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.