Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends Review

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft.
The Good: Unique races and units, easier resource gathering and buildings, beautiful graphics, still fun to play
The Not So Good: Many multiplayer/skirmish options removed including no randomly generated maps, campaign not the best, may be too basic for some
What say you? Streamlined to appeal to the masses, Rise of Legends may be too simplified for its own good, despite its distinctive setting: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m sure that by now we’re all tired of the World War II real time strategy game. Even if they are good, it’s about time that we have something other than Nazis rolling around in their tanks. Those cries have been answered with Rise of Legends (we’re on a one-name basis here), the follow-up to the highly popular and generally fantastic real time strategy game Rise of Nations. Rise of Legends comes at you with three inventive, distinctive races encased in the classic (if 2003 could be considered classic) Rise of Nations gameplay. Will Rise of Legends prove to be a worthy successor?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Probably the biggest jump from Rise of Nations to Rise of Legends is the graphics. Where Rise of Nations was 3-D units on a 2-D background, Rise of Legends is full-on 3-D, and it looks great. There are some sophisticated features of the graphics involving lighting, and plenty of detail with the unique units. The buildings have pieces falling off while they suffer damage, the weapons look really cool, and the landscapes are filled with detail. Of course, all of this detail comes at a price in the form of system requirements, so make sure your system is up to snuff. The sound is also pretty good. The theme music from Rise of Nations is intact with some fantasy elements added. Most of the units have just a singular acknowledgement phrase or sound effect, but none of them are too annoying. The weapons sound like what you’d think they’d sound like. Battles generally devolve into a mish-mash of fighting sounds, but that’s what happens in most games anyway. Rise of Legends shows what happens when a large budget can be put into a real time strategy game, and it is easily in the upper echelon of RTS graphics and sound.

FEATURES
Rise of Legends features three single player campaigns, quick skirmish battles against the AI, and online play. Each of the single player campaigns centers around one of the game’s races: the industrious Vinci, the magical Alin, and the ancient Cuotl. The campaigns use the Conquer the World mechanic from Rise of Nations. On the strategic map, you move your army around, invade neighboring territories, and make upgrades. Each new territory come with a bonus or two for capturing it. This is similar to Battle for Middle-Earth (or, Battle for Middle-Earth is similar to Rise of Nations) in that there isn’t much strategy from this perspective (unlike Rome: Total War), just a place to select your next target. The storyline does drive the Conquer the World mode better than just “invade everybody” and introduces the mission for each battle, but the story is not as involved as some other games. From the strategic map you can recruit new armies, research new units, build new districts for your conquered cities (which will provide upgrade points in the different areas), or upgrade your heroes. The campaigns also serve as a tutorial, gradually teaching you about all of the structures and units available for the races. The campaigns of Rise of Legends seem to strike a balance between linear missions and the freedom of Conquer the World well enough: it gives the player the freedom to choose where they want to go, but also injects some background story into the skirmishes.

I don’t know why, but the number of multiplayer game types and rules from Rise of Nations has been greatly reduced. In Rise of Nations, you could customize the teams, game speed, game rules, initial resource levels, population cap, rush rules, elimination conditions, victory conditions, or pick from any number of game types, like Assassin. Rise of Legends lets you choose sudden death, random teams, and rush rules. What the heck? Rise of Legends has also done away with randomly generated maps that were present in the previous title. I just don’t understand the reasoning behind this. It’s very disappointing that they would remove options from a previous game. I hope that they are not saving the multiplayer modes for an expansion pack, because that would show too much greed for my tastes.

The game’s interface is a slight improvement over the previous version. There is a clickable button you can set to one of many different hotkeys (such as select all military and select all flying units), although there are so many choice to pick from, switching it to your favorite during gameplay is tedious and it’s just better to use the keyboard hotkeys. The tooltips are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful during gameplay. Since the methods of each of the game’s races are different, you may forget which structure produces wealth or research points: Rise of Legends will tell you without having to look in a manual. A toolbar that listed the unit producing buildings like in SpellForce 2 would be helpful in addition to selecting all units using a hotkey. There are a lot of hotkeys in the game to select all sorts of different things, but adding a slew of graphical icon to click on for the important buildings would be helpful. Also, repeating queues have been removed. Before, you could select one infantry and one heavy infantry for production, and click an infinity button and that building would produce those two units and only spend the resources when the unit came up in production. In Rise of Legends, all the resources you spend on units must be paid up front, and nobody has the resources to pay for an infinite number of soldiers up front. A repeating queue is extremely helpful in the late stages of a game, where going back to your barracks every 30 seconds to queue up units is a waste of time when your attention should be paid somewhere else. Why Rise of Legends removed a repeating queue is beyond my level of comprehension. Otherwise, the interface of Rise of Legends is wonderful.

GAME MECHANICS
When you start a new game, you start with a single city. Unlike the previous version of the game, there is only one city per side, so they really act like the capitals in Rise of Nations. New cities can only be gained by conquering existing neutral or enemy cities (similar to Kohan II). Conquering enemy cities includes a simplified version of the assimilation timer from Rise of Nations, where after you defeat an enemy structure, it takes some time to completely take it over. Expanding your cities is done by attaching districts. Military districts increase the population cap and creates some free soldiers, merchant districts allow for the construction of a caravan to produce wealth, and palace districts increases the city size. Each race has their own unique districts as well, allowing for quicker construction, additional research points, or increased attrition. The districts must attach to the city center, resulting in a large city instead of scattered buildings like much of Rise of Nations. The districts replace only some of the buildings from Rise of Nations, so you must still construct others independent of the city center. It’s kind of odd to have some of the buildings attached to the city and others not, but that’s the way it is. Buildings are now automatically constructed, eliminating the need for “citizens” in yet another streamlining approach. Various buildings are used to create military units, gather resources, provide defense, expand the national borders, and transport units across the map, or several other functions depending on the race. Damaged buildings work less effectively, and buildings can only be placed inside your national borders. National borders are the limits to your country; enemy units lose health (through attrition) inside your borders, the amount of which can be increased through research.

A scout unit is used at the beginning of the game to search for relics (which provide a one-time timonium bonus) and neutral cities. There are many different neutral sites you can encounter on the battlefield as well and each of these sites provides a different bonus. For example, an oasis heals nearby units, increases the population cap, and increases the national borders. These sites can end up being key chokepoints on the map that the several sides will fight over during a match, instead of just fighting over user-built cities. Whereas Rise of Nations was kind of daunting on new players with several different resources to gather, Rise of Legends involves only two resources: mined timonium and wealth from trade (or energy for the Cuotl). Rise of Legends includes the ramping costs of Rise of Nations, where each successive unit costs a little bit more than the previous unit. Research in Rise of Legends doesn’t have quite the importance seen in Rise of Nations. Each race has its method of adding research points (usually constructing a specific building), and these research points can be spent to give bonuses to your civilization. Bonuses include healing in friendly territory, generating timonium and wealth, increased health, and enabling the national power. The national power is essentially a super weapon that you can unleash on your enemies. You can also gain dominances during gameplay. Domiances are awarded to the player who achieves a specific objective and grants them a bonus. For example, the first player who accumulates a set amount of timonium and wealth (the resource dominance) gets to heal friendly units.

UNITS AND GAMEPLAY
Rise of Legends features some unique units for each of the game’s three races, but in general the units fall into three categories: infantry, armored, and flying. From the screenshots of the game, it might look like Rise of Legends features some original units, but this is not really the case. They may look unique, but they actually behave just like the infantry, tanks, helicopters, and artillery found in every other strategy game: just change a Sherman tank to a giant mechanical spider. Rise of Legends has eliminated oceans, but has replaced them with large chasms that you must cross using air transport craft. In a good addition, you can now upgrade and build units at the same time; I hated having to mess up my queue with upgrades when they became available. In Rise of Nations, unit upgrades were gained when a new age of reached. In Rise of Legends, you can expand your city from small to large to huge, which will unlock more powerful units. Rise of Legends features the decent tactical AI seen in Rise of Nations, where units will automatically attack nearby enemy units (assuming they have the correct stance). New to the game are hero units. These units have special abilities that can be activated during gameplay. They don’t have a huge effect on the outcome of a battle, but they are generally cool and give a slight edge. Heroes are starting to get used a lot in strategy games, as we saw them in both Rush for Berlin and SpellForce 2, although it was done better in those games, as the powers are available without clicking on the hero in both of those titles. In Rise of Legends, you must first select the hero and then select the power; that extra mouse click can get tedious after a while, especially if you have several heroes in your ranks.

The gameplay of Rise of Legends is generally the same as previous version of the game, except it’s quicker. Because the number of resources and importance of research have both been diminished, games are over much more quickly than the hour long matches common in Rise of Nations. There are not 15-minute quick like Rush for Berlin, but a nice compromise in the middle. Each of the three races have slightly different tactics: the Vinci are more traditional, the Alin enjoy massed troops, and the Cuotl utilize few but powerful troops. Although each race is played essentially the same way in the core gameplay, having slight differences between them is a nice touch. The core game is still quite enjoyable: balancing your resources, military, buildings, and research. There are a lot of interesting strategic choices that must be made during gameplay. Despite the differences in the races, the game seems pretty well balanced. The units are probably not as specialized from race to race as appearances would indicate, but the fact that the three races allow for differing strategies is welcome. The AI is a pretty decent competitor once you turn up the difficulty. It takes some getting used to the mechanics of the game since they are somewhat different (at least in terms of specific execution) from other RTS titles, but the overall gameplay is pretty solid.

IN CLOSING
Rise of Legends is actually much more friendly to the new player than Rise of Nations. The unique setting is probably the best aspect of the game and, along with the awesome graphics, depict a convincing world to play in. Although the races and units in Rise of Legends are not as “off the wall” as others might make you think, the are built on a solid foundation and prove to be a worthy RTS entry. The core gameplay remains solid, and the modifications made to the overall mechanics makes games faster and more intense than the slugfests seen in Rise of Nations. However, multiplayer fans will be disgusted with the number of options that have been removed since Rise of Nations for no apparent reason. Once the novelty of strange units wears off, Rise of Legends ends up being an above average real time strategy game. Rise of Legends is not a bad game, it’s just that Rise of Nations is a better game, so Rise of Legends could be considered a step backwards. The game will appeal to a much wider audience with simpler gameplay, and if that’s what the goal of “dumbing down” the Rise of Nations engine was, then mission accomplished.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Eets Review

Eets, developed and published by Klei Entertainment.
The Good: Distinctive and refreshing graphical design, puzzles require thinking but aren’t unfair, lots of different puzzle components, extremely high replay value for a puzzle game, level editor
The Not So Good: Some puzzles only have one solution
What say you? A joyful style and interesting mechanics result in one of the most original puzzle games in quite a long time: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There are many types of puzzle games. One of the more famous types involve safely guiding characters through the level to the exit, the most famous example being the Lemmings series. I recently reviewed one of these games, Tiny Worlds, and we’re about to do another, Eets. In Eets, you guide a character (Eets) through the level to a puzzle piece, using the objects on the map and those given to you to place. It’s a lot better than I made it sound. See what I mean by “poorly written?” And short, too.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Eets features some of the most inventive and best looking 2-D levels for a puzzle game. All of the objects in the game are animated (and hilariously so), including the dynamic backgrounds. The overall cartoon feel of the game shines through all of the artwork. The objects are detailed yet sharp. Although each object only has one animation associated with it, it’s still funny the 73rd time around (at least to me, but, then again, I have the mentality of a 3rd grader). The sound has the same level of excellence. The background music is good, and the sound effects are even better. When a Superpig shoots out of the butt of a Sneezy Sow and says “Freedom!” that sums up the whimsical sound of Eets pretty well. Like with the graphics, almost every object in the game has a funny sound associated with it. Both the graphics and the sound of Eets are top rate

FEATURES
Eets features around 100 puzzles divided into seven areas. Each new area comes with a set of 3-5 tutorials that show what each newly added puzzle piece does in the game. I like the way that Eets slowly brings all of the elements together as the game progresses. Far too often in puzzle games, all of the game mechanics are presented from the beginning, which cuts down on the replay value. Eets introduces several new things at a time, prolonging the player’s interest in the game. Once you go through the linear tutorials, you can then you can choose from a large list of puzzles to continue through the game. Luckily, you don’t need to beat each level to unlock the next set, because inevitably you’re going to run across some levels that make no sense to you. If the game’s 100 puzzles aren’t enough, there are over 70 custom, user-made puzzles available through the official site, and a “puzzle pack” featuring these user made creations is planned for easy downloading.

GAMEPLAY
Most puzzle games scream “OVER 5,824 LEVELS,” but that doesn’t matter if each puzzle is repetitious and boring. Luckily, that is definitely not the case in Eets. The basic premise of the game is to guide Eets from its starting location to the puzzle piece. The emotion of Eets will determine what he does at a ledge: happy is a normal jump, angry is a far jump, and scared is no jump. In addition to changing the emotions of the main character, there are a good 20 objects in the game, each of which does different things to manipulate Eets, the level, or each other. I’m going to go through each one of them for two reasons. One, it makes the review look longer. And two, it gives you an idea of the unrivaled flexibility of the game. Ready? Here we go.

  • Marshmallow Buds change Eets mood when it eats them
  • Alien Gravity Bud flips gravity
  • Giant Marshmallows can be eaten by angry Eats to become happy, or pushed around
  • Balloon Marshmallows will float away when exposed to light
  • Exploding Giant Marshmallows will explode when dropped
  • Prankster Whales suck up and launch objects (including Eets)
  • Choco Clouds can shoot out chocolate chips if you place a Choco Pump on. Getting hit by chocolate chips make Eets engry, eating chochlate chips makes Eets happy
  • Ejection Carts roll around and eject stuff upwards>
  • Bomb Carts roll around and explode
  • Sneezy Sows shoot out superpigs when hit or startled by an explosion, (which fly then explode)
  • Ginseng Factories shoot out radioactive ginseng to light Ginseng Lights
  • Reflectors change the direction of flying objects
  • Static Lights are permanent lights that can inflate Balloon Marshmallows. Eets will be scared with no light and will fall off ledges if they can’t see
  • Marshomechs will hit anything nearby when activated
  • Bob makes everything float upward for a limited time
  • Emotion Platforms change the emotion by Eets walking across it

See how many things can be involved in one puzzle? And it made the review a lot longer. Hooray! Each of these objects comes with a tool tip that explains what they do, in case you forgot. As you can tell, there are so many objects in the same it makes replay value very high. With each puzzle, a hint can be given, which will usually show where one component is supposed to go to get you on the right track. There is no penalty for using the hints (other than feeling slightly bad about it), and the hints are generally pretty good. Normally when first seeing the hint, I’ll say: “Why did they do that?” And then two minutes later: “Oh, that’s why they did that.” Some puzzles have only one solution, and finding this solution may become frustrating. Thankfully, between the hint and the fact that you can skip over a number of levels, you can pretty easily move past the more challenging affairs. Complicating the solutions is the physics of the game. Since all objects bounce off other objects, the rate at which you fire chocolate chips (for example) can radically change the outcome of the level. So, you could have the correct solution but not realize it until you get your aiming under control.

IN CLOSING
Eets is a very solid puzzle game and one of the best I’ve played in quite a while. The sheer number of puzzle elements and their cartoon quality makes Eets a very distinctive title. The challenge is definitely there, but the game never seems unjust. A lot of puzzle games bore me several minutes in and become too repetitive, but not Eets: the game captured my attention through its variety. And not many games make me chuckle (and sometimes chortle) as much as Eets does. At $20, this game is a bargain for anyone who has any inkling of playing a puzzle game. The flexibility of the game engine and components can (and has) resulted in some pretty interesting puzzles. Eets can be more challenging than other puzzle games due to the amount of content, but it’s well worth it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

DropTeam Review

DropTeam, developed by TBG Software and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Intriguing weaponry, AI is accurate, varying planetary properties, deformable terrain, built for MODs, voice over IP, minimap targeting great for artillery, available on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux)
The Not So Good: Campaign is tedious, not many players online, AI not very smart tactically speaking
What say you? This futuristic armored Battlefield alternative has appeal resulting from many interesting ideas: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Way back in the dark ages of December, 2005, I previewed DropTeam. DropTeam is an online multiplayer shooter where you pilot tanks and take objectives. Sound familiar? Some people may say that DropTeam smacks of Battlefield 2 (and especially the forecoming Battlefield 2142, with the futuristic vehicles), and the basic concepts are the same. But how will DropTeam make itself unique?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
DropTeam features detailed units, but generally barren environments devoid of detail. Sure, there are some trees, rocks, and grass scattered about, but most of the locations are desolate places dotted with roads and buildings. This may be on purpose, but when a “base” consists of a square, asphalt-covered parking lot, it’s not so impressive. The game overall looks like shooters that were developed several years ago. That’s not to say it looks bad, just slightly behind the modern, bigger titles. That said, DropTeam does feature deformable terrain, either as the result of artillery fire or an engineering unut digging trenches. A trench is a wonderful defensive structure to limit the amount of tank that's visible to the enemy. There is also a variety of map locations (urban, desert, arctic, mountainous, plains) that provide their own tactical challenges. Another thing DropTeam has going for it is smoke. The battlefield will get covered by thick, black smoke once tanks begin to die. This is something that’s completely missing from Battlefield 2, where a destroyed tank just turns black and then explodes (just like real life, eh?). Not only does the smoke portray a convincing battlefield, but it can also act as cover. I think that’s the most memorable aspect of the graphics. The sound is average: powerful blasts accompany weapon hits, a cockeyed groan is shouted by dying comrades: the usual fare. Again, DropTeam comes away with one memorable aspect of the sound: on the maps where atmospheric density is zero (meaning no atmosphere), there is no sound, because sound cannot propagate without a medium. These maps are haunting with silent explosions going on all around you. It’s a neat effect that goes well with the premise of the game.


FEATURES
DropTeam features three modes of play. The single player campaign is not that impressive, consisting of a collection of missions on various maps where you are greatly outnumbered. It can serve as a diversion from the skirmish game modes, but most people can skip over it and not feel bad about it. The main part of the game is the standalone and network games. They are the same except that standalone games are played against the AI (although network games can be as well). The missions take place on different planets that have different values for gravity and atmospheric density, which can have interesting consequences in gameplay (and render some strategies useless). The three game types are objective (attackers vs defenders), territory (capture buildings, like in Battlefield), and capture the flag. There aren’t any innovative game modes that we haven’t seen before, although creating new modes can be done through the game’s MOD support. Most of the game’s structure can be edited, so the developers are hoping the users will create some intriguing alterations to the game. The number of players online has been disappointing (hopefully that number will increase), so most of the games are played against the AI. The computer opponents of DropTeam are above average for an online multiplayer game. The AI is deadly accurate, can move while shooting, and obeys any commands you issue it. However, it doesn’t actively use cover or move in groups unless instructed to do so. Sometimes it flips over and it seems to congregate in objective locations, making itself easy prey for artillery. While the AI plays OK in objective and territory modes, in capture the flag they will routinely stand around, not doing anything, while you request support from them guarding or getting the flag. The lack of “thinking” the AI does is made up for in its accuracy: it will kill you, especially if you try to send a dropship in its vicinity. Overall, the AI is decent enough to fill the gap left by the lack of human opposition, but you’ll never mistake an AI player for a real player.

UNITS
Unlike the Battlefield series, you can spawn anywhere on the map in DropTeam. All weapons are brought in from a dropship that can be shot down. This prevents spawning in hostile areas, such as directly over a flag. It also allows the player to spawn in sneaky locations away from objective locations; this is really good for commanders and long-range weaponry. In addition to your main weapon, you can call in turrets and sensors that will detect and engage land or air targets. These are a good idea, but the turrets are slightly underpowered and easily destroyed. You can spawn a whole bunch of them, but they are merely annoyances rather than real obstacles. I’d much rather see a smaller number of more powerful turrets that could effectively shut off a portion of the map to the enemy. I do like the variety of vehicles available in DropTeam, each having their own role on the battlefield. There are engineers that can capture buildings (very important on territory maps), command vehicles, anti-armor, mortars (light, medium, and heavy), light attack, main battle tanks, and recon vehicles. Each vehicle has one or more types of ammunition: AP (armor piercing), HEAT (high explosive anti-tank, long range), HE (high explosive, soft targets), ATGM (anti-tank guided missile, can fire after locking onto a target or use the crosshairs to guide it), or laser beams. Switching ammunition types is a simple button press. I thought I was experiencing online lag when switching weapon types with mortar weapons. However, someone explained to me that artillery weapons switch on their own, so I wasn't actually having any input at all! I guess I should RTFM, eh? The different vehicles each have their own advantages and disadvantages and are balanced superbly. Personally, I enjoy a support role with an artillery mortar, firing from large distances, raining down fire. There is a vehicle for every type of player: medium tanks, fast vehicles, slow behemoths, and control centers for those aspiring commanders out there. DropTeam should be commended for providing an excellent arsenal that’s also balanced and, most importantly, fun to play with.

GAMEPLAY
Because of the varying amounts of gravity present on each planet, the game takes care of all the ballistics calculations. All you need to do is center your reticule on an enemy tank and press fire, and the game will automatically adjust the angle of your turret. Hitting moving targets is more difficult, so you can manually determine the range to a target’s future position by right-clicking on a location. Most of the maps of DropTeam consist of many mountains, so line of sight is an important aspect of the game. Most of the intelligence about enemy locations is actually gathered in the 3-5 seconds during which a dropship descends towards the surface to drop some new armor. Since the maps are so huge, targeting everything from a first or third person perspective isn’t adequate. You can also target any location by clicking on the minimap. This is an awesome addition to the game that’s great for long distance weapons, and since I mainly control artillery, I greatly appreciate it. Using the minimap may not be as accurate, but it’s the only way to fire over a mountain without hitting the mountain. In multiplayer matches, you are given a limited number of each kind of tank for the match. Since all the vehicles suffer damage to different components, you can (and will) have your engine destroyed but still be alive and possibly able to fire. Obviously, a stationary vehicle makes for a good target, so you can call for an extraction which will call in a dropship, lift your disabled vehicle from the map, and after an amount of time for repairs, the vehicle will be put back in inventory, ready to be used again. Thus, it is better to break off attacking when disabled, as there are consequences to completely being destroyed (unlike some other games). Commanders have a set of tools at their disposal on the tactical display (essentially a larger minimap) that are very similar to Battlefield 2. Commanders can issue waypoins and commands to AI and friendly units (such as capture facility, attack, and defend flag) and call in support in the form of artillery fire, electromagnetic pulses, smoke, and resupply craft. Communication with other team members is also made easy by DropTeam. There is voice over IP support (by simply pressing P), and your vehicle continues acclerating while you type in messages. The game has pretty constant action, especially when the teams are fighting over a small number of locations. The mix of dropships, fast vehicles, slow moving tanks, artillery raining down, and smoking wreckage is pretty cool. DropTeam feels like war, instead of a bunch of people just shooting at each other like in Battlefield 2. Because the number of objective locations is low, you’ll never be running around the map capturing flags without seeing any enemy units.

IN CLOSING
DropTeam has a good selection of unique features that makes it stand out as a multiplayer vehicle-oriented shooter. I've reviewed other tank-heavy combat games (Think Tanks and Battle Carry) and DropTeam is far and away the best, and can even compete on some levels with the likes of Battlefield 2. The graphics and sound may not be up to the level of higher budget games, but the smoke effects and silent space maps are distinctive. The game features an impressive list of varied armor to use, appealing to all kinds of players. Smaller additions like minimap targeting and commander support contribute to the overall excellent feel of the game. DropTeam could use some more game modes, a better single player campaign, and improved strategic AI, but maybe someone in the community will use the MOD tools and create some. On the Windows platform, DropTeam will never surpass Battlefield 2 in terms of popularity. However, DropTeam is also available for the Macintosh and Linux operating systems, and there is much less competition there. I think that DropTeam will get most of its players from those platforms that aren’t inundated with multiplayer shooters. Playing DropTeam against people on all three platforms speaks to the flexibility of the game, and hopefully more people will sign up for a tour of duty on far away locales. Although it may not have the graphical prowess of other games, DropTeam is nevertheless an enjoyable title filled with action from an armored point of view.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Drug Overlord Review

Drug Overlord, developed and published by Shoot First Games.
The Good: Interesting mix of base building and action, RPG-like character experience
The Not So Good: Too easy, drug angle unnecessary, successive games are played the same way
What say you? Despite what you might think, a fairly entertaining action/RTS hybrid: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ever since Grand Theft Auto came out, some game developers have relied on “shock value” to sell their products. Relegating themselves to talking about drugs, killing cops, or killing cops on drugs, these games (with the exception of GTA) are generally terrible. That’s the mindset I had going in to Drug Overlord; I figured it was just another game that relies on illegal substances to get some attention. Drug Overlord turns out to be a base-building/action/RPG game where you run a small drug operation and defend it against the long arm of the law. Were my prejudices unfounded? Or ununfounded?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Drug Overlord is played from a low isometric fixed perspective, which makes it hard to see all of the action sometimes, but it’s a lot easier than a movable camera that gets in the way. Drug Overlord features decent graphics for an independent title; all of the characters are in 3-D (although detail is kind of low) and the various plants you keep sway in the breeze. Probably the most notable aspect of the game is the amount of blood dispensed when disposing of the police: they will bleed and occasionally blow into several large, bloody chunks, depending on which weapon was used on them. It’s pretty satisfying. Wrong, but satisfying. They aren’t the best-looking graphics in the world, but they’ll do. The sound is average: weapon sounds, background music, and death effects are all good enough to not be bad.

ET AL.
In Drug Overlord, you are some kind of lord…with drugs. You start by growing marijuana to earn cash. As your level increases, you can grow more profitable drugs such as extacy, morphine, and heroin. These structures are protected by yourself, moving around (using WASD) and pointing and shooting at bad guys (which are actually good guys). To assist in guarding your drug-producing buildings, you can construct automated turrets around your camp. You can also add shield generators (increasing the hit points for buildings), targeting systems (increasing the turret attack values), and power boosters to recharge shields. There is a limit to the number of buildings you can construct that increases with your experience level. Buildings can be upgraded by using your bio-chemical gun, and repaired by using your repair gun. Weapons can be switched by using the mouse wheel, but there are no other hotkeys (that I could find) to quickly access them, so you have to waste time scrolling through all the weapons you don’t need. Experience is gained by killing “the man.” Leveling up means you can spend points to increase your combat, repair, or manufacturing skills. You can also spend money to heal your character or purchase better weaponry, such as laser cannons or missile launchers. Even with all the gratuitous drug references, Drug Overlord is actually pretty fun to play. Once your base becomes fairly large, it becomes quite challenging to cover your entire money making operation. I like the confluence of action, base-building strategy, and RPG character development. It seems that a lot of games are going for the “jack of all trades” (see SpellForce 2), and Drug Overlord pulls it off. There are a couple of downsides to the game, however. First, the game is extremely easy once you get a handle on the situation. Most of the turrets you build can take care of the police on their own, and once you learn how to upgrade buildings using the bio-chemical gun, the money starts pouring in faster than you can spend it, especially with the limitations on the number of structures you can have built. Secondly, the game plays out the same way on the same map every time, so once you have your strategy down, there’s no real reason to play the game anymore.

IN CLOSING
Surprisingly, Drug Overlord turned out to be a pretty decent game. The marriage of base buildings, action, and character development works well. The game would have worked just as well without all the drugs, growing different types of tropical fruits, perhaps. I would like to see more varied environments to play in to change up the gameplay; as it stands, the game is only good until you figure out how to beat it, and then there is no replay value (or real challenge) to speak of. The graphics look pretty good for an independent game, and watching police officers being dismembered provides some kind of sick pleasure. Drug Overlord is more than a title just looking for notoriety based on its subject matter: there’s actually some substance here that results in a pretty fun game.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

City Life Review

City Life, developed by Monte Cristo and published by CDV.
The Good: Different focus with a socioeconomic approach to city building, clear indication of citizen needs, much more challenging than other city builders
The Not So Good: Starforce problems, automatic road placement issues, not enough graphical variety, no audio disaster warnings
What say you? With some interesting concepts, City Life differentiates itself enough from other city builders, but it's not without its problems: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As the game that shipped a thousand expansion packs, The Sims holds a special place in the annals of computer gaming. But The Sims might have never been without a little title called SimCity. SimCity was an innovative game, where you control the development of a city from its infancy. There have been numerous city building knock-offs, each trying to add their little bit of originality to the equation. City Life takes the social approach to city building, organizing each of your citizens into six classes and then providing each caste with different services.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
On the whole, the graphics in City Life are very good. The game is rendered in full 3-D, and you can zoom all the way down to a first person perspective at street level, something that can’t be said for SimCity. This is a really neat view and further makes you feel like it’s a living, breathing city, rather than a collection of streets and buildings. The problem with the graphics is the low amount of variety. Unlike SimCity 4 that uses some randomization to make each structure look slightly different with the placement of trees, signs, and the like, there are only a few different people and buildings in City Life. This almost kills the atmosphere of the game: in real cities, every building does not look alike. The buildings need much more variety to make the cities look more believable. Other than the lack of variety, the game’s graphics are well done: features include realistic terrain, dynamic time of day, and shimmering water. There are some slight camera issues when you are near the edge of the map; since the game will not let you move the camera out of the map area, viewing locations on the edge is extremely difficult and requires some finagling. The sound in the game is average for the genre. The background music is pretty catchy; when you “hear” it when you’re not playing the game, that’s the earmark of good (or extremely annoying) music. The environmental sounds are OK, with appropriate effects present in appropriate areas. There aren’t any audio clues of disasters or important events; a fire started and I had no idea until I noticed that a quarter of my city was toast. These would be helpful for the player, but aren’t present in City Life.

STARFORCE IS EVIL
First off, I had a hard time running the game because my system had some issues with the version of Starforce included with City Life. Other games that have Starforce protection have run fine (Rush for Berlin, for example), but for some reason my computer just didn’t want to run City Life more than once without having to uninstall and reinstall the drivers (which includes two reboots). I don’t mind having copy protection for a game, but when it prevents me from running the game, I get exceedingly frustrated. When Starforce is so “good” that it prevents legitimate users from running the game, there are serious problems with the software. The problem was fixed when tech support issued me a special key to run the game; still, though, I shouldn’t have to worry about not running the game because I have a legal copy of it.

FEATURES
Once I did get City Life to run, I found that you can play through scenarios or free games. Scenarios have a set of goals that must be met, usually involving population and treasury levels. By getting bronze, silver, or gold medals, you unlock other, more difficult landscapes for you to try. There is no real reason to play the free game, as it seems to play the same way as the scenarios except without the ability to unlock additional scenarios. City Life has 22 maps scattered over 5 climates. You can’t make your own maps, but you can edit existing maps using the editor. The editor is a development tool where you can access cheats, run the game faster, access out of bounds areas, and edit maps, among other things. The editor is pretty cool and its nice that the developers gave the users the ability to shape the game to their liking (which means cheating).

I CLAIM THIS LAND FOR SPAIN
When you start a new city, you’ll place the city hall and develop your city out from there. All new roads must be connected to city roads; this is a nice rule that makes your city expand in more realistic ways, unlike SimCity’s “go anywhere” policy. Another advantage City Life has over SimCity is the possibility of having roads at most any angle. Because the shorelines and mountains and other obstacles are not square, why should our roads be? This also results in more realistic-looking cities, although trying to build large patches of roads or sometimes connecting them can be difficult. The game sometimes suggests some very crazy and inefficient ways of laying down roads when you are placing buildings, so manually placing some roads before developing is important, especially in hilly terrain.

SEGREGATION IS FUN
Each of City Life’s citizens are divided into one of six subcultures: elite, suits, radical chic, blue collar, fringe, and have nots. Each of these groups is friendly with some groups, indifferently hostile towards others, and absolutely offended by others. Because of this, you must segregate different areas of your town for different social groups. This may be a touchy subject in some areas of the country, but keep telling yourself, “it’s just a game, Jack Thompson.” The head of each household must be employed, and culture-specific businesses are available. It is important to strike an exact balance between the number of jobs available and the number of residents, because empty businesses cost you significant amounts of money, and full businesses can make money. Later in the game, businesses can employ different social groups, and this is how you attract the “upper crust” to live in your stinky town. Income in the game is earned at the end of every month from residential taxes and businesses. Balancing the budget comes in waves of easy to hard, as building social services costs a lot of money, but you need them to attract more people to make more money from businesses and taxes: it’s a vicious cycle. You never need to take out a loan (hint to new players), and careful planning will result in always earning money.

PEOPLE ARE NEEDY
There are a bunch of services that your citizens may request: shopping, medical, education, leisure, safety, and environment. Their needs are clearly indicated on the map using yellow or red icons. Each of these services require certain classes to run them, so you need to make sure you have a balance of the different social types in your city. Later in the game, citizens require different types of shopping or medical services, and this can get expensive. You should only build services when there is a dire need for them (red icons on the map). Building stuff when with only yellow demand icons will stunt your economy, because most service buildings cost monthly income. Some of the costs associated with social services seem extreme, and the ones that can make money only do so when demand is extremely high. In an interesting twist, selling off excess power and landfill space can make a lot of money; by building a couple power plants early in the game, you can easily increase your income tenfold. Another source of income is tourism; you construct hotels in nice areas of town with entertainment and watch the cash (eventually) come in.

GAMEPLAY
The user interface of City Life does a pretty good job of delivering information. The game shows sources of negative income, where available jobs are located, traffic flow, electricity production levels, immigration and emigration rates, and you can tag residents to follow them, like in SimCity 4. The key to City Life is slow, steady, balanced development. Make sure you provide the exact balance of residential homes to business locations to maximize profits. Businesses can help you generate a lot of money, but they actually cost you money if they have vacancies; it’s better to pause the game while you build a set of matching residential, business, and service related structures. Your income will suffer greatly when the upper classes start to move in because they require a much greater number of services in order to be happy. I think that a lot of the services in the game come with too great of a cost, making the game more difficult. Of course, compared to the extremely effortless SimCity 4 (where you can zone an entire map at once and watch the people move in with no complaints), City Life’s difficulty may be welcomed by some. Indeed, the game is a challenge that’s normally not seen in generally mindless city builders; it requires good skill in city planning, rather than haphazardly throwing down buildings.

IN CLOSING
City Life breathes new life into the modern city building genre. The approach is different enough from competing titles to make City Life unique. I like the ability to freely “walk” around your town with the camera, the social methodology to the game, the difficulty associated with poor urban planning, and the good user interface. City Life could be improved with more varied graphics and less monetary penalties for building social services. The editor allows the user to circumvent the monetary limitations of the game, and also alter any of the game’s maps (for example, I flattened a mountain where I wanted to place a movie theater). Aspiring civil engineers will find a worthy challenge in City Life.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Kickin’ Soccer Review

Kickin’ Soccer, developed and published by Phelios.
The Good: Simple controls and theoretically easy to play
The Not So Good: Imprecise and unresponsive keyboard controls make the game extremely frustrating to play, game switches player control seemingly at random
What say you? Sloppy controls kill what could have been an entertaining soccer game: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Every four years, athletes from around the world gather in a single location to see which country is the best in a highly popular sporting event. I am of course referring to the World Equestrian Games. Apparently, there is some other major sporting event called the World Cup; since I am from the United States, I’ve never heard of it. Soccer is popular in most countries other than the U.S. (called “third world countries”), so it’s not surprising that a fair number of soccer games come out. There are two main franchises in computer gaming (FIFA and Winning Eleven), but there’s always room for independent, smaller titles. Kickin’ Soccer (you can tell it’s independent because they couldn’t afford a “g,” just an apostrophe) is such an arcade soccer game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Kickin’ Soccer plays from an overhead perspective, and as such, feels outdated and well behind the other soccer titles. Obviously, the graphics will never stack up to the feats of more financed offerings, but the graphics of Kickin’ Soccer feel like they were developed 10-15 years ago. Everything is comprised of sprites superimposed on a flat, green field. It is certainly underwhelming, but I never felt as though the graphics were especially bad, just out of date. It’s easy to tell where the ball is, although players from countries with similarly-colored uniforms are a problem. The sound is simplistic as well, just some crowd noise (reacting to saves and goals) and some kicking effects. Still, the graphics and sound of Kickin’ Soccer are average for a low-budget arcade game (and the game is only $10).

ET AL.
Kickin’ Soccer features three game modes: one player single games, two player single games (using the same keyboard), and one player cup, which is a 16-team single elimination tournament. You can play using one, three, five, or seven minute halves, and change the difficulty setting. The difficulty seems to change how aware the AI players are of the ball and how well the pass and shoot it. Kickin’ Soccer has all the elements for a midly entertaining sports game, but the controls mess it all up. The game is played entirely from the keyboard, using the arrow keys to move, Z to shoot, and X to pass. The longer you hold down the shoot and pass buttons, the farther the ball goes. You can tackle on defense by using the Z key. There are a number of problems with the controls. First, the keyboard controls are rough and only allow for straight and diagonal movement, making lining up for a shot difficult. Despite these limitations, the game still expects you to make contact with the ball exactly where it lies, and this is not possible with keyboard controls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run past the ball, the AI picked it up, and scored. Goal kicks are extremely difficult to field, as getting your little soccer player to run into the ball is almost impossible. The game also switches players for you when you are not in possession with the ball. This is infuriating, because you don’t know who is going to be picked and when. Imagine running left, the game suddenly switching, and then your defender runs left (because you were pressing left) when the ball is now to the right. Goal for the computer. Defensive matters aren’t helped, because tackle is the only defensive maneuver on the field of play. You can be on top of the offensive player and nothing will happen unless you press the tackle button. Inconceivable!

IN CLOSING
Kickin’ Soccer could have been a good arcade soccer game, an alternative for those big budget games. The game has 16 world countries to play, two player modes, and simple controls. But the controls ruin the game experience. I don’t mind having digital keyboard controls instead of an analog gamepad, but design the game with that in mind. Don’t require players to go exactly over the ball if it’s exceedingly difficult to do so. If I can’t advance the ball out of my penalty box, there’s a serious problem. Maybe I need more practice with the controls, but an arcade game should be pick up and play. Sadly, Kickin’ Soccer is too much of a bother to be any fun.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Conquest of the Aegean Review

Conquest of the Aegean, developed by Panther Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Command structure and competent tactical AI reduce micromanagement as much as you prefer, excellent user interface, realistic non-hex maps with superb pathfinding, thorough documentation, map and scenario editors, unique setting, live multiplayer
The Not So Good: Narrow focus, enemy strategic AI not agressive enough
What say you? The Airborne Assault series returns with a title that will appeal to any real strategist: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
You would think that by now every battle that took place during World War II has been simulated in at least one computer game. It seems that a World War II title comes out every week or two; it’s by far the most popular war to simulate (second place goes to the Agacher Strip War). However, one of the places of battle during World War II that has almost been completely ignored, especially in a region-centric title, is the Aegean Sea. Luckily, Panther Games has “Greeced” up their Airborne Assault engine (get it? HA!) for Conquest of the Aegean, an operational-level real time wargame devoid of hexes.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As I mentioned earlier (it was the last past of the last sentence of the introduction), Conquest of the Aegean doesn’t have hex-based maps. Such blasphemy in wargames shall not be tolerated! Instead, the battles in Conquest of the Aegean take place on a stylized topographical map, much like in The Star and the Crescent, but better looking. The maps clearly show the locations of towns, bridges, roads, and terrain, so that people unfamiliar with topographical maps will have no problem deciphering the landscape of the game. The units are depicted as classic NATO symbols, so wargame aficionados will feel right at home. In terms of sound, Conquest of the Aegean is pretty average. Each of the battles queue appropriate effects for the types of units involved, and there is no background music (which is probably a good thing).

FEATURES
Conquest of the Aegean is a large game, and subsequently there is an insane amount of documentation: a 90-page “Getting Started” Manual, a 71-page “Advanced Tutorial” Manual, a 207-page “Reference” Manual, and 135 pages dedicated to the map and scenario editors. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Each of the manuals is well written and easy to understand, even for people not familiar with wargames. Although I will say getting used to the naming conventions for military units takes some getting used to (finding II/82nd Gk Inf Bn can be difficult). Conquest of the Aegean includes 32 scenarios that cover the Aegean theater of World War II; the scenarios are rated in order of complexity in the Reference Manual, and range from small skirmishes to large scale, multi-day battles. The scenarios can be played against the computer or online against human opponents. Since Conquest of the Aegean is a real time game, multiplayer is also real time: all you need is the IP address of your opponent and you’re good to go. Typically, opponents are found through the official forums or places such as The Wargamer.

BATTLEFIELD
The battles take place on maps representing regions of Greece and Crete, using historical or seasonal weather that can have a great impact on the battle. These maps are two dimensional, though there are color-coded contours used to represent height. The game offers some tools to determine line of sight from any location to any other location, and also indicates what ridge is blocking your view. Roads are of upmost importance in Conquest of the Aegean, even more so than most wargames. Typically, you can just send tanks and stuff through the woods and just have the units move slightly slower. In Conquest of the Aegean, you need to keep the motorized units stuck to the roads or bring your entire army to a screeching halt. Obviously, this increases the importance of holding strategic intersections, and removes the possibility of enemy units coming from a completely unexpected direction. Conquest of the Aegean does an excellent job of pathfinding, and probably has the best pathfinding of any game in recent memory, especially wargames. You can instruct your units to take the shortest, quickest, most covered, or safest path, and the game will automatically figure out what that path is, without you having to make 50 different waypoints. This is awesome, and it’s infinitely better than moving hundreds of units one hex at a time. Not only does the pathfinding make life extremely easy on the player, but there are a host of filters to make finding specific units simple as well. Ever try to scour the battlefield to try and find that one artillery unit you need? Well, scour no more! Conquest of the Aegean can show all units, HQ units (great for reasons that will become apparent soon), line units, support units, armor units, mechanized infantry units, soft units, gun units, engineer units, bridge units, and unit with no orders. The game can also display the task, route status, strength, combat power (good for choosing an artillery target), morale, and ammunition status of each unit as a small icon on the square symbol. Conquest of the Aegean also has filters for showing more recent intelligence contacts (because enemy unit positions from an hour ago are probably unreliable), supply lines, and range of weapons. Conquest of the Aegean does an excellent job of giving the player numerous tools to make their commanding job that much easier.

UNITS
Like in real military operations, your units are divided into groups (called brigades) and supervised by a commanding officer (that’s you) and your subordinate officers. In games such as The Operational Art of War III, you must issue orders to every single freakin’ unit on the map. Why should I have to do this when I have subordinate commanders to do it for me? Conquest of the Aegean says: “Damn right!” If you give an order to a brigade HQ, it gives that order through the chain of command to all of its units. Brilliant! For all those obsessive-compulsive people out there, you can give orders to every single unit on the map, but you don’t have to. Allowing the user the flexibility to command 4 HQ units or 40 individual units is a wonderful aspect of Conquest of the Aegean. Unlike some wargames (such as The Star and the Crescent), all of the orders you can issue to units are straightforward (such as attack, defend, move, probe, rest). Each order has a collection of settings to fine-tune your desires: formation, speed, route, aggression, rate of fire, facing direction, and loss tolerance. No matter which kind of order was given, the settings all default to the same values; I’d like attack to be more aggressive by default than move (then again, maybe it is and all the settings are relative). If the default order of battle is not to your liking, or you want to attach an engineer brigade to an attacking force, so can do so. In fact, most specialized units aren’t attached to any subordinate commanders at the beginning of the game, so that you can play around with them for a bit. Conquest of the Aegean incorporates order delays, than can span from no delay to average to “painfully realistic.” This simulates the time it takes from when you issue an order to when the subordinate officers actually execute the order. This makes you plan ahead more (at least if you’re a good player).

OBJECTIVES AND COMBAT
The goal of Conquest of the Aegean is to accumulate the most victory points by occupying objective locations and, to a lesser extent, killing the enemy. Points may be earned at each objective location all at once or over a period of time indicated in the game. Not all objective locations are “active” at all times, so you really need to plan ahead of where your troops are supposed to be at certain times. New to Conquest of the Aegean is the addition of exit objectives. In a lot of “defender” scenarios, your goal is to slow down the overwhelming attacking force and to exit the scenario with a certain amount of troops, and this is what the exit objectives simulate. These objectives are located where a major road goes off the map area; this makes playing as the defender more exciting, instead of just issuing “defend” orders and seeing what happens.

Combat is automatically done by your inferiors, executing your orders to the best of their abilities. The tactical AI that executes the orders is very good and realistic, and does an excellent job on both sides. However, the strategic enemy AI, that issues the orders for the computer player, is too easy to defeat. I’ve found that, in a lot of games, the enemy AI will just sit there and not actively try to occupy their objective locations for some reason, even though they could have easily defeated me with the amount of force at their disposal. They say the AI is improved, but the computer opponent just isn’t aggressive enough to provide a worthy challenge in some of the scenarios. In short, the enemy strategic AI is not aggressive enough at taking objectives, and makes beating the game a little easier than it should be. Really, the strategic AI works better as a defender than an attacker since defending involves less movement.

Conquest of the Aegean features automatic supply, where ammunition and rations are distributed from a factory to your troops, as long as there is an open road. This means controlling the road network from your supply depot to your troops is of utmost importance, and surrounding the enemy units and cutting off their supply lines is a key for victory.

IN CLOSING
Conquest of the Aegean has wider appeal than other, more traditional wargames such as The Operational Art of War III. It features real maps, superb tactical AI, and a ton of features to help the player. Conquest of the Aegean is the easiest wargame I’ve played to maneuver around, and it does this without eliminating strategic depth. However, it’s not without some small issues. The AI doesn’t seem to be aggressive enough as an attacker in a lot of the scenarios, and thus winning (especially with the less complicated scenarios) comes a bit too easy. Still, the game is strong enough to be quite fun, and the more difficult scenarios can compensate for the lack of truly excellent AI. The developers have already announced the next theater of operation (Battle of the Bulge); I’d like to see the Airborne Assault engine used in other wars in a larger context, much like the flexibility seen in The Operational Art of War III. The subsequent games in the Airborne Assault series are more like scenario expansions than full-price standalone games (although they do add some minor features), but who’s to argue when the game is this satisfying (it has been three years since Highway to the Reich, so it’s not like a sports game with minimal changes that comes out annually)? Most important of all, Conquest of the Aegean is fun without being a chore, unlike a lot of other wargames where you have to individually move hundreds of units across the map: obsessive-compulsive people might enjoy that, but not me. In the end, Conquest of the Aegean truly is a fantastic gaming achievement.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Crusaders of Space 2 Review

Crusaders of Space 2, developed by Adept Studios and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Numerous upgrade options, decent graphics for the genre, fast pace
The Not So Good: Progress saved infrequently, upgrades don’t happen often enough, not exciting until upgrades are prevalent, irrelevant and campy storyline, continuous fire gameplay
What say you? An arcade shooter where the innovations are offset by the annoyances: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ah, arcade space shooting. Blowing up countless swarms of alien ships has been the goal of both gamers and Ronald Reagan since Space Invaders hit the scene back in the 1970s. A mix of skill and luck, these games hold a special place in the hearts of fans of arcade action. Crusaders of Space 2 hopes to continue this grand tradition of shooting stuff and sorting out the pieces of burning metal later. Will Crusaders of Space 2 offer enough innovation to the genre to make it stand out against the swarm of other games almost exactly like it?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Compared to the original game, the graphics of Crusaders of Space 2 are significantly better and actually stack up well against most games in this genre. The backgrounds are fairly detailed, the ships look good, and the glowing fire of enemy artillery litters the screen. The explosions are a little too modest, however, as the trend recently has been more towards over-the-top than subtle. Crusaders of Space 2 has a hint of 3-D in its graphical palate, and the overall result is an above average arcade shooter in terms of appearance. The game does feature the “classic” (meaning “yuck”) requisite techno background music that must be present in all arcade shooters, but you can always turn the sound down (I know I did!).

ET AL.
Crusaders of Space 2 features a single player campaign with a totally forgettable and mostly painful storyline that most users will click past. Apparently the main character wants to make babies with this chick…I don’t know. The game consists of five episodes of around 10 levels each where you hold down fire and let your arsenal loose. The game only saves your progress halfway through an episode. I’m afraid to quit because I’m not exactly sure when the game saves your progress. That should never happen in any game. Crusaders of Space 2 is different from most arcade shooters in that it is not one shot, one kill, for either you or the enemies. Each ship (including your own) has a health bar and it takes more than one shot to defeat each enemy. Crusaders of Space 2 features the usual mix of bonuses that fall from defeated enemies: additional health, armor, or points, double scores, invulnerability, and the like. You can get bonuses for your bullets (fire, ice, and poison) that deal more damage, but two different bullet bonuses can’t be stacked (no “poison fire,” for example). You can also gain rockets that can be launched using the right mouse button, although these should be saved for the episode-ending boss. The levels of Crusaders of Space 2 are very short, sometimes less than a minute long. I like shorter levels in a game such as this, but this also means that the game will be over more quickly (although there are 120 levels). There is no penalty for just holding down fire during the entire game; this not only takes some of the challenge away, but results in a game where the main goal is just to avoid the enemy fire. You do get rated for accuracy, but this may or may not give a bonus to your overall score (the game never says). The enemy ships consist of both stationary guns and obstacles to quickly moving ships that fly around the landscape. The game also features the ever-more-prevalent upgrades, where you can improve your armor, bonus duration, and power of weapons. The game also allows you to unlock Matrix-style time freezing and health regeneration. These upgrades are neat and also allow for different strategic decisions, but they occur at seemingly random times. It doesn’t seem to be tied to score (possibly at the end of set levels, again, the game does not say), but in any event, it happens so infrequently that it’s almost a negligible addition to the game.

IN CLOSING
For every good thing that Crusaders of Space 2 does, it seems to do one thing that puzzles me. The game is fast paced, but only consists of constantly firing. Missiles are a good, powerful weapon, but you don’t know when you’ll receive replacements, so you end up saving them for the bosses. Bonuses are interesting, but don’t stack up for truly explosive combinations. Upgrades are a fine addition, but don’t happen often enough. There are 120 levels, but you are unsure of when the game decides to save your hard-earned progress. The game’s above average graphics aren’t enough to save it from being just average. Crusaders of Space 2 has some interesting ideas and potentially engrossing gameplay that’s hindered by some bothersome decisions in game design.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III Review

Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III, developed by Talonsoft and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Over 200 scenarios from Napoleon to the near future, scenario editor, challenging AI, PBEM, low system requirements, splendid user interface
The Not So Good: Very outdated graphics and sound, demanding difficulty
What say you? The large scope makes it a must-have for hardcore wargamers: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
When one talks about renowned computer wargames (and who doesn’t?), The Operational Art of War will typically come up. Known as TOAW to “insiders” (and by “insiders” I mean “nerds”), the original game was published by grognard-friendly Talonsoft back in 1998. Talonsoft’s library of computer games has recently been purchased by Matrix Games, who is now re-releasing some of the titles with updated scenarios and compatibilities with more recent operating systems. This brings us to Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War III, not as much a sequel in the series but a collection of a whole bunch of scenarios and support for Windows XP. How has the eight-year-old game held up when compared against more modern titles? Are there seriously over 200 scenarios? Seriously?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Unfortunetly, we (as always) have to start out by talking about the graphics and sound. The Operational Art of War III looks like an eight-year-old wargame. Keep in mind that wargames look old when they are released, and you can imagine that nobody will experience earth-shattering awe while glancing in the general direction of TOAW III. While real time strategy games look better all the time (just look at Rush for Berlin, for example), wargames are content with their hex-based, low detail flat maps. Part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these games are developed by small teams that don’t have the money to invest in spectacular graphics, but it’s still disappointing. I’d like to see one hardcore wargame that looks really good, but I’m still waiting. Of course, most people who play wargames don’t care about cutting-edge 3-D graphics, so The Operational Art of War III won’t make your eyes bleed. Much. On the sound side of the equation, the sound is typical of a wargame: short soundbites that are appropriate for the particular unit that is moving/shooting and some ambient effects. I really like the background battle noises, and much prefer them over the music, which is generally annoying. Luckily, you can choose to turn the music off and listen to the sweet sounds of death and destruction. There is one advantage to having sub-par graphics and sound: low system requirements. You only need an 800 MHz processor to enjoy The Operational Art of War III; there’s probably a CPU more powerful than that sitting in an automatic hand dryer. As long as you’re not offended by low production values, you won’t mind the archaic graphics and sound of The Operational Art of War III.

FEATURES
The Operational Art of War III covers pretty much every conflict from the mid-1800’s to today. That’s quite a large scope for a game; most wargames cover just a single war (or sometimes just a single battle), and it’s a testament to the flexibility of the engine. The third version of the series includes all 70 scenarios from the Century of Warfare collection (which is TOAW 1 and 2) plus another 130 user-made scenarios from the vast vastness of the Internet. That’s a whole lot of gameplay for a relatively small price. Each of the scenarios can be played as a hot seat game, against the computer, or by e-mail (an old wargame favorite). The Operational Art of War III has some excellent AI that will exploit your weaknesses to the fullest extent of the law. Considering that the AI is not hard-coded (because it could be playing any of the game’s 200 scenarios), it’s an amazing feat to provide a capable computer opponent that can control hundreds of units at a time and still kick your ass. Most wargames seem to have pretty competent AI, but bearing in mind the scope of The Operational Art of War III, the AI here is that much more impressive. The game provides four read-along tutorials that are pretty average to get you up to speed with the game. Since the game is windowed and can be resized, you can just read along and play at the same time. All of the game’s scenarios were created using the editor. It’s pretty easy to use, although creating a playable scenario will take some time.

GAMEPLAY
Unlike other games, such as The Star and the Crescent, commanding troops in The Operational Art of War III is pretty straightforward, especially for a hardcore wargame. The game can be played using standard or advanced rules. Standard rules strip away a lot of the game’s components (no weather, no supplies, no bridge blowing, et cetera), so it’s advised to just play with advanced rules, you wuss. In either event, the game’s user interface is well done. Most everything can be accessed by right-clicking on a unit (just make sure you are using advanced rules) or the menu bar above, and all of the options are straightforward and clear to the user. There’s limited military jargon used in The Operational Art of War III, which is a good thing, especially for new players. That’s not to say the game isn’t advanced, but it uses words and phrases that most everyone is familiar with. The game features all of the types of units used on the battlefield in the past 150 years. Each unit is rated in strength, proficiency (experience), readiness (level of exhaustion), and supply level. These are used to compute a unit’s overall morale. Each unit is given a set of movement points per turn, which they can use to move, attack enemy units, or perform some special action. You can attack more than once per turn, as attacking only uses up a portion of your movement points proportional to the amount of time the battle took. Thus, attackers are interested in quick battles, while defenders like long, drawn out confrontations. In The Operational Art of War III, defending seems to be more realistic than other games: your goal is to slow down the attackers by making them spend time fighting instead of advancing, which is close to what’s it’s like in real life. I like the system that’s used here, and it seems to result in more realistic outcomes. You can spend the remaining portion of your movement points by giving a deployment order. Deployment orders include things like defending/entrenching/fortifying (greater degrees of the same thing) and putting units in reserves. You can also assign units loss tolerance levels (how many deaths before retreating), split units in order to cover more territory, and give special orders such as blowing bridges and boarding trains for fast transport to the front lines. Each unit belongs to a formation (such as a division), and will perform better when fighting along side their other members.

Moving units can be as simple as right-clicking on a destination; you can move a single unit or the entire stack of units from a particular location. Moving units may undergo interdiction (planes shooting at you) or attrition (especially during bad weather). Combat is done by selecting and attacker and their target. Because of the large scope of some of the force involved, you can plan your attacks with more detail. A window can be brought up that displays the target, forces in all the surrounding hexes, and available support. The game will indicate the probability of success and amount of losses depending on how many surrounding troops you have currently selected to take place in the battle (this is really helpful). There are other factors to consider when engaging in combat, including weather, supply, and reinforcements. Victory is determined by a combination of objective locations and losses.

IN CLOSING
As most people in the wargamer community already know, The Operational Art of War is one of the most comprehensive wargames available. The third version of the software includes a lot of user-made scenarios, minor tweaks, and support for Windows XP. The Operational Art of War III is really geared towards hardcore gamers, with its numerous options and excellent AI. Once you learn the mechanics of the game, playing The Operational Art of War III becomes quite fun (albeit challenging), and the sheer amount of scenarios available makes the replay value extremely high. Although there aren’t many large changes from previous version of the game (especially in the graphics department), The Operational Art of War III is still a really good wargame that lives up to the pedigree of the series. While simpler wargames may make it easier on new players, no other game can touch the flexibility of The Operational Art of War III.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tiny Worlds Review

Tiny Worlds, developed by Ladia Group and published by Alawar Entertainment.
The Good: Lots of levels, easy to learn
The Not So Good: Can be difficult, must repeat the last puzzle you beat, some puzzles don’t allow time to plan, more strategic options could be available
What say you? A decent Lemmings-like puzzle game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The great struggle between wolves and sheep has been well documented, from The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The E! True Hollywood Story. Predator/prey relationships are the basis of a balanced ecosystem, but try telling that to the developers of Tiny Worlds, a game where you are actually expected to assist helpless, furry creatures like sheep, chicks, and puppies escape their hunger-crazed overlords. Tiny Worlds is a puzzle game in the same vein as Lemmings, a classic and well-known puzzle game. Unlike that game, the control scheme in Tiny Worlds is very simple, consisting only of placing arrows to guide the various animals around the map.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tiny Worlds is presented from an overhead 2-D view and consists of a simple maze-like board with cartoon mockups of animals and obstacles. The game’s design is very simple, which, while not “wowing” the user with great effects or detailed textures, makes playing the game straightforward. You’ll never have to worry about camera angles or objects obscuring your view. The game misses some special effects that are utilized in other games, but overall Tiny Worlds doesn’t need them to enhance the gameplay. The sound is along the same lines: very basic music to slightly accentuate the action that’s taking place on the screen.

ET AL.
Tiny Worlds features 250 levels in five game worlds, which features five different sets of animals you must guide or avoid; these changes are purely cosmetic, as the game plays the same in all the game worlds. The goal is simple: guide your creatures from their initial placement to the goal. You do this by placing arrows around the map (which can be rotated) to guide them in a specific direction. Each puzzle limits the number of arrows that can be placed on the map at one time, so there are some tense moments placing and removing arrows while the creatures march around the map. Your creatures will automatically walk forward until they hit a wall, and then will turn and continue walking. Not only do the arrows guide your animals, but they also guide the predator creatures, so you need to use some finagling to make sure the two groups never interact. Complicating things are the layouts of the maps (very maze-like), bottomless pits (a good place to send enemy animals), and various obstacles designed to make your life more difficult. Although the game has extremely simple controls, Tiny Worlds is not an easy game. In fact, a lot of the levels are quite difficult, especially when the animals are moving initially and you don’t have time to plan ahead before the predator creatures eat them up and end the level. The only difference between the difficulty levels is the amount of time you have to complete the level, and since a lot of the levels (especially the later ones) require you to start placing arrows immediately, time really doesn’t become a factor. Sometimes overt simplicity is not a good thing (see Sky Puppy); I wish there were more strategic options present in the game (like the various instructions in Lemmings) to allow for more varied solutions. As it stands, there is typically one way to solve each puzzle, and this arbitrary limitation makes finding the solution that much more frustrating. In addition, if you exit the game, Tiny Worlds requires you to repeat the last puzzle you beat and then move on to the next level. Why this is I have no idea.

IN CLOSING
Tiny Worlds is a simple concept that results in a fairly average game. The mechanics are easy to learn and family-friendly, but there are some limitations in the game that make it less than desirable. I do like the number of levels present in the game, but they tend to run together and may get boring after a while. The lack of options when playing the game (other than placing arrows and timing it correctly) coupled with the difficulty of the levels makes playing maps over again if you exit the game annoying. Tiny Worlds is not a bad game, there are just some curious decisions in the design that makes it more frustrating than necessary. I think Tiny Worlds suffers from being too simple, and thus eliminates some replay value for adult users. Since all you do is place arrows, this tends to get repetitive after a couple of levels, and there aren’t any new additions to keep your interest in the game. There is probably an audience that will enjoy this game, but most people will find it lacking in strategic depth, monotonous, and ultimately too difficult to be enjoyable.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Steam Brigade Review

Steam Brigade, developed and published by Pedestrian Entertainment.
The Good: Unique setting and graphical design, novel gameplay
The Not So Good: Very difficult (even on easy), some issues with the 2-D levels
What say you? A good idea that’s almost too challenging to be fun: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Strategy games have had a long and storied tradition on the PC. With the advent of new technology and more powerful computers and video cards, the real time strategy game has blossomed into a full 3-D exercise in killing stuff, strategically. The side scrolling 2-D game has mostly been reserved for arcade shooters, but what if it was adapted to a strategy game? Steam Brigade is a 2-D strategy game, but the novelty with this title is that the action is seen from the side, instead of from the top or an isometric perspective. Not only does this make the game easier to program, but it’s also fairly unique in a time littered with countless 3-D strategy titles. Will Steam Brigade’s originality be enough to carry this title above the rest?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Steam Brigade brings back the days of detailed 2-D environments that have a distinctive graphical style. A lot of games these days may have realistic units in a realistic setting, but this doesn’t exactly make them memorable. All of the graphics in Steam Brigade are hand drawn, giving them an appeal that’s not replicated in other titles. The graphics may be low resolution, but they look pretty good, from the detailed factories to the various dirigibles flying about the map. The soldiers that you will use are the least detailed of anything in the game, but this is mainly due to their small scale. Despite the memorable nature of the graphics, the sound is quite forgettable, an average collection of appropriate effects and generic background music. Still, the graphics of Steam Brigade are uniquely Steam Brigade, and that distinguishing nature is missing from a lot of top-tier strategy titles.

ET AL.
The goal of Steam Brigade is to deliver an engineer to the enemy factory in order to disable it. This seems like a simple concept, but it’s made more difficult by the various ships in the game and the 2-D levels. Your main method of moving units is your airship, which can be moved anywhere around the map by simply clicking at a destination or using the arrow keys (clicking is easier). The airship has a magnet that can pick up and drop friendly and enemy units; picking up enemy units and then dropping them from height is a favorite tactic of the AI. There are a number of different units that you can employ around the map to successfully detonate the enemy factory. The defenseless engineers can destroy the enemy headquarters and also occupy ground and air turrets. Infantry units can shoot at engineers and occupy bunkers, which prevent enemy vehicles from passing. Vehicles include tanks, flak guns (ground anti-air), autogyros (air anti-air), and balloon bombs that drop their payload when an enemy units passes underneath. Money used to purchase these weapons comes from a continual flow. You will also need to refuel your airship at your factory occasionally with fresh supplies of water. The game mechanics are definitely original, but prove to be very difficult to play. Because the title is so unique, using strategies from other games proves to be ineffective, and getting a handle on which units to use and how to use them makes for a steep initial learning curve. Because of the 2-D nature of the levels, there isn’t much room to operate, and the opposing airships continually run into each other, sometimes hooking their magnets together like a Chinese finger trap of death. Steam Brigade features a useful tutorial, a campaign mode, and skirmish games against the AI. Multiplayer is planned as a later addition.

IN CLOSING
Ultimately, Steam Brigade is a good idea that’s very frustrating and difficult to play. I suppose that once you get used to the controls the game would become quite fun, but I suspect a lot of people may get turned off by the initial difficulty. Steam Brigade is certainly a unique game, and I applaud the developers for an original concept and design, from the gameplay to the graphics. Nevertheless, there must be an easier way to play the game. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found Steam Brigade to be an original title that lacks simplicity in the gameplay department.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

ATC Simulator 2 Review

ATC Simulator 2, developed and published by aerostudios.
The Good: Realistic procedures and graphics, over 150 airports, support for voice commands
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, no interactive tutorial
What say you? The most authentic air traffic control simulation available to the general public: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Supposedly, one of the most difficult jobs is that of air traffic controller. Responsibility for ensuring that large hunks of flying metal don’t run into each other or the ground and safely travel to their destination is an arduous task. The stress endured and skill required by these people would make for a great computer game, wouldn’t it? That’s where ATC Simulator 2 comes in, the sequel to the original ATC Simulator, which I reviewed back when it was first released. ATC Simulator 2 strives to be the most genuine simulation of ATC operations. Is it?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
ATC Simulator 2 uses the same equipment available to real air traffic controllers: the ARTS-IIIa and the newer STARS system (with pretty colors!). Although they are not the most exciting graphics in the world, they are realistic, and that’s what the aim is. If you don’t find staring at little blips on a radar screen exciting, then you don’t have much of an imagination. Take that, non-imaginative people! The sound consists of text-to-speech computer voices; it doesn’t have the flow of, say, Microsoft Flight Simulator, but it still gets the job done. I wish the computer voices did speak more quickly, especially when the action gets intense, but that’s more of an issue with Microsoft’s technology than with ATC Simulator 2. Some people might say that 3-D representations of the aircraft and airports would add more to the game (like in Dangerous Waters), but the graphics and sound are good enough as they stand.

ET AL.
Your goal in ATC Simulator 2 is to safely guide incoming and outgoing aircraft around your particular airport. Every major (and almost every minor) U.S. airport is featured in the game. If your favorite local airport isn’t included, the Professional edition of ATC Simulator 2 includes a TRACON editor. The level of difficulty is dependent on the number of flights you wish to control in a given hour, from 20 (easy) to over 200 (no thanks). For any scenario, you can choose to control the approach, departure, or both. You can also disable the minor airports located in your vicinity to make life easier and less confusing. The game features aircraft patterns derived from real FAA logs, and owners can incorporate almost-live aircraft with Flight Explorer. Wind conditions can be randomized (this determines the runways that will be opened, as airplanes like to land and take off into the wind) or set to specific values. The game also tracks your career, assigning scores at the end of a scenario and then recommending a pay increase or demotion. Recording your scenario is also available, so that you can show your friends how l33t you are. Of course, you can say how l33t you are by utilizing the game’s multiplayer capabilities in conjunction with Microsoft Flight Simulator. ATC Simulator 2 also has full support for voice recognition, which is really, really neat. The accuracy of the voice recognition is based fully on Microsoft’s engine, and I’ve found that, after installing the Sound Development Kit and training my profile, the game picks up around 95% of everything I say. During the heat of battle, it’s almost easier to input the commands using the keyboard and mouse, but voice recognition is a feature that adds loads of realism to the game. Computer pilots responding to your commands is something that is unmatched in other computer simulations.

ATC Simulator 2 could really use an interactive, on-screen tutorial. There is a tutorial in the game’s PDF manual, but it’s 55 pages long. Most games don’t have an entire manual that’s 55 pages long! Once you get some practice under your belt, though, the game becomes pretty straightforward. For arriving flights, you first take a handoff from center by clicking (the game calls this “slewing” to confuse you) on the aircraft marker. You’ll need to guide the aircraft to their specific runway by issuing heading directions and altitudes. Planes need to be approximately 2,500 to 3,000 feet above ground level before you can hand them off to the tower. Once they are close enough to the runway, you can issue a visual or instrument approach (depending on whether the runway has ILS) and then hand off the aircraft to the tower. Simple enough. For departing flights, you just need to issue them their exiting altitude, make sure they don’t get too close to landing aircraft, and then hand them off to center. It sounds easy, but the difficulty arises from having a lot of aircraft coming from all directions at different speeds and different altitudes all heading for the same airport. The game truly takes some skill and multitasking ability to keep track of all the aircraft indicated on the screen at once. Keeping everyone lined up and spaced apart is the key to successfully guiding all of the aircraft to their destinations.

IN CLOSING
Simply put, ATC Simulator 2 is the most realistic air traffic control simulation on the market. A lot of the other competing titles are just cartoonish representations of aircraft and airports, but ATC Simulator 2 sticks to the realism angle. You get a feel for what real ATC operators have to deal with on a daily basis and why they get paid the big bucks (anyone who controls at the largest airports is certifiably nuts). This is all we want in a simulation: accuracy. Add to this voice recognition, multiplayer with Flight Simulator, a TRACON editor, and live aircraft, and you have the most complete simulation most people could ever want to have. Because of the learning curve, only those people who are interested in air traffic control will stick to it long enough to be entertained, but if you’re not interested in air traffic control, why are you playing the game anyway? Go back to elves and dragons, Poindexter! For those true fans of air traffic control, ATC Simulator 2 delivers the realism fanatics crave.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rush for Berlin Review

Rush for Berlin, developed by Stormregion and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Extremely quick battles, “new” multiplayer modes, gorgeous graphics, catchy background music, special abilities, scout units have more importance
The Not So Good: Extremely quick battles remove some strategy, some unused potential of “new” multiplayer modes, not many multiplayer maps, AI is not a worthy foe most of the time
What say you? Time is of the essence in this refreshingly fast-paced strategy game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Did you know that if you type in “world war 2 rts” into Google you get 4,940,000 hits? Of course, typing in “poo” results in 18,000,000 hits (plus a link to the definition), so that might not mean very much. Nevertheless, we seem bombarded with games related to the 2nd World War, from strategy to shooters. So, in order for a game to stand out, it must include something unique. Stormregion, the developers of the Codename: Panzers series, hope this to be the case in Rush for Berlin, a real time strategy game that takes place at the conclusion of World War II in Europe. The official web site describes the game as “groundbreaking,” “innovative,” “challenging,” “including,” and “as well as.” Are all of these things true, or are the developers dirty, stinking liars who stink and are dirty?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Rush for Berlin looks really good. All of the units are very detailed, from the soldiers to the armor, and have believable movement animations. The environments are detailed as well: swaying trees, falling show, and realistic, destructible buildings of rubble dot the landscape. Rush for Berlin delivers one of the most convincing and meticulous settings I’ve seen in a straight-up real time strategy game. The explosions are a little over the top, as any defeated armor unit detonates in a cacophony of shrapnel, but that’s fine with me: it’s very satisfying watching a tank blow up after you’ve worked so hard to bring it down. A lot of games that show samples of graphics tend to cheat and show in-game rendered movies (I’m looking at you, “next generation” consoles) instead of what the game actually looks like, but the screenshots on the official site are exactly what you’ll see while playing the game, and they are impressive. Of course, the system requirements are fairly high, so make sure you invest in some upgrades to fully enjoy the destruction. The sound also shows the high production values of the game; they accompany the graphics with appropriate intensity. In addition, the background music in the game is enjoyable, especially during the menus. Speaking of the menus, I really enjoy the animated backgrounds (and associated sound); it’s been a while since I’ve commented on the menus of a game, but the opening options of Rush for Berlin gets you pumped up for some destruction-based fun.

ALL BY MYSELF
Rush for Berlin features four campaigns of 25 missions plus a tutorial. There is a campaign for each of the major sides in Europe: the Russians, Germans, Allies, and a bonus French campaign. Some of the campaigns are historically-based, but some are also speculative, especially the German campaign. Because of the fast-paced nature of Rush for Berlin, the 25 missions don’t take very long, and because the enemy locations are scripted, there isn’t much replay value. Still, the campaign missions are pretty fun and very difficult (more due to overwhelming forces than good AI), so completing 25 missions means playing more than 25 times. Before each mission, you can choose a portion of your starting forces from units left over from the last mission. Those units with more experience will perform better in the battlefield and also have better special abilities, so keeping your veteran units alive is of great importance. The game gives you a certain number of “free” forces, but adding additional forces will decrease the amount of time you have to finish the mission. Of course, you could also under-equip and get more time. It’s an interesting dynamic in theory, but the relationship is pretty linear (more units equals less time) so it doesn’t really matter which side of the equation you choose.

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS
One of the selling points of Rush for Berlin is the multiplayer; there are five multiplayer modes available in the game. You can play some of the single player missions in cooperative mode (an options which seems to be present in more games these days, probably because of massively multiplayer titles). There is the classic (meaning boring) deathmatch, which can be played as a free-for-all or on teams. In domination mode, you must hold a certain number of strategic locations. The two “new” modes are RUSH and RISK. RUSH (Relentlessly Utilized Score Hunt) is a modified domination mode, where the first side to a particular control point gets a large amount of points. Points can also be gained by defeating enemy units or holding control points; less points are gained if the objective is destroyed, so sabotaging a location the enemy is about to capture could be a viable strategy. RISK (Race-Intensive Strategic Combat with a K) gives one to three randomly selected tasks for each team to complete. Tasks include holding an object (either specific ones or any number), destroying neutral vehicles, collecting supply drops, capturing powerful units and keeping them functional, or simply defeating the other team. RISK would be better with uncapturable headquarters, so the only way you could be eliminated is if another player completes all of their objectives. The way it stands, all you really need to do is capture all of the other players’ buildings as you win. RISK also has some balancing issues. For example, in one multiplayer scenario, you are charged with eliminating a set number of neutral vehicles. The problem is that the neutral vehicles are unlimited and will slowly grind away at your much more limited forces until you are defeated. There’s a lot more potential with the semi-inventive RISK mode than what’s present in Rush for Berlin. Still, the “original” game modes are above and beyond what’s seen in most real time strategy game, so that’s to be commended.

STUFF THAT SHOOTS STUFF
Carrying out your fiendish goals are a number of different units. In terms of infantry, all sides have standard infantry, snipers, sappers (mine layers), flamethrowers, medics, and mortar infantry, while specialty units are present for each side: cheap partisan infantry (complete with Molotov cocktails) for the Russians, Allied airborne infantry, and anti-tank German Panzergrenadiers. Each side also has a host of mobile units: armored combat vehicles, artillery, self-propelled guns, recon vehicles, transports, and bombers. The scouting units are very useful this time around, as they (along with the officers) are the only units that can call in reconnaissance planes; this is important because bombers can only be deployed to areas under surveillance. There are also fake units that can confuse the enemy. Each vehicle must have a crew, and each crew member increases the number of available weapons. Important to Rush for Berlin are the officers. Each of these units has a special skill that can affect surrounding units (such as increased morale), provide bonuses (such as increased damage or armor), or provide a special attack. Some of these skills are passive and never need to be specifically activated by the player. You can set a lot of the active skills to auto-use, and the AI will use them when appropriate.

GAMEPLAY
So what does this all mean in terms of the gameplay? Rush for Berlin is one of the fastest strategy games I’ve played in quite a while. Strategy games that involve resource gathering have build-ups of 30-60 minutes before the main action begins, while tactical games (such as this one) typically have long, drawn out battles. This is certainly not the case in Rush for Berlin. You can set multiplayer games to end in 5 minutes; this should indicate how quickly things unravel in the game. The lethality of the weapons at your disposal comes into affect here, as most units are killed within seconds (this includes tanks, if you use all of your special skills). On maps where you can call in extra units, the reinforcements arrive so slowly (on purpose), the game is really one big battle and clean-up afterwards. You will never, ever have a drawn out game where one player, who is obviously beaten, will continue to hold a single base and churn out units to slow their defeat. This is great for multiplayer; the problem with a lot of real time strategy games is that the end game takes so damn long to finish, even though the victor has been decided long ago. Rush for Berlin does not suffer from this malady. Support vehicles have uptmost importance, because successful implementation of support vehicles will extend the life of your units considerably, and tactical might is the name of the game. When time is included as the main resource in the game, and users are rewarded for quickly winning a battle, you know what you’re in for. The game is less impressive to play against the AI, however, especially in multiplayer modes. Even on hard difficulty, the AI doesn't give provide much of a contest. This may be due to the inherent complicated nature of some of the multiplayer modes, but the AI is just not a good tactician. Overwhelming enemy forces (and tricky placement by the scenario designer) is the cause of most of the difficulty associated with the single player campaigns. But, as long as you play Rush for Berlin as a primarily multiplayer affair, you won't notice.

IN CLOSING
The developers couldn’t have picked a more appropriate name for Rush for Berlin. The fast-paced action is certainly a difference from the typical drawn out strategy games we’ve been playing for the past several years. I’m the kind of person that enjoys slow-paced games rather than click-fests, but I can say I rather enjoyed Rush for Berlin. It has a distinctive immediacy to its gameplay that’s indicative of what real commanders had to deal with: a decision needs to be made now. It appears that Rush for Berlin was built with multiplayer in mind, providing quick battles where you don’t have to worry about people leaving the game because they are over very quickly. The longest option for some game types is 30 minutes; games such as Rise of Nations have options where no combat can take place for the first 30 minutes. In this time, you could have played three games of Rush for Berlin! I wish the single player campaign has more missions, but the difficulty of the campaign will extend its lifetime a little. There could also have been more maps available for multiplayer, but the included maps are pretty good. Those gamers looking for a change of pace to “frantic” will find a good time to be had with Rush for Berlin.