Sunday, April 30, 2006

ÜberSoldier Review

ÜberSoldier, developed by Butut CT and published by CDV.
The Good: Outstanding graphics (if you have the system for them), some interesting components
The Not So Good: Very difficult (even on easy settings) due to being greatly outnumbered, dumb AI, no multiplayer
What say you? A generic shooter with alluring graphics and shameful difficulty: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
According to various sources, Adolf Hilter was interested in the occult and other mystical powers during his tenure as Germany’s top man. And by various sources I mean the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. What if Hitler had found something that could grant unworldly powers? This is the premise of ÜberSoldier: the Nazis use powerful technology to raise the dead and produce powerful soldiers to take on the Allies. But the resistance gets a hold of an ÜberSoldier and can use it against the Nazi regime! Oh sweet revenge! You are that rogue ÜberSoldier, bent on shooting as many Nazis as possible.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
ÜberSoldier has some great graphics for a first person shooter. All of the aspects of the game are highly detailed: the environments, weapons, and characters. This is something that is almost expected when a shooter is released nowadays, and ÜberSoldier doesn’t disappoint, as the graphics are by far the highlight of the game. Of course, the graphics come at a steep price, and you need a pretty good system in order to experience them to their fullest. Luckily, I just bought a new computer and my specs are up to par. The sound is a mixed bag. The weapon effects are very well done, an impressive mix of authentic, powerful sounds. However, the speech of the characters in the game, especially friendly forces, gets old very quickly. Allies pretty much have two things to say: “Nazis!” and “I see Nazis!” There’s no dynamic speech or ongoing conversations in this game, just the basic, repetitive “I see an enemy” comments.

ET AL.
ÜberSoldier is just a single player game, a rare and disappointing occurrence in today’s gaming market. The game is a classic first person shooter with some minor wrinkles to the action. Since the game takes place at the end of World War II, ÜberSoldier features World War II-era weapons from both sides of the European conflict. Your character can hold one weapons of each type: pistol, rifle, automatic, heavy, and grenade. Weapons of the game class are essentially the same, so you’ll drop weapons that you have less ammunition for. ÜberSoldier has the Walther P38, Colt M1911, Mauser Kar. 98k, SVT-40 sniper rifle, s.Pz.B-41 anti-tank rifle, MP-40, FG-42, StG-44, PPSH-41, M39 grenade, MG-42, M1918A2, Panzerschrek, Phoenix flamethrower, and others. Reload time is very slow, which is accurate for the day but disrupts the constant flow of the game. Each weapon has a specific ammo type, so you’ll end up using the weapons of the enemies since they’ll be carrying that kind of ammunition. The game has an arcade health system, where it takes many shots to kill you (well, you are an ÜberSoldier, after all) as well as the enemies. This has a couple of exceptions, notably head shots and grenades. It took around 20 direct shots to kill me, but only one grenade? Hmm. Once you do get shot, there is a plethora of health packs littered around the map, clearly indicated on your minimap.

The semi-original aspects of ÜberSoldier results from the time shield and emotions. You can activate a shield that stops all incoming (and outgoing) bullets while the shield is active. Bullets then either drop to the ground or fly forward then shield is deactivated, depending on the amount of energy left. The time shield power is regenerated through killing enemies or the emotion bonuses. If you shoot three people in the head in a given amount of time (around 10 seconds), you get an “anger” bonus that results in more time shield energy. There is also a “rage” bonus that results from stabbing three people in a row; this gives more maximum health (above 100%). Although these are basically lifted from The Matrix and Unreal Tournament, they make the game a little distinct and original. Without these components, ÜberSoldier would have been a completely average shooter. The AI, both friendly and enemy, of ÜberSoldier is not good. Friendly soldiers don’t follow you or take cover much, while enemy soldiers spawn in scripted locations behind heavy cover to compensate for their poor behavior. Every once in a while, they will lob a grenade your way, but for the most part it’s run forward and shoot. The difficulty in ÜberSoldier results from large numbers of enemies being in good locations, namely hiding behind sandbags with machine guns and unlimited ammo. I don’t like this at all. Unfairly stacking the deck against the player makes the game frustrating to play. Muzzle flare makes it even more difficult to pinpoint the centimeter of enemy peeking out above the defenses. And your allies are of no help against the strong enemy forces. Despite the other trimmings, the AI of ÜberSoldier makes it wearisome to play.

IN CLOSING
Another day, another sub-par first person shooter. Granted, ÜberSoldier has a semi-original concept and semi-original parts, but not even the outstanding graphics can save itself from the realms of average. The carefully hidden and overly powerful AI makes the game exasperating to play, and almost an exercise of hide and seek. Although the time shield is an interesting addition, getting head shots with any weapon other than the sniper rifle is extremely difficult, especially when you are being shot. Just killing enemies doesn’t recharge the time shield enough by itself to make it a worthwhile addition to the game. The developers of the Max Payne series were smart enough to allow for plenty of “bullet time,” because that was the draw of the game. There just isn’t enough time shield play in ÜberSoldier for my tastes. Yet again, an interesting premise falls to the wayside as sub-par features dominate the scene.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

RIP: Strike Back Review

RIP: Strike Back, developed and published by White Elephant Games.
The Good: Simple controls, RPG elements, varied environments that cause strategic adjustments, different weapons and vehicles with multiple fire modes, interesting bonuses, game doesn’t rely on overwhelming numbers of enemies
The Not So Good: A little too much of the same thing
What say you? A better than average overhead arcade shooter: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Arcade shooters have had a long and storied history on the PC. There is just something satisfying about running around and shooting a bunch of bad guys. Of course, doing this in real life is mostly illegal, so computer games are here to fulfill all of our violent desires. Hooray! Before computers got powerful enough to render 3-D graphics, the arcade shooters were shown from a side or top perspective with detailed 2-D sprites. RIP: Strike Back strikes back with an overhead arcade shooter, where you fill the shoes of Death, Satan, or a guy with a pumpkin for a head. Utilizing a vast array of weaponry to dispense of your enemies, will RIP: Strike Back prove to be more deadly than other titles in the slightly crowded arcade shooter genre?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), RIP: Strike Back has old school overhead 2-D graphics. The game doesn’t look bad or muddled: a lot of the characters are fairly detailed, and the explosion and weapon effects are pretty good. I never got confused where my character was located on the screen. There are many different environments in the game as well, unlike some games that take place on non-descript featureless terrain. RIP: Strike Back also has a fair amount of blood, if you’re into the sort of thing. The graphics do an adequate job: they don’t provide a “wow” factor, but they don’t detract from the overall experience. The sound is along the game lines: beefy weapon sounds and other assorted death effects that does just enough to get by.

ET AL.
RIP: Strike Back features simple mechanics over 60 different levels of shooting fun. You move your character using the old WASD standard and aim with the mouse, pointing at enemy units you’d like to kill. Each weapon has a slower, more powerful mode and a faster but less accurate firing mode and requires reloading after the clip is emptied. You can only keep one weapon at a time, but more powerful weapons usually don’t have any disadvantages. RIP: Strike Back includes a leveling-up process for your anti-hero: experience points can be used for faster firing, more health, or special attributes like freezing enemies. Some maps include vehicles you can hop into (like stationary turrets or movable tanks and helicopters) to dish out even more punishment. The level design provides for some strategy (gasp!): you can use objects for cover and explosive barrels that destroy a large area are scattered around some maps. Interesting bonuses can also appear on the map, like slowing time down Matrix-style. RIP: Strike Back is one vs. many, but the game doesn’t rely on extreme masses of enemies like Evil Invasion, Deadhunt, or Core Defender. Rather, the game primarily has smaller numbers of more powerful enemies instead of just cannon fodder, and the levels themselves provide cover from incoming fire. I much prefer the action of RIP: Strike Back than any of those other games, as RIP: Strike Back has much more strategy to go along with the general mindless destruction. Sure there’s a lot of shooting involved, but RIP: Strike Back is deeper than most arcade shooters.

IN CLOSING
RIP: Strike Back is a surprisingly entertaining little game. The game starts with arcade shooting, adds a pinch of RPG, and a dash of strategy, bakes for 60 levels, and comes out with a pretty tasty casserole of annihilation. RIP: Strike Back has just enough depth to keep you playing through the game’s varied levels, and I didn’t get quickly bored like when I played Evil Invasion (a similar game). I like how the game’s difficulty isn’t just associated with 20-30 enemies on screen at once, instead opting for a more strategic approach (and thankfully so). Because of this, RIP: Strike Back breaks away from the pack and becomes a prominent arcade shooter, ranked above the dead bodies of its competitors. Most important of all, the game is just plain fun with simple controls and constant action that should appeal to gamers who are fans of this genre.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Snowy: Lunch Rush Review

Snowy: Lunch Rush, developed by Aliasworlds Entertainment and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Much more strategy than other games of this genre, above average graphics, story mode eases you into the game
The Not So Good: Once you unlock all the different components, it’s essentially the same thing over and over, can’t skip past easy levels
What say you? A fast-paced serving game with variety and strategy: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ve always said that if you’re job has been made into a computer game, then you must have a pretty fun job. Apparently, this means that waiting tables is a laugh and a half! There are several games on the market that feature you clicking or moving around, serving customers various foods and/or beverages, and experiencing what it would be like if you were a waiter and could move by clicking a mouse from an isometric perspective. Snowy: Lunch Rush is one of those games, where you control entrepreneur bear Snowy as he opens a new restaurant. This is another game using the Snowy character used in a line of games by Aliasworlds, including Snowy: Fish Frenzy, Snowy: Treasure Hunter, Snowy: Space Trip, Snowy: Certified Public Accountant, and Snowy: David Spade’s Personal Assistant. How will Snowy do in his new line of work? Will people accept being served by a bear? Isn’t that some sort of health risk? These questions and more may possibly be answered.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Snowy: Lunch Rush is played from a fixed perspective, but features some pretty good 3-D graphics. The game runs smooth and features some detailed components, including the customers of the restaurant, the restaurant itself, and an out-of-breath Snowy scampering around delivering food. The game creates of believable cartoon world in which Snowy works hard (and plays hard). The game also does a good job in the audio department, giving audio clues indicating the disposition of the customers and action that is occurring in the game that you might be ignoring. This is a big improvement over Betty’s Beer Bar, where there is no sound indication of potential problems. Both the sound and graphics of Snowy: Lunch Rush are well done, certainly above the average seen in contemporary arcade and puzzle-like games.

ET AL.
Simply, Snowy: Lunch Rush is a game where you must serve your customers in a restaurant setting. Of course, it’s gets much more involved than that, as Snowy: Lunch Rush adds some additional features that similar games lack. Firstly, the game is mainly played through the story mode, as Snowy slowly works his way up from crap shack to swanky establishment over the course of 60 levels. The game does a good job of introducing new elements to the player, usually adding one thing new to do each level. The problem is, once you get the full compliment of the restaurant (around level 20 of 60), the game essentially plays the same: the excitement of “I wonder what the game will add next” is lost, and the only variation is found in the number of customers and table arrangements. It also takes quite a while to get from beginning levels of difficulty to expert levels: I quickly mastered the game, but still had to go through all the intermediate levels to get to more challenging material. The ability to skip ahead to the more difficult scenarios would be appreciated. Once you advance past a certain level, you unlock the ability to play open-ended games where you just keep on serving. I would like to see games like Snowy: Lunch Rush to have much more flexibility for their players in selecting an appropriate level of difficulty, instead of having the game do it for them.

The gameplay of Snowy: Lunch Rush is pretty fun, and consists of clicking on various objects around the map to perform various tasks. When a customer enters the restaurant, you must drag-and-drop seat them, take their order from the table to the kitchen, take their food from the kitchen to the table, take their money, and clean the table for a new use. This sounds like it would get repetitive and boring (like it did in Betty’s Beer Bar), but Snowy: Lunch Rush has a list of additions to vary the experience. Each customer has a patience rating, and if you do not provide him or her with quick service (seating them, serving them, taking their order, etc.), they get mad and leave. There are also four classes of customer: as they get younger and more male (woman, man, girl, boy), they get more impatient and eat faster. Each of your customers is also color-coded: if you seat them in a chair previously occupied by someone of the same color, you get a bonus. This creates a level of strategy: do you wait to sit someone to get an additional bonus and risk them storming off? You also get bonuses (which are necessary in completing the higher level) for doing the same action multiple times. For example, if you take four orders in a row without doing anything else, you accumulate a 4x bonus: sweet! This will result in you waiting around for every customer to get to the same point in their dining experience; of course, since women eat slower in men (a scientific fact), you’ll be waiting around for them to finish in order to get the bonus, risking people waiting for table leaving with their precious cash. Playing the game in this fashion results in times of intense action followed by periods of waiting around for people to finish whatever they are doing. It can get boring at times, but you can spend doing optional activities. You can improve the mood of people standing in line by playing music instruments, and you can improve the mood of people already seated by serving them coffee. Also, people will occasionally want a delicious pastry at random times, so you’ll need to deliver the goods when they want them. Also, you’ll have drive-thru customers to worry about: they are very impatient (they couldn’t even get out of their car!) but are quicker to serve than seated customers. You’ll also occasionally get phone calls from VIP customers who must be seated at specific tables (that are clearly labeled once they arrive) and are extremely irritated (but have deep pockets).

IN CLOSING
Snowy: Lunch Rush plays very similar to games such as Diner Dash and Betty’s Beer Bar, but Snowy: Lunch Rush has much more variety than either of those games and is consequently better. The essential gameplay is the same (taking orders and delivering food), but all of the extras (action bonuses, boosting the mood through musical or caffeine intervention, drive-thru customers, tasty cakes, VIPs) elevate this title above the rest. The above average graphics and sound doesn’t hurt the cause, either. The pace of the game is also well done: Snowy moves fast enough where his speed doesn’t hinder the flow of the game, unlike Betty’s Beer Bar. Most important of all, Snowy: Lunch Rush is fun to play and challenging enough to be enjoyable. The game does a good job ramping up the difficulty in the beginning, but I wish Snowy: Lunch Rush was more flexible for advanced players who’ve mastered the intermediate levels. Nevertheless, Snowy: Lunch Rush is a rewarding and pleasing serving game that features lots of innovations and addictive gameplay.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Stoked Rider Review

Stoked Rider, developed and published by Bongfish.
The Good: Extremely large and varied terrain, interesting and original concept, central challenge list, hidden bonuses
The Not So Good: Very little instruction for beginners, finding a drop zone is much more difficult than it should be, hidden bonuses are really hidden
What say you? An imaginative idea that needs to be more user-friendly and welcoming for players: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Striving to appeal more to the younger generation, the Olympics had made the shift from old, stodgy sports like skiing and towards new, cooler events like snowboarding. Stealing a page from the semi-successful X-Games (which surprisingly don’t involve Mulder or Scully), the Olympics are now filled with baggy pants wearing athletes who enjoy shredding (lettuce, I assume). Following along with this newer fad are snowboarding games, most noticeable the SSX series on consoles. There’s hasn’t been a presence of extreme sports on the PC however, outside of the occasional Tony Hawk port. Hoping to cash in on this void is Stoked Rider, a freeride snowboarding game where it’s just you, the mountain, gravity, and a lot of trees. Freeride snowboarding is all about tearing down the side of cliffs, emulating the “agony of defeat” (although hopefully not too closely). Let’s go boarding, kids!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Stoked Rider generally has outstanding mountain graphics, creating a believable (but extreme) version of snow-covered peaks you might find in various ranges around the world. The game was inspired by Tommy Brunner and his freeriding in Alaska, and Stoked Rider is complete with breathtaking visuals from both close and far perspectives. Obviously, the most work went into creating a varied 64 square kilometer (or 1,581 square furlongs) and the developers came up strong in this area. When I first fired up the game, I thought I was seeing an opening pre-rendered movie, but it was actually the real game mountain: I was pretty impressed. There are some graphical issues, however, such as clipping (the board can disappear into the snow) and camera angles (the game automatically changes the angle, sometimes to an angle you can see anything but snow with). Still, the wonderful mountain vistas are one of the highlights of Stoked Rider. The sound consists of generic effects: snow moving under the board, the alternative soundtrack, and the jubilant sound of mastering a trick; not exactly at the same quality as the graphics, but not terrible or damaging to the gameplay.

ET AL.
Being a simulation of freeriding, Stoked Rider lets you choose any part of the mountain and start boarding. This level of freedom has benefits and drawbacks. It does give the user the ability to basically go wherever they want, but a missing overall structure or mission-based sequence of scenarios can make the game too repetitive over time. This is slightly offset by the central high score table. If you complete an especially sick (“sick” meaning “affected with disease”) run, you can upload it to the central server and challenge other players to go farther down the mountain than you did. You can download any run other people have uploaded as well, although I wish there was a way to “download all;” there are over 100 different challenges, and downloading each individually involves more clicking than necessary. You begin each session from the base, go up in your helicopter, and select a drop zone from any suitable area of the terrain that is not too steep or out of bounds. The drop zone selection is probably the weakest aspect of the game as Stoked Rider makes it much harder than needed. You are tied to the helicopter in selecting a drop zone, rotating the view requires right clicking then moving the mouse then right clicking and left clicking to select a zone. If the zone you want is anywhere near the helicopter in your view, you must readjust the view as the game doesn’t allow clicking too close to the chopper. I’d much rather have an overhead or isometric map to select my starting point. Adding in the helicopter gives the illusion of realism (since freeriding is done by dropping from a helipcopter), but that doesn’t mean its inclusion makes the game fun. In addition, you must fly around a find unlocked bases, scouring the landscape for buildings that only pop into view when you’re close enough. I want to spend my time in the game snowboarding, not playing hide and seek.

Controlling your boarder is easy enough: the four directional controls plus jump, brake, and shifting of weight. Performing tricks is simple as well: jump and press another button to execute indy airs, backside airs, and spins. The physics in the game are generally enjoyable, although the boards go slow in the beginning and the undulations in the terrain make the boarder go airborne more than he should. Your run ends when you go below a certain threshold of speed for three seconds; however, you can cheat by jumping before time runs out, continuing a run even though it should be over. This results in some inflated runs and takes away from the fun of the game. You can earn several upgrades or bonuses during the game. Additional bases are unlocked by descending a certain amount of meters, tricks can earn better boards, and other bonuses are scattered around the map in various locations. Since the map is 64 square kilometers (or 1,066 bovates), you can imagine that it takes a lot of luck and time to find better protective gear, clothes, and songs. The fact that a lot of the objects only pop into view when you are fairly close only complicates the issue. There are some features that are missing from the game that I’d like to see. First, there is only one challenge included by the developers in the game; the rest must be downloaded from other users. I’d like to see a better array of challenges in the game and winning each of them result in some sort of bonus (clothes, boards, or just trick points). Also, the game requires you to validate your key each time you run the game, so why isn’t there any multiplayer? A future version of the game would benefit from a massively multiplayer mountain where you can challenge fellow competitors to checkpoint races. That would be cool.

IN CLOSING
Stoked Rider definitely has the potential to be a great PC snowboarding game. The graphics are outstanding and the basic game is there, although the lack of structured missions makes the game a little monotonous. The physics model makes boarding in the game challenging and enjoyable, the best thing next to actually going out there. Some added features, such as multiplayer, more included missions, and easier drop zone locating, would add to the good base Stoked Rider has. The game is hard on the new players, as the manual or game doesn’t really give any advice and generally confuses the new player (with definitions such as “forcing the board's velocity-direction towards the nose-direction by the help of anisotropic-friction”). I only found out by mistake how to move the helicopter without selecting a drop zone (double-click). The game can become boring if you don’t take advantage of the challenges available online. In addition, the helicopter controls make navigation around the mountains too arduous. Still, Stoked Rider is easily the best snowboarding game on the PC; of course, it’s the 2nd snowboarding game on the PC, so that’s a superfluous compliment. Gamers who have been itching for a snowboarding game should look no further than Stoked Rider, a respectable game with unquestionable room for expansion.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beezzle Review

Beezzle, developed by Casatronics Games and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Three different game modes, lots (300!) of levels, unique hexagon layouts, themed graphic design
The Not So Good: Repetitive
What say you? A color-matching puzzle game with a number of novel components: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Probably the most feared common insect is the bee. Armed with pointy stingers, they can pounce at any moment and ruin your picnic and/or outdoor wedding. However, we must deal with bees because they are guarding the precious, precious honey. Thankfully, we now have a game where we can appease the bees simply by completing puzzles! Beezzle (a combination of the words “bee,” “puzzle,” and “Jessica Simpson”) is a puzzle game where you must make rows of same-colored drops arranged in honeycombs. How will Beezzle differentiate itself from the large hive of puzzle games? Will I continue to use humorous bee puns? You better bee-lieve it! HA HA!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Beezzle has a distinctive graphical style deriving from its source material. All of the levels are in bright, summery environments that you would expect in a game such as this. There are a number of pieces of flair that accentuate the game: flowers, animated bees, a slightly concerned sun, and more. The music falls along the same lines, with light and fanciful background tunes that support the theme even further. A lot of games have indistinctive elements and can’t be separated from each other, but this is not the case with Beezzle.

ET AL.
Beezzle comes at you with three different game modes, all of them surround the basic premise: you must swap color-coded nectar drops in order to make rows of three or more. This is a pretty basic puzzle dynamic, but it’s made more difficult in Beezzle by using hexagon-shaped honeycombs. This means that the rows go diagonally or vertically, and you can move any particular nectar drop to six possible locations. All this results in a pretty unique gaming experience that is both easy to learn but challenging. To make it easier, the game uses subtle hints to show possible swaps you can make, or you can ask for a more obvious hint. There are also a number of different bonuses available to destroy large quantities of drops (bombs or rockets) and other benefits (such as increased time) that appear randomly on the board.

As I mentioned a paragraph earlier (weren’t you paying attention?), there are three game modes to challenge your puzzle moxie. In action mode, you swap drops to create rows of three or more, which fills a status bar. Completing enough rows will spawn a special crystal that must be eliminated before time runs out. Puzzle mode features a cute, baby bee pupa (much cuter than in real life) that must be moved to a certain location around the board. You lose a life if you make any move that doesn’t involve the pupa, but making a correct move replenishes a lost life. In fill mode, you must make a row involving drops located in all of the level’s honeycomb hexagons before time runs out (especially difficult for the corner locations). All of these modes, even though they are essentially the same, employ different strategies and are dissimilar enough to make them distinct. This is unlike most games that feature lots of different modes that are really the same thing. You must move uncomfortably fast in timed modes, but thankfully the game makes moving drops very easy: you can just drag a drop instead of the classic double-clicking dynamic. This decreases the time required to move drops and creates more time for formulating your strategy and scouring the map for possible solutions.

IN CLOSING
In the end, Beezzle is a distinctive puzzle game that has enough parts to separate itself from the pack. The game employs an easy convention but spices up the mix with a great theme and interesting board layout. The game does get a little monotonous after a while, so the game is best played in short bursts (as are most puzzle games). There are a lot of different boards (300), so you’ll never see the exact same honeycomb arrangement more than once. The multiple, unique game modes also increases the value of the game. Most people who enjoy color-swapping matching games will find a distinguished and fun experience contained within the hive of Beezzle.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Xpand Rally Review

Xpand Rally, developed by Techland and published by TotalGaming.net.
The Good: Realistic tracks, accurate physics, fallible AI drivers, career mode with repair and upgrades that scales appropriately, pretty good graphics and effects, moderately difficult but fun to drive, track editor
The Not So Good: Co-driver doesn’t adjust corner speeds for your current setup, must unlock additional tracks, extremely laggy multiplayer
What say you? A lifelike rally racing game with some minor annoyances: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I love rally racing. I think the skill required to maneuver a car around treacherous corners inches from trees and other assorted obstacles (like people) is much more than the more asphalt related racing series around the world. Although it hasn’t gotten a strong foothold in the U.S. (and even more so now that it’s off the air on Speed), it’s fairly popular around other parts of the world and inspired me to get my sweet ass car. There have been a fair number of rally games produced, trying to replicate the excitement of high-speed thrills around tracks where you really shouldn’t be going fast. Probably the most visible titles on the PC is more arcade Colin McRae Rally and the hardcore simulation Richard Burns Rally). Lying somewhere in the middle is Xpand Rally, developed by Techland (from Poland) and now available in the U.S. through the TotalGaming.net download service. Xpand Rally hopes to satisfy both hardcore and casual fans and allow for user-created content, kind of a rally version of rFactor.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Like most driving games, the graphics found in Xpand Rally is one of the highlights of the game. The environments are very detailed: textured roads, crowds, roadside objects (like fences and cows behind fences) and tons of other objects. All of the objects can be run into, causing spectacular damage to your car. The damage in Xpand Rally looks to be almost realistic: falling off a cliff causes driver injury and crashing into trees causes appropriate amounts of damage. The model is scaled down from realistic levels to make the game playable and enjoyable, but the arcade damage seen in Colin McRae Rally is long gone. The game has some other enjoyable graphical touches: dynamic clouds and shadows, people running across the track, windshield wipers that clear the window of mud and water, and others. The game also features full time of day effects (for dawn, dusk, or night racing, complete with dynamic shadows) along with weather. It’s obvious that a lot of attention was paid to the graphics of Xpand Rally, adding the little touches that makes for a great visual experience. The sound is standard for a racing game: engine sounds, tire squeals, breaking glass, and the co-driver calling out information about the next corner. The sound neither impresses nor disappoints: it just does an adequate job.

TOTALGAMING.NET
Like I mentioned in the introduction, Xpand Rally is available for download through the TotalGaming.net service, run by the Stardock people (they made Galactic Civilizations II). TotalGaming.net is a lot like a combination of Steam (a central hub where you can access all your purchased software) and Direct2Drive (direct download purchasing). The advantage of it is that you don’t need copy protection or a CD in the drive to play the games and if you switch computers, you can just re-download the software because it’s tied to your account instead of your computer. The disadvantage is that it’s download only, so if you’re on a slow Internet connection, games will take quite a while to download. I did encounter some slow speeds when trying to download Xpand Rally (around 25 KB/sec) but the rest of the time when I’ve dealt with GalCiv2 it’s been fine. TotalGaming.net features primarily independent games, including some titles I have reviewed through other means: Flatspace, Supreme Ruler 2010, Trash, and Tribal Trouble. Now, on with the countdown!

FEATURES AND GAMEPLAY
Xpand Rally features both arcade and simulation modes; most real drivers will want to play in simulation mode, as arcade mode features relaxed physics for beginners. The main part of the game is the rather lengthy career mode, where you buy a car, race to earn money, and unlock better tracks with bigger prizes. Like Gran Turismo, you start out with a crappy car and earn money by placing well in races. The game starts with 3 races unlocked, and placing 2nd or better in each of these races opens the next series of 3-5 races, and so on. The money you earn can be used to purchase upgraded parts, repair your vehicle, or purchase a better car. You can upgrade components of the engine, exhaust, brakes, transmission, body, and others, just like Gran Turismo. And also like Gran Turismo, you don’t get a discount going from level 1 to level 2 brakes and can’t sell outdated parts, which makes absolutely no sense. You can’t have more than one type of brakes on a car at once, so why can’t you recoup some of the money? Apparently there’s no return policy in Xpand Rally. Some of your earned money will also be spend on repairing damage to the parts installed in your car. One of the cooler parts of Xpand Rally is that each individual part you installed can be damaged different amounts, depending on where you received damage during the races. There isn’t generic “engine” damage in Xpand Rally: you can break the exhaust, radiator, or tuning kit to varying degrees. You can also play single races on tracks you’ve unlocked in career mode; although all the cars and upgrades are available from the beginning for single races, the tracks must be unlocked. You can also play multiplayer games over the Internet. Through the time I’ve played online, the gameplay has been less than stellar. For some odd reason, the first time I played multiplayer the game reset all of the options I had changed (such as turning off force feedback and resetting the video settings) so I had to withdraw from the race and change them during the race. Multiplayer is also very laggy even on the most basic graphics settings. Part of this is because most of the players of Xpand Rally are located overseas, but a ping of 70 should not result in second-long lockups during racing. This wouldn’t be a big deal in some other games, but it’s a major problem in a rally game. And this is only with 2 players! I don’t enjoy slamming into a cliff because the Internet code isn’t up to snuff. Obviously, Xpand Rally is geared towards the single player experience.

Xpand Rally comes with a track editor so that you can create your own circuits. Once you learn how it works (I suggest getting this excellent beginner’s tutorial), it takes about 20 minutes to whip up a crappy but drivable track with just the basics using Paint Shop Pro and the game’s editor. Of course, you can spend quite a while adding accoutrements to your design, and some interesting designs are starting to crop up around the Internet. Unfortunetly, the game will not call out upcoming corners on custom tracks, so you really need to learn them. Xpand Rally seems to feature a moderately difficult physics engine: I like driving on dirt and gravel, but driving on pavement just seems a little bit off. The physics engine does a good job in simulating weight shift: you must brake well before a turn in order for the weight to shift and brakes to engage. This means you must really learn the tracks in order to be successful. One of the better features of Xpand Rally is the realistic track design. One of my major problems with Colin McRae Rally is that the tracks are way, way too wide, which makes the game extremely easy to drive and doesn’t feature any of the “close calls” seen in real rally racing. Xpand Rally’s tracks are very realistic, featuring cramped quarters and showing how much skill is required just to stay on the track. The co-pilot does a decent job calling out upcoming corner, although the gears are hard-coded, meaning his information does not adjust to your current setup. This is problematic for the beginning of career mode, where your car is not exactly top of the line. For example, the co-driver said an upcoming corner was a “4” when it was really a “2” with the car I was using. Until you realize this, a lot of wrecks will result. Although rally racing is a single driver affair, you can see a ghosted image of the AI leader’s line while you drive. The AI drivers do slip-up, over-correcting for a corner or clipping a bump. I’m not sure if these “mistakes” are random or not, but it’s still cool. This way, you feel like you’re racing against a real opponent, not some arbitrary time.

IN CLOSING
Xpand Rally is a pretty decent rally game, featuring beautiful graphics and the ability to customize track layouts. The AI drivers act like humans, and they scale with the career mode, always presenting an appropriate challenge. The career mode is long, enjoyable, and difficult enough to hold your attention. Driving in the game is also enjoyable, successfully straddling the line between outright simulation and inaccurate arcade. I definitely enjoyed playing Xpand Rally more than Colin McRae Rally, whipping past trees, rocks, and billboards on realistic, narrow courses through interesting environments. Hopefully more people will discover this game now that it’s available here in the U.S., so that I can have some better pings in multiplayer, and also have an increased number of custom tracks available for download. Xpand Rally should be able to find a place in the racing market with gamers who enjoy rally racing and want to see some custom content.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sky Puppy Review

Sky Puppy, developed and published by StarQuail Productions.
The Good: Really easy controls (just the spacebar) for all age levels, branching levels, the dog is named Wilford
The Not So Good: Can be difficult to maneuver where you want, game plays the same from beginning to end, pressing one button repeatedly gets old fast
What say you? A one button platform game that’s short on variety: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Platform games used to be extremely popular during the days of Nintendo dominance (last Tuesday), featuring the well-known icons Mario, Sonic, and Donkey Kong (among others). They have never been too terribly popular on the PC (probably due to an older audience), but some smaller developers have come out with some titles to satisfy those gamers who wish to relive days gone by. This brings us to Sky Puppy, a platform game where you control a flying dog. Makes sense to me!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sky Puppy is a vertically scrolling 2-D game that features flat 2-D graphics. The game doesn’t look bad, but it isn’t much above the level set by console games in the early 90s. They have a distinct hand-drawn feel to them and accentuate the overall cartoon theme of the game. There isn’t much detail to the graphics other than the repeating backgrounds. The sound is along the same lines: the background effects are pretty good, but general effects are below average. The game’s fanciful theme shines through the graphics and sound and although they are a little underwhelming, they serve their purpose and don’t detract from the gameplay.

ET AL.
Sky Puppy is a classic platformer where you navigate the levels finding bones, avoiding enemies, and try to reach the exit before time runs out. The game’s controls are very simple because they consist of one button. That’s right, in order to play Sky Puppy, all you need to do is mash the spacebar to make your puppy fly a little bit further towards the top of the screen. You don’t have any control over moving your character left or right: this is done by touching arrows that are arranged by the level designers to move you up through the obstacle-laden levels. While moving through the levels, you must also avoid touching any enemies, as they decrease the amount of time you have to complete the level. As you might imagine, the decision to make the game have such simple controls has advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it makes the game easy enough for any skill and age level to play. On the other hand, it makes playing the game extremely repetitious. Additionally, the game isn’t really that varied or compelling to play. I’d imagine that it would entertain school age children, but the rest of the population will probably grow tired of the one note tune that Sky Puppy offers. The game can get frustrating at time because it’s difficult to make your dog go where you want it to. If you miss a certain arrow by pressing the spacebar one time too many, you might get stuck in an out-of-the-way area and have to slowly navigate your way back to the main track. The game does have a branching level system in which choosing your exit path determines the next level you’ll play: this means you’ll need to play the game more than one to access all of the game’s 45 levels (15 levels at each difficulty level).

IN CLOSING
Sky Puppy is a platform game with extremely simple controls geared towards the youth of America (and other countries). Most players of older ages will get bored by the constant, repeating gameplay, and younger players might find the game too difficult on anything but the easiest difficulty levels (and even easy is fairly challenging for youngsters). There’s not really anything that Sky Puppy adds to the genre that might make it considered a unique or innovative game other than the single button controls. Of course, the game is only $10 and there is probably an audience for this game if there are children who enjoy platform games but don’t have a console. You can always try out the demo and see if Sky Puppy’s simple controls are right for you.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Take Command: 2nd Manassas Review

Take Command: 2nd Manassas, developed by Mad Minute Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: An exhaustive simulation of this battle, can command few or many troops, realistic and engrossing sound, good AI on both operational and individual levels, fun tactical combat
The Not So Good: Annoying scenario time concerns, most players won’t notice any differences from the original game, no multiplayer
What say you? Still one of the best tactical strategy games available, but not many changes from the first game to warrant a doubled price tag: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If at first you do succeed, make an endless string of sequels. This is the motto of movies and computer games alike; the Madden football franchise can add one or two new features each year and continue to top sales charts, mainly because people are stupid and will buy anything with John Madden’s sexy visage on it. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is the sequel to the long-winded The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861. Not only have they shortened the name, but they’ve also made some additions to the game and headed into the future to the second battle at the famed location in northern Virginia. Featuring some famous names of the Civil War, the second battle pitted John Pope versus Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in a steel cage battle to the death (although the steel cage may be a historical inaccuracy). The first game featured great tactical combat at a budget price. The newest version is twice as much (now $40), so does it have twice the features to call for such a hike?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics in Take Command: 2nd Manassas are largely the same as in the original game: pixilated up close but not too bad far away. This means the game can handle large numbers of units on the screen at once and look fairly good, and most of the time you’ll be pretty zoomed out anyway. These aren’t cutting edge RTS graphics and the game looks behind a lot of the big budget titles, but they serve their job. You can enable some new high-resolution soldiers and flags and they look good, but you need a monster machine to run it. I’ve found that the game looks the same from afar and runs much smoother (and has greatly reduced load times) using medium-quality graphics. Make sure you enable keeping all the dead bodies on the ground, however: death is funny. Still, you’ll not notice much change from the first game in the graphics department. The sound is still well done, complete with authentic battle sounds and realistic environmental effects. Take Command: 2nd Manassas doesn’t have many sounds in the sounds directory (only 86 files for 38 MB), but the developers have combined these relatively simple sounds into an effective and believable mix. Although you can spot instances of sound looping, the overall effect is still exhilarating. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is one of the better sounding real time strategy games out there.

FEATURES
Players who are familiar with the original game (The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861) probably want to know what additions the developers have added since the original. All of the addendums are minor but welcome: linked scenarios, double canister artillery, non-obstructive trees, high-resolution uniforms (which require a top of the line computer to run), new weapons, new commands, prone positions, and new terrain types. Most players won’t even really notice them during gameplay, as they are really small tweaks to the original formula. This game does cover a new battle with new commanders (although it happens at the same general location as the first game), but overall Take Command: 2nd Manassas feels a lot like Take Command: 1st Manassas. This version doesn't have double the features but it's definately worth $40 (the first version was, in my opinion, underpriced: a rare feat in computer gaming), and most veteran players who have any sense will end up buying it anyway.

Take Command: 2nd Manassas features everything you’d ever want to simulate from the second battle of Manassas. There is a number of different battles, where you are given charge of a predetermined commander, issued orders from your superiors (if you have any), and left to complete your objectives. Some of the scenarios are linked with later battles, and you carry your forces from one skirmish to the next. This is a nice feature: it feels like you’re fighting a real battle instead of a series of disjointed scenarios. You can also use Open Play, where you pick a battlefield, order of battle, leader, type of engagement, size, and length and have at it. This gives the flexibility to play pretty much anywhere with anyone, discarding the limits imposed by the scenario designers. You can also design your own scenarios and play them, if you want a more scripted affair. There is a series of tutorials that teach you the basics of the game. The first tutorial is good (which deals with issuing orders and troop movement), but rest are really just a series of small battles where you have to figure out what to do from the generally vague instructions. You can also edit scenarios and order of battles through a text editor so you can partially recreate your favorite battle.

GAMEPLAY
Like most tactical strategy games, you are in charge of ordering units around the battlefield that fall under your command. Each of your units (which mostly consist of infantry regiments, although you may get the occasional artillery or cavalry unit) has a quality (experience level), strength (number of men), morale, fatigue, and grade (their overall score). More experienced units can be left out on the flanks of your lines, as you want to keep the morale of the n00bs up. The smallest group of units in the game is the brigade. Brigades are grouped into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into the whole army. Better, more powerful leaders will be in charge of more troops, and it’s better to start small and work your way up to commanding larger amounts of forces. The different brigades are arranged in the order of battle, basically a family tree of who commands what. One of the shortcomings Take Command: 2nd Manassas has is that it’s difficult to determine which troops are “yours,” especially in the heat of battle commanding many different regiments. Troops are ordered to move by selecting their commanding officer, double clicking on a destination, and choosing a formation. Formations include columns (for quick movement), lines (for battle), and skirmish (to minimize damage from incoming cannon fire). You can also wheel (or turn) your troops around to face the enemy; this is important because severe damages to morale are encountered when attacked from the side or from behind, which will eventually cause your troops to run like little babies. You can also instruct your troops to use available roads (which results in quicker movement), halt, advance, fall back, move double quick, charge, or retreat. There is also a set of commands available to individual units if you take command of them. You can take command from the AI of any unit or leader under your jurisdiction if you want to tailor their actions or force them to move where you want them. The AI in the game does a good job of reflecting realistic behaviors, which sometimes results in subordinate officers disobeying your orders. Orders are delivered by couriers on horseback that can be shot.

Combat is conducted when opposing units are within range and in a line formation. They will automatically face the enemy and stay in formation, a lifesaver not found in other RTS games when your carefully placed troops just devolve into a mass of humanity. Troops will automatically engage enemy units, so you’re really there for overall strategy and troop placement; the reduced micromanagement found in Take Command: 2nd Manassas is greatly appreciated. This includes artillery units that will fire on any enemy unit within range, so they serve as an automatic demoralizer. Take Command: 2nd Manassas runs in real time, although you can use time acceleration. The problem is that the game never displays what the time acceleration level is (you just have to guess by staring at the clock) and it resets to real time whenever your troops fire or are fired upon. This is amplified by the fact that each scenario has a set length, and it doesn’t end until time expires, no matter how good (or bad) you’re doing. This gets really annoying; if you just want to advance to the end of the scenario, you’ll constantly have to press the time acceleration button, as it keeps resetting. I don’t like sitting there 30 minutes waiting for a battle to end that I’ve already won. A slider would have worked much better to keep time going at a faster rate. This is by far the biggest complaint I have about a game that's generally very polished. While you're waiting for the scenario to end, you’ll need to supply your troops with additional ammunition from supply wagons, but usually just for long, heated battles. The varied (and realistic…they base it off historical maps of the period) terrain found in Manassas has a distinct effect on troop movement and visibility. For example, troops move very slowly through the woods, and are exposed in open fields. The weather and time of day can also affect troop movement and visibility: dusk and dawn makes it more difficult to spot enemy units. At the end of each scenario you are rated according to how well your troops did (earning points for causing an enemy unit to retreat and killing enemy officers, among others) and how long you held objectives.

IN CLOSING
Is Take Command: 2nd Manassas worth the increase in money? If you already own the first game, I’d say no: there really isn’t that much new content or expanded features (other than a new battle and the progressive scenarios) to purchase this new version. There’s still no multiplayer and essentially the same graphics. Take Command: 2nd Manassas is worth $40 by itself for the amount of content it provides, but it’s still hard to ignore that basically the same game was available for half the amount not too long ago. Your score will probably depend on whether you own the first version of Take Command; Take Command: 2nd Manassas is a great game on its own, but too similar to the original title. Still, Take Command: 2nd Manassas should be in the library of any self-respecting strategy gamer, especially those with a fondness of the Civil War (thank goodness this is not another World War II game….we’re all sick of that time period by now). The ability to play any leader in any skirmish gives Take Command: 2nd Manassas the flexibility and longevity to make it worth the money, just as long as you didn’t plunk down cash for the first title. People who really, really enjoy the first game will probably end up getting this version anyway, so more power to them. I am interested in seeing how this series progresses into the future; the next installment, Shiloh, has already been announced, featuring some of the more western battles of the Civil War (because back then, Tennessee was western). Hopefully they’ll upgrade the graphics engine and add some multiplayer by then (wink wink). Shortcomings notwithstanding, Take Command: 2nd Manassas is a wonderful strategy title full of compelling gameplay and fleshed-out features.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Avalon Review

Avalon, developed and published by White Elephant Games.
The Good: Fairly addictive, three game modes (although two are in essence the same)
The Not So Good: Less diversity than other games, not the best graphics
What say you? Another color-clearing game that could have more variety and accoutrements: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
From the number of puzzle games available on the Internet, it seems this genre of PC gaming is alive and kicking. As a review site that caters to both small and large developers (unlike some sites… you know who I’m talking about), I get my fair share of puzzle games, and they just keep on coming! It’s probably due to the fact that developing one is a fairly simple affair (they usually have simple graphics and sound that a one person team could develop) that adds to the sheer number of them available. In order to be memorable, however, they must offer something that is unique, something that sets them apart from the rest. Does Avalon shine with beautiful apple goodness, or just rot along side the rest of the puzzle games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Avalon has some very simple (some would say outdated) 2-D graphics accompanied by few special effects. The game is easy to navigate and the interface doesn’t interfere with the mechanics of the game, and possible areas that might be cleared are highlighted, but there are many other puzzle games that use 3-D-like effects to spice up the action. The graphics are at the very basic and utilitarian level, just serving the purpose of continuing the gameplay. The sound is along the same lines, with some basic effects to signify different events that occur during the game. One would like to see some sort of innovation or additions to the graphics and sound departments in every puzzle game, but this is not the case in Avalon.

ET AL.
Avalon is a puzzle game where you click to remove adjacent gems of identical colors. These groups must consist of at least three continuous gems. And that’s essentially it. There are three different game modes in Avalon, but the first two are basically the same. In both Action and Strategy mode, new rows of gems appear from the top of the screen, and you lose if any gems touch the top (like in Tetris). You must have a given number of new rows drop from the top before you move on to the next level. In action mode, the new rows drop continuously; however, in strategy mode they drop only when you clear gems from the playing field, so it’s less hectic (and less challenging). Avalon also has a puzzle mode where you are given a set number of gems and must figure out the appropriate order in which to eliminate them to clear them all. Puzzle mode is fairly challenging and the puzzles are well thought out. There are some bonuses that can get strewn around the map, such as color bombs (that eliminate all gems of a certain color) and super bombs (which blow up adjacent gems). You can also earn ranks while you play: messages pop-up to inform you that you’ve earned “tenderfoot” (not a real rank) rank, which interrupts the gameplay and is generally annoying.

IN CLOSING
Avalon doesn’t really offer anything new that we haven’t seen in other game like this. The game is easy to play and relatively addictive, but it’s missing one or two original features that would separate it from the pack. There is some variety in the game modes, but other similar games have more. The graphics don’t get in the way of the gameplay, but other similar games look better. Avalon is plainly a plain game with plain features and plain action. It’s not a bad game, per se, but it doesn’t add anything new to the table that differentiates itself from the other games on the market.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Betty’s Beer Bar Review

Betty’s Beer Bar, developed and published by Mystery Studio.
The Good: Straightforward gameplay, can queue actions, top score list, low system requirements, interesting graphical design, good tutorial
The Not So Good: Becomes too easy and repetitious after a while, no auditory clues to customer needs, no penalty for serving early
What say you? A click-heavy arcade bartending game that’s missing a few key features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
People like to get drunk. I’m not much of a drinker, but most of the reality shows on TV exhibit lots of drunk people acting stupid. And since reality shows are realistic, it must be true. It’s more fun to get drunk with others, and this is usually done in a social setting like a bar. Now, these establishments aren’t self-serve: you need someone to hand you a drink, and that’s the role of the bartender. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the premise of Betty’s Beer Bar, the alliterative game of bartending fun! You play as Betty, who needs to raise money to move to the tropics. Make that a double!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Betty’s Beer Bar has hand-drawn graphics that have an interesting style. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen nice artwork in a game that wasn’t rendered with polygons, and it’s a welcome change. There are little details around all of the levels that are nice, although the animation of the individual characters could have been better. You’ll never mistake Betty’s Beer Bar for a completely realistic bar setting, but the graphics still work in this game. Most importantly, the environments never inhibit the gameplay, something that could have been a problem if Betty’s Beer Bar was in all three dimensions. The sound, however, is below expectations. The background effects fit each of the locales that Betty serves, but there aren’t any sounds to let you know the status of the customers. I’d greatly appreciated hearing a “beer, please,” drunk moan, or “not on my shoes!” to assist in playing the game better. This is one area where Betty’s Beer Bar falls short; there could have been a lot more done in the sound effects area, but the game was content with featuring the bare necessities.

ET AL.
Betty’s Beer Bar features a story mode, timed challenge, and free play. The story mode is just a linked set of locations, and you move on to the next area when you’ve made enough money through selling beers and tips. Scores from the timed challenges can be uploaded to the Internet so you can compare your skills with others around the beer-serving world. There is a tutorial that explains how to play the game very well, and is a must for first time players. Here’s what you do:

  1. Pick up a clean mug.

  2. Fill the mug with beer at the tap.

  3. Serve to the customer

  4. Take the finished mug to the sink and clean it

All of these actions are done by clicking on the appropriate object with the mouse. It sounds pretty simple because it is, but the skill comes about when six different customers are all at different stages of the process. In addition, you need to serve coffee (in much the same way) to drunk customers (indicated by beer circling their head) in order to make them pay. The game is fairly difficult until you discover that actions can be queued. You can click your next four or five actions, which lets you plan ahead and makes the game a little less hectic and much less challenging. This can get you in trouble, however, when you mix in the drunk customers. Another problem with the game is that you can serve beer to customers before they ask for it, so you can beat them to the punch and get a bonus for serving them quickly. The customers should be angry, say “I didn’t order this,” and storm off, not leaving you a tip. This would make the game more complicated and hopefully more enjoyable.

IN CLOSING
Betty’s Beer Bar is a game with an interesting premise that falls one or two features short of being a great game. The base game, with its fast paced action, is there, and Betty’s Beer Bar is at its best when the bar is hectic. However, better sounds would be greatly appreciated; I can imagine the stress resulting from customers actually yelling at you instead of just having angry thought bubbles above their head. The fact that you can queue up actions and serve beer before the customer wants it drives down the difficulty of the game and almost makes it an exercise in tedium. Even though it was harder, I had more fun playing before I learned you could stack up the actions; it made for a much more confusing and tension-filled experience. Betty’s Beer Bar certainly stands out as an original game, but a couple more embellishments are needed to make it a complete title.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg Review

Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg, developed by Fury Software and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Streamlined but varied gameplay, broad unit classes reduces some micromanagement, diplomacy and actions can affect country alignments, campaign and map editor, event script editor
The Not So Good: Could have more scenarios (especially alternative history), less than spectacular graphics, no interactive tutorial, no Internet matchmaking, below average AI
What say you? A very accessible and customizable World War II grand strategy game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m starting to run out of things to say about World War II in my introductions. This is by far the most popular historical time period to make a game about and I’ve used up pretty much all of my material. So, go back and read some of my previous reviews to experience the thrill and excitement of my mind-numbing jokes here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. Ready to continue? OK. So, now we have Strategic Command 2: Blitzkrieg, a large-scale grand strategic game that’s the sequel to…let’s see…uh…ah yes: Barbie Horse Adventures. Strategic Command 2 (with or without the Blitzkrieg) features the allies versus the axis in a struggle for domination of Europe. Who will win? Did you click on all the links so far in this review? I’m checking, you know.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Strategic Command 2 has some bland 2-D graphics on a bland map that is reminicient of a straight game board port. There are no unit animations (and just a small explosion) that make the game feel like anything more than a board game. However, the detailed models of the individual pieces do look good, assuming you don’t choose to use the NATO symbols while you play. This is pretty much par for the course in small developer wargames: the graphics are just meant to serve as a world for the gameplay to reside in. The map does look like Europe and the simple map detail does allow for custom map creation, but nobody will be wowed by the graphical prowess of Strategic Command 2. Of course, if you compare the graphics to those in the original, they look pretty sweet. There is just the basic assortment of sound effects as well, typically one sound for each kind of unit action (troops marching, artillery firing). I do like that when you click on one of the major power’s capitals it plays a snippet of the national anthem (this is the highlight of the sound). We’re not looking for great sound and graphics in wargames (the grognards are a forgiving bunch), so we get what we expect in Strategic Command 2.

FEATURES
Strategic Command 2 is a turn-based grand strategy game where you control either the allied or axis countries and try to capture the important objective cities of Europe. This game is primarily military based, although there are some other aspects that flesh out the game. Strategic Command 2 lies somewhere between Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday (many different aspects of running a government) and Birth of America (military only). One interesting aspect of the game is that the turn length is not fixed: turns represent a longer period of time during winter when troop movement was slower. The game features six full length, open-ended scenarios that alters the date you enter the action (1939 through 1944). There are also five mini-campaigns that cover important engagements in larger detail, such as North Africa, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge. I don’t like the smaller campaigns as much: they involve a lot of troops and become overwhelming and repetitious. This game was designed for large-scale, continent-sized combat with small numbers of large units rather than minor engagements. I would like to see more variety in the scenarios, especially historical variants. However, there is a scenario and map editor bundled with the game that is very easy to use: the developers could have created some original scenarios to show off its power instead of leaving that up to the community. There is also an event editor in-game that allows you to control the historical events that occurred during World War II in Europe. This means you can randomize the U.S. entry into the war instead of having it follow the attack on Pearl Harbor, among around 50 other things. This gives the user the power to completely change the makeup of the game and really tailor the action to his or her liking. There are a number of other things the user can customize in their game, from minor things such as unit icons to major things like weather.

You can also adjust the difficulty of the game, which essentially gives bonuses (positive or negative) to the AI. The AI in the game is slightly disappointing, mainly because it’s not aggressive enough and seems to only respond to a pre-determined script or the human player’s actions. The AI doesn’t become “smarter” at more difficult levels and was not overly concerned about stopping me when I invaded England: it made only feeble attempts to destroy my transport boats (a couple of bombing runs) instead of sending the brunt of its navy after me. There is a tutorial in the game, sort of. It requires playing one of the included scenarios and reading instructions printed in the manual. Since some of the game is random dice rolls, the results described in the tutorial and what happens may be different. At one point, the tutorial tells you to spend almost all of your production points but then wants you to spend some more production points (that you don’t have) later in another action! Luckily, learning the game is pretty easy for anyone that’s played one of these grand strategy games before (and most of the people interested in Strategic Command 2 have).

UNITS AND COMBAT
Unlike most games that pointlessly have hundreds of “unique” units that are really the game, Strategic Command 2 smoothes the process and only has a handful of unit classes that can be customized through research upgrades. This is one of the highlights of the game: Strategic Command 2 eliminates most of the micromanagement of running a large empire by keeping the unit count low, but having each unit represent large quantities of troops. This is part of the reason why I don’t like the smaller scenarios: there are too many units. The game is at its best when you are maneuvering 15 or so units, trying to occupy all of the area you’ve conquered. The main map scales to this representation; for example, the entire country of Belgium can only hold 10 units, and units can’t be stacked (one of the problems of games such as Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday: crazy large stacks). I’d much rather have a playable game than excruciating historical detail on every unit type. The units in the game are: HQ (gives unit bonuses), corps (small infantry unit), army (large infantry unit), tank group, engineers, paratroopers, rockets, air fleet, bombers, battleships, cruisers, carriers, and subs. And that’s it: simple, short, and sweet. Each of these units can be moved simply from one square to another or they can employ an advanced movement type, such as an airborne drop. Units that are ordered to move to a square containing an enemy unit engage in mortal kombat (insert theme music).

The combat of Strategic Command 2 is computed automatically through dice rolls. Before you attack, the game shows probable combat losses for both sides, so that you can plan your attacks accordingly and minimize your losses. Land units can attack then move or move then attack. Units that attack before moving receive a 25% bonus, encouraging smart planning and delaying combat for later turns. Air units can conduct interdiction (combat against land units), bombing (combat against land structures), interception (which is automatically done against enemy air units that come within a certain range) and escort duty (also automatic). Naval units can also conduct shore bombardment, in addition to attacking fellow naval units. I really like that the game does not hide useful information concerning possible losses during combat; this is a lot like the combat advisor of Battles in Italy (although it’s not a map-wide overlay).

PRODUCTION, RESEARCH, AND DIPLOMACY
Strategic Command 2 uses a simplified production model. Points are earned at the end of each turn, totaled from the number of cities, capitals, mines, and oil your borders contain, and convoys received from other countries. There’s no arrangement of 8 different resources that have to be balanced and used for different purposes, which greatly shortens the process. These points can be spent on new units (which take a number of months to complete), reinforcing existing units, upgrading units with newly researched attributes, coercing other nations to join your cause, or conducting more research.

You can purchase “chits” that can be assigned to a particular area of research. Each “chit” adds 1-5% to the chance that a new upgrade is researched in that area (large percentages for lower level research). Research is also very concrete: there is no mystery which units it’s designed to upgrade. Research areas include heavy tanks, long-range aircraft, anti-submarine warfare, and more. There’s no crazy tech tree to worry about, just attribute bonuses for your units (and some improved production or movement).

Diplomacy is also very straightforward. You can spend some production points to influence countries to join the war on your side (or prevent them from joining the other) instead of just taking everyone over. The other countries may also base their decisions on your actions: invading a neighboring country may sway their opinion. The major countries are hard-coded in as either Allied or Axis, and although not all of them start the war as active warmongers (like the U.S., Canada, and Russia), it’s really just a matter of time until they enter the fray. I’d be nice to see some flexibility with the major nations that weren’t so black and white (imagine the U.S. joining the Axis), but that’s really beyond the scope of the game.

IN CLOSING
Strategic Command 2 is a much more accessible game to the general masses than other grand strategy games like Hearts of Iron. This is a great game for beginning strategy players, as the game eliminates many of the ennui of most wargames that turns a lot of players off. Some might say the game is too simple, but those people are masochists that enjoy games they have to spend years learning and complete overly complex tasks. Strategic Command 2 is all about streamlined gameplay: units, combat, production, research, and diplomacy are all easy to handle and simple to promote your overall strategy. I would like to see more varied scenarios using the grand scale, but I bet the community will come out with some good scenarios using the game’s editors. Strategic Command 2 allows the user to customize the inner workings of the game without having to delve into some confusing scripting language. Strategic Command 2 may not have the flashy graphics of some bigger releases, but the gameplay and features are there, and that’s what really matters. If you’ve been on the fence about playing some wargames, this is one of the most user-friendly creations I’ve seen and includes the minimalism new users need and depth that should satisfy veteran players.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Marble Blast Gold Edition Review

Marble Blast Gold Edition, developed and published by Garage Games.
The Good: 100 different levels that ramp up in difficulty, many different hazards and powerups, interesting physics, level editor
The Not So Good: No power-up usage strategy
What say you? A challenging but fair marble maneuvering game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Since their invention, marbles have been a pretty popular pastime for youngsters around the world. The game takes skill and a little bit of luck, and you can always throw small glass objects at your opponent if you lose. Marbles were captured in all their digital glory in the classic game Marble Madness; in that game, you maneuvered a marble around a labyrinth of ramps and cliffs. This dynamic has been updated in Marble Blast Gold Edition, the Gold Edition of Marble Blast. In this game, you try to collect jewels while maneuvering around various obstacles, piloting your marble to freedom. Will this game prove to be a worth successor to the classics? Since I put the game score on the top of the review, I bet you already know!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Marble Blast Gold Edition has some bright, clean graphics representing the levels you’ll be driving in. The game is played in 3-D, and the user can rotate the camera around as you please, so there’s no problems with bad camera angles (because if you can’t see, it’s your fault). The game looks good but not overly confusing; the graphics do not hinder the gameplay in any way, and the cartoon theme fits the game well. The maps are not the most detailed levels in the world, but they don’t need to be, and I think more pieces of flair would have made the game too difficult to play. The sound mainly consists of the perky music and effects that accompany all the power-ups and obstacles around the map, which is exactly what you would expect in a game such as this.

ET AL.
The goal of Marble Blast Gold Edition is to not fall off the edge of the playing surface while gathering jewels and/or reaching the finish within the time limit. This is done by “driving” your marble around the map using the WASD keys, like a first person shooter. You can also rotate the camera with the mouse to steer, which is a nice addition and greatly simplifies the camera controls. You can also make your marble jump, which is necessary to complete some of the levels. Preventing your success are various obstacles, such as tornadoes, trap doors, fans, mines, and alternative surfaces, which generally throw your marble in a bad direction. There are also power-ups you can collect and instantly use scattered around the map (usually in a place where you need to use them). The super power-ups include super speed, super jump, super bounce, time travel (which stops the clock on timed levels), and gravity modifiers (which essentially flips the level 90 degrees). There isn’t much strategy in using the power-ups (since they automatically activate), which is disappointing. I’d like to see a way to store one power-up so that you can use it later, like Super Mario Kart. As it stands, there is no mystery on when to use them (which is my only real complaint about the game). There are 100 levels included in the Gold Version (plus an unlockable level editor), which are progressively more difficult as the game goes on. The levels have a nice learning curve; there really isn’t any drastic jump in difficulty; this makes completing the game not as frustrating as it could be. The Gold Edition also features a super-quick “gold time” that you can beat. The physics, along with the obstacles and power-ups, make Marble Blast Gold Edition a blast (ha ha!) to play. I never felt as though the game was cheating, throwing my marble off the level for no reason. The spherical dynamics of the marble results in some interesting mechanics; for example, when traveling on a moving platform, the marble started to roll backwards (a nice realistic touch of inertia). The marble does what you expect, which goes a long way in delivering an enjoyable gaming experience.

IN CLOSING
Marble Blast Gold Edition is a fine marble game that’s easy to learn and fun to play (two important conditions for all age groups). The graphics have a strong theme, the physics are true to life, and the game is just challenging enough to make it enjoyable. The level design doesn’t promote unfair, reflex-heavy levels, just skill in understanding the physics of the marble. The only complain I have is that you can’t store power-ups, and being a strategy game junky, I’d like to see a title that’s a little more than just pure skill. The Gold Edition adds some new levels and the “gold times,” so if you own previous versions of the game, I don’t think that’s enough to warrant getting this edition (although I never played the original), but people who have yet to experience Marble Blast will find a fun arcade game appropriate for all ages and skill levels.