Monday, November 29, 2010

Grotesque Tactics - Evil Heroes Review

Grotesque Tactics - Evil Heroes, developed by Silent Dreams and published by Meridian 4.
The Good: Combat emphasizes terrain and takes place directly on quest map, distinctive characters with varied skills
The Not So Good: Linear campaign with repetitive objectives and laborious dialogue, limited special abilities produce uninspired combat, easy, no cooperative play
What say you? A lighter approach to role-playing is short on features and depth: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The comedy role-playing game is in full force. After too many RPGs have taken themselves far too seriously, a band of merry men...err, games have taken it upon themselves to lighten up the mood. Recently, the Japanese import Recettear offered up a more humorous take on venturing out into the wilds in search for riches and/or adventure. Next is German import Grotesque Tactics - Evil Heroes, which features tactical battles of a grotesque nature. On with the grotesqueness!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Grotesque Tactics features decent graphics for a budget-level indie title. The game utilizes a high angle camera that I found initially to be weird: it’s somewhere between isometric and top-down, and you can’t change the angle (just the zoom level). The problem I have with it is that trees and other objects commonly restrict your view, hiding things more often than they should be (which is “never”). The graphics run the gamut from “bright” to “dark,” with ten varied environments you will encounter along the way. The character models are OK: though small and lacking a lot of detail, they do exhibit decent animations. The spell effects in Grotesque Tactics can be nice. On the sound front, you get no voiced dialogue (lots of reading! yay!) but pleasing background music and appropriate, if repetitive, battle sounds. In the end, I was neither pleased nor disappointed by the presentation of Grotesque Tactics.

ET AL.
In Grotesque Tactics, you lead a group of warriors against the forces of evil, and possible some Evil Heroes. The campaign is too static: the initial enemy locations are scripted and the path to each objective is rarely varied, although you can approach them differently to an extent. The quests are very combat-oriented, as you fight the next set of enemies as you traverse across the map to the objective location. Travel is made more speedy by using time acceleration: a nice feature. Treasure chests are occasionally scattered throughout the landscape, although I did not note any randomization in this area. There are only ten maps in the game, one of which is the headquarters city for healing, dealing with merchants, and getting new quests. The difficulty is fairly low, and with no way to increase the challenge, allowing your two main characters to survive is an easy task. Grotesque Tactics features a lot of conversation, more than I care to enjoy. This means there is a whole bunch of reading to be done, as none of it is voiced. Thankfully, you can skip past dialogue with a quick right-click. Unfortunately, you might miss an important piece of information if you do so: clicker beware. The dialogue is intended to be humorous, but maybe it’s funnier in German (everything is funnier in German). It does reference a lot of fantasy games and movies (like Lord of the Rings) and occasionally made me chuckle, but overall it just didn’t hit me as being a highlight of the game. There is the occasional conversation puzzle, but they aren’t as interesting or dynamic as, say, Alpha Protocol. Grotesque Tactics does feature some memorable characters that run the gamut of role-playing archetypes. Sadly, you can’t team up with other humans, as Grotesque Tactics lacks cooperative multiplayer. In addition, it lacks anything beside the campaign, so there are no randomized skirmish battles or user-designed content to enjoy after you are finished with the main quests.

Grotesque Tactics is a role-playing game and has the usual role-playing features. Each of your characters has ratings in attack, defense, magic, resistance, dexterity, and movement. These increase over time with experience through combat: leveling up unlocks two more attacks and better stats. Wait, two more attacks? That’s it? Yeah, Grotesque Tactics sacrifices individual depth for lots of characters, so the game really doesn’t become all that interesting until you’ve encountered all of your teammates (there are nine total) in the course of the campaign. Each character has health, mana (for the two additional attacks), and obsession: when filled, it automatically triggers a special ability. Yeah, automatically. That automation removes a lot of strategic depth, as you should be able to use it at your discretion once the meter is full. The interface is also inefficient: you can’t double-click to perform the most appropriate action (attack or talk, in most cases). Instead, you must click on the target and then click on the action bar (or use a hotkey). This extra step becomes quite tedious after a while. Finally, Grotesque Tactics only has three equipment slots to fill (one weapon, one piece of armor, and one piece of jewelry), so your options there are quite limited. As you can tell by the amount of italics in this paragraph, the role-playing aspects of Grotesque Tactics definitely have some room for improvement.

Probably (and sadly) the best part of Grotesque Tactics is that the tactical battles take place on the same map as the quests, using the terrain you encounter along the way. The game switches between “explore” mode, where you move to the next group of enemies and unlock treasure chests along the way, and “combat” mode. You can see all of the enemies along the way, so there aren’t any surprise encounters. The combat itself is turn-based, and the game always displays the order in which people will move and attack. Success is a matter of picking your targets and using the terrain to your advantage, as certain tiles will grant a defensive or ranged bonus that will be key when you engage superior numbers of enemies that will quickly have you surrounded. The game indicates places you can move to in blue, and enemies you can attack in red. If you choose to attack, the game moves you against your will directly in front of the enemy, possibly to a tile with a lower defensive rating. Your combat options aren’t terribly varied: attack, defend, plus the two special attacks that are unlocked with experience. The automated special abilities are varied, though: poison, sleeping, blinding, improved armor, and more. The enemies you will encounter range from melee fighters to ranged archers to magical mages to giants and elite units, providing different challenges along the way. The AI always outnumbers you, but the challenge never becomes insurmountable. Your enemies move in predictable patterns and never show signs of true intelligence, simply attacking the closest target. Grotesque Tactics is far more interesting the further you go in the campaign, since you have more units with more skills, but there are too many areas of concern to make this a recommended title.

IN CLOSING
Grotesque Tactics - Evil Heroes needs to be more complete: the tactical battles can be interesting later in the campaign, but the path to that point is linear and repetitive, apart from some freedom in choosing the order of targets during each mission. The base of the game is just fine: the turn-based combat utilizes the terrain well and you can engage varied enemies using a number of special abilities and attacks. Unfortunately, that number is “two”, and special abilities are automatically triggered with no input from the user. This decreases the strategic depth of the game immensely, though Grotesque Tactics becomes more interesting when you have your full party of nine warriors available simply because of the increased variety of actions. Undesired positioning before combat is also objectionable, and you are quite limited in the amount of items you can equip at one time. The campaign is too linear, offering up the same encounters each time you play. The mission objectives are almost always to reach some target unit by defeating all of the enemies along the way. Like a lot of role-playing games, there is a lot of text dialogue to ignore and skip past, though it is occasionally humorous. Once you are done with the campaign, there isn’t anything else to do, as Grotesque Tactics lacks cooperative multiplayer and random skirmish battles. Typical role-playing features abound: experience unlocks more attacks and better stats, and there are new items to find during quests. While Grotesque Tactics isn’t technically a bad game, it just doesn’t offer enough to differentiate itself from the large swarm of role-playing titles.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dinner Date Review

Dinner Date, developed and published by Stout Games.
The Good: Really unique, lengthy voiced dialogue and pleasing background music
The Not So Good: Limited interaction has no bearing whatsoever on the story, very linear and extremely short with no replay value
What say you? An odd story-driven game that lacks the variety required for long-term interest and the interaction required for computer-based entertainment: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Though I have never been personally stood up at a date (I usually got rejected long before it reached that point), I can imagine that it’s quite uncomfortable and embarrassing. How long do you wait? Do you finish eating? How many hours should you dedicate to stalking your date afterwards? Well, wonder no more, as your Dinner Date has arrived. In the game, you delve deeper and deeper into the mind of protagonist Julian Luxemburg as the evening turns increasingly more discouraging. It sounds like an interesting idea (I think), but does it translate well into a game? Is it even really a game to begin with?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The presentation of Dinner Date is solid for an indie title. The single room you spend most of your time in has some nice detail, from the worn table to the various objects you may interact with along the way. The bread looks yummy, and if I liked wine that would probably look appealing, too. The most disappointing aspect is Julian’s hands, which (unfortunately) you spend a considerable amount of time staring at. There are some nice canned (and repetitive) animations when things do happen in Dinner Date. A highlight of Dinner Date is the sound design, starting with the completely voiced dialogue heard for the entirety of the game. The background music is excellently composed, a fitting balance for the mood of Dinner Date. Unfortunately, the music drowns out the audio and there is no way to balance it (there is only an overall volume control), so you’ll frequently have to rely on the subtitles to figure out what the protagonist just said. Overall, though, I was pleased with what Dinner Date brings in terms of graphics and sound.

ET AL.
As the subconscious of Julian Luxemburg, you are waiting for his (I assume) hot Asian date to show up for dinner. An entire game takes all of twenty minutes, and each game plays out the same as the last: the same dialogue and the same events at the same time in the same order, no matter what actions you perform in-game. This obviously has a drastic impact on replay value: once is enough and twice is more than enough, which makes it hard to recommend the game for $12.50. The completely linear game would greatly benefit from either longer exposition or (my preference) multiple endings, so you’d at least need to run through the game more than once to experience everything. You don’t have to start anew each time, though, as Dinner Date allows you to choose a chapter, eliminating the need for saved games. Still, the amount of content Dinner Date offers leaves a lot to be desired.

So, what can you do? Not really that much, actually, as you control his subconscious but not his mind (or something like that) and can only do a limited number of actions: reach for bread, drum your fingers, look at the clock, wipe your brow, et cetera. All of this is accomplished using only the keyboard (the camera view is controlled automatically) and depressing the keys prompted by the floating icons on the screen. As I stated earlier, it actually makes no difference what you do in the game, as the one-sided conversation will play out in a fixed order no matter what. It’d be nice if the character referenced what he is doing (“mmm…nice bread,” for example) at least a little bit to make you feel like part of the “action.” Really, all the buttons do is give you something to do while the story advances; you must occasionally take a swig of wine to advance to the next chapter, but other than that your actions are irrelevant. I don’t like feeling irrelevant. I think a lot of people will get turned off by the lack of interaction in Dinner Date, but it’s not really the point of the game I think: it’s like a novel you read or a TV show you watch more than a game you play, which might appeal to some. That said, Dinner Date does need more varied content to survive given the limited interaction you’ll experience during you time waiting for the elusive beauty.

IN CLOSING
Dinner Date is like a book: linear, repetitive, the same every time. But as long as you treat Dinner Date like an experience rather than a traditional game, you’ll find its compelling presentation and unique nature enjoyable for a time or two. I found the story to be decent, not great, but the first-person perspective adds much to the effective immersion of Dinner Date. That said, the “game” has two main faults: a completely linear story and a lack of meaningful interaction. You might as well be watching a movie or television show, since none of your actions change or influence the in-game events and the end result is the same every time. Two play-throughs (at twenty minutes each) is quite enough to experience all that Dinner Date has to offer. Other story-driven games like Sleep Is Death at least offers user modification to extend the life of the product; $12.50 is a steep price for a game with such a short shelf life. Still, those who enjoy story-driven games or are simply curious about the perils of the dating scene will find a different experience spending a night or two on a Dinner Date.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lost Planet 2 Review

Lost Planet 2, developed and published by Capcom.
The Good: Lengthy cooperative campaign, variety of weapons, sixteen-player online play, looks really nice
The Not So Good: Can’t save progress mid-mission, linear campaign, high difficulty playing with incompetent AI teammates, can’t skip campaign levels to play with friends, Games for Windows LIVE
What say you? This unremarkable third-person action sequel must be played with friends: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
First, there was Lost Planet: Extreme Condition. Now, there is Lost Planet 2: Extremer Condition. Shortest introduction ever!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Part of the reason that Lost Planet 2 for the glorious PC came out five months after the console version is the introduction of DirectX 11 graphics (ooo…tessellation!). While this addition might not have been really necessary, the game does look fantastic. First, what is with console games’ fascination with third-person? Is it to show off character models, or just to get in the way of the killing? Who knows for sure, but I will state that the varied character models are animated well and look very nice. This extends to the unique enemies you will encounter during your time on E.D.N. III, each complete with pretty amazing behaviors and crisp visuals. E.D.N. III features a host of varied environments as well, complete with nice effects like snow and rain. Lost Planet 2 is certainly a game to show off the capabilities of your hardware. As for the sound design, things are much more average: decent voice acting, appropriate weapon and alien effects, and suitable background music complete the package. Lost Planet 2 is certainly notable for its visual presentation.

ET AL.
Lost Planet 2 returns to the distant world of E.D.N. III: a great place to visit, except for the GIANT FREAKING ALIENS. The game features a lengthy (fifteen-or-so hours) campaign that is intended for cooperative play. It is quite linear, featuring the same enemies in the same places, and it doesn’t allow you to skip around, despite lacking a true progressive story. There are some unique portions, like defending bases, but usually it’s simply “move to the next waypoint and kill everything along the way.” The campaign requires you to scout for data nodes, which must be annoying activated by constantly hammering the “Q” key on your keyboard, in order to display nearby objective locations and enemies. The campaign offers nothing unique or interesting, with typical boss battles and recycled gameplay.

Now, to the epic fail that is cooperative play in Lost Planet 2. It’s clear the game really, really, really wants you to play online: you need to host a room even if you are playing with three AI bots. You can adjust the difficulty level and effectiveness of friendly fire to adjust how often you want to die. It’s nearly impossible to coordinate with friends because you can’t play any levels you haven’t beaten previously. Despite the lack of a linear story and the fact that the campaign jumps around between the various factions on E.D.N. III, you can’t “catch up” to others or join populated servers that are further along than you are. You can go back to previous missions, but the linearity of the scenarios means this has low appeal. In addition to this shortcoming, you can’t save your progress mid-mission. Ever. This means you’ll have to invest at least 30 minutes to an entire hour of continuous shooting in order to unlock the next level. I guess this is the price you pay for cooperative play (hey, that rhymed!). The crazy part is that each chapter in the campaign is broken up into five-minute bites that could easily contain checkpoints, but the game simply won’t let you save your intermediate progress. All of the frustrations and limitations with the cooperative campaign make it simply not worth the effort.

You can also play competitive multiplayer using the incompetence of Games for Windows LIVE. Both ranked and custom matches are available, in addition to faction matches where you can join one of five teams and battle over territory in a persistent world: pretty cool. Lost Planet 2 features five game modes copied from Unreal Tournament: deathmatch (with team options), conquest for single or multiple data nodes, capture the flag, hunted (where a team of fugitives try to avoid getting shot), and assault. Each mode can be customized to various victory conditions: time, kills, or accumulated points. Further customization options include allowing different initial weapon layouts, weather conditions, and respawn times. While multiplayer can be fun with increased player counts, there’s nothing terribly unique here to make it warrant a purchase based on online play alone. Finally, Lost Planet 2 features a “training” mode that’s not a tutorial: rather, it’s a short, time-based single player competition through linear levels.

Controls for Lost Planet 2 are typical for an action game (jump, roll, melee attack, zoom, throw grenade, et cetera). Luckily, the control limitations of console hardware do not impact the copious options present on a PC keyboard. Suck it, gamepads. The only unique aspect of Lost Planet 2’s control scheme is the use of an anchor to access hard-to-reach places. Yes, this is a ripoff of Just Cause 2, and in Lost Planet 2 you have a lot less options (there’s no tethering cars to helicopters, for example. Just Cause 2: good times). The game clearly highlights vulnerable locations on each enemy for easier targeting, and displays a red “X” over nearby foes (likely an artifact of console auto-aim madness). Overall, Lost Planet 2 plays like any other third person shooter in terms of control options.

The main two things that differentiate Lost Planet 2 from other games is health and thermal energy. Your team is given a “battle” gauge, which decreases when one teammate has depleted their health. Once it reaches zero, the game is over. This is intended to make you work as a team, but invariably what happens is that one incompetent teammate (especially an AI player) can ruin the experience for all. Rehealing is done by using thermal energy, collected from defeated enemy units. Thermal energy can slowly increase your health over time, or you can speed up the process by equipping the harmonizer weapon. Energy is also used for powering shields and the robotic suits, so you might not want to spend it all on bringing your health back up to maximum. Lost Planet 2 features a fine assortment of weapons, from standard fare like the gun sword to short-range revolvers to long-range plasma guns and support shields. In addition, Lost Planet 2 features a variety of grenades that float, stick, and generally cause aliens to explode. The game also features robot suits that offer gunner seats and side handles for multiple-person use. They have very slow movement and marginally better armor than normal people, but far more damaging weapons. While Lost Planet 2 isn’t short on guns and the use of energy is nice, overall the gameplay rarely becomes anything more strategic than aim and shoot.

Lost Planet 2 is almost impossible without human teammates. The AI is generally quite terrible: standing still as you get shot, getting shot themselves, and costing your team overall health points. Part of the problem seems to be that part of the AI is scripted: they occasionally go far ahead of your current position, leaving you susceptible to enemy attack, or stay well back if you haven’t activated a trigger. Complex team coordination is impossible with the AI since you cannot issue orders, and it's required for several of the game's sequences. Don’t even think about trying Lost Planet 2 unless you plan to play with friends.

IN CLOSING
Lost Planet 2 tries its best to force you to play cooperatively, but the game does an absolutely atrocious job supporting this feature. First off, the game discourages you to play alone by featuring useless AI teammates: you can’t issue them orders, they doesn’t like to cover you, and forget about coordinating the more advanced actions occasionally required in the campaign. The AI’s heavily scripted behavior means it might leave you behind or stay well back, allowing you to absorb all of the damage. Thanks, teammates! Finding friends to play against might be difficult, as you can’t skip ahead to join up with then, odd since there isn’t a linear story to care about. You also can’t save your progress mid-mission, so plan for having to play up to an hour in one sitting. Despite featuring some minor changes in procedure, Lost Planet 2 features a linear campaign with somewhat vague objectives and the same encounters every time you play (decreasing the desire to play previous missions with other players cooperatively). The game features a variety of weapons for a range of conditions, including a blatantly stolen, limited version of the grappling hook from Just Cause 2. The robotic suits offer a small increase in protection and vastly superior weaponry for much slower movement: a minor diversion overall. The use of thermal energy for rehealing yourself and teammates is a nice feature in theory, but usually the quantities of it gathered from defeated aliens is high enough where Lost Planet 2 isn’t ever that difficult, as long as you are playing along with humans. Speaking of other humans, Lost Planet 2 has decent fun in competitive multiplayer, featuring multiple game modes stolen from Unreal Tournament that offer a bit of a consolation prize for the underdeveloped campaign. And let’s not forget the excellent graphics. In the end, though, Lost Planet 2 disables its cooperative features enough to make it an action title that’s easy to skip.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bronze Review

Bronze, developed by Dreamspike Studios and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Simple but deep rules, challenging AI, diverse nations with different strategies, quick games with random maps, helpful tutorials, several campaigns
The Not So Good: Lacks online play
What say you? This territory-based strategy game features unique, interesting gameplay and very competent computer opponents: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The Bronze Age, the period from 3300 BC to JUSTIN BIEBER RULZZZZ!!!11!!11 (source: Wikipedia), was an era of intense…bronzing. I’m assuming that the lack of modern suntan lotion lead to widespread tanning (or “bronzing”) during this time, eventually leading to an outbreak of skin cancer among the human race. History is so much more fun if you make it up as you go along! I think this brings us to Bronze, a turn-based strategy game that’s a battle for territory across Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning “is it always this hot out?”), which has absolutely nothing to do with skin cancer in any way. Hey, “poorly written introduction”...what do you expect?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Bronze is a 2-D strategy game, and it looks, well, like a 2-D strategy game. The game features tiles that are easy to identify but simple in detail, along with the various buildings and their designs. There aren’t any special affects to see, but at least Bronze features good tool-tips and clearly indicates territory ownership. While simply functional, the graphics of Bronze never negatively impact the gameplay. The sound design features very minimal effects for things like building conversion and good background music. There’s not much to report on the graphics and sound front, but true strategy fans will be able to look past the simple presentation and direct their attention towards the gameplay.

ET AL.
Bronze has features out the wazoo (technical term), with one notable exception. To start off, the game features three campaigns covering the early, middle, and late Bronze ages. Each of these start you off with one territory and you can attack any adjacent province. If you own more surrounding territory, you get additional starting spots to decrease the difficulty level. In addition, you are given an extra spot in provinces where your civilization was historically strong. If you play the game on “easy” difficulty setting, the approximate difficulty level is also displayed (in addition to getting an income bonus). The semi-linear format of the campaign works well: even though the scenarios take place on scripted maps against pre-determined opponents, you can go through them in an order of your choosing. The campaigns will keep players busy for a while, especially on higher difficulty levels where further attempts at a single map will be required.

But wait: there’s more (if you call right now)! Bronze also includes custom matches and multi-game tournaments, using random maps or any of the scripted affairs from the campaigns. You can set the number of rounds, starting funds, and AI difficulty. Hotseat play is available for the custom games, but Bronze lacks online play of any kind, a disappointing limitation. Additionally, there is a survival mode where you must win as many randomly generated maps in a row as you can, and a comprehensive tutorial that comprises of three lessons and five practice matches to ease you into the game. While all of the game’s basics are covered between the tutorial and the manual, I would like to see a condensed rundown of the traits of each civilization. Bronze has very quick games (usually less than ten minutes, if not less) that make it a good pick-up-and-play solution for busy strategy fans. In short (too late!), the features of Bronze are quite satisfying.

Games of Bronze are won by claiming the most territory, and that is done by placing any of a number of buildings in each tile. You can claim any tile that touches your territory, allowing you to section off portions of the map from enemy expansion. The most basic is the farm, essentially an empty tile that gives one gold and can be expanded later with other buildings. What other buildings, you ask? Villages can bring in more income when placed next to mountains, trade outposts earn more money with each one placed, towns claim any surrounding neutral tile (very useful for early expansion), a ziggurat converts any adjacent enemy farms to your side, an army converts and enemy buildings to your side, a citadel prevents army conversion, an embassy prevents army and ziggurat use for six turns, and a palace is an expensive combination of citadel, army, ziggurat, and town. All of the buildings (except for the farm and village) cost money to place, so you must alternate between money producing and money consuming structures. The buildings offer pleasingly varied strategies and counter-strategies, since each structure has a specific role and cost associated with it. On top of that, there are eleven different civilizations, each of which has different prices and different buildings available. This really increases the strategic variety Bronze has to offer, further increasing the replay value of the title.

The terrain is also important for overall victory. The maps are populated with different tiles, including “normal” fertile land, rivers that must be traversed by building bridges, seas that cannot be passed, desert that doesn’t allow for farms, swamps that don’t allow for anything, mountains that give villages resources, and hills that automatically protect against enemy armies. Bronze is ripe for strategic variety thanks to its easy-to-understand rules and varied structures and landscapes. The AI is a fantastic opponent, taking great advantage of their civilization’s strengths and your weaknesses (like putting a lot of buildings on the border when your armies are more expensive than normal). The computer also seems to have many overall strategies up its sleeve, picking a different one for each game that keeps you on your toes. Strategy veterans should find a lot to like here thanks to the quality AI and unique mechanics.

IN CLOSING
Bronze takes a straightforward premise (territory control) and incorporates simple mechanics (place buildings) with enough variety (building types and civilizations) to make it quite an interesting little game. Each civilization has its own strategy: taking over buildings with armies, conquering neutral territory with towns, converting farms with ziggurats, or simply cornering off large sections of the map. The key to Bronze is to take advantage of which buildings are cheapest for your civilization and can’t be countered by the enemy, since most civs have one or two structures they simply cannot build or are prohibitively expensive. The AI is quite excellent, taking advantage of their side’s strengths and capitalizing on your weaknesses; it almost makes up for Bronze lacking online play (almost). The game features three map-based campaigns, along with custom matches and survival modes on random maps, so you can play the title for a long, long time. With unique mechanics, diverse civilizations, and quality computer opponents, those looking for something a bit different in the strategy genre should take an extended glance towards Bronze.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

RailWorks 2 Train Simulator Review

RailWorks 2 Train Simulator, developed and published by RailSimulator.com.
The Good: Excellent informative interface, adjustable control complexity, variety of trains and scenarios with plenty of additional downloadable content (for a price), map and scenario editors
The Not So Good: No multiplayer
What say you? Like trains? Get this game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Nothing describes PC gaming more than authentic simulations. Learning curves be damned: if it doesn’t fly/drive/perform like the real thing, we don’t need it. Count as a part of this proud tradition airplanes, race cars, buses, boats, trucks, and those DCS titles that I am too intimidated to try. Another niche entry is the train simulation, obviously inspired by model train enthusiasts who would like a more digital approach to conducting. I have no idea what RailWorks 2 adds, because I never played RailWorks 1, so that’s how I am going to review it: as a whole product. Plus, owners of the original game get to upgrade for free, so reviewing only the improvements would be completely pointless! Let’s get trainin’! Woooo woooo! (that was a train whistle)

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
RailWorks 2 features some nice visuals. You can tell that the graphics are limited to the available sight lines along each linear train route, but it doesn't matter because they are incessantly detailed. I would wager that the trackside objects and signage are to-the-letter accurate for the five actual layouts, which is an impressive accomplishment. You can also experience a number of weather and time-of-day effects during your time on the tracks. In addition, each of the trains are nicely modeled and also look great. Your passengers have poor animations and look robotic at best, but this is a small concession in what otherwise is a very nice graphical package. I did notice the occasional lowered framerate as more detail came into view, and pop-in can ruin the immersion, but both of these phenomena are admittedly on the rare side of things. On the sound front, the trains sound like trains, and your ride is generally quiet, save for the occasional clicky-clack of the tracks. Overall, RailWorks 2 does as a modern simulation should in the presentation department.

ET AL.
RailWorks 2 Train Simulator simulates trains. Weird, I know! The game features around fifty scenarios of varying difficulty and length, from simple passenger shuttling to coupling of freight to high-traffic scenarios: about the most variety you can expect in a train sim. The scenarios are organized by train or route (though not by difficulty) and offer up clear objectives to complete during your time in the cab. I did have some problems with objectives not checking off correctly; I’m not sure if I was doing something wrong or missing a step, but I swear I attached that cargo or stopped at that station. In addition to the more structured scenarios, you can “free roam” along any route, albeit without AI trains (disappointing), or undertake one of the several career scenarios that give you a performance score and are very strict in their rules enforcement.

RailWorks 2 features eight routes (five real ones) that are quite detailed, and if that’s not enough (it never is), the game comes with a complete editor where you can create custom routes and scenarios. Sixteen British, American, and German trains are available for your driving pleasure, comprising steam, diesel, and electric (boogie woogie woogie) varieties with authentic interiors. There are a number of vehicles to tow behind your engine: passenger coaches, wagons, cattle vans, coal hoppers, oil tanks, refrigerators, gondolas, and hobo boxcars. And if that’s not enough, RailWorks 2 features a ton of downloadable content: NINE HUNDRED FREAKING DOLLARS worth of it. The only complaint I can levy against RailWorks 2 is the lack of multiplayer: can you imagine the splendid chaos that would ensue? Nevertheless, RailWorks 2 features quite a complete package.

One thing that eases new players into RailWorks 2 is the excellent interface. It starts by giving players the option of using an informative graphical presentation of the track ahead, train information, and overall map, or turning off that data altogether for the ultimate realism experience. This flexibility that permeates the simulation makes it approachable to new players without sacrificing realism for those who desire it. The driving interface provides a side view of your train and its cargo, and indicates the track incline and the distance to upcoming signals and speed limit zones. If you turn it off, you can get four driver’s guide displays that give a 2-D map oriented to the train, a list of upcoming speed limit changes, and gradient and coupling information. You are also given a handy overhead 2-D track map that highlights your path based on junction settings in blue, current speed and speed limit, and scenario instructions. Finally, RailWorks 2 features abundant train statistics, such as fire mass, steam generation rate, brake pipe pressure, and other pertinent information. I love the flexibility and depth of information RailWorks 2 gives to the user.

The flexibility continues to the controls, which can be as complex as you’d like. You can opt for a super-simple scheme with one throttle control, or go more realistic with a throttle/regulator, reverser, and brake. You can adjust your speed by clicking on the simplified interface at the bottom of the screen, using the keyboard shortcuts, or by manually clicking on the buttons in the 3-D cab (commonly the only option in flight simulators). Even more options include the small ejector, cylinder cock (heh heh…cock), lights, wipers, pantograph, sander, horn, and handbrake. You are also required to hit the alerter 2.7 seconds after receiving a warning, and you can employ an automatic fireman to take care of coal management, injector control, and the damper and blower, unless you are some sort of control freak. Success in the scenarios involve following the rules: not accelerating or braking too fast, stopping at red lights, conserving fuel usage, observing speed limits, and (of course) avoiding a fatal blowback. The trains seem to handle like real trains (I’m sure they do); I must say that I was surprised by how powerful the engines are, able to accelerate heavy cargo with little effort. A train is not as complex as an airplane and it is restricted to a predictable route, but RailWorks 2 does an admirable job keeping it as interesting as possible while supporting a range of experience levels.

IN CLOSING
RailWorks 2 Train Simulator is almost a complete train simulator. The game does a great job supporting a range of experience levels: you can opt for the super-simplified controls, or eschew help altogether and drive using the in-cab feedback alone. The interface does an outstanding job presenting pertinent information in a readable format: the driving view clearly displays distance to the next signals and speed limit changes. You can completely ignore the in-cab controls if you’d like and opt for a single interface, an advantage RailWorks 2 has over flight simulators that restrict you to a higher learning curve. The simulation is quite detailed, recording boiler pressure, water level, brake cylinder pressure, and offering an automated fireman to deal with shoveling coal on steam trains. While the game’s fifty scenarios are scripted, with the designer determining the placement of AI trains and your scheduled stops in advance, RailWorks 2 does offer a good variety of tasks to complete. You must follow the rules or be subject to scenario failure, though you can enjoy the free roam mode and not receive a score deduction. The sixteen trains and assorted rolling stock are all quite detailed, as are the eight routes you can travel on. If this isn’t enough content, RailWorks 2 offers a large amount of downloadable content that can be purchased, in addition to an editor for creating your own layouts and scenarios. The only shortcoming is the lack of multiplayer, which prevents the game from achieving true perfection. For train aficionados, it doesn’t get much better than RailWorks 2.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Castle Vox Review

Castle Vox, developed and published by Sillysoft.
The Good: Intriguing balance of production and territorial control through movement, simultaneous movement forces you to defend, flexible online games and custom maps featuring team-based play, exceptional AI, multiplatform
The Not So Good: No random maps, terrible “tutorial”
What say you? An advanced version of Risk: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Do you like Risk but hate having to (a) play with the same board every time and (b) have to find actual friends to play against? Well, have no fear, because Lux was here...like five years ago. Seriously, where have you been? Anyway, the developer is back with another variation on that classic theme with Castle Vox. This iteration combines the classic game of global domination with tenants from turn-based strategy games, like simultaneous movement, defensive structures, and multiple (well, two) unit types. Is this a marriage made in strategic heaven, or strategic hell?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Like its predecessor, Castle Vox tries its best with 2-D graphics. The maps are pretty bland, but since you can easily import any image to create a custom map, you can actually make the maps as detailed as you want them to be. Because of the use of colored provinces to indicate ownership, it’s probably not surprising that most maps lack much detail on the actual game board, reserving pieces of flair for the edges. Not only can the maps be customized, but the sprites for the units can as well, fitting the appropriate time period for that particular battle. There are no battle animations present in Castle Vox: attacked territories simply turn red as control changes hands. On the sound front, Castle Vox features some repetitive battle effects but enjoyable background music, so that’s a plus. Overall, the simple presentation found in Castle Vox is pretty much all you can expect given the game mechanics.

ET AL.
Castle Vox takes its inspiration from Risk: you start with a number of territories and must take over more through military conquest in order to out-produce your opponents. The game only comes with a couple of maps (including a tutorial that doesn’t teach you any of the game mechanics), but luckily there are already lots to download directly from inside the game. This is possible through the game’s map editor, where you can import any image file, draw the boundaries, and assign territory bonuses, all from the comfort of your home! Sadly, Castle Vox does not feature random maps, something which Lux did, so you are at the mercy of the map designers and their purposely unbalanced layouts. Castle Vox relies more on teams, dividing players up evenly or giving one player (or team) a superior starting force: neat. If going up against the AI isn’t enough, Castle Vox features an in-game browser for finding multiplayer games. These can have turn limits between minutes and days, so you can determine whether you want your contest to last a single day or a number of weeks. Finally, Castle Vox supports Macintosh, Linux, and even a strange, niche operating system called “Windows” (I know, I never heard of it either). The features are strong with this one.

Unlike Risk, Castle Vox features simultaneous turn resolution: everyone queues up their orders and everything is executed at the same time. This has a dramatic impact on the gameplay, one that I feel is quite positive: this forces you to defend your territory, since you can swap positions if you dedicate all your forces on the offensive. Castle Vox features two types of units: pawns can move one space, defend better (a rating of 3), and cost three gold, while knights can move two spaces, attack better (a rating of 5), and cost five gold (the game hides the actual attack and defense values; I had to contact the developer directly to obtain more detailed information). A move is considered an “attack” if the enemy owns the territory of the skirmish, while you “defend” moves against your own property. It’s a very simple but nice system that adds a bit of strategy to the mix in two ways. First, you must balance how many of each unit your purchase: too many knights will leave recently acquired lands vulnerable to attack, while too many pawns will stunt your growth. Also, you need to coordinate offensives: typically, knights will do the attacking and pawns will fill in behind them. Even thought pawns stink as attackers in enemy territory, they do absorb damage before knights, giving them a suicidal role in attack maneuvers.

Another difference from Risk is the restriction on new unit placement: you can only bring in fresh troops at a castle, and each side only starts out with one. You can construct forward bases at a very exorbitant cost, so it’s only a viable strategy if you have a large economic lead. Also, units are recuited only after movement and combat is resolved, preventing last-minute defenses of that castle you forgot to fortify. Gold is earned based on the territory you own, and specific provinces or continents may net a bonus income. If members of the same team control a single continent, the bonus is divided between those respective parties. While the name of the game is territory conquest, I feel the unit production and turn resolution elevates the strategy beyond the simple realm of Risk while remaining accessible to novices. Like its predessesor, Castle Vox features a very strong AI that has an excellent grasp on the game mechanics. They will routinely go after undefended territory and exhibit varied strategies, from focused expansion to defensive turtling. The AI is a real challenge that provides a good substitute for human opponents.

IN CLOSING
Castle Vox takes the base of Risk, adds a couple of new elements, and produces a slightly unique and entertaining strategy experience. Castle Vox is more sophisticated than Risk: you must balance producing defensive pawns and offensive knights, as the simultaneous turn resolution requires you to defend. It’s a well-made system overall: neglecting purchasing and placing pawns in newly-conquered lands leaves you open to raider attacks by mounted enemy knights. Restricting new recruits to being placed only at castles also adds another layer of necessary planning and generally makes the game more defensive and subsequently longer: you can slow down a steamroll since new units need to be ferried up to the front lines. Resource collection is still based on territory, so constant expansion is the key to victory. The AI doesn’t make things easy, though, as they are quite adept at handling the game rules and will provide a challenging opponent and exhibit different strategies during each contest. While the base game only includes a couple of maps, there are already a bunch to download easily from inside the game, and the ease at which you can import custom images promises the number to steadily increase over time. I do mourn the loss of random maps, but the available ones do provide good enough variety in terms of starting conditions, balance, and game length. Finally, the game features robust multiplayer matchmaking and is available for all three major operating systems. Castle Vox is strongly recommended for all players who thought Risk could use a bit more depth.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Guardians of Graxia Review

Guardians of Graxia, developed and published by Petroglyph Games.
The Good: Varied and numerous units and spells, verbose battle odds, important terrain considerations, competent AI, $10
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, short campaign and few skirmish maps with single objectives and time limits, no random maps or an editor, no difficulty settings
What say you? This turn-based card-and-board game has limited features but engrossing strategy: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Remember board games? I used to play them a good amount, before the electronic siren song of the computer possessed my soul. The disadvantage of the physical board game is that you need actual friends to play, whereas on the computer one can program an opponent for you. That’s why I am glad to see Petroglyph’s board game Guardians of Graxia make the transition to the PC. And really, who needs actual human interaction these days with the Facebook and the Twitter? This card-slash-board game features cards on a board, and it’s $50 cheaper than its physical counterpart. Does it make a satisfying transition to the realm of digital entertainment?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Guardians of Graxia certainly doesn’t look like a $10 game. The game is presented in 3-D (not a requirement for a board game) and it looks quite nice. The game is reminiscent of Demigod (although not quite as spectacular) with floating maps set against an infinite background. The battlefields are hex-based without the hexes, utilizing offset squares to represent the world in conflict. The game features easily identifiable terrain and useful tool-tips that describe the bonuses (and penalties) of each square. The character models are fantastic, but they have very abrupt battle animations and don’t move as fluidly as I would like. Overall, the epic battles are not: just one attack from each unit is all you’ll see. Guardians of Graxia features pleasurable dramatic background music and a handful of short battle effects, along with typical sound notifications for in-game events. Still, the overall quality of the graphics is far beyond most $10 games.

ET AL.
Guardians of Graxia is a turn-based game based on a board game where you use unit cards and spells to dispose of the enemy. The game features two kinds of scenarios: an unbalanced (by design) campaign consisting of five missions and a tutorial, and four more balanced skirmish affairs. The campaign comes with no difficulty settings; I hate it when developers assume the skill level of their audience. Adding in a range of difficulty levels could be as simple as limiting enemy mana production or decreasing the unit count, but Guardians of Graxia opts for no options. Each of the campaign scenarios offer standard and advanced victory conditions which either involve holding a specific tile or destroying a specific unit within a short time limit (the advanced condition typically involves doing both). Ten maps is really limited, and Guardians of Graxia could greatly benefit from both randomized maps and a map editor. Additionally, the game lacks any sort of multiplayer capabilities, either online or on the same computer. Guardians of Graxia could certainly use more well-rounded features.

All of the game’s units and spells are distributed on cards, owing to the game’s physical roots. Each card costs mana to play, and mana is earned by controlling terrain on the game board. You start with one of four guardians, a hero unit with powerful attacks and special abilities. Additional units can be spawned at your base or (once per turn) near your guardian, and spells can be used both during battles and on the board itself. Guardians of Graxia features a wide variety of units and spells that makes each game play out slightly different, as each unit will have a number of active and passive skills they can use. In addition, each unit is rated for health, attack (magical, physical, or both), and defense. The spells are also interesting, taking advantage of certain attack types or terrain properties. Guardians of Graxia features the variety you would expect to see in any card-based game.

The game takes place in two phases: command and battle. During the command phase, units can move, attack, shield (which is automatic), or use on of their abilities (like summon units or a special attack). You can also play spells or buy additional cards for five mana each; your deck is refilled before your turn, but sometimes you need to get some spells to ward of enemy advancement. Terrain is a very important aspect of Guardians of Graxia, as different tiles may grant bonuses or penalties to specific unit types (magic, ranged, cavalry) or a bonus in mana production. Careful planning and advancement is of significant importance.

Guardians of Graxia features very transparent battle calculations that show you exactly what’s going to happen, based on current ratings. I say “current” because spells can affect the damage values, as I will explain. First off, there is no randomness in Guardians of Graxia, and I think the game is better for it: it’s all about tactics, not about who rolls a lucky “ten”. Used in the calculation is your attack value, the enemy defense value for that attack type, any terrain bonuses, support from adjacent units, and shields for idle units. The total sum is then cut in half (don’t know why) and rounded up to determine how many hit points the enemy will lose. Units may retreat, die, or simply lost hit points (again, the game clearly displays the outcome). To affect the results, you may first play spell cards, and then sacrifice a spell card for a bonus in attack rating (or a reduction in the enemy’s, if you wish). Then, the results are determined and death is delivered. I really like the straightforward nature of the combat, and the use of spell cards means you never quite get what you were expecting. Part of the strategy is trying to guess what the enemy is going to do: do you play that attack spell, or will the enemy not play any so your card is wasted? Interesting stuff.

Since you can’t play other humans, you’ll have to rely on the AI. Despite there being no difficulty settings to adjust things for novices, the computer opponent seems to be demanding enough for strategy veterans. The AI is very cautious, going after vulnerable units where they enjoy an attack bonus. The computer also takes advantage of terrain, spells, and unit abilities, providing a nice opponent that will challenge most players. One stupid decision on your part won’t assure defeat, but several will. While I always prefer human confrontation in my strategy games, the AI does a good enough job to keep things interesting throughout the game’s ten scenarios.

IN CLOSING
Guardians of Graxia has a great base game that’s in need of more features. Only having ten single-player missions limits the replay value of the game tremendously, despite the large number of units and spells that are randomly drawn for most games. Objective number one for future development needs to be an introduction of a random map generator and a map editor, and objective number two is adding multiplayer. While you do get $10 worth of enjoyment out of the title, I would rather pay $20 for more long-term pleasure with random maps and multiplayer included. The mechanics are done quite well, effectively combining both card-game and board-game tenets. The game is easy to learn because of the straightforward rules. There are a lot of varied units and spells to spend mana on, earned by controlling terrain with diverse bonuses. The game is very explicit about displaying battle estimates before conflict starts, a handy tool for choosing whom to attack next. Finally, the AI provides a good opponent that will take advantage of weaknesses and unit abilities, though the game does not allow you to tweak the difficulty of said AI. While I would definitely like to see more well-rounded features, Guardians of Graxia still gives you good value for a $10 strategic investment.