Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 Review

Pro Cycling Manager 2011, developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: Tons of detailed content plus editors for even more, sponsor goals give direction, enjoyable multiplayer, time acceleration or fully simulated events speed things up, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: Overwhelmingly minor improvements, vague interface lacks tool-tips, no tutorials or strategy guide, poor sound design
What say you? The latest Tour de France tie-in is generally indistinguishable from its annual predecessors: 5/8

The Tour de France (or, in its native tongue, “L'État, c'est moi”) dominates obscure cable sports networks every July, bringing its special brand of doping-fueled pedal-to-pedal racing. As with most sports, a computer game adaptation is inevitable, and Pro Cycling Manager returns with its eleventh entry for 2011 (actually using the year it was released in the title…what a novel idea!). This particular sport is more strategic than action-oriented, as you must position your riders in the best place for their attributes and the course layout to win the race. I last played the series in 2008, so I say it’s time for an update, especially with the promise of 3-D riders, better AI, and an improved interface. Does Pro Cycling Manager 2011 capture the yellow jersey, or crash in a massive pileup?

The most appealing aspect of Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is the graphics, which look spectacular. The riders are animated well and look almost photo-realistic, with identifiable team colors and superb textures. More significant are the tracks, which are filled to the brim with objects like trees, power lines, buildings, mountains, authentic distance markers, and all the other things you see along the Tour. The crowds come to life as you pass by, almost making you feel like you’re actually watching a real race. One complaint: riders seem to float around each other when passing, especially laterally, but other than that, the graphics are excellent. All of this 3-D splendor comes at a price, however, as load times for the races are a bit lengthy. The sound design is much less impressive, with sporadic, repetitive commentary that occasionally says rider names and terrible generic music doesn’t fit theme at all; I was pretty disappointed with this part of the game. Still, the graphics clearly offset any shortcomings involved with the sound design.

You can’t fault Pro Cycling Manager 2011 for a lack of content, although, to be fair, most of the content has been around for several years. The game is officially licensed, which means you are going to get the real riders and real teams on the real stages. There are several ways to cycle through the game (see what I did there?). The first is the career mode, where you are the general manager of a team of your choice, responsible with securing sponsorship, interacting with riders, balancing the checkbook, hiring staff, and scouting new cyclists. You sponsor has specific goals they want reached in every race (win, top five, points leader), which is great for figuring out what’s appropriate success for your organization; nobody expects you to win the Tour de France with the worst team in the game, so having realistic goals for each team is nice. The actual riders are rated in thirteen areas, from mountain performance to recovery and acceleration. These are used to determine rider type (fighter, climber, stage racer) and which contract type is most appropriate for their level of skill (from leader to youth). Training and healing your riders is done automatically, the quality of which is determined by the rating of your staff. Entering races and marching up the rankings while appeasing your sponsors can be fun.

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 doesn’t stop at the career mode, however. If you are in for a shorter experience, you can play single seasons where you can set the calendar and points system, one of sixty-five single tours (confusingly called stage races), a single stage from a stage race, of which there are over five hundred, eighty classic races, or seven track events with seven different modes where you control the rider directly. You can also alter the bike equipment used by your cyclists, if a particular stage is more in the mountains or flat. Multiplayer is a fun feature of the game, allowing you to play single stages or entire seasons online against human competition. You can even create your own riders, teams, and stages using the included editors. While Pro Cycling Manager 2011 has exhaustive features, one thing it lacks is a tutorial. Conspicuously absent (especially since there was a tutorial in the 2008 version of the game, the game offers no guidance to new players on how to play the game or what strategies to use. What is a competitive energy level? When should I sprint or attack? The game nor the manual never tell you, so unless you are a cycling aficionado, the strategic learning curve for Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is steep for newcomers.

Cycle time! You are given three options to simulate a stage: a quick simulation, a detailed simulation, or a 3-D race. For the simulation options, you can specify the race roles for each rider and specific instructions like ride in breakaways, sprint for the climber’s or points jersey, lead a teammate, or chase the breakaway. And then it’s just a matter of pressing the “next” button and scream at the terrible results for your team you had no influence on. The more hands-on approach is to play out the races in full 3-D glory. The interface is the same as before, with your riders listed along the left with icons to press to make orders, a side view of the route showing sprint locations and terrain, and times to the adjacent groups of riders. The interface needs some work, however, as there are hardly any tool-tips when you hover over things (what’s this yellow bar for?) and the pre-race strategies aren’t displayed for each rider. Remember who your sprinter was? You better, because the game isn’t going to tell you.

Basically, Pro Cycling Manager 2011 boils down to attacking at the right time (I think; again, no tutorial). Each rider has an overall energy level, plus ones for the extended efforts (so that’s what the yellow bar is for!) and attacks. You have to time when to attack, so you aren’t surrounded by riders who will impede your progress while having teammates help to keep you ahead. Each rider gets a semi-random in-game performance adjustment to make things a but more unpredictable, which I find to be an interesting feature. You don’t control any of the riders directly, but can adjust effort percentage and issue orders like keep position, relay, attack, counter-attack, sprint, follow, or protect. You’ll also need somebody to feed your teammates once or twice a stage. The race physics means you can’t go through other riders, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for blockers when starting to mount an attack. Time acceleration is available to speed through those dull portions of the race (some would argue that’s 100% of the time), and the AI plays the game well and attacks frequently and effectively. Still, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. Is Pro Cycling Manager 2011 a good cycling simulation? Yes. Was it a great cycling simulation already? Yes. And I can’t recommend spending money on almost entirely the same product we see year after year. I know I would have regretted paying for this newest version considering I have one of the predecessors.

Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is peppered with incremental changes that add up to a mediocre annual edition. The bottom line is that most of the content was already present three years ago, negating the need to spend $40 more on a supposedly new version. Just looking at the numbers from my previous review hits you with a lot of “the same”: the same number of races (though there are a ton of them), the same career mode, the same rider commands, the same multiplayer, the same editors. The interface is identical as well, and it still lacks tool-tips for most of the small icons and bars, in addition to leaving off important things like rider types and contract specifications during a race (so you could remember who the team leader and sprinters are, for example). The AI is apparently improved, although I couldn’t see a major difference, being a cycling novice. The tutorials have actually been removed completely, leaving new players befuddled as to proper cycling strategy. The lone bright spot of Pro Cycling Manager 2011 is the graphics, which are outstanding. Still, I would imagine few people would want to spend $40 on upgraded visuals when the rest of the game is exactly the same. In the end, Pro Cycling Manager 2011 falls into the pit that so many annual sports titles do: the changes (or lack thereof, in this particular case) do not justify a full price.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony Review

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony, developed and published by Final Form Games.
The Good: Constant action with simple controls, varied ships and enemies, well-adjusted range of difficulty, up to four players on the same computer, nice retro graphics and music
The Not So Good: Lacks online co-op, short five-mission story-based campaign, content locked from easier difficulty levels
What say you? This action shoot ‘em up has chaotic fun and retro charm, but it’s short and needs online play: 6/8

Last Summer, I visited Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America. As a nearby resident of the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the continental United States, it’s interesting how desolate and depressing these early settlements were, surrounded by disease and eventually unfriendly neighbors. History shall repeat itself as we colonize other planets, and that’s the premise of Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony: those hardy English, running out of places to colonize on Earth, reach out to Mars. In a scientifically accurate portrayal of solar system settlement, your task is to shoot the crap out of everything you see. See how much we’ve progressed in four hundred years?

The graphics of Jamestown are decidedly retro, and I feel this works well with the game. While I would like to see the excellent art style at a higher, crisper resolution, the detail is impressive and distinctive, from the backgrounds to the ship and enemy designs. Each level has a characteristic setting and enemy roster that differentiates itself from the others well. The explosions and weapon effects look nice as well, and the overall bedlam is pleasing to the senses. The sound effects are much the same: while combat is surprisingly subtle (especially firing bullets, but that’s probably on purpose so not to annoy), the music is a wonderful orchestral arrangement. Overall, I was pleased with the detailed art that Jamestown has to offer in the design of both the graphics and sound.

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony is a classic shmup (shoot ‘em up), where you and up to three friends can blast many an enemy. The game includes a very short story-based campaign consisting of only five levels, and each level takes only a couple of minutes to complete. That means you can breeze through the game in under thirty minutes, if you so choose. The thinking is that you’ll want to replay it at higher difficulty levels and with friends, but the lack of content is still undeniable. In addition, you have to beat previous levels at a specific difficulty level to unlock the later ones, so you might as well start out at the legendary level, then. Hey, when there are only five levels to choose from, at least let us play them at the difficulty we are most comfortable with. Speaking of difficulty, I found the five difficulty levels to cover the gamut from “trivially easy” to “insanely tough,” and everything in between. If you’ve chosen a level a bit too challenging, at least the game gives you partial points for completion. Those points can be spent to unlock things, like new ships, alternative game modes, and bonus levels. The twenty bonus levels are very difficult and usually quite short, involving a single objective like collecting rings or survival, so it’s ultimately just a minor distraction rather than a full-fledged gaming mode. Finally, Jamestown has co-op for four players, which would be fantastic except that you can’t play the game online. Online leaderboards are a small consolation for lacking online co-op, so the only people who will be able to enjoy this wonderful aspect of the game are those who have physical friends to play with.

Jamestown has four ship types that vary your primary and secondary weapons. I was most comfortable with the one you start out with, the beam ship, which has a good spread fire and secondary beam weapon for taking down large ships. The gunner ship lets you change the direction of the primary fire based on movement (and then keeps it aiming in that direction); this takes some practice, but it’s useful for powerful enemies placed on the sides. The charge ship (another personal favorite) shoots slow-moving torpedoes straight ahead, and the longer you wait between charge shots, the more powerful the torpedo. Finally, the bomber lets you detonate your bullets mid-flight; while the idea is nice, the basic fire is underpowered and I found that detonation took too much micromanaging to be worth the effort. All of the ships move pretty slow, making peripheral firing important. Overall, there’s something for everybody.

Jamestown can be controlled using the keyboard, mouse, or gamepad, allowing four people to crowd around the same computer screen. All methods have three buttons: fire, a special attack, and the vaunt. As enemies die, you should collect the coins they drop, which eventually allow you to enable vaunt mode. Here, you get a temporary shield, damage boost, and score multiplier. The vaunt mode is plenty useful when you are in a sticky situation, either with lots of incoming bullets or boss battles. I like the risk/reward of going for coins to earn the shield and damage bonuses as well.

There is a large range of enemy types encountered in Jamestown, all with varied attacks and behaviors that must be dealt with. The mixture keeps up throughout the five-mission campaign, keeping you on your toes as you deal with new opponents each level. Enemy bullets are usually easy to see, and Jamestown is simply a matter of killing enemies, collecting coins, and deftly avoiding incoming fire while using your secondary weapons and vaunt mode. You explode if you are hit in the middle of your ship, and you are given a couple of continues during each level before it’s game over. The chaos balance is done well: the action is frantic but it never feels overwhelming or unfair, and you can always tell what’s going on (and why you just died).

Jamestown is a polished, enjoyable shoot ‘em up that falls a couple of features short of excellence. The straightforward controls make the game easy to pick up and play, and the vaunt system, where collecting coins from destroyed enemy units triggers a shield and damage bonus. Using the vaunt at the right time can mean the difference between defeating a boss (or other tough area) and having to restart. The four ship types allow advanced players to try out some alternative strategies (although I always went back to the more straightforward beginner ship, though the torpedo charge ship was a close second), and the enemies are quite varied and require varied tactics. There are only five short levels in the story-based campaign, and the later missions require you to complete previous levels at a higher difficulty level, discouraging novices in the process. The twenty brief bonus levels offer varied challenges but limited replay value. Four-player co-op is undeniably fun, but since you can’t enjoy it online, it’s appeal is somewhat limited unless you have people called “friends” (I know, I’ve never heard of those either). Still, for $10, this retro game will provide a cost-appropriate amount of fun for shmup fans.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Review

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, developed and published by Capcom.
The Good: Slick mechanics with assorted strategies and forgiving control input, many characters with varied special moves, lag-free online play with comprehensive modes, pleasing presentation runs very smoothly, competent AI with assorted difficulty levels
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, level selection has no impact on fighting, no repercussions for players who quit online matches mid-game, Games for Windows Live required
What say you? The classic fighting franchise returns to the PC with an excellent, accessible package: 8/8

The two most famous fighting franchises in video gaming history are Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and since Mortal Kombat routinely ignores the PC (with the fourth version being the last to appear on computers 14 years ago), screw it. My first/only exposure to Street Fighter was the second version on the Super Nintendo, where my friend routinely defeated me because I would just press random buttons. Now that I am older and wiser, I can perform more complex strategies like pressing random buttons more quickly. While the original Street Fighter IV was released on the PC in 2009, we missed out on the “Super” version thanks to pirates (because piracy never occurs on the consoles, right?). In any event, let’s get your hadouken on and see if the latest version of the venerable fighting series is worth your time and money.

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition looks and sounds good. The character models are detailed with great, fluid animations when moving and fighting, exhibiting great reactions to a solid kick to the head. The textures could be a bit more detailed on a couple of the characters (especially the chests of the shirtless men…not that I look at…shirtless…men…moving on), but each character is easily identifiable by looks alone, which is good since people will be swapping positions early and often. The backgrounds are varied and vibrant without being distracting, and the special effects for the different combat moves are colorful and effective. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition is not taxing on your system, either: I was able to crank everything up to the maximum levels and skill pull in 100 frames per second in the benchmark, although the game can drop frames if your system is struggling to keep up with the action. I can’t use my native screen resolution (1280 x 1024), though. The sound design is pleasing to the ear, complete with chaotic battle effects, good voice acting for each of the characters (including an appropriately over-the-top announcer), and suitable music for the intense fights. Overall, I was pleased but not overwhelmed by the graphics and sound in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition.

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition is a fighting game, where you fight fighters willing to fight. The matches are quick, fast-paced events that can be enjoyed a number of ways. First is the classic arcade mode, where you take one hearty warrior against a series of foes; you can customize the difficulty, number of rounds, time limit, and whether you want to get interrupted by fight requests from online players (pretty cool integration, and you will get constantly bombarded with challenges). There are also versus battles, where you can take on the computer or another person on the same PC in a single match. The twenty or so maps never impact the battle in any way. Beyond simply battles is the challenge mode, where you are offered over twenty trials for each character that teach basic moves and suggested combos while unlocking icons and titles you can display online (the time attack and survival modes from the original Street Fighter IV have been removed, oddly). Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition also features a training mode against dummy opponents (or ones that fight back, if you choose), where you can analyze your input and see why you can’t land that Illusion Spark. However, the training mode does not explain basic strategies or non-specific moves (like focus attacks or throws, for example). Finally, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition features an enhanced replay channel so you can marvel at people much better at the game than you.

Online play, obviously a huge draw for any fighting game, comes with plenty of tasty options in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Regrettably, the game uses the always-annoying and patently unnecessary Games for Windows Live, but I must admit that I’ve had a relatively low number of problems (still more than zero, of course) with this use of the much-maligned software. The basic method of pummeling people online is through ranked matches, where you can engage people of similar skill levels. Thankfully, you can browse for opponents instead of having to rely on the always-terrible quick match system, and potential adversaries are displayed along with color-coded ping indicators and a computer system rating for maximum enjoyment. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition also includes endless matches, where a lobby of up to eight people take turns fighting the winner of the last match, and team games, where the lobby is split into two sides. Finally, there are tournaments that utilize a bracket-style system. Winning a match will earn you experience points (both overall and per-character), but even if you barely lose each round, you gain no experience online at all for a loss. Of course, experience isn’t actually used for anything other than matchmaking, so I suppose it’s actually OK, since, if you keep losing, you’ll be matched up against people of similar terrible skill. Speaking of being matched up, I'm not the greatest Street Fighter player, but every time (not exaggerating, seriously 100% of the time) that I came close to victory, my opponent would quit the game (probably alt-tabbing out of it, my guess), losing the connection so he wouldn't be charged with a loss (and I wouldn't get the win). Jerks. I'd like to get at least a tie and some experience since this happens with disturbing regularity. A final note: you don’t see your opponent’s character until both have been selected, a great feature that prevents picking the “counter” for a particular fighter. In all, the online options of Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition are quite robust and enjoyable.

Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition has thirty-nine characters, and you can thankfully play them all right from the start (though you can easily unlock new outfits and sayings simply by playing). I used a gamepad to play the game, although you can use a keyboard or a six-button arcade stick, too; in any case, you'll need six inputs for the array of punches and kicks the game offers (light, medium, and hard of each). There are similar actions among characters: most fighters either use quarter circles (down, down-right, right for example) or back-and-forth motions for their special moves, so it’s just a matter of learning which movements are used with which kicks and punches for each character. Each combatant has three special moves, a super combo, and two ultra combos (you pick your favorite to bring into battle) to compliment their basic attacks. There is seemingly good balance between the characters, since there are endless discussions online on which “tier” each character belongs to. Generally, fighting becomes intuitive once you get the basics down, but the game still allows for some advanced tactics.

What kind of advanced tactics, you say? Things like combos, which require good timing to pull off two (or more) moves in a row. You can also dash (which can cancel some moves), jump, taunt, block high or low, counter incoming attacks, and throw your opponent using both “light” buttons. Pressing both “medium” buttons will start a focus attack, which will block one enemy move, and then immediately attack and knock down your foe; they are easy to pull off and helpful to swing momentum in your favor. You can also perform more powerful special moves by using a portion of your super combo bat and pressing two punch or two kick buttons simultaneously. As you can see, there are a lot of options at your disposal, and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition strikes a great balance between accessibility and still having options for veteran players. The length of the battles is adjusted nicely: not too long, but not too short, and close contests with each player close to their demise are not uncommon. The AI is good without resorting to outright cheating (though they pull off super and ultra moves with near 100% accuracy, unlike a human opponent), and the game offers plenty of difficulty levels to provide a challenge at any skill level.

Fighting fans will be quite pleased with Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. The game starts with lots of unlocked characters, so everyone should be able to find at least a handful of fighters who appeal to them. Each combatant has three punches, three kicks, three special moves, a super combo, and an ultra combo to differentiate themselves. Add in combos, blocking, dashing, throwing, and more advanced moves like countering, focus attacks, and EX moves, and you have a lot of options at your disposal. And once you learn how to do a quarter-circle (and especially two in quick succession), performing almost all of the in-game moves is simple. Of course, executing them in the right order is the key to victory, which separates the veteran from the novice, but the lenient controls still allow for beginners to get in to the game. Still, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition is a bit intimidating to newcomers, especially when you try to take on experienced players online who actually know how to “cross up with a jumping hard punch into a focus attack dash cancel” (whatever that means). The AI puts up a good fight, but easier options are available for those who struggle against competent opposition. The arcade and versus modes are the typical fare, while the challenges will keep people busy for a while earning new outfits and testing new characters in the training mode. The online game, despite using the pure evil that is Games for Windows Live, is well done, complete with ranked matches, endless “winner stays on” games, team events, and bracket-style tournaments. You can also browse for opponents to find the player with the best connection (although lag was never an issue), but I'd like to have some consolation for players who quit the game right before I defeat them. In short (too late!), even if you are only mildly interested in the genre, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition is a great choice as one of the best fighting games ever made.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Virtua Tennis 4 Review

Virtua Tennis 4, developed and published by SEGA.
The Good: Enjoyable and approachable position-based gameplay, board game career mode with varied mini-games that earn experience, real-life players with many balanced play styles, competent AI opponents
The Not So Good: Simple controls lack depth and lead to few errant shots, online lag can significantly affect games, low replay value in career mode, can’t create a leveled-up custom player for exhibition or multiplayer matches
What say you? This arcade tennis sequel serves up satisfying content and gameplay for fans of the sport: 6/8

Summer! And that can mean only one sport: NFL lockout! Wait, no, I mean: baseball! Well, yeah, but baseball is boring and the season is excruciatingly long. So it must be: NASCAR! Yeah, but NASCAR only comes in the form of subscription-based iRacing on the PC, so that’s out. How about: women’s world cup soccer! Well, I don’t think there’s a dedicated game for that (surprisingly). So, finally we arrive at: tennis (or, as the Europeans call it, “rugby”). Yes, the gentlemen’s (and ladies’) sport ripe with enough grunting to compliment a good adult movie makes for solid computer gaming. Arguably the most renowned tennis series, Virtua Tennis, makes its third appearance on the PC (the second iteration skipped our valiant platform, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and when has it ever lead us wrong?)) in Virtua Tennis 4, featuring top players in digital form, a revamped career mode, and enhanced online play. Despite the fact that Word’s spell checker clearly does not think “virtua” is a real word, does Virtua Tennis 4 provide compelling tennis action, or drop the ball in straight sets?

The graphics and sound of Virtua Tennis 4 are good, but fall short of being great. The players look like their real-life counterparts, and the animations are generally done quite well, as you are never stuck in a movement. However, there are some noticeable transitions that lack fluidity when moving quickly across the court and lunging for the ball. The occasional slow motion effects are a little silly (bright green particles flying off the ball and lots of blurriness), but aren’t over the top. The courts and scoreboards are reasonable detailed, placing you in legal facsimiles (“London”, “New York”) of the world’s greatest stadiums. The camera allows you to choose the classic TV view or be perched over the shoulder of your player for a third-person playing perspective that’s quite immersive, if more difficult to use. The sound package is decent enough, with player-specific grunts and appropriate hitting sounds. Crowd reactions are also apt, and get your fired up for match point. The music is entirely generic and instantly forgettable. Overall, while Virtua Tennis 4 isn’t a graphical powerhouse, it gets the job done.

Virtua Tennis 4 is virtual tennis 4 you (see how that works?). You can start in practice mode, which offers bare tutorial instructions but less pressure than playing against the AI in a traditional match. Virtua Tennis 4 also includes an arcade mode where you encounter four professionals consecutively on four different courts (modeled after the major tennis events), and an exhibition mode where you can customize game length settings. Virtual Tennis 4 has pretty much all of the current tennis players you’ve heard of: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams (but not Serena), and Maria Sharapova, so no complaints here. Online play support is just OK: it starts with the evil that is Games for Windows Live, which offers both ranked and custom matches against human opponents. While you are waiting for the system to find you a challenger, you can play through the arcade mode: a nice feature that eliminates the boredom of waiting for others. Unfortunately, I had terrible problems with serious in-game lag, most likely caused by high ping between players (a consequence of a low player count, I would assume); it resulted in slow, 5 FPS games that made the matches unplayable. On top of this, you can’t quit a match to get away from a bad connection, so you simply have to suffer through it. Finally, any of the career mode’s mini-games are available to play against others on the same computer in party mode, but not online.

A big draw of Virtua Tennis 4 is the revamped world tour career mode. You create a young tennis novice, customize their appearance, and then make your way across a game board towards the region’s major event. You are given a set of tickets for each turn, like rolls of the dice, and choose one of them to dictate how many tiles to move across the board. This method is kind of cool and unique, and it’s much better than simply picking items from a menu. There is also a tiny bit of strategy planning your moves to land on the best tiles. What are on these tiles? Events (singles, doubles, special, tournament, and “fancy dress” that requires specific items of apparel to be worn) and eight training mini-games, mostly. The mini-games are varied and interesting, at least the first ten times you play them: you can shoot clay targets, score soccer goals, collect eggs, flip cards for poker hands, play in heavy wind, explode bombs, place walls, and collect coins. The mini-games do get a bit repetitive after a while, but it’s more entertaining than simply playing a long string of traditional tennis matches. Other tile options include resting to recuperate your condition (fatigue will negatively impact in-game performance) and a shop where you can buy tickets of a specific value or other special items. Over time, you’ll gain experience in five areas (condition, stroke, defending, tactical, and net play), earn money, gain ranking and publicity, and unlock new clothing options. I found the career mode to have appropriate rising difficulty that is paced well, though there is little reason to play again, as the progression is generally the same (although you’d land on different events the next time around). You also can’t start out with a good player to use in the other modes or online play. This limitation is disappointing since there are many play styles to choose from that the included real-world players do not use. Still, the world tour proved to be entertaining for a while, until the repetitive eight mini-games started duplicating themselves too much.

Like in most tennis games, the controls for Virtua Tennis 4 aren’t exactly complicated. This is a position-based game where you simply have to press-and-release the corresponding shot button before the ball arrives; the sooner you press it, the more powerful the shot will be. This method is much easier to learn but obviously lacks some of the depth found in other tennis simulations; shots rarely land out of bounds, so you usually have to rely on your opponent moving in the wrong direction to score a point. There are three basic shots to choose from: the high lob (used to go over your opponent), medium topspin (used most of the time), and low slice (used to buy some time to recover). You can also use a super shot, unlocked when you accumulate enough match momentum. Each player has a specific play style (there are twenty, such as strong forehand, solid defense, great return, or fast runner), and if you play in this style, you’ll unlock a super shot every couple of games. The play styles are balanced well and rewards you for playing the “right” way for your character; this also seems to be the only distinction between different players anyway. I found the AI opponents to be adjusted well at each difficulty level: “easy” opponents will flub on shots and create a lot of powerful return opportunities, while “hard” players will commonly land shots in hard-to-reach places. The AI serves as a good substitute for the iffy online play.

Virtua Tennis 4 delivers exactly what you’d want to see in a mass-market tennis game. While not the most technically challenging simulation on the market, the gameplay emphasizes being in the appropriate position rather than releasing the shot button at the right time, which makes the game very easy to grasp for newcomers. Of course, this also means that Virtua Tennis 4 lacks some depth, and it’s far too easy to land a majority of your shots between the lines even if you were out of position; those looking for a more sophisticated control scheme will be disappointed. Each player has a particular style that makes them perform differently, and playing in that style will earn momentum that will allow you to unleash powerful shots to win at critical moments. The AI and overall difficulty is balanced quite well: “easy” is “easy” while “hard” is “hard”: the computer will not hesitate capitalizing on your mistakes. The world tour career mode uses a board game mechanic of semi-random movement through tournaments and diverse mini-games; it’s a neat idea that works well while being much more interesting than choosing events yourself with no limitations. Even with the random elements, multiple career modes will still play out similarly, and you can’t start out as a high-level star and skip the trivially simply beginner’s events. Online play is typical fare, though a low player population means high ping lag will become a huge problem in a game that relies on quick inputs. Reasonably priced for a sports sequel at $30, Virtua Tennis 4 is recommended for fans of more casual tennis games.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Armoured and Dangerous Review

Armoured and Dangerous, developed and published by Phantasm Games.
The Good: Varied classes with different weapons and abilities, only $7
The Not So Good: Predictable AI offers little challenge, tedious constant direct tank management required, linear campaign, lacks difficulty settings, no multiplayer, limited game mode options, slow camera controls makes spotting units almost impossible
What say you? This inexpensive light real-time tactical game with a turn-based feel has varied tanks but lacks features, automation, and a challenging computer opponent: 3/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Tanks are an imposing force on the battlefield. Covered in thick metallic armor, hauling really big guns, and crushing everything in their path, they dominate everything that isn’t carrying a rocket launcher. It’s no wonder, then, that they are the most popular weapon in the real time strategy genre, capable of engaging most enemy foes with a mix of firepower and maneuverability. While normally supported by mixed units, tank-only confrontations have been popularized by titles such as DropTeam and World of Tanks. Another entry in the exclusively metal strategy category is Armoured and Dangerous, which you can tell is unique because it has an extra “u” in the title. This game features a mix of real-time and turn-based mechanics, as they game progresses in real-time but only allows for control of a single unit at a time. Will this stripped-down strategy game feature pleasing tactical gameplay?

Armoured and Dangerous features pedestrian graphics, typical for an indie game. The tank models are small but detailed and easily identifiable based on appearance. The weapons and subsequent explosions are understated and lack the “punch” typical of armored combat. The maps feature bland outdoor environments consisting of undulating terrain with the occasional tree and lake, and the ground textures are a plain mixture of green and brown colors. The game’s minimap doesn’t really show the true landscape, just displaying elevation rather than important tactical features like water or foliage. On the sound front, Armoured and Dangerous features a few repetitive sound effects and very subtle background music. While the graphics and sound aren’t, well, good, for $7 they are good enough.

Armoured and Dangerous offers a sixteen-mission campaign (no background story) featuring real-time combat. The scenarios (and other features) are unlocked in groups, and you must successfully complete every mission in each group in order to proceed to the next set. The game has three game modes: team deathmatch, “capture the flag” (which is really nothing like capture the flag at all: you simply blow up the three enemy oil rigs), and “search and destroy” (where you destroy a base instead of three oil rigs). Because there are no respawns, the tactics are the same for each game mode: find and kill all the enemies. The twenty-four maps offer little variety in tactics as well, as lakes and mountains rarely come in to play. Armoured and Dangerous also lacks difficulty settings, and later missions simply place more computer opponents on the other team. There is also a skirmish mode where you can choose a map along with the number of tanks and enemies you'll deal with, once you unlock those options by playing the campaign. Armoured and Dangerous lacks multiplayer of any kind, so you are stuck battling it out against the AI. The tutorial teaches the basics of the game well enough, and the low $7 price tag is appealing.

Controlling your units in Armoured and Dangerous is a bit different than most contemporary real-time strategy titles. Units are selected primarily using the mouse wheel (although the number keys can be used), left-click to perform an action, and right-click to switch between movement, primary, and secondary weapons. This method took some getting used to: I routinely forgot to switch to movement mode and accidently fired instead. In addition, Armoured and Dangerous doesn’t feature the amount of camera options I desire, as zooming and tilting are way too slow, making seeing what’s happening on the battlefield almost impossible. One strong aspect of Armoured and Dangerous is the suite of tanks at your disposal. The primary unit is the main battle tank, equipped with a long-range cannon and short-range machine gun. A secondary tank is also available that fires anti-tank rounds and grenades. The recon tank scouts for enemy units using its radar, and the support tank repairs and refuels your units. Finally, the minelayer both places and removes mines. There is certainly some strategy before each mission choosing which tanks to take into battle: the main tanks are good for engaging most threats, while the support units each have their roles. Since each unit must refuel very frequently, taking at least one support tank into battle is a definite requirement.

Armoured and Dangerous features a unique mix of real-time and turn-based mechanics. While the game progresses in real time, because each unit must be given manual orders, it plays out like a turn-based wargame where you must move each unit every turn. There is a maximum of five units which reduces the micromanagement slightly. It would be nice if your units would automatically return fire if fired upon, or would continue moving to a waypoint when you switch to a different tank. Tanks can do nothing on their own, which gives you complete control over your units, but requires constant babysitting. The game is a tactical one (there is no base building), where placing appropriate units in the right place and using the right weapons at the best time is the key for victory. There is a short spotting range for enemy units (except for bases, which are always displayed), which is realistic for tanks I suppose; enemy units will sneak up on you, as even the recon tank has a small window for spotting enemies. Playing the game is a tedious affair: since tanks will not fire or move on their own (even if you issued a target or waypoint), you must constantly switch between your forces. Since the game always defaults to the movement order when a new tank is selected, you can't quickly bombard the enemy by switching between available units, instead having to right-click to choose the most appropriate weapon first. It's simply not fun. In addition, tanks move fast, making it difficult to hit things on the go. Sadly, the AI will routinely sit in one spot, waiting to become target practice. The AI isn’t a good foe: it heads straight for objectives, occasionally ignores nearby units, fires at an slow rate, and is easily disposed of except when you face multiple computer opponents in the same level.

While Armoured and Dangerous offers a unique mix of real-time and turn-based tactics, your tanks lack the initiative to allow for more advanced strategies to be executed. Tanks will do nothing on their own: even movement orders are only completed while a unit is selected. Armoured and Dangerous, then, is quite high in micromanagement; even being limited to only five tanks results in constant hand-holding for all tasks, including firing on the enemy. There are no orders that will be carried out as you attend to other tanks: everything must be issued manually by you in real-time. This is a flabbergasting limitation that significantly reduces the appeal of the game: there's a reason why turn-based games are not played in real-time. The short sighting ranges make for quick, close battles using a variety of weapons and tank types, the high point of the title. That said, the combat is very tedious: frequent switching back and forth between tanks is very inefficient, so you'll usually just pound away with a single tank until it has died. Add in sluggish camera controls and Armoured and Dangerous is a constant battle against the game mechanics in addition to the computer opponents. Unfortunately for Armoured and Dangerous, the lack of multiplayer options means the game must rely on the substandard AI: it moves predictably and has trouble engaging your units effectively. The campaign and skirmish options are standard fare, the game modes all play out the same, and the map selection rarely alters your strategy. The price is right at $7, but Armoured and Dangerous simply fails to offer well-rounded gameplay and features to stand out in the strategy genre.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Solar 2 Review

Solar 2, developed and published by Murudai.
The Good: Gravity-based puzzles and expansion are unique
The Not So Good: Tedious slow growth, difficult missions with imprecise keyboard controls, no direct combat interaction
What say you? Growing an asteroid into a black hole is more of a novelty than a full-fledged game even with outrageously challenging side missions: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Coming straight from the dark of Uranus is Solar 2, a sequel to a game that was released on something called “Xbox LIVE Indie Games,” which I think is some sort of sterilized environment where a single corporate entity determines which games you can and cannot enjoy. Anyway, the sequel is out on the PC, so now we have a chance to check out this physics-based puzzle game where you control planets, starts, and other objects in a quest to combine with other objects and complete missions in an ever-expanding universe.

Solar 2 takes a minimalist approach to space and it works well. The game is played in a top-down 2-D perspective (full 3-D would have been way too confusing), and it features a variety of star and planet icons that give life to the universe. Solar 2 is low on the nebula scale, and the subtle backgrounds never clash with the more important foreground. There are some small effects with combat (lasers, explosions), and simple color-coded icons make ships easy to identify. The sound design follows similar lines: while there is no voice work and effects are simple at best, the atmospheric music does a great job fitting the setting of the game. Overall, I found no issue with the graphics and sound design of Solar 2.

The “goal” of Solar 2 is to complete missions while growing from an asteroid to a black hole. A randomly generated universe is your playground, where other asteroids, planets, and star systems exist to be conquered. Starting out as a little asteroid, you absorb nearby smaller asteroids Katamari Damacy-style to grow into a small planet. Then, asteroids are carefully caught in orbit to grow into a life planet, small star, medium star, large star, and black hole. This process is obviously very linear (just move and capture stuff) and quite slow: I would have liked to “level up” in about half (or a third) of the time it took. Thankfully, you can start a new game as any previously attained object, so you don’t have to completely start over.

The missions of Solar 2 are extremely challenging. To trigger a mission, you follow the on-screen directional icons to a dashed circle, which then activates a short, sometimes vague description of what you are to do. The missions usually involve movement, avoidance, defense, or offense, and they start immediately, a problem when you are not prepared for whatever lies ahead. You should make sure you are near the highest mass for each object type (there are separate missions for asteroids, planets, stars, and black holes) and, if you are a star, have life planets in order for defense just in case. Overall, I had a tough time successfully completing any of the missions at any object level, and since this is the overall goal of the game, this level of difficulty could discourage a lot of players.

Part of the blame for the outrageous mission difficult lies with the keyboard controls. While you can use a console gamepad if you choose (in which case we shall revoke your PC gaming membership card), the keyboard doesn’t offer the accuracy required to complete most of the missions. Some of this is due to the Newtonian physics employed by the game, with inertia preventing instantaneous changes in direction. The inclusion of some mouse-based scheme would make things easier, I would think. Still, I found hitting, capturing, and avoiding objects to be far more difficult and tiring than it should be.

The controls allow you to move, absorb asteroids or planets into yourself, or absorb asteroids into orbiting planets (so they can grow life). With the aforementioned control scheme, you end up running into planets (and especially asteroids) more often than you’d like (which reduces your mass, requiring you to capture even more asteroids and planets in retaliation). In addition, the gravitational forces often cause your orbiting planets to run into each other, destroying your hard work in a meaningless act of violence. Still, it is cool to have a star with several life planets in orbit, automatically defending themselves against incoming threats. However, you have no direct control over these ships and defenses, and when two systems are at war, the bigger threat with more life planets will always win. There is no room for strategy here, simply grow and add mass over time. In the end, I suspect there will be few players who will have the patience for tedious growth and frustrating missions.

There are basically two things to do in Solar 2: get bigger and complete missions. Getting bigger, advancing from asteroid to black hole, is a tedious, drawn-out process that involves running into or capturing lots of other objects into your orbit. However, capturing things, especially as a star, requires a level of finesse the keyboard control scheme lacks, making this aspect of the game monotonous and repetitive. The other half of Solar 2, the missions, is an assortment of demanding tasks that require careful movement for success: while as varied as you can expect, the lack of verbose instructions and high level of difficulty (especially if you tackle the tasks before fully leveling up and collecting many objects in orbit) leads to a lot of frustration. The automated system combat also means the one with more life planets will always win, leaving no chance for luck and skill. While the originality of Solar 2 is certainly appealing, the repetitive nature of stellar evolution and frustrating missions reduce the overall appeal of the game significantly.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Storm: Frontline Nation Review

Storm: Frontline Nation, developed by Colossai Studios and published by Just A Game and Viva Media.
The Good: Sandbox mode or a story-driven campaign with multiple specific objectives, tactical battles with concrete unit counters and meaningful terrain, skirmish mode with random maps, online campaigns and skirmishes
The Not So Good: Lacks some depth, hard to find existing units, poor tactical AI, rudimentary diplomatic options, video-only tutorials, lackluster sound design
What say you? This turn-based tactical and grand strategy game offers a straightforward take on the genres for wider mass appeal: 6/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

Oh, Europe: you and your silly near-constant state of war. Sure, things are all peachy now, what with the European Union and soccer (erroneously referred to as “football”) serving as forms of unity. But a violent past makes for a violent future, especially when resources run out and everyone has to fight over the last croissant. Storm: Frontline Nation features such a clash, with forty-five nations duking it out in the near future. The game features both strategic and tactical turn-based game modes to satisfy all types of gamers, at least the types of gamers who like strategy and tactical turn-based game modes. Is this Swedish import tasty like candied fish?

Storm: Frontline Nation features a pleasing graphical package. It starts with one of the better-looking maps in the grand strategy genre, covering all of Europe and northern Africa. The textures are detailed and varied, and the terrain is true-to-life with mountains (possibly exhibiting purple majesty), oceans, and weather effects like fog and rain. You can zoom out far to see most of the continent at once, or tilt in close to see the good unit models and city designs. For the tactical mode, Storm: Frontline Nation has plausible hex-based maps for tactical battles consisting of varied terrain and the same good unit models as the strategic mode. Damage effects are unimpressive, as you’ll rely more on the unit icon than visual indications for determining health. Still, the game looks good. The sound is a different matter, starting with terrible, repetitive, simple unit acknowledgements (infantry units actually say “infantry” when selected, in a gruff, authoritarian tone). Coupled with the generic music, and the sound design is less than impressive. Still, the pleasing graphics of Storm: Frontline Nation help to keep the presentation afloat.

War! Which means it’s time for you to guide your European nation of choice to total victory. In the near future (next year, set your calendars), the campaign begins, which can feature a mission-driven story mode or more open gameplay where you simply capture capitals. You can customize the starting funds, units, mission frequency, availability of covert ops, and toggle manual initial deployment before you begin. Storm: Frontline Nation gives you access to five countries in the story campaign: France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and the United States (who, last time I checked, isn’t even in Europe). All forty-five nations are available in an open campaign mode. You can also undertake the tactical battles in skirmish mode, featuring randomly generated maps set in a specified terrain. You can also set the starting funds, turn limit, difficulty, tech level, availability of air units, and whether the computer shops for itself. If that’s not enough, Storm: Frontline Nation has full-featured online play, where you can challenge others to both the tactical skirmishes and strategic campaigns. Even better, you can use a multiplayer game offline (and vice versa), replacing human opponents with the AI. For those looking to learn the game, Storm: Frontline Nation has disappointing video-only tutorials.

The interface of Storm: Frontline Nation, one of the more important aspects of any strategy game, is good, but falls short in one major area. The game displays most of the pertinent information right on the main screen, like income, power, and province values. Full-screen spreadsheets can list economic, military, regional, or urban information. The history page is pretty cool, as it shows an animation of who owned which provinces each turn of the campaign. Objectives feature hyperlinked locations to find where you must invade, and the extensive tool-tips give detailed information to supplement the on-screen data. Storm: Frontline Nation does not select the whole stack by default, a “feature” I found out the first time a single unit made an attack instead of ten units. It can’t all be good news, however, so here’s my gripe: Storm: Frontline Nation makes it difficult to find your units. While all of your units are listed in the expenses list, you can’t click on the icons to zoom to the unit. Your only options are to scour the map for them, or tediously cycle through each and every unit using the “Q” key. While this aspect of the game could definitely use some work, the rest of the interface gets the job done.

About half of your time will be spent in the strategic mode, where you execute your plans for global (well, European) domination. The missions add direction to the game: every couple of turns, you are given a choice of three objectives (usually military, production, or diplomatic in nature) to earn small bonuses. The game’s simple economics involve earning income from controlled cities and territories, and then spending that money on new units, research, buildings, and upkeep for existing units (producing a soft unit cap): it’s very straightforward. Ground, air, and sea units are deployed at any city or appropriate structure (barracks, port, air base) when completed, and you can add researched kits for additional upgrades. Engineers can build airports, garrisons, missile silos, navy bases, nuclear test facilities, power plants, and shelters, or improve the infrastructure to supplement the income of a province. The economics of Storm: Frontline Nation are simply enough for most everyone to comprehend quickly.

Diplomatic options are disappointing: the usual suspects, like peace treaties, alliances, and non-proliferation treaties, are present. Storm: Frontline Nation gives you a sortable list for relations and other pertinent information to help you decide on your next victim. While the AI will approach you with reasonable offers (that always favor their side, of course), there is no indication of chance of acceptance, or counter-offers from the computer if an agreement is rejected. So it’s all guesswork: how many Euros will it take for a peace treaty? The world will never know. Research is simple: five areas (nuclear, biological, chemical, missiles, technology) with linear options that unlock more powerful weapons. A simple one-time monetary investment is all that’s required to leap to the next level. Storm: Frontline Nation features some secretive options: special forces can sabotage buildings, use biological weapons, or rescue spies from prison, while spies cam view province information, steal research, assassinate other spies, or use a suitcase bomb. Auxiliary game features, like most of the game, are basic in nature.

Storm: Frontline Nation is purely focused on war: “expand” is the name of the game, as you must capture more territory to fuel your ever-expanding military. Oddly, the game has a UN-like autonomous force that will defend invaded nations; this works like a “badboy” rating found in other grand strategy titles, but seems out of place in a game that wants you to attack everyone else. When you do attack others, you’ll need to stay near (or quickly capture) cities to keep your units in supply. The AI is good enough: they capture territory efficiently, complete upgrades and order units, and declare war at opportune times against appropriate foes. I did not observe any inconsistent or odd behavior from the AI at the strategic level.

But grand strategy is only half the game! When a province is contested, you can enter the tactical mode where some of your forces (additional units are used as reinforcements) will engage the enemy in a turn-based battle on a hex map. The goal is to capture the three flags on the map, or destroy everyone, or survive until the time limit if you are the defender. Storm: Frontline Nation has obvious unit counters that make for satisfying, if simplistic, combat. Ground units include infantry, engineers, tanks, artillery, and anti-air units, while fighters, bombers, and helicopters take to the skies, and destroyers, battleships, carriers, and submarines sail the seven seas. Certain units can also be equipped with bombs and missiles of a nuclear, biological, or chemical nature for added fun and/or excitement. Every unit has its role: infantry captures flags, tanks and artillery destroy things, helicopters destroy tanks and artillery, and anti-air destroys helicopters. Each unit can be given move, engage (which will follow the specified enemy if they move while attacking them), assault, or bombardment orders each turn, and special abilities (like improved attacks or smoke) bought in the strategic mode can be used during combat. Terrain is important: tanks can’t go into mountains, and fortifications provide bonuses to infantry units. Lastly, your technology level can enable different special bonuses to use during the battle, like improved attack or defense for a specific unit, immobilizing enemy units, or revealing areas outside your sensor range. Overall, the AI was not impressive during the tactical battles: while they will (slowly) pursue objective locations, the computer does not move units together, continually exposing single units, like tanks to helicopters, even if the computer has anti-air units stationed on the map. After a couple of battles under your belt, taking down even a superior force is relatively easy.

Storm: Frontline Nation features a good balance of grand strategy and tactical gaming, and the basic rules and depth makes it appropriate for novices and veterans alike. Europe is in a state of war, so the economics are simply an effort to balance almost constant troop production and research. Funds are earned directly from territory, so your primary goal is to devour your neighbors. The game also offers missions to undertake along the way: these offer good intermediate steps for players and an overall goal to eventually end the game. The strategy AI is good, although diplomatic feedback could be more detailed. The tactical half features transparent unit counters that make the battles a matter of bringing complimentary units and using them in concert. Unfortunately, the AI isn’t very good at doing this, as you can pick off single, unprotected units one at a time. The terrain, special abilities, and bonuses vary the combat somewhat, making for some satisfying moments. The game’s interface is decent, although I would kill (not literally (well, maybe)) for a list of all your units. Features include plenty of options for setting up campaigns and skirmishes (including randomly generated maps), and all nations are available in the open campaign mode (though the more structured story campaign mode limits your choices to five countries). Storm: Frontline Nation features online play for both game modes, and you can even alternate between single player and online play during the same game. The tutorial is a huge library of videos you’ll ignore, and despite shortcomings in the sound design, the graphics of Storm: Frontline Nation are solid. So if you’re looking for an easier approach to grand strategy and tactical battles, Storm: Frontline Nation isn’t a bad place to look.