Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Grand Ages: Rome Review

Grand Ages: Rome, developed by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Media and Viva Media on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Outstanding minimal interface, online competitive multiplayer, non-linear campaign with varied objectives and meaningful character upgrades, straightforward resource relationships, quality graphics and sound design
The Not So Good: Repetitive starting build orders, abbreviated tutorials, can’t add AI competitors to multiplayer games, average military component
What say you? Third time is the charm in the Roman city building series: 7/8

They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. They, of course, never played Glory of the Roman Empire or Imperium Romanum, where you can clearly build Rome in a matter of hours (sweat free, in fact). This series started out promising enough, but took a step back last time, where each new feature was coupled with a disappointing shortcoming. Developer Haemimont Games is back with yet another sequel-without-a-sequel-name in the form of Grand Ages: Rome. Has the developer learned from previous pitfalls, or is history doomed to repeat itself?

Grand Ages: Rome is, not surprisingly, the best looking game in the series, and it’s quickly approaching photo-realism in terms of quality. All of the buildings look like they were taken straight out of Imperial Rome, with a distinctive architecture appropriate for the time period. The structures do become repetitive in large cities, as all non-houses have only one model (so the four Temples to Mars all look identical) and houses only have three (or so) models that cycle in choice. A little more variety would be welcome to deliver a pleasingly varied city landscape. The surrounding landscape is presented well, with detailed trees, rocky mountains, and flowing streams. It is easy to visually identify whether you are in northern Europe or Africa, although some of the land elements are recycled. Still, Grand Ages: Rome looks very nice and is quite competitive against any other city builder in terms of visual quality. The sound design maintains its usual level of quality, with completely voiced tutorials and mission introductions, proper auditory indications of events, and background music I actually enjoyed this time around. The military training effects are annoyingly repetitive, but this was the only irritating aspect of the sound design, so that’s not so bad. Overall, Grand Ages: Rome delivers in terms of graphics and sound.

Grand Ages: Rome centers around the single player campaign where you take odd jobs as city governors, building relationships with prominent leaders by successfully running towns across the empire. In order to get acclimated to the game, Grand Ages: Rome features two tutorials that cover the city-building and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, both tutorials are quite short and does not explain the more advanced buildings and economics present in the game. This is less of an issue with the military portion of Grand Ages: Rome, since there is nothing terribly “advanced” about it. The game does compensate with in-game help: short explanations of every aspect of the game, accessible from each window by selecting “help.” The campaign features forty non-linear missions with varied objectives: you might be tasked with developing a military in one town, constructing temples in another, and conducting trade in a third. This variety goes a long way in making Grand Ages: Rome feel less stagnant. In addition, each scenario features optional secondary objectives that, if completed, will grant some sort of bonus for later levels, such as increased amounts of starting resources. Also, your character will receive upgrade points that can be spent on a variety of areas: city (start with more money, lower crime), military (more experience, faster production), and family (a whole bunch). There are about fifteen city and military talents, and fifteen for each of the game’s five families: that’s a lot of upgrades. Wisely choosing upgrades can not only help in successive missions, but you can customize your strengths and then choose missions that reflect your advantages. It’s a well-designed system that is far more engrossing than simply building a set of cities. If you are not in an objective mood, you can freely build on any of the game’s maps (all initially unlocked, thank you) with no time constraints. Lastly, Grand Ages: Rome actually features multiplayer. Typically a single-player-only affair, a city builder with a multiplayer aspect is very unique. Essentially, it’s a competition to accumulate enough resources to raise an army or achieve an objective: pure military, accumulated wealth, constructing monuments, defeating a neutral third party, occupying a map location, or the “all in one” mode that allows any of the previously mentioned victories. You can either have your own town, or team up with another player and divide and conquer. Despite how potentially awesome this aspect of the game is, the servers for Grand Ages: Rome are woefully under-populated: I never saw more than two others in the lobby and never actually got a chance to play. The lack of AI opponents really hurts less-popular online games, and Grand Ages: Rome is no exception.

Pretty much all of the gripes I had about the interface in Imperium Romanum have been solved. The right-click build menu has returned, and the menu items are listed in economic order (producer then consumer), making the game mechanics easier to digest. Rather than having a mini-map, Grand Ages: Rome zooms out to a full view with the press of the spacebar, similar to Supreme Commander. The minimal interface still does an excellent job showing pertinent information without crowding up the screen, and this is done through the two collapsible panels on the top and bottom of the screen. At the top, you get information on employment, religion, entertainment, hygiene, and crime; clicking on a category clearly indicates buildings with good and bad values (and those in between), so it’s easy to access which parts of your city need the most assistance. This was something that Imperium Romanum sorely lacked, and it’s a fantastic addition. Along the bottom of the screen are your resources, materials, food, squads, and any current events. Again, clicking on any particular resource clearly highlights buildings that produce and consume that particular item; this makes up for lacking a list of all buildings. The interface in Grand Ages: Rome is marvelous and informs the user quickly on the status of their development.

What would a city builder be without buildings (very boring, I would imagine)? Grand Ages: Rome spits up potential constructions among several categories: basic (housing and fountains), production (farms and mines), food (farms and processing), commerce (inns and trade), public (baths and schools), military (troops and weapons), monuments (providing income and religion), and various decorations. Although the aforementioned structures are poorly explained in the tutorials, the flow of resources and needs are fairly straightforward, and once you play a couple of games, you get the basic mechanics. Basic materials (wood, bricks, stone) are used for construction, and food is farmed and turned into goods (bread, meat, clothes) that are used by your citizens. In addition to the basics, citizens also need entertainment from taverns or arenas and religion from temples. Building radii, especially temples, are quite small, so you need to do an efficient job planning your city or the expensive, necessary buildings might not reach those who need them. Resources are shown as a permanent balance (similar to Kohan 2) instead of a set amount; the tutorials don’t mention this as far as I can recall. It does make it easier to manage the game since you don’t have to predict when a particular resource will run out, instead just maintain a positive balance and everything will work out. You must keep your monetary balance above zero, however: living in the red results in bankruptcy, and if you don’t accumulate 1,000 denarii in 10 minutes, you lose. Other assorted calamities include fires set by disgruntled citizens and the plague (always unfortunate).

Grand Ages: Rome has a fairly abbreviated building list, and the game features a very repetitive early build order once you learn the best path to go. This is alleviated somewhat by the varied map designs (limiting certain resources), but your first ten minutes in each city will generally be the same. Since you must be conscious of placing the appropriate citizen type in specific building and using placement bonuses, layout does matter. You can activate a number of city states (as opposed to city-states) that can provide some temporary bonus, both positive and negative. For example, constructing several buildings in quick succession triggers “building frenzy,” which makes construction faster. Also, “famine” makes newly constructed houses empty if you have a food satisfaction rating below 25%. These varied states are a nice way of rewarding good players and penalizing poor designers. Finally, you can conduct trade with other cities to acquire needed resources, and conduct research through your schools for increased production and new buildings.

Grand Ages: Rome also features military units. This part of the game is very light compared to a typical strategy game, but being primarily a city-builder, this can be forgiven to an extent. The warfare has both positives and negatives: you get a wide variety of historical units to play with (archers, hastati, raiders, berserkers, triarii, equestri, warriors, maidens, highlanders, ballista, guard, secutores, gladiators, war elephants, catapults), but you are limited in your interaction with them. Units can be told to move, attack, or use their unit-specific special action, but that’s it: no facing options, formations, or other advanced tactics at your disposal. Units can gain experience through battle or training (which costs money), making them more deadly on the battlefield. Although battles can be entertaining when matched troops are fighting, barbarians are typically very underpowered and never become a challenge, unless you are unprepared for an attack or completely outnumbered. It just feels like the military pie of Grand Ages: Rome is a bit undercooked and never reaches the grand, polished presentation of comparable titles.

Grand Ages: Rome is a clear improvement over Haemimont Games’s previous two titles, and the developer is quite close to crafting an excellent game. Perhaps the most striking improvement this go around is the interface, a very important aspect of any city builder. Grand Ages: Rome has removed much of the uncertainty in dealing with the demands of your citizens, clearly highlighting areas of your city lacking in entertainment, cleanliness, religion, and employment. Other city builders have exhibited this feature before, and it’s about time that Grand Ages: Rome came to the party. Putting all of the resources along the bottom of the screen is a great design decision that goes well with the rest of the minimal interface, making it quite easy to determine where your resources are going. The interface isn’t the only area of improvement in Grand Ages: Rome: the campaign features RPG-like character upgrades that provide starting bonuses, and multiplayer would be quite fun and unique if people were actually playing online. The lack of online players, of course, would be partially solved if you were allowed to add AI bots to the mix, but Grand Ages: Rome does not offer that option. The game does become repetitive after a good deal of play time, since the starting build order is fairly linear, but the varied objectives in each scenario tend to differ the action at least a little bit. The military portion of Grand Ages: Rome is very light strategy, consisting of only movement and attack orders with the occasional special ability. Since you can always overpower neutral barbarians, things really only get interesting online where you can utilize all of the troop types. I’m not expecting a fantastic RTS game inside of a city builder, but the military part of Grand Ages: Rome seems to be still a bit underdeveloped. Still, almost all of the major shortcomings from previous games have been solved in Grand Ages: Rome, so any fan of city builders will find a pleasing title here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Age of Booty Review

Age of Booty, developed by Certain Affinity and published by Capcom on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Straightforward mechanics, customizable multiplayer settings, map editor
The Not So Good: No coordination with AI allies, pooled resources can be monopolized by bad teammates, short respawn times grants no severe penalty for death, plentiful annoying town flipping, lacks depth, no server list for multiplayer
What say you? Numerous game balance problems hinder this casual strategy game: 5/8

Welcome, my friends, to the Age of Booty. This is a fortunate occurrence, since I like big butts and I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny that when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face you get a casual strategy game from Certain Affinity. This game came out almost six months ago on the XBOX 360 and the PlayStation 3 (whatever those things are), and now it’s finally the PC’s turn to enjoy some pirate-related terror on the moderately high seas. So grab your bottle of rum, hat, and whatever else stereotypical pirate item you can think of and set sail to Aruba, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahama, Key Largo, Montego, and possibly Kokomo (if we have time).

The graphics of Age of Booty are not quite bootylicious. The game is very obviously hex-based because the landscapes and tiles don’t even attempt to hide this fact; compare this to a game such as Fantasy Wars that does an excellent job blending in the classic wargame layout with natural-looking environments. The game also lacks detail in all of the models, from the island tiles to the towns and ships. Combat animations aren’t impressive by any means, and only the occasional appearance of fire breaks up the monotony here. Water tiles do look nice, however. It should be noted that Age of Booty offers are very limited selection of screen resolutions: the highest you can use is 1280x760, so most people will be running Age of Booty in a window. I don’t expect Age of Booty to be comparable to Empire: Total War, but it should at least be at the same level as Pirates!, which came out in 2004. The audio design is much the same: you get your typical jaunty pirate music that is enjoyable enough with occasional repetitive sound effects for battles and in-game notifications. There is nothing notable or impressive about the graphics or the sound in Age of Booty: $10 it is.

Your task in the Age of Booty is to capture most (usually all) of the towns on a particular map by bombing the crap out of them. In terms of single player content, you get twenty-one levels equally spread across three difficulty levels. You can pick any of the game’s levels from the beginning: always a good option. Missions occasionally introduce a time limit or alternative objective to the primary mission of capturing all of the towns, which varies the experience at least somewhat. The more difficult levels usually involve being unfairly outnumbered by several AI opponents instead of presenting increasingly sophisticated behavior. As you can imagine, it can be quite difficult taking on multiple opponents with only one ship that can’t possibly protect all of your towns at once. Age of Booty is really geared more towards multiplayer play, and the game comes with twenty-three maps covering 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, and 2v2v2v2 matches. While Age of Booty uses Gamespy for matchmaking purposes, it lacks a server browser (instead opting for quick searching only); this wouldn’t be an issue is there were people actually playing the game. Or maybe there was, but I couldn’t ever find a game, and without a server browser, I’m not sure if it’s because the matchmaking software stinks (we’ve seen that before) or it’s because nobody is playing. In either case, I was never able to test out the multiplayer portion of Age of Booty since I never, ever found anyone to play against. That’s too bad, because Age of Booty seems like it would at least somewhat entertaining online, with server options for scoring and upgrades and fast-paced games. The game’s map editor is easy to use and would seem to promote diverse online games, but, alas, the servers are not very popular (or broken).

Age of Booty is very apparently a console port, and this rears its ugly head in the control scheme (and the lack of multiple resolution support I mentioned earlier). The game allows you to use the mouse, but I found scrolling the map to be very rough and inconsistent; using the keyboard to scroll added more difficulty since it used the current mouse position as reference for scrolling (very disorienting). Being used to smooth camera control in “real” strategy games like Dawn of War II makes the transition to Age of Booty difficult at best. Adding insult to injury was the laughably inept mini-map that can only be called up by pressing “shift” and cannot be clicked on. You can press “tab” to cycle through towns and “spacebar” to center on your ship, but friendly towns are commonly forgotten by the “tab” key so this method is a poor substitute for an informative mini-map.

Capturing towns (your primary objective) is easy: get in an adjacent hex and the game takes care of the rest. All combat in Age of Booty is automated: your ship will engage any enemy or neutral object (towns, ships) in adjacent hexes. While having automated combat makes the game easier to play, only having one ship to worry about makes this an unnecessary simplification; Dawn of War II automates combat as well, but you can still use special abilities for a more strategically pleasing result. Retreating back to your home base or any friendly town will reheal your ship over time (yet another Dawn of War II parallel), although going back to your base will do this faster. Towns supply resources that are used for ship and town upgrades. Wood and ale are used to improve your ship’s cannons, armor, or speed, each of which can be improve three times. Wood and gold are used to increase town health and attack rating. One curious game design decision is the sharing of resources: anyone on your team can use the accumulated wood, gold, or ale to upgrade their ships or friendly towns. Since ship upgrades can only be done at the home base, a poor teammate who camps at home while everyone does all the work can steal all of the upgrades for themselves. Not only could human players do this, but AI allies do routinely steal your hard-earned resources for themselves. Dawn of War II (there’s that game again) shares resource rates, but not resources, allowing people to work together but still compensate for a greedy teammate.

In addition to towns, resources can be earned by blowing up natives (compassion was not a factor during the Age of Booty, apparently) or collecting randomly-placed crates and those from sunk enemy ships. Merchant ships (also known as “moving targets”) can be blown up to earn curses, special powers that be used on the map. These curses (a bomb, whirlpool, ghost ship, and resource pilfer) are generally unimpressive and restricted in their scope, but a well-placed whirlpool (which warps a ship to a random location on the map) can drastically affect the game. There are a number of game balance problems that make Age of Booty less enjoyable overall. The first: towns are too easily captured. Because movement speeds are generally slow (and maps large) and you only have one ship, you must rely on town defenses to maintain your economy. The problem is that towns cannot defend against any enemy attack, even against an unimproved enemy ship with a fully-upgraded town. This means you’ll have to constantly maintain a mobile defense using your own ship; this leads to a lot of stalemates as both teams cannot capture additional towns without leaving their own vulnerable. On the flip side, since ships can be rehealed next to towns, a ship-town combination is impossible to attack without good teammates (a rarity). This is further magnified by having no penalty for death: it’s often faster to die and respawn than to spend 30 seconds rehealing. Where’s the strategy in that? I’ve never played a game that’s actually promoted losing. Dying is a common occurrence, thanks to AI allies that have their own agenda and cannot be given orders. Considering that Age of Booty is all (and only) about positioning, not being able to tell your AI friends where to go is a significant shortcoming. The AI enemies coordinate very easily amongst themselves, leaving you to experience the wetness of Davy Jones’s Locker.

Age of Booty ultimately suffers, I think, from being too simple. There’s something to be said for easily-approachable gameplay, but not at the expense of strategic depth. The non-interactive combat leaves a lot to be desired. Pooled resources favors an uncooperative teammate, human or AI. Upgraded towns are no match for one ship, so they must be constantly guarded (impossible on large maps). And I’m not sure I like a game that promotes suicide as a viable strategy. While the enemy AI puts up a good challenge, but your allies are not as talented and they love to spend your hard-earned resources. The lack of coordination with AI allies makes the single player campaign overly difficult. Multiplayer, while offering a large number of maps and settings, lacks a server browser, a death sentence for a seemingly unpopular game. Let me see if there’s anyone playing before I waste precious minutes searching for games that don’t exist (I could have been killing Tyranids, darn it). Age of Booty lets you move and spend, and that’s it; this minimalism is the game’s downfall.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Raycatcher Review

Raycatcher, developed and published by Slam Dunk Studios and Thinking Studios.
The Good: Solid core gameplay with simple controls, rates you on a scale of “awesomeness”
The Not So Good: Requires strong percussion to work well, difficult to import songs, no song randomize option, very low tolerance of failure
What say you? A second-class attempt at a music-based puzzle game: 5/8

Considering the rabid success of Audiosurf, it was only a matter of time before imitators started flooding the information superhighway. The popularity of music-based games cannot be denied, from Rock Band to Ultimate Band (OK, maybe not that last one). Enter Raycatcher, a two-man operation that has you raycatching (it’s in the title, people!) to the rockin’ beat of whatever crappy 80’s song you happen to have on your hard drive. Catching rays is no longer limited to the beach! Sorry, I couldn’t think of a better pun. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Raycatcher features some very basic graphics. The background is animation but slightly bland in its repetitive nature. The colored shapes do have some unique designs (monkey heads, anyone?), but it can be difficult to tell the difference between dimly-lit colors (especially red and yellow) and how many times they have been filled. While the rays are mostly obviously colored, the subtle tips of the white rays can also make it difficult to identify their appropriate placement with a quick glance (which is all you get on most difficulty settings). I guess it’s a contrast issue between the various color levels that makes Raycatcher less defined overall. The music for the game can be customized, but the default tunes are nothing special and Raycatcher actually comes some ironically bothersome menu music (although that’s simply a matter of personal taste). Puzzle games such as Raycatcher do not require outstanding graphics and sound, fortunate for this game as there is nothing notable about the presentation.

Raycatcher features a fairly unique take on the color-matching puzzle game. You control a circle with colored areas that must be matched with incoming colored rays. Moving the mouse rotates your circle, and the controls are intuitive and sensitive enough to allow for rather precise movements. The circle layout is not randomized, as the design is completely symmetrical in order to support catching double rays of the same color coming in from opposite ends of the screen. As I mentioned in the graphics section of this review, it can be difficult to differentiate colors and how “full” the sections are (repeating this information makes the review appear longer). Your circle will grow in size as you fill up each component, and eventually the shapes that constitute the circle will alter in shape (those wacky monkey heads), although this does not come with any change in gameplay. You are rated on an awesome scale of “awesomeness,” much like the health bar in Rock Band: getting notes…sorry, rays…makes you more awesome, while missing a bunch of rays in a row will cause you to fail. Raycatcher is not light on the difficulty: the game is tough on any setting but the easiest, punishing imperfection to the full extent of the law. I rarely got through a single song on anything above “easy,” and “easy” was actually a bit too easy; I’d like to have more of a middle-ground setting for players who want a challenge but not epic failure (that would be me). Special glowing notes…sorry, rays…can be collected to unleash super powers: pressing the left mouse button removes all of the rays on the screen, while the right mouse button is used to cause more ray pairs. The mechanics of Raycatcher are enjoyable and somewhat unique, despite the lack of auxiliary features (no pausing the game, no online scoring).

Ironically, where Raycatcher missteps is in the music department. The game allows you to import any MP3 or WAV file to use in the game, just in case you don’t like the default music (likely). Unfortunetly, this aspect of the game is poorly executed in a number of different ways. While Raycatcher does support playlists (take that, Audiosurf), adding songs to one is a gigantic pain: the game doesn’t let you import more than a couple at a time, and certainly not an entire folder at once. This means using a large music library that I am sure most people have is difficult, and this essentially negates the usefulness of having the playlist feature. In addition, you can’t randomize the song order in a playlist, further reducing the effectiveness of a playlist. The game also has a tough time with ID3 tags: most songs that work perfectly fine in an MP3 player or Audiosurf show up with blank titles or just the artist (take that, Raycatcher).

On top of the woes associated with simply importing songs, the actual implementation of the songs in the game leaves a lot to be desired. Audiosurf did an excellent job making you feel like you were playing your music, but the disconnect between what you are hearing and what you are playing in Raycatcher is quite large. If you choose a song without a solid beat, the song and the game seemingly have nothing in common: the appearance of rays never seems to match anything in the song, making the game just plain weird to play. I tried out a bunch of the songs in my library, and none of them came close to the level of synchronization I saw in the promo trailer. Even with “better” songs, the synchronization isn’t as obvious or as consistent as it should be. In a game that relies on music, this is an important shortcoming, as people are bound to have a wide variety in tastes in music. Audiosurf meshed these two aspects almost perfectly, but it’s quite a different situation in Raycatcher, where the results are quite hit or miss.

Raycatcher takes a straightforward and almost compelling puzzle game and damages it with substandard musical elements and features. While some songs fare well enough in Raycatcher, you gotta have a song with a strong drum beat, or the game will hardly match at all. The relatively high difficulty (on “medium” or “high” settings) makes this detachment even more obvious, as the songs help you none in predicting when a barrage of rays will be incoming. Importing songs is an exercise in tedium and frustration, as you are arbitrarily limited to two or three at a time even though Raycatcher has a playlist feature, and song titles are absent most of the time. Without a randomize feature, the inclusion of a playlist is meaningless, especially since you’ll fail one or two songs in anyway. Although Raycatcher has unique core gameplay, the incorporation of musical elements is lacking and overall the game pales in comparison to Audiosurf. It almost would have been better for Raycatcher to completely forgo the music import feature since it doesn’t work that well and the core game is marginally interesting on its own. As it stands, Raycatcher is an also-ran in the pantheon of musically-influenced computer games.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace Review

UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace, developed by nornware and published by Spell of Play Studios.
The Good: Upgradable ship attributes, somewhat lengthy, varied enemies
The Not So Good: Imprecise ship controls, lacks difficulty settings, fixed screen resolution, nothing terribly innovative
What say you? A 2-D arcade space shooter marred by tricky handling: 4/8

For eons, mankind has wrestled with a fundamental question: are we alone? The answer, of course, is no, and we should blast them all with frickin’ laser beams. UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace is the latest computer simulation of the ongoing struggle against the alien invaders. This time, they have captured pilots, and its up to you to break them out of jail while killing everything that looks, smells, or tastes foreign. Xenophobia has never been so enjoyable!

UFO Pilot 2 features 2-D graphics in all their 2-D glory: the game looks like a casual title. The graphics are pretty basic: a hand-drawn sensibility for the environments and small ships and enemies that reduce the amount of detail. Explosions are dramatic, but the rest of the weapon effects are unimpressive. Part of the reason UFO Pilot 2 lacks polish is the fixed resolution that cannot be adjusted: 640 by 480 pixels is all you get in the game’s archaic presentation, and this small view cannot be windowed (not that you’d really be able to see anything then). The sound is along the same lines, with basic effects for warfare and generic background music. I do enjoy the pilot responses while being rescued, however. Still, a lot more work could have been done in this area of the game, as the graphics and sound are not highlights of UFO Pilot 2.

UFO Pilot 2 features a premise similar to the classic arcade game Defender: rescue people from aliens. This time around, you shoot trapped pilots, land to pick them up, and then dock with the mothership. You are doing this while enemy units are shooting at you and gravity is pulling you constantly downwards, so challenge is definitely present. With slightly more than thirty levels, some of which are quite lengthy, UFO Pilot 2 also comes with a good amount of content. Of course, a level editor would extend the game even further, and with the relatively simplistic 2-D this would seem to be a possibility, but UFO Pilot 2 does not have this feature. You do get three modes of play: classic, time attack (with full powers and a time limit), and arcade (scored). There isn’t a fundamental difference between each of these modes (you’ll be playing the same levels with the same enemy placements), but the stress level is increased with a score or time limit attached to your journey.

Where UFO Pilot 2 really trips up is the controls. While using the mouse to aim and shoot is not a concern, this gravity-based space shooter is very difficult to control. There is no option to adjust the level of gravity (and, thus, difficulty) in the game, and the acceleration towards the ground is quite severe. It’s hard enough not to run into everything (enemy worlds apparently have lots of low ceilings and walls) without aliens shooting at you too. Frankly, the control scheme doesn’t offer the precision required to stay afloat with how drastic the gravity is in the game. Fast speeds combined with strong gravity equals a tough time. Since there is no setting to turn down or off gravity (or lower ship speed), UFO Pilot 2 simply requires too much work just to keep from crashing and burning. The game makes you land in order to rescue the pilots, so contact with the ground is assured, and hard contact is almost guaranteed. The controls require a lot of practice, and I suspect most people just won’t devote enough time getting acclimated to UFO Pilot 2.

As if the gravity and level design weren't enough, you also have to worry about enemies. There is a wide variety of bad guys to avoid and/or explode, equipped with guns, missiles, tanks, and flying vehicles. They can be stationary but will commonly move (especially in later levels), making your job that much harder. In order to assist your journey, your ship can be upgraded between levels in six areas: weapons, engine, spin, armor, payload, and target (not so sure what that last option does). In addition, you can collect power-ups like rehealing, extra lives, bombs, missiles, and turning off the gravity (finally!). While there is nothing vastly original about UFO Pilot 2, it does deliver some solid arcade gamepay that would be more accessible if it weren’t for the high level of difficulty dealing with the gravity presents.

UFO Pilot 2 requires a level of finesse that the controls simply do not allow. The game is too hard, and since there is nothing drastically new here, there really no reason to put up with the extreme difficulty. The situation would be a lot better if there were difficulty settings to tweak that reduced or eliminated the use of gravity, but UFO Pilot 2 does not have this luxury. The mouse-driven controls are easy to learn, but you don’t have the control needed to prevent running into other objects constantly. Add in enemies that are shooting at you and we have quite a difficulty arcade game. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but I dislike developers that arbitrarily determine difficulty: there should always be options to adjust how hard a game can be, and UFO Pilot 2 lacks these options. The game would be enjoyable if it weren’t so hard: the chaotic action can be quite fun, there are a lot of levels to navigate, and ship upgrades make an important strategic difference in gameplay. But in the end, UFO Pilot 2 is an arcade game brought down to Earth by the irresistible force of gravity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Battle Group Commander: Episode One Review

Battle Group Commander: Episode One, developed by ProSim Company and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Accurate simulation with realistic commands and topography, varied units, challenging AI opponent, multiplayer, low price
The Not So Good: Contour maps and NATO symbols not for the beginner, generally terrible pathfinding, archaic interface, poor performance, only five scenarios, no editors, lacks noticeable enhancements from previous efforts
What say you? An attractive price, but this limited expansion-like wargame will appeal mostly to fans of the series: 5/8

There’s strategy games, and then there’s wargames, and then there’s extreme hardcore wargames. This is one of the latter, as exemplified by being developed by the same people responsible for the final linked game (you do click on every link in my reviews, yes?). The unstoppable force behind Air Assault Task Force and The Star and the Crescent brings their engine back with Battle Group Commander: Episode One, the first (I would assume) in a series of games that simulates training operations pitting the British against those wacky Russians. Episodic games are all the rage these days, providing less content at a lower price instead of waiting longer for a more complete (but full-priced) game. Does Battle Group Commander: Episode One offer significant improvements and content over its predecessor Air Assault Task Force?

Not much has changed in the past two years in terms of presentation, as Battle Group Commander: Episode One is indistinguishable from Air Assault Task Force. The game still features the same NATO symbols or poorly-detailed unit icons on a contour map with optional geographic overlay. This feature set is sure to scare off potential new customers, as it isn’t exactly the most user friendly presentation around: an understanding of contour map symbols and usage is paramount. The game has very limited visual effects: lines represent weapons, and a one-frame explosion effect accompanies defeated units. The sound is much the same: just some very basic damage effects that are meant as alerts more than presenting a plausible battlefield environment. One thing I was surprised about was the poor performance of Battle Group Commander: Episode One: even playing the game in real-time, seconds would be skipped during simulation when many units were present in the scenario. I think I did not encounter this situation in Air Assault Task Force because the unit counts were generally lower, but it is a significant enough issue in Battle Group Commander: Episode One, even on systems that can run more visually impressive games with ease. There’s obviously a lot of calculations going on “under the hood,” but I would expect the process to be more optimized and faster than what it is.

Battle Group Commander: Episode One is very light on the features, as indicated by its $15 price point. The game ships with only four scenarios; while they individually take about an hour each to complete, that’s still quite a short gaming experience. There is a small amount of replay value, but since the forces will remain the same in subsequent games, variety is kept at a minimum. All of the scenarios take place on the same map: a portion of the English training ground in (surprise!) England. While there is only one map, it is a bit impressive that all of the aspects of the actual contour map (elevation, roads, terrain, et cetera) are simulation in the game: no corners were cut here. Battle Group Commander: Episode One features the same multiplayer game browser that was in Air Assault Task Force, so it is easy to battle other humans online (although everyone on there was playing Air Assault Task Force missions). While the game does not come with an in-game tutorial, it does ship with interactive flash tutorials that can be viewed in your favorite browser that do a decent job of teaching the very basics. In addition, Battle Group Commander: Episode One comes with the same manual as Air Assault Task Force (which tells you how similar the games are) to fill in the gaps. One significant cut made during the transition to Battle Group Commander: Episode One is the removal of the editors: unless you have Air Assault Task Force, you cannot expand the game beyond the four missions the designers made for you.

Battle Group Commander: Episode One is eerily similar to Air Assault Task Force, and by “similar” I mean “identical.” This time around, there is more of a focus on unit variety: instead of just focusing on helicopters, you get ground units to play around with as well. Other than that, Battle Group Commander: Episode One is really just a stand-alone expansion to Air Assault Task Force, so you should go read that review for the gist of the game. I’ll cover the basics again for those people too lazy to click on the aforementioned link. While the game’s interface might have been decent enough two years ago, no improvements have been made in this area since then and the age is starting to show. Icons are too small and there is a lot of wasted space on the right side of the screen, and there could have been more effort made in making the game easier to use for beginners while still maintaining the depth for veteran players. While the “move” and “suppress” commands are nice, ordering units to fire upon the enemy won’t make them move closer to put them in range; an attack-move order would solve this sticky situation. Having both commands (move, suppress, target, fire mission, mount) and missions (assault, attack by fire, screen, breach) is honestly confusing, especially when you consider that you can have both active at the same time and the game does a poor job showing a unit’s current orders. On top of this, units can also be issued orders for behaviors (sprint, defilade, engage on contact, creep, detach). These options do give you a lot of alternatives for customizing unit behaviors, but it also is unnecessarily duplicated.

One thing that can’t be argued is the accuracy of Battle Group Commander: Episode One: the game features some very pleasing tactical gameplay. The game strikes a great balance between aggressiveness and defensiveness, with stealth and proper positioning being quite important. The four missions do offer a variety of mission types, from assaults to defense operations. The AI opponents are quite good and one of the highlights of the game, providing good competition and challenge. There are some issues with pathfinding, though: units will typically go off-road too often, getting stuck on ridges and in areas that might not even be on the way to the next waypoint. I clearly remember games three years ago offering better movement, utilizing the fastest path instead of the most direct. Because of this, you have to use lots of movement orders, and your forces will get separated far too often, as that one pesky company keeps getting stuck in the forest.

In short (too late!), Battle Group Commander: Episode One will appeal to gamers who enjoyed and are familiar with ProSim’s previous efforts, and that’s about it. The low price makes it more appealing to new players, but little effort has been made to simplify the game or provide enough content and variety to satisfy newcomers. The hardcore nature of Battle Group Commander: Episode One will scare off new players, as the NATO symbols and contour maps are not for the faint of heart. The quality of the core gameplay cannot be ignored, but the age of the features is starting to catch up to the series. Frankly, I would have expected at least some noticeable tweaks to the game (interface, pathfinding, visual) in two years. The new setting is very detailed and quite large, and you do get to play with a larger variety of units, so in this aspect a small investment is worth your while. But, you get what you pay for, and that means four scenarios and no editor. I guess you can consider this a stand-alone expansion for owners of Air Assault Task Force, since the feature list is greatly expanded if you have ProSim’s previous title (namely unlocking the editors). It’s only $15, which is $4 a mission, so if you liked Air Assault Task Force, then this will probably appeal to you, despite the game’s limitation. For everyone else, however, the impenetrable and rough nature of Battle Group Commander: Episode One is a bit too much to recommend.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Monster Trucks Nitro Review

Monster Trucks Nitro, developed and published by RedLynx.
The Good: Moderate difficulty, simple controls, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No level editor, short
What say you? More user friendly due to lowered complexity, but not enough content: 6/8

One of the more difficult games I ever played was Trials 2 Second Edition. This stunt physics-based casual game let you control a motorcycle through crazy maps and attempt to reach the finish in time; it was very hard. Developer RedLynx is back with Monster Trucks Nitro: the vehicles have gotten bigger and the challenges have lessened, hopefully allowing the game to appeal to a larger audience. Warm up your best monster truck rally voice (Sunday Sunday SUNDAY) and see if Monster Trucks Nitro brings the goods.

Much like Trials 2 Second Edition, the graphics of Monster Trucks Nitro are top-notch, especially for what a lot of people would consider to be a casual game. The engine still looks great and delivers fantastic visuals. The game is played in two dimensions (left, right, up, down), but the 3-D outdoor environments look very nice and are even more varied than the indoor facilities in Trials 2 Second Edition. There are nice details in both the backgrounds and the racing track, with plenty of over-the-top explosions to mark your progress. The two vehicles are nicely detailed, with great suspension systems that react just like their real-life counterparts. The sound effects are basic, but they get the job done: the throaty engine sounds are accompanied by explosions, crashes, and the occasional quip by the announcer. Overall, a very solid package.

The goal is simple: reach the finish line fast. Preventing your expedient escape are various objects, such as ramps, logs, boulders, and cars, that have inconveniently been placed in your way. Success in Monster Trucks Nitro involves flying over or through these objects and rotating your vehicle in the air so that it lands on all four wheels at the same time. Controls are simple: go, stop, and rotate. You are also occasionally given canisters of nitro (the game’s title hinted at this) that grant momentary boosts in acceleration for especially long ramps and jumps. The levels are well-designed, striking a nice balance between challenge and pity: a good time requires skill, but everyone should be able to get the bronze medal on the first attempt. This significantly cuts down on the frustration felt while playing Trials 2 Second Edition; I consider this to be a good thing. Unfortunately, Monster Trucks Nitro is over before you know it: the twenty-five levels can be easily completed in a matter of hours, as each level only takes 30 to 45 seconds to finish. This would not be as much of a problem if the game came with a level editor, but Monster Trucks Nitro does not. Given the 2-D design of the levels, the lack of an editor is a flabbergasting omission. Monster Trucks Nitro is definitely fun while it lasts, but the fun is over too quickly.

Monster Trucks Nitro takes Trials 2 Second Edition in the correct direction: easier. This is a game that is extremely easy to learn but hard to master, but not at the same insane level as its predecessor. This ultimately makes the game more enjoyable, as the tracks are less severe and the vehicles are easier to handle. The game strikes the right balance between precision and forgiveness, something Trials 2 Second Edition lacked during its more difficult levels. The graphics continue to be quite strong as well. The only shortcoming is the game’s length: Monster Trucks Nitro comes with a paltry twenty-five levels that can easily be completed in under two hours (around 30-45 seconds per level). While the levers are cleverly designed, they simply fly by too quickly. Monster Trucks Nitro is a game in desperate need of a level editor: it would seem to be easy enough to execute because of the 2-D nature of the levels, so I am at a loss explaining why this feature is still not here. Allowing user-created content would elevate Monster Trucks Nitro into the “must have” category of gaming, but it is still a very solid intricate arcade game.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin Review

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Occasionally enjoyable mindless shooting with slow motion elements, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Completely linear and short campaign, heavily scripted and not frightening “scare” moments, unbalanced multiplayer modes with very few maps, no manual saved games
What say you? Simply not as good as the original: 4/8

F.E.A.R. came out in 2005 (has it been that long?) to “generally favorable reviews,” thanks to its spooky atmosphere, advanced AI, slow motion firefights, and enjoyable multiplayer. A couple of expansions done by personal favorite (here's why) TimeGate Studios were disappointing, so original developer Monolith has taken the helm once again with a true sequel. After a name addition, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin has hit the market with Samara…I mean Alma and all of her trademarked creepiness. Does this sequel enhance the qualities of the original while injecting its own sense of value?

Easily the most drastic improvement made in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is the graphics. This is done to appeal to the console crowd that is easily distracted by shiny things. Everything in the game looks like a reasonably upgraded version of F.E.A.R. 1. The character models are detailed and nicely animated, displaying a wide range of emotions. The combat graphics are gory as always, particularly enjoyable when viewed in slow motion. The levels are quite linear in their design and somewhat repetitive (lots of indoor environments), but there is a nice attention to detail with objects strewn across the locations. F.E.A.R. 2 looks like any contemporary top-level first person shooter should. Sound design is along the same lines: decent enough voice acting, appealing combat sounds, and spooky environmental effects round out a good package. I was quite pleased with the updated presentation of F.E.A.R. 2.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin continues the story of Alma, the creepy little girl, and people shooting each other because of her. The fourteen mission campaign is archaic, featuring very linear levels (doors are magically blocked!). Although not as obvious as Legendary, you do spend an inordinate amount of time confined in hallways with no room for improvisation. Things only open up occasionally when you encounter the occasional large-ish room containing several objects that could be used for cover. The game’s tutorial consists of pop-up messages that occur during the first couple of levels, introducing all of the controls gradually along the way. The console roots of F.E.A.R. 2 crop up early and often: there is no manual saving in the game, only checkpoints. I don’t like being told when to save my game, and the checkpoints are sporadic enough to be an annoying artificial limitation. This method also means you can only have one campaign going on at the same time, not a good feature for people who share the same machine (because sharing means caring). The game, of course, also helpfully informs you to not turn off your computer while saving. You can also earn awards as you progress through the campaign; although the console crowd might be motivated by these simple achievements, I certainly am not.

Since the multiplayer from the original game is freely available, F.E.A.R. 2 had better be significantly improved, and it is not. You will need to navigate through the console-inspired menus that take about five screens to actually join a game instead of two. Ranked and unranked matches are available over the Internet, a designation I never understood: just offer one to concentrate the player count. F.E.A.R. 2 offers up different game modes that we’ve seen before in one form or another: deathmatch (of course), team deathmatch, control (three points to hold), failsafe (defuse the bomb), blitz (assault), and armored front (deathmatch with walkers). None of these modes are terribly original, and the armored front mode is terribly balanced. The armored front walkers are too powerful and there are no hand-held weapons to counter them, so they just fight each other while everyone else scurries for cover: a potentially good idea horribly wasted. In addition, there are only nine total maps, three for armored front and six for the other modes. This is an extremely low count for a first person shooter; freely-available games easily have more content (that’s 12 for Combat Arms, for those keeping score). You will need to choose your loadout before each game, a system I do not like. You get ten points to allocate towards primary and secondary weapons, grenades, and armor. While this is intended to prevent people from using sniper rifles with heavy armor, it was a whole lot faster and easier before when all you did was choose a weapon. The game only features three pre-defined “classes,” which is woefully inadequate. Now, you are spending precious killing time tweaking your grenade count. No thanks. F.E.A.R. 2 also features less interesting scoring for multiplayer matches: the game does not penalize you for deaths like the original did (five points for a kill, minus one for a death), instead just doing one point per kill. I have no idea why the developers would remove this unique system; I suppose it’s because those console players can’t handle multiplying by five (math is hard!). The multiplayer in F.E.A.R. 2 is quite disappointing: it’s not a good sign when the sequel is uninstalled in favor of playing the free multiplayer component of the original.

The interface of F.E.A.R. 2 has its roots in semi-realism: information on health and ammunition are projected onto the cool glasses you are wearing. I like that nice detail. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is quite ordinary. You have the typical weapons at your disposal: sub-machine gun (complete with the memorable sound from F.E.A.R. 1), pistol, semi-automatic and automatic shotgun, semi-automatic and automatic rifle, sniper rifle, and the hammerhead (like a cross between a sniper rifle and assault rifle). You are also given access to grenades (shock, frag, and incendiary), mines, the medkit for healing, and armor. F.E.A.R. 2 also returns one-button melee combat, which can be combined with jumps and sprinting for nifty kicks. And, of course, it would not be a F.E.A.R. game without the slow-motion ballet of death: it’s still cool and executed as well as before. The AI seems to be the same as before (which is good): the enemies spawn from scripted locations, but they will use cover (a little too much, on occasion, making it easy for you to snipe a head or arm). They will sometimes make their own cover, but I suspect this is a scripted event: a very artificial artificial intelligence. The “scary” elements of F.E.A.R. 2 are not scary at all, never shocking, and totally predictable. Oh look, there’s that wacky Alma again, walking nude down the hallway (well, the nude part is OK). While the game is still enjoyable, it was enjoyable (and far more original) four years ago. Please note that every feature I just talked about was in the original game, as F.E.A.R. 2 does not make any innovations to the gameplay at all. Slow-mo? Already there. Weapons? Already there. I wonder what Monolith did since the original’s release, other than improving the graphics. In the end, F.E.A.R. 2 is identical to F.E.A.R. 1 (and actually worse in several aspects), and the same is not good enough for me.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin brings nothing new to the first person shooter genre; this makes it quite a disappointment. I would have thought something new would have been added four years after the original game came out, but we get the same not-as-scary moments, the same AI, the same linear combat, and actually less enjoyable multiplayer. The game has also been “consolized,” with checkpoint-only saves and a paltry multiplayer map count. The graphics have been improved, but this is a very small consolation prize in what otherwise is a deeply derivative product. Sure, F.E.A.R. 2 is fun, but F.E.A.R. 1 was fun in exactly the same ways; this is not how you do an innovative sequel. Innovative sequels like Dawn of War II completely change the game or at least significantly enhance the experience like Galactic Civilizations II did. F.E.A.R. 2? The same old stuff. There is no reason to pay full price for F.E.A.R. 2 when the original game offers the same thrills for a lot less. Retreading is for tires, not for $50 sequels.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Men of War Review

Men of War, developed by Best Way and Digitalmindsoft and published by 1C Company and Aspyr Media on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Realistic ballistics and damage, direct control of units is fun and useful, robust multiplayer with numerous modes and options, slightly customizable interface, nice graphics, supports mods
The Not So Good: Difficult linear unoriginal campaign, no AI bots for skirmish games or dropped players online, laughably bad voice acting
What say you? Direct control of units, realistic mechanics, and enjoyable multiplayer makes this World War II strategy game stand out despite the outrageously difficult campaign: 7/8

One of the many (many (many)) World War II strategy games to come across the vast expanse of the Internet was Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. I tried out the demo of this tactical game (no resource collection, just units) when it came out in 2004 and decided it was extremely tough, and that was the end of my experience with Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. Well, the series is back five years later with a sequel to the sequel Faces of War (which, unfortunate for the game, came out the same week as Company of Heroes…oopsy!). Men of War has been out for about four months in Russia, but it’s finally gotten it’s English on and arrived on domestic shores. Has Men of War maintained the severe difficult of its predecessors (short answer: yes)? Will the multiplayer aspect of the game make up for this (short answer: yes)?

The graphics of Men of War are quite nice on several fronts. It’s clear that the developer has done well tweaking (essentially) the same game the past five years, and the result is one of the more impressive 3-D strategy gaming environments. The plentiful maps are quite detailed, with lots of houses, trees, fences, and other realistic elements. The military hardware appears to be rather realistic as well; if you are in to that sort of thing, I would imagine they are easily identifiable based on looks alone. The explosions are a bit overdone, but it does add a dramatic and powerful feel to the combat of the game. Notable is the deformable nature of the levels: houses can be partially or totally razed with the appropriate weaponry, and craters dot the landscape after heavily fought battles. Not only does blowing up a house look cool, but it is of strategic value as well. No game that I can remember has come this close to replicating Hollywood-style war action as Men of War has. The interface is also well-done, listing all of your available units along the left side of the screen, and reinforcements along the right. The interface along the bottom can also be somewhat customized, by right-clicking and dragging icons to a persistent middle bar for easy access: pretty impressive. It’s too bad, then, that the sound design didn’t get the same wonderful amount of attention the graphics. The effects are good: weapons, explosions, and other assorted chaos is done well. However, the voice acting is absolutely atrocious: there are “Russian” units that sound English, and even the ones that sound Russian are wimpy and uneven in their quality. It’s better if you simply ignore all of the poor voice acting that is present in the game. Still, screenshots sell games, and Men of War certainly delivers the goods in this aspect of the presentation.

Men of War gives you two ways to (virtually) kill lots of people: the campaign and online multiplayer. The campaign consists of twenty-three missions spread amongst the Soviets, Germans, and Allies; it is completely linear, unlocking the next mission after the successful completion of the previous one. The campaign missions are long and hard (must resist urge…to make…cheap joke), lasting thirty to sixty minutes each with multiple progressive objectives. The objectives could be a lot clearer, as indicators are not present on the minimap or on the main screen unless you click on the “objectives” list. The difficulty isn’t due to the AI being good, because it is not: enemy units will routinely stand around and do nothing (waiting for orders, I guess), and scripted AI sequences (invasions, retreats) are obviously obvious (obviously). No, Men of War is difficult because you are fighting superior numbers and equipment with unlimited resources. Sounds fair, huh? Yes, the enemy always outnumbers you both in sheer numbers and quality of gear. The only thing preventing Men of War from being completely unfair is the poor AI: you can use real tactics (flanking, et cetera) against them and they will almost never react appropriately. Now, difficulty is a very subjective assessment, but, based off the vibe I get from the Internet, I don’t think I am alone in saying that Men of War is really, really, really difficult. Men of War shies away from the single-squad-stealth mission, putting you alongside friendly units in large, impressive battles that would be great if the game wasn’t so hard. You can play any of the missions (even ones you haven’t unlocked) online with some allies. This makes the sometimes large unit count easier to manage, but the game does a suspicious job of equally dividing the troops: sometimes you are given the truck but your ally is given the attached artillery piece. Cooperative play makes the campaign scenarios more pleasant, but the missions still last too long without somewhat guaranteed success to make the campaign worth the effort. Add in the lack of a tutorial (apart from some very basic instructions in the first mission), and I was ultimately not very interested in the single player campaign. It is a positive sign, however, that Men of War is relatively easy to modify, creating new or different units and maps; in this sense, you can compensate for the large difficulty of the campaign.

Where Men of War really shines is in a multiplayer environment. You can choose between four nations (Japan is coming in a future patch): the all-round Soviet Union, the early-game USA, the mid-game English, and the diverse Germans. There are a lot of game modes to enjoy in Men of War: there are more conventional modes like combat (deathmatch) and frontlines (assault/defense), but also control modes like victory flag (one point) and battle zones (several points). The interesting thing is that the number of points in the battle zone mode changes according to the number of players (although the map stays the same size): it’s been done before, but it’s still a nice feature. Men of War comes with a large number of maps: twenty-one for most modes and ten for frontline. They are well-designed and have a good variety in design and setting, offering up plenty of cover, changes in elevation, and multiple pathways to victory. The territory modes (battle zones and victory flag) are the most interesting as they cause more concentrated battles instead of the less organized action found in the combat modes. Men of War does not involve any resource collection or even resources from controlling specific points on the map. You are given two options (set by the server): slowly gain reinforcement points over time, or start with a set value that never regenerates. In either case, you use the points to purchase a large variety of units. Typically, the matches start with infantry and transport units, and slowly introduce armored cars, tanks, and artillery. The units seem to be well-balanced: the powerful units are powerful, but they can certainly be countered by several other units. Games are equally enjoyable with a small or large number of players (the game supports up to sixteen players at once), and the chaos associate with combat taking place in several locations is quite lovely. Because the game has been out in Russia for a while, you’ll always find plenty of people to play against, assuming to play at the correct time of day. The game also gives you a number of options to customize the amount of realism (displaying enemy damage reports) and size of conflicts (amount of reinforcements). Sadly, nothing can be perfect, so Men of War lacks one key feature: skirmish AI players. While not having skirmish matches is a relatively minor inconvenience, it really does matter online: players who leave the game early are not replaced with an AI substitute. This means if your team loses a player, you most often will lose simply by being undermanned. I don’t expect an AI opponent to be necessarily good, but it should at least be able to serve as a stand-in for players who left. This means large games with sixteen players usually become unbalanced before the end; the long game times (30-60 minutes) don’t help matters. Still, the quality of the online gameplay can’t be ignored, as Men of War executes the multiplayer aspect of the game beautifully.

Men of War features pretty much every major unit that took part in World War II. The units cover all aspects of this period of warfare: infantry (riflemen, machine gunners, rocket launchers, anti-tank rifles, flame throwers), special forces (combat engineers, snipers), transport vehicles (jeeps, trucks), artillery (machine guns, towed items, mortars), tanks (light, medium, and heavy, with many models per side), and self-propelled artillery. It is a very comprehensive collection of military hardware (and software, in the case of infantry units). Controlling units is a straightforward affair thanks to the interface: single units can be combined into groups by a selection box or with the interface. The use of waypoints is a must because the pathfinding is questionable at best (tanks will routinely smash right through buildings and trees, instead of using the roads): holding down shift allows you to queue up orders. One of Men of War’s unique aspects is direct control of units. While this was more of a gimmick in games like War Front, it’s fun and often necessary (especially during the campaign) in Men of War. Once you select a unit and press the “end” key, you can move it with the arrow keys, use the mouse for aiming, and switch weapons, reload, and change stance with the keyboard and mouse buttons. It takes a little getting used to, since the camera is not tied to the vehicle at all; this is actually a good thing, at it allows you to zoom right up to the enemy tank to get a perfect shot. You do lose track of your other units while you use direct control, but it found it to be quite useful and a blast overall. Surprisingly, the friendly AI seems to be more capable than the enemy AI at engaging enemy units; I think the planning AI is where the problem lies (as evidenced through the pathfinding issues) and the tactical AI is fine. Units left alone in multiplayer can handle themselves well enough, firing on enemies that come within range, although they won’t move to better locations (probably a good thing).

Men of War gives your units realistic weapons: machine guns, armor piercing and high explosive rounds, mines, grenades, repair kits, and more. You can pick up weapons and ammunition from fallen comrades, as ammo can become an issue during longer matches (although fuel usually never does). There is a wide range of actions your troops can perform with their weapons, such as aimed shots, suppressive fire, in addition to healing, returning fire, reloading, planting mines, and repairing tanks (which takes a realistically long amount of time). Men of War focuses on the use of cover, highlighting the positioning of infantry units before you move them to a new location: this has obviously been seen before in this series and other games, but it’s just as impressive of a feature here. You can target a specific part of a tank (tracks, hull, turret), and Men of War features a pretty impressive ballistics system that calculates angle of impact, penetration, and armor integrity; these values are translated into a color-coded percentage chance of success for easy processing. Tanks are more easily defeated by infantry units with rockets (and other tanks) in Men of War then in other World War II strategy games; I imagine this is more realistic, although I obviously cannot say for sure without trying it out myself. The result is a seemingly realistic and visceral gaming experience where the results seem to be more dependent on strategy and planning rather than luck and hit points.

Men of War is a fine third iteration in the tactical strategy series. The game in firmly entrenched in realism, from the weapon ballistics to the wide selection of units at your disposal. The single player campaign does not stray from the high level of difficulty seen in previous iterations of the series: it’s hard on any setting, and this will deter all but the most dedicated grognard. The campaign is also very linear and quite unfair (adding to its difficulty), featuring enemies with superior numbers and usually superior weapons. Despite these shortcomings, I am willing to give Men of War the “buy it” rating based off the strength of the multiplayer: Men of War is the best World War II multiplayer strategy game I can remember (this included). The mix of realism works exceedingly well online: with no cheap tactics or build orders to rely on (since everyone receives the same reinforcement rate based on performance), you can focus on proper positioning and the compelling direct control feature (which no other strategy game has executed as successfully as Men of War). Online play also has several game modes and plenty of maps to destroy (and they will destroy in real time, providing new areas for cover). The only blemish in multiplayer is the lack of AI bots to play against or substitute for players who have dropped: a minor but significant enough exclusion. The interface lets you easily access all of your units, and the graphics are top-notch (although the voice acting is terrible). Men of War is an excellent game for those players looking for realistic tactical online gaming.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment Review

Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: New defensive structures and counters add depth, improved AI
The Not So Good: $10 limits the variety and scope, additions don’t dramatically enhance the game, “quick start” option is too limited, zero documentation of new features
What say you? There’s almost enough content for the low price, so don’t get all defensive: 5/8

Did you like Sins of a Solar Empire? Me too! Didn’t you wish there were more options available for the defensive-minded? Me too! Enter Entrenchment, the very appropriately titled first micro-expansion for Sins of a Solar Empire: what luck! This first go-around features large defensive structures and additional upgrades to expand the original game, as expansions tend to do. On with the countdown!

The press material for Entrenchment mentions improved visuals, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what they are. Of course, when you are starting out with a quality presentation anyway, a few tweaks and changes here and there are subtle. It looks like the textures are more detailed, the weapon effects are slight more impressive, and the backgrounds have been improved. Playing most of the game from a zoomed-out perspective makes actually seeing these features less likely, but it’s nice to get some sort of upgrades in this area. The graphical improvements seem to be appropriate for an additional year’s worth of work, and it shows that the graphics engine is quite flexible and expandable for the future.

Welcome to Entrenchment, where none of the new features are explained! That's right: no additions to the manual or tutorial are made, so you must learn the fresh-faced features on a trial and (mostly) error basis. Clearly the most significant extra that Entrenchment brings to the table is the star base. These are basically large, expandable turrets that are built by colony ships in any sector (so you can construct one in enemy or neutral territory). Star bases are slightly less expensive than a capital ship, so they require a significant enough investment that really isn’t plausible until the middle or end of the game. While mainly used for defensive purposes, they can be improved using upgrades in nine areas: weapons, shields, fighters, trade, culture, population, self-healing, and enemy ship inhibitors. In this sense, star bases can be customized into a specific role, possibly supporting a population and trade for additional income. Research has been accentuated with additional options to support these new star base upgrades. Ships in Sins of a Solar Empire have always been a bit limited in customization, so this is as close as you get to the level of specialization seen in 4X games like Galactic Civilizations. You are limited to eight total upgrades to prevent spamming, and the upgrades themselves are about half the cost of a star base, so losing an extensively upgraded base is a significant loss because of the financial investment. Since the star bases only cost slightly less than a capital ship, so one could argue why you wouldn’t just opt for that and a couple of ships that can move between planets. Of course, the upgrades go a long way towards pushing the argument in favor of investing in a fancy new star base instead of rusty old ships. Star bases are just about as powerful as a capital ship and can be countered in the same ways: a determined attack can bring one down, so really star bases are more of a deterrent than a permanent solution. The customization options elevate the star bases from “OK” to “good,” and they fit into the game well.

Entrenchment also comes with a handful of minor improvements. Coupled with the star bases is the ability to lay mine fields (mines in 3-D space?). Just like the bases, mines are more of a deterrent, but when placed properly (you can guess where enemy ships will warp in from) they can surprise an enemy fleet. Each of the game’s races has been given a shiny new assault cruiser to deal with those pesky enemy star bases; cruisers were traditionally used in a support role rather than for front-line combat, but this new ship class expands their usefulness. The AI has been improved for a more competitive game (the computer players on the higher difficulty settings are quite good) and the game has become easier to mod. There is also a new “quick start” option that gives each player two scout ships, both ship factories, and all mines right out of the gate. This feature only saves you about three minutes of gameplay, and it is too limited in my opinion: it would have been much more useful to give each player three fully developed planets and a starting fleet to cut out a more significant amount of boring early-game tedium and repetition. And that’s it: one new (but significant enough) structure, a new unit, mines, and minor patch-like features. I had more content in mind, such as additional buildings and more options for ship defensive weaponry. Maybe next time.

While the star bases are a neat addition to the world of Sins of a Solar Empire, you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the limited scope of this expansion. The bases are great for defending systems that can be harassed by incoming enemy units, but they are the only significant add-on made in this admittedly cheaply priced expansion. The short length of this review (well, for me) speaks volumes about the skimpy number of improvements present in Entrenchment. The question remains: how much should you expect for $10? This is a sticky price point, as Entrenchment certainly does not compete with $20 expansions in terms of features (even ones done by the very same publisher), and several games are now offering similar improvements for free. I have absolutely no problem supporting a quality developer and publisher for a small investment, but I was expecting a least a little more significance in Entrenchment: the bases are nice and all, but they don’t radically improve or even change the basic gameplay. While none of the improvements are terrible (although the “quick start” game setting could be been more dramatic), it’s just not at the level I was expecting. This isn’t a must-have expansion, but fans of Sins of a Solar Empire will appreciate the new bases and other small tweaks.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II Review

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ.
The Good: Approachable but deep tactical gameplay, action-oriented multiplayer, cooperative campaign with RPG elements like upgrades and loot, emphasis on small numbers of troops, quick matches, accessible user interface
The Not So Good: Smaller battles and no buildings may irk fans of the original, recycled single player maps and objectives, few defensive structures (and small unit count) causes frequent and very annoying resource point flipping in multiplayer
What say you? Company of Heroes minus base building plus role-playing, not that there’s anything wrong with that: 8/8

The computer game sequel: money-generating beacon of hope! Add a couple of new features, a handful of maps, and call it a day. But, lo, what is this on the horizon? Dawn of War II! But, wait, Dawn of War II is not really much like Dawn of War at all? Where’s the base building? And what is all this role-playing garbage? What has Relic done with my real time strategy game? Made it better, that’s what.

After that disturbingly short opening paragraph, it’s time to talk about the looks and sounds of Dawn of War II. In short, it looks like what you would expect a top-notch strategy title to look like. The environments have nice otherworldly designs with a variety of settings (desert, a different kind of desert, and tropical swamp) and enough small objects scattered around each location for cover. While craters do not populate the areas where intense battles occurred, Dawn of War II does have plenty of weapon hits on the ground during battles with destructible buildings and plainly obvious portions of the map where super weapons were used. The character designs are well animated, brining the violent future setting of Warhammer 40,000 to life: the game looks like war. The weapon effects are equally impressive and distinctive for each race: the cacophony of bullets and lasers flying across the level is a sight to behold. You’ll probably miss out on a lot of the small details in the game because Dawn of War II, like most strategy games, is best played from a zoomed-out perspective. Still, the game looks great and runs smoothly enough. The sound design is slightly less impressive, however (although it’s still pretty good). The weapon effects are satisfyingly powerful and chaotic, coupling well with the aforementioned cacophony (sounds kind of dirty!). The voice acting is one area where the developers can really infuse some personality, and it’s just OK. While the Orks are by far the most distinctive race, with their funny quips that I find quite humorous, all of the races suffer from repetitive dialogue after a while and nothing truly memorable or different than what’s present in other Warhammer 40,000 games. The music is enjoyable and fits the setting but, like the dialogue, becomes repetitive after a while. Nonetheless, there are no major complaints about the graphics or the sound in Dawn of War II and the result is a satisfying presentation.

After you sit through the mandatory opening movies (the key is called “escape,” Relic), you’ll find that Dawn of War II comes in two flavors: the campaign and multiplayer. I’m not one for single player campaigns, but the one in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is pretty entertaining thanks to the inclusion of role-playing components. Of course, the first wrinkle is that it’s not technically a single player campaign, as you can play cooperatively with anyone, starting at whatever point of the campaign you are at. The space marine-only campaign takes place across three planets being invaded by the other three races in the game. You are given a number of storyline or optional missions at one time to complete, although for the first ten missions or so the game is strictly linear. The optional missions have a time limit, so you must decide which success bonuses are most worth your effort. Typically you will be attacking an objective, defending an objective, or killing some enemy boss. Failure is an option, but it may limit your choices for subsequent missions. Since you must also prevent the Tyranid invasion (*spoiler alert*…oh, wait, am I supposed to say that before the spoiler?), you can’t fail too many times before aliens start to eat your face. While there are a lot to choose from, the missions generally take place on the same maps with the same objectives and the same bosses; this feeling of monotony does become wearisome later on in the campaign, although the role-playing elements of the game certainly makes this more palatable.

You’ll be given a choice of four heroes with their squads for each mission; eventually, you’ll have a roster of six available groups, so you can choose which setup is most appropriate for your playing style. The available squads pretty much cover every aspect of infantry-based military operations: melee units, scouts, suppression, ranged, and a mix. Dawn of War II features a nice user interface that lists all of your squads along the right-hand side of the screen with a health indicator (and the icons light up red when being attacked) for easy access. Selected squads can also be switched between using the abilities panel in the bottom-right corner of the screen, which makes using special abilities easier as well. The decreased unit count in Dawn of War II makes micromanagement significantly easier, and the interface certainly helps to streamline this process. Since you will never produce additional units during the game, Dawn of War II is purely a tactical affair where unit positioning and using abilities matters the most. The game uses the cover system from Company of Heroes, where green dots indicate the most optimal cover available. It works well here, as it did in the original. You are given a range of special abilities, much like spells present in any role-playing game: healing, specialized weapons (like grenades or turrets), speed buffs, improved damage, and so on. Using these abilities at the right time can mean the difference between success and retreat. Commanders who die can be revived by another friendly commander, and the only time you fail the mission is when everyone dies simultaneously. This should never happen, though, as you can retreat to the nearest base at any time; unless you are completely surrounded, failure shouldn’t be a problem, although you can get “stuck” and be unable to successfully kill the enemy no matter how many times you reheal.

Dawn of War II features some very clear objectives, indicating important locations on the minimap and on the main screen; you are never in doubt of what the game wants you to do. Each map usually has more than one path to the main objective, with resource points for respawning along the way. You can also capture buildings to aid in future missions: for example, communications towers give you artillery strikes and foundries grant turrets. All of the missions are short (15 minutes), which is great and keeps the action constant. This short mission length (almost) makes up for the lack of mid-mission saves. Instead of mindlessly pumping out units as in most real-time strategy games, Dawn of War II values tactics, since you are given a limited number of units (granted, they can reheal an infinite amount of times if you can retreat them in time). Since leaders carry over from level to level, you need to order retreat, reheal, reorganize, and go kill some more. The difficulty strikes a nice balance between challenge and frustration, providing enough to keep you playing without overwhelming your skill level. The AI is not the best: enemies have scripted positions and don’t use special powers as well as you can. Dawn of War II uses the tried and true formula of “lots of enemies makes the game hard,” and any half-way decent strategy gamer will be able to dispose of the relatively simple-minded AI opponents. The campaign kept me interested enough that I wanted to keep playing, although once you get near the end of the campaign, the repetitive maps (there’s only about twelve total) start to wear you down. Better mission performance (in terms of damage caused and speed of completion) can result in experience bonuses and additional missions during the same business day, and that brings us to the role-playing aspects of the campaign.

Dawn of War II features a heavy dose of role-playing elements. Although there have been several strategy games that infuse role-playing elements, I don’t recall another game being as in-your-face about it as Dawn of War II. This is prominently on display between missions, where you outfit your troops in preparation for the next mission. Enemies drop loot: weapons, armor, accessories, items, and supplies. These can be switched out between missions to make for a more deadly force. As anyone who plays a role-playing game can attest, a lot of time can be spent simply switching out gear. Experience gained on the field of battle can also be used to increase your stats in four areas: health, ranged damage, melee damage, and energy (for spells/abilities). Reaching a certain level in each category unlocks a new trait. The strategy in this aspect of the game is to improve the squads in the appropriate areas and then use them accordingly during the game. Of course, this means you’ll be playing the missions the same ways using the same troops, based on your squad’s customized role, but the campaign is still very enjoyable and it maintained my interest much longer than most campaigns in strategy games do. The quick mission time and infusion of RPG elements makes the campaign at least somewhat different from more traditional strategy games.

If you are reading this review, then you probably got a chance to play the multiplayer beta for Dawn of War II (as I did), and it’s pretty much the same here (minus that absurd resource rate increase in the beta patch). And “pretty much the same” can be translated as “fun as all get out.” Dawn of War II focuses on the relatively-unique three-on-three multiplayer dynamic: I prefer this because it’s less discouraging than losing a head-on or two-on-two game, but you are still a significant part of the outcome. Unlike the campaign, multiplayer allows you to choose from any of the four races in the game: the traditional Space Marines, the Orks with a “k,” the energy-based Eldar, and the swarming Tyranids. They basically have the same units, although there are differences in the number per squad and the health and some subtle strategy changes as well. There are only two modes to choose from: annihilate (not recommended, since the headquarters take a while to defeat) and victory points (much better), where you must capture and hold three places on the map. Dawn of War II unfortunately uses Games for Windows Live!, which seems silly and extraneous since the game requires Steam in the first place. Matching does a poor job overall, pitting unbalanced teams against each other, and the server browser is very laggy and essentially garbage. There's nothing quite like waiting five minutes for an “ideal match” that pits level 2, level 2, and level 1 players against a level 10, level 8, and level 5; nice job balancing that one out...NOT. Games for Windows Live! needs to be stopped immediately. But at least you don’t have to run Rockstar Social Club too.

Before you begin your match, you get to choose a commander unit. Each race has one for melee attack, one for defense or support, and a specialized hero for that race: Space Marines heal, Orks have stealth, Eldar can teleport (Warp Spider FTW!), and Tyranids tunnel underground. The offensive commanders are far less interesting than the more specialized roles: deploying turrets and unpredictable unit movement has more of a strategic value than simply running head-on at the enemy. The rest of your units are pretty typical: assault, suppression, anti-tank, tanks, scouts, transports, and uber-powerful destroyers. These units are made by collecting the game’s two resources: requisition and power. These are all contained at specific places on the map, and the capture process takes about thirty seconds. You will not build any structures in the game, other than the occasional turret available to specific commanders. This is fine by me, as long as the rest of the game picks up the strategic slack (which I feel it does). The requisition and power nodes are change hands easily because of the lack of defenses. This can get quite annoying: because of the reduced unit count, you cannot hold every point on the map and things switch almost constantly. This does allow for comebacks and prevents turtling, but it does come with some disadvantages that might turn some gamers off. I think this could be fixed by allowing five units to capture a point faster than one (a mechanic employed by the Battlefield series, I seem to remember); races with cheap units (like the Tyranids) are at an advantage since they can just run around all game capping stuff.

Dawn of War II has the same conventions of cover and abilities used in the campaign, and because building structures has been removed (for the better), you must rely on proper positioning and use of powers in order to be successful. I found that the amount of micromanagement is actually pretty low, thanks to the interface and the reduced unit count. Troops will engage automatically, but there is no option to auto-cast abilities, so that part of the game must be done manually. Because there are few (typically a maximum of eight squads with four to five at one time) expensive units, you must retreat to your headquarters. Experience actually matters (instead of being just a tacked-on feature) as higher-level troops are more effective and you also spent all of those resources on per-unit upgrades. It helps, though, to do at least some killing, as global powers are available based on how many enemy units you have killed. These consist of commander-specific abilities (buffs, weapons) to large artillery strikes. As I stated when talking about the campaign, the fast pace is great. Why spend an hour playing a multiplayer game that should have taken fifteen minutes to decide a victor? Even with these shortened game times, you can still tell who is probably going to win in the first seven minutes of the game. The come-from-behind victories that were prevalent in the first version of the multiplayer beta seem to have subsided a bit (for better or for worse), but this might be due to having unbalanced teams (thanks again, Games for Windows Live!). Although multiplayer is obviously intended for human consumption, the skirmish AI should be evaluated: it’s OK. Hard and expert difficulty puts up a fight and uses the abilities well enough to serve as good training for actual competition.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is certainly different from Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War I (using the full titles makes my review appear to be longer), and as long as you are able to accept the infusion of role-playing conventions and removal of base building, as I was, then you’ll have a grand time controlling less but meaningful troops in short tactical games. The cooperative campaign really leans more towards being an action role-playing game than a traditional strategy game, with loot, upgrades, and party organization tools. There is still an amount of strategy involved in where to place your troops and when to use your abilities, but the repetitive maps and same objectives become grinding. The thing preventing the campaign from becoming tiresome is the character customization: choosing your specializations and gear highlights the same nerdy fiddling that makes role-playing games so darn popular. I found the emphasis on small numbers of units, in both the campaign and multiplayer portions of the game, to be quite welcome: using all of your abilities would be almost impossible with a larger number of units at your disposal, and I’m not a fan of micro-heavy strategy games anyway (part of the reason I never really got in to Dawn of War I). Multiplayer is as enjoyable as the single player campaign, putting action at the forefront with almost constant engagements and quick (15 minute) matches. I don’t miss the exclusion of buildings, except for some defensive structures to prevent the almost constant cycling of resource points. Sure, it removes something that can separate two teams, but the combination of cover, placement, troop composition, and abilities is more than enough to compensate for the inability to grow food. Dawn of War II also features an excellent user interface (something that doesn’t get enough credit), listing all of your units on the main screen with subtle health and damage indicators, and allowing for easy ability usage. This is not technically a sequel to Dawn of War I, but I definitely like the direction Relic has taken the game, making it more accessible and ultimately different from your run-of-the-mill real time strategy game.