically, simulated as a series of calculations weighing the different bonuses available to each side. There is a whole list of things that goes into determining the winner of a particular battle (leader bonuses, rate of fire, terrain, weather, supply, range, morale, posture, and luck) and I haven’t encountered any anomalies in the results that would discourage players of the game. You will mostly be playing the game against the AI, which is a formidable foe. Although the game is pretty easy (at least for me) on the default AI skill level, the AI plays well on higher difficulty levels, exploiting holes in your defense, attacking with combined forces, and in general playing like a fairly decent human opponent. As the game plays out, there is a good ebb and flow to the contest, as units fight over strategically important locations in a struggle for dominance, employing different strategies and waiting for just the right time to strike. Typically, you move a strong stack of units to an enemy city and wait outside the city walls until you are ready to attack. You can either besiege the city for several months or assault the fort; assaulting is only justified if you vastly outnumber the forces inside the city, otherwise the number of losses incurred by assaulting a fort head-on will become too great. Also, it is sometimes better to wait for optimum conditions in Birth of America, as opposed to a lot of real time strategy games, where you just throw a whole bunch of units at the enemy and hope for the best. The side with the least amount of forces can win a battle in Birth of America, if good tactics and overall strategy is used (albeit through defensive techniques).

IN CLOSING
Birth of America has many different elements that come together quite nicely to deliver a very satisfying game. For a game that features a lot of advanced concepts (weather, attrition, postures, supply, terrain, combat bonuses), it is surprisingly easy to play and is much easier to handle than other grand strategy games, including Europa Universalis. A lot of this results from the fact that the game runs a lot of the background tasks for you (such as drafting new units and supply). Still, it never feels like the game is playing itself and you’re just a bystander, unlike some other titles that have removed most of the micromanagement. Birth of America has historically accurate combat and units to satisfying even the most discernable war junkie. The game could have used a multiplayer mode, but you won’t even really notice as you engage the capable AI. It is much more fun to play as an attacker than a defender, however, as successfully defending cities is not much more than stockpiling units and having them entrench. Luckily, most of the longer scenarios provide opportunities for both sides to play both offense and defense, and positioning your forces to best guard your important cities does take some skill. The shorter scenarios finished quickly (especially when I am used to hour long strategy games); whether you like fast games is more of a personal preference, but when the scenario ended, I always wanted more. Overall, Birth of America features the best grand strategic gameplay I’ve seen since Europa Universalis, and I actually enjoy Birth of America more because of the removal of economic management and diplomacy, leaving just the tasty core of wholesome strategy. Any self-respecting fan of strategy and war games should pick up Birth of America, as it delivers the whole package strategy fans desire.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Nexuiz Review

Nexuiz, developed and published by Alientrap.
The Good: It’s free, multiple game modes, server options are fairly powerful, works in Windows, Mac, and Linux
The Not So Good: Laggy in multiplayer, unoriginal
What say you? A free, modified shooter based off the original Quake: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
After some popular games come of age, the developers decide to release the nuts and bolts of the game to the community so people can modify things to their heart’s content. This is also true of Quake, where id software has released the source code. Not surprisingly, there have been several modifications resulting from using the original Quake engine, and Nexuiz is one of those games. Available for free download, Nexuiz adds new maps, weapons, game modes, and models to the fray.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Since Nexuiz uses the Quake 1 engine, you might expect the graphics to be slightly outdated, and you’d be correct. However, to Nexuiz’s credit, they have made some enhancements to the engine, adding some more effects and better textures, so it looks slightly more modern than it could. Utilizing some of the more advanced features (like bloom lighting) requires a pretty good computer. The sound is along the same lines: some small improvements are made from the base code, which is really all we could ask for. Probably the most memorable aspect of the sound is the squishy effect that occurs when you are killed. Both the graphics and sound are functional and look better than the original Quake.

ET AL.
Nexuiz plays a lot like Quake with some minute changes. The fast, intense gameplay of Quake is still intact, so if you enjoy that style of play, you’ll be all set here. A lot of more recent games have tended towards more tactical shooting, so it’s kind of nice to see a game that harkens back to the good old days of numerous frags in a short period of time. You can play games against AI bots or online against real people, or setup a server using a combination of both. The bots can be turned more powerful and can display some good skills on higher intelligence levels, such as defending a control point. The weapons are combinations of the better weapons from Quake and Unreal Tournament, including a shotgun, grenade launcher, machine gun, electric gun, and several others. The things doing the shooting are an eclectic arrangement of monsters and people who are more than happy to explode into a bunch of red splotches for your enjoyment. The maps in the game include copies of some original Quake maps (those brought back some memories) and some new designs. Typically, the new maps are better looking, not held back by the graphical restrictions of the original Quake. There are five game modes in Nexuiz (again, a combination of Quake and Unreal Tournament): deathmatch, team deathmatch, domination (capture control points), capture the flag, and runematch, which is deathmatch with objects that have a positive and random negative bonus. The online play I have experienced has been less than smooth. At first I though it might be because my graphics were turned too high, but playing against the bots doesn’t result in any lag. Since most of the game will be played against real people, this is kind of disappointing and is probably the worst aspect of the game.

IN CLOSING
Nexuiz boils down to the original Quake with some upgrades: graphics, sound, weapons, models, maps, and game modes. It’s nothing overly original, but it’s free, so the only thing you’ll spend is the time downloading the game, and you might just enjoy it, especially if you have a hankering for some old school Quake action.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

rFactor Review

rFactor, developed and published by Image Space Incorporated.
The Good: Very modification friendly, MODs easy to install and switch between, scalable difficulty, a myriad of custom race features, smooth and buttery multiplayer
The Not So Good: Internet game browser could use some filters, not as much default content as other sims, can’t download missing tracks in-game (yet)
What say you? Modders and simulation racers will find plenty to enjoy: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There used to be a whole bunch of racing simulations on the PC market. From the first racing game I ever played, World Circuit, through Grand Prix Legends, NASCAR Racing, and F1, these games were very popular and formed quite a niche audience. And then, generally with the discontinuation of the F1 series and final NASCAR Racing version, they all but disappeared for a while, replaced by sub-par titles such as NASCAR SimRacing. Fortunately, there’s been a sort of semi-renaissance recently, thanks to independent developers and games in the form of Live for Speed and rFactor (and SimBin’s GT games). I have previously reviewed Live for Speed so now it’s time to check out rFactor, developed by ISI, who was responsible for the much heralded F1 series. rFactor is designed to be forthcoming for those modders out there and become a good sandbox for many different types of racing.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Both the graphics and sound in rFactor are very well done, and compare favorably to the zenith of racing simulation graphics and sound, GTR/GT Legends. The models are detailed, the cockpits are varied, and there are lots of nice effects, such as fire, smoke, and dust. rFactor also has real-time day to night transitions, and you can adjust how fast dusk passes according to the length of your chosen race. There are also real-time updated scoring pylons (finally) that can distract you as you slam into the wall. The sound is also enjoyable. This is probably the first game I remember hearing braking sounds in addition to wheel slip. Each car has appropriate sounds that change when upgrades are bought. There isn’t any commentary or spotters present in the game yet, but all that talking would get in the way of the throaty engines. The quality of the graphics and sound in rFactor is certainly in the upper echelon of racing simulations.

FEATURES
Even though rFactor definitely has a simulation tilt, you can customize the difficulty of the game to suit your skill level, adding assistance in braking, steering, stability, and shifting. Unfortunately, once you go online, most servers have all help disabled, so it’s up to you to drive and shift (I’m just one man!). rFactor by default has two racing series, covering both road racing and open wheel. In each series, there are several classes of cars available to unlock, from trainer vehicles all the way up to top of the line models. You earn credits to unlock performance upgrades and better cars by completing races against the AI drivers or online. You can practice in testing sessions, engage in single races, or take on a full season (typically 3 to 8 events). There are several different seasons you can undertake, dependent on which vehicles you have bought and unlocked. I’m not sure if I fully like the unlocking mode in rFactor: a part of me likes to have all the cars available from the beginning, and a part of me like to have some sort of ultimate goal when completing seasons and races. It is strange, however, to have a simulation game with an unlocking mode: this is usually reserved for less sophisticated arcade racers for people with short attention spans. There are six tracks on which to race, a couple of which have several configurations. This doesn’t seem like much content, especially when compared to Live for Speed (which has 18 cars and 23 tracks), but it does take a while to unlock the superior vehicles and the developers are relying on user-created modifications (more on that later). The newest beta version of rFactor does add stock cars to the mix, which all but spells the end of NASCAR SimRacing (if that hasn’t happened already). You can fully customize each race, changing the flag rules, fuel and tire wear, mechanical failures, AI drivers, race start time, type of start, and race length type, which supports a fixed number of laps, fixed amount of time, or whichever comes first.

BOOGITY BOOGITY BOOGITY
Before you take to the track, it is important to at least slightly improve the default setups (although they are decent enough) using the garage. Like most simulation games, there are plenty of options for the aspiring crew chief. You can adjust gear ratios, weight balance, shocks, springs, brakes, differential, and aerodynamics: all of the usual suspects. If you’re playing online, you can easily share setups between all drivers; any setup publicly shared by a driver during a racing session is dropped into a special folder so you can use it and make fun of their crappy setup. Ridicule has never been so much fun! Once you do mash that gas pedal, the physics model of rFactor takes over, and it’s both realistic and fun to drive. rFactor adds a couple of wrinkles to the equation, such as cockpit vibration (more so than most games when cars are at speed) and head physics. Probably the most astounding part of rFactor’s physics model is how adaptable it is. Most games can spend years trying to accurately simulate just one kind of car and never get it right, but rFactor can cover a multitude of different vehicles, just by changing some values. I also enjoy the linear track map that shows where all the vehicles are on the track, represented by squares on a number line. Once you’re done wrecking into half the field, you can see the carnage over and over and over and over using the game’s replay features.

MULTIPLAYER
Games are much more fun if you can humiliate real life competition instead of computer drivers that don’t have feelings (yet), so rFactor gives you the ability of racing online. The game has an in-game browser so you can find races all over the Internet. One feature that is lacking is the use of filters to remove unwanted games from the list. I’d like to remove games that have a password, use an incompatible version or track, or are unpopulated, but rFactor doesn’t give you that option, resulting in you sorting by one column and scanning the list, wasting precious seconds that could have been spent wrecking into the wall. Once you do find a game, the online gaming experience is pretty enjoyable and relatively lag-free: I haven’t experienced any problems during a race that wasn’t directly my fault (I swear that tire wall just jumped out in front of me, officer!). This is a rare and notable feat in racing sims. You can also watch races with RaceCast (theoretically, it’s not the most functional piece of software) and also browse driver stats and rankings. A future feature (according to the official website) will include support for downloading missing vehicles and tracks while in the game, which is a little problem right now. The tracks are scattered all over the Internet and I still can’t find some of them, so once this feature gets implemented, life online in rFactor will be a lot easier.

MODIFICATIONS
When talking about rFactor, you need to talk about the ability to modify the game. This is one of the selling points of the game, as it’s probably the easiest racing simulation to add new content to. While other games are stuck in their rut of default tracks and vehicles, rFactor has opened the door for the large simulation community of modders, and they have answered. There are no less than seven fully functioning mods in the community so far, covering stock cars, Formula 1, Formula 3, Grand Prix, V8 Supercars (my personal favorite), Porsche Carerra, and Superkart. All of these mods, even though they are completely done by third parties, are of high quality and could be mistaken for default content in some cases. Also, unlike some games, switching mods is very easy (they are all listed in a menu in-game) and automatically done when joining a multiplayer session; there is no need to exit the game each time you want to drive a different car. The future could only hold even more mods for rFactor, authored by both the developers and community.

IN CLOSING
Initially, the draw of rFactor is its open architecture, allowing the creation of some pretty advanced modifications. This alone would make most members of the hardcore simulation community salivate, but there are also plenty of other great features. The graphics and sound are well above average, the physics are believable and enjoyable, race customization options are numerous, and the game is just fun to play. Beginners shouldn’t be scared off, because there are options to scale back some of the difficulty, provided you don’t plan on playing online, where most help is turned off. Playing online is pretty fun and a lag-free experience (for once). There are a couple of small missing features (Internet game filters, automatic missing track download), but they’ll probably be patched in future versions of the game. There’s less included content than some other games, but there are enough mods out there to satisfy most drivers, and mods are easy to install and easy to switch between. Drivers of all skill levels will find rFactor is an enjoyable racing simulation with tremendous mod support that will continue the life of the product for quite a long time.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

AIT Trains Review

AIT Trains, developed and published by AIT Games.
The Good: Easy to learn but still challenging, build and puzzle modes
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics and music, game doesn’t play fair, long periods of boredom in early levels
What say you? A railroad operations puzzle game that is fairly enjoyable but can be tedious: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Of all the old time technologies, it seems that trains bring about the most passion among people today; we don’t really see many horse and carriage or steamboat simulators. There are several train simulations out there, including Microsoft’s and Trainz, but there aren’t many train puzzle games. AIT Trains is a train puzzle game (surprise!) where you direct trains between towns to deliver goods and not crash into each other. Using a mix of strategy, base building, and reflex action, will AIT Trains recapture the simple thrills of arcade puzzle games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
AIT Trains has outdated graphics and sound, reminiscent of games seen for Windows 3.1. The game features simple 2-D graphics from a fixed view and no modern-day effects that utilize fancy video cards. This, of course, has some advantages, namely that the game is easy to play and the graphics never hinder playing through the levels. AIT Trains won’t win any awards for graphical excellence, but that’s fine as long as the game is playable. The sound in AIT Trains is along the same lines, utilizing some simple notification effects (for incoming or crashed trains) and MIDI background music. I haven’t heard MIDI in quite a while, and a lot of the songs are recognizable copies of popular songs by Coldplay and Madonna (to name a few). If you can’t stand MIDI (like me), you’ll probably just turn the music off. With the old graphics and MIDI background music, AIT Trains really feels like an old game.

ET AL.
The object of AIT Trains is to direct trains from the origin city to their color-coded destination without causing an accident with other trains. Each level has a set amount of time (10 to 60 minutes) during which trains spawn and travel along the tracks. AIT Trains has two modes: in build mode, you build the track and conduct the trains, while in puzzle mode the tracks are already built. I prefer build mode because it’s more satisfying and you tend to do more during the game. Each map has several cities of different colors that spawn trains destined for other cities, and you change the junctions and signals to drive them towards their destination. Trains switch directions if they hit a red signal light or a junction switch thrown the wrong way, which helps in avoiding costly accidents. The difficulty comes from having multiple and/or fast moving trains on the map, and this difficulty increases with higher levels. Also, increasing levels adds new towns, crazy trains (that don’t stop), the number of trees (which must be removed for a cost), more time, and consist length. The levels for build mode are semi-random; each level has a set number of elements, but their location may be different each time you play the same level, which adds to the replay value. The puzzle mode is the same each time since the track is pre-built. Thankfully, you can start from the last completed level when you restart the game. Building tracks is a simple affair, affixing pieces of curved and straight track together to furnish a complete line. Honestly, the game’s 2-D graphics make it simple to maneuver around the game, and it might be much more difficult (and unnecessarily so) if AIT Trains was in 3-D.

AIT Trains has interesting, albeit inconsistent, gameplay. There are times where you are scrambling to throw switches, build new track, and maneuver trains so they don’t crash into each other, and other times (especially in the early levels) you’re sitting there with nothing to do as a single train follows your path to its final destination. It almost borders on boredom, at least until you venture towards the higher levels. Crashes are extremely bad for several reasons. First, it closes a piece of track that can’t be traversed until it is repaired. Second, the repair trains travel really slow and can cause wrecks of their own. The game also seems like it cheats at times. For example, I had 2 trains appear on the map right as the time expired, so there was no way I could clear them without taking a major penalty. That’s kind of frustrating, and is the kind of thing that can turn some people off.

IN CLOSING
AIT Trains has a dual personality: it can be quite fun, exciting, and action packed, but can also be dull for far too long. The dated graphics and sound aren’t huge concerns, since the base of the game is still present and playable. It’s too bad that the introductory levels can be so dreary, because this is when most of the audience will be lost. If you stick around long enough to meet the higher levels, the game is quite enjoyable and difficult at times, which is always welcome. The game is very easy to play, building tracks is simple, and junction switches are clearly represented. AIT Trains ends up being an intriguing game that has moments of merit and should appeal to both puzzle and strategy fans.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Minions of Mirth Review

Minions of Mirth, developed and published by Prarie Games.
The Good: No monthly fee, can host persistent worlds with custom content, single player and multiplayer action, plenty of interesting features
The Not So Good: Insane learning curve and there’s no manual or tutorial, older graphics
What say you? A MMORPG geared towards veteran players and modders that’s certainly not for beginners: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are very popular on the PC. They are raking in the dough and new ones keep cropping up all the time: Everquest, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars, Asheron’s Call, City of Heroes, the list goes on and on. So, how about a new MMORPG? Well, lucky you, we have Minions of Mirth, a game geared towards modifications and new, interesting features. Plus, there’s no monthly fee! Now that I have your attention, let’s check it out together.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Minions of Mirth is slightly outdated in both the graphics and sound departments, owing to its independent developer roots. I’d say the graphics are slightly better than the original Half-Life, so Minions of Mirth has cutting edge effects for 1998. They are far behind those seen in Morrowind (which was released way back in 2002) so don’t come into this expecting to be drawn in by the graphics. They are essentially placeholders for the game, a way of representing the action so the player can see what’s happening. In fact, if your party is comprised of more than one character, you only see one at a time displayed on-screen, and that pretty well represents what’s going on with the graphics. There are hardly any sounds in the game and all of the chatting is done through text instead of sound. The most sound you’ll hear is the background music that clocks in at around two hours, so at least we have something. Well, I can say that the graphics and sound are pretty much what I expected going in to this, so I’m not disappointed as expectations (however below average) were met.

ET AL.
The first thing I thought when I loaded up Minions of Mirth was: “What the hell am I supposed to do?” You see, for such a complex game, Minions of Mirth has absolutely no printed documentation or tutorials. This is unheard of in today’s gaming environment and completely inexcusable. There are tons of things to do in the game and the developers just assume you’ll figure out how to do it. There’s little to no direction when you start the game and most new players will probably be turned off by all the confusion that could have been easily avoided by just writing a simple manual. This really makes learning the game way more difficult than it needs to be, especially since a lot of the game is less than intuitive. The game does have some in-game help that roughly outlines how to start and the first quests serve as an introduction to the game, but that's not enough assistance to new players. This is disappointing because Minions of Mirth actually has some cool features for a MMORPG. It seems that the developers tried to fit everything they could think of in the game, so it can be a little overwhelming at times. Minions of Mirth features the same gameplay for both single player and multiplayer; the characters you create for single player don’t carry over, so there’s really no reason to not play on the game’s main servers. You can play by yourself while online and just ignore all the other people that you see, or you can play cooperatively or PvP (player vs. player) with others. There are no monthly fees for multiplayer, which is a wonderful trend in recent MMORPGs for our wallets. You can also host your own server with a persistent world and include original content that you have created, which is a neat feature stemming from online shooters.

The character creation system is pretty standard for the role-playing game. You are given a choice of ten races from halflings to humans to elves to stuff not seen in Lord of the Rings. You can also choose to play as a monster, which is imaginative. Your character is rated in several categories that you can initially customize based on their class and level up as they gain experience. Eventually, your character can be trained in three classes and become an all-around star of virtual worlds. You can also create a party of characters so that you can tackle all the potential opposition; however, the group is rendered as only once character on the screen, which is disappointing. Once you enter the game, there’s the classic “find quests and complete them” gameplay that we’ve come to expect from RPGs. Quests are sometimes difficult to find in Minions of Mirth, and there isn’t a central storyline or logical progression to the tasks like in other games. There is a lot to do if you can figure out how to do it, however. You can build your own clothes and weapons, join a political party, buy and trade items from vendors (who restock at fixed intervals like a real store) or other players, and summon pets. There is also a robust skill and spell system that includes some interesting effects, such as teleportation, invisibility, rage, and accurate shooting. Minions of Mirth is also very mod-friendly, as you can change pretty much everything in the game if you invest some time and energy.

IN CLOSING
Minions of Mirth has all the ingredients to be a good game: single and multiplayer gaming, lots of cool features, and no monthly fee. But boy howdy, it’s not user-friendly to new players. The complete lack of documentation is dumbfounding and will probably cause all but the most dedicated players to move on to other RPGs. And that’s too bad, because Minions of Mirth has potential to be a mod makers heaven and seems to have been made with that in mind. The little additions that Minions of Mirth has made are neat, such as customizable clothing, numerous spells and skills, and pets. It is difficult to find some appropriate quests for your skill level sometimes, and I wish the game held you hand a little bit more, especially when starting out. There’s a good game here underneath all of the layers, it’s just up to you to find it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Gems Cubed Review

Gems Cubed, developed and published by Walter O. Krawec Games.
The Good: Extremely easy to learn, interesting use of 3-D, multiple game modes, online high scores list
The Not So Good: Aiming on Ship Gems is weird, old-fashioned graphics
What say you? There’s enough originality for a fascinating puzzle game, especially for only $5: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It used to be that all you needed for a great game was simple mechanics and a hook to keep people interested; this explains how the now boring Atari games dominated the video gaming scene in the early 1980s. People seem to want more sophistication nowadays, with complex controls and more bells and whistles. However, there will always be an audience for simpler games that are good for filling five or ten minutes of your time. Gems Cubed is one of those games, a puzzle game that features cubed gems.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Gems Cubed looks like one of those early 3-D games, when people were starting to learn about programming in all 29 dimensions of compatibility. This is due to the game being developed by a small (meaning one person) company, and that’s fine with me. Gems Cubed isn’t the greatest looking game in the world, but the graphics don’t hinder the gameplay all too much. As long as you’re not going in expecting earth shattering special effects, then Gems Cubed looks fine. The sound is along the same lines: a few (four) sound effects to just move the action along. I’m not too terribly concerned about graphics and sound in puzzle games, so I’m willing to give a pass if the rest of the game is good.

ET AL.
In Gems Cubed, you are given a 3-D box of gems and must click on gems to destroy them and all their same colored neighbors. We’ve seen this gameplay mechanic before, but what sets Gems Cubed apart is the fully 3-D grid. As you destroy the jems, they collapse inward in an implosion of fury. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before as usually they go down towards the bottom of the screen. The use of 3-D elements in the game is enough innovation to make Gems Cubed a memorable title. You can rotate the gems around to gain a better perspective and the game indicates which gems will be eliminated if you select a single gem. There are several modes of play that all revolve around the same idea (except for one). Classic Gems feature the gameplay I mentioned above, where higher scores are earned by eliminating larger numbers of gems at once. Free Gems has an unlimited amount of gems but a limited amount of turns. New gems come flying in from the side and usually result in large sections of same colored gems for your eliminating pleasure. You can earn extra turns by earning 500 points. Timed Gems includes bombs that destroy gems, so you must play a bit faster. In Puzzle Gems, you must leave four gems of a given color at the end (which is really hard to do) in order to get a score bonus. And then there’s Ship Gems. Ship Gems almost feels out of place because it’s so dissimilar to all the other modes: it plays like a duck hunt game. You shoot a cannon at horizontally scrolling gems by clicking on the screen. The aiming is kind of odd, as the cannonballs don’t go exactly where you click, and takes some getting used to. You can also activate some power-ups that destroy a bunch of gems at once. You can upload your high scores from any of the modes to a central server to see how well you’re doing against other competitors.

IN CLOSING
Gems Cubed takes a classic puzzle mechanic and makes its unique addition: central gravity 3-D levels. This is enough of a new addition to make Gems Cubed a remarkable title against the backdrop of all those puzzle games. There are multiple modes of play and a central high score list to gauge your progress with. Gems Cubed does what every good puzzle game should: it offers quick, fun, and easy to learn gameplay. In addition, the game is only $5, so there’s really no reason not to get Gems Cubed, especially if you’re interested in puzzle games.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

FlatSpace II Review

FlatSpace II, developed and published by Cornutopia Software.
The Good: Multiple professions, no arbitrary restrictions, automatic bounties earned for eliminating bad guys, the Scarrid are hermaphrodites
The Not So Good: No tutorial, not much mission variety, a contact list would be helpful, ship information could be organized better, no overarching storyline, poor AI
What say you? Some good ideas are offset by limited variety: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
People (and by people I mean console idiots) say that PC games are dying out, slowly being replaced by cheaper consoles that feature hardware available on the PC four years ago and at lower resolutions. I can see the appeal! Several PC genres have slowly disintegrated over time, becoming shadows of their former selves: adventure games, simulations, and space trading and exploration. The latter member of that list has seen sort of a renaissance (French for “surrender”), including the recently (if you consider November recent) reviewed Evochron Alliance and Weird Worlds. Another member of the space adventure genre is FlatSpace II, the sequel to FlatSpace, where you fly a ship around space and do stuff. Oh, how I love stuff!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
FlatSpace II takes place in a two dimensional galaxy (the whole “Flat” thing); all of the views are from overhead and there’s no annoying z-axis to worry about. I’m certainly comfortable with simpler controls, and a lot of games are too unwieldy because of their use of 3-D. The detailed graphics in FlatSpace II are almost too small to enjoy. You can’t zoom in to take a close look at any of the ships, but all of them have little details and effects you can enjoy from the fixed vantage point. It’s easier to design good-looking ships from a distance, and FlatSpace II avoids criticism by preventing you from zooming in: pretty shrewd. FlatSpace II does have a problem with repetition: the space stations and other objects in the galaxy are exactly the same in every system, so it seems like you end up going to the same police station every time, which takes away from the game experience. The sound consists of several sound effects (several being 100) and some appropriate background music: nothing too terribly ground breaking. FlatSpace II shows it’s modest roots in the graphics and sound departments, but they both turned out above average.

ET AL.
The goal of FlatSpace II is to destroy all the enemy space stations, quite a task when you start out with just a modest beginner’s ship (it’s obviously a long term goal). You start by choosing a profession, which will determine the initial ship you are given. Traders trade, mercenaries complete missions, bounty hunters and police officers hunt criminals, assassins assassinate, and scavengers mine cargo. You can actually complete several different tasks utilizing just one starting profession, which is good from a variety standpoint. And then you’re off, with no guidance or suggestions. The game features no tutorial or storyline, so you’re left on your own, for better or for worse. This is the double-edged sword of open-ended gameplay: you can do whatever you want, but you may not be sure of what to do. The missions in the game could have had more variety; at it stands, they are either transporting a person (or item) or killing someone. That’s it, so you can imagine that FlatSpace II could get boring and repetitive very quickly. The real appeal of the game is to earn money to upgrade your ship, and as long as you envision this as your long term goal, completing the same mission 50-100 times might not get as annoying.

I will say that FlatSpace II has more things to do than most games, mainly thanks to apprehending (in addition to killing) criminals. You can mine asteroids, transport goods from one system to another, and arrest and/or kill bad people. A nice addition is that you are provided an instant bounty for eliminating bad guys no matter what your profession is. This is because all the criminals (including yourself if you choose that path) in the game have a bounty on them, dead or alive, dependent on their skill level. The better villains with bigger ships will make quick work of you, but you can mostly deal with the smaller enemies. It is rather easy to defeat a lesser or equal enemy ship because of the game’s questionable AI. Essentially, the enemy ship steers toward you or circles around you, constantly shooting their weapons. If you can avoid them long enough, they’ll run out of ammunition and you can make quick work of them, similar to how Homer Simpson won all those boxing matches. The AI will also run into you instead of going around, a problem near space stations: I was fired upon (and died) when a ship ran into me and the space station perceived that as an attack on the other ship! When do you decide to go on the offensive, it takes more work than it should to find enemy ships: I wish there was a contact list similar to Independence War II. You can hit a button to target the closest enemy ship, but sometimes this isn’t the ship that’s firing at you, which tends to be a problem. I do like, however, that you can select a base as your target: it makes finding the space stations easier, especially since there isn’t really a minimap of any kind in the game (only a sub-par radar).

Probably the part of FlatSpace II that will keep you going is upgrading your ship, and there are a lot of upgrades available. You can select from hull enhancements (like armor and shields), offensive weapons (guns, stun weapons, missiles, turrets), defensive weapons (flares and counter measures), and individual fighters for the larger capital ships. These are all available at the various space ports in the game, and you purchase them from a text menu. It is sometimes hard to tell which are the better weapons except for the increasing price, and there can be five or so varieties of the same weapon, resulting in some long lists you need to scroll down. You can also hire crew to man your guns or provide medical or engineering assistance if you are docked with a space station. While in space, you can communicate with other ships by using the radio, which is a neat feature. You can send out a distress signal, call for backup if you are the police, or intimidate the criminal element with threats of arresting them. As you can see, there are some aspects of FlatSpace II that are new to the genre, which is always a good thing.

IN CLOSING
FlatSpace II is a decent space exploration game that fits somewhere between Weird Worlds and Evochron Alliance in terms of difficulty and approachability. The overhead nature of FlatSpace II works for the game, and even though there are some shortcomings, such as the inadequate AI, less than friendly menus, lack of a tutorial, and absence of a storyline, the game’s level of enjoyment at least equals its low price (the arbitrarily specific $24). The missions do begin to grind on you (since they essentially fall into two categories) and the money doesn’t flow in quite as quickly as you’d like, but the game is still moderately fun. There are various careers you can undertake and the peaceful apprehension of criminals is a nice touch, the game just needs more polished trimmings. There is an entertaining core game here that has promise, and FlatSpace II can deliver the amusement we so long for, if you are serious about space exploration games.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Birth of America Preview

Birth of America Preview, developed and published by Ageod.
The Good: Tons of strategy, respectable tutorial, no economy to worry about, realistic forces and terrain
The Not So Good: Objectives could be more clear, map can get messy and confusing to new players, no scenario editor (yet)

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
America is one of the greatest countries in the world (second only to the Federated States of Micronesia), but it wasn’t so long ago that we were ruled with an iron fist by Daddy England, which has since split up into the countries of Daddy, England, and the Ukraine. The American Revolutionary War, or, as the Britons call it, the Persian Gulf War, was a tumultuous time where Mel Gibson ran around killing people wearing red coats single handedly. Despite this confirmed historical fact, Ageod has developed Birth of America, a game that involves more than just one man fighting for their country, where you order troops around and capture territory. There haven’t been many Revolutionary War era games (I can only think of American Conquest off hand), and since we’re all sick of World War II by now, it’s nice to see a game branch into newer territory.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Birth of America takes place on a map of the thirteen colonies that has a hand-drawn feel to it. It is a nice touch, although the map can become busy and confusing. It certainly has a nice, historical feel to it that adds to the gameplay. There are some things that could be more clearly represented, such as important objective locations (they are indicated by a star that is sometimes hard to pick out); there are some filters so that you can color the map by state boundaries or territory ownership. It is also sometimes difficult to determine the size of friendly and opposing forces by just looking at the icon; you must mouse over and find how many troops are involved. There aren’t many sounds to speak of in the preview version of the game (around 20), but we’re not looking for great sound effects in a board game-like title.

ET AL.
Birth of America covers two conflicts in 18th Century North America: the Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War. The war is fought out over a map divided into a large number of regions representing early America. Birth of America is a turn-based game where you issue orders and both sides move one month at the same time. The final version will include 14 scenarios (with three grand campaigns) covering both wars. You can play against the formidable AI or by e-mail versus real human competition. Most scenarios involve capturing a set number of objective cities, and the first side to control all of their objectives wins. If neither side wins before the scenario time limit is reached, victory points determine the winner. A scenario editor will likely be issued a month or so after the initial release. Each of the regions in the game belongs to a state, and the states in the game are important for raising militias to complement your fighting forces. All of the regions are rated according to their development, spanning from harsh wilderness to civilized land. Regions are also classified according to terrain, such as forests and swamps, and can contain a structure, like a city or fort. Weather also affects combat; it is much harder to move and supply your troops in six feet of snow. The game features three types of units (combat, support, and leaders) that are used to capture territory and fight battles. Leaders are used to make combat units more effective, and can provide a bonus or special ability to the troops, for example entrenching or moving faster. The leader that has the highest rank in a group will be the overall commander, although the special abilities of lower officers can be used. Each group of units is assigned a posture, which determines their behavior. One of the problems I’ve had with global strategy games in the past is that opposing units automatically fight if they occupy the same territory. This just doesn’t seem right: who’s to say that troops 50 miles apart should automatically fight? Birth of America solves this problem with defensive and passive postures: if opposing units are either defensive or passive, they will not automatically engage enemy units in the same region. Only when set to assault or aggressive will they fight for freedom. Combat in the game is automatically resolves based on the stats of the units involved and any special abilities and skills garnered by the leaders. Other than just simply telling your units to move to a new territory, you can issue additional orders to them, such as building forts or depots (areas for supplies), ambushing the enemy, attacking besieging forces (a sortie), or entrenching. Like most strategy games, fog of war is in full force, and you can only see units in adjacent regions. The accuracy of the information on enemy units is dependent on how loyal the residents of that region are to your cause: Torries are more likely to provide truthful data to the British. Supply is also an important part of the game, and is automatically taken care of, similar to Supreme Ruler 2010. You can assign supply units to an extremely large stack, but it’s not necessary.

IN CLOSING
Birth of America plays very similar to Europa Universalis, mainly because it’s developed by the person who made Europa Universalis (I wondered why it was so much alike). That game was great, so it bodes well for the finished version of Birth of America. The game looks pretty complete in this preview version, and it’s a global strategy game that can rival EU, Hearts of Iron, or any of the other big titles. New players may find the initial learning curve a little steep, but at least you don’t need to worry about maintaining an economy; I was never one for worrying about tax levels anyway. We’ll see if it all comes together for Birth of America when it is released in late February.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

UFO: Aftershock Review

UFO: Aftershock, developed by Altar Interactive and published by Cenega.
The Good: Different management aspects, customizable squad members
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics, automatic pausing gets annoying, no friendly AI to speak of, no multiplayer, poor tutorials with vague objectives
What say you? A crushingly run of the mill, micromanagement-heavy game similar to the X-COM series: 5/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The turn-based strategy game has been around since the first turn-based strategy game. There have been many titles in the genre, covering countless topics from historical armies, modern armies, and even futuristic armies. UFO: Aftershock is the sequel to UFO: Aftermath, which is a “spiritual successor” (meaning rip-off) of the old X-COM series. You remember X-COM, right? You order troops around, issuing orders and blowing up stuff, sometimes not your teammates. Well, UFO: Aftershock features those infamous turn-based squad battles and adds an overall strategic layer similar to how Rome: Total War does it.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in UFO: Aftershock are definitely outdated; the game uses an isometric perspective that is adjustable, so technically the game is rendered in 3-D. You don’t really notice all three dimensions, and UFO: Aftershock looks like an older 2-D game, reminiscent of Neverwinter Nights. Not only are the graphics behind the times, but finding objects in the game is entirely too difficult: walls almost always obscure your players and the enemy and you must rotate around to see anything. It’s also difficult to tell which floor your troops are on, as many maps have multiple levels. Wrestling with the camera is not something that we should have to deal with, but it is a problem in UFO: Aftershock. The sound is unremarkable, although it does contain a good deal of voiceover work. The effects of the weapons are underpowered and disappointing. Like most games, the sound neither detracts nor elevates the gameplay.

ET AL.
UFO: Aftershock features two game phases: the strategic mode and controlling your squads. It should be notes that UFO: Aftershock only has the single player semi-dynamic campaign; there are no multiplayer or skirmish modes present. In the strategic mode, you are given an overview of your empire and can plan your global attack strategy. Initially, all of the provinces on the map are unexplored (which is strange, considering it is Earth and you are Earthlings) and you can either explore one province per turn or have the game automatically (and slowly) explore the surrounding terrain. Capturing a newly found territory results in resource income along with production capabilities, and it is done by assigning a mission to a particular area. Bases outside of your capital province must be connected in order for the supplies and resources to be collected and transported. Each of the territories has a base (a city) where you build buildings, manufacture new units, and conduct research. The strategic mode is similar to the Europa Universalis games, and it’s a nice, albeit unoriginal, addition to flesh out a more complete game.

Once you assign a mission, the game becomes the classic squad-based strategy game. There are some RPG elements in the game; as your troops conduct more missions, their skills increase in several areas. Thus, it is imperative that you keep your best people alive to see another day. Each squad member is usually more adept at a particular skill (such as using close range weapons or moving with stealth), so forming a well-rounded squad that can cover almost any mission is a definite advantage. Before heading out on your mission, you can customize each soldier’s loadout, including the weapons and attire. The turn-based gameplay of UFO: Aftershock is an exercise in micromanagement. Your troops are essentially robots and will not do anything unless they are specifically told to do so. If they are being shot at, they won’t return fire unless you assign a target to them; these are supposed to be living, breathing, thinking humans. I thought we were way past the days of non-functioning, dumbed-down AI. The enemy AI is only slightly better: they mostly charge straight for you until they are in range of their weapons. When games such as F.E.A.R. can feature advanced AI in a first person shooter, it’s a bad sign when a strategy game cannot do the same. The game auto-pauses every time a new enemy appears or one of your soldiers completes their task. You can imagine how annoying this can become if you have five people under your command and they are all doing different things. Unfortunately, you need the game to auto-pause, because your soldiers won’t do anything on their own. The mission objectives don’t help either: they are usually “eliminate a sufficient number of enemies,” who can be scattered in random locations all over the map. The turn-based mode is just not fun for anyone except the severely obsessive-compulsive.

IN CLOSING
When I first learned of UFO: Aftershock, I assumed this was a sequel to X-COM; I don’t know why that is, other than the fact that both are turn-based squad games where you shoot aliens. This really sums up the whole impression of the game: we’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen the turn-based tactical battles. We’ve seen the overall dynamic strategic campaign. We’ve seen the RPG-like ability enhancement. So, in order to differentiate yourself from the pack, you must offer something new, and UFO: Aftershock just doesn’t do that. In fact, it removes some features (such as multiplayer) and has some archaic graphics. Plus, the tactical turn-based mode isn’t even that fun due to poor AI all around. There are much better tactical squad games out there, and UFO: Aftershock just doesn’t offer enough new ideas to become a recommended title.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 Review

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006, developed and published by Auran.
The Good: Interesting scenarios transporting goods in real time, agreeable tutorials, novice and expert train controls, loads of user-created downloads
The Not So Good: Sound issues, more difficult than it should be to install custom content, above average graphics
What say you? An fairly decent simulation for anyone with an interest in trains: 6/8

POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As computer games can attest, people like doing things they don’t normally do. From racing cars to flying planes to ordering commands to troops, gamers enjoy walking some steps in other’s shoes and living vicariously through their games. I’ve always contended that if your job is a game, you have a pretty fun or interesting job. An example of one of these jobs is train engineer, piloting large behemoths carrying important, dynamic items like coal. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is the latest update to the railroad simulation series, one that I’ve encountered before. The game features both driving trains and designing layouts, just like the train sets of the olden days before people had superior forms of entertainment. Will the latest Trainz provide enough improvements on previous titles to warrant a new purchase for old and new owners alike?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has some pretty good graphics, featuring both detailed trains and scenery surrounding the trains. All of the train models are well detailed and have good textures, looking great from both close and afar. The environments included in the game are also high quality, with lots of details in the terrain and structures. Some of the models (especially people) have low polygon counts, but overall the game compares well against other simulations in the graphics department. The sound, on the other hand, has some problems. The effects are OK, but the sound routinely cuts out, switching to mono instead of stereo or sharply switching between left and right speakers. Also, the train horns are very wimpy, not the loud and proud blares I was expecting. The developer needs to do some work improving the sound through future patches; most games do not have problems in this department after the game has been released.

DRIVER
Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has two separate parts: driver and surveyor. In driver, you drive trains: surprise! In a smart move, there are both novice and expert driving modes available. The novice mode features simplistic physics and easy speed controls, just like those used in a train set. The expert mode is driven from the cab and has all the confusingly realistic controls found in real trains. Luckily, there is a set of tutorials that teaches you how to drive the trains in the game, and it does a pretty good job of doing it, although sometimes the directions (especially in later lessons) were a little vague. It does take a little practice finding the correct levers, but you can use keyboard controls to circumvent this difficulty. If the tutorials don’t explain it enough for you, there’s the 300-page PDF manual you can browse. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has some interesting scenarios to play with, especially those that deal with delivering goods around the map. There can be a fully working industrial model, with businesses needing specific goods from other businesses in order to operate. For example, you can transport coal from a mine to a power plant, or timber from a lumberyard to the paper mill. This is pretty cool, and gives this train simulation some purpose to driving, other than just driving for driving’s sake. You can also assign AI drivers to pilot the trains and even issue them commands to get the industries up and running. The content could be better organized, however, as the game separates it according to the map, which results in a little bit more clicking than necessary. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has in-game chat software called iTrainz so that you can talk to other users and even send trains to games they are playing.

SURVEYOR
The other half of Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is the Surveyor, where you create new layouts. This is of grand focus in the game, and really the main purpose of the program. Once you get the hang of it, it’s fairly easy to design a decent looking map, assuming you dedicate the appropriate amount of time to the project. The developers seem to be relying on user-created content to expand the game, as you can run through all the included scenarios in under 15 hours. In theory, this has no real problems, especially since Trainz has a pretty dedicated fanbase. In reality, downloading and using new content is a royal pain. The game uses the Content Manager to integrate an online library of files into the software. Supposedly, the Content Manager shows all the layouts, trains, textures, and objects you can download, although its functioning is spotty at best. In addition to that, almost everything you download is faulty or missing dependencies (other files used by the layout) and requires way too much work to become functional. For example, I downloaded one layout from the Download Center. After it was completed downloading it and all the files it needed, it was still missing six files that couldn’t be found on the central server and fifteen were broken for some reason. I’m not about to go looking around the vast Internet for a couple of files that should have been there to begin with. It’s not the fault of the developers that users have created busted content, but Trainz is built with the user content in mind. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 relies on this user-created content too much, and it’s too much work to get it functioning correctly for all but the most dedicated users.

IN CLOSING
Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 has lot of potential, but falls short because of limited included content and faulty user-made downloads. The graphics are really good, but the sound is buggy and the utilities are not the best functioning pieces of software out there. Trainz Railroad Simulator 2006 is not n00b-friendly, and most people who’ll enjoy the game have a background in Trainz or other simulation games. Trainz has a good premise and could be great, but because of some rather important shortcomings, all but the most interested players will probably be turned off by the bugs and arduous labor required to get everything working well.