Monday, April 30, 2007

Air Assault Task Force Review

Air Assault Task Force, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Unique theme for a wargame, improved commands, deep gameplay, multiplayer matchmaking, can play scenarios from previous ATF titles
The Not So Good: User interface needs work, simplified actions are tacked on and not integrated into the rest of the game
What say you? A distinctive focus helps this helicopter assault wargame differentiate itself: 6/8

By now, we’ve seen a fair number of wargames developed in a variety of environments: eastern Europe during World War II, western Europe during World War II, Greece during World War II, and Italy during World War II. Despite the obvious setting of focus, there have been some games that taken wargaming to new locales, such as the Middle East in The Star and the Crescent. The team behind that game is back with a slightly new engine and a new focus: high-speed helicopter assaults. This is a much different approach that we’re used to, replacing engagements that took place over several days with battles that only last for a couple of hours. Will this new slant make Air Assault Task Force a distinguished title?

The graphics of Air Assault Task Force are essentially identical to those seen in The Star and the Crescent: NATO symbols on a 2-D topographical map. Pretty much everything I said in the previous review still holds true, although this newer version does come with overhead pictures of all of the game's units (I played with the NATO icons on). Air Assault Task Force hasn’t caught up to the slick graphics of Conquest of the Aegean. The game runs pretty slow as well, and zooming in (or out) takes much longer than it should, especially when games like Supreme Commander do it so effortlessly. One of the most important aspects of a wargame, the user interface, isn’t quite as effective as it needs to be: current orders are shown with only an icon, idle units are not indicated at all, and it’s hard to tell if a unit is executing their orders until they start moving. This kind of limited feedback makes strategy games hard to play, and Air Assault Task Force imposes a learning curve due to the user interface. The sound is almost non-existent in the game, and the sound effects that are present are too grating. I suppose it’s better than having no sound at all, but Air Assault Task Force can’t match the more realistic environment of Conquest of the Aegean. Time is starting to catch up to Air Assault Task Force, and the graphics and sound are becoming too outdated.

Air Assault Task Force is a wargame that simulates three rapid assaults throughout U.S. military history: the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam, the battle of Mogadishu (made famous in the movie Black Hawk Down, and the first phase of the War on Terror in Afghanistan called Operation Anaconda. These unique settings are enough to separate Air Assault Task Force from the rest of the wargame community, and this title continues the trend set by The Star and the Crescent in offering different locations for enemy annihilation. Air Assault Task Force features an adequate selection of scenarios, and you can import scenarios from any other ProSim ATF engine game. Air Assault Task Force does feature some very nice matchmaking features for multiplayer through an in-game system, which is far above and beyond what’s present in most wargames. Getting into a game like this can be tough, and Air Assault Task Force does have a set of tutorials that can be watched outside of the game, showing animations on how to do basic things in the game. You can get the same information by reading the manual, and while the tutorials are decent, Air Assault Task Force still has a somewhat steep learning curve.

Like most wargames, Air Assault Task Force involves ordering units around to secure objective locations. What makes this game different is the speed of the scenarios and the focus on helicopters for transport in and out of hot zones. The quick pace of Air Assault Task Force is certainly refreshing in a genre where most games grind through long winded scenarios with slow units like tanks and infantry. While there are tanks in the game, most of them will be on the opposition and you’ll be given helicopters and infantry to complete your missions, along with artillery support and the occasional jeep. There is some initial uncertainly dealing with the helicopters, since so few games feature them so prominently. Which helicopters are for transport and which are for attacking isn’t clearly defined in the manual (air assault, air cavalry, attack, or recon?), but I eventually figured it out by piecing together parts of the manual and tutorials.

Air Assault Task Force is really designed to be used at the company or brigade level, giving orders to the commanding unit and letting them worry about tactical decisions on their own. You can instruct individual units if you so choose, but I just let the AI handle the micromanagement. Air Assault Task Force has three sets of commands: missions, actions, and orders. Missions are the same overly detailed instructions intended for large scale operations that were present in The Star and the Crescent: assault, breaching obstacles, supporting other units. Thankfully, Air Assault Task Force gives additional options beyond the complex missions that frankly were too detailed for their own good. You can now issue actions that are basic instructions, more reminiscent of commands seen in real time strategy games: move, suppress, TRP, fire mission, mount and dismount, and load ammo. Suppressing is good for protecting incoming shipments of troops or general smackdown of the enemy, while using target reference points (TRP) makes sure that all of your units aren’t focusing on just one enemy unit. These commands are more straightforward and a lot simpler than using the missions, but actions should have been integrated better with the missions. Offering more than one way of doing the same action can be confusing to new players, and the game doesn’t give a clear indication of a unit’s current orders and you don’t generally know if they are being executed until units start to move. There’s probably a nice compromise between military command depth and reducing the complexity, and Air Assault Task Force is almost there. If you choose to micromanage your forces, you are given a set of orders you can use to modify their behavior. Seeking cover, using smoke, and marching at a uniform speed are just some of the very specific commands you can issue. Again, if you issue missions or actions, all of these things are taken care of automatically by the AI commander, but it’s nice to include them. Speaking of the AI, the computer opponent offers up a good challenge but it’s mostly due to mission design: you’re given a small set of forces that must quickly achieve an objective against superior numbers. Good planning will trump any AI opponent, though. Overall, the mechanics of the game, while similar to The Star and the Crescent, streamline the gameplay and add more options for people who don’t want overly sophisticated commands and don’t need to micromanage their forces. The improvements made since The Star and the Crescent are meaningful and make Air Assault Task Force a good niche game.

Air Assault Task Force takes the ATF engine and adds some meaningful improvements that make the game more usable and more approachable than previous titles. The unique setting and theme is enough to draw some attention to the game and the focus on helicopter operations is refreshing. Air Assault Task Force may not be the most user friendly game in the world, but it’s much better off than previous titles. I will give Air Assault Task Force points (specifically, one more than The Star and the Crescent) for adding a unique approach, distinctive settings, and an improved interface. The game editors and ability to import scenarios from other ProSim games extends the life of the title and also means that there are already hundreds of scenarios for the game. Joining a multiplayer game is very easy and the in-game browser is one of the best proprietary engines seen in a wargame. The inherent complexity of Air Assault Task Force won’t appeal to everyone, but gamers looking for a unique approach and a focus on helicopter operations will find a lot to like in this title.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Out of the Park Baseball 2007 Review

Out of the Park Baseball 2007, developed and published by Sports Interactive.
The Good: Lots of league options, ability to manage minor league teams, player disposition plays an important role, good user interface with more data than any other simulation, robust online options, shopping players makes trading simple
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, no 2007 rosters, unrealistic scheduling, computer adjusts your minor league lineup without telling you
What say you? Avid baseball fans will enjoy this very comprehensive management game: 8/8

It’s that time of the year again. You know, the time where I recycle the same introduction I use for every baseball game I review. I did it for PureSim Baseball 2007 and I did it for Baseball Mogul 2007, so go read those and then we can talk about Out of the Park Baseball 2007, the only “2007” sports game actually released in 2007. Out of the Park Baseball has a pretty storied tradition on the PC, serving up an in-depth simulation geared towards baseball enthusiasts. I’m not a baseball enthusiast, but I do like baseball management games for some reason. So let’s check out my third baseball management franchise and see what it has to offer.

For a 2-D management game, the most important aspect of the graphics is the user interface, and Out of the Park Baseball 2007’s is well-designed. The graphics are largely unchanged from the 2006 version of Out of the Park Baseball, but they still hold up well. Everything of importance in the game is one click away, either through the top menu, the bottom menu, or clicking on a hyperlink. A single page can be accessed multiple ways, which makes navigating the game easy for beginners. For the large amount of information that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 presents, I can’t imagine it being organized any better. The in-game graphics are typical of a text-based simulation: the game is devoid of any animations (like the ball or players) during a game, resorting to a text play-by-play. It’s not very exciting to look at, but this is a relatively minor complaint. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 does generate faces for each player in the game and ages them over time, which is a unique and neat addition. Still, I’d like a bit more dynamic action during the games themselves. The sound is non-existent in Out of the Park Baseball 2007: no crowds, no hits, nothing. The presentation of PureSim Baseball 2007 is better overall, but Out of the Park Baseball 2007 still holds up pretty well against other management games.

In Out of the Park Baseball 2007, you are a manager in the baseball ranks, leading your teams onto spectacular defeat. You can start out as the manager of any team of your choosing, or decide to start as a new hire, guiding minor league teams as you work your way to the top. Managing a minor league team is a completely different challenge, as you must contend with roster moves that are beyond your control. The AI managers make moves a lot and don't like to tell you about them, and then your carefully crafted rosters are automatically rearragned by the computer when new players arrive and old ones depart. That really makes me mad and it's easily my biggest gripe about the game. You actually have less to worry about in the minors, though, and it’s a very good place to start as a new player. The game can be played through the single player mode or online, and Out of the Park Baseball 2007 features some robust online options. The online options allow you to do anything you can do in the single player mode, except against human players. The ample options available for setting in-game strategy makes simulating games more palatable and less of a crap-shoot like in other management games. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is absolutely huge, and getting into it can be tough, especially if you’ve never played a baseball management game before. Luckily, the 500-page manual is very comprehensive, and the in-game help and online tutorials make getting new players accustomed to the game as painless as you could reasonably expect.

The options are thrown at you from the beginning, as there are quite literally hundreds of choices to make in just creating a league. Everything can be changed, from basic things like league structure to league home run averages. The game features all of the major (and their minor) leagues of the world; the nicknames and logos are missing (due to licensing), but these can be easily changed. All of the players in these leagues will be fictional, but you can import the Lahman database and play any major league season with the real players from 1901 to 2006. Unfortunately, you can’t import real players into the standard leagues with the proper minor league arrangements, and 2007 players and their teams are not present (again, due to expensive licensing). However, I would imagine that completely accurate 2007 rosters will start appearing online quite soon, put together by third-party modders. The league structure and minor league affiliations can be set (or pre-set in a standard league), along with scheduling and league expansion options. The scheduling in Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is not very realistic, as everyone plays on the same days, and everyone has off on the same days. This is probably the most glaring error of the game, and although it’s not really that important, it is kind of annoying. I mean, how hard could scheduling 162 games for every team possibly be? The depth of Out of the Park Baseball 2007 can be seen in many different places. For example, you can set how quickly players age in the game (along with a standard deviation), apply dynamically generated faces to each player (that also age), and set injury and fatigue options. Your general suite of rules are available: the designated hitter, roster sizes, trading deadlines, amateur and expansion drafts, and financial options. You can also set the stats required to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, AI strategies during the game, and whether spring training is held. All of these options mean that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is one of the most complete (and subsequently complex) baseball simulations available, and you can change any of these values at any time, even in the middle of a season.

Considering the amount of data that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 throws at you, navigating through the game is pretty easy. Most of the important information can be accessed from the manager menu, where accessing your rosters, league news, available jobs, trading players, team and league stats, and simulating games are just a mouse click away. It’s very nice to make everything accessible from one page and makes getting through the game much easier. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 has all of the stats and reports that baseball nuts crave, designed like a website. Power rankings, injury reports, positional strength, salary, the waiver wire, league batting leaders, and complete league history are all available for your perusal. If you’d like to know how many double plays your biggest rival has, that information is just one click away. It’s quite ridiculous (in a good way, I think) how much data is available to the players.

You’ll be spending a lot of your time tweaking lineups and (not surprisingly) Out of the Park Baseball 2007 gives you lots of options here as well. Besides just setting your lineups for left-handed and right-handed opposing pitchers, you can choose how often a bench player is substituted into your starting lineup (either when the starter is tired, or after a specific number of games). This helps with realistically simulating a large number of games, as does the robust strategy options at your disposal. You can set twenty-five total strategies to use during games, including base stealing, sacrifice bunts, pitching, defensive alignments, pinch running, pinch hitting, hooking pitchers, and roster favoring. These twenty-five options are set for every possible situation in the game (for example, innings 1-3 and leading by one run). While this means you can have the AI do exactly what you want when games are simulated, having to set twenty-five options thirty-six times (for each inning and lead variation) can be quite daunting and even a bit overkill. You can ask your bench coach for help, though, which may ease some of the pain associated with setting 900 sliders.

Each player is rated in the game in several areas, although the accuracy of the numbers you are provided with is dependent on your scout’s skill level. Most of the ratings are present in other games, but Out of the Park Baseball 2007 adds a couple of new attributes to the mix. Ratings determine things like the ability to get doubles and triples, avoiding strikeouts, pitch quality, holding runners, throwing range, turning double plays, and stealing bases. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 features enough different statistical areas that there is usually a player suitable for each strategic situation, and taking advantage of these situations is what separates good managers from Buck Showalter. Speaking of managers, you’ll need to hire coaches for hitting, pitching, and the bench (in charge of providing Gatorade, no doubt), choose your scouts, and even employ team doctors. Scouts can be used to scout an opposing player, team, organization, league, draft pool, or entire nation (scouting your players is automatic). If you spot a good prospect, you can use the draft or trades to acquire them. Standard plays are available in Out of the Park Baseball 2007, but you can also shop a disgruntled player who isn’t getting enough playing time and receive good feedback from AI managers and owners on how to make a trade happen. Shopping players is very useful and it makes getting straight-up trades very easy to do. You’ll also have to deal with finances, and your owner can either give you a restricted budget or allow you to use the entire revenue. Your revenue from ticket sales and merchandising is used mostly for player salaries, and any of the special clauses (like no trading and an optional final year) and incentives that are included in real major league contracts are found here.

After all of this stuff, it’s time to actually play a game. You can simulate games, where Out of the Park Baseball 2007 will use your 900 settings and rosters to help determine outcome, or play the games yourself. Although you don’t have any direct action over swings and fielding like in an arcade console baseball game, you can give instructions to your batters and pitchers, as well as changing defensive positioning. Batters can be instructed to swing away, bunt, take a pitch, steal, hit & run, or do a squeeze play, while pitchers can be told to pitch around a dangerous hitter, pitch out, intentionally walk or hit a batter, and throw to a base. These instructions can be given on a pitch-by-pitch basis, or once per at-bat to make the game run a lot faster. The game’s presentation during a game can be shown with the standard field view with a box score and upcoming batters information, or a webcast that shows pitch locations and more in-depth stats. Also, other league games are going on in real time as you play and scores are accessible from the network menu. This is really cool and well done, and it makes the baseball universe you are playing in more believable. In general, the games result in realistic stats, due to the great model that the game uses. The AI managers seem to sub a lot, especially in later innings, and fatigue information for pitchers seems to be off (they are always “OK”), but the games are still fun to play and wrap up a convincing gaming experience.

Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is easily the most complete baseball simulation game available. The sheer number of options given to the player is quite staggering, from forming to league to all of the data and stats available in the game. There are a couple of minor issues with scheduling and importing real players, but most of the simulation is impressive in its realistic scope. You can literally change the game to feature any kind of baseball known to man, and even some unrealistic versions with tweaked stats you can come up with. Guiding your teams while you work your way up the baseball ranks is very fun, and playing a minor league team is a different yet rewarding experience. The graphics might need a little polish during games, but all of the data is easily accessible and presented in an easy to use manner. The results seen in Out of the Park Baseball 2007 are very believable, and the simulated games are more in your control due to the strategic options than in other titles, where you set a roster and hope for the best. While Out of the Park Baseball 2007 isn’t the most novice friendly game, it is the most comprehensive, and players looking for a deep simulation of baseball will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Magi Review

Magi, developed and published by Thomas Grochowiak.
The Good: Good strategic gameplay, short and intense battles, no severe penalty for losing, high replay value from character creation liberties
The Not So Good: New spells unlock slowly, no multiplayer, user interface needs work
What say you? An enjoyable strategic role-playing game: 6/8

The large number of fantasy role-playing games available on the PC seems to indicate that a lot of people dream of being wizards, elves, and other magically inclined beings. Since this is something you can’t replicate in real life (at least not yet), computer games have filled the void left by the distinct lack of magic schools. Magi falls into the strategic category of role-playing games, exchanging the action of Diablo and exploration of Oblivion with tactical magical combat. Will this title bridge the gap between the two genres?

For an independently developed game, Magi has some decent graphics. The game isn’t the most exciting title to look at: the game is rendered entirely in 2-D and the action takes place on a static grid. You won’t be exploring new lands and discovering untold riches, just fighting in the same arena over and over again. The character models are also very basic and small. But, Magi does have some nice spell effects, and the game makes it easy to determine which class of spell your opponent is casting. Really, the presentation is similar to a lot of wargames I have played: sparse on the detail, but more focus on the gameplay. This is fine as long as you’re not expecting a visual feast while playing Magi. The sound is much better: the background music fits the theme very well and doesn’t become annoying or terribly repetitive, and each spell is accompanied with appropriate sound effects. In this sense, Magi delivers a believable gaming environment, but the graphics do not impress.

Magi is a single player game where you’ll guide a magic person on their journey towards immortality by defeating a lot of other magic people along the way. It’s too bad that there is no multiplayer component of Magi, because this game would be awesome over the Internet. The game style fits multiplayer very well, and I’m surprised that this option isn’t available. Luckily, the AI does a competent job, but nothing matches the visceral thrill of beating real human beings and drinking their blood in celebration. Figuratively, of course. The first thing you’ll do in Magi is create a character; this goes a long way in determining the strategies you’ll employ during gameplay. Points can be assigned in five attributes: force (for better destructive and protective spells, and more damage), incantation (faster spell casting), resistance (better defense), communion (better curses and summoned creatures), and intellect (more experience gained from battles). Right out of the box, there are a bunch of important decisions that must be made. Are you going to make a well-rounded individual, or specialize in a specific area? Once you assign your points, you are able to “unlock” some spells in each class: destructive (offensive), protective (defensive), summoning (creatures), and cursing (usually a penalty against the opponent). Obviously, you’d want to focus your spells on your strong areas, but the freedom granted to the player in Magi is very nice. Finally, you get to choose a class: this grants a bonus into one of the attributes and gives you three unique one-use spells to employ during battle.

The battles themselves, although repetitive, are pretty fun, especially when you have a bunch of spells unlocked and you can use more diverse strategies. The first thing you’ll do in a battle is summon points in each class; this unlocks better spells and make spells more effective. Playing the game is easy: you click on the spell you want to use, and that’s it. However, casting and switching spells should be a lot more streamlined. Sometimes, queuing up another spell will switch to it once the current spell is done, but sometimes it won’t (common after defensive spells). This gets annoying during the heat of battle when timing is important. Your only strategic decision to make during a battle involves which spells to cast, so in the beginning, when you only have a handful of spells unlocked, things can get monotonous. However, once you level up (through experience) and unlock more spells, battles can get very chaotic and fun. Unfortunately, it takes quite a long time to unlock new spells (or, at least, longer than I want), and your opponents will generally have unlocked the same spells, so there isn’t the great variety you’d like to see. The single player campaign takes a while to complete (upwards of 70 battles); this may be good or bad depending on how long you like to play the same character, as you can only have one game going on at a time. Still, battles in Magi can be very fun, as the AI opponents are good and the options available to you and the split-second decisions that must be made are varied. During combat, you can’t see the stats of your opponent, but you can see the spell they are about to cast and which classes they enabled to get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses. Landing a couple of good spells in a row is a common occurrence in Magi and makes the game quite fun. As I stated earlier, Magi would be a great multiplayer game, and the lack of any Internet or LAN play is a bit curious. Still, most people who like strategy or role-playing games will have some fun with this title.

Magi is a good strategy game surrounded by role-playing elements. The character creation options are powerful, and they can drastically alter your approach to the game. The strategic gameplay is solid, and once you unlock some of the more advanced spells, Magi becomes great: trying to outwit your opponent and take advantage of their shortcomings is what strategy gaming is all about. I do wish that Magi had multiplayer: even though the AI is very capable, matching wits with human opponents is always more desirable. Even though the graphics are outdated, the quality sound and entertaining gameplay more than make up for this shortcoming. Although the game can get repetitive, the battles are short enough where you won’t grow tired of Magi, especially once you start unlocking more varied spells. Magi is a fairly unique combination of role-playing and strategy and it’s recommended for fans of either genre.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Jets’N’Guns Gold Review

Jets’N’Guns Gold, developed and published by Rake In Grass.
The Good: Upgradeable weapons, chaotic action, good graphics for a 2-D game
The Not So Good: Very hard because of numerous enemies
What say you? A scrolling space shooter with some interesting weapon upgrades but high difficulty: 5/8

In space, no one can hear you scream. But you sure can shoot a lot of stuff. Space is one of the more popular settings for arcade ship-based shooters, as evidenced by the large number of titles available on the PC. Jets’N’Guns Gold is the gold version of Jets’N’Guns that adds more levels, enemies, weapons to the side-scrolling arcade shooter. How will Jets’N’Guns Gold stack up against the stiff competition?

Jets’N’Guns Gold features some nice graphics for a 2-D game. Although the game is displayed at a relatively low resolution (800 by 600 pixels), the special effects in the game are very well done. The combination of blown up ships, ship parts flying around the map, bloody carcasses flying through space, and the high number of explosions makes Jets’N’Guns Gold a visual feast for a game of this type. There are nice little touches present everywhere in the game, from the disturbingly detailed skeletal remains of fallen adversaries to spent cartridges flying out of your craft. It all comes together quite nicely and the result is one of the best looking 2-D shooters. The same can’t be said for the audio: the background music is annoying enough to make you want to shut it off, consisting of a generic techno selection as you dispose of the enemy. The sound effects are fairly standard, though. Overall, the quality of the graphics elevates this title above the rest in terms of presentation.

Jets’N’Guns Gold features a lengthy single player campaign where you shoot stuff. Each individual level is lengthy; this makes the full game take quite a while to complete. There is a storyline shown between missions, but who really pays attention to that? The mechanics are standard: mouse or keyboard controls with two dimensional movement (I prefer the precision of the mouse). The action is pretty much the same as any other game of the genre: shoot things without running into or getting shot by enemies. There are enemies in the air and along the ground, but this is about the only innovation Jets’N’Guns Gold makes in terms of gameplay. Unfortunately for most, Jets’N’Guns Gold is very, very, very hard, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Instead of just letting you plow through waves of enemies, Jets’N’Guns Gold ramps up the difficulty by having lots of large enemies on the screen at one time. You receive more damage by running into the enemy than getting shot by them, and this can happen frequently. I had one heck of a time trying to beat the first level on normal difficulty, and lowering the difficult to easy let me get to level two before I died. You must start each level over from the beginning if you are defeated; since levels can be quite long, this can get annoying. Sadly, the high difficulty of Jets’N’Guns Gold will probably turn inexperienced away and provide more frustration than fun.

The saving grace of Jets’N’Guns Gold is the ship upgrade model, as the game lets you upgrade your ship and purchase new ones using the money you earn through killing. This type of mechanic has been used before (Crusdaers of Space 2 for one) and Jets’N’Guns Gold does a good job with it. You can use your money to purchase front and rear conventional weapons, along with missiles and bombs (not terribly useful for space levels). The game has different ships that are gradually unlocked that offer different combinations of weapon slots along with handling characteristics. Jets’N’Guns Gold is one of the few games where each ship handles differently: you can feel the sluggish nature of some ships using the mouse, and you have to determine which setup is most appropriate for the next level. Each weapon in the game has its advantages and disadvantages, typically involving firing rate and damage. You start out with a basic ship with not much firepower, but once you get enough money to purchase the better ships, the game becomes chaotically fun (assuming you survive until then). You can also use special items that give you advanced characteristics like shields and slowing down time. You are also given the ability to upgrade your engines or hull, but these upgrades are very expensive. While the ship upgrades in Jets’N’Guns Gold add some strategy to the mix, the complexity of the game makes it ultimately have a small amount of appeal.

If you are especially skilled in side-scrolling arcade shooters, then Jets’N’Guns Gold is a fine title. The combination of constant action with ship upgrades makes it slightly ahead of the curve in terms of gaming value. However, most people won’t be able to experience a lot of the game due to the high level of difficulty: you’ll die quite often, and each time you’ll have to start the level from the beginning. Easy difficulty should be easy: if I’m dying on the second level, that doesn’t bode well for others that don’t play the sheer number of games I do. Maybe I just stink at games like this, but Jets’N’Guns Gold is just really, really tough. It’s a well designed and executed game, but Jets’N’Guns Gold is too difficult for its own good.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Great Invasions Review

Great Invasions, developed by Indie Games Productions and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Control several nations at once, randomized diplomatic actions are neat, active AI, automated trade, fairly constant “action”
The Not So Good: Controlling several nations at once is very overwhelming, needs an on-screen tutorial, poorly designed user interface, typographical errors and other small bugs
What say you? An inaccessible grand strategy game whose greatest innovation is its greatest flaw: 5/8

We’re starting to get a lot more grand strategy games. While the RTS has been the more prominent strategy game on the PC, recent releases like Making History, AORoyal, and of course Europa Universalis III show that there is a large audience who’d like to control an entire country instead of just a measly little army. Designed by the same mind behind Europa Universalis III, Great Invasions takes place in the Dark Ages of Darkness, from 350 to 1066 A.D. Europe was in a state of flux, with new civilizations being born and quickly dying out, so this chaotic setting, it would seem, would make a good place for a game, and one that hasn’t really been covered that often. Will Great Invasions provide enough great innovations to make me shy away from EU3, at least for a little while?

The graphics are very reminiscent of Europa Universalis I: 2-D sprites on a 2-D map. In fact, a couple of design changes at the games are splitting images of each other, not surprising considering the common designer. The maps have some nice detail to them (like EU1), and selecting armies is easy enough. Sadly, after playing with the polished user interface of EU3, doing things in Great Invasions requires a lot more work than it should. Mouse selection of units is imprecise (no selection boxes), boarding ships should be easier (you must press a special icon to do so), and a lot of important information is either buried deep within some menus or not clearly displayed on-screen with tool-tips. Maybe EU3 spoiled me, but getting around Great Invasions is hard, especially for beginning players. Add in the fact that you’re controlling 6-10 nations at a time, and you can imagine the confusion that will result. The sound is typical for a game of this type: sound effects from battles, appropriate background music, and selection notices. All of it is very average, and when paired with the archaic and cumbersome (a word you’ll hear a lot in this review) user interface, Great Invasions falls behind the curve in terms of presentation.

The object of Great Invasions is to accumulate the most victory points in a game. Each game only have four players, but each player controls several countries: the most easily identifiable unique characteristic of the game. Unfortunately, controlling several countries at once isn’t very fun. First off, you control nations that are nowhere near each other. In one scenario, you control modern-day England, southern Spain, Bulgaria, southern Italy, eastern France, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. As you can imagine, being in charge of all these countries at once requires a lot of switching back and forth across the globe, and remembering all of the diplomatic agreements, military unit productions, religious activities, and everything else is a very tough task. It would have made a lot more sense to give you countries in a specific area of the world, or at least of the same religious group. Another option would be to let you choose the countries yourself like in Risk, but you’re stuck with the insane combinations the developers chose. You can turn any of the day-to-day actions over to the AI, but then what’s the point of controlling more than country in the first place? You’ll really have to be able to multitask to enjoy Great Invasions, especially since the game takes place in real-time. Not helping things is the rough tutorial. You need to read along in the manual as there are no on-screen directions, and the directions are even incorrect: you can’t accomplish the first task the game gives you, as four military units can’t be loaded onto just two ships. If you were a beginning player, you’d be able to play for one minute before getting stuck in the tutorial! It’s not very nice to confuse everyone on the very first instruction of the tutorial. The manual itself describe everything in the game in a sort of backwards order, covering the user interface last and all of the game mechanics first. If you’ve never played Europa Universalis III, you’d be hopelessly lost in Great Invasions.

It’s too bad that there are fundamental design flaws with Great Invasions, because there are some interesting aspects to the gameplay. The game lets you choose different starting dates during the time period from 350 to 1066 A.D. Each country “ages” during gameplay, which is a neat way of abstracting the drastic rise and fall of ancient empires. This is part of the reason you’re given multiple countries, because they will change during gameplay. In the first barbarian phase, it’s all about rapid expansion. After to achieve a certain size, you can enter the kingdom and, later, the empire phases, where you stay a more constant size and negotiate with other nations. As you might expect, religious elements are present in the game: the different religions each have their own special units and events, and having the same religion also helps with diplomacy. Great Invasions has the usually declare war and peace treaty options, but it adds another unique aspect to the gameplay with special diplomatic actions. Periodically, “tokens” are distributed randomly to each player that contain powerful diplomatic actions that must be accepted by the other party. Barbarian nation sieging your city? Throw a corruption coin their way. Neighboring country building up for war? Force them into a royal marriage. Losing a war? Eat a grand treaty, sucker! This is really cool and it adds an element of randomness to the gameplay that can make each game play out differently.

A lot of the economy in Great Invasions is automated: other than signing trade agreements with other countries, trade is automated in the game (no more endlessly clicking merchants like in EU3). The AI is very active in making trade agreements, too, so you’ll rarely have to initiate the action. Speaking of the AI, their level of activity makes Great Invasions one of the more action packed grand strategy games. Unlike EU3, where you can have long stretches with nothing really going on, Great Invasions is always bombarding you with trade proposals, scripted events, declarations of war, and more. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially since it’s coming at you six to ten times over, but you’ll never be sitting there watching the clock go buy waiting for something to happen. The scripted events make sure that something’s always going on, but once you play the game for a while, you can predict when declarations of war will happen. This is why I like the contextual events of EU3 better, but the Magna Mundi mod for EU3 shows that I might be in the minority.

The high level of micromanagement required to play Great Invasions is increased even further with the administrative and logistical points. Each of these is required for kingdoms and empires, cost some gold, and must be purchased in advanced. You need administrative points to appease your population and have a smooth running government, and logistical points are needed by traveling army groups. Again, How are you supposed to remember which countries need them when you control 5-10 nations scattered all over the globe? Speaking of army groups, Great Invasions has the typical selection of military units: infantry, archers, cavalry, and ships. Combat is automated like (surprise!) EU3, and you must siege a city before wrestling control of it. You may apply a number of “stratagems” during combat that give you bonuses, but the game (and the manual) never mention how often they are replenished or how you even earn new ones. What a surprise. You know, there are some original innovations that Great Invasions makes; it's too bad the game is mired in overwhelming and unnecessary complexity.

Great Invasions tries to make a couple of interesting innovations to differentiate it from the other grand strategy games, but it doesn’t work due to the cumbersome gameplay. The game isn’t all bad: in fact, there are a number of unique aspects (diplomacy, active gameplay) that make Great Invasions at least a distinct title. I just can’t get over having to control so many nations at once: it’s too tall of an order, and that’s coming from someone experienced in grand strategy games. I can’t imagine what it would be like to a new player to try out Great Invasions. There is a great likelihood that your head will explode while attempting to play this game. The game does offer constant action and there’s always something to do, but even this adds to the complexity of the game. Great Invasions would have worked so much better with just two or three nations each in the same region, but the seemingly random rosters are fixed by the developers and can’t be changed. If you can manage eight unrelated countries scattered over Europe in real time, then be my guest, but you’re better off just playing Europa Universalis III, as the new ideas Great Invasions comes up with are overshadowed by the awkward gameplay.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

President Forever 2008 + Primaries Review

President Forever 2008 + Primaries, developed and published by Eighty Dimensional Software.
The Good: A comprehensive simulation with a range of possible strategies, primaries add a whole new dimension to the gameplay
The Not So Good: Desperately needs an interactive tutorial, sorting data should be easier (or even possible), fixed at a low resolution with archaic graphics and sound, no autosave
What say you? An in-depth simulation aimed at political buffs: 6/8

As another election year draws ever closer, more attention is being directed towards the person who will become our next president. Hillary? Barack? Rudy? Doug Stanhope? For the first time in 80 years, no incumbent president or vice-president is running (apparently Dick Cheney’s pro-gun stance is too much of an issue), so the elections are wide open. The possibilities are intriguing, and this brings us to the latest version of President Forever, covering the next election and the primaries beforehand. President Forever and its international clones have been around since the last presidential election, and the newest version has been released, hoping to cash in on the impending flurry of political activity. Will President Forever 2008 be re-elected, or is it a one-term wonder?

The graphics of President Forever 2008 are simple at best. Most of the action takes place on the main map screen, which is displayed at a fixed resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. This low windowed resolution makes it difficult to select small states at modern desktop resolutions. The game is devoid of much flair or animations during gameplay: the display is just meant to be functional. The game's data tables should be better organized as well: you can't sort any of the columns of data, which makes ordering the data in any fashion you'd like impossible. The developers did get pictures of all the major candidates in the game, however. Still, the ability to change the resolution would go a long way in making the game seem at least a little bit up-to-date. There is hardly any sound in the game as well: a total of twelve sound effects are all you'll hear during gameplay, consisting of selection sounds and the like. It's plain to see (and hear) that the graphics and sound of President Forever 2008 are terribly outdated, and their ancient nature almost impedes the gameplay.

President Forever 2008 (+ Primaries) lets you control one of the presidential hopefuls in the 2008 or 2004 campaigns. There are plans to release scenarios in the future covering 2000, 1992, 1980, and 1960. There are lots of people to choose from; although the list is not completely up to date, most who filed with the Federal Elections Commission are available (and hopefully more will appear later). If you don’t like any of the choices, you can create your own candidate using the straightforward editor: creating a new person takes about ten minutes. The major party candidates have the overall goal of winning the presidency through the electoral college, but the minor party candidates have different objects (5% of the popular vote), which makes playing them at least a little bit worthwhile. There aren’t alternative objectives given for Republican or Democratic candidates, however, so if you choose to control Tom Vilsack, good luck winning. The biggest addition to the game is the primaries, which makes playing much more interesting, as you don’t know for sure who you’re opponents will be, and you must campaign against other members of your party first.

The first thing you’ll do is pick your theme: the three issues that will be the focus of your campaign. The relative importance of each issue with the American people (and individual states, if you select them) is indicated and don’t change very much through gameplay, so picking the three most important national issues is a decent strategy. Each candidate has a platform, a stance on each issue, which can be changed but will result in uprisings among your voters. The issues don’t have the dynamic importance seen in The Political Machine, where a swing in the important issue of a campaign could turn the election. You can use several people or organizations to help your campaign. Endorsers, either organizations like the NRA, newspapers, or governors, can be recruited using political influence points (that you have a set number of); they grant you a special bonus to help you out if you fit their ideal the best. Foot soldiers can be recruited in individual states; they are a very important aspect of the game, as they campaign for you automatically and get more voters out on election day. You can also hire independent celebrity crusaders that will travel the nation campaigning on your behalf. You can’t directly control their behavior, but they do follow your overall strategy. Your strategy is basically which states you want to fight over. The game gives a list of your current percentage points in each state and translates into a prospect (good, poor). You’d want to pick the states that are close and forget about the ones where you’re far ahead or far behind. This is a neat tool and it makes it easy to use ads and direct your automated workers around. The problem with this window is that all of the data is sorted in a set format (during general elections by prospects and during primaries by primary date) that can’t be changed; this makes ordering things by electoral college votes impossible.

Everyone has access to public polls, but they are subject to error. So, in really close states, you might want to pay to get better information. You can also conduct research to gain insights into specific issues (to enhance the effectiveness of a speech or advertisement) or gain scandals against opponents. Good or bad media events can be spun to raise or lower the profile of the article, influencing the momentum of the issue. You can reach voters through advertisements in the newspaper, on radio, or television; they are expensive and should be targeted at the key states you are assaulting in your strategy. You’ll spend most of your time scheduling your candidate’s activities. You can barnstorm in a selected state to increase your awareness, perform a policy speech to set your stance on one specific issue, raise funds, or develop your stats through debate preparation, developing your campaign, or working on your knowledge of the issues. You are limited in the number of activities you can run each day (each week during the primaries) by your command points, and you must rest periodically or you’ll deplete your energy points and make a gaffe.

In all, the campaigns of President Forever 2008 (+ Primaries) play out very realistically, and I can say with much certainty that this is the most realistic presidential campaign simulation available. The options available in your campaign are varied, and being able to choose multiple candidates extends the replay value of the game (as will the additional scenarios when they are released). Plus, having more people adds another layer of difficulty to the game (although you can set difficulty as well): sure you can lead Giuliani to the presidency, but what about Sam Brownback? Having to balance research, recruiting foot soldiers, hiring crusaders, developing ads, and visiting the people makes for an interesting simulation. The depth of the title makes it less approachable than, say, The Political Machine. President Forever 2008 really needs an interactive tutorial: while the manual is nice, it took me several games to remember to do everything I needed to in order to be successful. The lack of flashy graphics and the large learning curve will deter some people away from the title, and there are some issues with the low resolution and user interface that makes the game harder to manipulate than it should be. Still, fans of political games will feel right at home in President Forever 2008 (+ Primaries), as the game offers the depth, realism, and replay value that makes a good simulation.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Amju Super Cool Pool Review

Amju Super Cool Pool, developed and published by Amju Games.
The Good: Good number of game modes, believable physics, trick shot competitions, odd table shapes, dynamically adjusting AI opponent, good sound design
The Not So Good: Really low resolution graphics, more rules variations could have been used
What say you? A simple pool game with a unique theme and some unusual elements: 6/8

Anime is sweeping the nation. The Japanese import has found its way throughout popular culture in the U.S., replacing American Saturday morning cartoons and spawning a large number of computer games. Using this theme is Amju Games and their latest release Amju Super Cool Pool. The Amju universe, which I last reviewed in Amju Super Golf, takes to the billiards table, applying the fanciful setting and physics model to another sport.

The graphics of Amju Super Cool Pool is a tale of two extremes: good theme but poor resolution. The game has a very distinctive feel to it: characters with extremely large heads drawn with bright colors that makes Amju games unique. The setting is very reminiscent of Amju Super Golf (not surprisingly), and it’s a fresh take on a game that could have been represented in a more conventional environment. Sadly, Amju Super Cool Pool displays at such a low resolution that all of the objects in the game look jagged, blocky, and outdated. The game uses 640 by 480 pixels, a standard that was passé several years ago, especially with the increasing usage of LCD monitors. Normally, I don’t put that much emphasis on graphics, but pool ball identification is an important part of any billiards game, and the low resolutions of Amju Super Cool Pool makes it hard to identify solids from stripes. I shouldn’t have to squint to tell if the ball in the distance is a 6 or a 14. Just bump the resolution up and all of those problems would be solved. Like (most of) the graphics, the sound design is also very unique and distinctive. I love the squeaky foul noise, and while the characters don’t talk, a game is full of different effects that fit the theme well. The background music is also well-done. Amju Super Cool Pool has some of the best graphics and sound design of any game, it’s just too bad you can’t see some of the detail.

Amju Super Cool Pool makes some additions to the basic pool formula that makes it unique in terms of gameplay. The controls are fairly conventional: you aim, add spin, and determine power with the mouse. The game features six-ball, nine-ball, U.S. eight-ball, and UK eight-ball (red and yellow balls instead of stripes and solids). The only addition I’d like to see is more conventional game types, but Amju Super Cool Pool makes up for this in alternative modes of play. Crazy pool adds timed exploding balls, you can play with big or small pockets, on tables with different shapes (a “T,” for instance), or try a set of trick shots. These features are definitely one-of-a-kind, and they make Amju Super Cool Pool more than just another pool game. You can play any of the modes in a one-player practice mode (that shows the shot path), single player against the adept AI opponent, or against another human player at the same computer (no online play). The gameplay itself is solid and the physics are believable. The AI opponent seems to adjust her skill level according to how well you are doing, always providing a good challenge for the player. Overall, Amju Super Cool Pool is more than a typical, run-of-the mill pool game, and its exclusive gameplay additions make it a cut above the rest.

Amju Super Cool Pool does exactly what it needs to in order to compete with other billiards games: it offers a unique theme and distinctive gameplay elements. The overall setting of the game is great: the graphics and the sound are like nothing you’ll find in any other pool game, but having the game displayed at higher resolutions would be a definite plus. Amju Super Cool Pool takes a tried and true billiards formula and adds in unique table designs and additional game modes that other titles don’t offer. Amju Super Cool Pool also has a solid computer opponent and entertaining multiplayer on the same computer. Amju Super Cool Pool’s wonderful theme and exclusive gameplay elements make it a very intriguing title for those looking for a fresh take on the game of pool.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Snaky Jake Review

Snaky Jake, developed and published by Charlie Dog Games.
The Good: Combination of platform and puzzle elements, simple controls
The Not So Good: Mouse controls are not as precise as you’d want them in hectic situations, low replay value, unoriginal other than the inclusion of matching puzzles
What say you? A mouse-drive platform game that’s mostly by the numbers: 5/8

A large proportion of people seem to be afraid of snakes. From Indiana Jones to your Aunt Suzy (you know, the crazy one), shrieking seems to commence when once of these slithery creatures rears its head. Most snakes want nothing to do with you, and remember: they were here first (by about 70 million years). Capturing this cuddly creature is Snaky Jake, a platform game involving a snake named Jake (surprise!). You’ll guide him through his journey as he jumps from platform to platform, collecting fruit and gold coins (you know, like real snakes do).

Snaky Jake is rendered in two dimensions, but the game looks pretty good for a 2-D title. The game has a slightly distinctive style, although most of the game consists of obvious platforms with no real innovation as to why they are there. The settings consist of a jungle, a cave, a park, and a cellar; this serves to break up the graphical theme and make the game appear less monotonous. The detail on the main character is lacking, but the enemies exhibit a nice level of polish. There aren’t many special effects in the game, but the graphics do the job well enough. The sound presentation is better off: Snaky Jake has a good collection of appropriate sound effects and entertaining background music. The slightly cartoon-like feel of the game comes through in the sound, and it promotes a overall good setting for the game. Overall, the graphics and the sound of Snaky Jake are decent but not spectacular.

Snaky Jake makes it roots in classic platform gaming: jumping from platform to platform, collecting objects, and avoiding enemies. The game adds a couple of unique elements to the mix, the first of which is the control method. Jake is moved by using the mouse and clicking on his destination. This makes the game easy to control, but less precise than you would want, especially when aiming for narrow platforms or moving structures. The game highlights areas you can jump to, which takes the guess work out of how far Jake can go. This makes controlling the game very straightforward and anyone that can use a mouse can do it. The second unique component to Snaky Jake is the puzzle game within the game. While you are navigating through each level, you’ll collect various kinds of fruit. If you get a chain of three fruits of the same kind in a row, you get a bonus. Unfortunately, if the chain becomes too long (past the edge of the screen), you die, so you need to consciously make matches.

Snaky Jake offers several things to increase the difficult of the game. First, a lot of the platforms move. This makes selecting them more difficult, and it’s actually harder than it should be due to the limited area to click and the imprecise controls. There is also a selection of scripted enemies to avoid; combining these with the moving platforms makes Snaky Jake more challenging than most platform games. In addition, the game slowly scrolls as you play, so you need to be quick about your actions before the side of the screen knocks you off your platform. To help you out, magic stones that grant special powers (like destroying platforms or stunning enemies) are scattered around each level. Snaky Jake offers 60 levels to play through, but once you’re done there is no real reason to play the game again, other than going for a higher score. Snaky Jake lacks the replay value present in other games, since the enemy locations are the same each time you play and the game lacks a level editor.

While Snaky Jake adds some new innovations to the equation with puzzle elements and mouse controls, the game is fairly standard the rest of the way. I like the alternative controls, but they don’t offer the precise control required to navigate a lot of the levels. The developers have opted for a lower learning curve with simplified controls, so novice players will find the game more accessible, but expert players will have more trouble executing advanced moves. The addition of object collection dynamics to the game add another layer of difficulty to the equation, but I like this novel add-on that gives you another thing to think about while you play. Snaky Jake lacks the replay value required to keep you interested in the game for the long haul: the lack of random enemy placement and a level editor means that the sixty levels in the game won’t ever change. Snaky Jake might be a good starter platform game with wider appeal, but most people will find the repetitive gameplay and lack of expansion tools offset any new components in the game.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pathstorm Review

Pathstorm, developed and published by Cavebug Games.
The Good: Unique and simple mechanics, large replay value, lots of levels, random level generator, logical difficulty
The Not So Good: “Find the exits” mode is not as fun as the regular game
What say you? A sophisticated and addictive Minesweeper-like puzzle game with lots of design possibilities and challenging gameplay: 7/8

Along with Solitaire, one of the more ubiquitous games is Minesweeper. From Windows 3.1 to Windows Craptacular, this logic-based puzzle game is very popular. Taking the basic formula and kicking it up a notch is Pathstorm. Instead of mines, you’re trying to figure out the paths of balls hidden under the surface as the come into contact with various hidden objects. Will this logic-based game be logical or illogical (Word didn’t have any synonyms for “logic”…stupid Microsoft)?

Pathstorm features fairly generic 2-D graphics, but the game is still passable. You’ll be spending most of your time staring at the basic grid layout. While the game environment is not that exciting, Pathstorm does have some nice effects that accompany each of the actions in the game. I will say that Pathstorm is very easy to navigate and the interface never gets in the way. In a unique twist, the sound is actually better that the graphics. Pathstorm has great distinctive sound effects for each object in the game, and when action gets intense, you can hear an orchestra of bleeps and clangs as balls impact different obstacles. Pathstorm also has some “earthy” background music that fits the jungle theme of the game. Overall, the graphics and the sound do well enough.

In Pathstorm, you’re trying to figure out the hidden locations of objects by rolling balls around a grid and seeing where they end up. There are four types of objects that you’ll encounter: bouncers that deflect, splitters that spawn two new balls, shifters that move balls to a new row or column, and twirlers that change the direction clockwise or counterclockwise. Each of these objects can be “scrambled,” which requires you to click on them (once found) to correct their orientation. Despite having only these four components, the puzzles of Pathstorm can get quite complex. Solving the puzzles involves finding staring locations that only impact one object and working from there, like a crossword puzzle. You are heavily penalized for revealing a square that does not contain an object, but thankfully the game does not end. Pathstorm has some great gameplay, as there is a definitely solution to each puzzle, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what is causing all of the deflections on the map and where those objects are located. Skilled players can tell where objects are located just based on how long it takes to get there, and more advanced puzzles will require this level of thinking. Pathstorm is definitely addictive, and the multiple game modes add even more replay value to the equation. The journey mode has four tracks of difficulty featuring over 100 levels in all. After you are done with those, you can enter challenge mode that provides a time limit to solving each puzzle. And the puzzle mode features a random level utility where you can customize the percentage range of object type appearing on the map, the level shape, the level properties (such as variable speed balls), and object properties (such as scrambling). This means that you’ll never run out of puzzles to play in Pathstorm. While the basic game is awesome, the “find the exits” mode, where you must trace the ball paths yourself on a revealed map and click on the correct exit points, is tedious and I always groan when it comes up. Still, this is really the only drawback I’ve seen in the game, though, as the rest of Pathstorm is high quality.

Pathstorm takes a unique approach to a conventional mechanic and creates a very intriguing game. The amount of replay value in Pathstorm is staggering: despite only four objects in the game, the number of puzzles you can encounter or create is mind-boggling. Pathstorm strike the right balancing between simple mechanics and refined difficulty, which means the game will appeal to a large audience. It is very easy to increase the difficult of a single puzzle without being unfair to the user; most games would just have the game run faster, but Pathstorm’s mechanics allows for more complicated puzzles that will challenge any skill level. Fans of logic puzzles should not miss this title, and anyone else will find a very satisfying gaming experience.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Retro Records Review

Retro Records, developed and published by Sortasoft.
The Good: Simple mechanics, can import your own album covers, some interesting power-ups, challenging but fair
The Not So Good: Repetitive after a long while, background music could be less generic
What say you? An action puzzle game with an original concept and fine execution: 6/8

As newer technology has found its way into our homes, outdated methods of recording video and sound have become rare: 8-tracks, VCRs, and records. Until the digital revolution, records were the way to go, but now only DJs and collectors use this antiquated technology. Capturing this historic feel is Retro Records, an action puzzle game where you must match records with their album covers in a take on the Tetris gameplay model.

Retro Records features entirely 2-D graphics, but the game still looks good. The game is very smooth graphics, which look great for a game developed independently. The user interface is straightforward, and the graphical effects are a nice touch. Retro Records allows you to import album covers from Amazon (using any Listmania), which is a really neat resource. The game comes with a good number of covers anyway, but the ability to add up to forty more of your choosing is an added bonus. Of course, the first one I added was music giant Kevin Federline. However, you can only import albums from one list at a time, so there is some limitation in the range of titles you can play with; the ability to use more than one custom list could be implemented later. Being a music-oriented game, you would figure that Retro Records would have a great selection of popular or important songs, but this is where the game’s limited budget and independent roots work to its disadvantage. Retro Records only has a small collection of generic, repetitive songs for each genre. I realize that paying the licensing fees to get “real” music is beyond the scope of the game, but it would still be a nice addition; possibly the ability to play MP3s would sweeten the pot. Still, Retro Records has an effective combination of graphics and sound that are right on par for an independent game.

The object of Retro Records is to match falling records to their album covers by dragging the covers with the mouse into the appropriate column. The records only show the middle of the album cover, so finding the correct cover among the fifteen and placing it in the right column before the record hits the floor is where the difficulty lies. Each level starts out slow, but the records gradually accelerate their decent. And then they start spinning. And then you die when the pile of broken records reaches the top. An individual game of Retro Records doesn’t last too long (about 15 minutes) before the difficulty becomes too great; this is actually a good thing, as it prevents the game from getting too monotonous. Even better is that your progress towards unlocking bonuses is saved even when you die, so you can start over as many times as you want and still make progress within the game. There are also bonus memory matching games that grant bonuses in the next round of play. The bonuses in the game are nice: a wildcard score multiplier, clearing out broken records, and slowing down the game time (and the background music as well: nice touch). Retro Records is one of those great games that you experience chaotic and hectic moments of frenzy as you search for the albums and try to drag them over just in the nick of time. The hardest records to match up are the ones where the middle of the album cover does not match the border, and the game comes with a good selection of these challenging recordings. I would like a central high score list, but the central objectives of unlocking new bonuses and searching for rare records (including the Complete Sounds of Katamari for some reason) is enough to keep you coming back. The level of difficulty in the game is appropriate and scales up just quickly enough to keep you interested in the action.

Retro Records is a well-designed and fun game. The controls are simple, the game is easy to play, and the action is intense. The game ends quickly enough where you’re never bored by the on-screen antics. The inclusion of real album covers and the ability to customize your album list adds a piece of flair to the presentation. There are some things I would like to see added to the game (more imported albums, the ability to import MP3s, a central high score list), but all of these are superfluous. Retro Records is a fine title with solid mechanics that will appeal to anyone with an interest in action matching games.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

UFO: Afterlight Review

UFO: Afterlight, developed by Altar Games and published by Cenega.
The Good: Both strategic and tactical gameplay, plenty to keep you busy, adequate graphics, new setting, additional weapons and technologies, chosen research path and diplomatic decisions determine mission availability
The Not So Good: Very similar to previous titles, user interface could be better, totally annoying voices, every soldier action must be explicitly ordered no matter how basic, no semblance of any organization as soldiers will routinely block other team members, repetitive mission design
What say you? Another UFO game with some superficial improvements and additions, but the micromanagement-heavy tactical game remains: 5/8

A wise man once said, “the truth is out there,” if by “truth” you mean “aliens.” Aliens have a solid place in American culture, propagating through movies and television shows, preying on our fears of the unknown. This, of course, has been extended to the world of computer games, and comes to us in the form of UFO: Afterlight, another game in the UFO series, the last of which I reviewed a year ago. UFO: Afterlight takes the series to the red planet, slashing my hopes for a game played in Uranus. How many improvements to the game have been made in the past year?

UFO: Afterlight is a visual improvement over previous titles. Mars looks really good and very detailed, almost as if they used real imagery of the planet and put it into the game. It is a very realistic approach, and it results on one of the better looking maps in a strategy game. The tactical mode also looks more polished, with slightly more detail to your units and the environment. Although this game is very similar to the previous game, there has been some extra work done in the graphics department, and the result is that UFO: Afterlight holds its own in the realm of strategy games. The sound is slightly worse off, mostly due to the repetitive voice acknowledgements that get tiring very quickly. All of the in-game dialogue is voiced, however, which serves to promote a plausible game environment. The background music is typical for a game of this type, and it fits the setting. UFO: Afterlight doesn’t look or sound outdated by any stretch of the imagination, which is a definite improvement over UFO: Aftershock.

UFO: Afterlight takes place on Mars, with new settlers who must deal with aliens, both friendly and otherwise. The game, like previous titles, takes place in two phases: a grand strategic mode and a tactical game. The game follows a storyline as you progress through the game, covering the expansion of your colony. You must start over from the beginning in each new game, however, but a lot of the choices in they way you expand are up to you. The game doesn’t features completely random missions, but they are based on diplomatic decisions and research that you conduct. The missions are not varied, as most of them just consist of killing all enemy units. You start out with a handful of territories, and you expand your resource allocation by probing neighboring provinces (too bad this game takes place on Mars; otherwise you could probe Uranus) and then establishing mining operations on them that extract resources required to build structures and weapons. Producing weapons and other items is easy: just go to the production menu and queue up some stuff. The time it takes to produce the item is dependent on the skill levels of the people you have employed at the production bay. Research is very similar to production: queue up some stuff from the tree and your scientists will get cracking. It’s very straightforward to conduct research and produce new items.

Each person in UFO: Afterlight is rated in one of three areas: soldiering, production, and research. Your more advanced employees can be rated in two of the areas, making them more versatile. The more experience your people gain by killing aliens, producing new products, or conducting research, the higher their level will grow. You’re given a well-rounded selection of people in the beginning of the game which makes it easy to set up your staff assignments. Once you produce new weapons, you’ll want to give them to your squads. This interface is a little bit more complicated than it needs to be, as the squad information is scattered over several different pages. Still, the proper ammunition for each weapon is clearly indicated, and the number of different arrangements you can have for a given mission is pretty good. Missions are generated on the global map, where enemy nations invade your territory or a scripted event occurs. Not all of the aliens will be hostile, however: diplomacy can be conducted in UFO: Afterlight. You can form alliances, share technologies, and declare war. Overall, the strategic mode of UFO: Afterlight is well designed, sort of a light version of Europa Universalis III. It works well, has different paths you can undertake, and is fun to play. UFO: Afterlight adds some more technologies and weapons to research, but the strategic mode is largely unchanged from UFO: Aftershock; this is not surprising as the strategic mode doesn’t have many weaknesses.

Like in the previous game, the tactical game is where UFO: Afterlight falls short. The tactical game involves ordering your soldiers around, issuing move, attack, and interact orders and equipping different weapons. There is nothing unique about this mode of play, as it has been around since the original XCOM titles way back when. Despite recent advancements in AI, the soldiers in UFO: Afterlight are completely retarded as you need to give them specific instructions on everything. Unlike well designed games like Company of Heroes, the soldiers will stand in each other's way and then complain about not being able to move. There is absolutely no friendly AI. Now, I'm sure that this was an intentional design decision, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I want to have control over my troops, but I'd still like them to behave semi-intelligently: return fire when needed, move out of the way of other team members, and so on. I'm surprised you don't need to press a “breathe” button every five seconds. The new features added in UFO: Afterlight are trivial: “authentic” physics are really just rag doll deaths, having robots and aliens in your team behave just the same as their stupid human counterparts, and mind control is just another ranged weapon to use. The tactical mode of UFO: Afterlight is just way too outdated to be fun anymore, and since it’s been done several times over there’s no real reason to play it.

UFO: Afterlight, barring than some insignificant improvements, is identical to UFO: Aftershock: an entertaining strategic mode coupled with a boring and tedious tactical mode. The strategic mode gives you enough options in research and diplomacy to make it play out different each time, and even though the missions are repetitive, they do offer some superficial variety depending on your actions. The improved graphics are nice, but graphics don’t make the game. The tactical game is still lacking, and while a small portion of the population might like explicitly giving every instruction in the game, most people will wonder where the AI has gone. If your soldiers can’t figure out to return fire on their own, then they deserve to die. Unfortunately, there are games that do the strategic mode better, and there are games that do the tactical mode better; the total package of UFO: Afterlight just doesn’t add up to a unique gaming experience.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hot Dog King Review

Hot Dog King, developed by Fuzzyeyes Studio and published by Meridian 4.
The Good: Fairly sophisticated mechanics, lots of seedy strategies for eliminating the competition, some interesting scenario variations, mini-games vary the gameplay
The Not So Good: Superfluous “sexy” female employees, tedious tutorial, ordering products is cumbersome, cleaning the store is annoying and repetitive, really bad theme song
What say you? This business simulation has some unique aspects, but it’s not user friendly and the scantily-clad women are totally unnecessary: 5/8

There’s nothing more American than hot dogs. The amalgamation of different meat-flavored body parts is an analogy for the amalgamation of cultures that comprises our great nation. Branching from this tradition is Hot Dog King, a game that lets you enter the cutthroat world of food service. This is an economic simulation, where you build your business from the ground up, hire employees, upgrade your stores, and gradually take over the competition. Will Hot Dog King be a tasty meal, or just be composed mostly of filler?

The graphics of Hot Dog King are very reminiscent of the Sims games, both in the city and store views. The cities are nice looking and they compare favorable to the quality of City Life and SimCity 4, although Hot Dog King doesn't quite have the same level of detail. Still, it's a nice representation of three real-world locales. The shops are similar to those found in The Sims 2, with larger characters but fewer details. The character animations are repetitive (and you can really see this on accelerated time), but the people behave realistically enough. The quality of the graphics in Hot Dog King is pretty much what you’d expect for a game of this type. The sound is generally decent, with good effects and reasonable restaurant sounds. However, Hot Dog King has probably the worst theme song ever; you can download it here from the official site. It’s not even in the “so bad it’s good” category. I quickly turned the music volume all the way to zero, as you can probably tell. Still, the graphics and sound as a whole are average for the genre.

In Hot Dog King, you run a new business specializing in food. You start out with convenience-store abilities (microwave, refrigerator), but as you earn more money, you can upgrade your store to include a full kitchen to prepare hot and delicious meals for the masses. Hot Dog King features a tutorial that teaches all of the game’s basic mechanics, but it’s too much reading and not enough interaction. In campaign mode, you start out by choosing a personality profile that grants different bonuses to employee morale, discounts on clothing, or more money. There are also several stand-alone scenarios with different starting conditions, such as the steady invasion of more competition, starting with high-level businesses, and so on. Not restricting the user to starting from the bottom each new game is nice. The world of Hot Dog King is in three cities: Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City. Each city is divided into several districts that will determine your clientele and their desires. The real life locations don’t have any impact on the gameplay (they game would be the same if it were set in, say, Topeka), but adding a touch of realism never hurts.

You’ll spend most of your time in Hot Dog King running your store. First, you’ll need to hire some staff. At first, you’ll only have one employee that runs the cash register (that must be female), but through upgrades you can allow for more staff. Each potential hire is rated in several areas that determine how well they interact with the customers and their performance on the job. None of your employees are good at everything, so you’ll have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each potential worker. Training can be conducted later to improve their deficiencies, however. After they are hired, you choose a position for them and buy clothes to dress them up like dirty, dirty whores. You see, a point of emphasis in Hot Dog King is your female workers “swaying their hips and showing the skin,” as the manual puts it. This exploitation of women is completely gratuitous in the game, and it takes what would be a family-friendly product to seedy levels that are just uncalled for.

Since you are in the food retail business, you’ll be selling food. The raw or pre-packaged products are bought through the wholesaler menu. There is a great selection of products available, but buying in bulk is extremely tedious as each item must be clicked on individually and added to your cart. Once your store becomes popular, you’ll have hundreds of customers, so buying hundreds of products requires hundreds of clicks. As you might imagine, this gets annoying very quickly. There are several ways of doing this much easier, but Hot Dog King avoids a simple and straightforward user interface. Once you make enough money, you can add a kitchen and more advanced appliances to your store, increasing the customer base. In an interesting twist, Hot Dog King allows for more underhanded tactics when dealing with the competition you’ll encounter: you can hire the Mob to provide protection, “remove” the competition, trash stores, poison their food, or frame rival owners to reduce their reputation in the community. This is a neat addition that I don’t remember seeing in other business management games; it’s one of the unique aspects of Hot Dog King. Another unique addition is the use of mini-games: you’ll need to blast computer viruses and swat rats on occasion, and although the games become repetitive, it’s still a nice break from the action and a welcome addition to the title.

Despite these unique components, Hot Dog King really falters when it comes to giving the user good feedback. Your customers give a generic one-line quote about their visit, but no specifics. You might not stock their favorite food, but they never say what it is. They complain that “at least the rats are eating good”; it took me a while to figure out what that even means (your store is dirty). Sales figures are also uninformative: you’re given the best seller per day, but no other sales information. You’re given how many items you have in stock, but the game won’t automatically purchase new items or even give an auditory or visual indication when you run out of goods. You can set up a daily shopping list, but this is never executed automatically like you would think. For a business simulation, Hot Dog King is really skimpy on the details, which makes playing the game extremely difficult. I lost the first four games I played after the first day before I realized that I have to manually click on every spot of dirt, piece of trash, and appliance several times per day to clean them. This is as exciting as it is in real life; sure it’s realistic, but shouldn’t it be automated from the beginning instead of having to wait until you get a high-level store to have a cleaning employee (you’ve already lost by that point anyway). I don’t play games so that I can click on dirt.

Hot Dog King is a combination of truly unique products with exacerbating design decisions. The gameplay is generally solid: running a store can be fun and challenging, and the addition of mini-games and the Mob is one-of-a-kind. There is the potential for a very good business simulation here, but there are several issues that hold Hot Dog King back from being a satisfying game. The exploitation of women is a very odd choice that removes any family appeal, the feedback provided by the game is terrible, and ordering products is tedious. Unfortunately, two of these things are fundamental to the gameplay, so it makes Hot Dog King more of an exercise in monotony than a compelling game. Luckily, I think these problems could be easily resolved. Some people might be able to get past the cumbersome interface and enjoy the game; just don’t listen to the theme song.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, developed by GSC Game World and published by THQ.
The Good: Relatively open mission design with plenty of side quests, “living” world, better than average multiplayer
The Not So Good: Can be very difficult, doesn’t auto-save often enough, quests are one dimensional, online lag
What say you? A first person shooter with RPG-like design that isn’t quite polished enough: 6/8

Role-playing games have been giving the user progressively more freedom in their gaming experience. Oblivion is arguably the gold standard of RPG games, with an open architecture featuring a vibrant world to explore, not tying the player to the main storyline. There is a large number of things to keep the player busy: side quests, treasure hunts, and more. Recently, PC games have started to meld two or more genres into a single experience, and with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the freeform world of RPG games comes into contact with a first person shooter. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in Russia after several nuclear accidents at Chernobyl. The player takes the role of “the Marked One,” engaging in a civil war that has erupted between several factions in the radioactive land. Will S.T.A.L.K.E.R. successfully combine open-ended gameplay with a first person shooter mentality?

The graphics of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are in the upper echelon of PC games. While not at the same level as Oblivion, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fits nicely right below it in the pecking order. The outdoor environments have a nice run-down feel to them, and the gritty nature of a land at war is conveyed effectively. The character models look good, although the basic nature of the clothes lack to level of detail found in other games. The weather and time-of-day effects are nice, although they seem to be pretty standard now. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could have been considered cutting-edge if it were released a couple of years ago (which was originally planned), but the game still gets high marks for graphics. The audio is good as well. Most of the main campaign dialoged is voiced, but you'll still have to do a fair amount of reading. The characters carry on conversations as you pass (in Russian), so that adds to the plausible setting of the game. The weapons are convincing enough, and the background music is appropriate for the genre. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn't have the best graphics and sound of any PC game, but it still ranks pretty high on the list.

As I stated in the introduction (you were paying attention, weren't you?), S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in a world torn apart by meltdowns, mutations, and skirmishes between warring factions. Using the soap opera amnesia mechanic, the “Marked One” vows revenge against those who have wronged him, and gets himself involved in the main conflict along the way. The single player campaign borrows a lot of conventions from role-playing games, and it works well for the most part. Although the game strongly emphasizes the main storyline, there are side quests available by talking to various people in the game. Most of the side quests are pretty linear (kill a guy, get an object, kill another guy), but they break up the main campaign and can earn you some extra cash in the game. Unlike a lot of role-playing games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not chock full of goodies to collect: almost all of the items you'll get are on people instead of really good guns just lying around. This is realistic and it makes sense, but it also means that you'll have to kill someone with a good gun to get that good gun, which can prove to be difficult. The realistic tone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is rare among role-playing games that usually feature magic, elves, and arrows. I like the change of pace from the typical fantasy environment, and the overall theme of the game is consistent and well-done. The controls are typical for a first person shooter, so anyone with experience in these games will feel right at home. Accuracy is very low in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; this may be realistic but it can result in unloading an entire clip at an enemy and hitting nothing but air. Having your targeting reticule directly on the enemy and pressing fire and hitting nothing is frustrating. You’ll need to use cover in order to stand a chance against the AI.

The inventory is where you store all of your guns, medical kits, armor, and other trinkets you collect along the way; switching items is a drag-and-drop affair. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. eschews the RPG convention of experience points, instead opting for magical objects (artifacts) that grant large bonuses along with small penalties (improved armor in exchange for a little radiation poisoning). Objective locations are clearly indicated on your mini-map, and detailed information about your missions and any characters you encounter along the way is recorded in your PDA. You’ll be doing a lot of conversing in the game, although the NPCs won’t talk to you unless you put your gun away. It borders on tedious, but at least the game is devoid of annoying cut scenes. The game’s world is divided up into several levels separated by load-times; there isn’t much reason to go back to a previously visited area, especially if you’re strictly following the main storyline. The game isn’t quite as open-ended as you would like (meaning like Oblivion); S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tries to nudge you along the main path, but you aren’t totally restricted like in most first person shooters.

While the structure of the single player game is solid, there are a couple of problems with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. First, the game is really hard. I played on the second easiest difficulty level, and I had to reload the game at least ten times in the first half-hour of gameplay. This mainly resulted from superior enemy forces. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a tactical game, which means it only takes a couple of shots to kill you. Sometimes you'll have backup, but a lot of the missions are lone-wolf affairs where it's you against twenty bad guys. This is insane in a supposedly “realistic” game, and the result is that you’ll die. A lot. This is surprising because the enemy AI is no slouch: they will use cover and swarm you in numbers. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t need to stack the odds against you to be a challenging game, but it does anyway. There are also areas of radiation scattered around the map; this fits the setting and the game gives a Geiger counter warning before you get near one of these areas, but this is yet another thing in the game out there that can kill you. And forget about finding health packs scattered around the maps: they are rare and usually found on enemy units after you’ve killed them. It’s a treasure hunt to find them without going through a trader (and traders never seem to get resupplied), and a lot of the missions require giving them to injured allies before they talk to you. The other issue has to do with saving your progress. The game only auto-saves at the end of each map area instead of at the end of each mission like it should. There is no quick-save feature, so you’ll be exiting out and entering back into the action far too often. This really fragments the flow of the game and it becomes annoying very quickly. But, you need to save just in case another pack of five dogs attack you and you die. It’s too bad that there are these fundamental problems with the game that make it frustrating to play, because the setting of the game and the gameplay make S.T.A.L.K.E.R. quite enjoyable.

After you’re done with the single player game (or once you’re fed up with dying so much), you can check out the multiplayer offerings of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. The multiplayer of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is reminiscent of F.E.A.R. Combat (another abbreviated game), and plays like a combination of Counter-Strike and Firearms. Joining a match is very simple using the in-game browser, and there are three game modes to choose from: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and artifact hunt (capture the flag). This selection is typical enough, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. adds some wrinkles to the gameplay borrowed from other games. First, you buy your weapons from cash earned by killing people (borrowed from Counter-Strike). The weapon selection is pretty good: pistols, shotguns, rifles, armor, and grenades. You will also earn ranks by getting kills, which unlocks new, more powerful weapons (borrowed from Firearms). This is a neat addition to the game that makes you feel like your accomplishing something rather than just racking up kills. The ranks reset after each round as well, eliminating the advantages enjoyed by veteran players of other first person shooters. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also has dynamic time-of-day and weather effects during the game that actually affect the gameplay, at least in terms of spotting enemy units. Like the single player campaign, multiplayer in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. doesn’t feature any vehicles, which is just fine with me. There are some serious issues with online lag: even on servers where everyone has a sub-100 ping, players can stutter around the map, making it exceedingly difficult to hit some people. I've experienced this on several different servers, so I don't think it's an isolated problem. Still, I enjoy the multiplayer portion of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: it isn’t the whole reason to pick up the game, but it effectively combines parts of other games into a coherent package.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a refreshing change of pace from the fantasy-based role-playing games and linear first person shooters on the market. It’s different, which is what you need in order to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack in today’s competitive PC gaming market. The story is plausible, the game’s environment is compelling and convincing, and the action blends the action from first person shooters with the open-ended nature of role-playing games. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a coat of polish and a few fixable bugs away from being a great game: ease up on the difficulty and make more frequent auto-saves and I’d be happy. The problems I have with the game are minor, but they are annoying enough to make me want to quit playing for periods of time. The multiplayer is not original, but a combination of existing game formats into a fine presentation. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has over five years of work behind it, and while it’s a couple of issues short of perfection, gamers looking for a change of pace to either typical role-playing games or first person shooters will fine a mostly successful game here.