Sunday, September 30, 2007

Machines at War Review

Machines at War, developed and published by Isotope244.
The Good: Easy to learn, smart automated units, quick games, allows for different strategies, robust technology tree, some advanced gameplay mechanics, random maps, available on multiple platforms including phones
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer or alternative modes like team play, stalemates on occasion due to strong defenses, needs a directed tutorial
What say you? A straightforward RTS game with some clever ideas that is a few features short of complete satisfaction: 6/8

With cellular telephones becoming increasingly more powerful, games have started to appear in ported form on the platform. Better hardware means more sophisticated games, and now phone software can rival the PC in terms of gameplay complexity. This brings us to Machines at War, a real time strategy game that appears on the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, as well as Pocket PCs and Smartphones. Obviously these formats cannot compete in terms of graphical quality, but gameplay is of paramount importance and Machines at War could deliver an engrossing experience. I’ll be looking at the Windows version of the game, but the other formats are eerily similar, with only some differences in screen resolution. Will Machines at War deliver an entertaining strategy affair?

Despite being played from an overhead perspective, the graphics of Machines at War are actually pretty good. The game is rendered in 2-D and contains some nice detail, from the individual trees that dot the map to the amount of destruction that comes about from a heated contest. There is an impressive amount of smoke that billows from defeated machines (you know, the ones at war). Machines at War lacks cutting-edge pixel shaders and all those graphical features that makes your games run slowly, but it really doesn’t need it as the title maintains a nice feel, reminiscent of, say, Red Alert 2. The game runs fast, as you would expect for a title that can also run on a phone. The audio is nice, though somewhat repetitive. The background music is well done, and there are some basic sounds that aren’t quite as varied as big budget RTS titles, but that is to be expected. Still, there are enough explosions and unit acknowledgements to create a believable environment. I’m not sure what makes the low-budget presentation of Machines at War so effective, but it all comes together nicely resulting in a pleasing 2-D RTS title in terms of graphics and sound.

Machines at War is a classic real time strategy game collect resources, build units, and kill stuff. The main complaint about the game is its lack of features. First, the game features only single player action against the AI. Second, there is only deathmatch, no conquest or capture the flag or domination modes to enjoy. There aren’t even team games, as each contest is a free-for-all no matter how many sides are playing. Third, the game’s tutorial is all reading and no interaction, and we all know reading is no fun. Any of these things would have been quite nice to include and allow the game’s replay value to increase. Thankfully, the AI is a good opponent at hard difficulty levels so you’ll have some entertainment there. For each game, you can change the landscape and climate, which will affect the appearance of the game’s randomly generated levels. Most of the levels look about the same and there are no extreme changes in geography, but having them somewhat randomized is still a nice feature. You can also adjust the map size, population cap, and how the map is revealed. The lack of multiplayer and alternative game modes is really the only sore spot in an otherwise entertaining game.

The first step towards victory in Machines at War is resource collection. This is done automatically by scavengers, who will gather ore and deliver it to your base without any interaction needed. You can also build scouts (usually one will suffice) who will automatically go around and uncover the map. Both of these are great features that allow the player to focus on the more important decisions in the game. Buildings in the game have a monetary and power requirement; power is generated using (surprise!) power-generating buildings. Since the game is called Machines at War, you will be building machines: there are no infantry units in the game. These are constructed at your garages and factories, while airports can add helicopters to the mix. If you double click on one of your garages, all will be selected; picking one unit will build that same unit at all garages, cutting down on micromanagement considerably. The tooltip for the money required does not scale, however, so you’ll have to do some quick math to figure out if you can afford five Humvees at once. In general, each unit counters another type of unit, usually not its own type. For example, the lightly-armored Humvee counters heavy armor, while the heavily-armored Challenger takes out light armor. This puts the emphasis on mixed units to push back any type of attack the AI throws at you.

The lab is one of the most important structures in the game: it unlocks more advanced structures and allows for research. The research tree is quite extensive, allowing for offensive, defensive, and resource-based upgrades. You are given a set number of points you can allocate to unlock the opening technology in a group and subsequent upgrades down the line. There is the choice of focusing on one area of research (which could potentially be countered by the enemy) or spreading yourself out with low-level techs. There are some interesting decisions to be made, for sure. There are some nice structures in the game other than the basic unit-producing buildings: the extractor will provide a constant flow of resources, the radar station detects enemy units outside of sight range, and the refinery can serve as a drop-off point for resources far away from your HQ. You can also construct defenses, including various guns and walls. The defenses in the game are quite strong and difficult to overcome; this results in a lot of stalemates until you mass enough units to take them out. This is the same problem as in Supreme Commander: defenses are too cheap and too powerful.

Machines at War includes some interesting subtle enhancements in its gameplay. The more structure you build at once, the slower they will build; this is a good abstraction of construction units without having to worry about construction units. Also, buildings will build faster if you have more spare power, creating an advantage for those who employ good power management. While most of the user interface is well-designed (I’m curious how well it handles on a phone), Machines at War does need a “select all military units” button; while using a select box will only choose military units (good) and you can double-click a unit to select all on screen, you cannot select everybody everywhere. This makes handling a large force difficult, especially since you can’t zoom out. The AI performs well on hard levels, building large bases, acquiring new resource locations, and constructing a large force. They seem to use the same strategy each time (a happy medium between rushing and turtling) so you might be able to counter them with the same plan each time. This is why I would like to see multiplayer incorporated into the game, since you can’t anticipate what a human is thinking…most of the time.

Machines at War is a well-designed old school real time strategy game. The number of strategic decisions to make causes Machines at War to become quite stimulating. I also like some of the innovations Machines at War brings to the table, such as the building speeds. You have to strike a balance between build speed and volume, balance your resources, construct the right units, and use the technology tree to your advantage. Machines at War contains enough automation to make the menial tasks of resource collection and early scouting disappear; this lets the player focus on the bigger picture. The user interface is well designed and works well on the Windows platform (just give me a “select all military units” button, please). While the game generally plays out the same each time, there are some different strategies you can successfully employ, although the decent AI will follow the same path. The only thing this game lacks is multiplayer and some new modes of play; add those and Machines at War will become a very nice title.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Penguins Arena Review

Penguins Arena, developed and published by Frogames.
The Good: Very cute design, fast pace, easy controls, allows for tactical planning, incorporated online browser, competent AI
The Not So Good: Rounds are too short, lacks game customization options
What say you? A hectic first person shooter with a great theme that’s more advanced than you’d think: 6/8

First person shooters are a very popular genre on the PC. The only problem is that they involve shooting, and that isn’t appropriate for all ages. While most games strive for unbridled realism, there is something to be said for kid-friendly action you can enjoy without feeling guilty. That’s where Penguins Arena comes in, offering up feathered friends slinging snowballs at each other. Who needs authentic bullet drops from an M-16 if you can lob a clownfish at a penguin? Will Penguins Arena provide good competition in a relatively non-violent package?

Penguins Arena uses the Torque game engine, and the graphics are blocky but serviceable. The game looks like it was developed by a small company (which it was), featuring relatively bland environments, low resolution effects, and rough snowy environments. Obviously, comparing the landscapes of Penguins Arena to those of Lost Planet is unfair and we’re not expecting that level of sophistication, but the environments could still use some more detail. The rest of the game is can best be described as “minimal but effective.” The penguin animations are funny to look at: watching them waddle around still makes me smile. The expressions on their faces when they get hit are priceless as well. The sound effects, though repetitive, are memorable as well. The music fits the game’s theme and it is much more distinctive than the generic music found in most games: the tunes get stuck in your head, for better or for worse. Despite its independent roots, Penguins Arena provides memorable, if basic, graphics and sound.

Penguins Arena is a first person shooter where you must eliminate all of the members of the opposing teams. This is done on an island; in a nod to the Worms series, penguins are eradicated by shooting them into the water where they are devoured by sharks. Snowballs are your basic weapon of choice, and connecting with any other opponent will cause them to fly backwards. There are a number of alternative weapons available as well, from dynamite to rapid fire clownfish to powerful projectiles; they are obtained by picking them up from the playing surface. Weapons are indicated with large arrows, so finding them is quite easy. Penguins Arena features basic FPS controls, which makes the game easy to manage: there is no “lean” or “crouch” or even weapon selecting. Regardless of its relative simplicity, Penguins Arena actually features some interesting team-based gameplay. You can join team members in assailing one foe (since one snowball hit usually isn’t enough to propel someone into the water), use special weapons to annihilate the competition, and circle strafe to turn the tables on the competition. Penguins Arena is actually pretty advanced, thanks to the elimination technique that doesn’t just involve health, but placement and orientation as well.

Penguins Arena is intended as a multiplayer game. It is easy to find online games with the browser and new games can be automatically broadcast to the Internet like DEFCON. The game supports anywhere from two to four teams per game, and human players are automatically distributed among them. In all, there are twelve penguins at the beginning of each game equally divided over the teams. Each team has a number of lives equal to the number of starting penguins; this makes rounds really, really short, as you run out of lives very quickly. I would like to have the option to increase the number of team lives, but Penguins Arena doesn’t allow that option. The game keeps a running score, awarding two points to the winning team plus one point for each surviving penguin. Scores can be reset every 20 minutes if a new set of people has joined your server. Human players have stars above their penguin avatar so you can pick them out of a crowd, but the AI plays well enough to hold its own in games. Although they aren’t as aggressive or shoot as often as humans do, they will knock you in the water if given the chance. In a fast-paced game such as Penguins Arena, lag can become an issue, and there is some lag present in the game when playing online with reasonable (less than 200) pings. This makes aiming more of a trail and error process, but it seems everyone suffers from the same issue to it kind of balances itself out. Overall, I found Penguins Arena to be quite enjoyable as a quick online first person shooter, and the overall theme makes the title appropriate for all ages.

Penguins Arena is a surprisingly sophisticated first person shooter. The theme is great, complete with adorable penguins being blasted by snowballs. The non-violent tendencies make Penguins Arena appropriate for a wide age group. Also, the simplified controls mean different skill levels can enjoy the game. Penguins Arena is built for multiplayer action, but the AI is still decent enough. Joining or creating multiplayer games is a snap, and the overall goal of knocking opponents off the map instead of simply shooting them adds a new player of strategy that frankly isn’t present in many first person shooters. Giving players an objective other than standard deathmatch rules really opens up the playbook for a variety of plans for success. Penguins Arena doesn’t include the options present in other games, like setting a time limit or increasing the lives for each team, but it’s still pretty fun to play. Don’t let the charming penguins fool you: there is a quite enjoyable first person shooter here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened Review

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, developed by Frogwares and published by CDV.
The Good: Mostly realistic detective work, useful objects are clearly marked, challenging puzzles, decent lengthy story
The Not So Good: Terribly linear, no current objective list and sporadic guidance, obscure yet specific clues to gather, too many illogical solutions, barren static environments, drawn-out cut scenes
What say you? The extremely subtle clues and odd puzzles overshadow realistic methods and testing puzzles: 5/8

One of the most gifted detectives has been represented countless times in books, movies, and computer games. Tackling cases of the strange and unexplained, he is probably the most recognizable fictional character of all time. I am, of course, talking about Gil Grissom. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes is pretty good, too. Yes, the venerable sleuth is back in a computer adventure surrounding cult activity in London and around the world, including exotic locales like pre-FEMA New Orleans. Will Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened maintain the heart-pounding excitement of the novels, or will it become yet another poor licensed product hoping to cash in on a big name?

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened features Half Life era graphics (sadly the original, not the sequel). While this may be vastly outdated when compared to contemporary shooters, they are a step up in the adventure genre as the game is actually rendered in all three real-life dimensions. The level design is basic, and while there is a nice attention to detail with an architecture that reflects the time period, the levels are so small that good theme is to be expected. The towns are lifeless at best: usually, each “city” is only populated with a couple of people, instead of the bustling metropolises you should be traversing. The characters in the game are very stiff and poorly animated, but at least the mouths generally follow the dialogue they are speaking. There is a good amount of blood in the game (it is rated “M”), but nothing beyond what you would see on CSI (curiously, not rated “M”…sounds like a double standard to me). I guess we can just expect baby steps as adventure games catch up with the rest of the world and join the realm of 3-D, but Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened still looks archaic. The sound is better: all of the characters have decent enough voice acting delivered in an app subdued format. The background music is appropriate for the mood of the game as well. While the presentation of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened might be good enough for gamers accustomed to basic point-and-click 2-D offerings, but the graphics and the sound definitely do not impress.

Since The Awakened follows the trials and tribulations of Sherlock Holmes, you would think the story would be halfway decent, and it is. While it might have been better to incorporate a real story penned by Sir Arthur (although it would spoil the ending for people familiar with that particular story), it works well enough with a tale of the supernatural. The controls are standard for a first person shooter, but point-and-click enthusiasts will have to convert over to three dimensional gameplay. WASD is used to move around the game world, and clicking (or using the spacebar) is used to interact with objects. The appropriate action is chosen depending on which object you are looking at, and the cursor in the game changes to highlight important things in the game. You don’t have to be looking directly at an object for the cursor to change, which is great for hunting the extremely subtle clues that are present throughout the game.

Sherlock is equipped with an inventory that holds various objects of importance. There are a few combination puzzles in the game, but most of these make sense (except for possibly the “bone torch”). The game doesn’t let you advance in the story without picking up every piece of evidence you need; Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened will not explicitly tell you what you need to find, however, so it can take hours to try and figure out what, exactly, the game wants you to discover. Dialogue in the game is boring and drawn-out to annoying extremes. Thankfully, you can skip past it with a quick press of the escape key, and the entire conversation is recorded in your notebook for future reference (good for subtle clues). Notes are also made during your investigations, and the map lets you teleport to previously visited locations. The one thing that Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened lacks is an objective list. While the game does fully restrict your movement to the present area (with prompts of “I have no need to go there” and “I should investigate further”), the game never tells you what to do or where to look or where to go next. This is even worse if you exit the game and come back later: you had better remember what you were doing.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a very linear game: you must do everything the game wants you to do before you can advance, no matter how minor. If Watson remarks, “you should get a newspaper,” you better darn well buy a newspaper or the game will not advance. Unlike better adventure games like Sam & Max, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened doesn’t allow you the flexibility of doing things out of order, and successive games will always play out the same with identical dialogue and puzzles. Normally, you will first search for small clues in the game world, scouring every square inch of the crime scene looking for small black pellets or picking flowers. Most of your time is spent looking around until the cursor changes and hoping this is the last piece of evidence you will gather. After spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the screens, you will analyze your clues, solve answers with your evidence, and solve some puzzles. Most of the puzzles are numerical in nature, making you figure out a pattern or something along those lines: they are OK. The main problem with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is the main problem I have with most adventure games: there are too many irrational solutions that make no sense. Examples: placing a horn on a goat’s head, picking flowers to uncover a metal rod, taking a false beard from a bookcase, the aforementioned bone torch, satisfying Watson’s obsessive need for lemons (from a tree used to open a secret door), opening a gate with a wooden leg, and combining an anvil, a pot holder, and a trolley to open another gate. These are inventive to be sure, but I’ll be damned if they make any sense.

In short, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened features everything I hate about adventure games. I will say the game comes with some good parts: the story is enjoyable (if convoluted), most of the clue gathering has an air of practicality, and finding required items is easier with the large cursor. But Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened has too many weird puzzles and solutions that must be completed in order. While there are some hints provided by the game to push you in the right direction, I would have had a heck of a time trying to complete the game without the almost constant assistance of a walkthrough. You must do everything the game wants and you can’t forget any single action, no matter how insignificant, or you will be stuck. At least Sam & Max let you go about things in a different order; the flexibility that is missing from Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened goes a long way in making the game frustrating to play. While we don’t quite reach the level of tossing sea salt onto a tombstone to make a building collapse (interestingly, also published by CDV), Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened still has too many puzzles I deem impractical for the common gaming audience. So, I bid good day to you, sir, as I free up some hard drive space.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Depths of Peril Review

Depths of Peril, developed and published by Soldak Entertainment.
The Good: Very interesting diplomatic options in a dynamic world, fast-paced with almost constant combat, good AI, minor penalty for death, lots of items to find, neat method of recruitment, existing characters can carry over to new games
The Not So Good: A high density of enemies results in lots of dying at first, sporadic tutorial messages are confusing rather than helpful, generally useless map, relies heavily on quests for experience, house guards are very tough to defeat, no multiplayer
What say you? The unique diplomacy and conquest-orientated goals makes this action role-playing game stand out: 7/8

Two role-playing reviews in a row? What is the world coming to?! Regular readers of this site (both of you) will note that I rarely review role-playing games (not my favorite genre), so having two in a row is something quite unique. The one on the docket today is Depths of Peril, an action RPG in the Diablo style that infuses some grand strategy elements in diplomatic relations with other factions. I’m all for unique features in an existing genre, so will Depths of Peril up the ante for role-playing games?

For a game that’s played from an isometric perspective, Depths of Peril looks pretty decent. The title has a lot of little details that make for a nice environment, elevating the game above what it could have been. The characters in Depths of Peril all look nice with a good attention to detail, and the different areas are varied in their appearance. My only issue with Depths of Peril results from the inability to zoom really far out, resulting in a lot of clicking to move short distances. The map is ineffective, as clicking somewhere won’t move your character. This limitation applies to the mini-map as well. Depths of Peril has some nice effects, in the form of spells, treasure indicators, and so on. I like the graphics of Depths of Peril, and the ability to zoom out or use the map would sweeten the pot. The audio of Depths of Peril is pretty standard stuff: nice indicators of proposals from other factions and a good variety of effects accompany the graphics. The background music is well-done and fits the theme of the game well. I think the production values of Depths of Peril are above what is typical for an independent product, so that is to commended.

Depths of Peril has its roots in the hack-and-slash role-playing game, in the vein of the venerable Diablo. This is a single-player only game, so there is no cooperative or competitive multiplayer action. I think that competitive multiplayer would be an interesting addition to the game due to the strategic overtones of the objective, so its omission is notable. Getting into the game is more difficult than it should be: Depths of Peril relies on copious amounts of messages to act as a tutorial, and they do a poor job while interrupting the gameplay too much. A more guided approach would have worked better to get new users accustomed to the game. The object of the game is to make your faction the most dominant force in the city of Jorvik. You do this by destroying NPC monsters and completing quests, and negotiating diplomatic agreements with other factions to form alliances or declare war. This is certainly an interesting approach to a game and I don’t remember seeing a grand strategy/RPG amalgam previously. The game is very fast-paced, and you can complete an entire match in a couple of hours. All of that leveling up isn’t wasted, however, as you can carry over your characters to a new game, and the rival factions will also maintain their levels of excellence. This is a good feature: you don’t have to start over with a low level character each time you start a new game.

The first thing you’ll need to do is to create a character and customize the game world. The options are quite limited: there are only four classes to choose from (warrior, rogue, priest, mage) and each class is pretty limited in what they can do. In one game, I kept coming across “mail” (as in chain mail) armor that I couldn’t use as a mage (only warriors can), so that was disappointing. Depths of Peril has a random name generator, which is kind of cool, although this does not extend to naming your covenant. You can adjust the difficulty of each game, which will essentially change what level your opponents will be. I thought that the default values were tough enough, but experienced players can make it even harder on themselves and create an outrageously difficult game.

Each game will contain a number of rival covenants, and victory is gained by eliminating them all or forming an alliance with the remaining powers. If you are part of the winning alliance but not the most powerful member, you can choose to fight for overall victory and more fabulous prizes at the end of the game. You will start out as a very exclusive, single-member-only covenant, but you can (and should) recruit new members. This is done mainly through quests. Occasionally, someone will become available for recruitment and the first faction to complete their quest (which usually involves killing a number of monsters) wins. This is a pretty cool dynamic and it can result in some tense moments as all of the factions are trying to attain the same goal. This would be even more exciting in multiplayer, but, alas, that option is not available. You can also find neutral NPCs scattered around the map, but these are rare. Your headquarters contains your lifestone, which heals friendly units and can be destroyed to eliminate a covenant. In order to prevent against attacks while you are out killing stuff, you can recruit guards to protect your house. These guards are a little too tough to defeat, and you really need a multiple-player covenant in order to bring down a rival faction. Death is a common occurrence during raids, but you will respawn at your home base, assuming your lifestone has enough hit points. Your HQ can also hold relics: found scattered around the map, these are bonuses that are applied to every member of your covenant. You can also collect tomes for attribute bonuses and stash extra items for all members to share. The diplomatic options in Depths of Peril are common for a 4X strategy game: you can sign non-aggresion pacts and treaties, establish trade roots, or exchange items. The AI factions are very hesitant to agree to anything without giving them a bunch of free stuff first, even if you are much more powerful than they are.

The way you gain influence in the town and become the most powerful conveant is through killing monsters and some quests. These methods have a dual effect: making your faction seem better by “protecting” the town, and increasing your own experience points to level up. You really don’t gain much experience by killing things: you will need to complete quests in order to do that. You can embark on as many quests as you’d like at one time, and since most of them concern killing a certain number of monsters, you should just undertake as many as possible and you’ll complete most by accident. There are a lot of items to find around the game world, either on fallen foes or in the many chests that are scattered around each of the game’s areas. Depths of Peril allows you to teleport from any explored area back to your base, making defending attacks easier. There are a lot of enemies to defeat in Depths of Peril (that’s the whole “Peril” thing, I guess), and new players will have a tough time when engaged by a gaggle of enemy units. Once you gain a partner, however, monster hunting becomes a lot easier. It’s a good thing, then, that the penalty of death is not that bad (just a experience reduction for a period of time). The AI in Depths of Peril is competent, both as an ally and an enemy. While the monsters aren’t too smart (they are monsters, after all), the friendly units will engage enemy units and not be a hindrance to your efforts. The enemy factions will also war at the appropriate times and not just gang up on the human player, resulting in a nice game of diplomacy and war. Some games that attempt to combine two genres just result in a mish-mash of good intentions, but Depths of Peril nails it, resulting in a great strategic role-playing game that offers grinding combat and tense negotiations in one package.

Depths of Peril makes itself much more than a simple Diablo clone with its unique implementation of diplomatic goals. The 4X-like portion of the game, where you must balance relationships with rival faction and eliminate the weak competition, makes for some very interesting gameplay. Not only are you battling the NPC monsters, but you are also battling rivals who are battling the NPC monsters. The game switches seamlessly from traditional RPG combat to diplomacy and back again, and the end product is very entertaining. You never spend enough time in either part of the game to get tired of it, and alternating between grand strategy and action role-playing varies the overall experience in a good way. You might be a high-level monster-killing machine, but if all the other factions gang up on you, it will not matter. You have to master both aspects of the game, and this dichotomy is where Depths of Peril shines. There are some missing features and it’s not the easiest game in the world to get in to thanks to the sub-par tutorial, but it sure is fun once it gets going. Depths of Peril is a highly recommended title that seamlessly blends two genres into a unique and compelling gaming experience.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two Worlds Review

Two Worlds, developed by Reality Pump and published by SouthPeak Games.
The Good: Unrestricted game world, stacking items is neat and quite useful, quick leveling up, numerous skill upgrades with open-ended character development, robust multiplayer, traps for powerful foes, teleporting saves time, no penalty for dying and frequent respawn points, horses
The Not So Good: Exceedingly difficult (in the beginning) on anything other than “easy”, very abbreviated tutorial and uninformative tool-tips, uninteresting combat, fighting from horseback is almost impossible, confusing quest log, silly and drawn-out “medieval” dialogue, generic setting, laggy multiplayer
What say you? Several unique features make this role-playing game almost memorable: 6/8

Fantasy-based role-playing games are quite numerous on the PC. By far the most popular setting for a RPG, an alternate medieval universe with swords, spells, and elves brings in the big bucks. From the gold standard Oblivion down the line, many developers are trying their take at the genre. From Reality Pump, responsible for the Earth 240/2160 series and the completely forgettable World War III: Black Gold, comes Two Worlds, a role-playing game based in a fantasy world (who would have thought?!). Will Two Worlds make us forget about Oblivion, at least temporarily?

I think the graphics of Two Worlds are comparable to Morrowind rather than the most recent Elder Scrolls game. The two worlds of Two Worlds look decent enough, with nice fantasy geography of thick forests and large mountains (you never see a game set in Kansas). The towns are believable in nature and the character models and various creatures roaming the land look decent enough. The animations, though, could use a lot of work: the characters are very static when talking (and their mouths seem a bit off), and horses look especially silly when trotting around. Characters appear to “hover” over the landscape rather than walking on top of it, especially when descending mountainous terrain. There are also some hiccups in performance while the game loads a new outside area (about a second or so). These don’t occur during combat, so it’s not that big of a deal. While the graphics don’t compete with the Oblivions of the world, they do look decent enough for a RPG. The audio is very standard for the genre: fitting background music and battle sounds are good enough, but the voiced dialogue is not very good. First, the game uses old words like “perchance” and “mayhap” to put you in the time period (whatever period actually used those words), which come across as being downright ridiculous instead of being authentic. Secondly, Two Worlds features some low-quality voice acting where the dialogue lacks any conviction or realism. The actors seem to be simply reading the lines instead of injecting some humanity into them. Two Worlds compares favorable to most role-playing games that have been released recently, but comes up short of the top of the mountain.

Two Worlds is, in general, a classic first person role-playing game. The title kind of assumes that you’ve played this style of game before, as the tutorial just teaches you how to move and the rest is up to you. This makes the learning curve high for new players to the genre and requires reading the manual (gasp!) to understand the controls. Speaking of the controls, they are standard for PC RPG games: WASD to move, plus four hotkey bars that allow for one-button access to spells and special abilities. You can also scroll through the spells using the mouse wheel if you change the default setting in the options menu. Two Worlds uses the spacebar to interact with anything in the game world, from speaking to people to picking up loot to mounting horses: a nice simplification that takes a bit of the learning curve away. The single-player campaign features a very common story present in pretty much any role-playing game. The game leans more towards the Oblivion side of player freedom, as you aren’t required to follow the main story as numerous side quests are available. Two Worlds is not just a single player game, however, as the game features some nice multiplayer options in two mode. You can play instanced missions (like Guild Wars) with several other players in the RPG-mode, or conduct hot player vs. player action in the arenas. Either way, you are given separate online characters with pre-set classes that make everyone competitive right out of the gate, instead of rewarding just those people who completed the single player portion of Two Worlds. You can choose from a warrior, sword dancer, knight, ranger, thief, archer, barbarian, air mage, fire mage, water mage, earth mage, or necromancer; each has slightly different starting skills and diverse weapons and spells at their disposal. The RPG matches seem to offer different quests from the single player game, rather than just being a cooperative copy. The arena matches offer team deathmatch and domination-type games where you have to destroy the enemy’s base or monsters. The ability to create online guilds is nice for team-play and joining a match is easy through the game’s browser. The only problem I’ve seen with multiplayer is the huge amount of lag: the pings aren’t all that great, but the performance should still be a lot better than it is. Servers are either slow or crash more often then they should, so there is some work to be done to improve this portion of the game. Overall, Two Worlds offers a lot of content in both single player and multiplayer modes that should keep RPG fans busy.

Leveling up in Two Worlds happens pretty fast, especially when you focus on completing quests (killing low level creatures isn’t where the XP is). When you level up, you can distribute five points over four areas: vitality (health), dexterity (speed), strength (damage), and willpower (mana). I needed to look in the manual to remember which skill was which, and some tool-tips would be nice (this is an extension of the poor tutorial). Also, you get to upgrade skills, from general ones like swimming and riding to schools of magic (that must be unlocked by a teacher first) to a whole array of active and passive skills like balance, critical hit, defensive combat, break sword, death strike, and accuracy. This is a neat system with lots of options that allows the player to really tailor their character beyond a simple “mage” or “warrior” class. Your reputation and relationships with the various clans and guilds in the game will also change over time, allowing you to undertake side quests for the merchants or necromancers.

The inventory system of Two Worlds is standard fare with one major exception. You still gather items from people and then sell them, and you are restricted in the amount of weight you can carry, so you’ll often have to venture back home to sell your wares. Two Worlds features a nice arrangement of weapons: swords, axes, clubs, magic wands, halberds, daggers, and bows are all present. The game also has an assortment of armor and shields for defensive purposes. Probably the most unique feature of the game is the ability to combine like items. For example, you can combine two low-level swords into a more powerful sword. This has big ramifications for the game mechanics, as low-level weapons now have an important use: you can create an extremely powerful weapon from, say, twenty low-level weapons, eliminating the usual level-based restrictions on good weapons. While this is very neat for beginning players, it does tend to make the game easy as you reach the end of the campaign. In addition to combining weapons, you can apply magical powers to weapons and combine various items to form potions. You can throw together anything and it will make a potion, which is really neat and eliminates the need to search for valid recipes. Obviously, it won’t be a good potion, but it’s still cool. I like the wrinkle that Two Worlds has added to the RPG formula with the ability to combine weapons, and this new feature makes the game distinct.

You will spend most of your time completing quests, so it’s too bad the map could be a lot better than the quest list is very confusing. The quest list shows a lot of unnecessary background information; I just want to know where to go and what to do, not the life story of the character! The quest locations are all shown on the map at once, and they indicate the origin and destination, resulting in even more confusion. The completed quests also remain on the quest list in a slightly grayed-out text, compounding the issues even more. The land of Two Worlds is fairly large, so it helps to mount a horse to travel into new areas. This method of transportation is much, much faster than walking, but it’s extremely difficult to fight and you really need to dismount before engaging the enemy. Once you discover a new town, a teleport location appears to allow for quick transportation to old areas. This is nice, but you lose your horse in the process! Magic in the same is somewhat unique, as spells are earned by finding cards on defeated enemies (or buying them). The five schools have some cool spells, but they are generally repeated in each school. You can only equip three spells at a time, requiring some strategic planning before entering into battle. You have the ability to add boosters to spells, which will increase the damage or duration, or decrease the mana usage. The magic of Two Worlds isn’t unique, but you do get to throw fire a lot.

Combat in Two Worlds is very ininspired, as it is a lot of clicking. Multiple clicks result in a combo attack, but most people will probably just keep clicking and watch their avatar do unnecessary (and life-threatening) animations in the process. Aiming is difficult, as you must move the camera to directly aim at the beast you are fighting. The game automatically picks an enemy to engage (a nod to the console roots of Two Worlds), but it generally does a good job at this. Ranged combat is preferred over close combat, at flinging arrows or spells is a lot easier than swinging a sword. Enemies will surround you (clipping into each other in the process) if you engage in close combat, so constantly backing up is the usual form of self-preservation. Two Worlds is remarkably difficult: I died during the very first “tutorial” battle in the game. I then switched the game to “easy” difficulty and the game was more appropriately balanced. It’s a good thing that there is no penalty for death: like BioShock, you spawn at frequent respawn points with all of your experience and weapons intact. Enemies will also keep their damage when you do respawn (again, like BioShock). Two Worlds features average AI at best: they will stay back if equipped with bows or charge if they have blunt weapons, but they won’t do anything extraordinary. The difficulty arises from having to engage multiple enemies at once, so having an area-of-effect spell that can damage more than one enemy at a time is mandatory for survival. There could have been a lot more done with the combat in Two Worlds; the game features very standard combat that is more annoying than exciting and epic.

Two Worlds does feature a couple of unique features that set portions of the game apart from the pack. The item combination options make low-level weapons actually useful, and the quest-based and PvP multiplayer modes are nice. However, there are a number of little problems that add up to an unpolished gaming experience: the tutorial is woefully inadequate, combat is boring, the quest list is confusing, the voice acting is bad, and the difficulty is poorly balanced. It’s like in order to add one neat features, the developers had to screw up two. Still, I had fun playing the game and I liked the fresh approach Two Worlds brought to a number of role-playing game conventions. Though I do like it when games add new features to a genre, there are too many small issues with Two Worlds that bring the game down to an average title overall.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Gladiator Trials II Review

Gladiator Trials II, developed and published by Tagged Software.
The Good: Straightforward gameplay, large gladiator matches can be fun, level editor
The Not So Good: Very elementary city building and resource management, small battles are uninteresting, light on features, abbreviated tutorials
What say you? This city building/turn based strategy hybrid is a bit too simple: 5/8

About eight years ago, there was a role that elevated Russell Crowe to superstardom. A grizzled action movie where men were men, fighting for their livelihoods during the darkest of times. That movie was, of course, Mystery, Alaska. Oh, and there was that movie about gladiators (I forget what it was called). Speaking of gladiators, wouldn’t a game surrounding the gritty underworld of muscular combat be fun? That’s the premise of Gladiator Trials II, a combination of a city builder and a turn-based strategy game. Encompassing the development and support of your fighters in addition to the matches themselves, Gladiator Trials II hopes to successfully combine two genres in a smooth, satisfying experience.

The graphics of Gladiator Trials II are very basic, which is to be expected considering the small roots of the independent developer. The city building portion of the game is played from an isometric perspective, and the game features basic textures, static buildings, and sparse animations. These might have been cutting-edge graphics fifteen years ago, but now the game looks very outdated. The turn-based mode is also devoid of much elegance: even the arena battles are very boring to look at. The game is played from a fixed 800 by 600 resolution, which makes navigating around each map a chore (and the lack of a mini-map doesn’t help things). The sound is along the same lines: appropriate background music coupled with generic sound effects. I wasn’t expecting Gladiator Trials II to be a spectacular game in terms of its presentation, and it certainly reached my low expectations. Of course, if the gameplay is good, who cares about the graphics, right?

In Gladiator Trials II, you train and fight a gaggle (I think that’s the right term) of gladiators. This takes place in the campaign, which gives you small goals to reach before unlocking more advanced buildings and weapons. There is a two-mission tutorial in the game that teaches the basics, but it is too short and not comprehensive enough. Gladiator Trials II does come with a level editor so that you can create your own campaigns: a nice feature. There isn’t any multiplayer action to be had, but really it would be the same as the single player campaign and it’s frankly not worth the effort.

The first phase of Gladiator Trials II has you constructing your headquarters of domination. First, you will need to purchase the few plots of available land on the map. Then, you pick a building to construct and then assign a peasant or gladiator to use that building. Camps are used to recruit new people, armorsmiths make armor, markets are used for trade, weaponsmiths make weapons, wells provide water, bakeries provide food, inns are where peasants eat and drink, and gladiators can use the training yards, libraries, and archery ranges to increase strength, intelligence, and dexterity. Since you are limited to just a few structures, you need to be almost perfect in your planning. The city building phase of the game is very straightforward and almost trivial, if it weren’t so hard difficult to make money. You are required to engage in constant combat and trade in order to just break even. Problem is, the arena matches grow in difficulty and it’s very difficult to keep up with the pace, since buildings are expensive and wages for those people who maintain the buildings are quite high. Only in this sense is the city building mode of Gladiator Trials II challenging, as the rest is underdeveloped and limited in strategic scope.

The arena matches are where you are going to earn the big bucks. They are turn-based affairs where you move or attack with your squad of ruffians. Once your gladiators have advanced a few levels, they can be equipped with spells and weapons that make the fighting much more interesting, but in the beginning the arena matches are quite bland. I guess this makes sense, as Gladiator Trials II eases you into the turn-based portion of the game, but it’s still tedious in the beginning. Each turn, you can either move or shoot, which makes for some strategy when opponents become close. The AI tends to move straight towards you instead of playing a game of chicken, waiting for the other person to move and allow their opponent to attack first. Still, close combat doesn’t really warrant any advanced strategies, as everyone needs to be adjacent to each other. This further shows that the later battles with more advanced weapons and spells are far more interesting. When you start playing with multiple people against multiple people, with traps and other surprises scattered around the arena, Gladiator Trials II can get fun. But, unfortunately, it takes a while to get there and I doubt many people will hold out that long.

Gladiator Trials II is a good idea and it’s designed well, but there isn’t enough depth to keep people interested for a long period of time. The city building more needs a bit more complexity, through the addition of more buildings or bigger maps with more options. The arena mode can be entertaining, but it takes a while to ramp up the action to fun levels. This is one of those games that has potential, but it a couple of features short of being wholly entertaining. Thankfully, it’s also one of those small developer games, so the chance of seeing improvements in the future is high. I do think that Gladiator Trials II might appeal to novice players looking for a “light” strategic experience, since the mechanics are straightforward and the game is easy to learn. Still, more experienced players won’t find the depth they are accustomed to, but Gladiator Trials II is still a promising framework for a game.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

3030 Deathwar Review

3030 Deathwar, developed and published by Bird In Sky.
The Good: Large “alive” universe, neat graphical design, simplified controls
The Not So Good: Painfully slow travel times, difficult with slow tedious progress, limited jobs, unintuitive interface, limited tutorial and no multiplayer
What say you? A sluggish, boring pace and high initial difficulty hurt this space adventure: 5/8

I think most trading adventure games take place in space because it’s an interesting setting, as opposed to, say, Delaware. There have been quite a number of space adventure games released in recent times: Space Trader, Parkan II, SpaceForce, DarkStar One. Now we get to experience the full fury of 3030 Deathwar, a top-down game from an independent developer. Now, it obviously won’t have the graphical splendor of the big budget titles, but it can make up for that with innovative and entertaining gameplay. Will 3030 Deathwar push the genre forward, or just suffer a death war of its own?

For a top-down 2-D game, 3030 Deathwar actually looks pretty good. I really like the overall presentation of the game: there are number of nice effects with the various maps and icons, zooming in and out and such. This attention to detail makes up for the lack of spectacular 3-D vistas. While the game is played at a fixed low resolution, the maps are nice and the universe of 3030 Deathwar looks nice when you are around stations. In open space, the game is very drab with hardly any background images to look at: realistic to be sure, but not very stimulating. The background does light up as you approach a star, so that’s kind of cool. The game shows the interior of each station from the side, but the game layout is used for the every station, making them all run together and losing a distinctive feel. Still, for an independent developer, the graphics of 3030 Deathwar are about as good as you can expect for a 2-D game. The sound is pretty generic: none of the dialogue is voiced, but 3030 Deathwar comes with a good assortment of effects and pleasing background music that fits the genre. While neither the graphics nor the sound are impressive, they do their job and give 3030 Deathwar a characteristic feel.

3030 Deathwar is a single-player only game where you follow the misadventures of John Falcon. The story is generic for the genre: lone wolf gets mixed up in galactic conspiracy. The game has the potential to incorporate a massively multiplayer aspect to it, but honestly the single player mode works just fine and you’d probably never run into anyone else anyway (since the universe is so large). The game comes with a tutorial when you start a new game, but it doesn’t explain a lot of the icons in the game (and neither does the manual); more explicit clarifications would be appreciated. 3030 Deathwar also lacks an editor, but the game is expansive enough to not really need one. The overhead view from which the game is played lends itself to simple keyboard controls. However, the Newtonian physics (with a strict application of inertia) makes it difficult to control the ships in the game, actually more so than in most space games where piloting is fairly intuitive. It takes some getting used to the controls in 3030 Deathwar, and the less-than-comprehensive tutorial and manual don’t help matters. You are given an auto-fly mode (if you purchase it) that will maintain the highest speed possible to make life easier, and the split-drive makes traveling large distances easier (but, as you’ll see, not nearly easy enough). The game limits you to saving while in a station and not in an active mission. While this might make for smaller save game files, it is a frustrating limitation (more on why later).

The HUD is confusing at first, as icons representing stations, planets, asteroid fields, ships, and systems are displayed around your ship. The HUD shows heading well but not distance, as everything over a screen’s width away overlaps. The map makes finding objects easy as it is organized well. Flying to a distant station is a matter of choosing it on the sector map and then flying towards the heading. The docking procedure is neat: you must maintain a slow speed and follow the lights into the station, which will tick off as you get closer to your destination. The stations themselves offer a trade screen (for trade) and a job screen (for jobs), plus a load of NPCs that are usually there for mission purposes. On the trade screen you can purchase goods for trade, new ships, upgrades, or repair and refuel your vessel. You will need to purchase fuel on a regular basis as you will go through your supply very quickly. Upgrades are very, very expensive which slows down your progress through the game dramatically. While this gives you a longer experience, it is annoying that you must complete a ton of missions just to afford a slight improved gun. Jobs usually consist of bringing someone (or something) to another station; there isn’t much variety here. Still, 3030 Deathwar offers the most believable space world since Independence War II (still my favorite game of the genre): the stations are buzzing with activity and it’s much more believable than most of the other space games that only have one or two other ships flying around. Unfortunately, travel times in 3030 Deathwar are a little too realistic. Even with the split drives, it will take upwards of ten minutes to reach a destination in another star system. I don't mind waiting in a game like Microsoft Flight Simulator (that's part of the game), but watching your ship just fly in 3030 Deathwar is unnecessary and annoying, especially when there is nothing to look at and absolutely nothing to do. You just sit there, as your engines are on maximum and your heading is already set. You won’t run into any enemies or discover any cargo: you just sit and wait for time to pass. This is exacerbated the fact that your split-drive is actually slowed down if you are anywhere near a star. If you are somewhere on a star’s map (ot near a station, star, or planet, mind you) you are limited in your speed. Why would the split-drive speed be lowered when there is nothing to do and no reason for it? Eventually the game speeds you up to make trips a bit faster, but you've still wasted time staring at a blank screen. Sure, it's realistic, but that doesn't mean it’s fun. And speeding up interstellar travel won’t change the game, because during this time you are just waiting anyway. It’s really annoying and genuinely frustrating because there is absolutely no reason why you can’t just instantly zap to a new system.

There are a handful of things to do in the 3030 Deathwar universe: trading, bounty hunting pirates, exploring derelict ships, mining asteroid fields, and taking missions. The mission pay is very weird and seemingly arbitrary: you can actually get less pay for longer or tougher missions. You will have to engage in combat (usually against pirates), and you are given access to missiles and other weapons, assuming of course you can afford them (which you can’t for a while). You even need to purchase an upgrade to target enemy ships. I guess money is the driving force of the future. 3030 Deathwar features frustratingly difficult gameplay, especially at the beginning of the game. Let me tell you a story. I wasted 30 minutes flying (yes, I spent thirty minutes just flying between two stations in the game...sigh) a mission only to be destroyed by a friendly station that was shooting at a pirate ship. Awesome. I couldn't save the mission halfway through because the game wouldn't let me, so now I have to waste another half an hour and hope I don't die again. Having to attempt the third mission in the game FIVE TIMES (after being blown up by a pirate ship, a friendly space station, another pirate ship, and another friendly space station) before surviving is not what I call an entertaining experience. What are pirates doing in the first few systems anyway? Why not ease the player in? You certainly can’t afford high-priced weapons, ships, or shields to defend yourself. The combination of long travel times, expensive ship upgrades, and no concessions for beginners makes 3030 Deathwar exasperating when it shouldn’t be.

3030 Deathwar has the potential to be a very entertaining game, but a couple of oddball decisions ruin the overall experience. I haven't been this frustrated in a game in a long time, because I can see how good it can be, but the various areas of disappointment suck all of the fun out of the game. The basic design is good, with a good implementation of a 2-D universe with simple controls and some nice graphical effects. But, the insane travel times and overly difficult pirates (with friendly stations that just happen to shoot you) make playing 3030 Deathwar a very trying experience. If you enjoy staring at a mostly blank screen while not doing anything, then 3030 Deathwar is the game for you! Luckily, I think most of the problems with the game can be easily eliminated by allowing for faster split-drive speeds, especially when you aren’t near anything (which is the case almost all of the time). It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, but a thirty-second trip between two systems is a request that I think is reasonable. Ten to fifteen minutes for a one-way trip is ludicrous, especially since there is nothing to do while you are traveling other than to wait. Speed up the game and 3030 Deathwar would become a much more appetizing title, but the slow speed makes the game too boring to enjoy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

BioShock Review

BioShock, developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Extremely varied and customizable weaponry, fantastic setting, outstanding graphics and sound, not terribly difficult with no penalty for dying and frequent respawn points
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, ridiculous and redundant copy protection
What say you? A tremendously well-developed shooter: 7/8

Note: This is a spoiler-filled review. Kevin Spacey is Keyser Söze

As a smallish review site, I normally get to pick and choose which games I annoy publishers about getting. This is why you’ll see an inordinate amount of strategy games (my favorite genre) reviewed here and hardly any role-playing games (meh). I’m not the biggest fan of single player first person shooters (I do, however, enjoy online shooters), so when you see one on the site, you know I think it’s potentially pretty good. That brings us to BioShock, developed by what used to be Irrational Games (now called 2K Has Deep Pockets), authors of several games I enjoy (SWAT 4, Tribes Vengeance). Will those countless e-mails sent to 2K’s press relations company be worth it?

BioShock uses the new-ish Unreal engine and the results are impressive. The game looks technically good, with all sorts of shiny surface, light tricks, and all of that stuff that most high-end games include these days. The water has gotten special attention in the game (since the game takes place under water) and it looks nice, although it’s not as overwhelmingly spectacular as others have stated. The special effects like fire work well, and the weapons come with high detail as well. The thing that really works for BioShock is the setting: the developers have created a semi-plausible environment with a consistent theme and finely detailed characters and buildings. It really puts you in the game and BioShock is very immersive (Mircosoft Word says that’s not a word, but I think it is). Any game can have bump-mapping and reflective surfaces, but it doesn’t mean much if the total package doesn’t come together in an impressive fashion, and it does in BioShock thanks to the unique scenery. A bonus is that the game performs smoothly, even with all of the snazzy features cranked up. Accompanying the quality graphics is equally fine sound. BioShock features great, heartfelt voice acting that almost makes you feel bad for killing little girls (almost). The music in the game works well, and the sound effects are also well done. Overall, BioShock looks and sound very impressive and the high production values produce a very believable environment in which to shoot things.

The first thing you’ll notice when you play BioShock is that you have to register your CD key online. I have no problem with that: most of the games I review are downloaded and registered online. However, you must also have the disk in the drive every time you play and you are limited in the number of reinstalls you can do (in case you get a new computer or need to reinstall Windows, although Windows is so stable why would you ever need to do that?). This is overkill to the extreme. If everyone has to authenticate their game with a key before they play, then why is the disk required to be in the drive? I thought the point of online authentication was to eliminate the need for a CD, not to exacerbate the copy protection problem. It’s enough to take the overall score down a point…so take that!

BioShock is a single-player only first person shooter where you explore the underwater world of Rapture and shoot stuff. There is no multiplayer, which would have been an interesting addition considering some of the exotic weapons and spells that are present in the game. The game takes place during the early 1960s, and BioShock takes place in a futuristic environment for the time period. The world of Rapture is very well designed and it’s a captivating place in which to destroy things. The story is fairly interesting and you can listen to optional audio tapes that shed some light on the strife present in Rapture. The weapons you are given are the standard fare: a wrench, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, crossbow, and grenade and chemical launchers. However, each weapon (with a couple of exceptions) can hold three different kinds of ammo: they can include armor piercing, explosive, electrical, napalm, or incendiary rounds. Each of these alternative ammunitions are appropriate for different enemies in different settings, which makes the strategic elements of the game much more interesting than generic weapons that are present in most shooters. Taking a cue from role-playing games, your character in BioShock can become equipped with a number of spells (the game calls them “plasmids”) that grant special powers as a secondary (or primary, depending on how powerful it is) weapon. You can freeze things, set fire to them, electrocute them, use a swarm of insects, command a tornado, hypnotize enemies, and move objects with your mind. These are much more interesting than the standard spells in most RPGs that simply cause damage. Together with the weapons, the plasmids open up a large variety of attacks and all of the weapons (even the lonely wrench) and plasmids have their use for the entire game. For example, electrocuting enemies and then knocking them out with the wrench remains a viable attack for the whole campaign. That’s something that can’t be said in most shooters, as the most powerful weapons you get near the end are the best. You are also limited to carrying two plasmids at once (you an unlock additional slots, though), so having a good combo is important.

Plasmids are powered using Eve, which is collected around the map or “borrowed” from fallen enemies. Ammunition and health are gathered in the same fashion. New plasmids, however, require gathering Adam, and this can only be taken from Little Sisters. Unfortunately for you, these defenseless Little Sisters are always accompanied by Big Daddies, large hulking robots with very powerful weapons that require extreme firepower (or good planning) to defeat. These Big Daddies are by far the most difficult part of the game (the normal enemies aren’t that challenging until late in the game). Thankfully, they won’t attack unless provoked, so you can lay mines and set up turrets before making your initial strike. Once you destroy a Big Daddy (which is kind of sad in a way, with the Little Sister weeping, “Bubbles! Noooo!”), you can choose to “free” the Little Sister for a small amount of Adam (but you feel better about yourself) or “harvest” the Little Sister for maximum Adam, killing her in the process. You are given rewards over time for the less violent approach. In addition to the plasmids, you can also gain tonics that provide permanent physical, weapon, or other upgrades (like faster hacking). With all of the weapons, ammo, plasmids, and tonics, you can really tailor your character to your play style in BioShock.

Other than the ammo, first aid kits, and Eve needles scattered around each level, there are a number of machines to serve your needs. Different machines allow you to reconfigure your plasmids and tonics, purchase new plasmids, purchase ammunition or kits with money “borrowed” from corpses, shut down security camera, increase your health, upgrade weapons, or even make new items. You can also get a camera for research purposes, which will improve your attacks against the enemy you researched. BioShock includes a hacking mini-game for gaining access to turrets and machines: you need to connect pipes. It’s a good challenge and a decent puzzle game on its own.

One of the reasons I dislike single-player shooters is that I get stuck. A lot. So I’m happy to report that I only got lost a couple of times in BioShock, as there are normally hints on what to do next and an arrow pointing the way to the objective. Another annoyance with single player games is death, which usually requires you to reload a saved game. In BioShock, there is no penalty for dying: you will just respawn at the last checkpoint (of which there are plenty) with all of your weapons and money intact. The enemies you were fighting will also keep their damage (otherwise defeating Big Daddies would be almost impossible in the early game). You can get stuck in a loop as you run out of ammo and money, but it’s still a better system than the alternative. The AI opponents are smart: they will run for water if they are on fire and use health stations if needed. While they won’t necessarily use cover, they do provide a good enough amount of challenge without being overly difficult, especially for veteran players. I had fun playing the game, with the occasional hiccup for getting stuck or having to respawn a lot for a Big Daddy battle. But overall, I had a grand time vacationing in Rapture.

If you like single player first person shooters, then BioShock is a good one to play. BioShock makes the shooter experience deeper than the typical game, due to the successful blend of varied weapons, ammunition, spells, and power-ups. The setting is very memorable and distinctive, unlike all of those World War II games. While experienced players might fund BioShock to be too easy, the difficulty level makes the game appeal to a much larger audience. The various strategies you can employ, coupled with the Big Daddy battles, elevate BioShock above the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t come with multiplayer and the copy protection scheme is extremely annoying and restrictive. Still, most fans of first person shooters or simply games in general will find a unique and fun experience.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Europa Universalis III: Napoleon's Ambition Review

Europa Universalis III: Napoleon's Ambition, developed and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Automated merchants, more rules options, longer timeline with additional events and national ideas, several interface improvements, Austria is finally colored white
The Not So Good: Can't join multiplayer games in progress, no short scenarios
What say you? A sufficient expansion for fans of the original game: 6/8

The expansion pack has inundated the PC gaming market. Adding a few additional features for a reduced price, expansion packs have run the gamut from comprehensive and worthwhile to oversaturated and meaningless. One of my favorite games is Europa Universalis III, and a digital-only expansion has been released called Napoleon's Ambition. Not surprisingly, the game centers on an expanded timeline to cover the exploits of one Napoleon Bonaparte and his attempts to try to take over the world, among some smaller user-requested features.

While the graphics remain the same as the original game, there have been some interface improvements made to make navigating through the game easier. There is a right-click province menu for one-stop military shopping, a colonization view with all of the pertinent information in one place, an improved ledger view of provincial improvements to make building easier, and others that I will talk about a bit later. All of these additions are nice, but things that could (and some have) been included in a free patch. Still, anything that makes navigating through the game easier is fine with me, and the interface improvements are worthwhile things that you will actually use. The game performance has also been improved, as loading the game and playing at the highest speed both happen noticeably faster, so that’s nice.

The most obvious improvement made in Napoleon's Ambition is the expanded timeline to December 1820. You can now start the game any day between 1453 and 1820 and the world’s provinces are historically accurate. With the date expansion comes more events, additional national ideas for high technology levels, the ability to dismantle the Holy Roman Empire (by occupying all of the capitals of the member nations), and enhanced revolutions. Now, nations that are revolting gain bonuses against monarchies, and vice versa. I think it’s just a matter of time before the game expands even further into the present; the game engine could probably handle all the way up to the present day using the current rules, and it’s just a matter of investing the time and energy in doing so. The potential for the game engine is exciting, and I hope the developers make additional expansions to Europa Universalis III instead of making separate games with slightly different rules like they have done in the past (the rules and level of complexity in Europa Universalis III is the best out of all of the Paradox titles).

To satisfy those patrons of Europa Universalis II who enjoy less randomness and more historical accuracy in their gameplay, Napoleon's Ambition includes additional game options that influence the appearance of historical leaders. Before, leaders, advisors, and rulers had a window in which they could appear, but now you can set “historical” rules and they will appear on their actual birthday and die on the appropriate day as well. This has some really interesting impacts on gameplay, especially if you have historical military leaders on. Basically, you are getting leaders for free (great for cash-strapped countries) with really good ratings without using tradition. You can also eliminate the costs associated with merchants, colonists, missionaries, and spies, adding another layer of intriguing ramifications on gameplay. The spread of land discoveries and colonist size can also be tweaked to alter the composition of the New World. More options are always better, so it’s nice that Napoleon's Ambition adds more user-defined settings to tailor your gameplay experience further.

An area that received improvements was trade, and most notable is the addition of automated merchants. Finally you don’t have to keep clicking every couple of months to constantly send merchants. It was so tedious and by far the least enjoyable part of the game. Now, you can assign each center of trade a priority (high, medium, low, or zero) and the game will automatically send merchants to the best center of trade if you have enough money. The game won’t send merchants if it will bring your balance below zero before year’s end, and it will take value and competition into consideration when choosing where to go next. Now, instead of trade being an annoying part of the game, it can be left alone and your focus put on more important areas. The trade map has been enhanced with icons representing the good it produced; while it is helpful for colonization and manufactories, you have to know which goods are “good” and which are not. Napoleon's Ambition adds the ability to create (and destroy) new centers of trade if the current center of trade in the region is pulling in a lot of cash. The AI seems to do a good job with managing new centers of trade, and it’s a nice addition to allow for nations to develop another source of income.

Provinces can now have a recruitment queue for military units, taking some of the repetitive nature out of creating an army. While this is a useful feature, it’s faster to build one unit in five provinces than five units in one province, unless you have some sort of bonus from a manufactory. Smaller nations have been given a boost through discipline, which is tied to the quality vs. quantity slider. Now, high quality nations will get double benefits, through increased morale and discipline, to make the use of that slider more practical. This evens the playing field a bit more, although the largest nations will always have an advantage in war. You can consolidate regiments in Napoleon's Ambition: instead of having two half-strength infantry units, you can combine them. I don’t really see the usefulness of this feature, since it’s the same number of troops and you are preventing reinforcement during and after the war. Spies have been given a couple of new tricks: counterfeiting currency to increase inflation, reducing stability, fabricate core province claims, inciting natives, and bribing defenders. I’m not a big spy player, but, again, more things to do is always welcome.

The last area of improvement deals with war. First, if you click on the war alert flag at the top of the screen, the diplomatic panel for the country you are at war with will open. This is very useful in those weird wars where you are battling some far-off ally of an adjacent country (for me, Funj allied with Austria). Napoleon's Ambition comes with more end-of-battle information, with the total troops engaged, casualty information, and the values of each leader, replacing a simple “you lost” message. There is also a war screen that displays the data the AI uses to calculate how a war is going. The armies and navies, stability, and economy are converted into a war capacity value that shows how much more a country can invest into a prolonged battle. This takes some of the guesswork out of an AI refusing a peace proposal even though you hold several of their provinces (they may still be able to raise more troops). I think the war capacity was always in the game and it’s just now being shown to the player; some users think that the AI has been altered somewhat but it seems to behave the same as before for me.

There are some other odds and ends included with Napoleon's Ambition as well. You must hold the capital of a nation in order to make it as vassal. An annexed nation loses all cores on colonial provinces. And you can move your capital to a new province. I’m not sure what the reason for this is and the AI seems to be a little too happy in doing this (Spain’s capital in modern Peru? Whatever). I suppose if you are losing your home provinces you could “relocate” to your colonies, but wouldn’t that really be considered a new country? But I guess one weird feature in a sea of good features is OK.

I like what Napoleon's Ambition has added to Europa Universalis III. I wouldn’t call it a must-have to owners of the original game, but it offers enough substance to warrant its purchase. The expanded timeline is nice and it gives you more time to develop your country, but it is thankfully not the only additional feature. The automated merchants is my favorite feature (something I mentioned in my review of the original game), and the additional rules options allow users to customize their game even more. Most of the smaller improvements I like (the movement of capitals and unit consolidation are questionable), and overall they make playing the game that much easier. Oh, and Austria is now it’s appropriate while color instead of that blasphemous red. Some (most?) of this stuff could have been included in a free patch, but since the basic game was so cheap (and yet so good), I don’t mind paying $20 to support the efforts of the developers. At $50 total for the original game and the expansion, it’s a very typical price and still less than all of those useless console games. The game still doesn’t allow for joining multiplayer games in progress (something I wish they will add in the future) and small scenarios are still missing to ease people into the game. Still, if you play Europa Universalis III enough, it’s worth $20 to get Napoleon's Ambition as it enhances the game and adds meaningful features to an already impressive game.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power Review

Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power, developed by and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Enjoyable strategy gameplay, challenging campaign, neat morale model, streamlined base management, emphasis on resupply rather than massing units, one unit per hex stresses realistic front lines, time of day drastically affects strategy
The Not So Good: No level editor, some missions are exceedingly difficult
What say you? This turn-based strategy game has a lot of good ideas, but casual users will dislike the tedious pace and high difficulty: 6/8

The Massive Assault series has been around since 2003, providing strategy fans with a decent series of games: the original Massive Assault, Massive Assault Network 2, Domination, Massive Assault: The Next Generation, and Massive Assault: Deep Space Nine. The Assault has now expanded from Massive to Galactic levels in Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power. This new title uses the same conventions as the Massive Assault series but a more conventional RTS approach (though the game is still played in turn-based modes) with base-building, unit recruitment, and faster-paced straight-up action. It was time for a change, since the basic game has been around since 2003 and each iteration really felt more like an expansion pack than a full-fledged game. Will Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power open to doors to a wide audience and provide a distinct gameplay experience?

The graphics of Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power are largely the same as in Massive Assault Network 2, albeit with more varied locations and new units. The game is rendered in 3-D and a lot of the same effects and attention to detail present in previous games carries over. The units move in a realistic method, utilizing roads and automatically moving to a column formation while moving. The unit animations are also well done, from the infantry lining up and taking their shots to the more powerful weapons in the game. The game uses a movie-style camera that zooms in on the action during large explosions: it is dumb, not necessary, but easily skipped. Overall, Galactic Assault looks good for a wargame, but lags behind the higher production values present in mega-budget real time strategy games. And that’s just fine with me, as the minimal interface has come to a very streamlined place and navigating through the game is very useful. Galactic Assault displays both morale (as a circular indicator) and health (as a bar) above each unit at all times, making assessing the battlefield situation easy. Galactic Assault is easy to get in to thanks to its mostly intuitive interface. The quality of the sound presentation is similar to what it was before: sporadic and not up to the graphics. The uninspired voice acting heard when passages from the book the game is based on are being read while loading a new campaign level doesn’t get you excited for the next mission. The sound effects, while decent, are sporadic (typical for a turn-based game) and don’t bring the full force of war to your gaming experience. The background music is good and doesn’t repeat itself much. Overall, Galactic Assault maintains the higher-than-average quality graphics for a wargame.

Like Massive Assault, Galactic Assault is a turn-based strategy game where you move units around to conquer enemy bases. The game comes with four campaigns (one for each of the races) totaling seventeen missions in all. The first set act as a sort of tutorial to the game, although if you haven’t played Massive Assault you will be almost completely lost: the in-game tutorials do not explain the user interface (and neither does the manual) and other nuances of the game very well if at all (though tool-tips are some help). A single mission can take up to an hour to complete (thanks to the slow turn-based nature of the gameplay), so Galactic Assault has a lot of content. The campaign missions are generally well done (though difficult) and strike a good balance between offensive and defensive operations with some stealth mixed in for good measure. There are also eleven objective-based scenarios and twelve deathmatch maps with identical goals for each side (capture the other base). You can also engage in hot multiplayer action over a LAN or using the in-game matchmaking. You can only play deathmatch, as the territory-based mode from Massive Assault is mysteriously absent. This is a good amount of content and it should keep you busy for a while, even without a map editor to incorporate third-party content.

Gameplay in Galactic Assault takes place over two phases: the combat phase where you can order troops and the reinforcement phase where you can purchase new troops and upgrade your bases. The game features a good number of real-world features that impact the gameplay, such as time of day (which drastically affects fog of war) and cover provided by terrain. Galactic Assault puts a lot of emphasis on good movement planning, forcing you to evaluate the terrain’s features well and note which kinds of troops can traverse the varied landscapes in the game. Units can be instructed to use camouflage (which makes them invisible to units beyond the adjacent hex) or entrench for improved defense. Engineers can also build pontoon bridges on shallow water and construct forward air bases. Unlike a lot of RTS games, new bases are not built; rather, they can be moved when resources run out (there is a finite level of resources at each location). This cuts down a lot on base management, as you’ll only have one or two places to worry about instead of many outposts scattered about the map. Bases can be captured by simply moving a unit into the center, so troops must be kept back on defense. Depots can be built surrounding a base to construct units, much like in Rise of Legends. Again, this makes finding unit-producing buildings very easy since you know they must be adjacent to your base. Each depot type can construct one type of unit, from barracks for infantry to ports for ships. Depots can be upgraded to unlock more powerful units. Each depot is limited to producing one unit per turn, since only one unit can occupy a single hex at a time (and each depot sits on one hex). Galactic Assault features conventional units: infantry, vehicles, tanks, transports, air, and naval. Each of these has their strengths and weaknesses, from attack ratings to speed to weapon range. Damaged units can be repaired for a much lower cost than making a new unit at their depot, if you want to take the time moving them back to home base. I like how Galactic Assault incorporates RTS conventions into its formula, and the result is an easy-to-handle game because of the streamlined base construction.

During the combat phase, units can move and shoot in the same turn. Since there is no stacking in Galactic Assault (each hex can only contain one unit), there is a lot of planning involved when you start to move troops around. The game displays the attack range of each of your units when you select them, helping out the process. Most of the units for each of the races are the same (although they look different), so you can plan your movement and orders accordingly. . Luckily, you can queue your commands up in succession, so you don’t have to wait for the last unit to finish moving before issuing orders to the next unit: this speeds up the gameplay somewhat. You will need to maintain a front line of units to prevent fast units from moving past your units and engaging fragile artillery or capturing your base. Units can return fire on defense and support artillery can protect nearby units automatically by engaging three enemy units during the opposing turn. Galactic Assault comes with end-turn prompts that remind of you unmoved units or those that haven’t fired yet, helpful for making sure all of your firepower has been used. Galactic Assault has a good morale system: units that suffer incoming fire and the death associated with said fire will experience lower morale. Lower morale will result in decreased firepower, and units with the lowest morale won’t fire at all. The morale model is well done because you don't have to annihilate every unit on the map to make them ineffective. Of course, they can still act as road blocks, so some enemy units will need to be completely destroyed in order to advance across the map. Specialized units like hypno-transmitters can increase morale, but the best way of keeping morale up is not to die. Units can earn combat experience, which increases damage and morale values. The one unit per hex restriction makes Galactic Assault easier to handle than a lot of wargames, and the morale system is very straightforward. So, with all of these good things said about the game mechanics, why doesn’t Galactic Assault completely succeed?

Galactic Assault is too hard. The AI is good enough to engage a human opponent head-on (although it isn’t quite as aggressive as a human in deathmatches), but the developers seem to be hard-set on making each campaign and standalone scenario unbalanced with too many enemy units. This was a problem in Massive Assault and the trend continues in Galactic Assault. Easy is challenging enough, and anything higher than that is very hard and meant for strong veteran players. I’m no slouch at strategy games (I review plenty of them), but I had a terribly time winning even the introductory scenarios on medium settings. It took a while for me to “get over the hump” and start enjoying Galactic Assault. The game does require you to be almost perfect in order to win with any regularity above “easy” difficulty (and even that level is no walk in the park). You will need to carefully scout ahead to eliminate enemy surprises (of which there are many in the imbalanced campaign), carefully maneuver your troops to prevent enemy units from breaking through your lines, are carefully direct your fire to take advantage of counters (like anti-tank units), positioning, and morale. Galactic Assault requires you to be perfect, and that’s a very hard thing to do in a game with multiple variables. The deathmatches and multiplayer modes are more evenly matched, but the campaigns and stand-alone scenarios border on frustrating difficulty. While Galactic Assault has a faster pace than Massive Assault, the tedious gameplay will annoy some users. Units (especially infantry and artillery) move very slowly when not on transport units, making reinforcements a long time coming. It also usually takes a turn or two to destroy a single unit, so the combat pace is also slow. This deliberate pace allows for some thinking and more involved gameplay, but the does get annoying after a while at how long a single match takes and how little each unit can do in a single turn. The pace is in line with other turn-based strategy games, but Galactic Assault seems to drag along more for some reason. This game is certainly more approachable than Massive Assault, as the units are more conventional and the base building elements add familiarity. I do like how this aspect of the game works, providing funds over a limited time and requiring users to expand to new territories. I think the developers tried to expand the audience with a more conventional structure and they were successful on some levels, but the deliberate pace and requirement of perfection will dissuade some players.

Veteran wargamers will have a grand time with Galactic Assault, but beginning players who aren't accustomed to the gameplay mechanics of Massive Assault will feel lost and overwhelmed by the high difficulty and level of planning required in order to be successful. There are a lot of things in Galactic Assault that I like: the units, the base building, the amount of content, the morale model, the non-stackable units, and the general gameplay are all fine and dandy. But the game is really difficult and slow, two things that won’t appeal to a large audience. I much prefer Galactic Assault to Massive Assault and it does a lot of things well and more often than not I am having fun playing the game, but then I encounter an unfair or overly difficult scenario that causes me to quite playing. There is nothing wrong with a challenging game, but it should be challenging on “hard” settings, not on all settings. Ultimately, Galactic Assault is a high-quality wargame that will appeal to wargamers, but not many other people.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Concentration Review

Concentration, developed by Freeze Tag and published by Mumbo Jumbo.
The Good: A reasonable assortment of puzzles, accurate gameplay, challenging puzzles, reasonable AI
The Not So Good: No online play, repetitive sound, no custom puzzles
What say you? A faithful recreation of the classic game show: 6/8

One of the many game shows I followed in my youth was Concentration. While it wasn’t my favorite (that high honor goes to Press Your Luck), it was still good entertainment that required some skill in order to win, unlike a lot of the contemporary game shows. Most, if not all, game shows translate well to the computer gaming realm, so it’s not surprising to see a new version of Concentration coming around the corner. The classic game show required you to remember where prizes were hidden on a game board and then figure out a puzzle using pictures and letters to convey a common phrase. Will Concentration feature all of the heart-pounding excitement of Concentration?

While Concentration is not rendered in 3-D, the game does get the style of the game board and puzzles correct. You won’t see the host or avatars representing your player, but Concentration does use the old color scheme (along with some new ones) for the game board and the puzzles are just as flamboyant as during the TV show. The various prizes have good icons for each of them, so overall the game board holds true and looks good. Concentration does feature the classic sound effects for matches and choosing squares on the board, but it seems like they couldn’t afford licensing the theme song and had to resort to some hokey selections. The host also becomes terribly repetitive, even during the first round of the first game you will play. It doesn’t seem like much attention was paid to the sound outside of the accurate effects, but the audio doesn’t ruin the overall experience. The graphics and sound for Concentration are exactly what you would expect for a $20 game: straight and to the point, accurate but not making any improvements.

The game of Concentration exactly mirrors the game of Concentration (or is it vice versa?). Concentration (the game, not the game) can be played by one player against the computer or two human players on the same computer. There is no online play, something that would have been greatly welcomed (and caused a higher overall score). If you are unfamiliar with the conventions of the game show (if so, what is wrong with you?), here is how play progresses. A puzzle is covered up by twenty-five squares, each containing a prize. If the player matches two squares with the same prize, he or she earns that prize and the two squares are removed from the board, revealing a portion of the puzzle. The puzzles combine pictures, numbers, and letters to form a well-known phrase, although there is some abstraction involved to make the puzzles more difficult (for example, a picture of a dove represents the word “of”). Whoever correctly solves two puzzles first wins and moves on to the bonus round. The bonus round is similar, although there are pictures of cars hidden behind fifteen squares and you must match all of them within a thirty-second time limit.

Concentration stays true to the original game show. The puzzles have the same design as the originals and there are enough of them so that it takes a while to find repeats. There is no puzzle editor, though, which would have been a neat addition. The prizes are more contemporary in nature and the colorful backgrounds aid in identification. You will occasionally find wild cars that will automatically find the match of the other card you chose, and take cards will allow you to take (surprise) a prize from your opponent. The game tracks high scores and cumulative stats for a single player name, and even assigns a champion title to the current undefeated player. This is a game where the AI could really cheat a lot, but it seems like the AI has been programmed fairly: it plausibly finds matches, makes some mistakes, and waits until near the end to solve the puzzle. Overall, the AI is a fair competitor that makes playing the game enjoyable. While I would have liked to have online play in the game, Concentration does offer everything you would expect a game based on the show to have, so fans of the game show will find an enjoyable replica here.

Concentration translates very well to a computer game, and Concentration is an entertaining computer game. While the game lacks online play and the host is repetitive, the remainder of the game is a very accurate replica of the game, delivering all of the hot memorization action of the game show. The AI provides a good competitor, but playing against another human placed within smacking range (for when they steal a prize you just found) is good fun. The puzzles are numerous enough and challenging enough to round out this quality title. While it’s a little odd to see a computer game version of a show this old, Concentration is still an enjoyable game and a good fit into the library of any fan of the show or computer games in general.