Thursday, February 26, 2009

Roadclub Review

Roadclub, developed and published by Solid Core Entertainment.
The Good: Exceptionally comprehensive editor suite, robust career mode, top-quality physics model, lots of cars and tracks, very challenging AI
The Not So Good: Lacks multiplayer, overhead perspective won’t appeal to everyone, maximum of six cars per race, brutally tough computer drivers can’t be adjusted globally, requires perfection to be successful, fixed screen resolution
What say you? A satisfactory and highly customizable 2-D racing game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Now that the NFL season is over, it’s time for my annual five-month obsession with NASCAR (until the NFL starts up again and I ignore NASCAR). Yup, watching cars going around in circles for three (to four (to five)) hours is edge-of-your-seat excitement! Even better than watching is doing, so computer games have filled the void for people not talented enough to drive real race cars without crashing into things (*author raises hand*). Since we’ve already had a stock car simulation, we can turn our attention to the more general selection of automobiles offered up by Roadclub. This 2-D racing game features both stuff and things. Let’s check it out!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The fact that Roadclub is a 2-D racing game will probably initially turn off a lot of people; I mean, when was the last time you played a top-down computer game? Nevertheless, we are stuck with the bird’s eye view in Roadclub, and it’s not all bad. There are some nice effects, from time of day to weather, that at least somewhat immerses you into the game. There is slight visual damage to the vehicles, such as smoke, fire, and flickering headlights, but no noticeable body damage, although you’re playing the game far enough away from your car that you’d probably not see it anyway. The environments are fairly bland, with a small amount of objects scattered around the place to get in your way. Your view never rotates with the car, so you must be able to figure out that the turning controls are with respect to the car and not your view. Roadclub is also played at a low resolution; this is fine, if you let me play the game in a window, which Roadclub does not. The game also does not like to be alt-tabbed out of, which makes writing a review more difficult. However, the advantage of having 2-D graphics is that everything in the game is very easily edited, using simple .TGA graphics files. I’m willing to make a sacrifice in graphical quality in order to gain the level of customization found in Roadclub. The sound in the game is dominated by the soundtrack that consists of songs from independent artists; while it doesn’t necessarily fit the genre all of the time, the music isn’t bad. While the racing game has generally left 2-D behind a long time ago, Roadclub still clings tightly to two dimensions and all of its limited glory.

ET AL.
The first major decision you’ll have to make in Roadclub is whether to use the arcade or simulation difficulty levels. I, of course, chose simulation right out of the box, opting for a more realistic physics model. The main crux of Roadclub is the career mode, and it is quite a significant feature with many options available. There is a number of leagues to join in the game, from ones designed for beginners to the Roadclub that offers five levels of competition that you can move progress (or regress, much like soccer) through. Each league has its own schedule of races and AI drivers who are also trying to rise to the top of the global skill rankings. You can also take part in challenges offered by AI drivers (or make your own) for cash or new cars: a neat feature. Roadclub features almost fifty cars (49, to be exact) you can purchase and upgrade within the career mode, improving their stats or buying new attributes; you can opt for completely new cars, used cars, or free “junk” cars if you are desperate. Your fleet can be upgraded (in many different aspects) or repaired between races. There is some strategy involved in choosing which league to compete in, which cars to drive and when to upgrade them, and which challenges to undertake. The amount of variety here does keep you interested in Roadclub for quite a while. Once you unlock (boo!) tracks in the career mode, you can do quick races where you can customize the time of day, weather, and number of opponents. Unfortunately, Roadclub only supports a maximum of six cars in each race, which worsens the first-or-last finishing phenomenon. While Roadclub does record ghost cars of the best laps that could theoretically be sent to others, the game does not offer any multiplayer, either online or on the same computer. A racing game with no multiplayer? Blasphemy!

The editors are such an integral part of Roadclub (and one of its two key buying points, along with the career mode), they deserve their own paragraph. So here it is! You can easily edit pretty much every aspect of the game apart from the physics engine itself: tracks, cars, leagues, and opponents. I’m a big fan of track editors in racing games, and the one featured in Roadclub is as simple to use as Paint: just draw your track with the mouse, add the starting positions and some waypoints and triggers for the AI, and you are done. You can embellish your tracks with fences, houses, trees, and various road markings if you wish as well. You can also edit the properties of tiles (such as grip) for a more precarious or stable setting. You can seriously edit a functional track in three to four minutes with absolutely no knowledge of three-dimensional modeling that’s required in most other track utilities. The fifty cars in the game can also be edited (or new ones created): mass, center of gravity, tires, grip, brake bias, steering, brake strength, plus many more. You can even import your own .TGA image file to add custom drivers to the mix: outstanding. That import feature goes for the track elements too: just make a simple 2-D image and bring it in. Roadclub also includes a league editor for custom seasons and an opponent editor to adjust the AI behavior. Simply put, all racing games should have the amount and easy of editing that Roadclub does.

All of these features would be for naught if the game didn’t drive well, and Roadclub strikes a good balance between simulation and arcade racing. You will have to slow down for tight turns and there is a significant amount of sliding around corners, although it doesn’t feel like the driving in Roadclub approaches the level of realism found in its 3-D competition. The developers claim to have sophisticated torque, tire, and collision physics, which I do not doubt, but it’s harder to access the realism of a 2-D racing game since you are viewing the action from a high perspective. I have encountered some collision problems: the “corners” of objects seem to be a little farther out than they are shown in the game. Roadclub discourages contact with a severe damage model where a couple of good licks will put you out of submission: the cars behave more like F1 cars than stock cars in this aspect. Because the view doesn’t rotate with the car, you have to be able to think about turning left and right even if your car is headed down the screen. Some people won’t be able to do this inherently unintuitive task, so Roadclub is not for them. Still, I found the driving physics to be enjoyable enough. The AI is a very good opponent that approaches being frustratingly talented. Typically, one mistake during a race will prevent you from winning, while two or three will relegate you to last place. While I have no problem with a challenging AI, Roadclub kind of cheats in this aspect, giving the AI drivers superior cars that you don’t initially have enough money to compete directly with, even in the beginning leagues. You can individually customize the AI skill on a per-driver basis, but there is no global setting for difficulty, and I found (as a person who plays a significant enough number of racing games and is OK at them) that the beginning leagues were more difficult than they should be. The fact that you gain no experience or money from a last place finish only exacerbates the problem: the AI drivers, even in the beginner’s league, are given much better cars than you can afford, setting you up for frequent failure.

IN CLOSING
Roadclub has a balance of good and bad attributes that, thanks to the editors, leans more towards the positive end of the spectrum. You can very easily edit almost every aspect of the game: cars, AI drivers, leagues, and (most importantly) tracks. All of the editors are very simply to use, utilizing sliders for values, .TGA files for images, and mouse-drawn painting for track surfaces; if only more racing games made it this easy to modify the game. The editing features makes the archaic 2-D graphics a forgivable offense, although I suspect there will be a lot of potential drivers that will simply not be able to adapt to an overhead viewpoint. The physics are quite plausible: although Roadclub still leans towards the arcade side of things, sliding through turns and taking on the AI in tight tracks makes for some enjoyable racing. The career mode is also very comprehensive, with multiple leagues to choose from, car upgrades, and user- and AI-created challenges. Roadclub might be too tough, however, as you can’t adjust the overall difficulty and the AI drivers usually have better cars than yours; you need to be almost perfect in order to proceed through the career mode, a level of stress that can make for exasperating gaming. Despite the positive features like the editors and career mode, Roadclub falls short in other areas as well: the game lacks multiplayer of any kind and you can only race against five others at most. If you are looking for a customizable racing game and you won’t be deterred by the 2-D presentation or high difficulty, then Roadclub would be a good choice.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Perimeter 2: New Earth Review

Perimeter 2: New Earth, developed by KDV Games and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Terrain modification impacts gameplay, interface lists all units for easy access, capable skirmish AI, some Providence powers are cool
The Not So Good: Horribly balanced undersized campaign, elementary resource collection, tactically uninteresting units with unfair reinforcement and iffy pathfinding, confusing Providence controls, sloppy sprawling bases reduce significance of the defensive perimeter, lacks online matchmaking
What say you? Another follow-up that lacks the depth of the original: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Every once in a while, a game comes along that tries something different. One of those games was Perimeter, a strategy title that featured stout base defenses and terraforming new land. Developer KDV Games took that formula and went in a slightly different direction with Maelstrom, and the result was disappointing. Well, they are back with a true sequel to that classic game: Perimeter 2. Now that New Earth has been found, you aren’t restricted to that giant Frame for your base building needs, for better or for worse (I’ll let you guess which one it is). Perimeter 2 eliminates the old unit production model, electing to provide a more streamlined experience for less veteran players. Does Perimeter 2: New Earth bring the strategic goods?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Perimeter 2: New Earth looks a lot like Maelstrom, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The game is certainly not at the same level as top-notch RTS titles, but it holds its own thanks to the deformable terrain. The units in the game are very generic sci-fi armored units with repetitive animations and less-than-powerful weaponry. Water, a primary tactical aspect of the game, looks good, although it can be difficult to tell shallow submerged areas from those above sea level. I'm not sure if it's having a computer two years more advanced running essentially the same graphics or not, but Perimeter 2 runs a heck of a lot smoother than Maelstrom ever did. Other than the shallow water thing, the graphics never negatively impact the gameplay, and while they will never look “great,” they get the job done. The sound design features computerized voices that are not terrible, but the weapon effects and especially the music are both repetitive. Sound notifications are also very subtle, taking a back seat to the unit effects, which can cause you to miss some important events. While not great, Perimeter 2 is good enough in terms of graphics and sound.

ET AL.
This time around, there are two rival factions battling for control of New Earth: one that loves land and another than loves water. Obviously, they can't simply just avoid each other and live happily in their niche, so out come the guns! Perimeter 2 is pretty light on the features: there are two ten-mission campaigns that can be completed in a matter of hours, assuming you can scale the intense difficulty of the game. Perimeter 2 relies heavily on outnumbering you: for example, the second mission pits your one squad against three complete enemy installations. Not fun, and that's on “easy.” Most of the missions in the game run along those lines and there isn't anything innovative in the completely linear campaign to note. The objectives almost always consist of “destroy everything” objectives given along the way. While I like the lack of cut scenes, please do not rotate the camera and reset my view when a new objective is added. Please. The campaign gradually introduces new game concepts to you along the way, but there is also a poorly-written tutorial. I failed the tutorial (yep!) thanks to vague instructions (using the Providence to raise the ground, for the record).

After you are done with the campaign, you get limited multiplayer features with skirmish and “online” matches. I say “online” with “quotes” because Perimeter 2 doesn't have any Internet matchmaking, either in the game or using a 3rd party source: you have to know IP addresses in advance. What is this, 1993? It's just as well, though, as Perimeter 2 only has five (5!) maps total on which to play. None of these maps are particularly interesting, either, as they range from “circular submerged area” to “another circular submerged area.” With the simplicity of the map design, the lack of a map editor is curious. I will say that the skirmish AI puts up quite a challenge and you can play with a living map mode that introduces random earthquakes and meteor showers as an interesting twist. Unfortunately, the living map mode is the only innovation found in Perimeter 2's outdated list of features.

With increased screen resolutions, strategy games have started to put all of your units and structures on the main screen for easy access. This trend made Sins of a Solar Empire playable and has continued with Dawn of War II. Perimeter 2 also exhibits the ability to evaluate your entire army from the main screen, and it's the most notable aspect of the user interface. The rest of the interface has standard features for the genre, although the build menu's location at the top of the screen (away from all of the other panels) is questionable at best. Perimeter 2 lacks fog of war, a feature missing with any real explanation, which takes the whole aspect of stealth and surprise out of the game entirely. Pathfinding, while a significant step up from the travesty that was Maelstrom, still has some issues, particularly with builder units that, more often than not, stop well short of the destination you clicked.

One of the two memorable features of Perimeter (the perimeter itself doesn't count because it's in the game title) was terrain modification, and this feature is mostly intact in Perimeter 2. Instead of everyone having to flatten the terrain, one side is trying to put everything under water while the other is making dry land. This dichotomy would result in some interesting border clashes if the maps weren't large enough to support two fully-functioning bases. Terraforming can be done automatically by your energy cores (the only structure that produces resources) or done manually using the Providence, although I've ever gotten it to work well using the second method (thanks a lot, bad tutorial). Terraforming can be a defensive maneuver (like the walls of a fort), but since units can turn into flying craft at any time, this strategy is pointless. Your base will consist of a whole heck of a lot of energy cores, since they can be built anywhere and they always make more power to construct more energy cores. Since there is no population cap for the builder units that morph into energy cores, you can just spam them all over the map, increasing your resource income essentially to infinity since cores can gather power from any location. Balancing your energy is very easy as long as you have a copious number of energy cores. Any power shortage gives you time to construct more builder units and subsequent energy cores before resources run out; the game clearly indicates a negative energy flow, but does not specify where in the system energy is being drained.

The other memorable feature of Perimeter was the ability to morph units on the battlefield and how units were actually comprised of three sub-units (soldiers, officers, and technicians) that could be tactically arranged. Unlike the terrain, this aspect of the game has essentially been completely removed, much to my disappointment. In Perimeter 2, we get three pathetically generic units: light, medium, and heavy. They can morph, but only into a “flying” or “ground” arrangement that can be easily countered with other flying or ground units. This aspect of Perimeter 2 has been streamlined into meaninglessness. There used to be real strategy in dealing with counters and what you could change your units into, but all of that has been removed in favor of this dull, outdated selection. Since you can morph units anywhere on the battlefield instantly, it’s a completely useless convention, as both sides will just keep switching back and forth with no repercussions. Add in squad reinforcement and we have a very uninteresting aspect to the game: this is a really cheap maneuver that can be done anywhere on the battlefield, keeping your squad alive for infinity, as long as you aren't greatly outnumbered. The buildings feature the same level of limitation: a research building for upgrades, one building each for light, medium, and heavy units, and one usually ineffective turret used against light, medium, and heavy units. And that's it. In addition, you need one entire factory to support one squad of units; this is a ridiculous relationship that only leads to more building spam and longer matches at it takes you half and hour just to decimate the enemy base. You can capture enemy buildings, but it's easier just to blow up the enemy cores and render the structures useless, especially since your high amount of power income from all of those cores you built will never deplete unless you are significantly attacked.

Since Perimeter 2 has done away with the Frame, you are now given the Providence (bow before the awesome power of Rhode Island!). Essentially, this allows you to move terrain around or use some powerful weapon. Abilities are unlocked by excavating psy-crystals scattered around the map and highlighted with a ring. Once unearthed, you can unleash tornadoes, blasts, meteor showers, and healing from afar. The providence is almost awesome if Dawn of War II didn't do it better. Terraforming with the Providence needs to be a lot more straightforward. In addition to using the same button to select terraforming as toggling the type of terraforming, the icons need work: is making mountains the icon with the arrow coming out of the cylinder or going into it? Look: just make a hill with an arrow pointing up or a valley with an arrow pointing down and be done with it.

The key to winning at Perimeter 2 is destroying the enemy energy cores. This is more difficult than it sounds, since there can be a whole lot of them (remember: they can be placed anywhere, will automatically terraform on their own, and will produce plenty of resources). There’s nothing preventing you from plunking down tens (hundreds?) of energy cores in quick succession, making a sprawling and impenetrable base surrounded by higher-level turrets that cannot be countered. The elimination of the giant frame you had to connect everything to before makes Perimeter 2 a much messier and unorganized affair, and the perimeter itself is almost totally useless. Playing Perimeter 2 is almost a hyperactive affair, as you must place core after core and factory after factory to keep up with the ridiculous pace set by the AI. There is almost no strategy involved in the game, as the unit and building selection is so limited. There are also some balance issues, as level 1 turrets can only attack land units so rushers will always opt for flying models (unless they want to lose). Perimeter 2 shows how a series of questionable core design decisions can ruin a potentially interesting concept.

IN CLOSING
Perimeter 2 comes with features that sound great in theory but are poorly executed. This is doubly confusing since they were executed much more convincingly in the original game, and KDV Games has taken two steps back with Maelstrom and now Perimeter 2. This iteration isn’t quite as bad as its predecessor, but it still suffers from a host of significant gameplay problems. Perimeter 2 comes with very limited buildings and units, a very surprising tactic since the original game contained so much depth in these areas. About the only option you are given with respect to the units is researching upgrades, and even then your choices are limited at best. Units can only switch between the air and the ground, a far cry from the more complex but ultimately more enjoyable options in the original game. This tactical decision is not interesting at all, since the enemy can quickly switch between the two options just as easily, so Perimeter 2 quickly devolves into a silly game of chicken. Having one building per squad and allowing unlimited base construction leads to some undesirable results. You can always afford more cores since they are low-cost and will gather power from anywhere (as you can terraform automatically), so the bases quickly grow out of control. I'm not sure how the same game can justify having one factory required for every unit on the battlefield, but allow you to reinforce anywhere with little cost. The Providence powers could have been more interesting if the terraforming was more intuitive. Perimeter 2 is also very light in the features department: twenty poorly balanced campaign missions and only five maps for skirmish and online matches using known-in-advance IP addresses. In the end, Perimeter 2 is too bland: a limited number of units, a limited number of buildings, a limited number of maps, unlimited base size, unlimited resource collection, and limited multiplayer combine for a very disappointing strategy game.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Be A King Review

Be A King, developed and published by 300AD.
The Good: Elementary mechanics, good pacing with little waiting, random events and side quests, must manage use of heroes, varied objectives, voiced tutorials and extensive informative tool-tips
The Not So Good: Simplistic with a small handful of buildings and only two collectable resources, hardly any additional content, linear campaign
What say you? A well-executed casual city builder: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The King is dead! Long live the King! This seemingly obvious contradiction is actually really used in such exciting, modern countries as Canada. Far be it for me to argue with those wacky Canucks. I know that I just can’t wait to be king (*insert musical interlude here*), and it’s good to be in charge. Offering this juicy prospect is the straightforward-titled Be A King, which, surprisingly, lets you Be A King. Developer 300AD (not to be confused with that guy) is back with yet another king-themed game (no doubt they have the same unhealthy fascination I do), this time going for the classic city builder simulation angle.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Be A King has “$20 casual game” written all over it, as the graphics are not impressive by any stretch of the imagination. The game is entirely in 2-D, and while that is not a terrible problem, Be A King does lack a high level of detail and every object in the game is very obviously a sprite. The best aspect of the game is the hand-drawn campaign map, but you see this infrequently and it obviously does not impact the gameplay. There are hardly any animations in the game, including the underwhelming characters and static buildings. The most noticeable effect in the game is the fireworks that are seen after a level completed, but this is practically the only enhancement in the game. Clearly, Be A King was not going for graphical excellence. Sound, on the other hand, fares much better: the game includes appropriate audio notifications and tolerable background music. In addition, the tutorials are completely voiced, something that even big budget games sometimes lack. They say you get what you pay for, and that idiom is definitely appropriate for Be A King.

ET AL.
In Be A King, you are the overlord of a city and must construct buildings to meet specific objectives and create a smoothly-run town. The game comes with a linear campaign consisting of twenty-five cities that goes by quickly since each individual town takes about 15 minutes to complete. Each town has specific objectives to meet, and the objectives are varied from town to town: one city might make you focus on defense while the next emphasizes economy. You are awarded a trophy depending on how quickly you complete the objectives, awarding more efficient players. Be A King lacks a map editor or free play mode, so once you are done with the campaign, the game is essentially finished. Learning the game is very straightforward thanks to comprehensive guided (and completely voiced) tutorials, very helpful tool-tips, and the advisor that points you in the right direction (although sometimes his advice is a bit vague). Be A King also lacks additional features like multiplayer or online scoring, although this might be expected for a casual budget title. I wish there was more content in Be A King, since the game is pretty entertaining while it lasts.

Most of your time will be spent constructing buildings for your town. There is a limited number of locations on which you can build, so there is some balancing that must be done (especially later on in the campaign). Placement also matters somewhat: monsters bent on your town’s destruction will usually spawn from the same general direction, so placing defensive structures in those locations is a good strategy. Be A King disappoints in the number of structures you can build, offering up a surprisingly limited selection for a city builder. Really, there are only four buildings in the game: dwellings for a higher population cap and gold income, food producing buildings that (surprise!) produce food, military buildings that attack nearby enemies, and service buildings that either give a huge gold income or reduce trading costs. There are two flavors of each type (a regular and a better, more expensive version) and you can upgrade existing buildings, but the limited building selection translates into limited decision making. The strategy of Be A King is very straightforward: earn gold by placing houses, make food for them with farms, protect them with military buildings, and repeat. Wood and stone required for buildings and upgrades can only be purchased with gold instead of being produced, so everything in Be A King is driven by gold income: a bit limited for my tastes.

Despite the limited mechanics of Be A King, it is a polished gaming experience. The game features good pacing, as there is only a small amount of waiting for resources to accumulate. You are also kept busy with random events and side quests you can choose to accept: you might need to send one of your heroes to attempt to get a resource boon, or hire a helper (with gold) to provide an ongoing bonus (like cheaper trading or faster construction). I’d like there to be the ability to dismiss unwanted quests, as clicking “no” leaves the icon (this is actually a good thing, as your hero may be off on another quest at the time, but I want an additional “dismiss” option). While the resource aspect of the game is very straightforward, you are given a bit more freedom with your heroes and quests: should you leave your hero in-town to assist defense against the monster hordes, or go out and collect that gold bonus (with a chance of not getting it or even losing your hero)? It’s key decisions like these that makes a game more interesting, and while Be A King lacks a huge number of these situations, it is an entertaining streamlined title.

IN CLOSING
Even though Be A King is a bit restricted in several areas, it is still a good game perfect for beginners to the genre, which is probably the segment of the population that would buy a casual game like this anyway. The game keeps you busy maintaining your city: building houses for gold, growing food, trading for construction materials, and defending against invasions. Be A King does an excellent job teaching you the game, from the extensive tool-tips to the voiced tutorials and your in-game advisor. Your hero can be used for quests and town defense, so some decision making is present in this aspect of the game. Of course, this simplicity means that Be A King is, well, simple: only (essentially) four buildings and limited resource collection reduces the strategic nature of constructing your city significantly. The twenty-five mission campaign is finished rather quickly, and with no alternative features beyond the campaign, Be A King is over before you know it. Still, Be A King is an enjoyable ride while it lasts, and it’s clear that a focus on simplicity was successfully executed here. People looking for a more straightforward approach to the genre will be pleased with Be A King.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh Review

Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh, developed and published by Sortasoft.
The Good: Straightforward interface, significant budget strategy, variety of animals and actions, pleasingly chaotic in later games, quick games reduce tedium
The Not So Good: Accessories carry no gameplay impact, extraneous untimed mode
What say you? A slick combination of click- and money-management: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As technology has increased, the agricultural industry has seen a decline in popularity. It used to be that everyone worked on a farm (as least that’s what Green Acres taught me), but now the wide open pastures are becoming more of a novelty than a reliable way of life. Personally, farming is too hard and too dirty (please insert your own joke here) for my tastes. It would be a whole lot easier if a computer did all the work for me, and all I had to do was click the mouse. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the premise of Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh: it’s like I knew that before I started writing the introduction (weird, I know!)! This sequel is even funkier (probably because of the smell) and farmier than before, although since I didn’t actually play the original, I’m just surmising. In either case, I have to blame that smell on something.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh features 2-D graphics, but they are well-designed and evoke a positive setting. Honestly, doing a game in this genre would be difficult in all three dimensions, so I have absolutely no problem with the presentation. The animals have distinctive models, although they can be difficult to spot when things become crowded. The world is animated enough to seem alive; even though the game elements are very obviously 2-D sprites, Funky Farm 2 does have a nice cartoon feel to it overall. The game does have some very informative visual cues when animals are hungry or ready to “process,” which makes playing the game that much easier. The resolution is fixed (at 1024x768), which can be windowed on higher-resolution monitors, and things can get quite small and require some squinting if you choose this route. As for the sound design, we get the basic notification effects and some background music that is not annoying (always a plus). The animal sounds are actually sporadic; I suppose this was a positive design decision, as too much ruckus would probably turn irritating quickly. Overall, I was pleased but not amazed by Funky Farm 2: exactly what you would expect for a budget-level casual game.

ET AL.
Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh features a funky farm (which may or may not be fresh) where you must earn a specified amount of cash each day by maintaining animals. There is a thirty level campaign that progressively unlocks new items or bonuses along the way. You can choose from several missions at a time, aiming for the bonuses that will help you more in future missions. The thirty levels go by quickly, thanks to the quick time limits (which is actually a benefit), and Funky Farm 2 can be completed in a good day or two of solid play. After you are done, you are left with an untimed mode that simply lets you play forever: not an exciting feature. Funky Farm 2 does not contain any additional game modes, including multiplayer or any kind (some competitive multiplayer would be cool, or having one player as the wolves snatching animals). The amount of content is comparable to most casual games, though.

Gameplay basically consists of three actions: placing animals, placing food for those animals, and then harvesting them. All of these actions are done with icons that slowly scroll across the bottom of the screen; they are presented in a randomized order, which increases apprehension while playing (where is that darn pig?). Funky Farm 2 comes with eleven animals (and one crop): more than enough to crowd the screen and keep you busy. In addition to the harvesting items, there are “special powers” like VCR controls to speed up or slow down the scrolling items, fences to keep animals segregated, incubators for eggs, feeding troughs, and wolf repellant (plus others). Most animals come with several options to make money: cows, for example, can be milked for a small amount of cash, or killed for a big profit. Usually, an animal’s value increases over time as they eat, so it pays to wait until near the end of the day before slaughtering everyone. Of course, you will probably not have enough cleavers to go around then. At the end of the day, surviving animals can be lassoed into the corral for a money bonus. The profit you earn past the day’s goal can be invested into accessories you can dress your animals with (hats, shoes, wigs, et cetera). While this certainly does make your farm funky, there is absolutely no reason to do this; it would be nice if they had a strategic benefit (such as killing animals with accessories netted less money).

Each level of Funky Farm 2 lasts just the right amount of time, giving you enough time to meet your goal while not letting the game become tedious. A common problem with casual games is repetition, but Funky Farm 2 gives you just enough to keep you constantly busy during the short games, so repetition is kept at a minimum here. There is an interesting amount of strategy with Funky Farm 2, far beyond the typical click-management game. How many animals do you need? When should you kill them? How many should you kill (too little means it's harder to lasso them all at night time)? Which animals make the most money? The game seems to be pretty well balanced, with animals that make a large profit (cows), those that require constant supervision (pigs), and those that just mind their own business (chickens). Luckily, keeping animals fed is an easy chore assuming you have the icons available: the AI is smart enough to find food within close proximity. While the difficulty of Funky Farm 2 does increase as you progress through the campaign, it never becomes too difficult, although I always welcome adjustable difficulty options that Funky Farm 2 lacks. The bottom line is that Funky Farm 2 is far more interesting than your typical click-management game thanks to increased strategy.

IN CLOSING
Funky Farm 2: Farm Fresh is more than a simple click management game: the budgetary concerns elevate it to a higher status in the genre. The click-only interface makes the game perfect for novices and the game includes a wide variety of animals and tools to use. As more content becomes unlocked, the game becomes more chaotic (in a good way) and an overall strategy is a must in order to succeed without becoming overwhelmed. Watching your money and reaching your goal takes some planning and skill, beyond simple reflexes required by most click-management games, and this is what separates Funky Farm 2 from the rest. The quick game time makes the title less tedious (that’s good!), but also makes the campaign short (that’s bad!). The lack of meaningful content beyond the campaign (multiplayer, for example) makes the short nature of Funky Farm 2 a little more painful. Making your farm funky is fun, but I’d like the accessories to actually mean something instead of being eye candy (putting heels on a cow: priceless). In the end, people looking for something beyond a basic click-management game should check out Funky Farm 2.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Incognito: Episode 1 Review

Incognito: Episode 1, developed and published by Magrathean Technologies.
The Good: Combination of several gaming genres, accessible controls that carry over between modes, comprehensive in-game tutorial videos, random event-based trading system, resource collection uses actual elements
The Not So Good: Superficial game modes, odd ship controls, long load times and laggy performance, tedious element collection, extremely short, unfair moments of difficulty, budget-level graphics, no multiplayer components
What say you? A noble but shallow attempt at a complete space adventure…so far: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I had a choice when deciding what to write for this introduction. I could have opted to discuss episodic gaming and how digital distribution has allowed developers to release small samples of their game as it is completed. Or I could have gone with the genre amalgamation option, noting that an increasingly large number of games have combined elements from several types. But I chose the third option: just mention both and make the introduction longer. It’s win-win! And that (I think) brings us to this review of Incognito: Episode 1, a game that combines trading, shooting, action, and strategy games into one space adventure. Most games of this ilk tend to focus on one or two of the classic aspects of the genre (trading and combat), but Incognito: Episode 1 is throwing caution to the wind and offering more variety. Do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Incognito: Episode 1 shows that you get what you pay for: a $10 game delivers $10 graphics. While there are some highlights to be found, from several of the character models to the futuristic design of the interior of your spaceship, the game as a whole is filled with lower resolution textures and unexciting design overall. Space stations have some nice textures, but planets look like giant blobs and the amount of environmental additions to make believable settings is very low as space stations and planet surfaces are quite bare. Space is a pretty boring place in Incognito: Episode 1, with black backgrounds that are atypical for a setting that usually presents over-the-top visuals (one could say it's...incognito. Ha ha ha ha ha!) Incognito: Episode 1 uses this thing as the graphics engine and it looks no better or worse than your average independently developed title. I do like how the video and screens are shown in the game world instead of magically superimposing themselves on top of your view: it’s probably the most memorable aspect of the graphics. Incognito: Episode 1 looks a lot like one of those 3000AD games or any other independent space adventure. My main issue with the graphics is the extremely long load times when new things are visited or selected: entering your ship or targeting a planet can lock up the game for 30 to 45 seconds while the game loads the information. This should simply not be the case, and it makes Incognito: Episode 1 quite annoying to play. As for the sound, we get some music that’s entertaining most of the time (the battle music is quite annoying), generic sound effects, and corny voice acting. At least every conversation in the game is voiced. I can say with a high amount of confidence that I got exactly what I was expecting with the presentation of Incognito: Episode 1.

ET AL.
So you’re minding your own business, trying to commit suicide, and this computer hijacks you to a distant galaxy (far, far away, no doubt) in order to do her bidding: a typical Monday. Thus is the introduction to Incognito: Episode 1, where the protagonist (you can name him...might I suggest “Ben Dover”) is now in charge of a ship and must complete missions in order to progress onward and upward. Incognito: Episode 1 borrows several aspects from different genres (first person shooter, action game, space trading adventure, role-playing game, real time strategy) in an attempt to produce a cohesive gaming experience. Incognito: Episode 1 does an excellent job easing new players into the game by carrying over controls between the different modes and having almost comprehensive video tutorials for every aspect of the game accessible from within the ship. There isn’t much content here in terms of quests: only five that will take about two to three hours to complete. The currently galaxy consists of about twenty galaxies containing a total of seventy planets and other objects. There isn’t any aspect of randomization with the universe, so the quest order and the resources available at each planet will not change in successive games. Incognito: Episode 1 also lacks multiplayer, making the adventure a purely solo affair.

You’ll start out inside your ship, basically a repository for the tutorial videos, engineering upgrades, and buying sandwiches. The medical bay contains some options that actually do nothing (by design, I found out), and there’s nothing inside the ship that couldn’t have been accomplished with a pull-down menu. In fact, the large loading times involved with entering your ship (and subsequently going back to space) makes wandering around the deck actually fairly annoying. Once you enter the cockpit, you’ll enter the space flight mode. The controls are quite strange, using the mouse to look and the WASD keys to move up/left/down/right; this combination makes navigating through 3-D space difficult, as looking up and pressing down results in strange movement. You can never look completely “up” (or “down,” for that matter) either, and since most of the planets are located above or below you, this becomes an annoying problem. I would have much preferred a control scheme similar to pretty much every other space adventure game: full mouse look freedom and “W” to go forward. You are limited in your movement because your reactor core may overheat, although this only becomes an issue during the rare instance of combat (which the controls, again, make much more difficult than it should be). Finding things in space is fairly simple: pressing “TAB” will open the planet finder that will list all of the notable objects in your current system, and then show a track to that object once selected. Simply getting close to a planet or station will automatically dock with it (even if you are flying at full speed).

You are given several options to interact with a planet or station. You can scan the planet to discover useful elements and other pertinent information, check the news for trading opportunities, or send a probe to the surface (I prefer to probe Uranus). Trading is a tedious, old-school effort of writing down prices: the game does not give any indication on “high” or “low” values with color or anything else. However, trading is affected by random events, such as drought, boredom, and war: paying attention to these news items and quickly setting up a trade route will reap a significant profit. There are a number of goods to trade (ten, to be exact), but trade is only “worth it” when there is an event causing their shortage, and since shortages usually only occur for a week or so, you must act quickly. When you probe a planet (such as Uranus), you will enter the real-time strategy mode or the action mode.

Ship upgrades require specific resources and, in a neat twist, Incognito: Episode 1 uses real elements from the real periodic table. Each planet contains a specific mix of elements that you can mine, and you must collect a particular assortment of elements to make upgradable items. As an example, a heat shield (the first thing you will need) requires five moles of calcium, three sodium, six cobalt, four iridium, and two lead; it’s just a matter of finding the planets containing these resources and collecting them. This makes a lot more sense than using coins or power that magically turn into tanks. The real-time strategy aspect of Incognito: Episode 1 is very basic: your constructor probe can put up power plants and mining stations, so it’s simply a matter of placing power and mining facilities and waiting for resources to accumulate. This is a boring process of just staring at the screen watching numbers: this isn’t a role-playing game! Tanks (the only military unit) are automatically supplied to you, and can be given only simple “move” and “attack” orders. Incognito: Episode 1 doesn’t exactly have the most sophisticated strategy components.

In addition to waiting in the real-time strategy mode, you might also enter the first person mode on space stations or planets. This is a pretty basic shooter: point and kill. There is a standard variety of weapons to choose from (sub-machine guns, rifles, shotguns) that can be bought from space stations. Your AI opponents are not that smart but deadly accurate, mostly because they are heartless robots bend on your destruction. Occasionally, you will have to hack a door by playing an anagram mini-game (coming with many words from the letters contained in a bigger word); I thought this was a pretty novel aspect of Incognito: Episode 1. Connected to the first person mode is the ability to enter neutral tanks and take control of them directly, using an unlimited amount of ammunition to dispose of the enemy. Like the FPS mode, there is little room for error here, as the health is realistic and death is quick. I died a lot while playing Incognito: Episode 1, from importunely meeting the lone pirate ship upon exiting the first planet to running into “dust bunnies” before I could reach a tank (that one happened five times in a row). The unflinching difficulty of Incognito: Episode 1 starts to wear on you; having an option to adjust the diffculty (giving you more hit points) would be quite welcome for players that would like a more casual and less stressful gaming experience. About the only role-playing elements is the power to somewhat customize your character with ratings in pilot, trader, fighter, and engineer abilities; I didn’t really see a significant impact on gameplay by choosing radically different starting attributes, especially since you’ll have to complete the same quests anyway.

IN CLOSING
Incognito is great in theory but only O.K. in practice. It has a lot of aspects to the game, but it doesn’t do any of them particularly well or have a unique tilt, so ultimately the game is only somewhat interesting. The game is clear thanks to the video tutorials and using the same control scheme in each game mode, but none of those game modes are particularly advanced. The first person shooting and tank combat are both standard fare, space navigation uses controls that are counterintuitive, the RPG elements are in short supply, and the real time strategy mode only has basic units, few things to build, and a tedious (albeit with real elements) resource collection process involving a lot of waiting around. Trading is nice with randomized shortages, but other than taking advantage of these, there is no profit to gain. In addition to the shallow game modes, Incognito: Episode 1 lacks features like adjustable difficulty, multiplayer, and the game is quite short. Incognito: Episode 1 also has some performance issues with significant lag when loading new locations or planets. You can liken Incognito to Spore, where disparate gaming mechanics are present, but none of them are fully complete. Is Incognito: Episode 1 worth a measly $10? I would say so, as I found the game mildly entertaining on several occasions. The different game modes do offer up some variety, even though the depth is lacking. Incognito: Episode 1 feels like an incomplete game, which it is, actually. Episode 2, planned for release at the end of this year (2009, for those keeping score), is scheduled to contain enhancements to several aspects of the game that I just complained about, such as side quests, custom ships, multiplayer, and probing Uranus (just kidding about the last one). I am curious how the entire package will come together when all the episodes of Incognito are complete, as Episode 1 is full of unrealized potential at the present time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Big$hot Review

Big$hot, developed and published by Rusty Axe Games.
The Good: Straightforward interface, variety of properties to purchase, very capable AI opponents
The Not So Good: Boring slow pace and sluggish growth due to expensive properties, repetitive and monotonous gameplay with limited strategic options, insufficient tutorial makes the game difficult for beginners, questionable AI trades, fixed starting economy options, lacks multiplayer, limited visuals
What say you? There may be a decent business strategy game in here somewhere, but it’s obscured by too many basic design problems and a less-than-helpful tutorial: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the fantastic shape the U.S. economy is in, it’s difficult to make any money in real estate these days. Of course, we can always resort to the wonderful world of computer gaming for escapism during these troubled times. Instead of shooting aliens in the face, you could resort to trying your hand at developing commercial property. The developer behind the house-flipping game Real E$tate Empire is back with another “$” title: Big$hot. Instead of improving houses, now you are snatching up businesses and turning them around to reap large profits. Well, hopefully.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Big$hot features typical casual game graphics: simple. The city landscape you are operating in remains the same collection of 2-D buildings for each game in all the same locations. The city exhibits an average level of detail, but there are few animations: just the “for sale” signs and some weird reflection effect that appears every once in a while. There are a number of character portraits to choose from, but this isn’t a terribly important feature to be honest. The game is also fixed at a windowed resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, squandering desktop space that could have been used to provide more information on the main screen. As it stands, a lot of pertinent information is always a couple of mouse clicks away. While the sound effects of Big$hot are underwhelming (just some notifications), I do like the music. Overall, Big$hot is not a very exciting gaming experience in terms of graphics or sound design.

ET AL.
The object of Big$hot is to make tons of money buy purchasing, improving, and selling businesses. You start out by choosing a character portrait, a purely aesthetic decision that doesn’t affect gameplay, but there is a wide variety to select from. The game can be played on five difficulty settings, from “hard” to “utterly impossible.” Game length can also be chosen; a twelve-month game can take minutes, while an eight-year game will last a considerable length of time. The game does not scale to the length, so expensive properties will only be accessible during longer matches and a twelve month game will behave similarly to the first twelve months of other game types. You also get to select from a number of starting properties that are always the game. It’s usually a very simple decision, as there is one property that already has improvements and is poised to make money right from the start. The game advertises replay value, but I see the same starting properties with the same values and the same auctions at the same time each and every game. Ho hum. There isn’t the ability to have the game randomly choose one for you (other than simply holding down the selection arrow and not looking at the game screen), so starting strategies will not be that varied. This shortcoming is augmented by the lack of customization features: you will always have the same initial cash, maximum loan amount, lending rate, and starting economy. It’s odd that Big$hot simply does not give you the ability to choose starting values that would result in a different approach to the game. Big$hot is fundamentally different from most property-purchasing games, so it’s quite a limitation that the tutorial is so poor. Just the basics are covered, and the lack of strategic advice beyond the first two or three months leads to a lot of problems for new players dealing with the mechanics. The lack of a game manual makes this an even bigger issue. Also, for a game that screams “competitive multiplayer,” it’s surprising that Big$hot doesn’t offer any gameplay against other humans, either on the Internet or simply on the same computer. I dislike being told how to play a game through fixed initial settings, and the lack of adequate features makes Big$hot less enticing.

You’ll always start out with one property in each game of Big$hot, and there are three things you can do with it: improve the efficiency (decreasing bills), develop the quality (increasing income), or advertise to increase the traffic. Because of these limited options, you’ll be doing the same repetitive actions with every property you own. Properties come in several levels, from starter business with low costs and low incomes on up. Some properties also grant bonuses, like reduced advertising costs for owning a newspaper or the removal of seller’s fees for owning a real estate office. You will also earn more money by acquiring businesses of the same level (making a chain), although the AI will rarely part with their companies to allow you to do this. Each turn (a month), you must pay the bills; if you cannot afford the bills for three months, your business will foreclose and you’ll lose it (oops!). The AI will occasionally approach you with deals that will almost always favor their side of the trade; making an equitable trade is difficult, due to the gap in cash levels and property values. Most of your new property will be won during an auction, where prices are below market value (this also occurs during a recession); it is very, very important to win auctions.

The gameplay consists of the following: upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Upgrade, upgrade, media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Media blitz. Wait for your profits to grow for about a year. Get lucky and win an auction. Buy something and hope you can afford to make it profitable in a couple of months before you go broke. Your options are too limited in dealing with your properties, and moving properties to an AI player usually doesn’t involve some mutual benefit. The core problem with Big$hot is the poorly balanced pace: it takes too long to accrue the funds required to purchase a new property. Let’s do a math problem: how long would it take you to earn enough money with a fully upgraded business that earns $20,000 a month to afford a $400,000 business (one of the cheaper ones in the game)? The answer is about twenty turns too long. I will admit that your maximum loan value is approximately four times your cash amount and this reduces the wait time, but there is still way too much sitting around in Big$hot hitting the turn button with nothing to do, waiting to accumulate enough funds to afford another business. You really need a lot of money, since the first few months, the new business will always lose money as you spend the first three to four months upgrading it to break even. If you run out of money while upgrading it, then you lose the game: plain and simple. This “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle of gameplay is not very entertaining and quite dull. I tried following the moves the AI makes, and there is no point of buying properties that are not being auctioned (they are offered for much more than they are worth, especially since they will lose money for the first number of turns), so it’s a matter of luck regarding when properties get auctioned and if you can afford it. The player who gets lucky and wins the first auction usually wins the game. In fact, the AI players usually just sit there with the same starting property, fully upgraded, since they have to wait twenty turns to accumulate enough cash to afford a new business. The shortest games last twelve and twenty-four turns, so not much will happen there. What you really need to do is sell existing properties to earn enough cash to purchase the next level of businesses; this is the only way to afford the first few months of large deficits. Unfortunately for just about everyone, the game never explicitly says to do this in either the tutorial or the non-existent manual, so I suspect that most people will just hold on to all of their properties for the duration of the game, just as I did. There’s a difference between having a difficult game and not fully explaining your game mechanics; Big$hot commits the second sin and does not repent.

IN CLOSING
Big$hot is too hard, too slow, and too repetitive. There would probably be a decent game here if overall strategy was explained to the player: you have to sell in order to buy, otherwise you’ll never have enough cash to advance to the next level of buildings. It took me a conversation with the developer to realize this, and not everyone is going to have that option to get the game personally explained to them. The tutorial and manual should make the gameplay crystal clear, but Big$hot lapses in this key area. Once you “get it” and realize that you have to sell in order to buy, Big$hot almost becomes enjoyable, though it’s still far from what I would call a great game. Big$hot lacks other key features in addition to the tutorial, such as multiplayer and the inability to change the starting game conditions. You aren’t given many options in improving your properties, and the only real strategic decision you have to make regarding upgrades is when to start advertising (usually when you have three stars for efficiency and quality). You need an insane amount of money to invest in additional property: why would I purchase a $500,000 company that will lose over $100,000 each month on top of the money I need to spend on upgrades (another $100,000 a month) until it starts to turn a profit in 3 months? That means you need about $1,300,000 to successfully buy a $500,000 business. So you sit there with the same one or two fully-upgraded properties, earning about $50,000 a turn, hitting “next turn” for ten, fifteen, twenty turns in a row (twenty-six, using my calculations). Not fun. What the developer wants you to do is sell your existing property and use your entire credit line to get that new business, but you still have to be really careful not to outpace your cash with your newly found debt. The tutorial completely ignores explaining this important game mechanic, so a lot of players will hold on to properties Monopoly-style, just as I did, and get easily beat by the AI. Once you make one bad move, the game is over, and this fine line between success and failure will probably turn off a lot of people: if you invest in a property without enough cash to upgrade it enough to turn a profit, you are screwed. I wonder why there aren’t properties that start out with at least some upgrades to decrease the exorbitant amount of money you lose when acquiring a new business. Big$hot is one of the most bipolar games I have covered in a while: there is some nice strategy involved in timing your purchases and auction acquisitions, but then you make one wrong purchase, run out of money, and quit the game in frustration. Big$hot needs a number of improvements, from a better tutorial that actually explains game strategy to a less precarious economy that is more forgiving to new players by reducing the initial costs associated with running a new business, in order to make it a complete title. For me, no sale.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Commander in Chief Review

Commander in Chief, developed by Eversim and published by IGS.
The Good: Very comprehensive simulation with numerous departments and settings, many scenarios and missions, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Overwhelming, pointless meetings with useless advisors, results of your actions are unclear, unfair “random” events, difficult to launch military operations, can’t search for online games, non-interactive tutorials, additional scenarios must be unlocked
What say you? Unexplained complexity interferes with potential fun in this global simulation: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
January 20, 2009, was a historic, landmark, monumental, and historic day (did I mention it was historic?). For the first time in American history, the President of the United States was...named “Barack.” But if you though it's smooth sailing for the next four years, full of “smiles” and “big ears,” you thought wrong: running a country is hard work. Commander in Chief allow you to step into the president's shoes and take the helm of any nation in today's volatile world (it's totally going to vaporize). This is an updated version of the Geo-Political Simulator that released in Europe about six months ago, and it's arrived here in the U.S. just in time for the typical two-week fascination with the new president. There have been a growing number of games granting you total control, from the near-future in Supreme Ruler 2020 to the not-near-past in Europa Universalis III. Commander in Chief certainly has depth (you can set the percentage of your budget dedicated to cryptography), but does it deliver a playable, total package?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Commander in Chief are what I would term to be typical for the genre. In fact, Commander in Chief has a lot in common with the aforementioned Supreme Ruler 2020: you'll be staring at a satellite image of the world with 3-D buildings and units superimposed upon it. The map looks decent enough, although it loses a lot of detail when you zoom in, turning forested areas in a giant green mass. The interface of Commander in Chief runs the gamut from “excellent” to “not excellent.” There are a lot of maps to show pertinent information in an easy-to-understand color scheme (green=friendly, red=missile target), from military operations to weather and economy. You are also given the most important values on the main page: popularity, human development index (a real value calculated by the UN), population, and military strength. There are also icons that pop-up for important events, like requests from foreign and domestic dignitaries and natural disasters. With all of the information that Commander in Chief throws at you, the game does a decent enough job organizing it all. There are, of course, a couple of areas that could be improved, such as clicking on a portrait taking you to that person's department instead of a generally useless personal description. Still, I found Commander in Chief to be one of the easier games to navigate through in the genre. As for the sound, Commander in Chief offers up some patriotic music, a handful of notifications, and that's all: none of the information is voiced, making for an extravagant amount of reading. The graphics and sound in Commander in Chief delivers exactly what I expected, so nothing too surprising or disappointing here.

ET AL.
Commander in Chief lets you take control of any nation in 2009 and totally screw it up. The game comes with a number of scenarios and missions; this North American release comes with several missions that center around the United States. You can play the open-ended scenarios that usually let you pick any country, or the missions that focuses on a specific nation (or set of nations) with a particular objective. The objectives are usually some economic, military, or scoring goal that must be met in a given amount of time. While there are a lot of scenarios included with Commander in Chief, you must unfortunately unlock them by completing earlier missions. I paid for the game, I should be able to play it fully right out of the box! This isn’t some silly console game, after all. You are given some rudimentary customization options: your character name and portrait, game speed (from “slow” to “excruciatingly slow”), and whether your advisors’ attributes are randomized. Commander in Chief lets you play with a more tenuous scenario with fifteen other players online, but there is no way of searching for games (you have to know the IP address in advance), so this feature is only useable by the few people with friends (or weird people you met in online forums) who just happen to have this game.

Most of your time with Commander in Chief will be spent adjusting policies, and this is one area that the game excels: there is an exceedingly large number of things to change in the game. This is easily the most comprehensive global simulation I’ve ever seen, and the sheer number of options and settings available to you is staggering. Your country is spread among twenty-four departments, from industry and employment to justice and research. To understand just how comprehensive Commander in Chief is, I will now give some examples of the inane things you can change in the game: an audiovisual tax, salary for researchers, subsidizing grapes production, embargoing foreign fast food, hospital hygiene budget levels, establishing mandatory birth control, informational technology police budgets, regulating tourist visas, technical education training, combating animal dropping, handball support, and government funding of the circus. There are quite literally hundreds of programs in the game and you can tweak funding support to all of them. In addition to making budget changes, you can also enact new laws and start construction on appropriate items. The items are automatically placed in the target regions (a state or province) to reduce some micromanagement. The game does make all of this tweaking very easy, using star ratings for budgetary items and clearly-worded descriptions for potential legislative bills. Sadly, it takes a while to learn your way around the game, as the video, non-interactive tutorials and manual are both very light on the specifics of your departments and the settings available to you.

You will also have to make appointments and schedule meetings with your advisors and foreign leaders. You can do two meetings a day, although some encounters (like the G8 summit) take up an entire day. Your options are surprisingly limited: you can offer them coffee, but you can’t ask them advice on specific issues. The meetings seem to be a veiled attempt at simply improving (or degrading) relations rather than getting useful feedback. Your advisors are completely useless, spouting vague “advice” such as “improve the economy” with no hints on how to do this. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the video tutorials and manual actually explained anything beyond the interface. Commander in Chief just throws you to the dogs and assumes you know how to pull a complex economy out of a recession. Sure, I can trade apples with Mongolia, but what effect this will have is totally unclear. It doesn’t help that things take a realistic amount of time to happen, so there can be a lot of waiting for the theoretical results of your actions. There is no point of speeding up the action, as simulating a week at one time takes just as long as fast-forwarding time. The military aspect of the game is useless as well: you are given land (jeep, tank, missile launcher), air (fighter, helicopter), and navy (carrier, nuke sub, conventional sub, cruiser) units that are located at bases, but you can’t use a selection box to choose things as more than one base, making large military operations impossible. Searching through every single military base in the U.S. and slowly moving units one base at a time? No thanks. This shows that the developers of Commander in Chief have no background in real-time strategy, as Supreme Ruler 2020 handles military operations much more smoothly. The AI doesn’t seem to run into the same problems, as you will be occasionally pestered with some illogical AI attacks by hostile but woefully underpowered nations. I realize that Iran and the United States have poor relations, but should I really expect an attack by Iranian forces on American soil? For a game that supposedly simulates the real world, this seems pretty outlandish.

IN CLOSING
Commander in Chief gives you a whole lot (that’s a technical term) of options covering every aspect of your nation, but then explains none of it. I had simply no idea where to start, and neither did my advisors! There are too many options with no explanation on what to do and when to do it, and since the results take a realistic amount of time to appear (if at all), you’re never really sure if you are doing a good job, or even if what you are doing is affecting your country at all. I’ve never played a game that allowed me to impose an embargo on compact disc manufacturing, but what’s the point if I’m not sure what altering that setting will do? Commander in Chief should be commended on offering so many options, but bigger is not always better. I don’t have a problem with this level of complexity, but it had better come with quality advice and complete tutorials, and Commander in Chief has neither. Commander in Chief has a lot of scenarios to choose from, but they must be unlocked and online play requires manual matchmaking. The military aspect of the game is very underdeveloped, making combat painful for large nations. Throw in some questionable “random” events that plague your nation with no indicated cause, perpetual social unrest, and natural disasters, and Commander in Chief is too much of a confusing mess to be enjoyable. You have to at least somewhat appreciate a game that lets you adjust government funding for both musical comedies and equestrian, but Commander in Chief is unwieldy and subsequently difficult to play thanks to inadequate documentation.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New Star Soccer 4 Review

New Star Soccer 4, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Plentiful options for skills enhancement and personal relationship growth, very addictive
The Not So Good: Simulating multiple countries is very time consuming, can’t start as a mid-level prospect to be more competitive early in your career, maintaining relationships is uninteresting, limited number of things to buy, disorienting camera issues with third-person view
What say you? A robust combination of life management and sports simulation: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The most popular worldwide sport is something called soccer. Yeah, I had never heard of it either. Apparently, you can’t use your hands and you run around for ninety minutes kicking a ball. Weird, huh? This activity has given rise to plenty of computer games, giving the less athletically inclined an opportunity to “head” some “balls” on a “pitch.” Most of these games fall into two categories: the arcade game (like Pro Evolution Soccer) or the management game (like the appropriately-named Football Manager). The New Star Soccer series takes a slightly different approach, giving you control over one player and guiding them to super stardom. The series in now in its fourth iteration (where have I been?) feature new 3-D graphics and a more polished presentation, or at least that’s what I can gather from screenshots. Hey, fourth time’s the charm, right?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The big difference between New Star Soccer 3 and New Star Soccer 4 is the inclusion of 3-D graphics. They aren’t great, but they are certainly better than old 2-D effects. In a game like this, I would most certainly have the basic 3-D graphics of New Star Soccer 4 than having to wrestle with the old 2-D presentation. The game features very repetitive player models (with only differences in hair, eye, and skin color) and very repetitive stadiums (probably no more than 3-5 total), but it does offer the player view which I enjoy a lot. This third-person perspective makes it feel like you are really a part of the game instead of some disembodied head floating above the action; if fits the point of the game very well. The view isn’t perfect: the camera always follows the ball, which makes control difficult when the action is close to you. I would like to have some sort of compromise between following the ball and always above and behind your player. The user interface is well-done, with intuitive icons and large text for easy identification; almost everything is accessible directly from a menu along the bottom of the page, a must for a management game such as this. While the sound effects are nothing special (the crowd noises are effective, however), the music is actually pretty good and very European. It puts me in a soccer mood, and I never turned it off. While New Star Soccer 4 can’t obviously compete with more expensively-produced competitors, I welcome the inclusion of simple 3-D graphics that help the gameplay more than they hurt.

ET AL.
The first thing you’ll need to do in New Star Soccer 4 is create a new player. In order to get the registration code to work correctly, you’ll have to name him after yourself, so there is some egotistical limitation at work here. You are given a good number of customization options, from basic things like age and position to height and weight that actually affect performance on the field. Although there is only one player model available in New Star Soccer 4, you can change the hair color, which makes the players on the field slightly more varied in appearance. Starting attributes also need to be set: pace, strength, vision, flair, passing, heading, control, and tackling are just some examples. Unfortunately, you cannot make anything more than a starting prospect, which would be fine if New Star Soccer 4 clearly indicated which clubs are intended for young, inexperienced players such as yourself. When choosing a starting club, I had absolutely no idea of the relative strength of your choices, a decision made more difficult because New Star Soccer 4 misspells all of the cities and team names by one letter to avoid copyright infringement. The game should either limit you to only choosing developmental, under-21 leagues to begin with, indicate the league clubs are in, or let you start with better initial statistics. It’s no fun being completely outmatched by every single other player on the field, and it’s no fun to constantly sit on the bench, losing precious practice time to increase your stats. This is one aspect of the game in clear need of revision. The game does include a lot of clubs to choose from (ironically part of the problem when choosing an appropriate team) from pretty much every country, and you could simulate a European league if you choose. However, simulating all of the games across multiple countries takes an extremely long amount of time, even on fast computers, so it’s not recommended.

You will most likely spend an equal amount of time actually playing soccer as you will managing your life, and the off-the-field activities in New Star Soccer 4 make up a significant portion of the game. Your character is comprised of many different traits that affects his performance on the field, such as the character traits (ego, flamboyance, intelligence). Health is rated according to your energy level (depleted by practice or games) and free time (depleted by socializing) and other attributes like confidence (in direct relation to performance on the field), gambling, alcohol, and artificial enhancers; the last three attributes can build up over time and turn into addictions, which is a neat (and disturbingly realistic) feature. You can spend time training to increase your stats in specific areas (passing, shooting) by maneuvering around or shooting at cones or do full practice games either indoors or outdoors. Every time you perform a task (such as a shot or a tackle), your rating in that area increases. This RPG-like approach to character development is thought out well, although true progress does occur very, very slowly. You can also purchase gym equipment to increase strength or endurance capabilities. You must be careful training, as your energy decreases and you need it to be at a maximum in order to perform at your best on game day.

In addition to worrying about your stats, you will also have to maintain relationships with a variety of groups. You will have to balance your boss, the team, your fans, sponsors, media, family, friends, and your significant other and offspring. This sounds more interesting than it actually is: all you need to do is select one group per day and the game randomly decides whether your relationship improves or not. It would have been a lot better if New Star Soccer 4 would have included some mini-game (like it does for field training) instead of arbitrarily assigning a percentage increase with no skill involved whatsoever. Maybe for New Star Soccer 5. You will also manage your income, assigning a percentage of your funds to your family, friends, lifestyle, and charity. You can also purchase vehicles, property, and gym equipment, but that’s all: this part of the game could have certainly included more variety. Lastly, you can do some gambling on the side at the casino (complete with blackjack, roulette, and slot machines) or at the track with horses. Both of these are mildly interesting diversions from the base game, and you can earn (but most likely lose) a lot of money. Even with all of these options, though, the game still gets repetitive after a couple months of playing. There are only so many times you can jump rope or socialize with your team (a simple button press) before it gets boring. Since your character grows so slowly (albeit realistically), New Star Soccer 4 becomes somewhat of a grind and less interesting overall.

New Star Soccer 4 is a soccer game, too. The games seem to be realistic, at least from the perspective of someone who has a limited knowledge of soccer. I did discover that I really suck at playing soccer: controlling just one person is very different from an entire team. It helps if you are very familiar with soccer, as you really need to know what your role is in the game and where you should be on the field. Since stat increases are based on your performance, not knowing what you are doing will hurt your stats further because your AI teammates will eventually just not pass the ball your way because you suck. Controlling a goalkeeper is not very interesting because saves are automatic (you just need to be near the ball and your stat ratings do the rest), but a “regular” player delivers a more exciting experience. While the soccer matches are not as good at the Pro Evolution series of games, they do hold their own and the AI helps to create believable games. New Star Soccer 4 is pretty fun to play and just controlling one player delivers a different experience compared to more traditional soccer titles. There is certainly an addictive nature to the game, as you (very) slowly develop your character from bench-warmer to international superstar.

IN CLOSING
New Star Soccer 4 is a great template for a game, and it has some great features (as you would expect in a fourth iteration) but still falls short in some other areas. This is a common issue with independently-developed titles: the features are just not as well-rounded as products with a larger team behind it. Of course, with the fourth edition of any game we should expect more of a well-rounded experience. New Star Soccer 4 has robust options for creating and developing your character, from practice to training to relationships with others. This RPG-like mechanic produces an intimate connection with your character and you are intrinsically motivated to develop them further. It would help, then, if New Star Soccer 4 was more complete. First, the game lacks a clear indication of under-21 or developmental teams (if there are any at all), so you will spend your first years a crappy player among much better players, and I suspect a lot of people will get turned off by how horrible you are, comparatively speaking. An alternative solution would be to start out as a better player initially, but that option is not present. It also takes a long time to develop your character, a combination of slow developmental times and long load times as results from other leagues are simulated. If you invest in a game of New Star Soccer 4, realize that you are here for the long haul. While New Star Soccer 4 gives you a lot of things to do during your soccer career, maintaining relationships is just a button press and there isn’t much to use your funds on outside of cars and gambling. I am thankful that New Star Soccer 4 is presented in 3-D, but the third-person view needs some additional work to make it less disorienting. Despite the shortcomings that I have mentioned, New Star Soccer 4 is still a good game that offers a refreshing combination of sports game, management title, and RPG-like character development.

Monday, February 02, 2009

ParaWorld Gold Edition Review

ParaWorld Gold Edition, developed by SEK and published by Sunflowers and Deep Silver on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Unique unit organization and upgrades, many heroes with varied skills, hostile and friendly NPC dinosaurs, custom starting troops for skirmish and multiplayer games, three online modes
The Not So Good: Overly strong unlimited defenses, derivative mechanics, can’t select buildings with ease, uninteresting linear campaign
What say you? A solid real-time strategy game highlighted by streamlined unit organization: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As a trained geophysicist, I took a couple of classes on paleontology and found it mildly interesting. The courses focused more on boring invertebrates instead of the real attention-grabber of the field: dinosaurs. Those lumbering beasts used to dominate the Earth, until it got too cold for those sissies. We’ve previously encountered the noble sport of killing dinosaurs, so now it’s time to make them do our bidding in the real-time strategy game ParaWorld. This game actually came out in 2006, but I never reviewed it (although I requested a copy multiple times) and only sampled the demo, so it’s new to me. Plus, this is the gold edition, which means it must be super-mega-awesome (or it comes with some new units and maps). Let’s take a field trip 65 million years into the past (remember to pack a bag lunch!) and see where ParaWorld stacks up in the strategy game lineup.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a game that came out 2 ½ years ago, ParaWorld holds up well. From a zoomed out perspective, the game looks nice: the landscape does evoke a prehistoric feel, with lots of tropical plants and rustic terrain. The dinosaur models are good: it’s fairly easy to identity a species based on looks alone. Up close, though, the game loses out to more modern RTS games, as the textures are very blurry and the models could use more detail. ParaWorld is also one of the only games I can remember that actually uses fog for a fog of war, blanketing the unknown landscape and giving a creepy, primitive feel to the game. I obviously wasn’t impressed by the graphics, but they look like a upper-echelon game from two years ago, and that’s enough for me. The sound design isn’t as impressive. There aren’t enough dinosaur sounds, as the battles consist of a bunch of grunting and metal clashing effects. The voice acting is also sub-par: the main character uses “cool” dialogue like “bro” and “peeps.” Yes, he actually says “peeps.” The background music is generic at best, rounding out disappointing auditory effects. Still, though, for a game that’s been around for a couple of years, ParaWorld is definitely bearable, and it obviously runs well on modern hardware.

ET AL.
How do you put modern people in a setting with dinosaurs? Well, the whole experimental island has been done before, so the next logical step is….time portal! Or something like that; I usually skipped the cut scenes. I mean, who cares? It’s freakin’ dinosaurs! The single player campaign follows the main storyline, where you align with three native tribes and fight the evil corporation (of course there is an evil corporation). It is completely linear and typically involves the same objective: destroy the enemy base. The campaign awards points for getting main and side quests, and if you accumulate enough points, you unlock the next mission. That’s kind of cool, but since the sequence is linear, it’s mostly meaningless other than giving you some sort of motivation to complete side quests. There’s nothing too innovative here in the campaign, so it’s time to move on to multiplayer. Eight players can engage in three modes: deathmatch, defender (one versus all), and domination (control a single point for ten minutes straight). You can also play the same game modes against the AI in skirmish play. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nobody playing online (the game comes with GameSpy Arcade integrated), but I suppose that’s not terribly surprising considering how old the game is. There is a nice selection of maps to choose from (around 30), and ParaWorld allows you to select your starting units with the army builder. This is about the only innovative aspect to the skirmish/multiplayer modes: you can opt for a bunch of low-level builders, high-level heroes and mounted units, or a mix of both. The server can impose a credit limit to prevent super-power combinations or make everyone use the same setup. I like the army builder and I’m surprised other games haven’t stolen the idea.

Oh, before I forget: you may have noticed that this is the “gold” version of ParaWorld. So what makes it gold? New units (two) and heroes (two), buildings (one), and maps (seven). That sounds about right for a “gold” edition, which is typically more of a patch than a full-fledged expansion. If you have the original ParaWorld, there is absolutely no reason to upgrade to the gold edition of the game, but if you missed out on the title the first time around (like I did), then go right ahead and go for the gold.

Easily the most innovative feature of ParaWorld is the army controller. All of your units are listed in the bottom-left corner of the screen and organized according to level. You can click and drag units around to organize them more effectively. Unit icons in the army organizer display an icon showing what they are doing (attacking, collecting a specific resource, idle) and their health. It’s a great tool, and while other games are now incorporating this bit of technology, the army controller is still a great feature and it makes managing your forces a piece of cake. Of course, sticking your forces in a set hierarchy means you are limited in the maximum number of units allowed: you are given twenty-five level 1 units, fifteen level 2, eight level 3, three level 4, and one level 5. This fifty-two unit limit is as big as your army will get, and with typically ten worker units to keep your economy humming, your army will never reach large levels. This would be fine if the enemy defenses weren’t so strong. Units are promoted to the next level by spending skulls earned by attacking neutral and enemy troops; you can promote a unit by simply right-clicking on them in the army controller. Since units automatically reheal when they level up, it’s better to wait until units are almost defeated before upgrading them. With the awesome army manager, it is quite surprising that buildings are not organized in the same way: it can be very difficult to find unit-producing buildings (or anything else, for that matter) because they are not displayed in a “building controller” or even accessible with hotkeys. I’m used to pressing “TAB” or “X” or something along those lines (as in Rise of Nations) to access buildings, but ParaWorld requires you to actually move the camera back there (blasphemy!). It’s really an odd missing feature considering how well the unit management works.

In addition to regular troops, there are ten heroes with unique abilities to choose from. The hero abilities get better as they level up and the variety is very nice: there is essentially a hero for every play style and unit, and it’s just a matter of reading the manual and figuring out which hero is right for you. For some examples, James Warden is strong against animals and provides an animal production bonus, while the Governor is strong against buildings and can allow worker units to cause more damage. They are well balanced and support every play style that comes to mind.

There are three friendly sides in ParaWorld, each of which is best for a slightly different strategy: there is the defensive side, the ranged side, and the fast side. ParaWorld is at its heart a very conventional strategy game: you collect resources with workers (wood, stone, food), construct buildings, raise an army, and go raise some hell! There are a couple of wrinkles added to the equation, such as food being collected from killed neutral dinosaurs roaming around. Resources are finite, so you will normally have two or three functional bases scattered around the map (another reason why the lack of a “building controller” is troubling) to keep collecting at a maximum. You have both a resources and population cap, and both can be increased by constructing the appropriate buildings. New epochs can be researched to unlock higher-level units (and allow for units to become higher-level). There are also artifacts scattered around the map that can give small bonuses to the troops that carry them. The setting is a cheap hook, as the dinosaurs don’t add as much innovation as they should: they are really just a simple replacement for horses or tanks seen in other games. The neutral dinosaurs do add another element to the game, however, as you can be fighting environmental dinosaurs for food and skulls and then the enemy shows up and chaos becomes the rule. The AI seems to be quite solid, putting up a good fight on higher difficulty settings in both the campaign and in skirmish modes. I am not sure if this is due to any increased resource gathering rates to compensate for truly higher intelligence, but a challenge is always welcome. Probably the biggest issue with ParaWorld has to do with the strong defenses in the game. While there is a unit cap, there is not a defenses cap, so ParaWorld can devolve into a stalemate where neither side can break through the enemy stronghold. The defenses should just be a deterrent and not be that effective against a large, organized army, but even strong, higher-level troops will become commonly defeated, and damaged defenses can be cheaply resurrected before you can raise another set of troops. Sigh.

IN CLOSING
While there isn’t anything fundamentally different from other real-time strategy games in ParaWorld, the setting hooks you and the unit management makes it stand out. I like how the units are organized; although it limits the number of troops, it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make for a vast reduction in micromanagement. Upgrading units and the numerous hero units is a simple affair and a significant strategic element to the game. The units, despite the exotic setting, are standard fare: dinosaurs simply replace the tanks or horses or other mounted troops you find in any typical strategy game. I do like the NPC dinosaurs roaming the landscape that can be harvested for food, though. The three online game modes and customized starting troops would be a great feature if people actually still played ParaWorld online, but the skirmish AI does a competent enough job. There are a couple of shortcomings in the game: the campaign is bland (not that I play campaigns in strategy games very much), building selection doesn’t incorporate the army organization tool, and (most importantly) defenses are way too powerful and effective. Defenses should be a deterrant, not something capable of eliminating an entire army as they (as little as four concentrated arrow towers) can certainly do in ParaWorld. Still, ParaWorld is one of those games that I intend on keeping installed after I am done with the review, which is the highest accolade a game can receive.