Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Viva Piñata Review

Viva Piñata, developed by Rare and Climax Group and published by Microsoft.
The Good: Great theme, good management mechanics, lots of piñatas to encounter
The Not So Good: Horribly limited console interface, absent online features, annoying in-game tutorial and cut scenes with almost constant message spam
What say you? A decent life management simulation ruined by its cumbersome interface: 5/8

Console ports are becoming disturbingly more popular: make a console game, and then bring it over to the PC two years later. Or, feature a simultaneous release while keeping the console interface intact, removing the advantages a mouse and keyboard brings to the table. This brings us to Viva Piñata, which appeared on the XBOX 360 one year ago. Not only was the game fairly popular with the console crowd, but it spawned an advertising tool...excuse me...animated series on TV. How will this colorful life management game perform on the PC?

Viva Piñata features some very distinctive graphics full of color and life. In fact, it's reminiscent of a children's cartoon in many ways, making the game appeal to a wide audience just in terms of visual style. Each of the piñatas in the game is designed well and mirror real-life animals. The environments are bright and the level of detail is good. The game does have a slightly annoying sheen during the daytime hours as the animals seem a bit too reflective. Overall, though, the game looks very good on the PC's higher resolutions. The sound is OK, with some fitting background music and appropriate effects uttered by the many creatures that will populate your garden. It's not surprising that the PC is able to handle an XBOX 360 game very well, and Viva Piñata is no exception as its bright graphics and good theme is kept intact.

Viva Piñata is a management game where you manipulate your garden in order to enslave (I mean attract) piñatas to your bidding. First off, the game takes up 8 GB of hard drive space, yet requires the CD to be in the drive in order to run: nice. Viva Piñata features Games for Windows – LIVE support, although I don’t know why: all you can do is send rewards to other players and gain meaningless achievements. The console roots of the game rears its ugly head in the control scheme. Viva Piñata is clearly designed for an XBOX controller and the interface is designed for a person sitting six feet away from a TV, not a person sitting one foot from a monitor. First, the game can be controlled with the mouse, but you have to select most of the options from a radial menu in the upper right corner (you know, the corner that nobody uses in PC games because of its inaccessibility). Dialogue boxes take up the whole screen and freeze the game while you read them, instead of appearing at the bottom and allowing you to continue what you were doing before being rudely interrupted. Cut scenes can’t be skipped and disrupt gameplay too often as well: you’ll find you get a new message or cut scene about every three minutes (especially at the beginning of the game) and that is quite annoying. Non-tutorial messages require four clicks to read: one to select the message bar, one to select the message, one to close it, and one to delete it. I wish the developers would have played any strategy game published in the past fifteen years before coming up with this horrible interface. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that we get a bad interface from a company that can't design a decent operating system.

It’s too bad the interface is so terrible, because the rest of Viva Piñata is actually quite enjoyable. You will encounter about fifty piñatas over the course of the game, and each mirrors a real-life animal, such as a horse, worm, butterfly, cow, or elephant. Each piñata has needs to attract then inhabit your garden; you need to search and select a piñata in order to find out the needs as the interface (of course) only lists permanent residents of your gardens and not visitors. A piñata’s happiness level affects their desirability to live in your garden, and it can be affected by constructing housing, meeting needs, and being whacked with a shovel. Since you will only have limited control over your piñatas, most of the gameplay involves building a pleasant home for them. This is done through the various tools that reside in the main menu (which, of course, takes up the entire screen and pauses the game). New items can be bought from the store, such as fertilizer, watering cans, seeds, paved paths, sweets (for stat bonuses), fruit and vegetables, produce, fencing, and various decorative items. Viva Piñata has a two-pronged approach: attract piñatas and make money through gardening, and that’s where most of the items in the shop are used. You can also purchase pets, construct housing, and hire helpers to assist with watering, weeding, or pests. There is even someone who can craft new items for a price, just like in Fury.

The gameplay of Viva Piñata is very reminiscent of The Sims, although you have generally less control over your minions and everything is done through environmental manipulation. There is a maze-like mini-game when piñatas reproduce and a number of things that make maintaining a good garden difficult, like sour piñatas and naturally opposed piñatas. There is also a limit to the amount of stuff you can have in your garden; I suppose this is to avoid an over saturation of piñatas (which would consequently make the game too easy), but isn’t a large collection of animals kind of the point? Gotta catch them all! New items are unlocked at a good pace, and if the tutorial messages weren’t so damn annoying new players would ease right in to a new game. It is fun to maintain your garden and unlock new piñatas, and if you enjoy these kinds of games (and a lot of people do, considering the sales figures of The Sims) then Viva Piñata will prove to be fun. Overall Viva Piñata is a good game, but it is clearly not built for the PC.

A poor interface might not be a big deal to some people, but if a game is frustrating to play because of the controls and they can't be changed, then it makes the game a lot less fun. This is the Achilles’ heel of Viva Piñata, and it makes the PC version of the game a poorly ported afterthought. Apparently it is too much to ask for an improved interface that takes advantage of the PC’s superiority as a platform. The game does offer a lot of content through improving your garden and unlocking new piñatas, so people who like this genre will be kept quite busy for a while. However, the potential of the game is hindered by some questionable design decisions and lack of multiplayer options. Frankly, I’m getting tired of half-assed ports when there is clearly room for improvement in the interface. PC games are not controlled in the same fashion as console games and you don’t need to enlarge all of the text so we can see it from a foot away. But the developers of Viva Piñata took the easy way out and just made a console game that runs in Windows. The enjoyment that Viva Piñata offers is offset by an annoying interface that will surely irritate PC veterans. Viva Piñata is not worth the effort of wrestling with the interface.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate Review

F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate, developed by TimeGate Studios and published by Sierra Entertainment.
The Good: Some new weapons, a new enemy, fun F.E.A.R. combat, almost lengthy campaign, very challenging
The Not So Good: Boring story with repetitive environments, can’t join non-expansion multiplayer games, no gameplay innovations, very challenging
What say you? This stand-alone expansion doesn’t offer anything new of value: 4/8

The stand-alone expansion pack: not quite enough for a sequel, not popular enough to require the original. Although F.E.A.R. was quite popular when it came out two years ago, so Perseus Mandate not requiring the original game is a bit surprisingly. F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate comes with a new single player campaign that parallels the original story line. The game is developed by TimeGate Studios, authors of Kohan, probably my favorite game of all time. So that bodes well, right?

F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate features the same visuals and sound as the original game. That’s not to say that F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate looks bad, as all of the nice effects (fire, grenade shockwaves) and details (character textures and animations) are intact and stack up well with contemporary games in the genre. The game still doesn’t officially support widescreen resolutions, including 1280x1024 that I use for my LCD monitor. It runs well enough, though, but having two years to fully support common settings and not doing it is questionable. The sound is the same as well, with OK voice acting (with cussin’!) and the distinctive F.E.A.R. weapon effects. F.E.A.R. featured cutting-edge graphics two years ago, so now they are slightly above average.

When a game lacks a manual, you know you are in for a good time. All F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate ships with is a CD sleeve with the key printed on it and a ten-day trial for World in Conflict (highly recommended, by the way). Oh, and the game requires the CD to be in the drive in order to run it even though you have to input your CD key in order to install; how I adore antiquated forms of copy protection. F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate features an eight-to-ten hour long campaign (depending on how many times you die: for me, many) that rivals the length of a lot of “full” first person shooters. This is really the only reason to get the game, as F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate doesn’t feature any additional multiplayer modes and you can’t even join matches that use the original game; you are better off just downloading F.E.A.R. Combat for free. The handful of new maps is generally bland and fit the industrial theme of the original game.

Unfortunately, the single player campaign F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate isn’t very exciting and didn’t grab my attention. In fact, if you were to line up this campaign and the original side by side, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate does offer a nasty new enemy and three new weapons (lightning gun, grenade launcher, advanced rifle), but neither of these things are reason enough to get the game. I do still enjoy the gameplay of F.E.A.R.: a focus on tactical action, with slow-mo to make tackling difficult areas easier. The game is just as difficult as the original at any difficulty level; I hope you like getting your butt kicked. I can’t help but feel like I’ve done all of this before, like two years ago: F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate doesn’t add any improvements whatsoever to the gameplay. In order for an expansion pack to be worth it, it must, you know, expand the original game, and F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate does not.

Short reviews are usually a bad indicator, and F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate just doesn’t offer enough content to justify buying it. If you missed out on the original F.E.A.R., just find it at a cheap price. If you need a multiplayer fix, then just download F.E.A.R. Combat for free. The single player campaign of F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate is not interesting or different enough to pay attention to. F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate offers no changes from the original game in terms of mechanics. In fact, I wouldn’t know the difference between this and the original game if put side by side. If you really really really like F.E.A.R., then you will probably like Perseus Mandate somewhat. The rest of us can ignore it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Alpha Prime Review

Alpha Prime, developed by Black Element Software and published by IDEA Games and Meridian 4.
The Good: Impressive visuals
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, very short, exceptionally unfair difficulty, vague objectives, generic weapons, sporadically intelligent AI, clichéd and broken bullet time, endless, boring, and frequent cut scenes with stiff voice acting
What say you? A derivative first person shooter with great visuals but not much else: 4/8

When trying to come up with an introduction to this review, I was alternating between talking about first person shooters or the 1980’s. Why the 80’s, you ask? Well, Alpha Prime sounds like Optimus Prime, so that was going to be the connection. The problem with doing so many reviews is that I sometimes can’t think of anything original to say in this introduction; games in the same genre tend to get the same kind of introduction. I already referred to the 80’s in my World in Conflict review and the FPS is very common. But then I thought I could write an introduction about writing an introduction. Brilliant! Too bad I can’t use it again…well, for a while. Anyways, Alpha Prime is a single-player first person shooter. Is it any good?

Clearly the highlight of Alpha Prime is the graphics. The game features a nice level of detail, from the environments (though they are repetitive) to some nice facial animations on each human character. The animations are a bit off, though. There are some nice lighting effects and each of the game’s areas look like real locations. There are even some pleasing weapons effects and explosions in the game. Alpha Prime gets dangerously close to the level of quality seen in BioShock in terms of the graphics. The sound in the game is a bit worse off: there is some missing dialogue from the cut scenes, most of the effects are generic, and there are some weird fading issues with stereo sound: people not directly next to the camera almost whisper when talking. Alpha Prime features typical music for the setting that’s fairly enjoyable. So Alpha Prime is pretty to look at: how is the gameplay?

Alpha Prime is a single-player only first person shooter that takes place in space: something has gone horribly, horribly wrong and it’s up to the protagonist to shoot things and make it all happy again. The first disappointment with the game is the lack of any multiplayer features. It’s disconcerting to have a FPS released in today’s market that lacks cooperative or competitive multiplayer, especially a title that has a very short single player campaign. Sure it might not be original, but it would at least extend the life of the product beyond the basics. As I mentioned, the game is short: only ten missions and they go by fairly quickly; good thing Alpha Prime is only $20 because you sure don’t get many features. The levels are linear by nature and green doors show the way to go. Sometimes finding the right way to go or getting turned around during combat can be a problem since Alpha Prime lacks a map or indicated objectives. I’m sorry, but “unlock the door” is not specific enough for me, and I don’t appreciate having to backtrack in order to find out specifically where to proceed next. The setting of Alpha Prime is very generic: metallic mining operations and alien planets straight out of Aliens. While BioShock shows how to come up with a unique environment, Alpha Prime shows how to use recycled locales for your game. The cut-scenes that drive the story are too frequent and just plain bad. I could only take the opening cut scene for four minutes before I had to skip it, due to poor acting and agonizing exposition. Another “feature” of Alpha Prime is the lack of alt-tab support: I normally make notes while I play for my review, so I alt-tabbed out of the game. I guess you can’t do that, as the game locked up and had to be manually shut down. Alpha Prime gets very jealous.

Anyone familiar with a first person shooter will feel right at home with the controls. The generic setting of the game extends to the rest of the presentation, from the weapons to the gameplay enhancements. You can equip yourself with a hammer, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, flamethrower, and grenades: nothing original there. You will need to frequently visit health and oxygen stations to replenish your, well, health and oxygen: these locations are plentiful in some areas and sparse in others, creating an imbalanced level of difficulty. There are some alternative methods in the game beyond simply shooting things, but all of these are either “borrowed” (stolen) from other games or not worth the effort. You are equipped with a hacking tool that can be used to access locked doors, use remote camera, and control vehicles. While this sounds cool and the possibilities are numerous, its use is highly scripted and not as dynamic as it should be. Alpha Prime also “borrows” (steals) bullet time, although it screws it up. While the game does slow down when you activate it (energy is gained by finding hubbardium scattered in scripted locations in each level), your complete movement is slowed down as well, including aiming. Usually, you walk slower but you can still aim just as fast as in real time, which gives you a distinct advantage. But in Alpha Prime, it all slows down so bullet time makes absolutely no difference. Even if they fixed this problem, bullet time would still be unoriginal; you should at least make it more varied like in TimeShift. The hubbardium is also scarce and it’s used up very quickly, which makes the use of bullet time even more questionable.

Alpha Prime tries to offer up some good AI, and your computer opponents will sometimes search and use cover and throw plenty of grenades. However, you will still encounter dumb AI about half the time: ignoring you, running away instead of firing, and general implausible behavior. Alpha Prime is also a very difficult game: you are usually up against a number of enemies at once with the same weapons you have and health decreases rapidly. Although you will usually be able to replenish your health frequently, you will die more often than necessary. Because of this, you need to save frequently; it should be noted that “quick save” and “quick load” isn’t very quick, yet another strike against this generic shooter.

Alpha Prime has good graphics, but everything else in the game is taken from another first person shooter. A short campaign, lack of multiplayer, generic weapons, tired bullet time, spotty AI, underutilized hacking tool, linear level design, and common setting all add up to a very unexciting experience. The cut scenes that promote the story are annoying and poorly acted and the action is very standard for the genre. The budget pricing of Alpha Prime (only $20) almost makes me want to bump the score up another notch, but the game is simply too unoriginal to warrant its purchase, even at a reduced price. There is purely no reason to play Alpha Prime, as you can pick up Max Payne, F.E.A.R., Half-Life, or any number of other titles and experience a better overall game for essentially the same price. Nice screenshots might bring in some customers, but don’t be fooled by the pretty pictures: Alpha Prime is not original in any aspect of the gameplay.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Storked Review

Storked, developed and published by Graduate Games.
The Good: Varied abilities, straightforward controls, informative tutorial, numerous obstacles and levels, level editor
The Not So Good: Sluggish pace, usually only one solution
What say you? A puzzle game with diverse designs, effortless controls, and tons of objects, but it’s too linear and played at an arduous pace: 5/8

Mutualism is a symbiotic cooperation between two organisms that benefits each participant (don’t say you never learned anything by reading a game review). And example of this is the collaboration between the shrimp and goby fish: the shrimp digs a home for both creatures while the goby fish warns of incoming predators. One of the least recognized examples of mutualism is between the penguin and the stork. Sure, they live in completely different climates and never come into contact with each other, but I’m glad that Storked has highlighted this important relationship in the form of a puzzle game. A team of four penguins must safely guide a stork’s egg to a basket, avoiding large drops and various obstacles along the way. Environment manipulation puzzles are fairly popular, with Professor Fizzwizzle and Eets being a couple of notable examples. How will Storked stack up?

Storked looks and sounds like it was put together by a couple of guys, and that’s mostly because it was. The game looks like what you would expect a 2-D puzzle game to look like: generally static backgrounds, simple environments, and a moderate amount of detail with the characters and effects. This is a purely 2-D game with icons and effects that seem to be straight out of Paint. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but nobody will be wowed by the graphical prowess of Storked. The sound is sparse at best, with some sporadic effects related to movement, switches, and the like. I do, however, like the background music, so there is a plus. While Storked is not the most visually impressive game to come out this year, it is playable and you don’t have to worry about camera angles.

In Storked, you must use your army of one to four (depending on the scenario) penguins to transport an egg to a basket, usually by kicking it. You must avoid allowing the egg to fall great distances and try to complete each puzzle quickly in order to earn medals. There are a lot of puzzles to choose from (over 100) and each is unlocked by completing a previous test. The controls in Storked are straightforward: arrow keys to move, shift to kick, and control for special abilities. A decent tutorial makes learning the game even easier. The camera automatically pans depending on which penguin is currently selected. Each of the four penguins has a specality: Murray throws snowballs to activate switches, Milton uses gadgets (rocket packs, diving suits, jackhammers, egg transports), Tony throws the egg and picks up boxes, and Lilly jumps. Having all four of these penguins at your disposal can make for some pleasingly complex puzzles, and each level is chock full of obstacles like geysers, pillows, cannons, crates, doors, bear traps, trees, bombs, and barriers. The levels in the game are designed to take advantage of the penguins’ attributes and there are definitely some interesting solutions to figure out.

One thing I value in computer games is replay value: being able to experience the same game in a different way during subsequent sessions. Unfortunately, Storked fails in this area as almost every puzzle in the game has one and only one solution. This tends to not be the case in some of the more advanced puzzles, but normally most of the time is spent trying to figure out what the developers want you to do. Changing the difficulty level doesn’t make the puzzles any easier (just a decrease in egg damage) so you can, and probably will, get stuck a number of times. Storked doesn’t penalize less coordinated puzzles as the game lacks “timing” puzzles that require precise synchronized movement (Eets was like this). In fact, the pace of Storked is very deliberate, bordering on tedious. Each puzzle moves very slowly as the characters can’t move the egg very far and a lot of your time is spent just kicking the egg over and over and over again. I prefer shorter solutions in games like this and Storked just has some grinding that isn’t really that necessary. That’s too bad, since the game definitely has some potential with interesting designs and abilities: Storked is too slow and too limited for my tastes.

Storked is one of those games that has good overall design but falls behind in a couple of key areas that hold the game back. The basics of the game are fine: the different penguins with specific abilities, the numerous varied puzzles, the controls. However, almost all of the puzzles have only one solution and the game progresses very slowly; both of these things make Storked less enjoyable than it could be. But the game still has moments of fun when your plan comes together and you finally figure out what the developers intended. Storked is a typical result for a first-time outing: a good idea lacking complete execution. And that’s OK, as I suspect puzzle fans will have some fun with the game and its editor (which can produce more streamlined puzzles).

Monday, November 12, 2007

You Are Empty Review

You Are Empty, developed by Digital Spray Studios and Mandel ArtPlains and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: (this heading is unavailable at the moment…please leave a message)
The Not So Good: No tutorial and no objectives, repetitive enemies, poor AI, bland weapons, outdated graphics, not scary, generic linear level design, questionable physics, can be quite difficult due to overly powerful enemies
What say you? An archaic zombie fest with no redeeming qualities whatsoever: 2/8

Zombie movies, and computer games, have been around for quite a while now. You know the story: man wakes up, must fight the undead single handed, shoots things, the usual deal. There have been quite a number creepy zombie titles released on the PC (and those evil consoles) and the curiously named You Are Empty can be added to the list. Another Russian import (second in a row), this title is a shoot first, ask questions later kind of action title, where you are armed with your heart, brain, and large machine gun. Will You Are Empty prove to be a worthy addition to the genre?

You Are Empty features some very old graphics that look like they were lifted from Quake 2, or the original Half-Life at best. Some of the buildings have a good level of detail in their architecture, but they become repetitive and bland rather quickly. The character models are poorly animated and also repetitive. The violence effects aren’t even that impressive, with red textures overtaking foes like a plague instead of chunks of flesh flying around like in most zombie settings. If the game is going to be rated “M,” make it rated “M!” The best part of the game are the cut scenes, which have a nice sketched quality to them, like that a-ha video. Unfortunately, the developers can’t even get a cut scene right, as there were a lot of linear artifacts present and very laggy performance. The sound doesn’t fare much better: sporadic grunts and minimal effects are the rule of the day. You Are Empty does not provide an overly gruesome or compelling presentation for your zombie hunting needs.

You Are Empty is a single player first person shooter where you go around killing the undead. The game assumes you are familiar with how to play a first person shooter, as the game lacks a tutorial and even objectives on what to do next. I’ve gotten lost and turned around multiple times because the game didn’t show in any way where to go next, either through a map or on-screen prompts. This is an inexcusable absence in today’s competitive gaming market. You are simply given health and ammo and put in a room: good luck figuring out what the game wants you to do! The level design helps somewhat, since most of the levels offer only one path, but multiple doorways (most of which are locked and some which can be opened) exacerbate the confusion dramatically. You will encounter a variety of monsters along the way, most of which just look different and deal increasing amounts of damage from different ranges. The enemies are highlighted by a big chicken, but sadly a gigantic cock doesn’t satisfy my needs...for good gameplay, of course. The AI is pretty dumb, as they simply charge at you while shooting. The enemies also seem to spawn at random around corners and in areas you’ve already been to; nothing like adding an air of authenticity to the game.

The weapon selection is very linear and each new tool is better than the last. They are given to you in order and there is no reason to switch to previous weapons once you have gotten your shiny new toy. You start out with a wrench (that you must find in a bathroom, I think) and eventually graduate through a pistol, shotgun, nailgun, rifle, and electric gun (where have I heard of those before?). There are also Molotov cocktails, and first aid kits are plentifully scattered around the levels. Still, the game is quite hard as the enemies usually outmatch you in terms of weaponry: you always have to defeat two or three enemies with inferior weapons before you are allowed to get upgraded tools. The gameplay is unoriginal shoot-only action, and this is quite old these days. In fact, Wolfenstein 3-D (a fifteen year old game that ran on a 386) has just as sophisticated gameplay (and probably more so). The game has some semblance of rag-doll physics, but all of the objects weight about two ounces and bounce like rubber balls across the floor. Watching a chair float and bounce across a room doesn’t make for a believable environment (maybe there was a gravity anomaly in 1950’s Russia). While You Are Empty might have been a decent (but still not good) game fifteen years ago, nowadays its bland gameplay, unoriginal brain-dead enemies, recycled weaponry, linear and confusing map design, poor physics engine, lack of multiplayer, maladjusted difficulty, and general lack of scariness makes it a title everyone can avoid.

Usually I can find one thing good about a game, but You Are Empty offers nothing that hasn’t been done over and over and over again. Everything about this game is old: the graphics, the gameplay, the AI, the features, the weapons. The game isn’t exciting at all to play, and its unnecessarily high difficulty and confusing layout makes for a rough experience. When I am making comparisons to games from 1992 and 1996, that’s not a good thing (unless it’s in a nostalgic sense, which this is definitely not).The game is right: I Am Empty after playing this game. You Are Empty receives the dubious honor of being tied as the worst game I’ve ever reviewed.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Advanced Tactics: World War II Review

Advanced Tactics: World War II, developed by VR Designs and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Reduced micromanagement, very easy to transfer and group forces, straightforward production with infinite building queues, streamlined research, random map generator and comprehensive editor, fantastic AI, adaptable engine not entrenched in World War II, play by e-mail
The Not So Good: Insufficient tutorial, not many included scenarios, lengthy turn resolution
What say you? Very flexible and user-friendly, this is one of the best wargames: 8/8

You would think by now that World War II has run its course, but new games keep cropping up, like an undead zombie hungry for more brains (feel free to create your own similie). This trend has permeated through the first person shooter and strategy genres the most, and Advanced Tactics: World War II is yet another wargame that takes place in World War II. Or does it? In reality, Advanced Tactics is a varied engine that can simulate pretty much any period of modern and historical combat, so the World War II tie-in is actually unnecessary. While it does mostly feature scenarios that take place using World War II equipment in World War II locations, the developers have not pigeon-holed themselves in the time period, so let’s find out if Advanced Tactics expands beyond the simple World War II wargame.

Wargames are not known for their cutting-edge graphics and sound design, and Advanced Tactics is no exception. The game is played from the classic 2-D overhead view that’s prominent in many wargames. The graphics don’t look bad necessarily, as they are clean and easy to understand; the icons are large enough to see on the map and relay basic information at a glance. The interface is well designed, as everything is accessible from the main screen and organized decently enough. So as wargames go, the graphics of Advanced Tactics are good, they just are not up to the 3-D standard that many strategy games achieve these days. The sound is very basic, with only the occasional combat effect and brief background music. Overall, the presentation of Advanced Tactics is quite typical for a wargame, although its forthcoming interface does put it a step ahead of more jumbled titles.

Advanced Tactics is a slightly more advanced tactical strategy game: instead of getting a set roster of troops, you do have some decisions in their production. The game comes with thirty scenarios, which may sound like a lot but they are divided among several categories (multiplayer, tutorial, fictional) and Advanced Tactics: World War II only contains ten World War II scenarios (and four are for human players only). While the number may not be as huge as some other wargames, some of the scenarios are very unique: take for example Random Towns, in which a town appears somewhere on the map each turn. I don't think I've ever seen that in a strategy game before. Advanced Tactics also comes with an excellent random mission generator and an editor to make your own scenarios. The engine is flexible enough to allow for large continent-wide wars and small intimate battles, perfect for satisfying a large audience. Personally, I prefer smaller battles, as a large quantity of units tends to confuse my simple brain. For a random map, you can customize the size, geography (land/sea ratio, rivers, forests, mountains, roads, towns), research speed, and even create a mirrored map for balanced multiplayer matches. The random maps are well designed and use a good algorithm to produce some realistic and interesting locales. Games can support from two to ten players as well, and support for play by e-mail games is present. There are a couple of small features I would like to see added to random maps: team games and the ability to easily import units from custom scenarios. Unlike games such as Commander: Europe at War that are locked into one map, Advanced Tactics lets you create the scenario that’s right for you. The game allows for different time periods other than World War II as well; downloads of alternative scenarios are already available, including scenarios set during the American Civil War, World War I, colonial times, and a place eerily similar to The Lord of the Rings. Advanced Tactics also allows for a whole range of custom rules and scripts, from reinforcements to automatic supplies and more; the included scenarios just scratch the surface of the potential of the game. This amount of flexibility is great and it shows how powerful the underlying engine is.

While Advanced Tactics is easy to learn compared to other wargames, the tutorial is woefully inadequate. It only teaches the basics and leaves a lot up to the manual, and we all know reading is for suckers. Advanced Tactics strikes a happy medium between the unit production of real time strategy games and the military maneuvering of tactical games; the game gives the user a lot of freedom without bogging them down with too much stuff. One of the highlights of the game is how production is handled. Units are produced in friendly cities located within your borders. You can queue up to four units at once and set a percentage to determine how much effort is dedicated to that particular unit. This is a great system that eliminates the need to “check up” on your unit-producing structures: once you set the queue, you can leave it alone for the rest of the game. Units that are produced will automatically be sent to a headquarters unit of your choice; this is another wonderful decision to removes a lot of the micromanagement typical in strategy games. Once present in the HQ, you can then instantly transfer units to any subordinate company; units may be able to be transferred on their own, but most infantry units will need a fleet of trucks present in your HQ to expedite their travel. Long-distance transport will require more trucks in your HQ unit, so you have to plan your reinforcements well. This also keeps units together: instead of having insane stacks of individual units (a single tank or infantry unit), they are grouped into divisions, which act like the containers in Forge of Freedom. Initially empty, new divisions can be placed anywhere within your borders and are filled with units you transfer from your HQ. Advanced Tactics features a fantastic system for getting units to the frontlines and it is very easy to handle realistic quantities of units without having hundreds of square icons you need to deal with each turn.

There are a number of units you can queue at your cities. HQ units need staff units for more effective subordinates and supplies to distribute to the troops. Most of the units in the game are differentiated by their ratings, and each unit can usually engage one specific enemy unit most effectively. Infantry units include troops equipped with rifles, sub-machine guns, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, horses, plus scouts and engineers. Vehicles include trucks (used for transporting units between containers), tanks, armored cars, half-tracks, and anti-tank guns. You are also given artillery units, various planes, and ships. The unit list is generic enough where it could fit a wide range of time periods and Advanced Tactics doesn’t cement itself too much in the World War II setting. Each unit is given a number of attributes: action points (used for movement and attacks), readiness (which determines the action points through supply levels), experience, morale, entrenchment, and more. More advanced units can be earned by spending political points produced at towns (political points are also used to make new containers). There are a number of activities that units can undergo other than moving: paradrops, air supplies, air recon missions, and blowing and repair bridges are all available for your strategic enjoyment. Obviously, a wargame wouldn’t be a wargame without combat. Using a system similar to the Decisive Battles series, Advanced Tactics lets you attack with multiple units and the combat is completely automated using all of the stats I alluded to earlier. Units can become casualties or retreat, and each battle can result in a victory for either side or a stalemate.

The result of all this stuff is a very fun game and one of the better experiences I’ve had playing a wargame in quite a while. The level of customization goes a long way in making Advanced Tactics an appealing title that can be tailored to each individual user’s liking. The AI opponents are very good: they will cut off supply, flank your armies, and prove to be quite a good foe. Advanced Tactics is also easy to manage thanks to some great streamlining of production and the ability to have large grouped units instead of unmanageable stacks. The end of games can get a bit drawn out with small units running around the map, but at least you know where the cities are so that you can shut down production. Advanced Tactics can also get bogged down due to stalled battles; good strategy can usually overcome this, however. The pace of the game can be anywhere from quick to slow, depending on how many units you have to control. The turn resolution can be long for large games involving lots of AI opponents, but I suppose it results in better AI so that can be forgiven.

Advanced Tactics takes the wargame and simplifies it into an entertaining package featuring enough freedom and randomization to keep people of all experience levels interested for a long time. Compared to other wargames, Advanced Tactics is much friendlier to new players as the interface is generally intuitive and there is less to keep track of. I really enjoy the superb production mechanics: units are automatically produced in a queue you set and transported to HQ units and then manually transported to your companies under their command. It’s also appreciated that Advanced Tactics allows for large single units of mixed types instead of stacks of single infantry groups that must be moved individually. The engine is also flexible: this allows for future (and current) expansions into different time periods without much trouble at all. I'm quite excited in seeing where the modders take Advanced Tactics; the realm of possibilities matches that of The Operational Art of War; with the random map generator, Advanced Tactics actually has more longevity. The random map generator produces some nice battlefields and the editing options allow for great customization. While the game doesn’t ship with a lot of scenarios, we should see (and already do) new, varied maps soon. The gameplay of Advanced Tactics is a lot like The Operational Art of War, but a lot easier to handle. I prefer the varied scale of Advanced Tactics to the larger, fixed battles of The Operational Art of War and the Decisive Battles series; since I gave both of those games 7/8, that means Advanced Tactics gets the rare and highly-coveted (sure it is!) 8/8. My issues with the game are so minor (essentially just the turn resolution length) that I don't feel at all hesitant giving out a perfect score. Advanced Tactics gives the player the freedom to play his (or her…yeah, right) way in a streamlined model and it is a highly recommended title for strategy fans. You can have huge battles reminiscient of The Operational Art of War and you can have small skirmishes involving a handful of units: Advanced Tactics allows for both ends of the spectrum. This highly addictive wargame is an absolute bargain at $40 and Advanced Tactics should be a part of any strategy gamer's collection.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Death to Spies Review

Death to Spies, developed by Haggard Games and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: A variety of stealthy activities, realistic presentation, decent AI, nice suite of weaponry, informative if outdated interface
The Not So Good: Very difficult with lots of grouped enemies to avoid, linear map design
What say you? An extremely challenging spy action title for hardcore fans of the genre: 5/8

Spies have quite a dangerous lifestyle. They must move undetected, execute their plan, get out alive, and be best friends with Ben Affleck. Luckily, you can experience the same stealthy thrill without putting your life on the line in the grand world of computer games. Coming to us from glorious Russia is Death to Spies, a reference to the precursor to the KGB that was abbreviated WTF. This title follows in the strong tradition of “move silent and carry a big container of chloroform.” Will this game provide the gritty realism so desired in the genre?

Death to Spies features somewhat outdated graphics with some good and bad features. The character models look OK and some of the terrain is varied and looks good, especially foliage and buildings. The mountain textures and other static ground objects do not impress, however. The animations are a bit stiff and repetitive, but they are lifelike enough. Death to Spies is a very quiet game, with pleasing nature sounds as your only companion during sneaky sequences. Some annoying music comes on when the fighting starts, although this is typcailly right before you die so you don’t have to listen to it long anyway. While Death to Spies won’t amaze anyone with graphical awesomeness, I suppose the game doesn’t look too bad and it’s certainly playable.

Death to Spies features a single-player campaign that includes a basic and uninteresting tutorial. The missions in the campaign are pretty typical for the genre: blowing things up, rescuing compatriots, and assassinating bad guys. Before each mission, you can choose from a wide array of weapons and tools to use. You can carry a lot of items, and an optional backpack can contain even more. You are given one large weapon (a machine gun, rifle, or sniper rifle), one pistol, and one knife (which you can throw). You can also include ammunition or additional knives, plus useful tools like choke cords, chloroform, traps, grenades, picks, and pliers. Death to Spies gives you a good range of choices when it comes to your arsenal, and it allows you to customize how you want to go about achieving the objectives. Using the items is pretty straightforward, although it takes some practice throwing the grenades and lining up sneak attacks. While Death to Spies lacks multiplayer, its absence isn’t missed too much since the campaign will challenge you for a while.

Death to Spies features an old, basic interface that isn’t as slick as the competition. While it does tend to minimize itself on the screen, opening the objectives locks the game and the map is an overlay that takes up the entire screen. The vector map does show some useful information, with enemy sight ranges and whether they will spot you as an enemy if you are disguised. I like binding stance to the mouse wheel, and the other controls are pretty standard for the genre. Most of your actions will be done through (surprise!) the action menu, accomplished by holding “E” and scrolling through your interaction choices. While it is a bit cumbersome at first, it’s better than having a large number of keys to remember. Some of the things you can do include: stunning and strangling enemies, changing clothes, gather weapons, pick a lock, set a trap (on a door or a body), carry a body, set a smoke bomb, and more! Changing clothes is one of the more basic things to do: while it lets you walk past enlisted men with no problems (unless you are doing something suspicious like carrying a sniper rifle), officers will spot you right away no matter what so you have to be a bit more inventive with them.

The AI in Death to Spies is decent and the user is given good feedback through the vector map as to their level of suspicion. Sight ranges are clearly shown once you are close enough, as well as how alert they are to your wrongdoings. This makes playing the game a bit easier, and Death to Spies would be completely impossible without it. AI enemies will become more concerned if they hear sounds like punches, breaking glass, and opening doors, so being covert is the better option. Once an enemy does sight you, they will yell to their friends and anyone within shouting distance will run over to help. This is kind of cool as the information spreads over time instead of instant death. If you do cause an alarm in a populated area, you better load a saved game because it’s pretty much over. The difficulty level of Death to Spies is quite high because it’s realistic; the game plays fair, although you will always be against a heavily armed and superior force in terms of numbers. This means you really have to be careful and Death to Spies does not allow you to shoot your way out of a tough situation. Exacerbating this difficulty is the fact that enemies are usually in groups of two to four, which eliminates the possibility of using most of your attacks. What’s the point of being able to use chloroform and choke cords if the level design doesn’t allow for it? This means that attacks against grouped enemies will most likely be done with a silenced pistol, and you better make three quick head shots in a row or you are done for. After each mission, you are rated on your combat effectiveness, aggression, noise, professionalism, and precision, although as I mentioned your methods are limited by the mission design. The issues I mentioned were on normal difficulty settings; you can imagine how “fun” expert difficulty is. Because of the extreme difficulty, Death to Spies will ultimately just appeal to veteran fans of the genre.

Death to Spies has nice core gameplay, but the game is way too tough for general audiences. This problem is pretty easy to fix: remove some of the grouped enemies. While this would reduce the level of realism that Death to Spies is trying to achieve, it would make the title much more playable. The generally linear level design makes you go down one set path, although you are given a bit of freedom regarding which way to approach the objectives once you are close. I like the ability to customize your loadout before each mission, and the vector map that displays the AI’s concern and sigh ranges is a welcome feature. Sadly, all of the spy-like things you could potentially do during gameplay are severely limited by the high enemy count. Sure, it’s realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. Still, I think people who are familiar with this genre and really like these kinds of games will have fun with Death to Spies, because they will be able to handle the severe difficulty.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fury Review

Fury, developed by Auran and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Fast paced action-oriented gameplay, balancing spells and items is interesting, generally easy to find matches, good loot system, optional monthly fee
The Not So Good: NPCs are not readily accessible, abrupt tutorial, long load times, can have unbalanced games, repetitive and frustrating hyperactive combat
What say you? A first person shooter disguised as a role-playing game: 5/8

With the ever-increasing battle for gamers’ wallets, developers have been coming up with title that put new users quickly into the action, eliminating a lot of the time-consuming minutiae. We’ve seen this done well in World in Conflict, which removed base building and resource collection to produce a faster-paced real time strategy game. Another notoriously drawn-out genre is the role-playing game, typically featuring lots of grinding against low-level foes to increase your level so you can grind against high-level foes and increase your level. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Well, Fury is an action-focused RPG, taking more of a first person shooter approach to the action and removing all those monsters with pure person vs. person combat. Will this streamlining produce a better game?

Fury is one of those Unreal engine games, and the graphics look generally decent for a role-playing game. Fury doesn’t have an extensive world, since most of the game occurs in a handful of maps and the common areas, but these locations do look good with some decent detail, from the overall architecture to texturing. The game comes with “high level” and “low level” rendering options, which basically turn down the pixel shaders for older video cards. The characters models are decent, and the spell effects are what you would expect for a role-playing game. The mouse-driven interface is typical; it can be difficult to select enemy units sometimes and health bars are not present to determine who the best target is. Also, load times for Fury are very long, even for recently-visited or small arenas, and the audio stutters a lot during and just after loading. Still, the graphics of Fury fall right in line with what you would expect for a modern third-person RPG and the game maintains a good level of quality. The audio is also very representative of a role-playing game: spell effects, voice acting, and background music are all generic though well-done. Nobody will be disappointed with the presentation of Fury, as the game exhibits the level of quality you would expect in a game such as this.

Fury is an online-only, person vs. person (or, as the cool kids say, PvP) role-playing game. Once you purchase the game you can play for free, although you can choose to play an extra $10 a month (cheaper if you pay for more time at once) to enjoy some extras. What are those extras, you say? “Immortal” players get faster transportation, a better chance of getting loot, priority queuing for matches, ladder events, and beta access. If you play the game a lot, I could see this being almost worth it, but the advantages are not overpowering so non-subscription players will not be at a great difficulty. Fury features a short tutorial that teaches the basics of the interface, but you really need to read the manual to understand everything as the game leaves a lot unexplained. When you start, you can choose from one of eight archetypes (classes). They are not as varied as you would think: there is a ranged spell-caster (called “spiritual”) and a close-combat specialist (“physical”) in each of the four schools of magic (life, death, growth, and decay). The spells obviously change between each of the schools, so there is some change in whether someone is offensive or defensive. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t make this terribly clear until after you’ve chosen your archetype, but you can change it later if you’ve made a wrong choice.

After you are finished with the tutorial, you’ll start out in the neutral sanctuary, populated with hordes of non-playable characters (or, as the cool kids say, NPCs). The sanctuary is generally divided up into each school and NPCs serve as quest givers, traders, and faction leaders that can unlock special items if you bribe them enough. The quests in Fury (called “trials”) are actually stat goals you must reach through combat to unlock more spells. You proceed down the line, talking to more NPCs and getting more and more advanced tools to kill things. Other NPCs offer weapons, spells, or random crafted objects. You can spend a nominal fee to have someone create an item for you; generally, it’s better to make it a low-level item since it’s cheaper, uses less inventory room, and you’ll generally get the same random stats anyway. The NPCs are needlessly spread out, wasting a lot of time walking around instead of fighting (isn’t that what the box advertises the game avoids?). You could have accomplished the same thing in a menu system. Also, having trials for an archetype split over many, many NPCs is silly; why can’t the same guy give me missions no matter what level I am on? Now I have to remember which person I am “on” in order to advance. For a game that supposedly streamlines the gameplay and throws you right into the action, the unnecessarily high NPC population and the requirement of long walking distances are strange design choices.

There are three game types in Fury: deathmatch (called “bloodbath”), capture the flag (“vortex”), and last man standing (“elimination”). All of these modes have been present in first person shooters for quite a while, but they may be new for the role-playing genre. Really, Fury plays a lot like a first person shooter, except guns have been replaced with spells. Joining a match is straightforward: find one of the seemingly hundreds of NPCs for the match type you’d like, and you are placed in a queue, given teammates and similarly-skilled opponents, and off you go. I’ve found that it generally takes less than two minutes to join a match, during which time you can tweak your inventory or run around like an idiot. Bloodbaths are organized on-the-hour only (to maximize the number of players), so there is some waiting involved if you prefer free-for-all action. Since there aren’t a high number of players yet, you can run into terribly imbalanced matches where veteran, high-level players have been put into the match to fill out the contest. These obviously aren’t as fun; although high-level players aren’t at a great advantage in terms of equipment, coordinated high-level players can wipe the floor with you. As you can imagine, this is not very fun and it will probably turn away some new players. Hopefully a steady stream of new players will keep low-level contests more balanced. You can coordinate with your group using VoIP, an increasingly common feature in team-based games. You are placed in groups so you can play with the same people for multiple games in a row. While this is a nice feature, it does tend to lead to some really organized players dominating matches and the games can be less fun for more casual participants.

Fury’s interface takes some getting used to, although this may be due to the fact that I don’t play very many third-person role-playing games (or many RPGs period). Movement is done with our good friend WASD, and the spells can be activated by clicking on their icon or pressing the appropriate numbered key (the specific key can be set by the user). Camera movement and character movement can be independent of each other; this can get confusing but it allows you to look around without actually turning around. All of your spells are part of one of four elements: fire, water, nature, and air. Each time you use a basic spell, it produces “charges” that can be used to fuel a more powerful spell of the same element. However, fire and water (and nature and air) are opposed, so you want to use either all fire or all water spells to maximize your offense. The effects can range from a general decrease in health to long-term benefits or detriments like damage absorption, immunity, and disarmament. There are a lot of interesting choices to be made during battle regarding which spells to use and when to use them to maximize their effectiveness. The gameplay is very fast paced and there is a lot going on with protection spells and curses and whatnot. It’s a lot to keep track of and the first couple of matches will be quite chaotic. Maps can include power-ups like health, buffs, and speed, so further enhance (or complicate, depending on how good you are) the gameplay. Fury does not have a death penalty, and since you will die often, this is a good thing. In general, the game centers on targeting foes susceptible to your spell elements and using low-level spells to allow for large attacks. As with most team-based games, teams that work together, pairing healers, support, and assault characters, will win. Like in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, it's more fun to be on a coordinated team. Clans should have a whale of a time with Fury because of this. Of course, playing pure deathmatch removes the team element so you can enjoy the game without being part of an organized clan.

The gameplay of Fury has a lot of similarities with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, as both feature fast-paced team-oriented gameplay. The options for beginners are obviously limited, since you don’t have access to very many spells, so combat for new players is a bit boring because you will spam the same spell over and over. However, the strategies increase dramatically as you level up, and you have to do some balancing thanks to the equipment limit. While there are a lot of spells to choose from during your ascent in the game world, most of them offer insiginificant bonuses so most everyone of the same class will use the same spells. More balancing of the spell system would have resulted in much more interesting gameplay. Every player, regardless of rank, is restricted to 1,000 equipment points. Every item and spell costs a different amount of equipment points, depending on how good it is. This means you must decide which spells and items are most important and useful for your next battle. The equipment limit also means that veteran players won’t be at a severe advantage since they have the same limits you do, although their spells will likely offer more bang for the buck. The games themselves are very, very fast, and probably too fast for most people (especially new players). It’s really hard to keep track of what is going on: most of the time you're just pressing TAB to select a semi-random enemy and clicking on spells until you die. Maybe this is because I’m not that good at this type of game, but it should be more intuitive and less of a contest of who can press buttons more quickly. After each battle, you are allowed to bid (using dice rolls) on a list of items depending on your performance. Earned goods are delivered to a mailbox after a period of time; you need to search for one periodically in order to receive your goods (another tedious and unnecessary task). Over time, you will gain rank and earn points to complete the quests to unlock better spells. People who haven’t played for a while aren’t at a great disadvantage, as Fury offers a cash bonus for rested avatars.

Fury takes a unique stance in the role-playing genre, and the idea would work well in theory. The basic gameplay has a fast pace and the exclusive PvP action reduces a lot of the grinding present in other RPGs. Joining matches is pretty easy and the game attempts to match people of equal skill levels, although you might encounter unbalanced matches if the server is unpopulated. There is a ton of stuff to earn with a large range of attributes that allows users to tailor their characters to specialize in different areas, and the equipment limit brings about some tough decisions on what to take into battle. The trials give you short term goals to achieve and advance in rank. The games themselves can be enjoyable if you are part of an organized team. However, the time between battles is spent walking around talking to NPCs that are too far away. Sure, it’s realistic, but I would much rather interact with merchants in a drop-down menu than spend my time walking instead of fighting. It’s annoying to have to waste precious smashing time searching for a belt crafter. If Fury would have incorporated the system present in Space Trader, where you can access everybody from one screen, then trading would be much more streamlined and ultimately enjoyable. Still, not much time is spent outside of battles so the level of annoyance isn’t as bad as it could be. The battles can be a bit messy for new players and I felt like I was simply pressing buttons most of the game as enemies flew around the screen, but I think more time spent with the product would reduce this level of helplessness somewhat. If you’re looking for an action-packed RPG and you can ignore some questionable design decisions, then Fury might be right for you: it is easy to get in to, provides speedy gameplay, and incorporates a large array of available strategies.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Armada Tanks Review

Armada Tanks, developed and published by Enkord.
The Good: Simple mouse or keyboard controls, purchasable upgrades that beget different strategies, nice graphics and an informative interface, fast pace
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, does get repetitive
What say you? A 2-D tank game whose fast pace and constant action makes for some fun arcade gaming: 6/8

The gaming system of my youth was the Atari 2600, and it shipped with a tank game called Combat. The game features squares in a square maze shooting squares at each other. But it was pretty fun. Hoping to capture that simplified enjoyment is Armada Tanks, a single player action game where you blow up enemy tanks in a maze. That’s all I have for an introduction, so let’s move on with the review!

Armada Tanks features some nice cell-shaded 3-D graphics that are easy on the eyes. Each of the distinct environments are rendered well, the tank models look good, and some of the effects are pleasing. The clean graphics might not have any fancy shading or power-hungry effects, but Armada Tanks does look good. The simple but catchy music and sound accompanies the less-is-more graphics to produce a pleasing package overall. That’s all I have for the graphics and the sound, so let’s move on with the review!

Armada Tanks is a single-player only game where you must shoot and destroy enemy units, usually tanks but sometimes bunkers. You may also be required to defend a base or collect boxes along the way, but in general you’ll be shooting stuff. While Armada Tanks does feature a good number of levels, each of which is designed well with different strategies in each, the game lacks multiplayer so that reduces the replay value dramatically. Games are always more fun against human opposition, so it’s disappointing that Armada Tanks is limited as a single player affair. The game has you destroying a specified number of enemy units before advancing to the next level; each level comes with destructible walls that can be removed for strategic purposes. Armada Tanks has a nice control scheme using the mouse (the keyboard is available but not recommended): the mouse cursor can be placed anywhere on the map and the left mouse button fires in that direction (very easy to track moving enemy targets) and the right mouse button moves to that location. In addition, the path your tank will take is displayed on the map, so there are never any curious pathfinding issues.

While you are laying waste to the various enemies on the map, boxes can be dropped (by destroying indicated enemies) that contain health, invincibility, bombs, and other goodies. You are occasionally given an ally to help with the fight; they are competent assistants, although they keep stealing all the power-ups. The action can get pretty hectic when a number of enemies are present on the map at once. The levels go by quickly, so you are never grinding on the same map; this helps reduce the monotony of the game design. Each level and mission is essentially the same, so it’s good that individual battles are short. Armada Tanks does allow the user to purchase upgrades to their tank. These include stat upgrades, like armor, movement speed, reload time, projectile speed, and damage, and new weapons. I like the design of the weapons in Armada Tanks, as each of them uses a different strategy. The lightning is like a sniper rifle, while the rockets cause area damage and can be used against clustered tanks. Giving the user choices in their upgrades is a good way to tailor to different strategies in the long term: creating a quick sniper tank or a stout, powerful one is up to the user. The workshop upgrades are greatly appreciated and they elevate Armada Tanks past a simple action game.

Despite the relative short length of this review, I did like Armada Tanks. The mouse control scheme is very polished, the graphics are nice, the action can be intense, and the upgrades allow for user customization. Sure, each level is essentially the same as the last, but Armada Tanks does offer some nice designs that allow for different plans of attack. Armada Tanks kept me entertained for a while, but I do wish multiplayer was included to allow for even more value at its budget price. Those looking for a slick action game won’t be disappointed by what Armada Tanks offers.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Galactic Dream: Rage of War Review

Galactic Dream: Rage of War, developed and published by Evolution Vault.
The Good: Straightforward once you learn the mechanics, random maps, sense of humor, huge battles and quick build-up
The Not So Good: Antiquated user interface, hard to see units, extremely linear building requirements, drawn out dialogue that must be manually advanced, ships must stop in order to fire, very difficult
What say you? This by-the-numbers real time strategy game has a fast pace and big fights, but it is somewhat hindered by a steep learning curve, high difficulty, lackluster features, and a bland presentation: 5/8

Small developers have a tough time making good games. Throw in limited budgets and small teams with limited feedback and you usually have a recipe for disaster. Take for example Galactic Dream: Rage of War, a game I’ve been aware of since late 2005 when I first contacted the developers about a review copy. Fast-forward two years and the game has finally been released, and I received a copy of the first retail release of the game in September. The game was very rough around the edges and it was missing a lot of common features, so I let the developers know this and they actually listened to my feedback and made a number of improvements in 1.01. Apparently my opinion matters, or something. Anyway, the game appears to be in reviewable form now, so let’s get to it!

The graphics of Galactic Dream are a bit behind the times. The game is rendered in 3-D and features some nice looking space backgrounds, but the buildings and units are generic metallic models. It can sometimes be hard to see units on top of buildings, because of size and the fact that they have the same colored textures. I’ve “lost” countless builder units because they chose to hide next to a newly constructed building. The larger units have a lot of flashing lights and boxing a large number of units will select the military units, so they problem only really happens with constructors. The units really need a static icon near them to make them easier to spot. You can zoom out to see more of the battlefield and the minimap does a good job showing friendly and scouted enemy units; for some reason, clicking on the minimap will reset your zoom level, which can be a bit disorienting. The sound is OK, with repetitive (but humorous) voice commands and a variety of annoying to not-as-annoying music. There isn’t any voiced dialogue in the campaign, though, which requires a lot more reading than I want to do. So while Galactic Dream features a good presentation for an independent title, it can’t obviously compete with the big boys in terms of quality.

Galactic Dream is a standard real time strategy game with resource collection, base building, and pure destruction. The game features a single player campaign with varying objectives, from simple “kill all enemies” to timed defenses to escort missions. The amount of variety is appreciated and it increases the replay value somewhat. The campaign is driven by dialogue, but unfortunately it is not voiced and only appears in annoying pop-up windows that are manually advanced. Well, to be truthful, they do advance on their own, but I was never patient enough to wait; I guess I am a fast reader. The story isn’t very interesting and the dialogue seems very extraneous and unnecessary; it would have been much better to have some voiced lines to lend some authenticity to the story. There are multiplayer skirmish battles available and Galactic Dream features an in-game browser to easily find matches; I wasn’t able to test online performance because I never found any opponents to play against. The objectives in multiplayer matches are all the same: eliminate all enemy forces and buildings. This can make for some drawn-out battles and isn’t very innovative. The two races in Galactic Dream are identical except for different ship names and some small, generally insignificant changes. Multiplayer matches do take place on random maps, but since all of the maps consist of simple asteroid fields, this isn’t that impressive of a feature. Galactic Dream does not offer anything innovative in the features department, but at least it offers some skirmish battles to let the action last a bit longer beyond the campaign.

The user interface has been improved since I last saw it, but it’s still tough to get pertinent information in a timely manner. There is a lag after you select units to when their information appears on the screen. While the minimap (now) shows important objective locations, these are not accompanied by a short briefing text on what you are supposed to do; accessing the log and reading through the drawn-out dialogue is the only way to jog your memory. Galactic Dream also doesn’t zoom out as far as I’d like, although I may be spoiled by the bird’s eye view offered in games like Sins of a Solar Empire and Supreme Commander. Resource collection in the game is very straightforward: build a mining base, build some workers, and they will automatically gather and deposit resources, bringing in fat stacks of cash. You will also need to build housing to increase your population cap (called “supplies” in the game). Workers can also be used to construct any of the game’s buildings; they are placed at the worker’s current location and can be placed anywhere on the map, which makes hunting down the few enemy units at the end of the game a chore in multiplayer matches. There is a very linear technology tree present in Galactic Dream: one building is required for another, and that building is required for another. This doesn’t allow the user to customize their attacks, focusing on, say, defensive structures, since you have to build everything in a set order to access higher-level units of any type. While this makes for some boring and repetitive gameplay, this does cause the game to be easy to learn since the build order in every game is exactly the same. Most of the buildings in the game either produce units or unlock units for production, and there are a few defensive turrets available as well. Unit-producing buildings can queue five units at a time; once you get your economy rolling, this is far too few and an infinite queue where a single unit could be produced automatically would be greatly appreciated. Units run the gamut from small fighters to hulking battleships, and they generally get better as you advance up the building list.

I’m no slouch in strategy games (I review enough of them), but Galactic Dream is very, very difficult. While you can set different AI skill levels in skirmish games, this doesn’t seem to do any good as even the easier setting offers quite a challenge. The campaign is also set at a default difficulty level, and I had quite a time with the first non-tutorial mission (and even ran into some trouble in the tutorials!); luckily, you can now save the game mid-mission, which reduces the annoyance level somewhat. The generic gameplay of Galactic Dream doesn’t help replay value, since you will use one of two strategies: rush early or advance to the high level buildings. It seems that the latter strategy is preferred from the games that I have played. The general mechanics of Galactic Dream is classic RTS, featuring large quantities of units and massive battles. There are some strange happenings in the gameplay, however. First, none of the ships in the game can fire on the move. I’ve never known any type of ship that had to stop in order to fire; imagine an F-14 stopping to launch a missile! You also need to make sure to issue an attack move to make sure your units stop along the way and engage enemy ships. Shouldn’t all moves be an attack move, or at least an attack move by default? I know if I saw an enemy unit I would fire on them. Galactic Dream: Rage of War doesn’t offer anything innovative to the genre, but it is, at its core, a decent strategy game. I had fun for moments of time, at least before the tough AI destroyed all of my ships. I will say that the developers have shown a willingness to improve the game, which bodes well for the future of Galactic Dream. Based on my initial feedback I alluded to earlier, changes or enhancements were made to the minimap, AI, resource collection, screen resolution, rally points, and mid-mission saves. So it appears that Galactic Dream is not one of those games where it is released and the developers throw away the key: a good sign for longevity.

Galactic Dream: Rage of War is a game that’s arrived about ten years too late. While the gameplay might have been remarkable around the time of Red Alert 2, now it just feels archaic in comparison to recent strategy offerings. The basic gameplay isn’t necessarily bad, but Galactic Dream doesn’t offer anything new to the genre. The completely linear technology tree, less than stellar interface, lack of campaign voice acting, and stop-to-fire requirement all add up to a pretty generic game. The high difficulty will turn away some players, and the lack of strategic variety will turn away some more. Galactic Dream seems intended for novice players, based on the simplified technology tree, but the high difficulty makes me think otherwise. It is promising that the developers improve the game based on user feedback, so maybe Galactic Dream: Rage of War will have an extended lifespan. Galactic Dream does offer up some old-school real-time strategy gaming, but old-school is just old fashioned these days.