Friday, April 29, 2011

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops Review

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops, developed by Black Lion Studios and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Impressively detailed levels, nice selection of weapons and gadgets, informative slick HUD, mix of stealth and action
The Not So Good: Heavily scripted campaign refuses to advance if very specific actions aren’t performed, third person camera view obscured by character models, arbitrary selection of objects that can (or can’t) be used for cover, poor AI, high difficulty can’t be changed mid-campaign, can’t skip cutscenes, checkpoint-only saves, no cooperative play
What say you? This action-stealth third person shooter contains too many significant shortcomings: 3/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Movies are an important form of historical documentation because they highlight an integral part of human society: covert government agencies that don't actually exist. From Project Treadstone to whatever the “FBI” is, computer gamers enjoy taking the roles of dangerous spies, able to kill people without going to jail. There have been plenty of espionage-themed games, too numerous to mention, although by doing so it will make my review appear longer, so here’s a couple I reviewed: Alpha Protocol and Death to Spies. Anyway, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops involves two ISA agents, specializing in direct and indirect combat. Let’s go kill some rebels that don’t believe in democracy!

The best aspect of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is clearly the graphics and sound. The most striking part of the game is the level design: each map is full of little details that produce a very believable setting, although it becomes pretty obvious after a while that particular rooms are recycled from building to building. The character models are well done, although the death animations for enemy units are very repetitive. Explosions are nice and there are detailed enemy tanks and vehicles. But even this part of the game isn’t perfect. Despite the attention to detail that is present on every level, the game has significant problems with shadows that make areas really, really dark, even during daytime. There are no gamma settings and the night vision is ineffective (displaying a small neon green circle near the center of the screen), so there are plenty of times where you can hardly see anything. In addition, the third person camera is positioned way too close to the characters, so their bodies take up a third of the screen, obscuring most of your view. Between your character and the shadows, you can die before even seeing what killed you. The sound design is notable as well, featuring mostly good voice acting (at least for the main characters) and satisfying explosions and weapon effects. Overall, it’s clear that a lot of emphasis was placed on the graphics and sound, and it’s mostly paid off.

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops takes place over twelve missions in such exciting, exotic, dusty locations like Somalia and Dubai. I found the missions to be linear and heavily scripted: you must complete the objectives, and you usually only have one path to the next location. In fact, if you aren't killing the enemies the predetermined way, you shouldn't even bother. Take, for example, the very first enemy you meet, who is manning a machine gun on top of a truck. If you sneak up to his vehicle from the front and shoot him at point blank range from the right side of the vehicle, nothing happens. Ever. However, if you move to the left, explode a gas tank to remove a wall, go into an adjacent building, and then shoot him at the same range from the other side, he dies. Amazing! I really, really hate restrictions like this. If the HUD says to plant explosives here or move here or enter there, you better do it. There is not as much freedom as the game advertises since so much is scripted and specific objectives in specific locations must be completed. The limitations don’t end there: Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops doesn’t allow you to skip cutscenes (you can’t even escape to the main menu or pause them mid-movie) and your progress can only be saved at checkpoints. The control tutorials assume you’ve played a lot of PC shooters (a dangerous assumption) and don't fully explain some features (like the damn attractor bolts). Finally, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops does not feature online cooperative play despite having two distinct characters to control during the campaign.

Controls are pretty typical for an action game: WASD to move and E to perform most other actions. Weapon zoom (not visually seen down the weapon scope) is toggled with the right mouse button, and you must press a button (E, of course) to pick up ammo carelessly left on the ground. One of the better aspects of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops is the HUD, which displays health, ammunition, waypoints, and spotted enemy units in a clear manner. Enemies are outlined in red, making them easy to engage from a distance. In addition, while the mouse wheel is used to switch between weapons, the full information for each item is displayed on the left side of the screen: pretty neat. Countering this is the annoying cover system, which attempts to simplify things by not requiring you to press a button to enter cover: you simply walk towards a wall or barricade and you’ll automatically duck behind it. While this simplified approach is great in theory, in practice it results in going into and moving out of cover when you don’t want to. Moreover, the game seems to arbitrarily select which objects can be used as cover: this wall but not this wall, maybe this crate, possibly this car door, and certainly not below this window. This results in a lot of deaths when you think you’ll be able to use an object as cover but can’t and then get shot. You also get “unstuck” from cover if you aim at an slightly to the side, which results in quick death. You must also depress the aim button after you hold “up” to shoot from behind cover, a slow transition that exposes you to enemy bullets before you can return fire: that defeats the purpose of having cover in the first place. Additional skills include the ability to slow down time (of course) or use an invisibility suit for more tactical options.

Being a spy means you usually have access to some pretty cool weapons, and here Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops does not disappoint. Your character is able to carry two large weapons (the XM8 assault rifle, AK-47, crossbow), a sidearm pistol, a special weapon (RPG, sniper rifle), hand grenades, a medical kit, and night vision: the game provides a nice selection of near-future weaponry to shoot people in the face with. The two characters (control of which can be switched using the TAB key when they are both present during a mission) specialize in action and stealth, giving Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops a couple of different approaches to tackling each level. Unfortunately, because of the scripted, linear nature of the mission design, it’s not as freeform as you’d like to see. The AI is poor: while it will move between cover, it does so slowly and tends to get killed along the way. Most of the difficulty comes with the AI being partially hidden by the level designer and adept at spotting you and opening fire with fairly accurate shots. However, your allies easily distract the AI, even if you are closer and pose a greater threat. Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops relies on the “infinite enemy spawn” mechanic a lot when you have to destroy a key person or object, continually funneling people towards you until you meet your goal. Overall, I found Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops to be a difficult game because of the heroes’ low health (and infrequent medic packs) and the number of enemy AI units you must deal with. I’ve also occasionally suffered damage while “hidden” behind cover (so what’s the point of using it?), making my task even harder. I was, then, sad to see that you can’t ease up on the difficulty in the middle of a campaign, requiring me to replay early missions on “easy” to actually progress further in the game. Also, when both characters are present in the game, you must manually move both of them most of the time, constantly switching back and forth in an endless loop of confusion. In addition, the friendly AI does a great job getting shot and killed. No thanks.

Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops has three “good” things overshadowed by a host of issues. First, the good news: the graphics are nice (although the shadows are too much and the camera is too close), and the professional HUD displays lots of pertinent information (maybe a little too much information). Also, Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops features a great selection of weapons and items to dispose of enemy units in a quick and efficient manner. When both characters are present, tabbing between them to take advantage of their abilities can be fun. However, the fun stops here, as the remainder of the game is rife with problems. First, the cover system: while it’s a good idea to eliminate an extra button press to enter cover, it’s too easy to leave it (either by moving backwards or when aiming at things to the side) and not every object that should be used as cover can be (specifically, barrels and walls below windows). The AI is only challenging in numbers and when manually placed in hard-to-reach locations by the level designer; it will occasionally move between cover but is more likely to walk slowly in the open or ignore the human player in favor of AI allies. Because your hero is fragile (and cover is inconsistent at best), Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops has a high level of difficulty that can’t be altered once you start a campaign, requiring you to complete the linear, scripted missions and watch the same unskippable cutscenes over again. The game has low replay value since it requires you to complete each objective, clearly and obviously displayed on your HUD, and there is usually only one path to take involving many triggers. Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops also features our old nemesis checkpoint-only save points, and features no two-player co-op that the two main characters would seem to be perfect for. In the end, the many sins of Shadow Harvest: Phantom Ops taint any hope of fun to be had in this third person action game.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dino D-Day Review

Dino D-Day, developed by 800 North and published by Digital Ranch.
The Good: Twelve interesting and unique classes (including dinosaurs!) with balanced limitations that require teamwork, frantic game pace (using dinosaurs!), three game modes (with dinosaurs!), did I mention there are dinosaurs?
The Not So Good: Lacks AI bots and single player content, limited map selection, mod-quality graphics
What say you? A silly concept is a competent multiplayer shooter thanks to fair, distinctive classes…and dinosaurs: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Unknown to the Western world, Germany was developing top-secret weapons during World War II that would rival the awesome power of the atomic bomb. No, I’m not talking about stealth fighters, I’m talking about dinosaurs. Yes, Hitler developed the cloning process years before John Hammond and, obviously, decided to strap guns to them to eat Allied infantry units. It’s now up to you to take control of these ancient beasts or gun them down before they enjoy you for lunch. Does this first person shooter’s unique style make it a must-play?

Dino D-Day features graphics and sound design that looks like a user modification (because it essentially is). The game utilizes the Source engine, you most will know what to expect in terms of the graphics. The dinosaur models are good, exhibiting some detail and fluid animations, although the player models could be more distinctive. The ragdoll death physics are a bit disappointing (too much total collapse instead of playful flailing), if you are influenced by those sorts of things. The weapons look nice and are easily identifiable based on looks alone. The HUD is informative, clearly displaying health, ammunition, victory locations, special abilities, and medic packs with bright plus signs. The map variety is OK, all urban areas in generally desert-like environments. The textures are the area of the game that could use the most improvement and variety. In addition, there are graphical artifacts like floating units and things stuck in walls that you would expect in a modification but not a retail game. The sounds are typical: average weapon effects in terms of authenticity, and the dinosaur growls are less frequent than expected. However, there are some humorous (though repetitive) sound bytes automatically spoken by the human combatants (example: “I’m only shooting you because you’re a Nazi dinosaur”). Dino D-Day also features the usual wartime music selection played in each level, although there are (like the human dialogue) some funny announcements. Overall, Dino D-Day has a barely acceptable presentation.

Dino D-Day pits the Allies and the Axis against each other in their eternal struggle for battlefield dominance. The game comes with three game modes, starting with the least exciting option: team deathmatch. In king of the hill, each team must control a central waypoint for three minutes (not consecutively), which helps to concentrate the action. Finally, in the objective mode, the Allies must carry and defend six explosive satchels to blow open a door or capture two strategic points, another option that produces constant fighting. There are a number of rounds before the map switches (three to five minutes are typical for a single round). There are only two maps for deathmatch and king of the hill and three for the objective mode, so not a whole lot to choose from. Each map usually provides two or three paths between several large areas: pretty typical map design. Dino D-Day is purely a multiplayer game, as there are no bots to practice against and no single player story-based mode (yet). The game also doesn’t offer stat tracking so people can see how terrible your kill-death ratio is, but that also means that Dino D-Day doesn’t have any stupid unlocks: all of the classes and weapons are available to everyone from the start. Thank goodness.

Dino D-Day features a pleasant roster of twelve classes equally spread across the Axis and Allied forces. Each class has a distinct role to fill, which results in a greater focus on team play. For the allies, the assault class comes with an M1 Garand rifle and a special ability: three kills in a row unlocks powerful fists that allow you to punch dinosaurs (and other units) in the face for instant death, so this class is perfect for those who usually rack up a lot of kills, though the M1 is intended more for medium range combat. If you prefer the Thompson submachine gun, you also get sticky bombs that will adhere to any surface and explode a short time later and artillery strikes for area bombardment; this is a good all-around class for the typical range at which you’ll engage the enemy. Pesky dinosaurs can be eliminated with a rocket launcher, which has a disappointingly limited explosive range, but you also get a Trench gun (essentially a combat shotgun) to deal with non-reptilian adversaries at a short range. The sniper gets rabbits to place and distract velociraptors (very handy when the enemy is spamming those quick reptiles), and the medic gets the Sten gun (a British submachine gun) to accompany their health packs; while I always tend to gravitate towards the medic in any class-based shooter, it’s really only viable when your allies will be hanging out in the same area. Finally, the BAR light machine gun class also gets a flechette gun for more close-up action, a good mix for dealing with dinosaurs. So, lots of options there.

OK, Germany time. Their assault class gets two fine guns: the Mauser K98 bolt action rifle and MP40 submachine gun. The sniper class gets a suicidal, dive-bombing pterosaur that explodes on impact with its mortar. Obviously. The axis medic can use the MP44 assault rifle, which is a better option than its allied counterpart. There are also three dinosaur classes for the Germans to choose from, the first being the speedy Velociraptor that can claw and pounce on its foes (biting its neck in a canned animation). The Desmatosuchus is equipped with a 20mm artillery gun and heavy armor for long-range bombardment (which, like the rocket launcher, has a small area of effect), and the Dilophosaurus can pick up soliders or goats in its mouth and throw it at other units (or a wall): pretty cool. Again, Dino D-Day features a good selection of classes to choose from that seem to be fairly balanced. Not everyone flocks to the dinosaurs as I thought they would, which speaks to the overall class balance. The Nazis have less effective guns to offset the instant-kill nature of the dinosaur attacks, so if you enjoy gun play more than the third-person dinosaur mode, the Allies are the better option. There are some classes that are more popular than others because their abilities are more ranged: the Thompson class comes to mind specifically. Also, the Allied fists ability (triggered with three consecutive kills) cannot be countered at all, so you must prevent them from accumulating the kills in the first place. The velociraptor pouncing ability takes some practice as well. Still, it’s equally fun being and hunting the dinosaurs, and each class has something good to offer.

Dino D-Day is a fast-paced game where most units move quickly across the small maps. This produces almost constant combat between man and beast; while it’s not at all realistic, I don’t think anyone playing a first person shooter with Nazi dinosaurs is looking for ArmA-style realism. There’s no annoying cover system to slow things down, and the mix of long-range, short-range, and fast units means there are few good places to camp and a role for everyone to fill. The single objective location also concentrates the action; Dino D-Day is not a leisurely-paced game. Because of the shortcomings present in every class, Dino D-Day is meant for team players, and sticking with your teammates is always a good idea (something the concentrated map design makes easier to do). Damage is a happy medium between arcade and realistic: a couple of shots will defeat most enemies, but it’s not the instant kill madness of military sims or the drawn-out nonsense of arena shooters. In the end, Dino D-Day is not just about the dinosaurs, as the rest of the game’s mechanics and balanced roster of classes work well to provide a compelling first person shooter. With dinosaurs.

Once the novelty of being and shooting dinosaurs wears off, you’ll find an agreeable shooter because of the nice variety of classes, none of which features an overpowered ability that cannot be effectively countered using teamwork (or simply preventing the enemy from accumulating too many consecutive kills). All types will find a soldier they enjoy: the quick velociraptor, helpful medic, long-range sniper, short-range shotguns, sticky bomb mines, tank-like desmatosuchus, dinosaur-destroying rocket launcher, goat-throwing dilophosaurus, or the generic assault classes. The fast pace (unrealistic, but what do you expect in a game featuring Nazi dinosaurs?) won’t appeal to everyone, but it does make for frenzied, quick skirmishes that keep the action flowing. The three game modes are typical fare, and the game could use more maps and single player content (and bots), but the pure silly fun of Dino D-Day can’t be denied. It would be an average, solid shooter on its own, but adding dinosaurs makes it a distinctive entry in the all-too-bland World War II first person shooter world.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Anomaly: Warzone Earth Review

Anomaly: Warzone Earth, developed and published by 11 Bit Studios.
The Good: Strategically place abilities and upgrade units, varied enemy towers require mixed strategies, several path choices in each level, multiplatform, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Very scripted levels with fixed enemy turret positions and obvious “best” path choices, limited roster of abilities, no multiplayer, lacks randomized maps and enemy layouts, lacks mid-mission saves, boring initial levels
What say you? This flip on the tower defense genre puts you in charge of the invaders with OK results: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Based on the sheer volume, the tower defense genre is quite popular. Traditional entries such as Defense Grid and Sol Survivor and Immortal Defense and Creeper World (plus a bunch of less interesting games) has you defending a path traversed by enemy units using stationary towers. There’s only so much innovation that can come using this formula, so developers have started to experiment with alternative approaches to the genre. One of these ideas is to take control of the invading force, previously seen in Reckless Squad. In Anomaly: Warzone Earth, you are leading a team of military men in the near future, investigating a weird phenomenon in Baghdad and then (spoiler alert!) Tokyo. Will this title inject some originality into the increasingly stale genre?

Anomaly: Warzone Earth features some very nice visuals. Although there are only two settings in the game (dusty Iraq and urban Japan), each of the game’s levels exhibits a variety of buildings with impressive detail. Your units and the enemy turrets are nicely animated, while weapons and explosions are both very satisfying. There are also a number of special effects incorporated into the game associated with the anomaly (which creates a warzone on Earth). The planning map mode is a stylish fluorescent blue, rounding out an excellent graphical presentation. The sound effects are well done, too: weapons are powerful, audio cues are distinctive, music is acceptable, and the very British and slightly stereotypical Japanese voice acting is rarely repetitive (though a bit too exaggerated for my tastes). Anomaly: Warzone Earth certainly does not look and sound like a typical budget game.

In Anomaly: Warzone Earth, you must lead a convoy through dangerous alien territory, populated by turrets determined to destroy your soul. The campaign is a bit on the short side, and the missions are unlocked in a set, linear order. You are given some layout freedom in navigating through each urban landscape, as there are typically two or three different paths to choose from. There are also scripted events that take place at key points in each mission, so you will always end up at the same spots no matter which path you choose. After you are done with the campaign, there are two squad assault modes (one for each city) that tasks you with destroying an ever-increasing number of enemy turrets within a time limit. Unfortunately, Anomaly: Warzone Earth lacks randomized map and a map editor, so the amount of content the developers have designed is all you get. You also cannot save your progress in the middle of a mission, an issue when you are involved in a lengthy battle and you’d like to come back later. Increased difficulty, which amplifies the amount of damage the members of your convoy suffers, will grant a score multiplier bonus, helpful to move you up the online scoreboards and earn better achievements and mission rewards. The game slowly builds in complexity, as the first three or so tutorial levels are quite boring for veterans of tower defense games. Anomaly: Warzone Earth is also single-player only: it would be really cool to have one person play as the alien towers and another as the human convoy, but this option remains a fantasy. Finally, Anomaly: Warzone Earth is available for both Windows and Macintosh, plus whatever an “iPad” is (I think it’s some kind of menstruation device, an odd platform for a computer game).

You are given several tools to assist your team. The first is the ability to choose your path through the city: you can change your course at certain (but not all, for scripting reasons) intersections, and the game will give a time estimate of when you’ll arrive at each waypoint. The goal is to avoid powerful turrets while collecting resources to purchase new troops. However, since you usually only have a couple of real choices to make on each map (as there are always intermediate checkpoints you must pass), your options are limited. In addition, it’s pretty obvious from the predetermined alien turret placement which way is the “best” way. Since your convoy will slowly move and fire automatically along the pathway, you will use your commander to place abilities and attract fire from the turrets (since the commander’s health regenerates rather quickly). You are given four abilities that are placed in a circular area: heal, cover smoke, a decoy unit, and a bomb. Only four choices is a bit a limited, but these abilities are usually enough to deal with most threats. These abilities are dropped by aircraft and must be collected, giving you something to do as your convoy winds through the city streets. The typically relaxed pace can be accelerated using the “shift” key to traverse those inactive sections more quickly.

Resources collected along the way (plus small cash bonuses for destroying turrets) can be spent to purchase new units and upgrade existing ones, increasing their armor and firepower. Anomaly: Warzone Earth features several unit types, differentiated by range, rate of fire, and damage capabilities. There are also some special units like shields that can protect nearby units. An important consideration is the convoy arrangement, which can be adjusted: placing the fragile, long-range units in the back and positioning the “cannon fodder” in the front to absorb most of the incoming fire is a sound strategy. There are a number of enemy turrets you shall encounter along the way, each with different capabilities, like targeting multiple units or powerful linear beams, and limitations, like the inability to turn. These variations allow for some special strategies to deal with each foe, although, as noted earlier, the path options are a bit too limited for my tastes. Also, since the alien turret positions are always in the same spot, each individual level plays out the same, so Anomaly: Warzone Earth becomes a bit repetitive after a while. I found the difficulty to be balanced nicely, as the medium setting offers a good amount of challenge. There isn’t an AI to speak of, as the arrangement of the alien turrets is fixed by the level designer: they do no respond to your choice in routes (and any additional turrets that appear during a level are all scripted), so the challenge results simply from having more of them than you can deal with.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth injects a small bit of novelty into the tower defense genre thanks to its stylish approach. Like most tower defense games, Anomaly: Warzone Earth features somewhat limited interaction as the convoy moves and shoots on its own, using the path you have drawn out. What you, as the commander, are left to do is occasionally change the path to avoid the more powerful turrets, while ensuring to pass by resources and place abilities to keep your squad alive. There are only four abilities to choose from which limit your strategic options a bit. You can also purchase or upgrade units using resources you have collected, and then position each unit in your convoy in the most efficient manner. Anomaly: Warzone Earth offers a decent (but not outstandingly varied) selection of friendly units and enemy turrets that support a range of possible strategies. While there are a couple of available paths through each level, the action is somewhat scripted and the enemy emplacements are always in the same location: it’s pretty obvious which way the developers want you to go. The difficulty is adjusted well and the typically slow pace (at least when you are not being assaulted) can be accelerated, but the campaign is a bit on the short side. Anomaly: Warzone Earth lacks multiplayer (it would be cool to put one player in charge of the turrets) and you can't save your progress during the sometimes lengthy missions, but it is available for both Windows and Macintosh and automatically compares your scores against others online. In the end, Anomaly: Warzone Earth is an occasionally entertaining, if limited, take on the tower defense genre.

Monday, April 18, 2011

HOARD Review

HOARD, developed and published by Big Sandwich Games.
The Good: Quick gameplay provides constant action, numerous on-board obstacles and targets, multiple game modes with varied objectives, informative tutorial, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Imprecise aiming available only while stationary, can't customize controls, arbitrary upgrade restrictions, lacks difficulty settings, annoyingly balanced “ammunition”, fixed game length, no map editor
What say you? This predominantly multiplayer dragon action game is fast paced but limited in several areas: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

If you think about it, heroes in role-playing games are a bunch of jerks. I mean, they run around the countryside, killing the native population while stealing their gold and items. It’s about time that somebody fights back, and it’s clearly up to the dragons. As one of those fire-breathing beasts, it’s up to you to dispose of those irritating knights, while kidnapping princesses for ransom and looting villages along the way. Hey, a dragon gots to get paid. HOARD (this must be shouted at all times) is another flip of classic hero game design, recently encountered in Dungeons. How does this PlayStation 3 import work on the PC?

HOARD features decent graphics for a budget entry. The game is played from an isometric perspective (sort of) that works well. The tile-based maps have subtle animations for each of the map elements, which are varied and easily identifiable. The dragons and villagers are detailed enough and have good animation as well. Fire is a bit underwhelming, both breathing it out and when objects burn to a crisp, and other special effects are basic in nature. The sound effects are sporadically used, utilized distinctive tones for collecting items, killing things, and capturing princesses. The music is repetitive and reminiscent of old-style MIDI melodies. Overall, though, HOARD fits its price point in terms of graphics and sound design.

In HOARD, you are a dragon, attempting to accumulate the most treasure by burning things and taking the sweet, sweet gold inside. The game offers two tutorials that do an admirable job teaching all the aspects of the game mechanics. HOARD can be played four ways: “treasure” mode (accumulate the most gold), “princess rush” (kidnap the most princesses), a survival mode, and cooperative play. All of these modes take place within a set time limit: you are playing HOARD for ten minutes whether you like it or not. The game also lacks difficulty settings, meaning the AI will remain at the same level of competence for all time. There are twenty or so maps spread across each of the game modes; while this offers a decent amount of variety and supports up to four players, the lack of an editor means you’ll have to settle for the same options. HOARD offers multiplayer matchmaking and online leaderboards, so you can compare your progress even in the solitary game modes. Finally, HOARD is available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems, a flexibility that’s always appreciated.

HOARD has several control schemes that cannot be customized: one for a gamepad, one for the mouse, and a couple using the keyboard. The basic itinerary is to attack objects, collect the gold they drop when destroyed, and fly home, adding the money to your score. Your fire breath has very short range and aiming is a bit imprecise; I was unimpressed by its lack of accuracy. In addition, you can’t move and shoot for some reason; this makes it really difficult to chase things down like knights and other dragons that move quickly. You also have a limited amount of fire breath: it’s set just low enough where you must “reload” to fully destroy any building. The path to gold supremacy is the score multiplier, which is reset if you “die”: you automatically fly back to your roost immediately (do not pass “go,” do not collect two hundred dollars) and fully reheal if your health bar becomes depleted. Gold also unlocks points you can spend to upgrade your speed, fire breath, armor, or gold carrying capacity. However, upgrades are very restricted as you are forced to balance out your points: you can’t concentrate on, say, simply speed and carry to create the master collector. The upgrade system also needs further explanation: why do sometimes you get three upgrade points and sometimes one? Why can’t I upgrade this path any further without upgrading others first? Temporary power-ups are also available that must be manually activated (using the “R1” button on your gamepad, as the in-game documentation explains whether you are using a PS3 controller or not), allowing for increased firepower or speed, or the ability to wield fireballs or frozen breath.

There are many objects to attack on the game map, which annoyingly regenerate health while you wait for your fire bar to recharge. Towns have defenders and a selection of buildings to fry; if you damage (but not destroy) a town enough, it will periodically send a tribute of gold directly to your headquarters. A rival dragon can then destroy “your” town and reset the tribute (I guess the citizens forget if they are all dead). Each map also has mills with crops that send wagons to city markets that can be attacked in transit, and thieves spawned at city taverns will attempt to steal your gold. Princesses can be captured for a ransom: burn their carriage, transport them home, and defend them for a period of time. Knights will come to rescue them, and your short fire range and high knight health makes them difficult to fend off. More imposing things also impede your progress: wizard towers offer a hefty reward if destroyed but offer a substantial challenge because of their long range and the various limitations (range, speed) of your fire breath, and giants can easily destroy many structures (including towns offering you tribute). The AI starts out slow but plays well enough, providing a good challenge as you battle your rivals, both directly and indirectly. You can be a real jerk because of the way the fire breath is balanced: since it takes more than one shot to fully destroy most objects, you can swoop in, finish off the farm, collect the money, and fly away, and your opponent can't do anything about it because they can only attack you when stationary. Since you can't move and shoot, it's usually trivial to just fly away from a rival who is attacking you, making this a poor tactical option.

HOARD is an interesting game peppered with questionable design choices and feature limitations. The game is an illustration of gaming dichotomy: several nice features are balanced by some really arbitrary restrictions. The game has multiple game modes, but lacks difficulty or time limit settings. You can level up using your collected gold, but can't dedicate to one or two upgrade paths. The control scheme can't be customized, and your restricted fire-breathing abilities, available only while stationary, reach only so far for only so long. HOARD does give you plenty of objects to destroy: towns that can give you tribute after suffering enough damage, princesses to capture for ransom, crops and knights to burn to a crisp, and wizard towers to completely avoid since firing on them (while stationary, again) leaves you open to attack. HOARD also offers several power-ups to accentuate your abilities, a passable AI opponent, online capabilities, and multiplatform compatibility, but the various shortcomings make it only a mildly intriguing action title.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Age of Fear: The Undead King Review

Age of Fear: The Undead King, developed and published by Leszek Sliwko.
The Good: Interesting combat with a focus on shielding friendly units from enemy movement and attacks, very capable AI, varied units with wide-ranging abilities, informative user interface, units carry over between battles, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Lack of battle randomization and skirmish missions reduce replay value, computer opponent given an unnecessary numerical advantage, no multiplayer or scenario editor yet, arbitrary unit caps, dull maps, pedestrian graphics
What say you? A turn-based fantasy strategy game with enthralling battles thanks to unit shielding and diverse abilities but limited overall features: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

NOTE: A patch released on May 22, 2011 added multiplayer and skirmish modes. Darn indie developers improving their game and making my review increasingly obsolete!

We are familiar with the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Pliensbachian Age (well, maybe not that last one). Now, we are in the Age of Fear. In this fantasy setting, the humans, orcs, and undead fight amongst themselves for total domination and the last chocolate chip cookie. This is a turn-based strategy game that emphasizes shielding ranged and magic units with cheaper grunts, with an injection of dice rolls for randomization and luck. How does this indie title stack up in the fantasy strategy genre?

Unfortunately for Age of Fear, we have to talk about the graphics first. This game is clearly a labor of love, which is a nice way of saying “the graphics aren’t so great.” The game is played from an overhead perspective and uses 2-D graphics across the board. While there isn’t an inherent problem with this (as some 2-D games look fantastic), Age of Fear features blocky, poorly detailed units and bland, muddy map textures. The combat animations are unimpressive, and the Java engine is a bit sluggish when selecting things. Most troubling, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what a unit is based on its model and icon (which look decent, but low resolution), a problem when the tool-tips take a second to pop-up; more clarity here would be appreciated. Of course, this reduced quality means Age of Fear can run on pretty much any system out there. The game features basic voice acting, but good music (reminiscent of Dominions 3: a high compliment). In the end, you are clearly not buying Age of Fear for outstanding graphics and sound, but for the meaty strategic gameplay.

Age of Fear features two campaigns of around fifteen missions each, one with a boring knight and the other with a badass necromancer (you can guess which one I chose first). There are three difficulty levels: while the “experienced” level is fairly balanced, the “beginner” level has cheaper units and an AI that doesn’t plan or use magic, and the “master” level gives better attack, defense, and magic ratings to the computer. The game has a rather lengthy story told between missions with a lot of text, if you are into that sort of thing. Each battle takes about half-an-hour to complete, so you can figure out how long each campaign will take. There is little replay value, however, as the enemy units and landscape are always the same for each particular battle. Progress is automatically saved between each turn and after each battle, and the campaign is lost if your hero is killed. Units carry over from mission to mission, so too many losses endured in a single conflict can severely impact your ability to win subsequent battles. I found the campaign to be quite challenging on “normal” difficulty because the AI is given more units than it needs (more on that later). The game features a decent read-along tutorial to acclimate yourself to the game mechanics.

Other than the campaigns, Age of Fear is light on features. The limited custom battles that are unlocked during the campaign allow you to pick either side (so you can play as the enemy), but choose your units for you. Age of Fear also lacks a skirmish mode where you can pick a battlefield and a set of units, and lacks random maps. It would be cool if the game would incorporate some of the features seen in Shogun 2 regarding unit persistence and army customization. Age of Fear is available for all three PC operating systems, Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, so that's nice. The developer does promise further improvements in the future, like multiplayer and a map editor, but you can’t evaluate Age of Fear on things that aren’t there yet.

Between each battle, you can recruit new troops. The game specifies arbitrary income and unit cap levels (ostensibly for game balance), so your strategic choices are a bit limited. There are also limited numbers of each unit type to recruit, so keeping most of your units alive is very important. This is especially true since experience gained over time will upgrade units automatically, without you having to spend any gold on new recruits. Age of Fear features a pleasing roster of around thirty units, each of which has different ratings for hit points, attack, defense, and movement speed, plus special attributes and skills you can activate during battle. Most fall under two categories, melee and ranged (including magic), but their special skills and varied attributes set them apart.

Age of Fear allows each of your units to perform one action each turn (or move and then immediately melee attack). This restriction makes magic units more vulnerable, as they can’t move and cast a spell during the same turn. In general, the interface is excellent, incorporating a lot of the good ideas strategy games have introduced over the years. First, a unit’s movement range is clearly shaded on the map, influenced by adjacent units. You are also given range circles for magic and ranged attacks, and success percentages above each potential attack target. The bottom of the screen displays icons for all units who have no moved (great for not forgetting somebody), and spell icons are displayed in the bottom left for a selected unit for quick access. Left-clicking selects, moves, and attacks units, while right-clicking on a unit opens a list of their spells. However, there are still some limitations: Age of Fear does not clearly indicate which side units are on (using only a subtle color shift), does not automatically end turn even if all units have moved and acted, and lacks a minimap. Still, I found Age of Fear easy to navigate and free from tedium.

Age of Fear features a good variety of special unit attributes they can use during battle. This makes the enchanted units much more interesting to control, since they have access to a larger variety of options. The battlemage can throw fireballs, teleport, or improve unit defense, the banshee can paralyze enemy units, ghouls infect targets with disease, and the high priest can enchant weapons, heal units, or resurrect the dead (extremely useful), just to name a very few. The necromancer hero is so much better than the knight, since he can raise dead humans and take control of enemy skeletons. The focus of Age of Fear is protecting your powerful magic units by placing grunt infantry in front of them. You can only move your units within their line of sight, so you can successfully block the enemy from making melee attacks on specific units by placing units in between. Ranged attacks are not affected, so you must still be wary of spells and arrows even if units are providing cover. Of course, this means friendly units can inhibit movement as well, so it goes both ways. This opens up a whole slew of interesting tactics, from flanking with faster units to screening powerful mages with low-level cannon fodder. You must also decide who to move, when to move them, and who to attack. Since you are only allowed one action per turn, you must weigh the different spells each unit has and determine which one is needed most; tough decisions like these make for good strategy games. Age of Fear plays a lot like a hex-based game, but with greater freedom of movement (since there are no hexes): I like it.

Combat uses the time-tested method of dice rolls: if a d10 roll is greater than five minus the difference between the attacker’s attack rating and defender’s defense rating, then you score a hit, which decreases the defender’s hit points by one. The result is a lot of misses (evenly-matched units have a 50-50 shot at success), which extends the length of the battle. Unfortunately, terrain rarely impacts your tactics, as the availability of trees, water, or rocks is low. But, using your own units for cover is still a viable option. I found the AI in Age of Fear to be quite good and exhibited a number of advanced strategies: it attacks weak ranged units first and retreats when appropriate. It also knows exactly where the attack radius is for ranged and magic units, and stays out of it until it attacks. Because of the competency of the AI, the campaign is difficult on the “medium” setting: not only does the AI always have more units (partially because of your artificial unit cap and income restrictions), but the AI is smart, too. In most games, the AI is given more units to compensate for poor game tactics, but here it’s a needless benefit since the AI is quite proficient. Between the random dice roles and the good AI who has numerous units at its disposal, Age of Fear can be a tough game. Game balance is a very difficult thing to get right and is subject to opinion, but I can say that I frequently died only a third of the way through each campaign, and I play a lot of strategy games.

Age of Fear succeeds because of its combat: using units to protect fragile allies, incorporating hex-based mechanics without the geometric restriction. The result is some satisfying strategy, choosing which units to move and carefully keeping your army intact and away from open avenues for the enemy. The interface really helps in this aspect, clearly showing which units can move, where they can move to, and what the chance of a successful attack is. Combat uses dice rolls, which results in drawn-out battles with a lot of misses (though they still clock in under half-an-hour); while this results in unpredictable outcomes, some players might not like so much luck involved. Age of Fear features a nice assortment of units with quite varied abilities and attributes; some of the magical spells are pretty neat, especially those associated with hero units. Units can also gain experience over time, upgrading to a better version for free. New allies can be purchased between each mission as well, although you must stay within strict army size and monetary limitations. The map selection is bland, rarely featuring interesting features like water or cover (trees, rocks) that might influence your tactics by restricting your movement. This is extended to the basic nature of the game’s graphics: they are functional at best, clearly the work of a one-man team. The game does feature two campaigns of fifteen missions each, but the custom battle mode is quite limited and Age of Fear really screams for a skirmish mode and online play where you can take on others (or the AI) using a custom set of units and heroes. Speaking of the AI, I found it to be quite competent: it takes advantage of openings to attack frail units, retreats vulnerable ranged units, and uses special skills intelligently. Really, the AI doesn’t need the advantages in number and quality of units it is given during the campaign, making it a bit more difficult than necessary. Still, Age of Fear delivers some nice strategic gaming recommended for fans of turn-based fantasy titles.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates Review

Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Unique approach, special weapons and item pickups, online high score list, $5
The Not So Good: Disorienting controls, little map variety, annoying boss battles
What say you? This casual action title adds naval flavor to traditional tower defense games: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Universal truth: pirates are cool. Because of this fact, all games should include pirates. Or booty. Especially booty. Thankfully, the minds at Nitro Games, responsible for naval trading games East India Company and Commander: Conquest of the Americas, have taken it upon themselves to introduce copious amounts of booty in their latest title, Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates. While not quite an Age of Booty, the game features protagonist Woody Two-Legs protecting his precious booty from the zombie pirates, who are on the attack. This arcade action game takes queues from tower defense games and the controls typical of Age of Sail type simulations. Let’s shiver some timbers in search for more booty!

The presentation is what you would expect for a $5 game: passable. The game is populated with cartoony ships that have decent models, complete with fire to indicate partial damage. The ships, though, lack a lot of detail (especially Woody’s vessel), though the bosses do feature some. The explosions aren’t terribly impressive, but each of your cannon shots leaves a pleasing trail of smoke in their wake. The islands are pretty bland, as is the ocean upon which you sail, with rare or subtle animations that never feel like real locations. The graphics of Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates are clearly not at the same level as their previous naval efforts. As for the sound design, we get typical fare: appropriate effects for collecting new items and incoming enemy waves. The game does feature some powerful cannon explosions and jaunty pirate music, fitting for a game of this type. Overall, while Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates isn’t a graphical masterpiece, you can’t expect that for the low price.

Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates is kind of like a mobile tower defense game, where you must protect your gold by destroying incoming waves of zombie pirates. There are five levels in a linear “story,” but it’s really just five slightly different islands to guard. There are about fifteen waves of enemies in each level, and each level ends with a frustrating boss battle where you must constantly circle a large, overpowered foe. I felt that each level lasted about twice as long as necessary, as Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates would be much better in five-minute-long bites; this is further compounded by the inability to save your progress during a single level. There are a number of difficulty levels that throw more enemies at you, further increasing your score. The scores are important, as your success can be uploaded online and compared against others; this servers as a consolation prize for a lack of direct competitive play, and it works well enough to keep you motivated. There is no penalty for death, other than resetting the score multiplier bonus and giving the enemies a few additional seconds to siphon off your gold. Overall, Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates offers typical, average features.

The control scheme is typical for a naval title, as your cannons fire only from the sides of your ship. However, since you are firing relative to the position of your ship, the non-rotating camera takes some getting used to: if your ship is headed down the screen, pressing left will fire towards the right side of the screen (firing the port side cannons). This initial confusion really hindered my ability to play for a while; the problem could be alleviated by simply rotating your view along with the ship. You get five shots per load, though there is no on-screen indication of reloading progress. As you maneuver around the map using the WASD keys to move (luckily “W” and “S” control throttle and do not need to be constantly held down), you’ll need to position the enemy ships to your sides while avoiding theirs. Once an enemy is destroyed, they will drop an item, which will either be good, bad, or randomized. These include slowing down enemy ships, a score bonus, health, or more powerful weapons like Blue Balls (yes, there is an actual weapon called “blue balls”). You can also collect powerful special weapons like a net to catch opposing ships, large explosions, or frozen enemy ships. There is no minimap in Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates, so you must constantly patrol the waters looking for incoming vessels. Luckily (although it’s not very interesting), ships head straight towards the central island that contains the treasure, so simply circling around that goal seems to be a good enough strategy. There are a lot of enemies later in the levels, and the constant escalation of chaos make for an entertaining, if simple, game.

I feel there is definitely $5 worth of entertainment in Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates. The fusion of fast arcade gameplay, naval combat, and tower defense-like mechanics make for an interesting title. The game takes typical controls for a historical naval simulation (firing from the sides of the ship) and adds a frantic pace and lots of enemies to destroy. A fixed overhead display means confusion can result from deciding which side you want to fire from (as the camera view doesn’t rotate with your ship), but practice makes things a bit less perplexing. There are plenty of unique power-ups to collect from fallen enemies, and you must constantly search the waters for those waiting to snatch your precious booty. The five levels are very simple and there isn’t direct competitive play, but you can add your score to the online list and compare your results to other players that are a lot better than you. The pace is quick enough to keep the interest level high as you chase those high scores, and Woody Two-Legs: Attack of the Zombie Pirates delivers a solid arcade experience, especially for its low price.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem Review

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem, developed by Steel Monkeys and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Quick chaotic races, timed events emphasize destroying opponents over completing laps and finishing first, six balanced vehicles with three unique weapons each, online multiplayer for six players, competent AI, only $10
The Not So Good: Terrible physics while airborne, just three tracks, no partial credit for completed laps entirely negates track position
What say you? A combat racing game where the focus is on destruction instead of track position: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

What are people going to do for fun after the apocalypse? Fight over resources? Fight over resources? Or, possibly, fight over resources? How about gentlemanly auto car racing? That’s clean, non-violent fun for all, unless you put guns on the cars, of course, then it’s extremely violent, as in the case of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem. The future of racing ups the ante with copious amounts of weaponry, as highlighted by the scientifically accurate simulations Death Track and GearGrinder. Let’s all see what kinds of mayhem the post-apocalypse has to offer.

The graphics of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem are decent enough for a budget title. The game’s six cars all have nicely detailed models with dramatic explosions. In addition, the weapon animations, though very obviously canned, are done well, exhibiting hints of real-world physics as they are dropped on the ground and then cascade over the track surface. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is placed on mayhem, and the game mostly delivers. Now, it does look like the developer worked really hard on the six car models and two of the tracks, and kind of “phoned it in” on the last circuit, which features a bland layout. But, overall, I was pleased with the graphics of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem. As for the sound design, there is nothing too exciting to write home about: a collection of repetitive explosions, subtle engine sounds, a tiresome “kill” notification, and a generic rock soundtrack that overshadows everything using the default settings (by the way, you earn an achievement by changing the audio mix). Still, Post Apocalyptic Mayhem provides at least $10 worth of value in terms of graphics and sound.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is a combat racing game. While this is a pretty typical premise that’s been around for quite a while, the focus here is clearly on killing other players: during the timed races (the default is five minutes, which cannot be changed for single player events), points are awarded for kills and laps completed. I like how the points system balances destroying opponents and simply logging laps. In games like Death Track, the only goal was to finish first, so destroying other drivers was simply a means to an end instead of a specific goal. However, everyone will almost always complete just one full lap during the time limit (the track layouts are long and take over two and a half minutes to complete), so kills are the only thing that determines the victor. I would like to see Post Apocalyptic Mayhem reward partial points based on how much track you’ve driven, to make position at least a little bit important. You can engage in arcade races (pick a vehicle, a track, and a difficulty) or a three-map challenge that covers all of the tracks Post Apocalyptic Mayhem has to offer. Yes, there are only three layouts; while disappointing, they offer a good assortment of multiple paths, narrow sections, jumps, and obstacles to determine when its best unleash your destruction. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem also features multiplayer games that allow you to adjust the victory conditions (laps, kills, or time). You can join others using the in-game browser (or quick match option), and empty slots can be taken up by bots. While there are certainly areas where the features of Post Apocalyptic Mayhem could be improved, there are some good options to be had.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem assumes you own an XBOX gamepad, as all of the menus and in-game prompts refer to those multi-colored buttons or console evilness. Handling in the game is obviously very arcade, featuring slightly different characteristics for each game. Nitro offers subtle enhancements in acceleration that allow you to catch up from the rear of the pack or drive past an opponent to deploy a weapon. Easily the worst part of the game is when your vehicle goes airborne: every vehicle “floats” in mid-air for seconds at a time, especially when you hit an object at a weird angle (the sensation is less noticeable when using proper jumps). It can be really annoying to correct a vehicle when it’s gone off the track.

Post Apocalyptic Mayhem features six vehicles with varied attributes in acceleration, handling, and mayhem. There is a school bus, jet engine buggy, pickup truck, logger, SUV, and druggie RV (a Breaking Bad reference, no doubt), and only one of each type is allowed at a time in a race. Each vehicle has three unique weapons that deploy from the front, sides, or rear of the car, though they generally fall into several categories: mines, bombs, short-range weapons, or things that affect other vehicles’ handling. A rear-view camera assists with the placement of certain weapons. Ammunition is collected from barrels scattered around the tracks (color-coded to match the XBOX controller buttons), you can only store one shot per weapon at a time, and all of your ammo is lost if you respawn. There doesn’t seem to be any over-powered vehicles (although I certainly have my favorites) since each car gets two “good” weapons and one “bad” weapon. It’s easy to see deployed weapons on the ground (most glow) and the game also highlights parts of each vehicle that are armed, so if you have an eagle eye, you can see where to avoid other competitors.

The AI is slow on anything but hard (by design, I am sure), but good at combat on any level: they will take you and others down with decent precision (as good as an average human player, I would say) and provide good competition in the fight for the most kills. Since most players will complete the same number of laps (the layouts are lengthy and everyone only completes one full lap each 5 minute game), Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is all about the kills. This is one of the only racing games where finishing in the lead doesn't matter at all. What the score system means is that you want to be close to the other racers so that you can cause them damage, but not too close where they can damage you. It's an interesting mix of strategy as you position yourself in the best place between the other competitors, based on the weapons you and they have. Rewarding kills more than track placement is, frankly, a brilliant move that makes for a much more interesting and chaotic game. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem removes a lot of the frustration associated with these types of games: you can't lose because of a last second “red shell” right before the finish line, since kills are weighted so much more than position. Also, being so much faster than your competitors matters none, since you must kill them in order to win. I would like shorter laps (so position made a small difference, compensate for a kill or two) or partial credit for lap completion to make the focus at least a little bit on actually racing, but the balance Post Apocalyptic Mayhem strikes is captivating.

Unlike most racing combat games where destroying your opponents is the best way of finishing first, in Post Apocalyptic Mayhem destroying your opponents is the only way of finishing first, as your actual position on the race track matters none. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem feels different from other combat racing games because being first on the track could mean finishing last; it's a great way for penalizing people who race out to a commanding lead and stay there (and subsequently cause boring races) without resorting to “cheating” (rubber-banding of AI or super-powerful weapons directed at the leader). This emphasis on destruction makes playing the game feel a lot less boring, since you should always try to be in the thick of battle instead of half a lap ahead of your competitors (at least if you want to win). I'd like your track position to impact the points a bit more: since everyone will complete the same number of laps in a five-minute race, scoring is solely determined by kills. The AI drivers are quite competent: while they simply drive slower on “easy” and “medium” difficulty settings, they are equally adept at combat across all levels of difficulty, making “hard” the beest choice for an interesting race. Post Apocalyptic Mayhem also features nice game balance, from the varied car weapons to the use of nitro boosts: each vehicle has two “good” weapons and all are proficient at taking out the enemy. Physics while in the air are dreadful: even massive armored school buses seem to float for eternity, especially when you catch a trackside object at an odd angle. While Post Apocalyptic Mayhem supports multiplayer for up to six players, there are only three maps to play on. Still, Post Apocalyptic Mayhem is one of the better car combat games around thanks to its balance in favor of combat over racing.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Spring Up Harmony Review

Spring Up Harmony, developed and published by Frozax Games.
The Good: Simple mouse-driven gameplay, faster level completion, power-ups, bonus points for trick shots, some interesting physics-based layouts, real-time online score comparison, all levels unlocked
The Not So Good: Lack of difficulty, slow measured pace, few levels
What say you? A much improved version of the Peggle clone: 6/8

With the success of certain casual games comes a myriad of copycats hoping to cash in on the fervor. One of those causal games was Peggle, an addictive mix of pinball and breakout, which was followed by Spring Up, a derivative I frankly did not care for thanks to its lack of difficulty, slow pace, poor physics, and lack of tangible rewards. Well, the developer has taken this (and other) feedback and released a follow-up entitled Spring Up Harmony. Let’s see if my complaints have been rectified.

The graphics of Spring Up Harmony are pretty typical for a 2-D puzzle game. There are subtle effects like ball trails and animations in each level, and a minor celebration when a level is complete. The game certainly is not as rambunctious as Peggle (EXTREME FEVER), but the more relaxed look is, well, more relaxing. The puzzle elements consist of simple geometric shapes against black backgrounds, which might seem bland but it makes the pieces easy to identify. As for the sound, Spring Up Harmony contains appropriate effects that successfully accompany the on-screen action, along with a fine selection of music. Overall, Spring Up Harmony delivers exactly what I expect in a 2-D puzzle game.

Spring Up Harmony is a Peggle-inspired puzzle game where you shoot color-coded balls to knock down same-colored objects (the balls will bounce off other colors). It is a physics-based game that takes advantage of contact between objects as they fall and a number of other elements. There are only thirty-five levels, but they are all initially unlocked and annoying ones can be skipped. Thankfully, a lot of the puzzles are pretty inventive and varied in approach, sometimes involving moving objects or alternate gravity. Additional puzzle elements include vortices, fans, barriers, and transporters. Online scores are recorded for each level, which are downloaded and updated automatically as you play. I like how the game keeps track of your real-time level ranking and how many points you'll need to take the next spot. There is cooperative multiplayer, but only on the same computer and limited to five levels, where each player is responsible for eliminating two of the four colors. I’d like to see a level editor where aspiring designers can create their own physics-based brainteasers.

The objective is to launch a ball from the top of the screen, knock down seven highlighted objects along the way, and catch things in a bucket at the bottom of the screen for additional score and time bonuses. The game displays the trajectory to the first object, making initial aiming easy. You can also switch between two colors, depending on which blocks need to be eliminated. The choice seems to be randomized, though the game has the propensity to pick two colors you don’t need and cause the time limit to run out. Unlike before, you don’t need to tediously remove every block to complete the level (only seven) and there is a time limit to add some pressure; both of these additions are positive. The physics are also slightly improved, producing more bouncing and allowing for tricky long-distance shots.

Also new: bonus points for trick shots, like long-range hits, multiple hits, or cascades. The score multiplier also allows for high scores, increased by catching objects and hitting same-colored items each turn. You can also collect a number of temporary power-ups that fall when the highlighted blocks are hit: changing block colors, additional points or time, a safety barrier, a larger bucket, and some bad things (clearly indicated in red) like inverted controls. The pace is still leisurely, as you wait for blocks to drop as the timer ticks down. It’s also an easy game: I rarely got close to running out of time, only coming close when the randomly selected ball colors were not what I needed to pick off the final highlighted block. I would like to see a “challenge” mode with a more frantic pace that emphasizes trick shots over grinding. Still, it’s far better than it used to be when you had to remove each and every block. Spring Up Harmony would also benefit from a more significant bonus for finishing early: points-wise, it’s advantageous to strike a balance between eliminating a lot of blocks and shooting the blocks needed for level completion. As it stands, getting all seven highlighted blocks with your first seven shots results in an average score, a disappointment for such a skilled feat.

In essence, Spring Up Harmony is exactly what you want from a sequel: fixing the bad stuff. The major problems have been solved: it's a much less tedious game because you only need to hit seven key blocks to advance, and a timer makes you move a bit more quickly. The level of difficulty is still quite low: I rarely came close to running out of time, and the pace is quite relaxed as you wait for blocks to fall. The game only features thirty-five levels, but they are as varied as you can get when dealing with physics-based puzzles. Scoring involves a lot of bonuses for trick shots and combos, and your best efforts are automatically reported online as a replacement for online multiplayer. I'd still like to see more challenging options for veteran puzzle players, but overall the game should have appeal for the casual gaming audience. In all, Spring Up Harmony provides a better entry in the puzzle genre than its predecessor.