Friday, November 28, 2008

Xpand Rally Xtreme Review

Xpand Rally Xtreme, developed by Techland and published on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Precarious new locations, irregular road surfaces, new XTREME cars, special stage and track races
The Not So Good: Still have to unlock content, AI driver difficulty is sporadic
What say you? This half-sim, half-arcade rally racing sequel adds some minor content: 5/8

If you’re a regular visitor to the site (and who is?), you’ll know that I have quite a fondness for rally racing. I mention it when I do my yearly review of a rally game, as evidenced by the following reviews: DiRT and, the prequel to this game, Xpand Rally. So here we go again with the perpetually misspelled Xpand Rally Xtreme. It's like Xpand Rally, only XTREME. You know, XTREME locations. XTREME cars. XTREME XTREMEness. I think I've made my point, whatever that may be. Let's move on.

Xpand Rally Xtreme is almost visually identical to its predecessor, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Xpand Rally was released in Europe four years ago, but the graphics still hold up pretty good. Everything has a fuzzy sheen to it, but the environments are still pretty detailed in addition to the cars. The new settings don't really add anything to the game: it doesn't matter that races set in Malaysia look like Malaysia or northern England as you are whipping by at 150 mph. The graphics aren't cutting edge like you would find in more recent racing games, but they are surely good enough. The audio is along the same lines: the same spotter returns along with plausible engine noises and campy background music. For a game that features essentially the same graphics four years after they were initially used, Xpand Rally Xtreme holds up well.

Xpand Rally Xtreme is, not surprisingly, a lot like its predecessor. You must still unlock additional cars, tracks, and upgrades through the career mode. You get money for finishing in last, though, so eventually you'll be able to upgrade your car enough to make yourself competitive since the AI difficulty cannot be adjusted (it seems to be appropriate). The AI times are appropriate for the most part, closely mirroring the upgrades you should be able to afford. Every one in a while you'll run into some tough times that will take several trials to beat and the AI times are unrealistically very close together, but overall it's not that much of a pain. The upgrades are identical to before; I understand why they use the process, making your vehicles progressively faster (and subsequently harder to drive), but I don't fully embrace it. While you are given more control over how your car drives by choosing which upgrades to purchase, I would also like just getting some pre-upgraded cars as well. Multiplayer is back, although I was never able to find anyone to play against so I cannot evaluate if the net code got any better. In this title, you'll go way too fast in exotic locations like Malaysia, China, Monte Carlo, and the United Kingdom. All of the locations from the previous game are missing, a decision that doesn't seem necessary and makes Xpand Rally Xtreme less approachable to beginners since the courses are much more difficult (some would say XTREME) this time around. The game comes with the same editor as before, so if you are inclined to making your own devilish creations you can.

Only a wuss would choose arcade mode, so we're mainly going to talk about how Xpand Rally Xtreme stacks up as a simulation. The damage model is very unforgiving: jumps are deadly, even ones that cars on TV can make with ease. Each system in your car (brakes, transmission, tires, et cetera) can be damaged independently, although you might not notice the subtleties as your vehicle goes from “good” to “suck.” The tracks in Xpand Rally Xtreme now have very uneven roads with potholes, grooves, and gaps; this makes the driving a whole lot more interesting and the simulation handles the uneven road surfaces well. Not only do you have to worry about objects outside the track like before, but you'll need to pay attention to things in the track as well. In additon to the more traditional rally cars from games past, Xpand Rally Xtreme comes with some GT vehicles, dirt buggies, off-road 4x4 trucks, and monster trucks. This adds some variety to the game, although the career mode still puts the focus on classic rally racing. To complement these new vehicles, Xpand Rally Xtreme also adds special stage races (where two people compete against each other on a looped course), off-road checkpoint races (which can be very interesting), and normal track races. I do like how Xpand Rally Xtreme has expanded (ha ha) upon the usual rally game and introduced some changes of pace. Still, is this enough to upgrade or even purchase outright?

Almost. I would feel a lot better if Xpand Rally Xtreme included all of the content of the original game, but four years is a lot of time for the same graphics and a handful of new vehicles and locations. It should not warrant a high score based solely on the new material, but Xpand Rally Xtreme is still quite enjoyable and the additions alter the gameplay in the right direction. Overall, Xpand Rally Xtreme strikes a good balanced between the arcade racing of DiRT and the pure simulation of Richard Burns Rally. The inclusion of a variety of cars (including monster trucks and GT vehicles) and new locations with varied road surface conditions makes Xpand Rally Xtreme certainly have more variety than before. It’s not completely different from Xpand Rally, but for an expansion-like price of $20, owners of the previous game won’t feel too cheated switching over. It might not be much new content, but it’s certainly more than some other stand-alone sequels. The amount of new stuff is borderline O.K., so drivers who have, and have not, experienced this series in the past can look at the content included herein (new cars and tracks) and decide whether Xpand Rally Xtreme is right for you. Side effects may include running head-on into trees and dry mouth.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Backyard Football ‘09 Review

Backyard Football ‘09, developed by FarSight Studios and published by Humongous.
The Good: Straightforward mouse-driven controls, simplified but entertaining gameplay, numerous game modes, real NFL teams and players
The Not So Good: Completely unfair power moves, have to unlock some players, no online play, stability issues
What say you? Despite some technical concerns, this is how you make a sports game for kids: 6/8

Those of us looking for an NFL-licensed game outside of the DRM empire have been out of luck for several years, due to an exclusive license between the NFL and the DRM empire that involves an uncomfortable three-way with John Madden. But lo! What is that gleam of hope on the horizon? All right, I admit, it’s a “kids game,” but still, Backyard Football ’09 might offer up some simple gridiron fun, right? I mean, the game does features real NFL teams and one real NFL player from each time, and who doesn’t want to play with an even shorter version of Maurice Jones-Drew? So grab your helmet and let’s head outside for some kid-on-kid sports violence!

Backyard Football ’09 looks exactly like you would expect a kids’ game to look: underwhelming. While there are varied environments in which to play (fair, school, yard), the whole game in general just doesn’t compete with any recent sports games on any platform in terms of the visuals. While you can increase the screen resolution to eliminate some of the problems, the textures remain poorly detailed and the character animations are canned. In addition, the kids do not look much like their adult counterparts. I don’t have a problem with reaching out to a wider audience with more pedestrian graphics, but I’d still like to have the option of having a better looking game if I have the computer to do so. The sound fares worse: while I like the (repetitive) background music that flows in and out of the game, the effects are few and the color commentary is tiresome. The announcer sounds like he has a cold and the jokes (although some of them are humorous) get repetitive after a couple of games. I guess you get what you pay for, and you get $20 worth of graphics and sound here.

For the first time in what seems like forever, Backyard Football ’09 runs completely off the CD. That doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but I don’t remember any game in recent memory that actually required the CD in order to play it (other than for DRM purposes). Once you fire up the game, you’ll find a nice assortment of game modes to choose from. Pick-up games let you choose from the complete roster of NFL and fictitious players to make a seven-person squad; the AI is pretty bad at choosing people, so you can usually get the best players in any category (players can be sorted according to various skill attributes). You can also enjoy and entire season using the 2008 NFL schedule, eight-team tournaments, or an all-pro game pitting the NFC against the AFC. Backyard Football ’09 features at least one player from each NFL team in the game, but some of the players have to be unlocked through the season mode (I think) and I hate having to unlock things in a game I paid for. Backyard Football ’09 lacks Internet play so you will have to go at it against the AI. Still, there is enough here to keep you busy.

Since this game is geared towards a younger crowd, it’s nice that Backyard Football ’09 features a fine assortment of simple control schemes. My personal favorite is using the mouse: point to run there, mouse buttons to do something or switch players, and keyboard letters to pass (or click in the general direction if you have that setting). The pass icons are too small, however, if you use higher resolutions (they don’t scale, apparently), so a lot of squinting is involved here. You can go more advanced with a gamepad if you so choose, but the game does a good job picking appropriate actions when you click.

Like arena football, the 7-on-7 action of Backyard Football ’09 is very much geared towards the offense and games will be quite high scoring. The game provides a nice selection of plays on both offense and defense and calling plays has about the same amount of depth as the more mainstream football offerings. One thing I detest with a passion is power moves: as you perform well on the field, you can get power moves that are essentially an instant touchdown or tackle. This throws the whole strategy of football out the window and it makes Backyard Football ’09 quite silly to play. Luckily, you can turn this option off (as I did) and completely ignore this unrealistic aspect of the game. I should note that I had some significant technical problems with Backyard Football ’09: whenever a game ends, it locks up. This means all of the progress made during the game was lost so I could never progress through a season and unlock players. I contacted Atari tech support but, of course, never received a response.

Despite the intended audience, Backyard Football ’09 is a surprisingly sophisticated and feature-filled football game. The game is reminiscent of arena football with an emphasis on the passing game and high scoring affairs. We have real NFL teams with real NFL players, although some of them need to be unlocked. All of the important features of sports games are included: quick games, playoffs, and complete seasons. The simplified controls work well and the unjust power moves can be turned off. I did have some notable problems running the game, and since the game is completely on the CD, the likelihood of a patch is minimal at best. Still, I had some fun playing Backyard Football ’09 and you certainly get $20 worth of fun out of it in any age group.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Iron Grip: Warlord Review

Iron Grip: Warlord, developed and published by Isotx.
The Good: Very challenging and requires team coordination, both first person combat and strategic defensive placements, plentiful upgrades based on performance, chaotic fun
The Not So Good: Can’t play as the offense, brain-dead AI doesn’t cooperate well or engage vehicles in single player, only a handful of structures, enemy vehicles are overpowered
What say you? A semi-interesting defensive shooter-strategy hybrid that feels more like a mod than a full game...but it's still pretty fun online: 5/8

The movie 300 shows that sometimes its fun to defend against high numbers of invading attackers and mow them all down (the Spartans did win that battle, right?). The defensive side of the gaming equation has only gotten sporadic attention in the form of strategy games like Stronghold and unfairly balanced first person shooters like the Serious Sam series. Most of the time, even in assault games, there are people on both sides fighting for freedom (and usually screaming about it). This (I think) brings us to Iron Grip: Warlord, a defensive game where you and a team of buddies defend against an AI invasion by building defensive structures and shooting people in the face. The Isotx team previously developed a total conversion mod for Half-Life 2 which, as far as I can tell, is significantly different from Iron Grip: Warlord except for the setting and the combination of both first person shooter and real-time strategy gaming.

Visually, Iron Grip: Warlord is very similar to pretty much any other independently-produced, lower-priced ($25) first person shooter: good but certainly not great. The game is very reminiscent of both Rising Eagle and War Rock, although Iron Grip: Warlord looks slightly better overall. The towns contain a varied assortment of buildings, enough that each map is distinctive. The character models, although they lack completely fluid animations, are detailed enough. The weapons have a nice retro-futuristic touch to them, going with the overall theme of the game. Fire effects are done well and are convincing. The structures that you will construct look better at a distance, as the textures aren't quite as good as you would like. Overall, Iron Grip: Warlord just lacks the upper-level polish and fine detail that top-of-the-line first person shooters have. The sound is pretty typical for the genre: combat sounds with weapons and vehicles combined with the ever-present whistle of incoming troops. Nobody will get blown away with the quality of Iron Grip: Warlord's presentation, but it gets the job done.

Iron Grip: Warlord is a purely defensive game, where you must protect your stronghold against an insane number of enemy troops. While you can play with AI bots, there is no real point to playing single player due to a lack of coordination and cooperation. The AI bots will fill out missing players in online play anyway, and since you have to download the game to begin with, I doubt many people will mess with the single player aspect of Iron Grip: Warlord. This ignorance is further increased by the lack of a single player campaign, although with one six maps, a linked campaign probably won't last too long anyway. Joining a multiplayer match is a breeze, as the in-game browser shows the usual information like ping and the number of players on each server in addition to the difficulty level: a great feature.

The gameplay of Iron Grip: Warlord comes in two flavors: first person shooting (where you will be spending most of your time) and real time strategy. This has been done before in another online game, Savage 2, but this game's more defensive tilt makes it stand out. You will constantly earn power, either over time or killing enemies, that can be used to purchase personal upgrades or build defensive structures. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you a large assortment of weapons to choose from (rifles, machine guns, flame throwers, rockets), although the lower-level weapons (namely the light machine guns) and default musket are not very good. Interesting is the fact that the heavy machine gun must be placed (either in a crouched position or on a wall or window) before it can be fired; I can't remember another game balancing the weapon in that fashion. In addition to more weapons, you can upgrade your character with health, damage, rehealing, or speed improvements. Iron Grip: Warlord gives you the freedom to customize your character during the game in the way you see fit and the role the team needs: slow machine gunner, fast sniper, or any combination thereof. It's refreshing to eliminate boring classes and give the user the freedom to choose their character role.

You can also use earned power to construct things. These come in several flavors: turrets (for both people and tanks), traps, and support structures. There are only seven to choose from, so the variety of strategies is somewhat limited. You can upgrade a structure by clicking on it and devoting some additional power; the manual fails to mention how to do this, so I had to ask the developer directly. I feel that the developers could have provided a more interesting mix of exotic structures, considering the setting. As it stands, pretty much everyone just spams machine gun turrets and equips themselves with rockets to deal with the vehicles. Then, just have one person place a nearby support station at a chokepoint and you essentially have unlimited ammunition and health. If you can attain this level of coordination and planning, defeating the incoming horde becomes almost trivial. Unfortunately, the AI doesn't fare so well against armored opponents, so a couple of tanks are serious concerns in single player games. While the enemy is trying to cause damage to your stronghold, the only way to defeat their advances is to assassinate the officer. While all regular enemy (and friendly) units are constantly depicted on the radar, the officer is only placed once you see them. You'll need to kill about four to five of them in order to complete the mission. While they are tougher than the regular units, you do get a huge power bonus for defeating them and you get to take their powerful minigun and turn it against them. Overall, I found Iron Grip: Warlord to be easy on easy (with linear enemy paths and less of them to deal with), hard on medium (multiple paths and vehicles), and “don't ask” on hard. The game is much better online with humans that are smart, and coming up with a good plan and executing it successfully is satisfying. Iron Grip: Warlord certainly has a Serious Sam-style quality to it, as mowing down countless (well, the game keeps track of your stats) enemy units is pretty fun. The enemy AI is not smart, but it doesn't need to be as long as you are playing online. When you are doing single-player action, however, you will miss competent allies and the poor AI will make anything above easy difficulty almost impossible. Speaking of almost impossible, the enemy vehicles difficult to bring down and require a lot of rocket launchers from hidden positions.

While it may not be the most in-depth shooter on the market, Iron Grip: Warlord would provide some fun for defensively-minded gamers. The real-time strategy aspect of the game could benefit from more structure variety, possibly calling in airstrikes or varied building attributes; see Enemy Territory: Quake Wars for a more well-rounded structure-based shooter. I do like how you can customize your attributes and weapons at will without being restricted by arbitrary classes. Being a fast-moving sniper is a much different experience than a slow-moving but heavily-armored rocketeer. You can't play the game on the offense, something that might prove to be interesting: imagine one player as the enemy officer against everyone else. Single player is pointless due to the poor AI, but joining a multiplayer game is very easy and the game puts all of the pertinent information on the browser list. I certainly spent more time playing the game than the rating might reflect (even after having finished the review) and had fun doing it when I found competent people to fight along with. Plus, Iron Grip: Warlord is still installed on my hard drive, which is better off than most games. This is a budget-priced shooter that certainly provides budget-priced fun, though there are some small areas that could use improvement.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Football Mogul 2009 Review

Football Mogul 2009, developed and published by Sports Mogul.
The Good: Excellent playbook editor, custom league support, ratings for every player for the 2008 NFL season, lots of small enhancements
The Not So Good: Limited to ten plays per category, needs more than two included playbooks, limited to 36 total teams in a custom league, no online multiplayer
What say you? The play editing alone is almost worth $20 in this quality budget NFL football simulation: 6/8

A personal rule of mine when it comes to annual sports games is to wait two years. Typically this year’s version is a lot like last year’s version, but two iterations might result in some more dramatic changes and improvements. I bring this up because of Football Mogul 2009, a series I initially reviewed a while back with the 2007 iteration. That version has a lot of potential, but came up short overall. Well, now it is two years later and time for the potential to become reality. Does Football Mogul 2009 score a touchdown, or get sacked for a big loss?

The graphics and sound of Football Mogul 2009 are identical to Football Mogul 2007: same interface, same menus, same lack of sounds. A slick presentation isn’t really that important in a text-based sports management game, so I am comfortable with the existing interface since Football Mogul 2009 is, as its predecessor was, easy to navigate.

Since the core of Football Mogul 2009 is (not surprisingly) very similar to Football Mogul 2007, I will highlight the differences and improvements made in this year’s version. The most obvious improvement is the addition of a playbook editor that allows you to design your own plays. While there have been other football games that have allowed you to edit plays, Football Mogul 2009 features the best and most intuitive editor I've come across. For each passing play, you choose a formation, a primary receiver, and the route for each player (of which there are many to choose from). Running plays let you customize the ball carrier and rushing hole (such as between the center and left guard or off-tackle right). Blocking is handled automatically in each case, which is great for novices such as myself that only care about where the “skill position” players are going. It takes only a couple of hours to bang out an entire playbook, partially because of the simplicity of the editor and partially because you are limited to 20 runs (10 inside and 10 outside) and 30 passes (10 small, medium, and long). You are able to edit defensive plays as well (again, 10 per category) in much the same manner. Since it is so easy to make a custom playbook, it’s surprising that the game only comes with two playbooks (obviously the developer is a fan of both the Patriots and the Browns) and there aren’t any to find online. The custom plays also raise the question of whether the new plays actually do anything different or are they simple window dressing. There is probably no way to find out for sure, but it more satisfying playing the game using your own plays and strategies.

Most of the other improvements in Football Mogul 2009 are what you would find in a typical sports sequel. The AI is a tougher opponent that will adjust to your play-calling tendencies. The game simulation performs faster and produces more realistic results. Rookies are generated from a pool of names and will age and decline appropriately. There are a lot of stats to keep track of in thirty categories. You can also play a friend on the same computer (with different keyboard controls), which is one step closer to online play. Finally, Football Mogul 2009 supports custom leagues better, with shorter schedules and unbalanced league configurations, so that’s cool. On the flip side, you are sadly limited to only 36 teams in a custom league.

Football Mogul 2009 takes the next logical step of the franchise, adding in a spectacular play editor on top of an already solid game. My main problem with Football Mogul 2007 was the lack of content, and this version almost completely solves that shortcoming. The play editor is fantastic, and when you add updated rosters, custom leagues, and the host of other additions, Football Mogul 2009 is an enjoyable product. Add in some more playbooks (one per team) and online play and we would have a complete product. Still, Football Mogul 2009’s budget pricing makes it an affordable and satisfying option for those looking for a football simulation instead of a mindless arcade game.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

World War One: The Great War 1914-1918 Review

World War One: The Great War 1914-1918, developed by Luca Cammisa and published by AGEOD.
The Good: Detailed unit and leader properties, tactical battle planning, limited number of stacks decreases micromanagement, robust economy with research and unit production, accurate movement with weather and supply influences, logical diplomatic relations flow, novices can disable some advanced rules, very easy to modify
The Not So Good: Interface shortcomings, poor tutorial, long AI turn resolution, can’t adjust music volume, no Internet matchmaking, too many bugs
What say you? It’s quite unfriendly to new players and unpolished overall, but there is still some things to like about the first World War: 5/8

Ah, the 1910’s. The Mexican Revolution. The Titanic. Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Anything else I can copy from Wikipedia. Those were some good times. It was also the home of the first World War (also known as World War I), the original but not the best, according to the realm of computer gaming where its more recent derivative has proven to be supreme. It’s about time to make a game that centers on the first time nations from around the world came together and shot each other in the face. AGEOD, the company responsible for Napoleon's Campaigns, American Civil War, and Birth of America, has come out with their latest iteration entitled World War One: The Great War (or, using its much cooler French subtitle, La Grande Guerre).

Considering that AGEOD has a proud tradition of high-quality game maps, World War One comes up a bit short in terms of quality. There are some subtle details when you are zoomed in enough, but Europe during the 1910’s looks quite bland and World War One almost looks the same as Europa Universalis II (that’s not a compliment). The units are also not that detailed and lack animations of any kind during gameplay. Even with the lowered level of quality, World War One runs quite sluggishly. I’m not looking for high-end graphics in a grand strategy game, but World War One certainly falls behind the heavy hitters of the genre and even AGEOD’s past efforts. In addition, some people are complaining about Europe being turned on its side where East is up on the map, but I didn’t find it to be too disorienting. Plus, who’s to say that the 1910’s wasn’t in the middle of a magnetic pole reversal? I know I wasn’t alive back then to verify! The sound design is typical for the genre, with appropriate battle effects and period-specific background music. I did come across what I feel is a significant bug: you can’t adjust the music volume level. This means it is either blaringly loud or off, and you can only shut it off outside of the game. The music isn’t bad, it’s just too damn loud. This music issue is one of several reasons (I’ll touch on more later) that World War One feels quite unpolished and incomplete. For a team with such a strong pedigree, World War One comes up surprisingly short in terms of graphics and sound.

In World War One, you will lead one of the major European powers towards ultimate victory. The game comes with two grand campaigns that contain the meat of the title, one with two players and one with four. There are also four shorter scenarios covering a specific geographic area (Serbia, Prussia) for those desiring a smaller conflict. As with most games in this genre, World War One can be quite daunting for new players, so the game comes with three tutorials to ease you into the rules, at least theoretically. Unfortunately, the tutorials are poorly designed for several reasons. First, there is way too much reading involved; it’s the same as simply going to the manual as none of the instructions are voiced and the passages are quite long. In addition, the tutorial instructions box cannot be moved or resized and it commonly obscures important information or units that you are supposed to click on: not nice. While most people will probably play the game against the AI, there is the option to take World War One online, but you must know your opponent’s IP address in advance as there is no matchmaking. One excellent feature is the straightforward modification support: everything is contained in colored and labeled Microsoft Excel files that are very easy to edit and change pretty much any of the game values and variables. This is probably the easiest game to edit since Europa Universalis III, certainly in the grand strategy genre.

You’ll start out a new campaign by choosing a war plan. This is a very neat, unique feature of World War One that significantly adds to the replay value of the title. There are usually about five to choose from, typically rooted in history and offering different initial targets (Serbia, Russia, France) and strategies (offense, defense). You will also pick two bonuses applied to your country, usually a compliment to your strategy. The war plan feature not only gives specific regional objectives, but it serves to ease new players into the game and not make World War One seem as overwhelming at first. World War One also has random events that can alter the gameplay, making successive attempts at conquering Europe more varied. Before you start moving units around, there are several phases to each month-or-so-long turn. You can send ambassadors to neutral countries and activate a diplomatic mission. Successful trips will result in improved relationships and better treaties that are automatically agreed upon (it is the ambassador’s responsibility, not yours), ranging from economic or military aid, military access, and eventually alliances. This is a lot better than the typical strategy game where you say, “I just met you and this is the first turn but I need military access NOW.” It’s neat watching relationships grow over time and months of constant diplomacy flourish into an unstoppable partnership.

While World War One does not include any resource collection per se, you will do things with resources like undertake research projects. Basically, you will have a percentage chance of successfully gaining a new technology (such as chlorine gas or light tanks) based on how much money you have devoted to research in your budget slider (money is automatically collected based on the provinces you own). You will also have the chance to activate new policies that provide small bonuses or other effects, like attempting a coup in Greece or calling up conscripts. Your budget will also be used to produce new units and create reinforcements for existing ones. Most of this economic stuff is all automated, other than choosing specific troops and technologies, so it’s not that confusing to new players.

Most of your time will be spent in the military phase moving troops around. Like previous AGEOD titles, World War One puts all of the game’s units into organized HQ units that all move as a stack. Actually moving an army actually involves several steps. First, you have to activate the stack; I have no idea why, just seems like an extra button press to me. Only then can you move your unit and battles can result. You can coordinate two armies that are located in close proximity to each other for a timed operation, and nearby enemy units can be intercepted during their turn if the option is selected. When two opposing armies occupy the same province, it’s time for combat. Unlike most grand strategy games (including AGEOD’s previous titles), you will actually have a direct influence on planning each battle. You can assign each of your units in the HQ stack to a number of jobs: frontline battle commitment, regular deployment, rear backup, or reserve for future breakthroughs. It more satisfying to resolve combat in this manner rather than a bunch of dice rolls you have no control over and just watch. Sieging an enemy city works in essentially the same fashion, so even that usually mindless task is given some tactical depth.

Grand strategy games can commonly get crushed under their own weight, and World War One is no exception. The interface tries to make the game easy to access, but it fails in several key areas. First, as I mentioned before, you cannot move display boxes around. This is a big deal because they are typically large often obscure your view of the game map. Secondly, the map overlays for strategic or political maps are not labeled (like I know what climate each color stands for). Third, there are simply problems with either incorrect instructions in the tutorial or things just not working correctly when moving troops around. I had a heck of a time bringing in reinforcements (the directions on how to do this are vague at best) and moving units or combining stacks can be an exercise in futility. This unpolished nature of World War One is quite surprising considering AGEOD’s past titles; I feel that World War One was released a bit too early to coincide with November 11th. Further evidence for the unpolished nature of the title can be seen in the number of crashes and bugs encountered: the game freezing during an AI siege retreat, crashing when loading a new scenario. This is a level of quality that I am not accustomed to when playing an AGEOD title.

You have the ability to turn some of the advanced rules off, such as fog of war, the stacking limits, or supply rules. I would like the option to skip unit activation before movement, but I did not see that choice as being available. Like most good strategy games, outside influences such as weather can affect the outcome of key battles, so plan accordingly. The AI seems like a fine competitor in World War One, although turn resolution takes quite a long time and locks up the game; this seems to occur right when you are in the middle of doing something, as the WEGO format lets the AI plan at the same time as human players. Victory is attained by causing the opposition to surrender, usually due to war weariness.

While World War One certainly has the potential to be a great grand strategy offering, it falls short mainly because of a lack of polish and an unfriendly nature towards newcomers. There are certainly a number of unique or otherwise excellent features that I like: different starting strategies through war plans, the gradual improvement of diplomatic relations and subsequent increase in benefits, setting policies, and unit production and research. Setting up individual battle strategies is a feature you usually don't experience in a grand strategy game, as other titles in the genre typically just auto-resolve combat. World War One also has some very nice modification support, with easy to edit Microsoft Excel files with color-coded column labels. But, even though they might seem minor, the shortcomings of World War One tend to overshadow the better aspects of the game. The user interface tries to put a lot of information at your fingertips but ultimately proves to be confusing. The overlays just become a cacophony of unexplained colors and objective locations are not displayed clearly enough. The fact that you can't move windows around is a limitation that becomes quite a problem in the tutorials. Speaking of, the tutorials are more like reading a manual and less like actually interacting with the game. Multiplayer options are limited and there are also a host of bugs, from crashes during AI turns and loading new games to the inability to adjust the loud music. Personally, I would just rather go back and play Europa (and I did on several occasions). I feel that World War One will most likely improve in the future due to patches from the developer, but in its current state, this title is appropriate only for hardcore strategists.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ford Racing Off Road Review

Ford Racing Off Road, developed by Razorworks and published by Empire Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Easy-to-drive arcade physics, nice car models, number of racing modes
The Not So Good: Damage does not affect performance, robotic AI that ignores the race rules, can’t adjust difficulty for career mode, no penalty for going off-track, lacks online multiplayer, no car setup or part upgrade options, pixilated environments
What say you? An arcade racing game with a lot of race types but not much else: 4/8

Since my favorite NASCAR driver, Mark Martin, used to drive the #6 car for Jack Roush, I had some sort of “allegiance” to Ford. But now that’s he’s moved on to DEI, and Hendrick next year, my interest with Ford vehicles has waned (plus, I own a Subaru). So here comes Ford Racing Off Road, the latest in the long line of Ford-branded racing titles. Now, the Ford trucks and SUVs (that's an abbreviation for “man, gas is expensive!”) take to exotic locations like “desert” and “wet desert.” How will this semi-budget ($30) arcade racing title stack up?

Well, Ford Racing Off Road certainly looks and sounds like a budget title. Not surprisingly, the best aspect of the graphics is the highly detailed car models. Nothing like product placement to raise the quality! The rest of the visuals are not as good: the damage model is underwhelming, with only small changes to the front of your vehicle and an increased amount of dirtiness, even if you slam head on into a rock at 100 miles per hour. Man, those Ford trucks are sturdy! The background textures shimmer with some weird shadowing effects or something odd going on, possibly artifacts from this game likely being a port from the PSP (yeah, PSP). The suspension and dust effects look fine, though. The sound is along the same lines, featuring a generic rock soundtrack and your typical engine effects. Overall, Ford Racing Off Road looks like a game ported from a handheld console shown at an increased resolution with improvements made only to the car models, which is most likely what happened.

Ford Racing Off Road features off road racing with Ford vehicles. Who knew? The game comes with a number of real vehicles in computerized form with different attributes for speed, acceleration, and handling. This has no relation to reality, however, as the lower-level vehicles top out at 100 mph while I am sure they can go faster in real life. In essence, a truck and an SUV can control exactly the same as long as the attributes are identical. Gameplay comes in several flavors: career, tournament, arcade, and multiplayer. The career mode is the method in which you unlock new tracks, vehicles, and tracks. You cannot adjust the difficulty of any of the races; I found some to be trivially easy (and therefore boring) and others to be more challenging. Tournament modes just has a selection of four races in a set, and arcade mode lets you choose from the content you have unlocked. Multiplayer options are quite limited: you can only play the game using a split-screen mode on the same computer, rather than taking it to the Internet, and you can only enjoy a couple of the game modes. This means that you will most likely have to play against the AI (this is not a good thing, as you'll see). All of the races put you in last place to begin with and require you to finish first, which doesn't really sound fair to me.

The best part of Ford Racing Off Road is the selection of race types. We have regular three-lap races that is the only type found in the tournament and comprise a majority of the career mode. There is an addition eleven modes to enjoy that are variations on the standard race, collecting things, racing a countdown clock, or passing a lot of vehicles in a short amount of time. First, elimination mode takes out the last two vehicles every lap. Damage control requires you to keep your damage above a specified level when you finish the race. Gold rush requires to you collect an exorbitant amount of coins and still maintain first position; most of the coins are off to the side, so you have to balance collecting the coins and racing the AI drivers. Expedition mode is similar, except you are collecting artifacts instead of coins. Seconds out mode introduces a countdown timer that can only be increased by collecting green hourglasses (and avoiding red ones). Gauntlet requires you to be in first place after every lap and gives the AI drivers a head start. Time attack pits you against the clock in an excessively long nine lap race. Overtake requires you to pass a number of vehicles within a time limit. Checkpoint mode is completely superfluous, since you have to get first place anyway and the checkpoints are in order and located in the center of the track. Point-to-point is the more classic checkpoint race and slalom mode adds gates to worry about. All of this variety goes a long way towards making Ford Racing Off Road enjoyable, but the frequency of normal lap races and inability to change the difficulty negates any potential fun. Another bad thing about all these interesting game modes is that the AI drivers are immune from a lot of the rules. For example, they don't need to worry about damage in damage control mode, so they will happily slam into you with no repercussions. In addition, they do not need to collect any coins in gold rush mode, which means they will stay to the fast line around the track while you trudge through the bushes. It doesn't really sound fair to me.

Unfortunately, the actual racing in Ford Racing Off Road is not that great. The vehicles handle fine for an arcade racer, but the lack of online play means we have to rely heavily on the AI drivers, and that's not a good thing here. The AI drivers are very obviously artificial, as they follow almost exactly the same line every lap and are almost impossible to wreck, even if you slam really hard into them. In addition, they don't take the player's position into account when racing, especially coming out of corners, so expect to get rammed a lot. This can be quite a problem in the damage control races, where you have to worry about doing undue damage to your vehicle but they do not. Speaking of damage, any damage you do to your vehicle does not affect performance at all until your truck magically blows up at 100% damage. In addition, the damage seems to be only dependent on the quantity of collisions and not the quality: running head-on into a rock at 110 mph results in less damage than having a couple of side bumps going down the straightaway. Despite being an arcade game, there are no power-ups to pick up along the way other than magical repair pods that restore some of your car's luster. Ford Racing Off Road also lacks setups or upgrades to your vehicle and all vehicles come with automatic transmission. The driving model, even for an arcade game, is very rudimentary: going off-road into the bushes results in the same speed as going down the trail. Now, I know the game is called “Off Road,” but I should go faster on compacted dirt than loose sediment. The races last about a lap too long and not being able to change the difficulty in the career mode (which you have to play to unlock all of the content) makes playing the game excessively tedious.

Ford Racing Off Road comes with a wide range of racing modes, but the rest of the game is just mediocre. The game is approachable to a wide audience thanks to the simplistic physics and it certainly takes advantage of the Ford license by providing some detailed vehicles. However, the racing is generally very bland thanks to the stiff AI drivers and static difficulty. The fact that the AI drivers aren't held by the same rules as you are in some of the events is insulting. The driving physics don't slow you down for going off the road and the damage model is very elementary. The graphics (other than the cars) are archaic as well, and multiplayer is not for online enjoyment. There are too many missing features or over simplifications to make Ford Racing Off Road anything more than just another arcade racing title.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Feyruna 2 - The Druids Review

Feyruna 2 - The Druids, developed and published by Jochen Kärcher.
The Good: Intuitive controls, fairly unique with three different game modes
The Not So Good: Tedious and repetitive in most levels, very slow pace, can’t skip levels, no level editor, bland graphics and sound
What say you? An action puzzle game with a number of good ideas that don't come together as well as they should have: 5/8

It's not very often that you get a sequel that is almost completely different from its predecessor. But that's the case with Feyruna 2, sequel to last year's Feyruna, and game I thought pretty highly of. Instead of catching fairies with your magic wand, this time you are indirectly piloting a sphere towards various goals in a 2-D maze. I suppose Feyruna 2 uses the same background story as the original, but the sequel moniker is really unnecessary. Personally, I would have gone with “Sphere Rolling Using Teleporters and Powers and Druids Extravaganza Deluxe.” Hey, I just review the games, OK?

Feyruna 2 - The Druids is a 2-D game in a 2-D world and the graphics are unimpressive. While the background are not bad, they are hazy and washed out and don’t convey a sense of realism, although some of the details are nice. The problem lies with the foreground, as the terrain consists of very basic green and brown levels and poorly animated characters and other objects. The fanciful nature of Feyruna 1 did not carry over to this “sequel,” as the game looks quite outdated. I don’t need 3-D graphics with amazing effects, but something beyond simple 2-D sprites and boring terrain would suffice. Thus, the graphics in Feyruna 2 are merely functional at best. The sound is very basic as well, with few effects and standard music. When you compare Feyruna 2 to similar puzzle games like Professor Fizzwizzle (which, incidentally, came out over two years ago), this title certainly comes up short in terms of graphics and is underwhelming as a whole.

Feyruna 2 comes with the goal of equipping each of the druids on every level with appropriately-colored balls so that they can destroy some evil circle thing. The game is spread out over forty-five levels in a linear fashion. There is no skipping levels (this time I mean it!) and Feyruna 2 lacks an editor, which is very surprising considering how simple the level design is. The game comes in three flavors: “normal,” a bonus round with no enemies but only one turn to collect coins, and a breakout-like boss level that offers up some slight amount of variety, although Feyruna 2 is dominated by the “normal” action-puzzle levels. There is no tutorial, but the game comes with fairly interruptive tutorial messages spread throughout the first couple of levels.

You need to equip each wizard with a correctly colored ball before time runs out, although there is no clock. As the ball descends down the level, you can click on it in order to switch its direction. You can also hold down the mouse button and position the mouse in an appropriate location if you lack the timing to click directly on a moving object. Since all you do is click and click some more, Feyruna 2 can get tedious and repetitive. There are a lot of elements to each puzzle, although each game boils down to avoiding enemies and obstacles and changing your ball color using rune stones. Feyruna 2 features a fair amount of planning, as it's better to have a path planned out in advance before releasing your ball from the top of the map. This can be difficult as most of the enemies move (though on a set path) so timing may become an issue. You also must avoid causing the ball to fall too far or get hit by enemies as it will be destroyed.

The color-coded wizards can only accept balls of their color, so you must pass a ball through a rune stone and change its color. Additional properties can be added: gentle fall for heights, burst for smashing through stones, shields for protection, and lightning for offensive attacks. Each level is populated with both destructible and indestructible rocks, trap doors (that can be opened or closed with a mouse click), and teleporters (which can be turned on and off with a click as well). Gold you collect in each level can be used at a shop (located in most levels) to purchase additional rune properties. Hourglasses can allow you to replay a failed level, frozen wizards can be activated by collecting ankh (or whatever the plural of that word is), and rainbows can earn extra points and are required for boss levels.

The world of Feyruna 2 is populated with a lot of bad things. You have your basic goblins that simply patrol an area, but there are some advanced enemies that have lightning attacks, swallow balls, lay eggs that explode, and other assorted nonsense. The game is designed for more experienced players, as there is a lot to consider before releasing your ball from the top of each map: where to click, where the enemies are (and might be in the future), where the teleporters will send you to, et cetera. The level design is fairly complex, as the teleporters can make things confusing. There isn't much penalty early on for release “test balls” to see where they will end up, but there is a time limit of sorts, as you can't waste too many balls before the evil forces take over the map.

Feyruna 2 has enough parts to make for an entertaining game, but the game comes up short as a whole. I'm not sure exactly why that is, but the end result is a puzzle game that is more tedious than fun. I think the repetitive nature of the game got to me, as the level design requires more thinking than I was willing to do and you are basically doing the same thing over and over, except for the boss and bonus levels. The lack of a level editor means you are “stuck” with the levels that the designer came up with, and most of the levels only have one solution for each wizard and it's just a matter of figuring out what it is. I found Feyruna 2 to be quite difficult, and since you can't adjust the difficulty, you will have to become adept at the game rather quickly. Each individual puzzle requires activating a number of different wizards, so the game drags along and becomes tiresome. I will commend for having a number of game modes (although they are infrequent), a number of ball abilities, and a wide assortment of enemies. I just wish that I could customize the game more and give Feyruna 2 a personal feel. Maybe Feyruna 2 will click with you more (that's why there are demos), but the potential just did not add up to a completely entertaining experience for me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bejeweled Twist Review

Bejeweled Twist, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Twisting is almost innovative, challenge mode is a great diversion, nice graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: It's been done before, no time pressure makes it less exciting, only a few special gems or powers, inability to rotate counterclockwise, repetitive normal mode
What say you? Apart from the core game mechanic (that only offers a minor change), nothing else is notably different: 5/8

One could argue that one of the most influential games of all time is Bejeweled. Basically responsible for the match-three sub-genre of puzzle games, it’s sold a whole bunch of copies and introduced a wide range of people to the world of computer gaming. While there have been countless clones, there hasn’t been a true sequel….UNTIL NOW. Bejeweled Twist is Bejeweled…with a twist (who knew?). Instead of simply swapping gems to make matches of three or more, you circulate (or twist) them. Will this radically alter the genre and prove to be yet another hallmark in the annals of casual gaming?

Bejeweled Twist has some good graphics for a puzzle game. The title features some 3-D effects, but only during the transition between levels; this interests me about the same as cut-scenes in other genres: none. You’ll be spending most of your time starting at the game board and making matches. Bejeweled Twist is 2-D during gameplay, featuring fairly average visuals that are not anything above and beyond what you’d find in any other game in the genre. Some of the effects are nice, such as lightning, but in general we’ve seen all of this before in countless clones and remakes. I am guessing that Bejeweled Twist lacks a lot of cutting-edge 3-D effects in order for the game to be compatible on a wide range of systems, since the potential audience probably doesn’t have advanced computers capable of advanced graphics. But I would still like to have the option of getting a full 3-D game with amazing visuals. The sound design is what you would expect for the genre: appropriate sound effects for each in-game action and background music that combine to form an effective level of controlled chaos during gameplay. You also get a spooky scary deep voice that says stuff. Bonus! Bejeweled Twist is slick to be sure, but the use of 3-D is quite underwhelming and overall I was disappointed in the presentation and expected a lot more.

Bejeweled Twist is the classic match-3 game, where you must line up three (or more) identical objects in a row. In addition to the normal game mode, Bejeweled Twist features an untimed Zen mode, a Blitz mode that features a five minute time limit, and a Challenge mode that is pretty interesting. Once you reach the third rank in the normal game, the challenge mode gives you specific goals to meet, such as destroying 25 gems in one move or detonating ten flame gems in five minutes. There are a lot of increasingly more difficult levels in the challenge mode, and it serves to break up the monotony of the normal game.

The “unique” twist of Bejeweled Twist is twisting. By selecting four gems at a time, they will all be moved clockwise. This one-button gameplay should appeal to extreme novices, but the inability to move gems counterclockwise should definitely be noted. While this would make the game less challenging overall, I would still like the option of moving gems in the opposite direction, even if it were restricted to the relaxed Zen mode. Your goal in each level of the normal game (where you will spend most of your time), is to earn enough points to advance to the next level. Bejeweled Twist is turn-based; if you clear gems in two successive moves, then the score multiplier increases, earning you more points. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and Bejeweled Twist requires a considerable amount of planning in order to maximize your bonuses. There is also a challenge bonus if you clear four specific colors in four successive moves, but this is almost impossible to execute. The normal game mode gives you stars based on your performance; these are used to earn new titles (a superfluous feature) and, more importantly, unlock the challenge game mode.

There are some special objects in each puzzle other than your basic gems. If you match four gems in a row, you will earn an explosive gem that, when matched, will also eliminate nearby gems. Also, five in a row will give you lightning that eliminates an entire row and column. Both of these features have been seen before in other games, but it's nice to receive a bonus based on your performance. If you are stuck, the game will eventually show some subtle hints (such as highlighting possible matches) to guide you along; this feature can be disabled as, since there is no time limit in the game, you can simply sit around and wait for one to appear. Coal will also appear on the board: it cannot be matched but can be removed by using nearby explosions or lightning. Locked gems cannot be moved but can be matched. Bejeweled Twist also randomly introduces bombs that must be matched before they detonate. They have a counter that decreases after every move you make, so time is of the essence. Of course, this timer is not in real time, so the amount of pressure is lessened. If you do not remove it in time, there is a one out of four chance of losing the level. Doom gems are a combination of pretty much every other type: the cannot be rotated or matched and they have a timer, but they can be destroyed like coal. Doom gems only count down if you do not make a match, so they are somewhat easier to deal with but harder to destroy. Really skilled players will earn fruit gems by maximizing the multiplier; they do a whole bunch of crazy stuff.

When it comes to match-3 games, I need some depth and variety to keep me interested. Unfortunately, Bejeweled Twist does not offer enough features beyond the challenge mode. I'm curious what five years of development was spent doing, as I would expect Bejeweled Twist to offer much more long-term replay value. As it is, you must really have to like match-3 games in order to enjoy Bejeweled Twist to its fullest. I think the lack of challenge due to the turn-based nature of the gameplay really turned me off: you can spend an unlimited amount of time considering you next move and weighing your options, and I prefer more hectic, action packed gameplay. Some would call the turn-based gameplay strategic, but I would call it boring. The game does look good for a puzzle game, although the lack of 3-D effects during the actual puzzles is questionable. The twisting mechanic increases the sophistication of the product as a whole and it's the next logical step for the franchise, but I found that the innovation wore out its welcome too quickly. I would have expected more special gems and some powers you could save up and use later. Plus, the inability to rotate gems counterclockwise is troubling. Honestly, Saqqarah did this better and with much more variety, so if you are looking for a great match-3 experience with tons of variety, Bejeweled Twist is clearly behind the best in the genre with its seven modes of play. While Bejeweled Twist is a good game, it is not a great game and its repetitive nature will wear on those not utterly entranced by the match-3 puzzle genre.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein Review

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein, developed by Strategy 3 Tactics and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Robust grand campaign, new maps, slightly improved AI, easier to modify
The Not So Good: New maps aren’t much better graphically, no new units, interface could have been updated
What say you? A good amount of new maps and other minor additions for an outstanding classic game: 6/8

Ah, the Close Combat series. Probably the first tactical strategy game I played extensively, getting late in the game with 2000’s Invasion Normandy, the fifth (and final) game in the series. Since Matrix Games got the rights to the original series, they have been updating the classic titles with improved compatibility and enhanced features. Close Combat III turned into Cross of Iron and now Close Combat IV has become Wacht am Rhein. The Battle of the Bulge is represented here, bringing snowy conditions to the struggle of World War II. Let’s go shoot some Germans! Virtually speaking, of course.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein (German sounds cool) features some minor new graphics for the interface and some of the vehicles, but overall the game looks quite identical to the original version that came out in 1999. Some people won’t mind the overhead perspective, while some will say that it makes it extremely difficult to see troops (which it does). Personally, it looks outdated, not surprising considering Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein doesn’t include any significant upgrades to the graphics. I certainly wasn’t expecting a 3-D version of Close Combat, so only minor upgrades is not unexpected. The twenty-or-so completely new maps (plus some that have been improved from the originals) look the same their predecessors; while this is not a bad thing (the hand-drawn 2-D maps look great), you would expect some sort of improvement almost ten years later. The audio, as far as I can tell, is identical as before. It wasn’t bad then so it’s not bad now: disturbingly realistic sound design puts you right in the middle of the battle, although some of the spoken phrases do become repetitive after a while.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein actually comes with the original game; why you would want to miss out on the improvements is beyond me, but the option is there. Since the mechanics of the Close Combat series are well established, I will focus mostly on the improvements made in this new version of the fourth game. The most apparent improvement made in Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is the grand campaign, which is a lot like the original campaign, but grander. This time around, you get more provinces to attack and defend (a total of sixty-four instead of the original forty-three) and a longer time in order to do so. This, obviously, gives you a lot more strategic options as a larger area of operations would. This updated version does not come with the ability to search for active multiplayer matches, as you must know the IP address in advance. This is disappointing, considering that the previous Close Combat reboot came with better multiplayer support. Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is also apparently easier to modify, as the developers have consolidated and simplified the ability to change unit attributes and scenario conditions.

Apart from the new maps, the rest of Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein suffers from the same limitations as the original game. Most notable, you are restricted to a maximum of fifteen units per battle. This is not due to the game engine, but rather the interface that can only display a maximum of fifteen units, so that’s what the game is limited to. You can customize which fifteen units to choose (at least somewhat) before single battles, but this means that Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein consists of relatively small skirmishes instead of large battles. Of course, that’s what the game is intended to simulate, so you get what you get. The interface could have been modernized, putting more specific information on troops without necessitating them being selected. This is something that a higher game resolution could have done, but Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is fixed at the old 1024x768 standard. Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein also contains the same units as before, so you won’t find any additions here either. The AI has apparently been improved; although this claim is difficult to verify, I never noticed many problems with pathfinding (only a couple of problems with tanks not using bridges) or units behaving unrealistically.

Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is essentially a map expansion, but a total of sixty-four maps is a lot. Of course, that’s only twenty-one additional maps, so you have to decide whether twenty-one maps are worth $50. Sure, you get an expanded campaign, improved AI, multiplayer enhancements, and modern system compatibility, but I would feel a lot better if Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein was about $10 cheaper. $40 for a digital download (or $50 for a boxed copy) seems kind of overpriced for a bunch of maps. Granted, the game is great fun, but it was great fun almost ten years ago. At least Cross of Iron came with that massively multiplayer campaign to justify its existence more. In addition, the interface limits the number of units you can have to fifteen, although, to be honest, I prefer having a smaller roster to deal with anyway. The improvements are not spectacular and the price is pretty steep for what you get, but you cannot deny the awesomeness that is the Close Combat series, and Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein is no exception as a whole. If you have at least a moderate interest in tactical strategy games, then Close Combat – Wacht am Rhein should fill your gaming quota.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Spectraball Review

Spectraball, developed by Flashcube Studios and published on Steam.
The Good: Simple controls, plausible physics, online high score list, informative tutorial, only $10
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult from the start, loose controls clash with strict level design, only fifteen maps and no level editor, limited special abilities and unlockable content, can’t manually save progress between levels
What say you? A feature-light marble puzzle game that requires precision the controls do not allow for: 4/8

There are several ways to reach a goal in life. Hard work. Commitment. Rolling a marble. Yes, the marble puzzle genre, much like Gary Busey, appears every once in a while to grace us with physics-based mayhem and suspended platforms to fall off of. We’ve experienced Switchball and Marble Blast as two more recent additions to the genre, as now it is time for Spectraball. I can’t think of anything else witty to say, so let’s get on with the review!

For a $10 game, Spectraball looks good visually speaking. The game takes place in diverse environments that contain some good detail, although it’s obviously a game environment as the terrain magically hovers in space against an essentially blank background. There are a couple of nice effects in the game with lighting and activating special powers. Overall, I was quite pleased with the graphics in Spectraball and they look very comparable with other contemporary puzzle games like Switchball. As for the sound, it is quite average: you get your typical music and normal sound effects. Nothing is terribly new or innovative here and the sound design just does its job, nothing more. Spectraball delivers a solid visual experience for the genre and the price.

The goal of Spectraball is to traverse to the finish in the fastest amount of time without falling off the edge of the map. The low $10 price tag starts to rear its ugly head when it comes to the features. While Spectraball features a nice tutorial that teaches you the basics of the controls, the game only comes with fifteen total maps spread across five environments. This is simply not enough content, especially since most of the levels take less than two minutes to complete. The lack of a map editor also significantly hinders the potential of Spectraball. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it should be cheap. I wouldn’t have a problem with the low amount of content if they packaged an editor along with the game, but not even the end-user can expand this product beyond its limitations. There are plans to release free content updates each month, but since they are obviously future improvements, I can't evaluate their quality. You also cannot save your progress between levels, as only completing the entire three-map environments in one sitting counts as progress. Does have Steam achievements (and actually ties all of your progress with your Steam account), but I never found them to be a proper motivator personally. There is a central leaderboard that automatically uploads your times to a central server, but it only occasionally functioned correctly. Completing levels allows you to unlock new balls and abilities, but your selection is (again) quite limited: you can purchase a faster lava ball or add the ability to teleport, but only four more balls and two additional abilities is unsatisfactory. Add in two mini-games that require an insane amount of unlock credits and we have a title that disappoints in terms of features.

The control scheme for Spectraball is straightforward: up, down, left, right, and jump. You can also access the three powers using the three mouse buttons. Spectraball is quite difficult, thanks to realistic physics and challenging level design. Since the physics incorporate inertia, you have to plan ahead in order to turn and decelerate. There is no turning-on-a-dime in Spectraball; this adds to the immense difficulty of the game. The levels themselves are chock full of tight spaces that require precise driving that is frankly almost impossible with the real-world physics in the game. There are plentiful areas to fall off of and successfully navigating a puzzle is more luck than skill, at least until you’ve devoted a significant amount of time to mastering the control scheme. Altering the difficulty level only gives you more time to complete the puzzle; assuming you don’t fall off (which automatically resets your progress to the beginning, no matter how much progress you’ve made), you’ll finish each puzzle in time. Tough physics plus tough puzzles equals no fun.

Spectraball is a puzzle game that might be good if it weren’t for several significant shortcomings. It certainly looks like it can be enjoyable, but the developers have opted for a small selection of very difficult puzzles that cannot be altered or increased in number. So you are stuck repeating the same fifteen puzzles over again, assuming you last that long before deleting the game from your hard drive. I know it’s only $10, but only 15 levels? Only three powers? No level editor? This is the type of game that has “potential” written all over it but fails to execute. Sure, there might be plans to include more material in the future, but my crystal ball is in the shop so I can't predict how these content packs will improve the game. While the first level (and the tutorials) is easy enough, the challenge increases exponentially thereafter. You also can’t save your progress between levels, so if the third one in an environment is too much trouble, you’ll have to redo the first two next time you play. The controls are simple enough, but piloting your ball with pinpoint accuracy is difficult and the narrow levels don’t help matters. Maybe Spectraball 2 will allow for more flexibility, but this version is too hard and too limited to enjoy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Spectromancer Review

Spectromancer, developed by Apus Software and published by Three Donkeys.
The Good: Intriguing gameplay with numerous strategies to employ, easy to learn, great interface clearly shows card attributes, varied card abilities, competent AI opponent, compelling branching campaign mode, online play, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Randomized decks remove overall building strategy, only 48 base cards means some repetition, wizard specialization does not matter much, unimpressive graphics
What say you? A well-designed, if somewhat limited, online turn-based card game friendly to newcomers with a robust single player campaign: 6/8

I think the pinnacle of nerd is turn-based card games like Magic: The Gathering. I never got into that sort of thing, shying away from buying expansion packs of card with funny pictures and numbers on them. It might have something to do with the fact that I thought the genre had more of a role-playing tilt, and I’m not a big RPG guy, with one or two exceptions. Since the modern computer can replace real friends, turn-based card games are a fine addition to the PC, allowing you to play against foes in other locations through online play or against the computer itself. Spectromancer clearly has its influence in turn-based card games, as exemplified by the fact that the developers of the game were responsible for both Astral Masters and Magic: The Gathering itself. A strong pedigree like that is promising; how does the game turn out?

A challenge is how to make card-based games look good on the computer. You could go all-out and develop a 3-D environment that brings the game world to life, as a lot of turn-based RPGs tend to do. Or, you could stick to the card dynamic and live in the realm of two dimensions. Spectromancer opts for the latter choice, which is fine, but it doesn’t go much beyond just showing cards. The most impressive aspect of the game’s graphics is the subtle cloud movement during the loading screen and main menu; it caught me off guard to see the background moving when I didn’t expect it do. Spectromancer is fixed at 1024x768, which can either be expanded to fit the screen, put empty space along the sides, or (my personal favorite) run in a window. The cards themselves, usually a haven for high-quality fantasy art, are just OK. Using big card size to show more detail means more scrolling through your deck, and the small icons are not that impressive. One very bright spot in Spectromancer is the interface, specifically the card information. Each card displays a health bar, attack rating, amount of health remaining, and the amount of power required to cast that card clearly: awesome for new players. This is immensely helpful in playing the game; although you have to scroll over cards to read their special abilities, having all of the important information available at a quick glance is a great feature. Spectromancer also uses circles for spells and squares for creatures: another immediately accessible feature. Unfortunately, the card combat is very unimpressive: most attacks are simply a card moving toward the enemy, and you will only witness the occasional lightning bolt. For a game that centers around battle, you sure have to use your imagination a lot. The sound is basic for the genre: the usual assortment of effects that have about the same amount of quality as the graphics (not much), and repetitive but fitting background music. Apart from the excellent user interface, Spectromancer has disappointing graphics and sound.

If you haven’t guessed it already, Spectromancer is a turn-based card game. The goal is to decrease your opponent’s health to zero by casting spells and summoning creatures to attack and defend. There is not a tutorial to learn the game, although the in-game help does a decent job at it and the single duel mode can be used for practice. The single player campaign is one of the highlights of the game. The campaign offers up two to three progressively more talented opponents at a time that you can choose from. Each match will come with some rules, usually in the form of a special card that affects one or both people. Winning the battle usually means defeating the enemy, but sometimes not: you can occasionally win just by surviving past a specified round or casting an expensive power. This kind of variety makes the campaign quite entertaining. Success comes with a bonus: a stat increase or a card added to your deck. It may have been something that could have taken a back seat to the online play, but the campaign in Spectromancer is fantastically done.

Did I say “online play?” Yes, Spectromancer features multiplayer on the same computer (for the two of us that have actual friends), over a LAN, or through the game’s server. Joining a match is very easy, as you are placed into a game lobby and requests for matches can be made. The lobby indicates the skill level of the opponent; although everyone gets the same deck (minus the specialty class), some players will obviously know what the heck they are doing, and those unfair matches can be avoided easily. Being a turn-based game, Spectromancer doesn’t rely on lightning-fast connection speeds, so lag was a non-issue. The only feature I did not see during online matches was a turn timer, so that could become a possible issue when dealing with sore losers.

Spectromancer has cards split across four main categories (fire, water, air, and earth), and each player has a fifth specialization based on their occupation (holy, mechanics, death, chaos, control, illusion). I wish the specialization meant more in terms of varied gameplay, as the cards in the fifth category are essentially the same as the ones in the other four, and they are certainly nothing that will alter your overall strategy in any grand sense. Another feature Spectromancer lacks is deck customization. While it makes it more fair that everyone gets randomly chosen cards (you get four out of twelve cards in each category, selected evenly in terms of cost and power), this also removes an element of strategy that pretty much every other card-based game has. You won’t have to spend hours tweaking your deck to perfection, but veteran players will probably be miffed by this limitation. You will also notice the limited number of cards present in Spectromancer: the entire game has about the same amount of content (96 cards, but really only a maximum of 56 per player) as just two decks from Magic: The Gathering (40 each). Luckily, games like this are ripe for expansions.

Once you get your cards, you never use them up, as you can cast the same creature or spell as long as you have the power for it. You will gain one point in each category each turn, although some spells and creatures can increase the income rate. You can only play one card per turn and most creatures do not attack the turn that they are placed. Where strategy comes into play is where to place your card on the board: there are six slots and creatures will attack any creature directly across from them instead of injuring the opponent (the overall goal). Thus, there are a lot of interesting strategies to employ regarding which cards to play where. Some creatures can be used as “cannon fodder” to defend against an opposing creature with a high attack rating as you wait for a powerful spell to become active. The ebb and flow as you transition between defensive and offensive action offers a nice deviation in the gameplay. There is a nice variation in the cards as well, despite having a relatively limited number to choose from. Creatures and spells usually come with some sort of special ability, whether it be attacking the opponent, healing friendly troops, giving more spell power, or just hurting everyone equally.

The seemingly simplistic mechanics of Spectromancer (especially when compared to other card games that are initially very complex) do come with some interesting strategies. Is it better to attack the creatures or the enemy wizard? Better to use a spell? Where should you place your creature? There are definitely some interesting possibilities and, despite the lack of copious cards in the game, games do tend to play out slightly differently each time. The battles are also quick (five to ten minutes), perfect for those people on the go. If you are stuck, there is in-game advice that will suggest a card to play, although the game is pretty easy to learn on its own. The AI is a very competent opponent that makes smart strategic decisions on higher difficulty levels. Occasionally they will make a bone-headed move, but they will almost always pull out something interesting in each match.

If you’ve ever been somewhat interested in turn-based card games but were scared off by the complexity or cost, then Spectromancer is an excellent place to start as the game is simple enough for beginners. Veteran players might deride the lack of depth introduced by the randomized decks and limited number of cards, but the game is still fun to play. The cards support some interesting strategies during the game, and the interface and in-game advice make playing Spectromancer a breeze. The game modes are also comprehensive, from the excellent campaign mode to online play. There is certainly room for improvement: the number of cards could be expanded to remove some repetition, specializations don’t impact the gameplay, and the graphics could be better. There is also too much luck involved in which cards you get: most card-based games use designing a deck as a major part of the game, but Spectromancer favors pure chance. Still, at a budget price of $20, Spectromancer offers quick, simple matches geared towards novice players looking for an introduction into the world of turn-based card games.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sniper: Art of Victory Review

Sniper: Art of Victory, developed and published by City Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Realistic breathing and wind effects, decent graphics for the price, only $10
The Not So Good: Unflinching difficulty, unfairly stupid mission design, questionable ballistics and unreliable targeting, linear levels limit sniping positions, unintelligent AI , short, multiplayer could have been neat
What say you? It would be a decent game in theory, but the core mechanic in this stealthy shooter (you know, shooting) is broken: 4/8

Nothing is more feared on the battlefield than snipers (well, that and Gary Coleman). You don’t know when they are going to strike, and one shot is all it takes. Obviously, this kind of action would make for a good computer game, and that’s the goal of Sniper: Art of Victory. This is another one of those budget first person shooters at the low, low price of $10. You should probably lower your expectations when dealing with a game as cheap as this one, but as long as the core mechanic of shooting people remain intact, then some good fun should be had.

Sniper: Art of Victory looks better than you’d expect a $10 to look. The game uses the Chrome engine developed by Techland used primarily in racing games. It performs pretty well here as Sniper: Art of Victory is populated with good, high resolution textures and small details in the more civilized areas like furniture to create a more believable setting. The completely linear level design is very apparent with drastically tall mountains or fences surrounding each of the game’s levels (who knew Russia was so hilly!), but the interior of each locale is done well. The characters in the game have nice death animations that are entertaining (if a bit overblown) every time I see them. This is coupled with a follow-the-bullet camera view that is gimmicky but still amusing most of the time. As for the sound design, Sniper: Art of Victory comes with generic voice acting where the characters enunciate very well (a hallmark of translation). The creepy, tense background music fits for foreboding theme of the game well. The weapon sounds are exactly what you would expect and they seem to be realistic enough. Overall, I was a little impressed by the quality of the visuals in Sniper: Art of Victory considering the price of the game.

Sniper: Art of Victory consists of eight levels where you play as a single Russian (not surprising considering the eastern European development team) during World War II picking off those nasty Nazis one at a time. Each level takes around twenty to thirty missions to complete if you can make it all the way through without dying (unlikely). A tutorial is incorporated into the campaign that teaches the basics of the interface. There are two difficulty settings: recruit (as opposed to veteran) will show the actual path of the bullet with every outside influence taken into consideration, although how well this really works will be discussed later. The objectives of each level are very basic and do not vary: reach the other end and shoot everyone along the way. The levels themselves are very linear, offering only one path to the objectives; this is a surprising limitation considering that part of sniping is positioning and Sniper: Art of Victory just eliminates this freedom. The enemies are not randomly placed, so playing the same mission again will result in no surprises. Enemies will occasionally move when they are triggered (or given a path by the scenario designer), but this is always in a small area. More disturbing is the completely unfair level design: in the second mission, you begin at a truck in plain view of a guard tower twenty feet away. That has got to be the worst covert operation ever. It goes without saying that you are instantly shot and die about half of the time before you’ve even done anything. Nice. After you are done with the eight missions (assuming you survive past the first five seconds), you are done with Sniper: Art of Victory as there is no multiplayer, either cooperative or competitive. Either way would have been great fun but that fun is not to be had here in Sniper: Art of Victory.

The shooting is, in theory, quite realistic, which is exactly what you would expect in a sniping title. You must pay attention to your breathing and the wind, which is randomized and presents quite a challenge. You can hold your breath to get a more steady shot (about the only way to do so), but it is impossible to pull off two shots in a row if you do so: your sniper will hyperventilate even after holding their breath for only a couple of seconds. The game actually disables shooting during this time period, and since most of the patrols consist of more than one enemy soldier, you will most likely die. Who hyperventilates after holding their breath for three seconds? Answer: the worst sniper ever!

If that wasn’t enough, your sniper rifle shots constantly get stopped by invisible walls, while other times flying right through solid objects. You can be looking directly at your target (who has been conveniently placed in a building that negates the whole sniping dynamic of the game) and then your bullet just doesn't hit. Sigh. This goes for both your sniper rifle and other weapons like pistols and submachine guns. You can be aiming right at a guy at point-blank range and pump an entire clip into him and not hit him once. I’m sorry, but if the shooting in a shooting game does not work, then you can’t enjoy it. Of course, the AI can shoot perfectly through walls and it only takes one shot before you are dead. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

The AI in Sniper: Art of Victory is both the dumbest and smartest opponent you’ll ever meet. You can shoot at them and sometimes they will react and run to alert others, but most of the time they will just stand there are you continue to fill them with hot lead. Enemies appear on your minimap without even spotting them: a convenient unintentional cheat. You can also see shadows under buildings and through walls to help you out. Once the AI has “sensed” you, they will open fire and hit you dead-on, even through walls. Yes, the AI can also see you through solid walls; it's a wonder the Germans lost the war!

Sniper: Art of Victory had the potential to be a decent game, but it fails in several key (and annoying) areas. Shooting is broken: perfectly lined-up shots hit nothing and the assisted targeting reticule on recruit level is inconsistently accurate. I like how breathing and wind are incorporated into the shooting, but since the result of pulling the trigger is so unpredictable, Sniper: Art of Victory is frankly unplayable. The mission design is poor, as the game commonly places you in plain view of enemy units at the start of the level. The levels are also too linear to support true sniper positioning strategy. The AI doesn’t consistently react to being shot at, but once they “find” you, they will hit you every time, even if walls or other solid objects are in the way. The short eight missions could have been expanded with multiplayer, but Sniper: Art of Victory lacks this feature. You do get some good graphics for $10, but the basics of Sniper: Art of Victory are too useless to warrant a purchase even at a drastically reduced price.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Frontlines: Fuel of War Review

Frontlines: Fuel of War, developed by Kaos Studios and published by THQ on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Single player campaign with autosaved progress, different roles and gadgets, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Terribly unbalanced gameplay, large maps spread out the action
What say you? A team-based online shooter that’s no fun thanks to mammoth maps and highly favored roles and weapons : 5/8

With rising gas prices, one this is for sure: someone's going to get hurt. That's the premise of Frontlines: Fuel of War, where two sides are warring over the few, precious energy resources left around the globe. An energy shortage has been the premise of one other recent game and it seems disturbingly plausible. Core members responsible for the famed Desert Combat modification for Battlefield 1942 (remember when that game was good?) are trying out the team-based shooter on for size. For my money, the current benchmark comes in the form of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars; will Frontlines: Fuel of War be able to supplant that titles as the favored game for online violent cooperation? Stop cheating by looking at the score!

By far, the best aspect of Frontlines: Fuel of War is the graphics. The game features highly detailed environments with a great attention to detail, bringing the rusty vistas of the future to life. The character models are believable, as are the vehicles scattered around the map. There aren't many games out there that look better than Frontlines: Fuel of War, and that also means that system requirements are fairly steep. In addition, the game eats up hard drive space, which isn't that big of a deal unless you're trying to download the gigantic game file. The audio also fares well: lots of explosions, weapon effects, and decent voice acting round out a satisfying package. A top notch presentation is what you'll find here.

Frontlines: Fuel of War is called “Frontlines” because of the core game mechanic: a number of control points must be secured in order to move the front line forward (this is identical to the tug-of-war mode from World in Conflict). The purpose is to keep the action focused in a specific area: does it work? First, we'll address the single player campaign, which is more along the lines of Call of Duty 4 instead of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars in that its more of a story-based feature rather than bot battles identical to the multiplayer offerings. The eight missions are almost lengthy and it incorporates the overall rules of the game (that whole “frontlines” thing) well. I like how your progress is automatically saved each time you fulfill an objective and you can rejoin at that point if you load later. The AI is highly scripted and is just satisfactory: they are more cannon fodder than challenging opponents, as they will only use cover if placed there are make questionable decisions like walking out in the open. It's no surprise, then, that the AI can't be used for online games. The game really only gets challenging when you are up against heavily-armed enemies with superior weapons, which happens a lot. Interestingly, Frontlines: Fuel of War does not feature a health gauge; instead, you have to take a bunch of bullets at once in order to die. This seems to be true for the AI as well, as you really need to overload them with hot lead in order to take them down. In the end, there are a couple (all right, one) nice features in the single player campaign but the overall experience is quite forgettable.

The real focus of Frontlines: Fuel of War is multiplayer action, and the game can support up to 64 players on a single map. Unfortunately, all of the maps seems designed for 64 players and do not resize according to the server load. This results in some very spread out action, large walking distances, and less intense combat than games with less people or single objectives. Imagine Battlefield 2 using only 64-player maps and you'll get an idea of what to expect in Frontlines: Fuel of War. Now, the “frontlines” dynamic does focus the action a bit, but there are still usually three control points active at one time, and that's enough to make contact with the enemy an infrequent occurrence, even with a huge player count. This is the first of several design decisions that makes Frontlines: Fuel of War not very enjoyable. Like most shooters, Frontlines: Fuel of War features a number of different classes and roles to choose from. Each player can pick a loadout, such as heavy assault, sniper, or close combat, and a specialization (ground support, air support, drone technician, or EMP expert). Getting more kills will unlock more tools in your specialization, most of which are things to call in or unmanned surveillance craft. The game does not indicate which role everyone is using and the ground support provides extremely powerful bombardment support, so the roles are only mildly interesting.

Frontlines: Fuel of War features the typical selection of weapons and vehicles present in pretty much every other shooter: assault rifles, rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The choppers are extremely overpowered, carry a ton of devastating weapons, aren't easily countered, and dominate the maps they appear on: not fun for ground-based units. The frontlines mechanic doesn't help matters, as pilots know exactly which places the opponent will attack and can mindless bombard the area with missiles. Their superiority is magnified even more by the lack of a health rating: a lot of bullets in a short period of time are needed to kill someone, but a single missile will do the trick. The completely unbalanced gameplay makes Frontlines: Fuel of War far from enjoyable. In addition, respawn times are weird (after clicking “spawn,” you'll start at a screen for a seemingly random amount of time before you appear) and there are not any other game modes to choose from other than the frontlines mode. In short, Frontlines: Fuel of War is disappointing.

A very important aspect of any online shooter is balance. As Newton said: for each action, there is an equal and opposite bullet to the face. Or something like that, my memory is fuzzy. Anyway, Frontlines: Fuel of War suffers from excessively large maps and overly powerful aircraft; these two things combined kill the enjoyment level and makes Frontlines: Fuel of War just another shooter. The graphics are really nice, but, as I've said before, graphics do not make the game. There's a reason why there were only a couple of populated servers when I played Frontlines: Fuel of War online: it's not that great. If you want to play an online team-based shooter, do yourself a favor and get Enemy Territory: Quake Wars instead: it is far superior and one of the few games I still regularly play (surprise: it is still installed but Call of Duty 4 is not). In an already crowded first person shooter genre on the PC, Frontlines: Fuel of War is just a run-of-the-mill entry.