Monday, December 29, 2008

BC Kings Review

BC Kings, developed and published by Mascot Entertainment.
The Good: Solid mechanics, side quests
The Not So Good: Hardly original, lacks attack-moves, LAN-only multiplayer, confusing translation errors, campaign on the short side
What say you? A classic RTS big on nostalgia but short on innovation and features: 5/8

With the real-time strategy genre continuing to expand and incorporate new elements that subsequently make the games more complicated and less approachable, it’s nice to come across a more standard RTS title every once in a while. BC Kings is strongly reminiscent of a certain strategy series with a lot of “craft”ing (before it sold out and got all “world” on us): resource collection, base building, and attacking the enemy. There is a place for the more simplified real-time strategy game and BC Kings brings a very old school (like 10,000 years ago) approach and an international flavor, hailing all the way from Hungary. How will this game compare in an over-crowded genre?

The similarities to Warcraft III start with the graphics, as BC Kings looks like it came out at the same time back in 2002. The character models, with some decent animations, are somewhat blocky and the environments, although there are four themed areas, are common at best. The special effects are sporadic and performance is slightly below what I would have expected for such an old-looking game. This is exactly the level of quality I expected coming from an independent developer, so lower your expectations accordingly. There is nothing that sets BC Kings apart from the horde of strategy games available on the market. The sound design fits the game: there are “Neanderthal” unit acknowledgements and some appropriate background music that I found quite pleasing. Still, you can’t escape the drastically generic nature of BC Kings.

BC Kings features a solo campaign of twelve missions that feature typical RTS objectives: collect a set amount of resources, escort a unit, or defeat all enemy troops. The game brings a couple of wrinkles to the standard formula: missions that take place on multiple maps and optional side quests. The “sub-maps” (as the game calls them) are gimmicky and don’t add anything to the gameplay that could have been accomplished by simply making a larger map. Supreme Commander did this in a more effective manner, gradually expanding your operational area as the mission progressed instead of having unrealistic portals to maps. In addition, switching maps invokes loading times and too much waiting, making the process annoying instead of innovative. The side quests are optional secondary objectives that can be completed to grant your main hero unit additional attributes or coins you can spend for additional powers or equipment. This isn’t totally revolutionary, since role-playing games do side quests all the time, but presenting a variety of objectives in addition to the main story is always welcome.

Once you are done with the relatively short campaign, you can play against the AI on randomly chosen maps with either random or chosen attributes like difficulty, weather, terrain, and resource level. The game pits the humans (the only side for the campaign) against the mutants, which only differ in terms of appearance and some very subtle changes. BC Kings also features multiplayer against human competition, but only over a local area network. Having multiplayer but lacking online play is a serious shortcoming these days, as many RTS games remain popular thanks to robust online features. BC Kings has nine maps each with slight variations like day and night versions. For some reason, you cannot customize resource level and the like as you can in the random maps against the AI.

BC Kings features a pretty standard interface for dealing with ordering troops around. There is an idle worker indicator, but a single click zooms on the worker instead of simply selecting them, making you move the camera back to the location where you were looking to send them in the first place. There are some descriptive tool-tips, but resources lack them (sometimes I forget what the little icons mean). Speaking of, the resources in the game consist of wood, stone, bone, and food, all of which are gathered from fixed caches, with the exception of food that can be hunted. You can also trade for needed resources once you construct the appropriate building. In addition to simply contending with the enemy units, there are also wild animals running around the map (usually dinosaurs, which went extinct 64,990,000 years before humans came around) that spawn seemingly out of nowhere. All this means is that resource gathering workers need to be accompanied by fighting units, a unique concern I am glad to see here. One of the many ideas “borrowed” (stolen) from Warcraft III is the use of heroes, powerful fighting units that can be upgraded with additional attributes and weapons gained from side quests or purchased from the shop with coins (usually earned through side quests).

Despite the unique setting, BC Kings features a very standard assortment of units: workers, melee, ranged, mounted, flying, magic, and ships. Granted, they are mounted on dinosaurs (back when they weren’t confined to zoos!) and using rocks as long-range weapons, but I would still expect more innovation in this department. This goes for the buildings as well: houses for population cap, resource collecting buildings, labs, factories, markets, barracks, and defensive structures is all you get. I don’t mind a standard RTS game, but featuring the same unit and building types that we’ve seen countless times before makes BC Kings a forgettable game even with the setting. Add in the lack of attack-moves and some questionable friendly AI and we have quite an average game, which is simply not good enough anymore. Units will run off and attack dinosaurs even on a defensive stance, making micromanagement an arduous task. There are also some translation errors, something I usually find acceptable but not when it impact the gameplay. For example, the game said I needed a “toolwork” to build some weapons and I could not find that building or technology anywhere. It turns out the game meant researching “workshop,” something that’s completely different from what the tooltips were indicating. Confusing the player is never a good thing.

Everything BC Kings does some other RTS game (usually Warcraft III) did before, and I am hard-pressed to find anything completely original in this title that would warrant a purchase, even at a very low $15 price. The theme should have brought about at least something innovative, but this is really Warcraft III with dinosaurs. The gameplay can be enjoyable on occasion, providing a solid RTS experience, but there is a host of ancillary features that are either broken or missing completely. No attack-moves. No online multiplayer. A short campaign. Annoying multi-level maps. Translation issues. There are just too many little problems in BC Kings that add up to one big headache. The lack of innovation seals the deal: there are way too many other RTS games just like BC Kings to make it stand out.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pyroblazer Review

Pyroblazer, developed by Eipix and published by Candella Software on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Decent control scheme, some unique weapons, collectable coins give bonuses
The Not So Good: Bland racing due to lackluster AI, lacks multiplayer, restrictive claustrophobic tracks, poor weaponry for leaders, content must be unlocked, can’t fully customize vehicle, only four power-ups, hardly innovative
What say you? An futuristic arcade racing game that lacks compelling races and typical features: 4/8

One of my favorite poorly known racing games was Ballistics. I bring this up because Pyroblazer reminds me a lot of Ballistics: fast racing in the future in cylindrical tubes. The key to these and many other arcade racing games is to make you feel almost in control, going way too fast on tracks that are way too narrow. With my fond memories of fun games past intact, I strapped myself into a blazer (with pyro, no doubt) and took to some races on far-away lands fortunately filled with tubes. How will Pyroblazer place in the grand ranking of arcade racing games?

The graphics of Pyroblazer are decent enough. The vehicles have a nice level of detail and a good amount of variety, although you aren’t usually close enough to them to see anything. The track environments are not the most compelling settings in the universe, as most of the racing takes place in tight spaces, but there is enough variety to make each individual track distinctive. There are also some nice effects with the weapons and the engine trails, and explosions are satisfying enough. It also runs smoothly, not impeding the faster pace of the game. Overall, I was pleased, but not amazed, by the graphics in Pyroblazer. As for the sound, we get some basic effects for battle racing, a manly-man announcer for pickups, and background music that reminds me strongly of the Crossing Jordan theme song. There are no strong complaints about the graphics or sound of Pyroblazer.

Pyroblazer is a futuristic racing game that my word processor thinks is misspelled. The game features three modes for single player action: a single race, the campaign, or an “instant race” where all options are chosen at random. You’ll have to go through the campaign, a series of linked tournaments with races that award points, in order to access and unlock all of the game’s content. I am fully against unlocking content: I realize that a motivation to complete the campaign is to unlock everything, but shouldn’t the motivation be because the game is enjoyable? If you paid for the game, you should be able to enjoy it fully from the start. There are three race types to choose from: standard lapped events, time trials against the clock, or an elimination mode called “last one.” Pyroblazer does not feature any multiplayer, which is very odd considering that the Gamers Gate page says “Pyroblazer™ will also offer players the ability to compete against each other in 6-player local and internet-based combat racing.” Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia, a source of completely factual information), the developer ran out of money and did not finish this aspect of the game (and failed to inform everyone of the changes). A racing game with no multiplayer? No thanks.

Before a race begins, you need to choose a blazer to pilot. The vehicles are rated in four areas: speed, acceleration, turbo, and hit points. Each blazer also gets a primary and secondary weapon, although additional weapons are available to pick up during a race. You can’t make any modifications to the blazers, taking a very old school approach: why can’t I adjust my vehicle to my liking (with a maximum attribute limit to make things more fair)? As it stands, none of the blazers are all that great since you’ll either get the weapons you want or the attributes you want, but never both. The blazers do have some cool and unique weapons. In addition to conventional bolts and missiles, vehicles can be equipped with translocators to switch positions with a foe, force fields, nukes, and a wide variety of mines that mirror the conventional weapon attributes. The weapon variety is one of the long bright spots in Pyroblazer.

Unlike most arcade racing games, Pyroblazer is best controlled like a first person shooter, using WASD and the mouse for most of the movement. Using the mouse to look will steer your craft, while the A and D keys rotate. You can also use the Q and E keys for quick turns and the hyper brake (a combination of S and turbo) to rapidly come to a stop. While the AI drivers are susceptible to damage and eventual explosion, your vehicle seems to be quite strong; this may be due to the difficulty or the fact that the AI is a poor shot. You are given a limited amount of turbo (that regenerates over time) to get that extra boost. Coins that are scattered around infrequently traveled areas of the tracks can be collected to earn one of the four power-ups: invulnerability, invisibility, quad damage, and pyro engine that burns people behind you. The game does an excellent job highlighting pickups, but having only four to choose from reduces the amount of variety seen in pretty much every other combat arcade racing game.

The track design certainly doesn’t make for exciting racing: the tracks are very narrow and the “dynamic objects” are just things in the way. It is difficult to play in first place as the mines are poor defensive mechanisms. Even when the tracks expand in size, you are really still restricted to a narrow circular path and it can be quite difficult to see the edge. Running into the side of the tube/canyon/whatever results in damage and slows you down, and the restrictive nature of the tracks means you’ll be doing this a lot. The AI pilots have a couple of problems: they shoot poorly and they always finish very close to each other, resulting in a first or last place finish in each race. Once you get out far enough ahead of them, you can just coast to victory. The chaotic nature of the races that populate most (if not all) games in the genre is simply not seen in Pyroblazer, and consequently the game is not that interesting.

Like a lot of lackluster games, Pyroblazer starts out well enough but comes up short in several key areas. I like the control scheme the game implements and the unique weaponry. In addition, the collectible coins give you an alternative objective during the race that grants more bonuses. However, it’s all downhill from there. The lack of multiplayer features cannot be denied as being disappointing, as this would make up for the poor AI that Pyroblazer exhibits. The races aren’t very exciting due to the aforementioned AI and the cramped track layouts. You need to unlock additional content, and content that Pyroblazer does have is limited: you cannot customize your ride and there are only four power-ups to acquire during a race. This game would be more acceptable at a $20 price point rather than a half-budget tag of $30; there are simple more entertaining and more complete arcade racing options available than Pyroblazer.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Legendary Review

Legendary, developed by Spark Unlimited and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Killing crazy animals is fun for about ten minutes, cooperative competitive multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly linear and repetitive, clearly not a PC game with constant XBOX controller references, does not play well with alternative gamepads, can’t skip cutscenes, iffy aiming, no manual saves
What say you? A cool idea that doesn’t offer variety or innovation: 3/8

You could roughly divide the first person shooter genre into two subclasses: military realism and outright fantasy. We’ve had quality representatives from both ends of the spectrum, from Call of Duty 4 to Half-Life. Legendary falls into that second classification, putting you in New York and London, fighting not conventional troops but rather creatures of fantasy. It seems that the main protagonist has opened Pandora’s Box and unleashed hordes of fantastic creatures: oopsy! No doubt this will be a legendary review of Legendary, but is Legendary legendary in its own right?

The graphics of Legendary range from nice to poor. The game utilizes the Unreal engine, but there is nothing that really blows you away like some tech demo would. The character and animal models are very well done and are quite detailed up close; it’s obvious that this aspect of the game got the most work. Unfortunately, the animations are quite poor and almost laughable: an early cut scene has people flying through the air and it just looks very poor, like an early CG movie. Speaking of cut scenes, you can’t skip them: one of my pet peeves. The level design would be a lot better if it weren’t so horribly linear. The auxiliary effects like fire and “magic” (I guess you would call it) are a step below Bioshock. As for the sound design, we have some basic voice acting, some plausible creature effects, and a generic hard rock soundtrack that spoils impending action a bit too often.

Legendary follows the story of the main character, who inadvertently opened Pandora’s Box and unleashed a cavalcade of creatures, as he puts things right that once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home. The single player campaign is almost lengthy compared to contemporary first person shooters that usually clock in at less than ten hours in length. You can start to feel the console roots of Legendary in the saved game restrictions: you can only have progress saved at checkpoints, rather than doing it manually. Bah! After you are done with the campaign, you can try out some multiplayer. There is only one game mode, but it’s almost interesting: there are two teams trying to kill enough neutral werewolves to fill up a cache. It’s a remarkable combination of cooperative and competitive gameplay that’s fairly unique, so it’s too pad that nobody is playing. Normally when a review says “there’s nobody playing,” they really mean only a handful of games, but with Legendary, there is literally nobody playing online. You can customize your weapons, but there are only four levels to play on and the lack of true variety makes the multiplayer of Legendary initially attractive but increasingly more wearisome.

More console annoyances crop up when you deal with the controls. If you have a gamepad plugged in and it’s not the precious XBOX controller, then you might as well unplug it: Legendary exhibited the dreaded always-spinning bug from having another gamepad active. Bah! I should not have to unplug things to get a game to work, period. The game assumes you will be using a gamepad, as the tutorial directions will always reference the XBOX gamepad even if you are using the keyboard. Bah! We all know the mouse-and-keyboard combination is superior! Well, maybe not in Legendary: aiming is poor, as you routinely hit nothing with the reticule smack dab in the middle of the enemy. The game comes with the conventional roster of weapons: rifles, shotguns, machine guns, flamethrowers, pistols, et cetera. About the only semi-innovative weapon is the axe that is required to decapitate werewolves. In a “nod” (meaning “rip-off”) to Bioshock, Legendary features some “animus” powers: defeated enemies will drop “animus” you can collect for one of three purposes: healing, a weapon, or to complete the occasional objective. The animus powers are cool, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen better in the aforementioned Bioshock, and the amount is plentiful enough (since every dead creature drops it) that conserving animus never becomes an issue.

Legendary is one of the most linear first person shooters ever. There are scores of conveniently-placed rubble to place you on a set path throughout a game. This is accomplished by allowing the main character to have a vertical jump of approximately two inches (be careful of that brick!). This goes hand-in-hand with some very heavy scripting that is also quite obvious. You are put in these large environments that should allow you to scramble for cover and use varied tactics, but there are too many deliberate piles of rubble or cars or both that put you on a very set path; this makes Legendary far less interesting, as massive battles against the crazy animals should be fun. The scripting is frequently laughably bad, as you can’t harm creatures or humans that aren’t meant to be shot at: if you aim at them and the reticule doesn’t turn red, then consider them window dressing. The relatively simplistic AI is OK, since they are, after all, monsters. It does make for some extremely repetitive combat, however, as each animal type will attack in the same fashion every time. Add in the fact that the monsters have a lot of health (an entire clip is usually required) and they spawn constantly and we have a very unsatisfying shooter. Very typical puzzles (ooo…turning a valve!) round out the completely unimpressive package.

Legendary could (should) have been more interesting, with a wide variety of animals (kraken, werewolves, golems, spiders, griffons) bent on your destruction. However, the repetitive AI, unabashedly linear level design, and other gameplay quirks add up to a very disappointing experience. Legendary rips off pretty much every recent (and not-so-recent) shooter, from Bioshock to Half-Life and does a poor job in doing so. The linear design is so disgustingly horrible that it takes you right out of potentially interesting battles. This is a console game, from the checkpoint-only saves to the constant XBOX gamepad references. A graphical mixed bag is accentuated with cut-scenes you can’t skip. Aiming is questionable at best and the AI monsters offer up repetitive behaviors and far-beyond-fantasy levels of health. The best part of the game, the multiplayer, is unpopulated so it renders it useless. Another decent idea wasted. Bah!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Grand Theft Auto IV, developed and published by Rockstar Games.
The Good: Large vibrant city with a variety of activities to do, somewhat interesting lengthy storyline, fifteen multiplayer modes, excellent audio
The Not So Good: Terrible performance, annoying camera, bloated extras required for online play, don’t bother rebinding keys
What say you? A fine game but a mediocre port: 6/8

I played the original Grand Theft Auto when it was released for the PC way back in 1997. The first two top-down games didn’t really garner that much attention, but the hot coffee hit the fan once GTA 3 and later iterations were unleashed on the masses. Nowadays, the developer obviously has their priorities out of whack, releasing the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV a good seven months after the game came out on the PlayStation 3 and XBOX 360, whatever those are. We superior PC gamers get the original game plus some additional enhancements: a video editor, 32-player multiplayer, and custom soundtracks. Will this additional development time result in a quality PC title?

One of the biggest gripes about Grand Theft Auto IV has to do with performance, and the general outcry is mostly correct. Grand Theft Auto IV looks fantastic on a computer that has not been invented yet. For the rest of us that live in the real world where Rockstar did a sub-par job optimizing the game for the PC, you’ll have to settle for low resolutions and poor view distances in order to get the game to run (and not even run smoothly). Users that are going to be annoyed the most are those with widescreen displays: you’ll most likely need a 512 MB video card in the latest nVidia or ATI series to even run the game at that resolution. Personally, I clocked in between the minimum and recommended system requirements (sorry, no quad-core yet) and I’m able to run the game at 1280 by 1024 with low-medium settings. Honestly, the game looks OK, even with the draw distance really close (it’s stuff way in the distance), though it should look better for the system that I have and how every other PC game runs on it. I guess the developers concentrated on the ever-important video editor instead of optimizing the game engine. I don’t think I should get a worse visual experience than the consoles do with a more powerful system. The game settings don’t even let you go above their arbitrarily-imposed limits (using some number that is far below how much RAM I have on my video card), including screen resolution, without finagling the settings a bit. Grand Theft Auto IV ranges from great character models to varied buildings and vehicles. The shadows look absolutely terrible on the PC, with some weird pixiliating effect. It should also be noted that nVidia SLI is currently not supported (way to go!), there is no anti-aliasing (what?!?), and exiting the game slows my system down to a crawl enough that I typically have to reboot afterwards. The sound design, however, is excellent and one of the highlights of the game. The voice acting is quality stuff, the effects are outstanding, and the radio stations have their usual level of excellence, featuring famous and not-so-famous-but-still-good bands and artists and the trademark witty banter of the disc jockeys. You can also create your own radio station using MP3s on your hard drive: just create a shortcut to the directory in which they are located and the game will let you rock out in a customized fashion.

Grand Theft Auto IV features the story of main character and new immigrant Nico Bellic’s rise to infamy in New York knock-off Liberty City. The general gameplay is, not surprisingly, very similar to previous Grand Theft Auto titles: drive cars, kill people, complete missions by killing people, and, ah yes, kill people. In the first nod to the console-centered development, Grand Theft Auto IV still restricts saving the game only while in your home; once you start a mission, make sure you have enough time to complete it. In addition to the lengthy single player game, Grand Theft Auto IV features multiplayer matches against up to 32 people in fifteen various flavors. While some of the modes are pretty standard fare for any shooter (deathmatch), the game does take advantage to Grand Theft Auto IV’s unique features somewhat: Mafiya Work introduces more organized objectives (like stealing specific cars or killing targets), Car Jack City is a car stealing contest, Cops n’ Crooks has the cops killing either one or all of the crooks, Turf War is like domination (controlling specified points on the map), and there are also races and cooperative modes against the AI. Disappointingly, most of the games online just use deathmatch (or team variation) instead of taking advantage of the distinctive Grand Theft Auto IV modes. Plus, the servers were not as populated as I would have expected, possibly a by-product of the generally unstable PC port. Still, a lot of these multiplayer modes are very interesting and it’s close to being enough content to validate getting this game. It should be noted that Grand Theft Auto IV requires running Rockstar Games Social Club (which doesn't even connect most of the time, locking you out of multiplayer, even though LIVE works fine) AND Games for Windows LIVE while playing the game. At least I didn’t get the Steam version to review or I’d be running that, too. No wonder the game runs slow. The PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV also comes with a video editor for aspiring directors, perfect for capturing those unique GTA moments of vehicular homicide.

Grand Theft Auto IV has the tried-and-true mouse and keyboard control scheme that works decently well. However, rebinding controls is a complete pain in the ass so avoid that at all costs; good thing I transitioned to WASD a long time ago (I used to be one of those right-mouse-button-moves people). Grand Theft Auto IV also features are very annoying camera that you need to rotate using the mouse constantly and tends to refocus without your consent while strafing. I thought there would be a way to fix the camera behind you (especially while driving), and maybe there is, but I can’t figure out how to do it and the manuals are useless. Grand Theft Auto IV takes a more realistic approach to driving, this time resorting to exotic actions like “braking.” Personally, I actually preferred the more arcade driving from earlier GTA versions, as I felt it melds with the over-the-top theme of the game better. Oh well, the new physics do require more planning in advance, so that’s something. Combat is generally similar to previous games as well: you must lock-on a target (thanks, inferior consoles) for fisticuffs, but you can aim freely with the mouse assuming you turn off auto-aim like any true PC gamer would. Grand Theft Auto IV lets to use cover with a push of a button and use a variety of weapons, none of which are revolutionary: pistols, shotguns, machine guns, rifles, RPGs, knives, and grenades. As before, health can be replenished with food or prostitutes: what a country!

There is a lot to do in Grand Theft Auto IV, one of the game’s highlights. There are almost 100 missions in the main storyline, all of which adhere to a more realistic tilt than before (I still remember the remote control bomb mission from GTA 1). The game gives you a good amount of freedom in which missions to choose next, although you will eventually complete everything. Most of the missions involve shooting someone in the face, delivering a car, stealing something, or some other criminal activity. Missions are initiated by meeting someone on your handy minimap or calling them up on your cell phone. The phone is useful, containing all of your contacts, appointments, a camera, and access to multiplayer (because they couldn’t let you access it from the main menu). You can even change your ringtone and set your phone to vibrate (important for a particular mission). Other than the main missions, there is a lot of auxiliary stuff to do in Grand Theft Auto IV. You can take a date to a restaurant, club, bowling alley, pool hall, or bar for darts. Managing your relationships almost adds a Sims aspect to the game, and it’s pretty fun although you are somewhat limited in the people you can interact with (you can’t just date anyone walking around the street, sadly). Speaking of people on the street, Grand Theft Auto IV features some very solid AI that contributes a lot to making a plausible city: drivers act responsibly, people travel to plausible locations, and the city is a wonder to behold and one of the best game environments I’ve seen. Other side missions include meeting random characters (green icons on your map), earning achievements, killing more people, procuring specific cars, making deliveries, and crusading against criminals. There’s a lot of stuff to do here, and getting 100% completion would take a while. In this sense, Grand Theft Auto IV is a lot like Morrowind: a lot of content.

Grand Theft Auto IV on the PC is a dichotomy: a great game but less-than-stellar on the PC. First, the good news: Liberty City is an outstanding setting and there is a lot of content for both single-player and multiplayer experiences. But Grand Theft Auto IV is really very similar to previous versions in the series, except that it runs a lot slower. Performance is a significant issue in Grand Theft Auto IV: the game is horribly optimized for the PC. A good point has been raised: why should a PC perform the same as an XBOX 360 even though it costs five times more? This is a curious question that points the blame at the developer and not the end user. Previous GTA PC versions actually performed quite well on moderate systems, but Grand Theft Auto IV is unplayable on most computers. As it stands, everyone will have to turn down the settings that normally you’d crank up, settling for the same graphical experience as those dreaded consoles. And if I had a SLI setup I would seriously be pissed off as Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t even recognize it (although it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on). Add on top of the performance issues the requirement to have the pointless Rockstar Games Social Club running in addition to Games for Windows LIVE and our good friend SecuROM and we have a very disappointing gaming experience for the PC.

Monday, December 15, 2008

War Plan Pacific Review

War Plan Pacific, developed by KE Studios and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, easy unit organization, simple yet informative interface, multiple victory conditions beget varied winning strategies, brisk games
The Not So Good: No in-game tutorial, lacks Internet matchmaking, average AI
What say you? A straightforward grand strategy game designed for wide appeal and quick matches: 7/8

Ever wish that your favorite grand strategy game didn’t take months to complete a single game? Well wish no more! War Plan Pacific takes the usual tedium and comprehensive nature of “real” strategy games and filters them out in favor of easier controls, larger unit groupings, and faster contests. Grand strategy games are somewhat notorious for being difficult to learn, as they typically involve extreme complexity that deters all but the most dedicated strategy gamers. Is War Plan Pacific the game to turn the tide in favor of usability?

Wargames usually don’t have fantastic graphics, and War Plan Pacific is no exception to that generalization. The game takes place on a 2-D map using 2-D icons for all of the units, although there is some nice detail and variety in the top-down ship models. The map has a nice waving Japanese flag effect for the appropriate areas of the ocean, but it doesn’t really have any outstanding detail for the land areas. The one thing that War Plan Pacific has going for it is the fantastic interface: almost everything is given on the main screen using easily identifiable icons. The sound design, like the graphics, is very basic: just some period-specific music and generic sound effects for the battles. If you are looking for outstanding graphics and sound, War Plan Pacific is not the place to look, although if the gameplay is good, then who cares?

War Plan Pacific lets you (surprise!) take control of either the Allied or Japanese forces and fight for control of the seas. There is no in-game tutorial, as you must follow directions in the manual. While the tutorial that is printed in the manual does a good job teaching the basics of the game, it would have been better to just simply mirror the text inside the game, either superimposed on the map or in dialog boxes. The “normal” game starts with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and ends when one side reaches a victory condition. There are also two alternative scenarios you can access by selecting “load game” from the main menu: removing the December 1941 attacks and starting in 1942, or having the U.S. better prepared for an initial Japanese attack. If you are insane, you can also edit the XML files for even more scenarios, but they are long and contain a whole lot of information. You can also play War Plan Pacific over a network, although the game lacks in-game matchmaking, so you need IP addresses in advanced to take advantage of this. Online play lacks in-game chat (although since you'll probably be playing in a window, you can just load up your favorite chat software) and a timer to keep people moving, but playing against human competition is always a better option.

Despite the game taking place in the large expanse of the Pacific Ocean, you are limited in your movements: bases are connected by pathways, filtering the action to a few key locations and concentrating the battles. This is similar to the Onslaught mode in Unreal Tournament 2004 and it works well, much better than more traditional Pacific Ocean wargames with a bunch of hexes that subsequently result in rarely running into enemy forces. Your bases can be upgraded over time by sending convoys or continuous patrols, turning a sleepy island into a major strategic roadblock. One of the best aspects of War Plan Pacific is the varied victory conditions. The most immediate victory condition is oil: Japan must capture three ports before their oil supplies expire (they start with six months worth), and the Allies can counteract their income by gaining control of three other ports themselves. While I applaud the developer for making a seemingly abstract concept concrete, it does make the early game very predictable: Japan’s going for Sumatra and it’s going for Sumatra now. The second condition is Japan cutting off Australia from the U.S.: if one or more of three ports in the south Pacific can be controlled for six months, Japan wins. The U.S. can win if they develop atomic weapons (after October 1943) and have control of a base close enough to Japan. Finally, Japan can win if they simply last long enough (chance of victory increases each turn past March 1944). The objectives put Japan on the offensive and the U.S. on the defensive early on in the war, and the roles reverse as time marches forward. While most games will follow a logical path to victory (oil, then sea lanes), there is more than one way to win the Pacific, and variety is always a good thing.

There were a lot of ships involved in the Pacific theater of World War II, so simulating the naval operations here can either be a daunting or an oversimplified task. I feel that War Plan Pacific strikes a good balance between these two extremes. War Plan Pacific features “light” and “heavy” versions of carriers, battleships, and cruisers (sorry, no destroyers), in addition to assault craft for invasions and convoys to grow newly captured bases. I don’t mind the simplification here and the ship classes left out, as it makes the game more approachable and the differences are really minor at best. War Plan Pacific takes the Forge of Freedom approach of putting multiple ships in the same container, here called task forces. This makes unit organization very straightforward, as the task force clearly shows how many ships of each type are present and assigning missions is a breeze: just pick a destination and the mission (patrol, raid, or invade) will be automatically chosen according to the ships in the task force and whether the target is friendly or not. You can even assign multiple task forces to the same target and they will attempt to arrive at the same time. In between missions, damaged ships can be kept in ports for repair and large carriers and battleships can only rest at a major base (although carriers can base their operations anywhere).

If the opposing sides target the same destination, it’s time for a battle. Like the map, the battles uses a well-designed interface intended to give you all the important information at one glance. During the battle, you can instruct your forces to attempt a close-range surface engagement, a longer-distance air engagement, or withdraw. The game shows the comparative strengths of each side (like a 2:1 Japanese air advantage) to make these decisions very straightforward. While all of your ships will automatically attack once they are within range (it takes a couple of days to reach the target), you can place aircraft squadrons into either CAP (intercept incoming enemy aircraft) or strike (attack enemy ships and bases) modes; the game does a good job of placing planes in roles automatically, but you can always do some minor tweaking. The battles are simple but a highly effective means of determining a winner.

War Plan Pacific has surprising variety because of the multiple victory conditions. As I mentioned earlier (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), the start is pretty much the same each game, but after then, different strategies can be employed. Harassing the enemy by raiding major bases (causing them to devote a large number of ships for four-month defensive operations), capturing key chokepoints, and fulfilling objectives makes playing War Plan Pacific a blast. In addition, games are very quick: a couple of hours at most, depending on how good you are. Because of the lack of matchmaking for multiplayer games, I suspect most people will take on the AI, which is too bad. I easily beat the AI in my first ever game and there isn’t a way of making it any tougher: there are obviously no bonuses for ship damage or supplies going on here. The one good aspect of the AI is that it does take into account the varied objectives the game offers, concentrating their attacks on different locations in subsequent games. Your computerized opposition does occasionally pull the sneaky move that can make single player games more interesting. The AI puts up more of a fight playing as the Japanese rather than the Americans. Super-aggressive players such as myself can easily eliminate the Allied AI by cutting off Australia before they have time to mount a counter-attack.

War Plan Pacific is a grand strategy game truly designed with the more casual user in mind. A lot of the tedium and frankly unnecessary complexity found in similar games is removed while still keeping a satisfying level of depth. War Plan Pacific is easy to manage, with great unit organization and simple mission assignment. The multiple victory conditions are fantastic and reduce the amount of repetition seen in subsequent matches. War Plan Pacific also doesn’t waste your time with drawn-out contests. For gamers on a time budget (or those easily distracted by other games or shiny objects), War Plan Pacific is a great way to taste strategy gaming without devoting too much time to the endeavor. Maybe I just review and play too many strategy games, but I found the AI to be disappointing and not that challenging of an opponent; the fact that you cannot add a handicap makes this shortcoming more problematic. Like most independent games, War Plan Pacific lacks some of the features required for true excellence: Internet matchmaking and an in-game tutorial. War Plan Pacific is better as a multiplayer game due to the elementary AI, so it’s a bit surprising that the game lacks a browser to search for matches. Still, War Plan Pacific offers up a great streamlined experience that should appeal to those looking for more straightforward gameplay without all of that extraneous fluff.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chains Review

Chains, developed and published by
The Good: Lots of very unique puzzle layouts and objectives, intuitive physics-based gameplay,
The Not So Good: Needs more levels (and/or an editor), iffy on which bubbles can be linked
What say you? A objective-based puzzle game with some extraordinary levels that only needs more content: 6/8

One of the hardest things to do in game design is come up with a good name. You have to choose something that is unique, catchy, and identifies the type of game you are designing in one phrase. We’ve had straightforward titles, disturbingly long names, and weird foreign games. Now, after a long, drawn-out process of intense thought and imagination, we have come to the ultimate game title: Chains. Rejoice as simple perfection has been reached!

“Simple” is a good way of describing the graphics of Chains. We get some background images with one dominant color (light and dark purple, for example) and multi-colored balls for easy matching. The layouts are all done in black with no real-world tie-ins. Minimalist it is, but it’s also effective at creating a unique look. This is a developer who knows his limits and subsequently designs a pleasing product well within the boundaries of possibility. I would much rather have a game look like Chains than a horrible 3-D shooter. In addition to the crisp graphics, Chains features some nice background music by some Belgians (good for more than waffles, apparently). The music fits the minimalist mood of the game well and I quite like it. The graphics and sound certainly do not push the envelope, but Chains does hold its own against the competition in the genre.

Chains features twenty levels, each of which offers a different objective to complete. This is different from boring, repetitive puzzle games that ask you to do the same thing over and over and over and over (and over). The levels are fantastically designed and you don’t know what is coming up next. The basic premise remains the same: manually connect close, similar-colored bubbles. This was done to some extent in Narobiyu, but Chains changes the objectives and keeps the action fresh. The game lets you connect adjacent bubbles; the range is shown by a rotating indicator that almost works well. There are some times that I think I should be able to make matches but the game does not allow it, and this can get frustrating on occasion.

Not only to the layouts themselves make it difficult to make matches (putting potentially adjacent bubbles too far away), but the objectives are quite varied. One moment you are unclogging a narrow stream by making matches in real-time, the next you are balancing a scale using weights noted on each bubble. More “standard” levels involve linking a minimum number together at once, clearing a specified number in total, clearing a specific color, or not losing and bubbles within a time limit. While each individual level lasts about a minute longer than I would have liked, the compelling and unique nature of each individual level more than compensates for any potential tedium. Chains also uses a very nice physics engine that is not just there for looks: it is a vital component of more than a handful of the puzzles in the game. So why not a higher score? Chains is over too quickly: twenty puzzles makes for a good day’s work, but then the experience is sadly over.

Chains is dripping with innovation and individuality: there is nothing quite like it. Don’t let the short review trick you: there is a great puzzle experience here that is only hindered by the amount of content. Almost every level is a new objective and with a new layout: rare is the puzzle game that has this much variety. One of the main problems with puzzle is repetition, but Chains solves this with a great amount of variety in both objectives and layouts. The objectives fall into a number of categories (clearing a number, survive a time limit), but the layouts help to accentuate the unique nature of the game. Just add more levels and we would have a pretty complete and quite enthralling puzzle gaming experience.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mosby's Confederacy Review

Mosby's Confederacy, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Lots of interesting and important character attributes, NPC growth through experience
The Not So Good: An abundance of recruits reduces concern over losses, inadequate minimap leads to a lot of dull searching, problems with attack-moves, can’t save mid-mission, very poor enemy AI, limited tactical map variety, outdated graphics with clipping problems, lacks polish
What say you? Potential not delivered in this incomplete and tedious budget strategy game: 4/8

Remember Mel Gibson in The Patriot? He led a rag-tag group of commoners against the evil British and their evil red coats of redness during the American Revolution. I’m not quite sure how historically accurate that may be, but it sure makes for some exciting over-the-top violence. Slightly closer to reality is Mosby's Confederacy, a strategy game that involves the exploits of John Singleton Mosby and his guerilla-like raids against Union supplies and troops. Rag-tag group? Check. Hit-and-run tactics? Check. Mel Gibson? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

It was established by Tilted Mill’s previous game Hinterland that they are not aiming for spectacular graphics, and Mosby's Confederacy certainly delivers on that promise. The couple of highlights are good character models when viewed up close and satisfying rifle smoke after shots are taken. The rest: not so much. The environments are bland and repetitive, made even worse by the fact that there is only a handful used in the game so you would think the ones we get would have a better level of detail; at least the scenery changes with the seasons. The characters occasionally have animation problems, especially (surprisingly) Mosby himself, who continues to fire at defeated enemies long after they are dead. You also cannot zoom out very far (or at least far enough for my tastes) or tilt your view. Finally, there is a host of clipping problems: characters walking right through rocks and campfires without a care in the world. Even though the graphics are not the best, performance dips considerably once you’ve played a couple of games in a row. As for the sound, we get the same budget-level presentation: background wind, some theme music for the menus, and repetitive sound effects that occasionally just stop working. While not investing a lot of time into the graphics lets you get the game released faster, there is something to be said for a more polished, and subsequently more satisfying, presentation.

Mosby's Confederacy features a 24-turn, two year campaign where you lead a small group (under twenty) of units and harass Union forces by stealing supplies and killing them (I would find that highly annoying, myself). This game is single-player and only features the campaign mode, as you cannot engage in skirmish battles or randomized events outside of the campaign. You get to play until your two-year duty (heh, I said “duty”) is up or Mosby dies; if you score enough points by successfully completing mission objectives, then you are a winner! Mosby's Confederacy lacks a manual and a tutorial, but it does offer a short help file within the game. However, it mysteriously goes missing if you play a saved game; this is one indicator of Mosby's Confederacy's general lack of polish.

The strategic map covers the northwestern part of Virginia where the real-life Mosby operated. Each month, you are given three or so missions to choose from: intercepting supply wagons, capturing horses, or generic combat against unorganized Union forces. The objective locations are clearly marked for the first two types, but I absolutely abhor the combat missions, as the developers have kindly hidden enemy troops randomly all over the map and due to “poor scouting” you have no idea where they are. Talk about an exercise in tedium. The tents scattered around each map give no indication about where enemies might be placed; I guess the Union soldiers just light campfires everywhere for kicks. The combat missions are also the least useful, as the supply and horse missions add resources to your cause; munitions are used to field future missions and horses are used for intimidation and transportation. Resources are stored in towns; reputation can be used to upgrade town capacity, in addition to raising support, increase healing rates, and providing better weapons.

For a mission, you can use recruits that are located within surrounding towns. The game starts you out with a mix of exactly ten units in each town, and this is frankly too many to deal with. This means you don't “bond” with your troops and they become dispensable during a mission. It would have been better if the recruit pool grew as your commanding ability grew, so that you’d consistently see the same handful of support troops in the same area of engagement. By far the best aspect of Mosby's Confederacy is the unit special abilities: as units gain experience and level up (earn rank promotions), they will earn additional attributes like better rifle skills or improved morale, among many, many others. This makes for interesting strategic planning as you can use the subordinate troops with the most complimentary and useful mix of skills. Mosby himself can add a new skill each month, set up in a research tree; this gives the player flexibility and customization in planning how their leader will be used and how he will be effective.

Once you enter a battle, it's time for phase two of Mosby's Confederacy: the tactical battles. Most of the battles play out the same: you'll lead your troops to the objective locations (or across the entire map) and encounter unorganized enemy troops. Lather, rinse, repeat. Each battle is just like the last, usually happening on the same handful of maps (although the locations seem to be somewhat randomized). You are limited to five units in a control group, which results in a lot more micromanagement. You can give some basic instructions to your troops: where to move, which weapon to use, whether to charge. Right-clicking on an enemy unit after you have issued a movement order only occasionally results in the unit actually attacking, and units won't stop to engage if they are moving first. However, units without orders will move and engage enemy units in the area; really, all you have to do is place your units near an enemy encampment and let the game do the rest. The combat is, unfortunately, tedious and boring, requiring no real strategy, especially early in the game. When you get experienced troops with a lot of attributes later on, things do improve and become more interesting, however. The tedious battles are not helped by the uninformative minimap during the too-popular combat missions. How can I know that my objectives are exactly 47% complete, but I can’t get an informative minimap? There is no indication on the map as to where the enemy units may be in an eliminate mission, and the woefully inadequate minimap leads to a lot of tedious searching.

Mosby's Confederacy allows you to take on superior numbers of enemy troops by scattering them about each level to thin out their concentrations. The enemy AI is poor as well: mounted troops rarely charge or even move, and enemy units only work together if they were placed that way. Units will also comically keep firing even after the enemy unit is dead. Once you complete the objectives, it’s over: there is no need to go to the exit points (an unnecessary step I am glad was eliminated). You cannot save your game in the middle of a mission, because you obviously don't have anything important to do except play Mosby's Confederacy.

This, like Tilted Mill's previous game, is dripping with potential that is not realized, though Mosby's Confederacy comes off worse. The game's lack of polish inhibits the overall experience, from the rough graphics to animation glitches to general bugs. The outstanding unit attributes are overshadowed by the sheer number of friendly troops, meaning that you will only occasionally encounter familiar units. You get soldier names, but you so rarely play with the same town in a row, you forget about them. I was not impressed by the tactical battles, as they are all similar and quite tedious. There is too much searching for enemy troops in strange locations, and the battles are uninteresting thanks to poor AI. You also can't save mid-mission and the map variety could be a lot better. Things get more interesting further along, as your rank-and-file units gain experience and more attributes that you can tactically use during battle, but you'll have to complete a lot of generic missions before this point. The problems of Mosby's Confederacy could most likely be fixed by additional development, but its current state's problems overshadow any potential areas of innovation.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tennis Elbow 2009 Review

Tennis Elbow 2009, developed and published by Mana Games.
The Good: Realistic game mechanics with unique shot positioning, challenging AI, online play, robust season mode with customizable characters and attribute progression, variable help with shot destination indicators
The Not So Good: Subpar graphics with poor animations that impact the gameplay, aiming re-centers which makes accurate shots difficult
What say you? It’s not the best looking game, but an enjoyable strategic take on tennis: 6/8

June 9, 2010 - Hello there! I played through the demo of Tennis Elbow 2011 and liked what I saw: more fluid animations (and improved graphics overall) make hitting the ball much less frustrating. Aiming accurately still takes some practice, but overall its a nice update to a good franchise. End transmission!

Of all of the sports-related injuries, I would say that tennis elbow is a lot more preferable than some of the alternatives. Take some aspirin and stop lifting milk; I can deal with that. Unless, of course, the strain of tennis elbow you have contracted is Tennis Elbow 2009, an obviously more painful version (approximately 2009 times more so). Either that, or Tennis Elbow 2009 is the latest game in a series I had previously not heard of, boasting computerized trips to grass, clay, and magical blue surfaces to pound a green ball into submission. Hey, you’d be green too if somebody kept smacking your balls with a racquet. Aren’t organized sports wonderful?

Tennis Elbow 2009 screams “independent developer.” The graphics are decidedly out-of-date, featuring 3-D characters against an obviously 2-D background. While you can customize the look of your characters, the 3-D models are pretty basic and have very rough animations. Players will consistently slide across the court (especially when missing a shot) and the racquet and ball with not always interact correctly, resulting in a lot of shots with the ball in the middle of the players’ bodies. Usually I can resist the temptation of quality graphics when reviewing independent titles, but a visual overhaul is something that would greatly benefit Tennis Elbow 2009. Normally I don’t post screenshots of games, but the developer was so adamant, here you go:
clay tennis court

Everyone happy?
The sound effects are along the same lines: nothing coming close to a top-notch product, but they do not negatively impact the gameplay as the graphics do. I do like the announcer calling the scores in the native language of the tournament, but the crowd reactions are sporadic, either reacting way too much or not at all. Plus, Tennis Elbow 2009 has pretty terrible music that has to go. Sports games is one genre that can benefit from a realistic atmosphere, and Tennis Elbow 2009 comes up short. I’m not expecting super-realism when it comes to the game, but something on par with a Dreamcast game isn’t asking too much I think.

Despite the less-than-stellar graphics, Tennis Elbow 2009 has a comprehensive set of features. The menu system could be organized better: there are too many sub-menus accessed by extremely large icons that could have been consolidated onto one or two screens. There is a lot to choose from, however: practice games against passive AI opponents, single games (that can’t be played as a world tour character, strangely), a world tour, and online play. Single games can feature customized court surfaces, number of sets, and singles or doubles action. The world tour has a number of nice features: experience points from previous matches and practice can be added to your character’s abilities, a large number of opponents in a world ranking system, and a constant calendar of events for all difficulty levels. A career in the world tour lasts about fifteen years, and you can track not only your progression but also that of your competitors. In addition to playing against the computer, you can take your skills (or lack thereof, in my case) online and compete against human foes. Joining a game is easy using Tennis Elbow 2009’s browser and performance seems to be quite acceptable. I am quite satisfied with the amount of features contained in Tennis Elbow 2009.

The controls are, quite simply, different from any other tennis game, and it took me a while (meaning a lot of blowout losses) to figure that out. I guess it pays to read the manual. Most tennis games have you press the appropriate button and release it when the ball meets your racquet; holding the button longer results in a more powerful shot. However, Tennis Elbow 2009 wants you to hold the button down until after you have hit the ball. Pressing the button sooner results in a more accurate shot, and placement can be adjusted while the shot button is pressed. It took quite a while to adjust to this novel control scheme, but once I learned it, I found it preferable to “normal” controls found in other games. Tennis Elbow 2009 favors strategic positioning of your player over lightning-fast reflexes, resulting in a more tactical game and less of an arcade experience. If that is what you are looking for, then Tennis Elbow 2009 delivers. Players get a normal strike, a slice, and a faster shot; pressing up or down on the control pad will modify the arc of your shot. The speed of your shot is determined by your stats rather than user input.

Because of the control scheme, you have more time to plan your shots and the result is a more accurate tennis game, as opposed to the ping-pong effect seen in so many competitors. The game can show you proper positioning and where you should be for the best shot, in addition to where your current inputs will send the ball. The only difficulty with the controls is aiming: even after you give some guidance to your shot, the target will re-center, so you’ll have to adjust your shot again if you hold the button down for a longer period of time. Once I figured out that you keep the button pressed until after you hit the ball, the game got a lot easier. Tennis Elbow 2009 is less about reflexes and more about positioning, and there is no more randomness in getting a good shot. I had to fight the feeling I had from every other tennis game: holding down the button longer does not mean power and you don’t need to release at the correct split second. Here, holding down the button sooner means a more accurate shot, and you need to hold it past when you actually hit it. It’s a lot more strategic and, I feel, more enjoyable and less reliant on reflexes. The AI is also a very good opponent, supremely challenging at higher difficulty levels and reasonable beatable at lower ones. The AI does a fantastic job at accurately sending the ball to places where it would be very difficult for you to return it, increasing the replay value of Tennis Elbow 2009 as it would take quite some time to master the AI opponent.

The graphics could benefit from some improvement, but Tennis Elbow 2009 offers a pleasing amount of features and a unique control scheme that emphasizes strategy over reflexes. It took a while to get used to the “keep holding the button down” mechanics, but once I became accustomed to the controls (with help provided by the on-screen icons), it became quite intuitive and resulted in more accurate placement of shots and less unfair randomness impacting the gameplay. Re-centering the aiming during shots is a strange phenomenon (this may be adjustable in the game options), but you can deal with it. Tennis Elbow 2009 is chock full of features: single and practice games, a robust fifteen-season world tour mode with character progression (both yours and everyone else’s), and online play that’s easy to join. The character animations are poor and result in some wacky looking shots and slight influences on the outcome, but for $25, I am willing to forgive sub-par graphics and revel in the quality of the gameplay. As long as looks don’t matter, Tennis Elbow 2009 will appeal to anyone looking for a more realistic simulation of tennis.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Europa Universalis: Rome - Vae Victis Review

Europa Universalis: Rome - Vae Victis, developed and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Missions, simplified governorship with rebellious leaders, more sophisticated leader succession, tenuous republics, additional character attributes
The Not So Good: No manual and lacks new or modified tutorials, relatively minor improvements some of which we’ve seen before
What say you? An expansion that improves Rome for the better: 6/8

I really like the Europa Universalis series. Europa Universalis: Rome takes the game back in time and focuses on a more intimate experience in a specific area of the world, and I liked it, although I may have been slightly more enthusiastic that what was really appropriate (it’s happened before). Hot on the heels of the quality In Nomine expansion for the “regular” series, the developers have turned their attention back to Rome and come up with Vae Victis (Latin for “In Nomine”). Paradox has a pretty good track record regarding expansions with meaningful features, so how does Vae Victis stack up?

Same stuff here. Moving on…
No, seriously, keep going...

Europa Universalis: Rome - Vae Victis (I’m not quite sure how to punctuate the title) is most probably the smallest expansion I have ever seen, weighing in at a hefty nine megabytes compressed. I'll get my complaint out of the way first: the new features are not documented in any way, either in the tutorials or in a PDF manual. So I’m supposed to figure out all of the new features myself? In fact, the tutorial still uses indicators for the old interface (pointing at the wrong icons at times)! Ha! I actually had to approach the Paradox PR rep and ask for a features list to make sure I saw all of the new stuff. No matter how small (in terms of size or content) an expansion (or a patch) may be, it should always be accompanied by appropriate documentation. End of rant.

Despite the fact that Vae Victis is secretive about the new content, it does make some significant improvements to the original game, all of which seem to be positive. Countries are now organized into larger regions that a governor will run, instead of having one governor for each province. While this is a great feature for the Roman Empire (you quickly ran out of candidates if you expanded enough), this makes running the smaller alternative nations much less interesting and a lot of people out of work. It would be nice if the availability of multi-province governors was dependent on the size of your empire, or give you the option to combine provinces yourself. Governors can also be given armies to defend the area (called “consorts,” I think; if I am wrong, blame the lack of a manual!) and reduce revolt risk.

Another area of minor overhaul is the monarchy system and ruler succession. There are now three types of succession (eldest male child, senior male family member, and alternating between male and female like the Egyptians) and each member of your council (also new) will have a preferred heir, which may not be the proper heir and might lead to some conflicts down the line. There can also be some shenanigans where successors can buy their way to the top (which is pretty much how it works in real life). As for republics, they get a senate that can also lead to some internal strife: members can dislike actions like espionage or declaring war. In additions to struggles between families, you also have factions (like political parties) that can add another layer of conflict. Yay! Who knew running a country was so difficult? The party that is in power might adapt laws without your consent: nice. Most of these features are intended for the larger nations (especially the game's namesake), so controlling a smaller nation is pretty much the same in these aspects. Characters within the game are also more complete, with ambitions and the ability to be put into jail or even executed (that tends to anger some people). One of the aspects of Rome that I found intriguing was the character and family dynamics (something that EU3 lacked) and the Vae Victis expansion for Rome makes this aspect of the game more interesting.

The rest of the features were “borrowed” (stolen) from In Nomine, like missions for countries (still a great feature) and laws for temporary bonuses. There are additional icons on the interface for the new aspects of Vae Victis, although, as I ranted about earlier, they are not explained. They do maintain the easy-to-use nature of Rome, though (at least compared to other Paradox grand strategy games). And the AI is better, although playing as Rome you'll tend to steamroll through everyone else anyway.

If I played Rome extensively, I would purchase Vae Victis. The expansion provides meaningful, albeit a bit subtle, enhancements to the basic game that make it a more complete product. The changes also highlight the unique aspect of Rome: the characters. Running a monarchy or republic is more complex and ultimately more rewarding thanks to additional levels of conflict with ruler succession, senate laws, political parties, and other assorted nonsense meant to make your life more difficult. While I would like the ability to remove multi-province governors, the rest of the improvements seem to be for the better. All Paradox had to do was add a manual and/or alter the tutorials and a 7/8 would have been theirs. Oh well.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dynasty Warriors 6 Review

Dynasty Warriors 6, developed by Omega Force and published by KOEI.
The Good: Straightforward controls and combat, objective-based battlegrounds, player-guided character growth, challenge mode, constant action, same-computer cooperative play
The Not So Good: Extremely repetitive and shallow gameplay, chaotically confusing, laughable strategic elements, no online components, poor performance and severe pop-in
What say you? An action-heavy fighting game, sophisticated it is not: 5/8

I had never heard of Dynasty Warriors. It is, just like Out of Eight, big in Japan (actually I am big in Canada and the Netherlands, apparently), responsible for selling a lot of “PlayStation 3”s, whatever those are. While the PC is certainly devoid of many fighting games, there’s always room for some compelling action on the system of the discerning gamer. Preferring strategy games as my weapon of choice, you could say good fighting games are very-real-time strategy games, countering opposing moves with split-second decisions. And extreme violence is always fun, killing untold numbers of opposing forces with the press of a button. Plus, this is Dynasty Warriors 6, so it must be super awesome by this point, right?

The graphics are, in a word, disappointing. This is the first “next-gen” (meaning “almost as good as the PC”) game in the series, but Dynasty Warriors 6 is quite behind the curve in terms of graphics. First, the highlights: the character models and animations are well-done, at least for the main characters and the various friendly and enemy officers. The rank-and-file troops are terribly repetitive, faceless cannon (well, sword) fodder. The environments are not distinctive, running the gamut from “generic desert fort” to “generic mountains.” The camera is not located out far enough, leading to a lot of confusing battles with tons of people obscuring the view of your character. Probably the worst aspect of the graphics in Dynasty Warriors 6 is the horrible amount of pop-in very close to your character. The seemingly large battles in the game (one of the draws of Dynasty Warriors 6) are not presented as such, as you will commonly only see troops (both friendly and enemy) located immediately adjacent to your character. While the environments are displayed correctly into the distance, people as little as ten feet away from your character will simply not display, and I did not find any option to tweak this shortcoming. In addition, Dynasty Warriors 6 has fairly bad performance with a lot of hiccups during intense action (which is pretty much all the time). As for the auditory aspects of the game, we get some generic action music with Oriental influences with typical voice acting for a foreign game: nothing terribly notable here. Overall, I was expecting a lot more out of Dynasty Warriors 6 in terms of the presentation.

Dynasty Warriors 6 is a action-heavy fighting game where you take on hordes of enemy troops at one time. The main part of the game takes place in the Musou mode, a campaign of sorts where you lead one of the game’s many characters in a series of battles with some historical context, gaining experience over time; more on this mode in the next paragraph. Otherwise, you get a free mode where you can engage in any of the game’s battles that you have unlocked. You can also play the challenge mode that offers four almost similar objectives: record knockouts, record knockouts without being hit, run fast, destroy objects, or collect objects. The challenge and free modes are just minor diversions from the main Musou campaign. Dynasty Warriors 6 lacks online play of any sort, though you can play cooperatively on the same computer. This is not surprising, since Dynasty Warriors 6 was clearly designed for a console with multiple people playing at once instead of finding friends over the Internet on a PC. One very questionable “feature” is limiting the number of saves in the campaign to three per battle. Why am I penalized for having a life outside of the game? There is certainly no memory space reason for this limitation and it serves no real strategic value; I paid for this game, let me save when I want!

As promised, here is the paragraph about Musou mode. It’s a campaign where you lead a single warrior through a series of battles, taking on outrageous numbers of enemies. In addition to acquiring more powerful weapons, your character will increase their skills over time, and you can choose which attributes to focus on in a research tree of sorts. It’s a nice feature that you can customize your character based on your strengths and weaknesses: increased stats in attack, defense, and health can be chosen, in addition to some interesting special attacks. This is the only aspect of Dynasty Warriors 6 that elevates it above a generic action game, as the remainder of the Musou mode is woefully underdeveloped. The game is advertised as a “tactical action” game; while you can view friendly positions in the battleground, you cannot issue orders to any subordinate officers during battle. You will just have to follow the support troops around, and they will typically get stuck in areas if you have not unlocked the next objective. What’s the point of being the top officer if you can’t order people around? The objectives are almost trivial, as they will automatically become completed as long as you push forward and keep killing people. I was expecting at least a simple strategic element to the battles in Dynasty Warriors 6, but the features come up quite short here.

The controls of Dynasty Warriors 6 are quite simplistic in comparison to fighting games from as far back as the early 90’s. You will use the default “attack” key most of the time (which take a set amount of time according to the canned animation), constantly mashing it over and over until you charge up your Musou meter and you can perform a more powerful Musou attack for larger hordes of enemies. Your only other option is to block enemy attacks (only useful for the occasional enemy officer) and a charge attack to counter enemy attacks. And that’s it. Combos, a popular feature of almost all fighting games, have been removed in favor of gradually increasing the power of your attacks as you chain kills together. While this makes Dynasty Warriors 6 much easier on beginners, the grind of repetitive combat wears on more skilled players looking for a deeper experience.

Now I know why I don’t review console games: where’s the depth? Most fighting games have a counter-attack system that at least leads to some skill (or more than one basic attack), but Dynasty Warriors 6 pretty much devolves into uncontrolled button mashing. This is due to the restriction to only one attack type for most of the time, until your Musou meter builds up (and then, that only adds one additional, albeit significantly more powerful, attack), and the uselessness of defending because of the sheer number of troops involved. The replacement of combos with increasingly more powerful attacks removes a vital part of the game. But this wouldn’t be as disappointing if the features were more complete. Beyond the elementary and repetitive fighting, Dynasty Warriors 6 lacks online multiplayer, comes up quite short in the strategic aspects of battle management, and looks outdated while performing worse. If this is a tactical action game, I’ll eat my hat. Personally, I much prefer Iron Grip: Warlord as a game of mowing down faceless troops. I guess the sixth time is not the charm.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Xpand Rally Xtreme Review

Xpand Rally Xtreme, developed by Techland and published on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Precarious new locations, irregular road surfaces, new XTREME cars, special stage and track races
The Not So Good: Still have to unlock content, AI driver difficulty is sporadic
What say you? This half-sim, half-arcade rally racing sequel adds some minor content: 5/8

If you’re a regular visitor to the site (and who is?), you’ll know that I have quite a fondness for rally racing. I mention it when I do my yearly review of a rally game, as evidenced by the following reviews: DiRT and, the prequel to this game, Xpand Rally. So here we go again with the perpetually misspelled Xpand Rally Xtreme. It's like Xpand Rally, only XTREME. You know, XTREME locations. XTREME cars. XTREME XTREMEness. I think I've made my point, whatever that may be. Let's move on.

Xpand Rally Xtreme is almost visually identical to its predecessor, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Xpand Rally was released in Europe four years ago, but the graphics still hold up pretty good. Everything has a fuzzy sheen to it, but the environments are still pretty detailed in addition to the cars. The new settings don't really add anything to the game: it doesn't matter that races set in Malaysia look like Malaysia or northern England as you are whipping by at 150 mph. The graphics aren't cutting edge like you would find in more recent racing games, but they are surely good enough. The audio is along the same lines: the same spotter returns along with plausible engine noises and campy background music. For a game that features essentially the same graphics four years after they were initially used, Xpand Rally Xtreme holds up well.

Xpand Rally Xtreme is, not surprisingly, a lot like its predecessor. You must still unlock additional cars, tracks, and upgrades through the career mode. You get money for finishing in last, though, so eventually you'll be able to upgrade your car enough to make yourself competitive since the AI difficulty cannot be adjusted (it seems to be appropriate). The AI times are appropriate for the most part, closely mirroring the upgrades you should be able to afford. Every one in a while you'll run into some tough times that will take several trials to beat and the AI times are unrealistically very close together, but overall it's not that much of a pain. The upgrades are identical to before; I understand why they use the process, making your vehicles progressively faster (and subsequently harder to drive), but I don't fully embrace it. While you are given more control over how your car drives by choosing which upgrades to purchase, I would also like just getting some pre-upgraded cars as well. Multiplayer is back, although I was never able to find anyone to play against so I cannot evaluate if the net code got any better. In this title, you'll go way too fast in exotic locations like Malaysia, China, Monte Carlo, and the United Kingdom. All of the locations from the previous game are missing, a decision that doesn't seem necessary and makes Xpand Rally Xtreme less approachable to beginners since the courses are much more difficult (some would say XTREME) this time around. The game comes with the same editor as before, so if you are inclined to making your own devilish creations you can.

Only a wuss would choose arcade mode, so we're mainly going to talk about how Xpand Rally Xtreme stacks up as a simulation. The damage model is very unforgiving: jumps are deadly, even ones that cars on TV can make with ease. Each system in your car (brakes, transmission, tires, et cetera) can be damaged independently, although you might not notice the subtleties as your vehicle goes from “good” to “suck.” The tracks in Xpand Rally Xtreme now have very uneven roads with potholes, grooves, and gaps; this makes the driving a whole lot more interesting and the simulation handles the uneven road surfaces well. Not only do you have to worry about objects outside the track like before, but you'll need to pay attention to things in the track as well. In additon to the more traditional rally cars from games past, Xpand Rally Xtreme comes with some GT vehicles, dirt buggies, off-road 4x4 trucks, and monster trucks. This adds some variety to the game, although the career mode still puts the focus on classic rally racing. To complement these new vehicles, Xpand Rally Xtreme also adds special stage races (where two people compete against each other on a looped course), off-road checkpoint races (which can be very interesting), and normal track races. I do like how Xpand Rally Xtreme has expanded (ha ha) upon the usual rally game and introduced some changes of pace. Still, is this enough to upgrade or even purchase outright?

Almost. I would feel a lot better if Xpand Rally Xtreme included all of the content of the original game, but four years is a lot of time for the same graphics and a handful of new vehicles and locations. It should not warrant a high score based solely on the new material, but Xpand Rally Xtreme is still quite enjoyable and the additions alter the gameplay in the right direction. Overall, Xpand Rally Xtreme strikes a good balanced between the arcade racing of DiRT and the pure simulation of Richard Burns Rally. The inclusion of a variety of cars (including monster trucks and GT vehicles) and new locations with varied road surface conditions makes Xpand Rally Xtreme certainly have more variety than before. It’s not completely different from Xpand Rally, but for an expansion-like price of $20, owners of the previous game won’t feel too cheated switching over. It might not be much new content, but it’s certainly more than some other stand-alone sequels. The amount of new stuff is borderline O.K., so drivers who have, and have not, experienced this series in the past can look at the content included herein (new cars and tracks) and decide whether Xpand Rally Xtreme is right for you. Side effects may include running head-on into trees and dry mouth.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Backyard Football ‘09 Review

Backyard Football ‘09, developed by FarSight Studios and published by Humongous.
The Good: Straightforward mouse-driven controls, simplified but entertaining gameplay, numerous game modes, real NFL teams and players
The Not So Good: Completely unfair power moves, have to unlock some players, no online play, stability issues
What say you? Despite some technical concerns, this is how you make a sports game for kids: 6/8

Those of us looking for an NFL-licensed game outside of the DRM empire have been out of luck for several years, due to an exclusive license between the NFL and the DRM empire that involves an uncomfortable three-way with John Madden. But lo! What is that gleam of hope on the horizon? All right, I admit, it’s a “kids game,” but still, Backyard Football ’09 might offer up some simple gridiron fun, right? I mean, the game does features real NFL teams and one real NFL player from each time, and who doesn’t want to play with an even shorter version of Maurice Jones-Drew? So grab your helmet and let’s head outside for some kid-on-kid sports violence!

Backyard Football ’09 looks exactly like you would expect a kids’ game to look: underwhelming. While there are varied environments in which to play (fair, school, yard), the whole game in general just doesn’t compete with any recent sports games on any platform in terms of the visuals. While you can increase the screen resolution to eliminate some of the problems, the textures remain poorly detailed and the character animations are canned. In addition, the kids do not look much like their adult counterparts. I don’t have a problem with reaching out to a wider audience with more pedestrian graphics, but I’d still like to have the option of having a better looking game if I have the computer to do so. The sound fares worse: while I like the (repetitive) background music that flows in and out of the game, the effects are few and the color commentary is tiresome. The announcer sounds like he has a cold and the jokes (although some of them are humorous) get repetitive after a couple of games. I guess you get what you pay for, and you get $20 worth of graphics and sound here.

For the first time in what seems like forever, Backyard Football ’09 runs completely off the CD. That doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but I don’t remember any game in recent memory that actually required the CD in order to play it (other than for DRM purposes). Once you fire up the game, you’ll find a nice assortment of game modes to choose from. Pick-up games let you choose from the complete roster of NFL and fictitious players to make a seven-person squad; the AI is pretty bad at choosing people, so you can usually get the best players in any category (players can be sorted according to various skill attributes). You can also enjoy and entire season using the 2008 NFL schedule, eight-team tournaments, or an all-pro game pitting the NFC against the AFC. Backyard Football ’09 features at least one player from each NFL team in the game, but some of the players have to be unlocked through the season mode (I think) and I hate having to unlock things in a game I paid for. Backyard Football ’09 lacks Internet play so you will have to go at it against the AI. Still, there is enough here to keep you busy.

Since this game is geared towards a younger crowd, it’s nice that Backyard Football ’09 features a fine assortment of simple control schemes. My personal favorite is using the mouse: point to run there, mouse buttons to do something or switch players, and keyboard letters to pass (or click in the general direction if you have that setting). The pass icons are too small, however, if you use higher resolutions (they don’t scale, apparently), so a lot of squinting is involved here. You can go more advanced with a gamepad if you so choose, but the game does a good job picking appropriate actions when you click.

Like arena football, the 7-on-7 action of Backyard Football ’09 is very much geared towards the offense and games will be quite high scoring. The game provides a nice selection of plays on both offense and defense and calling plays has about the same amount of depth as the more mainstream football offerings. One thing I detest with a passion is power moves: as you perform well on the field, you can get power moves that are essentially an instant touchdown or tackle. This throws the whole strategy of football out the window and it makes Backyard Football ’09 quite silly to play. Luckily, you can turn this option off (as I did) and completely ignore this unrealistic aspect of the game. I should note that I had some significant technical problems with Backyard Football ’09: whenever a game ends, it locks up. This means all of the progress made during the game was lost so I could never progress through a season and unlock players. I contacted Atari tech support but, of course, never received a response.

Despite the intended audience, Backyard Football ’09 is a surprisingly sophisticated and feature-filled football game. The game is reminiscent of arena football with an emphasis on the passing game and high scoring affairs. We have real NFL teams with real NFL players, although some of them need to be unlocked. All of the important features of sports games are included: quick games, playoffs, and complete seasons. The simplified controls work well and the unjust power moves can be turned off. I did have some notable problems running the game, and since the game is completely on the CD, the likelihood of a patch is minimal at best. Still, I had some fun playing Backyard Football ’09 and you certainly get $20 worth of fun out of it in any age group.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Iron Grip: Warlord Review

Iron Grip: Warlord, developed and published by Isotx.
The Good: Very challenging and requires team coordination, both first person combat and strategic defensive placements, plentiful upgrades based on performance, chaotic fun
The Not So Good: Can’t play as the offense, brain-dead AI doesn’t cooperate well or engage vehicles in single player, only a handful of structures, enemy vehicles are overpowered
What say you? A semi-interesting defensive shooter-strategy hybrid that feels more like a mod than a full game...but it's still pretty fun online: 5/8

The movie 300 shows that sometimes its fun to defend against high numbers of invading attackers and mow them all down (the Spartans did win that battle, right?). The defensive side of the gaming equation has only gotten sporadic attention in the form of strategy games like Stronghold and unfairly balanced first person shooters like the Serious Sam series. Most of the time, even in assault games, there are people on both sides fighting for freedom (and usually screaming about it). This (I think) brings us to Iron Grip: Warlord, a defensive game where you and a team of buddies defend against an AI invasion by building defensive structures and shooting people in the face. The Isotx team previously developed a total conversion mod for Half-Life 2 which, as far as I can tell, is significantly different from Iron Grip: Warlord except for the setting and the combination of both first person shooter and real-time strategy gaming.

Visually, Iron Grip: Warlord is very similar to pretty much any other independently-produced, lower-priced ($25) first person shooter: good but certainly not great. The game is very reminiscent of both Rising Eagle and War Rock, although Iron Grip: Warlord looks slightly better overall. The towns contain a varied assortment of buildings, enough that each map is distinctive. The character models, although they lack completely fluid animations, are detailed enough. The weapons have a nice retro-futuristic touch to them, going with the overall theme of the game. Fire effects are done well and are convincing. The structures that you will construct look better at a distance, as the textures aren't quite as good as you would like. Overall, Iron Grip: Warlord just lacks the upper-level polish and fine detail that top-of-the-line first person shooters have. The sound is pretty typical for the genre: combat sounds with weapons and vehicles combined with the ever-present whistle of incoming troops. Nobody will get blown away with the quality of Iron Grip: Warlord's presentation, but it gets the job done.

Iron Grip: Warlord is a purely defensive game, where you must protect your stronghold against an insane number of enemy troops. While you can play with AI bots, there is no real point to playing single player due to a lack of coordination and cooperation. The AI bots will fill out missing players in online play anyway, and since you have to download the game to begin with, I doubt many people will mess with the single player aspect of Iron Grip: Warlord. This ignorance is further increased by the lack of a single player campaign, although with one six maps, a linked campaign probably won't last too long anyway. Joining a multiplayer match is a breeze, as the in-game browser shows the usual information like ping and the number of players on each server in addition to the difficulty level: a great feature.

The gameplay of Iron Grip: Warlord comes in two flavors: first person shooting (where you will be spending most of your time) and real time strategy. This has been done before in another online game, Savage 2, but this game's more defensive tilt makes it stand out. You will constantly earn power, either over time or killing enemies, that can be used to purchase personal upgrades or build defensive structures. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you a large assortment of weapons to choose from (rifles, machine guns, flame throwers, rockets), although the lower-level weapons (namely the light machine guns) and default musket are not very good. Interesting is the fact that the heavy machine gun must be placed (either in a crouched position or on a wall or window) before it can be fired; I can't remember another game balancing the weapon in that fashion. In addition to more weapons, you can upgrade your character with health, damage, rehealing, or speed improvements. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you the freedom to customize your character during the game in the way you see fit and the role the team needs: slow machine gunner, fast sniper, or any combination thereof. It's refreshing to eliminate boring classes and give the user the freedom to choose their character role.

You can also use earned power to construct things. These come in several flavors: turrets (for both people and tanks), traps, and support structures. There are only seven to choose from, so the variety of strategies is somewhat limited. You can upgrade a structure by clicking on it and devoting some additional power; the manual fails to mention how to do this, so I had to ask the developer directly. I feel that the developers could have provided a more interesting mix of exotic structures, considering the setting. As it stands, pretty much everyone just spams machine gun turrets and equips themselves with rockets to deal with the vehicles. Then, just have one person place a nearby support station at a chokepoint and you essentially have unlimited ammunition and health. If you can attain this level of coordination and planning, defeating the incoming horde becomes almost trivial. Unfortunately, the AI doesn't fare so well against armored opponents, so a couple of tanks are serious concerns in single player games. While the enemy is trying to cause damage to your stronghold, the only way to defeat their advances is to assassinate the officer. While all regular enemy (and friendly) units are constantly depicted on the radar, the officer is only placed once you see them. You'll need to kill about four to five of them in order to complete the mission. While they are tougher than the regular units, you do get a huge power bonus for defeating them and you get to take their powerful minigun and turn it against them. Overall, I found Iron Grip: Warlord to be easy on easy (with linear enemy paths and less of them to deal with), hard on medium (multiple paths and vehicles), and “don't ask” on hard. The game is much better online with humans that are smart, and coming up with a good plan and executing it successfully is satisfying. Iron Grip: Warlord certainly has a Serious Sam-style quality to it, as mowing down countless (well, the game keeps track of your stats) enemy units is pretty fun. The enemy AI is not smart, but it doesn't need to be as long as you are playing online. When you are doing single-player action, however, you will miss competent allies and the poor AI will make anything above easy difficulty almost impossible. Speaking of almost impossible, the enemy vehicles difficult to bring down and require a lot of rocket launchers from hidden positions.

While it may not be the most in-depth shooter on the market, Iron Grip: Warlord would provide some fun for defensively-minded gamers. The real-time strategy aspect of the game could benefit from more structure variety, possibly calling in airstrikes or varied building attributes; see Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for a more well-rounded structure-based shooter. I do like how you can customize your attributes and weapons at will without being restricted by arbitrary classes. Being a fast-moving sniper is a much different experience than a slow-moving but heavily-armored rocketeer. You can't play the game on the offense, something that might prove to be interesting: imagine one player as the enemy officer against everyone else. Single player is pointless due to the poor AI, but joining a multiplayer game is very easy and the game puts all of the pertinent information on the browser list. I certainly spent more time playing the game than the rating might reflect (even after having finished the review) and had fun doing it when I found competent people to fight along with. Plus, Iron Grip: Warlord is still installed on my hard drive, which is better off than most games. This is a budget-priced shooter that certainly provides budget-priced fun, though there are some small areas that could use improvement.