Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tank Combat Review

Tank Combat, developed by Crazy House and published by City Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Three campaigns, I suppose
The Not So Good: Bland fighting, complete disregard for real-world ballistics, dumb AI, sloppy controls, horribly outdated graphics, lacks multiplayer, unoriginal setting, no mid-mission saves
What say you? This arcade tank game should appeal to absolutely no one: 1/8

Tanks are cool. This is exemplified by all of the tank games that have appeared on the PC that I name whenever I do a review of a tank game. Add one more to the list: the generically-named Tank Combat. This game is developed by the same people who did T-72: Balkans on Fire, which was not completely horrible. T-72 was a simulation through-and-through, and the developers have decided to go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum for Tank Combat. This is an arcade game that supposed to appeal to a wider audience because you don’t have to worry about things like “wind” or “gravity.” Take that, Isaac Newton!

Tank Combat seriously looks like it came out in the mid 90s. First, the maximum screen resolution is 1280 by 960: who uses that anymore?! Too bad you spent all of that money on a fancy widescreen monitor, eh? Not that you’d really want to look at Tank Combat anyway, as the game features completely bland textures and horrible environments that lack any real detail. There is also a very significant amount of pop-in, even at the highest possible graphics setting. The tank models look OK but they are completely out of place when set against the very underwhelming graphics. Tank Combat needs to join the rest of us in the 21st Century with higher resolution textures and realistically detailed environments. The sound isn’t much better off, featuring delayed voice acting and weird, out of place music. Tank Combat also disables the sound every time I run the game, don’t ask me why. If you’re looking for archaic graphics and sound, then you have found it here in Tank Combat.

First, the good news: Tank Combat features three campaigns. Now, the bad news: everything else. The game takes place in the ultra-original setting of World War II. At least T-72 was in a unique place (Bosnia). Each campaign, one for each of the major forces in World War II (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) consists of six missions each that consists of simply blowing up enemy tanks that are on the way to the finish line. Tanks will always be placed in the same location and never move unless explicitly told to do so by the level designer. You must finish a mission in one sitting as there are no saved games, manual or automatic. And Tank Combat lacks multiplayer of any sort.

Not only is Tank Combat an arcade tank game, but it takes any sort of realism out of the equation. First, the controls are odd: you cannot turn the tank without moving forward. I swear I saw tanks rotate in pretty much every other game and movie and documentary. Also, you do not need to aim slightly above an enemy in order to hit them, as apparently there was no gravity during World War II. This makes combat trivially easy and completely uninteresting. While I don’t expect an arcade tank title to have super realistic ballistics, there should be at least some challenge when it comes to engaging enemy tanks. Tank Combat certainly does not have an advanced damage model as tanks experience two condition: OK and on fire. Realistically long reloading times for the main guns goes completely against the arcade nature of the rest of the game.

Things do not get better with the AI: they either move towards you or sit there and let you destroy them. There are no advanced flanking procedures, except for the rare instance that the scenario developer explicitly put them there. The objective map shows where everyone is going to be before the mission starts, removing any sort of surprise. It’s actually probably better off this way, as the low resolutions make it difficult to see tanks on the horizon anyway. Tank Combat is point-and-shoot, requires no thinking, and rarely varies the gameplay beyond the very simple.

A game where tanks shoot at each other: what could go wrong? A lot, apparently. Tank Combat has tanks doing combat, but it’s executed so, so poorly. This is certainly not a follow-up to T-72 (which might have been decent). I’ve never understood how a similar follow-up can actually be significantly worse than the first attempt, but that’s what we have in Tank Combat. Where to start? The archaic graphics? The unintelligent AI? The linear and predictable missions? The lack of anything resembling real physics? The numerous missing features (multiplayer, saved games)? Even bad games can be occasionally entertaining, but Tank Combat never crosses into that territory. This is by far the worst tank game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of tank games. Even at $10 it seems overpriced. I can usually pick at least something good out of each game I play, but there are really no redeeming values here. Tank Combat gets the worst score ever.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Terrorist Takedown 2 Review

Terrorist Takedown 2, developed and published by City Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Varied weaponry, in-game multiplayer browser
The Not So Good: Very difficult on normal settings, dumb heavily scripted AI, short single player campaign, standard multiplayer options with poorly placed spawn points and only three maps, mediocre voice acting
What say you? The very definition of a generic budget first person shooter: 4/8

Remember that whole Bin Laden thing? Yeah, me neither. But the one thing it did do was put a new face on the Enemy of America: replacing the Nazis of games past is the generic Middle Eastern terrorist. Ah yes, those wacky terrorists with their wacky AK-47s and wacky car bombs. Somebody has to take down those terrorists, and that’s the premise behind the appropriately-named Terrorist Takedown 2. Did you even know there was a Terrorist Takedown 1? This time around plays quite differently than before: a more traditional first person shooter rather than being restricted to vehicles or turrets. At least that’s what I can gather from reading some reviews, since I certainly did not play the original when it came out almost four years ago. This is another one of those F.E.A.R.-like Jupiter EX engine games, and it seems that City Interactive wants to milk every penny out of their purchased license (see Code of Honor 2).

Terrorist Takedown 2 makes good use out of the Jupiter EX engine, unlike some games of the recent past. The character models, especially the main characters, are detailed and look semi-realistic, although the rag doll physics result in a lot of crazy poses (especially when other objects are involved). The environments look like a stereotypical Middle Eastern setting: the outdoor urban areas benefit from a lot more interesting detail, but indoor areas are generic (though filled with some furniture) and rural areas are poor. The game would look a whole lot better if it weren’t for insanely dark shadows that populate the maps: it is difficult to see much of anything in an obstructed location as the transition between lightened and darkened areas is too drastic. The weapon models are poor with a very low level of detail on several of the weapons as seen in the first person view (where you will be spending almost all of the game). The weapon sound effects are eerily similar to F.E.A.R., which is a good thing: shell casings hit the ground and the weapons have a satisfying level of power behind them. Terrorist Takedown 2 has generally poor voice acting, especially for the natives, and I find the music to be bordering on offensive (it incorporates Arabian phrases and stereotypical music). In all, Terrorist Takedown 2 is a mixed bag both visually and aurally.

As with most budget first person shooters, Terrorist Takedown 2 is light on the features. The single player campaign only consists of seven missions of about twenty to thirty minutes each. Thanks to completely linear design and heavily scripted (and non-random) AI, playing through it again is unnecessary. The objectives almost consist entirely of “get here and shoot everything along the way:” not very exciting. The campaign certainly has the potential to be interesting, but the lack of objective variety and close parallels to higher-quality games hurts Terrorist Takedown 2. The maps occasionally have confusing layouts with frequent dead ends; although the objectives on the minimap try to point you in the right direction, the confusing maps sometimes get in the way of expeditious travel. The linear level designs also leave no room for tactical decisions, as there is only one way to go. Add in some backtracking with enemies that magically spawn in areas you’ve already cleared and you get a less than fulfilling single player experience. Luckily, Terrorist Takedown 2 frequently saves your progress as death is a common occurrence.

On the multiplayer front, games are easy to join through the browser and you can choose from many different loadouts based on the weapons used by various countries: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spanish, America, and even the mercenaries and terrorists. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here as Terrorist Takedown 2 only has three (three!!) small maps to play on and the spawn points are horribly placed. You will commonly spawn right next to an enemy and live approximately two to three seconds. Fun. As with Code of Honor 2, you're just better off playing F.E.A.R. Combat for free.

Terrorist Takedown 2 alternates between fantasy and reality. While you can only receive two or three direct hits before dying, your health magically regenerates over time if you stand still (the wonders of modern science!). In most of the levels you are completely (some would say unfairly) outnumbered and the enemies are placed by the scenario designers in sneaky locations where it’s hard to see them until they kill you and you have to reload your game. Luckily, they will be in exactly the same spot next time (and come out at the same time when you cross an invisible trigger point) so the game is much easier the second time around. It’s a good thing that the enemies are placed in tricky locations, as when left out in the open they are hopelessly dumb. The tried-and-true strategy of running right towards your opponent is in full force here. It’s too bad that Terrorist Takedown 2 couldn’t get the quality AI from F.E.A.R. in addition to the graphics engine. The AI enemies can also receive a lot more hits than you can before dying, making enemy confrontations even more frustrating. This is doubly frustrating because you’ll have to use a lot of ammunition and you will frequently not rearm between missions. You can carry up to four weapons at a time, but if one weapon runs out of ammo, you cannot replace it with another since you can’t select it once it has run out of ammo. Nice. While you would think a good amount of ammunition would be available from all of the enemies you kill, finding it is hit-or-miss.

Terrorist Takedown 2 suffers from the same limitations as Code of Honor 2: it’s a slightly modified version of F.E.A.R. and you’re just better off paying the same (or less) money for that title. We do get a lot of weapons, but the fun stops there. Multiplayer is bare with only three maps and it’s far less interesting than what is already freely available thanks to poorly placed spawn points. The campaign is short and doesn’t offer much objective variety to keep you interested. Terrorist Takedown 2 doesn’t know if it wants to be realistic or arcade: you can take a reasonable amount of damage before dying, but health regenerates over time and your opponents are significantly sturdier than you are. The stupid AI that pops out in the same places each game is simply cannon fodder rather than a formidable opponent. Inconsistent graphics and poor sound design round out the disappointing package. While I may be focusing too much on the shortcomings for a game that is only $20, if you are a fan of first person shooters, you’ve done all this before in a better game, so there is really no reason to get Terrorist Takedown 2 unless price is an issue. A good campaign might have saved Terrorist Takedown 2, but the heavily scripted missions and unexciting objectives ruin what might have been.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ironclads: American Civil War Review

Ironclads: American Civil War, developed and published by Totem Games.
The Good: Historical campaign, fairly intuitive interface, very realistic weapon accuracy and damage
The Not So Good: Realistic pace will bore most, lacks stand-alone scenarios and randomly generated battles, no multiplayer, fixed difficulty, needs a scenario editor, average graphics, no tutorial
What say you? An authentic simulation of Civil War-era naval combat, but with limited appeal and light on the features: 5/8

I think it's safe to say that most strategy games take place on land. I'm not sure why the naval ventures get the short end of the stick, but the oceanic battles certainly take a back seat to land-based encounters. There have been a handful of grand strategy games that take place at sea, like War in the Pacific and Carriers at War, but tactical strategy games have an even shorter list, most notably Distant Guns. Here comes Russian developer Totem Games with a game about the American Civil War with a focus on those ironclad ships that you read about on Wikipedia (so it must be true). It's certainly a unique setting that I don't think has been done before; will it make a good game?

Ironclads: American Civil War looks, well, like an independently-developed wargame. There is one highlight in the graphics: the ship models are very detailed, although there are no people running around the deck positioning guns (something I clearly remember from Age of Sail 2). The maritime environments have waves but opaque blue water that looks more like a thick soup than a true watery setting. The sun reflection on the water is nice, but you’ll find that in pretty much any game these days. While the land masses are geographically accurate, they lack any sort of detail (trees, buildings) and are very bland overall. The sound in Ironclads: American Civil War consists of repetitive effects (steam engines, cannons) and generic background music: par for the course in any wargame, I would say. Ironclads: American Civil War certainly won’t amaze you with its graphical prowess, but since awesome graphics is not the focus of this title, then I’ll give it a pass.

A Civil War-era naval game is certainly a unique setting and probably the most remarkable feature of Ironclads: American Civil War. The game comes with two campaigns: seven missions for the USA and eight missions for the CSA. While the missions are presented in a linear order, ships blown up in previous missions (either friendly or enemy) will not appear in later battles. This has both realistic and strategic value: not only does it make sense (the CSS Jamestown has magically risen from the dead!), but it also makes you preserve friendly ships more and also go out of your way to destroy enemy vessels. The objectives come in one of two flavors: destroy all enemy ships while preserving your own, or destroy some land building and destroy all enemy ships while preserving your own. The first battle in each campaign is the famous Battle of Hampton Roads between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (not called the Merrimack, you Northern jerks), and then it goes in from there in several locations along the east coast like Charleston. Unfortunately, the content stops here, and this is the real problem with Ironclads: American Civil War. There are no stand-alone scenarios to choose from (even ones straight out of the campaign). There are no randomly-generated battles where you could pick ships to battle against each other. There is no multiplayer; Ironclads: American Civil War being turn-based, it is quite surprising that there isn’t some sort of online, play by e-mail, or same-computer multiplayer component. You also cannot create your own scenarios as Ironclads: American Civil War lacks an editor; while the campaigns are XML files, the maps are more esoteric. Ironclads: American Civil War also lacks a tutorial (although there is a help screen that does a decent job explaining the interface) and the game can only be played at one difficulty setting. You can adjust the damage received or given by your ships to compensate for new players or experienced veterans. A lot of the features we have taken for granted are simply missing from Ironclads: American Civil War.

Once you get past all of the features limitation, the rest of Ironclads: American Civil War is fairly good. This is a turn-based game, where each turn consists of an indeterminable amount of time that each ship gets to move. Luckily, the game clearly shows which ships can still move (and you actually have to move everyone before ending the turn). The basic strategy of this (and pretty much any other) naval strategy game is to line up your ships alongside the enemy and fire all of your guns at once. The controls for your ships are more akin to real life controls: you are given a slider for turning and speed, much like a wheel and that thing they use to control the speed. It takes time to accelerate and decelerate and you cannot alter your speed while turning (I’m not sure how historically accurate that is). The game displays cones that are quite useful to determine your course. The interface makes it pretty easy to navigate through the game and puts all of the pertinent information on the main screen.

In addition to moving, you will spend a lot of time firing your guns at the enemy ships. Artillery comes in two flavors (smooth-bore and rifle) and three types (dalhgren, parrott, and brooke) with varied calibers. It’s just a matter of maneuvering the enemy ship on the correct side of your vessel, pausing the movement, selecting the gun, and clicking on the enemy. The game does a great job highlighting potential targets with a red circle, although it doesn’t specifically state which gun you can use (this is easy to figure out most of the time, though). The game puts a very specific percentage chance of hitting the enemy ships, something that contrasts the rest of the period-accurate vague information you are given during the battles. While you know how damaged your vessel is, you can only guess at how close to sinking the enemy ships are (the interface only says “lightly damaged” and “damaged”). It can be surprising when an enemy ship suddenly goes below the water level as it was flooding and you didn’t know it. More visually evident is fire, something that is usually a good indicator for enemy ship health.

The AI is OK: while they will occasionally do a neat move, some of their positioning is questionable at best and it is fairly easy to pummel them with shot after shot. I would still like to have the option to adjust how much damage I can give and receive in order for the game to be enjoyable for a wider audience. Since the key feature of Ironclads: American Civil War is realism, that battles are very long and drawn out, easily an hour or more in length. It is hard to sink a metal boat! Those people looking for an action-oriented game can completely ignore Ironclads: American Civil War. Other than using the cannons, the manual suggests simply ramming into the enemy ships, although the result was much less dramatic than I expected or desired.

Ironclads: American Civil War feels like the first game made by a developer. While the core gameplay is spot-on, the ancillary features are essentially non-existent. The campaign does have a couple of nice features: units carry over to the next mission (damaged craft can (and should) be evacuated off-map during a battle) and the historical accuracy of the battles seems to be plausible. This game is dripping with a genuine feel, so if you want a completely accurate simulation of Civil War-era naval combat, that’s what you will get here. Of course, all of this realism means that battles will take a realistic amount of time to finish and ships takes a realistic amount of damage in order to sink, so beware if you tend to enjoy more action in your strategy. The interface easily conveys useful information and I like how the ship controls mimic their real-life counterparts. Ironclads: American Civil War really falls short in the features department: no stand-alone scenarios or an editor to make some, no random or semi-random battles, a fixed difficulty, and no multiplayer means the two campaigns (with fifteen missions total) is all you get. Add in some oddities with saving games (some names just aren’t accepted) and minor translation errors (“curage” instead of courage) and we have an unpolished product that will only appeal to wargamers looking for a realistic experience and nothing more. It’s a unique setting to be sure, but the combat in Ironclads: American Civil War feels very reminiscent of Distant Guns and this product is less polished overall. Still, the future looks promising for the engine and the authentic tilt of the game, so hopefully future titles will come with more features to round out the product as a whole.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Petank Party Review

Petank Party, developed and published by UFO Games.
The Good: Intuitive aiming method increases shot uncertainty, easy to join online games, helpful in-game control summary, solid physics
The Not So Good: Beginner AI opponents are too skilled, magic balls are overly powerful, very difficult for new players to win
What say you? The definitive (meaning only) pétanque computer game is not that interesting for newcomers to the sport: 5/8

If I know another thing, it is pétanque. Just kidding (again). I had never even heard of the thing until I noticed the demo on FileFront. I’m all for weird sports games that can expand my horizons, and Petank Party certainly fills that bill. Taking a more “Americanized” name, Petank Party features pétanque fun for two teams of up to three players each, trying to hurtle a metal ball closest to a smaller ball. It’s kind of like curling (or curling is kind of like bocce ball) except on dirt. Plus it’s French, so you know it’s going to be good.

For what is a $20 game, Petank Party looks pretty good. The character models, although there are only six of them, are detailed with some nice, but repetitive, animations and gestures. Plus, the Chinese chick is pretty hot. The four match environments also have a surprising level of detail: everything in the game world is in 3-D and a lot of effort was put into the backgrounds that most people will probably ignore. Screenshots sell games, and it’s clear that attention was paid to the visuals of Petank Party. Sadly, the same level of effort was not exerted for the sound: a collection of basic sound effects with music that sounds like it belongs in a last-generation Mario game. The game characters are limited to two emotions: joy and sadness (if only everything was that straightforward). Much like Paris Hilton (and Dark Horizon), Petank Party is nice to look at but painful to listen to.

So what, exactly, is this pétanque thing I keep talking about? The object is to throw balls closest to the “jack,” a smaller ball thrown out first. The team who is farthest away from the jack goes until they run out of balls (each player is allotted three) and you get one point for each ball that is closer to the jack than any balls from the other team once everyone is done throwing. Got it? Good. Petank Party features games against the AI, over a LAN, or on the Internet. It’s easy to find games online; I was never able to find anyone to play against so I can’t really comment on how lag-free the online experience is or is not. Games can involve one to three players on each team and feature contests to seven points, thirteen points, or a best-of-three to thirteen points each round. Each of the four environments plays slightly differently, although novices probably won’t notice that the space environment is a bit more bouncy. You can play with magic balls (more on those later), large traditional balls, or realistically small balls (it’s very difficult to resist the urge to make some sort of off-color “balls” joke, but I am trying my best). There are six characters to choose from in the game: two girls, two guys, a cat, and an alien (obviously). Every character can be dressed in a number of outfit parts to increase the visual variety somewhat, and you can choose one of many ball patterns.

All of the control in the game is done with the mouse and Petank Party does an excellent job showing the keys during play, making it easy to learn the mechanics. Unlike in most games where you throw things, you do not control the power of your throw. Instead, you will choose where the ball will land and the angle, which does indirectly influence the power (lower angle equals faster speed). Because you are choosing where the ball will initially land and not where it will end up, it takes a lot of practice to nail down how far the ball will travel past your targeted position. A lot of practice. You can also crouch while throwing; I don’t know the point of this other than changing the throwing angle slightly. It can be hard to correctly judge the angles, since you are not throwing from the center of the camera view, rather with your right hand. This adds to the uncertainty of your throws and makes experience very important. Distant throws will come with some “wiggling” of the target to increase the difficulty further.

If the default rules are too boring, you can introduce some magic balls into the mix. One special power is randomly granted before each round and can be used once. You can get a super heavy ball that is difficult to move, a mega big ball for knocking others out of the way, a ball that will attract the jack if it is nearby, a ball that will attract nearby team balls, a ball that will repel nearby team balls, or an explosive ball that, well, explodes. Magic balls are interesting for sure, but they can drastically change the game. I don’t think I like them, as they are “cheap,” but they have let me come back from a sure defeat before. Thankfully, the magic balls are not mandatory so you can turn them off if you choose.

The Petank Party AI is very, very good. This goes for any difficulty setting, beginner included; this makes it quite frustrating to play when you are just learning the game because you will always lose. The beginner AI should stink as much as I (a beginner) do, not land over half of their throws right next to the jack. The beginner AI does occasionally throw the errant pass (mostly when they are trying to land right on your balls…a pleasant visual), but most of the time they will throw it very close to the jack with disturbing consistency. There are generally two strategies to use in Petank Party: try to get it close to the jack, or try to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way. Ricochets are uncommon for two reasons: the balls are small (especially on the “complete realism” setting) and aiming doesn’t have the precision required to correctly ascertain where you shot is going to go. The physics don’t come with any unpredictable results, so that helps, but since each person is only given three balls to throw, games are over quickly enough where the drama of a longer game with developing strategies and counter-strategies is removed.

Petank Party is a lot like FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3, in that it will only really appeal to people who follow the sport. Sports games usually make a good transition to the computer world since the inherent aspects of competition and skill remain intact, and Petank Party does deliver on several fronts. The graphics are better than expected, the aiming requires skill and practice, and it’s easy to join games over the Internet. Petank Party is really not geared towards the novice player as, even on beginner, the AI is really good. Like “cheating” good. Like “frustratingly” good. It’s weird, then, that Petank Party features a great control summary right on the screen for new players, but then the AI completely dominates any novice. The magic balls are intended to make the game more unpredictable and introduce another layer of strategy, which they do, but they might be too powerful and impact the results too much. If you didn’t know what pétanque was before reading this review, then I doubt that Petank Party will be anything more than just a mild diversion.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

World of Goo Review

World of Goo, developed and published by 2D Boy.
The Good: Numerous components make for some interesting designs, great weird theme, innovative online high score list
The Not So Good: Can be frustrating, hard to quickly select puzzle elements since they are constantly moving, no level editor and its relatively short
What say you? A very unique physics-based construction puzzle game that’s considerably difficult: 7/8

I found out after posting this review from the developer that you actually can skip levels, so I am dumb. But it still gets a 7.

With as strong as the casual PC gaming market is, taking into account online sales of these titles, there is still not much innovation in the genre. You have your match-three games, your Breakout clones, and countless other trends that are just rehashes of existing games with enhanced graphics or a new minor change in the formula. What we need is a fresh take, and that may come in the form of World of Goo. This is a construction game gone weird: goo can be connected to existing goo to form structures like bridges and towers. Sounds unique enough to me!

A 2-D game, World of Goo looks fantastic. The style of the game is great: a fanciful world of outstanding animations, interesting residents, and a fine sense of humor. World of Goo does a lot with only two dimensions to work with. I would say that a 3-D version of World of Goo would end up looking much less impressive, as two dimensions open up the door for more spectacular art (paintings look better than sculptures, right?). It’s very reminiscent of Eets in terms of a cartoon atmosphere. While screenshots do illustrate the style of the game, seeing World of Goo in motion is awesome. The sound isn’t too shabby, either: the goo screams and reactions are appropriate and the music is enjoyable. A high level of quality is what World of Goo brings to the table.

World of Goo comes with around fifty levels spread across five chapters. You can’t skip past hard levels, even though the map for each chapter seems to indicate that you can. While this is enough content to satisfy for a budget price, thanks to the grand variety of elements, puzzle games such as this scream for an editor, and the lack of one is, well, puzzling. It would seem to be fairly easy to make levels for the game, so I’m not sure why World of Goo doesn’t let you. In addition to coming out for Windows and something called a “Wii,” World of Goo will also (shortly) run on Linux and Macintosh computers. Bonus! There isn’t online play per se, but there is the World of Goo Corporation, a high score minigame of sorts. Goo collected above and beyond the requirements of each level can be used to construct the tallest tower ever, and your height is compared against all others as data are automatically uploaded and downloaded in the background. Take that, Spore. This is a fantastic way of merging the core game concept into something as seemingly trivial as a high score list. Bravo!

Your goal in each level of World of Goo is to reach the pipe, which will suck up your goo (yes, that sounds as gross as I intended) and send it off to the corporation. This is done by connecting goo to construct towers/bridges/whatever from your starting point up/down/sideways. World of Goo has a lot of goo types that behave differently. The “classic” black goo must connect to at least two other goo balls and cannot be moved once placed. Other examples include static white goo, green springy goo, red flying goo, watery chained goo, some fire goo, and a bunch of others. These are used in some very smart designs; just when the game seems to get repetitive, a new element that significantly changes the gameplay is introduced. You may also need to construct your tower quickly, since the physics react to new components in real time and stuff tends to fall over if you are not careful. You are never at a loss on how to solve a puzzle; it’s just a matter of successfully executing your plan which can be quite difficult. World of Goo lays down the gauntlet early and often, offering up challenging levels in the first chapter that required several tries to perfect. Progress is hindered somewhat by the goo selection method: since goo is moving along your structure, it’s difficult to select with precision what you want, and existing tower elements can be removed by mistake. There are flies you can click on to go back a move, but these are rare and you can still ruin minutes of hard work with one errant click.

World of Goo is a fantastic game for several reasons: simple mouse selection, plentiful goo types, varied puzzles, a great theme, and an interactive high score list. World of Goo is also one of the most frustrating games I’ve played in quite a while due to its unflinching difficulty from the world “go.” Still, World of Goo is mesmerizing and quite addictive: the flexible construction gameplay means that, while your goal will be the same in each level, the method of success will change, even in the same level. It’s engineering gone insane (in the membrane). Despite the fact that I grew irritated by a particular puzzle (much) more than once, I still came back after a cool-down period to try it again. It’s a testament of good game design that World of Goo can piss you off but still make you want to play more. I would love to see a puzzle editor, but World of Goo still offers enough puzzling bang for your twenty bucks.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Project Aftermath Review

Project Aftermath, developed and published by Games Faction.
The Good: Unique weapon/armor counter system, comprehensive squad customization and weapon research, well-designed interface with clear objectives and easy access to hero units, good production values for the price, intelligent pathfinding and formation movement, online high score list
The Not So Good: Linear missions reduce replay value, tedious combat, rigid difficulty, lacks cooperative multiplayer, units don’t attack on the move, no mid-mission saves
What say you? A budget-priced squad-based tactical strategy game with a number of distinctive features but repetitive gameplay: 5/8

A lot of the larger, and obviously less important, review sites tend to ignore games from small developers. I have a theory as to why this is: no advertising dollars from those tiny companies. But here at Out of Eight, we are equal opportunity reviewers (at least for publishers that don’t refuse to give us games), and I actually like covering small games that you might not have heard of otherwise. One of these is Project Aftermath, a game developed by a British team and released (as most independent titles are) over the grand expanse of the Internet. This is an “action RTS” game, eschewing resource collection for a focus on combat and RPG-like unit upgrades.

For a cheap ($20) game made by two to three people, Project Aftermath looks surprisingly good. Now, it’s certainly not cutting-edge with all sorts of fancy effects, but it doesn’t look terrible by any stretch of the imagination. The environments are not bland, with forested and snowy environments with good 3-D models for buildings. The character models are detailed but could be animated better. Some of the weapon effects are nice, such as the more toxic or explosive weapons at your disposal. The game also features some introductory cut-scenes that offer some nice-looking graphic novel (we all know they are really comic books) inspired artwork. When compared against other independent titles, Project Aftermath looks quite good. I spend an inordinate amount of time rotating the camera, however, as mountains blocked the view far more often than desired. The sound design is also lovely, with good non-exaggerated voice acting and appropriate background music. Maybe I’ve played too many independent titles recently with less than stellar production values, but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised (in a good way) by the relative quality of Project Aftermath.

Project Aftermath is a single-player action tactical strategy game where you lead a group of commanders to kill lots of enemy units. The game removes traditional resource collection in favor of some light role-playing upgrades and constant action. The single player campaign is your only choice and missions are selected from a map. The missions are very linear and not random in any sense (either the maps or the enemy placements), which doesn’t offer much replay value: when you’ve done it once, it will always be the same. Enemies spawn from locations that can be captured and will continually be produced until you take them over; this is the only was successive play will be different. Project Aftermath does offer a good tutorial and while the game lacks a manual, the in-game help (press F12) is comprehensive. The game lacks multiplayer; cooperative missions could have been very interesting, considering the amount of coordination needed in attacks. The mission difficulty cannot be adjusted and I found Project Aftermath to be a bit on the hard side, even for someone with a penchant for strategy games. You also cannot save the game in the middle of a mission; they aren’t long (30 minutes on average), but if I have to quit because you have a life outside of computer games (blasphemy, I know), you’ll have to redo everything in the mission. Sigh.

Project Aftermath uses a left click select and move, right click action menu system for controlling your troops. Because of this, you can commonly issue “move” orders instead of “attack” orders by mistake, especially since enemy troops move. You can queue up orders by holding down the shift key, either movement or attack (or both). A right click will open up a small menu to change formations, switch weapons, or use a special power. You will only be issuing commands to hero leader units, and their subordinates will follow their lead; this cuts down on tedious micromanagement significantly. Leaders are listed along the bottom of the screen and they can be accessed without having to find them on the minimap or in the game world itself. You can also select all units using the tab key. Next to the leader listing, the interface also displays the health of both the leader and the squad. While this is nice, I with the interface showed which weapon type each squad has selected instead of making me right-click to find out. Heroes can be respawned using some of the game’s only resource (goop), but support troops cannot regenerate until the hero dies. The clear objective locations, both primary and optional (but important) secondary ones, round out the generally solid interface.

Each troop in the game is equipped with armor (spell it right, you crazy British!) that protects against one (or two, for elite troops) specific weapon type: physical (red), biological (green), energy (blue), or morphid field (yellow). The key of Project Aftermath is to use weapons that the enemy is vulnerable to, and this system works well. Helping the process is that the armor an enemy unit is using is clearly indicated by a bright circle underneath their character, making planning in advance a very simple procedure (especially since you can see enemy units from far away as Project Aftermath lacks fog of war). In addition to bringing the pain with traditional weapons, you can also use field effects: special powers of a certain type that either hurt enemy units or assist friendly ones.

The only resource in Project Aftermath is “goop,” gained by killing enemies, completing objectives, and finding the occasional canister. You can only lose the game if your goop drops below a set level at the end of a mission, since heroes can be respawned multiple times in a single mission. Goop is rare, so you actually have to use some strategy of where to use it: resurrecting heroes, using field effects, or spending it between missions. Different weapons can be equipped by spending some goop (each squad is limited to two weapons), and entirely new weapons can be researched for a price as well. There are a lot of weapons to choose from, although since you never know what type of armor enemy units will have, you should always balance out your arms. You can also invest some money in shiny new armor or more advanced field effects. Goop can also be spent on boosting your heroes (for increased health, movement speed, and experience gains) and having more support troops per hero.

The AI, especially friendly, seems to be quite good: units will stay in formation and pathfinding is excellent. Units will not attack on the move, which makes issuing a “move” order by mistake even more deadly. While the enemy AI isn’t using any advanced tactics, since they are stuck with the weapons and armor the scenario designer chose, the sheer amount of them does provide a challenge. Unfortunately, even with all of the innovative things that Project Aftermath brings, the combat is one-note: kill. There aren’t any advanced puzzles or variety in the objectives other than going to a location, killing everything along the way. While I do applaud the developers for coming up with an interesting weapon and armor system, it only slightly varies the actual gameplay, which I found to be bland overall.

While Project Aftermath isn’t perfect, it does offer some innovative features that make it stand out against the action-oriented strategy crowd. The weapon and armor system is designed well, and the interface is top-notch with easy access to hero units and a clear indication of enemy armor. The weapon purchases and upgrades between missions also add some intrigue: you really need to balance your weapons to combat any potential threat as it really stinks to outfit your team in energy weapons and then find out most of the enemies have blue armor. It's nice that Project Aftermath has all of these ancillary materials like researched weapons and the armor system, but it can't compensate enough for the generally bland gameplay and linear level design. This combined with the game’s lack of potentially interesting cooperative multiplayer means replay value is very small. Maybe I’m being too hard on the game, but I found Project Aftermath to be interesting but not terribly fun. There is definitely a solid foundation here, though, and hopefully with more fleshed out features and a more dynamic and interesting campaign, the advantages of Project Aftermath will become more prominent.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

PURE Review

PURE, developed by Blackrock Studio and published by Disney Interactive Studios.
The Good: Fun arcade racing, three distinct race types, full-bodied career mode, comprehensive ATV customization, online play, well-designed courses, capable AI competition, straightforward controls, minor penalty for crashes, slick presentation
The Not So Good: Extremely long load times, fixed screen resolution
What say you? A strong arcade racer with an emphasis on tricks, big air, and close racing: 7/8

While the PC has always been a bastion of racing simulations, the console market has (for the most part) focused on more accessible, more unrealistic arcade racing games. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as you know of the casual slant going in and the game is fun. Continuing the proud tradition of limiting arcade racing games to only four-letter titles, PURE takes the action to the all-terrain vehicle: it offers all of the heart-pounding racing excitement without all of that pesky safety equipment getting in the way. High flying action is the order of the day; is PURE pure excitement, or pure drudgery?

One thing you can be assured of in a console racing product is an emphasis on graphics. I mean, as long as the game looks good, who cares how it plays, right? PURE does a fantastic job offering up stellar visuals: from the intricately detailed ATVs to the environments, everything looks like a whole lot of money was spent developing the graphics. The special effects, such as tire tracks, dirt, and water, all look fantastic. Even the loading screens have style: your customized ride and rider are pictured as a new track is opened. Performance is acceptable as well, providing smooth gameplay as you hurtle around each environment. The console roots rear their ugly head as PURE features a fixed screen resolution at an archaic 1024 by 768 pixels. This would probably result in some problems for widescreen monitors, although since I am not l33t enough to have one I am not sure. As you might expect, the soundtrack for PURE relies heavily on what the kids call “rock music,” and it fits the theme of the game well. The audio effects are generally quite good, with engines roaring and tires squealing (although more sliding is present on the dirt tracks). The character voices are repetitive, but these rarely get in the way of the overall high quality of the presentation.

As the title clearly indicates, PURE is an arcade ATV racing game. Obviously. The meat of the game is contained in the career mode, which consists of ten stages comprising four to six races each; more on this later. In addition, you can undertake single races that fall into one of three flavors: traditional races, shorter sprints, and trick-filled freestyle competitions that are points-based (more points for landing unique, difficult tricks). The freestyle races are also peppered with powerups, such as score multipliers or additional fuel to perform tricks longer. The two race modes and the freestyle mode are distinct enough to make PURE essentially two games in one, and each of the modes utilizes different strategies. If you are a bit rusty, you can practice any of the unlocked tracks with no competition to worry about. PURE also includes online play either through the Internet or over a LAN; joining a game is a easy affair using either the quick match option or a more detailed server listing. Hosts can limit the maximum allowed engine class to make races fairer for beginning racers that have not progressed as far in the career mode, but few actually use this option. By far the most frustrating aspect of PURE is the load times. It takes a good two minutes to enter the game, about twenty second to load a race, and thirty seconds to quit to the main menu. This is with 2 GB of RAM, mind you. With everything stored on the hard drive, you would think that PURE would load much more quickly, but you almost spend more time waiting for a race to load than actually playing the game. The extreme load times actually discouraged me from playing PURE, a phenomenon that should never, ever happen.

Now that it is later, it’s time to talk about the career mode. Six riders are available to choose from, although the differences seem to be purely aesthetic instead of actually impacting the gameplay (I could be wrong; the game doesn’t make this clear). PURE does not require complete perfection in order to progress through the career: all you need to do is the equivalent of winning half of the races in each stage in order to unlock the next. This is great, especially since each stage consists of all three racing modes and you might not be as adept at certain ones and bad luck does happen. PURE has very comprehensive ATV customization: all twenty-three (!) parts can be switched out and upgraded. Some of these parts affect performance (max speed, acceleration, handling, boost, and tricks) while the rest just make your vehicle look cool. The game can suggest the best part for a specific type of setup (race vs. tricks) to speed up the process. The game clearly marks newly unlocked parts, at least for the first vehicle you access. The lack of mouse support (hello console port!) hurts here, as drop-down menus for all 23 parts on one screen would surely speed up the process considerably. But, who uses a mouse on a PC, right? Keyboard FTW!

Controlling your ATV is slightly more complicated than “go” and “turn.” You can “pre-load” before a jump by holding down a button and then releasing it at the top; this will make you jump further and increase the amount of time available for cool tricks. You can also add an almost insignificant amount of boost to catch up to nearby riders. Tricks are completed by pressing and button and a direction while in the air (tricks can be modified by holding another button…talk about multitasking!). You only have access to “level 1” tricks to start out, but as you successfully land tricks without crashing, you will make level 2 and 3 tricks available (more points!). It takes a couple of races to get the controls down, but once you do, PURE is pure enjoyment (ha ha!). The game does have a tutorial, but it doesn’t do a sufficient job: it tells you what to do using the default keyboard controls, but just makes sure you press the appropriate button and not necessarily at the correct time.

PURE does a good job giving you race information without cluttering up the screen. Your location relative to other competitors is clearly indicated in the upper level, with a quick visual showing distance gaps. The game lacks a map, but it doesn’t really need it. Courses are designed well and take advantage of the game modes: jumps are frequent without being overkill and the terrain is varied to make races more interesting. The physics are decidedly arcade, although you will occasionally have to use the brake for tight turn. The insane amounts of air time are appropriate for landing a couple of tricks. Unlike the complete insanity of skateboarding games, you usually only have time for two or three at once time in PURE. Crashing, either by landing awkwardly or, you know, running into a tree, results in a short cut-scene followed by almost immediate respawning. Crashing will not kill your race, thankfully, as PURE favors experimentation over boring, conservative play. The AI is quite competitive and ramps up in difficulty at an appropriate rate as you upgrade your vehicle.

PURE is a well designed arcade racing title. While an arcade racing game is not the most unique thing on the planet, the elements of PURE come together quite well. The races are fun thanks to the track layouts and the competitive yet fallible AI. The computer drivers will race you hard, and fast crash recoveries will not drastically penalize you for getting too close to the edge. The career mode comes with a ton of customization options that have a significant impact on your vehicle’s performance: you can alter your setup through parts alone to tailor your ATV for the next race’s objectives or compensate for your racing shortcomings. Add in three distinct racing modes, online play, and intuitive controls, and we have a winning product. Of course, the load times are long enough to make you want to quit and customizing your ride is very tedious due to the lack of mouse control, plus widescreen users might be put off by the lack of an adjustable screen resolution. Still, these shortcomings are quite bearable in the grand scheme of things, and PURE is easily the equal of other top arcade racing games, if not slightly better all round.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hinterland Review

Hinterland, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Interesting integration of city management into an action RPG, variety of town occupations to recruit, lots of loot to enhance combat and production, randomized maps, low price
The Not So Good: Repetitive plain combat, oversimplified resource collection, shallow resource-gathering quests, uninspired graphics, needs a tutorial or more descriptive manual for the nuances, lacks cooperative multiplayer
What say you? The action role-playing game gets city builder trappings with generally pleasing but limited results: 6/8

The seemingly vogue (strike a pose) thing to do these days is to combine different genres into one gaming product. There have been a number of recent titles that have attempted to bridge the genre gap: Loco Mogul, Savage 2, Depths of Peril, and SpellForce 2 (OK, maybe not that recent) just to name a few. Now that we have solid games in pretty much every genre, it’s time to expand our horizons by uniting genres in a pact of success. Hinterland (from the German meaning “land of hinter”) is a action role-playing game in the tradition of Diablo that has added city management to the equation. This is not surprising since the developer is Tilted Mill, who is responsible for unleashing Children of the Nile and SimCity Societies on the world. How will the introduction of city building elements change up the typical hack-and-slash action role-playing game?

Hinterland uses our good friend the Torque game engine, also utilized in Penguins Arena, KingMania, and Shelled! Online, for one main reason: it’s a pain in the butt to make your own graphics engine. And it’s expensive. The result: an average looking role-playing game. The key word with Hinterland is “generic”: generic environments, generic character models, generic architecture. The game is played entirely from a fixed isometric perspective and far out enough where you are never getting up close and personal to the characters. Since you cannot zoom your view, quality maps are needed and Hinterland just does an average job at this: navigating through the regional map can be confusing at first and the mini-map cannot be zoomed to show enemy locations in a larger range. There is some detail in the enemies and some of the 3-D models do look nice, though. Also, troops will actually wear the gear you give them, so that is a nice touch. Still, you won’t be able to pick out Hinterland from a screenshot lineup of action RPGs released in the past ten-or-so years: all of the lush green landscapes become repetitive very quickly. The special effects are also lacking: spells are underwhelming and combat is bland. Loot locations are clearly indicated: one of the few good effects. In terms of sound design, Hinterland comes with some good background music and (again) generic effects to accompany the action on-screen. You know what you’re going to get with any fantasy-based soundtrack these days and Hinterland certainly doesn’t change anything. The developer pretty much admitted that awesome graphics was not a focus of the game, so as long as you lower your visual expectations, Hinterland will not disappoint as much.

Your goal in Hinterland is to kill everything surrounding your newly founded town. You do this by recruiting new townspeople to fulfill jobs, go out and defeat monsters to get new loot, and slowly build up your town to a dominating entity. If you’ve played any action RPG and city builder, the hybrid mechanics will be at least somewhat familiar, but Hinterland lacks a guided tutorial (“how to play” consists of a couple of sentences) and the manual lacks pictures, making the user interface more mysterious than it should be. You will control one main character that will be assigned a background; these fourteen backgrounds (examples: mercenary, chemist, assassin, architect) will grant some sort of starting bonus for your character, although hard numbers are hidden from the player. Your initial background is randomly chosen (although you can change it), intended for those people who have a hard time making up their mind. You’ll end up playing Hinterland the same way no matter which background you choose, although your beginning focus might shift slightly. The game world is randomly generated for each new game, although the countryside usually consists of the game elements: progressively more difficult enemies as you get further away from your town. You can customize some aspects of the world: overall difficulty, map size, presence of annoying enemy raiders, and randomized resources. Hinterland does not feature any sort of multiplayer (cooperative or otherwise), but the game doesn’t need it.

Periodically, new citizens will appear in your town square looking for work. They will hold one profession that will contribute something to your town. In order to hire them, you must invest some gold into constructing a house (or use an existing one for a much smaller fee) and fulfill their minimum requirements such as hero notoriety or certain resources. The lower-level citizens usually gather food (the game’s only finite resource) by farming or hunting. Later on, merchants, innkeepers, weapons makers, and magicians will populate your town for a much steeper cost. If you don’t like the currently available potential residents, you can spend a small amount of cash to advertise your town and introduce a new slew of villagers. An interesting dynamic of Hinterland is that your party consists of townspeople, so if they are helping you kill bad guys, they are not making food or weapons or potions or whatever else they do. Thus, you need to balance who you bring along against the needs of your town and your overall strategy.

The only resource you need to worry about is food, and it is trivial to balance: just hire a trapper or farmer whenever you hire someone else and you’ll be fine. There is a huge amount of space available in your town and it’s very easy to just spam food-producing citizens as they will always be available for hire. Since the food balance is clearly displayed with a tool-tip, it’s a very elementary balancing act. This limited resource balancing leaves a lot to be desired; after the supremely complex nature of Civilization IV: Colonization’s resources, only having food to worry about seems very underwhelming and shallow. There are other resources, but they are infinite and automatically captured when you defeat all of the enemies in the area. What happened to the complex resource interdependencies of Children of the Nile or Imperium Romanum? Hinterland overly simplifies the town’s production and subsequently makes the city management aspect of the game much less interesting. You can upgrade buildings for a price to make them more effective or unlock more advanced weapons and magic, but this is the limit of the depth associated with the city management aspects of Hinterland.

The king (if you have the option enabled) will occasionally give you quests, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. The missions only entail giving him a set amount of food or cash, with the occasional “build this” quest. Completely the quest will raise your fame (required for high-level citizens) while failing it will decrease it. Like a lot of things in Hinterland, the quest system is very superfluous and rarely significantly impacts the game and never offers interesting objectives to compliment the main goal of killing everything. Because I can’t think of another paragraph to put it in, I will also mention that high-level citizens can conduct research that the manual and game does an extremely poor job at explaining its purpose, and new weapons can be automatically sold to the merchant when they are produced. Citizens can also be told whether to engage enemy raiders when they enter town.

Most of your game time will be spend running around the map killing enemies. You can have up to four people in your group and the combat is very simplistic: point, click, and die. Maybe more sophisticated RPGs have spoiled me, but Hinterland’s combat is automated for you with no strategy or skill required, other than having good weapons to start with. Defeated enemies will have a number of weapons on them that can be equipped or sold to a merchant (if you have one employed) for a very small cash return. Early in the game, all of your income will come from dead bodies; you can employ gold-producers like tavern keepers later on, but you will still rely heavily on stealing from the dead. One thing that is interesting about the weapons you can collect from dead enemies is that they commonly double as tools for citizen: the hammer you bashed that goblin’s head in with can also increase the production of your craftsman if so equipped. You will also periodically pick up enhancers, like seeds and plows for farmers. These increase the amount of stuff they produce, although the game is vague about how much it actually helps.

Controls are straightforward: WASD or hold down the left mouse button and point. Once you click on an enemy (difficult since they move towards you once you are in range), your character will continue to attack them automatically until death occurs. Hinterland could benefit from more sophisticated combat, like “blocking” or anything requiring some sort of skill. Your party will attack whomever they please, as you cannot issue them orders like “attack my target” or “hold back” or “flee” if they are low on health. Party members will leave once significantly injured, and if they are really significantly injured they must be replaced. Like in most RPGs, characters (both yours and your teammates) will gain experience and level up over time. Combat will increase your character’s attack, defense, and health, indicated by a subtle white background and big and small icons that aren’t very informative. Once enough of these traits are upgrades, you get to select a combat or town trait as well; these usually increase some stat like attack or income. Your focus and goal in Hinterland is to attack the enemy units, so you will spend most of your time selecting enemies to engage and getting new items off defeated enemies. Since there is only one objective in the game (hurt everyone), your approach in subsequent games will be very similar, even with randomized maps and different skill sets.

Hinterland is a great idea that’s almost executed well. It’s a simple game that’s too simple, stripping down the conventions of two genres into a causal game devoid of much complications and depth. The city building aspects could be enhanced with more resources to balance and an intricate production relationship model (shields require wood produced by lumberjacks, for example). The role-playing combat needs more sophisticated combat other than click and die, perhaps some blocking or timing element. Still, Hinterland is pretty darn addictive for a simple game: growing your town, producing better weapons and spells, and taking on more powerful enemies is certainly fun. But there is much room for improvement in Hinterland, and hopefully the developer will dedicate some energy towards developing some game enhancements that are needed to make a more complete product. The saving grace for Hinterland is the low price: I would definitely say that I got $20 worth of enjoyment out of this game. Hinterland is a solid concept that, with some additional growth, could deliver on the promise of a unique experience.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines Review

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines, developed and published by
The Good: Lengthy new campaign, a number of stand-alone scenarios
The Not So Good: Marines aren’t terribly different and the subtle changes don’t impact the gameplay, general bug fixes and improvements will be included in a free patch anyway
What say you? A lot of new missions, but the remainder is fairly superficial: 5/8

Sometimes I get preview beta versions of games, and one of those games was Combat Mission Shock Force. While I was doing the preview, I messed around with the map editor and created some maps that actually made it into the release. They weren't very good and the developers cleaned up and improved them a lot. Consequently, when I gave the finished product an 8/8, I caught some slack because I was now “one of the scenario designers,” which, I suppose, is technically true but a bit misleading. Now that we have that explanation out of the way, we can now talk about Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines (the colon has migrated), the first in a series of planned expansions (or modules, as they like to be called) for Combat Mission: Shock Force. Do the Marines bring the goods?

The new additions to the graphics consist of models for each of the new vehicles and troops introduced with the Marines expansion (module). These maintain the high level of quality seen in the base game: they are essentially identical to their real-life counterparts. Unfortunately, the environments have not received the same level of attention, as the CPU-hungry textures and buildings remain in their underwhelming state of overall blurriness. Performance has been improved, but this is only because the game automatically decreases the resolution of distant objects in order to keep the frame rate respectable. The result is a game where the vehicles and troops look fantastic, but the places in which they fight do not. There are a couple of new sound effects that Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines introduces, mostly dealing with artillery and air strikes: they are done well. The music and remainder of the effects remain the same. The graphics and the sound receive exactly the type of enhancement I would expect in an expansion (module): new models and not much else.

Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines is, in essence, a scenario expansion pack (module). On this front, you get a whole lot of content: a nineteen mission campaign presented in a semi-random order, fifteen stand-alone scenarios, and twenty-five additional quick battle maps. If you figure about an hour per scenario, that’s 35 or so hours from the scenarios and campaign alone, not counting the quick battles. The scenarios and missions maintain the same level of quality as before: most are hit, some are miss, and all require slow, deliberate movement across the terrain against a heavily dug-in foe. If its scenarios you want, Marines certainly delivers. A new difficulty setting is added, changing the old “elite” to “iron” and making the new “elite” the same as the old “elite” except that you can see the icons for all friendly troops, even if they venture outside of radio contact. A lot of the missions are heavily scripted with deliberate enemy placement, so replay value is a bit small, but 35 hours of additional content is still a good deal.

Not surprisingly, Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines introduces the Marines into the Syrian fray. What’s the difference? Not much, actually: there are more men per squad and the weapons are more powerful, but your tactics will generally stay the same. The Marines do come with a more versatile MEU (Marines Expeditionary Unit) that has variety of wonderful toys to blow things up with, but the small differences in tanks and APCs will only be noticed by the hardcore military crowd (which, arguably, is who this game is designed for anyway). I wasn’t really expecting a drastic change between the Army and Marines, but the similarities are plentiful enough to question the existence of this expansion (module) in the first place. Unless you really care that the Marines carry the M16A4 rifle instead of the M4A1, then I doubt Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines will have much appeal.

The rest of the changes in Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines are going to be delivered as a free patch for the base game anyway. These include almost-important improvements like specifically highlighting where troops will go given a move order, having a new disc color for KIA troops, and infantry firing while moving. The tactical and vehicle AI as been slightly improved, resulting in less “traffic jams” in the urban areas that populate a majority of the maps. The rest of the improvements are small things like better tree damage and reduced carrying capacity for soldiers. These things won’t get noticed by most everyone, and I know I wouldn’t have known about them if it wasn’t specifically spelled out in the readme file.

How much is $5 worth? Well, it could buy you a foot long sub (man, I love that song) and it's the difference between Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines being an OK expansion (module) and an overpriced expansion (module). I have a hard time justifying paying for an expansion pack (module) that mostly includes new scenarios when you can go online and download comparable ones made by the community for free. All of the bug fixes (which, arguably, should not have been problems from the start) will be included in a patch for the base game anyway, so you are just paying for the scenarios and the Marines. The Marines don’t bring drastic enough changes to alter the gameplay much at all, and most of the time you won’t notice any difference if you don’t check out the specific weapons being fired. Only people who are huge fans of the military and this series will notice the changes other than the new scenarios. Are you willing to pay $25 for 35 new missions? I don’t think I am, but if you play Combat Mission: Shock Force enough and are aching for some new content, then I could see investing some money here. However, the crowd that would do this probably already bought it (and won’t be swayed by my review) and I don’t feel that Combat Mission Shock Force: Marines comes with enough core changes for the price.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

King's Bounty: The Legend Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

King's Bounty: The Legend, developed by Katauri Interactive and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Picturesque graphics, addictive tactical combat, intricately designed locations, fun quests, a high sense of adventure
The Not So Good: Skimpy instruction manual doesn't offer enough information on combat, erratic difficulty level might bother some players
What say you? A fantastic turn-based tactical RPG destined to be hailed as a classic: 7/8

King's Bounty - The Legend bears a great resemblance to the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and for good reason. It's a remake of King's Bounty (1990), a game designed by Jon Van Caneghem, who would go on to create (you guessed it) Heroes of Might and Magic. Despite being a thinking man's game, it plays out a bit like a fairy tale: Bright, colorful, and full of wonder. But around every corner, danger lurks in the form of roaming monsters and rival champions.

Kudos to the art team. Real care went into the tropical beaches, dark forests and eerie swamps of King's Bounty. The characters have a World of Warcraft sensibility that places more emphasis on brilliant art design than system-taxing special effects. The scale is all wrong (everyone's taller than you even though you're on horseback), but it adds to the charm. And the sea! I got to sail on water that looked far too good for my cruddy old video card; that was on medium: when I set it to high, I just about fell overboard. The fantasy music, written by a Moscow composer, is good enough to slap on a MP3 player. Which is exactly what I did, since they were nice enough to offer free song downloads on their website.

You are a royal treasure seeker, a knight with a special talent for sniffing out buried treasure. First thing to do is choose a class: Warriors specialize in Leadership and Rage, which means a bigger army and more access to summon spells (which I'll discuss later). Paladins are battlemages and scholars who excel in mental abilities like bonuses in experience and trade. Finally, there are Mages, who wear airbrushed capes and drive monster trucks (kidding!). Even though each class has its own field of expertise, you are free to learn skills from Might, Mind or Magic thanks to a clever system based on runes. Not only do you obtain runes each time you level up (bonus Might runes if you're a Warrior, and so on), they're also strewn about the land, often hidden behind trees and around mountains.

The tactical, turn-based battles are viewed from the side, like a spectator watching the world's coolest game of chess (you can use the right mouse button to pan the camera around somewhat, though not enough for my liking). Treasure chests appear randomly, first come first serve, though I'll never figure out what bears and spiders want with my treasure. Rather than physically appear on the battlefield, players serve the role of General, casting spells and giving commands. Troops are nicely animated and represented by a single unit. The size of your army is limited by your Leadership attribute, as is each stack of troops. This means that even if you max out at 24 swordsmen, you can still have enough Leadership to hire some griffins or bowmen. There's a wide variety of troops: Elf Werewolves are high-damage regenerating humans with Freddy Kruger claws who can transform into wolves capable of paralyzing enemy troops with an eerie howl, while Ents are giant treefolk who shoot bees at faraway foes, and the aptly named Horde is just an unwashed mass of pitchfork waving yokels who boost their attack by +1 for every 30 peasants in the stink pile. Each unit type is loaded with talents both passive (poison resistance) and active (bless other units). Troops have so much personality they actually reminded me of Magic: The Gathering creatures. There's even ample opportunity for "combos," with spells available to enhance strengths and diminish weaknesses.

During battle, Spirits can be summoned from the Chest of Rage, a Pandora's Box forged in a demonic world where mana is a rarity and magic is fueled by a single emotion: Rage. The Chest is a trap, a prison for powerful Spirits from other dimensions. You can talk to these Spirits in the hero window and eventually earn their trust, but only after completing various quests. Lina is a chatty disembodied Ice Spirit, who hails from a dimension of high technology and needs the help of an ignorant “medieval Knight” (that's you!) to recharge her batteries, while Sleem is a prehistoric Crown prince of the Great Swamps who just wants you to feed him twenty or thirty poisonous troops -- yours, not the enemy's -- before he'll burst onto the battlefield and sweep away foes in a tidal wave of predatory fish. Spirits gain experience and either learn new attacks or upgrade old ones. Summoning a Spirit costs Rage, which you build by defeating enemy troops; double points if you wipe out an entire stack. Just be careful resting on the overworld map to recover your mana. It tends to have a... shall we say, calming effect.

If combat is the highly respected lead actor taking center stage, then the overworld map is the fun up-and-comer waving its arms around and stealing the show. I've never seen anything like it. It's almost as detailed as a location in an adventure game. There are just so many people to talk to, magic items to find, totems to investigate, friendly troops to join the cause, caves to explore, tournaments to fight, wives to marry (and children to bear), you can't walk five steps without bumping into something new. But beware, because that "something new" could very well be deadly. Contrary to the conventions of modern RPGs, this game don't scale. That means impossibly hard enemies are scattered everywhere, even the first zone. And since enemy parties not controlled by a rival hero are represented by a single, innocuous troop, one Knight could be a cake walk, while another ten feet away could spell certain doom. Adding to the challenge, movement on the overworld map is real-time, but it's possible to avoid enemies with careful maneuvering around the terrain. I actually found the unpredictable challenge enjoyable, as it lent each encounter a real sense of tension. But if you forget to hit F5 (save now, save often), don't worry. Except for special tournaments, when you die, you reappear at the King's castle with a bonus bag of gold to buy new troops.

Quests are fun, simple, and varied as a sky full of snowflakes. At one point, the proprietor of the Dragon Fang Inn sent me to fetch his business' namesake. What could have turned into a nasty battle with a blue dragon was resolved with a mean left hook. That's right, I knocked the dragon's fang out with my bare hands, and he thanked me for it. (Medieval dentists are hard to come by.) Another time, a creepy royal wanted me to fetch him a frog, so he could kiss it and turn it into his bride. Naturally, the first frog I came across was male, and none too happy that all his women were being snatched up by a perverse prince with a propensity for puckering up with those of the warty persuasion. Before this game's release, there were a lot of rumors concerning the translation, but I'm happy to report that the dialog is a blast to read. When I asked to join a swamp witch's coven, she interrogated me with a series of questions. After carefully considering each response, she finally hit me with a stumper: Can you be a woman? Because this is a witch's coven (yeah, yeah... she got me)! Early on you encounter a Dwarven dirigible pilot. When you ask for a ride in his airship, he says, “Sorry, but that's not going to work out... maybe it'll go for a few miles, but after that... Ehh...” Your reply? “Well, I don't want 'eeh' to happen.”

As a child, I used to pour over a book called Trouble For Trumpets, a sort of Where's Waldo meets World War I (as far as I was concerned, Waldo could get lost -- I had fuzzy little Red Barons soaring overhead as tiny hippos tossed acorn grenades at each other). But no matter how closely I examined the page, there was no way I could find every hidden surprise. Playing King's Bounty is a lot like reading Trouble for Trumpets. I was constantly spotting some hidden rune or lopsided wizard's house that made me want to pause and take a screenshot. King's Bounty is labor of love, flawed only by its steep learning curve and erratic difficulty level (both of which could be considered a plus in some circles). Buy this game, and I'll be surprised if you aren't still playing it years down the line, hunched over the computer into the wee hours of the night morning with an aching back, bloodshot eyes, and mumbling false promises of, “just one more turn, just one more turn...”

Monday, October 06, 2008

Civilization IV: Colonization Review

Civilization IV: Colonization, developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Complex resource management, production, and trade makes for unique gameplay, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Needs a more explicit tutorial, tool-tips should be more descriptive, only one victory condition, just a handful of nations to choose from, archaic interface, difficult on novices
What say you? A fine update of a unique fourteen-year-old game: 6/8

With all of the quality older games on the PC and elsewhere, a popular choice is to update them with snazzy new graphics and improved system compatibility. We’ve seen this recently with Bionic Commando Rearmed and semi-recently with all of those Matrix Games remakes. Next, it is Colonization’s turn. The 1994 title has been updated with Civilization IV’s graphics engine, multiplayer, and a handful of other minor changes. Will this reboot appropriately update a solid gaming premise?

As you might have been able to tell from the title, Civilization IV: Colonization uses the graphics engine from Civilization IV. The result is a fine looking game that shows that the three-year-old engine still has some life left in it. The character animations are less fluid than you would like, but the terrain looks fantastic and conveys a rugged New World to explore. If you’ve played Civilization IV, then you have a pretty good idea what to expect here. The sound effects are almost completely carried over from Civilization IV, although there is (I think) some original background music to accompany all of your colonizing needs. Despite using an engine that, relatively speaking, is quite old, Civilization IV: Colonization still maintains a high level of quality with a characteristic theme.

In Civilization IV: Colonization, you pick one of four nations who were adept at colonizing North America: England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Notably absent is Portugal, who did their fair share of taking over natives in Brazil, and this fifth nation could be balanced by the Russians who spent time up in Alaska. Each nation has two leaders to choose from, each of which grants a unique second bonus in addition to the national bonus each country receives, such as better trade or military bonuses. The “New World” map is randomly generated each turn, which greatly increases replay value instead of using the real geography. The map size and difficult levels can also be adjusted, in addition to the game speed. Multiplayer games can be done online (using Gamespy Arcade inside the game), although you’ll really want to use a faster speed. The tutorial is very basic and doesn’t explain a large majority of the game: simple missions conveyed through pop-ups are all that new players are given to acclimate to the game (well, that and the manual, but who reads that thing?). Civilization IV: Colonization really needs a robust set of tutorials that explain each phase of the game; it took me a good four or five play-throughs to completely understand what the heck I was doing, and I play a lot of strategy games. Civilization IV: Colonization only has one victory condition, independence, which means every game will involve the same strategy: make money through trade, build up the military, and attack. Flexible it is not.

Civilization IV: Colonization is more about resource management than more traditional strategy gaming, and it’s a good thing that the game is fairly interesting due to the complex interrelationships between goods. Step one is to found a colony, typically one on the coast surrounded by a lot of resources. Each colony controls its tile and the surrounding eight; colonists can be assigned to collect raw materials from any surrounding tile or work in a manufacturing center that usually converts raw materials to a finished product that trades for more money. The game does a fine job automatically assigning new colonists to a particular job, although if you want a specific focus you can lock the AI out of making adjustments to some or all of the positions. Most colonists have a specialization that will increase how many goods they produce, so taking advantage of both your available resources and workers to meet your needs is intriguing. The whole point of manufacturing goods is to ship them off to Europe, which is done by sending them on (surprise!) a ship. Inland cities must have their goods transported to a coastal location; this can be done using wagon trains and set up to do an infinite, automatic trade route.

One thing that has unfortunately carried over from the 1994 version of the game is the interface. I cannot understand why developers insist on having full-screen informational displays when almost everyone that uses a PC has a high-resolution display. All of the important displays (your towns, Europe) take up the entire screen and are generally filled with too much unnecessary blank space. I had to switch between full-screen display far too often and it slowed down the game to a tedious pace. In addition, Civilization IV: Colonization lacks detailed information in-game: tool-tips for workers don’t describe which jobs they are best for (and neither does the manual). For example, is a weaver only good in a clothes-making building or does their bonus extend to collecting cotton? There is too much trial and error in figuring out who can do what best. The game really needs a flow chart or something to make the relationships more clear.

Civilization IV: Colonization takes a slightly different approach to unit creation. Instead of simply building a “soldier” or a “farmer,” they must appear in Europe and then transported overseas to the New World. The more people you have working in churches (since most of this stuff was fueled by religion), the faster new people will appear. You can also hurry “production” of new citizens (good in the early game) or outright purchase them (good in the late game). All of that cash you earned through trade can be used here to further expand your colonies by purchasing military units or new workers. The pioneer unit is your “engineer” that can build roads and clear land to increase production, although the increases are so small that it’s better to employ pioneers in a city to collect goods and hire specialists in the area you need. Founding fathers will also appear over time, activated by reaching a certain level of awesomeness in political, religious, exploration, or trade categories. These founding fathers will grant some sort of bonus if you choose to hire them, and they can only be employed by one nation at a time.

Not only are you competing against three other European nations, but Native American tribes will also populate the area. It’s usually a good idea to not anger them early on in the game while your military is still in its infancy. Founding new colonies near their cities will require a bribe or you will have to face the wrath of war. There are basic diplomatic options you can undertake with both the natives and the other European nations: war, peace, trade, and open borders. You will have to engage at least your mother country in battle at some point, since the only victory is independence. You can increase the likelihood of a revolution by assigning statesmen to political buildings; once enough rebel sentiment accumulates, you will draft a constitution (which, like the founding fathers, will grant some sort of rule or bonus for war time) and start fighting.

Combat is identical to Civilization IV: two sprites meet in a tile and it is automatically resolved using dice rolls. Thus, overall victory is determined on how well you managed your resources. I found Civilization IV: Colonization to be quite difficult as I was learning to play it, mostly because the tutorials were so terrible and the manual lacked key information. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, I usually forgot to do something and got taken over by a native tribe or another European power. This is a complex game that is not for strategy novices; Civilization IV is far more inviting for a general audience. There are so many needs that it’s quite hard to balance everything. You need to make money through trade. You need to make arms for your military. You need to make food. You need to make tools for new buildings. And so on. If you can wrap your head around everything, then Civilization IV: Colonization is a fun game that still is quite unique.

Civilization IV: Colonization accomplishes its goal: update the venerable strategy game with modern graphics and a handful of small tweaks to the mechanics. I think this title will appeal more towards nostalgic fans of the original title, as the poor tutorials, insufficient tool-tips, and high difficulty will deter new players from venturing to the New World. Still, the complex resource management means there is always something to tweak and you are never, ever sitting around with nothing to do (a common occurrence in many strategy games). This is slightly more than a simple mod of Civilization IV: it’s a professional mod of Civilization IV but it is executed in a fine manner. Civilization IV: Colonization is compelling and different enough to still be a solid game today, as long as you can overcome the interface and tutorial deficiencies.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 2: Strong Badia the Free Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 2: Strong Badia the Free, developed and published by Telltale Games.
The Good: Hilarious dialog, superb voice acting, clean graphics, friendly interface
The Not So Good: Some locations still feel sparse, not the longest or hardest game out there
What say you? A great little third person point-and-click adventure that's as fun as it is funny: 7/8

When last we saw our lovable anti-hero in Episode 1, Strong Bad had done his best to ruin the good name of hated rival Homestar Runner. Now he's up against the King of Town, who has issued an uncharacteristically evil email tax. The tax is both IMMEDIATE and RETROACTIVE, so Strong Bad is collared with a custom fit exploding necklace and placed under house arrest. Unable to send or receive a single freakin’ email, Strong Bad is given no other choice but to escape, secede and start his own country of Strong Badia.

Vivid 3D characters faithfully recreate the look of the 2D flash-animated cartoon. Chalk it up to the simple design of Homestar Runner, but it's a thousand times more effective than Homer Simpson's eerie cell-shaded head in Simpsons Hit & Run. Unfortunately, some of the locations don't translate well to an adventure game. They seem sparse compared to the intricate, pre-rendered backgrounds of other titles. Where Strong Bad really shines is the dialog, wonderfully written and performed by the show's creator. The music fits the lighthearted mood of the series, and I'm especially fond of the Bleak House retro MIDI dirge.

Episode 2 has an easy to use, professionally crafted interface. There's a one-function pointer, which talks, grabs or operates based on context. This means you can't “look” at objects you're supposed to grab, but Strong Bad has a habit of narrating everything he does, so you get a good description anyway. Dialog is handled via icon-based speech balloons. There's also a Good/Evil system, where you can flatter or insult someone, which is usually just good for a laugh and doesn't add much to the gameplay. You can skip dialog with the right mouse button: handy and intuitive. A blue menu on the top-left has an inventory, map, and a camera icon that lets you take pictures (for those of you without a screen capture program; it's handy for the Wii port, I guess.) Finally, it's possible to Alt-Tab to the desktop with no problems, something I can't do in 90% of the games I review (don't developers ever have to check their sbemail, er, email?).

In an interesting twist, the whole cast of characters decide to secede, dividing the land into their own countries. Strong Bad begins at the top of the map, which is drawn on an old pen and paper RPG box (The King of Town destroyed your old map, so no more dragging around locations as you please). From there he must conquer his way south, toward the King of Town's castle. I've seen my share of mystery games, and adventure games about amnesia, and mystery adventure games about amnesia, but never have I played an adventure game about conquering a map full of personalized day-old countries. It's a great hook and a perfect comedic scenario. To conquer each country you must shift your tactics to meet the situation: The Cheat demands a medal to prove he'll be Strong Bad's #1, whereas Strong Sad, who turned the Strong household into a mime's paradise draped in black fabric salvaged from his “highly flammable pajamas” (hint, hint), isn't so lucky.

Although some problems of the first game are addressed (they fixed the curious three-picture limit, which I believe was a holdover from the Wii version), there are still several screens devoid of anything but blue sky, green grass and a lone object. I realize they're trying to stay true to the source material, but it wouldn't hurt to add a random Whoozit or Whathaveyou to interact with. And no, putting a little flag on The Stick doesn't count. It's still just a stick with a flag on top. Those looking for a challenge may be disappointed: the puzzles are generally of the “find the right item for the job or talk to the right person” variety. But I enjoyed myself, and got a real kick out of this episode's Fun Machine mini-game, an educational Double Dragon clone called “Math Kickers: Featuring the Alge Bros.” And yes, you actually solve math problems... by kicking ninja butt! Quick, 6=4+Y. Y=?

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 2: Strong Badia the Free (whew!) is an immensely entertaining adventure game. From the moment it begins, it's all about sharp wit, constant gags and neigh perfect comedic timing. Playing a Strong Bad game reminds me of watching an episode of Family Guy or a Mel Brooks movie, only I get to play along with the actors on screen. Like a good episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the humor ranges from silly (the camera zooms in on a video game poster as Strong Bad makes vroom-vroom noises and claims the games are “exploding from his wall”) to the obscure (he calls his brother “Little Lord Fatleroy”, a reference to an 1800s children's book). This episode actually cracked me up even more than the last. If the series continues to improve, it could easily rank up there with such comedy classics as Quest for Glory 4 and Day of the Tentacle. Is it worth the $8.95? You'd better believe it.