Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Emotigeddon Review

Emotigeddon, developed and published by HeatBeam Software.
The Good: Numerous weapons, speed racing mode adds variety, plentiful checkpoints, fast pace
The Not So Good: Awkward controls, lacks difficulty options, no level editor
What say you? A fast-paced and chaotic side-scrolling action game that lacks tight controls and feature polish: 5/8

With all of the sadness that’s going on in the world, you sometimes just want to take all of those mean people and shoot them in the face. Coincidentally, here comes Emotigeddon, where you play a happy face and must shoot sad faces (in the face). You see, all of those sad emoticons people have been using have taken over Electopia (located adjacent to Hoboken) and it’s up to you to restore the balance by shooting them (in the face). And we all know that violence solves everything (in the face).

Emotigeddon has a very basic 2-D presentation. The levels are a series of caverns with drab, repetitive walls and static backgrounds. There is only so much you can do with a happy or sad face, and Emotigeddon obviously features some extremely repetitive enemies. The weapon effects can be decent (especially the plasma and lightning guns), but death only consists of a simple animation. The advantage of having such basic graphics is that the game runs well on even modest systems, and this supports the fast pace and high enemy count of Emotigeddon. The sound design is much like the graphics: some basic (though effective) samples for the weapons and other goings-on. The game lacks background music, something you don’t notice until it’s completely missing. Overall, Emotigeddon screams “indie game,” thanks to its simple 2-D graphics and minimal sound effects.

Emotigeddon features a 30-ish level campaign where you try and restore balance to a digital community in disorder. The game flows between each level in a chapter (four total, plus an introductory tutorial) with no load times and smooth transitions. Perfection is not required except at the end of a level: you can speed past most enemies without even engaging them. You do occasionally have to hit switches, move batteries, or push boxes along to unlock the next area, though, and other obstacles to progress include electric grids and turrets. Your character “grows” over time, although the upgrades are chosen for you and alternate between health, armor, and the swarm ability. You can earn faster upgrades by collecting cash (which makes fighting more enemies have a purpose). After you are finished with the main campaign, Emotigeddon has a speed racing mode where you must reach the end of a level quickly. You may also be required to push a couple of boxes along the way in order to increase the difficulty. This part of the game feels very much like SpringWorld Challenge (this is meant as a complimentary comparison) and it is a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, Emotigeddon lacks a level editor; while the levels are in XML, so you could theoretically hand-edit them, I would not suggest it. Still, I think Emotigeddon features a decent amount of content for the $13 price tag.

In order to deal with all of the sadness in the world, you are given an assortment of weapons. While your arsenal is fairly typical for your generic first person shooter, having them in a side-scrolling action game is a nice feature. In fact, the weapons are almost an exact carbon copy of those featured in Unreal Tournament: pistol, plasma gun, shotgun (my personal favorite), chaingun (for mindless shooting), grenade launcher (useless against airborne enemies), rocket launcher, railgun, and lightning gun. While originality is certainly not present, this is above what is typically found in this genre. You are given a grappling hook to launch yourself towards walls and ceilings, but it deploys so slowly and you can move in all four directions anyway that its use is suspect. About the only unique “weapon” (if you can call it that) is the swarm: you can call in allies to absorb damage (and cause a small amount themselves) for fifteen seconds every twenty-five seconds (to avoid spamming). The swarm is something you’ll want to make almost constant use of in order to survive your time with Emotigeddon.

Emotigeddon resorts to using item pickups for additional ammunition, health, and armor. These icons are easy to identify and regenerate very quickly, bordering on being cheap. It’s actually a good thing that they regenerate so quickly, though, as the level of difficulty in the game is quite high. You can also acquire quad damage and invincibility (hello, Quake) to more easily defeat your foes. I would like there to be an option to adjust the respawn rates, but there is none. Controlling your character in the game takes some skill, as you use the mouse to aim independently of your character’s movement (using the WASD keys). There is a learning curve associated with effectively moving and shooting, and the fact that Emotigeddon is best played at high speeds doesn’t help. It should be easier to move and shoot simultaneously. Other than the controls themselves, the plentiful enemies make Emotigeddon quite a challenging experience. They are equipped with the same weapons you are (although only one of them), in addition to offering up suicide bombers, respawning enemies, and bacteria. Individually, the enemies are not tough and exhibit only the very basic AI, but in groups they are quite the formidable opponent. This is where a difficulty setting would come in handy, but Emotigeddon lacks this important option. You cannot have a game that lacks difficulty settings: there are too many varied skill levels to simply assume where people will stand. Adding in an easier difficulty level would be as simple as granting more health and/or armor, but Emotigeddon does not have this option.

Emotigeddon is another one of those independent games that has a unique take on the genre (thanks to the setting and pace), but trips up in several areas. First, the good news: lots of weapons and a face pace makes Emotigeddon pleasingly hectic. While the campaign isn’t terribly long, the speed racing mode adds variety by placing the emphasis on movement rather than violence. Of course, this would be better is the controls in Emotigeddon were more intuitive; I just could not get a handle on aiming with the mouse and moving using the keyboard to move independently in two dimensions. This becomes an issue since the difficulty of the game is on the high end (caused by copious amounts of enemy units in small spaces) and cannot be adjusted. Maybe you will have an easier time moving your happy face around, but I found the initial learning curve for the controls to be steep. Add in the lack of a level editor and we have a mildly entertaining product that could use several subtle improvements to better the gaming experience. The game is action-packed to be sure, but the inherent difficulty, both in the control scheme and in the level design, will dissuade some potential gamers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Demigod Review

Demigod, developed by Gas Powered Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: User-friendly action-packed gameplay, multiple upgrades paths and cool powers for each demigod beget varied strategies, customizable game settings with several game modes, digestible game lengths, impressive graphics
The Not So Good: No tutorial, no story-driven campaign, only eight maps and demigods, temporary connection issues
What say you? A highly enjoyable multiplayer action strategy game with heavy role-playing elements: 8/8

Where has all the base building gone? It used to be that you knew what to expect in the real time strategy genre: gather resources, construct a base, raise an army, and pwn the enemy. Now with games such as World in Conflict and Dawn of War II, you skip straight to the killing. This more efficient approach certainly has time-related benefits (none of this hour-long-game garbage), but you are removing part of the strategic pie that must be compensated for elsewhere. Enter Demigod, which hopes to fill that void with role-playing elements, namely character upgrades and shiny gear. I like shiny things (they are pretty…and shiny).

Demigod is visually remarkable. As people in several PC gaming forums have mentioned, the screenshots are almost enough to make you buy the game based on looks alone. The eight demigods are varied in their appearances and have detailed textures with fluid animations. The eight maps are also varied in their appearances with spectacular backgrounds to accompany their distinctive architectural style. Weapons effects and spells are presented well, although the game can devolve into a mass of humanity (or whatever the creatures are) during large skirmishes. This is a very distinctive game in terms of appearance: one look and you know that’s Demigod. Despite the high-quality nature of the graphics, modest computer systems can still run the game at “low” settings and experience a lot of the visual excellence. This is a step up from the high system requirements of Supreme Commander. The sound is less well off: despite a nice orchestral musical score and satisfactory battle effects, the occasionally humorous voice acting is repetitive and uninspired. Not Men of War bad, mind you, but I grew tired of the voice acting after ten minutes in the game. I have had some issues with the sound: I actually had to turn my sound settings down (through Control Panel rather than in the game) to stereo headphones to get the game to function properly, which is not a big deal since I use headphones anyway. Apparently the on-board sound card I use (a RealTek AC 97) doesn’t like Demigod so much (or vice versa). Still, this was a minor inconvenience in what is otherwise a visual treat.

Demigod is meant to be a multiplayer game, but you can play against the AI in offline skirmish modes or a tournament (a series of four-on-four matches in a competition for favor points). Like Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod lacks a story-driven campaign that could have been quite neat, introducing each of the game’s eight demigods and serving as a tutorial to each ability (I smell expansion pack). There are extensive tool-tips, but it’s hard to process all of the information while playing. It takes about two or three games to get a handle on each demigod since the manual does not give any information on their powers and abilities (it would have been nice for the poster that came with the Collector’s Edition to provide this information). Demigod is not complicated compared to pretty much any strategy game, but you still need to teach the game in an interactive sense, especially if you are trying to sell your game to novices. Demigod features four game types, centering on the destruction of your opponent’s citadel (the only goal in conquest mode). In addition, you can have alternative victory conditions: dominate lets you win by holding flags, slaughter lets you kill other demigods, and fortress allows for just eliminating fortresses. The strategy is still the same in every mode, so the additional victory conditions don’t change the gameplay much other than generally making games shorter. The game gives you a wide range of options to tweak settings, as long as you are playing a custom game online or against the AI: fog of war, flag capture times, favor items use, gold income, defense strength, and more can be changed to produce longer or shorter contests or ones with a different focus. Online options include automatically matches skirmish games, custom games, or the online pantheon tournament that pits the forces of light against the forces of darkness with persistent stats. If there aren’t enough players to fully populate a map, AI players will inhabit the extra slots. It’s odd that, considering all of the game options available for custom games (both single and multiplayer), that you are not allowed to disable AI players for skirmish and pantheon games. Of course, if you did that, you might be waiting for a while for a game to start. Then again, there are plenty of custom games with more than two human players.

There’s been some complaining by inferior review sites about the matchmaking in Demigod, and a week or so after release, it has been improved. While finding players in skirmish and pantheon games is usually no problem, trying to get a custom game going is more difficult because of the increased numbers of players involved. Demigod features a peer-to-peer system that takes a while (a minute, usually) to initially connect to everyone, but once (or if) you do, the latency is halved (since you are directly connected to everyone, instead of having to pass through a host first), producing a smoother gaming experience. In theory, anyway: I have still experienced a noticeable amount of constant lag when playing a majority of online games, on top of the occasional disconnect. A common problem is all of the other players dropping before the game loads, producing a contest against all AI players: not the kind of multiplayer experience I was expecting. People manually joining and dropping from custom games (and the auto-match modes) may explain this and it can really make for some headaches. I don't think peer-to-peer is a great system to use for a game such as this, considering the wide range of routers, firewalls, and quality of bandwidth around the globe. It is a lot easier to use Impulse’s game browser: information on game status (waiting for players, starting, full) and password protection is missing in the woefully inadequate browser inside Demigod. The matchmaking system does work much better in skirmish and pantheon tournaments than in custom games, with wait times usually less than a minute at peak times, but then you are playing with and against AI players on a random map with standard rules and an unknown objective. It's luck of the draw whether you are matched with players overseas, and if you are, you can expect some connection issues until the development team straightens out the problems with the addition of additional servers.

Demigod contains eight (with plans to add at least two more for free in future patches) demigods, each with their own special abilities and attributes. They are divided into two groups: assassins that play more like a role-playing character and generals that control subordinate units (like in a real-time strategy game). You only control your one demigod and their minions if you are a general, as other troops on the field of battle are completely automated. While this sounds quite limiting, it actually works quite well and since the reinforcements follow a set path, their behavior can be predicted and taken advantage of. Plus, this automation cuts down significantly on micromanagement, and I know I would have just box-selected everyone and attacked a single target anyway. Demigods are given the usual RPG attributes: hit points, mana, armor, damage, attack speed, movement, range. These can be upgraded over time by spending experience points or by purchasing new clothing using the gold earned from killing things. Demigods can also attain new talents through the skill tree by selecting one upgrade every time they level up. Upgrade trees are nicely varied between the characters but still intuitive to use, as new skills are able to be unlocked at set experience levels. Despite only featuring eight characters, Demigod features a pleasant assortment of roles: melee, ranged, slow moving but powerful, battle mage, healer, spells, and an undead army. Some of the spells are quite impressive in their destruction, and coordinating with other and complimenting each other’s skill sets is the path to victory. There’s no demigod that is useless or underpowered if used correctly. Death carries a time penalty before respawning and gold awarded to the enemy, so it should be avoided by using health potions or a teleportation scroll.

There are only eight maps (again, with plans to add more later), but thankfully they are well designed. There are usually multiple paths to the enemy base, each with their own benefits. Maps can handle two-on-two up to five-on-five matches, with about two maps per battle size. There are a number of objects along the way to the enemy citadel (the object of your destruction). First, at your base you have your own citadel where you can spend gold to upgrade buildings and reinforcements and the item shop to purchase items. Towers are located on each half of the map to serve as a deterrent early in the game: they are a formidable opponent until about level 10. Flags scattered around the map give a range of extras, from controlling neutral structures (that can spawn more reinforcements or sell expensive but powerful items) to mana, experience, hit point, and reinforcement bonuses. Gold earned by killing enemies and controlling mines (tied to flags) can be spent a number of ways. Citadel improvements include better building heath and more powerful reinforcements; creeps can become quite a problem if improved. Items and artifacts are divided up into groups according to their use: potions, armor, helmets (for mana), shoes (for speed), gloves (for attacks), rings, and minions for generals. There are a lot of items to choose from and it’s overwhelming at first; I would like a filter to show all items that grant specific bonuses, such as mana and attack speed. In an unrealistic twist, Demigod allows you to equip more than one item of the same type (up to the five-item limit), so you can trot around the map sporting five gloves. You also get three slots of potions and scrolls and one slot for a favor item, purchased with points earned in previous games.

The much celebrated strategic zoom from Supreme Commander makes a return in Demigod, although it’s much less useful here (especially since the minimap is much more helpful in gauging what exactly is going on). Since you are only controlling one character (and his or her minions), activating spells and using items is quite straightforward, either with the mouse or keyboard. Demigod features easy access to all of your equipment and lots of tool-tips to help with on-the-fly questions (of which there will be initially very many). Strategy veterans will want to play against the “hard” AI where they are on even terms with you, and generally the AI plays well. There are instances of indecisive movement that results in their death, but the AI does a good job using abilities at the right time and purchasing upgrades. They are obviously not as good as human competition, but they are a fine substitute. Games in Demigod are fast affairs with action from the first twenty seconds onward. That’s not to say that games are overwhelming, they are just paced well to keep the gameplay interesting: an entire game takes around 20-30 minutes. The strategy of Demigod involves choosing and using your upgrades to counter others and promote your demigod’s advantages. Since you only have four spells (more if your demigod has different modes), on-the-field tactics is less important than correctly using your spells and coordinating with others: Demigod plays more like an action RPG than a classic strategy game in this sense. The game allows for multiple strategies, even with the same demigod. There is always more than one way to upgrade a single character, taking advantage of each demigod’s skill set. For example, the vampire Lord Erebus can be skilled at draining health for his own use, command a large army of fallen soldiers, or stun enemies while sending their health to allies. Or all of the above, if you desire. Thus, the same demigod can be played completely different ways depending on your desired strategy. You can also choose upgrades and items on the fly to counter enemy strategies. It’s difficult for new players to do this since the upgrades are made in real time, though (this is where the lack of a tutorial is missed). Demigod features a lot of back and forth with almost constant action. You are never defeated in the first five minutes if you happen to lose your first encounter with enemy forces. In fact, I’ve had games that have swung dramatically between the two sides as demigods died and waited to respawn. The map design is fantastic, eliminating the control point bouncing seen in Dawn of War II and offering all straight-forward action. Demigod is easier to handle for beginners since you only have to worry about a handful of units (or only one if you choose an assassin), yet deep enough to use a multitude of strategies for each character. Despite only controlling a single unit, the action is intense and the game is a great marriage of role-playing and strategy.

Demigod is a wonderful mixture of constant action, strategy, and role-playing. The game is approachable yet provides strategic depth thanks to the numerous upgrades and equipment you can outfit your character with. The eight demigods offer an option (or three) for every play style: melee, support, ranged, magic, or army commander. In addition, each individual demigod can be developed down several paths, further extending the strategic variety; they are well designed and distinct in their approach. The game’s outstanding, yet well performing, graphics don’t hurt the overall product: the chaos of battle is beautifully illustrated. Games are quick and don’t feature stalemates, and the numerous customization options let you tweak the rules as you would like. There are still some hiccups regarding multiplayer lag and the proliferation of AI opponents in online games, but I am fairly confident that, given Stardock’s track record, that these issues will be solved in due time. Demigod will inevitably get compared with another action strategy game, Dawn of War II, mainly because I am going to compare them now. I like both games a lot, as they both offer up quick, action-packed gaming, but still reserve the place for strategy. Whereas Dawn of War II puts more of the strategy in troop placement, Demigod injects its strategic element in building your character, so it depends on whether you prefer tactical gaming or role-playing as to which game is “better.” Of course, you could (and probably should) just end up playing both and make everyone happy. Despite the lack of a tutorial and dearth of out-of-game documentation of demigod abilities, the learning curve of Demigod only takes a couple of games to learn a new character, and that’s the point of the single player game since it lacks a story-driven mode. We could use more maps, although the ones that are included are very well designed and keep the action moving forward (unlike the aforementioned Dawn of War II, where troops can be scattered across the large maps). Still, all of the issues with Demigod are quite minor when compared against the awesomeness of the entertaining gameplay contained herein: this is how you make an accessible game that combines genres effectively.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Death Track: Resurrection Review

Death Track: Resurrection, developed by SkyFallen Entertainment and published by 1C Company and Aspyr Media on GameAgent.
The Good: Action packed racing, multiple game options and rules, almost intelligent auto-targeting, capable AI drivers, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, limited strategic options with abbreviated arsenal, defensive weapons stink, normal races are about a minute too long
What say you? This shoot-em-up racing game delivers mostly solid arcade action at a budget price: 6/8

In the future, criminals will drive weapon-enhanced vehicles to fight for freedom. And by “criminals” I mean Jason Statham (he's in everything). Despite the seemingly obvious rip-off factor, Death Track: Resurrection is actually a remake of a game from 1989, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and when has it ever lead us wrong?). I like cars, and I like shooting things (just ask my lawyer), so combining the two must be pure brilliance. Another thing Death Track: Resurrection has going for it is its Eastern European heritage, as 1C has a notoriety for delivering some very solid games. Enough of my link-heavy introduction: let's get on with the killing!

Don't let the price tag fool you: Death Track: Resurrection delivers some very nice visuals. The game compares favorably with any visuals-heavy racing game: very detailed cities with plenty of track-side objects, pleasing weapons, momentous explosions, and . I would like the car damage to be more fragmented: cars explode into a charred fraction of their former selves, but even more flying parts could be possible. Weather can also be a factor, and snow and rain are pleasing effects. Performance is acceptable, although I did experience some slow-downs starting with the snow-induced Moscow map; I disabled a lot of the more advanced options and experienced smooth but still striking visuals afterwards. The sound design, like a lot of foreign games, lags behind the visuals in terms of quality. The cars and weapons are fine enough if a bit repetitive. You can tell this is a Russian-first game, as the audio for the movies are not synced, but since I skip all of the cut-scenes anyway, I don't find this to be a bother. The voice acting (consisting of quips from other drivers) becomes quite annoying very quickly, especially the stereotypical Asian guy (yes, I know I ran into a wall...leave me alone!). The music selection I find to be very appropriate for the game: heavy metal to keep you PUMPED for the intense driving. While the audio isn't the best, the graphics of Death Track: Resurrection do not disappoint.

Death Track: Resurrection features death on tracks (with a dash of resurrection). Your primary mission, like all racing games, is to finish first, although Death Track: Resurrection features guns to help you overcome your opposition. Most of the game is unlocked in the scenario mode that follows a Death Track season as it travels to ten cities around the world. There are cut-scenes between each race that explain the off-track story (and why there is one less car each race), but they are easily skipped with a simple press of the “escape” key. Each of the cities have one defining factor (Moscow has snow, Tokyo has neon lights, San Diego is apparently a jungle) that makes their specific setting stand out, although none of the tracks are especially memorable. There are other game modes beyond the ten-race season. Tournaments take place on each of the game’s three continents, featuring each city on said continent; this mode isn’t terribly different from the scenario mode. The challenge mode adds in varied, interesting objectives that must be completed in addition to finishing strong. There is a large variety of things to accomplish that makes this aspect of Death Track: Resurrection intriguing, from blowing up a specific number of cars on one lap to collecting bonuses and using power-ups. The additional objectives make the racing much more interesting than simply passing everyone. Lastly, you can participate in drag races, short events that take place on a mostly linear track (although u-turns are common) with high speeds and weapons enabled. The drag races are another nice distraction that, while not as appealing as the challenge mode, do offer something different. You can also customize the rules of each race: modern, classic (no respawns and no bonuses), rally (no weapons), or a custom setting. Races have a different approach when certain aspects of the game are disabled, so offering these options is certainly a nice feature. For a game that would be perfect for a multiplayer competitive setting, it is quite surprising that Death Track: Resurrection lacks any sort of multiplayer, either online or on the same computer. Despite the disappointing lack of multiplayer, the numerous game modes and options make Death Track: Resurrection a feature-filled racing game, especially for a budget price tag.

The controls of Death Track: Resurrection are a bit more sophisticated than your typical racing game because of the addition of weapons. Putting every single control on a gamepad is an impossible task, and since I like to use my analogue gamepad for steering (who uses the keyboard?), you’ll have to rely on some automation by the computer. This will probably come in the form of targeting, and generally the game does a good job choosing appropriate victims for you. It does have the tendency to focus on buildings over cars (even if you have the setting to prefer cars on), but having the game worry about who to target lets you focus on driving and shooting. The on-screen HUD does a decent job delivering useful information to you, such as health and ammunition levels. The driving in Death Track: Resurrection is certainly on the “arcade” side of things, and I have absolutely no problem with that: the fast speeds and high grip goes well with the overall pace and intense nature of the racing.

The weapons aren’t as varied or as effective as I would have liked. You get a primary weapon (machine gun, laser, or plasma gun), a secondary weapon (rockets or a terminator that disables control for a short period of time), and one in the rear (mines and spikes). There is really no difference between all of the primary weapons and there is certainly no strategy involved in choosing which weapons to fire: just hold down the button and let ‘er rip. Defensive weapons are also ineffective, putting the car in front at a great disadvantage, since you can’t aim either of your weapons backwards, it’s better to let a car pass you so that you can blow them up. This becomes more of an issue in the “classic” mode where respawning is disabled, resulting in some very conservative racing where you don’t want to be directly ahead of someone. This is no Unreal Tournament in terms of depth and range of your arsenal. For a game that emphasizes vehicular combat, the weapon selection and strategy is below par.

Strategy is involved when you talk about the on-track pick-ups and bonuses. These icons usually move around the track, requiring some skill to collect them. You can gain temporary boosts in armor, speed, ammunition, damage, or points, and this can mean the difference between life and death. Speaking of points, you can earn cash for blowing up other cars or performing tasks like high speeds or not hitting anything. Money is then used between races to upgrade your car (or purchase a new one, although they are quite expensive); upgrades range from engine and armor improvements to more effective weapons. Money is earned in any of the game’s modes, so you can switch to another type if the difficulty is insurmountable. Once you get enough upgrades, it’s pretty easy to win on medium difficulty and plow through the competition. The AI drivers put up a good fight, though, although they seem to have slightly less health and worse weapons than the human player. The game can be difficult because the AI cars tend to race in packs, so you can quickly go from 1st to 5th in a matter of seconds. Still, I feel that Death Track: Resurrection strikes a good balance in terms of difficulty.

Death Track: Resurrection accomplishes what it set out to do: provide fast-paced, intense racing...with guns. The game is mindless fun, but fun nonetheless. The varied game modes and rules options are nice but all center on racing; however, the objectives-based challenge mode introduces some advanced goals beyond simply killing the competition. The graphics are also quite nice to look at, comparing favorably with any other recent racing game. The controls are more complicated than your typical racing game or your typical first person shooter, as it must combine the elements of both. Mapping all of the appropriate keys to a gamepad will always leave something unbound, but driving with the keyboard just feels wrong. None of the tracks are terribly difficult to drive, offering up only the occasional instance of actually having to use the brakes or pay attention to where you are going. I think that's the goal, actually: the cities are meant to be more of a playground than a test of skill. More precise driving is awarded with pickups, so there is at least some incentive to varying your racing line. The challenge comes from dealing with all of the AI drivers shooting things at you constantly. The offensive weaponry is pleasing, although it's limited in scope: is there really a difference between a machine gun and a laser? Defensively is where Death Track: Resurrection disappoints: both mines and spikes are woefully inadequate, and violently dealing with pesky drivers behind you is essentially an impossibility. Death Track: Resurrection also lacks multiplayer, but the shortcomings are not noticed as you race around San Diego blowing up skyscrapers. The game might have limited replay value due to the lack of online competition, but there are enough game modes to keep arcade racers busy for a while, at least long enough to justify the budget-level price tag. Death Track: Resurrection is a fine update to the series that delivers exactly what you would expect.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Star Grand Prix Review

New Star Grand Prix, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Intense arcade racing, all current F1 tracks and (slightly renamed) drivers, challenging but well adjusted difficulty, track editor
The Not So Good: Second-rate career mode with less management options, lacks multiplayer, tight racing requires precision driving
What say you? Although the career mode has been simplified, the enjoyable racing makes up for it: 6/8

What is that high-pitched scream on the horizon? Why, it’s the sound of the new F1 season! That, or the French are at it again. The world's most popular racing series has about the same amount of interest here in the U.S. As the world's most popular sport: close to none. But I still harbor at least a marginal interest in F1 racing and it's action-packed mix of single-line racing and the occasional pass. Yes, it's really “soccer” on the race track. Because it is a very popular series, numerous games have been developed that center around F1 racing, although they almost always tend to be simulations aiming for realism. The developer behind New Star Soccer has adapted the career management aspects of that title and arcade racing on the F1 tracks of the world and produced the aptly-named New Star Grand Prix. Will this game make the podium, or suffer from mechanical failures?

New Star Grand Prix chooses to use a 2-D overhead perspective for its game, and it works well if you can adjust to it. Transitioning from playing many racing games from inside the cockpit to New Star Grand Prix takes some time and I do end up crashing when turning the wrong way (since the car rotates but not the background), but it's nothing that's completely terrible and it's certainly tolerable. The tracks aren't photorealistic by any means, but they do contain a good assortment of track-side objects (boats in Monaco, for example) and look similar enough to their real-life counterparts. The cars are easily identifiable by the paint schemes (if you know that sort of thing) despite being quite small. Damage results in a gradually thicker smoke trail following your vehicle; wrecks never involve flying parts of any type of advanced modeling, although the cars are too small to notice. New Star Grand Prix is best played in a window, especially since the game lacks my prized 1280x1024 screen resolution option. As for the sound design, New Star Grand Prix features distinct F1 engine sounds that work well unless you are near top-speed, as it tops out and starts to shift again. The crashing sound is repetitive but pleasingly dangerous, and your crew chief (which I suspect is the game developer) notifies you of lap times and low fuel and he is helpful enough. The rain sound effect, however, is entirely too loud and dominates the game during inclement weather. The music is good enough, although it's not necessarily “race-y.” Overall, New Star Grand Prix delivers exactly what you would expect for a 2-D racing game.

New Star Grand Prix centers around the career mode, where you lead a driver (most likely yourself, as the registration key for the game is tied to your character’s name) over ten years of the F1 racing series. The game features all of the tracks that are currently featured in the series, in addition to slightly-renamed drivers in order to avoid getting sued. It’s easy to correct the names or simply download the real drivers. Unlike New Star Soccer, only features the F1 series, not allowing you to “grow” over time and work your way up to the top series. Adding in subordinate series, even if the races take place at the same tracks, would reduce the repetition of going against the same roster of drivers week after week for ten years straight. When you create a new career, you’ll have to choose one of the current teams (and replace a real driver); teams are rated according to handling, acceleration, and top speed. Ratings change ever so slightly over time according to season results, but there are no options to start a new team or work your way up the ranks. If the 17 tracks that come with New Star Grand Prix aren’t enough, you can always use the track editor to extend the action even further. The editor is not nearly as straightforward as the one offered in Roadclub, but the option is there for those who want to pursue it. While New Star Grand Prix does offer an online time leaderboard where you can upload your fastest laps at each track, there is no multiplayer either online or on the same computer: a detriment for a racing title. New Star Grand Prix will automatically save your progress, whether you want it to or not.

In addition to actually driving the car (more on that later), you’ll have to maintain relationships with four groups: your boss, pit crew, the fans, and friends. Posting fast laps and good finishes will impress your boss, who might promote you to #1 driver status and earn more cash. Expectations are adjusted based on the team you are driving for. A happy pit crew will complete pit stops faster, and they are disappointed by high amounts of damage. Fans like good results and provide sponsorship, and your friends will affect your reaction time at the beginning of the race (as an abstraction of focus, I suppose) and can be influenced by random events. You can also take your pit crew or friends to the casino and play the same games that were present in New Star Soccer (black jack, roulette, slot machine). Money earned for race results can be used to purchase cars and property; there is no benefit to this, although you can purchase cars for your friends and then race against them for fun. I was disappointed with the relationship and career options in New Star Grand Prix, especially after playing with the robust options present in New Star Soccer. Having only one series and only one outside-of-racing activity produces a lot of repetition, and makes the career and relationship options tedious instead of enjoyable. Fans react harshly to poor finishes, even if you are still high in points, and the overall career experience is disappointing.

Luckily, the racing in New Star Grand Prix fares much better than the career options. While the game does not handle two joysticks plugged in at the same time, an analogue gamepad is preferred for more precise turning. The game handles just like any other racing title, so racing is intuitive once you get past the initial learning curve associated with the top-down perspective (I still occasionally turn the wrong direction when driving “down” the screen). The key to turning good laps in New Star Grand Prix is to never, ever go off the track, as you will be significantly slowed. The game features changing weather, so pit strategy to put on wet tires is a common occurrence. Your car behaves poorly on dry tires after a couple of laps in the rain, although running on wet tires under dry conditions has less of a noticeable effect. I’ve been tricked on numerous occasions trying to stay ahead of the weather, only to have the conditions quickly switch back. During a pit stop, you are given options to fuel and change your tires, although the game does not indicate how many laps a given amount of fuel is good for. The default race length of ten laps usually involves at least one pit stop with additional ones for inclement weather. Cars are thankfully ghosted while in the pits, eliminating collisions with reckless AI drivers. Tire wear does matter in the game, as fresh rubber performs much better.

New Star Grand Prix features a forgiving damage model, where you can actually mix it up a bit with the AI drivers, unlike the boring real F1 where one scratch means that you are done for the race. New Star Grand Prix features some very competitive AI that put up a good fight, using the preferred line and providing satisfying opposition. You are almost always racing someone in the game, keeping the intensity level high. The AI drivers are far from perfect, however: while during qualifying the AI will occasionally run off-track, during the races they are far too robotic, sticking to the preferred line and not moving even if you are beside them. This stiffness leads to a lot of on-track incidents, so it’s a good thing the damage model is not as severe as in real life. The AI is also too evenly matched amongst themselves, as the difference between 1st and 8th can be only two seconds: this isn’t NASCAR! It would be better (and less stressful) if the cars were more spread out during the race. As a result, New Star Grand Prix is one of the more stressful racing games I’ve played, featuring narrow tracks and robotic AI that is more than happy to run into you if you attempt to use the racing line while passing them. This inflexibility does lead to less passing (as in the real series), but also less exciting racing.

New Star Grand Prix generally does a good job adapting the finer aspects of New Star Soccer to F1-style arcade racing. If the top-down perspective isn't enough to hamper your enjoyment, then you'll find close, intense racing (much more so than the real-life series). The tracks are all very narrow and passing opportunities are few (as is the case in the realm of reality), but the damage model is forgiving enough that you can beat and bang at least a little bit to make a pass. The AI drivers are much better during qualifying, as they will exhibit human-like imperfections, and drive much more like robots in races, rarely getting out of your way or deviating from the programmed racing line even if you are directly beside them. New Star Grand Prix immerses you into the current F1 season by providing all of the current track layouts and drivers, although you will have to rename them for total authenticity. If the included tracks are not enough, then you can always make your own, although the editor is much less intuitive than the competition. New Star Grand Prix surprisingly eliminates the variety of the career mode exhibited by its predessesor, giving you one off-track option (the casino) to improve relationships. This shortcoming isn't that big of a deal since the racing is enjoyable, though. The graphics, though small, are detailed enough to differentiate between teams and allow for an educated guess on the location based off of looks alone. The continued lack of multiplayer is a detriment for a racing game, but the AI drivers offer up enough of a competent challenge. In all, the transition to motorsport has gone smoothly and fans of top-down racing games will find competitive racing with some career management options.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Caster Review

Caster, developed and published by Elecorn.
The Good: Varied spells that are fun to use, deformable terrain, customizable upgrades, non-linear campaign with some objective variety, dying only affects upgrade potential, very inexpensive
The Not So Good: Indie production values, basic AI opponents, iffy camera control, two hours long
What say you? Well-executed gameplay makes this a notable action game: 6/8

Did you ever have a great idea for a game but nobody bothered to make it? Jerks! I know my dreams of a realistic door-to-door-salesman simulation have gone unfulfilled. Well, some people take the bulls by their collective horns and do it themselves, and that's the case with Caster. In this action game, you control a character that would fit right in to Naruto (believe it!), fighting off crazy looking aliens bent on your destruction. Luckily, you have crazy looking spells to even out the battles. Does Caster make itself unique?

Caster certainly looks like an independent game, featuring basic 3-D graphics. The highlight of the game is the deformable terrain that responds to the various weapons your character can wield, but the bland textures used in each environment look, well, bland. The environments themselves are usually devoid of any objects other than the terrain itself (save for the occasional tree), making the world of Caster feel less like a plausible fantasy setting. Some of the enemy models look great, but, again, the textures used on them could use some work. There are some nice weapon effects and explosions, though they are repetitive and enemy damage is indicated with a red glow rather than showing actual limbs flying off (as an example). The camera controls make it difficult to tell who is shooting at you; it would have been better to have a more permanent camera setting or one from a further perspective in this third-person game. The sound design is also very basic, with typical effects for each weapon and OK background music. While none of the graphics and sound of Caster are overwhelming in quality, they do suffice despite their basic nature.

Caster features a non-linear (you can choose between two to four levels, up until the end of the game) campaign of fifteen levels that takes about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete; you can extend the game by hunting down each and every enemy in each and every level, but it's not necessary to beat most of the levels. This is a fair amount of content for the low price ($5) of the game: that’s a third of the length of Wanted for a tenth of the price (and much less repetition). The levels have a variety of objectives: while you will have to kill every enemy on occasion, you might just have to collect orbs or get to a tree (a magical tree, naturally). Difficulty ramps up as you progress, offering more advanced (meaning they cause more damage) enemies. To balance this, each of the game's six weapons are gradually introduced over time. While the second-to-last level is a good amount of chaotic fun, the last level is just a confusing mess. There is no mid-mission saving, but missions are short (2-5 minutes) so this is never an issue. Caster lacks multiplayer, which would have been an interesting feature considering the game's terrain deformation.

Other than obviously being able to move, the main character can super jump (by pressing jump while jumping) and dash (by pressing move while moving). The meat of the game involves the six spells you can attack your enemies with. You get a basic blaster, seeking missiles, stuns, a shield, and terrain altering spells (both add and remove land). The orbiting shield is far and away the best weapon: holding down the left mouse button charges up a shield and releasing it shoots a slow-moving bomb. A viable strategy I found is to just spam this weapon: use your shield while being shot at, release it when the opportunity arises, and immediately charge it back up again. A fully-upgraded orbit weapon is a force to be reckoned with. The rest of the weapons are quite conventional and while they have their use (missiles and stuns for fast moving or high numbers of enemies), once you go “orbit” you'll never go back. Speaking of upgrades, you can increase the effectiveness of your weapons in addition to your health, jump, and dash abilities. This gives you incentive to fully complete each level, as points awarded for disposing of foes

Caster can be a difficult game (I died many, many times) because it's one-against-all and the later enemies are quite powerful and difficult to deal with. You thankfully don't have to restart the level when (not if, when) you die: it resets your score and that means less potential upgrades. I like this system, as it prevents Caster from being a frustrating experience if you die frequently. The varied objectives means that you don’t have to kill everyone to beat a level, but it helps your score and subsequently your upgrades. Respawning is a bit questionable, though: since you resume the game in the same exact spot you died, you can get stuck in a “death cycle.” If you died in the acid, why would the game respawn you there? The enemy AI you will be dealing with is very basic, featuring basic patters from “move towards you” to “fly around you.” This actually works in your favor, as you can trick them into going through lava that you can create using your deformation spells…heh heh heh. The gameplay in Caster is fast-paced and full of action, and combining your different spells to dispose of the enemy horde is quite an enjoyable experience. During Caster's short length (perhaps because of it), interest is kept high during your journey, as unique enemies and new spells are introduced in essentially every level. The varied spells, unique enemies, and terrain deformation options makes for a distinct gaming experience.

You can't ask for much more for $4.99 (it’s cheaper than a foot-long!). Sure, it's only a couple of hours long, but it's an enjoyable two hours. Caster takes two unique elements, terrain deformation and the game's specific spells, and combines them into an effective action game. The memorable alien enemies, from small bugs to giant ant-looking-things, provide a good challenge for the aspiring mage (that would be you). The level of difficult never becomes annoying, however, as dying simply resets your score instead of the entire level, and finishing a map is merely a matter of persistence, no matter how inept you might be. Aiming for perfection has its rewards, however, as you will then have more cash to spend on upgrades in preparation for the final battle. The presentation is certainly indie-level, but the game does have some distinct visuals (notably the enemy models) that would be improved with better textures. The game's fifteen levels are over far too quickly, but the developer has stated that you'll get all future content included for free (whatever that may entail). Caster is a game with distinctly more advantages than pitfalls and provides a couple of hours of good blasting fun.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Wanted: Weapons of Fate Review

Wanted: Weapons of Fate, developed by GRIN and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Fun and intuitive cover system, neat special abilities, frequent checkpoints
The Not So Good: Very repetitive combat with linear levels and drone AI, porting issues, lacks multiplayer
What say you? Curving bullets, slowing time, and using cover is enjoyable…for an hour or two: 5/8

Ah, the computer game-movie tie-in: bastion of sucking every last penny out of a franchise. These tie-ins are usually craptacular (especially ones for the kiddies), hoping to cash in on the temporary obsession. It is strange, then, to find a game released so far after the movie, but that's the case with Wanted: Weapons of Fate. This action game hopes to take the good parts of the movie (curving bullets, slow motion battles) and remove all of the fluff (Angelina Jolie). Wanted: Weapons of Fate has obviously been targeted for the consoles (obvious evidence comes later in the review), but they were nice enough to put the game on the superior platform as well. How will the over-the-top action translate to the smaller screen?

Wanted: Weapons of Fate features good, but not great, graphics for a top-level action game. The character models are detailed (especially the main characters) but repeated far too often; apparently, all of the enemies are issued the same uniform and head. I don’t know why every console action game has to use a third-person view, but Wanted: Weapons of Fate certainly does. I find that the character model does not get in the way of your view too much (especially since shooting requires you to zoom in), a problem with almost every other third-person game. Each of the game's levels takes place in a different environment that provide some setting variety, but the components of each setting are used over and over again, making the next street or room look just like the last. The weapon and explosion effects are dramatic without being too overbearing, and I like the occasional (but not overused) follow-the-bullet camera when curving is utilized: it's still enjoyable the thirtieth time you see it. The sound features “M” rated dialogue (who knew violent assassins have potty mouths?) and pleasing combat effects. The music is fine enough, but it cues you too much on when the enemy onslaught has finished. There is nothing too notable in Wanted: Weapons of Fate that hasn't been seen before in terms of graphics and sound, but the presentation is still pretty solid.

Wanted: Weapons of Fate starts right after the events of the movie, and you alternate between the story of Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy's character from the movie) and his father (some French dude) as they shoot people in the face. The game only features the single player storyline that takes about six hours to complete (though you will most likely tire of it before then). The easiest difficulty level is a nickname for a cat, which is weird because I don’t see any connection between this game and felines whatsoever. The game difficulty is well-adjusted, except for the stationary sections of the game (more on those abominations later), providing just enough of a challenge to keep you from steamrolling over the drab AI enemies. This is nothing you need to play more than once, since the enemy locations are so heavily scripted and the linear level design offers little in the form of improvisation (there are usually a maximum of two cover paths you can follow). The levels feature plenty of available cover, though, with boxes and crates strewn all over the place (someone should really clean up). Wanted: Weapons of Fate features the annoying habit of not letting you save your progress at any point in the game. If you are not going to feature use-anywhere saving (screw you, consoles), then you had better employ a lot of checkpoints, and thankfully Wanted: Weapons of Fate does. On the flip side, quitting the game before finishing an entire level makes you start over from the beginning. Boo! After you are done with the game the first time around, Wanted: Weapons of Fate features some alternate game modes (like being timed) and unlocked characters; none of these features offer any variation in the game (other people perform exactly the same as Wesley) and are extraneous. Wanted: Weapons of Fate suffers from dreaded console porting issues beyond the saved games limitation. I had to unplug both my gamepad and my joystick while playing or the game would crash when I started it up; apparently, you are only allowed to own an XBOX 360 controller. In addition, setting up the screen resolution is a pain: the game doesn't know the difference between clicking on an arrow (to change the resolution) and clicking on “confirm.” I had to find the configuration file (cleverly hidden in C:\Documents and Settings\Owner\Local Settings\Application Data\wanted\data\settings) and change the resolution manually. Boo!

With all of those annoying features out of the way, it's time to talk about how the game actually plays. The bottom line is that Wanted: Weapons of Fate is fun to begin with, but wears on you after an extended period of play time. You use the famous WASD keys to move, left mouse button to shoot, and hold down right mouse button to aim. This isn't as annoying as it sounds, because almost the entire game you will be hidden behind cover. Pressing spacebar makes it so that you are essentially invincible, and you hold down the right mouse button to peak out to shoot some foes. Moving between areas of cover is easy: go to the edge of your current object and press the appropriate direction key. The game clearly shows which direction you will move, so there is really no instance where you will be exposed to enemy fire. If you fire without peeking while behind cover, enemy units will cower in fear (oh noes! random bullets!) and you can quickly move to a better location; quickly moving between several places of cover can let you flank the enemy and perform a melee kill, although it's almost always easier to just shoot them. The suppressed enemy unit indicator (a faint white border around the screen) is far too subtle. Wanted: Weapons of Fate uses clear icons for others actions, like cover and melee attacks, so I have no idea why this would not extend to this aspect of the game as well.

Killing people gives you adrenaline that you can use to do two special powers, a similar mechanic to what was used in The Club. The first is curving bullets: you hold down three buttons at once (left mouse, right mouse, and shift) and move the mouse to find a trajectory that will hit your enemy (shown by the enemy silhouette turning white). Releasing the left mouse button will unleash untimely death. It's a neat system that makes it very easy to engage cowardly enemy units that hide behind cover (as you do). Yeah, it’s a gimmick, but it’s an extremely fun gimmick. The other thing you can do is “enhanced” quick movement, which slows time down as you dodge between areas of cover, allowing you to pick off enemies in the process. This is much less useful than curving bullets, as it's only worth the adrenaline cost when you have a room full of baddies not using cover (a rare occasion).

Despite Wesley's special skills, he has some strange limitations. First, he cannot pick up any enemy guns to use. We know he can use something other than a pistol, because he does later in the game, but all he can do is gather ammunition. In addition, Wesley cannot jump. So he has all of these time-bending moves, but he can’t clear a two-foot-tall air duct? Wanted: Weapons of Fate features some variations in gameplay, none of which are very good. There are some timed sections where you must shoot down clearly-highlighted bullets and bad guys, and there is, of course, everybody's favorite: the QTE. You will also occasionally man a sniper rifle or a turret for some really annoying sections of the game, mainly because you can't see anything during these sections. Popping out of cover using the sniper rifle changes where your sight is, leading to seconds of disorientation while you are being shot at. Turret sections have you shooting at hard-to-see enemies over a wide area using a weapon that moves very slowly: not fun. The sniping and turret sequences are jarring and annoying, ruining the general fast pace of the game. The heavily scripted AI exhibits few advanced features, following predictable patterns and cowering behind cover most of the time. Wanted: Weapons of Fate doesn't have a health bar: all you have to do is wait behind cover for about ten seconds and you are good as new. Wanted: Weapons of Fate has a couple of unique elements, but it uses them over and over again, leading to gaming fatigue.

Unfortunately, Wanted: Weapons of Fate's linear level design, elementary AI, and repetitive use of cover makes Wanted: Weapons of Fate wear out its welcome far too quickly. I initially had this rated a point higher, but the repetition sank in starting in hour number two and never let up during the course of the game. The sameness of each enemy encounter and the lack of unexpected level design wears on you. That is not to say that Wanted: Weapons of Fate can't be fun: curving bullets, moving between cover, and slowing down time are all enjoyable in small amounts, but the game continues to use these same three mechanics throughout the entire experience. The turret, sniper, and timed sequences meant to vary the game don't work well and are actually hindrances to the overall experience. The linear levels and scripted AI means successive games will be exactly the same, and the lack of multiplayer capabilities means there is no reason to play Wanted: Weapons of Fate more than once. Add on to that typical issues with a PC port, and we have a game that doesn't fully deliver. It's fun for a while, but Wanted: Weapons of Fate is overpriced for a six-hour game with only two hours of fun.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Elven Legacy Review

Elven Legacy, developed by 1ะก:Ino-Co and published by 1C Company and Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Sort-of non-linear campaign, improved interface, new units, Internet multiplayer, map editor, solid gameplay remains
The Not So Good: No drastic improvements from last time
What say you? Not much has changed since Fantasy Wars, but it’s still a good turn-based strategy game: 6/8

Russia and its associated former provinces have proven to be quite the good source of quality PC games, with recent examples being Men of War and King’s Bounty. Another one of the better PC games to come out of Russia was Fantasy Wars, a generically-named turn-based strategy game that was approachable to beginners but still delivered the depth we so desire. The series is back with a new international publisher and a new name: Elven Legacy. The Elves come to the forefront, with their legacy and whatnot, to kill things in a hex-based format. Has the series improved a little over a year later?

Elven Legacy shows how to make a hex-based game look good (counter-example). The game features bright and colorful graphics that look great close up and far away. The environments are great and filled with details like trees, mountains, and towns. Only rarely do the hex-based layouts become obvious: Elven Legacy does a great job blending this mechanic naturally into the map. The high level of quality extends to the units, which look great at any angle. The well-over-100 units have detailed models and textures and they are easily identified thanks to using a single large representative unit for squads when viewed from a distant perspective. Elven Legacy adds full-screen anti-aliasing for an even-better visual experience. In terms of sound design, Elven Legacy delivers a solid package: appropriate if sporadic battle effects, fine background music, and voice acting that is certainly better than some other Russian imports. The background music is enjoyable, rounding out a solid-but-not-impressive sound package. Elven Legacy is a game that sheds the stigma associated with the “hex-based” moniker, though, as the game looks fantastic.

So you have Fantasy Wars and would like to know what’s new in Elven Legacy. The short answer is not that much: a new Elves campaign that is on the short side, interface improvements, Internet play, and better AI. While the interface improvements do make playing the game much easier, the foul elimination of the old campaigns reduces the content of Elven Legacy. This is definitely more like an expansion than a true sequel, so it’s difficult to recommend this game to people who already have Fantasy Wars. At least Elven Legacy is $30 instead of fully-priced.

As you might imagine from a game called Elven Legacy, the campaign centers around the Elves. This time around, instead of having three campaigns centering around all of the game’s races, you only get one ten-mission campaign that uses thirteen missions. How’s that, you ask? The game is slightly non-linear: there are three instances where you get to choose your next mission (two choices each time). This certainly isn’t as dynamic or user-dependent as in other strategy games, so the “non-linear” selling point is a bit dubious. There are also five more missions that are unlocked by earning “gold” in specific campaign missions (completing them in a set amount of turns). After you run through the campaign twice (to play all the missions and unlock everything), you can enjoy the seven single missions or multiplayer. This time around, in addition to hot seat and LAN play, you can actually play over the Internet and search for available games: welcome to 1996, Elven Legacy! This being a review of a game that isn’t out yet, however, I cannot say how smooth Internet matchmaking is, but the interface looked like standard fare. There are sixteen multiplayer maps to choose from supporting two to four players. Instead of opting for simple “deathmatch” rules, most maps have a central objective that must be achieved; this is a nice integration of campaign concepts and beyond the typical strategy game online offerings. For some reason, the AI cannot play against you in all of the missions (only about half): a strange limitation. Elven Legacy comes with the same watch-a-movie-then-do-that tutorials from Fantasy Wars, identical in every respect (even referring to the original game by name at the conclusion). Elven Legacy also apparently comes with a map editor where you can create your own levels, although you must select the option from the installer. I don’t know why it just isn’t installed by default, and since I did not know this while installing and I am not spending another six hours downloading the entire game just for the editor, I cannot authenticate its usefulness. But it’s there, they say.

The gameplay, not surprisingly, is eerily similar to Fantasy Wars. The developers have not made any changes at all to the core gameplay: this turn-based game allows one land and one flying unit per hex, and each unit can move and attack once each turn. Each scenario has objectives that usually revolve around capturing towns or reaching specific locations on the map. The interface has been improved with more identifiable information regarding unit levels; it was pretty good to begin with, offering probably losses to each side before engaging in combat (very useful) and listing all of your units in one place. Gold that is earned by controlling towns can be used to purchase new units. The five races in the game (elves, humans, orcs, dwarves, and new elves) each have the same basic assortment of units: heavy and light cavalry, heavy and light infantry, scouts, archers, war machines, air fighters, air bombers, and heroes (both ranger and mage varieties). Each of these units have appropriate strengths and weaknesses, but the setting doesn’t really provide for exotic, original units, so the combat in Elven Legacy is a typical affair. About the only remarkable aspect to the tactical game is placing ranged units behind front-line skirmishers: they will automatically attack enemy units, making a fragile unit that is protected much more deadly. But the game mechanics are streamlined and well-done as a whole, and Elven Legacy is certainly more approachable than most hex-based wargames. Elven Legacy focuses on low, fixed population caps: most scenarios only give you around seven units total. Purchased units, then, are more for replacement than as a compliment to existing units. The fact that units can be partially or fully healed by sitting still for a turn makes changing your starting roster even less of a probability. Making things more interesting is offering unit upgrades (such as peasants to scouts to rangers to elite rangers, reminiscent of Mount&Blade) and new abilities or spells through experience. The abilities are noteworthy, as you can tailor a unit for a specific role (defense) or terrain (mountainous) and then totally pwn the enemy. Your AI opponents usually have very scripted positions to increase the difficulty; they can occasionally exhibit some advanced moves, but the next turn they will send a low-level unit towards your powerful hero and meet instant death.

For those unfamiliar with Fantasy Wars, Elven Legacy delivers pleasing turn-based strategic gameplay that’s simple enough for novices to grasp, serving as an excellent introduction to the genre. However, it’s more of an expansion pack than a true sequel, especially when you compare it to the dramatic changes found in other follow-ups: you get a slightly-new race (it’s still elves), somewhat significant interface improvements, and Internet multiplayer. Is that worth $30? Clearly not, but I am assuming that most of you did not play Fantasy Wars; in that case, Elven Legacy is a great value if you take it as a whole. The relatively simple gameplay still yields some noteworthy strategic goodness, from upgrading units to specific defensive placements. Units have a specific purpose, and using the appropriate abilities and upgrades effectively will mean the difference between success and untimely death. The campaign provides some fun while it lasts, and Internet games and the occasional skirmish against the mixed-bag AI will fill other gaming voids. The map editor will also extend the life of the title, assuming, of course, that you remembered to install it. Owners of Fantasy Wars need not bother, but the rest of us will find some good strategic gaming to be had.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Merchants of Brooklyn Review

Merchants of Brooklyn, developed and published by Paleo Entertainment.
The Good: Using someone’s dismembered limb as a grenade sounds neat, it’s got multiplayer!
The Not So Good: Short, poor performance, randomly spawning brain-dead enemies, vague objectives, unoriginal weaponry, deathmatch-only laggy online play, rudimentary sound design, bugs
What say you? This low-priced shooter brings shame to the proud “budget” moniker: 2/8

There have been quite a variety of predictions for the future. From flying cars to hydrate level four, the outlook sure looks to be bright. However, Merchants of Brooklyn takes a more dystopian view of what’s to come, propelling you to the year 3100 (nice of them to round) and a New York City full of Neanderthals and crime. Well, I guess that’s not too much different from today, but still, you get cool weapons on your bionic arm, so it can’t be all bad. Or could it?

Merchants of Brooklyn uses CryEngine 2, and the game brings all of the poor performance associated with that engine with none of the graphical excellence. The far-future version of New York City depicted here is full of repetitive environments, very obvious linear paths, and the occasional original setting; it’s clear that some levels got more care than others. The game uses a cell-shaded technique (all the rage!) that is more readily apparent in the character models than the environments; in fact, it’s so understated elsewhere that it seems really out of place being used for your enemies. The handful of character models are very repetitive, providing an onslaught of tough-guy enemies that all look the same, bringing realism down to disappointing levels. The models are also poorly animated: while there are some humorous uses of rag-doll physics, movement and reactions are never fluid events. Some of the weapons have nice effects and good models, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen replicated in a game like Unreal Tournament. Despite what I would evaluate as disappointing graphics, Merchants of Brooklyn runs poorly compared to other first person shooters. While the game uses the engine from Crysis, the game never some close to the same level of quality, and frankly Merchants of Brooklyn should be a lot smoother for what you get. Sound design is even worse off: simple dialogue with poor voice action, repetitive weapon and environmental effects, and unoriginal music round out an undercooked package.

I heard that Merchants of Brooklyn is planned to be part of an episodic series (despite the lack of an “episode” subtitle), so I guess it shouldn’t be completely surprising that the single player campaign only lasts around three to four hours. The budget price point for this game ($20) makes the very short length of Merchants of Brooklyn a little easier to handle, but be prepared to be finished quite quickly. In fact, you can get through the game even faster: just run by everyone until you encounter the next trigger point (usually an explosion to unlock the next level). The game features no tutorial whatsoever as you are thrown right in to the game. Maybe it was in the intro movie I skipped (I don’t have time to sit and watch!), but that’s doubtful. This coupled with the lack of a manual is an inexcusable omission; first person shooters aren’t difficult to control, but nothing should go undocumented. The campaign is quite unexciting, featuring sadly linear level design that is quite obvious (seriously: ramps?). The game also is very light on objective details: important objects that must be blown up are poorly highlighted (a subtle yellow glow) and usually not verbally mentioned. It took me minutes to figure out where the generator I needed to shoot was, and how to exit the first level (throw an object at the clock window). Having this level of confusion on the first level is never, ever a good thing. There are also issues with saved games: other than not having enough checkpoints and lacking a quick-save button, loading a saved game results is some corruption. Reloading the first level resulted in spawning each enemy stuck in a circular pattern holding hands in the center of the room: that’s the strangest freakin’ thing I’ve ever seen.

Merchants of Brooklyn has multiplayer! But, it’s only deathmatch and servers are unpopulated at best and playing is quite poorly balanced. While it is fun lobbing objects-as-grenades at other players, they cause too little damage and take too much time to charge up: it’s easier just to shoot others. I also found multiplayer to be too laggy, even with a decent ping. In addition, there are bugs here, too: spawning stuck in a wall and having to exit and re-enter the game is never a good thing. There are far too many multiplayer first person shooters that are superior to the half-assed effort seen in Merchants of Brooklyn.

Weapons, despite being 1,091 years in the future (I can subtract!), are eerily (and disappointingly) similar to those we have today: shotguns, machine guns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and the bio-rifle from UT. Sure, they look different and they are attached to your arm, but they behave exactly the same. Melee combat consists of punches and no other sense of variety. I can’t figure out how to do kicks (if you can) or grab a guy and rip his head off like it shows in the trailer because the game won’t tell me how to do it (damn you, lack of a tutorial and manual!). The destructible environments mentioned by the developer are essentially non-existent: nothing shatters unless it’s the occasional chair or table (throwing a grenade at a slot machine leaves it disappointingly unscathed). About the only unique aspect of Merchants of Brooklyn is charging items and using them as grenades: just pick up (“E”), charge (hold right mouse button), throw (release right mouse button), and BOOM! It’s fun to use tables, chairs, and body parts as grenades, although the subsequent explosions from each of these items are exactly the same (no conservation of energy here!). Sadly, once you do it a couple of times, it’s not different than using a grenade, and actually a lot more cumbersome. You typically don’t have time to pick up, charge, and throw and item, when shooting someone is way faster and more efficient. The novelty wears off very quickly, right around the 3rd time you try it.

Rather than having health packs, your health constantly regenerates over time, so all you have to do is hide behind something for ten seconds and you are good as new. Unfortunately, doing this is a bit difficult as the AI has only one mode: move towards you. They will mass together and just run right for you, making it trivially simple to hold down “shoot” and aim straight ahead. There is absolutely no intelligence in the AI of Merchants of Brooklyn and the game only becomes difficult when the level designer throws ten enemies at you in the same room. The AI health level is also much higher than yours (despite your bionic arm advantage) and poorly balanced: the AI can survive a point-blank explosion but be killed by two shotgun blasts. Disposing of mindless AI enemies might be fun if the mechanics were unique, but Merchants of Brooklyn brings absolutely nothing innovative to the table. Epic fail.

Merchants of Brooklyn has one thing going for it (using objects as grenades), and this novelty wears thin quickly, so we are left with a thoroughly unpleasant first person shooter. There is a very high number of significant problems with Merchants of Brooklyn in every aspect of the game. The short game length stinks. Laggy and bland multiplayer stinks. The AI stinks. Level design stinks. Sound design and poor performance stinks. In fact, you can probably smell Merchants of Brooklyn from there. The seemingly unique aspects of the game aren’t so: morphing your arm into weapons that are exotic but not unique is a negligible feature. You can pick up someone’s leg, charge it up, and kill someone else with it, but this becomes woefully repetitive and devoid of enjoyment as a short trial period. It’s a less sophisticated (and less interesting) version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2? On top of all this, bugs still creep up from time to time (spawning in multiplayer, randomly appearing enemies after loading saved games), although it’s not at the same level as the unpatched release. You’re better off saving your $20 and buying UT2004 twice. Merchants of Brooklyn features one redeeming factor that quickly grows tired and stale, so there is absolutely no reason to go back to the future.