Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Combat Mission Afghanistan Review

Combat Mission Afghanistan, developed by Battlefront.com and Apeiron Games and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Unique setting with numerous scenarios and period-specific units, all of the good features of the previous game
The Not So Good: Interface and command shortcomings, no tutorial, no difficulty settings, jarring pop-in with identical graphics, no random maps, lacks distinctive battle mechanics to differentiate from earlier titles, lacks multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? This standalone expansion has new content but fails to improve in several key areas: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Likely the most infamous review of mine was for Combat Mission Shock Force, which received a glowing 8/8 despite not having a tutorial, lacking random maps, and exhibiting poor game performance. But there was a lot I really liked about it, from the scenario editor to combat detail. It was followed by a number of disappointing and kinda disappointing expansions (the last one I skipped), but now we get a full-fledged, standalone product in the form of Combat Mission Afghanistan. Oh those wacky Russians: they gone and invaded Afghanistan because it wasn’t Communist enough! This unique setting, both in time and place, might offer some distinctive elements around the tactical gameplay. And remember: in Soviet Russia, game plays YOU.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Combat Mission Afghanistan looks the same as Combat Mission Shock Force: the game hasn’t received any sort of facelift in the graphics department. As before, the vehicles have an excellent level of detail, but things go downhill soon thereafter. The infantry units have some terrible animations, clipping into buildings and the terrain or floating above it. While fire and weapon tracers are fine, smoke is obviously a 2-D effect in a 3-D world. The setting does allow for some more interesting terrain, but I spotted the same buildings recycled to the more mountainous setting. The 3-D maps still “float” against the 2-D background, which ruins the immersion a bit. Most significantly is the terrible pop-in and fuzzy texture transitions used in the game; this is done to make Combat Mission Afghanistan playable, as the graphics engine seems poorly optimized. I’m shocked there haven’t been more enhancements in this area. The sound design is the same, except for an increase in Russian background dialogue. The rest of the effects are the same recycled sounds from before. Combat Mission Afghanistan looks and sounds like it is three years old, and that’s because it is.

ET AL.
Combat Mission Afghanistan features two campaigns involving the Russian invasion of Afghanistan during the 80’s. Each campaign, told from the Russian perspective, has ten missions unveiled in the same order, which removes the semi-dynamic nature of the campaign from the original game. Most of the missions are assaults on enemy positions; this means the enemy AI does not have to do much, leaving the difficulty up to the scenario designer. Enemy troops are usually hidden in buildings or the terrain, promoting cautious play as you slowly advance and attempt to achieve your objectives. There are also fourteen standalone scenarios to test your mettle. The two campaigns and standalone missions are designed well, but nothing dramatically better than what the community can make on its own. Combat Mission Afghanistan still lacks the capability to generate randomized maps on the fly, resorting to thirty-seven quick battle maps and giving you a random assortment to troops and simple, location-based objectives to fight over. Granted, these maps have some nice, varied designs, but I’d still like to have true randomness. Combat Mission Afghanistan features the still excellent editor that allows you to easily create scenarios and campaigns with custom maps, objectives, and AI plans.

Combat Mission Afghanistan offers four realism settings that affect spotting of units and the speed at which artillery is called in and soldiers are healed. I feel that “elite” is a good balance of realism, as the higher difficulty level requires you to manually keep track of friendly units, which can be annoying. What the game lacks, though, are true difficulty settings: the number of enemy units is never decreased, so Combat Mission Afghanistan does a terrible job of introducing new recruits into the game. This is compounded by the fact that Combat Mission Afghanistan still lacks a tutorial, a true necessity. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to do one given only three years of additional time. They did have time to offer one new objective type: exit. Talk about innovation! Multiplayer options are the same: Combat Mission Afghanistan lets you play on the same computer, through e-mail, over a LAN, and on the Internet, but it still lacks a lobby for matchmaking in real time.

The interface is the same, and it’s been passed by more efficient methods of controlling your troops. The only new feature I saw is that icons blink when units are immobilized: helpful but certainly not dramatic. The problem lies in unit selection and ordering (which is what you actually do in a strategy game). Accessing units is difficult, as Combat Mission Afghanistan lacks an overall order of battle hierarchy list (as seen in Command Ops) to keep your troops organized. You also can’t issue orders to a superior unit and have the commands trickle down to their subordinates: you have to select all the units in a squad and then send them on their merry way. The other problem is the twenty-seven commands (for movement, targets, and organization) you can issue: Combat Mission Afghanistan hasn’t figured out how to make them all accessible. Personally, I think some (or a lot) of the orders should be automated by the AI, and the level of micromanagement Combat Mission Afghanistan expects you to handle is too high. You can bind specific commands to specific keys on the keyboard, but you’ll quickly run out of places and it’s simply easier (but not faster) to click than having to memorize that “B” is for “move fast” (it’s so obvious!). Combat Mission Afghanistan also needs to have a compromise between “hunt” and “move”: I like units stopping when an enemy is spotted, but I would like them to resume moving to their waypoint after the enemy has been eliminated. Combat Mission Afghanistan also does a terrible job keeping units in formation, as there are absolutely no tools to assist in this effort. The constant movement of vehicles into each other doesn’t help matters, either.

Combat Mission Afghanistan features a host of period-specific units, but a significant number of units from Shock Force reappear. There is (obviously) more of a focus on Russian units and there are more anti-RPG options and rapid fire cannons, but the technology between the 80’s and today isn’t really dramatically different, so the game tactics are generally identical. You still get tanks, armored fighting vehicles, APCs, and an assortment of small arms, but most players will fail to find a difference between the BTR-70 and BTR-80. Calling in artillery is still a detailed, multi-step process where you define the area of the attack, type of ammunition to use, and the duration of destruction. Combat detail remains a highlight of the game engine, as units can earn increased performance by having high morale, being in close proximity to leaders, or rated highly in experience or physical condition. Individual weapons and ammunition counts are also tracked, and vehicles can receive progressive damage to specific parts, impacting performance. Communication with superior units is also important, and Combat Mission Afghanistan supports both visual and audio contact. Combat simulation is strong, but so it was originally.

Like its predecessor, Combat Mission Afghanistan features both real-time and simultaneous turn-based modes of play, the latter of which allows you to tweak orders every thirty seconds. I prefer the second option, as it gives you more time to think and coordinate your potentially large roster of units. As I alluded to earlier, pathfinding is OK: units will utilize roads and generally will intelligently navigate to a distant waypoint, but vehicles still love to constantly run into each other or stop altogether, which can make coordinating an attack impossible. The tactical AI (all of the attack are automated) seems to be slightly improved, as storming buildings and taking locations is more fluid. Still, Combat Mission Afghanistan is eerily similar to Shock Force, using the same mix of units in a similar setting (though now there are more mountains). The scenarios from the campaign could easily be made using the editor, and while the ones included here are better than what the community at large would produce, the gap isn’t that wide. The things that could have been improved (a tutorial, multiplayer matchmaking, difficulty settings, the interface, random maps) remain untouched. I am quite disappointed by how little has changed in three years: Combat Mission Afghanistan is the same game with new scenarios and insignificant new units.

IN CLOSING
Combat Mission Afghanistan is, simply put, new scenarios. Are thirty-four scenarios worth $35? I would say “no,” because there have been so many other areas that have gone untouched three years after the first game was released. That said, the scenarios are well designed and offer a good challenge, except that challenge cannot be lowered as Combat Mission Afghanistan lacks difficulty options to decrease the amount of enemy troops for the benefit of new players. Also, the gross similarity in units between Afghanistan and Shock Force means you’ll generally be using the same tactics over again. The quick battles still do not have randomized maps, multiplayer still lacks matchmaking from within the game, and Combat Mission Afghanistan still comes without any tutorial whatsoever. The core game is almost identical, with none of the small additional features you would expect with three more years of development time. The interface remains cumbersome with lots of commands that can’t be issued quickly (making auto-paused simultaneous combat a more preferable option), although you can take the time to assign specific hotkeys to each of the 27 commands, if you have room on your keyboard. Keeping units in formation and organized according to the order of battle is difficult, as Combat Mission Afghanistan offers no changes to the interface to streamline command. The game retains the excellent simulation of combat, using morale and communication to great effect. The pathfinding is generally good, although vehicles still engage in road-blocking maneuvers that scatter your carefully lain formations. Combat Mission Afghanistan looks like it was released three years ago, as the visuals have not gotten an upgrade. The handful of new features (exit objectives…who cares?) are so insignificant that the new missions are the only reason to venture to Afghanistan. While fans of the series will enjoy the new selection of scenarios (which could be easily replicated using the editor, by the way), there is a ton of features and improvements that frankly should be present in Combat Mission Afghanistan by now.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale Review

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, developed by EasyGameStation and published by Carpe Fulgur.
The Good: Unique combination of trade and traditional RPG, randomly generated dungeons with lots of items to find and then sell, merchant experience unlocks more shop options, satisfying (albeit repetitive) combat involving a range of enemies with set behaviors, a variety of adventurers with different abilities
The Not So Good: Lacks difficulty settings for RPG novices, infrequent saves during a dungeon crawl
What say you? An action role-playing game that adds shop economics to great effect: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Here at Out of Eight, I strive to highlight independent games that don’t get the coverage they deserve on the “big” sites that have allowed advertising revenue to compromise their integrity. While I have sampled titles from all over the world, one of the neglected markets is Japan. Sure, the big Japanese publishers bring their wares to the worldwide scene, but the small indie development studios are rarely represented internationally. Well, that’s about the change thanks to Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, a game developed by Japanese stalwart EasyGameStation and translated to the Queen’s English by producer Carpe Fulgur (Latin for “Fulge the Carp”). This game certainly has a premise that’s weird enough for coverage on Out of Eight: Recette (you, in naughty Anime form) runs a shop providing weapons and items to adventurers, whom she can hire and control to find the really good loot to sell. That’s enough innovation to allow me to get over my fear of role-playing games (official term: “crapaphobia”), so let’s see what this Japanese import has to offer.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale features decent graphics for a role-playing game. Because of its original, the game makes use of anime-style static character images during in-game dialogue, and while they are rarely animated beyond changes in expression, they work pretty well. The 3-D worlds are simple with some distinctive and varied environments for the various dungeons you will encounter along the way. The characters are small, lack fine detail, and utilize repetitive animations; they appear to be 2-D sprites on a 3-D background. There are some nice effects during combat with weapons. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale reminds me a lot of Din's Curse, although it is more polished overall. On the sound front, the game retains the original Japanese voice work, which is fine with me since it adds an air of authenticity to the mix. The sound effects are pretty typical for a role-playing game, and Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale features repetitive but generally enjoyable background music. While Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale isn’t certainly cutting-edge in terms of graphics or sound design, the game does deliver a solid packgage that never gets in the way of good gameplay.

ET AL.
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale follows the story of Recette and her fairy Tear (see…“Recettear”…hilarious!) as Recette repays her father’s debt by running an item shop in a role-playing fantasy world. The game has an extensive storyline that, because of the translation and lack of English voice acting, requires a lot of reading. Thankfully, you can skip past any of the in-game events: while it is occasionally funny, a lot of the time you just want to get to the game. Tutorials are also integrated into the dialogue, so skipping it the first time through the game might not be such a good idea. Controls, which can be altered using an executable file in the game directory, use the keyboard by default; this works well most of the time, but I prefer using the gamepad for more precise movement during the RPG portion of the game (you can actually use the gamepad and keyboard simultaneously if you’d like). Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale gives you one hundred save slots where you can preserve your progress at any time during the shop portion of the game; it seems kind of silly to give you such a large number but still have a restriction, but whatever.

Half of the time you will be running your modest shop. The game has four turns per day during which you can open your business, visit the town, or hire someone to explore dungeons for goods. Items that are purchased or found are placed on the store shelves, with more prominent items placed in the front window. Customers will enter, and you haggle over the price. Typically, an offer of around 120-130% is reasonable, and each character seems to have a set percentage they are willing to pay for every item. You are given an experience bonus for choosing an appropriate price the first time out, and customers will walk out of the store if you do not offer a good price the second time around. Experience earned for successfully selling an item unlocks more options, like the ability to suggest items to customers, buy items directly from patrons, combine items, and change your shop aesthetics (carpet, floor, wallpaper, available shelf space). I really like how Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale gradually unlocks new things to do, since simple haggling can get repetitive and boring once you figure out the desired profit margin for each shopper. Prices can fluctuate based on demand, which rewards holding on to items. While there isn’t really a lot of depth in this portion of the game, it is far better than simply selling loot at a fixed cost like most RPGs do.

You aren’t just restricted to your shop, as you can venture around the town of Pensee in search of people and goods to exploit. The merchant’s good offers wholesale items you can display and sell at your business. These include a large assortment of weapons, from swords to daggers to bows to spears, and armor, from gloves to bracelets to shields to helmets. Each category has two to five items of increasing value to choose from, depending on your budget and needs: more expensive items will bring in more money at once, but also require more startup capital. The market offers less violent articles, such as food, scarves, rings, books, and ingredients. The pub is a gathering place for adventurers at night, and the town square is a haven for low-level adventurers looking for work. Finally, the adventurer’s guild allows you to hire adventurers to search for goods at little to no cost (closed Sundays).

Recette is too much of a wimp to go adventuring on her own, so you must hire people to do the dirty work for you. While you can’t customize your own adventurers, there are a lot to choose from as you unlock them throughout the game. Each has a set of special abilities that can be used during combat, and you can bring items from your shop to improve their attack and defense ratings. It is a very good idea to bring lots of food to reheal, and low-level adventurers definitely benefit from having better equipment. The game features easy equipping of items, even offering an “optimum equipment” option that puts the best stuff on your soldier-for-hire. Your mercenary also gains experience through combat, which increases their maximum health and special abilities points and reheals during a level-up (extremely helpful when you are low on walnut bread). Killing multiple enemies in a row gives more experience, so you can become bigger, stronger, faster, tastier.

Although they follow the same general pattern, each of the dungeons are randomly generated, which goes a long way towards making Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale a more interesting game. This includes multiple plays through the same dungeon as well, so you are never sure which treasure chests hold awesome loot and which trigger monsters to appear. There is a door that leads back to down every five levels, but you cannot otherwise save your progress. This means you have to plan out your dungeon crawls: do you have enough time to do five levels in one sitting? I’m not trying to cheat by reloading if I die, I just have other things to do other than playing games (blasphemy, I know). If you do die, you are allowed to only take a limited amount of items back to the surface and the rest of the items are lost permanently. This becomes an issue if you purchased a lot of food for the trip, died, and the market did not have any more: you are then “stuck” if you can’t make it through a dungeon without having to reheal (a tough task). It would be nice if you could take back all the items you brought or if you dropped the items where you could collect them the next time through, but this limitation contributes to the high difficulty of Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale.

The enemies you encounter have set behaviors that make them easy to plan against, once you see the patterns from afar. There are charging foxes, flying bees, hopping mushrooms, and lots of slime, among other things as you advance through better dungeons. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale certainly requires skill to know the range of your attack, the range of your enemy’s attack, and the attack speed of your chosen weapon. Treasure chests may spawn an item or a trap, from enemies (like flying fish, of course) to explosions. Enemies also drop items that can be later sold at your shop, assuming you survive a five-floor set of levels. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale lacks difficulty settings, which is troubling for someone like me who has less experience at action role-playing games. It took me seven times to beat the first dungeon. Seven! I am mediocre at the RPG part of the game, and it's required to be successful because all of the goods you earn there are free. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is designed for RPG veterans, so novices be warned. The good news is that, if you lose, you retain your merchant level when you being a new game, giving you a head start on accumulating those insane funds requirements the second (or third (or fourth)) time around. Still, I really like how getting loot in the adventure portion of the game impacts your ability to make money: it’s not about simply getting better equipment for your character, as in most role-playing games.

IN CLOSING
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a tradition action role-playing game that differentiates itself thanks to its item shop. The RPG part of the game is a pretty traditional hack-and-slash style: equip some items, so out and kill some bad guys, and get precious loot. It is made more interesting than some because of the randomized layouts, a welcome feature especially because you might be retrying the same dungeon over and over again. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale lacks difficulty settings and the game assumes you play a lot of RPGs, I think, as it took me a while to become adept at the combat. The game doesn’t help matters as it restricts saving your progress to every five levels of a dungeon, which is not only a concern with difficulty but also with time. There are a number of interesting adventurers to hire, from melee fighters to ranged archers to magicians, and they gain experience (and become more effective warriors) as you guide them through each dungeon. The enemies exhibit specific behaviors that allow for some variety in tactics depending on which weapons you have equipped. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale really sets itself apart in the robust shop mode, where you can purchase (or find in the dungeons) items and sell them for a handy profit. The process of haggling is repetitive and predictable once you know the desired profit margins of each customer, but the game slowly unlocks new things to do: fulfill requests for item types, combine items, changing the d├ęcor of your shop, and many more. There are also a lot of items to trade, so Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale isn’t short of variety in this area. The two halves of the game compliment each other well: you’re not always fighting in a dungeon (which would be monotonous by itself) and you’re not always selling goods (which would be monotonous by itself). The alternation of the mechanics, along with the ever-growing roster of things to do, makes Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale vastly superior to your average role-playing game.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem Review

Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem, developed by Strategy 3 Tactics and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Lots of battles, operations, and campaigns, more flexible strategic mode, nighttime missions, robust editor and user modification support, informative tutorial, windowed mode and higher resolutions
The Not So Good: Lacks in-game multiplayer matchmaking, can't accelerate time, can't save mid-battle, small battles still take place on large maps, poor attacking AI
What say you? Another decently enhanced remake of a classic strategy title: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There is no doubt that the Close Combat series is one of the finest examples of tactical gaming known to man (and if you do doubt that, get off my lawn). So much so that when Matrix Games bought the right to the series, they saw fit to re-release each of the games from the late 90’s with enhanced features and modern compatibilities. The first was Cross of Iron (a remake of #3), then came Wacht am Rhein (a remake of #4), and then The Longest Day (a remake of #5, my first introduction to the original series), which I did not review for some reason (I blame this). It’s time to go back to what we missed, as Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem addresses the theater of the 2nd game: Operation Market Garden (also a memorable Battlefield 1942 map). What new stuff do you get for $40? An enhanced strategic map, new tactical battles, troop buying, bridge demolition, and improved unit organization, to name a few. Do these list of new features warrant a new investment into this classic game series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem have received very minor updates from their initial, thirteen-year-old condition. The most noticeable change is the addition of nighttime battles, complete with darkened maps and circular flares. There are also new graphics for plane, vehicle, and map icons that work well. The game itself looks the same: a top-down 2-D representation of the battlefield with very small soldiers. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does add more resolutions and windowed mode support, which is a very nice feature. While the game does look old, the nice map graphics hold up surprisingly well thanks to their level of detail. The sound design is still the same as before (and in all the other Close Combat games), so there is nothing new of note in that department.

ET AL.
Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem starts with Close Combat: A Bridge To Far and adds a number of enhancements. First off, the game has been expanded to include over sixty battles, each having a very detailed map with plenty of cover to fight over. The game can be played as a single battle, or over a small area in one of the seven operations, or over a larger area in one of the six campaigns, including the grand campaign that involves all sixty-plus battle areas. If that isn’t enough, you can create your own operations and campaigns in the easy-to-use in-game editor, pitting customized battlegroups against each other. The editor also allows you to define the starting date and when reinforcements will arrive. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem also has great support for modifying the game’s various values, as scoring, supply, and battlegroup properties can be easily altered in text files. Each scenario can involve multiple nations with different capabilities, and airborne operations (obviously a focus of this game) are heavily involved. The difficulty level chosen can provide more off-map support, while realism settings adjust how much you see enemy units and whether friendly units will act on their own. Victory is usually determined by who breaks morale first (which produces multiple battles in the same place), but you can also introduce a time limit and location-based conditions. Multiplayer features are disappointing: there is no in-game matchmaking, so you must rely on third-party applications like Battle HQ to find people to play against. I don’t understand why Cross of Iron includes a fantastic persistent online mode (MMCCIII) and this version is so limited. At least the tutorials do a good job teaching the basics. Overall, despite the limited multiplayer features, Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does add noteworthy additions.

Gameplay in Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem comes in two flavors: the strategic overview and tactical battles. In the strategic mode, you move battlegroups around the scenario map, fighting over resources and creating battles that are played out in the tactical mode. A single battlegroup may actually be of several sizes (companies, regiments), which determines how many troops are available during a tactical battle (up to fifteen). Rarely are all of your forces allowed to play at once, though, because of the fifteen-limit limitation in the tactical battles. Because of this, it can take many four-hour turns to resolve a single conflict. Unfortunately, the game does not resize the battle area for smaller skirmishes involving companies or depleted forces, so there can be a lot of waiting, especially if you are the defender. Battlegroups can be ordered to attack, rest, merge with another group, swap roles (front line and support) with another group, disband, or provide support (air, artillery, mortar, or supplies). There can be two groups in one location at a time; the front line group will provide most of the available troops while the support group can lend a couple of forces if needed. Groups will automatically construct defenses if they do not move, and static troops may be present as a final form of defense. During battle, cohesion may be lost, which reduces the number of force pool points available next turn, and completely defeated groups may retreat off the map or dissolve altogether. Other features include night battles, river crossings, and weather (which affects air support and the movement of vehicles). The main fight is for control of supply points, which resupply your troops with ammunition and fuel. Most of the time, you’ll simply be moving troops around to take more terrain. While the strategic mode lacks the depth of more dedicated strategic-level games, it does offer a good platform for dynamic tactical battles.

The tactical portion of Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem is what it’s always been: a detailed simulation of battlefield dynamics involving up to thirty (fifteen per side) squads of troops. This is thanks to individual tracking of ammunition and morale (eight classifications from “healthy” to “panicked”) to determine the outcome of their current action. It’s a great system that takes advantage of cover, buildings, and squad dynamics to flank and destroy the enemy. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem includes all of the fighting elements of the Western Front of World War II: infantry, snipers, anti-tank infantry, machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, halftracks, mortars, and off-map artillery and air strikes. You can choose from any of the available troops in your battlegroup through a point buying system that gives more choice than simply handing you troops that may or may not be appropriate for the terrain and enemy. Individual soldiers are rated according to leadership, intelligence, strength, and experience for even more detail. The over sixty maps include lots of places to hide, from houses to forests and hedgerows, and the game seems to incorporate these elements well with realistic line of sight and range for weapons. Orders are the standard fare: move, move fast, sneak, fire, smoke, defend, and ambush. The game still requires you to right-click directly on the unit in order to issue a command, instead of using the unit roster at the bottom of the screen. New to the series is the ability to blow bridges, a last resort action by the Germans that results in immediate withdrawal, but a significant blow to the Allies on the strategic map. Also added are night battles that allow you to bring in flares to illuminate the area for better killing. There are some features that Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem still does without: you can’t save during a battle, you can’t accelerate time when you are waiting for the AI to attack, and the mouse wheel still does not zoom. Despite occasional improved pathfinding, the AI is becoming increasingly outdated because of its slow, unorganized attacks. I found the game almost trivially easy to beat unless I am outmanned by a significant margin. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem is better on the offensive, as the computer player typically throws one unit at a time into your waiting defenses, rarely dislodging you unless they have a clear numerical superiority.

IN CLOSING
Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem takes a great game, makes noticeable improvements, and comes up a bit short of “must buy” status. The number of battlefields has been expanded to over sixty, producing more varied campaigns and operations that should provide a lot of gaming bang for your buck. The editors allow you to create custom operations and campaigns, and most of the game’s important data has been converted into easy-to-edit text files. Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem features a nice set of tutorials for the newcomer as well. Multiplayer requires you to use a third-party chat application instead of adapting the excellent MMCCIII dynamic online campaign from Cross of Iron. The strategic mode allows you to move around battlegroups, establish front line and reserve units, engage static defensive troops, and try out night battles while fighting over supplies. The fixed fifteen-unit limit for the tactical battles restricts the size of the conflicts and ignores how many troops each battlegroup might actually contain, which is a bit disappointing. The tactical battles still use morale to great effect and feature point buying for complete customization of your forces. The deficiencies of the AI is becoming more apparent with time: acting much better as a defender, the computer just can’t seem to put forth coordinated attacks on a reliable basis. There are other limitations that should be resolved by now: you can’t save a battle and you can’t accelerate time. However, Close Combat - Last Stand Arnhem does give you increased resolutions and the ability to play the game in a window, so that’s something. It's not the best Close Combat remake, but Last Stand Arnhem is better than the last one I reviewed. If this game had the same multiplayer capabilities as Cross of Iron, improved AI, and a couple other minor additional features, then we'd have a completely fulfilling update.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Oil Blue Review

The Oil Blue, developed and published by Vertigo Games.
The Good: Distinct drilling equipment, repairing minigames, informative tutorials
The Not So Good: Uneven attention distribution makes for chaotic gameplay, occasionally inefficient interface, high difficulty can't be changed
What say you? This click-management casual game has nice variety but lacks some balance: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m no geologist…actually, I am a geologist, so I put the blame for the Gulf oil spill (official name: “my bad”) directly on you, the consumer. Your insatiable need for oil, with your big SUVs and high-class wine, has driven the petroleum industry to drill deeper, harder, faster, longer. If only those damn hippies would let us drill into protected land in Alaska (those baby seals deserve it, plus they taste really good). Anyway, The Oil Blue simulates the exciting world of potentially damaging the planet through oil exploration as you find beautiful, exotic locations and build giant metallic structures on top of them. Isn’t technology wonderful?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
After a rough introduction (poor visuals and voice acting), the presentation gets a lot better. The Oil Blue features semi-realistic interpretations of drilling equipment designed for a lot of clicking, reminiscent of the control panels found in a good submarine simulation. There are some small buttons for equipment options and the layout isn’t optimized: switching between equipment is done on the left side of the screen while most of the button are in the middle. The Oil Blue doesn’t feature keyboard shortcuts that I could find, making your command of the equipment less than efficient (especially for veterans of hotkey-laden strategy games). The place to click to switch between the surface and ocean is really small, although the transition does look nice. There are some nice subtle animations and the equipment does look like it might actually exist in real life, so The Oil Blue delivers on those counts. The game also offers fitting music for the oceanic adventures and appropriate acoustic warnings for in-game events. Overall, the game looks fine, although the interface could be laid out in a more intuitive manner.

ET AL.
The Oil Blue has you moving from island to island, restarting old equipment to fulfill the world’s renewed need for oil. Each island has the same objective: produce a number of barrels of oil in a set number of days. Each level lasts about ten to fifteen minutes (broken into two to three minute intervals), although the amount of interaction makes it feel a lot longer. Produced oil is sold on the world market, which features small price fluctuations; you can maximize your profit by waiting for price increases, but your attention is usually required elsewhere. Ranks are earned very quickly, unlocking new equipment or increasing the performance of current tools. Each new island offers a percentage chance of having each of the four types of oil drills, which does increase replay value by a slight amount. The Oil Blue also features some enlightening tutorials that explain each of the game’s unique tools well.

The Oil Blue features a unique suite of equipment you will need to control. Because each piece of equipment is controlled differently, the game is far more interesting than most click-management offerings that have you do the same exact thing each and every level. The easiest to control is the groundwell: you choose a drilling speed and designate batteries to power the process. Batteries not in use are recharged, so the groundwell requires only occasional input (just switching batteries over and tweaking the speed) and provides a good amount of oil. It also doesn’t require repairs, which makes the groundwell very easy to manage. Conversely, the most complex (and annoying) is the oil derrick: you must manually slow down the drill when you spot a pocket of oil (a filled-in box), move the drill over, and click to collect. The problem is that this requires constant supervision to catch all the oil, and you must also release pressure frequently, especially when you are collecting the oil. The oil derrick breaks easily and frankly doesn’t offer enough oil to make it worth the effort. The pumpjack has you select appropriate drill locations from a list every thirty seconds; while this makes this equipment easy to manage and allows you to concentrate on other areas, it also doesn’t offer near the amount of oil the other equipment does. The rig has you plotting drill points in a 2-D map to keep the drill over pockets of oil; this, like the oil derrick, requires a lot of attention to maximize your drilling.

All of the equipment, except for the groundwell, will need to be repaired. This involves playing any of a large number of minigames that are quite varied: Simon, moving levers, tracing a path, and more. This is a good break from drilling, but it takes too much time. Optimally, you’ll want to repair your broken tools early in the day before the market opens, but sometimes there is no time to do so. You simply don’t have enough time to do it while other drills are running, so if you have multiple broken equipment, you are in trouble. Some of the games (like the one with the lights) make no sense, and you can’t quit a sequence and start another.

The Oil Blue suffers from a lack of game balance. The oil derrick and rig require too much direct attention, which means you’ll be neglecting your other methods of crude production. I usually try to ignore the oil derricks completely and focus on the other methods, hopefully getting enough oil to fulfill the objective. Some players might be able to switch between five things going on simultaneously, but I can’t. Ironically, the game gets easier as each island level progresses due to automated upgrades that are applied to each tool as you use them. Granted, The Oil Blue does add more equipment and tougher objectives with more advanced maps, but the difficulty can still be insurmountable. The game is quite stressful and difficult and can’t be adjusted to make things easier. In a perfect world, you would spend equal amounts of time with each apparatus, deftly switching between each and maximizing your production and profit. Unfortunately, The Oil Blue does not meet this goal, instead favoring the more simplistic machines that provide the same amount (or a significantly better amount, if you use them enough and they become upgraded) of production over ones that require almost constant supervision with little benefit.

IN CLOSING
The Oil Blue has distinguished gameplay that separates itself from a lot of click-management titles. Each of the four pieces of drilling equipment you have access to behave differently, which provides a varied experience that takes a lot longer to get “old” and repetitive. Unfortunately, the equipment is not balanced well: you need to spend too much time with the oil derrick and rig. It’s simply easier to focus on the more automated equipment that provide just as much oil with a lot less work. I don't know who could possibly manage multiple pumps of various kinds, efficiently running all at the same time. The interface doesn’t make things much easier, requiring a lot of clicks across the screen and in small areas. I did find the tutorials to be well-written and informative, which makes learning the game easier. On top of simply running the equipment, you must devote more time to repair broken equipment, sometimes while you are trying to manage the functional pumps. The Oil Blue lacks difficulty settings to ease you into the process: I barely beat the second island, and you can’t slow down the processes. Equipment does get easier to manage with time, which actually makes later days easier than the starting ones, a reverse of typical game design. Each island features the same sort of objectives (a set number of barrels to collect) instead of introducing some variety here. You sell your oil on a fluctuating market, which would add another layer to the game, if you weren’t already concerned with actually running the pumps and could pay attention to the prices. I imagine that click-management veterans will have an easier time with The Oil Blue, but I found that the game divides attention too unevenly, making the gameplay border on unmanageable.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ship Simulator Extremes Review

Ship Simulator Extremes, developed by VSTEP and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: A variety of ships from motorboats to container ships, detailed environments and ship models, scripted campaign missions with clear objectives including towing and fire rescue, impressive weather effects, autopilot with time acceleration, multiplayer, all content available from the beginning
The Not So Good: Terrible AI ships, lacks dynamic or random missions, touchy controls, no objectives for online play, no visual damage
What say you? This feature-filled civilian boating simulation has some new features but a lot of the same limitations: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Have you ever wanted to sail a gigantic oil tanker, or any other outrageously expensive boat? Don’t lie, I can tell when you are lying to me. That’s right, of course you do. Well, good thing there are niche PC simulations to satisfy your nautical desires. Ship Simulator Extremes is the next in the line of accurate non-combat maritime adventures, previously encountered in Ship Simulator 2008 (which was actually released in 2007). What has been added in three years’ development to warrant another $40 investment?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Ship Simulator Extremes features a strong presentation for a naval simulation. Each of the ships in the large roster (there are sixty ships in all, half of which can be controlled by the player) is very detailed, from the interiors (which you can walk around) out. While the textures aren’t the most various (none of the ships suffer from rust or other signs of wear-and-tear), the ship models are quite impressive. The environments are all recognizable locales, sending you off to exotic hot-spots around the world (like Rotterdam!). While it would have been nice to be able to sail anywhere, like in a fight simulation, the tradeoff for that limitation is more accurate port geography and landmarks. I found performance to be acceptable, not great, but acceptable. There is severe pop-in, though, when you quickly turn the camera, no matter what your detail settings are adjusted to. The waves are notable, as you would expect for a game that primarily takes place at sea, and weather can be dangerously beautiful. The wakes behind the ships, however, are very noticeable textures that ruin the immersion ever so slightly. On the sound front, all of the ships seem like they are outfitted with appropriate effects, although the game world is generally lifeless. None of the scripted mission objectives are voiced, either, though you do get movies when you complete campaign scenarios. The quality of the graphics carries the immersion of Ship Simulator Extremes.

ET AL.
Ship Simulator Extremes simulates ships (not doubt in an extreme manner). There are thirty ships (twenty-nine if you did not pre-order) that you can personally control, in addition to thirty AI-controlled vessels you might spot navigating around each harbor. There is a great variety of civilian vessels to helm, including freighters, pilot boats, rescue boats, tugboats, yachts, coast guard vessels, life boats, motorboats, hovercraft, tankers, cruise ships, patrol boats, and a ferry. Ship Simulator Extremes features three campaigns offering a total of thirty-three missions that can be thankfully completed in any order (+1 for not locking content from users simply based on experience): tourist missions (ferries, cruise ships), the “core” missions (freighters and rescue), and a set of Greenpeace missions (our motto: to annoy) that add some real-life application to the naval shenanigans. All of the missions are highly scripted and offer the same predictable objectives each play through; this reduces the replay value of this content. A mission editor is planned for a future patch to expand the content. Most of the missions involve sailing to waypoints, with some towing, fire rescue, or goods transport thrown in for good measure. The addition of water cannons makes missions a bit more interesting, but you’re still just sailing between locations most of the time. Twelve environments are provided for your boating pleasure, from Marseille to Bora Bora to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. Also included is the ability to freely sail around any of the locations with any of the available ships (again, thank you for not arbitrarily locking some of the ships), but this part of the game lacks any sort of structure. The inclusion of randomly generated missions (maybe like the Armory in ArmA II) would give some purpose here. You can customize the weather conditions to make things more interesting and earn ranks for completing missions, but I’d still like a less scripted but still focused option. Cooperative multiplayer is available, complete with an online server list, but since this mode behaves just like the free roam mode, there are no missions or any real point other than knowing that the other ships are controlled by humans. While Ship Simulator Extremes does feature a lot of nice content, it’s time to complete the package.

Controlling a ship might be difficult in real life, and Ship Simulator Extremes doesn’t make it any easier. The main problem is poor controls using either the mouse or keyboard. Clicking and dragging on controls is difficult, as the individual knobs and levels have a small area on which to position your mouse. When you are attempting precision maneuvering of a large ship, this method is less than idea. The keyboard commands aren’t any better: most are “all or nothing” (full steering or no steering) providing little mid-range accuracy. Things become more precise using a joystick, but there should be a better substitute for the touchy control scheme. You are given a number of navigational aids, including a compass, radar, and nautical map. Turning speed, rudder angles, and precise speeds are also given, as are the exact distance and bearing to the next waypoint. While not totally realistic, they are helpful. You can control the ship from the cockpit, interacting directly with the real controls in the (likely) appropriate locations; this is great for increased immersion. You can also walk around the ship (hopefully you set it to autopilot first), although the level of detail seen in the ship exteriors generally does not extend inside. There are a number of tools to play with: mooring to a dock, towing other boats, or anchoring. Ship Simulator Extremes makes it fairly easy to point-and-click roped connections to satisfy mission objectives. You can also use the proper navigational lights (aground, piloting, moored, underway) and deploy smaller ships you can switch between. The missions have clearly marked green stars to indicate the next waypoint, but the objectives are occasionally vague and may leave out key instructions (like requiring you to dock). You can use autopilot as long as you aren’t near an objective, and its an indispensable tool for the long stretches of boring boating. You must stay fixed to the full-screen map view during time acceleration that obviously doesn’t allow you to gawk at the scenery that a bunch of artists worked really hard on.

I found the missions in Ship Simulator Extremes to deliver a good level of variety, at least as much as you can in a simulation where you aren’t blowing stuff up. The harbors are generally a boring, empty place (unless the scenario calls for heavy traffic) and weather is generally on the calm side, so Ship Simulator Extremes isn’t exactly extreme. The game does not feature visual ship damage, but if you ram your boat into the dock often enough, it will slowly sink into the watery deep. Not that the AI plays a significant role in the game, but it is noticeable when the computer-controlled ships get stuck on the edge of a map or use odd paths through a harbor. Or, you know, try to crash into your ship. Luckily, the AI only plays a small role in most scenarios, so its shortcomings can generally be ignored. For a civilian boating simulation, Ship Simulator Extremes delivers the goods on most counts.

IN CLOSING
Ship Simulator Extremes is certainly better than its predecessor, but not significantly so. What you do get is the typical array of new items: plenty of ships to helm and a number of detailed environments. The mission structure is generally the same, with an emphasis on waypoint navigation with the occasional tow, goods transport, or use of water cannons. I do like the tie-in with Greenpeace, lending some authenticity to your nautical adventures. Objective locations are clearly marked on your map and usually helpful descriptions of what to do next accompany them. There is a fair amount of content here, although the promise of a future editor sweetens the long-term prospects of Ship Simulator Extremes. The free roaming mode remains too free: there is really no point to it. Unfortunately, the promise of cooperative multiplayer suffers a similar downfall: while you can play with others, you have to make up your own objectives. Ship Simulator Extremes needs to add more structure (like dynamic missions) to the freeform mode and robust online play to become a truly impressive simulation. The controls feature easy access to tools for anchoring and towing, but odd mouse-driven options and limitations for the keyboard make controlling Ship Simulator Extremes a bit more cumbersome than necessary. Autopilot cuts down on some of the boredom associated with straight, unimpeded navigation of the open ocean, and the graphics are generally excellent. Still, I have a lot of the same complaints as last time, and after refreshing my memory by reading that review, I’m a little astonished by how little the series has progressed in three years. The AI tries its best to sabotage your missions, controls are iffy, and the multiplayer mode feels incomplete. Fans of ship simulations might find another good time, but more significant improvements are required to reel in an expanded audience.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Ancient Trader Review

Ancient Trader, developed and published by 4kids Games.
The Good: Clear-cut trading, exquisite map graphics, ship upgrades and side quests, monstrous enemies, randomly generated maps, card battles combine luck and strategy
The Not So Good: No online multiplayer, can’t save game progress, repetitive, limited AI
What say you? Distinctive visuals and straightforward mechanics highlight this turn-based trading game with abbreviated features for the PC: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The ancient seas were full of peril. It took a special breed of man to take on the salty ocean and all the terrible evil it contains: giant squid, dragons, serpents, Miley Cyrus. The early cartographers made sure to include such beasts on their highly accurate maps depicting the wonders of the ocean. Of course, these dangers are totally real and still exist, so it’s about time someone came up with a faithful simulation of the perils of oceanic travel. Ancient Trader is a trading game where you shuttle goods from port to port, battle monsters, upgrade your ship, and make lots of money. How does this more casual title compare to other trading games? And, more importantly, will I get eaten by a whale?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I would wager that it’s the graphics that draw most people towards Ancient Trader, and for good reason: the game looks fantastic. The game uses the aesthetic of an old map to great effect, instantly placing the game in a historical setting without any need for exposition. The level of detail is very good, from the ship and monster designs to the individual islands scattered around the seas. Ancient Trader is also animated in a subtle and effective manner, bringing the dangerous high seas to life. The game features one of the best maps in any computer game. The background music is restrained and the sound effects are few, but I feel both fit the overall mood of Ancient Trader.

ET AL.
Ancient Trader has you taking to the high seas in search for money, danger, and more money. The single player game offers three levels of difficulty that gives the AI slightly better equipment to start with on several set designs or randomized maps of three sizes. Each of the single player games has a single goal: defeat the Ancient Guardian (a giant fish thing) by collecting three artifacts scattered around various ports and engaging it in a final battle for naval dominance. Tutorial messages are incorporated in the game as you play, which serve to teach the simple mechanics effectively. You cannot save your progress, though: games are somewhat short (30 minutes to one hour, depending on map size), but you should always have the option. Multiplayer is tragically limited on the PC: only hotseat options are available, as the online capabilities are restricted to the evil consoles. Up to four human players plus up to four AI players can take on maps of the three sizes. The only real difference between the multiplayer hotseat and the single player modes is the ability to change the objectives, adding in cash and wealth options for determining victory.

The interface in Ancient Trader is obviously designed for a television console, as the data display takes up almost half of the screen, obscuring the map and requiring more scrolling. The game does clearly show ship range as you navigate the treacherous waters and hunt (or avoid) monsters that move about the map hunting for you. There is also an assortment of loot to be found floating in the ocean: cash, cargo, directions to an unknown port, increased speed, and a maelstrom that transports you to a random location. Most of your explorations, however, will be focused on finding ports for trade and artifacts.

Most of your explorations will be focused on finding ports for trade and artifacts. It’s like I just said that! Each port has access to three goods (tea, spices, and fruit); each item has a clearly marked price that is fixed for each port throughout the course of each game. While this system obviously doesn’t take supply and demand into account, it does it make very easily to set up profitable trade routes quickly (a little too easily for advanced players). Each port also gives you access to three upgrades for a monetary cost that increases with each level: better combat cards, larger cargo space, and faster speed. The combat card bonuses change from port to port, so extensive exploration is key to maximize your firepower. You can also embark on simple quests: deliver an item, find a hidden port, or kill a monster terrorizing the locals. These are quite repetitive but offer significant enough rewards where they should not be ignored. Quests also give some direction and purpose to occasionally monotonous trading runs.

Combat in Ancient Trader is card-based. You are given three cards (red, green, blue), the power of which is determined by how much your upgraded them at each port (you did upgrade them, didn’t you?). Each card has another color against which is receives a two-point bonus, and here is where the strategy lies: which card do you play first? Which card will your opponent play first? Which card will your opponent think you will play first? This initial tension (which is present in every battle that involves cards of similar ability levels) is much more intriguing against a human opponent (which is why online multiplayer is such a sad missing feature), because you feel like the AI might be picking things at random. There are occasions where the computer does “outplay” you, or so you think (maybe it was just chance). There is a significant amount of luck with the battles: ties are broken randomly, and you might need multiple attempts to “luck out” against the most powerful monsters. Ancient Trader is about 75% luck, 25% skill, which I suppose is no different from games that use dice rolls to determine the results. A successful battle earns you cash, but a loss costs money or cargo. The AI overall is a very efficient trader (especially on higher difficulty maps) and will seek out the most profitable routes, but they ultimately offer no challenge as the computer opponents do not collect the artifacts required to defeat the ancient guardian, even on the highest difficulty level. It took me about three games to get the mechanics down and then I was able to easily beat the AI on the default victory condition every time.

IN CLOSING
With Ancient Trader, you come for the graphics and stay for the gameplay, at least for a little while. The map is beautiful, a testament to how great 2-D graphics can still trump three dimensions. The game’s oceanic settings can also be randomly generated: while the individual islands will become familiar, their locations will not. Trade is very straightforward: constant prices are clearly displayed, making so that anybody can accomplish efficient trade easily. The seas are populated with dangerous monsters, which at first are avoided but later hunted for cash rewards. Quests are also available to earn more money, usually involving finding a specific location or taking on powerful sea dwellers. Money earned through trade and combat can be spent upgrading your ship’s attack ratings, speed, and cargo hold. Combat is card-based, where specific cards best others; it favors luck more than skill, but still serves as a slightly more interesting resolution than simple dice rolls. The AI isn’t up to the challenge, though: while they are able traders, even on the highest difficulty setting they did not fulfill the game’s basic collect-and-kill objective. This problem would be alleviated by robust multiplayer support, but the developers sadly only allow for hotseat competition on the PC. Despite some limited features and a feeling of repetition after a couple of games, I enjoyed looking at and playing Ancient Trader more than some other trading games. For $10, the casual experience is worth the price of admission. Just watch out for the Kraken.