Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DiRT 2 Review

DiRT 2, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Improved driving physics, interesting racing modes, more exhaustive multiplayer features, GRID's rewind feature makes races less frustrating, slick presentation with appealing graphics
The Not So Good: Inconsequential damage, inconsistent AI
What say you? Enhanced in every area, this racing sequel is a far more complete product: 7/8

I did not care for DiRT. Between the handling of the race cars that certainly fell on the arcade side of things, with completely unrealistic grip and braking, and the lame multiplayer features, there was certainly room for improvement. Say hello to improvement! DiRT 2 is the appropriately named sequel that continues Codemasters's's's crusade to control all racing games with four-letter names. Held out for three extra months to add shiny new DirectX 11 features that nobody will notice, this off-road racing game concerns itself primarily with rally (personal favorite), buggy, and truck adventures through the sands. Has the game done as a true sequel should?

DiRT 2 continues the trend of recent Codemasters racing titles by featuring some outstanding graphics. Every aspect of the graphics is top-notch, starting with the detailed and varied environments with lots of animated (and destructible) trackside objects. The crowd visually reacts when you get too close for comfort, and the background blend well with the exotic locales. There are also some nice lighting effects that impact the gameplay (shadows makes driving more difficult). Each of the game’s cars are detailed as well, although they respond a bit too dramatically to damage. The graphics package is surrounded by detailed texturing and nice special effects involving the water and sand you will be driving through/in/around/over. The slick menu transitions are a bit unnecessary, but they do give you something to look at during loading times. The sound design has also received some improvements, with less repetitive voice acting bits from the roster of real drivers lending their likenesses to the game. Your mentors calling you by name is an added bonus that adds to the overall immersion of the title. The cars also sound plausible enough while you are roaring around the track. Overall, the presentation in DiRT 2 has improved since the original game by an acceptable margin.

The first thing you'll notice when you start up DiRT 2 is that you need to have the disk in the drive. Sigh. This is why I almost prefer getting my press materials digitally. You also can't skip the opening movie sequences the first time you play; there's nothing like entering your first race before you've had the opportunity to change your controls or the graphics options. The single player game is the DIRT TOUR (capital letters makes it more EXTREME), where you complete a semi-linear series of events on your way to racing supremacy. Experience earned during races for finishing well or completing missions (for damaging objects, driving distance, passing, or drifting) are used to increase your level and unlock new tracks and venues at additional difficulty levels. DiRT 2 also has Games for Windows LIVE! achievements on top of the missions for no apparent reason whatsoever. You can also form relationships with other drivers that will produce one-on-one or timed challenges and team events to compete in.

DiRT 2 takes a couple of standard racing modes and adds a couple of innovative wrinkles. Traditional one-car rally and trailblazer (hill climb, basically the same thing) are present and accounted for, along with straight-up multi-car (usually eight) races in landrush or rally cross mode. You also get the last man standing mode, where the last place car is eliminated every once in a while. Additional and more interesting modes include raids, multi-car rally events with split routes and multiple paths, gate crasher, which gives you targets to hit during a rally race, and domination, which rewards points for the fastest times in each sector. This is a much more complete package and makes going through the career mode much less repetitive. Playing a race at a higher difficulty level decreases the amount of replays but rewards you with more cold, hard cash to use on new automobiles. Eventually, you'll advance to the X Games and earn notoriety among the fifteen people that watch the event worldwide. The menu system (which does not support a mouse...bah!) has a slick presentation that makes it easy to see events you've completed and with neat-o stats that display while loading, though it displays locked achievements in a clear act of mocking.

The multiplayer features of DiRT were, for lack of a better term, “crap.” Thankfully, DiRT 2 has actually become a real online racing game as you can now bump into other vehicles! Yes, all of the single player modes are available for your enjoyment over the wonders of the Internet. You can do this in ranked pro mode, where the magic of Games for Windows LIVE! matches you up with other drivers and randomly selects events that can be vetoed down. I do not like being prevented from selecting the opponents I want, as the matchmaking will always select the first server. You will supposedly be matched up with gamers with similar driving styles (meaning wreckers race against wreckers), but since the online populations are so low I ended up seeing the same people over and over again. Things open up in jam sessions, where you can customize the events at your discretion. I dislike the thirty-second time limit for last place finishers, especially since the online racers seem to only play DiRT 2 all the time and I always finish more than half a minute behind. Sigh. Still, multiplayer is significantly more interesting and complete this time around.

Track designs have also been improved. Gone are the wide open spaces of Colin McRae games of old, replaced by realistically narrow layouts with plenty of things to get in your way. You have to be on your toes in the world of DiRT 2, and the varied terrain and exotic locations makes for some visually stimulating racing. Each of the game's nine regions gets somewhere between ten and fifteen races each, except for Utah, because they suck. The cars are also much more realistic in their handling attributes: they brake more slowly and have less grip, almost like you are driving on dirt. Weird, I know! Trucks, buggies, rally cars, and Baja vehicles are all available with different ratings in top speed, acceleration, and handling for each of the different makes and models. You can also unlock additional liveries (paint schemes) and horns for your customizing enjoyment. Setup options are very basic: just five settings each for gear ratio, downforce, suspension, ride height, differential, and brake bias. But this is the type of game where fine-tuning your setup isn't your primary concern, so these limited options are not a concern.

The game's HUD does a good job keep you informed of your car's position, damage, and the distance left in the race in graphical form. I found that my usual viewing perspective, the driver camera, was far too restrictive despite a more immersive experience. Unfortunately, I found the behind and above view to be far more effective in seeing what's around and coming up. Feels like cheating, though. The AI provides a good challenge, although they are not terribly aggressive and won't usually pass you unless you make a mistake. They can also be quite inconsistent: they are much better at pack races than the rally events. The same issue plagued the first DiRT game, so maybe it's just me and my l33t rally skillz. A significant addition to DiRT 2 is the replay feature, borrowed/stolen from GRID. Anytime you royally mess up, you can enter the replay mode and choose any place within the past ten seconds to start from. It's a very nice feature and I don't think this is much of a “cheat,” since you are limited in the number of times to do it and you'd just press “reset” anyway in other racing games; it's just saving you time and/or money. It certainly makes playing DiRT 2 much less frustrating, as I would much rather re-drive five seconds than an entire three minute long race. You won't really need to restart because of damage, though, as DiRT 2 is very forgiving: you can run into many objects before receiving a scratch. This is fine, but I would still like to have the option to require more precise driving at higher difficulty levels that reward more experience points and cash.

DiRT 2 improves upon the original game in every area. The two primary areas of concern from before, the bare multiplayer features and the unrealistic driving model, have both undergone significant changes for the better. You can actually race against human opponents over the Internet in real time (like a real racing title!), and all of the wacky game modes from the single player campaign are available, from the precise gate crasher mode to points-based domination races. Of course, you can also engage in more classic rally races and more traditional eight-car events. The narrow, realistic tracks take place in varied environments that showcase the graphics well, from superb textures to exaggerated damage and watery special effects. The single player dirt tour unlocks new tracks and cars as you complete events: nothing innovative here. You can earn additional experience by completing missions (like driving a certain distance) in addition to simply finishing well, so there is always a chance to advance even if you aren't constantly winning. Most importantly, DiRT 2 has found a happy medium between hardcore simulation and generic arcade game: the cars actually drive like cars on dirt, instead of having instant-stop brakes and superb traction. This is certainly not a realistic game because of the heavy amount of damage you can receive before feeling any adverse effects, but it is fun and not trivial to do well in a race. Borrowing/stealing the flashback replay feature from GRID is a smart move: this greatly reduces the time and frustration associated with completing races. The AI can be a challenging opponent, but they aren't terribly aggressive and are inconsistent opponents. Still, those looking for a quality half sim, half arcade off-road racer won't be disappointed in DiRT 2.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Zombie Driver Review

Zombie Driver, developed by EXOR Studios and published by Akella.
The Good: Violent, car upgrades, simple controls
The Not So Good: Repetitive, limited to a linear single player story mode, annoying camera, disorienting city layout with no mini-map
What say you? About $10 worth of silly fun: 5/8

While playing Left 4 Dead 2, it made me think: wouldn't it be easier just to drive through all the zombies? That’s what developers EXOR Studios thought, too, as Zombie Driver is just that: you drive through the zombies. The car-running-over-pedestrian game has been been done before, but replacing real people with the undead makes the carnage seem less offensive. That’s what we’ll tell the lawyers, anyway. Priced about half of a typical budget title, does Zombie Driver provide enough thrills to fulfill its reduced cost?

Zombie Driver’s graphics quality is above its $10 price tag. The city has a nice level of detail, with plenty of fencing, houses, tanks, trains, and industrial centers to accidently run into on your way to the zombies. Zombie Driver uses the PhysX® engine to produce some® appealing destruction® along the way. The zombie destruction is pleasingly bloody, but since you are usually viewing the action from so far away, everything is usually just a simple red blob of redness. Unfortunately, Zombie Driver features a very annoying camera that I truly hate: it does not zoom in and out smoothly enough, and the height adjusts instantly when your speed changes: this becomes really disorienting when you are plowing through the zombie horde, as your view sickeningly goes in and out and in and out and in and out. You get used to it after a while, but initially Zombie Driver delivers some amount of motion sickness. The sound design is almost non-existent: there’s some music and the occasional crunching bones, but usually only simple car engine effects and weapon sounds dominate the game. Still, Zombie Driver delivers more graphical quality than its $10 price tag suggests.

In Zombie Driver, you are not a zombie driver: rather, you are a driver running over zombies. The game features only single-player action over seventeen missions; cooperative play is all the rage, especially with the zombie setting, but it is not available here. Each mission comes with primary and secondary objectives; the former involves typically driving to a house to pick up survivors and driving back to base. Secondary objectives are far more interesting, featuring stat-based goals like a time limit or a zombie death count. You must eliminate all of the zombies in the safe house area before you can pick up the survivors, and zombies are helpfully outlined in a bright red circle to easy pickings. Unfortunately, the missions are quite linear: although you can choose your particular path through the city to the objective locations, they don’t vary and the zombie concentrations are always the same. Since the single player game is on the short side (the seventeen missions only take a couple of hours), replay value is essentially non-existent with a lack of mission variety on subsequent replays. There are also no difficulty settings available; the game isn’t hard, but having additional options is always a nice feature.

Controls are typical for a driving game: WASD for moving and the keyboard or mouse for shooting. You’ll need to progress through each level without sustaining a high amount of damage, earned by having zombies bang on or throw things at your car. Pick-ups can be found scattered around the map (always in the same locations, though): repair, ammunition, and cash. Cash is also earned by running over zombies, and combo multipliers for even more cash can be earned by chaining together a bunch of kills. Cash is important because it is used for upgrading your sweet ride, which makes you a more efficient killing machine. Upgrades include improved armor, ramming power, and speed for your automobile; these upgrades do not carry over to other models you unlock, and since they are expensive, you’ll be “stuck” using one vehicle for most of the campaign. Your car can be outfitted with a number of different weapons: machine guns, a flamethrower, rockets, and a railgun. Unfortunately, all of these weapons come with a very limited supply of ammunition, so you will be using your front bumper most of the time. This significantly impacts the gameplay in a negative manner, making Zombie Driver far too repetitive than it should be. The large city location could reduce the repetition somewhat, since each mission has you travelling to another portion of the urban area, but the lack of a mini-map and a disorienting layout makes for some less than appealing gameplay. I get lost a lot and run into static objects as the roads curve in unpredictable ways; the train tracks near your base are the worst offender. The locations you need to reach are indicated on the side of the screen, but there is no navigation arrow (like in Grand Theft Auto) to assist with actually getting there in a timely manner. Because of the confusing city layout and abbreviated weapon use, Zombie Driver becomes too frustrating and too repetitive to fully recommend it, even at a cheap price.

What’s to be expected for $10? Zombie Driver does let you run over zombies, so on that simple level the game succeeds. But, of course, there is a good amount of repetition, as all you’ll be doing is running over zombies. You are allowed to make upgrades and given some weapons, but the ammunition supply is so small that you can only really use them when taking on large groups near objectives. The game’s seventeen-mission campaign takes place over the same city, just with different locations. There is no mini-map, so you will commonly run into things and get turned around, wasting precious seconds, as the town layout is anything but intuitive. Zombie Driver is also limited to single player combat, so there is no cooperative fun to be had here. The game is fun for a little while, but the combat is repetitive and the strategies are few, since all you can really do is run over things, which takes no strategy whatsoever. The advantages of Zombie Driver, like the graphics and enjoyable carnage, balance the disadvantages, the camera and repetitive combat, so it’s difficult to say whether Zombie Driver is right for you. Please, consult your physician.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Awesome Soccer Review

Awesome Soccer, developed and published by Red27 Studios.
The Good: Simple controls make it easy to bend shots, many teams with real players, custom tournaments, formation and team editors
The Not So Good: Terribly imprecise one-button controls are too simplistic, frantic game speed, no online multiplayer, low resolution graphics
What say you? Your basic arcade soccer game: 5/8

With the World Cup field set, it's now time for SOCCER FEVER (this term must always be displayed using all capital letters). It's like swine flu, but sweatier and with more goals. With interest in the world's most popular sport increasing with every passing hour, it's about time for a flurry of soccer related software to come storming in, hoping to cash in on the fervor. Enter Awesome Soccer, a modestly titled arcade football game that uses the proper name for the sport. How will this soccer product differentiate itself from the tons of other soccer games available for the personal computer, the grandest of all gaming platforms?

Awesome Soccer features some very basic graphics, as you might expect of a game that's offered for a sub-budget price tag. The game displays the field from the classic almost-overhead perspective, using the game player model for all participants. The animations are poor and do not invoke any sense of realism. There are a couple of goal celebrations, but that is the limit of variety here. The pitch is a simple mowed green that is used for all venues. There are no weather or lighting effects that I saw during gameplay. The highest game resolution that was functional on my computer was 1024x768, and you can only play the game in full-screen because of performance reasons (so I am told). The sound design is also elementary: some occasional crowd songs, game effects like whistles and tackles, and menu music. In terms of graphics and sound, you get what you pay for.

Awesome Soccer features a typical assortment of soccer game modes: quick games with automatically selected teams, friendlies using more customized options, and tournaments for more seasonal action. You can use one of the pre-set tournament formats or create your own, customizing the teams, divisions, and schedule, even going so far as to select randomly chosen teams: a neat feature. Awesome Soccer has replicas of teams from all of the major leagues: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Scottish, Spanish, American, Euro Cup, and countries for international play. There isn’t a display for overall team quality, even though the players have individual ratings. Speaking of the players, Awesome Soccer actually uses the real athletes: a significant feat considering the sheer number of teams included in the game. Awesome Soccer does not have online multiplayer, although you can play against someone else on the same computer. Achievements can be earned for completing certain tasks (like scoring a goal or winning by a specified score), but they do not unlock anything extra. Awesome Soccer is available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems: a plus. Finally, all of the teams and players can be edited using a program included with the game, in additional to coming up with new formations to dominate the competition with.

The control scheme is designed around using a keyboard, which makes it simple and also explains its significant limitations. You’ll only ever use the four directional keys and one button to do everything. The in-game tutorial explains the nuances of the controls, but they are very easy to pick up: tap the button to pass or tackle and hold to shoot. More “advanced” controls include bending a shot using the directional keys and quickly reversing direction to initiate a lob pass. This compromise makes it very easy to learn how to play Awesome Soccer but it also causes a lot of unintentional actions, specifically regarding the lob passes. You are also unable to make precise movements as you can only travel in eight directions: this makes the players look like robots and perform with no feeling of momentum. There also isn’t a change in the control indicator (changing players is done automatically on defense) if you posses the ball, leading to some additional confusion. The game’s really fast pace doesn’t help matters, either: the frantic nature of Awesome Soccer makes it difficult to keep track of what’s going on, and one wrong command can easily lead to defeat. The AI is a decent competitor at the highest difficulty setting; at lower settings, they generally just stand there (obviously making the game much easier). Whether Awesome Soccer will appeal to you depends on whether the limited control scheme is an issue; for me, it’s a definite weakness.

Awesome Soccer has the potential to be a decent soccer title, but the simplified control scheme works to the game’s advantage and disadvantage. On the plus side, it makes Awesome Soccer extremely easy to learn and control, since one button is used for all game actions. On the negative side, the controls are imprecise at best, and unintended actions are completed all of the time: lobbing the ball when you simply wanted to change direction, passing instead of shooting, et cetera. The directional controls only allow for movement in eight directions, which results in some strange-looking and limited gameplay. The game does have a decent amount of features, with teams from all of the major leagues around the world and the actual players (with ratings) in each team, whom can be altered using the team and formation editors. While Awesome Soccer does offer customizable tournaments, the game lacks online multiplayer; you will be playing against the AI, which, on the highest difficulty level, provides decent enough competition. Still, the soccer of Awesome Soccer seems much more stiff than other indie soccer titles, due mainly to the control scheme. The fast pace of the game does not help matters, as one wrong move will doom your team to last place. Still, for only $15, you get an arcade soccer title that will hold your attention for at least a little bit, assuming you are less critical of the controls than I am.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne Review

Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Specific war goals, more definitive battle results, enhanced dynasties with ruler legitimacy and lines of succession, HRE has more powers, no more silly bribing of cardinals for Papal control, spheres of influence for regional authority, trade leagues, national focus for increased benefits, improved AI uses diplomacy and military more aggressively, tweaked interface, explorable permanent terra incognita
The Not So Good: Too much freedom in recruiting new advisors, magistrates spawn too often resulting in decision spam, no decisions for the Papal Controller
What say you? The grand strategy series finishes (probably) with a must-have expansion: 8/8

After the release of the In Nomine expansion for Europa Universalis III, the “Complete” version of the product became available, which includes the base game and both expansions. Now, you would think that the “Complete” version of a game would be, you know, “complete.” Not so fast! Paradox Interactive has decided that Europa Universalis III is not yet complete enough (and that they want some more money) and commissioned the (possibly) final expansion, entitled Heir to the Throne. Significant changes include royal dynasties (hence the title) and more definite war declarations, along with the usual assortment of more minor tweaks and enhancements. Do players of Europa Universalis III need to fork over some more cash? Yeah, pretty much.

While this expansion does not obvious overhaul the graphics engine of Europa Universalis III, Heir to the Throne does make some minor changes to the map’s appearance and the interface in general. First, there are some slight improvements in the land and sea textures, although since most people play with one of the colored map modes on, I doubt many will witness this. You do get three more map modes to ascertain rebel revolt, national influence, and colonial range more efficiently. There are also some modified starting conditions to be more historically accurate, and a handful of new countries (most notably Jerusalem) added to the mix. Finally, there are shiny new gold selection buttons (not made of real gold). The interface has gotten some new pieces as well: a list of all modifiers currently in use, unit detail on the military screen, and additional alerts for military upgrades and disputed royal successions in other countries. All of these new features are right along the lines of what I would expect in an expansion, so no complaints here.

The new shiny shininess of Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne will be discussed in order of importance as determined by the ultimate authority: me. I'm only egocentric because I'm so awesome! First up is the vastly expanded casus belli system. Before Heir to the Throne, wars were fought without specific objectives, so once you took all of the provinces, you could get anything you wanted. Well no longer! Now, there are thirty (thirty!) precise war declarations, each with cause-specific terms of peace. For example, a “cancelled loan” casus belli gives you double prestige and half infamy for asking for money in a peace treaty, and a “colonialism” nets a quarter of the infamy and half the cost for requesting overseas provinces. There’s a complete list here; basically any reason to go to war is included. The system makes so much sense, and wars are less generic now. Honestly, I would like to see an even more severe penalty for going away from the initial terms of the war (particularly annexing provinces when the casus belli had nothing to do with conquest), but this is something that could be easily modified in the extensive text files. Related to the new casus belli options are longer battles: there are now two phases of combat at a minimum, which results in more definitive battles and less bouncing of units from province to province. Typically, two battles is all it takes to eliminate any size army; the annoying protracted battles of Europa Universalis III finally seem to have gone away. The side effect is that you need to recruit new units much more often, rather than relying on reinforcement. This does create more micromanagement, but I’m willing to give up some automation for a better battle system.

The namesake of Heir to the Throne is the new dynasty model, which adds a couple of new enhancements to kings and queens. Succession (who gets the throne when the current monarch dies) is more detailed: you have legal heirs that will inherit the throne (children of the monarch first, followed by family members). These heirs can inconveniently die, opening the door for less legitimate rulers; there can be a disputed succession if their claim on the throne is not strong enough. If royal marriages are involved, other nations can actually inherit the throne; this is where the danger lies in improving your relations through the use of royal marriages. It is important to keep your prestige high to be first in line for a personal union. A more manual approach to ownership is to claim the throne of another nation, granting one of those new casus belli and allowing you to form a personal union where you reap all of the monetary benefits of owning a country without actually having to run it. Countries can also share bloodlines forming a dynasty, where the same family has rulers in multiple nations; this tends to improve relations. The new dynasty elements are nice, but they do not impact your day-to-day empire like other improvements in Heir to the Throne do: you only notice the new features when your king or queen dies, although you can position yourself for a peaceful annexation through inheritance using diplomatic means.

Heir to the Throne has also changed how advisors can be hired. Before, potential cabinet members were semi-randomly born in your country, and you could hire them to your three-person court. Now, you can use cultural tradition, earned through certain buildings and decisions, to hire quality men to help lead your country. You can choose from any of the thirty-six advisor types, as long as you have the very minimal tradition requirements. Because of this, there is a high degree of freedom in choosing the exact advisor that’s right for you. Less luck is involved, but I feel that you are given too much freedom: I would much rather have to choose from a pool of, say, ten candidates, instead of having access to the entire roster of advisors. Of course, the AI countries have the same options, so everyone benefits from the imbalance. Advisors are still “born” in your nation the traditional way, but the access to high-quality advisors makes the bonuses much more important.

The Holy Roman Emperor gets some more powers. Imperial authority, earned by helping out member nations, can be spent on reforms, improving relations with members, or granting casus belli against non-members who intrude your exclusive club. While the Emperor gets all these fancy new reforms, the Papal Controller gets…nothing. It’s kind of a letdown that the Papacy only has the powers of excommunication and crusades when you consider all of the other new tidbits in Heir to the Throne. Well, maybe next expansion (ha ha, I think). What Heir to the Throne has done for the Papacy is eliminated bribing cardinals: now, your probability of having a cardinal represent your country is dependent on following Catholic-like policies (narrowminded policy, namely) and being friendly with the Papal State. Less micromanagement equals good.

Guarantees are useful little declarations that allow you to declare war on any country that declares war on the country you guaranteed (huh?). But what if the bad country merely does a spy or diplomatic action against your little buddy? Say “hello” to sphere of influence! You can now spend prestige to expand your influence, allowing you to gain a casus belli on any country who messes with one of your dependents. You can only select those countries with a less significant military and economy that are close enough to your country, but this is a nice, somewhat automated way of declaring war against other superpowers that get a bit too brazen. Speaking of prestige, it now takes a more significant role in the game thanks to the spheres of influence. You can also earn more prestige thanks to more specific peace treaties, and it seems to decay more slowly, keeping more powerful countries large and in charge.

Monarchies don’t get all of the fun, as trade leagues are added for merchant republic to finagle. Now there is something for everyone! Except for tribes: they suck. In a trade league, there is no competition among members and all business is directed through the league center of trade. The result is a lot more income for all, since the income of the center of trade can be much larger, encompassing regions that would have normally been outside of the range. Nations can request that specific goods be traded through a center of trade instead of having all goods, if a trade league is out of the question. These expanded options result in more interesting trade, as nations fight for control of the world’s economy.

Heir to the Throne lets you define a national focus, which provides positive bonuses (tax, colonial, growth, missionary, revolt) to any province. You can switch it once every twenty-five years, and it’s useful for growing colonies and making your neighbors angry by placing it on a border. The importance of this feature is not very high, though, as the bonuses are generally minimal and the frequency you can change it is low.

Instead of just declaring decisions left and right, Heir to the Throne makes you use magistrates. This tends to slow down the use of provincial and national decisions, although the high number of magistrates you get really makes the use of them silly: you can almost constantly spam decisions and pretty much execute all of the decisions you need in every province anyway, if you are a large enough country. In fact, some decisions make more magistrates, further expanding the oversaturation. Personally, I'd like to see the frequency of magistrates to be halved (which, of course, I could easily modify in two seconds if I wanted). Also, the province decision ledger page should be better organized: using a single number for the same decision would be very helpful (like all “embassies” are decision #1), instead of displaying them in some semi-random order.

OK, we’re almost done. You can waste your time exploring permanent terra incognita, as Heir to the Throne adds wastelands that can’t be colonized; dedicated players will have memorized all of the permanent terra incognita zones anyway, so this is a superfluous new feature. Trade winds provide faster movement (and greater colonial range) through certain sea provinces, which is supposed to produce more historically-accurate colonization; the results are essentially invisible. Pirates require less micromanagement as a fleet in a port will automatically scout the surrounding sea provinces without being told to do so: I like it. Finally (whew!), the AI has been noticeably improved: they are smarter with diplomatic actions, being more active and more aggressive when the opportunity arises. This means you can’t be as isolationist as in previous versions of the game. I think it’s still impressive you can actually play this intricate game with and against the AI, considering the ever-increasing complexity of the series.

Simply put, if you have Europa Universalis III, you need Heir to the Throne. I mean, look at the length of this review…for an expansion! That alone should tell you that there is a lot of new stuff! The changes introduced here all alter the gameplay for the better, and are significant enough to clearly justify $20. Heck, downloadable content (all the rage) usually introduces a couple of needless maps for $10, so Heir to the Throne is definitely worth the investment. Why, you ask? Most significant is the addition of thirty specific casus belli; these give a real nice objective for each war, other than generic “capture provinces” and whatever other demands you can squeeze out of your war score. Battles are also more decisive thanks to increased minimum length; you will have to spend a lot more money building new troops during and after a war instead of simply reinforcing existing units. The dynasty model is a nice touch, adding more detail to what happens when a monarch dies. You don't really notice it until a leader dies, though, so it does not impact normal gameplay too much. Merchant republics get trade leagues instead of ruler succession, as a way to band together with allies and make fat stacks of cash. Specific advisors can be recruited, utilizing a more directed and less random approach to country-wide bonuses. It seems a bit unfair to be able to say what kinds of people are born in your country, but since every nation has this ability, I guess everyone benefits equally. Controlling the Holy Roman Empire has gotten more interesting with empire-wide edicts, though the Papacy is the same minus bribing for cardinals. You can gain a precious casus belli for any country under your sphere of influence (a use for prestige) and define a national focus for increased bonuses. Magistrates are now required for national and regional decisions, permanent terra incognita can be explored but not settled, and guarding against pirates is easier as fleets have a larger scouting influence. Finally, the AI is improved yet again, providing a much more active and aggressive foe, both in combat and in diplomacy: thumbs up. Most of my admittedly minor game balance complaints listed up in the header (advisors, magistrates) are personal preferences that could be easily modified in the game's extensive text files given a minute or two, so I frankly can't justify taking points off for them. In the end, Heir to the Throne adds a litany of features that easily justifies another expansion, one that any fan of the Europa Universalis series will appreciate.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Armada 2526 Review

Armada 2526, developed by Ntronium Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Varied races to choose from with diverse victory conditions, informative user interface, huge randomized maps, optional computer control of colonies, decent AI opponents
The Not So Good: Offers no drastic gameplay innovation, bland real-time combat, uninspired research, generic diplomatic options, no online multiplayer, brief tutorial
What say you? An introductory 4X space strategy game that lacks the “hook” of more robust offerings: 5/8

The space 4X strategy genre is certainly in the midst of a renaissance (that's French for “baguette”). Just look at all the quality titles of late: Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, Sword of the Stars. Competitors such as Space Empires V, Supernova 2: Spacewar, and Lost Empire (not to mention any of the games I haven't personally reviewed) have struggled to find a place within the increasingly crowded genre. Well, add another game to the mix with Armada 2526, from a developer of the Total War series of games. Hey, that pedigree should be enough to check out this new entry, so let's do just that!

The graphics of Armada 2526 are just OK. The game is presented in top-down 2-D, both on the main star map and during the tactical battles, and the results are underwhelming. In a setting that prides itself on stunning visuals, Armada 2526 comes up short. The background is a drab black and the ship models, though varied, do no contain much detail. The planets and stars are typically small glowing orbs that lack fine detail. The battles do involve some lasers and explosions, but nothing that compares to the pure carnage of Gratuitous Space Battles (also a 2-D game). Armada 2526 does have animated 3-D portraits of all the alien races, but they are nothing above the quality found in Galactic Civilizations II. Armada 2526 is best comparable to Weird Worlds, and this game actually looks less spectacular (at least the map does) than that four-year-old title. The sound design is very predictable and quite basic: just some simple battle effects, notification alerts, and suitable background music. Armada 2526 certainly looks like a wargame in space with its simple graphics.

In Armada 2526, victory is attained by having the most victory points when time runs out (arbitrarily set when the game is created). Your victory conditions will change depending on which race you have chosen; this is a really neat feature, as some races will focus on happiness, others population, and others technology (plus more variations). It’s probably the best aspect of the game, and it results in some very interesting gameplay since players will all be attempting different goals. Alien races also come with a large number of starting bonuses (or penalties), like poor research or varied behaviors (such as warlike). You need to take advantage of your strengths, which can be difficult since I can’t find where your starting bonuses are listed in-game. Custom games can support up to twelve players and you can set the game length, difficulty level, and map attributes. Armada 2526 supports some really huge maps of any size, as long as your processor can handle them, since you can freely input any dimensions for the galaxy. If randomized maps are not your thing, Armada 2526 also comes with a map designer for a more planned feel. Newcomers will find a brief but effective tutorial and a starter scenario to give you time to grow before being attacked by those pesky extraterrestrials. Sadly, Armada 2526 does not feature multiplayer other than same-computer hot-seat action, an odd shortcoming for a turn-based game.

The second-best aspect of Armada 2526 is the user interface: it gives easily accessible information through a couple of key features. The first is the advisor, which gives helpful information on star colonization (suggesting which newly-scouted stars are good candidates) and other in-game actions. The list view displays all of your fleets (location and current action) and colonies (population, construction orders) in a handy location; this makes managing a large, sprawling empire actually possible. The game’s reports don’t give the amount of economic detail I desire (you need to visit individual planets for that information), but the tool-tips are useful to determine how star attributes will affect colonies. Movement in the game is restricted to between stars only (similar to Sins of a Solar Empire) initially, until you research some l33t tech; orders are executed by left-clicking a star and right-clicking a destination, then selecting which ships you want to travel. This method makes it easier to select a specific composition of craft than the usually box-selecting method employed in other strategy games. The restriction of movement also makes travel more predictable and easier to manage overall. Units can be instructed to repeat orders (useful for shuttling cargo between systems) as well. There is one caveat, however: you have to actually issue a move order before you see which ships are at a particular star. This is a minor annoyance, however, as the remainder of the interface is quite excellent.

The first step in any 4X game is to expand (although shouldn’t they be “4E” games, since all of the terms start with “E” and not “X”?). Founding colonies is done through an ark ship, sent to neutral worlds and colonized with a simple click. While the population will increase slowly on its own, it is important to shuttle transports full of citizens back and forth (relatively easy to do thanks to the “repeat” function) in order to increase the population, and your tax income, more quickly. You will need to manage each of your colonies in several aspects: income from taxes, structure and ship upkeep expenses, happiness (affected by pollution from industry), popularity (affected by native population, tax rate and empire size), security (used to counter low happiness and popularity), population growth, and biologic infections. This is done mainly by setting the tax rate and constructing buildings, like mines, research labs, entertainment, security, and planetary defense. Unlike most 4X games, you most certainly do not want to max out your construction slots because you will not be able to afford the upkeep; this counter-intuitiveness is not clearly explained in the tutorial or manual, and it’s only after your first game or two wallowing in debt that you realize that restraint is the best option. Once available planets are fully colonized, it’s time to invade. Once you destroy the enemy forces, you have a variety of ways of dealing with the native population: you can simply take it over (but have to deal with unhappiness), exterminate the natives, loot the economy, spread a plague, or cause massive damage. While having all of these options are nice and all, they are superficial decisions that really just hinge on whether the colony is profitable or not.

Before you go around blowing stuff up, you’ll have to entertain some diplomatic action. The diplomacy in Armada 2526 is basic: non-aggression treaties (for a number of turns) and the exchange of money, technology, map information, buildings, and colonies. The game shows the balance of each agreement, although this does not necessarily mean your partner will agree to an arrangement. The AI is a sporadic negotiator, offering some insane counter-offers involving inflated amounts of cash in exchange for simple technologies. Speaking of technologies, there are seven fields to choose from, like weapons, defense, information, and biological. You can research one technology in each field at a time, and you can adjust the funding level of each field in accordance to your goals. The game has a linear technology tree that is generally the same (save for some unique high-level techs) for each race. The only original aspect of the technology model is the skunkworks: it’s faster, but it produces a random technology that you might already be researching. Other than that, though, research is nothing we haven’t seen before.

Armada 2526 features a decent selection of ships, from small and fast scouts, to medium corvettes, to powerful destroyers, to massive dreadnaughts and carriers. The selection in not as varied as you would like, however, because there is no ship design or custom parts available through research. In fact, all of the races have the same ships, except for some super ships at the top of the tech tree. Partly because of this, combat in Armada 2526 is a drab affair where the side with the most ships wins. The real-time battles are really disappointing, as you are only given simple move/attack commands and formations; there is nothing tactically interesting about it. Once you have selected your ships, it’s all over but the cryin’. The battles have a timer and there is one interesting formation to choose from (the rotating circle of the caracole), but with no cover, no obstacles, and no map variations, you’ll be resorting to automated combat most of the time. The AI of Armada 2526 provides decent competition, although it is generally not too aggressive and its diplomatic skills could be improved. The game is easy if you have defensive victory conditions; most races (apart from the couple of aggressive ones) will leave you alone, even if you have a significant lead in victory points. Since you can only play against the AI, it simply does not provide enough long-term challenge to make Armada 2526 a recommended 4X strategy title.

Armada 2526 has two good things going for it: the user interface and varied alien races. Other than that, though, it’s a generic space 4X title, and in order to become a notable game in this competitive and oversaturated genre, you need more. The map options are nice, as you can create a game world as large as your computer can handle. The alien races are also quite distinct and offer different strategies for victory with a wide range of starting bonuses and victory conditions. The AI is a competent opponent, and since Armada 2526 lacks any multiplayer offerings other than simple hot-seat contests on the same machine, you’ll be playing exclusively against the computer. The interface is excellent, providing easily accessible information on all your colonies and ships, a helpful advisor, and tool-tips to aid in colonization. Managing your colonies can be quite difficult as Armada 2526 does not want you to build, build, build: you need to pace yourself or you will soon become broke as pollution from industry causes widespread turmoil. The diplomacy and research aspects of the game are generic, offering nothing new other than the faster-but-random skunkworks technology group. The real-time battles are very simplistic: there are no obstacles or terrain to use for a tactical advantage, which makes Armada 2526 simply a test of who has the best and most numerous ships. In the end, Armada 2526 is just another space 4X strategy game that places behind genre leaders Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, and Sword of the Stars.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Classic Car Racing Review

Classic Car Racing, developed by Xbow Software and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Pleasing relaxed simulation driving, aggressive but fallible opponents are fun to compete against, a number of cars and tracks, graphics aren't terrible
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, doesn't take long to unlock everything, a bit overpriced
What say you? Solid driving physics and human-like AI highlight this racing game: 6/8

Go grease lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile. Grease lightning, go grease lightning. Go grease lightning, you’re coasting through the heat lap trial. Go grease lightning, go grease lightning. As I am getting sued by Paramount Pictures for copyright infringement, please enjoy this review of Classic Car Racing, a game inspired by those more innocent times when men were men and women wore poodle skirts, possible made from poodles.

The graphics of Classic Car Racing are actually not bad, which was a shock to me. While the environments are repetitive (the races take place in what is apparently coastal California), they are populated with enough track side objects (houses, people, fencing, et cetera) to make it seem at least somewhat varied. The sundry (an odd synonym) track layouts help matters are well. The car models are also well-done, with a nice attention to detail. While damage effects are minimal (shattered windows, mostly), your driver is animated and you can see shifting in the cockpit. That said, there is severe pop-in with distant trees even with all of the graphical options turned up, which obviously takes away from the immersion. The game also resets all of my graphics settings each time I start: an annoying bug. Still, though, Classic Car Racing looks better than most low-priced racing games. The game is complete with period-specific music that is marginally enjoyable, and your typical effects for racing games. The tire screeching sound is the least plausible of any of the sound bytes, but the remainder of the package delivers. Classic Car Racing does hold its own in terms of both graphics and sound.

Considering the uneven pedigree of Russian import games (awesome followed by terrible followed by OK), my expectations were lowered from the outset. I was initially a little worried when I had to sit through the opening videos: this is usually never a good sign. The main crux of Classic Car Racing is the career mode, where you race on the game’s twelve tracks, earning cash to upgrade your sweet ride. You can do a single race on any track that has been previously unlocked; this has absolutely no point, since you can race them again in the career mode and earn money that way. Single races would have been necessary if Classic Car Racing had multiplayer, but it does not: an important missing feature in any racing game. Every race features only four cars, and you must finish third or better in each race to unlock the next set of four tracks. There is no cost for entering races and you always earn cash, even if you finish in last. You can also re-enter races as many times as you want, so the career mode is just a matter of grinding through the races long enough to upgrade your car and make it superior to the AI drivers. The races take place on point-to-point tracks (meaning no laps on a circuit), which I feel fits the theme of the game well. What 50's muscle car races had people turning laps? It was the first person to the beach/aqueduct/natural history museum. Because there are only twelve races and each race takes around three minutes to complete, you can finish the entire game in under an hour; the lack of multiplayer offerings eliminates any reason to go back and play Classic Car Racing again.

We get eighteen generic cars that are visual knockoffs of classic American muscle vehicles from the period. Once you choose your winning car, it depreciates in value dramatically (just like in real life). The cash you earn from races can be spent on shiny new parts in several areas: engine, suspension, brakes, transmission, body, tires, and paint. In fact, the upgrade options are identical to Xpand Rally, and then I figured out why: Classic Car Racing uses the same game engine, so I guess the developers decided to plagiarize the upgrades as well. The identical options extend to the car setup, where you can tweak the suspension, brakes, steering, and gearing. Now, this is where using the same options is silly: why would I want an off-road setup with a soft suspension when all the tracks are paved?

Now for the racing: it’s actually pretty enjoyable. This is thanks in large part to the AI, which strikes a good balance between being good and not acting like a robot. Your computer opponents will stick to the track, but will also run into you (and each other) for position and occasionally lose control when taking a turn too fast: just like a novice driver would. Once you upgrade your car, things get a lot easier (almost trivially so), but I still can’t consistently finish in first, so there is still some challenge involved. They are not immune to stupidity, however, occasionally flipping their cars by running into each other. The driving physics is also well executed, assuming you select “simulation” settings like a real PC gamer would. You actually have to brake in order to navigate turns successfully, in stark contrast to a lot of arcade racing games that require no skill in this area. The cars are very loose with no downforce, at least before you upgrade them. Physics could be improved when you run into other objects, especially guard rails, which stop your vehicle cold instead of allowing you to glance and slide along side. There is a severe penalty for crashing into objects, and damage affects car performance slightly. You can occasionally find magic wrenches to instantly repair your car, though (there are typically one or two per track). Coins can also be collected that will add some additional cash for upgrades. You will also respawn if you hit a pedestrian: no GTA-style carnage here. As short-lived as it is, Classic Car Racing offers some fun racing against competent AI that’s above your typical racing title.

I was pleasantly surprised with Classic Car Racing: the graphics are good, the AI drivers are capable opponents that exhibit human-like behaviors, and the physics (for the most part) deliver solid driving. The game is short, though: only twelve races fly by, and the lack of multiplayer options means once you are done, you are done. There is a good number of cars and you can spend money on upgrades, although the upgrades were stolen from another racing game and some of the setup options are pointless as all of the races take place on pavement. The AI drivers will keep you busy, as one bad wreck where you are turned around will relegate you to fighting for last place. There is the occasional AI quirk, to be sure, but for the most part they hold their own. The physics also strikes a good balance between arcade and simulation: cars are a bit loose and crashing into objects has inconsistent results, but the racing overall is quite pleasant. $30 is a little overpriced for the content ($20 would have been much more reasonable), but Classic Car Racing clearly falls in to the “not bad” racing game classification: a solid podium finish.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Solium Infernum Review

Solium Infernum, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Several alternatives to combat, restricted orders per turn reduce micromanagement and increase strategy, many troops and items to bid on, progressive diplomatic actions, rituals and event cards add uncertainty, tons of avatar customization options, play by e-mail, randomized maps
The Not So Good: Terribly passive AI, lacks tutorials, some interface shortcomings, no default avatar builds
What say you? A deep and unique strategy game that offers many paths towards a hellish victory: 7/8

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Armageddon Empires, a card-based and turn-based strategy game. The title had some nice features, like deck customization and multiple strategic paths, but the slow pace and lack of tutorials turned me off to a game that more respected media outlets lauded for its depth. Heck, the thing got an 87 average score. I clearly missed the boat on that one (hey, it happens occasionally), so now it’s time to redeem myself with Solium Infernum, the latest strategy game from developer Cryptic Comet. Now, you are battling for control of Hell by amassing prestige and promoting general evil awesomeness. Let the most esteemed Archfiend win!

Solium Infernum features a similar visual style to Armageddon Empires: a 2-D map similar to a board game. The hexes do evoke a feeling of eternal damnation with a very gray feel, and the item cards for avatars, relics, and artifacts are quite detailed and compete with any of those card-based RPGs. There are no animations and hardly any special effects for battles or spells, so Hell is actually a pretty static place. You can thankfully run the game in a window since it is limited to an archaic 1024x768 screen resolution. The game interface is a mixed bag: while all of the numerous game actions are accessible from your “Ministerium,” it could also use some additional work to make the game more intuitive for new players. Some examples: crossing out unavailable order slots, making scrolling ability more apparent on the event log, and tool tips for attributes would all be quite welcome. The biggest interface inadequacy involves the lack of sorting tribute cards: resources are just piled on top of one another, and I actually spend most of my time in-game not devising strategy but organizing my cards, trying to find a specific resource. It’s annoying and needs to be fixed. The sound design is even more basic than the graphics: a single “click” effect and nice background music that I enjoyed, although I muted it and listened to my MP3s eventually anyway. Nobody will be turning towards Solium Infernum for graphical glory, but the bare board game feel doesn't negatively impact the game too much.

In Solium Infernum, you are a demon in Hell, vying for control of the Inferno, because there is honestly nothing else to do down there. Games can be customized by specifying the map size, map layout, frequency of places of power, and game length. Each map is randomly generated based on one of four formats; the game seems somewhat fair in deciding optimal starting positions, although some games you are luckier than others. Solium Infernum can be played against the AI or humans through play by e-mail, where players will send their turns to a host, who will process the turns and send them back. It’s a relatively smooth process and certainly a recommended one due to the lack of quality AI I shall address later. A major part of the game is designing your custom avatar. You are given a number of points that you can dedicate towards a rank (which controls the size of your starting army), public objective (a prestige bonus is earned if you obtain it), perks (small bonuses intended for different strategies), and five attribute areas. Confusingly, the attributes and the disciplines they affect are named differently, but in essence you have military, stealing, scouting, destruction, and resource hog. There is a wide range of possibilities here to satisfy a number of viable strategies; however, there are no default avatar loadouts to choose from to get you started.

Victory is obtained by accumulating the most prestige by the end of the game. Solium Infernum is turn-based, and the length is semi-random through the drawing of conclave tokens; this makes it more interesting because you can’t be sure when exactly the game will finish. There are several ways to accumulate prestige, and unlike most (if not all) strategy games, many of the methods aren’t related to straight-up combat. Sure, you get prestige for destroying legions, but you also gain prestige by controlling territory and places of power, performing rituals, through diplomacy, accumulating relics, and meeting objectives. In addition to the public objective chosen while customizing your avatar, you can draw secret objectives during the game, such as destroying enemy legions or banishing an enemy praetor, that give a positive prestige bonus if completed, but a negative one if not. Solium Infernum is very restrictive in the amount of things you can do every turn. Most players will start out with the ability to issue only two commands per turn, and this includes everything: moving troops, collecting resources, et cetera. This is a smart design decision that makes the end-game much less tedious and increases the strategy by making you choose which actions are most important.

So, here are the orders you can choose from. Important is the collection of tribute, delivered on cards for no apparent reason. The number of resource cards you are offered and can keep is dependent on your charisma trait, so it is a very important investment when you are creating your avatar. It’s an exotic system that makes for some good decision making on which cards to keep, and some poor, annoying organization that I mentioned earlier. You will eventually have to spend an order consolidating your cards in order to bid on more expensive things since you can only use ten cards at once. Bidding is done through the infernal bazaar (bizarre? ha ha!), where legions, praetors (leaders), artifacts (bonuses for legions), relics (overall bonuses), and collectible manuscripts (for large bonuses) can be obtained by the highest bidder. This is an interesting system because it rewards those with better resource collecting skills, but it isn’t a straight relationship since you are bidding directly against others for the same items. Most avatars will only have three (at most) legions under their control (especially because moving more legions requires extra orders you don’t have) that can be outfitted with praetors and artifacts to increase their stats. There are some interesting customization options here with the various items you can purchase and outfit your troops with (which, of course, requires an order slot). You are also required to use your limited orders for moving troops, capturing neutral territory and engaging in combat with the enemy. Combat is a straightforward affair since you can see all of the ranged, melee, and infernal (essentially magic) stats for each structure and legion; results are usually quite predictable. You are given more leeway with one-on-one praetor combat, where you can specify the order of seven moves for your subordinate. Combat cards can be constructed by militarily-inclined avatars to accentuate their legions beyond their initial fixed stats, and legions can also increase in competence by successfully engaging in combat.

Hell has a surprisingly structured diplomatic system. First, you must either insult an opponent or demand resources. If they take offense to your action, a vendetta is declared: a mini-war that has a specific objective, like controlling four hexes, obtaining a place of power, or having a one-on-one fight between praetors. Once three successful vendetta have been executed, a full-on blood feud is declared, where extermination is the end result. Further diplomatic orders include sending an emissary for peace, becoming a blood vassal for a share of the win, or excommunication, which removes all of the rights and privileges of being an underlord in Hell. Rituals are an important aspect of Solium Infernum: they are spells that come in three general flavors (deception, prophecy, and destruction) with varied resource costs, depending on the threat level you have set for that opponent. These are a tricky way of influencing enemy powers without resorting to all-out military supremacy, and they make alternative paths to victory possible. Resources can also be spend leveling-up your avatar to access better spells and abilities.

Each turn, one person is selected to be the Regent, who earns an event card. These can drastically alter the course of a game if played at the right time, and they have varied and wide-ranging effects: turning hexes into impassable terrain, losing tribute cards, unleashing a powerful unit to destroy all, and over sixty other possible events. The mechanics here are much more strategic than simply having random events peppered throughout the game, since somebody is always the cause of an event. Gameplay-wise, Solium Infernum comes together quite nicely because of its unique attributes. The limited number of orders at your disposal puts a premium on choosing appropriate actions for each turn. The game’s resources can be used for a wide range of activities, and not all games will turn into a match of military superiority since you can bribe, manipulate, or destroy enemy units at a distance with magical magic. The early game is repetitive, as your initial orders will be (1) move and (2) collect resources, but things get rolling once you are involved in vendettas and can take full advantage of rituals, events, artifacts, relics, praetors, and manuscripts. Solium Infernum is best as a multiplayer game since the AI is not aggressive enough: in all of the games I have played so far, I have never been the target of any diplomatic action, even as the prestige leader. The AI does occasionally use rituals (when you have coerced a vendetta first), but since the AI seems hell-bent (pun intended) on avoiding war, the game can become a lot of needless repetition.

Solium Infernum succeeds by offering unique and varied strategic gameplay. There is simply not another game quite like it, and the many ways of obtaining victory in the underworld make for a slightly different experience every time. This starts with the randomized maps that increase replay value and satisfying play-by-e-mail multiplayer to annoy your friends with. This is an important feature, as the AI is much too passive to be any sort of competition once you have the basics down: in most games, I was never insulted, let alone attacked, even once by a computer opponent. There are a multitude of options in creating your avatar to tailor your initial strategy, although I would like to have at least one default configuration to get you started. You can try out many strategies through building your custom character, from a military genius with lots of troops to a cunning intellectual that relies on magic and bribes. Solium Infernum does have a learning curve (although it's more straightforward than its predecessor), which is not helped by the lack of an in-game tutorial and an occasionally cumbersome interface. During the turn-based gameplay, you are limited in your actions: a very smart design decision that greatly increases the importance of choosing the right orders while reducing end-game tedium. There’s always too many things to do and not enough orders to do them with; tough decisions are always the hallmark of a good strategy game. There are plenty of orders to choose from: moving troops, bidding on troops and artifacts, conducting rituals, building manuscripts, insulting your competitors, declaring vendettas, and collecting resources. Victory, by earning the most prestige, can be gained through many methods: secret objectives, rituals, diplomacy, relics, controlling places of power and territory, and, of course, combat. Things are most interesting when war is declared (which admittedly takes a while due to the structured diplomatic path), when you can use rituals, event cards, and troop items to their full effect. But you don't even really need to enter a blood feud, since there are plenty of options to simply bribe or manipulate your way to the top without firing a shot. Simply put, Solium Infernum gives you plenty of alternatives, and that's what makes it a can't miss title for strategy gamers.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 Review

Left 4 Dead 2, developed and published by Valve.
The Good: Highly enjoyable cooperative and competitive play, chaotic Scavenger mode, tense Realism mode, picturesque and diverse level design, assorted armaments with satisfying melee weapons, deadly new special infected, excellent gory graphics
The Not So Good: Multiple paths not varied enough, melee weapons are too powerful, barely competent friendly AI
What say you? Improved in every area, this zombie action game offers a more complete experience: 8/8

Sequels are tricky business: you must provide enough changes to warrant people paying full price, but at the same time stay true to the original game. Of course, there is the option to actually eliminate content, but who would pay for that? There was a segment of the gaming population who determined that Left 4 Dead 2 did not provide enough content, an opinion based on not actually playing the game. Well, now it is here, following a typical Valve delay of the demo, in all its zombie-smashing gory glory. I did not play Left 4 Dead 1 when it came out, as Valve ignored my violent threats requests for a digital review copy (I have one now for comparison). Well, my incessant complaining requests have finally gone answered and we can delve into this title properly.

One of the strongest aspects of Left 4 Dead 2 is the presentation, as both the graphics and sound are well designed. The most prominent part of the game is the amazing level of gore: it’s a bit over-the-top, but significant dismembering and lots of blood abound. The first time you shoot the arms off a zombie climbing a fence, causing he/she/it to fall off, you realize how wonderfully graphic the graphics are: heads come off, guts spill out, and blood spatters all over your view. It’s no wonder that Australia was not amused. The zombies that meet untimely death are varied in appearance, offering both male and female versions to have their intestines decorate the landscape in an artistic orgy of blood. The special infected could use more than one or occasionally two models each, though, and their appearance becomes distressingly repetitive. The game takes place over a number (and that number is “five”) of distinctive locations, each with varied appearances and a great attention to detail. The levels look fantastic and realistic; the attention to detail in each of the game’s twenty-five levels goes far beyond a simple expansion pack. The game also features weather effects (most noticeable in the “Hard Rain” campaign) and changes in the time of day: the graphics package is well done. The game also performs quite smoothly considering the graphical aptitude. The sound design isn’t far behind: the weapons are convincing, and the voice acting is competently executed. The characters make canned comments on the surroundings and current situation; while plausible, the dialogue tends to get repetitive when playing the same level again. They do have some varied dialogue at key points of each campaign, but the same combat-related sayings are used over and over again. Still, the chaos of combat clearly emanates from the game. The musical selection is good and dependent on your progress, subtly adjusted for important events like an incoming zombie horde or a special infected. Overall, Left 4 Dead 2 delivers a very solid package.

Left 4 Dead 2 follows the harrowing take of four survivors (get it? Left 4 Dead? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!) of the impending zombie apocalypse, caused by either swine flu or John Cusack. This sequel uses different characters from the original game, although I can’t tell the difference 95% of the time: choosing a different character does not impact your in-game performance, like lowered health or faster running speed. The game features five campaigns as the survivors trek across the Southeast from Savannah to New Orleans in search of zesty rice (or such is my understanding). Each campaign takes place in a distinctive setting: the shopping mall of Dead Center, the amusement park of Dark Carnival, the swamps of Swamp Fever, the hard rain of Hard Rain, and the mythical town of New Orleans in The Parish. Each of the game’s levels are very well designed and quite detailed, with more open areas to be less of corridor shooter. There are also some nice moments during each campaign, from breaking into a store for cola to fighting on a roller coaster and through flooded streets. The AI Director can control the weather, time of day, and the specific paths available to you; there isn’t quite as much variety as I would like here, though, as the changes are quite subtle and you are usually only diverted for a minute at most. Each campaign takes between one and two hours to complete, and I have found that the advanced difficulty setting is appropriate for coordinated veteran players.

But that’s not all! Left 4 Dead 2 features four more modes of play for your gaming enjoyment. Brought over from the original game is the so-so Survival mode and the popular Versus mode, where four people take the roles as the special infected and attempt to stop the survivors in one of the campaigns. There is a lot of coordination potential with the new infected types (details later), although it would be nice to be able to choose your infected from a list of two or three choices (I lack the coordination for the hunter’s crouch/pounce). For those with less time to play, a new shortened competitive mode called Scavenge is available. Here, the survivors attempt to collect gas canisters to refuel something (a car or generator) while the infected attempt to stop them. The matches take place in a small portion of a campaign map for much more concentrated gameplay. Most of the maps are balanced well, although some are confusing and too strung out. There are some nice strategies to employ (gas canisters can be shot for a sacrificial wall of fire) and coordination is still imperative; it’s a great way to still enjoy competitive play in a shorter time span. Finally, Realism mode is perfect for veterans of the series. Instead of simply making the game more difficult (you can play Realism mode on “easy”), the silhouettes around the survivors and items are removed, head shots inflict significantly more damage, death is permanent until the end of the level, and the Witch is a formidable opponent as attacks are one-shot kills. The Realism mode places an even higher focus on teamwork and sticking together, which is really what Left 4 Dead 2 is all about. Finding all of these game modes is easy enough: while Left 4 Dead 2 lacks a server browser, it does list how many games of each type and each difficult level are being played, so that you can gauge your probability of joining a low-ping contest. You can, however, join a match in progress: a much appreciated feature.

In order to defeat the infected horde, you’ll need guns. Lots of guns. Left 4 Dead 2 offers way more than the five (five!) non-pistol guns of Left 4 Dead Original. You’ll start out with the choice of a shotgun (long reload time but powerful) or submachine gun (shorter reload time but less powerful) and move up from there. The much more expanded offerings also include a silenced submachine gun, chrome shotgun (shiny equals better), combat shotgun, hunting rifle, sniper rifle, burst-fire combat rifle, AK-47, M-16, and even a grenade launcher. I do find it weird that every weapon has a flashlight attached (on a sniper rifle? OK…). Before, your only defense against a large number of enemies was “push back” (right mouse button), but melee weapons are now available for violent disposing of the enemy. There are lots of choices here: an axe, baseball bat, electric guitar, frying pan, katana, nightstick, and, of course, the chainsaw (which has limited fuel and attracts attention to itself). The melee weapons take the place of a pistol and are quite useful when being swarmed. I think they are too powerful, however, as it’s just way too easy to simply keep pressing the left mouse button when surrounded and kill away, since most of the melee weapons are one-hit, one-kill. Various items are available for support: you can carry one form of first aid (a health kit or defibrillator for reviving fallen allies), one consumable (health pills for a temporary boost or adrenaline for faster actions, useful for using in conjunction with a melee weapon), and one throwable (Molotov, pipe bomb that attracts infected, and boomer bile that is intended to be used on the tank to make infected attack it) item. You can also find laser sights that supposedly make your weapons more accurate and incendiary and explosive ammunition. Additionally, you can carry around gas cans, oxygen, and propane tanks in order to explode them, although Mythbusters showed this does not actually work, which totally ruins the otherwise complete realism of Left 4 Dead 2.

In addition to slight changes in weather and level layout, the AI Director also controls how many enemies you’ll face. You will come across the common infected, uncommon common infected that will be harder to kill (that zombie’s wearing armor! I want armor!), and the special infected that provide more of a challenge. The five from the original title remain: the vomiting boomer, the leaping hunter, the fishing smoker, the startling witch, and the powerful tank. New additions include the charger, which knocks people down and pounds them into the ground, the spitter that creates a lake of toxic acid, and the humiliating jockey that rides and guides people into hazards. These three new special infected enemies further increase the variety of strategies you need to employ in order to be successful, and also increase the cooperative nature of being an infected in one of the competitive modes. Once a survivor’s health has been depleted, they enter an incapacitated state where they can still shoot with pistols while laying on the ground. This makes no sense if you have switched your pistol for a melee weapon; this might be a good balance to remove this ability due to the melee weapons’ over-powered nature. If people are not rescued in time, they will appear in a closet (makes sense!) later on. As you might expect, cooperation is imperative for survival; Left 4 Dead 2 makes it impossible to win if people are off doing their own thing, especially since you are unable to defend yourself once a special infected has attacked. Human players obviously make better allies as the AI bots provide less than decent support: they generally follow your lead, but tend to get stuck and get themselves killed at the most inopportune times. The AI can be used in any of the game’s online modes as fillers, though, so that's a plus. You can’t, however, issue orders to AI bots, so organization with computer players is less than ideal.

There’s no way you’re going back to Left 4 Dead 1 after playing this. Simply put, Left 4 Dead 2 is better all around, and the collective improvements are enough to justify a higher-than-expansion price tag. Getting together three friends (you do have three friends, right?) to purchase the four pack drives the unit price down to a respectably affordable $37.50. I think Valve should have offered a discount to owners of Left 4 Dead 1 (since everything is tied to your Steam account), but there is still enough new and improved content to merit a purchase. The new characters don’t matter for me, but the addition of the addictive capture-the-flag-like scavenge mode and more hardcore realism mode are notable. Scavenge mode emphasizes the teamwork element while restricting the action to a small portion of the map, and realism mode takes away those silly silhouettes and makes the Witch a force to be reckoned with. The five campaign locations have an impressive amount of detail and truly varied settings: the detail alone justifies the price of admission. Left 4 Dead 2 significantly increases your arsenal as well (can you believe that the original game has only five non-pistol weapons?!), from better shotguns to more varied assault rifles and the disturbingly enjoyable grenade launcher. And the melee weapons, which are (a bit too) powerful. In addition, the boomer bile is a very useful tool in disposing of special infected, and the additional ammunition types are fun to play with. Speaking of the special infected, the three new types are welcome and all quite annoying (in a good way), my personal favorite being the spitter (a fine counter to those damn campers). The AI director continues to change up the game by altering the weather and enemy concentrations, though the changes in available pathways are minor at best. The graphics are a significant step up from the original game as the level of gore has drastically increased. Compared to this iteration, Left 4 Dead 1 looks like it came out far longer than a year ago. Taken as a whole, Left 4 Dead 2 is a fantastic game, and that’s how I am rating it since I did not do a review of the original title. And even if you consider that it is a sequel released a year after the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 is enhanced in every area; whether you decide to invest in the new game depends on your overall enjoyment of the series. And who doesn’t like killing zombies?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

For the Glory: A Europa Universalis Game Review

For the Glory: A Europa Universalis Game, developed by Crystal Empire Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Improved support for modifications, tweaks and additions to game rules improve combat, better AI, ten thousand historical events, minor graphical enrichments
The Not So Good: Lacking some interface enhancements from EU3 such as the outliner makes controlling large nations arduous, most changes are very subtle
What say you? A slightly better version of Europa Universalis II intended for dedicated fans and modders: 5/8

Back in 2008, Paradox Interactive released the game engine used for their last-generation grand strategy games for free as the Europa Engine License Program. Anybody could contact them and develop a game that would be published online at their download service, Gamer’s Gate. The first of those games has arrived in the form of For the Glory. This enhancement of Europa Universalis II incorporates the infamous AGCEEP mod, which added tens of thousands of historical events, and a handful of other changes to the old game. Europa Universalis III is most likely my favorite game ever and I am quite used to the many improvements that version added over the second in the series. Will the additions For the Glory offers compensate for using an older game engine?

Unlike most (if not all) standalone expansions, For the Glory actually makes some changes to the graphics. Now, the base 2-D map presentation from Europa Universalis II is still intact, but there is some minor progress made that veterans of the series most likely will notice. The major changes come in the form of interface alterations: there are more detailed tool-tips for some items, troops are visible from the political map, and the quite-useful alerts have been borrowed from Europa Universalis III to succinctly inform you of pressing issues. For the Glory also support a wider range of screen resolutions, and takes advantage of this increase in real estate by placing more information on the top menu bar. We also have a couple of new map modes, displaying revolt risk and color-coded diplomatic relations. There are also smaller graphical changes, such as nation-specific troop sprites and additional fonts and flags. These make the game more varied visually but don’t impact the gameplay at all. Really, other than the alerts, there is nothing importantly different that For the Glory offers in terms of graphics; I wish the developers had expanded the interface changes further, as I will complain about shortly. Still, For the Glory certainly loads and plays much faster than EU3, so those with older hardware will appreciate that. As for the sound design, it remains the same except for the music: For the Glory uses the EU3 song lineup because of licensing issues; I don’t remember the musical score from Europa Universalis II so I do not have a preference either way.

Since the excellence of the Europa Universalis series has been firmly established, this review will focus on the changes and (hopefully) improvements made to Europa Universalis II by For the Glory. First off, the scenarios have been rebalanced to promote more historically accurate outcomes, something that Europa Universalis II strives for. I haven’t seen dramatic shifts in the results of games due to different starting conditions, though, as the alterations seem relatively minor. The developers have included two user modifications with For the Glory: Age of Timur, which shifts the action to the 13th Century (that’s the 1200’s), and the aforementioned AGCEEP mod that offers an astounding (and disturbing) 10,000 historical events: highly recommended, and I suspect most people will play with it “on” by default. Since the authors of For the Glory were modders themselves, this version of Europa Universalis II has greatly increased the modification potential by removing a cap on the number of actions in events and increasing the number of provinces, countries, and religions that can be added to the game. In addition, more of the game’s values have been externalized so they can be altered. Mod makers certainly have much more to play with here, and the quality modification support of the Europa Universalis series has been significantly increased.

The next round of changes deals with war, something you will inevitably be a part of unless you are playing the most boring game of Europa Universalis ever. The first is the introduction of several types of core provinces: territory that a country feels “belongs” to them. “Regular” core provinces offer increased income and manpower, but some may now be “claims” with no manpower bonus, “casus belli” provinces that only grant a reason to go to war, and cores dealing with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which grant Spain and Portugal reason to take any colonies of opposing nations. These bonuses that these changes remove were usually minor enough that the effect of these new cores is fairly small.

There is also a host of smaller changes in For the Glory. The spread of Protestantism is more realistic and less completely random like it was before. Supplies are handled more realistically as well: having troops in enemy territory results in some significant losses with slow replacement, something to consider while waging war. You will also have more land connections through some regions of permanent terra incognita (they are provinces that cannot be colonized, but can be traversed), and regions can become impassable during winter: a neat touch. A new leader type has been introduced: privateers. These are basically fancy pirates, and getting one gives all neighboring countries a temporary Casus Belli against you: not so fun. Newly formed countries now have full troops when they are established, and rebels and pirates are significant opponents. Finally, the AI has been improved, reducing the frequency of crazy, nonsense wars involving countries located nowhere near each other.

Unfortunately for people like me that can’t keep track of what’s going on in a large empire spanning many continents, the most significant interface features of EU3 did not make their way into For the Glory. Most noteworthy is the outliner, which listed all of your troops and provinces in one handy list that was always displayed on the main map screen. Without this feature, it’s really hard to remember where everyone is located at all times. In addition, conquered territory is not shown on the political map, requiring you to squint at tiny flags to figure out who has control of each province during war. Finally, you net income per year is not displayed in the treasury balance display, which makes it a more involved process calculating how much money you need to save to overcome your monthly deficits. These are admittedly minor, but I wouldn’t have listed them if they weren’t important to me. Summed up, it makes For the Glory much harder to handle than Europa Universalis III.

I'm always skeptical of re-releases of older games, mainly because they promise to add all sorts of new things but end up just being the equivalent of a “gold” collection. This is not totally the case for For the Glory, however, as the enhancements made from Europa Universalis II are significant for fervent fans of the game. The graphics have gotten some minor changes, from sprites for individual countries to allowing for custom screen resolutions. The user interface has incorporated alerts and the ability to move troops from multiple map modes from EU3, but does not include some key features like my heavily-used outliner and some additional budgetary information; this makes it difficult to play large nations spread across the map and keep track of what exactly is going on. Europa Universalis II has always been more historical than EU3, and For the Glory continues that trend by including the AGCEEP mod and its 10,000 events. Speaking of mods, For the Glory also allows for a much wider range of changes to be made by the user by removing limitations on the number of actions in events, countries, religions, and provinces: the impassioned mod community will certainly enjoy that. The rest of the game tweaks are patch-like in my opinion and don't significantly impact the gameplay, although the varied changes (like the spread of Protestantism and supply rules) do produce more plausible results. The AI is more believable; you no longer have minor Asian nations declaring war on Brandenburg, for example. But I miss the significant interface features of EU3 too much, and I actually prefer the less predictable (and more wacky) outcomes (yay Prussia colonizing Cuba!). While I will not be switching to For the Glory for my grand strategy fix, people who prefer the more historical Europa Universalis II over EU3 will appreciate the improvements made here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

East India Company: Privateer Review

East India Company: Privateer, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: New campaigns focus on a variety of short-term missions
The Not So Good: No advantages (and several disadvantages) of being a privateer make it a pointless choice, most significant enhancements were already available for free
What say you? Even for only $10, Privateer offers neither innovation nor variation from the original: 3/8

East India Company was OK, but it was limited mainly by the unwieldy trading interface and a distinct amount of repetition. The developer remedied some of those shortcomings with the free Designer's Cut patch, which, of course, begs the question of why the Designer's Cut wasn't part of the original release to begin with. My guess is undue pressure from Paradox to remove all of that hardcore nudity. The Designer's Cut mainly introduced a more streamlined port trading interface and removed those really annoying loading times, putting everything on the main screen. That solves my primary complaint of the original game, so what's left for Privateer, the priced ($10) expansion for East India Company? Here, you control a privateer (surprise!) with no national allegiance, free to trade and become disturbingly friendly with any company of your choosing. Does this significantly change the gameplay for the better?

No noticeable enhancements have been made in either the graphics or the sound departments other than a new introductory video and maybe some new background music. Well, that was easy!

East India Company: Privateer lets you play a privateer in competition with the East India companies. Amazing! The game comes with two twenty-year campaigns (1630 to 1650 and 1700 to 1720), in addition to a longer sandbox campaign that spans the full length of the game from 1630 to 1750. Your goal is to make tons of money by successfully trading and completing missions. You can only play the privateer campaigns if you fire up East India Company: Privateer, meaning you must exit the game and execute the regular version of East India Company in order to play the “classic” mode: a minor annoyance. East India Company: Privateer also advertises new multiplayer modes (breakthrough and beehive), but these were included for free in the Designer’s Cut of East India Company.

The biggest enhancement East India Company: Privateer offers is the new missions, which come in both privateer and merchant flavors. Bascially, you are given a cash reward for completing such tasks as smuggling a spy, destroying a ship, escorting important goods, or transporting specific goods to a destination. It’s a nice addition that brings more direction to the game, although you’ll probably be doing the same sort of actions anyway in order to make money. Being a privateer offers no benefits, though, as you are initially locked from building any new ships (since you must first acquire good relations with one of the nations) and your starting fleet is anything but intimidating. You don’t make significantly more money on your own, either, as the missions reward only small amounts of cash for their completion. It is exceedingly difficult to successfully complete missions in the beginning since you are given such paltry starting resources. You are given more options to modify your fleet, as there are ten new commander skills (for a total of twenty-nine) that offer a nice amount of customization and specialists can be hired as crew members to grant small bonuses in combat and trade. The most significant difference in East India Company: Privateer is the much improved (but still cumbersome) city trade interface, but this enrichment was also included for free in the Designer’s Cut of the game. There are also problems and issues that still remain, from small economic bugs (getting the incorrect amount for goods) to never capturing goods or ships when battles are automatically resolved (a very important source of income for a privateer). I do like the shorter missions as opposed to the static objectives of the standard game, but $10 should deliver something more than just repetitive, low-profit, and difficult missions.

Even for only $10, East India Company: Privateer doesn’t offer near the amount of content we’ve come to expect from an expansion pack. There is only one new feature, the privateer missions, and they simply attach a cash reward to things you should be doing anyway. In fact, there is no reason to play a privateer, as it’s way better to just align with a company and be able to use their home port to buy ships. Being a privateer offers no advantages (you make the same amount of money, save for the mission bonuses) with plenty of disadvantages: you trade and fight like usual, but you only have access to a small number of neutral ports and can't build ships until you improve relations. So what's the point? You start out so small and so slowly that it takes you half of the campaign time to build up a reasonable fleet. I would much rather just start aligned so I can have more than three ships. I do like the shorter, more focused missions that Privateer brings to the table, but it’s simply not enough and, frankly, you at such a disadvantage playing as a privateer that it’s not even worth the effort. The free Designer's Cut patch offered an equal amount of much more important, interface-related content. Privateer would have been better if they added the trading aspect of the game for multiplayer (even if they had doubled the price because of it) or some other notable feature. There are still small annoyances, like never capturing ships during an auto-resolved battle, and the occasional bug appears during gameplay. Simply put, nobody should consider a career as a privateer.