Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tank Universal Review

Tank Universal, developed and published by Dialogue Design.
The Good: Neat graphical style, varied gameplay, fairly interesting story
The Not So Good: No skirmish or multiplayer modes, can’t save mid-mission (but the missions are usually short), some annoyingly tedious missions
What say you? A slow-paced action game that lacks the features to be a complete product: 5/8

Tanks strike fear on the battlefield. The steel behemoths can wipe out huge sections of territory very quickly. As you might imagine, a number of computer games have attempted to capture the awesome power of blowing stuff up with a large metal object: DropTeam, First Battalion, ThinkTanks, and Battle Carry, to name a few I’ve played and reviewed. Tank Universal takes the tank into a simulated world full of robots and, well, tanks. Where will it stack up in the lineage of tank action games?

I really like the design of Tank Universal. It has a definite TRON feel to it, with a soft-glowing blue hue in each of the game’s areas. The objects in the game are nicely modeled, from the tanks to the levels themselves. While the game may lack the realistic detail present in most games, the futuristic setting in Tank Universal works very well and each of the locations in the game look believable. The effects are also well-done. It’s apparently that a lot of work went into the distinctive graphical design of the game, and Tank Universal looks good. The sound is pretty generic, with some appropriate weapon sounds and short electronic talking that accompanies in-game dialogue. For an independent title, the production values of Tank Universal are above average thanks to its unique design.

Tank Universal is an action game that involves a conflict in a virtual world. In the game, you will control tanks (obviously) and walk around as you follow the storyline through a number of missions. The game only features the single player story mode; Tank Universal features a variety of mission types, not just the capture the flag style gameplay that’s featured in the demo. Tank Universal does not have a skirmish or multiplayer mode for quick battles, which would have greatly expanded the game. This is odd since most tank games only feature skirmishes. Maybe future versions of the game will have this feature.

In general, you will be driving or walking around to objective locations around the map and engaging enemy tanks. There are levels that strictly feature combat, and in these, you must retrieve a key from the enemy base and return it to yours. Bases are guarded by turrets that should be eliminated before you venture inwards. There are a number of “glyphs” scattered around the map that can be tagged for collection, which will allow for AI teammates to spawn in the game. You can collect shards dropped from defeated enemies to power bonuses, like health, speed, or improved weapons. More powerful shots can be launched by holding down the fire button and charging them up; whether you option for fewer, more powerful shots or quicker, less powerful shots is a decision left up to the player.

While the combat-only missions are fairly entertaining, there is too much walking or driving around in the game. You can’t run and the tanks move slowly enough where searching the map for an objective becomes a tedious and boring process; at least the objective locations are clearly marked on the minimap. Tank Universal needs to feature more constant action, something that would have been remedied with a skirmish mode. As it stands, you have to do the missions in the order they are given and go through the motions of the single player campaign. The missions are quite difficult, usually because you are matched against superior numbers, but firing from a large distance usually makes the odds more even. Playing the game on “easy” reduces the amount of damage you take, and it was the only way I could beat an early mission where you must walk (slowly) past enemy tanks. The friendly and enemy AI could be better, especially friendly tanks: they aren’t aggressive enough and usually you are on your own storming the enemy base. I like what Tank Universal brings to the table, it just could have been executed better.

Tank Universal has a unique presentation ruined by some questionable level pacing and the lack of skirmish or multiplayer features. The story is interesting and keeps you going through the single player campaign, but some of the missions are either too difficult or too boring to keep most people going. I would much rather have a stand-alone skirmish mode to compliment the story and make Tank Universal feel more complete. The friendly AI doesn’t make the missions any easier, and there’s just too much time driving or walking without anything happening to keep grinding through the game. The general mechanics do have promise, though, and hopefully improvements will be made for future versions of the game. As it stands, Tank Universal is a nice little game that just doesn’t have the depth to maintain interest for very long.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Enemy Engaged 2 Review

Enemy Engaged 2, developed by G2 Games and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Outstanding dynamic campaigns where success is not always required, novice-friendly difficulty settings, accurate simulation, central multiplayer server provides persistent online real-time campaigns
The Not So Good: No tutorial, virtually identical to previous versions, rudimentary AI, minor bugs
What say you? It’s entirely the same except for the graphics and one new campaign, but still very enjoyable: 6/8

Simulation games illustrate why PC gaming is great: you can do something you would never be able to do in real life. Most of these games center around warfare (with one notable exception) because blowing stuff up is fun. A very distinguished simulation was released in the year 2000: Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum. This close follow-up to Enemy Engaged: Apache vs. Havoc featured a spectacular dynamic campaign in a realistic simulation, something that was noteworthy back then and even relevant today. There is a very obsessed (that’s the right word for it) community dedicated to producing various mods and scenarios to the original, but they can only take the engine so far. Enter Enemy Engaged 2, an update to the original series, charged with bringing the simulation back to the future (complete with flux capacitor). Will Enemy Engaged 2 offer enough improvements over the original games to satisfy both veteran and novice players alike?

Clearly the focus of Enemy Engaged 2 was to bring the graphics up-to-date, and the developers have mostly succeeded. The models in the game are the highlight of the title, and all of the objects, from the helicopters to the buildings, look very good. The exteriors of the player craft are nice and finely detailed. The various tanks and buildings that you will encounter (and eventually blow up) are excellent as well. The roads and rivers are curved (instead of the angular highways of previous titles) and the terrain is spotted with many 3-D trees that look great when you are hovering over them. The cities are not at the level of Microsoft Flight Simulator X or IL-2 Sturmovik as they lack convincing ground textures to compliment the 3-D buildings, but at least you can run the game at more than five frames per second. The lone disappointment with the graphics is the bland airports, which actually look worse than the ones in Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum. The runways are solid black and the level of detail lags behind other features in the game. This is odd, since you spend a lot of time around airfields taking off and landing. The weapon effects look good and the countermeasures like flares are convincing. Explosions are unimpressive: just a ball of fire as the structure magically disappears. There are lots of views to enjoy the action from, including the ever-popular Dr. Strangelove weapon cam and the ability to view the battle from pretty much any military object on the map. There are some clipping issues when tanks and planes start moving, but they are rare. The sound is the same as Comanche vs. Hokum: repetitive voice acting from ground control, ATC, and other flights. It's interesting that air traffic control speaks in a Russian accent no matter who you are flying for in the Hokum (North Korea, China, or Lebanon/Syria). Most of the effects are good enough, but the voice could be more varied to lend a degree of realism to the chatter. Enemy Engaged 2 set out to improve the visuals of Comanche vs. Hokum, and in that aspect the game is successful.

Enemy Engaged 2 is Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum, with one new campaign. This isn’t entirely bad, since Comanche vs. Hokum is a great title, but more features are always appreciated. Enemy Engaged 2 features three dynamic campaigns, and these are great fun. Unlike most games that feature set missions in a scripted order, the battles in Enemy Engaged 2 play out in real time (and can be accelerated) and missions are generated according to the results of previous missions. You can watch ground forces progress across the map, and successfully completing a mission will help out your side to gain military superiority in the region (represented on the map, although I think the colors are reversed). It really feels like a real war is taking place in the game, and it’s a wonderful feature that I’m surprised more games haven’t copied. There are a number of different mission types you can undertake, although they generally involve flying to a location and blowing stuff up. You can be instructed to destroy ships, tanks, SAM installations, airfields, and factories, or escort units, provide reconnaissance or close air support, or evaluate post-battle damage. There is an ever-changing list of available missions, and you can even join mission in-progress if they use either the Comanche or Hokum. I would like the ability to pilot most of the craft in the game, especially since the first Enemy Engaged game featured the Apache and the Havoc which are inexplicably unavailable here.

You can undertake smaller skirmish battles that take place in a more restricted area, or free flight games that really have no point. There is no tutorial in the game, although the manual does an adequate job explaining how to operate a helicopter. It is interesting to note that the manual is a carbon copy of the Comanche vs. Hokum manual, even referring to compatibility with Apache vs. Havoc. That pretty much sums up the theme of Enemy Engaged 2: a carbon copy of Comanche vs. Hokum. There is a central multiplayer server available if you enter the IP address ( into the options menu that offers persistent online campaigns. This is a really neat feature that offers essentially the same features as a MMO for free. Although I hadrly ever found anyone to play with, it is potentially an engrossing feature with high possibilities. Enemy Engaged 2 keeps most of the features of Comanche vs. Hokum intact but doesn’t add any more. The least the developers could have done was to include the Apache and Havoc helicopters from the first Enemy Engaged game (well, actually, the least they could have done is what they did). They could have also added more new campaigns; the community has developed well over ten in the years since Comanche vs. Hokum was released, and only having three is disappointing. There are also some minor bugs or annoyances in dealing with the campaigns, such as the reversed force colors I mentioned earlier, and that fact that saved games don’t remember which side you were on.

Not surprisingly, the physics model is intact in Enemy Engaged 2. The controls are straightforward and I find the helicopters of Enemy Engaged 2 are actually easier to control than ones in ArmA or Battlefield 2142 on the novice difficulty settings. You can make the dynamics as easy or complicated (realistic) as you want, introducing such alarming things as blade stall, over-torque, or wind effects. In essence, you control the cyclic for steering, the collective for power, and the tail rotor for rotation. The two helicopters featured in Enemy Engaged 2 are essentially the same and just the names for some of the components are different, but the Hokum does have wipers (which don’t work anyway). Enemy Engaged 2 has a decent autopilot function that will automatically go to the next waypoint and land the helicopter for you (although it slows down when reaching a waypoint). You can also have the computer maintain a hover if you so choose, but holding an altitude seems to be broken.

Of course, what’s the point of having an attack helicopter if you don’t attack stuff? Enemy Engaged 2 can make targeting and engaging enemy units as difficult (realistic) as you’d like. At the most basic level, targets are automatically selected and it’s just a matter of pressing the fire button and boom goes the dynamite. If you so choose, you can use all of the real weapons systems to detect and choose targets yourself. The multi-function displays present ground and air radar, video targeting, maps, contacts, weapons, system damage, engine, flight, and mission information. Your co-pilot can identify targets and deploy electronic countermeasures like chaff and flares. Novice avionics will provide automatic targeting, while realistic avionics will require you to use the radar, video equipment (FLIR, TV), or helmet view to spot and target enemy units. You can adjust the difficulty of the game as well that will affect how much damage your weapons cause and how quickly the enemy responds to your presence. Each helicopter comes with air-to-ground missiles, air-to-air missiles, and guns that automatically track targets. You are commonly given wingmen that you can issue orders to, such as formations and attack commands. Controlling the action is very fun and rewarding; although Enemy Engaged 2 lacks the constant combat of arcade military games, the game does play out realistically and the dynamic campaign goes a long way in presenting a genuine environment to play in. The enemy units can be tough, especially if you are flying through areas covered by surface-to-air missiles. Thankfully, the campaigns do not penalize you much for failing your missions or dying. Enemy Engaged 2 is just as good as I remember it. There are some bugs with the controls, such as the windshield wiper commands I mentioned and the control key on the right side of the keyboard doesn't work. Oh, and don't press Control+D by accident: it crashes the game. Overall, Enemy Engaged 2 is a very solid helicopter simulation, but, again, we’ve seen this before seven years ago.

For people who own the original Enemy Engaged: Comanche vs. Hokum, there is absolutely no reason to get Enemy Engaged 2, especially when you consider all of the user-made mods and scenarios that have been made in the past seven years. However, if you have never experienced the awesomeness of the Enemy Engaged series, then Enemy Engaged 2 is a quality simulation that deserves a serious look. The three dynamic campaigns are outstanding: it’s like being in a real conflict, where your actions have an effect (although an appropriately minor one) on the outcome. The game is friendly to novice players, as you can turn the realism down a bit to make piloting and targeting a lot easier. Or, for experienced players, you can experience full-on reality. The controls are seemingly realistic, and the detection systems are generally easy to handle. I like the central multiplayer server: although I never saw anyone else playing, it adds MMO flair to the game, and you can jump into the continuous conflict at any time. There are several things the developers could have done to improve this update beyond the graphics, such as more scenarios or more controllable aircraft. In fact, if they would have done those two things, then Enemy Engaged 2 might be worth it to owners of the original. Plus, Enemy Engaged 2 introduces some minor bugs to the game, such as conflicting controls. Still, it’s Enemy Engaged and that title’s overall quality has been unmatched by a helicopter simulation in the past seven years. While veteran players can steer clear of this superfluous graphical update, players new to the series will find a lot to enjoy.

Friday, July 27, 2007

DiRT Review

DiRT, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Career mode with multiple disciplines, outstanding graphical detail with a great damage model, neat menus, an Impreza is on the cover
The Not So Good: Poor unrealistic arcade physics, disappointing multiplayer, blurry graphics, console port artifacts, StarForce
What say you? A dumbed-down off-road racing game that will appeal to a wider audience: 5/8

In my opinion, the best drivers in the world compete in the World Rally Championship. These people are nuts, going way too fast on “roads” that are way too small and dusty. The only people who are possibly more nuts are the fans that stand right next to the out-of-control cars. Unfortunately, rally racing has taken a back seat to NASCAR on TV in the U.S., so most of my rally fix needs to be satisfied by computer gaming. There have been a number of rally games on the PC, mostly notably Richard Burns Rally (my personal favorite and consensus realism winner) and the Colin McRae series, the latest of which (without the Colin, at least in the U.S.) is titled DiRT. This iteration wants to appeal to a wider audience by featuring a more diverse selection of racing disciplines, while still maintaining “sublime” car handling and a “thrillingly accurate” physics model. Does DiRT make the podium, or suffer being a color commentator for TNT?

DiRT features some exceptional detail in its graphics. The car models are spot on, including the interiors. Each of the tracks in the game looks great, from the detailed backgrounds to the numerous objects surrounding each track. The damage model is also well done: small dings appear on your car as you venture off-road, and the damage doesn’t seem to be scripted as heavily as most racing games. When you are driving by yourself, the game performance is about what you would expect for a level of detail. However, if you introduce other cars into the game, you get very inconsistent framerates, even if the other cars are not being actively rendered. There is no option to turn opponent car detail down (it’s “medium” or “high”), so you’ll have to live with the slow performance during multi-car races or turn down the graphics for single events. The graphics do have some problems, as they are too blurry and too shiny. I didn’t realize that dirt is as reflective as a mirror, because you will get occasionally blinded by the shine. Some of the tracks seem to have focus issues as well, as everything outside of the window lacks a crispness. It’s really weird and I’m not sure if the fuzziness is intentional or not. I will mention the cool 3-D menus that display stats while loading a new track. The graphics of DiRT are an odd combination of high detail and questionable clarity. The sound is standard for the genre, with engine sounds that appear to be accurate. The game features some echoing effects when you are driving beside cliffs or under bridges, and I think the volume increase is a bit overdone. The game uses Travis Pastrana as the narrator, and both he and your co-driver are repetitive after a couple of races. I can’t count how many times they have been “stoked.” Like most mass market games, DiRT aims for high production values, and the overall result is more hits than misses, but some misses nevertheless.

The first thing you’re greeted with when play DiRT is our magnificent friend StarForce. Now, I've already done my StarForce rant, so there is no need to repeat the evils of this copy protection scheme. The second thing you’re greeted with is the game’s console roots, in the form of “press enter” prompts, no mouse control, and “save process complete” notices. I don’t care that the save process has completed (a notice that takes four seconds to disappear and can’t be skipped); I just want to drive another race. It’s a good thing the game reminds me “please don’t turn off your PC,” because I was going to right when the game started up. Thanks Codemasters! It takes too many menus to do anything and DiRT does not take advantage of the wonderful invention we call a mouse, as all of the menus must be navigated with the keyboard. Once you get past the fact that this is a console game in PC clothing, you will spend most of your time in the career mode. You’ll encounter around sixty events covering all of the disciplines in the game: rally, multi-car rally, hill climb, rally cross, CORR-style races, and crossover. The different race types are nice, although they boil down either solo events or racing on different surfaces. DiRT features some real-world tracks and events, and all of the tracks are generally well designed. You earn money and points depending on where you finish: money is used to purchase cars that are required for future events, and points unlock additional races and the next tier of events. You don’t need to win or even drive all of the events to “beat” the game, and you can even plow through the game at a low difficulty setting. The physics stay the same, but the opponent skill and damage are changed, along with the prize money. There is no point to do more events in a tier once you have the point for the next tier, except for earning extra money. You can use money to purchase new liveries for a particular car; this is a purely cosmetic change. but shouldn’t sponsors pay you to be on your car, instead of the other way around? Once you are done with the career, you can used unlocked cars to tackle a rally championship, or drive on any unlocked track in rally world. And then there is multiplayer.

DiRT advertises 100-player online matches, and my immediate thought was “how?” Well, it’s because multiplayer only features solo events like rally and hill climb. That’s right, you won’t actually see another human player in any of the multiplayer modes, as you’ll just be racing against their times. This wouldn’t be an issue in a rally-only title, but for a game that features multi-car races, this is a very big disappointment. I guess somebody didn’t want to do good net code. Also, you can only join quick matches as there is no multiplayer browser. The quick match utility does a terrible job finding matches: most of the games I enter either have eight minutes left until the next race or one other player. And, without a browser, you can't find popular matches, so it's all up to the crappy matching software. I have yet to find any matches approaching the 100-player extravaganzas advertised, the most I've found is against 2-8 people. I can do the same thing using a third party program for Richard Burns Rally. It’s sad that a community download for a three–year-old game has more features (a browser, ghost cars) than a new title with a huge budget. There is also rampant cheating (or bugs) with uploaded scores in the game: 0.03 seconds for a complete race? Yeah, right. There is so much potential for long-term enjoyment in DiRT, but the lack of comprehensive multiplayer features is devastating.

Thankfully, the AI drivers provide good enough competition. Their skill is about right for solo events at each difficulty setting, but they are absolute beasts at multi-car events. Maybe I’m just better at rallies than races, but I had a whale of a time defeating the AI in multi-car events when compared to single-car events at the same difficulty setting. The AI cars are too close together in either type of race: every driver is given the same skill set it seems, so races involve huge packs of cars and first to last can be less than three seconds in rally events. The AI just goes faster at higher difficulty levels.

The press information I received with DiRT states that “the physics system is thrillingly accurate.” Nothing could be further from the truth. DiRT features arcade physics with two fundamental problems that prevents the title from even approaching simulation status: brakes and grip. The brakes are really powerful: you can go from 80 miles per hour to a stop in about a second in any vehicle, and I don’t remember ever sliding the tires, even on loose surfaces. I think the problem lies with incorrect weights. Every car in the game, even the gigantic semis, drives like a Formula One car: your grip is too good, as you can corner at speeds that defy real driving conventions. There is a place for arcade racing games, but if a game advertises itself as realistic, than it better be realistic. I had to adjust skills learned from pretty much every simulation game I’ve played; I’m sorry, but braking two carlengths before a corner to slow down sixty miles per hour does not indicate a “thrillingly accurate” physics system.

If you’re looking for an arcade racing game, then DiRT is pretty entertaining. However, the game does not deliver on its promise of realism, so simulation fans (like myself) will be very disappointed. There is a good selection of racing disciplines here, and some types of racing highlighted here are rarely simulated. The career mode is lengthy enough, although you can skip a lot of the races and the novelty of each event wears on. The multiplayer features are supremely unacceptable, something that could have injected some longevity into the title. While the AI is decent, all of the vehicles in the game drive like they have the mass of a Formula One car. Sure, it makes the game easy to drive and friendly to beginners, but “thrillingly accurate” it is not. I’d rather just play Richard Burns Rally for my authentic rally needs. DiRT shows what happens when a game is marketed for the console crowd: simplified controls and pretty pictures to amuse all of the eight-year-olds.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Plumeboom: The First Chapter Review

Plumeboom: The First Chapter, developed by Fireglow Casual Studios and published by Big Fish Games.
The Good: Slightly innovative mechanics, very fast pace, a number of bonuses
The Not So Good: Not much different from other matching games, not challenging enough, repetitive, bonuses unlock very slowly
What say you? An average puzzle game that’s mostly too easy but occasionally too hard: 5/8

I’ve reviewed my fair share of puzzle games, a genre that “major” PC gaming sites generally tend to ignore (they are games on the PC, so they still count). I’ve gotten to the point where a puzzle or arcade game from either a small developer or a prolific publisher needs to offer something unique in order for me to review it. So I saw a press release for Plumeboom, saying it is “an addictive and novel title” with “jug-juggling-happiness.” Sounds good enough for me! Does The First Chapter of Plumeboom offer happiness in a jug-juggling form, or are its juggling jugs not juggly enough?

The graphics of Plumeboom are relatively simplistic. The generic 2-D graphics are merely functional and they lack a lot of the special effects that are present in many contemporary puzzle games. The backgrounds are nice enough, although you won’t be paying any attention to them during the game. There is just nothing too exciting or too memorable about the average graphics in the game. The sound is along the same lines: average at best. I like the pot shattering sound, though, but the rest of the repetitive audio is less than enthralling. The introductory song is very annoying, but the background music during normal gameplay is tolerable. Plumeboom represents the average of the puzzle genre in terms of presentation.

Plumeboom takes a somewhat fresh approach to the matching game. Here, you can either shoot pots to the end of a line or exchange them with existing pots to make matches. Plus, the game takes place horizontally, which actually feels a little different. The game’s fast pace keeps it away from being completely tedious, since by the time you get bored or tired of one particular level, it’s done and you move on to the next one. The game helps you finish each level as it provides appropriate colors to tidy up near the end; this is a nice feature since you could potentially be there all day if you keep pulling the wrong colored pots. As long as you keep making matches, no new columns will be added. Pots will only disappear if it’s directly a result of your actions, not if it appears and makes a match automatically. Coins are earned in each level that can be spent to gain new bonuses, and you can wear clothes that match the weather to gain bonus points.

Plumeboom is not a very challenging game. There are no difficulty settings, and most of the game is just a cakewalk. The game tries to add occasional roadblocks like unmatchable pots or spider webs that block access to certain columns, but the only real obstacle the game fabricates is the timer. Occasionally, a timer will appear for a level that will add a new column at a very quick pace, and this is the only time I had problems playing the game. This timer increases the difficulty dramatically, and it’s disconcerting that there is no middle ground with the challenge level of Plumeboom. There are some balance issues with the game, and the gameplay is either too easy or too hard. The game comes with a lot of levels, but each additional level is the same and bonuses and new mechanics unlock very, very slowly. Plumeboom could have had half of the level count and introduced new things more quickly to keep players more interested in the game for the long term.

While Plumeboom has the basics down and provides some innovative gameplay, there are some issues with the game that keep it from being completely entertaining. I like the bonuses that can be purchased, but they unlock too slowly. The game is also far too easy for every level except for the ones that incorporate the evil timer. Each level flies by at a quick pace, but there are just too many levels, and I wish the game completed more quickly and added more modes of play. Only those gamers who crave new puzzle games will be entertained long enough to wade their way through this title, a game that lacks the features to promote continuing entertainment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol Review

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol, developed by Iocaine Studios and published by Atari.
The Good: Unique mechanics, enjoyable tactical combat, wide array of offensive and defensive weaponry, persistent online universe with ship customization, upgrades redistribute stats instead of adding to them, map editor, low price
The Not So Good: High learning curve, needs more novice-only servers, too many stalemates due to strong defenses, could have more production strategy
What say you? A fun arcade tactical strategy game that is something different, though not for everyone: 6/8

While the popularity of strategy games continues, some titles are starting to incorporate pieces of other genres. We’ve seen RTS/RPG amalgams like SpellForce 2 and RTS/FPS mixtures like Battlestations Midway and War Front. Most of these are completely pointless additions to the gameplay, but the oddly named ThreadSpace: Hyperbol (spell check does not like that title) hopes to change that trend. Featuring a mix a strategy, tactics, and shooting, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol will attempt to breathe new life into a genre packed to the gills with World War II games. Will ThreadSpace: Hyperbol provide a fresh product from a healthy mix, or do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol has a nice graphical style that features clean futuristic graphics. Most everything in the game is either made of glass or metal, so there are a lot of reflections to be seen. Each of the weapons has a nice level of detail, from the glow of the hyperbol nuclear weapon to the tiny fighters that can take out enemy deployables. The ships themselves look good as well, and each player craft can be customized in appearance using an array of parts. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly has nice looking explosions, and destroying an enemy comes with a nice level of satisfaction when your righteous ammunition engulfs them. You won’t find any overly complex graphical effects here, but the relatively simplistic, though good-looking, graphics make sense and translate well. An advantage of the simplistic level design is the ability to make your own maps with the level editor; the game comes with sixteen maps, and additional creations will provide even more content. The sound is a lot like the graphics: simple but effective. Again, the explosions are impressive in quality. The background music, though typical for a space game with its generic techno beats, is enjoyable as well. For an independent title made by a small team, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly looks and sounds good and you won’t be disappointed by the graphics or the sound.

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol can best be described as an action tactical strategy game. You will deploy a factory to produce offensive and defensive weapons that you will shoot or deploy throughout the map. The mechanics of the game are quite unique, so the game comes with a tutorial that’s essentially required for all new players. There is a small learning curve involved in the game: the controls are different and they definitely take some getting used to. You use the right mouse button (and the WASD keys) for the camera and the left mouse button for weapons. You pick a weapon by clicking on it in the interface (which is well designed, considering how many weapons there are to choose from) then holding down the left mouse button to aim and adjust power. Some weapons need to be activated using the spacebar after they are fired. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol restricts your movement, making the game very tactical: you have a limited radius you can move to, and movement must fully recharge before you can move again. The game emphasizes defense over offense, for better or for worse. After you are done with the tutorial, you can play quick matches against AI bots, which provide decent competition.

However, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is really designed for multiplayer, and the game comes with the Starport, which serves as a central matchmaking utility and allows for creating a character and upgrading ships. Through money you earn by playing battles and defeating opponents, you can purchase items to alter ship stats; every enemy has a bounty dependent on how good they are to prevent repeated killing of unskilled adversaries. You get the most money from kills, but you can also earn some cash in support roles. Every ship, no matter how advanced, has a balanced stat sheet, but you can load components that will alter the distribution of your stats to better suit your tactics. This is a very good system, as it allows for general tweaking while preventing more experienced players from having better ships overall. The game’s persistent universe has a sector map where battles are taking place and winning or losing is based on the actual battles fought, but it’s a superfluous addition that doesn’t affect gameplay at all. There are a number of game types, from objective (like destroying a specific location), last man standing, deathmatch, and team elimination. There are also servers for each skill level: although there are a lot of training servers for the very new (good), there aren’t many for novice players (bad). Servers that allow for all skill levels (which are most once you pass the training phase) have a real problem with elite players ganging up on new players. Since it takes a while to get the mechanics down, this is a big setback. The game lacks any balancing according to experience (just equal numbers of players on both sides), so you will routinely see extremely unbalanced teams skill-wise. A game is not fun when everyone on your team quits because of frustration.

Your ship is equipped with shields and armor that can be reduced by enemy weaponry. Each ship is rated over twelve performance areas, such as build speed, projectile power, fuel capacity, shield strength, and deploy capacity. You are also allowed to choose from fourteen different ship forms that also grant stat alterations. As you can see, there is a lot of room for customization in the game. There is an impressive catalog of weapons to use (eighteen in all) scattered over six categories: ballistic (rockets and lasers), tactical (bombs), hyperbol (nuclear BOOM), impulse (defenses), vex (repair), and gravity. Most weapons in the game have a counter, and fully understanding these counters adds to the learning curve. Weapons are manufactured at your production station, which must be deployed. Each production station can build six modules that will create weapons in one of the six classes. You can build more than one of the same module type (for slight bonuses), although this will prevent crafting weapons of another class. You are also allowed to upgrade one of your modules to access advanced weapons. I would like to see more strategy with the base building elements of the game, since you are done with the production station very quickly.

The gameplay is very tactical in nature (due to the limited base building elements) and rewards the correct use of weapons and countering enemy weapons. I like the mechanics, as it feels different from most of the mess we see in the strategy genre. Once you learn the controls, getting around the game is fairly simple and the methodic and planned attacks required to be successful in the game rewards planning over reflexes (something I personally appreciate). ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is very defensive in nature; there is a deploy cap to limit how many things one person places on the map, but the cap is too high and often games devolve into a maze of black holes and deflectors all over the map. Team games are even worse: it’s a death wise to venture out into the open area, and most objective games result in a stalemate. While I like the restricted movement as it requires more planning, it doesn’t help the overly defensive nature of the game. This is kind of disappointing as I would like a more balanced game. This is potentially a very good team game, since you can use the strengths of several ships in tandem, but most people online don’t coordinate. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is so odd that its appeal will be limited, but it is a fun and unique game.

ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is certainly a unique game that successfully combines several genres successfully. While the game has a learning curve due to its distinctive mechanics, once you learn the game and the counters for each of the game’s weapons, ThreadSpace: Hyperbol is quite enjoyable. The play between throwing out weapons and items and countering those weapons is interesting, and the ability to customize your emphasis results in a lot of different viable strategies to employ. The online environment is nice, and purchasing tweaks to your ship is a neat feature to have without a subscription fee. I greatly appreciate that more experienced players don't get better equipment, as all of the upgrades just move stat ratings around. There are so many different paths to choose that each game and each enemy you encounter will require a diverse outlook. ThreadSpace: Hyperbol certainly provides enough entertainment for the price. Ultimately, the quaintness of the game will appeal to a smaller audience, but those people who would like to play something unusual will find good value in ThreadSpace: Hyperbol.

Monday, July 23, 2007

G.H.O.S.T. Hunters: The Haunting of Majesty Manor Review

G.H.O.S.T. Hunters: The Haunting of Majesty Manor, developed and published by Aisle 5 Games.
The Good: Object list changes for successive play, good setting with creepy music, no penalty for an occasional bad guess
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings, repetitive in the long run
What say you? A fine hidden object game for an older audience: 6/8

The existence of ghosts has been a hotly debated topic for quite some time. My opinion on the matter was swayed by the fact-based documentary Ghostbusters. There have been individuals pursuing paranormal activity for many years, and G.H.O.S.T. Hunters: The Haunting of Majesty Manor puts you on the frontlines against the forces of evil. Well, it’s a hidden object game where you must uncover clues by finding, surprise, hidden objects. I guess ghosts like a tidy house. My hidden object pedigree goes back to Highlights magazine, which I used to read while waiting at the eye doctor when I was little (you know, like two weeks ago). Will G.H.O.S.T. Hunters provide a quality gameplay experience? What exactly does the acronym stand for?

Obviously one of the more important aspects of a hidden object game is the graphics, and G.H.O.S.T. Hunters does a good job at providing challenging levels in which to do your sleuthing. The game is played at a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, which is high enough to satisfy me. G.H.O.S.T. Hunters features a good variety of environments to search through and a lengthy list of objects to find. The developers use some of the usual tricks in hiding the objects, mostly putting them against a same-colored background or partially behind other objects, but overall the puzzles are well-done and provide a challenge without being overly difficult. Since the game deals with the paranormal, G.H.O.S.T. Hunters features some sinister background music. Although it is repetitive, the door opening creeps me out every time. The music fits the theme of the game well, and G.H.O.S.T. Hunters does have a nice theme that makes your object hunting at least a little bit plausible. Overall, G.H.O.S.T. Hunters is above average in terms of graphics and sound, providing a challenging environment in a good setting.

During your time at Majesty Manor, you will scour numerous rooms for hidden objects in order to uncover clues. You have an amount of time (about half an hour) to find most (but not all, thankfully) of the objects in several rooms (usually three to four). I like that you are not locked in to a single room, as you tend to find some objects if you exit and come back later. Also, the fact that the game doesn’t require you to find every object makes scouring for especially difficult objects less of an impossible trial. These rooms are extremely messy (didn’t Majesty Manor have a maid?) and G.H.O.S.T. Hunters has a high challenge level. The one thing that the game lacks is a difficulty setting; I would like each of the objects to be rated according to difficult and then include those particular objects at each level. As it stands, G.H.O.S.T. Hunters is not appropriate for children or novices as you can’t make the game any easier. The game does come with a number of nice features. First, there is no penalty for an occasional bad guess: the game will reduce your time allotment if you randomly click around, but if you miss every once in a while there will be no penalty. Each level contains a lot of objects and most of them are detractors. However, if you play the same level again in a new game, the object list will change and eventually take advantage of each object in the room. This is a neat feature that gives G.H.O.S.T. Hunters some replay value, something that hidden object games typically lack. After a couple of puzzles, you have an idea of what things look like and where they are likely to be hidden so the game does become easier over time. G.H.O.S.T. Hunters offers a hint system where you a provided a limited number of opportunities to narrow in on an object’s location. The cursor changes into a wand and beeps as you get closer to an object. It’s a neat dynamic that’s more interactive than just highlighting the mystery location. G.H.O.S.T. Hunters ends up being better than most hidden object games and a good choice for fans of the genre.

G.H.O.S.T. Hunters is a well designed hidden object game that takes the basics of the genre and adds useful features that make the gameplay more approachable. The theme of the game is well done and promotes the gameplay. G.H.O.S.T. Hunters has better features than other hidden object games. For example, searching through several rooms at once breaks up the monotony of searching a single room for objects you can’t find. The help system helps in place of being too obvious. The game has more replay value than a lot of hidden object games due to the randomization of the object list each time you play. I would like to see more difficulty settings to make the game appeal to a wider audience, but experienced and/or older players will find enjoyment here. You either like hidden object games or you don’t, but if you do than G.H.O.S.T. Hunters is pretty entertaining.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mayhem Intergalactic Review

Mayhem Intergalactic, developed and published by Inventive Dingo.
The Good: Very straightforward mechanics, fast pace, rally points are extremely useful, challenging AI, multiplayer browser
The Not So Good: Planet swapping is really annoying, needs to indicate whether you’ve upgraded a factory this turn, luck regarding native strength levels, may be too simple for some
What say you? A fun, easy, and fast-paced turn-based strategy game: 7/8

There are numerous types of strategy games. Those that focus on realism, those that focus on extremely large battles, and those that are more straightforward and simplistic. I've reviewed a number of these games recently, such as Galcon and AORoyal. For some reason, a lot of strategy games take place in space, and Mayhem Intergalactic is no exception. Leaning more towards the Risk side of the equation in terms of complexity, Mayhem Intergalactic is all about sending ships to enemy planets and taking over new worlds. This is very similar to the real-time game Galcon; will Mayhem Intergalactic prove to be equally entertaining?

Mayhem Intergalactic uses what can be called “utilitarian” graphics: they just do enough to make the game playable. The planets are slightly textured circles, the backgrounds, while containing some color, are generally bland and forgettable for a space game, and the battle effects are underwhelming. There is only one ship model in the game as well. However, the game is very easy to navigate thanks for an intuitive user interface. All of the pertinent data is displayed on the screen: ship levels at each planet, production levels, and which planets have upgrades available. Ordering units around is a snap, and creating rally points is a simple affair. The game also displays how many ships survived every battle on the map so that you can scale your next attack appropriately. So, for what Mayhem Intergalactic lacks in visual flair it makes up for in ease of use. The sound is average for a game like this, with a repetitive battle explosion and overly dramatic background music that is alternates between annoying and pleasing. Mayhem Intergalactic is exactly what you would expect for an independent game, though the user interface makes up for some of the other shortcomings.

In Mayhem Intergalactic, you produce ships at planets and send them to other planets to increase the reach of your empire. The game features quick matches and custom games against the AI. You can customize the map style (from random planet placement to a lattice or spiral shape) and size, which is really the spacing between each planet (you can define a number of neutral planets, which is odd because you’d think that’s what the size definition is for). There is no team play in Mayhem Intergalactic, but you can set turn and game time restrictions designed for online play. You can also adjust the production rates, native strength, and ship speeds to further adjust how long you would like a game to last. There are fog-of-war options that can show ships in orbit or traveling between planets, but these options make the game far too easy. I would like the game to show the native strength on each planet but not enemy strength to take some of the luck out of choosing good planets to invade early in the game. The AI is a great opponent (usually an afterthought in games like this), and it’s downright ruthless at higher difficulty levels. Mayhem Intergalactic also features some nice multiplayer options, including an in-game browser. Although I rarely found other games to join, Mayhem Intergalactic would make an excellent multiplayer game.

Mayhem Intergalactic consists of two actions: sending ships to planets, and upgrading factories. And that’s it. While some people will deride the gameplay as being too simplistic, Mayhem Intergalactic is very straightforward and will appeal to all skill levels. The lack of a tutorial was strange, until I found out how easy the game is to play. The overall goal is to eliminate all of the enemy empires, and this is done by defeating the native populations first and then moving on to the real opposition. The native population grows each turn, a great touch that prevents you from waiting until you are more established and plowing right through neutral planets. Each planet produces a number of ships per turn, and this number can be increased by upgrading the factory. You can upgrade one factory per turn, and upgrading a factory prevents producing new ships at that planet, so there is a strategic trade-off there. When your empire grows larger, you can introduce rally points to automatically send newly produced ships to a planet of your choice. This is a very useful tool later in the game when you have a lot of planets to tend to, and makes the game manageable. I would like to see arrows on the rally point lines to show which direction ships are going at a glance, as well as a “send all” button to send every ship from every planet to a particular destination. Despite the simplicity of the game mechanics, Mayhem Intergalactic is entertaining and the straightforward nature of the game works towards its benefit. The rally points make controlling a large empire easy and you don’t have to continuously worry about each planet as production is automatic. Mayhem Intergalactic is much easier to handle than, say, Lost Empire, where complexity dominates the game. Mayhem Intergalactic is less intense than Galcon because it allows you to think and plan more due to its turn-based gameplay. I actually prefer the more casual pace of Mayhem Intergalactic over Galcon’s insanity. The game isn’t without its annoyances: since you can invade any planet you wish, the end-game becomes a lot of chasing people down as they pick off your planets. The lack of static defenses makes preventing a determined enemy attack impossible: there is no point in keeping behind ships if they are sure to be defeated, and you might as well send everyone on the attack. There is too much chasing down of enemy units, and it’s really a matter of luck to defeat the stragglers when they run into a highly defended planet. Eventually you will prevail, but it’s still annoying.

Mayhem Intergalactic is an entertaining casual strategy game. The user interface makes controlling the game very straightforward and the simplistic mechanics
Mayhem Intergalactic doesn’t have the depth of more complex strategy games, but it does offer some good fun. The multiplayer matching browser makes joining games (if they were available) easy as well. Everything in the game is about ease-of-use, and it makes Mayhem Intergalactic approachable to a wide audience. The game is very similar to Galcon, though I prefer Mayhem Intergalactic. This game is more my speed, as Galcon was a little too hectic for my tastes. People looking for a simple strategy game will find a quality title in Mayhem Intergalactic.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Chocolatier Review

Chocolatier, developed by Big Splash Games and published by PlayFirst.
The Good: Delightful blend of economic simulation and arcade mechanics, entertaining and challenging manufacturing process, nicely paced with a good story, helpful user interface, varied side quests, lots of recipes, surprisingly not repetitive
The Not So Good: Market prices in other towns not indicated, can’t accelerate time without traveling, buildings could be highlighted longer
What say you? An amusing confection manufacturing simulation: 7/8

Chocolate is big business. People love to ingest disturbingly large portions of that sweet, sweet candy. I’ve watched enough episodes of Unwrapped to gain the knowledge required to manufacture large portions of black gold (meaning chocolate; please do not eat oil), I just lack the start-up capital and a gaggle (or is it flock?) of elves to do my bidding. And that’s where Chocolatier comes in. Taking place in the olde (with an “e”) country, you must guide a chocolate company back to the realm of greatness.

Despite being rendered at a low resolution (good old 800x600), Chocolatier looks good, especially for a budget-priced game. Each of the game’s cities is rendered in detail with semi-dynamic backgrounds and makes them appear almost like real locations. The user interface is very polished (more on that later) and Chocolatier has a nice antique art style. I like the visuals in the game and they convey the period that the game takes place in well. The music and sound is also well done; the production music is quite entertaining and it gets you in a working mood. Overall, I was quite pleased with the style and quality of the graphics and sound in the game: it’s obvious that a lot of work went into it and it pays off.

Chocolatier follows the re-establishment of a family chocolate business that was torn apart due to infighting. You’ll meet all of the major players (all with ridiculously long names) and other characters along the way as you expand your small business into a global empire. There is also a free play mode in addition to this story mode, although it is generally the same thing but it does unlock things more quickly. You will run your business by visiting new towns, purchasing ingredients, making new recipes, selling your product, and conversing with the locals to gain new information. Across the world map there are a number of cities to visit, most of which have specific goods to purchase and a number of buildings to visit. In fact, you must travel, since you can’t accelerate time staying in one city. Each city in the game, like London, San Francisco, and Quito, contains a market to purchase ingredients, a chocolate store to sell your goods, a bar to meet people for side missions, and a specialty location to acquire unique goods. Large cities may contain a factory you can purchase later in the game to increase production. Buildings are highlighted when you enter a city, but after this short amount of time it can be troublesome trying to click on buildings instead of the background; I would like them to be highlighted longer.

Chocolatier features a good user interface that makes playing the game very easy. The game shows how many more weeks each factory will run with current supply levels and where you bought a particular item, both very useful. You can also see the factory status, inventory, and messages while in a shop to better gauge your purchases. Chocolatier could have run into real trouble making the user memorize which goods they needed to purchase, but the quality user interface avoids this potential pitfall. The only place where Chocolatier falls short is providing price information for other cities; it would be nice if it showed prices for cities you have visited to gauge whether the sugar or caramel chocolate bar prices are reasonable. You can attempt to lower prices yourself by haggling: you are given several responses to choose from, and the owner may choose to lower or raise prices. You will sell your goods in the stores located in each city, but as I stated earlier, the game doesn’t indicate whether the prices are good or not; you are given occasional messages about high demands in major cities if you own a shop, though.

Of course, you’ll have to make chocolate bars before you sell them, and Chocolatier has a fun manufacturing process. A lot of titles have mini-games that don’t make a lot of sense (see Rising Star and Rock Legend), but in Chocolatier the manufacturing process does. You mix ingredients to make chocolate, and here you’re mixing ingredients to make chocolate. Genius! Each product in the game (there are sixty-four to choose from, including bars, squares, infusions, and truffles) requires a specific mixture of ingredients (like cacao beans, sugar, cashews, cherries, and a bunch more), and you must match this mixture by shooting ingredients at containers rotating around the conveyor belt. More expensive confections are more difficult to match as they require multiple ingredients to make. The process speeds up when you make a lot of matches, and slows down when you mess up. Once you reach the time limit, the factory counts the number of complete matches you have made and then produces at that rate every week. The mini-game is well designed and it has a relevance to the game that most titles lack. Although it sounds like it may become repetitive after a while, you only need to match a particular product once and the variations in each recipe decrease the tedium.

Chocolatier features a good number of quests to grow your company, such as manufacturing a particular item, delivering a letter, or playing a gambling game with dice. You can only undertake one quest at a time to reduce confusion, and the details are always displayed on the messages display. The game has a good pace that unlocks new recipes at a nice rate, and the quests will require you to visit your factories and change their production to meet your customers’ demands. Chocolatier does hit a lull in the middle of the game as no new recipes appear for a bit (I think I was outgrowing the game a bit), but in general the game is quite entertaining to play. Chocolatier has a great combination between the economic simulation and the manufacturing mini-game, as well as a decent story to keep the action moving along.

Chocolatier shows how a casual game can be quite entertaining, more so than a lot of full-priced titles. The story is engaging and the mechanics are simple thanks to the fine user interface. There are a lot of recipes to unlock, and the manufacturing process is fun and challenging. The game could give information on prices in other towns you have recently visited, but you can still make a lot of money very quickly in the game. If anything, succeeding in the game is too easy: there’s nothing preventing you from being victorious, other than errors on your part (like purchasing the wrong ingredients or being really bad at the mini-game). The game mechanics never get stale or repetitive and the variety of new recipes and quests keep you interested in the game. You will certainly get your money’s worth with Chocolatier, a delicious game at a very reasonable price.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars Review

Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars, developed by Quotix Software and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Cheap, a confusing map editor
The Not So Good: No tutorial, interface needs tool-tips, only two characters to chose from (and they are almost exactly the same), action-only unsatisfying grind gameplay, absolutely no story or dialogue, no mid-map saving, randomly spawning enemies makes it difficult, rudimentary AI and level design, curious mana requirement for all weapons, short
What say you? A budget action role-playing game that plays like a budget action role-playing game, only worse: 3/8

A fantasy world thrust into chaos is the setting for many action role-playing games, where you must hack and slash your way past numerous foes and defeat evil throughout the land. Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars is one of those games, where you take the role of a powerful warrior and collect Dark Souls to remove evil from the land. Will this budget title provide enough bang for its reduced buck?

Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars features the outdated graphics you would expect in a budget title. The game does have a clean look to it, but the 3-D models and levels in Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars are very basic. The special effects are few and far between, and overall the game looks like a game that was published six or seven years ago (or more). The sound is along the same lines: while the background music is pleasingly understated, the sound effects are repetitive. Really, the presentation is exactly what you would expect for a budget title: underwhelming. And as long as you don’t put an emphasis on graphics (and I don’t), then you’ll be OK.

Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars is about, well, actually I’m not sure because there is no story or even dialogue in the game (just a backstory in the manual, and who reads the manual?). Yeah, a role-playing game with no NPC interaction. You’ll need to read through the manual, since Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars lacks a tutorial or an explanation of the icons used in the game, as the game lacks tool-tips of any kind. Usually a hallmark of role-playing games, character customization is non-existent: you get to choose between two characters (a male “warrior” or a female “amazon”) that only differ in their special abilities. The title of the game should be Call for Hero, since you are really just one character and are never given backup against the AI. The one lone feature the game does have is a map and model editor, although I can’t really figure out how to use it. The game, which is single-player only, spans fifteen levels where you must collect all of the Dark Souls present in the level. There is an indicator showing the proximity to the nearest Dark Soul, so it’s just a matter of grinding through enemies and backtracking a lot through each map. The more Dark Souls you collect, the more they hurt your character; this makes the game easier at the beginning of each level. The levels are more like first person shooter maps in their design instead of a linear exploration type map that we see more of in role-playing games.

Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars uses the mana convention found in most role-playing games; here, it acts as ammunition for every weapon. Yes, every single weapon in the game, no matter how basic, requires mana to use it. Why do you need mana to swing an axe? I’m not sure. Each level has numerous health vials, and you will need them because the odds are greatly stacked against you with tons of enemies to defeat. Even worse, the enemies respawn in a seemingly random fashion, most of the time right next to you and you won’t know they are there until they attack you. This is made worse by the fact that you’ll probably forget some Dark Souls and need to backtrack. The enemies are difficult because they gang up on you in strong numbers, and being limited in your weaponry by the mana requirement (which is only replenished by picking up vials) means you’ll be using inadequate weapons more often than not. The enemy AI is not good: they just shoot and move towards you most of the time, but if they did actually think the game would be downright impossible.

The special abilities in the game are really just long-ranged and powerful weapons; the gameplay of Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars is really rudimentary. Normal weapons become more powerful as you use them, which is a neat features (one of the few in the game). You can collect coins that will make you invulnerable and souls that will grant you limited use of a super weapon. Icons for special ability use and stamina and health regeneration items are also available. You cannot save the game mid-mission (sigh), but you can collect rare respawn items that will allow for a continuation instead of having to start over from the beginning of a map. All of these things are listed on the map; this is a nice touch since you don’t need to open an inventory screen, but they are not labeled and the lack of a tutorial and tool-tips means you’ll have to glance back at the manual to remember what the wheel thing is for. Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars is singularly hack and slash: no NPC interaction, no story, no puzzles, just kill, kill kill. Aiming in the game is difficult because some enemies appear on the ground and some are in the air, so you have to constantly adjust your field of view. There are some leveling-up attributes in the game, but they occur so infrequently that they are essentially meaningless.

There are too many limitations in Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars to make it a worthwhile game. Yeah, it’s a budget title, but it should still be entertaining. Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars is one of the most boring role-playing games I’ve played: it is repetitive to a fault, as there is nothing to break up the monotony of killing brainless monsters. The rudimentary level design never results in surprises while playing the game to keep you interested in the story. Well, actually, there is no story or any interaction with any characters other than killing things. The game is short, there is no tutorial, you can’t save mid-mission, and the gameplay is bland. There is simple no reason to play Call for Heroes: Pompolic Wars, even for a reduced price.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Combat Mission: Shock Force Review

Combat Mission: Shock Force, developed by Battlefront.com and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Superb gameplay, great user interface with precise control over your units without being overwhelmingly complex, usually excellent tactical AI, an unmatched scenario editor, real time and turn-based modes, nicely detailed units
The Not So Good: No random maps, pathfinding can be iffy at times
What say you? The premier tactical strategy game: 8/8

Once every couple of years, a game comes along that defines a genre. Future titles try to emulate its quality gameplay and smooth style, but they can never quite match its excellence. I am, of course, talking about Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue. On a completely unrelated note, it’s time to review the release version of Combat Mission: Shock Force, a game I previewed back in May. You should probably go read that first; it’s heavy on the details and I’m trying not to repeat myself that much in this review (I tend to be long-winded about games I like, and this is no exception). In the preview, I said “Combat Mission: Shock Force is poised to be the premier tactical strategy game.” Is it? Stop looking at the score already, cheater!

Pretty much everything I said in the preview still holds true. Combat Mission: Shock Force has outstanding unit detail on both infantry and armored units. Watching these units operate in the game mirrors their real-life counterparts and it’s really fantastic to see. When battles become intense, Combat Mission: Shock Force is a joy to watch. The environments are realistic as well, although they suffer from the “floating map” effects as they are projected against a 2-D background. All of this graphical splendor comes at a price, though, so make sure your computer is up to snuff. The game will adjust your settings to achieve more reasonable frame rates, and I did need to change anti-aliasing settings in my control panel outside of the game (to not use application-specific settings) to improve performance. The sound in the Combat Mission: Shock Force is great: the battle sounds are superb and put you right into the middle of the firefight. The game even has realistic sound velocities: the first time you see an explosion off in the distance and then hear it seconds later you'll appreciate how much work went into the game. The music is annoying at first (well, when loading a map; the front end music is OK), but annoyingly catchy after a while. While Combat Mission: Shock Force could benefit from some better performance, the game looks and sounds amazing.

Combat Mission: Shock Force centers around the U.S. invasion of Syria (right, like the U.S. would ever invade any Middle-Eastern country). The game comes with a semi-dynamic campaign: there are two to three missions per “round” of the campaign and the order in which they are chosen depends on your results. This means you don't need to win each mission in order to advance to the next one. There are “core” units that carry over to future battles (not necessarily the next mission), but the user is never told which ones these are to prevent saving core units and sending disposable units into the fray. This makes it important to carefully plan for each mission and save as many friendly units as possible, both for victory conditions in this battle and having more troops in future ones. The twenty-two mission campaign is enjoyable, lenghty (as each mission takes upwards of one hour to complete), and it gives you a good range of mission types, although most of them are offensive in nature (you are invading as the U.S., after all). The missions also take place in a variety of environments (large cities, small towns, open desert, forests, and mountains) each with their own tactical challenges. Unlike Theatre of War, Combat Mission: Shock Force has fully realized buildings with windows and doors that are used appropriately. Witnessing a grenade being tossed through a window at enemy forces is something I don't remember seeing in many (if any) other strategy games. I would like to see the campaign battles available as single-play missions as well, but as it is you have to do them in the order that they are presented. Combat Mission: Shock Force also comes with eighteen stand-alone battles, including five by some guy named “James Allen” (those ones are particularly awesome). Battles have units and objectives that are set by the scenario designer; although you can play as either side, five of the battles are intended to be played from the U.S. side, so those particular ones are not very good for multiplayer. Quick battles use fourteen maps with the set objectives and starting locations but allow you to customize the force composition (although not to the specific level available in previous Combat Mission games). There are no random maps in the game, a deletion I truly miss, but I think the developers were counting on (and rightfully so) a proliferation of maps occurring quickly after release due to the excellent scenario editor.

The missions themselves are challenging; the game quickly dispels the erroneous notion that U.S. forces are superior against entrenched infantry units at close range. The battles are on a much smaller scale than previous Combat Mission games, and I personally like the scope of this title: it makes things much easier to handle. Combat Mission: Shock Force is geared towards veteran strategy players; although it is fairly easy to get into for beginners, the missions require planning that might frustrate new players used to just buildings tons of units and blindlessly attacking the enemy with no thought. The game has a slow pace when compared to “classic” RTS games and you will do some waiting around while artillery strikes receive their orders, though things happen more quickly on lower realism settings. You will need to take things slowly, especially on dense city maps as the enemy will hide and they can take out your armored units with a well placed RPG or two. The hour-long missions may wear on some players, but these are quick engagements if you compare them to real-life encounters. You don't have to wait until the time limit, though, as the computer player will accept a cease fire at any time and you'll instantly go to the results screen.

The scenario editor is one of the highlights of the game, and this is part of the reason I expect Combat Mission: Shock Force to become the strategy title of choice for designers. The editor is easy to use, from making maps to setting AI patterns to determining objectives. The flexibility is great and shows how comprehensive the game design is. For example, victory conditions can include holding (or even just passing through) locations, destroying or spotting specific enemy units, and immobilizing a percentage of the enemy forces. Objectives don’t need to be the same for each side, either, which can make the technological advantage enjoyed by the U.S. player negated by the objectives and result in a more balanced scenario. The included scenarios don't really take advantage of the objective freedoms available in the game; I forsee some scouting missions where all you need to do is spot an enemy unit without dying, eliminating a single enemy units, and a whole host of other options being implemented in user-made scenarios. The game also allows for up to five complete plans for the AI in each scenario, which means you can have the enemy coming at you from different directions each time you play; this extends the longevity of a single scenario greatly. You can even link battles together to create your own campaign using the same semi-dynamic nature as the included campaign, and a templete is given in the root directory. Combat Mission: Shock Force really lets your imagination run wild and the community at large should come up with some excellent scenarios with varied objectives to vastly extend the life of this game.

Other than purely single player action, you can engage in hot seat, play by e-mail, or multiplayer games using known IP addresses (no in-game matchmaking, sorry). The difficulty can be changed that will alter spotting friendly and enemy units, as well as healing and artillery time. Combat Mission: Shock Force features both real time and turn-based gameplay, although it was designed with real time gameplay in mind. This is the preferred method of gameplay for single-player affairs as the implementation of turn-based play is less than ideal. In previous games in the series, each turn was resolved in the background and then replayed so you could see what happened. In Shock Force, the turn is resolved in real time and then replayed again (though you can skip to the end). Because of this, there’s no reason to play turn-based mode as a single player as it’s really intended for e-mail games.

Combat Mission: Shock Force features a great interface that shows a lot of information without taking up a majority of the screen. The game is easy to navigate once you get accustomed to it and the camera controls are decent. Combat Mission: Shock Force uses icons above each unit like another Battlefront.com product, Theatre of War (coincidence? I think not); this makes finding units extremely easy. Clicking on a unit gives a ton of information about it, from ammunition and suppression levels to the various bonuses it is enjoying because of leaders, experience, morale, and physical condition. Issuing commands gives you variety and specificity without being complex. You can issue movement, combat, special, and organizational commands to each unit (detail on each particular command can be found in my preview). I like the commands because they are the same for all units (“fast” is “fast” for every unit type) and in the same place on the interface; this makes playing the game easy once you learn the conventions. The tactical AI does a decent job moving units across the map to a distant waypoint, although it has issues with trenches and some terrain textures that can lead to immobilized tanks. I'm actually having more issues with pathfinding in this version of the game compared to the beta preview versions: vehicles seem to have a tough time navigating through certain terrain types and will back up, drive in circles, stop, or cross into each other on the way to a destination. I wasn't experiencing this type of behavior before. Infantry units will automatically find cover, a nice touch found here and in Company of Heroes. Infantry units with rifles engage enemy tanks on their own for some reason, even though their weapons are just there to annoy and slow down the simulation. Combat Mission: Shock Force features advanced communications; units that are not in contact with friendly units through visual, radio, or satellite means will not be able to receive orders and might panic (at the disco, no doubt). When you use more realistic difficulty settings, paying attention to communication is very important, as enemy information must be shared and having routed units is never a good thing. The communication features are just another realistic trait that sets Combat Mission: Shock Force apart from lesser strategy titles.

Combat Mission: Shock Force is centered on the Stryker unit currently deployed by the U.S. Army. This improved armored personal carrier is represented in almost all of its variations (infantry combat vehicle, mobile gun system, headquarters, et cetera) and is accompanied by Bradley and Abrams armored units. Air and artillery units, like the Thunderbolt and Paladin, are available for support operations. Really, pretty much every piece of hardware that is used in modern combat is in Combat Mission: Shock Force, including a vast array of rifles, machine guns, launchers, and the like. The Syrian Army is equipped with Soviet paraphernalia, including the T-72, AK-74, RPD, and SVD. Probably the most fun unit to control in the game is the vehicle-based improvised explosive device: it is a blast (get it? ha ha ha!). Units will automatically use the most appropriate weapon in engaging enemy units, including RPGs and grenades when they are needed. Calling in off-map artillery and air support is a piece of cake (the procedure is outlined in my preview). Artillery will deform the ground surface, providing cover for advancing troops; another realistic touch to the game.

The tactical AI in Combat Mission: Shock Force is outstanding; while the strategic AI is programmed by the mission designer, giving general movement directions, the tactical AI is done on the fly and executes commands in a very realistic manner. The result is slick, authentic gameplay and a very entertaining game; I really like playing Combat Mission: Shock Force. Most strategy games abstract a lot of the game mechanics or have “arcade” elements to make the game easy to learn and play, but Combat Mission: Shock Force provides the most realistic gameplay possible on today’s computer hardware while making the mechanics approachable to veteran and novice players alike. The urban combat is very tense and you're never really sure what's around the next corner; you get a sense of what real soldiers have to deal with on a daily basis, and this is one of the few games to approach that level of realism. Of course, no game is perfect, and I have been experiencing lockups and units moving across the map in an instant. The developers came to the conclusion that it's bad video drivers for my nVidia 8800; I turned by settings down to “fast” and turned off write combining and the problem was reduced to a playable level. I guess that's what I get for having a swanky video card.

Combat Mission: Shock Force is a must-have title for all strategy gamers. All of the features in the game come together to form some great strategy gameplay. This is the most realistic and compelling tactical game available, and anyone who is looking for an authentic experience should look no further. This is as close to modern combat that you can safely get, and all of the features in the game make it a joy to play: the quality AI, slick interface, and highly detailed units make this a believable simulation. The fantastic scenario editor will allow for some incredible designs by the community, and the content included with the game highlights the flexibility of the game engine. The game has a couple of small issues, like no random maps and the lack of multiplayer matchmaking, but these are vastly eclipsed by the awesomeness of the remainder of the game. You owe it to yourself to check out this high-quality strategy game.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Loco Mania Review

Loco Mania, developed by 7FX and published by Atari.
The Good: Good premise, semi-random routes, central score list
The Not So Good: Cumbersome camera with no usable overhead view, inadequate controls, boring and tedious, few scenarios and no level editor, no multiplayer
What say you? A train dispatching game that’s frustrating due to a poor user interface and dull to boot: 4/8

Trains are always a popular choice for computer gaming. From the venerable Railroad Tycoon franchise to Trainz, people love to watch locomotives motive their locos. In addition to conducting, there are also people entrusted with making the world’s trains run smoothly. Loco Mania (Spanish for “crazy mania”) is a game that simulates the exciting world of train dispatching in a strategic envelope.

Loco Mania renders its world of trains in a 3-D environment, which, as we will see, actually hinders the gameplay. The game doesn’t look as good as other contemporary train games such as Railroads! and the aforementioned Trainz. The environments are blandly rural: just a basic array of environments to play in with some hills, small towns, and the like. Loco Mania has sporadic detail; this shows the potential of the game, but it’s not executed to the fullest. The locomotives themselves just look OK; they don’t contain impressive amounts of detail and most of the time you’ll be zoomed out so far it won’t matter anyway. For a budget-price game, Loco Mania looks about average, but it could provide a much more convincing and dynamic environment. The sound is very basic. I have yet to hear a train whistle (blasphemy!), the effects are understated (no crossing bells), and the bad music will be turned off quickly by most users. In most train games, the sound is one of the highlights of the title, but the music drowns out the sound so much you can’t hear anything. When you turn it off, you can then enjoy some of the sound in the game, but it’s still too modest for a train title.

In Loco Mania, you will guide trains to their destinations around your map by changing lights and switches. The game comes with twelve scenarios; while they do last a while, it’s not much content and the game lacks an editor. This is a mysterious deletion since it seems that creating maps would be straightforward. There are multiple game modes available for each map, although it’s either directing a set number of trains successfully or playing within a time limit. You must successfully complete each map before unlocking the next one, and your score can be uploaded to a central server and compared against other players from around the world. The train paths are semi-random: although trains spawn at the same location, their destinations and stops may be different. Still, Loco Mania has a relatively limited amount of content, and the lack of competitive multiplayer means you’ll be finished with this game quickly.

Each train has an assigned exit point and sometime special attributes like stops, timers, or biohazards (they can’t be stopped) to make things more complicated. The game sometimes doesn’t play fair, sending in trains at the exits for other trains. You can click on a train to reverse its direction, and along with controlling lights and switches, this is the only interaction with the trains in the game. You can right-click on a train to show its path based on the current switch arrangement, which makes controlling your trains a lot easier. While it would seem that playing Loco Mania would be very straightforward, the user interface and camera controls make playing the game so frustratingly. You have to constantly wrestle with the camera; when you click on a train to zoom to it, the view is way too close and at a weird, unusable angle. This means you have to adjust the camera every time you select a train; as Nancy Kerrigan would say, “WHYYYYYYY?!?” The lights are realistically small and you must click directly on them; this is bothersome in the heat of battle. You’ll need to manipulate the lights near each station, as apparently the conductor is too stupid to know their own stops. Loco Mania gives you an overhead map, but you can’t do anything from it, and the game prevents you from zooming all the way out. I think there is a decent game in here somewhere, but it’s buried underneath all of the interface issues. Loco Mania would have been so much better in 2-D, played from an overhead perspective. There’s a requirement if you go to 3-D: you must make the game easy to navigate, and Loco Mania does not.

I can see the potential in Loco Mania, but there are just too many problems to recommend it. The mechanics could make for an entertaining game, and good puzzle and strategic elements are in here somewhere. However, the game’s lack of features, such as multiplayer and the limited suite of scenarios, and the poor user interface makes Loco Mania too cumbersome to be enjoyable. I had absolutely no fun playing this game, wrestling with the camera and interface instead of worrying about my trains. The game is tedious and each level lasts just a bit too long. “Exacerbating” is a good way of describing Loco Mania: a good concept very poorly executed.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition Review

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, developed and published by Capcom.
The Good: Great graphics, constant action and most enemy engagements are optional, innovative energy/health mechanic
The Not So Good: Console port issues like preset sluggish mouse control, can’t join multiplayer games in progress, short, checkpoint-only saving, rudimentary AI, inadequate objective information
What say you? It looks great, but there’s not much substance beyond the style: 5/8

Once in a lifetime, a film comes along that defines a generation: a classic work of art that will stand the test of time and serve as a record of the accomplishments of times gone by. I am, of course, talking about Starship Troopers. I mean, shooting bugs AND Doogie Howser! Sign me up! Wouldn’t that make a great computer game (actually, it made several crappy computer games)? I know I need to satisfy my ravenous craving for shooting large insects, and Lost Planet: Extreme Condition looks to fulfill that desire. The Xbox 360 port makes it way over to the superior PC platform; how will it stack up against the oppressive swarm of PC shooters?

Clearly the best thing about Lost Planet is the graphics: they are outstanding. Everything in the game looks awesome, from the character and bug models to the environments to the explosions. Watching your character turn his hips, instead of rotating the entire body, is neat (though most games are played from a first person perspective these days). The level of detail on the enemies is also well done: they look very lifelike and believable, for drastically overgrown insects. Even the level design, taking place in snow-covered run-down cities and towns, is superb. There’s almost too much snow and smoke, making it hard to see (probably by design). I can’t comment on how DirectX 10 looks since I am not gullible enough to downgrade to Vista. There are some small camera issues when you are up against a wall, noticeable during the heat of combat (the first boss battle had me very disoriented right from the start). Oh, and if you have a nVidia 8800 card like I do, you'll need to download beta drivers or Lost Planet will crash; that’s absolutely fantastic (*sarcasm alert*) for a game that has an nVidia logo in the introduction. Despite these small problems, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition presents a very real environment to play in, and it is clearly one of those “benchmark” games. The sound of Lost Planet is pretty standard for the genre these days: the weapons sound like weapons and the bugs have convincingly scary (though repetitive) effects. There is some background music that fits the game as well. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition is a very polished game with some fantastic visuals that allow you to show off your computer quite nicely.

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (to the EXTREME!) is an action game with a capital “A.” Unfortunately, the main campaign has a lower-case “c” since it is very, very short. Clocking in at less than ten hours in length, Lost Planet is over before it really begins. This amount of content pales in comparison to pretty much any game released on the PC. The story involves taking back a planet from its indigenous insect population, but it’s generally forgettable and you’ll end up just skipping the cut scenes. Well, if the single player portion of the game is light on content, multiplayer can always make up for it, right? In theory, the multiplayer of Lost Planet could be decent, at it “borrows” from several different successful multiplayer games (well, Unreal Tournament), offering deathmatch, onslaught, and mutant (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). Lost Planet keeps track of your progress in multiplayer and assigns a level rating depending on how successful you are, which is a neat though ultimately meaningless feature. Unfortunately, you can’t join any multiplayer games in progress. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever; this means there are rarely games to join and no list of available, open servers (just a search feature). This may work if there are lots of people playing online, but we demand more matchmaking features here on the PC. Lost Planet also features some unbalanced multiplayer action: whoever gets the robot walker (called a “vital suit”) first has a big advantage on each map, as there is no good counter to armored units (the rocket launcher takes a few hits to take care of vital suits).

Lost Planet screams console port. From the numerous and persistent references to Xbox controllers (press the “A” button for OK!) to the sloppy use of PC peripherals, it’s clear that Lost Planet was designed for the consoles. In fact, the game suggests using an Xbox controller instead of the righteous mouse and keyboard combination. I suggest this as well, because mouse control is extraordinarily slow. There is no mouse sensitivity setting in the game, so playing Lost Planet feels like you are moving your mouse through molasses. It’s a game breaker and makes playing Lost Planet way more tedious than it should be. When I need to physically pick up my mouse off my desk to look behind me, there’s a problem. Lost Planet only saves at checkpoints as well. What? My 150 GB hard drive isn’t big enough to allow me to save anywhere? Also, you are given a PDA that can be given map information by turning on towers scattered around the map, but the PDA is completely useless and objective locations are just given a generic arrow when you are near a tower. The limitations imposed by a console are not present on the PC, but Lost Planet still carries over imperfect data and obtuse controls.

Lost Planet’s gameplay can be boiled down to two words: shoot bugs. It is a very linear action game full of fairly constant action. There aren’t many guns to choose from (six, plus four grenades); they run the usual gamut of modern Earth weapons to more powerful Alien versions. You can only carry two weapons at a time (realistic), so you must make some interesting choices in armament. There are a lot of weapons scattered around the map, though, and the most appropriate weapon for the next section of a level is usually given to you beforehand. You are also given a suite of vital suits “borrowed” from Battlefield 2142 to lay waste to the enemy forces. There aren’t any puzzles in the game, other than using the grapple to scale walls. While this is kind of cool in a gimmicky way, it hardly qualifies as advanced, thought-provoking gameplay. The most unique aspect of the gameplay is the use of thermal energy: it is used to refill your life bar and it’s collected from defeated enemies. This gives you incentive to destroy bugs that you don’t really need to, assuming you have the ammunition for it. There are enough enemies present that you really never run out of thermal energy, except during the boss battles.

The pace of Lost Planet is slower that most contemporary twitchy action games because running is less energetic than usual. This is fine, but the bugs move really fast and it doesn’t seem fair. There are lots of things to shoot and the game does provide good action. The AI is really basic: most enemies have one tactic that, once you see it, you can easily exploit. All you need to do is aim for the glowing portion of their anatomy and they will eventually succumb to your awesomeness. Unfortunately (that word is coming up a lot in this review), Lost Planet results to massing enemies to compensate for poor AI. I realize they are supposed to be bugs, but they should be at least a little more of a challenge. As if the controls in the game didn’t make playing Lost Planet more arduous than it should be, your character will execute scripted moves whenever they are hit. You must then wait for them to finish flailing about to run away. As you might imagine, this gets annoying quickly. Although the basics of solid gameplay are there, Lost Planet simply has too many problems to recommend.

Pretty graphics and generic gameplay: sounds like a console game to me. Lost Planet doesn’t offer enough to the discerning PC gamer to make it recommended against better, native offerings. While the PC lends itself to precise control in action games, Lost Planet lacks complete control over the controls (that’s one too many “control”s) and playing the game is more difficult than it should be. While some people might be wooed by the graphics, I need something more than attractive visuals to win over me. Sure, Lost Planet is fun for the first level or two while you dispense the bugs, but it’s over too quickly and there’s no reason to play the game more than once. Lost Planet is too short and the multiplayer, which would have extended the life of the game, is poorly implemented. Enemy AI is lacking, the objective locations are sketchy, and the game thinks I’m playing on an Xbox. The few bright spots (the graphics, energy) are shrouded in the darkness of the game’s shortcomings. Lost Planet is full of small, annoying issues that add up to an unsatisfying gameplay experience on the PC.