Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Star-Twine Review

Star-Twine, developed and published by Eric Billingsley.
The Good: Straightforward position-based strategy with unique mechanics, very capable AI opponent, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Low income cap frequently leads to stalemates, randomized maps insignificantly vary strategy, only two-person battles with a single objective, no campaign mode, insufficient documentation
What say you? This simplified real-time strategy game offers decent depth and varied positional tactics with mid-game gridlock on random maps: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Who’s tired of World War II real-time strategy games? Anyone? Anyone? Oh, well, I guess that’s why they still make them. Sometimes, though, you are in the mood for something different, and that’s where indie games can deliver. Sadly, it’s up to them to develop interesting titles that push the boundaries of computer gaming in new, exciting directions. Enter Star-Twine, a real-time strategy game where you place orbs on ribbons in space and hopefully destroy the enemy. Despite a disturbing lack of Uranus, this game’s unique gameplay makes it a perfect fit for the odd title positioned between 37,000 World War II games (just kidding, there are actually 45,000 World War II games). Do these distinctive mechanics produce a memorable strategy entry?

Star-Twine features simple but effective graphics and sound design. The game is set in space, and each level consists of a maze of ribbons of varied colors set against a dark background with the occasional star and/or nebula. Glowing orbs are used for units and bullets (easily identified when viewed up close), which is good contrast against the background. The sound design is relaxed, with plain effects for firing that are distinctive and subtle explosions when units are destroyed. The background music serves to round out the package, a satisfying collecting of doing a lot with a little.

Star-Twine is a real-time strategy game where you place items on ribbons in order to eliminate the enemy orbs. The game only features one-on-one battles and lacks a campaign, so all of the matches are skirmishes. You can choose an AI difficulty level (increasing the reaction time of the computer opponent) and pick a specific random level (or just have the game do it for you) before each match begins. Having randomized levels is certainly a good feature, but it rarely impacts the gameplay in any significant manner: the concentration of ribbons on which to build is so high that you can venture pretty much anywhere on every map. Star-Twine only features one victory condition: destroy all. The games are fast-paced and usually quick (fifteen minutes at the most) if one side gains an early advantage. Online multiplayer is available for engaging other humans in epic conflict, and while the game will actively search for other players, it does not indicate how many (if any) people are online. Star-Twine features a brief tutorial and lacks a manual, a detriment for a game with such unique rules.

As with most real-time strategy games, your time in Star-Twine is spent placing units on the battlefield. This is done in first person, using the mouse to control the camera and the “W” key to move around each level; unlike Sanctum, first person placement of units is intuitive and efficient here, as you can place multiples of the same object quickly (by simply left-clicking) and the zoomed-out view accessed with the right-mouse button is helpful. Holding the left-mouse button accesses your build menu with five choices. You’ll need to start with energy nodes: each gives increased income up to a cap of twelve, a restriction which will have negative game ramifications I will discuss shortly. Turrets will automatically target the closest enemy unit and have infinite range, rules that truly emphasize smart placement of structures around the map. Missile launchers can destroy closely-spaced enemies, but will only attack the nearest cluster and require time to power their attack. Defenders will destroy nearby enemy structures once powered up (preventing you from simply parking them next to multiple enemy turrets, as they will be destroyed before they can do the destruction). And finally, black holes will absorb any incoming fire (both friendly and enemy) from up to four turrets. While I would like to have a range indication for defensive structures (so you know how far black holes and defenders affect), these options are unique and varied despite the limited roster of components.

So, how do you win? Yeah, destroy the enemy, but how do you win? Star-Twine offers little direction so it takes some trial and error (mostly error) to figure out the myriad of strategies at your disposal. You need two turrets to destroy an enemy object (four for a black hole), so the basic strategy of Star-Twine is placing turrets so that important enemy structures (energy nodes, mainly) are the closest object, while keeping your key structures away from the enemy. You can place things anywhere on the map, and since defenders have short range, you will commonly see turrets and other units scattered all over the map, looking for a way of engaging the enemy while shielding yourself from damage. Defense is mainly accomplished using cheap defenders and more expensive black holes, using these to prevent fire from reaching resource-producing units and turrets. It seems best to place multiple objects simultaneously in order to spread out the enemy turret fire: putting two turrets on one side and two on the other would split up the enemy fire in separate directions, allowing you to survive as long as only one turret is targeting each of your units. The game gives no feedback on which enemy units will be targeted and which turrets will target you before placing an item, something that would be quite beneficial. Since there is a time delay when switching targets, turrets placed in forward positions are more effective at destroying the enemy.

Despite the strategic variety I attempted to describe in the previous paragraph, Star-Twine is not without its faults. The biggest problem with the game is the income cap: since you need twelve energy nodes, both sides quickly reach the cap and then there is no production difference between the two. The result is a mid-game impasse, where both sides can afford the exact same replacement structures. It then becomes a game of who makes a mistake first and who fails to counter a cunning strategy. Missile launchers are good end-of-game weapons that destroy closely-spaced items, but are only effective if you’ve cleared a path to the enemy base. Star-Twine is a tenuous balance of offensive turrets and defensive black holes and defenders, and choosing the wrong one or failing to defend your energy nodes from enemy fire can spell defeat. The AI is almost frustratingly efficient and good, distressingly effective at quickly placing turrets where they will attack energy nodes and spreading out your turret fire to render it ineffective. The computer knows how to flank. Every strategy I’ve used has been successfully countered at some point by the AI, so it appears the game is balanced overall (or I am simply terrible at it (or both)). Still, Star-Twine is an intriguing game if you can forgive its various shortcomings.

Star-Twine is unique to be sure, as the game’s game of out-positioning the enemy is definitely different from your typical real-time strategy traditions of resource collection and constructing tanks. Two turrets are needed to destroy an enemy structure and they have infinite range, so careful placement of these structures and the more defensive options (black holes and defenders) is paramount for success. There are lots of strategic options available in Star-Twine to keep your units protected while engaging the enemy; a delicate balance of offense and defense is necessary. Unfortunately, stalemates are common as income is capped at twelve energy nodes, a low number that is quickly reached by other sides. Then, the game becomes a battle of attrition, with either side losing and rebuilding turrets and hoping to flank the enemy. Star-Twine is really difficult, thanks to insufficient help (a brief tutorial and no manual) and a challenging AI opponent that excels at quick construction of turrets at the most inconvenient locations for you. The maps are randomly generated but don’t impact overall strategy at all, since there are normally lots of places to build. Star-Twine features online multiplayer (one-on-one only, though) but lacks a campaign, and a game this unique really needs a manual or in-game help. While I certainly applaud Star-Twine for its unique take on the real-time strategy formula, mid-game tedium and inadequate assistance to new players decreases its appeal to a wide audience.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Digitanks Review

Digitanks, developed and published by Lunar Workshop.
The Good: Large variety of weapons, energy must be balanced between offensive weapons and defensive shields, strategic base building, randomly generated deformable terrain, extensive technology tree
The Not So Good: Tedious slow pace, lacks multiplayer matchmaking, no campaign mode, AI only provides a mild challenge at the highest difficulty, fixed game length and map size, don't manually aim projectiles
What say you? This lackadaisical turn-based strategy game features destructible terrain and diverse weaponry with solid tactics: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

In the future, wars will not be fought by man. Rather, they will be fought by machines inside computers. Clearly, scientific documentaries like Tron have established this to be the case, most likely involving Oscar winners and White Russians. Digitanks is the latest computer simulation of the future world conflict, adapting the clash into a turn-based strategy title with base construction, territory expansion, resource collection, and tactical battles between digital tanks (or, as they are more commonly known as, “Pok√©mon”).

Digitanks takes place in a digital world, and it looks a lot like another game that also took place in a digital world, Darwinia. And by “a lot” I mean a lot: it might be difficult to tell the two games apart at first glance. Digitanks uses the same bright neon overtones and the same squared-off terrain as that classic minimalist title. There is significant glowing in both the weapons and the networks established to collected resources as well. The overall graphical feel is nice, but it’s been done before. The sound is minimal: a few sound effects and distracting background music are a forgettable mix. Overall, there’s nothing unique or distinctive in the presentation of Digitanks, exploring territory that’s clearly been traversed before.

Digitanks is a turn-based strategy game where you construct your base, collect resources, and attack the enemy. There are two game modes to choose from: just the tactical battles (artillery mode) or the whole kit and/or kaboodle in strategic mode. There is no campaign and the game options are limited: number of players and terrain (plus number of tanks for the artillery mode). In addition, there are only two difficulty levels, easy and normal, that become less than challenging after a game or two. Also, the game fails to auto-save your progress (as I found out when I exited the game and thought my progress would be saved…time for a new game!). While Digitanks does have multiplayer, there is no in-game matchmaking to find opponents. However, I do like the randomized terrain that allows for good replay value, and the tutorials do a decent job teaching the basics of the game mechanics. Overall, Digitanks could benefit from more well-rounded features.

The strategic half of Digitanks involves base expansion to capture resource nodes so you can afford more units to take down the enemy. The game plays out like Perimeter, where all of your structures must be connected to the main base (the CPU, being inside a computer and all) using buffers with a circular radius. You then place capacitors and power supplies on top of power nodes in range of your buffers to get more power, and factories to produce new units. There is only one resource (power) used for everything, and the population cap that is increased with research. The technology tree is extensive, and each option opens up a two to three new research choices. New technologies are handled like downloads, the speed of which is determined by your bandwidth (which can be improved through research): a neat incorporation of the computerized theme. Problem is, each research option takes a couple of turns to complete, and you have to research a lot of things you might not need (higher population cap, namely) on the way to the more interesting options that you do need (additional unit types). You also get health, attack, and speed bonuses unlocked along the way up to the top of the tree.

The strategic game has a really slow, methodical pace because of arbitrary time requirements to complete in-game action. It takes at least two turns to do anything in the game: build a capacitor or factory, move a unit a significant distance, recruit a new unit, wait for research. This makes a game of Digitanks last about two to three times longer than it really needs to. You can only afford to do one thing per turn early in the game as you grow your power network (while being harassed by the AI and neutral forces), resulting in the “end turn” button getting a heavy workout. It also takes several turns to destroy an enemy unit or take down a structure, which further elongates the game time. The inability to change the map size means there is no way to shorten up the game, so you’re stuck with a strategic mode that I feel takes too long to complete. That said, there are some interesting strategies you can employ: raids against the enemy network, taking out intermediate buffers connecting the base to far-flung power sources, is a very viable tactic the AI loves to use. Units placed in friendly territory do get bonuses for easier defense, but you still have to fend off annoying attacks from the AI. The computer isn’t the best at base building: the only way they can outpace the human player is by using raids to temporarily disable your power structures, slowing production in the process. Digitanks could use a difficulty level above “normal” with smarter, more efficient AI to provide a challenge once the initial strategies are worked out by the player. Once you have fended off the computer’s attacks, you can usually steamroll the opponents.

The tactical artillery battles are interesting thanks to a large array of weapon types. The three units (defensive resistor, regular digitank, long-range artillery) have access to a number of shells: small, medium, large, fragments, shield-reducing, bouncing, diggers, shotguns, and manually guided options cover pretty much all tactical situations. These weapons must be balanced with defensive shields: since they both draw from the same energy pool, a weapon that uses 60% of your energy leaves your shields at only 40% capacity. This leads to an interesting decision: how much energy do you leave to your shields, and how much do you dedicate towards attack? These types of choices make good strategy games. You do not need to aim or decide on shot power: once you choose an enemy, Digitanks fires for you and always hits (as long as you have line of sight). Those looking for Scorched Earth-style battles will be left disappointed. The AI players perform behind a competent human player, needing a numerical advantage to be a real threat. The computer does retreat when outmatched and occasionally uses alternative weapons and team tactics to eliminate single units, but it is never a match for capable human tactics. Digitanks makes it easy to find units, displaying everything along the left side of the screen Sins of a Solar Empire-style, and news events along the right. The emoticons used by the tanks to react to in-game events are a nice touch as well. Overall, solid tactical battles and slow base building coupled with an average AI produce an interesting but ultimately limited title.

Digitanks plays out like a slightly enhanced, 3-D version of Scorched Earth with a base building mode, but without the challenge of actually aiming your weapon. All of the attacks will automatically hit if the enemy is in range and in line-of-sight, so your choices are which weapons to use and how much shield energy to use in your attacks. There are a lot of weapon types to choose from to cover most tactical situations, so there are certainly some interesting decisions here. The strategic mode features Perimeter-like expansion where you must connect all of your structures to your base; this allows for enemy raids against your economy, giving those players who are lagging behind a chance to catch up through constant annoyance. Unfortunately, the strategic mode has a needlessly slow pace as determined by slow movement, slow construction, and slow research: there is no practical reason things take two or three or four (or more) turns to complete, other than to waste my time. While Digitanks supports online play, it does not offer matchmaking of any kind. Without robust online options, Digitanks relies on the quality of its AI, which is competent but not difficult: it is slightly better at tactical battles than base building and expansion, but veteran players will rarely be tested after they get a game or two under their belt. I like the randomized maps with destructible terrain that allows for some strategies (like hiding in craters), but the fixed map size always results in the same game lengths. In the end, Digitanks is a solid foundation for a tactical and strategic game that simply needs more balancing and features to create a faster, more challenging product.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Brink Review

Brink, developed by Splash Damage and published by Bethesda Softworks.
The Good: Strong focus on team play through distinct classes, fluid movement around and over objects, all weapons available for every class restricted only by body type, online opponents can join your single player campaign automatically, large variety of weapons and attachments, informative HUD and dynamic objective wheel, patient-controlled medic revival and other innovations, most unlocked abilities not required to survive, cooperative and competitive multiplayer, most weapons and all basic abilities initially available to new players and unlock fairly quickly, online matches segregated by rank, extensive character customization
The Not So Good: Disappointing teammate AI makes for mediocre single player, only eight maps
What say you? This class-based first person shooter places emphases on team dynamics through objectives and adds a multitude of notable advancements to the genre: 7/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

NOTE: I am currently having a couple of technical issues with the game: the sound stops functioning on two of the maps, and my ATI graphics card shows garbled text characters, occasionally makes some units invisible, and exhibits poor performance with some graphical settings enabled. I hope these issues will be solved in an expedient manner.

The days of isolationism are over: it’s time to work together! Clearly, cooperative play is all the rage in computer gaming these days, as tackling the world’s problems is too much for one man. This trend has extended to online shooters, as team-based affairs are steadily increasing in popularity. You know the drill: pick a class, throw out some health packs or build some turrets, and help your team towards ultimate victory. One of the better takes on the class-based shooter is the Enemy Territory series, last encountered in Quake Wars, a personal favorite. Next up is Brink (not BRINK: there is no shouting, unless we are taking about TASTY WAFFLES), and the developer has taken the battles and streamlined them with smaller maps and fewer classes, with a couple of new assists for completing objectives and moving fluidly around the map. Does this make Brink a must-have?

Brink features a unique visual style, combining Team Fortress 2’s cartoon aesthetic and a more realistic future of industrial ruin. Each of the game’s eight maps are detailed, featuring distinctive indoor settings. The texture work is varied and done well overall, creating a run-down, rusty, and dilapidated environment. The character models are highlighted by the varied options given to customize the appearance of your in-game avatars. The animations could use more work: interactions involve inputting far away from devices, and death animations are silly, with downed enemies flopping as if faking a foul in soccer. The weapons have convincing models that make it easy to identify its real-life counterpart, and tracers scream across the battlefield. While larger explosions are powerful, grenades are visually very weak. The sound design is pretty good, starting with the weapon effects: each of the game’s guns has a different sound, and adept players can identify a weapon based on sound alone. Running is accompanied by movement sounds (equipment rubbing together inappropriately) reminiscent of ArmA. There aren’t as many environmental war effects as other online shooters, but they are good enough. The voice acting is a bit varied, and the occasional background music is haunting while incapacitated. Overall, I have little to complain about in terms of graphics and sound.

Brink is an objective-based shooter that features different classes that must work together to succeed. The game is played with eight-on-eight battles (obviously a concession for the console’s poor peer-to-peer multiplayer networking) that take place across two campaigns, presented Left 4 Dead-style with interstitial cutscenes (complete with the player customized characters seen during a game...neat). Each side gets eight missions, although they are the same eight missions, just played in a slightly different order with opposing objectives. The objectives are a linear series of tasks that must be completed in order: plant bombs, hack computers, repair things, deliver item, or escort things like VIPs and vehicles. Most objectives must be completed by a specific class, so a well-rounded team is mandatory. There are typically multiple paths (two to three) to each objective from your spawn point, but the map design is still chokepoint-heavy (especially around objective locations) where stalemates may arise (good news for the defenders).

Brink allows you to play each campaign mission alone, cooperatively against AI bots, or versus other human players. The latter two options are strongly suggested, as the friendly AI teammates are less than stellar (enemy AI puts up a good fight, though, especially if they are defending). The game will automatically match you with players of the same rank, making sure everyone (AI included) is playing with a similar set of abilities. Online players can also be incorporated into your game mid-match, which is cool (although I tend to join other people’s games in the last minute, for some reason). Losing a campaign mission will replay it, while the opposing team (if they are human) will advance to the next map. If the linear structure of the campaign is too restrictive for you, free play missions are available where you can customize the game settings: AI difficulty, team size, friendly fire, and team balancing (all of these options can be adjusted on a dedicated server, too). An additional option is stopwatch mode, where the teams switch sides and the previous defender tries to best the attacker’s time. While Brink features a server browser, it lacks intuitive filters (just try to figure out how to filter out empty or full servers). There is also no “quick match” option to join any campaign mission immediately.

In addition to the campaign modes, there are four challenges that act like interactive tutorials. They are used to teach the basics of the game mechanics while unlocking weapons and attachments. The three difficulty levels for each must be completed in sequential order, and they can be tough. Luckily, you can play these online as well, and having competent allies is very useful in completing the missions. Unfortunately, playing cooperatively disables the ability to unlock new items, so you must deal with AI teammates if you want all of the goods. The utter incompetence of friendly bots makes it impossible to pass two-star (and above) challenges: I'm always fighting one-on-five, and the enemy bots are far more accurate than my allies. Still, this method of learning the game is much more entertaining than having to sit through the lengthy and tedious videos.

Brink features four classes, and the basic abilities (described below) of each are available immediately; no more dying through twenty games waiting for medic paddles. The soldier can complete explosive objectives, refill the ammunition of nearby allies, and throw molotovs. The medic can buff the health of others and throw revive syringes to incapacitated teammates. The engineer can complete construction objectives, plant and defuse mines, or buff weapon damage. And, finally, the operative can hack objectives, spot enemy mines, and disguise as deceased enemy units. I found strengths in all four classes, and all are necessary to keep your team going. The operative starts out as the least useful (and, consequently, least played) because they don’t have any low-level buffs to gain easy experience, but once their mid-level abilities are unlocked (namely their varied grenades and turret hacking skills), they become an integral part of the battlefield. You can change your class at any time by using a command post (don’t have to respawn), and capturing additional command posts will give a team-wide buff to health or supplies. Unlike other games, in Brink you toss items (ammo, health) directly at your allies instead of placing them on the ground and hoping they notice. This is an admittedly minor improvement, but it’s a good one since I don’t have people ignore my health packs anymore, depriving me of precious experience points.

Brink lets you use any gun as any class, the only restriction being body type (light, medium, and heavy, unlocked fairly early (a couple of hours) in the game). This is a fantastic amount of freedom that allows for combinations other team-based shooters simply don’t allow. A medic with a shotgun? Sure. An operative with a grenade launcher? Why not. An engineer with a machine gun? Absolutely. You can carry two weapons, one of your body type and one lighter than your body type. Heavy characters can wield machine guns and grenade launchers, medium characters can use assault rifles and shotguns, and light units are girlie men that can only carry submachine guns and light rifles. Anyone can carry a handgun for backup, too, of course. There are two to five options in each class that vary in damage, range, rate of fire, accuracy, stability, reload speed, equip speed, and ammo clip size, although these differences are very minor and rarely result in a noticeable difference between guns in the same class. Most of the guns run out of ammo quickly, requiring you to stay near a soldier to refill your ammo. Each weapons can be outfitted with four attachments: the front can get silencers and reduced recoil, the top for iron and red-dot sights, the bottom for grips and grenade launchers, and the magazine for higher capacity or faster reload. In all cases, an improvement in one area reduces attributes in others, so weapon balance is preserved. In addition to customizing your weapons, your avatar can undergo some wardrobe changes as well: the face, hair, head, shirt, jacket, pants, and voice can all be altered in color and appearance. Sadly, there are no ladies in the future, which is disappointing on several levels.

Everything useful you do in Brink awards experience points, which are used to unlock new abilities. Luckily, this is one of the least painful unlock schemes I’ve encountered, as things are opened up quickly (it took me an hour to reach level five of twenty). Brink awards experience for most everything and does not concentrate on kills: you earn significantly more experience for reviving, supplying, buffing, capturing, defending, or other helpful actions. In fact, you earn some experience for simply hitting an enemy (or assisting others in doing so), so “kill stealing” is almost nonexistent. Brink doesn’t even track kill/death ratios, which shows the game’s emphasis on team play. With all of the basic abilities available to everyone, you never feel “stuck” in a class and will reach the better ability options quickly. Of course, people can argue that maxing out your character gives you nothing to do, but I argue that you should want to play a game because it’s fun, not because you’ll get a slightly better scope in five more hours.

Each experience level gives you a point, and new abilities unlock every rank (five levels). Most of the ability upgrades are minor increases in effectiveness, rather than absolutely required attributes that put new players at a distinct disadvantage. All classes can invest in the universal abilities that grant extra health, faster or extra supplies, silent running, firing while incapacitated, shooting grenades, or indicating unseen enemies. Each class also has their own set of ten or so abilities, and most increase existing skills, awarding extra ammo, more grenade damage, extra supplies, improved buffs, or faster disarming of explosives. However, each class has at least a couple of interesting abilities to note. Soldiers can scavenge supplies from killed enemies, throw flashbangs, or place remote-controlled bombs. Medics can move faster, self-revive, and give allies temporary invincibility or faster health regeneration. Engineers have turrets, and operatives have the most interesting array of upper-level abilities: iron-sighting red outlines on enemies, obtaining information from incapacitated enemies, self-destructing when incapacitated, and throwing sticky bombs, EMPs, and caltrops. You have a limited supply of special abilities that slowly regenerates over time, preventing spamming of, well, anything, really. Luckily, I think Brink compromises well between giving people unlocks without arbitrarily restricting key game content from new users, and honestly only one must-have unlocked ability (turrets, which are frankly unlocked pretty quickly (an hour for me)) is tolerable.

Brink features an informative HUD that puts a lot of information right at the user’s fingertips. It starts with the on-screen icons that show objective locations (though not the actual path to the objective) and progress, mission time, health (plus any bonuses), special ability supplies, ammunition, experience, and teammate information applicable to your class (ammo for soldiers, health for medics). You are also given key prompts (which, of course, change if you have reconfigured your controls) for appropriate tasks. The objective wheel, pulled up using the middle mouse button, shows a circular list of tasks you can perform, the most appropriate for your class and location listed at the top. The wheel shows how many people have selected each mission, and informs others when you switch objectives. While I wish it was easier to navigate (based on mouse position rather than clicking to select), it is a handy tool, especially for beginners wondering what to do next. The minimap is very simple, showing relative position of friendly and spotted enemy units, rather than superimposing it on top of an overhead map of the level terrain. Still, I was pleased with the amount of information the HUD gives the player.

While Brink uses conventional first person shooter controls, one feature that sets it apart from the rest is the SMART movement system. Basically, you hold down the sprint button (left shift, by default) and automatically traverse across the map: scale walls, duck under pipes, and hop over boxes. It’s a pretty slick system that allows for some cool moves, like sliding behind cover or into enemy units (knocking them over) or performing wall jumps. If full automation is not your thing, you can manually navigate the terrain using the “jump” and “crouch” buttons, which will perform the same actions. The end result is people coming out of and going in to non-traditional locations. However, the overall map design only takes advantage of this system occasionally, as there are far too many bland single-level hallways lacking obstacles. Still, leaping over a create, baseball-sliding into an enemy, and then caving in their skull with the butt of your gun is pretty sweet.

Brink has a healthy pace thanks to the SMART movement system and intimate level design. The game certainly emphasizes teamwork, where you and your allies can help each other and use abilities in harmony. Lengthy timers for completing objectives also means you must be covered by your teammates: the “lone wolf” will die early and often, so those who like that kind of gameplay should steer clear. The gunplay lies somewhere between Section 8 and Call of Duty: short, but not too short, engagements that require you to actually aim. Manual burst fire is a necessity with the assault rifles, and the submachine guns are great for close encounters. The predominantly indoor environments (no vehicles, then) allow for almost constant close quarters combat. There are no one-shot kills (even with the light sniper rifles, which are thankfully useless in most instances), and health regenerates if you hide (or are helped by a medic). However, ammunition does not and is used rather quickly, making the solider class important for resupply. Other buffs (health from medics, damage from engineers) are minor but can play a role in a close battle.

Brink has a couple of neat innovations: mines only explode when you step off of them, so engineers can disable them while you are still on top of it, and thrown revive syringes are used whenever you want: no more being paddled and immediately dying because you’re right next to an enemy. The respawn time (longer for defenders) and locations means it’s usually better to wait for the firefight to die down and use the revive syringe a nearby medic happily supplied. Also, turrets can be used to tie down a narrow corridor, and invincible turrets prevent spawn camping (although I have occasionally been victim of grenade camping from outside of turret range by human opponents). The worst aspect of the game is the AI: while they will use skills and buffs and move towards objectives, they are unaware of their surroundings (standing right next to an oblivious enemy AI is all too common), inaccurate, and runs out into enemy fire too often. You also can’t issue orders or objectives to the AI, so coordination is impossible. For whatever reason, the enemy AI always seems to be more competent than your allies, so in a cooperative setting where humans replace your teammates, things are better. But, the AI is simply not a good substitute for a decent human player.

Are there enough differences to make Brink stand out in a crowded genre? Well, let’s see what we have. The SMART parkour movement system is more than a simple gimmick, allowing you do encounter the enemy from previously unexpected angles and positions. The system also allows for quick semi-automated movement across the game’s maps, navigating over, under, and around obstacles that, in other games, would only slow you down and get you shot. Brink’s four classes are traditional but offer distinct roles in the game that can be expanded with experience. Now, I’m first in line to complain about unlocks, but Brink tries (and succeeds) to strike a balance between giving veterans a goal though unlocks and giving new players enough tools to be successful, making the process as painless as possible. Plus, the unlocks are usually minor enhancements to existing abilities or small new abilities that simply offer different tactics, and they unlock rather quickly: there’s only one (turrets, which only took me an hour to unlock) out of forty that I’d want to start out with that you don’t already. In addition, you’ll be playing against people of the same rank (unless you specifically say otherwise) with access to the same ability options (higher-level abilities are disabled when playing with lower-level players, too) online, instead of being sniped by someone who’s played 200 hours and unlocked the best scopes while you are just starting off. Weapons in the game are varied and class-independent: anybody can use any of the weapons, eschewing the usual restrictions. Brink also features robust character customization if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The HUD does a good job issuing dynamic objectives and helping out new players, giving you something to do and show you where to do it. This is good, as if you play Brink like a traditional shooter, you will die early and often: you must work with teammates and use the movement controls to navigate the terrain and sneak up on your foes. The use of mines (engineers place them, operatives spot them) and revive syringes (medics throw them but used at your discretion) show thought was used in streamlining or eliminating a lot of the little annoying things present in most online shooters. The game has constant combat through the varied indoor environments, although I would like to see more than eight maps for increased replay value. The weakest aspect of Brink is the AI: while they will occasionally accomplish objectives (usually when the timer is really low) and always buff teammates, they aren’t so good as self-preservation, routinely getting in the line of fire without using cover and forgetting to engage the enemy when it would really be helpful. I would be very wary of playing Brink as a purely single-player affair; cooperative play against the AI is better (if the bots are defending), but matching up against other humans is clearly the best option. Luckily, Brink will pull down online players to fill out your matches (if you choose) automatically, so you should never be alone. A fine title for fans of online team-based shooters, Brink offers a number of innovations in an increasingly tired genre.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity Review

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity, developed by Elder Games and published by Rawen Group.
The Good: Direct control of any ship in your fleet, ship upgrades and abilities, skirmish and survival modes
The Not So Good: Unsatisfying superficial combat with limited tactical options, tedious ship component upgrades require manual docking, insufficient ally commands, significant waiting for resources to accumulate, lacks alternative career paths or dynamic interactions for campaign variety, no “repair all” button for quick fleet restoration, scarce strategic decisions
What say you? A space adventure combat game with strategy elements and unrealized potential: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Space is dangerous. Between the lack of air, unfiltered radiation, and threat of poison gas fumes from Uranus, it’s not a nice place to be. It doesn’t help that, in the future, humans continue to pummel each other with brightly-colored laser beams. Yes, strategy and adventure games alike have accepted the fact that the future, like the past, will be filled by war. While these two genres approach the mayhem from slightly different perspectives, what if there was a way to combine the personal approach of adventure games with the deep tactics of strategy games? Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity hopes to answer that question, as this title hopes to combine the personal approach of adventure games with the deep tactics of strategy games. What a coincidence!

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity looks and sounds like an indie game, which in this case is not a compliment. Not that this is a huge issue, but space games are known for some pretty spectacular graphics, and indie games are no exception to this rule. So it comes as a bit of a downer when a title comes with more simplistic graphics. Shattered Origins is populated with low-resolution, blurry textures, from the ships to the asteroids to the backgrounds: nothing looks crisp or detailed. The ship models have decent variety, though, and the weapon effects are acceptable. The explosions are underwhelming balls of fire, and you’ll never get peppered with enemy debris during an intense firefight. The sound design is typical for a small team: while the fully voiced dialogue is commendable, its quality is below average and very foreign (especially in the tutorial). The odd background music is not really appropriate for the space setting, either. Overall, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the graphics and sound of Shattered Origins, but they certainly didn’t impress me.

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity has you shooting people who are colored “red” on your HUD. The main part of the game is the campaign, which follows the Guardians as they take on various threats throughout the universe. The game utilizes a star map to jump between maps (which have little effect on in-game tactics, just offering more or less asteroids) and complete primary and secondary objectives. These missions are generally clear with on-screen arrows displaying where to go, although I found these hints to be buggy at times: directional arrows drastically swapped sides of the screen or pointed in a confusing, incorrect direction (see this video for an example). Disorientation is increased further by the lack of a mini-map or sector layout diagram. The campaign is full of constant interruptions about new missions and incoming enemy units, and the objectives are presented in a very linear manner. The universe of Shattered Origins does not feel dynamic or life-like, unlike most space adventure games: it’s just you and the enemies, and there is no trading or mining to supplement your combat-oriented missions. This also means that destroying enemies doesn't give you additional income by selling their cargo. All of the missions are combative in nature, involving a battle against evil red ships. However, there is the occasional mini-game, like tower defense or arcade games, to break up the strategy and combat elements, but they are only mildly interesting. After you are finished with the campaign, you can try out one map at a time in the skirmish mode, or hold out against waves of enemies in survival. There is no multiplayer in Shattered Origins, though, as the game is purely a single player affair. The tutorial does a decent job teaching new players the controls and mechanics of the game.

Your home base is a gigantic cruiser, which is where the real-time strategy portion of Shattered Origins takes place. The resource of choice in the future is crystal, automatically collected once you click on the “mining operations” icon (which you will need to do again once each asteroid runs out: slightly annoying, but designed so you simply can't let the game run overnight). Crystal is used for everything (ships, research, buildings, upgrades, repair), which results in a ton of waiting for resources to slowly trickle in while nothing else happens. I can’t remember the last time I simply sat in my chair, doing nothing, for so long while “playing” a game: resource collection takes entirely too long, and since everything in the game uses crystal, I just left the room and let the game run for an hour, raced up the tech tree, and built a huge fleet. Seriously. All you have to do is come in everyone once in a while and press the “mining operations” button to send out a new probe. You can hold production or research for a temporary income bonus, which is odd considering you can “hold” production (and benefit from the increased revenue) even if you aren’t actually producing anything. You also have to start over after every mission, rebuilding all of your cruiser components, even if you are on the same cruiser as before: that makes absolutely no sense to me.

With all that crystal you amassed, you can spend it on several things. The first is additions to your cruiser that allow for ship construction, mining, and research. Shattered Origins has a small variety of ships to choose from, ranging small “small and fast” to “big and powerful”. Since there is no population cap (apparently there are an infinite amount of pilots on the cruiser…lucky you!), you can simply wait and build to your heart’s content, constructing an insurmountable force. The research tree gives you multiple paths to choose from to access the game’s twenty or so techs, but not really: you still must discover almost all of the techs (even if you know your overall strategy is not going to use them) to advance up the tree. Shattered Origins offers few strategic decisions (especially if you left the game running like I suggested): just choosing between building a new ship or conducting research or constructing the occasional required cruiser component. The combination of slow resource collection and limited options for those resources makes Shattered Origins an uninteresting strategy game.

What is interesting, however, are the ship upgrades you can research and then place on your ships: there are a number of weapons and abilities to choose from, which can alter the tactics you’ll employ. Still, there’s only around ten options in all, so the possibilities are limited. While you can repair ships from space, there is no “repair all” button to quickly fix your entire fleet at once, so you must cycle through each vessel individually: a bit of a time waster, but at least it gives you something to do while you wait for the resources to accumulate. You do have to dock each ship that you want to upgrade with new parts, however, and there is no “dock” command to make the AI do it, as this action must be performed manually (complete with repetitive cutscenes as each craft enters and exits the hanger). Pilot experience upgrades, though, can be allocated in space, upgrading weapon, fire rate, or repair values.

What sets Shattered Origins apart from a typical space strategy game is the ability to directly control any ship in your fleet, much like a space adventure title. This is easily the best feature of the game. Since the upgrades are ship-specific (a product of the tedious system described earlier), each ship is different and each pilot has independent experience levels, making for a varied fleet instead of the same ship fifteen times over. There is a distinct difference controlling a level 1 ship compared to a level 5. Shattered Origins is controlled using the mouse (reminiscent of Freelancer); it’s a bit touchy, but generally a functional method. Spacebar is used to move, which means there is no incremental engine control: it’s all or nothing, which is extremely odd. It’s like the only way to drive your car is to floor it or not touch the accelerator at all. As you can imagine, this makes for less than precise control. Left-clicking shoots, and you can even turn on an aim assist that locks on to an enemy once you start shooting (anyone true gamer should immediately turn this off).

Your ships have health (called “stability”) that, when lowered, reduces the effectiveness of weapons and abilities. There is also a cool-down for weapons and abilities that prevents you from constantly using high-level items. Shattered Origins has very superficial combat: coupled with the lack of subtle engine control, there is no system-specific damage or directional shields (like, say, in Starpoint Gemini), so it’s simply point and shoot until they die. Enabling aim assist makes combat a trivial, oversimplified effort. Feedback is also poor: you can’t tell if you are actually hitting the enemy until their health drops significantly and they start to smoke. AI is decent enough (although since the battles are so arcade-like, it’s hard to tell how sophisticated it may be), and your allies will do a good job engaging the enemy. You can issue some orders to your friends (attack, follow, patrol, hold), but Shattered Origins lacks more advanced options like formations (and the aforementioned dock order) common in real-time strategy games. With bland combat, tedious repairs, and limited strategic options, Shattered Origins falls short of its promise.

Shattered Origins: Guardians of Unity is a neat idea buried under questionable design issues or limited features, an all-too-common problem with indie games. The thought of combining real-time strategy games and combat-focused space adventure is certainly intriguing, but Shattered Origins falls short for a couple of reasons. First, the combat is shallow: the lack of location-specific damage, advanced shields, and incremental engine control makes for bland fighting with little tactics (especially if you choose to enable aim assist). I really like the ability to switch between ships at any time, allowing you to take control of the most powerful or most vulnerable, but the orders for your allies are limited (although the AI does a good job engaging enemy ships effectively). You can perform ship repair and pilot upgrades in space, but new components must be installed manually by flying each ship to the hanger; a “dock” command would alleviate some of the tedium here. Some upgrades imbue neat abilities, so there is definitely some fun to be had outfitting and customizing your fleet. Your strategic options are a bit restricted, however: just some buildings and research paths to choose from as you encounter steadily more difficult foes. The campaign offers linear, scripted objectives and no freedom through trade, mining, or exploration options. Resource collection takes way too long, which results in a lot of staring at the screen (or going to grab something to eat) while crystal accumulates at a glacially slow rate. The skirmish and survival modes round out the single-player-only package. In the end, Shattered Origins takes a couple of incomplete game components and combines them to make an incomplete game.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword Review

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword, developed by SiCh Studio and Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Firearms and grenades are balanced well, large online battles can incorporate allied AI units under human command, town management, new quests, reasonable $15 price
The Not So Good: Challenging difficulty increased further with firearm-wielding peasants, lateral changes to single player campaign, incomplete post-battle loot, must hire all the mercenaries you can afford at a tavern, still lacks competitive and/or cooperative campaigns, same uncoordinated battle AI
What say you? A notable standalone modification to the fantastic historical role-playing action game: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

As technology progresses, military tactics must adapt. The use of gunpowder on the battlefield had a significant effect on how infantry was utilized, as the powerful (albeit slow) firearms could devastate opposing forces if used appropriately. Previous iterations of Mount & Blade focused on mounted and sword-based combat (it’s in the title, people!) that was prevalent in earlier ages, but now technology has caught up with the series in a new standalone expansion: With Fire and Sword. Replacing the fantasy setting with Eastern Europe and introducing more options for ranged combat, will this title provide enough value for new and veteran players alike?

As you might expect in an expansion, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword features incremental upgrades, mostly involving the new additions the historical settings and extra weapons have triggered. The real-world towns you’ll visit do not have any distinctive features (like specific buildings, but they do exhibit more variety and detail than in previous Mount & Blade efforts. The campaign map looks the same, though: if the cities weren’t named after real places, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Unit detail for the new units is nice: some troops are easily identified as belonging to a particular faction based on looks alone, which helps in the heat of battle. Generally the same sound effects are utilized (except for the new weapons, obviously) and there is the recognizable music from previous titles plus some new period-specific offerings. Overall, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword features reasonable improvements in graphics and sound for a standalone expansion.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword exchanges the fantasy setting of the medieval combat role-playing game with a historical context and more modern, 17th century weapons. The game starts with a more traditional selection of attributes, rather than the question-based stat generation of previous Mount & Blade titles. The eastern-European setting doesn’t really do anything for me personally, but it might matter to some to fight with and against historical figures and nations. The campaign does include additional quests, including a main story that offers very simple diplomatic options with opposing nations (peace or war only). There are also multiple endings to encounter, increasing the replay value of the campaign. The game does not include cooperative or competitive online campaigns (still), though. Thankfully, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword retains the “just another guy” approach of the previous games as the multi-nation war goes on around you. Your character is not the central figure in the game, just another person who might influence the general outcome of the conflict. I like that more realistic approach.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword gives you options for upgrading cities under your jurisdiction (gained by doing nice things for the various lords in each nation). All of these improvements, from arsenals to mills to academies, will enhance relations or tax income. You can also hire blacksmiths to produce high-level (meaning very expensive) weapons and armor. You can even commission a trade caravan to carry goods between cities. The options are nice, and give you yet another thing to do in the game. Unlike previous efforts, the ability to recruit basic infantry from villages is no longer available; instead, you must hire mercenaries from taverns in cities or rare camps placed on the campaign map. While this provides battle-ready units, it’s also quite expensive. If you choose the tavern option, then you are required to hire all of the available mercenaries you can afford, even if you would only like two or three of them. For a game that offers good flexibility, this limitation is puzzling. However, you can now outfit rank-and-file soldiers with weapons and armor purchased or picked-up during battle (instead of just your hero units), so that allows for improvements over time. Taking enemy cities can be hard, so Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword gives you some additional options. You can prepare the ladders for an invasion attempt as before, or negotiate with the opposition, poison the water supply (to decrease morale), demolish a wall (if you have a high enough engineer attribute), wait for a better day, or leave. While there are a couple of new orders to issue your troops, most conflicts involve the AI just doing what it wants as the orders don't have options for engaging specific foes for a coordinated attack.

Clearly, the most significant addition in Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is the fire, in the form of muskets, pistols, and grenades. I found these weapons to be balanced quite well: they are very powerful, typically taking down an enemy in a single shot, but require long reload times. If you are using a musket, you must reload it while standing still, too, making you a sitting duck for enemy units. You can see why volley fire from organized lines was used during the time period. A pistol on horseback is quickly becoming my preferred method of engaging the enemy, since you can reload while on the run. Grenades are excellent at dislodging a group of closely spaced units, but are quite expensive to purchase.

The difficulty has certainly been ramped in up With Fire and Sword, as a couple of peasants with muskets can easily take your hero down with two successful shots. I had to resort to using the money cheat to afford the number of troops required to defeat the entry-level looters and deserters, and looting a village is quite difficult thanks to the proliferation of firearms among the residents. While the campaign map AI is smart, the battle AI hasn’t improved: enemy soldiers are still a mess, blindly charging towards the nearest enemy unit instead of utilizing formations and tactics and routinely getting stuck on bridges and other chokepoints. Judicious use of the battlefield commands is necessary to keep your units in line. I am disappointed by the limitations of post-battle loot: the game randomly allows you access to some, but not all, of the equipment used by the enemy after victory. Hey, if the peasants had muskets, then I want all of their muskets after I defeat them!

Warband introduced massive, sixty-four-player online mayhem (organized online battles are a sight to behold), and the action gets even more intense in Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword. New in the game is the “captain” mode, where you have a number of AI soldiers under your command. This can result in some truly huge online battles where death comes early and often, although it would be much more enjoyable if the new commands were better. The remainder of the online modes is retained for your online gaming enjoyment, resulting in well-balanced gaming value.

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword provides good value for an inexpensive standalone expansion. The major improvement in the game are firearms, and they are balanced well: they are powerful, routinely delivering one-shot kills, but require long reload sequences and aren’t effective in melee combat. A cavalryman with a pistol is a force to be reckoned with. Firearms significantly increase the difficulty of the game (despite the same iffy AI): a handful of peasants (or other low-level troops) armed with muskets can easily take down your hero (I resorted to the money cheat early and often to afford enough mercenaries for human shields). I’d like to be able to take all of their muskets (and other weapons) after battle, though, but the post-battle loot is not all-inclusive. Restricting recruiting of allies to taverns and camps means necessary troops are more expensive, making a loss in a battle even more painful on the pocketbook. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword includes more siege options in addition to simply storming the castle, and you can queue city improvements to increase income or relations in villages you control. The historical setting alone doesn’t really make much of a difference in terms of campaign mechanics, but the single-player campaign (sorry, kids, no online campaigns) does come with more quests and a story with multiple endings. The pleasing chaos of Warband’s online sixty-four-player battles returns with a new mode, where you can issue simple orders to AI subordinates for truly massive confrontations. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is more varied than Warband (and at half the initial price), so fans and newcomers alike should check out the latest entry in the franchise.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Cargo: The Quest For Gravity Review

Cargo: The Quest For Gravity, developed by Ice-pick Lodge and published by Viva Media.
The Good: Variety of machines to build using free-form construction or predefined blueprints, oddly unique theme and resource collection, believable physics, import custom music and define dance moves for naked midgets
The Not So Good: Really vague objectives with little direction in a linear story mode, tedious mini-games, limited methods of generating fun
What say you? Part vehicle design game, part weird action-adventure, this unique title offers a distinctive setting with limited long-term variety: 5/8

Personally, there have not been enough games that feature vehicle design intended to force naked midgets to have fun. This is really an untapped niche of computer gaming that's been ignored for far too long. Thank goodness for Cargo: The Quest for Gravity, an amalgam of various genres (I think) where you harvest “fun,” gathered by causing excitement in the form of undue harm to the aforementioned naked midgets, and then use that fun to capture floating landmarks. Why are they floating? Because the Earth's gravity has gone missing, of course. It makes total sense! So come along with me as we build some helicopters out of spare parts, drag naked midgets behind us, and reel in Big Ben from the stratosphere. Sounds like a normal Saturday afternoon to me.

Cargo: The Quest For Gravity features whimsical graphics that fits the odd theme of the game well. The cartoon setting is filled with bright colors with varied, detailed textures. The various landmarks that drop in from orbit are easily identifiable and add another element of peculiarity to the game. The game’s vehicles are composed of steampunk parts that further increase Cargo’s odd nature. The main protagonist has a very detailed model, whereas the rest of the characters are less so, especially the disjointed “gods” (or whatever they are) confined to hanging tracks. As for the sound design, Cargo has fanciful music that obviously works quite well in this game. The voice acting ranges from acceptable to painful (a product of the game’s non-English heritage), although I found the buddy sayings to be consistently amusing. Overall, the odd nature of Cargo shines through in the game’s graphics and sound design.

Cargo: The Quest For Gravity has you grounding the world’s landmarks by using “fun,” generated by making naked midgets enjoy themselves. The game’s story mode traverses four seasons on a single map, and you’ll spend about two hours in each setting. This mode features scripted, linear events (seriously reducing replay value) and very unclear objectives: Cargo lacks a minimap or on-screen icon to show objective locations, and the directions are poor at best. “Swim to a volcano and turn them on” means “build a submarine near a crack in the ice and search underwater for drowning midgets and then carry them to two different underwater volcanoes you can’t see because of the short draw distance and perform two mini-games.” I was terribly confused most of the time, and I did not enjoy any of the mini-games, which I found tedious and annoying. The laborious cutscenes can be skipped, but ultimately the story mode is not that enjoyable. Cargo also has a sandbox mode where you are given an unlimited amount of vehicle parts and can build to your heart’s content. While the construction aspect of Cargo is enjoyable, there is no goal in the sandbox mode other than to make a bunch of crazy ass flying machines. Cargo has an online high score list to track who has generated the most “fun,” but lacks cooperative multiplayer. You can import your own music (one minute selections) and then customize the dance moves the naked midgets will use while they have their “fun.” The restricted nature of the story mode, however, makes Cargo a single-play experience.

There clearly isn’t enough fun in the world (even when most of it is floating in the stratosphere), so it’s up to you to make some. How so? By forcing naked midgets called “buddies” to have fun and excitement, which makes them explode into a bunch of flowers (obviously) and awards you points. There are several ways of doing this: the first is to simply kick them using the right mouse button. Also, you can collect musical notes and then play a song they can dance to. Or, you can attach buddies to your vehicle and do stunts. Earning “fun” lets you bring down objects from orbit to make more buddies (and advance the level) or purchase new parts for your vehicles. You can also pick up and throw debris into sinkholes to make more buddies to kick around for “fun”. Cargo requires you to balance using “fun” between construction and objectives, so there is a small amount of planning here.

Vehicle design is the strongest feature of Cargo. “Fun” can be used to purchase new parts from the “gods,” or you can find them scattered around the map in crates. There are basic cockpits that you then attach additional parts to, eventually (hopefully) forming cars, boats, helicopters, and submarines. Parts include engines, propellers, sails, balloons, wings, pontoons, platforms, tires, tails, crates, and joints to connect them all together. It’s initially a little confusing attaching things together correctly (joints must be used between most objects, and connections are only allowed at highlighted places), but with practice it becomes second nature. If you don’t want to actually design custom craft, you can choose from a number of predesigned blueprints to accomplish the various objectives Cargo throws at you. Impressively, Cargo features credible physics not matter how esoteric your craft may be. While the vehicle design is certainly enjoyable, the rest of Cargo: The Quest For Gravity has little in the way of replay value.

Cargo: The Quest For Gravity consists of two distinct parts: vehicle design and whatever you want to call the rest of the game (action-adventure-platformer?). The vehicle design half of Cargo is good fun, as the game allows you to create boats, submarines, helicopters, and cars using a wide variety of parts and almost complete freedom in your design specifications. It’s a bit confusing putting all the pieces together at first, but soon you’ll be adept at creating odd vehicles worthy of elegant air/sea/land travel. Cargo features good physics that result in plausible performance, an important aspect of the game. If you don’t feel like attaching various parts together, there are a number of pre-designed blueprints that can be used to quickly make a vehicle in a pinch. The point of the vehicles is to complete the game objectives and assist in generating “fun.” You can tow the naked midgets behind your vehicle, or kick them, or throw them off a cliff, or play a song they can dance to; any of these will reward “fun” you can spend on new vehicle parts or grabbing landmarks down from orbit. Problem is, you eventually run out of things to do because the methods of generating fun are limited. The linear story mode features frustrating mini-games (required to advance) that I did not enjoy in the least. The sandbox mode does give you an essentially unlimited amount of parts to design any craft with, but other than that, its inclusion has no point. While Cargo allows you to import custom music and then choreograph the dance moves for your songs, the game lacks cooperative multiplayer. Cargo: The Quest For Gravity is definitely unique and offers a couple of good ideas, but falls short of true gaming longevity.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sanctum Review

Sanctum, developed and published by Coffee Stain Studios.
The Good: Mostly unrestricted path design, good selection of defensive towers, large variety of enemies support various tactics, two-player cooperative mode, weapons level up with experience
The Not So Good: Limited personal weaponry that overheat quickly, only three maps with few differences and repetitive tactics, cumbersome first-person construction, no tense time limit when building, checkpoints don't save after every level even if you exit the game, unchanging wave composition and fixed available turrets in single player mode
What say you? A tedious tower defense game with first person shooting and flexible maze layouts involving many turrets and diverse enemies: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

There are alien invaders on your doorstep! What will you do? What will you do? Obviously, create an elaborate maze populated with powerful turrets to kill them all! But what if all that tower defense is not enough? Well, sometimes you just have to grab a rifle and do it yourself. That’s the premise of Sanctum, a marriage of tower defense and first person shooter. Does this marriage result in unending bliss, or horrible divorce?

Sanctum uses the Unreal engine for its graphics rendering, and the game looks quite nice across the board. The aliens all have nice designs, complete with glowing lights of life (at least until you murder them) and good animations. The towers also are distinctive in their appearance and easy to identify at a distance; the game also employs subtle shading on the base of each turret to indicate its level, which is a nice visual cue. The weapon effects are also great fun to look at as they dispose of the invaders. Despite there only being three levels to choose from, each map looks great and serves as a nice backdrop for your killing. The ragdoll physics are also effective in a visual sense, and it’s cool to see all the alien bodies pile up. Sound is a standard affair: appropriate weapon effects with a mix of subtle voice announcing the next incoming wave of enemies and very subtle background music you hardly notice. For the relatively limited amount of variety present in Sanctum, the game’s graphics do look good.

Sanctum is a tower defense game that allows you to jump into the action and defend your shiny, glowing core from a first person perspective. The game only features three maps, and the towers you can use on each map are locked. In addition, you will encounter the same exact enemies during the same waves for each map, seriously reducing the replay value of the game. There is more randomization and openness in cooperative multiplayer, so you can use the game's server browser to find other players (or your Steam friends list). Sanctum has four levels of difficulty, but they are inconsistent: “normal” on the first map is significantly easier than the other two (making me think the first is meant as a tutorial of sorts). Your progress can only be preserved using auto-saves, which is fine (I guess), except that Sanctum only saves after every other level (I think). Not only that, but the game won’t save your progress if you are between automated saves when you quit the game. That’s really terrible. You are also given only one save slot, yet another limitation that has no justification. The tutorial is decent enough, and the encyclopedia (accessed when the game is paused) shows descriptions and tips for the next wave of enemies: quite helpful.

You are given up to eight towers, as different maps give you access to different towers, reducing your strategic options a bit. One of the strong points of Sanctum is the ability to freely place blocks almost anywhere on the map, allowing you to construct a maze for the alien invaders instead of simply placing towers along a pre-determined path. That’s pretty cool. You aren’t allowed to block access to the core you are defending, but the aliens will pick the quickest path to the goal, so you can predict which way they will head. You must place your blocks and turrets in first person, even though there is an overhead view available that would make things a lot easier. There is no time limit for building; while this might appeal to more casual gamers, not having any pressure makes Sanctum a bit too relaxed between waves. I’d like to see a time-limited mode that adds bonus points to your score. The different towers are appropriate for the range of aliens you will encounter: basic guns, random lasers, powerful lightning, long-range mortars, anti-air, and speed reducers. You can also place teleporters that allow you to quickly traverse the somewhat large maps.

Another high point of Sanctum is the twelve varieties of aliens you will need to deal with on a personal basis. They come with a range of abilities, from the typical grunts to big guys to small guys (found in large numbers) to airborne units. More specialized (meaning difficult) units include those that can only be damage on the head or back, those that become stronger with every hit (requiring the use of slower, more powerful weapons), some that are invincible for a short time, some with erratic movement, and fast units that are fragile or only run in a straight path. Each alien type has an optimal tower recipe for defeat, and part of Sanctum is figuring out this formula.

A disappointing aspect of Sanctum is the first person shooter mode, ironically something that sets it apart from more traditional tower defense games. First, you are only given four guns: an assault rifle, sniper rifle, freeze gun, and shotgun that shoots three shells at once. You have unlimited ammunition, but all of the weapons overheat very quickly and require significant cool-down times before they can be used again. This means relying on your weapons is a bad idea until you have leveled them up using funds acquired between waves. However, weapon upgrades are very expensive, so it’s almost always a better idea to upgrade six turrets instead of one gun.

Because of the limited weapon options, a very viable tactic is to simply hold down the fire button and pause between cool down periods: not exactly stimulating gameplay. You can perch yourself up on the blocks you have constructed (since the enemies will never go up there), though you can do down into the trenches if you wish; you can’t get hurt if you are hit by an enemy, but it does knock you around, preventing you from firing for a couple of seconds. Sanctum becomes pretty repetitive with only three maps with selected available towers and four guns that are only slightly useful. The game would be more entertaining in a cooperative fashion, but the developers have put up roadblocks here by not including matchmaking capabilities. Sanctum also lacks time acceleration, usually not a big deal since the action is intense once the aliens arrive, but some levels have a lot of waiting for the enemies to reach your maze of death. Having the same resource bonuses between levels, same wave composition, and same available turrets means reduced replay value in the long run, which makes Sanctum an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling innovation in the tower defense genre.

A growing theme of the onslaught of indie games I review, Sanctum is another title that’s a good idea executed with several shortcomings. The game does feature a lot of towers with varied abilities to deal with each of the game’s unique enemies. However, there are some restrictions: you can only use certain towers in each of the game’s three levels (as determined by the developers), and the incoming aliens will always be the same for a specific wave number (at least in single player mode). An excellent aspect of Sanctum is the free maze design: you can place blocks anywhere (as long as you don’t cut off a path to the end; that would result in an easy win), giving you great flexibility in dealing with the incoming enemies. However, you must build your defenses in first person mode (despite having an overhead view, which is used only for teleportation) and there is no time limit to keep the pressure on. Once the waves start coming in, you have only three weapons with limited ammunition (technically, they overhead very quickly) and expensive upgrades, so you really have to rely on your tower layouts to be successful as the weapons are really a last resort. Sanctum does support cooperative play for two people using the server browser, which does open up all of the towers on every level. Finally, you can’t save your progress manually, and Sanctum only saves every couple of levels, so if you exit the game between saves, you’ll have to do some levels all over again. Sanctum needs more well-rounded features to stand out and be successful, despite it’s relatively unique combination of first person shooting and tower defense.