Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tasty Planet Review

Tasty Planet, developed and published by Dingo Games.
The Good: Simple controls and objectives, a number of different environments, good audio, a lot of levels that gradually increase in scale, grey goo is cute
The Not So Good: Highly repetitive with one-dimensional gameplay, uninspired 2-D graphics, game progresses very slowly
What say you? Once the novelty wears off, there isn’t anything new in this Katamari Damacy clone: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Not surprisingly, the success of a computer game will result in many imitations and duplications. After the first World War II first person shooter, there were a ton of World War II first person shooters. After the first successful World War II real time strategy game, there were a ton of World War II real time strategy games. You get the idea. It’s taken a while, but we’re now starting to see games similar to the console hit Katamari Damacy, where you roll a ball and collect common objects, making your ball bigger until you reach the level’s goal size. In Tasty Planet, you start out as a small microbe and gradually eat your way up to devouring the universe. This premise sounds interesting enough, but how does Tasty Planet separate itself?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tasty Planet features 2-D graphics that are not very exciting at all. There is an interesting array of objects to eat, from bacteria to planets, but all of them are seen from the top-down and the game really lacks any flair to make it a distinctive title. Most of the backgrounds, especially early on, are static solid colors, resulting in generally boring environments. The objects themselves aren’t very detailed either. The main character is the best looking thing in the game, with the exception of some of the later levels. Although the graphics of Tasty Planet are quite disappointing, I really like the audio. First, the selection of “elevator music” in the game is quite interesting and it strangely fits the game well. The grey good is also very funny: I crack a smile every time I hear it comment “yummy!” after eating a juicy object. Good times.

ET AL.
As I alluded to in the introduction, Tasty Planet involves guiding an ever-growing pile of goo. Each level in the game involves eating different sized objects, progressing from very small bacteria to very large galaxies. You have a fixed amount of time in each level to attain a certain size, which is pretty easy to do as long as you keep eating. You will grow in several states in a single level, which allows you to eat progressively larger objects that were “locked” at the beginning. Controls are very simple: you use the mouse or keyboard to move. That’s it. Obviously, this makes the game very repetitive, as all you’re doing is moving the mouse for two minutes at a time over almost everything in sight. There are some objects that will damage you if you touch them until you are big enough to eat them, however, but this is the only real skill required in playing the game. Tasty Planet is just not that exciting to play. The only real draw is to see what you’re going to eat next, and this novelty wears off rather quickly. Sure, you’re curious at to what the next levels have in store, but is this curiosity enough to warrant moving the mouse around for minutes at a time? Although there are a lot of environments to eat, the game progresses very slowly through them. Of course, the game would be over in about half an hour if this was not the case, but I would like to access all of the levels from the beginning without having to resort to cheating. Tasty Planet features three modes of play which change the difficulty and time limits imposed on the player.

IN CLOSING
If this was the first game of its type, Tasty Planet would get a much higher score, but the game is a one-trick pony. I was really rooting for Tasty Planet, as it is an interesting concept, but it’s frankly not that fun to play after the first couple of levels. I don’t want to spend my time playing a tedious game, and that’s what Tasty Planet becomes due to its over-simplified controls. Katamari Damacy at least required some skill in maneuvering the ball and offered some special moves, but the gameplay of the first level in Tasty Planet is the same as the gameplay of the last level: move the mouse. The intrigue from gradually increasing in size and eating different objects is not enough to maintain interest in the game, especially when you realize that all of the objects are essentially the same. Young children would probably enjoy this game and they would be able to master it with its simple controls, but more mature audiences will be deterred by the monotony. In the end, Tasty Planet is worth about five minutes of entertainment; its lack of any innovations and repetitive gameplay means that most everyone can skip this Tasty Planet and not feel the least bit hungry.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

SpaceStationSim Review

SpaceStationSim, developed by Vision Videogames and published by Enlight Software.
The Good: Accurate components, intuitive solutions to problems, helpful audio and visual warnings, mostly flexible station design, generally self-sufficient astronauts, challenging
The Not So Good: Accessing different areas of the game could be easier, more tooltips on crew attributes needed, tourists are annoying!
What say you? A quality simulation that has just enough to do to keep you busy: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The area of real-world science that gets the most attention is space exploration. Rockets to the moon, probing Uranus, astronauts wearing diapers: it’s all very exciting. Most space games go for the futuristic tilt of intergalactic warfare, so there is an opening for contemporary space simulations. This leads us to SpaceStationSim, a sim where you build a station in space, more specifically the International Space Station of Doom (doom sold separately). The game gives you a chance of managing this multi-billion dollar operation, because you can do a much better job than rocket scientists, right? The game box claims “Newtons of fun!” (I’m hoping for Fig Newtons of fun, myself). Does SpaceStationSim deliver its precious payload of delight?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of SpaceStationSim are pleasing. The space station itself is pretty detailed; I imagine that the developers got a hold of some blueprints or pictures of the real life counterparts, and the station looks like a realistic replica. The components fit together fairly well and the results of the freeform game look realistic. The level of detail is also well-done, at least for the individual components of the space station. The astronauts don’t have a great variety in their appearance, but they are on par with The Sims 2 in terms of overall quality. There is almost no clipping in the game, which is commendable since a lot of games fall short in this area. The earth could look a lot better, however. The textures are blocky and there aren’t any cool nighttime effects, as your station seems to be bathed in permanent light. I’m sure the developers could “borrow” some textures from Google Earth to make our home look more impressive in the game. SpaceStationSim features decent voice acting and generally good sound effects, although the tourists are annoying (and the “electric shock” effect when they break stuff is irritating as well). SpaceStationSim has some very annoying background music that doesn’t fit the space theme of the game very well at all. You’re just better off disabling it and running some MP3s in the background. Still, SpaceStationSim has above average graphics that shouldn’t disappoint.

ET AL.
In SpaceStationSim, you will build the space station. Surprise! The game has a tutorial mode, which is essentially the game on easy mode with experienced astronauts; it gives you a feel for the game, although reading through the manual and general experimentation is recommended. You will have a suite of astronauts to do your evil bidding. SpaceStationSim is similar to The Sims, in that you create a custom astronaut, assign them tasks, and build their “house,” although SpaceStationSim adds more scientific things to the equation. You can customize your astronaut’s physical characteristics (gender, clothing), personality (work ethic, courage), specialty (biomedical, materials, science, or engineer), and nationality. Each specialty is geared towards running certain experiments or repairing broken equipment, and hiring astronauts of a certain country will increase prestige (“flags”) from that country. You are limited in the number of personality points you have to prevent the creation of a super astronaut. Part of the game will be spend giving orders to astronauts, although they do a pretty good job of fulfilling their own needs and doing needed tasks. The higher their level, the better their decision making will be, so more guidance is required for new astronauts. The AI is good in the game; this greatly cuts down on tedious micromanagement, leaving you to just worry about the biggest problems as routine tasks will be handled automatically. Tasks include fulfilling your astronauts’ basic needs (food, social, potty), occasionally steering the craft, and maintaining appropriate levels of supplies.

There are a bunch of new components and modules you can add to your station, which will allow for a greater range of things to do (and more things to break). Each additional component requires an investment of “flags,” which is a representation of that country’s investment into the production of the component. Flags are earned by completing experiments (it is a science vessel, after all) and maintaining a positive environment on the station. Each of the game’s objects are housed in a module: habitation modules are for living, science modules are for research, support modules are for expanding your station, structural modules are for power, and special modules are special! You must have the required number of flags, an available connection point, enough power, and a rocket to deliver it before you can order an additional module. Inside each module are components, which help with the atmosphere, entertainment, communications, food, storage, health, water, or provide additional experiments. There is an almost endless combination of objects in the game, and SpaceStationSim gives you the freedom to construct your station in any arrangement, as long as you have the open slots. You will be primarily driven by your astronauts’ and station’s needs. For example, if the carbon dioxide levels are too high, it’s time to purchase and install a CO2 scrubber. If your astronauts are complaining about being bored, installing a DVD player might solve the problem. Since the goal of the game is to accumulate flags, you will also want to install more experimental components. SpaceStationSim generally does a good job indicating which areas need improvement, although you need to remember what the symbols mean, as the game is devoid of many helpful tool-tips. This extends to the astronaut stats as well: I had to look up what each set of colored bars meant multiple times, as the game just wouldn’t tell me if I hovered my mouse over it. The user interface could use some work as well: SpaceStationSim divides all of the information over several screens, instead of just sticking on the main view. You have to “go back” to Mission Control to order additional parts or supplies, and this requires multiple presses of backspace. SpaceStationSim is a well designed game, the user interface just could be more friendly.

IN CLOSING
As far as simulations go, SpaceStationSim is one of the better ones. The game takes the basic structure of The Sims and applies it to scientific research in space, allowing you to custom build an entire space station using realistic components and to hire user-created astronauts. The graphics are good enough, and the gameplay uses just enough automation to eliminate tedium. There is actually more variety here than in The Sims (at least before the 2,531 expansion packs). Plus, the game can be quite challenging, as bad conditions can deteriorate rather quickly if left unaided. The game lets you know of impending doom, although the user interface could be better. If you’ve ever dreamed of building your own space station like Billy Bob Thornton but just lack the start-up capital, SpaceStationSim is an entertaining substitute.

Friday, February 23, 2007

CaveDays Review

CaveDays, developed and published by Insolita Studios.
The Good: Variety of goals reduces monotony, same map can have multiple challenges, simple controls, not too short
The Not So Good: No level editor, won’t charm a large audience
What say you? A few new ideas are added in a title that will appeal to true fans of platform games: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Not much is known about prehistoric man. We have a nearly complete skeleton of a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis that was discovered in 1973. We have skulls of Homo erectus. Much of the information surrounding these versions of early man are inferences based off fossil evidence. One thing we do know for sure is that dinosaurs and man did not coexist, as dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years before man even appeared (mammals of the time were no larger than a modern cat). So here comes CaveDays, a platform game where humans and dinosaurs co-exist. Sigh. Well, hopefully the gameplay will be decent enough to compensate for the grave historical errors. How will CaveDays improve upon the strong pedigree of the platform genre?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of CaveDays are entirely in 2-D, so the game brings back strong memories of a certain platform game featuring a certain Italian stereotype. CaveDays isn’t the most detailed game in the world: while the character models are fine, the backgrounds could use some work. As it stands, the backgrounds are far too static to convey a realistic (or semi-realistic) prehistoric environment. The levels and effects are simplistic, which could be forgiven if the game came with a level editor (which it does not). The game does do a good job in showing which pits result in death and which ones access another map area with a yellow skull-and-crossbones. The in-game movies actually look worse than the game itself: this is a very odd achievement. In most games, the movies are the best part of the game graphically speaking, or at the very least the equal of the in-game graphics. But CaveDays features low-resolution, poorly animated movies (promoted as being “retro,” but I don’t buy it), which thankfully can be skipped. The audio of CaveDays fares better, as the game includes an appropriate soundtrack and enough grunts and groans to fit your needs. Since the cavemen converse in the game as cavemen, it does not make lacking region-specific dialogue a problem, since all of the grunting is accompanied by subtitles. Of course, the graphics and the sound are just a small part of a platform game, so the below average graphics aren’t that big of a problem.

ET AL.
CaveDays features a lot of the standard platform mechanics: jumping, avoiding enemies, and finding things. However, the game adds a couple of things to the basic formula. In each stage of the game, you have a specific goal you must meet. In linear stages, all you have to do it reach the end of the stage, like a classic platform game. However, the exploration stages is where CaveDays differentiates itself from the pack. Here, you are given multiple objectives (one at a time) for a single level. You may need to search for a specific object, challenge someone to a race, or collect dinosaurs for food, among other things. This makes CaveDays far more interesting than a standard platform game where you just go from point A to point B. Successfully completing one of the goals in an exploration level (or navigating a linear level) will earn gems, which unlock more stages. Because each of the game’s exploration levels are used more than once, the game lasts longer than you would think. It may become repetitive to go over the same level five or six times, but since your goals are different, it seems like a different level each time you play. The level design is also well-done: I was never confused as to what to do and I rarely got lost. Also, there are enough exploration stages to maintain interest in the game, but not too many to make the experience drag along. I would like to see a level editor in the game, however, as the levels are simple enough to allow for one.

CaveDays also changes up the control scheme slightly, giving more options to the player as they navigate each level. Besides moving left and right and jumping, you can attack enemies with your club and collect objects. Some of the levels involve collecting dinosaurs or fruit, and these are stored in your backpack, which can carry up to three items. You will also need to move stones around occasionally to access the next area of the level, although thankfully this tedious activity is not a focus of the game. CaveDays also lets you adjust your aim and power when you throw things, making it possible to hurl rocks at dangerous enemies that are a stone’s throw away. And there are a good number of enemies in the game, mostly dinosaurs, and they exhibit the average platform AI of generally fixed movement. The game is challenging enough, but not overly challenging, so people of multiple skill levels should be able to have fun playing CaveDays.

IN CLOSING
Although I am not the biggest fan of platform games, I can see that much effort was made in CaveDays to make it unique and mix up the gameplay. The developers could have just dressed Mario in leopard skin, but there are a number of enhancements made to the genre here, and for that CaveDays should be commended. The addition of the exploration levels gives more interesting objectives than just the simple “reach the end” goal. Also, you are given more options in dispatching your enemies with clubs and rocks, although it took me a couple of levels to learn not to jump on the dinosaurs to try to kill them. The level design is satisfactory, and while the graphics and sound are not cutting-edge, people who really enjoy platform game will find a lot to like in the varied gameplay of CaveDays. The game won’t convert any new people over to the genre, but CaveDays features some enjoyable gameplay and changes the action far more often than most platform games.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 Review

Total Extreme Wrestling 2007, developed and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Exceedingly comprehensive wrestling promotion simulation with the ability to customize and adjust almost everything
The Not So Good: Cumbersome user interface will discourage casual players
What say you? If you’ve ever wanted to run a wrestling promotion, this is as close as you’re going to get: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Chances are, you won’t get a chance to run your own sport. While aspiring to be an owner of a football team is an admirable life goal, the probability of that happening is slim to none. Luckily for you, there are sports management games that let you control a team or sport of your choice for a much smaller investment than running a real franchise. In Total Extreme Wrestling 2007, you manage (surprise!) a wrestling company in a fictional wrestling world. This is the same world that was present in Wrestling Spirit 2, so those familiar with that game will see familiar promotions and wrestlers. I did not particularly care for Wrestling Spirit 2 (due to the dull matches), but the number of options in the title was outstanding. This amount of detail, it would seem, would lend itself better to managing an entire promotion rather than an individual wrestler. Let’s see if this proves to be true.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Being a text-based simulation, Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 features text and menus. The game is certainly not the best looking text simulation, but those familiar with the series will be able to navigate the game well. The game does have an rendered portrait for each wrester and logos for all of the promotions, but this is really the limit of graphical flair in the game. The main problem with Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 is the user interface: it is extremely difficult to find specific data and execute certain actions. The game uses overlying windows, which makes navigating between different open windows (like booking a match and the roster of wrestlers) impossible. I would much rather have the game divided up into several sections and always display a sortable roster, as this is your main concern. A lot of the data can be accessed multiple ways, but it takes a while to learn how to get to everything you need to open in the game. I think the user interface needs to be modernized and changed for the next release of the game, as Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 is not too inviting for management simulation novices. As for the sound, there is a song in the opening menu and that’s it. Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 is becoming outdated in its user interface and sound, even for a text-based simulation.

ET AL.
While the graphics and sound aren’t that great, the rest of the game is very detailed, almost overwhelmingly so. To start, you’ll need to develop a character to either be the primary booker or the owner of a company and set your initial stats, which are important if you’d like to be a owner and wrestler. You can set all sorts of ratings and you aren’t limited in your choices, so you can make yourself be an unrealistically good (or bad) wrestler. Thankfully, all of the over 1,000 wrestlers in the game have already been coded, so unless you are completely insane, you don’t have to set or change their ratings. There are a good number of promotions to choose from, ranging from small regional operations to large national tours. Unless you choose free play, you’ll be given realistic goals by the owner to achieve in the upcoming year. Your time will be divided between managing and hiring wrestlers, coming up with cards for events, and all of the other ancillary things that come with running a promotion. First, you’ll need to set the style of your promotion, such as “old school,” Lucha Libre, sports entertainment, or others. Each setting will determine the kinds of matches and wrestlers your fans will expect and demand. The size of your promotion is determined primarily by its popularity, as certain regional operations will never become popular in other parts of the country. You can also schedule how often events are held and whether they are on TV or pay-per-view.

About half of your time will be spent managing wrestlers (the other half coming up with event schedules). Each wrestler on your roster is assigned a push (main event to opening) and a turn (good (face) or bad (heel)). You can also allocate a manager (good for storylines) and a gimmick: Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 includes pretty much every gimmick ever used. Playing to your wrestler’s strengths is important in setting all of these options. The game can suggest appropriate settings for pushes, which makes starting a new promotion less of a guessing game. Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 also comes with all of the extras you need to run an interesting promotion: brand splits, titles, teams, stables, and storylines. Creating storylines is very important in making the fans interested in your matches. Naturally, you’ll want to periodically add wrestlers from other promotions (or free agents) in order to improve your roster. Since there are over 1,000 wrestlers in the game that exist all over the world, Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 lets you filter results according to regional popularity, availability, and ratings in each of the game’s areas. The filters reset after you exit that particular screen, which tends to annoy. You will also want to show your product on TV and on pay-per-views; all of the contracts can be set and negotiated in order to rake in the money. An interesting addition is the Internet, where you can go and read what happened in the wrestling world the previous night. This is a cool feature than lends an air of realism to your promotion.

After spending all of that time promoting your company, adjusting the roster, setting pushes and turns, it’s time for some wrestling. You will need to balance your schedule between angles and matches; more sports entertainment oriented promotion will spend more time on angles, while more classic promotions will emphasize matches. Depending on the length of your show, you will have a set amount of time in which to book all of your matches. All of the matches are automatically resolved with no special graphics or videos to watch, but I didn’t really mind this. Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 features a treasure trove of match types, from hardcore to tables to cage to submission. Select some wrestlers (hopefully ones that are compatible with ongoing storylines and each other), the match length, the referee, and the results (and causes) you desire. The different angles you can present during the show are numerous as well: love triangles, adultery, rescues, taunts, challenges, and plenty of others can be implemented to justify your matches. It’s really impressive the level of detail you can use in the game. Of course, the downside is that it requires some effort to play the game, but Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 isn’t that overwhelming to play, especially if you’re experienced in the genre.

IN CLOSING
While Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 doesn’t have the flashiness or simplicity required for a large audience, people wanting a detailed wrestling promotion simulation game will find lots to enjoy here. The level of detail in the game is fantastic: from the over 1,000 detailed wrestlers (each with their own backstory) to the numerous angles and match types, all of the tools that the big boys use are at your disposal. You can cultivate literally any type of promotion you can think of, in addition to editing any of the stats in the game to reflect real-world conditions. You almost feel like a real promoter, and the satisfaction of watching a well-promoted match turn into a crowd pleaser is very rewarding. The numerous promotions in the game lets you set a difficulty setting of sorts, as smaller, regional operations are easier to handle. The depth of the game will keep interested players going to quite a long time, growing their operation into a successful venture. Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 certainly does not have a pick-up-and-play mentality, but if you are willing to invest some time into it, you’ll find a tremendously deep simulation perfect for fans of the genre.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bookworm Adventures Review

Bookworm Adventures, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Numerous RPG-like weapons and bonuses, multiple modes of play, no time limit lets you think, increasing difficulty with no major penalty for dying, good sense of humor, good graphics and sound for the genre
The Not So Good: Each level lasts about one round too long
What say you? An expanded version of the classic word game offers more extras and surprisingly entertaining gameplay: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the more popular board games is Scrabble. People can’t seem to get enough of making words out of random letters, as organized tournaments have cropped up around the world. And, with a lot of board games, you would imagine that it would make for a good computer game. The Bookworm series has been around for a while, mainly as one of those browser games, but also in a downloadable deluxe form. In Bookworm Adventures, Lex (the book worm, not the Superman villain, although maybe they are related) travels through the worlds of famous books, defeating enemies with his word handling skills. How will the RPG elements of Bookworm Adventures combine with the classic word game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The visuals of Bookworm Adventures are pretty much what you’d expect for a word game, although they are more interesting than previous titles in the series. The game is rendered in 2-D, but the battle area, which depicts Lex and his current foe against a sometimes dynamic background, looks pretty good. The characters are animated enough and the comments they say (through bubbles) are funny most of the time. The game features all of the special graphical effects you would expect for a game such as this. None of the in-game text is voiced (except for the main menu), but the rest of the sound is good enough. I will say that Lex saying “don’t leave me” when you press on quit always makes me a little sad. The effects are fitting to the game and the background music is good as well. Bookworm Adventures is what you would expect for a higher-end word puzzle game, and its polished graphics and sound won’t disappoint.

ET AL.
Like all of the other Bookworm games, Bookworm Adventures involves making words from a set of letters. In this game, you are given 16 letters at a time and must make words from them, like a more robust version of Scrabble. In previous versions, you had to connect letters on a large grid, but the smaller grid and more flexible mechanics fit the game much better. The primary mode of the game involves battling literary foes from three major books. The better your words are, the more damage you cause. You are not limited in the amount of time you have (unless you pick the Arena mode, which is unlocked later in the game), just the amount of words you need to defeat the enemies, as they cause Lex damage each turn as well. During your adventure, you are given an opportunity to play some mini-games to earn extra prizes. These are also unlocked and available from the main menu eventually. The mini-games are a nice departure from the main quest, and include making as many words out of a set of letters, or guessing a five-letter word like the game show Lingo (it always looks easier on TV). Obviously the mini-games don’t stand on their own, but they are a nice addition to the game.

In order to flesh out the game and make it more interesting, Bookworm Adventures introduces a number of RPG-like elements to the game. When you defeat a boss (at the end of each chapter), you will receive an object that will grant some sort of bonus, like increased protection or better attacks for using certain letters. You can only carry three items at a time, you so have to pick which three will give you the best chance of winning. Later in the game, it’s a hard decision to make once you have collected an impressive set of prizes. You will also gain experience points, which will increase your health, attack, or defense. These are really given at fixed intervals, so it’s not as flexible as you might think. Each enemy you encounter usually has some special attacks other than just eliminating your health, such as locking tiles from use or poisoning Lex (to cause constant damage). There can be a bit of strategy involved in combating your current enemy’s strengths, such as saving certain words for the next enemy, but really if you spell long words you’ll do just fine. Spelling longer words will also grant some gem tiles, which will give some sort of secondary attack to your enemy (freezing, fire, poison) if you use them in a word. If you are stuck with a bunch of useless letters, you can scramble and receive a new set, but this costs a turn and gives your enemy a free shot at you. Potions are also available to Lex, which will restore health or cure any lasting attacks.

IN CLOSING
While Bookworm Adventures won’t likely convert new people to word puzzles, it is one of the best (and possibly the best) game in its genre. The extras in the game make Bookworm Adventures feel more complete in addition to adding some interest to the gameplay. I feel much more compelled to play this game than other word games I have encountered. The RPG elements don’t feel tacked on as a cheap selling point: rather, they are an integral part of the game. Most importantly, the game is fun to play if you are interested in word games. Each chapter seems to last about one round too long, however, but this is a minor problem among a large number of successes in the title. The game is initially easy, but it becomes more difficult as you move along, requiring the use of longer words to stay alive. The penalty for dying is not too severe, as you are able to start over at the same chapter. You lose all of your potions, but you can complete any mini-games in the book again, so you can easily earn them back. I can’t imagine any word game surpassing Bookworm Adventures and still stay true to the genre. The combination of effective gameplay, a number of extras, and a decent story makes Bookworm Adventures a perfect game for the wordsmiths of the world.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Galcon Review

Galcon, developed and published by Imitation Pickles.
The Good: Uncomplicated rules and controls, lightning fast pace and very quick games, multiple viable strategies, random maps keep games interesting, easy to make and join multiplayer games
The Not So Good: Fast pace requires quick thinking and swift reflexes, novelty may wear off after a while
What say you? A streamlined approach results in one of the most addictive, and definitely fastest, multiplayer strategy games: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As you can probably tell if you read this site (and who does?), strategy games are my favorite. From Europa Universalis III to Galactic Civilizations II to DEFCON, I love to order troops around and blow stuff up. But a lot of these games take a long time to finish: how are the attention-deficit supposed to fulfill their strategy fix? Galcon has answered the call by featuring complete games that take no more than two or three minutes to finish. Seriously. But does fast mean good?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
So Galcon features completely 2-D graphics. So Galcon ships are triangles. So Galcon only has a handful of sound effects. So what? The game will obviously not win any awards for its presentation, but there is some sort of odd attraction that Galcon puts on you. It’s similar to the minimalist approach seen in DEFCON, where simplicity wins over flash. Galcon looks and sounds like a game that was developed by one person over a long weekend, but that’s OK. Honestly, I’m just as impressed at watching hundreds of little triangles on the map than hundreds of troops moving at five frames per second in Medieval II: Total War. Flashy graphics may work on some people, but not on me, especially if the game doesn’t need flash graphics in order to play correctly. Plus, some of the effects are funny: I think the explosion sound effect was made by someone imitating an explosion sound effect. You won’t find that kind of rawness in big budget games! I don’t mind the minimal graphics and sound of Galcon, as the gameplay more than makes up for those shortcomings.

ET AL.
In Galcon, your objective is to take over the universe by sending enough ships to outnumber your opponent’s ships docked at their planets. There is a tutorial, although the game doesn’t really need one. You select a planet, choose the percentage of ships to send with the mouse wheel, right click to choose a destination, and watch the assimilation begin! You can also box a number of planets and send ships from all of them at once, or select specific planets with the control key. And that’s it. Each planet produces a certain number of ships per minute depending on its size, so the beginning of the game is spent sending out ships to eliminate the native population in nearby (or large) planets. Galcon is like a 4X strategy game, but with only time for two of the Xs. The game proceeds in real time and each game is very quick, especially by strategy standards. You need to make really quick decisions, and the user interface is simple enough to make this possible. Some might say it’s twitchy like a first person shooter, but the game is deeper than that. You need to choose which planets to colonize first, and how to strike a good balance between offense and defense. You need to send more ships than your opponent, but you can’t leave your own worlds undefended. It’s an interesting dynamic that allows for multiple winning strategies, and you need to adapt your gameplay to the style of your opponents. I’ve encountered conservative players and overly-aggressive rushers, and both of these approaches (along with many others) can work against vulnerable opposition. The game features single-player action against the AI, who is a much better opponent than I would have thought. Each scenario utilizes a different AI strategy, so you can learn the type of action you will encounter when you start to take on human opponents. Galcon was made for multiplayer, and joining a game is extremely easy using the game’s matching software (no stinky, buggy Gamespy, thankfully). Since the games are so fast, you can get four or five in a ten-minute period. Teams can be set, which allows for some crazy, fast paced gameplay. Galcon also features Internet rankings to see just how bad you are. I’ve honestly felt exhausted after an extended session, as the game is fast, fast, fast. All of those warnings in game manuals about taking a break every 15 minutes were true after all!

IN CLOSING
Galcon is the epitome of straightforward, speedy strategy gaming. It may lack the depth and staying power of more complicated games, but Galcon works better in small doses anyway. Despite its simplicity, Galcon still features a good number of viable strategies, which is more than what can be said for a lot of games with set build orders and linear paths to victory. Although the graphics and sound are frugal to say the least, you probably won’t even notice as you send 300 triangles after the last enemy planet. The game mechanics are simple and well designed, as I have yet to encounter a stalemate game (a common problem of strategy games). Plus, Galcon works on Linux and Macintosh in addition to Windows. Galcon is fits the two-minute-long-strategy-game title we’ve been clamoring for with its frantic but fulfilling gameplay.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dodge That Anvil! Review

Dodge That Anvil!, developed and published by Rabidlab.
The Good: Good mechanics, great theme, well paced, auto-hop is appreciated, effective combination of 2-D and 3-D graphics
The Not So Good: Repetitive, almost frustratingly difficult on normal settings, no level editor
What say you? A well constructed and executed platform game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If there’s one thing that cartoons have taught us, it’s that anvils are bad news. The weapon of choice in many classic cartoons, the anvil strikes fear in the heart of coyote and roadrunner alike. The anvil epidemic has been ignored for far too long in this country. It’s time to take a stand against our metallic aggressors, and thankfully Dodge That Anvil! has taken the cause head-on (apply directly to the forehead). You are a plucky young rabbit who must brave the torrent of falling anvils in order to collect food for your community. Will you answer the call?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Dodge That Anvil! features an interesting combination of 2-D and 3-D graphics. Like Rise of Nations, the environments are rendered in 3-D, but the characters are in 2-D, superimposed in them. This means that the developers can add more detail to the 2-D characters without having to create full 3-D models, and the result is successful. You don’t really notice the discrepancy during the game, and I would rather have more detailed 2-D models than a messy 3-D model anyway. While the levels are simplistic, it makes them easy to navigate and the graphics never confuse the player. The levels are reminiscent of ones featured in the first 3-D Super Mario Brothers games, and that is quite fine with me. Dodge That Anvil! has good background music that fits the cartoon atmosphere of the game well, along with suitable sound effects (the slightly exaggerated “clang” of a falling anvil is most appropriate). However, none of the story text is voiced, requiring a little bit of reading. This is just one shortcoming in an otherwise solid production, so it can easily be forgiven. Overall, Dodge That Anvil! features graphics and sound that are fitting for the genre and work well in the game.

ET AL.
In Dodge That Anvil!, you must harvest carrots while dodging anvils (and other objects) throughout each of the game’s levels. The game gradually introduces new gameplay components to make your task increasingly difficult. For each map, you have a carrot quota you must meet before exiting the level. Controls are straightforward: the four directional keys plus spacebar to harvest and shift to use objects. Dodge That Anvil! also lets you use a gamepad or the mouse to control the game, although I did not like mouse control at all and I stuck with the keyboard. Your character will automatically hop if you want it to; this works well most of the time, except when you’re near corners and you tend to get trapped or it hops when you don’t want it to. However, the benefits of auto-hop outweigh the drawbacks, so I left it on. Harvesting a carrot takes a certain amount of time, during which anvils may be dropping on your head. You may also have harmless (but eventually exploding) beach balls or crates with equipment rain down from the sky. Other than carrots, other objects may be harvested and used to purchase objects during the game (which are also contained in the crates). Umbrellas let you float and protect you, helmets soften the impact of one object, body armor provides protection from explosions, the stopwatch pauses the game for ten seconds (during which you are allowed to move), and dynamite can destroy rocks. An anvil or beach ball drops from the sky every four seconds or so and a target on the ground shows where it will it. The target location is based on your velocity (speed and direction), so you’ll need to dodge them at the last minute. The game is pretty hectic, as there isn’t much time to rest between drops. There is also a good deal of strategy involved in the game: since larger carrots take longer to harvest, you’ll need to wait for a beach ball before you can attempt to unearth these massive veggies. Since you can’t stop harvesting a carrot once you have started, you’ll commonly be helpless as an anvil squishes your head.

Dodge That Anvil! features the main story mode along with a speed mode and a super secret mode that’s a secret (I don’t want to ruin it!). Even though the game’s levels are fairly straightforward, the game lacks a map editor. At the default “normal” difficulty settings, the game is hard. Dodge That Anvil! seems like it would be very easy to play, but since the anvils drop so often, you’ll spend more time dodging anvils than harvesting carrots, so levels tend to take a long time to complete. Part of this has to do with some lack of precision with the controls: I’ve been killed while being trapped against objects or when the auto-hop hopped (or didn’t hop) when I didn’t want it to. You can continue to play if you lose all five lives, but your overall score resets. You can choose one of the lower difficulty levels to lengthen the amount of time between anvil drops, however, but the game loses some of its hectic energy. I think that Dodge That Anvil! is a well designed game, but I just really stink at it; this tends to make the game slightly less fun to play, but I can still see the merits of the generally solid gameplay.

IN CLOSING
Dodge That Anvil! is a good game. Not a great game, but certainly a good game. The game is easy to learn and control and it’s suitable for all ages. It’s cartoon atmosphere would probably appeal to the youngsters, although some of the more advanced gameplay elements might confuse them. Dodge That Anvil! adds just enough variety in each of the game’s successive levels to maintain interest in the title. And nobody will say that Dodge That Anvil! is too easy: at the default settings, the frequency of anvil drops is high enough to keep you moving and create a frantic pace. The graphics and sound of the game fit the theme very well. Dodge That Anvil! is a respectable platform game, and most likely the best rabbit-anvil simulation ever developed. Of course, it probably the only rabbit-anvil simulation ever developed, but some points must be earned for originality. Fans of these types of games will find a solid addition to the genre in Dodge That Anvil!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Blackwell Legacy Review

The Blackwell Legacy, developed and published by Wadjet Eye Games.
The Good: Fairly interesting storyline, intuitive gameplay, high-quality voice acting, DVD-style commentary by the designer
The Not So Good: Short, seriously outdated graphics
What say you? Despite appearances, it’s one of the better adventure games: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m not a big fan of adventure games. My relationship with them is strained due to the implausible puzzles that are present in a lot of the titles. As I’ve stated before, when a game requires you to grind sea salt on a tombstone to make a building collapse, I tend to lose interest in it rather quickly. But every once in a while, I’m ready to have another try at the genre, and this attempt is in the form of The Blackwell Legacy. In this game, you’re following the circumstances surrounding the mysterious life and death of the main character’s crazy aunt. Will The Blackwell Legacy restore my faith in adventure gaming?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
By far the worst part of The Blackwell Legacy is the graphics. The game looks like it was one of the first non-text adventure games that came out 15 years ago. The game runs at low resolution (640x480) and all of the characters and backgrounds are very blocky and pixilated. Now, the game was developed by one person, so this is really the cause of the issue; some of the lack of quality can be attributed to this, and it’s certainly more excusable than if The Blackwell Legacy was developed by a larger company. I will say that the more I played the game, the less I noticed the poor quality of the graphics as I got more involved in the story. Still, The Blackwell Legacy’s static background and rough character models won’t wow over anyone. Thankfully, the rest of the game is quite good, and this includes the sound. All of the in-game dialogue is voiced: pretty impressive. And the voice acting is fantastic: it easily competes with big budget titles in terms of quality. I was wondering why the install file was so large, considering the frugal graphics, but the quality of the voice acting explains everything. The Blackwell Legacy also features the ability to hear DVD-style commentary by the game designer during play, which is a very unique addition for a PC game. And even though the game has MIDI-like music (usually a sign of really annoying computerized tunes), the music is actually decent. While the graphics are definitely outdated, the voice acting certainly makes up for those shortcomings.

ET AL.
The Blackwell Legacy is rather traditional in its mechanics for an adventure game. Luckily, the game focuses less on insane point-and-click puzzles and more on the storyline and reasonable solutions. Clicking on objects will interact with them, but you won’t spend a lot of time endlessly clicking on things about the map to find what you’re supposed to find. Your inventory holds objects in your possession, and although you will need to combine objects every once in a while, The Blackwell Legacy is devoid of unfeasible MacGyver-like puzzles where you have to combine a rubber band, a toothpick, and dental floss to make a nuclear bomb. You will write down important facts in your notebook and need to combine them to reason out a conclusion (all of which make sense). You will also have conversations with various characters during the game, and you’ll need to pick appropriate responses. I don’t think you can “break” the game by picking mean responses, so giving the player at least the illusion of some control is nice. The story of The Blackwell Legacy maintains interest during the entire game; I did want to keep playing the game to see what happens next, which is more than I can say for most of the adventure games I’ve played. The Blackwell Legacy is short, but there are additional chapters planned for release in the future. It seems that having more episodic games is becoming a trend in PC gaming (see Half Life 2 and Sam & Max), which is fine with me, assuming that each installment can maintain a good level of interest.

IN CLOSING
The Blackwell Legacy is a well-designed and interesting adventure game that features reasonable solutions to each of the game’s puzzles. There’s nothing I hate more than dumb, unrealistic puzzles, and fortunately The Blackwell Legacy doesn’t have any. I tend to get stuck a lot in adventure games (one of the reasons why I detest them), but playing through The Blackwell Legacy was much better than most titles in the genre. That’s not to say that it was extremely easy, just that the game made sense. It’s difficult to design a game that’s somewhat challenging without being improbable, but The Blackwell Legacy seems to strike this balance pretty well. The fact that the game was developed by only one person makes this even more impressive. Of course, we’re stuck with outdated graphics, but the exceptional voice acting and solid gameplay more than makes up for this shortcoming. I actually had fun playing The Blackwell Legacy, which is the best thing you can say about any game, especially for one in a genre you don’t particularly care for. Don’t let the screenshots fool you: The Blackwell Legacy is a superb adventure game.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided Review

History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided, developed by Cauldron and published by Activision Value.
The Good: Constant action, low price
The Not So Good: Lack of any real AI, completely unfair difficulty due to being shamefully outnumbered, no autosave, unbalanced weapons, single player only, ahistorical gameplay with a pace that is entirely wrong for this setting
What say you? A budget Civil War first person shooter with too many glaring problems: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It seems that games are now shying away from World War II and into a different historical era: the American Civil War. The recent explosion of Civil War games (Forge of Freedom, Take Command: 2nd Manassas) exemplifies this point. All of the titles I’ve seen published so far have been strategy games, and now it’s the first person shooter’s turn to tackle mid-1800’s warfare in History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided. What is it with The History Channel and long-winded game titles? This game takes a Call of Duty-like approach to combat: surrounded by friendly forces, you tackle overwhelming odds and complete objectives on the battlefield. Will History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided offer up a budget-priced level of entertainment?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a budget title, History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided has some pretty decent visuals. The weapon models are probably the best aspect of the graphics, and all of the reloading sequences are detailed and painfully realistic. The character models look OK, akin to those seen in the original Call of Duty I would say. The death animations are highly exaggerated and they get repetitive and old quickly. Getting shot results in a camera shake that also gets annoying quickly, and smoke from shooting a weapon obscures your view, making it difficult to see if you’ve hit your target. The levels are very linear, and your path is almost always conveniently lined with impenetrable trees or rocks. A short documentary precedes each level, which at least uses the History Channel license somewhat. The graphics are slightly above where I would expect them to be for a title of this price. The sound doesn’t fare as well, however. The game initially has a good hectic atmosphere, but the effects repeat themselves far too quickly. One can only hear screaming every so often before it becomes quite bothersome. The game does voice all of its in-game dialogue, although History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided lacks funny or interesting conversations like in Company of Heroes or Call of Duty. Still, I don’t expect much from a budget title, and History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided pretty much delivers what I expected.

ET AL.
History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided lets you fight through twelve battles in two campaigns, one for each side of the war. The two campaigns are essentially the same except for the starting weaponry and the different colors of the enemy’s clothes. There isn’t anything notable about any of the game’s levels, as each of the historic locations lacks any real historical flair. History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided is also single player only, which is quite an odd omission for a first person shooter these days. Adding a multiplayer element to the title might extend the life of the game somewhat beyond the generally short campaigns. There is one glaring oversight in the campaigns: the lack of an autosave. I guess I just assumed the game would save my progress after I had completed an objective. Silly me! It wasn’t until I died (which is a common occurrence) right near the end of a level that I realized I had to do the entire thing over again. So, you’ll need to manually press that quick save button early and often.

History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided tries hard to capture the excitement of the Call of Duty series by featuring chaotic battles and skirmishes alongside your allies. However, there are a bunch of problems with the game that makes it frustrating to play. First, History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided is non-stop action: you will always be shooting someone. This is fine, except that the game features authentic weapons, which means long load times. You cannot have fast combat with slow weapons, and History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided clearly illustrates why this is the case. Civil War weaponry does not lend itself to fast-paced gameplay, which is why combat of the era was done in structured lines. The weapons of the Civil War were not accurate or fast enough to be used in unorganized skirmishes that involve running through the woods and storming enemy locations, which is the style of combat shown in this game. This completely ahistorical approach to combat is OK, but not if you’re going to feature realistic weapons. The weapons themselves are completely unbalanced. Some weapons have only one shot and extremely long loadtimes, while others file multiple shots and have short loadtimes. So you’re really just going to use one or two weapons in the game. Seriously, who is going to take on twenty enemy troops by yourself armed with a musket? Someone that’s going to die and have to reload the level from the beginning, that’s who. History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided has grenades, but they are only thrown about six feet and you have no accuracy control over them. Apparently all of the soldiers in the 1800’s threw like wimps. You also have to hold down the “look down sight” button to zoom in, instead of just pressing it to cycle the command. Of course, you are just as accurate not zoomed in, so there is really no point, especially since the cursor changes to red when you’re targeting an enemy soldier. You can escape some of the problems with weapons by using melee attacks with a bayonet or the butt of your gun, but these are really just last resorts.

History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided makes the game difficulty by throwing a ton of enemies at you. Since you are equipped with very slow weapons, this makes beating the game extremely tough and ultimately frustrating. The artificial intelligence in the game stinks, as the enemies will only use cover if they were manually placed there by the designers, and they will routinely just run towards you and engage in melee combat. Watching friendly and enemy AI engage in a slap fight to the death is funny at first, but sad in the end. Friendly units are generally useless and die too quickly, plus they rarely help you out while you get getting triple-teamed by crazed enemy soldiers. History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided is just not fun to play, as the game consists of ducking behind objects while your single-shot weapons take 10 seconds to reload and shooting at a never-ending stream of enemies using tactics that were never employed during the Civil War.

IN CLOSING
History Channel Civil War: A Nation Divided is a disappointing attempt at first person shooting in the 1800’s. While the game does come at a budget price, the game is just not fun to play, due to its completely unrealistic gameplay. The combination of tons of enemy soldiers and slow-firing weapons is just insane. This game would have been better if the levels were more realistic: fighting in lines with hundreds of people. As it stands, this is really World War II-style warfare with Civil War-era weapons and accents, and I just don’t buy it. The omission of an autosave feature is inexcusable, and the lack of multiplayer means that this game has really no replay value. The developers changed the setting, but this is not reason enough to purchase a below average first person shooter, even if it is relatively cheap.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Devastro Review

Devastro, developed and published by Catnap Games.
The Good: Lots of shooting, simple controls, vehicles, low price
The Not So Good: No unique or innovative gameplay enhancements, teammate order lag is annoying, primitive AI, painful cut scenes, substandard graphics and sound
What say you? Lack of originality and low production values severely hinder this top-down shooter: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Independent games are one of the hallmarks of the PC. Small developers can publish their games on the Internet and make them available to people around the world, without having to spend time and money on packaging, finding a publisher, and all those distribution issues. Of course, independent titles must offer something different to their particular genre in order to stand out against more heavily funded titles. Devastro (a game title that spell check certainly does not like) is a classic top-down action shooter where you get to shoot aliens with guns. How does Devastro differentiate itself from all of the other arcade shooters on the market?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Devastro certainly shows its independent roots in its graphics and sound, which look severely outdated. The game is presented in 2-D with animated bitmaps or static objects and backgrounds comprising the visuals. There is some shadowing to create a faux 3-D environment, but the game still looks simplistic. There have been some really great looking 2-D games (the Disciples series, for one), but Devastro is not one of them. The special effects are underwhelming, as the weapons and death sequences are not impressive. This extends to the sound as well: there is hardly any sound in the game. The lack of voice acting hurts the cut scenes: they are presented like cartoons, but the pace is very slow and they are just agonizing to sit through. The cut scenes, instead of promoting the gameplay, just serve to drag the game down to a crawl. The graphics and sound of Devastro do not impress.

ET AL.
Now, I don’t mind poor graphics and sound if the gameplay is interesting. Unfortunately, Devastro does not have interesting gameplay. The game does provide a good amount of action and simple controls, but this is just not enough anymore to make a compelling title. Devastro features 27 levels where you will fight aliens by shooting at them and driving in vehicles. The controls of the game are easy to learn: aiming is done with the mouse, movement uses the left mouse button, the right mouse button shoots, and grenades are thrown with the spacebar (why not bind it to the middle mouse button, in order to keep all of the controls on the mouse?). Clicking on vehicles or friendly soldiers will enter them or include them in your group. You will routinely have other team members in your missions, although controlling them is very annoying. They will follow your movement orders, but only after a couple of seconds. This lag almost makes the game unplayable: the enemy units will be closing in on you while your backup is still quite a distance away. This lag also extends to engaging targets, so for the first few seconds, you’ll be the only one shooting. The only difficulty in the game results from having a lot of enemies thrown at you at once; Devastro lacks any real AI, as the enemies tend to just run straight towards you. I was waiting for something different to happen, but there was nothing interesting to keep me interested in the game.

IN CLOSING
Independent games must offer something unique in order to compete with the bigger budget games. Devastro has derivative gameplay that we’ve seen in countless games before. There is not a single thing in the game that is exclusive, and that’s the main problem: there is no real reason to play Devastro. While the simple controls and mechanics might make Devastro accessible to a large audience, the combination of disappointing and uninteresting gameplay with lackluster graphics is enough to skip this title. I’m all for supporting small developers, but you must make some change to the basic formula in order to offer a successful and intriguing title, and Devastro does not.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Enchanted Gardens Review

Enchanted Gardens, developed and published by Yatec Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, a number of puzzle objects and bonuses keeps the game fresh, appropriate difficulty, decent graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: Some might find the game repetitive
What say you? A straightforward puzzle game that is varied and suitably challenging: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
A lot of people enjoy gardening. It’s cheap, relatively easy to do, and you can watch the fruits of your labor get overgrown with weeds. What’s not to like? Cashing in on the gardening extravaganza is Enchanted Gardens, a puzzle game where you match tiles in order to grow grass. I had always thought that sunshine and rain was required for grass to grow, but apparently I am wrong. There are countless puzzle games available for the PC; is Enchanted Gardens unique enough to stand out from the crowd?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Although not the focus of most puzzle games, adequate graphics and sound are still needed. Enchanted Gardens features decent graphics and sound for the genre. The puzzles are crisp and it is easy to identify objects in the game. The special effects are pretty standard for the genre, with scores popping up when combos are made. There are some nice touches to the graphics, like flowers rustling when moved. The sound is appropriate for the game, and the background music, while extremely repetitive, fits the overall theme. Overall, Enchanted Gardens doesn’t amaze or horrify with its graphics or sound.

ET AL.
The goal of Enchanted Gardens is to match tiles by rotating two by two sections of the puzzle. It’s a fairly intuitive procedure and the game is easy to learn, but the mechanics lend themselves to some advanced strategies, at least for a puzzle game. When you clear a section of tiles by matching them, grass grows (the whole garden thing). When grass grows twice on every tile of the puzzle, the level is complete and you move on. Points are earned by growing grass and making large matches or matches in quick succession. Any time you have left over at the end of the match also results in bonus points. Enchanted Gardens lets you play 100 levels in the regular garden mode, 300 levels in the relaxed mode, and 20 intricate levels in puzzle mode. Although each game is essentially the same, every successive puzzle adds more tile types and enemies to make the game progressively more challenging. Enchanted Gardens strikes a good balance between simple mechanics and challenging difficulty: the game is easy to learn, but it requires effort to beat. Besides the fact that a number of different flowers can be present on the same puzzle, complicating the process of making matches, but Enchanted Gardens adds some new wrinkles to the equation every so often. First, rocks can be present on the map: they cannot be rotated and you must make a match next to them in order to remove them. Frozen tiles are similar, in that they also cannot be rotated, but they must be matched with a specific tile type. Gnomes living next to the puzzle will get angry if you take too long to make another match, and they will show their anger by throwing rocks onto the puzzle, freezing tiles, or plunging the puzzle into darkness. Matching tiles of a specific color results in gaining bonuses: green flowers break up rocks, purple flowers add combo bonus points, red flowers melt frost, and yellow flowers combat darkness. All of these additions to the basic game serve to extend the life of the title and make the game more interesting. In addition, the game slowly introduces new things to the game, easing the player into progressively more difficult puzzles. Enchanted Gardens never becomes unwieldy and it requires real thinking, rather than some puzzle games that are simply superficial. The mechanics of Enchanted Gardens are solid, and the changes the game makes during the game modes works to keep you interested in the game.

IN CLOSING
Enchanted Gardens is an above average puzzle game. It starts a relatively easy-to-learn premise that has some depth and requires skill in order to be an effective player. Enchanted Gardens progressively adds more extras to the game, keeping your interest in the title as you complete all of the game’s levels. The game is also appropriately difficult, never stacking the cards against you unfairly. Each of the game’s levels can be completed, it just a matter of you rotating the best tiles. The graphics and the sound also hold up their end of the bargain. This is one of the better puzzles games available on the market, as it successfully combines uncomplicated gameplay and apt complexity.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Super Granny 3 Review

Super Granny 3, developed and published by Sandlot Games.
The Good: Simple controls, humorous atmosphere, large number of objects and puzzles, level editor
The Not So Good: Levels last just a bit too long, low resolution graphics
What say you? A somewhat interesting game with puzzles that are too tedious: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Old people are funny. They smell funny. They look funny. They walk funny. They drive funny. So they are an untapped resource for computer games, especially for those with a humorous tilt. Thankfully, the folks at Sandlot Games have stepped up to the plate with their third iteration of the Super Granny series. Super Granny 3 features an octogenarian that tries to navigate multi-level puzzles in an obsessive search for kitties. This game is similar to Professor Fizzwizzle, as the puzzles are full of stationary and mobile objects intended to keep your away from your prized cats. Will Super Granny 3 prove to be an attractive puzzle game that does the genre proud?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Super Granny 3 are certainly underwhelming. The game has low resolution graphics that either makes most everything difficult to look at in windowed mode, or blocky in full screen mode. Super Granny 3 is rendered in 2-D and the game is devoid of any real special effects. There have been a number of pleasant-looking 2-D games (Eets for one), but Super Granny 3 does not impress, especially considering it is the third title in the series. The game does not need to be in 3-D, but it does need to look better. Fortunately, the sound in Super Granny 3 is better. The background music is forgettable, but the sounds effects are funny. They eventually get repetitive, but the first time you hear the various comments by Granny, the overall humor of the game shines through. It’s too bad that this level of quality does not extend to the graphics.

ET AL.
Super Granny 3 features a rather large collection of puzzles where you have to walk around collecting cats and avoiding enemies. The game is 2-D, so most of the puzzles are vertical in nature. Since Granny cannot jump, she must use ladders, beanstalks, or other objects to climb and fly to the higher levels. The basic premise is very straightforward and the game should be playable by multiple skill levels and ages. If the large compilation of maps isn’t enough, Super Granny 3 also has a level editor so that you can construct your own nefarious creations. The cats on each level must be collected and lead to the goal; once all of the cats are rescued, a warp point to the next level is opened. Extra points can be collected by passing by flowers. There are a number of different enemies present in the game: poodles, bulldogs, wiener dogs, monkeys, robots, and bats are all there to end your adventures prematurely. A game that portrays dogs as evil will get a thumbs up from me anytime! You can slow down the enemies, and access different parts of the puzzle, by digging holes: the enemies will fall into them, temporarily stopping them in their quest for blood. Coins collected during the game can be used to purchase a number of items: jet packs, shields, and monkey repellant are all available for purchase. Each puzzle also consists of a number of different objects, the amount of which almost rivals the inventory of Eets. Shopping bags for attacks, bombs, crates, gates, cages, springs, teleports, umbrellas, and even killer tomatoes are scattered throughout the game. All of these options in the game provide great variety in the puzzles, and makes the value of the level editor even more. Of course, there is really only one way to solve each puzzle, so in that sense Super Granny 3 lacks the replay value of games like Impulse. The main problem with Super Granny 3 is that the levels last too long and become tedious. Normally, there are an extreme number of cats to collect in each puzzle and they are scattered all over the place. I enjoy puzzle games that features a lot of levels but each individual level takes less than two minutes to complete. Puzzle games lend themselves more towards quick, short bursts of gameplay, and Super Granny 3 just overextends its welcome.

IN CLOSING
Super Granny 3 comes will all of the trappings needed for an effective puzzle game, but there are some faults with the execution. The game comes with a lot of puzzles and objects in each puzzle, and the addition of a level editor should extend the gameplay beyond the basic game. While I normally don’t care too much about graphics, it should be noted that Super Granny 3 is behind the times, utilizing a 2-D low-resolution package. The game has a good assortment of puzzles, but they last too long, bringing the gameplay from interesting to wearisome. Having smaller, more concentrated levels would go a long way in maintaining interest throughout the game. Using the level editor could easily fix this problem, so there is hope beyond the default game. A more polished presentation would result in Super Granny 3 being a must-have puzzle game, but as it stands, it is merely average.

Friday, February 02, 2007

RACE: The WTCC Game Review

RACE: The WTCC Game, developed by SimBin and published on Steam.
The Good: Accessible to a larger audience, spectacular car models, good presentation, solid physics model, varying difficulty, capable AI drivers, dynamic weather, multiplayer
The Not So Good: No tutorials
What say you? A racing simulation with wide appeal for all skill levels: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As the NFL season is now essentially over, it’s time for a sport to substitute for six months of gridiron action. Thankfully (at least for me), NASCAR is right around the corner, featuring the heart-pounding action of watching cars driving in circles. But NASCAR is not the only motorsport out there: Europe is home of many interesting series that features different kinds of racing. The FIA (responsible for F1, the racing analogy of soccer) runs the World Touring Car Championship, or FEMA. This series uses slightly improved versions of traditional-looking cars, with racing that takes place on road courses. The cars are easier to drive than those featured in SimBin’s previous title GTR 2 due to their decreased horsepower. Will this title feature the same polished driving as SimBin’s previous simulations?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
RACE: The WTCC Game features the generally high-quality graphics featured in other SimBin products. The best aspect of the graphics is the car models: they are highly detailed and look fabulous. The tracks look good as well: most of the track elements are detailed with the exception of the sand traps, which seem out of place in their relative roughness. The special effects are again in full force: bugs on the windshield and realistic rainy conditions are the norm. To compensate for this, functional windshield wipers are now implemented. Occasionally having a rock thrown up and crack your windshield is a nice addition. Small accidents are not that impressive (dark shards flying around), but the rest of the effects are. The overall presentation of the game is greatly improved over GTR 2, making the game menus compete with most other PC games. The game looks slick, and this extends from the graphics to the sound. The front menu music gets you pumped for racing, and the rest of the sound maintains the high quality seen in other SimBin titles. The engine sounds seem to be true-to-life, and RACE promotes an overall realism that you are driving a real race car, which is what you’re looking for in a simulation.

ET AL.
Being a racing title (the title of the game was a big clue), RACE: The WTCC Game lets you take control of a touring car and race on all of the circuits present in the 2006 WTCC season. There are only ten, but they provide a good variety of fast tracks, technical tracks, and urban tracks (it’s as if the FIA knew what it was doing when it scheduled the races!). You can jump in the seat of all of the cars used in the 2006 season from major manufacturers like Peugeot and Seat (well, major in Europe). You can also test out the cars used in 1987 (if you are feeling adventurous) and Mini Coopers, pretending that you are Mark Wahlberg (a daily occurrence for me). The tutorials that were present in GTR 2 are not in this game, so you are on your own in learning how to drive. This is not a huge issue, because the learning curve is smaller for the touring cars, but some lessons on effective braking and accelerating would definitely be helpful (I tend to slide the tires too much). The game can be played in quick races, full race weekends, or complete championships. The quick races are kind of pointless, as the only difference between them and the race weekends is that a lot of the options are removed and you are fixed to two two-lap races. RACE: The WTCC Game also features multiplayer action through the game’s browser, driver duals against real-life records on each of the game’s tracks, and practice and time attack modes.

RACE: The WTCC Game gives you a multitude of options to customize your race. As with other SimBin titles, you can choose between three difficulty levels that change the level of driver aids available (traction control and anti-lock brakes). You can also set tire wear and fuel usage values to require pit stops during short races. Each race takes place over a number of sessions: practice, qualifying, and two races. The race distance can also be set, although the game lacks time estimations that were present in previous titles. The AI strength and aggression can be changed; I would like an auto-adjusting feature to eliminate the tedious procedure of finding out what level of competition is appropriate for you. On pro level, you can’t adjust the AI below 100%; maybe I want to eliminate all driver aids but tone down the AI while I am learning the game. I dislike artificial restrictions like this. Dynamic weather adds another variable to the mix: conditions can change during a race instead of being rainy or sunny throughout the competition.

The races of RACE: The WTCC Game are pretty fun. The game utilizes the unique two-race format of the WTCC, where the top eight finishers from the first race are reversed in order for the second, and the winner receives the most points between both halves. The AI is a good competitor, although they are overly cautious on “realistic” aggression levels. They will go out of their way to avoid contact, even if they could overtake you. It’s too easy to block them to slow them down and prevent them from passing you. Obviously human competition will be better opponents, but overall the AI is good enough. RACE: The WTCC Game uses a believable physics model for the heavier and less-powerful cars used in the touring car series. You obviously need to use some sore of analogue controller for the game (joystick, wheel, pedals, analogue gamepad) in order to appreciate the physics and be able to effectively control the cars. The cars themselves are much easier to drive than other SimBin titles, mainly because the cars tend to drive slower. It is easy to slide the tires, however, but the touring cars are a good choice for novice simulation drivers. The races are pretty typical for road course events: an exciting start followed by several laps of minimal passing. Still, RACE: The WTCC Game is more user-friendly than other SimBin titles and competing racing simulations.

IN CLOSING
Out of the suite of realistic racing games, RACE: The WTCC Game is more approachable than most. The game features a type of racing that hasn’t been specifically covered in other titles, and brings in the solid physics, graphics, and AI from other SimBin titles. The game looks good (especially the car models), sounds good, and it provides a thorough representation of two seasons of WTCC action. The physics of the game are credible and the AI provides a good challenge. Human competition is available over the Internet (although almost all of the servers will be using Pro skill settings, so beware) for those adventurous souls. RACE: The WTCC Game is yet another solid entry in SimBin’s library of quality race simulations that is geared towards a more general audience and the adaptability and relative simplicity of the title ensures that it will appeal to those who enjoy more realistic driving.