Friday, January 30, 2009

SpringWorld Challenge Review

SpringWorld Challenge, developed and published by Nyblom Software.
The Good: Simple controls, multiple trophy levels, downloadable winning replays from official website
The Not So Good: Difficult from the start due to imprecise controls, exaggerated physics are frustrating, no level editor, basic graphics and annoying background music
What say you? Bouncy physics and high speeds don’t mix: 4/8

My continuing effort to review every physics-based puzzle game known to man (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, and Exhibit D) brings us today to SpringWorld Challenge. In this title, you navigate a car (conveniently equipped with rockets) or a rocket (not conveniently equipped with cars) across a map to the finish without wrecking too much. It’s SpringWorld not because it’s constantly the month of April, but because your vehicles are outfitted with mighty effective springs that make them all bouncy. How does this puzzle game stack up?

Independent games are notorious for not having the best graphics and sound, and SpringWorld Challenge is no exception to that generalization. The game is entirely in 2-D, and although I must say that some of the drawings used for the vehicles and backgrounds have a nice hand-drawn feel to them, the graphics, well, have a hand-drawn feel to them. There certainly aren’t advanced textures or lighting effects here like there are in other puzzle games. It also can be difficult to differentiate between background and foreground objects, something that can impact gameplay (at least the first time you play through a level) in a negative fashion. Wrecked cars are satisfyingly broken, but there’s nothing in the graphics of SpringWorld Challenge that couldn’t be replicated over a long weekend by anyone equipped with Paint. The sound design lapses as well, with basic effects and some truly annoying background music that I disabled quite quickly. It is lucky for SpringWorld Challenge that I don’t strongly emphasize graphics.

SpringWorld Challenge takes place over twenty-five levels where you must guide either a car or a rocket from the start to the finish. Twenty-five might not sound like very much content, but the levels (as you will see) are very difficult so it would take you at least a little while to complete the game. Despite the relative simplicity of the 2-D levels, SpringWorld Challenge does not come with a map editor to extent the life of the game. The game does have an online score system (although I’m not quite sure how scores are submitted) and you can download replays of the fastest times from the official website. The replays don’t actually show you how to control the vehicle in order to achieve the same results, but they sometime provide some helpful hints. Trophies can be earned in each level for fast completion time, low amounts of damage, or not using your rockets. These trophies are required to unlock additional levels; although you can technically skip past troublesome levels, you really need to get at least one or two trophies in each level in order to maintain positive progress in the game.

So what’s up with that 4/8, you say? It all lies in the control scheme and physics of SpringWorld Challenge. You use the four arrow keys for movement and WASD to fire rockets for additional acceleration. It took me a number of tries to realize that you need to use both normal movement and the rockets in order to be successful in the game. You can repair your vehicle using the control key, although if you have suffered enough damage to require this, you should just restart anyway. The main problem with SpringWorld Challenge lies with the overstated physics: it’s too hard to keep the car in contact with the ground because the springs are too responsive. You never feel like you are in full control of your vehicle; regardless of whether this is intentional or not, it is irritating and frustrating. There is too much of a fine line between success and failure due to the high accelerations and high spring rates and one error means you are done. The level designs do not help matters much: the levels are populated with ramps and other obstacles that throw your car or rocket away from the ground or walls, making it even more difficult to maintain forward momentum. While it is possibly a matter of personal taste, I do not like how the vehicles of SpringWorld Challenge: they are too twitchy and too hard to handle. The springs need some serious damping as SpringWorld Challenge is way too out of control to enjoy properly.

It was apparent by the 25th time I tried the second level in the game that SpringWorld Challenge might be a tad difficult. I like the idea of SpringWorld Challenge, but the combination of the overstated bouncy physics and high speed levels makes for a nauseating experience. The cars are simply too bouncy and they go too fast for being that bouncy, and the result is a lot of wrecks and subsequently a lot of failure. It is entirely too difficult to keep the car on a slightly uneven surface, and the rocket accelerates too quickly. The control scheme (keyboard keys) does not allow for the amount of precision the game really requires. If the developer would just tone down the spring rates just a bit, then SpringWorld Challenge would be a lot less frustrating. The level design has at least a little to do with this, as each level is populated with loads of uneven surfaces and ramps to cause havoc for the player. The features could be better as well: while you can download replays from the official website, there is no level editor (a seemingly simple thing to implement, given the 2-D nature of the levels) and the graphics and sound are both basic. It is entertaining to watch your car self-destruct, but this usually means you just horribly failed the level. The balance between the springs and the acceleration makes SpringWorld Challenge almost unplayable and certainly frustratingly difficult.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Defense Grid: The Awakening Review

Defense Grid: The Awakening, developed and published by Hidden Path Entertainment.
The Good: Varied upgradeable weapons, well developed countering system, diverse layouts, impressive graphics for the price, challenge modes introduce some replay value
The Not So Good: No direct influence on targeting, levels last a bit too long, lacks direct competitive online modes, no level editor for additional content
What say you? A very solid tower defense game: 6/8

A very niche (but fairly popular) sub-genre in the world of strategy games is the tower defense game. I’ve reviewed my fair share of them…well, actually, I haven’t: just one, and it was good. So, in order to fill my every-year-and-a-half quota of tower defense games, we get a review of Defense Grid: The Awakening. It works just like any other typical tower defense game: build towers in order to defend. It’s in the title, people!

Clearly one of the highlights of Defense Grid: The Awakening is the graphics. Everything in the game looks outstanding with a great attention to detail. Each of the environments is finely crafted, with emphasis even on background areas that never impact the game. Locations are unique but still maintain a consistent futuristic feel. The character models are well designed, and along with imaginative weapons and satisfying effects, Defense Grid: The Awakening provides a complete graphical package for a budget game. This is far above and beyond what you would typically see in some Flash game or mod: the graphics are quality stuff in the tower defense genre. The sound design doesn’t fall far behind, with agreeable effects and moody music that fits the foreboding theme of alien invasion. The voice actor (your computer friend) is also not annoying: a definite plus. People accustomed to Internet-based tower defense games will definitely appreciate the amount of work invested in the graphics of Defense Grid: The Awakening

Your objective in Defense Grid: The Awakening is to construct a grid of defenses in order to prevent the awakening. More specifically, you need to stop aliens from stealing power cores by shooting them dead with towers you place around each level. There are only twenty levels to choose from, but each one takes a while to beat and there are challenge modes available once you complete a level. These challenge modes add in tougher aliens, fixed resources, tower limits, or a single core to defend; they do a nice job in making the core game more difficult for experienced players while introducing diverse conditions to mix up the action. The layouts are varied, especially when multiple paths are introduced and flying aliens make an appearance. Putting the aliens on elevated platforms makes the tower defense mechanic more plausible, rather than the usually arbitrary restrictions your enemies follow. Defense Grid: The Awakening lacks a level editor to increase the content of the game; while I think being able to create full 3-D levels is beyond the scope of possibility, altering paths and tower placement locations could be supported by the game. There isn’t any online competitive play in Defense Grid: The Awakening, but there is an online scoring system and achievements you can earn, so there is at least something you can compare your skills against.

Since this is a tower defense game, you will be placing towers in fixed locations in order to repel the incoming alien attack. You use resources collected from killing aliens to fund additional towers and upgrades to existing ones. Resources also regenerate slowly over time, and you will get more resources if you save them in your bank. There are ten tower types in the game that vary according to weapon type (bullet, fire, missile, electricity, lasers) and range; upgrading towers (which is expensive) will result in improved damage or range (or both). You are limited to placing towers on fixed points around the map; you can kind of tell that the interface is designed for a console controller, as the mouse “snaps” directly to menu items, which is fine as it makes selecting things easier. There is time acceleration (by pressing “F,” for some reason), but the game still involves a lot of waiting around for things to die, since the only interaction you have early on is placing and upgrading turrets. There is no directed targeting for the towers, but you can eventually use an orbital laser to eliminate more troublesome units. The orbital laser is a one-shot deal (although very effective) and it doesn't provide additional resources, so it’s really only a viable option during the last wave if a pesky alien is too close to the exit. You also have radar that graphically displays the next wave of attackers so that you can exchange towers for more effective structures for those particular aliens.

Speaking of particular aliens, there are sixteen types that will make their way towards your defenses. There is a good variety in the enemies, from fast to shielded to flying to boss aliens, each of which are susceptible to a specific turret. While the first couple of levels are very standard fare for the genre, giving you a few turret positions along a very linear path, things get a lot more interesting later on. You are given the freedom to place turrets in a giant open area and you can guide the aliens on a path you can customize according to the locations you have chosen. This ability to create custom levels in a sense greatly increases the replay value of Defense Grid: The Awakening.

Defense Grid: The Awakening forces you to make decisions regarding construction and placement of turrets. You must balance building new towers with upgrading old ones, and use key locations effectively. You never seem to have enough funds to create your perfect layout, and since all of this planning is going on while you are being invaded, the game can get hectic. The pace is still leisurely, as I used time acceleration more often than not, but the last couple of waves usually induce some close calls. Dropped spheres slowly move back to the base, making it possible for them to be relayed by the aliens. The difficulty seems to be well adjusted, gradually introducing more powerful aliens and more capable towers. You are limited in your interactions with the game (place towers and the occasional orbital laser), but that is the nature of the genre for the most part.

Because of all the free tower defense games available on the grand expanse of the Internet, it might be difficult to justify paying for a game that is fundamentally the same, but Defense Grid: The Awakening does a good job validating an investment. The first key feature, something I usually do not put much emphasis on, is the outstanding graphics of the game: the environments, textures, aliens, and even the towers are all very well done and fine to look at. The game has online scoring and achievements to compensate for the lack of real-time competitive battles, and the additional challenge modes and flexible layouts of later levels increase replay value. The game is very methodical and each level seems to last just a bit too long; copious use of the time acceleration key is suggested. The combination of the sheer variety of towers and flexible placement of these towers makes Defense Grid: The Awakening interesting. I would like to have more direct control of targeting specific aliens (especially bosses carry a lot of spheres) because you’re mostly just sitting there once your network has been set up. Defense Grid: The Awakening comes with a nice variety of aliens and towers with which to deal with them, which also increases the replay value of the game. Defense Grid: The Awakening won’t appeal to many people who don’t like the genre to begin with, but it is a complete title that should appeal to fans of tower defense games.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Somersault Review

Somersault, developed and published by Enter-Brain-Ment.
The Good:Unique gameplay, intuitive controls, interface shows projected trajectory, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult, repetitive, short, score provides no bonuses, can’t skip or restart levels, no online components
What say you? A neat game concept that lacks both well-rounded features and moderate difficulty for beginners: 5/8

When I say (well, write, actually) “casual games,” what do you think of? Probably this. And this. And maybe even this. The point is (since when do I have a point?), the term usually is derogatory in nature, representing a simple game for less educated audiences. Thing is, though, there has been a lot of innovative work done in the genre producing some notable titles with unique assets, such as Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo. Both of these games come with unique hooks that differentiate them from the hordes of match-3 games that typically populate the genre. Uniqueness is the focus of Somersault, a casual puzzle game (surprise!) that involves drawing platforms to direct a ball-looking thing (quite possibly a ball). Does this mechanic produce a memorable game?

Somersault features some pleasing graphics for the genre. The game is rendered in 3-D (although it is played in two dimensions) and comes with some nice outdoor environments. There is a good attention to detail with the objects in the game, creating a plausible environment in which to bounce around. The character models are also detailed, though small, and there are some very nice lighting and shadow effects present in the game. Overall, Somersault has quite a solid graphics presentation. As for the sound, it is pretty standard fare: appropriate environment-specific effects and infrequent background music. I would say, though, that you are definitely getting your $15 worth out of the graphics design.

Somersault takes place over twenty-one levels set in outdoor environments where you must guide your ball-shaped hero by placing platforms for him/it to bounce off of while avoiding dangerous objects and falling off the map. You must complete all the levels in order and the game lacks the ability to skip troublesome puzzles; the potential for frustration is there since you can definitely get stuck (like, say, on the third level). There is no level editor for Somersault, but that’s fine because the levels last a while and the intricate 3-D layouts would probably be difficult to create anyway. An increasingly large number of puzzle games, even if they are single player affairs, introduce online scorekeeping, but Somersault lacks both online scoring and any online competitive play. The inability to compare your prowess against others removes some inherent motivation in completing the game with a high score, especially since collecting rings doesn’t provide any sort of ancillary bonus.

The only interaction you have with Somersault is drawing platforms. The mechanic is very simple: use the mouse to draw. There are some restrictions to your platforms, though: you can only have one on the screen at a time and the maximum length is limited. These two things combined makes Somersault quite difficult, especially since the ball is moving (usually) fast and in real time, so there isn’t much time to draw the perfect platforms that the game typically requires. The game does indicate the path with a rainbow so you can place the next platform in the path, so this makes things a bit easier (without this feature Somersault would be completely impossible). You are given some flexibility in your platforms: you can move them around if you keep the mouse button depressed, so you can use them as launching mechanisms (sweeping them through the ball to induce some force) if you modify them on the fly. It is rewarding the first time you find out something new you can do with the platforms to successfully guide the ball to the exit.

Most people will be turned off by the extreme difficulty of Somersault. As I alluded to earlier, most of this is rooted in the fact that you are limited to only one platform at a time. Putting the game in real time allow for a lot of planning, and most everything must be avoided in the game, which requires precise platforms that frankly you don’t have time to plan and draw. Some levels come with a time limit on top of everything else, such as an alien ship or a constantly scrolling view. Getting out of a sticky situation is fun, but the game is far too frustrating to be completely enjoyable. It would be nice to alter the difficulty by allowing for more than one platform at a time, or a longer single platform, but none of these options are present. This is where the collection of the rings could be used: gathering a set number of rings could unlock additional bonuses, like multiple platforms or slowing time down or invincibility. The possibilities are many but Somersault doesn’t support any of them. I would like to simply have the option for an easier difficulty setting with the multiple platform ability I suggested, but you’re stuck with the game as it is and most everyone will find Somersault to be too hard.

I’ll give Somersault credit for delivering unique gameplay, but it loses some of that credit for not having the features you would come to expect in a modern puzzle title. I like the idea of Somersault: drawing platforms in real time to guide an object around and through dangerous places. However, the execution of Somersault is lacking for a couple of key reasons that could be easily fixed. All that needs to be done is to add the ability to have more than one platform, slow the game speed down, or something else tied to collecting coins. There is no point of getting a high score, since the coins are not used for any bonuses and online scoring is not included, so why not use them for something? Thinking that everyone playing your game has the same skill level is a serious error, so ultimately the game will only appeal to those who are as skilled as the developers (or what the developers think is reasonable). Adding in the fact that levels cannot be restarted and there are no checkpoints if you fall, and you can imagine the repetition required to successfully navigate through Somersault’s intricate levels. The difficulty is too high and cannot be adjusted, which is a death sentence for a puzzle game. Rest in peace, Somersault.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Space War Commander Review

Space War Commander, developed and published by Dreamspike Studios.
The Good: Very easy to learn with simple controls, straightforward economics and production, tough AI, randomly generated gauntlet maps
The Not So Good: High level of difficulty cannot be adjusted, simplicity eliminates alternative strategies, too easy for AI to turtle, archaic 2-D graphics, lacks multiplayer
What say you? A light but exceptionally challenging strategy game: 5/8

While the big budget strategy game might be on its way out, we can still rely on independent developers to satisfying our strategic cravings. There have always been a number of complicated strategy titles, but a recent trend has put the focus on streamlined games that are more approachable and intended for a wider audience. While insanely complex games certainly have their place, it's nice to play a more casual title every once in a while. That's the focus of Space War Commander, which removes base building and research in favor of income rates and capturing planets. Does this approach work?

Space War Commander looks very, very old. The game features completely 2-D graphics, which I don't have a problem with: you can have rather nice 2-D games, including ones set in space. Space War Commander does not take advantage of its setting to produce compelling graphics. Space strategy games can look quite nice, but the essentially fixed resolution (using higher settings simply results in additional blank space on the sides of the screen) and small icons make it difficult to visually identify useful information quickly. Add in very simplistic battle effects (lines) and we have a very limited package indeed. The sound design is also very limited with a handful of notification effects and some minimalist music, rounding out a very unimpressive gaming environment. I can certainly look past the graphics and sound in strategy games, but it's always nicer to have an impressive looking game, and Space War Commander certainly is not one of those.

As in pretty much every real time strategy game, the object of Space War Commander is to eradicate the galaxy of any opposition (isn’t genocide wonderful?). You are limited in the amount of time that you have to do so, since all bases slowly self-destruct over time; because of this, most games in Space War Commander last no more than fifteen minutes. There are two main modes of play: conquest mode, which provides a series of missions (including a guided tutorial), and gauntlet mode with chains of randomly generated maps. You are allowed to skip past five of the missions in the conquest mode if you find the mission too difficult (and you will). The maps in the conquest mode provide a good variety of mission types and objectives and each one requires a different strategy. The gauntlet mode gives you a series of random maps, each of which can contain any number of enemy bases, planets, and asteroids. You are given a cache of money at the beginning of the map set that must last through all of the levels: fairly interesting. You can’t design your own maps (or set specific guidelines to follow, such as a particular number of enemies), but the random nature of the gauntlet mode provides a good amount of replay value. Space War Commander lacks multiplayer, such is quite surprising since the straightforward design of the game and the amount of random maps seems perfect for online play. It’s odd to encounter the strategy game that lacks multiplayer features, as this tends to extend the life of the title. As it stands, you are stuck playing against the AI in Space War Commander.

Space War Commander makes things very straightforward and easy for the strategy game novice by stripping away a lot of the ancillary materials that bloat a lot of RTS titles. The only resource is money, and money is earned by controlling planets (by placing at least one ship on them) or by trade. Trading involves sending a freighter from a planet that produces a good to a neutral port and it provides a given amount of funds. Setting up infinite trading routes is easy: hold down the TAB key as you set up three waypoints (the planet, the port, and the planet again). You can also trade goods for better goods at a planet and create a sort of chained economy. Money is in turned used to buy new ships: there is no research (all ships are initially unlocked), no structures, and no other improvements to worry about. Space War Commander is certainly one of the most simplistic strategy games to be released in recent memory: its intuitive nature makes it perfect for new players or those looking for a clear-cut approach to the genre.

There are seven ships you can purchase in Space War Commander. They differ in terms of cost, speed, damage, and armor. Some also have special properties: scavengers earn $5 for each enemy ship destroyed, freighters can carry goods, and bombers receive a bonus against bases. The remainder of the ships fall into the typical categories: fast and cheap, slow and expensive, and somewhere in between. All ships are constructed at your base, and ships located at the same planet are automatically grouped together, although you can issue orders to parts of the group if you wish through the interface. A fleet will move at the speed of its slowest member, so it’s typically prudent to split up your ships according to movement rates. The interface puts everything on the main screen and its easily accessible: you can build without selecting your base, and you can view members of a fleet easily. Space War Commander also comes with speed options, from “slow” and “fast” to a warp setting that skips ahead a significant amount of time. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that a relatively simple game has a simple but effective interface, but this is an area of the game design that a lot of strategy games screw up, so it’s nice to see that Space War Commander handles it well.

Ships will automatically engage enemy ships located in the same sector, removing micromanagement induced by most games in the genre. Ships can be ordered to disengage by right-clicking on their icon: they will not receive any additional damage but they will not attack either. Since damage is dealt out randomly, those people who enjoy tactical battles will feel limited by Space War Commander. Personally, I like having the game handle combat automatically anyway, so I found the use of automated combat in Space War Commander to be a good feature. Damaged ships will automatically repair if they are not moving.

I suppose that Space War Commander is best described as a streamlined version of Sins of a Solar Empire; this was the game that first came to mind while playing Space War Commander, only in the sense of the long travel times and allowing time to react to an attack. This is one tough game: I had a very tough time completing the second tutorial level. I’m no slouch at strategy games (I review enough of them), and I’ve attributed the difficulty of Space War Commander to several factors. First, the game design makes it very easy to defend with a lot of ships. In that second tutorial level, the AI just kept all of their ships at the home base and sent out single bombers at my base. Since I had to spread out my ships in order to collect a stream of resources, I could never mount an effective attack against their superior position. Secondly, you don’t have much time to become economically superior before your base explodes, especially if the AI keeps sending bombers at you (which it will). The lack of base defenses makes annoying sneak attacks a disturbingly effective strategy. The AI is repetitive, though: it’s clear that the AI for most levels (at least in the conquest mode) was given specific instructions that are predictable after a while. You never have enough money to hold all of the planets that would give you a significant advantage, and the slow pace of the ships and short time limit do not mix well, resulting in a lot of stalemates instead of interesting strategic gameplay. I think in this sense the simplicity of Space War Commander works against it, making the game feel more like a grind than a varied experience.

Space War Commander strips away most of the conventions of real-time strategy games and it almost works. The interface is trouble-free, the economics are very basic, and the game as a whole is very novice-friendly. It takes minutes to learn the entirety of the game, and Space War Commander still maintains some level of strategic variety, as you must decide how much money to spend on defensive ships, offensive operations, and trade. Space War Commander inexplicably lacks multiplayer; while there probably wouldn’t be hordes of people online, the short game times and simple mechanics would be ideal for an online environment. While some people will not like the complete removal of resource collection, buildings, and research, the simplistic mechanics of Space War Commander is a refreshing take in a genre that seems to offer increasingly more complicated games. Of course, the lack of defensive structures means you’ll be relying solely on your ships, and you never have enough ships to cover all of your interests. This leads to a lot of stalemate games, as either side can really only effectively cover about half of the map before spreading themselves too thin. Space War Commander frustrates me, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Seriously, you shouldn’t have a tough time with a tutorial level, especially if you are versed in strategy games. The AI seems to play fair; the game just doesn’t give you enough time to utilize your economic advantage before your base explodes. I suppose I could use the same cheap “spam bombers at the enemy base” strategy the AI does, but where’s the fun in that? Space War Commander is a good attempt at a more efficient real-time strategy game, but the lack of several features and balancing issues makes it more trouble than it should be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Strike Fighters 2 Review

Strike Fighters 2, developed and published by Third Wire Productions.
The Good: Unique setting, plausible flight mechanics that are easy to learn (relatively speaking), scalable realism, randomly generated missions, dynamic campaigns with mercenary options, friendly to modifications
The Not So Good: No tutorial or manual, lacks multiplayer, poor performance for the graphical quality
What say you? This casual military jet simulation needs more well-rounded features: 5/8

Combat flight simulators used to be quite popular: the Falcon series, Enemy Engaged, IL-2 Sturmovik, and all of those Jane’s titles. As with most of the simulation sub-genres, the popularity has subsided quite a bit and we only the occasional simulation appears on the PC. The sims basically covered World War II or modern aircraft, and there was quite an open space in the middle to be filled. That cavern was filled by Strike Fighters, a game I previewed way back in the dark ages. Strike Fighters: Project 1 was released way back in 2002 to lackluster reviews because of its unfinished state, but now it’s back in sequel form with Strike Fighters 2. Will the return of these early jet aircraft make for a notable simulation sequel?

Usually, graphics are the aspect of the game that flight simulators push the most, since pretty screenshots sell games. Strike Fighters 2 is clearly behind the curve in this aspect. Apparently most of the changes in Strike Fighters 2 are graphics related, but the game's presentation is disappointing overall. The aircraft themselves look good and it’s clear that the focus of the game was put here. The weapon effects and explosions are pleasing, and watching opposing planes break up after a nasty missile impact is a satisfying experience. While the 3-D cockpits are nicely detailed, the terrain is far behind even IL-2 Sturmovik-level quality, and that came out in 2001. Strike Fighters 2 looks like earlier versions of X-Plane before all of the new terrain was added. It's nice to have realistic aircraft, but if they are flying over poorly textured landscapes, then the simulation loses some of its realism. Plus, most of the time you'll be in the cockpit anyway, so having fully detailed airplanes and weapons is almost meaningless. In addition, the game performs poorly given the level of quality you receive: my computer should handle “high” settings with no problem, but noticeable lag and low frame rates are present. This is strange since I can’t visually tell a significant difference between Strike Fighters 2 and a screenshot of Strike Fighters 1 that came out over six years ago, although the developers are insistent that changes are present. Granted, they would know better than I would (especially since I am basing my comparison on vague memories of a preview from six years ago), but I would expect the terrain detail to match that of the aircraft, particularly since you'll be staring at the ground more than opposing fighters. Apparently, there are enhancements for Windows Vista and DirectX 10, but since (according to my site stats) only 25% of us use Vista (60% XP, 5% Mac, 2% Linux, and some others), those additional features will be missed by most, including myself. The sound design seems OK: you have (what I would assume to be) the real effects when engaging enemy aircraft and satisfying explosion and engine sounds. The game utilizes canned radio chatter that sounds a bit hokey, but it’s better than having computerized voices instead. The music in the game is very strange and out-of-place, especially in the options menu; luckily, the tunes do not permeate the actual simulation at all. Frankly, I was expecting a dramatic improvement in the graphics in Strike Fighters 2, but we get generally the same package as six years ago.

Strike Fighters 2 features jet fighters from the 60's and 70's in a fictitious Middle Eastern setting, pitting American-backed forces (that's you) against Russian-backed forces (that's them). Strike Fighters 2 features three planes you can fly: the ground attack A-4 and the F-4 and F-100 fighter-bombers. There are different varieties of each aircraft, so if you know what the difference between the F-4C and F-4D is, then more power to you. I personally prefer the F-4 because of its ability to attack both ground and air targets and its superior technology (namely radar). There are three main modes to the game: single missions where you can choose the aircraft and mission type, instant action where it's picked for you, and five campaigns. There are a variety of mission types that anyone familiar with other military flight simulators will be familiar with: fighter sweep, intercept, CAS, armed reconnaissance, SEAD. You can also customize the time of day, weather conditions, and level of opposition. If you want a more structured setting, the campaigns are a good choice. You can't choose the next mission, but they seem to be semi-randomly generated and dependent on your performance in the previous sortie, so that's a nice feature. Before each mission, you can consult the map and alter your loadout, although the game does a good job choosing the appropriate weapons for you. A very interesting wrinkle to the campaign is the ability to play as a mercenary squad. While the U.S. military has essentially infinite resources, you need to manage your budget carefully while playing as the mercenaries. Each missile you fire costs money, and if you run out of funds you are out of luck. It's a very neat feature that I don't think I've encountered in any other flight simulation. While the campaign is not up to the same level as Enemy Engaged 2, it is decent enough to be entertaining, especially in the mercenary mode where you have to manage your resources.

One notable feature that is absent from Strike Fighters 2 is multiplayer: this is for singles only. I guess we all kind of assume that computer games will always feature some sort of online component, even if its simple LAN or IP play, but not having multiplayer at all (especially after six years of additional development time) is a questionable shortcoming. Finally, Strike Fighters 1 was apparently easy to modify and add your own custom aircraft, weapons, and the like. I would follow, then, that Strike Fighters 2 would have the same abilities. Flight simulators are notoriously difficult to learn, so it's extremely surprising that Strike Fighters 2 features absolutely no tutorials whatsoever. In addition, the game actually lacks a manual as well. It is absolutely inexcusable to provide no documentation whatsoever, especially in something as complicated as flying a military aircraft. I actually had to go download the manual for Strike Fighters Gold in order to figure out what the heck I was doing, and even then the manual doesn't nearly cover everything the game has to offer, namely bombing (I still can't figure out an appropriate strategy). No manual and no tutorial make Homer something something. Go crazy? Don't mind if I do!

Because Strike Fighters 2 takes place in the 60's and 70's, a lot of the technology that is present in modern military flight simulations simply isn't there. This time period is the bridge between the dogfighting of World War II and the long-range missile combat of Desert Storm. It's an interesting mix that requires both a familiarity with some early technology and the ability to scramble and maneuver. The game does allow for some help on a heads up display, which can superimpose waypoints (with available autopilot) and enemy positions for easy identification and navigation, but these features can be turned off. There are two main ways of targeting enemy units: visual by cycling through targets with the T (for air) or E (for ground) keys; in the F-100, this is the only option. You can also use radar, which is a two step process: cycle through blips (with the home key) and lock on one (with the insert key). It's not that complicated since, well, it wasn't that complicated back then. Thus, it's relatively easy to learn, even in the absence of a tutorial or manual. The weapons are also very basic: there is one radar-guided missile that requires a constant lock, but the Sidewinders are heat-seeking and the bombs are completely dumb (meaning no targeting required or available). The manual for Strike Fighters 1 that I found does an extremely poor job explaining how to successfully bomb enemy targets, so this aspect of the game I found to be exceedingly difficult. There's a sight but I can't figure out what it's for or when to drop the bomb. In more modern simulations, you could lock on ground targets and the HUD would indicate when to drop the payload, but since that technology is unavailable during the time of Strike Fighters 2, you are left scratching your head.

Strike Fighters 2 does offer copious options to customize the realism of the game. You can start each mission right next to the action or on the ground, and almost all aspects of the game simulation, from flight model to weapon accuracy, can be altered to make the game easier or more realistic. It's nice that the developers let you choose the level of immersion you would like. These planes are not very well designed (meaning in real life; Strike Fighters 2 simulates them accurately as far as I can tell), as I commonly stalled while doing routine turns. The Russian planes are far superior in flight, so you have to use your superior technology to blow them out of the sky before they come close. Since Strike Fighters 2 lacks multiplayer, you'll be battling the AI exclusively, and it's not that good of an opponent. The AI forces rarely fire missiles, instead opting for dogfighting which they are quite skilled at: it's extraordinarily difficult to shake an AI pilot once they are “on your six” (that's military talk for “on Uranus”). However, if you can utilize your missiles before they get a chance to circle around you, the advantage is yours. Being outnumbered provides the only true level of difficulty, which (naturally) happens quite frequently. Still, the mix of technology and old-school dogfighting makes for some intense battles and the actual gameplay of Strike Fighters 2 is satisfying more often than not.

I like Strike Fighters 2, but the game lacks some key features that should have been included. There are certainly some good aspects to the game that make it appealing: the unique setting, the easy-to-learn aircraft (thanks to early, comparatively uncomplicated technology), and the ability to modify the game. You can turn on and off the realism settings to make the sim more true-to-life or ease yourself into the game. However, I was expecting at least some additional features to be present in this iteration of the series. The graphics are generally the same as far as I can tell and they perform more poorly than I would expect given the low level of detail of the terrain. The game lacks multiplayer, which wouldn’t be an issue except that the enemy AI is poor at best on all but the most difficult settings. Not including a tutorial or even a simple manual is an immense error. I can’t shake the feeling that I played almost exactly the same game many years ago, as the aircraft, scenarios, and campaigns are identical to the memories I have of games past. Still, Strike Fighters 2 brings a distinctive experience that dedicated flight simulation enthusiasts will appreciate. The budget-level price makes investing in this simulator more tolerable, so if you’re looking for something different, Strike Fighters 2’s early jet aircraft may fill that void in your soul. That, or chocolate.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Crayon Physics Deluxe Review

Crayon Physics Deluxe, developed and published by Kloonigames.
The Good: Splendid unique theme, instinctive mechanics, almost infinite variety of correct solutions, level editor with online database
The Not So Good: Sometimes trivially easy, no method of scoring, the very rare object collision quirk
What say you? Crayons plus physics equals awesome: 8/8

One day during my honeymoon in the Poconos, we took a trip to the Crayola factory in Easton, Pennsylvania. I doubt that many people have this on their itinerary immediately following a wedding, but that’s what you get with people that had their reception at an aquarium. Anyway, it was pretty cool (I got to see how markers are made!), and it also doubles as a decent introduction to Crayon Physics Deluxe. This game won the IGF Grand Prize, beating out Out of Eight high-scorers Audiosurf and World of Goo. That’s pretty strong competition in the world of independent puzzle games. Were all of those accolades justified?

A game entitled Crayon Physics Deluxe better feature some crayons, and Crayon Physics Deluxe certainly does that. All of the graphics look spectacular with a real hand-drawn feel; this is one game where “childish” graphics is actually a compliment. Most objects in the game are also animated, giving a vibrant feel to the game world. The goal of the graphics in Crayon Physics Deluxe was met: to make drawings come to life. The music fits the theme of the game well, featuring a piano-heavy ensemble that gives a slightly depressing but effective background to the game. It’s difficult for a specific vision to get successfully executed in a computer game (especially by essentially a one-man development team), but Crayon Physics Deluxe has certainly delivered its desired theme.

Crayon Physics Deluxe takes place over 77 levels where you must guide a red ball to a star (or two) by drawing things that will move the ball to its intended destination. You don’t need to beat every level in order to unlock the next, as the levels are displayed on a map (that you can draw on, naturally) that has multiple pathways to allow you to skip troubling or difficult puzzles. You can encounter the difficult puzzle located at a key intersection, so the lack of hints or any other type of help is a bit questionable. It would be nice to share solutions through some sort of movie feature, but this may be beyond reality and just wishful thinking on my part. After you are done with the main game, you can download puzzles made by others using the level editor. Unlocked from the beginning (thanks!), you can make your own nefarious creations and then upload them in-game to share with others. This aspect of the game isn’t completely fleshed out, as you can’t download additional levels from within the game and you need to play them through the level editor, which might reveal some of the secrets to solving each creation. Still, a level editor in a flexible game such as this should greatly expand the replay value of the game and highlight how creative Crayon Physics Deluxe allows you to be.

You have limited interaction with the game world: you can draw shapes with the mouse (or a tablet PC) and give your red ball a little nudge with the mouse buttons. Even so, you are allowed to make any crazy shape you want and the game does an excellent job producing plausible physics for your poor drawings. It’s very rare that the game messes up with odd collisions, even with very oddly-shaped objects you are bound to draw. There are other objects, other than shapes: pins to hold objects to each other (made by drawing a small circle), rockets (activated by hitting them with another object), and rope (a single line). You can also decorate your drawings with different colors (selected with the mouse wheel); while this is purely aesthetic, it does allow for more contrast so that you can see what you are doing. Crayon Physics Deluxe is friendly to new players, as there is no time limit and you can fall off the map as often as you’d like: the red ball will respawn at its initial position, but everything else will remain where it is. Crayon Physics Deluxe does not have any method of scoring: a puzzle is either “complete” or “not.” Thus, there is no online high score list or any way of comparing your progress against others; I wonder, then, why you need to sign in to an account to play, as this feature doesn’t seem to come with any visible benefits.

While World of Goo was too hard, Crayon Physics Deluxe tends to be on the easier side, at least for the first two-thirds of the game. There are no hints for most levels, so if you’re stuck, you’re stuck, but this doesn’t happen too often and the journey is enjoyable anyway. You have a pretty good idea on what you want to do, but it’s a matter of simply executing it. Some of the problem lies in that fact that the game defines your object for you based on how you draw it: something that you intended to be a rope might end up being a solid object if you draw it slightly off. While a lot of the puzzles have one (most of the time) obvious solution, Crayon Physics Deluxe gives you a lot of freedom in coming up with your own unique solution, and that adds to the greatness of the game. I have certainly solved the same puzzle multiple ways and I am constantly coming up with new solutions I can try out. A lot of puzzle games suffer from the “one solution” syndrome and it can be quite difficult to think of the same solution as the developer, but Crayon Physics Deluxe has enough freedom to make it quite an entertaining puzzle game for the entire duration of the campaign. The physics engine produces quality believable results so the game never becomes overly frustrating, as your inept designs are causing failure rather than the game design itself. Literally any object is at your disposal, as Crayon Physics Deluxe only limits you to the space on the screen and your mouse-drawing ability; there are no artificial restrictions here, such as only five angled tubes or whatnot. This leaves the realm of possibility wide open and, along with the strong theme of the game, makes Crayon Physics Deluxe quite a notable puzzle title.

Flexible and wildly entertaining, Crayon Physics Deluxe is a hallmark puzzle game. The most striking and easily identifiable feature of Crayon Physics Deluxe is the art style: sure, it’s gimmicky, but it’s darn effective at creating a creative environment…creatively. I mean, how many games let you draw on the campaign screen? Thankfully, the quality doesn’t stop there, as there is a very solid physics engine and well-designed puzzles contained herein. I have the propensity to become frustrated if I repeatedly fail a series of levels in a game, but Crayon Physics Deluxe never pushed my buttons in a negative fashion. There are many "close calls" while attempting to solve the various puzzles in Crayon Physics Deluxe and there is always room for improvement, either in overall strategy (of which each puzzle has many) or general drawing skill. Even crazy and poorly-drawn objects with a lot of stray lines get appropriate collisions. Sometimes it’s fun to just mess around with the game and see what happens: a testament to an entertaining tool. Crayon Physics Deluxe is never plagued by having a single solution thanks to the game’s flexibility, and the power of the game engine shines through. Your solutions are only limited by your imagination: any combination of weights, pulleys, ropes, ramps, blocks, and whatever else you can draw on-screen can combine to form a fantastic and innovative solution. The developer could add some scoring system and better support for custom levels (like downloading them in-game and/or accessing them from a special menu item instead of using the editor), but these are minor missing features in an otherwise outstanding product.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

BRAINPIPE: A Plunge to Unhumanity Review

BRAINPIPE: A Plunge to Unhumanity, developed by Digital Eel and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Mesmerizing graphics and music, intuitive hectic gameplay, randomly generated maps
The Not So Good: Woefully repetitive with no variety in the form of powerups or other alteration in gameplay, ten too-similar single player levels, lacks an online high score list
What say you? There’s not much substance beyond the style: 5/8

There are a lot of negative influences on society these days, and one of those that gets occasional news coverage is video games. Somebody needs the blame (because it certainly can’t be poor parenting), and finding a proper scapegoat is a proud American pastime. Probably the game that’s gotten the most attention is, you guessed it, BRAINPIPE: A Plunge to Unhumanity. I can certainly see why: look what it did to little Billy. The developers of personal favorite Weird Worlds is back with another unique creation. Will BRAINPIPE change you too?

Probably the biggest draw of BRAINPIPE is the trippy presentation, which is unique for an independent game (since they are usually not known for cutting-edge graphics or sound). This isn’t that surprisingly, however, considering developer Digital Eel’s penchant for the strange and unusual. Despite the relatively minimalist graphics, they are quite effective, evoking a strange environment in which you are avoiding strange creatures (if you can call them that). It’s all very well designed, from the exotic scoring numerals to the repetitive, but still haunting, backgrounds. Matching well with the graphics is the music, featuring a pleasing selection of very appropriate tones for the exotic setting. It’s all just weird, and that’s quite fine with me.

BRAINPIPE is a first-person arcade game where you must pilot through a pipe (made of brain?), avoiding esoteric objects along the way. The game only features ten levels that, while randomly generated, do not differ much at all from each other. The game also lacks an online high score list; BRAINPIPE is a purely single-player affair. The controls are extremely easy to learn: you use the mouse to move. The game uses a weird perspective that doesn’t rotate around bends, so when you encounter a corner you take it at some strange angle that makes it difficult to avoid objects on occasion. The non-rotating view certainly takes some getting used to. The only other control you have in the game is the left mouse button, which slows down your speed for an abbreviated amount of time. Your sole objective in BRAINPIPE is to avoid almost everything in the game. Some of the objects move in predictable patterns while others are stationary. Impacts will make your iris thinner (you are apparently a giant eyeball of sorts) and too many hits means the end is nigh. Health regenerates over time (it took me a couple of games to figure that out), so you need to avoid a lot of contact in a short period of time. Bonus points can be earned by collecting symbols scattered occasionally around each level; the glyphs don’t offer any other bonuses other than score (and bragging rights), so going out of your way (and potentially causing harm) in order to get at them doesn’t offer enough benefit, either directly or indirectly.

BRAINPIPE is at its best when the objects are flying past you at high velocity, but the game is never a “deep” experience. The game is very repetitive and the lack of special abilities or a variation in action becomes a glaring omission after playing for an extended period of time. The chaos almost overshadows the repetitive nature of the game, but not quite. Every level follows the same pattern: slow and manageable followed by excruciatingly fast. Some of the enemies are tough to avoid, mainly because they (a) take up a lot of space and (b) you are moving very quickly. There is an element of luck associated with BRAINPIPE, as the randomly generated maps will occasionally place impossible-to-avoid object sequences. With the lack of any strategic element in the game, BRAINPIPE is an exercise in reflexes, and a game that only offers a single aspect of gameplay will tend to become tedious after a while.

BRAINPIPE lacks the strategy required to make a purely arcade experience something more. It is certainly easy to pick up, but there’s nothing beyond the initial objective of avoiding stuff. I do like the overall presentation of the game, from the graphics to the sound: the developers had a clear vision of the weird world you are navigating through and its executed well. There are some moments of enjoyment as strange creatures are flying past your viewpoint at rapid speeds, but this experience becomes monotonous quickly. Each level is just like the last, except faster with possibly one more enemy type. It’s fortunate that BRAINPIPE only lasts ten levels, as I don’t think anyone could last longer than that before becoming too bored. The sensation of speed and uncertainly of the next set of enemies can only go so far: you need something more to deepen the experience. It would be nice if the glyphs offered some sort of motivation for gathering them (other than additional points), such as invulnerability or some other weapon or time influence (like slowing down objects without slowing you down). At least Pyroblazer has some weapons. The lack of an online scoring system makes getting a high score less of an effective motivational tool. BRAINPIPE, while somewhat interesting, is too simple for its own good and that simplicity severely hinders replay value.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Supreme Ruler 2020: Global Crisis Review

Supreme Ruler 2020: Global Crisis, developed by Battlegoat Studios and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Lots of new scenarios, random events increase unpredictability, better AI, additional unit groupings, more futuristic technologies and units, small graphical enhancements
The Not So Good: Lacks innovative upgrades, some improvements simply result in more micromanagement
What say you? A solid list of improvements but nothing drastically important: 6/8

As far as writing reviews goes, doing expansions is pretty easy: just remember what I complained about before and see if they fixed it. The expansion up for today is for Supreme Ruler 2020, a deep and potentially confusing grand strategy game that takes place in the near future that I enjoyed in its original form. Of course, all games could use another layer of polish and additional features (as long as they are meaningful and not money-generating garbage), and that’s where Global Crisis comes into play. How has this expansion improved upon the near-future world in conflict?

Most of the changes in terms of graphics that Global Crisis brings to the table are interface related. Units are now branded with a country flag for easier identification, rather than the simple own/allied/neutral/enemy color that was used before. This makes it easier to spot units as a whole, although things still devolve into a jumbled mess during large conflicts. Cities now also have icons that better indicate relative population and importance. Also, zooming out will highlight the capitals with color-coded stars that indicate relation status with your country: one glance diplomacy is a plus. New units (and some older units) also have swanky new models. Overall, standard and acceptable stuff for an expansion.

The most obvious addition that Supreme Ruler 2020: Global Crisis (saying the full title makes my review longer) brings to Supreme Ruler 2020 is the additional number of scenarios, frankly something that should have been included with the original release. We get twenty more single player missions that usually highlight a specific country’s offensive or defensive operation in the near-future game world. These more specific objectives (like survival or complete control of a particular opponent) brings a more directed game experience than the more open-ended campaign from before. Also, there are ten scenarios designed for multiplayer games. While you aren’t able to engage in multiplayer domination with people who don’t have the expansion, you can always take on the new missions and fire up GameRanger with those who do.

The new scenarios also feature scripted and random events to make things more unpredictable and interesting. The random events that Global Crisis introduce include both positive and negative consequences and inject a feeling of possible impending dread similar to the Europa Universalis series of games. Coupled with this new feature is the adjustable “world volatility” of the game: you can adjust how aggressive the AI nations are and how quickly they will declare war and such. This is a good feature that will allow those people to want more action to satisfy their bloodlust and those who want a more gradual buildup of stress to be happy as well.

Are ten unit groups not enough? Well, lucky for you Global Crisis introduces battlegroups that can be accessed through a list in the user interface. This feature is really only helpful for those who really like to micromanage their forces and have an outstandingly large number of units at their disposal. Personally, I found ten groupings to be plenty as I normally just worried about three or so waves of friendly troops at a time (maybe that’s why I stink). With all of the behavior settings that you can use in the game (for things like aggressiveness and acceptable losses), battlegroups seems like a extraneous feature.

Because the technology tree of Supreme Ruler 2020 wasn’t confusing enough, Global Crisis adds over a hundred new technologies that takes the ceiling all the way to the year 2070, introducing exotic units and facilities like dark matter power plants and last anti-air sites. With all of this new content, research is still a jumbled mess, as prerequisites are not clearly marked at all and you can choose a “goal unit” and have the game automatically research all of the requirements for you automatically. It’s just easier to have the AI minister just control this aspect of the game for you.

Unit can now be traded between nations, a feature that I never really took full advantage of in other games where it was present. However, this apparently happens a lot in real life, so the feature is welcome and I’m actually surprised it wasn’t here before. You can designate a base that will receive newly acquired units, so this cuts down on having to manually transport them to friendly soil, a typical annoyance in most strategy games. The AI has gotten an overhaul in Global Crisis, as it now actually engages in amphibious invasions! The AI as a whole is a better and smarter opponents, which makes the usually steamrolls of Supreme Ruler 2020 a thing of the past in Global Crisis. This expansion also includes a host of small improvements that you could classify as typical “patch”-type things, like requiring uranium to make nuclear weapons (who knew?!).

Supreme Ruler 2020: Global Crisis lacks that “wow” factor that needs to be present to make a great expansion. This is a good expansion, as all of the changes are either positive or meaningless, but there are no new additions that significantly alter or impact the gameplay. All the new scenarios are definitely welcome, but there aren’t any radical new features that specifically warrant an expansion pack over a series of free patches, especially with the ability to edit your own scenarios. One could also argue that the additional scenarios should have been there from the beginning, since Supreme Ruler 2010 certainly featured them. The computer opponents are more competent this time around, actually putting up a fight and able to mount a coordinated naval attack. While the addition of more futuristic technologies and units that use these technologies is welcome, the result is more research to worry about, and the tree was confusing enough as it was before; Global Crisis needs to ability to automatically research prerequisites in order to make the research tree at least somewhat manageable. The inclusion of random events is nice (including the ability to alter how frequently they occur), although it’s hardly unique. Add in some minor interface improvements and extraneous battlegroups and we have a decent but underwhelming package. I would feel better about Global Crisis if it was half the price, but such is the standard $20 tag of expansions. People who extensively played Supreme Ruler 2020 will be able to justify getting this expansion, but Global Crisis lacks that key new feature that makes it a must-have.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

FlatOut Ultimate Carnage Review

FlatOut Ultimate Carnage, developed by Bugbear Entertainment and published by Warner Brothers Entertainment on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Much improved graphics and damage model, all FlatOut 2 content intact, three new race types
The Not So Good: New modes are not available for single races, only a couple of additional tracks and cars and no new stunts, uses Games for Windows LIVE and removes LAN play
What say you? A better looking version of FlatOut 2 with a couple of additional modes: 7/8

I liked FlatOut 2 so much that I gave it a perfect score. So what did I do? I lost about half of the installation disks (five CDs total, I think) and couldn’t install it on my latest computer. Foiled! Imagine my excitement when I discovered that Gamer’s Gate was selling the latest iteration of the franchise, entitled FlatOut Ultimate Carnage. It’s like FlatOut 2, but with ultimate levels of carnage! Yes! I’m not quite sure how different FlatOut Ultimate Carnage is from its predecessor, but I bet we’re about to find out.

This is the area where FlatOut Ultimate Carnage brings the biggest changes. Unlike most semi-sequels (I suppose you could consider this to be a standalone expansion), FlatOut Ultimate Carnage significantly improves the graphics of FlatOut 2 in every facet of the game. Most obvious are the tracks: while the scenery is generally the same, the textures (especially the road surface) have been considerably upgraded for high-resolution displays. The car models exhibit more detailed damage and the explosions (and anything else on fire) are much more impressive. Finally, the water reflections are quite nice and round out the satisfying graphical package of FlatOut Ultimate Carnage. While the sound effects are the same, the soundtrack has undergone an overhaul, replacing music I recognized with lesser-known artists. Whether this is a good upgrade is purely a matter of opinion, but I’d like to have the option to use the “old” songs instead of them being outright removed.

The other features of FlatOut Ultimate Carnage have received much more minor improvements. The game thankfully retains all of the grand destructive splendor of the past title with the career mode (“flatout”) and the stunts, which range from high jump to (my personal favorite) royal flush. New is the carnage mode, a series of events that showcase the three new game modes in Ultimate Carnage. First, the carnage race: instead of simply finishing in first, your objective here is to accumulate a specified quantity of points by crashing into people and things, catching big air, and reaching checkpoints. You do receive a multiplier for being at the front of the pack when you do these things, but the adjustment here makes for a different, more aggressive approach to the races, a change that I approve. More conventional is the “beat the bomb” mode: it’s a very difficult timed checkpoint race, although it adds a FlatOut wrinkle of blowing your car up when you fail. Finally, we get “deathmatch derby,” similar to the original destruction derby mode except with more fragile cars and power-ups like score doubler and shield. You will also get score bonuses for frags and being the longest surviving car. These new carnage modes are designed for experienced players who played FlatOut 2 and I like them all, although the “beat the bomb” mode is less original than I would expect. Curious is the inability to play any of these modes as single events against the AI, although you can play the competitive modes online. As for the other modifications, FlatOut Ultimate Carnage uses Games for Windows LIVE instead of Gamespy and eliminates the ability to play over a LAN (boo!). Speaking of, it seems the publisher forgot to send Gamer’s Gate CD keys for GfWL, so I can't play online at all until the problem has been fixed. Nothing like preventing legitimite users from playing your game: thanks, copy protection! I am surprised that FlatOut Ultimate Carnage doesn’t have any new stunts, as these were what I felt separates FlatOut from other destruction-filled arcade racers. FlatOut Ultimate Carnage also does not support the use of a racing wheel (not that it’s needed) and constantly refers to the XBOX controller scheme during gameplay, even if you are using the keyboard.

So here is the dilemma: by itself, FlatOut Ultimate Carnage is an awesome game deserving of an 8, but that’s because FlatOut 2 was an awesome game deserving of an 8. As a stand-alone expansion, FlatOut Ultimate Carnage earns about a 6 for providing some new game modes and much-improved visuals, but not adding any additional stunts and removing LAN play. Normally, my reviewing policy for games that are stand-alone expansions (which I consider FlatOut Ultimate Carnage to be) is to evaluate them on their merits alone if I had reviewed the original title. This is certainly the case for FlatOut 2 and FlatOut Ultimate Carnage, but FlatOut 2 came out two-and-a-half years ago, so I think the greediness usually associated with expansions has subsided. Of course, one could argue that this large amount of time should have resulted in more dramatic improvements, but I am willing to split the difference and award FlatOut Ultimate Carnage with a score in the middle. You can play essentially the same game for less, but the FlatOut series still brings a smile across my face and FlatOut Ultimate Carnage does bring the goods and the carnage modes are fun. If you’ve never experienced the series before, then by all means invest in a good time with FlatOut Ultiamte Carnage. Veteran players will have a tougher time justifying a full price for a lot of the same content, but you can never go wrong with the joyous amount of vehicular destruction and variety contained herein.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy Review

Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy, developed by Stickman Studios and published by Blitz Games Studios.
The Good: Interesting multiplayer, lengthy campaign, ship upgrades, straightforward controls, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Bogus mechanics disregard wind and ammunition type, very iffy aiming, difficult due to being severely outnumbered in almost every mission, annoying voice acting
What say you? An arcade swashbuckling game with impossible targeting that lacks any sense of realism or fairness: 4/8

Of all the seafaring time periods, the one that’s most famous is the mid-1600’s in the Caribbean: age of the pirates. Maybe it’s the thrill of adventure, or maybe it’s Johnny Depp’s rugged handsomeness, but these nefarious acts of villainy have received quite a bit of attention in both cinema and in computer gaming. Pirate-themed computer games seem to fall into two categories: adventure games like Sea Dogs and action games like Pirates!. Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy falls into the latter category, putting you on a modest ship in pursuit of infamy (I read subtitles!). This budget-priced game takes a more casual approach to the setting, as opposed to the more realistic and arduous titles of years gone by. Does this more light-hearted action translate into a more entertaining game?

You certainly get more than what you pay for in terms of the graphics: Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy looks outstanding, for the most part anyway. The ocean looks fantastic with plentiful waves on the surface and details underneath. Although the game’s world always seems to have decent weather at sea (no heavy winds to make big waves), it’s clear that a lot of work was put into making the ocean look somewhat interesting. The land areas, although repetitive (look! another hilly tropical island!), do have a nice level of detail to them. In addition, the shells flying through the air are impressive and hit the ocean with a satisfying splash. The ships, on the other hand, are quite underwhelming, as they have poor animations (the flags flutter with the camera and not the wind) and explosions are rare: normally, just a kick of dust comes up when a shell impacts a ship. The sinking animation (that’s singular, folks) also becomes repetitive after a while. Still, Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy looks much better than you would expect a budget-priced game to appear. The sound fares worse: the music is OK, but the voice acting is horrible, annoying, and clich├ęd. Some people might like the totally over-the-top pirate accents, but I just find them grating.

Don’t get Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy confused with more authentic naval simulations: this is an arcade game, through and through. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as the game is fun, right? For all those single players out there, Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy (using the full title makes my review longer) features a lengthy, fifty-six mission branching campaign: once you unlock a new area of the game world (usually by acquiring a new map from a sunk ship), you can complete the missions in any order. This is nice since certain ships are geared towards specific mission types (like coastal bombardment or tracking down speedy merchant ships), and the objectives are constantly scrolled on the screen for easy reference. Your goal is to accumulate infamy (remember, it’s Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy) by successfully completing missions. Infamy constantly decreases over time, rewarding faster and more powerful ships that can complete missions more quickly. Single missions can only be completed once, but you can repeat merchant missions as many times as you choose. You can continue the campaign until you complete all of the missions or die, which, for me, happened after the second mission. That’s right: second. Of fifty-six. You really need to spam merchant missions in order to accumulate enough gold to significantly upgrade your ship, which, frankly, is quite boring and repetitive. More interesting is the multiplayer, which pits two teams against each other with the goal of destroying enemy ships and bases. Games can get quite interesting, with large battles taking place in hotly contested portions of the maps, in addition to having third-party forces blowing everyone up. Each team has a home base for repair purposes and to collect plundered gold and land targets that can be destroyed for points. You can also capture neutral ships that provide varied bonuses: an increased score (or decreased for the opposing team) or a cache of gold. Here, the difficulty of the missions doesn’t come into play as you are going against human competition. The multiplayer portion of Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy plays out more like a first person shooter and it’s a nice change of pace from the overly difficult single player campaign.

Between missions, you spend your time in the town upgrading your ship, purchasing new ones, saving your game, and choosing the next mission. You can upgrade your boat in three areas: speed, firepower, and durability (hit points). In addition, you can invest some cash into increasing crew morale, purchasing new ammunition, or repairing your (usually) heavily damaged ship. Upgrades to not offer discounts if you purchased lower-level improvements. New ships are required for later in the game when things get tougher (like the second mission onward) and objectives become more varied. You will have to manually save your game between missions in the tavern, because the autosave frequency is unknown and apparently very large (your next mission will probably be your last). Since the very easy missions are easy and the easy missions are extremely difficult, make sure you save frequently!

Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy features a control scheme reminiscent of first person shooters: WASD. You will have to constantly hold down the “W” key in order to move forward, but the turn keys don’t return to zero (meaning hitting the “A” key twice will result in always moving left until you change it). How much sense does that make? Also, ships can go backwards. I guess Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy isn’t going for realism. I’m more used to a throttle control for the speed, which represented how much sail is out (you know, like a real boat); I suppose it’s more of a personal preference, but I dislike the FPS-like control scheme. Firing is easy, though: press the left mouse button to fire the port cannons, and the right mouse button for the starboard cannons. It couldn’t be simpler or more straightforward and intuitive.

Where Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy sinks is with aiming. It’s so extraordinarily difficult to aim because shots do not go straight out from your ship and I have no idea how they are aimed (if at all). Most of the time the shells end up way behind where I think they are going to be (possibly due to the ship’s momentum), and more practice just ended up confusing me more. The game seriously needs some sort of indicator or targeting reticule to assist in aiming; it’s not like this would ruin the realism of the game since ships can go backwards anyway. Destroying land targets is difficult since shells go over and around them, as I cannot gauge how to control your angle of attack. Being outnumbered doesn’t help matters: ships are initially just as powerful and strong as you are, so why does it make sense to pit your vessel against multiple opponents at one time during supposedly “easy” missions? In addition, the AI defensive structures have perfect aim that hits you every time and since it’s difficult (and semi-random) to hit them back, you are at a grave disadvantage.

Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy fails because of two reasons: the difficulty and the aiming, which are related problems. You should always ease new players into a game, not make them outnumbered the second mission in. There is certainly a lot of content in the single player campaign with fifty-six missions, but I doubt many people will get to experience all of them thanks to the severe difficulty. The developers have severely misjudged how difficult the single player campaign is: you should never lose your second mission in a fifty-six mission campaign. Period. Compounding this problem is the horrible and inconsistent aiming: it seems more like chance than skill, as cannonballs fly every which way and do not fire straight out of your vessel, aimed at some arbitrary point that is inconsistently located nowhere near your target. The game needs a firing arc or some indication of where your cannons are going to travel when you press the “fire” buttons. The controls come straight from a first person shooter, which is really what this game aspires to be, but they don’t carry over well to a ship game, in my opinion, because of the total lack of realism (hit reverse, captain!). These shortcomings are too bad, as the multiplayer is intriguing and the graphics are quite pleasing (although the voice acting is definitely irritating). Buccaneer: The Pursuit of Infamy has the exact opposite problem that most independent games I review have: the features are robust, but the game mechanics are broken to the point of complete annoyance.