Monday, July 28, 2008

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States Review

Gary Grigsby's War Between The States, developed by 2by3 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined unit management, a lot of the minutiae is automated, good AI opponent, robust rules options
The Not So Good: Overwhelmingly complex for novices, only three scenarios, inadequate interactive tutorials
What say you? Strategy buffs will enjoy this thorough take on the Civil War: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The American Civil War is the new World War II. Simply look at the flood of games addressing our new favorite time period: AGEod’s American Civil War, Forge of Freedom, Take Command: 2nd Manassas, plus a bunch of crappy titles I didn't even mention. Yes sir, the eternal struggle between the North and the South is popular, and it has been renewed once again in the form of Gary Grigsby's War Between The States. Obviously taking a Southern slant on the conflict, the folks at 2by3 Games, responsible for World at War and War in the Pacific, two titles known for their unflinching complexity. How will their approach affect action in the mid-1800s?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
War Between The States is not one of the most visually impressive grand strategy games, especially when you consider it against the fleet of AGEod titles. You can adjust the window size from the default 1024x768 to fill up more of the screen and display more of the map. The map lacks the flair of other 2-D maps with just a passable level of detail. Battles are conducted using simple bar graphs instead of at least some animation. Obviously, War Between The States isn’t going to win any prizes for graphical excellence. On the sound front, the game is not impressive here either: you get basic movement effects and period-specific background music that’s more understated than other games in the genre. A top-notch presentation is certainly not a requirement for a grand strategy game, especially one with wargame-like pedigree, but it would be a nice feature.

ET AL.
Gary Grigsby's War Between The States lets you control either the Union or Confederate side during the American Civil War. You can play the game against the AI or undergo a play-by-e-mail contest against another player. In addition, you can have the computer manage production if you'd like a more simplified game. Games can be customized by altering the difficulty level (which affects bonuses, positive and negative, to the players) and introducing advanced or additional rules like fog of war, leader ability randomization, and command point recovery. You can also adjust message delays, so you don't have to sit through five-minute-long computer turns. War Between The States comes with four in-game tutorials that only cover the basics and are not enough to understand what the heck is going on. Instead, you'll have to devote some time to watching the video tutorials and (gasp!) reading the manual. The game only comes with three scenarios with different start dates; War Between The States lacks ahistorical what-if missions or smaller map areas that only deal with, say, the western campaign. The lack of campaign variety does certainly limit replay value somewhat.

Wargames aren't exactly known for inviting user interfaces, but War Between The States takes some steps in the right direction. It is very easy to combine units: all of the units in a particular region are listed along the top of the screen, and a simple double-click will assign an independent militia force to a commander. In addition, using control-F will gather nearby units to the selected commander, bringing newly spawned forces to the frontlines with a simple press of a button: that's really cool and unquestionably helpful. Unit types are simplified, with straightforward types like “infantry,” “cavalry,” and “heavy artillery.” This means you don't have to worry about upgrading units with new weapons or any of that stuff your subordinates should be in charge of. Leaders, obviously, are an important aspect of your military force. Each leader is rated in a number of areas (speed, rank, command rating, attack, defense, infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, administration, training, mortality) that should be noted in order to maximize their effectiveness. Leaders are activated over time: each has a probability of appearing during each turn (month), and you can attempt to activate two leaders each turn (there are no options to automate this process, surprisingly). Leaders will automatically advance in rank through combat experience or troop training, and superior leaders can be appointed theatre or army commanders. Unit training is also done automatically (see a trend forming?), turning sub-standard militia into effective infantry. You can also morph (It's Morphin' Time!) infantry units into mounted ones if you have enough supplies.

Each turn (with represents a month) essentially consists of two phases, although there are a lot of things automated in the background: movement and production. You can also react to an enemy offensive during the appropriately-named reaction phase on occasion. Movement may be conducted in two ways: tactical (marching) or strategic (using railroads or transport ships). There are a lot of restrictions on movement, I suppose to represent strategic options that aren't available, but not allowing large stacks of units to move into an adjacent province even if they haven't done anything this turn is annoying. You can initiate cavalry scouting or raids in addition to the typical military operation. If the enemy forces are outnumbered 6:1 (or more), you will automatically win by overrun; otherwise, it's time for combat. Combat is a complex operation that is thankfully performed in the background (albeit slowly). There is a “whole bunch” (technical term) of variables used to compute the winner: committed units, combat modifiers, critical hits, attrition, and casualty checks, to name a few. After the bar graph display ends, damaged and captured units are calculated, units retreat, and experience is gained. Militia is automatically mobilized in invaded territory, but it will obviously not stand a chance against any organized force.

Since militia is automatically (there's that word again) created, production simply concerns making large, metallic units like artillery and ships. Each state has a number of factories that can produce things, and you can go through each city and queue up some orders. All additional production points can be used to make supplies by selecting an icon, a useful feature that doesn't make you scroll through each city. Supply is, again, automated, but you can make depots to bring things closer to the frontlines. Forts can also be quickly (a bit too quickly, in my opinion) constructed for defensive purposes. The naval aspect of War Between The States shouldn't be ignored, as a robust navy is important for blockades, amphibious transport, and raiding the aforementioned supplies.

So, how do you win? War Between The States uses political points (which are also used to determine the population needed for new militia units, the Presidential election, and the Emancipation Proclamation): first one to 0 loses. The Union can also lose if you don't win the 1864 Presidential election (which is tied to political points, so you probably would have lost anyway) or if the game lasts until July 1865. The AI seems to be a good opponent, using appropriate strategies that appear to be varied in successive games. There is some weird bug with tons of leaders appearing in each province, but I haven't seen this impact the gameplay much.

IN CLOSING
Gary Grigsby's War Between The States is designed with the strategy veteran in mind. The game is more approachable than previous 2by3 titles (War in the Pacific, specifically), but I still think it will ultimately appeal to players accustomed with these kinds of games. I definitely like how many things are automated in the game: unit training, leader advancement, supply, combat, militia recruitment. This makes it easier to control your side during the war. The game is also produces some accurate results, and the strategic value of the title can't be disputed. The video tutorials are almost exhaustive, if a bit dry to watch, but reading the manual is still, unfortunately, a must. The lack of scenario variety (only three historical campaigns) and the high level of complexity will turn some new players away. In the end, I like Forge of Freedom and AGEod’s American Civil War more, but War Between The States is still a generally solid title that will appease fans of the time period and genre.

Friday, July 25, 2008

City Life 2008 Edition Review

City Life 2008 Edition, developed by Monte Cristo Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: The ability to import height maps is nice
The Not So Good: 60 buildings and 10 maps? That’s it?
What say you? City Life returns with yet another stand-alone expansion that should have been a free patch: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
At least in my book, the stand-alone expansions for City Life are notorious for meager amounts of content. Take City Life World Edition, for example: the publisher of that game complained that I reviewed that title on its improvements alone instead of the product as a whole, even though I had previously reviewed the original game (that skiff led to the disclaimer at the top of the review). Well, City Life is at it again with the 2008 iteration of the series. Again, I am going to focus on the improvements made in this new version of the game rather than the title as a whole since I reviewed the original, so be prepared. And away we go!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
City Life 2008 Edition comes with 60 new buildings that make your cities look a little bit more varied. That’s all I could find.

ET AL.
A disturbing trend in computer gaming is charging for content in expansion packs that would have been offered as a free patch 10 years ago. City Life 2008 Edition certainly continues this disturbing trend by offering the aforementioned 60 buildings, 10 maps, and the importing greyscale bitmaps for realistic heights into the game. And that’s it. None of these changes impact the gameplay at all, resulting in the same overall product that was released three years ago. I expect expansion packs to add at least something substantial that enhances the gameplay, but City Life 2008 Edition comes with nothing. Despite the fact that you can now import real height maps into the game, the developers couldn’t be bothered with putting in more than a couple of actual locations to play in. This pretty much sums up the wholly unnecessary 2008 version of City Life. It’s nice to see they expect you to do all of the work instead of the developers you paid when you purchased the game.

IN CLOSING
Do I like City Life? Yes. Do I like the additions made by the 2008 edition? No. With quality expansion packs like In Nomine and Twilight of the Arnor, the bar has certainly been raised for what's expected in an expansion and City Life 2008 Edition does not deliver at all. This is a clear attempt to make some extra money by adding some inconsequential content to a two-year-old game. City Life 2008 Edition should have taken a cue from Children of the Nile and offered the upgrades as a free patch for existing owners; that would have resulted in a much more satisfying experience, rather than requiring everybody to pay $30 for some new buildings. Why is this review so short? Since the developers of City Life 2008 Edition have insulted us with this trivial amount of content, I am providing a trivial amount of commentary. It’s only fair.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition Review

Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition, developed and published by Tilted Mill Entertainment.
The Good: Advanced resource and needs relationships, right balance of automation, quick tutorial for those itching to play, many small improvements from the original release, scenario and campaign editors
The Not So Good: Almost trivially easy because buildings don’t cost anything other than basic collectible resources that can’t permanently run out nor require upkeep, sluggish pace can become tiresome, no intermediate mission objectives, default tutorials progress very slowly
What say you? A city builder that has partially stood the test of time: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The city builder used to be a thriving genre, with many notable titles numerous enough that I don’t have to spend time remembering their names since you should know them already. Anyway, one of those titles was Children of the Nile, the first of Tilted Mill’s efforts (which include Caesar IV and SimCity Socieites) that was apparently pretty good (I missed out on it). Since the improvements made in the Enhanced Edition are available as a free download for owners of the original game, I’m going to write this review for people unfamiliar with the city builder and evaluate the title as a whole. Sounds good? Glad to hear it!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Children of the Nile looked OK back in 2004 when it was released (3-D graphics!), and with a couple of animation and visual upgrades, it looks, well, like an OK game from 2004. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since the title will run on a wide range of systems, and I wasn’t really expecting a dramatic upgrade from a sub-expansion patch. You can get down to ground level and follow your villagers around as they do their daily tasks, which is a nice touch. Also neat is the small real-time view of the occupants when you click on a building. Voyeurism has never been so much fun! The terrain as a whole is pretty bland, with brown being the dominant hue. The user interface is essentially the same, with less-than-spectacular text menus for buildings and a lack of robust on-screen feedback. The sound consists of fitting background music with some quips by your residents and suitable construction noise. It’s not spectacular by any means here in 2008, but it’ll do.

ET AL.
Children of the Nile - Enhanced Edition comes with 20 scenarios that also comprise a campaign that unlocks an easy, medium, and hard scenario each time. The scenario list simply shows the name of the city you will control, and hides difficulty and objective information until you click on it: how archaic. Children of the Nile can be complex for beginners, so there are a number of tutorials to teach the basics of the game. The “normal” three-mission tutorial progresses very slowly since you can’t skip past instructions and the game is poor to detect when you’ve completed something. You’ll commonly sit there for minutes at a time staring at instructions on how to move the camera well after you’ve already done it. The Enhanced Edition adds a “quick start” tutorial that is far superior, as it quickly moves through the basics once you complete them, but it does leave a lot of content out you will need for the first easy scenario in the campaign. Children of the Nile comes with editors to make your own scenarios and campaigns, so it’s a bit odd that the Enhanced Edition didn’t ship with a bunch of user-created scenarios since the game has been out for four years. Each individual scenario takes a really long time to complete, so even with only twenty, you’ll be busy for a while.

Like most city builders, Children of the Nile gives you the task of constructing buildings to satisfy your citizens’ needs. The game is very well automated: all you need to do is place the appropriate buildings and your citizens will go collect supplies and manufacture their goods without intervention. This has benefits and drawbacks: while it makes the game easier to learn, you’ll commonly be sitting there waiting for buildings to finish and the basic game never gets more complicated than placing buildings. I suppose that’s all a city builder is, but a bit more variety is always appreciated. The reason why Children of the Nile tends to get boring is that you can’t really lose. Unlike most games where you have a budget to worry about, your buildings have no daily or annual upkeep cost and no purchase price other than bricks. You can plop down 100 buildings without penalty and simply wait for resources to accumulate, so as long as you place them in the correct order to satisfy needs, then you’ll do OK. Just spam a whole bunch of brick makers and bricklayers (which are both free) and sit back and wait. As you can see, strategy really has nothing to do with it, which is very disappointing. Maybe this is the problem with going back and playing a game after you’ve experienced more sophisticated sequels, but it is what it is.

Each citizen has a set of basic needs that must be fulfilled. Farmers grow food, shopkeepers produce goods, priests perform a range of services (medicine, worship, burial, education), military troops provide security, and entertainers are to be laughed at. There is a flow chart of education, as people progress from simple villagers to educated priests and scribes. Still, as long as you have the right structures close enough to the people that need them, you’ll be fine. Children of the Nile assumes you remember everything from the manual and tutorials, as tool-tips are short and the missions don’t provide any objectives other than the overall goal. One thing I liked in Imperium Romanum was the intermediate objectives that served as a sort of tutorial to guide you towards your overall goal. Sadly, Children of the Nile lacks this feature, so you are left having to remember all of the resource and needs relationships as you progress. The interface could be better designed: all of your citizens are organized in an approval list (a good feature), but it displays green even if they have one or two key areas of need. This makes it so that you need to constantly monitor each building in your village, something that the people report was supposed to eliminate. There’s a new icon that shows buildings that have no problems, but you still need to click through all of the others to see what the troubles are. For a game that features so much great automation, this annoying amount of micromanagement and tedium is quite unwelcome.

The basic mechanics of Children of the Nile can be quite interesting, with sophisticated and numerous needs by each of your residents. The game progresses very slowly, however: even at the maximum accelerated rate (2.5x), it was still sitting around waiting for bricks to accumulate with an entire city essentially queued up for success. There are some minor wrinkles to the time elements that make the game somewhat intriguing: you can introduce trade with outside cities, there are planting and harvesting seasons (along with damaging floods), and edicts can be issued to provide bonuses with a tradeoff. In addition to the basic suite of buildings, you can decorate your cities with plazas, gardens, and temples. These increase your town’s prestige in addition to usually fulfilling a scenario objective. Roads can also be constructed to make a more realistic town, and the Enhanced Edition’s roads make travel faster (surprising that they were merely cosmetic before). The Enhanced Edition also brings a whole bunch (48) of bug fixes, and I must say that playing Children of the Nile has been very stable with no noticeable problems whatsoever. How many games can you say that about? It also comes with a handful of new plazas and other decorative features and the brickyard to make construction even easier and faster.

IN CLOSING
I’m not sure what all the hubbub was about, because I’m not really that impressed with Children of the Nile. Maybe it’s because I’m playing the game four years after it came out, but the game appears to be too easy to provide much of a challenge. There are a lot of needs to attend do, but it’s simply a matter of choosing the right structure. The best thing about Children of the Nile is the amount of automation in the game, but it also holds the game back from being truly sophisticated. As long as you plop down the right buildings, everything will be run for you since villagers will collect resources automatically and all you need to worry about is proximity. Most buildings have no-cost, and the ones that do only cost bricks, which can be easily manufactured by placing no-cost brick makers and bricklayers. Where’s the challenge? I had the same problem with the SimCity series of games, but even they introduced some difficulty in balancing your budget early on. Children of the Nile removes any sort of trouble since most resource collecting buildings are free and those that require bricks have no other upkeep. The interface shows everything is OK with bright green lights even if there are a number of problem areas that need attention. The quick start tutorial is a great addition to the game, as it significantly speeds up the learning process. The twenty scenarios that are available either as stand-alone missions or linked in the campaign might not seem like a lot of content, but each one takes a long time to complete (thanks to the leisurely pace of the game) and the included editors allow you to make more. For $20, I might give this game a look at, but Children of the Nile – Enhanced Edition is too trivial for my tastes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shelled! Online Review

Shelled! Online, developed and published by Red Thumb Games.
The Good: Realistic physics, limited movement makes attacks easier and maneuvering strategic, deformable terrain, lots of varied weapons, multiple gameplay modes, easy to join online matches, straightforward controls, informative tutorials
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings for single player campaign or AI opponents, can’t adjust power scroll speed, weapon camera can’t be permanently minimized, low resolution graphics, maps aren’t random
What say you? One of the better arcade tank combat games: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’ve played my fair share of tank combat games: Tank Universal, Think Tanks, First Battalion, T-72, Battle Carry, DropTeam. Only one of them was any good (the last one) and they seem to be decently popular; now, we are presented with Shelled! Online. Disappointingly not an Internet-based lobster simulation, this combination of the classic game Scorched Earth, a 3-D environment, and Mario-like turtle shells looks to breathe some fresh air into a generally disappointing sub-genre. First person shooters seem to be getting all of the love, but why not jump into a heavily armored vehicle to wreak some havoc? Sounds like a good time had by all, except for the guy getting blown up. Will Shelled! Online resurrect the arcade tank game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Being from an independent developer, you wouldn’t expect the presentation of Shelled! Online to be groundbreaking, and it’s not! Shelled! Online is one of those Torque game engine titles, which typically means passable 3-D graphics (see here and here) with an independent look. The environments consist of a lot of circular hills with some peaks and rivers (very reminiscent of Kingmania, actually) and the tanks are tricked-out turtle shells of doom. The explosions, while repetitive (the tanks fly apart), are effective. The deformable terrain is nice (it also has a tactical benefit) and varies the landscape after intense matches. Shelled! Online has a maximum resolution of 1024x768, which is disappointing for users with widescreen or LCD monitors. While the game can be played in a window, increasing the resolution would result in a better overall look and not stretch the game in full-screen views. The game features a snazzy weapon camera that follows your shot; this a neat feature, but I wish there was an option to make it show the view in a mini-map (which is does once you click your mouse) instead of having to manually switch back to a view of your tank after every shot. The audio in Shelled! Online is very basic, with some explosions and other minor effects. I do like the background music, though: it is quite catchy without overriding the rest of the game. Overall, Shelled! Online delivers exactly what I was expecting for the presentation: average for an independent game.

ET AL.
A simpleton would say that Shelled! Online is merely Scorched Earth in 3-D, and they would be mostly correct: the object of the game is to set shot power and angle and launch exotic weapons at your opponents. The game comes with twenty single player missions with various objectives, such as destroying bases or gathering gold. They are an entertaining-for-a-while diversion from the focus of the game, which is the online competition. The missions can be quite hard, since it’s usually just you against a slew of tanks and stationary turrets; the lack of difficulty settings (that could have given you increased health, for example) makes trudging through the campaign a bit less desirable. In addition to competing against the AI in the scripted missions, you can encounter them in deathmatch-only skirmish games or on the online servers. The AI provides good practice for the online game as they can engage (and avoid) you pretty well, but their somewhat simplistic nature shines through during the team-based games as they don’t capture flags or bases too well. They do play fair, however, and playing against them is about the same as with other multiplayer-centric titles like Battlefield and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Like the campaign, the AI lacks difficulty settings, but they don’t really need to become any easier of an opponent.

As for the multiplayer aspect of Shelled! Online, the game features an integrated browser that makes it easy to join a match. All of the games I saw were hosted by the developer (one for each game type) and provided lag-free gameplay. The game types aren’t revolutionary by any means, but they do offer some variety: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, hunters and prey (tag, essentially), capture the hill (domination or conquest), and destroy the base. There are a number of maps to choose from, although there is only one map for the team-based modes. The maps also are not randomly generated (something that would be seemingly possible considering the game engine), but you are given random spawn points that mix up the action somewhat. The rounds are short (3 minutes), and this keeps the game from dragging. You are also able to create your own tank design, including color, body, head, tail, and feet (or have the computer generate one for you), that will be used to represent you online: a nice feature.

Controlling your tank is standard fare if you’re accustomed to any first person shooter, using the mouse/keyboard combination we all know and love or the depraved XBOX controller. Your tank can move in three dimensions using a jet pack that adds some interesting strategy to the mix. Shelled! Online is entrenched in physics, which means you have to aim above your target in order to hit it. As you will all no doubt recall from physics class, a 45 degree angle will result in the largest distance traveled, but you also have to consider obstacles that may be in your way: the deformable terrain has a nasty habit of placing craters everywhere. The game displays your last shot power level visually; this makes is very easy to make small adjustments to your next shot. The power bar slowly creeps up the scale, and you depress the mouse button when you have reached the desired level. I’d like to have an option to change the speed at which the power increases for all players, but I understand why the design decision was made (to compliment the movement…see below).

Shelled! Online is a real-time game with a turn-based pace thanks to the movement rules: you have limited fuel and must wait until your fuel fully recharges before you can move again. While some people who enjoy twitch shooters will find this very handicapping, I like how it adds dramatically to the overall strategy in the game. There are definitely some tense moments as you are hunkered down in a crater (or, worse, at the top of a hill where everyone can see you) waiting for your fuel to accumulate. Shelled! Online comes with a lot of weapons to choose from: multiple shots, big shots, nukes (really big shots), diggers, mines, freezing, rockets, shrapnel, and first aid for teammates. These are purchased by using cash you earn by blowing up other tanks or collecting gold shells randomly scattered around the level (the single player mode gives you weapons at the beginning of each level only). In addition to simply launching shells at enemies and hitting them, you can smack them in mid-air (you can detonate a shell prematurely by pressing the right mouse button) or ram into them. When a shot is taken, the game jumps to a view of your shell as it flies through the air. While this is nice to look at and a good planning tool, it makes moving and shooting at the same time difficult. Thankfully, once you press the left mouse button to exit the view, it shows the remainder of the track as a small window in the corner of the screen. As I mentioned earlier, I’d like the option to turn this on first if the player so chooses. Overall, Shelled! Online is a fun tactical action game that strikes a good balance between turn-based planning and real-time chaos. It does take some practice to learn how far the shells fly at certain power levels, but after a while you’ll get the hang of it. Making a difficult shot is a rewarding feeling, whether it’s against human opponents or the AI. All of the issues I have with Shelled! Online are minor at best, as the game is quite solid as a whole.

IN CLOSING
Don’t be fooled by the comparatively simple 3-D presentation: there’s an addictive action game contained in Shelled! Online. It takes the best aspects of Scorched Earth and adds in a 3-D environment, tons of weapons, and methodical real-time gameplay. Gamers who enjoy fast-paced games won’t like Shelled! Online, but I do enjoy the tense limited movement and physics-based mechanics. I think if the game looked more like a AAA title, then more people would be drawn to its infectious gameplay. There are a handful of small improvements that could be made to polish up the game, but the title is good enough to be quite enjoyable.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ancient Quest of Saqqarah Review

Ancient Quest of Saqqarah, developed and published by Codeminion.
The Good: Many variations on the basic match-three mechanic, lots of puzzles with diverse layouts, don’t need to complete a game type to unlock the next, good presentation for the genre, subtle hint system
The Not So Good: Not a fan of the bonus rounds
What say you? Variety highlights this impressive match-three puzzle game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
We all know the match-three game: move stuff around and get adjoining webs, superheroes, gems, more gems, records, blocks, or music. Blah blah blah. Most of the titles in the genre are one-note offerings with repetitive gameplay that will surely bore you to tears within minutes. But wait! Codeminion returns with their “major puzzle game” entitled Ancient Quest of Saqqarah, or Saqqarah for short (wonder if he got picked on as a child for that crazy name?). All right, Ancient Quest of Saqqarah, do your best to take me out of my match-three-induced slumber.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a match-three puzzle game, Ancient Quest of Saqqarah offers up an above-average presentation. While the game is in 2-D, I certainly don’t have a problem with that as long as the game looks decent, which Saqqarah certainly does. The game is full of effects from making matches and a straightforward interface that makes navigating the game easy as pie (pumpkin is my favorite). The colors are distinct and the completed sections of each puzzle are clearly marked in two ways: by highlighting the path and the background, Saqqarah makes sure you know where you need to make matches next. Even better than the graphics is the sound. Ancient Quest of Saqqarah comes with fitting Egyptian background music and some great effects, such as when tiles hit the ground and excited reactions when you make impressively large matches. The voice acting is a bit over the top, but that’s nothing to complain about. Overall, the presentation of Ancient Quest of Saqqarah is well-done.

ET AL.
While Ancient Quest of Saqqarah (I think that's the last time I'm going to use the full name...unless the review looks short) is, at its heart, a run-of-the-mill match-three puzzle game, the title introduces a level of unmatched variety that makes it stand out. Your goal in each puzzle is to make a match along each path on the board, and since the boards have some interesting arrangements, this is an interesting task beyond a simple high score or clear the board objective. There are seven different flavors of matching in Saqqarah, each of which has 24 unique layouts for each of the three difficulty levels: that's 504 puzzles total (I did the math).

So, what are the seven varieties? “Swap” is the standard move-adjacent-gems mode that we've seen before. “Logic” mode gives you no new gems and you must switch existing pieces to make matches in each of the shapes of the game: I like it. “Pop” mode requires the least amount of thinking, as you just need to click on a match and it disappears: no moving required. It's odd, then, that “pop” is one of the last ones to unlock, since it seems more appropriate for beginners. “Select” requires you to trace a path over an existing match: an advanced version of “pop.” “Paths” requires you to move gems along a clear path to an open spot and new ones spawn if you don't make a match; this is one of the more difficult offerings that requires a lot of planning. Thankfully, you are shown the new gems that will spawn in the next turn, and that makes planning easier. “Rotate” makes you click on shapes to rotate (surprise!) the gems around them to make matches. And, finally, “in hand” swaps a given tile to make matches, sort of like Tetris. The sheer amount of variety in Saqqarah is awesome and the different modes prevent the game from getting repetitive, as a lot of puzzles games tend to do.

Thankfully, you don't need to complete all 52 levels in a series to unlock the next (or even 24 at the easiest difficulty level): just four will do it. That means you won't be spending much time at all on the puzzle types you hate before you can move on to the next. What a great feature. My only complaint about Saqqarah is the bonus rounds: I don't like them. It involves searching for hieroglyphs and I think it's too different from the base gameplay and does not flow well with the remainder of the title. Of course, if Saqqarah did not feature some change of pace, I'd probably complain about that, too. You can never win!

IN CLOSING
How many ways can you do a match-three game? Apparently more than I thought, and Saqqarah packs them all in to one game. This game features the most variety of any matching game I can remember, with seven distinct versions of the classic mechanic to choose from. The 504 puzzles aren't simply repeats of the previous level with a slightly more difficult goal: they are genuinely different. The layouts are also varied, and the objective of matching matches all across the board is more advanced than simply clearing the level of getting a minimum score. The presentation is top-notch, thanks to memorable sound and pleasing graphics. This, my friends, is how you do a match-three puzzle game. If you have any interest in the genre, then Ancient Quest of Saqqarah should be at the top of your list.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pro Cycling Manager 2008 Review

Pro Cycling Manager 2008, developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Interesting strategic gameplay, around 400 stages to choose from including the full Tour de France, comprehensive team career mode, fun and easy to join multiplayer, track racing adds some variety, course and rider editors
The Not So Good: Initially long load times, shallow tutorials don’t cover general race strategy or career mode, deliberate pace won’t appeal to some, repetitive commentary, minor bugs
What say you? You can’t find a more complete cycling management simulation, but it is quite a niche product: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The month of July brings Le Tour de France, a French phrase that means “I am the State.” The most prominent cycling event in the world features heart-pounding excitement and non-sexual uses of the world “peloton.” The Pro Cycling Manager series has been around for several iterations since the first game in 2001, showing the European obsession with both sports management games and cycling. Rather than doing all of the cycling yourself, Pro Cycling Manager puts you in charge of a team of riders that will work together to finish well and bring in huge stacks of cash. I downloaded the demo of last year’s version so I am somewhat familiar with the game, and as both a sports fan and a strategy gamer I find the premise interesting. Will Pro Cycling Manager 2008 race to a podium finish, or crash in a spectacular display of ineptitude?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics are improved over last year’s, featuring almost believable terrain and quality rider animations. While the bikes look somewhat out of place with 2-D tires, the riders look good with some fancy lighting effects and a pack of cyclists is visually impressive. The locales are generated automatically according to the 2-D height profile, so France looks the same as Georgia and Australia, but there is some variety in the towns and crops you will travel through. I’m not expecting accurate geography, especially when the game includes 400 stages from around the world, but having region-specific graphics would be nice. Obviously these improved graphics come at a price, as the system requirements have been increased, so low-end machines might have trouble with the 3-D races. Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does feature some very long load times: you can wait upwards of several minutes before jumping into the race. Fortunately, the game does cache each locale for future use, if you so happen to visit the same stage. Of course, with 400 stages to choose from, this feature is somewhat superfluous. The sound design is just average: some generic background music (which I quickly turned down) and the incessant whine of bicycles dominate the title. The commentary in the game is annoyingly loud, abrupt, and repetitive, consisting of ten phrases total (I don’t know how the commentary folder has almost 2,000 files, because the game certainly doesn’t use them all). At least almost every rider is mentioned by name. Overall, I found the graphics and sound of Pro Cycling Manager 2008 to be pleasant enough, though, as the game does a good enough job of immersing you into the gameplay.

ET AL.
In Pro Cycling Manager 2008, you are the manager of a pro cycling team (imagine that!), no doubt in the year 2008. The game features some very basic tutorials that only touch on the basics of the game, such as counter-attacks and setting the pace. More advanced maneuvers, in addition to navigating through the career mode, are only covered in the manual, and we all know reading is for suckers. The tutorial also doesn't tell you basic race strategy for those unaccustomed to cycling (such as myself) who may not know when is a good time to attack during a race. The manual also references a non-existent blue bar on occasion, adding to the confusion. Once thing Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does not lack is racing content. The game features around 65 multi-stage races (the game calls them “stages,” which is really confusing since I thought they are made up of stages), 400 individual stages (which the game calls “stage races”) from those events, and over 80 classic stages from the past. All of these stages have seemingly authentic elevation information that results in quite a large variety of strategy. In addition to classic road-course-based racing, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 adds in track racing against other drivers (like in the Olympics) where you directly control one competitor's effort level and steering. It's a nice diversion from the main focus of the game and typically results in some exciting, close racing.

If the default content isn't enough, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 features a couple of editors that allow you to create custom riders (for filling out the few missing real-world riders) and races from existing events. You can also edit stages yourself, since they are simple XML files, so the game is really quite unlimited in its potential. The career mode lets you control a single team on its way to world domination. You will have to control your finances by signing sponsors and adjusting rider contracts, scout new talent around the globe, and improve your existing squad by running training camps. There is certainly enough here to keep you busy for quite a while if you are more interested in a longer experience. Also, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 uses an outside program (by the same developer) for multiplayer matches that are both fun and easy to join. It's always better to play against unpredictable human opponents rather than the boring ol' AI, so it's nice to see well-implemented multiplayer.

So the features are robust, how about the gameplay? The races of Pro Cycling Manager 2008 play out like a simple strategy game where you, as team director, will instruct your riders when to attack and when to conserve. Before each race, you will need to assign a team leader, team-mates to back him up, a sprinter for capturing points, and free riders to do their own thing. During the race, each driver will be given a maximum effort level and an order. You won't actually control any rider directly (except in the track racing mode), but the AI will follow your orders well. Orders include holding position, applying a specific effort level, relaying to the front of the pack, feeding, attacks, counter-attacks, and sprints. While this isn’t a whole lot to choose from and you don’t have the direct control over your riders that a lot of micromanagers would like, it is enough to run a race. Each rider has three energy bars: green for the entire race, yellow for high-speed sections, and red for attacks. In order to break away from the peloton (the gigantic group of riders where almost everyone hangs out), you'll need to have almost full yellow and red bars. The strategy comes in when you attack: you have to consider how much energy an attack will use (your rider will not be able to hold a fast pace for the entire race), the upcoming geography (attacking on a hill is tough), your rider's stats (some are better on flat sections), and other factors. It's pretty interesting, I think, since most of the tracks don't have obvious places to attack and the races play out differently each time. The peloton will also increase its pace near the end of the race, so you don’t want to wait too long to launch an attack. The AI does a good job offering up varied attacks, but they can be beaten if you execute a sound strategy. Your computer opponents also do a good job at being conservative in the first couple of stages of an event and going for it all later on when it counts. It took me a couple of races to find out how often and how hard you can attack (since the tutorials and manual don't really cover this), but once I got the hang of it, Pro Cycling Manager 2008 provided some good action. You have more options during sprints (adjusting aggressiveness), but in general you will be simply messing with hold, go to front, or attack commands. Reacting to other riders and planning out your race can be quite fun, if you enjoy these kinds of games. Thankfully, the game does not unfold in real time (even at the slowest setting), and you can accelerate the game even further in single player mode to get past those boring times when you aren't planning anything. Pro Cycling Manager 2008 does suffer from some sporadic bugs, such as deleting messages and adjusting efforts when multiple riders are selected, but these aren't major by any means.

IN CLOSING
Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is designed well, but you have to like cycling to enjoy the game to its fullest. Because of this, I think Pro Cycling Manager 2008 lacks the widespread appeal that would bring newcomers to the series that aren't already accustomed to the sport, but maybe the Tour de France will drum up interest and bring some more fans into the fold. What you get in Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is a fine elementary strategy game where you must decide the right time for an attack. Although your options are realistically limited since you can't directly control your riders, the limited options of attack and hold makes the game easy to learn, even with the inadequate tutorial and manual. The game certainly has a lot of content, with over 400 races to choose from, including the granddaddy of them all, and the roster of cyclists seems to be pretty complete as well. The addition of track racing is neat as well, and it’s a highlight of the overall package thanks to its interesting mechanics. While the sound design is unimpressive, the graphics are good enough to a sports management title. If you are looking for a complete cycling game, then Pro Cycling Manager 2008 is for you. However, the unique focus makes the game a little tough to recommend to a widespread audience.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Political Machine 2008 Review

The Political Machine 2008, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Fairly straightforward strategic gameplay, lots of issues, flexible custom candidate editor and a bunch of real-world candidates, competitive AI on higher settings, easy to join multiplayer, use of negative ads is improved
The Not So Good: No core gameplay changes from the four-year-old original, only one historical scenario and no map editor makes the game repetitive, redundant map views, non-interactive tutorials
What say you? One election later, the political simulation returns with new graphics and not much else: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Apparently, there is a presidential election coming up. Yeah, I know, they hardly ever mention it on the news. Along with a new election comes new computer games about the election, and the more casual The Political Machine has returned with a 2008 version for your campaigning enjoyment. While there are certainly disturbingly in-depth simulations available, The Political Machine series has tried to broaden its audience with colorful graphics and more straightforward voter manipulation. How has four more years treated the series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Clearly, the area that has gotten the most improvement in The Political Machine 2008 is the graphics. The game is now rendered using all three dimensions, from the base map to the characters and various things you will place in each state. There is a cartoon atmosphere to the game as exemplified by the character models: big heads, small bodies, and exaggerated features show that The Political Machine 2008 certainly does not take itself too seriously. The game does look better than its predecessor, and being able to zoom in and rotate the map makes finding the elements in each state a lot easier, especially since it can get quite crowded at the end of the game with ads, activists, and operatives. Overall, I am pleased with the graphical upgrade and the game looks much better than the more hardcore political simulations on the market. While the sound effects are minimal at best (just some small celebrations when you give a speech) and none of the in-game interviews are voiced, the game music is catchy and goes along well with the graphics. The Political Machine 2008 does deliver at least $20 worth of value in the well-done presentation.

ET AL.
The goal (obviously) of The Political Machine 2008 is to win the presidential election by accumulating the most electoral votes across the fifty states. The campaign model from before is intact: choose any of the initially unlocked candidates and progress through six increasingly more difficult opponents. Making your way through the campaign unlocks additions characters (once you defeat them), so there is a point. All of the campaign games use default values, but you can customize the game through the quick play mode. The game length, starting funds, and overall difficulty can be customized, in addition to choosing one of four maps: the 2008 U.S. election, the 1860 election, a unification of Europe, and a fictitious planet based on the Galactic Civilizations universe. This is certainly more content than the previous game (which only featured one map, if I remember correctly), but having more historical scenarios would be a good feature. Why have Bill Clinton if you can’t play any of the elections he was actually involved in? It seems like shifting electoral votes around and changing the important issues would be relatively easy to do, so it’s surprising that The Political Machine 2008 doesn’t offer more historical content. Having more maps, especially the United States from the 18th or early 20th centuries, would be cool, but The Political Machine 2008 lacks a lot of maps and doesn’t feature a map editor so that you can create your own. This means you will use the same exact strategy each time you play the same map, focusing on the same states. In addition, The Political Machine 2008 doesn’t have a primary system, even with the extremely long (121 turn) scenarios. It would be cool to have several Democrats and Republicans playing in the same scenario (this would also allow for more than two competitors in multiplayer), but, again, four addition years of development did not add very many new features.

However, one new feature is the custom candidate editor. Before, you could alter a text file and import a bitmap image to add new people to the game, but The Political Machine 2008 lets you do this in-game now. You can choose the name, party, and home state, in addition to a number of characteristics that will impact the game: stamina (the number of actions you can perform per turn), wealth, fund raising ability, charisma (for ads and speeches), comeliness (TV appearances), credibility (for negative ads), experience (cost of endorsements), and intelligence (number of responses for TV). You are limited in the number of total points you can allocate, so you cannot create a super-candidate. You can also set your initial stance on a variety of issues; since you do not know exactly which issues are going to be most important, it’s somewhat of a stab in the dark. The Political Machine 2008 also offers a number of body parts to choose from to customize your look: very cool. Multiplayer in The Political Machine 2008 is the same as before: easy to join one-on-one matches using an in-game browser. Turn length settings can be introduced to speed up the action, and games against human competition are generally enjoyable.

So, how do you get those precious 270 electoral votes? Essentially, you make the voters aware of your stance on the most important issues to them. Simply visiting a state, giving speeches, or placing advertisements can increase general awareness. Each state will have different issues of importance, so you can target specific battleground states or place national advertisements for nationally significant matters. The Political Machine 2008 gives you clear numbers and icons on your candidate’s standing in each state, along with the alignment of each party for every issue. National polls are less concrete as you are given percentages, the meaning of which is never clearly explained. The first thing you’ll want to do is establish campaign headquarters in key states: these will not only bring in weekly income, but they will increase your candidate’s awareness and show you the important issues for the state. You can also place consulting offices that will give political capital (used to hire operatives) and outreach centers for PR clout (used to gain endorsements). Any of these buildings can be upgraded, which brings in more income and information. Speeches will produce a large increase in your stance ratings on a specific issue, while ads will have a more gradual effect over time. You can do negative ads in the game; before, there wasn’t much difference between saying “I like cheese” and “my opponent hates cheese,” but now your credibility rating will affect the effectiveness of negative ads. More expensive advertisements (radio and TV) reach more states and should be used for nationally important issues.

You will have to fund all of these ads (and travel expenses), so fund raising rallies can be activated for a short-term cash solution. Endorsements produce a short-term, issue-specific boost to your ratings (like the NRA will affect gun control), but they are clearly separated by party lines so you are never fighting your opponent over them, which makes them not that interesting. Activists, which can be activated by visiting a state with a question mark, will provide a permanent positive or negative bonus to that particular state. You can also hire operatives, which will raise and lower stuff like awareness and issue ratings in the states you choose. There are a couple of new operatives in The Political Machine 2008, but they do not drastically improve the gameplay. You will also go on TV for interviews, going head-to-head against knock-offs of Stephen Colbert and Larry King. All of these things were present in the original game, and the same interface problems are still around: why do we need both polling data and popular vote, as they show the same thing? The map overlays could be combined better or streamlined, and it seems the developers took the easy way out by keeping information delivery the same. The overall strategy remains the same: lower opponent awareness while raising your own, and push your issues while downplaying theirs. Because of this, games in The Political Machine 2008 play out exactly the same as before, since this newer version doesn’t offer anything that changes the gameplay. Stardock has done expansions that change the game more a year or two after the original was released than this four-years-later offering. The AI is very solid (a hallmark of any Stardock game) and a good opponent that clearly understands the mechanics, but the feeling of déjà vu never disappears. When you finish your game, you are treated to the same bare presentation as before: states slowly light up with no ongoing suspense. Where are the “close calls” like Ohio or Florida? Where is the media coverage? This sums up The Political Machine 2008: a four-year wait for these underwhelming improvements?

IN CLOSING
While The Political Machine 2008 is clearly the most intuitive election simulation available on the market, geared towards a general audience, we’ve played this game before four years ago. The game offers more scenarios, but even more would reduce the repetition of the campaign. The way it is, you use the same strategy each time you play (since the same states will be most important: those with lots of votes and an even split of voters), so when you play one of the four maps once, you've played it enough. The additional operatives aren’t game changing and the presentation is definitely better, but these are minor improvements in my opinion. I do like the custom candidates and the appearances you can produce, but you could do that before with a text editor. Frankly, I was expecting much more. We get a lot of candidates to choose from, but why get Richard Nixon when you can’t play the 1960 election? Since the core gameplay is identical, you are much better off paying $5 for the 2004 version, because it’s almost exactly the same at this version (except for the graphics and new candidates). The Political Machine 2008 feels like one of those annual EA Sports games that improves the graphics and adds a new feature or two, rather than a game released four years after the original. There is room for a lot more improvement, even for a $20 price tag. Simply put, the enhancements made in The Political Machine 2008 aren’t worth it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Build In Time Review

Build In Time, developed and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Straightforward and informative interface, randomized customer requests, optional goals are neat, numerous upgrades, fitting music
The Not So Good: Very repetitive, speeding up construction is annoying, can’t queue build orders
What say you? A click management game that suffers from tedious gameplay: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the U.S. economy in a slump, one industry that has been hit hard is real estate. Homes are dirt-cheap (well, not that fancy store-bought dirt loaded with nutrients) and most likely your home isn’t worth what you paid for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time, when the economy was strong, men were men, and women were subservient? Say “hello” to Build In Time, a click management game where you build homes for people throughout American history, or at least the past 50 years of it. If only real homes were just a mouse click away. Is Build In Time a beautiful mansion of awesomeness, or a disappointing double-wide of failure?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The 2-D graphics offered up in Build In Time are OK. The caricatures of towns and streets are good enough to be functional, although obviously nobody will mistake them for real locations. The homes themselves could be a lot more detailed: it can be difficult to tell the difference between two styles; this not only makes your village look blander, but it also impacts the gameplay. There are some nice effects present in the game: the reactions of your customers when you complete their abode are humorous, and the interface is generally well designed, making it easy to navigate through the game. While the overall sound is average for the genre, I do like the period-specific music that adds to the theme of each era. So while Build In Time won’t win any awards for its presentation, the design is not complicated to handle and that’s all you really need in a click management title.

ET AL.
As the protagonist of Build In Time (you ARE Mark Retro), you are in charge of constructing new homes for customers. Each level corresponds to one year from 1950 to 2010 (how futuristic!) where you must complete each house in a timely manner before your customer storms off in a fit of rage. You are gradually introduced new game elements along the way, and each decade comes with a different interface theme. All customers will require a house of a specific color (as indicated by an icon next to their picture, and some houses will also need garages and decorations. Each of these steps must be completed one at a time, meaning you cannot queue your painting team up on a house that is under construction. While this does increase the difficulty of the game, it also makes Build In Time much harder to manage. Most click management games lets you execute three or four orders in a row, so that you can be better organized. However, Build In Time limits you to one order at a time per team, and that limitation feels arbitrarily restrictive. I mean, the FedEx guy knows about other packages in his truck; he doesn’t need to return to the depot after every delivery, right?

Customers have a satisfaction rating that slowly decreases over time: the quicker you build their home, the more profitable it is. Cash then can be spent on a number of upgrades: additional building or painting teams (since you can’t queue, they are a necessity), appliances to increase buyer approval, and new or upgraded designs to bring in more straight cash, homey. Build In Time makes it easy to tell which upgrades you can afford by highlighting them, so the upgrade procedure is very painless. In addition to simply building houses, you can also earn stars for earning a minimum amount of money or placing specific customers at specific locations on the map (like that cowboy that’s afraid of water). These optional side missions are a nice addition to the game. In addition, you can unlock a bonus if you put three houses of the same type, color, garage, or scenery item in a row. This bonus involves what I feel is the most annoying part of the game, and that’s speeding up production. In order to hurry along your workers, you can repeatedly click on the house to give a small boost towards completion. While this is a novel idea, it quickly becomes very irritating and not fun at all. And you have to do it, because if you don’t, you could potentially miss the customer deadlines. I would much rather be planning my layout to maximize bonuses and scores than clicking my left mouse button over and over again. The aforementioned three-in-a-row bonus speeds up production even more when you click on a house, so then you really need to do it. I just simply got tired of clicking after a while, and wanting to quit the game is never a good sign. The customer requests are randomized each time you play, so if there was a reason to play Build In Time over again, the layout would be different. But once you go through the game once, the game doesn’t really hold any replay value unless you really like it.

IN CLOSING
While the basics of Build In Time are fine, the game’s wearisome nature is a detriment to the overall experience. Not only is the game repetitive (as a lot of puzzle games tend to be), but also speeding up your work crews by clicking away on them is downright bothersome. That’s too bad, because the remainder of the game can be enjoyable if you are a fan of this genre. I really like how each request is randomized so that you never know what’s coming next, even if you play the same level over again. The overall time-based theme is well done, from the subtle changes in the interface to the musical shifts. There are many things to unlock and multiple components (up to four) to each construction project, but you can’t queue up all four in a row, which makes managing your company much more difficult. Build In Time is one of those games that has potential to be entertaining in many areas, but a couple of questionable design decisions makes the game less than enjoyable.

Friday, July 04, 2008

GRID Review

GRID, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Several racing styles, flashbacks are neat without being overused, total victory not required for advancement, joining multiplayer games is generally painless, aggressive AI, nice graphics, excellent sound design
The Not So Good: Semi-arcade driving model won’t appeal to everyone, a lot of previous Race Driver disciplines are missing like oval racing, fuzzy graphics return, pre-determined starting position, no car setup options
What say you? Codemasters’ second arcade racing reinvention fares much better: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
DiRT succeeded in screwing up a proud franchise: the Colin McRae rally games. Now we have GRID, the newest version of Codemasters' Race Driver series, another proud franchise which I enjoyed thanks to a wide variety of tracks and cars with believable physics. Competition is stiff on the PC for racing games: oval racers have ARCA Sim Racing, touring car fans have RACE 07, and variety comes in the form of Live for Speed and rFactor. DiRT suffered from a console-oriented design, from the mouse-free menus to the arcade physics to the lackluster multiplayer. While this may fly on the consoles (which, apparently, it did), we PC gamers need more than a simple arcade game. Of course, if it's fun, the lack of authenticity will be forgiven (see Trackmania for a stellar arcade racing game). Does GRID encounter the same pitfalls at the previous Codemasters reboot attempt?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
GRID looks, not surprisingly, a lot like DiRT, and that means overall excellence in graphics with a couple of shortcomings. The tracks and environments in the game look almost identical to their real-world counterparts, although racing aficionados will notice some subtle differences in layout (like those big giant arrows pointing the way). The cars are nicely detailed, and the best aspect of these is the outstanding damage model: from chipped paint to crashed windshields to missing bumpers, you will see the fruits of your poor driving labor. GRID continues the Codemasters obsession of having everything look fuzzy and out of focus for unknown reasons, which almost ruins all of the work that went into the graphics. Performance has gotten better, although there are sporadic periods of slow-down and overall I am pleased with how the game runs at high settings. The sound in GRID is fantastic: while the engine sounds are unimpressive, the rest of the audio is awesome. Running over curbs, crashing into things, slightly hitting a barrier: it all sounds great. It’s nice that an area that usually is overlooked gets more attention in GRID. Also, the game calls you by first name (assuming you have a semi-reasonable moniker), so that’s pretty cool. So while GRID continues the fuzzy graphics problem, the rest of the presentation is top-notch.

ET AL.
I’m going to be mentioning DiRT a lot during this review of GRID, for obvious reasons, so be prepared. Prepared? OK, good. The majority of your single player experience in GRID will be spent in the “grid world” career mode. It’s a further enhanced version of the career mode featured in DiRT (see, I told you I would be mentioning it a lot) that eases new players into the game a bit more. You’ll start out in the “way over your head” race that’s been a staple of Race Driver games in the past, but then you get your choice of running freelance races for teams in three regions: the US, Japan, and Europe. Each region comes with its own flavor of racing styles and you can focus on one region or spread yourself out. You earn money simply by showing up and can earn bonus cash by doing well: setting a minimum lap time or top speed, passing a specific driver, or getting a podium finish. I really like that GRID does not force you to win in order to advance, which is the downfall of many racing titles. It’ll take longer to advance, but you can still progress through the game finishing dead last in the introductory races. I do not like how GRID pre-selects your starting position and you have no control over it: starting in 3rd can result in a much different race than starting in 12th, and your sponsors don't care how difficult your race might have been when they sign the checks. Once you earn enough money driving for others, you’ll start your own team.

Your racing team will need a name and paint scheme (which can be used online as well. Indecisive ones can randomize their livery. You start out with a low-level car, but by placing on the podium in races you can earn money to purchase better cars required for additional races. You can still do freelance races like the introductory events, but they pay a lot less money (although it’s not contingent on finishing position). You can focus on one style of racing or spread yourself evenly, and giving the user this level of freedom is a welcome feature. By doing well, you’ll earn sponsors that will give you bonus cash for fulfilling objectives (like finish in the top 5). Being a primary sponsor will double the income, and you can have a number of secondary sponsors as well. I’m so glad that GRID got rid of the completely unrealistic “pay for sponsors” from DiRT. You start out at the easiest difficulty setting, but getting reputation (by finishing on the podium) will unlock higher-level licenses and subsequently more powerful cars that can be bought or sold on eBay (a shrewd marketing scheme). Reputation can also be increased by escalating the AI skill level and removing driver aids. Once your team gets good enough, you can hire a teammate to increase your earnings. Each game year ends with the 24 hours of Le Mans where one game minute equals one hour. The grid world career mode in GRID should keep you busy for quite a while, and the approach is a lot better than before.

In addition to the career mode, you can do a single race. Fortunately, everything is unlocked from the beginning in the single race day mode, so you are not restricted to what you have purchased in the career mode. Multiplayer has gotten overhauled for the better. GRID comes with a server browser with filters, so you can join the game of your choice instead of being limited to quick matches like in DiRT. Also, races with up to twelve people can be undertaken, instead of racing the clock. Completing races will give you experience points that will go towards your online ranking. Online performance is OK: there is the occasional warp that is a result of playing people in Europe (where this series is very popular), but nothing horrible. I will say that GRID features some of the most horrible online drivers that I have ever seen. In almost every single race, the first braking corner is met with a huge accident as a majority of people simply do not slow down. I guess this is what happens when you design a game intended for a more general audience.

GRID features a number of racing disciplines. Typical inclusions are GT, open wheel, touring, and endurance racing. GRID also features drift competitions (in GP, battle, freestyle, and downhill flavors) in addition to one-on-one rally-like togue races (with pro (no traffic, no contact) and midnight (traffic and crashes) versions). Plus, damage fans can enjoy the demolition derbies that take place one modified figure-eight configurations. There are only 15 tracks to choose from, although there are 38 different layouts (plus reverses). While this is not necessarily a small amount of content, when you compare it to the number that was present in Race Driver 3, it is disappointing. Each discipline typically comes with two or three cars to choose from real manufacturers; since I don’t really care about having a huge roster of cars, this is fine with me. You won’t be able to tweak or upgrade your cars at all, since GRID lacks setups and parts upgrades of any form. While this makes the game more fair, those who enjoy fine-tuning their vehicle will be disappointed. It took a while for me to get my gamepad working correctly. I had to input my custom controls, enter a race and find they were not working, exit back to the options menu, input them again, and now it works. Weird. It also took some tweaking to get the controls to feel right, as the defaults are designed for keyboard input: lowering the steering saturation helped a whole lot. GRID features the same slick menus as before and also lacks mouse support, so those who enjoy pointing and clicking (and who doesn’t) will feel left out.

The developers of GRID have settled on a physics model that lies somewhere between arcade and simulation, though it leans more drastically towards arcade. It definitely takes some getting used to, especially with a background in more realistic simulations. Essentially, you can brake very quickly, not worry about shifting weight in your vehicle, and turn easily. Some of the cars feel like they are sliding on ice, while others are more connected to the racetrack. There is also a very fine line between braking and locking up the tires, so that takes some practice as well. Some people will like this relaxed approach and some will not, so whether you ultimately enjoy GRID is dependent on your tolerance for arcade physics. As long as you’re not expecting a completely realistic experience (there are other games for that), then you should be fine. And I will admit that tearing around the corners and bumping off the walls and other cars is pretty fun. You will suffer damage during the game (the AI demands it), and you can cause your gears suspension, steering, engine, and wheels to fail. When (not if, but when) you total your car, the game supplies stats on the speed you hit the way and the G-forces that resulted: pretty funny. The AI drivers are tough and aggressive: normal difficulty proved to be a bit challenging on new courses for a seasoned (mostly paprika) racing veteran such as myself. The AI will also make mistakes in difficult portions of the track, which goes a long way in making them seem more human-like. One of the completely new features in GRID is the flashback. If you suffer a large accident, take a corner too wide, or get passed in the last corner, you can enter the instant replay, pick any point in the past 10 seconds or so, and start from there. It’s a pretty neat feature that is great for beginners, and it also never becomes a focus of the game. Rather, it’s a tool that is limited (beginners get four per race while pros get none) in its usage and more for learning the track in real time than to turn out perfect lap times.

IN CLOSING
GRID is a whole lot better than DiRT in essentially every area. From the enhanced career mode to the improved multiplayer interface, getting into the races is a lot easier. GRID could have more tracks and disciplines that were present in previous Race Driver games (where’s my ovals?!?), but there is still enough content in GRID to keep you busy. The flashback feature is useful without being gimmicky, and the graphics and sound continue their high-level pedigree. About the only way you won’t like GRID is if you don’t like the driving physics: if you are looking for authentic realism, then GRID is definitely not for you. And I can certainly understand if you’d like a more realistic game (as I tend to gravitate towards them), but sometimes it’s fun to cut loose and fly around corners way too fast while wrecking into a bunch of other cars. That’s something GRID excels at, and it’s certainly a polished and enjoyable arcade racing game.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Chaos Theory Review

Chaos Theory, developed and published by blurredVision.
The Good: Unique combination of strategy and reflexes, numerous puzzle elements, inventive level designs, can skip one tough level, informative tutorials, level editor, uses Steam achievements
The Not So Good: Can get stuck if you don’t hit things exactly right, limited to one skipped level, no online scoreboard
What say you? A neat and distinctive magnetism-based puzzle game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the great things about the Internet is that you can distribute your game to a wide audience without needed a huge publishing deal. In fact, most casual games are distributed exclusively in digital format, cutting down significantly on costs. An example of this is Chaos Theory, a magnetism-based (when was the last time you heard that?) puzzle game by German developer blurredVision now available on Steam. Does this unique approach result in an entertaining game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The presentation of Chaos Theory is minimalist but effective. The game takes place in a simple 3-D world: just a grid against a black background. Your view can be rotated so that you can see everything and the puzzle elements don't necessarily look bad, but Chaos Theory certainly won't win any graphical excellence awards. It is surprising, then, that Chaos Theory requires Pixel Shaders 2.0 (which prevented me from running the game on my laptop), because the game is not demanding at all on your system. While you don't need a modern system to run Chaos Theory, you will need a somewhat modern graphics card (meaning no on-board Intel chips, please). The haunting music fits the game well: although it's repetitive, you'll never really notice since its in the background. The instructions are voiced, which is a nice touch that a lot of big titles lack. So while nobody will be impressed by the graphics and sound in Chaos Theory, they don't impede the gameplay.

ET AL.
Chaos Theory is a puzzle game that plays out over 40 or so levels where you must guide color-coded magnetic particles to color-coded collectors. The game introduces a new puzzle element every level or two and the short explanation of each new item is voiced and sufficient. If the amount of content isn’t enough, you can edit your own levels by pressing control-F1; the game doesn’t mention this anywhere and there isn’t a menu item for it (I e-mailed the developer asking how to access this feature), but it does allow you to replicate any of the detailed puzzles in the game and subsequently manufacture your own crazy creations. While the game can fly by, the addition of a level editor will prolong the action, at least for a little while longer.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), you need to guide numerous particles to their appropriate destination. They appear at regular intervals from particle generators that show the color that is spewing out next. So, how do you guide them? Chaos Theory comes with a number of physics-based tools. The first is the magnetic core, which can be turned on to attract or repel specific colors. For example, turning the core green will attract red particles (because, as Paula Abdul says, opposites attract) and repel green particles. It takes a couple of levels to realize that choosing green will repel the green particles, but it becomes intuitive enough after a while. Other game items include a polarity inverter that changes the color of the particles, distributors that can load and shoot particles, dipoles that require one red and one green, rotating bars, teleports, and multipliers.

The puzzles of Chaos Theory become interesting since you have to launch things at a minimum velocity in order to make them “stick.” This not only goes for the collectors, but also for the distributors (which require an indicated number of particles to be fully charged) and dipoles, so a lot of the strategy is to fill them up so that the particles leaving them will be traveling at top speed. Once particles are captured by an object, they will rotate at set intervals, making aiming easier. The level designer has complete control on the directions available to shoot towards: some distributors might allow for all 360 degrees, while others may restrict you to only four tracks. This makes aiming a whole lot easier, and also gives you subtle hints on how the developer wants you to tackle the particular challenge.

Overall, Chaos Theory features an assortment of very well-designed puzzles. Some puzzles require good aiming, others quick reflexes, and others superb timing. Despite the relatively low number of puzzle elements, the developers have made the game interesting thanks to the wide variety of strategies you must employ in the game. Some of the levels have a “time limit” of sorts, because you must move particles before new particles spawn. You can get stuck if you don’t hit things exactly right and completely mess up your plan: floating particles (caused by them not sticking to something) is a common source of restarts. The game allows you to skip only one level, an arbitrary restriction I don’t find necessary. I always like to have access to all of the content in the game, especially near the end when you’ve learned all of the components to the title. There are some especially tricky puzzles that require more luck than skill, and it would be nice to just skip past the irritating levels to see all of what the game has to offer. Chaos Theory keeps scores that are very accurate (I know I need ten-thousandths of a second accuracy) but there is no online scoreboard to compare against other players. Chaos Theory does incorporate Steam achievements that offer some sort of incentive, I suppose, although they don’t give you any in-game bonuses. But the game certainly delivers $10 worth of enjoyment thanks to its unique and varied design.

IN CLOSING
Chaos Theory offers inimitable (yeah, I ran out of synonyms for “unique”) challenges thanks to its magnetic puzzles. Guiding your particles to the goals involves a variety of skills, from overall strategy to timing and reflexes. It’s this level of diversity that makes Chaos Theory a notable puzzle title. And for $10, why not? The game might not have all of the features you’d want, as the 40-or-so levels go by quickly and there is no online scoreboard, but the hidden level editor (remember, kids: control-F1!) makes up for these shortcomings somewhat. The puzzles are very well designed with only a couple that I would consider annoying or luck-based. The flexibility of the game design shines through and makes Chaos Theory a strong puzzle game.