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.