Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Magic Toy Chest Review

The Magic Toy Chest, developed and published by Graduate Games.
The Good: Interesting puzzle components, can skip past difficult levels, puzzle editor
The Not So Good: Simple 2-D graphics, extraneous hidden object element, physics can get frustrating, usually only one solution
What say you? A physics-based puzzle game appropriate for a young audience with occasionally questionable physics and not much room for innovative solutions: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With a one-year-old daughter, I’ve come to realize the full power of having too many toys lying around the house. Sure, they are fun to play with (not by myself, of course, ahem), but they sure take up a lot of room and can cause undue injury. The Magic Toy Chest is a puzzle game where you must place toys in (surprise!) a magic toy chest by sending them careering downwards after being influenced by additional toys slamming into them. It would be no fun to simple place them in the proper receptacle, so The Magic Toy Chest induces Rube Goldberg-inspired processes for attaining your goals. Does The Magic Toy Chest make it fun to pick up your toys?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The Magic Toy Chest features 2-D graphics that are just OK. The backgrounds invoke the feeling of a real house, but the objects in the game are crude representations of toys: simple bitmaps superimposed on the background. Some of the objects have a nice level of detail, such as the teddy bear, but most of the puzzle elements could use some additional detail. The game screams “independent product,” fine in most cases, but the objects are the focus of the game and they could stand to look better overall. There is some variety imposed with blocks and dominos (as they get a random skin), but overall The Magic Toy Chest lacks, well, magic. The sound is average as well: the subtle background music fits the theme and the effects do a good enough job. It’s nothing outstanding by any means, but it’ll do.

ET AL.
The Magic Toy Chest is a physics-based puzzle game that uses toys as the goals and the puzzle components. By hitting toys with other toys, you attempt to move the goal quantity into the toy box. The game comes with twenty tutorial levels that cover pretty much every aspect of the game and an additional ninety levels in the campaign. You are assigned a score based on how quickly you cleared the level and how many moves it took you. In addition, you can skip past any levels that are giving you trouble. If over 100 levels aren’t enough, there is also a fairly easy-to-use editor included in the game so that you can upload and share your creations with others. Sharing means caring!

The first step towards success is to collect keys hidden around the room in order to unlock the chest. Sometimes the keys are an integral part of the puzzle, but most of the time the activity is completely extraneous. While it is sometimes nice to have some variety when you are playing the game, I found the key hunting exercise to not be that much fun at all. After you unlock the chest, it’s time to manipulate the toys. You are given a goal (such as two baseballs or one rocket) and typically a handful of toys to place in your room. Any toys that end up in the chest (by being hit by other toys) can then also be placed anywhere and used towards a solution. There is a good variety of toys to choose from: baseballs, dominos, teddy bears, blocks, dart guns, rocket ships, ring sorts, whiffle bats, mechanical dogs, bowling balls, dump trucks, helicopters, trains, robots, water balloons, and a jack-in-the-box. Each of these objects has intuitive uses: the rocket ships fly in the direction they are pointing and the bowling balls are heavy, for example. With this suite of objects to choose from, the developers have come up with some innovative puzzles that require some interesting and entertaining solutions.

Since this is a physics based puzzle game, you would expect the physics to be quite good, but this is surprisingly one of the areas in which The Magic Toy Chest falls short. While the objects behave as they should for the most part, there are also a lot of strange happenings. For example, dump trucks that accelerate on an incline float away; Newton would be very displeased. Since most of the objects have weird shapes, there can also be some questionable collisions. With the more simple puzzles, the physics are not an issue. But when things start to get more complicated as more elements are involved, you become the victim of odd happenings or unlucky bounces far too often. I had to skip past too many levels because of the physics. I also had to skip past too many levels because I couldn’t figure out the one solution the developers had in mind. With a few exceptions, there is one way and only one way to succeed in a given level, and this insignificant level of flexibility is not a suggested course of action in a puzzle game. It’s not like the puzzles were overly difficult, it’s just that the combination of a single solution and inconsistent and unpredictable physics made for a majority of puzzles that I couldn’t simply complete. The huge time limits were never an issue, but the level of precision required to finish each puzzle is beyond the precision of the physics engine.

IN CLOSING
While not short of content and containing some quite interesting puzzles, The Magic Toy Chest is more frustrating than it should be because of the physics. Half of the time they are OK, but the other half you get erratic collisions and flying trucks. When things start to fall over the instant a level starts, there is something fishy going on. I’m not sure if the results would have been better with more conventionally-shaped toys, but I bet all of the curved surfaces didn’t help. This is too bad, because having over one-hundred puzzles and a level editor would keep people busy for quite a long time. I’m thankful that you can skip past annoying levels (mainly because about half of them fall into this category), but it should not be this much of a necessity. Typically only having one solution doesn’t help matters, either. The Magic Toy Chest is a unique presentation of the physics-based puzzle, but it falls short in areas critical to the gameplay.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shattered Suns Review

Shattered Suns, developed and published by Clear Crown Studios.
The Good: Meaningful custom ship designs, orbiting objects add unique strategic layer, non-linear campaign with variable objectives, skirmish games with randomly generated maps, automated sophisticated trading and supply model
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer, initially unwieldy interface, uneven presentation with no voice acting, can’t rename ship designs
What say you? It’s a bit rough around the edges, but this space RTS comes with several innovative features: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There has been a number of excellent strategy games released this year set in space. I think it gives developers more flexibility in creating a familiar yet innovative environment in which to place their game world. Plus, everyone is tired of elves, orcs, and World War II by now (at least I am). With the ever-increasing number of strategy titles coming to the PC (especially ones in space), newcomers must bring something new to the table, or relegate themselves to an anonymous fate. Shattered Suns offers two such unique components: custom ships and dynamic maps with orbiting planets. These are two good ideas, but the impact on gameplay and feasibility in a real-time environment are two concerns that surround their effectiveness. How concerned should we be? Personally, I’m more concerned about the possibility of suns shattering: that’s never a good thing.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For an independently developed game, Shattered Suns has some OK graphics. While the level of quality is not quite on par with some other space RTS games, there are some high points: the ships and planet surfaces have some high-resolution textures that look great up close. The weapon effects look almost out of place in their simplicity, and the charged clouds of autoemitter weapons don’t amaze with quality. The backgrounds are pretty generic for a space game, with an obviously 2-D texture that could look more realistic. Panning the camera quickly results in throwing the icons to the side of their ship: an odd effect. Shattered Suns doesn’t have any voice acting and feature average and generally repetitive music to fill out the presentation. There are a couple of bright spots with the graphics, but, for the most part, Shattered Suns is just your average strategy game in terms of graphics and sound design.

ET AL.
After taking a while to load (but at least you don’t need the disk in the drive), Shattered Suns gives you several options for gameplay. The tutorial is integrated into the campaign and covers most, but not all, of the game’s mechanics. There is a number of minor things that are briefly touched on (if at all) in the tutorial and not mentioned at all in the inadequate manual. Overall, Shattered Suns has clear signs it is an independent product: it comes with two great features but fails to successfully completely the package. The campaign is quite lengthy: 34 missions that are not activated in a set order. It utilizes an instant messenger interface (to compensate for the lack of voice acting) that presents new text one sentence at a time: very slow going. Thankfully, I discovered (not in the tutorial or manual) that space bar will skip ahead, taking the 15-minute-long presidential speech (and all of the corny jokes) early in the campaign down to a much less boring time interval. Most of the missions are combat-related, but there are others that rely on resource collection, repairs, ship design, and diplomacy. This is more variety than you would typically see in a real time strategy game, and some of the missions are optional and others you can’t lose (lucky I deployed those repair drones!). There is no autosave (boo!) and quitting mid-mission fails your scenario, as there is no way to go from a mission straight to the main menu. The campaign offers up enough variety to keep things interesting, although a lot of the missions take about twice as long to complete as I would like.

After you are done taking it to the enemy in the campaign, you can undergo skirmish games against the AI. Shattered Suns randomly generates a new map each time you play, depending on the size you set. You can also customize your experience by defining the victory and defeat conditions (which can be different) of a time limit or complete annihilation, starting resource levels, and resource abundance. There are no teams in skirmish play, but diplomatic options are available. There are plans to have more scripted missions apart from the main campaign in a future patch. Notably, Shattered Suns lacks multiplayer, so now it’s time for the great multiplayer debate. I like multiplayer in any game I play, but most “small” games just don’t have the audience to justify spending development time on adding online multiplayer. Do I want it? Yes. Is it worth doing? Maybe not. But I’ll still mention the lack thereof.

The user interface takes some getting used to. It’s not quite on par with other RTS games, but it gets the job done for the most part. You are given hard numbers on most of you ships’ parameters (shields, armor, weapons), but hull strength is mysteriously left out, except for a green bar above your ship. Things that are active (like mining or trading) pulsate instead of being constantly highlighted with a special color. While Shattered Suns clearly warns you if further research required, you are given absolutely no indication on the progress of research: the icon just pulsates. Do I have ten seconds or ten minutes left? It can also be difficult to find things, as clicking on the bare mini-map puts the camera there and not the center of the screen there, as is the case with every other strategy game. I miss the empire tree from Sins, as on large maps you’ll have to click back and forth a lot to see what’s going on. Shattered Suns also doesn’t display the types of docked ships and getting around the 3-D interface takes some practice.

One of the two big features of Shattered Suns is custom ship designs. Even a step above of Galactic Civilizations, Shattered Suns lets you customize many components on a scale of one to ten: engines, cargo holds, miners, builders, scanners, shields, armor, advanced defenses, and four types of weapons. You can even customize the weapons: power, blast radius, reload rate, and flight speed can all be altered. Obviously, Shattered Suns gives you tons of flexibility, but ship design, like most everything else in the game, isn’t without problems. First, you cannot rename your ship designs. I hope you’ll remember that “Class 1” is a miner and “Class 2” is a trader, because I know I forget. Coupled in to the ship design is the concept of efficiency: each additional component reduces the effectiveness of all components; this prevents you from making “super ships” and puts the focus on craft with narrowly defined roles, like resource collection or military combat. A level 10 engine running at 80% efficiency is the same as a level 8 engine running at full power, so if you are going to spend all of that time and money on upgrades, you better make sure they are worth it. Custom designs carry over from scenario to scenario: a good thing so you don't have to redesign the same ship every time. If you don’t have the requirements researched yet (the game highlights them in red), just build it anyway and the best components you know of will automatically be introduced. The ship design aspect of Shattered Suns is well balanced and a neat feature that can easily be done in a real-time environment.

The other big feature of Shattered Suns is that everything moves: planets, moons, and space stations. While they obviously progress much faster than they would in real life, this adds a unique layer of strategy to the game (it says so in “The Good,” so it must be true). The sense of scale is way off (planets and moons are quite small compared to ships), but having to tailor your attack to the planetary progression is a neat dynamic I’ve never seen before. It frankly surprises me it’s taken this long for a game to do this (if I remember correctly, Hegemonia was the only other game to come close, and it wasn't that dramatic of a feature). Your empire centers around space stations, rather than colonizing planets and moons (they are simply resource supplies). Each station has an independent level of resources and technology (another unique feature), so resources must be shipped to friendly stations in order to produce ships and conduct research there. Thankfully, this can automatically be done by building a ship with a lot of cargo space and telling it to “auto trade.” The independent nature of the stations means, like the ships, you will have stations fill specific roles: resource collection, ship building, et cetera.

Some of the missions involve diplomacy, and Shattered Suns comes with some basic trading and peace agreements. When all else fails, combat is the order of the day: it is automatic and lacks tactical planning, as it is simply the end result of your designs. Just pick a target and go. Shattered Suns has an almost fast pace: shields and armor go down quickly, but it can take quite a while to completely destroy a hull (especially since there is no numerical indication of how many hit points are left). This is fine (although annoying when you’ve clearly won and it’s just a matter of waiting for the hit points to count down), especially when you consider the low population cap: you’ll only ever have a handful of ships (20 at the most) to deal with at a time. This includes resource collectors, so battles will not involve a large quantity of vessels. It should be noted that destroying the hull will also decrease the efficiency of ship components (engines, weapons, shields), so that’s realistic and also pretty cool. The AI is just OK: while they serve up a decent opponent, there are definitely problems: ships routinely run into planets and moons, and while the AI will build stations at every available moon and planet, they are slow at getting resource collecting (and subsequently military production) up and running. Since all you have to play against is the AI, Shattered Suns will keep you entertained for a while, but the computer opponents aren’t too difficult to defeat.

IN CLOSING
Shattered Suns takes two good ideas and runs with them, almost to the point of being a hallmark strategy title. The game is plagued with a lack of polish that is common among games developed by small developers. I can usually look past these things, but only to a point. Fortunately, all of my issues with Shattered Suns are not design related; rather, they are associated with this being a game from a small developer and can be fixed (and most plan to be) with time. Sometimes all of these minor issues are enough to add up to a major headache, but the new features Shattered Suns brings to the RTS table are quite notable and overshadow most of the shortcomings, in my opinion (which, clearly, is all that matters). I sure do like the unique core mechanics of Shattered Suns, though, and innovation always scores high in my book. The ever-changing battlefield is really neat, as the planets and moons circulate through space (albeit a lot faster than in reality). Giving the user the ability to design their own ships and stations is nice, and it has definite impact on the gameplay. The lack of multiplayer is troubling, but the AI skirmishes and non-linear campaigns should keep you busy for a while. With the developer’s continued support of this game after release, I am fairly confident that the full potential of the game will be realized and all of the small issues I have identified while playing the game will be minimized or removed. Sometimes having two great new things is enough to stand out, and that’s the case with Shattered Suns, although there are definitely some areas that could be enhanced.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Art of Murder: FBI Confidential Review

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

Art of Murder: FBI Confidential, developed and published by City Interactive.
The Good: Rewarding puzzles, sharp graphics, gritty locations
The Not So Good: Annoying voice acting, spotty translation, outlandish elements clash with the realistic setting
What say you? A decent third-person point-and-click adventure hampered by B-movie dialog: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Nicole Bonnet, a young FBI agent, goes to fetch some coffee during a routine stakeout, only to return and find her partner shot dead. She's quickly assigned to a case involving the ritual murders of wealthy old men whose hearts have been cut from their chests. Now it's up to Nicole and her mysterious new partner, Nick Romsky, to find a link between the victims and track down the killer before the city runs out of that most precious of commodities: wealthy old man hearts.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The pre-rendered backgrounds range from lush greenery to decrepit apartments right out of David Fincher's Seven. Despite the gruesome subject matter, it's an oddly comfortable game. Some of the sets, especially the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, are captivating. Nicole Bonnet looks like Rachael Leigh Cook, which never hurt a game's sales. Too bad she sounds like a cybernetic valley girl. Half the time she speaks robotically, as if her dialog was pieced together word-by-word, and the rest of the time she comes off as a second rate Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The music is oppressive and atmospheric, just the thing for a serious FBI investigation; but man, Nicole Bonnet made me want to swab my ears with a sacrificial dagger.

ET AL.
The life of a FBI agent is filled with danger. These are the guys who took down the mob, rescue kidnapped children and hunt the FBI's Most Wanted. So it comes as no surprise that Art of Murder: FBI Confidential begins with the Case of the Missing Printer Paper. As I entered the supply closet and clicked on everything from flashlights to latex gloves, Nicole gave variations of the same, baffling response: "FRANKLY, I've no idea what to do with it!" Or, "Frankly, I've NO idea what to do with it!" And so on, emphasizing each word as if it were her last. (She has no idea what to do with latex gloves? Can somebody please check her badge?) Later, while investigating a crime scene, Nicole complained that she couldn't handle a newspaper because she'd leave fingerprints on it. This actually became a full-fledged subplot when she was scolded for handing in a rare artifact covered in fingerprints -- her own, naturally.

A lot of adventure games I've played lately combine the Look and Operate commands, which makes things a bit too simple for my tastes. Art of Murder is more traditional; the left mouse button handles Talk/Operate/etc., while the right button allows you to look at people and objects in more detail. Weirdly enough, the game has a lack of dialog trees. Questioning a witness, usually a crucial part of detective work, is simply a matter of pressing “Talk” over and over until they start repeating themselves. You don't even get to carry around man-eating topics of conversation. To the right of the inventory at the bottom of the screen is a magnifying glass that highlights key items in a room. There's also a handy in-game PDA with a phone, notes and camera.

The player is restricted to a single location made up of several rooms until the puzzles in that area are solved, which keeps things from getting overwhelming. The inventory puzzles are, for the most part, fun and rewarding (a picky bum was only sated after I forged an expensive bottle of booze by slapping a new label on some cheap bourbon). But some of the solutions are a bit silly for the serious subject matter. At one point, I needed to move a heavy crate. What to do? Why, shove an inflatable dinghy in the gap between the crates and use a fire extinguisher to inflate the raft, of course (just like in Silence of the Lambs)!

Unfortunately, the game doesn't always play fair. Once, I repeatedly tried to replace a broken cell phone battery, to no avail. Out of ideas, I scanned Nicole's desk with my magnifying glass and realized that a heretofore non-interactive bit of desk had mysteriously turned into the one spot in the entire universe where I was allowed to fix the phone. After that it was just a matter of finding a ladder, climbing to reach some electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, clipping them with scissors I had stolen from the evidence room (fingerprints, Nicole, fingerprints!), and bringing the wire back to the One Desk to Rule Them All. Turning bits of scrap metal into expensive electronics is par for the course; what bothered me is that there was no indication that I suddenly had to remove things from my inventory just to combine them. A simple, "I need more room to work!" message might have helped.

IN CLOSING
Perhaps in its native language Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is a much better game. It's not entirely the voice actors' fault; they could only do so much with the translated script. In the very first room, I clicked on a diploma and Nicole said, "Actually, we all know each other from our Quantico days." Lady, I'm just clickin' on stuff. I never said you didn't. If you value plot over puzzles, you may want to look elsewhere. But if you focus on the meat of the game, you'll have fun. Ultimately, whether or not you enjoy Art of Murder depends on your tolerance for b-movie dialog. Mine's normally high, but this game rubbed me the wrong way. I just don't like listening to people talk like automated telephone systems. After the tone, press five for Five Out of Eight.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Freight Tycoon Review

Freight Tycoon, developed by Nikita Interactive and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Comprehensive economic simulation, almost excellent user interface, lots of scenarios, numerous goods to transport, success will develop your city and bring in more clients
The Not So Good: Finding good contracts should be easier, small icons make it difficult to determine vehicle type, not much to do once you get your business started
What say you? A good economic management game if you don’t mind the inherent tedium and repetition: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Tycoon games have surely put their mark on the computer gaming map. Ever since the craze started with titles such as RollerCoaster Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon, we’ve had tycoon games cover pretty much every aspect of society: fish, hospitals, wild animals, and even the circus. Now, it’s truck transportation’s turn with Freight Tycoon. You start out with a small business concerned with delivering goods across a small town. Where will this game fall into the tycoon pecking order?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Freight Tycoon are not bad, as long as you approach them from the perspective of a economic management simulation and not a top-flight city builder. They are on par with SimCity 4, which, of course, is five years old. Although you can rotate your view, the buildings have a 2-D isometric feel to them. The cars and other vehicles in the game move around, but they certainly do not have life-like animations. But since your main focus is not on what the city looks like, I'm willing to give slightly archaic graphics a pass. There is a wide assortment of photos for potential employees, though. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the sound in the game: I seem to have disabled the audio (just in this game) somehow and can't get it to work again. Oopsy!

ET AL.
Freight Tycoon is a single-player only game that offers twenty-one scenarios to test your business sense. Even though this might not sound like a lot of content, each individual scenario takes a while to complete (thanks to the somewhat arbitrary victory conditions), so you'll be busy for a while. It is sad, though, that Freight Tycoon lacks editors to make your own scenarios. Each scenario can be played at several difficulty settings (great for beginners) and the tutorial does a good job teaching the basics of the mechanics.

As the president of a transportation firm, it is your responsibility to make fat stacks of cash and you do this by moving goods across the town. You will only own two types of buildings: an office and garages. The garages are where your fleet is stored and new cars and drivers are purchased or hired. There is a wide array of vehicles to choose from in the game, from vans to trucks and trailers, each of which has a speed rating and other characteristics. Freight in the game is broken down into which kind of vehicle can carry it: tank, container, open, van, timber, or armored. The key is to find the most profitable ware, purchase a vehicle that can carry it, hire a person that can drive that car, and sign a contract to deliver it. The game makes it more difficult to do this process than it should be, since you must individually click on each business to see its products and the product is cannot be sorted (according to profit, for example). This makes peering at a small window of information excruciatingly boring. In addition, the game confuses even more by changing the look of the freight category icons when reduced in size; this makes it extremely difficult to determine what category some of the goods fall into, since tool-tips simply say “required body type” instead of what the “required body type” it actually is. Useful messages that spawn along the bottom cannot be deleted (even if you've read them) as they disappear after a fixed interval of time. Other than these issues, the rest of the user interface is good: there is a ton of information spread across screens that do not take up the entire display. The car list in the upper-left, very reminiscent of the empire tree from Sins of a Solar Empire, puts the most important information right on the main screen. If only finding a good contract was easier, then Freight Tycoon would be a breeze to handle.

It's pretty easy to get a successful business up and running, but you will also need some support staff to assist operations. Employees can serve human resources positions (which reduces operation costs) and fix broken vehicles, for example. The chaos associated with accepting contracts in real-time (which are also being sought after by your competitors) can be eliminated by pausing the game: a disappointing “cheat.” One neat feature of Freight Tycoon is that your city grows along with you: as you play well, businesses will also expand, offering new (and usually more profitable) goods for you to transport. I don't remember any economic simulations where this occurred.

IN CLOSING
Freight Tycoon is one of those niche games I come across that is good, but will be completely boring to people not interested in the genre. There are a couple of missteps when it comes to the user interface, but, in general, the game is polished and makes finding information very easy. There is a good selection of products to transport and vehicles to add to your fleet. The game comes with a satisfying number of scenarios with adjustable difficulty, so the sting of the lack of a level editor is relieved somewhat. Still, there is a lot of waiting around for money to accumulate once you get your business established, but time acceleration reduces the waiting. Obviously this game will not appeal to everyone, but those looking for an entertaining economic simulation with a couple of minor hiccups will enjoy Freight Tycoon.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Master Poker Review

Master Poker, developed and published by Computer Opponents Software.
The Good: Outstanding realistic AI, hefty amount of game options that let you simulate any poker environment, keyboard hotkeys make betting faster, extensive in-game help and advice
The Not So Good: Limited to No Limit Texas Hold’em, pricey, no multiplayer, rudimentary graphics and sound effects
What say you? A great poker training tool with exceptional computer opponents: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Poker! The word strikes fear in the heart of “real” sports fans everywhere. The strategy game (I suppose you can call it that) has permeated noted sports networks for several years, now, as people tune in to check out “flops,” “blinds,” and Norman Chad’s overt sexiness. The world’s best players must practice, and a popular choice is playing on one of the many online poker sites (excessively advertised during any poker television coverage). A much cheaper and faster option would be to play against computer opponents, and that’s what Master Poker is all about. It supposedly offers quality AI and enough options to simulate any poker environment. Does it, or are the developers filthy liars that lie?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The low point of Master Poker is the graphics and sound. Simply put, the game looks and sounds no better than a generic online poker site. The game is fixed at a low resolution (800 by 600), so users with a large monitor will have to resort to squinting or changing their desktop resolution (no thanks!). The game is entirely in 2-D, with generic tables, cards, and only one animation (dealing cards). There are a number of table and deck graphics available to increase the variety somewhat, but it's still a run-of-the-mill presentation. It’s not an immersive environment by any means and certainly cannot compete with 3-D titles like STACKED or World Series of Poker. The sound isn’t any better: only a few repetitive sound bytes and no music; birds do chirp when you take a while to act, which is amusing the first couple of times you hear it. The upside to the lack of graphical splendor is that Master Poker can work on any computer that is still semi-functional. You certainly won’t be looking towards Master Poker for cutting-edge graphics or sound.

ET AL.
Master Poker is a single-player poker experience that only simulates no-limit Texas Hold’Em. Fortunately, the one thing it does it does very well. Despite the fact that Master Poker lacks different game types and multiplayer, it does offer a lot of settings and other features to (almost) make up for it. By creating a profile, the game will keep track of your history, including placement in every tournament and a running total of your winnings (if you enter tournaments with a fee). Difficulty can be set by altering the proportion of “dead money” novice players: it has a definite effect on how easy it is to bluff and intimidate other players. You can play single table matches, survivor games against infinite opponents, a classic cash game, and multi-table tournaments that can simulate up to 5,000 players. Instead of making up cash totals for people replacing busted players at your table, Master Poker plays every hand at every table, so the results are as real as real can be. Master Poker also has a bunch of pre-set tournament rules (blinds, entry fee, starting chips) from almost every online and real-world poker event; plus, you can make your own. Master Poker certainly does give you a lot of tools to use to simulate the exact environment you are practicing for.

Master Poker has a lot of options, so I will only touch on the best ones. The game features extensive in-game help, from information on every game option to advice before the flop. This is a nice feature for beginners who (like myself) tend to play way too many hands during a game. While the starting hand guide disables after the blinds get big or the number of players at your table decreases significantly, the hints are very informative and you’ll almost always learn something new during each game. Master Poker also has a couple of options to greatly increase the pace of the game: you can automatically skip hands when you fold, speed AI decisions, and disable animations. This makes playing a large tournament take less than a couple of days. Other novice-friendly features include showing initial or winning hands, color-coded community cards to indicate possible winning hand combinations, pot odds, and peeking at the next card to be drawn. About the only thing Master Poker does not offer are those TV-inspired percentage odds of winning, but the rest of the feature list certainly compensates for this.

Master Poker makes playing the game fairly easy with a selection of shortcut keys. You can also use the numbers to bet a percentage (as in 5 = 50%) of the existing pot. I still prefer the chip stack picture (and mouse-wheel betting) of STACKED, but Master Poker gives you enough options to place your bets easily. Now, the AI: it’s good. This is the most hyped feature of Master Poker and it’s certainly the most difficult computer opponent I’ve encountered in a poker game. The AI does not look at your cards (according to the developer, and I am inclined to believe him) but instead uses real strategies on when to attack, fold, or go all-in. In short, they are smart and cannot be exploited any easier than real-life players on professional circuits. So if you are looking for quality AI with no random chance thrown in to compensate for poorly designed decision-making, then Master Poker is the poker software for you.

IN CLOSING
Is it worth $60? For avid players, it is. Master Poker features that best AI I have encountered: take that, Canucks! While the game is limited to no-limit Texas Hold’Em and lacks internet play, you are able to practice any real poker tournament (online and off) against knowledgeable AI opponents. The user is also given a suite of learning tools that can give as much (or as little) advice and information as desired. While the graphics and sound are elementary at best, I would much rather have the fast games in Master Poker than a slow and boring poker experience. Although it lacks well-rounded features to appeal to a more general audience, if you are looking to improve your skills as a poker player, than an investment into Master Poker is a recommended venture. Is Master Poker a quality simulation? You bet. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner Review

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

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner, developed and published by Telltale Games.
The Good: Highly entertaining, a one-of-a-kind main character, and at under $9, it's a steal
The Not So Good: The world feels a bit empty at times
What say you? A delight for adventure gamers and Strong Bad fans alike: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Some of the developers at Telltale Games have previously worked on such legendary LucasArts classics as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Now, after releasing the critically acclaimed episodic series Rabid Dog and Bunny Man -- er, Sam & Max -- Telltale Games have turned their attention to one of the most popular cartoons on the internet, Homestar Runner.

I admit, I haven't seen more than twenty or thirty episodes of Homestar Runner, but for good reason: I didn't have Internet access when everyone was forwarding me the links! Luckily, my buddy played them whenever I visited his house, and we had a blast searching for Easter eggs at the end of each Strong Bad Email. I guess that means I'm qualified to review Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, for I meet the minimum system requirements (rugged good looks) and am neither a die hard fan nor completely ignorant of Strong Bad's totally awesome style.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The visuals are crisp, colorful and do a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of flash animation. Characters are 3D and cell shaded, but except for certain angles, you can't really tell; this is a good thing, as anyone who's recoiled in horror at Homer Simpson's bulbous, off-color polygon head can tell you. Things look just as crisp at 640x480 as they do at much higher resolutions except for the font, which does get a bit fuzzy at the low end. This means it's a perfect game for people with slow computers who want to try something recent without installing costly new hardware.

Sound-wise (which sounds like a Hobbit but is actually just a made-up word), this game is a champ. Strong Bad mutters his lines like a megalomaniacal Mexican wrestler. Bubs, proprietor of a one-stop shanty shop, sounds like Bill Cosby. And Strong Bad's depressed younger brother is an elephantine Eeyore. All of the characters, except Marzipan, are voiced by just one man: co-creator Matt Chapman. The music reminds me a bit of some quirky independent film, especially the theme to Marzipan's house. Strong Bad even starts things off with a song, which I hope they release as an MP3 download.

ET AL.
Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner opens with everyone's favorite lovable jerk, Strong Bad, doing what he does best: checking the email on his Lappy 486. When a reader asks when he's going to pound the snot out of his hated rival, the armless (and clueless) athlete Homestar, Strong Bad embarks on a quest to win the coveted Silver Trophy of Ultimate Destiny at the local Free Country USA Tri-annual Race to the End of the Race (FCUSATRTTEOTR).

Oddly enough, one of Homestar Ruiner's best features is the map. Usually, maps of fictional worlds rely on a bit of, shall we say, elasticity, especially if drawn years after the series has begun. In Homestar Ruiner, when you discover a new location, Strong Bad opens his map and asks you to drop it wherever you like. (Sometimes he makes suggestions: "I hate that place, put it far away from my house!") Much like certain Japanese RPGs, this lets you arrange the in-game map as you see fit. But nothing is set in stone, as you can freely drag and drop locations even after you've already scribbled them in. As for the locations themselves, they range from Homestar's favorite racetrack, to Strong Bad's messy room, to a surreal photo booth that breaks the laws of time and space.

In one of the game's standout puzzles, Strong Bad has to leave chocolates on Marzipan's doorstep to set things right. But each time he rings the bell and hides around the corner, the ravenous King of Town wanders up and eats all the chocolates before Marzipan can open her door. Frustrated, Strong Bad decides to dig a big hole for the King to fall into. "Seems like a perfect place for a montage," he says, and a montage we get, complete with 80s training music ("Guts... guts and might. Liftin' weights and feelin' all right. It's a showdown. Goin' down town you're gonna mess around"). Again, Strong Bad leaves chocolates and rings the bell. But the hungry old King deftly avoids the trap and eats all Marzipan's chocolates. I won't tell you how the puzzle finally ends, but let's just say it involves a canny use of hedge clippings that Rambo would be proud of.

One of my favorite moments came when Strong Bad begs Homestar's girlfriend Marzipan to invite him to a party. "Do you remember the last time?" she asks. Cut to a flashback of Strong Bad standing on Marzipan's roof, dressed all in black with an eye patch and pink leopard bandanna. "Behold!" he shouts. "I am Lord Barglebroth, come for your souls!" Then he dives off the roof like Mick Foley and lands on her birthday cake. Cut back to Strong Bad scratching his chin. “Not really,” he replies. The game even makes it fun when you get a puzzle totally wrong. Throw a plunger at an out of reach vent and Strong Bad makes na-na-na-na-na sounds. When the plunger falls he says, "Hmm. I thought the bionical noises would've made that work." After unsuccessfully sneaking into the King of Town's Castle and being thrown out a window by his older brother Strong Mad, our hero picks himself up off the ground and says, "I should probably quit doing that. What with the drain bamage and all."

If there's one problem with Homestar Ruiner, it's that the world can feel a little empty at times. There's a point in the game when several new locations open up, and Strong Bad walks through room after mostly empty room, searching for something to do. One location has only The Stick (a stick, natch) and an ugly bush. Strong Bad cracks wise ("Hey bush, it looks like someone hit you with the ugly stick... not you, The Stick, you're beautiful!"), but with little to find other than an Easter egg in more than a few locations, I sometimes got the feeling I was wandering through a deserted MMORPG at 3AM. Even a few more random things to click on would have done much to liven up these areas.

Other than that, the game is technically damn near flawless. The interface is first class: totally mouse-driven, with easy to read subtitles and the ability to save anywhere. There's an Atari 2600 style mini game called Snake Puncher 5 and the truly bizarre interactive comic strip Teen Girl Squad, in which Strong Bad speaks in a squeaky voice and tries to kill as many of the stick figure girls as possible. As an added bonus, after you beat the game, an "extended play" epilogue opens up, which gives you one last opportunity to hunt down any easter eggs and jokes you may have missed.

IN CLOSING
Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner is skillfully designed, and at $8.99, it's more than a bargain. The humor will no doubt be lost on some (you need a healthy appetite for Napoleon Dynamite-style, "this was cool when I was a kid so it's double cool now!" jokes) but play the game through and you'll no doubt agree that Strong Bad is anything but. Bad, that is. I mean, it's a good... Look, just buy it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Code of Honor 2: Conspiracy Island Review

Code of Honor 2: Conspiracy Island, developed and published by City Interactive.
The Good: Single player campaign is almost entertaining, frequent checkpoints, clear objective locations, assault rifle can be modified with a sniper scope
The Not So Good: Only nine short linear missions, run-of-the-mill multiplayer options with only three maps, interruptive cut scenes, typical weaponry, AI needs work
What say you? If F.E.A.R. was a passable budget game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
By now, everyone’s probably heard of F.E.A.R. You know, that first person shooter that came out three years ago with slow-mo time and a spooky atmosphere. While we all wait for the sequel, it’s time to check out some games that use the same graphics engine that are not bad standalone expansions. Here’s Code of Honor 2: Conspiracy Island, a sequel to a game I never knew existed. Apparently, some French guys meet some bad guys and shooting ensues. No doubt there is some sweet conspiracy action, possibly of the island variety. Sounds good to me!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Code of Honor 2 uses the Jupiter EX engine, something the publisher mentioned like 30 times in the press release. The game is a notch below F.E.A.R. in terms of graphical quality, with normally bland textures (especially in the caved sections) and other obviously repetitive locations. While some animations are OK, others are silly looking, especially when characters are moving on uneven surfaces. Disruptive frequent cut scenes interrupt the flow of the game; I thought it was established a couple of years ago that cut scenes are to happen without cutting away from your perspective, but apparently this is not the case. Overall, Code of Honor 2 simply looks like a budget game. This goes for the sound as well: voice acting is decent and the weapon effects are fine enough, and the background music ranges from bad to OK. Interestingly, the menu sounds are straight out of F.E.A.R. (it’s weird what you remember about certain games). Code of Honor 2 purports “astonishing graphics” with “stunning detail” and “dynamic lighting,” but since all games have these features nowadays (and most of those descriptions are not true), the game is visually unimpressive.

ET AL.
Like most first person shooters, Code of Honor 2 features both single player and multiplayer action. The single player campaign follows the story of your French Legion compatriots (who, surprisingly, don’t sound French at all) who shoot bad guys on an island (no doubt full of conspiracy). The game takes place in a number of locations over nine missions and it took me only two hours to beat the entire game. Seriously. That’s short by any measuring stick, and although I did have fun while playing, it was over far too quickly. The campaign does have liberal auto-save checkpoints: a great feature. The game does not have a health counter: you just need to avoid getting shot a lot in a row. The almost completely linear level design features clear objective locations: I was only stuck once for a very short period of time. This makes it easy to progress through the game but it does remove some of the excitement associated with traversing through the unknown. The game is generally bug-free, although there is a lot of lag when you exit the control options and go back into the game: it killed me on several occasions.

In terms of multiplayer, Code of Honor 2 features the typical deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag options, accessible through the in-game browser. The game only comes with three maps and the gameplay is identical to F.E.A.R. Combat except with less weapons and poorly designed levels. The caves level has really poor collision detections: I have never gotten stuck on as many objects playing Code of Honor 2 than any other first person shooter. The map styles simply do not translate well to a multiplayer experience. The lack of health bars carries over to the multiplayer, although your tolerance for pain is greatly lessened to induce more killing. Simply put, the free F.E.A.R. Combat is sadly a lot better overall than what Code of Honor 2 has to offer.

The weapon selection in Code of Honor 2 is very typical (assault rifles, shotguns, sub-machine guns, et cetera) with one notable addition: you can add a sniper scope to the assault rifle. That’s an interesting feature that comes into play during the single player campaign several times. Weapons shoot very quickly during the game, resulting in a lot of reloading and switching to secondary weapons. Ammunition is hard to come by since it is only placed in plausible locations (like tables). It should be noted that there is what I would consider a bug with the rocket launcher: it doesn’t seem to count as a weapon, so if you switch away from it, you can’t reacquire it. Load most recent checkpoint!

Code of Honor 2 apparently comes with “blind fire” but it doesn’t explain how to do it: I see little arrows when I am near walls, but I could never figure out how to do it and the manual lacks any meaningful explanations. Code of Honor 2 is light on the puzzles: you’ll only need to throw the occasional switch or swim under objects (which, amusingly, is a lot faster than walking). The AI is simply passable: while they will scatter when a grenade is tossed in their direction, sometimes they will stand there as you face them and shoot their legs. The enemies seem to be heavily scripted, and they only use cover when explicitly placed there initially. This goes for your allies as well: they are not very smart, although they fare better than the enemy and can’t die. In general, enemy units will run right towards you, guns blazing. I wish they used the same AI engine as F.E.A.R. instead of just the graphics.

IN CLOSING
I did actually want to finish Code of Honor 2, so that says something. While certainly not the pinnacle of FPS excellence, I enjoyed my time on Conspiracy Island (now with more conspiracy!) with a couple of budget-related shortcomings: the sub-par graphics, linear level design, and disappointing AI. Since the multiplayer is worse than what’s freely available, we have to evaluate Code of Honor 2 based upon its single player experience, and it’s average. Really, you’re better off just getting F.E.A.R. for a reduced price than playing Code of Honor 2 in terms of overall quality, but I did have a moderate level of enjoyment during my two hours with the single player campaign. $20 for two hours of play time is a pretty steep price, though, so most people can avoid time on Conspiracy Island and stick with older, better first person shooters available at the same price.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Insecticide Part 1 Review

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

Insecticide Part 1, developed by Crackpot Entertainment and CREAT Studio and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Vibrant setting, expressive characters, jazzy music, splendid detective sequences
The Not So Good: Uninspired action stages, spotty subtitles, the inability to save anywhere
What say you? A visual work of art with a couple of major problems 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In this action/point-and-click adventure, players assume the role of rookie Detective Chrys Liszt, a spider-like insect with a mysterious past who suffers from amnesia (groan). Her partner is Roachy Caruthers, a gruff but lovable cockroach who's been shot forty-seven times (and counting!). Together they investigate a murder at the Nectarola Soft Drink Company, a MegaCorp seeking to “capture the remaining 2% market share from their last competitor... water.”

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Insecticide Part 1's stylish visuals remind me of everything from James and the Giant Peach to The City of Lost Children. A toxic green sky hangs over the neon signs and filthy streets of Troi. Interiors are lovingly rendered, from the run down Precinct #47 with its whiteboard crammed with elaborate diagrams and theories about which fast food to order, to a greasy spoon where the greasy spoons are the least of your worries. Characters are expressive, living cartoons with distinct personalities; the rest of the Insect Squad appear only briefly, but they make an impression, especially a big purple poet who insists on playing Mad Libs with his police reports. During the detective sequences, it's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.

Quality voice work further brings the inhabitants of Troi City to life. I liked every last denizen, especially Detective Chrys. Her raspy, incredulous and (dare I say) cute delivery was perfect. No matter how small their part, the actors were professional; never once sounding like programmers trying to save a buck. Unfortunately, there's a problem with the sound design. Chief Chigger's voice is tuned so quiet he's drowned out by the music. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but neither the FMV nor the initial in-game cinemas have subtitles! Irony struck when Chief Chigger mumbled some inaudible orders and Roachy barked, “You heard him, let's get moving!” As for the soundtrack, I could listen to it for hours. Hand me a sax and call me Bleeding Gums Murphy, this game made a jazz fan, man.

ET AL.
Insecticide Part 1's eight chapters are divided into two distinct modes: Detective and Action. I admire Crackpot Entertainment for trying to capture the full spectrum of detective stories, from investigations to shootouts, but the quality of the latter pales in comparison to the former. I have nothing against action sequences in adventure games so long as they're done well, but the ones in Insecticide play like a lackluster Dreamcast title from the late 90s. Platform games are supposed to bring something new to the table: Bionic Commando had a grappling hook, Sonic ran really fast, Mega Man ripped the limbs from his fallen opponents, grafted them onto his body and used them to take down a robot cartel one by one. All you can do in Insecticide is run, jump and shoot one of six different weapons. The only cool gun in the bunch is the Amberizer (a canon which freezes enemies in amber), which you get to use once before the end of the game. It's really too bad, because insects offer a world of gameplay possibilities: they fly, walk on walls, inject their prey with venom and suck the liquefied remains... okay, scrap that last one, but you get the idea. Why let Peter Parker have all the fun? He was just bitten by a radioactive spider: Chrys is a radioactive spider! Mission objectives range from “after that guy!” to “go find the missing lever.” Each stage features only a couple types of enemies. I guess there's nothing outrageously wrong with these levels -- the play control is fine -- but compared to the other half of the game, they're uninspired. Banjo-Kazooie this ain’t.

Detective stages are another beast entirely; lovingly crafted and drenched in enough detail to make players want to seek out every nook, cranny and crazy side character. Like the action stages, Chrys moves with the WASD keys and looks around with the mouse. In the upper-left corner of the screen sits a radar, which displays a question mark or character portrait whenever Examination Areas are near. With a single press of the space bar, the camera zooms in to a locked view, allowing the player to move a cursor around, grab items and access the inventory at the bottom of the screen. Most of the puzzles consist of finding clues and dragging items onto suspects. These stages may not be any more challenging than the action stages (which offer ample health ups and halfway points), but that doesn't keep them from being a blast. They immediately bring to mind classics like Day of the Tentacle. It's hard to describe, but the world just feels so unbelievably solid that you just want to hang out there. It's a combination of skilled craftsmanship from adventure game veterans and a rich 3D engine that lets you poke your noise in people's business, instead of having to view the world from a distance. Detective stages consist of a single highly detailed room, and yet they never feel the least bit claustrophobic. I haven't had this much fun exploring in an adventure game since Under a Killing Moon!

The divide in quality between these two modes is even apparent in the script. Insecticide Part 1 has a hard broiled narrative with great lines like, “They had all the answers, and she had a clip full of questions,” and, “Fact is, the kid always slept with one eye open, ‘cuz the stuff she saw when she closed her eyes was worse than any back alley in Troi.” I played that last one twice, just to hear it again. The detective stages have plenty of little jokes peppered throughout. Examine one of Precinct #47’s many Plaques for Heroism in the Line of Duty and Chrys says, “I expected the previous owners to come back for them, but they're ours now.” But in the action stages, the writing sort of falls apart. Roachy infinitely loops mission objectives (“Find those bombs! Find those bombs!”) and enemies shout incessant voice clips, the likes of which ceased being amusing around the time they stopped making Gex games.

One problem with both modes is the in-game save system, or rather, the lack thereof. Sure, Insecticide Part 1 saves automatically after each chapter, but if something comes up and you need to quit in the middle of a level, none of your progress is saved. That's inexcusable. I'd rather a Final Fantasy VII save point system. Hell, I'd rather a Resident Evil save point system with limited typewriter ribbons. The only way it could be any worse is if they used NES passwords. You know, where you had to write down 56 characters, and the 0's looked like O's? Yeah. On second thought, maybe that would have been better.

At least the game ends on a high note, thanks to a vertigo inducing skyscraper climb and the game's singular boss battle. And while I was never made to care about Chrys' mysterious past ("It's a cliche I try to keep to myself," she quips), the last few seconds reveal an unexpected plot twist that left me wanting more.

IN CLOSING
More than anything, Insecticide reminded me of Monkeybone, a supernatural comedy loaded with promise that fell short of being a classic. In Monkeybone, a cartoonist gets in a car accident and wakes up in Downtown, a jazz lounge limbo, home to coma patients and hallucinatory monsters. The Downtown sequences end all too quickly, replaced with wacky set pieces involving Chris Kattan running around being “funny.” Like Monkeybone, Insecticide Part 1 introduced you to wonderful, expressive characters and a city so crammed with detail you wanted to crane your neck for a better look, then forced you into questionable action sequences. It's like being invited to the Magic Kingdom and then told that in order to earn your keep, you must climb Cinderella Castle and clean every window.

It was hard to settle on a score for this game. I liked it despite its flaws. With a little more work (not to mention a proper save system), Insecticide Part 1 could have been a classic, right up there with Gabriel Knight and Tex Murphy. I'm not sure if chopping the game into two parts was the best idea, other titles give you more bang for your buck, but I still recommend you give Insecticide Part 1 a try, if only to walk the mean streets of Troi, gaze at the glowing green sky, and play police report Mad Libs with a six foot tall talking purple Rhino Beetle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SunAge Review

SunAge, developed by Vertex4 and published by Lighthouse Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Lengthy campaign, innovative base building mechanics, preferred unit targeting, map layouts encourage aggressive play, 2-D graphics don’t look terrible
The Not So Good: Can’t select diverse units, can’t adjust difficulty, special abilities must be micromanaged, deathmatch-only multiplayer, still has bugs
What say you? An old-school real-time strategy game that has a couple neat ideas but is missing some modern features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The game that ushered me into the world of real-time strategy was Command and Conquer: Red Alert. There’s something to be said for simple strategy games where all you do is mine resources, build units, and blow stuff up. SunAge is a game that attempts to bring that nostalgia back in full force, complete with 2-D sprite-based graphics, simplified tech trees, and lots of units. This game was actually released in Europe late last year (and the U.S. earlier this year), but I’m checking it out after a couple of patches (which, according to what I have heard, is a good thing) and seeing if SunAge invokes fond memories of games past.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
When you hear “2-D sprites,” your expectations probably are not going to be high. Well, surprisingly, SunAge actually doesn’t look that bad. The units may be small and you can’t zoom in or out, but the landscapes are varied and well-detailed and there are some modern fog and lighting effects present. The weapon effects can be good on occasion, although unit damage models are certainly not breathtaking. You can tell the game uses 2-D buildings and units, but it never detracts from the gameplay, so I don’t have a problem with it. You don’t need top-notch graphics to have a top-notch game. The voice acting, while not terrible, can get annoying to listen to after a while. I like the minimalist background music as it coincides with the tone of the game. Overall, SunAge isn’t as horrific as you would think, so that’s good.

ET AL.
SunAge is a classic real time strategy game: collect resources, build your base, form an army, and attack the enemy. The meat of the game is contained in the lengthy single player campaign that will keep players busy for a while. While the story is not very exciting, it does give you the chance to test out your strategic mettle. A tutorial is integrated into the campaign, but the messages that pop-up are annoying and truly interrupt the flow of the game since you must click in order to dismiss them. SunAge does not autosave during a mission, and since the level of difficulty is quite high, you'll have to manually save your progress early and often. Multiplayer is a very standard affair: an in-game browser lists games (most of the time) and you can join free for all or two-on-two games for up to four players. There are a number of maps to choose from, but the deathmatch-only gameplay doesn't offer the variety present in a lot of contemporary titles. In addition, there are no alternative victory options or other settings to customize your experience.

The first thing you'll need to do is collect resources. There are four (blue, green, yellow, and red) that are required for increasingly more sophisticated units. The developers take advantage of this by designing the multiplayer maps with the high-level resources located at hotly-contested crossroads. This encourages aggressive play, which tends to make multiplayer matches action-packed. These resources are used to purchase the typical buildings of any strategy game: a resource collector, unit-producing buildings, and a research lab. The one innovation that SunAge adds to the equation is the upgrade module, which may be morphed into a defensive structure, or increase the population or resource cap. SunAge borrows (steals) a mechanic from Perimeter in that all buildings must either be adjacent or connected by power lines. This makes it so you can find enemy structures easily and speed up the end-game: a great feature, even if its not completely original.

A very important part of any strategy game is the user interface, and SunAge lacks a couple of important features. First, some good news: leaders can be attached to squads to increase their effectiveness, and partial squads can be combined to create a full-strength unit. You can also queue actions by holding down the shift key: movement, building, repair, and combat. In addition, you can preferentially attack certain enemy units (such as leaders) by clicking directly on them. Now, the bad news: you cannot select mixed units, like infantry and tanks. This drastically increases the micromanagement and, subsequently, annoyance found in the game. You can choose the facing of units and their formation by holding down the right mouse button (just like Rise of Nations), but it doesn't work very well at all, usually resulting in units strung out and facing the wrong way. The ever-important minimap scrolls in SunAge, a truly annoying “feature;” it is imperative to show the entire battlefield on the minimap, or what's the point? This, coupled with not being able to box-select diverse units, means SunAge tries its best to make the game hard to play.

Units in the game are very typical: infantry, tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft, and so on. There are some neat unit attributes, like bio-mechanical troops, but in the end there is nothing original here that would require new strategies that haven't been used in previous games. Special actions, like switching from regular rifles to sniper rifles, requires manual input, which (again) increases the micromanagement. Combat is a pure rock-paper-scissors system that is clearly listed in the detailed unit attributes, so if you've played any strategy game in the past 10 years, you'll figure out what to do here. The AI is just O.K.: they will attack aggressively, but computer opponents will also stop for no reason and make random, undirected attacks on occasion. The difficulty in the campaign results from being completely outnumbered, rather than using advanced tactics. This severe difficulty can't be changed, which makes SunAge appropriate for only the most hardened strategy veteran.

IN CLOSING
While SunAge has a couple of things going for it, its shortcomings overshadow any potential for satisfying strategic gameplay. There are definitely things I like: the base building, targeting specific units, and (gasp!) even the graphics (well, I don't hate them, so that's something). But there are more things I do not like: the static high difficulty, the poor interface, and the level of micromanagement. I don't mind a game that offers up some old-school charm, but it should come with at least a couple of new-school features. Apparently, SunAge had a whole bunch of nasty bugs when it was released, and, even with the latest version, they still crop up: making a free-for-all 4-player multiplayer game gives me an error message. So, in the end, SunAge is intended for a very specific crowd: experienced strategy gamers who would like a blast from the past in the present. Everyone else, look away.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Martians Vs. Robots Review

Martians Vs. Robots, developed and published by Tommy Twisters.
The Good: Several multiplayer game modes, random and custom maps, multiple weapons to research, supports Windows and Mac
The Not So Good: Tedious single player, asteroids require way too many hits to destroy, default weapon stinks, no AI bots for multiplayer
What say you? Asteroids goes online with unexciting results: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the more iconic video games is Asteroids. Sitting in your triangle, shooting squares at large blobs, two-tone music in the background: good times. There have been numerous attempts at recreating this arcade classic, and now you can add Martians Vs. Robots to the list. This title takes the action online, adding in classic first person shooter game modes, and also contains a single-player campaign for those who like to do it alone. Will this new game innovate the classic mechanics?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Martians Vs. Robots puts 3-D graphics in a 2-D world, and the result is decent but certainly not overwhelming. All of the objects in the game are detailed well enough, but they become repetitive very quickly: the same sized asteroids all look the same. Even the original Asteroids had different colors. The weapon effects are nice, in addition to the trails left by the ship engines. The backgrounds are disappointing, though: just a stark (but realistic) black instead of the artsy nebulae that usually populate space-based titles. On the sound front, we receive the typical array of effects: weapons blasting, asteroids exploding. This is set against stereotypical but not terrible background music. Martians Vs. Robots offers up exactly what you would expect for an independent arcade title: not a great presentation, but not terrible, either.

ET AL.
Martians Vs. Robots takes the arcade gameplay of Asteroids and kicks it up a notch. First, the game introduces some multiplayer modes that have been borrowed (stolen) from first person shooters: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and a cooperative mode. These modes fit the style of the game well enough, although it’s very difficult to find anyone to play against and the game lacks AI opponents for the multiplayer modes. The single player campaign features more traditional action-oriented gameplay: shooting asteroids and eventually enemies. The campaign isn’t very exciting, especially early on: your single objective is to destroy everything in a short amount of time. Levels can be randomly generated, which may sound impressive but the obstacles (asteroids, electrified barriers) are seemingly easy to place automatically. It’s also very easy to make your own custom maps: a simple text script (explained in the manual) places all of the objects. In addition, Martians Vs. Robots is available for both Windows and Macintosh systems, so almost everyone can experience the hot shooting action. While the game lacks a tutorial, the manual does a good job explaining the interface and the mouse-driven controls are easy to learn.

Where I feel Martians Vs. Robots trips up is in the gameplay department. There are a number of things that the game gets right, but overall the result is disappointing. First, the good news: you can research a lot of different weapons (missiles, cloaking, teleporters, EMPs) over time that will make dealing with the enemy units much more interesting. The way you research is by collecting ore from destroyed asteroids, which, unfortunately, is a very tedious process. The problem is that it takes a lot of shots to destroy the smallest asteroid (around 20): that’s boring. It would have been a lot better to quicken the pace of the game by allowing for only a couple of shots to dispose of an asteroid and grant less ore for a single asteroid. As it stands, most of the game involves sitting there, endlessly pounding on asteroids until they give up their precious ore cargo: no strategy, no excitement. The game features a variety of enemies, from stationary turrets to moving UFOs; these tend to make the gameplay a bit more interesting, but you’ll still have to pound away at those stupid asteroids. The game’s physics engine allows for very quick movement across the board that tends to promote chaotic (and almost fun) multiplayer matches. The arduous pace of the single player maps makes playing alone much less desirable.

IN CLOSING
Martians Vs. Robots lacks the chaotic fun of Asteroids, and is instead tedious and subsequently boring. The overly strong asteroids take an undue amount of damage before being destroyed, which slows the pace of the game down dramatically. I’m no expert (am I?), but holding down the mouse button and aiming at slowly moving asteroids is not very stimulating. The game picks up in multiplayer, where the focus changes somewhat to defeating enemies in addition to slowly destroying asteroids. The selection of weapons to choose from is nice, but research occurs so slowly that you won’t get to experience most of them in a single sitting. I like the idea of adding research to the game, but the method of researching is a bit too drab. Martians Vs. Robots does offer up random maps and the control scheme is intuitive, but the basic gameplay is too slow and actually goes against the high speeds of the ships you will pilot. In summary, Martians Vs. Robots attempts to add some variety to the arcade space shooter, but several aspects of the gameplay are lacking in the intensity we’ve come to expect in the genre.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Immortals of Terra Review

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

The Immortals of Terra, developed by BrainGame and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Solid voice acting, looks like a million space bucks, has a plot that will keep you playing just to see what happens next
The Not So Good: Starts slow and has possibly the most disgusting puzzle of all time
What say you? A science fiction point-and-click adventure with a pedigree: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I hate adventure games. So you can imagine my dismay when I received one in the mail. I feel bad not doing a review of a game that a publisher spent money on sending me, so I have added a guest reviewer to tackle all of the adventure and role-playing games I dislike. Enjoy the magic of outsourcing!
-- James Allen

Ahoy! My name is Zeus Poplar, and I review RPGs and adventure games so James doesn't have to. (He's highly allergic to pollen from dialog trees, and fetch quests could be fatal.) It's a public service. A service that just happens to snag me free games. It's a long, hard road ahead. Somehow, I'll manage.

Immortals of Terra: A Perry Rhodan Adventure is based on the long running German science fiction series first published in 1961. With fifty years and over 2,000 Perry Rhodan novellas to draw inspiration from, the story can be a bit overwhelming for players new to the series. For example, I was more than a little baffled when Perry announced he was going "incognito" and suddenly transmogrified into a brunette named Laszlo Daikonu. Seconds later, a seven-foot tall alien with an elephant trunk told me he was feeling lonely and asked for a cuddle, and all was right again. As a fan of Michael Swanwick, I'm used to surreal science fiction. Just as long as the puzzles make sense, I don't care how weird the story gets, even if it's David Lynch meets Fraggle Rock on Deep Space 9.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The pre-rendered backgrounds range from Utopian government offices to cyclopean monuments built on the red moons of Jupiter. 3D animation brings the world to life; maintenance robots slide underfoot and the skies are filled with flying cars straight out of The Fifth Element. Each human and pizza-headed alien is rendered with that action-figure realism of next-generation video games. It's German engineering at its best, except for some spooky business involving Perry Rhodan's eyes: his shadow has holes where the eyes should be, as if the light were shining through an empty mask, an effect which sent me screaming out of the room in search of my blankie. Perry's running animation is natural, something most games haven't quite mastered.

But if you can't talk the talk, then don't walk the walk, and luckily, Perry Rhodan can do both. He speaks with a deep-voiced bravado that puts Hollywood action heroes to shame. (Rhodan constructed a galactic empire; Vin Diesel can barely put together a sentence.) He sounds a bit like an educated Duke Nukem, which works a lot better than you'd think. The talented vocal cast varies from prissy, four-eyed Blues (the aforementioned pizza-headed aliens) to desk clerks with Minnesotan accents, and a portly positronic technician who nearly stole the show when he said, "Have you seen my lunch box? I need to eat. No yummy for my tummy!" The music works mainly on the subconscious level, although a noteworthy opening theme brings to mind the lush jungle orchestra of Jurassic Park.


ET AL.
Immortals of Terra: A Perry Rhodan Adventure gains momentum after a slow start, in which you find yourself, Perry Rhodan, Immortal Regent of Terrania, under house arrest. A recent attack has left your head of security overly concerned for your personal safety, so your first priority is to sneak past the guards. Things get interesting when Perry finds his kidnapped girlfriend's notebook, which details an ancient and mysterious race of alien-angel-dragons who breathed fire and visited Earth 10,000 years ago.

The bottom of the screen contains the game's only visible interface, a black bar that displays inventory and subtitles. A context-sensitive cursor changes into a doorway icon for Open, spinning gears for Operate, a speech balloon for Talk, and a squashed oval with a pyramid gyrating upon it: for Walk, natch. I love the inventory-based dialog system, which places topics of conversation alongside physical possessions, though it did create a couple of odd moments. After a brush with a carnivorous plant from the Little Shop of Horrors, a miniature version of the Planet Venus Flytrap appeared in my inventory, right next to a pair of Thermal Goggles. At first I thought Perry had deftly snipped a sample of the plant, which he would no doubt take back to his laboratory for analysis...then I realized he was only carrying around a man-eating topic of conversation. There's a handy scan feature that makes anything clickable glow for a short time. It saves you hours of generic, "There's nothing remarkable about THAT!" messages, but for some reason, scanning requires a press of the S key. Combine that with the fact that you can only skip conversations with the space bar, and this otherwise mouse-driven game has you clutching your keyboard for no good reason.

The puzzles range from blindly piloting a remote controlled UFO down a ventilation shaft, to winning over an alien by feeding him/her/it (I was afraid to check) their favorite worm-burger (details abound, as Perry casually mentions the worms will try to telepathically engage aggressors in sympathetic dialog to save their slimy skins. Neat!). The developers did a fine job confining the player to five or six rooms until all puzzles had been solved, and then moving things along with a cut scene. Kudos to BrainGame -- not once was I forced to reload a saved game in order to retrieve some forgotten item on a now inaccessible planet. Player-friendly as it may be, this game does have the most disgusting solution to a puzzle I have ever encountered. How do you wake a sleeping man? To hear Perry Rhodan tell the story, all you need a cup of coffee and a handful of alien dung. I'll spare you the grizzlies.

While the overall tone of the game is serious, Perry Rhodan breaks the tension with sarcasm and not-so-subtle references to famous science fiction series. ("Carnivorous plant? Regent, I'm a bionic, not a botanist!") One of these in-jokes contains a highly questionable puzzle. In order to get through a locked door, I was forced to play the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind on a numerical keypad. Sure, it's something bored office workers probably do every day on their phones, but I have no idea how the hearing impaired (or just plain tone deaf) are supposed to beat this puzzle. Despite its space opera origins, Perry Rhodan has more in common with X-Files than Star Wars, thanks to a main character who thinks his way out of every challenge and a mystery involving seraphic dragons appearing on Earth at the dawn of recorded history. I admit, I wasn't expecting a Da Vinci Code twist on the sci-fi genre. It's best kind of surprise, a pleasant one, and I was hooked from the beginning.

IN CLOSING
Immortals of Terra: A Perry Rhodan Adventure is a fine science fiction game. A good main character is essential to adventure games, for they serve the dual role as hero and interface, spouting error messages as often as dialog. Perry Rhodan is a great main character. He looks like Daniel Craig, cracks wise like Bruce Campbell and, er, can apparently transmogrify into some guy named Laszlo Daikonu. No wonder they elected him Regent! If not for a few questionable puzzles, this game might have scored higher. But for twenty bucks, Immortals of Terra: A Perry Rhodan Adventure is a steal.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Make Bouncy Bouncy Review

Make Bouncy Bouncy, developed and published by ByDesign Games.
The Good: Straightforward controls and mechanics, no penalty for failure, challenging difficulty requires skill, appropriate for all ages, online score list, Windows and Mac supported
The Not So Good: No level editor, lacks power-ups and bonuses to vary the gameplay, can get frustrating and you cannot skip levels, typically only one way to beat each puzzle
What say you? A very simple platform game that’s also quite entertaining: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The draw of the Ninja Warrior-inspired summer show Wipeout is watching people fall and fall hard. If only we could get the same rush in computerized form, so that potentially serious injury would be avoided. Lucky for us, the platform game has offered high-flying jumps and lots of precarious situations over the years. The latest entrant in the genre comes in the form of Make Bouncy Bouncy, which is either a platform game involving a bouncing cube or hardcore pornography. Either way, it’s going to be a fun afternoon!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Make Bouncy Bouncy has some minimalist graphics, but they are actually pretty effective. The puzzles are brightly-colored and set against a static background; the game has a cell-shaded look, with bold lines for each object that makes the overall experience seem more animated. There are some effects present when you make a lot of bounces in a row and I enjoy the little phrases that emanate from your cube (aieeeeee!). Make Bouncy Bouncy is also full of some fanciful sound effects that fit the theme well: deflating, good audio cues, and humorous sounds of failure. The game also comes with a fine selection of classical music that is far less annoying (and far more relaxing) than what’s featured in a lot of games. So while Make Bouncy Bouncy doesn’t shock and awe, but it certainly gets the job done with the presentation.

ET AL.
Make Bouncy Bouncy is a platform game where all you do is jump. It’s better than it sounds. The game comes with almost 35 levels spread across four difficulty groupings (more are planned to be patched in later). This is an OK amount of content; the relative simplicity of the puzzle design makes the exclusion of an editor very curious, and being able to design your own creations would do a long way to increasing the replay value. You also cannot skip difficult levels in each set, which can get frustrating when you encounter a particularly hard puzzle. While Make Bouncy Bouncy does not feature any multiplayer (imagine how cool head-to-head or capture the flag would be), there is an online high score list and the title does support our hippie Macintosh friends.

Make Bouncy Bouncy features an extremely straightforward control scheme that utilizes the mouse: moving the mouse rotates your character, the left button moves forward, and the right button turns around. The camera panning speed is not quite fast enough for me (even on the maximum sensitivity setting) since I am used to quickly whipping around in first person shooters, but it’s not slow enough where it makes any of the puzzles impossible. The game uses a combination of timing and aiming as you ascend from platform to platform on your way to the exit. You will need to “make bouncy bouncy” at least once, jumping on different platforms in succession, in order to unlock the exit. There are a variety of different pad types throughout the game: moving, larger bounce, stick, and ones that create a useful respawn point. The combination of these different pads and their locations can make for some difficult puzzles that require a lot of precision. Make Bouncy Bouncy does not have any power-ups or other bonuses (like slowed time or a larger cube to make landing easier), so you are at the mercy of the level designer. Typically, there is only one way out (although the path may be mirrored), so there is not much room for creativity in Make Bouncy Bouncy and this reduces replay value. There is no penalty for falling off other than starting over on the floor. The game is certainly family friendly, with non-violent gameplay that’s good for the kids. It’s too bad, then, that there aren’t a lot of really easy puzzles (apart from the tutorial) for the younger crowd to enjoy. Still, Make Bouncy Bouncy’s creative gameplay and quality puzzles keep the game interesting.

IN CLOSING
Make Bouncy Bouncy’s simple gameplay is addictive. The game is challenging to be sure, but the levels never become unfair, tedious, or boring. The controls are easy to learn, although I would like to turn up the mouse sensitivity even more (although that might imbalance the difficulty). The designs are pleasing and the incorporation of different tile types adds some variety to the mix. The vibrant colors are appealing, and along with the sound design, a whimsical world has been created. Like most games, there is always room for improvement: more puzzles for the kids, varied solutions, and an editor would be welcome features. But if you enjoy precision-driven platform games, then Make Bouncy Bouncy should be on your list.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Full Metal Soccer Review

Full Metal Soccer, developed and published by Quanticode.
The Good: It’s different, integrated server browser, online ranking system, Linux compatible
The Not So Good: No single player modes, no AI bots for online play, only one arena, lacks weapon variety, needs power-ups or special abilities
What say you? This soccer game with tanks is only mildly entertaining and it lacks a lot of features: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Let’s face it: Americans will never fully embrace soccer (better known as “crappy football”). The combination of low scoring and the lack of violence (well, that could be debated) means it will never rise to the level of American football, basketball, or even the similarly paced baseball in the United States. If only they added inappropriate amounts of brutality to the game. Full Metal Soccer has answered that call, turning players into tanks. It’s a fairly unique premise; how does the game stack up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Full Metal Soccer are OK. The best aspect of the visuals is the level of detail on the ball itself: very bumpy. The tanks also have some nice worn textures on them that show the scars of battle. The lone arena lacks crowds and their reactions to make the environment seem more dynamic. Full Metal Soccer also comes with basic sound: some slightly annoying music that can be switched off, along with appropriate, if limited, effects for each of the in-game actions. For an independent game, Full Metal Soccer fulfills most of my expectations for presentation value: the graphics don’t hinder the gameplay and the performance is good, so you can’t really complain too much.

ET AL.
To put it quite simply, Full Metal Soccer is a soccer game with tanks. Well, my job here is done.

Oh, you'd like more details. All right, then. First off, Full Metal Soccer comes in Windows and Linux flavors to appease all of those penguin fans (big secret: I am actually writing this review on a Linux laptop...now my secret is out!). Full Metal Soccer is an online-only game, where you can host or join matches that are automatically listed on the in-game browser: a nice feature for an independent game. I certainly do not have a problem with online-only titles (I am a big fan of multiplayer action), however Full Metal Soccer lacks any sort of AI players, either as a single-player training tool or to fill out the Internet matches. Shelled! Online is another independent online-centric title, but it featured very decent AI opponents, so not finding anyone to play against was essentially a non-issue. That's how it needs to be done for independent games that, frankly, will not have the numbers to support a lot of matches. I was typically able to find a couple of opponents to play against, so the lack of AI opponents certainly hurts the game as a whole. Full Metal Soccer only comes with one arena; this would not be a big deal in classic soccer games, but since the pitch (I'm getting all technical) in Full Metal Soccer has numerous ramps and obstacles, more variety is a necessary feature. The arena that does exist needs more interesting obstacles to take advantage of the tank mechanics. Full Metal Soccer does have an online score list, for what it's worth. Still, overall the features of Full Metal Soccer are definitely lacking.

Just like normal soccer, the object of the Full Metal version is to get the ball into the net. Since you have a tank at your disposal, your options are increased. Your armored vehicle is equipped with a cannon for shooting opponents (which both damages and slows them down) or the ball itself, a tractor beam for collecting the ball, a speed booster, and a front bumper to hold the ball and ram people. It takes a lot of shots to completely destroy an opponent, which I suppose is meant to balance the game and not lead to a lot of wide-open scoring. You do much more damage simply running into them, so games can quickly devolve into a rugby scrum as everyone piles on other tanks near the ball's current location. The lack of options in Full Metal Soccer comes up again, since the tanks do not have any other weapons other than the basic cannon and the title lacks power-ups or collectible bonuses of any kind. Because of this, the games are actually quite routine and not terribly different from “normal” soccer matches, albeit with more shooting. The physics are OK: there are some collision problems with ball bouncing too much and getting away from your tank, but overall things seem to be believable enough. The matches can be fun and the tanks lead to some unique strategies, from shooting and ramming your opponents to shooting the ball in order to advance it. Games are quick and action-filled, although the mechanics do sometimes get in the way of fluid play. It takes a lot of damage to destroy a tank, and you respawn so quickly that eliminating the enemy is more of a nuisance than a viable strategy. In addition, after a goal, the ball spawns back in the middle of the field without sending each time to their respective sides; this causes a massive scramble to the center of the field immediately after a goal, and this actually favors the team that's not playing as well. In the end, Full Metal Soccer doesn't offer up enough to keep the interest level raised.

IN CLOSING
Full Metal Soccer is a good idea that's a number of features away from being a satisfying game. The basics of the game are fine: tanks playing soccer. It features plausible physics, a couple of different strategies not found in any other soccer games, and easy-to-find multiplayer matches through the in-game browser. However, Full Metal Soccer lacks a lot of features that should be a part of any online sports, independent or not. The lack of AI bots means you have to find someone online in order to play: a death wish for a small title. The tanks are also not equipped with varied weapons to add more strategies, and the arenas need more obstacles or power-ups like in Speedball 2. I'm usually willing to give a little bit of leeway to independent titles, but the single note of Full Metal Soccer thanks to its large lack of features cannot be ignored.