Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stargate Resistance Review

Stargate Resistance, developed by Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment and Dark Comet Games and published by FireSky.
The Good: Can be fun with an organized team, the maps look nice
The Not So Good: Many unappealing classes, wildly inaccurate weapons makes for frustrating combat, lacks single player content, no tutorial, only four maps
What say you? This class-based third-person shooter uses the license to unoriginal and dull effect: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I have completely no understanding of the Stargate world of science fiction. I think it involves MacGyver running around alien worlds searching for the fifth element. Anyway, now you know I am approaching Stargate Resistance purely from a PC gaming standpoint, as I have no nostalgia attached to the use of authentically fake weapons. This online-only shooter was originally developed by ill-fated Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment as a precursor to their ill-fated Stargate MMO. Now picked up by another developer, the game has been steadily patched from its initial state. How does it stack up in a crowded world of online shooters?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The strongest aspect of Stargate Resistance is the graphics. The four maps (yeah, four) all are very impressive, each with a distinctive setting (desert, arctic) and lots of attention to detail from the textures to the objects scattered around each arena. Now, one look doesn’t say “oh, that’s Stargate,” as the Stargate itself only appears in subtle locations. I never saw the shows or movie, so I can’t attest to the authentic nature of each planet’s design, but they don’t look “alien” in any way, just various places that could be found on Earth. The game is in third person (odd for a PC-only title), I suppose to show off the character models, which do look nice but a step below, say, Just Cause 2. The sound design is simply functional: the online-only title lacks voice acting (other than grunts for being shot) and the weapon effects are fine but not powerful. The music is relegated to the menus and serves minor dramatic effect. Overall, the graphics do impress and cover the $20 asking price for Stargate Resistance.

ET AL.
Stargate Resistance is an online-only struggle for controls of the universe, or at least the four maps that come with the game. The game has absolutely no single player content, either a campaign or bots for offline practice. There is also no tutorial or in-game instructions to familiarize yourself with the exotic alien classes the game contains. The least they could do is provide little messages while you play describing the use of each weapon, with the ability to turn the prompts off. There are five game modes: capture the tech (flag), team deathmatch, domination, king of the hill, and arena where each player is given one life. The in-game browser lists all games, sorted by popularity. You must choose your side before joining a match and you can’t switch in-game, leading to some very unbalanced affairs when people quit following a completed match. The four (yeah, four) maps look nice and feature some choke points, despite being low in quantity. Surprisingly, the Stargates do not play a role in the map design at all, as Stargate Resistance does not feature multi-part maps like Enemy Territory Quake Wars.

Stargate Resistance is a class-based shooter, and each side has three classes to choose from. You choose your equipment before joining a game, although there are no choices to be made as each class has fixed weaponry. None of the classes are fun to play, which is the primary reason why I dislike Stargate Resistance as a whole. The soldier is given some grenades and a submachine gun that is highly inaccurate and generally useless; I had a heck of a time hitting anything most of the time. The commando has a sniper rifle that is inappropriate for the popular indoor locations in each of the game’s maps. The scientist can deploy offensive and healing turrets as well as cure others, but can’t kill anything with her peashooter. As for the alien races, things are much weirder. The Goa’uld gets a completely useless “ribbon device” that is only partially effective on secondary fire (which knocks back enemies) and a personal shield that seems quite unfair. The Jaffa gets a staff that is horrible to use and rarely damages anything, offset by shock grenades that are very overpowered. And the Ashrak is the stealth class that benefits from invisibility and instant-kill stabs: fair, huh?

Most classes have significant amounts of health that extends combat to uncomfortable levels, leading to stalemates at the choke points on each map. Balancing such varied classes is tough, as Stargate Resistance shows by not doing it correctly. In Lead and Gold, the classes were different but all were effective enough at all distances (just more so at a specific range); not so in Stargate Resistance, where most players are severely handicapped and vulnerable almost all the time. I just did not like how any of the classes play, though things are better when people work together, with the support classes hanging back while the attackers take care of the enemies. Still, things don’t work in harmony very well, and the fast pace of the game coupled with the lack of weapon accuracy and damage makes for some strange combat.

IN CLOSING
With a solid IP like Stargate, you would think Resistance would be able to differentiate itself somewhat from the usual class-based shooters. It does with the asymmetric nature of the classes in the game, but unfortunately none of the classes are fun to play. The soldier’s weapon is too inaccurate, the commando’s sniper rifle is unsuitable for the usual enclosed spaces of the game, the scientists tools are limited, the Goa’uld’s offensive capabilities are restricted and the shield is unfair, the Jaffa’s staff is horrible to use, and the Ashrak is completely annoying and tough to counter as the stealth class. The developers tried to use some aspects of Stargate’s sci-fi technology and failed to find some balance that would make the game fun. The lack of any single player content and inadequate roster of four maps disappoint as well. Stargate Resistance does become more enjoyable when you work with others cooperatively as a team, but the game pace is too frantic and I feel too strangely balanced to make it a recommended title. A less satisfying descendent of Team Fortress 2, Stargate Resistance can be skipped by everyone except those who have an insatiable need to play anything “Stargate” branded.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Scourge Project: Episodes 1 & 2 Review

The Scourge Project: Episodes 1 & 2, developed by Tragnarion Studios and published by Bitbox Games.
The Good: Cooperative and competitive multiplayer, pretty constant action, special abilities, looks very nice
The Not So Good: Conventional weapons lack recoil, pointless order system, braindead enemy AI, linear levels, only three competitive multiplayer maps, checkpoint-only saves, hardly original
What say you? This budget cooperative third-person cover-based shooter offers simple, if derivative, thrills: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Heard of Gears of War? Me neither, but apparently it was released on something called an “XBOX” a full year before the proper PC release. I never played it because I am too cheap to pay for games and Microsoft hasn’t sent me a game in four years. To the rescue is open PC development, where small studios from around the world can release titles digitally for all of us to enjoy and/or ridicule. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is a cooperative third person shooter that uses extensive cover. See why I brought up Gears of War? It all makes sense now! I waited until the issuance of a patch meant to improve various aspects of the game to review it, so now that it’s here, how does this $10 budget title stack up against the competition?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) has lovely graphics. The levels take place in a variety of futuristic industrial locations and outdoor settings, each of which have a nice attention to detail with plenty of objects scattered around the maps. The characters are also nicely animated with a high level of detail (probably why the game is third person, to show off the character models). The weapon effects could be better and more varied, though the game uses a ragdoll physics that can result in flying corpses when grenades are utilized. I was impressed with the quality of the graphics. The sound isn’t too shabby either, featuring decent (if uneven) voice acting and background music. Indeed, The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) certainly delivers a very nice presentation, especially for a $10 price tag.

ET AL.
The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) follows four hard-boiled characters as they infiltrate some evil corporation’s headquarters in the noble task of shooting people in the face. The single player campaign takes place across two episodes (Episodes 1 & 2, if I am not mistaken) that will last a handful of hours (depending on the size of your hands). You can play the game cooperatively with three others (how it’s meant to be played) or take it alone with AI filling out the roster. If you dislike working with others, you can play in a true single-player action mode, although the game does not reduce the enemy count, making it extremely difficult. The campaign features very linear levels: simply move from point “A” to point “B,” shooting people along the way in each new room you enter. There’s usually no strategy in approaching the next situation since the levels lack several pathways, although the occasional defend objective does offer multiple routes that must be covered. Objectives are straightforward (usually at the end of the corridor you are currently in), but the game does not indicate whether an objective is above or below you, leading to some minor confusion. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) uses the console model of restricting your progress to being saved only at checkpoints, though these checkpoints are frequent enough where it’s not a huge issue. I will also note that cut scenes can be skipped and the game loads the next portion of the level during play, inducing a delay in opening the next doorway. The game also slows down during dialogue, I suppose to restrict you to the current room. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) also features competitive multiplayer modes across three maps using Gamespy for matchmaking. You can play deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, or a domination mode termed “frontier.” Sadly, I was never able to find any servers to join, and The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) doesn’t allow for bots during competitive play. Still, I appreciate the inclusion of multiplayer features. For a budget level game, The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) does offer a compelling roster of options.

The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) features conventional controls for a shooter (moving, crouching, running). The game emphasizes using cover, and you can “enter” cover by pressing spacebar while near a wall, peeking out and firing aimed shots or employing blind fire for suppression. Interestingly, the level designs don’t use cover enough, pitting you against the enemies in large open areas or hallways more often than you would expect. This is a concern because two shots or so is enough to incapacitate, so the use of cover is an absolute requirement to survive. Silly is the inability to jump: you must enter cover and then vault over low objects. Also silly is “falling”, where you float slowly towards the ground. As I mentioned a couple of sentences ago, you don’t immediately die in The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2): allies can revive you with a simple button press, and you are given a pretty long period of time where you can be brought back from certain death. Soldiers are also given two disappointing special abilities: press the middle mouse button for a shield, or hold down to shoot a linear shockwave (which is no better than simply shooting the enemies). You can issue orders to your teammates, but they are pointless: there is no cursor to aim an attack, revive, move, or use order properly and you can’t cancel an order, so teammates are constantly left behind by old “move” orders. You will occasionally need to hack a console or extract DNA, but it’s a simple press-and-hold process, unlike the (admittedly annoying) minigames of Alpha Protocol. I will also mention that the game didn’t like having my gamepad plugged in, and issue I’ve experienced in a couple of other games I can’t currently remember.

Your squad consists of a team of four individuals, each with a different character model but not much else: there is no difference between the characters’ attributes, including specialized weapons or abilities. They might as well be clones of the same generic soldier. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) features futuristic takes on modern weapons that are very conventional and uninspired: a submachine gun, assault rifle, machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, sniper rifle, and pistol. There’s no innovation here, no memorable unique weapons to speak of. Additionally, none of the weapons exhibit any recoil: just aim once and hold down the left mouse button until the enemy is dead. While this lack of complexity makes The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) easy for beginning players, it also means successfully killing foes is excruciatingly trivial (and violates physics, to boot). The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) does not allow you to aim unless you are looking down the iron sight, the only realistic concession the game makes. You can also engage the enemy with melee attacks, although you really shouldn’t be that close to the oncoming troops. Large vats of ambrosia are scattered all over the maps (for being such a precious resource, it sure is easily obtained), used for powering your disappointing special abilities. Health is recovered over time, but since you can only take two or three shots before becoming incapacitated (the other realistic concession The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) makes), you must use cover in order to survive. You gain experience over time, or so says the interface; I can’t find any use for the experience points, maybe it makes you more accurate or something, but I honestly have no idea. Now, the AI. Apparently, it has been vastly improved from the release version of the game (why I waited to review), and the friendly units are capable: they engage the enemy and will prioritize reviving other characters when not under direct fire. They do have a problem keeping up with you at times, as evidenced by an automated reorganization tool that’s triggered to magically transport friendly units to your current location. However, the enemy AI is not good: it leaves cover too often, moves very slowly towards you while getting shot, never works together, and spawns in magic locations. The enemies work more as cannon fodder than an intelligent foe that must be feared, but at least low health forces you to at least be slightly cautious.

IN CLOSING
Despite the fact that The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is quite derivative, it’s not terrible. Yeah, the weapons are too easy to use due to a lack of recoil and the level design is very linear, but in cooperative mode the shooter is certainly competent. The use of cover is a must, which makes it all the more curious that a lot of the combat rooms don’t offer enough of it. Still, the special abilities make the action slightly more mixed and your AI teammates aren’t totally useless, engaging the enemy from behind cover and reviving others when appropriate. This makes using the terrible (due to the lack of a cursor to aid in placement) order system pointless. The enemy AI does need some more work, though, as it likes to slowly move towards you out in the open if not scripted to stay behind cover. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) is meant for cooperative online play, and in this setting the game is most enjoyable. You also get classic competitive multiplayer modes for those who hate working with others. The Scourge Project (Episodes 1 & 2) isn’t as complete or varied as Gears of War or Alpha Protocol, but for $10 it doesn’t have to be.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tidalis Review

Tidalis, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Atypical gameplay using directionally linked arrows, numerous game rules means its rarely repetitive, plentiful special blocks and items, custom games and adventure modes with an assortment of goals, online multiplayer with in-game matchmaking, comprehensive and helpful tutorials, all-inclusive content editors, multiplatform, $10
The Not So Good: Inconsistent campaign difficulty (but you can skip any level), the AI can’t handle the more complex versus rules combinations (but sometimes I can’t either)
What say you? An exceptional matching puzzle game with distinctive mechanics and impressive features: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So, what does a developer do after a highly acclaimed strategy title (at least by people much smarter than me)? The obvious: make a…puzzle game?!? That’s right, the spirit of innovation Arcen Games brought to the strategy genre are now being applied to the tired world of match-3 puzzles. What kind of innovations? Connecting chains of blocks using arrows to dictate the direction of epic linkage. Add in a bunch of crazy game modes and we have something that piqued my interested, mainly because of the developer’s pedigree. Does Tidalis restore my faith in match-3 puzzle games?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The weakest area of Tidalis is in the presentation. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s simply doesn’t stand out. The game comes with a number of themes (around twenty), which pairs an animated background image (some are impressive) with a musical selection. It’s all in 2-D, which seems quite quaint in today’s world of 3-D accelerated behemoths. This, of course, means Tidalis will run on a wide range of hardware, which will satisfy anyone in the target audience. The color scheme makes matches easy to identify, and the user interface is generally quite good, highlighting same-color tiles while you are rearranging the orientations, showing where blocks will appear next, and vibrating when columns become alarmingly tall. That said, there is nothing in the visuals of Tidalis that is distinctive. The music is simple but quite varied (the songs are why the install size is larger than your typical puzzle game), and the game includes informative effects for matches and other events. Overall, the quality of the graphics and sound do not hinder the gameplay at all, but Tidalis could offer a better-looking match-3 experience beyond simple 2-D effects.

ET AL.
Tidalis includes some very impressive features for a puzzle game. First up is the adventure mode, which features over one hundred puzzles with randomized layouts. You earn silly collectibles (apples? tires? coal?) and achievements along the way and don’t follow the story because you, like me, skipped right over the cutscenes the developers worked very hard on. Now, usually a campaign is a stupid, pointless feature because of the inherent repetition found in match-3 games. But not in Tidalis, and here’s why: objectives. Any level can include multiple goals: clearing specific numbers of blocks, a minimum score, achieving chains and combos, clearing lines, or having remaining blocks. On top of that, there can be negative goals as well. The possible combinations are very intriguing: clearing a number of blocks without exceeding a score limit (or vice versa), or only using small chains, or making three red matches without making any blue matches. This opens the door to a lot of variety and different strategies. That said, the adventure mode has very inconsistent difficulty, like hard levels followed by three easy ones. I had a particularly hard time passing anything that required advanced combos (my l33t skillz aren’t so l33t after all), but luckily you can just skip past any level once you fail it and come back later when you feel better. After you quit when the latest adventure level stumps you, you’re back trying it again ten minutes later. I guess that means Tidalis is “addictive.” I was certainly curious what crazy objectives and items would appear in the next level.

In addition to the more traditional blocks-fall-down-and-match-them, Tidalis also features puzzles that usually require you to remove all of the blocks on the screen in one click. They are very hard.

Tidalis features a lot of game modes that significantly alter the gameplay. Zen mode fills the board up for a more relaxed approach, Sun & Moon puts blocks that must be alternatively matched, gravitron adds gravity (while featherweight adds negative gravity), trampoline makes blocks bounce, water can slowly fill the board causing blocks to float up, wind can affect your stream directions, blocks can swap positions, and so on for almost twenty exotic options. You can combine any (or all) of these options in custom play, which lets you set the width and height of the grid, frequency of special blocks and items, time limit, color count, and speed. If you are feeling saucy, you can even click on “make something up” and the choices will be randomized. The game doesn’t check for “bad” combinations (like having both gravitron and featherweight), though, so you must pay attention a bit before clicking “play.” Still, the flexibility here is astounding.

Not that Tidalis is difficult to learn, but there are thirty tutorials covering everything the game has to offer, from basic mechanics to more advanced strategies and all of the special blocks and items you will encounter. This is a very effective tool that does a nice job illustrating tactics that might not be immediately apparent. In addition, the game offers brilliant in-game help that lists only the items that are currently on the board, absolutely perfect for quick reference. While Tidalis does feature lots of traditional single player puzzle action, you can also play against friends on the same computer or over a LAN or the Internet. The game has in-game matchmaking for finding victims to your puzzling prowess, and you can best others in a number of versus modes: garbage mode (which adds unusable blocks to your enemy’s side), endurance (which steadily increases the drop rate), and freeform. If you are feeling less antagonistic, you can also play cooperatively in normal mode, sun or moon (where alternating matches are made using items), item buddies (where you use items on the other board), or block vaporizor (where matches clear bad blocks from your partner's board). You can also Rounding out the list of impressive features are editors for levels, adventure mode, and background themes (you can’t add new items or modes, but do you really need to?) and availability on both Windows and Macintosh computing systems. Yes, Tidalis is quite remarkable from a features standpoint.

I’ve gone this far without actually saying what makes the gameplay of Tidalis special. The deal is that you must match three, like usual, but the way you do this is unique: you must connect blocks together using their arrows. You then click on one block and send the stream along its path determined by the arrows, connecting with any blocks of the same color less than three spaces away, sending the stream further. Planning ahead is simple thanks to the interface: right-clicking on a block highlights all blocks of the same color, and as you move your mouse, arrows you touch will align in the direction of mouse movement: very nice. The key to high scores is to make the dropped blocks (the bottom which automatically send out streams) connect with other blocks, making combos. If you are really skilled, you’ll plan out the next series of events for maximum matching power.

Enhancing the action is a large number of special blocks and items that must be dealt with and used during play. Some of these are simply blocks that can’t be matched, some must be removed by matching specific colors nearby, and others are more exotic: magnets that attract or repel, monsters that eat, and sick blocks, to name a few. You will also get items that can be used on the board: placing colored blocks, floods, feathers, wind, and others. There’s a whole bunch of options here that makes Tidalis very interesting and far more entertaining than your typical match-3 game.

The AI plays a decent game, although you should really take the game online instead of playing versus modes against the computer. The AI can’t play the more exotic game modes with crazy rules, but that’s such a minor complaint I almost feel bad about making it. Almost. More features include the ability to drops the next set of blocks in the highlighted location and slow down or speed up time (very useful for those tough puzzles). Because of the unique mechanics and many game modes, blocks, and items, Tidalis is rarely repetitive: quite an accomplishment in the usually dreary world of match-3.

IN CLOSING
Tidalis breaks from the pack by offering distinguished gameplay for the match-3 puzzle genre. Using arrows to direct streams and connect blocks is brilliant: it’s very simple and trivially easy to learn but also allows for some advanced thinking, especially if you want to chain together matches and increase your score. There is a plethora of game modes, items, and special blocks that change the game without becoming unfamiliar; custom games allow you to make crazy combinations to challenge your abilities. The adventure mode shows off some of the game’s variety, but the variable difficulty could be balanced better; at least you can skip the occasionally tough level. The range of objectives is quite nice: it’s not always “survive for three minutes” or “get 1,000 points,” and both positive and negative goals are included (example: make thirty matches but avoid using blue tiles) for added variety. The single-turn puzzles are a different animal: they still use the same basic rules, but require a lot of thought to execute the perfect series of matches to clear the board. The graphics don’t stand out, but at least the game includes a number of visual themes for varied backgrounds and musical scores. Rounding out the $10 package is competitive and cooperative multiplayer (complete with in-game matchmaking), compatibility across both major PC platforms (sorry, penguins), informative tutorials and in-game help, and excellent editors to make your own levels and themes. Tidalis is a match-3 game that doesn’t feel tired or repetitive: I actually want to play it, which says something considering how many puzzle games I’ve reviewed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Tidalis is one of the best puzzle game I’ve ever played. Simply put, if you like puzzle games (and even if you usually don’t), you need to get Tidalis. Right now. Go!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Legio Review

Legio, developed by ICE Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Multiple unit types promote different strategies (in theory), challenging AI, online multiplayer, skill-based combat results
The Not So Good: Ranged units have an overpowering advantage, stalemates common because aggressive play is discouraged, no campaign, impossible to come back after a first round loss
What say you? Chess meets wargame with unbalanced results: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Since the 1400’s, people around the world have enjoyed moving their queens into checkmate. That statement is not just a subtle sexual innuendo, as I am also talking about chess. The classic strategy game has remained unchanged for however long Wikipedia says it has, because that is a totally reliable source of information. There have been multiple adaptations on the PC, but we sophisticated gamers require something beyond the simple black and white. Enter Legio, a game that hopes to combine the mechanics of chess with a tabletop wargame (think Warhammer). Is it check, or checkmate, for Legio? I forget which one of those is bad…

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Legio features decent graphics for the $10 price tag. The games take place in dark castle locations with occasional lighting that adds to the medieval air the game exudes. There’s nothing that separates one locale from another, though, and you’ll never do battle in a magical forest of magic. Each of the units has distinctive models that allow for quick visual identification. The animations could use a lot more variety, though. Still, it’s better than staring at a chessboard. The sound design consists of repetitive sound effects for combat coupled with music that changes based on gameplay events. Most would not expect much for $10, and Legio delivers on that expectation: functional but certainly not awe-inspiring.

ET AL.
Similar to Zatikon, Legio is a turn-based strategy game where you select a roster of troops and set out to destroy the enemy on a chess-like battlefield. The game features single-player action against the AI at three difficulty levels. There is no structured campaign to speak of, however. Multiplayer is available on the same computer or over a LAN or the Internet using the in-game matchmaking: a nice feature. To reduce the amount of time spent waiting for the AI to move, a speed mode (accessed in the pause menu) can quicken the pace of the game. Each game consists of several rounds: you always start out on a standard map and then choose one of twelve maps for your castle that you will defend in case you lose the first round. The game keeps all the troops that survived the first round, so it's impossible to come back unless the first round was really close. One wonders the point of having multiple rounds if you are guaranteed victory/defeat. Wonder indeed.

Before combat starts, you can spend points to purchase units. Each of the eight units has a specific role and special abilities, so the strategic considerations are many. Archers excel at long range, assassins are invisible, captains inspire nearby troops, giants attack multiple units at once, magicians have ranged magic, priests heal, warrabbits leap over chasms, and warriors stand there and get shot at. Each unit has several attributes (health, speed, melee damage, magic resistance) that determine their effectiveness. Overall, Legio offers a nice selection of units to choose from.

Each unit can be issued one order during their turn: attack, move, or defend. Commands are given by using the mouse, and you must be very precise in your pointing and pay attention to the displayed icon before clicking, as there is little room for error. I enjoy the use of a skill-based determination of enemy damage: you click when a circle is inside another circle to maximize your destruction. The game decides who goes next in a seemingly random order, though recently moved units will wait the longest to go next. This induction of luck makes Legio seems unfair, especially when you consider how terribly unbalanced the game is as a whole. Here’s why: ranged units can attack most of the map without threat. The attacker always causes damage while the defender never does, which encourages very defensive (boring) play. Whoever gets in range of the enemy first loses, so it’s a constant game of staying just outside the movement range of the enemy, since units can move and attack in the same turn. Melee units are at such a disadvantage and move slowly enough that they will never survive the trip across the map to take out their ranged counterparts. The victor is mostly decided immediately after you choose your starting forces: if you have a good counter for the enemy’s ranged attack (like flooding the map with too many melee targets), then you win no matter what strategy you employ during actual combat. Quite unfortunate, since the AI is actually very good: they will engage proper targets and use their units’ specific abilities well. The poorly balanced gameplay and propensity for stalemates, though, makes Legio a tough sell.

IN CLOSING
Legio is a good idea, sprucing up wargaming with inspiration from chess, but it doesn’t work. This is due to a complete lack of game balance: ranged units (archers and magicians) are so overpowered since they can attack almost every unit on the map. Melee units don’t have enough health to traverse the map without getting picked off by ranged units first. You also lose if you enter the enemy’s engagement range. Legio quickly becomes a contest of avoiding enemy contact: if they can move to your location, they win because the attacker always delivers damage with no repercussions. Because of this, the best strategy is to stay far away from the enemy and wait for them to foolishly come within striking distance. There is nothing preventing both sides from never moving at all. As you can imagine, this results in very uninteresting combat. That’s too bad, because the game has a couple of nice features, like varied units, skill-based combat damage, a very competent AI, and online multiplayer to compensate for the lack of a single player campaign. Sadly, Legio shows what happens when game balance goes bad.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Delve Deeper Review

Delve Deeper, developed and published by Lunar Giant Studios.
The Good: Unique layers of strategy, level editor, only $5
The Not So Good: Odd control scheme, widescreen-only fixed resolution display, no online multiplayer, needlessly complex tunneling, non-random levels
What say you? An intriguing turn-based mining exploration strategy game held back by a poor PC port and some limited features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
About the most PC game around is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress: insanely complex and almost completely inaccessible. Isn't that what computer gaming is all about? That, and cookies. Lots of cookies. Anyway, if you don’t want to worry about organ-specific injuries and realistically-weathered geologic formations in ASCII form, maybe a more simplified approach would be preferred. Well, say “hello” to Delve Deeper, a game where you take a team of five dwarves deep within the earth in search for untold riches. You are competing against other teams in this turn-based strategy game, so grab your pickaxe and lantern: we’re goin’ underground!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Delve Deeper uses a two-dimensional view from the side that has occasional bright spots filled with averageness. The first thing you’ll notice is that the game is fixed at 1280x720, the humorously low resolution of an XBOX 360 console machine; you cannot adjust it, so you’re stuck starting at a windowed display or stretching it out to unsafe proportions. Some of the aspects of the graphics look nice, such as some of the cave effects, but overall the game is very pixilated and uses repetitive animations during movement and combat. Some of the models look nice (some of the monsters and the mine backgrounds), but overall the quality isn’t terribly impressive. The sound effects run the same way: repetitive, almost to the point of annoyance, with very subtle background music. Still, for a budget price of $5, Delve Deeper doesn’t look or sound too offensive.

ET AL.
Delve Deeper is a turn-based game where competing teams of dwarves go underground in search of treasure. The game includes twenty-one maps that support between two and four players; whoever collects the most coins, jewels, and relics wins. While the maps are not randomly generated, the players choose where to dig next, so you can have the same map play out another way the next time through. Additionally, there is a map editor, thus the community at large can enhance the value of the game. An individual match can be customized by setting the AI difficulty, game speed, and concentrations of monsters, minerals, and relics. In a game that screams “multiplayer,” the PC version of Delve Deeper doesn’t support human confrontation online or through a LAN (same computer is possible, though). Boo/hiss.

Your team of five trusty and hearty dwarven folk comes in three different classes: fighter (slow but high health and attack), scout (fast but low health and attack), and miner (in the middle). The composition you choose really affects your overall strategy: go deep, attack the other team, or a combination of several. The movement amounts of each class are different enough where it’s terribly difficult to keep people together, a must when you encounter large numbers of enemies later in the game. Your team is automatically given humorous names, like characters from The Lord of the Rings or members of The A Team, or (my favorite) rock types. Another decision is whether to cash in your gold, gems, and mithril on the surface (which takes extra turns to get there) or at a subsurface bank (which takes a processing fee). Since they move faster, it’s easier for scouts to return to the surface for a full refund, but they are prone to attack; interesting strategic decisions like these make for a more appealing game. Your stronger fighters can be used to attack enemies and collect the gold they drop when defeated (which, displayed as piles that blend into the background, are difficult to see), another strategy you can employ. Relics can also be collected (once you defeat the treasure chest they reside in). These provide random cash rewards, either positive or negative, which is another notable feature.

The PC port rears its ugly head in another aspect of the game: the controls. Delve Deeper is clearly designed for a gamepad, as the implementation of the heralded mouse and keyboard is less than ideal. The arrow keys are horrible for navigating the hex-based map used in the game, and (for some reason) Delve Deeper disables mouse selection when placing tunnels. This is the part of the game that is most frustrating: not only do you have to decide which type of material (rock, stone, deep) you are digging through (this should be automatic based on placement), but you have to sift through a long list of tunnel connections (shown only three at a time, thanks to the low resolution display) and figure out which one you need, and then rotate it. Typically, you picked the wrong one, so you must “undo” and go through the process multiple times. It would have been far easier to have people draw (using the mouse) the connections they want directly on the map. But, of course, that would be difficult to do on a gamepad, and PC gamers are clearly second-class citizens in Delve Deeper.

Control issues aside, Delve Deeper does feature some very interesting and unique decisions: where to move, who to move, where to dig, when to retreat to the surface, and when (or if) to fight other sides directly. Dwarves will automatically place lights at the hex the end their turn at, keeping monsters from spawning nearby. Combat is automatically conducted when you encounter an enemy or monster unit (in fact, you can’t bypass monsters: you must stop and cannot collect $200). Each unit deals damage equal to their attack rating to an enemy, and once their health disappears, they are defeated. However, dwarven units never “die,” they just respawn a turn later with one measly health point. Since the monsters usually don’t move, you must move the remainder of your units to the area of conflict in order to deal with the threat, and then escort your fallen comrade to the surface to reheal. You can imagine the amount of planning and coordination required to successfully navigate the levels in Delve Deeper. The release version allows you to speed up the game (the beta demo was painfully slow), but even the fastest speed can be a bit laborious when a considerable number of monsters need to move. You can’t undo any moves, even before you have submitted your turn: make sure you are clicking in the right place! The AI puts up a good fight: not as good as a human, obviously, but they will explore efficiently and occasionally fight you directly if the opportunity presents itself.

IN CLOSING
Delve Deeper has a nice core mechanic that needs a bit of polish to make the PC edition more feature complete. One could argue that, for only $5, you can’t really expect too much, but there are certainly some areas that could be improved. It’s clear that Delve Deeper is a very basic port of an XBOX title, from the fixed low 1280x720 resolution to the control scheme that is clearly not designed for a mouse and keyboard. It’s entirely too difficult to designate expansions underground: Delve Deeper requires you to pick specific pieces to add from a multi-screen menu, instead of simply drawing on the map or offering some other more intuitive means of design. The twenty-one maps are numerous enough, and though the maps are not randomly designed, the game does include a level editor to expand the content further. Additionally, the user-defined tunnels to make games play out a bit differently each time. The game advances at an appropriate pace, as long you speed up the progress in the game options. You’ll have to settle for playing against the AI, as there is no online multiplayer. Luckily, the AI does give a good challenge. The layers of strategy in Delve Deeper are quite nice, from choosing your team to determining an overall strategy: do you go deep for the richest items, stick together to fend off strange beasts, or attack the opposing team (either directly or by digging next to them to release monsters)? You’ll also have to figure out whether to waste time going back to the surface to get full profit for mined minerals or stop at a broker underground for a fee. Delve Deeper is strategy-rich and novel, which is why you should at least consider it for $5 despite its missing or basic features.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead Review

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Tactically interesting setting, lots of new weapons and vehicles, modern technology like thermal imaging and UAVs, better performance, enhanced cooperative campaign play, improved tutorials, behaves well with existing ArmA II installation
The Not So Good: AI curiosities continue, bland short campaign, difficult interface remains , terrible voice acting and music
What say you? This standalone expansion to the unflinchingly realistic military simulation is hard to justify for $40, despite some notable features: 5/8
What say you? However, ArmA II: Combined Operations offers excellent value for a large amount of content if you are new to the series: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For my money (thought not technically, since I got it free for review), you can’t get a more authentic military simulation than ArmA II. Other people can have their lame rip-offs and console garbage, but if you want a truly authentic experience of what it’s like to use a keyboard and mouse to control a soldier in a warzone, this is the place to turn. Of course, ArmA II is notorious for its bugs that ruin an otherwise great experience; a series of patches have improved things, and now we have Operation Arrowhead to satisfy our desires, for a price. This standalone expansion provides a new campaign with new toys with which to shoot other people in the face. Is it worth it for owners of the original game, and what about for newcomers to the series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead features little changes in the graphics department, apart from the new setting (basically Afghanistan), which is both diverse and interesting. The new vehicles and soldiers have a fantastic attention to detail and look awesome up close. There is still too much “pop-in” with texture and object detail when moving your view quickly, and the lighting has a large emphasis on soft focus due to the arid setting. There is also clipping when going prone near buildings and other oddities that will probably never get sorted out by the developers. The game does appear to perform better than regular ArmA II, although this may be due to the fact that the new maps simply have less objects. The sound engine is “new” with “reworked” radio chatter, but I sure couldn’t tell. While there is more canned dialogue during the campaign, the stunted communication between people remains a laughable limitation. The voice acting is bad and the music is completely inappropriate for a supposedly realistic military simulation. I wasn’t expecting dramatic improvements in presentation, so the minor changes of ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead are not surprising.

ET AL.
ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead has the U.S. Army head off to Afghanistan…I mean Takistan, to deal with some insurgents that are insurging. The standalone expansion incorporates well with an existing ArmA II installation: it installs to the same directory, instead of creating a whole new place for files to eat up hard drive space (one of my pet peeves). It’s sad that’s a notable feature, but so it is. It’s important to incorporate both titles to get the maximum amount of weapons and area to play with and in. The campaign features the same old mission types and features nothing innovative in overall design, giving you a taste of infantry, armored, and airborne operations and command roles. The original campaign shows the high limits of ArmA II’s engine, so Operation Arrowhead rarely surprises, only offering the occasional side mission that grants added support later on. The large distances between objectives usually means multiple viable strategies, always more interesting than linear corridor shooters, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead puts you in command of more vehicles than relegating you to infantry jobs (though I prefer infantry myself). Sadly, the campaign is quite short and features forgettable characters that inject nothing into the game beyond the mission structure. The seven separate scenarios are all short (fifteen minutes maximum); together with the campaign, ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead represents disappointing value in terms of missions.

The action takes place in three medium-sized destructible areas: a 160 square kilometer rendition of Central Asia, a 70 square kilometer urban area, and an infinite desert. I do like the mix of mountains, desert, and Middle Eastern-style buildings, and the fact that you can actually walk inside structures is a nice new feature. The setting provides less cover, which promotes more long-range encounters. Bohemia Interactive has always done a great job replicating a realistic setting, and the trend continues here. The tutorials are much better this time around, giving more explicit instructions and introducing more of the game’s features. Unfortunately, the improvements in information do not extend to the interface, which remains as unique and difficult to learn as ever. Multiplayer remains the same, which is good if you like cooperative play, since that’s what all the servers are hosting. The campaign does promote more cooperative play, since multiple squads are typically part of the missions, but the remainder of the package is nothing new. The developers have included more capture the island and deathmatch templates, but everyone ends up playing Domination! anyway. You can’t play against people without the expansion (even though the original game is largely a separate installation), however. The editor remains excellent, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead adds a random town module to the mix.

We need guns. And thankfully ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead provides. The game features some new factions fighting over control of the central Asian countryside: the US Army, the United Nations, Germany, and even the Czech Republic (I wonder why). These new forces need some new toys, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead features an impressive roster of new weapons across all types: the G17 handgun, MK16 and FN FAL assault rifles, MG36 machine gun, M110 sniper rifle, MAAWS Carl Gustav rocket launcher (bane of Bad Company 2), and many more. New vehicles include the M2A3 Bradley and Stryker infantry support vehicles, T-55 tank, 9P117 SCUD missile launcher, and CH-47 Chinook and UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters. If you incorporate the content from ArmA II (and you should), it’s around 300 different things to use: impressive. None of the new equipment, however, really adds depth to your strategies, since they are typically Army variations of existing Marine Corps items.

Completely new items include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in both plane and helicopter format, nice for dealing with heavily protected enemies. The other major addition is night vision, in the form of personal goggles and vehicle-based FLIR; since the enemies don’t have it, you are almost invincible if you stick to the shadows and stay down. Some other extras include infrared targeting lasers, countermeasures for aircraft, more realistic optics (range settings and view modes), and deployable backpacks for additional ammunition, equipment, and weapons. As with the weapons, the actual impact on the gameplay for these items is minimum: they are nice but certainly not necessary. While the AI is getting better, it still isn’t good enough. While they do an adequate job moving in formation and engaging units on the ground, they still do some outrageously silly things. Example: I instructed my gunner to target a tank. So what did he do? Rammed into him going full speed, flipping him over. Well, whatever it takes! Heck, the benchmark has bouncy tanks in it, for goodness sakes! You never feel like you can trust the AI in ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead, which is a problem since all of your assaults involve other troops. The game’s realistic pace won’t appeal to everyone, and the realism doesn’t extend to tanks where simple damage modeling remains. At least I didn’t notice any bugs, other than the AI behavior, of course.

IN CLOSING
ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead would make me feel a lot better if it were priced as a $20 (or even $30) expansion instead of a $40 product. Combined Operations is a much better deal for players who haven't played ArmA II yet, and I do recommend that option over getting this standalone exclusively. What do you get for $40? A new campaign that’s a lot like the old campaign (except for the optional civilian missions that give added support) in three new areas with a greater focus on long-range and urban combat. The campaign, like the single missions, is significantly short. The tutorials provide better information, although the rest of the interface remains nearly impenetrable for new players. The editor has gotten a random town module, and cooperative multiplayer is better using the campaign. The new units are nice, although casual players will fail to see a huge difference between an Apache and an AH-1Z. More significant is the addition of UAVs, night vision, countermeasures, and more realistic optics: these do have a positive effect on gameplay and result in more realistic vehicle and nighttime encounters. The AI remains the same: moments of brilliants separated by idiocy and limitation. Fans of the ArmA series will have no doubt already bought this expansion, but I simply did not see $40 worth of content.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Sensational World Soccer 2010 Review

Sensational World Soccer 2010, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: One-button controls are easy to use, 2010 World Cup teams, challenging AI
The Not So Good: One-button controls are too imprecise, automatic switching of the selected defensive player is disorienting, lacks online multiplayer, no strategic player substitutions
What say you? This very simple arcade soccer game suffers from too much simplicity: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
A soccer game? What are the odds?! I mean, it’s not like there’s some major global sports event going on right now as you read this review that the developers of Sensational World Soccer 2010 are hoping to cash in on. Coincidences aside, this is the more simple, 2-D side of New Star Games’ gaming portfolio, which includes a good 3-D soccer career game, a good racing game, another good racing game, and a not-so-good tennis game. What does $7 get you?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Not awesome graphics, to be sure. Sensational World Soccer 2010 goes for the “classic” (and by “classic” I mean “old”) 2-D look, showing everything from a top-down perspective. The game does not incorporate the 3-D engine the New Star Soccer games use, so the players are tiny (unless you zoom in), the resolutions are low, and the fields are green circles. There is the occasional rain shower, but the repetitive animations and simple graphics wear thin and don’t impress. Not that they are supposed to, but still: New Star Games has better assets at their disposal that could have been used. The sound fares better: Sensational World Soccer 2010 uses chants common to international soccer competition that do an effective job, and the music is decent if not memorable. Sensational World Soccer 2010 shows that you get what you pay for, and for $7 you can’t (and shouldn’t) expect much from the presentation.

ET AL.
Sensational World Soccer 2010 is an arcade soccer game that takes inspiration from the 2010 World Cup (so that’s what’s going on!). The game uses the real teams from this year’s tournament in their actual groups, although I didn’t see any actual difference in ability from one country to another. There might be, but there’s no overall rating or player abilities listed in the game to make sure. In addition to running through the World Cup tournament, you can do a quick match. Games can be customized in terms of difficulty, game speed, and match length (three to seven minutes per half). While Sensational World Soccer 2010 lacks online multiplayer, you can have two players compete on the same computer as a consolation prize. As you can see, the features for Sensational World Soccer 2010 are quite basic.

Before your match, you can choose between eleven different formations from which to dominate your opponent. You can also choose three custom formations by placing players anywhere you wish on a five-by-seven grid. Those players, though, cannot be substituted during the game, nor are they given names or even numbers: just like communism! However, the control scheme is where Sensational World Soccer 2010 really starts to fall apart. Other than the four directional keys (and a gamepad is strongly recommended for more precise movement), there is only one button to press, and it does everything: throw-in, pass, shoot, tackle, and slide tackle. You can hold the button down for a more powerful shot, but that’s all the tweaking you are allowed. As you can imagine, this leaves a lot to be desired. A consequence of the simplified controls is switching players on defense is now handled automatically by the AI. This is seemingly done at the most inconvenient times without advanced notification. The end result is spastic movement by your players while the AI effortlessly runs on by. In addition, players turn slowly, making for more realistic but less laser-quick gameplay. At least the game tries to preferentially aim for what it thinks is the player you were attempting to pass to, but it would have been better to decide on my own. The AI is quite a challenge, but this may be partially due to the limitations of the controls scheme that they don’t have to deal with.

IN CLOSING
Sensational World Soccer 2010 would really benefit from having another button. While the directional controls work well enough (especially if you have an analog gamepad), having one button for all of the in-game actions leads to confusion and your players never really doing what you want them to do. There’s no difference between a shot and a pass, between a tackle and a slide tackle, and the game switches players on defense automatically, resulting in a lot of unintended movement. Part of the reason why the AI is a challenge is because they don’t have to deal with those issues: your players are having seizures on the field while your opponent smoothly runs towards victory. Sensational World Soccer 2010 does feature the 2010 World Cup teams, although none of the players are present, nor should they be since the game features no in-game substitutions. Sensational World Soccer 2010 also lacks Internet multiplayer, though two players on the same computer can battle it out for world domination. While Sensational World Soccer 2010 strives for simple gameplay, it’s this simple gameplay that ultimately does it in.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Making History II: The War of the World Review

Making History II: The War of the World, developed and published by Muzzy Lane Software.
The Good: Straightforward economy, fairly extensive research tree, competent AI, multiplayer, good graphics for the genre
The Not So Good: Terribly inconsistent interface, limited international trade, weak diplomacy options, boring peacetime, tedious military organization, automated stockpiles work horribly
What say you? An economic grand strategy sequel with a lot of the same, plus an additional lack of polish: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Making History attempted to bring a more educational approach to the World War II grand strategy game by promoting the economic aspects of global warfare. This is due in no small part to the game’s partnership with some guy from Harvard. Games trying to make us learn? What’s next, gimmicky add-ons for idiotic consoles? The original game was a nice effort but incomplete: a limited number of countries, poor military controls, and questionable AI. Offering hot grand strategy action from 1933 through World War II, Making History II: The War of the World hopes to rectify the mistakes of the past and offer a more user friendly approach to the grand strategy genre, unlike some other games where I avoided reviewing an expansion due to (a) my distaste for most (but not all) expansions and higher complexity of said series. Let the blitzkrieg commence!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The most obvious improvement made in Making History II is in the graphical department. The 3-D map looks quite nice, offering up detailed terrain that easily bests the competition. The cities and resource locations that populate the global map can also indicate what type of production and goods can be expected. Unit models are recycled for each country, leaving only a base counter for nationality identification purposes. Different units looks, well, different, but an American infantryman looks just like a German infantryman (there must have been significant confusion during the war!). The unit animations are also very slow-motion and repetitive. While the map looks good, the units that walk on the map could use a lot more variety. The sound design is acceptable: while Making History II lacks notifications for in-game events, the effects during battles and the background music are appropriate and functional. For a grand strategy game, Making History II looks better than most.

ET AL.
Making History II: The War of the World is about the Martian invasion of Earth and how Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning stop it. Oh, wait, wrong war. Ah, yes, this particular conflict is World War II, the one where everyone fought over who got the last cupcake (turns out Stalin ate it while nobody was looking, the greedy bastard). The game features three scenarios (though more will likely be developed using the eventual editor), starting in 1933, 1936, or 1939, the latter of which gives you no real time to build up your infrastructure since construction takes months. The game is turn-based, simulating a week each time you press the magic green button. The game processes all of the 70-something AI turns immediately after, although you can still attempt move the display or do things despite the game being essentially locked up. Victory is not only gained through military domination, but also economic means. AI difficulty can be tweaked before each scenario, or you can take the war online against thirty-one other humans through the game’s multiplayer matchmaking capabilities. My build has a bare manual and no tutorial (one is planned soon, if not already available), though the mechanics are simple enough that well-versed grand strategy players will pick things up in thirty minutes or so.

The interface for Making History II gets an equal amount of things right and wrong, which is detrimental for a grand strategy game where you are controlling a large, sprawling nation. The game does give one-click access to most everything though a bottom-of-the-screen menu system, from military units to diplomacy to city and regional improvements. However, most of these systems suffer from flaws of varying degrees. How shall I count the ways? The interface doesn't preserve sorting settings when you switch back and forth between displays. Diplomatic relations (strong, stable) are sorted in alphabetical order instead of “good” to “bad.” In fact, some windows (like the world market) can’t be numerically sorted at all. You still can’t box select military units, resorting to long menu list and a multi-step process to merge forces. A one-unit infantry army looks the same as a ten-unit army; you must click on it to see how large it is. The game does not display the results of a project, just the initial costs (you must use the encyclopedia that covers up most of the screen). You must resort to tool-tips when determining resource production and usage during a turn (only stockpile levels are displayed on the main screen). As you can tell, there is significant improvements that could be made in this area.

Resources drive the game, as they are required to produce troops you use to shoot others in the face. The default production order (“goods”) produces money used in trades and maintenance. Producing units and buildings also requires manpower, industrial production, research points, arms, metal, coal (why is it required for troops?), oil, food, and nukes. Regional projects can construct buildings to increase how fast certain resources are collected; while all regions can produce food, only a select few have coal, metal, or oil. Cities (which are separate from regions) can house factories, to produce particular units, and research institutes, to expand your knowledge in various fields (land, air, naval, tactics, industrial, and advanced). Making History II can suffer from building spam in large countries with plentiful manpower, further widening the gap between those nations and their lesser neighbors. Units that can be produced fall into three broad categories (land, air, sea) although there are more specific categories, like medium tanks, mountain infantry, bombers, and the like. You can set up units on a repeating (but not cycling) queue, continuously producing the same item over and over. The costs are all up-front, and the game will preserve a queue order until the resources are available. Units will be automatically incorporated into an existing group if one is present in their region. The large provinces means Making History II generally uses large groups of units (not historically arranged): a front will usually only consist of five or so provinces and units, so that reduces micromanagement a bit.

You’ll probably have to interact with other nations right before you take them over by force. Making History II features surprisingly limited diplomatic options: military access, trade agreements (or embargoes), espionage (stealing research or surveillance), and declaring war are your only choices. Peace treaties also provide little variety: annexation, puppetry, or forcing an alliance. There is also no indication of whether a treaty will likely become accepted, leading you to throw treaty after treaty until something sticks. In yet other knock against the game’s interface, Making History II shows weather on the game map but not relations level, making you scour down the long list of all nations (that you can’t properly sort by current relation level) for a proper trading partner. The use of ideologies means most games will line up as they did historically, which offers little in the way of variation.

Another area that leaves a lot to be desired is trade, which is shocking considering its large focus in the game mechanics. Goods are stored in stockpiles, and you can set the desired level and let the AI conduct trade on your behalf. This sounds great, but imagine my surprise when I amassed six billion dollars in debt in one turn. The flipside is also possible: you can sell massive amounts of goods on the world market and accumulate unrealistic sums of money, as there will always be a buyer. It’s also much easier to do it this way, since trading with a specific country invites all sorts of problems, from agreements that go unfulfilled due to a lack of supplies to having to wade your way through the columns of market data that cannot be sorted. Goods are always traded for money, rather than other goods, in another oversimplification. For a game with a Harvard pedigree, the economic options are disturbingly limited.

Making History II is very boring when war is not erupting around the globe. Once you get your city and regional projects set, it’s simply end turn, end turn, end turn. There are no intermediate objectives or missions to fulfill, and there’s really no reason to start the game earlier than 1939 due to the uninteresting and repetitive escalation towards conflict. There’s certainly a lot to do the first turn of a game, but very little afterwards. Ordering around units is easy: a simple right-click. Air and naval units get more varied options, like patrolling or bombing enemy units. The AI is good, though: they react to invasions, holds forces in reserve, counter attack, plans appropriate projects, and proposes treaties. It’s not as dynamic or interesting since the results are fairly predictable, but it’s a proficient opponent.

IN CLOSING
Making History II is a decent game that suffers from the same type of shortcomings as its predecessor, although this time around they are more inexcusable. As with most strategy games, the problems start with the interface: there’s too much switching screens, unhelpful displays, and static information to wade through; this drastically reduces the efficiency with which you can manage your empire. For a game that has a lot of information that can be accessed, it sure tries its best to make it inaccessible. For a game about international relations, the diplomatic and trading options come up well short: only a few treaties and a poorly balanced world market ensure repetitive and lopsided play. Peace is a dull time of clicking “end turn” while you wait for a farm to complete; once you establish your repeating queues, there’s nothing interesting to do: no missions or short-term objectives to focus on. On the bright side (I am fair and balanced), Making History II features a nice, streamlined, and easy to comprehend economic and production model. The AI is very competent, and large (32-player) multiplayer matches are possible using the game’s matchmaking service for those who prefer human confrontation. The ability to control any country, no matter how dull or uninteresting it may be, and the expected future editor sweeten the pot, but we’re still left with too many little problems that add up to one big headache. There are simply better grand strategy games, and Making History II fails to deliver on its potential.