Sunday, September 14, 2008

Now Boarding Review

Now Boarding, developed and published by Gabob.
The Good: Intuitive interface, concrete goals, nice graphical style, lots of purchasable items that impact the gameplay, AI assistants are helpful without being controlling
The Not So Good: Can get repetitive like most games in the genre
What say you? A click management game with a number of features designed for longevity and efficiency: 7/8

You could devote an entire review site solely dedicated to casual games, as it seems like a new one comes out every day. Because of this, I like to highlight titles by independent developers, instead of the casual game “factories.” My unending crusade leads me today to Now Boarding, a game residing in the click-management category I am apparently fond of, considering the frequency at which I review similar titles. This particular title lets you manage an airline by routing flights, eventually upgrading your operation to a more complex (and more profitable) status.

One thing Now Boarding has going for it is a successful theme. While the game is entirely in 2-D, there is a nice style associated with the title, utilizing cartoon-like graphics in an effective manner. Everything is color-coded and navigating through the game is very straightforward. I like the overall style of the game, and this extends to the sound design as well. Now Boarding features some great music that fits the retro-airport feel of the game. Also, it has appropriate sound effects, such as the “fasten seat belt” sound, and nearly constant eruptions of jubilation when people meet others who are going to the same destination. Overall, Now Boarding looks and sounds great, and it does this without having to resort to 3-D effects.

The first thing you’ll notice about Now Boarding is that you need to install Adobe Air, something I had never heard of until now. Apparently, it’s an Internet platform designed to run desktop applications on multiple operating systems, kind of like JavaScript. The bottom line is that Now Boarding will run in Windows, Linux, and Mac, so that’s cool. Once you fire up the game, you’ll notice three modes of play. The career mode is where you’ll be initially spending most of your time, as you will traverse five different episodes, one each for a different region of the United States and Europe. You will progressively unlock more airports and other amenities by earning fat stacks of cash. Now Boarding does a great job of providing very specific goals (like buy a hot dog stand) to meet in each episode, basically suggesting appropriate things to purchase to improve your service as you progress through the game: it’s a tutorial without being a tutorial (although there is a 10-second tutorial as well). Once you have completed the first episode, a continuous free play mode becomes unlocked, allowing you to play in a particular location for an essentially infinite period of time, rather than the once-per-month time frame utilized by the career mode. Survival mode ups the difficulty to the extreme, and is intended for those who have completed the game fully. Now Boarding has enough content to keep you busy for quite a while, and with a randomized passenger order, replays will be different.

In Now Boarding, you move airline passengers to their destinations to make the aforementioned fat stacks of cash. You do this by placing passengers on planes, making a route for the plane consisting of one or more stops, placing the plane on the taxiway, and then taking landing planes to a gate. These actions are all done with the mouse and the targets are fairly large and easy to click on, although selecting a moving passenger can be almost impossible. All of the operations at non-hub airports are automated, so all the passengers (or as many as can fit on the plane) will be loaded on and flown to the next airport in the queue you set (the final stop is always the hub). You are given a time limit, but as long as you aren’t forgetting people or making each flight stop at four or five destinations, then getting everyone delivered in time is fairly easy. You can also design routes to fly through bonus clouds that may grant faster fly times, happier clients, or money. You won’t directly earn any extra money by delivering passengers faster, but good service at specific airports will result in more business. Also, certain airports are more popular at different times of the year (like New Orleans for Mardi Gras) and will experience increased demand. Now Boarding also automatically saves your progress at the end of each month: take that, Spore.

The money you make from ticket sales can be used to purchase a “whole bunch” (that’s a technical term) of upgrades. You can get additional seats for passengers, paintings and plants for decoration, and food and entertainment for increased happiness to place in your terminal. Placement does matter, at least a little bit, as the passengers will actually travel around your airport to the services you provide: precious seconds can be lost with an out-of-the-way pizza stand. In addition, you will need to get higher capacity airplanes and more airports to visit. As I mentioned earlier, Now Boarding provides a list of appropriate upgrades as overall goals, making the decisions less of a guessing game. You will, however, have to make tough decisions on what to upgrade next: should I get a new airport and risk not having enough planes?

In order to help you out, employees can be hired in four areas: ticketing, customer service, gate attendant, and docking. The ticketing representative will seat people going to the same destination together for easy selecting. I found this person to be the most useless, especially once you get a gate attendant, as they will call customers over to a plane that has a flight plan to their destination. The customer service rep will walk around and make people happy. The docking person will take planes to and from the runway. Of all these people, I found automatic docking to be the most helpful. Your employees will also get better at their jobs over time, resulting in a more efficient operation. The game gradually introduces these positions over time and Now Boarding transitions from a click management game to more of a strategy game. The employees are slow by design and you could to their actions faster manually, but when you have a large fleet flying around and customers scattered around the country, the extra help is a necessity. The good thing about the employees is that you are still left with a lot to do even if you have all of the positions filled, namely designing the most efficient flight plans.

Really, Now Boarding is less about clicking speed or reflexes and more about overall planning and strategy. It’s the least amount of clicking in what you would call a click management game, which should make the game appeal to a larger audience who typically dislikes all of that manual labor. Now Boarding does have the nice level of controlled chaos that good games in the genre feature. The game is also open to varied strategies: you can use a true “hub” plan, where all flights are routed in to and out of a central airport, or a more Southwest-style approach of direct flights. Either will work, and it's this kind of flexibility that makes for an entertaining product. The more I played, the more I relied on the employees to run the minutiae of moving planes around the airport. They became a fundamental part of the gameplay, as I focused more on routing and less on clicking stuff. This lets Now Boarding transcend past a normal click management game and become more of a strategy game, and that's right up my alley. I also became heavily reliant on the plan feature, as it removed a lot of extra clicking and the AI employees were good at correctly loading and sending out planes, albeit slightly slower than if I manually did it.

Maybe I just prefer click management games, but Now Boarding has an impressive roster of features that enhance the basic tenants of the genre beyond your typical offering. It’s a click management game without a lot of click management, at least once you can afford good employees (which happens rather quickly). Most of the games in this genre suffer from extreme tedium and repetition, and while there is some amount of that here, the combination of AI employees and a different overall focus makes Now Boarding stand out. Early on the game plays like a click-management game, but after you get rolling, the experience changes to more of a transportation management offering. Either way, Now Boarding is really addictive, as exemplified by me missing the beginning of my favorite show. The copious amount of upgrades and randomized customers gives you a lot of value for the price (under $20). The upgrades aren’t just for looks, either, as the ones you choose impact your level of success. The game also suggests appropriate upgrades along the way, limiting the number of bad, expensive choices you will make. Overall, Now Boarding is very well done and quite entertaining, no matter what genre you place it in.