Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cyber-Wing Review

Cyber-Wing, developed and published by Martian Arctic Games.
The Good: Neat and tactically interesting (though not original) mix of first person shooting and real-time strategy, Internet multiplayer, very inexpensive
The Not So Good: Limited number of commands and units, needs a longer respawn time for commander unit, tedious unit transport, short single player training campaign, only five multiplayer maps, can't save mid-mission
What say you? Basically a 3-D, online multiplayer version of Herzog Zwei, but there's nothing wrong with a good copy of quality game design: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Remember Herzog Zwei? Yeah, me neither, but apparently it was one of the first real time strategy games, if Wikipedia is meant to be believed (and when has it ever steered us wrong?). Instead of being an omnipresent commander, you directed troops from a single unit, ordering additional support and transporting allies to the front lines. Frankly, it surprises me that more clones haven’t cropped in the past 20 years. The cool thing to do nowadays is combine different genres into a cohesive product, so that’s exactly what Cyber-Wing attempts to do here. This title can be thought of as a remake of Herzog Zwei, but with 3-D graphics and online multiplayer. That’s enough to get me interested: how is it?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Maybe it’s because I play so many independent games, but I found the graphics of Cyber-Wing to be decent. Sure, the game lacks cutting-edge fancy of high-budget first person shooters, but it does deliver some nice varied environments with detailed terrain. The units have some nice models and the textures are certainly done well. The effects are where the game lags behind: unit animations are erratic (especially death) and weapons and blood are simplistic at best. Still, for $5, you definitely get your money’s worth. The sound design is less impressive, as non of the in-game dialogue is voiced, save for the occasional order, and the effects are quite basic. I did find the background music to be decent enough in a campy sense, though. But, hey, what do you want for $5? Candy? Me too!

ET AL.
In Cyber-Wing, you control a transforming mech-jet thing, purchasing and ordering units from a first- and third-person perspective to assist in your assault on the enemy strongholds. To learn the game, Cyber-Wing features eight single player training missions (which can be completed in any order) that gives you a new ability each mission, from your weapons to the abilities and the units. The game doesn’t say it gradually unlocks things, though, so I was trying to order units around in the first mission when that ability was disabled. Most of the missions (except for one defend mission) involve taking all of the enemy bases, but the gradual introduction of new units makes them play out differently enough. The game saves your best scores for each level (time and casualties) for future comparison. Cyber-Wing does not allow you to save your progress mid-mission, however, so once you sit down you had better finish. While the game does not give explicit directions on how to do things, the single player missions serve as a good introduction to the game’s mechanics. Cyber-Wing lacks off-line documentation, but there is an online manual to peruse. You can also engage in skirmish matches against the AI: “hard” AI is faster and does more damage and actually offers a good challenge. But the real focus of Cyber-Wing is multiplayer. The game offers one-on-one and two-on-two matches on any of five maps. While a larger selection would be nice, the linear nature of the map layout (necessitated by the simplified command system) means that most maps play out the same anyway, so additional maps wouldn’t really increase strategic variety. Regrettably, there is nobody playing the game online, essentially negating this important aspect of Cyber-Wing. That’s too bad, because the game is quite enjoyable.

You control Cyber-Wing from within your mechanized robot plane called a “ZOG”. Movement uses the traditional WASD keys, and additional keyboard controls are used for ordering and commanding troops. Most importantly, you can transform into a plane: this is useful for covering ground quickly and it’s required for transporting newly constructed units. To balance its usefulness, fuel is required to fly, replenished only while near a friendly base. Fuel appears to be time-based rather than usage-based, so quick movement is important. The game is balanced to give you just enough fuel to proceed to an enemy base and back to a friendly one, so smart planning is required. As I mentioned earlier, you need to fly units from any base to wherever you want them; this process is tedious to be sure, but at least the unit counts are small and it does slow the quick pace of the game down some. It also leads to some anxious waiting while your forces recover. There are a couple of oddities with the interface: friendly units are red while enemy units are blue, which is the total opposite of every other game (except, of course, for Herzog Zwei). This is only true half of the time in multiplayer, but it is always the case in the tutorial missions; it would be nice to always have the enemy red to keep things consistent. Red means dead. Oh, and the mini-map is too small, both in actual screen size and range: a scale option would be nice.

There are eight units you can build in Cyber-Wing, each suitable for a specified purpose. Four infantry are required to capture any base, and their fragile nature means better units must protect them. Mechs (cheap) and tanks (expensive) provide most of your firepower, SAM launchers combat enemy commander units, boats can float, and support vehicles heal. Stationary gun batteries can also be purchased, and moved to other locations if needed. Finally, commandos are faster, more robust infantry units that learned how to swim and climb rocks. You don’t actually control any of these units directly, instead issuing one of four orders: attack the nearest unfriendly base, defend, destroy the enemy headquarters, and retreat. You pick one order at a time to use, which can be issued to newly airdropped units or any surrounding forces. This system does not provide the precision desired in true RTS games, but it actually works pretty well and allows you do put together some interesting strategies. Units are produced using resources that are automatically collected according to the number of outposts and refineries you control: more is better. The friendly AI is smart enough to follow the simple orders, and the enemy AI is good at efficiently producing troops and attacking undefended bases. The enemy is not as aggressive as I would like, but on “hard” difficulty, they do put up a good challenge. Cyber-Wing does have some pathfinding issues, though, with units blocking infantry from entering neutral or enemy bases; this can be countered by manually airlifting the roadblocks, but this shouldn’t be necessary.

On the surface, Cyber-Wing looks to be simplistic due to the limited unit count, but it does offer some interesting strategy. The main strategic decision is when to assault the enemy base: when do you have enough troops? You need to make sure you have enough infantry to flip the base, or the enemy commander will respawn and easily dispatch of all of your units. There is certainly a tense build-up of units after a major fight, especially since units must be individually and manually deployed onto the battlefield. The unit cap of twenty-five units isn’t that low since it takes so long to build up a significant army. You cannot queue units even if you have the resources; I'd like the game to automatically start building the next unit in a queue one once you've picked up the previous one. Cyber-Wing is similar to control-point based first person shooters, where it is important to control bases for resources and more troops, which tends to concentrate the action around the linear set of outposts. My main (probably) fixable complaint has to do with the respawn times for the commander unit: instant respawn means a lot of spamming (seeing the enemy commander over and over again) if you are one outpost away from the enemy base; the enemy commander can dispose of a lot units on their own, so if you don't have overwhelming force, you can lose forward bases quickly. I think adding a respawn time and making it proportional to how many bases you have left (the more bases, the shorter it is...especially since you'll be further away from the action) would remedy this. Still, this is a minor complaint in an otherwise entertaining hybrid game.

IN CLOSING
Cyber-Wing is successful at what it attempts to do: bring Herzog Zwei into whatever century this is with 3-D graphics and online multiplayer. The 3-D graphics are quite acceptable for a $5 independent project, and so is the gameplay. Commanding all of your units from within your transformer is quite effective, issuing simple commands to take enemy bases or defend against incoming attacks. One could argue that the commands in Cyber-Wing are no less complicated than any mainstream RTS, and it’s quite fun to fight along side your troops. This method is far more interesting than simply controlling a random unit, as your flying abilities and powerful weapons make you a force that can turn a stalemate less stale, much like the demigods in Demigod (actually, Cyber-Wing is similar in several respects, although here you get direct control over subordinate units). Transporting units back and forth can be cumbersome, since you cannot queue unit production and you must pick up every unit individually from your base or a friendly outpost. Still, this results in some tense gameplay as both sides build up their forces and wait for the other to attack. Despite the roster of only eight units, they do give you some strategic liberty with their varied uses. You will spend most of your time using the flying mode, since it is required to transport units from bases to their destination; I do like the feeling of changing from a plane to a mech, guns blazing as you transition to the ground. The AI provides a competent yet cautious opponent, taking undefended bases and providing good training for online matches. There are some pathfinding problems with the AI, namely with infantry getting stuck on other units, but you can airlift stuck units manually as a solution. Unfortunately, multiplayer, the real focus of the game, is not populated with human opponents, but hopefully this review will change that. Cyber-Wing features a training campaign of eight missions and only five multiplayer maps, but it certainly has a fantastic foundation on which to build. Those looking for a more action-oriented approach to strategy gaming should check out Cyber-Wing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Professional Football Simulator Review

Professional Football Simulator, developed and published by Barcode Games.
The Good: Accurate game simulations, good multiplayer league support, NFL-like injury system, robust statistics, easy to import real teams and players
The Not So Good: No in-game documentation, non-interactive games, needs more offensive formations, no penalty for being over salary cap, easy to acquire quality free agents, low injury frequency, occasional interface quirks
What say you? A text-based football simulation that needs a bit more polish: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the Super Bowl only a week away, now is a good time to evaluate another text-based football game. Ever since Madden pushes all of the contenders out of the market, the only real alternatives have been Maximum Football and a host of text-based sims like Football Mogul. I certainly don’t mind the removal of 3-D graphics for a more complete and customizable game, so titles like the very generically-named Professional Football Simulator fit the bill. This particular game is designed for multiplayer leagues (they are quite popular) but can also be enjoyed by lonesome people with no friends (like me!). How does this title stack up against the other text-based sims?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Because this is a text-based simulation, there's not much to talk about here, so we'll delve in to the interface that Professional Football Simulator offers: it’s OK. Most of the information is accessible by the main menu at the top of the screen, while the remainder is found through the team pages. It should be easier to get to your team page: there is no option along the menu to instantly warp to your team’s data. Since almost everyone will only control one team, the lack of this feature becomes annoying once you get in to the game. There are also some assorted inconsistencies in the interface: for example, overall skill rating is displayed in most, but not all, player lists, the free agent data being one that is missing this useful summary. Still, despite these minor (but accumulative) annoyances, Professional Football Simulator features a usable interface that makes it easy to access most, but not all, of the pertinent data. Oh, and there is no sound. Next!

ET AL.
Professional Football Simulator puts you in the general manager’s role of a professional football team. You can play both offline and as part of an online league, and Professional Football Simulator has nice support for leagues: data can be automatically uploaded to your FTP server, and other players can download the data from within the game. You can also send a message to other owners, all from within the game. In addition, you can export data in CSV or HTML format if you want to have a more manual approach, and players from Bowl Bound College Football can be imported to continue those legacies. While Professional Football Simulator does not include an NFL license, the author has provided real rosters on the forums and you can download the real teams and real players from the 2009 season (and they are pretty accurate, too). You can customize the schedule and teams when a new league is created, or expand an existing league between seasons. Picking a particular team is overly complicated: you must select the team (after you have created the league), choose “config,” and unselect “AI controlled.” I had to e-mail the developer to figure that out, as Professional Football Simulator lacks both a tutorial and documentation, either in-game, offline, or online. Boo/hiss.

The first thing you’ll do with your new team is free agency, since the draft has already been conducted without your consent. But I’ll start there since it’s first chronologically in the off-season endeavors. The draft is a fairly typical procedure: pick people. You can import a list of players (from Bowl Bound College Football or any other CSV file) if you so choose. Players are given overall ratings, and, like most games, some positions are given relatively higher overall ratings (tight ends and fullbacks, specifically), but you can easily filter them out. I like being able to see the team recap, which displays your draft picks and the team position analysis, during the draft. However, drafts run out of premium positions far too quickly: all of the quarterbacks are gone by the end of the first round, which should never happen as there is always more talent to choose from. I think the AI drafting procedure is partially to blame for this, as they put a large premium on certain spots. The result is the ability to choose better players at other positions, as the AI is more concerned elsewhere. I also bemoan the lack of potential ratings: a player may be bad now but good later on, but Professional Football Simulator just assumes all players will develop at the same rate from their initial ratings. Thus, there isn’t any uncertainty in the drafting process like there is in real life. The other way to make your team better is through free agency, and unfortunately this aspect of Professional Football Simulator has one major problem. There is an entire free agency bidding period like there is in real life, but you can actually go over the salary cap without penalty, making acquiring talented players a real problem. Of course, the real NFL won't have a salary cap next season, so maybe this isn't a big deal, but if you are going to have a cap, enforce the cap. Any free agents remaining after the initial period can be acquired for the minimum salary, even if their ratings suggest that they should be paid more. The AI is inconsistent enough in their handling of free agency that you can stock up on cheap, veteran talent very easily. Extensions are automatically negotiated: players want a set amount and you either agree or not.

Professional Football Simulator does have extensive statistics and record keeping. League leaders, top performers, draft results, pro bowl history, playoff results, and historical stats are all kept for current and future reference. Team stats (passing, rushing, defense, et cetera) are kept for the current year, and team records are meant to be broken. Players get their stats through their ratings: an overall summary, plus things like strength, agility, speed, accuracy, blocking, and run tackling. You have to guess which categories are best for which positions (which is why the overall rating is quite useful), but all of your ratings seem to be the actual numbers so there are no scouting errors involved to make for a more uncertain (and interesting) game.

Once you have acquired your players, most of your contact with Professional Football Simulator is finished. This is because all of the actual games are completely simulated: you can only watch the text-only play by play after the game is over (and after you see the final score, unfortunately). The simulation results are actually quite accurate, but those looking for a more interactive experience will be disappointed. You can customize the team’s approach somewhat though the play calling, which is a nice feature. You can set offensive (run versus pass) and defensive (blitz versus coverage) tendencies, in addition to how often you use certain formations. Offenses choose from the I, pro, shotgun, and spread formations, while defenses get the 4-3, 3-4, nickel, dime, and cover 2. You can designate the depth chart for each of the formations, allowing you to tailor your gameplan towards your team’s strengths. While the defensive formation selections are complete, I would like many more offensive possibilities to take advantage of multiple tight end or receiver sets. As it stands, the I and pro are the same (2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE) and the shotgun and spread are the same (1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE): rather limited, I would say. You do have to pay attention to injuries, as Professional Football Simulator uses the NFL system of out/doubtful/questionable/probable (I like that). However, injuries are not as frequent as in the big leagues (I rarely used injured reserve), so there are never teams decimated by injury like in real life. Once you have your roster set during the offseason, there is really nothing left to do. Just like a real GM! Because Professional Football Simulator doesn’t let you play the games, the AI only crops up during the draft and free agency, and it seems to provide competent opposition to your dynasty.

IN CLOSING
While not the best football text simulation out there, Professional Football Simulator has the potential, with additional development, to be a good title. As it stands now, though, there are too many rough edges to make it a fully recommended title. It starts with the interface, which does a good, but not completely good, job giving you access to all of the important statistics. And there are a lot of statistics to access, as Professional Football Simulator provides a good amount of detail for both individual and team stats for the current and past season, satisfying the urge of any armchair general manager. This game is designed for multiplayer leagues, and it has good support there, too: you can have the game automatically upload your data to an FTP server or download the latest standings and results whenever you load the game. Drafting is simple, although the game is deficient in the number of players it provides for key positions: good luck finding any quarterback after round one. Free agency can be exploited, as you can sign any left-over quality players (of which there are typically many) to a minimum contract after the free agency period. There is also no penalty for going over the salary cap, so you can overspend and have great success. Sure, you could be a good boy (or girl?) and not cheat the system, but the fact that the game allows you to do so shows the rough nature of the product as a whole. You do not interact at all during the actual games (meaning you are in a GM role rather than a coach), so you are given some very basic formations to use in place of calling specific plays; I like the approach, but more formations are needed for a more complete feel. The AI-controlled teams are good enough; since all they do is sign free agents and draft, their importance is minimal. In the end, Professional Football Simulator gets the basics right, but it needs about another year of work to iron out the bugs and inconsistencies.

Monday, January 25, 2010

World Empires Live Review

World Empires Live, developed and published by Firepower Entertainment and Noble Master Games.
The Good: Automated research, decent music
The Not So Good: Single expansion-through-combat strategy, trivial economics, inactive AI opponent, no tutorial and useless manual, only one map and no game customization options, rough mix of turn-based and real-time play, can't host games if behind a router, absent online population, low resolution graphics and limited windowed mode support, can't save the game, subscription fee
What say you? A simplified multiplayer Civilization game stuck behind many issues: 2/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Civilization IV was the first game I gave a perfect score to because it was good. The turn-based global domination series has certainly inspired its share of copycats and clones among the PC strategy genre. Speaking of, here comes World Empires Live, an online centered approach to leading your feeble city towards world notoriety, fame, and fortune. This title strips down the genre to its basics and chooses more streamlined approach for faster online game. Does it work? Well, looking at the score, I'd say no. No it does not.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
World Empires Live takes place on a 2-D map of the world, featuring graphics that are not much better than Civilization II. The game features some very basic unit animations (two frames, typically) on a very bare map of the world. In addition, the game is displayed at a low resolution. This isn't a big deal, but windowed mode is dreadful: it's always in the upper left corner of the screen, and World Empires Live does not play well with Windows 7, requiring the Aero features to be turned off in order to run. For how basic the graphics are, I was obviously surprised at how poorly the game runs. There are performance delays all over the place especially when attempting to scroll the map. In a game that plays out in a turn-based, real-time hybrid where actions must be completed within a time limit, this is a grave problem. It should also be noted that you cannot save your progress, and quitting the game has about a 50/50 chance of success. It's clear that World Empires Live is not ready for an official release. On the bright side, I did like the music, so it has that going for it, which is nice. Of course, the sound effects were abrupt and repetitive, so that grounds the audio package. I want to make clear that I am not disparaging the 2-D graphics, but the performance thereof: the game approaches an unplayable condition.

ET AL.
In World Empires Live, you lead a meager one-town civilization towards global domination. As the “Live” in the title indicates, this is intended as an Internet game, though you can play against the AI. World Empires Live provides some very limited options for setting up games: you can have anywhere between two and eight players, but there are no choices for rules, technology or economic rates, or even starting position, as the game just assigns you a random city. World Empires Live takes place on only one map (the world) with no randomization whatsoever. Though the game does come with a server browser, multiplayer features are otherwise disappointing: the game does not save your login information and you can’t even host a game if you are behind a router (a limitation I haven’t encountered with any other online title in recent (or even distant) memory). In addition, I’ve never seen anyone else online, probably because of all the issues with World Empires Live. Learning the game is also a difficult chore, as World Empires Live lacks a tutorial (really?!) and the online manual is really bad and doesn't explain game basics, like how to deploy units. The manual is also poorly organized to boot, so you will most likely be completely lost starting out, as I was. It should also be noted that World Empires Live uses a subscription model: three months for $9 or a year for $25. This is not exorbitant, but it’s not like World Empires Live features anything better than your typical online strategy game.

You start out a game of World Empires Live with only one city, and since you can’t build any others (seriously?!), you will need to expand quickly. Towns need raw materials, luxury items, and researched technologies to allow for city upgrades, which in turn produce more manpower (for military units) and victory points as cities grow. You will collect the main resources by sending out a prospector unit to a potential mine. There is only a 20% chance of actually being successful, and since everyone is only given two potential resource sites, most games you will be stuck having no resources whatsoever. That’s simply bad game design. You can use cash income (from taxes, mostly) to offset these resource deficiencies, but it still really dumb. If you are lucky enough to actually get a resource site, once you have enough money you can activate it. Negotiators can be sent to foreign resource locations to “steal” their resources (the manual, of course, doesn’t tell you this at all; I had to e-mail the developer). Another source of income is fishing: research the tech, build a sea port, and any naval unit next to a fish hex will produce money.

There is one good thing about World Empires Live: automated research. Spend money on scientists and assign them to four fields of study: combat, mining, economy, and infrastructure. Three different projects are concurrently researched in each group, although you can choose one to focus on. It’s nice to have this part of the game taken care for you, instead of having to choose a new project every couple of turns. New technologies are used for better military units, structures, production, and upgrades. Diplomacy in the game is very simple: declare war (though you can have truces or non-aggression pacts, but why?). In order to do so, you need to have at least one military unit on their border (which makes it trivially easy to scout incoming attacks) and not have too many wars going on at once. Simple enough.

Each era in the game, determined by your technology rating, has a couple of units divided into normal (ground), ranged, mobile, siege, and special types. Units are ordered in one menu and (of course) deployed using a completely other interface button; the manual (of course) doesn’t explain this at all. Combat is done by using offensive (ground, anti-ranged, anti-mobile, effectiveness) and defensive ratings (survivability). It’s all quite predictable.

World Empires Live uses a mix of turn-based and real-time play that doesn’t work. Essentially, a time limit is imposed for completing each turn, and the default of 10 seconds per turn is way too short for the middle and end of a game when you have lots of units and wars going on. Slow clickers will definitely be at a disadvantage, and the slow and unresponsive interface doesn’t help matters at all. I suppose this is how you adapt a turn-based game for multiplayer, but it’s just a mess; it would have been easier to just add in “end turn” buttons or a limit that dynamically adjusts based on how far along you are in the game. In the end, though, World Empires Live is a game about combat: since you can’t found any additional cities and successfully mining resources only happens about 20% of the time, you will need to expand quickly. This means World Empires Live only has one strategy: military. Economic or diplomatic victories are all out of the picture, as the only way to accumulate enough victory points is to add new cities and increase your tech level (which means you need more resources “borrowed” from your neighbors). As a result, World Empires Live lacks the depth of other world domination titles and becomes quite repetitive. There are no difficulty settings for the AI, as they are permanently set to “dumb.” Your AI opponents hardly do anything other than producing the occasional units. You won’t be playing for long, however, as World Empires Live will pound you into submission with its inept interface, performance problems, questionable design, frivolous strategy, and limited features.

IN CLOSING
World Empires Live probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but the execution is so appalling that the game has no appeal. The game’s lone feature of merit, automated research, is lost among a sea of ineptitude. First off, the game is barely playable as the performance of the 2-D game overall is awful. The game options are lacking as well: you are given no choices for game rules, there is only one world map, you can’t even host if you use a router, and you can’t even save or quit the game. Learning the basics is difficult as World Empires Live lacks a tutorial and the online manual isn’t organized at all and leaves out several important game concepts. The economics model is basic, and acquiring these resources is next to impossible thanks to the low success rate in mining potential sites. Because of this, and the fact that you cannot make any new cities, you must expand and expand quickly, declaring war on your neighbor with the fewest military units. This military-only approach makes World Empires Live only have one real strategy, which means every game plays out the same. The game’s use of time limited turns makes playing the game confusing and needlessly hectic. The AI doesn’t help either: it usually does nothing, occasionally building military units or upgrading its city, but never providing a capable opponent. While World Empires Live is designed for online play, I can’t imagine anyone putting up with this long enough to renew their subscription.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Officers – The Matrix Edition Review

Officers – The Matrix Edition, developed by Game Factory Interactive and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Impressive map scale with truly enormous battles and strategic freedom, devastating support options, units gain experience, automated transport of supplies
The Not So Good: Unpolished with pathfinding issues, high level of difficulty, unrealistic generic combat, lacks Internet matchmaking and skirmish games, annoying camera, long load times
What say you? Absolutely huge maps are a significant highlight in an otherwise generic World War II real-time tactical strategy game: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Most real-time strategy games take place on a small map, representing a single town, village, swamp, or recycling center. It's all a bit restrictive, not letting you truly use actual tactics on a large scale. Well, no more! Officers – The Matrix Edition combines what would normally comprise four or five scenarios into one giant map of death and destruction, allowing you to attack the scenario from many different approaches. This game actually originally came out a year and a half ago and has received some touch-ups at the request of new publisher Matrix Games (so the Matrix Edition does not involve Neo and Morpheus, then). The large map size is enough to make for a notable title, so, in my 600th review (!), let's see if it's a one-trick pony or king of the race track (I lack good horse analogies…sorry).

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Officers: The Matrix Edition looks decent for a real-time strategy game, considering how large the maps are. The game lacks the detail of Men of War or Theatre of War: most of the environments have few, repetitive buildings, but the vast terrain is a hallmark. The textures and the units could also be more detailed, and the result is a game that looks like it came out five years ago. One impressive facet of the graphics is the explosions: they are not at the same scale as World in Conflict, but they are more realistic and successfully convey the high amount of destruction that artillery provides. The time of day effects are a nice touch, but Officers “The Matrix Edition” still looks old-ish, similar in style to Rush for Berlin. The sound design is passable at best: some good explosions and vehicle effects, but there are no voiced instructions or dialogue whatsoever, meaning you must resort to written instructions for objectives. And we all know reading is for suckers. The background music is fitting but instantly forgettable. Officers (The Matrix Edition) looks out of date, simply put, but the graphics will be acceptable by those gamers used to 2-D hexes and NATO counters.

ET AL.
Officers !The Matrix Edition! takes place during (surprise!) World War II, when the Allies decided enough was enough and invaded France. The game features a linear campaign (all scenarios are locked in order) consisting of six missions (plus one for Germany). This initially seems like a really low number until you realize that the maps are absolutely huge. Easily the best part of Officers ^The Matrix Edition^, each map is like three or four “normal” scenarios put together. The benefit is more strategic freedom in attacking your objectives. Most single player RTS games usually have one (maybe two) optimal solution in approaching an objective; in Officers $The Matrix Edition$, you have the liberty to take things from many different angles. It’s a nice feature that’s more than a simple bullet point. Of course, because the maps are so large, there are some long load times to endure here, so be prepared. Unfortunately, the features essentially end with the campaign: there are no skirmish matches against the AI and multiplayer is limited to LAN and direct IP matches only, which means enjoying Officers %The Matrix Edition% with others is essentially out of the question. The lack of matchmaking is a baffling omission in today’s multiplayer-driven gaming environment. There is a beta patch that adds an editor to the game, so that might produce some small amount of replay value, but the lack of content beyond the scenarios is troubling.

Officers +The Matrix Edition+ features a fairly conventional interface and controls for a real-time strategy game: left-click select, right-click move/attack. Right-click is contextual, meaning that right-clicking on a trench or a set of bushes will put your units behind cover (at least in theory…more on that later). Additional orders include repairing vehicles, laying or sweeping mines, embarking vehicles, or using roads: the typical stuff in any military game. Your units can also be set to aggressive stance in order to automatically engage incoming enemy units. A game of this scale needs an efficient way of getting information, and sadly Officers |The Matrix Edition| lacks this important requirement. First off, the messaging system compiles almost all alerts in an interface that’s always one click away; you do get on-screen notifications of units and strategic locations being attacked, but additional information (like objectives) are stored away from the main screen. In addition, it is extremely difficult to find units because the maps are so huge: Officers {The Matrix Edition} desperately needs an order or battle that’s permanently displayed on the side of the screen. The game also suffers from camera problems: the game doesn’t zoom in and out quickly enough, and using the minimap resets the camera to some weird, unusable angle.

Officers =The Matrix Edition= has a typical selection of units to choose from: infantry (equipped with submachine guns, rifles, anti-tank guns, and rocket launchers), tanks, artillery, recon and transport vehicles, and aircraft. Units gain experience with combat, improving their rate of fire, accuracy, repair attributes, or movement speed. Regrettably, you will rarely have a unit survive long enough to use these benefits, as death is quick and painful in Officers /The Matrix Edition/. There isn’t any resource management here: just capture locations and more units will become available. Gaining ground is also important to get additional supplies: fuel, food, and ammunition. These supplies are periodically transported by trucks out to your troops automatically: a neat system where you can destroy enemy resource chains to gain an advantage. You will typically deal with these by using the impressive support options: bombers, paratroopers, fighters, artillery, and reinforcements can all be called in. You have a limited number of each, so manage your options wisely.

Officers ]The Matrix Edition[ has some very generic combat. The main problem lies in the fragility of each unit: things die very quickly, and since units are very accurate at even long ranges, you will lose troops and vehicles long before they can accumulate the experience points to matter. There is a lot of cannon fodder here, which is in stark contrast to contemporary RTS games where conserving your forces is important. Part of this has to do with the broken use of cover: infantry squads typically have a large number of units (eight or so) and the game does an extremely poor job hiding them all. It’s not even close to Company of Heroes’s intuitive use of cover. The game consists of “move and shoot,” and since the units automatically engage at extremely large distances and are highly accurate, the unrealistic combat is almost trivial. There are pathfinding problems when negotiating around obstacles (trenches, buildings), and units (especially infantry) are truly dumb when moving as a group (which they are required to do), splitting up and moving from behind buildings out into the open. The AI, usually a competent enough adversary, has the habit of running across open fields towards and objective. In fact, Officers _The Matrix Edition_ only becomes challenging when the scenarios designers hide units in pre-scripted locations, instead of through clever tactics by the AI. Combat simply seems “off.” When you compare Officers *The Matrix Edition* to Men of War, you can easily see how archaic this real-time strategy game really is.

IN CLOSING
The gimmick of Officers &The Matrix Edition& actually works pretty well, giving you a huge battlefield on which to wage massive battles involving lots of units. It’s too bad, then, that it isn’t surrounded by a more interesting game. Although the campaign consists on only six missions for the Allied Forces, a single scenario quite literally takes many hours to complete, thanks to the immense size of the maps. Beyond this, however, there is little to recommend. The combat of Officers *The Matrix Edition* is quite unrealistic, as units are highly accurate from large distance but cannot sustain much damage before dying: a poor, unbalanced combination that results in plenty of frustrating losses. Sure, units gain experience over time making them more effective, but a single unit will rarely last long enough for this feature to make any real difference. I do like the simplified resource collection (just control territory) and supply model, where trucks automatically carry resources to the areas that need them the most. Artillery is an impressive support option, easily clearing the way for your troops. However, it is all downhill from here. Units have pathfinding issues, especially infantry units around trenches and cover: units will commonly stay in exposed areas, which tends to get them killed. The large maps lead to long load times, and the game lacks skirmish games and Internet multiplayer, killing the long-term prospects of Officers ~The Matrix Edition~. There are also the occasional bug or quirk with the interface, an inefficient message system, difficulties involved with finding units on the mammoth maps, and a problematic camera. The AI can be worthy foe, but only because of pre-scripted placements rather than good tactical play. The large maps are impressive, but Officers ---The Matrix Edition--- simply has too many limitations to make it a recommended title.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Irukandji Review

Irukandji, developed and published by Charlie's Games.
The Good: Chaotic, six distinctive ships with varied attributes and strategies, fitting musical score, cheap flexible pricing, multiplatform, online scoreboards, a giant crab
The Not So Good: Only one level, repetitive, lacks difficulty settings, no mouse control, no multiplayer
What say you? A tough, repetitive arcade shooter that can be inexpensive disorderly fun: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
After devoting hours to strategically enter a personal union with the Principality of Achaea, sometimes it's nice to play a less complicated game. You know, one where you shoot first and never ask questions, all in a neon-bright space setting. Hey, look, it's Irukandji (a type of jellyfish), the latest arcade shooter from Charlie's Games, most known for producing games where you shoot erect, ejaculating penises. Nice! This time around, you fighting in an underwater setting, hoping to best a giant crab, in this score-based shooter. How does it stack up against similar competition?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Irukandji uses the minimalist glow effect that’s mighty popular in recent arcade games. The game takes place underwater, but you could easily replace this setting with space or a cavern and not really notice any difference in the visuals. Irukandji uses procedurally generated enemies, probably to cut down on file size, that look nice but become repetitive upon successive plays (which will be a common occurrence, since the game consists only of a single level) because they are not randomly generated. The game does do a fine job putting a lot of stuff on-screen at once, and it’s not terribly difficult to see enemy fire in order to dodge it during the most frantic moments. The game is displayed in a lower resolution but can be windowed if so you choose (and I did). The effects are pretty typical for a frantic shooter, but still have a nice chaotic quality to them. I like the music as it fits the game well, and the sound effects do their job. I especially appreciate the semi-orgasmic “yes!” when you collect something. In all, Irukandji features acceptable graphics and sound for a cheap, indie arcade shooter.

ET AL.
Irukandji has you fighting off a series of underwater creatures on your way to taking down a giant crab. There is only one level in the entire game, and it takes about three minutes to complete the whole thing, assuming you defeat the crab (which is admittedly difficult to do). I do think it’s funny that the only level in the game is titled “Level 1,” since there isn’t a “Level 2.” There are six different ships with varied weapons and attributes that are unlocked when you beat the game with the previous ship; this is the major motivation to keep playing. There is also an online high-score table so that you can see how inept you are at the game, providing some additional incentive. This somewhat compensates for the lack of multiplayer, something you’d think would be standard in any arcade shooter. Lastly, there are achievements unlocked along the way, but they do not provide any in-game bonuses. Irukandji is available on all three major computer platforms (Windows, Linux, Macintosh) and you can name your own price when purchasing the game, which is a good benefit for a game with a small amount of content such as this.

The primary goal in the game is to destroy as much as possible and score a large number of points by killing everything and not dying, preserving your multiplier. The six ships do actually provide dissimilar strategies, as they shoot in varied fashions (straight, angled, sideways) in different ways (missiles, lasers) at different speeds. You’re always shooting things, but the overall strategy on which enemies to attack and when to use your special weapon does change a bit when you use a different ship. Controls are simple, using a gamepad or the keyboard to shoot left, shoot right, shoot straight, or deploy the special weapon; the exact controls depend on which ship you are using, but they are generally the same. Irukandji lacks mouse control, though, limited your input somewhat. Each ship has a special weapon that destroys a bunch of enemies at once; it has a rechargeable meter (filled by killing stuff) to prevent overuse.

In order to get the elusive high scores, you will need to collect power-ups and later multipliers. Power-ups send more bullets into the abyss, and once you are fully powered-up, they convert into multipliers that increase your score significantly. When you lose a life by running into an enemy or their bullets, you lose your multipliers and some power, which definitely sets you back in the score department. You are limited in the amount of lives you are given and there is also a time limit (no idea why, since you can’t really slow down the pace much yourself), adding to the difficulty. Irukandji is a tough game: there are a lot of enemies and a lot of bullets coming at you. It is commonly impossible to avoid everything, causing you to lose lives on a regular basis. It definitely requires skill to avoid the plentiful enemy fire, and using your particular ship’s advantages is a must. Irukandji is clearly a game designed for arcade shooter veterans, as the difficulty level cannot be adjusted and the one-note gameplay becomes quite repetitive if you are not unlocking additional ships or competitive on the high score list. Still, the freedom to pay whatever you want for the game means you only need to invest a couple of bucks, which I feel is a fair price for what you get.

IN CLOSING
Irukandji has a couple of things going for it and a couple of things going against it. I definitely like the ship variety, each of which gives you a slightly different approach to dealing with all of those pesky enemies due to their strengths and limitations. The game also has good music, availability on all major operating systems, online scoreboards, and a flexible pricing scheme, offset by a lack of mouse controls and no direct competitive multiplayer action. What Irukandji clearly does not have, however, is variety: you play the same level over and over again, with a predictable roster of enemies coming in the same order each and every time. The different ships do mean you'll play somewhat differently, though, but even this motivation wears out its welcome after a while. You are playing Irukandji in order to get on that high score table, so if you find that appealing and a possibility, you'll like the game. Irukandji is probably a good $3-$5 worth of fun, and since you can name your own price, those interested in the genre will probably invest at least some time with it. Ultimately, only those people who like arcade shooters will find Irukandji attractive: it is a one-note game, although that note can be quite addictive as you chase the high scores.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea Review

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea, developed by Akella and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Mix of first person action and tactical strategy, nice graphics with detailed ships, lengthy campaign, unique focus
The Not So Good: Repetitive linear campaign, lackluster AI, lacks random engagements and scenario editing, neither a deep simulation nor an exciting action title, pointless to directly control ships, tedious tutorials, can't save mid-mission
What say you? This World War II naval simulation has little replay value, lacks a competent opponent, and doesn’t strike a good balance between simulation and action: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
World War II has been simulated so many times in PC gaming that’s it’s simply too much work to link to every review I’ve done on the subject (plus, I am tired). One aspect that usually goes on the backburner is naval combat, as the kids seem to be more interested in land-based infantry warfare where you can shoot people in the face. Indeed, even the naval theater of World War II is typically simulated from a grand scale in games like War in the Pacific. We have had our share of close-quarters naval combat, from the hardcore simulation Dangerous Waters to the more action-oriented Battlestations: Midway. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea highlights a forgotten part of World War II naval combat: the torpedo boat. Others can control those big, powerful ships with extremely large guns, but we shall control the fast and elusive PT boats and take them all down. Take that! How does PT Boats separate itself from other naval games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I like the graphics of PT Boats. The ships are quite detailed, looking startlingly real down to the smallest detail. They are complete with neat (though repetitive) sinking animations and explosions. The game engine also displays some nice waves (always an important aspect of a naval simulation where all you see is water) and smoke and weather effects. The poorest aspect is the sailor animations: watching seamen jump overboard looks robotic and silly against an otherwise effective graphical presentation. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea competes nicely against any other naval game. The sound design is less impressive, with passable music and appropriate sound effects for all of the mayhem that ensues. The voice acting has apparently been re-recorded for this English language release, but it is still hackneyed and not very good. It might have even had been better to retain the original voice work since then we could just chalk the shortcomings up to the Russian language barrier. Still, PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a looker due to its pleasing graphics.

ET AL.
PT Boats: Knights of the Sea features (surprise!) PT boats, the fast-moving torpedo boats of World War II. This alone is a unique focus of a naval game; typically you are given the keys to the largest, most expensive ships available. The single player campaign consists of five missions in each of five chapters, and you can play the same scenario from both sides of the conflict. This is a pretty good amount of content, except that the scenarios are linear and heavily scripted, in addition to having the same objective (engage the enemy while escorting larger ships) over and over again. The matches are also arbitrarily drawn-out, pitting the ships far apart for no reason other than to waste your time. This is really apparent during the game's tutorials, where you are quite literally sitting there for minutes at a time staring at your boat doing nothing but moving forward. At least the game features time acceleration to speed up the process somewhat. The extended mission times are made worse by the lack of a mid-mission save system. Have to go do something? Too bad, all progress is lost. Boo/hiss. The only options given towards customizing the experience have to do with the game's difficulty: enemy accuracy, damage, and realism (damage of radar or crew, infinite ammunition, reloading times) and be tweaked to make for a more challenging game. Sadly, PT Boats does not have any skirmish options for quick battles against the AI, which drastically reduces the long-term appeal of the game. PT Boats does have multiplayer, featuring very traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch, and humans versus AI modes of play on five maps, but the game lacks cooperative options, not that there was anyone online to play with or against anyway.

PT Boats is controlled in two modes: a more action-oriented first person mode and the RTS-like tactical mode. If you want a more direct approach to command, then the first person mode is right for you! Movement is done through the now classic WASD keys; since boats are controlled through engine throttle rates (full, half, one-third), you thankfully do not need to hold down the W key to continue forward. In addition to simply controlling the movement, you can also commandeer any of the light weapons, using the mouse to aim and mouse buttons to shoot and zoom. There is no toggle option for zooming, however, so you do need to keep the right mouse button depressed in order to have any semblance of accuracy. Manually using torpedoes is slightly more complicated, as you need to first spot the ship using the binoculars (using the “4” key) and then aim your ship towards the target in the torpedo view (also, confusingly, using the “4” key) and press fire. Orders can be issued to other ships using Alt+C (obviously) and then one of the F-keys for follow, attack, guard, and report commands. Unfortunately, ships automatically attack and the AI is typically more accurate then you ever could be, so the usefulness of the first person mode is greatly reduced, essentially to nil.

Since you will normally be given control of multiple ships, most of your time in PT Boats will be spend in the tactical mode, which is presented in the same fashion as a typical strategy game. You can box select any of your units or select them from an icon list of all ships: useful. The game uses contextual right-clicks for movement, guarding, and attacking, depending on what exactly you are clicking on. Ships can also be organized into formations: lines, circles, columns, or a custom arrangement of your making. The game clearly shows sighting ranges for easy scouting, and there are no outstanding shortcomings in terms of the game’s interface in this aspect of PT Boats.

Most of the time, you will be controlling torpedo boats, but other ships will be placed under your command: cruisers, destroyers, raiders, transports, mine-sweepers, sea hunters, submarines, and assorted aircraft. The main crux of PT Boats involves getting boats into range and then blasting away. Damage is very simplistic and linear: more hits equals more damage until a threashold is reached. You can individually damage the radio, radar, engine, and crew if you have those options selected, but it’s still not an advanced model by any stretch of the imagination. This is also exemplified by the repair model, as significant real-time repairs can be made during battles. I don’t recall sailors applying duct tape and welding the sides of boats in the middle of a firefight, but apparently there were according to the world of PT Boats.

The AI has a number of significant problems that hinders the single player portion of PT Boats. They rarely provide a challenge outside of having superior numbers (a cheap strategy often employed here), as the computer will perform questionable tactics and just open fire once you are spotted. The fundamental problem of PT Boats has to do with the way the game handles combat: once you can see the enemy ship, all of your weapons are in-range, meaning that fights are just a matter of who is more accurate, rather than subtle maneuvering into firing position like in older Age of Sail simulations. Torpedo boats can take on any size ship with their allotment of torpedoes, and they are at such an advantage due to their fast speed and small size. The combat of PT Boats is simply not that interesting. The AI is highly inaccurate to boot, and clearly does not use formations, instead sending a random lot of enemies towards you, typically one at a time, ready to be slaughtered. The computer opponents of PT Boats are not even at the same level as the questionable opponent in Distant Guns, lagging far behind the curve in naval simulations and adding another contribution to the overall mediocrity of the game as a whole.

IN CLOSING
PT Boats is not hardcore enough to satisfy the simulation crowd, and it's not simple enough to satisfy the action crowd. The tactical mode plays out like a simplified real-time strategy game, where you can direct ships around in formations and assign targets to attack with specific weapons. It is easy to select specific (or all) ships and assign orders, but the depth is lacking. You can also take the helm of a ship directly, although since ships will attack automatically anyway (and typically more accurately than you can with the control scheme), your time of first person action will be limited. The problems don’t stop there, however. There is only the single player campaign; while lengthy, it doesn’t provide near the replay value you need in a game such as this. PT Boats desperately needs some randomized or customized encounters to extend the life of the game as each of the scenarios are linear, predictable, repetitive, and arbitrarily lengthy. The last comment becomes an issue since you can’t save in the middle of a mission. Nice. Multiplayer includes the usual options, deathmatch and team events, but no cooperative features, not that there is anyone to play against. The damage of PT Boats is very simplistic and the sub-par AI is not a challenge, which makes the game less appealing to veteran simulation players. Really, PT Boats is a lighter version of Dangerous Waters, without all of that interesting depth. In addition, Battlestations: Midway did the whole direct-control thing better if you want a more arcade slant. PT Boats: Knights of the Sea doesn’t do anything that previous games haven’t in one form or another, and coupled with its numerous shortcomings, it is simply a forgettable title.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

City Rain Review

City Rain, developed by Mother Gaia Studios and published by Ovolo Entertainment.
The Good: Neat concept, tougher in later levels, special buildings
The Not So Good: Repetitive, limited normal building count, superficial strategy, lacks online play, not challenging for most of the game
What say you? Part Tetris and part SimCity, this puzzle game lacks long-term appeal: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the high level of success shown by the SimCity series of games, I’m frankly surprised there isn’t a proliferation of city builders on the market. Sure, there’s the City Life/Cities XL games and Haemimont’s series of historical titles, but other than those examples, the genre has largely been played out: how many different ways can you zone roads and residential sectors? Using the city builder game as a base is City Rain, which infuses the extreme excitement of placing houses with puzzle games like Tetris. That’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we appreciate here at Out of Eight, and it deserves some reviewingness! Take that, spell checker!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
City Rain features acceptable graphics and sound for a $10 casual game. The title is rendered in the classic isometric perspective, and each of the tiles has an average amount of detail. Your towns never really “come to life,” as the game lacks vibrant animations or even realistic transit to make City Rain anything more than a simple collection of buildings. I do like the dynamic, changing backgrounds that have time-of-day effects. Still, the visuals certainly lean more towards the simplicity of Tetris rather than the detail of SimCity. The music is good listening the first couple of times you play the game, but after that it’s tiring. The sound effects are sparse and action-based; none of the instructions from your advisor are voiced, not that I would expect them to be for a $10 price point. In all, City Rain does not surprise in terms of the presentation.

ET AL.
In City Rain, you are attempting to construct environmentally-friendly towns by placing falling buildings in optimal locations: just like real life! The campaign consists of twenty levels, but since each individual map only takes two or three minutes to complete, adept players will complete the campaign very quickly. There are a series of objectives you must complete within a time limit for each level, usually involving placing a specific building (nuclear silo, sewage treatment station, garden, et cetera) or reaching a certain profit level. The difficulty arises from having very specific objectives that must be completed within short time limits, like having all green attributes and pollution cleaned up in only two minutes. Also, pieces start falling faster as you progress through the game, requiring faster decision making. Unfortunately, this level of challenge doesn’t develop until much later on in the campaign: early levels are much too easy, and I suspect most players will tire of the tedium before they reach more demanding content. After you are done with the campaign, you can enter “quickplay” mode, where you select a difficult level that determines game length, speed, and the frequency of city blocks, along with the board size. You cannot fully customize the “quickplay” games, selecting lots of blocks but a short game length, for example. This is partially because scores are recorded online, I suppose, but more freedom is always a good thing. Finally, City Rain has a “blockmania” mode that is identical to Tetris but less interesting. City Rain does not feature any sort of competitive or cooperative multiplayer, either on the same computer or online.

City Rain is primarily controlled with the mouse, as it’s the best method to quickly move across the map and select buildings. The overall goal of the game is to have good ratings in six areas: sustainability, jobs, health, leisure, security, and education. This is done by placing specific buildings: factories for jobs, police stations for security, hospitals for health, schools for leisure, and so forth. There are four groups that will magically appear from the top of the screen, and you can scroll through the various buildings to choose the one you want: residence/shop/factory, school/landfill/square/police/hospital, power plants, and set blocks of buildings that can be rotated. City Rain always has the same buildings grouped together, which results in some very predictable and uninteresting gameplay: you know that schools and police and hospitals are always together, so when you see one, you know all the others are readily available by simply turning the mouse wheel. It would have been better to have a random selection of buildings to at least inject some anxiety into the game.

Money is earned from the buildings: houses make cash (presumably from taxes) while most other things cost money. Money is used to purchase special buildings that grant a wide variety of bonuses: alternative fuels, reforestation, gardens, nuclear waste facilities, stadiums, subways, and a big tree. There is one special building unlocked in each campaign level (for a total of twenty), and they are available any time thereafter. This is a nice feature of the game that helps to break up the predictable monotony of the “normal” buildings. Buildings can also be improved by placing the same type on top of it; this helps to conserve precious space.

You lose the game if you destroy too many buildings (by placing different types on top of each other) or place trash outside of landfills, in addition to simply not completing the objectives. Unfortunately, the long-term appeal of City Rain is pretty small for a couple of reasons. First, the game lacks variety: the constant influx of special buildings is nice, but the normal structures remain static and easily anticipated. There is also a very linear relationship between needs and buildings: there are no complicated resource connections in City Rain: if you need security, just build a couple of police stations. This means success is less about city planning and more about thinking faster than the buildings scroll down the screen. Thus, City Rain is more of a casual game than a more advanced city builder and people who expect more depth will be disappointed. Of course, the game is only $10, so exactly how much depth do you expect for that price tag?

IN CLOSING
City Rain takes an interesting and unique premise and makes a passably interesting game out of it. Taking two successful genres, puzzle games and city builders, and combining them is a neat idea, and this is enough on its own to make City Rain appealing for a little while. The problem lies in the repetition of the title, more specifically the limited number of buildings you have to play with. The game becomes an exercise in simply placing a variety of buildings that will increase the stats of your town; since the relationships are very linear and fixed (police increase security, hospitals increase health, schools increase education, et cetera), there isn’t much strategy involved in designing your city. As long as you don’t spam a single building type, things will be fine. Things get more difficult later on as you get more set blocks of buildings and pieces fall faster, but it takes quite a while to become more engaging. The objectives inject a minor amount of purpose into the title, buth you will generally meet the requirements by designing an efficient layout anyway, except for the more obscure location-based requirements. The twenty-level campaign is over very quickly, as most levels are completed in two minutes. The quickplay mode does offer more longevity, requiring you to survive for a specified amount of time against the onslaught of incoming structures, but it’s only marginally engaging because of the lack of multiplayer modes and the inherent repetition. City Rain can be good fun once you advance past the slow, easy introductory levels, but I doubt many people will stick around that long and the game is over too quickly after that.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Empires of Steel Review

Empires of Steel, developed by Atomicboy Software and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Simple game mechanics, helpful interface clearly indicates idle buildings and units, good support for Internet multiplayer, randomized maps, robust editors for game worlds and rules, streamlined research
The Not So Good: Limited units and technologies reduce strategic variety, pricey, difficult to find a multiplayer game
What say you? A decent simplified strategy game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Released for the PC in 1987, Empire was a strategy game that predates the Civilization franchise that offered a more military-focused approach in taking over the world. It was more straightforward and less confusing than more detailed wargames, and served as a good introduction to the genre. Empires of Steel is an update/remake/rip-off of that classic title, tasking you with taking down all those opposed to your supreme rule. I had early beta access to the game and posted some initial impressions, but the full version is now released and ready for scrutiny. Will simplicity make for an approachable strategy title?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Empires of Steel has a nice cartoon style for the visuals, starting with the map: it looks hand-drawn, which is a nice touch to make a unique looking game. The units could use some better animations, as turning clearly shows that most units are only animated from a couple of angles. The battle effects are simple as well, but since you’ll be playing from a distant perspective, detailed effects are frankly unnecessary. Empires of Steel plays quite nicely in a window, always a nice feature for games that aren’t computer-intensive. As for the sound, there are only minor, abrupt effects that accompany the battles and some background music that I muted in favor for some jammin’ MP3s. Empires of Steel is better than a typical 2-D wargame in terms of the presentation, replacing the bland hexes and NATO counters for a distinct visual style.

ET AL.
Empires of Steel is a turn-based strategy game where you capture resources and cities, build armies, research improved units, and take over the world. The game supports between two and ten players on random maps that are designed well. There is also a map editor for creating your own layouts, and you can actually download other people’s maps from within the game. Games can be customized with different production or research bonuses to handicap certain players (or the AI). Rules can also be changed, and the rules editor is impressive in its scope: you can change everything in the game, from units to the tech tree, quite easily. While the base game only includes two rules sets, custom options will most likely be available soon once the modders get their grubby little hands on it. Empires of Steel is really designed for Internet multiplayer, but sadly the game is quite unpopular and it’s terribly difficult to find others to play against unless you coordinate in advance. The real-time multiplayer of Empires of Steel, as opposed to being play by e-mail and completed at your leisure, probably decreases the potential opponent list.

One of the positive aspects of Empires of Steel is the user interface: the game clearly displays idle things (units, buildings, research) in a list along the left side of the screen, making it easy to keep tabs of all your units and construction matters. A typical problem with strategy games is losing track of units or forgetting about doing things, and the interface makes it easy to stay informed. Cities are useful for one thing: building stuff to capture more cities. Unlike most (if not all) other strategy games, cities actually cost resources, rather than producing them; in fact, it’s a good idea to hold off on invasion if you can’t sustain the upkeep. Resources are a very important part of Empires of Steel: you must balance your use of money, steel, oil, and food. Luckily, most units use a set amount of resources (like infantry needs one food), so it’s relatively straightforward to plan ahead for future resource use. You can also trade resources with others to compensate for shortcomings. Still, the early game is a scramble for resources as you scout the map, and the resource points serve as good chokepoints for future conflict. You can construct forts and airfields to assist in defense away from cities, useful for tending to the aforementioned resource locations.

Despite covering over 100 years of conflict, Empires of Steel has a bland selection of units. All of the unit types are there: infantry, tanks, artillery, bombers, missiles, destroyers, battleships, submarines, et cetera. However, more advanced units gained through research are given terribly generic names like “Infantry 3” instead of having unique, period-specific names like Rise of Nations did. To be fair, I clearly remember how “Tank 2” won World War II. You can, of course, use the rules editor to easily alter the names, but this detail should have been attended to already. Researching these new units is very simple: just click on a unit and the game will automatically queue up all of the prerequisites. Units can be issued generic orders: move and attack. You can stack units together to move more cohesively, use the interface to load units onto a transport craft, and assign field orders if units encounter an enemy in the middle of a turn. Empires of Steel is turn-based, but each turn consists of ten real seconds, similar to the Combat Mission mix of real-time and turn-based strategy. You can issue units additional orders if their current instructions end in the middle of a turn; while this works most of the time, it’s usually just easier to load units between turns instead of in the middle of one.

Since Empires of Steel is all about war, diplomatic options are few: there are alliances and teams (permanent alliance), but most of the time you’ll just declare war on others. Trade can be important if you do not have a self-sufficient economy, so you probably don’t want to declare war on everyone at the same time. Essentially, Empires of Steel boils down to three phases: scout for resources, build units, and attack. Strategies tend to be a little bit limited because of the heavy focus on military combat and the single victory condition of conquest. Still, Empires of Steel offers some nice, basic strategy gaming. The AI is an OK opponent: they are competent once you declare war, though they generally prefer a defensive position. The AI does tend to throw single units at you instead of mixed forces, though, so fortifying against an attack can be too easy.

IN CLOSING
As strategy games seem to increasingly favor more complexity, it’s nice to play a game that is a bit more straightforward. Of course, this simplification comes at a cost of game depth: there’s only a limited suite of units to choose from that use generic, non-historical names. This is really a game of resource management: you must carefully monitor your expenses and avoid over-building and over-colonizing, as cities actually cost resources instead of producing them. You scout resource locations, capture those goods, produce an army, and use that army to inevitably fight the enemy. Empires of Steel is that clear-cut, and the turn-based game is a good choice for novices. The interface is effective, clearly indicating idle units and buildings, while the graphical style if nice to look at. The game does come with some nice customization features, like editors for maps and the game rules, and randomized map layouts always increase replay value. The AI is a competent opponent, though typically not terribly aggressive. The game is really designed for multiplayer, so it’s too bad that there aren’t very many people online to play against. I would feel a lot better about recommending Empires of Steel if it were $30 instead of $45, but there are still some things to like that strategy gamers will appreciate. The editors will play a large part in determining whether the game will have long-term longevity, but as the game stands now, it’s a bit too limited in scope to endorse to all.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Hammerfight Review

Hammerfight, developed by Konstantin Koshutin and published by KranX Productions.
The Good: Definitely different, varied mission objectives, customize vehicles with weapons and items, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Terribly difficult, learning curve for the unique control system, no multiplayer, technical issues
What say you? An unusual physics-based combat game that's mighty hard: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Technology has made it so that we can destroy things from increasingly larger distances. Clubs, swords, pistols, rifles, cars, planes, and missiles have all allowed us to be further and further away from our target, making death much less personable. Well, Hammerfight has had enough! In this physics action fighting game, you pilot a flying craft cleverly equipped with a giant hammer of sorts, and you use the mouse to move your ship and swing the hammer onto unsuspecting foes. Although I suppose they would suspect it since you have a GIANT FREAKING HAMMER. This idea caught my attention, so let's find out together if this theory works well in practice.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hammerfight is a 2-D game living in a 2-D world, and I am a 2-D girl. Or something. Anyways, the game looks OK. The theme of Hammerfight is executed well, with a nice steampunk plus historical flavor that fits the admittedly exotic game mechanics well; it’s reminiscent of the Vinci race in Rise of Nations, if that game took place entirely underground. There are some nice lighting effects, but the game is low resolution (it runs in a window). The vehicles are small but detailed, and the various combat effects are quite understated. The sound design is along the same lines: just a handful of combat sounds that, while suited for the game, don’t create enough of a chaotic atmosphere. None of the story is voiced, and the music is usually so subtle that you won’t even notice it during gameplay. But, Hammerfight is only $10, and I reckon the game’s production values fall in line with that price point.

ET AL.
In Hammerfight, you control some flying contraption, attempting to knock competitors out of the air by swinging your mouse and using the angular momentum of your hammer to smash some skulls. The game is single-player only, a disappointment since the competitive nature of action games lend themselves towards online matchmaking features. The story takes place over a number of levels; there is a developed back-story involved here, although I personally try to click through the dialogue as quickly as possible. Too much reading, not enough smashing! The levels themselves have a variety of objectives to accomplish, from escorting friendly units to engaging certain enemies to large conflicts in an arena-like setting. In the end, though, all you’re really doing as smashing things, as the different objectives don’t change up your strategy at all.

Hammerfight is controlled exclusively with the mouse: move and your vehicle will move. Since the hammer is attached to your ship with a chain, if you move quickly in a circular motion, your hammer will as well, delivering blows to the enemy. Or so goes the theory, as it takes a good bit of practice to figure out how to most effectively deliver some damage, maintaining hammer movement while not running into things. You can accumulate additional vehicles and items throughout your journeys, like swords and boulders and shields and guns, which can lead to some customization options later on. The interface just tends to get in the way, especially since the less-than-helpful camera view does not pan very much, routinely allowing enemy units to go off-screen or behind the displays. Most importantly, Hammerfight is extremely difficult, partly because of the learning curve for the control scheme, partly because of the low amount of damage you can sustain, and partly because of the number of enemies you will typically face. This insane level of aggravation could have been easily countered by adding difficulty settings that could increase your health. A change as simple as that would have greatly improved the frustrating game experience. It’s too bad because Hammerfight is really fun when you land a perfect hit, using the terrain to your advantage and crushing the enemy to smithereens. There are additional problems other than the lack of difficulty settings: the game has crashed on several occasions, the AI has a lot of trouble not smashing into things on their own, and the aforementioned obscuring interface. Going in the favor of Hammerfight, though, is the low, low price: this game is likely worth $10 of fun, although the high difficulty and other limitations send to subdue my recommendation for buying it.

IN CLOSING
Hammerfight takes a unique idea and makes a game out of it that would have succeeded if not for the unflinching difficulty. It’s hard enough to get a handle on how your craft flies and attacks, but to combine that with numerous AI opponents and low levels of health is poor game design. All they needed to do was add a difficulty setting and most would have been fine: just increase the health of your vehicle so that you can not constantly die as you are learning the game. When Hammerfight works, it works very well: it is quite satisfying to swing your mouse in a circular motion, successfully landing a perfect crushing blow on the enemy. This mechanic is simply not paralleled in any other game, and for that Hammerfight deserves some attention. The problems, however, do not stop with the difficulty: crashes and interface issues (where enemies are constantly obscured if they venture near the screen edges) are also present. Also, Hammerfight lacks any sort of online multiplayer, which would have been really fulfilling. You can apparently hook up two mice to the same computer and have at it, although I am not sweet enough to have (a) two mice or (b) any friends to play with. The broad storyline fleshes out the game world well, but the seemingly endless streams of dialogue honestly get in the way of smashing time. Despite the difficulty, the AI is not the sharpest hammer in the fight, routinely running into walls and placing themselves in compromising positions. Still, for $10, getting varied mission objectives and a number of weapons to customize your ship with is nice, and if you can overcome the initial learning curve, Hammerfight does deliver some enjoyable fighting when it all comes together.