Saturday, March 31, 2007

Feyruna - Fairy Forest Review

Feyruna - Fairy Forest, developed and published by Jochen Kärcher.
The Good: Easy to understand mechanics, constant action, appropriate difficulty, neat spells, lots of levels with a gradual introduction of new enemies and power-ups, unlockable minigames, great graphics
The Not So Good: Becomes repetitive
What say you? A well-designed and entertaining mouse-driven collection game that will appeal to all ages: 7/8

While arcade and puzzle games may get short shrift from “hardcore” or “expert” or “veteran” gamers, they still appeal to a wide audience and can be quite fun. You’ll never see a review of these games on one of the “major” review sites, which obviously means that I am better than them. Feyruna - Fairy Forest is an arcade game where you are a fairy (in a forest) collecting fireflies. But the forces of evil and darkness are there to stop your light-gathering mission of glory. Will you be able to fend them off with your powers of fairy-ness?

Feyruna - Fairy Forest features some of the best graphics seen in a 2-D arcade game. The game features nice models of each of the characters and fantastic backgrounds, some of the best I can remember seeing in a game of this type. The level of detail in the animated (but not distracting) backgrounds is very high. Feyruna proves that you can have great graphics without having to resort to full 3-D effects. The audio in the game is quite standard for the genre and setting: themed background music and appropriate sound effects. Overall, the sound, and especially the graphics, are more than what you’d expect for an arcade game, and Feyruna - Fairy Forest proves to be much better than average.

The object of Feyruna is to collect “glowies” that contain light with your fairy. The “glowies” fly in random or fixed patters around the map, and the round ends when you collect a set number of them. Controlling your fairy is done with the mouse, and that’s really the limit of controls, other than firing and expanding weapons (that you can get in later levels) with the mouse buttons. Obviously, Feyruna - Fairy Forest has really simple controls that are accessible to all experience levels. Preventing your mission are a number of bad guys that eat “glowies” and run into you, and both of these actions fill up the darkness bar. If the darkness bar fills up before the light bar, then you lose the level. Despite the simple controls and straightforward concept, Feyruna - Fairy Forest is quite compelling. The game features constant chaotic action with a good balance of difficulty: the game is never too easy or too hard for the level you are current at in the game. The game gradually introduces more advanced enemies that shoot stuff and follow you more closely, and more spells to combat them with. Spells drop from the sky and can remove airborne and ground-based enemies and give you some ammunition to shoot them with. While the frequency of spells becoming available seems to be fixed, it is balanced very well. Playing through the game’s sixty levels is quite a fun trek, although it does get a bit repetitive (as most arcade or puzzle games do) near the end. Great gaming moments are plentiful in Feyruna - Fairy Forest: narrowly avoiding enemies, catching power-ups, and slim victories are all common in the title. If the sixty levels weren’t enough, there are also three mini-games to enjoy: a memory game, a Gems Cubed-like matching game, and a variation of the base game where you can shoot but not move. The mini-games would be enough as a stand-alone offering for many arcade or puzzle games, but Feyruna - Fairy Forest includes them in addition to the solid basic gameplay.

Feyruna - Fairy Forest is a well-designed, well-executed, and (most importantly) fun arcade game. The controls are so simple that anyone can enjoy the game, and Feyruna - Fairy Forest features constant action and appropriate difficulty for each successive level. Feyruna - Fairy Forest shows that a good idea can go a long way in making and entertaining game. The new spells and enemies that are gradually introduced combine to form a cacophony of chaos for the end-game. And once you’re done, you can enjoy the mini-games that are almost good enough to stand on their own. At $20, Feyruna - Fairy Forest will more than give you your money’s worth in entertainment value, as its solid gameplay and wide appeal makes it a remarkable arcade game.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making History: The Calm & The Storm Review

Making History: The Calm & The Storm, developed by Muzzy Lane and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Fantastic global economy, conquering and releasing nations has real benefits, research options open up different strategies, combat strength rating is strategically useful, transporting units is easy, total military conquest unnecessary for victory, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Selecting and grouping units is a gigantic pain, only a handful of nations to play, AI nations reject a lot of proposals even with good relations (but then propose similar proposals next turn), peacetime is boring once you get your economy set, no central multiplayer server
What say you? A great trade and production model but poor military controls in this approachable grand strategy game: 6/8

Grand strategy games have a special place in my heart. There’s nothing more exhilarating than taking the helm of a country and completely screwing it up. There have been a number of quality titles published recently, including Forge of Freedom and the granddaddy of them all, Europa Universalis III. Taking a more educational approach to World War II grand strategy is Making History: The Calm & The Storm, an adaptation of a school-based program reworked for the masses. How will the game stack up against the other grand strategy games available on the market?

Making History: The Calm & The Storm features a 3-D version of a 2-D map, strongly reminiscent of Diplomacy. The map looks pretty good from the tilted perspective, and although the units have stiff animations, the central map of Making History: The Calm & The Storm does its duty (heh, I said “duty”). The sound is pretty typical for a grand strategy game: generic and sporadic sound effects and appropriate background music for the genre. There is nothing spectacular about the graphics and the sound of Making History: The Calm & The Storm, but they are adequate.

Making History: The Calm & The Storm lets you control one of eight countries starting at certain important dates during World War II (invasion of Poland, D-Day, Pearl). Even though the game the game features over eighty countries, you’re restricted to choosing one of the big players: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, and China. It might not be as interesting to play as, say, Venezuela (although their part in the global oil economy is important), but giving the user the freedom to choose any country on the map should be included in the game. The game offers a tutorial to teach you the basics of the game, but it’s too short and leaves a lot of gaps, especially if you’re unaccustomed to grand strategy games. Making History: The Calm & The Storm does have a scenario editor that will be released as a future download. You can play any of the scenarios against the competent AI or online, although the game lacks a central matchmaking server.

One of the more important aspects of a grand strategy game is the user interface, and the one featured in Making History: The Calm & The Storm is adequate. Almost all of the information is shown on the data panel on the right, which doesn’t cover up the map. You can also access most information through multiple means, and the data is shown in a clean and clear representation. The interface closely mirrors that of Europa Universalis III, which is definitely a good thing. The best aspect of Making History is the robust economic options. The economy of the game is broken down into two parts: production and resources. Each city produces a number of production points that can be spent to produce goods, arms, military units, or research. Research is conducted to unlock better units, produce more resources, or develop the atomic bomb. Production rates can be increased with improved infrastructure if you spend the cash for them. Production points don’t carry over like resources do so you must spend all of them each turn. Typically, you’ll put most of your production into goods during peacetime (to make money) and shift your focus once war is declared. While cities are responsible for production, provinces contain structures that produce resources. You are shown clear numerical data on your current usage rates and any shortcomings can be made up for on the world market. Essentially, each country offers a portion of their resources to anyone to purchase; you would usually want to sell surplus goods to make up for shortcomings or make a cash profit in trade. It’s a really well executed and realistic system, and it’s clearly the highlight of the game. No other game shows the interconnected nature of the global economy, and how dependent other countries are on each other to supply needed goods.

Since Making History: The Calm & The Storm revolves around World War II, eventually people are going to start shooting, and forming alliances will become a key component. The diplomatic options of Making History are typical for a grand strategy game: declaring war, granting military access, seceding territory, embargoing (a powerful tool with the wonderful economics in the game), and making alliances. Alliances will follow the government types (fascist governments are more likely to align), so the war will typically play out the same each time, although there is some room for alternate histories. AI countries are hesitant to form alliances unless they really need the military backing, though, so most nations will remain independent until the fur starts to fly. Combat is straightforward: order troops to move to an enemy location, with air and naval support to your primary ground units. A combat strength rating is given for friendly and enemy divisions, which is very useful for planning an attack and looking for weaknesses in your enemy’s defenses. However, the enemy numbers are only accurate if you scout ahead of time with your air force. Battles typically last multiple turns (each turn is a week), and combat is resolved according to the composition and quality of your forces. Your military might consists of land units (infantry, tanks, artillery), the air force (bombers and fighters), and your navy (carriers, destroyers). Moving land units across bodies of water is very easy, as transport craft are automatic; you should still escort them with naval vessels, however. The military aspect of Making History is not without its problems, however. First, a unit stack icon gives no indication on how large the force is unless you select it. Secondly (and more importantly), combining troops is a real chore. You can’t “box” around a group of units to combine them: they must be selected individually. This take a long, long time when you have a large force, which will be the case since you’re limited to commanding an important country. Large empires like the United Kingdom have single military units in all of their colonies; this makes finding troops from the unit list difficult as you must scroll through a bunch of unconsolidated forces.

Victory is determined from the world power score. This is calculated from manpower, industrial power, resource production, and global economy. This means you don’t need to win an all-out war to achieve victory, just maintain a good economy. This, of course, can (must) be gained through military means, but it’s nice to see that total global military domination is not the bottom line. Plus, you can win if just your alliance has the best aggregate score, so making lots of friends has its benefits. The score tally in the lower right-hand corner is useful in determining which countries would make good allies, or which nations you should be wary of.

I find Making History: The Calm & The Storm to be far more approachable to new players than its direct competitor Hearts of Iron. Making History doesn’t have the longevity of Europa Universalis III, but it does have much wider appeal and a marvelous economic simulation. The game’s shortcomings are generally minor: I wish you were able to control every country in the game, and the military unit selection controls need some work. The economic aspects of the game are really strong, and a little bit more polish in the military side of the game would make this a very intriguing title. Making History comfortably slides in to a close third in the grand strategy game pecking order (behind #1 and close to #2), which is certainly a good place to be.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tortuga: Two Treasures Review

Tortuga: Two Treasures, developed by Ascaron Entertainment and published by CDV.
The Good: Excellent maritime graphics, decent (but derivative) storyline, simple controls, some cool items, sharks eat people
The Not So Good: Completely linear, superficial hand-to-hand combat, lack of in-game tooltips, ships move very fast making combat difficult, unfair odds in land combat substitute for poor AI
What say you? A casual action-adventure game that lacks the depth, variety, and unrestricted gameplay of other swashbuckling titles: 5/8

With the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, there was no doubt that the PC market would be inundated with countless pirate-themed games. And this prophecy came to pass, with the revival of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Age of Pirates, a couple of Pirates of the Caribbean games, the forthcoming Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Tortuga: Two Treasures. This game is more in the vein of one of my favorites, Sea Dogs, in that you have both naval and land missions to satisfy your scurvy needs. Will Tortuga: Two Treasures prove to be the Oblivion of pirates, or sink down to Davy Jones’s locker?

By far the best part of Tortuga: Two Treasures is the graphics. The ocean vistas are simply spectacular: translucent and reflective water, waves, time of day sunsets, and sharks eating people all combine to create a very believable and realistic ocean environment. The ships are also highly detailed, complete with men running around the deck and cannons recoiling from shots. While nobody will confuse the towns with those in Oblivion, the cities are detailed and polished. It’s obvious that a lot of time has been spent with the graphics in Tortuga: Two Treasures, and the game certainly looks very good. The sound is not quite as impressive. While the battle sounds are fine, voice acting could be better and the phrases of enemy soldiers become repetitive very quickly. Also, the subtitles and sound don’t match exactly, varying from a few words to whole sentences being different or removed. This becomes confusing if you read the subtitles while listening to the speech as I do. Still, the sound can’t detract from the stellar graphics: watching sea battles in Tortuga: Two Treasures is undoubtedly a treat.

In Tortuga: Two Treasures, you follow the trials and tribulations of Blackbeard’s right hand man through a path of betrayal, mystery, and shooting people. Instead of offering a main campaign and a suite of side quests like Oblivion, the storyline and campaign of Tortuga: Two Treasures is strictly linear. This not only reduces the time required to complete the game, but it also makes repeat adventures completely pointless. The game does offer a good incorporation of a tutorial into early missions, but the rigid gameplay path is completely out of date when compared to contemporary role-playing and adventure games. Tortuga: Two Treasures also has completely obvious objectives and linear ways of completing said objectives, which removes the concept of self-imposed free-form adventure present in other games.

The missions are a mix of land-based fighting and some stealth with sea-based ship combat. The land combat is repetitive and boring, at least until you unlock the special combo moves that add a small amount of variety. Fighting enemies consists of pressing the mouse button repeatedly until they die. There are way too many enemies to fight at once (imposing the only difficulty of the game) to compensate for the non-existent AI. Even the bosses only mix it up by throwing in a special move or block every once in a while. The more strategic hand-to-hand combat system of Sid Meier’s Pirates! is far superior to the one present in Tortuga: Two Treasures. Special moves add some variety, but the combat is still too straightforward and subsequently very shallow. The game has a stamina rating but it rarely matters: you need to string a whole bunch of strikes in a row in order to deplete it, and the enemy is usually dead by then anyway. The game also has a console-like auto-targeting system, which may not target the biggest (or even nearest) threat as you swing wildly. Items that you can buy between missions (from the money earned by killing people), such as pistols, Molotov cocktails, and healing potions, are interesting but don’t make the combat any better.

The ship combat fares better, but it still has some issues to content with. The main problem is that ships move way too fast even with reduced sails; this makes it hard to maneuver into a firing position and even get a shot off, as the enemy must be right across from you in order to fire. If two ships pass each other at even just quarter-speed, you have maybe a quarter of a second to fire. I thought that naval combat during the time period was slow and deliberate (a style that works a lot better in my opinion), but Tortuga: Two Treasures replaces this reality with more frenetic pacing. There is some strategy involved in choosing the usual assortment of sail ripping, people killing, or hull breaking ammunition, but we’ve seen all of that before in much better games. Ships have their selection of power-ups as well, including the kraken (blatantly stolen from Pirates of the Caribbean) and ship repair items. Again, while these add a bit of variety, the ship combat seen in other games is far superior to that in Tortuga: Two Treasures.

Unfortunately for Tortuga: Two Treasures, the pirate action/adventure game has quite a number of good titles in it, and everything that’s done in this game is done better in previous titles. Featuring a storyline eerily similar to the second Pirates movie, Tortuga: Two Treasures has repetitive and shallow land combat, hasty ship combat, and a completely linear campaign, both in terms of the order of the missions and how you complete them. Tortuga: Two Treasures might appeal to very young or extremely inexperienced players, but the difficulty gap between the easy objectives and horribly outnumbered land combat sequences virtually eliminates anyone from enjoying the game. The lack of freedom in the campaign is a severe hindrance as well. Other than the graphics, there is no reason to play this game over titles like Sea Dogs due to the completely linear campaign and lack of anything innovative.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chariots of War Review

Chariots of War, developed by Slitherine Strategies and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Unique setting, lots of nations to choose from, large numbers of resources and units, resource usage is clearly indicated
The Not So Good: Each army must be explicitly instructed to move each turn even if a path has been set, outdated graphics, restricted strategic options
What say you? A Civilzation-like strategy game that’s sufficiently enjoyable but limited in strategy: 5/8

Although most periods of human history have been covered in strategy games, the early Middle East is relatively untouched, except for the occasional Egyptian-themed city builder. There have been games that have included this era (most notably Civilzation IV and Rise of Nations), but the Fertile Crescent has been glossed over as part of a history, instead of being the focus. Chariots of War hopes to fill this void, covering the battles of tribal nations thousands of years ago. This is actually a re-release of the original game published back in 2003 by the developers of Legion Arena under a new publisher. But, I suspect there are a number of people who didn’t play (or never even heard of) Chariots of War when it was released, so we’ll take a new look at this old game.

Not surprisingly, the graphics and sound Chariots of War are very archaic; they were slightly outdated when the game was released in 2003, let alone in 2007. Well, actually, the game map looks pretty good: pleasing art for the terrain and fairly detailed units. It may not have the “wow” factor of more modern 3-D games, but the map holds up well. The battles are not that exciting: they are on par with the graphics of Shogun: Total War, and they obviously cannot compete with more recent games. Still, there is a fair amount of simulated chaos associated with the battles, and as long as you’re not looking for a graphical feast, you’ll be fine. The one thing Chariots of War has going for it is the low system requirements, so that’s something. The sound is a generally forgettable collection of background music and battle effects. I was not expecting much in the graphics and sound departments, since the game is four years old, but there are some bright spots to be had among the generally old-fashioned effects.

Chariots of War lets you take the helm of one of about fifty nations in the ancient Middle East. The game offers a tutorial that does a good job relaying the basics of the game. You can choose to play in the grand campaign that features the entire region in one scenario, or from a suite of smaller offerings covering areas such as Egypt, Levant, or Anatolia. Each of the game’s countries is divided into ten ethnic groups, which determines special units. Chariots of War has a decidedly military focus: you will construct buildings to produce resources and troops, and then order the troops around to attack your neighbors. All of the nations are at war with all others at all times: there are no peace treaties to speak of. This is meant to simulate the tumultuous times of the era; this limits the game’s victory conditions, however, as you must essentially exterminate all of your opposition in order to win. Those looking for numerous approaches to victory, like in Galactic Civilizations II, will be disappointed at the narrow scope of the game.

Chariots of War does feature a large number of different resources, required to build structures, feed your population, conduct trade, or construct weapons. Your income rate is clearly displayed at the bottom of the screen, so it’s never a mystery which resource you need. All of these resources are collected by constructing buildings in your cities and assigning workers to those buildings. It’s a very straightforward approach to economics that most everyone will easily understand. You can also trade for goods with other nations through a central market; normally, you’ll have a surplus of resources provided by your buildings, so trade is a good way of filling in your economic gaps. Your city size determines how many buildings you can construct; in addition to providing resources, buildings unlock better troops and increase peasantry happiness. Again, constructing buildings and recruiting troops is very straightforward. Although you are at war with every other nation, you can send diplomats to opposing countries to make them less likely to attack and receive information about their military and economic strengths.

Chariots of War has a good selection of units: peasants, auxilia, skirmishers, swordsmen, spearmen, archers, horse archers, heavy cavalry, camels, and (not surprisingly) chariots. This variety of units allows you to use different strategies during the automated battles. Units stationed in the same city are automatically grouped, and you can give them basic movement orders. However, armies must be told to continue along their path every single turn; this becomes highly annoying, especially when you have a lot of troops scattered over a large area. Once your troops encounter an enemy army or city, it’s time for a battle. Chariots of War strikes a balance between the tactical battles of Medieval II: Total War and the completely automated battles of Europa Universalis III and Civilization IV. You get to place your units and give them general orders before the battle begins, but after that they are on their own. You can give advance, hold, or envelop orders and give them formations like wedge, column, and checkerboard. Your troops will generally stay in formation until the chaos of war starts, and the results are believable, rewarding players who use successful counters to the opposing force. Not having direct control over your army might sound like a disadvantage, but the battles really just play out the same way. There’s no noticeable difference between the battles here and in Medieval II: Total War in terms of viable strategies and their successful execution due to decent tactical AI.

Although Chariots of War never really shows it age, the scope of the gameplay does feel outdated. Chariots of War will appeal more to beginning players, as the straightforward approach of the game makes playing very simple. However, the military-only focus of the game really hinders the title, as everything you do in the game is geared towards making a gigantic army, instead of focusing on research, economics, or diplomacy like in other games. Chariots of War lacks the depth of Europa Universalis III, the wide appeal of Civilization IV, and the multiple victory conditions of Galactic Civilizations II, so the appeal of this four-year-old game is very narrow, especially when you see how many quality grand strategy and 4X games have been published recently. Chariots of War is fun to play for a while, but it lacks the depth and longevity of competing titles.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Battlefield 2142: Northern Strike Review

Battlefield 2142: Northern Strike, developed by Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: New maps utilize new vehicles
The Not So Good: New unlocks are at the top of the trees, not enough content, still won’t save my mouse movement controls, new stability issues
What say you? The first 2142 booster pack features content that should have been free: 5/8

It seems that booster packs are the way to go in the Battlefield universe. Rather than doing more content-heavy expansion packs, EA has settled on doing smaller, online-only downloads of a handful of maps, units, and other features. Although this type of content is usually released for free by less money-hungry publishers, Electronic Arts has decided to charge a nominal fee ($10) for some new additions to the disappointing Battlefield 2142. Is Northern Strike a must-have for owners of the original game?

The graphics of Northern Strike are the same as Battlefield 2142, except with more snow. The new vehicles fit the futuristic theme of the game well and don’t seem out of place. The developers have gone the urban route with the new maps, and they look similar to the Berlin map from the original game. I experience graphical lag (when looking around) playing Northern Strike that I did not experience when I played the original levels; I guess all of that snow is a system resource hog.

What do you get for $10? Three new maps, two new vehicles, ten new unlocks, and a tweaked conquest mode. It’s kind of ridiculous that this content costs anything (even only $10), since most games would have given this out for free for owners of the original. Maybe if you add up several different booster packs it will equal one expansion pack in terms of content and price, but it would still fall behind the lofty standard set by Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar. The maps are nothing revolutionary: two of them are variants of existing map themes (urban and bridge), while the third port map is at least original and uses the APC launch pods as an integral part of the map. Each side is given a new vehicle: a slow moving grounded Titan and a fast moving hover jeep. The slow moving vehicle is too slow for a lot of the maps, while the jeep-like vehicle is too fast. The new unlocks are all located at the top of the unlock trees; I guess the developers figure that the only people who will purchase Northern Strike are experienced players. This is a silly notion, as those casual players who don’t play for hours every day will miss out on the new weapons. Most of the weapons are counters for existing weapons: anti-camouflage, anti-mine, anti-sniper, plus increased magazines and stamina. There is nothing too innovative here, but I do like the sticky bomb projectiles. The developers have also tweaked the conquest mode, requiring you to capture all of the flags before assaulting the enemy base in Assault Lines mode. This is meant to prevent troops going around to the back and force them to fight on the front lines, but they still just need to bite the bullet and incorporate Unreal Tournament’s onslaught mode into the game to get true constant combat.

There is nothing in Battlefield 2142: Northern Strike that is really cool. None of the new maps, weapons, upgrades, vehicles, or game modes is anything you need to have if you’ve played the original. I hope that this isn’t a trend copied by other games and publishers, releasing content for a fee that should be free. One could argue that these additions should have been in the original game anyway. And Northern Strike doesn’t fix any of the bugs from the original game that the free patches did not: the game still doesn’t save my mouse movement commands, and Northern Strike even introduces some new issues (my screen goes all-yellow every once in a while, which did not happen in the base game). Plus, it even makes the game laggy for not much benefit. Sure, it’s only $10, but Northern Strike is hardly worth the money and you’re not missing anything if you choose not to buy it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Peggle Review

Peggle, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Great combination of skill and luck, appropriate and progressively harder difficulty, seemingly accurate physics model, random target peg arrangement increases replay value and decreases frustration, same computer multiplayer
The Not So Good: Can’t control launch speed, only one power-up type per level
What say you? This combination of Plinko, billiards, and pinball combines exceptional replay value with excessive enjoyment: 7/8

Game shows have a solid place in American television history. Between syndicated programs and nightly offerings, there is almost always some kind of game show on TV at all times. This craze was renewed with the Regis-a-riffic Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (which was on no less than 15 times per week), but there have been several shows that have stood the test of time. One of these is The Price is Right, hosted by Bob Barker (who has been spayed and neutered, just to be safe). Probably the most popular game on The Price Is Right is Plinko (hey, if Wikipedia says it, it must be true); I know it’s one of my favorites. A good mix of some skill and mostly luck, dropping the Plinko chip down the board and aiming for the cash at the bottom is a fun time had by all (except for the guy that gets $3). Peggle is a similar game, a combination of Plinko and pool, a unique formula that I can’t remember seeing on the PC.

Peggle is a 2-D game, but it contains some decent special effects. The background and basic level design won’t wow anyone, but the end of each level features an orchestral symphony of congratulations that made me smile on more than one occasion, full of rainbows and more rainbows (rainbows are fun). The sound effects are fitting for the fanciful theme of the game, and the cartoon atmosphere of Peggle comes through in the design. Peggle is pretty average for an arcade/puzzle game in terms of graphics and sound: the game doesn’t impress, but it doesn’t disappoint.

The object of Peggle is to hit 25 orange pegs with 10 metal balls. This is done by launching a ball at a set speed at any angle you choose, and watching as it cascades down the map, bouncing off of pegs and other objects along the way. The game offers a lengthy adventure mode where you are introduced to various characters (and, more importantly, their power-ups) along the way. The difficulty increases along the way at a good pace, offering up smaller (and moving) targets and more obstacles. Once you are done with the adventure mode, you can play any level over again; since orange peg placement is random each time you play, you can play the same level (with the same arrangement) more than once and have different results and strategies. Also, there is a multiplayer dual mode where you can challenge the computer or a friend. The player who is chosen to go first has a slight advantage, since a lot of points can be earned on the first turn, but equally matched players will end up doing about the same in the end. There is also a challenge mode for those expert players that adds more orange pegs per level, requires you to clear the entire level (and not just the orange pegs), has a score requirement, or some other insanely difficult task. It would take you quite a while to fully complete Peggle, and since each map has a random placement of the orange pegs and multiplayer adds another dimension of the game, Peggle has much more replay value than most puzzle/action games.

Control is very simple: aim with the mouse. You can speed up time with the right mouse button (for levels which involve moving objects) and precisely adjust your aim with the mouse wheel. In addition to the annoying blue pegs and the target orange pegs, purple pegs give extra points and green pegs activate that level’s power-up. Each set of levels in the adventure mode is given one (and only one) power-up, which may show your ball’s initial trajectory, widen the bucket capture at the bottom of the screen, grant a spin on a bonus wheel, guidance of the ball after launching, and approximately six other things. I would like the ability to have multiple power-ups on the same level, but I would imagine this would throw off the balance of the game. As it stands, Peggle is perfectly balanced in terms of difficulty: not frustratingly hard but not too easy. You’ll never “die” in the game, and you can attempt a single level as many times as you’d like (although bonuses are reduced in each subsequent try). Because the orange peg placement is random, you just might be stuck with a difficult arrangement, and next time the level could be a bit easier. A secondary goal of Peggle is to earn a lot of points. Each peg you hit is worth points, but you also receive a multiplier bonus for clearing orange pegs from the board. Earning a certain number of points during a single turn will result in a free ball, as will landing the ball in the bucket at the end of the round. After you eliminate each of the orange pegs, you enter extreme fever mode (I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Peggle!) where you earn bonus points for hitting additional pegs and get more points based on where your ball lands at the bottom of the screen (there’s some more Plinko influence). You can also earn bonus points by landing difficult shots.

Despite its simplistic controls, Peggle is a very enjoyable game. It strikes a great balance between planning your shots and lucky bounces. The physics look to be truthful, and although you can’t adjust the initial speed of your ball, this doesn’t come into play too much. The satisfaction you get when landing a really good shot (either through skill or luck) makes playing Peggle quite rewarding. Its unique combination of different games also makes Peggle an original title, which can’t be said for almost all arcade/puzzle games. It might not have the depth of, say, Europa Universalis III, but Peggle is a very fun game with high replay value that almost anyone would enjoy.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Supreme Commander Review

Supreme Commander, developed by Gas Powered Games and published by THQ.
The Good: Lots of different feasible strategies, large scale combat, queuing up commands and build orders is very straightforward, innovative campaign mission map expansion, multiplayer matches are easy to join, adjacency bonuses reward good base layouts
The Not So Good: Steep economic learning curve, too easy to turtle as defenses are highly effective, high system requirements, some pathfinding and formation issues, matches can easily stalemate, no auto-saving in campaigns, online performance is very poor
What say you? A deep and enormous strategy game friendly to veteran players but not without its issues: 7/8

Most reviews you’ll read about Supreme Commander will refer to this being the “spiritual successor” to another real time strategy game. Well, not here: I never played the “spiritual predecessor” and I’ve become quite tired of seeing the same phrase used over and over regarding this game. In fact, I’m not even to refer to it anywhere in this review. Take that, Total Annihilation! Oh, wait, dang it! Anyway, Supreme Commander is a large-scale title that hopes to put the “strategy” back in real time strategy by letting you build a whole bunch of units. Will Supreme Commander prove to be the definitive resource-based real time strategy game?

Supreme Commander features a combination of good units and effects, but relatively bland environments. The attention to detail on the units is quite good, showing moving parts and detailed textures on every military object in the game. Of course, since you’re not going to spend much time zoomed all the way in, the attention of detail on the units will go largely unappreciated. The game’s environments look good zoomed in, with nice fidelity effects and variations in terrain, but most of the maps are pretty generic and they lack the stylization present in games like Company of Heroes or Command and Conquer 3. Supreme Commander has high system requirements, due to the combination of highly detailed units and individual physics-based tracking of each shot. This isn’t the best looking game out there, but it certainly is the most demanding on your hardware. The sound is fairly standard for an RTS game. Luckily, there is a lack of voiced unit acknowledgements, as these always tend to get annoying (just a sound effect for each unit type). The weapon sounds are good, and they promote the chaos of war effectively. The voice acting is good enough in the campaign, although it won’t amaze anyone. The background music, while catchy, gets repetitive after a while. Are the visuals and effects of Supreme Commander worth the hardware cost? No, but the game looks decent enough.

Supreme Commander features three campaigns for each of the game’s three factions: Humans, Humans + Aliens, and Humans + Robots. There aren’t a lot of missions in each campaign, but each mission can last quite a long time (a couple of hours each) due the expanding campaign maps. As you complete objectives, the map will grow, giving you additional objectives and more area to maneuver in. It’s a pretty neat approach, and it lends a measure of realism to the campaign. I do wish the campaign auto-saved when you complete each objective, though: having to restart a three-hour mission when you lose at the end is not enjoyable. While the campaigns are a good (and standard) inclusion, I imagine most people will spend their time with the skirmish and multiplayer modes. Setting up a skirmish match is straightforward, and you can set different game speeds and victory conditions (the default being to destroy the enemy commander). The skirmish AI is good for beginners, and they tend to produce effective counters to your units at the most difficult levels. After enough practice, however, the AI will be beaten and you’ll want to move on to more worthy opposition. Joining a multiplayer game involves using GPGnet, a matchmaking application that’s run outside of the game. It’s easy to find games, but GPGnet does not tell you the ping to a host before joining a match, which makes finding a smooth multiple-player match nearly impossible. Once you enter a game, it can move very slowly due to the poor system performance of other players; since Supreme Commander matches can last for hours anyway, this only exaggerates the problem. While playing a two-on-two match, a game second took three real time seconds only twenty minutes into the game. Anything involving more players than one-on-one battles is really frustrating to play when the unit count creeps into the thousands. For a game that emphesizes large-scale strategy, it's sad that most computers won't be able to handle large-scale online games and the contest will slow to a crawl.

The three factions in the game are identical except for their most powerful units, as they all have a similar suite of units at your disposal. The most important unit in the game is your commander, who can build and fight. Once your commander is destroyed, you lose, so most people will keep it in a support role rather than on the front lines. The biggest obstacle to overcome in Supreme Commander, at least for me, is resource management. There are only two resources in the game, mass and power, and they are represented as income rates and stockpile amounts. As long as you have a positive flow of resources (or a stockpile) everything will run smoothly, but the biggest struggle is providing enough mass and power to fuel your ever growing army. I think my problem results from other RTS game where you can constantly crank out as many units as possible from the start; this is not possible in Supreme Commander, as you must be able to support the construction of your army. Mass is more difficult to come by, as it can only be collected at set mass extractor locations (which, obvious, become a focus of the combat) or converted from large amounts of power. Power is generated at (surprise!) power generators that can be built anywhere. I’m always tempted to outpace my mass income levels, but Supreme Commander emphasizes constant growth of your resource collection, rather than building a couple of harvesters and forgetting about it. Adding to the equation are adjacency bonuses, which decrease the power and mass usage of structures if they are located next to a power or mass producer. This is a neat feature of the game as it rewards thoughtful planning of your base.

Once you learn all of the special user interface tricks of Supreme Commander, controlling the game becomes quite easy. Most important is the ability to queue up movement and building commands by holding down shift. This means you can script the initial ten minutes of the game from the start, which greatly reduces the micromanagement that is associated with many real time strategy games. And Supreme Commander lacks a preferred build order (at least beyond the first 30 seconds); this shows that there are multiple way to achieve victory against an opponent. Since most of the battlefields are tens of kilometers across, Supreme Commander gives you the strategic zoom tool. Everyone is bananas over the supposedly innovative strategic zoom, where you can zoom all the way out to see the entire map, but this was already implemented in another strategy game published over a year ago. It is a nice feature, though, and extremely useful with the large maps used in Supreme Commander. The game stresses large numbers of units, and moving large numbers of units can prove to be difficult. Getting your army to move together is quite difficult until you learn to hold down the right mouse button before issuing a move order. Even then, units can (and will) retreat and move in some crazy paths before finally getting in their formation. I was disappointed in the number of formations available in the game, as you’re essentially just given a column and a box to choose from. Plus, moving around mountains will result in your units stringing themselves out: the pathfinding definitely needs some work. But once you discover shift-queuing the build orders and holding down the right mouse button to keep units in formation, managing a large number of units becomes very easy, and once you figure out how ferrying works, automatically transporting units across the map is super-easy.

The units of Supreme Commander, at least the non-experimental units, are fairly generic for a futuristic setting: fast but unarmed scouts, tanks, artillery, anti-air, shield generators, fighters, bombers, destroyers, carriers, and so on. Supreme Commander includes three technology levels; each successive level produces more powerful units and structures that can be built by engineers. The experimental units are really powerful units that are usually a combination of two unit types and very large guns. They, obviously, take quite a while to construct, which can mean that the end of a game can drag on for a while as you wait for the giant flying saucer to finish. Taking out your opposition can prove to be very difficult as Supreme Commander has a strong focus on defenses. Plunking down tons of anti-ground and anti-air turrets is quite easy, and they can easily take out many units when they work in tandem. The occasional pathfinding problems don’t help this situation much, so a lot of multiplayer games can result in stalemates until someone spends the 80 minutes required to build a nuclear weapon. Still, Supreme Commander provides a good amount of strategy and flexibility in attaining victory: there is usually an effective counter to each offensive tactic, and helpful reconnaissance is the key to figuring out what the enemy is doing. Although it takes a while to learn, Supreme Commander can offer up some tasty and addictive strategic gaming that a lot of more superficial and straightforward RTS games lack.

While Supreme Commander doesn’t have the wide appeal of some real time strategy games due to its learning curve, I imagine that it will have longevity with a solid fan base. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the game has to offer in terms of strategy, and the ability to modify the units means user-made expansions are a definitely possibility. The game does have steep system requirements for only slightly above average results, though, so try out the demo first to make sure you can actually run the game. There are some innovations with the user interface: queuing a number of commands in a row makes controlling a large number of units as easy as possible. The AI provides a good opponent for beginning players, and the battles are truly epic. There are a number of things that hold this game back from a perfect score: pathfinding issues, shortcomings in the matchmaking software, overly strong defenses, and the lack of auto-saving campaign missions. But most of these problems could be easily fixed, so experienced strategy players shouldn’t hesitate to pick up this title, as it offers great strategy gaming and good longevity.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Frontline: Fields of Thunder Review

Frontline: Fields of Thunder, developed by Nival Interactive and N-Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Accurate units and maps, integrated multiplayer matchmaking
The Not So Good: Strongly reminiscent of Blitzkrieg II, poor unit pathfinding and attack-move is sporadic at best, units die rather quickly, extremely difficult, graphics are getting outdated
What say you? Blitzkrieg II goes more historical, but it’s so similar that you won’t notice any difference: 5/8

I think it’s fair to say that there have been a lot of World War II real time strategy games. So many, in fact, that I’m quickly running out of things to say about them in the introduction. So, I have made an executive decision (which makes me feel like Steven Seagal) to keep this short and to the point. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is a follow-up to Blitzkrieg II, a game I actually received to review but the disc didn’t work in my DVD drive. Frontline uses the same graphics, user interface, and engine and applies it to the largest Soviet-German conflict of the Eastern Front: Kursk. In fact, Frontline: Fields of Thunder calls itself “Frontline: Kursk” and “Blitzkrieg II: Kursk” on several occasions, so it’s no mystery what this stand-alone expansion-like product is trying to do.

Frontline: Fields of Thunder has the same graphics and sound as Blitzkrieg II. Of course, if I had actually reviewed the original game, I could just post a link there and call it a day. Oh well. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is in 3-D, but it definitely looks 2-D, reminiscent of other World War II RTS games like Silent Heroes. I know it’s in 3-D because you can rotate the camera, but it sure looks 2-D. The units aren’t the most detailed things in the world (and when compared to Company of Heroes, they look downright silly), but the environments have a sort of raw realism that makes them slightly memorable. There are some good effects in the game, especially fire and the overly dramatic explosions. Bullet hits on the ground are also clearly visible, which is a nice touch. Still, this engine is starting to look dated when compared with other contemporary games. The sound is very typical for a RTS game: voices from soldiers (in German and Russian), explosions, bullets, background music. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before; if you played Blitzkrieg II, Frontline: Fields of Thunder has everything you’ve seen before in terms of graphics and sound.

Frontline: Fields of Thunder covers the Battle of Kursk in 1943, which pitted the Germans against the Russians. The game comes with two 10-mission campaigns (one for each side) that tells the tale of the battle from both sides. The main hook of this game is the historically accurate unit composition and maps that the missions take place on. I, of course, wouldn’t know the difference, but if they say it’s true it probably is. Frontline: Fields of Thunder comes with the ability of playing custom battles and campaigns. You can create them using the map editor, but only if you own the Blitzkrieg II expansion (evidence that Frontline: Fields of Thunder isn’t a fully separate title). You can also engage in multiplayer action over a local area network or on the matchmaking service. I didn’t really check out how well this works because I got the game before it was released (I am cool like that). The game is played using the now-standard conquest mode, where you must hold a certain number of objective locations for a period of time. You can set the time limit from 15 minutes to 40 hours (that’s quite a long game) and change the time required to switch over control of a flag. The units you are given are set by the mission designer; instead of using a point system like Close Combat, you’re stuck with what units were really in that battle, even if you don’t like them. Tough it out!

What changes are made from Blitzkrieg II? Other than the new campaign and missions, the maps and buildings are more accurate, the icons are better, and reinforcements are more streamlined. And that’s pretty much it. Frontline: Fields of Thunder is definitely on the low end of stand-alone expansion pack value, forgoing quality enhancements seen in games like Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar and going for the simple “new campaign” approach. For those unfamiliar with the Blitzkrieg II system, Frontline: Fields of Thunder features some tutorials before you leap into the campaigns. Since you are given a fixed set of units for each mission that cannot be changed, the same mission will most likely play out the same way. This is historically accurate, but not good for replay value. Controlling the game is typical for an RTS game. You can issue move, follow, line up, aggressive mode, attach/detach guns, get in/out, attack, defensive fire, entrench, lay/clear mines, and repair orders. There is a problem with pathfinding in the game, as units that are grouped together and given a movement order may (and usually will) split up if there is an obstacle in their way, such as a mountain or building. This becomes more of a problem when moving across the map, when the number of potential obstructions increases. Units will also dance around to place themselves to attack an enemy, and tanks will routinely run into each other while they scramble for position. It’s sad (and a bit alarming) that these fundamental problems aren’t fixed in this “new” version of the game.

The reinforcements you’ll receive in the game are planes, either scout aircraft or bombers. The ground units you start with are the only ones you have for the entire mission as there is no base building or resource collection in Frontline: Fields of Thunder. You will receive additional supplies, such as ammunition and spare parts, by capturing depots that are scattered around the map. These are important locations to have, as it extends the life of your forces greatly. Your objective locations are clearly indicated both on the minimap and on the main screen; it’s just a matter of effectively moving and positioning your forces. While the AI has some trouble engaging the enemy (mostly with positioning), you can set units to automatically use their skills, such as throwing grenades. This cuts down on the micromanagement in the game. Frontline: Fields of Thunder features a historically accurate assortment of units: infantry, artillery, and tanks. If it fought at the Battle of Kursk, it’s in Frontline: Fields of Thunder. The gameplay is very similar to Blitzkrieg II (not surprising): fast paced with lots of destruction. Units, and especially tanks, seem to die rather quickly after only a couple of hits, and they don’t seem to be the realistically imposing force they are in Company of Heroes (where if you see a tank, you’re screwed). I’m not a fan of the pace of the game: if you’re going to offer historically accurate units and maps, why not make the combat seem more realistic? As it stands, Frontline: Fields of Thunder moves too quickly to be tactically relevant, and you’ll just end up throwing units at each other and seeing what happens. The lack of flexibility in unit selection means you’re limited in your potential strategies and it allows for the enemy AI to “cheat” by getting many more units. While this may be historically accurate, it’s not really that fun to get pounded by a superior foe. The missions in Frontline: Fields of Thunder are extremely difficult, due to the limited forces you are given and the seemingly infinite enemies you will encounter. If you aren't well versed in RTS games, Frontline: Fields of Thunder will be a difficult road to travel.

There’s no real reason to get Frontline: Fields of Thunder, especially if you have Blitzkrieg II, as that title has far greater replay value and a larger scope. For extreme fans of the game and of the Battle of Kursk, there might be some value in Frontline: Fields of Thunder, but this is really a stand-alone expansion (and priced as such) than a full-fledged new title. The modifications are so subtle that I doubt anyone other than the developers and historians will notice them. Despite leaning more towards historical accuracy with its maps and unit selection, the gameplay is still the fast-paced unrealistic orchestra of explosions seen in Blitzkrieg II. You’re probably better off just getting Blitzkrieg II, since it includes more battles and the editors, than playing Frontline: Fields of Thunder, unless you really want to play the Battle of Kursk. Frontline: Fields of Thunder just doesn’t offer enough differences from its predecessor to necessitate a purchase even with its lowered price.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Maelstrom Review

Maelstrom, developed by KDV Games and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Terraforming and flooding bring some interesting strategies, superficially unique races, some nice graphics
The Not So Good: Almost completely derivative gameplay with all of the originality of previous titles removed, absolutely awful and terribly broken sound, no tutorial, very small unit and building selection, poor tactical and enemy AI, uninteresting campaigns, unit movement and enemy engagement are unpredictable, complete lack of any defensive structures
What say you? A very disappointing and generic follow-up to the memorable Perimeter: 4/8

One of the most unique real time strategy games is Perimeter, where you terraform an alien world, use basic construction units to morph an army, and protect your base with a giant force field. It was quite original, and I was looking forward to the next title from the developer. Maelstrom takes some of the components of Perimeter and shifts it back to Earth, where water levels are rising (damn you, Al Gore!), people are fighting, and aliens are coming in to take over. Maelstrom is more traditional in its mechanics, making it more accessible to a large audience. Will Maelstrom maintain the inimitability (thanks, thesaurus) of the previous games?

Maelstrom features some nice graphics. The game is rendered in full 3-D and has some pleasant water and special effects. The units could use a small bit more detail, but they look good enough up close. Maelstrom has time of day and weather effects (with a clock to keep track); although it doesn’t seem to have any impact on gameplay, they add a bit of realism to the game. The heat effects, flames, and explosions in the game are quite good as well; if you have a good enough system to see them, the graphics in Maelstrom won’t disappoint. Complementing the lovely graphics is some of the most horrible sound heard in any game in recent memory. The sound is so bad that I wanted to quit the game several times just because of the inane and grating dialogue. The unit acknowledgements highlight the atrocious voice acting in the game: this is the antithesis of Company of Heroes. They are so hackneyed and stereotypical and it’s just painful to listen to. While you can clearly hear the voices at any zoom level, you can’t hear weapon effects unless you are zoomed in all the way (which makes seeing anything impossible). This means it’s extremely difficult to tell if under are under attack until you hear the annoying voice acting. The best part of Maelstrom’s sound is the background music: it’s generic at best, but that’s far superior than anything else in the title. Maelstrom is a perfect example of what not to do with sound design.

Maelstrom takes all of the innovative components of Perimeter, removes almost all of them, and comes up with a very ordinary sci-fi RTS title. The game lacks a tutorial, although they first campaign missions sort of act as one. The manual does give suggestions on what buildings to build and what units to make, and since there are only a handful, learning the game is fairly easy if you’ve played other RTS games. The campaign, where you eventually get to control each of the game’s three races, is completely boring with generic movement and base construction missions. The story is standard sci-fi fare, and with the horrible voice acting, you won’t want to play it anyway. Maelstrom does offer skirmish and multiplayer games to extend the game beyond the campaign. You can set different and multiple winning conditions: kill the enemy commander, destroy the enemy base, or capture all the water stations. Allowing this amount of flexibility is probably the best feature of the game. Battles against the computer are disappointing because of the poor AI: except on hard levels (where I think it cheats with additional resources), they will hardly expand their base or build additional units. Joining multiplayer matches is easy to do, and human competition is always preferred. Multiplayer and skirmish matches could have saved this title, but, as you’ll see, Maelstrom streamlines the gameplay to the point of insignificance.

There are three races battling for Earth dominance in Maelstrom: the Remnants (rebels), Ascension (empire), and Hai-Genti (aliens). There are subtle differences between the races in terms of resource collection and how units are built, but they all behave the same in the end. Each race has a hero unit that you can directly control, although there is no point at all in this, as it doesn’t make them more powerful or a better warrior. The first step in each game is to start collecting resources, and there are three in the game: solar, water, and bio (although they are called different things for each race). Solar energy is collected from sun farms or automatically, depending on your race (and aliens don’t need it at all). Water is collected from stationary water stations, and bio is either automatic or collected from fixed compounds. Since all of the resource points are fixed, most of the battles will be fought for these specific areas. While resource collection is slightly different for each race, the buildings and units are almost exactly the same across the board. There is a headquarters, two unit construction buildings (one for infantry, one for armored units), an upgrade facility, and that’s pretty much it. There is one defensive building in the game for one of the races, which is extremely odd considering how strong the defenses in Perimeter were. Races can terraform or flood the map for defensive trenches or water (about the only hold-over from Perimeter), but a complete lack of defensive structures is very odd. Of course, it makes destroying the enemy base extremely easy if they’ve sent all of their units away (which the AI tends to do a lot). Units are a mix of infantry and armor with low, medium, and high grades that substitute firepower and armor for movement. There is a small selection of units in the game, which severely limits your strategic options. Maelstrom boils down to harvesting resources, constructing units, and taking over the enemy. This entire process takes about 10 minutes, depending on the map size, and the lack of end-game powerful weapons means that stalemate games are a definite possibility. The poor tactical AI doesn’t help matters: units given a move order will continue to shoot while moving, not stopping to engage enemy units or avoid running into a superior force. Also, units can go in the opposite direction, run into mountains, and generally get lost when issued a move order that’s not on the same screen. Because of the poor sound, it’s hard to tell if your units are even engaging the enemy while they are moving until they start dying. Maelstrom lacks the tough strategic decisions that are a part of well-designed strategic games: here, you just crank out forces and storm the defenseless enemy base, and whoever collected the most resources wins.

Maelstrom destroys the solid foundation laid by Perimeter by offering completely derivative gameplay that we’ve seen much better in other RTS games. There’s absolutely no reason to play this game: the AI is horrible, the sound is horrible, the pathfinding is horrible, and your strategic options are severely limited. My dreams of continuing an original franchise have been shattered, as Maelstrom plays just like every other poorly designed RTS game, except with terraforming and flooding that rarely impact the gameplay. When each race has an average of six buildings (six!) and ten units, you know you’re in for a shallow gaming experience. Unless, of course, the units are well balanced and there are important strategies to be used, but Maelstrom lacks both of these important requirements. The lack of defensive structures just shows how little thought was put into making the game a deep strategic experience. You’re much better off playing Perimeter as a lower price than weathering the storm of futility that is Maelstrom.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

War Front: Turning Point Review

War Front: Turning Point, developed by Digital Reality and published by 10TACLE Studios and CDV.
The Good: Interesting advanced weaponry, good visual effects, straightforward resource collection, multiplayer win conditions eliminate end-game cleanup, poor weather affects reconnaissance, you can control individual units and turrets
The Not So Good: Controlling individual units is completely pointless, original units are disappointing, poor AI, fast arcade combat destroys units too quickly and eliminates strategy, attack-move results in too many wandering troops, easy to lose track of units, lack of formations, minimap is slow to update defeated enemy troops, suffers from mid-game stalemates due to fast production and low population cap
What say you? This alternative history World War II strategy game has some distinctive units, but the rest is just generic: 5/8

What if the countries involved in World War II had developed unrealistically futuristic weapons that we don’t even have today? This hypothetical situation is addressed in War Front: Turning Point, where the war front is Europe and the turning point is Hitler’s death early in the war. Spawning from this event, the Germans successfully invaded London and crazy walkers and sonic tanks roam the Earth. It makes so much sense! Either way, there is stiff competition in the World War II RTS genre coming from the likes of Company of Heroes and Rush for Berlin (among plenty of others). Does War Front: Turning Point’s unique World War II setting provide enough originality to make it a magnificent title?

War Front: Turning Point has an odd combination of graphics: spectacular effects and unspectacular units and environments. First, the bad news: the environments look like old 2-D levels from isometric RTS games such as Blitzkrieg and Sudden Strike, even though the game is in 3-D. The game’s levels don’t look necessarily bad; they just seem out of place. The units could also use some work: the infantry is standard fare, and when compared to, say, Company of Heroes, they are laughable in their simplicity. The tanks and vehicles are the same way: they could just look better. Now the visual effects are quite a treat: the explosions, shock waves, damage, nuclear explosions, weather, and dynamic time of day all look great. It’s apparent that more attention was paid to good effects, as they almost clash with the units and the background and they seem a little out of place. While the game looks average when units are standing around, once the action starts, War Front: Turning Point comes into its own. The sound is average for a real time strategy game: typical explosions and battle sounds with predictable background music. The auditory “low resources” warning gets annoying quickly and there doesn’t seem to be any way of turning it off. I do like the weather-related unit acknowledgements, however (“we can’t build in the mud!”). The presentation of War Front: Turning Point is a strange mixed bag of average sound and graphics with wonderful visual effects.

So, Hitler dies and everyone makes crazy technologically advanced weapons in an ever-escalating war. You can take on the new face of World War II in either the Allied or German campaigns, each of which is eleven missions long. The missions are kind of short and they are easy if the odds aren’t stacked against you, which they are for the most part. Like most real time strategy games that involve less than spectacular enemy AI, you are usually outnumber and trying to destroy a heavily-fortified base. The pathfinding and formation issues (which I’ll cover in a bit) only serve to exacerbate the problems. The objectives for each mission are clearly represented on the minimap, complete with tooltips so you’re never wondering what to do next. War Front: Turning Point has a typical assortment of missions: kill a unit, destroy a base, et cetera. Once you’re finished with the single player campaigns, you can try out multiplayer, which can be played in skirmish games against the AI or online through an integrated Gamespy browser. Other than the typical deathmatch game, you can play with special rules: in secret orders, each side is given primary objectives like Rush for Berlin, or conquest like Company of Heroes. Strangely, you can’t play any of the non-deathmatch modes against the AI, further reinforcing the belief that the AI is just not very smart. You can also set different victory conditions to speed up the end-game: rack and ruin just requires the destruction of all enemy buildings and aftermath eliminates fog of war when all buildings are lost (although why you would chose this over rack and ruin is a mystery). Skirmish games are seriously short (15 minutes for one-on-one), because units are produced so quickly and the unit limit is a low 200 units (well, low considering how fast units are constructed). It’s very odd, then, that it takes so long to move up a tech level, which really constitutes half of the game’s total length.

Other than giving tooltips of victory locations on the minimap, the user interface is very outdated. For instance, it’s impossible to select all of the units on the map at once (you can just select units on the screen). This makes it extremely easy to lose units in the heat of battle. The minimap is also slow to update defeated enemy troops. Stormy weather turns off the minimap (and ground aircraft), which is a nice touch. The gameplay of War Front: Turning Point is, again, typical: collect resources at mines, building buildings, construct units, bring death and destruction. The game’s only true resource (cash) is gathered by collectors and brought to your supply depot; assigning three collectors to a depot will result in a fast income rate. Non-allied teams must construct power producing buildings in addition to collecting resources, and destroying these buildings becomes a viable strategy for enemy forces. The building arrangement is (surprise!) typical: barracks for infantry, factories for tanks, and airfields for planes, although each airfield is limited to two planes. I like that the planes are treated in the game as support units, and you can select them all at once. There is also the usual research building and turrets for each type of unit. The only thing that’s atypical about War Front: Turning Point is the alternative units, which are really just more powerful versions of existing vehicles. They don’t behave any differently, they just have more health and deal more damage: it’s quite disappointing. I’d rather see real secret weapons like they show on The History Channel instead of completely implausible walkers and sonic tanks that aren’t even around today. There are also hero units with special abilities that I feel are completely out of place in a game like this that is based on semi-realism.

The slowest aspect of the game is moving up the three-level technology tree: you can crank out a full army of 200 units in about five minutes with one barracks and one factory. The game is really decided by whoever controls the central resource locations and is able to produce units a minute sooner. War Front: Turning Point quickly turns into a stalemate, as each side produces their maximum number of units quickly and at the same time. Since you can replace losses quickly as well, it’s very hard to defeat and opposing force, especially if they’ve build plenty of defenses. Besides the new units, War Front: Turning Point features the ability to directly control any armored unit or bunker. While taking direct control of an anti-air facility is quite fun, controlling the rest of the units is not, and it actually hurts your team. If you are controlling a single unit, orders cannot be given to the rest of your army, and units in War Front: Turning Point are not the best at automatically engage enemy units when they are not given an attack move order. You can increase the effectiveness of your defenses if you control them, but taking over a unit is worthless. And you’ll need to baby-sit your forces, too, since there are a couple of issues with movement. Pathfinding is OK, but there are absolutely no formation commands, and units will string out across the map single-file. Since most of the maps include bridges, your troops will arrange themselves in a line even after crossing the bridge, allowing themselves to be picked off one at a time by the enemy. This is really, really annoying. The game states that double-clicking a movement order will make the selected units move at the slowest unit’s rate, but I have yet to see this work. Giving an attack-move order is just as bad: units seem to wander off and engage troops that are nowhere near the order location (especially if they retreat). It’s odd that they have such a large engagement radius when given an attack-move order, but almost a non-existent one when defending. The lack of a rundown of units or a “select all” key makes this problem even worse.

While War Front: Turning Point promised an original gameplay experience, it does not deliver. Not only are the unique features in the game very superficial, but War Front: Turning Point has fundamental problems with unit movement and gameplay balancing that severely inhibit your enjoyment of the title. Attack-move commands result in semi-random movement around the map and there is a complete lack of formation commands: units will just line up to be killed off, instead of circling an enemy. I don’t have a problem with fast-paced gameplay (see Rush for Berlin), but since the population cap is reached so quickly, you can commonly fighting evenly-matched opponents to an infinite stalemate. This game doesn’t feel any different from the countless other real time strategy games that have already been released. Direct control of units may seem like a cool idea (one that’s being implemented in more and more games), but it’s only useful for defensive structures and not for individual tanks. Sadly, after playing games like Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander, War Front: Turning Point just doesn’t offer a unique experience to make it a memorable title.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Determinance Review

Determinance, developed by Mode 7 Games and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Fun fast-paced gameplay, flying adds strategy, easy to join multiplayer matches, multiple game modes, useful tutorial, AI bots are a good challenge for beginners
The Not So Good: Controls beget a really steep learning curve, accurate blocking is very difficult, no tangible variety in gameplay, limited weaponry (for now)
What say you? Once you learn the controls, this flying sword fighting game is fairly addictive though repetitive: 5/8

Special effects-driven movies have been around for a while, but I would say the zenith recently hit with 1999’s The Matrix. Not surprisingly, games were quick to cash in on the bullet-time concept in titles such as Max Payne. At least on the PC, there have been few (if any) flying martial arts games, and Determinance (a game title that my spell checker does not like at all) hopes to fill that void. Featuring sword combat in three dimensions, Determinance is a multiplayer game where your sword motion is directed by the mouse, like games on that console with the funny name.

Determinance goes for the minimalist approach when it comes to graphics and sound. The game is in 3-D, but the environments are essentially just surfaces with water you fly around: there aren’t any realistic settings here. But since most of the action takes place in the air, you won’t really be paying attention to it anyway. The character models are pleasing, however: they are highly detailed and exhibit good animations, such as coats that fly in the breeze. Really, the game looks decent enough for what it’s trying to accomplish, and as long as you can see your opponent and their sword, that’s all that really matters. The sound is typical: campy dialogue (namely “bloody hell!”) and techno background music, which is pretty much what you’d expect. While Determinance won’t win any awards for presentation, the game looks and sounds decent enough to be playable.

Determinance is a third person sword-fighting action game. Unlike most games that use key combinations to dictate the action, all of your sword motions are driven by the mouse. You move the mouse left to right, the sword swings from left to right. It seems simple enough, but it certainly takes some getting used to. While attacking is intuitive, defending is a different story. In order to block attacks from your enemy, you must adjust the angle of your sword to be perpendicular to that of your enemy’s. This can be done by using the mouse wheel or holding down the middle mouse button and moving the mouse. While there really isn’t any other way of doing it, this is by far the most difficult part of the game. In this sense, Determinance is not a pick-up-and-play game: although you can attack with ease, it takes a lot of practice to defend effectively. New players are usually beaten by experienced ones (including the AI) because they don’t have the blocking mechanics down. The game comes with an auto-move system for beginners so that they can concentrate on attacking and blocking, but I’d rather see an auto-blocking mode of some sort that would block a certain percentage of incoming attacks. In order to reduce attack spamming in the game, you are limited in the number of swings you can take in a period of time. You can also employ power moves (called charge blocks and attacks) that use up a lot of energy (and have a large recharge time) but deal a great amount of punishment. There are also customized special moves you can use in the game to finish off your opponent.

Determinance takes place in a 3-D world, and includes movement in all three dimensions. This makes it unique when compared to other fighting games that are restricted by gravity. There are some interesting tactics you can employ to avoid or sneak up to your enemy when you include vertical motion, and this makes the game far more enjoyable. Swords are the only weapons available now, although the developers plan on adding daggers, axes, and spears in the near future. While Determinance is intended to be a multiplayer title, there is also single player action available against AI bots. They provide a good challenge, especially for beginning players. You can unlock them in a series of fights that increase in enemy intelligence. Multiplayer is done through the game’s matchmaking service and it’s easy to join a match. You can play in free for all mode, a timed dual mode, a scored hunters mode, and team versions of each. Multiplayer matches are fast and intense, with lots of swinging, maneuvering, and blocking. It’s initially quite fun, but the monotonous nature of the game starts to wear on you if you don’t have a great interest in the genre. There is really no difference between any of the game’s levels, and the repetitive gameplay of Determinance is quite similar to arcade fighting games of 15 years ago. It tries to up the ante with three-dimensional movement, but it’s still lacking the replay value that’s present in many contemporary games.

Determinance is a unique offering to the action genre, and that should be commended. It’s successful combination of mouse-driven attacks and three-dimensional movement is something I haven’t seen in any other game. The AI provides a good opponent for beginners, and although the blocking mechanics take some practice, it’s worth it if you like the genre. People who enjoy this type of game will find value in Determinance, although everyone else might find the gameplay a bit repetitive (but what action game isn’t?). Since the levels in the game are not important, each game plays out generally the same, with the outcome dependent on the strategies employed by each of the participants. While 3-D makes for more possibilities, I think that most people will play for about 15 minutes, say “that’s neat,” and move on to more well-rounded games. It’s not that Determinance is a poor title; it’s just that the novelty wears off quickly. Still, there is some fun to be had in Determinance if you’re a fan of action games and you’re looking for a distinctive experience.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Close Combat: Cross of Iron Review

Close Combat: Cross of Iron, developed by CSO Simtek and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Lots of scenarios of varying difficulty and complexity, great tactical gameplay, massively multiplayer utility included, great mod support, enhanced AI, additional units, powerful sound
The Not So Good: Nine-year-old graphics are outdated
What say you? A tremendous updated version of Close Combat III is filled to the brim with improved AI, a new scenario, community modifications, and engine tweaks: 7/8

One of my favorite strategy franchises is Close Combat. Coming out in the late 90’s, I was introduced to the series with Invasion Normandy, which I reviewed a long time ago on a website far, far away. The successful combination of morale-driven AI and solid tactical combat made the series a cult favorite, and it’s still a favorite today. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a renovation of Close Combat III, continuing Matrix Games’ mission to re-release every strategy game ever made (exhibits A, B, and C, with more to come). How has time treated this franchise, and does this update update enough?

Two things not changed from the original game are the graphics and sound, and, not surprisingly, Close Combat: Cross of Iron looks and sounds like it’s nine-years-old. That’s not to say the game looks terrible: the top-down 2-D graphics hold up OK, and they are still better than a lot of wargames that are released these days. The backgrounds are static and it’s difficult to tell elevation with some of the shadowing present in the game, but Close Combat: Cross of Iron will run on older computers and newer ones using Windows XP, so that’s something. Obviously, you won’t be wowed by graphics from a game released almost ten years ago, but the engine holds it own. Sound is something that ages a little better, and Close Combat: Cross of Iron features some imposing sound effects and appropriate background music that accurately convey the chaos of war. The emphasis of Close Combat: Cross of Iron was certainly not on improving the graphics, so we’re stuck with old 2-D warfare. The game is still functional, so as long as you don't need 3-D graphics running at two frames per second, you'll do just fine with Close Combat: Cross of Iron.

The goals of Close Combat: Cross of Iron were to make the Close Combat III work on modern operating systems (if you can call Windows XP “modern” and an “operating system”) and add several realism tweaks and third-party applications to the game. In both of these senses, Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a successful title and should definitely appeal to people who didn’t have the chance of playing the original. The developers went beyond just simply porting Close Combat III to Windows XP and DirectX 9: they changed many settings in the game as well. First, the soldier types, weapons, and vehicle available have been altered to more accurately reflect real life on the Eastern Front. The large numbers of tanks in Close Combat III have been scaled down to realistic levels, and infantry has more of a fighting chance against armored opposition. Pathfinding and movement have also been improved, and the importance of commanding units has been increased. Close Combat: Cross of Iron has also integrated a number of third-part utilities to increase the replay value of the game. A matchmaking and chat program called Battle HQ is included with the game, as well as MMCCIII, a massively multiplayer application where you can join a dynamic campaign on a central server. MMCCIII works a lot like Guild Wars, in that individual matches are instanced in the game and results are recorded on the campaign map. The system works very well, and it gives an amount of freedom that the strictly linear campaigns of Close Combat: Cross of Iron don’t offer. It’s sad that a little third party application offers more compelling multiplayer gameplay than a dedicated MMO like Battleground Europe, but it works to Close Combat: Cross of Iron’s benefit. If all that wasn’t enough, we also have an easy-to-use mod-swapping utility and a new campaign with 26 new maps, along with all of the content of the original game. Unlike previous Matrix remakes, Close Combat: Cross of Iron is not simply a re-hash of an already-existing game: there are notable improvements made that make the game significant even to people who own the original.

The core gamplay of the Close Combat series remains the same, and Close Combat: Cross of Iron brings back all of those good memories of the quality tactical simulation. For the uninitiated, there is a tutorial to get you acquainted with the game. The gameplay of Close Combat: Cross of Iron is similar to that of Combat Mission and Squad Assault: Second Wave (or, more accurately, those games are similar to Close Combat). Before each mission, you choose your troops. You have a limited on the number of companies you can have (based on the size of the scenario, represented as your military rank) and a number of requisition points to purchase additional troops or refit existing ones. Units have different experience levels, and obviously more experienced troops are better and subsequently more expensive. At the beginning of each level, you deploy your troops, and the object of each battle is to secure a number of victory locations around the map. This is done by issuing commands to each squad: move, move fast, sneak, fire, use smoke, defend, and ambush. This may seem fairly simplistic, but there is some deep tactical gameplay under the surface. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is driven by morale, which is assessed on an individual level. Constantly putting inexperienced troops in harrowing situations is a recipe for disaster, so a good deal of planning is required, especially when you encounter unexpected or superior troops. The game progresses in unpaused real time, so there is only a short time to react to each new threat and situation (although time can be slowed). I like this aspect of the game, as it simulates the pressures endured by real commanders. Close Combat: Cross of Iron is a very fun tactical game, and each of the game’s battles are short (20-30 minutes), so the game never becomes boring or tedious. The planning required to defeat the capable AI opponent enhances the game experience as well.

If you’ve never played the Close Combat series, you’re really missing out on a great tactical strategy game. If you have, then Close Combat: Cross of Iron treads familiar ground, but the compatibility improvements and game enhancements are enough to justify a look. Close Combat: Cross of Iron has a lot of scenarios covering battles, operations, and campaigns on the Eastern Front of World War II: plenty to keep you busy. The tweaks made to the game are meaningful and driven by user feedback, and the replay value is high with the included modification tools and multiplayer components. Because the game has been out for quite a while, there are already a huge number of modifications and additional battles available, and the community is feverishly converting them over to this title. This is by far the best of the Matrix remakes so far, and even though Close Combat: Cross of Iron appears to be a superficial revision to a nine-year-old game, the added content makes the game a notable improvement.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

City Life: World Edition Review

City Life: World Edition, developed by Monte Cristo and published by CDV.
The Good: New buildings, additional maps, building editor, no more Starforce
The Not So Good: Everything else is exactly the same
What say you? Unless you really want to edit buildings, there’s no reason to get this stand-alone expansion if you have the original: 4/8

This review of City Life: World Edition is rated purely on the additions made from the original game, the review of which can be read here. City Life: World Edition is intended as a replacement (stand-alone expansion) for the original game, so if you've never played the original, read the review of City Life and adjust the review score accordingly, as I will be taking the point of view from someone who has played the original game. See, I told you my reviews were poorly written.

The stand-alone expansion has gotten more popular recently, especially for lesser-known games. This gives new users a chance to try out the game using the new additions right out of the box, instead of purchasing the original and the expansion separately. City Life: World Edition is, coincidentally, a stand-alone expansion of City Life that adds new buildings with an editor. Does the expansion offer enough to make it worthwhile for owners of the original game?

Except for the new buildings, the rest of the graphics and the sounds of City Life: World Edition are identical to the original game. The game still allows you to wander about your city from a first-person perspective, but the added variety in building skins, along with the building editor, allows for a more diverse arrangement of buildings. This tends to make the cities look more realistic instead of having the same apartment building every block. City Life: World Edition still doesn’t rival the architectural variety of SimCity 4, but it’s an improvement over the original.

The first thing you’ll notice when you fire up City Life: World Edition is that Starforce has been removed. Apparently my Starforce rant in my review of the original game served its purpose, as CDV has opted to go with an alternative method of copy protection. City Life: World Edition serves up some additional maps to play in; although the maps are really unimportant to the gameplay, I’d still like to see a random terrain generator to mix things up a bit. City Life: World Edition also comes with a building editor, where you can combine existing parts of buildings to construct a new edifice or start from scratch using a 3-D modeling program. You’ll also get real-world landmarks to add to your cities once you achieve a certain level of success. They are purely cosmetic and don’t impact the gameplay, so their inclusion is a little dubious. Unfortunately, that is all that’s new in the game. The core gameplay is still exactly the same, and all of the additions made in City Life: World Edition are superficial skins that don’t impact or improve the game at all. The cumbersome road controls are still present and the lack of audio warnings still exists; there are simply no meaningful additions made to the game.

The short length of this review parallels the meager content of City Life: World Edition. A building editor and a handful of new buildings that don’t really impact the game at all? The booster packs for Battlefield 2 offer just as much content for half the price. City Life: World Edition is an interesting city builder, but only if you don’t have the original game. The additions made in this expansion are so superficial that you’re just better off finding the original game for a cheaper price. Maybe high-quality expansion packs like Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar have spoiled us, but all of the things in City Life: World Edition should have been included in a free download (and probably would have been before the proliferation of expansion packs). Even the $10 rebate for owners of the original game isn’t enough to make up for the skimpy offerings of this game. If this is the World Edition, then the world is a sad, sad place.