Monday, March 31, 2008

Lost Empire: Immortals Review

Lost Empire: Immortals, developed by Pollux Game Labs and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Vastly improved interface, different map sizes, enhanced graphics
The Not So Good: Still room for additional small interface improvements
What say you? This stand-alone expansion has a handful of necessary improvements: 6/8

If there is one genre that is going strong, it’s the space strategy game. It seems like a get a new title every month that takes place in the final frontier, and frankly I’m running out of original things to say. So let’s just get it out of the way: list of five recent games I reviewed, joke about Uranus, and I’m done. Well, almost. I reviewed Lost Empire when it came out last year and the game was good, except it was impossible to control 5,000 stars with the inadequate interface. Has this stand-alone expansion improved enough upon the original?

One area that’s been improved upon is the graphics. The game simply looks better, with more exciting backgrounds, more informative icons, and superior textures. The ships are also more detailed, although most of the game will be played far enough out where you won’t notice. Lost Empire: Immortals looks less like an independent game (like Lost Empire did) and more like a polished product released by a larger studio. The sound is largely the same: Lost Empire: Immortals relies more on text-based information than auditory clues and the game lacks voice acting. So at least some work went into making Lost Empire: Immortals look better than its predecessor, which is more than a lot of stand-alone expansions can say.

Lost Empire: Immortals is a classic 4X (do I need to explain what that means again?) turn-based strategy game. This stand-alone expansion makes a number of improvements over the original title in key areas that I complained about when I did the review of the original. First, there are a lot more maps to choose from, including galaxies of different sizes (yay!) that aren’t just limited to the 5,000 star behemoth from Lost Empire. In addition, your galaxy template choice includes distances, a general shape, and resource levels; the template is then used to semi-randomly generate a new map to conquer. There are a number of victory conditions to choose from: domination (highest score), elimination, economic (collect half the resources), science (collect half the research), and a story mode where you can align with one of two immortals (thus the name of the expansion) by completing quests for them. Like Sins of a Solar Empire, there isn’t a campaign per se, but there is enough content to keep you busy. You can also play Lost Empire: Immortals online. The tutorial is just OK: it is short and most of the information is conveyed through pop-up boxes when you access a new feature rather than directed instruction. Thus, it can take an amount of time to learn the game fully.

Like all 4X games, your first objective is to scout and colonize nearby stars. Lost Empire: Immortals is somewhat unique in that you just need to worry about the stars and all of the individual planets are colonized and developed automatically depending on your settings. Scouts can be set to automatically scout (good), but colony ships must be manually set to “colonize” (they come out of the shipyard with a “move” order); it took me a while to figure out why my colony ships were not colonizing. If a ship is located near a star, it is difficult to select as the two are almost directly on top of each other. The best new feature of Lost Empire: Immortals is a planet list; before, you had to scroll through each one individually (you can imagine how fun what would be with 5,000 to choose from). You can sort the planet list by their abilities, specialization, build queue, or defenses. This makes it so much easier to run a galactic empire. Similar to its predecessor, Lost Empire: Immortals tries to reduce the micromanagement by letting you assign a specialization to each star system. Each system has an inherent income in each of five areas (farming, mining, shipyards, trading ports, biosphere) that is randomly assigned when the map is generated. You should pick the specialization that will result in the maximum resource increase (or an area you desperately need). In addition to focusing on a resource category, star systems can also remain outposts (with large detection ranges) or become fortresses. Each system also has a temperature, and since your race can only tolerate a narrow band of climates, penalties will be accessed for colonizing inappropriate stars. Lost Empire: Immortals has three main resources: food, minerals (for construction), and credits (for research). Success in Lost Empire: Immortals is very dependent on luck: you must get “good” nearly planets in order to stand a chance at success. Too often I’ve been dealt poor hands as it were, and systems within my range were poor producers. You can dictate the level of food consumption, planetary improvement, and research to balance your overall budget. Since there are many factory to consider (construction, research, morale), important decisions are made here. One of four government types can also be set that will give small bonuses in specific areas to further tailor your galactic empire.

Like Lost Empire, ships beyond the basic scouts and colony ships must be custom designed. You can choose the engines, electronic systems, equipment, armor, weapons, and hulls you have researched to place on your fleet. As the hull size increases, so does the amount of stuff they can carry (and the overall cost and maintenance). Newly produced ships can be placed in an existing fleet (and are done so by default), reducing the overall micromanagement. In fact, ships will travel to an assigned fleet even if its not in the same system: that’s a better system than rally points. Fleets can be ordered to explore, eliminate, patrol, invade, intercept, colonize, or repair, and they generally do so automatically. Like the planet overview, the fleet overview will give you specific information on each of your ships. Individual ships in a fleet can be given specific roles to perform in battle, such as wolf (attack head on in a pack) or hunter (flank the weak support ships). It seems odd to have this level of micromanagement present in the game considering the rest of Lost Empire: Immortals focuses on the bigger picture. Still, people who like to customize their fleet will find enough options here, as the automated combat doesn’t involve any direct interaction.

The remainder of Lost Empire: Immortals is generally the same as its predecessor, but I’ll go ahead and quickly run through the rest of the features (it makes my review longer). Research isn’t as much a tree as a set of categories that are continually improved and open-ended. Occasionally advanced options are unlocked, but in general you will choose a number of areas you want to concentrate in and they will be improved upon until you alter your selections. It seems more advantageous to specialize in a couple of areas rather than researching large number of fields. Leaders can be assigned to several roles that will produce small bonuses in that particular area for your empire. You should pick roles (engineer, scientist, trader, doctor, spy, et cetera) that fit their ratings to maximize their contributions; it should be noted that this is more difficult than it should be, as there is no auto-pick option and the displays only say their current role and not the one selected in the drop-down menu. Diplomacy with AI players is done through the diplomacy interface; you can enter various pacts (non-aggression, trade) and perform actions (acquire system, set up an embassy, share galaxy maps). Minor races muse be selected manually on the map and their interface is less elegant, using a contact bar that works like a conversation in most adventure games. News is displayed each turn along the left hand side of the screen; while I appreciate that it doesn’t take up the entire view, clicking on the news only occasionally takes you to the appropriate screen or area of the map.

Lost Empire: Immortals is just as tough as its predecessor. Although the AI is not exactly the smartest (thing) in the (thing that contains things), I am usually behind most of the AI players in terms of score on normal difficulty. I think this results from not really grasping the resource model and which planets to colonize rather than using incorrect strategy. Of course, this might also be due to poor nearby planets, something you can’t really deal with. The overall pace of the game is very leisurely: resource gathering is slow and thus construction is slow since you have to wait a really long time to gather the minerals required to build a single ship, let alone a fleet. There will be a lot of turns with nothing happening thanks to the low resource levels. It took upwards of 100 turns to get a fleet of two ships going after I had colonized the nearby planets that were desirable. While I commend Lost Empire: Immortals for being an improvement over the original and the unique features it presents, there are more accessible options in the genre.

If you liked Lost Empire, then Lost Empire: Immortals presents key improvements upon the original that you will enjoy. I think the level of improvements is beyond that of a simple patch, so I don’t have a problem with them releasing a new game. The planet and fleet interfaces are welcome additions that actually make the game playable. The graphical improvements are nice as well, making Lost Empire: Immortals look a bit more professional. You are also not stuck with the ungodly large 5,000 star galaxies, as more options are present. There are still some small improvements that can be made: making the news usable, lengthening the tutorial, and not making the game so dependent on adjacent resources. While Lost Empire: Immortals isn’t quite on the level of Sins of a Solar Empire, it still has some unique features that fans of the genre should take note of.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition Review

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, developed and published by 3000AD.
The Good: Comprehensive game universe, smart auto-pilot, progress is automatically saved, believable physics
The Not So Good: Archaic user interface, ambiguous objectives, confusing controls, tedious tutorial, no skirmish or quick battles, no dynamic universe to explore at your own pace since the campaign is limited to missions only, plodding pace, annoying music, outdated graphics with unrealistic and distracting backgrounds
What say you? Only the hardest of the hardcore need apply: 5/8

The space adventure genre, once a bastion of PC gaming, is now populated by a number of independent space sims, like Arvoch Conflict. Apparently big publishers are more concerned with making console games with pretty graphics and big guns than more epic fights in the dark reaches of the universe. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is the latest iteration of the Battlecruiser/Universal Combat universe, taking a more action-oriented approach to the genre. This is the second edition, as the first was a GameTap exclusive and now the space adventuring is available, with some addition development, to everyone. How will this space game stack up against the competition?

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition certainly looks like an independently produced product. The graphics are outdated and static. The cockpit looks more like a 2-D skin, rather than an obvious 3-D environment that’s been present in the genre for a while now. The planets look good from a distance, but up close the surface textures are underwhelming. Planets are detailed if you are flying in their atmosphere (with some nice ocean effects) and the city textures are taken from real satellite images, but they tend to repeat often. The background stars in space are too large and too bright to be remotely believable; I don’t mind a little artistic freedom when it comes to space, but the distractingly bright orbs that populate the universe make you wonder if the developers ever looked at a realistic space image. The sound design is functional at best: the tutorial and some radio transmissions are voiced, but they are not accompanied by subtitles so you really have to pay attention when the game is talking to you. The sound effects are basic as a whole, and the background music is atrocious; I quickly turned the music off. In short, the presentation of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is underwhelming at best. While this would be forgivable for a company’s first release, 3000AD has been at it for a while and I would expect a more solid effort.

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition revolves around the 16-mission campaign that features a linear order and some background story. This is the first in a series, so one would assume that later entries would include more missions with different ships (the manual makes this suggestion). While the game automatically saves progress, you can’t completely quit a mission (this includes the tutorial). This became an issue when I wanted to stop the tutorial (for reasons I will explain shortly) and start the campaign; I could not, so I had to create a whole new profile. Proceeding through the campaign will net experience points which translate into ranks and medals; you won’t gain any bonuses from being higher in rank, but it’s nice to feel like you are accomplishing something. It would be nice to have a dynamic universe to mess around with, like every other contemporary (and even not-so-contemporary) space simulation features. At it stands, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition feels very restrictive with none of the freedom featured in many other titles. The game does feature multiplayer with cooperative play and a “base wars” mode featuring destructible stations for team-based play. You can populate the universe with AI characters to create a more believable setting. This almost makes up for the lack of skirmish battles, except there was never anybody to play with when I logged in. As with most games in the genre, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition has a steep learning curve; this is not helped with the underwhelming and generally crappy tutorial. You have to print out the tutorial, unless you want to listen to the computerized voice that gives instructions at set time intervals instead of where you actually are. You can read the PDF files in the game, but they are very laggy and essentially unusable. The tutorial covers most of the bases in a very boring and slow manner. At one point, the tutorial wants you to “leave the controls alone and for about five minutes, watch as the fighter performs an escort flight profile around the carrier.” Sit there and watch for five minutes? Uh, no thanks. I would like to learn how to play the game, not be bored to tears. It’s better to read through the manual and tutorial files and just try to fly the missions. This is where a skirmish mode would be helpful, as it would allow the player to fly around with no set purpose and try out the controls. As it stands, you had better know the difference between SSR, VID, VDD, WTS, NIR, TRS, and SMD (plus tons of other abbreviations) before you start playing.

The interface used in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is pretty standard for any flight simulator on the PC. Your HUD displays shields and armor information, wingmen tasks, target info, and heading. The multi-function displays act as a map, radar, and visual camera. Most of the systems the ships of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition have are rooted in modern fighter planes, so anyone who have played one of those simulations will quickly adapt to the information presented here. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does feature a right-click menu system to select any system, planet, or target possible; while I appreciate the comprehensive nature of this menu system and how it substitutes for hotkeys, the sheer amount of options may prove to be overwhelming to some. Still, having everything a right-click or four away is a nice feature. It’s odd, then, that Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does not allow you to interact with any of the displays with the left-mouse button: if you click on a display, nothing happens, so you must resort to the use of keyboard controls.

Like a lot of flight simulations, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition features a lot of freaking keys and it takes a while to remember how to do things. The lack of mouse interaction I mentioned earlier makes life a lot more difficult; pausing the game to look up a command is a sadly frequent occurrence. Forward motion is done with the thrust; choosing a key 0 through 9 will pick a percentage of thrust and holding down W will add afterburners. Having a key that just enabled full power would be much better than having the hold down W for minutes at a time. Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition does support joystick and mouse control in addition to the keyboard, so some of the key-pressing issues could be alleviated. I prefer mouse control, and Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition allows you to switch between mouse selection and mouse control with a simple press of the ALT button. One thing that does take some of the arc out of the learning curve is the all-inclusive auto-pilot. The on-board computer can handle pretty much everything on its own, from navigating to and in planets to actual combat. This is a very nice feature, since simple actions require ridiculous command combinations. For example, to track a missile on radar, you have to enable the VDD with the V key, cycle to the RTM mode, press 7, then press F10. Most games would simply bind it to a single button press, but not Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition. You really need to dedicate a lot of time to learning the controls in order to make the game playable.

The universe of Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition uses real-life space locations, which is pretty cool. The universe is also quite large and detailed, creating a believable environment in which to blow things up. The fact that planets have orbital and surface features (and usually an assortment of them) is pretty impressive. This is one of the highlights of the game, and the plausible setting creates, well, a plausible setting. Each of the planets in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is connected by jump gates, wormholes, or flux fields (which actually transport you to a random exit point…how thoughtful!). Navigating to far-away lands can be as simply as selecting a target and having the auto-pilot hyperspace to it. You can also manually set up waypoints yourself, a process that I can’t get to work completely. What you need to do is press “add,” pick a type (proceed to next waypoint, intercept, strike, patrol, search and destroy, suppress enemy defenses, combat air patrol, escort, defend, mine sweep, repeat actions, wait, halt, or land), and select the location. So I did that and my ship said the waypoints don’t exist. Sigh. Maybe I didn’t save them or something, but neither the manual nor the tutorial make the process any clearer. Planets can be entered so that you can blow things up on the surface (there are a lot of targets to choose from) and you can dock (or, you know, blow up) space stations for repairs and rearming purposes.

Combat in Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is pretty straightforward: pick a target, pick a weapon, and fire. You can set up a list of priority targets to filter out friendly or non-threatening objects. Since the game is called Galactic Command, you will normally be commanding a squad of pilots. You can give them attack orders in addition to all those waypoint orders I mentioned earlier. The AI and enemy pilots behave intelligently enough, although most of the NPC actions are heavily scripted. The game’s physics are seemingly accurate and produce some interesting dogfights. Once you learn the game completely, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition can be fun, but getting past that initial curve requires a lot of effort that most people probably won’t bother exerting.

Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is a game designed for experienced players who don’t mind a steep learning curve and lots of terminology. You will have to commit the various key commands to memory (or have a list of them handy) in order to play, since most of the interactions can’t be made with the mouse, outside of selecting objects and systems. It’s sad that Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is limited to the campaigns and multiplayer that nobody uses; a dynamic universe that gave the player more freedom would be much more preferable. Plus, it would take a lot of the sting out of the tedious tutorial. Offsetting this is the quality auto-pilot system that behaves very intelligently. The graphics should look better and the backgrounds are distracting. Those who have played any of the previous 3000AD games will be more accustomed to Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, but the new players I think the game was geared towards will be left in the dark. In the end, Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition is more of a slight modification of previous efforts rather than a unique title, and the generally unapproachable gameplay that divides the PC gaming market is still present. Those people who liked other 3000AD games will most likely enjoy Galactic Command – Echo Squad: Second Edition, but if you didn’t enjoy them before, you won’t now. Well, I got through the entire review without mentioning Derek Smart. Wait, does that count?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Saga Review

Saga, developed and published by Silverlode Interactive.
The Good: Persistent online cities that function when you aren’t actively playing, units gain experience over time, elementary resource management, free to play with purchased boosters to replenish lost troops, PvP combat with organized play features like guilds
The Not So Good: Repetitive quests, bland and restricted combat, resource management is too elementary, outdated graphics, barebones tutorial
What say you? A card-based massively multiplayer real time strategy game that’s more combination than innovation: 5/8

The MMO. Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of gamers more than yet another massively multiplayer online game. While most of these titles have been pegged in the role-playing realm, more recent games have attempted to incorporate different genres as the base of their online worlds. While the real-time strategy game seems to be more includes towards shorter skirmish matches, the possibility of fighting in or for a persistent world is appealing, and that’s where Saga comes in. Saga takes the cards of role-playing games, the city building of, well, city builders, and the tactical strategy of strategy games and puts it in an online world where you can go on single-player quests or engage in player-versus-player duels. Does this mishmash (or, if you prefer, hodgepodge) of different ingredients produce a tasty MMORTS?

The graphics of Saga are reminiscent of the Total War series, but, unfortunately, they are reminiscent of Shogun: Total War. Well, that might not be fair, but clearly the presentation of Saga is not one of the highlights of the game. While Saga is rendered in 3-D, the environments are bland (but varied). The units have halfway-decent models but they are animated poorly, creating some laughably bad battles where friendly units are swinging their weapons at thin air. The weapon effects can be nice on occasion (especially the spells) but, like the animations, they are repetitive. The large banners that indicate each unit can obscure the field of battle, and the buildings that you will attack use the same design and textures over and over again. Other than the ground textures, there is nothing that differentiates one part of the game world from another. This lack of excitement permeates to the sound design as well. None of the objectives are voiced and each unit uses an annoying canned sound effect that loops frequently. The background music is decent, but the rest of the sound is repetitive and jarring. Now, a lot of these shortcomings can be forgiven since Saga was developed by a small company, but those shallow people who put a lot of emphasis on looks will be clearly disappointed with this game.

Saga combines real-time tactical battles and an online, persistent city. The first thing you’ll do is create a new town by choosing a flag design and which alignment you prefer (light, magic, machines, nature, war). You should choose the theme that you own the most cards for, as Saga’s troops are represented as cards you play during combat, much like a classic role-playing game. New players will start out with a basic deck full of human troops that can be used by any realm. Booster packs can be purchased (for $3) that will give a random set of new cards. While this seems like a good way of doing things, the result is that you will use your human units more since the basic cards come with a lot of those units (about 20). Getting a new card results in getting one new unit and one unit on the battlefield can be easily killed. Thus, it’s very difficult to field an army consisting of only specialized units and still remain competitive. It would be better if a new card gave, say, five units instead of one. Your new town will function online whether you are logged in or not: a neat feature. You start out with one town, but later on you can expand into surrounding territory. The tutorial is short and only covers the battle portion of the game, leaving the city building aspect of Saga to pop-up windows.

Managing your town is akin to a classic city builder. You will need to produce resources (gold, wood, food, stone) in order to afford new buildings. Each of these resources is produced by a specific building (mines or farms) and getting your basic economy going allows you to construct defensive structures and more advanced buildings that enable more advanced units. All of the construction in Saga takes place in real time, so if you queue a new building it will be finished in a couple of hours (a good thing to do before you logoff for the night). Your peasants, the population of which is dictated by the number of houses present in your settlement, can be assigned to gather resources at resource-producing buildings, police against attacks, or pray to increase your god favor (used to cast spells during battles). You can also tax your population to increase gold income, but make sure you are feeding them well enough or they will leave your establishment. Sustaining a balanced economy is simply a matter of constructing the right buildings and the process is very straightforward and almost trivial. If you are short on resources, you can trade in the market, exchanging gold for the other commodities. You can also offer unneeded cards to other players; since each city focuses on only one of the realms, all of the other cards you own are extraneous and can be exchanged for more appropriate cards to round out your army. Unfortunately, most of the proposed trades in the market are for single cards and you’ll have to scroll through thousands of trades to find an appealing choice. Like most online games, players can organize themselves into guilds to increase plunder gained from victories and battle against other guilds for supremacy. Towns developed by other players can be raided as well. The city management aspect of Saga is a good distraction from the quests and battles. While it would not be enough to function as a stand-alone game, running your town is a welcome feature to the game.

Most of your time will be spent completing quests, as they are a way of getting small amounts of resources and giving experience to your troops (experience can also be gained through training but it’s very expensive). Before you enter a battle, you should organize your army. You are limited (by your overall experience level) in the number of troops you can deploy at once and how many total troops you can bring along as reserves. The cap is very small when you start out, so you’ll only be able to field about three units and bring around 20 total. As you can imagine, this severely limits your strategic options and makes the combat for new players quite bland. Units can be outfitted with weapons and armor you have collected in quests, although not all weapons can be used by all troops. The items give small attack or defense ratings that make a small difference in combat.

The quests in Saga have repetitive goals (either kill everything or capture buildings after killing everything). The quests are different for each realm, however, and the difficulty seems to match well with the level the game suggests. You can replay levels on more difficult settings (silver and gold levels); replays involve more powerful enemies but more desirable loot. While replaying a quest does sound quite repetitive, new quests are unlocked frequently enough (assuming you keep winning) where it’ll be a while before you need to cycle through them again. The quest map shows the locations of new quests, but it takes some time to find the actual locations since the bronze color for bronze quests camouflages into the color of the map; a simple list of quests would be quicker to navigate.

The combat in Saga is pretty typical for a strategy game: pick a formation, move troops around, and attack. Each unit (which is actually a group of individual units, much like the Total War series) can be assigned a formation that is designed to defend against specific attacks. For example, melee defense will grant increased defensive ratings against melee troops, but then units will be susceptible to ranged attacks. Because of this trade-off, it’s better to have a mixed set of troops attack enemy units so they cannot take advantage of formations. Flanking is also a desirable maneuver: units that are surrounded will suffer exaggerated morale hits and subsequently die more quickly. The AI in Saga is very basic: it sends troops directly at you and occasionally uses a flanking maneuver. Of course, the combat in Saga isn’t exactly the most advanced in the world, but the AI is easily defeated if they have comparable troops. Later quests will prove to be more difficult as the AI gets more (both in terms of quantity and quality) troops and you’re stuck with the same ones since the booster packs only give one or two useful troops each. You’ll get to the point where you simply can’t win, and you’ll have to replace defeated troops with new booster troops and eventually fall behind the curve. Not helping this fact is the watch towers that populate most maps are very, very powerful. They, like most buildings, have high health and it’s easier to capture the structure than to destroy it. While you are capturing it, however, your units are taking damage and the watch towers can easily annihilate entire squads if they consist of 5 or less units. Beating the AI and winning a mission but losing because of watch towers is not very enjoyable, and I’ve lost a number of missions simply because of this. Troops die very easily; I would guess this is on purpose, since you’ll need to spend more money on booster packs (the game has no monthly fee, so this is where the income is derived). You can play human opponents in player-versus-player battles where you take on their town. The game doesn't tell you opponent's level when joining a match so you can easily be outmatched and lose a lot of troops. Still, the PvP battles are more interesting since humans (generally speaking) perform more intelligently than the computer.

Saga is a good idea and the potential is there, but the game just isn’t fun enough due to a slow start and random (and inadequate) troop recruitment. The initial unit limits make all of the battles small, uninteresting skirmishes. Booster packs are a good idea, but you get so many useless cards and the trading interface is poorly organized. I like the city building mode, as its serves as an entertaining distraction and also an important battle element when PvP contests are fought. The strategic controls are clearly designed for novice players, as simple formation stances are the only components to choose from. Winning a battle seems to be somewhat reliant on luck, as you must deploy appropriate troops since you are very limited in your selection. You could do a better job countering enemy units if you were given a bigger selection to start out with: three units is not exactly an imposing force and doesn’t lend itself to advanced tactical maneuvers or strategic planning. Since the game relies so heavily on getting the right random cards, you really need to sink a lot of time and/or money in Saga to make the game fun. Once you have played the game for a while, Saga does get enjoyable when you start fielding a lot of varied units, but this does take a while. Saga is geared towards novice players (not that there is anything wrong with that) with simplified combat and simplified city management, so more experienced gamers will likely grow bored of this title before the game becomes more interesting later on. Saga is one of those games that sounds good on paper, but a couple of design decisions make the overall product less fun.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Audiosurf Review

Audiosurf, developed by Dylan Fitterer and published on Steam.
The Good: Great use of user-supplied music, addictive gameplay, adapts most genres of music well, simple controls, essentially infinite replayability, online scoreboard, ludicrously low price
The Not So Good: No playlist options
What say you? Just listening to music is passé once you experience this fantastic puzzle game: 8/8

MP3s have certainly thrust the music industry head-on (apply directly to the forehead) into the computer industry. With people able to fit thousands of songs on their computer and portable players, the delivery of music has changed from dingy stores to futuristic online marketplaces. If everyone has all of this music on their PC, why not make a game around it? We’ve seen music-based games that have utilized licensed (or emulated) tracks in the console Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, but not really anything that took the consumer’s already existing collection. Well, here comes Audiosurf, a game that does the thing I was just talking about. Coincidence? I think not! Audiosurf adapts sound files and converts them into a puzzle game. Does it make for a fun fusion of music and gaming?

Audiosurf uses a simple 3-D setting, but the way it incorporates your music makes the graphics compelling. Each song is converted into a track: uphill sections represent slow parts of the song, and downhill sections represent fast tempo. You are collecting “cars” (represented by simple colored blocks) along the way in order to make matches and score points. While the game may not be a technical marvel, Audiosurf certainly does a good job matching the road, the background, and special effects to the current song. The view also adjusts to which lane your ship is in, making the game easier to navigate. Audiosurf looks no worse than your standard matching game, and while the simple 3-D interface may not have the background detail that music games such as Guitar Hero have, most of the time you aren’t paying attention to what’s happening away from the track anyway. The game does not like to be alt-tabbed (it takes a couple of seconds for the graphics to reset) and the menu system is rudimentary at best, but Audiosurf functions well enough. Audiosurf contains the best soundtrack you can imagine: yours!!!!(LOL!!!)! Being a release on Steam, the game also comes with the soundtracks for essentially all of the Half-Life games. While most of these songs are basically generic background music, you do get the increasingly famous “Still Alive” song from the end credits of Portal, which everyone seems to have an unhealthy obsession with.

Audiosurf is a puzzle game that uses sound files to generate each level. You pilot a ship at the bottom of the screen and capture colored blocks as they come towards you, trying to make matches of three or more. The abilities of your craft depend on the mode you choose. Mono has you collecting all colored blocks and avoiding grey blocks, and the rest of the modes have you matches blocks of different colors. Pointman is the classic matching mode, Vegas allows you to randomly arrange your blocks (to potentially get matches), Eraser lets you choose a single color to remove, and Pusher picks up blocks and puts them in another row. There is also a Double Vision mode for two players on the same computer (no online play). The tutorial does a decent job teaching the mechanics to new players, though I found the constant interruptions to be jarring (bordering on annoying). It probably would have been better to display hints in the corner of the screen instead of pausing the action every five seconds or so during the tutorial. Still, it’s not like Audiosurf is the most complicated game in the world to play. The control sensitivity is adjustable, and playing the game with the mouse is the preferred method, giving the user precise control over their ship.

Audiosurf lets you choose any song in MP3, CD, OGG, or iTunes format (though iTunes songs must be burned before they can be played…they can’t let us actually own our music). It then converts the song into a level, where the blocks match the lyrics and instruments and the undulations of the track match the tempo. Most songs work very well in the game: there is certainly a difference in playing slow versus fast songs. Songs that have mixed or well-defined rhythms work really well, and it feels like you are actually playing the song. There are basic difficulty settings that adjust the available of “emergency lanes” and how many notes are converted to blocks, and some songs are just more difficult than others. Scoring is done by making matches; obviously the more blocks that are matched, the higher your score will climb. Blocks gathered during fast song portions (red and yellow) are worth more points than the boring blocks (blue and purple). To help you out, the multi-colored modes come with a number of power-ups along the way that can fill in the grid with a single color, attempt to make matches automatically, or otherwise help you out on your quest for musical dominance. You will also get very important bonuses at the end of a song if you finish with no blocks in your tray, collecting almost all yellow or red blocks (fast song parts), or not hitting a grey block in Mono mode. I’ve found that the points compare well across the different game modes, and it’s just up to you as to which style is most desirable. Personally, I like the straightforward Mono modes: if it’s colored, get it.

Audiosurf keeps a high score list of every song ever played. If you are good enough, you might get the global high score for a particular song, and the game will e-mail you if your score is ever beaten by another player. The in-game scoreboards also display the path and time of other players to prevent cheating (suspicious high scores can be reported with a simple mouse click). Audiosurf also keeps track of the most popular songs, and you can search songs by artist name as well. Audiosurf certainly is an addictive game, and you’ll certainly want to try out most (if not all) of the games in your library to see how they play. Then you’ll want to perfect your technique and own all of the high score. Checking your e-mail and seeing that someone has beaten your score on your song results in immediate retribution. There is always time for one more song, even if it’s past your bedtime.

In short (too late), Audiosurf is brilliant. It has essentially infinite replay value thanks to the ability to easily import user content with great results. All genres of music I have played (from ska-punk to Old MacDonald Had A Farm) have translated well, with changes in tone and individual beats being emulated convincingly. The controls are tight and the mechanics are easy to learn. The system requirements are so low that almost everyone can enjoy this game. Audiosurf makes you want to play some of those old CDs you have and see if others have attempted the same songs. This is one of those games that you can play for five minutes, but then five minutes turns into a couple of hours. There is really only one complaint: the inability to create a playlist. You can do songs from the same folder in order, but there are no other options (like a shuffled list) to keep the music playing. But that’s a very minor complaint in what otherwise is a fantastic game. Do you like music? Do you like computer games? (Do you like nachos?) Then get Audiosurf! Oh, and it’s only $10. I got far more than $10 worth of enjoyment out of this quality game. Audiosurf is well worth your time and money.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball Review

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, developed and published by Wolverine Studios.
The Good: Improved interface puts more information on one screen, enhanced player relationships and communication both on and off the court, play editor, better game day graphics, dirty tactics available for recruiting, even more historical stats
The Not So Good: Essentially no autosaving, hokey sound effects, needs more positive player interactions, more default plays would be nice, interested recruits need to be really interested
What say you? A deep sports management game gets needed upgrades in key areas: 7/8

It’s that time of the year again: when your carefully crafted brackets go down in flames (except for mine, of course). Yes, we are in the midst of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, where sixty-five teams vie for ultimate supremacy. Of course, I know I could do a better job than any of those highly paid coaches in reaching the Final Four, and that’s why we have Draft Day Sports: College Basketball. In this sequel to personal favorite Total College Basketball, you take the helm as the head coach of any of the 337 Division I-A schools. While Total College Basketball was a quality product, there is always room for improvement and enhancement; will Draft Day Sports: College Basketball expand upon the original enough to make us go back to the court?

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball looks like Total College Basketball got two additional years of work, which is essentially what happened. While this game is a management title, so you won’t be expecting enhanced 3-D graphics with realistic sweat dripping off the players, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball does feature some nice touches for the genre. The actual games have been improved upon, featuring more detailed player icons that are sized according to the player attributes. Also new is a health bar to give a good indication of exhausted athletes. The court can now take up the entire screen, provide more detail than the more simplified version present in Total College Basketball. The other main area of improvement has to do with the user interface: the developers have put more information on a single screen, taking advantage of higher resolutions and using the extra room to reduce the amount of page switching from the previous title. One of the problems with Total College Basketball was that you had to scour several different pages to do simple actions (especially during recruiting); this is greatly alleviated in Draft Day Sports: College Basketball. This game is much easier to handle and I’ll never go back to the “old” interface. As for the sound, it is not very good. There are only very basic effects during games, and they are very repetitive. While the ambiance is good, the whistles and crowd reactions all use the same sound over and over again, making the games much less realistic. Also, the opening theme music is an amateurish college band theme that is annoying the first time you hear it (the horns are not in sync with the rest of the band). It would be nice to customize which ones to use rather then turning them all on or off, since some of the sounds are useful during games, but the effects are very repetitive and the theme music is downright annoying. It’s an all-or-nothing affair with the single sound option. The sound notwithstanding, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball features an appropriate level of upgrades in terms of presentation from the original game.

Since Draft Day Sports: College Basketball shares a lot of similarities with Total College Basketball, you should familiarize yourself with that review first (there will be a quiz on it later) since I will mostly talk about the improvements (or lack thereof) present in this iteration. Creating a new single player or multiplayer game (yeah, online leagues) is generally the same, although there are a couple of new options available. You can now enable illegal recruiting: offering bribes to low-income recruits may reel them in, but repercussions (like getting fired) may be felt down the road. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you the options to create pretty much any league you would like: importing roster files, allowing for conference team movement, limiting the ratings you are able to access to make success more realistic (and difficult), and allowing underclassmen to declare for the pro draft. Speaking of the pro draft, you can export a draft class to use in the professional version of this game (coincidentally titled Draft Day Sports: Pro Basketball). Draft Day Sports: College Basketball features fictitious teams, but you can download real teams that users have made. It should also be noted that Draft Day Sports: College Basketball doesn't include the CBI, but nobody cares about that third-tier tournament anyway. Your coaching avatar can be assigned levels of ambition, academics, discipline, and integrity. You can also customize your skill ratings (offense, defense, recruiting, scouting, developing), or choose a level of proficiency (from low-level coach to elite) and randomize the distribution. Depending on how good you are, you are then presented with a list of schools you can coach and the game begins. Each school has different goals (from winning ten games to getting a national championship) that are realistic for each situation. You can now create protégés to control after your coach retires/dies, letting you play in the same universe for longer periods of time.

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you a bevy of information in the form of numerous reports and stats. Most of the in-game action can be done through your office. New features include the ability to call recruits and players and the play editor. The level of interaction has been increased: now you can call up any prospective or current player and discuss team priorities, game roles and strategies, academics, and behavior. These options give you more direct control over the course of your program, but not too much control where the element of surprise is removed. Handing down a suspension for behavior or telling a recruit to study more to avoid academic penalties increases your responsibilities and makes playing Draft Day Sports: College Basketball more satisfying. Most of the call options are negative, however, so I would like to have more positive interactions (such as praising a player for winning a weekly award, for example). Also new is the ability to design your own plays. While I have almost no idea how real basketball plays should be run, people more familiar with the X’s and O’s of the hard court should be able to take advantage of this new tool that seems to work well. Because of my novice experience in this area, I would have liked the developers to include some plays beyond the basic ones that were also included in Total College Basketball. The rest of the office options let you check out the upcoming games, see the current news (which includes polls and bubble team reports), pre-season magazines, receive pertinent e-mail, and check out any previous games. One option I would like to have is to automatically save your progress at the beginning of each week. You game is auto-saved only twice during the year, and I would like the choice to increase this frequency, since the occasional crash can serious hamper your day if it happens right after you beat a top 25 team and right before you save.

The first thing you’ll be doing is recruiting, and the interface has been greatly improved. Instead of having to switch between five displays (how annoying that was), everything is on one master screen. You can also scroll through the recruits with the keyboard and quickly put them on your call list with a simply hot-key. While Draft Day Sports: College Basketball should save recruiting display settings from the last time you used the screen (do I really have to select “national” players that are “on call list” every single week?), the interface is so much better this time around and I don’t dread the nuances of recruiting anymore. I would also like the “interested” option to only include players that have you in their top-10 choices; how it is now requires a lot of work seeing who you have a shot at. In addition, the call options let you plan your pitches when you visit recruits much better. Most of the league options remain the same: see the current standings, statistical leaders, historical stats, and even search through the records. Player information sheets have been upgraded with star ratings, which prove to be very useful in determining the best players on the team (though I would like to be able to sort by them). The remainder of the league and team options are the same as before (great): Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you all of the information and options you need to take your program to the next level.

Actually playing a game has seen some improvements. If you chose to simulate the games, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball does an excellent job quickly generating plausible results with believable statistics (even if you don’t have a fast computer); you don’t have to worry about the AI “screwing it up” if you are not there to directly make game-time decisions. In addition to the improved icons I mentioned earlier, you can now have the court display take up the entire screen or half it with the statistical information. Personally, I like to see the actual numbers for stamina instead of the simple bars under each player, so I normally play with the half-and-half view. The in-game ticker that displays out of town scores makes the games seem more genuine. I still play the game on high speed settings (I find 6 to be slow; I can’t imagine playing at 3 or 1) but 10 is fast enough for getting through boring stretches when you cant’ really do anything. Besides the ability to call plays you have designed in the play editor, you can now motivate individual players or the entire team. The options are basic (scream, concerned, or praise), but they are more than enough to make the game feel more like real coaching. While I certainly like this feature, I would also like to motivate players during media timeouts and not just during the five (ten if you count both teams) team timeouts. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you the strategic options through the play sets, pace, rebounding, and substitutions to tailor your team to your design, and it’s quite fun to guide a program from humble roots to national prominence, and then leave them for a big money contract. Total College Basketball was a quality simulation and Draft Day Sports: College Basketball is even better: the improvements made with two years of additional development alleviate much of the pains associated with the original game and this iteration is definitely recommended for owners of the previous title. Of course, gamers new to the series have no choice as Total College Basketball is no longer available for sale, but no worries as Draft Day Sports: College Basketball delivers a quality basketball coaching experience.

I was initially skeptical of Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, since, on the surface, it appears to be almost identical to Total College Basketball. But, the more you play it, the more the improvements come through and ultimately make for a much more polished and playable game. Putting more features on one screen is a very welcome feature, making the game not annoying to control. The sheer amount of teams makes for high replay value, and online leagues sweeten the deal even more. Giving the coach more direct interaction with players is also nice, letting you suspend problem players and tailor offensive strategies for star players. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball throws even more data at you, but all of the information is accessible and organized well. There are a couple of small areas that could be improved (autosave frequency, positive interactions, more plays) but these issues are so minor that I can’t resist the urge to grant this game the seal of approval. People who don’t like text-based sports management games won’t have their mind changed, but Draft Day Sports: College Basketball is still a great title. If you like college basketball or quality management games, then you can’t go wrong with Draft Day Sports: College Basketball.

Oh yeah, the quiz on the Total College Basketball. OK, take out a sheet of paper and put your name in the upper right-hand corner. Question number one:
The “evil empire” I refer to in the review is:
(a) Electronic Arts
(b) Rosie O’Donnell
(c) FEMA
(d) the ASPCA
Answers are on the back.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DarkSide Review

DarkSide, developed and published by Pi Eye Games.
The Good: Innovative orbital combat, multiple game modes, varied game objectives, lots of action, plentiful power-ups
The Not So Good: Can get repetitive
What say you? A hectic space action game that takes an orbital approach: 6/8

Classic arcade shooters were presented in 2-D, mainly because that’s all the processors at the time could handle. Blowing up wave after wave of enemy forces has fully made the move into a three dimensional realm, though a lot of the core gameplay remains the same. Most contemporary arcade shooters still maintain simple 2-D geometry with infused 3-D graphics, not really making the jump to a full 3-D game. Certainly few games (if any) take advantage of orbital dynamics, but with games such as Super Mario Galaxy, the door is wide open to restrict the action to a spherical surface. DarkSide is one of those games, a classic shoot-things arcade title but with a twist: you are bound to the asteroid or planet each level takes place on, and so are your enemies and weapons. Will this unique take on the classic shooter game prove to be entertaining?

The graphics of DarkSide are pretty good. The asteroids you orbit are nicely textured, and the models of the various objects you protect and alien aircraft you fight are well done. The weapons effects are convincingly powerful: when tons of missiles and lasers fill the screen, the pure destruction at your disposal shines through. The setting is generally dark (that’s the whole DarkSide thing) so it can be difficult to spot certain objects, but I think this is by design. It is also tricky to determine whether objects on the horizon are power-ups or enemy ships, since they both appear to be flat when viewed from the side. Other than those small issues, however, DarkSide is a visually striking game. On the sound side of things, you are going to get appropriate effects and background music: pretty typical stuff for the genre. So overall, DarkSide does not disappoint in its presentation.

DarkSide is a classic 2-D arcade shooter, except the action takes place on a spherical surface. The game features three game modes: a campaign with 100 missions, an arcade mode with a limited number of lives, and a survival mode with infinite enemies. Although each of the missions in the game have the same general objective (shoot stuff), the specifics are different: goals include destroying asteroids, defending power stations or launch pads for a set period of time, or preventing goods from being stolen (like Defender). Controls are done through a combination of the mouse and keyboard: your ship will face towards your cursor, left-click shoots, right-click moves forward, and the WASD keys can be used for strafing. Piloting your ship is straightforward, which is good since DarkSide focuses heavily on combat.

Like any good arcade shooter, DarkSide has copious amounts of enemies to shoot at and lots of weapons to shoot at them with. Defeated enemy units will occasionally drop power-ups that will unlock more nefarious weaponry: 3-way blasters, rear blasters (make your own diarrhea joke here), smart bombs, missile launchers, and powerful lasers. You will also occasionally enjoy extra ammunition as well as shield refills. Each of the weapons has a finite amount of ammunition, so DarkSide isn’t simply holding down the fire button as you fly around: you should actually aim in order to maximize your destruction. While most of the weapons are well-balanced, the lasers are almost too powerful, disposing of enemy units in a matter of seconds (this also conserves ammunition, making lasers last a long time). The asteroids you are defending have terrain and buildings, meaning you will have to take some care piloting around each of the game’s levels as running into solid objects tends to damage your ship (who knew?). Since weapons will orbit around the planet (which is pretty cool), you can accomplish some neat shots from a distance. While DarkSide might not break any new ground in the genre, it is a fun and fast-paced action shooter that provides enough unique thrills to make it a notable title.

Is the spherical setting enough to make DarkSide stand out? Actually, yes, it is. If the game were to take place on a conventional 2-D landscape, then DarkSide would just be yet another arcade shooter. But the orbital dynamic of DarkSide makes it somewhat unique, and the varied level design (with obstacles) means games don’t get completely repetitive. Even shooting enemy units has a slice of strategy in it, as conserving ammunition will result in more kills. The controls are very straightforward, and although the mission objectives are constant, you won’t notice much as you are hurling lots of firepower at enemy ships. While DarkSide won’t convert anyone that doesn’t enjoy endless shooting, it is an enjoyable game for fans of the genre that takes advantage of its setting.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spuds Review

Spuds, developed and published by Bog Turtle Games.
The Good: Challenging strategic gameplay, very lengthy and detailed tutorial, well-designed user interface with easy-to-use commands, lots of weapons and behaviors to choose from, good sense of humor
The Not So Good: No skirmish maps or level editor (beyond the training ground), no manual, correctly programming units can be tricky
What say you? A thought-provoking strategy game that requires you to program the AI: 6/8

One of the hardest things to do in computer gaming is to program a convincing artificial intelligence opponent. Making the CPU behave like a human is one of the hallmarks of a well-designed game. Of course, life would be a lot easier if developers left the programming up to the end user, and that’s what Spuds has done. There apparently have been games that have done this in the past (though I am not familiar with any of them), but combining strategy and puzzle gameplay elements is an interesting proposition. But if the game is too much like actual programming, then even a novel idea would fall flat. Is Spuds a French fry of victory, or a baked potato of defeat?

Spuds is in 3-D, but you won’t really notice unless you zoom in really far. There are some aspects of the game that are detailed, such as the spud models and the weapons fire. However, the game world is quite bland with very low-resolution textures and archaic rocks and trees. The spud models almost look out of place since they look so much better than the environment they traverse through. That said, the game is functional and pretty easy to handle, since you don’t have to worry about rotating the camera since it is fixed in one of three positions (top-down, isometric, ground-level). The game’s overall theme is very reminiscent of Dodge That Anvil!, with a slight cartoon feel to the design. The sound fares better: while the battle sounds are pretty generic, every tutorial instruction (and there are a lot of them) is voiced. This is pretty impressive, as a lot of big-budget games don’t include complete voice acting. I always like to hear the directions while I am reading them, so this feature is appreciated. In addition, the avatar in the game giving the instructions matches the instructions with his mouth animations, something a lot of big-budget games also miss. So while the graphics of Spuds are unimpressive as a whole, there are a couple of nice touches present in the game that shows care was put into the presentation.

Spuds contains a very lengthy single-player campaign that contains tutorial missions that teach you everything about the game, one new concept at a time. The first thing you’ll notice is the sense of humor: from the loading screen (referring to the game’s “spiffy weapons” and “technically unbelievable arena”) to the in-game theme, Spuds certainly has a playful atmosphere. Spuds has the most comprehensive tutorial I can remember, introducing the user to each new concept slowly through the campaign and giving fully-voiced instructions. For the non-tutorial missions, you will design spuds in the training ground (more on that process later) and then select your units and beginning formation for the upcoming mission. After they beam down to the planet surface, you have no control over your troops and you have to rely on your programming and planning skills. Spuds also comes with online play: one-on-one deathmatches using spuds you have created during the single-player campaign. You can play over a LAN or register your server for matchmaking purposes.

Most of your time will be spent in the training ground designing spuds. The interface is great: mouse-driven with clear icons. There will be no typing of commands in Spuds, as all of your behaviors are programmed using the mouse and clicking on icons and locations. For each spud, you will choose their chassis, weapon, and various behaviors they will exhibit around specified objects. The selection of weapons is intended to cover all possible enemy encounters: long-range lasers, short-range shotguns, suicide bombers, flamethrowers, and field generators. After choosing a weapon, you’ll need to dictate what your spud will do. You can set general movement commands or actions to perform around specified objects like trees, rocks, and enemy units. Actions include firing, turning, and moving. You can also spell out orders for different terrain (grass, swamp, lava). The combination of all these things makes for an entertaining game. There are so many combinations you can make that the possibilities are essentially infinite. For example, you can make a missile launcher spud that will fire upon injured enemy units, move right when they encounter a tree, stop if reloading, and avoid lava by turning around. And this just scratches the surface of what is possible using the flexible command interface. The developers have a particular solution in mind when they design each level (usually the thing they just taught you in the previous tutorial), but there can be alternative ways of completing the objectives. Most of the solutions are intuitive, and difficulty results from forgetting one behavior or choosing the wrong composition of troops for a mission. If you fail, the game will give you vague to specific clues on how to advance through the campaign. You will probably end up with hundreds of spud designs once you have finished with the campaign, and though replay value is pretty low since Spuds lacks skirmish maps, you can program enemies in the training grounds for some interesting scenarios. You can tailor your force even further by choosing upgrades to their stats, although most of the time all of the categories will be maxed out. Still, Spuds is a fun game of experimentation.

Spuds provides enough content, through the extensive campaign and plentiful behaviors, to make most strategy fans happy. The gradual method in which Spuds introduces new commands is appreciated, because if a new player encountered all of the orders at the beginning, heads would explode. The comprehensive nature of the tutorials (complete with voiced instructions) makes learning each aspect of Spuds straightforward. The possible designs you can create are varied and allows for multiple solutions for a single puzzle, although the developers clearly have one answer in mind. Once you are done with the campaign, you can enjoy some online gaming or mess around with the training ground; I would like to see a skirmish mode with randomly generated enemies, but that is a small complaint. Overall, Spuds is a solid strategy game that successfully marries diverse gameplay, robust content, and a well-designed interface.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Circulate Review

Circulate, developed by Pi Eye Games and published by Slave Circus Entertainment.
The Good: High replay value due to multiple winning approaches and numerous obstacles, good tutorials, unique and straightforward gameplay, lots of levels that don’t have to be completed in exact order
The Not So Good: Controls take some practice and aren’t terribly precise, some levels are extremely difficult
What say you? An entertaining gravity-based rotational puzzle game: 6/8

With all of the puzzle games on the market, you really need to have a unique idea in order to differentiate yourself from the crowd. There are tons of match-three titles out there, but more games are adding unique elements to spice up the gameplay. Faster processors have meant more believable physics, and puzzle games are slowly adding realistic gravitation as integral parts of their designs. Add Circulate to that list, a game where you must rotate a level to maneuver objects, kind of like those labyrinth games that make you tilt a maze to guide a ball to the exit, except here the “tilt” is always down. Sounds neat, but is it fun?

The graphics of Circulate are basic; that said, they still don’t look too terrible. The various levels have a generic feel that don’t make you immediately think of the game. The levels themselves are easy to navigate, and the colored balls are brightly colored. There are some nice effects in Circulate, such as when objects enter a black hole, but in general the game has a very simple and uninteresting look to it. The sound is similar: basic effects that accompany the in-game action. On the plus side, the entire game is around 30 MB in size, a far cry from the many memory-hungry titles that populate the market. Circulate also performs very well because of the lack of graphical excellence, so everyone should be able to run the game.

In Circulate, you circulate the map (who would have thought?). By doing this, you will (hopefully) match up balls and/or guide them to their goals, all the while avoid (or using) objects along the way. The game comes with 120 levels, including some introductory tutorial levels that introduce new objects one at a time. The game isn’t hard to understand and pretty much everyone will get the hand of it after the first couple of levels. Plus, Circulate gives very explicit directions before each level that lead you in the right direction. The levels provide a good amount of variety over the course of the game, with plenty of dangerous objects intended to impede your success. Depending on how fast you complete each level, you will get assigned a star rating (from one to five). These stars are used to unlock future levels; this means you don’t have to play each level in order and you can skip past a difficult one. This is a very nice feature because a lot of the levels in the game are extremely difficult. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between a five star and a one star rating; I usually end up getting one or the other. It would be nice to actually see the time breaks for each grouping.

Part of the reason Circulate is so difficult is the control scheme. You must hold down the right mouse button and rotate the mouse in a circle in order to rotate the map. This seems pretty intuitive, but I had a really tough time getting the map to do what I wanted. Many times, I would move the mouse to the left or right and it would swing the puzzle in a crazy direction, destroying all of the hard work I had done. Although it might not make much spatial sense, I would much rather be able to move the mouse in one direction and have it keep rotating. For example, moving the mouse continuously to the right would cause the puzzle to rotate clockwise. As it is now, you need to move the mouse in a circular pattern and this simply does not give the user the precision required to finish the game’s more difficult levels. Even though the controls “make sense” in their current arrangement, more options would be nice since I can’t seem to successfully employ the present scheme.

Puzzles in Circulate are mostly populated by balls. You can win each puzzle by guiding the balls to their color-coded container, matching all of the balls of the same color together, or mutually destroying them (in the case of fire and ice). The introductory levels may be simple mazes that only need to be turned to guide the balls to their home, but later levels introduce more objects into the mix. The left mouse button is used to activate objects that may be present, such as magnets that attract metallic balls, bombs, stop signs, and movers that cause balls to follow your mouse. To complicate things even further, you may also have to deal with balls that disregard the laws of gravity. Also, some levels restrict the amount you are able to rotate a level, and crystal sphere can only drop a short distance before breaking. And there are even shapes, doors, black holes, and force fields that can disrupt your plans. Circulate really has a lot of content when it could have stopped with the simple rotation gimmick. Circulate is also one of the most challenging puzzle games I have ever played, so veterans looking for a worthy competitor will not be disappointed. The difficulty may be due, in part, to the iffy controls, but most of it is due to the intricate, but not impossible, level design.

If the controls were a bit more polished (or tweaked to my specifications), then I could fully recommend Circulate. I suspect that not everyone will experience the trials I did when dealing with rotating the puzzles, but the inexact nature of the controls contributes to making Circulate more frustrating than it needs to be. Overall, Circulate has all of the ingredients you need for a successful game: a unique idea, lots of objects to provide variety, and tons of levels to play through. I like how the game allows you to skip past annoying levels, which allows me to forgive some of the control issues. Circulate certainly falls into the old cliché of “easy to learn, hard to master.” It’s always nice to play something different that all those click management and match-3 games that populate the puzzle genre, and the rotational mechanics of Circulate certainly are just that. Circulate breathes some fresh air into a typically bland and repetitive genre.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spaceforce Captains Review

Spaceforce Captains, developed by Dreamatrix Game Studios and published by Dreamcatcher Interactive.
The Good: Easy to find and organize ships, three campaigns are fairly lengthy
The Not So Good: Horrible tutorial and manual, only eight maps (and four for multiplayer), uninteresting tactical battles, useless minimap, can’t tell if you’ve visited neutral structures, can’t change screen resolution, can’t issue move orders into unexplored terrain, plentiful resources means no management strategy, long load times
What say you? A very unpolished turn based strategy game: 4/8

Space-based strategy games are extremely popular. From Sins of a Solar Empire to Galactic Civilizations to Lost Empire to Sword of the Stars to Galactic Dream, we PC gamers sure like blowing stuff up in the final frontier (Alaska?). The developer behind SpaceForce: Rogue Universe has changed names and switched gears from adventure to strategy with Spaceforce Captains, a turn-based strategy game that focuses on captains (surprise!) commanding fleets of units. How will the game stack up against quality titles already in the genre?

The graphics of Spaceforce Captains are disappointing, to say the least. The game is played in 2-D but the universe is in 3-D, populated by a lot of asteroids to block your path. The developer was going for more restricted movement, but the amount of garbage that populates the maps, from huge asteroids to ancient relics, is laughable and confusing to new players. You can have choke points in space without silly-looking obstacles (see Sins of a Solar Empire). The maps don’t look like space, other than having space-based textures and models. The game maps would be more suited towards land-based exploration than free-form space. The graphics don’t look good either: Spaceforce Captains is filled with blocky textures and poorly detailed models. On top of that, you can’t change the screen resolution, so Spaceforce Captains looks really bad on anything larger than a 15” monitor. All of these poor graphics comes at a price, for some reason, as Spaceforce Captains features some of the longest load times I can remember: two full minutes for a small map? A seemingly more complicated map in Call of Duty 4 takes a fraction of the time to play. The sound design is not too good either: the background music is overdramatic and the effects are generic at best. At least the game features fully-voiced story text, though most of the time you’ll be hearing repetitive battle sounds. SpaceForce: Rogue Universe had awesome graphics, so it’s really surprising that Spaceforce Captains looks and sounds so awful.

Spaceforce Captains is a turn-based strategy game where you maneuver your forces around a map, conduct research, and take everyone over. The game comes with three campaigns (for each of the game’s races) that provide a decent amount of content. The level of difficulty is pretty high: just like in SpaceForce: Rogue Universe, the first mission features really tough enemies that are almost impossible to beat without a little luck. Why this developer seems so set on making their games tough on beginners is beyond me. After you are done with these, you are given a scant eight maps for single missions, and only four of those can be used for one-on-one multiplayer. You don’t get to pick sides for the scenarios, either, as they just load after you have chosen the map. The lack of random maps and an editor (though one is planned for a future patch) means Spaceforce Captains has much less content than most strategy games. The fact that all of the maps are in 2-D and could easily be created (either manually or automatically) makes having only eight total maps a travesty. The tutorial is utter rubbish, making Spaceforce Captains difficult to learn. The game provides tutorial objectives, but after the third message told me to pan the camera to a fogged area, I never received another instruction. Way to inform the masses! The bare-bones manual that really only covers the interface means I had no idea what the hell I was doing most of the time. When a lot of basic questions (like what cursors mean, how to make new ships, et cetera) are left unanswered, you have a big problem on your hands.

The best aspect of the interface is that every captain and space station is easily accessible from the main screen. Well, most of the time: clicking on the space station button sometimes doesn’t do anything, so that’s pretty awesome. Everything else is poorly designed, however. The minimap seems broken: all it has are faint blue squares against a starry background, with no indications of usable paths or other objects. I hope it’s a bug.
Every order is done with the left mouse button and captains are automatically selected, meaning you can actually select objects without issuing a move order to your captain as you can’t de-select anything. Move orders can’t be made into unexplored territory, so there’s more unnecessary micromanagement. There is a lot of stuff to find, mainly resources and buildings that provide experience or other stat increases, but the game doesn’t indicate which neutral buildings you’ve explored. There’s nothing like pointless clicking to make a game fun.

Like Advanced Tactics and Forge of Freedom, Spaceforce Captains features “containers” that automatically create groups of units. In this case, the container is the captain. Each captain is rated in terms of attack, defense, power, and technology skills. They are also given a specialty that is not given a tool-tip so you don’t know what it is. Experience gained by blowing stuff up can be used to gain new skills, which is cool. The grouping in the game makes it very easy to handle units, as they must be assigned to a captain. Actually assigning units to a captain should be easier (there is no drag-and-drop method) but the result is that a large force can be handled with relative ease. Everything is done at space stations under your control. You use your resources to construct new factories and defenses, research buildings, trade structures, and recruit new captains. You have to build specific factories to unlock more powerful ships to assign to your captains. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out how to get new ships: they become available at seemingly random intervals and, of course, the tutorial and manual don’t explain it. They have to become “available” before you can purchase them and I don’t know how to make them “available.” Talk about confusing. Research is equally weird: you unlock an entire tier of technologies all at once with a one-time fee. You have eight or so new things you have to learn about all at once, and there is absolutely no strategy involving which techs to research since you have to do all of them. There is also a trader available to acquire additional resources, although the sheer amount of money and resources available in the game is so large that management is almost non-existent. Spaceforce Captains removes all of the strategy from research, construction, and production.

You will need to engage enemy units in order to win the combat-heavy scenarios of Spaceforce Captains. You can get some intel about enemy forces by right-clicking on them, but the estimates are way off (it might say 10 ships but actually be 30). You can have enemies join your forces or at least be friendly, but this is very rare and depends on your captain’s diplomatic skills. The combat takes place on a 2-D grid map with no obstacles, which removes a lot of strategy (if the space maps can have asteroids in the way, why not battles?). You only have to worry about the range of weapons (short, medium, and long) and use technologies you have researched (of course, the tutorial and manual fair to explain how or when to use them). The turn order is apparently random, as sometimes you’ll go twice in a row and sometimes the enemy will. You will need to wait for the repetitive battle lasers and sounds to finish before you can issue orders. All you need to do is fire on enemy units; your cursor will change colors (red, blue, green) that indicates….well….I have no idea what they mean. If you lose one battle with your captain, you lose. If you retreat, you lose all of your ships. If you surrender, you pay a hefty price for keeping your fleet intact. This wouldn’t be so bad if they initial enemy estimates weren’t so wrong. I lost my second battle in the first campaign and consequently the game was over. Thanks for five minutes of gameplay, Spaceforce Captains.

I realize that not understanding a lot of Spaceforce Captains may be partially my fault, but when the manual stinks and the tutorial is broken, what do you expect? Sorry, I’m used to tutorials that actually explain game concepts. And I’m accustomed to strategy games in general, so I can’t imagine the troubles new players would encounter. The basic game concept is OK, it’s just the execution is really, really poor. Only eight maps. A useless minimap. A fixed screen resolution with surprisingly poor graphics and long load times. And a bunch of things that are left unexplained, like actually building new ships or what combat cursors mean or how to use technologies during combat. Spaceforce Captains plays like a game in early beta, not a finished retail product. The fact that this game got a retail release in Europe and Sins of a Solar Empire did not is a crime against humanity. The few unique concepts in Spaceforce Captains are heavily offset by a host of problems that makes playing the game frustrating at best: there are far better strategy games out there.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Imperium Romanum Review

Imperium Romanum, developed by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Media on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Multiple simultaneous campaign objectives, numerous scenarios, straightforward resource relationships, online high scores
The Not So Good: Limited historic and Rome campaigns, progressive campaign is absent, partial tutorial, confusing soldier controls, imprecise building placement, high score list rewards time over skill, not many overt differences from the previous game
What say you? The city builder series is back with some improvements and some issues: 5/8

Once an extremely popular genre, the city builder went through a sort of recession, but it’s back on its feet again with a number of recent releases. The developers of Glory of the Roman Empire are also back with a sequel of a different name in Imperium Romanum. The basics are still there: develop a thriving Rome-era city, balancing resources, providing for the citizens, and repelling incoming foes. What will (almost) two years of additional development produce?

Imperium Romanum looks, not surprising, like a slightly improved version of Glory of the Roman Empire. While the basic graphics are very similar, it appears that the level of detail has been cranked up with two more years of work. The individual buildings have higher-resolution textures. The environments look great and even more life-like, with reflective water and realistic mountainous terrain. The time of day effects are also well-done, and the graphics seem to perform well even at high settings. While the graphics are certainly reminiscent of Glory of the Roman Empire, the game does have an appropriate number of enhancements from that previous offering. The sound is functional: all of the tutorials and in-game missions are voiced, and the game gives recognizable indicators for events. The oddest part of the presentation is the background music: it doesn’t fit the Roman theme of the game well at all and seems extremely out of place. It almost ruins all of the work put into making a plausible gaming environment, but you can always turn it down and tune it out. While Imperium Romanum may not have the obscene level of detail present in other city builders, it does perform well for the price.

Since I did review Glory of the Roman Empire, I will spend most of the time noting the improvements (or lack thereof) in this title. For newcomers to the series, there is a tutorial that does a very bare-bones job at explaining the game. A lot of stuff is never explained in the tutorial, basically assuming you played Glory of the Roman Empire or read the manual (and who does that?). While the basics of the game are noted, the resource relationships, advanced citizen needs, and higher-level buildings aren’t even touched upon. Thankfully, the game includes a lot of tool-tips, but it’s still odd to leave a lot of the game out of the tutorials. The game modes are changed around a bit: instead of having the old campaign structure of linked scenarios (which I really liked), you are given a set of historical missions that are unlocked. In Glory of the Roman Empire, you would do a scenario in Rome, and then come back to your actual city with the buildings you placed two or three scenarios later. Imperium Romanum just features a bland, uninteresting, and typical campaign we’ve seen so many times before. There are a lot of free scenarios where you are not given specific goals other than creating a well-functioning city. You can also play the “Rome” mode, where you must place famous structures (the Coliseum) in an already-developed Rome; I found this to be quite boring, since you can do much (all the resource collection is already in place) and you just sit around and trade for resources to afford the large structures. Imperium Romanum does have an online high-score list that records global achievements for each scenario. The problem is that you can continue to play a scenario after you have fulfilled all of the objectives, so the online high score list is dominated by people who played a single scenario ten hours it was actually over. Thus, the high scores simply reward play time instead of skill. They should have locked the scores to be at the point at which you finished all of the objectives, but, alas, they did not.

The high-quality minimal interface present in Glory of the Roman Empire is back and slightly enhanced, as small icons for each of the building types are now accessible from the main right-click menu, so everything is now one click away. You do need to mouse over the category before seeing the mini-icons, but it’s a nice addition that further streamlines an already robust system. The overview of your community still uses the archaic economy and settlement windows; on-screen color-coded indicators would have been much more helpful. You cannot ascertain resource needs or citizen needs by just looking at the map, instead you have to click on a building such as the tavern or the forum (and you have to find them first). This should be a lot better, especially with two more years of refinement. I should be able to see how my city is doing from the main screen without having to delve into uninformative overview windows. It’s odd that Imperium Romanum has both great and poor features all in the same interface.

The best addition to the game is the tablet objectives. In the historical and Rome scenario modes, you can have up to three objectives at a time, displayed (with helpful tool-tips) in the corner of the screen. These objectives may range from placing specific buildings to optional missions that will grant a bonus. An advantage of this system is that completing objectives is now instantaneous (something I complained about before), helping the pace of the game immensely. You can also get events as an “objective,” like extra funds from the Senate or fires. It appears like these events are sadly not random, as playing through the same historical campaign produced the same events in the same order. Imagine how unpredictably cool that would be to have random events: are you sure you want to click on another tablet? The other disappointing thing is that tablets are completely absent from the free scenarios. Just like a lot of things in Imperium Romanum, the tablets have awesome potential that is only partially realized.

The core gameplay of Imperium Romanum is identical to Glory of the Roman Empire (so go read that review if you haven’t already): same resources, same buildings, same citizen needs. There are a couple of new wrinkles, but most of these are relatively minor enhancements. You can rush construction by investing money, sad and poor citizens will become criminals, families have income you can tax, and the military aspect of the game has been improved. You will generally play the game the same way, though: build houses, then build farms, then build factories, then build support structures (like altars or police or troops). The clear-cut resource management makes Imperium Romanum easy to play once you learn all of the needs the tutorial did not address. Like before, most of the game will be played at an accelerated pace since construction takes a while. Speaking of construction, making a realistic city is very difficult, as buildings do not “snap” to roads. In fact, you can build roads through houses (and any other building, for that matter); cities in Imperium Romanum just look messy as there is a lot of empty, unusable space. While not having a grid-based system gives the player more freedom in their designs, having a grid-based system would result in much more space-efficient designs.

The military aspect of the game gives more control to the player, but it seems like the developers haven’t played a recent strategy game. You can issue simple move, attack, or retreat orders to your troops by clicking on their building or themselves when they are deployed. You cannot, however, use a selection box to choose more than one squad of troops: if you have a large army, you need to click on every…single…group one after another in order to move them. The result is a stream of infantry marching towards the barbarians instead of an organized attack force. The other problem is the information card for the military units. In pretty much every real time strategy game ever made, the info card will show the unit’s current orders and current stance. But not in Imperium Romanum! Instead, it shows what order or stance it will have if you click on the button. So the unit information box says “box” formation, but they are actually in “wedge” formation because by pressing the button they will go into “box” formation. Huh?! Talk about confusing; it took me a good couple of hours to figure out that my units were holding their stance because the icon said “attack.” And I play a lot of strategy games, imagine how confused a new player would be. In addition, you can’t even attack specific enemy units as the stance (“attack” or “hold”) determines when your units will stay put or go after an enemy unit the computer determines is a good target. I’m all for having good automation of combat, but giving the user essentially no control over their units is just wrong.

For every improvement made in Imperium Romanum, one new issue has cropped up. There are so many things in the game that are almost fantastic if not for one key error in design in each area. There are plentiful historical, free, and Roman missions, but no progressive campaign. You can recreate the city of Rome, but only the major monuments. There is a high score list, but it rewards play time instead of skill. The tablet objectives are terrific, but they are not purely random and aren’t in the free scenarios. The right-click build interface is excellent, but it should be easier to gauge citizen and resource needs. The resource management is straightforward, but it’s identical to Glory of the Roman Empire. Placing buildings is easy, but they are difficult to place in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The military combat is improved, but the icons are backwards and subsequently confusing and specific unit control is effectively absent. Imperium Romanum certainly has a lot of “buts.” If you missed out on the original and enjoy city builders, then certainly give Imperium Romanum a shot as it is a fun game despite all of the shortcomings. However, there is, like most games, certainly room for improvement.