Friday, August 28, 2009

Angle of Attack Review

Angle of Attack, developed and published by 3000AD.
The Good: Fun flight combat, online multiplayer, sixteen scenarios with four planes
The Not So Good: No scenario editor, nothing sets it apart from AAW
What say you? This is content that should have been included with All Aspect Warfare: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The strongest aspect (ha ha!) of All Aspect Warfare was the flight combat, where the combat was intense and the sky was the limit, with none of the limitations of the ground-based mode (AI, base design). Released concurrently was Angle of Attack, a stand-alone combat flight simulation that takes place in the same setting as All Aspect Warfare. Basically, it's a slightly-more-than-$20 mission pack for those who enjoy the planes more than the shooting. Does the content justify charging an additional sum for Angle of Attack, or should it have been included in All Aspect Warfare to begin with?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Graphics and sound in Angle of Attack are indistinguishable from those in All Aspect Warfare. This comes as no surprise, as the games were developed simultaneously and share common resources. I found performance to be quite better in the air than on the ground, so Angle of Attack should run smoothly on a wider range of machines than All Aspect Warfare did. Other than that, I can be lazy and just copy and paste my comments from my All Aspect Warfare review! Enjoy:
The graphics of All Aspect Warfare Angle of Attack are distinctly improved over previous 3000AD efforts, and parts of the game easily compete with any top-flight flight simulator. While the interiors of the buildings are bland, each vehicle and plane has a slightly different arrangement and the 3-D cockpits look good. The visual style is distinctive, creating a plausible space setting overall. The terrain of the planet changes with latitude, creating varied environments in which to blow stuff up. All Aspect Warfare also has dynamic weather and time-of-day effects to further increase the realism. Sound is slightly worse off, as in-game dialog is not voiced and the background music is repetitive (but effective at getting you PUMPED). Weapons and planes have appropriate effects, rounding out an effective presentation that exceeded expectations based on previous efforts.

ET AL.
Not surprisingly, most of Angle of Attack is identical to the flight simulation half of All Aspect Warfare, so really the only reason to get this over the other (since All Aspect Warfare also includes first person combat) is if the sixteen scenarios are good. But, there are not noticeably better or different from the aerial portion of All Aspect Warfare. There isn't a story mode, as all sixteen scenarios are unlocked from the beginning. Objectives are either intercepting incoming enemy aircraft or destroying land-based targets. You can change your loadout to fit the mission parameters, but you must memorize the role of each of the exotically named missiles and bombs (or print out the appropriate page in the user's manual). There are four planes to choose from that fly a bit differently, and you'll probably find one that fits your style the best. In addition to the sixteen missions, you can invade enemy air space in the sandbox mode; enemy units will never attack unless provoked by entering their airspace, so there is no real reason to play it. The lack of a scenario editor is quite disappointing, especially when you consider the large world Angle of Attack takes place in. You can jump online and undertake sixteen-player deathmatch and team-deathmatch modes, in addition to four-player cooperative play on any of the scenarios. The robust multiplayer options are quite the nice feature.

Controls in Angle of Attack are fairly intuitive for a flight simulator. Since the game lacks an interactive tutorial, you will have to consult the manual and print out the game keys document for easy reference (or read the PDF files in-game). All of the planes feature vertical take off and landing, which makes these events trivially easy. The HUD provides pertinent information on your aircraft: speed altitude, shields, and armor. The game has, like most combat flight sims, a damage model that disables semi-random systems for disconcerting crippled flight. Finding enemy targets is done by using the navigation map and radar display, and targets can be cycled using the keyboard or joystick. While you can target the closest enemy or attacker with a hotkey, going through a giant contact list could be easier. The use of crazy acronyms is thankfully at a minimum in Angle of Attack, which makes the game far more approachable than a hardcore flight sim.

Combat is a pleasingly chaotic affair, with warnings blaring (for launched missiles and being tracked by the enemy) and missiles flying. The weapons you can equip each has a specific role, either engaging air or ground targets, and firing these weapons is a straightforward affair. You can issue commands to wingmen to escort or attack, but the scenarios usually start with them already engaged in combat, so they can normally be left to their own devices for the most part. The AI is quite adept at flying, as they attempt to get into proper position for an attack and avoid incoming missiles effectively. It takes real skill to successfully take down enemy forces. Angle of Attack isn't difficult to learn or control, but it can be difficult to finish a mission successfully because of the competent and plentiful AI pilots.

IN CLOSING
Angle of Attack places itself in a tricky situation, as it offers a fraction of the gameplay of All Aspect Warfare and replaces it with more scenarios. Unfortunately, these scenarios are not enough to justify paying $20-plus, especially if you own All Aspect Warfare already, as they offer up the same type of combat we've experienced already. Those who enjoy flight simulations but not first person shooters might opt for getting Angle of Attack by itself, and in that case I would recommend it, as it does provide some exhilarating combat and controls that are intuitive enough (especially when compared against 3000AD's previous titles). As I stated in my review of All Aspect Warfare, the flight simulation aspects of that game were superior to the ground-based combat, so you are getting the best All Aspect Warfare has to offer. However, I can't help but feel that you're getting less than half the game. Multiplayer is a nice feature with cooperative and competitive play online, but the scenarios are nothing special. Frankly, Angle of Attack should have been either included in All Aspect Warfare, or offered as a $10 micro-expansion, rather than a $20-plus stand-alone title.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bad Rats Review

Bad Rats, developed and published by Invent4 Entertainment.
The Good: Numerous rat types and objects, varied difficulty levels with solutions for every puzzle, disturbingly violent, lengthy for the really cheap price
The Not So Good: Slightly inconvenient interface, no level editor, 2-D maps get slightly repetitive
What say you? A pleasantly bloody physics puzzle game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The historical struggle between cats and mice has been well documented, from Tom and Jerry to Warehouse Mouse and the Imagination Movers. While cats always had the size advantage, mice excelled in being sneaky and hiding in walls. Now, the playing field has been severely tipped in the rodent direction with Bad Rats. Equipped with weapons and other special abilities, it's just a matter of time before cats blow up in this physics-based puzzle game. This concept obviously has wide appeal: I mean, who hasn't wanted to microwave a cat using a Rube Goldberg device?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Though the game takes place in two dimensions, Bad Rats features 3-D graphics that look pretty good for an independent game. All of the rat models are inventive and well animated (and a little offensive, in the case of the suicide bomber), and the cat deaths are amusingly violent affairs. The puzzles take place in the same warehouse setting, which does tend to get repetitive after a while. The sound effects are basic, with appropriate sounds for each in-game event (explosions, for example) and subtle background music. While I was not impressed with the presentation, Bad Rats does a decent enough job providing a cartoon-inspired atmosphere.

ET AL.
Bad Rats involved subjecting cats to unspeakable evils by guiding a ball towards their chosen path to death. Decapitating cats was never so much fun! The game has a satisfactory amount of content from the low, low price of $5: forty-four levels. Some of the levels don't take too long to complete, under a minute for a superstar such as myself, but things get tougher as you progress through the game. They become slightly repetitive after a while, since the 2-D nature of the map design tends to get old: there are only so many ways you can bounce a ball over an obstacle towards a microwave with a cat inside. The lack of a level editor is somewhat surprising, since you would think it'd be rather straightforward to make some 2-D creations. You can compare your scores on the Internet against other cat murderers, and there are some Steam achievements to be had. The game does not automatically save your progress, but provides a password to access unlocked levels; it's easier just to manually save your progress. Bad Rats features two difficulty levels, and “easy” gives you hints towards a solution by restricting the pieces you have to play with and displaying proper positions for those pieces. Since the hints tell you where to place things but not specifically what to place, it strikes a nice balance between being helpful and giving the answers away. There are typically only one or two solutions, but since the game suggests them, I don't have a huge problem with the lack of total flexibility.

Bad Rats is like Lemmings, but way more violent. You will place various objects around the room in order to trigger a bomb/microwave/machete/chainsaw that causes a cat to meet untimely death. The interface could use some more polish: all of the objects are located below the map off-screen; accessing them requires you to constantly pan up and down, which gets annoying. Objects can be rotates and flipped by right-clicking on them in order to get the angles correct. There are ten rat types, including suicide bombers, rocketeers, archers, and fat rats. In addition, you get typical physics-based items like crates, drums, and planks. The physics are executed well, with plausible results from your open-ended creations. Some of the puzzles require very specific solutions with exact timing, so it can get frustrating after a while. Still, the game has a solid base and introduces some unique elements.

IN CLOSING
Bad Rats is a good puzzle game. While the basics of the game have been done numerous times before, triggering events using contraptions and physics, the unique rat abilities and unnecessary feline violence make the game stand out. The game is very cheap at only $5, and for that price you get forty-four levels: a good value. The game lacks a level editor, some that would have been possible given the game's 2-D puzzles, but there is enough content here to certainly justify that bargain price. The varied rats and their abilities make for some unique solutions, all of which are outlined at the easy difficulty setting to reduce frustration significantly. The interface could be easier to use, as all of your objects are inconveniently off-screen and require constant panning of the camera to access. The graphics and sound design are solid enough, and the realistic physics round out a solid puzzling package. Puzzle fans should certainly check out this title for a very small monetary investment.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces Review

Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces, developed and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Lengthy new campaign, plentiful single scenarios and quick battle maps, new British military toys
The Not So Good: Pathfinding and movement issues still remain, $25 is a bit too much
What say you? The second module is a lot like the first: content heavy but pricey: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While the American military typically gets most of the attention in the world of computer gaming, there are other important nations on the Allied side of things, like Australia. But since they aren't dumb enough to invade Syria, it's time for some British Forces! The second expansion (module) to Combat Mission: Shock Force puts an ol' English spin on the give-orders-and-kill-people tactical strategy game. The previous module (expansion), Marines, added a new campaign, some stand-alone scenarios, and new weapons and vehicles for a slightly inflated price. Are the Brits any different?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
If you have seen or heard any of the previous Combat Mission: Shock Force games, then you know what to expect here. All of the British vehicles look very good up close, although admittedly you'll spend most of the game zoomed out. The special effects are the same, with tracer rounds screaming across the landscape and smoke-filled explosions dotting the map. The scenarios take place in some of the most realistic looking maps the series has seen; although Syria is not the most visually stimulating location in the world, the designs offer some good tactical gaming. Sound effects and background music remain the same, using the same sounds from American vehicles for their British counterparts.

ET AL.
As with the Marines module, the focus of Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces is on the new campaign. It seems the Brits didn't want to feel left out and joined in the American-led invasion of Syria. Like the previous games, the campaign is a series of interconnected missions rather than a story-driven affair, although units carry over and the order in which you play the missions is determined by your level of success. The scenarios are well-designed, assault-heavy missions (better suited for the AI) across a variety of open and urban environments; they offer a high level of challenging difficulty that's suited well for the fans of the series that would be interested in this game. In addition to the main campaign, there are thirty stand-alone scenarios suitable for games against the AI and human opponents. For those who want a more random gaming experience, there is also a rather healthy 226 quick battle maps to choose from. British Forces adds 27 to the total, which is 185 or so more than when the original game came out. It almost makes up for the lack of randomly generated maps (almost). Most people will be buying Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces for the new scenarios, and they are well designed and challenging for veteran players.

Controlling British Forces means you get to play with British stuff and use words like “armour” and “lift” and “fish and chips.” The order of battles are similar though some things are named differently; this has little impact on the actual gameplay, as changing the number of tanks or infantry in a section doesn't make a whole lot of difference. British armour seems to be less stout but slightly faster (this may be my eyes playing tricks on me), from the Challenger 2 tank to the Scimitar light tank and Sultan APC. Really, you could interchange the British units with American ones and most people won't notice any alteration in performance or capabilities. This goes for the weapons as well: the L85A2 rifle seems just as capable as the M16. For most people, I think the changes are purely cosmetic and certainly don't warrant a purchase solely based on the new hardware.

There are still a number of annoyances with Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces, made even more so because the developers continue to avoid fixing them. Pathfinding is still significantly problematic, as units refuse to use roads for faster travel unless explicitly told to do so; playing a recent tactical game such as World War II General Commander only highlights the shortcomings in this area. Getting units to move in formation requires you to manually move them first, and you can't scroll past the map edge to better visualize units placed near the border. AI has gotten continual improvements and is now capable of putting up a good attack in addition to a quality defense. I will also mention that I experienced a handful of lock-ups while playing, and since the game doesn't automatically save, hours of progress was instantly lost.

IN CLOSING
So here's the $25 question: are you willing to spend that much on a new campaign, 30 stand-alone missions, and a host of quick battle maps? I would feel a lot better if Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces was $5 to $10 less (I had the same opinion of the Marines module). The British forces of British Forces aren't terribly interesting or exotic, as they perform and behave much like their American counterparts; there aren't any drastic changes in tactics you need to make. The campaign is challenging fun and the missions and quick battle maps do make for a good increase in features, but the overall need to play this module (expansion) depends on how much you like Combat Mission: Shock Force in the first place. Personally, I have a hard time justifying the price when a lot of the basic interface and performance problems are still intact.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

All Aspect Warfare Review

All Aspect Warfare, developed and published by 3000AD on Gamer's Gate.
The Good: Huge planet with large-scale battles featuring lots of vehicle types, distinct visual style, varied soldier classes with unique items, 64-person multiplayer with competitive and cooperative modes, seamless campaign structure with no cut-scene or loading interruptions, much more intuitive than previous efforts
The Not So Good: Extremely high level of difficulty is discouraging, AI pathfinding issues when indoors, no scenario editor, bland base design and robotic enemy AI hinders shooting portion
What say you? Pleasing flight mechanics and passable FPS elements combine in this open-world futuristic military game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Open world games are all the rage these days, providing insanely large areas to explore and usually shoot people in. From racing games like FUEL to military simulations like ArmA II, restricting the player to a linear adventure is very passe. The latest game from PC stalwart Derek Smart (who gets needlessly attacked on many online forums, partly attributed to his frank comments and propensity to respond) combines flight simulation and first person shooting elements from his previous games Galactic Command and Universal Combat. Taking place on a single (but quite large) planet, you and your team are against all odds versus an alien foe that likes to shoot you without hesitation. Does All Aspect Warfare feature the deep but impenetrable gameplay of previous entries, or was 3000AD finally developed a game that's more appropriate for a larger audience?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of All Aspect Warfare are distinctly improved over previous 3000AD efforts, and parts of the game easily compete with any top-flight flight simulator or first person shooter. Highlights include the buildings and vehicles, as they both are very detailed and look quite nice. No two buildings look the same, and the vehicles are also varied and have some nice effects such as heat trails behind aircraft. While the interiors of the buildings are bland, each vehicle and plane has a slightly different arrangement and the 3-D cockpits look good. The visual style is distinctive, creating a plausible space setting overall. The terrain of the planet changes with latitude, creating varied environments in which to blow stuff up. All Aspect Warfare also has dynamic weather and time-of-day effects to further increase the realism. Bases do need more small objects, as there is really nothing between buildings other than the occasional boxcar and supply station: additional cover would also make the FPS mode more interesting. Still, I was quite satisfied overall with the graphics of the game. Sound is slightly worse off, as in-game dialog is not voiced and the background music is repetitive (but effective at getting you PUMPED). Weapons and planes have appropriate effects, rounding out an effective presentation that exceeded expectations based on previous efforts.

ET AL.
Being stranded on a hostile planet can mean only one thing: it is time to make things explode. The game features a sixteen-mission campaign that follows your deserted patrol of four as they fight from behind enemy lines. There is a story to follow, although since All Aspect Warfare lacks voice acting of any kind, you'll have to read along. The campaign takes about eight hours or so, depending on how often you die (usually a lot) and have to start a mission over. I died multiple times two minutes into the first scenario, as I was hit with a rocket from an unseen enemy. Nice. The missions themselves involve either infiltrating or escaping enemy bases, and eventually waging war against the enemy. Normally you will be assaulting enemy bases, defending friendly ones, tracking down important data, or scouting for friendly troops. You will also drive and pilot a variety of vehicles, and typically you will be given a choice as to which ones to commandeer. This is decent variety for a first person shooter, though the missions feature scripted enemy locations so replay value is lowered. Still, the open nature of the levels removes any linear restrictions to strategy, and there is usually more than one way to approach an objective. Unfortunately, the game could be more clear on what, exactly, your objectives are: you really have to pay attention to what your allies are saying through the subtitles, as the game only gives very vague directions on what to do and where to go. The equally vague HUD (with yellow circles of interest but no explanation on what they mean) and planetary map that doesn't zoom out far enough don't help matters. The missions themselves flow together seamlessly without load times or cut-scenes interrupting the action, promoting a realistic nature to the campaign. There is a time limit for each mission, and if you finish more quickly, you must wait around healing and buying shiny new guns (or leave the room and watch TV, as I did) until the preordained allotment has passed. Of course, the flip side is that the next mission starts whether you are ready or not, so I suppose it's better to have too much time than not enough. You can choose to be any of the four characters in each mission; they only vary on their weapon loadouts (which are customizable from a list). There are also two sandbox missions where you can fly around, although there is no real point to these as there are no objectives, dynamically generated or otherwise. Sixteen instant action missions round out the features package, although there are really nine that vary time of day or vehicles. The instant action missions are too instant, retaining the high difficulty of the story mode. What would be really cool is the ability to design quick battles: just place some forces for either side and let them at each other. It looks like the AI is in place to handle this kind of situation, but we are relegated to the instant action missions for more immediate conflict.

The game world of All Aspect Warfare is quite large: four hundred square miles of terrain covering a variety of climates. There is a lot of boring empty space between bases (there are no cities or points of interest), but not being restricted in your travels is a nice feature. The large distances between bases makes for long travel times if you don't teleport or fly, increasing the need for a skilled pilot. The map could also zoom out more to display far-away bases better. All Aspect Warfare allows you to set waypoints to assist in navigation and you can prioritize targets for your AI allies. Multiplayer features five modes of chaos: deathmatch, team deathmatch, competitive cooperative play (two teams of two trying to get more AI kills), tactical strike (destroy the enemy mobile base), base wars (combination of assault and domination: you must hold four places surrounding an enemy base for a minute), and nuclear winter (arm the opponent's weapon). The game supports sixty-four players on official servers that offer stat tracking (for experience points so that you can pilot advanced vehicles). You can add AI bots, but they will be hostile only and will spawn only when you enter an enemy base. While the instant action missions allow you to control any vehicle in the game, skirmish modes (and the campaign) require you to have enough experience to control advanced craft. In fact, marines aren't allowed to pilot the more sophisticated airplanes ever. While this is a realistic limitation that rewards in-game progress, you can be stuck without a pilot if you join an empty server. All Aspect Warfare does not have an interactive tutorial (which, considering the last one, is probably a good thing), so you need to print out the quick start guide, keyboard reference chart, and manual and read them in order to understand what's going on. Now, I will say that All Aspect Warfare is much easier to learn than previous 3000AD efforts, with a decreased number of crazy abbreviations and a more consistent interface between vehicles.

There are two main things you'll be doing in All Aspect Warfare: shooting (with some driving) and flying. The FPS aspect of the game is fairly conventional, although there are some unique features to reflect the futuristic setting. You are given a radar to locate infantry, ground, and air units, in place of a minimap. In addition, you get a medkit for health and fatigue, nutripacks for health, toolkits for armor, night vision binoculars, target designators (for AI pilots), shields, cloaking mechanisms, electromagnetic jammers, turrets, and repair units. Oh, and the jetpack, of course. In addition to all of these fun tools, you get a robust selection of weapons: four pistols, five assault rifles, two machine guns, three sniper rifles, three shotguns, two grenade launchers, three rocket launchers, and five grenades. Weapons of the same type vary according to damage and clip size. Most of these weapons require different kinds of ammunition, so you'll need to memorize the requirements or keep the list from the manual handy. Supply stations will automatically rearm and reheal you, though. To prevent against incoming rounds, All Aspect Warfare has four levels of armor (from kevlar to heavy) that absorb shots up to its limit. Head shots are always lethal, which makes quite a bit of sense. If you have enough experience, you can also construct aircraft and turrets at the aforementioned supply station. In order to traverse the large distances, you can use jump pads to instantly travel to any friendly or enemy base. It would be nice to teleport just outside of enemy bases, so that you aren't instantly inundated by enemy fire. The large distances between bases means that driving is essentially an impossibility, so you must load any vehicles (APCs, jeeps)you want onto a gunship (or tow it) and do it that way. The futuristic equipment enhancements make All Aspect Warfare a slight cut above cookie-cutter first person shooters.

Considering the pedigree of the developer, it's not surprising that flight in All Aspect Warfare is more enjoyable that ground-based combat. Pilots get an assortment of fighters, gunships, and shuttles to engage and eliminate the enemy, which vary according to speed, shields, armor, and radar range. The planes uses the same radar as the FPS mode, where you can cycle through targets and select enemies who are nearest or engaging you. Some missiles are fire-and-forget while others need a constant lock, and jamming is an effective counter to an incoming missile. The trade off is that employing your jammer removes any missile locks, basically putting you in a defensive mode. This makes for a pleasing game of when-to-deploy-countermeasures. You are given lots of information on enemy craft, including health, speed, and whether they are using countermeasures themselves. In the event that you are damaged, you can suffer partial or total loss of a number of systems, including the HUD, engines, weapons, or main computer. Another nice innovation is that all planes use vertical take off and landing, making these procedures a lot more straightforward. Flying around in All Aspect Warfare is pretty intuitive; it only took a couple of flights to get accustomed to the control scheme.

AI pilots are quite talented and effective foes, delivering some epic battles as you attack and defend bases around the planet. The infantry AI is hard to evaluate because of the lack of cover: they run towards you until they get into range, and then stop to increase accuracy. If the bases were more interesting, there might be some cool land battles with cover, grenades, flanking, and other assorted heroism. The AI lacks pathfinding for indoor areas (it's not even coded in the game), so it's smart to avoid these areas or your allies will be stuck on walls and doors. You can give you squad orders to escort, defend, attack, and proceed to a waypoint, but there are some limitations to the system, such as the inability to have order an AI pilot to fly you around. All Aspect Warfare has a high level of difficulty because of its realism: you are a small squad up against a foe with superior numbers, so it's not unexpected to die. A lot. The game can be discouraging, though, when you die in an instant action mission in the first ten or fifteen seconds (for the fifth time in a row). This is much more noticeable in the first person shooter aspects of All Aspect Warfare, where enemy units engage you from large distances with extreme accuracy. Because of this, the shooting is much less satisfying than the aerial combat. Multiplayer and the more scripted campaign missions counteract these shortcomings, and All Aspect Warfare is a game that will appeal to the veteran PC gamer.

IN CLOSING
All Aspect Warfare succeeds in being more approachable than previous entries by the developer while retaining rewarding, intense planetary combat. The flight simulation aspects of All Aspect Warfare are the strongest part of the game, attributed to a substantial pedigree: dogfighting and aerial combat are action-packed events with missiles flying and warnings beeping. There are a lot of vehicles to choose from, each with their own strengths. The initial learning curve has also been reduced, as All Aspect Warfare decreases the number of hotkeys and confusing abbreviations and makes flying actually straightforward for the most part. The first person shooter portion of All Aspect Warfare is less impressive, although it also has its highlights, namely the in-game items that grant neat powers like flight and cloaking. The FPS part falls short thanks to bland base design that lacks copious amounts of cover to make for more interesting encounters and simple yet inhumanly deadly AI (although the lack of said cover might explain this predictable behavior). That said, All Aspect Warfare is still a difficult game, usually because you are up against superior numbers (though the plot explains this) that are just as deadly accurate as you are. These superior numbers do make for some dramatically large battles that are a joy to watch, at least until you die. The axillary elements are mixed: large multiplayer battles with competitive and cooperative play are quite nice, but instant action battles usually result in quick death and the lack of an editor to create your own content cannot be ignored. The campaign story is just OK: the lack of voice acting really disconnects you from the characters and the missions themselves are typical action-oriented affairs with scripted enemy placements and rudimentary AI opponents. I like the freedom granted in the campaign missions, though, as you never feel restricted to a single approach or strategy. The lack of loading times or obvious transitions between missions is also a nice touch, as the fluidity of the campaign structures adds realism. But despite having a huge world to play in, having a large-scale battle of predominantly AI troops is an impossibility outside of the fixed scenarios. While the level of difficulty might reserve All Aspect Warfare for the elite player, there is still a lot to like about the game for fans of both flight simulators and action games.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 Review

Bookworm Adventures Volume 2, developed and published by PopCap Games.
The Good: Timed arena mode, new mini-games and treasures
The Not So Good: Lacks any dramatic or innovative improvements that alter basic gameplay strategy, woefully underdeveloped companions
What say you? Insignificant enhancements makes this word-building game only for extreme fans of the series that need a repeat performance: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Word games resides in a comfy niche within the casual gaming genre, certainly not as popular as match-tree or click management titles because they require actual thought instead of simple reflexes and very basic strategy. Probably the most famous name in this sub-genre is the Bookworm series of games, with the last iteration Bookworm Adventures coming out two years ago. Well, it's time for PopCap to cash in and for you to pony up another $20 for the sequel: Bookworm Adventures Volume 2. What changes, if any, have the developers cooked up for us?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
There has been no perceivable change in graphics at all. The low-resolution, 2-D graphics from the original game are retained. The new enemies and characters you encounter have the same sporadic animations as before. Special effects are not that spectacular, and zooming in during the equivalent of a fatality only serves to highlight the low-resolution nature of the character models. The sparse nature of the graphics might allow for the game to work on a wide range of machines, but there are more imaginative alternatives for a 2-D presentation. The audio is the same level of quality as well: while none of the dialogue is voiced (still), I found the background music to be quite pleasing and the effects are helpful. At least some changes in graphics would be expected in a sequel, but nothing of note has been added to Bookworm Adventures Volume 2.

ET AL.
Not surprisingly, the basics of the game haven't changed at all: spell words from a set of sixteen letters in order to defeat various literary foes. The longer your words and the more exotic the letters you choose, the more effective your attacks will be. The game features thirty levels spread equally across three books; this offers about six hours of gameplay or so, nothing terrible for a casual game. You will encounter various characters ripped from famous storybooks, which is both a nice feature and the source for a lot of the game's humor. You cannot save your progress during a single level; although most encounters only last around 15 minutes or so, something you just have to leave. The different levels don't impact the actual gameplay at all, so it's a purely cosmetic feature. Additionally, there is an arena mode, which introduces a time limit; this is the most significant change to the game, and it's still a very basic addition. You can also play a single book until you die, another unimpressive new feature. During your adventures you can play two new mini-games to get additional potions for the main game for a change of pace. The game is completely mouse-driven with no keyboard support: a strange omission for a word-making game, although I suppose the use of repeated letters in a single set is the justification for this shortcoming.

The auxiliary gameplay features are all the same as last time around: scrambling to get new letters, leveling up to improve health and attacks, potions, and colored tiles. So what's new, and do they make the game worth buying? There are twenty new treasures and companions to accompany you. You can choose two treasures and one companion for each level; they do things like increase attacks or decrease enemy abilities, much like spells in a role-playing game. Having twenty new ones is nice and all, but not a noticeable change. And the companions are the same as having an additional treasure: disappointing, as I was expecting some sort of team-based element introduced into the game. Lastly, there are wild card tiles that are formed by using three different colored tiles in a word. And that's it.

IN CLOSING
This is all they could think of in two years? There is an extreme feeling of deja vu (hey, OpenOffice, where are my accent marks?!) while playing Bookworm Adventures Volume 2, mainly because I've already done this before. The enjoyable nature of the base game is still intact, but you need to offer important new features in a sequel to make it worth buying. Thirty new levels play the same as the thirty old levels. The infinite replay and timed arena modes are lukewarm additions. You probably won't even notice the twenty new treasures, and wild card tiles are rare enough to ignore for most players. Companions, which could have been really cool cooperative, tactical allies, are instead disappointingly limited potion factories. I was imagining that you could tell them powers to use each turn, much like the enemies use against you, but apparently this level of sophistication is beyond the Bookworm universe. Nothing Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 offers makes it worth getting; you are better off sticking with the original game since everything of importance was done exactly the same before.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Hearts of Iron 3 Review

Hearts of Iron 3, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Quality interface with structured access to units, optional computer control of entire theaters, custom division design, instantaneous bonuses from enacted laws, comprehensive technology tree with nation-specific bonuses, reduced production and research time for commonly created units, detailed game map, advanced logistics and supply model, useful specific naval and air orders, realistic weather system, robust yet streamlined enemy intelligence options, multiplayer, easy to modify
The Not So Good: Excessively slow and laggy game performance, peacetime is rather boring, starting dates restricted to key events, complexity may scare off more timid novices
What say you? Comprehensive yet user friendly, significant interface upgrades and optional AI automation makes this a more accessible grand strategy title: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I'll be frank (you can choose any name you would like for yourself): I never really liked the Hearts of Iron series. It was too overwhelming, with tons of units strewn over a huge map (you know, the Earth). The amount of micromanagement required to put together a decent attack was above and beyond my level of comprehension. Did I mention there were too many freakin' units? Anyway, the lessons learned in personal-favorite Europa Universalis III have migrated their way over to World War II in the form of Hearts of Iron 3. New features include an enhanced interface, including the useful outliner, and optional automation of entire theaters of units, just in case you want to ignore the Pacific Ocean (what has it done for me lately?). Do these changes make the game more approachable to a broader audience?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As with Europa Universalis III, Hearts of Iron 3 makes the transition to 3-D graphics with average results. The map terrain is decent enough and the animated units look fine though a bit stiff. I suspect most people will be playing using the NATO counters anyway, so the simplistic nature of the 3-D models aren't that much of an issue. There is a good variety in nation-specific textures, though. Combat effects are non-existent, but you can imagine the chaos of battle based off the sound design. Fitting background music accompanies the sounds of war. The most significant improvement in the realm of graphics is the introduction of a lot of the interface innovations Europa Universalis III brought to the table, most significantly the outliner. This listing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen displays all of your units in their order of battle hierarchy; you can expand the list much like a file browser to see how units are organized. It's a great system and makes controlling a huge army actually possible. You are also given alerts (like not using all of your industrial capacity) and icons diplomatic offers. Hearts of Iron 3 also has an impressive array of map display modes, from weather to supply and infrastructure. The presentation is not all wine and roses, however, as the game's performance leaves a lot to be desired. During moments of heavy combat, the game slows down considerably; this isn't a huge issue, except that there is significant lag as you navigate around the map. One moment you will be scrolling through Greece and the next you are near Finland. This extends to performing and in-game actions, like orders and trades and the like. It can get quite annoying. I have also experienced a handful of lock-ups at random times during play, usually right after a major military victory yet right before I save my progress. Overall, nothing in Hearts of Iron 3 is surprising in terms of the visuals, delivering what you would expect in the next entry for this grand strategy series.

ET AL.
Hearts of Iron 3 is a real-time grand strategy game that takes place during World War II (also known as World War I Was Too Much Fun, So Let's Do It Again). You are given seven starting dates of importance to choose from between 1936 and 1944. They are not evenly distributed, as I would like to have something in 1937 in order to skip some of the initial build-up boredom. The game map has an impressive level of detail with over 10,000 land provinces all over the Earth. Included in this disturbing attention to realism are all the orders of battles for each country, which are seemingly realistic from my novice historical perspective. Hearts of Iron 3 also has an impressive weathter system with fronts that move across the continents and appropriate temperature ranges for each season in every province. In addition to single player action against the AI, you can go online using Paradox's metaserver and find others to play nicely with. I'm not one that has enough spare time to join and maintain an online match, but it's nice the feature is there for those with high interest in the game. Hearts of Iron 3 also comes with a suite of non-interactive tutorials that play out like slide shows, narrated (in text only) by a certain German leader. They cover the basics of the game, but you are better off reading the manual and strategy guide in order to figure out what exactly is going on (everybody loves reading!). The game has several levels of difficult that grants economic penalties on you or the AI in order to adjust your competitiveness. Like other Paradox games, Hearts of Iron 3 is easily modified by making adjustments to the text files; one suspects mods will appear shortly.

Hearts of Iron 3 features three main sides with differing political ideologies: the Axis, the Allies, and the Comintern. The side with the most victory points when time runs out “wins,” although in war everyone loses. Except for the winners. They win. Nations will tend to drift towards a particular faction, and a triangle shows the current status of all countries, though it tends to get a bit crowded. Diplomacy is mainly used to trade for resources, as most (if not all) nations have at least one resource they are lacking. All resources are traded for money, rather than resource-for-resource; the interface does a good job letting you filter countries by faction and sort them according to resource surplus or deficit. You are also given a number of political actions, from declaring war to asking for transit rights and guaranteeing independence. The diplomatic options aren't terribly deep, but provide decent enough choices to keep your economy humming along.

All of those precious resources (energy, metal, rare materials, and oil) are used to produce industrial capacity, the catch-all value for making things: upgrades, reinforcements, supplies, new units, and consumer goods. Your industrial capacity is determined by the number of factories contained in your provinces, in addition to being altered by laws and cabinet members. Most of your industrial capacity will be used to produce and supply military units, though industrial capacity can also be used to upgrade buildings in your provinces, from airbases to roads to rocket research.. Hearts of Iron 3 operates at the division level, and you can customize your divisions to consist of two to five (usually four) brigades of your choosing. This lets you put your own personal touch on your military composition instead of being limited to generic “infantry” and “armored” divisions. You can construct divisions to counter enemy units more precisely. Land units include tanks, motorized infantry, marines, tank destroyers, artillery, and paratroopers. Air forces consist of tactical bombers and carrier air groups, while naval battles will feature battleships, cruisers, and carriers. The amount of industrial capacity dedicated to each aspect of your production is adjusted using sliders; you can right-click to instantly lock the slider to the level of demand, although there is no way of having it always follow demand, as supplies, upgrades, and reinforcement levels annoyingly adjust on a daily basis.

Technology and research has gotten a slight overhaul since Hearts of Iron II. Gone are the neat companies in favor of more generic but more intuitive theory and practical ratings. Each country receives a research bonus in fields they were historically adept in, and bonuses are increased further by producing and researching units of a particular type. The technology tree is comprehensive, covering infantry, armor, capital ships, bombers, industry upgrades, and theoretical developments. This comprehensive nature really lets you customize the attributes of your units, like choosing better armor over faster engines; it's a neat system. It would be nice to have a filter system to show research options that use specific bonuses, so you can dedicate your time on worthwhile tasks. You do feel overwhelmed in the beginning, trying to choose the most appropriate techs for your country. Sliders are again used here to distribute your knowledge towards research, officers for headquarters units, espionage, and diplomacy.

One person does not run a government by themselves, and you are not alone in Hearts if Iron 3. You are given a suite of ministers to form a cabinet, each of whom give small bonuses (both positive and negative) to various aspects of your country. You can tailor your overall strategy here by choosing advisers that share your views. Also, you can invoke laws that can be instantaneously changed, unlike the sliders of past versions that could only be altered every so often. This is a better system that allows you to react to an attack more quickly. You can also set how to deal with invaded countries, rebels, and governments in exile. Spies are also an important aspect of the game, as intelligence can provide information on enemy troops and technology levels. You can also disrupt production and research in rival countries. I'm tellin' y'all: it's sabotage! Spies can also be used domestically to counter enemy spies and support political parties. Using spies is straightforward: much like the merchants of Europa Universalis III, you set priority levels for each nation and let the game take care of the rest.

Hearts of Iron 3 features a very structured order of battle. Used in conjunction with the outliner, it's very easy to keep a high level of organization. The smallest unit is the brigade, which are organized into divisions, the smallest directly controllable unit. From there, it goes up to corps, armies, groups, and theatres. Each unit is directed by a commander that has traits that affect the unit's effectiveness. Ordering units around can be as simple box-selecting units and right-clicking, or you can get more specific by coordinating arrival times. It's somewhat surprising (and initially confusing for me) that issuing a command to a headquarters unit does not automatically issue the same order to subordinates. In order to prevent super-stacks of units, each province can only support a certain “width” of troops; the remainder are kept in reserve. This makes attacking from multiple territories instead of a single one is the more desired strategy. Orders for air and naval units are more varied: convoy raids, interdiction, air superiority, patrol, invade. Giving commands to air units is kind of neat, as you can define a zone or cone of operation.

Probably the most significant addition that Hearts of Iron 3 brings is the ability to put units under AI control, directed by objectives. You can put any unit under AI control, a very helpful feature when you are fighting a multi-front war simultaneously. You issue a stance (prepare, defensive, offensive, and blitz) and province objectives to the HQ unit and let the AI do the rest. The commander will ask for units in order to accomplish their tasks, although they tend to ask for a lot of air and naval units they don't actually need. Still, I found the feature to be quite useful and the AI to follow your orders well and within reason. It also never felt like I was just playing half a nation, since you can specify objectives and not just have the computer completely take over. Supplies are automated: just make sure there is a port nearby with convoys taking precious supplies to and fro. You can target convoys with submarines (or other ships) or escort ones as well; it's a neat game-within-the-game.

I did not notice any weird behavior with the AI, such as questionable diplomatic decisions or insane military operations. In fact, I was almost impressed by some of the unpredictable moves the AI made, such as a British amphibious assault on Germany during the invasion of Poland, or Italy taking over France before Germany had the chance. This less scripted nature of Hearts of Iron 3 makes things much less predictable: you can't rely on things happening exactly on their historic date and prepare accordingly in advance. There aren't many random events to worry about, though, and the lack of missions (a feature of the last expansion of Europa Universalis III) makes peacetime really boring. Since your standing army is provided, there isn't much to do other than research and minor production. Getting missions, like improving relations with a certain nation or researching a particular technology, would make this time more interesting. Maybe missions are being held for an expansion, but in the mean time, it's war or bust.

IN CLOSING
Finally, Hearts of Iron 3 has become playable for a range of experience levels. This is due in large part to the interface features imported from Europa Universalis III working with the optional AI control of troops, anywhere from a single division up to an entire theater. You aren't completely giving up control, however, as you can specify objective locations and the AI will follow them to the best of their ability. In addition, the AI commanders provide troop requests to make leaving an entire front alone a viable choice. The game simulates the entire Second World War, although more start dates would be welcome. Multiplayer action is included for those who are interested, and the game is easily modified (and most likely will be in the near future). Allowing users to customize their divisions gives you the strategic flexibility to counter any enemy plan. Units are organized in an easily accessible order or battle, and restricting the size of stacks in a single province results in a more realistic-looking front. Ordering units is straightforward, from simple move commands to more complex (but still easy to execute) convoy raids or air interdiction. Supplies are automated as well, but you are able to attack (and escort) precious trade routes at sea. Sliders for distributing production and research assets, along with laws and cabinet members, allows you to tweak the direction of your superior nation, although you cannot automate the sliders to always meet demand. I like how research and production is faster for units you produce more often, and research bonuses are granted for specific nations to produce more historically accurate results (there were totally fleets of German aircraft carriers!). Countries are assigned priorities for automated spies, an important aspect of the game that can give very useful information. The multifaceted AI provides plausible competition. When you are not actively shooting foreigners, Hearts of Iron 3 can get on the boring side, as you must occupy your time with diplomacy, trade agreements, and limited production. Semi-random events don't happen often enough to give you something to do, and missing the missions from Europa Universalis III means there is no real point of playing a nation too long before they enter the conflict. Luckily, the peace doesn't last for long. The game also suffers performance issues during heavy combat, which is most of the time. Still, Hearts of Iron 3 retains the depth of its predecessors, but allows less experienced players to automate tasks to keep large empires operating smoothly. It is certainly more accessible than scary-complex strategy games, and the game's depth and engrossing gameplay can now be enjoyed by a larger crowd.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Room Boom: Suburbia Review

Room Boom: Suburbia, developed and published by Mindemia.
The Good: Unique gameplay, content rich with mini-games, success unlocks useful improvements
The Not So Good: Significant influence of luck on results especially in the room design mode, extremely challenging AI, no online multiplayer
What say you? A hybrid click-management and board game that relies too much on poorly balanced chance: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With ample foreclosures looming, now is the time to enter the real state industry! Or if you are the less adventurous type, do it digitally in the form of computer entertainment! Enter Room Boom: Suburbia, a game in which you design rooms and houses to make fat stacks of cold, hard cash. This casual game is part board game, part click-management game, and part strategy game (which, I guess, is really the board game part), serving up a heterogeneous gaming soup that's all the rage these days. How does it taste? Does it go well with red or white wine? Did you save room for dessert?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Room Boom: Suburbia has simple 2-D graphics, which is fine for the genre. The most important aspect of a click-heavy game is the interface, and Room Boom: Suburbia does a generally decent job making things clear throughout the game. Room type is indicated by the floor design, which can be hard to spot in small rooms given the game's low-ish resolution: squinting may be required. There aren't many special effects to worry about, although the sparsely animated protesters are amusing. Functional at best, the graphics get the job done for the most part. The sound design is minimal, with a handful of effects for in-game events and background music. Overall, Room Boom: Suburbia delivers what is expected for an independent casual game in terms of the presentation.

ET AL.
Room Boom: Suburbia has a good number of features for a budget ($16) game. The tutorial does a good job explaining the straightforward and unique characteristics of the game. You can choose from a series of challenges with specific settings or customize the game yourself, selecting the overall difficulty (AI smarts, turn length), game board size, and availability of nefarious items like crazy bulldozers (that randomly remove a swath of houses) and protesters that prevent construction. Completing games of either type awards points used to purchase a wide range of improvements: larger room templates, additional component slots, and many more. This is way better than useless achievements found in other games, since the improvements in Room Boom: Suburbia actually influence the gameplay and your overall strategy. In addition to the basic game, you get two mini-games: a builder challenge where you construct specific room designs and a picture-matching game. Overall, I was impressed with the amount of content included in Room Boom: Suburbia.

As a whole, Room Boom: Suburbia is quite unique. You need to own a continuous row, column, or diagonal of the square game board in order to win, just like in tic-tac-toe (or, as the British call it, draughts). Square lots first have to be purchased, and more versatile locations towards the center of the board are more expensive. Replenishing your funds is done through rent earned from constructed houses. You own a row by having more houses there, and you make houses in two phases: making rooms and then placing them to make an entire house. The main problem with Room Boom: Suburbia surfaces in the first mode. The way you make rooms is that a series of incomplete rooms comes down a conveyor belt, and you must fill in the blank spots using the pieces that randomly appear on the right side of the screen. Unfortunately, you are given a lot of useless, nonsensical pieces that means you'll only make a couple of rooms within the time limit. The pieces are really designed for larger room designs that are unlocked with the improvement points, but, of course, you only get improvement points by beating the game so everyone has to go through the imbalance early on. The AI seems to have no problem constructing many rooms each turn, of course. Your first couple of games, all you need are corners and end pieces, and you never seem to get enough. This impacts the second phase of the game, placing homes, because you end up with some very inefficient designs. You can buy a set of rooms for a fee, participate in an auction, or even automate the entire process, but I disagree with skipping an significant part of a game simply because it's imbalanced.

Once you have your badly designed rooms ready, it's time to make some houses. Your rooms will randomly appear, and you must make a house that contains at least one room of each type (kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom) and no unconnected doors (which confuses me: how do the people get in?). Optimally, you'll want one room with a lot of doors to connect with single-door rooms. Of course, because of the difficulties associated with the room design mode I mentioned previously, this is hardly ever the case, and you'll typically only be able to successfully place one, or maybe two, houses before time runs out. The AI, again, seems not to encounter these issues, always able to place three or four houses in each zone per turn. I'm not saying they cheat, necessarily, but I think the AI just places some semi-random number each turn and you are expected to keep up. Because you will commonly be out-paced by the AI in your first handful of games, Room Boom: Suburbia is a difficult title. This is too bad, because the game certainly has some unique attributes that separate it effectively from your typical casual title.

IN CLOSING
Room Boom: Suburbia offers some unique gameplay that almost makes for a notable title if it weren't for some missteps in the formula. We get plentiful game modes, with single player challenges and custom games against the AI or other humans on the same computer (no online play, though), in addition to a couple of mini-games for short moments of free time. Winning unlocks new items and bonuses to tackle the higher-level AI, who is quite adept at the game and provides a formidable challenge. Too formidable, if you ask me, as they magically produce numerous developments (more than what is possible with the pieces the human player is given in the same time frame) and don't seem to be playing by the same rules. The two-phase game flows well as you attempt to control a continuous row of property by designing rooms and placing houses. However, Room Boom: Suburbia trips up in one significant area: designing rooms. There are too many useless and repetitive pieces that require corners or ends and nothing else: it's just a matter of waiting for those to show up and placing them as quickly as possible. Because of this, success in Room Boom: Suburbia relies too heavily on luck and ultimately the remainder of the game suffers. Things get better when you can afford improvements like wider conveyor belts to deliver rooms and more slots of missing pieces, but this requires a significant enough time investment and I feel most people will get frustrated prior to winning a couple of matches. This multiplies when you start laying down the poorly designed rooms and can't quite fit all the pieces together perfectly. It's just easier to automate the process, and thus negate half of the gameplay. I like the idea of Room Boom: Suburbia and some of the ideas it brings, but the game needs to be balanced more for newer players.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Super Laser Racer Review

Super Laser Racer, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Pleasing arcade-sim hybrid driving mechanics, satisfying weapons, well designed tracks, quality AI opponents, inexpensive, nice graphical style
The Not So Good: Limited tournament mode, lacks multiplayer, interface does not indicate ammunition level
What say you? A futuristic top-down arcade combat racer that's quite fun: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Ever since Super Mario Kart perfected the arcade combat racing game, many newcomers have attempted to recreate that balance of skill, luck, and shooting red shells at Donkey Kong. Most of these fail to live up to expectations, and now it's New Star Games's turn at bat. Fresh off New Star Grand Prix, the developer has adapted that racing game to a more arcade shoot-em-up named Super Laser Racer that takes place in the future, a future that looks a lot like Geometry Wars. How does the racing game adjust to a more action-oriented universe?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Though obviously not original, the graphics in Super Laser Racer are still effective in the minimalist way. The clean lines have a nice neon glow to them, and the effects during the races are quite effective, from getting damage to weapons going “boom boom pow.” You play against a predominantly black background and the lack of textures actually does not hurt the presentation: it's a smart, efficient design decision. The music is a fine mix of tunes that fits the theme of the game well, and the sound effects convey the chaotic nature of the races well. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics and the sound design, despite their simple nature.

ET AL.
Super Laser Racer takes place in the future. I can tell because all of the vehicles and tracks are now made out of neon, which has clearly become a precious, highly valued commodity reserved only for the super-rich. You can undertake three race types: the typical lapped race (from 3 to 15), “eliminator” (which eliminates the last place car each lap), and survivor (which disables recharging shields). There is also a tournament mode that consists of (except for the highest circuit) four races that must be completed in succession, with drivers earning points each round. Considering the strong career options in previous New Star games, the underdeveloped tournament mode is a disappointment. You cannot save your progress during or even between races (troublesome for people with busy schedules) and there's nothing to do other than race: no upgrades, set-ups, monetary modes, nothing. About the only reason to plug through the tournament mode is to unlock all of the cars. There isn't anything beyond the single races and tournament mode, as Super Laser Racer lacks multiplayer options. Boo racing games without online play! Yay racing games that work in Windows and Macintosh!

Super Laser Racer comes with thirteen well-designed tracks that feature multiple paths and braking zones that actually require skill (no holding down the accelerator). Tracks are scattered with turbo boosts (like Mario Kart), weapon pick-ups (like Mario Kart), and a shield recharge zone in the pits (like....oh, actually, not like Mario Kart..well, maybe the star, but that's more of a pick-up than a zone you can pass over...oh well, never mind). Most of these zones are placed in good positions that aren't terribly out of the way but not directly in the racing line. If thirteen tracks are not enough, Super Laser Racer comes with a point-and-click editor for creating your own circuits: nice. It's fairly intuitive (selecting and placing tiles, drawing the racing line) and easy enough to use. Super Laser Racer also comes with twelve cars to unlock (three are initially) that vary according to acceleration, top speed, steering, and shield strength; there seems to be a zero sum with respect to the attributes, so if a car is strong in one area it is weak in another.

The basic racing of Super Laser Racer is not surprisingly similar to New Star Grand Prix, although it found it to be easier thanks to increased cornering ability and more forgiving track layouts. The main difference comes in the “laser” part of Super Laser Racer, as there are various weapons you can collect along the way: lasers (duh!), missiles, mines, chainguns, bombs, and other assorted projectiles. You can only carry one weapon at a time, and the game does not indicate how many shots you have left. This is made even more confusing because some weapons are single-shot while others grant multiple uses. There needs to be an indicator showing how much power you have left. Damage taken during the race can be repaired by entering the pits; there isn't enough penalty for doing this, as it almost always fully recharges your shields and doesn't slow you down enough, typically only losing one or two positions on the track. Your computer opponents are quite good, especially on the higher difficulty settings. They use the weapons effectively, but are also prone to human-like mistakes, like taking a corner too fast. Maybe the weapons are mixing up the action and the track layouts offer more variety, but the bottom line is that I found the AI drivers to be a lot more interesting to race against than in New Star Grand Prix (one suspects four months of additional development contributed as well). Overall, I enjoy the chaotic racing of Super Laser Racer more than New Star Grand Prix, and if the auxiliary features were more developed (a better tournament, online play), this would result in a higher overall score instead of just being equals.

IN CLOSING
Super Laser Racer delivers exactly what I expect from a $10 game: solid, enjoyable core gameplay. The racing is adapted well from New Star Grand Prix, easing back a bit on the difficulty to compliment the combat more effectively. The fast pace of the races works well, with turbo pads and plentiful pick-ups to dispose of those pesky enemy racers. The AI is quite competent and less robotic than before, successfully using their weapons and utilizing alternate paths along the way: they are a good foe. The quality of the AI almost makes up for the lack of a multiplayer component, but the lack of a compelling career mode makes this a more glaring omission. Every racing game needs online play, and Super Laser Racer is no exception. The points-only tournament mode borrows none of the interesting career options from other New Star games, and the only motivation to play a series of races is to unlock additional content. Even with these limitations, the appropriate low price point of Super Laser Racer makes is a good choice for fans of arcade combat games.