Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shelled! Online Review

Shelled! Online, developed and published by Red Thumb Games.
The Good: Realistic physics, limited movement makes attacks easier and maneuvering strategic, deformable terrain, lots of varied weapons, multiple gameplay modes, easy to join online matches, straightforward controls, informative tutorials
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings for single player campaign or AI opponents, can’t adjust power scroll speed, weapon camera can’t be permanently minimized, low resolution graphics, maps aren’t random
What say you? One of the better arcade tank combat games: 6/8

I’ve played my fair share of tank combat games: Tank Universal, Think Tanks, First Battalion, T-72, Battle Carry, DropTeam. Only one of them was any good (the last one) and they seem to be decently popular; now, we are presented with Shelled! Online. Disappointingly not an Internet-based lobster simulation, this combination of the classic game Scorched Earth, a 3-D environment, and Mario-like turtle shells looks to breathe some fresh air into a generally disappointing sub-genre. First person shooters seem to be getting all of the love, but why not jump into a heavily armored vehicle to wreak some havoc? Sounds like a good time had by all, except for the guy getting blown up. Will Shelled! Online resurrect the arcade tank game?

Being from an independent developer, you wouldn’t expect the presentation of Shelled! Online to be groundbreaking, and it’s not! Shelled! Online is one of those Torque game engine titles, which typically means passable 3-D graphics (see here and here) with an independent look. The environments consist of a lot of circular hills with some peaks and rivers (very reminiscent of Kingmania, actually) and the tanks are tricked-out turtle shells of doom. The explosions, while repetitive (the tanks fly apart), are effective. The deformable terrain is nice (it also has a tactical benefit) and varies the landscape after intense matches. Shelled! Online has a maximum resolution of 1024x768, which is disappointing for users with widescreen or LCD monitors. While the game can be played in a window, increasing the resolution would result in a better overall look and not stretch the game in full-screen views. The game features a snazzy weapon camera that follows your shot; this a neat feature, but I wish there was an option to make it show the view in a mini-map (which is does once you click your mouse) instead of having to manually switch back to a view of your tank after every shot. The audio in Shelled! Online is very basic, with some explosions and other minor effects. I do like the background music, though: it is quite catchy without overriding the rest of the game. Overall, Shelled! Online delivers exactly what I was expecting for the presentation: average for an independent game.

A simpleton would say that Shelled! Online is merely Scorched Earth in 3-D, and they would be mostly correct: the object of the game is to set shot power and angle and launch exotic weapons at your opponents. The game comes with twenty single player missions with various objectives, such as destroying bases or gathering gold. They are an entertaining-for-a-while diversion from the focus of the game, which is the online competition. The missions can be quite hard, since it’s usually just you against a slew of tanks and stationary turrets; the lack of difficulty settings (that could have given you increased health, for example) makes trudging through the campaign a bit less desirable. In addition to competing against the AI in the scripted missions, you can encounter them in deathmatch-only skirmish games or on the online servers. The AI provides good practice for the online game as they can engage (and avoid) you pretty well, but their somewhat simplistic nature shines through during the team-based games as they don’t capture flags or bases too well. They do play fair, however, and playing against them is about the same as with other multiplayer-centric titles like Battlefield and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Like the campaign, the AI lacks difficulty settings, but they don’t really need to become any easier of an opponent.

As for the multiplayer aspect of Shelled! Online, the game features an integrated browser that makes it easy to join a match. All of the games I saw were hosted by the developer (one for each game type) and provided lag-free gameplay. The game types aren’t revolutionary by any means, but they do offer some variety: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, hunters and prey (tag, essentially), capture the hill (domination or conquest), and destroy the base. There are a number of maps to choose from, although there is only one map for the team-based modes. The maps also are not randomly generated (something that would be seemingly possible considering the game engine), but you are given random spawn points that mix up the action somewhat. The rounds are short (3 minutes), and this keeps the game from dragging. You are also able to create your own tank design, including color, body, head, tail, and feet (or have the computer generate one for you), that will be used to represent you online: a nice feature.

Controlling your tank is standard fare if you’re accustomed to any first person shooter, using the mouse/keyboard combination we all know and love or the depraved XBOX controller. Your tank can move in three dimensions using a jet pack that adds some interesting strategy to the mix. Shelled! Online is entrenched in physics, which means you have to aim above your target in order to hit it. As you will all no doubt recall from physics class, a 45 degree angle will result in the largest distance traveled, but you also have to consider obstacles that may be in your way: the deformable terrain has a nasty habit of placing craters everywhere. The game displays your last shot power level visually; this makes is very easy to make small adjustments to your next shot. The power bar slowly creeps up the scale, and you depress the mouse button when you have reached the desired level. I’d like to have an option to change the speed at which the power increases for all players, but I understand why the design decision was made (to compliment the movement…see below).

Shelled! Online is a real-time game with a turn-based pace thanks to the movement rules: you have limited fuel and must wait until your fuel fully recharges before you can move again. While some people who enjoy twitch shooters will find this very handicapping, I like how it adds dramatically to the overall strategy in the game. There are definitely some tense moments as you are hunkered down in a crater (or, worse, at the top of a hill where everyone can see you) waiting for your fuel to accumulate. Shelled! Online comes with a lot of weapons to choose from: multiple shots, big shots, nukes (really big shots), diggers, mines, freezing, rockets, shrapnel, and first aid for teammates. These are purchased by using cash you earn by blowing up other tanks or collecting gold shells randomly scattered around the level (the single player mode gives you weapons at the beginning of each level only). In addition to simply launching shells at enemies and hitting them, you can smack them in mid-air (you can detonate a shell prematurely by pressing the right mouse button) or ram into them. When a shot is taken, the game jumps to a view of your shell as it flies through the air. While this is nice to look at and a good planning tool, it makes moving and shooting at the same time difficult. Thankfully, once you press the left mouse button to exit the view, it shows the remainder of the track as a small window in the corner of the screen. As I mentioned earlier, I’d like the option to turn this on first if the player so chooses. Overall, Shelled! Online is a fun tactical action game that strikes a good balance between turn-based planning and real-time chaos. It does take some practice to learn how far the shells fly at certain power levels, but after a while you’ll get the hang of it. Making a difficult shot is a rewarding feeling, whether it’s against human opponents or the AI. All of the issues I have with Shelled! Online are minor at best, as the game is quite solid as a whole.

Don’t be fooled by the comparatively simple 3-D presentation: there’s an addictive action game contained in Shelled! Online. It takes the best aspects of Scorched Earth and adds in a 3-D environment, tons of weapons, and methodical real-time gameplay. Gamers who enjoy fast-paced games won’t like Shelled! Online, but I do enjoy the tense limited movement and physics-based mechanics. I think if the game looked more like a AAA title, then more people would be drawn to its infectious gameplay. There are a handful of small improvements that could be made to polish up the game, but the title is good enough to be quite enjoyable.