Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Loco Mogul Review

Loco Mogul, developed and published by ApeZone.
The Good: Three different gameplay styles effectively combine, high replay value due to randomized maps, large degree of strategic freedom
The Not So Good: No in-game tutorial, unimpressive 2-D graphics, lacks competitive multiplayer, not many levels, buying out investors gives no gameplay benefit
What say you? A distinctive casual title that is part Minesweeper, part transportation simulation, and part click-management game: 6/8

One could argue that the tycoon craze started when Railroad Tycoon was released way back in 1990. Numerous copycats and offshoots have been released since that hallmark title, simulating pretty much every interesting (and not-so-interesting) aspect of the world. And this brings us to Loco Mogul, which, at first, I thought that Loco Mogul was a game where you manage crazy Spaniards, but I was wrong. Instead, the “loco” is for that time-honored business management staple: the train. For whatever reason, the transportation management game seems to focus, more often than not, on trains. How will Loco Mogul differentiate itself among the hordes of mogul and tycoon titles?

The lowest point of Loco Mogul is the graphics. They aren’t bad, but they are simplistic 2-D graphics that seem archaic when most of the games in the genre have moved on to a three-dimensional presentation. I will say that the 2-D effects make the game easy to navigate, although some of the icons can get small and a zoom feature would be helpful on occasion. The level of detail is average, though you can clearly see what an icon or texture represents. Nobody will be blown away by the graphics of Loco Mogul, as they are functional at best. The game also comes with the typical railroad music and sound effects that any game with trains features. All right, enough of this, let’s get to the good parts.

Like most economic simulations, the goal of Loco Mogul is to make fat stacks of cash. You know: greenbacks, bones, smackers, bills, Benjamins, bread, ducats, loot, samoleans. That's all the ones I can think of for now. Anyway, you do this by exploring the territory for businesses and towns, laying down track, and then efficiently running the trains. Loco Mogul comes with only ten maps that are connected in a single-player campaign: you can run through them all in the matter of an hour or two. Fortunately, the maps are randomly generated so the layout is different each time you play. If this was not the case, interest in Loco Mogul would wane very quickly. Loco Mogul lacks an in-game tutorial (a player's guide is planned to be released soon, if it hasn't been already), but the game is generally intuitive enough. Multiplayer is also a missing feature in the game, either over the Internet or on the same computer, so you are only competing against yourself (there is no AI competition on the maps, either).

Loco Mogul has three distinct phases of gameplay culled from different genres, and they work together quite well. First, you will have to survey the hidden terrain for businesses. This is done much like Minesweeper: once you uncover a square, the game will indicate if any product-producing businesses are nearby with a numerical indication of many surround the current location. Since it can be expensive to uncover the entire map, there is some strategy involved in searching for goods. Since they are located in appropriate locations (fish near rivers, for example), the first phase of Loco Mogul is an interesting game of trying to maximize uncovered businesses while minimizing search costs. The surveying phase is also used to gather wood (by clicking on forested squares) for bridges and dynamite for tunneling through tall mountains.

Once you have discovered enough potential customers, it is time to lay some track. Here, your goal is to make the most efficient path between locations, minimizing travel time while not wasting a lot of money laying unnecessary track. You will have to level hills or go around them and also decide where to place stations. Stations cover a crossed area and cannot overlap, so you are commonly faced with choosing which adjacent stations get serviced and which ones do not. Placed objects can be removed with a right-click, eliminating poorly placed tracks that don't look right with no penalty. Leveling hills can come with a benefit: helpers can be unlocked that can lend money, uncover the map, chop down trees, flatten hills, scare away bandits, or allow you more time to run your trains.

The final phase of each level involved running the train. This is done through a turn-based click-management style mechanic. Each lettered station will provide goods intended for another station. Goods have different values and wait times before they disappear, so there is (again) strategy involved in which goods to pick up (although goods not picked up will lower profits across the board) and which order to do them in. The turn-based nature of the gameplay (you are only limited in the number of squares your train can travel, not in how long you take) lets you take your time planning out your route without feeling rushed like in almost all games in this genre. The amount of time you are given to run your trains depends on how well you uncovered the map's resources. Loco Mogul is actually pretty difficult: it is tough to balance spending and making money in an efficient manner, especially since all of the maps are randomized and you can't be sure of exactly where everything is going to be (that would be cheating, cheaters!). It took me a couple of run through to develop a good surveying technique, track design plan, and transportation model. It's rare to find games that make you develop three strategies in order to be successful. You can use your profits to upgrade your train to carry more goods at once or buy out investors in your company. While this does impact your final score, there is no benefit in the game to spending a significant amount of money on doing this. It would be nice if the investors granted some sort of permanent bonus like the helpers do to give you some real incentive for wasting your cash on them.

I will commend Loco Mogul for having three seemingly unrelated gameplay mechanics tie together quite well, resulting in a varied and subsequently interesting experience. You are never stuck in one mode for very long, so a brisk pace is kept as you progress through the campaign. Each of the three phases are done well and are equally entertaining, and I must say that I haven't played a game quite like Loco Mogul. The features could be more complete: the graphics are unimpressive and multiplayer would be interesting. In addition, the ten random maps could be bigger, which would make further campaigns seem not as repetitive and increase the replay value. Still, Loco Mogul works well and it's fun if you are looking for something different.