Monday, August 30, 2010

Elemental: War of Magic Review

Elemental: War of Magic, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Tedium-free and manageable city development, robust character customization, world-altering and tactical spells, in-game unit design, extensive content editors, can recruit (or fight) neutral adventurers, several research branches for different strategies with semi-random choices, clear diplomatic negotiations including treaties and arranged marriage
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve with insignificant tutorials, linear campaign with poor direction, tactical battles encourage waiting in defensive terrain, indistinctive spells, lacks fully randomized maps, some bland research options, limited quest variety, occasional bugs, iffy AI, no multiplayer yet
What say you? Part turn-based strategy, part city management, part role-playing game, partly finished, occasionally fun: 5/8

Strategy and role-playing games have traditionally been separate entities on the gaming spectrum, satisfying their audiences (intelligent people and furries, respectively) with computerized entertainment. But as gamers become more sophisticated (meaning “older”), so have their games. We’ve seen the occasional mix of RTS and RPG, like this thing, but now it’s PC champion Stardock’s turn at the plate, hoping to hit yet another out of the park. In Elemental: War of Magic, you are a powerful spellcaster, attempting to restore proud kingdoms of the past and dominate all those who oppose your path to righteousness. The game borrows conventions from turn-based strategy games (city management, armies, resources) and role-playing titles (quests, NPCs, magic) to hopefully produce an unforgettable recipe. Do too many ingredients spoil the pot?

The graphics in Elemental: War of Magic come in two flavors: the 3-D world and 2-D map. I actually found it easier to play using the cloth map, where it is easier to identify things based on icons instead of 3-D models (especially the difference between resources and quest locations). The simple but effective cloth map fits the fantasy theme of the game very well, strongly evoking classic literature. The 3-D graphics are no slouch, either, with some nice character models and animations with cities and locations that add subtle detail as you zoom in: a really neat effect that also improves game performance. The ground textures could use more detail, but at least some of the spell effects are suitably devastating. As with Sins of a Solar Empire, Elemental: War of Magic is designed to run well on a variety of PCs: even netbooks can run the game by using the cloth map (which I prefer anyway) exclusively, an important feat that more PC games should strive to achieve as mobile gaming becomes more prominent (although game performance decreases as the number of turns increases). As for the sound, things are much less exciting: there are few, repetitive special effects for selecting units and battles (most spells sound exactly the same). Game notifications are extremely subtle: when a building or unit finishes, or a city is idle, it’s difficult to find that out based on audio alone. There is no voice acting in the game, despite the campaign being linear in nature. The music is nice and dramatic, but this is the lone bright spot in the very minimal and bland sound design.

In Elemental: War of Magic, you are the Sovereign: a magical guy (or gal) who must rebuild the world while seeking ultimate power. The campaign plays out more like a traditional role-playing game with some strategy elements: you follow a single character through a linear storyline, going on quests and building up your empire along the way. This is a nice alternative to the usual “kill everything” missions in most strategy games. The campaign is ultimately not that interesting because of its linear nature (one play through is enough) and it does a terrible job moving you along: objective locations are not displayed on the map, just instructions like “head south, then west” (no compass rose is shown on the map, of course) that may or may not be recalled by looking in your campaign summary log. You can easily get “stuck” since you must complete key missions before unlocking the next area of the map. Some of the features carried over from the regular custom games are questionable: why give the option for city research bonuses when there is no research in the campaign? In the end, the campaign is a limited diversion.

The real “meat” of Elemental: War of Magic is contained in the custom games, where you take on a number of rival factions attempting to achieve victory through conquest, diplomacy, quests, or spells. You can set the world size and difficulty of monsters, game pace, and number of opponents. The game uses somewhat random maps: the layouts are recycled (same continents, same placement of forests and mountains), and will be recognizable after a number of games, while the resource locations are changed. This is a bit of a disappointment as I was expecting more randomness in this area. Elemental: War of Magic does an inadequate job teaching you the mechanics of the game, as the tutorial instructions at the beginning of the campaign are very basic and don’t address more advanced topics, like simply how to do certain actions that the interface might not make apparent. You can consult the in-game encyclopedia or view a set of online video tutorials, but neither of these are a substitute for robust in-game instructions.

Multiplayer is planned for Elemental: War of Magic, but it’s currently not activated. Rumors have it that sixteen players will engage in faster games using shortened tech trees. Tactical battles might also be added in the future. Still, it’s disappointing that an anticipated feature was initially disabled. On a brighter note, Elemental: War of Magic features an excellent set of editors that let you create all sorts of content for the game, from maps to items to buildings to effects to new nations. The tile editor is most impressive: you can point-and-place all sorts of architecture and items for a building design and then import it into the game. Most of the game’s values are contained in XML files for easy editing as well. In addition, you can share your content with others from inside the game using Impulse Reactor, a fantastic idea for growing a strong mod community. The ease of which you can alter Elemental: War of Magic is great and ensures a long life for this title.

The interface is uneven, partially attributed to a number of bugs. The cloth map viewed when zoomed out is fantastic (I use it almost exclusively) and the empire tree lists and highlights all of your units and cities. You are also given a list of your current resources and notifications for in-game events (though a stronger audio indication would be much appreciated). Equipping units is a bit of a chore: you must trade items between units and then equip them manually as traded items are not automatically used. The interface also shows the current building queue instead of the resource income list when choosing a new construction project, not helpful since most of the buildings in Elemental: War of Magic grant bonuses to existing resource values. The oddities don’t stop there: the item shop icon can become blurred even when you are in friendly territory, the empire tree doesn’t update during a turn to reflect newly-queued buildings and units, the currently selected unit isn’t highlighted on the cloth map if you are zoomed out far enough, sometimes buildings don’t disappear correctly when queued for construction (some structures are only allowed once per city), founding a settlement may not work without any indication of why not (you might be too close to another city, but the game doesn’t say this), auto-explore isn’t efficient enough (scouting territory you already have seen), tool-tips occasionally appear in the wrong location (or not at all), the mouse may select the wrong object during tactical battles, I still get some "out of memory" errors after about an hour of play (good thing I auto-save every four turns), and alt-tabbing sometimes produces a bad DirectX call, crashing the game. I also found performance to be below acceptable levels when using the zoomed-in 3-D view. Elemental: War of Magic could certainly benefit from some additional polish.

The first thing you’ll do in Elemental: War of Magic is choose or customize your sovereign, the in-game character that represents you. The game features role-playing customization options: attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, constitution), a profession, talents, weaknesses, appearance, and starting items. You can also choose which spellbooks you initially have access to, although it is easy to activate most (if not all) of them and they are similar in nature. Experience is gained through combat, and you can improve your ratings in each of the attributes as you fight monsters and other undesirables in the game. Your character can eventually get married and you can use your kids as champions or to improve relations with rival nations. If your sovereign is defeated in battle while in enemy territory, the game is over, no matter how awesome your empire may be (this goes for the AI as well). Elemental: War of Magic features robust options for developing your character as you see fit.

Resources are global, which makes it much easier to manage your growing empire. You will need to collect is gold (called “gildar” because that sounds more nerdy), food (for troops and population growth), materials (for stuff), metal (for metallic stuff), knowledge (for new spells and technologies), and magic crystals and shards for advanced spells. These resources are located directly on the map, although you can build structures in your cities that provide a very small initial amount to get you started. You can collect any resource that lies within your boundaries, which means a lot of the game will be a battle over these resource locations. The other nice side effect is that cities will be built up based on their surrounding resources, rather than using the same build order for every settlement. This also means you will need less cities: three large cities are more effective than ten small ones if they are taking advantage of the resources within their borders. This eliminates a lot of end-game tedium that usually results from having large empires with many cities. There are no production chains in Elemental: War of Magic, but that’s fine because I think it would have resulted in too much depth and things to keep track of. You can set up trade routes between cities to increase your income rates, build up prestige from inns and pubs to increase population growth, and purchase shiny new weapons and armor from the item shop in each city.

Research comes in five flavors: civics (new buildings), combat (new weapons), magic (new spells), adventure (new quests), and diplomacy (new…diplomacy). It’s not quite as simple as that, as there are some interesting high-level technologies, but in general that’s what you’ll get. You are given a semi-random choice of technology in the field you researched, a nice way of introducing chance into a place where options are typically linear in nature. New buildings and weapons are the most useful for expanding empires. Diplomatic options are helpful once you encounter other nations. Adventure technologies sprout new items and resources on the map, which gives that branch purpose. Magic seems to be the least useful, simply allowing access to new spellbooks that offer a lot of the same type of spells. There are some open-ended bonuses you can continuously research when you have reached the pinnacle of a tree. Even with the random elements in research, you’ll still unlock things in the same general order, assuming you stick to the same strategy each game.

Elemental: War of Magic features some quests. A lot of these are pretty repetitive (you’ll see the same ones in each new game) and usually involve going (or escorting someone) to a location, fighting some enemy, and getting some new item or a cash reward. The items can be varied (weapons, books that give attribute bonuses), which is nice. Still, I found the quests included with the game to be generally uninteresting due to their lack of variety. You can design your own, and hopefully Elemental: War of Magic will have more interesting, multi-faceted quests in the future. The world is populated with bandits and monsters that move around the uncivilized portion of the maps and grow in power each time you level up your adventure tech rating. Hunting these creeps down is usually just as interesting as going out on quests, and you also get a cash reward once you kill them and take their money (how nice!). You will also encounter other adventurers out on their own; you can recruit them to your cause and equip them with sweet loot. Recruiting them can be expensive and you can usually get more powerful units through research, but you can give champions magical abilities and they are needed for marriage, which makes them somewhat important at least.

As you might imagine, Elemental: War of Magic features magic. There are four main spellbooks: earth, air, fire, and water, plus summoning and enchantments and some advanced books that are unlocked with research. The spells come in tactical (for battles) and strategic (for the game world) flavors. Disappointing, most of the spell categories offer up the same types of spells: offensive weapons, attribute bonuses, and pets. I fail to see the difference between a throwing a fireball and throwing a boulder (so why have both?). Spellbooks fail to retain any source of individuality, save for a couple of high-level spells. Some of the spells are cool, though, especially those that alter the game world and inhibit enemy cities. Controlling a shard of a particular spellbook makes those spells more powerful, so there is some luck in that you find shards of the same type you set up your character with. I never found the need to specialize in more than two (and usually one would suffice) spellbooks, since each one has a number of tactical and strategic spells and there is significant overlap of spell abilities. Overall, I think the spells could use a lot more variety and individuality.

Eventually, you’ll have to deal with rival nations. Diplomacy in Elemental: War of Magic is very straightforward, using clear numerical values for reference during trading. You can swap resources, technologies, children (in the form of arranged marriages), or champions, in addition to entering a number of agreements (non-aggression pacts, alliances). The value of each item in a trade is plainly visible and you can add in money or diplomatic capital (earned from buildings or collecting specific pretty resources on the map) to sweeten the deal. This makes it no mystery as to why the AI rejected a trade agreement: the numbers are right there. The AI does occasionally overvalue some items (especially peace treaties even if you are dominating the war), but overall the system works fantastically.

Units are just peasants that you give weapons (and training, which is automated when you queue them up). There are no “knights” or “archers” (although the game has them once you research the weapons they use), but simply units that have the appropriate weapons, armor, and abilities you have researched. It’s a great system that makes your units feel more like people than killing machines, and also gives you a lot more variety in designing your army while taking advantage of your resources. The unit design interface is easy to use: just choose your weapons and items and watch the unit cost skyrocket. Each unit is rated according to hit points, attack, defense, movement, attack speed, healing, sight range, and magical ability, plus some rarer special abilities. I also like how unit design is optional: the game has pre-canned options that work just as well for those who don’t want to mess with intricate designs. Eventually, you can recruit squads of veteran troops, more expensive options that are appropriate for well-developed empires. I wish high-level weapons were made of more than just metal (bows and arrows are kind of weak); this overvalues metal, especially if you don’t happen to have any within your boundaries. The same items you use for new unit designs can also be given to your sovereign, other champions, or any other unit, albeit at a high price of gold (instant swords are expensive, apparently).

Elemental: War of Magic is a world of constant conflict: even before you start killing other nations, there are lots of monsters and bandits in the woods to destroy. The game clearly displays a combat rating for both your troops and any enemy stack, which makes it very easy to determine your chances of victory before you approach your adversaries. You can choose to auto-resolve most battles (ones involving a quest must be done manually), which does a decent job replicating the proper results (I’ve only seen one battle I lost but won manually after I reloaded the game). Elemental: War of Magic also includes tactical battles for those want a more personal approach to combat. The battles use attack and defense ratings for each unit and a bit of random dice rolls to determine damage; both the attacker and defender deal damage during an engagement. The rare unit can also have access to special abilities, while morale can be important when units with high levels of health are involved. Weapons and armor have bonuses against specific types, always providing the maximum amount of damage or protection. The use of terrain is also important, as certain tiles on each map provide additional defense ratings. The attacker goes first, so an advanced spellcaster can wipe out an entire low-level army before they even have a chance to move if they have a powerful enough set of spells. The defensive bonuses mean you should find high terrain and stay there. The AI will simply move towards your trap, which doesn’t really allow for interesting tactical play. The game could use some objective locations the attacker must reach in a certain time limit in order to discourage stalemate play. Elemental: War of Magic also makes it trivially easy to retreat, as the escape point is always behind your initial position, away from enemy troops. While I like having the option to play out tactical battles, I usually skip them unless it’s a close battle between large armies with lots of magic involved.

Your AI opponents are slightly below OK. The will construct effective buildings to take advantage of their resources, although they seem to build too many buildings and cities (a lot of unnecessary houses, for example). The AI goes out on quests and engages minor nations successfully, but they declare war without having the military might to back threats up. Minor nations sit in single cities waiting to be conquered (by design), so they are a far less interesting foe to deal with. The AI also has a problem fielding enough troops to defend their cities, leading to a lot of steamrolling by the player. The biggest problem is the AI sending their sovereign into your territory with not enough backup troops and engaging your clearly superior army, instantly losing the game. I suspect the AI will improve its competency over time.

The best thing about Elemental: War of Magic is the variety of things to do: build up your cities, conduct research, go on quests, engage some monsters in tactical battles, trade resources, and develop your character. The result is that you rarely are just hitting “end turn,” waiting for something to happen, which is a testament to great design, despite the incomplete state of the game. Two things Elemental: War of Magic has going for it: the mod tools and Stardock's record of post-release support. I'm fairly confident that most (if not all) of the bugs will, over time, become fixed. Also, end users (and Stardock, too) will likely produce a plethora of new maps, spells, quests, nations, items, technologies, and buildings to play with thanks to the excellent editing suite. It's because of these two things that I think Elemental: War of Magic will improve in the future. The game mechanics are certainly very solid and unique, and while Elemental: War of Magic is not beginner-friendly in any respect, the learning curve can be conquered and a distinctive gaming experience awaits.

Elemental: War of Magic takes aspects of management, strategy, and role-playing games, merging them into what will be a fun overall product once all of the problems get fixed. First off, the campaign is more than a set of skirmish maps and semi-random maps are available for custom games. It’s disappointing that the campaign is so linear and “true” random maps are not present, as resources are simply randomly scattered on a handful of continental layouts. The game will apparently offer sixteen-human multiplayer, but not yet (and its exclusion from the retail version is troubling). Elemental: War of Magic also doesn’t have tutorials that are explicit enough, a must for a relatively complex game. The comprehensive and easy-to-use editors ensure a modders paradise. The graphics scale well, functional on the lowly netbook while showing some visual muscle on the faster desktop systems. The game currently exhibits occasional to frequent bugs, depending on your system, usually crashing to the desktop. Elemental: War of Magic competes with any good RPG in the character customization department, letting you tailor your hero as you see fit. You can even recruit neutral characters (and you own children) to fight by your side, which makes the game feel more like a living world filled with people and their own agendas. Quests are available to gain new items that give your sovereign something to do, although some of them are plain. You are given some impressive spells to research and use against your foes that can be used in both tactical battles and the strategic turn-based mode, although each spellbook fails to retain a true sense of individuality. Speaking of research, the game gives you several avenues towards victory (combat, quests, magic, and diplomacy), though some of the paths are bland. City management is not tedious, substituting repetitive construction of the same buildings with enhancement structures and fixed resource locations to harvest and fight over. The simple economy is easy to understand and manage, but lacks advanced production chains you’d see in a dedicated city builder, not that this game needs depth in this area. Straightforward diplomacy uses numerical ratings to make negotiations simple. Combat involving designed units in turn-based battles is interesting when units have special abilities and magical spells, but there is nothing stopping you from simply waiting in defensive terrain for the AI. The AI also needs some additional work: while they can keep pace with a human player, you can typically overpower them with military might and take advantage of their poor decisions. I expect the competency of the AI to improve over time. Elemental: War of Magic delivers enough variety to keep you busy throughout while giving you several avenues towards victory, though the learning curve and inherent complexity of the mechanics (and lack of specific instructions) might dissuade newcomers. There is a lot to do, and novices could become easily overwhelmed (especially without a comprehensive tutorial). As you alternate between managing your cities, going on quests, designing units, casting spells, conducting diplomacy, researching new technologies, and engaging in tactical battles, you might (might) be able to forgive the game’s various shortcomings and lack of complete content. While currently an uneven game, Elemental: War of Magic has the potential to be a comprehensive and involving gaming experience with additional content and improvements.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Star Ruler Review

Star Ruler, developed and published by Blind Mind Studios.
The Good: Potentially huge randomized galaxies, competent planetary building automation, detailed combat, multiplayer, modding support
The Not So Good: Incomplete interface makes managing your empire difficult, superficial strategy, tedious exploration and ship management, mandatory automation of various tasks but the inability to efficiently automate others, confusing research trees
What say you? An ambitious but currently rough 4X strategy game: 4/8

NOTE: 8/28/10. Recent patches have turned some of my complaints into outright lies. Lies, I tell you! Techs in the research tree are now better organized, related to things only one space away. Freeform spaceship design has automated upgrades. Scouted systems are now indicated. Zooming problems have been resolved. Future development would continue to improve the product as well; raise your expectations accordingly.

NOTE: 10/4/10. Star Ruler continues to improve, see here. I'll keep the review as it originally was (as I do with all other games), but keep in mind that changes have solved some/most of my initial complaints.

If Stephen Hawking says it, it must be true: we humans are destined to colonize the galaxy. There have been many 4X strategy games set in space, from more recent triumphs like Distant Worlds to older titles like Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II, and Sword of the Stars. Add another new entry into the genre as Star Ruler attempts to bring its own flavor of large galaxy automation to the table, eerily similar in approach to the aforementioned Distant Worlds. Does Star Ruler rule the stars, or simply become explored, expanded, exploited, and exterminated?

The graphics of Star Ruler are simply functional. The planets look nice, with animated cloud cover that make them slightly more interesting than simple spheres. It goes downhill from there, however, as the ships use dark textures and generic designs with simple shapes that are uninspired. While more realistic, the stark black background is devoid of colorful nebulae that populate most games of the genre. The game needs some audio notifications for in-game events (like building ships or finishing research) and more interesting effects overall. At least the music is OK. Overall, Star Ruler looks and sounds like an indie game.

Star Ruler lets you carve out an empire amongst the stars. The game allows you to customize your galaxy, specifying as many star systems as your computer hardware will allow. The game scales well from a small galaxy with one system per race all the way up to an expansive space of space. You can also make the galaxy map more two-dimensional or use a randomized technology tree. Still, the options here are less comprehensive than what we’ve seen in other titles: there are no settings for victory conditions and you are limited to only ten AI opponents, so extremely large galaxies would be quite boring to play in reality. The tutorial does a decent, though dry, job teaching the basics of the game, although you the game doesn’t advance the tutorial automatically or check to see if you’ve actually done what it had instructed. Star Ruler has multiplayer: a browser can search for dedicated servers, and online games can be saved and then played in a single-player format. The game has nice support for mods, extending the life of the game as a whole.

The worst part of Star Ruler by a large margin is the interface. It tries to incorporate some features of recent 4X games, like an empire tree, but fails miserably. First off, there is no minimap; while you can zoom out fully, no useful information is available from this display (large icons for planets or ships are all identical), allowing you to easily get disoriented in the galaxy. There is no list of all your systems to cycle through, and the planet list only cycles through planets in the current system. The pinned objects list (empire tree) is limited, requiring you to manually pin objects to the list for easy access. This should be done automatically. In addition, the game only displays five of your pinned objects when you reload a saved game. Finding things must be done through the object list, buried in your empire information window; though it is comprehensive, it doesn’t list fleets you have created (so why have them?). The system ships list is always disabled (so why have it?). Box-selecting will preferentially select ships (good), but doesn’t say what the ships are (bad), just how many are selected. There are some orders (like explore) that aren’t listed anywhere in the game, either as an icon you can click on or from the right-click menu; you must issue them using keyboard hotkeys. The system-wide building queues, a great idea meant to decrease tedium, simply don’t work (or I haven’t figured out how to use them properly), never overriding AI build orders. Camera controls are problematic: the camera sometimes doesn’t rotate, you can’t zoom until you rotate the camera, the camera occasionally rotates around your current position instead of the selected object, and selecting an object always moves the camera to that object, which is extremely unhelpful when you want to send ships to another system. The right-click build menu is a nice idea that works most of the time, but overall the interface of Star Ruler needs a significant amount of work to make the game playable.

Step one in any 4X game is to explore, and Star Ruler tries to make this process as painful as possible. There is an auto-explore command (using only “X”, as there is no other way to issue it), but it must be given each time a new system is scouted: annoying. Also, there is no “fog” or other indication of where you have scouted, and a system’s planets are only displayed if there is a unit present: annoying for colonization. The game also does not indicate how far away other systems are; you just have to base it off of visuals, which can be difficult in a 3-D space game. Once you have found other planets, it’s time to colonize them. Apparently any planet can be colonized regardless of type, which is odd considering that pretty much every other 4X game has some restrictions imposed in this area. Each planet has a size, which dictates how many structures can be built on them and how much ore they are likely to hold. Ore is mined into metal, which is manufactured into electronics, which are used for advanced parts. This simple resource chain is completely automated by your workers, and excess goods can be stored for future use. There is a variety of structures you can build on any of your planets: farms, cities, factories, research labs, storage facilities, and defensive structures. New colonies can be issued an AI governor, who will automate all of the structures, a nice feature for expansive empires that works well: the AI is pretty smart in deciding which structures are appropriate to maximize planet output. You can also mandate civil acts (like a shorter work day), which provide both positive (higher happiness) and negative (but lower work output) effects.

What would a galactic empire be without ships, and Star Ruler has a number of styles to choose from, from small scouts and fighters to large tankers, dreadnaughts, and colony ships. Construction of these ships can be instantaneous if all the resources are present, a change of pace from arbitrary construction times seen in most strategy games. Each of these default designs can be upgraded through research or new designs can be built. Star Ruler allows you to specify engines, shields, power, storage, control, sensors, and weapons systems from beams to projectiles. The interface clearly displays if a mandatory part is missing. However, ship design and upgrades cannot be automated. Ships can be grouped into fleets, which, in theory, would make it slightly easier to manage your military, but fleets are not listed in the object display and units in the same fleet do not stay together in formation when moving to a new waypoint. Why have the option if it’s not used properly? Optional automation in this part of the game would be nice: colony ships will colonize planets in their system (but not in other systems, even if they have been explored), but scouts won’t fully explore on their own. It’s this constant feeling of incompletion that makes Star Ruler fall far short of potential expectations.

Star Ruler features a randomized research tree that is very confusing. All of the techs are displayed in a square arrangement with some of them initially locked. There is no clear indication of how to unlock the locked technologies, no “branches” on the tree that relate techs together. Instead, you have to use the “guess” and “hunch” options (which take an extraordinary amount of time to research, making their usefulness even more questionable) on each individual technology to maybe, hopefully unlock a new item. It’s a really weird system that honestly makes no sense whatsoever. You can continually upgrade the same technology, which offers benefits the game fails to explain. You can control-click to queue up a menu of spicy new technology (not double-click, which would have made more sense) and you can stop one tech and start a new one at any time while preserving the progress made.

You can negotiate with any of your opponents, even before you come into contact with them (kind of weird). Options are typical: peace treaties, declarations of war, trade pacts, and research swapping. The AI loves to swap resources for research, so be prepared to be bombarded with these requests. The AI is very aggressive, declaring war on you without significant notification (there’s a text message that quickly scrolls by) or provocation or before they’ve actually found you or scouted you. The AI seems to be quite efficient at handling the game, providing a good opponent for offline play. The game’s combat is well done, offering directional damage and individual components that can become disabled, hindering the performance of the craft.

The strategy of Star Ruler is quite limited: since you can colonize everywhere and most planets have sufficient size to build enough structures to satisfy the population, there’s no strategy beyond simply colonizing everywhere. Whoever does so the fastest wins, as they will have the resources to out-produce, out-fight, and out-research the enemy. The resources are plentiful and gathered at a quick enough rate that a colony can expand quite quickly. The AI can (and should, especially if you have hundreds of colonies) build all of the structures automatically, so your role in the game revolves around wrangling up the troops and invading enemy worlds. Strategy games should be about choice, and in Star Ruler there is no choice: go everywhere, my son. The interface and other shortcomings in Star Ruler really inhibit the fun, and the game really doesn’t offer anything significantly new to the genre. There are simply too many similarities to games like Distant Worlds to recommend Star Ruler: you can get a much more polished experience elsewhere.

Star Ruler’s most notable features (large galaxies, randomized research, automation, ship design) are completely offset by a handicapped interface that makes running your expansive empire tedious. There are several problems here: no minimap, an odd (or absent) organization of information, hidden orders for ships, and camera control oddities. Exploring other planets is tedious since you have to issue an auto-explore order for every new system and the game doesn’t indicate scouted territory. The distances between star systems are secretive, leading to less efficient expansion. Automation is inconsistent: colony ships will auto-colonize without your consent but scouts will remain stationary once a new system is reached. Ship design is comprehensive but offers nothing innovative and cannot be automated. The research tree layout is highly confusing, unlocking new techs is not explained well, and the benefits of higher levels of knowledge are not concrete. Diplomatic options are basic but the AI seems to be a competent foe. As advertised, you can have massive galaxies but it’s hard to manage all of your assets yourself due to the inefficient interface that doesn’t let you see all of your systems easily. The AI can direct planet-level production, but Star Ruler really lacks strategic depth: simply colonize everywhere because you can, and quickly build up your forces. Multiplayer is an interesting feature, as is the support for user modifications. The graphics and sound are budget-level, though. The bottom line is that Star Ruler offers nothing we’ve never seen before in more complete titles, and the current shortcomings with the interface and strategy are too much to overcome.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Battlefield Academy Review

Battlefield Academy, developed by Slitherine and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Straightforward use of mechanics (suppression, assaults, ambushes, morale), server-based play-by-e-mail, excellent use of cover makes infantry actually useful, mix of scenario types, veteran bonuses, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Limited interface, inconsistent AI, seven bland multiplayer scenarios with no objectives to discourage constant defending, heavily scripted scenarios reduce replay value, no AI skirmishes, $40 seems a bit high
What say you? This entry-level turn-based strategy game provides streamlined gameplay and online contests with some limitations: 6/8

In 2004 (that was six years ago?! We are so old), the BBC commissioned an online turn-based strategy game which covered four conflicts throughout the history of Great Britain. For a full-fledged PC release, Slitherine has decided to upgrade the graphics and add more features while restricting the warfare to (of course) World War II. This game is meant to appeal to a more casual wargamer, those who are slightly intimidated by the likes of Command Ops and totally intimidated by the likes of War in the Pacific. The other main feature is the server-based online options, an increasingly popular feature for turn-based games. Does Battlefield Academy deliver a solid curriculum, or lose its accreditation?

Battlefield Academy tries a relatively unique approach of making the game look like a comic book (or a “graphic novel” for all those people in denial that they read comic books), and it works somewhat. The menus and scenario introductions look good and is a nice contrast to the usual bleak, realistic approach most wargames utilize. However, this presentation doesn’t carry over to the actual game graphics, instead using a simplified 3-D engine with sporadic unit animations, poorly detailed models, and obviously tiled maps. A cell-shaded format would have worked well for the game (even in isometric 2-D), but sadly the graphical innovations are not carried over. The sound design is similarly uninspired, with repetitive unit voice acknowledgements and generic background music. Despite the inclusion of an animated feel in the menus, the gameplay graphics are below expectations for a $40 title.

Battlefield Academy features three campaigns covering the color highlights of World War II: north Africa (yellow), Normandy (green), and the Battle of the Bulge (white). While you are required to complete the two tutorial levels before attempting any of the campaigns (or online play) and the Africa campaign is the first one unlocked, the others open up soon enough. The game displays a comic book summary and briefing for each mission, but doesn’t indicate which ones you’ve beaten or the achievements you’ve earned along the way. Before a battle, you can choose some of your units, giving you a small amount of strategic freedom. The missions offer a variety of objectives, usually involving controlling specific map locations in a set amount of turns. More difficult optional achievements give you reason to replay completed missions, although the heavily scripted nature of the AI (usually in the same defensive positions or attacking in the same general directions) makes subsequent attempts less interesting. That is probably why there are no AI skirmish battles. There are no difficulty settings in Battlefield Academy, but I found the missions to be balanced pretty well, requiring cautious attacks and smart defending to complete the objectives. Some of the scenarios are difficult, especially if you are attacking against greater numbers, but overall the difficulty isn’t insurmountable. If the thirty scenarios aren’t enough, Battlefield Academy features a nice in-game editor that allows you to create custom maps and scenarios by placing tiles, overlays (hills), objects, units, bonuses, and AI data.

A major selling point of Battlefield Academy is the online play, and the game uses a centralized server to keep track of all your games (this requires online registration for matchmaking purposes). This is how all turn-based games should do multiplayer: keeping your turns in “the cloud” so you can conduct all of your warring in-game, instead of having to mess with e-mails and file downloads. It’s similar to the equally-fantastic system used in Frozen Synapse and works quite well, clearly displaying games that need turns and allowing you to issue open challenges to any comer. Unfortunately, the good multiplayer features stop there. Battlefield Academy only has seven scenarios for online play (I would have liked more or randomly generated ones) and you can’t choose your units; this would have made for more interesting strategies instead of being “stuck” with whatever the scenario designer chose. A larger issue is the lack of objectives for multiplayer maps; there is no reason not to simply defend the entire game (since defenders hold an advantage through ambush) and the lack of a time limit makes stalemates even more likely. It’s too bad the central server system isn’t surrounded by better features.

Battlefield Academy gives you a typical assortment of military units ready to shoot others in the face: infantry, engineers, panzerschrecks, anti-tank guns, mortars, transport halftracks, and (of course) tanks. You also have off-map resources like air strikes, artillery, and naval bombardments that attack at the start of your next turn and additional support items like medics who heal an infantry squad. Unit attributes are very straightforward: every unit has an AP (tank) attack rating, an HE (infantry) attack rating, and an armor defense rating. Damage is one shot, one kill if you get lucky (there is a chance of hit against armored units and “effectiveness” against infantry), although infantry squads consist of multiple units (two to five) so it can take multiple turns to dispose of them properly. Units that destroy the enemy earn veteran bonuses that grant new abilities like more efficient attacks. The interface does an average job: while you can cycle through available units using the TAB key, Battlefield Academy needs to clearly indicate units that have attack moves available.

Each unit can move and attack (usually twice) during its turn. Additional orders include the ability to load or unload passengers, turn (placing the strongest armor in the front towards the enemy), hold fire (for surprises!), assault an adjacent tile, overrun infantry with tanks, flame, bombard, suppress, remove wrecks, or snipe. Battlefield Academy takes usually complicated gaming concepts and makes it easy to understand. Suppressing an enemy unit prevents them from returning fire when attacked: an extremely useful tactic. Hidden infantry units in cover can ambush others they spot and won’t get fired upon in return. Add in line of sight effects and appropriate weapon ranges and you have a wargame that makes grasping important rules a straightforward process.

One notable aspect of Battlefield Academy is the importance of infantry. They are the only units that can use cover and the only units that can spot other infantry units in cover. This means a tank can easily be taken out by a hidden infantry squad if it ventures past a building or forest unawares. This is far more interesting than the usual role of infantry: dying at the hands of tanks. The use of cover in Battlefield Academy is outstanding and it makes the tactical combat much more measured; you have to be careful and use infantry units to scout for concealed enemies in advance of your more powerful tanks and suppress areas where you suspect enemy units may be present. That said, cover almost gives too much of an advantage, where defensive units have the distinct benefit of ambushing incoming attackers. This is where off-map support is helpful, allowing you to dislodge pesky infantry units fortified within the surrounding terrain. Flanking units is also effective, as tanks have less armor on the sides and rear, which increases your chance of penetration, and we all love rear penetration. Your AI opponent for offline action is erratic: the heavy scripted ensures they will be in good defensive positions and on the attack they do coordinate their attacks to occur on same turn (staying out of the firing range or line of sight of your units), but then will go past the same unit, getting ambushed and killed every time. Life is always better online, so it’d be nice if the campaign missions, while probably imbalanced, were available for multiplayer.

I like what Battlefield Academy tries to do: bring traditional hardcore wargaming to a larger audience. And it succeeds in several areas while failing in others. First off, Battlefield Academy does a fantastic job making the game concepts easy to understand: suppression, ambushes, assaults, line of sight, morale, and cover are all abstracted enough to make them uncomplicated but remain integral strategic parts of the game. There are units for every situation and all are useful thanks to the great use of cover that makes infantry a viable strategic option instead of the typical cannon fodder. Using artillery and air strikes is also interesting, as you have to anticipate where the enemy will move during their turn. Veteran units can earn bonuses and extra abilities, giving you rewards for being more careful. The AI is uneven and ultimately less satisfying to play against: they coordinate their attacks but put their units in poor positions. The interface is good but not great: there needs to be clear on-screen indication of units who have not fired their weapons. The thirty-ish mission-long campaign servers up a variety of objectives, but it’s too heavily scripted for much replay. The concentration appears to be multiplayer, and the server-based play-by-e-mail works very well; I just wish there were more scenarios to play online and you had the ability to choose your starting units. Also, there are no objectives in online matches to discourage stalemates while each side patiently waits in defensive positions. There probably will be more content in the future, thanks to the easy to use editor. The unique comic book presentation stops at the menus and interface, which is disappointing. I would have liked to see this game more along the lines of $25 (that’s £15 for you British folk) instead of $40, but Battlefield Academy is a fun temporary diversion from more hardcore strategy offerings.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Razor2: Hidden Skies Review

Razor2: Hidden Skies, developed and published by Invent 4.
The Good: Constant action, weapon and item upgrades, online scoreboard, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No cooperative or competitive multiplayer, lacks weapon usage strategy, repetitive enemy encounters, no mouse controls, significantly more difficult boss battles, only eight levels, can’t save progress, poor game performance
What say you? This average shoot ‘em up would be better with friends and other features: 4/8

Every once in a while, it’s time to sit back and just shoot stuff. Welcome to the world of shmups, born in arcades and still alive and kicking after all these years. I suspect our insatiable need to destroy is key to the genre’s success. You really need some “killer app” to stand out against the large number of existing arcade shooters. How does Razor2: Hidden Skies stand out? Possibly with razors, or skies that may be hidden, I suspect.

Razor2: Hidden Skies heavily touts its graphics and sound design, and for good reason: the game looks quite nice. The environments, while not totally varied, do offer nice urban and desert settings in which to blow things up. There are some noticeable fog transition artifacts that look bad, but these are rare. The enemy designs are detailed as well, with some nice animations that bring them alive. The explosions fluctuate from poor to good, depending on the size of the enemy unit being destroyed. Razor2: Hidden Skies also features impressive shadows and nice bullet glow. However, the game is horribly optimized, as framerates changed wildly during gameplay. Sorry, but with my system, I should get more consistent performance. The sound design is decent enough, with pleasing explosions and a dramatic musical score, though the voice acting is very soft and insignificant. Razor2: Hidden Skies certainly delivers $10 worth of graphics and sound.

In Razor2: Hidden Skies, you and your trusty spaceship (which looks nothing like a razor) are off to other worlds in a mission to blow stuff up. The game features eight levels presented in a linear order. You cannot save your progress at any time, as you are meant to navigate as far as you can through the five-minute-long levels (which feel significantly longer). You are given five lives and one continue to assist you on your journey, and three difficultly levels adjust how much damage enemy fire causes. Razor2: Hidden Skies is only for singles, as there is no cooperative or competitive multiplayer, just an online high score list. In addition, you cannot play Razor2: Hidden Skies using the mouse, another limitation I do not approve of.

Between mission, you can spend earned credits upgrading your ship. There are three primary weapons that can be upgraded five times each, improving their damage, rate of fire, and speed. There are also slots for extra weapons with finite ammunition that fire powerful missiles, bullets, or pulses. You have access to all of the weapons from the beginning, although they aren’t terribly powerful. Other on-board systems include engines (rated in speed and acceleration), shields (with different protections), and energy cells (which provide power for shields and the primary weapon). Items and upgrades is one area where Razor2: Hidden Skies does not disappoint.

Razor2: Hidden Skies has a fast pace that features constant action. Each level takes about five minutes to complete, but it feels a lot longer than that since you are being continually bombarded by enemies. Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t as interesting as it could be. First, there is hardly any weapon usage strategy: just hold and shoot, choosing the right primary weapon for the locations of enemies on screen (cannon for in the front, stray fire for more spread out, and laser for powerful opponents) and firing off the ammo limited items when things get hectic. Most of the game involves avoiding enemy fire, as energy recharges your shields over time, but not too quickly where you can haphazardly fly around. Pick-ups are available for additional bullets and energy, but the repetitive AI patterns and battles become tedious after a while. Each level ends with a boss battle, which is always way more difficult than the rest of the level with an insane amount of incoming firepower. I don’t like having to play through five minutes of uninteresting, relatively easy combat to lose during a dramatically more difficult boss encounter. This lack of balance means frustration soon sets in, and the repetitive nature of shoot ‘em ups doesn’t help.

In the end, there’s nothing totally unique in Razor2: Hidden Skies, and it’s the lack of these features that ultimately hold the game back. The game’s eight linear and repetitive levels must be completed in one sitting, and without friends as Razor2: Hidden Skies does not have multiplayer of any kind. There are a number of weapons that can be upgraded using credits earned during your campaign, and none of them are restricted from use initially. The fast pace does feature constant action, although there is no real variety in enemy encounters or how to deal with them: just hold “shoot” and switch weapons based on how many enemies there are. The boss battles are unfairly more difficult than the typical encounters, resulting in a lot of end-level frustration. The visuals and soundtrack are a selling point for the game, but overall Razor2: Hidden Skies doesn’t offer something new and different for the shoot ‘em up genre. It’s fun, but nothing we haven’t seen before.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Commander: Conquest of the Americas Review

Commander: Conquest of the Americas, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Advisors give intermediate missions, lots of buildings and production chains, automated trade works well, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Significant waiting for profits to accumulate, can’t sort goods by most profitable, no loot from auto-resolved battles, no loans means debt is permanent, baffling removal of multiplayer
What say you? Some new features in this second sea-faring trading game, but slow pacing and other issues remain: 5/8

East India Company was a game that had some neat ideas but got increasingly more boring as a game progressed, due to simply not having that much to do. The half-assed expansion didn’t do much to sweeten the pot. I dare say it’s time for a full-fledged sequel, and that’s what Commander: Conquest of the Americas attempts to do, switching the focus to conquest of the Americas (see how I can read the title of the game?). I certainly like the idea of a trade-based grand strategy game, so how does it fare the second time around?

Commander: Conquest of the Americas is a nice looking strategy game. The map of North and Northern South America looks great, with detailed ground textures and exaggerated topography (large rivers, tall mountains) that illustrate the wild territory you are attempting to tame. The ocean waves are also impressive, always a good thing in a title that emphasizes oceanic warfare. During tactical battles, the ships are also a pleasure to look at, with crew running around and smoke filling the air. The damage effects are a bit sudden, triggered when certain injury thresholds are met, rather than being gradual, but this is a minor complaint. The sound design is eerily similar to East India Company, with the same battle sounds (the distinctive crunching of wood vs. cannonball tipped me off) and similar average voice acting of the previous title. The sound notifications are improved (more frequent), and the game offers similar (if not exactly the same) period-appropriate music that works well. I was pleased with what Commander: Conquest of the Americas brings to the table in terms of graphics and sound.

In Commander: Conquest of the Americas, you are a commander attempting to conquest the Americas. Weird, I know! The campaign (there is also a “free” version with no advisors) starts in 1500 and ends in 1650, obviously commemorating the Battle of Dunbar. You can adjust the difficulty and battle realism and choose your nation from the seven possible selections, each of which has minor bonuses like faster ships or cheaper iron. A tutorial is integrated into the campaign using pop-up messages with a lot of reading, and the occasional message from an advisor that explains things you might have already done (or known about, if playing for a second time). The game also features single tactical battles if you are a more confrontational person. Instead of adding campaign-based online play, Commander: Conquest of the Americas actually removes the multiplayer that was present in East India Company. I have no explanation for that, as the tactical battles are essentially identical.

Conquest is furthered through your colonies. Unlike in East India Company where every potential trading post was already established, in Commander: Conquest of the Americas you get to make your own…sort of. There are a limited number of suitable locations to choose from, so it’s a false sense of freedom. Most colonies start out with only one good to trade, and expand that number (all the way to two!) as they grow in population. Goods are exchanged in the trading post and advanced colonies can build their own ships. You can also charge taxes (on tea, perhaps?) which negatively affects morale but positive affects your bank account. In addition, nearby natives might give extra resources if you build an Indian Affairs office. Or they could kill you.

There is a significant number of buildings to construct in your colonies, from production buildings like gold smelters and sugarcane mills to more secular buildings like taverns and forts. The game makes suggestions as to the best ones to build based on your current situation, which is extremely helpful. There are some multi-tiered production chains in the game, where you can take basic goods and turn them into something extra spicy. The problem is that most of these “advanced” trade goods don’t offer a significantly larger increase in profit margin, especially given how much the buildings cost to build and maintain. But the thought is nice. Commander: Conquest of the Americas also features fourteen of ships to command, evenly divided between trade ships with large cargo holds and combat-oriented vessels with tons of firepower…literally (because, you see, the cannons are heavy, so, you know, tons, oh never mind). They are unlocked to every nation simultaneously, which makes things a little less interesting. Ships can be granted upgrades during construction for added expense, like bigger cargo holds, faster speed, or better hulls. Ships are grouped into squadrons and lead by a commander, who has special abilities that can be used on the strategic map or during tactical battles. In addition, specific crew members can be brought on board for additional bonuses. You are given a nice number of options to customize your fleet as you see fit.

New in Commander: Conquest of the Americas are four advisors who provide the occasional mission. Comply with their demands and you receive a shiny gold prize, but fail and suffer the ire of lowered relations. You can have one advisor hate your guts, but must maintain positive relations with the entire court or it’s game over. I like that the advisors give some direction and purpose to your expanding colonial empire above pure profit. Speaking of profit, the economic aspects of Commander: Conquest of the Americas are better but still more tedious than necessary. You can set up automated trade routes to ferry goods between your colonies and homeland, and the process is straightforward. The game provides global price charts for each individual good, but you still can’t sort a list of all goods by the most profitable product. There are fewer price fluctuations this time around (profits in East India Company drastically decreased about a couple of shipments of a single item), which is good since you usually only have access to a couple of goods at first. Of course, this means you’ll be trading similar goods every trip: once you set up your automated route, you can ignore it until you unlock the next production level by purchasing buildings: not exactly stimulating gameplay. Because you must purchase all of your goods and sell them at your home port to make money, you must be very careful to avoid going broke. There are no loans in Commander: Conquest of the Americas, so once you go below zero, you can’t get back because you can’t afford to purchase anything to make more money. Time for a reload! Insignificant profits and low starting funds makes for a very slow and very boring beginning game. Couple this with a high cost of colony management and you have a lot of waiting on your hands. At least you can accelerate time, but even this results in not enough interaction. There's a reason the campaign features 150 years of time: it takes a while for things to develop.

You’ll eventually have to deal with your rivals, and Commander: Conquest of the Americas features some very simple diplomatic options: non-aggression pacts, alliances, and war. You can trade goods between nations, but only items that are sitting in your home port warehouse and the least amount of money you can trade for is 10,000, which makes getting an even trade essentially impossible. The AI does offer up some reasonable trades and plays the game well, putting up a nice challenge. It’s usually just easier to take goods by force, though, but you’ll have to do it manually, as auto-resolved battles still don’t give you any goods. The tactical battles can be good, but I would rather skip a tedious unbalanced fight and still reap the economic benefits. The tactical battles are identical to those in East India Company: I could not spot any differences in any of the options, so just go back and read what I wrote about them previously. In short, they are exercises in movement, a ballet of slowly pointing your guns towards the enemy. You can take direct command of any ships to fine tune their movement, and use the commanders’ abilities to turn the tide of war. The tactical battles can be fun, but as I stated, we’ve seen it all before.

Commander: Conquest of the Americas is better than East India Company, but not by much. The game’s excruciatingly slow pace remains: you must accelerate time because so little profit is earned early on, due to the high cost of maintaining colonies and having access to only a few items to sell. Because of the lack of loans, you have to be really, really careful never to carry a negative balance, as there is no way to rebound (since you must spend money to get goods to trade). It can be quite easy to "break" the game by going in to debt (you can be one building away if you plan poorly), relegating you to an old autosave or restart. The automated trade means the game will play itself while you wait for profits to slowly increase, constantly shuttling goods from your handful of colonies to the home port. It’s impossible to see a list of all goods in order of price, a really distressing limitation that still not fixed. Your advisors will give you some goals along the way, which is a nice way of providing guidance to new players, although their requests are similar each time you play. Once you do earn enough cash, there are lots of buildings to construct that will produce advanced goods that earn slightly more income. Ships can be given upgrades when they are built: a nice touch. The limited diplomatic options are disappointing. The AI is typically hostile, but it does provide an efficient challenge. The tactical battles are the same, except for the odd removal of multiplayer, but you do get some nice graphics. I would still like to be able to get goods from enemy ships when auto-resolving conflict; why have the option if you are at a disadvantage by using it? I am being harder on Commander: Conquest of the Americas because of my familiarity with East India Company, but I think that's fair for a $40 semi-sequel. It's a better game overall, but with sequels come higher expectations. Things are more interesting when international tension is involved, but Commander: Conquest of the Americas would have fit better as an expansion based on the totality of changes contained herein.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Victoria II Review

Victoria II, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Extremely detailed simulation of population dynamics, interesting diplomatic positioning between Great Powers, lots of goods to produce and trade, varied political and social reforms to implement, military size restricted by population groups, specific goals for wars, unpredictable events, decent tutorials, multiplayer, nice graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: No missions or advisors to assist with development and decisions, capitalists build unprofitable factories without your consent, trade too dynamic to do manually, production chains not obvious enough, limited diplomatic options for non-Great Powers, uninteresting political features for stable conservative governments, sporadic research decisions, migration of population groups has no direct user input, only one scenario
What say you? Significant automation with only subtle manual adjustments makes for limited interaction in this grand strategy sequel: 5/8

One of the more niche extensions of personal favorite Europa Universalis was Victoria, a game that spanned from 1836 to 1920 and addressed the internal changes that countries experienced during that time period. Despite ominous warnings from the CEO, Victoria II has been anointed as the next title in the pantheon of Paradox grand strategy games. Since this time period is not notable for colonization or warfare, it could be considered boring or dull; will the economic and population models be able to hold our attention?

Victoria II is a visually impressive iteration of Paradox’s 3-D engine for grand strategy games. It’s the best looking game they’ve made (not surprising), starting with a detailed game map with excellent textures. It even reverts to a cool retro-style political map when zoomed out: impressive. The interface is clean and easy enough to read, and the units look nice with accurate models and animations. People don’t usually purchase grand strategy games for the eye candy, but Victoria II delivers. The sound is appropriate for the genre, featuring notifications during events and fine, period-specific background music. The presentation is one area where Victoria II does not slouch.

In Victoria II, you control any country in the world for one hundred years, from 1836 (15 years after Europa Universalis III ends) to 1935 (when Hearts of Iron 3 begins). There is only one campaign encompassing the entire time period; I guess the developers didn’t want to spend the time figuring out who owned everything like they did for Europa Universalis (can you say “expansion”?). The detailed game map features realistic terrain and weather that affects military operations, in addition to appropriate goods produced in each province. You can improve each province by adding better forts, ports, and rail service. Designating a province your national focus will persuade citizens to align to a population group of your choosing, or favor certain kinds of production. The tutorials are good, offering basic, intermediate, and advanced interactive coverage of each aspect of the game. They are short but numerous (25), and the game prompts you as to which tutorial you’d like next. Victoria II, like previous Paradox grand strategy games, also features multiplayer for those who are interested in that sort of thing and modding support for those who are interested in that sort of thing. I have experienced a couple of minor bugs while playing: a huge negative balance the first couple days after a saved game load, a black flickering of the screen followed by a lack of sound, and this friendly warning message every time I start up the game. None of these prevent me from playing the game, but they should be noted.

The interface is an enhanced version of what’s been used in previous Paradox titles. The best aspect is the information bar, which spans the top of the screen and grants one-click access to all of the game’s screens (production, budget, technology, politics, population, trade, diplomacy, and military) and pertinent information at a single glance: pretty great. I like all the little icons used in the information bar, but all the screens cover up the entire map. The outliner makes a welcome return, providing information about hotspots scattered around your territory, and flag alerts offer an icon-based alternative to the running text display. Tool-tips are also extensive as always. If it weren’t for the full-screen displays, the interface for Victoria II would be completely excellent instead of mostly excellent.

Victoria was most known for the people: all of your citizens are classified into one of twelve groups, from soldiers to laborers to craftsmen to bureaucrats to artisans. Victoria II does a great job comprehensively tracking all of these individuals: employment, access to goods, political issues, nationality, religion, income, and literacy. Individuals will move between classes if properly motivated by jobs or money; this is an automated process in Victoria II, doing away with needless clicking. Your job is to keep your population happy, and I found it easy to meet the needs of the people: just keep their taxes low enough so that they can afford life, everyday, and luxury goods. The pie charts make it easy to figure out where the balance point is, and automated trade will always bring in enough goods for everyone. Your interaction with this very detailed system is limited and indirect. Yes, manually moving people between population groups was extremely tedious and annoying, but the developers might have gone too far into automation. You can use your funding levels and national foci to persuade people into more favorable groups, but the lack of direct interaction means you can ignore the population detail and still play effectively.

Victoria II features six political groupings your population can be a part of: reactionary, conservative, socialist, communist, fascist, liberal, and anarchist (most likely in the UK). Your country will typically have three main parties (sometimes more), one for each of the three most popular groupings. Depending on your political system (dictatorship, monarchy, constitutional monarchy, democracy), you can choose (or the voters will) which one will be in power; the political party in charge determines stances on some policies (trade, religion, war) and what you are allowed to do (like build factories yourself, for example). Most of the work in politics will deal with social and political issues, fourteen areas where you can tweak how your nation operates. Citizens will have their preferences for different policies based on events and political party, so you’ll have to alter the minimum wage, pensions, slavery, unions, and voting policies every once in a while. You can’t enact reforms unless there is high demand in your Upper House (determined by militancy and consciousness, which seem to be most affected by events) or you run a liberal democracy hungry for change. If you have fulfilled the daily needs of your population and have a homogeneous culture (and aren't subject to pre-scripted events), there won't be much need to change. Despite the availability of reforms, you’ll never have to worry about politics on a yearly basis.

Much more interesting is diplomacy, at least if you are one of the eight Great Powers. Those eight nations are determined by prestige, industry, and military ratings; the benefit of being a Great Power is the ability to have a sphere of influence, where subordinate minor nations trade internally and behave nicer with the man (or woman) in charge. The top sixteen are the only nations that can colonize, a process involving spending national focus points and sending your military to gain control of a region. The interface makes it fairly easy to find other nations, as you can sort by relations, influence levels, and filter by geographic area. Diplomatic options are comprehensive: alliances, military access, war subsidies, and changing your numerical relations or opinions of other nations. You can assign priority levels to any nation, and slowly influence will increase, allowing you to add nations to your spehere of influence or inhibit others from doing the same. It's difficult to switch a nation from one sphere to another (you use up all of your influence points adding or removing nations), but the few neutral nations are up for grabs. I did have some entertaining diplomatic battles for control over several nations, and since there isn't much else to personally deal with, you can concentrate on the diplomacy. The game gives you so many diplomatic points (one per month by default) that you can drastically improve relations with another nation in half a year: pretty unrealistic in my opinion. Still, jockeying for the favor of minor nations and expanding your sphere of influence (which affects your prestige) while decreasing those of others is fun, if a bit tedious and repetitive. Victoria II adapts the specific casus belli introduced in Heir to the Throne, letting you set specific goals before conflict starts, like gaining territory, money, prestige, or releasing nations. I had significantly less casus belli at my disposal in Victoria II than Heir to the Throne (likely due to the lower frequency of conflict during the time period), which obviously leads to fewer global conflicts. To counter this, the infamy hits for declaring "minor" wars for prestige are small, making them more palatable. You can add more war goals during a war if you are feeling extra spicy. Be careful not to increase your infamy too much by requesting inappropriate demands during peace negotiations, or the world's ire will descend on you.

The size of your military is dependent on the number of people in the “soldier” population group: a nice mechanic. You order new units in a province that has those soldiers and then move them around the map for world domination. There is a number (and that number is “eleven”) of period-appropriate units to recruit, from infantry to dragoons and tanks. Nine more options are on the naval side (no, not navel) of the equation, including the man-of-war and ironclad. Leaders are recruited over time (instead of costing money, which always seemed to be a bit weird) and can be assigned automatically to waiting units. Combat in Victoria II is automated, using the various bonuses that it uses.

Let’s talk money. Each of your provinces produces one item, a raw material that can be used to manufacture better, more expensive items, or traded on the world market to reap a nice profit. Factories can be built to make additional goods (if you don’t have the prerequisite goods to produce a product, it can be imported), or the artisan population class will make some stuff on their own, although obviously not as quickly as large machines. Factories are grouped by region instead of province, making it easier to manage your industry. Unfortunately, production in Victoria II has several problems. First, the resource chains are well hidden. For example, a province in my country makes lots of fruit. Great, so show me (by, say, clicking on the “fruit” icon) what factories I can build to take advantage of this. Instead, you have to stare at tiny icons in a gigantic list of possible factory types and figure it out manually. In addition, you sometimes can’t decide which specific factories to build (depending on your political party (in fact, most political parties give most of the power to the capitalists)): capitalists fill up your available factory slots with things that won’t make money and don’t take advantage of the goods your country produces domestically. This means you’ll have to spend a part of your budget subsidizing these idiotic factories to keep your craftsmen employed. A much better method would have been to let you choose the factories manually in all government types but have the capitalists fund the projects; this would have allowed for player input instead of boring automation. You can choose which factories to upgrade, but this is an insignificant consolation prize. Trade is too complex to do manually: it's commendable that Victoria II includes over forty goods to trade, but that's way too much supply and demand to keep track of on a day-to-day basis. At least here the AI does a nice job getting stuff for your nation, but you always wonder whether the computer is doing the best job trading your precious resources. You never have to access the trade interface, giving you one less thing to do in the game.

It’s fairly easy to make a monthly profit in most nations. All you have to do is keep your taxes low enough to make sure all your poor, middle, and rich population groups have enough money left over to purchase goods, and I usually have more than enough spare change to fund education, administration, social reforms, and the military well enough. The most sprawling or poor nations (Russia comes to mind as problematic) require more adjustments to get things balanced, and it does take some initial setup time, but most people will be able to find a modest positive balance and stay there until the next social policy is implemented. Those who enjoy micromanagement will probably tweak the budget more often than I did (to always maintain the same balance), but there's no need to. There are frequent fluctuations because of stockpiling and trade, but overall you usually don't need loans. Loans are kind of cool: excess money left over from your population groups is invested into the national bank, which will grant loans to other countries. Like a lot of Victoria II, the budget requires initial adjustments and minor changes thereafter.

Research offers access to twenty-five techs at a time (which can be intimidating), spread across five fields of study: army, navy, commerce, culture, and industry. Pick a tech, and eventually it will get researched, the speed of which depends on various attributes of your nation. The bonuses provided are usually small, and it can take a while to figure out which one to pick next as you scour the tool-tips. It can take several years (three to four) to research a new tech, so it's a set-and-forget type of operation.

The AI seems to be competent, as I did not experience any exotic wars and it leads the top countries well in diplomatic and domestic affairs. The AI seems to know how to play, but new players might be at a loss as to what to do next, as Victoria II lacks advisors and it doesn’t have missions to guide your way. There are semi-random events that can throw a curveball your way (which can be annoying in their persistence: yes, I get it, I have cholera in my country), but for the most part you’ll be making minor tweaks while avoiding militancy and rebels. Speaking of rebels, they are really annoying (I guess that's kind of the point), constantly popping up when provoked and requiring constant military shifting to deal with them. You really need to keep militancy low (sometimes impossible due to events) so you don't have to deal with them. The amount of automation may feel like you don't have enough to. The time period of Victoria II wasn’t big on large wars (except for one, of course), so neither is the game; warmongers shall be disappointed. I don’t mind automation, but things take such a long time to complete (factories, improvements, research, reform) or don’t require much, if any, intervention at all (budget, trade, population); you spend a lot of time just staring at the screen watching numbers fly by waiting for the next diplomatic action or rebel uprising. If you are not a Great Power, there can be years with nothing to do: production is determined by the capitalists, budget is set, research is set, can't enact any reforms, can't affect the population, trade is automated, and the military is standing by. Things pick up when conflict starts, either from within or internationally, but for a majority of the time Victoria II is, dare I say, boring. While the game lets you play as any country in the world, the game is best when played as one of the eight Great Powers; anything less borders on monotony. I guess it’s time to wait for the inevitable expansion to breathe some more life into this title.

Victoria II is about influencing your population through laws, taxes, trade, and diplomacy. Unfortunately, the influence mostly comes indirectly through your actions, so it can feel like the game is playing itself most of the time. Production is automated by your capitalists under certain political situations, population types are automated, trade has to be automated, and reform and research only require occasional input. So what are you left to do? Diplomacy for one, which is interesting if you are playing one of the eight Great Powers and have access to influence. You'll spend most of your time in Victoria II trying to stay (or get in to) the top eight Great Powers through the diplomatic influence of other nations. The game does have war goals and more directed casus belli (a feature from the EU series) to give wars some flavor. Managing your military is accessible, and the size of which is determined by your population dynamics. The budget is fairly easy to balance, although there are extreme daily changes due to automated trade. Victoria II features only one campaign, but does have nice tutorials and multiplayer. New players, though, will be without guidance from advisors or missions, left to their own devices during the march through one hundred years of history. The interface is neatly organized and accessible but the informational screens obscure the game map. Production is disappointing: capitalists queuing up the wrong factories, cloudy relationships between goods, and the inability to take control of trade due to severe daily fluctuations in needs. Dumb AI-build factories can cripple your economy and there's little you can do about it. Stupid capitalists. On the bright side, the AI seems competent and active, events inject a needed amount of randomness, and the graphics look nice.

Still, Victoria II involves a lot of minor tweaking without many significant events for most countries, and the slow pace of most improvements (factories, research) makes the game boring to play more often than not. As a Great Power, I spent most of my time in diplomacy, some time with the military, and hardly any time with production, budget, technology, politics, population, and trade. I left the trade and population totally automated (my capitalists had near full control of my production as well), while the budget and research only needed minor changes every three to five years. As a second tier power, your diplomatic options are greatly reduced, subsequently giving you even less to do in the game. It's important to strike a balance between giving the user enough to do and not giving them too much to do, and Victoria II doesn't quite get this balance right. The sheer amount of automation, whether mandatory or required, makes it so that you watch Victoria II more than you actually play it.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Blacklight: Tango Down Review

Blacklight: Tango Down, developed by Zombie Studios and published by Ignition Entertainment.
The Good: Enjoyable combat with a frenzied pace, extensive weapon customization
The Not So Good: Terrible matchmaking options, poor level designs promote spawn camping, throwaway co-op mode, most weapon items unlocked initially, display shrunk for non-widescreen monitors
What say you? This futuristic online shooter has plentiful weapon upgrades and frantic battles but a host of port-induced limitations: 5/8

If the reviews on this site are any indication, I like killing people from afar in strategy games and up close in first person shooters. There’s no better place to live out my violent tendencies than on the PC: all of the bloodshed with none of the jail time! Today’s entry into the second half of the death equation is Blacklight: Tango Down, which, despite the subtitle, does not involve South American dancing of any kind. How disappointing. What it does feature is some futuristic online combat, trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Duties and Companies of the world, but in a budget-sized package.

Blacklight: Tango Down gets “dark” and “urban” right, as all of the levels are dark and urban. This becomes a bit repetitive after a while and none of the maps retain individuality. The character models are done well, and there are some fancy special effects when soldiers are killed and the electronic grenades are used, plus little computerized animations when navigating through the menus and loading screens. Each soldier is equipped with a visor that acts as the heads-up display, but it is fixed at a widescreen resolution: those of us with more traditional monitors will have gigantic black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I see in full-screen, why can’t the game? Blacklight: Tango Down also has the capability of displaying in-game ads, though I did not see any (just blank placeholders). On the sound side of things, the voice acting is only experienced during the co-op mode, and it’s totally forgettable, complete with some weird accents. Blacklight: Tango Down does have nice sound effects for spotting and hitting enemies, trying in with the futuristic setting of the game. Overall, though, I feel Blacklight: Tango Down surpasses its $15 price tag in terms of graphics and sound.

In the future, people shoot other people. In the face. Blacklight: Tango Down features a four-player cooperative mode called “black ops” that can be completely skipped over, since it’s simply a shooting gallery against heavily scripted AI bots. In fact, you can’t even join a black ops game without being invited by a friend first, further restricting the appeal of the four linear missions. The game is primarily designed for competitive play, and Blacklight: Tango Down borrows game modes from most online shooters: deathmatch, team deathmatch, retrieval (also known as capture the flag), detonate (also known as capture the flag with one flag), domination, and last man (or team) standing. I prefer objective-based modes: there is less luck with spawning and more predictable enemy positions. The game supports sixteen players, though you are unlikely to encounter that many foes (for reasons I shall describe in the next paragraph) and games start with as few as six players. The usual fifteen-minute time limit is long considering the quick pace of the game.

Blacklight: Tango Down has some of the worst matchmaking I’ve experienced in an online shooter. A lot of the blame can probably be directed towards the awesome incompetence of Games for Windows LIVE. First off, the game lacks a server browser, instead having quick matches that connect to a player host (no dedicated servers, naturally). You must choose a game mode before joining a ranked quick match, filtering out types that might have more people playing. Why can’t you simply join most populated lobby of any type, or have a checklist to choose preferred modes? Oh, right, because this is developed for the crappy XBOX 360, that’s why. Simply put, you should not have separate rooms for seven game types. Period. You will spend a lot of time creating empty rooms or waiting for people to join and make six competitors, wasting precious minutes that could have been spent shooting others in the face. You can’t join games in progress, either, making the likelihood of finding a successful match for one specific game type quite unlikely. It’s not worth the effort looking for a game in Blacklight: Tango Down.

Like most recent online shooters, Blacklight: Tango Down features extensive upgrades for your killing needs. Each of the weapon enhancements can affect your three ratings: damage, speed, or armor. The add-ons are divided between scopes, magazines, muzzles, barrels, stocks, and camouflage. These are gradually but slowly unlocked as you level up, earning experience rather quickly through combat. Yes, none of the advanced options are available to newcomers, but thankfully I felt like I was never at a distinct disadvantage being underequipped, unlike in some other games (*cough*Bad Company 2*cough*). The game does not highlight newly unlocked items, though, so you’ll have to routinely navigate through the menus looking for the most recent items. As a tradeoff, the game does have pre-set load-outs that do incorporate the new items. There is only one gun of each type (submachine gun, sniper rifle, assault rifle, shotgun, and light machine gun), which is just fine with me since most of the changes would be cosmetic anyway. You are also given three pistols you’ll never use and an assortment of grenades that damage or hinder your enemies; the EMP and digital grenades do cool electronic things like rebooting HUDs and putting blocky “ERROR” messages over a portion of the map. While not exhibiting a large number of weapons, Blacklight: Tango Down does cover all the necessary bases.

Blacklight: Tango Down has a pretty slick presentation, incorporating a futuristic feel through the HUD visor and other touches in the menus. The game has a very fast pace, which is fine, where one or two shots mean death. This is a far more preferable balance than quick kills and a slow pace, which wastes tons of time walking to the combat only to get shot immediately. The automated voices make it easy to spot enemies, and the small level designs place you in close proximity to enemy spawn points, making it very easy to spawn camp in the team based modes. The small oddities don’t stop there, as ammunition dumps and health stations are available but completely unnecessary, and there is a Simon-like minigame for hacking computer terminals that adds nothing to the gameplay. That said, I still enjoyed playing Blacklight: Tango Down when I was able to find a match, as the weapons are balanced where each class has an appropriate role. I liked the submachine gun the best for medium-ranged encounters, while the sniper rifle seems slightly inappropriate for a game of this velocity and shotguns are deadly up close. This game is a good substitute for those who don’t want to invest in a full-priced title and don’t mind the various limitations you get for $15.

Blacklight: Tango Down is an OK online shooter for the price. The fast pace and quick kills makes for a less frustrating experience, since you’ll be respawning early and often and are never too far from conflict. The level design doesn’t help the plague of spawn camping, though, as maps are cramped, movement is predictable, and starting invincibility is limited. Forget about playing the cooperative black ops mode: it’s a simple shooting gallery with uninteresting objectives. Better are the team-based online modes, borrowed from other games but still relevant here. Blacklight: Tango Down features a lot of weapon upgrades to earn over time, but all of the options are restricted from the new player. Thankfully, recruits are still fairly competitive with the initial load out. There are some undesirable artifacts from a console port, like the idiotically limited matchmaking and widescreen display restriction. Still, the slick presentation and action-packed gameplay are a nice mix for the price, so fans of online shooters will find some pleasure contained herein.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sniper: Ghost Warrior Review

Sniper: Ghost Warrior, developed and published by City Interactive.
The Good: It looks very nice
The Not So Good: Very linear scripted missions, extreme scope movement induces more luck than skill, lackluster inhuman AI, limited controls, faux realism, annoying multiplayer
What say you? This sniping game is quite unimpressive in almost every way: 3/8

Snipers: the bane of the competitive online shooter. Everyone knows they cheat and ruin games, taking down proper players with a single shot from a secret hiding spot. Boo/hiss. Well, why not concentrate the hatred in a single game? That’s what Sniper: Ghost Warrior hopes to do, highlighting the trials of Tom Berenger as he hunts down his prey in the jungle of Panama while hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos and Dancing with the Stars! What a talented fellow. On with the long-distance killing in the face!

Sniper: Ghost Warrior looks very nice (somebody reads the header!). The tropical locations are all impressive, with a nice variety of foliage and tons of South American-type towns with ruins-a-plenty to walk around. Things do tend to get a bit repetitive after a while (one can only take so much tropical paradise), but it’s nice while it lasts. The character models aren’t quite as good as the environments, though, but they don’t lag too far behind. Sniper: Ghost Warrior also features a bloody kill cam to satisfy the gory impulses of snipers everywhere, though it’s more a smattering of blood rather than this. The sound design is more average, with not-completely-terrible voice acting and appropriate effects for each of the game’s weapons. Still, the visually impressive Sniper: Ghost Warrior delivers for those looking for nice graphics.

Sniper: Ghost Warrior features a rather short single player campaign where you travel to through the jungles on the hunt for hostile leaders. There is no cooperative play and the levels are very, very linear: you rarely are able to choose your own sniping locations, as the maps are full of invisible walls and other obstacles preventing true freedom in stalking your prey. This is in stark contrast to something like ArmA II where you really feel like a covert operative, carefully planning your attacks instead of going down poorly disguised corridors as in Sniper: Ghost Warrior. At least the campaign has numerous, verbose objectives to guide you down the path of righteousness, and you can skip some tutorials if you perform well in the first five minutes.

For a game that features a primarily solitary profession, it is somewhat surprising that Sniper: Ghost Warrior has multiplayer. That said, it may come as no shock that multiplayer is far from fun. Most know how snipers can ruin conventional first person shooters; now imagine a game where everyone is a sniper. It’s the ultimate camper’s game, where newly spawned individuals are shortly disposed of. I swear I never actually saw anyone else while playing any multiplayer game, but I sure got killed a lot. The game features six maps split between deathmatch and team deathmatch modes. You can choose between four classes, each equipped with a different rifle and a balance of health and speed. In the end, I was disappointed with multiplayer, but I suspect those who enjoy playing the sniper might find the chess match enjoyable.

Staying hidden is very important for a sniper, so Sniper: Ghost Warrior gives a visibility and stance indicator (in single player only) to show how close you are to being spotted. Healing syringes are used to regain health (it automatically regenerates over time in online matches), although since once you are spotted you die, their usefulness is questionable. A huge issue in Sniper: Ghost Warrior is scope movement, which is highly exaggerated. Apparently the shooter is doing a jig while trying to line up a shot. This really makes shooting more luck than it should be, leaving you to hope the reticule was over the enemy when you pressed the mouse button. You can tone it down by holding your breath, but you rarely have time to wait that long since most encounters are heavily scripted. Simple randomness has more of an effect on your shots than wind or bullet drop. You are a world-class sniper because you can concentrate and hit your target every time, not because you luck out and shoot when the scope drift is in the right place.

Another oddity is the use of the same button for changing stance. You are supposed to tap for crouch and hold for prone, although while playing online the game seems to choose one at random for you. This is a really strange simplification for a game that purports realism. Speaking of realism, Sniper: Ghost Warrior falls somewhere between an arcade and simulation game, highlighting enemies in bright red and displaying the exact bullet trajectory on the normal difficulty level. The four rifles you have access to don’t feel any different: just scope and shoot. Attaching a grappling hook for traversing up and down cliffs is a simple gimmick that’s simply not fun. The AI are simply cannon (well, rifle) fodder, walking back and forth or standing around, waiting patiently for your incoming bullet. If you miss or are spotted, it’s automatic death: the AI will kill you instantly upon sight, upping the difficulty of the game tremendously. The game is simply not satisfying as a whole, with inconsistent glimpses of realism, linear missions, randomized aiming, and frustrating multiplayer.

Sniper: Ghost Warrior lets you snipe people from long distances, and that’s about the only thing it gets right. The highlight of the game is the graphics, which effectively put you in a tropical paradise ready to be dominated from afar. The level design leaves a lot to be desired: most of the time you are confined to one location to snipe from, rather than letting you choose where to attack from. The enemies range from general stupidity, where they just wait to be shot, to omnipotence, engaging you from long distances with deadly accuracy once you have been spotted (or missed your shot). The controls are even odd, binding crouch and prone to the same button and having an extreme amount of scope drift that far exceeds the effects of wind or gravity. Multiplayer is, as you would expect, full of campers that shoot you as soon as you spawn: no surprise for a sniper game. I would much rather play ArmA II and have a whole bunch more content beyond sniping. Sniper: Ghost Warrior is uneven from beginning to end and ultimately falls well short of providing a compelling sniping experience.