Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rulers of Nations - Geopolitcal Simulator 2 Review

Rulers of Nations - Geopolitcal Simulator 2, developed and published by EverSim.
The Good: Tremendously detailed, competitive online play for sixteen players, a number of scenarios, mod support
The Not So Good: Inaccessible due to data limitation and interface shortcomings
What say you? A global strategy game with an extremely high amount of unusable detail and a inadequate interface: 4/8

So, we’re halfway through Obama-Time, and I don’t follow politics enough to make any deeper observations than that. Anyway, do you think you could to better running the country? Well, do you, tough guy? While most grand strategy games cover historic times and (of course) World War II, some have ventured into a more contemporary realm. Rulers of Nations, the sequel to the imaginatively named Geopolitcal Simulator, is one of those games. This new iteration advertises a sixteen-player competitive mode, new scenarios, and more recent data than the original game. How does it stack up? And, more importantly, how often will I call it “Rise of Nations” by mistake?

Not surprisingly, Rulers of Nations takes place on a stylized globe, and the presentation is as good as you can expect for the genre. The earth is detailed, obviously taking advantage of satellite photographs, although zooming is quite slow. Each of the cabinet members and foreign diplomats has an animated portrait that advises you on appropriate policy (although the lip syncing is definitely off, likely coordinated with the original French dialogue). Most dialogue is also voiced: while its obviously repetitive because of this feature, it’s a nice touch. Unfortunately, the interface does not offer the same level of quality: it is poorly organized and makes it difficult to find pertinent information quickly. All of the data is contained across a large number of windows, but none of the information is connected (clicking on a funding level won’t take you to budget page, for example) and a lot of it is buried in nonsensical places. The data is also limited in its usefulness: you can’t see how many people will be directly affected by adjusting your budget. What the game really lacks is a list of the top issues for your nation, an inexcusable omission. Rounding out the package is appropriate sound effects and decent background music. While Rulers of Nations looks good, the interface needs a considerable amount of reorganization and increased transparency.

Rulers of Nations has an impressive roster of features. There are two main modes in the game: a simulation mode and a competitive mode. In the world simulation mode, there are a number of scenarios to choose from that offer different countries (from one to all) and different objectives (balance the budget, reduce greenhouse emissions), or a sandbox mode with no goals. Success earns points that unlock more difficult scenarios, and you can play the same scenario with different nations to earn additional points. The world competition mode is intended for multiplayer (although you can play against the computer), allowing you to choose between sixteen nations in a battle for a high score based on popularity, economic power, military power, and diplomatic power. You can adjust the game speed and difficulty level, and Rulers of Nations provides online matchmaking to search for opponents. Finally, Rulers of Nations features a lengthy, if tedious, tutorial, multiple-choice quizzes that seem out of place, and CSV files that are easy to edit for future user modifications. Rulers of Nations has a comprehensive list of features that should provide for long-term enjoyment.

Playing Rulers of Nations primarily involves adjusting the budget and enacting new laws for each aspect of your nation. There are a lot of policies you can adjust (energy, the environment, armed forces, education, health, housing, research, and sports, plus many others), and each category typically contains a very detailed assortment of individual settings (like funding for research-based education, for example). Each area has a one-to-ten scale of funding, which works better than messing with pure numbers. Any adjustments you propose have a displayed numerical impact on your overall budget. The problem is that Rulers of Nations gives no indication of which areas your people would like to see changed the most, so most of your actions are complete guesses. Your advisors occasionally request more money in specific areas, but this obviously never helps with balancing the overall budget, as they never suggest areas that could be cut. In fact, most of the feedback you’ll receive is after a change has been made: observing the number of people that protest a decision. You could theoretically change things back, but you’ve already lost approval from your constituents.

In addition to adjusting the funding, you can also propose new laws to be voted on by your legislative body. These generally have more sweeping changes than the minor budgetary adjustments you are likely to make. Unfortunately, the game gives you no indication of how likely a bill is to pass before you submit it, so like the budget, a lot is left up to guesswork. Your approval takes a hit if a proposed bill does not pass, so the lack of information in this aspect of the game is disturbing. In addition to angering your own citizens, you can go international and discuss issues with the world, at least in theory. Your options are quite limited: you can never ask what they want (like “which budget adjustment or trade agreement would be good?”), but you can offer coffee. You can trade over one hundred goods with foreign nations, but since you can’t ask them directly which goods they need, you must go through the entire list and decide which pacts would reap the largest profits: extreme tedium. Finally, you can construct buildings in your provinces, although the game never suggests which ones to build or where to build them.

Although Rulers of Nations is generally a peaceful game, you might have to enter a war where you directly order military units around the map. There aren’t very many units to choose from: just three land units (jeeps, tanks, missile launchers), two air units (jets, copters), and four naval units (carriers, two subs, cruisers). You can deploy satellites to spy on rival nations in preparation of a strike as well. Military action is obviously not a focus of the game, so simplification in this area isn’t a terrible compromise.

The biggest issue with Rulers of Nations is the lack of usable feedback. A key to the game is to make negative adjustments to the trivial issues that have a low following to balance increased funding in more important areas, but it takes too much work to find out what those respective areas are. The game organizes people into groups based on politics, religion, and the like, but their desires are never transparent. Again, the game only lets you know how you are doing after an adjustment has been made through protests and rallies, which in turn decreases your popularity: a terrible feedback loop. The AI seems to play the game well, although you rarely pay attention to rival nations since most countries have enough domestic problems to keep you busy. In the end, Rulers of Nations features a lot of feedback but none of it is direct enough to be meaningful: who cares how much money auto racing is receiving if you can’t tell how many people care about it?

Rulers of Nations might be a fantastic simulation of the modern world, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t effectively run a country because of the sporadic information it allows you to see. Want to easily see how many people will be directly affected by a budget adjustment? Too bad. Care to gauge the chance of legislation passing through Congress? No such luck. Like to see a simple list of the top issues confronting your proud nation? Sorry. All of these things that should be front and center are either buried or unavailable in Rulers of Nations, which makes this simulation a guessing game instead of a strategy game. The only way to approach domestic and foreign policy is to make small, subtle adjustments and see how many demonstrations there are after the fact. While not giving you all the available information might be realistic, it’s also not fun. And that’s too bad because there is a lot to like: the game is enormously comprehensive, giving a complete simulation of every country around the world (how many games let you set budget levels for preventing childhood diseases?). There’s also sixteen-person multiplayer, a number of scenarios to try, and excellent modification potential. But it all goes to waste thanks to a restricted interface and shroud of secrecy surrounding Rulers of Nations.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Puzzle Dimension Review

Puzzle Dimension, developed and published by Doctor Entertainment.
The Good: Deft use of gravity and perspective, numerous block types, level designs are very challenging but fair, flexible content unlock reduces chances of getting “stuck,” online leaderboards, multiplatform, $10
The Not So Good: Few puzzle solutions, limited camera control, high difficulty comes with no hints, no level editor
What say you? A tricky puzzle game that makes great use of simple elements: 7/8

Remember Marble Madness? Sure you do. Remember the last two reviews I referenced Marble Madness? Neither did I, so that’s why I did a Google search. Poor memory aside, there is something hypnotic about guiding a shiny metal ball through 3-D puzzle layouts. I blame the shininess. Or constantly changing perspective, which is the hook of Puzzle Dimension, a puzzle game coming straight out of Sweden that allows you to roll through, up, and under various environments as you pick flowers along the way. Obviously.

Puzzle Dimension looks good for a minimalist game. The game uses a number of themes (unlocked as you progress) that add a bit of variety to the simple, clean 3-D presentation. There isn't a whole lot of detail to be seen here, although the blocks retain a distinct visual appearance, blocks of the same type have a number of designs, and the transition between pixelated and unpixelated is nice. The backgrounds are generally static though well-designed, detailed, and fit the theme of the game. Special effects are few, but overall the graphics are adequate for a $10 title. As for the sound, we get basic sound effects with a repetitive rolling clip and computerized background music to enjoy while you roll around. In all, I was satisfied with what Puzzle Dimension has to offer in terms of graphics and sound design.

The goal of Puzzle Dimension is to collect all the flowers on each level on the way to the exit portal. The game features one hundred puzzles that vary from “moderately difficulty” to “insanely difficult.” Luckily, new levels are unlocked in groups, so you only have to clear about 60-70% of the levels in a particular cluster to move on. This cuts down on the frustration inherent in puzzles games of this ilk, especially ones like Puzzle Dimension that usually only have one proper solution. There is also no time limit so you never feel rushed. The game features a set of tutorials that describe the basics of the game, but they fail to address all the different types of blocks you will encounter (the manual does, however). If one hundred levels aren’t enough, too bad: Puzzle Dimension lacks a level editor, which seems odd considering the simple layouts. The game does features online leaderboards that compare your scores, and twenty-five achievements to earn along the way. Puzzle Dimension also is available for Macintosh and Windows operating systems, always a plus in my book. The game features a plethora of levels, but lacks some other features I would expect to see in any puzzle game.

Controls are limited in Puzzle Dimension: you can move in four directions and jump. One button press moves your ball one block, which is a great feature that prevents inadvertent falling. You can’t queue future movements (press left-right-up-up in a row), but overall I like the system very much. The camera controls are inadequate, however: you can hold down the shift keys to rotate your view, but mouse look is completely disabled. I realize why they do it the way they do (since movement is based on your view), but I would still love the ability to see using the mouse and have it “snap back” to the original position when you are finished scouting the terrain. This becomes more of a needed feature because of Puzzle Dimension’s unique layouts: your view is rotated with your ball, so the game takes advantage of flipped levels and both sides of a surface frequently. This makes for some truly distinctive mind-bending puzzles. Puzzle Dimension also has a nice suite of nine blocks to move across, each with different properties: broken blocks can only moved across once, jump blocks launch you two spaces, ice blocks prevent stopping, spikes are controlled with switches, and so on. Invisible blocks are the toughest to deal with, as they only reveal themselves when you are in close proximity. These are combined with switches and teleporters to make up the game’s challenging set of levels.

Puzzle Dimension is a very challenging game. There is typically only one solution to each puzzle, so it can be a matter of trial and error to figure out how to navigate each trial. Luckily, the one-square-per-press control scheme helps to minimize accidental death. If you get overly frustrated with a single layout, you can skip a couple per group and still advance in the game, which is a nice feature for a game of this difficulty level. There are no in-game hints, though, so if you do get stuck, you’re really stuck. The game’s dynamic perspective and simple-but-tough gameplay makes it stand out in the puzzle genre.

Puzzle Dimension is quite a difficult, but not unfairly so, puzzle game. It takes relatively simple ideas (blocks with different properties, a constantly changing perspective, and straightforward controls) and combines them into an effective package. The level design is well done, taking advantage of the game's strengths and putting up challenges that require a fair amount of deduction. It's unfortunate that there isn't a level editor to expand beyond the game's one hundred levels, and most of the puzzles have a single solution, but it's a fine ride while it lasts. The game unlocks new challenges in bunches, which allows you to skip past ones that are especially trying and still advance in the game. The camera controls are more restricted than I would like, mainly because of the dynamic perspective the game uses as the basis for control: it can be difficult to spot exactly where you are in the more complex levels. This is a game that emphasizes planning more than quick reflexes, which I appreciate as a gamer that leans toward the more strategic side of things. You are given an infinite amount of time (not if you want a high score, of course) to figure out how to proceed and the controls are set up to minimize accidental falling, so Puzzle Dimension is relaxed even with its very high level of difficulty. Puzzle Dimension's superb execution and wonderful use of simple rules makes up for a lack of replay value and other minor absent features.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade Review

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade, developed by Neocore Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Unit experience grants improved abilities and new skills, battle loot, time acceleration, nice graphics, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terrible pathfinding and group cohesion while moving, scripted missions with unimpressive AI, chaotic melee combat, lacks a true strategic mode, can’t save progress during a battle
What say you? This medieval tactical game is not quite a Total War: 5/8

People in the High Middle Ages were pretty dumb: Christians sending thousands of soldiers to Muslim-controlled lands to die in a pointless war that was ultimately met with defeat. I mean, that would never happen today, right? I guess people were bored back then, with nothing to occupy their time like television or the Internet. Luckily, they could fight one another with sharp, pointy things to pass the time. Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is a tactical simulation that covers this bloody time in human history, where mounted, ranged, and melee troops engaged in deadly warfare. How does this follow-up to Crusaders: Thy Kingdom Come and King Arthur (both not reviewed here) game stack up to more well-known entries in the genre like Total War?

The visuals in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade are impressive. The units are quite detailed, with high-resolution textures, fine animations, and meticulous models for life-like replicas. It is stunning to watch the legions of troops march across the terrain towards certain death. Speaking of the terrain, it exhibits exceptional textures and varied topography appropriate for the region. Some of the city layouts could look more realistic, but the more rural locations are striking. The game also puts lighting to good use (most notably clouds passing over the landscape) and some of the damage effects are enjoyable (the catapult impact being the most damaging). The sound design is decent, but requires some tweaking to reduce the loud volume of the music, which tends to be in the foreground more often than the background. The campaign also features voice acting that introduces most new scenarios and the tutorial, which is a nice touch. The game also includes repetitive but authentic battle sounds, unit acknowledgement, and effects for movement: nothing too innovative but effective nonetheless. Overall, I was quite pleased with the graphics that Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade brings to the table.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features two campaigns highlighting the struggle for control of the Middle East: the European Crusaders and the Arabic Saracen. Both of the campaigns are quite linear, typically offering one to three choices for the next battle on the game map. The scenarios are also quite scripted, offering the same enemy each time with predictable encounters. The campaigns are better designed on the Crusader side of things, offering up a more interesting progression of things as you march across the desert. Apart from the campaigns, you can undertake skirmish tactical battles against the AI. These involve either eliminating all opposing units or controlling a majority of the victory locations scattered around the map. You are given a set of resources to purchase and upgrade units from all of the available types, although you have to curiously purchase troops for the AI player as well (huh?). Skirmish play comes on six maps, so it’s a bit more limited than the campaign mode, unfortunately. Multiplayer is skirmish with a single human opponent, done using in-game matchmaking to search for other players (by the way, thumbs down for having the single player and multiplayer games being separate executables, requiring you to exit the game if you want to switch modes). Finally, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features a tutorial that takes a bit too long teaching the basics of the controls.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade doesn’t offer a real strategic mode, as your time on the map of the Middle East is primarily spent choosing the next battle map while upgrading and replacing troops. You only have a single army, so you will only be choosing one province to assault at a time, so there is really no strategic layer to the game. That said, there are some nice features to be had. The first step is recruiting your army, done using cold, hard cash you earn by completing missions. In a nod to role-playing games, units gain experience during combat, allowing the ability to add new active and passive skills and improve their ability ratings for melee combat, ranged combat, defense, morale, and stamina. You can also incorporate smaller upgrades to morale, damage, and health for a reduced cost. Refilling your ranks after combat can be expensive, especially replacing skilled units. In another salute to role-playing games, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade allows you to collect artifacts, such as weapons, armor, potions, and elixirs, from defeated units on the field of battle and then give them to units in your army. The combination of weapons and choosing specific upgrades lets you tweak your forces how you see fit as you progress through the campaigns. Each side has research that is a bit different. The Saracen simply gets points they can spend on new spells or units, or general percentage upgrades to stats. The Crusaders, on the other hand, get improved abilities for completing quests for various European nations. Despite the roster of features here, the “strategic” mode of Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is really a misnomer, as there is hardly any actual strategy to implement.

There are three main types of units you will encounter in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade: archers (ranged), infantry (melee), and cavalry (fast). Each has light and heavy varieties, and there are a bunch of different types for both sides that have slightly varied starting stats in attack, defense, and morale. Commands are very basic: unit formation, attack, hold, and stop. While the auto-attack feature is nice, it can get you in to trouble, as units can wander off to attack the enemy without your consent. The Achilles’ heel of Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade is moving units around (typically an important aspect of a strategy game). Grouping units together is pointless, as they will not stay together or move in formation. Even if you select units of the same type concurrently, they will move at their own pace, and attack the enemy in piecemeal, getting picked off one at a time. As a result, Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade requires a lot of unnecessary and tedious micromanagement in order to coordinate attacks. This is something that simply should not be an issue in a modern tactical strategy game. The lack of group formations is simply baffling, and the game does an absolutely horrible job picking where to place units: selecting a set of mixed units and issuing a move order typically places the ranged archers in the front. Seriously? I mean, Rise of Nations got this right seven years ago, putting catapults in the back where they belong. Inconceivable!

I do like how Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade essentially copies Total War by putting cards of all your units at the bottom of the screen, clearly showing morale and health and whether they are under attack. Unit flags also clearly blink white when morale reaches critical levels, not that you can do anything about it since units rout automatically and can't disengage a foe even when winning. They supposed key is to use units against their most vulnerable foe, as indicated in the informational box for each unit, but it really doesn’t matter because units will just attack whatever enemy is closest. The game features a chaotic mess of battles, no doubt what warfare was generally like back then, but not exactly the most interesting strategic gaming available. The game doesn’t let you manually retreat units once they become engaged in combat, but they will rout when overmatched. The enemy AI is quite unimpressive: they do an extremely poor job coordinating attacks and don’t use counters appropriately. The computer is only successful if they have superior ranged and defensive units, or you are playing on a high difficulty level that cheats. In fact, you can clearly see the battles during the campaign are highly scripted: cross an imaginary border and a set number of enemy units will start marching your way, with no regard to tactics or strategy. The battles in Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade can take a long, long, long time to complete because units move slowly and the maps are fairly large. Luckily, you can (and will) accelerate time; in fact, I kept it on the maximum setting of four times real speed for almost the entire game. I also did that because you can’t save your progress during a battle (what is this, a console game?), so I wanted to finish each skirmish as quickly as possible.

Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade tries to improve upon the mix of strategic and tactical gaming that made the Total War series, but it fails to differentiate itself from being “just another” game. First off, it really lacks a strategic mode: the map is simply a place to choose your next mission, rather than moving around troops in a calculated manner. Still, there are a number of nice features borrowed (stolen) from role-playing games: experience and research can improve a unit’s abilities and grant new skills, and items can be collected on the battlefield and then equipped, further increasing the effectiveness of your fighting forces. You can play the campaign as the Crusaders or Saracen, each offering slight differences in research. Skirmish battles are also available with the ability to purchase the troops you lead into battle, although you must specify the AI’s army manually (so much for unpredictability). You can also take Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade online for multiplayer skirmish battles. The tactical battles are underwhelming due to poor pathfinding and a propensity for units to move on their own and never stay together: a selection of units will never march at the same pace, resulting in unorganized attacks unless you take the helm and manually group them by type or painfully move them one at a time. The game does feature counters, but you’d never know it as most battles just devolve into a mess of hacking and/or slashing. I never felt like a real commander as the combat was simply too unorganized. The mediocre AI never puts up a real challenge unless it has superior numbers. You can’t even save your progress during a battle, requiring you to finish the entire thing in one sitting (at least you can accelerate time). While Lionheart: Kings’ Crusade features some nice RPG-like features in the campaign and excellent graphics, the tactical battles and strategic limitations hold the game back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Conquest: Divide and Conquer Review

Conquest: Divide and Conquer, developed and published by Proxy Studios.
The Good: Straightforward mechanics, favors using the correct counters over simply massing units, automated production, some interesting strategic tools, randomly generated maps, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Extremely tedious unit movement, limited unit variety, no offline play, no comprehensive tutorial or game documentation
What say you? A simple strategy game with a little room for improvement: 6/8

NOTE (1/10/11): Recent patches have offline play and added indication of how units are destroyed.

How do you make your game stand out? Well, you could do what the big publishers do any add tons of features the AI can’t handle in order to add bullet points to your shiny game box. Or you could do what the indie publishers do and actually think of something different and original. Crazy, right? Conquest: Divide and Conquer (hereafter referred to by its maiden name “Conquest”) boils down the strategy genre to its integral parts: ordering units around to conquer territory. The game only has three units that are produced without user intervention, but these simplifications are offset by some map-based abilities and counter-oriented combat. If anything, I am a slave to suggestion, so let’s check out what Conquest has to offer.

Conquest features some simple 3-D graphics that work well. The game is hex-based, but the map tiles are easily identifiable (plains, mountains, lakes) and there are some nice environmental effects superimposed like rain and dust. Cities look like piles of trash (I had no idea what they were supposed to be initially), so they could use a little work. The units are also easy to recognize, with some minor animations during movement. Combat is a simple explosion that doesn’t show how the units were eliminated. The game also doesn’t space units out automatically, which can make selection problematic. The simple sound effects and background music rounds out a solid package. Conquest certainly isn’t going for graphical prowess, but it delivers a good 3-D presentation for a turn-based strategy game.

Conquest: Divide and Conquer is an online turn-based strategy title where you move troops and conquer territory. You must have Internet access in order to play, even if you are going up against the AI (offline play is planned as a future feature). That said, the game features a nice server browser that looks for available games and offers both ranked and unranked games for up to six players. Conquest does not support server-side play by e-mail, all the rage in turn-based games these days such as Battlefield Academy and Frozen Synapse. Conquest does give you custom rules options that control the time limit per turn, number of turns for a game, map size and specifications, and initial force size. Conquest features a really short (and profane) tutorial and lacks a manual, so you’ll need to consult the wiki to figure out what’s going on. The game does occasionally feature small hints along the side of the screen, but this is not a replacement for full documentation. The game automatically downloads updates when you log in; these have been quite frequent (on a daily basis), which bodes well for future improvements and development. Finally, I am proud to report that Conquest works on all three major operating systems: Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Suck it, OS/2.

The hex-based maps are randomly generated when you start a new game, and consist of four different tiles: a city (minor and major), plains, mountains, and lakes. Infantry units get a bonus in mountainous territory, while only flying units can traverse over lakes (apparently nobody in the future has heard of a boat). Cities are the center of production: you must house a unit on a city tile in order to construct new units. Production is completely automated: each city adds a point or two (for major cities) towards new units, and they are involuntarily dispersed to your most centrally located towns. This removes some strategy involving distribution of your forces where you want, but streamlines and speeds up the game’s pace.

There are three units in Conquest: troopers, tanks, and bombers. While some players will scoff at the limited items at your disposal, Conquest is going for a more simplified approach overall. Each unit has a movement rating, offensive power score, and production cost. The game utilizes a rock-paper-scissors approach to combat where units receive a bonus against one other type, and a disadvantage against the other: tanks against troopers, troopers against bombers, and bombers against tanks. This means it’s often better to field counter units instead of simply grouping a bunch of units together, as inappropriate units will actually decrease the overall effectiveness of your army; you can see suitable counters here. Conquest summarizes the last turn’s action in an event list, which makes it fairly easy to keep track of the action.

Unfortunately, the most annoying part of Conquest is something you’ll be doing quite often: moving troops. You must click and drag each unit to its destination, which is quite tedious when you have a large army. Where is box or control or double-click selection? Conquest is especially painful to play on a laptop that lacks a mouse. The game also likes to place units really close together in each hex, so sometimes it’s hard to tell which units have been issued movement orders (indicated by arrows) and which have not unless you zoom really far in.

What saves Conquest from being a really conventional game is operations. You are given three special abilities: a satellite can reveal one hex on the map, a missile destroys all units in a hex before they move, and a drop pod sends six units anywhere you’d like on the map. These aren’t given every turn (two, four, and six, respectively), but they are potentially game changers. The strategic possibilities for the use of missiles and drop pods are interesting, to say the least. You can never be quite sure where the enemy will be, and losing teams can quickly turn the tide by spawning behind enemy lines. Because of these mechanics, Conquest features a lot of swapping cities back and forth, and it’s quite difficult to keep a lead and reach the 75% control level required for victory. Because of missiles, it’s better to utilize small groups of two to three units to take cities, as a considerable portion of your army can be eliminated in just one shot. The subtle differences Conquest adds to a conventional strategic presentation make it a notable title.

Conquest: Divide and Conquer reduces the commonly complex strategy genre into its basic elements, and the result is a usually entertaining game. The game’s focus is on adept territory control, promoted by the combat calculations that favor using correct counters as opposed to simply massing lots of units together. Missiles, which can be called in and instantly destroy all units on any tile, make sure that you are constantly on the move in an unending search for the next available city to conquest (hence the game’s name). Drop pods also allow you to sneak behind enemy lines, requiring players to keep an eye on their flanks as the games progress. The game features a solid options list: an online server browser and custom rules for games on random maps supporting up to eight players. Moving the game’s three units around is very tedious, though, and almost makes playing Conquest a chore. The game is a bit too fluid, resulting in longer games that should have been finished long ago, but that does allow for teams to come from behind, which I suppose results in more entertaining games. While Conquest might lack the depth of rival strategy games, the reduced mechanics do work well for quick online competitions.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Front Mission Evolved Review

Front Mission Evolved, developed by Double Helix Games and published by Square Enix.
The Good: Extensive wanzer customization for various roles, useful melee attacks, quick “skating” movement speeds up combat
The Not So Good: Linear campaign, laggy and unbalanced multiplayer limited to eight players, gimmicky slow motion ability generally useless
What say you? This mechanized third-person combat game has simple thrills: 5/8

Giant fighting robots. That got your attention, didn't it? Yes, tanks are simply not good enough for some, as we require something more imposing and upright. The mechanized robot has been glorified in such games as MechWhatever and War World (talk about digging up an old review). Basically, you just want to feel like an unstoppable badass. Front Mission Evolved is the latest entry in a series I never heard of, released mainly in Japan on the PlayStation 2 (no wonder I never heard of it). This version goes for a more action-oriented approach, eschewing the tactical role-playing gameplay of the original series for third-person mayhem. Plus, this game lets me use the word “wanzer” (a “walking panzer,” obviously), which sounds like it might be sexual in nature. Bonus!

Front Mission Evolved features a fine presentation. The wanzers are finely detailed (my wanzer is finely detailed, too) and well animated, exhibiting visual damage as their armor is depleted. Since Front Mission Evolved originated as a console game, it is of course in third-person, which means your wanzer gets in the way (happens to me all the time), obscuring a significant portion of the screen. Yes, I know you want to show off all the animation work you did, but I still prefer viewing the action from a first person perspective. The game takes place in a variety of environments, from urban to snowy to slightly different urban. I like how the cut scenes use your custom paint job you have painstakingly designed. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics. The sound design is standard fare: decent voice acting, good combat effects, and subtle music I didn’t even notice most of the time, possibly because it fit the on-screen action well.

Front Mission Evolved has you manning a giant robot armed to the teeth, bent on revenge for the death of your father (*spoiler alert*…wait, are you supposed to say that before the spoiler?). The single player campaign (no cooperative options) features sixteen missions and a brief tutorial that addresses the basics of wanzer control (heh heh). The campaign requires only one play through, as the linear, scripted enemy encounters don’t vary. The game follows a recycled tradition of moving to a new area, encountering a bunch of enemy units, and then moving on to another area. You will occasionally encounter allies, but you can’t issue them any orders or coordinate in any significant way; more often than not, they just follow your lead and eliminate a couple of enemy units. The boss battles are drawn-out, tedious exercises in slowly accumulated damage. Front Mission Evolved also features rail shooter sequences and parts on foot, playing more like a traditional third person shooter. The checkpoint saves are fairly frequent, and some missions require certain customization options to be selected. While it is fun to blow stuff up, it does get repetitive thanks to the limited variety featured in the campaign.

Multiplayer offers up eight players for robot domination. Why only eight players? Well, Front Mission Evolved sadly features peer-to-peer connections for online play, which results in laggy, unpredictable connections and a less than stellar online experience. Your opponents for ranked matches are picked at random, preventing you from playing with or against friends. Four traditional game modes are offered: deathmatch, team deathmatch, domination (where you fight for control of three turrets), and supremacy (where you fight for control of one turret at a time). You’ll want to stick to the randomized ranked matches (despite being put up against players with significantly more experience) because that’s the only way to unlock new weapons. Yes, the bane of my online existence, locked content, rears its ugly head here. Beginners can access a number of pre-built loadouts, but this is a minor consolation prize. Other online titles such as Section 8 are fair to everyone, but not so in the world of Front Mission Evolved. Multiplayer also suffers from a bit of unbalance, as sniper rifles and missiles are quite the powerful weapons. However, it’s not all bad: I really like how the maps are set up to give you more skating power, reducing the time to get around the maps. Other than that, though, it’s a pretty bleak picture with unoriginal online features.

Front Mission Evolved features extensive options for customizing your wanzer (heh heh). Your are prevented from loading out each and every available weapon by the power rating of your chassis; this means you’ll have to pick and choose which weapons fit your overall strategy the best. There are various torsos, arms, and legs you can equip that offer varying levels of armor and movement capabilities. Weapons can be handheld (machine guns, shotguns, rifles, bazookas, and melee items) or placed on a shoulder (missiles, rockets, grenade launchers, and gatling guns). You can also endow yourself with shields for added protection and backpacks for special abilities (added power or agility, missile countermeasures, electromagnetic pulses, and repair tools). You can also unlock weapon-specific battle skills that have a percentage change of activating, which improve damage over time, the rate of fire, and other small enhancements. If all of these options are too daunting, you can opt for a pre-designed wanzer: sniper, assault, brawler, engineer, or projectile specialist. I like how Front Mission Evolved allows you to pick and choose just how your wanzer is going to excel on the battlefield.

Controlling a giant robot is similar in nature to any other shooter game, although there are a couple of significant nuances in Front Mission Evolved. Four button are used to fire the weapons, and you can’t keep them held down: they will overheat with increased use. You can enter a zoomed mode for more precise aiming and enable your special backpack abilities during combat. The robots move slowly most of the time, but you can dodge to the site to avoid missiles, jump and hover, and (most notably) “skate” using regenerative energy for quick movement. Skating is useful in traversing the levels (normal movement would take way too long), and you can also use skating in conjunction with melee attacks for a more powerful assault. Front Mission Evolved also includes everyone’s favorite gimmick: slow motion. Here, the EDGE system is very pointless: wanzers take so much damage that you usually can’t destroy them completely in a single event, so why have it in the first place? It’s usually easier just to queue up a bunch of missiles (which have homing capabilities) than to pick off enemies in slow motion. Another complaint is the radar: it does not indicate whether objects are above or below your line-of-sight, a problem since airborne and ground-based enemies are common.

Front Mission Evolved gives you a couple of options for disposing of the enemies. You can opt for missiles and rockets, but they have limited ammunition. Granted, there are usually tons of pick-ups to be found scattered around the maps to replenish your cache, but the concern is still there. It’s usually better to go for a mix of ballistic weapons and conventional medium-range machine guns. Of course, you can also go for melee attacks, once you unlock the more powerful options there. Melee attacks are actually quite useful in Front Mission Evolved, especially in combination with skating when finishing off an enemy. Keeping alive is easy, as health regenerates automatically when you hide; as long as you aren’t surrounded by enemies, dying is occasional at best. You (and your opponents) suffer appendage–specific damage, but you can still use a part that’s been “destroyed,” just at a slower rate: odd. Most of the levels come scattered with copious amounts of cover, but you can’t crouch or hide behind them; they just reduce the number of shots you are likely to receive from the AI. The AI does a decent job, sticking to its wanzer type and playing to its strengths: brawlers like it up close, while ballistic wanzers will attack from a distance. Part of this has to do with scripting the initial enemy spawn locations, but it’s still nice to have some challenge during the campaign. Front Mission Evolved does rely heavily on pitting you up against superior numbers of enemies, and you’ll never confuse opposing wanzers for human-controlled opponents, but the game would be less fun at a higher difficulty balance.

Front Mission Evolved is hardly groundbreaking, but I did have some fun plowing through the game’s linear levels and online features. Sure, the enemies have predictable behaviors based on their wanzer type and there’s no reason to play through the campaign more than once due to scripted encounters, but it can be enjoyable to pimp out your ride (actual pimp optional) and lay waste to lots of machines. There are a lot of options for customization, and everyone will find a play style and loadout to suit their skills, from long-range sniper to support engineer to close-combat brawler. I liked the use of “skating” for rapid movement, but found slow motion to be worthless. Melee combat is effective for finishing off foes if you can get close enough without dying. The game relies a lot on giving the enemy vastly superior numbers; allies show up randomly during missions and can’t be issued orders. There are also other minor oddities with the combat, like being able to use appendages that have been destroyed and regenerative health that makes most encounters trivially easy unless you get surrounded. Taking these robots online is a bit disappointing, as the game is poorly balanced when it comes to some weapons and the peer-to-peer connections stink. Additionally, you have to unlock the better weapons or use the default loadouts to stand a chance against more experienced players. While I certainly did have moments of joy piloting a giant robot armed to the teeth with tailored weapons, Front Mission Evolved doesn’t offer enough of a well-rounded experience to make it a fully recommended action title.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tropico 3: Gold Edition Review

Tropico 3: Gold Edition, developed by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Media.
The Good: Detailed citizen simulation, two campaigns with varied objectives, custom character creation, user-created challenges, numerous buildings to construct, random and pre-made maps, fantastic music
The Not So Good: Too easy to reap huge profits, slow pace necessitates copious time acceleration, no core gameplay changes from the original
What say you? A faithful but unnecessary sequel to 2001's classic dictatorship city builder: 6/8

A dictatorship is so much easier: no pesky elections to worry about, ultimate authority over your people, and lots of cigars. Of course, it might not be so great for the people, but who cares as long as you a sitting pretty in your ornate palace? Tropico 3, the sequel to 2001's Tropico (because nobody really counts Pirate Cove), simulates the trials and tribulations of maintaining your tropical empire. The series has been directed this time around by Haemimont Games, responsible for personal-favorite Grand Ages Rome. I never got a chance to review the original game, so here were are looking at the recently-released Gold Edition that includes the expansion released in May (apparently, gold takes a while to mint). City builders are always looking for that unique hook to set them apart from the competition (setting, realism, attention to detail), and Tropico succeeded because of its exclusive premise. How has the series been updated almost ten years later?

Tropico 3: Gold Edition features decent graphics. The game is in 3-D, unlike its predecessors, and it does well to exhibit a tropical paradise, complete with rainfall, sunset and sunrise, and shadows as the sun moves across the sky. The building designs are repetitive but detailed, and you can usually pick out specific structures based on visuals alone. The people are animated well when they are busy at work, but you need to zoom in a considerable amount to see them. I would like to have more camera freedom to view the island as I see fit, especially tilting when not at ground level. The interface relies heavily on the almanac, a list of important information that pauses the game and takes up a good portion of the screen. The game lacks visual overlays (except when looking for good crop locations and mining resources) for things like happiness or the range of building effects, so feedback could be considerably better. Tropico 3: Gold Edition does provide some handy options for setting wages or rent for all building or citizens of the same type, though. One of the strengths of the title is the sound design, and it starts with a great music selection that fits the game perfectly; I never turned it off, despite not being a fan of the musical style. It’s also neat how the radio DJ’s provide useful information (like the need for more housing) over the music. The effects are repetitive and basic, and you never feel like Tropico is a bustling community, but the strong music helps put you in the mood for tropical domination.

In Tropico 3: Gold Edition, you are put in charge of a tropical Caribbean island, responsible to running an efficient empire. You are given two campaigns of twenty-five missions total that feature varied objectives from the standard (stay in power) to the weird (a time-shifting paradox). The assorted starting conditions are nice, but in general Tropico 3: Gold Edition is way too easy (more on that later) and the game lacks difficulty settings to increase the level of challenge. The game also features a nice sandbox mode, complete with a random map generator where you can customize the size, elevation, vegetation, and mineral concentration of your personal paradise. Additionally, you can specify the political stability, export prices, tourism frequency, game length, initial population level, random events regularity, rebel severity, and even enable god mode. Tropico 3: Gold Edition also offers the ability to post challenges for others to download online: you can design them using an in-game editor, specifying events, starting conditions, and victory requirements, and allow anyone to try them out. Tropico 3: Gold Edition certainly has a strong list of features.

You are you, but you could be somebody else thanks to the avatar customization options present in Tropico 3: Gold Edition. The game features a number of famous and infamous historical leaders you can play as, from Castro to Eva PerĂ³n. Each personality has strengths and weaknesses that give a wide range of small bonuses and penalties, from education to pollution to construction. If choosing a pre-made avatar isn’t flexible enough, you can customize the gender, complexion, and attire of a custom character from a list of limited options. Your avatar appears inside the game, moving around your island to rush construction, quell protests, and boost production in areas of interest. While Tropico 3: Gold Edition doesn’t approach the customization of a role-playing game, the level of features here is pleasing.

Tropico 3: Gold Edition features a through simulation of the people that inhabit your island. Each of your several hundred residents has individual ratings for happiness, political leanings, family, skills, and needs from food to fun to rest. If their political views vary from yours or their needs are not met, they can become hostile, and can be dealt with through arrest, bribery, or “elimination.” While you will usually pay attention to general trends in happiness (or the lack thereof), the amount of detail your citizens exhibit is quite nice. It’s not as detailed as, say, Victoria 2, but remains a great feature.

One way to keep your population happy is to issue laws to appease them (just like real life!). Tropico 3: Gold Edition features a number of edicts you can choose from, covering social, foreign, economic, and domestic policy. Most of the choices have prerequisites that must be fulfilled first, either specific buildings to relationship levels that must be present. The game occasionally suggests which ones to choose, but a lot of the guesswork is left up to you; there are a lot of options to choose from so it can be a daunting decision. Your citizens are divided up into nine political factions (capitalists, communists, intellectuals, religious, militarists, environmentalists, nationalists, and loyalists), each having different priorities that are listed in the almanac. Dealing with the is pretty easy: just pick the issue that’s most important to your most hated faction and build a couple of buildings. You’ll rarely have to deal with rebellions because of the economic profits you’ll be earning, and winning an election is usually a given affair.

Being primarily a city builder, Tropico 3: Gold Edition has lots of buildings to choose from: housing, military bases, prison, farms, mines, factories, power plants, churches, schools, and hospitals. You can also accommodate tourists by adding attractions and entertainment, and connect up your town with roads. For faster transport, you can place garages at key locations about town, and your citizens will drive to another garage; it’s seems out-of-place to see a modern garage right next to a farm on a dirt road, but if it gets my bananas get delivered faster, then so be it. Most buildings can be given a work mode (relaxed or a standard 14-hour day), rent or salary rates, and occasional upgrades in production. Slow construction time means lots of time acceleration will need to used, lest you fall asleep running your island empire.

Tropico 3: Gold Edition is a very easy game, and here’s why: making money is trivial. The combination of goods exports and foreign aids keeps the money rolling in, so you are never at a lost for funds unless you completely overbuild structures in the wrong places. Even placing a couple of farms in their clearly-indicated “green” locations will give you plenty of cash to build pretty much anything you need. You can manually increase the difficulty by tweaking some sandbox options, but this does not extend to the campaign, which generally only becomes difficult during occasional time constraints. Since simply building things will appease most political factions, Tropico 3: Gold Edition becomes an effortless exercise in building what the people want. You never have to worry about choosing between factions, since you will likely be able to afford all of the buildings they want.

Tropico 3: Gold Edition is a proper but ultimately pointless sequel to Tropico 1 because of how little it changes. The game plays out the same, except it’s much easier thanks to increased profits from exporting goods and increased foreign aid, which makes building all of the structures demanded by your population that much easier. Tropico 3: Gold Edition lacks those key decisions that are present in good city builders: you never need to choose between a church and a clinic because you can usually afford both and make everyone happy. You also rarely need to issue any of the game’s many edicts to pacify rebel factions. The lack of challenge is disappointing because Tropico 3: Gold Edition has plenty of nice features: two campaigns with varied objectives, random maps with custom game options, an editor to create challenges for other players, and robust character customization. On a more positive front, the detailed individual citizen tracking remains intact, providing an interesting simulation of your island. Tropico 3: Gold Edition also features a lot of buildings to place to satisfy a range of needs, although their range of effectiveness is hidden. The game also relies heavily on the almanac to get basic information (and still not that much detail: why is the housing rating so low?), and the game must be kept accelerated because of the laborious pace of construction and resource gathering. I know it’s a sequel, but Tropico 3: Gold Edition is still too similar to its predecessors at thrice the price and offers no drastic improvements or changes to the basic gameplay.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War Review

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War, developed by Forced March Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Require unique strategies for success, command structure necessitates planning ahead, random special ability cards, competent AI, extensive tutorials and game documentation, some battle strategy
The Not So Good: Unflinching difficulty at even the easiest setting, opaque combat calculations, can’t play as the Romans, no multiplayer
What say you? The odds are very much stacked against you in this outrageously difficult but quite distinctive turn-based strategy game 5/8

One of the creepiest movies of all time is The Silence of the Lambs. Transgender serial killers skinning women and dancing. Rubbing lotion on the skin. Screaming lambs. Fava beans. So when I heard that there was a computer game where you could play as Hannibal Lecter, I was pretty excited. Wait, what's that? Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War isn't about that movie? It's a turn-based strategy game where you repel the Roman Empire in 200 BC? Oh. I see. Well, can I at least keep the fava beans?

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War takes place on a stylish 2-D map that evokes classic cartography of the era. By simply looking at the game, you can decipher the appropriate time period of the campaign, which is more than can be said for a lot of games. There is a nice level of detail without the map becoming too busy. Once you turn the appropriate icons on (which are, strangely, off by default), you can gauge unit strengths and city allegiances at a quick glance. While the game lacks a comprehensive list of all your forces, the map isn’t so large that you can’t simply find everyone. Generally, the interface makes things easy to access, although I wish the transition between elements occurred more quickly. The units occasionally have some small animations (the ships, most noticeably) that breathes a bit of life into the ancient world. My only issue is with the font, which can be hard to read (the symbol used for the letter “D” really threw me off) and can’t be changed. But this is a very minor complaint in an otherwise solid package. The sound design is well done, starting with period-appropriate background music that is subtle but pleasing. The effect for combining ships is confusing (it sounds like a battle is occurring), but otherwise Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War uses appropriate effects that cue you in to in-game events. Overall, I was satisfied with the pleasing graphics and sound designs that Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War brings to the table.

In Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War, you lead the Carthaginians against the evil Roman Empire, taking command of their heroic leader Hannibal and eat the livers of census takers who try to test you (wait…that’s the movie again, isn’t it?). You will always play as Carthage, as the game doesn’t allow a human to play as the Romans. Granted, they have a much easier time at attaining victory, but the option would be quite nice for online or hotseat or play by e-mail games. Victory is attained by capturing Rome or earning more points after twenty turns. If you lose control of Carthage or Hannibal dies in battle, you automatically lose the game. The longest a game goes is twenty turns, so all of your games will take under an hour: a nice quick strategy game. While the objectives and starting conditions are always the same, each game does play different after first couple of turns: there are a lot of strategies to employ (defending Spain, attacking the Mediterranean islands) and the AI seems to react well to all of them. The main objective is to capture cities, as the provide additional troops to fuel your military. Terrain can also alter the game rules, preventing cavalry charges or inducing attrition on your troops as they pass through the mountains. Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War features three difficulty levels, but even the easiest “introductory” level isn’t easy enough for me, for reason I will complain about later. The tutorials do a great job covering the basics of the game’s unique mechanics; the only thing I missed was how to move across the ocean. There is also in-game help and tips, a quick start guide, and full manual as well.

Groups must be lead by a leader, and only one leader can be moved at a time. Once a leader has moved and passed on command, he cannot move again during the same turn, a mechanic I like a lot as it forces you to plan ahead. Each leader is given a rating, clearly displayed on the leader icon, which adds a bonus during battles. Your armies are comprised of infantry and cavalry units of varying nationalities (which can affect their use and abilities). They are given explicit attack and defense ratings shown on their unit icons, making it easier to decide on the best troops for an engagement.

At the start of the game and after a significant victory, you are given an option card. These are neat and can be played during your turn; they grant things like more troops, attack bonuses during battle, extended moves (advancing more than one province per turn), or Senate influence. In addition, Hannibal a number of special abilities, such as retreating, surprise attacks, cavalry maneuvers, and avoiding mountain attrition. This is a nice board game mechanic that works well, giving Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War a sense of randomness that offsets the same initial conditions found in each campaign.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War doesn’t feature any fog of war, so you always know where the enemy is located. You can position your troops to intercept enemy units or float across the sea using naval transports. While amphibious landings are automatic if you hold the “ALT” key down, you are limited in the number of troops you can bring (usually three to five); this important information is buried in the abacus information panel, and I wish it was readily available on the main screen. You will need to conquer cities in order to get new recruits, and each province has different rules and different amounts of incoming troops to further complicate things. You will always get less than Rome, it seems, and the advantage the Roman Empire has should have been lessened even more than it is for the easiest difficulty setting as you are learning the game. When Rome raises ten troops in one turn to three of yours, what can you do? You will also have to worry about the Senate, who will only authorize combat operations in theaters (Spain, Italy, Corsica) it deems important.

Combat is inevitable, and Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War offers a simple but still interesting battle mechanic. You get to choose eight of your troops for the front line, and through a magic system of magic, some units are destroyed and some units are routed. Where the strategies lies is in the fact that you get to choose which troops are permanently destroyed and which ones are temporarily routed, which makes for a far more interesting time. Once your choices are made, you add some more troops from your reserve on the front line (plays Hannibal can recover one routed unit per battle round) and keep at it until someone retreats (after two rounds of combat) or one side is completely routed or destroyed. Hannibal can also use option cards in open-field battles, which usually give a combat bonus to the front line troops for a turn or two: perfect for taking on larger numbers. My issue with the combat is that the game doesn’t tell you how it determined how many troops are routed and destroyed. When my army of eight superior troops lead by a competent general loses two units and a city garrison loses none, I’m left scratching my head: why? The game never tells you. I guess it’s luck, which should only go so far in determining a victor, and I feel that in Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War it’s too significant of a factor. You can kind of figure out what the results will be in general, but there is still too much mystery for my tastes.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War takes some solid game design and ruins it with impossible difficulty. I realize that Hannibal was up against incredible odds with the superior numbers the Romans had, but that doesn’t mean sticking to this historical accuracy would be fun at all difficulty levels. For “hard”? Sure, that’s appropriate, but not for “easy”. The impossible odds means luck is required for victory: you must get lucky and win some dice rolls to stand any chance against the troop producing machine that is the Roman Empire. If you lose one battle, you might as well quit and restart: you can’t possibly out-produce the Romans, so continuing after a loss is a futile effort. While Hannibal can take on superior numbers out in the field, he is much less effective at city siege (since he can’t use option cards), but that's what you have to do for a lot of the game in order to get more troops to replace the ones the dice rolls deemed disposable. You also can't persuade the Roman troops out of their superior defensive positions, even after taking some of their land. You also can't possibly defend everything (by design), so it’s a matter of striking the right provinces at the right time, and catching the Romans off-guard. Unfortunate for Hannibal, the Roman AI rarely does anything stupid, executing good plans and maneuvering the troops in appropriate areas of the campaign map. The AI also plays each game a bit differently (apart from the first turn), so you can’t count on the same plan coming from the AI. While this is fantastic from a gaming perspective, it adds to the already significant level of difficulty Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War forces on you: it certainly doesn’t help that the Romans are given a lot of troops and the AI is smart about using them. I realize that a difficult game is kind of the point, but there is a difference between being challenging but fair and difficult but unfair, and Hannibal goes on the wrong side of the equation, even on “easy”.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War has a lot of interesting ideas, so the extreme level of difficulty comes as a significant disappointment. There are a host of unique mechanics that makes this strategy title stand out: allowing you to only move one leader at a time is great at mandating forward thinking, and option cards give you a lot of strategies to try out along the way. Battles are a nice diversion from map-based conquest, and while there are some nice decisions regarding routed and destroyed units, I wish the results were more clearly described to the user to see why a city garrison routed my eight-unit stack of superior infantry. The tutorials are comprehensive and the games are short (really short if you lose quickly as I tended to do) and the AI is quite the opponent, almost negating the lack of human opponents (almost). But it’s the difficulty that, for me, is the deterrent. How can I recommend a game that I can rarely beat on “easy”? You’ll try Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War for a handful of games, get fed up with the difficulty, and never play again, which is frustrating because there are a number of interesting and unique features that beg for further investigation. It seems like the only path to victory is pure luck in battle results, or the Romans doing something stupid (which rarely happens). All the developers needed to do was decrease Roman production levels on the easiest setting and Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War would have been much more enjoyable to players of all skill levels. Constant losing gets quite tiresome after a while, no matter how intriguing some of the game mechanics might be.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

GabCab Review

GabCab, developed and published by Reflexive Entertainment.
The Good: Smart and helpful automatic queuing of destinations, numerous vehicle upgrades, short levels, coin collection gives you something to do during routes
The Not So Good: Extremely repetitive, subtle notification of new customers, most levels are not randomized, cities hold no distinction
What say you? A solid click-management game that is light on variety: 6/8

While I don’t live in an area known for mass transit, in areas of the country where things are more densely populated, it may be the only way to get around. But we all know the subway can be stinky/scary/diseased, so a lot of people opt for cabs driven by Christopher Lloyd. It is the job of the lovely dispatcher to send the cabs on their way, carefully coordinating their efforts to maximize profit while minimize transit time. GabCab is a click-management game where you direct the actions of a talking cab (obviously), motoring around town and picking up monkeys (obviously). What will GabCab do to set itself apart in its crowded genre?

Typical of budget-level click-management games, GabCab uses a 2-D map on which you click to route your cab. The animated style works well for the overall theme of the game (a talking car), although the game could be livelier. Each of the locations is distinctive enough where you can rely on visuals alone in determining the appropriate destination. However, the game needs to indicate new passengers more clearly, either by adding a border around the edge of the characters or a more distinctive audio cue, as the passengers blend in with the buildings a bit too easily. The sound aspects of GabCab are underwhelming, with the occasional effect and canned audio cue that become repetitive and dull. Still, not much is expected in this genre and GabCab is certainly functional as a game, never getting in the way of efficient management.

In GabCab, you command a talking cab (obviously) by clicking on destinations around six cities. None of the cities are really any different other than the background (a lot utilize the same buildings) and you can’t edit your own layouts. The new cities don’t offer any core gameplay changes and it takes a while for the game to get challenging, as you can’t skip the introductory cities and GabCab lacks a difficulty setting. Each day has a simple monetary goal divided into competency grades, and achievements can also be earned for especially competent play. Each level is pretty short (around two minutes) but heavily scripted: GabCab rarely takes advantage of randomizing the customers you get, which reduces the replay value of the game (the patterns used in the game become very predictable after a while). One interesting feature that I appreciate is a countdown before resuming after you’ve paused the game, but otherwise GabCab is pretty conventional for a casual game in terms of features.

Money you earn during each day can be spent on a large variety of upgrades. These can increase your capacity for fuel, improve rider comfort, augment safety, or boost speed. Additionally, you can purchase objects to make collecting tips easier, auxiliary vehicles that will automate certain routes, or one-use items for temporary boosts in rider happiness, gas, tips, or speed. These are all great features, so it’s a bit disappointing that they are so expensive: you can’t always upgrade following each day (commonplace in most casual games), which would inject a feeling of constant accomplishment. I would rather have upgrades with insignificant bonuses that occur more often.

The crux of GabCab is to pick up customers and deliver them to their destination; this is accomplished through clicking on the appropriate locations on the map. GabCab tries its best to limit the tedium inherent in most click-management games. First, the game allows you to drop off customers simply by passing their destination, without having to click on it directly. You can also queue stops infinitely, allowing you to stack up any number of future actions. Most significantly, the game will automatically rearrange your route to a more efficient path, intelligently incorporating new stops into your existing schedule. This is a fantastic feature that makes GabCab a lot easier to play. This wonderfulness does come with a couple of caveats, however. First, it makes the game too easy: as long as you just click everywhere, you’ll never have a late arrival or miss someone completely. Second, the game rearranges gas stops, which should not be done: you need to refuel at least once per level, and the game might relegate your required fueling too far down the queue. You can manually refuel by clicking on the gas station and holding the mouse button while over your cab, but this is a case of the game being too helpful.

Completing trips on time increases your fare multiplier, bringing in more money to purchase upgrades for your cab. The game also highlights the destinations for your passengers if you forget, and you can double-click to override a path and click on a stop to erase it from the queue. GabCab could do a better job highlighting new customers, as they tend to blend into the buildings too easily and you might miss them. While you are planning your trip, tips will spawn at each destination when a customer is successfully delivered. This brings in some extra cash, caught by using your mouse and hovering over the destination. It’s trivially easy to catch tips once you learn where the coin spawn from, so this is a very minor diversion from the repetitive actions of the rest of the game. GabCab doesn’t include any mini-games to keep the action fresh, so when you’ve played one level you’ve played them all.

GabCab is a typical click-management game that stands out thanks to its automatic altering of routes, making the game a whole lot less tedious but also less challenging. The game also has a lot of upgrades to improve things like speed, fuel, happiness, and tip catching, though a lot of these new items require significant investments of money to unlock them. GabCab is extremely repetitive, from the roster of cities that all play the same with the same monetary goals, to the rare use of randomization, to the lack of mini-games to provide some variety other than clicking on buildings and catching coins with the mouse. The short levels (two to three minutes) cut down on monotony and provide a feeling of accomplishment as you quickly unlock new towns to serve. The game is easy to control thanks to the rerouting, though new customers could be highlighted better to make for even more efficient gameplay. GabCab requires an interest in the click-management genre to compensate for the high level of repetition, but it is a well-designed game overall with only minor faults.