Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stronghold Crusader Extreme Review

Stronghold Crusader Extreme, developed by Firefly Studios and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Huge battles can be fun, includes the original version, special powers
The Not So Good: Few additions that will only appeal to extreme fans, interface not updated to handle large quantities of troops, really outdated graphics, no tutorials to explain the new enhancements
What say you? Unless you love the Stronghold series, there’s no reason to get this stand-alone expansion of a six-year-old stand-alone expansion: 4/8

While most strategy games focus on offensive maneuvering, one series has taken a stand by taking a stand (defensively, that is): Stronghold. The series first appeared way back in 2001 and spawned three follow-ups: Crusader in 2002, Stronghold 2 in 2005, and Legends in 2006. I like the series and its balance of resource management and defensive posturing, plus the sense of humor. Well, the it's back with Stronghold Crusader Extreme, an more extreme version of the second game that offers more extreme (meaning difficult) missions. Is Stronghold Crusader Extreme extremely fun or extremely boring? Either way, I'm sure it will be to the EXTREME.

Unfortunately, Stronghold Crusader Extreme features the same exact graphics as Stronghold Crusader did way back eight years ago. This means we are stuck with 2-D sprites, poor textures, and a low resolution (1024x768 maximum). It would have been nice if the developers had incorporated the graphics of the much-more-recent Stronghold 2 into the game, but instead they have chosen the easy way out and gave us extremely archaic graphics. The sound design is the same as before as well, so find any review of Stronghold Crusader from 2002 and that's all you need to know. We've seen expansions that came out a year after the original game and added better graphics, so not having any enhancements in the presentation after six years is simply unacceptable.

If you are not familiar with the Stronghold series, here is how the games work. First, you need to collect resources: wood at huts for buildings things, iron and stone at mines for building more things, and pitch for boiling oil traps (ouch!). You will also need to feed your population by producing apples, meat, cheese, and manufacturing bread from wheat and flour. There is precious little space for farms (thanks to the arid climate), so maximizing your space is important. Plenty of rations will keep your population happy (and recruit new workers), in addition to low taxes, religion, beer at inns, and, of course, dancing bears. Once you get your economy working and population happy, it’s time for the military focus of the game. Weapons are manufactured from raw materials (for example, two wood for a pike) and then you recruit people from the barracks. If you don’t have the resources (or don’t want to wait for weapons to get made), you can also recruit mercenaries for a high fee. There is a good variety of units, from ranged to melee to mounted troops. You will also have access to defensive structures (walls, gates, turrets, towards, maots, boiling oil) and siege equipment (battering rams, catapults, trebuchets) to protect or storm castles. As you can see, the basic gameplay of Stronghold Crusader Extreme is identical to previous games in the series, as the enhancements are made in other areas.

Anyway, what's new in Extreme, you ask? Well, sadly, not much. The whole “Extreme” thing in Stronghold Crusader Extreme comes from the extremely difficult 20-level campaign that features an extreme quantity of units. This campaign is very difficult and should only be attempted by people who have successfully completed the original game (which, by the way, is included). The new additions made in Stronghold Crusader Extreme are not outlined in a tutorial and are given a lonely page in the PDF manual. In addition to the campaign, you can play custom games against the AI or online. There are a lot of maps to choose from and you can customize the teams, so there is definitely some replay value here.

Other than the campaign, the other major addition of Stronghold Crusader Extreme is the power-up system. As time goes by, you will be able to use a number of different spells (the better spells require more “power”) that fall into one of three categories: attacks (arrows, rocks), units (spearmen, engineers, macemen, knights), or support (heal, money). These are meant to offset the obscene difficulty of the campaign missions, and the tactical aids are mildly interesting, but nothing we haven’t seen in any halfway-decent RPG. Stronghold Crusader Extreme also adds a new building (ooooo!): the outpost spawns continuous troops, but they are not placed by the player (rather, the level designer). Outposts just serve to increase the quantity of troops on the map and serve no strategic value whatsoever. And that’s it. Seriously.

So how do these two-and-a-half new features (campaign, powers, outposts) affect the game? Well, Stronghold Crusader Extreme does offer some very big battles: they look bad because of the 2-D sprites, but watching literally thousands of units on the screen at once is still impressive. However, the interface has not been modified to allow to you maneuver them. There is no “select all units” key and you can’t even zoom out far enough to select them all: you can only zoom out one step (which isn't enough) and the minimap scale can't be changed at all. A selection box is woefully inadequate in controlling these troops, and you’ll always have stragglers and forgotten units scattered all over the map. Six years and you can’t add a button to select everyone? Please. The result is a downright silly game that simply devolves into a mess of units hacking and slashing at each other. Stronghold Crusader was not built to handle this quantity of units, and Stronghold Crusader Extreme was not modified to do so, either. Fortunately, the AI seems to be able to handle the large quantity of units, although it’s hard to tell since the campaign missions are somewhat scripted (with starting bases and whatnot). The slow movement speed makes combat tedious as well, which makes moving your humongous army across the map even more frustrating. I found myself wanting to enjoy Stronghold Crusader Extreme, but finding it prohibitively difficult to do so. I would have liked the powers to be in the normal Crusader (which, admittedly, would probably unbalance the game), but Stronghold Crusader Extreme is kept as a separate executable and the standard game is left unchanged. $30 for an overly difficult campaign, new spells, and units you can’t control? No thanks.

It’s clear that the whole point of Stronghold Crusader Extreme was to make a larger and more difficult version of Stronghold Crusader. And they succeeded, but they also succeeded in making the game unplayable thanks to the insufficient interface and devoid of any other content. Quite simply, you are better off finding a cheap $10 version of one of the Stronghold games rather than getting this feature-deprived expansion. Even those players who enjoy Stronghold Crusader will have a tough time justifying paying $30 for a measly campaign, special powers, and a large amount of units. Yes, Stronghold Crusader Extreme can be quite fun when you have an insane number of troops, but managing those troops can be quite trying and ultimately frustrating. I do enjoy the Stronghold series, but this extreme version just doesn't offer enough content. In fact, I found myself playing Stronghold Crusader more than the Extreme version, which is kind of sad. This is mostly due to the fact that the content Stronghold Crusader Extreme offers is poorly handled. What’s the point of having a thousand units if I can’t effectively control them? If you are going to have huge armies, you had better allow the interface to cope with huge armies, and cope it does not. Stronghold Crusader Extreme is more like a free patch or, at most, a $10 expansion, not a $30 game. In the end, Stronghold Crusader Extreme will be a bit too extreme for most players unless you are very adept at the previous Stronghold titles and can handle thousands of units scattered across several screens.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier Review

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, developed and published by Sandlot Games.
The Good: Simple resource management, lots of buildings, explicit objectives, easy to find units
The Not So Good: A lot of waiting for resources to gather, lacks management depth, sporadic tool-tips, repetitive music
What say you? A city and resource management game hurt by a sluggish pace: 5/8

Everything I know about The Old West I learned from Back to the Future Part III: teachers commonly fall into canyons, Clint Eastwood is a coward, and trains can go really fast if you use explosives. Oh, and hoverboards are wicked awesome. But how difficult was it really to run a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by buttes and/or natives on top of buttes? This burning question has been addressed by Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, a city management game about The Old West. See how I referenced The Old West before and now the game is about The Old West? That’s called “quality journalism.” Does Westward II thrive in hostile territory, or devolve into an orgy of cannibalism?

Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier features decent graphics. The game is played from an isometric perspective and features 3-D graphics, although the level of detail is certainly behind the times. Animations are well-done, but most of the buildings are jagged and lack awesome textures that many city builder games have. Still, for a budget-priced game ($20), the graphics are acceptable. The sound is a bit worse off: none of the dialogue is voiced, though each character will say a handful of stereotypical phrases that obviously get repetitive. Also, the Old West theme of Westward II quickly gets bothersome as it cycles over and over, but it does fit the overall theme. Sound is not an area that gets a lot of attention in most games, and it was certainly an afterthought in Westward II. Overall, though, the presentation of Westward II is exactly what I expected, and nothing more.

In Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier, you take a fledgling western town and turn it into a less-fledgling western town. The first thing you’ll have to do is the long, drawn-out tutorial that you can’t skip: anyone who is familiar with any type of strategy game will be completely bored by it. Once you complete it, though, you unlock the mission-driven story mode and sandbox mode. The sandbox games are lackluster without the objectives present in the story and there are only three maps to choose from, but more maps are available to download on the official site. The game does a good job gradually introducing more advanced structures along the way without overwhelming new players, although experienced gamers might dislike the slow pace at which new ideas are shown. The interface is generally well designed, as it’s very easy to find units, especially idle citizens and your ever-important hero. Tool-tips could be better: anything other than the buildings lacks additional information (like the mysteries of the top information bar). Westward II does give you very explicit objectives and clearly indicates characters that need to be talked to in order to advance the story. Overall, it would be difficult to be frustrated by the interface.

You are given one hero unit that can build new structures and collect small amounts of resources. There are a lot of buildings to choose from that provide housing, resource gathering, military, and increased happiness, just to name a few. They are unlocked by completing missions and using resources in the store, which is a fine way of doing it. Most of the time, the story mode will pretty much tell you what to unlock next, although the player has some small amount of freedom in their chosen path. Westward II only offers four resources to collect: gold, water, food, and wood. Each of these is collected at one type of structure, and it’s simply a matter of assigning an idle citizen to the correct building and everything else is automatic. New citizens are gained by building additional houses, and each house brings down the happiness, so you have to also build happy places to compensate. The key problem of Westward II is the excruciatingly slow gathering rates. Most of the game will be spent not building things or fighting robbers, but waiting for resources to accumulate. Now, I realize that you don’t want the user to zip right through the game in a matter of minutes, but I don’t enjoy sitting there waiting while I am supposed to be having “fun.” There is also a sensitive balance of materials and it can be too late before you realize that you will be short in a particular resource, since the game just provides amounts instead of rates. Every building requires gold and wood, even the gold-producing mines and wood-producing huts, so if you are short in either of these resources and don’t have enough to build the producing building, you are stuck in an endless loop. That’s not very fun, as you can imagine. There is some simplified combat in the game: successfully defending your town is just a matter of recruiting troops at the saloon and producing weapons to increase their attack ratings. Fighting is just point-and-click, with no formations or counters: it’s just who has the most men with the better weapons, rather than the best tactics. There will be an audience that will enjoy the significantly simplified mechanics, but Westward II may be too simple for its own good.

While Westward II certainly gets the basics down, the snail pace of the game ruins the overall experience. The game is undoubtedly designed for novice players, from the basic resource collection to very simplified combat. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and I think beginners to the city building genre will enjoy the more simplified approach; nevertheless, everyone will have to contend with the slow pace. Resources simply need to come in faster so there isn’t so much waiting around; if you have your economy running it should run, not walk. The interface does a good job of letting you control the game and the story mode is OK with clear-cut objectives. The sandbox mode is generally pointless with a lack of direction, but it does allow you to experience all of the buildings Westward II has to offer. The game does fall in line with the expectations for a budget-priced city simulation and it’s a couple of tweaks away from being more entertaining.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rainbow Web 2 Review

Rainbow Web 2, developed and published by Sugar Games.
The Good: Unique and challenging take on match three gameplay, removing letters gives you an objective, hints can be shown automatically, a mixture of web shapes and patterns, occasional mini-games, good amount of content, for Windows and Mac
The Not So Good: Little change to the basic gameplay, no alternative play modes other than the story
What say you? A well-designed match three puzzle game: 6/8

With this whole debate about the future of PC gaming going on across message board everywhere, casual games have gotten much more attention recently. I’ve always given them their due on this site: since they are games on the PC, they qualify as PC games. The casual games can be broken down into several genres, and one of those classifications is the match three game. At this point, it takes a pretty novel approach to make a game in this genre stand out, since the basic gameplay has been the same for years. The next entrant into the fray is Rainbow Web 2, a sequel (as indicated by the “2”) where you must match three on a web. Does this title stand out against the crowd?

While the general presentation of Rainbow Web 2 is nothing spectacular, there are a couple of touches that make it stand out. The puzzle boards themselves are basic, but the backgrounds are highly detailed and look very nice. They are not animated, but they do put you into the game world adequately. The special effects are minimal, only coming when you make matches, but overall the graphics are decent for what you would expect in the genre. The sound design is average, with aural indications of making matches, but the background music is pleasing and fits the theme of the game well. While there isn’t much to say about the graphics and sound in Rainbow Web 2, the backgrounds of each aspect of the game elevate the overall presentation slightly past average.

Rainbow Web 2 features both timed and untimed story modes where you must defeat an evil spider who has taken over a castle. Apparently, he is a big fan of match three games, as you must successfully complete over 80 levels in order to restore order. This is a good amount of content: each level takes about three minutes (on average) to complete, so we’re looking at about four hours to chug through the entire, which is not bad for a puzzle game. The story mode, beside the basic match three gameplay, also includes picture swapping and hidden object mini-games to spice up the action. These aren’t necessarily difficult, although the hidden object games match the background a bit too well, requiring extensive use of the hint system. Still, it’s nice to be doing something else every once in a while, so the mini-games are a welcome change of pace in Rainbow Web 2.

Your objective isn’t simply to make a lot of matches and get a minimum score. You must remove lettered tiles from the board in order to complete a phrase and move along to the next puzzle. This is a great feature that ups the strategic ante, letting you focus on specific parts of the board instead of mindlessly getting matches anywhere. Rainbow Web 2 comes with seven different web shapes, which adds a bit of variety on its own, and occasionally web connections get removed for even more challenge. And you know the developers stick those lettered tiles in the most remote reaches of the board. Playing the game is very simple: point and click. If you get stuck, the game will subtly highlight a move that will result in a match (you can turn this option off): a nice feature. There really isn’t any difference between timed and untimed modes, since time rarely becomes an issue as long as you focus on removing the letters. The basic gameplay remains the same from the first level to the last: there are no power-ups to use, but non-removable black circles and additional colors to make their appearances along the way. Rainbow Web 2 offers a good amount of challenge thanks to its unique board design and focus on specific tiles. The game takes the usual match three game and tweaks the formula enough to create a fairly distinctive experience.

Rainbow Web 2 feels about as fresh and original as a match three game could. The board arrangement is unique, and the removal of available paths makes the game challenging. There is only the story mode to play and the basics of the gameplay don’t change much, but if you like this kind of game, then you will like this game. The graphics and sound aren’t spectacular, but the background elements are well done. The hint system removes the frustration of getting stuck, and the mini-games offer up a nice change of pace. Rainbow Web 2 is also available for both Windows and Mac, so our “too cool” friends on those Apple-shaped machines can enjoy some match three action as well. While Rainbow Web 2 clearly won’t appeal to people who don’t like match three games, it is one of the better titles in the genre, so fans of these puzzle games should definitely check it out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Supernova 2: Spacewar Review

Supernova 2: Spacewar, developed and published by Tycoon Games.
The Good: Straightforward resource management, tactical battles, researching an advanced technology will also queue prerequisites, decent AI
The Not So Good: Not much depth with only a handful of ships and technologies and no customization, lots of turns waiting for resources to accumulate, lengthy weapon recharging causes a lot of waiting around in tactical battles, tutorial only covers combat, convoluted interface, simplistic graphics, annoying sound effects
What say you? A very bare 4X space game: 4/8

I like me some good 4X strategy game. The exploring! The expanding! The exploiting! The exterminating! Yes, this genre has it all. With the recent releases of some very enjoyable titles, competition has gotten quite stiff and you had better bring the goods. The developer of Magic Stones is back with Supernova 2: Spacewar, a crack at the whole space colonization and warfare thing. How will this effort compare against the giants of the genre?

While you wouldn’t expect an independent game such as Supernova 2: Spacewar to feature a cutting-edge presentation, the 2-D graphics and generic sounds are still disappointing. The interface is very basic, the space map is lifeless, and the battles lack the chaotic punch commonly seen in the genre. The best aspect of the graphics is the missile animations during combat, but this is a very small highlight in an overall substandard package. Add to this campy music and an extremely annoying clicking sound and you get dissatisfaction. While graphics certainly do not make the game and I don’t expect a fantastic 3-D presentation in the strategy genre, Supernova 2: Spacewar is still below average when compared against similar titles and certainly looks and sounds archaic.

Supernova 2: Spacewar lets you lead one of two legions to galactic victory. The two races are identical except for a different color and ship names, so the same strategy can be used for either side. There isn’t any multiplayer (same computer or online) so you’ll be playing exclusively against the AI. The game plays out as a simplified 4X strategy game, where you establish new colonies, research additional technologies, and build up your military. Victory involves getting control of 75% of the galaxy or killing the enemy leader unit. You can also introduce alien technologies into the game. Supernova 2: Spacewar allows you to customize your galaxy size, planet density, mineral availability, and the number of habitable planets. The tutorial only covers the turn-based combat mode rather than the entire game, but learning the empire management portion of Supernova 2: Spacewar is easy enough.

Supernova 2: Spacewar features clear-cut resource management through a slider system. You will need to assign your population to one of six jobs: politicians, officers, soldiers, scientists, engineers, civilians. Each occupation has a primary and secondary effect; for example, politicians increase loyalty and add a tribute to your treasury each turn. The distribution of your people affects loyalty, training, maximum units, research, population growth, income, view range, hit points, speed, and production rate. You obviously can’t excel in every area, so you will need to choose the area most important for your current goals. A lot of turns are spent simply waiting for resources to accumulate, so the initial game is not very well balanced.

There are a number of technologies to choose from. These range from generic techs that increase research rates or resource collection to specific weapons, armors, and ships. There is no real reason to do anything other than the generic and ship categories, since you cannot customize your ship designs. Luckily, all of the prerequisite technologies for each ship will automatically be queued for you (which, sadly, is the best aspect of the game), but the techs used in each ship are hard-coded and cannot be changed, even if you research an upgraded version of the same technology. While you can choose your own path in dealing with the technology tree, since you should really only choose ships, this potential freedom is hindered.

Invading an enemy (or neutral) star system simply involves clicking on it in the galaxy map. You can’t go just anywhere in the galaxy, as stars are connected by paths, much like Sins of a Solar Empire. You are given a basic scouting report on the enemy size, but the star rating given is an odd choice, instead of just providing a number of ships: how many ships does three stars correspond to? Stars can have an assortment of effects for battle like reduced speed or range. In order to invade another star system, you need to build up your military first. You can queue up a ship once you have the materials and money (which takes a long time, even for the initial scouts). For whatever reason, all of your produced ships are put into only one fleet and there are only a handful of ships to choose from, reducing your tactical options dramatically.

The battles in Supernova 2: Spacewar are turn-based, where you can move and shoot each of your ships. The battles are tactically interesting, since you have to worry about which way your ships are facing and the range to enemy craft for each of your weapons. The game indicates whether a specific weapon can be fired, but you have to guess which way to rotate in order to rectify the situation (usually it’s towards them). It’s hard to tell which way was “forward” for each ship (there is no arrow and the unit information doesn’t rotate with the ship), so you can be backwards (as I initially was the first couple of times I played) and not know it until it’s too late and you can’t use any of your weapons. Most weapons take a couple of turns to recharge, so both sides can be sitting there with nothing to do half of the time. Many maps have a planet you will need to assault with a transport craft in order to completely win the match, so these ships need to be protected at all costs. Battles tend to last a long time (even the first couple), which is completely the opposite of the fast-paced, skip-many-turns attitude of the management mode; this is mainly thanks to the inexplicable weapon loading times. The AI in both the tactical battles and the galaxy management modes is good enough to be suitable competition, although their strategies are pretty basic and their advantages are usually numerical rather than strategic.

Supernova 2: Spacewar is a generally disappointing 4X game because of its limited nature. There are only two (essentially identical) races to choose from, the resource management is simple but limited, ships are generic and not customizable, and it takes a long time to build up the resources required to build any semblance of a decent military. If you like pressing the “next turn” button, then the first ten minutes of Supernova 2: Spacewar will be so much fun! The game tries its best to reduce your tactical options, from the frozen and limited ship designs to the technology tree. If a game is going to only have a handful of units to choose from, you should at least be able to customize their configurations somewhat. Even the tactical battles have their problems: there is a lot of waiting for weapons to recharge, and rotating the facing direction can be confusing. The AI is decent enough, but this isn’t enough to save this title from a supernova of regret. There are simply much better space strategy games to choose from. It is fair to directly compare Supernova 2: Spacewar to games that are twice the price? Maybe not, but this is more like a $10 game rather than a $25 game. Supernova 2: Spacewar is a simple 4X strategy game that’s too simple, and lacks many features we have taken for granted.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Amazing Brain Train Review

The Amazing Brain Train, developed and published by Grubby Games.
The Good: Challenging and well-designed mini-games, story-driven quest mode
The Not So Good: Only 15 mini-games means lots of repetition, difficulty ramps up very quickly
What say you? Your brain will get a workout, at least for a little while, in this collection of logic games: 5/8

With our ever-increasing dependence on non-renewable resources, a variety of alternatives have been proposed before we deplete our existing supplies and plunge into darkness. From crop-based ethanol to hydrogen, scientists are on the lookout for the next great supply of energy. One potential source that has yet to be tapped is brain power, a forgotten reserve that has been thankfully highlighted in The Amazing Brain Train. This game highlights a brain-powered train, capable of delivering animals and their assorted possession across the country simply by completing logic-based puzzles. Why haven’t we heard about this transportation method before? I blame Al Gore and his Internet. In any event, how does this collection of mini-games stack up against the rest of the genre?

The Amazing Brain Train continues the cartoon theme and music from other Professor Fizzwizzle-themed games. Like those other titles, The Amazing Brain Train is rendered in 2-D, but the level of detail is fairly high and the result is some pleasing visuals. The game focuses mostly on animals and presents some good models that are manipulated during gameplay. The straightforward interface makes the game easy to play and appropriate for all skill levels. As I’ve said in the past, I would much rather have a good-looking 2-D game than an atrocious-looking 3-D game, so I’m fine with the visual presentation of The Amazing Brain Train. In terms of sound, each game comes with an average amount of effects: the game certainly is not as aurally chaotic as FizzBall, and the sporadic nature of the sound design does make The Amazing Brain Train seem more lifeless. The music is enjoyable, however, so overall the game does look and sound good enough for a casual title.

The premise of The Amazing Brain Train is that you use the power of thought to power a train around a magical land of animals and perform transportation-related tasks. Or something like that. Anyway, you’ll essentially be completing a number of mini-games, and the better you do, the higher the score. The Amazing Brain Train features the story-driven quest mode, where you complete the previously-mentioned tasks, a test mode which randomly assigns you a set of five games, and a practice mode where you can (surprise!) practice. The games of The Amazing Brain Train fall under five categories: spatial, numbers, memory, planning, and search. Unfortunately, there are only three games in each category (for a total of 15) and only two of those are initially unlocked. This is a very low amount of content that, as you can imagine, gets very boring far too quickly. I’m surprised, considering past games by the developer faired far better (230 puzzles) in the content category. Even the sub-standard PIQE had 27 unique puzzles.

Once you get past the initial shock of such a small amount of material, you’ll find that the puzzles The Amazing Brain Train does have are high-quality. Most of the mini-games are unique and involve varied actions, like moving objects or selecting numbers. The game certainly does require thinking and your brain will be challenged. I found every one of the 15 games to be fun, at least until the third iteration of each puzzle set. Unlike Big Brain Academy, which focuses on both speed and difficulty, The Amazing Brain Train brings the pain early and often, even in the same set of levels. While the first couple of maps in each round are easy enough, after that the game gets very tough and you’ll be failing most of the later boards rather than just taking a long time with them. Some people will enjoy this level of challenge, but the more casual players that the game is designed for will get frustrated after they only score two or three correct responses in each set. Since The Amazing Brain Train lacks difficulty settings to only allow for easy or hard puzzles, you are stuck with what the developers feel is a good balance instead of what your level of expertise may be. The lack of features present in The Amazing Brain Train certainly hinders the overall experience and makes the game less enjoyable as a whole.

While what The Amazing Brain Train has is good, it doesn’t have enough of it. The game’s 15 puzzles are all well-designed and quite challenging, but you’ll be saying “oh, this one again” far too often. The difficulty ramps up a bit too quickly in my opinion, going from trivially easy to extremely challenging in just a couple of maps. The lack of difficulty settings makes the transition hard to swallow for novice and younger players. I suspect that people will fall into one of two categories when they play The Amazing Brain Train: bored because of the repetition, or frustrated because of the high difficulty. Those looking for a challenging logic game will find The Amazing Brain Train fun for about 30 minutes, but then either repetition or frustration will set in and the train will come to a crashing halt.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Europa Universalis III: In Nomine Review

Europa Universalis III: In Nomine, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Missions are mostly fantastic, rebels have an agenda and are quite dangerous, improved AI, revamped religion, new advisors, expanded timeline, manually triggered events, improved colonization, changes to make combat less frustrating
The Not So Good: Combat missions typically target questionable provinces with no justification, tutorials are broken, no graphical enhancements, new ideas are generic and don’t fit game enhancements, removal of zero morale troops can cause a large portion of your army to disappear instantaneously
What say you? Substantial improvements for an expansion: 7/8

Gone are the days of the meager expansion pack that only adds a couple of new units and a new map (well, for the most part). With quality expansions for games like Galactic Civilizations, the bar certainly has been raised. Europa Universalis is back with the second expansion to its third game, entitled In Nomine (Latin for “In Nomine”). While the last expansion was just OK, offering up automated merchants and an expanded timeline, Europa Universalis III: In Nomine (using the full title makes the review longer) focuses on missions and an expanded timeline. Will these new features be enough?

One area that certainly did not get many improvements is the graphics. The game looks exactly the same as it did a year and a half ago. Europa Universalis III: In Nomine does not incorporate any of the graphical improvements from Europa Universalis: Rome, such as a more detailed map or ability to tilt your view. In Nomine does include more detailed tool-tips (always a strong point of the franchise), however. The sound is the same as well. Not much to report here, so on with the countdown!

Whereas Napoleon’s Ambition added 28 years to the end of the original timeline, In Nomine appends 53 additional years to the beginning, starting in 1399 with the coronation of King Henry IV. So now, you can control your country for 420 years, which is not too shabby. Accompanying the extra years are more countries, such as a united Scandinavia and Galicia (which has a neat flag). The base map has 30 more provinces as well, to add more detail in Europe. Despite having a host of gameplay upgrades, the tutorials have not been updated and actually don’t even run at all. Clicking in the “colonization” tutorial not only doesn’t tell you the new rules for establishing colonies, it stays at a loading screen permanently! I guess the developers figured that if you were playing an expansion you were familiar with the game, but it would be nice to see the additions made in the two expansions without having the read the manual.

One thing I've complained about in Europa Universalis III is the lack of direction when leading your country. Well, that's all in the past thanks to the new semi-random, optional mission system. There are now seventy categories of goals you get be assigned, from building forts to conquering provinces to accumulating money. While having a sandbox in which to play is nice, having a short-term objective is also nice, and the missions provide good direction for both the human and (especially the) AI players. The conquest missions are odd, though: they can target provinces and countries that have good relations, lack a casus belli, and aren’t core to your empire. This makes little to no sense most of the time, but rest of the missions are cool. If you don’t like your current mission, you can cancel it for a prestige hit and get a new one. The bonuses for completing missions aren’t overly dramatic, but they can add up in the long-term. Speaking of prestige, it now has a larger impact on gameplay, where before it was really just there for scorekeeping purposes. Now, a large array of attributes (stability, morale, diplomacy, trade) is positively and negatively affected by your current prestige level, and things can spiral out of control quickly in the event of a poor war.

While Europa Universalis III always had a large suite of nation-specific and general events, the decision system of In Nomine lets you customize your country even further. These are manually triggered events that can be activated once you fulfill certain objectives, such as forming a new nation or passing a militia act. While some of these decisions are all-positive, most have a balance (like increased taxation for increased rebel chance). These can be done at the country level or for individual provinces, in addition to being religious-related. Religion as a whole has gotten better by actually being simplified. First, the papal controller can invoke a crusade, and the pope can excommunicate leaders of nations, for some additional things to do if you are in charge of the pope. Instead of having sliders you can adjust so that any neighboring religions are tolerated, religious groups are now set into one of three categories: state religion (positive), heretics (slightly negative), and heathen (really negative). You can alter your religion and tolerances somewhat through decisions, but this less flexible method really works better. Missionaries are also revamped: instead of spending a whole bunch of money for a 20% chance of success, you devote a portion of your budget to missionary work that will be permanent until it works, whether its 6 months or 10 years later. Colonization works in much the same way: use a budget slider and colonies will grow by themselves over time without sending additional colonists (although that will produce a short burst of population). Also, income is now directly dependent on the strength of your navy, in an abstraction of real life.

In Nomine comes with five new ideas that are generic at best. Rather than fitting the new enhancements (like granting less of a prestige hit for declining a mission, for example), they are fairly standard bonuses like cheaper ships and better spy defense. It is disappointing that the national ideas don’t take advantage of the new game rules. On a more positive note, combat has gotten some changes: war exhaustion doesn’t always occur, reduced reinforcement in enemy territory and mercenaries never reinforce, failed assaults recover morale for the garrison, and movement progress is not canceled if you change your destination. To reduce the dreaded ping-pong effect, zero morale troops are removed completely during battle. While this is certainly an effective method, having thousands of troops simply disappear can be quite annoying; perhaps a better solution would be to force them to return home and stay there for the duration of the war, instead of losing all of that invested time and money. Also on the combat front are the much more dangerous rebels. Not only do rebels have a goal (anti-tax, nationalist, colonial, religious, revolutionary), but letting rebels successfully siege a province results in a very nasty penalty. No longer simply a nuisance, rebels must be dealt with swiftly and rebellious provinces must be constantly patrolled. This goes for pirates as well, and to combat this problem is the inclusion of ship patrols: pick a destination and your fleet will sail between their current location and said destination forever, keeping the threat of those dreaded pirates down.

The diplomatic aspects of Europa Universalis III have also gotten tweaked for In Nomine. First, you can see if the AI will accept a peace treaty before you send the offer; this saves both time and wasted diplomats. In addition, countries now have rivals (which ties directly into future breakouts) and alliances are shown on the “declare war” screen so that you can gauge how much opposition you will face. Also, espionage has gotten a new action (infiltrate administration) and changing policy sliders doesn’t come with a stability hit. As for trade, merchant costs are now affected by cultural differences and distance and each center of trade where you have a merchant decreases your overall compete chance, so concentrating on a select few trade province with which you have good relations will result in more straight cash, homey. This results in a much more realistic trading economy, where nations (gasp!) actually trade near their location instead of halfway around the globe.

In Nomine introduces a number of new advisor types that affect mercenary cost, land tradition, morale, force limit, discipline, reinforcement speed, manpower, defensiveness, range, blockades, taxes, revolt risk, production, trade, inflation, loans, colonial growth, spy defense, and diplomacy. This amount of variety lets you customize your overall national strategy even more. Tying up the loose ends, In Nomine gives more options in the Holy Roman Empire (the leader can engage attackers of member nations), additional election events, and improved AI in several areas. Overall, Europa Universalis III: In Nomine has a better historical, yet still plausibly random, feel than its predecessors. Almost all of the changes contained herein are for the better and promote deeper gameplay without becoming overwhelming, as each added component comes with alerts at the top of the screen to remind you of actions you can take. In Nomine continues the satisfying strategic gameplay of the Europa Universalis series while adding even more customization options that allow you to lead your nation in the right direction.

This is a pretty long review for an expansion pack, so that alone should tell you the amount of game-enhancing content contained in Europa Universalis III: In Nomine. While nothing here drastically alters the gameplay like Twilight of the Arnor for Galactic Civilzations II (the best expansion I've ever reviewed), almost of the improvements are quality additions. Let’s get the disappointments out of the way first: combat missions can be weird, the tutorials are not functional, new ideas are bland, and the graphics remain the same. But look at all these wonderful, pretty things: missions, rebels, religion, colonization, decisions, combat, AI! Oh my! All of this for $20 is quite a steal, I think. You do have to get the much less impressive Napoleon’s Ambition to enjoy In Nomine, but $60 for the all three games (the original, plus the two expansions) is still a good price point (I forsee an EU3 bundle pack in the near future). Simply put, if you play enough Europa Universalis III, you need to get In Nomine.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Supreme Ruler 2020 Review

Supreme Ruler 2020, developed by BattleGoat Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Complex and detailed economy and production, lots of military units, generally intelligent AI advisors can automate as much (or as little) as you desire, better organized interface, worldwide map, Internet play for 16 players
The Not So Good: Learning curve for novices, thorough gameplay might not be for everyone, the fastest speed setting is still fairly slow which means games can drag, some crazy alliances and wars
What say you? The most comprehensive near-future world simulation: 7/8

The very first game I reviewed here at Out of Eight was Battlefield 2, which has absolutely nothing to do with this review. However, the fourth game I reviewed was Supreme Ruler 2010, a comprehensive but almost impenetrable grand strategy game that had you control a small, independent nation after the U.S. broke up due to high oil prices (yeah, like that's plausible). The updated version is now here in the form of Supreme Ruler 2020: First Blood Part II (I made that up; the full title is actually Supreme Ruler 2020: Baby Geniuses 2: SuperBabies). So, what has three more years of improvements wrought? And is what has wrought worth playing?

While the graphics of Supreme Ruler 2020 are certainly improved over its predecessor, there is some room for improvement. The game uses real satellite images that look great when zoomed out, however when zoomed in the detail level stays the same so the surface features become blurry. The maps are also in 2-D, so elevation changes are just pictured on the map instead of being represented as truly tall mountains. Supreme Ruler 2020 does not have Google Earth-level detail, especially when you are close to the surface, but having real-world images instead of artificial maps does add an air of authenticity to the game. Supreme Ruler 2020 also includes 3-D units (before they were 2-D sprites): from the buildings to the military units, everything on the surface has a detailed model. The models are well-done but generic, as most units of the same type (artillery, tank) use the same exact design. The game does perform well on a wide range of systems, so anyone with a computer that has a Pentium III should be able to run this. Supreme Ruler 2020 features some region-specific music to go along with the killing, but the rest of the sound effects seem identical to Supreme Ruler 2010. Overall, though, the presentation of Supreme Ruler 2020 is better, thanks to a realistic map and 3-D units.

Supreme Ruler 2020 is a complex game that simulates every major aspect of running a modern country. Because of this, it can be difficult to learn how to play, so the game includes several tutorials. These do not go into much detail and only teach the very basics, but it does convey how the interface works. You are required to click on things so it is interactive (make sure you click on anything circled in red!), which is better than simply reading. Between the tutorials and the manual (and simply playing the game a couple of times), you can overcome the initially steep learning curve if you are at least somewhat accustomed to grand strategy games. Speaking of the interface, the game is well-designed and everything is only two clicks away. This is much better than the series of windows that Supreme Ruler 2010 used. Single player gameplay in Supreme Ruler 2020 consists of sandbox campaign games and objective-based scenarios. There are three campaigns to choose from: a standard world, a shattered world where major nations have broken up, and a high-hostility map for aggressive players. You can choose from over 250 different nations; this results in very high replay value, since each country has its own concerns. The sandbox campaign modes don’t come with any objectives (like the manual states), but you can customize your victory conditions and gameplay settings. In addition to the free-form campaign mode, there are ten more directed scenarios, involving unification votes (in America, Canada, Europe, or Italy), escort missions, and military engagements. All of these scenarios and campaigns take place on the same global map; Supreme Ruler 2010 restricted the game to a regional view with a maximum of 16 nations (and usually 5-8). Having one real-world map makes conflicts more interesting and the game ultimately more realistic and enjoyable. It should be noted that all of the nations involved in a unification vote scenario are allied to begin with, so there will be almost no emphasis on military action. This is the polar opposite from before, and I enjoyed having to worry about my neighbors and potentially dealing with them with force rather than passively increasing my domestic rating. Now, all of the unification scenarios are more peaceful. And by more peaceful I mean more boring. Supreme Ruler 2020 has the same support for mods and future enhancements through patches as the previous version of the game. While there isn’t a scenario editor per se, all of the scenario files are either text files or spreadsheets that are easily edited. Since all games of Supreme Ruler 2020 take place on the same world map, you don’t need to create a new one, just customize the starting relations and game rules and objectives. It looks like Supreme Ruler 2020 should have the same high level of post-release support, through both official and user-made content, as before.

Supreme Ruler 2020 gives you a lot of options to customize the game your way. You can put a time limit on the game, from 6 months to 10 years, and allow for complete, capital, capture (a single unit), unification (vote), or a score (total, diplomatic, economy, technology, approval, or military) victory. Or you can go on forever and just see what happens. I liked the progressive campaigns from before, where you started out as a single region and eventually grew larger and larger after each unification vote, but the open-ended nature of the campaign mode with optional objectives is a decent substitute. You can customize the difficulty of Supreme Ruler 2020 for each aspect of the game (economy, military, diplomacy) if you aren’t as adept at one area; this is better than an overall difficulty setting. There are also advanced rules you can introduce, such as fog of war, line of sight, spotting, in addition to enabling nuclear weapons and setting initial funds and resource levels. There are also multiplayer games, including an Internet browser for 16-player action. I did not have time to test the multiplayer aspect of the game, since I got it before it was released to the public (I am cool like that).

It can be hard running a country, so a number of AI advisors are present to help you along. There is an advisor for each of the game’s six departments (production, research, finance, state, operations, and defense) and you can give the AI advisors specific goals (such as reducing taxes or researching military units) or allow them free reign. Alternatively, you can lock the advisors out of doing anything if you want to control that portion of the game yourself. This is a really nice feature, especially for beginners, that lets you tailor the game to how you want to play. I can imagine there are some players who will only want to worry about military action (so the game plays more like a real-time strategy title) and let the AI worry about the budget and resources. The AI advisors do a decent job sticking to your objectives and making reasonable adjustments along the way. One feature that has been removed is hiring and firing advisors: now, everyone is equally competent and you don’t have to worry about hiring exactly the correct person. Honestly, this was just another thing to worry about during gameplay and didn’t really impact your country much. Easing into Supreme Ruler 2020 is a smoother transition thanks to the advisor system.

Supreme Ruler 2020 allows you to build six structures per hex; Supreme Ruler 2010 was restricted to one structure per hex, so cities were unreasonably spread out. Here, you need to have the appropriate complex (industrial or military) in order to build a specific building, so you can’t put a barracks and a coal mine in the same place (sounds reasonable enough). Supreme Ruler 2020 has a host of map filters that show resource locations and terrain for planning and strategic purposes. You can also construct roads and rails for faster transport across your wonderful country. Supreme Ruler 2020 does not have a simple farms-and-mines or taxes-only economy. Instead, you have to worry about eleven resources (agriculture, water, timber, petroleum, coal, metal, uranium, electric power, consumer goods, industrial goods, and military goods), all of which are interrelated and used by different facets of your population. Supreme Ruler 2020 uses bar graphics to represent how much you are producing and using, giving a quick glance at your overall production. No nation is completely self-sufficient, so you will need to trade with other countries in order to meet demand. You can put your surplus goods up for sale and purchase shortages automatically or trade with specific countries. The market fluctuates according to supply and demand: it’s not always a good idea to sell all of your excess coal, since it will bring in less money because there is so much of it. If your economy is too dependent on trade, an overabundance of a key resource could spell bad news. Typically, if it costs less money to produce a resource than the buy it on the market, then export away! The game provides a list of top producers, consumers, exporters, and importers so that you can evaluate potential partners. You will also need to balance the budget by tweaking social spending in eight areas (health care, education, infrastructure, environment, family subsidy, law enforcement, cultural, and social assistance) and taxes in eight areas (low income, high income, corporation, small business, sales tax, unemployment, property tax, and pension tax). Obviously, the lower the taxes and higher the social spending, the more your population will like you (a good thing for voting scenarios). You can also gain money from tourism and issue bonds.

You will have relations with the 200+ countries around the globe (diplomatic relations, of course (I did not have diplomatic relations with that country)). You can enter treaties for trading resources, mutual defense, alliances, and sharing technologies, to name a few. Alliances can get really out of hand (especially in the Melting Point scenario), with non-sensical wars (Illinois vs. Botswana, anyone?) that will never actually result in any real fighting. This is caused by your 20 allies having 20 other allies (and so on), and all that results is increased expenses due to a raised DEFCON level. This is a problem we saw in the first couple of Europa Universalis games, and Supreme Ruler's expansion to a world-wide map is to blame. Supreme Ruler 2020 has a large sortable scoreboard that has everything from casus belli to current tech rating to overall score. You can also read national news, peruse a list of allies and enemies, observe standings with the UN (a bad organization to anger), and religious orientation (a good cause for poor relations). If you don’t trust your neighbors, you can send in spies (although this tends to make them very mad), send up spy satellites, and mark hotspots for your AI military advisor to target. Supreme Ruler 2020 lets you research a disturbingly large number of technologies, from warfare to medicine to specific unit designs. Research can be a bit overwhelming, especially since a lot of the units are very similar and some of the techs aren’t completely intuitive, but giving your advisor an area of focus usually produces good results.

No strategy game would be complete without building units to kill people. Supreme Ruler 2020 allows you to tweak the spending levels and military preparedness (expressed as DEFCON) to fit your budgetary needs. Supreme Ruler 2020 comes with “a whole bunch” (technical term) of units, and giving you a list of each unit type makes my review longer! Land units include infantry, recon, tanks, anti-tanks, artillery, air defense, and transports. Helicopters, fighter/interceptors, fighter/bombers, multi-role fighters, strategic bombers, patrols, and transports take to the air. The ocean is full of subs, carriers, destroyers/cruisers, frigates/corvettes, patrols/support, and even more transports. And you can even build missiles for land, air, naval, submarine, and silos. There are a bunch of historical and near-future units in each of these categories, letting you have a region-specific military with a large variety of units. Each unit has a bunch of stats for attacking and movement that probably mirror real-life stats; this level of detail is very impressive. It is easy to construct units thanks to the infinite queue: once you construct a unit, it will appear at the bottom of the queue, ready to be built once again. This is really awesome as it lets you set your desired composition in the queue and then forget about production until new units are researched. You can, of course, turn off repeating queues if you’d like, but the option reduces micromanagement drastically and is excellent and most welcome.

After you have made your military, it’s time to use it. During peacetime, you can keep a majority of your units in reserve (to reduce costs), but once diplomacy breaks down, you can start blowing stuff up. You can set overall rules of engagement for your units (either as a whole or for individuals and groups): speed, route, initiative, and loss tolerance. In addition, you can issue advanced orders (like patrol and bomb) that can keep units in formation or move them all to a single destination. Using transports is not automatic, so that takes some micromanaging; taking units long distances is probably the least appealing part of the game. The inclusion of garrisons reduces the steamrolling present in a lot of games: the attacking nation will have to take their time venturing across enemy territory. The AI is generally good, especially when you consider that it’s responsible for controlling 200 nations. It is not as active in diplomacy as I would like: they hardly offer anything other than formal alliances and resource trade, and the resource treaties are always cash for goods, never goods for goods. They will accept military-based treaties if you offer them, however. The AI does have the habit of constantly offering goods you don't need (resulting in a lot of rejected proposals) and proposing insane counter-offers that request large amounts of cash from you for little in return. Still, the AI does provide a dynamic world in which to play and while it's not quite as aggressive or smart as I would like, it'll do.

While Supreme Ruler 2020 is a complex game, I found it easier to adapt to when compared with Supreme Ruler 2010 thanks to the improved interface. The game does move methodically: a year will go by in about two hours, which isn’t terribly slow but I’d like to speed though portions of the game where you are just sitting around (1 second for each game day would produce a more exciting pace). Assuming you manually control most of the game, you can be kept busy with trades, diplomacy, military production, research, managing your production, and balancing your budget. If you choose to have the AI control most things, then (not surprisingly) you’ll be sitting around watching nothing happen, so that can obviously get boring. However, those looking for an all-inclusive reproduction of the modern world can’t go wrong with Supreme Ruler 2020.

Supreme Ruler 2020 is a clearly improved version of Supreme Ruler 2010. The streamlined interface makes handling the game’s complexity relatively straightforward, but still gives you all of the hard data required to run your nation. While the tutorial is light on the details, the AI advisors can handle anything you wish to ignore when running your country. From the world-wide sandbox mode to more specific scenarios and multiplayer, the over 200 countries in Supreme Ruler 2020 offer different challenges and goals that provides a lot of replay value. In addition, the game is easy to modify and future patches will probably include additional scenarios. The satellite map is nice from a distance, and the 3-D units look good. Production is comprehensive without being overwhelming: constructing additional factories or importing goods is presented in a straightforward manner. Balancing your budget and tweaking your spending is a game in itself (and has been, on occasion). Supreme Ruler 2020 also includes a large quantity of military units to research, produce, and catch on fire. Once you get past the initial shock of having so many options at your disposal, managing your nation in Supreme Ruler 2020 becomes easier once you learn where everything is. Supreme Ruler 2020 is seemingly realistic (or as realistic as you can reasonable expect), with almost enough content to keep you constantly busy. Despite the developers’ best efforts, I can still see Supreme Ruler 2020 being overwhelming to new players, so it’s not for everyone. But strategy veterans will find a very comprehensive and satisfying experience with high replay value and pleasing realism.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Gumboy Tournament Review

Gumboy Tournament, developed and published by Cinemax.
The Good: Four entertaining online and same-computer multiplayer game modes, more flexible controls, retains the solid physics engine, competitive AI bots
The Not So Good: Extremely poor online performance because you can't host Internet games and the only server is in the Czech Republic, focus on multiplayer means less overall content, essentially pointless single player campaign
What say you? A nice multiplayer-centered adaptation of Gumboy’s physics-based gameplay that needs more servers: 6/8

UPDATE: The day after I posted this review (seriously), Cinemax added a U.S.-based server that fixed all of the online performance problems I had, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Apparently somebody does read these things!

If you have developed a solid game theme or concept, the trend is to use it over and over again. This is why there are many sequels (either yearly or otherwise) throughout computer gaming. A novel idea is to use an underlying intellectual property or game engine to produce a slightly different take, and that’s what we have with Gumboy Tournament. Developer Cinemax (with adult content after midnight) has taken the physics-based, rolling puzzle gameplay of Gumboy: Crazy Adventures and morphed it into a multiplayer affair. Now, instead of having single-player puzzles to navigate through, you are playing against others in a variety of competitive races. Will this transition provide stimulating gameplay?

The graphics of Gumboy Tournament are (not surprisingly) essentially the same as Gumboy: Crazy Adventures, and the quality of the 2-D presentation is reduced and more bland because of the multiplayer-oriented map designs. There are some nice looking backgrounds and good animations present, but we saw all of this before a year ago, as there are hardly any graphical improvements made in this version. The game doesn’t look bad, per se, but it looks the same. The 2-D graphics does mean that Gumboy Tournament will work at a wide range of systems, though. I like the sound design: the background music is well done, and the pace of the music changes if someone uses a speed up or slow down power-up: a nice touch. The effects are pleasing as well. While Gumboy Tournament doesn’t exhibit a quantum leap in terms of improving the presentation over the previous version, it still looks decent.

Gumboy Tournament takes the gameplay of Gumboy: Crazy Adventures and changes it into a multiplayer adventure. This title is really designed for online competition, but Gumboy Tournament does have a single player campaign that offers matches against increasingly more difficult opponents. The campaign is extraneous: you can customize matches by playing a multiplayer game and add AI players anyway (which is better than being told who and what to play), and nothing is unlocked by completing the single player missions. Also, the campaign features a lot of one-on-one games that aren't very fun since they do not take advantage of the game modes. You can play games against people on the same computer (using different input methods), over a LAN, or across the Internet. Unfortunately, the only Internet server is located in the Czech Republic (where the developers are from), so pings are very high and this makes the game unplayable. Even if you are playing against people in the U,S,, all of the data has to go halfway across the world and then back again. You end up getting about 1 or 2 frames per second, which obviously makes playing online impossible. This problem would be alleviated by letting players host their own servers (you can host your own games, but only on the Czech server), but Gumboy Tournament does not offer this option. Thus, a potentially great multiplayer game is ruined by poor online support.

Once you decide to play against the AI (or against your friends...yeah, friends), you can choose from twenty maps of varying difficulty and complexity, although the maps as a whole are much easier to navigate than before. There is a difficulty setting that changes the game speed: playing at maximum speed is quite an experience. There are four game modes to choose from, all of which adapt well to the general gameplay of the Gumboy series. My personal favorite is “touchlast,” a form of reverse tag where you attempt to catch the person who is “it.” The matches in this mode can get pretty nuts, in an enjoyable way, of course. Diamonds mode scatters diamonds (surprise!) across the map that can be collected for points; they are not distributed randomly, so you can guess where they are going to appear next after you've played a map for a while. Capture the flag should be familiar to pretty much everyone, although in Gumboy Tournament you don't need to have your flag in your base in order to score, resulting in inflated scores and a lot more chaos. The final game mode is a checkpoint-based race: there are usually multiple paths to choose from, and the game indicates your position as you reach each checkpoint. The races involve a lot of running into and bouncing off of the opposition (both accidental and intentional). All of these modes are fun and take advantage of the physics well.

One thing that annoyed me about Gumboy: Crazy Adventures was the obtuse control scheme. Thankfully, Gumboy Tournament gives the user more options to how they want to control their rolling ball thing. You can use the original spinning control method, where you tell Gumboy to roll forwards or backwards, or you can prefer to use directional controls (up, down, left, right). Spinning was less than intuitive (especially when going upside down or vertically), so giving more options is a good thing and I prefer directional control a lot more. You can use the keyboard, mouse or a gamepad, which supports having multiple people on the same computer at the same time. While mouse control is less precise than using the other methods, I still prefer using it to the other methods. Rather than having a minimap, Gumboy Tournament has arrows that point to objective locations (the player who is “it,” both flags, the next checkpoint, diamonds) that actually works a lot better since you don’t have to keep glancing in the bottom-left corner of the screen and figure out where you are on a map. While Gumboy: Crazy Adventures used several shapes that provided special abilities (like a floating star or sinking cube), Gumboy Tournament relies on more traditional power-ups in addition to the circular glue ball: shields, magnetic powers, and changes in speed. The solid physics engine that was present before has remained intact; although the level designs are more elementary (to support faster-paced multiplayer action), you will still bounce off of enemies and float through the occasional watery hole. The AI opponents in the game are very good, which offsets the disappointing multiplayer server issues slightly: they will be aggressive and skilled at higher difficulty levels, playing the game quite intelligently no matter what the mode is on. Running into other players while chasing the flag or collecting diamonds is mighty fun, and blocking other Gumboys is a sneaky tactics. You might forget that you are playing against AI opponents since you are having a lot of fun, but the lack of lag-free multiplayer ruins the overall experience.

Gumboy Tournament deserves a 7/8 because of its original, fast, and fun gameplay that melds a good physics engine, a unique style, and an assortment of control options. However, since it is a multiplayer game, the multiplayer must be smooth, and restricting the online matches to run off a server located in Europe results in unplayable conditions. That’s too bad, since Gumboy Tournament is pretty darn fun. Each of the four game modes is simple enough for everyone to enjoy and promote fast-paced action-oriented gameplay that is well suited for multiplayer affairs. The non-violent gameplay is appropriate for all ages, and the overall theme and tone is certainly geared towards a wider audience. Adding more traditional control schemes makes Gumboy Tournament far more inviting than its predecessor, and ultimately the game is more enjoyable. While the game is only $20, you still need a more diverse selection of servers (or even more than one) to accompany the diverse selection of players that could potentially enjoy the game over the Steam distribution network. Until this problem is fixed, however, Gumboy Tournament is a great multiplayer game restricted to matches against the AI or on the same computer.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle Review

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle, developed by Cyan Worlds and published by Fanista/Power of Entertainment.
The Good: Unique gameplay, for Windows and Mac
The Not So Good: Extremely tedious level design, no powerups or gameplay variation beyond the very basic, no editor and not much content, can’t skip levels, sporadic presentation
What say you? A trivially easy and generally boring puzzle game aimed squarely for a younger crowd: 4/8

There have been a number of iconic characters in video game history. Mario. Sonic. Gordon Freeman. Cosmic Osmo? This little-known character makes his return after an almost 20 year absence in Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle, a puzzle game by the guys who did Myst (which was kind of popular back in the day). Puzzle games sure are popular, as evidenced by the frequency they get reviewed on this site. Will Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle hook users in?

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle features 3-D graphics, and the results range from “outstanding” to “unused potential.” First, the design of Cosmic Osmo is very nice: highly detailed, well animated, and a joy to look at (although the mandatory celebration dance does get old after the third time you’ve seen it). It is unfortunate, then, that he inhabits some drab environments. While the backgrounds are nicely detailed and animated, the tiles of Hex Isle are very uninspired. So much more could have been here, as Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle only has simple metallic hexes on which to step. They are jarringly out-of-place and could have been incorporated into the background theme much, much better, such as being a part of the overall terrain instead of simple floating boxes. The sound is also very basic: a couple of canned end-of-the-level dialogue bits from our good friend Cosmic Osmo and some generic background music. While the character model of Cosmic Osmo looks great, the rest of Hex Isle isn’t at the same level of quality.

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle comes with 36 levels of puzzlement. This isn’t a lot of content compared to almost every other puzzle game on the market, and the lack of a level editor hurts even more. It seems you could implement an editor very easily, considering the simplistic nature of the layouts, but Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle doesn’t have one. In addition, you cannot skip past levels if you get stuck or frustrated. While Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle is available for both Windows and Macintosh PCs, the game lacks typical features found in pretty much every other puzzle game.

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle is very simple to control: move and jump. Your goal is to step on the six blue hexes scattered (not randomly, sadly) around each puzzle without falling off the edge. In addition to your goal hexes, there are colored hexes that change color from green to yellow to red, and then disappear. So, there is the potential for some interesting results, as you must avoid removing red hexes you may need later. Unfortunately, as far as the gameplay is concerned, you can only move or jump. There are no bonuses, no special powers, no enemies, and nothing else to collect. Even Mario had some fireballs to throw. There’s a reason why the “manual” fits on one sheet of paper: there’s not much to this game. You can try to eliminate hexes quickly (even if they aren’t related to getting the blue hexes) to earn a higher score, but the lack of an online high score list means this goal is meaningless except to unlock six bonus levels.

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle is clearly designed for a pre-teen audience. The game offers almost no challenge: though the red hexes disappear more quickly as you advance, it never becomes too difficult to complete and the game is over before you know it. In addition, Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle features some atrociously bland level design: you will occasionally have to time jumps, but blue hexes are commonly hidden below other hexes that you must find and remove by trial and error, a process that is not only boring but requires no skill whatsoever. Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle plays more like a tedious scavenger hunt rather than a challenging puzzle game, and that’s not very engaging. I can’t tell you how boring and frustrating it is to simply run across hexes for five minutes, removing every one to uncover the last blue hex. Sigh. I don’t mind having games designed for kids, but you should at least offer up some challenge for an older audience. The tiresome gameplay and minimal content combine to form an ordinary experience.

Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle is too plain. The highlight of the game is the well designed main character, but it all goes downhill from there. The game suffers from a lack of features: there is no level editor, only 36 levels, and the gameplay never changes from the beginning to the end. There are no bonuses or powerups to strategically use: just move and jump. I can’t speak for every audience, but I would imagine that even kids’ games should vary the action at least somewhat throughout the game for those with short attention spans. The level design ranges from somewhat good to downright annoying: while correct timing is necessary on occasion, most of the time you’ll be hunting down hidden hexes by jumping on hundreds of tiles four times each. Talk about bland. If you are under the age of, say, eight, you might add an extra point to the score. Otherwise, Cosmic Osmo’s Hex Isle is too simplistic and monotonous to be very enjoyable.