Sunday, May 30, 2010

M.U.D. TV Review

M.U.D. TV, developed by Realmforge Studios and published by Kalypso Media.
The Good: A number of shows and demographic groups, custom games, multiplayer, occasional humor, editors for shows and characters
The Not So Good: Simple superficial gameplay, tedious item archiving, lacks personal customization of shows, scattered feedback, lots of waiting
What say you? A lack of depth and variety hurts this television management simulation: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There are three shows I regularly watch on television: Lost (R.I.P.), MythBusters, and The Soup. I guess I don’t have time (I do review a lot of computer games) to invest into paying attention to more things, so the best solution is to play computer games about TV. Enter M.U.D. TV, a game where you run a TV station, hoping to maximize revenue by creating shows that appeal to your viewers and advertisers. The simulation genre has been waning in recent years, with a distinct lack of “Tycoon” products that used to dominate the PC marketplace. Will M.U.D. TV march it back to the forefront?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
M.U.D. TV features pretty decent graphics for the genre. The game has opted for a cartoon aesthetic, giving the characters in the game gigantic heads and tiny bodies (just like real celebrities!). There is no variety in the office locations they inhabit, however. M.U.D. TV uses pre-rendered movies for the shows on your channel; they use repetitive animations for each genre, and you certainly won’t be actually watching your programs. It’s nice the game is presented in 3-D, but it would be a more efficient simulation with 2-D menus instead of having to walk around the skyscraper to complete tasks. On the sound side of things, M.U.D. TV uses Sims-like gibberish for speech and background music appropriate for each of the shows on your stations. In the end, there is nothing wrong with the presentation of M.U.D. TV, but nothing spectacular either.

ET AL.
In M.U.D. TV, you control a television network bent on world domination through quality programming and mind-numbing advertisements. The game features a single player campaign that offers standard objectives that can be matched using the custom game options, so there’s no reason to play through the more restrictive scenarios as the story is essentially non-existent and of no importance. There are a lot of options available to customize your games away from the campaign: you can direct a public or private channel and specify the number of viewers in each demographic, initial funds and available formats, skyscraper size, length of the broadcast day, use of daily events and sabotage, and winning conditions (involving money or viewership). Games can be played against the AI (during the setup process, the AI will use the text chat to send insults…pretty cool) or online with multiplayer against actual humans. The basics of M.U.D. TV are taught across the three tutorials, which take entirely too long to complete and are dull at best. M.U.D. TV does allow you to customize the game with unique characters and programs to show on the tube, a nice feature. Despite the throwaway nature of the campaign, I was pleased with the features M.U.D. TV brings to the table.

The interface of M.U.D. TV tries to make the process of television production as inefficient as possible. Everything could have been accomplished from one screen instead of requiring your character to move between non-labeled rooms throughout the building. Immersive? Yes. Tedious? Heck yes. You’ll need to visit your office to set the schedule, the archive to save new material, the cube farm to hire additional employees, the kitchen to extend the work day (by one measly hour), the writers room for new scripts, the studio to make new shows, the post production room to improve existing programs, the newsroom (for news!), and the research lab (for research!). And you’ll also need to go to the lobby to hire talent, buy new shows, and purchase advertising. I think the tedium is intentional, in order to slow your progress down for more manageable multiplayer, but it’s still a pain to develop a cohesive plan economically. Why do I need to go to the lobby, put shows in my briefcase, go up stairs, transfer them to the archive, go to my office, and then set the schedule? The game would be much better if your time slots, demographic groups, show types, and advertising contracts were all directly related on the same display.

Programs come in four flavors: shows (reality and game, I think), series, movies, and news. Each format has eight sub-categories that appeal to multiple demographics. You can purchase terrible shows from the lobby or develop your own once you have the money for a writer’s room and a studio. You can’t, however, customize your shows during the game with unique names or automations. Everything expect for movies can only be shown once (re-runs, anyone?), so you had better make significant amounts of advertising revenue before time is up. Your options are very limited at the beginning of the game, since you only have enough money to purchase one-star shows. Eventually you’ll be able to afford employees to improve the shows, and potential workers are rated in several areas: creativity (good for writers), intellect (post producers), ego (directors), charisma (actors), humor (showmasters), and seriousness (newscasters). As long as you stick to the simple relationships between stat ratings and proper jobs, the quality of your programs will be maximized.

Most of your money is earned through advertising. A contract specifies the number of days you have to complete the objective: have a specific number of viewers in one or several demographics view the commercial. Most ads must be used more than once to fulfill the requirements, and this repetitive requirement is made more difficult since you can only play one commercial per show (not exactly realistic). Unfortunately, the game never informs you if a commercial failed (or succeeded, for that matter) to get the required audience, and failing a contact actually costs you money: you must actually watch the programs and wait for the little green check or red “X” to appear. The lack of usable feedback is a prominent quandary in M.U.D. TV.

The television audience is divided into eight groups that attempt to offend everyone equally: nerds, old people, intellectuals, housewives, macho men, emo kids, hippies, and yuppies. Each of the groups like specific shows (clearly indicated) at specific times (not as clearly indicated), so M.U.D. TV is simply a matter of choosing the right shows for your advertising. It’s as simple as that, and because of this simplicity, M.U.D. TV retains little to no long-term interest. The lack of feedback also hurts: the game never says why you have zero viewers during an otherwise well-programmed show; you must watch the competitors and try to figure it out on your own. The game also requires heavy use of time acceleration: once you set the schedule for the day, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait. Not exactly exhilarating gameplay.

IN CLOSING
M.U.D. TV is too simple for its own good. All you have to do in order to succeed in the game is to pick or develop the right shows for your advertising contract demographics and put them on when those demographics are watching TV. That’s all. This makes the game repetitive and generally uninteresting as a whole; you’ll play it for an hour and see that each day you have to do the same thing over and over again, since none of the purchased shows are saved for the next day (ever heard of reruns?). This is a game that makes heavy use of time acceleration: as soon as you make your schedule for the way, all you can do is sit back and wait to see if enough viewers tuned in. M.U.D. TV makes some realism concessions, like having only one commercial during a 90-minute program (wouldn’t that be nice). You are required to play this one commercial during multiple shows before the time limit runs out in order to earn your cash, something that the game doesn’t make readily apparent during the drawn-out tutorials. At least M.U.D. TV gives you a multitude of options for creating custom games, although the campaign lacks objective variety. You can also play the game online in competitive multiplayer, which is nice. The interface needs to be better, as it’s too cumbersome to coordinate your broadcast schedule, available shows, appropriate demographics, and advertising requirements. The game also requires you to hold all of your assets in an archive, seemingly for the sole purpose of making you click a couple extra times and waste precious energy. The tedium and repetitiveness required to become successful at M.U.D. TV is simply not worth the effort. The game is too easy, since successfully relating advertising to programs is a trivial process. Despite some nice features, M.U.D. TV doesn’t offer the variety and challenge required to make it a long-term gaming prospect.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon Review

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon, developed and published by Longbow Games.
The Good: Extensive game world, copious explicit objectives, seamless transition between strategic and tactical gameplay, automated supply distribution
The Not So Good: An inadequate interface and constant attacks make large empires challenging to manage efficiently, single linear campaign with mandatory objectives, lacks multiplayer and smaller scenarios, tactical battles typically devolve into mass hysteria
What say you? An ancients strategy title with taxing gameplay and a very comprehensive but restrictively historical campaign: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
When you think of “famous Greeks,” one person always come to mind: Nia Vardalos. Also famous was Alexander the Great, who was so great he had his name legally changed from “Alexander the Pretty Good.” Far less renowned is his father Philip the Sequel, who set the bar for known-world domination his son eventually completed. This is certainly the type of thing that makes for quality computer gaming, letting you live vicariously through the lives of men wearing extremely tiny loincloths. How do Val Kilmer and Colin Farrell fare in the realm of grand strategy?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Hegemony: Philip of Macedon come in two flavors: up high and down low. When you’d like to be closer to the brutality, you can zoom in to the 3-D map display, where units are displayed as individuals crossing the field of glory. The animations are repetitive but decent enough for an acceptable level of immersion. The large game map is impressive in its scope, though the individual regions retain no distinctive properties. There isn’t much detail on the landscapes: apart from the cities and various other buildings that dot the terrain, there isn’t much to look at. The textures could look better; the game’s map is reminiscent of Mount & Blade, which isn’t a bad thing as long as your expectations are properly lowered. Upon zooming out, the map transitions to a classic board game feel, complete with a neat hand-drawn map and miniature unit counters. It works as an effective and memorable large overview of your empire. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon has very basic sound effects and music: a couple of battle sounds to enjoy, event notifications, and subtle tunes to drive the mood. While Hegemony: Philip of Macedon does not impress, it does offer up an adequate package of graphics and sound for gamers used to wargame-level presentations.

ET AL.
When he took the throne in 359 BC, Philip II thought that Macedon was entirely too small and sought out to conquer all of his neighbors. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon covers this historical expansion by offering one scenarios with over one hundred objectives: impressive. Unfortunately, you will encounter the same objectives in the same order each time you play and you must complete them in order to advance the story. While you are usually given several objectives to complete at the same time and completing the campaign takes quite a long time, replay value is still fairly low thanks to the linear, fixed nature of the objectives. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon also lacks skirmish battles, shorter scenarios, and online contests against human competitors. The campaign offers a sort of in-game tutorial, and there is extensive in-game help, but no PDF manual for external reference. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is played in real-time, with one hour representing a year in the game, as the seasons progress, providing different conditions. Time cannot be accelerated, but things happen quickly enough where you are rarely waiting. You can pause the action at any time, or set it up to pause when important events occur, such as a sighted enemy unit (which happens every ten seconds or so).

Considering the large size of your eventual empire, Hegemony: Philip of Macedon needs an efficient interface that allows for easy access to military units and important strongholds. Unfortunately, it comes up a bit short. While there is a comprehensive unit and building list that can be alphabetized or sorted by strength or location, there are no filters (like by region or type) and it becomes increasingly unwieldy as your empire grows. It would be much easier to have dedicated hot keys for accessing units (maybe there are, but the in-game manual doesn’t mention them specifically). The zoomed-out map is nice and garrisoned troops are indicated by circles under their city’s icon, but it is impossible to select units located behind other units. This is where the 3-D counters are a great hindrance to the gameplay: you must constantly (and slowly) rotate the map to select everyone, a true pain in a real-time game. Right-clicking on a structure usually picks an appropriate action (attack, capture, build), though you can hold it down to pick a more specific order. There is a significant amount of lag (a second or so) between when orders are issued and when the units receive them, a terrible limitation that slows you down significantly as you respond to being attacked. I also do not like how grouped units behave: they will enter a specified formation, but this usually prevents all of your units from engaging the enemy simultaneously. The net result is units will rout one at a time until you are defeated: boo. It is also impossible to disband a grouping: you must individually select every single unit and give them an individualized order: tedious. There are significant problems with the interface that make Hegemony: Philip of Macedon a pain to manage.

The economy in Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is largely automated. The main resource is food, produced at farms and then transported automatically along supply lines you create between cities that need them. The ox carts that transport the goods can be raided by enemy troops. There are an impressive 312 cities located in 132 regions, with twenty-six native factions to deal with as you expand your empire. You don’t construct any new buildings as you encounter new territory: rather, you capture existing cities, farms, forts, mines, villas, and watchtowers to enlarge your influence. Gold earned from population and mines is spent on maintaining new troops; it works as a constant maximum monthly budget, like a population cap (there’s one of those as well), rather than a replenished source of funds. The economy of Hegemony: Philip of Macedon works well, providing just enough depth without being overly complicated.

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon includes pretty much every historical unit you’d ever want to meet on the Greek battlefield: basic infantry, hoplites, javelineers (I hope I spelled that correctly), spearmen, archers, cavalry, plus catapults and boats. There are more generic selections and regional-specific specialists that are rated in health and attack value. Units can gain experience over time that will offer improvements in view distance, food usage, morale, and speed. Generals, recruited from captured villas, can be assigned to a unit to provide increased effectiveness and killing power. Your units can be organized into a number of formations (line, V, circle) and grouped into groups (imagine that!), although the latter option doesn’t work well as I described above. Still, Hegemony: Philip of Macedon gives you plenty of options for fielding the army of your Greek (geek?) dreams.

Hegemony: Philip of Macedon lets you command your forces from a tactical perspective, choosing appropriate unit positions and facing before they engage in combat. The best strategy seems to be flanking the enemy: the feedback is not as explicit as in Scourge of War: Gettysburg, but attacking from multiple sides appears to be beneficial. The use of mixed forces, especially coupling heavy hoplites with fast-moving cavalry, is advantageous as well. While all of this is great in theory, the battles usually devolve into a gigantic mass of humanity anyway. This chaos is further promoted by the poor use of groups, where units may or may not engage the enemy. Defeated troops retreat all the way back to their home city, which is quite annoying. Additionally, generals who were assigned to those troops are unattached, requiring you to combine units all over again. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon tries its best to keep your forces disorganized.

As it probably was in real life, managing a sprawling empire is very difficult. The lack of any type of automation makes controlling troops spread out over a large area essentially impossible, especially in a real-time game. True, you can pause the action at any time, but constant notices of incoming enemies slow the pace to a crawl. In addition, the enemy AI will attack you on multiple fronts simultaneously, requiring you to split your forces to defend all of your holdings. Unfortunately, the population and economic caps imposed by the game prevent you from having enough troops to cover all of your territory, resulting in towns constantly switching allegiances. This, as you can imagine, is very annoying. You simply cannot be in multiple places at once to micromanage each of the battles, and leaving the tactical decisions to the AI is less than ideal. I have a feeling the difficulty and continuous harassment is intentional (and probably historically accurate), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

IN CLOSING
Hegemony: Philip of Macedon has a number of good ideas that don’t successfully pan out. Most impressive is the massive scale of the game: a huge accurate map dotted with historical cities and real topographic boundaries. The game also includes lots of historic units and generals to lead your troops. While the campaign features hundreds of objectives, they are both linear and mandatory, seriously depleting replay value. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon would benefit from smaller scenarios, more choices with objectives, and the addition of multiplayer or skirmish battles. The interface makes controlling a lot of troops, especially when they are in close proximity to each other, troublesome. The comprehensive list of units and buildings is nice, but it doesn’t offer instant access to important troops. The economy is largely automated (quite similar to Distant Worlds), where food is transported where it’s needed and protection of supply lines is your only form of intervention. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is highlighted by a feeling of overwhelming odds against you as you attempt to unite the Greek isles by force. This obviously isn’t fair, and I wouldn’t mind it as much if the game gave you enough resources to take on all challengers. As it stands, the population cap and economy limits imposed on you simply don’t allow defense of all of your cities simultaneously, which results in some frustrating gameplay. You are constantly attacked by enemy units on all of your borders, requiring you to repeatedly shuffle forces around. The fact that defeated forces retreat to their home province (losing their generals in the process) introduces an amount of micromanagement I do not enjoy. All of this is taking place in real time, which is simply too much constant chaos to deal with. Those who can handle wars on multiple fronts will find a lot to like in Hegemony: Philip of Macedon, but the rest of us will quickly realize why the empire fell.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Incognito: Episode 2 Review

Incognito: Episode 2, developed and published by Magrathean Technologies.
The Good: Multiple campaign paths, more weapons, improved AI, randomized planet hostility, still only $10
The Not So Good: Tedious dull shallow resource collection, RTS mode needs expansion, lack of helpful trade information, lacks side quests for monetary or item bonuses, multiplayer limited to direct IP
What say you? Baby steps forward for the hybrid franchise: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Way back in the dark ages known as 2009, a small independent title was released that attempted to merge space adventure, real-time strategy, and first person shooting. Known as Incognito: Episode 1, it was partially successful but incomplete. The second iteration (of five) in the series, conveniently named Incognito: Episode 2, is now here and attempts to start where the original left off, offering expanded, streamlined, and generally improved gameplay. Does it?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics feature subtle enhancements. The game has a cell-shaded feel to it, which I honestly can’t remember if it was like that in the original game, but it looks pretty good. I do like the black-and-white introductory sequence (spoiler alert!). The textures are generally the same low-resolution affairs we encountered before, but the planets have been updated with more diverse animated appearances. The rest of space, though, remains quite generic. Combat effects could be better, as shooting something is quite underwhelming. The planet surfaces have been incorporated with more structures to make for increasingly plausible environments in which to fight. On the sound front, Incognito: Episode 2 features completely voiced dialogue: an impressive feat for an indie game. The effects aren’t terribly varied, but remain appropriate for the genre. The musical selection is appropriate for the genre. Overall, Incognito: Episode 2 offers good value for a $10 title.

ET AL.
Since this is a review of a sequel, I’ll cover what’s new and/or improved. If you aren’t familiar with the hybrid gameplay of Incognito, I direct you towards the review of Episode 1 to improve your understanding of the series. I can wait.

All set? Excellent. Incognito: Episode 2 features a brand new campaign with a new storyline and new characters. More importantly, the campaign is branching, offering choices as to which mutually exclusive mission to accept and producing several endings. This obviously adds to the replay value of the game, as it takes several plays to see all there is to experience. While Incognito: Episode 2 isn’t lengthy (it’s similar in duration to Episode 1), the varied nature of the campaign helps longevity immensely. There are some inane puzzles to encounter (shooting a locked door with a railgun: of course!), but the game is generally straightforward and offers up a mix of combat and passive adventures. Incognito: Episode 2 does lack optional side quests, a hallmark of the space adventure genre, where you could undertake short escort or combat missions for a cash reward. The excessively long load times from before have been drastically reduced, and the loading screens are pretty funny (“please wait...while you dream of faster computers” and “protip: keep your eye on the ball”). I am also happy to report that pirates did not instantly attack me two minutes into the game! Bonus! Multiplayer has been added (apparently in a patch to Episode 1…shows what I get for not paying attention), offering up deathmatch on four different ships. While the idea is nice in theory, equipping your weapons is very cumbersome as you must use the inventory system the base game utilizes: quite inefficient. While the game does include dedicated server files, it is strangely limited to direct IP confrontations only. Hopefully a server browser is planned for the future. Overall, I feel that Incognito: Episode 2 definitely gives you $10 worth of content.

The interface has seen some improvement, but still needs work. The inventory screen is the biggest offender: it really needs tool-tips to indicate what each of the icons stands for. Finding a specific weapon and ammunition for that specific weapon is impossible until you learn what they look like through trial and error. I do like the continued use of in-game displays for interaction purposes, like you are using a real computer. The universe of Incognito: Episode 2 is of decent size, and all of it is accessible from the get-go. While you are not given a randomized universe to explore in each new game, hostile planets are assigned by change, giving a small amount of uncertainty when starting anew. Additionally, some planets have perpetual battles between NPCs that you can avoid or take part in, which is a nice touch that adds to the feel of a living game world. Incognito: Episode 2 maintains the “one system fits all” approach for commanding the various game modes; thankfully, “W” does now move forward with respect to your camera view during space flight.

Historically a significant part of space adventures simulations, trade in Incognito: Episode 2 is inefficient at best. The same trade interface makes a return, complete with no indication of “good” or “bad” prices, even if you have visited other planets recently. There are simply too many planets to keep track of for the game to lack a comprehensive, same-page listing of goods. Daily fluctuations do occur, which makes keeping track of the best deals even harder. Your best bet is to pay attention to events (like drought) that would impact the supply or demand of goods across the galaxy; this is your only hope of making a profit in the economy of Incognito: Episode 2.

Remaining the most disappointing aspect of Incognito: Episode 2 is the strategy mode. First off, resource collection continues to be very boring and tedious. You simply place some power stations and a mining facility on clearly marked resource locations and wait. And wait. And wait. You see, you can’t collect any resources unless you are at a planet, as there is no automation in Incognito: Episode 2 to speak of. This means you’ll have to devote a significant amount of time to simply starting at the screen, watching numbers increase until you have the elements you need. This problem has not been alleviated at all in Episode 2; I would surely hope steps will be made in the near future to keep your mines running even if you are not present in the system. It would be much more interesting if established bases mined automatically while you were away (setting up an intergalactic economy) and send notices if attacked by enemy units so that you could intervene.

Combat barely qualifies as strategy. The game currently produces one unit (tanks) you can order to storm the enemy base. As you might imagine, this doesn’t grant the largest strategic variety. A simple rock-paper-scissors type combat would be just fine, with one unit in three category (infantry, tanks, air) designed to take out one of the other categories (like rocket infantry for tanks, mobile SAM for air units, and light air units for infantry). Incognito: Episode 2 would also benefit from defensive structures, holding off the attackers until you arrive to provide assistance. Hopefully, future episodes will include at least some enhancements in this area.

The first person shooting in Incognito: Episode 2 is very basic, but still effective. I mean, how complex does it need to be? Point and shoot. There are more guns to play with this time around, from shotguns to machine guns to railguns and the like. It’s not exactly an advanced system with hyper-realistic mechanics, but it is certainly sufficient for this game and no worse than similar hybrid efforts. The slightly improved AI uses paths for engaging the enemy (that’s you!), but still occasionally gets stuck on walls and is no real challenge for a human players unless they have superior numbers. I imagine this area of the game will receive continual improvement throughout the five Incognito episodes.

IN CLOSING
Incognito: Episode 2 is an incremental upgrade over the first episode: not as dramatically improved in one specific area as I had expected, but more of a general improvement. The new campaign features more choices as you progress through the missions, allowing for multiple play-throughs and more unpredictableness (what do you mean that’s not a real word?). Randomized planet aggression and perpetual battles also make for a more precarious time. The game could take a cue from other space adventure games and offer more optional side quests from minor NPCs, though. Trade needs a better interface: listing all of the known prices for goods across the galaxy in one giant list would alleviate the need to physically write down optimal trade routes. The least developed aspect of Incognito: Episode 1 remains the area of most concern: resource collection is dull, boring, and involves waiting for elements to accumulate with no intervention whatsoever. This part of the game could easily be automated as you are away, allowing for a dynamic economy to develop over time and informing you of enemy attacks that require immediate attention. The RTS mode is also disappointing, offering only one unit to construct and no defensive buildings whatsoever. You can still keep this part of the game straightforward while adding additional units and protective options. I’d like to see the developers tackle one aspect of the gameplay and add in some complexity in each of the future three episodes. Specifically, the RTS mode could use enhanced features the most, followed by improved trade, side quests, and better multiplayer features beyond simple direct IP. Incognito: Episode 2 doesn’t drastically improve any aspect of the first game, but it is still worth $10 on its own. Hopefully future titles will flesh out the skeleton the first two episodes have established.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sol Survivor Review

Sol Survivor, developed and published by Cadenza Interactive.
The Good: Cooperative and competitive multiplayer, diverse officers encourage different strategies, range of turrets, varied mouse-driven support weapons, assorted alien behaviors, $10
The Not So Good: Sluggish pace can't be adjusted, restricted enemy paths
What say you? A tower defense game distinguished by multiplayer: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
If tower defense games have taught us anything, it’s that the incoming alien hordes will be nice enough to walk in a straight line down predictable, obvious paths towards their objective. They are so accommodating! All we need to do as guardians is to place some turrets and let our bullets do the talking. We’ve fended off water and zombies and whatever generic aliens were in Defense Grid, so now it’s time for even more generic aliens in Sol Survivor, a great “punny” title for the latest tower defense game to march across our computer screens. What, if anything, sets this game apart from the unrelenting crowd of tower defense titles?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sol Survivor looks pretty good. There are some nice weapon effects (especially fire) and the alien models are varied. The game also features some nice level designs with buildings and terrain surrounding your territory. The textures are detailed, making for a decent-looking game even when zoomed in to see the carnage up close. While the aliens do confine their movements to specific paths, at least the maps show those paths as roads or canyons so it makes a little contextual sense (although they should have just landed right next to the colonist houses, right?). Sol Survivor also has appropriate sound effects and music to fit the mood of the game. I was pleased with both the graphics and the sound of Sol Survivor, especially for the $10 price tag.

ET AL.
Sol Survivor features four single-player campaigns of five missions each where you must stop the aliens from eating the brains of your citizens (or something like that, I never paid attention to the background story). In addition to these maps, you can enter survival mode and attempt to hold out as long as possible. Most important, however, is the inclusion of multiplayer. Sol Survivor has an in-game browser where you can join (or host) Internet games of several varieties. You can play cooperatively with others, either on a single mission or across an entire campaign, where each person can place turrets and use support powers. Or you can divide up the responsibilities and have one person place turrets and the other control the orbital weaponry. If you don’t work well with others, you can enjoy versus mode where you are competing to see who can last the longest. Sol Survivor also offers a “war” mode where you spend resources on turrets and (hopefully) coordinated alien attacks directed towards the enemy bases. All of the modes are entertaining and inject uniqueness into the genre that single-player only games can't match. Thankfully, all of the weapons and items are available to everyone in multiplayer (it’s sad that I have to mention that). These are all very nice additions for a tower defense game, and it’s what makes Sol Survivor a distinct product.

Like any good turret defense game, Sol Survivor features a number (and that number is “26”) of turrets for you to place around the landscape. These can induce heat, concussive, piercing, or electrical damage, in addition to providing buffs to surrounding turrets. The turrets also have varied ranges, so they key is in placing them at the correct locations to maximize their impact on the incoming enemy units. Luckily, the firing ranges for specific weapons are clearly displayed (along with the highlighted enemy path) while placing them, resulting in more efficient designs. Turrets can be upgraded (once you have progressed far enough in the campaign) and cost mass that is earned by killing enemies (it’s a vicious cycle). While your turrets are automatically firing away, you can use your mouse to direct a number (and that number is “19”) of support powers. These cost energy (which regenerates gradually) and cause damage to or buffs on enemy units. Power (earned through playing for a while, I think) increases the effectiveness of the support items. You never have access to all of the turrets and weapons, however: the ten officers in the game only come with eight of each item. What this does is encourage different play styles based on who you have chosen and the weapons they have available in their arsenal. Honestly, I like the restriction as it makes playing Sol Survivor much less cumbersome since you only have access to sixteen items at a time. More items are unlocked as you play with a particular character more often. It would be nice to customize your own officer with specific weapons and items, but it could lead to game imbalance, I suppose.

Like most (but not all) tower defense games, Sol Survivor resorts to restricting the enemy movement to set paths. Why this is the accepted convention in the genre I don’t know, but I would personally be more interested if you didn’t have advanced knowledge of the enemy’s behavior. This approached worked pretty well in the Stronghold series of games, so why it can’t work here remains a mystery. At least Sol Survivor uses the terrain as an explanation for the predetermined channels of enemies and provides varied paths that cross and turn often. Sol Survivor gives you a good amount of freedom in placing your turrets: unlike in Defense Grid, you are not restricted to towers or some other arbitrary constraint. You can’t place things on steep slopes, but you can crowd them anywhere else. The paths undulate enough where there isn’t an optimal placement and you can’t quite put things in perfect harmony. Twenty-six aliens will invade your colonies, all of which have varied abilities like shields, leaping, flying, cloaking, teleporting, or being resistant to a specific weapon. Sol Survivor is more interactive than some tower defense games, since the use of support items is required in order to win. The game’s difficulty seems to be balanced well; veterans to the genre will want to increase the stakes a bit. The game could use time acceleration to speed past those times that your defenses are adequate enough to repel the incoming horde and you are simply waiting. Still, fans of the tower defense genre will enjoy what Sol Survivor has to offer.

IN CLOSING
As far as tower defense games go, Sol Survivor is in the upper echelon of quality. This is mainly due to the inclusion of multiplayer: you can join forces with others, or go up against them to see who can survive the longest. The “war” mode even lets you take some control of the aliens to take out the human competition. The game’s use of officers restricts your arsenal to eight turrets and eight weapons at a time, but this is fine: each officer has an interesting base strategy and the reduction makes the game more streamlined and increases the importance of planning your layouts efficiently. There are plenty of turrets (twenty-six) and support items (nineteen) to choose from, each with varied attributes. You rarely sit back and watch, as most maps (beyond the first introductory missions) require use of the mouse-driven weapons to take out the pesky stragglers. The twenty-six creeps exhibit wide-ranging attributes and require different approaches. Although the enemies are restricted to pre-determined paths (following in the tower defense tradition), Sol Survivor does give you lots of placement positions and trails do cross, producing choke points for maximum enemy destruction. The game does suffer from a relaxed pace; Sol Survivor could benefit from time acceleration to power through those times where your defenses are stout. Still, Sol Survivor is quite an enjoyable game for fans of the blossoming tower defense genre thanks to its multiplayer features.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Kingdom for Keflings Review

A Kingdom for Keflings, developed by NinjaBee and published by Wahoo Studios.
The Good: Extensive tech tree, side quests, cooperative multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly linear with static and repetitive research paths, needlessly tedious and restrictive building construction, very inefficient and cumbersome interface, requires explicit direction of all workers, non-existent citizen interaction, no in-game matchmaking, lacks alternative scenarios
What say you? Unnecessary tedium reigns supreme in this city builder: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Playing an omnipotent power has always been an important feature in PC gaming. From an all-knowing commander on the battlefield to the mayor of a city, directing your peons to complete tedious tasks you would never dream of doing manually has been a staple on our gaming platform for quite some time. Only a few games, however, have allowed you to be an avatar, wandering around your little creation and kicking the residents for no good reason. Originally released for something called an “XBOX” over a year ago, A Kingdom for Keflings has you manage a prospering little community, building new structures to show how awesome you are at carrying logs around. How does the game translate onto the PC?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
A Kingdom for Keflings has functional graphics. The game isn't a scene-stealer, by any stretch: it looks like a budget-level indie game for a console. Some of the buildings look nice with some attention to detail, but they are all similar in appearance and hard to differentiate between on the fly. The landscape is generally bland, apart from the resource areas and some pleasant seasonal effects (snow, mainly). The Keflings themselves are small and animated in a repetitive manner. I'm trying to pinpoint what the game looks like, and the best approximation I can think of is Kohan II, a strategy game released five years ago. Yeah, not so much. At least the game runs in a window. The sound design is only slightly better, highlighted by a charming soundtrack and a handful of effects like screams when you manhandle the population. Ah, getting in touch with the people. Overall, A Kingdom for Keflings delivers what I would expect in a budget title in terms of graphics and sound.

ET AL.
In A Kingdom for Keflings, you, as a giant freak of nature, must direct a town from small village to thriving kingdom. The single player game features slightly randomized maps: flat terrain surrounded by plentiful resources and impenetrable, vertical mountains. You are always given the same starting town; there are no scenarios with different conditions, and no objectives other than building a castle. The technology tree also remains the same: despite having a lot of buildings to construct, new structures are unlocked in an identical pattern every time. Subsequently, replay value is quite low. The game does have an in-game tutorial that teaches the mechanics as you play, but A Kingdom for Keflings does lack a manual. The game does feature cooperative multiplayer, which would make the game far more entertaining. Unfortunately, it’s a massive fail since it only uses direct IP addresses. Yes, there is absolutely no in-game matchmaking of any kind, a total killer in a multiplayer-enabled game.

The interface has clearly been designed with the lesser consoles in mind, and A Kingdom for Keflings is horrendous to navigate on the PC. The primary issue is the difficulty in accessing important information: the game lacks hot keys for things like finding buildings or accessing specific blueprints. There are no tool-tips for icons, no mini-map to figure out where you are, no chart showing resource levels at all your buildings, and the list of available structures has no organization whatsoever, making it impossible to find things quickly. The developers have evidently not played any recent city builders to see that buildings needs to be organized somehow, by type, for example. A Kingdom for Keflings is clearly not designed for a mouse and keyboard. A year of additional development? Certainly not for the interface.

Most of your time in A Kingdom for Keflings will be spent building things, and here the game is disturbingly inefficient and likes to waste your time. Blueprints for new structures are unlocked in a set order that remains the same each time you play. Each building is made of several (to many) components that must be individually built at a workshop, manually carried to the construction site after being completed, and placed in a specific location. While the blueprint lists the components requires, the catalog is not cross-referenced with the workshops, requiring you to access multiple menus to get the menu correct. The required components are highlighted in the workshop menu, but there is no indication of how many more you need. Additionally, the proper placements are highlighted when you are holding a new component, but the lack of variety means this aspect of the game could have been automated. Of course, then there would be nothing to actually do in the game, but the tedium involved in construction is too much for my tastes. Advanced buildings have a lot of parts and require a lot of resources, which makes not having a missing component list even worse. There are a lot of buildings to choose from, however, once you progress far enough in the game and construct the prerequisites, from resource collectors to workshops to plants and painting services. Some buildings require activations, such as “love” or educated citizens (from schools) in order to function; “love” works as an artificial population cap, restricting the size of your community until you perform specific tasks and unlock more love. You also need to find specific items to unlock more advanced abilities (like mining crystal), a process that is so simple that it’s inclusion is superficial at best.

The residents of A Kingdom for Keflings are complete morons. You must tell them exactly what to do, as they will not automatically start tasks on their own (as in the Stronghold series of games). This involves picking up a worker, dropping them on a resource, then pick them up again and dropping them on their destination. Yay tedium! This is a real problem without an idle worker button, which, of course, A Kingdom for Keflings lacks. The game also needs a listing of all the workers and their current tasks, so that you can efficiently run your kingdom. For being a giant in charge of a bunch of underlings, A Kingdom for Keflings features no meaningful interaction with your subordinates. You can kick them, but that’s it. And kicking them actually does nothing; why even have your character present in the game? You can earn extra powers through side quests (like moving faster), but these don’t impact the gameplay in any significant manner. The slow, deliberate pace also requires a lot of waiting for resources to be collected. Simply put, A Kingdom for Keflings doesn’t offer much to do, and what it does offer is entirely too repetitive and restrictive.

IN CLOSING
Playing A Kingdom for Keflings is too much menial work: you have to tell everyone exactly what to do, you have to memorize building components and place them in exactly the right spot, you have to remember the resource relationships, et cetera. The problem is that none of this can be automated: you have to manually construct the buildings to exact specifications (and no help with missing pieces) and precisely train each of your citizens: nobody can think for themselves. It’s no wonder they need a giant freak to lead them. The game uses the same small town on a slightly randomized map; the lack of scenarios with varied starting conditions hurts replay value. The promise of cooperative multiplayer is fantastic, until you realize there is no matchmaking and direct IP is the only way to go. The interface is frankly horrendous for a PC game: important information is buried in menus and you can’t compare blueprints to manufacturing locations, making it quite impossible to construct buildings in an efficient manner. The buildings can only be accessed in the technology tree, a huge list that is not organized in any way. There are no mini-maps or charts of any kind, a testament to the fact that A Kingdom for Keflings was initially developed for an inferior gaming platform. Even your interactions with your minions are limited to simply kicking them, which has no effect whatsoever. Add in average (at best) graphics and sound and we have a city builder that can be ignored. A Kingdom for Keflings is a tedious game mired in an bare PC translation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Frozen Synapse Preview

Frozen Synapse, developed and published by Mode 7 Games.
Looks Good: Straightforward tactical gameplay with non-chance results, randomized units and destructible maps, several fresh game modes, genius real-time PBEM with in-game matchmaking, one purchase gets two copies, supports both Windows and Macintosh operating systems
We'll see: Single player campaign, AI, interface, stalemates

MY POORLY WRITTEN PREVIEW
Writing a full preview isn't my modus operandi (the last one was in 2007), but I feel this particular game deserves more than a couple of tweets. Frozen Synapse is a tactical strategy game by the guys behind this game in the mold of X-COM (the real ones, not the new fake one), where you command a squad of military-type people in turn-based rounds of death and/or destruction. Right now, there is a single player skirmish mode against placeholder AI and a puzzle mode that provides location objectives and statically placed enemies. There are plans for a campaign before release. On the multiplayer side of things the game is much more developed. Since Frozen Synapse is turn-based, they have opted for a play by e-mail system, but this is where the game excels: all games are hosted on a remote server that automatically collects and distributes all of the turns. It’s an ingenious method that allows you to quickly advance through a game if both players are online, or take a while if you are not. The game notifies you if a new turn is available, and sends you an e-mail reminder if you are not actively running the game. You can have a bunch of unfinished games, though, from people quitting before the very end or just losing interest, and there is no way to reject an offer for a match; I expect both of these problems to be rectified before release, though, based on the developers’ comments. Frozen Synapse eliminates the mess associated with most PBEM games where you must manually send and load game files. The game also includes automatic (or manual, if you’d like) matchmaking, resulting in contests usually being formed in less than twenty seconds.

Frozen Synapse includes four game modes. Extermination is classic deathmatch, disputed places several boxes that must be carried off-map by either team, and hostage places two people that must be escorted to safety. Secure uses a defensive bidding system reminiscent of Name That Tune: each side draws the area they think they can defend from their opponent, and the person who bid the most must carry through with their threats, while the more conservative player must enter the area for three seconds. You can play any of these modes in “dark” (as God intended), which only displays units in your line-of-sight. All of these modes take place on random maps with walls and half-height objects for cover, all of which are destructible. The random maps are excellent in producing different situations each time you play; the occasional unbalance they exhibit is offset by the bidding mode and quick match times that don’t discourage easily. Other features include the ability to export a game to YouTube, a future addition of cooperative play, and an interactive tutorial along with online tutorial videos. The graphics are functional and reminiscent of an Introversion game (that’s a compliment), although the sound at the moment is quite minimal. Despite being an early beta, Frozen Synapse is certainly feature-rich and definitely playable right now. There are honestly rarely game-stopping bugs, just the occasional glitch that produces only minor annoyances from what I have experienced.

Frozen Synapse is a turn-based game where you issue orders to your units in a planning phase, and then watch the action play out in five-second-long simultaneous turns. You can test out your plan before you submit it, even moving enemies around to see the results. Since there are no dice rolls in Frozen Synapse, if you guess the enemy’s movements correctly, your test session results will be accurate. Before each match, you are given a randomly selected roster of units and must make do. These include the short-range shotgun, the medium-range machine gun, the long-range sniper, a grenade launcher (which can bounce off walls), and a rocket launcher (which can destroy walls). The amount of randomization in Frozen Synapse is great, leading to a different experience every time you play. Units are ordered around by double-clicking on the ground to issue a waypoint, and then right-clicking on a waypoint to issue more specific orders. The interface needs some more work to make issued orders more apparent (icons are very small) and the game easier to navigate. Units can aim (but makes them move slowly), duck or stand, hold fire, and focus or ignore a particular enemy. You can also introduce time delays to their actions to improve precise timing. The number of orders may be small, but they certainly cover the gamut of what needs to be done; I certainly can’t think of any additional commands that are necessary.

There is no health in Frozen Synapse: one shot is one kill. The victor is determined through the following advantages, in order of importance: using cover, not changing your stance, not moving, and aiming. You are also given an advantage if you spot your enemy first and certain weapons are given benefits at certain ranges. Whoever accumulates the most combat bonuses will win the fight every time: this predictable nature makes Frozen Synapse feel more fair. The advantageous use of cover does mean that games can result in stalemates, as neither party wants to move (as attacking always puts you at a disadvantage). Rockets and grenades can “remove” campers from their hiding spots, but if you weren’t given these units at the beginning of the match, you can get a less than exciting result. Thankfully, the levels are usually small enough where action is constant most of the time. Games don’t last very long (between five and sixteen five-second turns), so you never have time get discouraged at being dominated, or feel like you wasted hours of your precious time: just start a new match. $26 for a pre-order nets you two copies of the game, beta access right now, and both the Windows and Macintosh versions, to decrease your productivity even further. While the price is on the high end of the indie spectrum, the gameplay is well worth it; find a friend and each pitch in $13 and you're good to go. I've been playing and enjoying this game immensely, and it's not even done yet. Overall, I am very, very pleased and quite enamored with what I’ve seen so far: it’s more entertaining than a lot of “finished” games, and the entire package should be completed by the end of the year.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Plain Sight Review

Plain Sight, developed and published by Beatnik Games.
The Good: Simple controls, unique suicidal gameplay, multiple game modes, same-match upgrades, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Extremely fast pace, disorienting use of gravity and 3-D levels, inconsistent lock-on system, upgrades make the best players even better
What say you? This whirlwind online action game offers novel mechanics but at a breakneck pace with baffling maps: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There simply haven’t been enough games highlighting the exploits of robots. Sure, you get the occasional title like Mr. Robot, but the selection still pales in comparison to, say, World War II, or exploding pastries. Specifically, ninja robots have been left out in the cold, dragging their swords behind them in a march towards obscurity. That is until now! Plain Sight involves combat between ninja robots. In space. Why hasn’t this important genre been explored before now? I cannot fathom an explanation. Oh, did I mention that the robots must commit suicide in order to score points? Of course! How does this completely realistic simulation stack up against other online PC games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Plain Sight features distinctive graphics. Set in space (I guess), the game has nice robot models with trails to indicate relative power at a glance. The levels don't have any textures, but they are designed well with nice detail. The game is very bright over all, from the backgrounds to the explosions and glowing paths of the competitors. I feel that the minimalist design works well. The sound design is above average: some varied robot voices and a distinctive power-up effect combine with a 40's soundtrack to evoke a neat setting. Overall, I feel that players are getting well worth their $10 in the presentation of Plain Sight.

ET AL.
Although the game does contain bots, Plain Sight is first and foremost a multiplayer game where sword-wielding ninja robots attempt to slice and/or dice on the way to victory. The game features a couple of gameplay modes beyond the traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch (although the former is by far the most popular online). “Lighten Up” gives the crown to the person who commits the largest suicide near a highlighted object, in a twist on domination-type matches. “Ninja! Ninja! Botzilla!” is a one-versus-all format with an overpowered antagonist. Each of the twelve game maps feature unique layouts (ships, exploded things, a cassette tape) reminiscent of the exotic maps in Demigod. Plain Sight features in-game matchmaking through a server browser and dedicated servers, although the server browser can’t filter empty or full games from the list.

Plain Sight plays a bit differently because of the use of odd objects floating in space; it reminds me of Shattered Horizon in terms of the initial learning curve and adjustment period required to become competitive. You can move in the usual four directions using the WASD keys, in addition to jumping and slamming into the ground. The exotic level designs and the subsequent gravity effects they impose makes navigating around Plain Sight a pain. Combat is accomplished by holding down the left mouse button to charge your attack and let the fur (or metal, in this case) fly. Blocking can be accomplished by holding down the right mouse button, assuming you have purchased the upgrade. Plain Sight features same-game-only upgrades that improve run speed, jump ability, detonate speed, and attack power, among others. These have the effect of making the best players at an even more distinct advantage. In order to score points, you must commit suicide and “bank” your kills (like in The Weakest Link), hopefully catching others in the explosion. If you kill and opponent, you get all of their energy, increasing the tension as you build up points.

The game automatically locks on to enemies for you, which has the double-edged effect of making the combat easier but very frustrating: the game appears to select the enemy closest to the center of your camera view, but it switches without your consent and will routinely pick people well outside of your attack range. Plain Sight would be well-served by providing space flight simulation controls in choosing the closest enemy, no necessarily the one most centered in your view, especially since the camera is unpredictable and the levels constantly threat you with disorientation. Attaining full charge also takes a long time, which contradicts the hurried speed of the game. I’ve found that success in Plain Sight is just as much luck than skill (if not more) because of the deficiencies in how combat is handled. While you can jump or dash behind objects to avoid a lock, the pace is so fast that you’ll rarely plan to do so, instead just lucking into it. The simple mechanics lack depth, and I really think there should have been a more elegant way of doing combat in this setting: the combination of speed, level design, and automatic lock-on is very unappealing. High scores can be a matter of just happening to kill a person with a lot of energy right before they explode: one game I placed second simply because I happened to kill a high-energy opponent and immediately detonated. That provided enough points to remain near the top of the leaderboard for the entire match. There’s too much luck in Plain Sight for me.

IN CLOSING
I respect Plain Sight’s use of unique mechanics, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Requiring you to commit suicide before scoring, and allowing others to steal your points beforehand with a kill, is a great mechanic that immediately makes Plain Sight distinctive. However, the pace of the game is way too fast for my tastes. The automatic lock-on system arbitrarily picks a somewhat close-by enemy to target, but since everyone moves so fast, it rarely results in being the closest or most direct enemy for long. In essence, the game picks your target for you, and this kind of restriction can be deadly. The game also chooses some distant enemies for you; if you can't kill them, why bother locking on to them? The speed of the game and lock-on system are at odds, especially because of the amount of time it takes to reach full charge. I guess the game wants you to be close and face towards an opponent while lacking a full charge, because maintaining a lock for an extended period of time is impossible due to the speed of the game and level layouts. The camera doesn’t help matters, adding to the confusion the 3-D maps and gravitational effects already present. Upgrades are available based on performance; while they thankfully do no carry over between matches, they do produce a favored situation for players that frankly don’t need more advantages. There are several game modes to choose from: deathmatch, team deathmatch, a take on domination, and a one-versus-all scenario. Additionally, Plain Sight includes twelve maps on which to play, so there is good content value. The presentation is well done and the game is only $10, but the appeal of Plain Sight depends on your tolerance for chaotic, confusing high-speed gameplay, and mine is low.