Thursday, December 29, 2011

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon Review

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, developed by Vicious Cycle and published by D3Publisher.
The Good: Constant action, a number of different weapons, online cooperative play
The Not So Good: Extremely repetitive, limited enemy variety, linear level design, no online match browser, can't save progress mid-mission
What say you? This cooperative shoot-em-up is limited by its lack of variety: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Bugs are gross. In fact, there is an entire industry dedicated to their extermination (I think they are called…“bug squashing guys”). Thankfully, most bugs are small, so their level of annoyance is relatively minimal. However, as evidenced in the scientific documentary Starship Troopers, large bugs could be a problem, especially if they were to invade our home planet (Earth). The Earth Defense Force has repelled the alien invasion in Japan and on consoles for quite some time, but now it’s time for Insect Armageddon and we PC gamers must join the fight.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon has a decidedly bland presentation that fits the budget-level price of the game. It starts with the level design, which places the protagonists in an urban location of repeated buildings with weak, monochromatic textures. The enemies are a mixed bag: while the designs and models are quite nice, instead of exploding in a gory act of violence, enemies simply fade out when killed. The weapons are pretty generic, with small tracer lines and some explosions when appropriate. Subtle damage (other than entire buildings collapsing) is shown on-screen when enemies are shot, giving few visual clues to indicate when you are landing shots. Overall, I was unimpressed with the graphics Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon has to offer. The sound design is also pretty ho-hum, with (purposely?) exaggerated voice acting and generic weapon sounds. Taken as a whole, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon delivers nothing visually beyond its budget price.

ET AL.
The bugs are coming, and it’s up to the Earth Defense Force to stop the Insect Armageddon. A campaign of fifteen levels must be unlocked in order, protecting a new section of town from the insect threat. The levels are checkpoint-based and all missions follow the same general trend: walk to the next waypoint, kill everything, walk to the next waypoint, kill everything, lather, rinse, repeat. The linear presentation requires you to fully complete each section before progressing, leaving you no room for innovation or advanced tactics (or enemy avoidance, for that matter). Some of the levels use the same locations more than once, sending you around in circles on the urban streets. Each mission lasts about twice as long as it should (and you can't save your progress at any time), usually throwing a large number of enemies at you near the end in several waves to slow the pace of the game down considerably. Typically, there will be an enemy spawner (like an ant hive or ship carrier) with high health that you'll need to destroy (only when opened, of course) while contending with the enemies it creates; this can take a while. A higher difficulty setting adds health to the enemies, making for a more challenging mission. If more direct action is desired, you can play a survival mode in four locations, where the bugs won’t stop until everyone is cold and dead. However, the survival mode doesn't appear to scale according to how many people are playing, making the mode a tough go in single player. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is meant to be played online with the help of other human-like creatures, and you can easily host a match if desired. However, finding other games is difficult: the matchmaking provides no way to see a list of joinable matches, and since you usually will choose a specific unlocked level to play, there may or may not be other people playing that particular chapter. Of course, you can choose to play “any” level, but then you might be stuck playing an earlier mission you’ve already beaten. A simple list of servers would go a long way towards making the online games easier to join.

Approaching a ten-foot-tall spider with only your bare hands would be a tricky proposition, so it’s a good thing Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon gives you a variety of weapons to assist in disposing of those pesky bugs. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, missile launchers, grenade launchers, shotguns, and sniper rifles are all included, separated into tiers that are unlocked with experience and cash earned during the campaign based on your score. While there are certainly a lot of guns included in the game, most of the differences are very minor, adding increased damage, fire rate, or ammunition capacities. In addition to the weapons choices, you can also pick a class of soldier: the regular trooper, the sniper-and-turret-based tactical, the scout-like jetpack, or the heavy battle. Each class can carry most weapons, allowing you to more fully customize your role on the battlefield. However, you can only equip two weapons at a time, so choices must be made carefully. Both of your weapons have unlimited ammunition, which is good considering you can only carry two into battle. You'll also gain access to the occasional fixed turret, tank, or mech to add some firepower to the defense.

Not surprisingly, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon features insects as your enemies. These include ants, ticks, and spiders, which make up a majority of the antagonists. You will also encounter metallic gunships frequently, a strange choice when a gigantic mosquito or dragonfly would have made a lot more sense given the setting (there are wasps, but they are more rare). Bosses include really large bugs and robots, but the tactics remain the same: point and shoot. The number of enemies you encounter simultaneously aren’t too overwhelming (especially when compared to Serious Sam 3), but I did get inundated on a number of occasions. There are plenty of health packs to pick up, dropped by enemy units, and a fallen soldier can be revived to full health by an ally, so the level is never over until every partner dies. I was disappointed with the lack of enemy variety: essentially every insect just runs straight towards you (though the robotic adversaries have distinctive, slightly more advanced patterns), and considering the sheer number of insect species there are, I was expecting a more diverse selection of foes. The friendly AI is better than I expected: other soldiers keep pace with you and actively engage enemies, even if there is a pesky solid building in the way. I never felt like the AI soldiers were a detriment to the team, and I rarely had to rely solely on my skills to complete missions.

IN CLOSING
Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon delivers similar action-packed gameplay against overwhelming odds to titles such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Serious Sam 3, but with more restrictions. First off, the repetitive and linear combat becomes monotonous quickly, as the game provides only a small handful of enemies (ants, spiders, and the airships) with the occasional boss around similar urban locations. The game purports hundreds of different weapons, but more advanced items within the same category (rifles, rocket launchers) simply provide better damage or a faster firing rate instead of offering more complex strategic choices. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is intended to be played cooperatively online, but without a server browser, finding people to play against is hit-or-miss. The somewhat brief campaign and never-ending survival mode present a lot of bugs to shoot, but lack the choices and diversity necessary for extended long-term enjoyment.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

SkyDrift Review

SkyDrift, developed and published by Digital Reality.
The Good: Challenging track layouts, stunts earn engine boost, slightly stackable weapons, looks nice, good AI pilots, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Insignificant penalty for dying, annoying flight correction for going “off track”, lacks a server browser
What say you? This airborne combat racing game delivers solid action with tricky circuits: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Now that the world’s major racing series have drawn to a close for this year, it’s time to reflect on the action. Namely, the sheer boredom of watching cars go around and around and around and around and FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY WOULD SOMETHING PLEASE HAPPEN. If only those metal beasts were equipped with some kind of weapon to dispose of their rivals in a quick, overly violent manner. Like a flaming car from a Jason Statham movie, combat racing titles have filled the niche for those looking for more action-oriented track-based mayhem. Extending the hostility into the atmosphere is SkyDrift, where planes are now equipped with rockets and machine guns. Well, I guess they are in real life, but now they are racing while shooting each other. It’s win-win!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I was fairly impressed with the graphics in SkyDrift, especially for a game offered at a low price point. The game is highlighted by the excellent detailed terrain, with easily identifiable race tracks (the lava one, the tanker one, et cetera) and high-resolution textures adorning the cliffs as you speed past. It all looks great on a large PC display, and I was hard-pressed to find an area where corners were cut with the level design. The plane models are nicely detailed as well, although the damage is underwhelming (a trail of smoke followed by an explosion). Some of the weapon effects are well done (the shockwave comes to mind), rounding out a solid graphical presentation. As for the sound design, the effects are appropriate and the bombastic music fits the over-the-top nature of the game. The voice acting shows the game's non-English roots (the narrator exclaims “you are the first!” instead of “you are in first!”), however. Still, SkyDrift far exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphics.

ET AL.
The airplane racing of SkyDrift takes place in a seven-stage (plus an informative tutorial) campaign, where you must place in the top three of most events to unlock the next stage. The standard race (“power”) scatters weapon pickups across the track layouts, allowing you to take out enemy planes. “Speed” races involve no weapons, but offer rings you should fly through to drastically increase your speed. Finally, a “survivor” mode eliminates the last place driver every thirty seconds. The difficulty can be adjusted at any time before a race; you don’t need to complete the entire campaign on “hard,” for example. The difficulty seems to gradually increase with each unlocked stage (even on the same level), with the AI drivers crashing less and using their weapons more.

SkyDrift only has six tracks to race on (though each is finely crafted), though I suspect more is on the way in the form of DLC. While you race, things collapse (rockslides, buildings), seemingly at random, that can kill you, so keep an eye out. Despite being a flying game, you can fly outside the track. Going too high will pull your plane back towards the ground, sometimes into an object (like the ground), killing you in the process. The bigger problem is that there is no indication of where the “roof” of each track is, so it's complete guesswork as to whether the next obstacle can be flown over or if the game will throw you into the roof without warning. It’s not all about single player in SkyDrift, as online competition is available. You can choose between starting a quick match (recommended because of the seemingly low player counts) or more customized options. SkyDrift does not have a server browser so you can pick and choose which game to play, though, so you’ll have to resort to fate unless you host a match yourself.

There are eight planes in SkyDrift that vary according to top speed, boost potential, acceleration, maneuvering, and armor. The aircraft are nicely balanced, as each option has drawbacks to counter each advantage. Controls are slightly more advanced than a typical arcade flight game: in addition to the typical 2-D maneuvering (up, down, left, right), you can also use the arrow keys (or the right trigger on a gaming pad) to bank the plane dramatically and cut severe corners. Turning is slower than I had expected, requiring more foresight in navigating the game’s tricky layouts, so a coordinated use of the speed controls and both direction inputs is needed.

Being a combat racing game, there are six weapons that can be picked up on the racetrack. These include a machine gun cannon (which auto-aims slightly if an enemy plane is in your reticule), missiles, mines, and a proximity shockwave. You can also pick up shields and repair kits to lessen enemy attacks. You can only carry two weapons at a time, so you must choose which items are best for the current race situation. You can stack items once to gain extra power (like picking up another machine gun to add more ammunition), which increases the tactical decisions even further. However, there is not a significant enough penalty for being killed: you respawn a fraction of a second later in the exact same spot, making kills a mere annoyance rather than a race-changing event. This, of course, makes it easier for the back of the pack to challenge up front, which leads to more exciting, closer racing. Still, carefully landing a rocket attack should come with more reward.

Engine boost (for increased acceleration and top speed) can be earned through a variety of methods: flying low or near obstacles, drafting behind other plants, passing opponents, killing your rivals, or using items effectively. This gives an advantage to those who are more skilled pilots and allow for the pack to catch up to the leader, without feeling overpowered. Unlike, say, Split/Second, this is not a racing game where you can mash the gas the entire race, as you must content with the track layouts strewn with obstacles and those pesky AI drivers. Speaking of, the AI drivers are quite good, never feeling robotic. They utilize varied paths through each track and make the occasional mistake.

IN CLOSING
For only $10, SkyDrift is a capable arcade combat flight simulation. The planes are sluggish (by design, I think), requiring pilots to adjust their speed before navigating through the game's tricky layouts, full of obstacles and changes in elevation designed to cause you to crash repeatedly. In addition to the challenging track designs, you'll have to worry about other pilots that will be shooting missiles, bullets, and shockwaves in your general direction. You can only carry two weapons at a time, but a single item can be upgraded, giving you some tactical decisions to make while in the air: which weapons shall I take? Increasing the interest is the use of stunts to provide boost: flying in dangerous locations (close to the ground, near enemy pilots) and blowing people up will let you move more quickly towards the front. The combination of stunt-based boosting and the various weapons give players not in the lead a chance for the front, while not feeling too unfair or imbalanced. The penalty for death is negligible, as you are almost instantly respawned with weapons intact after being destroyed; while this does get you in to the action faster, I'd like there to be some more meaningful consequence for getting blown up. The AI pilots certainly hold their own, flying plausibly, mixing it up, and being the nuisance they should be. The campaign is a bit repetitive, offering races in three modes over the same six tracks, and multiplayer doesn't allow you to browse prospective games, although quick matchmaking is offered. Finally, the graphics are impressive with varied, detailed environments. The added dimension of flight, and a solid overall package, makes SkyDrift an intriguing choice for fans of combat racing games.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tigers Unleashed Review

Tigers Unleashed, developed by Scott Hamilton and Jeff Lapkoff and published by HPS Simulations.
The Good: Authentic enemy targeting with complex calculations of weapon effects, realistic communication and command structure, detailed military units, varied difficulty levels can simplify most actions, powerful and easy-to-use quick mission and map builders, competent tactical AI, group formation movement, supports PBEM
The Not So Good: Immediate engagement reduces tactical flexibility, lengthy turn resolution during large battles, level of automation leaves little to do, archaic graphics
What say you? An extreme attention to realistic detail makes this turn-based World War II wargame a notable simulation but less an actual game: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
You can understand why I was initially hesitant to review this game, considering the subject matter: who wants to be mauled by large cats? But then I found out that the “Tigers” being “Unleashed” are actually German tanks…although that might actually be more frightening, as Germans can’t be tamed as easily with a piece of raw steak as their feline counterparts (sausage, maybe). This continuation of the Tactical Studies Series, first encountered in Point of Attack, takes its realistic take on modern combat back to the Eastern Front of World War II, a time of Germans, Russians, and lots of snow. Tigers Unleashed strives for the ultimate level of detail, from unit attributes to communication to weapons. Does this realism come at a cumbersome price?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Tigers Unleashed are decidedly minimal, utilizing simple 2-D NATO icons lain on top of 2-D tile-based map graphics. It’s pretty underwhelming stuff, which is as expected in a game that favors under-the-hood realism over authentic graphics. The most advanced effect in the game is dust, which is still a 2-D sprite superimposed on top of the terrain tile. The game does use some historical photographs for unit descriptions, but the majority of Tigers Unleashed is driven by simple displays. More important for any strategy game is the interface, and the one featured in Tigers Unleashed is generally decent enough. The game is driven by menus, where you can access options regarding unit movement, targeting, air missions, assigning maneuver groups, altering display options, and accessing reports. Most of these options can also be accessed by right-clicking on any unit, giving terrain information, detailed unit attributes, and the ability to give orders, create detatchments, target enemies, and blow up bridges. Your staff officers also give detailed information regarding both friendly and enemy units, including current orders, unit strength, morale, ammunition levels, and objectives. The order of battle is always displayed along the right side of the screen for easy access as well. My main complaint about the interface is that it’s hard to quickly find ranges to enemy units so you can tweak your unit combat settings to prevent the AI from firing from long distances; you can use the detailed line of sight tool, but it involves more steps than I’d like to see. Like the graphics, the sound is very minimal: there are some weapon-specific effects while combat is being calculated, but no music to put you in the mood for military domination. Still, I found Tigers Unleashed to be easy enough to navigate once you learn where everything is placed.

ET AL.
Tigers Unleashed is a turn-based (with minute-long turns) tactical wargame that covers the Eastern Front of World War II, as the Germans marched towards Moscow. The first tip is to install the game to the default directory; not doing so (as I quickly learned) brings all sorts of issues since files are not where the game thinks they should be. While Tigers Unleashed does not feature any campaigns, there are thirty-five scenarios of varying sizes (company to division) and complexities that cover some highlights of the conflict. Some of the smaller battles feature some really bland maps, and the scenario design leaves a lot to be desired: you usually start out so close to the enemy that some units end up dying on the first turn before you can do anything about it. While I appreciate not having to wait three or four (or more) turns to encounter the enemy, it is annoying to lose a number of your units through no fault of your own. The scenario designers can also include pre-scripted events to surprise human tacticians.

Tigers Unleashed features four difficulty levels that change the amount of minutiae the AI controls; this serves as a good way to ease into the game, as you can allow the AI to specify artillery ammunition, for example. The game also has a series of very simple tutorials, where you read what to do in the scenario briefing and then attempt to execute, with no additional feedback. It’s a small step up from reading along in a manual. Tigers Unleashed does feature play by e-mail multiplayer, so some of the more balanced scenarios can be enjoyed with friends. A notable feature is the mission builder, a comprehensive tool that allows you to quickly make full battles in a matter of minutes. Depending on the level of human interaction chosen (the computer can adjust most of the options automatically if you’d like), each scenario can have the weather conditions, fog of war, number of civilians, army attributes, and victory conditions customized. The computer can also pick the units involved (you can choose the number and size, such as three battalions), although it does a poor job naming them, which leads to confusion later on. Objectives, units, and obstacles are then placed on the map. Speaking of, the quick map builder is equally impressive, using pre-designed sets of terrain you can place next to each to make a complete map. The mission options should keep the replay value of Tigers Unleashed high.

Tigers Unleashed features units typical for the theatre, organized into their seemingly historically accurate hierarchies. Each individual unit is rated in many different areas: strength, ammunition, light emission discipline, radio discipline, training level, camouflage level, morale, information processing time, shoot and scoot ability, and the amount of ammunition that’s likely to be duds. Over the course of the battle, a single unit may experience changes in morale, fatigue, suppression, damage, and speed, all of which affect a unit’s capabilities during warfare. To ease in handling large numbers of units, a single movement order may be issued to a leader unit, which will then move its subordinate units in formation towards the waypoint. This is quite handy and is much better than having to move individual units around one at a time. To simplify things even further, units in the same hex may be stacked at the beginning of the scenario, acting as a single attacking force for the duration of the battle. Specialized units can also load (or unload) other units, or undertake engineering operations like placing mines, blowing up bridges, or constructing trenches.

Tigers Unleashed features a realistic communications system that models how long messages take to propagate through the army chain of command. As the task force commander, you might be receiving out of date or completely incorrect information on both enemy and friendly units, depending on what fog of war level you have chosen. Situation reports, move orders, and artillery requests must all be sent in real-time as each turn is processed. Even the transmission rates are authentic: for example, a 2,000-bit message will take twenty seconds to send by radio, adding to the delay time. The result is more calculated outcomes, as opposed to using an arbitrary fixed number for message delays.

Targeting enemy units is meant to be handled by your AI subordinate officers, but you can also manually choose important targets if you don’t trust the computer. The most direct form of targeting is called “direct fire” (surprise!), where parameters including rate of fire and ammunition (complete with kill, damage, and suppression probabilities) can be chosen. You can also right-click any enemy unit and the game will list the best units you can engage with. Again, the units will automatically engage enemy units as long as they fall within their maximum range of engagement, even if their chance of success is low; you’ll need to go in and tweak range values manually to get the most out of your assets. Artillery units can fire specific ammunition at set times towards a specific unit or over an area, even shifting their barrage over time (to continually bombard a moving tank column, for example). Before the scenario begins, target reference points can be designated to improve artillery accuracy as well. Air support is done in the same fashion: choosing a plane squadron and a target to hit, and the specific flight path is automatically calculated. Overall, I found targeting to be fairly intuitive, although those looking for more direct control over their units will feel disconnected as your tanks and infantry open fire automatically when a target presents itself. Unless you go in and manually change weapon engagement ranges and unit behavior, it can feel like Tigers Unleashed is playing itself. Of course, I'm sure that's what it's like for commanders in the field, watching their subordinate leaders poorly execute their orders.

A lot of work goes into determining whether or not an attack is successful. All rounds, whether they are kinetic, high explosive, anti-personnel, incendiary, or otherwise, undergo intense computations involving projectile flight path, air drag, deformation, blast effects like cratering, range, cloud cover, sun shadow effects, armor angles, and atmospheric radiation attenuation. With all of this fidelity, turns can take several minutes to resolve (the game only uses one processing core, slowing down the process), but the results are seemingly ultra-realistic. Of course, despite all of these fancy calculations, it still boils down to a percentage chance of success and things blowing up, just like all strategy games. But it’s the thought that counts.

Coupled with the weapons modeling is fog of war, which goes hand-in-hand with the communications system outlined earlier. Fog of war can vary in opacity, from “I see everyone all the time” to “are my units really located there?” Enemy units can be sighted using visual clues, noise, light, or radar, and increasingly accurate information is gained over time concerning their quantity, model, facing, and movement. The terrain can also affect spotting enemy units, with line of sight, dust, and the weather affecting your ability to see the enemy. If the opposition does sneak up on you and tries to blow up your tanks, reaction orders can be specified, which are automated orders for movement, targeting, and rate of fire when being shot at. The complex fog of war system modeled in Tigers Unleashed really makes scouting important, which makes the constricted scenario design even more troublesome.

What happens when units are attacked? They panic and die (in my case), according to their morale ratings and the lethality of the incoming rounds. The detailed text reports of each turn’s action clues you in to the robust calculations that were done to blow up half of your units on the first turn before you move anybody. The AI provides a capable foe, generally conservative as it rather stay put while racking up the kills: the computer is quite adept at picking out vulnerable targets. On the more strategic side, the AI likes to use the more direct path towards an objective, which can make defense a bit easier, but since where they start can be somewhat unpredictable (especially in generated scenarios), all possibilities must be covered.

IN CLOSING
Despite the inherent complexity, I actually found Tigers Unleashed not to be that difficult to learn, because you can place some (or most) of the more minute details (armor type, artillery rate of fire) under the control of the subordinate AI officers, subject to engagement values you specify in the game. Of course, those who want more direct control can increase the expert level of the simulation and tweak values as they see fit. And tweak you can, with options available to govern the range at which different types of enemies are engaged for all of your units and the behavior units will (hopefully) exhibit when under attack. Comprehensive stats are also given, from radio discipline to fatigue to the likelihood that rounds will be duds. Movement is straightforward enough, and subordinate units can be ordered to travel in formation with their leader, which makes controlling large numbers easier. Of course, you’ll have to contend with the realistic communication delays and detailed fog of war while on the battlefield. Tigers Unleashed also uses some impressively complex calculations for damage, using the flight path, atmospheric drag, and armor angles to determine how successful a barrage will be. Of course, these complex battle calculations mean minutes-long turn resolutions, so that’s the price you pay for ultimate simulated realism. Also, it can feel at times like the game is too automated; the real task force commander does not tell individual tanks whom to shoot, so while handing off these details to the AI is accurate, it's not necessarily fun. The scenario designs, though, place units way too close to the enemy initially, giving you little room to maneuver at the start before things start getting destroyed. In general, the tactical AI handles things well, engaging appropriate enemies, although it would rather sit and shoot than get closer and engage more accurately (kills seem to happen at range anyway, at least to me). The interface is good enough albeit outdated, and the mission and map builders make it very, very easy to expand the game’s content. Overall, fans of detail in authentic tactical games might enjoy what Tigers Unleashed has to offer, but the title is more of an exercise in simulation than an engrossing wargame.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig Review

Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig, developed and published by John Tiller Software.
The Good: Many scenarios of various sizes, numerous optional game rules, AI can finish tedious turns for you, branching campaign, scenario and map editors, play by e-mail
The Not So Good: Slow pace with many units to move individually, lacks in-game tutorials, ugly useless 3-D graphics
What say you? This historical turn-based wargame should appeal to fans of the genre: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The French weren’t always the butt of international jokes about surrender. Just ask Europe during the early 1800’s, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered pretty much the entire continent with an outnumbered army. The battles that took place during this tumultuous time is fertile ground for strategy gaming, as exemplified by Waterloo, Crown of Glory, Napoleon's Campaigns, and Napoleon's Ambition. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig specifically concerns Napoleon’s assault on Germany and the allied forces he encountered there. How will this turn-based wargame stack up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig, as you might expect from a hardcore wargame, features some very archaic graphics. Save yourself from potential blindness by never enabling the 3-D mode, as it is simply ugly to look at. Two-dimensional sprites and repeated textures and buildings are very outdated and simply look terrible. Not only is it downright hideous, but it’s also much less useful than the more simplified 2-D icons: it’s hard to simply tell unit type because they look so bad. I simply played the entire game using the 2-D mode and was just fine with that. This makes the terrain easier to deal with as well, and you aren’t missing any special effects, as the 3-D mode only features some token weapon fire with few animations. Still, I don’t think many gamers who enjoy wargames care that much about the graphics, but the interface is important.

The interface of Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig is driven by menus (remember those?) and the top toolbar of icons. Menus give access to all of the game’s commands: turning units, formations, deploying skirmishers, resolving melee attacks, viewing the reinforcement schedule, checking objectives, and evaluating supply. You can also display some alternative data, like objective locations, terrain, command range, and fatigued units, adjust the AI, or enable features for multiplayer. It is initially confusing that most of the options are toggled (like switching formations and rotating units) instead of picking a specific item from a list. The top toolbar gives you the same options that are quicker to access once you learn where they are located. In general, you click to select a hex, double-click to select units in a hex (that took some getting used to), and right-click to move and attack. You have to manually toggle between movement and attack; it seems counterintuitive that the game can’t figure out what you want to do, especially since you can only move one hex at a time, so clicking any further than that would be an attack anyway. Overall, it’s not the most streamlined approach, as you have to hunt down commands to change facing or formations or find superior units instead of having all of that information along the bottom of the screen, but you can learn and adapt.

The sound design is very minimal: some small effects and no music to speak of. That’s all I have to say about that.

ET AL.
In the fall of 1813, Napoleon said (this is a direct quote), “Germany? Let’s blow it the hell up.” The Battle of Leipzig, if Wikipedia is to be believed, pitted the French Army against Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, and Justin Bieber. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig features five campaigns that break up the battles into sizable bites. Interestingly, the campaigns are not simple linear collections of scenarios: instead, you get to make decisions regarding where to attack next, and random events determine the armies involved and where the fighting will take place. This is far more appealing than simply moving to the next battle in a gigantic list. You can also fight in standalone scenarios of your choosing. The official website purports “over four hundred scenarios,” which sounds really impressive, but in reality it’s sixty scenarios with different variations (head-to-head versus AI, ten versus fifteen minute turns, cavalry regiments). Now, sixty scenarios will still keep you busy for quite a while and using historically accurate orders of battle is impressive, but it’s nowhere near what was advertised. The battles surround the cities of Dennewitz, Dresden, Katzbach, Kulm, and Leipzig, featuring different lengths (from eight to five hundred (!) turns) and sizes (brigades to entire armies). Each battle can be customized with optional rules, such as limited routs, melee terrain modifiers, partial retreats, flank morale modifier, and multiple melee attacks. These alternatives let you customize the game as you wish, which is always preferred over having no choice whatsoever. Not only can you play against the AI, but direct play over the Internet, play by e-mail, and hot seat games are available. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig has a tutorial, sort of: you read along in a PDF file while executing moves in a beginner scenario. While this is better than giving no guidance, I would rather have a more directed in-game experience. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig does come with an assortment of planning documents, providing maps of the region, offering strategies for each scenario, and documenting weapon ranges and terrain effects. You can also build your own scenarios using the scenario and campaign editors, so that should extend the life of the title past the initial sixty scenarios.

The armies of the early 1800’s primarily featured infantry, cavalry, and artillery units engaged in an epic contest of battlefield dominance. Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig also features the military leaders involved in these battles, in addition to more specific unit types like skirmishers, supply wagons, militia, Cossacks, pioneers, and dragoons. Each unit is rated according to quality, and fatigue and morale can affect their performance. Leaders are also rated based on their command and leadership abilities, so pitting your best units and commanders against the best the enemy has to offer is important for success. Units can be organized in a couple of formations (line, column, and square), each appropriate for different tactical situations. Artillery can also be limbered for movement to a better position, and cavalry units are mounted for the assault.

Depending on the scenario, Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig consists of ten or fifteen minute turns, and each unit can do a limited number of actions based on their available number of movement points. Because of the turn time scale, progress in Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig proceeds very, very slowly: typically, units can only move a couple of hexes per turn and make a single attack, which usually results in only a few enemy deaths. When units comprise of five hundred soldiers, it can take a large number of turns to resolve battles. Most battles take place on large maps as well, so it can take many tedious turns to advance your units towards the enemy. In addition, with large armies involved, it is very time consuming to move every unit one stack at a time. Unlike personal wargame favorite Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge, Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig doesn’t allow you to issue a single order to superior units and have the command filter down to the subordinates, so it’s up to you to move every single unit every single turn. Units in line formation can’t be stacked and attack, so even if you can save some time moving units by stacking them together, you’ll have to move them individually once you encounter the enemy. You’ll also have to initiate cavalry charges and melee attacks manually, by toggling the correct option in the game’s interface. Defensive fire, however, can be done automatically if you enable the option in the game rules.

Overall, I found the AI to have good command of the game rules and general strategies. The computer will attack vulnerable, isolated units, cutting them off from supply by encircling them. The AI also uses cavalry and artillery effectively, and uses terrain in an intelligent manner, moving efficiently by using roads and taking the high ground. One interesting feature is the ability to activate the AI at any time, letting the computer play the remainder of your turn. This is useful if you don’t want to spend the time moving all of the stragglers up to the front of the battle, which helps to counter a little bit of the tedious movement that Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig entails.

IN CLOSING
What makes Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig different from all the other historical wargames already on the market? Nothing, really, but it is a solid product honed from years of series development. The game gives you sixty scenarios (plus variants) to choose from, from small skirmishes to large-scale behemoths, satisfying those who like more intimate battles (me) or love to take hours to complete a single turn (the criminally insane). The units are detailed enough, with attributes to determine their effectiveness on the battlefield and combat results use fatigue, morale, and supply to determine a victor. The game’s slow pace means the appeal of Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig isn’t as broad, since you must individually move each unit on the map; stacking units for more efficient movement is only a temporary solution, as you must divide your troops when the battle lines are drawn. While the early 19th century combat focused on lines of musket-equipped soldiers, there is some variety with melee attacks, cavalry charges, and artillery bombardment. You can also enable some optional rules to customize the realism of the game engine, removing abstraction where you see fit. The AI seems capable enough, providing an intelligent foe to battle across the fields of Germany. Of course, you can opt for e-mail or hot seat competition as well. In addition, the campaign mode adds interesting player-directed choices of where to attack, giving you different battle scenarios each time you play. The interface has a bit of a learning curve and the graphics are decidedly outdated, however. Ultimately, the tedious movement of units in Napoleonic Battles: Campaign Leipzig will confine the title to niche status, but wargamers might find an appealing title.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jurassic Park: The Game Review

Jurassic Park: The Game, developed and published by Telltale Games.
The Good: Some nice dinosaurs
The Not So Good: Annoying quick time events, “puzzles” require an excessive amount of trial and error for specific solutions, dialogue choices never impact the story, slow pace, performance issues, checkpoint-only saves
What say you? A dull, tedious adaptation with repetitive, limited interaction coupled with a lack of choice: 2/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I think we can all agree that dinosaurs are cool, and the best platform for them is the big screen, as seen in the blockbuster movie Carnosaur 3: Primal Species. Oh, and also some little independent film called Jurassic Park. There has been the occasional misguided attempt at a computer game based on the franchise, and now it's Telltale's turn at the helm, authors of the Back to the Future revival and the Sam & Max games. Attempting to bring their style to Isla Nublar, does Jurassic Park: The Game inject both action and adventure into an action-adventure?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Jurassic Park: The Game delivers a mixed bag of graphics. On the bright side, the dinosaurs are very detailed and animated quite well, coming to life in their tropical paradise. The humans are less effective: while the facial animations are done well, things get worse as you travel further down, ending with poor ground textures and blurry low-resolution backgrounds. Rain also looks poor, and stiff animations are noticeable in a number of the game's scenes. Still, it was a bit impressed at how much content there was: you get a five-hour movie, essentially (plus alternative dialogue), which obviously took a lot of time and energy to create. However, there are noticeable performance issues (at least for me): the game hangs during the most inopportune times, seemingly loading in the middle of a quick time event when you are supposed to be pressing buttons. I guess this is the trade-off for having essentially no loading times, but I'd rather stare at a title screen for ten seconds than suffer through a slideshow during the middle of an action scene. In addition, I had to change the screen resolution one choice at a time, accepting each new step on the way to the optimal choice. That wasted a good four minutes of my life watching my monitor reset through all of the available resolutions. It's a small thing to complain about in the end, but it speaks of the lack of polish Jurassic Park: The Game suffers from in some areas. The sound design is OK, I suppose, with decent enough voice acting (although the teenage daughter was terribly cast). The music was underwhelming: I guess Telltale couldn't get the rights to the full theme. While uneven, the presentation of Jurassic Park: The Game fits its $30 price tag.

ET AL.
Jurassic Park: The Game consists of four episodes (five to six hours) of around twelve chapters each, set up kind of like a DVD (for good reason, with the lack of meaningful interaction). As you progress through the linear story, you can earn medals based on how many times you screwed up the quick time events. You get a death count and (thankfully) restart the button pressing sequence quickly. The game progresses very slowly, and it's an odd combination of generally rapid quick time events and arduous scene hunting. Jurassic Park: The Game also has checkpoint-only saves, which are infrequent enough to annoy when you'd like to exit the game on your terms.

Jurassic Park: The Game consists of two main things: clicking that masquerades as puzzles and quick time events, which, I think it's safe to say, nobody thinks are fun anymore. Occasionally, scenes are presented that you must search for objects to click on. These areas of interest are clearly displayed with gigantic question marks and magnifying glasses, and it's simply a matter of clicking things in the “right” order, as determined by the developer. For example, clicking on that tree might not do anything, but clicking on the jeep first and then the tree will move on to the next scene. Another example: I know where that shaving cream can is from the movie. Can I click on the dirt? Of course not. I have to aim the jeep lights around and investigate various places where I know the can is not located, then find a soda can in the back of the jeep to trigger the discover scene. Talk about intuitive! While a few of the puzzle sequences make sense, most are illogical in their static design. I wasted a significant amount of time just trying to figure out the prerequisites to advance the scene.

Quick time events! Unfortunately, they are a big part PRESS LEFT NOW of the Jurassic Park: The Game experience, as the game relies heavily on sequences where PRESS UP AND DOWN you have to press specific keys at seemingly random times. Some cutscenes come with quick time events, and some do not, so you always PRESS LEFT AND LEFT AND RIGHT have to keep one hand on the arrow keys just in case. They also seem to appear at the weirdest times, interrupting the PRESS UP UP UP UP flow of the story. There is really no skill involved in the game, and if you die by missing a combination, the same sequence will appear the next time, so rote memorization can be the key to PRESS UP AND DOWN AND UP AGAIN success. I don't think that pressing four buttons at specific times to walk around or reload a tranquilizer rifle actually qualifies as UP UP UP LEFT DOWN “gameplay”. Additional options include brief mouse-driven minigames where you have to navigate a fake computer interface or guide a circle inside of another moving circle, plus some choices in dialogue, but your selection never actually changes the story in any way, giving the player the illusion of choice when there really is none. Those who like to push random buttons and watch what prize comes out might be entertained by Jurassic Park: The Game, but everyone else will be left wanting much, much more interaction.

IN CLOSING
In Jurassic Park: The Game, you occasionally press buttons and click the mouse while watching a movie. “The Game” is quite a misnomer, as there isn't much of a game to be had. There are certainly no decisions to make on your own: you must press the right buttons when the game tells you to, and you must click the scenery in a predetermined order. The player is really unnecessary; in an age of procedurally generated content and multiple endings, the restrictive nature of Jurassic Park: The Game is simply archaic. You get quick time events, where you must press arrow keys in succession, a tedious process that wore out its welcome years ago. You get searching puzzles, where you must click on the right question marks hidden on multiple screens in the correct order. You get dialogue choices that don't actually do anything different. There's even the irregular mini-game using the mouse. None of these things are fun, and the story is only passably interesting. Jurassic Park: The Game suffers from significant enough performance problems (stuttering during quick time events) to negatively impact the gameplay, and the checkpoint-only saves restricts your ability to exit the game when you wish. So what are we left with? Basically a movie where you have to press the right buttons to advance to the next scene. That's not the level of sophistication I was looking for. Simply put, fans of the movies will be very disappointed that more wasn't done to further the inherent appeal of the franchise.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Serious Sam 3: BFE Review

Serious Sam 3: BFE, developed by Croteam and published by Devolver Digital.
The Good: Constant action against tons of unique and memorable enemies, actually challenging, insane sixteen person cooperative play, tactically interesting weapons
The Not So Good: Starts out slow and restrictive, poorly balanced for many co-op players, few competitive multiplayer maps
What say you? A massive, chaotic, mindless arcade first person shooter, in a good way: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Serious Sam exploded onto the gaming scene in 2001 with one purpose: to throw a large number of really weird enemies at you at one time. And it succeeded, providing ultimate chaos and engrossing tech for the period. Ten years later, we are inundated with contemporary military shooters featuring the same guns in the same grey urban settings. Booooooring! I dare say it’s time for the screaming headless kamikazes to make a return. After a successful and innovative campaign of pre-release indie games, the mothership has arrived. Does Serious Sam 3 offer an entertaining alternative to reality?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Serious Sam 3: BFE features a modified version of the engine used in their previous games and their HD re-releases. Overall, it works well, delivering some detailed Egyptian environments with decent texturing on buildings (not so much on the sandy ground) and some destructible level elements. The enemy models are impressive, delivering some detailed aliens with fluid animations; talking animations could be better, but thankfully there is little blabber to listen to. The graphics engine of Serious Sam 3: BFE is certainly good at rendering tons of enemies on the screen at once time without a hiccup. Killing those enemies is good fun thanks to significant amounts of blood splattering across the screen. Weapon animations are basic (the double-barreled shotgun is specifically underwhelming) and I have noticed some blurriness (our good friend bloom, I suspect) and some texture pop-in crops up every once in a while, but overall the graphical features are effective. The sound design is fairly average: distinctive cries from each enemy type assist in identifying them before you see them (AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!) and weapons are convincing in their destructivity. Serious Sam 3: BFE has some pretty hokey voice acting (probably on purpose) and the music becomes too loud when enemies are coming, but nothing was too annoying to deal with. Overall, I was satisfied with the presentation Serious Sam 3: BFE brings to the table.

ET AL.
Serious Sam 3: BFE consists of twelve levels of alien-infested Egypt, where you as the titular Sam must basically shoot everything in order to get some artifact or something. You can skip the cut scenes that precede and follow each level, so the story is never forced down your throat. When you can take on the space invaders by yourself, the game is quite challenging, especially on the higher difficulty settings; it’s quite refreshing not to have the game hold your hand or play for you as you walk behind allies to the next checkpoint. In the first few levels, auto-saves are quite frequent, but later on, your progress is not saved after every set of encounters, which is disappointing. While Serious Sam 3: BFE is perfectly playable solo, it is highly recommended to join some friends (or complete strangers) by using four-player split screen or sixteen-player online co-op. Both of these options are quite fun and amp up the inherently chaotic nature of Serious Sam 3: BFE considerably. Online, you can choose between any campaign level, a survival mode, or a beast hunt in search of the highest body count. Completing a level online also unlocks it in the single player campaign, and finding a match is pretty easy using the included server browser. However, the browser does lack helpful filters (like removing empty or full servers) and you can’t sort by ping; hopefully, these relatively small issues will be improved soon. While online cooperative play is popular, Serious Sam 3: BFE also features competitive game modes like deathmatch, capture the flag, last team standing, my burden (kind of like king of the hill), and a one-shot-one-kill mode. These aren’t terribly innovative and don’t work quite as well given the weapon selection. In addition, there are only four competitive maps (plus two for survival), so the competitive side of Serious Sam 3: BFE seems like more of an afterthought.

The gameplay of Serious Sam 3 is highlighted in this helpful official strategy guide: no quick time events, no scripted sequences, no overwrought cut scenes (just Sam telling whoever is in charge to shut up as he destroys another Egyptian artifact), and no crap getting in the way of shooting many, many things. With what, you ask? Weapons in Serious Sam 3: BFE include a sledgehammer, pistol, various shotguns (traditional, double barreled, and explosive shells), assault rifle, sniper rifle, C4, a cannon, laser gun, minigun, rocket launcher, and a lightning thing that destroys multiple enemies at once. It’s somewhat sad that I have to note this, but Serious Sam 3: BFE lets you carry all of the guns at once. Where does Sam keep all of those weapons? In your candy ass! Despite the suggestions to constantly hold down the trigger, I actually found myself switching weapons often based on who I was encountering, what weapons they were carrying, and how much ammunition I had in store. Another option is melee: these attacks kill anything in one go, so if you have isolated and enemy and you are in close range, it’s a good tactical choice. Even with a decidedly arcade tilt, Serious Sam 3: BFE does have strategy.

If you have become tired of killing faceless army guys, Serious Sam 3: BFE delivers an alternative: an exotic selection of alien foes to shoot in the face. Such as the iconic beheaded kamikaze (the screaming guys with bombs for hands), spiders, one-eyed charging gnaar, flying topless bird girls, the kleer skeleton, a giant rhino, some guy that says “hello” before shooting you, octopus helicopters, flying monkeys, and some even weirder stuff, if you can believe it. It’s nice to encounter something other than the military or elves (or military elves). Enemies have predictable behaviors: while most will either (a) run towards you or (b) stop and shoot at you, some will jump (the skeletons) or charge (the rhinos), requiring slightly more thinking (like moving to the side). Indeed, there are actual tactics to use in dealing with each of the game’s unique enemies, as some weapons are best reserved for specific aliens. To assist in your extraterrestrial domination, the cursor color indicates how much health the currently targeted enemy has, so you can switch weapons and save a rocket for a more deserving opponent. You will also have to conserve ammunition, health, and armor; whenever Serious Sam 3: BFE gives you a bunch of rounds and health right before a gigantic open space, you know you are in trouble. Some of the early levels are limited with occasional enemies, and these are much less interesting because of their more traditional design. Like the previous games in the series, Serious Sam 3 thrives when you are presented with tens, nay, hundreds of enemies at once, running backwards with guns blazing. The game, as a whole, is a wonderful throwback to a simpler time of constant action and mayhem, but it still delivers a solid presentation for today’s modern shooter genre.

IN CLOSING
Serious Sam 3: BFE delivers what it promises: lots of shooting lots of enemies all the time. While the game starts out too conventional, with restrictive hallways and a handful of enemies, when Serious Sam 3 expands to large, open battlefields and hundreds of enemies on-screen at one time, the chaos really works, harkening back to the days where actual shooting reigned over carefully scripted, linear level design. The open nature of the levels allows you to strafe (remember that?) and run backwards to avoid the foes charging relentlessly towards you. The various weapons of Serious Sam 3: BFE, along with the unique enemies the title offers, combine for varied strategies: some guns are more appropriate for specific targets, while using others will simply be a waste of precious ammunition. While Serious Sam 3: BFE is a very tough challenge by yourself, its even better online where sixteen (!) people can work cooperatively at turning aliens into bloody messes: it’s insane chaotic fun. There are also competitive deathmatch modes, but only on a couple of maps. The graphics are a mix of lots of unique enemies, some varied environments, soft focus, and buckets of blood. Overall, Serious Sam 3: BFE offers some excellent old school gaming brought to the present for $40.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Minecraft Review

Minecraft, developed and published by Mojang AB.
The Good: Randomly generated worlds to explore, destructible blocks can be mined and placed to construct almost anything, impressive array of items to make and improve with experience, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: No in-game help, lacks an automated server browser and competitive modes, poor mod support
What say you? A fantastic randomly generated world to explore and alter, greatly hindered by an extreme lack of documentation: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Minecraft has held the banner for indie development ever since it burst onto the scene during the summer of 2009. Allowing users to explore randomly generated worlds, mine and collect blocks, and then place those blocks to make whatever crazy designs they desired, the game has proven that a good idea can flourish on the vast expanses of the Internet. Over four million people have purchased the game before the actual release, carefully tracking its progress through alpha and beta versions and scouring each version for new features. Now that the game is no longer a “beta” product, we can now evaluate it fully and see if Minecraft has made a successful transition from inventive demo to full-fledged computer game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Minecraft has a truly distinctive visual style. Displayed in a window, you can resize the screen to display a larger game world, although the textures will retain their low-resolution attributes. The blocks and items are made of large pixels that give Minecraft a decidedly old-school look (and makes it easier to design in-game items). The biomes are varied and give different areas diverse appearances. Enemies are memorable as well, and their animations are a bit stiff but it works in the low fidelity theme that permeates throughout the game. The sound effects are basic but effective, giving all of the weapons, enemies, and other creatures unique sounds that helps you identify them even if you can’t see them; hearing monsters outside of your house at night is very creepy. The music is a pleasant arrangement of tonal sounds, reminiscent of MIDI, that, again, works well within the confines of Minecraft’s theme. While Minecraft certainly won’t win any awards for cutting-edge graphics, it certainly does have an easily recognizable style.

ET AL.
Minecraft is a sandbox role-playing game where you collect resources, build and make items, and defeat enemies on your way to the dragon boss. The game comes in three flavors: the more traditional survival mode, a hardcore mode where a single death ends the game, and a creative mode that lets you build anything with no threat of death. Minecraft can be played by yourself or online, joining a server by using…other websites to find IP addresses. Yes, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, so you must resort to outside assistance to find online games and then input the IP addresses yourself (the game then stores the servers you provided for future reference). The game may look like it’s from 1994, but that doesn’t mean the features have to be. That said, the online worlds people have created are very impressive, and everything is more fun with friends (or complete strangers) involved (and less lonely).

Minecraft is very open-ended: there are no quests, but an end-game is present for those who survive long enough. In fact, the game is a bit too open-ended, as the game is bereft of any help. You are thrown into the randomly generated world with no instructions, either inside the game or in provided documentation. While allowing the user to discover things is an argument for exploration, Minecraft is such a large game with many things to do that a complete lack of assistance is inexcusable. Want to know how to make a bed? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how to enchant things? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how circuits work? The game won’t tell you. I don’t want an in-your-face tutorial system, but a series of optional notes or an in-game help system (using F1, for example) would ease new players into the game and allow veterans to remember crafting recipes without resorting to the Internet. I would have never figured out that you could tame wolves if I didn’t visit the wiki to see what bones are used for. Minecraft has relied on the Internet for tutorials during its lengthy beta period, but that simply isn’t enough in a fully released commercial product. Another area that needed attention but did not receive it was mod support: Minecraft has been fertile ground for user-created modifications, but the game lacks an easy way to import them. Texture packs can be added easily, so why not mods? This is yet another feature you would expect to be completed in a released game.

All right, enough complaining about ancillary features, as the remainder of Minecraft is brilliant stuff. One highlight of the game is the semi-random, essentially infinite, destructible environment consisting of blocks that can be mined and then placed elsewhere (or smelted for resources). Part of the fun in Minecraft is exploration: discovering new islands, mountains, deserts, and caves that are generated on the fly while you walk around. There are many blocks to find: wood (used to craft basic items), stone (primarily used to build things), iron (for better weapons and armor), coal (for lighted torches), dirt (which takes up space in your inventory), water, lava, gold, glass (made from sand), redstone (for circuits), diamond (the best and more rare resource), and many more. The better stuff is located deep underground, so a common activity in Minecraft is digging deeper to find underground caverns where it is easier to search for valuable blocks. The use of blocks makes it really easy to make massive structures: houses, towers, castles, and anything else that can be assembled with cubes. The world of Minecraft consists of different biomes that offer distinct visuals: forest, taiga, swamp, mountains, desert, plains, ocean, and tundra all provide different benefits. You might also encounter NPC villages, dungeons, strongholds, and mineshafts, although these things are quite rare. You can also experience rain, thunderstorms, snow, and the day-night cycle. Minecraft capitalizes on the creative fun of Legos, and the blocky environments work quite well and allow for high imagination.

Blocks are used to create many items in the game that are used to harvest more blocks and defeat enemies that appear during the night. Basic tools include pickaxes, shovels, hoes (the farming kind), shears, axes, fishing rods, and buckets. More advanced objects consist of clocks, compasses, maps, beds, bowls, doors, paintings, signs, ladders, jukeboxes, pistons, fencing, and bookshelves. Various vehicles can also be fashioned: boats and minecarts (that travel along tracks and can be powered) make travel faster. You’ll also need to grow or find food: pork, beef, chicken, fish, and bread will fulfill your need to eat. As I stated before, the game never says how to actually make any of these things, so you’ll need to consult the the wiki or stumble upon them with blind luck.

Your weapons to combat enemies are pretty limited, although I suppose all weapons either fall under melee (the sword) and ranged (the bow and arrow) categories. You can improvise some traps using TNT, pressure plate triggers, doors, and redstone circuits, but having more straightforward mines and grenades would be easier to deal with more imposing foes. Sturdier resources (leather, iron, and diamond) can be used to make armor: helmets, chestplates, leggings, and boots can protect you from the bad guys. These bad guys come out at night (or dark places in caves) and include spiders, skeletons, zombies, “endermen” (which move blocks and teleport, attacking you if you make direct eye contact) and the iconic exploding creeper. There isn’t much variety here and you’ll tire of encountering the same handful of enemies every night, so hopefully more will be added in the future. Having a full stomach from eating (pork, beef, bread, cake, cookies, melon, milk, mushrooms, apples, or fish) will automatically regenerate your health diminished by attacks. There are also more friendly animals to encounter: chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, squid, and the wolf, who can be tamed (using bones) to accompany you and attack enemies. You can also breed animals (using wheat), forming a farm-like community. Minecraft certainly gives you enough to do, if you can figure out how to do it.

An exciting part of the game is enchanting items: experience earned through combat can be spent adding attributes to any weapon or piece of armor by using an enchantment table (which requires both diamonds and obsidian to build, both rare materials located deep in the ground, unfortunately) surrounded by bookshelves. For example, a diamond sword can be enchanted with smite (extra damage to zombies and skeletons) and knockback, or you can create a metal shovel with increased durability. Using more points will result in a more powerful enchantment, so you’ll have to decide whether to save up for more powerful attributes. This gives the player a reason to kill enemies (instead of simply avoiding them every night), since you use the experience to better your inventory. You can also brew potions to restore health, increase attacks, or move faster (plus negative effects you can throw at enemies). Obsidian can be used to enter The Nether, a fire world with unique enemies and blocks that are required to reach The End of the game. While there is a conclusion to Minecraft, exploring the randomly generated terrain, collecting blocks, making buildings, crafting and enchanting items, and fighting enemies will keep most people busy for quite a long time.

IN CLOSING
Minecraft excels because of the use of randomly generated terrain, easy-to-manipulate blocks that can be used to create almost anything, and plenty of items to make and enemies to encounter along your way to making the world your own. The use of cubes is genius: you can easily excavate and place blocks in any arrangement your mind can think of, creating houses, castles, towers, and gigantic Pikachu. You can make a variety of tools to gather blocks to make more tools, including axes, buckets, doors, dynamite, fencing, bowls, beds, and many, many more. You’ll also need to eat food (chicken, pork, bread), make weapons (swords, bows and arrows), and craft armor (helmets, boots) to survive the nightly attacks from a mixture of distinctive enemies (spiders, skeletons, zombies, and the iconic creeper). While the ongoing development of Minecraft has seen many new items introduced to the game to give the player even more things to experience and explore, little in the way of actually helping players figure out how they work, without the assistance of the Internet, has been provided. I’m sure there are features I am missing simply because there is no documentation for them. Allowing the user to explore at their own pace is one thing, but providing absolutely no assistance in figuring out how things work is another. Another area needing improvement is multiplayer: while witnessing (and helping to build) the amazing creations made by others online is a great feature, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, and competitive modes that could have capitalized on the game’s destructible block world. The addictive nature of Minecraft cannot be denied, as exploring, manipulating, and constructing your world is a fascinating experience. However, common features expected in a released product are missing, such as extensive in-game help and more rounded online components.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades Review

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades, developed by Unicorn Games Studio and published by 1C Company.
The Good: Outstanding unit detail with very exhaustive attributes, strong AI uses varied tactics, somewhat dynamic campaign with mobile enemy units and straightforward trade and diplomacy, unit and hero upgrades, large skirmish and online tactical battles with generated maps
The Not So Good: Few low-level enemies in campaign, little experience gained outside of main missions
What say you? This medieval combination of tactical battles and campaign strategy delivers detailed, challenging gameplay: 7/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The unbridled success of the Total War series of games no doubt sprung several imitators. From the fantasy world of King Arthur to the crusades-based Lionheart, we’ve seen several series try to capitalize on the popularity of the popularity of combining strategic and tactical gameplay. Another, relatively overlooked (at least by me), series comes from Russia (I assume…Unicorn Games Studio is scant on the details), a fertile ground for PC development, highlighting the medieval time period and the violence contained therein. Starting with XIII Century and continuing with Real Warfare 1242, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades relies on a dynamic campaign game world and accurate tactical battles to stand out from the pack.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades holds its own when compared against similar large-scale tactical warfare titles. The game features lots of units that will eventually evolve into lots of dead bodies that exhibit decent (not great) animations while fighting it out over domination of the battlefield. The terrain is varied, with forests and hills of different settings serving as a nice backdrop to the chaos of combat. The grass and trees look nice up close when you choose to zoom in on the carnage. Real Warfare 2 does apply way too much bloom, however, rending almost everything on-screen blurry from a distance. However, overall the graphics are quite solid. The sound design delivers as expected: appropriate battle effects and music that seems to be specific to different nations, which is a nice touch. Overall, Real Warfare 2 fulfills its sub-$40 price tag in terms of the game’s presentation.

ET AL.
It is up to the Teutonic Knights to rid Prussia of its pagan scourge, and the campaign of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades tells this epic tale of epic epicness (caution: epicness may cause vomiting). The campaign’s structure borrows heavily from Mount & Blade: you are given an army and allowed to roam the lands in search of enemy troops and towns to invade, missions to undertake, and trade to profit from. The missions are unoriginal, as most of them simply involve engaging a specific unit on the map; thankfully, you can also choose your own adventure and take on any threat you see in the dynamic game world, as neutral and enemy units move around Prussia as you do. It is harder to gain experience through skirmish battles alone, however, as a significant XP bonus is granted to completing the main story missions. The game displays the relative strength of the enemy as you mouse over them, so you can assess whether the peasants, merchants, brigands, patrols, and lords offer a fair challenge. It can be difficult to target enemy units in real time (since everybody moves), and there are few easy “cannon fodder” units to rank up your initial paltry army. Once you discover how to make significant amounts of money through trade, however, the campaign becomes a lot easier.

The world of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is populated with towns, villages, and castles, all of which can be invaded. However, you don’t actually get control of conquered villages, and the goods you reap from victorious battles aren’t aligned with the goods that the village actually produces (a hunting village does not give you lots of meat upon victory, for example). In friendly settlements, you are given options to talk to the mayor for no reason whatsoever, trade resources, and recruit or upgrade troops. Real Warfare 2 features over forty goods that are produced and consumer in villages across the map; there is a production chain buried within the game world (a village produces bread from wheat) and you can take advantage of buying what a village produces and then selling it to the village that needs that particular item. The interface does a fantastic job highlighting the best goods, with clear “thumbs up” icons and a map view that highlights where goods are needed and produced the most. There’s no writing down prices in Real Warfare 2, which is a great thing indeed. Simple diplomatic options are also present: changing stances with a rival nation (alliance, friendship, wary, hated, war) and having negotiations (gifts, trade, alliances, insults, or demanding money) are all part of the game. Experience on the battlefield can be spent upgrading your troops, either by raising their attributes (strength, weapon ratings, morale) or morphing them into a higher-class unit. The hero (that’s you) gains experience as well, and leveling up grants points that can be spend improving sixteen skills: higher trade income, greater spear attack, or more loot from battles), to name a few. Veteran heroes can also field larger armies of more advanced units, allowing you to take on more threats as the campaign progresses. Overall, the campaign is entertaining and the free-form (to a point) nature is far more interesting than the more restrictive or totally linear campaigns of Lionheart or King Arthur.

Beyond the entertaining campaign mode lies comprehensive skirmish battles. Six players can duke it out on a number of maps, or you can utilize the map generator to produce seemingly random battlefields. The AI behavior can be adjusted (attack, defend, or a mix), and units are selected based on a budget. Multiplayer games over the Internet also support six players in tactical battles; competitive campaigns would be a fun feature as well. Finally, Real Warfare 2 comes with an editor so you can edit maps and create scenarios.

Real Warfare 2 is highlighted by its astounding attention to unit detail. The typical range of medieval military options is present: cavalry, archers, swords, spears, and assorted castle storming equipment. However, the game goes into great detail calculating and showing unit performance during battle, using fifteen attributes to determine attack, morale, and firing values. Weapons, armor, morale, fatigue, formation, terrain, discipline, speed, and whether the front, flanks, and rear are under attack are all used to gauge how effective a unit is in combat, and all of these numbers are shown clear as day to the player. Now, maybe there is just as much detail in other games of this ilk, just hidden from the user, but Real Warfare 2 makes the smart move and presents all of its data directly and transparently to the player. The result is that you can figure out why a unit is panicking (it’s under fire from archers, it has low-level armor, and is being attacked from behind) and move support units into position instead of just guessing and blindly throwing more forces at the enemy. It’s detail that strategy gamers crave, and Real Warfare 2 delivers.

Commands are typical for a tactical game: move and attack are what you’ll be using the most. You can customize unit behavior (aggressive or avoidance) and set formation (line, column, wedge, circle) and density. You can also utilize the very handy army formations, which organize everybody in one of eight configurations, such as archers in front, infantry behind, and cavalry on left. It’s nice you can choose the overall formation for your army, instead of the game magically selecting one based on where you order your troops to move. Battles can also be accelerated, to cut down on transit time between your spawn location and that of the enemy. Combat itself is interesting enough: the key is to engage the enemy from the front, but keep units in reserve (especially cavalry) to flank the enemy from the sides or (even better) the rear. Add in varied terrain in each battlefield and Real Warfare 2 can be an intriguing medieval warfare simulation. I noticed early on that, during combat, units like to stand around and ignore nearby enemies. I then discovered that this is working as designed, as each unit is given a “self-control” rating that determines how much the AI will guide your unit and how much you need to micromanage it. This makes battles less certain and requires more personal attention, which is more appealing that just selecting everyone once and ordering a single attack on the nearest enemy and then taking a nap while the battle plays out for you. The AI is very strong, using the terrain to hide units and sneaking cavalry behind your army to spring the trap. It gets to the point where the AI does this pretty much every battle so you learn to expect it (and protect archers with pikemen), but it’s so much better than the usual tactical AI of simply heading right towards you and whoever has the larger army wins.

IN CLOSING
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much from Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades. I figured it would be just another cheap rip-off of Total War, hoping to cash in on yet another unoriginal replica. How wrong I was. This game excels thanks in part to its detailed unit attributes: clear data, from armor ratings to attacks on the flanks, is used to determine when units will rout, resulting in more authentic battle results and interesting tactical gaming. All of these variables are displayed directly to the player, allowing for appropriate action to be made with predictable results. The medieval style combat emphasizes engaging the enemy directly with low-level fighters while using cavalry, ranged, and experienced units to flank and subsequently panic the enemy. While this does produce some predictable, repetitive conflicts, the rapid, devastating cavalry units and mixed unit attributes does make the tactical battles as captivating as possible for what was available during the time period. The user interface allows for easy control of large numbers of units by listing all of your forces along the bottom of the screen and providing several formation options to easily organize an entire army. The AI is impressive: it routinely hides units out of range, using the terrain to its advantage, and then flanks vulnerable troops (archers, namely) with fast mounted cavalry or other appropriate counters. The campaign allows you to undertake missions against scripted enemy foes or engage any opponent in the living, dynamic world where battles take place and goods are transferred without your direct intervention. Trading for profit, recruiting and upgrading units, and checking out the current diplomatic situation is easy, and the campaign makes it seem like you are taking part in a medieval setting, rather than checking off the next mission on the way to the end. There aren’t enough “easy” units to engage in the beginning and I’d like the game to reward you with more XP for taking on enemies of your choosing, but overall the campaign is a good envelope for the tactical battles. You can also engage the AI or online opponents in massive tactical battles, and only a multiplayer campaign would add more value. In all, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is a great combination of a notable campaign and meaty tactical battles suitable for any strategy gamer.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dungeon Defenders Review

Dungeon Defenders, developed and published by Trendy Entertainment.
The Good: Enjoyable local and online co-op with distinct classes, upgradable items can be equipped, unique challenges and rules
The Not So Good: Limited arsenal of weapons and traps must be unlocked, repetitive combat with insufficient strategic options, offline character can’t be used in ranked multiplayer matches, can’t save progress mid-level
What say you? A tower defense role-playing game with fun cooperative play but restricted weaponry: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Tower defense games have certainly taken on a life of their own. What started out as a niche extension of the strategy games has blossomed into a full-fledged genre. Now that the basic tenants of tower defense games have been laid out in conventional titles like Defense Grid, more experimentation has been injected into the formula by adding competitive features (as in Rock of Ages), reversing the game mechanics (like Anomaly: Warzone Earth), or taking inspiration from other genres. We’ve seen the first person shooter adaptation Sanctum and the third person shooter take in Orcs Must Die, but now it’s time for some role-playing. Dungeon Defenders has finally been released, adding experience, loot, and classes to the typical tower defense game. Does this mixture work?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Powered by the Unreal engine, Dungeon Defenders has an interesting art style that trends towards the “cartoon” side of role-playing tropes. The cell-shaded graphics look nice and work well with the theme of the game, giving you some fanciful environments to fight in and exaggerated enemies to fight against. There is also no shortage of bright colors in the game. The levels and characters could use a bit more texture detail and smoother models, though. The effects are suitable for the game, with minor amounts of blood accompanying numbers displaying damage like a traditional RPG. The level designs are a bit repetitive (you are defending dungeons, after all), but they exhibit some unique elements to differentiate each map. On the sound front, things are kept quite basic: combat is chaotic with slashes and magical powers abounding, but there are few instances of voice acting (mostly restricted to the tutorial) for immersive purposes. The music is fitting but not memorable. Overall, Dungeon Defenders delivers average results for your monetary investment when compared against an increasingly competitive indie classification.

ET AL.
Although Dungeon Defenders is primarily designed as a four-person online cooperative game, you can play the game offline. However, this is strongly discouraged as the game is extremely difficult for one person and your single player character cannot be used in ranked online matches. Dungeon Defenders features thirteen campaign missions where you must defend crystals from the incoming horde. Additional rules are available for more variety: a survival mode, where waves will keep coming until you die, a pure strategy mode where you can’t attack, and a mixed mode that spawns random enemies. The game also features over ten challenges that introduce some unique, interesting rules, such as a constantly moving crystal, specific enemies, or putting you on the offensive. All of these features add up to more replay value, despite the fact that the missions on a single map play out the same way as you utilize the same chokepoints. Joining a multiplayer game is easy using a quick match system or the host browser; you can also join matches in progress during the build phase, which is neat. A difficulty setting is available to increase the enemy count for more experienced foes, although the number of enemies does not seem to adjust based on the number of players. Your progress cannot be saved in the middle of a game, which can be a problem when a single level lasts upwards of thirty minutes, deleting all of your hard fought progress. Finally, the tutorial serves as an extensive but laborious introduction to the game.

Like most role-playing-type games, Dungeon Defenders features classes of varying abilities. Each class gets two standard attacks (usually either melee or ranged), two special attacks that typically affect an area, and five traps that are gradually unlocked with experience. Each class starts out with only one trap, which makes the first handful of missions very, very boring as you are greatly limited in what you can do. A variety of items can be found and equipped (helmets, weapons, armor, gloves, and boots); these are dropped by enemy units, and boost attack and defense ratings against fire, lightning, poison, or in general. Classes are pretty standard: the apprentice is the magic ranged guy equipped with tower traps, the squire is the melee guy with blockades, the huntress is the ranged girl with proximity traps, and the monk is the support guy who can boost nearby allies. During each battle, you can earn experience that is spent to improve your abilities: health, damage, attack rate, and movement speed. You can also choose to expand the capabilities of your turrets, increasing their health, damage, attack rate, or area of effect. New traps are also unlocked as you level up, and if you play enough, and you’ll have access to all of the traps, and there will be little reason to go back and use weaker options. Additional options include the ability to purchase really expensive pets to accompany you into battle or trade in useless weapons for mana used to upgrade better items in your inventory.

Each map throws waves of enemies at you, and you can build defenses and trade in items between each wave (you can also building things during invasion, but it’s a lot slower). There is a hard limit to how many structures you can place in a map, even if you have the mana to afford more (killed enemies provide a constant supply of mana), although you can upgrade existing defenses. Dungeon Defenders features repetitive combat: you start out with only a primary and secondary attack, and even when you level up and unlock two additional abilities, your strategies remain very limited. Your role on the battlefield is to repair structures and eliminate the stragglers that have wandered past your stout defenses. Traps are quite effective, and intervention is only needed to remedy places of the map that were overwhelmed with enemy forces. The slow default movement speed makes this an arduous, tedious process, and the maps are just large enough to make walking from one side to the other a chore. The enemies consist of basic, ranged, magic, flying, exploding, and boss variations to require slightly different tactics (blocking, slowing down, or attacking at range). Still, if you clog the pathways with enough things, most enemies will meet untimely death. Dungeon Defenders also clearly displays how many enemies of each type will spawn at every location, so there is little guesswork involved in placing your defenses in the “correct” locations. Still, taking on a huge number of enemies with your friends is undeniably fun, despite the minimal tactical options available to you.

IN CLOSING
Dungeon Defenders is a solid combination of role-playing and tower defense that suffers from too much repetition through the limited means with which you can engage the enemy. Giving each class only five total traps and two special powers really reduce your strategic options, making each scenario play out the same. Add in the fact that you only start out with one of the five traps, and things can get boring. However, Dungeon Defenders is good fun online, where you can enjoy the game’s chaotic cooperative action with other human players (hopefully) using each class effectively. However, your single player avatar cannot be used in ranked matches online, so you must start over with limited options. The game’s four distinct classes each play a role on the battlefield: the melee squire, the ranged huntress, the magical apprentice, and the support monk. You can see the possibilities for great teamwork online, and battling it out alongside your friends is a blast. While items can be upgraded over time, I’d like to see a lot more variety in the traps, spells, animals, and items. The enemies are also very basic variations (melee, ranged, magic, flying, and powerful bosses) on common themes. Dungeon Defenders has a fair number of levels with varied layouts, and some of the challenges have interesting rule restrictions while the alternative game modes are welcome. While Dungeon Defenders is an admirable attempt at a happy marriage of role-playing and tower defense, more content is needed to completely round out the package.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Review

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Ships must be organized into fleets for (theoretically) easier management, semi-random technology tree, government type based on player actions, a manageable economy, distinct races, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly limited interface in many aspects of empire management, budget ignores ship construction costs, unnecessarily confusing ship design, tedious research tree, no list for fleet locations and tasks, shallow and abrupt tactical battles, unpolished with poor performance and missing features like diplomacy and objective-based scenarios, very slow pace, no tutorial, lacks truly random maps, only one victory condition per game
What say you? This 4X turn-based strategy game is far from a finished product: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Originally, I had a traditional introduction written for this review, referencing the original Sword of the Stars, its pitfalls, and its place among other 4X strategy games. But then Release Day Armageddon happened: first, an old beta version of the game was released on Steam, and then the “proper” version was released with a lengthy list of its own troubling issues. Clearly, the game wasn’t ready to be released on its designated date, and improvements have been slowly trickling in from the development team to hopefully subdue the angry, angry Internet. Has Sword of the Stars II returned to its hyped and desired status of a 4X game to be reckoned with?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Strategy games start and end with the interface, and the one featured in Sword of the Stars II is frustrating to deal with. The unimpressive 3-D map is loaded with shortcomings: surveyed systems are not indicated, ships sometimes can’t be clicked on directly during a mission, the view doesn’t zoom towards the cursor position, and the escape key does not open the menu. Also, I’m not sure why the game has a list of all your planets and stations but does not have a list of all your ship fleets. The 3-D interfaces for ship design and research do more harm than good, making each process more arduous than needed because ship components aren’t listed in an intuitive manner and endless scrolling is required to view each research path. While the tactical battles have very nice ships with detailed textures and impressive weapon effects, the bland backgrounds are filled with low-res stars. Overall, Sword of the Stars II has very poor performance: the game lags when you access and close any full-screen display, which is pretty much all you do in a strategy game such as this. Additionally, the game occasionally crashes and throws up error messages. The sound design is subpar, with the same voice acting as the original game and forgettable, subtle background music. While I don’t expect the graphics in a niche strategy game to be top-notch, I do expect some semblance of efficient functionality in the interface.

ET AL.
Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter (not to be confused with the Dukes of Autumn or Kings of Leon) is a 4X strategy game, the 4 “X”s being “Nina,” “Pinta,” “Santa Maria”, and “eXterminate”. The game consists of the main turn-based mode where you manage your empire, and real-time battles against the foes you will encounter around the universe. There are six distinct races that move differently throughout the universe: the Humans are confined to linear nodes, the Hivers use gates, the Tarka warp, the Liir move small distances very quickly, the Zuul use temporary nodes, and the Moorigi move fastest as a group (like migrating birds). Sword of the Stars II features sixteen non-random maps (the planet resources are changed around, I think, but the star locations are not), and you can choose a single victory condition such as conquering all of your foes or being the first race to build a specific number of special objects. However, you cannot have two (or more) simultaneous objectives in the same game, which is an odd limitation. You can, however, customize the planet size, turn time, and economy and research rates. There are also goal-oriented scenarios that have yet to be added to the game (the first of many things promised that are not actually present). Sword of the Stars II does feature multiplayer if you like that sort of thing, and the AI can play your role when you leave and use one of three strategies (maintain, defend, or expand) until you return. Sword of the Stars II does not feature a tutorial (yet), so everyone will have to read the manual to figure out what’s going on.

Space has stars and stars have planets, and it’s your job to find the most hospitable worlds for your race and then befoul nature for valuable resources. Development is budget-based, adjusting the amount of terraforming and infrastructure expansion done on new colonies. Although the cost of transforming new worlds into fully-functional parts of your empire can be expensive based on the climate, there’s little reason not to colonize everything within range (especially since other races will be trying to do the same). You can discover neutral, independent worlds and bring them into your empire by promoting good relationships. Beyond simple tax and production income, various stations can be constructed around each planet, supplementing research, trade, diplomatic, or naval attributes. Systems can also be organized into a province, which provides increased trade revenue but is accomplished through (like most things in this game) a cumbersome interface.

Running your economy is pretty easy. First, you designate how much of your income will be used for research, and then rest is divided among government operations: security (operations against corruption, intelligence, and counter-intelligence), stimulus (mining, colonization, and trade in your empire), and adding more funds to your savings to purchase ships and stations. Expenses include colony development, fleet and station maintenance, loan debt, and corruption resulting from insufficient security funding. Poor funding could result in low morale and rebels taking over your fringe colonies. Your research investment can be split between your current project, “special projects” (which, no doubt, are special), and salvaging research. Neither the game nor the manual actually describe what the latter two options are for, but I funded them anyway!

Ships in Sword of the Stars II are comprised of three hull modules that can be swapped out to form new vessel types. Each module contains a number of places where weapons or vague components (what does a “Hannibal” do, exactly?) can be attached. This is all done in a 3-D interface that works quite poorly; it would have been a lot easier to swap things from a list and see the changes in the background instead of having to hunt around the ship for icons. The starting ship types are not intuitive (did you know the Revenge and Teacher are colony vessels?), which adds to the confusion that permeates throughout ship design.

Individual ships must be organized into fleets, and each fleet must contain a command ship (this took me a while to figure out) for an admiral. This makes controlling large numbers of ship easier, at least in theory. Fleets are issued missions instead of simple “move” commands common in most strategy games: survey, colonize, build, transfer, patrol, intercept, strike, and invade. While I do like the idea of organizing ships together and giving concrete commands to your fleets, Sword of the Stars II does not provide a list of all your fleets, so finding idle ships or busy admirals is nearly impossible. What's the point of organizing things into fleets if you have to hunt for them on the 3-D map? Even if you find them, you might not be able to select them to change their orders if a more pressing need arises. Ships must also return home after a mission, which can extend a simple survey mission to a distant star into a long undertaking. Admirals must be assigned to each fleet, and they contain both good and bad traits and are rated according to loyalty, reaction, and evasion, which would seemingly affect their performance in the tactical battles, although I haven’t seen any dramatic differences in capabilities.

While reading through the manual, I was looking forward to using the many diplomatic actions described: varied relationships, requesting resources, demanding slaves, signing non-aggression treaties, limiting the use of weapons, and spinning diplomatic actions to avoid penalties. Imagine my surprise when I come to find out that none of things are actually in the game yet. Yes, potentially the strongest aspect of the game is nowhere to be found. However, government types are in there: one of nine stances (socialism, anarchism, junta) is automatically assigned based on the player’s decisions regarding morale, money, growth, and production. That’s a much better system that manually choosing one from a list and gaining its bonuses. Another thing that’s actually in the game is research, which is essentially a carbon copy (with one enhancement) of the system used in the original game. Technologies are randomly given a percentage of success, so you’ll end up having to vary your strategy if your favorite tech is not available in the current game. You have to undertake a feasibility study to determine the percentage of success, which adds another step to the process that isn’t indicated from the main interface (the research icon still says you aren’t researching anything during a feasibility study). The 3-D interface used in the research screen also takes too long to cycle through the different types, which slows down an already slow-paced game even more.

Unlike a majority of 4X games, Sword of the Stars II features tactical battles involving ships of warring factions residing in the same sector. You can choose to fight out the conflicts yourself, or allow the computer to simulate the result. Battles are only five minutes long, which is far too short for any type of meaningful resolution involving large fleets of ships. Thus, most battles will take several to many turns to resolve. You are given access to very simple orders: move or attack. You can adjust the stance (attack, defend), movement speed, combat plane, or roll the ship, but these options are quite limited in depth. Shields for the ships are, if the interface is any indication, actually fairly sophisticated, breaking down the three parts of each ship into many small portions that can be damaged individually. Still, most battles in Sword of the Stars II simply involve moving ships within range and waiting until somebody blows up. Units also occasionally forget which enemy ship they are targeting (especially if the enemy ship moves), so you have to keep and eye on your navy and make sure they are actually returning fire.

The AI in Sword of the Stars II seems to be up to the task. The computer develops their colonies well, forms formidable fleets of ships, and attacks vulnerable parts of your sprawling empire. I did not experience any significant shortcomings in the AI for the parts of the game that are currently included. The slow pace of Sword of the Stars II is a real turn off, though, as most everything simply takes too long to complete: research, moving, colonization, ship construction, and battles could all be shorter and contribute to a more action-oriented game. There is really no reason why things need to take so long; I was frequently advancing to the next turn with no input, as all of my fleets had missions, my budget was set, and I was waiting for shipbuilding and research to finish their lengthy durations. This may be partially due to the fact that Sword of the Stars II is currently an incomplete game, but I suspect that even with diplomacy added to the game, things will still advance at a sluggish rate.

IN CLOSING
It’s a shame that Sword of the Stars II was released in this state. Much like Star Ruler before it, this 4X game comes with half-baked ideas and unrealized potential, which is surprising considering it’s a sequel. The interface is a mess: the 3-D ship design and research trees are difficult to navigate and the lack of a master fleet list makes finding ships too difficult. Plus, slow game performance makes using the full-screen menus a tedious chore. Expanding your empire is simple: just colonize every hospitable planet while keeping an eye on the colonial management part of your budget. The rest of the economy is fairly easy to manage (assuming you remember how much your ship construction costs are), thanks to intuitive sliders to adjust the distribution of funding. Diplomacy could be a strong part of the game, if it ever gets implemented. The semi-random technology tree makes things less predictable, but having to investigate a tech before actually researching it just adds an unnecessary step of management. Modular ship design would be intriguing if the game made finding and swapping out parts easier. Likewise, placing ships into fleets is a great idea held back by the difficulty in actually finding those fleets. The tactical battles are very simplified and too brief to determine a victor. The AI seems to handle the game well, putting together effective fleets and invading weak parts of your empire. However, the slow pace of the game makes everything (from surveys to research) take too long, arbitrarily lengthening the game and leading to one “end turn” button press after another. Multiplayer is available for those who desire it, but the lack of a tutorial makes learning the game difficult, especially as you try to wrestle with the occasionally informative interface. Could all of these problems become fixed in the future? Maybe: patches are planned to slowly add in all of the missing features and functionality you would expect at release. But all we can evaluate is what lies in front of us, and Sword of the Stars II is currently a broken, incomplete game that offers nothing over the original version but problems.