Monday, June 28, 2010

Land Air Sea Warfare Review

Land Air Sea Warfare, developed and published by Isotope 244.
The Good: Huge battles involving lots of varied units, almost great interface, numerous game options, random maps, challengingly efficient AI, multiplatform, $20
The Not So Good: Defensive structures are too powerful mid-game, pointless low-tech levels, skirmish-only games and no multiplayer
What say you? An action-packed real time strategy game with enough options for a budget price: 6/8

With the usual PC emphasis on accurately modeling armor penetration depths in the strategy genre, the concentration of quality simpler takes on the RTS game are few and far between (though there are plenty of terrible simpler RTS games). Taking the baton is Land Air Sea Warfare, basically an enhanced version of Machines at War available for Windows, Macintosh, and some mobile devices (I think they are called “phones”). This game features lots of units on random 2-D battlefields blowing the crap out of each other. How does it stack up in the discerning strategy genre?

Land Air Sea Warfare is in 2-D, and if that bothers you, then you clearly aren’t a hardcore PC strategy gamer and should stop reading immediately (just kidding, you can keep reading (no, seriously, get out)). Luckily, it’s a good looking 2-D, with well-animated units and satisfying explosions and fire when the rounds start flying. Bullets and missiles are nice to watch, and each of the game’s units has a distinctive detailed design that makes them easily identifiable on the battlefield. The terrain is bland (although the water is animated nicely), partially a product of the randomized maps. The sound design is simply acceptable: some voice acknowledgments that aren’t terribly good, appropriate battle sounds, and background techno music that seems to be a requirement in any fast-paced arcade strategy game. Overall, I got exactly what I expected in terms of graphics and sound: just enough.

Land Air Sea Warfare has a good set of features for the $20 price tag. Games can be contested between two and four players, divided into teams or against each other in a dramatic battle for dominance...and cookies. Precious, precious cookies. All of the game's maps are randomly generated on the spot, using eleven different landscapes in four climates. You can also set the map size and whether the geography is known from the start. Additional interesting game settings include varied victory conditions, from standard “kill all” to the assassination of a leader unit to the first to research a powerful weapon or unit to a destroy-the-headquarters mode humorously called “all your base”. You can choose a different country to play as, but all nations get exactly the same units and they appear identically on the map. You can also introduce mutators to adjust the game rules, such as allowing only high-tech units, or disabling nukes or “mega” units. Land Air Sea Warfare also lets you adjust the AI difficulty level before a game, using the normal choices or selecting “adaptive” for a more tailored experience. Like its predecessor, Land Air Sea Warfare lacks both online (or same computer, for that matter) multiplayer and does not have a campaign mode. As a consolation prize, you can edit the XML files to make new units or adjust existing buildings.

The interface for Land Air Sea Warfare is nearly excellent. The main reason is the building and unit list that is displayed in the bottom right of the screen when a unit is not selected: it provides easy, one-click access to most of your units. I say “most” because it has a fixed number of display lines; once you have “too many” units, things start to combine or drop off the list. I’d like to see Land Air Sea Warfare take better advantage of higher resolution displays to show more information simultaneously. Once units are chosen (either through the list or keyboard shortcuts; “T” selects all units), you can issue one of six orders: hold, defend, attack, engage, patrol, and (very useful) explore. Transport units will automatically ferry also-selected units to a given destination: quite practical. The interface also provides a specific estimated time of arrival (more commonly abbreviated as “LOL”) for all queued units and buildings. Land Air Sea Warfare uses left-click for both unit selection and orders, with right-click reserved for deselection; this convention was initially confusing and I made many erroneous clicks while learning the local customs. The game also doesn’t allow you to zoom, requiring heavy use of the minimap in order to be efficient. Still, there are some very nice aspects to the interface that I appreciate.

There are two resources in Land Air Sea Warfare: ore, which is mined automatically by your headquarters, and power, which is produced a buildings and required for other structures. Ore is collected at a constant rate, improved only as your tech level increases. This puts all sides on essentially equal ground, and you cannot get a leg up on the competition through resource production. However, extra ore can be stored for later use, so there can be a very small amount of strategy involved I suppose. Other than your HQ and power-producing structures, you will construct land, air, and sea factories that construct land, air, and sea units in Land Air Sea Warfare. Weird, right? The game has an infinite queue (press “X,” as there is no on-screen icon for it) and you can queue up the same menu at different factories by selecting them all first. Defensive structures can also be built, although there is no air defense at tech level 1. You can build anywhere you can see; a common strategy is to send scout air units (since there are no defenses against them early in the game) to explore the map and pick a nice location near your opponent to produce more powerful land units without having to transport them. This also means that cleaning up at the end of a game can be very tedious, as an enemy’s base could potentially be anywhere.

Units in Land Air Sea Warfare (which come in land, air, and sea varieties…weird, right?) can usually attack one or two of the other types at different ranges. This is really how sophisticated non-historical strategy games get, so Land Air Sea Warfare provides enough options and variety to make the military aspect of the game interesting. The tech 3 “mega” units require a special resource, leading to skirmishes for controlling specific areas of the map. There is a population cap in the game, but it was high enough where it never became too much of a limitation.

Research can be used to upgrade your units, in terms of firepower, armor, speed, detection range, and more. Humorously (to me, anyway), the research labs are named after DHARMA research station on Lost (Looking Glass, Orchid, and Tempest). Research points are earned by reaching a new tech level, or by constructing a special mine or “mega” unit or ICBM. The options at tech level 2 are dramatically better than at tech level 1, so there is no reason to stay there: just build a couple of land defensive structures and you should repel any potential rush strategy.

Air units are most adept at scouting, while land units are best at attacking. Most limited seems to be naval units, who are only effective (obviously) on mostly-water maps. The defenses in Land Air Sea Warfare are very effective, I feel too effective. Until you have developed the third tier units, most attacks can be successfully repelled with a handful of units and static defenses. This means the mid-game suffers from a lot of standoffs with no winners, waiting until the more powerful units become available. The fast pace of Land Air Sea Warfare means a lot of destruction, and the relatively low health of units contributes to quick elimination of most of your troops. Land Air Sea Warfare lacks a deeper level of strategy: just build enough factories and crank out units and win. The AI is capable, and it does not cheat but obviously does things a lot faster than a human ever could. Nevertheless, you feel like there’s something missing beyond the mass hysteria of having tons of units blow up.

Land Air Sea Warfare is as advertised, featuring land, air, and sea warfare. The game goes beyond a simple RTS game by having a couple notable features. First, the decent interface that offers easy access to varied units and buildings. Pumping out tons of units is straightforward, and Land Air Sea Warfare does emphasize producing a large army, thanks in part to the high effectiveness of static defensive emplacements. The game has a number of game options that can adjust the map design, and specific rules and victory conditions for your contest of wills, although Land Air Sea Warfare lacks a campaign mode for a more structured and objective-based experience. While the massive battles can be quite entertaining, the game’s mechanics start to show rough areas upon further inspection. The uselessness of level 1 units means upgrading to tech 2 as quickly as possible is the only viable strategy. The fact that buildings can be placed anywhere sighted by a friendly unit makes for messier end-game cleanup. That said, the top-level units and more powerful weapons can make this chore less tedious. Units are quite balanced and each are appropriate for engaging specific enemies at varied ranges. Research also allows you to concentrate on a particular strategy. I do like automated resource collection, although it means most players will be on too much of an even playing field (since everyone on the same tech level will accumulate funds at the same rate), which contributes to more stalemates. The AI provides fair competition, although the lack of multiplayer for true challenge is distressing. Still, those looking for a more straightforward strategy gaming experience will find a number of nice features in Land Air Sea Warfare.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Din’s Curse Review

Din’s Curse, developed and published by Soldak Entertainment.
The Good: Randomized dungeon layouts, ignoring quests puts town at risk for attack, cooperative multiplayer with matchmaking, extensive character customization, varied loot
The Not So Good: Very repetitive combat and quests
What say you? Auto-generated living worlds highlight this action role-playing game: 6/8

I’m not the biggest fan of role-playing games. So what’s a review of Din’s Curse doing on Out of Eight, then? Well, I am a fan of randomly generated content, and I found one of Soldak Entertainment’s previous efforts to be quite enjoyable. And I must meet my quota of one or two RPGs per calendar year, so I might as well get them out of the way now. Plus, I put off the review for a good three months, until the pleas from the developer finally went answered. Let’s get on with it, then!

Din’s Curse looks like an indie game. The graphics are reminiscent of Scallywag (another randomly generated RPG) and Depths of Peril (obviously). The underground caverns are monotonous and generic: one cave looks just like another. This is a product of the randomized level design: sure, they have different layouts, but they don’t have the attention to detail more scripted offerings feature. There are some interesting enemy character designs and some of the animations look nice (though repetitive), but the magic effects are basic and combat is uninspired. Obviously, the graphics of Din’s Curse is not the focus of the production. As for the sound, the game doesn’t include any voice acting (not unexpected for an independent game) and simple battle effects and music. Din’s Curse won’t win any awards for presentation, but the graphics and sound are functional and don’t impede the game in any significant way.

Din’s Curse places you as a defender of various towns in a fantasy setting, adventuring into the dungeons located underground to take care of the monsters contained therein. Whoever decided to build towns on top of dungeons wasn’t a very good city planner. Each of the towns and their related dungeons are randomly generated, providing higher replay value. You can also suffer cave-ins and other dynamic or triggered effects, changing the landscape further. Starting out, you choose your class: warrior, rogue, priest, wizard, ranger, or conjurer. Each class has three upgrade trees where you can spend your hard-earned experience points. If you are feeling saucy, you can design a hybrid class by picking any two of the eighteen specialties available across the pre-set classes. Your character is preserved as you play additional villages, and you can take them online as well. Din’s Curse has a master server where you can browse for cooperative games, a nice feature for online-enabled titles. Hardcore players can make death a permanent affliction if you prefer more realistic rules. Difficulty can also be adjusted by changing the initial monster level. Finally, Din’s Curse allows for user modification of most game elements, as they are contained in simple zip files.

Your mission is to complete all of the mandatory quests offered by the big wigs in each town, then move on to another randomly generated city in peril. There are also optional quests you can complete: these item-gathering missions usually result in the construction of a defensive building in the town, which helps in protecting against the eventual incoming monster horde. You can fail in a town if the three main quest givers die, or if a NPC beats you to completing the most important tasks. While you don’t lose the game, you won’t receive the super awesome bonus loot for helping the town out. You are limited to six quests at a time, so it is important to prioritize and select ones that you can complete simultaneously. Since the monsters in Din’s Curse have their own evil agenda, taking your sweet time to complete certain quests (or ignoring them altogether) will have a negative effect on the town, possibly resulting in its destruction: monsters can create destructive machines, assassinate heroes, spread the plague, and more if given time. Unfortunately, the quests in Din’s Curse are very repetitive: go deeper into the dungeons and gather items or kill a specific monster (or monsters) or retrieve an ally. Without a central story to follow, the quests are uninteresting at best and tedious at worst, and since that’s pretty much all you’ll be doing, Din’s Curse offers nothing beyond a typical action RPG in terms of gameplay.

As with any decent role-playing game, Din’s Curse allows you to upgrade your character over time. There are five attributes that can be upgraded with experience: strength (more damage), dexterity (higher hit chance), vitality (health), intelligence (mana), and spirit (more mana and resistance to magic). There are also stats that are derived from these attributes and various items you can equip: health, mana, stamina, attack, defense, armor, resistance, perception, finding money, finding items, and light intensity, important for traversing those deep, dark caverns. Upgrading your character’s attributes is easy, and you can add new skills as well: they are not organized in a tree, where you must unlock earlier traits to get the more powerful ones, but the more advanced tricks do come at a higher experience and monetary cost. Yes, learning a new skill costs money; it’s like college! While there are no new innovations in this area of the game, Din’s Curse does provide the basic character options we’ve come to expect in the role-playing genre.

Din’s Curse has plenty of items to pick up accidently when you meant to attack an enemy, divided into categories: normal, common, rare, elite, artifacts, and legendary. You can also find items that are part of a set: catch ‘em all and you get a special bonus. Items also have a durability rating: they lose “health” over time, and will eventually need to be replaced. Trade is very straightforward, albeit tedious because of the sheer amount of things to find underground. Luckily, you can mouse over any item and press the spacebar to instantly sell it, instead of having to drag and drop everything. Most surface vendors have really crappy items, so most of the good stuff will be found in the caves or earned by clearing towns.

Your left mouse button will get a heavy workout while playing Din’s Curse, as it is used to perform most in-game actions. Clicking on a monster will attack, clicking on an object will pick it up, and clicking on the ground will move. If you hold the button down, it will continue to move or attack. While this simple system is, well, simple, you can’t differentiate between attack and pick-up and move, which can get you killed when there are lots of items and enemies on the map (very common in the lower reaches of the dungeons). I’ve been the subject of many unintended actions in the game, thanks to the simplified controls. You can inflict special hits, like crushing blows, stunning blows, critical hits, and deep wounds, in addition to the normal damage your weapons cause. The game typically uses a range of attack values to inject some randomness and uncertainty into the proceedings, as do most role-playing games. The AI is pretty mindless, obviously (being a bunch of monsters and all), but they can eventually organize attacks against the surface and provide a challenge when in numbers. Death isn’t permanent (unless you set it that way), but it does incur an XP penalty, where it grows at half of the normal rate until you meet some threshold. While I don’t usually like action role-playing games, I do feel compelled to keep adventuring in Din’s Curse despite the rampant repetition. There is an intrinsic sense of duty (heh heh, I said “ duty”), to keep going deeper underground and save the village from ultimate doom.

While Din’s Curse is a fairly standard action role-playing game, where you hack and slash your way to victory, it does have one major thing going for it: random maps. This coupled with dynamic attacks from monsters and their subsequent effects on the town makes this somewhat unique in the genre. The game features all of the usual trappings: robust character customization with both combat and magic fields of study and lots of enchanted items to collect, equip, and sell. Din’s Curse also allows you to play online cooperatively, a fun feature for any role-playing game. Din’s Curse has a disappointing selection of quests that don’t vary much at all: they almost always involve finding stuff for the townsfolk deep underground, or killing something along the way. This is where the randomization hurts the game, as a lack of a central story really limits the variety of available quests. I do like how refusing to undertake mandatory quests has a negative impact on the town you are defending, as the monsters will come out to attack on their own. Combat in Din’s Curse is predictably repetitive: hold down the left mouse button and use a spell every once in a while. The AI isn’t anything special (nor does it need to be), only becoming a substantial foe when massed or at a much higher level. Din’s Curse is a title that fans of action role-playing games should keep an eye on thanks to the randomized level design and cooperative elements.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Inner Quest Review

Inner Quest, developed and published by South Winds Games.
The Good: Mandatory matching locations, bonuses for speed, helpful power-ups for a cost, varied map layouts, can actually lose, multiplatform
The Not So Good: No true genre innovations, imprecise selection scheme, multiplier decays very quickly, no online high score list
What say you? An acceptable, but hardly ground-breaking, match-3 puzzle game: 5/8

Match-3! For those of you who weren’t scared off by that opening statement, welcome! Casual puzzle games have taken the PC by storm, cropping up across download portals across the Internet. But how do we know which are quality titles, and which are cheap derivatives? Lucky for you, Out of Eight is here to sift through as many match-3 games I can stand, which is approximately “two.” I already did the disastrously spelled Simplz: Zoo earlier this year (from the same developer, incidentally), so Inner Quest satisfies my yearly quota! Huzzah! Let’s see how/if/when/where/who/what Inner Quest improves upon the canon of match-3 puzzle games.

Inner Quest features sufficient graphics and sound design for a puzzle game. The colors are distinctive, making for easy matches thanks to the use of varied hues and shapes to differentiate between the numerous components. Squares that require matches are highlighted in a subtle, but not too subtle, manner. The backgrounds are nice and not distracting. The special effects are subtle but effective. The game plays at a low resolution, but this is a genre meant to be played in windowed mode. The music is just fine and fits the genre well. Inner Quest evokes no terrible feelings of inadequacy, so it passes the minimum requirements for presentation.

Inner Quest is a match-3 game, in which you make matches of three. It’s in the title, people! The game features both arcade (timed) and relaxed (for wimps) modes of play across one hundred different map layouts. You can actually lose in the arcade mode if you run out of time (and I have), although you can continue through the 100 levels with 1/8 of the points. There is no online high score list (just one for that computer), but at least Inner Quest is available for both evil and hippie operating systems.

Inner Quest elevates the classic match-3 gameplay a bit higher by offering more goal-oriented objectives. You are required to make matches on shaded squares before time expires, a tough task on exotic layouts with objectives that are located in the corners. Making matches more quickly increases your multiplier, although it decays rather fast, decreasing its effectiveness. Time is very important in Inner Quest: you must focus on clearing the special tiles quickly, or you will lose the game. The time limit is an effective tool in making the game stressful and challenging. Inner Quest includes some classic match-3 ingredients like locked tiles that can’t be moved and special tiles that cause regional explosions. Eventually, potions can be purchased for a score cost that can attack specific cells, guide your match-making ability, or restart a level with no penalty. I like the use of wagering your score on things that may or may not assist you in the future.

If you are quick enough, you can make multiple matches at once. I hate having to wait for the current string of matches to end before making another one in an unrelated portion of the map, and luckily Inner Quest removes this restriction. Unfortunately, Inner Quest makes it tough to see which tile (if any) is currently selected, as it uses the same indication (bouncing) for a selected tile as the one that is currently under the mouse pointed. You can imagine the confusion that ensues, and the inefficient nature of the selection mechanics really hinders the time-based gameplay. This is one of the few match-3 puzzle games that’s actually challenging, thanks to the layouts and time limit, so those looking for a tough trial will be pleased.

Inner Quest is an average match-3 puzzle game, and in a crowded genre, you must offer something unique, which this title does not. I do like the varied map designs and clearing requirements, which elevates it beyond simple matching anywhere on the board. The pace of the game is quick, with both a time limit and multipliers to maximize your score. The ability to fail is unique as well; most games just let you play on forever, but Inner Quest actually requires you to try. You can’t compare your ability against others online, though. The rest of the game is very typical of the genre: explosions for matching specific tiles and power-ups. The controls should be better: I commonly click on the wrong tile or think something is selected when it is not. In a game where speed is of paramount importance, Inner Quest fails. In the end, there is nothing wrong with Inner Quest, but nothing new about it. Fans of the genre will enjoy Inner Quest, but those not obsessed with match-3 games will pass over this title as just another game.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge Review

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, developed by Panther Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Supreme simulated combat realism, high-quality AI automates minute tasks and fights effectively, orders delay makes you plan ahead, exhaustively researched roster of units with attributes, extensive suite of editors ensure longevity, comprehensive and informative tutorial videos, many scenarios
The Not So Good: Expensive, AI may be a bit too cautious, occasional stability issues, most new enhancements are subtle, seven-year-old graphics, lacks multiplayer matchmaking, needs interactive tutorials
What say you? The premier operational-level World War II strategy game comes at a steep price, but it’s worth it if you want a truly authentic and comprehensive battlefield experience: 8/8

One of the best wargames to grace the PC was Conquest of the Aegean, a real time game devoid of pesky hexes that focused on realism with a historically accurate command structure and (most memorable for me) awesome pathfinding (yes, that is important…try a game where it doesn't work) on very accurate maps. That landmark title came out four (!) years ago, so dare I say it’s time for an update (sequels to four-year-old games are all the rage, after all). Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge takes the action to the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes in the Winter of 1944. There has been the occasional competitor, trying to replicate the operational-level real-time strategic gameplay the series has produced so well. Will Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge remain at the pinnacle of wargame excellence?

The graphics have received seemingly no enhancements in the past four years, sticking with the 2-D overhead map view the series has utilized for the past seven years (although it now changes in appearance with the weather). I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but other wargames have gone to the 3-D side of things with acceptable results. The maps use realistic terrain depicted using abstracted textures for less photorealism but easier identification. The essentially hand-drawn maps look OK, but can’t compete with full 3-D representations of the battlefield. Unit can be displayed using classic NATO symbols for hardcore players or a profile view for more casual folk. Battle effects are underwhelming: colored lines dash across the map and defeated units simply disappear, replaced by a cross for reverence. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge uses the same user interface as before; luckily, most things are easily accessible once you learn the system. While using the same 2-D graphics engine can let your computer focus more on the background calculations, a more updated presentation sure would be nice. The sound also remains the same after four years of additional development: some basic, repetitive effects that highlight constant on-screen action. $80 sure isn’t getting you a better looking or sounding game. Still, I doubt hardcore wargamers really care that much.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge concerns the oft-ignored (ha ha) conflict in the Ardennes during the cold winter of 1944, Germany’s last-ditch effort to push back the Allies. The game includes twenty-seven scenarios that span the course of the battle, each lasting between 30 and 300 hours; since an hour of game time takes about a minute of real time, the longest missions can take six hours to complete, not counting time spent paused. In addition, scenarios can include between sixty and six hundred units, though the large scale never really becomes an issue thanks to the ability (and need) to subordinate command to the AI. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge has a lot of replay value since the AI is not scripted: they will attack different objectives with different units each time you play, and the location-based objectives are numerous enough where you can expect to see a new strategy from the AI most games. Most of the victory points are earned by holding locations with units in a 10:1 superiority ratio, though you can also earn points by killing the enemy or occasionally exiting units from the map. Difficulty can be adjusted by altering the reinforcements available to each side, and historic or seasonal weather options are accessible as well. I guess this is the best place to post the stability issues I have been having with the game: most (if not all) of the scenarios I have played have crashed once, usually right before I was going to save it (of course). I'm not alone, either, and it is annoying to lose all of your progress after spending nineteen minutes (autosave is fixed at twenty; it'd be nice to let us change it to, say, five minutes) carefully coordinating an attack. The crashes are frequent enough where it's making me not want to play the game (never a good thing). But, I figured, it'd probably get fixed by the time I posted the review or soon thereafter, and most people seem to be able to run the game without issue. Still worth noting, though.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is a large game, and the developer has decided to go the route of non-interactive video tutorials to teach n00bs the game. This has both advantages and disadvantages. The videos are dry but quite informative, covering aspects of strategy and execution I never knew or thought about from my extensive Conquest of the Aegean play sessions. It’s certainly better than a slide show or simply reading instructions, but I personally prefer a more direct, interactive approach where you don’t have to alt-tab between the videos and the game to emulate the movements. Multiplayer is still present, but Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge continues to lack matchmaking from inside the game. It would be very nice to have at least an in-game IRC chat program, like what the community did for Sleep is Death. For those that don’t have friends or game at weird hours, matchmaking is a must to get the most out of the game. The developers of Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge have opened the door to modders, as a complete editing suite is included with the game. While the scenario and map editors are standard fare, the estab editor (you know, for stabbing someone electronically) lets you make any unit or equipment item ever used in World War II or beyond. It’s truly flexible, and it should give the game long legs in the effervescent world of user-created content.

Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge takes place in real time, just like life (not the cereal; that’s turn-based)! You can pause and accelerate time, although it never really goes faster than a minute each second. The interface is the same as in Conquest of the Aegean with some minor improvements. Most apparent is the order of battle, which will adjust based on how you have ordered your forces, and it will highlight units you have given orders in pink (the manual calls it “magenta,” but we all know better). Units can be directly selected from the order of battle, which eliminates scouring the battlefield for a specific unit. You can reattach units back to their original superior also, making the process as painless as possible. The path tools have been improved with a time estimate, in addition to allowing you to asses the quickest, shortest, and safest ways to travel. Range rings are useful for determining where to initiate an attack, just outside of enemy range. Those enemies might not actually be where they are shown, though, as intel can be out of date or completely wrong, based on the skill and line of sight of your forces. While it takes a little bit of time to learn your way around the small page tabs and function keys for different displays, the interface of Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge makes most of the important information easily accessible.

You have all of these units, so you might as well order them around. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge provides a number of commands to issue to your troops, and it’s a very straightforward process: select a unit, select an order, and click a destination. You can tell units to attack, probe, defend, delay, withdraw, deny crossing, secure crossing, construct bridge, exit off map, fire, or bombard. If you’d like to customize your orders beyond the default setting of letting the AI do what it thinks is best, you have the option. You can specify the formation (road column, line, successive lines, arrowhead, left echelon, right echelon, vee, equal defense), which varies the attacking and defending values on all four sides of the unit. You can also adjust the amount of aggression, rate of fire, acceptable losses, supply usage, frontage, depth, facing, and propensity to rest. New include options to pursue stragglers, keep support units near the front of the formation, ambush the enemy, automatically attack enemy units along the way, bypass enemy units, or retake defended objectives. If you issue a waypoint before the final order location (by holding the “shift” key), it defines the forming-up place, where units will organize before entering their formation and starting their attack. The AI can, of course, automatically choose an appropriate location if you don’t want to worry about such details. You can also coordinate attacks by specifying a start, end, duration, or assault initiation time in your orders, and the AI will extend time if needed and inform you of the changes. Finally (well, for this paragraph anyway), Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge contains realistic orders delay, so your commands take some time to filter down the order of battle (usually 30-60 minutes, depending on many factors). This really makes you plan ahead, which is something most (if not all) other strategy games totally miss.

If it fought in the Battle of the Bulge, it’s found here. Units are divided into general categories: headquarters, line, line support, support, and base. These can include a myriad of platoons and companies, from infantry to armor to engineers to artillery to rockets to armored cars to machine guns and more. The smallest units in the game are platoon and company size, placed into brigades that are placed into regiments that are placed into divisions, which is what you usually command. The companies and platoons have a very impressive level of detail. Each unit is rated in experience, training, fitness, aggression, stubbornness, strength, and firepower. Speaking of firepower, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge has tons of details on the individual equipment used by your troops: caliber, shell weight, rate of fire, range, reliability, armor thicknesses, speed, fuel usage, plus a short historical description of most items. Additionally, the game tracks each round used by every company. Seriously. During battle, the game engine also keeps track of personnel, equipment, morale, cohesion, fatigue, and suppression levels. Even the commanding officers have stats for determination, staff quality, judgment, aggression, and leadership. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive simulation of battlefield combat. Thankfully, supply is handled automatically (that’s what subordinate units are for!), so it’s just a matter of keeping your supply lines clear of enemy troops.

I wonder if the actual combat uses all of these individual weapon attributes, or if they are just for show. Either way, the battles in Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge are quite realistic (if the History Channel is to serve as a point of reference), with units being suppressed, losing cohesion, and panicking as the bullets fly. This is where the strong AI comes into play. Thankfully, the computer does all of the minute tasks for any order: determining a forming-up place, undergoing reorganization, defending, resting at night, and assigning units to specific roles: support line, forward line, left or right guard, main guard, rear guard, center guard, or support filler. Units will also build bridges automatically (if able). This is coupled with some outstanding pathfinding, and the pathing tools mean unexpected movement is a very rare occurrence as you can determine where they will head before issuing an order. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge wants to you command brigades, but leave the individual companies to the AI. Honestly, keeping track of company-sized units when you have three hundred on a side would be impossible, as it would be in real life. That’s why there are battalion and company commanders to deal with all of the minutiae, so you can focus on the big picture strategy. Rare are the games that you can trust the AI to do sensible things with their troops, but Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is one of those select few. You can, of course, just issue a couple of attack orders to the regiments and sit back and watch the fireworks, but coordination of artillery and offensive or defensive maneuvers is how you become victorious; the order execution time command options make this possible. You do have to micromanage the artillery in order to strike specific targets; a "defend radius" order to automatically strike any units in a particular area would be nice instead of trusting the AI, though it does do an able enough job I suppose. As an enemy, the AI is very good but not great (still better than 99.44% of strategy games): they appear to be slightly too cautious on the offensive, keeping too many troops back instead of going for the objectives in an all-out attack. I have routinely seen a superior attacking force fail to dislodge my inferior defending force, but maybe it’s because of my l33t skillz. The AI works better as a defender, although both sides of the battle are just as interesting to play thanks to the non-scripted behavior and varied plans that the AI brings to the battlefield.

On the surface, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is, obviously, very similar to Conquest of the Aegean, and a lot of people will see the incremental changes in the engine and wonder why this time around the game is significantly more expensive. Well, first off the level of detail here is improved and remarkable: the historical unit positions and orders of battle, in addition to the individual company stats in many, many different areas of effectiveness (including the weapons they use), are thoroughly researched. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also features some outstanding enhanced AI that will effectively manage their subordinate units when issued orders, splitting up a simple “assault” command into its individual steps and assigning units to specific roles appropriately. You can trust your AI subordinates to do smart things that you couldn’t possible manage yourself in real time, and on the actual battlefield you wouldn’t anyway. There’s no reason to play a “classic” wargame where you have to painfully and tediously move each unit every turn ever again. The AI also makes for challenging competition, looking for holes in your defenses and playing a single scenario many different ways (from the initial setup, of course) due to the lack of scripting. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also provides nice tools to assess line of sight and path transit times for any unit under your command. The twenty-seven scenarios offer nice replay value thanks to the dynamic AI and large maps that provide multiple paths to each objective. If that’s not enough, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge features complete editors that lets you create your own units, maps, and scenarios, so the game can be adapted to any near-World War II conflict (and probably will be by the dedicated community). The game can be complex, but a set of comprehensive video tutorials are included to teach the basics; while this doesn’t substitute for real-time in-game instruction, they are quite useful for new and veteran players alike. I would like to see in-game matchmaking in the form of a chat client or some other method, but since the AI is good you don’t need to rely on human competition for ultimate enjoyment. Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge also exhibits more crashes than I care to experience in a high-ticket item (more than zero). A smattering of minor complaints aside, Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge is a complete authentic battlefield experience. Sure, it’s $80, but I feel it’s justified: historical strategy fans should be playing this title for a long time thanks to its realism, detail, AI, and editing possibilities. It's a marked improvement from Conquest of the Aegean and I gave that four-year-old game an 8/8, so here we are. As Fran├žois-Marie Arouet once said, if you're going to spend $80 on a computer game, it might as well be a really good one. And who can argue against the French?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Alpha Protocol Review

Alpha Protocol, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by SEGA.
The Good: Robust character customization, conversation choices affect future missions, choice of mission order increases replay value
The Not So Good: Bland linear missions, stealth not a viable option, hacking mini-games are tedious, wildly inconsistent AI, checkpoint-only saves, no multiplayer
What say you? Repetitive missions and uninspired combat hurt this espionage role-playing game despite a nice roster of ancillary features: 5/8

Spies are cool. That’s why there are so many movies about them: James Bond drinking heavily while not wearing a shirt, Jason Bourne (who I always thought was like a Streisand) killing some guy with a pen, and whatever Jack Bauer does because I never watched 24. Yes, being a cool, calculated killer is a dream of many and a job of few. Luckily computer gaming lets us step into the shoes of these silent assassins and shoot people in a legal manner: virtually. Alpha Protocol takes the action and stealth of spy games and injects a healthy dose of role-playing game elements. Thankfully, the game is not a traditional RPG as it uses actual skill to dispose of enemies instead of random dice rolls and magical magic. Lets shoot some people in the face, shall we?

Alpha Protocol uses Unreal Engine 3 for its graphical prowess and the results are good. Each of the environments you play in a quite detailed, from the various objects that populate the levels to the textures on the ground and buildings. You will encounter some rooms that are used more than once, though, but this repetition is minimal (though noticeable, obviously). The settings are also diverse and distinctive, almost feeling like actual cities except for the linear corridors and frequently blocked doorways you’ll encounter. Characters look nice as well, with realistic animations and pleasing ragdoll death sequences. Weapons and explosions are nothing special, but are effective. I didn’t even notice the game is in third person, which is a compliment. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics Alpha Protocol brings. On the sound front, Alpha Protocol offers good voice acting, intense combat effects, and appropriate background music. Alpha Protocol delivers very solid graphics and sound for a mainstream action title.

In Alpha Protocol, you are Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton, an ex-CIA agent who blah blah conspiracy blah blah black ops et cetera. Running through the starting tutorial, you can choose one of the pre-set classes: a combat-focused soldier, the stealthy field agent, or the tech savvy specialist. Or you can opt for a completely customized assortment of initial skills to tailor your specific strategy. Advanced players can choose “recruit” with no starting stats for an increased challenge. And, of course, you can change your haircut and wear snazzy sunglasses all the celebrities are talking about. While the first locale presents missions in an orderly fashion, things open up, allowing you to tackle missions in a sequence of your choosing. Doing so actually determines the characters you will encounter along the way (a single playthrough does not show off all the game’s content), encouraging multiple cracks at the world of Alpha Protocol. Missions that advance the plot are highlighted, and missions usually involve shooting but sometimes focus on gathering intelligence. The replay value is higher than what we would typically see in a single player game: Alpha Protocol does make you wonder what would happen if you chose a different mission or conversation response. Sadly, the missions themselves are quite linear, funneling you down restricted paths towards clear objectives. Since Alpha Protocol is a solo-only affair, each mission becomes quite repetitive: enter a room, shoot the guys, hack an object. More freedom in mission completion options would mix well with the freedom granted in selecting specific assignments. The missions are also very combat-focused, which negates the use of more stealthy techniques when dealing with the enemy. Alpha Protocol does allow you to fast forward through boring dialogue, but restricts you to saving the game only at (admittedly frequent) checkpoints. Alpha Protocol also lacks multiplayer of any kind for those who like to play with others.

As with any role-playing game, Alpha Protocol lets you upgrade Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton with improved competency and additional skills. There are nine areas in which you can spend points earned when you level up from experience earned from in-game actions (namely completing missions). You can start by increasing your aptitude with any of the weapon classes (pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, and assault rifles). Additionally, you can increase your health (toughness), speed up hacking and offensive gadgets (sabotage), augment first aid and weapon bonuses (technical aptitude), improve stealth, or find more efficient ways of manually kicking ass (martial arts). As you increase your abilities in a certain area, extra abilities called perks are unlocked. These range from simple stat bonuses (like increased accuracy, for example) to new abilities (like sensing nearby enemies or slowing down time). Perks can also be earned from in-game choices and relationships with superiors. Alpha Protocol definitely features robust character customization options.

What’s a spy without some cool weapons and gadgets to kill people with? Alpha Protocol features several grades of weapons of each type that can be purchased online using money earned during missions. You can also outfit individual weapons with barrels, sights, expanded magazines, and other neat accessories either purchased or found scattered around the missions. Stats are clearly displayed (including relationships to your current weapon), so making the right decision is easy. Alpha Protocol is not just about shooting people, as you can also equip a number of grenades, first aid kits, traps, and distractions for your enemies. Finally, you can pick up or purchase alternative ammunition for your weapons, like incendiary rounds for a fiery good time. It seems the best combination is an assault rifle paired with a short-range weapon (either the shotgun or pistol). The submachine gun, at least until you have upgraded your stats, was way too inaccurate for use against anything except for massed enemies. Still, the options are there to find your own personal favorite pairing.

The hallmark of any good role-playing game, Alpha Protocol offers conversation with friends and foes along the way. The difference here is that you are not supplied with canned responses that bear no real impact on the game. You are given three or four stances that summarize the stereotypical approaches of a world-class spy: aggressive, professional, or suave. The choice you make can affect your relationship with the target, both positively and negatively, which will grant different perks during gameplay or affect subsequent missions. There is a time limit (around five seconds) to make your choice to increase the pressure. The same approach does not work on all characters, so you have to get a “read” on what they respond to the best (gathered intelligence can help with this). Also, you want to avoid an overwhelming positive relationship with your advisors, as emotions might undermine their ability to lead effectively. I like the system Alpha Protocol has employed and it works well, providing more varied (and sometimes unpredictable) dialogue and impacting the game’s overall story.

Alpha Protocol is not all about shooting. Frequently, you’ll be tasked to enter one of three mini-games to complete various tasks. The most difficult/annoying is computer hacking: you have to move two codes (using the WASD keys, spacebar, and the mouse) onto the appropriate non-moving characters on a rectangular display of flashing letters. The controls are really odd and not intuitive, which adds to the difficulty. I do not like it. Better is the electronic bypass, where you must select tabs connected to a maze of circuits with digits on them in numerical order. That one is more fun but does get old after a while. Most trivial is the lock picking: just line up the pins with the mouse and it’s ready to be opened; I seem to remember the same mechanic being used in other games. While the hacking elements do offer a break from shooting, they get old quickly and they are mandatory to advance in the story. They also occur quite frequently (usually five or six times per mission), more so if you want to access secret moves where cash is stored. In any event, all of the mini-games are annoying enough to despise the next time you have to complete them.

OK, Alpha Protocol is mostly about shooting. The game has no shortage of action, as most missions involve coming into a new room populated with bad guys and taking care of them with hot lead. Luckily, Alpha Protocol uses actual aiming to determine if an enemy is incapacitated, although there is some randomness as to where the bullets will land in the aiming reticule. Because you will always be outnumbered, cover is a must: use the spacebar to enter cover and move between conveniently placed boxes and crates. You can blind fire from behind cover or peek out to engage the enemy. Problem is, the game requires you to aim for a considerable amount of time before accuracy is at an acceptable level, all the while having the enemy freely shooting at you. The level design discourages stealthy tactics due to the lack of alternative paths to objectives. In addition, alarms can be quickly disabled, or even left enabled with no real repercussions. At least the crouch toggle is useful, and I do prefer a more action-oriented approach to combat. Your character (Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton) has both health and endurance. Endurance (kind of like armor or shields) regenerates slowly over time, while health can only be replenished using health packs or medicine cabinets. Ammunition pertinent to your current weapons are also dropped by defeated adversaries. You’ll need these assists as the AI is no slouch: they use cover and engage at appropriate distances for their weapons. In fact, they might be too effective, singling you out at long distances and being super-accurate with their weapons. And then the next minute, they completely ignore you walk in front of them. They do not like to work in groups (where one enemy engages you while another sneaks around the side to flank), and the boss battles (boo!) border on the impossible: good luck if you've equipped yourself with the inappropriate character upgrades and abilities. While the shooting can be nice, the level design is not interesting: Alpha Protocol needs more than one path to an objective, and the linear level layouts ruin the immersion and other better qualities the game offers.

The list of features Alpha Protocol brings is certainly comprehensive. The game has complete role-playing attributes: character customization is certainly all-inclusive, offering upgrades in nine areas and unlocking new perks as you level up. The use of these attributes really changes your overall tactics, from ammo-spraying man of action to stealthy assassin to anything in between. Like your character, each of the game’s weapons can be upgraded to improve performance. The levels are designed to emphasize medium (assault rifle) and close (shotgun or pistol) ranged items, so it is important to equip Michael “Michael ‘Mike’” Thorton with a variety of items for every situation. Combat emphasizes the use of cover and careful targeting of foes, which can be difficult when you are being shot at. Unfortunately, Alpha Protocol really doesn't let you be a stealthy spy (despite having the option to customize that way), as the levels thrust you into constant combat. The AI is good (certainly good enough for this type of game), using cover and generally moving in a smart manner, but not too smart where the game is impossible to beat. The campaign has higher-than-usual replay value for this kind of game, thanks to the mission choices that affect which characters you meet and the conversations you have with those characters. The stance conversation system works well, and choosing the “correct” responses improve relationships while at the same time “incorrect” choices don’t break the game. Even with all of these good to great features, Alpha Protocol’s actual level design leaves a lot to be desired: it’s far too repetitive. Look! Another room with two guys and something that needs to be hacked! The hacking is a break from the usual, but the sequences are very monotonous and become boring and annoying quite quickly (which is unfortunate, since you’ll need to do them quite often). The levels also rarely offer a choice of paths, so despite the fact that the game has multiple endings and is affected by the conversations you hold, the same levels will need to be played. If you can deal with the repetitive and restricted nature of the linear missions and the AI shortcomings, Alpha Protocol does have some nice surrounding features.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Booster Trooper Review

Booster Trooper, developed and published by DnS Development.
The Good: Multiple weapons for varied tactics, jetpacks
The Not So Good: Generic frantic combat, terrible AI can't handle non-deathmatch modes, control scheme learning curve
What say you? A 2-D multiplayer platform shooter with vertical gameplay but nothing else of note: 5/8

In the future, everyone will be issued a jetpack. That is, of course, if computer games have taught us anything. We’ve seen these marvels of modern invention crop up in many PC titles, including (but not limited to) Section 8, All Aspect Warfare, Shattered Horizon, and Global Agenda. Of course, jetpacks are not meant for expedient travel. Rather, for a more efficient way of killing others. Taking full advantage of all three axes of movement makes for a sneakier way to shooting people in the face. Booster Trooper gives jetpacks to combatants in a 2-D platform warzone, taking a decidedly old-school approach to the action genre.

Despite being a 2-D game in terms of mechanics, Booster Trooper features 3-D graphics that work quite well. First off, the levels the game features are rendered in excellent detail with superb textures. Booster Trooper plays out in distinct environments that not only offer varied arrangements for tactical play but look good as well. The two soldier models aren’t exactly original in appearance but are fluidly animated. Copious amounts of blood are sprayed across the terrain, over the top and distracting. The weapon effects are the most disappointing aspect of the game: quite underwhelming and lacking the punch usually seen in the genre. Booster Trooper behaves nicely in a window, always a plus. The game’s sound effects are less impressive: just the basics with annoying, generic music I quickly turned off. Still, for a 2-D game with 3-D graphics, Booster Trooper delivers the goods and provides much more than $10 worth of visuals.

Booster Trooper is a throwback to a simpler time when processors were rated in the tens of megahertz: 2-D combat. Playing Booster Trooper for the single player game is a bad idea, as the AI is generally awful and not a challenge. Additionally, they can only play the deathmatch varieties of game modes. Indeed, Booster Trooper is meant for multiplayer mayhem, and the game is equipped with dedicated servers and an in-game browser. Sadly, I’ve never actually been able to play against anyone online as the servers have never been populated. The ten maps that ship with the game are nicely sized for the twelve player limit: small but not too small. They are not destructible (I’ve been playing too much Bad Company 2 and Frozen Synapse), but they maps offer lots of platforms and objects to use as cover and support the vertical movement prevalent in the game. In addition to the aforementioned deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, Booster Trooper offers capture the flag and destroy the beacon modes, typical but appreciated additions to increase variety. Games can be customized to alter the score and time limit, respawn time, friendly fire, or enable hardcore mode. For the price ($10), Booster Trooper features an acceptable amount of features.

You can outfit your booster trooper with a number of different weapons, freely available to all players. Each of the weapons are appropriate for a different range of engagement, from the short-range shotgun to the medium-range assault rifle. You can also opt for the minigun for maximum firepower or the rocket launcher for maximum explosiveness. Choosing the sniper rifle seems to be the most idiotic choice, as the fast pace and small levels Booster Trooper offers seem to contradict the appropriate stationary strategy for that particular weapon. Troopers are also equipped with a sidearm or melee weapon you’ll never use, and an explosive grenade or mine. There are no exotic weapons here, and the inclusion of a jetpack would seem to necessitate the use of futuristic guns of doom.

I’ll be honest (for once): I had a heck of a time becoming accustomed to the controls of Booster Trooper. The game uses the famed WASD keys for movement and jetpack use (“S” is for ducking) and the mouse for aiming independent of the current direction of movement. This was really disorienting, as I am used to the first person shooter approach where you aim where you are generally looking. If you are more talented than me (likely), you’ll scale the learning curve much more quickly. The most memorable aspect of Booster Trooper is the use of jetpacks to get around: you can fly for short periods of time to reach higher platforms, collect power-ups like better weapons or health, or evade the enemy. The gameplay is quite fast and chaotic, which makes my less-than-masterful handling of the controls even more detrimental to my overall performance. Death comes early and often and the best strategy appears to be to spray and pray, as stalking your enemies will usually get you killed early in the process.

Booster Trooper takes a unique (at least for today) approach to the action game and delivers a chaotic experience that is entertaining in very short bursts. The gameplay is very, very fast: since the maps are so small, you are almost constantly assaulted by your enemies. Since it took me a while to get used to the mouse-keyboard control scheme in this 2-D title, frequent deaths were an issue. Still, if you like fast-paced games and can handle the controls, then Booster Trooper can deliver $10 worth of entertainment. That is, as long as you can find an online game: the servers were never populated when I checked during my admittedly strange gaming hours, and the AI is terrible enough to ignore. The game does feature a decent number of maps in distinct locations and several game modes culled from standard FPS fare. And the game certainly looks nice as you are dispatching your enemies with high-powered weapons, flying through the air with your jetpack. While it lacks the nuance required for long-term enjoyment, Booster Trooper does offer some cheap thrills for fans of 2-D shooters.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Split/Second Review

Split/Second, developed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney Interactive Studios.
The Good: Explosive trackside items are a great idea, looks nice
The Not So Good: Mindless driving physics, repetitive events after first playthrough, unfair to current leader, inconsistent AI, insignificant penalty for crashing, most content initially locked, no online server browser
What say you? Unique track-changing events take a back seat to asinine arcade racing: 5/8

Auto racing can suffer from severe bouts of repetition. The same cars on the same track going around and around and around and around and around and around. But what if the track itself could bite back? What would that look like (actually, probably something like this) ? Thus is the premise of Split/Second (known in Europe as “Split/Second: Velocity” and in Canada as “You like racing, eh? What's it all aboot, ya hoser?”): in the future, men are men, women are women, and high-stakes racing takes place on TV with no regard for personal safety or the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, the ability to trigger changes on the race track in real time is intriguing. Does Split/Second make the podium in the world of arcade racing titles?

As you might expect in a racing game primarily designed for the console world, Split/Second looks quite good. Each of the game’s eleven tracks is very detailed with plenty of trackside elements to look at as they quickly pass by. The game uses high-resolution textures that look quite nice. The environments are also distinct, from urban settings to desert climates (not as tasty as “dessert climates”). The car models are also quite detailed, although they don’t respond much to minor damage. Explosions are fun to look at, and the camera view constantly gets cluttered with various liquids and solids you encounter on the track. It’s obvious graphics was a strong point of emphasis during the development of Split/Second. The sound design is less impressive, though: although Split/Second includes a heart-pounding soundtrack to accompany the action-packed gameplay, the sounds seem a bit muted, from the explosions to the car engines. It’s simply not as powerful as I would have expected. Still, Split/Second provides an excellent slick presentation that rivals any contemporary racing title.

The first thing you’ll do in Split/Second is press “enter” five times to skip the initial movies. Sigh. At least the game doesn’t require the disk in the drive (online SecuRom authentication). The second thing you’ll do in Split/Second is immediately go into your first race without having the ability to change your controls or graphics settings. And, of course, the game did not correctly configure my gamepad. Awesome start! Once you get past those annoyances, you’ll find a single player season mode with twelve episodes (the game is a TV show, or something…I had to sit through unskippable cut scenes for each episode that destroyed my memory) of six races each unlocked in an order of your choosing (somewhat: four basic races plus a locked elite event and a bonus event). You can enjoy quick races of anything you’ve unlocked, as well. Split/Second also features online (or LAN!) play, but the features are lacking: finding a game is difficult as matchmaking is segregated by game mode. Additionally, only three of the six game modes are available for online play, and I had tons of problems joining games. I was successful about 10% of the time; otherwise, the server was not available or the game crashed as it attempted to connect to the host (no dedicated servers, of course). At least split screen seems to work well, if you actually have real friends to play against.

Split/Second features a nice amount of content for a racing title. First, the game has eleven tracks on which to race. Each arena has several different paths (which can be switched by the competitors) and you quickly learn where the explosions and obstacles are triggered. The settings are recycled somewhat and the layouts don’t retain any sort of individuality (due to the non-technical nature of the game), but the tracks do their job as a place for arcade racing. Six modes are available that either involve straight-up racing or avoiding explosions. We have standard races, elimination (last place is eliminated every twenty seconds), survival (dodge barrels dropped from trucks), air strike (dodge missiles fired from a helicopter for points), air revenge (dodge missiles fired from a helicopter…but earn power!), and detonator (one lap with lots of explosions). The alternate events work well within the context of the game, although they are similar in approach (watch out! another explosion/missile!). Twenty-seven cars are in Split/Second, all with different ratings in speed, drift ability, strength, and acceleration. The stats vary wildly, so there is actually some strategic decisions to be made here, especially for specific game modes. Unfortunately, most of the content is locked from new players. Booooo! This goes for online races as well (you only have access to cars unlocked in the single player “season” mode), so beginners will be at an instant disadvantage simply because they haven’t played as much, not because they are less skilled at the game. Though things do unlock quickly enough, I am always against preventing people who purchased a game from all of the available content, especially if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

Split/Second is solidly in the “arcade” racing camp, and the actual racing leaves a lot to be desired. The fact that the game doesn’t have a handbrake key tells you all you need to know about the lax physics. You rarely need to touch the brake pedal during any race and only occasionally need to take your foot off the accelerator. This game is all about speed, which is fine but the racing lacks any need for actual skill. It’s sad that I yearn for the nuance of Need for Speed. You can have (high quality arcade racing games with relaxed physics that still require skill to play. At it stands, Split/Second really just features paths along which explosions occur. Yes, the “power plays” are the draw of Split/Second: power earned by drafting behind other cars or drifting through corners can be used to trigger explosions or other objects to wreck your opponents. The game clearly highlights (through the use of an icon) when a power play is available, so it’s just a matter of saving up energy for the best moment. Power can also be used to activate shortcuts or alternate routes, although the latter option is simply cosmetic and doesn’t alter the race in any significant way. The power plays always trigger at the same places around the track, though, so it’s certainly not dynamic or varied once you have raced a track one time. Because of these power plays, it’s much more preferable not to be in the lead, since you can’t trigger power plays on those behind you. In fact, the first place car is constantly targeted by the AI and there is no way to counter the attacks, other than dodging the falling debris and fireballs. The AI also suffers from “catch up” syndrome: you can blow up every car multiple times and still barely (or not even) win a race, as the AI will rocket towards the front. Indeed, the penalty for crashing is so insignificant that it’s really meaningless: a loss of about three seconds of progress rarely means no victory, as you can simply catch back up to the front of the pack. Split/Second simply has too much luck involved and removes skill to such a degree that the winner isn’t usually the best driver, but the one that just happened to avoid most of the explosions. That may, in fact, be the point of the game, but it’s a point that I personally do not agree with.

Despite track destruction being a fantastic hook, Split/Second suffers at the hands of its driving model (or lack thereof): it simply lacks any sense of difficulty or skill. All you need to do is press “go” and steer, with the occasional slide through a corner and light touch of the brake. I don’t mind arcade racing games (exhibit A), but you must require at least some skill in navigating the tracks and handling the cars. With the explosions triggered at set locations, after you play the game a couple of times, Split/Second becomes predictable and sadly repetitive. The AI isn’t much of a challenge either, unless you get pinned by an untimely explosion near the end of the race and end up in last place, despite perfect driving the rest of the time. Still, affecting the race using trackside elements is pretty fun, and the game does a good job highlighting when to use the power you have accumulated through drafting and drifting. Split/Second features a number of different cars with varying abilities that will alter your race strategy. This is a game better suited for multiplayer (though the single player “season” mode is decent), but unfortunately Split/Second has a hard time (at least for me) not crashing when connecting to the host. But at least it looks nice as you unleash destruction. Split/Second would have been appealing if the racing model was elevated beyond super simple levels of ridiculousness.