Sunday, May 31, 2009

Killing Floor Review

Killing Floor, developed and published by Tripwire Interactive.
The Good: Intense chaotic gameplay, persistent upgrade tracking, degree of challenge emphasizes teamwork, customizable game parameters
The Not So Good: Can’t play cooperatively with AI, few repetitive circular levels, predictable swarm pattern, somewhat limited weaponry, can’t play as the enemies
What say you? A fine mod, but not a completely developed retail game: 6/8

We love killing zombies. From taking them on first hand to having plants do it for us (that’s simply laziness), we can’t get enough of ridding the world of the undead. The new fad of cooperative multiplayer gaming has latched on to this and produced notable titles such as Left 4 Dead, a game that was not reviewed on this particular site because Valve ignored my requests for a review copy. Jerks! Killing Floor started out as a modification for the excellent Unreal Tournament 2004, but now the developers of the Red Orchestra mod for the same parent game (and its subsequent retail release) have acquired a different mod and gone retail again, hoping to cash in on the monster-killing-loving that is pervasive on the PC right now. Is Killing Floor a true mod that shouldn’t cost anything, or a wonderful journey into a dark place (England: dreary even when monsters are not invading)?

Killing Floor started out as a mod, and it looks like a mod that got a slight graphical touchup for retail. The game doesn’t hold any resemblance to Unreal Tournament 2004 other than the menu system (a sign of a good total conversion), and the game holds its own despite featuring a five-year-old graphics engine. The highlights include the gory enemy models with satisfying death animations and decapitations. The weapons also look nice, especially in slow-mo when you can actually see the detail (that goes for the bullets, too). The environments, on the other hand, are somewhat bland, although the open-area levels offer a more varied appearance. The grainy film effect used as you observe other players gets old after a while. The sound in Killing Floor is less impressive: although weapons sound powerful enough, the repetitive sound phrases and generic moody music do not fill the game with enough foreboding for my tastes. Hearing the enemy units off in the distance at the start of a wave is creepy, but it’s quickly replaced with mass hysteria (dogs and cats living together!). Still, Killing Floor falls comfortably between the mod and retail classifications, and at a budget price, that’s a result I am at ease with.

Killing Floor is designed to be a multiplayer cooperative game, and this is exemplified by the bare-bones single player features. You can play with yourself (ha!) by creating an offline server, but the game does not add AI allies to your game, essentially removing all of the cooperative play Killing Floor is supposed to be about. Unless you plan to go online, there is no reason to get Killing Floor. Of course, since the game is only available online, one could argue that anyone with a means to get Killing Floor would be able to play it as intended. Still, if you are not going to have bots to play with, why even have the option for single player? Anyway, enough ranting (for now). Killing Floor can be played with up to five friends (plus yourself…that makes…let’s see…six!) and the servers seem to be quite popular online and fill up quickly so you’re never waiting for a game to join. The first day I played the game, I had problems with the filters not working and server pings not showing up correctly. After then, though, I haven’t had any major problems, so my big long rant I had written is invalid. I would still like a “join any server” button and let the game do all the refreshing for me, though. You can only take on the enemy specimens, as Killing Floor does not allow for competitive play with some individuals playing the experimental beasts.

Killing Floor is set near London where genetic experiments have gone wild (softcore nudity optional). Your job is to defeat each incoming wave of enemies before dying. There are ten enemy types in Killing Floor, from “easy” to “not easy.” Although enemies have a really simple AI pattern (run towards you), their behaviors are different and in large numbers they are quite formidable. Some explode with acid, some are sneaky, some have powerful weapons, and the Fleshpound becomes enraged when attacked. And there is the end-game boss, the Patriarch, which is really, really hard to kill if everyone isn’t armed with rockets (I still haven’t played in a game where he’s been defeated). There is a predictable swarm pattern for a specific difficulty level, which means you can stick to a certain upgrade strategy because you know what to expect the next wave. There are only five maps to choose from, but they do feature a variety of environments: outdoors, indoor, and urban. Killing Floor gives the players a good amount of freedom choosing where to fight the incoming onslaught, since the maps are not linear. You will need to traverse to the next trader shop location (two or three scattered at the edges of the map) to purchase new swag, but you can decide where to engage the enemy along the way. This means Killing Floor has a lot more variety than a shooter with a purely linear level design. The repetition of trader shop locations can be quite disorienting initially (wasn’t I just here?), and because the maps are essentially circular, welding is only occasionally helpful since you’ll most likely have to head through that door later. Though most servers use the default rules, you can customize a number of options: cash levels, enemy density, and even adjust the specific composition of each wave of opponents. Doing so, though, will disable leveling up, since you could institute some very easy rules to rack up experience.

Between waves, you can use the cash you earned properly disposing of specimens to get new weapons. They are broken up into melee (machete, axe, chainsaw), secondary (single and dual pistols), and primary (shotgun, sub-machine gun, rifle, crossbow, rocket launcher, flamethrower) weapons. While this selection covers pretty much any enemy type, there is always room for a more diverse assortment of killing instruments. As it stands, you’ll find a favorite weapon and stick with it once you can afford it. Encumbrance limits the weapons you can take so you cannot be armed to the teeth even if you have the cash for it. Normally, you will want to upgrade to more powerful weapons as the waves become tougher while sticking to the bonuses your perk supports. Killing Floor has six persistent perks that grant specific bonuses based on your skill in each category. Experience can be earned both online and offline, which I suppose is the only reason to play single player in Killing Floor. There is essentially one perk for each weapon: Berserker for melee weapons, Commando for the submachine gun, Field Medic for those who like to heal, Firebug for the flamethrower, Sharpshooter for the rifles and crossbow, and Support for shotguns and welding. Getting more kills using your weapon will result in leveling up and making those weapons more effective. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are six perks and six people on your squad, as a well-rounded team is at an advantage. I like the perk system, as it gives everyone an important role (much like in Team Fortress).

As you would expect, Killing Floor is difficult unless your six-person team is functioning as a cohesive unit. The HUD clearly shows the number of enemy units left and the path to the next trader is shown after each wave is defeated. The slow motion effect in the game that is sometimes triggered whenever someone scores a headshot is annoying because of its semi-randomness. It does let you gather yourself for a second or two, but it would be much more useful if you could manually trigger it. Killing Floor is pretty difficult, especially if you get split up: you will most likely get overwhelmed if you are in a poor position. However, the game is quite enjoyable when you get a good team going. Killing Floor does suffer from some repetition because of the predictable enemy swarms and circular maps, but, for the price, Killing Floor is entertaining enough.

While Killing Floor makes for a great modification to Unreal Tournament 2004, adding a price tag must bring some additional features, and the game comes up a bit short here. If Killing Floor were to add cooperative single player gaming, some new maps, more varied enemy encounters, and the ability to play as the specimens, then we would have a great game. For $20, being a good game would probably be enough for fans of the cooperative survival horror genre. It’s clear that the core of Killing Floor is quite enjoyable, with tense, action-packed gameplay where the emphasis is undoubtedly on teamwork. The persistent perks allow you to know your role and fulfill it for the good of the team, although most of your energy will be spent shooting enemies in the face. The non-linear maps do allow for some strategic freedom: because there is usually a significant distance to the next trader location, you are able to decide where to fight to an extent. The circular map design actually makes teamwork a lot harder than if the levels were completely linear. Those looking for a fine but partially limited cooperative game at a cheap price need look no further.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Smashing Toys Review

Smashing Toys, developed and published by Leon Brothers.
The Good: Online multiplayer, twenty-four tracks, car upgrades
The Not So Good: Weak car handling, limited weaponry, terrible level design, robotic AI requires perfection to advance, instant respawn times have no usage penalty, must unlock content, bad performance for the graphics, bugs and translation issues
What say you? Mario Kart this ain’t: 3/8

What if toys came alive? Would they revolt against their human overlords? Would they battle across New York for ultimate control of Shia LaBoeuf and his dangerous yet alluring sexiness? Would they take over the Republican Party (some would argue that toys are already in control)? According to Leon Brothers, the developer of Smashing Toys, they were born to race. Sounds plausible enough to me!

The graphics and sound for Smashing Toys are decidedly outdated. The game looks like an independent title, which it is, and for the low price tag ($10), you can forgive some of the shortcomings present in the title’s graphics. The car designs have different toys piloting each vehicle, although you will be passing people at such a high speed that nothing is easily recognizable; having all of the cars behave the same during races further reinforces the lack of distinction. The maps feature some recycled environments and obviously linear tracks with prominent unimaginative walls on either side. Effects are unimpressive: explosions are too small and insignificant. The washed out textures round out a sub-par package. Confusing, then, is the poor performance exhibited by the game at higher settings: whether the constant changes in speed are due to the graphics or the game engine remains to be seen, but it appears as though Smashing Toys chugs significantly whenever multiple cars are rendered on-screen. Sound fares slightly better, if only because of the main menu music that I found to be quite enjoyable. The rest of the sound design, however, is mediocre: other vehicles do not verbally react to passes or weapons, and explosions are generic just like their visual counterparts. I don’t necessarily have a problem with independent games that have poor graphics and sound, but they should at least perform decently.

Smashing Toys lets you smash toys across twenty-four tracks either against the AI or online, and that’s where the good parts of the game stop. The initial load time for the game is a couple of minutes, and each track takes about a minute to load (this is apparently an improvement from the original release version of the game), but you have to sit through another loading process if you restart the race. You must unlock everything in the game, as you are only given one (one!) track at the start. You’ll need to finish at the front, and with the lack of difficulty settings and the random nature of the races, this can be quite a difficult (and almost impossible) requirement. Points earned during races by finishing strong and performing certain actions like running into other cars or jumping long distances can be used to purchase car upgrades. These “improvements” are expensive and the difference in performance is not that noticeable. Multiplayer lets you choose any of the game’s tracks (why only here?) and you can play though the game’s central matchmaking server: a great feature if there were actually people playing Smashing Toys.

Quality tracks can make or break a racing game, and Smashing Toys tends towards the “break” end of this spectrum. Tracks have a constant width and insurmountable walls on either side to keep you restricted to the single pathway. There are never any alternative paths or interesting variations in the track designs, except for the occasional jump where you’ll probably venture out of bounds anyway. Item pickups are always in easily accessible areas, meaning that the leaders will be at an advantage as they get all of the cool weapons; at least Mario Kart solved this issue with multiple pick-ups in a single area. There is also random crap on track for no reason other than to be annoying and in the way. I guess this is there to show off the physics of the game, but since the objects don’t slow you down or impact the game in any way, I have no idea why they are included. I suppose this is as good a place as any to discuss the various bugs in the game. In particular, Smashing Toys always reverses my acceleration and brake keys, requiring me to remember to reset them prior to a race or restart (taking another minute to reload the entire track). There are also some inconsistent translation issues, with some lingering French words remaining in the English distribution of the game. This is not a terrible problem, but it shows the lack of polish in Smashing Toys.

Smashing Toys really trips up when it comes to the actual racing. The cars are set up very loose with no downforce (the opposite of most, if not all, real race cars), making cornering quite difficult and navigating the tracks a pain. The cars seem to weigh nothing, becoming easily airborne with any nearby explosion. Cars also randomly speed up and slow down; this obviously makes controlling the cars quite a chaotic experience. Landing jumps is also hit-or-miss at best, as you can routinely land on your nose and you cannot tweak your trajectory while airborne. Cars also accelerate quite quickly and reach top speed in a second or two. Because of this, it is always better to respawn than to take the time to turn around if you become pointed in the wrong direction. This makes Smashing Toys devoid of any strategy and a completely uninteresting racing game.

Smashing Toys has a derivative list of items you can collect on the race course. You have items dropped behind you (mines, dynamite, bubble (an overly powerful mine)), launched in front (missile), and other bonuses (speed, armor, shield). The items are so plentiful and easily collected that Smashing Toys becomes an exercise in nonsensical chaos as items are dropped ad nauseum and cars fly through the air. The robotic AI doesn’t help: they expertly navigate the course and provide an overpowered opponent that requires you to race almost perfectly to unlock the next event. Everybody runs in one pack, so the gap between first and last is maybe a couple of seconds, making races exceedingly difficult to win if you aren’t in the lead. Always starting in last exacerbates this issue. In short (too late!), the racing of Smashing Toys is a jumbled mess of poor handling cars and plentiful but non-strategic weapons that offers nothing unique or interesting to the arcade racing genre.

Smashing Toys is an arcade kart racing game that almost gets nothing right. The core gameplay is the main culprit here, as I cannot get a handle on the seemingly random handling the cars exhibit, making the races a tedious and frustrating process. Having online multiplayer and twenty-four tracks are nice features, but nobody plays Smashing Toys and you have to unlock every single one of the maps. Good luck with that, as the racing is difficult with robotic, perfect AI opponents. Track designs are dull with high walls that can’t be navigated around and a single path to follow. The cars handle horribly: you never feel like you are in control, as turning the wheel slightly may result in spinning completely around or not turning enough. The plentiful weapons make driving even more torturous, as constant explosions will send your vehicle flying. The graphic are poor but so is the performance: a suspect combination. Smashing Toys is a tedious racing game, and its unpredictability is its downfall. Even at the game’s cheap $10 price, I cannot recommend it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Streets of Moscow Review

Streets of Moscow, developed by Gaijin Entertainment and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Tons of traffic to run into, persistent setting, multiple race types, multiplayer, experience unlocks new parts and abilities
The Not So Good: Twitchy inconsistent driving model, no clear indication of damage level
What say you? A crash-filled arcade racing game that needs a physics upgrade: 5/8

Have you ever wanted to drive the majestic streets of Moscow but lacked the means to actually get there? Me too! Good thing for us that Streets of Moscow exists, an arcade racing game where you take to the streets of Russia’s capital city and run into as many cars as possible. Traffic jams are a thing of the past as you navigate your way to the finish line around, over, and through the crowded city streets. Taking cues from a number of recent racing games, such as the Need for Speed and Midnight Club series, Streets of Moscow lets you race against others in a persistent world and upgrade your sweet ride with vinyl. Tasty, tasty vinyl.

The graphics of Streets of Moscow are decent enough for a racing game. The quality of the graphics will depend a lot on your system, as Streets of Moscow seems to quite power hungry and doesn’t scale as well as other racing games. The game suffers from significant slowdown during most large crashes, especially if your vehicle is totaled (the game locks up for several seconds in that particular case). Performance is also heavily dependent on how much traffic is on the screen as Streets of Moscow features the most traffic I’ve seen in a racing game. The textures for your vehicle and the others you are racing against are nice, but the generic vehicles are, well, generic. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the city landscape, but I assume it’s fairly lifelike and it is detailed enough to be plausible. Special effects range from nice (sparks) to less nice (fire). As for the sound design, the racing effects seem to be realistic with throaty engines and disturbing crashes. Streets of Moscow also features a rockin’ Russian soundtrack that I actually found to be not that annoying. Overall, the graphics and sound of Streets of Moscow are average but not terrible.

In Streets of Moscow, you race against four rival factions for control of the Russian capital. Or something like that: I didn’t bother reading most of the e-mail messages sent by the in-game characters. The single player game takes place in a persistent world, where you can access a handful of game areas, drive around, and accept racing missions. Thankfully, you can also access all of the available races from a menu, instead of having to waste time driving around: take that, Grand Theft Auto. In addition to racing, you can upgrade your car with better parts that can be purchased with prize money, in addition to purely visual upgrades like fancy paint jobs and decorative vinyl. The meaningful part upgrades are limited to only a couple of options (mufflers, mostly), far below the par for the course. You can also purchase new vehicles, some of which are based on real-life vehicles. Money accumulates rather quickly, and you can afford top cars with only a couple of hours or work (or less). Despite the persistent nature of the game, the scope of the city is disappointingly limited: the game should really be called A Couple of the Streets of Moscow. Each of the game’s four or so areas is maybe a mile across at most, far below most racing games or those that simulate an entire island. Multiplayer uses a Russian matchmaking service for Internet play, although I was never able to find anyone to play against. It’s just as well: Streets of Moscow only lets you do simple races on a single track, rather than having the persistent world seen in the single player mode. Potential wasted.

Streets of Moscow does offer a good number of race types. You have your typical options: circuit, knock-out (last place is eliminated each lap), drag (manual transmission only on a straight track), sprint (two checkpoints), and street (multiple checkpoints). Streets of Moscow’s emphasis on crashing into other vehicles is highlighted in a number of game types: anarchy (points are awarded for violently crashing into civilians) and deathmatch (destroy opponent cars). You can also be involved in pursuit or hunt modes, where you are chasing (or being chased by) a single car. The different modes don’t alter your strategy too much, but having the options available to you is quite nice. Streets of Moscow is more arcade than the Need for Speed series (if that’s possible), as other cars are merely obstacles that can be pushed aside with ease. In fact, a light pole packs more punch than a sedan (although buses are a significant hazard). The high level of traffic simulated in the game comes in to play almost every race, and you will have to venture onto the sidewalk or take a scenic detour in order to balance wrecking and speed. Your car does slowly accumulate damage, but since there is no damage indicator (other than gradually increasing smoke), it’s a complete guess as to when one more wreck is one too many. Experience earned during races, by running into other cars or drifting, is used to unlock new parts and subsequently get a sweeter ride. You can also get adrenaline powers: spells (I suppose you can call them) you can use during the race, like fast speeds or damaging nearby vehicles. It is obvious from the inclusion of adrenaline items that Streets of Moscow is meant to be an arcade racing game.

Unfortunately, the actual driving of Streets of Moscow leaves a lot to be desired. The inconsistency of the collision dynamics and vehicle turning behavior makes Streets of Moscow a lot more frustrating than it should be. I spent a lot of time tweaking the input settings (dead zone, sensitivity), which honestly should be correct by default, and I was never really happy with the results. Cars can break loose when taking a turn at high speed, or they might not: it seems to be completely random. You can also hit a curb and be thrown in a tailspin, or not. It wouldn’t be as confusing if the results were more consistent, but you never know what to expect when you take the next corner. Automatic transmission is horrible at low speeds, constantly up- and down-shifting while accelerating. For a game that rewards precise driving and weaving between traffic, the controls are way off. The AI runs the gamut from competitive to brainless. The computer drivers do a competent job in the more traditional racing modes, like circuit, but put them in a checkpoint race and watch them drive around in circles for the first thirty seconds.

While Streets of Moscow has the features to be a competent game, the driving and the AI both fail miserably. The persistent world is a nice idea, but the areas are too small to be a plausible, realistic setting. There are a lot of race modes to enjoy, and experience and cash earned during races can be used to upgrade and totally “pimp your ride” (and by that I mean “sell it for sexual favors”). Multiplayer is an added bonus, although you are limited to single races and I’m not sure if it really works due to unpopulated servers. All of this doesn’t really matter, though, as the driving model of Streets of Moscow is broken. Cars behave unexpectedly, resulting in some very frustrating results. I like the use of copious amounts of traffic, but constantly running into them due to an inferior control scheme is not enjoyable. You have no idea what the result of turning right will be, and this irregularity is the downfall of Streets of Moscow. Simply put, this is a poorly designed version of Test Drive Unlimted. It might provide some entertainment value if you have better luck at tweaking the control options, but I doubt you will be able to compensate for mediocre driving physics.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies Review

Plants vs. Zombies, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Intuitive gameplay, many weapon and enemy types, lots of alternative game modes, strategic limitation of available plants, nicely animated graphics
The Not So Good: Repetitive maps, not terribly challenging, new items and modes unlock slowly
What say you? A fantastic theme and plentiful content elevate this casual tower defense game: 7/8

Who will protect us against the inevitable zombie attack? That dude from Batman Begins? In trying times, we must turn to our green defenders, producers of oxygen and pretty smelling flowers. This casual take on the tower defense game features plants vs. zombies, which is fitting considering the game is called Plants vs. Zombies. Other examples in the genre include the less esoteric Defense Grid and the equally outlandish Immortal Defense. Astute regular readers will also notice the similarities between this game and another eternal struggle that has rarely been highlighted: Stalin vs. Martians. Irregular users probably need some Metamucil.

Despite the game’s 2-D graphics, Plants vs. Zombies looks great thanks to pleasing character designs and excellent animations. The high number of plants and zombies in the game each feature a nice attention to detail and operate in a very fluid manner. There is also great little touches, with zombie decapitations and the various armor they employ. Watching the increasingly concerned look on Wall-Nuts face as he becomes consumed is priceless. The developers took the theme and ran with it, crafting a visually stimulating game. Watching the game in action is far superior to any generic screenshot, which does not do the game justice. Sound design is less outstanding, using a subtle soundtrack and humorous but repetitive effects. Audio notwithstanding, Plants vs. Zombies compares favorably to other casual games in terms of its visuals.

For a budget-priced game, Plants vs. Zombies features a large amount of content, rivaling most full-priced titles for variety. The main game takes place in the adventure mode, where you will defend your house from the incoming zombie raid by placing plants. Typically one new plant type is introduced in each level, arbitrarily slowing your progress and leading to some repetition. This is especially the case because the game features a small number of maps that only have day and night variations: you get the distinct feeling of déjà vu as you grind through the adventure mode. I would have halved the number of levels in each group and introduced two new items each time you successfully finish a particular level. The extra game modes are also very slowly unlocked: there is a lot of content here that is certainly not apparent when you first start playing. It frankly takes too long to unlock everything, and I suspect most casual players will miss out on the cool variety the extra modes offer if they only invest a couple of hours in Plants vs. Zombies before getting bored. The 18 (!) minigames focus on introducing alternative rules, like randomly introduced plant cards or portals, or using the game’s theme with a completely different gameplay mode, like the Bejeweled replica. The minigames are a great vacation from the repetitive nature of the adventure mode, it’s just too bad the game hides all of this wonderfulness from you. Also making an appearance are puzzle modes that have you randomly collecting items or taking the role of the zombies: a neat role reversal. Survival mode lets you last (or, you know, survive) as long as you can against an increasingly difficult zombie onslaught. Along with the adventure mode, the minigames, puzzle, and survival modes round out a complete package.

You’ll be spending most of your time with the “normal” adventure mode part of the game, so I’ll be discussing that now (plus, I don’t want to ruin some of the minigame surprises). In order to successfully defend your house from the zombie attack, you will collect sun in order to purchase new plants to place on your lawn. Plants fall into several categories: resource producers, ranged shooters, one-use melee, and plants designed to combat a specific enemy (like cactus for balloon zombies or fume-shroom for zombies armed with screen doors). Plants vs. Zombies features somewhere over thirty different plant species, but you are limited in how many types you can bring into the game (initially six, but eventually up to nine). This is a significant strategic decision before you even start planting, and there is a large number of viable strategies you can develop to combat specific enemy rosters. The game shows a preview of which zombies are coming (although there is no indication of where or when), so if you do not see the zomboni (obviously a zombie driving a zamboni), you probably don’t need to bring a spikeweed. Plants vs. Zombies also features somewhere over fifteen different kinds of zombies, and some of the advanced varieties are quite nasty, burrowing beneath (or jumping above) your defenses. Like the plant species, zombie types have a great sense of humor, especially one inspired by a certain zombie-inspired music video (complete with the dance moves). Complicating things is the introduction of night, where mushroom varieties become more useful, and non-soil surfaces like pools and the roof that must be compensated for. As you unlock additional plants and are introduced to new zombie enemies, some older types become obsolete and replaced with newer, faster, younger versions. A cooldown time on placement limits spamming particularly useful plants, so planning ahead is of paramount importance.

Plants vs. Zombies gives you a good deal of freedom to design your own defenses, from the order they are introduced to their placement and which ones to actually use. Once you find a good strategy, though, later levels in a series can get quite repetitive, since you’ll be recycling the same effective strategy until a new, problematic zombie type is introduced that necessitates a new plant. The game is more interactive than a typical tower defense game, since you are placing new defenses in real-time as the invasion occurs, in addition to collecting resources and coins to purchase upgrades. There are no difficulty settings in the game, so while casual players will find the game to be moderately difficult, veterans of the genre will find Plants vs. Zombies to be a bit on the easy side. Even when the chaos is at a maximum and the sneaky, tricky zombies are all over the map, a solid plan will always prevail. Plants vs. Zombies is an intuitive game, though, with linear attack patterns and an interface designed for beginners. It’s a well designed game that rewards careful planning over quick reflexes. The game is best played in short spurts, and since each level only takes a couple of minutes and progress can be saved at any time, this can be accomplished. If things become too monotonous, you can always change things up by trying out a minigame, assuming, of course, you have played long enough to unlock them.

Plants vs. Zombies injects a great theme into the tower defense genre and appends a ton of content as an added bonus. The gameplay is straightforward enough for casual gamers to pick up, yet it maintains a strategic depth because of the limited number of plants you can use at a time in addition to the restrictions on placement space and how quickly you can plant new freedom fighters. Resource gathering is a simple clicking action that keeps you busy while your plant forces automatically engage the enemy. You will have to make choices regarding which plants to place where, and there is a wide variety of viable strategies you can employ based on what plants are available and which zombies are scheduled to invade. The cute graphics and robust additional game modes complete the package. Games in Plants vs. Zombies can get repetitive, as games take place on the same map for ten consecutive levels, and new items unlock slowly, keeping the engrossing extra elements of the game hidden from players for too long. Plants vs. Zombies is not that challenging for veteran tower defense players, but casual users will find a wonderful introduction to the genre. There is definitely enough here to justify a budget-level price, and the result is a notable casual tower defense game.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

And Yet It Moves Review

And Yet It Moves, developed and published by Broken Rules.
The Good: Quite innovative, straightforward controls, online high score list
The Not So Good: High level of difficulty, extremely short, no map editor
What say you? This rotational patform game is unique but very challenging: 6/8

How many ways can you make “run and jump” interesting? Ever since the platform genre was firmly established with the venerable Super Mario Brothers, numerous games have attempted to make precision timing and traversing large gaps fun. I’ve reviewed my fair share of platform games, usually sticking to titles that have something new to offer. Enter the curiously-named And Yet It Moves, a platform game (surprise!) that has something new to offer (surprise again!). This time around (so to speak), you rotate the entire level. Sounds interesting, so let’s have at it!

The 2-D graphics of And Yet It Moves are reminiscent of Crayon Physics in that there is a steady distinct theme. In this case, each level consists of an arrangement of ripped paper, comprising the walls and objects for the landscape. While this choice obviously does not result in breathtakingly realistic vistas, the theme is applied well. Your character is more detailed than the rather bland textures (apart from the ripped-paper borders), although he could use some more animation detail. Despite the relative simplistic nature of the graphics, performance is a bit slower than I would have expected, although this is really only seen when rotating the level. And Yet It Moves isn’t the best looking platform game, but the characteristic visuals do the job. The sound design of And Yet It Moves is almost insignificant, with dreadfully occasional effects for in-game actions (like jumping and reaching checkpoints) and almost non-existent background music that is too subtle to even notice. I do like the sound effect when you die (or, more accurate, get separated into many pieces), but it’s clear a very minimalist approach was taken.

And Yet It Moves involves guiding your character through each of the game’s almost-twenty levels. The trip is a short one, taking only a couple of hours to plow through the game, assuming your aren’t subject to plentiful restarts. The lack of a map editor means that And Yet It Moves won’t grow due to user-based content. Although you can submit times from the competition mode online, there isn’t much reason to try the game again once you complete the adventure. A tutorial is integrated within the first two levels to teach the controls of the game, and the usually plentiful checkpoints positioned after each major area cut down on repetition.

And Yet It Moves is controlled with the keyboard (or a gamepad, if you prefer). You can move your character left and right and jump using our good friends the WAD keys, and rotate the map to the left, right, or flip using the arrow keys. I got the rotation controls backwards a lot when starting out, but after a while it became intuitive. Since there are no enemies other than the levels themselves and the occasional rocks that are affected by your changes in orientation, the challenge lies in the level designs, and they are quite challenging. And Yet It Moves requires a high level of precision and timing in order to land on the appropriate platform without falling to your death. The game does not visually indicate when you are falling too fast, so you have to use your best judgment and a good dose of trial and error. The levels are designed quite nicely, presenting new challenges around the bend that don’t become repetitive during the game’s short run. And Yet It Moves doesn’t have any difficulty settings, although it is admittedly difficult to do so in this game since the challenge results from the maps themselves. I would not say that And Yet It Moves provides an insurmountable challenge, but the game does require a lot of skill to navigate successfully through each level: casual or novice players beware.

And Yet It Moves takes a neat idea and creates a compelling but incredibly difficult platform game. The rotating mechanic never really gets old, although part of that has to do with the two-hour play time. The controls are quite intuitive once you become more experienced at the rotational aspect of the game. And Yet It Moves never becomes too frustrating, but there are only so many times you can redo the same sequence before giving up and trying again later (or not at all). Replay value is kept at a minimum thanks to the lack of a level editor and the brief campaign. The cost is $15 (now $10, as of 5/26/09) for two hours (or so) of enjoyment, although you could argue that the challenge mode with score submissions can extend the life of And Yet It Moves a bit further. I would have felt better about And Yet It Moves with a price point about $5 lower: for a comparison, Caster is about the same length at a third of the cost. Still, those looking for something refreshingly different and challenging in a platform game will enjoy And Yet It Moves.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stalin vs. Martians Review

Stalin vs. Martians, developed by Black Wing Foundation , Dreamlore, and N-Game and published by Mezmer Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Very simplified approach is good for novices, humorous and unique premise
The Not So Good: No multiplayer or skirmish modes, units do not simultaneously attack and move, outdated cumbersome interface makes it difficult to select and target specific units, egregiously outnumbered by the dumb AI, repetitive gameplay with routine objectives, poor performance for the graphical return
What say you? A comical premise isn’t enough in this stripped-down, substandard real-time strategy game: 3/8

Once an ignored theater of World War II, the Eastern Front has been getting some play thanks to Russian developers making games about Russians: IL-2 and Theatre of War, to name a few. A trio of Russian teams have taken it a step further and addressed one of the glaring areas of omission: the Martian invasion of the motherland. I cannot believe that this important era of Russian history has been ignored for so long. Well, no longer thanks to Stalin vs. Martians! Finally this epic battle between titans can be told.

Stalin vs. Martians is a couple of years (at least) behind the graphics curve. While some leeway can be granted to an independently-developed game, when you compare this title against the likes of Zeno Clash, the results are disappointing. The first thing you’ll probably notice is the fixed low resolution at an archaic 1024 by 768 pixels. Now, you can go and fiddle around with some configuration files to increase the settings, but why should you have to? Subsequently, the game looks quite fuzzy and lacks crisp detail in almost every area; I can’t imagine what it looks like on a large widescreen monitor. There are also no graphics options to add or subtract quality for different machine configurations. The models are OK but, partly because of the resolution, lack detailed textures and solid animations and look quite stiff. Some of the Martian designs are funny, though, although one is blatantly stolen from the movie Toy Story. Weapon effects are also underwhelming, failing to deliver intense battles mainly because everything is so small. Despite the simplistic nature of the graphics, Stalin vs. Martians performs quite poorly, delivering consistent changes in framerate and simulation speed when different populations of enemies are being rendered. The sound design is more imaginative, featuring an annoying but almost compelling mix of very eclectic music that doesn’t fit into any game, let alone one set during World War II. Each individual “song” selection is quite short, increasing the repetition and irritation. While I like the simple sounds for the Martian weapons (pew pew!), the voice acting is repetitive and uses the same one-liners over and over again. I will give points, though, for having an option asking whether the player likes cats. Other than that, though, Stalin vs. Martians lacks polish and variety in graphics and sound.

As you might have guessed from the title, Stalin vs. Martians features a twelve-mission campaign where those naughty Martians have invaded Russia. Each mission takes about twenty minutes to complete, so the entire game lasts about four hours assuming you don’t fail (which you most likely will). The missions have unexciting objectives with little variety, usually involving attacking or defending a specific point (or points) on the minimap; at least your objectives are clearly labeled. Once you are done with the campaign, there is nothing else to do: there is no multiplayer, either online or against the AI (partially because AI is essentially non-existent). The game also lacks an in-game tutorial, and the manual doesn’t cover the basic controls, going so far as to call the basics “obvious.” They might be “obvious” to the veteran player, but true novices to the genre won’t know the conventions (right-click to attack, for instance), and the casual tilt of Stalin vs. Martians will draw at least some newcomers.

You will be doing two things in Stalin vs. Martians: moving and shooting. Enemy units will drop coins once they are defeated that can grant bonuses: cash for reinforcements and special abilities, armor, attack power, speed, and health. It is difficult to differentiate between the coins, especially when they are massed together, and since most of the bonuses are unit-specific, this is an important limitation. Reinforcements are always called in at the same, fixed point on the map, which most likely is located halfway across the terrain. There isn’t any resource management in the game other than choosing which units to order across the coins and whether to spend your money on reinforcements or special abilities. Friendly units in Stalin vs. Martians are quite uninspired with one gigantic exception. Of course, being pigeon-holed in World War II doesn’t help this issue, but you would think more “wacky” troops could have been developed. You get infantry, powerful infantry, light/medium/heavy tanks, artillery, and (of course) a giant Stalin (I wouldn’t have spoiled that except that the screenshots for the game already have). The special abilities are usually buffs, like doubled damage while playing the USSE anthem, or large attacks like the air strike. Abilities seem to be more effective than calling in additional troops, especially if enemy troops are concentrated. Actually moving and shooting is somewhat of a pain, thanks to the inferior interface. Box selecting doesn’t work 100% of the time; I think it messes up if you start in the fog of war or over a building, but I can’t seem to find a consistent culprit. There is no key to select every unit, and clipping issues means its difficult to differentiate between units. It is literally impossible to target enemy infantry: you have to click on an enemy that is quite literally three pixels across. That’s horrible design.

Stalin vs. Martians is very light on the strategy, and this stems from a couple of problem areas. The first very significant problem is that units cannot attack and move at the same time. You can instruct some tanks to fire on the run, but this order icon magically disappears when you have selected mixed troops. You will constantly be pressing the “stop” order icon so that your troops don’t die. Enemy troops seem to have no problem doing two things at once (it must be that superior Martian intellect), which leads to quite an imbalance. Since most of your troops have the range of a pea shooter (and the visual range of an old blind man), having to constantly micromanage movement is a gigantic pain in the behind. Strategy is also eliminated by the initial enemy positioning: the designers just threw an insane number of troops in one location, without any regard to planning. Because of this, your primary tactic is just to grind through the Martians and pick up coins along the way: not exactly the most stimulating gaming experience. Difficulty results from having too many AI units and the AI is not smart, usually sitting in one spot until spotted or moving in a congo line. Units are routinely outside of your viewing range but they still fire on you: I guess those gigantic Martian eyes are good for something. Difficulty also cannot be adjusted anywhere in the game: another distressing limitation. The fast pace is balanced by poor pathfinding, with units unexpectedly moving backwards, through other units, or ignoring adjacent enemy units. The mission fails if you run out of units, even if you have enough money to purchase new ones. Sadly, the missions are usually not over soon enough.

While the setting will hold your attention for the first couple of minutes, it doesn’t take too long to realize that Stalin vs. Martians is, at its heart, a poor real-time strategy game with numerous problems. The short campaign with unoriginal objectives is followed by no multiplayer options. Pathfinding and unit movement is annoying, and the inability to move and fire makes Stalin vs. Martians annoying to play. The interface doesn’t help matters, and targeting tiny enemies is strenuous. The enemy AI is very simple, but since they consistently outnumber you and have superior firepower and sight ranges, the game is difficult. And that difficulty cannot be adjusted. Poor performance in the game produces some dated graphics, and the music selection is…well…unique (I suspect on purpose). The hype machine has been on full-throttle for Stalin vs. Martians, including some imaginative trailers, but they can’t cover up the fact that this is a very basic real-time strategy game with no unique features other than the background story. A unique setting can only carry you so far, and Stalin vs. Martians fails basic canons of the strategy genre. You can be simple without being bad, but Stalin vs. Martians is both. The manual is more entertaining than the game itself: the final nail in the coffin of Stalin vs. Martians.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Obulis Review

Obulis, developed by IonFx and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Plausible physics, simple controls, non-linear campaign with tons of levels
The Not So Good: Almost always only one solution, can be very difficult to time things correctly, solutions only available for easy puzzles, repetitive strategies, redundant control scheme, no puzzle editor
What say you? This physics-based puzzle game is hampered by its limited correct answers and a small margin for error: 5/8

One of the nice things about reviewing games for the PC is that titles from other systems usually find their way to the preeminent gaming platform. Some of these ports end up being better than others, but the gaming smorgasbord (yeah, I can get my Swedish on) that the PC offers cannot be matched. Enter Obulis, a physics-based puzzle game that first appeared on mobile devices and has finally made its way onto the platform of choice for discerning gamers around the globe. Obulis can be thought of Rube Goldberg-light, where you must maneuver balls into pots (a nightly event for me) by setting up a chain reaction of events, usually involving balls hitting other balls (again, a nightly event for me). Let's attempt to wade through the remainder of the “balls” jokes and evaluate how Obulis stacks up in the ever-crowded puzzle genre.

Though generally bland, Obulis offers some clean graphics. The game looks like it was optimized for a mobile platform with a minimalist presentation: static backgrounds and few animations apart from the puzzle elements themselves. There is absolutely no abstraction here like you see in, say, Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo: purely utilitarian. You get the 2-D objects and that's all; they look fine and all, but a little more flair is always appreciated. The sound design is nothing special as well: your basic realistic sound effects and unmemorable music. Obulis clearly favors gameplay over style, which is fine for most people accustomed to the puzzle genre.

Your goal in Obulis is to place colored balls into the correct color-coded container by setting up a series of events in real time. The game features a high amount of content: 151 levels spread across three maps. The campaign is setup so that you almost always have a choice as to which level to complete next, allowing for careful navigation around troublesome puzzles. The puzzles increase in difficulty along your journey from “trivial” to “essentially impossible.” Despite the high number of puzzles that comes with Obulis, the lack of a map editor in any puzzle game is a notable omission. Obulis is also purely a single-player affair, offering nothing in the way of online competitive play or scorekeeping.

Each puzzle in Obulis is populated with the aforementioned balls attached and near various force-inducing objects: chains, poles, catapults, cannons, trampolines, lifts, gears, and rubber bands. Interacting with the game is straightforward enough: just point, click, and click again to cut or activate. This extra “click” actually becomes quite annoying after a couple of puzzles; it would have been a lot more efficient to simply hover the mouse over a chain and right-click to cut. I guess this limitation is partially induced by the game’s mobile platform roots (and single input method). Obulis is one of the most challenging puzzle games I have encountered in quite a while, and commonly frustratingly so. Solutions can be tough to figure out, especially since almost all of the puzzles have only one proper answer that you must use. This solution will typically involve interacting with the objects in a set order at the appropriate time; even if you know what to do, setting things into motion at the right time can take a number of trials to execute correctly. Obulis offers animated solutions, but only to the easiest puzzles that you can figure out on your own anyway. I suspect that only the most stalwart players will be able to hang with Obulis once the difficulty is increased, as the margin for error is quite small once you get beyond “easy.”

Obulis clearly is behind physics-based puzzle stalwarts Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo. The basic premise and general execution of the game is fine, as the physics model produces believable results and there are lots of levels to play. Of course, the lack of an editor reduces the longevity of the franchise as a whole, but 151 levels is nothing to be easily dismissed. The mouse-driven control scheme means learning the game is intuitive, but I would like to take the simplification a step further by allowing for selection without needing to click the mouse, a seemingly superfluous step. The problems arise when you start talking about the difficulty of the game: while the easier levels always come with illustrated solutions, the harder ones (where you really need the help) require precision that is frankly too difficult to execute. Now, difficulty can be debated, but when you know what to do but simply can't get the timing down, then the game treads into the “annoying” classification. The fact that most (if not all) puzzles have only one proper solution, usually with multiple steps, raises the frustration bar even higher. The “sameness” of the puzzles begins to wear on you as you'll be utilizing identical basic strategies to solve each puzzle: causing things to run into each other. Obulis transitioned too quickly into “frustration” for my tastes, which is why I can only recommend it to veterans and fans of the genre.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Zeno Clash Review

Zeno Clash, developed and published by ACE Team.
The Good: Truly unique setting with outlandish enemies, satisfying melee combat
The Not So Good: Short, linear, lacks multiplayer, no manual saves, can’t skip cut scenes
What say you? This distinctive action game is a cut above your typical first person shooter: 7/8

Tired of generic World War II strategy games? Want some spice in your first person shooting? Well we have the game for you! Zeno Clash takes place in an alternative prehistoric society with bird-men, elephant-men, and explosive squirrels wearing parachutes. Makes sense to me! The game places a heavy focus on melee combat, something that countless action games have either ignored or poorly executed. Will Zeno Clash be a polished and unforgettable gaming experienced, or a horrible mutant bird-man-thing (or a man-bear-pig)?

The most readily apparent thing about Zeno Clash is its unique look: there’s nothing quite like it. The developer has created an imaginative setting with strange beasts around every turn. Generic it is not, from the detailed and wonderfully designed enemies to the weapon models. It’s a far-fetched prehistoric world of fancy, and you never quite know what to expect around the next bend. For gamers jaded on wave after wave of Nazis, Zeno Clash is a very refreshing change. The levels are obviously linear in most cases, but the environment is usually believable enough outside of your set path, and forested areas are always more interesting to look at than dank metal hallways. The level of eye candy is quite high and the compelling imagination of the developers is shown around every bend. The sound design is less original, featuring a pleasing enough score to go along with the fanciful action. Being a foreign title, I was not expecting much from the English voice acting, and I must say that the quality was above my lowered expectations: thankfully, this is no Men of War. The non-cut-scene voices are repetitive, as are the battle sounds, but ACE Team has crafted a fantastic world in which to punch the crap out of a mutant elephant.

Zeno Clash is a bit on the short side: it took me only five hours to complete the single player campaign. Given the budget-level price of the game and the outstanding supplementary elements, namely the setting and the combat, the relatively small amount of content can be partially forgiven. Since the levels are very linear and you encounter the same enemies each time you play, there is really no reason to go through the campaign more than once. When you are done, you can play through the challenge mode where you engage a set of increasingly more difficult enemies in a room; since you cannot customize the roster of opponents, this feature is quite limited. In addition there are other shortcomings (this is where I complain about minor things that add up to make an incomplete title): there is no manually saving of your progress (and only two autosave slots), no multiplayer (which could have been quite engaging), and no skipping the cut scenes. The tutorial to the game is introduced in dream sequences during the campaign; it does a good job teaching all of the controls and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a tutorial where I am shooting at freshly beheaded chickens before.

Zeno Clash takes the standard first person shooter control scheme and slightly increases the complexity by introducing melee-focused commands. Spacebar is your block button, and it can be used with other movement and action commands to pull off some advanced moves, like grab (and then throw or attack), breaking blocks, dodging punches, and repelling kicks. You have standard and more powerful attacks to deal with enemy units, and the combinations make for varied and interesting combat (I was half-expecting a “haduken” thrown in there for good measure), much more so than your typical game that has one punch and that’s it. The game does use the same button for targeting an enemy as picking up an object, which is a strange design decision and comes in to play in a negative fashion. You are not limited to melee attacks, either, as Zeno Clash has prehistoric variations of most modern weapons: pistols, grenade launchers, rifles. All of the weapons have infinite ammo and only require reload times; I actually like this approach, especially since it’s usually way more effective to punch someone instead of shooting them. It is easy to switch between weapons and melee combat and the game automatically locks on the closest enemy when you start swinging. The melee combat in Zeno Clash is very well design and it’s far more interesting than any other shooter.

Zeno Clash features some basic but effective artificial intelligence in the form of some crazy freakin’ animals. The game basically tells you the behavior pattern of each enemy you encounter through the cut scenes, so at least Zeno Clash is upfront about it. The developers obviously have a bird fetish, as Zeno Clash features bird-men, bug-birds, and rath-birds, in addition to elephant-men, frog-things, and just plain weirdness in various other forms. And you can’t forget the parachuting explosive squirrels. You will encounter the same exact enemies multiple times, often in the same level. This could either be laziness, humor, or maliciousness. You are always outnumber by the enemies (usually three against one); this is where Zeno Clash derives most of its difficulty from, as individual enemies are not too difficult to deal with. It is fun to punch, block, and kick your way to freedom and pleasing to disarm enemies and then use their weapons against them. The linear level design doesn’t give you a whole lot of tactical freedom, but since the emphasis is on action anyway, this is not a big deal. Zeno Clash is certainly entertaining during its short run and it always features something new to beat to a pulp.

Zeno Clash delivers exactly what you want from an independent game: originality. The game supplies originality in two main areas: the combat and the environment. Zeno Clash is the rare action game that actually has fun, enjoyable, and mostly non-repetitive melee combat, thanks to the simple control scheme that offers multiple counters and combos to keep things fresh. The setting is absolutely outstanding: something original is around every turn and you never know what crazy mutant enemy will appear next. The unique nature of Zeno Clash pulls you in and keeps you interested throughout the game’s short five-hour campaign. There isn’t much content beyond the campaign, though: the challenge mode against a horde of enemies in an empty room is only slightly interesting, and the lack of online combat is distressing because it probably would have been really sweet. Zeno Clash also has restrictions on saving your progress and you have to sit through each and every cut scene, which slows down the game flow significantly. Still, the two strengths of Zeno Clash are strong enough to almost ignore its shortcomings. If you don’t like a heavy focus on melee combat, then Zeno Clash probably won’t appeal to you, but everyone else should definitely check it out.