Friday, October 30, 2009

Trine Review

Trine, developed by Frozenbyte and published by Nobilis Publishing.
The Good: Three varied characters to control, straightforward controls, fantastic visuals, cooperative play
The Not So Good: Typically linear solutions, checkpoint-only saving, no level editor, no online features
What say you? A fanciful and unique physics-based puzzle game: 6/8

Do you like physics? Do you like puzzles? Do you like jumping over chasms adorned with spikes? Do you like cheese? Well, have I got the game for you: the developer of indie action title Shadowgrounds is tackling a much different genre this time around with a physics-based puzzle game. Now see why I asked all those questions? It all makes sense! Well, except for the cheese thing. Anyway, Trine has been getting some press for being a bit on the expensive side for a puzzle game. Is the price justified to rock your body?

Trine looks and sounds fantastic. Every aspect of the graphics is high quality, from the character models and animations to the special effects and level designs. Each of the game's characters and enemies have well detailed models and move fluidly through the landscape, though some of the animations (especially those dealing with death) tend to get a bit repetitive. The special powers and light effects have a nice glow to them that fits the fantasy world setting that is fantastically detailed. The puzzle elements could have been more plausibly integrated into the environment, but the theme remains strong. Even though the game plays on a 2-D plane, the use of 3-D graphics creates a distinctive look. The sound design is wonderful as well, with great narration and dialogue from the characters, as well as fittingly beautiful background music that imitates the tone of the game. The presentation of Trine is first rate.

Trine tells the tale of three characters brought together as one, chasing a magical something-or-other through a world with a disturbing amount of jumping puzzles. The game world is entirely in 2-D, featuring an assortment of physics-based puzzles and platform jumping sequences. Given this, it is surprising that Trine does not ship with a level editor so that you can create custom puzzles, a fairly standard feature for the genre. Trine's length is acceptable, although replay value is low since most of the levels require a specific strategy as the level design does not lend itself to experimentation well. The game's difficulty levels adjust the amount of damage your characters suffer, although it does not change the actual layouts at all, so the jumping sequences require the same precision no matter what. Trine has the annoying console “feature” of allowing checkpoint-only saves, which are infrequent enough to induce too much level repetition for my tastes. Trine technically has multiplayer, although it's a buried feature available if you have gamepads plugged into the computer and the option activated several menus deep. The lack of online elements is disappointing, but the game doesn't make adjustments for having multiple characters in the same level, so Trine is actually more difficult when you play nice with others. Thus, the lack of online play is not missed too much as it would be essentially impossible to coordinate with others; it's hard enough with someone sitting next to you.

There are three characters you can freely switch between during your time in Trine, assuming you haven't been totally incompetent and gotten them killed. The knight is your combat specialist, equipped with melee weapons and a shield to dispose of those nasty skeletons and whatever else magically spawns on either side of you. The thief is the ranged fighter armed with a grappling hook for accessing tricky, sneaky areas (or totally bypassing enemies altogether). Finally, the wizard is there to summon objects like blocks and platforms or levitate and move objects: a neat way of manipulating the environment. Each character has separate health and energy, so you will have to be aware of how close your tribe is to certain death. Between levels, you can gain upgrades for each of the characters (three skills with two upgrade levels per character), in addition to additional weapons and items. It's nice to have a little choice in who gets the upgrades and items, but the selection of abilities is far enough below a typical RPG to say that Trine has role-playing elements.

While the levels take full advantage of the robust physics engine, Trine does not offer enough solution variety for my taste. It's clear the developers have one way to do most, if not all, of the problems you will encounter. Now, the use of three characters with distinct abilities means the solutions are at least somewhat varied, with a combination of grappling hook, object movement, and combat elements. Still, it's a two-step process of figure out how the developers wanted you to solve the next room and then doing it, which can be trying with some of the more advanced platform sequences. I'm never a huge fan of jumping and timing puzzles, and Trine comes with enough of them to make the game frustrating on several occasions. The game is never really unfair, though, with a proper amount of death traps and enemies to content with. Trine overall does offer more variety that an average puzzle game thanks to the three characters and adept use of the grappling hook affords you some inventiveness, but since you can't use it everywhere, you are still mostly limited to what the developers have in mind.

Trine takes the physics-based puzzle game and injects enough innovation to make it stand out. The use of three character skill sets, though a bit gimmicky, separates the game strategy nicely and makes Trine more accessible to a casual audience. All three are important aspects to the game and the level design support using them in equal amounts. The game is pretty linear, though, as it eventually becomes quite obvious whom to use when and there isn't much leeway, other than skipping past entire sections of a level with daft use of the grappling hook. The game requires dexterity and timing to navigate past the healthy amount of jumping puzzles. This makes cooperative play less appealing since getting two or three separate characters past a tricky sequence can be, well, tricky. The game appears to have been designed for one morphing character rather than three, and the lack on online features further reduces the value of multiplayer in the game. The game is long enough; the original $30 price tag was on the expensive side, but it has recently been reduced to a more reasonable level. The stellar graphics is probably the justification for the originally increased cost, and though the game looks very nice, Trine is now more appropriately priced in the realm of $20 puzzle games. Nevertheless, puzzle fans will find a unique and enjoyable adventure.

Monday, October 26, 2009

RACE On Review

RACE On, developed by SimBin Studios and published by Viva Media.
The Good: All of RACE 07 and STCC, new U.S. muscle and International Formula Master cars, two new U.S. tracks, 2008 WTCC season tracks and cars
The Not So Good: Does not include GTR Evolution content, missing one 2009 WTCC track
What say you? Admittedly limited if you own all previous expansions, this stand-alone product delivers entertaining feature-rich racing: 6/8

SimBin has manufactured themselves a comfortable little rut. Starting with their first touring car simulation RACE, they have released yearly stand-alone expansions: RACE 07, STCC, and GTR Evolution. We now arrive at RACE On, which adds the Swedes from STCC to RACE 07 and adds a sprinkle of America with muscle cars and a couple of tracks, in addition to the 2008 WTCC season (why are they always a year behind?). Last time around, the embellishments were disappointing with a limited scope. Does RACE On successfully continue SimBin’s march of quality simulation racing products?

RACE On looks the same as previous titles in the series, as it seems this version has not received any graphical enhancements. The game still looks good, although the overall level of quality is starting to lag behind titles like GRID that have more graphical flair. All of the car models and race tracks appear to be realistic, and there isn’t an overemphasis on confusing shiny effects like bloom and blur that distract you from driving. The damage effects could be more dramatic, as bumpers fall off but the frame is never deformed. Some of the textures could be more varied and detailed, too, as road-side objects can be blurry (even on the maximum settings) and grass and track surfaces are repetitive. The advantage to the lowered graphical quality is that RACE On performs very smoothly even with the detail level cranked up. The game prompts you to increase your settings if frame rates are high: a nice feature. The sound design is generally the same as before: informative tire squeals and satisfying engine effects. The same spotter is used again, and the main menu music features a very, very annoying person shouting about winning a race: I turned it off instantly. As long as RACE products act more like expansions that true sequels, the graphical quality will remain at the same average, but acceptable, level.

RACE On is, surprisingly, a racing game where you race in races. These can be done both by yourself and online by taking place in a number of events. Single races comprise of practice, qualifying, and warm-up sessions, followed by the two-race (in WTCC, at least) main event. You can also take place in a full championship season with a points system, or create your own custom season with any of the game’s cars and tracks; you can even mix car types to create a staggered series. You can enjoy time attack mode (complete with online leaderboards) and practice for those who don’t know what they are doing. It should be noted that RACE On still lacks a tutorial system, something I have complained about since the first RACE title. Have they read none of my review?! The game does provide corner markers for novice-level driving and pretty clear braking zones (noted by darker tire build-up) on the tracks to help new players somewhat. Online racing is still solid, though most of the servers are located in Europe so some event can be a little laggy, though nothing that is unplayable. You can join any server that is running RACE 07 or STCC in addition to RACE On, which serves to prevent gaming community fragmentation (unless, of course, it’s running GTR Evolution and you do not). Race rules can be customized, like superpole (one-lap) qualifying, rolling starts, race lengths (both laps and time), and mandatory pitstops.

You race with cars, and RACE On features an impressive array of vehicles. New to the series is the 2008 WTCC season, featuring six makes of vehicles that aren’t terribly different from the 2007 or 2006 seasons that are also included. Also new is the International Formula Masters series that use the same tracks as the WTCC with the exception of two (Hungaroring and Spa) that are not included in RACE On. The primary focus of RACE On is the new U.S. muscle cars. There are four models that come in both street and racing versions: the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V, 2009 Dodge Charger, 2009 Dodge Challenger, and 2009 Chevrolet Camaro. These heavy, powerful real-wheel drive cars behave differently from the WTCC vehicles, as they are prone to oversteer (or “loose” to us Americans) when exiting a corner if you are not careful with the throttle. Additional content is gathered from RACE 07 and STCC, which are actually installed alongside RACE On as separate games, though there is no reason why you’d use them instead of RACE On that includes all of their content anyway (Steam is weird like that). Here we go with some links: the 2008 STCC season comes with nine makes, the Camaro Cup Champsionship that features (surprise!) Camaros, Caterham (3 makes), Radical (6 makes), Formula 3000 (now GP2), Formula BMW, Mini Cooper, and the 1987 WTCC season. In addition, if you have previously purchased GTR Evolution, all of that content is imported as well, making RACE On the only executable you'll ever need. In all, that’s a lot of cars and a good variety of them.

What good are cars if you have no where to race them? RACE On features three new tracks: Okayama, Road America, and Laguna Seca. That’s not a lot of new content (RACE expansions have mostly been light on the new tracks), but when you combine them with all of the tracks from RACE 07 and STCC, you do get forty-seven total, which is nice. RACE On does not include Marrakech, Morocco, featured in the 2009 WTCC season (probably saved for RACE On 2: On Harder), but SimBin is always a year behind reality. There a nice variety of slow, fast, oval, and urban tracks to race on, and everyone should find at least something they enjoy. RACE On does include competitive setups for most cars on all tracks: a nice feature. Some of the more wacky combinations (like Caterhams on the Puebla Oval) won’t be found, but including all of the conventional possibilities is impressive. The physics are seemingly realistic and different for each kind of vehicle. I personally prefer cars that are slower but handle better, like the WTCC and Mini Cooper vehicles, rather than the muscle cars or open wheel vehicles. I will say, though, that the International Formula Masters cars are the least annoying open wheel cars I've ever virtually driven, as they are not prone to breaking loose exiting every turn. The AI is still competitive; I dislike having to tweak their difficulty the first couple of races to get them “just right” (an automated slider would be greatly appreciated), but on full power they will be quite competent racers. They will also make mistakes on occasion, running off track, and are aggressive without being idiotic: a good combination for exciting racing.

Your assessment of RACE On depends on how many of the previous SimBin games you own. If you have RACE 07 and STCC and GTR Evolution, then you are paying $30 for essentially two new car classes and three new tracks: a very tough sell. However, if you’ve been lagging behind or are new to the series, then RACE On represents an excellent value for what you get. The racing options are robust, from custom championships to online event against people who own previous titles in the series. The game comes with many styles of cars: four seasons of the WTCC, the 2008 STCC season, the Camaro Cup, International Formula Masters, Caterham, Radical, Formula 3000, Formula BMW, Mini Coopers, and street and racing versions of four American muscle cars. These cars can be run on forty-seven tracks; new additions to the series include Okayama, Road America, and Laguna Seca, in addition to all of the tracks from RACE 07 and STCC. RACE On does not include the 2009 season, though, which is one less track to enjoy. The AI continues to be strong if too consistent, and competitive setups for most cars are provided for all tracks. This is very enjoyable simulation racing, from the way the cars handle to the variety of content to enjoy. RACE On is $10 cheaper than buying both RACE 07 and STCC together on Steam, plus you get all of the new content. It’s the same price as getting RACE 07 with GTR Evolution, and this represents a better value in my opinion. I think this would be a definite buy if RACE On had all of the GTR Evolution content, too. Still, getting the RACE On bundle and GTR Evolution together ($30 plus $20) equals a full price game, which I would consider all of the content as a whole to be. In the end, one of the best racing simulation series continues with another strong entry.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cities XL Review

Cities XL, developed and published by Monte Cristo Games.
The Good: Simple but deep economy, easy to make large non-square cities quickly, informative interface, inter-city trade makes specialization meaningful, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Optional online components should be free, seems incomplete awaiting future priced content, oversimplifications will bother more veteran city planners, no scenario objectives, lacks random maps, server issues
What say you? An introductory city builder with a couple of nice features, but not enough for a monthly investment: 5/8

I like city builders. In the days of SimCity, the king of the genre, allowed you to create your own domestic empire and rule over the hungry masses while carefully planning urban sprawl. Nowadays, the city builder has gotten a distinctly more historical flavor, and the contemporary city government simulation only has one prominent series: City Life. That game has certainly run its course, as its blend of class dynamics quickly devolved in a multitude of substandard stand-alone expansion packs. Now, the same developer has an online-centric city builder: Cities XL. While city building has classically been a distinctly single player affair, the game hopes to apply the community of massively multiplayer online and make a unique title.

Cities XL features decent graphics and sound production values. The most realistic part of Cities XL is the environments: each of the game’s maps look like real-life locations, with an impressive variety in both climate and terrain. The game seems to have imported actual topography data in order to make some interesting places for your cities, although these tools are not readily available to the consumer. The city landscapes are a step up from City Life, with cars and people traversing your towns and a realistic variety of structure architecture to break up the typical monotony of a computerized city landscape. The ease of making non-square cities results in more realistic looking developments, a far cry from the all-square nature of most other games in the genre. Performance is acceptable, although the game looks worse as you zoom further out, replacing cars with non-descript boxes to improve framerates. The sound design is acceptable: the hustle and bustle of the city is actually quite subdued and overshadowed by the generic music selection; there isn’t much distinct about the sounds of Cities XL. In all, Cities XL provide an acceptable level of visual quality.

Cities XL is meant to be an online game, although you can play the game as a single player, though you must log on first. The single player mode allows you to build on twenty-five different landscapes with no objective; while this allows you to do pretty much anything you want, having more direction or some concrete goals (like making a manufacturing hub or tourist attraction) would grant added motivation. The environments are varied and quite large, easily allowing for huge complex cities to be developed. Since the developers used real-life terrain to make some of the locales, it would be nice if the same tools were offered to the consumer (this will no doubt be included in a later expansion pack). Other highly-touted features are also missing, such as the GEMs: mini-games, like running a ski resort, will break up the monotony of running a metropolis, but only when they are actually released (for a price, of course). It’s difficult to access the quality of the GEMs if they do not exist. Blueprints can also be earned so that you can construct famous landmarks, although they are granted at random through a lottery instead of being awarded to good players based on skill.

Online play in Cities XL costs $10 a month, and it’s totally not worth it. You are paying for a glorified chat room and the ability to trade with other human players; since you can trade with the AI in single player mode anyway, this is a silly bonus feature. That’s not all: you can create a completely useless avatar that is rarely seen in-game and get access to twenty-five more map styles as a bribe to give the developer some extra cash each and every month. You can visit other people’s cities, which is kind of neat, but the server performance is terrible, with frequent disconnects which makes it impossible to trade and even exit the game. Since saving is done automatically when you exit, if you are disconnected while playing, all of your recent progress is lost and you can’t even leave the game. Nice. You receive a discount (meaning not free, even though you are paying them a monthly fee) on future GEMs, whenever they happen to be released. $10 a month for a chat room and trades with real people? No thanks.

The best aspect of Cities XL is the interface: it is well done and provides easy access to important data. All of your zoning and construction tools are given along the left side of the screen: fairly traditional. Along the top you have information about your budget, population, resources, and businesses. The budget screen breaks down tax income and expenditures and lists the most and least profitable businesses. Population data displays the satisfaction of your citizens along with unemployment, occupancy, and immigration rates. The resources screen lists those goods that you produce and need as part of your economy. Finally, clicking on a business type or population group will display a number of important needs in an easy-to-understand, one-click-accessible list. The overlay system uses colors to highlight various parts of your city, and this is the most cumbersome aspect of the interface because of its confusing organization (traffic is in the economy category?). Still, you can display a wide range of data, from population density to pollution to satisfaction with security and fire services.

Layouts in Cities XL succeed because of the “free draw” zoning tool, allowing you to create non-square regions quickly. All you need to do is draw out the boundary roads in any shape you’d like, including connecting them to existing intersections, and the game will automatically fill them with buildings and roads. It’s a great system that both greatly reduces the tedium of placing individual zones and allows for more realistic non-square city designs. In addition to the zone shape, you can adjust the density of each region, which affects the number and type of people that can use that area. There is a decent variety of buildings to place: housing for each of the four population groups (unqualified, qualified, executive, and elite workers), industry (farming, heavy, manufacturing, offices), commerce (retail, hotels, leisure), utilities (electricity, water, waste, fuel), and services (health, education, police). Structures that provide services, like fire stations, cover the entire city: this makes the process simplified but not realistic. You can also fill in gaps with decorations like plazas and parks. Additional structures unlock according to population growth in a very linear fashion; I would have liked it to be more tailored towards the type of structures you have placed, like unlocking manufacturing areas earlier for heavy industrial towns.

Cities XL allows you to place curved roads, although they can’t be very curved, in addition to bridges and airports. Transit systems are not enabled yet (future patch), though. Upgrading roads is a pain, since you have to bulldoze the existing road and surrounding buildings unless you convert them to one-way avenues. I guess that’s realistic, but it’s still annoying. There is an extensive, hidden economy that relates the different goods you produce to the businesses that use them. It’s all automated but some of the relationships aren’t terribly explicit. You are given information on employee and resource needs if you click directly on a business, but sometimes it’s not so obvious. The economy is highlighted in the trading model, where you can sell goods produced by your town to the AI or other players (if you are online) in exchange for cold, hard cash. This means you can make a specialized society, like a high tech mecca or fuel-producing oil town, and still survive by trading for those resources (like water) you aren’t making yourself. You are still required to have a minimum population to gain access to some of the more sophisticated industries, so the beginning of each town uses a linear game strategy that can become repetitive. It’s almost trivially easy to succeed in the game, assuming you wait to construct services (which cost a fixed $5,000 of daily income) until you have enough income, because the interface is so explicit. Because of this high level of information, it can be kind of boring since Cities XL lacks surprising events or overall objectives to keep you motivated beyond just making a big, successful town. Once you figure out how to pace your growth and take advantage of the economy, the next game of Cities XL will play out just like the last.

Cities XL is an approachable city builder thanks to its excellent user interface, making the game perfect for beginners to the genre. All of the information is easy to find (once you know which display filter it’s buried under) and pertinent data can usually be found in more than one location. The game features an advanced resource model, where certain businesses require goods from other businesses; while these relationships are automated, they are also not very explicit in the game, and it can be difficult to figure out what step you are missing until it’s too late. The interface makes it easy to make a thriving metropolis, providing housing and jobs for each of the game’s population groups. It is very easy to make a large city quickly thanks to the “free” zoning mode, where irregular-shaped communities can sprout rapidly. This also eliminates the classic “square city” phenomenon, which causes the cities in Cities XL to be much more visually appealing. There are obvious needs by each population group that can be easily solved, since all requirements are city-wide in scope; this simplification makes Cities XL easier to play but also much less challenging. Trade is an important aspect of the game: you can now make a true farming community that will export those goods in exchange for other needs, like heavy industry or fuel or power. All of these features are meant to be used online, but there is no way I would pay $10 a month for this game. The amount of content you get in the online mode is included for free in any good first person shooter or strategy game. Basically, you are paying for trade with humans (which can be done with the AI in single player mode) and chat. That’s not enough. There are also server issues and various bugs that might be fixed, if you pay the developer more cash on top of the retail cost. The game is also missing a lot of content, like mass transit and a variety of leisure activities, and one of the most touted features, the mini-game-like GEMs, are completely missing. Cities XL has “many future paid expansions” written all over it. Given Monte Cristo's track record of tons of micro-expansions with little content, I'm not surprised at their subscription model, trying to squeeze every last penny out of you. Cities XL would be much more appealing if the online components were free, but only really dedicated city planners will play the game online for more than a week. The game's lack of scenario objectives and low level of difficulty means it loses its appeal very quickly, becoming a trivially easy and uninteresting affair. I am very surprised at how easy the game is, considering the complex nature and subsequent difficulty of City Life. The quality interface and trade makes Cities XL stand out, but the oversimplification of some elements and lack of overall objectives mean tedious repetition will soon set in.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Order of War Review

Order of War, developed by and published by Square Enix.
The Good: Campaign unit upgrades
The Not So Good: Completely derivative gameplay, no fog of war and few commands seriously hinder strategy and tactics, generic units, very limited tactical air support options, conquest-only multiplayer with only six maps and four players
What say you? An obvious, inferior ripoff of World in Conflict: 3/8

Given how great World in Conflict was, I'm surprised that the strategy genre hasn't been inundated with clones. The game's unique combination of action-packed tactical team-based gameplay with powerful aids and spectacular graphics was very enjoyable. Well, your wait is over as Order of War certainly takes heavy inspiration from this now classic strategy title. Eschewing resource management for pretty explosions and putting the player right into the fray, these tactical games put a focus on the action. Order of War takes the fighting back to ever-popular World War II, since using any unique setting that hasn't been done hundreds of times before would be just plain silly. Will Order of War improve and expand upon World in Conflict, or just be a shell of its inspiration's self?

The graphics of Order of War do not compare favorably to contemporary strategy games, World in Conflict included. I think this mainly has to do with the extremely dark hues of the game: everything is dark green or brown, and this color palate only serves to make a very dreary environment. The textures are fine and the explosion effects are realistically understated. Some of the damage effects aren't quite as dramatic and detailed as I would like to see, as tanks seem to go from intact to burning wreck instantaneously. There are also some clipping problems, especially with infantry units of different squads simply overlapping into each other. Order of War emphasizes the use of the cinematic camera (it's the largest button of the interface, questionably overshadowing commands and controls you actually use), which automatically takes control of your view and puts you right up to the action; it's here that the texturing and effects are seen the best, and while the graphics are decent, they are certainly not impressive. In addition, there are problems with the game's resolution: the sides of the screen are cut-off for my video card (an ATI Radeon HD 4670) and changing resolution doesn't fix the problem. This would not be a huge deal of Order of War did not put things right on the edge; I can't observe the health of my bottom-row units. The sound effects are disappointing as well. The voice acting needs work, as it alternates between passable and annoying. The battle sounds are only heard when you are right on top of the action, making the chaos all but silent most of the game (since you'll want to access the action for far up above). The music is a bit too overly dramatic for my tastes; it would be nice if it dynamically adjusted for in-game events. As it stands, just moving troops around involves a loud, piercing score. While Order of War isn't the worst looking strategy game on the market, it does not offer any unique feature to make it stand out, either.

Order of War lets you control forces during a minor, regional engagement called World War II (or, as the Polish called it, “Hey, Germany, WTF?!”). The single player offerings include two campaigns of nine missions each that last a while, thanks to some lengthy missions involving multiple objectives. The Americans get a campaign as do the Germans, which is unique because no other strategy game has ever featured a German campaign. The two campaigns feature very typical objectives, attack them or defend this, and are quite scripted. The large maps do lend themselves to some strategic variety, although most of the objective locations lend themselves to only one optimal solution. The only unique part of Order of War is the campaign upgrades: following a successful mission, you can choose to improve the abilities of your troops, like range for artillery or accuracy for infantry. It’s a neat feature, but it’s pretty useless since you do not know what enemies you will encounter next or what friendly troops you will have at your disposal; it’s disappointing to spend all of your points on artillery and not be given any next mission. While Order of War does allow you to save your progress anywhere within a mission, doing so takes a good fifteen seconds; I have no idea why. Order of War also features a tutorial for new players to the genre (of whom the game is geared towards) and skirmish games against the AI. Multiplayer games are quite limited, featuring conquest-only games on only six maps. Plus, the action is limited to a maximum of four players, and the large maps are horribly designed for this low player count: you simply do no have enough units to cover all of the control points. I doubt that anyone will spend more than a game or two online. It should also be noted that Order of War requires Steam, whether you bought a physical DVD copy or not, for those who have issues (philosophical or otherwise) with the platform.

Order of War takes the increasingly popular stance of removing resource production altogether, replacing it with a continual stream of resource points that are dependent on how many control points you hold. The resource points are also used to buy “air support,” tactical assets, like bombers and artillery, that are deadly accurate. There is a very limited selection of air support available (only four choices) and none of them are very interesting. Units are equally uninteresting: your typical selection of tanks (light, medium, heavy), anti-tank guns, artillery, and infantry. Anyone can purchase any of the units, so you are not tactically restricted to a single class of vehicle. Reinforcements are always called in from the same point on the map (either the top or bottom), but you can designate a rally point for them once they enter the fray. There are no special abilities for any of the units, which makes Order of War quite dull as you are quite limited in your tactical options. Using the same points for both units and off-map artillery is an over-simplification that I find strategically limiting, especially considering the overpowered nature of the air support and how one strike can easily decimate a superior amount of enemy units in terms of cost.

There are some basic control problems with Order of War that make the game unwieldy at best. Moving the mouse to the edge of the screen does not scroll, requiring you to use the mini-map or the arrow keys. Your orders are also quite limited, as you are only given move, attack, stop, and unload. That’s all, folks. Units will engage enemy units (attack-move is “on” by default), but they will stop while doing so and usually not start moving again unless issued another movement command. Troops will also occasionally ignore enemy units. A group will move at the speed of the slowest unit, making coordinated attacks easier, though. The AI is not great, but the game doesn't lend itself towards advanced strategy with the vanilla units and lack of advanced orders. The enemy seems to have simple scripted paths and will head straight towards the objective without regard for terrain or enemy positioning. Order of War is simply a matter of having more troops. One of the biggest sins of Order of War is the lack of fog of war. Seriously? Yes, you know the positions of every enemy unit on the map at all times, making success trivially easy and the air support assets akin to cheating. Heck, a good strategy is to spend your initial resource points and bomb your enemy’s initial control point in the first five seconds of the game, since you know exactly where their troops are located. Order of War has amazingly shallow gameplay thanks to the lack of fog of war and no special abilities or advanced commands beyond “move.” World in Conflict had special abilities. Men of War had direct control of units. Order of War has nothing.

Order of War is at best a simple copy of World in Conflict transferred to World War II; at worst, it is a blatant sub-par ripoff. There is simply nothing that the game offers that is any better or even equal to other titles; in fact, Order of War removes a lot of the strategic depth that World in Conflict contained. The use of the cinematic camera says all you need to know about the game: it wants you to sit back and watch units explode, instead of playing a strategically interesting title. The two campaigns offer nothing special, other than the upgrades you can choose between missions. The multiplayer features are a joke: six maps and 2v2 only? Give me a break. The game is poorly balanced for this player count anyway, as there are too many control points and never enough units to defend them. Resource points must be divided between purchasing units and using air support; in-game performance is not rewarded at all, so you can sit back and spam overly powerful air support all you want, especially since Order of War inexplicably lacks fog of war, making all enemy units visible at all times. Talk about limiting your tactical options. The units themselves are generic and so its the gameplay: all you have are move orders, as units will attack automatically, and stop indefinitely while doing so. There are no special abilities or direct control to make Order of War anything above a very simplistic strategy game that is quite unsatisfying. The graphics are average and, along with the interface, exhibit a number of annoying bugs. I would expect a lot more from the developers behind Massive Assault, a somewhat interesting turn-based strategy title. Why would you buy a fraction of the game at twice the price?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gridrunner Revolution Review

Gridrunner Revolution, developed and published by Llamasoft.
The Good: Certifiably insane, distinctively weird visuals and audio, intuitive mouse-driven controls with auto-fire, multiple ships to quickly switch between, nifty use of gravity, includes original 80's versions
The Not So Good: Often (but not always) incomprehensibly chaotic, fast rotation speed makes it easy to “cheat,” indiscernible level variety, lacks multiplayer and online scoreboards
What say you? This frantic and unique arcade game is quite enjoyable: 6/8

A majority of arcade games of the 70’s and 80’s involved shooting things. Why? Because people are inherently violent, that’s why. Plus, something has to be done with the incoming space invaders/centipedes/asteroids/tanks. What are you going to do, talk to them? Centipedes can’t talk! No, it is best to shoot first and ask questions later, questions such as “what does this rambling introduction have to do with Gridrunner Revolution?” Beats me, I’m just trying to fill space to make the review longer (shhh! trade secret!). This is a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to the original Gridrunner, which came out for a couple of the Commodore systems way back in the Silurian period. Let’s shoot some scorpions and save some sheep, shall we?

Like most of Llamasoft’s products, Gridrunner Revolution hits hard with the psychedelic stick. The game is overloaded with neon-colored effects, from the enemies to the bullets: it’s a chaos of stuff. You can play the game using Shader 2.0 or 3.0 settings, although I did not notice a huge difference other than a slight increase in load times. This is one of those games that looks really confusing because it is, and I think that is on purpose. It’s also distinctive, thanks to those chaotic graphics. The sound is equally strange: you will be inundated with “sheepie,” “attention!,” and “oops…loooooser” while playing, among other unique words and phrases. The techno music, along with the backgrounds, can be adjusted using the jukebox to suit your mood. The disorder actually fits the game well, to be honest, and makes for a particularly uncommon experience.

Gridrunner Revolution is an arcade shooter that takes over two hundred levels separated amongst four levels of difficulty, which are obviously named for types of curry. Each level takes about a minute to complete, which, for the level of insanity the game exhibits, is just right. There isn’t really any difference between level 1 and level 200 other than the amount of enemies and obstacles present, and specific levels certainly do not have any individuality or distinct features that make you say, “oh, yeah, that’s level 47!” Eventually, you will unlock additional gameplay modes, such as the original Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64 versions of Gridrunner, an endurance mode that limits you to just one life, and a thrust mode that uses point-and-click for movement. Gridrunner Revolution does not have any multiplayer features: neither competitive nor cooperative modes (which would be interesting) or online scoreboards to see how you stack up against the competition (a seemingly important contemporary feature for any arcade shooter that keeps score) are contained herein. Maybe for Gridrunner Revolution+.

Your primary objective in Gridrunner Revolution is to collect sheep. Obviously. Along the way, you’ll need to shoot enemies so that you do not die. Dying is bad. Obviously. Mouse control is preferred, although you can also use the keyboard or a gamepad; I find moving around the levels is quite a bit easier using the trusty mouse. Other than simply moving, you can rotate your ship (done with the mouse buttons) and select different ship types (mouse wheel). Thankfully, your ship will always fire, so there is no tedious hold-down-the-fire-button in Gridrunner Revolution. The game has a shrewd and subtle use of gravity, where your shots are curved around stars that are placed on the map. More curving equals more points for those striving for higher scores (and who isn’t?), so landing exotic shots is encouraged. You can also shoot stars to earn a bonus ship type once they morph into a black hole. The earth scientist in me would like to point out that yellow and orange stars lack the mass to actually turn into black holes, but if you are turning towards Gridrunner Revolution for scientific accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place. The handful (six or so) ship types in the game are varied in their gun location, bullet velocity, bullet power, and mass (how the shots are affected by gravity). There are also additional differences if you are playing in the thrust mode. I must admit that the differences are very, very subtle and most people won’t even notice a change, to be quite honest.

Gridrunner Revolution comes with a lot of enemies, most of which look quite weird; they can follow set patterns or move towards you. The AI isn’t “smart,” but it doesn’t have to be, because the game, like pretty much any arcade shooter, throws a whole bunch of them at you at once, and that’s where the difficulty comes from. There are strategies to successfully deal with specific enemy types that you will learn along the way, though. Death is an interesting process: once you are inadvertently hit, you will descend the screen towards the bottom, but you can bounce on enemies to keep yourself in purgatory and attempt to hit a sheep on the way down to become resurrected. It’s a really cool mini-game dynamic to keep yourself alive, and you’ll get to do it a lot, since death is fairly common in Gridrunner Revolution. While the game is appropriately difficult, it can be easy to do what I consider to be cheating: you can just constantly rotate, thus shooting in all directions are killing all comers. As long as you avoid the environmental hazards, the rotation speed is high enough where this is a viable (and cheap) strategy. Of course, you can simply just play Gridrunner Revolution the “right” way (especially true since the game lacks multiplayer or online scoreboards), but it’s still a slight balance issue I’d like to see fixed, such as having to recharge rotation fuel, or something.

A number of things make Gridrunner Revolution stand out against the typical arcade shooter: the distinctive graphics and sound, bouncing off enemies to avoid dying, switching ship types, and the exaggerated use of sheep. The features are nice: two hundred levels of hot, shooting action (though it’s difficult to tell the difference between them), in addition to an alternative control method (the thrust mode), an endurance mode, and the original Commodore versions. The mouse-based controls are smooth and easy to use, from moving your ship to rotating it. The fact that your ship constantly shoots is a great feature that greatly decreases tedium. The game also allows you to quickly switch between ship types; while the differences are quite subtle (I had to contact the developer to figure out for sure what they were), there are some changes in firing rate, shot power, and bullet speed that can affect your strategy a little. Collecting sheep for more turrets and scoring bonuses is nice, and saving yourself from death by bouncing on enemy units and steering towards a falling sheep is a unique and interesting gameplay mechanic. Gridrunner Revolution does suffer from confusion due to sensory overload (although not to the same degree as Space Giraffe): it can be difficult to figure out exactly what the heck is going on. In addition, you can “cheat” by constantly rotating your ship: that’s a somewhat significant balance issue. The lack of online leaderboards means you are only cheating yourself, so I suppose it’s ultimately not that big of a deal. Gridrunner Revolution is actually pretty different from Gridrunner++ (I downloaded the demo), although it uses some of the same sound effects, and doesn’t suffer from sequel syndrome. The graphics and sound are trippy, and although they can negatively impact the gameplay, they do make for a distinctive look and feel. Fans of arcade shooters will find an approachable and unique game made so by several distinctive features.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich Review

Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich, developed by 2by3 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: A unique component of World War II, opposing sides offer distinctly different gameplay, many scenarios of varied lengths and victory conditions, high level of historical detail, optional AI planning, great for play by e-mail
The Not So Good: Terribly outdated and tedious interface, exceedingly long turn resolution, no in-game tutorial
What say you? A pleasingly different approach for a wargame is ruined by its amazingly inept interface: 5/8

Gary Grigsby is the Tyler Perry of computer games, his name ubiquitously placed on game after game after game after game after game (though the last two are less explicit about it). With Matrix Games’s acquiring of the entire line of Talonsoft software, the ubiquitousness has only gotten more ubiquitous (ubiquitously). This time around, it’s two games in one, covering the air campaign during (surprise!) World War II. Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich, also known as Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to the Bombing of the Reich, also known as Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing of the Reich, offers up a unique strategic package by focusing solely on the strategic decisions made with air units during the Battle of Britain and the Allied attack on Germany. This is my first crack at the titles, refurbished by Matrix Games with more betterness like improved AI and more comprehensive units. Let’s take to the skies and check out this strategy title!

It’s pretty clear that Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich did not receive hardly any graphical enhancements from its original state ten years ago. The map of Western Europe still looks great, but everything else is extremely outdated, such as the pixilated icons. The game is fixed at a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, but you can stick it in a window by putting a -w switch in the game shortcut. The interface is by far the worst aspect of the game, receiving no needed overhauls from its original lacking structure. Nothing is easy to do in the game: there are tons of sub-menus to wade through, and things that should be linked (like locations to bombing runs) are not. It’s simply too tedious to get things done, requiring too many clicks to do simple tasks, like selecting targets and plotting routes. In addition, the game puts information at the top and the bottom of the screen, requiring constant shifting of focus during gameplay. Who does that? You also cannot use your mouse wheel to zoom the map, and the mini-map is disabled while you are in a sub-menu. You also can’t easily back out to the main menu easily, as you must “exit screen” four times to switch between menus. It’s supremely frustrating. Ten years of time should have produced a usable, slick interface that is prevalent among contemporary strategy titles, but Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich received no such changes. This is why people don't become interested in wargames. There were significant shortcomings with the interface when the original games came out ten years ago, and its only exacerbated now. As for the sound, I didn’t notice anything other than a jarring selection indicator.

Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich is a re-release of two ten-year-old games: Battle of Britain and 12 O’Clock High: Bombing the Reich. Together, the package includes a satisfying amount of content: twenty-one campaigns spanning from a single day all the way up to 700. The full scenario is too long time-wise for mere mortals to complete (I estimate playing twenty-four hours a day for two straight months), but the smaller scenario sizes break up the action into digestible chunks. The shorter scenarios offer more simplified objectives (destroying enemy planes), while victory in the longer scenarios involve maintaining air superiority, industrial damage, and terror (urban bombing) as you support the ground invasion or really make the British angry (and burnt). Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich offers no in-game tutorial (boo!), but I thought the manual was informative and well-written, and it contains a two read-along single turn scenarios. The structure of Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich really lends itself for multiplayer play by e-mail; instead of being a tacked-on feature, it seems like the game was designed specifically for it, so those of us with actual human friends will enjoy the ability to incessantly bomb the British over the Internet.

As the attacker (the Germans in Eagle Day, and the Allies for Bombing the Reich), your objective is to blow the crap out of the enemy by sending bombing missions and support squads through the air to drop their payload of righteousness. Everything is done in the planning phase, where you are given an unlimited amount of time to hammer out your missions. Most of the time you will be developing bombing missions by selecting a primary target (by clicking on the map), a secondary target, the four component flight path (inbound, initial point, exit point, and outbound), the altitude, launch time, lead plane, and add additional bombers and escorts. You are free to make your paths anywhere on the map, so there is a great degree of freedom involved here, and you can easily create fake or decoy flight plans to deceive the enemy. You can also design flight paths to go over targets of opportunity on the way back to base, and if bombers have any payload left, they will attempt to make some craters on their return. You will also need to develop recon missions to access damage (five photos are taken per flight) and fighter sweeps for early interdiction against enemy airfields. The game automatically filters out planes you can’t use based on the targets you select, which makes planning slightly more straightforward. If all of these options are overwhelming (and they might be, considering you’ll can easily make a hundred missions for a single day), you can have your AI subordinate officers plan some or all of the missions; this is a useful feature for the less interesting recon and sweep missions that you might not feel like doing manually. You will have to pay attention to cloud cover and the level of daylight, as both can adversely affect your bomber’s performance. Although it should be easier to design missions without all that clicking, I do like the freedom and underlying strategy of the attacking force.

Defending is a completely different animal (most likely a squirrel). Here, you respond in real-time during the turn resolution to incoming raids that are detected by your radar and patrols. Before the turn begins, you can move some anti-aircraft guns and planes to the places you think the enemy will attempt to raid. For each squadron, you can decide on the alert level, which makes the unit respond more quickly but also fatigue faster, and tactics (direct or bounce). Once a raid is detected, it will show up on the map, and you click on it and send a squad (or five) to intercept them. Information is poor on the actual composition of a raid until it is quite close to the mainland, unless it is detected by a patrol you have set up beforehand. The problem is that using planes for patrols takes them away from countering raids, so there is an interesting strategic balance to meet. It is also impossible to respond to every raid, so you must guess where they are headed and how important the target might be. This is where the “chess match” of Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich becomes quite interesting, as the attacker and defender each try to outsmart their opponent.

Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich has an impressive level of historical detail, from ratings for each squad (experience, morale) to stats for all the planes (climing rate, gun range, maneuverability) and individual pilots (name, fatigue) flying them. The strategy pedigree of the game is quite strong, with the attacker feigning forces and attempting to cause the defender to make a wrong move. This game is not for the feint of heart, however, as it can quite literally take a couple of hours to plan a raid and resolve a single day of action. The game can also be quite overwhelming in the amount of options you have: the basics are straightforward (send out raids), but the choices you are granted can become tremendously tedious. Your AI opponent seems to be quite competitive, sending out varied raids, escorts, and interceptions that keep you on your toes. After a number of games the computer can become more predictable, but the AI takes good control of the strategic freedom that Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich has to offer.

Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich is an interesting and unique strategy title marred by its worthless interface. The game does stand out as (still) highlighting a distinctive aspect of World War II, letting you direct squads of planes as they attack or defend strategically important locations across Europe. Both sides play quite differently, as the aggressor will set up his flight patterns for the day and sit back and watch the action while the defender scrambles to send up defending flights to counter the incoming onslaught. It’s a very intriguing chess match of fake moves and counter-moves in the skies. Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich works great using play by e-mail, since only one side is actively doing something each turn. The turns can take a while to resolve, especially if you are defending and having to respond to incoming threats. The game comes with lots of scenarios for different lengths, and introduces varied victory conditions for each. The level of historical detail is high and impressive, containing seemingly accurate pilot lists in every scenario for both sides. The game can be overwhelming, since you are directing a large number of squadrons and the level of detail for planning your attacks and defenses is high. The lack of an in-game tutorial doesn’t help matters, but the AI can do some of the planning for you. Unfortunately, while the core of the game is fine, the interface needs a serious overhaul. It’s a serious limitation in the game, as doing even the simplest actions require many clicks of the trusty mouse. Important information and actions are buried within the obtuse menu system; interacting with Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich is a truly gigantic pain. The game is complicated enough as it is without having a confusing and tedious interface to deal with. Gary Grigsby's Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich is a nice re-release of a fascinating game that could have greatly benefited from an interface renovation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion Review

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion, developed and published by Playbrains.
The Good: Invasion mode allows for turn-based map creation online, fun cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes
The Not So Good: Unlimited ammunition and no reloading makes shooting completely trivial, have to unlock everything for use in campaign and multiplayer, superficial weapon-armor counter system, imprecise movement, interface indicates enemy weapon resistance poorly, uninspired level design, can't save progress mid-mission, invasion editor not extended to other modes, poor sound design
What say you? Generic, mindless action and many other problems overshadow a couple of nice features: 4/8

Remember Madballs? No? Here, go watch this. I can wait.

Still nothing? You are hopeless, then. Anyways, the best way to capitalize off an obscure fad from the 80's is through a computer game, and that's exactly what we have with Madballs in...Babo:Invasion. In this strangely-titled and punctuation-heavy action game, you control a Madball as it rolls around levels, shooting enemy Madballs along the way in an orgy of death. Sounds plausible enough to me! Does Madballs in...Babo:Invasion differentiate itself from the pack with some unique gameplay features?

The graphics of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are low budget through and through. While the Madballs themselves are well designed and look just like their real-life counterparts thanks to some detailed textures, the environments in which they roll suffer from poor, washed-out details and repetitive design. They do not invoke any sense of plausibility, only consisting of very obvious platforms and pathways towards the end of the level. I’m not expecting a game that features Madballs equipped with guns to be realistic, per se, but some less obvious paths would be nice. Some of the weapon effects are nice, and the death sequences are violent enough for my tastes. The sound design is one of the low points of the game,: subtle and generic music with only a handful of voice over work. Each character (friendly and enemy) has only one phrase they will repeat over and over again, and the in-game dialogue (if you can call it that) also consists of one line of voice, no matter how long the text might be. You are certainly not going to play Madballs in...Babo:Invasion for the production values.

The best part about Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is the extensive features, starting with the relatively lengthy campaign. With each individual mission clocking in at around 30 minutes, the ten-level campaign will last about five hours, acceptable content for a $10 game. You can’t actually lose the game, as you will always respawn at the previous checkpoint and enemies stay dead, making it just a matter of time before you successfully destroy them all. The main problem with the campaign is the lack of a save feature: the levels are long enough where not being able to save anywhere is a real problem. If you quit in the middle of a level, be prepared to start all over, even if you have passed multiple checkpoints along the way. The campaign also suffers from very linear level designs designed to keep you going along one path, save for the occasional side track for bonus points. The game is action-oriented, but there are plenty of throw-a-switch puzzles and precarious cliffs to navigate through, both of which are annoying. You can go back and replay any level you have finished; maps contain things that are initially unlocked (even the first level), so there is a reason to go back to previously conquered locales. The tutorial level is drawn-out and quite superficial, as the game’s mechanics and controls are easy enough to learn reading the game’s menus. I am quite disappointed in the fact that you have to unlock almost everything in the game, from the weapons to the characters. You are even restricted in multiplayer: if you have not completed enough of the single player campaign, be prepared to be at a distinct tactical disadvantage once you venture online. The copious amount of achievements Madballs in...Babo:Invasion has does not offset the limitations of the campaign and the use of locked content.

Multiplayer offerings of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are fairly robust. You can play any of the ten single player missions cooperatively online. There are also a wide selection of competitive modes, like deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and base attack. The most unique aspect of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is the invasion mode. Here, teams actually design the level right before the game begins by placing tiles. After the map is made, teams place their base and a couple of upgradable power nodes that can be used for healing and defense. It’s a really interesting mini-game that has some strategic depth, setting up defenses and funneling the enemy down death traps. It’s too bad that the invasion mode is essentially wasted in an otherwise sub-par game. The editing features are not used in any other part of the game, for some reason: you cannot create your own levels for single player or capture the flag events, even though the capability is obviously there. You can choose between five character classes that alter their stats: assault, heavy, support, flyer, and runner. You cannot fully customize the classes, though. Finally, bots are not available for multiplayer matches, so you must find actual humans to compete against.

Combat in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion involves moving and shooting. You will eventually have access to ten weapons that are variations upon classic action hardware: rifles, shotguns, missile launchers, sniper rifles, railguns, et cetera. Each weapon has two modes covering the four attack types in the game: impact, energy, heat, and cold. You will need to switch to a mode that the current enemy is susceptible towards in order to maximize your damage. This is similar to the system used in Project Aftermath, though the system is less elegant here because the interface does a terrible job clearing showing the enemy strengths. Really, the weapon mode switching is a gimmick as all it takes is a simple button press to switch weapons. Because Madballs in...Babo:Invasion only allows you to carry one weapon at a time, it is partially luck in choosing the right weapon before the next wave of enemies arrives. I favor skill over luck, so the weapon system in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is less than great. The game does not allow you to switch weapons often enough, a strategic hallmark of all good shooters. There is, of course, a plentiful supply of weapons scattered around each level that you can’t use because they are not unlocked yet. You will always shoot forward, and the game automatically engages enemies above and below you. The enemies have very basic AI: while there are some varied behaviors (some are turrets, some burrow below the ground), they will always head straight towards you once spotted. The level designs do have some elements of cover available for somewhat interesting encounters, but the enemy units do not use them at all, making the combat in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion that much less enjoyable. In addition to the basic weapons, you have access to grenades and special abilities that are specific to each character (which, of course, must be unlocked). Movement in Madballs in...Babo:Invasion is not as crisp as I would have liked, and the imprecise movement is not designed for the amount of platform maneuvering the game has to offer. I routinely fell off ledges, requiring either a short detour or complete restart. I have no problem with platform gaming, but the controls must be precise enough to actually make the platform elements playable.

Madballs in...Babo:Invasion comes with one unique multiplayer game mode, but it’s lacking in every other area. The single player campaign is quite lengthy, though repetitive and very linear. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion commit the unforgivable sin of disabling saves during a level: you must complete each level in one sitting, a significant problem for people with a life that might not have a half-hour to dedicate without interruptions. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion also has almost everything initially locked: weapons, characters, and levels. This extends to the multiplayer portion of the game as well: people who have completed single player missions will be at an advantage in multiplayer games with access to a wider array of weapons and characters, a “feature” I really despise. Achievements are fine, but locking content from new users is stupid. While most of the multiplayer modes are seen in other games (deathmatch, capture the flag), the invasion mode really stands out as unique: teams design the map before the game starts, taking turns placing tiles. It’s a really neat dynamic that almost makes Madballs in...Babo:Invasion worth playing, but not quite. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion also comes with a comprehensive suite of achievements for those striving for online notoriety. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion really fails when it comes to the actual gameplay experience. The problems are two-fold: imprecise handling makes the plentiful platform sequences really exasperating, and the combat involves absolutely no strategy whatsoever. Since weapons have unlimited ammunition and do not require reloading, you can simply hold down the fire button from the beginning to the end of a level and attain a high score. The weapon that fires the fastest with the correct ammunition is the one to stick with for the entire game. Madballs in...Babo:Invasion attempts to introduce some strategy with enemy strengths and weaknesses, but it’s a simple button press to switch firing modes and dispose of the enemy quickly. Robotic enemy AI with predictable spawn locations don’t help matters; I was quite literally bored with Madballs in...Babo:Invasion five minutes in, and struggled to have the resolve to continue the game (who said reviewing games was easy?). The sound and the graphics also lack detail, making for a disappointing overall experience. I wonder how far along in the development of this game the Madballs license was acquired; the game uses the likenesses, but it doesn’t incorporate some level of unique gameplay that is ball-related to make a completely distinctive game. Overall, the positive features of Madballs in...Babo:Invasion are wasted on derivative, bland, and unbalanced gameplay.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Darkest of Days Review

Darkest of Days, developed by 8monkey Labs and published by Phantom EFX.
The Good: Intriguing premise, weapon upgrades based on performance
The Not So Good: Bland shooting, very linear level design and highly scripted missions, inconsistent AI, lacks multiplayer
What say you? A novel plot partially compensates for flat first person shooting: 4/8

One of my favorite science fiction shows was Quantum Leap. Maybe it was Scott Bakula's overt rugged sexiness, but the premise was intriguing and there was rampant cross-dressing, so it’s win-win. Dr. Sam Beckett striving to put right what once went wrong is similar to Darkest of Days, except this game has plenty more guns. About to die in Custer’s Last Stand, the main character is recruited to take place in history’s famous battles, protecting important figures that are being killed off by some unknown force (probably the Evil Leaper). Sounds interesting, but how does it play?

Darkest of Days features a mixed bag of graphics. I found the textures to be quite nice on the PC, with a high level of detail on weapons, people, and environments. There are also some nice effects from weapons, most notably the smoke from a fired gun, very visible from the zoomed-in perspective. The engine also seems capable to render large numbers of enemy troops and maintain an acceptable frame rate, similar to Mount&Blade. Even with the good texturing and some nice effects (the aforementioned gun smoke, shimmering water and the time travel sphere), something still feels “off” about the graphics of Darkest of Days. I think the reason is twofold: the animations look like everything is moving in slow motion, and the level designs are unrealistic as they constantly funnel you down obviously linear valley paths. The sound design is acceptable: dramatic music with average voice acting, and period-specific battle sounds that are convincing enough. While Darkest of Days does not compete with top-notch first person shooters, the game compares favorably with a more budget-level game. Too bad Darkest of Days isn’t at a budget-level price.

The best part of Darkest of Days is the story: you are recruited from the Battle of Little Bighorn to fight throughout history, putting right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that the next leap…might be the leap home (or something like that). The sixteen levels of the campaign cover four time periods: the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii, the American Civil War, World War I, and (of course) World War II. You typically have a choice to select the next mission from each time period (once you’ve progressed far enough). Each mission takes place in a very large map that is also astoundingly linear: Darkest of Days does not give you any strategic freedom, restricting you to obviously linear paths (through the use of invisible walls) towards the next objective location. Each level takes about a half-hour to complete, so in total Darkest of Days will occupy about eight hours of your time before you are finished with it. Because the game lacks multiplayer of any kind and the levels are so heavily scripted, there is no reason to play Darkest of Days for a second time. The title does have clear objectives, assuming you are close enough to the checkpoint. It can be confusing in spots, though, as enemies magically spawn seemingly out of nowhere. I went too far once past a hill and found myself inundated by enemy troops, for example. This amount of scripted action has its place and can be effective if done well, but Darkest of Days does not deliver the required level of realism. Darkest of Days does not allow you to save your progress at will, but the game utilizes very frequent auto saves (like every two minutes or so), so you will never have to repeat a significant amount of action.

Darkest of Days equips you with a selection of period-specific and futuristic weaponry to dispose of those pesky enemy units. You are given a primary (usually a rifle) and secondary (usually a pistol) weapon, though you can pick up any weapon from fallen soldiers if you have a preference. In addition, you can man artillery (with no aiming reticule) and chasers are used to incapacitate enemies without killing them. Reloading involves a quick time event, where you must time a button press, much like kicking field goals in the Madden series of football games (you might have heard of them). Weapon selection is kind of weird, as mouse wheel down will always select your chasers, while mouse wheel up will cycle between your primary and secondary weapons. Also, friendly soldiers don’t flinch when you are disposing of enemy units with a modern assault rifle or rocket launcher; I’m obviously not expecting Darkest of Days to adhere to ultimate realism (you are time traveling, by the way), but it’s still unintentionally hilarious. You are also given upgrades (rate of fire, reload speed, clip size, accuracy) depending on how many “important” blue-aura enemies you spare. In general, the shooting is quite bland and generic: you are given semi-automatic weapons that are deadly accurate, no matter what time period they are from. If you have the aiming reticule on an enemy unit, they will die with one shot. The only difference between the weapons is rate of fire and reloading time, since they are all so unrealistically accurate.

The generic shooting of Darkest of Days is made worse by the lackluster AI. The enemy infantry makes things really dull as they mostly stand motionless behind partial cover, once they magically spawn at the pre-determined time. It seems like their movement is pre-scripted and does not react at all to your position or strategy, making replay value extremely small. The AI will use cover unless they are scripted to do so, and sometimes they ignore you or don’t shoot at all. They are also quite inaccurate, and the game only becomes difficult when you are up against a large number of enemy units. Your AI allies are equally incompetent, leaving you to do most of the killing. In addition, AI allies keep killing the blue people you are not supposed to kill! Thanks a lot, jerk! The poor AI and generic shooting make Darkest of Days a forgettable experience despite the promising narrative.

Darkest of Days takes a great idea and doesn't do enough with it. The sixteen mission campaign is long enough (certainly not a brief three hour travesty), but the level design (and the action itself) is so extremely linear that you are never given anything in the way of tactics. The chosen variety of settings, covering Pompeii through World War II, tend to become repetitive (with the exception of the first) with unorganized skirmishes and lots of running between checkpoint objectives; at least the action is fairly constant. The objectives are clear enough, but only appear on your HUD when very close, requiring you to constantly refer to the map that covers the entire screen. Once you are finished with the campaign, there is no reason to replay Darkest of Days, thanks to the aforementioned linear level design and lack of multiplayer action (which could have been really cool, either in a cooperative or competitive setting). The period weaponry retain the slow firing speed and reloading of their real life counterparts, but are unrealistically accurate; this concession does make the game less frustrating, as you will always hit your mark if you put it in the crosshairs. Upgrading weapons by not killing important people is a neat dynamic ruined by allowing your AI allies to shoot them anyway. The AI, both friendly and enemy, is incompetent enough to make Darkest of Days really bland as a whole: your allies can barely hit anyone and vice versa, meaning you spend 90% of the game lining up stationary targets partially concealed by cover: not exactly scintillating gameplay. Add inconsistent graphics and you have a game with promise that fails to deliver.