Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory Review

Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory, developed by Shockwave Productions and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Accurate aerial combat, complex strategic campaign with useful optional automation, deadly AI, immersive sound effects
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, poor tutorials with little in-game instruction
What say you? A flight simulation and strategy combination that’s great fun, if you haven’t played it before: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There has been a number of hyper-realistic combat flight simulators published on the PC. IL-2 Sturmovik comes to mind, as does Rowan’s Battle of Britain, a game I reviewed when it was released in 2000. The game was improved and re-released as Battle of Britain II in 2005, and now the latest version (2.06) has been re-re-released by Matrix Games in their continuing effort to re-release every game ever made (see previous examples here and here and here and here, plus a couple of others I didn't review). Obviously, eight years is quite a long time in the computer gaming universe; how will all that time treat a classic such as Battle of Britain?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics have (thankfully) been overhauled since the game’s original release, and Battle of Britain II – Wings of Victory certainly holds its own in the flight simulation hierarchy. The overall quality is slightly below that of IL-2 Sturmovik, a game that still looks good (the engine can certainly still produce good visuals) today. The plane models are very nice and shiny, and Battle of Britain II includes the actual paint schemes used by each squadron during the battle. Tracer rounds are cool, as they zip past your plane, and explosions are underwhelming but realistic. About the only area that could be improved is the ground texturing: they look like a 2-D skin rather than a vibrant, living world, especially when you get close to ground level. Still, enhancements have been made to the game’s graphical presentation that make it competitive today. The sound in Battle of Britain II does an outstanding job in making the game immersive, surrounding the player with disturbingly realistic effects. A lot of games overlook this key area, but Battle of Britain II delivers impressive explosions and unnerving bullet hits. The voices tend to be repetitive after a while, but this is a small deficiency in an otherwise impressive area. Battle of Britain II certainly doesn’t look and sound like a game that came out eight years ago, and while the game may not compete with the cream of the crop in terms of graphics, it surely looks good enough.

ET AL.
Battle of Britain II is a game comprised of two parts: a flight simulation and a strategic mode. This is similar to the Total War series, in that you plan your attacks and then fight out the battles yourself, although here the battles are all in the air. The improvements made in the game from the original release to the current version (2.06) are really things that only devout followers will notice: enhanced AI, enhanced graphics, and bug fixes. Apparently, the original release of Battle of Britain II was full of bugs, but I have only experienced sporadic crashes during the campaign (specifically when assigning tasks): nothing too major. For those who simply want to fly, there are a host of instant action missions available. There are “training” missions, but these merely place you in a specific situation (landing, for example) rather than giving you instructions in-game. You really need to read the manual if you aren’t accustomed to piloting these kinds of planes. L uckily, the manual is comprehensive and the campaign mode has lots of contextual in-game help. In addition, user-made campaign tutorials and various tips are also located in the lengthy manual. Instant action missions also allow you to set up dogfighting, ground attacks, interceptions, and historical engagements. Forces are somewhat adjustable: you can decrease the number of planes and adjust the AI skill level, but you cannot add planes for some reason (or I just haven’t figured out how to do it). This is a good amount of content to keep aspiring pilots happy, although I would like to have total freedom or an explicit mission editor available. Battle of Britain II lacks multiplayer of any kind, a potentially cool feature considering the massive battles that are present in the game. There are an overwhelming number of options to tweak the difficulty and performance of the game, plus a moddable text file to change even more things. Given enough time, you can tailor Battle of Britain II to fit your specific desires.

The game comes together nicely in the campaign mode. This is played on a map and you either give bombing orders (if you are playing the Germans) or react to incoming raids (if you are playing the British). There are four starting points to choose from; these essentially alter the German targets and how much infrastructure has been destroyed. On it’s most basic level, you can simply assign how many planes to devote to each task. The British player can divide their forces amongst filling in radar gaps, patrolling, escorting ships, or waiting for incoming raids. The German player selects when to send their bombers, which targets to destroy, and which escorts to use. The game then automatically chooses appropriate squadrons and flight plans and you can sit back and relax, if you so choose. This makes it pretty easy to get in to Battle of Britain II; considering the campaign can get quite complicated, the amount of automation is a very good thing. Of course, if you want to adjust everything yourself, you can: just pick your waypoints and the squadrons and targets to use. The game provides information over a number of dialogue boxes which I found to initially be confusing; they also take up a very large portion of the screen, obscuring the map. You can manually assign where newly produced planes will go, manage your existing squadrons and pilots, check the weather, peruse juicy targets, and review all of the missions for the day. The campaign can be played out in real-time, but during boring stretches the game accelerates. The campaign of Battle of Britain II is an interesting game of balance. You can easily stretch yourself thin by sending out too many planes early in the day and leave yourself open for attack. You must also decide where to use your veteran squadrons and how quickly friendly forces will respond to incoming attacks. It’s all pretty interesting. When friendly forces get close to their target (or, more typically, encounter enemy planes), you can take direct control of any of the planes involved. The game always seems to give you control a bit too close to the action, making the first couple of minutes very disorienting, especially since your squad mates seem to always leave your side right when the battle begins.

The aerial combat of Battle of Britain II is fun, thanks to an adjustable realistic flight model. You can turn everything off and go with unrealistic physics for a Hollywood-style shoot-em-up, or take the authentic route and have to worry about stalling and other assorted nonsense. The game certainly can be overwhelming, but the relative simplicity of World War II aircraft makes the game a bit easier to learn. Since the planes are simply equipped with machine guns, you just have to fly and shoot. There are no computer targeting systems of any of that fancy mumbo-jumbo to worry about, and this greatly reduces the learning curve. The massive battles are a sight to see and are wonderful to compete in. The AI pilots are really, really good, performing advanced maneuvers and behaving realistically. In fact, the AI may be too good, as novice players will need to turn down the difficulty considerable to avoid getting shot down every mission. Battle of Britain II is certainly one of the best combat flight simulations and getting an enemy plane in your sights is a painstaking but rewarding process. It’s hard to tell which planes are which, so most people will want to turn tags on. The game also lacks clear objective locations in the game world, which makes bombing troublesome. This may not be realistic, but it would certainly be helpful.

IN CLOSING
For what is essentially an eight-year-old game, Battle of Britain II holds up pretty well. The fantastic flight model and engrossing campaign are still intact, offering up a potent combination of game styles. Quality AI and an automated-if-you-want-it-to-be campaign are highlights of a strong game that is still entertaining. Still, Battle of Britain II is not without its problems, even after all of these years of refinement: the in-game tutorials are porous, occasional bugs crop up, and there isn’t any multiplayer. The strategic campaign really wouldn’t hold up as a complete game on its own, so it’s good that its paired with a quality flight simulation. If you own the original Battle of Britain, the minute changes found in Battle of Britain II aren’t enough to upgrade, and the version included in the Matrix release can be downloaded by any owner of the original Shockwave version of Battle of Britain II. But if you have missed out on the series, then Battle of Britain II is still worth your time if you enjoy combat flight simulations.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Spandex Force Review

Spandex Force, developed and published by KarjaSoft.
The Good: Interesting mix of puzzle and battle mechanics, neat mini-games and gameplay variations, varied upgradable powers, nice art design
The Not So Good: No multiplayer
What say you? Classic match-three puzzles enhanced with mixed styles and role-playing elements: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Though I like reviewing the occasional (or, depending on how many games I am receiving, more than occasional) puzzle game, getting the same type of puzzle game over and over is something I would like to avoid. It seems like one of the most popular puzzle game types are those match-3 games. You know, where you have to…match…three. In order for a game like this to entertain me at this point, it has to offer something new. Spandex Force injects some superhero themes into the classic puzzle game. Will this be enough to save the game from the overbearing influence of monotony?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The best part about the graphics of Spandex Force is the overall theme. While the basic puzzle game is fairly standard stuff graphically speaking, the town you are fighting crime in, though rendered in 2-D, looks good. The superhero and criminal designs are nice but repetitive. The powers that are used during the puzzle games should look better: as they are, simple orbs of light fly across the screen instead of actually seeing your hero deliver a punch to an enemy. Animating the actual fights would have made the game be more effective. The sound effects are average for the genre: appropriate matching sounds and battle effects are included, as well as fitting background music. Overall, the presentation of Spandex Force is pretty good, thanks to the good superhero atmosphere.

ET AL.
Spandex Force certainly has its roots in the match-3 puzzle genre, but thankfully it adds supplementary features to spice up the gameplay. The game follows your superhero avatar as they fight crime around the city. You can detect criminals or people in need that are around your crime fighting base, and selecting any interesting person will activate a mini-game or a matching puzzle, depending on who it is (for example, getting a cat down from a tree activates the “slide and match” game type). There is a good variety of games to choose from that provide just enough variety to keep you interested in the game for a while. The mini-games include a slot machine and a minesweeper-like “find the criminal” game; both of these are short and grant small resource bonuses. The real meat of Spandex Force takes place in the assorted puzzle games: match three in a row, manual selection of matches, sliding entire rows or columns, or shooting to make groups. Normally these four game types would be present in four completely different games, but Spandex Force includes them all. While Spandex Force could shine as a multiplayer title, there is no support for one-on-one competition either online or on the same computer. Since the basic battles are turn-based, it seems like this feature could easily be implemented so its exclusion is a bit mysterious.

Most of your time will be spent in the standard match-three game, and this mode involves the most fighting mechanics. The match-3 battles are turn-based and both players use the same board. There are several types of blocks you can match: mind, body, spirit, cash, and reputation. The first three of these go towards activating attacks that can be used during your turn to damage your opponent. The last two help you expand your crime fighting empire. There is some interesting strategy concerning when to use up your resources and attack, as you are more likely to counter an attack if you have a large amount of stored resources. This mechanic is certainly not present in any other puzzle game I can remember, so it’s a unique feature. The AI also plays very fair (the computer opponents could seriously cheat) and matches well with user experience. Games that don’t feature confrontation (like putting out a fire or helping old ladies) require you to meet a specified threshold of resources rather than battle an enemy head-on (apply directly to the forehead). After successful battles, you will earn additional cash and reputation (on top of the matches you made during the game) that will be used to upgrade your base, purchase new, more powerful attacks, and stat increases. Once you get past the introductory levels, the world of Spandex Force opens up as you gain experience and fight more determined foes. I really like how Spandex Force takes a frankly monotonous genre and injects some well-needed life and energy through a great theme and style variations.

IN CLOSING
If you’re going to make yet another match-3 game, this is the way to do it. Spandex Force takes several kinds of puzzle games and combines them in a coherent package with a great theme. In addition to the basic match-3 game, we get three other variations on the matching theme. Even the basic match-3 game is embellished with interesting fighting features that have a small amount of strategy. Add role-playing experience upgrades with new powers and abilities and a neat, cartoon feel and you have a winning title. The basic gameplay is still a puzzle game so if you don’t like those you’ll grow bored of Spandex Force even with the high-quality ancillary elements, but fans of the genre will find a polished and entertaining title worthy of your crime-fighting skills.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

PDC World Championship Darts 2008 Review

PDC World Championship Darts 2008, developed by Mere Mortals and published by Oxygen Interactive.
The Good: Numerous game types and career modes, good character models
The Not So Good: Really touchy controls require near perfection, infallible AI, no online features, repetitive commentary
What say you? Robotically flawless opponents and iffy controls make for a frustrating darts game: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
We’ve all probably played darts at some point in our lives. I know I have, and the last time I did, I discovered I was pretty good at it (for a novice). Thus, I was mildly interested in receiving (all the way from England) PDC World Championship Darts 2008. Sure, darts (like golf) might not be terribly interesting to watch, but (like golf) it’s a lot more fun to play, and playing on a computer is a lot safer (less pointy objects flying through the air). And I bet the mouse could be an intuitive substitute for a dart. So let’s see if PDC World Championship Darts 2008 gets triple-20, or punctures someone in the face.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Considering that darts is not exactly the most visually exciting sport on the planet, the graphics of PDC World Championship Darts 2008 are about as good as they are going to get. The dart boards (and the darts themselves) are realistic replicas, as are the match venues. Probably the most work has been spent accurately modeling all of the professional dart players (darters?) that I’ve never heard of, and the result is a collection of highly-detailed and well-animated characters. The players look fantastic with a range of believable animations. With all of the effort that clearly went into character design, the sound has suffered: PDC World Championship Darts 2008 features very repetitive match commentary that becomes annoying the second time you play the game. Hearing “one-hundred-and-FOR-ty” announced the same way each time gets old very quickly. Plus, the insults directed towards the player are unnecessary, demeaning, and depressing for new players. Yes, I know my last throw was “rubbish,” I’m trying to learn the freakin’ game here. Summed up, PDC World Championship Darts 2008 has great graphics and poor sound.

ET AL.
PDC World Championship Darts 2008 embraces the 2008 PDC World Championship season (surprise!). You can undertake an exhibition game against an AI opponent, a single tournament, or an entire career that comprises of single tournaments (and you can enter exhibitions as well). You can create a custom player for a career or play as one of the sixteen real-life players. Party mode is designed for multiple players, as the AI can’t seem to handle anything other than 501. You and several others can engage in games of around the clock, black & white, cricket, fives, twenty one, knockout, odd man in, shanghai, and killer, but as long as its on the same computer as PDC World Championship Darts 2008 lacks internet multiplayer for some reason. Most of these games have essentially the same rules (aim for a specific area of the board) and the rules for cricket are completely different from anything I (or any reference material I have found) have seen.

You can use a gamepad or the mouse to control the darts and it is overly difficult either way. You need to be insanely precise in this game in order to simply throw the dart, let alone throw it correctly. You must hold down the mouse button, bring the mouse back, then push it forward quickly enough while letting go of the mouse button at exactly the right time. There are novice controls, but they simply provide the user with a meter that shows how far to pull back and decreasing the difficulty does not make the actual action any easier. Throwing darts is equally frustrating with a gamepad. PDC World Championship Darts 2008 should automatically release the dart instead of requiring the user to release the mouse button at exactly the right time (especially for beginners). PDC World Championship Darts 2008 takes the simple act of throwing a dart and makes it an infuriating practice.

Most of the time (unless you can find some friends who want to play this game on your computer…unlikely) you’ll be playing against the AI and they are almost as frustrating as the controls. The AI players are almost perfect, getting exactly what they need approximately 100% of the time. I realize these are professionals, but shouldn’t a variety of opponents be included for beginners to play against? It’s no fun to play when you know that once you miss the triple-20 you have lost, since the AI will score 140 or more every single turn. It’s really easy to make the AI “cheat” in a game like this, and that’s exactly what the developers have done. PDC World Championship Darts 2008 is passable in multiplayer, but since the game lacks online capabilities then there is no real reason to play it.

IN CLOSING
Darts could have been a simple and fun computer sport, but PDC World Championship Darts 2008 royally screws up in several keys area. The controls stink since they are too unforgiving and non-adjusting for difficulty. The AI is too perfect to provide fair competition. The game offers varied game modes, but they are only available as party games against human players on the same computer. The commentary is insulting and repetitive. About the only good quality of PDC World Championship Darts 2008 is that the player models are realistic, and that’s not important at all. The learning curve induced by the controls and the AI makes PDC World Championship Darts 2008 almost impossible to play as a novice. Even if you really like darts, it’s better just to buy a real dart board then to play this mess of a game.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Journeys of the Dragon Rider Review

Journeys of the Dragon Rider, developed and published by MistKeep Software.
The Good: Controls “feel” right, lengthy campaign with adequate mission variety, some mod support
The Not So Good: Aiming is difficult, no skirmish or quick battles, more explicit objectives are needed
What say you? A mildly entertaining combat flight simulation of sorts: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
A stalwart being of fantasy-themed media is the dragon. We’ve seen fire-breathing heathens in countless books, movies, and video games, usually serving the role as antagonist against our intrepid hero. But what if that power could be wrangled for good? That’s the premise behind Journeys of the Dragon Rider, a game where you ride dragons (no doubt on some kind of journey) and undertake tasks that generally involve lighting things on fire. Really, this is a flight simulator where Cessnas have been replaced with flying beasts. Will this change in theme produce some memorable gameplay?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I’m willing to give a bit of leeway to games developed by small teams; in that sense, the graphics of Journeys of the Dragon Rider are decent. The environments are repetitive and generally bland, though the forest density is nice and the backgrounds look realistic. The best part of the graphics is the dragon models: they are highly detailed and well animated. Watching a dragon perform a roll or glide to a lower altitude is neat, and the animations are certainly plausible. Of course, not ever witnessing a dragon fly first-hand makes it hard to determine if the physics are exactly right, but they seem to be. The fire effects are unimpressive (just a glowing ball) and destroying an enemy unit is really underwhelming. The developer was trying to include a non-violent approach (which is commendable) to combat, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to see crispy dragons. Overall, the graphics look like one guy put a lot of effort into it (which is what happened), so I’m not going to bash it just because they don’t have the production values of mega-budget games. There are a couple of minor problems with the graphics, though: there is major slowdown when soldiers are rendered in the game, and the valley levels have a lot of dark shadows that makes it really hard to see. Still, the graphics are a good effort by a single person. The audio in the game is very understated, to say the least: maybe I am hard of hearing, but the default sound levels were so soft I thought the game had no sound. The sound effects are very basic (there are eight of them), so more varied sounds could have certainly been included. So by and large the presentation is what I would expect for an independent product.

ET AL.
Journeys of the Dragon Rider takes its cues from a combat flight simulator. During the somewhat lengthy 30-mission campaign, you’ll pilot your dragon through battles against other dragons and troops on the ground, in addition to races against the clock. This is fairly good value; being accompanied in almost every mission by AI allies makes you feel like a part of a larger conflict and provides immersion. The missions are quick (usually around ten minutes) so you’ll be finished with Journeys of the Dragon Rider in around five to six hours. Unfortunately, there are no skirmish or randomly generated missions, although you can dive into the complicated XML files to edit some of the campaign missions to create your own. Journeys of the Dragon Rider also lacks multiplayer, so the thirty campaign missions are all you get. Each individual mission gives you objectives at the start, but then does not display them during the game, either in words or indicated in the game world. The directions could also be clearer: I was stuck on the third mission for a while until I decoded what the description meant by “transport” (kill).

Movement is done with the mouse, with shooting mapped to the mouse buttons. Velocity is controlled with the Z and X keys; I would like to be able to use the mouse wheel, but the game doesn’t allow you to remap the keys. You can use either basic or advanced controls. Basically, advanced controls are more difficult because it makes the dragon have inertia (meaning you can’t turn as quickly) but it certainly feels more realistic. You can do some advanced rolls and loops that actual planes can perform, which becomes useful when you want to avoid enemy units. The controls of the dragon feel plausible, and that’s probably the most important part of the game. The user interface of Journeys of the Dragon Rider is minimal at best: there are speed and armor indicators but no aiming cursor. Your dragon will aim towards the center of the screen…well, sort of, since flying can throw the shots off-center at bit. This can make it difficult to hit enemy units if you are moving fast or changing altitude. I realize that dragons are generally unequipped with aiming sights, but it still should be easier to aim. Gameplay wise, Journeys of the Dragon Rider can be enjoyable if you are part of a large battle, swooping through the air and engaging enemy units. The AI units will use some of the advanced maneuvers if the difficult is increase, so they can provide a decent enough challenge. Really, Journeys of the Dragon Rider gets the essentials down and can challenge any combat flight simulator on the basic level, but the game lacks some key features that would separate itself from the pack. As an independently developed game, it is a commendable effort that provides several amusing moments at a budget price.

IN CLOSING
Journeys of the Dragon Rider has the basics of an enjoyable game, and it simply needs more features and more polish in order to become a more entertaining title. The dragons control realistically and the combat can get quite intense when lots of dragons are involved; this is the situation in which Journeys of the Dragon Rider shines. There are also some alternative mission types during the game’s 30 campaign missions, from races through valleys to assaults on troops and castles. The objectives should be clearer and displayed in the game and the game certainly could benefit from random customizable missions. Multiplayer could be a nice addition as well, though it’s probably not worth the effort due to a niche audience. Other than during the difficult missions or poorly written instructions, I had fun playing Journeys of the Dragon Rider as it provides some straightforward amusement. So if you’re looking for a different kind of combat flight simulation, you will find at least some enjoyment in Journeys of the Dragon Rider.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Montjoie! Review

Montjoie!, developed by Tchounga Games and published by AGEod.
The Good: Enjoyable strategic gameplay with just the right amount of luck, great AI, informative interface, numerous scenarios with alternative rules, online play, enlightening tutorials, games are a manageable length, pleasing graphics
The Not So Good: Game pace could be quickened during computer turns, a scenario editor would be nice, some minor bugs
What say you? A wonderfully designed PC adaptation of a board game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
People have been trying to take over France for ages: the Romans, the Franks, the English, the Spanish, the Germans, and even themselves. The Hundred Years War (which actually took 116 years; and you thought the situation in Iraq would never end) pitted France and a bunch of nations versus England and a bunch of nations (and the fact that the Hundred Years War started in 1337 makes it l33t). We haven’t really had a game focusing on this particular conflict: Europa Universalis picks up right after the Hundred Years War ends and Great Invasions was before the time period we want. So thank goodness for Montjoie! (French for “what is that smell?”), a strategy game based off a board game that simulates the grand struggle between six nations in the Hundred Years War. And yes, I know Crusader Kings simulates this time period, but since I didn’t review it, it does not count. On with Montjoie!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Montjoie! uses a 3-D map of France and it looks pretty good. Although it’s certainly not the nicest map ever created, it certainly does the job and it is in 3-D, so that’s a leg up on the competition. France looks good in Montjoie!, with a decent level of detail that rivals that of an actual board game. The map is easily accessible and clearly displays who owns with region, although the brown outline for Burgundy makes it a bit difficult to see that country’s owned provinces as it blends in with the terrain. The cards also have neat art direction, looking like they were pulled straight from a high-quality card game. The battle animations are purposely humorous, with poorly animated knights and archers jumping up and down as they engage in deadly combat; I like the style. The game’s font is a bit difficult to read sometimes, but it does fit the overall theme. The sound in the game is done well, with signature effects for events and understated by enjoyable music. Plus, the introductory “Montjoie!” sound byte I find quite humorous. Overall, Montjoie! has a good presentation for a board game conversion. Plus, the entire game folder is less than 35 MB, so Montjoie! is not tough on your system.

ET AL.
Montjoie! is an adapted version of the Joan of Arc board game (it uses the French title since everything is better in French). Six kingdoms (France, England, Navarre, Brittany, Burgundy, and stupid Flanders. The object is to fully control the most provinces each round and have the best total at the end of the game. Montjoie! comes with the basic six-player game mode, but also comes with eight variations with different starting conditions in addition to eight “historical” campaigns with preset starting conditions and special rules. This is a great amount of content, since board games, by their very nature, usually tend to have the same setup each time. What I would really like to see is a scenario editor: Montjoie! allows for some really interesting variations in the historical campaign and I’d like to come up with my own. Everything in the game is essentially located in one file, so it doesn’t seem modding is possible. Montjoie! takes a firm grip on history, as each scenario is accompanied with in-depth historical information, and the in-game events have a historical context. Games are also a manageable length, anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, and you can always save your progress and come back later. And if that wasn’t enough, Montjoie! comes with multiplayer support with a browser. I wasn’t able to test online gaming in Montjoie! since the game isn’t terribly popular as of yet, but reports from third parties seem to be positive. Montjoie! goes above and beyond the call of duty for what a board game should have, and the result is great gaming value.

It takes a couple of games to fully learn the ins and outs of Montjoie!, but the process is made easier by a well-written manual and comprehensive tutorials. The interface is also well-designed, as almost everything is displayed on the main screen all at once. Current victory points totals, cards-in-hand, and alliances are displayed at all times at the top of the screen. Montjoie! also has an information panel that can alternately display round sequence, specific faction info, player rankings, a match summary, objectives and rules, and in-game help. This information is displayed in the bottom corner, so Montjoie! thankfully lacks and full-screen charts that would obscure the game map. Montjoie! will also automatically advance your turn after three seconds if you have nothing left to do. The default game speed is very, very slow; you can accelerate the pace of the game, but even this drags out the action a bit too much: I would like to see instant results of the CPU battles instead of having to watch dice rolls.

Each round in Montjoie! has a number of phases (ten, to be specific). First, you get gold you can spend on additional cards (used during combat) or fortifications from the number of towns you own. You then get to vote for peace or war. Peace gives each player four cards and limits each side to only one attack, while war comes with six cards and essentially unlimited attacks. Some scenarios come with a diplomacy phase where you can influence the vote or give gold bonuses for storming specific cities (much like bounty in Sins of a Solar Empire) or bribing other nations into not attacking you. Cards are then dealt; left over cards are removed at the end of each round, so you should use all of them. There are a number of cards you can receive to assist you in combat: basic combat cards that give between three and six points towards attacking and defending, heroes that add two points, influence cards that add one point, traitors that cancel the opponent’s strongest card, engineers that reduce defenses or attacks, retreats that let you save your best card if you lose, and the glorious sign of god that doubles your highest combat card. You can also play a number of cards on the game map: pillagers to gain gold from enemies and ambassadors that can conquer enemy towns, give extra cards, remove cards from a player, or grant a hero (which choice depends on a dice roll).

The order in which nations play is randomly determined each round, though the same side can’t go first twice in a row. There are obvious advantages to going first, including random chance events that can grant the first player extra attacks, stealing cards, pillaging towns, protecting a city, and preventing naval assaults. Other events include ending the turn immediately, establishing a mandatory peace, and halving tax incomes. It’s best to either go first or last (which gives you a leg up on attacking weakened foes that have no cards left), and the faction order is just one of the random elements of Montjoie! designed to make the game more interesting. Nations can also expand into neutral territory (most of the maps include empty provinces) before the conquest phase begins. In order to attack, you simply choose an adjacent or coastal town. The attacking force plays two combat cards plus any of the bonus cards (engineers, influence, traitors, retreats, heros) and the defender plays one, though the defender gets a bonus based on the defensive structure built in the town. After all of the cards are played, its down to a dice roll to find out who wins. This is a great way of calculating the victor, as better cards will usually (but not always) give you a victory: thrown in some low rolls and the leading nation will soon find themselves behind.

The random unpredictability of Montjoie! makes for some interesting decisions in how to play your turn: should you use your best cards immediately, save them for defense, or a combination of both? Since the loser loses their cards, it’s sometimes better to just play crappy cards on defense if you know (or think you know) you are going to lose anyway. This is where going last has its advantages: you know you won’t be attacked in the future, so you can use up whatever remaining cards you own in a full-out attack on humanity. There are some turns in the game where nothing seems to go right, and some turns that are extremely lucky. Your ability to attack also depends on the cards you are dealt, and waiting for the good hand may be a good idea. Montjoie! features some great AI: occasionally they will do something stupid like fortifying a central town that can’t be attacked, but most of the time the computer players are very competent. They will gang up on the leader, use the cards appropriately, expand in reasonable directions, and generally play, well, intelligently. While I’m not usually out-smarted by the AI, they do provide a good enough challenge to make Montjoie! entertaining from a strategic viewpoint. The game could use some more polish: I have experienced occasional crashes to the desktop and some graphical glitches, but they are infrequent enough to be simply minor annoyances.

IN CLOSING
Montjoie! is a good board game that’s become a great computer game. The execution of the port is well done (better than a lot of console-to-PC jobs), with an informative interface, numerous scenarios, online multiplayer, and the basic game intact. The AI is a good foe that doesn’t single out the human player; it’s pretty difficult to get six people together to play a historical board game, so Montjoie! is a great substitute for friends. The graphics work well and present an appropriate theme with a very small amount of system resources. Montjoie! provides some great, entertaining strategic gameplay as well. There are a couple of small issues with stability and game speed, but these are relatively minor when you look at the big picture. Plus, Montjoie! is available for only 25 Euros (which, using current exchange rates, is equal to 37 million U.S. dollars), so it is certainly reasonably priced. Fans of board games or the strategy genre should definitely check out Montjoie!, as its one of the best adaptations of a board game you’ll see on the PC: c’est magnifique!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire Review

Sins of a Solar Empire, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Streamlined yet strategically deep gameplay, excellent user interface, smart automation, fantastic graphics both up close and far away, multiplayer with the ability to save and resume progress, easy to use galaxy generator, absolutely huge maps that can take months to finish, pirates are neat (as long as they aren’t attacking you)
The Not So Good: Slow pace with waiting for resources early in the game, all three races are basically the same, no story-driven campaign, no alternative victory conditions
What say you? The 4X strategy game gets real (time) with marvelous results: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
You know, I totally forgot I did a preview of this game. I guess that explains why I had access to the beta all this time (I just thought it was because I am cool). As you know if you frequent this site (and who does?), strategy games are my most favorite genre ever! BFF! So you can imagine my childish excitement upon receiving the release version of Sins of a Solar Empire, the latest game from Stardock designed to ruin your life with awesomeness. 4X games (which stands for “eXplore,” “eXpand,” “eXploit,” and “Xylophone”) have always been turn-based, but Sins of a Solar Empire takes the traditional formula and makes the game play out in real time. Blasphemy! Of course, the biggest question is “will it work?” So, will it work?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
In short, the graphics of Sins of a Solar Empire are fantastic, and some of the best ever seen in a strategy game. Better than Command and Conquer 3. Better than Supreme Commander (and Sins of a Solar Empire runs a whole lot smoother). Better than Company of Heroes. About the same as World in Conflict, but that's a big compliment. This is surprising coming from an apparently small developer and an independent publisher who is known for good but not great graphics. With everything cranked up, Sins of a Solar Empire is absolutely stunning. The planets and stars are highly detailed with animations such as flying vehicles. The three races each have a distinctive design that covers ship and building design. You can push the camera right up to ships and they will still look impressive. The weapons are great and the explosions are powerful. The backgrounds, while a little over the top with large amounts of colored nebulae, make for a great setting. This is simply one of those games that’s just nice to look at. What’s even better is the performance: it runs buttery smooth on good systems (assuming, of course, you don't have 20,000 ships on the screen at once) and the game is very playable even on crappy systems: on my 1.7 GHz, 512 MB laptop with an onboard Intel graphics card, Sins of a Solar Empire actually works (albeit on the lowest settings, but it’s still remarkable). The sound in the game is understated, which is really how it should be. The background music fits the theme of the game well, and the auditory notices and various sound effects alert you to important events. So I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by the presentation of Sins of a Solar Empire, and most will be surprised at the large range of systems the game supports.

ET AL.
Like most strategy games, the object of Sins of a Solar Empire is to kill everyone. You do this by establishing new colonies, forming a large military force, and then killing everyone. The first thing you might notice is that Sins of a Solar Empire lacks a story-driven campaign. While some people might complain about the lack of a campaign, I don’t really play them anyway (I gravitate towards skirmish and multiplayer games) so I certainly don’t miss it. Besides, I’d rather have no campaign than a crappy campaign. Plus, most campaigns are really just a set of linked skirmishes anyway, and the range of skirmish maps and options in Sins of a Solar Empire is plenty to keep your busy for quite a while. There are a slew of pre-made skirmish maps that range from small solar systems for one-on-one carnage to huge (and I mean huge) multi-star galaxies intended for up to ten players. The biggest included map has 100 (!) planets to colonize, but you can use the flexible map designer utility to easily create galaxies with thousands of planets. Speaking of the map designer, this in-game feature allows you to set parameters for semi-randomly generated maps. You can set the number and type of stars, number and types of planets around those stars, number of players (from two to ten), phase line parameters (which planets are connected to which other planets), map size, and neutral or empty colonies. There is a whole lot of replay value in the randomly, semi-randomly, and designed maps, so the missing campaign isn’t even noticeable. And you can always try the free-to-download Galaxy Forge utility if you want to design your maps more definitively. I would like to see the game automatically download maps for multiplayer games, especially since all the maps are under 50 kilobytes. You can also earn a “whole bunch” (technical term) of achievements during single player games, from “Pop Idol” (for spreading culture) to “Family Planning” (for having high populations).

Learning the game is helped by the tutorials, which do an OK job teaching the basic mechanics of the game with well-highlighted instructions. I did experience one hang-up during the first tutorial for some reason, though (but this seems to be fixed in the 1.02 patch). Like all other Stardock games, Sins of a Solar Empire doesn’t have any copy protection, so you don’t need to keep the stupid DVD in the stupid drive; people who register their key will be able to download free future content. Sins of a Solar Empire also has multiplayer, with matchmaking done through Ironclad Online (which has no subscription fee, obviously; damn you MMORPGs for making me point that out). What’s cool about the multiplayer is the ability to save and load the game later. This means huge maps are actually playable online, because you can get some friends together, play for a couple of hours, and then play again next week, picking up right where you left off. Also, future patches will compensate for dropped players: if some jerk can’t play next time because of some poor excuse like a social life, he can be replaced by an AI player. And if he wises up and joins back in the week after, he can take over again for the AI. Sweet. And multiplayer autosaves can be loaded as single player games, with the AI taking over the previously human-controlled forces. Mega sweet (especially since multiplayer games are really too long for pick-up-and-play matches).

4X games are partly defined by their complexity, so it’s good that Sins of a Solar Empire features a spectacular user interface. The empire tree along the left side of the screen shows all of your planets with small boxes representing buildings and military units, so you can gauge the relative strength of forces halfway across the galaxy without moving your view at all. You can also select units and planets using the empire tree and order new buildings or upgrades without even looking at that particular unit in the main screen. The tree is also collapsible and modifiable for those who don’t like the default display. When you are zoomed out, you can select all of the military units at a planet with a simple mouse click, and each planet has a straightforward display showing the strengths of friendly ships, buildings, and enemy forces. Sins of a Solar Empire certainly spoils you with its information-heavy interface that is not overwhelming or unintuitive. Sins of a Solar Empire also features a ton of tool-tips that displays everything you would ever need to know about any object in the game. As an example, you can hover over the antimatter display for a colony craft and see exactly how many seconds are left until they are able to colonize again after a cooldown: pretty cool. Tool-tips also show which ships were present at enemy and neutral planets the last time you visited them, great for determining how many ships to send without having to remember something from twenty minutes (or last week, if you saved the game) ago. Sins of a Solar Empire also has optional automation for almost everything in the game: placement of buildings, passive and active ship abilities, attacking, scouting, colonizing, forming fleets, resource gathering. This means you can focus on one part of the galaxy without the rest of your empire falling apart. I really just run everything I can automated and focus on the things I have to do manually (research, ship and building construction, general movement) and let the game worry about the rest. This is the only way that Sins of a Solar Empire would be playable in a real-time environment, and it’s executed superbly.

Planets are your bases because they produce resources: credits (from taxes) and metal and crystal (from asteroids orbiting them). If you are short in resources, you can buy them on the black market, or sell excess for cash. You can also try to undersell the market rate to make even more money. You need to colonize new planets with a colony ship, and then you can select a number of upgrades to improve tax rates, planet health, building limits, and uncover alien artifacts. This includes enemy planets: instead of invading planets, you need to kill everyone first then colonize it (I guess that a part of the Sins the Solar Empires are making). In orbit around each planet are buildings that mine resources, produce ships, earn trade income, broadcast culture (to take over neighboring planets without attacking them), and defensive structures. There are obviously a lot of decisions to make when dealing with which upgrades to do and what role each planet will have in your overall empire. Research in the game is straightforward: each lab (military or civilian) you build will unlock a number of upgrades. The research tree is much more intuitive than the one I complained about in the beta and the tree doesn’t have very many prerequisites so you aren’t tied into one research path (I could never keep up with the weapons research in Galactic Civilizations). In addition to upgrading and unlocking your ships and planetary improvements, you can increase your population cap and look at artifacts you gained from exploring. The population cap is very interesting: as you increase the number of ships your empire can support, you also incur a penalty on income. So what is your focus: quality or quantity? Interesting and important decisions like these make for a good strategy game.

You might not want to wage war with every single opponent at once, so Sins of a Solar Empire has some basic diplomatic options. You can declare war, proprose a cease fire or peace treaty, forge a trade alliance, and share vision. The AI players will also occasionally give you missions (usually giving them resources) to improve relations. Unfortunately, you can’t give them missions, so the mechanic seems a bit unbalanced; I can’t really tell if AI players give missions to other AI players or not. Probably the most debated feature in the game is pirates. Every fifteen minutes or so, pirates will attack someone, and who they attack is determined by who has the largest bounty on them. Bounty is earned in secret, so all you do is pay 250 of your credits to increase the desirability of an enemy force. This is a kind of reward for players who have good economies and the mechanic can result in some tense gameplay as players try to outbid each other as the time counts down. Pirates can seriously piss people off but I find it a very intriguing gameplay element. You can win solely by bribing pirates into attacking your enemies, which works like an economic victory. I successfully bribed pirates into attacking my competitor six times in a row, and when I arrived at his home planet, he owned a paltry three ships while I had a healthy 30-ship fleet. Ah, death by proxy. Timing your attack right after the pirates have decimated an opponent’s fleet would really piss them off (insert evil laugh).

Sins of a Solar Empire features three races, but I found them to be very similar, especially in the early game before you upgrade them with research (and even then most of the upgrades are identical). The humans, the aliens, and the sort-of-humans all have the same basic set of ships, buildings, and research trees with minor alterations throughout. The advantage of this is that it makes it easy to learn each race, but the three warring factions lose their identity (something that was strong in Galactic Civilizations). Unlike Universe at War, where the sides were distinctly different, the three races in Sins of a Solar Empire are simply too identical for my tastes. Each race has a number of frigates (scout, colony, light, missile, planet bombardment, anti-fighter), cruisers (carrier, repair, support, combat), and capital ships (combat, support, colonization, planet bombardment). The roles are the same for each race, though their specific weaponry and methods might be slightly different. Ships may (and capital ships do) have passive and/or active skills that are unlocked through experience or research; these can be automated (thank goodness; I have more important things to do) or done manually. While the roster of ships is small and ship design is not an option (I don’t see how it would work well in real-time), you can customize your ships somewhat through the upgrades you choose. There are enough things to choose from to make one game play out differently from the next, so the relatively small unit types isn’t that big of a deal (plus it makes the game easier to play).

Battles are a sight to behold in Sins of a Solar Empire, and you can actually watch them in awe instead of having to order around units or click on ability buttons thanks to the intelligent automation in the game. Ships can be organized into fleets, which will place ships in a formation relative to their roles (support and ranged ships in the back, et cetera). You can even have new ships automatically join existing fleets, and the game will automatically rearrange your forces to compensate. Sweet. It is a little odd that ships are stationary during combat (there’s no real reason for this), but the battles are still well done. The gameplay of Sins of a Solar Empire boils down to simplified but important decisions. I found this game much more approachable than Galactic Civilizations (which is really geared towards the hardcore strategy player) and it doesn’t rely on quick reflexes like those twitchy RTS games. This is in part due to a slow pace: units take their sweet old time traveling between your planets, which puts an emphasis on defenses and bribing those pirates. There are instances of waiting for resources to accumulate early in the game using normal game speed, but once you get your empire going the game would simply be unplayable at a faster speed. The ability to accelerate time during the game will be included in the 1.02 patch, so you can speed it up early and slow it down late. Games of Sins of a Solar Empire are long; don’t expect half-hour Command and Conquer kill-fests. Even the smallest maps take at least an hour or two to finish, and the huge maps can literally take months. Sins of a Solar Empire is combat-heavy, so focusing your efforts on military action is important. You can gain some planets through culture and ally with races for a victory, but most of the time you’ll have to kill everyone and the solitary victory condition is a bit disappointing. The AI is pretty good, though I found it not aggressive enough at colonizing on normal difficulty levels (they did not research unlocks to access volcanic and arctic planets) and subsequently fell behind. Hard difficulty is a different matter altogether, so the AI of Sins of a Solar Empire will provide enough of a challenge. You can also tailor the behavior style of the AI, which has a distinct effect on their overall strategy (which may have something to do with the whole not colonizing thing).

IN CLOSING
The golden rule of Out of Eight is: the longer the review, the better the game. Sins of a Solar Empire: long review (well, for me it is), outstanding game. I tend to get long-winded about things I like, and I certainly like this. Sins of a Solar Empire has an elegant design that simplifies certain aspects of the game (research, units) in order to make it more approachable without sacrificing strategic depth. What really helps to control a large empire in real time is the effective combination of the interface and automation: both of these things in concert allow you to handle the game successfully. I think if either of these things were missing, Sins of a Solar Empire would be unplayable. Supreme Commander had a lot of units too, but didn’t everyone just set up infinite queues and select all units? Plus, the huge maps of Sins of a Solar Empire puts that game to shame. The features are also robust: random and semi-random maps, multiplayer with saved games, and it’s pretty looking. Multiplayer games are very long (hours, not minutes) so there is a tendency for people to quit in the middle, but you can always finish the game offline against the AI, or save it and try it again with the same people next week. Nobody’s really going to miss the campaign and I’m not heartbroken that the three races are essentially the same. Sins of a Solar Empire is a distinct game: it’s not Supreme Commander, it’s not Galactic Civilizations, but it is entertaining. The game successfully finds the middle ground between difficult-to-learn 4X games and click-heavy RTS games. Sins of a Solar Empire gives you time to relax instead of constantly building stuff (like Command and Conquer), but you are still doing something (research, bounties, pirates, trade) most of the time, especially when your empire grows. So Sins of a Solar Empire actually pulled it off: it takes the best of real-time strategy games and 4X turn-based games and combines them with enough polish to produce an outstanding title. Go buy it already! The Space Ponies are waiting.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Band of Bugs Review

Band of Bugs, developed and published by NinjaBee.
The Good: Generally solid (but not terribly original) gameplay, some interesting special actions, level editor, multiple game types, bugs are fun
The Not So Good: Poor interface and controls clearly not for the PC, fixed resolution not designed for LCD or widescreen monitors, fixed starting units (even for skirmish missions), AI is not challenging unless the player is outnumbered, multiplayer browser has too many filters, no manual and insignificant in-game documentation
What say you? A rough PC port of an average introductory turn-based tactical strategy game: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
About the only way you’ll see strategy games on the consoles is in a light tactical flavor: a handful of units moving around a map attacking other units. This is part of the reason I loathe (well, loathe is such a strong word…more like “hate and want to kill”) the major consoles, as my favorite genre (strategy games) is not represented well at all. Of course, there are plenty of great strategy titles to enjoy on the PC, and adding to the mix is Band of Bugs, a game ported over from something called “Xbox Live Arcade” (yeah, I’ve never heard of it either). How will Band of Bugs stack up against the litany of PC strategy titles?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Things don’t start off well for Band of Bugs in the graphics and sound department. I don’t have much issue with the simplistic 3-D graphics, considering the game is coming from a small developer; I know I play enough games where graphics aren’t exactly the strongest feature. The bug models are well done, although it is difficult to tell teams from the subtle color differences. The environments are obviously tile-based, but they look decent enough; they could benefit from some more detailed textures. Some of the spell effects are nice as well, so really the graphical package of Band of Bugs is pretty much what you’d expect for a budget-priced game rendered in 3-D. My problem lies with the fact that Band of Bugs is fixed at a resolution of 1280x720. Does anyone even use this resolution anymore? When I played the game on my computer, with an LCD monitor that displays at 1280x1024, everything was (obviously) hideously stretched out. You can’t play the game in a window or turn down the resolution, which means my crappy laptop (with a maximum resolution of 1024x768) can’t run it at all. I would imagine that widescreen monitors will have similar issues. When you make a PC game, you must give the option to change the resolution or play the game in a window. The fact that Band of Bugs does not offer either of these options is unforgivable. You can’t make assumptions about people’s hardware on the PC platform: you must be flexible, and Band of Bugs is not. Band of Bugs simply looks like crap because of the resolution issue. The sound is pretty bad as well: repetitive two-second long “bug talk” sound bites accompany each section of dialogue, and the weapons and death effects are monotonous as well. Clearly more work could have been done in the sound department.

ET AL.
Band of Bugs is a turn-based strategy game that involves a handful of units (usually around four) vying for supremacy. The game doesn’t come with a manual (a disturbingly growing trend these days) and the tutorial just offers the basics of movement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like a printed list of all the units and spells and interface features when I play the game. Band of Bugs does come with a short-ish campaign of around 20 missions, each of which takes no more than twenty minutes or so to complete. It follows the story of a bug on his quest to kill stuff. Band of Bugs also features a handful of stand-alone missions and several maps for skirmish games against the AI. Band of Bugs features the standard kill-everything elimination mode, but also has modes where you capture the enemy spawn, escape the map, and hunt spiders. You can also play any of the skirmish game modes online (including the stand alone missions). While this is a nice feature, finding a game is unnecessarily difficult. You must choose a game type before seeing all of the servers. Since there are five game types, you must choose one, see if there are any severs, and if there are not, you must go back a page, select and different one, and try again. The browser should show every server using every game type on one page and allow the user to filter them if they want, but, alas, this is not the case.

To expand upon the list of maps used in Band of Bugs, there is an easy-to-use level editor included in the game. Levels can include some environmental effects, such as ice that can be melted, edges of the map (that cause death if you are pushed off them), and disappearing tiles. Unfortunately, Band of Bugs does not allow you to customize your roster of units, so you are stuck playing with the same exact units each time you play the same map. This also means the campaign missions are identical each time, so there is no need to play through it more than once. While this may be fine for historical games that have some sort of context, this restriction in Band of Bugs is not welcome. Most strategy games these days let the user tailor their force to their play style, but Band of Bugs pigeonholes the player into a set squad.

It’s pretty clear that the developers of Band of Bugs haven’t played a PC RTS in a while, or were just going for a quick and dirty port: the interface and mouse controls are horrible. I think it’s pretty much convention now to use left click to select and right click to move, right? Band of Bugs uses left-click to select, double-left-click to enter move mode, and another double-left-click to actually move. Huh? It took me a while to get used to playing Band of Bugs since I play a lot of strategy games. You also need to click on the square instead of the character to attack or cast a spell: this results in a lot of mis-spellings (so to speak) as it’s pretty hard to find the ground if units are clustered together. Band of Bugs also lacks health bars (you must select a unit to see their status), making just another step in taking your turn. Band of Bugs is yet another game that suffers from having a limited console interface first.

Each turn, one unit moves, takes an action, and changes their facing. Units in the game include standard melee infantry, ranged units, spell casters, and healers. Of course, you don’t get to choose which ones to use before each game, so you must alter your strategy to what the developers think is right. The actual gameplay is Band of Bugs is fairly interesting, which is why it’s sad the game fails in the ancillary areas. There are some intriguing special actions: heal, speed, slow, powerful attacks, and more. You can imagine interesting combinations and the subsequent strategies that can be employed. Attacks are more powerful if units are flanked (attacked from the side or, even better, from behind) or surrounded by several units. Eliminating enemy units gives you successive turns, allowing the user to “chain” several spells and attacks together. This makes it important to preserve your units as losing turns is the first step towards failure. Not that you’ll be failing much: the AI is easily beatable with matched forces, and it’s only challenging when overwhelmed. The AI makes really dumb moves (moving over ice when it could be melted, for example) and doesn’t concentrate its fire, but at least the AI doesn’t gang up on the human player. Of course, the AI problems are eliminated when playing online, assuming you can find a game using the restrictive browser.

IN CLOSING
Band of Bugs is very frustrating because I think there’s a good strategy game buried somewhere beneath the sub-par PC port. The design of the game makes it perfect for players new to the genre, as the combination of movement, facing, and spell strategy can make for some fun times. Executing a well-planned strategy is at the heart of any good strategy game, and it’s certainly an enjoyable part of Band of Bugs. Since Band of Bugs is similar to the hordes of other turn-based tactical games on the market, what makes the difference is the features, and sadly the PC version of Band of Bugs is poorly executed. The fixed screen resolution. The archaic interface. The unwieldy controls. The lack of customizable forces. The arbitrarily restrictive multiplayer browser. No manual. All of these things add up to make an unenjoyable title, no matter how the actual gameplay is. The AI isn’t the sharpest tool in the tool box, either, and the only challenge will come from being up against a huge number of enemies (a cheap strategy employed by Band of Bugs). Band of Bugs is simply too annoying to play thanks to a number of technical issues, and there are more rounded strategy titles already available on the PC.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Birth of Shadows Review

Birth of Shadows, developed and published by Precision Games.
The Good: Decent number of spells that compliment each other well introduced gradually in the lengthy campaign, no penalty for death, map editor, online skirmish games, really low system requirements
The Not So Good: No character customization, repetitive combat early in the game, no auto-targeting, can’t queue spells, bland campaign, limited selection of skirmish levels, unimpressive graphics
What say you? An average magic-only role-playing game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Every once in a while, I like to appease those elves-and-magic fans with a review of a role-playing game. While it’s certainly not my favorite genre (in fact, my second least-favorite just ahead of adventure games), playing strategy game after strategy game does get boring after a while and I like to change things up a bit. And doing a review of an independent RPG maintains my crusade of highlighting small developers in this world of big money corporations. So that brings us (I think) to Birth of Shadows, a role-playing game from the same people (well, person…for the most part) that brought us Pursuit of Power, one of those real time strategy games the movie stars are always talking about. Let's all give in to deliciousness!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Birth of Shadows are essentially the same as Pursuit of Power, and since I didn’t think too highly of them a year and a half ago, I don’t now as well. The game is in 2-D and features the same fuzzy ground textures as before. The 2-D bitmaps of the enemies are objects (like trees and buildings) are decently detailed but poorly animated. There are some relatively nice effects with some of the spells, but again “nice” in Birth of Shadows will disappoint most mainstream RPG fans. Of course, the advantage of outdated graphics is low system requirements; pretty much anyone can run this game. The sound is what you would expect for an independent game: some pleasing background music, sporadic effects, and no voice acting. While Birth of Shadows can’t obviously compete with big-budget titles in terms of presentation, it even lags behind other independent games in terms of graphical quality. You can make 2-D graphics look good, but Birth of Shadows just looks old.

ET AL.
Birth of Shadows is primarily a single player role-playing game where do undergo quests, which usually involve killing stuff or finding people (and killing stuff along the way). The main campaign is quite long: 100 different quests are spread across a number of maps. Unfortunately, the background story and in-game text-only narrative aren’t terribly interesting, so Birth of Shadows isn’t as engaging as other role-playing games. There are skirmish maps for single missions you can play alone or over a network (with a known IP address). Cooperative play is pretty fun, although you need to communicate effectively so you don’t cast contradictory spells and that’s difficult to do in real-time. There are currently only four maps, but more are planned to be released in the future. There might also be some maps coming from the map editor that ships with the game, so while Birth of Shadows doesn’t come with much non-campaign content, the prospects are promising.

Birth of Shadows is a magic-only game, so all of your conflicts will take place from a distance. You can only cast one spell every two seconds (no matter which spells they are) and some (but certainly not most) spells come with recharge times. There isn’t mana in the game, so as long as your spells aren’t cooling down, you can keep on casting spells every two seconds. Because of this fixed time limitation, you would think Birth of Shadows would allow you to queue up spells, especially since so many spells work in concert with each other. But, sadly, this is not the case: you can only press spell buttons after the two second limit has passed, making combat much more tedious than it needs to be. Birth of Shadows also lacks any type of auto-targeting, so you must click on an enemy unit before casting any spells. As for the spells themselves, there are a good number of them (sixteen to be exact) that are introduced gradually as you begin a new campaign. Giving you new tools one at a time is a good design choice, as it would be quite overwhelming to begin with sixteen spells and not really know how to use them. The spells also compliment each other well; for example, a spell that steals enemy rage can be cast before a spell that causes more damage with increased player rage. Spells include the usual health/armor/speed buffs and debuffs, area damage, nightmares that cause your character to disappear, and pets that can attack enemy units. While these run the gamut of the types of spells you will encounter in any role-playing game, there could still be more and you’re not able to customize your character with specific spells as you gain experience.

As you attack enemy units (and get attacked), rage increases, which makes subsequent attacks more effective. Rage is the replacement for mana, I suppose, and it works well as an additional “resource.” You’ll want to attack with rage, but rage is gained from being hurt, so stealing rage from opponents is a powerful (and almost required) tactic. Birth of Shadows also has enemies that are immune to certain spells, so you’ll have to come up with a variety of different attack strategies to make it through the game: using pets, canceling enemy spells, draining life, increasing armor, freezing enemy attacks with fear, and so on. The basic gameplay works well, though it is a bit repetitive when you’re fighting the same enemy types. Casting spells is done through clicking; once you’ve selected an enemy unit, you’ll spend the rest of the time at the bottom of the screen choosing (but, again, not queuing) spells. The game plays out in real-time but you can pause the action; battling several foes at once can be an arduous task. The user interface of Birth of Shadows uses good tool-tips and you can move informational overlays around the screen. Characters also feature good pathfinding: clicking on a far-away location will move your knight there, although they might get attacked along the way and the game gives no indication of this. Like most role-playing games, Birth of Shadows features some stat tracking, keeping track of how good you are against certain enemies. And if you aren’t that good against certain enemies, you’ll appear back at the central respawn point with no penalty for death. In an odd twist, Birth of Shadows has no character customization, typically a defining feature and large part of role-playing games. You’ll unlock the spells in the order the game chooses for you, and there are no health or rage or damage improvements along the way, other than fixed ones the game gives you. It’s very strange to play a game with such a fixed system, since most games nowadays open up character customization options.

IN CLOSING
Like Pursuit of Power, Birth of Shadows has a solid foundation but misses in the features department. Though the spells are limited in quantity, they are balanced well and executing a string of spells successfully is fun, resulting in generally appealing gameplay. The campaign is lengthy and will keep you playing for a while. The game only comes with four skirmish maps, but a map editor and future patches will remedy this situation. The graphics are behind the times, but system requirements are very low: Birth of Shadows would probably run smoothly on the ENIAC. But there are several annoyances that add up to a game that only devoted role-players will enjoy: no spell queuing, no character experience upgrades, and repetitive combat once you learn the best sequence of spells. It’s these missteps that make Birth of Shadows only mildly interesting, but the game is streamlined so it could serve as a simplified introduction to the genre. In the end, Birth of Shadows is a couple of improvements away from being a satisfying experience.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul Review

Savage 2: A Tortured Soul, developed and published by S2 Games.
The Good: Unique gameplay amalgamation is fantastic and fresh, each class has its role, interesting melee combat system, stalemate avoidance, cheap price and a free five-hour demo
The Not So Good: No manual means a steep learning curve, occasional lag and connection issues
What say you? A stellar action role-playing strategy shooter…thing: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
We’re getting very close to the point where we will see a game that combines every single computer gaming genre. And that will be one long acronym. Adding role-playing conventions to shooters or strategy games is becoming very popular, especially with the success of massively multiplayer online games (or, as the kids call them, FUBAR). So here comes Savage 2: A Tortured Soul (there was a Savage 1? Why was I not informed?), a mix of (deep breath) first person shooters, role-playing games, and real-time strategy. I’m guessing one of two things will happen: the game will be a great mixture that takes advantage of disparate genres, or a complete unfocused mess. Let’s find out which!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Savage 2 has comparable graphics to any recent role-playing game, though it lacks the obscene polish of contemporary first person shooters. The characters have nice detail: the dream catcher on the back of the summoner, the dwarf–like builder, and the giant behemoth. Character models are varied between classes and designed well: it’s easy to spot a particular class at a distance. Spells also come with pleasing effects, especially the more powerful effects that feel like magic rather than a simple light show. I also like the ominous sign of a hell spawn unit: the sky turns dark and glowing ash falls from above. The environments, however, are a generally bland and undetailed mix of green maps; there are trees and buildings and such, but when you compare the attention to detail found in games like Call of Duty 4 to Savage 2, it’s a bit disappointing. But at least the game will run fine on most everyone’s system. The audio in the game is typical for whatever genres Savage 2 would like to claim: voice notification of events, good background music (I especially like the first ~30 seconds of the menu theme), and a voiced tutorial (though it sounds like “some guy” instead of an in-game character…out of place for a fantasy setting). I’m not one to focus on graphics and sound anyway as long as they don’t negatively impact the gameplay, so Savage 2 certainly looks and sounds good enough for my tastes.

ET AL.
Savage 2: A Tortured Soul is an online team-based game that combines several genres into a coherent package. The game currently features only one game mode, where you must destroy the enemy base, but more are apparently planned for future updates. You can play the game for free with a handful of limitations for five hours; after that, it’s $30 for a lifetime membership with no monthly fees, which is pretty cheap. Savage 2 also archives replays of every game ever played (how much hard drive space does that take up?): an impressive feature. Savage 2 also keeps persistent stats; while they don’t provide any in-game bonuses (thank goodness), they do determine which servers you can join. Currently, there are beginners servers for levels 1 through 4, and veteran servers for levels 5 and above. As more people purchase the game, the veteran servers are becoming more populated and games are generally a lot more organized there. This keeps the new players from being completely dominated as they are learning the game. Games are easy to join using the in-game browser, though the filters always default to show all severs even if you filtered out full and empty ones the last time you played. Savage 2 is also has modding support: the interface is in XML and the game ships with a map editor, expanding upon the paltry amount of maps that ship with the game. I should also mention that Savage 2 has no intro movies; it’s been quite a while since I’ve played a game I didn’t need to wait or press “escape” before starting. Since Savage 2 is a different breed of game and it takes a while to learn each class and the appropriate strategies, it is an absolute travesty that the game lacks a manual. There is a tutorial, but it lasts too long so you can’t remember specifics. This makes getting into the game a lot more difficult than it should be. You can scour the official message boards looking for threads that explain the basics, but this should not be necessary. Also, leaving before a match is over gives you a loss. I realize why they do it, but since I have a baby daughter, I have to quit in the middle of the game quite often, and it's left me with a less than desirable win-loss record.

Each round, a commander is voted into office and he/she plays the game in a real-time strategy mode. Commanders can use the team income (derived from mines) to build structures, recruit builder units that are not autonomous, and cast spells on friendly and enemy units. Savage 2 features a pretty linear technology tree: mines for income, garrisons for forward spawn points, an armory for advanced weapons, defensive towers, and three buildings to unlock better units. Players can earn gold by killing enemy units, which in turn can be pooled to help construct buildings. Builder units can construct mines on their own, but the rest of the buildings aren’t available for regular players unless there is no commander. The commander must decide whether to focus on defenses, more powerful units, or expansion, so the limited technology tree doesn’t limit strategic choices. The spells involve giving or taking away health, armor, and speed; in a close battle, the commander can intervene and give his squad a slight upper hand. The commander can also revive fallen allies and reveal the fog of war. The limiting factor for using spells is the cooldown time that prevents spamming. Commanding is almost like a completely separate game and it’s fun most of the time; occasionally it can get boring as you wait for money to build up, but casting spells can fill the void.

Both races in Savage 2 feature pretty much the same units: a construction unit, a scouting unit, an infantry unit, a tank unit, a healer unit, two siege units, and two powerful units unlocked by spending kills. Most units in the game have a melee attack, a ranged attack, a couple of area spells, and a special action (squad leaders also get a spawn point they can place). The beasts and the humans do differ somewhat on their spells and such, but in general the classes are the same and have a specific role in the game. You can change your class during the game between respawns based on your team’s strategy and which classes everyone else is playing. More powerful units cost additional gold to play, so keeping them alive is important. Your respawn time, by the way, is tied to your economy, so if you are losing badly, it’ll take a while to respawn. This tends to shorten the end-game once there is a team with a clear advantage. Each unit is rated in several areas: health, mana, stamina, armor, and experience. Kills, in addition to performing certain tasks like casting spells or repairing structures, give experience; when you level up, you are given attribute points to improve your base stats (health, mana, stamina, damage from spells, attack damage). These improves stats aren’t huge bonuses, but they do allow you to customize your character somewhat. Of course, if you choose to switch classes during the game, then you’ll be stuck with the upgrade path your chose. Items can also be bought to influence your stats: things like armor, health and mana potions, and speed increases. You can also collect small items from NPCs; persistent items that can be used in any future match will be implemented in a future patch.

The combat system of Savage 2 is slightly more advanced than simple attacking. While you can attack with the left mouse button, attacks can be blocked with the middle mouse button, and blocks can be blocked with the right mouse button. Blocking or blocking a block results in stunning the enemy, allowing you to get a couple of hits in before they recover. The melee system is a great way of introducing some skill (and luck) into the equation, although multi-person battles tend to just be mass attacking. Ranged attacks are performed simply by aiming and shooting, and spells are simple to cast as the game locks on appropriate targets near your cursor. I would have liked the interface to indicate the type of spell (friendly, enemy, attack, etc.) in the icon; I always have to check what they mean at the respawn screen since no information is provided in-game. Players can also place turrets and armor or mana depots, and some classes just involve area of effect spells. Savage 2 has a fast pace, though individual games average between 45 minutes and an hour, mainly because you’re always doing something. There is some running around on the larger maps, but forward spawn points are plentiful if you have good leaders. The game time could be reduced if the income rate was increased, but there is a limit to the game length since mines will eventually run out of gold, preventing teams from repairing structures and building replacements. Savage 2 plays like a first person shooter with spells and its gameplay is really fun if you can get a group to work together; this is much more likely on the veteran servers. People do need to work together since the classes are so specialized, but a squad with varied abilities working together can dominate a game. Savage 2 is one of those addictive online games that features a unique combination of gameplay elements. There have been some epic come-from-behind games I have been a part of, especially on the veteran servers with higher level players that are a lot more coordinated. Battling back against seige units and hell spawn, then raiding an enemy base for victory is a feat unmatched in many online gmaes. And now, for the bad news: I have had problems with lag in Savage 2, rendering the game essentially unplayable. It is very inconsistent, however; 80% of the time everything is fine, but there are usually one or two players on each server asking everyone else if they are lagging out. This is a problem in an online-only game, and hopefully a solution is not too far away.

IN CLOSING
I like Savage 2. The game features a polished combination of first person shooting action with role-playing spells. The commander mode, while alone is a somewhat superficial strategy game, is a fine change of pace as a component of Savage 2. While the effects and character models are good, the environments are bland and repetitive and could look more realistic. The specific classes require good teamwork in order to be successful. The online stat tracking (including replays of every game ever) and in-game experience model infuses some role-playing into Savage 2. Savage 2 reduces stalemating through finite gold supplies and increased respawn times for losing teams. When players are working together, the gameplay parts of Savage 2 assemble nicely to produce an exciting gameplay experience. Savage 2 is simply different and refreshing, something that sets it apart from more conventional games like Call of Duty 4. Savage 2 feels like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars: a couple of innovations makes for an interesting game, though I would say Savage 2 is a bit more original. There are a couple of problems with the game that keep it from earning a perfect score: occasional but annoying lag and the lack of a manual. Still, Savage 2 is certainly worth a download and it is a great effort from an independent developer at a cheap price.