Friday, August 31, 2007

The Bojo Game – Home Edition Review

The Bojo Game – Home Edition, developed by Black Knight Productions and BBM Multimedia and published by G3S.
The Good: Simple game mechanics, large simulated online environment
The Not So Good: AI bettors need work, no real online play
What say you? A good foundation for a betting game, but the dumb AI makes it feel much less realistic: 5/8

Note: Version 1.5 of the game fixes the AI issues I discuss in this review. This patch was released after I posted this review but before retail release, so potential buyers won't experience the issues with the AI I mention below. While I didn't feel like re-writing an entire review (cutting out the rant about the AI would have made it extremely short), you can go ahead and bump up the overall score to a 6/8.

Gambling has become so popular that it’s almost bordering on “sport” status; the World Series of Poker gets many showings on ESPN, complete with the action-packed excitement of watching cards turn over. Obviously, most gambling-type games would translate well to the computer games. I’ve been known to enjoy some poker, and a new card-based gambling game has come in the form of The Bojo Game – Home Edition (Ty Pennington not included). This is a combination of poker and craps (you know, what you get after eating too much Taco Bell), incorporating side bets for each card drawn and a main bet for the result in a simulated online environment. Will The Bojo Game – Home Edition prove to be an engrossing gambling game worthy of your virtual dollars?

The Bojo Game – Home Edition features some utilitarian 2-D graphics, similar to the consoles you’d find in an Applebee’s. The background is supposed to look like a casino, with flaming flames that don’t seem to ignite the playing cards for some reason. There aren’t many special effects in the game, other than the countdown timer and the flames in the background. The cards appear on the game table and you use the mouse to select your bets each turn, and that’s pretty much it. The game does have a bunch of stats that are accessible from the main screen and you’ll never have to navigate away from it, so that’s nice. This is about the best the game could have looked without making the leap to 3-D (which, honestly, is unnecessary) and the interface promotes speedy and unhindered gameplay. The sound in the game is underwhelming, though: a lot more could have been done to promote the casino atmosphere. Overall, The Bojo Game – Home Edition has a fairly standard presentation that lacks the loud noises and shiny things that accompany most gambling ventures, but it still looks decent for a straightforward gambling game.

The Bojo Game – Home Edition is a betting game surrounding five card stud poker (and I, for one, should know about stud poker…because I’m a STUD). You bet on each individual card’s color, suit, and rank, as well as the overall hand (one pair, straight, flush, et cetera). Being a Home Edition, you don’t actually play online, rather against simulated AI players numbering between 200 and 100,000. While the lack of online features should be noted, the game would progress exactly the same if you were competing against real people, so it’s not really missed. You can change some of the settings in the game, from the number of AI players to the amount each bet costs (you always start with $200). You can also adjust the amount the casino charges for betting for a more realistic monetary experience. You are playing against the other players and not the house, so the strategy is to bet in the categories that others are not to maximize your profits. The game displays how many competitors have bet in each category, but I would like to see a bar graph for easier identification of underutilized bets: staring at numbers is a bit strenuous.

The basic premise of The Bojo Game – Home Edition is well executed, for the most part. There is the potential for a very entertaining game: while the side bets are mostly luck, you can adjust your betting to take advantage of the least used categories. There is also some intrigue associated with the poker bets: will the next card produce a straight or a pair? You must play a poker bet before the first card is thrown and you can only increase your poker bet (meaning you can change your bet from one pair to two pairs but not back again). The thing that ruins The Bojo Game – Home Edition is the elementary AI. The first sign of trouble is that each of the poker bets gets an evenly distributed amount of bettors at the start of each round. You mean to tell me the AI thinks getting a royal flush is just as likely as one pair? This goes for the numerical bets as well: every card gets essentially an equal number of bets, no matter which cards have been played. This results in inflated winnings if you guess correctly on the side bets. The AI is even worse with the poker bets: no matter which cards have been played, the “royal flush” category always gets the most bets at the end of each round. This is caused by the even distribution and the fact that you can only increase your bets: evenly distributed increases cause a massive amount of “royal flush” bets. This could be partially solved by allowing movement up and down the poker tree and awarding more money for staying on a single poker bet longer. As it stands, you get the same amount of money if you chose two pair on the last turn than if you kept it all along, which doesn’t seem fair. What really needs to be done to solve the The Bojo Game – Home Edition puzzle is to improve the AI. The computer players need to avoid poker bets that are impossible according to the current cards played. If an eight is the first card, there should be nobody betting royal flush (other than those who played it from the beginning, which actually shouldn’t be anyone since you can move up to royal flush from one pair anyway). If you have a king of clubs and a three of diamonds, why are the AI bettors throwing their money on a straight or flush? It doesn’t make any sense and it’s quite sad since good AI would make this game much more enjoyable. The AI should also be programmed to look at the played cards when doing single-card bets. Although single bets work well enough since they are more suited to evenly distributed bets, more variety would result in more exciting gameplay. Although the basic game is fun enough, the lack of thoughtful competition will turn a lot of people away from The Bojo Game – Home Edition.

The Bojo Game – Home Edition is a good card betting game destroyed by incapable AI. I like the premise and it opens the window for some interesting betting, as you try to out-maneuver your AI opponents. While there is only one mode of play using the default rules and betting structure, the combination of short-term and long-term bets makes for an entertaining gambling game. However, the shoddy AI makes winning in the game all too easy. When 23 people bet on one pair (usually the winning hand) while 7,000 bet on royal flush, there is a problem. The AI completely ignores the cards that have been played, so straights, flushes, full houses, and three of a kinds will continue to be bet on even if they are impossible to get. Hopefully the AI can be easily improved and The Bojo Game – Home Edition will be a better game in the future. I do like the overall design, and The Bojo Game – Home Edition is an AI fix away from being a notable gambling title. But as it stands now, the AI is too unintelligent to enjoy as a competitor.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sam & Max: Season One Review

Sam & Max: Season One, developed by Telltale Games and published by The Adventure Company.
The Good: Simplified interface, good sense of humor, nice graphical style, great music and sound design, mostly intuitive answers, can’t fail, slight changes in gameplay for successive attempts
The Not So Good: Limited controls means reduced complexity, the occasional oddball solution, poor handling in driving sequences, no “current objective” list
What say you? A simple, funny, and entertaining adventure game: 7/8

As I have stated previously (I can’t seem to remember when, but I did), downloadable titles are the future of PC gaming. It’s cheaper and you don’t have to be a big publisher with deep pockets to get your game distributed around the world. One of those downloadable games is Sam & Max, released in six episodes over half of a year. This resurrection of an adventure game is now available in CD format and at a reduced price for the entire collection. Those of us who were hesitant on purchasing small, three hour snippets of a game (albeit at a low price) can now pay a reasonable sum for the whole set. Will Sam & Max: Season One make all of us believers in the adventure genre once more?

For what is essentially an independently produced title, Sam & Max: Season One has some high production values, especially for the adventure genre. The game plays out like a classic 2-D point-and-click adventure game, but the game is rendered in 3-D and each of the small environments look good. The level of detail is well done and there is a nice cartoon theme to the entire game, from the appearance of the buildings, characters, and objects in the foreground to the dynamic background images. Sam & Max: Season One feels like you are playing a cartoon, and since the source material is a cartoon, this is a good thing. The dialogue sections and cut scenes in the game don’t become annoying or overly drawn out and are rendered using the game engine, instead of popping in a movie file that takes away from the flow of the game. The game also features some high-quality background music and good voice acting to make the world of Sam & Max feel authentic, at least in a cartoon sense. Both the graphics and the sound of Sam & Max: Season One are impressive for an adventure game; if only all titles in this genre could have the same attention to detail.

Sam & Max: Season One comes with all six episodes that were released online. Each episode takes about three hours to complete and you can play them in any order, although doing them in the proper order is recommended because events in later episodes reference earlier ones. This CD version also includes some bonus material such as trailers, the soundtrack, behind the scenes extras, and other things. It’s not enough to make people who already own the single episodes to buy the collection, but for those of us who missed out on the original run will enjoy these additions. Although each episode is short (for a total of about 20 hours in all), there are changes in some of the missions for subsequent plays. Most of the multi-task missions (where you have to complete three different objectives) have five or six possible tasks assigned randomly each time you play. This is pretty neat and it adds some replay value that is completely absent in most adventure games.

The controls are very simple: it’s just the mouse. Sam & Max: Season One is purely a point-and-click adventure game, and everything is done by clicking on objects, selecting items in your inventory (displayed across the bottom when you select the box), or moving the mouse in the case of driving the car. While this method works well for the most part, making Sam & Max: Season One accessible to a wide audience, the driving could be more precise. You will command Sam (the dog) during the game; text appears when your mouse hovers above functional objects (eliminating a lot of hunting). You will also click to move, which is tedious on default levels when moving large distances. The camera angle is done from the side like a classic adventure game, though the levels are rendered in 3-D and the camera rotates automatically when appropriate. While I do like the third person camera angle better than a first person view, it makes accessing objects off the side of the main screen more trouble than it should be. These simple controls means anyone can play this game in a matter of minutes, but the tradeoff is that the puzzles aren’t as complex as in some other games where a more complete suite of commands are used.

Sam & Max: Season One maintains the great sense of humor of the comic. There are numerous moments of hilarity in the game, and most of them don’t feel forced like in a lot of games that try too hard. The level of humor is appropriate for the “Teen” rating the game received. Most of the puzzles in the game are fairly straightforward and intuitive; all of them “make sense,” though some puzzles are a bit “wacky” in their sensibility. Since you can’t lose or die in the game, it’s just a matter of time before you figure out to steal the cheese or cover up the cow with the lampshade (obviously!). Thankfully, there aren’t any combining puzzles and normally you just use a single object on a target. I would like to have a current objective list, as I tend to forget exactly what I am doing. Since the objectives change each time you play, it’d be nice to see a list of your current missions without having to talk to the person who assigned them. Other than that, though, Sam & Max: Season One is a high-quality adventure game with a good sense of humor, well thought out puzzles, and a streamlined interface that should appeal to many experience levels.

Sam & Max: Season One is a high-quality adventure game with a good sense of humor, well thought out puzzles, and a streamlined interface that should appeal to many experience levels (wait…didn’t I just say that?). The game as a whole is engaging: the great graphics and wonderful sound design draw you into the gameplay, while the odd characters and interesting storyline keeps Sam & Max: Season One moving. The slightly demented sense of humor is appreciated, and most of the jokes work well without feeling forced. The controls are simple, although the driving mode is lacking and the basic controls don’t lend themselves to complex puzzles. An objective list would be nice, but the puzzles are uncomplicated enough where you don’t really need one. I’m not the biggest fan of adventure games, but I found Sam & Max: Season One fun and you should too. Since most of the tedium associated with adventure games has been removed, Sam & Max: Season One is a well crafted adventure game that will appeal to a wide audience.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Words Kingdom Review

Words Kingdom, developed and published by MagicIndie Softworks.
The Good: Large board, campaign mode, random layouts increases replay value
The Not So Good: No keyboard input, limited game modes and no multiplayer, basic graphics
What say you? This Boggle game just doesn’t have the extras to compete with more refined titles: 4/8

Words are important: without them, we would have to communicate in a series of grunts and nobody wants that (well, maybe Tim Allen). Not surprisingly, games have cashed in on the word extravaganza, from classic games like Scrabble and Boggle to modern computer software like Bookworm Adventures. The next entrant in this genre is Words Kingdom, where you must connect adjacent letters to form words. How will this game advance the genre to new realms of wordiness?

Words Kingdom is one of the more visually boring games I’ve played. While I like the level of quality in the 2-D art of the introductory movie and backgrounds, the rest of the game is very underwhelming. It’s just like someone stuck Scrabble letters up on the screen, as the game lacks any real special effects. The background and soldier positioned to the left of the game board are both static and, as a result, there is no liveliness in the game normally associated with this genre. It is a very utilitarian approach and Words Kingdom just doesn’t take full advantage of the PC platform. The background music is good, but, like the graphics, the rest of the sound effects are very basic. In all, the graphics and sound of Words Kingdom are disappointing and below the level of quality typical for puzzle games.

Words Kingdom features both a campaign and single play modes with three minute time limits where you try to make as many words as possible. Letters must be adjacent, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Each level in the campaign mode has a minimum score required to advance to the next level and it gives you something to shoot for rather than an arbitrary high score list: a nice feature. Words Kingdom does inject some replay value due to random layouts each time you play (difficulty increases by making you shoot for a higher score in successive levels), but the game doesn’t offer anything beyond the old Boggle board game. There are no special game modes and no multiplayer. Words Kingdom even uses the same time limit as Boggle. You do get higher points for using more difficult letters (like Scrabble) and there is a bonus system that will grant extra points for making a word of a specified length every once on a while, but these additions are minor. Words Kingdom even lacks keyboard input, as you must click on each letter in order to form the words. Most games allow you to start typing and it will figure out the connections automatically, but Words Kingdom resorts to tedious clicking instead of speedy computer assistance. This is basic computer gaming: something that might have worked as a free inclusion with Microsoft Windows 3.1, but not in today’s more advanced environment.

As you can tell from the length of this review, there isn’t much to Words Kingdom. It’s Boggle, which is fine, but the game doesn’t really add anything new. The features in the game are quite lacking: while I like the campaign with ever-increasing score requirements and the random boards, Words Kingdom is missing several key features like multiple bonus types, multiplayer, and different game modes. I don’t even mind the outdated graphics (I never put emphasis on the visuals, rather on the gameplay), but the gameplay is old and Words Kingdom doesn’t bring anything new to the table. This looks and feels like a game from ten years ago, and the rest of the word puzzle genre has passed Words Kingdom by. The foundation is solid and the game has the potential to be expanded into a better product, but as it stands now Words Kingdom lacks the features to compete against more developed games.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

StuntMANIA!pro Review

StuntMANIA!pro, developed and published by Sector3.
The Good: Online high score list, stackable bonuses
The Not So Good: Only four tracks, imprecise driving model with overly bouncy physics, troublesome camera angles, no multiplayer, can’t rebind controls, uncategorized and non-scrollable score list, limited game modes and bonuses and no level editor
What say you? A Trackmania-like stunt driving game that could benefit from more polish and additional features: 5/8

One of my favorite games is Trackmania (an absolute steal at $30 on Steam). While I tend towards the simulation side of the equation for driving games, this purely arcade racer has captivated my attention through all of its iterations. It has a great combination of outlandish physics, precision, and user-made content with a thriving European community. I usually jump online and play against world competition on a regular basis, at least when I’m not actively reviewing games such as StuntMANIA!pro. StuntMANIA!pro takes the high-flying approach lain by Trackmania to driving, featuring excessive flips and enough air to make anyone feel high (or something like that). Does StuntMANIA!pro effectively capture the arcade excitement of stunt driving?

As you might expect from an independent game, the production values of StuntMANIA!pro aren’t terribly fantastic. The levels in the game are simplistic and devoid of much detail, and the car models also lack any visual splendor. There are also clipping and camera issues that make controlling your vehicle more difficult than it should be. The default camera becomes obstructed too easily, while the high camera doesn’t let you see far enough ahead and the roof camera is useless when you are in the air flipping around. StuntMANIA! could benefit from a behind-the-car view like Trackmania has to make navigating through each level a possibility instead of the struggle it is. The sound is also unimpressive: squeaky engines, repetitive effects, and a generic sound track all add up to a poor auditory experience. Overall, both the graphics and the sound of StuntMANIA! are underwhelming at best.

In StuntMANIA!, you want to achieve a high score in each level by doing flips and running into stuff. The game provides two modes of play, a timed and a free mode, for single player enjoyment. StuntMANIA! lacks any multiplayer so you are just competing against the high scores set by the other competitors listed on the central score list. The online high score list is not sorted by game mode, track, or car, so you just see the same guy who spent a lot of time with the game with all of the high scores. That’s no fun! You can’t even scroll through the list, and StuntMANIA! simply gives you a token rating when you are finished. A more comprehensive, or simply just sorted, online score list might have compensated for the lack of multiplayer action. StuntMANIA! also contains only four tracks and lacks an editor, further reducing the title’s replay value.

StuntMANIA!, like most arcade racing games, has simple controls (forward, left, right, jump) though the brakes are separate from the “backwards” key, making for some touchy maneuvering. The physics of StuntMANIA! are way too bouncy for my tastes: all of the cars, including the semi, drive like they weight twenty pounds and fly up into the air when they catch any sort of obstacle at the wrong angle. While this does make for some spectacular crashes and tricks, it makes the cars too difficult to control, and ultimately the game is less fun to play because of the physics. You can’t make subtle adjustments to your car (even after adjusting some of the in-game options), so lining up for the perfect jump is more trouble than it should be. There are some interesting bonuses that do stack: nitro, super-jump, teleporting, and flipping around 180 degrees can be used in concert to make for some cool moves. Points are earned by flipping or wrecking and picking up bonus boxes scattered around each level. StuntMANIA! is occasionally enjoyable, but the physics are too odd and the features are lacking.

You can tell there is definitely some potential in the game, but StuntMANIA! feels more like an early beta or demo than a full game. The small suite of tracks (only four), the lack of multiplayer, and the pedestrian online score list show that a number of improvements could be made to the title to make it well-rounded. The physics are not to my liking: the almost-weightless cars and imprecise controls result in crashing and endless spinning rather than deft maneuvering. The game can be fun and there is skill required in order to rack up those high scores, but the lack of features brings the replay value down a lot. The developer seems to be adding additional features over time so the title can be improved in the future, but right now there are better titles at similar prices.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Space Trader Review

Space Trader, developed and published by HermitWorks Entertainment.
The Good: Great user interface makes profitable trading easy, fast pace, legal and illegal paths, helpful tutorial, LAN play, shockingly not bad FPS mode, challenging
The Not So Good: Small scenario sizes with only a couple of planets each, multiplayer limited to LANs
What say you? A well-designed trading game: 6/8

O Canada! Home of Ice Road Truckers AND Alex Trebek, the Frozen White North has seen its fair share of quality exports. This extends to the world of computer games, where several big name publishers have significant operations ongoing. Like in the U.S., Canada is also home to many (several?) independent studios hoping for a stake in the PC gaming market. One of these is Space Trader, a (surprise!) space trading game made by a bunch of hermits. When a game is being funded by the federal government, then it must be somewhat worthy of consideration. We will certainly find out, and I’ll even try to refrain from using any “eh” jokes, eh? That one doesn’t count.

One of the biggest challenges when being a small studio is overcoming the graphical hurdle: you don’t have nearly the same influx of cold, hard cash as the massive studios do (and there’s the exchange rate to consider as well). That said, the graphics of Space Trader are good, although they won’t win any awards for outstanding visual splendor. The planets and ships you will visit actually look pretty good in 3-D with some nice attention to detail. The environments are quite reminiscent of Parkan II: slightly repetitive but not terrible. The character models are much more detailed than I would have expected with some realistic animations. The weapons models are where Space Trader lags behind, as the various guns in the game aren’t impressive at all. Space Trader is not the smoothest game in the world: I experienced some hiccups in performance on a system that shouldn’t be experiencing them. The planetary view looks good, with the planets in the solar system represented nicely. The best aspect of the graphics is the quality user interface that makes effective trading very straightforward and navigating between each of the NPCs a snap: once you meet someone, you just need to click on them in a list to jump to their location. There is no more running around like in so many role-playing games. The sound is typical for this kind of game: repetitive voice clips when you meet a character and pretty standard weapon effects and background music. Nothing about the sound is impressive, but it doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, so that’s good. In all, Space Trader has higher production values than I would have thought: while it can’t obviously compete with big budget titles in terms of graphics and sound, it does hold its own and compare favorably against similar titles.

As you might guess, Space Trader involves trading…in space! The game comes with a quick tutorial that teaches the basics of the interface (it’s well designed so there isn’t much of a learning curve) and a series of three scenarios that will unlock as you reach a level of trade profit in the previous missions. All of the missions take place in our solar system, which adds an air of plausibility to the game, and you must attain a specified level of cash before time runs out. Three missions might not sound like many (and it’s not), but it will take a number of tries (and some luck) to beat each level. There is some replay value with the missions as the planets revolve around the Sun (changing travel times) and random events affect prices, but the side missions and characters stay the same. An interesting addition in the game is LAN play, where you can compete against other human players. This is fairly unique in the space trading genre and a nice feature, though unfortunately Space Trader lacks an online mode where you can challenge people over the Internet.

The game is turn-based, so you can spend as much time in each port as you’d like, searching for goods that are carelessly scattered around each level or accepting bounty hunter missions against other traders. You’ll start out in each port with a handful of known contacts, but you’ll need to explore once to find all of the other merchants. Thankfully, each level is small and finding everyone only takes a couple of minutes. Each port could have benefited from a minimap to reduce the confusion of getting lost and backtracking. Helpful icons are displayed over each character to indicate their role, but I would like the game to indicate merchants or individuals you haven’t talked to previously. There are a good number of merchants; they all offer the same prices for each good, but may have different goods in stock to sell. As I stated earlier, the game allows you to instantly transport to any merchant in a port once you meet them; this is a great feature that reduces a lot of the tedium that could have been present in Space Trader. The user interface also indicates how much money you stand to gain or lose with each transaction and the price fluctuations from median value. There is no writing of prices down or trying to remember how much cotton costs on Earth because the interface does it all for you. While this may take some of the “skill” associated with trading games away, I really like this design decision and make the gameplay more concerned with careful planning to minimize travel time rather than remembering arbitrary prices. Space Trader will clearly indicate with stars good buys or sells, and it’s just a matter of building yourself up from lower-priced to higher-priced goods. Since your ship only holds a certain number of goods (everything weighs the same in the future), you will need to deliver more expensive goods in order to reach the goal of each level. You can use mechanics to increase your cargo space, but it’s way more expensive than it’s worth. There are a number of goods in the game, from gold to food to the curiously-named “bananabis” (no doubt a cross between a banana and the North American Brain Injury Society). Disasters and other random events will alter supplies and demand, making Space Trader one part skill and the other part luck: a good combination for a computer game.

In order to maximize your profits, you will need to accept jobs to eliminate the competition…literally. The first person shooter mode of Space Trader is actually not that bad. You are given a minimap (why here and not in the stations I don’t know) that shows the locations of weapons, health, shields, goods, and enemies. You have a generic arrangement of weapons: an assault rifle, a shotgun, and the like. The AI is actually respectable: you can sneak up on them, but they will actively shoot you and they look like they attempt to use cover, or at least just go around a corner. You have three lives in each encounter to eliminate the target, and if you do, then you get money and a whole bunch of free goods. Sweet! You will also get periodically stopped by the trade administration to pay taxes, and you can choose to pay them or fight them. If they board your ship and you defeat them, you won’t pay the taxes but more backup will arrive next time. If you lose (and you only get once chance here), then you have to pay the taxes plus a boarding fee plus a soldier replacement fee. So that’s an interesting decision to make. Most of the difficulty of the FPS mode results from being ambushed by a number of enemies at once, but that’s OK in a game that focuses on trade rather than combat. The game as a whole is a good challenge: you have to plan trips to minimize down time and read the news for goods information. It took me a couple of tries at each level to each the goal, and the game features enough replay value through planetary movement and random events to make successive tries less annoying.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with Space Trader. While most space adventure games focus on flashy graphics or intense combat, Space Trader actually makes trading fun and not a chore. I usually detest trade in games since it is typically handled poorly, but Space Trader simplifies the process through its outstanding user interface. Space Trader feels like you are playing a game instead of playing a spreadsheet. While the characters remain the same, the planetary movement (something a lot of games don’t get right) and random events keep successive play fresh. The inclusion of LAN play is something even big budget titles lack. The limited scope and small amount of content (there are only a few planets in each of the game’s three scenarios) will restrict the potential audience somewhat, but for fans of trading games Space Trader is quite entertaining. Those wacky Canadians are on to something.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Venice Review

Venice, developed by Retro64 and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Unique gameplay, intuitive mouse control, multiple game modes, decent number of levels
The Not So Good: Monotonous level design, no level editor
What say you? The innovative mechanics go a long way in making this a distinct puzzle game, but it’s too repetitive: 6/8

So, who was silly enough to build their city in the middle of a swamp? Why, the people of Venice, of course! The extraction of subsurface freshwater has caused the city to sink (not an isolated problem: the San Joaquin Valley sunk 30 feet in 50 years). Now, we need a computer game that combines the action-packed world of land subsidence with matching shapes: Venice has answered the call. Venice (the game, not the city) lets you shoot shapes to match empty voids around each of the game’s levels. Will Venice (the game, not the city) push the innovative boundaries of puzzle games, or unceremoniously sink into the deep blue sea?

Venice features average graphics for the puzzle genre. The game is rendered in 2-D; while it takes advantage of its location with some distinctive background visuals, they become too repetitive and most of the puzzle elements are simple blocks instead of injecting some variety into the visuals. Nothing about the graphics is terribly exciting, and the few effects present in the game are underwhelming. It is easy to identify the appropriate shapes for each of the voids, and the user interface is useful as the cursor displays the currently loaded piece. Still, while the graphical design isn’t bad, it’s not innovative or original either. The sound in Venice is along the same lines: some OK music and effects that keep the tempo up, but, again, nothing innovative or original. In the end, everything about the presentation in Venice is terribly average.

The object of Venice is to shoot various jewels into their corresponding holes. The holes are located on various rotating ovals, triangles, bricks, and other spinning objects to increase the difficulty. This mechanic is innovative and different enough to inject some originality into the puzzle genre. The jewels are distinct enough where the places they fit are pretty obvious, so it’s just a matter of timing it correctly. Control is done with the mouse, so all you need to do is click on the location and the loaded jewel will be shot up the screen. Once you complete a set of puzzles, you’ll move on to the next set. The gondola you control can hold two treasures at a time that can be switched with the right mouse button if you don’t like your current choice. The controls in the game are easy to learn and are appropriate for any age or skill level.

There are some wrinkles added to the game to make it more than a simple matching game. If you match a jewel high up on the screen, it can tumble down to nearby holes of the same kind. Of course, it’s more difficult to hit ones higher up as they may be blocked by various obstacles. Venice combines Breakout-style games and matching games in a pretty good package, although the mechanics don’t change much throughout the game. The plates remain the same assortment of shapes (circle, X, T, bars) and the difficult doesn’t really increase too terribly much throughout the game. As you progress through the game, the number of objects trying to impede your shots increases, but never to the point of being too difficult or annoying. These obstacles include bumpers, locks, brittle bricks (that can be destroyed), chutes, and teleports. The level design is dull, repeating the same elements over and over again. Once you’ve seen the first couple of levels, you’ve seen the rest of them.

Venice includes a number of power-ups that you can earn that make playing the game easier, at least temporarily. Power shots can ignore obstacles, wild shots can fill any hole they come into contact with, and angel wings allow you to sit right on top of holes instead of having to shoot from the bottom. These add a bit of variety to the game, making it more than a simple matching game for periods of time. I like the originiality of the gameplay, but the repetition wears on you after a while and I doubt that most people will be entertained for the duration. There are multiple game modes available, though. The main Journey mode is untimed and good for new players. You do get penalized for not catching unmatched jewels as they fall towards the water. Flood mode adds time restrictions, Survival mode adds endurance, and the Trick Shot mode concerns, well, tricks shots. Overall, Venice is an original game, but it becomes boring after a while due to the dull level design. The lack of a level editor doesn’t allow the community to make varied levels, either. Every new level is essentially the same as the level before and Venice doesn’t add any new mechanics or changes to the gameplay, other than adding more obstacles or more complicated plates containing the cut-outs. Thus, even though Venice is original, it doesn’t do enough to keep you interested throughout the game.

Venice has a good idea for a puzzle game and almost successfully executes it. The basic mechanics are initially interesting enough to make you want to play for the first set of levels, but the repetitive level design and lack of new or interesting elements as you progress through the game hinders Venice’s overall enjoyment. The user interface and controls makes Venice easy to everyone to control and the various game modes makes the gameplay at least a little different. The power-ups also vary the experience, making for some cool combos when you tumble pieces and plan correctly. Still, the level design doesn’t allow for much variety so Venice’s appeal will be limited. I will commend Venice on its unique nature, but the game doesn’t to enough to keep interest high throughout the game.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Attack on Pearl Harbor Review

Attack on Pearl Harbor, developed by 3D People, 3Dvision, and Legendo Entertainment and published by CDV.
The Good: Simple controls, action-packed swift missions, winning not required to advance, two-perspective campaign, decent AI
The Not So Good: Extremely repetitive (but still pretty fun), very short campaigns, limited multiplayer, pointless dogfights, laughably bad cut scenes
What say you? A simplified arcade plane action title that’s entertaining for much longer than it should be: 6/8

There are really two major audiences in computer games: those who like simple, fun games and those who like realistic, hardcore simulations. I usually tend to swing towards the second option, although I am down for a well-designed arcade game every once in a while. It appears that now is that “every once in a while,” as Attack on Pearl Harbor is up for review. This is an arcade flight game that doesn’t pretend to be a simulation: it’s all about shooting stuff, quickly and thoroughly. And I can appreciate that if it’s done well; unbridled destruction is good for the soul (or at least that’s what Jack Thompson says). This title is reminiscent of Battlestations Midway: although Attack on Pearl Harbor is planes-only and doesn’t have an RTS element, they are both third-person action games that take place in the Pacific Theater of World War II. I think that’s long enough for an introduction…on with the review!

Attack on Pearl Harbor features good, but not great, graphics. The plane models, which is what you are going to be staring at most of the time, are nicely detailed and contain some good effects like bullet holes and dark smoke when hit. The explosions in the game are repetitive but they are impressive, especially when you fly through them. The land areas are detailed but they could use a little more polish; they look more like game locations than like real-world locations. They have the “soft” feel of IL-2 Sturmovik without the same level of detail. There are some pleasing weather and time of day effects in Attack on Pearl Harbor, completing the above average graphics. The sound is average: while the game features some nice music, the voiced audio and subtitles don’t match (especially for the American missions). Though when I heard the Japanese narrator refer to “decadent Americans” I laughed (in a good way). I laughed in a bad way at the comic-inspired cut scenes that introduce each campaign: they are so horrible with overly dramatic voice acting that you just need to skip past them in order to maintain sanity. Thankfully the cut scenes rarely occur. Overall, Attack on Pearl Harbor is an above average game in terms of presentation: not cutting edge, but not terribly outdated either.

Attack on Pearl Harbor features two campaigns, one for each side of the war in the Pacific; it’s nice to see the Japanese get some love in computer gaming. Each of the campaign allows you to undertake one mission per month over the twenty-two months divided into two parts in each campaign. This may seem like a good amount of content (and it doesn’t stop halfway through the war like Battlestations Midway), but each individual mission takes three to five minutes to finish. This means you’ll be done with the game in well under five hours, and probably closer to three. The advantage of this is that the missions are filled with constant action: there is no waiting around flying to your waypoints. The missions require you to destroy enemy air, ground, or naval targets; while this is repetitive, the game is quite enjoyable and the short missions actually work to the game’s benefit. Attack on Pearl Harbor could use a dynamic campaign like Enemy Engaged 2 to make it feel like you a influencing the outcome more, but victory is determined by your win-loss record. You don’t need to successfully complete each mission in order to advance to the next one. Instead, you are given a number of aircraft of each type that can be regenerated by getting a lot of kills. If you don’t have any fighters left, you can’t do any fighter missions until you destroy enough enemies in the other missions. This is a good thing: while most missions are balanced well, you will occasionally get the one-on-twenty mission, but these are thankfully few and far between. Although it is very short, I like the forgiving campaign design that makes the game much less frustrating.

After you are done with the campaigns (after a good afternoon of play), it’s time for the skirmish and multiplayer modes. The single player dogfights are worthless: they are all just you against a horde of AI planes and you play until you die, a time limit is reached, or you kill a specified number of enemies. And what is your reward for all of this destruction? Nothing. Solo missions against tons of enemies are not fun at all and the dogfights should be avoided at all costs. Attack on Pearl Harbor features multiplayer options: you can play deathmatch or team deathmatch games against real human opponents online. While these modes are fairly entertaining (although there weren’t a lot of people online, since I got the game a week before release…I am sweet like that), more could have been done with the multiplayer. It would have been nice to have some objective-based missions (since most of the single player campaign missions are objective-based), like destroying an enemy aircraft carrier before the other team destroys yours. Cooperative missions against the AI could have been equally entertaining. It is still fun blowing people up and the mechanics lend themselves well to quick skirmishes, but there is more potential in the multiplayer, and it’s sad that it’s not expanded.

You will pilot three types of planes during your tour of duty (heh…I said “duty”) in Attack on Pearl Harbor: fighters, torpedo-bombers, and dive bombers. The fighters and bombers behave differently (bombers turn more slowly) and each has their specific role: engaging enemy planes, destroying naval targets, and destroying land targets. Attack on Pearl Harbor has an informative user interface that clearly displays surrounding enemy aircraft in both the radar and indicators on-screen. You’ll need to monitor your machine gun temperature (though it takes quite a while to overheat) and damage meter (again, set at high arcade levels). Controls are very straightforward, and I used the mouse controls (which use the wheel to control throttle) and found them to be intuitive. You can also use a joystick or Xbox 360 controller, if you own one of those evil things. While the game comes with an airspeed indicator, there is no altimeter so you’ll have to gauge your altitude visually. A warning buzzer sounds when you are close to the ground, but if you are moving fast enough it will appear too late. The physics of Attack on Pearl Harbor are good for an arcade game: very easy to learn by all experience layers. This puts the focus of the game squarely on the action, and there is a lot of it. The AI behaviors are somewhat scripted, but they are a challenging foe without being too god-like. They are adept at positioning themselves behind you, although they do occasionally run into each other. Combat is fast and furious: once you gauge how much you should lead a target, you’ll be taking down planes in no time. The planes are pretty easy to destroy, good for the fast-paced gameplay featured in the game. As much as I complain about arcade gameplay, I actually found Attack on Pearl Harbor to be quite enjoyable. I think a lot of this has to do with the chaotic battles and short missions, and the simplified physics will appeal to a much larger audience than a more realistic simulation would. The game may be repetitive, but it is certainly fun in medium-sized doses.

Attack on Pearl Harbor nails the arcade flight combat game mechanic. The game is easy to pick up and full of action from the start. The missions are short, delaying the onset of repetition until late in the game. You don’t get much content, as you can easily finish both single player campaigns in a couple of hours, but it is fun while it lasts. Multiplayer is some fun, although it should have more variety. The mission difficulty is well balanced and the AI pilots are good compatriots and adept enemies. Attack on Pearl Harbor may not adhere to real-world physics or flight models, but its arcade brand of combat is pretty fun. Large single player battles and multiplayer affairs can deliver the type of chaotic action perfect for this kind of game. Attack on Pearl Harbor may not have the lasting appeal of more sophisticated simulations, but it is quite enjoyable while it lasts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ricochet Infinity Review

Ricochet Infinity, developed and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Lots of levels with unique designs, in-game download browser, useful recall ability, same computer multiplayer with two mice, fun and plentiful stackable power-ups, meaningful ship special abilities, varied difficulty settings, level editor
The Not So Good: Not terribly original
What say you? A content-heavy breakout game for any fan of the genre: 7/8

Breakout and its many clones have been around since, well, Breakout. Taking the basic mechanics of Pong and extending it to destroying things (a popular American pastime), numerous versions of this game have appeared in computerized forms. Nowadays, you need to add something new to the classic equation: alternative game modes, realistic physics, animals in plastic balls. The fourth game in the series, Ricochet Infinity brings together all of the features from the previous games and adds some new features. Of course, all of the features are new to me since I never played any of the previous versions. How will Ricochet Infinity stack up against the competition?

Ricochet Infinity is a 2-D game, but it tries its hardest to make itself look decent. The game features a good variety of graphical styles in all of its levels, exemplified even more in the community-made custom levels. The game is a little light on the special effects, but the chaotic nature of the gameplay does come through when the action gets intense. There are some nice touches present in the game, such as the alien watching the action alongside you and some of the weapon effects are nice. But the best graphical feature Ricochet Infinity is the amount of variety in the tile design: unlike some games, you won’t encounter the same style over and over again throughout the game. The backgrounds are as varied as the tiles, too, making Ricochet Infinity look a lot more interesting than most Breakout clones. The sound in the game is average for the genre: nice effects accompany each special weapon, and the background music fits the overall theme. Although Ricochet Infinity is rendered in 2-D, the game looks and sounds better than most games in the genre.

Ricochet Infinity is a classic Breakout game: use a paddle to shoot a ball at bricks to destroy them. However, it sets itself apart from the rest of the games in the genre by its numerous features. The game ships with about 200 levels divided over two campaigns that just vary the environments you will encounter during play. Ricochet Infinity has numerous levels of difficulty from kid-appropriate to complete insanity, so the game can be played by any aspiring brick buster. If the 200 levels aren’t enough, the game comes with an outstanding in-game download browser where you can acquire user-made content from this and previous games. There are well over 2,000 levels organized into packs, each with filter tags and user ratings. This takes a lot of the problems with downloading and installing user-made content completely out of the equation: playing new campaigns is so simple, download times are almost instantaneous, and your progress is saved for future attempts. This is possible through the game’s comprehensive level editor, which allows end-users to incorporate the same variety and motion seen in the game’s default content. While there is no online play, you can have multiplayer on the same computer if you have two USB mice handy. This is a pretty cool and, as far as I know, unique feature. You can choose between competitive, cooperative, and a tail gunner mode. Ricochet Infinity also keeps track of your progress, giving you additional ranks during the game and unlocking new ships with balanced special abilities. Each ship in the game activates several power-ups when you collect the “special ability” power up, and most of these are balanced (for example, a super powerful gun may be accompanied by a faster ball speed). Although the exceedingly high amount of content is enough to keep you interested in the game, Ricochet Infinity also offers some nice additional game modes to round out the feature list.

Controls, as you might expect, are very straightforward: use the mouse to move the ship horizontally, and the left mouse button to launch balls and activate weapons. New to Ricochet Infinity is the recall ability, which gives you some control over steering your ball towards you ship by pressing the right mouse button. I’ve seen this in other games before, but those simply brought it down instead of allowing for horizontal motion. You can really get creative with the recall ability, allowing for greater control and quicker finishes to pesky levels. The recall ability doesn’t make the game trivially easy, however, and it is balanced well. Ricochet Infinity features twenty-nine (!) power-ups that offer a number of ways to destroy blocks. They are actually quite different in their nature, instead of simply being more powerful versions of other power-ups. You can also stack most of the power-ups together (most Breakout games restrict you to one power-up at a time): having eight acid-laser-lightning-sighted-ball generators with safety bumpers and expanded shields at once is a feat unmatched in lesser Breakout games. This results in some really fun chaos in more complicated levels, with a whole bunch of stuff happening at once that appropriately feels a bit out of your control. The bricks in the game are not without their variety, either: they can alter the speed of your ball, explode, contain power-ups, trigger events, teleport your balls, or shoot other bricks. The skins for these bricks (and the backgrounds for each level) is varied enough not to become repetitive. While you are destroying bricks, you can also collect rings to level up your character. Ricochet Infinity also has open-ended speed, so there is glass ceiling of difficult like so many other Breakout clones. Ricochet Infinity is also distinctive because of the amount of motion present in its levels: rarely will you play a level where bricks are standing still and not moving in some challenging pattern. All of these features come together to form a comprehensive Breakout game that is pretty much everything you could want for a title in the genre.

The sheer number of features in Ricochet Infinity makes this a genre-defining game. The insane amount of user content shows what kind of following there is for this game. The editor allows for some really creative campaigns, and the user-made content compliments the lengthy campaign modes well. Getting these user creations is a snap through the in-game browser; there is no need to scour the Internet looking for new puzzles. There is some strategy in picking a ship offering the specific power-ups you enjoy, the levels are reasonably challenging, and you can adjust the difficult to any conceivable level. The addition of recall mode allows you control over your ball without being too important to the gameplay. This is probably one of the best-looking 2-D games due to the variety of backgrounds and tile sets present in the game. The number of stackable power-ups and brick types will keep you playing Ricochet Infinity for a long, long time. Once you have Ricochet Infinity, there is really no reason to play another Breakout game: this is the title that has it all and executes it very well.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Switchball Review

Switchball, developed by Atomic Elbow and published by Sierra Online.
The Good: Inventive level design with excellent graphics, intuitive and precise mouse controls, plentiful checkpoints, believable physics, gradually increasing difficulty
The Not So Good: Lack of a level editor is a crime, can’t save and exit in the middle of a level, can be frustrating because of the accuracy required
What say you? A very well designed marble puzzle game: 7/8

I don't think I can talk about any marble-based game without mentioning Marble Madness. That title pretty much spawned the genre, including games like Marble Blast and some console game that we can't mention because it's a console game. Rolling objects always have unique physics that require planning, so they can make for some interesting puzzle games. Enter Switchball, another entry in the marble-based puzzle game genre. Here, your ball “switches” into different forms, giving you additional abilities and drawbacks as you navigate through each puzzle. How will Switchball improve on the foundation lain by games past?

Switchball has some excellent graphics, especially for a puzzle game. Each of the levels are rendered in 3-D and they look very good. The outstanding level of detail permeates itself throughout the game: every object in each puzzle looks great and even the static backgrounds are nice. Although the basic design elements of the levels stay the same throughout the game, the different lighting effects in each of the six areas make it appear slightly different. The camera automatically switches angles in the game and your controls are based off the fixed camera angle (it can temporarily rotated). While the preset camera generally does a good job, there are some problems with circular ramps where your view is occasionally obstructed. Overall, though, the graphics of Switchball are quite good. While the sound effects are basic, the game has some pleasing background music that fits the overall theme well. The production values of Switchball are certainly very high, much more than what you would expect for a $20 puzzle game.

In Switchball, you need to navigate a marble from the beginning of a level to the end, navigating past treacherous drops, objects blocking your path, and other assorted obstacles. Control can be done using the mouse, which allows for some nice precision not possible with keyboard methods. In fact, you really need to use the mouse: since the camera angles are fixed, you’ll need to navigate the ball on some pathways that are not strictly horizontal or vertical, and doing this using the keyboard is essentially impossible. You can play each of the game’s thirty levels in free mode or with a timer; medals can be earned by completing levels in an expedient manner. The levels are very well designed and provide new challenges introduced over time that maintains high interest in the game. While the levels will keep you busy for a bit (and the ability to improve your times mean that going through certain levels isn’t out of the question), but the biggest disappointment about Switchball is the lack of a map editor. It seems like customized levels could be easy to design, but there is no option to do so in the game. This makes it somewhat disappointing when you complete the game and there is no new content to enjoy. Considering that a lot of PC games ship with editing tools to satisfy the community, it is deplorable that Switchball lacks this entertaining feature.

Switchball has a number of elements that make the gameplay more advanced than simply navigating through a maze. There are boxes, jumps, stairs, pitfalls, sideways windmills (I can’t think of a better way of describing them) and other things scattered about the level to avoid as you make your way to the exit. Switchball allows you to morph into alternate forms other than the normal marble: metal for pushing heavy objects, air for floating, and power for jumps, dashes, and magnetic properties. Additional forms have drawbacks: metal balls can go through cloth and attracted by magnets and air balls can be pushed by fans. Switchball focuses on precise, careful movement around each level, as you are normally very close to careening off the edge. Most of the puzzle elements are fairly easy to figure out, mostly using objects to move other objects out of the way. The difficulty and complexity gradually increases as you go through each of the levels, providing a good amount of challenge without being too terribly difficult. Switchball can be frustrating because of the high precision required in the game, but none of the levels are outright impossible. Switchball has abundant checkpoints that save your progress after each puzzle in a level, but you can’t save and exit in the game. Helping the game are the accurate physics: the balls go exactly where you think they should. There is the occasional issue with balls getting caught on checkpoints and the camera being naughty, but these never really detract from the fun of the game since you have an unlimited amount of time to complete each level on free mode.

Switchball has the intuitive controls and great levels required for a compelling puzzle game. The graphics are much better than the budget price of the game and the thirty levels will last you for a bit, although a level editor would extend the replay value. There are some creative portions of the game requiring reasonable solutions that will challenge without frustrating. Switchball shows how a puzzle game should be done: simple yet fun and challenging. At $20, it is a steal for puzzle fans.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Guns of August 1914-1918 Review

Guns of August 1914-1918, developed by Adanac Command Studies and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Unique use of headquarters units, sort of different setting, initial setups can be saved for future use, compact scenario lengths
The Not So Good: Extremely tedious gameplay since you must control all allied nations at once resulting in a lot of management, no tutorial and a vague manual
What say you? Although it has some innovative gameplay features, this World War I grand strategy game is too big and too bland: 5/8

Finally, a strategy game not set during World War II! Granted, it’s World War I, but baby steps are still progress. Hot of the heels of the recently released Commander: Europe at War, Guns of August takes the grand strategy game to the original World War, replacing yummy tanks with yummy poison gas (yeah, I know there were tanks in World War I, but they weren’t yummy tanks). Now that’s old school! The grand strategy games have become quite popular, letting you take control of an entire nation’s military and economic strategies. In the case of Guns of August, you will guide the Triple Entente or the Central Powers to victory in Europe (well, hopefully). Will Guns of August use its unique focus to produce a must-have title?

The graphics and sound of Guns of August are typical for a wargame: very basic. The game features the same hex-based maps and unit tiles that have been around for many years in countless other titles. These derivative graphics work OK in the game and the graphics never hinder the gameplay, but the graphics lack any excitement. They are just there to show the game and nothing more, which I suppose is fine for a wargame setting. The user interface is OK: everything is accessible from the main screen, but the subsequent interfaces take up a lot of the screen so you can’t see the units referenced in the screens. The minimap doesn’t show unit locations, but the overall map (which takes up about half of the screen) does. Overall, the graphics are underwhelming and typical for the genre. The sound is also exactly what you would expect: decent music and a handful of sound effects. Sure, it has a wargame pedigree so you don’t expect cutting-edge graphics and sound, but it would still be nice to see some improvements made from the standard presentation.

Guns of August takes place during World War I, when the Central Powers and the Triple Entente were fighting over who could eat the last cookie (or as best I can remember from History class). The game offers single person play against the capable AI opponent, play by e-mail, or hot seat games. Like Commander: Europe at War, you will have to control all of the nations aligned with a particular side; as you will see, this quickly becomes a micromanagement problem. There is no tutorial in the game and the manual isn’t the greatest: it leaves out basic commands like ordering units to move (left-click) or selecting units in a stack (right-click). Not helping things is the fact that you can’t do much the first turn, so you may think the game is broken, not allowing you to activate units or issue orders, when in actuality you are not allowed to do much of anything right out of the box. Victory is gained with surrender by Germany or Russia and France. If this is not reached by the end of the time frame (one year or six turns for each scenario, although you can continue until the end of 1918), other methods will be used to determine the winner. Each of the yearly (five from 1914 to 1918) scenarios takes place over a year, and since each turn is two months long, all of the scenarios (with the exception of the first, which is half as long) are only six turns long. This might not sound like a very long game, but a single turn of Guns of August will take very long to complete due to the high level of micromanagement. I actually like smaller scenarios rather than extremely long campaigns (regular readers will know I complain about 100-turn long scenarios early and often). You can grant a production bonus to either side to increase the difficulty, or make Romania and Italy pro-Germany for a more balanced game (good for multiplayer affairs).

The first thing you’ll do is deploy your troops. Actually, the first thing you’ll do is just stare at the map and wonder why you can’t do anything, until you realize that you need to press the “next turn” button to reach the deployment phase. Troop locations are preset, but you can move them around (somehow…I can’t seem to do it on a consistent basis and the manual is no help) and even save your initial placement for future tries at the mission: pretty cool. Next comes the activation phase that introduces a neat way of representing the order of battle. Units must be activated by their headquarters unit in an adjacent hex before they can attack enemy hexes. This allows you to spread out a set of units to cover a line, but still requires you to keep units together in a realistic manner. I really like it and it’s probably the most unique innovation in Guns of August. Activated units can then be issued movement orders in the orders phase, results are calculated during the resolution phase, and results are displayed in the drawn-out playback phase.

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll have to keep track of the economy and military of a number of countries at one time, and all of the settings and production in the game is independent for each nation in an alliance. Good thing each scenario is only six turns long. Each nation has manpower that is used for reinforcements and morale derived from domestic opinion, political and naval victories, and food supply. Casualties can also contribute to war exhaustion, which will cause reduction in the amount of activation a headquarters can use and eventually force HQs to retreat. Guns of August has superficial diplomacy: you can use diplomatic points to alter when nations will enter the war (their allegiances are fixed). Declaring war on neutral nations can anger other neutral nations, provoking them to war sooner. There is also research that can improve your units in several areas: artillery, trenches, poison gas, assault troops, tanks, aircraft, and anti-sub warfare. While the diplomacy and the research is simplistic, they are nice abstractions that give you just another thing to keep track of.

Guns of August puts a lot of emphasis on food production (food is good): if you don’t have enough food, national morale and production will drop. Most of your raw materials and food will come from locations inside the country (good places to attack, by the way), but you can also trade resources between friendly nations. Production will create economic points that can be used to purchase new units and diplomatic or research points. New units are purchased from a large menu and available a couple of turns later. The support operations in Guns of August are mostly automated: air and naval units can be given commands such as recon mission to improve artillery accuracy, shipping trips, amphibious operations, and anti-sub patrols. This is meant to reduce micromanagement and automate the naval aspects of the game, but I wish the game showed where the units were located as you issue orders (this is a user interface problem).

Units move one hex at a time, and they can move into enemy territory if they have been activated by their headquarters. Thankfully, you can move an entire stack at once, but there are still a whole bunch of units scattered all over the map to deal with. Moving units will reduce their readiness; along with trenches, this gives and advantage to defending units (which parallels the real war). They did have railroads back then, so units can quickly be brought up to the front lines from where they are produced. Guns of August only allows you to see enemy units in adjacent hexes (makes sense), but you can gain more information from airplane recon. When units collide, combat takes place automatically, taking into account the relative strengths of the units, their quality, readiness, and firepower. While the basics of the game are solid and there are a couple of neat features in the game (like HQ activation), Guns of August is very tedious with too many units to control scattered over a large map. Not only do you have to deal with all of the units, but you also need to set research, diplomacy, naval orders, reinforcements, force queues, and airpower usage for every country under your command every turn. Guns of August tries to occasionally reduce the micromanagement buy automating the naval and air support and letting you save setups to reduce repetitiveness at the beginning of a new game, but it’s still a lot to keep track of. Even the real alliances had one head of state for each country; why should I be expected to handle the economics and military of multiple nations at once? Guns of August does prompt you before ending each turn to make sure you didn’t forget anything important during each phase of the game, but the game doesn’t suggest which countries you forgot about. You really need to methodically deal with each nation individually in order to successfully play the game. Although it doesn’t approach the level of confusion of Great Invasions (where your multiple countries made no sense), Guns of August is simply too cumbersome to enjoy, at least for me.

Guns of August suffers from Hearts of Iron-like confusion: too much is required of the player to keep track of, so all except for the most dedicated players will become frustrated and quit. I do like the unit activation through the HQ and the basics are fine, but the scale of the game is too large for me to enjoy. I just never got to relax enough to have fun, having to keep track of the units and the economic aspects of multiple nations all at the same time. I think the ability to guide just one nation would result in a more manageable game; can you imagine controlling, say, all of the Holy Roman Empire in Europa Universalis III? No thanks. The game’s “unique” time frame really just feels like World War II, since the setting is still in Europe and most of the units are essentially the same with some minor alterations to accommodate gas and trench warfare. With all of the grand strategy wargames available, Guns of August is too unwieldy to be a recommended title. I submit Commander: Europe at War as a more simplified and enjoyable grand strategy experience as Guns of August demands too much of the player.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ship Simulator 2008 Review

Ship Simulator 2008, developed by VSTEP and published on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Decent mission variety with a number of ships in a range of environments, outstanding graphics with comprehensive weather options, mission editor and other features (like multiplayer) to be included in future patches
The Not So Good: Needs a tutorial or more explicit objectives, pointless free roam mode with no dynamic real-time missions, no sailboats, no ship or environment editors, overt realism won’t appeal to everyone
What say you? An accurate motorized boating simulation with a number of good features balanced by a few limitations: 6/8

Boating simulations have their fair share of fans. While they aren’t nearly as popular as the droves of flight simulations available, there have been a number of titles covering the nautical side of things, like Days of Sail and Virtual Sailor. With a look into the future is Ship Simulator 2008, the second title in the series (apparently, in some countries, September 2007 counts as 2008…how futuristic!). Driving a boat might not be as exotic as flying planes or blowing stuff up with tanks, but there is still the potential for some entertaining gaming to be had.

The graphics of Ship Simulator 2008 are terrific. Although you wouldn’t think that an ocean-based simulation would be able to show off much graphical flair (the ocean is fairly featureless), Ship Simulator 2008 does its best in rendering a realistic environment. Each of the game’s coastal environments is very detailed, with recognizable landmarks and few repetitive buildings that combine to produce believable vistas. Reflections are nice, creating a mirrored look that works very well. The locations don’t span a large area, so the level of detail is less impressive than games that cover the entire world, but Ship Simulator 2008 still has great backdrops to your boating adventures. All of the fourteen ships in the game are highly detailed and full of animations that make them seem like real boats. You can even walk around in them, so their interiors are almost as impressive as their exteriors. Non-playable boats are a little rougher with low-resolution textures and the visible damage system isn’t quite as realistic as it could be (most damage is shown as a rusty paint spot), but the ship still look fantastic. The thorough weather effects in the game let you create any type of environment you wish. In fact, the sun changes orientation with time of day and time of year, which will alter the sunrise and sunset times: very neat. You can set the date and time, along with the concentration of four cloud types, wind speed and direction, wave height, rain, fog, and thunder. All of these adjustments are made to the background of the menus, so you can see your changes in real time to perfect the conditions you will experience. The ocean waves are also well done, with a good physics model present. With all of this graphical splendor, it’s strange that channel markers present on the map are not rendered in the game world, but I guess no game is perfect. The sound is pretty much what you would expect: engines, horns, and waves crashing against the boat. There isn’t a cacophony of sounds on the ocean, but there is a decent amount chaos when you are in a port. The game’s missions do not have voiced instructions, which would have been a nice addition for those people who hate to read. Still, the production values of Ship Simulator 2008 are quite high and the result is one of the best looking naval games available for the PC.

Ship Simulator 2008 features fourteen ships you can pilot around eight world ports, completing missions along the way. There is a good variety of boats to choose from: container ships, rescue boats, speedboats, ferries, tug boats, tankers, water taxis, and even the Titanic (and yes, there are icebergs that can cause damage). Future patches plan to introduce two additional ships (a jet ski and hovercraft) plus sinking ships, but Ship Simulator 2008 lacks sailboats (which begs the question: are sailboats ships or boats? If they are boats and not ships, I’ll let this game off the hook). Controlling the boats is straightforward: most boats have engine and rudder controls for power and steering. Some ships also have the ability to manipulate the crane, and you can always take a tour of your boat while autopilot is automatically engaged, maintaining your speed and heading while you hit on that hot chick on “B” deck (no, that’s not actually in the game). You can control Ship Simulator 2008 with either the keyboard or the joystick, and either works well: while the keyboard lacks the finesse of partial throttle, it is easier to just hold down a key than constantly push a joystick forward. The user interface is well-designed, allowing for two-click access to any of the game’s commands. Ship Simulator 2008 also has an “advanced rope system” that allows you to drop anchor, tug another ship, or tie off to a dock (I’m not quite sure what’s so advanced about that, although I don’t specifically remember many games offering those options). You’ll be boating in world locales like England, Marseille, San Francisco, New York, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Thailand. There are also intermediate oceanic maps that join each of the ports: while these are simply areas of open water, it is nice to show some sort of connectivity between the ports instead of treating them as totally separate areas. This allows for long distance travel and open ocean trips, not that you would really want to do this considering the game takes place in real time.

Ship Simulator 2008 comes with a free roaming mode that is disappointing, considering how much potential there is for non-scripted gameplay in a boating simulation. You can customize your weather, pick and ship and location, and putt around with no limits, but there is nothing to do. It would be cool if missions became available that were appropriate for your ship (like rescues or shipping or whatever) that earned you money to purchase larger ships: a sort of career mode if you will. Dynamically-generated missions would flesh out Ship Simulator 2008 to be a more complete game and add a whole bunch of replay value on top of the thirty included missions. The missions do offer a good bit of variety that are related to each of the ship types in the game: rescuing swimmers, towing damaged or large vessels, taxing tourists, or undergoing the Titanic voyage (with hopefully better results). Most of these activities, however, simply involve traveling to waypoints so there is some repetition involved. There are some other maritime activities that are not modeled that aren’t beyond the scope of the game: Deadliest Catch-like crab fishing could easily be incorporated into the game (I smell expansion). While the game’s controls are straightforward, Ship Simulator 2008 lacks a tutorial (and the version I received didn’t even have a manual) and some marine terminology needs to be explained better (“moor to a boulder?” Sounds dirty). There isn’t any multiplayer yet, although it (like a lot of other things) is planned for a future free patch (apparently, the game is being released in September to a few countries and this is when a lot of these new features will appear). You also can’t save in the middle of a mission, though this (again) will be changed in upcoming patches. The game itself seems to replicate boating very well: small motorboats are agile and quick, while large tankers are slow to respond and require a lot of planning to maneuver. I can safely assume that none of us knows what it’s like to pilot the Titanic, but Ship Simulator 2008’s physics model seems to accurately model the behemoth. Those players looking for an authentic simulation of boating will find a pleasing title in Ship Simulator 2008.

Ship Simulator 2008 is a couple of features away from rivaling the Flight Simulator series: it brings almost the same level of quality to maritime operations as that particular franchise does to air travel. The graphics of the game are absolutely spectacular and each of the game’s environments is replicated in high detail, presenting realistic locales in which to do your boating fun. There are thirty missions that offer a range of different activities, although most of them just involve moving to a set of waypoints so none of the missions are challenging and some are actually tedious instead of enjoyable. Like Bus Driver, Ship Simulator 2008 is a faithful recreation that some will find extremely boring and some will find extremely realistic and engaging: it depends on whether you like driving boats. And if you do like driving boats, then Ship Simulator 2008 is a very enjoyable game.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Armageddon Empires Review

Armageddon Empires, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Interesting deck composition strategy with no restrictions on beginners, numerous viable plans for victory, random turn order varies gameplay, decent AI, not much micromanagement due to low unit counts
The Not So Good: No tutorial or campaign, slow start, tedious drawn-out combat between equal foes, no included starter deck arrangements, lack of multiplayer options
What say you? This card-based strategy game has some good mechanics but it is tough on novices and lacks some features: 5/8

When the world comes to an end (probably caused by Lindsay Lohan), survivors will battle for control of what’s left, if television, movies, and video games have taught us anything. A post-apocalyptic environment is one of the popular settings for games (not at the level of World War II, of course), as it allows for both conventional and mutated or robotic units in a plausible setting. Armageddon Empires features the struggles of humans, machines, aliens, and mutants three hundred years after first contact in the disturbingly-close year of 2025. This is a card-based strategy game, infusing the popular elements of games like Magic: The Gathering (not that I would know; I just saw a commercial for it) with strategic hex-based board games. Is Armageddon Empires a successful combination of two strategy game types?

Armageddon Empires looks exactly like you would expect a card-based board game to look. The game adds nothing to the equation in terms of graphical flair using the computer medium, and Armageddon Empires could easily be replicated in table-top format exactly as it is rendered here. There are no battle animations or other pieces of flair that would contradict the boring presentation: in fact, the only sense of movement in the game is the rolling dice, and that’s not exactly stimulating. The tile-based maps are basic with only subtle differences in the desert landscapes: they are not very exciting to look at. The user interface could be better: the game cuts off a number of the cards in your hand from being displayed, although the ability to render the game at higher resolutions would fix this problem. As it stands, you can only see five cards at a time and you must scroll to reveal the other cards in your hand. The level of detail on the cards themselves, however, is the graphical highlight of the game and it can rival the best creations of any card-based game available. The audio of Armageddon Empires is typical for wargames: a few subtle battle effects. Again, nothing separates this game from any analogue board game in terms of presentation, and the main sound effect involves (again) rolling the dice. I did, however, enjoy the background music: though it is repetitive, it is catchy enough not to become repetitive. The graphics and the sound of Armageddon Empires are disappointing, as the game adds nothing to the basic formula of card and board games to make the title take advantage of computing power.

Surrounding the struggle for future earth, Armageddon Empires features solely skirmish matches against the AI. While the game is seemingly built for play by e-mail, Armageddon Empires lacks any multiplayer features whatsoever, even hotseat games on the same computer (strange for a turn-based game). Armageddon Empires lacks a campaign or even a tutorial, which is quite detrimental to the game since the unique mechanics and conventions are a bit unique and will throw off even seasoned veterans. For each match, you can set the deck size limits, map size, and the availability of resources and special locations. You can have anywhere between one and three AI opponents, depending on the map size. There are no team matches and the AI difficulty cannot be adjusted. As you can tell, Armageddon Empires lacks a lot of the features that contribute to long-term enjoyment in a strategy game: multiplayer, different victory options, adjustable difficulty, team play, a tutorial, and a campaign. The limitations of Armageddon Empires certainly hinder its appeal.

Before you start a new contest, however, you will need to design a deck. Armageddon Empires lacks (surprise!) default starter decks, only coming with the one used in the demo. You can copy over the AI decks and use them, but for the most part you are on your own, wading through the manual to understand the mechanics. It takes a couple of games to realize what composition of forces and structures you need. The deck customization does leave a lot of room for different strategies, though, and once you realize the capabilities of the format, the game opens up and becomes intriguing. Since you can impose different deck restrictions in forming a new game, you can compose several decks for each race. There are a number of card types available in the game; each of the four races share the same basic types, but attributes of similar units are slightly different. Heroes lead armies around the map and may have special abilities, such as constructing units, assassinating enemy units, conducting espionage, or general stat increases. Heroes also have an amount of fate that can be used to alter dice rolls for combat and other events. Tactical leaders can employ tactic cards that can also influence dice rolls. There are a number of units available, from basic infantry to scouts, engineers, tanks, and very large creatures. You can also include resource-collecting facilities, one-use attacks, weapon attachments, or enhancements in your deck. The options in deck composition are numerous, so everyone will be able to find an overall strategy and tailor a deck towards it.

Victory is gained by capturing the enemy headquarters. This is done by using collected resources to play cards to produce units that can be moved around the map. At the beginning of each turn, there is a roll for initiative to determine the play order. While going first has its obvious advantages, you will also get more action points to use during your turn. Action points are required for pretty much every action in the game, from using cards to moving units to forming armies. You can spend some resources to increase your chances of winning. I like how there is a measure of randomness introduced into the game that affects how you will play each turn. Your big plans might go to waste if you end up third in the pecking order. Dice rolls make up a large majority of the game, so everything isn’t as cut-and-dry as some rock-paper-scissors RTS games where unit counters are more important. Make sure that you turn fast rolls on: otherwise, you’ll sit through minute-long presentations of watching dice (fun!). The four resources required to play cards are found in various locations around the map. Some places, like towns (which can be identified by their characteristic hex, even before you scout them) have resources that can be collected by defeating the natives and constructing a resource-collecting outpost. You can also gain one-time resource bonuses, in addition to weapons and other improvements, by discovering old ruins scattered around the map. It pays to scout.

Units in the game don’t move individually, as they must be assigned to an army (which costs action points to form). Leaderless armies can only consist of two units, but heroes can increase that limit. Because of the limited resources available in the game, there is not much micromanagement and the unit count is kept very low. Typically, you’ll only have a couple of armies moving around the map during the entire game, and their movement is somewhat restricted by the supply radii from each base you own (there are supply units available to incorporate into your armies, though). This has its drawbacks, however, as starting each game is a very arduous and slow process, since you can’t afford very many units. Once you play a card, it is removed from your deck and you can draw new cards for an action point cost. A lot of the game centers around good management of resources and action points on a per turn and overall basis, sighting cards that are in your hand and saving up over several turns to afford powerful units down the line. There is a good variety of units to choose from, and you’ll rarely encounter generic units as most cards come with a special ability or two, such as stealth, sabotage, or the ability to kill opposing leaders. Using the cards you have placed in your deck to their utmost worth is how you win.

Combat involves dice rolls (surprise!). You will alternate turns until each unit has made one attack. Combat is done by selecting a unit and a target and the attack and defense values determine how many dice either unit receives. The target receives hit points representing the difference between the attacking and defending rolls. While this means that combat between very strong and very weak units will be over rather quickly, battles between evenly-matched foes can devolve into a stalemate, as neither side is able to overcome the opposition’s defensive characteristics. Combat can last forever if this is the case, but you don’t want to retreat because you have a good chance of winning. It takes a couple of games to learn the basics of Armageddon Empires, thanks to the lack of a tutorial and an overly wordy manual. Once you learn to send out scouts to discover resource locations, engineers to build resource collecting cards on those locations, and then make big armies, then you will be all set. The game has a good combination of luck and planning: getting certain cards and going first adds a bit of chance to the gameplay that varies it. The slow starts might ward off some players, as the beginning of each game is actually the most boring part of a match. In most strategy games, you usually do the most work (issuing orders or queuing buildings) in the first five minutes of a game, but in Armageddon Empires you spend most of the first turns waiting for resources to accumulate: not exactly stimulating gameplay. Capable AI is featured in the game, and even though their strength can’t be adjusted to compensate for beginning or experienced players, the computer opponents will put up a good fight and take advantage of your mistakes (such as leaving your HQ undefended…I learned my lesson).

Armageddon Empires has the makings of a good strategy game, although it lacks the features for a more complete experience. It desperately needs a comprehensive tutorial, as the mechanics are different enough where I was lost (and I play a lot of strategy games). The skirmish-only single player gameplay is underwhelming, as its turn-based nature would seem to lend itself for some good multiplayer action. The lack of a campaign also makes the background story superfluous and almost irrelevant to the gameplay, if it were not for the unit design. There are some good gaming elements here, though. The deck customization options allow for multiple configurations and approaches, though I would like to see some default decks to get you started. While the slow-paced gameplay is not the most exciting thing in the world, the basic game is well though out, but Armageddon Empires lacks the polish needed for mass acceptance. It’s definitely a good start and an intriguing battle system that, at least on a basic level, successfully combines card and board games. A more user friendly implementation of Armageddon Empires with some additional features would go a long way in making the title more engaging overall.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Total Pro Golf 2 Review

Total Pro Golf 2, developed and published by Wolverine Studios.
The Good: Direct input can influence performance, scheduler can incorporate all downloaded courses, more tours with rankings and awards, good AI
The Not So Good: Tri-click swinging is too slow and too easy, can’t save in the middle of a round
What say you? A slightly improved version of the golf management simulation: 6/8

There are two ways you can review a sequel: evaluating the title as a whole, or just the improvements made from the previous version. My “policy” has been to do the latter if I reviewed the original game on this site. This is a touchy and ill-defined subject, especially when you deal with stand-alone expansion packs and sequels released soon after the original. I reviewed just the improvements for my review of City Life: World Edition (a stand-alone expansion) and it made the publisher mad. So, I don’t know which way to go. In the case of Total Pro Golf 2, I’m going to refer you to the review of the original game and I’ll mainly talk about the difference with this newer version, but I think I’m going to score the game as a whole because I didn’t give the original game a fare shake. I believe I missed the intent of the game (more of a management game than an arcade game like the Tiger Woods series), so I’ll rectify that situation with this review of Total Pro Golf 2.

The graphics of Total Pro Golf 2 are almost entirely the same as the original game: played from a 2-D perspective, the courses are as good-looking as the designer wants them to be. The eight included courses in this title are well designed and look good for a 2-D game; I made a custom course using satellite imaging that is more realistic albeit not necessarily better looking. The 2-D graphics do allow for very straightforward editing, which is one of the hallmarks of the series. The only graphical improvement made in the game is showing a close-up of the actual green during putting instead of a bland, featureless carpet. Also, the user interface has introduced instantaneous yardage information wherever your mouse is located; before, you had to wait for a pop-up to show and this got old very quickly. It’s nice to see that Total Pro Golf 2 has made some subtle but effective changes to the graphics, and I wasn’t expecting a complete overhaul since the game looks fine in 2-D. The repetitive sounds are back and seemingly unchanged, although I don’t recall much of the audio in Total Pro Golf. The games move so quickly, however, that the simple sound is just fine.

Total Pro Golf 2 revolves around creating a custom golfer and leading them from the minor tours all the way to major victories. The game now includes six tours to choose from, adding European schedules to the equation. Total Pro Golf 2 has great support for modifications: you can change the sponsors, golfers (the default ones are fictitious), schedule, and create new courses using the straightforward Course Designer (the same one used for Total Pro Golf, which means courses are cross-compatible). While the game only comes with eight courses to choose from (that tend to get repetitive over a year-long schedule), there are a ton of courses available for download since the original game came out a year ago. I was able to get fifty-eight user-created courses to fill out the schedule, and Total Pro Golf 2 will incorporate downloaded courses to generate a random schedule (neat!). When creating your character, you can have the game randomly generate potential stats, but these don’t seem to be very randomized and all of the values tend to be about the same.

The career mode is mostly the same, as you will hire a caddy and a coach, purchase clubs and balls, obtain sponsors, and set a weekly practice schedule to improve your stats. You can’t practice every day since your fatigue will increase if you do not rest. Your coach can make recommendations on your practice schedule based on the areas that need the most improvement. New to the game is an adaptation of the FedEx Cup points and playoff system, world rankings, and more in-depth stats and awards tracked over time. After you have created a career, you can enter quick play mode where you can play stroke-play at any course you have acquired. Any player on any tour is available, although the game lacks an indication of player stats or even their tour when you select a doppelganger. Total Pro Golf 2 lacks any alternative game modes to stroke play, such as skins, match play, or Stableford scoring, in quick play rounds and for every season event except for the Ryder and Presidents Cup events. It would be interesting to have a little more variety in the quick play options or be able to create your own custom tournament instead of just a single round at a time. Total Pro Golf 2 has multiplayer league support for those players who are interested as well.

My main complaint about Total Pro Golf was that the accuracy of your shots was dependent only on your stats, so you fell victim to random shots and really bad putting you had no control over (not that real golf is that much different). It felt like you were watching a game instead of playing a game. Total Pro Golf 2 has introduced a tri-click mode similar to arcade golf games that gives you more control over the result of your shots. Unfortunately, the tri-click meter moves very slowly, which makes using the method very tedious and far too easy. The speed of the meter is tied to your stats, but even for mid-range players it takes about seven seconds for a complete swing to occur. Not only does this make it very easy to hit your marks and score much lower than using the one-click method, but games exponentially grow in length. One thing I liked about Total Pro Golf was the fast pace of the game: you could finish a round in five minutes or so. Now, you’ll spend upwards of eight to ten minutes just watching the tri-click meter slowly move back and forth. As much as I dislike the randomness of the one-click method, I actually went back to using it because the tri-click method is too tiresome. Luckily, this is probably an easy fix that could be incorporated in a patch. I would like to see Total Pro Golf 2 adopt a mouse-swing model to give you more influence over your shots.

In either swing mode, you can tailor the aggressiveness of your shots, and also incorporate chips, punches, and flops. I still haven’t figured out why you would want to do anything other than normal putting, as aggressive putting always goes past the hole and safe putting comes up short. You can control the aim of your shot, although by default you will aim directly for the hole, which is useful for chips and putts. Total Pro Golf 2 allows you to add draws and fades to your shots for those tricky holes. The AI in the game is pretty good considering you can import custom courses. They will play realistically using appropriate shots for each hole, although I haven’t seen them use draws or fades. You will have to navigate the wind and terrain to be successful: since the game automates the short game, your drive will be the time you have the most influence on your score. You can’t save in the middle of a round, although the matches are fairly quick, at least in one-click mode. Total Pro Golf 2 is a more inclusive product than its predecessor and it’s clear the developer is listening to user feedback and trying to improve the product. The game is not perfect, but it’s certainly getting closer.

Total Pro Golf 2 is more like an expansion pack than a full-fledged sequel (the amount of content is comparable to Dark Avatar), but it’s still obviously better than Total Pro Golf. The addition of the tri-click mode is nice, although it could be executed better. The game also features some interface improvements, three additional tours, new courses, stat tracking, and some more control over your shots. There is enough content available online now to make quite a large schedule beyond the basic eight layouts, a testament to the intuitive course designer. It still feels like the game plays for you instead of with you, especially when you use one-click mode, but the game’s emphasis is on player development instead of direct interaction. Total Pro Golf 2 is a more rounded product and it will appeal to management fans that prefer customization over polished arcade mechanics.