Thursday, May 29, 2008

Larva Mortus Review

Larva Mortus, developed and published by Rake In Grass.
The Good: Simple controls, randomly generated levels, powerful weapons, fair difficulty, useful interface, lots of gore, fitting musical score
The Not So Good: Archaic overhead perspective, must kill everything, dying resets all level progress, can get tedious, very elementary AI
What say you? A zombie-hunting game with elevated replay value that’s addictive but repetitive: 6/8

I think I used up all of my zombie-related material when I wrote the review of Night of a Million Billion Zombies a little over a month ago. So thanks a lot, Larva Mortus, for making me think of another introduction. But then I thought: what about writing an introduction complaining about writing the introduction? Brilliant! In Larva Mortus, you shoot zombies and other assorted not-nice things in randomly generated levels with a host of exotic weapons. Killing hordes of the undead can get monotonous and boring, so how will Larva Mortus fare?

Larva Mortus features an old-school overhead perspective. Now, I normally dislike playing from a birds-eye view, but Larva Mortus does a good job in making you forget about the missing third dimension. While the game isn’t the most detailed in the world, I would much rather have a straightforward presentation like Larva Mortus than messy and repetitive 3-D graphics. It can be difficult to see enemies on occasion since you are looking down on them, but you can usually tell they are there when they shoot at you. It’s easy to see which weapon is equipped, and the more simplified approach takes away the potential new player confusion associated with hectic action games. The cut scenes look good, featuring a nice visual style. Larva Mortus also features plenty of blood for those of us who crave gore. Performance could be better when a lot of explosions take place at once (I don’t think Larva Mortus uses 3-D acceleration of any kind), though. Still, despite their minimal nature, I found the graphics to be pleasing enough. The music is outstanding: a haunting theme that fits the game superbly. While the rest of the sound effects are average for the genre, the music is the definite highlight of the game’s presentation.

In Larva Mortus, you’ll be dispensing of many foes with guns. Lots of guns. And a crossbow. The game is played by choosing a level on the map; there is a main storyline, but you can only access the next story-related level by getting a minimum experience level by playing the single missions. Typically, the story levels feature one big boss at the end and have cut scenes that describe the situation. All of the levels in the game are randomly generated: the number and location of the enemies and rooms will be different each time you play, even if it’s in the same city. While the levels aren’t as obviously randomized as Scallywag, since you’ll always encounter the same basic level layouts, not knowing what enemies lurk beyond the next locked door is great for replay value. Larva Mortus uses traditional controls: WASD to move, and the mouse to aim and shoot. Since the game takes places from an overhead perspective, it’s a bit different than first person shooters (since the mouse does not look), but it’s intuitive enough. The game interface makes playing Larva Mortus very easy: rooms which you have previously cleared are indicated on the minimap, and a large “room cleared” message pops up when all of the enemies have been disposed of. Ammunition levels are also plainly displayed, including a graphical (instead of simply numerical) representation of how many bullets are left before reloading is required: a nice touch.

Larva Mortus gives you a variety of weapons to choose from: a sword, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, crossbow, cannon, flame thrower, dynamo gun, and dynamite. These are gradually given to you throughout the campaign: as you meet more dangerous foes, you’ll get more dangerous weapons. Each of these weapons requires ammunition that, like the guns, can be dropped by enemy units. Enemies can also drop various power-ups, which grant temporary bonuses in ammunition, armor, damage, score, or movement speed. The AI is very basic, though your enemies being mindless zombies might have something to do with it. Normally, enemy units will track straight towards you or move in semi-random patterns to make killing them more difficulty. A good strategy (and really the only one to employ) is to walk backwards while firing. This makes playing Larva Mortus more repetitive than it should be: enemy units won’t use cover and they can move quickly enough (and the rooms are small enough) where you only have a couple of seconds to kill them before they reach you unless you start going backwards. That said, the game does offer reasonable difficulty, and once you learn how each new enemy will behave, the game almost becomes trivially easy (almost).

Along your journey of killing, you will gain experience for each enemy you turn into a bloody mess. Eventually, you will level up, and then you can upgrade one of several areas to make your character more powerful: faster leveling, walk speed, chance of enemies dropping stuff, and health regeneration are just a few to choose from. This gives a bit of incentive to keep playing, although Larva Mortus is action-packed enough to hold the interest of people who enjoy this type of game. Unlike Night of a Million Billion Zombies, I never felt unfairly overwhelmed by the enemy and found the gameplay to be quite enjoyable, albeit eventually a bit repetitive. Shooting enemies is fun, and the randomly generated levels give enough variations to keep Larva Mortus fresh. You can cheat and see the enemies in a room to pick the best weapon and then quickly duck back into a previous room since exiting a room will reset the enemies, but that’s a minor issue. Connected to this “feature” is the fact that you have to clear a room before leaving. Otherwise, all of the enemies will respawn (even if you killed them before) and your hard work will go to waste. This 100% requirement would be a concern if the game wasn’t fairly balanced, which, thankfully, it seems to be. If you die, you do have to restart a level from the beginning (the game actually brings you back from the mission map) and the level will actually be different (that’s the whole random generation thing), but other than that dying is no big deal (there’s no XP penalty, for instance). Levels are quick to complete; this promotes the fast-paced nature of the gameplay where the focus is on the action. Overall, I found Larva Mortus to be quite similar to Scallywag: an action-oriented game with randomly generated maps. While the overhead 2-D graphics might turn off some shallow action gamers, the gameplay of Larva Mortus is good enough to keep you interested for quite a while, and the endless supply of maps doesn’t hurt.

I like Larva Mortus. The action is constant, the random levels keep you guessing, the interface is intuitive, and the blood is definitely flowing. The game provides an array of weapons to use and the presentation, despite being in 2-D, is good thanks to quality background music. Larva Mortus isn’t without its problems: you must destroy every enemy before moving on to the next room, all progress is lost if you die, and the AI isn’t terribly smart. This makes the game repetitive in the end, but it’s still an enjoyable ride as you go through the storyline, encountering new enemies and gaining new weapons. In all, Larva Mortus is the very definition of a “buy it if you like the genre” game: fans of the genre will be pleased, but people who don’t like action shooters won’t find enough to start liking them now.

Monday, May 26, 2008

AtomHex Review

AtomHex, developed and published by MarkInc.
The Good: Unique gameplay, chaotic pace and action packed, neat theme, stackable bonuses, achievements, flexible price
The Not So Good: Odd control scheme, very challenging, only one game mode
What say you? It’s definitely different and potentially addictive, but this action game has a steep learning curve thanks to its overly complicated controls and high difficulty: 5/8

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So when Mark Incitti created an almost exact replica of Geometry Wars, he was kindly asked to remove it immediately or face legal action. nice! What is a good programmer to do? Well, slightly repackage the game and change it enough not to get sued! Here is AtomHex, an enhanced third cousin (once removed) of Geometry Wars featuring lots of shooting at lots of enemies. Will the frantic action translate well on the PC?

AtomHex doesn’t feature ultra-realistic 3-D graphics, but it does excel in presenting a nice theme. The minimalist design helps to create a Tron-like environment of bright, neon graphics set against a stark background and the result is a distinctive look; they remind me a lot of Immortal Defense. AtomHex is pleasing on the eyes and the generally chaotic nature of the gameplay is helped by the relatively simplistic graphics, as the player is never confused by what is being shown on-screen (at least any more than they are supposed to be). The basic nature of the graphics also means that AtomHex will run on a variety of computer systems. The sound in AtomHex is similar: basic but nice. The effects for each enemy are characteristic enough to know what deadly foe is being spawned, and the music fits the theme well. Overall, I was pleased with what AtomHex brings to the table in terms of presentation.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about AtomHex is that it lets you name your own price (William Shatner would be so proud): you can pay between $5 and $20 for the game. While this method would not work well with games by larger publishers, giving users an option to show their level of enjoyment and allow for different amounts of budgetary allotment is nice. As for the features, AtomHex only has one game mode (shoot stuff) and lacks multiplayer, but it does have sixty achievements to earn (that don’t unlock anything) and online scoreboards once you get good enough at the game. As for the controls, well, I hate the controls. OK, “hate” is a strong word…I “loathe” the controls and “wish” they would “rot in Hell.” AtomHex is designed for a dual analogue gamepad, where one pad moves and the other shoots, but I dislike this method very much (can you tell?). I want an arcade shooter to have controls similar to that of Asteroids: move and shoot forward. That’s all. I don’t need two axes, one for moving and one for shooting: that’s too much thinking that gets in the way of frantic gameplay. You can use the mouse, but aiming is too inaccurate since only allows you to shoot at increments of every 30 degrees or so instead of any angle, and using the keyboard is just asking for trouble. Who came up with this unintuitive control scheme not designed for the PC? Oh, right. I don’t mind having this method as an option, but a more straightforward and intuitive control scheme (left and right arrows to turn, forward and backward to move, spacebar to shoot forward) is a feature I would like to have.

So what exactly are you shooting at? Well, there are these atoms and hexes (as you might have guessed from the game name). When one atom bonds with one hex, it starts spitting out slow-moving pods that can kill you. The more hexes, the worse the enemies: bugs that eat hexes, triangles that follow your ship, squares that shoot in four parallel directions, and things that split into five little things. If you survive to the point where six hexes are bound to an atom, you get to enter subatomic mode, which is actually easier than the base game: it involves rotating wheels of color that must be destroyed. The thing that complicates AtomHex is color: you can only destroy things that are the same color you are. The only way to change colors is to destroy the shield of a solitary hex and then collect it. This means while you are shooting red hexes, yellow ones may be gathering up strength. It’s a neat dynamic that involves a bit more thinking that simply holding down the fire button.

Every time you collect a hex, you will get some sort of powerup. These are usually score multipliers that can be stacked (a 2x and a 5x make a 10x), so you’ll want to collect hexes in quick succession in order to maximize your score. You may also gain interesting weapons like freeze bombs, triple shots, or spreading shots. The bonuses will also come towards you, so you don’t have to go all over the map in order to collect them all. AtomHex is a pretty addictive game that takes a lot of practice. In addition to the learning curve imposed by the unintuitive controls, the game’s fast pace makes death a common occurrence. Easy difficulty slows things down a bit and limits the number of colors, but it’s still pretty intense. If you are used to a game that uses this control scheme, then AtomHex’s unique chaotic gameplay will be more instinctive and ultimately more enjoyable.

AtomHex is one of those games that is addictive, but has a couple of limitations that make you want to stop playing for a short while. I just can’t get over the controls: I hate them. I’m curious if other people will have the same level of disgust that I do or if I’m just in the minority as most everyone is used to a dual analogue arcade shooter scheme. The more I played AtomHex, the less annoying the controls got, but I still don’t like them. It’s too bad, because the rest of the game is quite fun. The color matching system adds some strategic depth, and while AtomHex only comes with one game mode, trying to earn all of the achievements and earning a high score will keep people coming back. The innovative behaviors of the enemies and the progressively more difficult foes also keep the action varied and fresh. If you can get past the controls, then AtomHex delivers some intense and exciting arcade shooter action that’s unique and enjoyable.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! Review

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!, developed and published by My Game Company.
The Good: Simple controls appropriate for a range of skill levels, non-violent gameplay for all ages
The Not So Good: No unique features, very limited weaponry and gadgets, can be quite difficult, dying returns you to the start of the level and the game doesn’t prompt to load a saved game, no in-level autosaves
What say you? This family-friendly platform game lacks innovation: 5/8

Platform games have been around for quite a while: historians estimate the genre started in 145 A.D. with Super Ptolemy Brothers. From there, faster computers have produced better graphics and 3-D worlds in which to jump around and avoid enemies. While the genre is certainly more popular on those dreaded consoles, the PC has seen its fair share of platform games, and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is next in line. Taking a spy’s viewpoint, Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! follows a secret agent named Dirk Dashing (coincidence? I think not!) in his crusade against E.V.I.L. in snowy southern Germany. Will Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! advance the genre forward with new and exciting features?

The graphics of Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! are simple at best. While the backgrounds are nicely detailed, the character models are sparsely animated and look like 2-D sprites floating against the background. Special effects are few: only some gas from grenades and some weapons flying through the air. Some of the buildings are somewhat detailed, but the environments in each setting become repetitive. You can have a 2-D game that still looks good, so the lack of distinctive flair in Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is disappointing. As for the sound, it is limited as well. The game does have some good spy theme music (however it does loop quite often), but the effects are meager and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! never feels like you are in a semi-realistic environment rather than playing a game. More could have been done with the presentation of Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!.

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is a very conventional platform game. The story is a classic spying cliché: get diamonds back from an evil organization. The game has a forced sense of humor that is funny on occasion; I think the developers were trying to hard in naming the organizations (G.O.O.D. and E.V.I.L.) and the levels (Snow Pain, Snow Gain and Forgive Me, It’s Not My Vault, to name a few). The game comes with a good number of levels (30) that will keep you busy for at least a day or two, if you play straight through. The controls are simple enough where anyone can play Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!: you can use they keyboard or a gamepad to move, jump, enter buildings, and throw grenades using only the arrow keys, spacebar, and control. Also appropriate for all ages is the low level of violence: grenades simply put enemies to sleep rather than causing bloody, fragmented death. Most of the levels have you disposing of enemies, jumping on platforms, flipping switches, and moving the occasional crate to access certain locations: very standard stuff. Dirk Dashing (Secret Agent) also has a PDA that displays mission objectives and in-game scores; this is better than cluttering up the screen with a permanent HUD.

The main problem with Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is the lack of unique features. First, Dirk is only equipped with two weapons: grenades and (later) a grenade launcher. Where are all of the cool spy weapons and gadgets? You do have some temporary power-ups like x-ray specs and shoes with springs, but these are given at very deliberate times (usually right before you need them). This really limits your strategic options and makes playing rather boring: all you need to do is lob grenades at people and move on down the level. There are a couple of alternative methods of stunning enemies without using up your ammunition that essentially entails causing them to run into things (they don’t stop moving immediately if you jump), but this is still not a substitute for more varied gameplay. Getting cash during the game (by picking up coins, bills, rings, and credit cards) has no point: you can’t purchase or otherwise unlock new weapons, and getting a high score means nothing other than simply having a high score. You can collect 100 apples for an extra life, though.

The other problem with Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is the lack of checkpoints: dying sends you back to the very beginning of the level. On top of this, the game does not automatically save your progress, so you have to constantly exit to the main menu and go through the save process every couple of minutes. The game also does not prompt you to load a saved game if you lose a life. At least the enemies are still sleeping when you restart through the level, otherwise you might be caught in an endless loop. The AI, I think at least partially by design, is very dumb: they move towards you in a straight line and shoot if they are equipped with a weapon. Despite this, I found Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! to actually be quite difficult, since the enemies have weapons you could only dream of. You have to be very careful, moving to the exact distance where you can see them but they haven’t been triggered to shoot at you, and then lob a grenade. This repetitive gameplay is not exciting or original, which makes playing Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! a drag.

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is too conventional. While the game is certainly fitting for a diverse audience, the gameplay is bland enough where most people will get bored after the first couple of levels. Part of being a secret agent is having cool toys to play with, but Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! really limits your strategic choices due to the inadequate weapons at your disposal. Add in very elementary AI and the lack of checkpoints, and there isn’t anything new or better that Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! offers in the platform genre. At this point in computer gaming, you need to have some sort of hook that draws new players in, and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! certainly lacks that. People who enjoy simplistic platform games (and others who aren’t as picky as I am) will find straightforward gameplay geared towards a wide audience, but most of us can avoid this featureless title.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Airport Mania: First Flight Review

Airport Mania: First Flight, developed by South Winds Games and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Nicely balanced chaos, can queue multiple actions, customizable airport upgrades that impact gameplay
The Not So Good: Gets repetitive, can’t skip levels
What say you? The click management genre takes to the skies with good results: 6/8

Click management games, where you use the mouse to direct a character to perform specific tasks, are fairly popular. Most of the titles in the genre revolve around food service or a similar small business. Airport Mania: First Flight takes the click management game into the world of aviation, a place historically dominated by flight simulators or realistic air traffic control reproductions. Will this new setting spice up the gameplay?

The animated feel of Airport Mania: First Flight shines through in the presentation. Though the graphics are relatively simplistic, as the game is rendered in 2-D and it looks like it could have been put together over a long weekend using Paint. But you don’t have to worry about any 3-D artifacts, camera angles, or confusing overlays, or high system requirements. The planes are nicely modeled: Airport Mania: First Flight is the only game that features both male and female aircraft. The various buildings around your airport are easily identifiable and large icons are displayed to show each plane’s next appropriate destination. So even though I would not call the graphics “impressive” or “groundbreaking,” they won’t destroy your computer and they don’t get in the way of the gameplay. The sound is cute: each airport has its own jaunty instrumental theme and the plane reactions are satisfyingly adorable. As far as click management games go, you could do worse than the graphics and sound of Airport Mania: First Flight.

Airport Mania: First Flight puts you in the role of airport manager, an abstraction of an air traffic controller, where you direct planes to land, unload and load passengers, fuel up, and get repairs. There are a lot of levels in the game, and each stage has you continually improving a single airfield. The levels unlock in a set order, so you unfortunately can’t skip ahead to the more difficult scenarios if you get bored early on. Also, the amount of new elements introduced in the game is very low: almost every structure you will need is given to you in the first stage. This means you won’t want to see what unlocks next since you’ve seen everything by the first handful of levels. There are a number of rewards to earn along the way that can be earned by keeping planes happy or using runways in quick succession. The rewards aren’t enough motivation to keep you playing, but they are a thoughtful feature.

So here’s what you do: each plane needs to land, go to a gate, and then take off. Some planes will also need repairs and fuel before loading new passengers. Orders are given by simply clicking on the plane and then the object (runway, gate, parking spot) you want it to use. This relative simplicity makes Airport Mania: First Flight easy to comprehend for all skill levels and makes the game approachable as a whole. You can queue half of the actions up in advance (before or after passenger unloading), which makes running a functional airport easier. The game will even send planes directly to a gate if it opens after you have given a landing pad order. Airport Mania: First Flight will not show the queue for planes that are not directly selected, however, so you can lose track of how many orders you have given to existing planes when the action gets hectic. Airport Mania: First Flight offers up just the right amount of controlled chaos: the first levels aren’t terribly difficult and ease you into the game, which the closing stages require a lot of managing skills. Each plane is rated according to the income you’ll receive, the number of passengers, loading and unloading speed, and their patience. Your job is to make sure all of their required tasks are completed before they get mad and fly away. You can earn score bonuses for having the same colored airplane use the same gate in a row, in addition to landing or taking-off planes on the same runway in quick succession. You will have to make key decisions on which color bonuses to sacrifice in the interest of getting all of the planes unloaded and flying again. Each individual level passes by quickly enough that Airport Mania: First Flight doesn’t drag.

The feature that keeps Airport Mania: First Flight from being just another run-of-the-mill click management game is the upgrades you can purchase. Unlike a lot of games in the genre, Airport Mania: First Flight does not predetermine which upgrades become available, so you can tailor your improvements to your gameplay style. Keep a lot of planes in the air? Get in-flight movies to keep passengers happy. Like to earn a lot of color bonuses? Purchase new gates. The most useful upgrade is the radar, which tells you the next four colors that will appear; this is great for deciding which gate color bonuses to keep and which to switch to a new color. You can also get more efficient gates, additional parking spaces, and new planes that can bring in more cash. I like to have freedom in my strategic decisions, so allowing the user to determine which upgrades to get next is a wonderful feature.

If you like click management games, then you can’t go wrong with Airport Mania: First Flight. The controls are straightforward, the actions are intuitive, and the game balance is well done. I do wish there were more objects available later in the game as the levels tend to become repetitive after a while, but the pace is quick enough where you won’t notice too much. Airport Mania: First Flight might not have the best graphics, but it does have an inviting theme. I really like the upgrades that can be added in any order: they not only impact the gameplay, but letting the user choose which ones to get makes the entire experience better. Being able to queue actions is great, and the fact that the game is smart enough to remove unnecessary queue orders when a gate opens up is fantastic. Airport Mania: First Flight will not win over anyone who doesn’t like this type of game, but it is surely good at what it does.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor Review

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Unique technology trees and buildings for each race, four game editors, automated custom ship design, more detailed graphics with better performance, insanely large galaxies, new campaign, improved AI, new music, a bunch of smaller stuff
The Not So Good: AI hates people going for an ascension victory too much
What say you? The swan song for Galactic Civilizations II is an excellent, feature-filled expansion that delivers more than most full-priced sequels: 8/8

Turn-based strategy games have a small, dedicated, rabid following on the PC. This goes for a number of other genres (racing and flight simulators, to name a few) as well, so while they might not have the sales figures that the carbon-copied, rehashed console games designed for 10-year-olds do, they are still popular if you ask the right people. A good example of a company that caters to this crowd is Stardock Entertainment. Their recently-released real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire has overshadowed their strategy series that was first, Galactic Civilizations. The second and final expansion has been released for the sequel, titled Twilight of the Arnor, and it hopes to further enhance an excellent turn-based 4X experience. Does Twilight of the Arnor prove to be a fine twilight for Galactic Civilizations II?

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor makes some slight improvements to the overall presentation. First, the default ship designs have been overhauled and include more detailed textures and animated parts for a more immersive feel. The game actually performs slightly better as the developers have altered the way textures are stored so the game uses less memory than before, so it has that going for it. Battles also have better weapon effects for more space-based destruction. I play from the zoomed-out icon view for the most part so I didn’t notice the enhancements for the most part, but people who like their strategy up close and person will be pleased with the upgrades made here. The sound has also been enhanced with some new songs that fit the game well; more variety is always better. You can’t ask for much more improvement in the graphics and sound of an expansion pack than what Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor delivers.

Since Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is an expansion pack, this review will focus on the improvements made since the last time. First off, we get a new campaign. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of campaigns (the fact that Sins of a Solar Empire lacked one didn’t phase me) and the one contained in Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is similar to the ones in past versions of the game: a series of skirmish levels with non-random galaxies and some text story to tie the mission together. It’s not the most intriguing campaign seen in a strategy game, but the additional content is nice. I like the fact that the campaign starts out relatively easy as the game does not assume you have completed the previous two campaigns. New to the series is the suite of editors that allow you to change pretty much everything in the game. Although some level of customization was present before (in the form of custom races), Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor lets you make your own maps, scenarios, technology trees, and planetary improvements. You can imagine that it won’t be long before mods that mirror notable science fiction series start to appear. Letting the user completely customize their gaming experience is great for longevity and the editors are a find addition. You can also use the new extremely large galaxy size “immense” (possible because of the performance increases) and play others in tournaments through the metaverse (the online scoreboard).

The biggest addition made in Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is the unique technology trees. Before, the various civilizations were different only in morality (good versus evil) and color: everybody had the same ships, buildings, and research paths. While this made it easy to new players to transition from one race to another, the game tended to get repetitive after a while as the same strategy would work for all races. Now, every race (all twelve of them) has a drastically different technology tree that mirrors their overall theme. For example, the evil Drengin have an emphasis on weapons while the Thalan has a drastically reduced tech tree because they came from the future and thus know a lot already. Each race does share a lot of the basic techs, but you will find plenty of unique technologies for every civilization to take advantage of. This helps the game immensely as each side has a unique strategy. Included with these technology trees is unique buildings for each race, from the basic structures that are available when you start to more powerful versions further down the line. This addition is very awesome and well-done, providing twelve different ways of approaching the same game.

In addition to the standard array of victory conditions (research, alliance, influence) from previous games, Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor adds ascension. Here, you need to place starbases (using constructors) on several ascension crystals scattered around the map. Once you place one starbase, you are 1,000 turns away from victory and each additional ascension crystal cuts the time remaining in half. This is the worst aspect of Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor. You will probably reach one of the other victory conditions first (I almost always get an alliance victory first…I guess I am friendly) and all the ascension victory does is get everyone mad at you. Even if you are 800 turns away from victory, all of the AI players will hate you and relationships will deteriorate quickly. The AI puts way too much importance on an ascension victory, to the point where capturing two crystals is suicide. I don’t mind the other players ganging up on someone when 100 turns are left before the end, but the instant you have the most crystals (no matter how many turns are left), you had better be ready to take on everyone else as an enemy.

The ship designer is a big part of Galactic Civilizations II, as you need to incorporate newly-researched items into your designs to make your fleet as effective as possible. But wouldn’t it be nice if the computer did it for you automatically? Twilight of the Arnor does! Computer-designed ships are automatically created using the best weapons available, and they do a pretty good job incorporated the latest developments, even using incremental upgrades along the way. The computer designs don’t serve up the best variety (I’d like an all-offense, all-defense, and average design) and basic ships (freighters, colony ships, constructors) are never improved, but they are a good starting point for beginners. Speaking of ships, Twilight of the Arnor also includes the “terror star,” a slow-moving spherical monstrosity capable of destroying an entire system (I wonder where they got that idea from). Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor has smarter AI (yeah, like the computer opponents needed to become even more difficult) that will make you weep. Also, the budgetary requirements for colony improvements and ship maintenance have been drastically increased, making it much more difficult for smaller empires to afford a large military and lots of buildings. If you are preparing for a fight, you had better have a robust economy that can afford the increased ship count. Since you can very easily out-produce your income with ships, I’ve had to be much more careful with my money in Twilight of the Arnor than with previous versions, where balancing the budget or earning a hefty monthly profit was relatively easy. This means that small empires won’t get completely steamrolled and spies (they disable buildings) are even more important.

Simply put, if you have any version of Galactic Civilizations II (and even if you don’t), you need Twilight of the Arnor. The additions made here are far beyond what we see in most expansion packs, and the amount of content is more like a sequel. The unique technology trees alone would justify purchasing this game, as they add varied strategies for each race and increase replay value dramatically. But there is even more new content in Twilight of the Arnor: more detailed graphics and additional music, even better AI, and new game editors, just to name a few. There is really only one thing I hate (the ascension victory condition) and that’s because the AI overreacts to the side closest to victory, even if they are hundreds of turns away. But since you can turn ascension victory off, this is really a non-issue. The turn-based nature of Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor lets you experience the game at your own pace and the experience never drags since you can quickly skip through the boring parts, something that can’t be said for the first half-hour of Sins of a Solar Empire. As a whole, I like Galactic Civilizations II more, and it’s the best 4X strategy game available. If you have the original Dread Lords or the first expansion Dark Avatar, then Twilight of the Arnor is definitely worth it. If you are new to the franchise and enjoy 4X games like the aforementioned Sins of a Solar Empire but want more varied options, then getting the entire collection for $60 is a bargain considering the amount of replay value and content contained herein. Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor puts all of those repetitive sports franchises to shame with the amount of new, meaningful improvements it has. More than just a handful of new maps and a couple of new units, this is how expansion packs should be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Turok Review

Turok, developed by Propaganda Games and Aspyr Studios and published by Touchstone.
The Good: Action-packed, interesting two-weapon system, strategic deathmatch rules, cooperative multiplayer, decent production values, dinosaurs
The Not So Good: Impossibly difficult bosses, repetitive objectives, linear level design, dumb AI, no multiplayer server browser makes finding games difficult, long load times, can’t load previous checkpoints and saved games, technical issues
What say you? The series returns with some innovative elements and shows that killing dinosaurs can still be fun…some of the time: 5/8

Even though they went extinct 65 million years ago, dinosaurs are still very popular. They have been depicted in movies like Jurassic Park and TV shows like Larry King Live. What’s even better than simply watching dinosaurs roam the Earth is shooting them in the face, and that’s the premise of Turok, a remake of a classic first person shooter. Although the game is obviously not completely original, the addition of big, scary dinosaurs to the enemies list is intriguing, and we haven’t seen a Turok game in six years. Will the gameplay prove to be compelling after all these years?

The graphics of Turok is a mixed bag. The characters (both human and animal) have good textures and detailed models, though there are some animation problems and models tend to “float” over the terrain. The environments have a jungle feel, which tends to get repetitive after a while and becomes obstructive (probably on purpose) on occasion, preventing a clear view of your enemies. The environments are not quite as detailed as you would like, especially the outdoor areas, with very blocky terrain and clearly linear paths. It’s a bit odd to see detailed characters walking through blocky and rather bland terrain. The environments are also very static, with hardly any movement that isn’t directly tied to character interaction; I guess it’s not so windy in dinosaur world. The blur effect that occurs when you are stunned gets annoying, but disposing of dinosaurs using melee combat techniques is pleasingly violent. Performance is not what I would like to see: stuttering at seemingly random intervals is common. The sound fares much better: decent voice acting (and every line of dialogue is voiced) and appropriate weapon effects accompany the generic background music. It should also be noted that Turok takes up a whopping 15 GB of hard drive space, and load times are especially long. While there are a couple of highlights in the presentation, overall the graphics and sound of Turok come up a bit short.

You can play Turok in two modes: the single player story campaign and online. The campaign is fairly lengthy and, while it starts out pretty good, the story tends to get forgettable near the end. But I don’t really pay much attention to the story: I just want to shoot stuff. The console roots of the game crop up in that you can only have one saved game and the game can automatically do it for you. Unfortunately, if you are badly injured and the game saves your progress, then you are screwed and caught in an infinite loop of death. I think that if a game takes of 15 GB of hard drive space, we can have an unlimited number of saved games. Over time, the objectives of Turok become quite repetitive: the game lacks many alternative missions other than shooting things. While having almost constant action may be a good thing on occasion, it does get monotonous after a while as you’ll be constantly swarmed with various enemies. I should also mention a bug I have experienced: having my analogue gamepad plugged in makes my view constantly rotate, even though the gamepad is calibrated and works fine with all my other games. I e-mailed tech support and they said there is no way of disabling it from within the game, so I have to unplug my gamepad every time I want to play Turok. Annoying.

The multiplayer of Turok can be interesting, but it’s too bad it’s so difficult to find a game. In a disturbing trend of recently released console ports, Turok does not list every available game on one screen. Instead, you have to pick a game type (small free-for-all, large free-for-all, small team-based, large team-based, co-op) and then search. The quick join option will just place you in a random game type that you might not have wanted to join. The Club also suffered from this problem. Listen up, developers: just put every game on one page and let me pick. Is that too much to ask? I don’t want to spend minutes searching through every category looking for others to play against. Once you actually join a game, you’ll find the deathmatch games come with a kill limit (usually 15) but also a death limit (usually 10). This makes deathmatch more interesting, as you can’t simply run around, guns blazing and still win as you’ll rack up too many deaths. I thought this was a pretty cool standard option. The team-based games consist of capture the flag, assault capture the flag, and war games, although I have no idea how these play because I never found anyone playing the team-based game modes. I did have a chance to check out cooperative multiplayer, and it was pretty fun. There are only three specially designed levels for co-op (there are seven for the other modes), but they are fun and require some teamwork (there might be two consoles that must be hacked simultaneously). Your team is limited in the number of respawns you can have, so a well-coordinated team will be successful. I do like some of the aspects of Turok’s multiplayer, but it’s not reason enough to get the game.

Another thing I enjoy about Turok is the weapons. Turok is equipped is fairly standard weapons: a knife, bow, handgun, sub-machine gun, shotgun, mini-gun, rocket propelled grenade, pulse rifle, sniper rifle, grenade launcher, and flame thrower. But you can wield small two weapons at one time, which is very satisfying. Firing a sub-machine gun and a shotgun simultaneously is a joy not found in many other first person shooters. You can only carry two weapons at a time (other than the knife and bow), so making appropriate choices is important. This goes for multiplayer as well, so Turok rewards players with better weapon strategy more than players who have stuck around more and collected all of the weapons. The heads-up display is also minimal: the ammunition counter is located on the gun as a blinking light when you need to reload. That’s a nice touch. The bow is also extremely deadly at far distances and getting headshots is good fun. You can also use stealth attacks with the knife: sneak up behind any enemy (human or dinosaur) and the game will indicate you can use your knife. Then, a pre-canned violent animation will play and Turok can move on to his next victim. While this is a nice change of pace, it does get dull after a while.

Alas, the core gameplay of Turok falls short of being completely entertaining. The game comes with rag-doll physics, which results in some unintended comedic effects like kicking around deceased dinosaurs when you walk near them. Speaking of the dinosaurs, the AI is not very good. I realize that dinosaurs are (supposedly) dumb animals, but the creatures are heavily scripted and will attack you or your partner first if the game was programmed that way. The humans are not much better: they will stop and shoot without seeking cover (unless the developers put them there) and seem a bit too accurate for the weapons they are carrying, hitting Turok more often than not. This is partially due to the fact that everyone in the game can take an extremely large amount of damage before dying, for better or for worse, so they better hit you every time. The potentially interesting dynamic of turning the dinosaurs on your enemies is only used in very specific (and very obvious) circumstances, which is too bad. A lot of the multiplayer maps are completely devoid of dinosaurs (or place them in obscure locations), which makes Turok play more like a conventional first person shooter rather than taking advantage of its unique setting. Turok as a whole is very linear and the developers want you to play the game their way. Defeating bosses can be very frustrating as you try to figure out the arbitrarily specific method of taking them down. The game drops very subtle hints (or sometimes no hints at all) along the way; it’s a good thing they sent me a walkthrough with the game or else I’d be stuck several times over. You will also need to use archaic button-mashing counters when dinosaurs attack you; I though this gameplay mechanic was extinct but it, like the dinosaurs, has returned. Turok takes what could have been a compelling theme and doesn’t take full advantage of it, resulting in a run-of-the-mill first person shooter.

Shooting dinosaurs: what could go wrong? Well, the PC version of Turok is a couple of key points short of being a notable title. There are definitely some things to like: the dual-wielding weapons, using dinosaurs against your enemy, tweaked deathmatch rules, and some of the visuals and sound effects. Sadly, Turok is also accompanied by extremely linear level design, very difficult bosses, controller issues, one saved game per user, generally stupid AI, and long load times. Turok also lacks a multiplayer browser, which makes experiencing the decent cooperative and deathmatch online modes more difficult than it should be. It’s a bit disappointing that Turok isn’t more polished because the premise is very intriguing. Unless you really want to kill some dinosaurs, Turok doesn’t offer enough of a complete experience to warrant its purchase.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Trials 2 Second Edition Review

Trials 2 Second Edition, developed and published by RedLynx.
The Good: Believable physics, simple controls, numerous challenging puzzles that can be completed in any order, frequent checkpoints, nice graphics, online high scores
The Not So Good: No map editor, difficulty increases very quickly, can’t customize controls
What say you? A fun but exceedingly tough physics-based motorcycle racing puzzle game: 6/8

Part of the reason why extreme sports are popular is because there is a distinct chance of someone getting seriously injured. Oh, and they are skilled athletes. One of the more insane rungs on the extreme sports ladder is motorcycle stunts, where riders go far too fast and jump far too high. If there was only a computer game that captured the raw fury of people breaking a majority of their bones! Lucky for us we have the generically-named Trials 2 Second Edition, a motorcycle stunt puzzle game derived from a flash game. Like Trackmania, Trials 2 Second Edition involves doing slightly over-the-top stunts over courses and trying to reach the finish in the shortest amount of time. Will Trials 2 Second Edition earn perfect “10”s, or crash head-first into a pile of dirt?

Trials 2 Second Edition features some very nice 3-D graphics. Though the environments are bland and repetitive (with the same industrial theme throughout), the level of detail and special effects present in the game are outstanding. The bike and rider are well-animated and the in-game objects are realistic-looking. There are also some pleasing shadow and lighting effects, from the motorcycle headlights to fire. Turning the graphics to “ultra-high” brings even more detail to the table and the game runs smoothly. The sound is a bit more understated, with crowd reactions and the sound of pain. The bike engine effects are done well and the music, while generic, is somewhat catchy. Overall, Trials 2 Second Edition has a very slick presentation that certainly does not look like a budget game.

Trials 2 Second Edition features numerous puzzles to test your gaming mettle. The normal game mode (coincidentally called “normal”) requires you to reach the goal in the shortest amount of time. Dynamic mode adds moving objects, flip mode wants you to flip the bike, and wheelie mode wants you to pull some sick wheelies. There is a good amount of variety here that should keep you busy for a while, especially since you can continually improve your time and execute new ways of attacking each obstacle. The game starts with the first tutorial level selected each time you play instead of where you left off, which is very strange. You can, however, choose any level at any time, so there isn’t any artificial restriction on progression through the game. The tutorial levels teach you various key presses to get past specific obstacles, although a lot of the combinations are very precise. Trials 2 Second Edition could use more introductory levels, as I found the easy levels to still be quite difficult. Something that would remedy this situation is a level editor, and the lack of a level editor is a crime against humanity. Since all of the puzzles in Trials 2 Second Edition take place along a linear path, it would seem that allowing users to create their own content would be pretty straightforward, but for some reason Trials 2 Second Edition does not support adding levels to the game. This is very odd on a platform that typically supports user-made content.

Trials 2 Second Edition features full stats on your progress through the game. Each session records your overall time, faults (resarts), flips, wheelie distance, air time, bones broken, and experience gained. The game will also record your time and automatically upload it to the central server for comparison against the world. This progress happens almost instantaneously and it’s great to see how you stack up against other players. As an extension of this method of online competition, Trials 2 Second Edition also includes a chat room, teams you can join, and an achievement system to give you more incentive to keep playing other than simply getting a good score.

Controlling your bike is straightforward: accelerate, brake, and lean forward or back. You can’t customize the controls at all, but Trials 2 Second Edition will automatically detect any gamepads you might have plugged in. Trials 2 Second Edition doesn’t really lend itself to keyboard controls since accelerating too quickly will result in many tumbles (especially on inclined surfaces that populate the maps). This increases the difficulty since you have to be very, very careful in driving your bike. It does take a while to get used to how the bike handles, since it always wants to pull a wheelie (since all power is directed towards the back wheel). It also took me a while to realize lean was not a toggle (you can pick varying degrees of leaning); this might be the cause for a lot of my failures (in the game, not in life).

The physics engine at the core of Trials 2 Second Edition delivers some plausible results, which makes controlling the bike more predictable. In your journeys, you will encounter objects such as ladders, planks, drums, logs, and ramps standing in your way. How you attack each obstacle in both strategy (which to jump over) and execution (how much lean or gas to use) determines how successful you will be. Luckily, Trials 2 Second Edition features pretty frequent checkpoints where you can start from if (when) you crash. Some of the checkpoints are located in questionable areas where it is difficult (if not impossible) to start from, but these are in the minority. I must say that I really stink at this game. I’m not sure if it’s the hardcore level design, the touchy controls, or just my poor playing skills, but I found Trials 2 Second Edition to be one of the most challenging games of any kind I have encountered. While this would be fine for higher-level puzzles, the game starts getting hard right out of the box. This will probably frustrate a lot of new players (as it did to me) and you really need to practice a lot to get somewhat decent. Trials 2 Second Edition would certainly benefit from more puzzles for beginners to ease them into the game.

Trials 2 Second Edition is a polished, well-executed game that could benefit from a couple of enhanced or additional features. The controls are simple, the puzzles are numerous, the graphics are generally spectacular, and the online scorekeeping features are robust. Trials 2 Second Edition plays like a more deliberate version of Trackmania: a much slower pace but a higher level of precision. This makes Trials 2 Second Edition pretty darn difficult, and I think the learning curve new players will have to encounter will turn a lot of them away. Practice makes perfect, but Trials 2 Second Edition should come with more introductory levels to make the game appeal to a larger audience. Add a track editor and I’d bump the score up a point. Add more levels easier than “easy” and I’d bump it up another. So, really, Trials 2 Second Edition is two features away from being, well, perfect. The game is best in small doses, and if you like the genre then you will have a good time improving your times and coming up with new strategies.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

X-Plane 9 Review

X-Plane 9, developed and published by Laminar Research.
The Good: Outstanding flight model, wide variety of aircraft, detailed topography, imports real-time weather, editing programs for custom content, lots of exported data, comprehensive system failures, multiplayer, orbital and Mars flight, flexible system requirements, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux
The Not So Good: No directed tutorials, lacks recognizable structural landmarks for full realism, scenario list could be expanded, computerized ATC voices, no flight planning
What say you? The most authentic flight simulation available is getting very close to being a full-featured game for all experience levels: 7/8

To fly! The dream of man and flightless bird alike! But since most of us are not licensed pilots, we like to simulate our dreams of flight without potentially injuring hundreds of people. Everyone is probably familiar with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series. Since 1982, it’s stood for high-end graphics and user-friendly features. But not as many people are familiar with X-Plane, now in its ninth iteration. This simulation takes a different approach: instead of drawing in users with flashy eye candy, X-Plane strives for a realistic flight model. The series has continually been closing the gap in terms of auxiliary features, and X-Plane 9 is now here with greatly enhanced scenery and a bunch of small features designed for its fanatical followers. The last version I reviewed was X-Plane 6, though I played X-Plane 8 (bought from a retail store before I resumed by reviewing duties). In any event, it's time for a new version! Will we finally have no reason to give Microsoft our hard-earned money?

The area of improvement that most people will notice in X-Plane 9 is with the scenery, and it’s quite a dramatic upgrade. There’s a reason X-Plane 9 comes on six DVDs and can take up to 80 GB of hard drive space: the amount of detail is great. I do all of my flying in the U.S., and it appears every single road in the U.S. is present in the game. Every. Single. One. This makes VFR a possibility and increases the realism of the simulation dramatically, especially for people obsessed with roads like I am. Add to that accurate terrain, auto-generated buildings, water reflections, pixel shaders, volumetric fog, and birds, and you have a very convincing environment in which to fly. X-Plane 9 does lack distinctive world landmarks, so the cities aren’t exactly like their real-life counterparts, but the geography is still very impressive. Quite honestly, actually seeing the Gateway Arch or Washington Monument is low on my scale of important features, and third-party mods add these features in anyway. I would much rather see an accurate portrayal of less-traveled areas than every single building in New York City. The plane models are generally the same as in previous versions, and you can view the action from pretty much any angle, and even zoom out (rather quickly) to a distant perspective: X-Plane 9 allows you to zoom from your airplane all the way out to a picture of the entire Earth in a smooth transition; the daylight representations are even accurate from the orbital view. X-Plane 9 also supports any screen resolution from 1024x768 to 9999x9999: pretty snazzy. It should be noted that most (if not all) of the instrument panels are designed for 1024x768, so picking anything other than a 4:3 ratio resolution will result in some stretching. While you will need a good system to crank up the settings, X-Plane 9 supports older systems by providing lower quality options. Of course, then X-Plane 9 would look more like X-Plane 8, so you really need a more modern system to enjoy the enhancements of the newer version. The sound is less impressive: although we do have accurate engine sounds and background radio chatter, the air traffic controllers still use computerized voices instead of having real people. This makes for a less believable flight, but it’s a small complaint in what otherwise is a much improved presentation.

X-Plane 9 comes on six DVD disks and contains accurate scenery (in terms of elevation, lakes, rivers, forests, cities, and roads) for the entire world. You can install everything for a cost of 80 GB, or choose your own area for flight. Installing just the continental U.S. brought the size down to about 18 GB; any areas that are not installed will be represented by ocean (I guess Al Gore was right!). X-Plane 9 is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux (all on the same set of DVDs), so all PC users can get their fix. Not only does X-Plane 9 include the main flight simulator, but a suite of editors are also available: the plane maker (which makes planes), the airfoil maker (which makes the body of the planes), and the world editor (which edits the world). The result of these fairly easy-to-use tools is that there is a whole bunch of planes and add-on scenery available on the Internet. While the game comes with a fair number of planes (35), I was able to easily download hundreds of others from X-Plane.Org and the X-Plane Freeware Project, since planes designed for X-Plane 8 seem to work just fine if you load them and then save them in Plane Maker first. The combination of the editors and the non-scripted physics model makes X-Plane 9 a modders dream come true.

X-Plane 9 can be used for instructional purposes (and a version of it is even approved by the FAA), so the game allows you to export all of the raw data associated with simulating flight. One hundred and thirty (!) different values can be displayed on the screen, saved on a text file, or even sent over the Internet. From frame rate to fuel pressure to angular acceleration, you can know exactly what your plane is doing at all times. This is great for people who are making a custom design (or a replica of a real one) and want to see what is causing all of those crashes. Speaking of the Internet, X-Plane 9 allows you to team up with twenty others and fly around. Though there is no matchmaking from within the game (you have to manually type in IP addresses), this is still pretty cool. You can even export the instrument panel or scenery views to another computer. Seeing up a controller is fairly straightforward, though you need to know what the various settings (yaw, pitch, roll) mean to get it right. You can pilot with the mouse or keyboard, but it’s not recommended: X-Plane 9 is best enjoyed with a joystick or one of those fancy (meaning “expensive”) hardware sets with pedals and stuff.

The one feature that X-Plane 9 really lacks in an in-game instructional tutorial. There is a lengthy manual that gives directions on how to fly, but you really need to know at least a little bit what you are doing beforehand or you will become frustrated by X-Plane 9. The in-game instructions (accessed from the “about” menu) are almost laughable with their vague and deficient directions. Even though this game has been around for nine full versions, there still isn’t a comprehensive tutorial for new pilots, and that’s a very important feature to have in order to lure in novice players. One thing X-Plane 9 does have is a number of scenarios: you can take off from a aircraft carrier, fly in formation, refuel in the air, land on an oil rig, put out forest fires, and even take the helm of the space shuttle during re-entry. While the 20 scenarios are nice, we always want more and a more diverse selection would be even better.

As I mentioned earlier, X-Plane 9 includes around 35 aircraft (though plenty more are available for free) that covers all of the bases: military fighters (the F-4 Phantom), general aviation (the Cessna 172SP), gliders, commercial jets (Boeing 747), helicopters (Bell 206), large planes (the B-2 bomber and SR-71 Blackbird), radio controlled planes, sea planes, vertical take-off and landing craft, x-planes (no surprise), and the Space Shuttle. X-Plane 9 also includes the Cirrus Jet, which used X-Plane to test prototypes during development. You can customize your plane from within the game: adding additional weight in the form of fuel or payload and adjusting equipment failures (from not working to always working, including variable rates for random excitement). With all of these customizable features, you can see why X-Plane 9 is a good choice for teaching any type of situation a pilot might experience.

As I also mentioned earlier, X-Plane 9 includes Earth: all of the airports, navigational aids, mountains, rivers, roads, and cities you will find in real life. Picking a starting point is as easy as typing in an airport code or name and choosing a runway or ramp. X-Plane 9 does not include flight planning software, so you can’t choose starting and ending airports and have the game generate a realistic path for you, so getting to your destination is up to you. There is, however, third-party software designed to do this (for $30), although by this point something should be included in the simulation. X-Plane 9 also has Mars, so you can take the two planes designed for less atmosphere for a spin on the red planet (say “hi” to Arnold while you are there). You can customize your location by adding time-of-day and weather. You can track your system time or define any specific hour. The weather options are plentiful: clouds, visibility, precipitation, temperature, and wind speeds can all be customized. Or, you can have the game download the real weather. Neat.

Actually flying is where X-Plane 9 makes up for lacking certain features. The blade element theory X-Plane 9 delivers a convincing experience and allows for a large variety of aircraft to pilot. There’s no punching in values for lift and drag: your design will determine how it flies. You can see how it flies, since X-Plane 9 will visually show the flight model to you. Loading a plane in X-Plane 9 mirrors its real-life counterpart in terms of instrumentation, and since X-Plane 9 lacks tutorials, learning each of the controls can take some time. There are tool-tips if you hover your mouse above each dial and knob, but novice pilots will probably not understand how to do some of the things in the plane, such as using autopilot or ILS landings. However, flying in X-Plane 9 is a convincing experience. Taking to the skies in adverse weather conditions is an adventure: piloting a small plane in high winds results in some nausea-inducing wind shear. Interacting with air traffic controls is straightforward using the mouse to select options, and although it lacks human voices it gets the job done. Overall, I would say that X-Plane 9 is designed for slightly experienced (or above) virtual pilots who have a basic understanding of airplane operation going in, though dedicated new users can gain knowledge by reading the manual. More instruction in-game would greatly benefit X-Plane 9 as a whole and drastically reduce the learning curve associated with piloting an airplane.

X-Plane 9 takes the franchise one step close to toppling the behemoth that is Flight Simulator X. The most obvious improvement made in the 9th version of the simulation is the scenery, and the inclusion of all the roads and hills is great. If you go to the website and read most of the additions in each patch, the remainder of improvements are minimal (like an “auto-cowl-flap option”) and won’t be noticed by most people, but they are important to experienced pilots and designers. The large diversity of included aircraft can be attributed to the accommodating flight model, and the editing programs makes custom content a popular feature. X-Plane 9 doesn’t hide anything, as every single variable and value can be exported or displayed. Add in flight in space and on Mars, real weather, and support for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, and X-Plane 9 is getting quite impressive. I recommend X-Plane 9 over Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X to almost everyone. X-Plane 9 is less friendly to novice pilots since it doesn’t have a tutorial and lacks a couple of features (flight planning, ATC voices, additional scenarios) that probably should be included in the 9th version, but the flexibility of the flight physics and the much improved scenery offsets these shortcomings for those more concerned about accurate flight than seeing real casinos while flying over Las Vegas. If you want a precise and flexible flight simulation, look no further than X-Plane 9.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Paradoxion Review

Paradoxion, developed by VSB Games and published by Slave Circus Entertainment.
The Good: Very challenging, fairly unique gameplay with numerous puzzle elements, lots of levels and a level editor, online solutions and in-game help
The Not So Good: Too challenging since most puzzle have only one very specific solution
What say you? Want a really, really tough puzzle game? Here you go: 6/8

Puzzle games run the gamut from action-packed and fast-paced to drawn-out and thought-provoking (and some in the middle). The different types appeal to different crowds who want a different experience at different times (where’s my thesaurus when I need it?). Paradoxion is one of those slower-paced games where success does not depend on reflexes but rather on planning, strategy, and smarts (that last requirement will put a lot of us in deep trouble). How will this take on the logic-based puzzle turn out?

The presentation of Paradoxion can be described as “basic.” The game is in 2-D, with the game being played on a flat board. There is a handful of effects when orbs are destroyed or special elements are activated, but mostly Paradoxion is pretty static and not too exciting visually. The backgrounds are nice, though, but most of the time you’ll be ignoring them. The sound is along the same lines: generic effects that accompany each of the in-game actions and spacey background music. Frankly, there’s not much to say about the graphics and the sound because there isn’t much to say about the graphics and the sound. Go figure.

The goal of Paradoxion is to place objects in your inventory in such a manner as to cause other objects to explode and move to cause more objects to explode and move, eventually removing every object from the game board because they all exploded. The game comes with 90 levels and a level editor, so you won’t be hurting for content. The fairly unique gameplay of Paradoxion is still intuitive and you should get the hang of it quickly. There are a number of objects you will have to eliminate on the game board: orbs that are removed in rows of three, gems that are removed in two-by-two squares, blastoids that provide a blast, paradoxes that can appear when an object is blasted simultaneously from two sies, paradoxions that remove paradoxes, as well as disintegrators, teleports, and shifters that move or remove objects. Explosions either push things out (in the two-by-two case) or to the side (in the row case), although orb explosions push objects away from the last orb you placed which is very confusing at first.

Paradoxion is very difficult because there is usually only one solution and each puzzle requires perfection: getting every single step correct in the order the developer intended. Difficulty ramps up very quickly, as I started to have trouble in the tutorial. Later on, you can have puzzles with more than twenty steps; good luck getting them all right. Luckily, there are online solutions that will give step-by-step instructions for each of the 90 puzzles, but cheaters never win. I’ve played plenty of puzzle games, and I can honestly say that Paradoxion is the hardest one I’ve ever encountered. If you are looking for a puzzle game that just might make your brain melt, then look no further than Paradoxion. However, most everyone will find the game too difficult to be enjoyable.

Paradoxion is really freakin’ hard. The game is easy to understand and the overall design doesn’t impede your progress, but the perfection required by the game to pass each of the 90 levels is too much to ask. Paradoxion will exercise parts of your brain you didn’t know existed, at least before you quit in frustration. You really have to like challenging puzzle games to last past the first handful of boards, so the overall appeal of Paradoxion is limited. I will applaud the developers for creating a lot of very meticulously designed levels, so it’s clear a whole lot of though went in to Paradoxion. There is nothing inherently wrong with the design of Paradoxion, but it’s way too difficult for mass acceptance.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Panzer Command: Kharkov Review

Panzer Command: Kharkov, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Random mission and campaign generators add plenty of replay value, user-friendly editors, lots of small realism enhancements, improved AI
The Not So Good: Slow pace with frequent pauses won't appeal to everyone, interface could combine unit icons better, PBEM-only multiplayer
What say you? Meaningful content additions and generally improved gameplay makes for a better follow-up: 7/8

Sequels (and expansion packs, for that matter) sure are popular in computer gaming, especially with large publishers. Just add a couple of features, package it together, and sell it for full price a year later. Brilliant! Once you have an existing game model down, there’s no need to actually attempt to make a groundbreaking game, right? Just rehash what’s been done before! That cynical introduction somewhat leads us to Panzer Command: Kharkov, a sequel to an almost two-year-old game called Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm (coincidence? I think not). So, what have the developers been up to in the mean time?

The graphics have been slightly improved since two years ago. Some of the vehicle models are more detailed, animations have been improved, and there are some addition lighting effects. Really, though, Panzer Command: Kharkov looks almost identical to Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, and most everybody won’t notice any differences. Now, the game wasn’t exactly a graphical juggernaut two years ago, which means it certainly is not now, as Panzer Command: Kharkov is starting to look quite dated. It’s good that the game is in 3-D, but overall the title looks like a slightly more polished version of the older Combat Mission games and that’s not saying much. In addition, the game performance is too slow for my tastes, when compared against other tactical strategy games. The sound is even worse off: very repetitive weapon sounds and battle cries litter the landscape. This does not immerse the player in a war-torn world. Overall, Panzer Command: Kharkov looks like it was published, well, at least two years ago.

As is my policy (Article XI, Section III, Paragraph IV), I’m going to talk primarily about the improvements made in Panzer Command: Kharkov, so make sure you are somewhat familiar with the original first. Done? OK. The biggest problem I had with Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, lack of content, has certainly been solved in Panzer Command: Kharkov. In addition to a couple of new scenarios and individual missions in those scenarios that you would expect to find in a sequel, Panzer Command: Kharkov comes with a random battle generator, a random campaign generator, and non-random map generators for battles and campaigns. This is great, as it extends the life of the product essentially to infinity (and that’s far away). You can completely randomize the settings in the random generators, or customize the number of points available for each side, availability of reinforcements, minefields, starting positions (envelope, pincer, wedge), experience, strength, and individual unit type distribution. The game even picks out an unused date for naming purposes. There are a number of maps to choose from, and while the map itself isn’t randomly generated (similar to the quick battles in Combat Mission: Shock Force), there is enough of a variety to keep it interesting. You can even connect random battles into a random campaign using forces that carry over. For those who like more scripted combat, two editors have been included to make new maps and battles and campaigns as well. As you can see, the twelve battles present in Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm have been significantly expanded upon. In other features news, Panzer Command: Kharkov does lack real-time multiplayer, as the game only supports play-by-e-mail; there isn’t anything wrong with PBEM, but more options are all welcome. In addition, the unit point limit is usually superfluous as a lot of scenarios let you deploy every available unit anyway. So while there are still some minor issues to content with, the increased content is much appreciated.

The interface is largely unchanged in Panzer Command: Kharkov: the game still lists every unit in the bottom center of the screen for easy access, though now it’s a scrollable (I think that’s a word) list. However, the unit list could have been streamlined by combining units with the same commander instead of listing them individually. For instance, units could be placed in a circular arrangement with the commander in the middle. Or, a large commander unit icon could be followed by small square icons for subordinate units. This way, all of your units would be displayed on one screen instead of having to scroll through the list in the heat of battle.

But wait, there’s more! There’s a “whole bunch” (that’s a technical term) of improvements made to the gameplay, some of which are surprising they weren’t in the original game. Infantry units can now hide in trenches and foxholes and create smoke screens, and minefields can be laid for defensive purposes. Infantry units can also be suppressed by weapons and suffer variable injury levels; before, a unit was either “dead” or “alive,” but in Panzer Command: Kharkov there are variable degrees of “deadness”. Panzer Command: Kharkov also includes a lot of new units: most of these are to incorporate the new scenarios and casual players probably won’t notice any difference. These new units can be introduced a reinforcements, as opposed to giving each side all of the units at the beginning of the match. This seems to offset the large point amounts generally granted to each side and makes for more varied strategies.

AI has been improved as well. Units will now defend by default if not given an order, which cuts down on micromanagement considerably (especially with large battles). Units will also automatically switch targets if their current target is destroyed during a turn. The enemy AI provides even better competition this time around, taking advantage of cover and using some semi-advanced maneuvers. The lack of robust multiplayer options (other than PBEM) means most players will spend a lot of time with the AI, so it’s a good sign that the AI in Panzer Command: Kharkov is pretty good.

Panzer Command: Kharkov is still a niche game, as the slow pace and frequent pauses will turn off a lot of gamers used to real-time combat. Each turn consists of two phases: an 80-second orders phase and a 40-second reaction phase with limited commands. You issue all orders while the game is paused and then the action plays out. Even though you can accelerate the resolution, the game still seems to drag somewhat. Having such frequent input also makes each game last a whole lot longer; with better AI, why can’t each turn last two or three minutes between orders? Or at least give the user the option to customize the real-time length of each turn. It’s because of this approach that I think Panzer Command: Kharkov, like its predecessor, will ultimately appeal to a smaller audience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. While most of the changes are minor rules enhancements not directly noticed by the user, they add up to be fairly significant in the end.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like much as changed in Panzer Command: Kharkov, other than the new random generators. But under the surface lurks a host of changes which improve the gameplay enough to make Panzer Command: Kharkov better than its predecessor. I do like the random generators, as they introduce a lot of new content into the game, a serious deficiency in the previous version. All of the rules changes result in a more polished and realistic game, although I suspect a lot of players won’t really notice them without being told specifically what they are. In the end, Panzer Command: Kharkov is better than its predecessor and the improvements cover all of the major problems I found with Panzer Command: Operation Winter Storm, so it’s getting a higher score. While it won’t appeal to everyone, Panzer Command: Kharkov brings up a lot of memories of Combat Mission (in a good way) and the turn-based strategy gameplay is enjoyable and definitely improved.