Friday, April 30, 2010

Scourge of War: Gettysburg Review

Scourge of War: Gettysburg, developed and published by NorbSoftDev.
The Good: Online play with multiple human commanders per side, compelling tactical gameplay, impressive historical accuracy, mostly intelligent AI provides challenging competition, comprehensive suite of orders
The Not So Good: Can’t finish a scenario early, no dedicated servers for multiplayer, some AI pathfinding issues, eerily similar to TC2M, outdated graphics
What say you? The addition of multiplayer highlights this evolution of the Take Command series of realistically detailed military tactical simulations: 7/8

The Take Command series was one of those underappreciated gems of the strategy genre. Allowing you to command forces during the American Civil War in the battles of the day, both the original game, the pleasingly long-named The History Channel: Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run: Take Command: 1861, and its sequel Take Command: 2nd Manassas provided satisfying tactical combat with a realistic tilt. A couple of the developers from those two titles have resurfaced and brought Scourge of War: Gettysburg with them for our approval. This new game takes the foundation laid by the Take Command titles and adds multiplayer, moving the action to the pivotal battle of the Civil War. Is this a must-have game for seasoned veterans and green recruits alike?

Not surprisingly, if you are familiar with the Take Command games (and if you are not, shame on you!), Scourge of War: Gettysburg features 2-D sprites on a 3-D battlefield, much like the first Total War games. This has the advantage of allowing for lots and lots of units on-screen at one time, but it has the disadvantage of looking archaic. The 2-D sprites could be animated much better, as they do not move fluidly at all. You can increase the detail level of the troops, which does add in some uniforms and make them appear crisper up close, but 3-D units would be better. From a distance, though, the soldiers look fine, and this low-resolution concession does allow the game to run on a wider range of systems. The terrain remains populated with low-resolution textures that don’t mesh well. Trees and walls look decent, though, and the topography is convincing, but the textures could be improved. The maps are historically accurate with lots of detail that adds to the realism of the game. The smoke emanated from recently fired weapons looks good and serves as a great visual indicator of whether units are engaged in combat. However, the artillery explosions are sad little puffs that are completely underwhelming. The sound design mostly consists of unit movement and weapon effects, though the occasional environmental ambiance is heard (those birds love to chirp). There is no voice acting in the game, so you’ll have to read all of the incoming instructions from your superiors (which I guess is realistic). Units tend to yell and scream rather than give witty repartee during battle. The background music is fitting for the setting. While the graphics of Scourge of War: Gettysburg are definitely improved over its predecessor, offering better terrain detail and slightly sharper soldiers, they still doesn’t compare to the Total War games with some poor effects and animations, but they don’t have to.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg is all about Gettysburg (it is in the title, after all). The game features twenty scenarios depicting the battle, from strictly historical premises to more flexible variants. Each typically has a victory location you must hold and defend, and the missions take place in various locations around the sleepy town. There are some historical scripted events that take place, but most of the time you have complete freedom to achieve your objectives. Some scenarios require you to finish earlier scenarios first, as the units carry over. This is a neat, immersive feature, but the game doesn’t clearly indicate which scenarios these are (it will simply not allow you to proceed, stating which scenario must be completed first); I prefer the verbose linked list of Take Command 2nd Manassas over the stylish map of Scourge of War: Gettysburg. Disappointing is the static mission time: it’s over when it’s over, no sooner and no later, even if you have dominated the map with twenty minutes left or the objective is closely contested when time runs out. Specific example: an hour-long scenario required 2,000 points for a major victory, and I had 14,000 with thirty minutes left. I had to just sit there until time ran out even though I had exceeded the standards far in advance. This affects multiplayer more, when you can’t accelerate time to speed things up to a finish. Also included is a very flexible sandbox mode with four Gettysburg maps (and one of Kansas for a more balanced battle); you can customize the order of battle, commander, size, battle type (attack, defend, line of sight (an engagement), hunt them down (can’t see the enemy at start)), score limit, time limit and starting time. You can also import user-crafted scenarios for your killing enjoyment. The game’s five tutorials are actually exciting, challenging exercises instead of the tedium we usually experience while learning the game. Overall, Scourge of War: Gettysburg offers a lot of content and large replay value thanks to the sandbox modes and extensive, difficult scenarios.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg offers a wide range of realism options to please everyone from hardened veterans of Civil War-era combat to new players. The seven preset levels of difficult determine AI regiment strength, how much is shown on the map, where you can move the camera, and whether orders must be physically carried by horseback. If you want a truly immersive experience, historical difficulty is the way to go: it puts you on an even playing field with the strong AI, makes you rely on the unpredictable and delayed courier system for orders, and ties the camera to your avatar, so you never really know what’s going on. That type of uncertainty was key in the Civil War, and in that aspect Scourge of War: Gettysburg is very engaging. While I really like the idea of restricting the camera view, in practice it makes clicking on the correct place and issuing an appropriate facing direction very difficult since your view is so close to the ground. I personally choose a custom setting, picking the historical options except for a more forgiving camera to make placing exact orders actually possible.

The big addition that Scourge of War: Gettysburg brings is multiplayer. You can find matches through the in-game browser or specify a direct IP address for pre-arranged carnage. The game lets you use any of the scenario maps or create a sandbox battle. Each human competitor picks a commander, allowing Scourge of War: Gettysburg to be played both competitively and cooperatively using the real order of battle. It’s a fantastic system that makes the game feel like true, (somewhat) organized war instead of simply throwing a couple of people on the same team and splitting up the units. You can even team up against the AI, or add a handicap to put experienced players at a disadvantage. If you play at one the historical difficulty level, you’ll only be able to access and directly command your units and orders must be transmitted through couriers, which makes the upper level commanders important through their ability to coordinate strategies. Otherwise, there is no real point to playing an army or corps commander that has no direct units. It should also be noted that multiplayer games cannot be accelerated (meaning you have to stick around for the entire battle) and there are no dedicated servers, as all connections are peer-to-peer. Still, the realistic ramifications of multiplayer in Scourge of War: Gettysburg should make any strategy gamer salivate.

Scourge of War: Gettysburg gives you a ton of commands to issue to your willing troops. The simplest is movement: double-click on the ground to send a single unit, or select a commander, double-click, and then select a formation to send him and all his subordinate units on their way. Other orders are given through the command box by clicking on the appropriate icon. These include wheel (change facing), flank (side-step…very useful for lining things up properly), stop, run, lie down or stand up, about face, use roads, mount or dismount, and limber or unlimber. You can also instruct units to use cover by using the “7” and “8” keys; why there isn’t an icon for this I have no idea. Moreover, you can give a stance to a unit (all-out attack, attack, probe, defend, hold, or hold to the last) and a behavior (charge, advance, fall back, retreat, hold fire, shot type) to further customize your strategies. Units can be placed in a number of formations: column, line, line with reserves, double line, column by divisions, skirmish, column of regiments in lines or sections, and road column. The game’s units are organized, as they were historically, in an order of battle: regiment, brigade, division, corps, and finally army. Searching through the order of battle can move you to a specific unit, or you can also use the arrow keys to move up, down, and across the OOB: very handy. Unfortunately, there are still some hiccups: you can’t select a destination flag to see which unit is headed there, and the game still doesn’t display the current level of time acceleration. Nevertheless, Scourge of War: Gettysburg gives you plenty of options for placing your troops in the best possible situation.

If you opt for one of the more realistic difficulty levels, messages to superior and subordinate entities must be sent by courier. These automated horseback units have two effects: they delay the execution of your orders, and they can be intercepted by the enemy, resulting in realistically inconsistent communication between officers. There is a whole suite of orders you can issue, from simple movement commands to requesting (or giving) support or information on spotted enemy units. You can also impose a delay on your orders to coordinate attacks better. While this procedure is certainly quite realistic, it has some issues. First, each order sends out a different courier: issuing a movement, facing, and formation command requires three riders. You also cannot see the facing direction when issuing an order. The AI will adjust accordingly once enemy units are spotted, but I would rather have more control through a better interface indication. The couriers also have very poor pathfinding, routinely going in the line of fire and getting shot as a result. Finally, you can issue orders to any subordinate unit, not just those one level below in the order of battle, which leads to mixed and multiple conflicting orders for infantry regiments, especially in multiplayer. While I certainly like the idea of the courier system, it needs some additional development to work well.

Troops during the American Civil War (or, as Southerners called it, “Get off my lawn!”) came in three flavors: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. These units are organized in the aforementioned order of battle, making things generally easy to find. It is still too difficult to spot the currently selected unit, as the subtle blue highlight surrounding the selected unit’s flag is, well, too subtle. Each unit in the game has a historic weapon range, level of experience, turning speed, skirmish ability, firearms skill, horsemanship, and surgery ability, all of which determine their overall effectiveness on the field of battle. It is important to pay attention to a unit’s morale and fatigue, both of which are clearly displayed on the interface: being tired makes you fight less effectively, and units will rout when distressed. Commanders for each unit are rated in terms of experience, command ability, leadership, and style. Most impressive is the historical accuracy of Scourge of War: Gettysburg: all of the units, leaders, and scenarios have been extensively researched, but the AI and scenarios still offer some variety to add replay value to the title. The game also features an impressive sense of scale, with lots of units doing battle over the large maps.

Battles in Scourge of War: Gettysburg take place in real-time (as in life). While you can accelerate time, the game never displays how fast it’s currently advancing and the option is disabled in multiplayer. Success in the game depends on the proper usage of terrain, support, and angles. Unit combat bonuses are earned by being close to a commanding officer, other units, defensive terrain (like fencing or walls), high ground, or by resting those weary feet. Scourge of War: Gettysburg is all about flanking the enemy: placing one regiment head-on and then moving another to the side, allowing the full force of your weapons to fire on the end of the enemy formation. Units will engage the enemy automatically when in range (usually 160 yards) and face towards the target on their own. Subordinate commanders are pretty good about following orders given to an entire brigade, and will automatically change formation and facing based on your commands. However, there is the occasional stupid AI decision involving pathfinding (tring to use roads when not appropriate) and unit facing (changes too often). Luckily, you can take direct control of any subordinate unit and make them behave. Cavalry units are useful for disrupting lines of infantry quickly, and artillery is very deadly and punishes enemy morale. Stalemates can be resolved by resulting to melee fighting, and defeated troops can be rallied (automatically) by closely placed officers. The enemy AI is fairly smart, altering its strategy during a battle and during repeats of the same engagement, increasing the replay value of the title as a whole. It sometimes has trouble achieveing objectives, especially in sandbox matches (occasionally ignoring them altogether), but overall it provides decent competition. There is, of course, no substitute for real human opponents, but I feel the AI in Scourge of War: Gettysburg serves as a good substitute if you can’t find any online matches. The game is certainly challenging across the board, especially the more scripted scenarios in the campaign. I found the combat of Scourge of War: Gettysburg, much like Take Command: 2nd Manassas, to be quite compelling and interesting from a tactical and strategic perspective, far more interesting than modern combat with powerful weapons engaging at large ranges. There’s a more personal feel to this game, and the result is some very engaging military combat.

Those looking for an accurate depiction of Civil War era tactical combat need to look no further: Scourge of War: Gettysburg is your game. The game excels at historical immersion, placing you in the saddle of the greatest (and not so greatest) generals of the era and giving you the partial information and confusion they had to deal with. Historical difficulty pits you against the strong AI in a battle for combat supremacy, restricting your view to a third person perspective and requiring the use of couriers for genuinely delayed orders. Of course, if you want a less constrained experience, more relaxed settings are also available. The game is ripe with extensively researched historical accuracy, from the orders of battle for the twenty scenarios to the maps they take place on. The AI provides a different enough experience each time you play, adjusting to your strategies, that you can enjoy the same scenario multiple times with diverse results. Of course, playing in the sandbox mode really opens things up, extending the longevity of the title. Multiplayer is also handled quite well, with each human player choosing a different general and working cooperatively with his (or her, I suppose) team against the opposing side. Scourge of War: Gettysburg is the most realistically implemented multiplayer strategy game I can recall. There are lots of orders available to specify movement and behavior of your subordinates, although the AI leaders do adjust to incoming threats well on their own. The AI does make some curious decisions involving using roads when not appropriate and changing their facing far too often, but overall it handles things admirably. The interface remains the same, so the poor flag highlight system and double-click-to-move oddities are still present. For owners of Take Command, Scourge of War: Gettysburg gets you multiplayer in addition to improved graphics and more orders (flank and oblique being quite useful) and formations. The game still features the very compelling tactical combat the series has always offered, improved with only a couple of subtle issues. Is it worth $45? Certainly overall it is, and I feel that the addition of multiplayer and the new commands and historically accurate setting are enough to justify a purchase for existing Take Command players as well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sleep Is Death Review

Sleep Is Death, developed and published by Jason Rohrer.
The Good: Totally unique, simple graphics allow for open-ended development, time constraint emphasizes quick thinking, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Must know partner in advance (or use a matching website), no sound effects, more default content would be nice (plenty is on the way, though), lacks a manual or in-game tutorials
What say you? A completely original free-form real-time storytelling adventure for two players: 7/8

Adventure games are notoriously linear affairs, and, subsequently, quite boring. Once you've figured out the inane puzzles and nonsensical solutions, there is really no need to play again. But what if the story was created in real-time based on your actions? And what if it was being created by another human? Thus is the premise of Sleep Is Death: two players engage in an adventure of time-based tragedy and/or hilarity: each has thirty seconds to move the story along towards its uncertain conclusion. Does this experimental project work?

Sleep Is Death comes at an extremely low resolution: 640 by 480 pixels. The advantage of these minimalist graphics is that it is very easy to create custom content, which is the strength of the game. Anybody can draw characters or other objects that measure 20 pixels by 20 pixels, even me! The tools, which will be explained in more detail later, are powerful and flexible, although they require a bit of a learning curve. Anybody who’s used any paint application will feel right at home once they learn the nuances of the system. The included content is decent enough to get you started. As for the sound design, there are no sound effects to speak of, but there is background MIDI music that can be edited, which is a nice touch. Overall, the presentation of Sleep Is Death is on par with old 8-bit adventures, but it works because you can easily make custom creations.

Sleep Is Death requires two human players to enjoy. The easiest approach is to know someone and play over a LAN or through the Internet. There is no in-game browser of available games, but there is a fan website for matchmaking purposes if you lack real friends. Games there fill up very quickly (usually less than ten seconds) so you are never at a loss for a partner, but you must be quick in joining contests. It took some effort to get my ports forwarded correctly, but playing over a LAN was a lag-free and enjoyable experience. Sleep Is Death features an OK assortment of default objects, but it could definitely use some more content (rooms, scenes, characters). Luckily, the community has already exploded with unique assets. The $14 price tag gives you both Windows and Macintosh executables and the source code that can be compiled onto Unix-based systems, making everyone in the PC realm happy. You license grants you access to two games, one to keep and one to share with a friend (since Sleep Is Death is a two-player affair). While I would liked to have seen in-game matchmaking included with the base game, fortunately the community has stepped up to provide an interface for joining games and sharing content.

The first human is the controller, basically the director of the story that can place objects and settings for the other person to interact with. Sleep Is Death features editing software that allows for some nice effects and relatively straightforward placement of items. Objects can be added, removed, replace existing objects, given text or actions, and edited to add sprites like blood or fire or weapons. Editing an object does not overwrite the original object, thankfully. Objects can be anything that can be drawn in a 20 by 20 pixel square: people, animals, trees, whatever. This lack of restriction makes Sleep Is Death very flexible. The backgrounds can also be edited, using tiles for repeated textures and building rooms for the action to take place in. A set of objects on a background can be saved as a scene, handy for using content later or sharing it online. Additional options include changing the MIDI musical score and adding fading for spooky effects. You can search for any pre-created item quickly by typing in the name; this is a key feature since you are only given thirty seconds to craft the next scene. You can also edit things without actually playing a game (by hosting a LAN game nobody joins) to give you time to make things beforehand. While the editing options are powerful, it should be easier to quickly paint stuff on the map: instead you have to edit the object or add a sprite in a sub-menu, which takes up the precious little time you have. Sleep Is Death would also benefit from some in-game tutorials or a manual, although online video tutorials are available.

The player has only three things they can do with their single character: move, speak, or use an object. They are given thirty seconds to do their worst, hopefully advancing the story in unpredictable ways that the controller must respond to in the next thirty-second interval. The game is completely open-ended: there are no rules, allowing each side to do whatever they want. The simple editing makes it possible to create any story you desire. The best thing about Sleep Is Death is this amount of freedom: you can quite literally create any story you can draw, and since drawing is very low-resolution, an advanced art degree is not required. It’s a brilliant system that removes the shackles of the adventure genre, creating a unique experience that’s not seen anywhere else. The short time limit also imposes a great amount of stress, requiring you to think quickly and producing some entertainingly inept results. You have the ability to adjust the time limit by editing a text file in the install directory; I found that forty seconds works well. You can relive your inappropriate adventures through the automatically–generated HTML flipbooks that can be uploaded and shared, further evidence of how twisted your mind is.

Sleep Is Death is an experimental gaming experience gone very, very right. The game could have fallen apart if the editing wasn’t easy or flexible enough, but thankfully it is and it’s straightforward to create custom content and change things in real-time after you have learned the system. The game could benefit from some in-game tutorials or even a simple manual (there are online video lessons), but I found the mechanics to be easy enough to learn. The game gives you some content to start out with, but the Internet is already teeming with user-created content to fill the voids and expand your creative flexibility. The game can be played over a LAN or through the Internet; games can be found online and fill up quickly. As an added bonus, a $14 license gives you both the Windows and Macintosh executables along with the source code that can be compiled on any Unix-based system. The editors make it easy to add and change characters, items, settings, and music. The default thirty-second time limit adds to the immediacy and stress of the game. Tools are also available to add speech through text bubbles, adjust the music to change the mood, and add simple layers of fire or blood if appropriate (or, even better, if not appropriate). The search features make it easy to find objects quickly, as long as they were named properly by the author (hint: “Amy” and “April” are some the default women). The simple controls for player (move, speak, use object) means anyone can learn it quickly. The game even preserves the ineptitide of your stories in flipbooks that can be easily uploaded and shared. Sleep Is Death is the ultimate in non-linear gameplay, as the director must adapt to the player in real-time to construct a cohesive story. The extremely high replay value makes this a must-have title. To use a tired cliché, Sleep Is Death is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Future Wars Review

Future Wars, developed by Radon Labs and Headup Games and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Simple rules, capable AI, many skirmish maps, play by e-mail, vast customization options (AI, units, buildings, textures, and maps)
The Not So Good: Simple rules, lackluster campaign, no online multiplayer
What say you? Strong AI and customization save this stripped-down turn-based strategy game: 5/8

In the future, there will be war. That is the lesson to be learned in the title of Future Wars, a game about war in the future. The good thing is the future will never arrive, since it will always be in the future. Anyway, Future Wars is a modernized version of Advance Wars, the celebrated turn-based strategy title released for the Game Boy Advance almost ten years ago. As most turn-based games tend to be more complicated and make my brain hurt, Future Wars hopes to appeal to a more casual audience by offering straightforward rules and editing capabilities in a contemporary presentation.

Future Wars features acceptable, if basic, graphics. The game is in 3-D, presented in an isometric perspective using tiled maps and four-sided units. The animations for those units are decent enough as they traverse across the map. The weapon effects are decent enough as well, with powerful explosions highlighted by a cacophony of blue glowing boxes when a unit is killed. You can actually change the textures for each of the game’s units, buildings, and terrain squares (although you cannot alter the models), but the ones that are included are certainly decent enough. While Future Wars lacks elevation of any kind, the terrain and buildings are easily identifiable, although the units sometimes suffer from similar appearances. In all, it’s very similar in theme to the Massive Assault series of games. The sound design is basic as well, with appropriate but limited effects for each unit and background music to listen to. Nothing here is too notable. The presentation of Future Wars is the very definition of “average.”

Future Wars is all about wars…in the future (yes, I am almost tired of that joke by now…almost). The single player campaign features contests on sixteen maps of increasing difficulty, usually involving you wiping the opponent off the entire map by eventually capturing their base. There are different starting conditions for each mission, but the overall goal remains the same. The developers attempted to cram an animated story into the game, but it is not good with forced “humor” and stereotypical characters and will be quickly skipped over. Of course, it’s no worse than any medicore RTS game. Medals can be earned by efficiently disposing of the enemy in the shortest amount of time with few losses. I found the campaign to be no more interesting than regular skirmish maps, and in fact you have no choice in the order of scenarios for the linear campaign. Speaking of skirmish maps, there are a lot of them to choose from. You can enjoy them against the AI, in a hot seat mode on the same computer, through e-mail, or pit two AI foes against each other for your enjoyment (or testing purposes). Online play is not supported, but honestly I doubt enough people would be online at the same time to warrant its inclusion anyway. The varied, unbalanced starting conditions of the skirmish games do make for some different approaches, so there is some interest there. I should also note that pressing “escape” during the introductory videos flips them vertically instead of skipping past them, which is quite possibly the craziest thing ever.

One of the strong suits of Future Wars is the large suite of editors available: the user can easily alter pretty much anything in the game. First up is the map editor, where you can place terrain, buildings, and units for custom scenarios. It is easy to use: just point and paint in textures and place buildings. More complicated is the ability to create your own AI using a bunch of codes in an XML file. Easier is changing unit and building properties (also in an XML file, but more straightforward) and importing custom textures (DDS files). It’s nice that the developers used an open architecture for user modifications; this is one of the things that places PC games far ahead of static console titles.

The interface for Future Wars is fairly conventional, if a bit outdated. It provides easy access to units that have not moved during the current turn, but it needs tool-tips to explain all of the little icons listed for each unit. The units are fairly conventional for a sci-fi setting: infantry (light and medium), tanks (light, medium, heavy, ranged, missile, and laser), aircraft, and transport vehicles. Both sides have exactly the same units, although the models are slightly different. Future Wars uses the classic rock-paper-scissors form of combat percentages: each unit has a couple it receives bonuses for attacking, and a couple of units that decrease effectiveness. In fact, if you attack “improper” units, you’ll actually receive more damage than they will. Problem is, the game makes the relationships fairly inaccessible (the information is buried in a sub-menu); Future Wars really needs color indications (or some other clear method) for proper counters, because they aren’t readily obvious at all to new players. Terrain also imposes a bonus in combat if you place units in trees or rocks. Buildings in Future Wars come in three flavors: your headquarters (which must be captured to win), factories that make units, and cities that provide money. There isn’t any strategic variety to speak of here: just capture everything you can, although factories can be set to produce only a limited selection of units.

Future Wars is a turn-based game where each unit can move and perform one action each turn. What are those actions, you say? Well, units can wait (boring!), attack (not boring!), transport, occupy, and cancel. Fairly restricted to be sure, but Future Wars is going for the minimalist doctrine through and through. The game is certainly trying hard to appeal to neophytes by stripping down the unit count, buildings, and orders. This simplified approach certainly makes the game, well, simplified, but this comes at the cost of longevity and depth. There are a lot of units that can be involved in a single battle, but the complex countering system seems to fly in the face of the simplicity. One interesting thing is that Future Wars is square-based (not hex-based) and you can’t move or attack diagonally, something that was counter-intuitive initially and quite limiting from a strategic standpoint, especially on the game’s typically cramped maps. One positive resulting from the minimalism is the AI: it is quite a good opponent. The AI does some idiotic things on occasion (like moving away from objectives or retreating when unnecessary), but in general it is a very challenging opponent that will attack with the most appropriate units where you are the weakest. Still, I don’t know how entertaining the basic mechanics will be in the long term. All said, I think Future Wars will find a niche with gamers looking for a more straightforward game with robust customization options.

Future Wars has two things going for it: the AI and the wealth of customization options. These are almost enough to recommend the game. Almost. Sadly, Future Wars doesn’t really do anything else new or different, so the value of this product completely depends on the level of satisfaction you have with the features involved. The sixteen-map campaign involves a borderline annoying animated storyline and generally linear battles that aren’t terribly interesting. Thankfully, Future Wars includes a lot of skirmish maps that can be enjoyed against the AI, on the same computer with another human, or through e-mail (no real-time Internet options, though). The interface is a bit outdated: tool-tips and clear definitions of proper targets in the rock/paper/scissors combat methodology should be present. The units offer nothing innovative, and tactics involve being on good terrain against foes your units are pre-scripted to excel against. The turn-based mechanics allow for movement and one other action per turn, leading to a lot of drawn-out battles and stalemates. That said, the AI puts up a very good fight, despite the occasional hiccup, besting me early and often, and you can edit most everything in the game, from textures to maps to unit values to AI behaviors. Still, the simplistic nature of the game won’t appeal to everyone: in order to reach a larger audience, Future Wars may alienate more experienced strategy gamers looking for deeper mechanics.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mount & Blade: Warband Review

Mount & Blade: Warband, developed by Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Chaotic 64-player multiplayer with seven game modes, shiny new graphics, can become king and marry sexy ladies
The Not So Good: $30?, multiplayer is typically unorganized chaos, no cooperative modes, slower weapon times are frustrating, minor single player enhancements
What say you? This standalone expansion to the excellent mounted role-playing game is $10 too much, despite the occasionally pleasing multiplayer bedlam: 5/8

What drew me towards Mount & Blade was its effective mounted combat, which made the game far more interesting than a traditional role-playing game. Skill-based things are always better than luck and die rolls in my opinion, and the unique aspects of the original game made it one of the very few RPGs I enjoy. Well, it’s time for the publisher (and, to a lesser extent, the developer) to make some money through everyone’s favorite plague: the standalone expansion! Yes, you too can charge an exorbitant price for a couple of new features! What we do get here is sixty-four player online chaos and a revamped single player campaign. This raises a couple of important questions:
  1. Is it worth it for existing owners of Mount & Blade
  2. Is it worth it for newcomers to the series?
  3. Can I get a fancy new hat?
All these questions and more might be answered in the following review!

Mount & Blade: Warband features significant graphical enhancements for a standalone expansion. The textures have gotten an overhaul, upping the detail from the individual soldiers to the landscapes you’ll be battling in. The game map remains largely untouched, though. Mount & Blade: Warband includes all sorts of fancy new processing like HDR (whatever that means), anti-aliasing, soft particles, and tone mapping. Welcome to the future! The game also includes new motion-captured animations for more realistic killing and/or dismemberment. Honestly, I never thought Mount & Blade: Warband was a bad looking game, especially for an independent title, but the added improvements here do let you take advantage of your fancy PC.

Since the general awesomeness of Mount & Blade has been well established, this review shall focus on whether Warband is worth it for new players and existing players. The main addition that Mount & Blade: Warband brings to the table is multiplayer pandemonium for up to sixty-four players (though most of the plentiful dedicated servers support thirty-two). There are a number of game modes to enjoy, from the tradition deathmatch for individuals and teams to more team-oriented events. Battle mode is team deathmatch with no respawn; if there isn’t enough dismemberment, a capturable flag is automatically placed (how nice!). Capture the flag also makes an appearance (you have to dismount to capture, to negate an obvious advantage for mounted individuals), as does conquest (called “assault” here) with control points to capture. Putting the setting to good use are the last two modes: fight and destroy where the defender must protect a catapult and trebuchet, and siege where the defender must protect a castle. Servers support options for random or custom maps, friendly fire, a gold bonus, or time limit. The number of game modes and options is the best part of Mount & Blade: Warband’s multiplayer features.

Each side has access to three classes: infantry, cavalry, and archer. You cannot use weapons outside of your class, but there doesn’t seem to be a restriction to how many players can be in each particular class (everyone could be mounted, for example…sounds sexy!). Mount & Blade: Warband features a cash-based equipment system where you purchase items between rounds: weapons and armor for increasing your stats. The items aren’t linearly balanced: there is almost always a “best” item to choose that balances price and stats, and the most expensive items usually aren’t worth it. Usually you’ll earn enough money to purchase the same equipment every time, as long as you aren’t suckered in by the best stuff. Each class has a weakness: horses can be brought down, ranged units take a long time to reload, and rank-and-file infantry need to be up close to rack up kills. Friendly units are clearly identified with crests floating over their head (they had icons in the Middle Ages, yes?) and you can incorporate bots if you so choose.

Mount & Blade: Warband is much better with an organized group of many people: most matches online devolve into a mess of horses running around, ranged units firing at nothing, and melee units turning around looking for targets. You are almost required to coordinate because of the high effectiveness of shields: you can simply hold down the “block” button and deflect most incoming shots. The only way to kill effectively is to double-team people from opposite sides. Traditional first person shooters get around mandatory teamwork by allowing individuals to successfully kill opponents (you are, of course, more effective by working together, though), but since you must work together in Mount & Blade: Warband, the game’s success depends on how well people are coordinated, and usually they are not. And if one side is coordinated and the other is not, expect quick slaughter. Mount & Blade: Warband can be entertaining if the matches are organized, but this is an uncommon occurrence in my experience.

The single player experience gets some minor adjustments. First off, the map gets an unnecessary makeover: an increase in size that needlessly spreads thing out, requiring much more travel time (and subsequent waiting) between cities with nothing added in between. Despite the addition of multiplayer, the campaign remains a one-person venture. On the good side of things, there are more complicated, multi-step quests added for more role-playing variety. Additionally, Mount & Blade: Warband adds marriage (Marriage? Nooooooo!). Male characters will need to increase their reputation by fighting and learning poetry from traveling characters. Females will attend feasts and kill people for the men to respect you. Pretty much how it works in real life! Successful marriage gives you land and better standing within your faction, so it’s a nice diversion along the usually progression up the character ladder. Trading is more balanced, and the end-game has gotten better since you can now rule an entire faction, get royal underlings, and give allied heroes land for their very own. These additions are nice but nothing spectacular or ground-breaking.

Combat has received some tweaks as well. Soldier morale is included: you will now see units rout during battle, scampering towards the edge of the map in an act of cowardice. You are also given many more specific commands for your troops, but since there are so many to choose from (stay ten paces back, spread out, hold fire, use blunt weapons), it now takes two button presses to issue one order, doubling the amount of time it takes, which may become an issue in the heat of battle. Mount & Blade: Warband features more realistic combat, meaning you swing and reload weapons much more slowly. While this makes for more stately combat, the result is more frustrating battles when you are surrounded by many foes (a common occurance) since you can’t dispose of them as quickly. You will automatically deflect incoming projectiles and you can pick up weapons from fallen soldiers (nice for archers who always used to run out of arrows), and you can throw weapons in close combat (spear in the face!). Still, the combat has gotten slower, which does not lend itself well to the game in my opinion.

The highlight of Mount & Blade: Warband is the multiplayer, and it’s a mixed bag. The game is far more effective when you battle many lesser-skilled opponents in the single-player campaign. But when you are up against similar foes, the powerful combat devolves into a chaotic mess. The game is more enjoyable using coordinated attacks with friends rather than joining a public server where everyone is doing their own thing. That said, there are many instances of satisfying combat to be had, from demounting a riding opponent to picking off enemies from a distance. The blocking system means most one-on-one attacks are impossible to land, leading to a lot of frustration if you don’t work well with others. The game does feature a wide array of multiplayer modes and the class-based combat seems to be balanced where no soldier type of overpowered. The single player game has received subtle, yet negative, changes: the map is bigger (for no reason) requiring more sitting around during transit times and commands require more button presses. But, hey, you can marry (some might consider this a negative, too)! The campaign cannot be played cooperatively, though, and most of the changes actually make the single player game worse. If you play Mount & Blade a lot, you’ll be getting this regardless of what I have to say (thanks for stopping by!). I would feel at lot better if Warband was $20; casual fans should wait until the inevitable Gamer’s Gate or Steam sale to indulge in the enhanced campaign and frenzied multiplayer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West Review

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West, developed by Fatshark and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Area buffs and mobile respawn points encourage teamwork, several game modes, four distinct classes, short brutal combat, weapons and maps evoke historical setting, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Control scheme requires unnecessary button holding, no dedicated servers, only six maps
What say you? This low-cost western shooter emphasizes team coordination with distinctive gameplay: 6/8

Yeehaw! No, I am not talking about the unincorporated community in Osceola County, Florida, I’m talking about cowboys! There simply aren’t enough Western games on the PC, as exemplified by a lone entry in the great Out of Eight pantheon. I like the online shooters, so what better way to visit the neglected Old West than shooting other cowboys in the face. Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West features just that, a struggle for gold that may or may not involve lead (spoiler alert: it does). This is Paradox Interactive’s first foray into the evil world of console gaming, but the developers at Fatshark were nice enough to release the game on the PC first, and at a low price tag of $15. How does it stack up against other team-based shooters?

The graphics of Lead and Gold are quite good, especially for a $15 game. The environments in which the game takes place all have nice attention to detail, with animated mills and varied terrain that harkens the historical setting well. The buildings are plenty detailed as well, and the wooden structures like ripe for intense firefights. The characters are nice, too: each of the game’s four classes have distinctive models (the game is in third person) that exhibit good animations when moving and switching between weapons. The game also has some nice effects, with cherry-red blood, explosions, and tracers a-plenty. I was pleased with the graphics in Lead and Gold. The sound design isn’t bad, either, with powerful weapon effects and the occasional rootin’-tootin’ (“no spelling suggestions”…I bet not) canned saying. The game also features some subtle background music that fits the overall theme of the game so well that I hardly noticed it and had to play the game again specifically to evaluate the tunes. Lead and Gold far exceeds its $15 price tag in terms of graphics and sound.

Lead and Gold is a team-based online third person shooter, centered around (a) lead and (b) gold. The game borrows match types from several other titles, although it changes things up by replacing a flag with a bag o’ money. There are six game modes and each are slightly different. Robbery is an assault mode where the attackers must carry gold bags from the defenders’ base. Greed is a capture the flag mode where both teams must carry a single gold bag back to their base. Conquest involves occupying three map zones in sequential order, while powder keg mode entails blowing up certain points of interest. There is also the usual team deathmatch mode called shootout and a cooperative defense game against AI bots for two players. Most games consist of two rounds, where sides are alternated to be fair. I like how the developers have changed up some rules to make classic game modes at least somewhat fresher: gold is heavy so people who carry it are slowed, and powder kegs can be blown up in transit, making them a dangerous commodity to transport. There are only six maps to play on (and powder keg and robbery only support two of them), but they are designed well enough and provide variety (large open spaces, mines, buildings) to keep things interesting. Lead and Gold supports up to ten players (five-on-five), but the maps are sized so that a smaller player count (four players or so) isn’t detrimental to the game experience. There isn’t any single player action to speak of, other than a brief tutorial against AI bots to explain the controls. Being a multiplayer-centric title, then, it surprises me that Lead and Gold lacks dedicated servers: there are the occasional connection issues, as you would expect with peer-to-peer hosting. I think that’s the reason why the maximum player count is kept so low: people simply can’t host more than ten at a time.

While you would think a control scheme for a shooter would be historically defined for any PC game, Lead and Gold includes a poor translation of controls clearly designed for a console gamepad. The problems manifest themselves twice: first, the “zoom” button (use required by all but one of the classes) must be held down instead of offering a toggle option. Secondly, there is a key that must be held down while pressing “fire” to activate your trait ability. Simply binding it to a button (“Q” for example) without having to hold it down would have worked just fine for setting traps or throwing dynamite; the limitations shows the developers tried to cram the controls onto an inferior console gamepad. Unfortunately, neither of these options can be changed. Apart from that, though, Lead and Gold rarely has significant issues. The interface is designed well, clearly indicating important locations on your display, and there aren’t any other usability problems to speak of.

Lead and Gold features four classes of characters, each with different abilities and strengths. The blaster is the short-ranged class, with a powerful shotgun and dynamite. The gunslinger gets a short-to-medium-range revolver that can be fired quickly. The deputy is medium-to-long-range with the ability to spot enemy units for allies. And the trapper is the sniper who can lay traps. The game maps are varied enough where each class gets a location that highlights their attributes. Each class also has a buff that is automatically applied to surrounding troops: blasters provide improved armor, gunslingers better accuracy, deputies enhance damage, and trappers offer more critical hits. Additionally, being near others also heals you over time. Experience earned by shooting others and completing game objectives levels your character up, enhancing your particular buff. Buffs do not stack, so it benefits everyone to have one person in each class; a listing of the number of players in each class on the selection screen would remove guesswork in this aspect of the game. The synergy system rewards working together as a group, since everyone benefits from sticking together. The trapper is an inappropriate class for these benefits, however, as long-range sniping lends itself towards solitary confinement.

Combat in Lead and Gold is short and brutal: the semi-automatic weapons all deliver a punch and seem to be well-balanced, as each class is powerful at their optimal range. Weapons are more accurate when you are stationary, which seems realistic enough to me. Lead and Gold is a matter of playing your class correctly and coordinating with your team in order to maximize damage. Since you can revive teammates who are injured but not dead, being near your teammates is important. The game could do a better job clearly showing whether you are dead or simply incapacitated, though. Fortunately, Lead and Gold does a good job placing you with your teammates, as someone can carry around a respawn flag where others can appear; this really helps to coordinate your efforts and also significantly cuts down on travel time each time you die. Lead and Gold does not have voice chat, though, but since the objectives are straightforward enough, good communication is not necessary for good organization. A couple of other wrinkles to the gameplay include powder kegs that can be exploded and the removal of fall damage, which works to the game’s benefit. It's clear that teams that work together will win, which is the goal of any good team-based shooter.

Lead and Gold is a very nice team-based shooter that differentiates itself in several areas. First is the setting: the Old West theme is strong throughout the game, from detailed levels to convincing characters and weapons. The game also features a number of game modes culled from a variety of other titles, slightly adjusted to fit the theme: straightforward deathmatch, capture the flag (gold in this case), assault, and conquest. Although the game only includes six maps, each landscape is detailed enough and provides multiple paths to each objective location where repetition isn’t an issue. The lack of dedicated servers, however, can become an issue if the host is a poor server. The four classes are balanced nicely, from the short-range blaster to the long-range trapper. The buffs each unit grants to others, coupled with the mobile spawn point a team member can carry, helps to keep players working together; this is far more effective that simply saying “work together!” and not funneling people towards that goal. The old-school weapons mean gory combat, where only a couple of shots are required for death. This actually works quite well with the lower player count and respawn locations, providing intense battles over territory. The controls could use some PC makeovers, as using your special abilities and iron sights require simultaneously held buttons. Still, fans of team-based shooters will find a unique setting and some nice features to promote team-based play.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Colony Defense Review

Colony Defense, developed and published by Mana Bomb Games Studio on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Challenging, action packed with almost constant building, enemy resistance prevents over-building a particular turret
The Not So Good: Planetary setting adds nothing since enemies are path restricted, terrible control scheme, slow linear unlocks, few weapons, insignificant upgrades
What say you? A very traditional tower defense game with wasted potential that adds nothing to the genre: 3/8

As Al Gore continues to warm the Earth in order to sell more books, it is imperative that we reach out to other planets in our Solar System, so that we may pollute them into submission. I suggest colonizing Uranus (never gets old). Of course, we must defend these newly founded colonies against alien attack, and such is the premise of Colony Defense, an entry in the increasingly popular tower defense genre. We've seen games that range from very good to pretty good, successfully avoiding poor entries in the pantheon of tower defense games. Does our streak continue?

The presentation of Colony Defense is pretty much what you would expect for an independent game: adequate. The game reminds me of Light of Altair, taking place on a series of planets, but Colony Defense is worse off. The planetary textures are OK, although the planets are usually monochromatic and indistinct. Of course, you can’t make a sphere terribly varied, so some leeway should be granted here. The enemies have some nice models and you quickly learn the capabilities of each combatant based on appearance. The backgrounds are typical space stuff, and the paths the enemies follow are discrete yet subtle, blending well into the topography of the planet. Of course, having them move through actual canyons or valleys would make more sense, both visually and realistically. The sound design is acceptable, thanks to background music that I almost found entertaining. The sound effects are pretty basic: lasers and explosions that sound appropriate enough. What you get is what you expect in Colony Defense.

Colony Defense roots itself in a traditional tower defense game: there’s aliens afoot, and it’s up to you so construct static defenses and stop their unending quench for destruction. The game comes with thirty-four planets that offer different paths the enemies take; all of them take place on a spherical planet, so one planet looks almost the same as another. The paths almost always converge, granting you a choke point designed for maximum death. There are usually multiple spawn points and multiple bases to defend. There is a set amount of enemies that must be destroyed before the level ends, and you are usually allowed ten aliens enter your base before epically failing. The thirty-four levels, despite being displayed on an ever-expanding triangle, unlock in a strictly linear order, as do the weapons: disappointing. The weapons unlock slowly, partially due to the fact that there are only ten. Every level should feel different, or else why have it? Plants vs. Zombies was very good as adding something new each level, but Colony Defense suffers from an excessive amount of monotony. Good performance is rewarded with talent points, which can be spent on insignificant upgrades to tower cost, damage, and firing rate. Really, am I going to notice a 2% increase in credit income?

Significantly distressing is the absolutely horrible control scheme employed by Colony Defense. Clearly designed for a console controller (which is always an indicator of failure), you can use the mouse but not to place objects on the screen: the target reticule is always at the center, and you must scroll to place instead of using the mouse. I cannot express how limited and truly annoying this design choice is. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the spherical maps must be scrolled constantly: your hands will be tied to WASD to navigate around (you can’t move the mouse to the edge of the screen to scroll, of course). You get used to it after a while, but I still want to use the mouse to place towers anywhere in view, not have to scroll around. Yes, “designed for a gamepad” is simply a euphemism for “crappy.”

Probably the most disappointing aspect of Colony Defense is the use (or lack thereof) of the planetary setting. Enemies are still confined to paths: although there are multiple paths on each map, you can still predict with certainty where aliens will appear. Why, then, does the game take place on a planet? Even flying units are confined to the paths (which makes no sense); at least the developers could have placed the units in canyons or something to at least justify the restriction. There is simply no difference between playing Colony Defense and a traditional tower defense game on a 2-D map, except this game requires a lot more scrolling (with the keyboard, of course). The turrets you place come in several flavors: lasers for medium ranged attack, flame throwers for short ranged attack, artillery for slow but powerful attack, and air to air weapons. The six basic weapons can be accentuated with boost towers that can slow the enemies down or improve range, speed, and damage of nearby turrets. And that’s it: you’ll run through the gamut of options pretty quickly, and Colony Defense becomes a matter of slowing down units and placing turrets at choke points. You can’t overlap turrets and each has an area of effect that is clearly shown while placing a turret, which is helpful. Cash is earned by destroying enemies, which can be used to purchase turrets and upgrades. If you place too many of a certain type of turret, enemies become resistant to them, requiring you to place other turrets or upgrade existing ones, which improves range and firepower. Once you place your turrets, it’s just a matter of waiting for things to die. You can use an orbital cannon (firing on the target reticule that’s always fixed to the center of the screen) to eliminate pesky units, but it’s slow and underpowered enough to make it meaningless. Humorously, units disappear before the cannon shot hits them, which initially confused me. Levels can be complex enough where you need to constantly move, so there isn't a lot of waiting, and each level is short enough to keep the action flowing. Still, Colony Defense doesn’t offer anything above and beyond any other tower defense game, so there’s real no reason to play it.

Simply put, Colony Defense should have used the planet setting to better effect. What we get is a very standard tower defense game that takes place on spherical maps that require you to constantly move the camera. Enemies are still confined to paths (even flying ones!) so their movements and behaviors become quite predictable. The game is challenging, though, and you are busy constructing new turrets most of the time. You are given six weapon turrets, but really they are repeats of two themes: slow and powerful or fast and weak. Four support turrets are also granted to slow down the enemies or provide small bonuses, but your strategic options feel very limited. The maps are quite repetitive and never distinctive, offering slightly different paths that cross, providing easy choke points to defend. Like most tower defense games, Colony Defense becomes a matter of simply placing and upgrading structures. Doing this is more frustrating than it should be, since the controls are absolutely horrible. Why support a mouse if you can’t use it to place objects? Restricting interaction to a static reticule constantly positioned at the center of the screen is archaic and cumbersome. Because of the proliferation of tower defense games on the PC, a new title should provide a unique experience (like Creeper World) or a highly polished one (like Defense Grid), but Colony Defense does neither and fails to capitalize on its unique setting by relying on traditional linear enemy paths.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Distant Worlds Review

Distant Worlds, developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Gigantic living galaxies to explore with up to 50,000 planets, smart automation or advisor guidance of tasks, self-regulating economy simply requires protection, robust starting options with twenty different races, fairly easy access to tons of information, all-inclusive ship and base design, per-component combat damage, intelligence operations for sneaky types, customization with game editor
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, general instructions and limitations for automated military ships would be nice, nuanced learning curve
What say you? Grand strategy and classic 4X mechanics combine in a vibrant world made easier with optional automation: 8/8

Another game set in space gives me yet another opportunity to make a joke about Uranus. Oh, what a gift from the gods the name of that planet is, far more hilarious than, say, Neptune or OGLE-TR-211. So let’s get the formalities out of the way first: Distant Worlds, 4X game, in space, huge galaxies, macro-scale, send a probe to Uranus looking for black holes. And, we’re finished. On to the review!

Distant Worlds features decent graphics for a title in the 4X genre. The game is entirely in 2-D, which makes it easy to import custom bitmaps for a more personal (or copyright-infringing) feel, but it also produces rougher zooming and less dynamic effects. The overall look obviously pales in comparison to more flashy titles like Sins of a Solar Empire, but it is similar to more graphically conservative games like Armada 2526 and Space Empires. The ships do rotate and show some progressive damage, but the weapons are simple effects at best. The art for the aliens looks good: while static and not animated, it does create some interesting species to interact with. Planets and asteroids look like, well, planets and asteroids, revolving around their respective stars in an elegant ballet of elegance. The background fits the space setting, and can be easily modified if desired. Despite the 2-D graphics, Distant Worlds does need a high-end machine to smoothly simulate large galaxies: it’s certainly playable on modest systems like mine, but zoomed out the game displays at only one frame per second. The sound design is functional: appropriate effects when important in-game events occur, and music that is appropriate for the theme. Graphics certainly aren’t the primary focus of independent games like Distant Worlds, but they are functional and that’s all that ultimately matters.

Distant Worlds starts out like any other 4X strategy game: a small empire must expand throughout the stars, colonizing planets and waging war in an epic struggle for survival. Except it doesn’t: you can start out as a feeble newcomer, but Distant Worlds gives you comprehensive options for your nation including age, meaning you can start out as a mature empire with colonization already completed and conflicts soon on the horizon. This is great for players who prefer a more military-focused game and like to rush through the colonization part of a game, since you can skip it altogether. Additional options include the galaxy shape, size (from 100 to 1,400 stars), frequency of independent aliens, AI aggression, research speed, and amount of creeps and pirates. Distant Worlds gives you twenty races to choose from, each with different reproduction rates, intelligence, aggressiveness, cautiousness, friendliness, and trustworthiness. Most races have a more appropriate form of government to choose from the twelve available; these affect approval ratings, population growth, war weariness, research speed, corruption, maintenance costs, troop recruitment, and trade income. Your empire and those of your soon-to-be enemies can be given a specific starting location, home system quality, and tech level to make for more varied encounters. In fact, Distant Worlds includes several “quick start” options for fast or epic games where you can be the lead empire dealing with numerous hostile underlings. You can even edit your galaxy while playing from within the game, a neat feature that I’m surprised other single player space games haven’t allowed. Speaking of, yes, Distant Worlds is only for single players, but honestly the AI is decent enough and the universe is alive, which makes it feel like a multiplayer title, just without the connection issues. While Distant Worlds is one of those games that works without victory conditions, you can specify a percentage of total colonies, population, or economy that can result in triumph. You can continue to play forever, though, even after the victory conditions have been fulfilled. Learning the game can be difficult and involve several play-throughs before nailing the basics, since mechanics in Distant Worlds are quite different from other 4X strategy titles (automation and fuel, namely); the tutorial does a decent job explaining the basics, while the Galactopedia gives beneficial context-sensitive help at any time by pressing F1.

The main feature of Distant Worlds (other than the massive scale) is the use of automation to assist in running your empire. This does not mean that everything is done for you, however, as you can disable any of the options as you wish. You cannot, however, disable transporting goods in the economy (as this is done by private vessels), but honestly this process is so tedious I can’t imagine anyone wanting to worry about it. Most options can be set to fully automate, human controlled, or a happy medium where advisors give suggestions on what to do next. What are those options, you ask? Good thing you said something, as I spent some time typing up a list: colony tax rates, ship design, agent recruitment, troop recruitment, fleet formation, colonization, ship construction, intelligence agent missions, attacks against enemies, sending diplomatic gifts, treaties, and declaring war and trade sanctions. The great part of the automation is that Distant Worlds can appeal to different gamers with different tastes. Want to concentrate on mining and exploration? Great, automate the military and diplomacy. Prefer to design custom ships? Have at it. And so on. In addition, you can even give input in an automated area for tweaks along the way, like designing a custom ship or signing trade pacts; just because it’s automated doesn’t mean it’s locked from your input. Automation is a fantastic feature that allows you to make Distant Worlds your own, and allows you to run a massive empire without getting completely overwhelmed.

I found the interface to take some time to comprehend, as I had the habit of finding information through the most inefficient means possible as I was learning the game. The two key features are the expansion planner and the selection panel. First, the expansion planner lists all of your resource needs and any planets that can be colonized, the resources they would produce, their size, proximity to capital, and native population (if any). You can also see a list of planets that can be mined for resources, either ones your empire demands or would make for good galactic trade. It’s a very, very handy application that makes expanding throughout the 1,000 star galaxies (with 5-10 planets in each solar system) manageable. The selection panel, which display information about the currently highlighted object, has tabs that can be used to cycle through your planets, star bases, constructors, exploration vessels, fleets, or idle ships. There is also a gigantic list of all ships and bases, which can be filtered to show specific types and any information column (type, firepower, location, fleet) can be used for sorting. Also notable is the mini-map with pre-set zoom levels (planet, solar system, sector, entire galaxy) for getting around. Some of the information is sequestered in odd locations, like placing your resource needs on the expansion planner, but once you learn where everything is and the fastest way to access it, navigating through Distant Worlds becomes easy.

Step one: explore (step two: rinse, step three: repeat). Because of the huge hugeness of the galaxies in Distant Worlds, you must explore early and often by sending out exploration ships. You can set them to fully automate, or do what I do and tell them to search everything in a specific sector (I don’t fully trust the AI to do it as efficiently as I could) and assign a new sector when finished. You are allowed to move anywhere in space at any time, in contrast to more restrictive games like Armada 2526 or Sins of a Solar Empire. The galaxy is populated with tons of planets (continental, gas, volcanic, ice, desert, swampy) and other objects (nebula clouds); your race can only colonize a couple of types, which eliminates a lot (but not too many) potential sites for development. Those that are unsuitable for colonization can still be mined for their juicy resources, though. Colonies grow by having low tax rates and a high development level, improved by providing luxury goods. The universe of Distant Worlds feels alive, much more along the lines of a space adventure game with NPCs going about their business without your input. Most (if not all), 4X games are a barren wasteland of military vessels, but Distant Worlds is much more convincing with tons of traders and miners shuttling around your distant worlds. And I must also mention the fact that planets and asteroids actually revolve around their stars (yay!), and there are space creatures and pirates out in the dark reaches of the universe that must be dealt with. Exploration also comes with events, half of which are good (a new ship, money, or technology) and half of which are bad (lots of monsters). The living nature of the galaxy and extensive size makes exploration in Distant Worlds seem less tedious than in other 4X titles.

Unlike most 4X games, both the economy and research are completely automated with no direct input. What you can do, however, is support them through auxiliary actions: colonizing and mining specific planets and keeping trade routes safe from pirates and space monsters. With many other things to worry about in the universe, this is actually a very nice approach, and adds to the immersive nature of the game by featuring lots of little private freighters flying about you don’t need to worry about. Sources of income include taxing the private citizens, sales taxes from trade, citizens purchasing ships from you (automated, of course), and trade agreements. Finding a balance in taxation levels is key, as too low will reduce your funding while too high will cause colonies to revolt; taxation (like most other things) can be handled by the AI for you. Distant Worlds features a ton of resources that are required for ships, space ports, and individuals; choosing the right targets for colonization and mining and making sure goods are protected while being transported is how you keep your economy humming along. As for technology, research projects are completed at random, but you can guide the results by placing labs that emphasize four different fields of research (energy, high tech, industrial, and weapons) around your planets. The seventeen different areas of research provide gradual improvements in components available in ship design, making your empire a more formidable opponent.

Before you haphazardly invade every opposing empire in the game, you might want to conduct some diplomacy first. Relations with other nations are affected by ongoing trade, government type, gifts, hostile actions, and static alien ratings (like friendliness). You can enter trade agreements to acquire precious resources, mutual defense treaties, or impose trade sanctions. You can also trade technologies, money, or colonies; the game gives a numerical value of each item once it’s added for easier negotiating. The interface, however, doesn’t explain why another empire rejects a trade agreement, leaving you to infer the cause from the relationship score. The diplomatic options in Distant Worlds are not terribly original and somewhat limited in their scope overall. If you want to decay relations, several intelligence operations are available for your agents to carry out. You can sabotage construction, incite colonial rebellions, or steal maps and research. Agents given a longer amount of time to complete their mission will have a higher success rate, and the interface specifically states the chance of victory.

Distant Worlds includes space ships. Weird, right? They cost both an initial investment for construction and a monthly maintenance, so keeping an eye on your budget is important. There are many types of ships in the game, from military vessels (capital, frigate, destroyer, cruiser, escort) classified by size to space ports (defense, ship construction, research) to explorers and transports. An extensive aspect of Distant Worlds is ship design: rather than having set hulls where a limited number of parts are plugged in, the game just has a few minimum requirements (engines, life support) and lets you fully customize your vessels otherwise. The game helpfully provides hints (add shields, dummy!) and warnings to assist in making functional designs, and can filter out obsolete components for a shorter list of items. You can also specify a ship’s behavior against stronger and weaker opponents, during invasions, and when to retreat. You want components? You got them: area weapons, armor, beam weapons, cargo storage, colonization modules, combat targeting, command center, commerce center, construction yard, ECM, damage control, docking bays, energy collectors, engines, fuel storage, habitation modules, hyperdrive, life support, long range scanners, manufacturers, medical scanners, passenger storage, proximity arrays, reactors, recreation centers, research labs, resource extractors, resource profile sensors, shields, stealth, torpedoes, and vectoring engines can all be added. Yes, that list made my review significantly longer. In short, if you like to design ships, Distant Worlds has robust features. And if you don’t, just let the AI do it: they do a good job, although the results are less efficient and more scripted than if you designed them manually. You can, of course, add in the occasional design and let the AI worry about designing and upgrading the less exciting ships for a happy medium.

Ships can be ordered to move, patrol, attack, blockade, escort, build, colonize, explore, escape, retrofit, retire, repair, refuel, or stop. Because of the size of your galaxy and the number of ships that must be constructed, most of your vessels should (but don’t have to) be automated, and I assign a number of ships to manually-controlled fleets, which can be easily accessed using the selection panel tabs. Usually, I have my more powerful military ships assigned to a couple of fleets and use those to engage the enemy and pick off pesky pirates and space creatures; the automation does a good job assigning patrol and escort missions to keep your economy humming along. Invading enemy colonies is as simple as bringing along a troop transport filled with eager marines and right-clicking on the target. Space combat is just as simple: just point and shoot. Ships can be damaged on a per-component basis, which is a cool amount of detail. Ships do not earn experience or level-up during combat, however; while the ship properties should remain the same (more fights doesn’t arbitrarily strengthen your armor), I could see making ships “smarter” by having more experienced captains at the helm. Ships could be more situationally aware, as there are many instances of nearby enemies that are ignored by ships who aren’t given a specific “attack” or “patrol” order.

One of the key concepts of Distant Worlds when it comes to ships is fuel. Since you are free to quickly travel anywhere in the galaxy along any path, there must be some strategic limitation, and that limitation is fuel. Ships must recharge at a friendly base or a deployed resupply ship (done by giving the “deploy” command on a gas giant containing the fuel your ships’ engines require) or they can’t fire weapons or move very fast. Automated ships will do this on their own, but manually controlled fleets must be specifically instructed to refuel every so often. Initially, you fee like you are giving up control by automating half of your military. But then you realize that’s what the game wants you to do, so the smaller ships can escort miners and merchants without you having to worry about it. The best course of action it seems is to keep one or two fleets under manual control for pirate hunting, monster killing, and eventually planetary invasion. I would like to know what automated ships are doing: they AI seems to do a good split between issuing escort and patrol missions, but an optional list of preferred patrol locations would be a nice addition. Newly constructed ships always start automated; I would like to see an option to automatically assign them to a fleet (like a rally point) or place them under manual control from the start. Distant Worlds could also use no-fly zones for automated military ships: too often they have entered territory owned by other nations and caused wars to start without my intervention.

Because Distant Worlds lacks multiplayer of any kind, it better have strong AI, and it does. Your competition will provoke you with small, isolated attacks on your mines, trade routes, and outlying colonies. Alien races will also attack vulnerable systems with little to no defenses. Additionally, the always-automated freighters and merchants and optionally-automated ships behave intelligently, with the small caveats I mentioned earlier. While AI is never a substitute for unpredictable humans, it does a good enough job here. The pace of the game always gives you something to do: there is no waiting around for stuff to happen, with pirates, creatures, attacks, mining, new ship designs, colonization, diplomacy, and trade routes to worry about. Most 4X games feature a lot of “end turn” at the beginning of the game, but Distant Worlds offers constant action, and you can even skip the initial colonization in the game settings and start with a developed imperial power if you choose. In short (too late!), Distant Worlds lets you play how you want, highlighting the parts of 4X games you like and leaving the tedium to automation.

What saves Distant Worlds from being completely unmanageable is the optional automation the game features. This allows you to focus on the parts of the game that interests you the most, whether it be the military, ship design, diplomacy, colonization, exploration, economy, or intelligence. Of course, this may left you feeling like your empire is being run without your input, but you can always intervene in any aspect of the game that is being directed by the AI and disable it if you want more direct control. Honestly, running an empire spanning hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets would be too daunting and frustrating otherwise. It seems better to automate most things and intervene when necessary (move troops, build a new ship design, conduct diplomacy). That said, when another race asks you to leave their system, there should be an option to prohibit automated military ships from entering it before war erupts. Distant Worlds features very nice game customization options that are beyond the one-colony norm for the genre: you can start out with a fully colonized system and concentrate on military and economic conflict, rather than wasting your time exploring if you wish. You can also customize the behavior, proximity, and strength of all the alien races, or leave it up to chance. Distant Worlds even lets you edit the galaxy during the game. The interface gives easy access to all of your assets, from the useful expansion planner that makes colonization a breeze to the selection panel where you can cycle through specific ship types easily. The universe of Distant Worlds is alive with activity, with NPC merchants and miners going about their business automatically, leaving you to worry about the big picture: a very nice change of pace from the usually micro-intensive offerings of the 4X genre. You own fleets and bases can be custom designed, choosing from an extensive array of components including weapons, construction yards, fuel storage, life support, research labs, and stealth. Or you can leave the design up to the AI, who tends to produce more scripted but usable offerings and upgrades them as better components become available. The AI puts up a decent fight, invading with force at vulnerable locations when appropriate. People might be miffed that economy and research are both automated, but you can still influence the direction of each by protecting trade routes from pirates and constructing research labs to guide technological advances. It takes some time to learn the game, but this is simply because it is different (in a good way) from other 4X titles. Distant Worlds features uninspired diplomatic options and lacks multiplayer, but these are insignificant complaints in what otherwise is a hallmark 4X strategy title.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

GearGrinder Review

GearGrinder, developed by Targem Games and published by Buka Entertainment and Headup Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Twelve distinct race types, racing and combat truck modes, weapons and vehicle upgrades
The Not So Good: LAN-only multiplayer, very inconsistent difficulty, push-over AI produces bland repetitive racing, essentially unlimited ammunition makes for dull destruction, obvious weapon upgrade choices, terrible cut scenes
What say you? An impressive array of racing modes is hindered by boring AI, shallow gameplay, and limited multiplayer in this arcade combat racing game: 5/8

Now that NASCAR has thankfully filled the void between the end of football season and the beginning of football season, we can turn our attention to the five-month diversion that is auto racing. And what better way to kick off the start of the racing calendar than with a racing game? I surely can’t think of a better way! GearGrinder realistically depicts the exciting and competitive world of truck racing, by placing weapons on semis. That’s how it’s done in real life, right? Let’s blow up some trucks and check out this diesel-fueled take on combat racing games like Death Track.

GearGrinder certainly looks and sounds like a budget game, or at least a racing title from, say, 12 years ago. The trucks models are the best aspect of the graphics, consisting of a nice amount of detail, especially when it comes up the various upgrades you can equip on your vehicle. The other cars: not so much. In fact, the explosions are downright disappointing and the repetitive sedans that populate the roadways are, well, repetitive. The default third-person view is terrible, as you can't see over the cab of the truck! The in-cab first-person perspective fares much better, and has the added benefit of a realistic implementation of the user interface on the dash. The circuits are generic caricatures of the U.S., with urban and rural settings with a low amount of detail. GearGrinder also has some shockingly terrible cut scenes with laughably bad voice acting; luckily, you can skip these with a quick press of the escape button. The music can also be bypassed, as you can import your own MP3 to rock out to during your dance of destruction. Overall, I was disappointed in the presentation, considering what competing budget racing games have mustered up.

GearGrinder is a combat racing game where you hop in a truck and shoot and run into other trucks and innocent passers-by. Good family fun! The single player “story” mode involves something about gangs and cops and vehicular homicide; like I stated earlier, I made a conscious effort to skip past all of the cut scenes. Taking place over forty levels spread across six episodes, the highlight of GearGrinder is the numerous racing events you will encounter along the way. In addition to “normal” races where the objective is to finish in first place, there are survival races where the last place driver is eliminated each lap, timed missions where you must destroy enemies or neutral cars for more time, arena missions where you must survive an enemy onslaught in an enclosed space, slalom races with pick-ups on the track (like the gatecrasher mode in DiRT 2), bowling events where you crash into a set of vehicles (eerily similar to FlatOut), times where you control a remote control car equipped with a bomb (eerily similar to Grand Theft Auto), rail shooting events where you control a turret instead of the truck, transporting events where you do not control the speed, destruction events where you inflict damage, protection missions where you protect a friendly vehicle, and boss battles. Impressive, no? Some races begin with a “hot start” timing mini-game, which is conducted like kicking in Madden, adding some more diversity. This variety saves GearGrinder from being complete drudgery.

While the races are organized in a tree, you will only encounter the occasional choice in the next level: a disappointing limitation that becomes an issue when you come across a very difficult level and subsequently get stuck (as I did). You don’t have to win to progress through the campaign, but you do need to at least get the bronze medal; this is sometimes difficult, especially in the timed game modes. You can go back and replay earlier levels using a better-equipped truck to place higher and unlock better parts to make a better-equipped truck. It’s a vicious cycle. Racing games are always fertile ground for multiplayer, and GearGrinder surprisingly has very limited options at your disposal. You can only play over a LAN. Yeah, I know. In addition, you can only enjoy circuit races or arena destruction derbies, limited options considering how many event types are available in the single player campaign. I realize that, in all likelihood, there wouldn’t actually be anyone playing GearGrinder online anyway, but you should still have the option. You can add bots to fill out the field, but then it’s no different than advancing your way through the campaign.

Unlike other combat racing games, GearGrinder has two distinct modes for your vehicle: racing and combat. You can switch between the two during a race: racing mode makes you move faster, while combat modes lets you shoot things at a decreased driving speed. There really is not enough of a transition delay to really make a tactical difference in your approach to a race, but it’s an interesting concept nonetheless. You are given a primary and secondary weapon (which are fired simultaneously with the same button) in which to dispose of those pesky competitors, in addition to spikes for ramming and mines for mining (I assume). Weapons are given essentially unlimited ammunition in the form of rage, accumulated by smashing other cars or just driving along. This really reduces the interest of GearGrinder, as you can just hold down the trigger while in combat mode and then transition back to racing mode when everyone done got blowed up. Upgrades to these weapons and other truck attributes (acceleration, engine, transmission, control, brakes, armor) are earned with gold medals in the events. The upgrades are very obvious choices: they are always positive, increasing the stats of your truck without any tradeoffs. The physics of the game are firmly entrenched in the “arcade” zone: trucks are easy to control and braking never becomes an issue except during hairpin turns. The AI competition is not good, easily beaten in racing events with little effort. Strangely, the requirements for timed missions are disproportionally hard, producing some questionably unpredictable difficulty. Some simple tweaks in the timed mission limits would greatly reduce the annoyance in the game.

GearGrinder takes a really fascinating assortment of racing modes, the likes of which we have not seen since FlatOut, and almost completely ruins them. Why, you ask? GearGrinder is plagued by very erratic difficulty: the AI in racing events is not competitive, but the timed events border on impossible. It's hard to get the difficulty right in an arcade racing game like this, so GearGrinder goes for the manic-depressive angle to annoy everyone. That’s too bad, because I was well prepared to give this game a higher score based on the variety of race types, from straight-up races to more destruction-oriented events. The fun stops there, however, as the campaign unfolds in a very linear fashion (despite the presence of a mission tree) and weapon upgrades are no-brainers, as each increases the capabilities of your vehicle with no real drawbacks. I do like the strategic decision of utilizing racing and combat transformations during an event, but this is the only unique aspect of the gameplay. The infinite ammunition causes the shooting in GearGrinder to be quite dull (just spray and pray) and removes any inherent strategy or skill. The final nail in the coffin is LAN-only multiplayer; because of this, GearGrinder must rely on the quality of its single player mode, which unfortunately is too inconsistent to be enjoyable.