Thursday, July 30, 2009

East India Company Review

East India Company, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Straightforward strategic trade, tactical battles, several campaigns with primary and secondary goals and random side missions, mutiplayer ship warfare, visually pleasing
The Not So Good: Multiplayer limited to tactical battles, goods prices could be better organized, a couple of annoying interface shortcomings, inexact targeting and movement in tactical mode, boring once you set up enough trade routes, terribly repetitive voice acting
What say you? Ship combat and commerce economics combine effectively in this historical trading strategy game: 6/8

While most of the colonial attention is paid to the West Indies (I blame those stuck-up Americans), a significant theater of hot trading action (is there any other kind?) was towards the east in India. Sending ships to a land far, far away in search of precious commodities was a source of great riches, and also great peril (insert ominous music). Nations hired private companies to handle all of the details and bring these goods into the country so rich people could drink and/or wear them (a suit made out of tea was all the rage). East India Company is a game that simulates these competitive times, putting you in charge of a country-lead monopoly with one simple goal: bring in lots of cash. And some tea.

Overall, I was content with the graphics of East India Company. The 3-D game map you'll spend a significant amount of time staring at looks good, with detailed shorelines and features like trees and mountains. The game is devoid of subtle city and environmental animations outside of the ships moving around so it looks a bit static, but it looks quite fine when compared against any other map-based game. The sea battles have some very nicely detailed ships (complete with little sailors running around on deck), although damage effects aren't as dramatic as I would have hoped: there are rarely pieces of ship flying around, only the occasional (and canned) destroyed mast falling into the ocean. Watching cannon fire fly through the air is a treat, though. Speaking of, the ocean looks quite good as well, as East India Company tries its best to make a generally flat feature look interesting with undulating waves and distant coastlines. The seas never get too hazardous, however, and the ocean scenery doesn't approach the variety of a dedicated sailing simulation like Vehicle Simulator. The sound effects are a mixed bag, however: battles are pleasing to the ears, with disturbing yells for help and the crack of damaged ships, but commander voices are terrible with only a couple of phrases that are shared by all countries (apparently everyone in the 17th Century was British). The background music is fittingly dramatic, though. An average package in all.

In East India Company, you lead a country's trading corporation on the trail towards profit. There are four campaigns to choose from: the grand campaign that spans the entire time period from 1600 to 1750 (including a free variation), and two 50-year smaller bites. You can choose from any major player in Europe: Britain, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and personal favorite the Holy Roman Empire. There aren't any region-specific bonuses, though, so your specific choice makes absolutely no difference. Each campaign has primary (usually two) and secondary goals (a choice of two of four) that must be completed every fifteen years (for the grand campaign). They are always the same for each country and pretty easy to accomplish assuming you are doing fairly well in the game. Despite the disappointment that these main objectives are not random, you do get a flurry of optional and mandatory missions from the crown. These missions typically come with a cash prize and involve trading specific goods, attacking ports, fighting off pesky pirates, and other stuff I forgot to write down. East India Company also comes with random events, like port needs and storms that wipe out most of your fleet (that ruined about five years of progress). In addition to the campaigns, you can play the tactical battles by themselves, or go online for some multiplayer action. Unfortunately, you are limited to tactical battles only online because of an superfluous design decision by the developers I'll complain about in a bit. That said, the tactical aspect of East India Company is strong enough to make this a usable feature. Online play comes with several game modes inspired by first person shooters: one-on-one, last man floating (see, because they are boats! ha!), team deathmatch, and domination. They are pretty fun and are a nice distraction from the main crux of the game. Finally, East India Company contains a series of brief tutorials that touch on the extreme basics of the game. They aren't terribly comprehensive, but I found the game fairly easy to learn once you spend some time with it.

Most of your time will be spent in the strategic level game, which takes place on a map of Europe, Africa, and India (all all points in between). This is where trading is conducted, as you send ships to foreign ports, purchase goods, and then sell them back home for a profit. By far the worst aspect of East India Company is sadly easily fixable: entering ports requires a load screen and a completely separate interface. It's annoying because it's completely unnecessary: you could have had the same exact options in a window along the right hand side of the main map interface. I'm a huge fan of keeping all of the information on the main screen, and with increased screen resolutions on computers these days this should be a feature included in each and every game. This is also what prevents multiplayer strategic level games, as the game pauses while you are navigating (and loading) the port menu; if the developers had simply put all of the information on the main map (there is plenty of room to do so), we could have a full-featured and less irritating game to play. Anyway, enough ranting. In each port, you can manage your fleets by resupplying ships and assigning commanders, purchase new ships, store goods to maximize profit, and upgrade structures like the trading post (which gives a discount to purchased goods) and fort. Trading is almost straightforward: each good shows the amount of profit to be gained in your home port per ton, but the overall goods list cannot be sorted by price: this needs to be better organized since trade is a significant aspect of the game. Most of your ships will be filled with main trade items like tea and silk, but you can also fill them with export items from your home city to make a small amount of profit and basic trade items if room allows. The game has a simple economic model to prevent infinite trading of a single resource: prices will drop as supply increases, so you must diversify and import several resources in order to maximize your profits. Once you set up your routes, though, you can simply accelerate time and watch the money roll in. There is a fine line between automation and tedium, and East India Company doesn't quite find the sweet spot.

Those goods can't transport themselves, so you must construct fleets of up to five ships to transport them and attack neutral and enemy fleets and ports. The eleven ships (including galleons, flytes, brigs, and the infamous ship-of-the-line) roughly divide into trading and military vessels, although most powerful ships come with ample cargo space for goods (although it will be typically reserved for marines used in boarding actions and port attacks) so they can serve multiple roles. Each ship is rated in cargo space, hit points, sail strength, speed, firepower, crew, and marine capacity; it is important to keep ships of similar speeds together, and fleets will traverse the ocean at the pace of the slowest vessel. Each fleet has a commander; commanders level up with experience and gain new skills that mostly affect tactical battles, like a temporary increase in accuracy or reduction in enemy morale, and you can choose their skills to fit the role of their fleet. There are several orders you can give fleets: move, patrol, trade automatically (useful if you have a large navy), and attack a port. You must maintain at least one powerful fleet (five galleons filled with marines seems to be the minimum) in order to take ports, as one failed port attack can ruin your game, since you usually lose a couple of ships in the process. Behavior can also be set, from avoiding everyone to attacking everyone except for allies (useful for aggressive players like myself). The commander portrait has a colored outline that indicates their current order (green for move, purple for trade), although an additional audio indication of a newly idle fleet would be nice. Typically, I have mostly trading fleets and a couple of military fleets designed for taking ports and hunting down vulnerable competition. Combat is a great way to get free cargo, although it tends to make your opponents a bit angry. You might also get attacked by pirates, but I found them to be quite disappointing as they rarely (if ever) even attempted to attack my fleets. Unlocking new ships costs money (for research, I guess), and you are charged for the cost of ships up front instead of when construction starts, so having more than one in the queue is wasting money that could be spent on trade goods. Crews earn experience through battle and sailing time that makes them move effective. Fleets on long voyages must resupply along the way at friendly and neutral ports, which makes intermediate ports valuable to own as you can lock out enemy companies from reaching the most profitable locations.

You are given basic diplomatic actions in East India Company: pacts to refuel at ports and alliances to access ports for trade. You can also declare war (though you are free to attack any enemy at any time) and trading goods for cash. Typically, opposing companies need to be bribed into accepting alliances and pacts by using goods stored at your main warehouse, and the game gives a clear indication of how likely they are to accept a proposal. As with most games that involve multiple nations, being at war with only one enemy at a time and keeping one ally seems to be a viable strategy for victory. The AI will not attack unless they are provoked; I've never seen an enemy company attack one of my fleets or ports without me attacking them first. The AI does do a good job maintaining trade routes and maximizing profit, though, providing a nice challenge on normal difficulty levels. The game speed can be accelerated once you establish your trade routes, which makes the 150-year scenario length a bit more digestible. Victory is gained by having the most money at the end of the time frame, eliminating all enemy companies, or controlling all of the ports in India. The strategic aspect of East India Company is quite addictive and the multiple layers of planning make for an entertaining game: which goods to choose, how to design your fleets, where to attack, who to attack. You are also rarely just sitting there waiting for things to happen, as the almost constant stream of side missions keep you busy.

The tactical aspect of East India Company is less interesting but still a solid gaming experience. If you are not in to hot ship-on-ship action you can auto-resolve the outcome, although this never results in capturing enemy ships and subsequently their cargo. Tactical play comes in two flavors: real time strategy and direct command. In the RTS mode, you can give basic orders like move, stop, hold fire, board, join formation, flee, and surrender (if you win you keep the ship; cheaper than having to build a new one). You can also use specific ammo types: solid (for hulls), chain (for sails), and grape (for crew). The RTS mode doesn't come with the precision I was expecting, as ships don't attack as regularly as I would expect and have a difficult time moving to points that are close to their current location. Plus, giving an attack order will overwrite any movement orders; I would like to be able to designate a target and still tweak their movement to take advantage of the wind conditions. You will most likely have to switch to direct command mode when things get more hectic, as you can specify speed (through the sail setting) and direction using the WASD keys. You can also fire cannons using the Q and E keys and change the spread of your cannon fire, which partially determines who are are aiming at (thankfully, a firing cone on the minimap shows likely targets). Direct command mode is almost required to move close enough to an enemy ship in order to board it, which you need to do if you want their cargo (stuff doesn't float!). Getting close enough to board can be exceedingly difficult in the larger, slower ships; finishing a battle you've already won involves a lot of wasted time chasing down wounded ships. Not surprisingly, whoever has the better ships usually wins, although the quick ships can usually flee before bigger ships come into range. The AI is decent enough in this part of the game: although they lack surprising, advanced tactics, they will engage your ships effectively and use the wind direction for maximum closing speed. The tactical game of East India Company isn't any better than the host of other period-specific naval combat games because of the imprecise nature of the RTS mode, but it's fairly enjoyable nonetheless.

East India Company is fun. What, you want more details than that? You are so needy! The four campaigns that cover the time period provide some replay value despite the fact that the primary and secondary objectives remain the same every time thanks to the numerous optional and mandatory side missions. I would like a little more variety in starting conditions; something like Europa Univeralis III's pick-any-date feature (although here any year would have been specific enough) would be a nice feature. Multiplayer, despite featuring a number of modes, is sadly limited to the tactical battles because of an annoying and completely unnecessary interface limitation: entering ports. Maybe I am blowing this out of proportion, but I find having to wait for ports to load in order to complete actions that could have been done from the main map screen is frustrating. This is a shortcoming in an otherwise initially addicting strategic level game with numerous interesting decisions to make regarding fleet composition, trade routes, and diplomacy with rival factions. The game truly has that “one more turn” feeling as you expand your company throughout India. However, once you get things set up after the first fifty years or so, the game runs everything for you. You could manually trade, but the loading screens would make this option way too tedious for the large navy you'll typically have at this point. The tactical game is no more sophisticated as any other naval combat game set in the same period, as you must use the wind and your ship strengths to your advantage. You are given some basic orders and ships will fire automatically, which cuts down on micromanagement. The RTS mode lacks the precision I expect, as targeting enemy ships and moving to specific points is a hit-or-miss affair. You can enter direct command mode and specify orders yourself (useful for the typically powerful flagship) and commanders have abilities that can grant temporary bonuses for more varied combat. The AI is passable in both aspects of the game; computer companies aren't aggressive enough if you are at peace, though they are adept at getting the economics running well. If the premise of a combat trading game sounds appealing, then East India Company fits the bill.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Big Rig Europe Review

Big Rig Europe, developed by SCS Software and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Authentic European trucks, career mode
The Not So Good: Sparse map with few cities and exits induces large amounts of boredom, no online play
What say you? This trucking simulation retains all of the features of previous titles but introduces nothing new and progressive: 4/8

The call of the open road has seduced many a young man, wanting to see the country from the comfort of a truck and use fun phrases like “breaker breaker” and “candy cane” on CB radios. For those of us without the advanced technical training required to drive one of these behemoths dangerously close to civilian vehicles at high speeds on the Interstate, we have computer simulations to fill the void. The developers behind the 18 Wheels of Steel series has adapted their simulation with a more international flair in Big Rig Europe. Formerly known as Euro Truck Simulator, how has the game improved and added to the formula?

The graphics are improved from previous efforts, offering up some nice, albeit repetitive, visuals during your time in the cab. The trucks themselves are nicely detailed, although most of the time you'll be sitting in the cab and won't notice (unless you switch to an alternate camera angle). The roadside attractions have pleasing varied terrain with high-resolution textures that avoid the washed-out blandness of before. Most significantly, the severe pop-in has been eliminated, producing a more fluid and consistent presentation. You also get the same weather, time of day, and animation effects from before. I suspect this is the area of the game that got the most attention, and it's nice to see that Big Rig Europe is able to compete with contemporary racing games in terms of visuals. The sound in the game is minimal: engine sounds and a handful of effects are all you will experience, as your truck lacks music for the radio (the game simply states “there are no songs to play”). The improved visuals, though, are the highlight of this new version.

In Big Rig Europe, you will start out as a rambunctious (I am assuming) new driver scouring Europe for fame, fortune, and gas stations. You'll begin a career by selecting a fancy new truck, a laborious process made so by an inefficient truck selection process. There are twelve trucks overall, spread over four makes and three classes. I did not notice any significant differences between the trucks, although subtle changes in horsepower and handling are probably there. The single player career mode is the only way to experience Big Rig Europe, as the game lacks online play (which would be really neat). You can unlock feats and ranks and upgrade your truck as you unlock additional countries during your career, but this is no replacement for cooperative (and competitively) playing against other human truckers online. The game offers some tutorial messages when you run the game for the first time, easing you into the relatively complex dynamics of driving a large truck.

Being American, I can't be as anal retentive about the game map as I was when reviewing 18 Wheels of Steel simply because I am less familiar with the geography. However, I do know that there are more than three towns in Germany, so I can say with certainty that Big Rig Europe contknues to disappoint in terms of map detail. This becomes a problem because there is a big lack in visual variety as you drive the lonely roads around Europe. Where are the small towns between major cities? All we get is the occasional gas station. This is simply not enough to keep you interested, and this comes from somebody who is interested in roads and enjoys expressway driving, so I imagine the situation is a lot worse for less interested individuals. It's time for the developers to put in some intermediate towns and increase the amount of content the game world contains. I am less able to ascertain whether the terrain is correct (before, coastal cliffs were common in Florida...oops!), but it seemed to be accurate enough for me. Europe is populated with cargo depots in each city (between which you will transport goods), in addition to parking lots for sleep and petrol stations for petrol (whatever that is). Job offers come with a destination and a good to transport, the profit of which depends on how much supply there is in the target town. This is a neat, abstracted system that prevents exploiting the same route over and over. You are also given more money for transporting hazardous or fragile goods, although thresholds for damage are much lower.

Big Rig Europe offers keyboard controls for most driving actions, like turning on the engine, setting the parking break, and using the turn signals. It takes a couple of trips to memorize the correct buttons for headlights and windshield wipers, but it becomes fairly intuitive after a while. The game leans on the simulation side of things, delivering (that may be a pun) seemingly realistic turning, braking, and acceleration. It's probably as close to driving a real truck as most of us will get. During your adventures, you will have to worry about getting tired (periodic naps in parking lots are required, although the lack of motels and truck stops are strange missing features), damage to your truck and trailer, and fuel. You must also obey the traffic rules, as running a red light or significant speeding results in an instantaneous ticket. Most of Big Rig Europe is quite boring, though, thanks to long transit times across the continent. The only thing that makes driving somewhat bearable is cruise control, but the lack of interesting sites and smaller interchanges makes Big Rig Europe appeal to only the most interested constituency.

Big Rig Europe suffers from the same problem as before: monotony. There simply is not enough between major cities: where are the exits at small towns? Having only three cities in France shows how barren the terrain really is. This causes a large amount of boredom in an already snooze-inducing game. You really have to make the trip interesting in a trucking game, because most everyone will find the premise extremely dull. This is frankly disappointing, as this is really one of the major areas in the series that needs improvement but never seems to get it: the developers are apparently comfortable with single roads and the occasional gas station between the few major cities. The cities themselves are caricatures, too, as Paris has about three roads and no distinct architectural features. For a road geek like myself, this is a disappointing limitation that's been in the series for far too long. The core of the game is fine, delivering the realistic driving you would expect. The career mode is mildly interesting as you ship goods around Europe, although online multiplayer would be the true goal for a game such as this. Sure, the graphics have been updated, but this is a small consolation prize in what is otherwise a retread of past efforts. The series Big Rig Europe is a part of has been around long enough to expect that auxiliary features, like map detail and multiplayer, should be present by now.

Friday, July 24, 2009

World War II: General Commander Review

World War II: General Commander, developed by Games GI and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Well organized and accessible order of battle, great emphasis on roads, large map with detailed terrain, fantastic intuitive editor, varied scenario sizes
The Not So Good: No tutorial, no online matchmaking, inconsistent overaggressive AI, fixed screen resolution
What say you? A battalion-level real-time wargame perfectly suitable for novice strategy gamers: 7/8

Wargames have a dedicated following on the PC, gamers who enjoy starting at tiny counters on virtual battlefields. This subgenre has been notoriously difficult to get in to, thanks to less-than-useful interfaces and large unit counts spread out over huge maps. There have been beacons of light, though, with more user-friendly offerings like Advanced Tactics that have attempted to streamline the process for those of us that are easily confused and terrified of complexity. From wargame-friendly publisher Matrix Games comes World War II: General Commander, shortened from its original moniker (deep breath!) World War II: General Commander: Operation: Watch on the Rhine. So many words hurts my brain! This game was on my radar a while back when it was originally released, and with an additional coat of polish applied by the new publisher (namely a better manual and much less intrusive DRM), it is ours to review. Well, mine, really, you can't have it unless you pony up.

You can come at the graphics from one of two perspectives: real-time strategy games, or wargames. For a wargame, the use of 3-D graphics is much appreciated in a land populated by 2-D maps with hexes. The tactical advantage of seeing the actual elevations in a very useful feature. If you are used to games such as Demigod or Men of War, then World War II: General Commander looks pretty ugly. The first strike against it is the resolution: it's fixed at a lowly 1024 by 768 and can't be changed. This makes the game look rather ragged on large displays. In addition, while the terrain looks fine, the textures are a washed out, poorly detailed mess. Some of the unit models look OK, but the animations are sporadic. Of course, real grognards will be playing with NATO counters anyway, so they won't even notice. Battle effects are also underwhelming: most of the time you'll see floating damage numbers rather than spectacular carnage on the battlefield. The sound isn't any better, with very subdued effects that are too soft to hear when zoomed out. The usually chaotic battlefield is quite quiet in this game. While traditional wargamers might tolerate the presentation, those wanting a more polished experience are left wanting.

The first thing you'll notice about World War II: General Commander is that it loads really fast: a one-second splash screen and you're at the main menu. Frankly, I am getting sick of having to skip through five intro movies just to play a game, so I am glad that World War II: General Commander carries a more minimalist approach. The game concerns the last-ditch German attack known as the Battle of the Bulge (or, by its Canadian name, “We fought too, eh!”). You get fourteen scenarios ranging from small engagements between a couple of regiments to the full battle across the huge game map that spans the entire region. The map itself is continuous and impressive in the amount of elevation detail. You gain points for holding cities and causing enemy casualties; the offensive side needs to accumulate points before time runs out. Before each skirmish, you can set up your troops anywhere in your third of the map, in addition to placing paratroopers and garrisons in cities. Fourteen scenarios not enough? World War II: General Commander has a marvelous editor that is both powerful and easy to use. Everything is done from the main screen and placing units is point-and-click. Once you add a division, you can include subordinate regiments and battalions by adding them to the unit hierarchy. It's easy to make small or large battles in a matter of minutes. The editor even names all of the units for you and automatically adds cities as objectives within your boundaries, and calculates potential victory points from casualties. Very nice. It actually surprises me that the Internet isn't inundated with scenarios since it's so easy to make them. The features are not all wine and roses, however: the game lacks a tutorial (although the manual admittedly does a good enough job explaining the basics) and online play requires you to know IP address in advance since World War II: General Commander lacks a game browser.

One of the most important aspects of any strategy game is the interface: you must be able to access your units with one click. Most wargames fail dramatically in this aspect (leaving you to scour the map for tiny squares representing units), but I am glad to report that World War II: General Commander does not. The most important feature of the interface is the unit list, displayed in the order of battle with an icon for each unit and selectable icon for every regiment and division. While these icons do not display unit information (health, stance, under fire), it makes it oh so easy to find every unit on the map. You can only select a single unit or group at a time, so this means you can't box select a bunch of units and give them identical orders simultaneously; this is only a minor inconvenience since ordering around regiments and battalions doesn't require that much in the way of micromanagement. You can give a number of different orders to your units: move, long range attack, short range assault, defend, retreat. Units seems to fortify rather quickly (or maybe just the icon displays fast) and the defending side will remain in this position for most of the battle. These options don't give the deep flexibility veteran players are used to, but you have to keep in mind that you can controlling a battalion rather than individual companies or squads, so those small-scale strategies are being done automatically. The game takes place in real time, and you can change the game speed from real time all the way up to 200x. There seems to be a sweet spot right around 25x that provides a good balance between not waiting and not missing anything. World War II: General Commander also comes with a number of alternative display modes, such as shaded contours, supplies, and NATO icons for the true grognard in all of us.

World War II: General Commander features the usual assortment of military units from the time period, although since we are talking battalion level, you won't have to worry about specific tank or rifle types. You get several types of infantry (motorized, assault, paratroopers) and tank (light, medium, heavy) battalions, in addition to more specialized troops like artillery and engineers. Every battalion unit is rated in terms of efficiency (morale), resistance (armor), speed, and weapons. Each regiment is composed of up to four of these battalions, and four regiments makes up a division: it's all so symmetrical! Each regiment can be given a formation (square, vanguard (for offensive action), support, column) and more attacks are automated: if you are in range you will fire. This removes a lot of the micromanagement that could have been insurmountable in a real-time game. You are also given a suite of airplanes that can bomb enemy positions, bring supplies to cut-off troops, or transport paratroopers for sneaky operations. You must have nice weather in order to use your air assets, and World War II: General Commander uses the actual weather conditions experienced during the conflict.

World War II: General Commander makes roads a more significant feature of the battlefield than almost all other wargames. These are the true chokepoints since supplies must travel down roads, instead of having a simple radius from each supply source. It never really made sense to me that tons of supplies could be carried through a deep forest, and I'm glad the developers shared my concern. Supply is automated (thank goodness) and all you need to do is keep the roads under your control. Most of the battles will take place in cities or important intersections because of this reason, instead of them simply being objectives. Roads are also very important for moving units, especially motorized ones. Normally, you could just move that mechanized division through a forest and don't worry about it, but not here. About the only other game to pay attention to roads as much was Conquest of the Aegean. The maps come with a large variety of terrain, from urban areas to dense forests. Weather is also a concern: not only do clouds and rain prohibit planes from taking off, but they make combat much less fun. In addition, engaging the enemy during night is not recommended.

The AI in World War II: General Commander is a mixed bag. Its very aggressive nature is a two-edged sword, providing a challenging foe that's always on the attack, but one that attacks for too long. It's very aggressive even when supposedly defending. The AI is very good at encircling your position and cutting off supply lines, and thus puts up a better match when the computer is on offense. The difficulty of the AI cannot be adjusted, so players of every skill level will content with the same foe. I suppose difficulty could be manually tweaked by creating custom scenarios with imbalanced forces, but this seems to be a convoluted solution. The game is not terribly sophisticated because all you are doing is ordering units around (not that a lot of tactical games are very different), but it's great for beginning players. The interface and relatively simple control scheme makes it much easier to handle than most (if not all) traditional wargames.

World War II: General Commander does what it set out to do: provide a nice introduction to wargaming for beginning players. This is due in large part to the interface: listing all available units in their hierarchy on the main screen at all times makes handling large numbers of units in real time possible. One of the things keeping new players from entering the world of wargaming is being intimidated by so many units at once (like this...yeesh), and World War II: General Commander does a wonderful job making the game accessible to all skill and experience levels. The game comes with plenty of scenarios of varying sizes on the huge continuous map that spans about 400 by 400 kilometers in Western Europe. In addition, the game comes with a very easy to use editor that lets you create your own custom scenarios literally in minutes: it takes the same approach as the game interface, using simple point-and-click mechanics and containing all of the information on the main screen. While the game overall lacks the depth veteran strategy gamers would like, since you are playing at a battalion level and most actions are automated, I do like the use of roads in the supply network. The graphics could use some higher resolutions and crisper textures and the lack of a multiplayer browser limits online gaming as you must coordinate matches ahead of time. The computer is much better an an attacker than a defender, since it plays both roles the same way: overly aggressive. Still, the AI will provide some good competition when given superior numbers, cutting off supply lines and making life more difficult. Hopefully these minor issues will be rectified by the developer in the future (they seem to be quite active on the game's forums). Simply put, gamers looking for a more straightforward strategic wargame should immediately direct their attention towards World War II: General Commander.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Vehicle Simulator Review

Vehicle Simulator, developed and published by Quality Simulations.
The Good: Ability to create and control ground, air, and naval vehicles with lots of add-on content ready to be downloaded, straightforward controls perfect for beginners, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Small disparate scenery areas, little emphasis on driving, few included missions
What say you? A sandbox flight, boating, and driving simulation stressing custom content creation: 6/8

“All-inclusive” is the buzzword for modern PC gaming, with developers attempting to cram in as much content as they can and combine genres to produce the most complete products possible. The latest entry into this combination extravaganza is Vehicle Simulator, which unites previous efforts Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight into one cohesive package. Now, we get both flight simulation and naval adventures, with a sporty car thrown in for good measure. Does Vehicle Simulator successfully combine several kinds of simulations, or do too many sims spoil the pot?

The graphics in Vehicle Simulator are really designed for distant viewing, either from an airplane or from sea. That's not to say that the game doesn't look good, as it does for an independent product. The textures are OK, though repetitive and blocky when viewed form ground-level, but the terrain is quite detailed and the developer has chosen interesting areas in which to fly and drive. You can clearly tell the trees and other foliage are 2-D bitmaps, as they rotate to always point towards you. While this works well from a distance, it looks pretty hokey and archaic up close. Mountains in the far distance have some sort of fuzzy, hazy pixel effect that detracts from the game; I'm not sure if this is fog or draw distance or what, but I don't like it. The weather and time of day effects are pleasing, and the ocean kicks up scary looking waves during inclement conditions. The vehicles have nice designs as well. While Vehicle Simulator won't compete with X-Plane or the now defunct Flight Simulator, the graphics are fine enough. The sound design is generic, with the usual appropriate effects for each vehicle. The game uses the default Windows computerized voices in the rare instances where they are used, and the music seemed out of place and was turned off in short order. If you have played one of the previous games in this series, you know what to expect with Vehicle Simulator in terms of graphics and sound design: moments of excitement but average overall.

Vehicle Simulator simulates vehicles. Didn't see what one coming, did you? The default content is a bit underwhelming: only ten “situations” (missions) in one setting (the island of Corsica). Each mission starts you in a vehicle in specific weather conditions and gives you a couple of waypoints and some other planes that fly around automatically: not that exciting. Vehicle Simulator is really more of a sandbox title rather than one that features structured play. Lucky for all of us, content created for any previous Quality Simulations title can be imported, so new players can start by grabbing four additional locations in exotic settings. This still falls short of offering around-the-world coverage like the more mainstream flight simulators offer, so there are no long-distance flights in truly custom locations. You can make your own scenery files using height maps downloaded from the Internet, though, so the truly dedicated can venture into the world of custom content. You cannot, however, make your own missions yet, as this is a planned feature for later in the year.

A lot of vehicles have been produced throughout the years of Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight; I was able to download around fifty. The game places more emphasis on aircraft, featuring a nice variety of gliders, airplanes, helicopters, balloons, and more exotic creations like auto-gyros and microlight trikes. Boats and submarines are brought over from Virtual Sailor, from large container ships to small personal yachts. Disappointing is the ground-based vehicle selection: you get a Porsche, and that's it. I suppose this part of the game warranted the most work, since cars weren't in any previous product, but the lack of interesting and varied automobiles is troubling. I mean, where's my tank? Of course, since you can edit your own, it shouldn't be long until they crop up (get on it, modders!). Also included in Vehicle Simulator are various animals to populate the landscapes, mostly fish for the oceans but also cows and cats (complete with semi-realistic animations). Finally, a range of weather conditions can make life outdoors more exciting, with settings for precipitation, wind, waves, visibility, clouds, time of day, and thermals readily available and adjustable in real-time.

Vehicle Simulator is not a hardcore, authentic game with tons of vehicle-specific controls. You still get keys for landing gear and flaps, but there's no thirty-step process to start up a plane. While the more realism-oriented people might scoff at such shortcomings, I like the simplification as it makes Vehicle Simulator much more approachable to novices. Most of the planes handle stiffly and are greatly affected by wind direction, especially up- and down-drafts (something not noticeably simulated in other games). Boats handle as you would expect, and cars are a superficial add-on with arcade performance. You do get technology to mess with: GPS, maps, radar, auto-pilot, towing (mainly for gliders), and weapons. Also, Vehicle Simulator features online play with up to twenty people, and finding people is easy with the in-game server list.

Vehicle Simulator is exactly what I expected: a mostly successful combination of Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight. These two aspects of the game (boating and flying) perform almost identically to their predecessors, which is not a bad thing. The arcade tilt means that Vehicle Simulator is great for beginners, and jumping online in the sandbox mode of the game is inviting. The game's lineage means lots of custom content is already created, waiting to be downloaded, which expands the basic game's scope. There is much room to grow, however. The textures could use more variety and detail and even more scenery locations (with more missions) would be appreciated. The automobile aspect of the game is quite limited: I'd like to see some military vehicles and racing modes (the waypoints are in place already: how about some checkpoint races?). The planned additions of a mission editor and sailboats should complete the package more thoroughly. Vehicle Simulator is not quite on the same level as big-budget flight sims, but considering the custom content angle of the game, I suspect Vehicle Simulator will grow into a more complete product as time goes on.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Tomorrow War Review

The Tomorrow War, developed by CrioLand and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Large universe, nice marriage of arcade and simulation physics, pleasing combat, space-to-planet transitions, lengthy campaign
The Not So Good: Strictly linear, LAN-limited multiplayer, missing audio files, vague objectives
What say you? A space combat adventure game limited by its linear campaign and translation issues: 5/8

You know, tomorrow is always a day away (and this concludes the musical portion of Out of Eight). But, we will never reach tomorrow, because tomorrow will eventually be today and then the day after tomorrow will be tomorrow. Before our collective brains explode, let’s move on to the inspiration behind this apparent paradox: The Tomorrow War. This game is based on a series of books unknown outside of Russia (meaning I’ve never heard of them). The space combat adventure genre has been fairly strong on the PC, assuming you look in the right place, and The Tomorrow War is another game that aims to let you reach for the stars by blowing up a bunch of stuff.

The Tomorrow War was apparently released in Russia several years ago, but the visuals are still impressive enough. The ship designs are nice and varied with high-resolution textures, although most of the time you’ll be far enough away from everything that you won’t notice. Space is also plausibly rendered, with lots of stars but no cheap, showy nebulae. Passing through the rings of Saturn for the first time is an impressive act, as the asteroid belts are impressively populated with tons of dangerous rocks. Explosions are nicely done, as are the combat effects. The textures used for planet surfaces could be more detailed, though. In all, though, I was satisfied with the graphics. The sound, on the other hand, is underwhelming. A lot of the audio seems to have not made the transition from the original language, as most of the radio chatter and ship communications effects are either completely missing or entirely in Russian. You will have to rely primarily on the subtitles to understand what to do, and reading is for suckers. The remainder of the effects is pretty generic in nature: nothing notable here. While translation problems limit the sound design, the visuals of The Tomorrow War hold up very well.

In the future, the universe splits into two factions, one of which goes way old-school and starts to worship Zoroaster (finally!). You are a lowly fighter pilot for the good guys (the ones obviously not bowing down to some guy who lived thousands of years ago...get real, people), jetting throughout the galaxy to visit strange, interesting people and shoot them (in the face). The Tomorrow War has a long campaign consisting of over thirty missions that takes a while to complete (especially if you encounter one of many bugs that break a mission or otherwise inhibit your progress). This game is combat-heavy, featuring none of the trading or alternate occupations that many space adventure games feature. So you will be spending all of your time shooting things and flying in formation. There is no character growth and the missions are very, very linear. This becomes quite an issue as it's easy to “break” the game if you don't do exactly what the developers want in exactly the right order. These arbitrary limitations are something I would expect to find in a mediocre point-and-click adventure game from ten years ago, not a more modern space sim. Not helping things are the vague objectives and subtle hints to join formation, only relayed in the subtitles at the top of the screen. When in doubt, always join a formation. You will spend a lot of time in formation, flying around, waiting for the next trigger point and wave of enemies. The first ten minutes of The Tomorrow War is boring as heck: just let me fly around and shoot stuff already. Although I must say that navigating through the rings of Saturn is visually stimulating, if a bit annoying. You can save your progress at any time, a bright spot in the features list. In terms of multiplayer, you can play over a LAN, but that's it.

Your ship's HUD is generally quite useful, putting all of the pertinent information right on the main view: all of your systems (life support, navigation, power, engines, fuel, temperature) and a list of ships, separated by allegiance and type. You are given multiple autopilot options, from flying to an object to docking with an object. You will use autopilot almost all of the time your aren't engaged with enemy aircraft. The game will also inform you of fires and you can access the map to be completely confused as to where you are located. Your trusty ship is outfitted with a variety of weapons: guns (lasers, plasma, shells), missiles, torpedoes, and bombs for planetary targets. There isn't that much of a strategic difference between the various weapons, although more powerful targets require more powerful weapons.

The Tomorrow War features lots of hotkeys, like any good space flight simulator. You can pilot your ship using the keyboard, mouse, or a joystick; the inclusion of mouse-driven piloting is always welcome. It takes a couple of hours to digest all of the controls (lots of pausing the game and checking the key bindings), but there are options for any action you would want to perform. The controls are standard for the genre, although your ship is equipped with both planetary and orbital engines; this is initially confusing, as you must hold down “control” to go fast in space, but once you realize the distinction, it becomes a useful separation.

The gameplay of The Tomorrow War is a nice combination of arcade and simulation and fairly easy to learn. The third-person camera jumps around a bit too much, leading to some disorientation. Combat is chaotically fun when a lot of ships of different sizes are involved; it is quite reminiscent of Freespace 2, and that is meant as a high compliment. It's too bad the rest of the game can't hold up to the enjoyable fighting. The transition from space to planet has been done before, but it is still impressive in its seamlessness. Despite the highlight of the actual space combat, the rest of the features and the issues with translation limits The Tomorrow War to an also-ran in the genre.

The Tomorrow War has a nice outline for a space game, but it falls short in a couple of areas. First, the good news: the game strikes a nice balance in difficulty between arcade and simulation and the lengthy campaign will keep you busy for a while. The graphics have also held up quite well in the couple of years since the original Russian release date and they compare favorably with any other recent space simulation. The universe of The Tomorrow War is filled with planets and other objects that contain a nice level of detail, and the transition between open space and planetary atmospheres is smooth and believable. Unfortunately, you cannot freely explore any of it because the game limits you to the task at hand: you are not able to do anything outside of the mission parameters, such as docking with space stations or landing on planets. If it's not in the mission, it's not allowed. This type of linearity is simply outdated in today's realm of open worlds. On top of this limitation, The Tomorrow War has constrained multiplayer capabilities to shorten the shelf life of the game. In addition, the mission objectives are commonly vague and don't clearly explain what to do next. The Russian roots of The Tomorrow War become an issue with many bugs related to missing audio files and an incomplete movement to the English language. The potentially engrossing gameplay has been lost in translation.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ghostbusters: The Video Game Review

Ghostbusters: The Video Game, developed by Terminal Reality and published by Atari.
The Good: Nice visuals and sound, purchasable upgrades, numerous ghost types
The Not So Good: Short, no multiplayer but online DRM, linear level design with significant disorienting backtracking, repetitive and arbitrarily drawn-out combat, checkpoint-only saved games, constant cut-scenes interrupt game flow, does not install correctly in a custom location, does not utilize multi-core processors
What say you? PC users get slimed in this stripped-down homage to an 80's classic: 4/8

One of the largest influences on my childhood was the movie Ghostbusters, the foundation for many outside adventures involving invisible ghosts, purchased and manually constructed scientific equipment (I had an officially licensed Ghost Trap but made a Proton Pack out of a cardboard box), and tons of imagination. In my old(er) age, I need the computer to do my thinking for me, so it's a good thing that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is here. Featuring a script penned by the authors of the original movies and voice acting by most of the original actors, the expectations are high for fulfilling my childhood fantasies. If you've been following the development and release of this game at all, you already know that multiplayer has been unceremoniously removed from the PC version because console games are more important. The developers get a big “screw you” (and an even lower rating) from me for that omission, but does the single player experience compensate for neglecting the best gaming platform?

The best part about Ghostbusters: The Video Game is the graphics and the sound, as they are both excellently executed. There isn't an aspect of the visual presentation that I can point to as lacking. The character models are excellent and mirror their real-life counterparts. All of the Ghostbusting equipment is replicated (and even looks better) than in the movies. The ghosts have some imaginative designs, and the game's levels are quite detailed, though obviously linear. You can lay waste to most of the game's destructible environments, although there is the occasional curious items that can't be set on fire or exploded with impunity. I have experienced really inconsistent frame rates during play, although I might attribute this to my mid-range machine rather than the game itself. Still, it should be consistently slow instead of stuttering at the most inopportune times. I found out, by looking at the back of the box, that Ghostbusters: The Video Game does not support multiple core processors, which are used on, oh, I don't know, every computer now. I guess that explains my occasional slowdowns. Cut scenes are also a constant nuisance, abruptly interrupting the flow of the game; it would have been just as effective to maintain the third person perspective at all times. The sound design is also well done. As you might expect, the voice acting is professionally done and the game thankfully uses the sound effects and music from the movie: proton packs never sounded so good. Overall, Ghostbusters: The Video Game satisfies my cravings for an accurate reproduction of the cinematic presentation.

1991. You are the fifth Ghostbuster, hired so that you can hear all of the witty quips of the team. The first thing you'll notice about the game is the online key authentication. I have no problem with that, but the ironic twist is that the PC version of Ghostbusters has absolutely no online components whatsoever. That's right: the platform that invented online gaming has been left in the cold, so what we have left is the six-hour campaign and that's it. The console-related problems do not end there, however. If you choose to put the game in a location other than C drive (like me, who has a Windows 7 partition), the game does not install correctly. You have to manually copy some files from the default install directory over to your custom location. How ridiculous is that? I realize that multiple hard drives is a relatively recent feature on PCs...oh ,wait, it's not 1981? Never mind. Another console artifact is the checkpoint-only saved game system (gotta save space!), and reloading the last checkpoint reloads the entire level, a process that takes a good minute. The long load times do load the entire level, so there is no intra-level loading screens, but you're still staring at the Ghostbusters logo for an inordinate amount of time.

Ghostbusters is a disappointingly linear experience. The game takes place in famous New York and movie locations like the Sedgewick Hotel, the Library, Times Square, the Hudson River, Central Park, and a Museum. I was really looking for an open-world campaign with randomly-generated missions you could undertake in any order, akin to ArmA II. Instead, you get completely linear and highly scripted missions that involve a lot of backtracking. This makes the relatively small levels seem quite large as you pass the same set of elevator doors for the fifth time. I hate backtracking more than I hate obviously linear levels, at it makes playing the same so disorienting and confusing as heck. While the linearity is not on the same level as Legendary (another linear supernatural game that Ghostbusters unfortunately shares a lot of similarities to), it's still quite obvious with many blocked paths with conveniently placed debris. Another problem arises with the destructible levels: since you cannot jump over objects, your path can be blocked with things you destroyed, making you think a hallway is blocked when it actually is not. This can lead to lots of wasted time navigating through each level.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is played from a third person perspective so that you can see all of the work the developers did making a “realistic” proton pack. The pack itself shows your health and ammo level, since you have to reload every once in a while (a nonsensical and tired gimmick that introduces no tactical element). You are given four variations on the proton pack, and each weapon has primary and secondary fire modes. The weapons are surprisingly conventional: the proton stream is your rifle with grenade attachment, the slime blower is the bio-rifle from Unreal Tournament and the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, the shock blast is a shotgun and freeze gun, and the meson collider is a sniper rifle and guided missile launcher. Of course, all of these weapons have been morphed into the Ghostbusters canon, but the lack of true originality is notable. There can be some strategy when you unlock everything, alternating between weapons, but it's not enough to be considered a deep experience, mainly because most ghosts can only be affected by a specific weapon, so it's a matter of simply memorizing the correct counters. You can purchase two upgrades for each firing mode, about the only strategic choice regarding weapons in the game.

Capturing ghosts involves a four-step process. The first step is admitting the problem. No, wait, the first step is to use your PKE meter to detect the specific locations where ghosts are or have been; these places are quite scripted and the game won't advance until you properly use the meter, even if you know where the ghost is. The second step is using your weapon of choice to decrease the health of the ghost. This simply involves holding down the fire button and following the ghosts with your mouse until their health turns “red” as indicated by the targeting reticule. Thirdly, you switch to your capture stream by holding shift (this is also done automatically) and slam the ghost around by pressing the right mouse button. Finally, guide the ghost over to a trap and suck it down. The controls are not as precise as I would have wanted, though I suspect this is partly by design to introduce some element of challenge to the game. Being a PC gamer, I obviously turned off any help, as auto-targeting is for people who are playing on an inferior gaming system. For whatever reason (either my system or the game engine itself), aiming is made more difficult because the game has inconsistent frame rates as you pan around each room. In any event, combat in Ghostbusters is devoid of sense of tactics: more advanced weapons are intended for specific ghosts, and enemies have too much health, requiring you to hold down the mouse button for two minutes while following them around like you are doing a maze. There is also no defense against enemy attacks and your character moves so incredibly slowly that you are bound to get injured. A lot. Thankfully, teammates can revive you (and vice versa) if you are ever knocked down. And, boy, are they knocked down a lot: the allied AI leaves a lot to be desired for being supposedly professional Ghostbusters. This becomes a problem when you are up against a large number of ghosts, as your partners are hardly capable of capturing a ghost by themselves and require your intervention. In fact, I failed a mission when one of my fellow Ghostbusters got stuck on an invisible object adjacent to my location and could not revive me and subsequently died in the process. Awesome. This is where cooperative multiplayer would have solved this shortcoming, but, again, the PC is a third-class citizen. There are a lot of enemies to deal with, over forty ghosts with varied attacks, weaknesses, and special abilities, although everything basically behaves the same: simply moving around and occasionally shooting at you. Because of the lack of gameplay depth, monotonous combat, completely linear levels, and numerous console port issues, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is an also-ran action game.

Frankly, I am quite disappointed at how Ghostbusters: The Video Game turned out on the PC. First off, our proud platform doesn't get the potentially interesting cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes that the lesser consoles do. We also get a checkpoint-only save system (gotta save disk space!) and installation issues for those of us with multiple disk partitions. And forget about those fancy quad-core processors: Ghostbusters will only ever use one, which significantly impacts the smoothness of the gameplay. The content we do get to enjoy goes by too quickly, as you can complete the campaign with a solid weekend worth of work. Typical of flashy console games, Ghostbusters does look and sound fantastic, with top-of-the-line visuals and quality effects. The game degrades from there, however. Linear level designs involve annoying backtracking; where's my open world Ghostbusting with a random and/or optional mission sequence? The weapons are veiled conventional in disguise; with no reality to adhere to, the developers couldn't come up with more unique options? The combat is tedious and boring with enemies that have too much health and require you to attack them for too long. You can choose from a robust selection of upgrades and encounter plenty of ghosts, but these are small features when the core gameplay is so dull. Halfway decent multiplayer could have saved this game, but, alas, the PC is last on the developer's list of priorities. The single player experience is not good enough to stand on its own. I ain't 'fraid o' no ghosts, but I am afraid of the mediocrity of this game.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Altitude Review

Altitude, developed and published by Nimbly Games.
The Good: Deceivingly strategic gameplay, high-level planes and items are not overly superior, persistent ranks and unlocks keep you motivated, straightforward controls, custom map creation, easy to find online matches, cross-platform
The Not So Good: Only two game modes, fast pace reduces tactics and planning, short respawn times lessen penalty for death
What say you? A 2-D flying action game with a satisfying amount of gameplay depth: 7/8

Altitude, n.: A state of mind or a feeling. Wait, what does that have to do with airplanes? Oh, sorry, wrong word. Altitude, n.: The height of a thing above a reference level. That's more like it. Yes, to fly! The dream of man and flightless bird alike! Yeah, I've used that quote before, but I like it, so back off, Negative Nancy! While most PC games involving planes tend to fall on the simulation side of things, Altitude takes its place squarely in the arcade realm. This is an action game that just happens to involve planes, as you pilot your way around 2-D levels in search of enemy hardware. That's right, I said 2-D, what of it? That retro charm will most certainly make Altitude easier to navigate and support the fast-paced gameplay of pure destruction we all desire. How does it all come together?

Remember when I said that Altitude was a 2-D game? You know, like in the preceding paragraph. Well, the graphics are in 2-D as well, but they look good for what I would consider to be a casual game. The in-game elements have a nice hand-drawn feel to them and they are animated enough for the fast-paced action of the title. Explosions are dramatic and you can visually ascertain the health of an enemy plane, an important interface feature in a game as frenetic as this. The game does not have incorporate 3-D graphics on a 2-D plane (I think that's a pun) like games such as Monster Trucks Nitro, but that's OK with me. The game's levels offer up some visual variety, and since you can create your own, anything you can create with the game's editor is fair game. As for the sound, there is some generic main menu music and the typical assortment of sounds associated with in-game events: nothing spectacular here. Overall, Altitude does a decent enough job in the graphics department and falls within the acceptable realm for casual gaming.

A 2-D flying action game, Altitude is a multiplayer game, but you can do some training missions and skirmish matches against the AI offline. My first impressions of the computer opponents were not positive: they routinely flew around in circles and rarely put up a reasonable fight unless they are in large numbers. But then I figured out that they were set to "easy," and increasing their intelligence to "expert" resulted in a capable and challenging opponent that could even successfully navigate the team-based mode. The difficulty settings affect the maximum speed, fire power, and accuracy of the computer opponents, and higher settings make for a deadly opponent indeed. Man, and I had this long negative rant about the AI all written out, too. Experience points earned against the AI carry over to the online mode; since you could easily exploit the dumb "easy" AI to rack up experience, I would like to see the XP earned against computer opponents scale according to difficulty. In any event, the offline modes provide good training for the meat of the game: online play. It's trivially easy to join an online game through the browser and network performance is lag free on the plentiful low-ping servers. There are only two game types to choose from: free for all deathmatch and a team-based destruction mode that acts like capture the flag, where you must carry a bomb and drop it on the enemy base. There is room for many more modes inspired by first person shooters: domination, assault, team deathmatch, onslaught, conquest, and whatever else you decide to plagiarize from Unreal Tournament. Only having two modes introduces a good amount of repetition once you have played the game for a significant amount of time. You can edit your own levels, and the editor is pretty intuitive: if you know how to use Paint, you are good to go as most everything is point-and-draw (although the new Paint in Windows 7 melts my brain with confusion). Custom maps are downloaded automatically: a nice feature. Most severs are populated with highly skilled players that have been playing since the game was released; this is discouraging for novices and it would be nice to have more low-level-players-only servers (I only saw one and it was empty). Lastly, I should mention that Altitude is available for all three major PC operating systems: Macintosh, Linux, and a little niche product called Windows.

There are five planes to choose from once you play enough and unlock them all, and they are different in terms of health, speed, agility, and weaponry. These subtle changes have a dramatic effect on how you play with each of them, and it adds significant depth to the game as a whole. You start out with the quick Loopy, and soon unlock the agile Bomber, the powerful Explodet, the balanced Biplane, and the tricky Miranda. Controlling these planes uses the arrow keys for turning and speed and the “F,” “D,” and “S” keys for primary, secondary, and pick-up weapons respectively. It's pretty easy to keep your fingers on these keys and hitting the correct control becomes intuitive after a couple of rounds. Since you are controlling planes, you move faster when moving downwards, and you have to worry about stalling. In addition, you are equipped with an afterburner to get out of those sticky situations. As you progress through the game, you will unlock perks, which are patterned (stolen) after the system used in Call of Duty. You can choose three upgrades at once: one for weapons , one for heath and speed, and one for damage and energy. The weapon ones are plane-specific, such as bombs or mines, while the remaining two are the same five selections for all planes. The perks and the planes are well balanced across all experience levels and more seasoned players are not at an advantage just because they have access to “better” items. You level up quickly early on, earning points for kills, assists, and end-game achievements, but new items unlock more slowly as you progress through the game. You can also pick up helpful items on the battlefield: shields, walls, powerful missiles, and health.

The gameplay in Altitude is decidedly fast paced, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The frantic action means it's only seconds until you are engaged in mortal combat, and the fast respawn times put you back into the game quickly. However, tactically-minded gamers such as myself will bemoan the emphasis on reflexes rather than planning and strategy. Now, I like “twitch” games like Unreal Tournament as much as the next guy, but it seems like you are just mashing buttons as quickly as possible once the engagement commences. Now, there is definitely some strategy involved deciding the order to use your plane's capabilities, so you can go into battle with a plan in place. Dying in Altitude is a trivial affair because of the aforementioned short respawn times. You do get a bonus for racking up kills between deaths, providing increased health, speed, and damage, but the effects are not significant enough to retreat back to base when significantly injured. Perhaps more game modes or maps that put an emphasis on surviving or a server option would make pilots advance more carefully. You could argue that more a cautious approach would oppose the overall pace of the game, though, so it's really just a matter of personal preference. In short (too late!), if you prefer a quickened tempo, then Altitude will not disappoint.

Altitude offers up some satisfying fast-paced combat in the skies (or in a cave, depending on the map). Despite the frenzied action, there is a nice amount of depth since each of the game's five planes has a different strategy. The perks that can be unlocked for each plane increases the amount of tactical customization. All of this planning almost goes down the drain since the game is typically a quick chaotic mess of rapid respawning, and I think this design choice ultimately limits the game to “generally amusing.” Altitude comes with one limitation that restrict its long-term appeal: only two game modes. This is countered by the core game being very enjoyable, assuming that you aren't playing on an unbalanced server populated by veteran players. Being able to easily create your own maps is a great feature, and hippies will love that Altitude is available for both Macintosh and Linux in addition to Windows. The controls are easy to learn and there are some subtle aspects to the mechanics, like stalling, afterburners, and survival granting bonuses. Whether the game will appeal to you depends on whether or not you like fast games; you can always the demo and find out for yourself (you could have saved yourself a significant amount of reading that way!). Personally? I like it and it gets a recommendation to fans of accelerated multiplayer action.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War Review

Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War, developed by neoqb and published by 777 Studios.
The Good: Authentic handling, varied difficulty settings, career mode with randomly generated missions
The Not So Good: Medium-to-large battles are unplayable due to poor performance, long load times, restricted plane usage, boring and repetitive tutorials
What say you? A lack of polish hurts this World War I combat flight simulator: 5/8

While World War II has gotten plenty of quality flight simulators, the First World War: You Know, the One with Trenches has been largely ignored. And the few times games have addressed World War I, they haven't been that good. Well, it's time to rectify both of those shortcomings in one fell swoop with Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War. Take the pilot seat alongside the Red Baron, Snoopy, and Woodstock, or so I would assume since I am using Peanuts as historical reference. You would think that the more primitive flying devices would result in a smaller learning curve, and thus would make Rise of Flight appeal to a larger audience. Well, does it? DOES IT?!? I demand answers!

Rise of Flight is reminiscent of IL-2 in terms of graphics, and I mean that in a very complimentary fashion. The terrain is the most striking part of the game and the French countryside looks fantastic, with 3-D trees, varied features, and changing weather conditions for added realism. The planes themselves are finely detailed and look like their real-life counterparts. Explosions and weapon effects are also nicely done, delivering an extra sense of satisfaction when an enemy plane plummets towards the ground. However, it's not all good news: when many enemy planes get involved, Rise of Flight slows down to a crawl. This is possibly due to an issue with my on-board sound card, as adjusting the graphics options make no difference. I have adjusted the only sound options available to their minimum value, but the severe performance drops are still present. The developer states that my processor isn't fast enough (even though it fulfills the minimum system requirements: AMD Athlon X2 4200 Dual Core 2.2GHz, 2 GB RAM, 1 GB Radeon HD 4670) and that Windows 7 comparability hasn't been tested yet (although I have had no problems running any other game). The true culprit is yet to be determined. This is coupled with extremely long load times for every mission: expect to wait upwards of three to four minutes each time you start a new session. That gets old quite quickly. Another “feature” is the inability to change any of the options while in the game: everything from graphics settings to control schemes must be altered beforehand. So much for referencing the options menu to remember the controls. The sound is pretty much what you would expect: appropriate plane effects with realistically wimpy engines and convincing battle sounds. The voice acting during the tutorials is quite horrible (with almost constant abuse of the English language), but luckily that's the only place you will experience them.

Rise of Flight is really designed for online play, as evidenced by the fact that you have to log in each time you play; it seems like all of the mission content is kept on a central server (the “mission” directories on my computer are empty). The main component of the single player game is the career mode, where you take to the skies for either France or Germany, selecting a plane, starting year, and regiment. You can also adjust the mission length as you advance from also-ran pilot to ace fighter. The best part of the career mode is the random generation of the missions: you never know quite what to expect, and you are always given a main objective and several secondary missions to complete if you have time and don't die. Mission types include attacking the enemy (recon flights, bombers, fighter patrols, transport and armored columns, tank and artillery positions, observation balloons, buildings) or defending friendlies of the same sort. While there isn't severe variation in each mission type (for this or any other combat flight simulator), giving you different objects to attacks or defend does mix up the action. There are also a number of single missions that repeat for each plane type: one-on-one dogfights, covering bombers, attacking balloons, plus several more scripted events like patrols and scrambles. That's a decent amount of content for a flight simulator.

Piloting a rickety old airplane can be difficult, so Rise of Flight features a robust selection of difficulty options. You can adjust them as you wish, showing icons for objectives and planes, automating the mixture and radiator controls, and granting unlimited fuel or invulnerability. It's always a nice feature to allow individuals to customize the game to their liking, depending on how “real” they want to make their experience. On the multiplayer front, Rise of Flight includes a server browser to search for games and you can engage in any of the single player missions in addition to five-on-five battles. You can gain rewards and earn experience over time, and your online prowess is recorded on the central stats server. Learning the game is done through the tutorials, which could have been done in a much more effective manner. There are tons (usually five or so) of cutscenes to introduce each new procedure (landing, engaging balloons, et cetera) that begged to be skipped: who wants a story in the tutorial? In addition, most of the activites are done over and over again in the tutorial, leading to a lot of boredom. Of course, you must fully complete each tutorial in order to unlock the next, so get ready to sit and wait. Rounding out the features is the mission editor, a complete but initially confusing tool that allows you to design your own scenarios. The editor is not as simple as I would have assumed, as the manual states it “consists of a generator,” so I was envisioning a point-and-click, two-minute mission building procedure, but that's sadly not the case.

Rise of Flight lets you control four planes that few over (and occasionally crashed into) France during World War I: two for Germany (the Fokker D.VII and Albatros D) and two for France (the SPAD XIII and Nieuport). Half of these planes are initially locked as you must “purchase” them as you progress through the game; I though the Army Air Force was supposed to buy them for you. Your tax dollars not at work! Before each mission, you can customize your ammo loadout, paint scheme, and fuel load. More interesting is the ability to set your gun convergence distance, where maximum damage will be wraught. I can't think of many other flight simulators that have let me do that (as an astute reader pointed out, IL-2 apparently does...shows how much I know). Actually flying seems to be quite realistic, as the planes have a very ancient feel to them, slowly moving through the sky. This makes for some intricate dogfights (of which World War I is famous for), and the AI is up to the challenge, proving a good opponent of varying capabilities. Learning the controls of the era is simple if you have played any other flight simulator: about the only controls (other than the directional ones) you need to worry about are the fuel mixture and radiator (both of these can be automated anyway) and recharging the guns before you unleash a copious amount of lead. The stately nature of the combat of Rise of Flight can mean some repetitive battles, but the unpredictable nature of the AI and the varied mission objectives alter the experience enough. It's too bad, then, that the game runs to poorly on my mid-range system, a configuration I suspect the average gamer will have and subsequently suffer the same performance issues I did.

Rise of Flight displays the typical promise and pitfalls of Russian-developed games: it looks great but lacks the refinement you would expect in a complete title. The core simulation is well done, with planes that I assume behave realistically fighting over a beautiful rendered setting. The AI pilots put up a good challenge and handling these ancient planes is difficult, but not from a learning standpoint as there are few buttons to press and no digital readouts to be confused about. The career features randomly generated missions: always a plus. You can also adjust the realism of the game and add any number of aids that will assist those less skilled pilots (author raises hand). While the single missions and multiplayer affairs are more static, there is enough content overall. The mission editor is not as straightforward as I would have hoped, lacking simple point-and-click creation. The tutorial also takes too long to progress (even when you skip through the monotonous and plentiful movies) and features repetitive objectives, with a single training exercise taking about three times longer than it should. The game also initially locks half of the aircraft from you; I paid for the game, so I should be able to fly everything from the start, darn it! Most significantly, Rise of Flight performs horribly for me, with intolerably long load times and the inability to handle large battles smoothly. I think the limitations of Rise of Flight will overshadow any of the positive aspects of the game for most users, so the game is only recommended for those with a true interest in the aerial combat of World War I.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Conquest! Medieval Realms Review

Conquest! Medieval Realms, developed by Illustrious Software and published by Slitherine Software.
The Good: Simple yet deep mechanics involving territorial control and unit placement, random map generator and an editor suite, lengthy campaigns, challenging, multiplayer game browser
The Not So Good: Old hex-based graphics that lack some interface features, disabling advanced rules creates stalemates, too simplistic for genre veterans
What say you? A straightforward and approachable turn-based strategy game for novice players that has a nice amount of content: 6/8

During the Middle Ages, before both television and the Internet, there wasn't much to do. So, people decided to embark upon two noble goals: (a) spread plague and (b) kill others. Conquest! Medieval Realms is a turn-based strategy game involving the latter exploit, although I suspect a plague-based computer simulation might be enjoyable as well. Here, you are fighting for control of the land by moving units around, placing structures, and making the enemy tremble under your extreme strategic prowess. Most hex-based games are insanely complicated affairs intended for a hardcore audience, but Conquest! Medieval Realms resorts to a simple economy and static, understandable unit relationships. Does this approach work?

The best thing you can say about the graphics of Conquest! Medieval Realms is that it looks like a table-top board game. The worst thing you can say about the graphics of Conquest! Medieval Realms is that it looks like a table-top board game. Now, I have no problem with evoking the feeling of moving figurines around a hex board, but there are some enhancements that a computer game should introduce, namely in the interface. Overall, the game does a capable job showing the battlefield, with large icons for troops that turn gray when moved and easy to identify hex properties. However, here are a list of my demands. First, units need a small indicator showing their type and level: it took me several games to differentiate between level one and two cavalry units, for example. Secondly, a list of all your towns would be helpful on large maps; the minimap indicates units that can still move and towns that have money to spend, but this is somewhat limiting for expansive battles. Also, it would be nice if the game could indicate which zones can be invaded using the currently selected unit. Finally, Conquest! Medieval Realms lacks end game stats, instead displaying a simple “you are victorious” message. That is all. As for the sound design, we have minimal effects (namely the same twelve sounds over and over again) for combat and a pleasing three-minute song for background music that evokes a feeling of war...or ballroom dancing, I forget which. Overall, Conquest! Medieval Realms delivers exactly what I was expecting for an independent hex-based game: minimal at best.

Conquest! Medieval Realms takes place in the Middle and/or Dark Ages, and centers around two famous wars: Roses and Hundred Years. You get thirty scenarios unlocked in a linear fashion spread over four campaigns, one for each side in both wars. They rarely repeat and offer a nice variety in approach and strategy; the level of difficulty will also keep you playing for a while. Conquest! Medieval Realms also has skirmish matches against up to seven AI opponents for control of a randomly generated map, always an important feature in any good wargame. You can customize the size of the map (on a scale from one to five) and how much impassable water there is. If random isn't your thing, Conquest! Medieval Realms also includes thirteen pre-designed maps for various game sizes, although the random map feature is more than sufficient. There are some issues with the skirmish games: the game does not indicate which map size is appropriate for different numbers of players and the game never automatically saves your progress (having the option to save every five turns would be great). In addition, Conquest! Medieval Realms gives you the option of playing with advanced rules “off” (which is what the demo uses), which is really dumb. This is because the level 3 melee units have no counter and can only be defeated by cutting off territory. It does make the game easier to handle (which is the point), but it's too easy to the point of inanity. A new patch added the ability to browse for games online, always an important feature for any Internet-enabled game. The game's “tutorial” is simply three non-interactive screens with very basic information, but it's better than the online manual, but still leaves some questions unanswered (like combining units). Conquest! Medieval Realms comes back strong, however, with the complete suite of editors for the game: maps, scenarios, and campaigns can all be created with ease from inside the game. The scenario editor lets you adjust options like starting cash and choose from eleven objectives, such as capture tile, kill unit, and territory size. There is really a lot of flexibility here that should add to the game's longevity. Despite my complaints, Conquest! Medieval Realms really does have a lot of features for $20.

Your goal? Control 80% of the map (unless, of course, you are playing a scenario game with different objectives). You start out with randomly assigned territories (unless, of course, you are playing a scenario game) that are treated as separate entities, each earning an income equal to the number of hexes it contains. Your first goal will probably be to join up smaller provinces so that they can consolidate their cash and combine upgrades. You will need to build stables on flat land to produce cavalry, and archery ranges in forest for ranged units. You can also mine on hills and establish markets for additional income, although each additional mine or market is more expensive than the last. You will also need towers and castles for defense, which prevent level 1 and level 2 (respectively) units from getting near them. Since buildings have no upkeep, it's sometimes better to place towers and castles instead of defending troops, especially against low-level foes. Of course, since they lack upkeep, they are spammed late in the game, introducing some annoying tedium as you grind away at every...single...darn...castle the AI has built. Since each unit and building controls their surrounding hexes, there is quite a bit of strategy involved in where to place units and buildings.

Speaking of units, there are three types: spear beats cavalry, cavalry beats ranged, and ranged beats spear. There is no chance involved with combat: units will automatically defeat their counter and any unit of a lower level. Each unit requires upkeep beyond the initial cost. If you can't meet upkeep, all units disappear; this makes spitting a territory in two a viable strategy to eliminate high-level units from the map using low-level equipment if the other player is not paying attention. You can also combine units to make more powerful ones (something both the in-game tutorial and online manual fail to mention); while it's cheaper than spending cash on new ones, it leaves you with less units to distribute among your empire.

I like how Conquest! Medieval Realms uses simple rules to produce a compelling strategic effect. This is a game involving territorial control: placing you units to block incoming raids and take advantage of enemy weaknesses. Units can move into any any adjacent hex to their territory during their turn, even if they are nowhere near it. I like this convention, as it makes defending a large, spread-out empire actually possible. An interesting and common strategy is to split territories in order to make units disappear, as you will separate high-upkeep units from mines, markets, and income-producing tiles. It's a nice simplification of supply lines that is frankly too sophisticated (meaning confusing) in many other hex-based games. Conquest! Medieval Realms has several layers of overlying strategy that makes for a simple but deep gameplay experience. There is no chance or luck, since the rules of who wins are very concrete: construct units to counter others and use upper-level units for cities and castles. It may be because there are more AI players than humans, but I found the AI to be quite competent in playing the game, especially on the higher difficulty levels. The computer opponents do build a lot of castles (in place of mobile level 3 units), but they provide a nice challenge. With a lot of players, it can get tedious trying to defend yourself against attacks from multiple fronts, as the AI tends to gang up on the best player. Handing a large empire is tough, especially if you have a lot of one-hex-wide connections that can be easily taken. Thank goodness for the undo button during a turn. You must alternate between attacking and defending, and you need large area of territory to support the level 3 units that are required to take down the relatively cheap castles that multiply in number at the end of the game. Because of the low unit and structure count (six of each), the game can get repetitive after a while, but the random maps, campaigns, and challenging difficulty help to extend the life of Conquest! Medieval Realms.

Scared by hardcore wargames? Well, Conquest! Medieval Realms might be just the game for you! Although the tutorial and online manual leave a lot to be desired, the game is easy to learn thanks to straightforward, non-random combat and simple unit relationships. The random map generator is excellent, the campaigns are long, and the editors that allow you to create custom scenarios and campaigns in addition to sculpted battlefields. You can also take your skills online through the multiplayer game browser. The game features a really interesting use of control: you can split territories and cut off powerful units from their required resources, removing them (and all other units) from the territory. Even a lowly level 1 unit can do this, so it puts an emphasis on planning good defenses and knowing which units are present on the board. Deciding where to attack and which units to build is a thought-provoking and enjoyable process. The AI offers up some good competition, although it tends to focus more on spending on defensive structures instead of taking a more offensive approach. Still, the game is a good challenge, especially in the campaigns, requiring a lot of thinking to be successful. It would be nice to have some interface improvements, but this is a relatively small quibble in an otherwise well-designed game. The game's protracted number of units does come in to play eventually, where combat and strategy becomes repetitive. Thus, Conquest! Medieval Realms is really intended for beginners. I was more enthusiastic about the game until I learned about Slay, which Conquest! Medieval Realms “borrows” a lot of basic mechanics from. This game does flesh out the features by adding the three unit classes and multiple building types, but Conquest! is a bit less impressive overall than I initially thought because of the lack of total originality. Nevertheless, Conquest! Medieval Realms is still quite fun for novice strategy fans and different enough to warrant a purchase.