Monday, December 27, 2010

Starpoint Gemini Review

Starpoint Gemini, developed and published by LGM Games.
The Good: Pleasing multifaceted tactical combat, plentiful abilities and perks earned through experience support multiple career paths, hire crew members for additional specialized skills, numerous ship types and upgrades, variety of activities and missions, capable AI opponents, nice visuals
The Not So Good: Mandatory laborious tutorial, no multiplayer, limited camera controls, insufficient trade goods information
What say you? A tactical role-playing adventure with abundant variety: 7/8

Space: the final frontier, mainly because after we destroy the Earth with pollution and rising seas, there will be nowhere else to go. So it’s a good thing there are so many space simulations to provide practice before we venture starward! One of these is Starpoint Gemini, a tactical game with role-playing elements featuring battles and exploration amongst the stars, possibly involving sending probes towards Uranus. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Did I mention Uranus?

Starpoint Gemini features what I think are excellent graphics for an independent game. Most space games start with the ships, and Starpoint Gemini features a finely detailed array of space-worthy vessels, complete with animated lights and engine trails for a convincing appearance. Weapons are also depicted well, with bright neon colors, though explosions are underwhelming. Planets rotate beside you, asteroids fly by during travel and fields are impressive in their scope, and the background is full of bright stars and varied nebulae that, while unrealistic, look great. The game retains high-resolution textures as you zoom closer to each object as well. The cheap showiness of nature is in full force. The sound design is also good: the game features plenty of voiced dialogue that, while noticeably accented, is still impressive in its breadth for a small title. Starpoint Gemini also features appropriate effects for combat and decent background music that fits the theme of the game well. Overall, the presentation of Starpoint Gemini was far beyond what I was expecting for a conservatively priced title.

Starpoint Gemini is a space adventure game where you go in space looking for adventure. The main campaign consists of thirty scripted missions that include frequent pauses so you can undertake side missions of your choosing. The entire game takes place in simple 2-D sectors, usually populated with a couple of space stations and asteroid belts each. Since the layouts are so straightforward, it is surprising they aren’t randomly or dynamically or procedurally generated. Starpoint Gemini mandates that you complete the tutorial before trying out the campaign; while the tutorial does a comprehensive job teaching the game’s mechanics, you can’t skip dialogue (like you can in the campaign mode) and you must wait until the voiced instructions are finished before you can click the mouse. A boring, tedious tutorial isn’t the best way to introduce new users to the game (also, friendly hint: do not save your game while undocking, or you might have to do the whole tutorial over again…speaking from experience). The game doesn’t ease you in much: enemy patrols consisting of multiple ships are common, and you’ll quickly learn to avoid them until you significantly upgrade your ship. This is a problem in the more combat-oriented missions (which is about half of them), where you are no threat for any opponent at the beginning of the campaign; you'll quickly run out of non-combat missions to gain the experience required to progress further into the campaign. Save frequently, kids (the loading screens even tell you to)! Space in Starpoint Gemini is populated with a good number of ships that do their own thing; while it isn’t as dense or varied as, say, Independence War 2, it’s still good enough. Starpoint Gemini also includes a sandbox mode, which offers the same thing as the campaign without the main missions you can ignore anyway; it would have been nice to give sandbox users more starting cash (to afford big ships) instead of having to start at the bottom rung. Starpoint Gemini also lacks multiplayer; I’d love to see deathmatch or capture-the-anomaly matches where each player can choose any ship and five special maneuvers and enjoy the tactical combat with other humans. Oh well.

Starpoint Gemini borrows (steals) a lot of ideas from role-playing games, and the first of those is character creation. You get to design your captain, starting with visual appearance and ending with skills (called “maneuvers”) and perks. There are thirty-eight maneuvers you can choose from, five of which can be accessed through the interface at a time. These vary from calling in support, more powerful weapons, speeding up repair, abrupt turns, an increase in critical hit chance, more precise shots, and more (obviously, since I did not list thirty-eight things). The variety here makes for some really interesting decisions, and allows you to customize your in-game strategy in multiple directions. I wish the skills were better organized (by career or type, for example) instead of appearing in a giant, unwieldy list, but the healthy diversity cannot be ignored. More skills are unlocked with experience earned by completing quests, destroying ships, conducting research, repairing craft, and salvaging equipment. You can also choose from one of eighteen perks that offer slight bonuses in navigation, weapons, evasion, trooper strength (for boarding enemy vessels), or trade. Finally, you maintain relationships with the different factions present in the fractured universe of Starpoint Gemini, opening up new quests and additional targets.

Starpoint Gemini is played from a third-person perspective, putting you in the role of a captain instead of a pilot like in the Evochron series. You left-click to turn (and use the interface) and right-click to select, although keyboard controls are also available. The interface is laid out like a role-playing game, with pertinent skills located in a bar along the bottom of the screen along with your current speed setting. Shields divided into four quadrants, and the strength of each is clearly indicated around your ship. The interface is not without some limitations, however: you can’t target an object if it’s too far away, even if you can see it. Also, Starpoint Gemini lacks “match speed” and “follow/escort” buttons for easier coordinated movement, and you can’t rotate your camera view (it simply locks on the currently selected ship), although the developer plans to fix this in a future patch.

In all, Starpoint Gemini features fifty different ships you can purchase and outfit with a large variety of weapons and items. Each ship comes with a set number of mounting points where you can place a power core, sensors, thrusters, engines, armor, transporters, grappling beams, weapon support systems, and various weapons like beams, railguns, plasma, shockwaves, missiles, and torpedoes. All systems use energy provided by your power core, so there is some balance required in ship design; the remainder is used to enable maneuvers (skills). The systems allow you to undertake a number of activities: scanning cargo, conversing with other ships, grappling hostile craft, mining minerals from asteroids, repairing your vessel, and investigating anomalies. You can even beam down teams (some of which are wearing red shirts, no doubt) for repair, exploration, or offensive missions. The variety here is typical for space adventure games.

You will also dock with space stations scattered around each sector. Here, you can repair your ship (for a reasonable price), hire new officers that grant additional special maneuver skills and passive abilities, purchase new items, and undertake missions. Trading is underdeveloped: while there are fifty items to purchase, the game makes no indication of what are “good” and “bad” prices (and also lacks a “sell all” button), so unless you really want to write down fifty prices at each station, trade isn’t a very viable option for earning money. Really, “trade” in Starpoint Gemini consists of selling items you took from other ships and then using the money to buy new components for your ship. Missions are decently varied: most involve scanning an object or destroying a specific enemy. Objective locations are clearly indicated on your map, and money is automatically transferred once the mission is complete (there is no need to waste time going back to the point of origin). There does need to be more missions (every station in each sector offers the same ones) and randomization would be nice (another plan for a future patch), but missions do give another thing to occupy your time in Starpoint Gemini.

Another high point of Starpoint Gemini is the tactical combat. Before you can make space dust out of the enemy, you have to enter combat mode, a completely unnecessary requirement that harkens back to Star Trek (the only thing missing is the sound effect). The combat revolves around weapon arcs: you must orient your ship towards the targeted enemy vessel. Another consideration is shields, which are divided into four quadrants (front, back, two sides): once the shields are removed on a specific portion of the ship, any additional hits cause damage to the hull. So Starpoint Gemini becomes a matter of positioning, much like combat naval simulations. The interface should do a better job indicating which weapons are ready and available to fire: there is a subtle increase in brightness, but that’s not enough in the heat of battle. You can target specific systems of the enemy ship (weapons, engines, shields), taking out their strength first and leaving them vulnerable. To accentuate the combat, each ship comes with one of twenty-one special abilities, including jamming, disable engines, reduce speed, instant movement, and an array of special powerful weapons. You can also board vessels if you have invested in perks and abilities geared towards that specific strategy. The AI is pretty good at combat, attacking vulnerable sides, maneuvering out of position, and using special skills; disabling their engines makes them less crafty. The tactical combat of Starpoint Gemini rounds out a compelling package that, despite some limitations, offers great features for a space adventure title.

Starpoint Gemini features a nice combination of tactical combat and extensive role-playing features that support a wide variety of overall strategy. You can truly undertake any of the game’s possible career paths, like trade, repair, piracy, research, salvaging, mining, or a mixture. While most games of the space adventure ilk offer the same possibilities, Starpoint Gemini takes things a step further by offering thirty-eight skills and eighteen perks earned through experience (and officers you can hire for additional skills), along with twenty-one special abilities spread across fifty ships. This amount of variety is fantastic, allowing you to forge any path of your liking. Missions are also varied, providing your primary source of income in the game since the trade interface leaves room for improvement. Tactical combat is quite enjoyable: the combination of weapon arcs, shield orientations, maneuvers, and special abilities makes for fun, challenging battles against the adept AI. The mouse-driven interface makes you feel more like a captain and less like a pilot, though it could benefit from additional features like camera rotation and clearer indications of available weapons. The story-driven campaign features thirty scripted missions plus free-form interludes, rendering the sandbox mode a limited offering. The tutorial is a pain and Starpoint Gemini lacks multiplayer, but there is good value for $30 thanks to important features and nice graphics. Starpoint Gemini is what Star Trek Legacy (and Starfleet Command, for that matter) should have been, and the robust career options and a plethora of role-playing customization features in addition to solid tactical combat only sweeten the deal.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

nail’d Review

nail’d, developed by Techland and published by Deep Silver.
The Good: Multiple game modes, varied vehicle parts, multiplayer game browser, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Narrow window for forced respawn because of terribly inconsistent collision detection, annoyingly chaotic races involve no nuance and little skill, can't use non-XBOX gamepad, limited race mutators
What say you? This arcade off-road racing game features fast speeds but restricted racing and controls: 3/8

Racing takes many forms: stock, touring, boat, airplane, turtle. Another iteration is dirt racing, including the use of all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles to kick up some particles between 1/16 and 2 millimeters in diameter. This is the focus of the grammatically incorrect racing title nail’d, brought to you by Techland, developer of racing titles Xpand Rally (plus the the “Xtreme” version) and FIM Speedway Grand Prix. This game is placed squarely in the “arcade” side of the racing spectrum, offering over-the-top thrills and pick-up-and-play mechanics. But is it fun?

The best aspect (as you'll clearly see) of nail'd is the graphics: the game looks quite nice. Using the graphics pedigree of the similarly-excellent Xpand games, nail'd provides a complete package of visual enjoyment. The vehicles are finely detailed and respond nicely to changes in terrain. The drivers are also animated well, although the rag-doll physics during a crash could be more exaggerated. The tracks themselves look great, with lots of detail and dynamic components as you fly (more often than not) on by. nail'd also features a good sensation of speed, making you feel like you are hurtling at unsafe speeds around unsafe tracks. I was pleased with the graphics in nail'd. The sound design is pretty typical for an arcade racer: engine sounds dominate the scene, and loud alternative rock music blares in the background as you go for “sick” jumps “on” your “motorcycle”. The graphics are definitely the strongest part of nail'd.

nail’d is an off-road racing that features both dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles careening down the landscape at unsafe speeds. The game includes a campaign mode called the “tournament,” where progress is divided into eight leagues that features between one and five events (usually either extreme) using the same game mode in which you must finish on the podium (the top three places) in order to advance. You are able to choose (somewhat) the order in which you tackle the races, so this small amount of freedom is appreciated. nail’d does include our evil nemesis, unskippable cutscenes, to introduce each race, but luckily they are on the short side (ten seconds or so). Finishing well also unlocks (of course) additional vehicle parts and paint jobs in the garage: you can equip different body, exhaust, engine, handlebar, shock, and wheel components to adjust the performance of your vehicle, although the actual effects are very subtle. Most parts offer a trade off, like improved handling but lowered top speed, which is nice, instead of simply giving increased all-around performance.

After you’ve finished the campaign, you can go off-road and try out quick races on any of the game’s fourteen tracks (all unlocked from the beginning, thankfully), all of which are long layouts. While you cannot define any customized layouts (the tracks are very restrictive, as you’ll see), there is a decent amount of content here. nail’d features a number of game modes: traditional races, checkpoint challenges, points events where stunts are rewarded, and free races without collisions where drivers attempt to secure the fastest lap time. These events can be tried out online, and nail’d features a server browser that lists current games: always a required feature on the PC. The game also records lap times and compares them online against the world. Finally, nail’d has a tutorial that has interruptive text pop-ups explaining the nuances of the gameplay. Overall, the features list is decent for a racing title.

nail’d’s first sin comes with the controls: if you do not have an XBOX controller, you cannot play with a gamepad. Excuse me, mister developer, but the PC prides itself on freedom, and I’ll be darned if I can’t use a custom controller to play your game. So, off to “keyboard land” for me: definitely not a desirable control method for a racing game. Even if you have said controller, you can’t customize the controls: whatever the developer has determined as the “right” way is the only way, a totalitarian regime where only specific controllers and control schemes are allowed to function. Once you get past that restrictive game design decision, you’ll see that the controls in nail’d are quite typical (steer, brake) except for lots of control in the air. You are also given boost to increase acceleration, earned by attaining easy-to-get feats like jumping, landing, smashing other vehicles, staying in last, flawless driving, or high speeds. You can also add mutators to the race, although there are only two to choose from (unlimited boost and no collisions), so it’s a disappointingly limited feature that could have benefitted from more thought.

nail’d is a decidedly arcade racing title with insane turning and braking abilities. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with that, but the gameplay fails for two main reasons. First, there is little skill involved with the racing. Unlike a game like Trackmania, where fast speeds still require skill to drive well, nail’d allows you to floor it and dramatically maneuver in the air, so keeping on the track isn’t terribly difficult. Well, at least in theory, as the other “fail” of nail’d is horrid collision detection. The game seems to arbitrarily determine if you smacking that mountain/train/cactus will result in a respawn or simply bouncing off. You might (might, being a key word) also respawn in you venture just a small amount away from the track, a very odd design decision for what is supposedly an off-road racing game. Rally games typically allow you to go off the side of a cliff before forcing a respawn, or take an inventive shortcut through the brush on the way to the finish. Not nail’d: if you stray from the carefully crafted paths the developers have handcuffed you to, you shall pay the price of repeated resets. The actual racing involves extreme speeds and almost continuous jumps, which (due to the ability to significantly steer in the air) is almost the same as being on the ground, except you have to land on very small targets due to the narrow respawn windows. That just doesn’t spell “fun” for me. The AI is never really an issue, as the racing in nail’d is never close enough to matter what the computer is doing.

While it may look good, actually racing in nail'd is terrible, which, unfortunately, is a major portion of a racing game. The game boils down to this: whoever respawns the least wins. There are plenty of opportunity to respawn, either because of the track design that features tons of precarious chasms to cross at unseen angles, or because of the maddeningly inconsistent collision detection: sometimes landing on a rock is OK, and sometimes you get automatically reset. You just never know! I've never played a more restrictive off-road game in my life. In addition, you're never really racing the AI (or human) drivers directly: the frantic pace of nail'd makes sure of that. The only skill involved is simply staying on the track, which can be a difficult and genuinely tiresome experience. Earning boost is easy through the trivial achievements in the game, and the two mutators leave a lot of potential on the table. nail'd features a couple of race types and online play (complete with an in-game browser, no less), but then doesn't let you play with a gamepad unless you've given $40 to Microsoft for an XBOX controller. That's simply the final “nail” in the coffin for a supremely underwhelming arcade racer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Swords and Soldiers Review

Swords and Soldiers, developed and published by Ronimo Games.
The Good: Really distinctive gameplay with unparalleled strategies, online multiplayer searches for games in the background, constant action, occasional multiple objectives during campaign missions
The Not So Good: Keyboard controls needed, limited map selection with no editor, somewhat brief campaigns
What say you? This one-dimensional strategy game transitions to the PC with its unique linear mechanics intact: 6/8

While the PC is the clear home for strategy gaming (one reason why it is my preferred platform), the occasional title does slip through the cracks to the evil consoles. Most of the time, it's a port of a computer game that fails miserably because of inept gamepad controllers. Keyboard and mouse for the win! Anyway, the heathens at Ronimo Games actually designed a strategy game for the Ninentdo Wii (or, as I like to call it, “the Kinect four years ago”) that takes advantage of the console's mouse-like pointing. I know, right? A year and a half later, it's finally the PC's turn to revel in the unique nature of the game's HIGH DEFINITION.

Swords and Soldiers retains the original game's graphical style while supporting the higher resolutions desired by today's discerning PC gamer. The game does transition nicely to HD, with detailed animations for the character models and nice effects like day/night cycles, rain, and poison. The levels have a good attention to detail as well. The 2-D presentation obviously fits the gameplay here and doesn't opt for a 3-D upgrade, which I think works in favor of Swords and Soldiers as the developers are able to add more detail and retain a great theme overall. The game also features appropriate battle sounds (though a bit repetitive) and good music that I didn't mind at all. Overall, I felt the graphics and sound of Swords and Soldiers to be quite solid.

Swords and Soldiers is a strategy game where you deploy units along a linear path and use spells to make attacks more effective. The game includes three campaigns highlighting each of the factions: the Vikings that can heal units, the Aztecs that can raise dead units, and the Chinese that can clone troops. Each side is given ten missions that clock in under ten minutes each (and usually around five), so completeing the entire campaign won’t take more than a couple of hours. This seems kind of short, although considering some $60 games, maybe that's not too short after all. A tutorial is included with the campaign, and some missions include multiple victory conditions, like gold collection or timed survival, or offering different paths. After you are done with the campaign, you can try out skirmish battles against the AI, where you can set difficulty, a player handicap, and starting levels for gold, mana, and workers. There are only nine maps to play on, though (three of each size small, medium, and large), and Swords and Soldiers does not include a map editor. Swords and Soldiers also includes three challenge modes where you try to hold on against specialized conditions for as long as possible. Finally, Swords and Soldiers features nice online options: the game will find an opponent for you while you are enjoying the single-player content. This is a very nice feature that eliminates the boring monotony of waiting for an adversary. While it would be extra nice to have a browser listing all potential rivals, the matchmaking in Swords and Soldiers is done well.

Swords and Soldiers retains the user interface implemented in the Wii version, which is very mouse-heavy. Units are selected for construction by clicking on their icon across the top of the screen; the icons have clear countdown timers indicating when you may queue up another order. There is also a minimap of sorts (it’s a line, since all of the units travel in a linear path) along the bottom of the screen, showing the location of all your troops; you may zoom in on another portion of the map by right-clicking, which erases any spell you might have selected beforehand. There are some limitations: you can’t queue up future production (although this is probably by design), there are no keyboard hotkeys to use (in fact, you have to input your name using the mouse), and there are no tool-tips explaining what the unit and spell icons are for. So while the transition to the PC isn’t totally awesome, the simple interface makes Swords and Soldiers easy to play.

There are two resources in Swords and Soldiers: gold and mana. Both are slowly added to your coffers over time, but you can gather them at a faster rate by sending workers to mines (for gold) and through research (for mana). Gold is used to purchase units of varying abilities: workers, melee fighters, ranged fighters, stunners, and support. Melee is used to place spells using your mouse, which can heal, hurry, attack, poison, or freeze units (among other things).

Swords and Soldiers is a balance between resource collection and unit production, specifically producing the best units at the best times. You cannot control the units once they are produced: they simply travel down the linear path at their own pace, and automatically attack any enemies along the way. However, this does not mean that Swords and Soldiers is devoid of strategy, as you can plan when to queue units so that they arrive at the enemy encampment simultaneously. Still, it can be difficulty to time things correctly, and some of the time you’ll just be producing every type of unit as fast as you can (which may not be the most sound strategy). There are a multitude of strategies to employ: you can go unit-heavy, focus on gold production first, concentrate on spells, or decide on a mixture of everything. You are always clicking on new troops or issuing spells, so Swords and Soldiers is never boring; the fast pace of the game ensures that much. There are some difficult levels where there are moments of equality mid-game, and the difficulty to forming a concentrated attack means games last a bit longer than they should. The AI provides competent competition and a challenging foe several times during the campaign, although the best opposition is always found online, where the simple mechanics and fast pace of Swords and Soldiers work best.

Swords and Soldiers boils down strategy gaming to its very core, producing a very straightforward title that good for novices and veterans alike. Some players will bemoan the relative simplicity of Swords and Soldiers as your troops simply travel in a line with no direct interaction, but therein lies its appeal: the game is about ordering troops and casting spells. Successfully grouping your troops (since you can't control them after they are produced) and using spells at the right moment will result in ultimate victory. Even though Swords and Soldiers is predominantly hands-off, you are never just sitting there: there are always spells to click and units to make, and the pace is fast enough to keep you busy. The game also allows for multifaceted strategy and variety using the three unique factions. The interface could benefit from some keyboard hotkeys for more efficient gameplay, but the mouse does well enough. The campaign offers three different factions and multiple victory conditions during most missions. In addition, you can take the game online for real human competition, and the game will even search for games in the background while you play the campaign: brilliant. While I would like to see more maps (or an editor) included, Swords and Soldiers provides some unique strategy gaming.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind Review

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Warring factions for Japan and China, streamlined buildings, small interface and graphical improvements, reduced trading range, better advisor limitations
The Not So Good: Lacks dramatic gameplay enhancements, horde nations really annoying, center of trade city list remains buried, lacks updated tutorials, native Americans and Africans ignored
What say you? A lot of minor features make this a can-miss expansion: 5/8

The game that will never die is back with yet another “final” expansion. Yes, you people simply cannot get enough of Europa Universalis III, the grand strategy game that lets you control any nation in the world from 1399 until 1820. After three expansions (one OK and two good), what could possibly be left to improve upon? Well, the ever-forgotten nations of China and Japan have always gotten short shift in the series, maybe because it’s called Europa Universalis instead of Asiopa Universalis. In any case, it’s time for more stuff to be added to an already complex game; the Paradox disciples wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m writing this review with the assumption that you’re familiar with Europa Universalis III and its first three expansions. If you are not, what are you doing reading a review of an expansion in the first place?

Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind is not without some graphical augmentations. First, the game incorporates a couple of additions seen in Victoria 2: the neat, stylized zoomed-out map and color-coded military unit strengths. In addition, there is a handy new peace interface that shows negotiated territory on the main map view (great for large, sprawling nations), additional alerts for blockades, and a single list of all potential modifier triggers. Divine Wind also adds some hints to the loading screens, although improved tutorials in the vein of Victoria 2 are not present (and, in fact, changes in the interfaces invalidate some tutorial screens). Still, it’s nice that graphical improvements seen in other games using the same engine have been carried over.

As you might expect from an expansion named Divine Wind, most of the focus is on the Orient. In addition to some new countries and provinces placed around the world, Japan and China are now split into several factions that compete for influence. In Japan, the most powerful Daimyo gets diplomatic options as the Shogun, while China’s three factions provide varied bonuses depending on who is in power the most (China also receives significant bonuses for staying at peace). While this new level of detail is nice for people who are playing either Japan or China, it rarely affects outsiders in a significant way. Essentially, it gives you a new level of internal struggle to worry about, much like the external struggles of the Holy Roman Empire or Papacy in Europe. It would have been nice to extend a similar system to the Native American or African tribes to make them more appealing and less cannon fodder for the incoming Europeans (dang it, I think I just gave them an idea for the next expansion). The horde nations have undergone a change as well, making them at war by default and money the only option for negotiations (translation: they are now really annoying). This makes the hordes behave more like organized rebels (for better or for worse, worse in my opinion), which I suppose is how they were in real life. In fact, you can’t take any of their territory before colonizing it first. While this alteration of the game rules makes use of colonists from land-locked countries that would otherwise have no use for them, it makes it twice as hard to defeat a horde: not only do you have to defeat them militarily, but you also have to plan out your attacks in advance and colonize the right provinces beforehand, which is an extremely tall task for the poorer nations common in the East. Hordes act as dangerous, unpredictable foes for neighboring civilized nations; whether that's necessarily fair or not can be debated.

To reduce both building spam (manic construction when a new tech level is reached) and decision spam (too many magistrates) in one fell swoop, a new production system has been implemented, a balance decision that I approve of. Buildings now require magistrates to start construction, and they have been reorganized in a progressive build order divided by technology (production, trade, government) and combined with some of the province decisions. Trade has been improved: you can now only trade at cities located within range of one of your provinces, resulting in more intense competition in Europe and a greater need for colonial expansion for merchant nations. This makes a whole lot more sense: just because Wurzburg knows about Timbuktu doesn’t mean they should be able to send merchants there. By the way, there should be one-button access to the center of trade list, instead of having to access the ledger, click on the economy tab, and go forward three pages; this is something that still hasn't been improved upon. Anyway, countries that own provinces in a center of trade are also given a compete chance bonus for that city, something I just assumed was in the game before now. You are also given bonuses for trading certain goods (like better ships if you trade naval supplies, for example) and the world leader in trade gets even more advantages. Finally, trade winds are more significant, directing European powers more towards their historical colonial realms (Spain and Portugal to South America, England and France northward).

Dragging your allies into war is made easier with the “call allies” button, which seems to occasionally produce larger conflicts on a global scale. Vassals have no choice, but other nations will not earn a stability hit if they join the fray during the first three months. Spheres of influence, a feature of Heir to the Throne, has expanded in importance: more nations in your sphere earns more magistrates and a higher diplomatic skill. Divine Wind also allows you to annex a junior member of a personal union after fifty years, which seems like a really long time to survive without a king or queen. As for the Holy Roman Empire, it is now more difficult to take over non-core territory inside the empire, to decrease the frequency of petty fights that usually erupt in the region. You can also demand the Emperor to rescind the last reform in a peace deal, if keeping the empire fractured is in your best interests.

Divine Wind only allows one advisor of each type, to decrease the one-sided bonuses players enjoyed before (so I have a lot of Master of Mints, what of it?). Cultural tradition also decays, which reduces the spamming of high-quality advisors (you could almost always simply recruit really good people in Heir to the Throne) prevalent in previous games. Other minor improvements include rebels that fight each other, rebalanced prestige, additional missions and events, improved AI, and support for future Paradox Connect achievements. I should also note that the game crashes every time I exit (requiring me to open task manager and go to the error message), which isn't terribly annoying since I was leaving anyway. As a whole, I like the improvements made in Divine Wind: controlling China and Japan is more interesting, buildings are organized better, and advisors and trade are less “gamey”. But it does not offer the comprehensive changes needed for a full expansion, and there are some more (admittedly minor) areas in need of further improvement.

Each Europa Universalis III expansion has had a “killer app”: Napoleon’s Ambition had auto-merchants, In Nomine had missions, and Heir to the Throne had war goals. I fail to find something that dramatic in Divine Wind, and that makes it an optional expansion for all but the most dedicated fans (which includes me, actually). There are a large number of small enhancements: more options for Japan and China, horde nations constantly at war, better use of magistrates, and more historical colonization. Better diplomatic options are also included: calling allies to war, enhanced spheres of influence, and more choices for the holiest of Roman empires. In addition, there are interface and map enhancements borrowed from Victoria 2 to make the game look better. Still, the content is somewhere between a patch and an expansion, and with continuing annoyances like the center of trade list and lack of attention paid to other regions of the world, $20 is a bit steep in my opinion ($10 would have been more reasonable). Divine Wind serves as pretty good evidence that Europa Universalis III has run its course and the series is out of significant ideas for new additions that would dramatically accentuate the gameplay.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Clones Review

Clones, developed and published by Tomkorp Computer Solutions.
The Good: Varied challenging levels, competitive and cooperative online play for up to eight players with several modes and an in-game browser, interface allows for several control techniques, level editor
The Not So Good: Only a couple new abilities
What say you? Online multiplayer makes this puzzle game more than a simple Lemmings clone: 7/8

Remember Lemmings? Of course you do. Ever wonder why more games don’t try to emulate it? Well, wonder no more as here comes Clones. This puzzle game borrows a lot of elements from that classic title: cute characters, specific jobs, real-time gameplay, and puzzling puzzles. It’s been quite a while since a proper Lemmings title has graced the ever-important PC (2000), so let’s see what Clones has to offer.

Clones is a low-resolution game that’s best run in a window. In fact, it did not support my monitor’s native resolution of 1280x1024, so I had no choice in the matter. This makes the text and graphics not look as crisp as it could. The game, like its inspiration, is in 2-D, but the levels are fairly detailed and there are some nice effects, including the clone explosions that are kind of gross (not in a gory way, though). There’s nothing overly distinctive about the visuals of Clones, but at least the graphics do their job. The sound effects are standard fare, again offering nothing terribly memorable like cute voice work or distinctive sounds for each clone type. The background music is appropriate for the tone of the game, so overall Clones delivers what you’d expect for a $10 puzzle game.

Clones is a puzzle game patterned after Lemmings, where you must carefully guide a group of suicidal creatures through a dangerous landscape towards a goal by assigning them different jobs along the way. The single player offerings of Clones feature eleven sets of missions that are quite challenging and typically require several attempts to achieve success. You might even want to try older missions again to collect more objects and attain higher scores on the global rankings. Some levels limit the number of clones you can use; I prefer the later, more open-ended levels that are a bit less scripted. Once you are finished with the campaigns, you can design your own levels using the editor, and even download user content through the game’s website.

While the single player content will last you a while, what sets Clones apart is the robust multiplayer action. It is easy to find games using the in-game browser, and Clones supports up to eight players fighting it out in several game modes. You can simultaneously try to save the most clones on identical maps, or fight over the same group of clones on a single layout. Additional permutations include capturing particles like so many flags or having the last surviving clone. The multiplayer games are chaotic fun, as each side tries to alter the playing surface and guide the minions towards their goal. It takes mastery of the game’s hotkeys and interface to succeed in the relatively fast pace of the online games, so it is strongly recommended to make it though at least the tutorial sections of the single player game before venturing out online.

Clones does a great job offering the user several ways to control their clones. The first is the traditional RTS method of clicking on a unit to select it and choosing an order from the bottom-right corner of the screen. While in “normal” strategy games this works perfectly fine, it’s way too slow in Clones and is certainly not the recommended method of issuing orders to your clones. The second method is using a circular belt of orders that are brought up around the selected unit; this method is better and can also incorporate the use of mouse gestures for quicker access. However, if you truly want to master Clones, you’ll need to commit the keyboard shortcuts to memory. These, used in conjunction with the mouse wheel to quickly cycle through nearby clones, is really the only way to navigate the game through the tense situations that permeate through the title (especially online). It can still be difficult to quickly select and issue orders to clones that are close together, but I suppose that’s part of the game. Additional options include the ability to pause the game on occasion and show the position of your clones in the future for on-the-fly planning.

The gameplay of Clones involves telling your clones to perform specific tasks in order to guide most of the group to the level exit. There are eleven actions to choose from (plus regular walking), three of which aren’t a direct copy of Lemmings: shoot, dig, build stairs, explode, float, block, walk, and "atomize", which turns your clone into pellets designed to quickly fill in small gaps. I am a bit distressed that the developers couldn’t think of anything dramatically different for their version of the puzzle game, only adding the ability to fly, shoot, and implode. There are two special states your clones can inherit: dark clones change faster and can fall further, while light clones can jump and change direction. There are a number of traps that should be avoided in each puzzle: in addition to simply falling from great heights, clones can be killed by water and electric coils. Maps are also populated with various machines that can teleport clones, flip gravity, bring acid rain, and copy; Clones even includes the world-famous Hoverboard for good measure. These elements make the puzzles interesting, especially when the community gets involved in creating custom maps. For those levels in which you are in direct competition with the AI, it seems programmed before the map even starts, rarely responding to player actions or altering its strategy or execution. It’s basically the same as having a set time or score to reach, just with the illusion of playing against someone. Still, Clones is a very solid replica of a classic game thanks to its online features.

Clones takes the classic Lemmings formula, adds in some interesting multiplayer modes, and makes a winning product. The game starts with compelling features: in addition to a host of challenging single player puzzles, Clones features some neat online options featuring simultaneous competition on mirrors of the same map or fights over the same group of clones in a single arena. In addition, you can create your own levels using the included editor. These robust features help to extend the life of the product significantly. The interface is nicely designed, offering several methods of controlling your minions, from comprehensive keyboard shortcuts to command wheels and mouse gestures. The abilities are a bit disappointing, as all but a couple (flying, attacking, and atomize, used to fill in gaps, though building stairs is usually a better alternative) are direct replicas of Lemmings, but there are a number of unique traps that may populate each puzzle to mix things up. Luckily, the feature list more than makes up for these minor limitations, making Clones a highly recommended title for puzzle enthusiasts at a very reasonable price.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

World Supremacy Review

World Supremacy, developed by Malfador Machinations and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Territory-based economics, random maps, varied units, tactical battles, competent AI
The Not So Good: Tedious interface, unclear financial flow, drawn-out games due to sequential turns and lack of adjacent unit support, prohibitively expensive research options, one victory condition, no online matchmaking, no tutorial and superficial manual
What say you? Uneven mechanics, limited features, and a wearisome user interface make this turn-based global domination game too much of a risk: 4/8

A lot of grand strategy games include diplomacy, giving the player the false impression that talking ever solved anything. I mean, you spend billions of dollars on the military and you want to talk about your feelings? Those nuclear missiles aren’t going to launch themselves. Lucky for those realists among us, World Supremacy throws out any notion of “teamwork” and “cooperation” and “working together.” Take that, stuff I learned in Kindergarten. This turn-based game features battles over randomly generated worlds, both in a large-scale strategic sense and a small-scale tactical sense. Let’s find out if World Supremacy is indeed supreme.

The graphics and sound for World Supremacy can be best described as “simple”. The best aspect of the game is the maps: the developers borrowed (stole) aerial photographs and satellite images from Google Earth and imported them into the game to give it a more realistic feel. Of course, it would have worked better if the units in the game were more than simple 2-D sprites that lack animation, but at least the military hardware is easy to identify at a glance. Combat is also underwhelming, as World Supremacy uses one explosion to rule them all. On the sound side of things, there are a couple of effects and some background music, but nothing too special to write home about. World Supremacy is simply a functional game with visuals that serve their basic purpose: no more, no less.

World Supremacy is a game of world domination. There is no diplomacy, no negotiation, just war. The game is turn-based, where each side takes a turn in sequential order. The game supports between two and eight players, and there is only one victory condition: total victory. There is no alternative to complete domination, which tends to drag things out even when triumph is certain and allows for stalemates between evenly matched sides. World Supremacy doesn’t contain a campaign, simply skirmish matches on random maps against the AI or human opponents. Unfortunately, finding human opponents is a bit of a task, as World Supremacy lacks online matchmaking: you must know the host’s IP address in advance, and the game also lacks play by e-mail. In addition, randomized maps cannot be sent over the connection, so you can only use the default maps or ones that have been shared before the game begins. New games have several options: contiguous nations, same initial resources, neutral nations, and the starting levels for technology, country size, forces, and money. World Supremacy features some large maps: there is hardly ever combat on the first turn, as you will expand your borders the first couple of rounds. World Supremacy does not feature a tutorial to ease new players into the admittedly simple mechanics, but the manual doesn’t expand upon the very basics: the actual instructions take up a page and a half, with the remainder describing interface screens and units but no specifics on game rules. World Supremacy does have good support for modifications (most game properties are contained in text files), and the random maps are a nice addition. Still, a $30 product should feature more well-rounded features.

One of the disappointing aspects of World Supremacy is the interface. It’s not all bad, as there is a comprehensive list of all known regions and encountered units to assist in strategic planning, along with rankings for the current state of the world. However, it goes downhill from there. When a unit is selected, a window pops up on the left to allow for multiple selections, and it displays how many units of each type is currently chosen: handy. However, you have to deselect all units (by choosing the red “X” in the interface window) in order to select any unit in another province, even if you click directly on top of the second unit. While this sounds like a minor issue, it’s an additional step that becomes annoying when you are dealing with a large empire comprised of many provinces. There is no comprehensive list of all units, and you cannot box-select units in the same province for faster processing. World Supremacy does include a “next unit” button, but it uses the same order each time, so you have to go through the same aircraft that might have moves left over but you want to stay put. There is certainly some additional polish that could be applied to the interface of World Supremacy.

World Supremacy features a pleasing array of military hardware designed to destroy opposing military hardware. There is a complete variety of land (infantry, tank, artillery), air (fighters, bombers, helicopters), and naval (cruisers, destroyers, carriers, submarines) units to choose from. These units differ according to movement, sight tange, hit points, combat ratings, and assorted special abilities. In addition, there are a number of fixed installations for producing units and providing very small bonuses towards region defense. World Supremacy features a good mixture of units that support varied strategies and counter-strategies. You can order your units around using the cumbersome system I mentioned earlier. The usual suspects are included: move, attack, bombard, transport, amphibious assault, and decommission. I don’t know why you need a separate “move” and “attack” order, though, as you can simply “attack” friendly territory. Still, there are comprehensive options when it comes to choosing units in World Supremacy.

World Supremacy takes a simple economics system and makes it as hard to understand as possible. You get cash for each province you own, the amount of which is clearly displayed on the map. This money is used to purchase new units in territories where you have constructed a factory and to supply existing units, a great system that is buried beneath unexplained confusion. The problem is the secret order in which the game executes each turn is kept a mystery. Unit upkeep and new production is executed simultaneously, along with getting new money from each of your provinces, but you are never given a balance sheet. Are you spending your per-turn income, or your surplus cash? World Supremacy never says. The game never displays detailed economic data in a satisfying way, so you’re left scratching your head as to why you couldn’t afford that new technology or additional tank. And what determines what gets purchased and what doesn’t? Again, neither the game nor the manual explains what’s going on with your money.

Poor design and feedback extends to the research portion of World Supremacy, where you can purchase a chance to research a new technology in eight categories. New techs are unimaginatively named “I” to “III” (like the epic “Air Transport II” the military keeps talking about), and you can choose between a 25% or 50% success rate, the latter of which requires more money. Problem is the techs are really expensive (hundreds of millions of dollars) and have a very low chance of success; you are better off simply purchasing new units. In addition, if you don’t successfully research a new tech, it stays in your order queue. So was I charged the $300 million for the tech, or did I not have enough money for it, or did I just not get the correct die roll? The world will never know.

When opposing units are in the same territory, a battle is initiated. The battles are tactical in nature, taking place on a square grid and giving one unit at a time an opportunity to act. They aren’t the most sophisticated things in the world, but you do have a couple of interesting decisions. First, you can move or fire, but not both. You also have to keep your units out of the range of enemy units; while the weapon range for each unit is displayed on the unit information display, it is not clearly displayed on the map when a unit is selected, making it difficult to figure out whether your units can take damage if angles are involved. Stacks of the same unit attack as one, a simplification I am not sure I agree with. The background terrain servers no purpose, as you only have to pay attention to ranges and movement abilities during combat. While a diversion from the global map, the tactical battles are still not fully satisfying.

The AI opponent seems capable enough, as it does use appropriate force against territories you are weakly defending. And defend you must, as World Supremacy offers little in the way of competent defenses: the fortifications you construct are weak at best, and you can’t call in support from surrounding territories to help repel an assault. This results in a lot of constant swapping of territory until somebody out-produces the other side. The use of sequential play only serves to exacerbate the problem as the same territory will commonly trade hands back and forth each turn. The end result is longer games that take much longer than necessary to complete.

World Supremacy tries to provide a slightly advanced approach to the classic strategy game Risk, but fails in several key areas. First off, the user interface is cumbersome, requiring a lot of clicking to simply select a group of units and offering redundant commands. The economics are also opaque: you are clearly shown your current funds, income, and supply costs, but the order in which these debts are executed in conjunction with current purchase orders is hidden. Upgrading units through technology might be a nice idea, but research costs too much money and has a low chance for success; it’s always better to simply produce new units instead of investing in small, insignificant upgrades. I like the variety of units with special abilities and attributes that widen your strategic options, and the simple tactical battles offer some limited depth. The AI is a decent opponent that looks for weaknesses in your defense, but can be steamrolled with superior production. The sequential turn-based gameplay of World Supremacy fabricates extended matches, where individual territories constantly swap sides because of irrelevant defensive bonuses and plentiful adjacent provinces that require you to spread out your forces to an alarming amount. World Supremacy does feature some random maps, but lacks other important features, such as a campaign, online multiplayer matchmaking, alternative victory conditions, and a tutorial. If you’d like a slightly more advanced version of Risk, I would recommend Castle Vox over World Supremacy and its tedious interface, limited features, covert economics, pointless research, and tiresome gameplay.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Metal Brigade Tactics Review

Metal Brigade Tactics, developed and published by Busking Software.
The Good: Interesting use of artillery, tactical weapon counters, battery use prevents stalemates, unit customization, pilots unlock skills and level up with experience, skirmish map editor
The Not So Good: Weapon counters not clearly indicated, repetitive tactics, no online multiplayer or PBEM
What say you? This robotic strategy game offers simple tactics with robust troop customization options: 6/8

Robots are cool. So cool, in fact, that it seems like I get a robot-related game to review every other month. This particular robot-related game to review is named Metal Brigade Tactics, and as you can probably guess from the title, it has nothing to do with rubber giraffes in any way. Instead, it’s a turn-based tactical strategy game where you outfit giant fighting robots and lead them to victory against other giant fighting robots. After plentiful cries for coverage, let’s delve into the future of mechanized warfare.

Both the graphics and the sound of Metal Brigade Tactics are very, very simple. The game is run in a window at a low resolution, and the maps consist of relatively plain square textures that represent the game world. This, of course, makes it easy to create custom maps, but it doesn’t make for a visually stimulating game. There are unimpressive combat animations (red numbers just display damage) and defeated robots instantly crumble into a pile of rubble. I guess there’s a reason the entire installation is 12 MB in size. The few sound effects are recycled and repetitive, while the background music is utilized only during the main menu. There is not much to write about the graphics and sound because there is simply not much to write about.

Metal Brigade Tactics has you leading a team of robots (called “Vertical Armor”) against the enemy; you can tell they are evil because they are colored red. The campaign features nineteen missions presented in a non-linear manner, giving you the ability to temporarily skip tough missions and come back to them after you’ve purchase better weapons. Most missions involve reaching an objective location and/or defeating all of the units on the map. A tutorial is included in the first three levels, and trying the game on a higher difficulty setting gives you a cash bonus to purchase better equipment and additional vehicles and weapons. After you are finished with the campaign, Metal Brigade Tactics features a skirmish mode where you can engage the AI on any of the campaign maps. You can also create your own maps using the in-game editor to further expand the game. While Metal Brigade Tactics lacks online and play by e-mail multiplayer options (the latter being a requirement for turn-based games, in my opinion), you can play skirmish games against another human on the same computing machine. Overall, Metal Brigade Tactics has a decent roster of features.

As with most robot-related games, Metal Brigade Tactics features a good amount of customization options available to aspiring pilots of the hulking beasts. There are thirteen vertical armor units to choose from, divided into light, medium, and heavy classes; they feature varied hit points, armor, dodge chance, movement range, and battery capacity. There are also a plethora of weapons, although they always fall into three categories (rapid fire, explosive, and single shot), a limitation that is a bit disappointing. The individual weapons have slight differences in damage, range, battery use, ammunition use, and weight, producing minor changes in performance. You can also equip your robot with several accessories that increase the ammunition or battery capacity, add movement, or increase attack ratings. While Metal Brigade Tactics does feature a good number of parts to swap out, their tactical differences are minor.

It’s not just the robot that matters, but the person piloting the craft. Through combat, pilots gain experience that will grant various bonuses to their craft. There are two basic upgrades that can be made: piloting (which increases movement) and weaponry (which increases weaponry…surprise!). You can create a pilot who moves fast, or one that delivers the pain, or a mixture of both: the choice is yours. In addition, pilots will become more adept at the weapons their robot uses over time, increasing the pain they can deal later in the campaign. Pilots will also unlock new abilities, increasing movement or attack ratings permanently. Matching up pilots with appropriate robots is important to continued success, and Metal Brigade Tactics features some nice role-playing features as you customize and improve your robots and pilots.

Metal Brigade Tactics features a simple rock-paper-scissors method to modify combat damage: rapid fire beats explosive, which beats single shot, which beats rapid fire. While this is really straightforward, the interface provides no assistance remembering the order; I had to keep the “tips” text file open in the background to keep the progression straight. Since each robot is only equipped with two weapons, you can’t counter everything, so it’s important to move as a team and group robots together with complimentary allies. Defending units will also fire back (assuming they survive your initial attack), so there is some strategy regarding which weapons to leave active at the end of your turn. The general strategy is to place units with the correct counters in the front. Metal Brigade Tactics allows you to see combat results before you commit an attack, and also undo any accidental moves you might have made: nice. Another interesting aspect of Metal Brigade Tactics is the use of artillery: you aim before the enemy moves, so they have a change to move or avoid your attack. This allows you to defend or screen off sections of the map. It’s very cool and easily the most attractive part of the game’s mechanics. Since each unit also has limited ammunition and battery power, the game will always have an end as units that are outnumbered will eventually run out of offensive power and succumb to the ultimate fate. Unfortunately, the simple tactics become pretty repetitive after a while; most of the interesting decisions in Metal Brigade Tactics involve choosing the weapons and upgrades before the match even begins. If you have an expert at each weapon type, you can take on any threat. The AI is decent but not spectacular, and once you figure out the magic counter triangle and scout the currently equipped weapons of the enemy, success becomes almost trivial.

Metal Brigade Tactics offers decent metal brigade tactics thanks to artillery spotting and weapon counters. Blanketing areas with artillery shells that will land at the end of the turn restricts enemy movement in interesting ways. Also, specific weapons receive an attack bonus against other types, although Metal Brigade Tactics could be a lot clearer in highlighting these relationships in-game. There is extensive robot customization, allowing you to purchase and swap hulls, weapons, and items to change and improve performance. Pilots also gain bonuses and additional abilities with combat experience, and correctly matching a pilot to a robot can produce devastating results. The campaign feature almost twenty missions where you will engage AI robots, and higher difficulty levels will earn cash bonuses. There are also skirmish matches against the AI on any of the campaign maps, or anything you can create using the editor. Metal Brigade Tactics could benefit from online play or play by e-mail, but at least it features hot seat action on the same computer. While the tactics become relatively trivial after a couple of games and the AI doesn’t put up too much of a fight, there is some good gaming to be had for $10.