Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hero’s Puzzle Path Review

Hero’s Puzzle Path, developed and published by KATWorks Games.
The Good: Unique gameplay, decent controls and a useful interface, neat alternate game types, good tutorial
The Not So Good: Restricted strategic options can get repetitive, no multiplayer
What say you? An speedy and original puzzle game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
You can tell it’s the time of the year when not many games by big publishers are being released because I’m catching up on my puzzle game reviews. And I’d better do those mainstream games first or I might get fired. Ah, the joys of running your own site with no ads. Anyway, it takes some thought these days to create a unique puzzle game. There are countless “match 3” or “click” games sprouting all over the Internet, so it’s nice to see a title that takes an original approach to the genre. That brings us to Hero’s Puzzle Path, a puzzle game (it’s in the title, after all) where you must match adjacent colored blocks to send spells and destroy an enemy. Will Hero’s Puzzle Path bring some distinctive mechanics to the table?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hero’s Puzzle Path is a completely 2-D game, but the relatively simple graphics work well for the title. You can clearly spot the paths and block colors with no trouble, something that might have been an issue if Hero’s Puzzle Path was in 3-D. The helpful interface also highlights connected tiles, making gameplay easier. Plus, I really like the Hero’s avatar. The effects are decent though not varied; overall the game looks decent for a 2-D puzzle game as it features clean graphics. The sound is typical for the genre: slightly repetitive effects and enjoyable background music. Overall, the presentation of Hero’s Puzzle Path is good enough for me and doesn’t hinder the gameplay.

ET AL.
Hero’s Puzzle Path is a puzzle game where you must match adjacent colored blocks to send spells and destroy an enemy (copy and paste is a wonderful thing). The standard game features 70 levels against the AI, but Hero’s Puzzle Path also features some additional modes of play: fifteen levels of Battlefield-like dominate where you must own squares scattered around the board, a Tetris-like building mode which involves placing randomly dropped pieces to create a working path, and frenzy mode with a random board and strong enemies. These are nice variations upon the basic game and should keep you busy for a while and the amount of content is appreciated. It’s sad, then, that Hero’s Puzzle Path lacks multiplayer, since the game modes are really designed for it. It should also be noted that selecting a particular level on the main menu requires you scroll numerically through all the levels: this gets annoying.

In order to create a correct sequence of tiles, you must have adjacent tiles of different blocks be of the same color (like this). You do this by using three spells: flip (which reverses the colors left to right), change (which changes the colors), and destroy (which, uh, destroys a tile). Once you select a tile using the mouse, you simply click the appropriate spell icon (or use the keyboard shortcut) and it flies down the path. Hero’s Puzzle Path does a good job showing “completed” paths with a beam of light; this makes finding errors easy. Spells use energy, so you cannot spam spells ad nauseum. You can, however, send spells in quick succession, and you must to this on the more difficult later levels. The enemy AI will also be sending spells your way (the frequency of which is determined by the difficulty level) so you’ll have to counteract their spells while worrying about your strategy.

Hero’s Puzzle Path is a fast game that keeps the action moving. The straightforward rules help to make the title accessible to a large audience. Having only three spell options does become somewhat of a problem after long play sessions, as the levels become repetitive. Still, the unique and simplified mechanics of Hero’s Puzzle Path are enjoyable. While I can envision intense multiplayer matches, the AI does a good enough job at being a decent competitor, especially at the higher difficulty levels. Overall, Hero’s Puzzle Path excels as a satisfying title that’s a couple of small features away from being completely fulfilling.

IN CLOSING
Hero’s Puzzle Path satisfies the aim of every puzzle game: easy to learn, hard to master. Not just another “match 3” or “Tetris” clone, Hero’s Puzzle Path features unique gameplay that offers up some interesting real-time strategy action for the puzzle genre. Anyone can learn the mechanics in a matter of seconds, and the interface is well-designed and promotes the quick pace of the game. Hero’s Puzzle Path is simply an interesting game to play and the result is a rewarding experience. If Hero’s Puzzle Path came with multiplayer and more spell options, the appeal would be even broader. Hero’s Puzzle Path is a good marriage between a classic puzzle game and a fast-paced strategy game: fans of either genre should have a good time with Hero’s Puzzle Path.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Treasures of Ra Review

Treasures of Ra, developed and published by Kudos Games.
The Good: Original mechanics, level editor
The Not So Good: Very linear solutions, quite difficult
What say you? A somewhat unique puzzle game, but solitary answers limit replay value and increase difficulty: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ancient Egypt has been the source of inspiration for many computer games, from city builders to causal games. Developer Kudos Games presents us with Treasures of Ra, a puzzle game using an Egyptian theme where you must guide beams of light by moving objects around a room. Their previous offering, Wu Hing, was an enjoyable board game thanks to unique gameplay and high replay value. Does Treasures of Ra benefit from the same features?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Treasures of Ra features some bland and generic graphics for a puzzle game. The title is presented in 2-D and features very basic textures that are only vaguely reminiscent of an Egyptian area due to their “sandy” appearance. The special effects are few and far between, mainly related to the beam of light you must manipulate around each level. Treasures of Ra can be played in a window due to its low resolution. Treasures of Ra is simply not impressive in terms of graphics, even for a puzzle game. The game does include appropriate and somewhat catchy background music that fits the overall theme of the game; since the sound effects are sparse at best, having a decent soundtrack is a good feature. So overall, Treasures of Ra is below the average puzzle game in terms of graphics and sound.

ET AL.
The primary directive of Treasures of Ra is to guide a beam of light through a level by moving and using various objects. The game features quite a number of levels that will keep you busy for a while, in addition to a level editor to make your own impossible puzzles. The first few levels include hints to teach you the basics of the game. Most of the puzzles contain an arrangement of things that reflect the beam (namely mirrors) and things that block the light (everything else) and you need to move them in order to direct the light in the correct path. This seems easy enough, but every object slides until it hits another object. This makes planning very difficult and makes Treasures of Ra a non-trivial puzzle game. The difficulty is ratcheted up by including different colors of light and pits that must be filled in order to cross. While the potential of the game is there, Treasures of Ra is very hard and this is mostly due to their being usually only one solution to each level. This means you must slide each object in a specific order in order to successfully complete a level. I enjoy more variety and flexibility in puzzle games, mainly because most people don’t think alike. Treasures of Ra can get really frustrating as you can’t really mess up and still pass each level, even early on in the game. There is not a “rewind” button to skip back a move, so you have to do the whole level over again if you mess up once. I got really stuck on the sixth level of the game. Sixth! I don’t consider myself a puzzle game genius, but I review enough of them to be able to pass the introductory set of levels.

IN CLOSING
Treasures of Ra features a deadly combination: high difficulty and restricted solutions. You can’t have both of those things in a puzzle game and still have it appeal to a large audience, and I suspect a lot of people will be turned away by the extreme difficulty of the game. The game is not a carbon copy of other puzzle games, so its unique gameplay is appreciated: moving objects around to guide beams of light is certainly original. The problem is that there isn’t room for error in Treasures of Ra, and because of that its appeal is limited. Those looking for a very challenging puzzle game will find a distinctive title, but most of the gaming community can skip past the severe difficulty.

Monday, December 24, 2007

World of Mixed Martial Arts Review

World of Mixed Martial Arts, developed and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Extremely thorough management options, helpful match and roster suggestions, detailed play-by-play, highly modifiable
The Not So Good: Navigating through the antiquated interface should be easier
What say you? An enjoyable sports management simulation: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Now that the appeal of professional wrestling has died down, it’s time for another violent sport to take its place. That sport is mixed martial arts, which is essentially wrestling with punches and kicks and (supposedly) real outcomes. Simulating the world of mixed martial arts is the appropriately named World of Mixed Martial Arts, the next title in Adam Ryland’s series of management games that includes Total Extreme Wrestling 2007 and Wrestling Spirit 2. How will World of Mixed Martial Arts improve upon previous titles?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
World of Mixed Martial Arts is a text-based management game, so most of the time you’ll be looking at, well, text. The interface is getting quite old by this point; one of my main complaints about the game is the inability to view more than one window at a time. For example, I would like to access my roster while booking matches and peruse the rankings, but each of these activities must be done separately because you can’t look at more than one window at once. With computers supporting high resolutions, it seems odd that you can’t fit all of this information on one screen. While the interface is archaic, the 3-D renders of each and every martial artist (I guess that’s what you call them) look great. Though they are a bit repetitive, it really puts you into the game and they have obviously taken a lot of time to create. As for the sound, there isn’t any. Hooray! Less writing for me!

ET AL.
Your job in World of Mixed Martial Arts is to control a mixed martial arts company. The game has a fictious game world set up (using real athletes would be too expensive) with two dominant organizations and a couple of smaller ones; you are free to start unemployed create your own as well. World of Mixed Martial Arts includes three default in-game characters (a guy, a girl, and a cat for some reason) to choose from; it would have been nice to include editing options when you start a new game without having to mess with the default game world. You “win” the game by having a good rapport with fans by providing good matches, a dedicated roster of fighters who are paid on time and treated fairly, and pleasant media relations. World of Mixed Martial Arts does come with an extensive game world with tons of wrestlers (each with a unique 3-D portrait), though you are free to make modifications; editing is straightforward in World of Mixed Martial Arts and you can expect multiple mods to be released in the near future.

While you don’t directly control the matches, you are in charge of pretty much everything else. Most of your time will be spent creating and booking events and dealing with your roster. You will typically have one event scheduled each month, although more can come about when TV and pay-per-view deals are made. Booking matches in World of Mixed Martial Arts is generally easier than with previous games as an approximate match rating is given during the booking process: the game will show all possible matches for the event and rate them on potential popularity and quality. This makes booking so much easier than in the past and less guesswork. Of course, you will need to include less popular workers that you are pushing to the frontlines. The interface comes in to play here, as you can’t look at multiple screens during the booking process: rankings, rosters, ratings, and other data are kept on separate pages instead of having a single “master” information display. This results in some tedious work during the game that is frankly unnecessary. Thankfully, the rating system works well enough where it’s not a completely frustrating process. World of Mixed Martial Arts also includes a bunch of filters on almost every page to find exactly what you are looking for, and this also reduces the burden of information somewhat.

One major difference between World of Mixed Martial Arts and wrestling titles is that the results are not predetermined. This makes matches more exciting and your grand plans for major pushes can go up in smoke with an unexpected loss. It makes replay value greater as well, since the randomness is increased. Your company is more interesting to follow in World of Mixed Martial Arts because you’re just not sure what’s going to happen. Matches themselves are given long play-by-play descriptions of the action in place of actually seeing it; the match accounts let your imagination go to work and are more effective than crappy 3-D renders would have been. The different statistical ratings of each worker are used to determine the outcome, and the results seem realistic enough.

You will need to adjust your roster on an almost constant basis: scouting for new talent and renegotiating existing contracts. Each worker has an opinion on their role in your company, so you really have to keep tabs on each and every worker in your organization in order to be effective. This is obviously a lot easier in the smaller companies, but usually the “big boys” will swoop down and snatch your good talent if they become too successful. Because of this, you’ll have to bring in new workers and build them up over time in order to keep people interested in your product. Granting an exclusive contract will guarantee their position on your roster, but they are prohibitively expensive and only viable for the large organizations. Almost immediately after a good win, a worker will ask for a new deal; if you don’t give it to them, they might become mad and quit working for you. Wrestler requests and other important information is conveyed through e-mail; when a worker requests a new contract, you must click on their name, then click on “employment,” then click on “negotiate;” that’s two clicks too many. You may also see important events appear on the in-game news website; this happens more commonly for the bigger organizations. The webpage also shows forum topics, which range from discussions about particular workers to smack talk between forum members: a neat touch. You are able to adjust the titles for your company in addition to the weight classes, if you so desire.

World of Mixed Martial Arts also includes the managerial aspects of running an organization, although you can choose to leave these processes up to the AI and they do a decent job at it. Corporate jobs include dealing with finances, advertising, merchandise, and other monetary issues. You will also need to manually negotiate television, pay-per-view, and sponsorship deals; like the worker contracts, negotiations take about a week to complete. Television and pay-per-view events obviously need commentators, so you will need to hire those employees as well. So what’s the bottom line? Overall, World of Mixed Martial Arts is a more polished and ultimately more enjoyable iteration in the wrestling series. User feedback has been increased and semi-random results inject some uncertainty, while the comprehensive nature of past titles remains intact. Is it really that much different from wrestling? Well, it’s easier to make matches and the results aren’t predetermined, so in the end World of Mixed Martial Arts is more interesting to play. The title won’t win over people who don’t enjoy this genre because of its archaic interface, but management fans will find a fun game.

IN CLOSING
World of Mixed Martial Arts is another quality title in Adam Ryland’s series of sports management games. The reduced event count (one a month instead of one a week) and improved feedback on match popularity will make it more accessible overall. The fictitious game world is quite comprehensive, including the impressive 3-D pictures. You can leave a lot of the financial minutiae to the AI and concentrate on booking matches and adjusting rosters, but those who want complete control and still do so. The interface has been improved, but I’d still like easier accessibility to multiple pages and pertinent information. World of Mixed Martial Arts certainly passes the “addictive” test as it demands your attention through comprehensive simulation. World of Mixed Martial Arts is also highly moddable, so expect some real-world rosters and organizations soon enough. Fans of the genre will find another quality title, while those unfamiliar with sports management games will be put off by a cumbersome (but improved) interface.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Zamby and the Mystical Crystals Review

Zamby and the Mystical Crystals, developed and published by Kristanix Games.
The Good: Lots of levels at varied difficulties, very straightforward mechanics, numerous enemies with interesting behaviors, good tutorial missions, level editor, enjoyable background music
The Not So Good: Can get frustratingly tough, limited solution options, unimpressive graphics
What say you? A simple puzzle game with a respectable amount of design flexibility and content: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
After a bunch of reviews of first person shooters and strategy games, it’s time to put your thinking caps on and delve back in to the puzzle genre. Our entry today is Zamby and the Mystical Crystals, concerning a qwonk (cyclops-thing) on the search for, well, mystical crystals. Along the way, he will encounter evil boxes and mean enemies that will attempt to restrict his progress. Will he (and you) survive the quest?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Zamby and the Mystical Crystals features some outdated 2-D graphics, even for the puzzle genre. The character models are small and sparsely animated, the environments are bland and generic, and there are hardly any special effects to enjoy while you are playing. This game could have easily come out fifteen years ago and featured the same graphics; at least you can play it in a window. Zamby and the Mystical Crystals does offer up some entertaining background music that fits the theme of the game well, but this is the lone highlight of the presentation. Good thing for Zamby and his Mystical Crystals that I put much more emphasis on gameplay than graphics.

ET AL.
Zamby and the Mystical Crystals is an environment-manipulation and movement puzzle game where you must avoid enemies by blocking their paths on the way to collecting crystals (I think they are mystical) in each level. The game comes with quite a large amount of content: seventy levels in the main quest, fifty-four levels for the kiddies, a host of unlocked levels as you advance through the game, and a comprehensive level editor to create even more nefarious concoctions. All of this should keep players busy for quite a while.

Learning Zamby and the Mystical Crystals is quite simple thanks to the well-written tutorial levels that introduce the basics one mission at a time. Zamby (I want to call him Zaxby…I must be hungry) is controlled by using the keyboard or the mouse and moves one square per “turn.” Zamby can push boxes and pick up and ignite bombs. Boxes are used to block an enemy’s view or path and to create temporary bridges over water. Bombs are used to blow stuff up, namely rocks or boxes that absolutely, positively need to be there today. You can also set up us the bomb in a row for a chain reaction of destruction. You must also content with different surfaces: while the default green grass behaves “normally,” ice causes objects to slide until they hit another object, and mud and rocks can’t support box movement.

As if boxes weren’t worrisome enough, there is a variety of monsters that are either stationary or move towards you with each move you make (reminiscent of DROD). The basic stationary wizard fires if nothing stands between you (which sounds like bad song lyrics), spiders move away, a medusa turns you to stone if you face her, knights move like knights in chess (a neat idea, by the way), trolls move towards you twice as fast as you can walk (but can be blocked), and minotaur move directly towards you. A variety of enemies contained in the same map can result in some interestingly complex scenarios, as you are trying to balance the biggest threat while moving around the environment.

Zamby and the Mystical Crystals is a bit limited in your strategic choices since all you can do is move, push boxes, and use bombs. That said, the developers did a good job using these limited resources to create some really challenging puzzles. I’ve become frustrated upon occasion trying to figure out what the developers wanted me to do, since most of the solutions are fairly linear and they don’t offer the flexibility present in a number of other puzzle games. Unlike Eets (a game I finished quite quickly), Zamby and the Mystical Crystals took a long time to get through, especially with all of the levels to navigate. Luckily, you can undo your last move and don’t have to start over from the beginning of each level if you severely mess up. Zamby and the Mystical Crystals might not have the sheer number of “parts” as other puzzle games, but it’s still fun and it comes with a lot of levels to tinker around with.

IN CLOSING
Zamby and the Mystical Crystals is a good puzzle game for kids or novice players: the controls are very simple and the solutions range from the trivial to the challenging over the course of the game’s many, many levels. You don’t have as many tools at your disposal compared to a lot of other games, so Zamby and the Mystical Crystals ends up being like a more simplified version of Professor Fizzwizzle. The tutorials are informative and the level editor will keep new content streaming for quite a while. Of course, it takes long enough to get through all of the included puzzles as it is, thanks to some challenging creations that allow for only small degrees of change from the correct solution. The enemy pathing is very interesting and the combination of different behaviors on the same map can result in some pleasingly intricate puzzles. So if you enjoy puzzle games, give Zamby and the Mystical Crystals a shot: it might not be the prettiest or most complex game on the market, but it does offer some enjoyable gameplay.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unreal Tournament 3 Review

Unreal Tournament 3, developed by Epic Games and published by Midway.
The Good: Nice graphics, fast and furious gameplay remains, online cooperative “campaign”
The Not So Good: Warfare mode is simply tweaked Onslaught, six old game modes have been removed completely, annoying menu system and online browser, no original weapons, the “campaign” is simply a series of multiplayer battles against the AI
What say you? Outstanding visuals, but a lot less content than previous versions: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
When a game sequel is released, an important decision must be made: Roman or European numerals? Most games, it seems, opt for the classic Roman approach to make their title seem more prestigious. But not Unreal Tournament 3, the next chapter in the venerable first person shooter series. Well, except for the game box, which use roman numerals in the background. I’ve been a fan of the Unreal Tournament series since its inception, enjoying its frantic over-the-top action and flexible engine with plenty of user made mods to enjoy. The last time we experienced the full fury of Unreal Tournament was way back in 2004; what improvements and enhancements have been made to the game in three years of development?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Clearly the highlight of Unreal Tournament 3 is the exceptional use of the Unreal Engine. The level design is similar to previous Unreal Tournament games, but the textures show how powerful the new engine is: they are highly detailed and great to look at. The detail in general has been improved, from the character designs to the weapon models and effects. Unreal Tournament 2004 was getting a bit out of date so it’s nice to have some contemporary graphics to look at as you kill people. The user interface is also “slicker” and more futuristic, matching the overall theme of the game. Unreal Tournament 3 just plain looks better and equals the visuals offered by Call of Duty 4 and some EA game that I never received for review so it will go unmentioned. The game also seems to perform well at default settings and appropriate resolutions. The sound of Unreal Tournament 3 is slightly improved as well. Although the audio design obviously doesn’t benefit from the same leaps in technology as the graphics do, the addition of more varied voices and nice weapon effects round out an excellent presentation. The memorable musical score and theme music make their return so the delight of nostalgic fans everywhere. The graphics and sound of Unreal Tournament 3 will not disappoint as the title certainly looks and sounds good.

ET AL.
Unreal Tournament 3 is still a multiplayer-oriented first person shooter, first evidenced by the Gamespy login screen when you enter the game. Though your ID is used, stat tracking is kept at a minimum, unlike most online games (World in Conflict, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Call of Duty 4, and Battlefield 2142 to name a few). You will also need to customize your online character, choosing a team and outfit; these options are superfluous and picking from a suite of characters in the past was fine. Unreal Tournament 3 does come with a single player campaign, but it’s simply a linear set of matches against the AI using the six game modes available for multiplayer. The AI is still a quality opponent that can easily be mistaken for decent human competition, but when you compare the single player offerings of Unreal Tournament 3 against other predominantly multiplayer games like World in Conflict and Call of Duty 4, Unreal Tournament 3 comes up short. You can choose your game modes against the AI in instant action mode, but the game is really designed for human competition. Unfortunately, Unreal Tournament 3 has been bitten by the console design bug, featuring information spread over many menus that used to be confined to one when the developers cared about our platform. For example, filters are kept on a separate page from the browser and they seem to reset no matter which choice you pick. There aren’t many servers up yet and you can only view one game type at a time. Unreal Tournament 3 also features some really long load times: when it takes ten seconds to exit to the main menu from a match (I’m not exaggerating), there is a problem. I guess two gigabytes of RAM isn’t enough. You also can’t exit while loading a map, so you’re stuck for the thirty second load time when joining a server.

Unreal Tournament 3 features six modes of play: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, vehicle capture the flag, duel, and warfare. You would figure the developers would come up with something fresh and original in the past three years, but they have not. Duel is a one-on-one mode featuring a waiting queue, and warfare is simply UT2004’s onslaught mode with orbs that can be used to instantly capture a node. How disappointing. Even worse, the developers actually removed a bunch of modes that were present in Unreal Tournament 2004, most of which I played extensively and enjoyed. Bombing run: gone. Mutant: gone. Domination: gone. Last man standing: gone. Assault: gone. Invasion: gone. For a game that thrives on its versatility, this is a complete shock. We shouldn’t have to mod in the missing game modes. The infamous mutators have also been minimized, featuring instagib as the only notable one.

Unreal Tournament 3 does come with a good number of maps that cover all of the available game modes. Arrows are superimposed on the ground to show the most appropriate path to follow to the enemy flag or base, so the usual learning curve has been reduced somewhat. In another area of non-innovation, Unreal Tournament 3 features the almost the same exact weapons as before: impact hammer, enforcer, bio rifle, shock rifle, link gun, mini-gun (although alternate-fire shoots balls), flak cannon, rocket launcher, sniper rifle, avril, redeemer, translocator, and hoverboard. At least people will be familiar with them. The vehicles selection is largely the same as well (air, tanks, jeeps, ATVs) although different teams can have varied skins and designs. The pace is as frantic as ever and the game is essentially just as enjoyable (not surprising since it’s basically the same game). Note that (surprise!) adrenaline has been removed and replaced with a couple of pick-ups that grant a faster firing rate, increased damage, invisibility, or invulnerability. You can also deploy mines and charges to blow stuff up and shields for protection, although they certainly are not as widespread as the deployables in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. It seems the developers have concentrated on graphics instead of features, and the result is a game that looks better but has less substance than its predecessors. What happened in three years of development? We’ll see if the modding community picks this game up like they did with Unreal Tournament 2004, but since there is really no reason to “upgrade” unless you want a game with less features, I’m not so sure.

IN CLOSING
I realize that you shouldn’t expect drastic changes in a sequel, but absolutely no innovations in three years? In exchange for nice graphics, we get half the number of game modes, a poor console menu system, and the same weapons: awesome! Is it fun? Yeah, but I did this already in 2004. In fact, Unreal Tournament 3 actually comes with less features than that title. Less! Some people say “less is more,” but those people are idiots. I am extremely disappointed in Unreal Tournament 3, because the potential was so high for creating a great game that expanded upon previous versions, instead of just regurgitating them. I certainly would not spend $50 on Unreal Tournament 3 when I have Unreal Tournament 2004 already. If you like the fast-paced gameplay of Unreal Tournament, then find a copy of UT2004: shiny graphics do not make a game. Well, maybe on the consoles.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fantasy Wars Review

Fantasy Wars, developed by Ino-Co and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: Informative user interface, straightforward and streamlined gameplay
The Not So Good: Multiplayer through LAN or hotseat only, lacks replay value
What say you? This simplified hex-based strategy game is actually pretty fun, though it has limited features: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ve reviewed my share of hex-based strategy games. It probably has to do with the fact that I like the genre so I request those games the most. Most of the games in the genre fly under the radar and lack a major in-store presence, catering to the small but devoted fan base. So I was somewhat surprised to receive Fantasy Wars, a fantasy hex-based strategy game that arrived in a real game box with a real game DVD; it’s been a while since I received a wargame I didn’t get as a digital download. This is the continuation of Atari’s mission to publish every single 1C game released in Russia, which has ranged from “bad” to “worse” to “not as bad.” How will Fantasy Wars stack up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Fantasy Wars features some surprisingly decent graphics. The game is rendered in 3-D and it looks good up close and from a distance. I was initially impressed by the vibrant grass in the levels and the fine attention to detail with the characters and objects in the game world. Most (all?) of the wargames I play are in 2-D, so a game that actually takes advantage of the third dimension should be commended. Fantasy Wars has a nice overall theme that is reflected well in the graphical presentation. The sound is pretty standard: some unique unit sounds, abrupt battle effects, and fitting background music. Nothing too spectacular, but it gets the job done. Overall, Fantasy Wars is on the upper end of the presentation quality scale when compared against other hex-based strategy games.

ET AL.
Fantasy Wars features three single player campaigns as the most dominant feature: they are lengthy enough and cover the major races in the game. Although there isn’t a large difference between the factions of Fantasy Wars, there are some small unit ability changes that are worth noting. Units from each campaign mission carry over to the next scenario with the experience intact, whether they are alive or not. This means you’ll have access to some very powerful creatures at the end of each campaign; watching units “grow” over time is a nice feature. While the campaigns offer a decent amount of content, the rest of the features are clearly lacking. There are two tutorials which are strangely presented: you watch a video then they tell you the same information as you do it yourself. Seems kind of repetitive to me. The game only comes with five (five!) missions for single play against the AI or multiplayer competition. In addition, multiplayer can only be done on the same computer or over a LAN or known IP address, as there is no matchmaking system in place. This reduces the replay value of Fantasy Wars a lot; most wargames come with a lot of standalone or randomly generated missions so the lack of these features in Fantasy Wars is quite disappointing, especially when you consider that the game is enjoyable.

Fantasy Wars is a hex-based game, and only one unit can occupy each hex (no super huge stacks to worry about). One of the highlights of the game is the well designed interface. It lists all of your units at all times (although a large army will require some scrolling) and displays whether they have moved and attacked this turn. Anyone who has played a wargame will note that this is wonderful information to have at a single glance and it makes playing the game so much easier. There are also overlays that display where a unit can move, displayed in a green glow that is easy to see. The attack cursor is very touchy, though, as you need to put mouse directly on enemy unit, not just the hex they inhabit. Like the Decisive Battles series, probably losses are displayed for each side before you fight; choosing which battles to undertake is no longer a guessing game. Fantasy Wars makes it very easy to get into the game through its excellent user interface.

In most scenarios, you will be given a fixed set of initial troops (again, reducing replay value) that can be deployed on the map. Units include an array of light and heavy cavalry, light and heavy infantry, archers, ranger and mage heroes, skirmishers, war machines, air fighters, and air bombers, each with different stats and terrain bonuses. Units gain experience through combat and you can choose upgrades for them (called “perks”) that will grant some stat increase; over time, especially through the course of a campaign, you can tailor your units towards your favorite strategy by choose the perks that interest you the most. This makes having set units a little easier to swallow. Most of the focus of Fantasy Wars will be made on capturing towns; towns have a large defensive bonus and are easily protected, even by minor units. They do offer cash rewards that can be spent on new units and on most maps they reside in choke-points, so their importance cannot be ignored. You can recruit new units by choosing them from a confusing and unorganized list (the only downfall of the interface), but most of the time you’ll be up against the population cap anyway so a majority of new units will end up being replacements rather than additions. Damaged units can rest (not move) to heal, so Fantasy Wars is less about producing units than tactical positioning and strategy. Artifacts can be equipped to units that also provide bonuses in combat, and powerful hero units can bring the pain. I certainly wasn’t expecting much from Fantasy Wars and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyable strategy gameplay. This game is really geared towards new players with the one-unit-per-hex limit and simplified mechanics. But that doesn’t mean it’s too infantile; there can be some advanced strategy when you start incorporating artifacts and perks with the standard units. Fantasy Wars is a well designed game and I wish it came with more multiplayer and skirmish features to round out the excellent design.

IN CLOSING
After four recent games, I finally got a good 1C import published by Atari. Hooray! Fantasy Wars is great for beginners as it features simplified (when compared to some games) gameplay with a great interface. I didn’t have to squint or search around for lost units once while playing Fantasy Wars. The three campaigns are long enough to keep you interested, although the objectives tend to be linear (capture this, defeat this). While you are generally given a set roster of units, you can customize your army somewhat through artifacts and upgrades you can earn or find on the battlefield. Fantasy Wars is pleasing to look at as well, something that can’t be said for a lot of hex-based games. There is a variety of units to choose from, from melee to ranged to flying, and this allows for varied strategy when dealing with the enemy. The only downside of Fantasy Wars is the lack of many multiplayer and skirmish maps to play after you’ve finished the campaign. This is quite sad, especially for those people who enjoy customizable or multiplayer content. Still, the quality of the game mechanics can’t be ignored, so strategy fans should definitely give Fantasy Wars a look.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Review

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision.
The Good: Action-packed and exciting single player campaign, copious multiplayer modes and features with flexible customizable classes, approachable tactical gameplay, quality friendly and enemy AI
The Not So Good: Kind of short campaign
What say you? A complete first person shooter experience: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the game franchises I’ve successfully avoided is Call of Duty. I only sampled the demo for the first two games and the third didn’t even come out for the PC; I think the overabundance of World War II shooters and multitude of online games shuffled it to the back of my list. In any event, the apparently highly-anticipated next title in the series is here and the game has finally caught up with the rest of the world and features modern day weapons. Yes, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brings the tactical shooter away from the hedgerows and Germans to a contemporary setting with high-powered rifles and helicopters. Will this fresh touch accentuate the gameplay experience? Will I be able to resist the urge to make childish jokes, such as a “Call of Duty” being the need to use the potty? Apparently not. Heh, I said “duty.”

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare features some very nice graphics. The environments in the game, which include a variety of settings from ships to deserts to forests, all are highly detailed and very realistic. The character detail is also nice, with disturbingly realistic animations and great texture work. The weapon animations are also well done: I especially enjoy the reloading animation as the used clip is dropped to the ground. Bullets impact surfaces and grenades kick up dust when the hit the ground. There are some unnecessarily showy graphics (who knew that Kevlar was so shiny?), but the game looks great. Plus, it performs well even at high settings. Bonus! The sound is also top notch, with some excellent action-movie background music and great voice work. Though your teammates do become repetitive after a while, having them give out semi-dynamic audio clues on enemy locations (“near the red car!”) is pretty cool. The guns are a bit quieter than I would think they would be in real life, but then again I am no expert on weapon noise. So overall, Cal of Duty 4 is clearly in the upper echelon of the first person shooter genre in terms of graphics and sound: it looks and sounds great.

ET AL.
Call of Duty (heh, I said “duty”) 4: Modern Combat features a single player campaign in addition to multiplayer features. Though the single player campaign is on the short side (around six to eight hours), it is filled to the brim with action and excitement for its entirety. Throughout the nineteen missions, the player alternates between two military operatives for the British and Americans. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare focuses on “special forces” missions, which means lots of well-armed enemies. The protagonist (that’s you) can take a decent amount of damage before dying at the default difficulty setting. This strikes a good balance, being fun but not too easy. There are higher difficulty settings for those players adept at the Call of Duty franchise. You can’t manually save your progress, but there are plenty of automatic save checkpoints after essentially every encounter so this never becomes an issue. The interface is minimal, taking up only the corners of the screen. It displays all of the pertinent information when needed and doesn’t obstruct your view of the enemies. Blurring your peripheral view while looking down sights is a nice touch. The game also displays a warning when grenades are too close (something that comes up a lot). Objective locations are clearly indicated in the game, so you’re never confused as where to go next. Call of Duty 4, like previous games, lacks a health meter, instead opting for an increasingly redder view and slowly regenerating health. It might not be realistic, but the game would be quite impossible otherwise.

The levels are scripted but highly enjoyable; most of the missions feature linear paths with the occasional open area to advance using the cover of your choice. And you must use cover, as the AI is deadly smart. In fact, even if you are using cover, the AI will usually lob a couple of grenades your way to flush you out of your hiding spot. The AI of Call of Duty 4 is some of the best seen in a first person shooter: your comrades will certainly take care of themselves, up to a point. You will usually have to advance the crew past the next checkpoint, but you don’t need to take on all enemies yourself. Make sure you keep moving forward, as enemies will keep coming until to pass an invisible point on occasion. Computer controlled friends also move and behave very realistically, advancing through doors and performing other tasks just like their real-life counterparts. It’s a bit scripted, but it sure looks convincing and puts you into the game. The gameplay blends a hyper-realistic military simulation like ArmA with a more accessible game. You need to behave realistically (use cover, fire in bursts) but the game is still fast paced enough to keep you interested in the action. You’re never too far from the next firefight (a problem with the aforementioned ArmA). I’m not a big single player person (especially with first person shooters), but I did find solo Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to be delightful amusement.

I am a big fan of multiplayer first person shooters, and Call of Duty 4 is extremely fun in this area. The game comes with sixteen maps, all of which support all five game types. All of the maps are small (unlike the relatively huge maps of Battlefield or Enemy Territory: Quake Wars) and focus on pretty constant combat with no lulls in the action. Most of the maps mirror locations from the single player campaign, adjusted for maximum enjoyment. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare features five modes of play, none of which are terribly innovative but variety is the spice of life: free for all, team deathmatch, domination (control points like Battlefield), sabotage (like capture the flag), headquarters (one control point that must be captured then defended with no respawns), and search and destroy (Counter-Strike bomb planting). We've seen most of these modes in other games; headquarters is an interesting domination-style match with an ever moving control point that results in some very chaotic matches. The game also supports custom game settings like respawn time and the “killcam,” plus old school (like Unreal Tournament) and hardcore (realistic one-shot, one-kill) gaming modes. All of this variety is nice, and while the general premise is always the same (kill people), the level of coordination required in order to win is altered.

Finding a game is easy using the in-game browser (which actually works, unlike the one used in Battlefield). Call of Duty 4 features stat tracking and experience ranks that are used to unlock additional weapons. The higher-level weapons aren’t generally better all-around, just different. The achievement structure is organized to give you a handful of things to unlock every three ranks or so; players will always have something new to play with after every couple of rounds. Large chunks of experience can be gained by doing a variety of activities, like using weapons to holding a grenade to kill an opposing player: the game tracks them all. Using specific weapons will unlock better sights and silencers for that particular weapon. Most of the time you’ll just unlock things by playing and not really planning on killing someone through a wall, so there is a nice surprise factor in gaining levels. I also appreciate that the more advanced weapons aren’t overly powerful and they don’t put new players at a grave disadvantage like Battlefield 2142 did. Resetting achievements every three games like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars does has its advantages for improved game balance, but having long-term unlocks does keep people playing more. And the advantages high-level players enjoy aren’t terribly extreme. Call of Duty 4 features enough stat related features to keep people playing for a long time.

Call of Duty 4 features very flexible customizable classes: the default five classes cover the range of loadouts, but when you start unlocking things you will want to create your own classes and the game allows you to save up to five. Each class contains a primary weapon, sidearm, special grenade, and three perks. While the sidearms are all pistols, primary weapons include sub-machine guns, light machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles: everything for any game situation. I usually opt for the MP5 sub-machine gun for small levels, the M4 with grenade launcher for medium-sized levels, and the M4 with sight for large levels. I wish that the default loadouts would incorporate newly acquired items or add more choices as you progress to highlight some good combinations for classes. Perks include a host of different personal upgrades: the ability to carry more ammo, increased damage or rate of fire, higher explosive damage, steady aim, making less noise, and the very popular ability to drop a live grenade when you die. You can only choose one perk from each of the three levels, so higher level players won’t get to choose the three best perks. It’s a nice system that has some impact on gameplay, but not enough to unbalance things.

The multiplayer of Call of Duty 4 is generally quite hectic, even with realistic walking speeds due to smart spawn points near teammates (like F.E.A.R.) for nearly constant combat. You can take a couple of hits before you die, but if you are seen out in the open you will perish soon enough. Hardcore mode is even less forgiving and it’s played with a high level of tension. Games can become grenade-happy, especially when players equip extra frag grenades and the martyrdom perk that drops an additional grenade upon death. Still, the game is fun and full of killing. Good (or at least cautious) players are rewarded with kill streak bonuses: three kills without dying gives enemy positions on radar, five grants and airstrike, and seven in a row comes with a chopper. Call of Duty 4 is balanced very well to be semi-realistic without being too slow and the end result is a very enjoyable multiplayer game.

IN CLOSING
Call of Duty 4 is fun and you should buy it. That pretty much sums it up, as the game features a compelling single player campaign and robust multiplayer features to make for a very inclusive first person shooter. Even though it’s a bit short, the single player campaign makes up for it by being filled to the brim with action. The AI is extremely capable and a challenging opponent able to counter most offensive plans. The levels are designed to give the player a bit of freedom when encountering outdoor areas without being completely confusing. The multiplayer options are very comprehensive, easily equaling online-only shooters. There are a multitude of game modes, tons of things to unlock and achieve, and great gameplay that is well paced. To illustrate how much I like Call of Duty 4, I actually uninstalled a number of other first person shooters after playing this game because I see no need to go back to them ever again. You can’t ask for much more: Call of Duty 4 is an outstanding shooter.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey Review

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey, developed by Akella and published by 1C Company and Atari.
The Good: Unlocked skills can be interesting
The Not So Good: Completely derivative gameplay, boring repetitive combat, outdated graphics, control issues
What say you? An inferor Pirates! clone: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Pirates during the Civil War? And here I thought piracy in the Caribbean was all but wiped out by the 1730’s (Wikipedia: the source for Internet lies since 2001). Not so, according to Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey: sailing the ocean blue and engaging unsuspecting ships was alive and well during a tumultuous time during the history of the United States. This game is developed by the same folks who brought us Sea Dogs, a personal favorite and perfect score recipient, and bears striking resemblances to Sid Meier’s Pirates! Will Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey provide entertaining swashbuckling action in multiple hues?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Remember when I mentioned that the developer was responsible for Sea Dogs? Well, the graphics haven’t changed much since then. Too bad that game was released in year 2000. There are clipping problems (fingers going through bottles, et cetera), poor textures, and rough models: everything that makes a game look quite dated. There is nothing cutting-edge or even pleasing about the graphics in Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey. The sound is along the same lines: only snippets of dialogue accompany the lengthy in-game text and the background music is uninspired at best. Neither the graphics nor the sound will get you excited to play Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey.

ET AL.
Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is a pirate game that takes place during the American Civil War. The premise itself is a bit anachronistic, but I will say that the setting is original for a pirate adventure game. During the single player campaign, you will be able to choose to help the Confederacy or the Union in their boating missions. The game offers a tutorial through non-voiced pop-up messages from your “inner voice”; your character constantly cusses at it in a poor attempt at humor. The campaign is fairly open-ended in that you can pick and choose side missions and other activities like boxing (why? I don’t know) in addition to advancing the main story and blowing up other ships. The lack of multiplayer features is disappointing but not surprising.

Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is the pirate-based adventure game we’ve seen before in Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Tortuga: Two Treasures. You will advanced your character by completing quests and blowing stuff up, receiving character stat upgrades as you level up. You can also equip your ship with different weapons and earn active and passive “perks” that will provide permanent bonuses to your character or ship. The perks, unfortunately, are the only real innovative feature of Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey.

You will spend a lot of time in cities, visiting various shops. The towns are presented in isometric views divided over several maps, so navigating your way through town is a lot more trouble than it’s worth (Fury did essentially the same thing). It’s also weird to not play the game from a first person perspective, especially when you consider that the seven-year-old Sea Dogs did. The buildings available to peruse are unchanged from previous pirate titles: taverns for recruits and rumors, governors for quests, general stores for goods, weapons shops for weapons, and shipyards for upgrades. You need to visit the sheriff in order to save your progress (a nod to the game’s console roots) because you need permission from a higher authority to leave the game, apparently. There are some out-of-place upgrades available for your ship, such as the trusty missile launcher of the mid-1800’s (of course!). I suppose Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey isn’t leaning towards realism.

The quests in the game are the standard fare: visit or kill someone. Sailing is identical to Pirates!: an isometric view of the ocean as you steer towards your port of choice. Combat is also very plagiaristic. Land combat features annoying controls designed for the consoles: you just keep pressing the attack button as the game automatically selects a semi-random opponent and plays your swinging animation. There is really no skill involved, other than rotating your character to face the appropriate enemy. There are other weapons other than the basic sword, namely revolvers and rifles, but these weapons are more trouble as the game will commonly select foes that are out of your field of view. The completely out-of-place boxing fights are just like regular hand-to-hand combat, except they make less contextual sense. Ship combat is what you would expect: maneuver your guns to face the enemy and press fire, wait to reload, press fire. The AI is not challenging: you’ll lose if you take on a ship with better weapons simply because they have better weapons. Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey does indicate the difficulty of surrounding ships to make retreats less common. Once you destroy a certain percentage of the enemy ship, you can board it in a process that takes way, way too long. You seem to have to fight every individual crew member yourself and then fight the captain: even boarding a small ship can take upwards of fifteen minutes (in addition to the slow-paced ship combat beforehand). So, as you can clearly see, there is no reason to play Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey because you probably have already.

IN CLOSING
I was amazed at how blatantly similar Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey is to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, particularly when you consider that Akella has developed these kinds of games before. If the game didn’t have the occasional Civil War soldier and different flags in the ports, you would be hard-pressed to find a difference. The only innovation the game makes is very minor (the “perks”) and other areas where it could have been better are not improved upon. The city map is unnecessarily large, the combat is brainless and drawn-out, the graphics are out of date, and the entire premise is just plain silly with a poor attention to history. I did get one thing good out of this game: a desire to fire up Sea Dogs again. It’s sad that a seven-year-old game is actually better than this poor copy. If you are going to make another pirate adventure game, do something original with the gameplay; don’t recycle other games in a slightly new setting, as Swashbucklers: Blue Vs. Grey did.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Soldier of Fortune: Payback Review

Soldier of Fortune: Payback, developed by Cauldron and published by Activision.
The Good: Nice selection of customizable weapons, lots of gore, multiple multiplayer modes
The Not So Good: Very difficult single-player, checkpoint-only saves, generally unoriginal gameplay, only five multiplayer maps
What say you? A budget shooter with a couple of nice features at a non-budget price: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
My most vivid memory of the Soldier of Fortune franchise is of the first game: shooting someone’s legs off with a machine gun and watching them fall vertically to the ground. Ah, good times. Well, the Soldier of Fortune franchise is back with its extreme violence in Payback form (Mel Gibson not included). It’s been a long seven-and-a-half years since we last saw limbs flying off and necks spurting blood where a head used to be. First person shooters have been leaning more towards the realistic side of the equation, so it’s nice to see an over-the-top representation of modern combat. How does Soldier of Fortune: Payback stack up against the large number of shooters on the market?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Soldier of Fortune: Payback uses a proprietary engine made by the developer and it offers some average to good visuals. It obviously does not compete with top-of-the-line shooters, but it holds its own well and slides next to the recent Half-Life 2 episodes in terms of overall quality. The environments in the game range from sandy to tropical and they have an overall shininess to them that’s a bit too bright for my tastes. The character models are OK and the environments have some places that exhibit good detail. Soldier of Fortune: Payback features some neat rag-doll physics with slumping bodies and the like. The weapons look good with some nice animations and combat is chaotic with plenty of explosions going on around you. The gore is back in Soldier of Fortune: Payback: although it’s honestly not as impressive as when we first saw it almost ten years ago, it’s still fun to shoot someone’s arm off and see the bloody aftermath. So overall, while Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature the best graphics in the genre, the game looks good enough to be enjoyable. The sound is a little worse off: while the in-game dialogue is voiced, the generic music and repetitive enemy sounds do get annoying after a while. The guns are very loud (probably realistically so), making finding people in multiplayer games simply based on audio a possibility.

ET AL.
Soldier of Fortune: Payback sits somewhere between a totally arcade shooter like Unreal Tournament and the full-on realism of ArmA: you can take an unrealistic amount of damage, but the enemies can’t. To balance this out, you are typically up against two to five enemies at once and that makes the game very difficult. Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a fourteen-mission single-player campaign: its length is OK since you will die often. Soldier of Fortune: Payback does come with Internet multiplayer in four unoriginal modes: deathmatch, capture the flag, elimination, and demolition (defusal from Counter-Strike); team variations are available where appropriate. Also, there are only five maps to choose from, severely limiting variety. The game does save your last load-out from previous games, though, and joining matches is relatively easy. It should be noted that pings are absent from the game listing and selecting a match with the mouse only is impossible (you have to point to the server with the mouse and press enter join). I did encounter occasional warping during multiplayer games with players jumping around the map, but lag wasn’t too much of a problem. Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature anything innovative in terms of features, somewhat of a problem in today’s competitive marketplace.

Soldier of Fortune: Payback does feature guns, lots of guns. I mean, you are a mercenary for hire, after all. Divided over six classes (assault, shotgun, sub-machine gun, machine gun, sniper, explosives), each weapon is rated in terms of accuracy, rate of fire, damage, reload speed, and magazine capacity. During each mission (single-player and multi-player), you can carry two main weapons, a sidearm, and grenades. Each weapon can also be fitted with various attachments, like scopes, silencers, grenade launchers, and handgrips. Each of these things grants a change in stats, although the game doesn’t show what the change is until you select it. I haven’t seen a real different between the eight or so sights Soldier of Fortune: Payback features other than a change in visual range. Still, giving the player options is always a good thing.

As I mentioned earlier, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is a strange mix of realism and fantasy. You can only run in straight lines (a great balance) and you need to crouch and stop in order to be accurate, but you can take a lot of damage before dying. This is a good thing, since the single-player campaign of Soldier of Fortune: Payback is terribly difficult. You are almost always outnumbered and this is how the game stacks the deck against you. You will need to use cover and advance carefully to stand a chance: running and gunning will result in dying and reloading. Speaking of reloading, Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a checkpoint system that doesn’t allow for saves at all times, though checkpoints are usually present after you complete each objective and you won’t have to backtrack too much. The AI is heavily scripted, always appearing at the same location when you past their trigger point; while this makes replaying the same level easier, it doesn’t make for good replay value. There are a couple of other interesting nuances in the game: the background blurs when you reload (since you shift your focus) and you can still return fire if you are shot in the legs until you bleed out (important for multiplayer matches when you think you finished someone off and then they shoot you). This results in a lot of mutual kills in multiplayer games. I did have fun playing the game in both single-player and multi-player forms, but I couldn’t get past that feeling that I’ve played this before in countless other games (including previous Soldier of Fortune titles). Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature enough new elements to make it worth the almost-full asking price. While Soldier of Fortune: Payback isn’t exactly the most ground-breaking first person shooter on the market, it is still enjoyable and would be a nice game overall if it were priced correctly at $20.

IN CLOSING
Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a balanced mix of realism and over-the-top action that brings back good memories of the previous titles. The game brings back the visceral graphics, although they have been toned down a bit (with the exception of head-shots). There are a lot of customizable weapons to choose from, and the single-player campaign can be lengthy since you die often. The rest of the features are just run-of-the-mill: plagiaristic multiplayer modes with only five maps, heavily scripted AI, and some console artifacts in the interface. Unfortunately, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is twice the “normal” budget price of $20, so its limited features and derivative gameplay become less acceptable. Of course, we are still better off than the console players, as they have to pay $60 for this game (suckers!). Did I have fun playing Soldier of Fortune: Payback? Sure, but I don’t think I had $40 worth of fun. Unless the price drops, you can skip this title and just choose from any of the other quality shooters available. This game is a true sequel and it’s very reminiscent of past Soldier of Fortune games, but Payback doesn’t bring enough new things to the table.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Napoleon’s Campaigns Review

Napoleon’s Campaigns, developed and published by AGEOD.
The Good: Meaningful improvements for veterans, historically accurate, beautiful graphics
The Not So Good: Not friendly to new players as map size and unit count can make for overwhelming confusion
What say you? Another finely crafted strategy game from AGEOD: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If you design a good game engine, then milk it for all its worth. We see this in countless expansion packs, the 3,423 Paradox games based off the Europa Universalis engine, and Napoleon’s Campaigns, AGEOD’s latest entry in the strategy genre. This is an evolution of the engine used in American Civil War and Birth of America, both quality games that received high scores. Taking the engine between the two time lines and covering the bold moves of Napoleon in Europe, Napoleon’s Campaigns hopes to become yet another can’t-miss title in AGEOD’s line-up.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I don’t think I am going out on a limb by saying that Napoleon’s Campaigns has one of (if not the) best looking maps of any computer game ever made. The level of detail is outstanding in all areas of Europe: cold mountain peaks, sprawling farm land, dense forests, and bustling cities are all rendered exquisitely (amount of bustling may vary). The 2-D map of Napoleon’s Campaigns has far superior visuals than any 3-D map could realistically have and still run on contemporary computer setups. A new addition to the game is 3-D army graphics. Also, the 2-D icons have been changed to a much less confusing display. It’s amazing what a small change in the unit icons will do for playability: I had an early version of the game that used the circular icons from American Civil War and Birth of America in which it was hard to see the unit strengths, but now it’s very easy to determine stack strength. The graphics of Napoleon’s Campaigns are very strong. The audio is about the same as previous games: great background music and repetitive battle sounds. But that’s pretty much what you would expect from a game in this genre. Overall, Napoleon’s Campaigns looks and sound better than almost all turn- based strategy games.

ET AL.
The general gameplay of Napoleon’s Campaigns is (not surprisingly) similar to American Civil War and Birth of America, so make sure you read those reviews first as I will mostly be talking about the changes in this newer game. As you could probably tell from the title, Napoleon’s Campaigns is all about the campaigns of Napoleon during the early 1800’s in Europe, when he kind of just wanted to take over everything. Instead of offering one giant grand campaign (which would take a lot of turns to complete), Napoleon’s Campaigns comes with a long Spanish campaign, three year-long campaigns, and a handful of short battles that typically span several months. This is enough variety and spans pretty much the entire extent of Napoleon’s exploits. There isn’t a random mission generator, but there is enough stuff to keep you busy. The game comes with essentially the same tutorials from the previous games; they are good but leave a lot of the nuances about the game engine secret. For the first time, Napoleon’s Campaigns features TCP/IP gameplay in addition to play by e-mail; this is really only viable for the shorter campaigns and it’s a nice feature for those who’d like shorter multiplayer battles.

As before, victory is attained by accumulating the requisite number of victory points (earned by holding key cities) or reducing enemy morale (by winning lots of battles). All of the scenarios take place on the same beautiful map of Europe, although the action will be focused in varied locations. The map has a couple of new terrains to better simulate mountainous regions and large roads that were present in Europe during this time; the large highways work like the railroads from American Civil War. As I stated before, the map is awesome, though it helps if you know a bit about European geography for planning purposes.

Large units like armies and corps are actually containers; we’ve seen this before in other games like Advanced Tactics, Forge of Freedom, and obviously the earlier AGEOD titles. Each unit is composed of many elements, like rifle squads, cavalry, artillery, and supply. Fortunately, each scenario features the real order of battle which, as you would think, is well organized; the player doesn’t need to mess much with the default units unless you are an obsessive freak (and I mean that in a nice way!). Putting units in organized containers is the only way of controlling large forces, so it’s nice that Napoleon’s Campaigns does this for you. Napoleon’s Campaigns also contains pretty much every leader present on both sides of the conflict, along with appropriate ratings and special abilities. There are twenty-five new abilities in Napoleon’s Campaigns that can provide bonuses for your troops; in addition, a single leader can now have up to fifteen abilities (instead of the arbitrary limit of four) to correctly simulate bad-asses like Napoleon. The amount of research that went into Napoleon’s Campaigns is very impressive and I doubt anyone will argue against the game’s historical accuracy.

Unit orders have been expanded upon: units can now be given “rules of engagement” that determine how aggressive units are in combat, from no retreat to cut and run. A couple of other additions to the already complex (but almost completely under the hood) game engine include automatically placed garrisons at key locations (great!), realistic attrition (so hungry!), pillaged towns (ouch!), and options for guiding your nation’s strategy (can’t think of anything!). Resolved combat also gets a couple of tweaks: cavalry charges, multiple formations, and wind during naval battles. Most of the additions made in Napoleon’s Campaigns are minor and simply make the title a more realistic simulation. There isn’t much more to do compared to previous titles, so the complexity of Napoleon’s Campaigns remains about the same. The large scenarios are generally more than I’d like to handle, but there is a decent selection of army-sized conflicts in generally small regions. The AI has been improved (like the game needed to be any more difficult) so you need to try even harder than before. Overall, Napoleon’s Campaigns feels more like a complete game and it will appeal to fans of the series or the genre.

IN CLOSING
If you liked any of AGEOD’s other games, you’ll like this. Napoleon’s Campaigns is a more polished game overall and while it won’t appeal to casual strategy gamers because of its complexity, veteran players will find a lot to enjoy. The historical accuracy present in the game is quite impressive, from the orders of battle to the leaders to the exquisite map. The game covers Napoleon’s campaigns in full, and each scenario highlights a small portion of the time period instead of requiring you to complete the whole thing. Multiplayer support has been enhanced with TCP/IP options, and numerous small enrichments (additional abilities, rules of engagement, enhanced attrition) have filled out this impressive product. Napoleon’s Campaigns won’t win over any new converts who did not enjoy the previous AGEOD titles, but the devoted followers of the series will find a product that is certainly different enough from previous games to warrant a purchase.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cease Fire Review

Cease Fire, developed and published by Alpha-Tauri Interactive.
The Good: Distinctive graphics, fast pace, lots of moves to execute, range of characters
The Not So Good: Awkward keyboard-only controls, high level of difficulty, multiplayer limited to LAN and same computer
What say you? A unique theme makes this a notable fighting game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For whatever reason, fighting games are quite rare on the PC. The staple of the evil consoles has been poorly represented at best on the superior platform. Maybe it’s because PC gamers demand more sophisticated genres, but there is always room for some fast-paced pugilism. I guess we, like Indiana Jones, would rather shoot people than fight them. Cease Fire is a classic 2-D fighting game, with all of the hot button-pushing action that is present in the genre.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The most significant part of Cease Fire is the outstanding visuals. Though this is a 2-D game, it looks very good thanks to some characteristic graphics. The game is supposed to take place in the 1940’s, and the engine does a good job of looking old (in a good way). Each portion of the game is given a “film effect” that makes Cease Fire appear dated. The characters themselves are real sprites done by human actors: some people might find this corny, but I actually enjoy it as it adds an air of realism (if you could consider a fighting game realistic) to the environments. The 2-D sprites look way better than 3-D character would have for this independent game. The static backgrounds also look like real locations as well. The end result is a nice package in terms of visuals. The sound is along the same lines: although the character voices are repetitive, the background music is very memorable and well done, fitting the 1940’s theme of Cease Fire. This is about as good as a 2-D fighter will look and sound, especially coming from an independent developer.

ET AL.
Cease Fire is a fast-paced fighting game, where you spend most of your time mashing buttons and using combo moves. There are 13 characters to choose from that have different special moves (otherwise they are identical) and a number of game modes to pick. There is a tournament where you engage progressively more powerful enemies, multiplayer on the same computer or over a LAN (but no Internet play), single AI matches, or a training mode where you can set a number of parameters for the AI (such as reaction time, offensive, and defensive capabilities). The controls are straightforward: arrow keys plus six button (high and low kicks and punches, plus block and extra). Cease Fire only uses the keyboard: a severe limitation. I would like to have the option to use a gamepad to make fighting easier, as it takes a lot of practice to get adept at using the keyboard. Plus, it would mean less crowding for same-computer multiplayer matches.

Most matches take around thirty seconds to complete. You will need to memorize the ten special moves each character has in order to have any change at the AI, even at easy level. While they are simple to execute, remembering back-extra-low kick for Sergei’s low anvil shot takes some time. I guess that goes for any fighting game, so be prepared to spend some time with Cease Fire in order to become competitive. The AI in the game is a good challenge and should test even the most veteran players at the highest settings. New users will have a tough time getting past the second or third enemy in the tournament mode until you get the special moves committed to memory, but like most things practice makes perfect. Cease Fire is certainly fun, fast-paced, and it stands out against the horde or generic fighting games.

IN CLOSING
Cease Fire has about the same amount of replay value as any other fighting game: if you like the genre, then Cease Fire is a good title. There are a couple of features I would like to see improved: adding Internet multiplayer and gamepad support. But these are relatively minor additions and the basic gameplay is entertaining if you enjoy fighting games. What sets Cease Fire apart is the presentation: the game looks great for a 2-D title. The combination of quality graphics and decent gameplay makes Cease Fire a noteworthy title on the PC.