Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mr. Robot Review

Mr. Robot, developed and published by Moonpod.
The Good: Combination of platform puzzles and excellent RPG battles, unique setting, easy to learn, good graphics, level editor, non-violent gameplay that is suitable for children
The Not So Good: Simplified controls result in confused instructions, puzzles become tedious, save points are infrequent enough to be annoying, lack of in-game voice acting
What say you? A good concept and solid battles, but the game’s puzzles become too repetitive to hold the attention of most players: 5/8

I think we can all agree that it’s just a matter of time until the robots take over. I mean, countless movies wouldn’t lie to us, would they? We must act now and rise up against our machine oppressors! Burn them all! And by that I mean it’s time to review Mr. Robot, an action/puzzle/RPG game from Moonpod. Mr. Robot takes puzzles similar to those found in adventure games and combines it with RPG battles comparable to those in the Final Fantasy series (or really any other role playing game). Will this amalgamation work? Or are we doomed to a lifetime in servitude benefiting our metallic overlords?

For a game with independent roots, Mr. Robot looks pretty good. The game is presented in a fixed isometric perspective, but all of the levels and characters seem to be rendered in 3-D. The lighting effects are probably the most noticeable aspect of the game, as the shine coming off the metallic robots is impressive and varied. The battles take place in a computerized environment like DEFCON. Due to the fixed perspective of the game, sometimes objects below ground level or behind other objects become obscured, but this is rarely a major issue. Overall, the graphics are effective in promoting the general theme of the game. The sound, however, is very underwhelming. The background music is too subtle to be noticeable while playing the game. In fact, I didn’t really remember there being any music until I loaded the game again. Of course, this means that the music is not annoying, but presenting an unremarkable soundtrack is almost just as bad. The sound effects are also disappointing. While the introduction movie is voiced, none of the in-game story is accompanied with any voice acting. This hurts the game, as a much more convincing environment could have been produced if the characters were given more life through voice. Some would argue that no voice is better than bad voice, but having robotic voices shouldn’t be too terribly difficult. Far more could have been done with sound in Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot features a single player campaign that is fairly lengthy, following the story of a robot on his journey to save his spaceship from impending doom. In order to extend the life of the game, the developers have included a level editor. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to use, but if you devote some time to it, creating some puzzles is not terribly difficult. The gameplay of Mr. Robot consists of puzzles and battles. The puzzles mainly consist of moving objects by pushing them or avoiding enemies. The level design is not very inventive: just a collection of elevators, object placement puzzles, jumping puzzles, and scripted enemies that you will encounter along your way. Since we’ve seen this in countless games before, Mr. Robot falls pretty flat in this aspect of the game. The puzzles are not very interesting and repetitive, which makes playing this portion of the game quite boring. The game also only saves at certain intervals (by downloading your hard drive to the ship mainframe: pretty inventive); typically, you’ll have to solve two or three puzzles in a row before saving. This makes the game unnecessarily difficult, and I think we’ve reached the point of PC gaming where you should be allowed to save the game at any point. We have the technology! A lot of the puzzles require precise movement, which is difficult to attain with the game’s simplified control scheme. You control your robot by using the directional keys and just two input keys (primary and secondary). While this makes the game easy to learn, sometimes you can run into trouble, especially if you like using the mouse. The secondary action button (the right mouse button) is used for both jumping and activating things. Most of the time, instead of opening a crate or interfacing with a console, your character will just happily jump instead of doing what you intended. This gets quite annoying, as you can imagine. What’s the harm in binding the middle mouse button? You can’t reset the controls in the game, so you’re stuck with what the developers thought you should use.

Thankfully, Mr. Robot becomes far more interesting in the battles. You will routinely have to enter “ghost mode,” where you will fight against computer viruses inside a computer. Here, the game takes a RPG-like turn. The battles themselves consist of choosing an attack and picking an enemy in a turn-based environment. The game features a lot of upgrades and special items you can use in addition to basic attacks. You can use energon (collected during the game) to purchase new weapons, items, and programs. There are both offensive and defensive programs available. You can load up to four defensive programs, which do things like decrease the amount of energy lost during battle or the likelihood of a successful enemy attack. The offensive programs can increase the amount of damage caused per turn by your attacks. There are also other programs that provide bonuses to attacks, defense, or energy levels. After you have accumulated enough experience during a sequence of battles, you’ll be able to execute an “extreme” attack, which generally eliminates an enemy in one hit or provides a powerful bonus to friendly units. You will collect a number of useful items after a successful battle, which can replenish energy lost during confrontations. Likening the items to computer programs is a nice touch that helps to promote the theme of the game. There are a good number of different strategic decisions available during the battles, which make them far more appealing than the strictly linear puzzles. The enemy AI during the turn-based battles is good enough to be challenging, although they tend to spread out their damage rather than focusing on the most vulnerable team member (although if they didn’t, the game would be quite difficult). The battles provide some much needed variety from the tedious puzzles, and their inclusion in the game is much appreciated.

Featuring a combination of puzzles and battles, Mr. Robot features just enough variety to make the game slightly interesting. The linear nature of the puzzles, all of which have usually only one solution, becomes tiring after a while. There are only so many ways you can jump over, manipulate, and avoid objects. And since we’ve done this in computer games for quite a number of years, the puzzles feel stale. While the puzzles are neither unique nor interesting due to their lack of variety, the battles save the game from being completely dreary. The RPG upgrade elements of the game along with the strategic variety of the battles result in some interesting gameplay. The battles are clearly the highlight of the game, and they alone are almost enough to make this a recommended title. If the game consisted solely of battles, however, I would imagine the game would become too much of the same thing. So, the addition of puzzles between the battles (or battles between the puzzles, depending on how you look at it) varies the gameplay enough to keep you occupied. Unfortunately, the puzzles are not interesting, and you have to complete them in order to get to the next battle. And while the graphics are good, there is unused potential in the sound department. This is the dichotomy of Mr. Robot: something good in the game is balanced by something bad in the game. Ultimately, Mr. Robot will appeal to people who enjoy (or can tolerate) the puzzles enough to get to the superior battles.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Starship Kingdom Review

Starship Kingdom, developed and published by ApeZone.
The Good: Simple rules, research increases strategic options, useful stats help overall plan, easy to make custom maps, generally decent AI, multiplayer matchmaking
The Not So Good: Limited to two players, success can depend too much on random initial starting positions, independent player doesn’t play fair with its initially superior resources
What say you? A strategy game similar to Risk, but with more depth: 6/8

Probably the most well known strategy game is Risk. Originally produced in board game form, the basic formula has been adapted in a number of computer games, most notably Lux. Everyone seeks world domination, and Risk provides a straightforward way of simulating it, eliminating a lot of the complex rules present in more sophisticated games. After you’ve conquered the world, the next step is space, and Starship Kingdom gives you that option. Starship Kingdom takes the basic premise of Risk and adds some additional features in the hope of increasing the replay value of the basic game.

Starship Kingdom features two sets of graphics: the 2-D game board, and the 3-D battles. The game board is pretty standard fare: an easy-to-read map is placed upon a dynamic background of spacey vistas. The map shows pretty much everything you need to know to play the game (the numbers and types of units, the research fields of each planet) and is well designed. The 3-D battles are very reminiscent of those seen in Galactic Civilizations II, with ships shooting weapons and getting blown up. There’s nothing terribly impressive about it, but they battles are good enough. Starship Kingdom has generic sound effects and menu music: nothing too outstanding or memorable to note, but they are not horrible. Overall, Starship Kingdom delivers exactly what you would expect for a board-game-like title.

Like Risk, Starship Kingdom involves eliminating all of the other players from the board through moving units and attacking. Unlike Risk, Starship Kingdom is restricted to just two players. This is an odd restriction, as the game certainly could be played with more players. It would last longer (games of Starship Kingdom are pretty short) but would probably more interesting. Allowing the user to have at least four or six player games would be a nice addition. You can play the game in single player mode against the computer, on the same computer with two human players, or online through the game’s matchmaking service. I haven’t seen anyone else playing, but it would theoretically work well. Starship Kingdom comes with different AI types, each of which has their own distinctive playing style (aggressive, defensive, balanced, easy). Other than the easy player, the AI in Starship Kingdom plays very well and is quite a challenge, blocking off key locations and countering your troops. The AI player does not fare so well in the research aspect of the game, however, so if you survive long enough you can outpace them in technology. Starship Kingdom comes with a handful of maps of small and large size. You can also create your own maps using the map editor, which is very easy to do. The game will place stars randomly for you, and all you need to do is connect them and define the sectors (continents for Risk players). You also have the freedom to move them if need be, but I like using the random placement to make a map. Since it is so easy to make a new map, it surprises me that Starship Kingdom lacks a random map generator. Sure, it only takes about a minute or two to make a map yourself and the initial star placements are random, but I could have spent that time blowing stuff up! The straightforward map editor extends the life of the game tremendously.

Once you start a game, your initial stars and randomized and different each time you play the same map. This means that success can depend on which player has the best initial arrangement of stars, rather than who is the better player. This could be removed if each player were allowed to choose his or her initial stars (like in Risk). Most of the time the placement comes out pretty even, but when the opponent gets strong locations in two useful sectors while your stars are scattered all over the place, Starship Kingdom can become frustrating right out of the box. Each side is given a handful of stars, and the rest of the stars are given to the independents, that will only attack a player if they invade an initially independent star (which you have to). The independents turtle, making them extremely hard to beat. Stacking units in the last territory of a sector is a common practice, and since they own far more stars than either player does at the beginning of the game, their production of new units will always outpace you in the early part of a game. This gets really frustrating, especially when the independents seem to always fortify against the human player. The independents also have a chance of joining the losing side near the end of the game. I didn’t initially like this aspect to the game, but the more I saw it in action, the better I liked it. Preparing for the independents requires some planning, and it also keeps the loser in the game longer. Since there are only two players, there is certain point where you know who the winner is, and the possibility of having independent stars join in makes victory a little less guaranteed.

Starship Kingdom is played in four phases, and the similarities to Risk are evident. In the first phase, you spend credits earned last turn by acquiring new stars on new ships. You also get ships according to the number of stars you own, and whether you own any complete sectors. These credits can be used to purchase cheap but flimsy battlecruisers, expensive but powerful battlestars, or in-the-middle battleships. During the attack phase, you send units to adjacent enemy stars. You must keep at least one ship at each star you own, but you can send the rest of your ships along. Battles are automated, and rather than using just dice rolls like Risk, Starship Kingdom also implements the research modifiers and ship attributes to determine the winner of each battle. Any unspent credits from the build phase can be devoted to research. Each star can upgrade one of the six research areas: beam weapons, shields (defense against beams), missiles, jammers (defense against missiles), armor (more hit points), and engines (increased odds of firing first). Or, you can spend credits in the hope of increasing production, which lets you buy multiple ships for the same price. Investing money in production is a waste, however, since you’re never guaranteed of receiving the upgrade, unlike in the first six areas. After the attack phase, you are allowed to transfer ships from one star to an adjacent friendly star in the fortify phase.

While Starship Kingdom plays a lot like Risk, it adds enough to the game to make it more interesting than a vanilla retread of the global domination board game. The game has more advanced strategies available to the player and more choices to make during gameplay. Which stars will you attack first? Will you concentrate on building ships or research (or both)? Which ships will you build? The game features stats to help you make these decisions, and one wrong move against the difficult AI will usually result in disaster. The random elements of the game, including the ability to create your own maps, make the game slightly different each time you play. The limitation of just two players is odd, but the ability to play against human opponents over the Internet is a nice addition. Plus, the games are quick: Starship Kingdom works well as a pick-up-and-play strategy game. The game can be fun to play, although some issues, strong initial positions and the vigor of independent nations, are a problem. Starship Kingdom is also a difficult game; be prepared to lose a good number of matches against the AI due in part to the concerns mentioned earlier. Still, Starship Kingdom has a solid foundation for a strategy game. Although you can tell the inspiration of the game, Starship Kingdom takes an established formula and makes meaningful embellishments to the gameplay.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Strawberry Jam Review

Strawberry Jam, developed and published by Red Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, different game rules
The Not So Good: Nothing terribly original, campy MIDI music and sound
What say you? A Tetris-like game that is not unique enough: 5/8

The success of Tetris has spawned many imitators trying to cash in on the success of the original. Its simple gameplay appeals to all types of players. Strawberry Jam, one of the approximately 57 Jam games available from Red Games, is similar to Tetris, in that you must fill in a grid with differently-shaped objects. Will Strawberry Jam offer sufficient innovations on the base game to make it distinctive?

Strawberry Jam does not feature cutting-edge graphics or sound, even for its genre. While the graphics do their job in making the game easy to navigate, Strawberry Jam is devoid of any flair to make the title stand out. The graphics are very simplistic and run at relatively low resolutions (800 by 600 pixels). There are hardly any special effects, other than the bubbles disappearing when removed from the board. Similar games such as Sky Bubbles at least feature some sort of panache to make the game stand out against the pack, but Strawberry Jam keeps it very basic. The sound isn’t much better. The game features a seemingly random collection of outdated MIDI music that is generally annoying. The sound effects are digitized children’s voices and other basic sounds. I’m certainly not setting the bar extremely high for a puzzle game such as this, but the graphics and sound could at least be brought up to date to compete with contemporary puzzle games. As it stands, Strawberry Jam certainly does not compete against similar titles in terms of graphics and sound.

All of the shortcomings in graphics and sound could be forgiven if Strawberry Jam has decent gameplay. The gist of the game is to fill a 4 by 4 square with bubbles of various configurations. You are given four areas to fill in, and the bubbles appear from the bottom of the screen. You must fill in each 4 by 4 area completely, which is where the difficulty comes in. The other Jam games are similar, except they use scoring differences that aren’t made very clear on the games’ websites. You can play each game in either action or strategic mode, the difference being the time you have to place pieces. There are also six game modes available. You are either given four lives (you lose a life when you surpass the 4 by 3 overflow area), two lives and a limit on the number of sets, or one life and a restriction on placing objects in the overflow area. The other three modes are exactly the same except that control is reversed every five sets. While it’s nice to have different game modes, the changes are very superficial and you end up playing the same way in each game type. I would like to give the user the option to customize the gameplay to their liking, rather than leaving the decision up to the developer. Strawberry Jam plays a lot like Tetris, except that it’s slightly more challenging because you have to fill in a larger area. Plus, the bubbles come from the bottom, which takes some getting used to: I would rotate the pieces when I meant to drop them (and vice versa), being more accustomed to the Tetris control scheme. While there have been some trivial changes to the gameplay, Strawberry Jam still just ends up being a retread of the game mechanics we’ve seen countless times before.

Generally terrible graphics and sound aside, Strawberry Jam doesn’t bring enough new ideas to the table. The game is different, at least on the surface: the bubbles move up, you get four areas to place bubbles in, and you must completely fill in an area. Still, you can’t help but feel like you’ve played this game before. The outdated graphics and sound do not help the suspicion that Strawberry Jam was released 15 years ago. Strawberry Jam does not offer anything that makes you want to play it over better-looking and distinctive puzzle games. A puzzle game does not need awesome graphics in order to be compelling, but it does need at least a semi-original idea. The changes to the Tetris formula may be there, but they are not radical enough to make Strawberry Jam special. 

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kingdom Elemental Review

Kingdom Elemental, developed by Liberation Games and published by Chronic Logic.
The Good: Multiple layers of strategic decisions, auto-attack and passive skills reduce micromanagement, victory requires thought and planning
The Not So Good: Left-clicking for selection and commands results in some erroneous orders, buying units usually results in too much unused cash, difficulty may be frustrating to some
What say you? An uncomplicated yet fairly deep tactical strategy game: 6/8

There are two main types of strategy games: games where you manage an entire army or country (like Europa Universalis III or Conquest of the Aegean and more tactical games, where you control and manage individual troops (like Brigade E5: New Jagged Union or Shadowgrounds). The more strategic titles usually offer better individual unit AI (at least you would hope), while tactical games offer less units but more unit control. Kingdom Elemental is a tactical game, where you lead a set of troops against a slew of enemies, targeting specific units and using special skills.

Despite Kingdom Elemental’s small developer roots, the game looks pretty good. Most of the game’s levels are small and involve a small number of troops, so the level of detail can be increased without making your computer cry (unlike Medieval II: Total War). The game is rendered completely in 3-D and the units and environments are definitely above average. The game has a cartoon-like feel to it, and this extends through the exaggerated levels and animated units. Kingdom Elemental won’t be mistaken for real life, but we’ve played plenty of games that have tried to replicate real life recently, so it’s about time for a pleasingly embellished view of fantasy combat. I will say that I was both surprised and satisfied by the quality of the graphics in Kingdom Elemental. The sound is not quite as good, but it still holds up well. The background music is typical of fantasy/medieval games. The sound effects, though humorous (the girly “ow!” of the archer unit is my personal favorite), are too repetitive. I think that most of the voices in the game were recorded by the developer and a couple of his friends, rather than a more polished presentation, but that’s OK. Kingdom Elemental delivers solid graphics and sound that, while not as impressive as other games, still hold up pretty well.

Kingdom Elemental features four levels in the main campaign, each of which contains about six sounds and 2-6 waves of enemies per round. This may not seem like much (and it isn’t), but the different strategies you can employ during gameplay extends the life of the game, along with the initially locked skirmish mode. The basic tutorial, which tries very hard to be funny (and sometimes succeeds), will be familiar territory for anyone who has played a real time strategy game in the past 10 years. The basic premise of the game is to defeat all of the enemies using your troops. Before each round, you are given an amount of cash to spend on recruiting troops and unlocking new skills for your troops. The game’s ten units are unlocked gradually during the campaign, and each unit has three special skills that are either passive or must be actively triggered by the player. Luckily, units that have an available active skill are indicated in the game, so you don’t need to continuously click through all of your units. Kingdom Elemental gives you enough money before each round to field a variety of different armies, utilizing different strategies. You may go for a lot of stout units, ranged and healer units, or any number of combinations, some of which may be successful and some of which may fail horribly in an orgy of destruction. The number of choices is high, and it makes for good replay value. Of course, it could lead to some frustration if you keep picking inappropriate lineups for your upcoming foes. This is probably the best part of the game; once the game starts, it’s just a matter of using skills and picking targets. The game can get pretty hectic with large battles involving lots of troops, but auto-attack and passive skills greatly reduce the micromanagement. On normal difficulty, the game is fairly challenging; of course, you can play on “easy,” but who wants to wimp out like that? Kingdom Elemental features a good amount of variety in the choices you can make and when to use certain skills (and whom to use them on): this makes the game fun to play and a unique and enjoyable title. Plus, the game is fairly easy to control. Other than some issues with selecting and ordering units (both are bound to the left mouse button), the controls are something almost everyone can master, making the game appeal to both veteran and novice players.

Kingdom Elemental is a good tactical strategy game. Although the game is short, the number of viable strategies available to the player makes the game last longer, and skirmish mode extends the life of the game even further. The game could use some multiplayer, but the AI puts up enough of a fight. Kingdom Elemental is a challenging title, but it’s not impossibly difficult, making it fun to beat the game, instead of a chore. Unlike some tactical games, controlling each individual unit is not tedious due to decent AI and micromanagement reduction from automated attacks. Most of the gameplay results from recruiting the right units and picking useful upgrades. The amount of cash given between rounds seems somewhat arbitrary, however, as I’m always left with a large amount of unspent cash (but not enough for another unit). Still, there is enough variety here to appease fans of tactical games.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Medieval II: Total War Review

Medieval II: Total War, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega.
The Good: Large and chaotic battles, issued quests are neat, improved graphics and excellent sound
The Not So Good: 99% recycled material, strategic mode is uninteresting and unavailable in multiplayer, inferior performance due to enhanced graphics, limited to just five controllable sides in campaign, units sporadically follow orders
What say you? A flashy title identical to the others in the series: 5/8

Since the year 2000, the Total War series has combined grand strategy with tactical battles spanning from Feudal Japan through Rome to the Middle Ages. The series has prided itself on epic, large-scale battles tied together with Risk-like unit production and maneuvering. Medieval II: Total War takes us back to the setting of the second game in the series: Europe in the Dark Ages. Will this next entry in the series get medieval on your ass? Sorry, someone had to say it.

Medieval II: Total War amps up the graphics from previous offerings and shows Europe in all its 3-D glory. All of the graphics are top-of-the-line. The units are extremely detailed, the landscapes look very realistic, and the overall game does an excellent job of portraying a violent part of human history. This includes both the real time battles and the strategic map, which looks very nice and is probably the best looking map I’ve seen for any game to date. Of course, you need a really hefty machine to run the game at any speed above molasses: my six month old computer can barely run the game at 1024x768 and medium settings, let alone at the suggested 1280x1024 resolution for my monitor. This is quite disheartening: even if you scale down the graphics, Medieval II: Total War is an extreme resource hog, making it impossible to smoothly render any large battles (which is the point of any Total War game). I was hoping that the game performance would be improved from the demo, but it is not. There’s something to be said for making a great-looking game, but what’s the point if nobody can run it? I would much rather have smooth, 2-D sprites (like Medieval: Total War) than an intermittent slideshow of 3-D effects. Less computer intensive but equally impressive is the sound, which includes appropriate battle noises and good, period appropriate background music. Still, it appears that Medieval II: Total War was designed to make your computer feel inadequate, and the game certainly does a good job at this.

I’m not quite sure why the developers chose to repeat a time period they had already done when there are many more to choose from throughout history (1950’s New Jersey, for example). But, I was interested in seeing how many changes they made from the original game, other than just graphical enhancements. Loading up the tutorial, I noticed that it is exactly the same as Medieval: Total War. Well, this isn’t a good sign. If they can’t even come up with a new tutorial, how will the rest of the game be any different (short answer: it’s not)? You still can’t play the strategic mode in multiplayer: you are limited to just real-time battles. You can play historical and custom battles, but there are only a handful of each and most people will just ignore them. Instead, you’ll probably spend most of your time in the grand campaign. You can take control of one of five nations (small in comparison to the 200 nations in Europa Universalis III) and lead them to complete either short or long term goals, which usually involves eliminating a specific country from the map. The strategic campaign is exactly the same as before, and essentially boils down to a slightly more complicated version of Risk. Build units, move characters around the map, conduct diplomacy: it’s all the same as before. There are a good number of units present in the game, including light infantry, heavy infantry, spearmen, missiles, light cavalry, heavy cavalry, missile cavalry, artillery, and boats. Each of these has a specific role and a specific counter, so you can exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. You can also choose each settlement to be a city, which is driven by income, or a castle, which is driven by military defense. There are some interesting side missions that you may get issued during the game which varies the gameplay somewhat, but most of the time you’ll be moving armies and storming castles. Religious elements in the game are somewhat interesting, but they are usually mission-related and don’t affect the gameplay as much as they should, considering how important religion was back then. The user interface used in the strategic mode is also poor: the game makes it difficult to locate friendly units and provinces and information on-screen is sparse and superficial. You must also watch all the AI moves in real time or not at all; you can speed it up by clicking, but there should be an option to show the moves faster. Since you’re playing against 10-15 different AI forces at any one time, this can get annoying quickly. Turn resolution takes too long as it is anyway; I’m used to the instantaneous turns or real-time play seen in much more complicated games like Europa Universalis III, Forge of Freedom, or Birth of America. Speaking of those games, you can’t compare the relatively shallow strategic campaign of Medieval II: Total War to any of those titles, but Medieval II: Total War will sure appeal to more people with its simplistic gameplay and pretty graphics.

Like the grand campaign, the battles are the same as before: large groups of units face off against each other and then turn into a gigantic blob of swords and horses. You are given all of these options for orders and formations, but the second that a unit starts engaging in battle, all of that organization goes out the window. Units will also routinely ignore or mess up orders: I’m not sure if this is intentional or not. You can flank enemy troops, but the battles usually devolve into a giant mass of people anyway; there is also no help from the questionable AI that doesn’t really follow orders very well or moves to strange locations when it does choose to follow orders. The best way of winning a battle is to kill the enemy general, which results in a guaranteed victory. Maybe I’m playing the game wrong, but like the campaign mode, the battles lack any real strategy other than keep archers back, send in cavalry, and the like. It’s all very simple, and while the game was unique and innovative six years ago, it’s just a stale rehash of old ideas today.

Medieval II: Total War is the same as the original game but performs much worse. In fact, it almost feels like an EA Sports game, repeating the same stuff over and over again. There are no striking changes in gameplay at all from Medieval: Total War, unlike the notable improvements made from Europa Universalis II to Europa Universalis III. I am just not impressed at all with this game; I’ve already played a much smoother version of this game and it was called Medieval: Total War. Medieval II: Total War lacks the overall strategy of other grand strategy games, but it adds in real-time battles, which almost (but does not) balance it out. They are decent, but we’ve seen this countless (well, three) times before. It’s almost insulting that the developers would think that just upgrading the graphics warrants a $50 price tag. I prefer a different gaming experience instead of a carbon copy of a four year old game: Forge of Freedom offers an innovative mix of grand strategy and tactical battles, unlike Medieval II: Total War’s retread of everything done in previous titles. To make a viable, interesting game, you can’t just add better graphics and call it a day; you must add at least something new to the game’s mechanics, and Medieval II: Total War does not.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Europa Universalis III Review

Europa Universalis III, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Fantastic user interface, high replay value due to large scope and unscripted history with appropriate random events, improved AI, tons of new additions without becoming unwieldy, extremely easy to modify
The Not So Good: Smaller scenarios with concrete goals would be nice, automated merchants would decrease the tedious micromanagement of trade
What say you? A multitude of quality improvements on an already spectacular title makes this the best grand strategy game ever made: 8/8

Rarely do I publish a preview of a game (4 previews compared to 200 reviews so far), but when I got a chance to check out an early beta version of Europa Universalis III, I jumped on it. You see, the Europa Universalis series is very good and I greatly enjoy taking the helm of a country and trying to take over the world, or at least Canada. In the preview, I predicted, “I think we can pencil in a perfect score.” Was my clairvoyance correct? Well, considering I put the game score at the top of the review, I guess you already know; but please, enjoy this review anyway!

The 3-D graphics of Europa Universalis III is one of the most prevalent additions to the game. First, the map looks good: the realistic terrain for the entire world is impressive and actually impacts the gameplay (units paths will trace around mountains, adding to the travel time). The units are an upgrade: each region has a specific 3-D model, and each country has a particular color scheme (although the flag above each military unit will provide faster identification). While the map is much improved over previous titles in the series, it still can’t hold a candle to the vibrant strategic map of Medieval II: Total War. Of course, it’s a lot easier to make a nice map of Europe than a good map of the entire world and graphics aren’t really the focus of the game anyway. I would much rather have Europa Universalis III use all of the processing power for actual gameplay instead of swaying trees (turn resolution in Medieval II is extremely long) anyway. Honestly, I’m surprised at how well the game runs considering how many calculations need to be done in real time: it’s a mark of good game design and optimization. There are different map modes available, each of which are very useful: terrain, political, religious, imperial (for the Holy Roman Empire), trade, and diplomacy. A visual display of current relationships is always easier to understand than text, so the map modes are well done. Related to the graphics is the excellent user interface in the game. Paradox has done a wonderful job streamlining the game and making almost everything accessible from only a few menus that take up small portions of the screen. They have also added the outliner that is a customizable list of pertinent information, such as centers of trade, armies, buildings, sieges, and battles. The outliner gives a quick glance overview of the status of your country and it’s very handy. Also useful are the alerts; small icons appear at the top of the screen when you are at war, can adjust governmental options, or are running a deficit (just to name a few; there are many others). Europa Universalis III will also place an icon at the bottom of the screen when you receive a diplomatic offer from another country; this is much better than popping up another window that you might accidentally close. The game still features the excellent tool-tips over practically every value in the game, clearly indicating why you suck so much at running a profitable economy. The graphics of Europa Universalis III have the quantum leap forward I was expecting in the game: it looks slightly better and it’s easier to use.

The sound is much the same as before. Again, excellent background music fits the time period well and it’s as catchy as classical music can be. When the music is going through your head while you’re trying to go to sleep, I guess that means it’s fairly memorable (either that or highly annoying). The sound effects are there and they accompany each action in the game. They do get repetitive after a while, however. I would have also liked the tutorials to be voiced-over, but I’m fine with reading (after all, reading is for winners!). A nice touch is the background sounds for different climates that you can hear if you zoom in far enough. Much like the graphics, the sound in Europa Universalis III is pretty much what I expected.

Hello! So, why should you get Europa Universalis III if you already have EU2 or any of the other Paradox games (such as Victoria or Hearts of Iron)? Well, this isn’t just a superficial graphical improvement to the series like Medieval II: there are a whole host of additions to the game that makes purchasing it worthwhile. Take a deep breath and here we go: a more streamlined user interface, the ability to start at any date between May 30, 1453 and December 30, 1792, randomization of new monarchs, military tradition that rewards aggressive nations with better generals, realistic army reinforcement (eliminating the need to constantly produce new troops), lots of forms of government, court advisors, national ideas, more straightforward colonization, new diplomatic options, espionage, the new Holy See and an expanded HRE, fitting random events, extensive mod support, and everything that was in the previous titles. Whew! So, as you can plainly see, EU3 is definitely worth it. Now, on with the countdown!

In Europa Universalis III, you command a country in real time during the Renaissance (French for “you stinky Americans!”) and the Age of Enlightenment, after the darkness of the Dark Ages and ending with the time of revolution. You can pick any of the game’s 200 or so countries starting at any date from 1453 to 1789 (the game ends in 1793). Of course, the game is called Europa Universalis, so countries in Europe are more interesting to play (mostly due to the Holy Roman Empire and colonization), but you can still have a grand old time anywhere in the world. The country list and borders will dynamically change according to which date you have chosen. I wonder who had the job of figuring out which country had control of each the game’s 1,741 provinces each day for 400 years. I can see why game design is such an alluring profession. The game will indicate how easy it will be to lead your particular country, which acts as a sort of difficulty setting (you can also give bonuses to the AI, but the level playing field on “normal” settings is fine enough). If you are new to the series, Europa Universalis III features a set of tutorials that teach you about the game’s interface and lets you embark on small (10-15 minute) scenarios with specific goals. I would like to see more scenarios in the game; as it stands, Europa Universalis III is completely open-ended (which is great), but some people need more direction. Examples would include France (or Spain or England or Portugal or Ryukyu) colonizing a majority of North America, or lead Sweden in the Hats Russian War. With a game of this scope, the possibilities are endless. Of course, you can do all of these things anyway, but more concrete goals would be nice. Europa Universalis III features multiplayer over the Internet and through Paradox’s Metaserver service. Unfortunetly, the Metaserver for the press review version I received was not enabled, so I can’t report how well the game functions over the Internet. However, you are able to have multiple people control the same country, so that’s something.

Europa Universalis III also makes it extremely easy to modify the game, more so than any other game I’ve played. If you know how to edit text, bitmap, and targa files, you can change the game’s map, advisors, buildings, cultures, governments, ideas, natives, religions, spies, trade goods, units, technologies, and history of every country and conflict during the time period. It’s really easy to edit the information, even for people (like myself) without an extensive background in mods: it took me about 10 minutes to add additional bookmarked starting dates to the game. Whereas most games advertise lots of mod features and end up being messy to edit, Europa Universalis III has well-commented text files (over 2,000 of them) that anyone can change in a matter of minutes.

As I mentioned earlier (don’t you remember?!?), Europa Universalis III has improved the user interface greatly, putting almost all of the game’s information in two boxes that take up a small fraction of the screen. The first of these concerns province management, where you can build new buildings (which grant different bonuses, of course!) and units. You can also see where your income is coming from and access the nearest center of trade for trade purposes. The other one lets you change and alter domestic policies, which (as you’ll see) generally grant different bonuses to your empire. Europa Universalis III doesn’t give a “score,” but each country is given a prestige rating, raised by positive events like winning battles and forming new unions. This rating affects how likely other countries are to accept diplomatic proposals, how much advisors cost, and how successful various ventures (like establishing colonies) will be (among other things). When you retire at the end of the game, a timeline is shown with major wars and contributions of your different leaders, perfect for those popular AARs (although I haven’t found how to export this summary quite yet). While you are in control of your country, each nation (including yours) also has a king or ruler: they have a random (but realistic) lifespan and random attributes that affect your country’s diplomacy, military, and administrative costs. Rulers are given a name appropriate for your culture (All hail President Kang!). A three member court can also be hired, each of which will provide some sort of bonus to your prestige, research, stability, or national pool of colonists, merchants, and spies. Great men will also be born in your country periodically; you have a year of exclusive access to them if you want them. This is one of the great additions to the game that lets you direct your country in a specific direction and attend to particular needs.

Like in Europa Universalis II, you can distribute your income from taxes, production, and trade into five areas of research (government, production, trade, naval, land) or increased national stability. A portion of your income can also be minted to offset expenses from military maintenance or your advisors, or put it straight into your treasury. The more you put into your treasury, however, the higher your inflation will be: this increases the cost of everything in the game. Inflation can make things quite expensive, so it’s best to make most of your income from your yearly income, rather than siphoning off monthly profits. Loans are also available, but strongly discouraged as the interest adds up (trust me, I know). Your country will also be affected by historical and semi-random events, which are triggered by certain conditions being met. Each event gives you a choice between several options that vary in desirability. The event system, and the fact that fixed, historical scripting is removed once the game starts (unlike EU2, which generally followed what happened in real life), makes each game play different each time even when you play the same country (although since there are over 200 to choose from, that probably won’t become an issue). The event system is really neat and well thought out, serving up varied gameplay and unexpected happenings.

Religion was a major aspect of life during this time period, and Europa Universalis III features all of the major world religions. Each of your provinces has a specific religion and you also have an accepted state religion. Missionaries can be sent to specific provinces in order to convert the population to your state religion, but it’s expensive, it takes a long time, and it’s only successful about half of the time. Tolerances for each of the other world religions can be set, which affects revolt risk and relationships with other nations. This is a nice touch, as religion becomes another reason for deteriorated relations and eventually war. You can also convert religions (as another Christian religion might have more desirable bonuses), but this results in high instability.

Europa Universalis III features seventeen different forms of government, each of which provides a different bonus (see a pattern forming here?). There are restrictions to which government forms you can change to, however. For example, a despotic monarchy (a popular starting government) can only change to an administrative monarchy (a level 10 government) after changing to a noble republic, a republican dictatorship (a level 20 government), and an administrative republic. It’s confusing that you need to switch to a more advanced government first in order to switch to a “lesser” government. Another big addition to Europa Universalis III is national ideas. You can pick up to ten (depending on your government tech level) of the thirty ideas that (surprise!) grant different bonuses. Periodically changing your domestic policies will (surprise!) grant different bonuses. Each of these options come up just frequently enough in the game to constantly give you something to tweak, and all of the bonuses put together let you customize the role of your country: trade, diplomacy, military might, and exploration (it says all of those things on the game box, so it must be true!).

A potentially large part of your economy can come from trade, which is accomplished by sending merchants to a center of trade. Each center of trade collects trade goods from surrounding provinces and, depending on how many merchants you have present, you can earn a cut of the profits. You still have to manually send each merchant to a particular center of trade; I would like to have the option to automate merchants, sending them to specific centers of trade in an order you set. It’s just annoying and not very fun to press “send merchant” every time a new one appears, and since you can earn a lot of income from trade, you need to do it. Europa Universalis III again features a bunch of diplomatic options. You can enter alliances, form royal marriages, issue trade embargos or agreements, grant military access, guarantee a nation’s independence, sell provinces, offer a loan or war subsidies, and send a warning, insult, or gift. Alliances are now bilateral: this means that if two countries all allied, you don’t need to become an ally of both. This makes forming alliances a whole lot easier, as in EU2 it was impossible to get eight or so allied countries to accept any new members. The AI is reasonable accepting or proposing these terms, and the likelihood of a diplomatic offer being accepted is displayed before you waste a diplomat. Europa Universalis III also has expanded peace negotiation options. Not only can you request provinces or money like before, but you can also request nations to cease claims on certain provinces, force the creation of new nations, or impose your religion on your newly acquired territories. The number of terms the enemy will accept is determined by how successful you were in beating them during the war. Europa Universalis III adds an expanded Holy Roman Empire and the new Holy See to the mix. The leader of the Holy See, elected by cardinals that can be influenced with cold, hard, cash, will receive extra diplomats, reduced stability costs, and increase prestige. The leader of the Holy Roman Empire, elected by countries that can be influenced through diplomatic means, will receive the same stuff as the leader of the Holy See in addition to more effective spies and manpower and maximum army size bonuses. Both of these political bodies give you yet another goal in the game

Of course, what’s the point of running your own country if you can’t take over other countries (isn’t that right, President Bush)? This is where your military comes in. Infantry, cavalry, artillery, and naval units can be recruited from your provinces. Europa Universalis III includes a lot of different units with varying offensive and defensive attributes. Only some of them will be available to your particular nation (depending on tech level and culture type), and you can set your preferred unit type that all newly recruited units will become and all existing units will upgrade to (with a temporary morale hit). The money dedicated to maintaining your military can be adjusted, which affects morale and how quickly units are replenished. Unlike previous games, regiments will continually be reinforced up to their maximum strength (1,000 men), so there is no need to constantly be building more and more units to replace losses during wartime. This is a spectacular addition to the game that greatly cuts down on the micromanagement and monotony of recruiting new units. Once you reach the army size limit your country can support (either practically or monetarily), you won’t need to recruit another unit ever again. I told you it was spectacular! Another new addition to the game is the importance of generals in combat. You’ll need to recruit and assign a general to each of your armies; otherwise, they will be greatly ineffective. Each general provides bonuses in several phases of combat. While general attributes are semi-random, you can recruit better generals by having more military tradition. Tradition is gained by combat or exploration, so aggressive nations are finally rewarded through a realistic method (nations engaged in war would produce better leaders).

Combat in Europa Universalis III is automatic and takes place over two phases: fire and shock. The damage caused by your units is dependent on their attack and defense rating in each phase. Not only are your units physically damaged during battle, but morale also drops: if morale levels become too low, the battle is lost. In fact, hardly any battles are fought to the death, as units will retreat to a friendly province once their morale levels are lowered enough. Ratings for your units can be affected by generals and the terrain the battle takes place on (randomly selected but dependent on the geography of the province); random dice rolls will also add an attack bonus, so outmatched forces still have a chance of an unset victory if they get lucky. While some people would like to have control over their forces during battles, I’m perfectly happy with the automated procedures present in Europa Universalis III: it’s just one more area I don’t need to specifically worry about (it should be my generals’ responsibility anyway). Once combat is over and one side has retreated in shame, a siege starts on the province that may last several years, depending on the strength of the fort and the artillery capabilities of the attacker.

Naval forces are handled in much the same way as land units, although naval attrition comes into play: whenever a fleet is at sea, there is a chance that ships may be lost or damaged (damn sea monsters). This is a way of showing how fragile ships of the era were, and how susceptible they were to mishaps at sea. The rate of attrition is very high, though: losing boats when they are near land gets annoying and it makes long-term naval blockades almost impossible. Ships are used for transporting units long distances, forming blockades against enemy ports (to reduce income from trade), and exploring new lands. If you have adopted the Quest for the New World national idea, you can recruit an explorer (or conquistador, the land unit equivalent) to enable a fleet to enter “terra incognita.” Once you have discovered new land that is not settled by any other countries (mostly in Africa and the Americas), you can send colonists in a process that’s similar to sending merchants to centers of trade. Creating colonies is much more straightforward in Europa Universalis III, as there are no more trading posts (thank goodness). Instead, once you successfully send one colonist to an empty province, it’s yours. Sending additional colonists will increase the population (and increase the income you receive) until it becomes a full-functioning colonial city. Of course, natives (with varying levels of aggressiveness) and enemy troops may try to take over your newly-founded colonies.

As you can probably tell, I really like Europa Universalis III. Between fighting wars, sending merchants, constructing buildings, proposing treaties, exploring new lands, hiring new advisors, changing your budget, upgrading through research, using spies, dealing with random events, and taking over the Holy Roman Empire, there is almost always something to do, even for non-European nations. And if you don’t have anything to do (or are waiting for something to happen), you can accelerate time until something comes up. The graphics are improved and the user interface is excellent, making it very simple to find information and figure out how the game computed certain values. Europa Universalis III also has high replay value because of the numerous countries available, in addition to the unscripted random events that will result in a different world history each time you play. And the few deficiencies in the game (lack of automated merchants, no structured scenarios, government prerequisite limitations) could be easily patched or even modded by users. I have no doubt that Europa Universalis III will be embraced by the modding community, as the game is so easy to alter a caveman could do it (I’ll have the roast duck, with the mango salsa). Europa Universalis III bills itself as “the grand strategy game,” and it certainly is the grand strategy game: an excellent continuation of the series that has defined a genre. If you’ve ever wanted to control a large empire and you just don’t have the start-up capital or social skills, this is your game.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien Review

Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien, developed and published by Bongfish Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Improved scored and timed challenges that are easy to create and download, replays of high scores are available, a lot of terrain
The Not So Good: Some crazy collision physics, camera can be annoying on occasion, almost constant clipping
What say you? A reasonably entertaining and enhanced continuation of the Stoked Rider series: 6/8

It’s that time of the year again: when the leaves change color and the temperature drops down to a bone-chilling 70 degrees, at least here in Florida. But in parts further north, populated by insane people that think living in below-freezing temperatures is acceptable, fresh snow will fall and people will flock to mountain resorts to partake in the wonderment. Snowboarding has gained ever-increasing popularity, even becoming more trendy than skiing in some areas. Following up on Stoked Rider, Bongfish hopes to cash in on this craze with the curiously-titled Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien (the game has an alien, on a snowboard, in Alaska, so mystery solved!). How will this sequel improve on the original?

The graphics and sound of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien are almost identical to the previous version. The mountain graphics are still really good: realistic mountain vistas are prominent in the game’s world. The snowfall is also lifelike, coming at the camera in disturbing volume. The boarder animations could be better, however: giving the player freedom to explore 64 square kilometers of terrain comes with some drawbacks. There are copious amounts of clipping: the snowboard disappears for long periods of time and your stoked rider is flying down the mountain up to his knees in snow. There are also some painfully funny animations when your rider becomes sideways, mostly consisting of strange seizures as he tries to right himself. I would like to see the board “glued” to the terrain and a little more flexibility in the rider, especially in the knees (which seem to be immobile). Still, the graphics do their job and provide a convincing atmosphere for the game. The sound is pretty basic: just some intermittent movement-over-snow effects coupled with some repetitive background music (there are only 9 songs that seem to play in the same order each game). The rider grunt gets pretty annoying after a while as well. The graphics and sound have not undergone very many improvements since the last time we experienced Stoked Rider, but they are adequate enough to make the game playable.

The theme of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is snowboarding, and you can tackle the mountains in any number of ways. First, there are tutorial missions, which don’t really teach you how to do anything, but are simple to complete while you are learning the controls (you’ll need to read the manual). Once you complete the tutorial, you have access to the freeride mode, where you can pilot your helicopter to any part of the map (which is a lot easier this time) and board down the side, earning points for performing tricks and how far down you safely travel. You are only limited in how high your helicopter can travel; you must find additional bases scattered around the map to unlock additional choppers. I still don’t like this method of unlocking additional things in the game: it should be based on user performance, which thankfully everything else in the game is. You can spend your points on additional clothes, boards, and gear which give you better ratings and/or make you look cool. It’s pretty easy to unlock stuff, as the combination of tricks and run height ads up quickly: I was able to unlock pretty much everything after only a half hour of gameplay. The height at which you can start a run also increases with additional trials. You can also gain access the alien rider; I do not like its inclusion, as the rocket pack makes it very easy to cheat (although some of the cheating has been reduced in the latest patch). Once you are completed with a run, you can submit it to the central server as either a score run (based on tricks) or a time trial (based on speed). Others can then download the challenge and try to beat it (which are presented in a list in order or popularity or freshness), which is a neat competition element of the game. Most of the submitted runs are pretty difficult and take place on steep slopes with little room for error, but there are some easier challenges available if you can find them. The runs are also limited by a time limit in Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien (unlike in Stoked Rider, where you could keep going until you stopped) which severely limits the cheating. Before attempting a run, you can see a replay of the winning run for each challenge: this is a great addition that’s really helpful for beginning players.

The gameplay of Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is generally unchanged: steer, jump, perform tricks. Getting tricks to work is pretty easy, as long as you let go and line up before you land. The first time you land a perfect double backflip indy grab is pretty exhilarating. The physics are believable, except when you land awkwardly on the mountain: this may result in some spastic boarder behavior. The game is slightly more realistic than Tony Hawk, as you can’t string five tricks together in three seconds, but you can still pull off some things that just aren’t possible in real life. I feel that Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien strikes a good balance between realism and arcade fun. The addition of more shrubs, trees, and rocks as obstacles makes the game a bit more challenging and also more fun, and the dynamic weather and time of day presents a realistic environment to perform in. The developers have made Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien more enjoyable than its predecessor and that’s all you can really ask for in a sequel.

For those people who enjoy snowboarding and would like a slightly more realistic approach to extreme sports, Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is a respectable game. It is very similar to its predecessor, but Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien is a more complete execution. While the graphics and sound are unchanged, finding a drop zone as well as submitting and downloading challenges is a lot easier. With the large area the game covers, there is almost limitless replay value, assuming that you enjoy the basic premise of the game in the first place. The improved challenges eliminate a lot of the potential cheating in the game, as each has a time limit attached to it. You can also engage in scored runs that are geared towards tricks or time trials that are geared towards speed: this variety is very welcome. The future addition of an editor (in an upcoming patch) should prove to be interesting, although there is plenty of terrain to explore. Overall, the upgrades in Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien are well worth the expansion-like price of $25. 

Friday, January 05, 2007

Tilelander Review

Tilelander, developed and published by Ludimate.
The Good: Innovative concept, easy to learn
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult, imprecise controls
What say you? A simple and effective idea but the game is very tough, partially due to sloppy handling: 5/8

With more media devices becoming available to the general public, game developers have branched out to create games for these new-fangled platforms. Mobile phones have developed into a very popular platform for simple, straightforward games that people can play on the go. Not surprisingly, puzzle games have proven to be a great fit for handheld devices, spanning all the way back to the success of Tetris on the Nintendo GameBoy. Tilelander is one of those simple puzzle games, which is available for Windows in addition to the mobile operating systems Pocket PC and Symbian. How will this game stack up against all of the other countless puzzles games out on the market?

Like most puzzle games, Tilelander features simplistic graphics that are intended to be easy to render and simple for the general public to comprehend. The game is very grid-like, mainly because it takes place on a grid. Tilelander does have a good range of color, but most of the maps are abstract, pixilated representations of objects or themes. Tilelander is one of those games where graphics are simply not the focus; the game does not look terrible by any stretch, but it also lacks any distinctive flair to make it stand out visually from the crowd. The sound is also plenty forgettable, so along with the graphics, Tilelander comes out as a plainly average title in these two departments.

The best thing about Tilelander is its unique mechanics. You clear a level by filling in areas with tiles that are drawn when you complete a border around an empty area. Filling in an area will kill all enemies that are located inside. It takes about two seconds to learn how to play the game, which is an essential component of pick-up-and-play titles. This also means that there are a number of different strategies you can use to win the game, and each individual map can be completed successfully using diverse tactics. Some players would rather isolate individual enemies, while others might strive to surround the entire gaggle of bad guys in one bold move (obviously this is more difficult). The controls consist of the four directional keys, and that’s it: perfect for adapting the game to a mobile device. You can control the game with the mouse, but I strongly discourage it, as it is very clunky to do so. There are over 70 levels to go through at varying difficulty levels, from arcade to hard. There are also items scattered around the maps that can be used to create new tiles or shoot at enemy units.

While all of these things should make Tilelander a fun game, there are some key points that prevent it from being so. First, the controls are not as precise as I would like. Movement usually lags behind user input, especially with the mouse. The game also moves very quickly, which makes precision movements required in a lot of the levels almost impossible at the default “normal” difficulty level. Things can be slowed down a bit on “easy” and “arcade,” but it’s still a tough task. Not only do the controls make Tilelander difficult, the game is very challenging to begin with. The enemies will only move when you move, but they still continue to shoot; since movement is required to complete any of the levels, this is a superfluous game rule. The enemies will continually eat away at the tiles you have placed, and they also love to travel along the edges of the maps, which makes it impossible to eliminate them. This is very frustrating, as you must wait for them to move back towards the center against or use the weapons scattered about the map (which are also difficult to use effectively). You are also only given three lives in the game, and since Tilelander is so difficult, you’ll go through them very quickly. I might not be an expert computer game player (I just play one on TV), but when I have a hard time passing level two on “normal” difficulty, something is wrong.

For a game with such a solid concept and focused towards a more general audience, it really surprised me how challenging Tilelander is; it’s really too difficult to recommend, unless you are adept at split-second maneuvering with less-than-responsive controls. While the graphics and sound won’t win any awards, the basic premise of the game should make Tilelander unique enough to rise above all of those Tetris, Breakout, and Space Invaders clones out there. Sadly, the game is just too hard to be much fun. The poor AI that seems to travel along the sides of the map (making it exponentially difficult to complete a map) and the controls don’t help matters at all. Tilelander is a puzzle game with a distinctive idea that falls short in the execution. 

Monday, January 01, 2007

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm Review

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm, developed by Destroyer Studios and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Ability to control small fighters and huge carriers in a mix of action and strategy (if you have high rank), slightly dynamic campaign with simultaneous missions, mission failure does not result in campaign failure, time acceleration for those monotonous moments, mission editor and mod capabilities, apt background music
The Not So Good: Tutorial lacks text instructions, inability to switch ships during a mission, no skirmish mode or quick mission builder, campaign mission selection becomes repetitive until you get promoted, a lot of small bugs for what is essentially an update
What say you? A slightly improved version of the flexible space action simulation: 6/8

Space games have proven to be very popular. Between Star Trek: Legacy, Space Empires V, Arvoch Conflict, Sword of the Stars, and DarkStar One, there have been a lot of games released recently in a space setting, either as a first-person simulation or strategy game. Starshatter was released in 2004 to add another game to the progressively bloated genre. In their effort to re-release every game known to man, Matrix Games and developer Destroyer Studios have added upgraded graphics, sound, and enhanced the AI to create Starshatter: The Gathering Storm. The combat-heavy franchise is back to appeal to those gamers who prefer action over trading. How will Starshatter: The Gathering Storm stack up against the stiff competition?

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm features good graphics without being a system hog or being unrealistically flashy. The game looks about the same as DarkStar One, but performs a lot better. The ships are very detailed: complete with lights, good textures, and nice effects when turning. The backgrounds are a realistic assortment of stars and planets, not the exaggerated nebulas seen in Star Trek: Legacy. The weapons have nice detail, and the explosions are powerful without being overly dramatic (watching the broken remnants of a capital ship is very satisfying). Starshatter: The Gathering Storm can definitely hold its own against the “bigger” contemporary space games. The sound, although apparently improved, still lags behind other titles. Although all of the commands between friendly pilots are voiced, they are clearly segmented: hearing a pilot calmly state his callsign followed by a frantic cry for help is a little unsettling. The weapon effects are pretty standard fare, but the background music is pleasing and very appropriate for the genre. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm looks and sounds just fine for a space game, even when compared against more heavily funded titles.

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is purely a combat-oriented space simulation, where you get to pilot (and later command) ships ranging from fighters to carriers. To start you off, the game features a set of tutorials that will tell you how to perform most of the game’s actions. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is pretty intuitive, rejecting the complexity of other space simulations in favor of straightforward combat. The tutorial is pretty standard fare, but all of the commands are voiced and can overlap, so if you miss something, you are screwed and must start over from the beginning. The game features a number of dynamic campaigns that unlock as you advance in rank. They are dynamic, as the mission selection changes on the fly. Your actions in each of the missions are persistent in the game world (a destroyed factory does not appear in the next mission): this is a nice touch. The missions for any particular level of rank are repetitive, as you’ll get the same assortment of patrol, sweep, or attack choices. Of course, since this is an all-action game, you’ll always be blowing something up, but some surprises would be nice. There is a satisfying “living world” component to the game, as other missions will be going on at the same time as yours, and you can call in backup if a situation gets too hairy. The campaigns are not without their problems: some of the mission targets are misnamed, not present, or the missions themselves lack viable waypoints. In addition, waypoints are sometimes placed within mountains during planet-based missions, causing the automatic navigation to end your mission rather quickly. Bugs like these are really inexcusable in new release, let alone in an update. On the good side, you can accelerate time between waypoints when they do work (which is most of the time), which makes the missions fly by. Other than the campaigns, you can play single missions against the AI or over the Internet, and create you own. The mission editor tools are good, and it’s pretty easy to create custom missions. However, I would like to see a quick mission builder or skirmish mode where you can select the ships and the game can automatically do everything else for you.

You can play Starshatter: The Gathering Storm with simplistic or realistic Newtonian physics, depending on your preference. The only real different is the ability (or inability) to quickly change direction in space. The game features a good user interface that is easy to use and provides helpful information. An unambiguous “SHOOT” command indicates when enemy craft are in range, and incoming missiles are denoted through both audio and video prompts. Damage is also clearly indicated on-screen. Unlike the disappointing Star Trek: Legacy, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm puts everything at your fingertips. You can control the game through the keyboard, mouse, or joystick, but there are some annoyances present. If multiple input devices are present, the game gets confused as to which you are using, and resets all of the values if you switch mid-game. For example, I like mouse control, but if you switch between the mouse and the keyboard during a game, you’ll run into problems. You need to mouse wheel to zoom in and out on the strategic map, but if you move it and then switch back to mouse control, the throttle will reset.

Starshatter: The Gathering Storm really hits its stride when you advance in rank and you’re able to control the game’s larger vessels. Unlike most space simulations that tie you to a certain kind of ship for the entire game (usually a fighter or trader), Starshatter: The Gathering Storm gives you the ability to command carriers and battleships and issue orders to subordinate craft like fighter squadrons. It is in this sense that Starshatter: The Gathering Storm plays like a real time strategy game, a rare but welcome combination. I would, however, like to have the ability to switch from commanding a carrier to becoming pilot of a fighter during the same mission. This might not be realistic, but it would be fun. The battles themselves are pretty quick, even when they involve large battleships (unlike the drawn-out snore fests of Star Trek: Legacy). This keeps the pace of the game moving. Explosions are quite dangerous: being near a large blast can disable a number of systems on your ship. In most games, explosions are just made to look good, but they actually have somewhat of a strategic element in Starshatter: The Gathering Storm. The storm may be gathering, but don’t stand too close when it blows up!

Although we’ve seen all of this before two years ago when Starshatter was released, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm is still a fine space simulation with enough distinctive components to make it memorable. Starshatter: The Gathering Storm takes the standard first person combat of other space simulations, streamlines the gameplay, and adds in the ability to command larger vessels and entire battle groups. The dynamic campaigns are nice, if repetitive. The mission editor and modding tools let creative people try their hand at morphing the game to their liking. The combat is simple yet enjoyable, and there is just enough variety present in the game to keep you interested for the long haul. Sure, Starshatter: The Gathering Storm doesn’t have a fancy license or tons of hype, but it does have solid gameplay that will appeal to fans of the genre.