Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Star Tennis Review

New Star Tennis, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Challenging AI opponents, assorted activities other than tennis matches
The Not So Good: New players require a lot of initial training and aren’t competitive, no novice tournaments, difficult control scheme, lacks multiplayer, repetitive free time activities
What say you? Similar to other New Star offerings, the tennis version has tricky controls, artificially high difficulty, and limited side activities: 4/8

It seems like it’s always tennis season, the minor diversion that only grabs our attention during a major or a local event. Yes, the green ball has waned in popularity, likely due to the decrease in male talent. In fact, women’s tennis has been more interesting for quite a long time, ever since the druggies left the sport. The world of New Star has invaded the tennis scene, previously conquering soccer and racing with consistently good (6/8) scores. Those previous titles, as with most things, had room for improvement; has New Star Tennis delivered an improved experience?

For $15, New Star Tennis offers a decent presentation. The game seems to use a slightly improved version of the 3-D engine from the New Star Soccer series, rendering the tennis environment in all three dimensions. The characters could be animated better, but the models themselves look good enough and the animations never negatively impact the gameplay. The game certainly does not have any fancy special effects, but it holds its own and New Star Tennis is definitely playable. The interface remains the same as before, and most pertinent information is easily accessible. The sound design is acceptable, with the same background music from previous games plus appropriate tennis sounds: balls being smacked and crowds reacting. Overall, New Star Tennis looks and sounds exactly as I would have expected.

In New Star Tennis, you start out as a wimpy fifteen-year-old with thoughts of grand tennis victory. You get to customize your name, date of birth, nationality, skin and hair color, and height. Unfortunately, you can only start the game as a very bad novice player, and this has serious negative consequences that we will delve into shortly. The world of New Star Tennis has almost-real players, using the one-letter-off mechanic done in previous games; you can tell who they are if you are familiar with tennis. In a sexist move, New Star Tennis does not allow you play as or against women; this would not have necessarily added anything different to the game, but the option should have been present. Apart from the career mode, you can partake in quick matches using any of the real/fake tennis stars included with the game. New Star Tennis does not include multiplayer in any fashion, either on the same computer (with a keyboard and a gamepad, for example), over a LAN, or on the Internet. The game also lacks doubles competition, a staple of tennis simulations.

During your wondrous career, you must maintain your energy, skills, lifestyle, and happiness. Energy is expended by practicing and playing in tournaments and replenished with old-fashioned rest. Your lifestyle is improved by buying things with the money earned in tournaments, a simplification that has interesting philosophical ramifications. New Star Tennis lacks relationship and family options present in previous titles, so they only way to enhance your life is to buy stuff. If it were only that simple in real life. You can get happy by betting on horses or in a casino, playing darts, or kart racing. The betting mini-games are simplistic with the usual options from previous games, darts uses the mouse and some semi-random targeting to increase uncertainty, and the kart racing is a poor replica of New Star Racing. You can choose up to three activities to do per week, but almost all of your time will be spend training.

Training comes in two flavors: manual and automatic. You can participate in sessions against the ball machine to improve your serve, forehand, backhand, volley, or spin. You must land the ball on a target and reach a predetermined score before you run out of balls (there is an inappropriate joke in there somewhere…). If you purchase gym equipment, you can improve your speed and stamina simply by clicking on an icon: working out was never so easy! The training is very repetitive, or guaranteed, so it loses interest quickly.

Ready to take on the world? Tournaments are offered almost every week, offering different prizes and surfaces (clay, grass, hard). Problem is that even the cheapest tournaments (in terms of payouts) are against the best players in the world, giving you absolutely no chance of victory until you tediously (and slowly) improve your stats. New Star Tennis lacks lower level tournaments, and I honestly have no idea why. Get ready to be pitted against the top seeds in the world and suffer defeat early and often. Talk about discouraging. Adding to the frustration is the control scheme. Tennis is an admittedly difficult sport to develop a control scheme for, and New Star Tennis tries its best but still comes up short. You can given four shots (normal, lob, slice, top spin) to execute, and you must hold the appropriate shot button well before the ball arrives so that you can use the arrow keys to direct it to an appropriate part of the court. This method attempts to give the player control over where their shot will go, but it’s honestly too much to do in a short amount of time. I had a heck of a time getting the controls down, and I play a lot of computer games. It might have been better to sacrifice some control and just direct your shot roughly in the direction you are heading when the ball is hit, instead of stopping your movement when the swing begins and making the player determine placement. On top of this, low stats (the ones you are forces to start with) make pulling things off even more difficult. Sigh. Unfortunately, the main way to maintain your character’s happiness and lifestyle is to earn money, money you can’t earn in tournaments because your stats are so low. It’s a vicious cycle. The quality AI players don’t help, as they can place difficult, quality shots with ease. So what we’re left with is a difficult game made even more difficult because of the unnecessary hatred directed towards newly created characters in the form of slow development and vastly superior opponents. Boo/hiss.

New Star Tennis has the same general structures as the previous mostly successful New Star games, but falters because of a couple of reasons. First off, your starting character is totally incompetent, and only after lots of repetitive training do they become more capable of winning a tournament. Novice tournaments are not included in the game, which means you will waste your time entering any competitive event without comprehensive training first. This is an unintelligent design decision that really discourages new players. There are other things to do other than play tennis, like gamble or darts, but these are only minor diversions that become repetitive quickly. The controls take some getting used to, as you must start swinging well before the ball arrives and place the target in the appropriate location while not moving. I don’t remember seeing real tennis players stop once they begin to swing. While this makes it possible to use real tennis strategy in the game, it’s not the most intuitive method. New Star Tennis lacks any multiplayer competition, either on the same computer or online, further reducing its appeal. Adapting the New Star universe towards a tennis simulation is a good idea, but this game is too hard for beginners and too repetitive.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simplz: Zoo Review

Simplz: Zoo, developed by South Winds Games and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Specific goals for match-3 games, matched items used in zoo design, helpful interface, varied puzzle layouts
The Not So Good: Repetitive with a disproportionate focus on match-3 elements, shallow zoo simulation lacks strategic planning and doesn’t impact puzzle mode, trivially easy puzzles with an optional timer for no real benefit, linear unlocks decrease campaign variety, slow campaign progress
What say you? Marginally better than a traditional match-3 game: 4/8

How do you make a match-3 game more interesting? PC’s have been inundated with enough games that it's practically its own genre. More sophisticated gamers such as you and me (but not that guy over there; he’s an idiot) require more sophistication! Enter the egregiously misspelled Simplz: Zoo, which attempts to combine classic (meaning “tired”) match-3 gameplay with running your own zoo. Giving you another goal is certainly more interesting than tediously matching jewels, right? Let’s find out!

Like most (but not all) puzzle games, Simplz: Zoo features low-resolution graphics that are best displayed in a window. How low? 800 by 600. Looking at the game full-screen at that low resolution caused my eyes to bleed. Just kidding: my face melted off, that’s all. Despite this shortcoming (the resolution, not the face thing), the game looks decent for a casual title: the visitors and animals are drawn in a cartoonish format and animated reasonably well, although your patrons appear robotic as they glide around the grounds. The game is 2-D, and while the art style and visual effects are not as distinctive as you would like, it’s functional enough. Performing far better is the interface: checks and stars are clearly displayed to indicate objects you own and can afford, and specific resource needs are shown in the bottom-right during match-3 sessions: quite helpful. Not as helpful are the cleverly hidden tiled squares that must be removed; they are occasionally highlighted, but they don’t contrast enough from an empty background. Rounding out the package is appropriate music and the occasional sound effect to accompany the on-screen action. Simplz: Zoo doesn’t provide an outstanding package of graphics or sound design, but it’s not terrible either. One could classify it as “average.”

As the title of Simplz: Zoo somewhat indicates, you are running a zoo; the resources to run said zoo are earned by playing a match-3 puzzle game. While you alternate between the zoo simulation and puzzle game during your progress through the campaign, most of your time will be spend puzzling. The campaign offers the single goal of creating the greatest zoo in the world, accomplished by purchasing more animals using the resources earned during the match-3 puzzles. Progress is very slow as you can only afford one item (at best) after each puzzle sequence. There are no mini-games independent of the main campaign, so you’ll spend all of your energy expanding your animal kingdom.

Your zoo requires several resources to remain in tip-top shape: food, personnel, money, material, and research. More animals means a higher monthly quota of resources (and thus better performance in the puzzle portion of Simplz: Zoo), and you will also have to accumulate resources to purchase new beasts in both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Additional species can be researched by making matches as well. Support structures, for monthly resource bonuses, can be built as well, in addition to beautifying your zoo with paths and foliage. Unfortunately, the zoo simulation is very basic: you can place buildings anywhere in order to gain their rating bonuses. Aesthetics sadly do not matter; people say suggestions about which objects to place, but I cannot observe any benefit in attendance or rating by doing so. Even if it does impact your attendance, the money you get from it pails in comparison to the cash earned from the match-3 portion of the game. There is no user happiness to maintain, so the zoo simulation lacks difficulty. The game also unlocks things in a very linear order due to the seemingly arbitrary resource requirements, meaning each zoo you build will have the same buildings appear in the same order. As a final insult, visitors completely ignore your paths and walk on the grass. The zoo simulation is very lightweight and needs further development to be anything of interest.

Match-3! Nothing strikes fear in the soul of the hardcore gamer like that haunting phrase. The game tries its hardest to make the puzzle elements somewhat interesting, and it succeeds to a degree. First off, there are specific goals for each match-3 game: there is a minimum amount of basic resources you need to match (derived from your zoo upkeep) and tiles what must be cleared (used for paths in your zoo). I do not understand why you need to clear so many path tiles when you don’t actually need them. The puzzles also have varied layouts and starting conditions, featuring some interesting components like locked tiles, paths that must be cleared for migrating animals, and crates that must be moved to the bottom. Matching the same resource three times in a row produces a special bonus as well. Regrettably, the match-3 game is far too easy. You can switch tiles diagonally and the game automatically highlights potential matches, making matches a trivial affair. There is a timer that can be used to impose some sort of difficult, but it is optional and there is frankly no reason to do so since the resource bonus for turning it on is so insignificant. Why handicap yourself? For three whole extra points? No thanks. It’s actually better to last longer in the match-3 game in order to accumulate more resources. It is sometimes tedious to get those last couple of tiles removed, but it's just a matter of time before you do since you can’t fail. There are too few resources to make the puzzles challenging beyond the first minute of unlocking tiles. The resources themselves are poorly balanced, with far too materials and not enough cash for the zoo management part of the game; I always have an unbalanced cache of resources, waiting several rounds of puzzle games for certain requirements to accumulate and unlock new buildings. Unless you are completely brain-dead or terrible at match-3 games, Simplz: Zoo will offer no challenge. And if you are, what are you doing playing this in the first place?!

Simplz: Zoo lacks the depth required for a notable title. While the match-3 elements are fine enough, if a bit too traditional, the zoo portion is very underdeveloped and subsequently disappointing in its lack of scope. You’ll spend almost all of your time in the match-3 part of the game, simply because there’s nothing to do with your zoo other than add a new exhibit after each puzzle round. I’m not looking for tycoon-level complexity, but there should be at least some impact on performance based on the layout you have designed. All you need is to have the buildings somewhere in order to reap their meager bonuses. While the match-3 game has a great influence on your zoo, since that’s where all of your resources and decorations are earned, the zoo does not influence the puzzles (other than minor bonuses), and that’s ultimately where the displeasure lies. The zoo is essentially a self-designed trophy case, never feeling like a simulated place, rather just somewhere to stick things you’ve unlocked. The linear campaign progresses very slowly, only allowing you to unlock one object after every puzzle round; you need to really love match-3 puzzles to get any enjoyment out of Simplz: Zoo. The puzzle portion of the game is much better developed than the zoo: there are specific goals to meet, varied layouts, and interesting situations like locked tiles or leading animals to a goal location. Even this, though, is not without problems: the game is way too easy, and enabling the optional timer doesn’t offer a significant benefit for doing so. Basically you can’t lose, and thus the game is never challenging. The promise of a puzzle-simulation combination is never fully realized. Only real fans of match-3 games will want to play Simplz: Zoo, since that’s where all of the actual gameplay is contained.

Friday, February 19, 2010

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, developed by GSC Game World and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Large game world with many missions, realism requires tactics to survive, numerous weapons and items to modify and upgrade, less restrictive than previous titles, intelligent AI, nice use of the setting, multiplayer
The Not So Good: High level of difficulty in a lethal world, vague objectives, lots of walking, interface could be improved, inconsistent game performance, terrible flashlight
What say you? Another return to Chernobyl brings a tough but rewarding tactical first person shooter and role-playing game: 7/8

While America has been taken over by the plague known as consolitis, Europe is still a proud beacon of quality PC-first development. I always look forward to getting quality imports from across the pond. One such import is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games (you are legally bound to use all punctuation), now in its third iteration with Call of Pripyat. Chernobyl has been a nice setting for the game, allowing for some radiation-induced craziness to surround the shooting and role-playing elements. The first version got reviewed almost three years ago and was typical of Russian-area titles: rough but some nice ideas. How has the game improved since then?

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat features generally the same graphics as the original game: outstanding three years ago, but more average today. That’s not to say that the graphics are terrible, however, as there are some very bright spots to speak of: Pripyat is convincingly rusty and buildings can be quite detailed (especially if they are an important part of the main storyline). There are also some nice time-of-day and weather effects (especially lightning), and the anomalies are appropriately creepy. Character models are done well, though a bit repetitive as you are limited in how varied gas masks appear. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat features a significant amount of stuttering during the game; this may be due to loading times and I never encountered the issue while in the middle of a battle, but it’s definitely present. The game continues to hold its own in the graphics department, although the competition has caught up. The sound design is what you would expect for a foreign: campy English dialogue. Each character gets some canned phrases, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat does not have fully voiced dialogue. Some of the original Russian dialogue is preserved in non-important banter between NPCs, adding to the immersion (and it’s more realistic that way). Most importantly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat delivers a plausible setting with no significant deficiencies in graphics or sound design.

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, you are a military man assigned to investigate a helicopter crash in the Zone of Alienation. Or something like that; I skipped the intro movie. Apart from the main mystery in the game, there are tons of side missions you can (and must) undertake in order to make money and recruit people to your overall goal. Pripyat is a large area and traveling around involves a lot of walking. You can warp to a destination with an NPC character or pay for transport, but you’ll still have to walk back, encountering various beasts along the way like mutated dogs and whatever this thing is. The missions can have some very vague objectives, thanks to your PDA map that fails for show whether locations are above or below you. Because of the frequency of tunnels and multi-level ships and buildings in the game, confusion soon sets in. After you are done, you can continue to play the game in a free-form mode; unfortunately, there are no dynamically generated missions to keep you busy, which would have been cool.

There are several difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from “difficult” to “impossible.” This high level of difficulty is exacerbated by the infrequent auto-save system; you will need to make liberal use of the quick save button (F5) in order to reduce reloading. It should also be mentioned that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat offers no tutorial on the controls, assuming you either played the previous titles or read the manual (ha!). Multiplayer seems like an afterthought here, with unoriginal deathmatch and team deathmatch that doesn’t really lend itself to the game well. There are two variations on capture the flag, substituting an artifact (one per team or neutral that can be detonated) in its place. Weapons are acquired by purchase (similar to Counter-Strike) instead of pick-ups. You need a low ping in order to enjoy yourself, though, as the European servers introduce too much lag.

As I alluded to earlier, the interface could use some minor improvements to make accessing the game easier for new players. Your PDA displays objective locations, but doesn’t zoom in far enough to differentiate close things and doesn’t indicate whether locations might be above or below you. Your minimap counts the number of nearby humans using a PDA (but not monsters) so you can assess incoming threats, in addition to displaying your concealment and noise. Icons are displayed for nearby hazards like radioactivity and fire, and current warnings are shown (like hunger, damaged armor) so you can take care of them at your earliest convenience. You are also given four quick access slots for things like med packs and food for fast healing. Still, the interface alternates from informative to vague.

It’s important to equip yourself properly for ventures out into the radioactive unknown surrounding the town of Pripyat. First off, you might not want to die, so a sturdy armor is important for protection against bullets and other hazards like fire and chemicals. You might also want to dish out some pain using the assortment of weapons available: pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles. Each weapon is rated according to accuracy, rate of fire, damage, recoil, and condition. Weapons degrade quickly over time with use (due to the harsh conditions in Pripyat) and must be repaired to replaced often. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat relies on upgrading your weapons and armor instead of simple stat increases like more traditional role-playing games resort to. There are extensive upgrades to purchase, like magazine size, recoil, weight, accuracy, and hazard protection, most of which require toolkits found scattered out in the field. Ammunition also goes very quickly, necessitating constant replenishment from the caches of fallen enemies. Most of the weapons behave quite conventionally, although grenades cause people to fly around (awesome) and the flashlight is complete garbage, shining all of two feet in front of you.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat has a number of features that add to the realism of the unrealistic situation. The game features a continuous 24-hour world, and your character is required to sleep and eat in order to stay in tip-top shape. Health is more exaggerated than in real life, though not by much; S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat really requires cautious and planned action to stay alive. The large game world must be traversed mostly on foot, except if you can afford paying for transportation; you can run fast but only for about ten seconds at a time. Important are anomalies, dangerous areas that can contain artifacts, which grant a bonus protection at the cost of being radioactive. Artifacts are randomly replenished after each emission event (don’t get caught outside!), so you can explore the same location multiple times. Artifacts are a great way of making money, using your anomaly detector to find interesting things in the game world.

Along the way to objective or anomaly areas, you will run unto a number of mutants that will attempt to eat you. They have distinct patters and behaviors and each offers a different challenge, whether it be invisibility, speed, or telekinetic powers. Humans can also be hostile, although they are more likely to be neutral here than in previous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. Human opponents will flank your position and split up in order to kill do dead: rather impressive and usually not scripted. Either type of enemy takes a ton of bullets to bring down, increasing the need for lots of ammunition and more choice shots. NPCs can also offer trades and they fight amongst themselves, producing a very believable setting that goes a long way towards making S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat a quality product. The realism of the game requires real tactics in order to survive, and fans of more challenging games will find a lot to like here.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is exactly what you would expect to find in the third game in a series: the most complete and polished experience. If you enjoyed the previous titles or have a desire to play a survival first person shooter with role-playing elements, than a trip to Chernobyl should be on the agenda. The setting of the game is fantastic, with lots of intelligent NPCs to interact with that have schedules of their own, creating a plausible game world. Radioactivity and other weirdness are also put to good use, producing artifacts that can reap profits or personal stat bonuses (with the unpleasant side effect of radiation poisoning) and emissions that kill anyone left out in the open. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat also features the most varied assortment of side missions, far beyond the simple “kill this guy” assignments from the first game. The environment is also more open for exploration and discovery, extending the life of the game beyond the main campaign missions. Time of day and weather effects also make Pripyat a more realistic setting. The difficulty is still very high, forcing players to play more tactically instead of run-and-gun. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat doesn’t have regular RPG character progression, instead opting for a more realistic method of upgrading your weapons with modifications and a less realistic method of holding artifacts. This is a challenging game, with good AI opponents that will utilize cover and ranged weapons and monsters with tricky abilities. The interface could use some work, specifically the map that shows vague objective locations (not indicating whether they are above or below you). Multiplayer is also nothing special, save for a variation on capture the flag where you can blow up the flag. Overall, though, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is a satisfying third edition to a quality unique PC franchise.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Global Agenda Review

Global Agenda, developed and published by Hi-Rez Studios.
The Good: Extensive character customization, varied class-specific weaponry, strategic conquest mode where agencies can build support weapons using captured resources, several PvP game types, monthly fee is optional
The Not So Good: Tedious and repetitive and linear PvE with terrible AI, poorly balanced gameplay due to health spamming and overpowered turrets that are difficult to destroy, subscription portion only suitable for dedicated and organized clans, most interesting components locked from new players, can't fly and shoot simultaneously, central server performance issues
What say you? This class-based MMO third person shooter offers nothing better than the established competition: 4/8

There are two reasons why I do not play MMOs (an abbreviation for “where did my money go?”): I don’t have enough time (as I average two new games to review each week) or money (as I get no income from reviewing said games) to spend hours online going on “quests” for “loot” with “friends.” There is certainly an audience for them, as evidenced by the extreme popularity of World of Warcraft and many others, but they just don’t tickle my fancy (sounds sexy!). I do, however, enjoy non-subscription online games, as I can jump in for an hour or two and play some DiRT 2 or Section 8 or Demigod. The developers behind Global Agenda are trying their hardest to foil my evil plans, as their MMO game has an optional subscription (for certain features) in addition to the usual third-person action action. Two questions arise: is Global Agenda good, and is part of it worth a monthly fee?

Utilizing Unreal Engine 3, Global Agenda successfully conveys a futuristic setting gone horribly, horribly violent. While you will need a somewhat beefy computer in order to crank up the details to the max, the game’s level of detail is quite pleasing. Each of the classes in the game has fluid animations and nicely detailed textures, and the environments have a great sense of ultramodern shininess. The game is mostly played in third person, probably to show off the hard work on the character models better. The settings can get repetitive, though, as most battles take place in “Generic Metal Building 14.” The weapon effects are somewhat generic, punctuated only by the use of dyes for varied colors coming at you in high definition. Still, I was pleased with the graphics that Global Agenda offers. The sound design is decent enough: there is a small amount of voice acting in the game that is bearable, and the combat effects are chaotic. I found no glaring deficiencies in the presentation of Global Agenda, so that’s good.

Global Agenda has portions of an instanced MMORPG (like Guild Wars) wrapped around a third person shooter. The first thing you’ll notice is that you have to register the game through the official site (after installing through Steam if you bought it elsewhere) and create an account; why they couldn’t just use your Steam login is beyond me. The second thing you’ll notice is that you have to manually input your password every time you play; your login is saved, but the developers have made sure that people who brake into your home just to play Global Agenda won’t be able to. Take that, computer-savvy thieves! You can skip the boring introductory tutorials (which, sadly, aren’t quite as boring as the regular PvE games) and instantly warp to level 5, if you so choose. The central hub of Dome City involves no exploring: just a map with all of the shops needed to increase your character and just enough walking to make it annoying with repeated use. You can enter a queue and go shopping while you wait, although wait times I encountered were short (usually less than twenty seconds for either game mode).

Matches in Global Agenda come in two flavors: against other humans (PvP) and again the AI (PvE). PvP is far better, a ten-on-ten contest with several game modes: control (three points to capture), payload (an assault mode), demolition (capture the flag), scramble (control with one randomly changing point), and breach (linear control points). In addition to the normal game mode where you earn experience, you can test out your character attributes in the virtual arena for no real apparent reason. Matches are laggy because of the use of central servers; the game can’t really seem to be able to handle twenty players, which is a problem in a shooter. The conquest mode of Global Agenda requires a monthly subscription, and it’s really only appropriate for organized clans. Agencies fight over control of hexes on a game map, using several teams of four to fight breach matches. Leaders of an agency can construct support weapons (dropships, mechs, turrets) using resources collected from controlled hexes. Hexes can only be fought over during certain hours of the day, making sure that ground isn’t lost while you are sleeping or playing better games. You can also form alliances with other agencies to team and up and take on a superior competitor. You must request to become a member of a specific agency; there isn’t an automated system of placing people together with those from a similar geographic area (like Delaware or Kansas) and automatically choosing the leaders based on in-game experience. While established and organized clans might find a justification for conquest mode and the monthly fee, but nobody else will.

PvE missions in Global Agenda are awful. The game takes the usual grinding tedium of MMORPGs and adds a whole bunch of repetitive levels to make it even more monotonous. Four people take on a number of low-level enemies followed by a boss at the conclusion of the level. There are two or three map layouts in total, resulting in the same exact experience every time you play. Fun! Nothing is randomized: neither the map paths nor the enemy placements. Sometimes you encounter a different boss, but it’s a small consolation. The difficulty level is also quite low: the AI is completely dumb and you can respawn as often as you want without penalty. Adding to the problems is the fact that people do not start the game simultaneously: PvP has a countdown timer, but PvE does not, meaning your teammates may be far ahead by the time you spawn in the game. PvE is only difficult when you have numerous enemies to deal with, as individuals are not talented robots. This is a huge grind instead of offering exciting, compelling, varied gameplay. Unfortunately, you have to play PvE in order to earn parts to craft new weapons and armor. Boo/hiss.

There are four classes to choose from in the future world of Global Agenda, adapted (stolen) from other class-based shooters. The assault class is your typical soldier, built to kill. The recon class has a sniper rifle and can disappear. The medic heals. And the robotics class is the engineer that constructs turrets. You can have several characters per account, all using the same name to avoid confusion, to allow you to use all of the classes. Items and experience cannot be transferred, however. Appearance options are robust, and the personal favorite option of randomizing your looks is thankfully included. Global Agenda features a nice level of customization, rivaling those utilized in dedicated role-playing games. Each character gets a melee weapon, ranged weapon, specialty weapon, jetpack, boost item, and three thrown items. While Global Agenda features a large number of weapons and items to choose from, almost all of them are locked to begin with, severely limiting your strategies. You can choose which weapons to use, and each item has four levels of effectiveness. You are limited to fifteen total points divided between ranged, specialty, and offhand items, similar to the method used in Section 8. Since there is only a maximum of twenty points you could use, there really isn’t any strategic limitation and you can max out pretty much all of your weapons: a nice idea in theory but poorly executed. There are seven upgrades for weapons and armor you can purchase or earn in PvE (if you can stomach it) and three skill trees for every class that add small incremental bonuses to tailor your character towards a specific role: a nice RPG-like feature. You can also purchase better armor, weapons, dyes (to make your guns shoot all the colors of the rainbow!) in addition to increasing your stats, but all of those things must be done at specific shops in Dome City, instead of from a simple menu system. This wastes an incredible amount of time, walking around the game world instead of shooting people in the face. Additionally, all of the interesting weapons are locked from the start, reducing your tactical options for quite a while.

Typical for a shooter, the interface in Global Agenda has one added benefit: your health and energy are constantly displayed right next to your targeting reticule, reducing the need to look at corners of the screen while in intense combat situations. This is quite useful, although it can obscure enemies as it is not translucent enough. One interesting aspect of Global Agenda is the use of energy: it is used for all weapons and your jetpack and recharges automatically. While this eliminates the tedious need to search for ammunition, energy recharges way too quickly, resulting in a constant rain of bullets. You can also rest on the fly, rehealing but suffering a movement penalty. Coupled with the proliferation of medics, coordinated teams of players will rarely die. The game has a very fast pace and ultimately comes down to when to use your items. Each class has things that make them overpowered: shields, turrets, healing guns, and camouflage. Essentially, you just have to wait for the cool-down period to make any headway as none of these things have good counters: shields provide immunity, turrets are powerful and tough to destroy, healing guns are proficient, and camouflage is quite effective. In fact, two medics working in concert are effectively invincible. There are some nice things that the combat of Global Agenda features, though. Forward spawn becons, portable but also destructible, reduce the tedium of running from your base to the frontlines every time you die. Also, the game places an emphasis on melee combat (and blocking) that few action games do: it’s a viable tactic. But then we run into shortcomings yet again: while you are equipped with a jetpack, you can’t fly and shoot simultaneously, as the jetpack is treated as just another weapon. Finally, the AI is very poor, rarely using cover and only challenging because of superior numbers. There are too many problems with Global Agenda that make it yet another game with good ideas that are poorly executed.

The player-versus-player action of Global Agenda isn't better than the likes of Section 8, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Counter-Strike, Battlefield 2, and Team Fortress 2. Additionally, the player-versus-environment portion of the game is mediocre role-playing game drudgery and tedium. The game has a very bare MMO feel, with a central hub that cannot be explored but invokes tons of pointless walking. Global Agenda does have a ton of weapons and items, the game’s strong suit. However, all of the interesting things are reserved for higher-level players that have logged an arbitrary number of hours with the game, and there is very little loadout strategy since you can max out almost all of your equipment. Alas, things don’t get interesting from a character design standpoint until much later in your career. The PvP game is more interesting, featuring a fast-paced, chaotic race for control of a map. It is, however, not without its problems: energy recharges too quickly while turret and healing spam is the rule of the game. The PvE is horrible: tedious and linear, where you encounter the same enemies in the same order in the same couple of levels. The AI is terrible and everyone spawns at a different time, making coordination that much more difficult. When the tutorial offers more surprises than the normal PvE game, then you know there is a problem. The paid conquest mode is only appealing for organized clans, and server lag is an issue: twenty simultaneous players is about fifteen too many. But the game looks good, so shallow gamers will be pleased. Global Agenda reminds me of a lesser version of Fury; this attempt will probably suffer a similar fate.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Virtual City Review

Virtual City, developed and published by G5 Entertainment.
The Good: Robust resource chains, must balance income with pollution and resident happiness, unambiguous and varied scenario conditions, generally fantastic interface, clear objectives, sandbox mode, your advisor is pretty hot
The Not So Good: I don't care for the music, repetitive after a while
What say you? Don't let the $10 price tag fool you: this is a comprehensive economic city builder and resource transportation game: 7/8

City builders seem to come in two flavors: resident-focused games like SimCity and Cities XL and resource-focused games like Grand Ages: Rome. In the former, you concentrate on building houses and services for those houses (employment, police, schools, et cetera). In the latter, you attend to producing goods at certain businesses and consuming them at others, earning you fat stacks of cash in the process. Virtual City is a combination of both of those city builder types with a pinch of click management for good measure. If we can’t rely on traditional big-budget publishers to crank out quality city builders, then we must turn to the casual market with their low, low prices. How does Virtual City and its $10 price tag stack up against more expensive entries in the genre?

Virtual City resorts to an isometric 2-D perspective for its visuals, and it works well. This is due to a great level of detail that permeates throughout the game: all of the buildings, vehicles, and scenery look great. Items are also animated nicely, producing a great (albeit not realistic) setting for the game. Virtual City is low resolution, but running it in a window is just fine and dandy. The sound design is worse off: the effects are fine, but I immediately turned off the overly chipper music. Yeah, that’s personal taste, but since this is my review, you’re stuck with it! Ha! Overall, Virtual City certainly delivers $10 worth of value in terms of graphics.

Virtual City puts you in charge of communities across the nation, making money by transporting goods and residents. The campaign is very linear, unlocking new cities in a set order. The game uses real U.S. cities scattered across five states in such exotic locations as Michigan, although the in-game representations hold no similarities to their real-life counterparts other than name (in fact, the game recycles some maps for multiple towns). There are ten or so missions per state, producing a somewhat lengthy campaign. One of the best features of Virtual City is the clear, explicit, and varied goals: not only does the game explain exactly what needs to be done in order to progress on to the next town, but the actual objectives never become repetitive (although the core gameplay might). Instead of more open-ended gameplay like you would see in a city builder like SimCity, the specific objectives of Virtual City add a lot to the appeal of the game. Attaining an expert rating, accomplished by completing the objectives within a set time limit, is balanced well: I usually had less than a minute (and usually seconds) left. Unfortunately, Virtual City lacks randomized maps, but it does contain five large maps for open-ended sandbox play, one for each state, that are unlocked as you complete the campaign. While the longevity of Virtual City isn’t infinite due to the lack of random maps, the campaign is entertaining and diverse enough to keep you interested for a while.

One of the things that makes or breaks a city builder is the interface, and Virtual City thankfully has an excellent one with only a couple of missteps. The game tries its best to make the somewhat complex resource chains visible to the player: when you select a truck for a new route, icons above each business indicate whether their goods are currently being transported with a green check. Once an origin is selected, an appropriate destination is automatically highlighted; this makes creating efficient routes a breeze. In addition, all of your vehicles are shown in the bottom of the interface at all times, so you can see exactly what they are doing without having to scour the map. What Virtual City needs is a list of all of the buildings with all of their checkmarks in one spot, like the ledger in Europa Universalis. This would make resource transportation fool-proof; I know I always forget to transport one good that holds up production at all of my other facilities. Virtual City also has on-screen indicators for missing road connections, disease, fire, and garbage, making it easy to remedy those sticky situations. Two other minor complains: Virtual City lacks a mini-map (but maps are small enough to keep tabs on things) and placing buildings does not auto-bulldoze trees. Otherwise, though, I really liked the interface that Virtual City offers.

Most of your money in Virtual City will be made by transporting goods between businesses. The game features seven product chains, from pies to furniture to the horseless carriage. In order for the end product to be successfully produced, you need to transport all of the intermediate pieces. Example: magazines sold at the shopping mall come from a printing factory, which gets paper from a paper factory (which gets wood from a sawmill and salvage from a recycling plant) and paint from a paint factory (which gets oil from an oil derrick). Got it? While there are only seven finished products in the game, the chains are complex and the maps are small so it’s enough. An industry can be used in more than one chain, adding to the confusion, and you can transport goods to and from neighboring cities. Houses can be built for your residents; businesses actually don’t require population, but you can make money by transporting people to places of interest by bus like shopping malls and stadiums. The environment can be improved by placing fountains and plazas, and fires and disease can be countered with fire stations and hospitals, respectively (interestingly, there is no crime in Virtual City). An alternative for fires and disease is to click on them; this is the small click management part of Virtual City, and it’s kind of annoying, but it gives you something to do during the small instances of waiting for resources to accumulate. Buildings can be upgraded to increase production and (strangely) decrease pollution. There are three vehicles to choose from: trucks, dumpsters, and buses. A truck can only transport a single good between two businesses, so most of your fleet will consist of trucks. It is important to make sure that your trucks are upgraded to the same level as the businesses they service in order to maximize efficiency and profits. Dumspters must be used to transport garbage from every building to the recycling plant, and buses are used to transport residents to entertainment facilities.

In addition to satisfying the objectives and simply making money, you must also pay attention to the environmental and happiness ratings. Happiness is increased by transporting people by bus to entertainment locations (this is like the third time I’ve said this…pay attention!) and the environmental rating is increased by upgrading existing industrial buildings and building pretty things like trees and fountains. There is a huge cheat in the game for happiness: if you have a plaza and enough money, you can queue up fireworks (or hot dogs thrown from a balloon…seriously) one right after another, driving your happiness up to insanely high levels. This is a way to bypass actually making a good city and simply use all of your cash; I don’t like it, but it did help me beat a number of scenarios. Virtual City is well paced, as there is usually very little waiting, maybe a minute or two at the end of the game, which can be tense as the expert timer counts down. After each scenario, you can spend points earned by reaching a high score on new buildings and environmental assets. Unfortunately, you have no idea which ones you’ll actually need in the next level: it made me kind of mad to waste points on a better oil derrick when the next scenario didn’t even use one. But this is a minor complaint in what is otherwise quite an entertaining game.

Virtual City takes good aspects from previous city builders and combines them into an effective package. The resource chains are complex enough to keep the game interesting, but simple enough to reduce confusion of newcomers. The interface helps the learning process, clearly displaying what each truck is transporting and areas of the map that need attention. I’d like to have a comprehensive list of all buildings and auto-bulldoze trees when placing new structures, but these are minor complaints overall. The game succeeds because you have to make money while keeping the environmental and entertainment ratings high. This means you have to balance industry and the landscaping of your town so it doesn’t become a polluted craphole. The fifty mission campaign can get repetitive, but the clear objectives are varied enough to keep you interested for most of the game. Fans of economic city builder games will find great value for $10.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Magnetis Review

Magnetis, developed and published by Yullaby.
The Good: Simple yet distinctive mechanics, planning required for maximum score, satisfactory increase in difficulty, online leaderboards
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer, repetitive
What say you? A unique but limited take on the block puzzle game: 5/8

Magnets are fun! They help us decorate our refrigerators and, uh, magnets are fun! But even more fun would be a computer game involving magnets: that’d be like double the fun. Or something. Magnetis is a puzzle game in the vein of Tetris or Dr. Mario (also known as “a total rip-off of Tetris”), where falling blocks must be matched and matched quickly, or else. Or else what? You do not want to know, my friend. This particular puzzle game was released on the magic white rectangular prism known to laymen as the Wii way back in 2009 C.E., and now it’s the PC’s turn. Should puzzle enthusiasts be drawn to Magnetis, or do opposites, in fact, repel?

Magnetis features simple yet effective graphics. You’re not really looking for outstanding quality with a puzzle game, but you can still make a successful presentation as we have here. Magnetis thrives because of its use of bright, contrasting colors, making it very easy to make matches. The blocks are also large and easy to identify, so the older among us won’t have to squint. The special effects are not that spectacular, and the animated backgrounds work well and aren’t distracting. The music and sound effects fall in line with expectations: generic puzzle music and appropriate indications of on-screen action. Overall, Magnetis provides a functional package.

Magnetis features magnets. Weird, right? In this game, there are left-facing magnets, right-facing magnets, and blocks to place in the middle. The further the magnets are apart when you complete a connection, the more points you earn. The game always gives you two blocks in the center that can be switched in position. You place them by moving the conveyor belt along the bottom of the screen (as opposed to moving the falling blocks themselves). They key to earning a high score is to clear multiple lines at once involving lots of connected blocks.

Difficulty is increased in two ways: by adding more magnet colors and by increasing the falling speed. Both of these make the game harder and require much more planning to make the most effective matches. Magnetis isn’t necessarily difficult (at least until the speed increases significantly), but you do need to be efficient to rack up the best score. To help you out, unconnected blocks will disappear after a while, which tends to eliminate stupid decisions as long as they weren’t made right next to a magnet. Magnetis, like most puzzle games, is repetitive, made worse by the lack of special blocks that would change up the gameplay. All you have is magnets and non-magnets, and the only change you’ll experience is the addition of more colors: not that exciting. The game can be played in the normal mode (go until you die), or with a time or block number limit. Multiplayer features both competitive and cooperative modes for up to four players, but lacks online play. You can play on the same computer, but who’s really going to do that on the PC? A very disappointing limitation. Your single player mode stats are uploaded to a central server and compared against others, but this is a small consolation prize for the lack of real multiplayer action.

Magnetis takes a different take on the puzzle genre and attempts to ride it all the way towards victory, but ultimately the game lacks the long-term interest required to finish the journey. The mechanics are interesting, connecting magnets to remove blocks, and the vibrant display makes it easy to see what’s going on, but the lack of robust features and varied gameplay hurt the overall value of Magnetis. The game would have really been great with online multiplayer, but instead its restricted to a high score list and same-computer competition. In addition, there are no special items: just having magnets and standard blocks gets boring after a while, and it reduces your strategic options. The difficulty is balanced well and ramps up quickly, keeping you on your toes as more colors appear and blocks fall faster, so attaining a high score does require planning, skill, and a little luck. Ultimately, Magnetis only held my interest for a short period of time; for puzzle fans, though, its $5 price tag would likely be justified. I would simply like to see the neat core mechanic coupled with online play and more varied puzzle elements.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Starters Orders 4 Review

Starters Orders 4, developed and published by Strategic Designs.
The Good: Financial gains through both betting and stable wins, very detailed horse attributes, robust training and breeding options, complete race simulations with optional direct jockey control, same-PC multiplayer, thorough documentation, editing features
The Not So Good: A very niche product, repetitive, limited betting options
What say you? An all-inclusive horse racing simulation, if you are in to that sort of thing: 6/8

Horse racing is something that most Americans, I think, have a passing interest in right around the first Saturday in May. Apparently the sport is big business, mainly thanks to betting and rich people with nothing better to do. I am more accustomed to “ small horse” racing around these here parts, but them high-flautin’ (good luck with that one, spell check) horses are famous enough to spawn a number of computer simulations. One of those, currently in its fourth iteration, is Starters Orders, where you own, train, breed, and bet on horses, the kinds of things you would do in real life if you had a lot of money to spend/waste. Let’s all pretend, shall we?

Starters Orders 4 is primarily a text-based game, so most of the graphics you will encounter are fun, exciting things like menus. That said, the interface is decent enough and makes accessing most of the information in the game easy. There are some cumbersome instances, like accessing a horse’s fatigue and fitness (which should be shown on the main screen), but most pertinent information is easy enough to find and a lot of it is shown on the primary display. Starters Orders 4 also features some good filters that makes it very easy to find appropriate races for each of your trusty steeds. There are a good number of horse pictures to give a sense of attachment to your racers. The races are rendered in 2-D, with animated horses and jockeys that look good but are repetitive. The textures are blurry at high resolution (really evident during photo finishes), but we’re not expecting photo-realism here so we’ll let it slide. Sound consists of very quiet and very British commentary given during the races; the voices are not computerized, but they only refer to horses by starting position number instead of by name. Still, the graphics of Starters Orders 4 are functional, which is all you really need in a sports management title.

Starters Orders 4 features horse racing in the United States, United Kingdom (also known as “England Plus”), Ireland, and Australia, including both flat and jumps racing formats for those who crave variety. The game includes a lot of the real venues, including all the famous races (like the Breeder’s Cup) they could use without paying for an official license. You can begin a new game as an upstart trainer with only three very expensive horses to your name, or take your chances in the betting-only mode. Starters Orders 4 has same-computer multiplayer if you have real friends who are also interested in horse racing management games (and who doesn’t?!), or horses can be exported for online leagues, where the commissioner will send replay files back to show you how incompetent you really are. While Starters Orders 4 lacks a tutorial, the game does feature extensive in-game help and a robust manual for all of your consulting needs; the organized interface also helps to learn the game. Finally, there is a complete suite of editing programs that allow you to customize races, horses, and jockeys to your liking, perfect for those obsessive folk among us that must incorporate all of the actual horses into the game.

You are the trainer for a stable of horses, leading them on to victory (not likely). Each horse in the game is rated in several areas for performance: fitness, speed, stamina, acceleration, and fatigue. Fitness is increased by training the horses the days and weeks before each race: gentle training is for injured steeds, moderate for periods between races, and intense galloping for maximum race preparation. You can also focus training on speed or stamina or special abilities like jumping and starting races. It’s up to you to find your horses’ preferred tactics and events, as special preferences (like dirt tracks) will develop over time. This really makes the horses like RPG characters, as you do get attached to your racers. Successful horses can be bred to produce The Horse of Tomorrow, and less spectacular specimens can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Those with a lot of money to spend can invest in additions to their stable, like swimming pools to improve stamina or increased capacity. You can also adjust the staff wages and feed quality to further customize your stable attributes. The options for horse management in Starters Orders 4 are comprehensive.

Now that your trusty steed is fully prepped, it’s time to go racing. Starters Orders 4 features a number of events to satisfy all horse quality levels. The winner of selling and claiming races is auctioned off, maiden races are reserved for horses that have never won a race, and handicap events are restricted to a specified range (like 0-60). For better horses, listed and group races are available with higher purses (and better competition). You have to declare for a race in advance, which makes planning your training appropriately important. Jockeys can be assigned from the global pool, or you can retain a jockey for personal use for a weekly fee. In addition, you can apprentice jockeys under a more experienced rider. For a race, you can specify an array of jockey orders, from go-easy to pacemaker. Sometimes, you don’t actually want to win a race (this is called “cheating”), and you can instruct your jockey accordingly. Additional instructions can also be given, like don’t lead or challenge later in the race. If this hands-off approach is too disconnected, you can take the reins yourself, opting for simple arcade controls using the arrow keys or the more complex standard mode using the mouse. In standard mode, you define your pace before the bell, time the start, and use the mouse to steer. The game also indicates whether you are near your horse’s cruising speed and optimal position. It’s nice to have the options to directly control the horses during the race, but I found that the AI jockeys do a good enough job and I never wanted to lose a race because of my personal ineptitude.

A large part of horse racing is betting, and Starters Orders 4 offers very basic betting options. Types of bets include win, each-way (which is a win bet coupled with a place bet), forecasting the top two finishers, and an accumulator for several races. I felt that the options here are surprisingly limited with several missing options: show, trifecta, and superfecta (among others) are simply not here. I guess it doesn’t pay to be in third place. I was also confused as to why the game lets you place an each-way bet on a race with less than five runners, since you need six or more horses in order for a place finish to count. Interestingly, you can bet on other horses racing against one of your own! What is this, the NBA? I did find the races to be somewhat exciting when you have large bets riding on the winners; I suppose this is the appeal of the real-life sport. Starters Orders 4 can get repetitive after a while, though, as the core of the game involves training, betting, and racing in a continual loop. The game can also become tedious because your stable can support up to sixty horses: that’s a lot of management! Still, horse fanatics will find a pleasing, detailed simulation of the sport.

If you are looking for a horse simulation, Starters Orders 4 is a good choice. The game features all of the options needed for a complete sports management game, only in equine format. The game covers the globe, featuring both flat and jumps racing in several countries and providing an infinite career mode where you raise horses from birth to glorious stud (awwww yeah!). Horses have a number of distinct attributes, like preferred length and surface, that makes each of them feel like individuals. You can tailor their training regimen for optimal performance, breed successful horses, and run a successful stable. There are a number of race types to choose from; there is always an option for every horse, no matter how young or untalented they might be. The race results are plausible, injecting uncertainty into the betting of the game. I like that money can be made by having winning horses or placing good bets (or a combination of both, of course): more options is always better. You can even take the reins yourself for a more interactive experience, although the jockeys seem to do a fine enough job on their own. For $30-$35 (depending on the exchange rate of the dollar, and the wind conditions), Starters Orders 4 delivers good value for fans of the genre. Yes, it’s getting a six mostly because it’s a horse sim with limited widespread appeal, but if that’s not a good use for the “buy it if you like the genre” rating, then what is? People not interested in horse racing will be bored to death here, but if the prospect of raising and racing a cavalcade of horses is interesting to you, then Starters Orders 4 wins the roses.