Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday Night Combat Review

Monday Night Combat, developed and published by Uber Entertainment.
The Good: Six classes with varied abilities and upgrades available to everyone earned through combat, action-packed gameplay against diverse creeps, $15
The Not So Good: Limited class upgrades fully level up too quickly, lack of constant escalation of creeps in competitive mode needlessly lengthens match times, trivial single player options
What say you? This third-person shooter adaptation of DotA mechanics works fairly well but lacks depth: 5/8

The most popular sport in the United States, the National Football League, has become more and more violent, thanks to an emphasis on the passing game through the enforcement of illegal contact, resulting in brutal open-field hits that produce a disturbingly large amount of concussions and other serious injuries. When will the carnage stop? There are two end-results: when people stop watching (not likely), or when somebody dies. Well, why not just cut to the chase and kill the competitors as part of the game? Enter Monday Night Combat, where two teams fight until death (and beyond, thanks to the magic of respawning). This class-based third-person multiplayer shooter debuted on something called an “XBOX” (I know, I never heard of it either) last summer and has finally entered the wonderful realm of PC gaming. How does it stack up against other class-based entries in the shooter genre?

Monday Night Combat uses a Team Fortress 2-inspired presentation, displaying each of the game’s combatants as silly caricatures blasting around the battlefield. The game has a cartoon feel overall, from the design of the professionals to the exaggerated aliens and turrets. This is a good decision for an indie title, as more realistic graphics would probably come up short and subsequently be ridiculed by mean individuals such as myself. The weapon effects are also pleasing, with lots of brightly colored explosions, and the futuristic level design fits the sports stadium presentation. The sound design is decent, with appropriate weapon effects, though I think the annoying play-by-play announcer tries too hard to be funny. Overall, though, Monday Night Combat certainly delivers $15 worth of nice graphics and sound design.

Monday Night Combat takes the basis for Defense of the Ancients and applies it to third person shooters. The first thing you’ll do in Monday Night Combat is unplug your non-XBOX gamepad, as leaving it connected results in the dreaded “constantly spinning view” phenomena that occasionally plagues console ports. The second thing you’ll do is go through the tutorial, which does a good job teaching the controls of the game. The in-game help files also relay some strategy on how to use each of the game’s classes. Monday Night Combat is intended as a multiplayer title; joining a game is accomplished through the game’s server browser (which includes dedicated servers, always a plus on the PC), which is responsive but can’t be sorted by column (like ping or number of open slots). The game comes with six maps, five for competitive “crossfire” play and one for the cooperative “blitz” mode. Both modes are essentially the same thing: you must defend you base against AI bots, although the crossfire mode adds an enemy base you can also attack. Monday Night Combat supports up to twelve players, a low number likely due to the smaller map design required for console game player counts. Blitz can also be enjoyed on your own in a single player match, though this is not recommended for maximum enjoyment. Rounding out the features are endorsements from sponsors you can earn and a numerical experience ranking that actually does nothing.

Monday Night Combat features six classes to choose from, and each class gets two weapons, each with an alternate fire, and three skills that can be quickly upgraded during combat. The assortment gives every type of player something they’ll like. The assault class gets a rifle and a grenade launcher, with the ability to drop bombs, fly, and charge into the opposition. The tank gets laser guns for pinpoint kills, grenades, and can deploy for additional firepower. The support class can heal others, sports a shotgun, and can hack turrets to upgrade them slightly, deploy his own turrets, and call in air strikes. The assassin class can cloak and delivers kills using a dagger or a shuriken launcher. The gunner is a powerful offensive weapon sporting a minigun, mortar launcher, and a fist of slamming fury. Finally, the sniper, well, snipes (and sets traps). Advanced players can also design custom classes for an even more tailored experience. Luckily, all of the weapons and abilities are unlocked for all players from the outset and upgrades only persist for a single round, so new players won’t be at an immediate disadvantage just because the veterans have logged more hours. There is certainly enough variety here to satisfy all gamers.

Monday Night Combat, like collegiate athletics, is driven by money, but unlike collegiate athletics, the competitors actually get to keep some of the cash. Coins collected by destroying AI bots are used to build turrets and upgrade powers. There are four emplacements (laser, rocket, long-range, and speed reduction) that can be positioned at fixed locations scattered around the map. They become more powerful with monetary upgrades, and in the late game they become more significant threat than the AI creeps. The upgrades are quite limited: there are only three steps for each of the three class abilities (plus a general upgrade path), so most players will reach maximum performance less than halfway through a match. This means most everyone will be on equal footing for the entire round, producing some annoyingly stalemate-rich games. Other gameplay features include “juice” collected from fallen enemies that can be used for temporary increased damage, jetpacks, and jump pads unlocked with money. Incorporating a recent “innovation,” rehealing is automatic when you are out of combat; this only servers to downplay the significant respawn time (and the long walk back to the front lines) and contribute to the frequency of stalemates in the game.

There are eight types of AI bots that move along fixed paths towards each base. They have some nicely varied capabilities, from large units to artillery launchers to small cloaked machines. You can spend a little money to occasionally spawn a more powerful member, but your influence in the automated process is limited at best. More distressing is how trivial the addition of bots is: they are a minor nuisance, never concentrated or powerful enough to really influence the game in a significant way. Using any semblance of teamwork will result in their quick extermination. Monday Night Combat features needlessly drawn-out matches since the bots don’t steadily increase in power in the competitive crossfire matches, and you’ll almost always reach sudden death overtime. The blitz mode features the same assortment of enemy bots at each difficulty setting, providing a minor, limited diversion from the more preferred competitive mode. Compared against Demigod, which features a comparable number of classes and similar gameplay, Monday Night Combat does not offer the same depth of upgrade variety and keeps AI creeps an insignificant threat in competitive play.

Monday Night Combat is not a bad game, but the novelty wears off quickly when you see how limited your class choices are for each map. These type of shooters with light role-playing features can thrive and stand apart based on how many tactical decisions the player is given, and unfortunately in Monday Night Combat they are a bit restricted. Each of the game’s six classes are distinctly different, but have three skills (plus general improvements) that can be upgraded only three levels. I would like to see more open-ended options here, as everyone quickly reaches the top of the technology tree and stalemates ensue during competitive matches. In addition, the AI creeps fail to keep pace with the human professionals, so they become an increasingly negligible part of the game as each match wears on, with stationary turrets becoming more of an obstacle. That’s too bad, since the creeps are varied and can be challenging in large numbers. Unfortunately, the competitive crossfire mode doesn’t take advantage of this fact and never concentrates the bots enough to make them a real threat, just a diversion from the opposing human players. The cooperative mode suffers from too much scripting of the incoming enemy bots, quickly becoming tiresome. Monday Night Combat features only one game mode inspired by DotA and Demigod, and since the upgrades are few and quickly completed, repetition quickly sets in. Monday Night Combat is best played cooperatively and competitively online, and the game supports up to twelve players fighting it out. The game’s price ($15) is adjusted nicely for how much longevity Monday Night Combat has to offer, which is restricted by the shallow class upgrades, inconsequential creeps, and repetitive single game mode.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Alien Hallway Review

Alien Hallway, developed and published by Sigma Team.
The Good: Action-packed, unit upgrades, campaign automatically adjusts difficulty, only $10
The Not So Good: Little strategy or variety, limited direct interaction, meaningless level layouts, no online features
What say you? A variant on tower defense that lacks meaningful strategy: 4/8

Much like the British, the aliens are coming. Where, exactly? Well, down the hallway, of course! You’re not going to let them walk all the way down that hallways to the bedroom, or even (gasp!) the bathroom, are you? Of course not, and Alien Hallway gives you the chance to recruit heavily-armed gentlemen to defend the halls against the incoming alien threat. It’s like the safety patrol for grown-ups. Or at least people with a computer.

Alien Hallway features decent graphics and sound design for $10. The hallways in which you do combat are linear and mostly repetitive (each of the three planets gets a different layout), but Alien Hallway has decent character models for both your troops and the aliens that are animated well enough. The combat effects involve a lot of fire and bullets and glowing things that are pleasingly chaotic. The game also has the overly dramatic music you would expect in an action game, along with repetitive sound effects for weapons and death. But in the end, you get what you pay for, so there’s not really much room to complain.

Alien Hallway has you defending a hallway from aliens. The game’s campaign takes place across twenty-one levels on three planets, which is pretty short and lacks variety in the hallway layouts: each level is a simple linear container that has no tactical elements (like cover) whatsoever. Alien Hallway offers dynamic difficulty that makes the next level more challenging (by adding more powerful aliens) if you are adept at the mechanics. Each level is timed, a usually unnecessary requirement as most levels are finished well under the limit. As you progress through the campaign, new units are slowly unlocked at set intervals. You do, however, have a choice with unit and skill upgrades: you can make your troops more powerful (hit points, damage, additional secondary weapons) or improve various abilities (gold income, energy capacity, cool down time, plus others). Unfortunately, Alien Hallway does not offer any online features, like a high score list (in fact, it doesn’t include any scoring) or cooperative play. Thus, once you are finished with the campaign, there is little replay value here.

Each level is finished once you destroy the alien base (or when your base is destroyed, of course). The first step is to build some engineers to automatically collect resources used to purchase units. All new units appear on the left side of the hallway and slowly make their way across towards the aliens. There is a somewhat lengthy cool-down period (fifteen seconds seems to be the average) between queuing the same unit, which makes it exceedingly difficult to group units together (apparently, the aliens have futuristic technology that prevent this sort of arbitrary limitation). The units really only differ according to the range and power of their attack: flame, rifle, shotgun, grenade, machine gun, missile, and laser. There doesn’t seem to be any tactical difference between using one unit over another, as each weapon affects all aliens equally.

Your interaction with your troops is very limited. They move and attack automatically, so all you need to do is occasionally click on their grenade icon and place an air strike every thirty seconds or so. Because of this (along with the long build cool-down times), there are times in Alien Hallway where you are simply waiting for a cool-down to end: not exactly scintillating gameplay. Now, if you are smart and choose the correct upgrades (cool down, engineers), then you are pretty much constantly clicking to place orders and send out grenades, but there are times (especially earlier in the campaign) where waiting is the hardest part. By the way, only one power? As a comparison, Swords and Soldiers (another $10 1-D strategy game) offered a lot more variety and an in-game tech tree to boot. Aliens have slight variations in their behavior (whether they shoot, punch, or blow up), but generally they just attack the nearest unit. There are certainly no specific alien counters to use, so ultimately Alien Hallway is a shallow game. Sure, you must time engineer production correctly in the beginning of each level, but once you are swimming in dough, you can usually just order everything as fast as the cool-downs will allow. The game’s increasing difficulty simply adds more units to the mix, instead of requiring advanced tactics to pass the later levels in the campaign. In the end, Swords and Soldiers is a much more interesting alternative to the limited strategies found in Alien Hallway.

The primary failing of Alien Hallway is that it simply lacks strategy. All you need to do is not forget about producing the engineers that automatically collect resources, and then simply click on each unit when they become available. You don’t directly control your units, and your only interaction with the game is picking which units to make, placing artillery strikes, and clicking on grenade icons to fire them. It seems better to mass your units together and produce them all at once, and use your airstrike on concentrated enemy unit groups. But none of these decisions are particularly interesting, and once you do it one level, the rest of the campaign is identical since the layouts never influence the gameplay in any way. Alien Hallway becomes dynamically more difficult, but this is only done by adding more aliens to fight against: not exactly sophisticated. The aliens aren’t varied enough to notice their abilities, and your units are different only in the range at which they engage the enemy. You can spend money earned in each level to upgrade your units and abilities; thus, there is some freedom to customize your overall strategy, but since the strategy in Alien Hallway is limited to being with, decisions here don’t have a lot of weight. In addition to the repetitive nature of the campaign levels, Alien Hallway lacks scoring (both online and on the same computer) and any sort of competitive or cooperative play over the Internet. Alien Hallway is fun for about two levels, which, in my opinion, doesn’t reach $10 worth of value.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Astroslugs Review

Astroslugs, developed and published by Bit Barons.
The Good: Innovative drawing mechanic
The Not So Good: Rigid solutions, few puzzles and no editor, can't skip difficult levels and lacks hints, low replay value, no scoring system
What say you? This puzzle game has an inventive approach but lacks variety, length, help, and longevity: 4/8

NOTE (1/24/11): Patch v1.01 added the ability to skip the victory animation.

Slugs are gross. I mean, they are basically snails that weren't good enough to get a shell. And you know what's worse than these slimy creatures? Slugs from space. Yes, the extraterrestrial invertebrates have been plaguing mankind for far too long. Thankfully, Astroslugs is a new computer software product that highlights this infinite struggle for dominance, in the form of a puzzle game that is seemingly unrelated to slugs. Well, it's the thought that counts.

Astroslugs has a very typical 2-D presentation for a puzzle game. The puzzle elements are simple color-coded spheres projected against usually static (or vaguely animated) hand-drawn backgrounds: nothing too innovative there. The game features few special effects (a simple glow when a pattern is drawn), but does come with a tediously long success animation that can’t be skipped. At least the system requirements are quite low. As for the sound design, “typical” is the adjective of choice here as well: appropriate effects for making matches and the usual background music selection to accompany your puzzling puzzlement. All told, an average game in terms of graphics and sound.

Astroslugs is a puzzle game where you must draw a specified number of shapes on a grid consisting of pre-arranged spheres, carefully filling each available sphere while fitting all of the shapes. The features leave a lot to be desired. First, there are only about forty puzzles to choose from, and since there is typically only one or maybe two possible solutions to each level, replay value is quite low. Astroslugs lacks a level editor, prohibiting the community from increasing the volume of puzzles. You must also complete every level in each set: if you encounter a particularly difficult puzzle, you cannot move on, even if you have successfully completed all the others. There are some exceedingly difficulty bonus levels unlocked after completing each set, but you still must pass all basic members in a group. Finally, Astroslugs doesn’t offer any method of scoring, either on the same computer or over the Internet, in order to compare your puzzling ability to others. Astroslugs certainly has a disappointingly limited features set.

Astroslugs is a puzzle game where you must draw a specified number of shapes on a grid consisting of pre-arranged spheres, carefully filling each available sphere while fitting all of the shapes (it’s like I just said that!). Using the mouse, you highlight spheres to match each of the patterns you must incorporate into the arrangement (like this), and you can rotate of flip shapes in order to fit them all. I found that the amount of user freedom is low: each of the puzzles seems to have only one or two solutions because every available open spot is always used. It’s just a matter of taking the time (an unlimited amount of time, by the way) to figure out how the developers had the shapes arranged when they designed the layout. Astroslugs lacks hints, so if you are stuck, you are stuck permanently. While I do like the distinctive approach to puzzle gaming, the lack of typical features and the linear nature of the puzzles makes Astroslugs a title to forget.

Drawing to place puzzle elements is unique, but it only goes so far. The game mechanic does make Astroslugs distinctive, but it’s ultimately quite restrictive since there is usually only one developer-designed solution to each puzzle, though you might get lucky and find another. I always prefer games that offer multiple solutions for any puzzle. You also cannot skip past the more difficult levels, and the game offers no hints on how to proceed if you are stuck. The game is also short, offering only around forty puzzles and no possibility to extend the life of Astroslugs through a level editor. The game also doesn’t offer any scoring, either offline or online, and the lack of time pressure makes Astroslugs a relaxing but ultimately limited entry into the puzzle genre.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

APOX Review

APOX, developed and published by BlueGiant Interactive.
The Good: Detailed resource usage, units can gather and use additional weapons, vehicles can transport troops that bestow additional weaponry, capture-the-flag collection of rare metal to build powerful end-game weaponry, small army size for easier control, usually smart automation of menial tasks, supports large 32-player online matches on over 100 maps with an editor
The Not So Good: No supply trucks to transport resources for sustained attacks, units don’t automatically attack enemies in visual range, predictable "cheating" AI, narrow research options and limited strategic variety, overpowered vehicles dominate infantry units, trivial solo content, must unlock bland maps, tutorials could use work
What say you? Unique resource supply, flexible unit and vehicle weaponry, and large online battles highlight this multiplayer real-time strategy game: 6/8

The very first “proper” review (meaning a game I got for free) I did was for Trash, an innovative indie RTS that featured unique resources and large online battles. So, what’s a developer to do for a follow-up? Why, move to India and assist in starting up a new computer software company, of course! APOX (an acronym that stands for “APOX”) is a real-time strategy game that features unique resources and large online battles. Sound familiar? That’s where the similarities end, though, as APOX has a bleak-future setting, FPS-inspired features like weapon collection that produce slight customization of vehicles and units, and other innovative features. I am a sucker for innovative products, so let’s see if APOX makes for some good real-time strategy gaming.

APOX features decent graphics for a modern real-time strategy title. The game certainly cannot compare favorably with the big-budget offerings that occasionally appear on the PC, but it holds its own and the reduced quality never negatively impacts the gameplay. The post-apocalyptic future lends itself to a lot of run-down, dirty buildings, and that’s what you get in APOX: while the structures are quite detailed, the environments are bland, usually consisting of simply hills to separate areas of each map. The maps feel like balanced game worlds rather than real-life locations. The settings come in several flavors (snow, desert, green, rocky), which only tend to change the background the units are displayed over. The unit models are animated well, although most of the game is played from a distant perspective so you won’t notice. The interface is traditional for the RTS genre; APOX does add some icons when buildings are idle, but fails to highlight unused units, so you still have to hunt them down using the minimap. The sound design is very basic: combat effects, some game notifications, and generic background music. There is no voice work, which is probably a good thing since in most cases it becomes repetitive and annoying. While APOX won’t “wow” anyone with graphical prowess, it still delivers a solid enough experience.

APOX is a real-time strategy game set in a post-apocalyptic future of scarce resources, run-down buildings, and Mel Gibson (Mel Gibson not included). All of the sides fighting for dominance are identical, unlike most RTS titles that feature dissimilar races. I actually have no problem with this, as it doesn’t limit the strategies available to you, thanks to innovations in other areas. In order to learn the game mechanics, APOX features four basic training tutorials and three scripted single player missions, all of which are interactive. In addition, APOX has a number of online videos to cover more material, though I prefer the more interactive experience. While the tutorials do cover most of the game's unique mechanics, most new players I encountered online had no idea what they were doing, so I guess it didn't do a fantastic job walking players through the general early game strategy. APOX is centered around online play, and although skirmish games against a capable AI is available, a single player campaign is nowhere to be found (I usually don't pay much attention to them, but the omission must be noted). The game supports up to thirty-two players, an impressive quantity usually associated with first person shooters rather than real-time strategy games. Large games can get quite chaotic and lengthy, but game times in smaller matches are quite manageable. APOX features over one hundred maps in order to support the large number of team options involving up to thirty-two players. The map designs are uninteresting, usually featuring a very symmetrical design where each side is separated by mountains and has access to the same resources. APOX does give you a map editor to make more interesting creations, though. Only some of the maps are initially unlocked: the rest only become available by spending points earned by finishing matches. While I always dislike arbitrary limitation, at least only the host needs to have the map unlocked for all to play on it.

The first area of innovation deals with resources, and there are five to deal with. The first is salvage, used to produce buildings and units and collected automatically at salvage yards. The player sets a slider balancing the production of salvage and ammo (the second resource) at their salvage yard; capturing ammo depots scattered around the map allows you to produce more salvage at your base, which in turn allows you to afford better units and structures. Ammo is carried in limited quantities by all units and needs to be constantly replenished during heavy combat. Gas is used by vehicles (and flame thrower units) and is collected at gas stations and refineries. Metal is interesting: it is collected capture-the-flag style and used for powerful turrets and vehicles that can quickly dispose of enemy forces and bases. You can shoot the units that are transporting metal back to base and keep it for yourself, creating a unique tug-of-war situation, especially as the construction of the end-game weapons near completion. Finally, a slow trickle of survivors (required to construct units and vehicles, as they act as drivers) occurs at your shelter; the survivors appear more quickly if you are below the soft population cap (which can be exceeded, albeit very slowly). While transporting resources between their respective collection points and your base is completely automated (assuming you have built pipes and garrisoned enough people in the ammo depots and metal sites), you must worry about taking those resources on offensive missions where units routinely run out of gas and ammunition. APOX lacks a supply truck that could provide your units with additional provisions; as it stands, most base assaults stall about halfway through simply because units run out of ammo. While this convention does make defending easier (since you are based near resources) and requires a superior attacking force, it does become annoying if you are clearly going to win and have to resupply part of the way through an offensive.

APOX has a number of buildings, all of which (including those that produce resources) must be manned. This is a really interesting feature: instead of having to completely destroy a building in order to disable it, all you need to do is kill the worker inside the building (a job most appropriate for flame thrower units) and it stops producing. Some buildings provide cover for the units inside, while others do not. In addition, some buildings have increased production when more units are garrisoned inside. Other than the resource-producing structures, options are typical: barracks and auto factories produce infantry and vehicles, and clinics and mechanics heal infantry and vehicles. You are also given a suite of stationary turrets for defensive purposes, and metal can be used to build powerful super guns that can level an entire base.

In a nod to first person shooters, the infantry units in APOX can carry up to two weapons (starting with one) that can be collected from fallen units. In fact, all units are the same except for their weapons: everyone can build and transport resources, so you can ask that rifleman to lug some extra ammo if you choose. You start by producing a soldier equipped with one weapon (rifle, flame thrower, heavy machine gun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, or mortar), but you can add an extra weapon by producing it at a barracks or picking one up on the ground next to a dead unit. Vehicles (machine gun cars, flame cars, anti-tank guns, armored vehicles, artillery, and tanks) are handled in much the same way: you can put any unit in the passenger’s seat and they will use their gun in concert with the main weapon. A sniping flame car is a sight to behold. It’s certainly a good idea to equip each unit with two weapons in order to maximize tactical possibilities. Weapons also break during use, making multiple options in weaponry a good choice. You can queue up new units at any time, and once the resources are available for them, they will be produced; less micromanagement is always appreciated. APOX features some very limited resource options: units gain experience during combat, making them slightly more effective, and small upgrades like mines and grenades can be researched. Incapacitated units can also be carried back to your base and used to provide intelligence on the enemy by removing the fog of war for a period of time. I certainly approve of the high amount of unit customization present in APOX.

Units can be issued specific orders, similar to Men of War, like crawl and prone. The "flee" button is especially useful for saving resources spent reproducing dead units. Since APOX features a low population cap, this amount of micromanagement isn’t annoying, and most units will automatically do these things anyway during combat. While cover can be used in the game, APOX isn’t as verbose about whether units are behind cover as, say, Company of Heroes (and, by proxy, Dawn of War II), and units don’t seem to search for cover on their own. Units will choose the most appropriate weapon when engaging and enemy, but they will not actively seek out (or even attack) enemy units within their visual range that are attacking them; this is a huge problem when fighting mortar infantry (which the AI loves to use) and snipers. Units that are selected together will not stay as a cohesive assemblage: cars will always speed out ahead of infantry units, even if they are in the same group. Controlling your troops in APOX is a mixed bag.

APOX moves at a quick pace (small four-player games usually clock in under twenty minutes) and the victor is usually determined by control of the resource sites. Controlling ammo depots allows you to make more salvage to produce more impressive units, more gas means more vehicles, and more metal results in devastating end-game superweapons. Because of these superweapons, APOX lacks the usual end-game tedium and clean-up: the game reveals the map when you are dominating, and there is an elimination countdown when your base is destroyed. While taking out the garrisoned units that allow a building to function is usually an easy task, actually destroying a building (and an entire base) takes a while if you don’t have a supergun at your disposal. Because of this, small maps where metal is not present can produce more frequent stalemates and drawn-out matches, so I always look for at least one metal deposit when choosing an arena for battle. Even with the super weapons, there are many times mid-game where, while you might be ahead in terms of units and resources, you simply can't overrun the enemy base without losing all of your units in the process. The strength of defensive structures (namely the flame tower) assures that, until you can defeat the person manning the turrets, your assaults will be constantly repelled. The small variety in units also makes for limited general strategies when playing: the main decision involves which annoying unit to field first (heavy machine guns, snipers, or mortars) after riflemen take all of the surrounding resource positions, then it's a sprint to the flame vehicles, and finally, if the game is close, a race for metal to build those powerful weapons. Having a more varied technology tree would go a long ways towards making each match feel different. The cars are very difficult for infantry units to defeat (even with RPGs, which either deal an insignificant amount of damage or miss their target completely), so once they enter the game, watch out. The AI is challenging, especially on “hard” difficulty (the required setting for ranked matches), mostly because it is very efficient at the game mechanics and they are given extra resources. The AI almost always does the same base build (one flame defensive tower, but no gun turrets) and favors the same units (flame cars, snipers, and especially mortars), so it's very predictable and subsequently boring to play against. Playing against the "hard" AI is really annoying since they will have access to mortars and cars before you can possibly research or counter them; I guess that's why it's called "hard". On the other hand, the AI does some really dumb things on occasion, like sending a single unit into your base on occasion and not retreating when being overwhelmed. The AI holds no comparison to online matches featuring human opponents.

APOX combines a couple of neat ideas to create a distinctive, if mixed, real-time strategy game. It starts with the resources, which are realistically tracked on a per-unit basis. Resources are transported automatically by pipe or garrisoned units and shared between adjacent units so there usually isn’t much tedium involved there, except when you are fighting away from home. Since you must mind your ammunition on offensive missions, a supply truck would be quite beneficial to carry the excess supplies required to complete an assault. Metal collection involves an interesting capture-the-flag mechanic; it is used to construct powerful end-game units that bring stalemates to an abrupt end. The population cap for APOX is quite low in order to allow for more precise control of unit stance and movement, although they will mostly do intelligent actions when engaging the enemy on their own. Conversely, your units will ignore spotted mortar and sniper units that are attacking and destroying your base. Interestingly, the units are only defined by their weapons: each unit can carry two weapons (they start with one) and you can gather weapons (and resources) from fallen units, increasing your tactical options without spending the resources. You can also capture rival units to reveal enemy positions. Vehicles also allow for a range of flexibility: you can place any unit along with the driver, adding their firepower to the vehicle’s capabilities. While buildings are typical for a real-time strategy game, all buildings must be manned to operate, making flamethrower units especially effective at neutralizing enemy bases. There are disappointingly limited research options to choose from, so most distance between competing sides results from choosing the right (or wrong) units and holding the handful of resource-producing structures scattered around the map. The small unit variety makes for quick matches, but most games feature the same selection of repetitive strategies with everyone scrambling to get cars first. While the AI is quite challenging on “hard” difficulty (thanks in part to its additional resources), the computer players usually field the same units and identical base designs while exhibiting some questionable tactics. It is highly recommended you take APOX online and engage in huge battles featuring up to thirty-two players. Ultimately, APOX offers some intriguing ideas regarding resources and weapons but lacks the strategic variety required for ultimate long-term enjoyment.

Friday, January 14, 2011

SpaceChem Review

SpaceChem, developed and published by Zachtronics Industries.
The Good: Unique gameplay, freeform solutions, excellent interface, online score comparison, ability to upload solution videos, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Very challenging and you can’t skip most levels, no level editor
What say you? This multi-layered design-based puzzle game is pleasingly distinctive, open-ended, and feature-rich: 7/8

If/when we colonize space, we are going to have to make artificial atmospheres to grow food. How will we do that? Nobody knows for sure, which means we’re probably screwed. Lucky for us Zachtronics Industries has released a completely realistic training simulation of astronomic chemistry called SpaceChem. Here, you design machines to bond elements together to form the compounds required to colonize new planets in the vast vastness of space. Does this puzzle title bond with users?

SpaceChem features simple but clear graphics that makes your puzzle designing easier. It starts with dark backgrounds that are easier on the eyes, and continues with large, easy to identify buttons and icons. It’s a lot easier to stare at SpaceChem for hours on end compared to brighter, more visually chaotic puzzle games. The interface is also well designed, using both keyboard and mouse controls for considerably less tedium when placing objects. The sound effects and music are standard fare, both being appropriate and fitting for the setting. Overall, SpaceChem handles minimalism well, providing a clean and inviting presentation.

SpaceChem is a design-based puzzle game where you design processes to create chemical compunds by design. The game consists of around fifty levels of steadily increasing complexity, and tutorials are integrated into the campaign. While these tutorials do teach the controls and basics of design, the game doesn’t give some basic strategies in manufacturing your chemicals, so the first couple of levels where you are given total freedom can be intimidating and confusing. The game design supports both really simple and really complex arrangements, and there are some rules on occasion (like only removing or adding bonds). Your score (which is essentially time-based) is automatically submitted online and compared against others in a neat bar graph presentation. You also have the option to upload puzzle solutions to YouTube from within the game, meaning that help is not too far away. The solutions play too fast to study (it should have recorded them using the slowest setting), but this technological option almost remedies the inability to skip difficult levels. Almost. SpaceChem lacks the ability to create custom levels, so once you are done with the campaign (or get stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle), the game has run its course, unless you want to go back to previous levels and attempt more efficient designs. At least the game is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems, making computer owners everywhere happy.

For each level, you are given a number of input chemicals and instructed to produce a different set of compounds. You first must connect the storage containers to reactors you will design, and then take the end products to freighters. To do this, you use pipes to deliver the chemicals to the correct destination, a process that is made a bit more difficult than it should be thanks to very touchy mouse controls. You can create reminders of what the intermediate reactors products should be, since they will usually feed other reactors to combine your final chemicals together. Once you are done figuring out the general steps of your production line, it’s time to design the individual factories.

Each reactor can accept up to two inputs and produce two outputs, and your task is to rearrange the elements and make (or destroy) bonds. You are given two production lines (red and blue) along which two grabbers flow as determined by direction arrows; the two colored lines can occupy the same space, but if the path of the same line overlaps, then you will get an infinite closed loop. You can also place a number of triggers along each path: bring in or send out chemicals (which happens at a location determined by the output of the previous reactor), grab or drop compounds, and rotate. You can also bond (or unbond) chemicals together that are placed on top of bonding circles, and place synchronizing triggers to have things placed simultaneously. Right-clicking a trigger can edit its orientation or switch the color, along with other properties.

The key of SpaceChem is to create efficient designs that use the limited options you are given to create the desired products. The result is a lot of trail and error, thinking, and redesigning as you search for the most appropriate solution. This is not a trivial game, as most of the puzzles require a lot of planning and design skill. A lot of the reactors will use the same basic elements over and over; while you can preserve entire reactors for future use, you can’t save smaller components. Still, the flexibility that SpaceChem gives the user in formulating their solutions is very high, making this an excellent puzzle game. One only needs to venture to YouTube to observe the wildly varied solutions people come up with for the same puzzle. Variety is the spice of life! The game’s unique mechanics, combined with the freedom to come up with a solution, makes SpaceChem a notable puzzle title.

SpaceChem succeeds as a very interesting puzzle game thanks to innovative mechanics with limited design constraints. You are given the freedom to combine elements and destroy compound bounds as you see fit; the end product is the only set goal, and the efficiency in which you deliver your requirement is up to you. This increases replay value: since there isn’t a single solution, you can go back and tweak your designs for faster processing times. The tutorial does a good job introducing increasing complexity to the gameplay, and the latter puzzles in the campaign offer a high amount of challenge. I would like the ability to create your own puzzle requirements; allowing the community to further expand the game would only be good for the life of the product. The interface does a good job streamlining the design process, and the game incorporates multiple tiers as you connect separate process to work in concert, expanding the design possibilities of your systems. SpaceChem is also available for all three computer gaming platforms and your high scores are compared against others online (you can even upload videos of your best ideas to YouTube from inside the game). In short (too late!), SpaceChem is a fantastic puzzle game great for any fan of the genre.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Greed Corp Review

Greed Corp, developed by W!Games and published by dtp entertainment AG.
The Good: Resource collection changes map layout, short games with no stalemates, extensive tutorials, online matches search for games in the background
The Not So Good: Repetitive games with restricted depth, few end-game tactical options result in tedious drawn-out matches, very few buildings and units, no map editor, some multiplayer maps initially locked
What say you? Player-directed terrain destruction highlights this light turn-based strategy game that suffers from limited tactics: 5/8

Maps are an integral part of any strategy game. They can range from realistic to fantasy, and have a strong impact on when and where your troops will be positioned. But what if the landscape were constantly changing as a result of player interaction? Thus is the basis of Greed Corp, a turn-based strategy game where mining resources results in the destruction of the map. This game appeared on something called an “XBOX” (I know, I never heard of it either) about a year ago and has finally made its way home to the superior platform for discerning strategy gamers. Does it’s unique land annihilation model make for a distinctive title?

Greed Corp offers some nice audio and visual effects. The game's 3-D presentation can be considered to be simplified a bit, but it does not skimp on some areas of detail such as the distant background clouds of the mystical planet made out of floating hexes. The land hexes are easy to identify to whom they belong, although the buildings are non-distinct and vary according to which side you are controlling. The game really needs to clearly indicate which tiles are adjacent to a harvester (being a direct influence on the , as it can be hard for beginners to visually identify the different between a walker, harvester, or armory of all four races. Movement and crumbling animations are decent, though a bit drawn out, especially when you are waiting for the computer to finish their turn. On the sound front, results are typical: acceptable but repetitive effects coupled with pleasing background music. Overall, Greed Corp offers good value in terms of graphics and sound design.

Greed Corp is a turn-based game that takes place on an alien world that consists solely of floating hexes (a convenient setting for a strategy game!). The goal is to be the last surviving player on the map as the terrain slowly crumbles away (more on that interesting innovation shortly). Single-player content includes four campaigns totaling twenty-four missions in all; the difficulty is pretty high, partially because the AI is good at the game and partially because you are typically up against multiple computer opponents. The games are usually quick, and you can implement a time limit for each player’s turn (only really necessary for online matches). Greed Corp also features online battles: you can host a match or join a queue for human opponents. The game searches for matches in the background (just like another XBOX derivative Swords and Soldiers), although sometimes the searching process lags the game performance in a significant manner. While Greed Corp provides twelve maps for each player count (two, three, and four), you must unlock about half of the maps in the single-player campaign. In addition, there is no map editor to increase the content or create custom levels. Greed Corp does offer comprehensive tutorials that teach the mechanics of the game, though there is no manual. In all, Greed Corp offers typical features for a turn-based game.

The reason I initially became intrigued in Greed Corp is how economics is handled. You construct harvesters that extract resources from all surrounding tiles (two gold per turn per hex). The interesting thing is that extracting resources causes the surrounding land to fall, and eventually it crumbles away, taking all of the units and structures with it. You can also manually self-destruct a harvester to lower adjacent tiles (a good choice if the enemy is close by), and chain reactions eliminate all adjacent crumbled tiles that are one turn away from destruction. This makes for some really appealing strategic decisions, as you don’t want to harvest all of your territory away, but you still have to have some income above the base per-turn allotment. Finding the right balance is key to winning.

Greed Corp features a disappointingly limited suite of buildings and units. Your only unit is the walker, which can move into one neutral or enemy hex per turn (or up to three hexes through friendly territory to move new recruits up to the front lines) and is used to capture new tiles. Walkers can be transported to far-away tiles using a carrier, but that’s it. For buildings, you get the previously-mentioned harvester, an armory to produce walkers, and a cannon to destroy hexes (and five of the units parked on those hexes). And that’s it.

Greed Corp features very elementary battles: whoever has the most units wins, and since there is only one unit that does battle, you can easily figure out how to distribute and use your forces to maximize victory. There is no chance, or really strategy, involved in combat, and with no defensive bonuses, territory will quickly swap to the most powerful player. The interesting decisions involve where to harvest and build, and Greed Corp features large enough maps where multiple options are possible. Unfortunately, each map follows the same general pattern: the map gets split into islands that only allow for cannons and airships for late-game clean up. You then build sixteen units at each armory hex and wait for enough money to purchase an airship to transport them on top of the enemy, or simply pound away at their remaining hexes. There is no possibility of stalemate because the map will eventually disappear altogether, but the end-game can be really, really tedious because each side is out of harvesters and is gaining the same base income, matching each other move for move in a war of slow, painful attrition. Eliminating a player gives you all their funds, hexes, and carriers, so there is some incentive to go after more powerful players. The AI is quite skilled at the game, but it appears to be very scripted in the campaign (using the same opening moves) and it’s pretty predictable. It also exhibits the occasional really dumb move, like destroying its last tiles by building a harvester.

Greed Corp has one fantastic idea, but fails to surround that idea with meaningful depth. Altering the game map by collecting resources is a brilliant mechanic that offers clear risk/reward balance. However, the remainder of Greed Corp is oversimplified to the point of being trivial. There are only two buildings (the resource collector and a unit producer) and one unit for capturing territory. Combat also leaves nothing to chance, as the superior force in terms of numbers will always win. The end-game is always the same: each side clings to a couple of isolated hexes (the rest being harvested away), and the only way to engage the enemy is by using the long-range cannon or investing in expensive air transport. These very limited options make Greed Corp excruciatingly tedious to play. The game does offer a challenging campaign and online play, but these standard features don’t alleviate the gameplay constraints. While Greed Corp offers a very intriguing economic system, the game suffers from limited strategies, a tedious end-game, and questionable longevity.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Reckless Squad Review

Reckless Squad, developed and published by D2P Games.
The Good: Varied units with enemy-specific attacks, randomly generated maps
The Not So Good: Simple massed armies is usually enough for victory, can't attack and move simultaneously, vague enemy weaknesses, can’t save progress
What say you? An inverse on the typical tower defense game structure: 5/8

Because we got a little convoy, rocking through the night. Yeah, we got a little convoy: ain’t she a beautiful sight? Come on and join our convoy, ain’t nothing going to get in our way. We are going to roll this trucking convoy across the USA. Convoy! Sorry, that’s the best thing I could think of. Anyway, Reckless Squad is a kind of reverse tower defense game: here, you move your troops along a path, protecting a covered wagon (or convoy…get it?) from ultimate destruction. Let’s get this wagon train a movin’!

The graphics of Reckless Squad are typical for an independent game. Presented in 2-D, the game features simple sprites for each unit with basic, subtle animations. Combat involves watching health bars slowly decrease: while not realistic or generally exciting, it is functional. The environments you do battle in are varied (like a snowy setting complete with candy canes) but simplistic. As for the sound design, there are repetitve unit aconowledgements recycled for all of your forces, basic battle effects, and average background music. The positive thing is that Reckless Squad will function on a wide range of systems, and the simple graphics never negatively impact the gameplay.

As I said in my carefully crafted introduction (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), you are protecting a precious convoy of preciousness as it slowly traverses across hostile territory. At your disposal is a number of units, willing to help beat back the waves of oppression. Reckless Squad is strongly reminiscent of a tower defense game, except played in reverse: now, you are the ones moving along a set path on the way towards a goal. It’s a neat swap of roles that makes for a unique game idea. The game features randomly generated levels that adjust to your level of skill, adding specialized foes if you are faring well. The game also has three levels of difficulty that should test all skill levels; I found “normal” to be quite easy, and the challenge can increase as you become more adept at the mechanics. Reckless Squad also features an area mode where you can hold out for as long as possible and scripted missions that include a tutorial. I’d like to see an online scoreboard for added incentive in addition to the achievements, but intrinsic motivation is present. It’s not all good news in features land, however, as Reckless Squad lacks the ability to save your progress during a campaign.

Reckless Squad features a number of different units that you can recruit using money earned from killing and raiding treasure chests. There are basic melee units like peasants and soldiers, sneaky invisible rogues that steal cash, archers that attack from a distance, magical mages that can heal or destroy, and more powerful units like assassins, knights, and samurais. Not all of these units are available from the beginning, though, as you must progress far enough to unlock the better units intended for taking on extreme odds. You get a chance to purchase new forces every five levels or so. Additionally, you can upgrade the weapons your units wield; most items have a tradeoff, such as improved damage but a slower rate of fire. You can also choose from different types of attacks, intended to counter the more advanced enemies present along your chosen path: light, dark, fire, water, plants (huh?), and electricity. Unfortunately, Reckless Squad doesn't indicate clearly enough what the correct counter is for a specific enemy, so the supposed depth in this area is left partially to chance.

Because of some restrictions, Reckless Squad is a bit limited in strategy. And, being a strategy game, that’s a bit of a problem. It seems that units will attack automatically, as long as they are not moving. There is no “attack move” order to instruct your forces to eliminate all enemies on the way to an objective, so you have to manually queue up the killing. Reckless Squad displays all of the selected units along the bottom of the screen, making it trivially easy to select appropriate weapons and items. However, it doesn’t display all of your units, which would make it easier to organize your troops into groups. Because of this, it’s simply easier just to group everyone together and move as one giant mass, especially since magic units will use their spells automatically and some of your units will attack the enemy on their own. Reckless Squad doesn’t really feature an AI, since all of the enemy placements are determined randomly and they will always engage when you get too close. Some enemies will try to be sneaky and spawn behind you, but as long as you stick together near the wagon, everything should turn out fine.

While I like the ideas of Reckless Squad, the result is only mildly entertaining. Because the best strategy seems to be simply keeping all of your units grouped together, it’s really just a matter of moving everyone and clicking on targets along the way. The limited interface (displaying only selected units) makes this really the best way of handling the number of enemies you will encounter. While unit attack automation is definitely useful, it only works if units are stationary and it removes the micromanagement that might make Reckless Squad seem more involved. The game does provide a good mix of melee, ranged, and magic fighters, and I do like how different attack types are needed to engage different enemy; however, Reckless Squad needs to indicate more clearly the vulnerabilities of each enemy unit more clearly. Also, the limitation to only ten fighters of each type seems very arbitrary. Reckless Squad has some admirable features: randomly generated levels of varying difficulty, an infinite arena mode, and more scripted missions that include a tutorial. Strangely, you can’t save your progress, an odd limitation considering the length of the single player modes. Although I congratulate Reckless Squad on its unique elements, the game’s varying limitations in features and strategy hold it back from being a recommended title.