Monday, March 29, 2010

Just Cause 2 Review

Just Cause 2, developed by Avalanche Studios and published by Square Enix.
The Good: Grappling hook and parachute produce very unique stunt-based gameplay with over-the-top action, extensive sandbox world to explore and subsequently destroy, large library of upgradable weapons and vehicles
The Not So Good: Repetitive outside of missions, atrocious voice acting, no multiplayer
What say you? An exhilarating action movie come to life: 7/8

First person shooters have been in a realistic mode of late, entrenching themselves in Modern Warfare Battlefields of Bad Company. There’s only so much room for titles like ArmA II and its extreme attachment to reality. Sometimes, you just want to run around and blow crap up. That’s Just Cause 2 in a nutshell: you are recruited to overthrow an evil government by laying waste to fuel tanks and cranes. Makes sense to me! Just Cause 2 comes with two “killer apps”: a grappling hook that can be attached to anything (or between any two objects) and a parachute that can be deployed at any time. That sounds like physics-filled fun and mayhem; does Just Cause 2 provide enough longevity to make tethering a jeep to a helicopter fun each and every time?

The graphics of Just Cause 2 are generally quite good. First off is the setting: the island of Panau, being a completely fictitious setting, exhibits a dramatic range of climates, from desert to jungle to glaciated. Each of these biomes is littered with tons of detail, from small hamlets to large cities and military bases, all complete with lots of (albeit repetitive) buildings and things to blow up. Explosions are nice fireballs, and vehicles show some amount of gradual damage before they burst into flames (darn those flammable windshields!). Character models are well done, with some nice detail on the protagonist that you will be staring at for most of the game, as Just Cause 2 is played from a third person perspective. The most impressive aspect of Just Cause 2’s graphics is the draw distance: you can see the terrain from one end of the archipelago to another, and travel to anything in between. There is no fog on the horizon here, just some concessions on surface object detail based on the power of your machine. Things also look nice as you transition into nighttime, complete with scenic sunsets. I experienced good performance and little lag when accessing a new part of the map: pretty impressive. The sound design is less impressive, however: while the weapons sound convincing enough, the voice acting (if you can call it that) is truly terrible, and not in an amusing way. From mispronunciations to stereotyping, listening to people speak in Just Cause 2 is a painful experience all around. You can skip most (but not all) of the cut scenes that will burn a hole in your soul. Still, Just Cause 2 delivers solid graphical results, so that’s certainly something.

You are Rico “Stereotype” Rodriguez, hired to shoot some guy in the face in the Asian island nation of Panau. Your first choice is difficulty, without actually knowing how challenging Just Cause 2 is; I just went with the “normal” option and it seems to be well balanced. The tutorial, which lasts the first two missions before you are let loose, actually lets you do fun stuff instead of inane target practice that is so common in combat-focused games. Just Cause 2 allows you to save your progress at any point, but if you exit the game, you’ll always start again at the nearest stronghold, though anything you’ve collected and destroyed will stay intact (well, not intact, I suppose). If you die during a mission, you thankfully don’t have to do the whole thing over, as the frequent automatic checkpoints are liberally distributed. The biggest (and really only) missing feature is multiplayer: you cannot enjoy Just Cause 2 with others. It’s actually probably a good thing that Just Cause 2 doesn’t contain competitive multiplayer. Think about it: imagine thirty-two people running around with grappling hooks and parachutes. You’d never be able to hit anybody; it would be idiotic chaos. Now, cooperative multiplayer with two people would be fun, but I do not think it’s a must-have inclusion. The world of Just Cause 2 is vibrant enough to make single-player-only features sufficient.

Just Cause 2 features a more complicated control scheme than your typical shooter. It takes a little while to become accustomed to the correct commands, but the constant on-screen hints help the process. I do prefer having more keys for the various actions rather than recycling the game buttons, though, so at least Just Cause 2 takes advantage of the keyboard’s increased range of options. Before too long, you’ll be evading and grappling with ease. Just Cause 2 does feature quick time events using the number keys; I always prefer having a skill-based affair rather than coordinated button mashing, but at least the decrypting sequences make contextual sense. Just Cause 2 features an impressively large and detailed game world, spanning a thousand square kilometers over several islands. There are over three hundred points of interest set in many different climates that provide a variety of places to kill some enemies, from towns to military bases and offshore oil rigs. Just Cause 2 features a good waypoint system: just middle-click on any place on the map and arrows superimposed on the roads show you the way.

Most of your time in Just Cause 2 will be spent blowing up government structures, clearly marked with red and white stars. These range from gas pumps to SAM facilities to radio towers to propaganda trailers. “Clearing” villages by destroying all of the red buildings and collecting all power-ups is the fastest way of unlocking new missions and items. It can take some trial and error finding everything hidden away: there is a radar in the upper left corner of the screen that blinks if you are close to objects, but the game does not indicate where destroyable objects might be lurking. I have several towns that are 90% complete and I can’t seem to find the last pesky item to destroy: kind of annoying. Earning chaos by destroying things unlocks missions from the agency and three criminal factions, new strongholds to storm, and additional black market items. The missions are somewhat repetitive, usually involving escorting a unit, killing a key enemy, or destroying a specific item, but there is some variety in the enemies you’ll encounter and the friendly units that will assist you. It’s certainly more interesting than mindlessly blowing stuff up. Taking a stronghold for a faction will unlock new missions in that area and give you a base to respawn at when you die. Enemy units will engage you when you start destroying their shiny things, but interest dies down quickly enough so you aren't constantly harassed by enemies. The racing challenges, however, are completely out of place.

Time to talk about what makes Just Cause 2 unique. First is the grappling hook, which can be attached to any object for movement purposes or between any two objects for even more fun and excitement. The possibilities here are endless and you’re always trying to think of new ways to use it. The game has some suggestions through the achievements you can earn: pulling enemies off ledges, dragging enemies behind cars, hanging enemies from a ceiling, dangling a car beneath a helicopter and using it as a wrecking ball, attaching enemies to a gas canister and shooting it so it flies away. This is stuff that simply can’t be done in other games, and that’s the appeal of Just Cause 2. This is coupled with the liberal use of the parachute, which can be deployed at any time. Need to get out of a car before it hits a fuel tank? Deploy parachute! You can also move around vehicles easily while they are on the move, jumping from hood to hood and using the grill as cover. Action sequences such as driving a vehicle head on into an enemy jeep, parachuting out at the last second, grappling to a helicopter, throwing the pilot out, blowing up an enemy silo with rockets, jumping out and grappling to a sniper tower, dragging an enemy off another tower, grappling an enemy jeep to the ground causing it to flip, and detaching a turret for increased firepower are common-place in Just Cause 2. And that’s why it’s awesome.

What’s an action game without guns? Lots of guns. Rico can carry two one-handed weapons (pistols, submachine guns, sawed-off shotguns), one for each holster, and one two-handed weapon (assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher), secured to his back. Makes sense, and you can see your character take them out in third person, which is kind of cool. Add in grenades and triggered explosives and you have a walking force of nature. You can dual wield two one-handed weapons simultaneously (personal favorite combination: sawed off shotgun and submachine gun), though that obviously limits your ability to throw grenades. Just Cause 2 features limited ammunition, which means you’ll be picking up new weapons from fallen enemies often, kind of annoying since guns are expensive to purchase. You’ll also have access to a variety of vehicles: motorcycles, jeeps, tanks, helicopters, jets, cars, and boats. There are a variety of ways to get around the islands. You can use the vehicles to knock down trees, or attach a car to a helicopter and crush some enemies. Vehicles suffer damage over time and you can actually blow out tires to slow down pursuers. Just Cause 2 features plenty of unnecessary explosions. If you can’t find interesting weapons and vehicles, the black market dealer can provide them for a price. New items are unlocked over time and can be upgraded with collectable upgrades for weapons, vehicles, and armor. The black market dealer can also provide speedy transportation to any previously visited location around the islands for free. He’s so nice!

Just Cause 2 obviously features unbalanced battles, where you are up against superior numbers in almost every confrontation. The enemy AI does show some intelligent behavior, taking cover behind vehicles or other objects. They don’t run to those objects, though, so if you start shooting at them in the middle of the road, they are as good as dead. You certainly need to cleverly utilize your grappling hook in order to dispose of the enemies efficiently, though. Picking your battles is important and retreating when you are outnumbered, waiting for the heat to die down, is a good strategy. Teammates are almost useful: they will man guns on equipped vehicles and at least give you ten seconds of fire support before they get shot (or you drive into a ditch, flipping them out of the turret…oopsy!). This behavior occurs outside of scripted missions, too, increasing the immersion of a living world. There is no auto-aiming on the PC to compensate for an inferior control mechanism (mouse and keyboard FTW!), but the grappling hook indicator does preferentially select enemy units for easier grabbing and pulling. You commonly look for unconventional and exotic ways to dispose of the enemies; simply shooting them one at a time will not suffice, since they are always several of them and only one of you. There is no severe penalty for death: you simply respawn at the nearest base (or reload the last checkpoint if you are on a mission) with all of the progress saved. Because of this, even the most heavily guarded bases can be cleared eventually, since you get an infinite number of retries (although ammunition is continually used up). You are intrinsically motivated to clear everything, and Just Cause 2 gives you enough tools to make the adventure action-packed. The action does get a bit repetitive, since most villages are comprised of the same features (water tower, trailer, statue). But then you find a tank, and all is right with the world.

Just Cause 2 is one of those games you tell stories about, like the time I tethered a motorcycle to the back of my jeep and used it as a nunchuck, whipping enemies off their feet. Good times. The game successfully executes its unique combination of outrageous stunts involving stunts, the parachute, and the grappling hook. You can attach yourself to anything, or attach anything to anything else: this amount of freedom is fantastic and allows you to pull off some amazing stunts and truly inventive ways of disposing pesky enemies (melee kill a dangling enemy, for example). Add in vehicle stunts (riding on the hood and moving around the grill) and we have completely unrealistic but completely fun mechanics. The AI isn’t a total push-over, as they will use nearby cover (walls, vehicles) to make for a more difficult opponent, but expert use of your grappling hook will dispose of them quickly enough. The extensive control scheme takes some time to learn, but the game helpfully provides constant hints on how to pull off various actions. The island nation of Panau is amazingly large and exquisitely detailed, with over 300 villages and bases to explore and/or destroy. It is also a vibrant setting, as normal citizens go about their normal activities while you blow stuff up around them. And blow up you will, as destroying government structures is required to advance along the main story line and unlock new missions and items to buy from the black market dealer. There is a wide selection of upgradable weapons and vehicles to purchase and/or steal. The missions serve up the same general objectives (kill somebody or collect something), but the varied elements you’ll encounter along the way make for some distinctive jobs. Yeah, cooperative multiplayer could have been really cool and the sandbox nature of the game does get a bit repetitive after a while, but Just Cause 2 sure is a fun ride.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight Review

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, developed by EA Los Angeles and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: Diverse classes with specific units and upgrades, unique “capture the flag” resource collection, fast-paced multiplayer appeals to a wider audience, looks nice
The Not So Good: New players prohibited from using most content and placed at a distinct disadvantage by linear unlocks, requires persistent online connection (even for single player), terrible pathfinding and units cannot fire and move simultaneously, horrendous game balance with arbitrarily constrained unit counts, pointless skirmish mode with no AI coordination, multiplayer maps are too big for less than ten players, linear conventional campaign, slow repair times makes it a pointless endeavor and negate unit experience, indistinct combatants
What say you? Clearly not a sequel, unique classes and resource collection are countered by a tedious and unfair unlock system, online requirement, oversimplified and unbalanced mechanics, and unit disorganization: 3/8

My first foray into the real time strategy genre was a little niche title called Command & Conquer: Red Alert (you probably haven’t heard of it). My most memorable aspect of the game was my personal favorite weapon: the Tesla coil. Ah, frying those pesky Americans to death. Good times. Anyway, many iterations later (none of which reviewed here, as Electronic Arts is sporadic at best providing review copies, seemingly once every three years) brings us to the conclusion (probably) of the Tiberian half of the Command & Conquer universe, a “twilight” if you will. An lo, it was to be called “Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight.” And it was good. Or was it?

As you would probably expect, Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight looks good. The game includes varied terrain in different environments (desert, snow, urban) with nice attention to detail. The most apparent feature is the use of clouds, which go across the landscape in a dramatic dance of drama. The unit animations are also well done, the models are varied, and the weapon effects are quite nice, with plenty of glowing explosions of death. In addition, Command & Conquer 4 runs well on mid-range systems with most of the graphical options cranked up; you can’t ask for much more. The full motion videos of games past make a return; while the campy nature has been turned down, the acting still leaves a lot to be desired, making them a less enjoyable feature. The sound design is acceptable, with appropriate effects to accompany the mayhem. Some of the instructions are voiced and others are not (especially in the tutorial) and the game features some repetitive unit responses that aren’t terribly funny. I did enjoy the music, though, so Command & Conquer 4 delivers a solid presentation.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight features the epic conclusion (maybe) to the epic struggle between the epic GDI and epic NOD. Epically. The campaign can be played alone and with a friend; while it features objectives that are clearly indicated on the map, it is terribly linear with scripted events and no variety in your objectives. Clearly, Command & Conquer 4 has not evolved beyond the same format used fifteen years ago. The campaign missions are not interesting at all, and actually can be infuriating. Take the first NOD mission, for example (which includes a scripted event during which your units don’t fire…makes sense to me!): you have to guard a convoy that advances whenever your crawler gets near it, preventing you from actually defending it as it always stays far ahead of your troops. Additionally, the first three missions are tutorials that don’t give you any experience, just wasted time. Skirmish games are equally inane: since Command & Conquer 4 requires teamwork to secure all of the required objective locations, coordination with the unresponsive AI is impossible. Multiplayer can be entertaining if you have a good team that sticks to their roles. Victory points are earned from capturing nodes, destroying units, and harvesting tiberium. The online game is very friendly to novice players, since you can respawn with no penalty. Even the multiplayer game is subject to criticism, though, as the maps are designed for five-on-five matches only, and games involving less than ten players result in too much undefended territory. In addition, automatch takes three minutes to find no matches, and custom games frequently have players drop in and out; actually joining a multiplayer game can be quite painful. At least multiplayer is timer-based (there will eventually be a winner), so there are no stalemates.

OK, time for two big complaints. Command & Conquer 4 has opted to go for persistent unlocks, like what you see in Call of Duty, where new units and abilities are given to you based on how much you play. This is really stupid. When you start the game for the first time, you are given five units and one ability in each class. If you then join a multiplayer game against more experienced players, you are instantly at a disadvantage because you have less powerful units and abilities. Who thought this would work in a strategy game? I hate persistent unlocks that make a difference, and they make a huge difference here. Even more maddening is that fact that GDI and NOD unlocks are separate, requiring you to play the game twice as much to gain the same units and abilities for both sides. Idiotic. Additionally, you don’t even get to choose your unlocks, as the developers have arbitrarily decided what’s best instead of letting you choose what works for your tactics. Way to remove strategy and highlight tedium. Simply put, experience ruins the game experience. And the fun doesn’t stop there: Command & Conquer 4 requires a constant internet connection in order to play. Yes, this includes single player modes as well. Brilliant. So much for playing the game on a laptop on the road. Epic fail.

Remember the resource collection that was a staple of Command & Conquer games of old? Gone. Instead we have an interesting capture the flag method of resource collection: tiberium spawns at several locations on a map, and you must use a unit to carry it back to your spawn point. This unlocks more upgrades, but only if you’ve unlocked them through experience first (of course…we wouldn’t want a balanced game, now would we?). Upgrades include bonuses to range, speed, damage, repair, and more abilities for specific units. It’s too bad all but one of them aren’t available to new players. You can even detonate the tiberium on purpose to serve as a giant bomb, destroying your pursuers in the process. This is by far the most interesting aspect of Command & Conquer 4, but, sadly, it’s the only interesting aspect of Command & Conquer 4.

Also completely unlike previous games in the series, Command & Conquer 4 features a single unit serving as your mobile base. The crawler comes in three classes, which determines which units and abilities are available. Offensive crawlers get more powerful units, defensive crawlers get structures, infantry, and superweapons, and support crawlers get air units and spells. What this does is force you into a role and makes coordination more important. Having this mobile base does make construction easier, as all of you units will spawn from your crawler. In fact, you can even queue units while the crawler is moving, and they will automatically deploy when you set down. Command & Conquer 4 could use an infinite queue, however, as constantly clicking the button for replacement is tedious. There is no penalty for death in Command & Conquer 4: you simply respawn and keep all of your upgrades. In fact, the game wants you to die and pick a more appropriate class on occasion. The offensive class is the most traditional and subsequently least interesting: you just get lots of troops. The defensive turrets and bunkers are useful and the support powers are appealing, improving rate of fire, repair, bombardment, or armor for a short period of time.

Command & Conquer 4 does feature the classic counter system for determining maximum damage. You use guns on light units, cannons on medium targets, rockets for air assets, lasers on heavy things, and blasts on reinforced enemies. Each unit has its advantages (and disadvantages) and the key to the game is to produce the appropriate units for your enemy’s armada. The game features a decent interface that makes selecting all of your units easy, and you can place them in formation or order varied stances and abilities (which must be manually triggered, but you have such a low number of units it’s not that micro-intensive). Units gain experience through battle and gain improved armor and damage over time.

The actual gameplay of Command & Conquer 4 is poor. First off, the population cap is very small: you will never have more than ten units at a time, and since there is no economic cost for producing units (just time), everyone will always have the maximum number of units, resulting in a lot of stalemates and drawn-out battles unless one of the sides has the perfect counters. There is no strategy beyond simple countering. Additionally, the penalty for death is too minor: instantaneous reinforcements means losing units is no big deal, and extremely lengthy repair times and minor veteran bonuses makes units expendable. Even worse is the pathfinding, or more specifically when units are moving near other units. They run into each other almost constantly, and since units can’t fire and move at the same time (of course they can’t…what is this, real life?), units will get killed as they slowly jostle around friendly units, not returning fire. Brilliant. You lose units not because of poor tactics, but because they can’t stand still. This also impact the “guard” order: units that guard are always moving and, thus, never fire. So what’s the point? The enemy AI is only a roadblock, decent when in superior numbers but no match in skirmish games. Thus, Command & Conquer 4 will get its longevity through multiplayer, multiplayer that restricts content from all but the most experienced players.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight certainly does not suffer from “sequel-itis,” as this is a completely different game. This does not bother me, actually, despite the clear attempt to cash in on the Command & Conquer name without resembling Command & Conquer gameplay in any way. No, the game fails for many, many other reasons. First, the good news: class-based gameplay stolen from World in Conflict is nice (in theory) and I do like the “capture the flag” method of resource collection. The game is certainly easier to learn, so it’s clear the developers aimed for a larger fan base. However, the end result is that Command & Conquer 4 will appeal to nobody. The campaign is a completely linear affair that injects no innovation. Skirmish mode is worthless as you can’t coordinate with the AI (and coordination is essential in the game’s control-point-based mode). Almost all of the content is locked for new players, requiring a lot of play time to reach the more interesting stuff. The game requires a constant internet connection to play, even for the single player campaign. The population cap is so low that everyone is maxed out, making for equal fights that are only resolved by producing appropriate counter units. Units heal so slowly that preserving units because of experience bonuses is impossible. There is no penalty for death, as you will just churn out units as quickly as they die with no economic considerations whatsoever. Pathfinding is terrible, with units constantly running into each other and moving to arrange themselves, which is a significant problem since units only fire when stationary. The base game is flawed, and the experience features are flawed. If I come back and play Command & Conquer 4 after a month’s absence, I am at a disadvantage not because I am less skilled, but because I simply have not logged as many hours and unlocked as many gadgets as others. Screw that. Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is not worth the effort.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bob Came in Pieces Review

Bob Came in Pieces, developed and published by Ludosity Interactive.
The Good: Custom ship design, varied physics-based puzzles
The Not So Good: Must like platform and puzzle games, fourteen missions go by too quickly, linear enough to discourage replay, really only three ship components
What say you? A platform game highlighted by ship design used for puzzle solutions: 6/8

I’m really terrible at Super Mario Brothers. I can do the first couple of levels of the newest Wii version, but I have yet to get past the end of World 1. Yeah, so platform games are not my forte, but I do tend to review them assuming they offer some unique feature beyond simple running and jumping and death (I specialize in the third option). Bob Came in Pieces comes with one killer features to accompany some physics-based puzzle mayhem: custom ship design. Platform games notoriously suffer from repetitive, linear play, so one would assume that an injection of customization would prove to be beneficial. Is it?

For an independent game, Bob Came in Pieces looks decent enough. The game features 3-D graphics, although the game is played in two-dimensions. The environments are varied, but the textures could use more detail than a simple solid color. Some of the objects have some interesting designs, but a lot of the in-game objects are blocky. The effects are few, although fire and the rockets glow convincingly. The sound design is also very basic, with no voiced dialogue and acceptable effects and music. Bob Came in Pieces doesn’t look as good as some other indie games, but graphics don’t make the game, so I’m not disappointed.

Poor Bob. Seems his ship done got blowed up, scattered all across a strange world populated with crates, boxes, seesaws, and fans. It’s your job to guide his ship, find the missing parts, and leave this exotic land. I’ll start out with ship customization, which ended up being surprisingly limited because you are only given three essential parts: pipes, rockets of varying power, and push and pull beams for moving objects. You can use these to make any kind of arrangement you can dream of, but more varied items and abilities would have produced a more interesting game in the end. You must balance your design (so you don’t tip over) and you can choose the keys used for each of your eight attachment points. Items are collected along the way, so you are restricted somewhat in how many pipes and rockets you can use. Still, I was expecting more diversity in this area of the game, especially because it’s the main draw.

Bob Came in Pieces consists of fourteen levels that are all well designed. You’ll progress through them quickly if you don’t intensively search each and every corner of each and every level. Each puzzle contains things such as burning twigs (obviously), seesaws, doors, crates, balls, conveyor belts, rocks, and fans, using physics to produce solutions. The key is to figure out what the puzzle wants and then go back in time and design your ship. As you can tell from my snarky comment, there is some luck and trail and error associated with making a successful design, and there will undoubtedly be some (a lot) of restarting before you clear a particular challenge. There is usually one clear way to accomplish a task, and it’s just a matter of designing your ship and then executing the design. This means there is little value in replaying a particular level once you have finished it, and with the small array of components at your disposal, coming up with a dramatically different solution is a rare occurrence. Still, Bob Came in Pieces offers gameplay above and beyond your typical platform or puzzle title, so there is certainly a reason to play it for fans of either (or both) genres.

Bob Came in Pieces offers some nice physics-based puzzles placed around custom ship designs to solve the various conundrums placed in front of you. Despite the premise of custom ship design, the limited number of elements (pipes, rockets, and push/pull beams) means most of your creations will end up accomplishing the same thing, just in different directions. There is also a lot of guessing as to what exact configuration you need for the next level: you might end up retrying levels several times before getting the setup right. That said, the game does feel unique, thanks to some innovative puzzles and full freedom to use your admittedly limited tool set as you desire. The fourteen levels are over too quickly, and future expansions (wink wink) would hopefully add more content for ship design. Most of the puzzle elements require one solution, so it’s a matter of making a good design and controlling your ship. This linearity tends to cut down on replay value, but Bob Came in Pieces is certainly fun while it lasts. If you like platform and puzzle games, the ship design of Bob Came in Pieces delivers $10 worth of unique fun.

Friday, March 19, 2010

X³: Gold Edition Review

X³: Gold Edition, developed by EGOSOFT and published by IGS-INTERACTIVE.
The Good: Detailed universe with a robust trade economy, non-linear progression with the ability to build large fleets and factories, extensive selection of items to purchase, mouse-driven interface, varied starting conditions, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: No integration of Reunion content into Terran Conflict requires two full installs, terrible tutorial, restrictions on saving games, immense distances requires liberal time acceleration usage, no multiplayer
What say you? Despite being completely unnecessary, the gold edition of X³ still provides satisfying space trading and combat: 6/8

Despite my affinity for space exploration games, I had avoided the X series of games, mainly because the publisher ignored my requests for a free copy of the game (the nerve!). Until now! The gold edition of X³, appropriately titled X³: Gold Edition, contains both of the games published under the banner: the original Reunion from 2007 and the standalone expansion Terran Conflict, released a year later. Gold Editions are popular among publishers because they can squeeze out some more money from a three-year-old franchise, and those people who missed the series the first couple of times around and see what all the hubbub is about. Let’s explore the hubbub!

The graphics of X³: Gold Edition hold up very well (at least the Terran Conflict side of things), despite being a couple of years old. Increased capabilities of computers have enabled users to crank up all of the detail that X³: Gold Edition can offer, and the result is a fantastic looking space game. Everything in the X-Universe is quite detailed, from the space stations with extraordinary textures and models to the planets and asteroids. The game also does not rely on cheap nebulae to color the backgrounds, although you do fly through dust clouds while navigating through the extensive game universe. The weapon effects and explosions also look good; X³: Gold Edition is certainly one of the best-looking space games out there. The sound design isn’t too shabby either, with a computerized voice dictating all of the surrounding points of interest. The voice acting could be better (you can hear the game’s German development roots), but the music is effective at creating an out-of-the-world atmosphere (or lack thereof, I guess). I was not disappointed at what X³: Gold Edition brings to the table in terms of the presentation.

X³: Gold Edition comes with both X³ games: Reunion and Terran Conflict. Unfortunately, they are separate installs and not linked in any way because Terran Conflict was a standalone expansion and the developers are lazy. I don’t see the need to install everything twice to enjoy all of the content: why couldn’t have the missions from Reunion been imported into Terran Conflict with its improved interface and graphics? As it stands, you’ll have to switch back and forth the different executables. I found that prospect to be quite annoying, so I ended up playing Terran Conflict exclusively after a while. In essence, I was playing the standalone expansion, so the Gold Edition was superfluous, except for the soundtrack CD that was included (oooo!). Clearly, there is no reason to get X³: Gold Edition if you own Terran Conflict.

X³: Gold Edition is open-ended: there is a linear sequence of missions you can undertake, but you can ignore them and just focus on trade and/or combat if you wish. You start out by choosing a career: basic options are available at first (defender, patriot, merchant, assassin), but more are unlocked with increased play time (commander, adventurer, insurgent). Each career gives you varied ships and initial funds, so your initial hours are slightly different. On the features front, X³: Gold Edition falls short in a couple of areas. While you can sink a tremendous amount of time into the game, there is no multiplayer (not that you would notice anyway, as the universe is liberally populated) and you can only save progress when you are docked, unless you buy salvage insurance, and even then you can only use it once. I dislike arbitrary saving restrictions, even if it’s “realistic.” The tutorial is also boring and long, and it uses the same instructions for all ship types: try firing weapons from a merchant ship (it doesn’t have any) and see how far you progress.

The interface of X³: Gold Edition is probably one of the best I have seen in a space simulation, a genre notorious for overwrought controls. The game uses a combination of the joystick (pretty much required, as the keyboard or mouse isn’t as satisfying) and the mouse to an effective result. You can actually point and click on things to target them, something missing from more archaic space simulations. The game also places most of the important information along the screen edges, allowing you to easily access your missions, maps, ships, targets, and stations, along with pertinent trading information. Icons for all of the objects in your current sector are also placed along the screen edges, and can be clicked on. The sector map also lists nearby stations and ships, making navigation in X³: Gold Edition fairly straightforward.

The universe of X³: Gold Edition is extensive, consisting of eight races and eight corporations competing for cold, hard cash. The AI does a nice job placing you in a vibrant setting, as neutral ships buzz around, taking care of their own needs. The universe is so extensive that things are really far apart, even in the same sector. Jump gates are placed for travel between the far reaches of the universe, but traveling between points of interest in the same area can take minutes. You will learn to love the “J” key, used to accelerate time so you aren’t sitting there forever and ever. While it might be more realistic to place things further apart, it doesn’t make for efficient movement.

X³: Gold Edition is about trade, and making money from said trade. Basic trade is very traditional, although there is a clear resource relationship between what a factory produces and what raw materials it needs to make for some interesting production trees. Once you learn this flow, it becomes almost trivially easy to make tons of money. In fact, it borders on tedious: the long transit times don’t help matters, and if you don’t enjoy trafficking goods around the universe, X³: Gold Edition will not appeal. Things get better when you can afford transport ships that automate the process, though. The “best buys” takes a lot of the guesswork (and writing down prices) out of trade, but it’s still boring and tedious if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing. Factories make things interesting, especially when you consider that you can build your own and enter the game’s economy as a private corporation: that’s neat. That’s the one innovative trading feature X³: Gold Edition brings to the table.

Not everyone is going to be friendly, happy traders, so you’ll probably have to engage in some laser-to-laser combat (especially if you chose one of the more combat-intensive initial occupations). Weapons come in two flavors: pew-pew (lasers) and boom-pow (missiles). There are lots of specific types of weapons, from chainguns to anti-matter launchers to torpedoes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can also indulge in various upgrades, from freight scanners to rudder optimizations to a suite of exotic artifacts. All of these things require money (or blowing somebody up), which requires you to do at least some trade or complete missions in order to earn enough cash to purchase them. There are also a lot of ships to destroy: fighter transports, destroyers, frigates, bombers, and the like. If you like an enemy’s ship, you can board it if you have marines at your disposal. You don’t have to limit your upgrades to your own ship, as X³: Gold Edition allows you to control a flight wing and issue orders to all of your subordinates. This means you can become a formidable entity in the galaxy, either economically through resource production or combatively through force. This amount of freedom makes the game interesting, and the AI holds its own in combat situations. If you can stand the tedious nature of trade and the long, boring travel times, X³: Gold Edition offers a lot to like with the economic and military options at your disposal in a non-linear career.

As a gold edition, X³: Gold Edition takes the easy way out: just two DVDs, one for each game, installed separately to maximize the proportion of your hard drive that is wasted. It would have been much better to incorporate the missions from the first game into the second, but none of the improvements to the interface and graphics have been back-ported into Reunion. It’s lazy. Apart from that, though, X³: Gold Edition provides some engrossing open-ended space trading, exploration, and combat. You can start out in a number of different careers of varying difficulties, offering up starting conditions from “easy” to “hard” setups. In any case, the open nature of the X-Universe works quite well, providing a vibrant environment in which to conduct your business. The emphasis is clearly on trade here: although you will enter spats of combat on occasion, you will need to make money in order to upgrade your ship and make it competitive. There are a lot of upgrades, weapons, and items to choose from, letting you customize the role of your ship and find an arrangement that makes you comfortable. The interface is good for a space game, fully integrating the mouse so that you can point and click on things, instead of having to rely on a long list of keyboard commands. There are still some lingering issues that should have been solved by now, like allowing everyone to save anywhere and actually having a decent tutorial, but these are small issues that fans of space games will overlook. If you’ve never taken a gander at X³ before, the Gold Edition is a good place to start, assuming the price isn’t too much higher than the standalone Terran Conflict expansion.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rise of Prussia Review

Rise of Prussia, developed by AGEOD and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Reduced unit count and smaller geographic area makes the game easier to control, comprehensive orders and postures for historically detailed units, variety of leader attributes, mostly informative interface, capable AI, play by e-mail, nice 2-D map, unique setting
The Not So Good: Too similar to previous titles, needs more smaller scenarios
What say you? A smaller scale makes for a more intimate and relatively simplified strategy experience: 6/8

If there’s one country that’s been waiting far too long for its due, it’s got to be Prussia. I mean, it’s like Russia, but with extra “P”! You simply can’t get any better than that. Thankfully, the grand strategy forgers over at (this must be shouted) AGEOD have crafted another title: Rise of Prussia. Following a series of mostly successful games, it looks to be about time to grab your musket and head to Germany to shoot some Prussians and/or Austrians during the Seven Years' War. To be honest, I didn’t realize the conflict was so large (or even existed, actually), spilling over from the French and Indian War that gets much more focus here in the States. Let’s see how AGEOD’s engine has adapted to the 18th Century conflict.

If you’ve played any of AGEOD’s previous titles (Birth of America, American Civil War, Napoleon's Campaigns), then you know exactly what you are going to get in terms of graphics: a very nice 2-D map. Rise of Prussia continues the developer’s tradition of offering a detailed rendition of the region (this time Germany) with a nice artful style that looks great. Additionally, Rise of Prussia contains seemingly historically accurate portraits of most leaders in the game, when white wigs were all the rage. This really helps to immerse you into the game: you are playing with actual people, instead of rectangles with lines in them. There are no battle effects to be seen (just numbers counting down), but this is not a big deal: I would much rather see nothing than a crappy 3-D scene. The music selection is also period-specific, putting you in the mood for historical bloodshed on an epic scale. In short, Rise of Prussia gives you a great presentation for 2-D wargaming.

Rise of Prussia features the Seven Years’ War, a major conflict from 1756 through 1764 pitting Prussia and Great Britain against Austria, France, and Spain. The game includes three tutorials to teach the basics of the game, from the interface to the command structure to attacking enemy units. Once you have the essentials down, there is a short scenario introducing the start of the war and six larger campaigns offering different starting dates. All of the main scenarios end in 1764, starting from 1756 through 1762, depending on your level of dedication. Like previous AGEOD titles, Rise of Prussia suffers from a lack of short scenarios to ease you into the grand campaigns: it would be nice to have small missions sequestered to a portion of the map involving only a couple of armies, but my constant, annoying pleas remain ignored. One thing Rise of Prussia has going for it is the smaller (relatively speaking) map: it makes for a more simplified game (in a good way), with less geography to worry about and lose units across. Victory points are earned by controlling cities and destroying enemy units, and high national morale means an instant victory. If the AI isn’t enough of a challenge for you, play by e-mail is available, although the 100+ turn length of the grand campaigns would require a significant time investment.

The interface of Rise of Prussia is pretty good. Most information is displayed on the main map, from the terrain to weather and resources. Units statuses are also shown on their icon (posture, strength), offering a quick glance at the effectiveness of your military. The new addition to Rise of Prussia is an army outliner, partially stolen from Europa Universalis III, which lists all of your army units along the right side of the screen for easy access. While this is quite nice, it does not allow you to see a list of corps or brigades that are independent of an army, making the outliner only useful for finding a handful of units. Here’s hoping the feature will be expanded in the future. I should also note that it can be difficult to differentiate between countries, as the portrait backgrounds look too similar for Prussia and Austria (blue and gray…seriously?). The comprehensive ledger shows a list of all of your units, in addition to victory conditions and possible replacements, but it’s very unwieldy and should be more streamlined.

Units in Rise of Prussia cover the usual gamut of things that make boom, from infantry to cavalry to marines to artillery to sharpshooters. These units are organized (automatically, according to historical records) into elements (companies, batteries, squadrons), units (battalions and regiments), brigades, corps (is the plural corpses?), and armies. This natural stacking makes controlling a large number of units very easy, as all you need to do is move armies and corps around and all of the subordinate attached units will follow. Couple this with the reduced unit count found in Rise of Prussia and you have a game that’s much easier to control than any of its predecessors. Constructing new units or reinforcing existing ones is a straightforward affair using the revamped interface that features filters meant to simplify the process, which works well. Units are comprehensively rated in a bunch of different areas: offensive fire, defensive fire, initiative, range, rate of fire, protection, discipline, assault, ranged damage, assault damage, cohesion, movement, speed, detection, hide value, weight, support, police, supply, ammo, patrol, and blockade. Not only is that an impressive list, but including it also made my review significantly longer. It’s win-win! Each unit is can be given a number of orders, from simple movement commands to raiding a province to entrenching against an enemy or building a depot. You can also dictate a unit’s offensive or defensive posture and rules of engagement, which determines when they will retreat. For a game that essentially only features moving units around on a map, Rise of Prussia offers up a lot of options to keep it more interesting. The level of detail when it comes to leaders is also impressive: from attributes to special abilities like skirmisher, partisan, hothead, and admired, each leader has distinctive qualities that make them stand out, much more than a generic infantry man found in other games. Leaders can be promoted and demoted, and if you choose to bypass seniority, there is a penalty to be paid in national morale and victory points. The level of detail that was paid to the units and leaders of Rise of Prussia would make and historian proud.

There are a number of variables that must be considered when waging war around the wilds of Germany. Terrain plays an important role, as marshland, bridges, and rich territory can alter your strategic plans. Capturing cities and towns is your primary goal, since this is where all of the victory points are earned. Towns are also where most of your supply is earned, automatically distributed by the computer (thank goodness), so they are doubly important. Supply wagons can carry supplies and units can forage for food, but these are short-term solutions that must be enhanced by capturing territory. Of course, marching into enemy lands has its drawbacks, as attrition from supply shortages and unpleasant weather conditions will take their toll. Combat is completely automated, using all of the attributes and abilities of your units to determine a victor. You can view a detailed battle report to view the kills round by round, but only the truly obsessive will even bother. The AI puts up a nice fight, going after vulnerable units, taking objective locations, and managing its army well; I have no complaints here. While Rise of Prussia features a very detailed engine in which to do battle, so did all of the previous titles, and the lack of extreme innovation is why this game will only ultimately appeal to fans of the series.

If you like any of AGEOD’s previous efforts, then you will like Rise of Prussia. If you hated any of AGEOD’s previous efforts, then you will hate Rise of Prussia. If you were intimidated by any of AGEOD’s previous efforts, Rise of Prussia is a good place to start: the smaller map and decreased unit count makes it easier to handle in comparison. The game would benefit from more shorter scenarios, but you can start the conflict in pretty much any year from 1756 to 1762 until the end of the war in 1764. The tutorials do a decent job teaching the basics, and the interface is effective: the new army outliner makes it easy to access your largest units, but it would be nice to put corps and independent units on there as well. There are a multitude of options available for your strategic needs, from commands to postures to placing units in hierarchical order. Rise of Prussia also seems to be historically accurate, giving you all of the correct units and leaders for each of the starting conditions. The units and leaders themselves are detailed, with plenty of attributes to make automated battle outcomes more interesting. You must also pay attention to supply (thankfully automated), weather, and disease, adding to the strategic depth. The AI is just as good as before, offering up solid competition if you prefer not to engage in a play by e-mail contest. The problem is that we’ve seen this all before, so in the end Rise of Prussia is just Birth of America and American Civil War and Napoleon's Campaigns in a slightly different setting: it all plays out in the same way, so you can think of Rise of Prussia more as a standalone expansion (the game is priced appropriately at $30). The end result is that fans of the developer will be pleased with essentially the same product, and those who steer clear of the series need not apply. Rise of Prussia is the most approachable of any of the games so it is a fine place to start, but it just doesn’t offer that many differences from what’s been available several times over for the past three years.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Flotilla Review

Flotilla, developed and published by Blendo Games.
The Good: Engaging simultaneous turn-based tactical battles with varied strategies to implement, randomized adventure mode and skirmish maps add replay value, upgrades provide ship roles, stylish presentation, nice interface makes 3-D movement easy to execute, $10
The Not So Good: Lacks remote (PBEM, Internet) multiplayer, inconsistent AI
What say you? Quick random campaigns and satisfying tactical combat highlight this turn-based space adventure: 6/8

Some of us, frankly, don't have the time to spend on a marathon session of Sins of a Solar Empire; we need to blow space stuff up now! The hallmark of quick-and-dirty space exploration has been Weird Worlds, offering up bite-sized samples of extraterrestrial combat. In Flotilla, you visit exotic, distant lands, meet strange, interesting people, and shoot them with big freakin’ laser beams. The combat is not automated, rather relying on simultaneous turn-based executing of orders issued every thirty seconds, similar to the approach used in games such as Combat Mission. Is Flotilla a supernova of excellence, or just a black hole near Uranus?

I like the style that Flotilla brings to the table. Independent developers know that they are working with limited resources, and Flotilla puts constrained funds to good use to produce a distinctive package. The universe is a simple map of planets and stars that looks slightly better than a typical 2-D space game as it incorporates some three dimensional effects. As for the battles, there are no textures for the ships or other objects in the game, just simple monochromatic colors. This cell-shaded effect is successful, in a futuristic minimalist way. The ship models are characteristic enough to identify classes based on looks alone. The special effects can be impressive (a slew of missiles, especially), and the explosions are decent enough. The orange backgrounds become repetitive: while they contrast well with the colors used for the ships, some more variety would be nice to promote the cheap showiness of outer space. Flotilla behaves better when windowed (running full-screen resulted in a blank display about half of the time) and the minimum resolution is high (1280 by 720), so low-res gamers beware. The sound design is also pleasing: I like the classical music that fits the deliberate pace of the game, along with a “ding” when you earn a critical hit and enthusiastic applause when you win. Overall, Flotilla delivers a great presentation, especially for the price.

The main method to enjoy Flotilla is through the adventure mode. A pilot with only seven months to live leaves on the promise of adventure and meeting rogue cats on the run. The adventure mode features randomized maps so each game is slightly different. The events and encounters are also randomized, although after about four or five run-throughs you’ll start repeating things. You’ll run into a lot of deliberately strange characters out in space, from chicken pirates (obviously) to a reference to Ren’s space madness. Encounters can grant upgrades if you are successful in combat or produce other side effects, like extra ships or battles down the road. Upgrades can be used to customize your ships’ roles, providing positive enhancements in armor, firing rate, and ship speed. The adventure mode is meant to be quite short (in the same vein as Weird Worlds): most games won’t last more than a half-hour, and most take around ten minutes to complete (and by “complete” I mean “die”). You cannot save your progress during the middle of an adventure, but because of the short mission length, it’s not really an issue. You won’t lose progress by dying (which happens frequently), and the game suggests starting anew with another adventure using a sequential numbering system. The downside to these short game lengths is that you never really survive long enough to control the big ships. There is also a lot of luck involved in determining which (and how many) enemies you encounter. Some battles are simply too imbalanced against you to survive, so it’s time to exit out and start another round. You can focus on avoiding the red, combat-guaranteed planets early on as you build up your fleet, but if you get unlucky with events, you can be dead after the first turn. Again, it’s not a big deal since a game is supposed to be quick anyway. The game keeps a record of your high scores (seemingly based on how many turns you survive), although it would be nice to save your journal entries along with the score for some historical flavor.

Apart from the adventure mode, you can take part in two-on-two skirmish matches against the computer or a friend on the same machine. You can customize the ship types involved, from missile destroyers to torpedo gunships to battleships (six in all), and have up to six ships for each side slugging it out. The skirmish mode features randomized tactical maps, extending the replay value of Flotilla. Unfortunately, Flotilla lacks multiplayer over the Internet or play by e-mail. The turn-based nature of the game would have been seemingly perfect for e-mail contests, where you can take your time overanalyzing the next move. While the population of the game might not support it, real-time online action through a server browser would work well too. Flotilla would be so great as a multiplayer game, and its lack of robust support in this area is deflating.

Flotilla is a simultaneous turn-based game, meaning that each person executes his or her (well, his) orders while the game is paused followed by thirty seconds of non-involvement. Orders are given in a stepped process that streamlines the process and highlights the well-designed interface of Flotilla. First, you choose a movement mode: a balanced attack, flank movement that trades fire power for speed, and a focus fire mode that offers the opposite. Next you plot your destination, starting with horizontal movement; the game shows the end as a circle on a flat grid, along with the positions of other ships. This makes moving in 3-D space very straightforward and eliminates the confusion inherent with complex movement. Afterwards, you can choose movement along the vertical axis. While it would be nice to have multiple waypoints in a 30-second interval (for circular or more intricate movement), the time interval is short enough where it never really becomes a significant issue. After you plot your movement, you can choose the orientation of your ship. The game automatically points your ship towards a designated enemy, but this actually isn’t the most optimal placement. More damage is suffered on the bottom and rear of your ships, so you’ll actually want to manually adjust your ship to keep the top towards the enemy.

The key to Flotilla is getting behind and below the enemy. It would seem that the best option would be to dive, dive, dive, but since ships can roll over, an opposing unit can quickly (during one thirty-second turn) put you “on top” (there is no “up” in space) and negate your strategy. You can also use obstacles as cover: asteroids and space junk is randomly placed around the map, and you can use this “terrain” for strategic purposes. It’s easy to win with the default ships you are given if you are up against beam destroyers: while a beam will kill you in one or two shots, you can stay out of range and pick them off with missiles. Once you discover this basic strategy, Flotilla becomes almost trivially easy. Battleships provide a tougher opponent with their mixture of short- and long-range weaponry, but as long as you don’t run your ships into each other (as I found out during one adventure), you’re good to go. The AI opponents are average at best: they will almost always attack your ships instead of using flanking maneuvers, and they will rotate on occasion, but it’s still too easy to get below and behind them for an easy kill. Although the AI rotates to shield vulnerable areas from incoming fire, it doesn't flank often enough, especially when it has superior numbers. Flotilla really only becomes difficult when they severely outnumber you, and even then you can escape with a victory more often than not. It took me about eight adventures before I fully learned the game and started dominating the AI, no matter how many ships they (or I) had. Online or play by e-mail features would obviously counter the AI shortcomings, so we are only left to wonder what could have been.

Flotilla is one of those games you fire up for twenty minutes for a quick lunchtime play session. It reminds me strongly of Weird Worlds, replacing robust space items with tactical battles. The adventure mode incorporates random maps and events to keep each game slightly different, although you will encounter the same characters once you’ve played a couple of times. The adventures are meant to be short (which negates the inability to save), lasting under half an hour and ending when you unluckily encounter a superior force. Upgrades and additional ships gathered along the way can ease the difficulty associated with bigger numbers of enemies. Skirmish games can involve up to six ships in hot two-on-two action; the lack of multiplayer is distressing here, as the tactical battles would be perfect for play by e-mail or online action. Sure, you can have two players on the same computer, but what PC gamers have friends? The tactical battles are interesting, turn-based affairs where you can plan your movement and orientation every thirty seconds. The time intervals are short enough where issuing only one waypoint per turn isn’t an issue. With randomized maps populated with space debris and the overall strategy of getting behind and below your enemies, the tactical battles involve a lot of maneuvering that play out like dramatic naval battles, except in three dimensions instead of two. What seems like really superficial gameplay actually turns out to be quite deep. The AI is OK, doing some smart moves like rotating their ships on occasion, but the computer rarely flanks your ships and they can be easily bested regularly with practice. Battles are tense affairs where your plans may or may not work out, and the turn-based nature gives you time to plan and places emphasis on strategy instead of quick reflexes and button mashing. The random elements really increase the replay value of Flotilla, and the graphics and sound are excellent for the $10 price tag. The AI provides acceptable competition for short bursts of enjoyment without online competition, but the thirst for human opponents remains unquenched. The game is fun, but I’m left wondering how much better the battles would be with humans scripting the on-screen action. The addition of play by e-mail and online battles would create a complete gaming experience and provide challenge that the AI simply cannot provide.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 Review

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943, developed by Graviteam and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Turn-based operational and real-time tactical gameplay, genuine ballistics and damage, usually intelligent pathfinding and automated unit behavior, very large authentic map of the region, generally helpful interface, quick mission builder
The Not So Good: Limited operational strategies, no multiplayer, no tutorial, can't save a battle in progress, can't restart a campaign, poor performance when time is accelerated in large battles, unpleasant sound design
What say you? A very detailed World War II real time strategy game dripping with realism but slowed by a throwaway turn-based mode and a lack of multiplayer: 6/8

It’s been a long six weeks since we’ve tackled a World War II strategy game, and dare I say it’s time yet again! This time, the attention turns towards the Eastern Front and the quagmire that was (is?) Kharkov. We’ve been here before and Achtung (no, not “acting,” stupid Microsoft Word) Panzer: Kharkov 1943 highlights action the third time around, focusing on the battles outside of the city. The game goes the Total War route, combining both operational-level strategic gameplay with tactical battles involving squads of troops. Does Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 deliver some strategy gaming goodness?

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 looks decent enough for a 3-D strategy game. There are some aspects to the game that look very nice, namely the terrain and foliage that dots said terrain. The game is reminiscent of World War II: General Commander, with realistically muted environments. The game successfully evokes a setting that is downright cold and generally depressing. Models look excellent from up close (especially armored units), with nice animations when guns are being reloaded and tracks are being laid. Explosions and damage are disappointing, with low-res smoke billowing from destroyed vehicles. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 has deformable terrain and structures, and this produces an ever-changing landscape. Additionally, there are some nice weather and time-of-day effects. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does have poor performance while time is accelerated, though, so those of us with modest systems should be somewhat wary. Ironically, in some large battles 4X time acceleration actually goes slower than real time for me; time for a new processor! The sound effects are not the best: the weapon sounds are terrible and lack the punch required of powerful equipment. Additionally, Kharkov seems to be populated with a large amount of dogs, as that's the effects that dominates the soundtrack. Other effects, like running into fencing, repeat themselves too often and a grating. This aspect of the game could be a lot better. Still, Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 offers some nice visuals, and it’s certainly no worse off than similar competitors.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 takes place in Kharkov in 1943. See how well I can read the game title? There are six scenarios with different starting forces and positions that summarize the hot World War II action from March 2nd to 8th. Each scenario has between five and fifteen turns, during which you move your forces around. The game features some large maps, nine square kilometers at maximum, giving you room to make some interesting strategic plans. Automated saving in Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 frankly makes no sense: you can’t restart an operation (campaign) once you have begun, and the interface uses some weird lighting system to indicate progress. I can’t find the saved game files are stored, so once you start, you’re stuck with your decisions until you are done. Couple this with the inability to save during an hour-long battle and you have a strange, annoying, and eerily console-like system. Beyond the six scenarios, you can utilize the excellent quick battle editor, which allows you customize the troops involved, battlefield, time of day, and weather: pretty neat. This almost (but doesn’t) make up for the lack of multiplayer. That’s right: Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 features no competition against humans, either over a LAN, direct IP connection, or online. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 gets the basics down, but the features could be more complete.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 consists of two game modes: a turn-based operational game and real-time battles. You’ll start out in the turn-based mode, with your troops scattered around Kharkov and the surrounding vicinity. The maps consist of square kilometer squares (not hexes? Blasphemy!) which puts a limit on your strategic options, since only one unit can occupy a single square at a time. You can move multiple units into a square for an attack, though, so battles can get large. Victory points are given out for occupied squares, and certain locations have more points assigned to them; surrounded squares only grant one-third of the points. The turn-based mode isn’t terribly interesting because you are limited to (a) movement and (b) repairing. Movement is restricted by the terrain as well, so there are many instances when you simply cannot move anywhere (since units cannot be stacked). Surrounded units cannot be repaired or refueled, so the general strategy involves encircling enemy units and taking important victory locations. The turn-based mode of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is more like a placeholder rather than an integral part of the game, and additional features would make this aspect of the game feel more complete.

Better are the real-time tactical battles, which add a heavy dose of realism to make for an authentic atmosphere. The objective is simple: kill more stuff. There are flags you can capture along the way, the proportion of which is used to determine who controls the area after the battle has finished. Most battles have a time limit of one hour, although the AI will submit a cease-fire request if things are unbalanced before then. You must play the entire battle in one sitting, as Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does not allow you to save your progress. Because you can’t possibly have anything else to do, right? All Panzer, all the time! The first thing you’ll do is deploy your forces: you can place one unit in every 32x32 meter square. Each square indicates the type of unit that can be placed there and the amount of cover it offers. The maps are quite large (each deployment area is a square kilometer, and most maps consist of three to four of them, plus the middle area where most of the battle will take place), so there is a good amount of strategic freedom given to the player.

The interface of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 does an excellent job displaying useful information and giving you quick access to all of your units. First, the game puts all of your units in a two-column hierarchical list in the upper right corner of the screen: extremely helpful. The game can also display tactical information on the map using a series of colored circles and lines, displaying command range, weapon range, movement orders, and current attack target. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 also gives you a comprehensive assortment of orders: move, attack, fire, defend, target priority, mount/dismount, and firing arcs are all available. In addition, you can customize a formation, from the shape (line or column) to the width and height. You can also tell tanks to move at the front of a formation, move along roads or through forest, and spot targets for off-map artillery. There are a lot of options at your disposal, and Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 makes it easy to access all of these by placing them on the screen using large, easily identifiable icons. Confusingly, though, friendly units are colored red and enemy units are blue (a disturbing trend). Still, this is a minor complaint in what otherwise is a very helpful interface.

Because you can manually tell units to utilize roads during travel, pathfinding in Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is generally good. Problems arise when issuing orders to many units along a narrow road, but nothing too terrible. The up-close battlefield camera reveals that infantry units do a poor job using buildings and cover, spreading out over a large area and exposing several units to untimely death. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 features some realistic features when computing battlefield results, like line of sight, cover, and armor penetration graphs. The small command radii means that infantry units must be kept close to their commander to receive the morale bonus, which can (realistically) reduce your tactics somewhat. Damage is handled well in the game, with individual components (tracks, weapons, crew) being destroyed rather than the whole vehicle at once. The AI is fine, working better as a defender since large maps can mean a lot of waiting for an incoming attack. The computer usually goes for the objective locations and keeps units organized well. Units also behave nicely on their own, automatically engaging enemy units when appropriate (unless told to hold fire). There are lots of unknowns in the game, since the setup area is so large and there are usually multiple waypoints to capture and not enough forces to cover them all. You can hear the sounds but not see the units if they are not in your line of sight; I don't know if that is intentional or not, but it is helpful. Overall, the combination of realistic damage and unit attributes with large, varied maps produces some interesting tactical gameplay.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 has a remarkable attention to detail that permeates everything throughout the game. Everything, that is, except for the auxiliary features. The game comes with six scenarios detailing the struggle for in Kharkov; the battles take place across large maps that are rendered in high detail. Unfortunately, the turn-based mode never gets beyond “move” and “reinforce,” and further reduces potential strategies with extremely large map squares that can only contain a single unit. The long battles (an hour, usually) cannot be saved mid-conflict and progress in a campaign cannot be reset. The quick mission builder is very nice, offering a lot of flexibility for continued play. This feature is offset by the complete lack of multiplayer options. A strategy game without multiplayer is like a Southerner without moonshine: it just doesn’t work. The tactical battles are good fun, though, with a great attention to detail, from weapon ballistics (with armor penetration graphs!) to unit morale. The maps are large enough to allow for some variety in planning your attacks, and you are never quite sure where the AI is coming from. The interface makes finding units and other pertinent information a breeze, and the pathfinding is good as long as you keep units organized and tracked vehicles confined to roads. The battles rival the quality action of Men of War, minus direct control. Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 is certainly better than similar titles like Officers, and those willing to look past the occasional missteps will find a core game that is highly enjoyable in its realistic tilt.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Wings of Prey Review

Wings of Prey, developed by Gaijin Entertainment and published on yuPlay.
The Good: Excellent graphics, several interesting multiplayer modes, convincing flight physics, good AI pilots, range of realisms, decent number of scenarios
The Not So Good: Strictly linear campaign, “only” 44 planes, lacks editing software, déjà vu all over again
What say you? It's good, but no better than IL-2: 5/8

For my money, the best combat flight simulator of all time is IL-2 Sturmovik. It successfully combined authentic flight modeling, outstanding graphics, and large dynamically- generated scenarios to deliver a very enjoyable experience. For a while, we PC gamers had this gem all to ourselves, but then our greedy console brethren got an adaptation in the form of IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. Now, the port has been ported back to the PC in the form of Wings of Prey. Got all that? The main crux of this review will focus on the following: Wings of Prey is $50, while IL-2 is $10. $40 better? Let’s find out together!

One of the two things that set Wings of Prey apart from IL-2 Sturmovik is the graphics: they are quite outstanding here. I don’t think it would be a dramatic exaggeration to say that Wings of Prey is the best-looking flight simulation on the market, thanks to impressively detailed terrain. The places you fly over look fantastic, dotted with hills, trees, buildings, and other structures that make for an almost photo-realistic setting. It’s impressive. The plane models remain very detailed and the damage effects are nice, especially fire and tracer rounds that dot the sky with glowing death. Surprisingly, Wings of Prey runs quite smoothly despite the nice graphics, a testament to a good engine. The sound design isn’t quite as impressive, though it is successful: engine sounds, guns, and damage all seem accurate enough. The advantage that linear campaign missions have is more location-specific dialogue, which helps to effectively immerse you in the battles. Overall, Wings of Prey offers up an impressive presentation highlighted by high-quality visuals.

The features of Wings of Prey are comparable with the first release of IL-2 way back in 2001, which is disappointing considering this game is nine years older. A tutorial is included to teach you the controls and flight mechanics, and it does a fine job. The campaign is very limited: twenty scripted missions unlocked in progression. You will fight in the skies above Britain, Stalingrad, Sicily, the Korsun Pocket, the Bulge, and Berlin (no Pacific stuff). The missions are predictable (at least in terms of objectives and enemy forces) after the first play, and there is no semblance of the two hundred dynamically generated missions that IL-2 featured. You are also given six single missions per campaign, and a training skirmish mode where you can customize the setting, difficulty, weather, time of day, and other options. Wings of Prey does not appear to be as friendly towards user modifications, as I could not find any editing software included with the game. The other key feature of Wings of Prey (in addition to the graphics) is multiplayer. There are four game modes to choose from: the usual dogfight (deathmatch) and team battle (team deathmatch), but two that are unique. Capture the airfield has two teams attempting to land a plane on a runway, and strike has a number of ground targets that must be destroyed. Both of these are pretty cool, and Wings of Prey also features in-game matchmaking with a server browser instead of relying on third-party applications. Nice, but not $50 nice.

Wings of Prey features 44 planes, such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Yak-1, Hurricane Mk IIb, and P51-D Mustang. This is a good number to keep you busy, but it’s no match for the 229 flyable aircraft in IL-2. They are modeled well and do provide some different experiences, from varied roles to diverse cockpits. The physics remain of the highest quality, providing a convincing experience of piloting a rickety plane that’s going way too fast for its own good. Flying these planes is a conventional affair for flight sim enthusiasts, though Wings of Prey did a terrible job setting up my modest joystick: it did not detect it automatically, so I had to set everything up myself. Wings of Prey features three difficulty/realism settings: arcade, realistic, and simulator. Essentially, the user interface becomes less informative and blackouts and stalls become more common as you stop being polite and start getting real. When the game starts out in third-person by default, though, you know the target audience. The AI pilots provide some good competition, using appropriate tactics and requiring skill to shoot down. Still, Wings of Prey is not a terribly difficult game, as the scenarios are usually balanced so that you fight fair. You can tell that this game was made with consoles in mind, as it provides a good but scripted and linear experience that doesn’t measure up to its predecessor.

Wings of Prey has better graphics and built-in multiplayer support, but is that worth an extra $40? The easy answer is: no. All of the good features this game has were included before, except for the more robust online options. The game does look darn good, but I doubt many people who frequent flight simulations will be distracted by shiny things, at least not to the tune of $50. Wings of Prey features a fine selection of over forty aircraft, but it obviously pales in comparison to 229 flyable aircraft. The campaigns are too linear, both individual missions and the unlocking order of said missions, to be enjoyed multiple times. The lack of dynamic campaigns and pilot careers really hurts Wings of Prey in terms of replay value. That said, you do get twenty-six action-packed missions and skirmish battles, so there is some value here. Multiplayer options are nice: four game modes including capture the airfield and bombing strikes deliver some distinctive features. Wings of Prey offers a range of difficulty and realism options, but so did IL-2. The quality AI and exceptional flight physics are quality and exceptional, but so were they in IL-2. You can probably see where I am going with this. Wings of Prey would have been more appropriate as a $20 (or maybe $30) game considering the competition, but alas it is fully priced. Luckily, we have choices on the PC, and my choice is to save $40.