Thursday, November 26, 2009

For the Glory: A Europa Universalis Game Review

For the Glory: A Europa Universalis Game, developed by Crystal Empire Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Improved support for modifications, tweaks and additions to game rules improve combat, better AI, ten thousand historical events, minor graphical enrichments
The Not So Good: Lacking some interface enhancements from EU3 such as the outliner makes controlling large nations arduous, most changes are very subtle
What say you? A slightly better version of Europa Universalis II intended for dedicated fans and modders: 5/8

Back in 2008, Paradox Interactive released the game engine used for their last-generation grand strategy games for free as the Europa Engine License Program. Anybody could contact them and develop a game that would be published online at their download service, Gamer’s Gate. The first of those games has arrived in the form of For the Glory. This enhancement of Europa Universalis II incorporates the infamous AGCEEP mod, which added tens of thousands of historical events, and a handful of other changes to the old game. Europa Universalis III is most likely my favorite game ever and I am quite used to the many improvements that version added over the second in the series. Will the additions For the Glory offers compensate for using an older game engine?

Unlike most (if not all) standalone expansions, For the Glory actually makes some changes to the graphics. Now, the base 2-D map presentation from Europa Universalis II is still intact, but there is some minor progress made that veterans of the series most likely will notice. The major changes come in the form of interface alterations: there are more detailed tool-tips for some items, troops are visible from the political map, and the quite-useful alerts have been borrowed from Europa Universalis III to succinctly inform you of pressing issues. For the Glory also support a wider range of screen resolutions, and takes advantage of this increase in real estate by placing more information on the top menu bar. We also have a couple of new map modes, displaying revolt risk and color-coded diplomatic relations. There are also smaller graphical changes, such as nation-specific troop sprites and additional fonts and flags. These make the game more varied visually but don’t impact the gameplay at all. Really, other than the alerts, there is nothing importantly different that For the Glory offers in terms of graphics; I wish the developers had expanded the interface changes further, as I will complain about shortly. Still, For the Glory certainly loads and plays much faster than EU3, so those with older hardware will appreciate that. As for the sound design, it remains the same except for the music: For the Glory uses the EU3 song lineup because of licensing issues; I don’t remember the musical score from Europa Universalis II so I do not have a preference either way.

Since the excellence of the Europa Universalis series has been firmly established, this review will focus on the changes and (hopefully) improvements made to Europa Universalis II by For the Glory. First off, the scenarios have been rebalanced to promote more historically accurate outcomes, something that Europa Universalis II strives for. I haven’t seen dramatic shifts in the results of games due to different starting conditions, though, as the alterations seem relatively minor. The developers have included two user modifications with For the Glory: Age of Timur, which shifts the action to the 13th Century (that’s the 1200’s), and the aforementioned AGCEEP mod that offers an astounding (and disturbing) 10,000 historical events: highly recommended, and I suspect most people will play with it “on” by default. Since the authors of For the Glory were modders themselves, this version of Europa Universalis II has greatly increased the modification potential by removing a cap on the number of actions in events and increasing the number of provinces, countries, and religions that can be added to the game. In addition, more of the game’s values have been externalized so they can be altered. Mod makers certainly have much more to play with here, and the quality modification support of the Europa Universalis series has been significantly increased.

The next round of changes deals with war, something you will inevitably be a part of unless you are playing the most boring game of Europa Universalis ever. The first is the introduction of several types of core provinces: territory that a country feels “belongs” to them. “Regular” core provinces offer increased income and manpower, but some may now be “claims” with no manpower bonus, “casus belli” provinces that only grant a reason to go to war, and cores dealing with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which grant Spain and Portugal reason to take any colonies of opposing nations. These bonuses that these changes remove were usually minor enough that the effect of these new cores is fairly small.

There is also a host of smaller changes in For the Glory. The spread of Protestantism is more realistic and less completely random like it was before. Supplies are handled more realistically as well: having troops in enemy territory results in some significant losses with slow replacement, something to consider while waging war. You will also have more land connections through some regions of permanent terra incognita (they are provinces that cannot be colonized, but can be traversed), and regions can become impassable during winter: a neat touch. A new leader type has been introduced: privateers. These are basically fancy pirates, and getting one gives all neighboring countries a temporary Casus Belli against you: not so fun. Newly formed countries now have full troops when they are established, and rebels and pirates are significant opponents. Finally, the AI has been improved, reducing the frequency of crazy, nonsense wars involving countries located nowhere near each other.

Unfortunately for people like me that can’t keep track of what’s going on in a large empire spanning many continents, the most significant interface features of EU3 did not make their way into For the Glory. Most noteworthy is the outliner, which listed all of your troops and provinces in one handy list that was always displayed on the main map screen. Without this feature, it’s really hard to remember where everyone is located at all times. In addition, conquered territory is not shown on the political map, requiring you to squint at tiny flags to figure out who has control of each province during war. Finally, you net income per year is not displayed in the treasury balance display, which makes it a more involved process calculating how much money you need to save to overcome your monthly deficits. These are admittedly minor, but I wouldn’t have listed them if they weren’t important to me. Summed up, it makes For the Glory much harder to handle than Europa Universalis III.

I'm always skeptical of re-releases of older games, mainly because they promise to add all sorts of new things but end up just being the equivalent of a “gold” collection. This is not totally the case for For the Glory, however, as the enhancements made from Europa Universalis II are significant for fervent fans of the game. The graphics have gotten some minor changes, from sprites for individual countries to allowing for custom screen resolutions. The user interface has incorporated alerts and the ability to move troops from multiple map modes from EU3, but does not include some key features like my heavily-used outliner and some additional budgetary information; this makes it difficult to play large nations spread across the map and keep track of what exactly is going on. Europa Universalis II has always been more historical than EU3, and For the Glory continues that trend by including the AGCEEP mod and its 10,000 events. Speaking of mods, For the Glory also allows for a much wider range of changes to be made by the user by removing limitations on the number of actions in events, countries, religions, and provinces: the impassioned mod community will certainly enjoy that. The rest of the game tweaks are patch-like in my opinion and don't significantly impact the gameplay, although the varied changes (like the spread of Protestantism and supply rules) do produce more plausible results. The AI is more believable; you no longer have minor Asian nations declaring war on Brandenburg, for example. But I miss the significant interface features of EU3 too much, and I actually prefer the less predictable (and more wacky) outcomes (yay Prussia colonizing Cuba!). While I will not be switching to For the Glory for my grand strategy fix, people who prefer the more historical Europa Universalis II over EU3 will appreciate the improvements made here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

East India Company: Privateer Review

East India Company: Privateer, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: New campaigns focus on a variety of short-term missions
The Not So Good: No advantages (and several disadvantages) of being a privateer make it a pointless choice, most significant enhancements were already available for free
What say you? Even for only $10, Privateer offers neither innovation nor variation from the original: 3/8

East India Company was OK, but it was limited mainly by the unwieldy trading interface and a distinct amount of repetition. The developer remedied some of those shortcomings with the free Designer's Cut patch, which, of course, begs the question of why the Designer's Cut wasn't part of the original release to begin with. My guess is undue pressure from Paradox to remove all of that hardcore nudity. The Designer's Cut mainly introduced a more streamlined port trading interface and removed those really annoying loading times, putting everything on the main screen. That solves my primary complaint of the original game, so what's left for Privateer, the priced ($10) expansion for East India Company? Here, you control a privateer (surprise!) with no national allegiance, free to trade and become disturbingly friendly with any company of your choosing. Does this significantly change the gameplay for the better?

No noticeable enhancements have been made in either the graphics or the sound departments other than a new introductory video and maybe some new background music. Well, that was easy!

East India Company: Privateer lets you play a privateer in competition with the East India companies. Amazing! The game comes with two twenty-year campaigns (1630 to 1650 and 1700 to 1720), in addition to a longer sandbox campaign that spans the full length of the game from 1630 to 1750. Your goal is to make tons of money by successfully trading and completing missions. You can only play the privateer campaigns if you fire up East India Company: Privateer, meaning you must exit the game and execute the regular version of East India Company in order to play the “classic” mode: a minor annoyance. East India Company: Privateer also advertises new multiplayer modes (breakthrough and beehive), but these were included for free in the Designer’s Cut of East India Company.

The biggest enhancement East India Company: Privateer offers is the new missions, which come in both privateer and merchant flavors. Bascially, you are given a cash reward for completing such tasks as smuggling a spy, destroying a ship, escorting important goods, or transporting specific goods to a destination. It’s a nice addition that brings more direction to the game, although you’ll probably be doing the same sort of actions anyway in order to make money. Being a privateer offers no benefits, though, as you are initially locked from building any new ships (since you must first acquire good relations with one of the nations) and your starting fleet is anything but intimidating. You don’t make significantly more money on your own, either, as the missions reward only small amounts of cash for their completion. It is exceedingly difficult to successfully complete missions in the beginning since you are given such paltry starting resources. You are given more options to modify your fleet, as there are ten new commander skills (for a total of twenty-nine) that offer a nice amount of customization and specialists can be hired as crew members to grant small bonuses in combat and trade. The most significant difference in East India Company: Privateer is the much improved (but still cumbersome) city trade interface, but this enrichment was also included for free in the Designer’s Cut of the game. There are also problems and issues that still remain, from small economic bugs (getting the incorrect amount for goods) to never capturing goods or ships when battles are automatically resolved (a very important source of income for a privateer). I do like the shorter missions as opposed to the static objectives of the standard game, but $10 should deliver something more than just repetitive, low-profit, and difficult missions.

Even for only $10, East India Company: Privateer doesn’t offer near the amount of content we’ve come to expect from an expansion pack. There is only one new feature, the privateer missions, and they simply attach a cash reward to things you should be doing anyway. In fact, there is no reason to play a privateer, as it’s way better to just align with a company and be able to use their home port to buy ships. Being a privateer offers no advantages (you make the same amount of money, save for the mission bonuses) with plenty of disadvantages: you trade and fight like usual, but you only have access to a small number of neutral ports and can't build ships until you improve relations. So what's the point? You start out so small and so slowly that it takes you half of the campaign time to build up a reasonable fleet. I would much rather just start aligned so I can have more than three ships. I do like the shorter, more focused missions that Privateer brings to the table, but it’s simply not enough and, frankly, you at such a disadvantage playing as a privateer that it’s not even worth the effort. The free Designer's Cut patch offered an equal amount of much more important, interface-related content. Privateer would have been better if they added the trading aspect of the game for multiplayer (even if they had doubled the price because of it) or some other notable feature. There are still small annoyances, like never capturing ships during an auto-resolved battle, and the occasional bug appears during gameplay. Simply put, nobody should consider a career as a privateer.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gratuitous Space Battles Review

Gratuitous Space Battles, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Completely customized ship designs offer a plethora of strategic options, slider-based orders for tweaking your grand plan, innovative handling of multiplayer
The Not So Good: Non-interactive combat not for tactical players, filtering through designed ships is arduous, default ship configurations would be nice, limited to fourteen maps
What say you? A pure strategy game ripe with design depth, ship variety, and explosions: 7/8

Most real time strategy games involve an inordinate amount of waiting for something to happen: waiting for resources, waiting for units to move, waiting, waiting, waiting. What if we did away with all ancillary material and got straight to the killing? It’s like if all NASCAR races were just crashes! Well, I guess they have that already, but still, point taken! Developer Positech Games has heard your cries for violence and released the appropriately-titled Gratuitous Space Battles. In this strategy game, you design the ship fleets and set orders, and watch as the AI pilots carry out your commands and the carnage ensues. Does this more streamlined approach work?

Gratuitous Space Battles displays all of the bloodshed in 2-D, but the game actually looks pretty decent. One of the advantages of ignoring that third dimension is that all of the ships can have detailed textures and look much better than what a 3-D model would produce. The models are also quite varied between races, resulting in some different-looking engagements. The backgrounds are more repetitive, however, as most battles seem to take place on “anonymous nebula 12.” The weapon effects look as good as any movie, with bright, deadly lasers and fast-moving missiles. The explosions are not as dramatic as I would like (the shockwaves and fire are a bit too subtle), but you can gauge enemy damage accurately by visual clues. The game is on the demanding side for a 2-D game, as my crappy laptop with one of those on-board Intel video cards couldn’t handle the truth. The sound design is what you would expect in an independent title: satisfying, if not terribly varied, effects. Although there is no voice work in the game, Gratuitous Space Battles does have appropriate background music to accompany your glorious destruction.

Gratuitous Space Battles removes all of that boring resource collection and repetitive base building and replaces it with ship design and strategic planning, which is more along the lines of what a real commander would deal with. The game is presented in a series of battles across the galaxy; missions are unlocked in order and may incorporate alternative rules through “spatial anomalies,” preventing the use of shields or slowing down ships, for example; it’s a nice touch that prevents using the same dominant fleet for all of the missions. There are only fourteen maps to choose from, though; I would like to have the option to customize the spatial anomalies, or even have them randomized. Most of the maps involve battling an enemy fleet in skirmish mode, although the last two are survival modes that keep the enemies incoming until you die; high scores for this mode are uploaded to a central server so that you can see how horrible at the game you are. The less ships you use to defeat the enemy, the more honor is accumulated, which is used to unlock additional parts and races (which grant more hulls with varied starting attribute bonuses). Playing at higher difficulty levels does not grant more honor, which seems counterintuitive to me. I did like the fact that Gratuitous Space Battles does not offer an “easy” difficulty setting, because if you need to play on “easy,” then you are not be fit to command large spaceships in the first place, loser. One of the more intriguing aspects of Gratuitous Space Battles is how the game handles multiplayer. Instead of relying on some real-time component, which, to be honest, would be difficult to pull off for an independent game where player counts are low, you can issue a challenge to any (or a specific) player that pits your fleet from any map against theirs. You’ll never know quite what to expect, since the only information you are given is what types of ships they are using, rather than their specific components. The online server records how many attempts it took to defeat the opposing armada to serve as a sort of scorekeeper of dominance. It’s an elegant way of handling the added dimension of human opponents.

The main crux of Gratuitous Space Battles is the ship design, and thankfully we have plenty of options to choose from. You’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time in this part of the game, so if intricate ship design doesn’t interest you, look elsewhere. There are three types of ships to outfit: small fighters, medium-sized frigates, and massive cruisers. Each of the game’s four races has the same three types, although they look different and have varied starting bonuses (it would be nice if the bonuses were more varied and plentiful). You are given a great amount of freedom, as there is a wide selection of parts (numbering in the hundreds, using my best estimate) to stick on each ship: weapons (lasers, beams, cannons, torpedoes, rockets, EMPs, missiles, plasma), defenses (shields, armor), engines, crew quarters, and power plants. There are only vague hints on what each weapon and system are specifically useful for, so Gratuitous Space Battles involves a lot of experimenting with combinations to find effective designs. It seems like beams are for armor, lasers and blasters are useful against shields, and missiles and torpedoes are for long-range attacks against slow vessels. During your design process, it is imperative to balance crew and power requirements efficiently so that you do not waste resources. In addition, using the same particular component makes each individual part less effective, which prevents spamming a particularly effective armament. Designing your ships can take quite a while, and there is great depth in coming up with effective combinations. This is one of those games that you think about while you aren’t playing (what if I did this). Having this amount of freedom does make for a significant learning curve, as all of your options can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help matters that Gratuitous Space Battles only gives you three (poor) designs to start out with. I realize that the major focus of the game is on ship design, but it would still be nice to see some examples to get you started.

After you have designed the ultimate fleet of destruction, it’s time to take to the battlefield. Before each mission, you can choose the arrangement of your ships and give general orders to them. You are limited in terms of available pilots (which prevents spamming fighters) and cash (which prevents spamming large ships), but you can choose any of the ships you have designed. Adding vessels is a drag-and-drop affair, and you can place a number of ships consecutively by right-clicking. The interface for this aspect of the game leaves a lot to be desired, as all of your designs are simply in alphabetical order and cannot be sorted or filtered. Considering that later in the game you might have a ton (2000 pounds…they weigh a lot) of designs, it would be super helpful to be able to filter out, say, all cruisers with missile launchers. Although you do not get direct control over your fleet during combat (that task is for your generals and such), you can give orders to help coordinate the attack. These include sliders for setting the priority of attacking frigates, fighters, and cruisers, as well as the range at which your ships should do so. You can also set special behaviors, like escorting another ship, moving in formation, attacking only damaged ships, or repairing during combat. The orders options don’t give you the amount of precision I would like to see: in a lot of battles, ships just group together in an unorganized mass of confusion. It’s difficult to keep ships together while still using the speed advantages of the smaller vessels.

All that work is put to the test during the automated battles. As I have mentioned several times already (remember?), battles are automated (that’s why I called them “automated battles”) and require no interaction from the user: it’s just up to your designs and orders at this point. The gratuitous space battles of Gratuitous Space Battles are drawn out (mainly because the enormous cruisers crawl sooooo sloooowly), so thankfully there is time acceleration to speed things up. You are given detailed information on friendly ships by clicking on them: shield strength, shield stability, armor strength, and damage and usage of all modules. Damage simulation is pretty sophisticated. During combat, armor does not repair (unless you have fancy robots that do it for you) while shields do, and weapons may “bounce” off if they do not have enough armor or shield penetration; this can make ships invulnerable to low-penetration weapons, something to consider during the ship design process. Alternatives to penetrating shields include using destabilizing weapons or using fighters to attack from the inside. It is easier to use beams, missiles, and torpedoes against slow moving targets, and incoming weapons can be countered with point defense, and those can be countered with EMPs and target painters. Finally, being next to a large ship that explodes can cause damage and causes your forces to say something funny in text at the top of the screen. As you can see, the robust ship design is used to good effect, as there are plenty of options at your disposal for eliminating the enemy threat. The same basic AI is used for ships on sides, and it does OK finding and attack ships and following orders you have given. Again, it would be better if the ships would organize themselves better automatically instead of needing really specific and detailed instructions: these are supposed to be highly trained naval officers, right? The key seems to be using a balance fleet that can counter any incoming threat, or playing once and seeing what the enemy has and then making adjustments for your subsequent attempts. Gratuitous Space Battles gives a lot of detailed stats at the end of a game, win or lose, so you can see the effectiveness of individual weapons and shields to make your designs better next time.

Gratuitous Space Battles replaces the typical tactical game with enough strategic depth to make an interesting game. The sheer number of parts available for your custom ship designs makes for an impressive amount of strategic freedom. It’s like the ship design of Galactic Civilizations, but much more varied and with none of that annoying “diplomacy” getting in the way. Coupled with the ship customization is the pre-battle planning, done through orders given to individual or groups of ships; they also give you decent, but not complete, control over your armada. The battles are completely automated, which will deter the more tactically-minded among us, but I actually prefer the approach of Gratuitous Space Battles: you didn’t lose because you can’t click fast enough, you lost because you can’t design your way out of a paper bag. And you’re dumb. There are only fourteen maps to choose from as you unlock them in order, but, honestly, they don’t play any role other than the restrictions imposed by the spatial anomalies. A very smart approach to multiplayer is done here: people can post their fleets that you can fight against, but you don’t have to be online at the same time in order to do so. The interface could use some cleaning up to filter parts by attributes or access your custom designs more easily, but these are minor issues that don’t negatively impact the game too much. Gratuitous Space Battles can be very time consuming and also quite difficult if you have designed inefficient or poorly balanced ships. Though most people will unlock most of the content quickly, the human-designed challenges should keep players busy long after, and they always offer something unexpected to deal with. In short (too late!), strategy gamers will find a lot to like in the depth Gratuitous Space Battles has to offer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shattered Horizon Review

Shattered Horizon, developed and published by Futuremark Games Studio.
The Good: Excellent use of a zero gravity environment, some tactically interesting elements, multiple game modes, persistent stats, cheap
The Not So Good: Limited content with only one weapon and four maps, no single player content including AI bots, three-axis movement learning curve, high-end system requirements
What say you? A unique setting makes this budget online shooter distinctive: 6/8

It's only a matter of time before we blow up the Moon. I mean, have you seen the way it looks at us at night, thinking it's better than us? It needs a serious dose of reality, along the lines of a gigantic rocket. Take that, giant rock that used to be part of the Earth! In Shattered Horizon, humans have taken this next logical step and accidentally blown up a large swath of the Moon; residents of the Moon and the International Space Station have taken it upon themselves to subsequently shoot each other. Sounds plausible enough to me! Shattered Horizon takes advantage of its unique setting to allow for full 3-D movement: a unique perspective to be sure. The budget-level shooter keeps its feet on the ground while reaching for the stars: does it make it, or end up near Uranus?

As you might expect from a game published by a company famous for their graphics benchmarking software, Shattered Horizon looks pretty good. The game has crafted a plausible space environment, complete with near-futuristic mining stations and lots of rocks (I do like the rocks). The textures are quite detailed across the board, and the models for the combatants are animated well and move plausibly through the weightless environment. The game does suffer from a lot of repetition thanks to its setting: all of the levels feature the same metallic stations and same rocky rocks, but at least you have a very nice Earth to look at in the background. The HUD also has some nice sci-fi realism touches, acting like a real computer system with boot-ups after being on the receiving end of an EMP grenade. Shattered Horizon requires DirectX 10, so you must have either Windows 7 or the Operating System That Shall Not Be Named. The game does have some steep-ish system requirements, and the game lacks support for my native screen resolution of 1280x1024. The sound design fits the game well, with an appropriate soundtrack and an in-suit sound simulation to substitute for the lack of air molecules to propagate sound waves in space. Overall, I was quite pleased with the graphics and the sound in Shattered Horizon, but make sure you have the operating system and hardware required to run it at an acceptable frame rate.

So mining workers accidentally blew up the Moon. Oopsy! The resulting fight for control between the workers themselves and the astronauts charged with apprehending those responsible is the crux of Shattered Horizon, a first person shooter that takes place in amongst the debris and wreckage. This is an exclusively online title, as there are no AI bots for single player action of filling up a less-than-capacity server. Shattered Horizon has three game modes borrowed (stolen) from other shooters: skirmish (team deathmatch), battle for control points, and assault (a one-way battle with attackers and defenders). One would hope that the unique setting for Shattered Horizon would result in at least one innovative game mode, but this is not the case. The game takes place across four maps, all of which are chaotic messes of rocks, metallic mining station parts, and more rocks. Persistent stat tracking records your performance in the game and new ranks can be earned, although they do not unlock any new abilities. For only $20, you get decent value, and the developers mention that future, free downloadable content will have more stuff.

Shattered Horizon takes great use of the weightless environment and allows you to tackle any situation using all three axes. This requires some learning of the control scheme: in addition to using WASD for the usual movement directions, you will also use space for moving up and left shift for down. You can also attach to a surface (for more accurate firing and less movement confusion) and jump to a nearby platform. The right mouse button is also used to roll, much like in a flight simulator. The game is initially very disorienting, but I suppose that’s some of the appeal: there’s nothing quite like it, where you are free to roam in any direction and ambush enemies from unexpected angles. Assisting your subterfuge is the ability to disable your rockets in order to make it more difficult to be spotted by the enemy; like in Section 8, spotted enemy units are shared by everyone.

Disappointingly, Shattered Horizon only has one gun. Shoot, Wolfenstein 3D had three, for goodness sakes. This makes everyone balanced, but it sure decreases the tactical interest of the game. Your weapon has unlimited ammunition, and using it while scoped will send out ten bullets in one pull of the trigger (as a substitute for a snipe rifle, I suppose). The damage of Shattered Horizon is like Counter-Strike-like, where a couple of hits means death. You can hit someone’s tank for an instant kill, which makes surprising someone from behind is a great tactic. You can also rip someone’s suit open in the melee attack for another instant kill. Accuracy is improved if you attach to a surface first, and the additional advantages of cover make this an important part of the game. You are given some options with the grenades: ice is used for cover, EMPs are used to disable enemy radar and movement, and MPRs are explosive (though non-lethal). None of these are innovative, as they are just futuristic stand-ins for smoke, stun, and incendiary grenades. Ho-hum. Still, the fully 3-D movement makes combat quick, deadly, and intriguing. Shattered Horizon is certainly a distinctive shooter, and despite its limitations, does deliver some unique thrills.

The gimmick of Shattered Horizon works pretty well. Allowing for full three dimensional movement produces some unique strategies for approaching enemy units from all directions, elevating the suspense and surprise. While the game does give you three different grenade types to enhance your tactical options, they aren’t terribly innovative, basically just being futuristic versions of contemporary explosives. You only get one weapon: while this does make the game fairly balanced, it also makes it much less interesting overall. You are also allowed to run silent to sneak up on opponents; the relatively small amount of damage your character can sustain really places an emphasis on sneaky sneakiness. There is an initial learning curve as you become accustomed to the control scheme and expecting enemy units to come at you from all sides. Shattered Horizon features three game modes (none original) and stat tracking, but limited other features: there are no AI bots to fight against and only four maps on which to do battle. The graphics are quite nice, but do require a hefty system and DirectX 10. For the features you get, Shattered Horizon is priced correctly. For those looking for a shooter that offers a different perspective, Shattered Horizon certainly delivers an interesting setting.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Creeper World Review

Creeper World, developed and published by Knuckle Cracker.
The Good: Distinctive enemy, varied map designs with a unique use of elevation, online score list, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Limited building options promote repetition, poor tutorial, can be frustratingly difficult
What say you? A different approach in the tower defense strategy genre delivers some memorable gameplay: 6/8

As the U.S. launches a rocket to crash into the moon to search for water, it makes you wonder: what will happen if the human race comes into contact with an alien race? My guess is that it will somehow involve Jodie Foster. According to the developer behind Creeper World, the alien force will be an ever-expanding liquid bent on consumption of all life. Sounds neat! And messy! In Creeper World, you must advance the last floating human city from planet to planet through a series of warp gates, fending off the evil ooze along the way. How will this twist on the tower defense deliver the strategy?

Creeper World is presented entirely on a two dimensional map, and it's not exactly on the cutting-edge of graphics. All of the units are simple static shapes and there are very few effects in the game: just a handful of weapons and some minor explosions. The fluid-like enemy is a blue shading that slowly darkens as it fills in the crevices of the map: not exactly an imposing force. The very simple graphics, however, do not really hinder the gameplay, and as long as you approach the game as a independent title, then you won't be outstandingly disappointed. The sound design is better thanks to the spooky music that I quite enjoyed, though the sound effects are, like the graphics, minimal at best. Even independent titles can look a lot better than what Creeper World brings to the table (example).

In Creeper World, you are fighting off a magic blue liquid, which isn’t as much magical as it is deadly and will kill you dead. The last human city is warping between cities, hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. This takes place over a twenty-level story mode where you encounter increasingly more difficult odds. In addition, you are given five sets of five conquest levels (which makes for approximately twenty five more) and ten special ops missions. This is a good amount of content, and the length of some of the missions will keep you busy for a while. In addition, a map editor is currently in beta (it’s probably out by the time you read this) that will extend the life of Creeper World even further. Sadly, learning Creeper World can be a bit of a chore, as the game lacks a manual and the in-game tutorials do a very poor job explaining how some of the mechanics work, especially those dealing with energy (like how it is specifically produced, used, and what the “cost” for each building is). It’s obvious most people are “getting it,” as the online scoreboard are populated with quick times (score seems to be indirectly proportional to the amount of time spent to clear a level) from across the globe. This motivation technique certainly makes up for the lack of any in-game multiplayer features, which, frankly, are out of place in a traditionally single-player genre. Finally, Creeper World works on both Windows and Macintosh systems, so score one for unity!

Each game of Creeper World follows the same general path to survival and victory. First, you must build collectors to (surprise!) collect energy that is requires to produce new buildings and weapons. It is important to manage energy use: if you have a negative balance of production and consumption, your residents begin to starve and will essentially succumb to sweet, sweet death. Secondly, you will need to construct weapons to fight back the incoming blue liquid of doom. There are five weapons to choose from that are effective against different enemy types, from simple lasers to missiles. You also have access to relays for reaching tough areas, storage for excess energy, speeding up transmissions along your defensive network, and reactors for collecting energy in exotic locations. In the story mode, you must also collect technology to unlock new structures; it’s nice that the developers have incorporated the gameplay mechanic into acquiring new weapons, instead of using some simple research model. Disappointing is the limited suite of structures at your disposal: only ten components means that a lot of your designs will share a similar strategy, increasing the sense of repetition as you progress through the game.

Creeper World is similar to the original Perimeter (not the crap sequels) where all buildings have to be connected in order to function. This is the fundamental crux of the game: your designs must radiate out from your home city, and success in the game is predicated on the efficiency of your designs. Energy and ammunition for structures is transmitted from the home city outwards, so if your newest turrets and collectors are far from your base, it’ll take a while to become constructed. This is where the free-form levels really work for the benefit of Creeper World: you are never shepherded down a single path towards victory, as is common in so many tower defense games with fixed turret placements. The map design makes or breaks a game like this, and, for the most part, they make. The levels use elevation to great effect: since the liquid enemy will flow like, well, a liquid, you can predict their path based on the terrain and plan accordingly. I like how Creeper World uses the enemy behavior in concert with the map designs: you can subtly nudge the direction of flow with your defensive weapons, providing a safer passage for your tower layouts. Despite your limited weapon options, you can deactivate or disarm weapons to conserve energy for when you need to beat back the blue liquid of doom; it’s a small amount of annoying micromanagement, but nothing that’s too terribly tedious. Creeper World certainly becomes more interesting when all weapons are available, but since individual weapons do not upgrade, you are stuck with only five turrets to play with. Creeper World is all about making efficient designs, reducing the amount of time required to move resources to the front where you are building new stuff. You have to move blasters as you are building and time things correctly in order to push the creeper back enough to make more room, which is quite difficult to do correctly. It’s easier to build blasters back near the base, fill them with ammo, and then move them up front to dispose of the enemy properly.

Creeper World starts with a classic tower defense game and takes the boring, linear gameplay out, replacing it with freedom to design any number of strategic layouts to repel the incoming blue liquid of doom. This is the clear strength of the game: the level designs allow for non-linear solutions, taking advantage of the enemy’s unique characteristics by featuring varied terrain that requires different approaches. Creeper World features about fifty different layouts, and the impending level editor means regular folk like you and me can soon make their own nefarious creations. While there isn’t competitive play on the same level, Creeper World does feature an extensive online leaderboard so that you can see just how incompetent you really are. Unfortunately, Creeper World falls short in a couple of areas. First, despite the grand amount of freedom the game allows, you do not have a great assortment of tools in which to build with: only five weapons and only five nodes means that most of your layouts will have the same overall flavor. The only real variety is in the maps, which are admittedly diverse, but a larger number of tools would serve to further expand the strategy of Creeper World. Also, the game can be quite difficult to the point of annoyance: figuring out how to make a solution is not hard, but efficiently moving your turrets to part a new path can require some advanced dexterity. Still, Creeper World does deliver some strategy goodness thanks to the level design and overall unique approach to the tower defense game.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Metal Drift Review

Metal Drift, developed and published by Black Jacket Studios.
The Good: Custom tank configurations using persistent upgrades, tactically interesting weapons and abilities, strategic use of energy for speed or weapons
The Not So Good: Persistent upgrades restrict content from new players, only one mode of play, methodical pace an acquired taste, some dubious strategies, inconsistent AI
What say you? A tank-based action game that relies on varied weapons and upgrades but is tedious and unfairly restrictive: 5/8

All of those futuristic infantry-based shooters always make me wonder: wouldn’t it be safer in a tank? It might not be as cost-effective, but being surrounded by inches of solid steel would certainly make me feel more at ease. The developers of Metal Drift clearly agree, as the only combatants in their capture-the-flag-like action game are big, metal tanks (that probably drift). In addition to maximum tank-age, this title features persistent upgrades, custom tank designs, and strategic energy usage. Will that be enough to set Metal Drift apart?

Not surprising of an independent title, Metal Drift features passable graphics that suffer from extreme repetition. All of the levels and vehicles look the same and use the same set of textures; to be fair, the game is called “Metal” Drift, so the overemphasis on metal hues is not unexpected. Each level looks like the last, and the clean environments do not look like they are the setting of intense tank battles with massive explosions. The best aspect of the graphics is the in-tank display, which actually looks realistic in its presentation rather than just simply being superimposed on your view. It’s reminiscent of a flight simulation, in a good way. The weapon effects are convincing enough, with enough glow effects to satisfy most. However, the explosions aren’t terribly impressive as the tanks catch on fire slightly and simply turn black. The game’s sound design features nothing of note: just some basic announcer calls to keep you informed and appropriate weapon and explosions effects. The graphics and sound certainly do not negatively impact the gameplay of Metal Drift, which is all we really ask for in an indie title.

Metal Drift is intended as a multiplayer tank combat game, although you can create (and join) a server populated with bots. The server browser provides easy access to online matches, though the player counts seem to be off. There are only five arenas to play in, but they are designed well with multiple paths to the goal. The default game length of eight minutes is just right for the game’s pace: not too long, but not too short. There is only one game mode to enjoy: capture the ball, where you must carry the ball to the goal in the enemy base. Metal Drift features all of the online score keeping trappings, like leaderboards, achivements, and persistent player data. Statistics are used to unlock additional weapons and features, a feature I dislike to the extreme. It’s fine to have upgrades that unlock over time, but only through a single game: new players should never be artificially handicapped. As it stands, new players will have a “selection” of one weapon and one ability: a strategic disadvantage right from the beginning. I prefer having all of the content available to all players, which is what Section 8 does. You have to finish a match in order to earn experience points, a questionable limitation if you have to leave in the middle of a game. You do level up quickly, especially if you capture the ball, but you do not get to choose which weapons to unlock as they are presented in a linear fashion. Boo! What if I want the super powerful weapon the really experienced guy has been killing me with? The weapons also increase in effectiveness the more you use them, which is cool. Preventing new users from all the game offers, however, is not cool.

Once you have logged enough hours in Metal Drift, you’ll have access to some pretty neat weapons and abilities, which makes restricting the content even more disappointing. While most of the weapons are pretty conventional in first person shooters terms (pulse cannon = assault rifle, ion cannon = sniper rifle, plasma launcher = grenade launcher), there are some highlights: the temporal cannon can travel through walls (making it a great pairing with the sensor upgrade that allows you to see all tanks), the artemis cannon travels through shields (like a shotgun), and the shock cannon is a short-range bomb. The upgrades offer more tactical variety: in addition to simple stat increases (armor, power, speed), you can automatically repair of your tank over time, see the positions of every tank, invisibility, or look like an enemy tank. The most popular is hyperspace, which spawns you near the ball. See why I’d like to have access to all of these neat features from the very beginning?

It takes a while to get your bearings straight in Metal Drift due to the control method: aiming is done with the mouse, but movement is done with the trusty old WASD keys, so you can be facing in a different direction then you are moving. While this makes combat easier, it can be disorienting; the game does allow you to re-center your view using the middle mouse button, however. Tanks have a poor turning radius and generally travel slowly, as you would expect gigantic metallic objects to do. Most of the weapons have low damage and excessively long reload times; since it takes a while to get to cover, combat typically has long pauses while either side reloads their weapons. This really emphasizes working together in groups, which the AI certainly does not do. Personally, I dislike the balance between damage and how often you need to reload, but I believe that the game was balanced for teammates who actually work together. The HUD is quite informative, displaying ammunition levels, speed, energy, upgrades, and armor, in addition to displaying the ball location and repair pads clearly. The mini-map is also useful for locating enemy and friendly units beyond your field of view.

Energy earned by hitting (but not necessarily killing) enemy tanks serves a dual purpose: slightly more powerful weapons or increased speed. This intriguing tactical decision is strongly slanted towards increased speed, as the tanks move quite slowly and a small speed boost can quickly move you away from enemy tanks. In addition, the weapon damage increase seems quite small and not really worth it unless you are finishing off an tank about to score a goal. Slow movement in general makes it difficult to intercept when you are out of position, and the maze-like levels make this task even more tricky. This places a lot of emphasis on using energy for speed boosts. Weapons don't do much damage and require long reload times, making the game very slow paced. Metal Drift is also subject to some suspect strategies: you can camp at ball spawn location since positions do not reset after a score. So that point you just fought hard over? Useless since the other team can just park a tank at the spawn location and speed it into goal before you can react. That’s why so many high level players use the hyperspace upgrade, which, of course, isn’t available to beginners. Also, it's actually almost better to not kill enemies in your base, since they will respawn close to your goal when you counter-attack. Games can commonly be ruined by these cheap strategies. The AI is competent but not great: they ignore you a lot of the time, especially if they do not have the ball and they are facing in the opposite direction (they could theoretically spot you on radar, as a human player would). Sometimes they simply do not shoot unless shot at even though they are facing you. The AI does not make a proper substitute for human opponents and teammates that would provide thoughtful competition and support planned attacks.

Metal Drift is an average tank combat game with some interesting features that are not available to beginning players. The game is intended for multiplayer, as the bots are too inconsistent to be enjoyable: they will carry the ball to the goal, but they only respond to you some of the time, making them an easy target. The game’s only mode, capture the flag ball, does offer some interesting gameplay thanks to the level design; although there are only five maps, each level contains multiple paths to victory. The game’s persistent stats are a nice feature, but it restricts new players too much as they cannot access all of the game’s neat weaponry until they have logged sufficient game time. You should want to play a game because it’s fun, not because you need to unlock additional weapons to become competitive. Section 8 had it right: hide nothing from new players, because doing so immediately puts them at a greater disadvantage, in addition to simply being novices at the game. While individual weapons do upgrade according to usage, you cannot choose your future unlocks, sticking to the distressingly linear path chosen by the developers. And there are some interesting weapons: weapons that travel through walls, shields, and short range bombs make for some great tactical decisions. You also need to decide how to use your bonus energy: for speed or for increased weapon output. It’s too bad you can’t make those great tactical decisions the first time you play the game. The HUD is quite informative and controls are standard fare; it does take a couple of games to learn how to move your turret with the mouse independent on your movement using the keyboard. The game’s slow movement, long reload times, and low damage emphasize team-based play, for better or for worse (the latter if playing with the AI). Metal Drift allows for some questionable strategies, like camping at the ball spawn location or purposely not destroying an enemy so they can't respawn near your goal, which reduce the fun quotient. All of the hard work in making that goal is wasted by the lone wolf on the other team speeding towards their goal. Unfortunately, Metal Drift’s strong points are overshadowed by locked content and other assorted shortcomings.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Eufloria Review

Eufloria, developed by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May and published by Omni Systems.
The Good: Unique take on resource management, decent amount of content, procedurally generated levels makes each game slightly different, competent aggressive AI opponent, occasionally varied objectives, mod-friendly
The Not So Good: Simplicity introduces repetition, needs rally points for newly created units, no multiplayer
What say you? A distinctive strategy game thanks to its mechanics and presentation: 6/8

Thanks to digital distribution, independent games (more commonly known as “ROFLCOPTER”) have garnered a nice niche in the online gaming environment. A couple of guys (or gals…yeah, right) can get together and hammer out a neat little title, put it up for download, and watch the enormous stacks of cash roll in (or so I am told). The Game Formerly Known As Dyson (renamed in a contest to something less obscure) is one of those titles; garnering some recognition through the Independent Games Festival, it is now released in retail form over the Internets. This slow-paced ambient game has you send seeds across the universe to populate distant lands, and eliminate rival seeds, of course. How does the minimalist strategy-type game stack up?

Eufloria takes a minimalist approach to graphics and makes a quite effective visual package. The game has a very nice ambient glow exhibited in every map, which is more impressive on levels that feature a black background. The glow makes it easy to identify which units belong to which side, at least if you are zoomed out far enough. The planets you colonize are boring, simple spheres, though the trees planted on them have a nice, varied fractal-like appearance (or whatever you want to call it). The seedling units are nicely animated while in flight, although the combat lasers are disappointingly generic. The game also plays nice while windowed. The soundtrack of the game is quite appealing and fits the casual mood of the game well. Eufloria delivers a unique look that makes it quite distinct.

Eufloria is a strategy game that takes places across a twenty-five level campaign, where you are liberating enemy asteroids and joining up with friendly forces. There is a minor, forgettable storyline as you progress through the game. The game also features eight quite-difficult skirmish maps and a dark matter mode with tougher AI. The objectives usually involve defeating all the enemy units and colonizing each asteroid; rarely the game introduces defend (for a period of time) or counter-attack (decrease the enemy population) goals, so your overall strategy does not waver much. Eufloria uses procedural content, which produces semi-random maps for all of the campaign and skirmish levels: it’s a nice touch that increases replay value and also slightly alters your strategy in each game. In addition, you can create your own map layouts using LUA scripting, and there are already custom levels for Eufloria available for download. Things aren’t all peachy in the universe of Eufloria, however. You cannot save your progress in the middle of game and there is no scoring whatsoever, either offline or online. In addition, Eufloria lacks multiplayer, a terrible omission for a game style that would have been great for it. You can argue that most people play single player anyway, but having the option is what counts, and multiplayer is a glaring exclusion.

Eufloria uses a mouse-based interface that, because of its unconventional nature, has a bit of a learning curve. Once an asteroid is selected with a left click, you can left click and drag to another asteroid to send all units, or right click and drag to send one unit. Alternatively, you can left click and hold near the asteroid to select a proportion of the total units, let go, and then left click on a target destination. This mechanic is unusual, but useful once you are accustomed to it. You can also select only certain types of seedlings for specialized missions, like sending only speedy units on scouting assignments. I would like to have a box select like Galcon to make sending lots of units to a single destination easier. Further complicating things is the lack of a rally point option; this means you have to periodically select each and every one of your asteroids and send their units to the frontlines. Rally points would reduce tedium in the end-game, where you have five to fifteen (or more) asteroids but have to spend your time in the "back" sending troops up to the "front" instead of concentrating on where the action is. I just dislike having to do something manually that should be done automatically. The game speed is slow enough where sending up reinforcements doesn't negatively impact the gameplay, but it does add some extra clicks that are simply unnecessary. Do you know how annoying it is to individually click-and-hold on fifteen or twenty places every minute? You will once you play Eufloria! The interface does feature some great visual cues for attacks and tree types that are informative whether you are zoomed in or out. Team colors can be very similar, but there is an option to change it to more distinct selections.

Each asteroid has a specific rating in energy, strength, and speed, and it will produce seedlings with those attributes. New seedlings are grown by planting dyson trees, which cost ten seedlings to plant. You can also plant defensive trees for the same cost that launch mines automatically against incoming enemy units, useful for frontline or important asteroids. Eventually, mature trees will grow flowers that can be planted on asteroids for more powerful seedlings or laser mines that can be sent around the galaxy. All asteroids have a small (usually four) limit on how many trees can be planted, so expansion is a necessity. In addition, there is a limit on your expansion range dependent on the size of the asteroid, which makes for some nice choke points of intense conflict. In order to capture an enemy asteroid, you must destroy one tree so that seedlings can burrow to the core and sacrifice themselves to deplete the core energy to zero. The surviving trees are yours to keep, but you can’t destroy them and plant replacements if you don’t need so many defensive trees.

All combat is done automatically once you send your units in, so Eufloria is purely a strategic game. The AI does a decent, if disorganized, job attacking enemy planets. The rule of thumb seems to be to have double the number of units as the enemy, more if there are defensive trees. There is minor fog of war in the game: once you scout an asteroid once, you have a permanent view of it. I really like how Eufloria treats resource management, since seedlings are used both to attack and indirectly grow more seedlings. The AI, at least on later levels, is pretty good about attacking right after you invest in a non-refundable tree and don’t have enough seedlings to defend against an attack. The pace of the game is quite “relaxed” (some would say “boring”), more so in the beginning of a match as you are waiting for trees to grow more units. I would really like the ability to adjust the speed of the game at will. Once you have six or seven fully developed asteroids under your control, populations snowball quickly, but the beginning of a match involves too much waiting. Things get a lot more interesting with larger levels and multiple opponents. Of course, you're usually greatly outnumbered, so the increased difficulty isn't necessarily fair. It’s fairly easy to succeed in the game if you don’t expand too quickly (using up too many seedlings) or too slowly (not producing enough). Eufloria can get repetitive, as the objectives almost always involve exterminating all of the other players and there are few actual decisions to make along the way. That’s the trade-off for simplicity, I suppose.

Eufloria is a unique strategy game that's also fun to play. The game is easily approachable thanks to its simple mechanics and straightforward mouse-driven control scheme. The game has a good amount of content, with twenty-five procedurally generated levels that are slightly different each time you play, in addition to some skirmish offerings and a more difficult dark mode. The most significant blemish is the lack of multiplayer, especially because the design of the game really lends itself towards human competition. The objectives tend to get repetitive after a while, as the occasional defend mission or alternate goal is rarely used. Because of this, your strategy will remain the same, with slight tweaks based on what the AI is doing. Eufloria is interesting as a game because of its method of resource management: seedlings are used to attack, defend, and grow new seedlings, so you must carefully balance your units. The AI does a great job watching your moves and invading your empire right after you use seedlings for a new tree; the computer provides a good opponent, which almost makes up for the lack of multiplayer…almost. The minimal interface is good except for one glaring omission: rally points for new seedlings, as they would solve tedium in the end-game. Different asteroids produce different kinds of seedlings (energy, speed, and health) that can be used for varied purposes, which, along with the laser mines, enhanced trees, and randomized maps, can support different strategies each game. The map designs lead to some nice choke points and areas of intense conflict. However, Eufloria may be a bit too simple for its own good, as the game can get repetitive in the long term. The game really only has two important decisions: how many seedlings to use for trees and where (and when) to expand. This limited nature can result in monotony that more complex game do not suffer from. The relaxed pace of the game also cannot be adjusted, so you will typically have to sit around waiting for seedlings to develop; it helps that the game can be windowed so that you can do other things while waiting for populations to increase. In summary, Eufloria is like a slower paced Galcon, and its relaxed nature and unique simplified gameplay should be appealing to strategy fans.