Saturday, June 30, 2007

Lunar Domination Review

Lunar Domination, developed and published by Valen Games.
The Good: Interesting economic gameplay with some unique mechanics, really challenging AI, good tutorial
The Not So Good: Repetitive gameplay, no random maps, no multiplayer
What say you? An economic simulation restricted by its lack of variety: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So there are these people who want to mine the moon for resources. Now, the moon used to be a chunk of the Earth (a very large object struck the earth four billion years ago, shearing off material that accreted into the moon), so anything we mine from the moon is exactly the same stuff we would find on Earth. What’s the point? They want to mine the moon for materials they need to construct the equipment needed to mine the moon. Sounds like a foolproof plan to me! Cashing in on this moon mining mania is Lunar Domination, and economic simulation that takes place on the moon.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
People don’t usually play economic simulations for the cutting-edge graphics, and Lunar Domination is no exception. These are outdated isometric graphics with hardly any animation, circa SimCity 2000. The upside to this presentation is that the game is fairly easy to get around, although I would like most of the options in the game to be present on one screen; having a menu for two items seems silly. Of course, the graphics in this type of game don’t really matter, but it would still be nice to play in a dynamic environment. The sound effects in the game are understated and the background music is non-intrusive. Overall, Lunar Domination lags behind most of the computer gaming world in terms of graphics and sound, but these aren’t focuses of the game, so in the end it’s superfluous.

ET AL.
The object of Lunar Domination is to fill the quota of two clients before your opponent does. You do this by mining and processing three kinds of ore (iron, aluminum, and titanium), making bids on contacts, and fulfilling them. The lowest bid wins and you are limited to one bid per contract, and you must fill your contracts or the client will stop offering you orders. Lunar Domination features a good tutorial to the game, but the other features are greatly limited. There are only a handful of maps to play on but the maps look to be easily generated on the fly due to their simplicity. The game also lacks multiplayer and you can only compete against one opponent.

Each map is divided into sectors that you can purchase, but you can only purchase ones adjacent or diagonal to sectors you already own. In each sector, you will build structures that will either extract and process ore or support your operations. Clients will request either raw or processed ore; raw ore is extracted with a mine, and it is processed in a refinery. You will also need to construct space ports to deliver the ore to your customers. You will need to construct life support buildings, housing for workers, and warehouses to store finished product. Resources, including housing and storage space, are shared among connected sectors; however, taxes are higher for connected sectors, so you might make more money using diagonal sectors, but then you’ll have to build more buildings for life support, workers, and storage. It’s an interesting strategic decision that among several present in the game. You’ll have to guide your construction options towards two of the three clients to win the game, and managing the bidding, acquisition of sectors, which buildings to buy makes for an interesting game, at least in the beginning. Each successive game plays out the same, since the orders and the companies are always the same. A single company asks for the same two types of ore each game, so once you get a basic build order down, it’s just a matter of going through the game. Helping this monotony is the very challenging AI: even on “easy,” the computer will own you until you get the mechanics down. But once you’ve played the game once, each successive game will be almost exactly the same as the AI is fairly linear and keeps to its own. The lack of multiple player games makes Lunar Domination a lot less interesting in the long-term.

IN CLOSING
Lunar Domination has some good components, but the originality wears out after the first couple of games. I like the multiple facets to the game: bidding for contracts, acquiring new sectors, and deciding which buildings to construct. The AI proves to be a very capable opponent, and there are some interesting decisions to be made in the game. However, since each game is the same as the last, with the same ore quotas from the same three companies, repetition rears its ugly head. Also, there is no multiplayer, no random maps, and you can only play against one AI player. While an entertaining core game may be present, the extras are lacking, and ultimately Lunar Domination is fun for just one or two games.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

H-Craft Championship Review

H-Craft Championship, developed and published by Irrgheist.
The Good: Unique physics, single computer multiplayer time trials
The Not So Good: Very steep learning curve, infallible AI, no track editor, no online play
What say you? A distinctive driving model that is way too difficult for mass acceptance: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Scientists are feverishly working towards making alternative fuels a viable reality. Apparently, there’s a problem with using non-renewable resources as primary fuel sources. At current consumption rates, coal reserves will be exhausted in 250 years and petroleum will disappear in 30-40 years. Thanks for destroying the Earth, SUV jerks. My money is on crop-based ethanol. Not only will fuel consumption change, but the appearance and engineering of automobiles will change in the future as well, and it’s fun to think about what future cars will look like. While most computer games try to depict present-day automobiles, H-Craft Championship takes place in the future where racing on suspended tracks in hovercraft is the norm. This is certainly original concept; will H-Craft Championship provide unique racing mechanics?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of H-Craft Championship are simplistic but effective. The game takes place in space, but I think this is just a way to have fairly generic backgrounds be plausible. The vehicle modes are good enough and the rocket effects are nice, but nobody will be impressed by the graphics. Still, they hold up OK. The sound is understated but effective as well. In general, the graphics and the sound are both pretty typical for an independent game. In fact, they are so typical that my “graphics and sound” section is shorter than usual. Hooray!

ET AL.
H-Craft Championship is a straight up racing game using hovercrafts on alarmingly narrow suspended race tracks. There is a championship mode where you earn points in three events to unlock the next set of events. Thankfully, you don’t need to win in each individual event to advance (an average of second out of four is usually good enough). Once you unlock a track, it is available as an arcade race and a time attack (pretty self explanatory). There is also a multiplayer time trial mode so you can challenge other racers to rally-style action on the same computer. H-Craft Championship lacks online play of any kind, however. Another thing the game lacks is a track editor. Since the tracks are simplistic, the lack of an editor is confusing. It would seem to be very simple to whip together a track in a matter of minutes, but H-Craft Championship lacks this feature.

So, how different is driving a hovercraft in space? Well, I can say this is the most difficult driving game I’ve ever played. H-Craft Championship uses inertia in its driving model, and since your hovercraft lacks wheels (it hovers), the learning curve is very steep. You have to steer before the turn and accelerating will push you forward instead of around a corner if you are turning. It’s really, really difficult, and I still haven’t completely gotten the hang of it. The tracks makes things even more difficult, as you can (and will) fall off the edge of the narrow tracks. This begins with the very first map, too, which makes learning the game a potentially frustrating experience. There are occasional walls around the tracks and you would figure the first tracks would be chock full of them, but there’s no easing you in to H-Craft Championship. The AI is also very scripted and very good: they don’t many any mistakes and run the same pattern each lap. The combination of the infallible AI, tough tracks, and unique mechanics makes H-Craft Championship an extremely difficult game to play.

IN CLOSING
H-Craft Championship has an interesting driving model, that’s for sure, but it only goes so far. The game is short on the special features: while it comes with a good number of tracks in the championship mode, H-Craft Championship lacks an editor and online play. The game also throws you right into the action with no driver assists or many walls to prevent you from plummeting to your doom. The superhuman AI doesn’t make things any easier. In the end, H-Craft Championship is so difficult that it will ultimately only appeal to hardcore driving fanatics.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

SpaceForce: Rogue Universe Review

SpaceForce: Rogue Universe, developed by Provox Games and published by DreamCatcher Games.
The Good: Beautiful graphics, multiple professions and races with diplomacy, lots of side missions, numerous tradable items, RPG-like ship upgrades, useful alternatives to combat, two game modes
The Not So Good: No tutorial and the first mission is exceedingly difficult, incredibly lengthy battles, dreadful voice acting
What say you? A generally enjoyable space adventure, but the game is extremely hard on beginners: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
After a period of absence, the space adventure game is making quite a comeback. Once a staple of the PC, flying through space, blowing stuff up, and trading items is now pretty popular again with plenty of releases recently: DarkStar One, Arvoch Conflict, and Starshatter to name a few. I can always go for a good space saga and SpaceForce: Rogue Universe hopes to fill that need, with its overt spaceness, forceness, and rogueness (with a dash of universeness). In fact, there have been so many space game recently that I’ve run out of things to say in this introduction, so on with the review!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Clearly the highlight of the game, SpaceForce: Rogue Universe has some really awesome graphics. Everything in the game looks absolutely spectacular. The ships and stations in the game are finely detailed. Planets are actually massive and to scale, unlike Star Trek: Legacy. The space of SpaceForce is full of dust and asteroids that fly by (although there are maybe too many asteroids). Even the interior of your ship has some nice touches, from glowing buttons to sun glare curving on the concave window (can’t say I’ve seen that before). HDR lighting is very impressive as well, especially with the singular star source and reflective surfaces present on many of the objects in the game. Battles are equally impressive, with wonderful weapon and explosion effects. And the game runs very smoothly: I was able to crank everything up and still run at a buttery-smooth 60 frames per second. I usually don’t put a lot of emphasis on the graphics, but the graphics of SpaceForce are quite impressive. The sound is not as remarkable, though. While the battle effects are fine enough, the voice acting is really annoying. Not only is the voice acting not that good, but during battles hackneyed phrases are repeated by your enemies over and over and over again. It’s very irritating. The background music, while tolerable, defaults at a very high volume, so you’ll need to turn it down before your ears bleed. But the graphics are really good, so you’ll quickly forget about the sound, at least until the next battle.

ET AL.
SpaceForce features a story mode in the shoes of Jim Anderson, stereotypical Earth dweller searching for his lost sister after his dad’s death as a member of the EMD against the pirates and the nefarious UF. Any game where UF is evil is fine with me. You can also play in free mode, although it’s not very different: you get the same 2,000 side missions to choose from (not available all at the same time, of course), although you can start as any of the eleven races in the game (which is more of a cosmetic change than anything). When you start, you can pick one of ten professions that grant some small bonuses: scientist, trader, hacker, headhunter, engineer, soldier, pirate, policeman, spy, and adventurer. SpaceForce is very unkind to new players. Usually, the first mission in a game is used to ease you into it, but no! The game lacks a tutorial as your guide says you can do certain things, but does not say how to do those things. The first mission in the story mode is actually one of the hardest missions in the game. This is flabbergasting. Why would you frustrate potential players right out of the box by putting you up against two superior foes with no backup? Download the demo and you’ll see what I mean. It’s made even worse by giving absolutely no useful instructions to the player; if you haven’t played other space combat games, you’ll be completely lost. I died on the first mission eight times before I won it by luck. This is really too bad since the remainder of the game is actually quite entertaining.

There are a number of quest types available in the game, both along the linear main story and ones you can pick up at space stations. There are the usual “kill somebody” missions, but you can also turn on satellites and hack into buildings for a bit of variety. You can also hire wingmen for a price to assist on missions. The interface is OK, although it is less intuitive than it could be. The game likes to make selecting things and finding information very difficult. As some examples, there isn’t a “target closest enemy” button, you need to be disturbingly close to ships to dock with them, and your inventory can’t be selected during combat (which means you can’t restock missiles even if you have 50 in storage). I used mouse control during the game and it’s generally good, and our good friends WASD allows you to strafe, albeit very slowly. SpaceForce could learn a few interface tips from Independence War 2 (still my favorite space adventure game), which was released six years ago.

SpaceForce features a large amount of goods to trade, more than really any other game I can remember. They are mostly interchangeable, but it’s still nice to have more than 10 or so goods to acquire. News services in the game can give information about rising and falling prices, and the game gives a good indication of whether a price is higher or lower than the average. Special items can be offered by a trader for a price to see what they are. If you run out of space in your ship, you can use a repository like public storage. One really neat aspect of the game is the ability to craft ship upgrades from goods. You can make upgrades in eight areas (weaponry, maneuverability, armor, shield, speed, energy cells, jammer, target system) from traded cargo, and the requirements for each upgrade is clearly displayed in the game. You can also acquire goods from destroyed ships and use mining tools to extract components from the plentiful asteroids in each sector. Crafting is a nice little endeavor that improves your ship no matter how you go about getting the goods: mining, trading, or combat.

SpaceForce has a dynamic relations system, and you can improve relations with other races by completing side quests for them or using good, old-fashioned bribes. Good relations will allow you to access their space stations while poor relations might result in instant combat. Unfortunately, a major part of any space game, combat, is frustrating in SpaceForce. You have the usual primary and secondary weapons: lasers and missiles. Missiles to about the same amount of damage as lasers (at least in the beginning) and they run out very quickly. Maybe missiles do more damage to the ship once their shields are down, but, of course, the game never says either way. Since you can’t access your inventory during combat, you can’t reload, so most of the combat is done with lasers. This makes battles agonizingly slow. SpaceForce has the most drawn out combat between fighters I can remember (Star Trek: Legacy was at least between really big ships). It’s required to have nanobots on your ship to repair your hull during combat (at least you can do this). When you die (and you will, frequently), you lose all of your cargo and respawn in a sector of your choosing. This makes death really unfortunate for traders, as you lose all of that money and don’t get it back. This can really screw you over if you have most of your money invested in goods, and since you can’t manually save the game, you are stuck in your sad state once you are defeated.

IN CLOSING
Other than the first mission, SpaceForce is quite enjoyable. The game has interesting mining and hacking that breaks up the drawn out combat. I like the ship upgrades that can be done through crafting or money and the graphics are fantastic. But man, is SpaceForce hard on new players. It frustrates me when games have easily fixed problems like SpaceForce: just make it easier in the beginning and make combat happen faster and the game becomes much more appetizing. People who like space adventures will be able to get past the first mission and see that there are some good, innovative parts to the game. And then you’ll be embroiled in another fifteen minute long one-on-one battle and want to quit the game in frustration. But maybe these simple problems will be fixed in a patch (and maybe they have if you’re reading this in the future). SpaceForce executes poorly in a couple of key areas, but it is generally an entertaining game that should appeal to fans of the genre.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Circus Empire Review

Circus Empire, developed by Silver Wish Games and published by Enlight Software.
The Good: Requires some advanced managerial strategies, comprehensive show production options, pleasing 3-D graphics, polished user interface
The Not So Good: Agonizingly slow advancement, freestyle mode is identical to the campaign minus the objectives
What say you? A generally well designed and surprisingly rewarding circus management game at a budget price 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Everyone loves the circus. Well, maybe not people who suffer from coulrophobia, but for everyone else of all ages they can be great fun. And we’re talking about the real circus, not that fruity French crap. You know: lions, tigers, tightropes, things on fire, all that jazz. It’s kind of surprising, then, that computer games haven’t cashed in on this yet. I mean, when you have Fish Tycoon, you would think everything would have been covered. Not so! Circus Empire is here for kids of all ages in the form of a management game in the ilk of RollerCoaster Tycoon and involving, well, the circus. Will Circus Empire successfully complete death-defying stunts, or get bitten in the face by a tiger?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Circus Empire has really good production values, especially for a low-priced title. The game advertises good graphics and it delivers. While it isn’t at the pinnacle of cutting-edge graphics, the game does look believable. The performer models look good and their tricks, although they could flow together better, are genuine. The circus grounds also look good, similar to those seen in the latest RollerCoaster Tycoon game (the one in 3-D). A notable aspect of the game is the background: the locations where the circus takes place look alive with moving cars and 3-D buildings. It makes it seem like you are performing in a real place rather than in a game. Later in the game where more people, effects, and tricks are available, Circus Empire successfully conveys the chaos and spectacle associated with the circus. Watching a performance is pretty fun, at least the first time through. The sound design is also well done. Circus Empire has the famous circus theme song, in addition to other background music to accompany different kinds of tricks. The game also features voiced guidance during the game, something that’s usually not included in tycoon games. It’s apparent that a lot of effort was put into the graphics and sound to create an authentic circus atmosphere and it is certainly worth it.

ET AL.
Circus Empire features a linear campaign with a forgettable story about a guy that leaves the banking industry (after being fired for wearing shorts on his day off…blasphemy!) to run a circus. Forgettable story aside, you’ll try to grow your circus into a worldwide phenomenon as you advance through three settings (Europe, the Orient, and America). The campaign comes with clear objectives and gradually (too gradually…more on that later) introduces new buildings, tricks, and performers over time and introduces each of them. Short missions are also available every once in a while, typically having you make a performance with specific requirements for a cash bonus. One of the two disappointing things about the game is the freestyle mode. It uses the same characters as the campaign, just without the objectives. Also, you can only use the tricks and buildings you have unlocked in the main campaign. So what’s the point? None, really. Circus Empire would have benefited from a true sandbox mode with all (or a random mix) of the animals, people, and tricks in the entire game and having a budgetary limit on how many you could hire. As it stands, you’re only going to be at the same place you are in the campaign, so unless you are done with the game, there is absolutely no reason to mess with freestyle mode.

Each morning, you’ll set a daily plan for each of your performers. They can practice a new trick, repeat existing tricks (as they will forget tricks they don’t perform over time), or rest in the morning and afternoon. There are different types of rest, and better rest (like going to the park or on a day-long vacation) costs more money but allows performers to recover. Performers have both energy and stress levels. Stress is probably the most important aspect of the game, as performers can’t practice too much and perform too many tricks in one night or they will fail and storm off stage. This goes for animals and their trainers, so overworking people is something to avoid. Over time, performers can gain experience that will unlock more advanced tricks. Circus Empire features great feedback in all areas, and this includes performer needs. There is a long list of areas of importance for each performer, such as accommodations, circus cleanliness, how much they are used in the show, and, of course, salary. If you are unhappy with someone (I have developed a strong contempt for the default clown Pepe), you can replace them, although the campaign lacks alternative or additional performers most of the time. There is even the potential for some naughty action at the circus, as happy male and female animals that live together can produce babies (that can be trained for use in the show), and you can meet a sexy female performer and becomes partners in your endeavor.

Circus Empire features a very robust show editor that allows for some pretty sophisticated and choreographed performances, at least once you’ve progressed through the game some. In the beginning, you’ll be limited to solo acts and a basic suite of tricks, but as performers becomes more advanced, you can do more involved and more realistic shows. It is important to limit the number of tricks each performer does according to their stress limit, but once you get a feel for how many tricks a particular performer can do, scheduling becomes quite easy. Each trick can be accompanied by lights, music, fanfare, and effects, and matching the atmosphere to the trick will improve public perception (the game gives hints on the best type of trick for each music selection). Each trick is rated in five areas: thrill, art, exotic, fun, and cute. Each of these appeals to a different demographic and a good balance is the key to appealing to a large audience. I really like the show editor as it allows for some really complicated and involved performances through a straightforward interface: just click on the tricks and you’re ready to go. I would like the game to show the skill level of each trick on the screen, but you can gauge it from the ratings. After each show, you are given clear feedback on what the audience liked and disliked so that you can make improvements in the next show.

The money you earn from the shows is dependent on how many stars the audience gave you for it: the higher the quality of your performance, the more money you will make. At first, the money comes in quite slowly, but once you get a semi-decent show together after a month or two, you can afford to purchase additional buildings and hire more performers. You can place some auxiliary buildings to earn some extra money: shops, food, drinks, restrooms. You can also place your animals on display like a zoo to make the visitors come a bit earlier in the day. You can increase your attendance through good performances and word-of-mouth, but you can also do advertising campaigns for the circus itself or particular performers. Your character can even greet visitors at the gate to improve their experience.

The game sounds pretty great, but now we’ve reached the other disappointing thing about Circus Empire: things unlock very slowly. Although you might (and will) have the money to afford them, new buildings and performers won’t unlock until the game lets them become available. This results in a lot of waiting: once you’ve gotten your show down, there really isn’t anything to do until performers level up or new things become available. And since they rarely become available, Circus Empire borders on the tedious. This is really frustrating because it’s an easily fixed problem: just make more things available if you have the money for it. For example, in one game I had $100,000 and nothing to spend it on. The game wouldn’t let me hire any new performers or construct and new buildings, so it just a matter of waiting until the game decides you a ready for more objects. This really takes the wind out of your sails and slows down what is otherwise a very entertaining game.

IN CLOSING
I wasn’t really expecting much from Circus Empire based on the price of the game, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised. While the building elements are pretty standard, developing a show is a fun experience and allows for some pretty complicated performances. The graphics are enjoyable and the sound design fits the atmosphere very well. The straightforward user interface makes the game approachable for all skill levels: designing shows and making daily plans is very simple. Circus Empire isn’t all candy and roses, though, as it progresses too slowly to keep you interested for the long haul and you start to wonder when the elephants are. Still, for $20, there’s no overwhelming reason not to get this game if you enjoy circuses, play tycoon games, heard of a circus, or can spell the word “circus.”

Monday, June 25, 2007

Carriers at War Review

Carriers at War, developed by Strategic Studies Group and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Great for beginners with simple controls and capable automated tactical AI, all-inclusive tutorial, robust editors
The Not So Good: Not as comprehensive as other wargames, not many scenarios and no campaign
What say you? A good introductory wargame, but veteran players will dislike the relative lack of depth: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Now that the European Theater of World War II has been exhausted, developers are looking for new settings in which to place their computer games. Of course, they can’t not be in World War II (that would be silly), so an increasing number of games are switching over to the Pacific. Naval games have been around for a while now, with remarkable titles such as Uncommon Valor, War in the Pacific, and, more recently, Battlestations: Midway. The developers behind Battles in Italy have re-released Carriers at War, which was first released in 1992; it’s been such a long time that you can’t really compare the two titles, and most of the people who played the original are probably dead anyway. Battles in Italy was very good, so hopefully that excellence can be applied to the carrier struggles in the Pacific.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Carriers at War are typical for a wargame. Dominating the game is the map and the interface that gives good access to most of the game’s mechanics, but Carriers at War could use a slick interface with some pieces of flair; I didn’t spend all that money on a swanky video card for nothing. It’s about time that wargames join the 3-D revolution, but the game is still playable though the rest of the gaming world is leaving 2-D behind. The battles are viewed from an overhead perspective and the explosions and general animations are underwhelming and outdated. I wasn’t that impressed by the graphics in Carriers at War and the whole 2-D thing is getting kind of old. The sound is decent though sporadic with some short battle sounds and warning sirens. The background music is nicely subdued and doesn’t get in the way of the action. You don’t purchase wargames for the cutting-edge graphics and sound, but it would be nice if they started to incorporate some modern ideas.

ET AL.
Carriers at War features six scenarios where you command carrier groups during real life conflicts in the Pacific during World War II. Now, six scenarios don’t sound like much, and it’s not. Although each scenario comes with some historical variants, you can zip through the scenarios quickly. It should be noted that Carriers at War also lacks a campaign, although you can play all six scenarios and pretend. Luckily there is a scenario editor, so hopefully the community at large will produce some additional scenarios, though you shouldn’t have to rely on user made content to round out a title. Carriers at War hits the major battles (Midway, Coral Sea, Pearl Harbor, although it’s not very fun from the American perspective), but more content would be highly appreciated. Where’s Leyte Gulf, which Wikipedia calls “arguably the largest naval battle in history caitlin rulzzzz!!!11!!1!” There is multiplayer, but no matchmaking as you must be on a LAN or know the opposition’s IP address ahead of time. Carriers at War features a comprehensive tutorial, but it should have been grouped into longer missions instead of nineteen three-minute-long ones. The game also allows you to assign some of the task forces to the AI; if you don’t want to worry about the invading party, you don’t have to which makes it easier to get accustomed to the game.

In Carriers at War, you won't control individual ships, but rather task groups organized into task forces headed by a commander. This makes it pretty easy to get around in the game, since you won’t have to worry about each individual cruiser floating around the map. Carriers at War puts the focus on air support rather than hot ship on ship action (you know, the whole carriers being at war thing). Each scenario features clear objectives of invading, supplying, or bombarding coastal locations; most of the time, there will be a separate invading/supplying/bombarding force and it’s your job to make sure they don’t get blown up. You will also earn points for destroying enemy ships and planes, because destruction is fun. Carriers at War is really aimed at beginners (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and this is exemplified in its easy controls and high level of automation. Task groups can be issued simple move orders, escort/cover/support orders on a specific unit, or strike missions on enemy ships from a straightforward pop-up menu. Carriers at War plays out in plausible real time: you pick the amount of time to advance (one hour, until dawn) and the game plays out until then; orders are not really designed to be given in real-time, which is fine by me.

The gameplay of Carriers at War boils down to searching for enemies, sending out attack planes, and defending against incoming attacks. Searches are done automatically with a suite of search planes: you just need to pick the directions to search and the computer will do the rest. The main strategic decision to make in the game is how to balance your planes: you can assign them to defensive combat air patrols or offensive strikes against enemy ships. For combat air patrol, you just assign a percentage of your planes and, again, the computer does the rest. The rest of your planes can be used to escort strikes involving bombers. Not escorting missions is a death wish, as the opposing combat air patrols will easily take them out. Setting missions is simple: just select a spotted target, pick the planes to bring (escorts, fighter bombers, dive bombers, level bombers, and torpedo bombers), the time to leave, and whether you’d like a coordinated attack where all of the planes arrive at the same time. If an enemy strike is incoming, all available titles will be sent in the air automatically. Combat is (surprise!) automatic: you watch your planes engage enemy ships, deliver hits with their weapons, and receive damage. The planes are inaccurate at best: most of the time they will completely miss their targets which means the more planes you have, the better. The enemy seems to be more accurate in their attacks than the player for some reason, and since you have no control over your forces, there’s nothing you can do about it. The enemy planes seem to target the carriers more readily than your forces, which seem to waste their time with less important ships. Ships will gradually suffer damage, either permanent damage or fire than can be turned into permanent damage. Combating fires is automated, and once all of the hit points of a ship are depleted, it’s sunk. Carriers at War also features surface combat, but if you’re doing surface combat you are kind of screwed. Your ships are automatically (there’s that word again) put into four formations: the line (battleships, heavy cruisers), van and rear (light cruisers, destroyers), and in the back (carriers, transport). Here you have more interaction, as you can pick your weapons (guns, torpedoes) and the opposing formation to shoot at. Carriers at War is really about surface and air combat, but there are submarines scattered around the map, although you have no control over them and hits provided by subs are just a bonus.

As you might have guessed, a lot of the game is automated, which may make people who enjoy micromanaging their fleet left out. Personally, I like the amount of automation in the game, but there are times that I’d like to have more explicit control over my forces. I would imagine that more experienced players will echo my sentiments. The advantage to the amount of automation is that it makes Carriers at War really approachable to novice players and it has none of the headaches (but also none of the depth) associated with War in the Pacific (that game makes my brain hurt). Carriers at War is relatively superficial: you just scout by sending planes out, choose your targets, and maneuver. That’s it. As I mentioned, the game comes down to balancing your combat air patrol defenses versus your air strike offenses. This is fine, but I bet it’s kind of surprising to a lot of players who were expecting a more advanced game. Of course, the less involved mechanics results in shorter games, which makes me wish there were more scenarios to play.

IN CLOSING
If you’re expect a game in the vein of War in the Pacific, you will be sorely disappointed. However, there is a solid if relatively shallow wargame here that feels unique because of its focus on carrier operations. Carriers are normally just included as an addition rather than a focus, even though planes were a very important part of Pacific combat. The controls in Carriers at War are very straightforward once you get past the initial interface confusion, which, again, makes the game perfect for beginners. There is a little chess match between the two sides, allocating aircraft for offensive and defensive purposes. Once you make these basic decisions, the rest of the game almost runs itself, as combat and scouting are automatic. The game would feel more complete with a campaign, either just tying the scenarios together or some sort of dynamic campaign with randomly generated maps. Still, Carriers at War is fun while it lasts: it may lack the depth of other titles, but it still provides a unique tilt that will appeal to less experienced players.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Hospital Tycoon Review

Hospital Tycoon, developed by Deep Red Games and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Self-sufficient AI, unique room specialization mechanic, decent graphics, good tutorial
The Not So Good: Linear and repetitive gameplay with lots of waiting, nothing terribly innovative, absolutely annoying Simlish-like dialect, very short and not challenging, bothersome camera angles
What say you? Only tycoon fanatics will enjoy this boring and tedious retread: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The renaissance of the medical drama is in full force. Starting with the venerable ER and continuing with Grey’s Anatomy, people can’t get enough of moody surgeons getting it on with moody nurses. With the insane popularity of The Sims and tycoon games in general, it was just a matter of time before we got a tycoon game set in a hospital. And we did, 10 years ago. Cashing in on the renewed interest is Hospital Tycoon, a game that is pretty self-explanatory: you’re running a hospital, caring for patients and hooking doctors up in a giant orgy of medical care.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hospital Tycoon is rendered in 3-D, and the game looks good for the most part. The game has an overall cartoon feel to it, and this extends to the graphics. The characters in the game are well-detailed, big-headed goodness and all. The hospitals are obviously square in design, but there is an appropriate selection of things to place to make it look a bit more realistic (although the giant pin-ups of nurses and doctors are kind of weird). Despite being highly exaggerated, Hospital Tycoon also has some special effects to represent each of the game’s diseases. A good deal of work was done perfecting a specific setting and it shows. However, the camera angles are limited at best. Despite the fact that you can follow people around from a first person perspective, you can’t watch the game from any angle between first person view and an inconvenient isometric perspective, making it difficult to see what you want to see. This is a very odd design decision since the engine can obviously handle higher draw distances. Hospital Tycoon is also limited to one fixed resolution for some reason; I guess I can’t use my swanky graphics card to its fullest extent. The user interface also needs some work: the computer display takes up the entire screen (a lot of it blank, of course) instead of being relegated to the edge of the screen. Tool tips also need to pop-up more quickly; since the game features hardly any real equipment, it’s difficult to tell what each icon is representing. While the graphics are generally good, the sound in Hospital Tycoon is absolutely atrocious. The game uses a blatant copy of Simlish from The Sims games, but Hospital Tycoon butchers it and makes every character speak in an overstated shriek. This is exemplified in your secretary that gives you objectives: she repeats the same high-pitched exclamation no matter what she is saying. I cannot relay how truly annoying the sound is; it’s a good thing you can always mute the game, or at least burn your speakers in anger.

ET AL.
Hospital Tycoon is broken up over twelve “episodes” scatter over three “seasons,” since the game is trying to cash in on the popularity of medical dramas. The game is really short (12 missions don’t take long to complete); Hospital Tycoon comes with a sandbox mode, but the gameplay there is exactly the same as the campaign (more on the linearity of Hospital Tycoon later). There are good tutorials in the first season of the game to get your acclimated to the game environment, but the story is very boring and feels completely tacked on as it’s superfluous to the main gameplay. The happenings on the show are just so unnecessary, but thankfully you can skip right past the cut scenes. Also, who names their show “Hospital Tycoon” (yes, the name of the game and the show in the game is the same: good job, guys)? Each mission has clear objectives and obtaining them is fairly simple as no part of the game is very challenging. Unfortunately, you’ll be done with the game rather quickly.

Hospital Tycoon does have some innovative construction mechanics (unless, of course, they ripped it off from another game). All of your rooms are empty to begin with and its specialization depends on the equipment you place in it. For example, if you place a research machine in an empty room, it becomes a research lab. The developers could have just eliminated the intermediate step by just making templates for each kind of room, but then that would reduce the gameplay to complete inanity. Each type of room also has a specific worker trained to operate the equipment that can be hired. This is done through the computer interface (which, as I mentioned earlier, takes up way too much of the screen). Here, you can also see the status and health of all of your patients; if they are not treated in a timely manner, patients can die and this is not good for business. In addition, you can check the status of all of the equipment in the hospital (engineers can fix them). Your hospital is rated in four areas: patient care, staff care, capability, and beauty. Beauty is a measure of how many plants you have; I just put them all in a corner to fulfill this condition.

Probably the highlight of Hospital Tycoon is the great AI: your doctors will go about their business automatically. As long as you provide the correct resources, your hospital will run smoothly. There is almost no micromanagement in the game, which is great for people (like me) who detest specifically instructing minions to complete menial tasks. You can order people to interact or use training equipment, but there’s no point (outside of meeting objectives) and everyone’s pretty busy most of the time. Hospital Tycoon hits you over the head with the cartoon atmosphere as everything is exaggerated. Part of the appeal of medical dramas is the realism, but Hospital Tycoon features explosive farting. Maybe a 3rd grader would find that funny, but it’s just way over the top. The cycle of gameplay in Hospital Tycoon remains the same in each mission: discover a new disease in the lab, then build all of the equipment required to diagnose and treat that disease. Thankfully, the game is very specific in the needs for each disease which makes it easy to expand your hospital. The tradeoff is that finishing the game is too easy. The slow pace of the game is also a problem: a lot of the time you are just waiting for things to finish. Thank goodness you can accelerate time. The linear nature of the gameplay really limits the potential. Tycoon games are normally open-ended and that’s part of its appeal: giving the user the freedom to make their own designs to reach the objective. However, Hospital Tycoon is linear and the unknown diseases come about in a predictable order; you are pigeonholed into your decisions. The fact that the game resets your creations for each new level makes completing each scenario seem like a waste of time.

IN CLOSING
While components of the game are well-designed, the majority of Hospital Tycoon is just not interesting. The gameplay is exactly the same each time and the title tries its best to restrict your freedom, something that goes against the credo of tycoon games. Some people might enjoy the completely unrealistic theme, but I find it too much. The show within the game seems entirely pointless and tacked on. The degree of randomness that is normally present in tycoon-style games is eliminated in Hospital Tycoon; there is no unpredictability to deal with and everything is laid out right in front of you, so playing the game is really inane. It’s too bad the excellent AI is wasted in this game. Hospital Tycoon is too limited and too linear to be interesting to anyone other than really obsessive tycoon gamers.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Shady O'Grady's Rising Star Review

Shady O'Grady's Rising Star, developed and published by Gilligames.
The Good: Realistic and fun band development with loads to do, real-world instruments, varied genres of music represented
The Not So Good: Mini-games get repetitive, needs more explicit band member feedback, outdated graphics
What say you? A well thought-out and entertaining band simulation with enough features to keep you busy: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The Sims has spawned a whole slew of simulations covering a lot of different fields of expertise: doctor simulations, pet simulations, garbage man simulations. Of course, the more intriguing titles are ones about skills you could never possess, such as being a rock star. I’ve reviewed one of these games recently (Rock Legend) and another one has come down the pike: Shady O'Grady's Rising Star. I don’t really know who Shady O'Grady is and why his star happens to be rising, but this type of game has the potential to be quite interesting, fusing role-playing elements, financial management, and personal relationships. Does Shady O'Grady's Rising Star provide compelling gameplay or flame out like a one-hit wonder?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
There are two ways you can approach the graphics. The first is to compare it against big-budget titles like The Sims 2 and say that the graphics are clearly outdated. The other is to compare it against text-based management simulations (which you could classify this game as) and say that the inclusion of 3-D graphics at all is something to be noted. The game does look at lot like the original Sims that came out seven years ago, although Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is rendered in 3-D. Nothing in the game is too spectacular, but really the title looks O.K., which is the best you can really ask for in an independent title. The towns are in 3-D with some variation to the buildings and the characters in the game can look different with all the outfits available. Seeing your band’s name on the marquee in front of a major venue is a nice touch. The game lacks any “wow” factor with the graphics, but they are functional and the system requirements are low. The sound is fine enough with a good soundtrack including songs by up-and-coming artists that puts you in an appropriate mood. While some people will exclaim that the graphics are behind the times, I didn’t mind them that much.

ET AL.
In Shady O'Grady's Rising Star, you guide a band from its humble beginnings playing in small clubs to national tours and platinum records. The first thing you’ll do is create your character by choosing a name and the band name, along with your gender, skin tone, instrument, and music genre. While your band mates and other bands are given random names, you have to name your character yourself (along with song and CD names); I just went to the Internet and used some random generators to offset my creative shortcomings. There are nine instruments to choose from: lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, turntable, saxophone, trombone, and, yes, even harmonica. There is an equal assortment of music genres (ska, punk, rock, country, rap, blues, pop, et cetera); although they don’t have a real impact on the game (although you do get bonuses on notable days in the genre), it’s a nice addition. You will also choose your home city, which is actually more than a cosmetic choice: larger cities will offer more venues and more bands to play with, while small towns will be harder to get a start in with reduced resources. There is a tutorial that can be turned on that will give hints for beginners; it’s good in the very beginning but doesn’t get you completely started. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star has some RPG elements infused into the gameplay: as you practice and play gigs, each character will gain experience points. Once you level up, you can increase your skills in playing, songwriting, stage presence, production, repair, and business. The game clearly indicates when you level up and earn ten more points to distribute. This is becoming fairly standard these days (it seems almost every game involves some sort of experience model), but it’s still a nice inclusion. Each character also has several attributes that will affect their performance: inspiration, health (they can randomly get sick), happiness, and ego. You will even get a cash present on your birthday! Additional clothing can be purchased (although it doesn’t affect the game) in the stores found in each city to alter your appearance.

Now that you’ve founded you band, it’s time to find some band members! You can launch a solo career, but this is extremely difficult for beginners. Additional artists are found in each of the game’s music stores, where you can also buy, sell, and repair equipment. Potential band mates will have rated compatibilities (29 dimensions, no doubt) and a favorite genre as well; if you’d like to create a country-rap band, go right ahead! Each member might have a specialty (songwriting, performing, repairing broken equipment) and using or developing their specialties over time can result in an adaptable band. The game doesn’t really give solid feedback as to why band members aren’t getting along or their specific wants; small quotes appear next to each character during the game that gives little hints, but there is no explicit feedback like in Rock Legend. The band may be pissed at you, but they won’t say why they are pissed at you. Mixing rhythmic and melodic instruments in your band will result in the best combination of sound. Equipment in the game wears down after a while, and things like guitar strings, drum sticks, and reeds will need to be replaced very frequently (annoyingly so). Instruments may grant bonuses when you are practicing, songwriting, or performing on stage, so owning more than one guitar and using them at the appropriate time is a good strategy. Once you have your band together and instruments purchased, you can write some songs and practice them at home. Writing songs involves a matching mini-game; this is fine, but it gets annoying after a while because it remains the same no matter what level of band you are. I’d like to see at least some variety in the composition games. One neat addition, though, is the ability to assign a MP3 to a song that will play during performances. Practicing is automated, and it’s just a matter of choosing which songs to practice. When you have enough money, you can purchase new houses in different cities (pretty cool).

You’ll do performances in different venues. At first, nobody will want to hire you, so you’ll spend your first few months watching shows to develop relationships with other bands and venues. Finding the appropriate venues for your style of music is very easy, as the entertainment guide is sorted by genre. Eventually, bands will ask you to open for them, and that’s when you start developing a reputation. Your popularity will eventually expand to neighboring cities and hiring a manager will promote your band’s growth even more. Managers can be told to book local gigs, find recording contracts, book a tour, or find endorsements that will pay bonus money if you use specific equipment (Fender guitars, for example). Occasionally you’ll need to upgrade your manager, and the game will annoy you to death about it: expect three to four calls a week (that you must answer) from agents scattered all over the place. One call would be fine, but continually annoying me while I’m trying to do stuff is, well, annoying. The venues are located in a representation of whatever city you live in, and you get to them by driving around in your van (down by the river). The streets of the town are mysteriously devoid of other traffic, but that’s fine as other cars would just become annoying after a while. Your van can be pimped out at garages and additional money can be earned by mowing grass at parks and running errands for businesses around town. Landscaping is thankfully an instantaneous $200, while the errands usually involve collecting a certain number of items and delivering them to a location. Running into buildings will damage your van (which can be repaired), your instruments, and your band’s health.

Once you have enough songs and a reputation, you can enter the studio to record songs. You can lay down one track per day and the quality is determined by the skill of the producer (you can produce it yourself or hire an outside source). Once you have enough songs recorded, you can put them on a CD and then sell it at shows. When you become nationally renowned, you can track your sales progress against other bands; the inclusion of competitors gives Shady O'Grady's Rising Star a more realistic tilt. Going on tours will also grow your national reputation. The game uses a pretty good algorithm for developing tour routes; playing in adjacent cities lends another real-world element to the game. You will need to stay in a hotel when you are away from home, and you’re even given the ability to trash rooms to release some tension. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star does a good job keeping you interested from the small beginning to a large touring band with national recognition. While the game progresses kind of slowly, it is realistic. There is plenty to do in the game and monotony only really comes around in the song writing and driving mini-games. Although there isn’t a real difference between the different genres of music or cities, it feels different and this illusion goes a long way. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is a very addictive game: from purchasing new equipment and writing new songs to releasing a new CD and going on tour, there is a lot to keep you interested. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star also comes with a couple of editors to use custom equipment or add new cities to extend the replay value even further.

IN CLOSING
A comprehensive simulation, Shady O'Grady's Rising Star is a remarkable title that will appeal to anyone interested in forming their own band without the need for musical talent. While Rock Legend focuses more on the personal interactions between band mates, Rising Star concentrates more on overall strategy. There are important financial decisions to be made: do you spend your money on a new CD, new instruments, fixing the van, or going on a tour? The pace of the game is slower that some people may like, but I enjoy the slow maturation of your band throughout the game: it takes time to become the greatest band in the world. The mini-games are really the only tedious part of the game, and adding more game modes would break up this monotony. Shady O'Grady's Rising Star does a great job of putting the game in the real world, featuring actual cities and real instruments. Comparing your progress against other bands is neat and there is enough to do in the game to maintain your interest for quite a while. This is one of those “one more turn” games. The game has high replay value as well, since the composition of your band can vary greatly from game to game. The ability to modify the game sweetens the pot even more. The addictive gameplay of Shady O'Grady's Rising Star will appeal to any management simulation fan and those people who aspire to guide a band to ultimate greatness.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PeaceMaker Review

PeaceMaker, developed and published by Impact Games.
The Good: Realistic strategic balancing between domestic and international demands, the two sides play differently, semi-random events mix things up, straightforward user interface, fast pace
The Not So Good: No history log, needs documentation and an interactive tutorial, end-game is a bit monotonous
What say you? An intriguing look at real-world peace and stability in the Middle East: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Violence and computer gaming seem to go hand in hand. I know I like blowing crap up, virtually speaking of course. While a lot of games think war is the ultimate solution to a problem, this is (thankfully) not the case in the real world (well, for the most part). Addressing the tenuous situation between Israel and Palestine is PeaceMaker, where you step in the shoes of either head-of-state and try not to piss everyone off. Think you can end centuries of conflict in a couple of hours? Have at it, hot shot! PeaceMaker hopes to bridge the gap between computerized entertainment and educational software, making you learn something about complicated international dynamics while having fun. And maybe, just maybe, we can all just get along.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For what is essentially a text management game, PeaceMaker features some nice graphics. The map of the region dominates the screen, although its inclusion is meaningless. The map never changes and it just shows where events occur during the game. All of the actions you take are done through a menu system rather than context-sensitive options on the map. The menus are nicely laid out and easy to use; this makes PeaceMaker easier for beginners or people without much computer gaming experience. All of the information in the game is presented on one screen which means you won’t have to weed through twenty pages of data to find what you’re looking for. PeaceMaker needs a history log to list events that have occurred, since I tend to forget which social measure I did last. The game also makes no indication of how often a certain action can be done, although there are obvious restrictions in the game (you can only bother the U.S. president every so often). There’s always room for improvement and PeaceMaker could give more feedback, although I guess real world leaders are without specific information most of the time. PeaceMaker fuses real images and video from the region into the game that gives the game a more realistic feel. It works well, and seeing pictures of angry or sad people makes PeaceMaker just a realistic as a game that features cutting-edge 3-D graphics. The game is presented in three languages (English, Hebrew, and Arabic) that makes the title functional for people around the world. The sound effects are limited as they only occur during events, but the background music is hauntingly nice. PeaceMaker has a decent presentation for an independent game and its simplified user interface will make it approachable for many experience levels.

ET AL.
In PeaceMaker, you’ll take the helm as the leader of Israel or Palestine and guide your country towards a peaceful solution. Playing as Palestine is a bit easier and recommended for first time players. The difficulty levels are very appropriate: I won my first game on “easy,” but I played on the hardest level and lost on the second turn. The two sides are different in their actions, but in either case you need to make everyone happy, from your citizens to militant groups to the rest of the world. PeaceMaker has a non-interactive tutorial that teaches the basics of the interface (which is easy to understand anyway), but the game is short on the specifics and doesn’t even have a manual. The Readme file actually says “Read Me:” funny but not very helpful. I need concrete information about the consequences of each action in the game, but PeaceMaker makes you find out the effects on your own. The advisors are of no help since they always give conflicting information (showing both effects of doing each action), but not hinting as to which action would be more appropriate at the current time. Your progress in the game is rated as a score. For Israel, your score is the aggregate relationships with your people and the Palestinians. For Palestine, it’s comprised of your people and the world. If you get both of these values to 100, you win, but if either one falls to -50, you lose.

PeaceMaker is a turn-based game: each week you are allowed one action. The actions are different for each side, but they have a lot of parallels. Your actions are divided into three categories: security, political, and construction. Each of these actions will typically please one group of people and anger another group, although their effects can be changed depending on the situation. Using the right actions at the right times to maximize the good effects and minimize the bad effects is the key to success in the game. Security actions concern police and army coverage, checkpoints, curfews, travel restrictions, border control, and extreme actions like assassinations. Political actions involve speaking to your nation or the world, negotiating with extremist groups or other nations, and granting worker permits. You can also request or grant funding for housing, transportation, medical, social services, or government construction. Your actions will affect each of the groups represented in the game: Israeli and Palestinian citizens, militant groups, and nations like the U.S. You can also access polls that access your effectiveness in several areas, like the economy, security, and cooperation. A lot of the actions in the game are very straightforward, as they will typically increase the relationships with some groups and decrease the relationships with others. You can use the areas you are strong in to bring up your deficiencies in other areas: for example, using your good relations with the U.S. to promote negotiations with Israel. PeaceMaker has semi-random events in the game that can drastically affect the peace process. If a violent group becomes too mad at you, expect some bloodshed in the streets. This makes the game a little less straightforward, and the increased difficulty levels make you keep your strategies more linear instead of spreading your actions over several different areas.

PeaceMaker is pretty entertaining and a challenging game; you can feel the tense nature of delicate negotiations and dealing with a lot of actions that are out of your control. PeaceMaker prevents the user from spamming the same actions or doing things out of context: giving humanitarian aid as you raid Palestinian villages will actually have a negative effect. PeaceMaker does a wonderful job showing just how difficult running a tumultuous country can be. The end of the game, once you’ve raised the approval ratings high enough, is a bit tedious since most of your actions will get positive feedback and it’s just a matter of time before you reach a peaceful end. Still, the path to mutual victory is generally entertaining and an interesting look at international politics.

IN CLOSING
PeaceMaker does a fine job in representing the tenuous situation in the Middle East in an approachable and entertaining game. The user interface makes it easy to learn the game, despite the lack of a manual and a history log. The core gameplay of balancing the desires of diametrically opposed factions is captivating and the semi-random events make subsequent games play out differently. There are multiple strategies to use during the game, which also increases the replay value. Will you concentrate on social plans and relaxing restrictions, or ratchet up the security and use international influence to coax a compromise? The numerous choices make for a good game, and PeaceMaker doesn’t tolerate irrational or non sequitur actions, instead requiring a plan for peace. People who aren’t interested in a game like this will be bored to tears, but everyone else will find plenty of enjoyment for a very reasonable price.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Oddictive Review

Oddictive, developed by Tapout Games and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Interesting unique gameplay with simple controls and suitable difficulty, lots of levels
The Not So Good: Repetitive due to the lack of level variety
What say you? An original but dreadfully monotonous puzzle game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As more and more games get released, it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with original ideas. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of video gaming is driven by sales, and sequels will rake in the dough more than an original idea that’s not as well known. Thankfully, the PC is rife with original titles thanks to online distribution of games developed by small companies. This is one of the reasons I like the PC, since a lot of these games would never see the light of day on a console, overshadowed by high production values and big companies with deep pockets. I like reviewing smaller titles, especially puzzle and arcade games, that don’t even get covered on “major” PC gaming websites. Oddictive is one of those titles, a game where you guide falling objects into color coded jars by drawing pathways for them. We’ve seen similar ideas in the past where mouse input is used to drive the gameplay (see Sonoro TV). How will Oddictive differentiate itself from other titles?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphical design of Oddictive is good but not great. There are a lot of special effects that occur at the end of the level, but the general presentation is quite bland. The background is a static black and the containers you are guiding your balls towards are just that: containers. There isn’t any innovative or unique design elements present in Oddictive that makes the game memorable from a graphical standpoint. The few special effects that are present in the game are good, but these occur few and far between and the graphics just end up being too simplistic. The sound is a lot like the graphics: some nice touches but generally uninteresting and ordinary. The background is a little bit catchy and the effects are generally successful, but, like the graphics, there’s nothing too memorable about the sound. There’s a lot more potential in Oddictive to come up with some overall theme that makes the game stand out, but the title comes up short.

ET AL.
The object of Oddictive is to guide falling balls into their color-coded container by drawing paths with the mouse. The balls start from the top of the screen, and you get more points for the longer a ball is in contact with one of your platforms. You can also get bonus points for sending a ball off the edge of the screen (it will reappear on the other side). All of the game’s levels are available from the beginning, and there are a lot of them to choose from. Each level is different in the placement of immovable blue platforms that you must work around, but other than this, each level is the same as the previous one. There are no power-ups and no special abilities that you gain along the way; the only things that change are the ball speed and the fixed platform placement. As you can imagine, this makes the game quite tedious over time and it feels like you’re playing the same level over and over again. Oddictive lacks the replay value present in other games that add some variety in successive levels, introducing more advanced moves or concepts along the way (examples being Pathstorm and Eets). While the basic gameplay is solid and entertaining, there isn’t much beyond the first few levels to shake up the game, and this makes Oddictive too repetitive to be entertaining for a long period of time.

IN CLOSING
Oddictive is a solid puzzle game that sorely lacks variety. You can tell by the relative short length of this review that there isn’t too much to the game: once you learn how to draw lines, the game never adds anything new to the equation beyond speeding up the action and adding stationary walls in different positions. While Oddictive is entertaining for the first half hour or so, the game becomes too repetitive to maintain interest in the long term. If you really like puzzle games, you’ll enjoy Oddictive, but most people won’t be interested in the game too long after the introductory levels.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Immortal Defense Review

Immortal Defense, developed and published by Radical Poesis Games & Creations.
The Good: Addictive gameplay that feels fresh and original because of the neat visual style and theme, challenging, cooperative missions with the AI, surprisingly not that repetitive
The Not So Good: No level editor…yet
What say you? A tower defense game done right: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Defense games are an interesting niche in the pantheon of arcade titles. While some people might be satisfied by simply shooting things, “tower defense” games add a flavor of strategy to the mix, as you must place shooting objects in appropriate locations to destroy incoming onslaughts. I have reviewed a few of these games in the past: Meteor Mayhem, Core Defender, and most notably Epidemic Groove. Tower defense games combine two things I like, shooting things and strategy, and it’s been almost a year since the last one, so it’s time for some Immortal Defense. You are defending your home planet from evil invaders in a dimension beyond hyperspace, probably located near Uranus (the jokes never get old). Will Immortal Defense serve up enough originality to make it stand out against the ever-increasing horde of tower defense games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Immortal Defense features very distinctive graphics that makes it stand out against the ever-increasing horde of tower defense games (well, I guess that answers that question). While most games in the genre feature castles and the like, Immortal Defense uses an outer-space-alternate-universe setting that works quite well. While the graphics are relatively simplistic, the combination of the unique enemy shapes and great effects are effective. Immortal Defense certainly has a chaotic feel to it without being overly confusing. The sound, like the graphics, is excellent as well. The sound effects are understated and not annoying in large doses when the action becomes intense. Immortal Defense also features some excellent background music. Immortal Defense shows that independent games can still have distinguished graphics and sound that are very effective.

ET AL.
Immortal Defense is a tower defense game, where you construct defenses to destroy incoming enemy units. While this sounds like it could become boring after a while (and it usually does), the unique presentation and difficulty goes a long way in keeping the mechanics interesting. Immortal Defense uses a plausible explanation why the enemies are marching to their doom along fixed paths, although I won’t spoil it here. You must hold out for a specified period of time and prevent a number of enemies from reaching the end of the path. There are six 16-mission campaigns to play through; this provides a lot of content to keep you busy, although a level editor would extent the game even further (there are plans for this as a future addition). The first thing you’ll do is place “points” around the level that shoot at the enemies traveling along the path. There are a good variety of points in the game and each of them has their own strategy to maximize their usefulness. In addition, using points in concert with each other can increase their effectiveness. There are the normal shooting points, but there are also points that can only shoot at right angles, ones that deploy mines, support points, and ones that increase their effectiveness over time among others. You are limited in the number of each type you can place on each level, but additional points can be earned if your existing points are especially effective. Each point costs an amount of cache to place, and more cache is earned by destroying enemies. Points can also be upgraded for a price that increases their attack, range, or speed. Points can’t be placed on top of each other or on the path, but other than this, you are free to place them anywhere on the map. This gives the user a lot of freedom in making effective defenses and there is always room for improvement in your creations.

The controls of Immortal Defense are simplified and everything in the game can be accomplished with the mouse. Your cursor automatically fires at the nearest enemy, although if you’re firing at lot at the enemy using the cursor, you are in serious trouble. You can focus your weapons on a specific enemy by clicking on it, and points are placed by holding down the left mouse button until it is charged and releasing. Different points can be selected with the mouse wheel or the number keys. You’ll encounter twenty-six different enemies with varying speeds and strengths; you will begin to loathe certain enemies as they are exceedingly difficult to destroy. Immortal Defense is a very well designed game that is easy to control and has a lot of replay value because of the freedom granted to the user. The limited suite of points you have to choose from means you have to (gasp!) think about your placement and how your points will work together to destroy the enemies. Each point has its advantages and disadvantages and deciding whether to place newly earned points or upgrading existing ones is an interesting decision. Immortal Defense is a very challenging game; this is good, since you just can’t plow through it like a lot of puzzle or action games and it requires some thought to be successful. Then I noticed I was playing at difficulty level 30. Out of 100. Man, I stink.

IN CLOSING
I really like Immortal Defense. Even though it’s essentially the same as any other tower defense game, the unique presentation goes a long way in making it feel different. You would think that it becomes repetitive after a while, but the gradual introduction of new points and enemies along with the varied path design and open nature of the point placement makes each level slightly different. Plus, each level lasts only a short amount of time (on lower difficulty levels) so you don’t get tired of a particular puzzle. The structure of the game gives you the freedom to play the same level again and have a completely different outcome. The controls are also very straightforward and the learning curve is almost non-existent. Immortal Defense also has a decent story that can be skipped if you’re just interested in blowing stuff up. The graphics and sound are both top-notch and round out the original theme of the game. If you like games with a defensive tilt, you should definitely check out Immortal Defense: it is a breath of fresh air among a stench of similar clones.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Loonyland II: Winter Woods Review

Loonyland II: Winter Woods, developed and published by Hamumu Software.
The Good: Robust content, clear-cut quests, distinctive visual style with a good sense of humor, simple controls, unlockable modifiers and randomized items increase replay value, no large penalties for dying
The Not So Good: Enemy numbers can be overwhelming at first, combat controls could be better
What say you? A straightforward and hefty RPG that’s appropriate for all ages: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Role-playing games have become pretty repetitive: insert spells, elves, wizards, and magic into a forest and you have yet another title. It’s come to the point where something new or different must be added to make the game stand out against the crowd. Loonyland II: Winter Woods takes the classic RPG formula and introduces a cartoon influence and simplified controls to make the game appeal to a much wider audience.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
When you compare it against most RPG games that features wizards and elves, Loonyland II features some unique visuals. The game is populated with bears, toys, and other big-headed characters, eschewing the usual fantasy setting. This gives Loonyland II a very distinctive look. The effects are pretty good and fit well with the setting. Loonyland II is also a bloodless experience that makes it a family-friendly title. The sound in the game also promotes the overall setting; Loonyland II features fine background music and appropriate effects. Loonyland II looks and sounds very good for an independent game; while the game may not feature cutting-edge 3-D graphics, the unique setting more than makes up for it.

ET AL.
Loonyland II: Winter Woods takes the increasingly complicated nature of role-playing games and restructures the control schemes and gameplay to make it a more accessible title. The game is played from an isometric perspective, so the controls consist of the four arrow keys, an attack button, and a jump button. Spells are easily accessible from a radial menu that can be accessed with the A button; this process pauses the game so you can pick the best spell or potion to use. The simple controls in the game makes Loonyland II appropriate for all experience and age levels, but the basic scheme is not without its problems. Attacking enemies could be a lot easier: you swing in the direction you are facing, but since enemies are coming at you from different directions and rotating without moving is difficult, you’ll end up hitting air more often than you desire.

Like in most role-playing games, you’ll be leveling up your character in Loonyland II. As you kill more enemies, you’ll gain experience points that will go towards gaining levels which increases your life, stamina, and magic. Death in the game is generally meaningless: you will re-spawn at the nearest safety area and keep all of your items and gold, although some of the progress made towards developing your talents is lost. Talents are attributes that level up as you practice them and the thirty talents must be unlocked by finding the Talent Guru hiding around the maps. For example, as you chop more wood, you’ll get better at chopping wood (makes sense to me!). Leveling up will also earn skill points that can be applied to any of the skills you have found. Fifty skills are found on scrolls scattered around the game, and once you find one, you can apply earned skill points to increase their effectiveness. Skills might include passive dodging, throwing ricochets, or any of the magic schools.

The world of Loonyland II is populated with a lot of unique enemies. They have really basic AI similar to Tortuga: they come right at you. Of course, there are so many enemies scattered around the maps that this simplistic AI is pretty effective. Loonyland II is pretty hard because you get ganged up on very quickly, even early on in the game. There is no plausible explanation why tons of enemies are randomly walking in the forest. Games like Oblivion at least have camps or towns people live in but in Loonyland II they are all over the place, swarming towards you at every opportunity. At least death doesn’t have too severe of a penalty.

Other than grinding through enemies, experience can also be gained by completing quests. There are fifty quests to complete in the game, and most of them are long-term collection tasks. The variety could be better, since most of the quests require you to get, bring, or kill someone or something. Loonyland II does let you join two “guilds” later in the game that offer unique quests, both of which have great names that exemplify the attitude of the game: the Onion Ring and the Snuggly Bunnies. You know that’s great. Most quests will offer experience points in addition to some special item. Loonyland II greatly simplifies the inventory: you can only use four items at a time (a weapon, amulet, parka, and glasses) and the remainder of your items you carry in your disturbingly large backpack. You can find items required for the different quests in the game, improved weaponry, or components you can craft together to make robots (yeah, robots), amulets, axes, glasses, gold, and potions. Loonyland II has a great item system that is randomized each time you play; basic items are randomly dropped by enemies and give different stats for every new game. You can also unlock modifiers to extend the gameplay. There are achievements you can complete in the game (such as attaining level 15 toughness), and once a row or column of them are complete on the big board, you unlock a modifier like running twice as fast or ghosts arise from defeated enemies. These greatly increase the replay value of the title and make Loonyland II last long past the first time you beat it.

IN CLOSING
Loonyland II does a wonderful job simplifying the RPG experience while still offering a lot of replay value and depth. The game is user-friendly at any skill level, as the controls are streamlined and the presentation is appropriate for all ages. The game’s randomized items and the modifiers add replay value for those who have finished the main game. There is also the freedom to direct your character any way you’d like: with fifty skills and thirty talents to choose from, you can control your development without being arbitrarily restricted to a class. The enemy AI could be better or more realistic and combat controls are somewhat cumbersome, but these are relatively minor issues. Any game where you can kill bears as a member of the Snuggly Bunnies gets my seal of approval. Loonyland II is a distinctive RPG experience that any fan of the genre, regardless of age, should not miss. The Snuggly Bunnies are waiting.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rock Legend Review

Rock Legend, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Multiple options for daily activities, meaningful feedback and helpful suggestions, slowly growing the band is fun and rewarding, interesting social interactions between needy band members, randomly generated names
The Not So Good: You’ll generally repeat the same activities over and over and they don’t change as you rise in popularity, no “real” songs
What say you? It’s an addictive but tedious life as a musician: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Everyone wants to be a rock star. The money, the fame, the girls: they are all very appealing (although not necessarily in that order). Of course, most of us have absolutely no musical talent, so the life of a rock star is out of the question (that hasn’t stopped some people). Lucky for us, Positech Games has made Rock Legend, adapting the Kudos engine to a simulation of band dynamics. Can you lead your ragtag followers from relative obscurity to the title of Greatest Band in the World?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Rock Legend are similar to those of Kudos, although they are slightly improved. People expecting a dynamic rock environment with slick 3-D graphics will be disappointed, but for a simulation or strategy game, Rock Legend features clean and easy to navigate graphics. The game is rendered in 2-D but it features decent graphics for a 2-D game: a nice variety of different heads for your band, large icons, and some minor special effects are just some of the inclusions. As long as you go into Rock Legend with the right mind set, the graphics are adequate. For a game based on music, you would figure that the soundtrack would be pretty good. Surprisingly, Rock Legend features very subdued sounds with a limited amount of licensed music by small artists. Since you write and compose your own songs in the game, you would figure that you’d get to listen to them, or at least a facsimile thereof. Honestly, I doubt this mechanic would work well, so it’s actually better off not to be included than to be done poorly. The game still has good-quality snippets of various types of music that plays when appropriate. Since I review a lot of low-budget wargames and puzzle titles, I’m not disappointed in the graphics or the sound of Rock Legend; as long as the gameplay is good, who cares what it looks like?

ET AL.
In Rock Legend, you’ll guide your upstart band from their humble beginnings to (hopefully) international status. To start with, you’ll need to name yourself, your band, and choose a 3-D render from a variety of hairstyles and skin tones for both male and female performers. Rock Legend has a random name generator for characters, bands, and songs, and it comes up with some appropriately generic combinations. I would like to see Rock Legend incorporate parts of well-known songs in addition to more random components (“Stairway to Teen Spirit” could dominate the charts). Once you have named your band, it’s time to find some band members. You can hire new members to play guitar, bass, and drums, and expand your entourage to include a keyboard or saxophone. While hiring members, you are given a skill rating and special skills for each of the three candidates; while hiring the most skilled people might seem like the most logical action, there are some valuable special skills and having all really good people might become a problem later on making everyone happy.

Rock Legend is a turn-based game, where each turn is a day and each month lasts a week. There are a number of different activities you can engage in but you can only do one per day. First, you’ll need to write original songs. This is done through a little mini-game where you match up series of notes to form a complete song. You get bonus points for matching adjacent note colors; this results in a more appealing song. Your band starts out with the ability to just do basic notes, but attending shows can unlock more advanced notes to compose better songs. Once you write a minimum number of songs, you can produce a CD to sell at shows. You’ll mix the CD, changing the influence of each band member’s instrument and adjusting the overall quality of the CD; obviously, you’ll need to balance the quality of the CD against the morale of your band members since poor but egotistical members might be a little miffed their part was tuned out for a better overall album. It’s an interesting mechanic that can greatly affect your band’s confidence. After a while, older songs will need to be retired and replaced; while I understand retiring crappy older songs, you should be able to keep “classics” around for a longer period of time.

Once you have a set of songs, you can rehearse for live performances in different locations (more expensive locations yield better results). This is a simple procedure that’s completely automated and entirely the same at any point in the game. Once you band is good enough, you can book gigs at that cost different fees and have varying capacities. Before your show, you’ll need to put up flyers promoting your upcoming performance, although once your band is famous you can rely in interviews to promote your band. Concerts, like rehearsing, are over instantly and a rating is based off of several factors: your musical ability, concert experience, song quality, rehearsal level, and overall performance. I would like to see a more dynamic or interactive concert experience, possibly something along the lines of Guitar Hero. There is a mini-game when you hone your skills, however. It plays just like Simon, substituting the electronic beeps with guitar, keyboard, or drum sounds. The min-game ranges from very easy to quite challenge, and it’s a nice diversion from the normal gameplay. The money you earn from playing shows can be spent on improved instruments, better lighting and effects for shows, merchandise you can sell, and hiring staff. You can also spend a little money on a CD to learn more advanced notes for songwriting purposes.

Rock Legend provides just enough variety, at least in the beginning, to keep you interested. Having to improve your skills while maintaining good relations with your members requires some good strategy. Plus, there is an emotional investment made following your band from its infancy through adulthood (and, in some cases, post-adulthood). Rock Legend provides some very good feedback from your band members to guide you along. If they want anything (new instruments, riders, et cetera), they will let you know. You’ll need to balance your income, anticipating potential needs before they become a problem. If band members don’t get what they want, they can refuse to play shows (resulting in a really big problem) and you might have to fire them. In general, Rock Legend is initially fun to play but the game becomes quite monotonous after a while. This is partially because everything that is available from the beginning never changes: gigs are the same, mixing CDs is the same, purchasing items is the same (although you can eventually afford better stuff that, frankly, is the same), improving your skills is the same, and writing songs is the same. There are a lot of things to do, but they remain the same from beginning to end.

IN CLOSING
Rock Legend is a well designed game that expands upon the foundation of Kudos. I like the random names and the interface that gives meaningful information and guidance during the game. There are a number of different activities to engage in, although they do tend to get tedious after a while. Rock Legend requires striking a delicate balance between improving your band, exhausting your band mates, and catering to their needs in order to be a success. There is a fair amount of replay value, since you can opt for different band members with randomly generated skill sets each time you play. I think that Rock Legend will lack long-term appeal since the title becomes quite monotonous after a while, but it is quite entertaining for a short period of time and that’s probably worth $23 if you enjoy this type of game.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Chocolate Castle Review

Chocolate Castle, developed and published by Lexaloffle Games.
The Good: Simple, original, and strategically deep gameplay, retro soundtrack
The Not So Good: Low resolution graphics
What say you? A very original and highly addictive puzzle game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Everyone loves chocolate. Well, except for the lactose intolerant, of course (the world distribution of hypolactasia is interesting; did you know the ability to consume lactose beyond the age of four is actually a mutation?). But imagine, if you will, an entire castle made out of chocolate (no doubt located in The Land of Chocolate): wouldn’t that be yummy? Well, the next best thing to a real chocolate castle is a puzzle game about a chocolate castle named Chocolate Castle (the similarities are striking). In the game, you move mounds of chocolate and chocolate-eating creatures that eat the chocolate and complete the puzzle. It kind of makes me hungry. So please, read past this nonsensical introduction and see how the game fares in the ranks of the puzzle elite.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Chocolate Castle has some rudimentary graphics. Well, I don’t know if that’s the right word for it; “simplistic” might be more appropriate. Being developed by a small company and being a puzzle game, you wouldn’t expect cutting-edge graphics in Chocolate Castle, and you’d be right. The game runs at a fixed resolution of 640 by 480 pixels (ah, that takes me back) that can be switched to windowed mode. There is hardly any animation in the game: just the eating of the chocolate (it quickly disappears) and the balloon-filled celebration that takes place when you finish a level. Of course, the upside is that Chocolate Castle can run on pretty much any computer, including the ENIAC. When the download is under 1 MB and the complete install is around 4 MB, then you know a game won’t be a huge resource hog. The sound is minimal as well, although Chocolate Castle does have a pretty good retro 80’s soundtrack very reminiscent of games released during that time. The focus of Chocolate Castle is clearly not on the graphics or the sound but rather on the gameplay.

ET AL.
The object of Chocolate Castle is to eat all of the chocolate on each level. You do this by dragging little creatures that can each eat a specific type of chocolate onto their desired treat. Each creature disappears after they eat, so you can also drag the chocolate around and combine pieces to make giant blocks of chocolate goodness. This is an innovative mechanic that lets a relatively simple concept support a large variety of level designs.
There are walls that block your path, large blue blocks that can be moved but not eaten, magic walls that can be moved once before turning into a stationary wall, and “Turkish delight” that can be eaten by a cat that explodes (of course!). The varying amount of empty space and the relative freedom given to the user results in a very compelling puzzle game. There is usually more than one way to solve a puzzle, although there is a preferred solution. The gameplay is “turn-based” which allows you to think before you move things around, and Chocolate Castle also has an undo button if you make a mistake. The game features 120 puzzles in total, 40 at each difficulty level and you can play them in any order. The easy rooms are easy and the hard rooms are really hard. Amazing! This is one of the first games I’ve played in a while that’s gotten the difficulty settings generally correct. There is also a level editor if you want to make your own creations. Even with relatively limited puzzle components, the variety in Chocolate Castle is very high. Chocolate Castle doesn’t need twenty or thirty different puzzle pieces to create variety when the basic mechanics are this well designed. The game is easy to learn yet hard to master because of good level design; it’s one of those games that makes you come back for more, just to beat one additional level.

IN CLOSING
Chocolate Castle is a very well designed game that has simple mechanics but some advanced and difficult puzzles (along with very easy ones for beginners). While the graphics could be better, they do their job well enough and don’t hinder the gameplay. Chocolate Castle is an innovative puzzle game and it’s fun to play with the right amount of challenge once you get past the easy levels. The level editor adds even more replay value to the game. If you’re a fan of puzzle games, then you shouldn’t miss taking a bite out of Chocolate Castle. Yeah, I’m sorry for that pun, but it was too tasty to ignore! And I’m sorry for that one, too.