Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ArmA II Review

ArmA II, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Got Game Entertainment.
The Good: Intense authentic simulation of small to large scale warfare, excellent visuals, command of squads and entire armies, easy-to-use robust editor, campaign with optional objectives, multiple online modes
The Not So Good: Extreme realism means extreme difficulty, bugs of varied severity including better but not completely competent AI, robotic voice commands remain
What say you? A thorough replica of military operations perfect for those wanting a realistic experience: 7/8

One of the great things about gaming on the PC is all the niche titles to fit almost every interest: hardcore strategic wargames, accurate racing titles, realistic flight simulations, and many more. In terms of military simulations, we have console games that pretend to be real, but PC gamers know the truth: Bohemia Interactive creates the go-to titles for true realism. Starting with the venerable Operation Flashpoint and continuing with the ambitious but bug-filled ArmA 1, the developer has created quite a following, and they are back with the sequel to ArmA, appropriately called ArmA II. You would assume that two more years of development would produce a more polished and complete product. Does ArmA II make an ass out of you and me?

The most evident feature of ArmA II is the significant upgrade in visual quality. Simply put, the game world looks fantastic all around, from varied terrain to tons of objects and a great level of detail. Like previous games by the developer, they have developed a very plausible world in which to shoot things. Some games that advertise a large game world are actually filled with a significant amount of empty space, but Chernarus (a stand-in for northwestern Czech Republic) feels like a complete country, with buildings, forests, mountains, brush, fencing, and cars around every corner. Coupled with the copious amounts of objects are high-resolution textures, detailed character and vehicle models, and impressive (if not totally realistic) explosions. There are also bloom and motion blue effects, although I turned these off for improved performance and a reduction in fuzziness. I found performance of the game to be quite acceptable considering my somewhat modest system; the game puts the AI procedures on additional CPU cores, taking advantage of multi-core computers. The engine of ArmA II produces visuals that compete with any first person shooter on the market. The game continues the uneven audio package of previous games. The most noticeable new feature in the sound department is the realistic clanging (for lack of a better word) of equipment as you run: it actually sounds like you are loaded down with gear. We still have the sonic boom “pop” of rounds as they fly by (a feature I am surprised more games haven't stolen) and realistic weapon effects, but the voice acting is where ArmA II still lags behind the curve. The scripted character speech ranges from “tolerable” to “forced,” but dynamically generated speech still suffers from the dreaded robotic effect: ENEMY...MAN...FRONT!! This area of the game always seems to get the lowest priority, as it was a problem when Operation Flashpoint came out eight years ago. In addition, the music is a quite silly arrangement of generic rock tunes and feels completely out of place in an otherwise serious game. Despite the subpar audio, the graphics deliver enough quality to compensate.

The United States Military, because it has nothing better to do, assists anti-Communist forces in a foreign land (yeah, like that would ever happen). You are one of those Marines, and over the course of the eight mission campaign, you will transition from lowly foot soldier to commanding an entire army. Don't let the small number of scenarios fool you: most missions contain a copious amount of objectives that can be completed in any order, giving the player a lot of freedom to decide how to act. ArmA II is a lot more freeform than most (all?) first person shooters: as long as you satisfy the goals, it's doesn't matter how you do it. This large amount of player freedom does get the game into trouble on occasion, with important events that do not trigger and essentially break your progress (frustrating after a multiple-hour mission). The game does a good job slowly growing your power, introducing a new aspect of warfare to command, eventually allowing you to construct forward bases and order squads of infantry and armor around to do the killing for you. You will also commonly have optional secondary objectives that impact future choices, information, and supplies. The game also has a number of different endings, depending on how effective you are in the last couple of missions. ArmA II also has frequent automatic saves, important in a game where one shot can kill you. The difficult and realism settings affect friendly and enemy on-screen tage, the amount of information contained on the HUD, the lethality of the enemy AI (from “very competent” to “insanely accurate”, and whether you automatically report the location of enemy units (despite the fact that you might not actually see them yourself). While I usually do not care much for the single-player campaign in first person shooters, playing through Harvest Red in ArmA II was a fun experience thanks to the amount of freedom granted to the player.

After you are done with the campaign, you can play through the seven stand-alone scenarios, which offer the same intense combat of the campaign with a bit more scripting. The armory mini-games also make a return, giving you the opportunity to use any of the game's weapons and vehicles in a variety of activities, like races and defensive maneuvers. You haven't lived until you have “driven” a goat through an obstacle course. The game's eight tutorials cover the basics of all the components of the game and provide a good introduction. ArmA II has the same editor as before, which is a very good thing. A fully-functional mission is quite literally minutes away, as a couple of clicks can produce a simple but fun scenario. It's a powerful tool that takes advantage of the huge amount of terrain you have to deal with. Multiplayer is improved, with much faster connection times: it took me a couple of minutes to get into a game before, but now the transition takes less than a minute. I have also experience acceptably smooth online performance, even while playing on servers that are located in Europe. There are some fun custom scenarios (both competitive and cooperative) people have edited online, and if you don't have it, it will be downloaded automatically. I was quite satisfied with the online experience. If you do decide to take on human opponents, get ready to hyper-realistic rules and cooperative play. Despite the fact that you can use the wizard to create a functional deathmatch, detector (last man standing), capture the flag, or sector control scenario in a minute, almost every server uses cooperative scenarios. Those wacky Europeans sure like their co-op.

The theme of the day is “realism,” and that starts with the infantry. You'll notice the lack of a “jump” button (the developer argues that real military folk can't jump when weighed down with equipment), but you do get to “step over” low fencing, of which there is a large amount (I think to make you use the step over command). You certainly can't shoot while running, and accuracy is drastically improved when going prone. Unfortunately, you usually can't see anything while prone (somebody serious needs to mow Chernarus), so finding a proper position is important. The game features realistic ballistics for each weapon, creating some intense encounters with the enemy. You'll have to move in a smart manner, as concealment is not cover (a bush will not stop bullets) and fatigue (caused by running for a while) makes you less accurate and run slower. In addition, you suffer from blurred vision while being supressed, and since death is quick, you must play smart. New for ArmA II is the ability to heal wounded troops and drag or carry them to safety. It's a little gimmicky, but fun. ArmA II features an impressive collection of real-world weapons, from pistols and assault rifles to machine guns and sniper rifles. And don't forget the animals: who needs to tip over cows when you can shoot them with a high-powered rifle? ArmA II also gives you a complete assortment of hardware to drive or fly: jeeps, APCs, tanks, helicopters, and jets. Controls are much the same as before: iffy. While the infantry controls are spot-on, vehicle control has always been less impressive: vehicles turn too drastically at low speeds, resulting in a lot of collisions. Although jets and helicopters are simplified for a keyboard control scheme, using a joystick is highly recommended for better precision. You can always let someone else pilot the choppers and call in air support to eliminate pesky enemy units.

You will quickly ascend up the command ladder during the campaign and be responsible for ordering around subordinate units. ArmA II includes the complex command interface from before: select a unit and go through a menu system to give move, target, engage, mount, action, formation, or team orders. In addition, you can hold spacebar to give orders based on what you are aiming at (like mounting a vehicle or engaging an enemy unit). Having both methods is nice, as you give quick instructions on the fly and more detailed orders if you desire. ArmA II eventually lets you play like a real time strategy game, ordering squads around and building base structures. While this aspect of the game is obviously not as fleshed out as a “real” RTS, it's a nice enough diversion and gives you (again) more freedom to approach a mission in different ways.

The much maligned AI has gotten generally better in ArmA II. Given the open nature of the game, I am willing to give a little leeway regarding how smart the AI is. We still get the occasional bad driver (tanks getting stuck, helicopters running into things), but, in general, it's not the idiot fest that ArmA I was. The AI will actively seek cover (the advertised “micro-AI”), and this goes both ways, as you can sneak up to AI units if you are quiet and smart. Since the AI will use supressive fire, it's important to be behind solid objects during combat. The AI is getting progressively better with each patch, but since deaths by AI allies can fail a mission, it can still be quite frustrating dealing with less than competent squad members. Adding to the overall difficulty of ArmA II is the fact that it can be difficult to differentiate between enemy and friendly troops, especially on higher realism settings. This game is really intended for veteran FPS players, although I suspect anyone looking for an unflinchingly realistic experience will find a grand, gritty time in ArmA II.

ArmA II is more engaging and polished than its predecessors (although you could argue that being more polished than ArmA I doesn't require much of an improvement). The graphics are quite fantastic all around: Chernarus is a great setting filled with lots of subtle touches to create plausible surroundings. The open-ended campaign gives the user enough freedom to tackle large missions with multiple objectives in varied fashions as a member of an infantry squad all the way up to the commander of an entire army. The gameplay is brutally realistic: there is no “bunny hopping” or health packs here (although being healed by allies sort-of counts). The auxiliary scenarios and sandbox armory missions involving every unit in the game round out a nice package. Multiplayer is more streamlined with faster connection times, and the editor is simple to use and can create some impressive results. Vehicle control is not as solid as the infantry portion of ArmA II and can't compete with more dedicated flight or tank simulations. ArmA II gives you the tools to command squads and entire armies, using the robust (but potentially confusing) complete interface or quick, point-and-click context-sensitive orders. The AI is improved but not perfect: for every exhilarating battle that involves computer-controller soldiers successfully using cover, you have a tank getting stuck on a house or a helicopter pilot that lands sideways. These kinds of bugs are annoying and they are plentiful enough to definitely be noticeable, but I think fans of this series of games are willing to forgive some inconsistencies because the game as a whole is so stirring. Plus, recent patches are making improvements, and hopefully the developers will continue to improve the problems with the game. ArmA II is better off when released than ArmA I was, so the large contingent of gamers looking for a realistic military simulation should not be disappointed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Delta Force Xtreme 2 Review

Delta Force Xtreme 2, developed and published by NovaLogic.
The Good: New maps and a map editor, online stat tracking, cooperative multiplayer, several game modes
The Not So Good: Tired shooter mechanics, uninteresting and short single player campaign with brain-dead AI, old graphics with poor textures, no significant improvements from the original
What say you? E“xtreme”ly outdated, this first person shooter's numerous archaic properties have not aged well nor changed at all: 3/8

Remember when Novalogic's games were innovative tactical titles? Oh, and those voxels were spectacular. Too bad it’s not 1998, because here we are 11 years later with the latest iteration of the once-proud Delta Force franchise. The last decent title in the series was probably Black Hawk Down, and I had logged extensive play time in Land Warrior (birthday present, I believe). This time, we are takin’ it to the XTREME once more with the aptly-named Delta Force Xtreme 2, sequel to a the original XTREME title that came out four years ago. I swear I played Delta Force Xtreme, although it might have just been the demo. Anyway, four years is long enough to allow for including significantly improved content to further develop the game towards full potential. Right? Maybe not.

One area that has gotten absolutely no improvement is the graphics. Delta Force Xtreme 2 features what I would say are identical textures, models, and effects when you compare it against the original, four-year-old game. That’s quite a bold choice for the developer, eschewing “logic” and convention by not actually making the game look any better. When the Novalogic games were voxel-based, they has a sort of unique appeal to them, but once they joined the rest of the world in pixel-based 3-D land, washed-out and bland textures became the story and Delta Force Xtreme 2 is no different: the game world here lacks detail in every area. Considering that the original game was graphically outdated when it came out four years ago, you can imagine the shortcomings we have to endure this time around. The area that needs the most work is the textures: nothing in the game has any crispness or detail. You would think this might be an easy thing to update (just change some graphics files), but I guess “effort” was not part of the equation when developing Delta Force Xtreme 2. It doesn’t stop there, either: player models are blocky, weapons look horrible, and locations and environments lack any sense of realism. About the only “neat” aspect of the game is the blinding sunlight, but this is the only unique feature of an otherwise awful graphics package. The sound design (as you might expect) holds up better: the campaigns have voiced introductions and the weapons are convincing, and that’s all you really need in a first person shooter. Unfortunately for Delta Force Xtreme 2, having outdated graphics is more of an issue for a first person shooter.

You get an extremely strong case of déjà vu while playing Delta Force Xtreme 2, mainly because it’s the same four-year-old game repackaged with a handful of new maps and missions. The remainder of the game is identical to the original title, which is a sad, sad thing, especially because Delta Force Xtreme 2 is priced at $30 (at least twice what it should be). If you have or played the original game, you can probably stop reading here (if you haven’t already) and safely go back to Delta Force Xtreme 1 (along with the two other people that still play that game) with no regrets. For the rest of you dedicated readers (all three of you!), here’s what you get in Delta Force Xtreme 2.

First off, you get two, count ‘em, two single player campaigns with ten missions…total. You can play with up to four other people cooperatively online, but there is really no point, as the campaign missions are bland, predictable, and more linear than the open nature of the game should warrant. Missions do take place in wide-open, outdoor environments, so you are given a bit of leeway in determining the best course of action: Delta Force Xtreme 2 is not as restricted as more linear first person shooters. That said, the campaigns are not interesting in the least thanks to idiotic AI: enemies are in scripted locations and rarely react to being shot at, do not use cover effectively (or at all), and generally behave like total morons. The only thing they have going for them is numerical superiority, and this is the only thing that makes Delta Force Xtreme 2 challenging at all. I suspect most people will spend their time with the multiplayer portions of the game, and we get a complete retread of past features: five game modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, team king of the hill, capture the flag, and flagball) and high player counts (the game can support 150 players supposedly, but I never found more than 20 on a single server). A “gold” subscription ($5/month) to the NovaWorld service (included for a month with the purchase of Delta Force Xtreme 2) will also track your online stats, something that most online shooters offer for free. Delta Force Xtreme 2 also features more maps (40 total) with “highly detailed” terrain. I can’t tell the difference between the “new” and “old” maps, so the “highly detailed” terrain must not be that significant. We also have a map editor to make even more content; always a good thing.

Delta Force Xtreme 2 features weapons that any good military organization would have access to: assault rifles, machine guns, sub machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and explosives. There is a good number to choose from, but they change little in behavior or strategy. I had just as much success using a machine gun as an unscoped assault rifle, so it’s really a matter of preference as to which specific weapon you’d like to shoot people with. It should also be noted that all of the weapons were (again) the same as in the previous game. Delta Force Xtreme 2 also lets you handle some vehicles, a novel feature if it was 2002. Unfortunately, the vehicles handle like arcade garbage: there is no sense of driving along the ground, rather you are floating above it. This is most noticeable driving a jeep on uneven terrain, where you rarely bounce around or have any difficulty adhering to the ground. Plus, the selection of helicopters, APCs, tanks, motorcycles, and jeeps have all been seen before in much better games. Delta Force Xtreme 2 maintains its balance of tactical arcade play. It’s not terrible, but it’s been the same formula for over a decade (since the original Delta Force) and cracks are starting to show just due to the age of the engine. The little things start to annoy you, like extremely high accuracy while running, and the fact that you can run just as fast going straight up an incline than on flat terrain. Xtreme! One area that definitely needed improvement and didn’t get it was the AI. As I mentioned before, they usually do not react at being shot, usually do not move, and only sometimes return fire. They are cannon fodder rather than an actual opponent, and this makes the single player experience of Delta Force Xtreme 2 completely forgettable. For a game that has several areas that need improvement, the developers have decided to add a couple of maps and leave the deficiencies intact. Xtreme!

Delta Force Xtreme 2 is about twice the cost of what it should have been, especially when you consider that the game adds absolutely nothing of note. $30 for a couple of maps? No thanks. Sure, you get a shiny new (I think it’s new, anyway: I don’t recall the original game having one and information on the great Internet is scarce) map editor to add some more content, but Delta Force Xtreme 2 is drastically overpriced for what you get. The game does come with some new content: new maps to bring the total over 40 and a map editor to increase that number even further. You can also play most of the campaign missions cooperatively and there is a good variety of multiplayer game modes, although they were all featured previously. Sadly, this is where the new-ish content stops, as the rest of the game is identical to Delta Force Xtreme. The shooting and ballistics have the same arcade-simulation feel that has been present in the series from day one, so there is nothing innovative there, despite it being not necessarily “bad.” The campaign only consists of ten missions and features terrible, dumb AI that is only challenging in large numbers. The graphics have undergone no noticeable overhaul, an important feature of the usually eye candy rich first person shooter genre. In short, playing Delta Force Xtreme 2 is like playing Delta Force Xtreme 1, and I can’t justify paying $30 to do the same thing over again.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943 Review

Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943, developed by 1C Company and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Realistic large battles, map editor included
The Not So Good: Horribly inadequate user interface, sub-par AI, only fifteen missions in nine unique locations, poor performance
What say you? A disappointing step backwards for this limited sequel: 5/8

Apparently, there was this war in the 1940s known as World War II (or, as it is more commonly called, The Really Big Civil War 2: War Harder). I know; I had never heard of it either. Good thing there are computer games to keep us informed. From Russia, glorious land of PC development, comes Theatre of War 2, sequel to (surprise!) Theatre of War, a good RTS from two years ago. Taking the action to the neglected theater (that's the correct spelling, people) of North Africa, how does Theatre of War 2 improve upon the original game?

Maybe it’s because it’s two years later, maybe it’s because of the setting, or maybe it’s because it’s using a different graphics engine, but Theatre of War 2 actually looks worse than the original game. The combination of bland desert environments, jaggy buildings, and poorly animated units makes Theatre of War 2 much less visually impressive than the original game when it came out. What has most likely happened is that other RTS games, such as Men of War, has left Theatre of War 2 behind. In addition, the setting here (the deserts of Northern Africa) are really not suited for the game’s engine; green is just as repetitive a color as yellow, but the maps of Theatre of War 1 featured a lot more variety in the form of roads, trees, and buildings. The well-done backgrounds of the original game also strikingly joined with the foregrounds, an effect lost in the monotonous deserts of Africa that are not very exciting to look at. The bland, washed-out textures make indistinguishable, poorly detailed terrain as well. In addition, the game engine doesn’t handle the large battles common in the game well, with frequent slow-downs and poor performance on machines that should easily handle the increased amount of action. The sound design is average for a strategy game: the voice acting is not as noticeably repetitive as in other Russian imports and the weapon and special effects do the job. While the sound design holds up, the graphics of Theatre of War 2 have clearly been left in the dust.

I’ve never understood how you can make a sequel that’s inferior to the original game, but Theatre of War 2 offers a crash course in this paradox. How so, you ask? Well, start out with a small amount of missions: fifteen scattered across three campaigns (one for each of the major sides blowing stuff up in North Africa). But it’s not fifteen unique missions: the missions repeat, as you will replay the same one from the other side. There are only eight unique missions in the entire game; I guess the developers are relying on some robust community work with the editor. Let’s compare to the original game, which had almost fifty missions in both campaign and stand-alone varieties (all of the missions in Theatre of War 2 are campaign-only, although you can play them singly after you have beaten them). That’s three to four times less content. Seriously? There’s not any incentive to play them again, either: the difficulty levels simply tweak the amount of damage you give and receive, rather than introducing a different, more complex scenario. Before each mission, you can customize the order of battle and choose (to an extent) which troops to bring into battle. The battles are large where you normally control only a fraction of the total units, an increasingly more common approach to realistic RTS games. Theatre of War 2 also has multiplayer features on ten maps, although the servers are not populated and the browser didn’t even work until I patched the game. Nice.

Theatre of War 2 has gotten an interface overhaul, and it’s an epic fail. This is thanks to a couple of limitations, the first being the mini-map. It has decreased in size so much that you can’t see anything but a chaotic arrangement of dots. The hand-drawn minimap used previously worked fine and dandy, but now you can’t usually see objective locations, leading to a lot of confusion. You essentially must use the tactical map, which (of course) takes up the entire screen, obscuring your view of the battlefield. You will get journal entries (really just event messages) about your units, but you cannot click on them to focus on that particular unit. So why even have them? Like I know where “Bob Smith” is located. Speaking of names, Theatre of War 2 will automatically pause every time a unit dies. Considering that most missions have hundreds of units, this insane “feature” gets highly annoying. I have no idea what the developers were thinking. You can turn off the “feature” if you patch the game, but its inclusion is still completely idiotic. Units can be issued common RTS orders: area fire, assault, ambush, scout, defend, smoke, stance, and behavior, just to name a few. Formations in the game are also highly useless: you can choose from a single column where everyone is in one giant line, or a line consisting of one row. Genius! Even the wedge formation is just a single line with a ninety-degree angle in the middle. This means lassoing a bunch of units and issuing a move order is pointless, since they will arrange themselves in some idiotic configuration.

Theatre of War 2 contains the same core gameplay that was present before, and a lot of it is fun realism. Containing realistic ballistics, damage, morale, ammunition counts, and powerful backup like air support, fighting in the game is quite fun if the auxiliary features didn’t get in the way. Of course, all of this was available two years ago and it’s also present in many other World War II strategy games. Theatre of War 2 contains accurate units from the time period with stats for health, armor, and weapon penetration (sounds dirty!). Each infantryman is rated in four areas (accuracy, scouting, driving, gunner), and their skills can be increased between missions as they gain more experience. There is nothing terribly innovative here, though, now that pretty much every decent realistic strategy game has the same features.

The AI is not as polished as I would have expected in a sequel. The game does not suffer from the foolhardy pathfinding of the original game, but it is still hit-or-miss sometimes, especially for enemy units and when you factor in the horrible formations. Enemy troops have problems traversing large distances, so any mission where they are attacking is typically very poorly organized with a constant trickle of troops not significant enough to penetrate your defenses. Friendly units behave intelligently enough, automatically engaging the enemy under most (but certainly not all) circumstances. Using good tactics will typically keep most of your troops alive. Troops will scout for cover and fire automatically on the enemy (unless explicitly told not to do so), which makes controlling a large number of units a more manageable situation. Unfortunately, the setting for Theatre of War 2 makes for some less-than-interesting battles: except for the urban areas, most maps have plentiful open spaces devoid of any amount of cover, eliminating a lot of the tactics seen in more diverse locations.

Theatre of War 2 is a game that improves nothing from the original and actually turns out worse. Both of the quality aspects of the game, the core gameplay and the map editor, were present the first time around. While the heart of Theatre of War 2 features some nice tactical gaming, all of the ancillary materials stink. First is the unusable interface, from the futile tiny minimap to the constant pausing whenever a soldier dies. Before the first patch, you couldn't even turn off this “feature.” How annoying it is, considering the large-sized battles Theatre of War 2 offers. Your AI opponent can’t handle large-scale attacks, providing only a small dribble of enemies that will easily be defeated. Not that you’ll be playing Theatre of War 2 for long, since the game comes with only a fraction (namely 1/3) of the content the original game had, and it even repeats a lot of the same missions over again for each side. Multiplayer is not a popular venture, either, so the life span of Theatre of War 2 is quite short, a death sentence for a game in a genre where replay value reigns supreme. Finally, the bland textures, repetitive environments, and underwhelming animations don’t even run smoothly during large battles. North Africa may be an ignored theatre of war, and it should continue to be so.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

AI War: Fleet Command Review

AI War: Fleet Command, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Challenging and multifaceted AI that increases in difficulty as you become more powerful, extremely large battles with lots of varied units that promote strategic variety, ample interface designed to handle a large scale, procedurally generated campaign maps, cooperative campaigns over a LAN
The Not So Good: Long match lengths on huge maps with a slow pace, no Internet server browser
What say you? A deep cooperative real time strategy game for veterans of the genre: 6/8

Hey look! Another space strategy game! Yes, I might be able to officially change the name of this site to Out of Eight Space Strategy Game Reviews, although then I would miss out on playing some truly awesome games. Our bi-monthly (it seems) space RTS comes to us this time in the form of AI War: Fleet Command, a game where you command a fleet in a war against the AI. I know, they could have made the title of the game more clear. Here the focus is on engaging the incoming AI hordes and taking over their planets, mainly because they lack table manners and smell funny (so, they are Irish, then (please direct all hate mail here)). Needlessly insulting cultures aside, this game has a couple of unique features that might be intriguing to the strategy gamers among us, namely the AI and the large unit counts. How does AI War stack up? Good thing I am about to tell you!

Although AI War is a 2-D game, the graphics have features of three dimensions in them that is especially noticeable when you pan the camera. It’s a weird change in perspective as the foreground moves more than the background does, but the result is a more visually stimulating package than a strictly 2-D space game. Unit icons are in 2-D, however, and they are small but show slight variations in designs of the same kind and some of the more exotic ships have some neat blueprints. Even when fully zoomed in, though, things are still quite small, so you’ll be starting at a gigantic mass of icons most of the time. This also means that the visuals for battles are understated, with small pixels for each weapon type, although the missiles have a nice smoke trail effect. Still, nobody will confuse AI War with a higher budget space strategy title. The sound design consists of battles that sound like extremely small fireworks are going off and a classical music arrangement to accompany your mass xenocide. None of the tutorial instructions are voiced, but I didn’t really expect them to be. Overall, AI War is a slight step above your typical independent space-based strategy game in terms of graphics and sound.

AI War is a real time strategy game where you and (hopefully) a couple of friends take on an enemy force. With this focus on cooperative play, AI War features Internet-based play (but only using a known IP address) in addition to local area network gaming. This means you need actual friends in order to enjoy AI War to its fullest, as the game lacks multiplayer matchmaking. Now, I doubt that AI War would ever have the audience required to have constant ongoing online matches (especially considering the long game lengths) to warrant a server browser, but you can theoretically meet people on message board and subsequently play with them (common in the wargaming community). AI War does allow you to save your progress and resume at a later date, so you don’t have to complete the typically fifteen-hour-long matches in one session. AI War has procedurally generated random maps (over 13 billion combinations! Count them all!) that offer enough variety and mystery to keep you interested in subsequent games. Unfortunately, you are not given a lot of leeway in deciding how large your universe will be: the smallest galaxy size consists of forty planets. At least Sins of a Solar Empire let you have small maps in addition to the disturbingly large offerings, but AI War arbitrarily restricts you to large maps and long games. The objective of each game is the same: eliminate the AI from the map. This can obviously take quite a while with the large map sizes, so expect one complete game to last on the order of fifteen hours. Games also include secondary objectives that are completely unnecessary: of course you are going to steal alien technologies and attack planets. The game has a set of tutorials that teach the basics of the genre and an intermediate campaign that takes place on a smaller, ten planet map; AI War does not come with a manual, but the in-game help is extensive enough for strategy veterans.

Because AI War is a large game, having an interface that allows you to access all of your important units and structures. Thankfully, the interface in AI War is almost completely fantastic. There is a list of buildings along the bottom of the screen and a list of units along the right side of the screen. Clicking on an icon in either list selects or zooms in on that particular object: nice. Accessing other planets is also relatively easy using the galaxy map (TAB key), where all of the planet links and a graphical summary of which planets have ships on them are depicted. You can also issue move commands from the galaxy map, provided you have selected your units prior to pressing TAB. The galaxy map does get crowded with a lot of irrational connections between planets, but that’s more of an issue with the map size restriction I stated earlier. You can tag planets with an importance rating, providing a one-glance assessment of adjacent worlds. There are also another couple of nice additional interface features: infinite queues that do not erase when you are short on resources (essential for the high unit counts in the game) and a simple option to have all units travel at the slowest maximum speed of the fleet. AI War could have failed miserably if the interface wasn’t up to the task, but it thankfully is more than sufficient.

The first step to any galactic empire is resource collection, and you have a number to acquire here. All of them are straightforward: metal and crystal (where have I heard of those before?) are mined from asteroids with a clear indication of where they are located on the game map and area minimap by placing a harvester building. Energy comes straight from power plants you build. Knowledge comes from each planet you control, but it is finite so you must expand in order to gain more powerful units. You can also gain control of enemy advanced research stations: getting one of these lets you unlock a new ship class. Knowledge is spent on research, which consists of upgrading existing ships to a better class (from Mark I to Mark IV). There are over twenty classes of ships, including anti-armor, armor, autocannon, bomber, bulletproof fighter, deflectors, electric shuttle, ether jet, eye bot, infiltrator, micro fighter, munitions booster, parasite, sniper, space tank, spider, teleport raider, and vampire claw. You will only get access to ten classes during a single game, which is great from a variety and management standpoint, leading to more strategies and less of a fixed, static build order. A lot of games can feature a large variety of units or customizable ones, but the ships present in AI War do offer a degree of strategic variety rarely matched in the genre. To be fair, most of the types in each class are simply linear upgrades, but the roster of military hardware is nonetheless impressive. Plus, Astro Trains are just plain weird (trains? in space? whatever!). You have a population cap for each unit type, so you do still need those lower level units to be upgraded in order to be effective: you can’t just spam a single effective unit. I don’t know if there is an in-game justification for this limitation, but it doesn’t really matter as it’s an effective mechanic. This does not mean, however, that battles in AI War are small: end-game confrontations can easily number into the tens of thousands, especially if you are playing with a number of human allies. The game seems to do a good job handling all of this at once, taking advantage of dual-core possessors by sticking the AI procedures on the other CPU. You are also given a suite of economic and defensive structures to defend against incoming enemy raids. Since the AI will (usually) predictably spawn from wormholes, you can surround them with an assortment of mines, turrets, and tractor beams.

With a game called AI War, you had better have quality computer opponents, and AI War delivers. You get twenty-six (I can count!) distinct styles of AI, including heavy defender, raider, bomber, stealth, spy, turtle, and planet assault. Each of these will present a different strategic challenge, increasing the replay value of the game as a whole. You can choose specific enemies to combat when you create a new game, but you are also allowed to randomize the choice at a difficulty level to keep you guessing. Unlike most (all?) games in this genre, AI War does not have the AI play by the same rules as you; this unbalanced nature actually works quite well and makes for more interesting gameplay in the end. In this sense, AI War plays more like an enhanced tower defense game, where you must defend yourself against incoming alien raids, although you’ll have to expand and take their planets as well in order to succeed. Doing so introduces the scalable difficulty of AI War: the AI becomes harder based on how much you have beaten them. This means that you will don’t actually want to completely destroy an enemy planet if you don’t need to, as it will motivate the computer opponents to become a more effective foe. AI War is still a difficult game, to be sure, especially if you increase the initial strength of your targets.

There isn’t much micromanaging required in guiding your forces to victory, a good thing considering how many units you’ll be controlling at once. Units will automatically attack incoming enemies, but your troops will not move to bring AI units into range if surrounding ships are attacking: a slight annoyance. In the end, it’s a matter of bringing the right mix and amount of ships to the enemy stronghold in order to take down the typically stout defenses. You can bring along a mobile ship producer to assist with reinforcements, although if you didn’t bring an adequate amount initially, you are screwed anyway. As I have alluded to earlier, AI War is a long, long game. The slow pace of the game involves a significant amount of waiting around for ships to move and things to get build (although the first issue is more significant). You can accelerate the simulation speed (using the + and – keys), but the game is more uncontrollable then, so you are kind of stuck with your fifteen-hour-long games. I don’t think a lot of people will be able to handle the decidedly relaxed pace unless you are accustomed to drawn-out strategy games. I think have smaller maps would be a much more desirable option. The intermediate campaign has only 10 planets, so why can’t I have something between this low extreme and the 40 for the normal campaign? It seems like an arbitrary limitation to me, and it keeps AI War from appealing to a wider audience.

Although not for everyone, AI War clearly has enough well-designed features to make it a notable strategy game. The AI types are quite varied, and I like how they become more difficult as you destroy them; this not only introduces an adaptive difficulty level, but also introduces some strategy of not attacking unnecessary AI worlds. A lot of RTS games tout HUGE EPIC BATTLES (this is typically shouted), but AI War does deliver massive encounters that can easily consist of literally tens of thousands of ships. The unwieldiness of controlling this amount of stuff is partially negated by the excellent interface: accessing all of your ships, buildings, and planets is a straightforward process that’s usually one or two clicks away. AI War is really designed for cooperative play, mainly due to the extreme map size; while the game does allow for saving a game and resuming it later, it does not browsing for Internet games, allowing only for direct IP contests and those over LAN. I would also like to be able to adjust the map size to something smaller; some people just don’t have the time to spend fifteen hours conquering forty planets at a minimum. Giving the user more options is always a desirable feature. Because of the large maps and generally slow pace (which can be slightly adjusted, but fifteen hours is fifteen hours), I feel that AI War will ultimately appeal the most to expert strategy gamers. You can speed things up somewhat using the “fast and dangerous” mode, but AI War still offers long games for strategy veterans and those with a lot of time to invest. If you fall into that category, the sheer variety of strategies AI War boasts will draw you in: the twenty ship classes (not types, classes), randomly generated maps, range of defenses, and the diversity of behaviors the AI opponents exhibit mean replay value for this game is quite high. If you can get past the massive nature of the time involved and the size of the game, AI War has enough depth in several areas to satisfy strong strategic cravings.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Light of Altair Review

Light of Altair, developed and published by SaintXi.
The Good: Approachable space colony development, usually free-form scenarios, numerous explicit objectives, incredibly useful interface, non-interactive space battles with custom ship designs
The Not So Good: Lacks sandbox and multiplayer features, no map editor, linear resource relationships means some repetition, inhuman AI
What say you? A notable introductory space colonization title with an emphasis on city planning and custom ship design strategy: 6/8

Someone wise once said: “Space, the final frontier.” I think it was Han Solo. In any event, space sure is a popular setting for games, as gamers enjoy vacuums that do not involve cleaning of any kind (unless it’s s space cleaning simulation). Plus, we cannot get enough of Uranus. All of those cold hunks of rock aren’t going to colonize themselves (I plan on sending a probe to Uranus….all right, enough of those jokes), so Light of Altair wants you to colonize and populate planets all in the name of intergalactic genocide. Who’s ready to become a rocket man/woman/hermaphrodite?

Space games are typically sources of some grand graphical spectacles, and Light of Altair has some good features in its independent roots. Most importantly (to me), all of the planets rotate in orbit during the game’s real time play. It always bothers me when planets are stars are always in the same place, even if the time scale doesn’t really call for drastic movement. It never affects your strategy, but it’s nice to look at. The overall theme of Light of Altair is slightly cartoon-like and exaggerated, but that’s OK as it makes everything easier to identify at a distance. Since the game takes place on spheres, you will have to rotate your view in order to see anything: I’m not sure if “realistic” is the correct term for it, but it is different and effective and a lot more interesting than a flat planet view. The special effects are minimal at best, but that’s not really the focus of the game. The sound design is less impressive: sporadic effects and generic but non-annoying background music round out the typical presentation of Light of Altair.

I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the interface (it’s graphics related): it’s really good. Because you will eventually have a lot of planets with a lot of colonies under your control, it’s important for the game to allow for easy, one-glance access to them, and Light of Altair does. All of your colonies on a single planet are listed in the bottom corner with icons for happiness, population growth, and income. When zoomed further out, all of your colonized planets are listed and it only takes a couple of clicks to switch between worlds, important in a real-time setting. You can also right-click any building listed in the construction list to focus on one of them: brilliant. In addition, there is an “idle worker” button of sorts to select empty minerals spaces and clear terrain just waiting to be built upon: quite useful on large worlds. There is no undo for accidental middle-clicking bulldozing (I’m used to the Demigod method of rotating the camera with the middle mouse button) and you can’t deselect an item by pressing escape or right-clicking, offering up some unintentional building orders. You can also zoom in and out smoothly with the mouse wheel from planet-level to a wide space view (somebody played Supreme Commander). Good stuff.

Light of Altair takes place over sixteen maps that expand from our solar system outwards. Each scenario has you colonizing for a different faction, but because there's no gameplay or features difference between playing Asia and the United States, the nations are purely cosmetic. The game features a reasonable difference between difficulty levels (not just more enemies or more hit points or an income bonus). The “normal” setting is actually more like “easy,” where you have more of everything (money, time, happiness) and the opponent has less (defenses, expansion rate, fleet sizes). The game is meant to be played on the “hard” setting where everyone is on an even playing field, except the computer has the advantage of instantaneous decision making. There is nothing beyond the sixteen mission campaign, though: Light of Altair lacks a map editor, either manually drawn solar systems or randomly generated ones. That’s too bad, but the included scenarios are quite large and take a significant amount of time to complete. The first three levels are meant as tutorials to the basics of the game; they do a good job teaching the basics, and Light of Altair additionally offers extensive in-game help: just press "i" and it takes you to a replica of the manual for that object. Light of Altair also features frequent and helpful objectives that usually point you in the right direction for success. These features make Light of Altair very easy to learn for beginning players.

Your first task upon establishing a new colony on an alien world is to promote population growth, and nothing says “sex” like “food.” Placing food-producing structures will grow the population up to the level of food production, and cities that grow in size will produce more taxes. You will also have to provide power in the form of solar arrays for worlds close to their star or reactors for those further away. Once you have established the basics, you can expand into other areas. Another way of making fat stacks of cash is to establish mines on mineral deposits and trade the resources by building a starport at your capital. You will need to build one factory for every ten mines to process the material (a relationship I discovered after wasting lots of money on one factory for every mine in my first game). Mineral deposits are also used for fuel, which is used for fleets and colonizing distant planets; it’s an interesting strategic decision balancing your economy against your military. Other structures can improve happiness, research new buildings or weapons (and reveal mineral deposits), change the atmosphere to something more hospitable, and defend against enemy attacks. Because there is a limited amount of room, you will usually devote each colony to one specialization: mining, food, industry, research. Borders expand as cities level up and grow, allowing for some mixing among your largest colonies, but normally each city will fulfill one important role. Later in the game, you will control multiple colonies on a single planet and multiple planets throughout the solar system; thankfully, the interface makes juggling all of these far-away lands easy. There is also little waiting because you can accelerate time; while Light of Altair is technically a real time game, you can pause at any time and skip the boring parts. In addition, time acceleration stops when an important event occurs, like a new colony being established.

Eventually, you are going to want to kick someone’s ass, and that’s where your fleets come in. Your population cap with fleets is determined by your fuel capacity: the more fuel you have, the larger your fleet can be. You can create a defensive group of fighters at any planet for a low cost for fuel, or make an attack force with more sophisticated hardware: corvettes, frigates, cruisers, and even space stations. Larger craft have higher upkeep but they can carry many more weapons: missiles, rockets, torpedoes, lasers, lances, gauss guns, and rail runs, in addition to fighter bays, armor, shields, and counter measures. There is an interesting strategy when designing custom ships: shields can defend against lasers and counter measures can destroy incoming rockets, but not vice versa. Once you see what your enemy has used, you can exploit their weaknesses. The space battles are automated, so the result is determined beforehand by your fleet size and tactical upgrade decisions. It takes time to conquer large planets, giving the other side time to raise another fleet to counter the attack.

Despite the straightforward nature of the mechanics, Light of Altair is not an easy game, especially when playing at the “hard” setting. The game gets difficult quickly after the first three introductory maps, mostly thanks to the very aggressive AI opponents. Your foes colonize very quickly, too quickly actually. They have fully expanded colonies almost instantaneously, leaving you in the competitive dust. Since a lot of the victory conditions have to do with out-producing the enemy, you are quickly behind and must use your superior human intellect to win. The developers certainly have a good opponent, but they did not scale their actions down to human-like levels of dexterity. Thankfully, you can juggle different planets thanks to the interface, otherwise the game would be impossible to play. There are some interesting strategic (tactical?) decisions to make during your expansion: balancing mining ore for profit and mining fuel for ships, and choosing which weapons to use. The research tree in Light of Altair isn’t as sophisticated as Galactic Civilizations, since you can always afford to simply research all available techs, but you are limited to how many weapons you can squeeze on a single ship. You are limited in the amount of cash you have on hand, something I really never paid much attention to, since your employer tends to give you additional funding if you dip too far into the red. It’s really easy to overspend since construction times are instantaneous.

While Light of Altair lacks the depth of strategy stalwarts like Galactic Civilizations, its more approachable gameplay will definitely appeal to a more casual crowd, and this game serves as a great introduction to the space 4X genre. It is a simplification of the 4X conventions, focusing more on expanding and exterminating while simplifying exploring (everything is explored) and exploiting (uncomplicated economy). There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I found the learning curve of Light of Altair to be pleasingly low, and the higher difficulty setting is there for those who want more of a challenge. Creating a functioning colony is pretty simple: placing buildings for food, power, money (through mining), and happiness all have predictable results. It’s this predictability that introduces some repetition to the game, in that you’ll always result to the same basic strategy with every new planet. Light of Altair is more a game of efficiency: who can get the powerful ships first? You are given a good amount of freedom in your plans, especially later on when entire solar systems open up for exploration and colonization. The interface is fantastic, letting you juggle all of your colonies with ease. Eventually, you will raise a space fleet to defend your worlds and attack others. Light of Altair lets you design your own ships, and since the weapons use a rock-paper-scissors system you can counteract enemy strategies with your own designs. Light of Altair is easy to learn because the unambiguous and plentiful objectives make your goals crystal clear. Two things the game lacks, a map editor and multiplayer, are relatively small transgressions because of the quality gameplay. The obviously robotic AI is more of an issue that has to do with immersion than quality of gameplay, but it is distressing when the opposing nations construct fully-functioning colonies way faster than you ever could. Still, even with some nagging issues, Light of Altair is definitely worth $15. Fans of space-based games, city builders, and 4X titles will find a lot to like in the simplified but engrossing Light of Altair. Go towards the light, my friend.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Out of the Park Baseball 10 Review

Out of the Park Baseball 10, developed and published by Out of the Park Developments.
The Good: Comprehensive 2009 rosters with enhanced ratings, historical data included, better AI in several areas, nice game day atmosphere for a text-based sim, realistic salary arbitration, credible injury system
The Not So Good: AI GMs make some nonsensical moves, players can be confusingly more skilled at a secondary position, some interface quirks remain
What say you? Still the best text-based baseball simulation around: 8/8

It’s the doldrums of the annual sports seasons, between the Super Bowl and the start of NFL training camps in July. NASCAR is typically interesting, especially this year since my favorite driver is doing well (particularly for a 50-year-old). Other than that, though, we have to settle for the unending, infinite boredom that is baseball. Of course, things would be a lot more interesting if you were in charge of an organization, setting lineups and conducting trades. Lucky for us it’s time for Out of the Park Baseball 10, the latest iteration in the quality text-based simulation series. We last saw this game two years ago, and a two-year window is usually a good benchmark for sports games, as a significant enough amount of content typically gets added then. Does Out of the Park Baseball 10 successfully refine an already great series?

Being a text-based game, Out of the Park Baseball 10 looks almost entirely the same as the earlier version, with some subtle additions. Face generation quality has been increased and the in-game broadcast display can be customized by changing window placement and addition more information (the amount of room you have to play with is determined by your screen resolution). You are also given a choice of a number of themes that change the colors of the primary interface and change around some of the icons: a purely cosmetic and non-functional upgrade. The rest of the interface remains the same; I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are still some oddities, like having both HTML hyperlinked data and a more traditional display for doing the same tasks, or some information (like the minor league report or positional strength) that is available using one interface but not the other, but these are minor quibbles. The sound design is fantastic for a text-based game. You will only hear sound during games you play, but it is quite well done. The ambient crowd noise reacts to on-field events in a satisfyingly subtle fashion, never sounding like canned sound files. The umpire calls is also done in the same manner, and the audio never sounds like a collection of ten effects that play over and over again. In short (too late!), Out of the Park Baseball 10 features the type of enhancements and presentation you would expect for a text-based game.

Because I already did a review of Out of the Park two years ago, I am mainly going to focus on the new features here, as all of the features of the past games are included here (take that, sequels that remove stuff). The most usual feature of any yearly sports franchise is the inclusion of up-to-date rosters, and Out of the Park Baseball 10 is no exception. Here, you get every player in the major leagues plus almost every player in the minors: an impressive collection of information, especially since everyone has a robust set of attributes (loyalty, greed, intelligence, desire for winning, infield arm, contact against left-handed pitchers, pitch movement, plus many, many others). While having accurate 2009 rosters all the way down through the minor leagues is a fantastic feature, the game does suffer from a lot of rating repetition in the lower leagues. In addition, a lot of the smaller leagues do not have proper team names (just the name of the league, like “GCL,” and their major league nickname), leading to a lot of confusion when looking at the standing and seeing that everyone has the same city name (CORRECTION: Apparently all of the teams are named GCL, which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Shows how much I know about baseball). Also included with the game is the historical Lahman database that provides players from 1901 to 2008; too bad I spent all that time downloading it in advance. Out of the Park Baseball 10 gives you the option to start out with a fixed team as the GM or begin at the bottom of the ladder as the manager of a single-A team and work your way to the top. While it is much less work to run a single team, you are at the mercy of the AI GM who likes to change your rosters around on a bi-weekly basis.

The most significant addition to the already stout player ratings is individual pitch ratings for all players. This isn’t just a superficial change, either, as it will impact the game simulations as it determines what kinds of hits pitchers give up (and which hitters they give them up to). Pitchers are also rated for their pitch velocity and frequency of ground balls to produce even more accurate game results. The new pitching ratings system has exciting ramifications for managing your players. Not only do starting pitchers have to be “good,” but they also need to have at least three decent pitches in order to be a quality player and keep their opponents guessing. It’s not enough to just take your best players with high enough endurance and magically make them starters; now, you have to pay attention to the pitches they are able to throw as well. This also has ramifications in developing talent, as potential starters will need to learn additional pitches in order to succeed at the major league level. The game uses historical data to “guess” at what a pitcher’s pitches would be for leagues that start before 2009, and it does a good enough job, especially for someone like me who has no idea what their real pitches actually were. Another new feature for Out of the Park Baseball 10 is that you can input stats to produce ratings for a player; this is great for people who like to create custom players and import them into the game. The player ratings are not without their little annoyances. First, players might actually be more adept at a secondary position (other than the one they are displayed to be), leading to some confusion when you are putting together your roster. You can manually adjust which primary position is displayed for a particular player, but this is something that should have been correctly determined automatically in the first place. Also, another one of my pet peeves: why are contact and power ratings against left-handed hitters on the left side of the batting ratings when it's on the right side of the lineup card? That confuses me to no end. In addition, you still can’t sort the transaction menu by star ratings, making it more difficult to find your forty best players. Also, the complete team roster does not indicate who is actually on your 40-man roster (all they need to do is add the star next to the name), making the process even more difficult. These complaints are minor to be sure, but they should have been fixed by now.

If you start a new league with a draft, you can limit each team to draft within their budget. This makes it so that clubs in larger cities with more income will draft better players, intended to create realistically unbalanced teams. Drafting rookies also makes a lot more sense, as new players have high potential but low initial ratings. Previously, rookies (especially first round picks) would commonly have multi-star ratings and could step right in to the starting lineup. Now, it’s a lot more plausible and realistic overall. Another enhancement in Out of the Park Baseball 10 is realistic arbitration: before, it was all automated, but now you can submit team offers and the arbiter will judge in favor of either the team or the player. Arbitration is another touch of realism that makes for a more complete game. Another enhancement has to due with more plausible injuries and the introduction of minor league disabled lists; the injuries seem to be “better,” although this is admittedly a difficult thing to judge.

Out of the Park Baseball 10 advertises improved AI, and the computer seems to be more intelligent overall, handling player transactions and gameday strategy in a realistic manner. The game is definitely more difficult; I have been able to steam-roll over the competition in the past, but now earning a World Series victory is much more difficult and requires astute planning. AI general managers can still pull some boneheaded moves, like releasing the best player from my Rookie League team. Or not leaving any catchers on my roster. Jerk. That’s the kind of moves I would expect to make, not the efficient AI. Rounding out the complete package is enhanced in-game play-by-play and enlarged e-mail support for the ever-popular MMO-like online leagues, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

So here is the conundrum: what to rate Out of the Park Baseball 10? Usually when I review a sequel, I compare it against the original game and rate the changes and improvements. Sports games are notorious for not adding a terribly large amount of features from year to year (I’m looking at you, old guy), but I feel that the new features of Out of the Park Baseball 10 justify purchase even if you have a previous version of the game. Accurate rosters down to the rookie leagues? Check. Enhanced salary arbitration? Check. Individual pitch ratings? Check. These new features are not just superficial, either, as they have a noteworthy impact on the accuracy of game simulation and overall strategy, especially the new pitch ratings. The AI has also been improved, resulting in a much more difficult game, but they AI GMs will make the occasional irrational transaction that leaves you scratching your head. There are still some interface oddities that frankly should have been eliminated by now: having information on both web pages and the traditional interface, not being able to sort the transaction menu by star ratings, players who are better at secondary positions, having the left-handed lineup on the right side of the overview page, and too much manual searching for your forty best players. However, this is still the best text-based sports simulation I have played, and I hate baseball, so that should tell you something. While the improvements since Out of the Park Baseball 10 probably deserve a point or two less, they are “worth it” and the game as a whole is terrific and earns the highest score. For aspiring managers everywhere, Out of the Park Baseball 10 is highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Restaurant Empire 2 Review

Restaurant Empire 2, developed by Enlight Software and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Really robust menu items, recipe research
The Not So Good: It’s almost entirely the same as before, convoluted interface not improved at all, “autosaved” progress not really saved
What say you? More auxiliary content, but a miserably unchanged six-year-old management sim: 4/8

One of the benefits of being a chef is that you get to cook food for a living. One of the drawbacks of being a chef is that you most likely will get yelled at by Gordon Ramsey. Then again, you might get to stare into the eyes of Padma Lakshmi. So it all evens out in the end. For those of us with no culinary skill to speak of, computer games have filled the void, offering up cooking games throughout the years. One of these was Restaurant Empire, one of those Trevor Chan games (that Capitalism guy) where you got to run your own restaurant, poisoning the general population with your foul creations. Well, it’s back six years later in the cleverly named Restaurant Empire 2. Has the game changed for the better?

After six years of hard work, the developers of Restaurant Empire 2 have upgraded the graphics to…2004. Yeah, the game looks a lot like The Sims 2, which came out only a year after the original Restaurant Empire. Your customers are the highlight of the graphics package, offering a nice variety in appearance and pleasant animations while they wolf down your delicious entrees. There are a number of themes available that can offer some differences from the outside, but each restaurant still lacks that important aspect of distinction. Some of the lack of visual diversity stems from the fact that all of the restaurants have static dimensions, and you are only there to fill the empty boxes with objects. That said, you can come up with some nice arrangements with the variety of in-game objects that the game offers. However, options for a single design theme are limited, meaning one steakhouse will generally look like every other steakhouse. The sound design is a bit underwhelming: while the game is voiced, the restaurants are disturbingly quiet unless you are considerable zoomed in. The game music is also very sporadic, cutting in and out seemingly at random. It’s clear that this area of the game benefitted from no changes whatsoever. For a sequel, I would have expected a more significant visual change than what we have here.

Restaurant Empire 2 contains all of the content of the original game with some new additions, the first of those being the new campaign. After defeating the evil corporation in the original game (spoiler alert!), you embark on a dessert binge with your new lady friend and encounter new challenges that are eerily similar to the old challenges from the original campaign. I’m usually not big on the story line, and that’s the case here, so the new campaign is really just sixteen more missions with generally the same goals. The new locaions (Munich!) and themes (garish racing café!) are visual changes only and have no discernable impact on gameplay whatsoever: shiny things meant to distract. The sandbox game offers potentially infinite replay value, but the core gameplay is really interesting enough to keep your attention held for that long. Plus, the game said it autosaved my campaign progress but it really did not, deleting several hours of my hard work. Bah!

By far the most impressive aspect of Restaurant Empire 2 is the sheer number of recipes in the game: 600. Scattered across fifteen categories of food, from main courses to pudding, and four nationalities (American, French, Italian, German), you have a crazy variety of things to cook up. The recipes are also very detailed, showing the exact amounts of each ingredient required (and the cost associated with them) for every creation. Each menu item comes with a rating that can be adjusted by paying more or less for the ingredients. Since you do not want to serve expensive, four-star food in a one-star place (people will not expect to pay so much), this option lets you tweak your menu. Certain foods can also require certain appliances like a food processor or microwave, and some products take longer to prepare. You can also adjust the price of your food, but the game never really states an appropriate price point based on your quality rating; it’s completely trail-and-error and one of the many shortcomings of the game’s interface. You can get new recipes by giving an exorbitant amount of money to random customers or research them. This is the only radical change to the gameplay, sadly. Despite all of this variety, using one single recipe over another really doesn’t change the game at all, so the variety is very superficial and strategy is minimal.

You can’t do it all yourself, so you’ll need to hire a staff. You can choose between other chefs, captains (who take the orders and deliver the bill), servers, porters (a fancy name for “dish washer”), and receptionist. There’s no strategy in who to hire: better people are more expensive, and it’s quite a linear relationship. You are limited in the beginning to hiring really bad people that will cause a constant stream of complaints, even after they have been fired (thanks, crappy interface). You can train them to be better over time, but it’s almost easier to fire and replace. There’s not much else to do with your staff, so let’s move on.

Customers want to give you money, and you’ll take it from them. Success in Restaurant Empire 2 is fairly easy as long as you aren’t idiotic in your pricing and layouts. There are a number of objects to place, from functional things like tables and stoves to decorations like paintings and statues. Lighting is dumb for two reasons: lamps don’t cover a large area and you cannot install ceiling lighting. You can hire live performers (the rare new feature in Restaurant Empire 2 that isn’t simply visual), but they impact your restaurant the same as adding other objects. Getting feedback from your customers is both good and bad: while the game clearly spells out the top complaints in a list, the list doesn’t clear quickly enough, so you can have your top complaints solved (like a particular employee or an expensive menu item) but not reflected in the list. In addition, clicking on the complaint does not take you to the pertinent menu item. You would think these were the things that would have undergone an overhaul in six years. The interface is also way too small: I would much rather have a greater proportion of the screen devoted to the interface than watching people eat. There have been absolutely no changes in the interface, which is too bad since it was crap to begin with. Most of the icons for scrolling through items are seriously three pixels across, and a game of this type should not require that level of dexterity. Restaurant Empire 2 feels, well, like a game from six years ago, as the outdated interface has not fared well.

As your initial business becomes more successful, you can open others and expand your restaurant empire (where have I heard that term before?). You can adjust the hours of your restaurants, staff training, the uniform, advertising, loans, and suppliers of live music and special items. The game also gives you charts and graphs showing your progress (or lack thereof) in the business. The goals for each level in the two campaigns are not terribly varied, usually involving some combination of profit margin, restaurant rating, and customer satisfaction. Most of these things are inter-related anyway, so as long as you do a good job, you’ll do fine. You certainly do not approach the game differently depending on the goals, so each successive game of Restaurant Empire 2 plays just like the last. This cuts down on replay value and the viability of the sandbox mode considerably. The sheer amount of fluff contained in Restaurant Empire 2 is impressive: the game would play exactly the same with half the recipes and items, as the different kinds don’t let you play any differently. Since all Restaurant Empire 2 is additional fluff on top of the original game, the new version in the series is identical to the last in the areas that truly matter.

Almost the entire review so far could have been written for the original game, so what is $20 getting you six years later? The new sixteen mission campaign effectively doubles the goal-based content of the game, but it’s nothing radically different from the original campaign (which is also included) with the same type of objectives. The graphics are better but still behind the curve. The new restaurant types, themes, objects, foods, and locations (everybody was clamoring for Munich!) are all unnecessary additions meant to justify the existence of Restaurant Empire 2 instead of making the gameplay better. More is better, but it does not justify keeping everything else exactly the same. Even the live performers, a potentially interesting addition, have about the same impact as placing a couple of paintings on the wall, so the interest wanes quickly. Really, none of these things have any impact on the core game at all, and that’s a horrible and cheap thing for a sequel to do. The fact that the problems the original game had, namely the interface with its plentiful shortcomings, still remain shows the single focus of the development team: add objects and that’s enough. This is more like Restaurant Empire 1.5, or an expansion pack, than a true sequel. Of course, the $20 price tag reflects that thinking somewhat, but I still deride the lack of significant changes with six years of passed time. Indeed, the feeling of déjà vu is strong with this one.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

BOH Review

BOH, developed by Simone Bevilacqua and published by EDITEL.
The Good: Effective combination of exploration and constant action, numerous levels, varied items to find, available for Amiga, retro graphics
The Not So Good: Disappointingly small weapon selection, rudimentary AI that constantly respawns, repetitive combat, retro graphics
What say you? A nostalgic action game that’s short on features: 5/8

The thirst for exploration is strong. From Lewis and Clark to Captain Kirk, man has always wondered what’s beyond the next mountain. Mysterious dangers have always lurked underground, like fish with no eyes (technically called a “fsh”). And what do we do when we see something strange and astounding? That’s right: shoot it in the face. BOH is a retro action game that lets you do just that: as a member of the United Defense Forces, you are charged with exploring long-abandoned places teeming with icky enemies just waiting to die. Let them live no longer!

On purpose, BOH evokes a strong “retro” feel. The graphics are designed for a decidedly low resolution: 320 by 240 pixels. Speaking of pixels, BOH is very pixilated because of this low resolution. One could argue that the low-resolution graphics result from laziness, but I must say that the developer did a good job with some advanced lighting effects, noticeable since most of the game takes place in the dark. I actually don’t mind the graphics too much, as the gameplay doesn’t really suffer because of the visuals. In fact, the overhead perspective makes BOH be somewhat distinctive in a land saturated with 3-D action games. The animations and level layouts could be more varied, but as long as you are not expecting cutting-edge 3-D graphics, then BOH should fare OK. The game features a very minimal sound design, with music only heard in the main menu and a handful of effects in the form of the occasional growl by the nearest enemy and the firing of your weapon. It’s all quite repetitive. Sound notwithstanding, BOH delivers on its promise of a “retro” look and feel.

BOH features twenty-six missions of varying difficulty, where you will be exploring dark hallways and shooting anything that moves on your way to a showdown with the boss. Some levels are comprised of multiple layers and more than one map; the more complex ones take a while to complete, so the inability to save your progress is a noteworthy missing feature. There is a good amount of content here as it can take quite a while to successfully complete each level (especially the more difficult ones), although more levels are always welcome. It’s stated that you can text-edit the levels, but I can’t figure out how to do it as it’s heavily encoded. There is a developer's manual available that explains how to do it, however. BOH is reminiscent of Scallywag and Larva Mortus, where you navigate the unknown mostly in the dark. The exploration aspect of BOH is well executed and the use of lighting is quite effective. Each map comprises of tiles, either consisting of normal floor material or special features like conveyor belts, cracked floors, pits, stairs, teleports, explosive barriers, and buttons for unlocking passages. There is back tracking involved in almost every level: who designs a building where you have to unlock a door from halfway across the map? You are scored according to how long it takes you to reach the exit and defeat the ending boss; BOH keeps your best time recorded, but there is no comparison online to other players. Increasing difficulty in the game results is two-fold: more enemies and more cramped maps. I’m glad that the developer did not solely rely on introducing masses of enemies as the only method of making the maps harder, as the more twisted levels offer a more sophisticated challenge that requires more careful traversing. While BOH does not offer multiplayer of any kind (such as the ever-popular cooperative feature), BOH is designed for the Mac and the Amiga in addition to Windows, so that’s nice.

You have a choice between using the keyboard or the joypad for controlling your character. The lack of mouse support makes it difficult to aim, especially since there is no turning sensitivity adjustment. I am accustomed to using the mouse to point at enemies while moving with the keyboard in 2-D games (I think I picked that up from Shadowgrounds), and relying solely on the direction you are facing makes combat a trying process. Usually a highlight of action-oriented games, the weapons in BOH surprisingly stink. You can only acquire three kinds of semi-automatic pistols, each more powerful than the previous one. Being semi-automatic, taking on large quantities of enemies is almost impossible. Where are the shotguns? Flamethrowers? Rocket launchers? Machine guns? Sniper rifles? Anything other than a pistol?!? Add in unlimited ammo and we have a low point of the game: sadly, the combat is quite uninteresting because of the very limited variety of weapons available. You can pick up a number of interesting items conveniently left on the floor for you (how nice!): health, flashlights, better vision, a map, and an enemy detector. When you get these items is completely up to the level designer; there is no way of leveling-up and purchasing items based on how good you are at the game.

The AI enemies of BOH are quite simplistic: they follow a set pattern and then run directly towards you once you get close enough. None of the five normal enemies (other than the end-level boss) have any ranged weaponry, so the tactic remains the same with each of them: never get close. Your pistol is essentially infinite range, so you can simply keep backing up until all of them are dead. The AI units differ only in health and speed, ranging from slow and weak to fast and powerful. At least the boss invites some diversity with it’s crazy movement and strange weapons. Still, all you need to do is aim and shoot: BOH offers little to no strategy. Worse of all, enemies keep reappearing until you find the exit and fight the boss. A room that you cleared ten seconds ago will be filled again with enemies in a short amount of time. The game manual explains this as the boss spawning more enemies to fight against you, but I just find it to be a cheap tactic. That said, BOH can be fun if you enjoy mindless combat with some exploration elements. Unfortunately, the game is limited by the AI and the weapons.

The core gameplay of BOH is mostly successful, mainly because it’s a retread of past 2-D action games where you hunt down scores of enemies in dark passages. There is no shortage of action here: there are multiple enemies around every turn. The exploration aspects of the game are effective thanks to the generally good (but occasionally confusing) map design and uncertainly about what lies around the next bend. There are a lot of missions to play through, spread evenly across several levels of difficulty. While BOH doesn’t have “loot” in the tradition role-playing sense, there are useful items to find, like additional light and maps to make your navigation more efficient. For an action game, BOH features a disturbingly small assortment of weapons: just three pistols. This makes for some very repetitive combat since you can’t switch weapons or use different tactics against enemy units. What action game doesn’t have a rocket launcher in 2009? This is coupled with the AI: only five basic enemy types that follow predictable behaviors means each level has the same feel as you engage enemy units that head straight towards you each and every time. Disposing of these enemies is made difficult by infinite respawning and a keyboard (or gamepad) control scheme that makes aiming a bit tough in a PC world accustomed to precise mouse-driven direction. Simply put, BOH needs more weapons and more varied AI to become a complete product.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Happier Than You Review

Happier Than You, developed and published by Fun Effect.
The Good: Unique multi-layered gameplay
The Not So Good: Easy to cheat the market, repetitive gameplay with little to motivation keep playing, extra cash grants no significant bonuses, initially confusing interface, no competitive multiplayer, extraneous religious “good person” quiz
What say you? This casual strategic matching game is unique but it lacks depth, features, and variation: 4/8

Hi! James Allen here! Are you an inspiring inventor that lacks startup capital or an annoying yet strangely persuasive voice? Well have we the game for you! Happier Than You lets you be that inventor, fulfilling the wants and desires of your customers while raking in piles and piles of cash. And it’s the best way to get your stains out of the wash! Because nobody wants to drive around with dents or dings. Plus, it gets the tough stuff that others leave behind. And protects against damage while keeping your floors looking new. But that’s not all! Call right now and we’ll throw in a second order of Happier Than You for twice the price! Just pay additional shipping and handling. That’s right: you too can be as disturbingly positive as I am!

Note: If you have no idea what just happened, click here.

Happier Than You is not significant in terms of graphics or sound, simply functional at the very basic level. The game is played in a window and the interface leaves a lot to be desired: tiny, unlabeled icons with no tool-tips and a lot of empty space that could have been used to make a more comprehensive interface. The characters in the game very occasionally are animated when you provide them with a new invention. The static backgrounds are quite dull. Luckily, a casual puzzle-like game doesn’t need fantastic graphics to be successful, and this idiom goes for Happier Than You as well. Good graphics, however, do help the overall game experience. In short, Happier Than You is not a visually stimulating game by any means. This goes the sound as well: while the music is OK (I waited at least five minutes before muting it), the sound effects are sparse and don’t relay any additional information or serve any major purpose. Don’t go in to Happier Than You expecting a stellar presentation.

Happier Than You is a single-player-only affair where you must match customers’ wants to make them happy. While the game works as a single player puzzle title, competitive multiplayer could have been potentially interesting, either online or on the same computer against a human opponent, or even simply against an AI inventor. The “campaign” is essentially infinite, as the requirements for advancement exponentially grow: there is really no overall goal in the game. You can customize the difficulty of the upcoming game, adjusting the number of people, invention components, and the severity of envy towards other players. Unfortunately, you have to make a significant time investment in Happier Than You in order to unlock the ability to alter these settings by even a small amount, and they do not change the gameplay significantly anyway. Your goal is to reach the objective number of points in a single level; once you earn all three difficulty cups, you are allowed to change one setting one spot. Games like Plants vs. Zombies introduce a new feature every level, while Happier Than You makes you play a whole lot just to change one thing. Additional features is usually the motivation to keep playing, but in Happier Than You new features are insignificant at best. The mechanics of Happier Than You are taught in the first couple of levels with pop-up windows; they do a good job covering the basics, although I had to go through the tutorial twice before I was adept at the game. The last “feature” of Happier Than You is a “good person test” that is completely out of context. It’s a not-too-subtle advertisement for Christianity that is not related to the game in any way. While this would be more appropriate in a religiously-themed game like Left Behind, it is certainly not here.

The gameplay of Happier Than You comes close to being interesting, but falls short because of the lack of depth in the unique areas of the game. Inventions you construct are made of several components that you purchase from the market and then assemble. This is not as sophisticated as it might sound: it’s just clicking little icons. Each of your customers has a desired combination and it’s your job to match supply to demand. It’s a straightforward process: just make enough matches to bring everyone to full happiness. Strategy comes from two aspects of the game: envy and the market. Customers can be envious of others, and if you make an envied customer happier in a single turn, then the other customer will lose happiness. This means you have a priority in which customer to focus on first. However, once a customer is fully happy, they do not count in the envy ratings, so once you make your envy target happy enough, you can simply switch to the other customers and ignore envy altogether. The other source of potential strategy is the market. The price of goods is determined by how many customers want that particular component, so you want to buy low and sell high to turn a profit. The trick is to buy a lot when you people don’t need them and then sell them when requests respawn. Because of the completely predictable nature of the market, it is very easy to cheat the market by purchasing large quantities of items at the end of the level (when there is low demand because most customers have reached full happiness). Since your goods carry over to the next round, so are then set to either use the goods for inventions or sell the extras for a nice profit. The market would be much more interesting if the prices were more randomized or if it cost more to buy than to sell, like in any other trading game. Since the extra cash is not actually used for anything (like an in-game bonus), having large amounts of cash is useless. Both envy and the market are excellent ideas, but neither of them is fully developed and the result is an uninteresting game.

At the end of each level, you are scored according to how efficient you were in making inventions, how closely you regarded envy, and whether you turned a profit. You can also earn bonus points by quickly completing a level. Happier Than You has insanely high requirements for the gold cups required to unlock new game options. The objective decreases after each unsuccessful try, but it will still take twenty, thirty games to bring the requirement down to a reasonable level. Because of this, I suspect not many people will stick around past the first couple of levels once they realize that they will be playing with the same exact rules for many games. The extremely repetitive nature of Happier Than You, combined with the shortcomings regarding envy and the market, makes the game dull.

Happier Than You has a couple of unique features, but the game runs its course in about two minutes and there is no real motivation to keep playing after that. There are a couple of promising aspects to the gameplay, namely the market and envy. The market could have introduced a unique trading aspect to the game, but it’s too easy to cheat the system once you learn that demand works in a completely linear, predictable, and static fashion. Envy is about the only randomized aspect to Happier Than You that carries any interest, as you must pay attention to which characters to focus on and gear your inventions towards. However, once maximum happiness is attained, characters cannot become less happy even if they have envy towards others, so the careful planning required in the beginning of a game goes by the wayside towards the end of each game. Unlike pretty much all casual games, Happier Than You offers no incentive to keep playing, never introducing new strategies to play with. You can unlock the ability to have more people or pieces in a level, but there are too many hoops to jump through (since you must get three different cups) and “progress” (if you can call it that) is very slow going. The extra features are not complete as well, with no reason to carry a lot of cash, no multiplayer modes, and the questionable inclusion of a religious-themed quiz that has no impact on the game whatsoever. In summary, the potential is there, but the execution is quite lacking.