Thursday, May 31, 2007

FreeStyle Street Basketball Review

FreeStyle Street Basketball, developed by JC Entertainment and published by Sierra Online.
The Good: Simple controls, joining games is very easy, segregation of experience levels means you won’t be terribly outmatched (at least early on), minimal system requirements, free play up to mid-levels and no monthly fees, items grant minimal bonuses that won’t skew games too much, subdued music during games
The Not So Good: New skills don't unlock gradually, low resolution graphics, no in-game gamepad support, some players online are completely retarded, lag can be a slight problem
What say you? Easy to pick up and quite addictive, this online basketball RPG works very well: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It’s clear that massively multiplayer online games are very popular. From Everquest to World of Warcraft, nerds from across the world with too much time on their hands enter digital worlds and pretend to be wizards and elves. I can see why they are so appealing. Most MMO games are fantasy-based, taking place in a far-off land full of the aforementioned wizards and elves. There hasn’t been a sports-themed MMO game (at least that I’ve heard of), so straight outta Korea comes FreeStyle Street Basketball. The Koreans know a thing or two about obessive computer gaming, so hopefully this title will fill the sports gaming MMO void.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
FreeStyle Street Basketball features some low resolution graphics, but the game has good style. The game advertises that it has low system requirements, which makes the game more accessible, but results in a more pixilated experience on larger monitors. Still, the game looks pretty good at glorious 800x600 due to the stylized cell shading in the game. FreeStyle Street Basketball looks like a cartoon and this fits the over-the-top gameplay. The level of detail on each character is good, and once people outfit their players with different clothes, the game’s variety in appearances comes through. There aren’t many special effects in the game that aren’t directly tied to shooting the ball (like dynamic backgrounds), but FreeStyle Street Basketball is designed to run on pretty much any computer you throw at it. The soundtrack is one of the highlights of the game, as FreeStyle Street Basketball features a good selection of songs from some renowned artists I have never heard of (but I’m sure others have). The best thing about the music is that it becomes restrained during each game and instrumental music plays in the background, never blaring over the on-screen action. Each character has some canned sayings (triggered by using a number key) that get repetitive pretty quickly. The sound contributes to the setting of the game well. FreeStyle Street Basketball holds up well despite the fact that it doesn’t feature cutting-edge effects.

ET AL.
In FreeStyle Street Basketball, you guide a player’s career on the street, playing games against human opponents online, gaining experience and increasing your stats. Although it is a MMO game, FreeStyle Street Basketball doesn’t have a monthly subscription fee: it uses a similar model to War Rock through optional payments. Playing up to level 15 (about halfway) is completely free; if you want to advance further to the Pro level, you must pay a one-time fee of $20 (still very reasonable). You can also purchase clothing and training using in-game bills (3000 bills cost $10); these provide small bonuses to your character’s ratings, but are by no means a requirement to be competitive. This fee model makes FreeStyle Street Basketball much more appealing for casual players and more accessible to a larger audience, and I think this is the way that MMOs are heading in the future.

The first thing you’ll need to do is make your character. There are a limited number of body, skin, and hair types (around four for each sex), but people will start to look different when users start buying clothes. You’ll need to choose from three court positions: guards (good at passing and three pointers), centers (good at dunks and rebounds), and forwards (jack of all trades). At level 16, you’ll be able to specialize as a shooting or point guard, or a power or small forward. All of these positions are fun to play: guards steal the ball and launch threes, centers rebound and dunk, and forwards hit mid-range jump shots. Of course, it takes a while for stupid people to realize this, so you'll experience centers shooting threes, guards trying for rebounds, and other nonsensical activity in the lower-level servers. Your attributes are automatically determined by your position and your height (taller players are slower but better at rebounding). I like this choice since it avoids exploits in assigning character points: you won’t encounter anyone with a perfect three-point rating. The game is divided into different lobbies that are separated according to level (1-3 only, 4-6, et cetera). There is one room for everyone, but most of the lobbies will only have players close to yours in terms of skill levels. This is great as you’ll never be up against high-level people who will “pwn” you because they have played longer and subsequently have better stats. In a lot of MMO games, people are artificially separated as they explore new territory, but there’s nothing specific in those games preventing high-level characters from obliterating low-level n00bs. Of course, this all changes when you pass level 16 and enter the pro servers, where you'll encounter Asian players who have been playing the game for many months and are much better than you. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Before you join a game, you can engage in practice (we're talking about practice, man. How silly is that?) through the tutorial, a free training mode with no opponents, and entertaining mini-games that provide little tasks to complete. The real action is, of course, against other players, and you can play in one-on-one, two-on-two, or three-on-three games. I personally favor two-player teams, as three-on-three games can get hectic and laggy and one-on-one games amplify some of the cheap exploits present in the game. There is some lag involved in the game as well, since the servers are peer-to-peer. Joining a match is very easy: there is a quick join button that instantly puts you in an open room with essentially no search time. You can also manually select a team to join, or create your own room. If you regularly play with others in organized activity, you can create a password-protected team to let in only those players you desire.

As I mentioned earlier, you can purchase various items for your character. The first of these is a line of generic and branded clothing, most of which have a small attribute bonus. None of these bonuses make too much of a difference, though, so players with more cash on hand won’t dominate the games. Some items require you to spend points (earned by playing games), others bills (bought with real cash), or let you choose one or the other. You can also gift items to other players (say, new people in your squad) if you’d like. In addition to clothes, you can purchase new skills and moves to use during games. Instantaneous training sessions permanently increase a specific attribute (usually one point) and freestyle moves and skills enhance existing moves (like better steals and quicker jump shots) or add new moves (like through passes and diving catches). You can only equip a limited number of skills and moves at a time, so rich players that plunk down a lot of money to unlock everything won’t be at a great advantage.

The actual gameplay of FreeStyle Street Basketball is streamlined and easy to learn, but still allows you to perform advanced moves at higher levels. Movement is done with the arrow keys and our good friends W, A, S, and D each perform an action: W screens or faces up an opponent, A performs an action dribble or defends a shot, S passes or steals, and D shoots, blocks, and rebounds. And that’s it, other than some special keys for some of the skills. You can’t bind any commands in the game to a gamepad, though, unless you use the software for the gamepad to emulate the different keys used in the game. It takes a little bit to remember which key does which (evident by the poor performance of first-time players), but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. The important thing to remember is to play to your position: centers should not be launching threes, and having guards rebound is a bad idea. There is a good amount of timing required to successfully block and rebound shots, although there is no timing element for shooting (you don’t need to be at the top of your jump to be accurate). FreeStyle Street Basketball is not really that extreme or unrealistic, at least when you have a beginning character, and playing the game is very intuitive and quite fun. Playing with people who know their roles makes for a satisfying game, and close contests are the norm since the servers are level-restricted. FreeStyle Street Basketball is just as fun at level 1 than level 35, so creating a new character in a different position is rewarding and not repetitive. The new skills and moves are not unlocked gradually: the come at regular intervals, starting at level 10. This means the gap between level 9 and level 10 players is much larger than a level 9 and a level 8, since level 10 players can equip several new moves and freestyles. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this and I would much rather have the game give you one additional unlock possibility (from a list) every two levels or so instead of all of them at once. Leveling up happens pretty quickly (especially if you use tattoos for an experience bonus), and it occurs whether you win or not. You can get just as many experience points grabbing rebounds or assists than scoring a lot; this is wonderful since all positions have an equal chance of advancing in rank. The games in FreeStyle Street Basketball are also very short (about five minutes), so contests don’t drag on forever and you rarely have people drop in the middle of a match. There are some small exploits people have found while playing the game, but FreeStyle Street Basketball is still very fun to play; since it’s easy to join a game and matches are quick to finish, you can play for half an hour and still get meaningful experience.

IN CLOSING
It’s no wonder this game is popular in Korea: FreeStyle Street Basketball is a well-executed and entertaining MMO game. The fees are minimal and mostly optional, joining a game is completely painless, and the matches are short enough where the game doesn’t become monotonous. FreeStyle Street Basketball is a fun game from level 1 to level 16 as the competition will always be there due to the separated servers, although the action at the higher pro levels can become skewed. Learning the game is very straightforward, and once you have the controls down, using the various strategies in the game against human competition is quite pleasing. There are some “hidden” moves to discover, but browsing the game’s official forums will unlock most of the secrets. I don't even really like basketball, but FreeStyle Street Basketball is fun to play, and if you get tired of it, you don’t need to worry about wasting a monthly fee. FreeStyle Street Basketball shows how a casual MMO should be made: the optional fee structure, simple gameplay, and ease-of-use make for a very delightful game.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Combat Mission: Shock Force Preview

Combat Mission: Shock Force (Preview), developed by Battlefront.com and published by Paradox Interactive
The Good: New communications rules and advanced commands accompany authentic gameplay, improved user interface, first-rate scenario editor, both real time and WEGO gameplay, graphically detailed units
The Not So Good: No more randomly generated maps, WEGO is no longer resolved before the turn is displayed resulting in two playbacks

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It’s not often that I do a preview of a game before it’s released. I don’t like to tease my faithful readers with stories of fancy and games that won’t be out for several years just to make it look like my site updates with fresh content every day. Plus, since I talk about everything I can in the preview, it makes my final review much shorter. So if I am doing a preview, you know it’s for a game I really like. Combat Mission: Shock Force is one of those games (Europa Universalis III is pretty much the other). I’ve been familiar with the Combat Mission series ever since I bought Barbarossa to Berlin shortly after it was released, and I reviewed Afrika Korps a while back. It’s with great excitement and a lot of annoying nudging on my part that I bring you a preview of the highly anticipated Combat Mission: Shock Force, the first of the next-generation games in the Combat Mission series, moving the strategy franchise to the present day. The new game is built from the ground up, incorporating a lot of new features into the gameplay while making the game more approachable to beginners with a vastly improved user interface.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As you would expect, the graphics have been improved from previous versions. The most dramatic change is in the unit detail: both the infantry and vehicles in the game are spectacular with life-like animations. Infantry marching and reloading, vehicle suspension responding to the undulating surface, and deformable terrain all add to a very realistic game environment. This is the first game in which I can remember seeing a significant number of rifle rounds bouncing off of buildings; although I can't attest to its accuracy, I would imagine this is quite plausible. The setting of the game doesn’t really lend itself to a variety of environments to play in, although aspiring mission designers should be able to craft nice looking levels. Since I haven’t seen any of the official campaign or battle missions, I can’t really gauge what the maps are going to look like, but based off the map editor potential is there for some good designs. Combat Mission: Shock Force still has “floating maps:” the game levels and backgrounds are disconnected like they were in previous titles. This game lacks the transition of Theatre of War, but it does make for easier map editing. Once it all comes together and a last layer of polish is applied, I imagine that Combat Mission: Shock Force will look very good, especially for a tactical wargame. The sounds in the game are what you’d expect for a Combat Mission game: accurate. From unit speech to weapons fire, the audio looks to continue the strong tradition exhibited in the other Combat Mission games.

ET AL.
Combat Mission: Shock Force simulates a hypothetical conflict between Syria and the United States in 2008, similar to the current conflict between the United States and the 51st state of Iraq. The beta version I played with lacks official single battles and the campaigns that will ship with the release version, but based on the scenario editor and the custom battles made by the beta testers, the potential is there for some very exciting and tactically different scenarios. The campaign will have semi-dynamic missions: each campaign will have the same missions, but the order in which they become available will depend on your performance. You will also have units carry over from previous missions. Quick battles are still present (although they weren’t in my version) where you can purchase your forces, but you must play on an existing map and the objectives are much more limited. Single player games can be played in real time or in the WEGO turn-based format present in other Combat Mission games. I prefer WEGO format since it requires you to plan ahead, since you can only issue commands every minute (in this game with modern weapons, a lot can happen in a minute). This time around, though, turns are not resolved before playback, which means you’ll have to watch the action unfold in real time and then watch a playback of it. I liked the WEGO format before because you could skip past boring sections of the battle (namely the beginning), but now turn-based mode takes even longer than the real-time mode. This is the only real step backwards that I’ve seen in the game from previous titles (well, and the lack of random maps, but that’s minor). Two player modes are still available: real time play over a LAN or the Internet (but no in-game matchmaking), or turn-based play on the same computer (hot seat) or play-by-e-mail (PBEM). Future plans for expansion modules include adding cooperative and team multiplayer for more than two players.

People are going to go absolutely bonkers (in a good way) over the scenario editor and the flexibility it provides in the game. It almost makes up for the lack of random maps (almost). One of the highlights of Combat Mission: Shock Force is the multiple and asymmetric victory conditions. You can set casualty, condition (injuries), and ammunition thresholds for friendly and enemy forces, in addition to terrain (occupy, destroy, preserve, and touch) and unit (destroy, destroy all, spot) objectives. These don’t have to be the same for each side, either. For example, while the U.S. forces might need to occupy the center of a town while keeping friendly casualties under 20%, Syrian forces might just need to eliminate two U.S. tanks to win. It’s this kind of flexibility that makes for a great game, and I’m really interested in seeing what the developers and third party authors will come up with. The game allows for the creation of a scenario in different weather and time of day conditions, in addition to allowing blue-on-blue and red-on-red engagements. The map editor is easy to use: if you are adept at using Microsoft Paint, then you should have no problem here. This is good since the game lacks a map generator. You can place ground textures, trees, roads, walls, buildings (from 1-8 stories), and flavor objects like ATMs, ponds, and road signs. All of the units in the game are arranged in pre-organized order of battles. There is no longer any buying of units before a battle, as the mission designer selects the composition of forces (you can still do this in quick battles, though). The designer will choose a force (at the battalion level) and deselect troops they don’t want. Combat Mission: Shock Force also lets you set five different strategies for the AI to follow, issuing general orders for movement. This is great, as it lets the same scenario play out differently by allowing the designer to “nudge” the AI along. It's just a matter of setting waypoints (usually coinciding with objective locations) and the tactical AI will do the rest. The ability to have five different plans per side makes the AI much less predictable and a single scenario (and, you would imagine, the campaign) has more longevity. An inexperienced designer (meaning myself) is able to create a complete and functional scenario in about 30 minutes. The intuitive mission editor is a powerful tool that should be thoroughly enjoyed by the community.

To make the game more accessible to a wider audience, Combat Mission: Shock Force features three levels of difficulty and realism. While beginners will enjoy instantly shared spotted enemy units and extremely fast treating of wounded soldiers, elite players will have to content with spotting friendly units, identifying enemy units, and waiting a realistic amount of time for artillery support. Again, flexibility is the key to appealing to a large audience. Another vast improvement over previous titles is the user interface, which has undergone an upgrade. The player is given loads of information in a small part of the screen; this makes assessing the situation and deciding on a course of action a lot easier. Unit attributes can provide bonuses (or penalties) to your squads for good leadership, fit physical condition, and morale. You are also given a suppression indicator: a good indication of impending doom. New to Combat Mission: Shock Force is the communication engine. Units need to communicate with their leader units in order to be effective, and this is done through several means: visual contact, audio communication (voice or radio), and satellite operations for the U.S. This is a better way to abstract units being too far from their commander. Branching off from this is the new spotting system, where friendly units will only know about enemy units they can see instead of automatically spotting units found by other friendly units. Of course, units in the same platoon will quickly learn of enemy units (especially on the U.S. side), but this is another realistic wrinkle to the gameplay. Combat Mission: Shock Force also has a great interface for calling in off-screen artillery and air support. Once you select a scouting unit (preferably one that has a clear view of the target and isn’t under fire; HQ and JTAC units work best), you choose an artillery or air unit and set the target type (area, point, or linear), number of guns to use, mission type (light to heavy bombardment), duration, type of target, and delay if any. It’s really slick and it gives the user a lot of control over their support units without being confusing. One significant thing the game lacks is helicopters. The primary focus of games like Air Assault Task Force, these important components of the modern battlefield are completely ignored in Combat Mission: Shock Force, instead focusing on ground-based advancement.

Of course, what would a strategy game be without units? Combat Mission: Shock Force features over 30 infantry weapons, such as the M4 with M203 grenade attachment, RPG-7, AK-74, and PKM. There are a lot of things tracked by the game for each individual soldier, like ammunition levels, body armor type, and their rank that roughly translates into a skill rating. There is also ton of detail in the game if you choose to look at it. Units can have an ammo report, a defenses report (the ability to defend against specific incoming rounds), a damage report, and a unit report for commanded units. The units for the U.S. are components of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the new infantry fighting vehicle currently in service in Iraq (you know, the thing with the funny rails along the side). The U.S. forces are conventional, with the typical arrangement of motorized infantry and armored tanks. On the other hand, the Syrian forces are mostly unconventional in nature, using IEDs and small groups of infantry to harass U.S. units, along with the more conventional Syrian Army. The first time you send a car rigged with explosives careening towards an enemy tank, causing mass destruction and leaving a smoking crater behind is a magnificent experience. Units are now rendered and represented independently with a 1:1 ratio (before, each squad was shown as three units), indivdually tracking ammo usage and other key facts. The commands from earlier Combat Mission games have been expanded and organized into four categories: movement, combat, special, and administrative. Each unit in the game can execute one order in each category at the same time. For example, a tank can be moving, targeting, and popping smoke simultaneously. Since these commands are all given their own tab, the amount of confusion that might be present is negated. Movement commands consist of move, quick, fast, slow, hunt (good for known enemy presence), assault (a leapfrog infantry maneuver), blast (for demo charges), mark mines, and reverse. These options give you great control over your units. Units can be instructed to target a specific enemy unit, only use their light weaponry for soft targets, cover an area with a target arc (very useful for covering all directions in a defensive mission and dispersing fire to multiple targets automatically), stop firing, and face a different direction. Special commands include hiding (for an ambush), deploying weapons, dismounting units, bailing out, popping smoke for cover, pausing, and opening up for better spotting. Finally, unit groups can be split up to provide recon, assault, or anti-tank activities with a smaller group instead of exposing unfit soldiers to certain threats. You can also tell all of your units to pause, cancel their current orders, or evade if things get really hairy. Units are pretty easy to find on the battlefield as each squad and vehicle is given a large icon, just like the ones from Theatre of War (I wonder which came first?).

The battles of Combat Mission: Shock Force are much faster than previous titles because modern weaponry is more accurate. The tactical AI performs very well: units that aren't given specific orders will find cover if they are under fire (which is more than I can say for other games) and return fire if attacked. Units disembarking vehicles will also automatically set a safe waypoint to meet at. It's pretty impressive to watch these little guys move around on their own and actually behave realistically; it's easily the best tactical AI since Company of Heroes (and maybe even better). Combat Mission: Shock Force strikes a good balance between the automation of menial tasks (like automatically returning fire if doing so is prudent) and giving the user control over their troops to maximize their strategy. The command interface really comes together well in the game, and it's certainly a step forward from previous titles. The morale model is intact, resulting in some realistic behaviors for your troops; units that are panicked (or worse) can't be issued orders, so throwing troops into the fire is usually an extremely bad idea. Watching battles unfold is a treat: surveying the battlefield over the shoulders of your troops as they lob anti-tank rounds that cuvre over tanks and bounce off armor, infantry scurrying for cover and administering aid, troops piling out of Stryker vehicles. Combat Mission: Shock Force delivers one of the most viceral and realistic representations of tactical modern warfare available (well, soon to be available). Although it’s hard to tell how things are truly going to play out without the official scenario battles, based off some user-made beta scenarios all indications point toward what you would expect: great authentic gameplay.

IN CLOSING
Combat Mission: Shock Force sure has the look of a great game. The Syrian setting allows for both rural and urban combat, wide open tank skirmishes and intense close quarters battles. The graphics engine has been upgrades and unit design is amazing. The user interface is much improved, which allows for additions to the game, such as the unit commands and communications, to not be a burden. The mission editor is absolutely fantastic and the range of possibilities for mission design is beyond anything I’ve seen in any other strategy game. Sure, I’ll miss my random maps, but the rest of the game is emerging quite well and the deluge of user created scenarios soon after release will more than make up for it. Combat Mission: Shock Force is poised to be the premier tactical strategy game and I, for one, can’t wait for the release on July 27th.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Roman Bowl Review

Roman Bowl, developed by CopleyGames and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Simple controls, streamlined gameplay with appropriate difficulty, good AI opponent, semi-random play selection, no stats or ratings to skew results or allow for exploits
The Not So Good: No “extras” like multiplayer, limited defensive control, no turnovers decrease outcome variety
What say you? An enjoyable arcade football game that’s a few features short of being excellent: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
America’s obsession with football is evident during the off-season. When the draft is televised live over two days, then you know the alarming level of interest the game has. It’s not surprising, then, that the most popular video games simulate football. There have been a number of relatively minor titles here and there (such as Maximum-Football), and another of these is Roman Bowl. This title restructures the gameplay to a five-on-five contest and removes the kicking game, replacing it with a catapult. Will Roman Bowl provide a more simplified but equally fun gaming experience?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Roman Bowl is played from a side isometric perspective like a television viewpoint. The graphics look like an upper-end independently developed game and it doesn’t look terrible. There is crispness to the graphics that is refreshing: the interface is easy to navigate and there are no camera issues. The players are well detailed and the action on-screen is decent. While Roman Bowl might lack cutting-edge graphical enhancements like shiny helmets and sweat, the game still looks quite decent. The sound effects are a bit worse off: there is no Roman trash talk and the sounds of football are sporadic at best. Still, Roman Bowl is one of the better presented games out there for an independent title.

ET AL.
Roman Bowl features an interesting take on football in a unique setting. The game has five-on-five action, five downs, no punts, and a catapult for field goals. There are a good arrangement of plays for offense and defense, which include anywhere from one to four-man lines. Before the snap of the ball, you are given a choice of three randomly selected plays (from the playbook of about fifteen or so). Part of the strategy of Roman Bowl is picking plays that will be mismatches for the opponent’s plays (you can also see their three choices). Choosing a defense with four linemen versus an offensive with four receivers will usually result in a big play, if the quaterback can get the pass off in time. Once you snap the ball on offense, you run around using the mouse to point where you’d like to go, press left-shift to stop to pass, and click to tackle or pass the ball. Roman Bowl doesn't feature any of the Madden silliness, such as sprinting, jukes, and stiff arms, that rewards quick reflexes over better strategy. Offense features a realistic arrangement of passing and running opportunities, and passing the ball is suitably difficult: it’s possible but not automatic. Passing the ball ends up almost being more realistic than in other games, as you must be mindful of defensive lineman and cornerbacks knocking down passes (there is no pass interference in the game). On defense, you a limited to controlling the safety until you start tackling: then, control switches to the next closest defender to the ball. While you have good control over your offense, playing defense is mostly out of your hands since you can’t switch players. You can try to position yourself in the best place for defending passes, but a lot of the time you have to rely on the AI to prevent big plays on the other side of the field. The defensive linemen will always go after the quarterback and pursue the ball carrier, while coverage guys will follow the receivers. Thankfully, the AI is good enough where good play selection will prevail. The AI in the game provides an admirable challenge and controls your players well; I’ve never had any issues with the computer controlled players. This is partially helped by the fact that Roman Bowl lacks player ratings; this levels the playing field and allows for a balanced game. Roman Bowl does lack turnovers: there are no fumbles or interceptions in the game. This means that the offense can control the clock and the game pace, and if you have a big lead near the end of the game, the outcome is decided. I both like and dislike the turnover deficiency: it makes gameplay more dependent on skill rather than luck, but also removes a lot of the exciting randomness associated with fumbles and interceptions and makes the waning minutes less tense.

You are given five downs to move the ball into the end zone. If you fail, the ball is automatically “punted” and placed halfway to the end zone, where the opposition takes over. If you are close enough to the end zone, you can kick a field goal. Kicking the ball is another unique aspect of the game: here, you aim a catapult at a castle tower located at a random location in the end zone, adjusting for wind and adding the appropriate amount of power. Like the passing game, kicking the ball is satisfying due to its appropriate difficulty: it’s not automatic but it’s definitely possible, and hitting a long field goal is quite rewarding. As you can tell, the basic game is very well executed and quite entertaining. Roman Bowl comes up short in terms of “extras.” The game features exhibition games between the Romans and the Visigoths; you can adjust the game length (time and number of periods), difficulty, and clock speed. There is also a playoff mode where you play at increasing difficulty levels. But that’s it: no season mode, no franchise mode, no league setup options, and more importantly no multiplayer. This game would be great as a multiplayer game since the controls are simple (so lag would be minimal) and games are quick. Adding Gamespy functionality to Roman Bowl would result in a very entertaining online game, but unfortunately these options are not in the game.

IN CLOSING
Roman Bowl is a good arcade football game. It has simple controls that anyone can learn, quick games, some elements of strategy in play selection, and enough randomness for different experiences each time. There have been other arcade football games, but I prefer Roman Bowl over titles like NFL Blitz or Chaos League. The game is also family-friendly as violence is limited to tackling. Roman Bowl is in desperate need of additional features beyond the basic game, as the exhibition mode and playoffs are not enough. Multiplayer would be a great addition to this solid game, as would leagues (either single player or online) with schedules and season play. Maybe these will be future additions to fully complete this title. Of course, some people might like the fact that you don’t have to worry about signing the top rated players and worrying about injuries. I'm afraid that the lack of variety will hurt Roman Bowl's replay value: once you've played it a couple of times, each game is the same and there's no large overall goal to shoot for past the four-game playoff mode. Still, Roman Bowl definitely has a solid foundation for an entertaining arcade football game and enhancements will hopefully be added in the future.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Test Drive Unlimited Review

Test Drive Unlimited, developed by Eden Games and published by Atari.
The Good: Large persistent real-world location to explore, lots of assorted races to finish, decent selection of cars, usually seamless multiplayer integration, auto-save
The Not So Good: Should be easier to join live multiplayer matches, intermittent online connectivity, limited console interface, needs class-restricted multiplayer races
What say you? A good single player game, but the massively multiplayer aspect is missing due to some fundamental flaws: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For every successful MMO game, there are five or six failures. Remember Motor City Online? Yeah, me neither, but apparently it was one of the first attempts at a MMOR game (the “R” stands for “rutabaga”). It failed miserably, but there is still an audience who’d like to drive and race in a persistent online environment. Enter Test Drive Unlimited, a game that takes the arcade racing series and brings it to Hawaii, specifically the island of Oahu. Test Drive Unlimited is similar to most arcade racing games in that you participate in races to earn money to buy new cars and upgrades, except now you can do it with and against other players over the Internet. Will Test Drive Unlimited fill this gaming void, or provide another piece of evidence against MMO racing games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The fact that Test Drive Unlimited features the entire island of Oahu is impressive, so it’s not surprising that the level of detail could be better. It’s obvious that the game uses the major roads and real topography of the island and fills it in with repetitive textures and buildings. It looks good, but it still feels like you’re playing a game instead of driving in a real place. The mountains and cities in the background are real places you can drive to, so that adds to the realism of the game’s setting. Oahu is a very good place to set the game, as the island features curvy mountain roads, large expressways, and urban environments only a few miles from each other. One impressive feature is the transition from the game map to your car: the game zooms in from a satellite image of Oahu all the way down to your vehicle in a Supreme Commander-like transition (although this one is much nicer). Still, each part of the island looks like all of the other parts with the same trees and buildings, and the repetitive cut scenes get annoying after a while. One of the problems with having a console game on the PC is the user interface: This game was obviously designed with a gamepad in mind, and some features that should be present are not. Drop-down menus are completely absent in the game, which makes finding a selecting vehicles a chore. It’s nice to see the developer took the easy way out in porting Test Drive Unlimited over (although the constant auto-saving is a nice carry-over). The car models in Test Drive Unlimited are well done, with impressive levels of detail with the brakes and interiors. Still, you’d expect a contemporary racing game to feature detailed car models, so this level of quality is almost a given these days. The sound is typical for a racing game: seemingly authentic engine sounds and environment effects, including the sound of telephone poles flying by a high speed. The GPS voice has a nice comforting effect, and there is the ability to import MP3s into the game and play them through the radio (hint: use the numpad 6 key to change stations...of course!). Although Test Drive Unlimited isn’t the best looking game out there, the game does a good enough job presenting a realistic environment to race in.

ET AL.
In Test Drive Unlimited, you race on the island of Oahu, completing races to earn money to get better cars. The game starts with a tutorial where you get accustomed to the driving physics and purchase your first house to store your automobile collection. There are a number of different challenges you will encounter: classic races against the AI, timed rally-style checkpoint events, average speed events, transporting models and hitchhikers to destinations for points to purchase new clothes, or transporting goods and vehicles for serious money. Cash is pretty easy to come by in Test Drive Unlimited and the game doesn’t arbitrarily limit you to stretch out the single player experience. In about three hours, I purchased three vehicles and advanced to the third skill level. The vehicle transport and courier missions are where you earn the serious money. The races run from extremely easy on the beginning level of difficulty to quite challenging as you work your way up the ladder. The inclusion of slow traffic on narrow streets heightens the challenge. Test Drive Unlimited integrates the multiplayer aspects right into the game: if you are online, multiplayer races and other drivers will show up on your map and in your game just like single player events. You can challenge any other driver to an instant challenge if you flash your headlights at them, although in my experience they rarely accept. Multiplayer races that have active players should be more evident on the map, as every single race shows up whether people are playing it or not (the use of filters on the map should extend here). The game includes a browser to search for games, but why have a browser and a map? It seems redundant to me. The multiplayer races are also rarely class-restricted, so everyone will be using class “A” vehicles that have had the game much longer than you have. This makes multiplayer races a good thing to avoid until you’ve finished the game and unlocked everything. I’ve also experienced connection issues with Gamespy while playing Test Drive Unlimited: the game not connecting to the server when I start it up, or losing connections during the game, or not showing any servers, et cetera. Gamespy integration into PC games is generally hit or miss, and it’s more miss in Test Drive Unlimited than it should be for a supposedly MMO game. This is sad for a game that advertises itself as being massively multiplayer: you can't really play multiplayer unless you've unlocked all of the top-level vehicles (since all of the games are fixed at no class restrictions) and connectivity issues abound. Once you achieve the third experience level, the editor becomes available (accessible from the pause menu (“P”), not the escape menu…of course!) where you can create single-car timed or speed challenges for everyone to download (but not races (single or multi player) for some reason). Here, you can restrict the classes (although most people don’t) and set the level of traffic and police involvement for added difficulty. The winner of each event (they last about three days) wins the cash put down by the author and all entry fees from participants. Unfortunately, only the winner gets the cash and there seems to be some “questionable” times on some of the challenges.

If you’re not racing in Test Drive Unlimited, you’re usually driving to a race. You see, you can only race at places you’ve driven to previously, so you must explore the island to unlock new races and discover new locations. The game’s GPS unit will give you good directions to your destination and navigating around Oahu is pretty simple, although some of the expressway exits are confusing. You earn achievement points from driving around and racing which increase your experience level and unlock more difficult events. Money you earn from placing in events can be used to purchase new vehicles and homes, or upgrade existing cars. There are a number of locations in Oahu other than just the races: clothing stores to alter your appearance, clubs to start a clan, diners to play user-created missions, car and bike showrooms, rental agencies for new houses, and high-end tuners. Upgrading your car is a simple affair at a high-end tuner, as each vehicle has three packages to choose from that increases the car’s stats (and may change its class). I like the simplicity of this model, as there are too many games that make you upgrade every single part on the car instead of grouping them together as one big package.

Test Drive Unlimited is a decidedly arcade racing game, namely due to the unrealistic braking present in all of the game’s vehicles. Still, there is some skill required to maneuver the vehicles in the game at high speeds and I prefer a more approachable game to realistic physics with a steep learning curve. Test Drive Unlimited bridges the gap between the unrelenting realism of RACE and the completely arcade (but extremely fun) Trackmania. Test Drive Unlimited also has a slew of bikes to command, which are faster and twitchier than their four-wheeled counterparts. Test Drive Unlimited does unlock a hardcore more when you attain the highest experience level which offers more realistic handling, but you can’t play it in any solo challenges.

IN CLOSING
Despite the fact that Test Drive Unlimited caused my power supply to die, I found the game to be a very solid racing game. We’ve experienced similar racing action before in the Need for Speed series (and, of course, Test Drive), but the combination of a high number of challenges and multiplayer options delivers a unique racing experience. Test Drive Unlimited features a good selection of cars from famous and not-so-famous manufacturers, and the island of Oahu is ripe for a large variety of races in a number of different settings. The arcade physics are easy to get into and the game should appeal to a much wider audience than a more hardcore title. The single player game will keep you occupied for a while, and user-created matches and multiplayer races are there after you’ve finished. Some users might find the game repetitive after a while, especially since the multiplayer aspects of Test Drive Unlimited could be implemented a lot better. This is really the main thing that holds Test Drive Unlimited back: joining and creating multiplayer matches need to be easier. Due to the Gamespy software, irregular network availability, and lack of filters for indicating populated servers, joining a multiplayer game is a chore; it’s just a lot easier to play against the AI than try to find people to race against online. The game seems to put people on different servers and you can’t see everyone online at once, which makes the instant challenge mode kind of silly. Still, Test Drive Unlimited is a great idea and it’s executed well for the most part. With a little polish here and there, Test Drive Unlimited is a game you could enjoy for quite a while.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Theatre of War Review

Theatre of War, developed by 1C Company and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Great realistic gameplay, manageable force sizes, easy to find and select troops, self-sufficient AI, RPG-like character development, off-screen artillery and air support units are appropriately powerful, five campaigns for various countries with nice level design, mission editor, detailed graphics
The Not So Good: Vehicle pathfinding is atrocious, no multiplayer matchmaking, can be difficult for beginners
What say you? A mostly fantastic small-scale tactical World War II game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Two of the most renowned titles in PC gaming are IL-2 Sturmovik and Combat Mission. IL-2 Sturmovik has been regarded as one of the best combat flight simulations, while Combat Mission used a WEGO format to create one of the best World War II tactical strategy games. Now, only if you could combine the minds behind these two great products. Well, that’s exactly what they’ve done in Theatre of War, another World War II real time strategy game that might be just another title if it weren’t for its strong pedigree. Combining IL-2 Sturmovik and Combat Mission…how could you go wrong? Will Theatre of War provide any new flavor to the RTS gameplay model, other than a European-spelled title?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Theatre of War uses a slightly modified version of the IL-2 Sturmovik engine, and the game looks very similar. The first thing you’ll notice about Theatre of War is the outstanding backgrounds. This is a direct result of using the IL-2 engine and it’s quite impressive to look out into the distance; the backgrounds do a very good job in making you think you’re playing in a real place rather than in an isolated level in a computer game. The details up close aren’t too shabby either and the effects rival those found in Company of Heroes. Most of the levels take place in small towns and the surrounding farmland, and the tall grass mixed with sporadic trees and hedgerows create a great setting for the battles. Animations for reloading guns and weapon hits are superbly modeled: watching artillery rounds fly overhead and impact the ground is outstanding fun. Also, witnessing rounds ricochet off tanks (a testament to the advanced ballistics in the game) is something I can’t remember seeing in any other game. The graphics of Theatre of War are top-notch and a joy to look at. The sound is fairly average for a strategy game. Despite having native speech for all of the sides in the game (the Poles actually speak Polish), the music isn’t that memorable or enjoyable and the level of chaos never approaches the likes of Company of Heroes. Maybe it’s because the pace of Theatre of War is slower than other RTS games, but the battles don’t seem as frantic as they should be. The weapons lack the punch they should have, except for the off-screen artillery and aircraft. The sound just doesn’t come together as well as in other games, but the production values of Theatre of War are still very high and the graphics are impressive.

ET AL.
In Theatre of War, you will engage the enemy from the perspective of all five major players during World War II: the Allies (United States and United Kingdom), France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. There are a total of 41 scenarios scattered across these five campaigns, in addition to five tutorial missions, seven stand-alone missions, and eight maps for multiplayer. This is a good amount of content and it gives you the opportunity to play will all of the wonderful toys available to the commanders back in the 40s. Units from missions in each of the game’s campaigns will carry over, gaining experience and raising their stat levels. If the included missions aren’t enough, there is a mission editor included in the game so that adventurous people can develop their own missions and entire campaigns. No doubt the community will latch onto these tools. There are a couple of things that sets the scenarios of Theatre of War apart from the typical conflicts present in all those other World War II strategy games. While most games are trying to simulate the largest possible conflict your computer is capable of, Theatre of War is happy giving you intimate control over a couple of small sets of units. You’ll typically get a couple of infantry companies and a few tanks and that’s it (or their equivalents). I like this refreshing change of pace, and it makes the scenarios of Theatre of War very easy to manage. Also, the maps the game takes place on are huge: you’ll be encountering the enemy at realistic distances instead of the close quarters battles present in pretty much any other game. Sighting units hundreds of meters away and engaging them is a common affair; in this sense, Theatre of War is like the RTS equivalent of ArmA where battles take place over large areas. Of course, the downside to this is that it takes a realistically long time for reinforcements to arrive. You can play Theatre of War on several difficulty levels, although you should choose the veteran’s level to experience all of the advanced rules of the game. While Theatre of War features multiplayer, the game is disappointing in the online aspect: there is no matchmaking service in the game, so you have to manually input servers to join (obviously prearranging a game through outside means). This is pretty disappointing as Theatre of War has the capabilities to be quite a fun online game with two sides duking it out, but finding opponents from inside the game is not possible.

Between each mission you get to spend points on acquiring new troops and reinforcing existing ones. Some of the scenarios lock you into picking certain arrangements and the selection possibilities are limited (in order to make a more balanced scenario, no doubt) so you don’t have the freedom of Combat Mission in selecting your forces. Captured equipment can be used, and obsolete equipment can be replaced for newer, shinier models. The complexity of the simulation engine becomes apparent once you look at the unit attributes. Each personal weapon and vehicle in the game is given a slew of ratings: gun range, rate of fire, reload time, bullet speed and penetration, vehicle speed, and armor values for the front, side, back, top, and bottom of both the hull and turret. All of this precise information isn’t just for looks: they are used in computing whether each individually tracked shell causes any damage to its target. This results in some effects that aren’t seen in other games (or aren’t as truthful), such as ricochets and disabling turrets and tracks. The amount of depth provided by Theatre of War in simulating each weapon in the game provides some very accurate battles at realistic distances. Each person in the game is also rated in different skill areas: leadership, driver, gunner, scouting, marksmanship, intelligence, health, and morale. These skill levels can influence spotting enemy units, weapon accuracy, and more. Units gain experience and increase their skills through combat, so it’s important to keep your most experienced units alive. The ratings have a couple of ramifications. People used to just assigning random troops to captured weapons will have to consider how effective your gunner or scout will be based on their ratings. It’s another layer of realism (and micromanagement) that’s nice but also manageable because of the small sizes of the battles.

The user interface is one of the highlights of Theatre of War. The game makes finding friendly and enemy units that are off-screen very simple, as they appear as icons on the edge of the screen; clicking on an icon will take you straight to them. Since the battles usually involve a small number of troops, you can easily switch around to your different lines and check on the status of each unit. The minimap is also well-done and provides useful information. Theatre of War does feature more limited commands than Combat Mission; this is good for beginners but bad for more experienced players. Other than the basic movement commands, you can order troops to stop, attack, provide area fire, assault, defend, retreat, rotate, attach, disembark, hold fire, and hold position. I prefer the command style of Combat Mission, giving more options for movement and engagement orders. The AI does a very competent job in choosing targets, but they will move out of defensive positions to get closer to the enemy if they are not specifically told to hold position. You can issue movement (standing, kneeling, crawling) and formation orders as well, choosing loose formations when under artillery attack, tight when breaking through enemy lines, free for custom formations, line for maximum firepower, wedge to protect flanks, and column for road travel.

Support craft, like aircraft and artillery, can be called in and they are pretty impressive in their firepower: they are as lethal as they should be, and watching shells fly overhead and pound enemy positions is very exhilarating. To round out the realistic weapon information is a line of sight model that uses the landscape’s features (topography, buildings, trees) and realistic ballistics. Whether a shell hits an object depends on the performance of the gun, the performance of the shell, distance to the target, whether the target is moving, whether you are moving, if you can see it, the point of aim, the gunner skill, and weapon scatter. Just to show the emphasis on realism present in Theatre of War, there are nine types of shells in the game, including everyone’s favorite APCNR (armor-piercing subcaliber composite non-rigid shell…duh!). All of this realism isn’t perfect though, and the problems result from the AI. Vehicle pathfinding is horrible: units will go through grass and run over trees (sadly reminiscent of Rush for Berlin) instead of using the roads. In addition, vehicles have a real problem traveling in groups, as the lead vehicle slows down a lot when turning (usually to go off the road into a tree), which causes massive backups down the line. Moving a column of armored units takes about three times longer than it should, and precious seconds are ticking away as your vehicles play bumper cars kilometers away from the front lines. Other than this, Theatre of War is a solid strategy game that features very realistic ballistics and rewards thoughtful planning. It will be terribly difficult for beginners as you need to plan your troop positioning well and you can’t just send a bunch of mixed forces into the breach without any preparation. I like what the game is trying to do with its emphasis on smaller battles, and it delivers a fun gaming experience with only a couple of deficiencies.

IN CLOSING
Theatre of War is a sound real time strategy game and its smaller focus and solid AI make it stand out against the wealth of competition. The graphics engine derived from IL-2 Sturmovik look very good in the game, especially when it comes to unit animations and the spectacular backgrounds. I really like the more intimate battles present in Theatre of War: this makes the game more accessible to new users while allowing micromanagers to individually control each unit if they choose. Of course, you can also let the AI target their own enemy units since the AI is smart enough to be generally left alone. Theatre of War is a difficult game, and those people who are accustomed to just throwing units at the enemy and hoping for the best will get quickly beaten. Theatre of War emphasizes good positioning and appropriate countering of enemy units: no longer are you able to use infantry units to take out a tank that are not equipped with anti-tank weaponry. The variety of scenarios and character development options, along with the mission and map editors, make Theatre of War a total package. If they fixed the vehicle pathfinding, then Theatre of War would be one of the most complete World War II strategy games available. There are many good things about the title, and as long as you’re willing to think while you play, Theatre of War provides a rewarding strategy experience.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hacker Evolution Review

Hacker Evolution, developed and published by Exosyphen Studios.
The Good: Numerous commands and programs keep the game varied, success does not depend on typing speed, interesting puzzles to solve in a realistic environment, multiple solutions, modifiable
The Not So Good: Severe penalty for required actions, extreme difficulty, method of reducing trace levels is silly and unrealistic, fixed interface arrangement, short
What say you? An enjoyable but very difficult puzzle game about computer hacking: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ever since networked computers came about, there have been people trying to gain access to information that they are not supposed to have. Of course, doing any of these activities is highly illegal, so computer games can allow the aspiring hacker to live out his (or her, although we all know it’s only “his”) fantasies. A well-known game of this type was Uplink, a game that launched Introversion and lead to quality games like DEFCON and Darwinia. Uplink was a decent game but it was repetitive and not that realistic, as everything was accomplished through a GUI instead of from command line entries. Hoping to fill that void is Hacker Evolution, the next in the line of hacker games by developer Exosyphen Studios.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Hacker Evolution are certainly realistic, as they depict a stylized Unix environment where you run programs from a command line. If you’re used to these operating systems, there is almost no learning curve, as all of the tab completion and Unix terminology is intact (like my old friend ls). It’s sort of funny that a game that features a Unix-inspired interface is not available for a Unix-based OS (although future plans include a Linux release). All of the links you have discovered will appear on a global map, and conducting scans and bouncing links can be accomplished by clicking on the map. You can’t modify the user interface, though, as windows are in fixed positions and can’t be resized. The game adjusts to your desktop resolution, but all of that extra space earned from running above 1024 by 768 is wasted. For instance, the mission objectives window takes up the whole screen (well, you can’t select anything in the background); this information could be easily be always accessible is the user could rearrange the setup. The sound is appropriate for the genre, with techno music that is mostly non-annoying (there is one song I skip, though) and the computerized female voice is comforting. Overall, Hacker Evolution delivers realistic graphics that could be more functional and decent sound effects and music.

ET AL.
Hacker Evolution comes with a series of ten missions (including a tutorial) where you’re trying to repair the damage to the world economy reaped by some evil hackers. The gameplay consists of typing in commands to scan for new servers, gain access to those servers, and obtain valuable information. The usual slew of basic Unix commands are present (cat, del, ls, exec) for file and directory manipulation. Before gaining access to a new server, you must decrypt the key and crack the password, both of which are done by using the appropriate command line entries. After you can access, you can transfer funds from their account and download and upload files. If you have gained complete access to a server by decrypting them and crack all the ports, you can bounce links through them that will increase the time before you get traced (discovered) by the host. You don’t lose the game if you are traced, only if your global trace level reaches 100%. With the money you “earn,” you can decrease your global trace level (10% for every $500) or purchase new equipment that can increase trace time, decrease download time, or increase processing speed for cracks and decryptions. Using cash to decrease your trace level is an odd, unrealistic dynamic that doesn’t really make any sense.

The puzzles themselves are very well designed. Although you’ll generally be doing the same thing each mission (finding specific files and copying or deleting them), there are almost always multiple paths to victory. There are little clues scattered around each of the servers (mostly on ports you don’t need to access) that can unlock new servers you don’t necessarily need to win, but they provide an alternate way of getting your required information. Plus, it’s fun to look through restricted information (virtually speaking, of course). You need to find a good balance between the trace increases you’ll get from cracking these options servers, though, as accessing that new server might not be worth the amount of money you’ll need to spend to decrease your trace level back down to reasonable levels. Money is also scarce in the game and most servers don’t have any. You can, I discovered, transfer a small amount of money and not get traced instead of all of it at once. Ha! I hacked a game about hacking! You can’t save in the middle of a mission, but that isn’t really realistic and most of the levels only take about half an hour (or less) to complete. With only nine levels (plus the tutorial), Hacker Evolution is over far too quickly. Luckily, the game support mods for those who want to figure out what the simple text files and directory structures mean.

Hacker Evolution is not without its problems. The penalty for cracking passwords is way too brutal. The game forces you do to this on pretty much every level, and you're given a 15% increase in global trace level no matter how close they were to tracing you. Half a second from being traced? 15% penalty. Forty-five seconds from being traced? 15% penalty. This makes no sense. Even worse, your global trace rating carries over from level to level; since you'll be required by the game to start each new puzzle by cracking (a 15% penalty) and decrypting (which carries a 5% penalty) new servers, if you ended the previous level with more than about a 70% trace level, you might as well start the entire game over from scratch. This means starting a new puzzle costs you at least $2000 in cash right off the bat to offset your global trace increases from cracking and decrypting (and more money is needed as you progress through the level). The money in the game is so scarce that reducing your trace level will deplete all of the futile cash you had leaving hardly any room for computer upgrades. This is a fixable problem, but it means that almost everyone won't be able to complete the game if they crack one more server than needed. It's too bad that the game is so difficult, since the remainder of the gameplay is very solid and quite enjoyable.

IN CLOSING
Other than the impractical tracing levels, Hacker Evolution features a realistic and enjoyable game. It’s quite fun to type in commands, discover new servers, and follow the game’s adequate storyline. While the actions you complete may be repetitive, the methods are different and having varied answers means that you can play the same level with different means each time. I like Hacker Evolution more than Uplink because it offers more varied tasks to complete and a central storyline to follow. Plus, Hacker Evolution feels more realistic, since you’re typing in commands in a console instead of using a childish GUI. The plan to release an editor only sweetens the pot. The game is more difficult and frustrating than it should be, but the core gameplay is quite enjoyable and Hacker Evolution is recommended to anyone looking for a interesting and realistic puzzle game.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

UFO: Extraterrestrials Review

UFO: Extraterrestrials, developed by Chaos Concept and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined and intuitive gameplay with an easy to use interface, non-linear campaign, destructible environments
The Not So Good: No tutorial, outdated low-resolution graphics, no tactical game minimap, a little too similar to X-COM
What say you? A faithful reproduction of the X-COM series: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ever since the release of X-COM :UFO Defense in 1995, developers have tried to emulate the alien-inspired combination of tactical and strategic gameplay. I’ve recently reviewed a couple of these tributes: UFO: Afterlight and it's predecessor UFO: Aftershock. Ultimately, the Altar UFO games just didn’t do it for me (and by “do it” I mean “have sexual intercourse,” and by “have sexual intercourse” I mean “provide a compelling gaming experience”). Along comes the completely unrelated but similarly titled UFO: Extraterrestrials, a game that doesn’t try to hide its obvious source of inspiration, hoping to cash in on people who really enjoyed X-COM. Will UFO: Extraterrestrials fill the void left by more than ten years of unsatisfying copycats?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of UFO: Extraterrestrials is decidedly outdated, especially when you compare it against competing titles. The game just lacks the level of detail that you would expect from a title released in 2007. Everything in the game has a fuzzy quality to it from the globe view to the characters in tactical mode. The special effects are nothing special as well. It feels as though UFO: Extraterrestrials was released about seven years ago when games were predominately played from fixed isometric perspectives (you can't rotate the in-game view). The good thing about the graphics is that the user interface is very straightforward and navigating through UFO: Extraterrestrials is extremely easy. This is where the title has a leg up on the competition, as I never became confused with the arrangement of the bases like I did in UFO: Afterlight. While lacks the flair present in many contemporary titles, these shortcomings are offset by a good interface and, as you’ll see, generally solid gameplay. The sound in the game has a nice subdued nature to it: you’re never blasted with over-the-top music or annoying people talking to you (like in UFO: Afterlight). Some may dislike the lack of voiced dialogue and the limited selection of sound effects and a more dynamic environment could be presented , but in general the sound effects don’t get in the way of the gameplay, and that’s really the way it should be in a tactical game. Still, UFO: Extraterrestrials is definitely behind UFO: Afterlight in terms of graphical and auditory quality.

ET AL.
In UFO: Extraterrestrials, you are defending the planet of Esperanza (Earth has long been taken over) against constant alien invasions. The first thing you’ll notice in the game is a complete lack of a tutorial. This is inexcusable, and the manual doesn’t provide enough information for veteran players (where are my weapon lists and research tree?), so if you’re not accustomed to games in the X-COM ilk, you’ll need to restart the game several times before you get the hang of it. Heck, I’ve played other UFO/X-COM games and I needed to restart the game thrice before I got everything “right.” The game plays out in two phases: global base construction and defense and tactical battles. On the global map, you will start with one base and detected alien craft will appear on-screen. Then, you will need to send fighter aircraft to destroy the ship and then send a crew in a transport to deal with the survivors (which are always there if the crash occurred on land). The UFO appearances are randomized, so you can replay the game over again and see a different frequency of alien activity. Of course, the research trees are the same, so each new game isn’t totally different. Esperanza is divided up into nine different countries and your income is dependent on how well you defend them from alien attacks. New bases can only have a limited amount of structures built on them (hangers for aircraft and defenses); this is a design decision to limit the ability to make the human player outpace the alien AI. Whether you like the decision is up to you (personally I don’t have a problem with it), so if you’re used to powering your way through X-COM, the reins will be quite a bit tighter in UFO: Extraterrestrials.

In each base, you can give each of your soldiers new weapons, items, and ammunition and assign them to a specific transport craft (they are limited in the number of troops they can carry). Each soldier is assigned a rank according to their experience in fighting and killing aliens. Gaining a rank allows you to increase their skills in eight areas: armor, agility, vitality, bravery, strength, reactions, throwing, and shooting. Each soldier can carry equipment on their shoulders, belt, hands, and in their backpack; there isn’t a weight limit (although some weapons required a certain strength level), just a space limit. Soldiers that are wounded in battle are automatically sent to the hospital and unavailable for a number of days, depending on the severity of their injury. Soldiers in UFO: Extraterrestrials don’t die unless the entire team is eliminated. While this is a bit unrealistic, the game is tough enough where it’s a good thing that you never really lose your most experienced players until you really screw up a mission. Your attack aircraft can be fitted with shields, missiles, and guns to ward off alien invasions. Research and production is straightforward: each lab or workshop grants ten scientists (or workers) that can be assigned to any unlocked project (you can research more than one thing at a time). As I mentioned earlier, the research tree is linear so you’ll be going through the same technologies each time you play, but your emphasis may change over time. Only researched weapons and items can be produced by your workers; basic weapons and aircraft can be purchased from the countries in the game through the buy/sell interface.

Once you’ve equipped your troops with the latest gadgets and taken down another alien ship, it’s time for a tactical mission. The tactical missions are very reminiscent of X-COM. Unlike UFO: Afterlight where the action was presented in pausable real-time, the tactical battles of UFO: Extraterrestrials are turn-based and each soldier has a number of action points per turn that they may spend moving and shooting. I like the turn-based mode of UFO: Extraterrestrials much more than the annoying pause-every-two-seconds gameplay of UFO: Afterlight. Of course, at the end of the scenario the battles can get tedious, but for the most part they are pretty action packed as you search the landscapes for aliens. The maps are varied and depend on the terrain the ship crashed on. There is no way of knowing whether a map includes a building (rendering vehicles pretty much useless), though. I do wish the tactical battles had a minimap so that I can scour the map more easily (since you can’t zoom or rotate the map). Issuing commands is very straightforward and action point costs are clearly displayed; clicking on a weapon will come up with the probability of hitting the enemy and the action point cost. You can choose from aimed (most accurate but highest action point costs), snap (the opposite), or automatic shooting. You’ll want to use the aimed mode the most (and kneel for even more accurate shots), but if you are limited in your action point amounts, the other two modes come into play. Throwing grenades and launching rockets are done in the same manner, and these potentially dangerous methods highlight the destructible environments present in the game. Need a door? Make one with a grenade or rocket! This is pretty cool and also fun, in a sort of sadistic way. Minor injuries can be treated in the field with medkits (they must be researched and produced). The AI opponents are generally pretty good, although they seem to operate independently (they generally don’t “swarm” your team) and some of the game comes down to luck. Still, UFO: Extraterrestrials is a challenging, rewarding, and fun game as you guide your team against the alien threat. Anyone who played X-COM will feel right at home with UFO: Extraterrestrials, and it’s a good (if overly familiar) follow-up to that classic game.

IN CLOSING
Of all the X-COM-like games to be released after the original, UFO: Extraterrestrials is one of the better ones. For the most part, it keeps true to what made the original game engrossing to an obsessive amount. There are a couple of small tweaks made to the mechanics to make UFO: Extraterrestrials more accessible to a wider audience that veteran players might scoff at, but these are welcome changes to the basic game. The graphics and sound need an overhaul and an update to the 21st century, but since UFO: Extraterrestrials focuses (as it should) on gameplay, most people will be able to overlook the presentation’s shortcomings. UFO: Extraterrestrials should spawn a mod community that will offer changes and additions to the basic game, so people who complain that UFO: Extraterrestrials is too similar to X-COM will be able to change the game somewhat. The game is fun to play: fans of the strategic and tactical mix that was perfected in X-COM will find that UFO: Extraterrestrials almost lives up to the lofty expectations of an unofficial follow-up. It may not be as groundbreaking as the original, but UFO: Extraterrestrials still offers some solid gameplay that’s a few tweaks short of a completely recommendable title.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Real E$tate Empire Review

Real E$tate Empire, developed and published by Rusty Axe.
The Good: Some interesting strategic decisions to make, simple controls, different occupations provide varied bonuses
The Not So Good: Initially difficult to turn a consistent profit, repetitive gameplay with no unpredictability, starting conditions are always the same, AI competitors are too good and no difficulty settings are provided, no multiplayer, only one city
What say you? A very challenging and tedious house flipping game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It seems that the new trend in real estate (as opposed to fake estate, I imagine) is to buy crappy houses, fix them up, and sell them at an inflated price. The popularity of the shows Flip That House, Flip This House, and The Flip Wilson Show indicates that there is a market for this sort of thing. It was just a matter of time, then, before a computer game was made to simulate hot real estate action, and that game is Real E$tate Empire.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Real E$tate Empire takes place on a 2-D isometric map of a town, and the graphics look decent for a 2-D isometric map of a town. Although there isn’t a great variety in the style of the houses in the game, it is pretty easy to tell good neighborhoods from bad ones. There are some nice effects in the game when a house is sold, and the interface is easy to use with large buttons and clear indications of the various economic aspects of the simulation. In a game such as this, you don’t necessarily need cutting-edge 3-D graphics to render the city; in fact, they might make the game more cumbersome to manage, so an isometric perspective is just fine with me. The sound in the game also does a good job in relaying information to the player. Real E$tate Empire also has pleasant background music to listen to as you go bankrupt. Overall, the graphics and sound of Real E$tate Empire are just fine: they don’t amaze, but they aren’t terrible either.

ET AL.
In Real E$tate Empire, you are a plucky young investor trying to make a profit in purchasing ugly houses, repairing them, and then selling them for a profit. I’ve never understood how $300 in repairs can increase the value of a house by $1,000 (are the buyers stupid or something?), but this phenomenon is in full force here. You’ll start the game by playing the short tutorial that teaches you the basics in about two minutes. You’ll need to choose an occupation to start with, each with its advantages: contractors can buy materials for less, realtors save money when selling, interior decorators are useful for more expensive houses, and MBAs get better loans. Real E$tate Empire is only a single player game where you’ll test your mettle against the AI; adding a multiplayer aspect of the game would be welcome. You’ll start your money making venture by purchasing houses: the market value and asking price are indicated, and the areas of the house that need repair are also presented. Like real life, houses are more expensive during the spring and good economies, so selling houses during these times and buying them later will result in more profits. The game progresses in real time, but you can accelerate to the end of the month if you’re not doing much. After you have acquired a new house, you’ll spend some money upgrading it. This is where the game becomes less clear, as the condition of every aspect of the house is summed to an overall value, which in turn determines the value of the property. The game doesn’t make it clear how many repairs are needed to advance to the next level, so you can spend a lot of money repairing and replacing things and not go up in value at all. This doesn’t make any sense (at least to me): how can I spend $40 repairing the trashed carpet and have the value increase by $1,000, and then spend $3,000 replacing the poor roof and plumbing and not have it increase at all? There seems to be thresholds to each level of overall quality (this control the price), but Real E$tate Empire doesn’t say where there thresholds lie. Of course, this is the crux of the gameplay, so giving too much information to the player might result in a completely uninteresting title, but having a number line would be of great assistance. The AI always seems to make the correct decisions and they will quickly outpace you in profits.

There are some interesting decisions to make during the game, however. Choosing which houses to purchase, when to purchase them, and what things to repair or replace is appealing and the possibilities are numerous. Once you are ready to sell your house, you can choose to do it through a realtor (useful for exposure or poor market conditions), a for sale by owner service, or through the newspaper. Eventually, the offers will start rolling in and the game will indicate how much money you stand to lose (or maybe even earn) in each possible transaction. The longer you hold a property, the more money you’ll have to spend in mortgage payments, so quick turn-around is recommended. Once you’re done with your career, you can compare your prowess against other humans through the online high score table. Once you learn the basic mechanics of the game, there really isn’t that much to Real E$tate Empire. You’ll eventually be able to purchase more expensive houses, but it’s really about purchasing trashed houses at a low price, fixing them up, and selling them when the market is good. There are no random events (like a repair effort gone horribly, horribly wrong like I see on TV) to keep the game interesting past the first ten minutes of play. The start of the game is always the same with the same city and the same low-income houses you can purchase: there is no way of altering the starting conditions in the game. The developers could have made an interesting by adding some variety to the game, but instead Real E$tate Empire just becomes monotonous after a while.

IN CLOSING
Real E$tate Empire is well-designed, but it lacks the replay value and longevity required to maintain interest in the game. It is certainly easy to get into the game: the controls are very straightforward, and everyone can understand the economics of buy low and sell high. Finding the right balance between spending money on repairs and how much profit you’ll gain is challenging and fun, at least for the first ten minutes of the game. There should be more directions given to beginning players on when to sell and how much to repair; as it stands it’s just trial and error until you find the right balance. Real E$tate Empire is also terribly repetitive, as each new game is the same and there are absolutely no random events to spice up the action. Where are the surprise termites? Where are the Indian burial grounds? There is the basis for a solid and entertaining game, but Real E$tate Empire becomes too tiresome too quickly.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sonoro TV Review

Sonoro TV, developed and published by Devilish Games.
The Good: Very unique gameplay mechanics, thought-provoking puzzles
The Not So Good: Requires a lot of coordination and precision, no multiplayer
What say you? An original and challenging combination of Lemmings and a platform game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the things that sets the PC apart from the consoles is the ability to make and distribute custom content. The popularity of user made modifications in a number of games has prolonged their existence (see Counter-Strike). In fact, a lot of developers are providing the ability to modify newly released games in the hope that the community will drive a title to a longer lifespan. User-created content drives Sonoro TV, a platform game where you must edit the level in real time while guiding an assortment of strange creatures to the exit, all the while avoiding the evil D.J. Sonoro and his evil evilness. Does Sonoro TV make itself unique amongst a crowded genre?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Sonoro TV are minimalist, as the game’s focus is on painting your way through each level. Each of the small 2-D characters are nicely detailed and the game is set against static backgrounds. Sonoro TV certainly has a Microsoft Paint feel to it; I wish using the different paint types resulted in more than just a different color, instead inducing some amount of flair with objects similar to, say, Armadillo Run (another minimalist game). Still, the game’s graphics do their job. The game features some fast techno and rap music that fits the chaotic mood well. You’d figure that a game with a D.J. would feature fairly decent music, and Sonoro TV’s tunes are entertaining enough, although pretty forgettable. Overall, Sonoro TV features exactly what you’d expect for an independent title: graphics and sounds that do what they are supposed to and nothing more.

ET AL.
In Sonoro TV, you will guide your autonomous characters (and yourself) to each exit in the game’s 30 levels, avoiding the evil D.J. Sonoro (I said this in the introduction, but repeating myself makes my review appear longer). This is done by drawing platforms and walls that your creatures will use and (hopefully) guide them to the exit. In your way is D.J. Sonoro, who will be shooting your platforms, destroying them, and capturing any creature he comes into contact with. The game’s tutorial does a good job in showing the mechanics of the game, but it progresses slowly and you can’t skip sections even after you’ve completed the indicated task. Sonoro TV differs from normal platform games in that you must construct your solution, and it differs from puzzle games in that you must navigate the level yourself and you’re limited in your range of construction. Painting is done using the mouse and you can lay down six different types of surfaces: orange destroyable platforms, pink walls, yellow permanent platforms, green jumping platforms, violet timed platforms (that disappear after a while), and blue sticky platforms. You are limited in your construction abilities (otherwise the game would be too easy): you are only granted to have a certain amount of each platform on-screen at once (you can erase unneeded platforms) and you can only draw in a small radius around your character. Sonoro TV requires a good amount of coordination, as you must move your character with they keyboard, draw platforms using the mouse, and keep an eye on the location of all of the creatures and D.J. Sonoro all at the same time. Platform types are switched by either clicking on the icon in the lower right part of the screen or pressing a number key; since the numbers and arrow keys are far apart on the keyboard, this makes switching paint styles during the middle of a game difficult. I would like to see the ability to switch paint types using the mouse wheel. Sonoro TV features a reasonable level of challenge: the game never “cheats” to make it more challenging and the amount of coordination required to be successful in the game is dependent on you. Sonoro TV is very tough but not impossible, as there is a solution to each puzzle and it’s just a matter of coordinating your actions at the right times in order to be successful. Creatures do not move or jump the same as you do, making it difficult to gauge where to put platforms, but that’s part of the challenge. There isn’t much that could make this game any better, other than the possibility of some awesome multiplayer battles over the Internet.

IN CLOSING
Sonoro TV is a well-executed game with an original idea that’s difficult to improve upon, barring the addition of multiplayer. The game mechanics are certainly unique and the overall concept is like nothing else I can remember. This alone is reason enough to check out the game. The level of challenge in the game is appropriate, the interface elements are good, and the style and presentation is nice. Multiplayer battles (either cooperative or competitive) could have been a very nice addition, but we still have a nice little game to enjoy. Anyone who’s been looking for something different should take a look at Sonoro TV, as it offers a unique and challenging gaming experience.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

ArmA: Combat Operations Review

ArmA: Combat Operations, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Atari.
The Good: An authentic representation of military combat, outstanding mission editor and easy-to-use quick mission builders, side missions in campaign, the ability to switch soldiers during battles alleviates some difficulty, a very large island nation to play with, support for large online games, visual effects that affect gameplay, Armory mini-games
The Not So Good: Most solo missions are ridiculously difficult, AI has problems moving, only one save per mission, formations cause troops to spread out too far, irregular speech
What say you? Almost the pinnacle of realistic military shooters, but the AI is woeful and it’s too hard for mass acceptance: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
PC games are full of niche titles meant to cater to a very specific audience, and that’s one reason why I feel it’s the best platform. You just will never see true simulations on the consoles because they are driven by money instead of creating good games that just might not appeal to everyone. While most of these games are in the strategy or simulation genres, there are a few first person shooters that haven’t caved into the brainless, mass produced combat of Ghost Recon or Battlefield. I am specifically referring to Operation Flashpoint, a fantastic game released in 2001 that strived to be the most accurate military available. Real militaries thought so much of the game that an altered version of the engine was sold to numerous nations around the world. The true sequel to Operation Flashpoint is now here in America, called ArmA: Combat Operations (the publisher of Operation Flashpoint still owns the rights to the name). Bohemia Interactive’s new title features improved graphics and more refined gameplay to continue the proud tradition laid by Operation Flashpoint. Will ArmA: Combat Operations satisfy the genre’s rabid fans?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
ArmA: Combat Operations is a graphical improvement over Operation Flashpoint, which is a good thing considering the developers have had six years to improve them. The game features a huge island on which the game takes place, and the location feels like a real place and there are no areas of the map that are devoid of detail. This is one of the more impressive aspects of the game, as the variety of buildings, towns, and landscapes makes for a realistic setting. Each of the game’s units are detailed as you would expect; even the inside of armored units seem to be realistically rendered. There are also some nice minor touches made to the game, such as dynamic bugs, wind, and cloud cover changes. Also, ArmA has a number of visual effects that aren't just there to look pretty: they impact the gameplay. First, there is a lot of 3-D grass in the game that makes going prone less of a viable options: you'll need to crouch in order to see the enemy, which obviously has its accuracy disadvantages. Also, ArmA incorporates a lot of HDR into the game, which makes starting into the sun or switching on (and off) night vision affect your vision. Playing the game at night adds a whole new dimension to the game. There are reports that these improved graphics come at a price, but I’ve been able to run the game at high (1280 by 1024) resolution and high settings with no problems (my computer is a year old, but it has a new (GeForce 8800) video card). Overall, the graphics present a realistic and compelling environment in which to play. The audio in the game ranges from fantastic to absolutely horrible. The combat sounds, such as bullets passing overhead (which sound like a small firecracker) and the general chaos of killing is very well done. The environmental sounds, consisting of birds, wind, waves, and the like, also fit the atmosphere of the game well and create a believable environment. However, the soldier’s non-scripted speech is still as irregular as it was six years ago. Hearing your commanding officer say, “ALL…move to that…TREE at…12 O’CLOCK,” takes you out of the realistic environment. Since there aren’t very many phrases to say, you’d think they could make it sound a little bit better, but the robotic voices remain. The background music is also terrible; I would much rather have no background music at all than the selection of metal/techno tunes in ArmA (the high squeal during the first sniper side mission in the campaign was enough to make me shut the music off entirely). While the sound detracts from the realism of the game, the graphics offset these shortcomings and ArmA ends up being a better than average game in terms of presentation.

ET AL.
ArmA: Combat Operations is a realistic tactical military shooter that takes place on the fictitious island of Sahrani, where the capitalists and the communists are at it yet again. People familiar with Operation Flashpoint will easily drop into ArmA, as the two games share a lot of similarities. ArmA: Combat Operations features a number of training missions to get to acquainted with the game; since ArmA is a realistic game, those gamers accustomed to arcade shooters like Battlefield 2142 or Call of Duty will have to adjust to how real soldiers perform in the field. The tutorials are comprehensive, but they tend to drag along too long. ArmA: Combat Operations features a single player campaign where you defend the island against the communist aggressors. The main missions in the campaign do a good job of mixing up the action, featuring large scale battles, small skirmishes, and different objectives like destroying convoys and blowing bridges. Unfortunately, side missions that are also solo missions are almost completely impossible. Sniper missions are difficult, as you’re always greatly outnumbered and the enemy AI instantly spots you after you fire. Another mission has you single-handedly destroying three tanks by yourself: why is this task in a supposedly realistic military simulation? Wouldn’t real military forces send at least a small squad for the job? The fact that you can only save once per mission (and each mission usually has multiple objectives) makes the difficulty hard to bare. The community-driven content will make up for this deficiency somewhat, but it’s still inexcusable to make you play Rambo in a “realistic” simulation. The U.S. version of ArmA comes with the armory, a set of mini-games surrounding all of the game's weapons and vehicles. For each piece of military hardware, you need to successfully complete a series of missions in order to unlock additional arms. These missions consist of a driving range, a shooting range, transporting people, and races, along with a series of smaller, secondary missions that involve attaining a high speed or driving a specified distance. The armory is a nice addition to the game and it would take quite a while to unlock each of the game's over 100 objects, as it takes 20-30 minutes to accumulate enough points to unlock an additional firearm. ArmA incorporates user made weapons and vehicles into the armory and automatically develops missions for them as well. There is some variety in the missions, but they become repetitive quickly and some of the secondary missions (namely getting a high speed) are impossible. In addition, it takes about twice as long as it should to unlock the next weapon. Still, the armory is a nice idea and a good change of pace from the basic game.

After you are done throwing your keyboard in frustration after losing yet another mission, you can try your hand at multiplayer. This is one of the best aspects of the game, as there are a large number of game possibilities. ArmA: Combat Operations ships with seven competitive multiplayer game types: capture the flag, dog fight (with aircraft), flag fight, sector control, seize the area, survivor, and deathmatch. In addition, you can play cooperative play in custom missions. Making a custom mission is so easy, and the tools for creating cooperative and competitive multiplayer campaigns are useful and should result in a ton of user content that will extend the life of the title immensely. People are still playing Operation Flashpoint (and making new scenarios for it), and that game was released six years ago, so you can imagine the dedicated following that ArmA will have. Since the game has been out in Europe for months, there are missions already made to download. The game even includes templates for mission types, which means you can create a functioning custom mission anywhere on the island in a matter of minutes. As Operation Flashpoint clearly indicates, there is quite a large community that backs this series, and the replay value in multiplayer games is enormous. If you can’t find anyone to play with, you can set up a server with AI bots that perform decently. The multiplayer isn’t without some problems: it’s too easy to camp since each side is only given one spawn point in team-based games. In the Battlefield-like sector control game, you have to start over from the solitary spawn point after each respawn instead of choosing a control point. Still, there is a lot to like in multiplayer, and the large number of cooperative games on the Internet shows that there is a good following for this game already.

As I stated before, ArmA: Combat Operations is as realistic as it gets for a first person shooter, so a lot of the stupid tactics that can fly in other games, like “bunny hopping” or shooting while running won’t fly. This takes a lot of the reaction-time skills out of the equation and favors more tactical decisions over running and gunning. I like this a lot, as I’m tired of people shooting from the hip or jumping like idiots while playing online. Sniping is very difficult as you need to adjust your aim for bullet drop, but shooting someone in the face from 300 yards away should be difficult. The main rule of ArmA is to get cover or keep moving. If you are stationary and out in the open, you are dead meat. And you’ll be dead meat a lot, from random explosions and other unlucky events. Luckily, you can switch people during a match, which makes completing the team missions much more palatable. ArmA features the weapons and vehicles that were available at the end of the 20th century for the U.S. and Russian forces. Assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, jeeps, tanks, helicopters, artillery, and boats all make their appearances. These weapons seem to behave realistically, and driving a jeep or tank now seems more true-to-life as well, since you’re no longer able to turn without slowing down like in other games. If you are given command of troops, you can issue orders to them by selecting them and going through a menu system. It’s a cumbersome procedure, but there’s not really any better way of doing it. The choices are comprehensive: giving different formations, engagement rules, and the like. The formations are generally too spread out and there’s no way to adjust this.

The main issue I have with ArmA is the AI: it’s just not smart enough in the game. They will not actively look for cover and they stand up and sit down and move for no apparent reason. They will engage the enemy, though, at least most of the time. I had to play the same mission (the 2nd one in the campaign) over and over for about four hours because the anti-tank units wouldn't fire on the last remaining enemy armored unit. Of course, I couldn't order them so since I wasn't the commanding officer, and I was given a machine gun and not a rocket launcher; I looked around for one and as soon as I picked one up from a fallen soldier, the enemy BMP noticed me (apparently, if I'm not an anti-tank unit I am no threat) and killed me. The enemy AI seems to be better than the friendly AI for some reason; of course, this may be due to the fact that I'm not depending on the enemy AI to shoot people in order to complete a mission. Another mission had me set up a trap using satchel charges to destroy a convoy of enemy vehicles. So, my scout said they were coming, and I waited, and waited, and waited. Twenty minutes later I was wondering what the heck was going on. So, I jumped in a vehicle and went down the road, and saw the convoy parked for no reason at all. I played a mission I can’t win and wasted all of that time because the enemy AI wouldn’t drive down a road. Awesome. So I reloaded the mission and tried it again, and this time the tanks kept coming and I beat the mission. The next mission, I had to restart because one of the enemy AI tanks flipped over. That’s right: it flipped over while driving across a bridge. This is some of the most questionable pathfinding I’ve seen in any game. While the AI in Company of Heroes actively searches for cover when under attack, the AI in ArmA: Combat Operations is too busy running into things, getting out of formation, crouching with no cover near them, and constantly speeding up and slowing down or changing stances to be of any help. It’s quite comical in a sad way. I can’t remember the last time I’ve played a game where I had to restart a mission because the enemy AI crashed into something. And I certainly can’t remember a game where it happened in two separate missions. While the AI might not move intelligently unless specifically scripted to, they do shoot well, and you'll die quite frequently while playing the game. The enemy AI seems to instantly find you if you peek out in the open; this is exacerbated because of the unbalanced missions, where you are typically a lone soldier against superior numbers (including tanks and mixed forces). The games plays well if you are the commanding officer and you can specifically instruct your soldiers to “seek cover,” as they won’t do this on their own, going prone right in the middle of a street. “Seek cover” needs to be a default command whenever enemy contact is seen and it should be (but isn’t) issued by the AI officer every time. If you are not the commander, the poor friendly AI means you’ll need to kill a majority of the enemy units yourself in large battles, which makes the unbalanced scenarios even worse. ArmA: Combat Operations works best when you are part of a team and you can order that team around.

IN CLOSING
ArmA: Combat Operations is the definition of a niche game: some people will absolutely love the title, while others will completely hate the dedication to realism. Personally, I enjoy tactical shooters like this so ArmA is a very promising title, much like Operation Flashpoint was years ago. There are some basic issues that definitely need to be addressed: the AI pathfinding needs some work (especially with stances and following leader units in urban terrain) and the missions are too difficult (an “easy” mode with decreased damage would solve a lot of the problems, combined with better allied AI). I think where ArmA will shine is in the community-made scenarios and modifications. ArmA features realism with a capital “R” in everything it does: weather, time of day, bullet physics, the lack of jumping, vehicle turning, firing a weapon, and more. The multiplayer options are great as well and the editors will make the title stand out for quite a long time. When this game is fun, it’s really fun, but when it’s frustrating, you just want to quit playing for a while. If you’re going to have a realistic military shooter, that’s fine; if you’re going to feature one on twelve battles, then you might need to relax the difficulty a bit. The more I played ArmA, the more I enjoyed it, but then my AI helicopter pilot would bail out of the chopper causing me to fail the mission, or the group I was trying to transport would either go prone or get run over by an AI truck, and I'd be screaming at the stupid AI again. Much like Distant Guns, ArmA: Combat Operations is aimed at a specific audience, and those who are adept at realistic shooters and can look past the AI problems will find a lot to enjoy.