Monday, September 29, 2008

Belief & Betrayal Review

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

Belief & Betrayal, developed by Artematica Entertainment and published by Lighthouse Interactive.
The Good: Intriguing premise, worthy soundtrack, nicely directed cutscenes
The Not So Good: Detestable lead character, uninterruptible error messages, sporadic crashes, laughable puzzles, questionable translation, unfriendly interface
What say you? A frustrating point-and-click religious thriller so bad it could have players losing their religion: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Imagine a gray haired man with his back to the camera. His voice is flippant, shrill and condescending. He's Jonathan Danter, a journalist and something of a ladies man, at least according to his editor, who's worried he'll waste time “looking at girls in mini skirts and sexy tops.” But there's no way any girl could tolerate the presence of this goofy-looking goose in shoes. He's undeniably irritating, the kind of guy you couldn't wait to get away from. And that's before he busts out his lovable little chestnut: “cats whiskers!” It's the catch-phrase that's sweeping the nation, or at least sweeping me off to the darkest tides of madness, as my grip on sanity was loosened every time I heard it. Before he can score his interview with Cardinal Gregorio, Jonathan Danter is summoned to Scotland Yard, to help investigate the murder of his uncle, who he was told had died ten years ago. “I guess I'd better go to London,” Jonathan says. “Goodbye, cocktails with little umbrellas in them!” (I don't think his editor had much to worry about).

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Except for Jonathan Danter, the voice actors are mostly professional, with a standout performance from the woman who voiced Katrin McKendal; the German website, a voice sample proves what a fine character Jonathan Danter could have been. The music is tense and unsettling; it would fit just as well in a medieval title. Expect your patience to be tested by Jonathan's limited supply of error messages. Even though it's possible to skip (important) dialog with a left mouse click, you can't skip error messages. Before long I was afraid to try anything, so great was my Pavlovian response to the annoying pause and shrill, insulting comments from Jonathan. An error message should either fit the situation or be as generic as possible. Trying to feed a hungry bum and hearing, “I'm sorry, I left my Swiss pocket knife at home!” is simply absurd. I didn't say stab him, buddy. Visually, characters are fuzzy, almost like a game from the turn of the millennium. The CGI cutscenes are skillfully directed and the prerendered backgrounds are nicely done, if a bit sterile. Oddly enough, the best looking screen in the game is the main menu: a brooding gargoyle sits high overhead, watching the city burn at night. Then you click New Game and it's all downhill from there.

ET AL.
Belief & Betrayal has an interesting premise: it's a Da Vinci Code inspired adventure game (a Da Vinture game!) complete with ancient mysteries, secret societies and corrupt cops. Unfortunately, the story is lost in a sea of bad dialog and worse game design. Although it runs smoother than Immortals of Terra or Art of Murder, there's a weird pause after you click on a hot spot, so there's no telling if you clicked it or not until a second or two later. Menus are auto-hidden. Drag your mouse to the edge of the screen to see your diary, notebook or inventory. This means if you want to walk to the far side of a room, you might click your notebook by mistake. The problems with the interface don't end there: Hover the mouse over an object on top of the fridge, clearly marked as a tin. Try to pick it up. “Hmm... I don't think it's a good idea.” Look at the tin. “And what's this?” Try to pick it up. “I don't think it'd be wise!” Look at it again. “It looks like... a tin of tuna!” Only now is it possible to pick up the tin. I haven't had this much trouble interacting with objects since text parsers went out of style.

These kinds of problems also affect the storyline. In The Straw Men by Michael Marshall, a grief-stricken man named Ward visits his parents' home after attending their funeral. He notices something odd about the placement of his father's favorite chair (he was very particular about these things) and takes a closer look. Hidden in the chair is a note, written in his father's handwriting: “Ward, we're not dead.” Eerie and gripping, it's an opening that makes you want to stick with a story to the end. Belief & Betrayal has a similar scene, and (surprise!) they botched it. Jonathan Danter returns to his uncle's house for the first time in over ten years. "Now that's strange, those books are all messed up. Why should Uncle Frank have left these books in a mess?" he says, as if the books were torn to shreds. Then he instantly and inexplicably whips out his notepad and writes down “Book Sequence.” Not the actual sequence of numbers, mind you; just the phrase “Book Sequence.” It's a bit like a witness to a hit-and-run accident writing down the phrase “License Plate.”

Jonathan soon finds a cylindrical object on his uncle's television set. “This doesn't look like any fishing trophy I've ever seen!” he squeals. It's an ancient looking device, a combination lock with six roman numerals (did he really think it was a fishing trophy, or was he joking? It's hard to tell. I wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan's voice actor was listed as “Random Guy We Found While Chatting On Xbox Live”). So, we've got a mysterious device with six roman numerals and six noteworthy books with numbers on them. The solution is obvious, but for some reason I can't operate the device, so I try to combine it with the phrase “Book Sequence” from my notebook. Since I can't actually see the numbers, that should be enough to solve the puzzle, right? Wrong! Dragging the phrase “Book Sequence” onto the device merely zooms into its controls. I still need to set the combination lock, but I have no idea what the book sequence is, because the game just wrote down “Book Sequence.” That means I have to walk back to the library and physically write down the numbers myself. As a friend of mine said, “So the in-game notepad just provides outline titles for YOUR notes that YOU have to keep on ACTUAL PAPER.”

Belief & Betrayal isn't all bad. Once there seemed to be multiple solutions to a single puzzle: in order to bribe a bum, you could either discover a well hidden bottle of unopened wine in some garbage, or make your own “wine” out of tap water, an empty bottle, and a melted strawberry lollipop. The ability to switch between three characters is appreciated, especially if you get stuck and need to take a breather. But once I was able to play Katrin McKendal, the game began sporadically freezing when I'd hit spacebar to highlight hot spots. These glitches got worse as the game went on, until avoiding the spacebar wasn't enough to keep it from freezing. When I gave my photo to a computer hacker, he sat typing up my fake I.D., clackity clack clack. A minute went by, then another. Clackity clack. Clackity clack. By that point I had to put up with so many bad design choices that I honestly couldn't tell if the game had crashed again or if they were just messing with me (hint: it crashed again).

IN CLOSING
“How low can I rate this?” isn't the best thing to run through your head while playing an adventure game. It's better to think things like “Ah ha!” or “Eureka!” or even “Cats Whiskers!” And yet this game had me checking Out of Eight's archives to see if James had ever given anything a 2/8. It turns out he had, although I decided to rate it 3/8, because I'm saving 2/8 for a game that gives me rabies. There are some strong points here, but Belief & Betrayal fights the player every step of the way, almost as if it had a personal grudge. It's the kind of game that makes work seem fun. Once I even caught myself cleaning the bathroom so I wouldn't have to put up with Jonathan Danter and his bug-ridden, user-unfriendly, badly translated game. Buyer beware, although office managers might want to install this on their employee's computers since productivity would go through the roof.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Zatikon Review

Zatikon, developed and published by Chronic Logic.
The Good: Lots of unique units beget varied strategies, in-game chat makes it easy to find opponents, numerous game modes, multi-platform
The Not So Good: Unit icons need to indicate owner more clearly, no tutorial, bland graphics
What say you? A flexible multiplayer tactical strategy game that thrives on unit variety: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With an increased use of digital media, some PC games have left brick-and-mortar shelves in favor of exclusive online distribution. There are a lot of great games out there that you simply won’t find in stores. These can range from small, browser-only casual games to more sophisticated strategy titles, role-playing games, and first person shooters. Zatikon (what do you mean that’s misspelled, red underline?) is a tactical strategy game from low-voltage-but-high-fun developer/publisher Chronic Logic, the company responsible for a bunch of bridge building games plus this one and this one that they published. You know that I am always up for a good strategy game, so let’s see what the strangely-named Zatikon has to offer.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Unfortunately for Zatikon, we have to talk about the graphics. Zatikon is a Java-based application, and partly because of that is has uninspired 2-D graphics. The entire game plays out on a chess board, rather than semi-realistic terrain that could still use a chess board layout. The units are small and sometimes it’s really difficult to tell who is on which team as the warring factions are only differentiated with subtle hints of red and blue. A partial shading of the icon’s background would help immensely: look here and tell me which team the horse in the bottom left is on. Heck if I know. The sound fares better, if only for the pleasing music that I do enjoy. While I do not mind low-rent graphics, when they hinder the gameplay, I do have a problem.

ET AL.
In Zatikon, you attempt to capture the enemy base by moving one of your units into it. While this game is designed to be an online multiplayer experience, there are several ways of playing Zatikon. If there is nobody to play against, you can take on the computer in single player action. The AI opponent has unlimited units and starts out trivially easy, but the frequency of unit spawns and level of aggression increases with each successive game. It’s pretty easy to find other opponents since Zatikon comes with an in-game chat feature and selecting a game type will search for others who are also searching for others (huh?). The “standard” mode of play is a constructed match, where two pre-designed armies will clash for battlefield superiority. You can also assign a random army to each side by playing a random match; while this does let you practice with a wide variety of units, it may result in an unbalanced game. Cooperative matches let you and a friend take on the computer, involving something called “team work.” Your army can consist of 1000 points (you can have up to ten armies saved at a time), and each of the units in the game are assigned a point value based on how good they are. This prevents an experienced player from fielding a superior army simply because they have unlocked those units. You can’t field just any units, however: first, they must be unlocked by spending gold you earn by winning matches. The units that are unlocked are picked at random, so there is an element of chance introduced there. Zatikon lacks an in-game tutorial, but the game isn’t very complicated for anyone accustomed to strategy games and the online manual does a good enough job. One advantage of Zatikon’s Java roots is that the game will run on any “real” operating system: Linux, Macintosh, and even that niche product, Windows.

Zatikon has a lot of units: archers, black mages, clergy, commanders, horsemen, nature, scouts, shapeshifters, siege, soldiers, structures, white mages, and wyrms. And that’s just the classes, as there are typically four to six types in each class. There aren’t just cosmetic changes within and across the classes, either: it’s more than just more powerful attacks and health. Most of the non-conventional units have a special ability or three that make them special, such as sprouting serpents or switching places with an enemy unit. There are too many to mention, mainly because I forget a lot of them and the online list isn’t up yet. I will say that the special abilities are pretty well balanced, as there aren’t many “must have” units that I have come across yet that don’t have a possible counter. Each unit does have more standard attributes: life (health), power (attack), armor (armor), deploy cost, and actions per turn.

Zatikon is turn-based, and you start out with five commands (moves) per turn, but this can be increased by moving tacticians (or a similar unit) onto the battlefield. Thankfully, each person is limited to a 90-second turn, cutting down on the game time which is already pretty short (a typical game takes 10-15 minutes I would say). The large variety of units makes for some really innovative and truly unique strategies, and it’s quite satisfying to watch a plan develop successfully during your turn. The special abilities and unit attributes make for a wide range of viable tactics, and no two games will play out the same. There is no “build order” or preferred army composition, and this amount of flexibility makes Zatikon far more sophisticated than a lot of big-budget real time strategy games. Zatikon reminds me a lot of Dominions 3: a simple game graphically that has an intriguing strategic underbelly thanks to a diverse selection of units (although Zatikon is a couple of notches below that stellar title overall).

IN CLOSING
Zatikon is a fun little strategy game. The highlight of the product is the variety of units and their subsequent variety of abilities and attributes, and assuming you can look past the pedestrian graphics, then a quality strategy title is contained herein. The diverse selection of units is beyond the typical model change and stat alterations: there are some really unique units to deploy and a range of strategies to play with. Add in a handful of different game modes, a straightforward method of joining games, and multiple operating system support, and we have a strategy title with above-average longevity. While it would be nice for the game to come with cutting-edge graphics, it’s not necessary, although differentiating between each side’s units should be easier. I think that if the game came with high production values from a large publisher, Zatikon would be a hit and get a ton of press. Still, Zatikon is easy to learn and should prove to be a good game for those looking to get their feet wet in the turn-based multiplayer tactical strategy genre.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mount&Blade Review

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

Mount&Blade, developed by TaleWorlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Sandbox gameplay grants you total freedom, elegant mounted combat, strategy and trading aspects set this apart from other action RPGs, one of the most addictive games I have ever played
The Not So Good: Occasionally choppy, there should have been more reason to explore towns
What say you? An awesome open-world epic in the tradition of Darklands and Sid Meier's Pirates! 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Mount&Blade is a unique blend of action, role-playing and strategy set in the medieval (not fantasy) land of Calradia. Independently developed by a husband-and-wife team from Turkey, the game features something sorely lacking from most titles: mounted combat. While it's often described as a "medieval war simulator," that makes it sound too much like Dynasty Warriors. Mount&Blade is really an action RPG that just happens to have large scale battles and a world map that would fit at home in a strategy title. But as you'll soon read, there's a lot more to it than just simulating war.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
This game's faded, high fantasy palette has the look of a Tolkien art book. You can visit crowded markets and torch-lit castles or ride though snowy mountain passes and witness the chaos of a forest skirmish under the light of a full moon. Combat is visceral and brutally animated: wait until you whack someone over the head with a mace or cause their horse to tumble and roll over its rider (no horses were harmed in the making of this review). While the graphics aren't the best I've seen, they more than do the job. Mount&Blade is also DX7-compatible, a miracle for those with older computers. The voice acting is cheesy, but in a good way. There's no painful, drawn-out monologues: just Sea Raiders shouting threats in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. Each kingdom has its own map, town and battle theme music, which perfectly set the mood for adventure.

ET AL.
Mount&Blade has a character creation system similar to Oblivion, with Ultima-esque questions to help flesh out your history and determine base statistics. After creating a character, you begin the game on the zoomed-out map screen, similar to a strategic war game. Armies (represented by a single leader), caravans and farmers move between castles and towns in real time, though the second you stop walking, the game pauses. The first thing to do is raise an army. Just stop by the first village you see and recruit a few farm boys. They start out wielding pitchforks, but as they gain levels, they transform into archers, infantry or cavalry; each of the five kingdoms of Calradia has its own specialty, so you're better off turning Khergit recruits into cavalry, and so on.

From there you can do whatever you want. You can be a valiant knight, swear an oath to a kingdom and woo the ladies of the court. Or you can be Robin Hood, hire a few Merry Men and ambush caravans in the forest, using archers to pick off their overpriced muscle one by one. You can lay siege to a castle and ride into the fray on a mighty steed... or become an apolitical traveling merchant who buys fur in snowy mountain outposts and sells it in the lowlands. But don't forget to hire some guards, or you'll be robbed by the swift-as-heck Khergit raiding parties. There's a variety of quests to accept: Village Elders need help delivering wine and rounding up cattle, while nobles tend to be a bit more sinister, asking you to hunt down criminals and collect taxes (risking a peasant revolt). You don't even have to personally fight your own battles, just send your troops off to die while you sit on the sidelines sipping tea. If a certain king rubs you the wrong way, find a challenger to his throne. Yes, you can actually start a civil war and overthrow an entire kingdom, just for kicks.

Mounted combat is obviously the game's claim to fame. When you encounter an enemy on the map screen (or are randomly ambushed in town) the game shifts to a first-or-third-person real time battleground. The thrill of excitement as you ride into battle with your weapon held high is like nothing else. From horseback (or on foot) you can swing a sword, throw a hatchet, or fire arrows. Each weapon has its own unique style: swords and axes are best held to the side for gallop-by-headsplittings, while the lance is held dead-on and only effective at high speed. Basic commands such as "Charge!" or "Hold Position" are available via function keys, and can be directed either at infantry, cavalry, or your whole army. Each side can have well over a hundred troops (with reinforcements rushing to aid from outside the battle), though they come in waves with a maximum limit set in the options menu to ease strain on your CPU.

Heroes lend the game a much-needed human element. They can be found in taverns throughout the land, hired for a song (and $300), and outfitted just like your own character. Heroes also learn the same skills, which range from Surgery, which keeps troops from dying, to my personal favorite, Leadership, which simultaneously lowers salaries while raising morale. Each Hero has their own unique personality. Sometimes they even fall for one another, but don't be surprised if an Engineer objects to sharing quarters with a pretty young thief, or if the career soldier complains she's being rudely treated by a nobleman. You wind up playing peacekeeper a lot, but it helps define your party. (One of these days, I'm going to hire nothing but cutthroats and scoundrels.)

The most unique thing about this game, aside from the mounted combat, is the lack of plot. You aren't the chosen one; there's no great evil to topple. You're just a guy (or gal) in a medieval world, free to do whatever you like. It's unbelievably liberating to be able to load up a game and mess around without feeling like you're shirking your duties as Grand Savior of the Planet. As much as I love epic storylines, sometimes they're at odds with open-world gameplay: see Penny Arcade's hilarious take on Shenmue. Just as in SimCity or Master of Magic, the lack of an epic storyline didn't bother me one bit.

As with any game, there are some problems. Battles were sometimes choppy, even though the settings were auto-detected to scale to my modest graphics card. Towns also felt a bit vacant: except for Heroes and merchants, the people walking about don't have much to say. Thanks in part to an almost overly convenient menu that pops up asking where you'd like to go before you even enter a town, there's not much incentive to personally walk the streets yourself. And that's a shame, since towns are nicely designed and always gave me something to look at on the rare occasions I explored them out of necessity.

I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. Have I mentioned that if you use blunt weapons, you can capture prisoners and ransom them to their families or sell them to a slaver (try doing that in a mainstream game!)? Or that you can build a home and fortify your village against attack? Or that when I was given my village by the king, it actually pissed off some local baron who considered the town his own (he hated me, even though we were sworn to the same king!)?

IN CLOSING
My thumb aches with pain. I've got Gamer's Claw from clutching the mouse for too long. Usually, I begin writing these things days in advance, but this time, I didn't get started until the day of the deadline. Even as I tried to write this review, I had to stop and load up the game -- just to check out the official name of the Claimants, I swear! Twenty minutes later, I pried myself away, but only after training 19 Spearmen. Without a doubt, Mount&Blade is one of the most addictive games I have ever played. There's a scene in Ghostbusters where Peter Venkman says, "I guess they just don't make them like they used to." "No!" Ray snaps. "Nobody ever made them like this!" That quote kept playing through my head as I clocked in hour after hour of Mount&Blade. As much as it has in common with classics like Darklands, Elite and Sid Meier's Pirates! (don't blame me for the exclamation mark, blame Sid), Mount&Blade is very much its own thing. The scope of this game is amazing. It hearkens back to games of the yesteryear, when, free of things like hundred man high-rez art teams and Hollywood screenwriters, RPGs were as vast and limitless as modern titles are minutely detailed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 Review

FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3, developed by Techland and published on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Unique style of racing, graphics are mostly good
The Not So Good: Difficult to drive and there's no tutorial or manual to help, easy AI is still challenging for beginners, single races are pointless
What say you? It’s unique to be sure, but it's tough to learn and different doesn’t necessarily mean better: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If I know one thing, it is European stadium dirt bike racing. Just kidding. Actually, I saw this on Gamer’s Gate and said, “huh, that looks different.” So here we are, a review of FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3. I am a fan of quality racing simulations and it's always good to try something new (like Brussels sprouts). Plus, the developer is responsible for Xpand Rally, which was a good game. Off to the races!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 uses the Chrome engine that was implemented in previous racing games, and the result is generally high quality. The drivers are highly detailed and probably look like their real-life counterparts (because we all know what Rune Holta looks like). There are some shadowing issues (especially when the riders are on the podium), but they do look realistic. The bikes and stadiums also take their cues from real life, putting you in the middle of a believable environment. The only sore spot of the graphics is, surprisingly, the dirt: it looks more like a solid cloud than a collection of particles. Since you'll be seeing dust pretty much all of the time, it is a noticeable shortcoming. The audio fares much worse: while the bikes sounds are fine, the commentary is atrocious. The game combines loud and soft sound bytes that are welded together to make for some really outdated commentary that belongs in the early 1990's. The music is also not that good, although the disjointed commentary overshadows it completely. It's too bad the Chrome engine does not provide good audio content, because FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 looks fine.

ET AL.
FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 pits four riders against each other in a four-lap shootout, tearing around short dirt and gravel tracks. This in of itself is a unique take on racing, more akin to monster truck rallies than your typical motorcycle or auto racing event. The game comes with pointless single races (the four-lap format doesn't lend itself to a minute-long race), a single tournament, or the entire grand prix season. The game comes with all 15 drivers and 11 tracks features in the 2008 season, so that's pretty cool (it's amazing what an official license will do!). While only four riders race at the same time, you will participate in four races during a single tournament, with the drivers earning the most points moving on to the eight rider semi-finals. A complete tournament only takes about ten minutes from start to finish, assuming you simulate all of the races your rider skips. The grand prix gives out points for each event throughout the year and includes a garage to make small tweaks to your motorcycle. There is also support for online multiplayer, but I never saw anyone else in the in-game browser, so I can't say how this part of the game fared.

So FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 features everything the real series does, how does the racing stack up? Well, I have played my fair share of racing games, both simulation and arcade, and I had a heck of a time getting used to the mechanics here. The game doesn't come with a tutorial or manual to tell you how you should drive; translating what the background movies are showing (or what the AI drivers are doing) into controller actions is difficult. Making things more frustrating is that the “easy” AI drivers are still very capable competitors: not a good thing for a beginning rider. There is also a very fine line between clean racing and being disqualified. “Exclusions” are very common when you are starting out, as running into another competitor or going too far to the inside of the track result in a last place finish. Because of the lack of tutorials and the inherent difficulty of the semi-realistic physics, I can only recommend FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 to followers of the series that know how to drive these vehicles in an expedient manner.

IN CLOSING
FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 delivers exactly what it should: all of the tracks, drivers, and racing action that the real series has. The graphics are pleasing (although the sound is definitely not), multiplayer support is there (although apparently not used), and the AI drivers are capable opponents. However, the lack of a manual and tutorial and the style of racing bring a large learning curve that most people probably won't be able to overcome. The racing can get good once you learn how to drive the game, but the niche status of the sport and its truly unique driving limits the overall appeal. If you don't know what speedway grand prix racing is, then there not much reason to play FIM Speedway Grand Prix 3 unless you can adapt to the unique style of racing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Multiwinia Review

Multiwinia, developed and published by Introversion Software.
The Good: Numerous game modes with customizable rules, speedy action-oriented gameplay, several viable strategies per game, simplified controls, distinctive graphics and sound, competitive AI, bonus crates for unpredictability
The Not So Good: Can't customize control scheme, all game modes are essentially the same and some are poorly balanced, randomized (or weighted in the loser’s favor) crates can dramatically (and unfairly) impact the outcome, no random maps or editor, lacks end-game stats
What say you? A real time strategy game for those want their action fast and furious: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Strategy games can be roughly divided into two categories: “slow” and “fast.” Sometimes you want an experience that progresses at a methodical pace like Europa Universalis or Sins of a Solar Empire, and sometimes you’ll prefer a quicker game like World in Conflict or Company of Heroes. There’s something for everyone, unless you don’t like strategy games, in which case you’re reading the wrong site. On the fast side of the strategy balance is Multiwinia, the latest game by Introversion, the developer responsible for DEFCON and Darwinia. Since they are porting Darwinia to something called an Xbox 360 (yeah, I’ve never heard of it, either), they needed to include a multiplayer aspect to the game, and thus Multiwinia was born.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Multiwinia retains the retro style of Darwinia: 80’s-style 3-D landscapes with a minimalist presentation. The result is an effective theme of an early computerized world. The look is certainly distinct; even though the graphics are simple, they are well designed from the flat Multiwinians to the in-game objects. The explosions and fire effects are also done well, making you almost feel sorry for all of the little digital people you are slaughtering. Almost. Despite what would seem to be simple graphics, Multiwinia has surprisingly high system resource use: while low settings can be used on a wide range of machines, high settings brought lower-than-expected performance. Multiwinia doesn’t really have any music (and certainly not the memorable theme from DEFCON), but does include a host of battle effects and screaming that is disturbingly beautiful in a disturbing way...disturbingly. No game looks and sounds quite like Multiwinia (well, except for Darwinia).

ET AL.
As you could probably tell from the title, Multiwinia focuses on multiplayer and lacks a single player campaign or story, just like Sins of a Solar Empire. However, you can play any of the game modes against the AI, and I’ll comment on its effectiveness later. The two tutorials, along with the manual, teach the basics about the game; in addition, all of the game modes are preceded with short explanations right before the match starts. It still takes a couple of matches to understand what’s going on, since there is rarely time to sit around and do nothing (games last 10-15 minutes by default). Each of the six game modes come with eight to ten maps with a maximum of four players: while this is a good number, the lack of randomized maps and an editor means Multiwinia can get repetitive after a while with the same old maps. Multiwinia comes with plenty of options to tailor your game experience: time limit, scoring mode, starting powers, sudden death, AI difficulty, reinforcements, armored units, turrets, and crates can all be customized. You can also introduce handicaps to help out losing players, increasing their spawn rate and giving them more powerful crates. While these are completely optional, they are on by default so they likelihood of them being activated online is high. Handicapping is generally unfair (which is the point): 2nd place gets frequent super powerful weapons to promote a comeback and keep certain victory for the leader just out of reach. For some reason, all of the time you spend customizing your rules is lost, as the game resets all of the options after each match.

Unlike the typical strategy game that only contains one (or maybe two) game mode, Multiwinia comes with six that take a lot of their cues from first person shooters like Unreal Tournament (not UT3, the good ones before it). All of the game modes are all essentially the same (capture stuff), but the way you go about capturing stuff is varied. Domination mode involves controlling spawn points where new Multiwinians will appear periodically; it is the most straightforward of the modes and also the least interesting in the long run. King of the Hill adds zones to occupy as an additional objective; you’ll have to balance gaining points by occupying the zones and capturing spawn points to gain additional troops. Capture the Statue presents a heavy object that must be lifted back to your base, similar to capture the flag. This mode usually concentrates the action to a specific location (where the statues is) and can introduce some tense back-and-forth action. Blitzkrieg is similar (identical?) to onslaught from Unreal Tournament: linked flags must be captured in succession. This mode has worked well in other games and it’s fun here, too; the action is concentrated to a couple of key locations at a time, instead of spreading out the carnage as in the previous modes. Rocket riot involves a three step process: capture solar panels to fuel your rocket, load Multiwinians onto the rocket, and then launch. It can be extremely difficult to stop a launch once the rocket is fueled, since the rockets are guarded by turrets and the person in the lead is in the lead for a reason. This mode is better in theory than it is in practice, since the winner has really been determined once fueling is complete unless its really close. Lastly, assault (UT, anyone?) puts one person on offense with lots of reinforcements against a fixed defender with lots of turrets, and then the sides switch to see who can do it faster. If the attacker fails to destroy the objective within the time limit, the defender automatically wins without having to switch sides. I found the assault mode unfairly favors the defender: not only do they get turrets that are difficult to defeat without the use of crate powers, but the defender also initially owns most of the land area and gets almost all of the crates! If anything, the attacker should get the nod, so that you can actually reach the objective in the fixed 15-minute time period. You waste so much time throwing troops at almost impenetrable turrets that assault mode isn’t very much fun. While none of these modes are terribly original, it is unique to see them all together in a real time strategy game.

There isn’t any resource collection per se in Multiwinia, but controlling the spawn points located around the map will create new units. A feature that serves up some variety is the inclusion of crates that drop in from the sky. These can either appear in random locations or be weighted in favor of the loser to allow for a comeback. There are a lot of crates that can appear, and not all of them are good. You can get APCs, turrets, bombs, meteor strikes, nuclear subs (a reference to DEFCON), and air strikes as more conventional weapons. A number of creatures can be hatched by placing eggs, ant hills, or by chance. You can also unfortunately find infections, fire, or trees that can catch on fire. The possibility of finding something horrible decreases the amount of troops you’ll want to commit to capturing a crate, although the more troops there are the faster it will become yours. You can save deployable items for a more opportune time and really take it to the enemy. More exotic crate items can be disabled by selecting the “basic crates only” option before a game starts. A significant, powerful crate early on in the game can doom your chances of victory: a nuclear barrage or an ant hive placed near your initial spawn point will almost certainly mean defeat. The tactical aid system from World in Conflict would probably work well here, removing the luck associated with the crate drops. Since kills aren't used for anything (they are just a by-product of the objectives), you could incorporate them into getting good crate drops or even specifying which crates to receive, saving up for more powerful attacks. This wouldn't have to be the only way to play the game, just an additional option for those who wanted more strategic options instead of pure chance. The APC units (called “armor” in the game) are necessary to traverse the large maps in an expedient manner, and the powerful turrets (in regular, rocket, and flame varieties) are difficult to mount an attack against (the main reason that assault mode is unbalanced). You can control a turret manually in a first person shooter mode; this has been tried in other games and it’s completely unnecessary here since the AI will do a fine job and you can’t keep track on how your troops are doing elsewhere.

You can tell that the control scheme of Multiwinia was designed for an Xbox controller (whatever that thing is), as the inputs are relegated to using the mouse buttons (left click select, right click move or order), tab (select special ability), and shift (move) exclusively. This simplicity makes it easy to learn how the game is controlled, but strategy veterans will surely miss copious amounts of keyboard shortcuts and you cannot change or modify the controls in any way. Officers can be promoted by right-clicking on any Multiwinian: officers can give move orders to subordinate units by right-clicking on a destination, or assemble units into formation for more effective offense and organization by right-clicking next to the officer. APCs can be toggled between loading and unloading troops by pressing the right mouse button. Multiwinia also has a really innovative selection designed for one click: just hold down the left mouse button to circle-select troops near the pointer. It’s an elegant way to working around the typical box selection method and works well for choosing troops in a small area. The bottom of the screen lists all your available crate items that can be selected by using tab (or just clicking on them); I would like officers to be added to the list, although the icon size would have to be decreased. Multiwinia does an excellent job showing important objects on and off the screen using clear, large icons.

Joining a multiplayer game is a straightforward affair: all games are placed in one listing. You cannot join a game already in progress, even if you would be replacing an AI player. AI players will take over for dropped players, though. In another strange shortcoming, you cannot chat or say that you are ready in the game lobby; these features are enabled once you enter a game, but not being able to communicate with others in your server before the game begins is very weird. The peer-to-peer games offer some lag, depending on how far away the other players are, but I have not experienced the degree of connection problems seen in the early versions of DEFCON; having a maximum of four players probably helps. Playing against others is a blast, as the chaotic pace of the game really makes the time fly by. There is hardly any waiting in the game for, say, resources to accumulate, a common pitfall in the strategy genre. It’s all action all the time. You also have to make tough decisions on where to send your troops: a spawn point, a scoring location, or both? If you don’t want to embarrass yourself online, you can play against the AI. The computer on “hard” can be a challenge, but it's still not aggressive enough at the beginning of the match, tending to fall behind early. The AI is poorest in assault, there it features uncoordinated attacks that are quite easily defended; this may have more to due with the level design than shortcomings with the AI, however. Team games with the AI are essentially pointless: since you cannot communicate or give generic orders (defend or go here) to your computer ally, you just have to react to what they are doing. Troops are fairly self-sufficient: Multiwinians will capture locations and crates on their own without direct intervention, which helps a lot when tons of things are going on at once. Pathfinding is decent: troops will go around water and some obstacles but they have problems with mountains. Multiwinia lacks end-game stats other than the winning score: a surprising limitation.

IN CLOSING
So after all of those words (2,350 to be exact), what’s the end result? Multiwinia is very good but not great. The mechanics of the game can result in some fantastic strategic gaming, and those who thought World in Conflict was too slow will enjoy the breakneck pace of Multiwinia. However, each good thing usually comes with a small “but.” The game modes offer enough variety to produce some favorites, but they are similar and the assault mode heavily favors the defender, resulting in a lot of stalemates. The control scheme is simple for a real time strategy game, but it cannot be customized to your liking. Some very interesting crate items can be gathered, but they can be too powerful and influence the result too heavily. The AI can be competitive on the hardest setting, but it’s a slow starter. Joining a multiplayer game is easy, but you can’t chat until you’ve entered the game. The graphics are unique, but they are more power hungry than you would think. There are eight to ten maps per game mode, but there is no editor. Units can do some actions on their own, but the occasional pathfinding oddity can be annoying. And there is all of this wonderful violence, but Multiwinia lacks end-game (or online) stats. See what I mean? Admittedly, most (if not all) of these shortcomings are minor at best, but they add up to a slightly less-than-perfect overall experience. Multiwinia is a blast to play and the random crates breathe some unpredictability into each contest, but it’s a couple of features short of being a top-notch product.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Legend: Hand of God Review

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

Legend: Hand of God, developed by Master Creating and published by ValuSoft on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Superb combat animations, a handy side-kick, decent hack’n’slash gameplay
The Not So Good: Buggy audio, a skills tree in desperate need of watering
What say you? A great looking game in the tradition of Diablo, if only it played as good as it looked: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Help guide Targon on his quest to retrieve the magical woozit and defeat the evil foozle before really bad stuff happens to the Kingdom of Kingdomia. What am I saying? It's an action RPG! You run around, whack stuff, and collect loot. Legend: Hand of God starts off deep in the wilderness, so there's hours of exploration before the first town. The maps are large and crawling with monsters, and there are also a handful of encounters. Don't get too comfortable sitting around the fire, as those fellow travelers might really be Highwaymen.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The locations offer a lot of variety, from sunny fields with swaying grass to dark and misty graveyards. The graphics are gory and unusually cheery for a game of this type (though never intentionally over the top). As I ran, sparkling, through a field of pink flowers, a talking fairy guiding my sword, hacking monsters limb from limb until my clothes were soaked in blood, I began to wonder if the art designer was off his meds. There's a good deal of audio glitches, with actors reading dialog from other characters found later in the game. Save a woman's son and the text thanks you while the voice actress suddenly turns Southern and wonders what will become of her daughter. Targon randomly alternates between Superman confidence and Clark Kent insecurity. The music is a traditional fantasy score with Celtic influences, and an especially awesome theme is played whenever you topple a boss. It's the best victory song this side of Final Fantasy's fanfare.

ET AL.
A talking fairy serves as your mouse pointer and lantern, dynamically lighting caverns and moonless nights. She gave me a Navi flashback at first, always nagging me when she thought I should upgrade my boots or change my underwear. But she has some well written comedic lines, and, in time, I came to depend on her advice (“Run!”). Combat is enjoyable, if somewhat numbing, but once you get in the Zone, you’re hooked. You can assign attacks to your left, right and middle mouse buttons, though the middle is best used to zoom and rotate the camera. Battle animations are amazing, with the hero ducking to attack goblins and leaping to reach minotaurs, as opposed to other games, where you swing over a shorty’s head and whack at a giant's feet. I officially apologize for that earlier joke, because the art designers clearly knew their stuff.

At the start of the game, you pick two character classes out of ten, each with its own skills tree. I decided to play a Battle-Monk, a combination of Faith (Cleric) and Villain (Thief). When I took a look at my upcoming skills, I was more than a little disappointed. Except for Invisibility and two power attacks, the Villain class only offered passive skills like Critical and Dodge. The penultimate skills are some of the dullest I've ever seen. Play long enough and you can unlock Enemy Knowledge, which slightly reduces the enemy's chance of getting a critical hit. I can think of a better end-game skill for a Villain in about ten seconds: Nefarious Laugh. He tweaks his mustache, cackles "Nyah hah hah!" and enemies are either baited to attack or frightened and run away. It's a gamble, but it sure beats Enemy Knowledge.

When I tried to load a save and select another class, the game wouldn't let me. I could “continue,” but only after a save/quit. There's no going back to an earlier point if the player makes a mistake. This is fine in theory (it keeps things HARDCORE, yo!) but in practice, it's annoying as heck. Another problem is that skills quickly become obsolete. In Diablo 2, you could pump so many points into a first level skill that it was still useful even after better skills became available. Not so in this game. Upgrading the first-level Healing spell twice restores 55 health for 25 mana. Soon after, you can cast Blessings of the Keeper, which completely restores your health and gives you a 60 second buff all for just 35 mana. Why would you ever go back to Healing after that? You wouldn't. After two points, it becomes useless: serious balance issues. Blessings of the Keeper should have been saved for the mid- or end-game.

IN CLOSING
“The items are dull,” is the usual complaint from players of action RPGs. But my problem wasn't with the drops (which were fine). It's not just about finding junk and selling junk so you can buy more junk, it's about making a custom made hero, plotting your course, peering at those last few skills and wondering if they'll be as good as they sound. Looking into your future and wondering, "Is that all?" doesn't exactly make for compelling gameplay. But if you can't wait to get that Diablo 3 fix, you might want to give Legend: Hand of God a try. It even looks a bit like Diablo 3, with its sunny fields and controversial use of colors other than brown. Once I got into the groove, the combat was fairly addictive. And for all my complaints about the skills tree, the Faith class was better than any Action/RPG Cleric I've ever played, thanks to the thoughtful addition of lighting magic. But if you make a mistake and need to load your game, don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Now Boarding Review

Now Boarding, developed and published by Gabob.
The Good: Intuitive interface, concrete goals, nice graphical style, lots of purchasable items that impact the gameplay, AI assistants are helpful without being controlling
The Not So Good: Can get repetitive like most games in the genre
What say you? A click management game with a number of features designed for longevity and efficiency: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
You could devote an entire review site solely dedicated to casual games, as it seems like a new one comes out every day. Because of this, I like to highlight titles by independent developers, instead of the casual game “factories.” My unending crusade leads me today to Now Boarding, a game residing in the click-management category I am apparently fond of, considering the frequency at which I review similar titles. This particular title lets you manage an airline by routing flights, eventually upgrading your operation to a more complex (and more profitable) status.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
One thing Now Boarding has going for it is a successful theme. While the game is entirely in 2-D, there is a nice style associated with the title, utilizing cartoon-like graphics in an effective manner. Everything is color-coded and navigating through the game is very straightforward. I like the overall style of the game, and this extends to the sound design as well. Now Boarding features some great music that fits the retro-airport feel of the game. Also, it has appropriate sound effects, such as the “fasten seat belt” sound, and nearly constant eruptions of jubilation when people meet others who are going to the same destination. Overall, Now Boarding looks and sounds great, and it does this without having to resort to 3-D effects.

ET AL.
The first thing you’ll notice about Now Boarding is that you need to install Adobe Air, something I had never heard of until now. Apparently, it’s an Internet platform designed to run desktop applications on multiple operating systems, kind of like JavaScript. The bottom line is that Now Boarding will run in Windows, Linux, and Mac, so that’s cool. Once you fire up the game, you’ll notice three modes of play. The career mode is where you’ll be initially spending most of your time, as you will traverse five different episodes, one each for a different region of the United States and Europe. You will progressively unlock more airports and other amenities by earning fat stacks of cash. Now Boarding does a great job of providing very specific goals (like buy a hot dog stand) to meet in each episode, basically suggesting appropriate things to purchase to improve your service as you progress through the game: it’s a tutorial without being a tutorial (although there is a 10-second tutorial as well). Once you have completed the first episode, a continuous free play mode becomes unlocked, allowing you to play in a particular location for an essentially infinite period of time, rather than the once-per-month time frame utilized by the career mode. Survival mode ups the difficulty to the extreme, and is intended for those who have completed the game fully. Now Boarding has enough content to keep you busy for quite a while, and with a randomized passenger order, replays will be different.

In Now Boarding, you move airline passengers to their destinations to make the aforementioned fat stacks of cash. You do this by placing passengers on planes, making a route for the plane consisting of one or more stops, placing the plane on the taxiway, and then taking landing planes to a gate. These actions are all done with the mouse and the targets are fairly large and easy to click on, although selecting a moving passenger can be almost impossible. All of the operations at non-hub airports are automated, so all the passengers (or as many as can fit on the plane) will be loaded on and flown to the next airport in the queue you set (the final stop is always the hub). You are given a time limit, but as long as you aren’t forgetting people or making each flight stop at four or five destinations, then getting everyone delivered in time is fairly easy. You can also design routes to fly through bonus clouds that may grant faster fly times, happier clients, or money. You won’t directly earn any extra money by delivering passengers faster, but good service at specific airports will result in more business. Also, certain airports are more popular at different times of the year (like New Orleans for Mardi Gras) and will experience increased demand. Now Boarding also automatically saves your progress at the end of each month: take that, Spore.

The money you make from ticket sales can be used to purchase a “whole bunch” (that’s a technical term) of upgrades. You can get additional seats for passengers, paintings and plants for decoration, and food and entertainment for increased happiness to place in your terminal. Placement does matter, at least a little bit, as the passengers will actually travel around your airport to the services you provide: precious seconds can be lost with an out-of-the-way pizza stand. In addition, you will need to get higher capacity airplanes and more airports to visit. As I mentioned earlier, Now Boarding provides a list of appropriate upgrades as overall goals, making the decisions less of a guessing game. You will, however, have to make tough decisions on what to upgrade next: should I get a new airport and risk not having enough planes?

In order to help you out, employees can be hired in four areas: ticketing, customer service, gate attendant, and docking. The ticketing representative will seat people going to the same destination together for easy selecting. I found this person to be the most useless, especially once you get a gate attendant, as they will call customers over to a plane that has a flight plan to their destination. The customer service rep will walk around and make people happy. The docking person will take planes to and from the runway. Of all these people, I found automatic docking to be the most helpful. Your employees will also get better at their jobs over time, resulting in a more efficient operation. The game gradually introduces these positions over time and Now Boarding transitions from a click management game to more of a strategy game. The employees are slow by design and you could to their actions faster manually, but when you have a large fleet flying around and customers scattered around the country, the extra help is a necessity. The good thing about the employees is that you are still left with a lot to do even if you have all of the positions filled, namely designing the most efficient flight plans.

Really, Now Boarding is less about clicking speed or reflexes and more about overall planning and strategy. It’s the least amount of clicking in what you would call a click management game, which should make the game appeal to a larger audience who typically dislikes all of that manual labor. Now Boarding does have the nice level of controlled chaos that good games in the genre feature. The game is also open to varied strategies: you can use a true “hub” plan, where all flights are routed in to and out of a central airport, or a more Southwest-style approach of direct flights. Either will work, and it's this kind of flexibility that makes for an entertaining product. The more I played, the more I relied on the employees to run the minutiae of moving planes around the airport. They became a fundamental part of the gameplay, as I focused more on routing and less on clicking stuff. This lets Now Boarding transcend past a normal click management game and become more of a strategy game, and that's right up my alley. I also became heavily reliant on the plan feature, as it removed a lot of extra clicking and the AI employees were good at correctly loading and sending out planes, albeit slightly slower than if I manually did it.

IN CLOSING
Maybe I just prefer click management games, but Now Boarding has an impressive roster of features that enhance the basic tenants of the genre beyond your typical offering. It’s a click management game without a lot of click management, at least once you can afford good employees (which happens rather quickly). Most of the games in this genre suffer from extreme tedium and repetition, and while there is some amount of that here, the combination of AI employees and a different overall focus makes Now Boarding stand out. Early on the game plays like a click-management game, but after you get rolling, the experience changes to more of a transportation management offering. Either way, Now Boarding is really addictive, as exemplified by me missing the beginning of my favorite show. The copious amount of upgrades and randomized customers gives you a lot of value for the price (under $20). The upgrades aren’t just for looks, either, as the ones you choose impact your level of success. The game also suggests appropriate upgrades along the way, limiting the number of bad, expensive choices you will make. Overall, Now Boarding is very well done and quite entertaining, no matter what genre you place it in.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

GTR Evolution Review

GTR Evolution, developed by SimBin and published by Viva Media.
The Good: This plus all of the included RACE 07 features gives you a huge amount of content
The Not So Good: Seven new car classes and three new tracks isn’t much, arcade mode isn't arcade enough
What say you? A great standalone racing product, but a meager expansion to RACE 07: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Another year, another SimBin racing title. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as SimBin has been responsible for a series of quality racing simulations, starting with GTR and continuing through last year's RACE 07. This year's iteration is effectively a combination of SimBin's two series, taking the fantastic RACE 07 gameplay and adding in the GT cars from games past. GTR Evolution takes an interesting approach to the standalone expansion: existing owners of RACE 07 can buy it for $20, or new players can get both games in one package for $40. This is a win-win situation, as new players aren't missing any of the former content and don't have to worry about having to purchase two separate games, and continuing drivers don't have to pay full price. Since I am familiar with RACE 07, we'll examine what new things GTR Evolution brings to the table and also show how game scores can be misleading when dealing with expansions that include the original game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics and sound of GTR Evolution seem to be almost identical to its predecessor, other than adding the new car models into the game. This isn't a bad thing, though, as I thought RACE 07 had (and still has) some nice graphics, from the cars to the tracks to the little environmental touches. The new track environment seems to be spot-on, including the graffiti on the Nordschleife race course. The sound, I think, has been somewhat improved, as some minor effects that I don't remember hearing before are now more prominent: tire squeal is more pronounced, and the track announcer is more vocal. These two things bring the tracks alive and create a very satisfactory gaming experience. In addition, there is a new theme song that I do prefer over the old one. So while there is nothing of note added in terms of graphics and sound, the high level of quality has been maintained.

ET AL.
GTR Evolution has all of the robust features of RACE 07 with some additions. First off, GTR Evolution comes with the “R-Cade Extreme” mode, intended to be fast, quick, and action-packed racing. It doesn't really work, though, as the cars still handle too realistically. When I use full throttle coming off the corner in an arcade mode, I expect the rear wheels to stick, but not here: it's still too much of a simulation to be a true arcade mode. In addition, you can only experience the “R-Cade Extreme” mode using the new WTCC Extreme cars: an seemingly unnecessary limitation. The other major game feature is that you can download hot lap times from other drivers within the game, although you have to exactly match the car and track used in order to see them in the browser (and with 2,000 combinations, this is a tricky proposition). Downloaded replays come with the setup and a racing line, so this can serve as a great learning tool, assuming good drivers take the time to use the time trial mode and upload replays to the server.

As you would expect in a racing game, the rest of the additions come in the form of cars and tracks. GTR Evolution comes with three classes of GT cars (pro, sport, and club) and a number (usually five) of models per class. The game also comes with production versions of four of the GT cars, which add an interesting challenge: they are (obviously) a lot like the GT cars, except with crappy brakes. The GT cars also come with endurance (timed) race options for both quick races and season-long championships. The WTCC cars are now more extreme thanks to the appropriately-named WTCC Extreme class: the horsepower has been doubled for racing that's more akin to the overcharged GT cars. Add these new vehicles to the cars that were already in RACE 07 (WTCC (2006, 2007, and 1987), Mini Cooper, Formula 3000, Formula BMW, Caterham, Radical), and you have quite a diverse lineup of vehicles to choose from.

While the new vehicles are nice, the new tracks are disappointing: all you get is three flavors of Nürburgring. Although one of these flavors is the manly and lengthy Nordschleife (German words are cool), I was expecting a lot more tracks that would be more fitting for the GT cars. What happened to all of the tracks from the GTR games: they couldn't be imported into GTR Evolution? The game also lacks tracks from the 2008 WTCC season, although technically the only one missing is Okayama in Japan. Yes, 40 track variations (three here plus the ones from RACE 07) is a lot, but one year of additional work should produce more tracks.

As for the racing, it remains excellent. The GT cars hold the high simulation standard set by previous SimBin titles and they are fun to drive. I still prefer the slower, easier-to-handle WTCC cars, but the variety shown by the selection of vehicles in GTR Evolution will satisfy pretty much any racing appetite. The AI is tough as ever, and 100% strength will provide a great challenge for budding drivers. Online multiplayer isn't the most lag-free experience (probably because most (if not all) of the populated servers are located in Europe), but it is enjoyable though generally wreck-filled (brake is on the left). It should be noted that accessing any of the game's online options requires you to install Steam, even if you buy the physical retail disk.

IN CLOSING
Part of the reason why I dislike reviewing standalone expansions is there isn't a consensus how to score the game. Do you rate it as a whole for new users, or just rate the improvements? My stand has been that if I reviewed the former game, I'm basing my rating on the additions, but who knows what inferior review sites do. So here is the bottom line: GTR Evolution is fantastic as a whole, but the new features come up short if you are upgrading from RACE 07. $20 for an upgrade from RACE 07 to GTR is a bit steep for what you are getting, and the jump from RACE to RACE 07 offered more content than going from RACE 07 to GTR Evolution. The new GT cars are nice, but one track with three variations leaves room for a lot more. In addition, the arcade mode can't shake SimBin's simulation roots. GTR Evolution is more of a slight Mutation than a true Evolution. If you missed out on RACE 07, then GTR Evolution is an excellent racing game. There's no reason to pay $20 a month for good racing when GTR Evolution brings in subscription-free racing with excellent features. However, as an expansion, GTR Evolution is disappointing with how little it brings to the table. I still like the RACE series of games and, as a whole, GTR Evolution is my favorite non-Stock Car, non-arcade racing game. But the number of improvements and additions made from almost a year ago are not sufficient for owners of RACE 07.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Loco Mogul Review

Loco Mogul, developed and published by ApeZone.
The Good: Three different gameplay styles effectively combine, high replay value due to randomized maps, large degree of strategic freedom
The Not So Good: No in-game tutorial, unimpressive 2-D graphics, lacks competitive multiplayer, not many levels, buying out investors gives no gameplay benefit
What say you? A distinctive casual title that is part Minesweeper, part transportation simulation, and part click-management game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One could argue that the tycoon craze started when Railroad Tycoon was released way back in 1990. Numerous copycats and offshoots have been released since that hallmark title, simulating pretty much every interesting (and not-so-interesting) aspect of the world. And this brings us to Loco Mogul, which, at first, I thought that Loco Mogul was a game where you manage crazy Spaniards, but I was wrong. Instead, the “loco” is for that time-honored business management staple: the train. For whatever reason, the transportation management game seems to focus, more often than not, on trains. How will Loco Mogul differentiate itself among the hordes of mogul and tycoon titles?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The lowest point of Loco Mogul is the graphics. They aren’t bad, but they are simplistic 2-D graphics that seem archaic when most of the games in the genre have moved on to a three-dimensional presentation. I will say that the 2-D effects make the game easy to navigate, although some of the icons can get small and a zoom feature would be helpful on occasion. The level of detail is average, though you can clearly see what an icon or texture represents. Nobody will be blown away by the graphics of Loco Mogul, as they are functional at best. The game also comes with the typical railroad music and sound effects that any game with trains features. All right, enough of this, let’s get to the good parts.

ET AL.
Like most economic simulations, the goal of Loco Mogul is to make fat stacks of cash. You know: greenbacks, bones, smackers, bills, Benjamins, bread, ducats, loot, samoleans. That's all the ones I can think of for now. Anyway, you do this by exploring the territory for businesses and towns, laying down track, and then efficiently running the trains. Loco Mogul comes with only ten maps that are connected in a single-player campaign: you can run through them all in the matter of an hour or two. Fortunately, the maps are randomly generated so the layout is different each time you play. If this was not the case, interest in Loco Mogul would wane very quickly. Loco Mogul lacks an in-game tutorial (a player's guide is planned to be released soon, if it hasn't been already), but the game is generally intuitive enough. Multiplayer is also a missing feature in the game, either over the Internet or on the same computer, so you are only competing against yourself (there is no AI competition on the maps, either).

Loco Mogul has three distinct phases of gameplay culled from different genres, and they work together quite well. First, you will have to survey the hidden terrain for businesses. This is done much like Minesweeper: once you uncover a square, the game will indicate if any product-producing businesses are nearby with a numerical indication of many surround the current location. Since it can be expensive to uncover the entire map, there is some strategy involved in searching for goods. Since they are located in appropriate locations (fish near rivers, for example), the first phase of Loco Mogul is an interesting game of trying to maximize uncovered businesses while minimizing search costs. The surveying phase is also used to gather wood (by clicking on forested squares) for bridges and dynamite for tunneling through tall mountains.

Once you have discovered enough potential customers, it is time to lay some track. Here, your goal is to make the most efficient path between locations, minimizing travel time while not wasting a lot of money laying unnecessary track. You will have to level hills or go around them and also decide where to place stations. Stations cover a crossed area and cannot overlap, so you are commonly faced with choosing which adjacent stations get serviced and which ones do not. Placed objects can be removed with a right-click, eliminating poorly placed tracks that don't look right with no penalty. Leveling hills can come with a benefit: helpers can be unlocked that can lend money, uncover the map, chop down trees, flatten hills, scare away bandits, or allow you more time to run your trains.

The final phase of each level involved running the train. This is done through a turn-based click-management style mechanic. Each lettered station will provide goods intended for another station. Goods have different values and wait times before they disappear, so there is (again) strategy involved in which goods to pick up (although goods not picked up will lower profits across the board) and which order to do them in. The turn-based nature of the gameplay (you are only limited in the number of squares your train can travel, not in how long you take) lets you take your time planning out your route without feeling rushed like in almost all games in this genre. The amount of time you are given to run your trains depends on how well you uncovered the map's resources. Loco Mogul is actually pretty difficult: it is tough to balance spending and making money in an efficient manner, especially since all of the maps are randomized and you can't be sure of exactly where everything is going to be (that would be cheating, cheaters!). It took me a couple of run through to develop a good surveying technique, track design plan, and transportation model. It's rare to find games that make you develop three strategies in order to be successful. You can use your profits to upgrade your train to carry more goods at once or buy out investors in your company. While this does impact your final score, there is no benefit in the game to spending a significant amount of money on doing this. It would be nice if the investors granted some sort of permanent bonus like the helpers do to give you some real incentive for wasting your cash on them.

IN CLOSING
I will commend Loco Mogul for having three seemingly unrelated gameplay mechanics tie together quite well, resulting in a varied and subsequently interesting experience. You are never stuck in one mode for very long, so a brisk pace is kept as you progress through the campaign. Each of the three phases are done well and are equally entertaining, and I must say that I haven't played a game quite like Loco Mogul. The features could be more complete: the graphics are unimpressive and multiplayer would be interesting. In addition, the ten random maps could be bigger, which would make further campaigns seem not as repetitive and increase the replay value. Still, Loco Mogul works well and it's fun if you are looking for something different.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sword of the Stars Collector’s Edition Review

Sword of the Stars Collector’s Edition, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Lighthouse Interactive.
The Good: It’s still a good game
The Not So Good: Absolutely no reason to get this if you have the original (and especially the expansion)
What say you? An uncomplicated turn-based strategy game only for those who missed out the first time around: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Collector's Editions, or Game of the Year Editions, or Editor's Choice Editions, are made for one primary reason: to make more money on an old game. This particular old game is Sword of the Stars, which I reviewed and said it was good. Just to show you how many space strategy games I have reviewed, I initially thought Sword of the Stars was Lost Empire when I first received the Collector’s Edition before I played it again. I guess reviewing Sword of the Stars almost two years ago didn’t help my memory. As is my official policy, I will talk about the improvements made in the Collector's Edition (which includes the expansion I never reviewed) and leave the basics of the game up to my old review. Sound good? Too bad!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I didn't notice anything significantly different in the graphics or the sound, other than adding graphics associated with the new race the Born of Blood expansion provided. So there you go.

ET AL.
The upgrades contained within the Sword of the Stars Collector’s Edition come in two flavors: the improvements made by the Born of Blood expansion, and the goodies that come exclusively with the Collector’s Edition. First, the collectability of the Collector’s Edition: you get a bonus CD with artwork, music, interviews, trailers, and background on the races in addition to a book based on the game’s storyline. The book takes up enough room in the case to eliminate a paper manual, so there is a feature that has gone digital. I’m not the type of person that gets suckered in by shiny trinkets like a bonus CD, so there is nothing appealing about what the Collector’s Edition brings to the table. The extras are only mildly entertaining, giving some insight into the game and giving a look at some concept art that you could have found on the Internet if you looked hard enough. I would think that only the most fanatical fan of the series would think about paying for the extras contained herein. While the features are nice and all, it’s certainly not enough content to justify getting this Collector’s Edition if you already have the original and the expansion.

Now, for the included expansion. Since you can go back and read my review of Sword of the Stars, I won’t rehash the gameplay basics, but here is a short summary. Sword of the Stars is a turn-based strategy game that streamlines much of the game by relying on a semi-random technology tree and ship designs with three components plus weapons, set in a 3-D environment with a number of races that have subtle differences. It’s a pretty good game for beginners, as it strips away a lot of the inherent complexity that a lot of strategy games contain. Born of Blood adds several new features, most prominently a new race: the Zuul (There is no Dana, only Zuul). The Zuul are unique in that they need to constantly drill tunnels between planets for speedy travel, much like the humans’ randomly-placed nodes system but with more micromanagement. The Zuul also can enslave opposing races to boost production. The races in Sword of the Stars are basically the same with some minor differences: this makes it easy to switch between races during successive games, but also eliminates the potential for variety. Playing the Zuul is the same as playing any of the other races, except you have to worry about maintaining the travel paths and you can get slaves to boost production: not a drastic change. The rest of the additions are “minor” at best: new weapons and technologies, enhanced diplomacy, better trade, more graphs, and five new galaxy shapes. Unless you really know what you are doing, you probably won’t notice the improvements that Born of Blood brings to the table. These changes do improve the game as a whole, but it isn’t anything beyond what a good patch would accomplish. The new weapons and technologies are OK but don’t alter the gameplay. You can interact more explicitly with the AI, giving specific targets and using a number of icons designed (I think) for multiplayer between people with different native languages. You can also set up trade routes (that can be raided) to make additional cash. The expansion by itself doesn’t add anything dramatically different to the gameplay experience and it’s not on the same level as Twlight of the Arnor or In Nomine.

IN CLOSING
While Sword of the Stars is a solid and entertaining game, the Collector’s Edition won’t appeal to anyone who has experienced the game before. The bonus CD doesn’t contain any earth-shattering content, the book is OK, and the expansion only makes typical improvements to the gameplay that you might find in any profit-driven expansion. The score for this game assumes that you do not have the original, since, by themselves, both the expansion and Collector’s Editions are content-light. There are not enough reasons to get the expansion, and no reason to get the Collector’s Edition if you already have the game. But if you are new to the series and you are looking for a straightforward introduction into the world of strategy, then you could do a lot worse than the Collector’s Edition of Sword of the Stars.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Bionic Commando Rearmed Review

Bionic Commando Rearmed, developed by GRIN and published by Capcom on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Retains spirit (and difficulty) of the original, variety of weapons, two player cooperative and four player competitive play, little penalty for dying, lots of levels, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer, enemy confrontations seem out of place, PC version is more expensive
What say you? A good remake at a reasonable price for the amount of content: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While I did not have a NES (we were an Atari household), my friend did and we played it a lot. There are some franchises that I am only vaguely familiar with, and one of those is Bionic Commando. It’s a platform game where your hero gets a mechanical arm, and an update to the 1989 NES game comes in the form of Bionic Commando Rearmed, not to be confused with the other Bionic Commando (done by the same developer) that is coming out in the near future. Confused yet? It doesn’t matter, as long as you get to shoot stuff! By the way, I just got the (possibly unintentional) “rearmed” joke: get it, his “arm,” “rearmed.” Ha ha ha! I need sleep.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a primarily 2-D game, Bionic Commando Rearmed looks very good. Everything is rendered in 3-D and the levels are better-looking copies of the original maps, with neat lighting, nice textures, and good effects including rag doll physics. The weapon effects can be underwhelming and the 3-D enemy confrontation levels could use more detail, but the majority of Bionic Commando Rearmed maintains a great visual style throughout. This clearly is not a simple update as the graphics have undergone a significant overhaul to bring them up to date, and the result is a great looking game. The game lacks voice acting, but the music has an updated nostalgic feel and the effects are done well enough. This is one game that surpasses its price tag in terms of visual and auditory quality.

ET AL.
Bionic Commando Rearmed is a platform game, but instead of jumping, you’ll be using your bionic arm to grab onto ledges and other objects in order to propel yourself through the air. The single player campaign is pretty difficult, mainly because it requires a lot of precision with your mechanical apparatus. Increasing the difficulty level will make the AI smarter and the areas more difficult to get through. There is a good amount of content for the price: 20 regular levels plus 25 challenge rooms and multiplayer. Occasionally, you’ll enter an “enemy confrontation” map when you encounter a magic purple rectangle of doom; this places you in a 3-D environment that clashes with the remainder of the gameplay. Here, your arm is only used as a shield, and the core gameplay mechanic is essentially removed, making the “enemy confrontation” mode very bland. Sadly, multiplayer in Bionic Commando Rearmed lacks online options, so you’ll have to wrangle up some friends to crowd around your PC. That’s too bad, because the “don’t touch the floor” game mode is interesting, along with the usual deathmatch and last man standing options. You can also do cooperative play through the campaign, but, again, you’ll have to be at the same computer in order to do so. Still, Bionic Commando Rearmed comes with enough things to keep you busy.

It definitely takes some practice to get used to using your arm effectively: by default, pressing the arm button sends it out at a 45 degree angle, making it ideal for grabbing suspended ledges above and in front of you. Pressing up or ahead will send the arm in that direction, and you can use your arm to grab options (and enemies) and then use them. You can pull off some neat moves in the game, such as swinging around in mid-air. Death doesn’t come with much of a penalty: although the number of lives you have is limited, you will spawn at the last checkpoint reached. Bionic Commando Rearmed has a health meter (with health pickups enemies occasionally drop) and a number of weapons to choose from that you will accumulate along the way: a revolver, grenades, rifle, bazooka, shotgun, cannon, and machine gun. Upgrades are also scattered throughout the levels to make your arsenal more effective. In addition, you can equip yourself with flares, armor, and a more powerful claw. New weapons are introduced at a steady clip, allowing you to implement new strategies along the way. There is also a hacking minigame (where you must guide a ball to the exit) and camps where you can talk to allies. The game’s focus is clearly on utilizing your arm to navigate through the puzzles, so it’s not surprising that the AI isn’t the best. However, increasing the difficulty level does offer up much more of a challenge, and since the layouts themselves are hard enough to begin with, Bionic Commando Rearmed will provide a great challenge for platform gamers.

IN CLOSING
Bionic Commando Rearmed is what it is: a quality reproduction of a classic title. It won’t win over any new people that aren’t fans of the platform genre, but those who are will find some unique action contained herein. While the gameplay is not revolutionary because it was done in the original game almost 20 (!) years ago, it is distinctive when compared against what is typically available in the gaming market. You do get what you pay for (although the PC version is inexplicably more expensive): a challenging single player game that is more puzzle-related and action-oriented. You get multiplayer options, but these are irrelevant on the PC since there is no online compatibility. When’s the last time any PC owner had three friends to play against? For platform fans, though, Bionic Commando Rearmed delivers a solid experience.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Smugglers 4 Review

Smugglers 4, developed and published by Niels Bauer Games.
The Good: Large variety of mission types, numerous ship upgrades, character growth with new abilities, actions influence game world
The Not So Good: Low resolution interface hinders core gameplay, slow growth relying on trade, uninteresting early game
What say you? A simple space trading adventure game with a couple of nice features but average gameplay: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In space, no one can hear you scream, but everybody can hear you trade. Yes, space trading games sure are popular (meaning I've reviewed at least one of them): these economic simulations don't seem to appear in many other settings apart from the final frontier. The fourth in the series, Smugglers 4 offers up more buy-low, sell-high action amongst the stars. While almost all space adventure games have some sort of trading component, Smugglers 4 starts with trade and then expands out from there, offering up the usual assortment of missions and combat along with the business-inclined core gameplay. How does Smugglers 4 stack up against the rest?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
When a majority of the graphics consist of 2-D JPEGs, then you know you are not in for a graphical treat. The graphics of Smugglers 4 are simply functional, putting only the necessary information on-screen in a no-frills presentation. The combat effects are basic, space is boring, and the character portraits are few. Now, I'm not one to slam a game for poor graphics: in my opinion (which, clearly, is all that matters), if the gameplay is decent, then who cares what it looks like? The problem with Smugglers 4 is the game's fixed low resolution does not allow for a lot of information on the screen at once. The game plays in full-screen mode, but a majority of the screen is blank space, confining the useful information to a small portion of the center. When the limitations of the graphics start to negatively impact the gameplay, I then have a problem. The trade screen obscures your view of the prices at local planets; while it can be shifted from side to side, there is a whole bunch of unused space that could be utilized by computers with higher-resolution monitors (which is, probably, everyone). This can range from annoying to very annoying, and all that needs to be done is increasing the amount of space you can use. If you're going to lock people at full-screen, you might as well use all of the available space. As for the sound, you get somewhat decent music with basic effects. The simple presentation does not necessarily look bad, but it does obstruct your view and impact the gameplay in a negative fashion.

ET AL.
Smugglers 4 offers up an open-ended (and non-random) universe in which to trade your way to the top. Now, trade isn't the only avenue to domination, as the game features six starting professions that vary your starting abilities: trader, combat trader, mercenary, bounty hunter, smuggler, and pirate. The tutorial covers the basics of the first ten-or-so minutes of the game and does a decent, but not spectacular, job explaining how Smugglers 4 works. The game eases in new players by making enemies less powerful the first 200 turns of the game to give you time to level up and upgrade your ship. Since there is no difficulty setting, it's nice that you are much less likely to die early on. You will initially align with one of four factions, each of which has different abilities and ships to choose from. Your character will gain awards and promotions over time through combat experience and new abilities will become unlocked that allow you to further customize your approach to the game. There are a lot of abilities to choose from that are arranged like a technology tree, although some are just more powerful versions of previous iterations.

Like I noted earlier, my major issue with Smugglers 4 is the low resolution display that doesn't allow for enough information to be displayed on the screen at one time. Aside from that, the remainder of the interface is very average. You'll double-left-click to go to a planet and right-click pretty much anything for more detailed information. Pressing “escape” surprisingly does nothing, as the game only allows you to access the options menu with the mouse. The icons at the bottom are initially misleading: I would consistently click on the dollar signs icon thinking it was “trade” when it was actually “missions” (trade is a building...who knew?). Trade is actually very difficult, as prices fluctuate significantly and the difference between a “low” price and a “high” price, at least within the same system, is so small that it takes a considerable amount of time to turn a profit. Each planet produces a specific good (based on its planet type) that are obviously cheaper to buy, but the game doesn't indicate the cheapest goods at a particular location or even list the produced goods in-game (you'll have to constantly refer to the manual). Because of this, the trade profession is actually quite a poor choice for a new career, since it takes so long to turn a significant profit.

A better way to earn money is by undertaking missions. There is a large variety of mission types to undertake in Smugglers 4; most of them center around trading specific goods, killing someone, or taking part in a war. More “advanced” missions are unlocked along the way, but the difficulty does not seem to scale very well with your character's progress. For example, most of the early cargo missions instruct you to transport 500 units of a given item to a particular planet. Using your default ship, this would take twenty-five trips of going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Not exactly exhilarating gameplay. You can wait to do these missions until you get a more respectable ship (there are six to choose from), but making the missions more appropriate for your current rank would be appreciated. Governors present on each planet, in addition to granting missions, can bestow amnesty for wanted criminals (if you've done something against a rival faction). Additional crewmen for fleet battles can be hired for a steep price at bars, and ships near a planet can be plundered for precious cargo.

The main reason to earn money is to upgrade your ship. You'll need at least a corvette class ship to leave your initial star system and corvettes are quite expensive, so you'll be stuck visiting around three planets for a good part of the initial game. Eventually, you can unlock freighters and battleships for your trading and killing needs. In addition, individual components of your ship can be upgraded: cannons, missiles, ECM, targeting systems, engines, and the cargo bay. You'll need to do this because Smugglers 4 features almost constant enemy encounters. Now, I'm all for an action-oriented game, but it borders on ridiculous how frequently you'll be engaging the enemy, even in the beginning of the game in supposedly friendly territory. Of course, this is intentional, to make leveling up your character easier, but I'd rather gain more experience in a single battle than deal with the generally bland turn-based combat in Smugglers 4.

Each turn in the combat phase, you are alloted a number of action points that can be used to fire guns, missiles, counter-measures, or a special ability. There are a number of abilities that can be learned over time; most of them either grant you an attack advantage or impose a disadvantage on your enemy. If are are battling in friendly space, reinforcements will eventually arrive and cause constant damage to enemy ships. Starting out, you generally have enough time for a couple of abilities and shots during a single turn. There is more luck involved than actual skill or strategy, although having some of the higher-level skills will introduce some more variety into your approaches. Still, you don't have much influence on a single battle: rather, the result is the sum of your overall experience level, so those wanting sophisticated tactical battles will be left wanting still. If you are fortunate enough to have some allies in tow, you can assign them to engage weak opponents to remove some of the drudgery. There could definitely be more variety or advanced features in the combat of Smugglers 4.

IN CLOSING
The main motivation of playing Smugglers 4 is to watch your character grow over time, but there are many core aspects of the game that could be better. The limitations of the trading interface and bland nature of the combat offset the large mission variety and ship upgrades present in the game. Smugglers 4 is tedious to play when it's at its worst: making money through trade is a long and drawn-out process and the combat could be much more entertaining. But there are a number of bright spots: there are a lot of new abilities to learn and the ship upgrades and customization options are many. Your actions do, in a small way, influence the progress of the galactic war, especially if you start to get involved in military operations. The game can be won: the first faction to control 18 of the galaxy's systems is declared “super awesome” (my term). Sadly, I doubt many people will make it this far, as the initial tedium will wear on most. While there are better games in the genre, Smugglers 4 has well-rounded features that, for some of you, may overshadow the game's shortcomings.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hunting Unlimited 2009 Review

Hunting Unlimited 2009, developed by SCS Software and published by ValuSoft on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Lots of guns and equipment, variety of game to cause harm to, plenty of objective-based missions, support for online tournaments, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Arduous realistic pace, lacks real-time online play, graphics are outdated, horrible voice acting and music
What say you? There is a lot of content for the price in this hunting simulation: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Is hunting really a sport? I think it would be more fair if the animals were given guns as well, although I suppose trunks, antlers, and sharp teeth make a quick substitute. Whatever you want to call it, hunting is popular, as evidenced by the scores of supply stores scattered across our nation. Personally, I would feel bad shooting a defenseless creature (but they sure taste good!), so having a hunting experience in computerized form serves as a good replacement. Hunting Unlimited 2009 gives us a look into the future (all the way to...next year) of the “sport.” I've reviewed some budget-priced hunting games before, so I am ready for my yearly venture in the deadly arts. The art of shooting deer in the face.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Clearly the worst aspect of Hunting Unlimited 2009 is the budget-priced presentation. This starts with the graphics, which just plain look old. The textures are blurry and unrefined, the environments only look good from a distance and feature severe pop-in shrubs and grass, and the animal models exhibit only a handful of animations. Animals will continue to walk normally after being shot, and the death animations are disappointing, if you could call watching an animal die disappointing. There is no gore per se in the game, although animals will show a red hole where bullets have entered. There is a slightly disturbing bullet camera that follow shots as they speed towards their ultimate destination. About the only slightly neat aspect of the graphics is that looking towards the sun closes your eyelids and affects you field of view, but even this feature is kind of annoying. As for the sound, it's a poor showing with one exception: the environmental sounds are actually quite good. However, the mediocre theme music, insulting quips by your hunter (“I'm so pumped” after using a shotgun? *groan*), and intrusive background music rounds out the underwhelming package. They say you get what you pay for, and so it is in Hunting Unlimited 2009.

ET AL.
Things start to get a lot better once you look past the graphics. First, Hunting Unlimited 2009 features a whole bunch (that's a technical term) of challenges: almost 100. These are presented in a tiered system of increasing difficulty: scoring adequately on about half of the challenges in one level will unlock the next. Each challenge comes with predetermined weapons and accessories, a target species , and bonus points for getting things like shots to vital organs (ewww!), close range kills, or completing the mission within the time limit. Most of the early missions start you right next to your objective, so there isn't much running around to do. There is also a penalty for shooting more creatures than you are alloted, so you can't just starting shooting everything in sight, no matter how tempting. The 100-or-so missions offer up some good variety with different environments, varied targets, and an array of weapons; they will certainly keep you busy for quite a long time. Because 100 missions aren't enough, you can even create your own scripted missions if you'd like using the in-game editor. If a structured mission isn't your cup of tea, you can choose any of the nine rather large locations (like Alaska, the southern Rockies, or Africa) and up to six region-specific animals to populate the area. You can alter the concentration of each creature (if you've got a need....the need for elephant), although even when you put them on “high,” it can be difficult to find some prey. You can also practice with each weapon on the target range and there is support for online tournaments, although the game directs you to an official website that does not exist. Oopsy! Overall, Hunting Unlimited 2009 features a lot of content for your monetary investment.

The objective of Hunting Unlimited 2009 is straightforward: shoot things. You are given a selection of twenty-five weapons, from rifles and bows to shotguns and pistols. Each weapon comes with a description on its intended purpose, but the game lacks a filter to find the right weapon for you (like long-range, big-game rifles, for example). The ballistics seem to be accurate, as evidenced by the random spread of shotgun pellets. You can also equip yourself with a number of hunting accessories: scents, decoys, calls, cover, and vehicles. Most of the missions give you access to a set list and there is no cost or weight limit to worry about, which removes some strategy from the game. The dumb animals are, well, dumb animals: they have highly scripted circular movement patterns that removes some of the stalking fun out of the hunting experience. The game pace is very slow; this will turn off a lot of potential customers, as Hunting Unlimited 2009 takes a realistic approach to the experience. You will be holding down the shift key for most of the time (in order to run); I actually experienced some hand cramps from having to press it continually. Even the ATV is slow, and you need to sneak up on animals or else they will scatter. This is certainly not Unreal Tournament. The overall experience, though, is enjoyable, as long as you enjoy hunting, that is. You'll have to use real tactics like sneaking around in brush, staying downwind of the animals, and deploying blinds and towers. I can definitely see how people could get bored to tears with this game, but if you want an accurate hunting simulation, then Hunting Unlimited 2009 is your game.

IN CLOSING
Hunting Unlimited 2009 features a lot of content for only $20. There are 100 scenarios (plus an editor to make more), a plethora of weapons, and a variety of animals across the globe. You'd be hard pressed to find another game that matches what Hunting Unlimited 2009 offers, and this includes the big-budget shooters. I read some reviews of Hunting Unlimited 2008 (which is probably not much different that this game) and they were all very negative. Why? Two main reasons: you are shooting animals and the graphics. Now, Hunting Unlimited 2009 is not a great game, but it is what it is: a hunting simulation. I'm sorry that not every game can have stellar graphics, and while the graphical quality is certainly not high, it doesn't negatively impact the gameplay. So get over it, hippies. Is there room for improvement? Sure, but it's still enjoyable if you'd like a realistic game. There's a lot of stuff here for $20, so if you're looking for a satisfying hunting experience, look no further.