Monday, October 29, 2007

Scallywag: In the Lair of the Medusa Review

Scallywag: In the Lair of the Medusa, developed by Chronic Reality and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Randomly generated maps are different each time you play, robust yet simple editing tools, oil is a neat resource to deal with
The Not So Good: Drab levels, somewhat cumbersome controls, repetitive loot, slow start
What say you? Random maps and mod support save an otherwise generic action role playing game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The action role playing game has been popular on the PC for a while now. There is something about hacking and/or slashing that makes people come back for more. Exploring through uncharted regions, killing things, and gathering precious loot is the name of the game in Scallywag: In the Lair of the Medusa. The thing that may set this title apart from the pack is the Random Adventure Game Engine, which produces new maps each time you play based off some values in a text file. Will this amount of freedom grant players with a new level of awesomeness, or will it just result in muddled, unpolished gameplay?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Due in part to the randomized nature of the maps, Scallywag features some frugal graphics. The game maps are rendered in 3-D, but all of the items and characters are 2-D sprites superimposed on the background. It doesn’t necessarily look bad, but it does seem out of place. Speaking of the maps, Scallywag features some of the most boring levels seen in an action RPG in recent memory. The levels consist of walls and floors, and that’s it: no furniture, no architecture, and no realism. No wonder all of the beings in the dungeon are trying to kill you: there is nothing for them to look at! There is also a functional problem with the graphics: since you can’t tilt your view, it’s hard to see past your 2-D character. This makes moving (done by clicking on a map location) way more difficult than it should be. You also have to manually rotate the camera, adding to the dilemma. I probably spend more time moving the camera and trying to see around things than actually playing the game. A more overhead view would be greatly appreciated, or give the user the ability to move using the minimap. The highlight of the graphics is the lighting effect from your lamp: it looks good and is an integral part of the gameplay, not just a bell or whistle. The sounds in Scallywag are basic at best: some decent background music and utilitarian effects for the hacking and/or slashing. The graphics and sound of Scallywag makes it easy for editing and promotes the random map generator, but they aren’t the best to look at or listen to in the genre.

ET AL.
Scallywag is a single-player only action role-playing game that takes place in a dungeon, or, more specifically, in the lair of the Medusa (I know because the title of the game told me so). Something that sets Scallywag apart is the random map generator: every map in the game is made on the spot based on values in a text file. While most games just change the enemy locations (if anything), Scallywag changes everything, from the map layouts to the loot to the enemies. This randomness almost makes up for the lack of multiplayer…almost. The game takes place over eighty levels that increase in difficulty and complexity. The first ten levels start out slowly, especially for people who have played the game before, but the action picks up after the first set. You can only save the game every ten levels for some reason, but autosaves are made at the start of each level. All movement and interaction is made by clicking the mouse and quick slots can be used to switch between weapons in an expedient manner. The minimap is useful as it shows the layout and important objects around the map; finding the exit is easy if you consult the minimap. However, you can’t issue movement orders using the minimap so traveling large distances is difficult, even more so considering you can’t tilt the camera.

As with most role-playing games, there is a suite of weapons to discover in the field. that differ in the amount of damage they cause and how fast they cause it. You can also equip yourself with armor to fend off enemy attack. The items in any single area are very repetitive so there is not much reason to scout a single level extensively (except for oil). You can combine shards to make powerful items, but these are scripted combinations. Some items can have magical effects, like fire, electric, smashing, drain, or drunkenness. Thankfully, combat in Scallywag isn’t a matter of endless clicking: just select and enemy (there is a good assortment of enemies to deal with) and the game does the rest. In fact, your character will automatically defend himself: what a novel idea! Over time, your character will lose health that can be replenished with tasty rat meat and other items like magic mushrooms. The protagonist also gains experience through combat, which will automatically increase health and other stats when you gain a level. Oil in an interesting resource in the game: since you are playing in a dungeon, you need to see, and your lantern and its limited supply of oil is the only way. You need to budget your oil consumption and balance your supply against how far you can see. It’s an interesting dynamic beyond the simple killing of monsters. You can even use your lantern in a sneaky mode and move past dangerous foes unnoticed.

The goal of each map is to find the rope (which may be inconveniently held by a boss) and then find the exit, finding objects and monsters along the way. The maps are generally repetitive as I mentioned earlier, but the game is still fun to play as you smash your way through each map. Scallywag also features some of the best editing tools I’ve seen since Europa Universalis III. All of the files are simple text entries that are used to generate each of the levels. That means anyone can come in and change a lot of the settings without having an extensive modding background. In addition to incorporating new fonts, sounds, and textures, C++ programmers can develop new plug-ins that almost have unlimited potential within the framework of the game. The text files include the stats for all of the weapons, armor, items, monsters, and map designs. Everything can be altered, from speed to damage to rarity to icon to mutator effects to strength to room count and more. There is already a mod made by the developer ready for download that showcases how easy it is to make a slightly different game. I’m interested in seeing how flexible this design is once some modders get their hands on the game.

IN CLOSING
At its core, Scallywag is a basic action role-playing game, but the modification potential of the game elevates its overall value. The graphics and sound may be very elementary, but it does allow for easy modifying and random map generation on the fly. There are some interface issues, such as the inability to change the view angle which makes moving more difficult than it should be. The minimap is informative, but you should be able to move using it: backtracking to the exit can be quite annoying as it should be a one-click affair once you’ve explored the map. The use of oil adds an interesting layer of strategy that makes Scallywag more than a simple clicking affair. The random maps increase replay value tremendously, as do the modding tools that make changing anything you don’t like in the game easy as pie (apple, specifically). I do wish the loot was more diverse in the beginning of the game and the slow start may deter some new players, but the action picks up after the first ten levels. Overall, Scallywag is a good RPG that offers enough replay value through its random and custom elements to make it a notable title.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

KingMania Review

KingMania, developed by Rake In Grass and published by 300AD.
The Good: Straightforward gameplay, fast pace, numerous upgrades for different strategies, online multiplayer with server browser
The Not So Good: Controls are a bit cumbersome, not much variety with singular objectives
What say you? The quick, easy strategy gameplay makes up for some lack of diversity: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Strategy games are moving away from the hour-long slugfests of days gone by to more succinct matches. The importance of base building and resource collection is being replaced by more action-packed excitement, as evidenced by games like World in Conflict. Another game that cuts to the chase is KingMania, a fast paced strategy game in the vein of Galcon and Mayhem Intergalactic. Will the more straightforward gameplay of KingMania reduce the strategy, or just simplify the process?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
KingMania features some OK graphics and sound using the popular Torque engine. Games using this engine have a similar look: simple but effective 3-D graphics. We saw this in Penguins Arena and it’s present again in KingMania. Most of the levels in the game are small and consist of a green island with various castles placed on the map. The maps are reminiscent of simplified wargame boards except KingMania renders it in 3-D. The graphics make it easy to spot things but won’t overwhelm you with graphical glory. The sound is good enough, featuring some appropriate background music and repetitive but effective effects. Overall, KingMania has a below average presentation, but the game is playable and not terribly muddled so that’s something.

ET AL.
The object of KingMania is to take over your opponent’s castle (apparently everyone is fighting over potatoes). This is done by capturing surrounding locations with your troops to increase your income and recruit more troops. The single player campaign of KingMania is a sequence of skirmishes of increasing difficulty, usually giving more locations near your opponent and making the AI more aggressive. The “destroy enemy” objective that is present in each level becomes repetitive very quickly; it would have been nice to have some other purpose than total domination of your opponent, like capturing a certain town or holding a location for a specified amount of time. The game’s tutorial is integrated into the first couple of levels; the in-game “how to play” information didn’t make much sense until I actually played through a couple of levels. KingMania also features multiplayer over the Internet and provide matchmaking through the game’s server browser, a feature that a lot of independent titles lack.

Your kingdom can consist of several types of buildings: your starting castle that produces knights, villages that produce food and villagers, mines that produces gold, mage towers that produce spells, and scout towers that will reveal exactly how many units are in each building on the map. While it is nice to have a small selection of buildings for simplicity, it does limit the overall strategy somewhat. Sending troops to other buildings it simple: select and click. You can set a percentage of your troops to send on a pop-up display (which can commonly obscure other buildings in the distance) and choose to send just knights, just villagers, or a combination of both. For those who don’t excel in math, the game also indicates exactly how many individuals will be traveling over the river and through the woods to your destination. Traveling takes time, so it’s important to coordinate and send your furthest troops first (similar to coordinating nukes in DEFCON). You must select each individual building as there is no “select all” command or selection box like in Galcon; this isn’t that big of deal except on large maps.

There is some variety added to the strategy through upgrades. Through the money and food that you earn at mines and villages, you can purchase a number of improvements to your buildings. Upgrades can improve a building’s offensive and defensive capabilities, good for front-line structures that are likely to be attacked. You can also increase the production of the building or enable spell casting that sends things like warrior villagers, fireballs, or monsters at enemy cities. Overall, KingMania features just enough strategy in the upgrades and general map layouts to make it an interesting title. There are several strategies you can employ, evidenced by your choices in upgrades and which buildings to invade first. The relatively simplistic game mechanics mean that almost anyone can learn and enjoy the game. KingMania might not have the strategic variety seen in other RTS games, but it’s still simple fun. The user interface is a bit cumbersome and controlling a large empire requires a lot of clicking, but KingMania provides small doses of strategy goodness.

IN CLOSING
KingMania is a good fast-paced strategy game that is easy to plan and offers some variety through the upgrades you can purchase. The controls are straightforward and simple to handle, although the pop-up indicators do sometimes get in the way. The graphics are simplistic but effective. The single player campaign features the same objective each mission (take over all of the enemy strongholds) with increasing difficulty, so it gets kind of old after a while. Thankfully, KingMania has integrated multiplayer support that will extend the life of the game. Although KingMania becomes a matter of simply capturing buildings by force and tons of friendly units, you can tailor your strategy somewhat through the upgrades you choose. A single game takes around ten minutes to complete, so you won’t get bogged down in a single contest for very long. Strategy fans will find some enjoyment KingMania as the basic game is good, although the title lacks some strategic variety to keep people interested for the long haul.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hornet Leader Review

Hornet Leader, developed by Dan Verssen Games and Storm Cloud Creations and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Easy to learn with simple mechanics, variable strategy, fast pace, false intelligence creates uncertainty
The Not So Good: No tutorial, single-player only, frugal graphics and sound at a fixed resolution, cumbersome interface with response lag, repetitive missions, can’t exit or save the game mid-mission
What say you? This strategy game has limited features and lacks flashy graphics, but it’s still fun: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For those of us without any friends, playing card games is an impossible activity (except for Solitaire, of course). Luckily, computers can now substitute for real human companionship and serve as an adequate foe. Thus, we are starting to see a lot of card games make their way onto the PC. One of these was personal favorite Down In Flames, and now comes Hornet Leader, based off a card game from the same author. In Hornet Leader, you lead a swarm of angry bees in a revolt against their human captors. Or you command a group of fighter pilots. Either way, I’m sure it will be fun!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hornet Leader features graphics that are, how you say, old. Hornet Leader is based off a card game, but that doesn’t mean it has to feature outdated visuals. The background of the game map is a stark black, which doesn’t seem like a very realistic theater of operations. The icons used in the game are generally small and you need to scour the manual to figure out what all the numbers mean. The explosions consist of a magic green cloud of dust. Hornet Leader is played at a fixed 1280x1024 resolution; while I commend the use of a common higher resolution, some laptop owners will not be able to play. The sound is equally uninspired: some annoying firing sounds, repetitive explosions, and sporadic and jarring audio clues. Those expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics and surround sound will be sorely disappointed, and Hornet Leader is even bare-bones by wargame standards. But as long as the gameplay is good, it doesn’t matter how it looks, right? Right?

ET AL.
Hornet Leader features four single-player only campaigns from Libya in 1986 to present-day North Korea. There isn’t much difference between each of the scenarios so they all play very similarly. The game does not have a tutorial, but thankfully the mechanics are relatively easy to learn and there are help button present on all of the screens with detailed information. Each of the scenarios comes with eighteen targets that will appear in a semi-random fashion; you can typically choose between two or three targets, and each will grant different benefits and levels of difficulty. You can choose different campaign lengths, from three day skirmishes to ten day wars. Hornet Leader has six difficulty levels which award bonuses for or against you; I found playing on the balanced “average” setting is tough enough, so Hornet Leader should never get too easy for experienced players. For each campaign, you can select twelve pilots from a larger list; they have varying specialties, such as air-to-air skill, and you must pick a variety of overall skill levels. Pilots can gain experience by successfully completing missions that will increase their stats. Choosing a variety of pilots with different strengths seems to be the best course of action. Although each campaign uses the same pilots (kind of weird considering the game spans almost 20 years), there are enough to choose from to make some hard decisions come about.

A lot of the strategy involved with Hornet Leader comes about even before you technically start the mission. Each mission limits you to a specified number of pilots, and the game gives you a rough estimate on how many enemies you will run into. You will have to balance strengths, pilots needing experience, and overall difficulty when choosing an appropriate roster. The missions are repetitive: blow up a ground or air object and encounter resistance along the way. Luckily, the arrangement and type of enemies changes and requires you to plan for all possible situations. Before you lift off, you will need to air your planes. You can choose between air-to-air missiles, pods (used for passive defense, although the manual neglects this information), iron bombs, anti-radiation missiles (for radar), air-to-ground missiles, and smart bombs. Each mission has a weight limit (tied to how far away the target is, to simulate fuel load) so you have to plan accordingly. Each weapon differs in range, firing altitude, and rolls required on a 10-sided die for a hit. Really sweet weapons require a special cost. There is a good variety of weapons and Hornet Leader offers a multitude of arming strategies: long range or short range, high altitude or low altitude, bombs or missiles, air-to-air or air-to-ground, and so on. Unlike some games that come with an optimal build order or fixed units, Hornet Leader gives the player the freedom to royally screw up.

The first step in a mission is to plan your starting locations and altitudes. Before this happens, though, you can receive a random event that might completely change your chance of success. There are positive ones (like bombers softening up the target) and very negative ones (like running into a SAM site). Sometimes you are given a choice of using some of your weapons to avoid the event or just take your lumps. It should be noted that Hornet Leader crashes if you choose to use weapons you don’t have, although I think this may be fixed in a patch. In any event, you are given the choice of placing your aircraft in eight approach zones (one for each cardinal and ordinal direction) and set their starting altitude. You will want to avoid dangerous weapons and try to fly out of the range of enemy strongholds; since some weapons can only engage low altitude planes, this can be done to some extent. Each mission consists of four turns and each turn has four stages: fast pilots attack, enemy sites and bandits attack, slow pilots attack, and movement. Engaging an enemy requires selecting the shooter, clicking on the target, picking your weapon of choice, and pressing fire. The interface could have been designed better, since some objects have a very small clickable range, and Hornet Leader has large amounts of response lag after a shot is taken. I’m not sure if this is to let you see the results, but it’s annoying if you are clicking on something and the game doesn’t respond because it’s paused automatically. All of the computations in the game are done with a ten-sided die: if your roll exceeds the number on your missile, the target is destroyed. You can fire multiple missiles per turn to increase your odds, but once a pilot has fired once they cannot fire again that turn.

Defending against enemy attacks is a bit more complicated than attacking. You can choose to suppress an attack by using a precious weapon, evade an attack which will increase your odds at surviving but increasing stress, or just take it like a man and hope for the best. These are some really tough decisions: you can’t suppress all of the time, because then you will run out of weapons. You also can’t evade all of the time, because stats decrease as stress increases.

An enemy’s attack can have one of four results, depending on how high the dice roll was: nothing, a gain in stress, a loss of weapons, or complete humiliation. You can luck out for a couple of turns, but eventually poor planning will catch up to you. The random events that take place before and after combat can also mix up the action quite a bit, making a previously daunting mission easier, and vice versa. Hornet Leader has a very fast pace: a single mission takes around ten minutes or so to complete, depending on how many planes you have under your command. This makes it a little easier to understand why you are not allowed to save, or even exit, the game during a mission, but those two features are still questionable in their exclusion. Hornet Leader does feel a lot like a card game (not surprising) and the mechanics are generally good, with easy-to-understand rules and straightforward gameplay. Hornet Leader could benefit from more features, such as multiplayer (where one player could take the defender) or more dynamic graphics, but the game is still fun to play and it is a good fast-paced strategy title.

IN CLOSING
While Hornet Leader is a more limited title than Down In Flames, it still shows that Dan Verssen Games knows how to make a fast-paced engrossing card game. And the computer version of Hornet Leader isn’t too shabby either. The basic gameplay is simple enough where anyone can learn it, after they figure out what all those little numbers mean. Although each campaign is the same, the replay value is still high thanks to randomized enemies and special events during each mission. There are a lot of choices the player needs to make during each game, including the initial roster, mission setup, loadout, positioning, weapons use, countermeasures, and more. Hornet Leader gives a lot of freedom without being overly cumbersome in its design. The game does lack some of the features present in more well-rounded strategy games, but I still had fun while playing it. Hornet Leader is also difficult enough to keep people coming back well into the future. Hornet Leader is another fine card-based game that should keep strategy fans busy for a while.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

1914 Shells of Fury Review

1914 Shells of Fury, developed by H2F Informationssysteme and published by Rondomedia and Strategy First.
The Good: Seemingly realistic and uniquely different from contemporary submarines, pleasant interface, quick mission generator, time acceleration
The Not So Good: Uninformative tutorials, outdated graphics, no multiplayer, static campaign missions, quick mission builder is very limited
What say you? It’s not the best game in the genre, but there is still some World War I U-boat fun to be had: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Submarine games have a storied tradition on the PC. From the Silent Hunter series to the classic Jane’s titles, you don’t have to go far to find a quality simulation of action under the surface. Most of these games are set in the present day or (surprise!) World War II, where most of the hunting and/or killing focuses on technology. But what about the olden times, before fancy gadgets turned metal behemoths into blips on a screen? 1914 Shells of Fury simulates old school World War I submarine action: no sonar, just periscopes and torpedoes. Most of the subs during this time period operated above the surface until they spotted an enemy ship, and then submerged for the kill. This makes the gameplay of 1914 Shells of Fury potentially different from more current sub games.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
1914 Shells of Fury is one of the worst contemporary naval games in terms of graphics. It’s not terribly complicated to make a nice looking ocean, believable ship models, awesome explosions, and decent underwater scenes, but 1914 Shells of Fury fails in pretty much every one of those areas. The waves stink: they are completely angular triangles that rise and fall in the ocean. The ships are equally straight and lack detail, and the explosions are unimpressive. Even underwater scenes look unrealistically murky and green. When you compare 1914 Shells of Fury to games like Ship Simulator, Virtual Sailor, and even Days of Sail (not known for its graphical prowess), it’s clear that this game needs a lot of work in the graphics department. The sound effects in 1914 Shells of Fury are a slight bit better with some OK effects, although there isn’t any voice (German or otherwise) in the game. 1914 Shells of Fury also has some subdued music that fits the stealthy atmosphere of the game well. Thankfully, simulations focus more on gameplay than graphics and sound, but it would still be nice for the world of 1914 Shells of Fury to look pretty.

ET AL.
1914 Shells of Fury features play from the German side of World War I. You can play single missions, the campaign, or a quick mission builder. The single missions include limited tutorials that cover only one thing at a time, and they don’t really teach you anything (just “do this”). There are a handful (around five) stand-alone missions that are a lot like the campaign missions: search and destroy. Although you can play from the start to the end of the war, the campaign is very linear and features the same missions each time. This is disappointing, since it would be seemingly easy to randomize the locations and enemy ships at least a little bit. The mission generator does this to some extent, as you can choose your sub, the region, year, enemy, weather, time of day, and season. However, you always spawn right next to the enemy and this removes all of the scouting involves in submarine attacks. 1914 Shells of Fury also lacks multiplayer. Obviously, there could have been a lot more done to round out the features in 1914 Shells of Fury.

Fortunately, the actual gameplay is pretty good. You can adjust the realism in the game, including the availability of batteries, fuel, oxygen, torpedo faults, convoy movement, and torpedoes. 1914 Shells of Fury follows the World War I submarine method of movement: operating mostly on the surface because there was no sonar (and battery power was limited), spotting enemy ships, and then submerging to attack using the periscope. All of this plays out in real time, so thankfully 1914 Shells of Fury includes time acceleration: up to 16X when engaging enemy ships, and 1024X if you are using the map view with no spotted enemies. The game will also automatically switch to real time speed if an enemy is spotted. This makes three day missions take about half an hour to complete, depending on how many ships you encounter. Most of the missions have you patrolling a specified area and engaging any enemy ships you see; they will follow realistic paths and zigzag to avoid torpedoes. 1914 Shells of Fury features a decent interface that allows you to do basic actions from any station, although most of the time you’ll want to switch positions on the ship.

There are ten rooms to visit on the ship. The first is a sailing view that allows you to feel the wind in your hair, virtually speaking of course. The control room features straightforward speed, depth, and compass settings, as you use the mouse to set them. The torpedo room allows you to load the four tubes, set the depth the torpedo will follow, and its speed. You can go above deck and fire the deck (for ships) or machine (for planes) guns, or have the computer do it for you. You can also equip the binoculars to spot enemy goings-on, listen to the radio, or check the mission objectives and extensive damage report (with a multitude of systems that can be destroyed) in the captain’s room. Most of your time, however, will be spend in either the map room or with the periscope. You can plot up to five waypoints on the map and set autopilot to follow them (then accelerate to ludicrous speed) or just keep an eye on enemy contacts. The periscope can be raised and scrolled to spot enemy ships. The scrolling is a bit too touchy and it takes a couple of tries to lock it on an enemy ship. Once it is centered correctly, you can have the game calculate the firing angle and follow it automatically, or choose to do these things yourself. Overall, I prefer the more basic submarine mechanics of 1914 Shells of Fury over the more modern simulations with tons of electronic equipment you must learn. I certainly think that 1914 Shells of Fury is more appropriate for beginners as it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do and you still get to blow stuff up. I can’t find anything wrong with the gameplay or any glaring features missing, so 1914 Shells of Fury is as realistic as a World War I submarine simulation can be.

IN CLOSING
Despite lacking some extra features, 1914 Shells of Fury is an entertaining and realistic submarine simulation. I actually like this simplified approach to submarines better than the technology-dependent modern subs: there’s no listening to soundings or any of that techno mumbo jumbo to worry about. It’s find the enemy, submerge, and fire. 1914 Shells of Fury would feel like a more complete product if a better mission generator and more varied missions were included, but all you are going to do is hunt and kill, so there’s not much variety inherent in that anyway. The budget price of $20 makes 1914 Shells of Fury a reasonable addition to a naval simulation library. It’s not as advanced as some other games, but neither were the subs of World War I. I feel that I got $20 worth of fun out of 1914 Shells of Fury, and the more simplified approach is sure to be welcomed by a segment of the gaming population.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Narobiyu Review

Narobiyu, developed and published by Bal√°zs Buri.
The Good: Original gameplay, fast pace, nice graphics for the genre, cheap
The Not So Good: No multiplayer
What say you? A simple premise makes this puzzle game unique and quite addictive: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ve been reviewing less and less puzzle games recently, mainly because they have become all the same (how many times do I need to play a match-three game?), but I’m up for a unique idea. The puzzle genre has spawned some distinctive titles, from Tetris to Lumines. Both of the aforementioned titles have very simple mechanics and highly addictive gameplay, something you look for in a quality puzzle title. Narobiyu is hoping to be one of those games, taking straightforward gameplay and elevating it to the upper pantheon of puzzle greatness.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics and sound of Narobiyu are very reminiscent of Lumines, which is a good thing. The game has a very clean look to it, with brightly-colored blocks and dynamic backgrounds that don’t obscure the action. I like the graphical style of the game and it fits the genre well. The music is along the same lines, with an upbeat tempo appropriate for this kind of game. The graphics and the sound of Narobiyu are both pleasing on the eyes and ears.

ET AL.
Narobiyu effectively takes a straightforward, innovative idea and creates a fun, entertaining, and addictive game. Here is how the game works: you must connect two blocks of the same color by tracing the connection with your mouse (or keyboard, but the mouse makes it a lot easier). Each time you make a connection, the next connection of the same color must be exactly one block longer. Once you make three progressively longer connections of the same color, they disappear from the board. Normally, you will start out with a two block connection (two adjacent blocks), then a three (with one differently colored block in the middle), and then a four. While the blocks are being removed, you can make additional connections for bonus points. You can do a run of connections with more than one color at once, but its much easier to focus on the same color so you don’t lose track on which length you need next. If you make an incorrect connection, it turns grey and can’t be removed except with a bonus. The gameplay is simple once you learn the nuances; it took me a couple of tries to get it right (there is no tutorial) but once I did, Narobiyu was quite enjoyable. Watching the gameplay video shows how Narobiyu is played if my description didn’t make any sense (likely).

The standard game mode is the usual increasing speed mode present in most puzzle games like this, but you can also play for a short period of time in the time trial mode. I would like to see more customization options in the time trial mode (such as length and starting level), though. Narobiyu is a very fluid game and helps you out: the game pauses for several seconds if a column reaches the top to give you a chance to eliminate some blocks in specific areas. The gameplay is repetitive but it’s still fun as the difficulty slowly ramps up with additional colors and faster scrolling. Narobiyu takes a unique concept and executes it well, resulting in an engaging puzzle game.

IN CLOSING
Innovation is hard to come by these days in the puzzle genre, but Narobiyu comes up with a unique change that makes it memorable and enjoyable. You really need to play the game with a mouse, but the controls are straightforward and smooth. The graphics and sound are good for the genre and create a nice gaming atmosphere. Although the gameplay is somewhat repetitive, the difficulty ramps up fast enough to keep you interested for the duration. Plus, Narobiyu has that addictive “one more game” feel to it. Anyone remotely interested in puzzle games should definitely give Narobiyu a serious look, especially at the low, low price of $7. It is something different for the genre, and that’s to be commended.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Review

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, developed by Splash Damage and id Software and published by Activision.
The Good: Team-based gameplay, each class has a purpose with multiple objectives, neat deployables, concentrated battles, accurate combat model, experience unlocks reset every three maps, capable bots, useful interface
The Not So Good: Needs full servers for optimum enjoyment, repetitive assault-only maps, two sides are almost identical with only subtle differences, generic weapons, lacks VoIP
What say you? An enjoyable team-oriented objectives-based first person shooter: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Multiplayer games are becoming increasingly team-oriented. In the case of the first person shooter, titles of the past have normally been an individual endeavor, trying to rack up the highest number of kills. However, clans and the use of voice-over-IP have made playing as a team a more viable option. Online shooters like Battlefield 2 started offering in-game squad organization and organized play is certainly popular in MMORPGs (which stands for “hi, I am a nerd”), where gathering a band of merry men is a common occurrence. We’ve seen more games force the team dynamic on players lately, like personal favorite World in Conflict. Another example is Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which takes the gameplay from the free Wolfenstein add-on and applies it to the Quake license in order to sell more games.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
While some people aren’t exactly impressed with the graphics of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, I found them to be good enough. There are some instances of great texture detail present in several of the game’s levels, but then you encounter some bland maps as well (though I guess it’s hard to make New Jersey not look bland). The game features a good attention to detail, as most of the outside areas feel realistic, although the building interiors feel a bit repetitive and overly metallic. I like how the vehicles in the game have semi-realistic displays that show speed, rather than just showing a generic wheel. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars has some nice effects like bullet hits and a number of the explosions are impressive. The character models are well done, although most of the time you’ll be shooting from far enough away where you’ll just see the friend-or-foe indicator. The vehicles appear futuristic as well, and the game’s overall theme of near-future combat seems plausible enough through the graphics. The sound ranges from appropriate background music to some annoying effects. The jarring whistle heard when starting a new match is tremendously irritating. The game’s sense of humor with audio responses is funny at first, but then just gets old. I do like the sound indicator when you successfully hit an enemy: very useful. The music does fit the overall impending doom of the game well, though. So while Enemy Territory: Quake Wars might not be the most technologically advanced game on the market, the presentation is sufficient.

ET AL.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars features the tense struggle between the human GDF and the alien Strogg. There are really only small differences between the two sides: the weapons and vehicles are identical (with different skins, obviously) and the abilities are the same with only a few differences. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is designed to be a multiplayer game, but the same objective-based gameplay is available against AI bots in a single player mode. The bots are good for the most part, as they will achieve the objectives and generally act smart, though they will occasionally drive into objects or stand around. Multiplayer is integrated into game well, with browser filters that actually function correctly (I’m looking at you, Battlefield) and it’s easy to join a game. The game is occasionally laggy online, though this really depends on the server you choose. The game features stat tracking, but unlike Battlefield 2142, this does not permanently unlock new weapons. Experience bonuses are only gained in each campaign (a set of three maps) and are reset each new game. This is much better than the alternative, as new players are not at a disadvantage to players who play nothing but Enemy Territory: Quake Wars night and day. It is hard to gain ranks, however: your rank is supposed to be relative to others on the server, but after a good deal of playing I have yet to get above the entry level position. Rank doesn’t do anything, but it’s either broken or there are just too many experienced people on the servers I play.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars features four three-mission campaigns (that’s a total of twelve…I can multiply!). All of the maps in the game are assault (one attacker and one defender); there is a lot more that could have been done to increase the variety in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. As it stands, every map involves driving, constructing, destroying, hacking, or transporting objects, or defending against these actions. As a comparison, World in Conflict features three different modes of play, but we are limited in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The advantage to the assault-only gameplay is that each battle is very focused: there is almost constant action and everyone is fighting in the same area, instead of spreading out over the entire map. This is helped by forward spawn points, and each map features both indoor and outdoor areas for a little variety. The map size does not scale according to the number of players, so you really need a full 24-player server for the game to work well. Other than the three-map campaigns, you can do a single-map match or the stopwatch mode that switches attacker and defender roles and sees who can do it faster. The interface of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is good, as it shows objective locations, enemy and friendly units, and other pertinent information in a clear and informative manner. And Enemy Territory: Quake Wars doesn’t require having the DVD in the drive when you play…bonus!

There are five classes to choose from in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and each class has its role in the overall scheme. I have yet to find a “hated” class and all are equally fun to play (unlike World in Conflict where I dislike the infantry role). The weapons each class gets are pretty generic (a standard assault rifle for most), considering the Quake heritage. In fact, a lot of the weapons from Quake games aren’t even included in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: where is the plasma gun, chaingun, super nailgun, hyperblaster, or BFG? The five classes for each side are identical and are simply given different names. The basic soldier/aggressor can choose between the standard rifle, a machine gun, a rocket launcher, or a shotgun. Soldiers also get explosives that are required to complete some of the objectives. Engineers/constructors can deploy defensive turrets (anti-personnel, anti-vehicle, or artillery interceptor) and repair things. Medics can revive dead teammates (to half health) and Strogg technicians can make spawn points from fallen GDF soldiers. Field ops/oppressors and deploy artillery and order air strikes. Cover ops/infiltrators are equipped with long-range sniper rifles and can deploy radar (extremely useful…probably my favorite deployable) and remote cameras. Experience earned in each class can allow you to run faster or unlock better weapons, but they are reset after the end of each campaign (again, a welcome feature).

The gameplay of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars can best be described as a fast-paced tactical model. It only takes a few shots to kill someone, but you can run fairly fast and respawn times are generally short. It’s not the same style as Quake, with large health and drawn-out skirmishes, so the “Quake Wars” moniker is somewhat misleading. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars uses an accurate shooting model which “guesses” where you meant to shoot, to make up for lag differences. The result is a lot more accurate shooting and more enjoyable gameplay as a whole. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars does emphasize teamwork, so everyone needs to deploy their turret (one per person) and support each other to bring about glorious victory. It seems odd, then, that Enemy Territory: Quake Wars lacks voice-over-IP; although I don’t use it, the lack of this feature is surprising and it makes planning more difficult. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars puts more emphasis on infantry than the assortment of vehicles; because things are easy to destroy, even with basic assault rifles, vehicles are more for transport than assault purposes. I think this is a good thing, as there isn’t the helicopter dominance of Battlefield and taking on enemy armor is a possibility without a rocket launcher (as long as you have some help). Maps and servers that feature longer respawn times are more enjoyable, as it favors the medics and self-preservation; though it does involve some running, a fifteen-second clock is a bit too short. In general, I had fun while playing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and the game is a few small issues away from being one of the best online shooters.

IN CLOSING
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars should satisfy your need to execute enemy forces in a team-based setting. Is it a Battlefield-killer? Well, I had more fun playing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, though the gap between the two games is small. The game does feature some curiosities that prevent it from being completely enjoyable. The Quake license seems very extraneous, especially with identical forces and generic non-Quake weaponry. The maps are all the same, assault-only, and the objectives are repetitive enough where maps don’t retain any individuality. The maps don’t scale for smaller battles and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars lacks VoIP, which hinders online coordination. However, there are a lot of good things in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: the shooting model, the equally useful classes, the focused action-packed battles, the decent AI bots, and the resetting of experience bonuses. I certainly did have fun playing the game, so much so that Battlefield 2 has been uninstalled (Battlefield 2142 has long since been deleted). So if you are willing to fight through some small problems and like a more tactical game, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars serves up some satisfying online shooting.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brass Hats Review

Brass Hats, developed and published by Square Earth Games.
The Good: Straightforward strategic gameplay, good tutorials, well developed campaign with increasing difficulty, nice graphical style
The Not So Good: No random maps or map editor, no Internet matchmaking, poor performance
What say you? A good wargame for novice players: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Strategy games have run the gamut from very complicated wargames to more straightforward offerings. Each of these ends of the spectrum appeals to a different audience, so eventually everyone is happy. There have been some more casual games in the tactical wargame theme, where you move small numbers of units around a hex-based map. One of these is Brass Hats, which hopes to marry the strategic depth of wargames with an easy-to-use accessible game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Despite the 2-D graphics of Brass Hats, I actually like the presentation of the game. The levels and units might not be spectacular 3-D replicas of their real-life counterparts, but Brass Hats has a very effective cartoon-like atmosphere. I like the design of the units and the maps and I would much prefer this style to a muddled 3-D world with poor textures. The music is along the same lines: it is repetitive and MIDI-like but catchy at the same time. Not every game needs to make the jump to 3-D or have an inordinate amount of cash involved in the graphics in order for them to be successful. It is weird, then, that Brass Hats has some performance issues on my dual core computer: mouse lag is bad on large levels involving lots of units, and it rears its ugly head even on some menus. I would also like to be able to play the game in windowed mode, since Brass Hats is displayed at a low resolution. Still, overall, I was pleased by the graphics and sound of Brass Hats.

ET AL.
Brass Hats is a turn-based strategy game where you order units across a hex-based map to take over the enemy capital. The game centers around World War I-era units and includes a rather lengthy 28-level campaign. The campaign includes a branching structure that offers increasing difficulty as you attempt to eliminate the Central Powers from Europe. You can play cards earned through good performance that will give benefits to certain units. New players can learn the game through the well-written tutorial missions that teach each aspect of the game one lesson at a time. There are also a few single missions intended for skirmish play or multiplayer matches. These missions are more balanced than the campaign missions; there are not very many missions to choose from and Brass Hats lacks a map editor or random map generator, so you will exhaust the single battles quickly. Multiplayer can be done on the same computer or over the Internet, but you need to know your opponent’s IP address since Brass Hats lacks a matchmaking program. Still, the single player campaign offers enough content to keep you busy for a while.

Brass Hats features a number of units that can be built at captured factories, airfields, and ports. These include infantry, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, fighters, bombers, and an assortment of naval units. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages and associated costs; money can be earned by capturing cities. Brass Hats emphasizes an assorted crew: tanks are the most powerful close-range unit, but only infantry can capture enemy or neutral buildings. There are also roles for the aircraft and ranged units like snipers and artillery. Brass Hats does a good job in making each unit important to the gameplay. Some missions contain a fog of war that obscures enemy locations; snipers or units stationed in mountainous areas can increase your sight range. Units can be ambushed (which stops their turn immediately) so there is a definite benefit to scouting ahead. Most units can move and fire in the same turn; units near enemy forces can only move single hexes to prevent fast retreats or moving past enemy forces unopposed.

Combat is straightforward: Brass Hats gives you odds that are calculated based on the units involved. Units can gain experience through combat that can impose restrictions on an enemy unit’s ability to counter-attack; this makes keeping experienced units alive important. Units with decreased health can repair at a city (for infantry) or factory (for tanks), although new units cannot be produced there while the hex is occupied. Being successful in Brass Hats requires planning ahead, using your unit’s strengths, attacking appropriate units, and using combined arms to bring down the enemy. I found the gameplay of Brass Hats to be quite enjoyable and it stays true to the wargame theme without being bogged down with sight lines or supply or any of that other stuff. You move, attack, and produce new units while advancing towards the enemy HQ. The pace is slow enough to allow for some plans to develop, but quick enough to get the game over with. Brass Hats is a simple game, but it is still challenging and requires some thought in order to be successful.

IN CLOSING
If you are scared off by the complexity and monotony of wargames, then Brass Hats might be the game to change your mind. The game is very easy to learn, thanks to simplified controls and useful tutorials. Despite its simplicity, Brass Hats maintains a high level of strategic gameplay, which should satisfy players of all experience levels. I really like the overall design of the game, from the mechanics to the graphics and sound. Brass Hats may be missing some features that would extend the life of the product, but $24 gets you a good amount of content and the campaign will provide a lot of entertainment. Brass Hats is a well-designed strategy game that is easy to learn and fun to play.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ducati World Championship Review

Ducati World Championship, developed by Artematica and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Multiple game modes, quality points are interesting
The Not So Good: Unrealistic physics and handling, no difference between arcade and simulation modes, boring circuits, laggy menus with no mouse control, must use gamepad to navigate menus to use it during the race, can’t assign an axis to the throttle or brake, sporadic AI, no online or LAN multiplayer, outdated graphics with a jerky camera, poor sound with an outrageously annoying and repetitive crew chief, most content must be unlocked
What say you? There’s no reason to play this archaic motorcycle racing game: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There are plenty of niche motorsports taking to tracks around the world. One of these is motorcycle racing, featuring riders going entirely too fast on small two-wheeled vehicles inches from the ground protected by a helmet. I didn’t say it was very smart. There have been several notable motorcycle racing games published on the PC, from the MotoGP series to…well…the MotoGP series (oh, and I liked Superbike 2000). A new (maybe) entrant into the fray is Ducati World Championship, a racing title that features Ducati motorcycles (surprise!). Will this simulation give us reason to race with only two wheels?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Both the sound and the graphics of Ducati World Championship are terribly outdated. This game looks to be a port from a console game (evidenced by the lack of mouse input) and I’m not sure how old the console game is: Ducati World Championship features some really ancient graphics. The effects are underwhelming at best: there is no grass or dirt flying or collecting on the wheels (something I vividly remember from Superbike 2000), just sparks flying every once in a while. The textures are bad and lack detail, from the riders to the bikes to the tracks. The track design is bland with not much detail paid to the track surface or the surroundings. The racers experience a canned seizure-like crashing animation that makes no sense and certainly doesn’t involve rag doll physics (a fun (albeit disturbing) possibility in a motorcycle game) and shake their fist at passing motorists. Ducati World Championship also has a jerky camera that has a difficult time focusing on the action, constantly shifting small increments behind your bike; I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but it is certainly annoying. Plus, Ducati World Championship can’t display at 1280x1024, a pretty common resolution these days with LCD monitors. Ducati World Championship is not even close to the bar set by RACE 07 in terms of graphics; I have no idea why this game takes up nearly 3 GB of hard drive space. The sound design in the game is as bad as the graphics. The Ducati motorcycles sound whiny instead of manly, the crew chief screams annoying phrases at you (such as “DRIVE FASTAAAAAAAAA”), and I don’t know what the sound effect that’s played when you exit a menu is supposed to be, but it sounds like a cat being castrated. Plus, Ducati World Championship features a horrible soundtrack full of poor alternative metal. Ducati World Championship is like a dumb ugly girl: painful to look at and listen to.

ET AL.
The only thing saving Ducati World Championship from complete mediocrity is the multiple racing modes. The game comes complete with quick races, a career mode where you advance through three classes, and a points championship using the racing bikes. The career mode features 60 events scattered over three classes; you can change the setup of your bike (although the results are minimal and the options include “low,” “medium,” and “high”). New bikes are unlocked and magically put in your garage with good finishes. It’s a good way to get you introduced to the game. The championship mode features 14 events using the top class of bikes where the top 15 drivers earn points towards the cup. Also, there is the “capirex challenge” where you must complete specific objectives like perform wheelies and other special moves, or racing in endurance races against other riders. Again, this is a nice feature. Multiplayer is disappointingly only possible on the same computer, as Ducati World Championship lacks online or LAN play. You do get to play multiplayer matches as a deathmatch, best of series, or for total points, and you can include AI drivers or just race one on one. This is a pretty good set of features for a racing game; sadly, the rest of Ducati World Championship is so horrible.

Ducati World Championship features about 30 circuits (although some are alternate layouts of other tracks) and all are the same comfortable width and not very challenging. There are four kinds of bikes in the game (classic, sport, superbike, and racing), but the only difference is that they go progressively faster. There are some control issues with the game: in addition to the lack of mouse control and laggy menus, you can’t assign a joystick axis or pedal to the throttle or brake (button only) and you must use the gamepad to navigate through the menus or the game will default to the keyboard (it took me about 15 minutes to figure that out, after re-setting my controls a number of times). Once you actually get to pilot one of these things, you will find completely unrealistic handling. This goes for the arcade and simulation modes: your bike goes entirely too fast around corners. This would be fine for the arcade mode, but I would expect the simulation mode to behave like a simulation (is that too much to ask?). The first couple of bikes don’t even require the brake, as you simple need to lift the accelerator for the tightest corners. The powerful (meaning faster) bikes to require some use of the brake, but it’s still not as liberal as it should be. The control scheme is pretty standard, but the game requires you to hold “up” to reach maximum speed (to lean forward and reduce drag). This supposedly reduces handling, but I didn’t see it and just kept pressing up the whole time with no ill effects. The only interesting aspect of the racing is the inclusion of quality points; they are earned by maintaining a good line or overtaking other drivers. Quality points are used for small boosts of acceleration. This is a neat way of rewarding good driving, but it makes it very easy to cheat. This is a lot like the tactical aid in World in Conflict, and that will be the last parallel between that great game and this plague. The AI in the game is very linear and not hard to beat, hardly providing a challenge as they behave like robots following in a line all the way around the track. Ducati World Championship seemingly forgets every advance made in racing simulation during the past 15 years, and it should be avoided at all costs.

IN CLOSING
Ducati World Championship is one of the worst racing games I have ever played. While there are some bright spots, such as the varied modes of play and the quality points, they are completely overshadowed by the sheer crappiness of the title as a whole. The graphics are old, the audio is painful, online multiplayer is missing, the tracks are boring, the AI is robotic, and the handling is completely wrong. Ducati should feel ashamed for having their proud name tied to this poor excuse of a game. Do yourself a favor and pick up RACE 07, a vastly superior game. Even at $20, Ducati World Championship is about fifteen years too late and the rest of the racing world has passed it by.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Joystick Johnny Review

Joystick Johnny, developed and published by Flea Circus Games.
The Good: Lots of classic games recreated, short sessions with each game reduces monotony, appropriately adjusted difficulty
The Not So Good: No instructions for individual games, a loss requires to redo the entire sequence over again, levels are identical if repeated
What say you? A nice nostalgic collection of classic arcade games: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The first video game console I played was an Atari 2600. My family had (and still has, somewhere) quite an extensive collection of games for the system. All of these titles are very simplistic by today’s standards, but they were quite fun twenty-five years ago. Not surprisingly, several collections have been released featuring those titles, hoping to cash in on the nostalgic fervor. Joystick Johnny is one of those games, sort of. You see, it contains eerily similar adaptations of classic games, and you must complete a couple of levels of each game in a set amount of time. Will Joystick Johnny successfully recapture the youth of gamers everywhere?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Joystick Johnny certainly captures the atmosphere of those classic arcade games. Featuring low-resolution graphics in all their pixilated glory, Joystick Johnny does a nice job representing each classic game in a slightly different context (replacing asteroids with pizzas, for example). The variety of games is impressive, and the fact that each level “looks right” is a testament to good graphical design. Joystick Johnny has a generic 80’s-like music mix; it would have been better to rip off (I mean borrow) the actual game music. Overall, Joystick Johnny looks and sounds just like it should for what it is attempting to accomplish.

ET AL.
Joystick Johnny contains three arcades in which you need to beat thirteen games in twelve minutes. Each arcade is divided into three rows, and you must beat one, two, three, and then four levels in four of the five games in each row. There is some strategy in choosing the orders in which you play the games: obviously, games you stink at you will want to play first, since you only need to beat one level to move on to the next title. The controls can use the keyboard, which works well on most of the games. Still, a joystick gives you the ability to move at an angle easier (and makes the Gyruss clone playable). I found the time limit to be adjusted well: just enough time for a semi-perfect game. Every time you die, you lose five seconds of completion time; this can become an issue in the later rows. You can adjust the difficulty to allow for more and less time; harder levels will add more bonus points to your score. It took me a couple of tries to beat each arcade level; the limited number of lives in the very last game makes it quite difficult, and also annoying if you lose since you have to play all the games over again.

Joystick Johnny features a pleasant and complete list of arcade classics, or at least reasonable replications thereof. There are around 25 different games to choose from, including Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac Man, Marble Madness, Missile Command, Gyruss, Spy Hunter, Joust, and the unforgettable E.T. for the 2600. Of course, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I found that all of the replicas perform just as well as the originals, so the gameplay of Joystick Johnny is enjoyable. The game doesn’t give explicit instructions in each game, so it can take a couple of tries to figure out what you are supposed to shoot or collect and what to avoid. After you defeat the regular time limited game, you can enter mystery mix mode that will randomize the games’ placement, or dollar dash that will allow you to pick and choose. After you finish a game, you can upload your score to the Internet and revel at your incompetence.

IN CLOSING
Joystick Johnny successfully recreates some classic arcade games and presents them in an original concept with a neat overall goal, instead of simply slapping them all together. The gameplay is just as you remember it, and the subtle graphics changes make sure the developer won’t get sued (much). Joystick Johnny will obviously have more appeal for people who played the original games oh so many years ago. Still, the game is well designed and the quick pace reduces the probability of boredom associated with playing these archaic games. It helps if you have played these games before, since Joystick Johnny is devoid of instructions for each game and inexperienced players might not be able to figure out why they keep dying. Still, those looking for a fast-paced adaptation of simplified arcade action will find Joystick Johnny a satisfying title.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bloom Review

Bloom, developed by Karma Team and published by Elephant Games.
The Good: Easy to learn gameplay, editor
The Not So Good: Repetitive and not challenging, some flower locations are inaccessible, distracting backgrounds
What say you? A puzzle game that’s fun for just about five minutes: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Gardening is a time consuming activity where you get to sweat and handle fertilizer. I fail to see the appeal. Still, it’s popular enough to warrant plenty of “garden centers” in large stores around the nation, and its appeal could be carried over to computer games in some way. In Bloom, you must water spouting flowers by diverting water pipes to the appropriate locations. How will Bloom stack up in the pantheon of puzzle games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Bloom is presented in a 2-D, top-down format. The game does feature some pretty flowers and some nice detail for the genre, but the backgrounds are too similar to the foregrounds. Therefore, it is very, very difficult to spot new flowers when they are camouflaged by the background foliage. This makes playing the game ultimately frustrating as you squint in order to hunt for new sprouts. It is realistic to have flowers placed in a flowery garden, but the decision makes Bloom tricky to play, and this should not be caused by the graphics. The background effects are not much better, featuring a single looping song and some effects that accompany the flower growing. It’s rare to find titles where the graphics actually hinder the gameplay, but Bloom attains this dubious feat.

ET AL.
As I stated in the introduction, “in Bloom, you must water spouting flowers by diverting water pipes to the appropriate locations.” Copy and paste is so much fun! The method to the madness involves rotating pipes to complete connections to the various sprouting plants that randomly appear in the map and growing enough flowers before the water supply runs out. There are forty levels to complete and they go by fairly quickly; there is a pretty decent level editor that comes with the game to add some replay value. Bloom’s controls are simple, as the entire game is controlled with the mouse and the gameplay consists of clicking on pipes in order to rotate them. The game is pretty easy, once you learn that there is one solution that will divert water to almost the entire map and a couple of key points that can be switched. Some of the levels are poorly designed, however, as there can be large portions of a map that is inaccessible without the use of a bonus. There isn’t any change in the gameplay as you advance through Bloom: it’s all very monotonous. There are no difficulty settings in the game, and Bloom is too easy for players with any gaming experience. The game never really has a hectic feel that makes for good, challenging puzzle gaming. The bonuses available in the game, that do things like add more water, switch an existing connection, speed up growth, or slow time, make Bloom even easier. Because of the straightforward levels, there can be a lot of sitting around waiting for the level to end once you have set the perfect solution. Money you earn from growing flowers can be used to purchase upgrades to your house: this is pointless and doesn’t impact the game at all. It would have been much better to allow for buying bonuses instead of superfluous upgrades. Overall, Bloom’s gameplay is too easy and too repetitive to be enjoyable in the long run.

IN CLOSING
Bloom has a decent concept for a game, but the execution is definitely lacking. I don’t mind a repetitive game as long as it is fun, but Bloom is far too easy and it doesn’t offer anything different as you progress through the game. While the game mechanics are certainly easy to learn, the game becomes very boring after the first couple of levels. This game was obviously designed for the very casual player in mind, as anyone with any gaming experience will find Bloom to be too easy. There are no interesting strategic decisions to do with your earned money: instead of deciding on game-changing upgrades, you get to pick between a pond and a tree. The graphics even impair the gameplay, obstructing the flowers on the map. I do like the inclusion of an editor, but this isn’t enough to save this doomed puzzle game. Bloom wilts under the heavy weight of poorly designed aesthetics and features with uninteresting, repetitive, and effortless gameplay.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sins of a Solar Empire Preview

Sins of a Solar Empire (Preview), developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good So Far: Little micromanagement due to high amount of smart automation, outstanding intuitive interface, enjoyable 4X real-time gameplay
The Not So Good So Far: Slow pace and long travel times, research trees could be clearer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The 4X strategy game is quite a popular genre, especially ones set in space. From Lost Empire to Galactic Civilizations II to Space Empires V to (deep breath) Starships Unlimited to Sword of the Stars, the list is getting so long that it's limiting the things I can say in the introduction (other than the list I am repeating). Produced by the same people behind Galactic Civilizations II (the best game in the genre) comes Sins of a Solar Empire, a 4X game that sets itself apart with real-time gameplay. That’s right: no more turn-based nonsense! Through an incident involving a llama, two sticks of dynamite, and former President Clinton (don’t get me started), I got my hands on a preview build of the game, which is due for release in February 2008. If you are reading this in February 2008 (probably because I referenced the preview in my review), how is it in the future? Has Paris Hilton doomed humanity yet? Oh, maybe that was February 2009; Nostradamus can be a year or two off. In the meantime, please enjoy this preview!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sins of a Solar Empire has a nice graphics engine that shows detail all the way up close back to the entire universe you are playing in. This is a lot like Supreme Commander, where the game map and the mini-map are one in the same. Sins of a Solar Empire does a fine job showing all of the pertinent information on multiple zoom levels, including the useful, albeit initially confusing, empire menu that shows all of your ships and structures as blips next to your planets. This preview build only contained one playable race, so the variety of ship designs is not evident yet. Overall, Sins of a Solar Empire seems to be a good looking space game, as the environment lends itself to visual splendor. The sounds also appear to be on track, with some genre-appropriate background music and good effects for the various combat operations on-going in your game world. We’ll see what Sins of a Solar Empire looks and sounds like with four more months of tweaking.

ET AL.
Sins of a Solar Empire is a classic 4X strategy game, where you establish your colonies, build a fleet, and go blow stuff up. The innovation is playing the game in real-time, and I am not sure if this is a good thing. The game goes by very slowly in the beginning while you are expanding your empire; this is normally the time where you would keep hitting the “next turn” button, but in Sins of a Solar Empire you just have to wait. The game features single player skirmishes on a handful of pre-designed and random maps, a tutorial that teacher some (but not all) of the game’s mechanics, and multiplayer over LAN or Ironclad’s matchmaking service. The multiplayer aspects of the game seem to be working fine so far.

The economy of Sins of a Solar Empire is based off of collecting credits (from taxes), metal (from mining), and crystal (from more mining). The game displays a per planet rate of resource collection, useful in determining your most important economic strongholds. The usually excellent user interface does a good job in giving the player useful information in sizable bites: controlling a large empire scattered over several star systems can be difficult, but the sorted reports, zoomed views, and empire menu help immensely. Your resources will be spent upgrading planets, building things, conducting research, and raising defenses. Each of your planets can be developed in five areas: civics (increasing the population and therefore the taxed credit income), logistics (more buildings), tactical (more defenses), and your fleet and capital ship caps. There are a number of structures that can be built in orbit around each planet: metal and crystal collection facilities, factories for ships, labs for research, trade ports and refineries for additional funds, and broadcast centers for culture. Defensive buildings consist of the typical gun platforms, plus repair vessels and shields. If you don’t want to manually place all of these structures, you can have the game auto-place them. There is a good selection of buildings available; they cover the range of possibilities without being overkill.

A portion of your economy will be devoted towards building ships. There are three classes: small frigates, medium-sized cruisers, and huge capital ships. The ships will automatically engage enemies in their planet’s range (unless told to hold fire) and usually don’t require much micromanagement. Thankfully, the special abilities available to each ship can be auto-used by the AI, reducing the tedium even further. Your largest ship, the capital, can level-up, increasing the success of its special abilities. There are some alternatives to fighting, such as negotiating cease fire, intelligence, trade alliances with the other empires. There is also a three-part research tree (military, civilian, and artifact) that could be a lot clearer. It’s hard to make out the icons and difficult to see which grant new ships or are required for certain structures. It would be nice if they build menus were somehow tied into the research trees, showing where the requirements for building a trade port are actually located on the convoluted display.

As far as the gameplay goes, the AI is not terribly aggressive and seems to send out only one large force to begin with. This makes it easy to colonize perimeter planets, as long as you get lucky and don’t run into the large enemy fleet. The game mechanics are interesting, as there are several paths you can choose since your resources are quite limited. You can focus on colonization, research, military, cultural, or diplomatic exploits, and each has an advantage. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing World in Conflict, but I found Sins of a Solar Empire painfully slow. The ships move slow, colonization is slow, and the beginning of the game takes 30 minutes just to get a decent sized empire going. I don’t really see how this would work very well in multiplayer, unless players have an extremely high amount of spare time. The movement times are agonizingly realistic (a problem also seen in 3030 Deathwar) and it takes forever just to move a couple of ships to a new planet. Since a lot of the game is automated (which is a good thing), you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the credits to add up or for a ship to move. Granted, Sins of a Solar Empire still has four more months of development left, so things could improve in the future, but right now I found the pace to be very slow.

IN CLOSING
Sins of a Solar Empire, for the most part, looks good so far. The game has a nice foundation of 4X gameplay with great graphics and promising multiplayer capabilities. The user interface is great and helps you control a large empire with ease. I really like the amount of automation present in the game, removing a lot of the monotony associated with this genre. The pace is slow, but hopefully the game will all come together with four more months of work. We’ll find out then!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

RACE 07 Review

RACE 07, developed by SimBin Studios and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Forty-one tracks, eight racing series, custom championships, realistic helmet view, everything that was in RACE
The Not So Good: Still no tutorials
What say you? This racing simulation sequel has enough new content to justify its existence: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
It’s now become an annual occurrence: the arrival of “new” sports games. Usually, they only feature roster updates and one or two new features, but the mindless populace buys them anyway. I’m more interested in new, innovative games, or at least content that surpasses a typical expansion pack. RACE 07 (actually released in 07!) is the sequel to RACE, a game I liked a lot due to its easy-to-drive cars, capable AI, realistic driving model, and awesome graphics. That game was released (at least in the U.S.) earlier this year; a nine-month turn-around usually doesn’t bode well for giving the users enough content to justify spending money on a new version. Does RACE 07 fall into the same content-light trap that many other annually published games do?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of RACE 07 are almost identical to RACE, which is not a bad thing. The level of detail is still very nice and the game runs as smooth as ever. The new tracks and cars maintain the high quality set in the previous title. There are some minor improvements with the track detail and damage models. The only completely new feature is a helmet view for open cars, complete with tear-offs for clearer viewing pleasure. While this isn’t a monumental addition to the game, it is nice and does impact the gameplay somewhat with a more restricted view. The sound of RACE 07 continues the strong tradition established by RACE: all of the cars sound believable.

ET AL.
Since RACE 07 is obviously a lot like RACE, you should go read that review to get the basics down, as I will only talk about the new additions to the game. Fortunately, RACE 07 has enough new stuff to validate getting it, and the fact that it is not a full-priced game helps as well. The game modes are generally the same: a single race event (with no practice this time), time attack, practice, multiplayer, and championship modes. I wasn’t able to test multiplayer very much since I got the game to review before the release date (I am sweet like that), but I enjoyed the multiplayer of RACE a lot and I don’t foresee any changes in this department. I do recommend, however, to get some practice under your belt, as almost every multiplayer server uses pro settings with no driver aids, including manual shifting. RACE 07 also has this Virtual Grand Prix option; there was nothing in the press packet about it, but it seems that races in RACE 07 are going to be broadcast on TV in Sweden, or something. RACE 07 does add the option to create custom championships: a neat feature. You can include any of the cars and tracks in the game and set up your own schedule, something that would have been silly in RACE due to the relative lack of variety in that game.

RACE was a bit limited in its content: only the ten 2006 season tracks and cars, plus Mini Coopers and the 1987 WTCC vehicles. RACE 07 adds the eleven 2007 tracks, which are mostly the same as the 2006 tracks, but some new chicanes have been added to some of the tracks (probably by the same people who screwed up Hockenheim). RACE 07 also contains twenty additional tracks (for a grand total of 41): three completely different tracks (fan favorites Estoril and Imola, plus the Vara street circuit) and alternates of existing tracks, from reverse layouts to shorter and longer version, including some ovals. All of the new tracks are designed well and resemble their real-life counterparts well. The inclusion of new racing locales is a welcome addition to the game and adds more variety to the simulation.

Since RACE 07 is the WTCC game, it includes all of the cars from the 2007 and 2006 seasons. In addition, the Mini Coopers and 1987 cars have returned, along with the Caterham vehicles from the expansion. RACE 07 also adds Radical prototypes and some open wheel entries from minor leagues Formula 3000 and Formula BMW. All of these cars handle well and seem to mirror their real life counterparts; now, open wheel fanatics can experience RACE 07 in a whole new light. The game allows you to mix the field of any event with multiple car types, adding to the possibilities. The WTCC cars are still my favorites because they are powerful yet easy to drive: they don’t break loose if you slam on the gas exiting a corner like the open wheel vehicles. The strong AI exhibited in RACE makes a return, offering an aggressive but not overly aggressive opponent for single player mayhem. Overall, I feel that RACE 07 adds enough new tracks and cars, far beyond what is typically added in a new title for a series, to make purchasing this game viable for both previous and new players to the franchise.

IN CLOSING
You would figure that if anyone wouldn’t screw up an annually published game, it would be the fine folks at SimBin, and thankfully you were right (you are so smart!). RACE 07 keeps the satisfying core of the game intact, with a very approachable racing engine that will appeal to novices and veterans alike. RACE 07 drastically increases the number of tracks and double the number of cars, and really that’s all you can really ask for in a sequel published less than a year after the original. There are some new graphical enhancements (though the original didn’t exactly look bad) and custom championships to round out the package. So you should get it, especially if you missed the original: RACE 07 comes with sufficient enhancements to invest more of your money into the franchise.

Monday, October 01, 2007

World in Conflict Review

World in Conflict, developed by Massive Entertainment and published by Sierra.
The Good: User-friendly action-oriented tactical gameplay, outstanding team-based multiplayer, non-trivial single player campaign, good AI, highly detailed graphics with some great effects
The Not So Good: Very fast pace negates some ability to plan
What say you? A first person shooter mentality makes this real time tactics game uniquely enjoyable: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
1989. If I recall my I Love The 80's correctly, 2 Live Crew provided family-friendly entertainment, Kevin Costner demonstrated his hatred for corn by building a baseball field in a field, and Milli Vanilli swept the Grammys. And that (sort of) brings us to World in Conflict, a real time strategy game from Massive Entertainment, responsible for the Ground Control series. I remember playing the demo for Ground Control 2 and it was OK, but not something I would spend money on. World in Conflict hopes to infuse the constant action of multiplayer first person shooters with the strategy genre; normally, strategy games are slow, methodical experiences as you collect resources, construct a base, and eventually blow stuff up. Will World in Conflict be a more approachable real time tactics title?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The presentation of World in Conflict is absolutely outstanding, from the graphics to the sound. This is one of the best looking strategy games to date, surpassing the likes of Supreme Commander and Company of Heroes with its awe-inspiring destruction and high attention to detail. The units look good up close and far away, with nice realistic animations. The different maps in the game are also well done, putting the action in popular real-world locations and lesser-known settings. The explosions are way over the top, but they sure do look nice and create a great feeling of doom. Watching a city transition from nice coastal hamlet to hell-hole is fun, as buildings explode and craters start to dominate the landscape. World in Conflict is awesome to see with almost constant flashes of light as things go “boom.” All of this graphical splendor comes at a price, as almost nobody will be able to run this game at the highest settings with a smooth frame rate. Fortunately, the game looks almost as good on medium as on high, so there is hope for us all. The sound is just as good as the pretty pictures. The explosions have a nice importance to them, and the cut scenes in the single player campaign are well acting, including narration by that guy from The Usual Suspects. The background music is composed admirably, although it does tend to repeat after a while. Nevertheless, World in Conflict looks and sounds awesome, and it should fill the needs of gamers everywhere that just want to blow crap up.

ET AL.
World in Conflict is a real-time tactical strategy game: there is no base building or resource collection like in Supreme Commander. Instead, you are given a set amount of points to call in reinforcements that become available slowly over time (and everyone is given the same total amount, no matter how good you are doing), and you can also earn points to order artillery strikes and other fun things by blowing up the enemy, helping your teammates, or securing objectives. World in Conflict features a tutorial that does a good job introducing new players to the control scheme. The user interface of World in Conflict is minimal yet affective, giving users access to tactical aids, reinforcements, battle overviews, and all of their units without hiding much of the main screen. A single-player campaign that follows the exploits of an American officer is also available; the gameplay translates well from the multiplayer portion of the game (which was the focus of the product). There are a number of different objectives in each scenario that vary from typical “destroy all enemies” order found in most strategy games. Instead, you’ll be given offensive, defensive, and support orders, along with a number of secondary objectives that can allow for some additional units or other bonuses later on. I found the campaign to be well designed and it portrays a realistic depiction of war: you are part of the action, not the whole of the action. Usually, allies are off fighting in a different portion of the map, and you may be called in to help on occasion; this gives a more accurate feel to the battles.

World in Conflict was built around multiplayer, and the game has some good options you would typically see in an online multiplayer game like the Battlefield series. The Massgate service (free, of course) provides stat tracking, awards, clan battles, and player rankings, in addition to finding online games to join. It is a well designed piece of software and doesn't have the browser issues present in Battlefield 2142. The rankings thankfully don’t unlock anything, so new players won’t be at a grave disadvantage like in Battlefield 2142. You can also play skirmish matches against the AI (by setting up a LAN server); the AI does a pretty good job I thought, although a capable human player will almost always get the highest score.

World in Conflict lets you choose one of four roles in the game (reminiscent of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, although since this was released first, maybe that game is reminiscent of World in Conflict): air, armor, support, and infantry. All of these classes are very well balanced and usually offer counters for two other classes. I have yet to see any class dominate a map, since there is always something you can do to defeat the enemy units. The heavy helicopters of the air role are designed for quick attacks against armored units, while medium choppers can engage other helicopters as well. Armored tanks are the beasts of the ground, capturing and holding objective locations with their firepower but slow mobility and susceptibility to air units. Support units include artillery (slow firing but powerful) and anti-air units to take care of those pesky helicopters. Infantry are the stealth units of the game, allowing you to hide in buildings and forests and ambush unsuspecting armored units. There is a role for everyone, and you can even combine roles, although units from other classes are more expensive. Each unit in the game usually has an offensive and defensive special ability. This introduces some micromanagement into the game, but since the unit count is never too high (usually 2-8 units) it’s not terribly annoying. I would like, though, to have the ability of units to auto-cast their special abilities. It is advantageous to keep units alive as they gain experience over time and will improve their stats automatically. In addition to not having to shuttle units from the spawn points and wait twenty seconds for reinforcements to arrive, this gives reason to keep those tanks rolling.

If you are successful in defeating the enemy and helping out your friends, you will earn points for using tactical aids. These are very fun toys that can be used in a variety of situations. All of them have a time delay associated with them, so they aren’t overly powerful or unbalanced. Most of the lower-level tactical aids are designed to eliminate one particular unit type (napalm strikes for infantry, tank busters, laser-guided bombs for buildings, air to air strikes), but the more points you save the bigger the boom. While a lot of people will save up for the nuke (which does cause a lot of damage), there is a lot of fun to be had with precision artillery strikes, radar reconnaissance, chemical strikes, unit drops, carpet bombing, heavy air support, and more. The joy in perfectly executing a tactical aid is rewarding to be sure. It’s a simple and effective feature of the game that gives the players a lot of options.

World in Conflict comes with three game modes that are all based on controlling objective locations, noted by connected circles. You must have friendly-only units in each circle in order to capture an objective (a great place to drop in an artillery strike, by the way). Domination mode is the classic conquest gameplay made famous by Battlefield 2142. Assault features a series of single objectives that must be captured in order; after time is up, the defending team gets a crack at beating the time. Tug of war feature a line of several objectives that will advance or retreat based on who holds the command points; it’s just a more focused version of domination. All of these modes are fun to play and they take place on some well-designed maps that further heighten the action. Command points can be fortified with defenses if you keep units inside of the circles (a juicy target for artillery). Besides the eight-on-eight battles, you can play World in Conflict in a few-player mode designed for 2-4 participants. Here, you are given a bunch of reinforcement points and have at it; I personally don’t like this game mode and it is thankfully not that popular online.

All of the features present in World in Conflict come together quite nicely in a very entertaining package. The game really has a first person shooter feel to it, from the almost constant action to the ability to join games in progress. There isn’t any waiting around, removing a lot of the boredom associated with most strategy games in the build-up phase. The explosions start thirty seconds into the game and continue all the way until time expires; you would be hard-pressed to find a more action-packed strategy game. The combat of World in Conflict has a great feel to it, as there are mini-battles taking place all over the map, each of which affects the overall game. For example, you might have anti-air support units battling helicopters near one objective, armored tanks taking victory locations, infantry scouting through forests and taking buildings, support artillery shelling from large distances, and various players calling in tactical strikes. This team-based gameplay works a lot better when you play with people that actually know what they are doing and understand the basic mechanics of the game, but when it works (which is more often than not), it works very, very well. There are quite a few memorable moments you can take from each round: shelling enemy units advancing towards an objective, taking an assault location seconds before time expires, sneaking up on artillery units, just to name a few. I could go on and on about the great experiences I had while playing World in Conflict, but the bottom line is that you need it. You need it to live.

IN CLOSING
World in Conflict is the definitive action-packed tactical game. The title is designed with the sole purpose of providing players with as much enjoyment from start to finish with no boring moments or lulls in activity. The single player campaign is well designed, the reinforcement model eliminates tedious base building, and the classes allow for customization and a variety of roles to influence the battle. Each class, from air to infantry, has their role, and you can be successful in each one after you learn the strengths and weaknesses. The controls are very straightforward and the user interface is superbly designed for easy of use. The amount of action found in World in Conflict is unparallel in the strategy genre, but that doesn’t mean planning and tactics are thrown out of the window: coordination will win the day. World in Conflict simply (and wisely so) eliminates all of the boring aspects of strategy games and delivers a slick, entertaining game that should not be missed, whether you are a strategy aficionado or not. World in Conflict has the simple mechanics, satisfying gameplay, and constant action that should make it a very popular game for a wide audience, and that wide audience should include you.