Thursday, February 24, 2011

Test Drive Unlimited 2 Review

Test Drive Unlimited 2, developed by Eden Games and published by Atari.
The Good: Two large islands to explore containing many destinations, persistent online connection populates world with nearby human drivers of similar rank, create custom open challenges for other drivers with cash rewards, both competitive and cooperative multiplayer races, gain experience through multiple means, large roster of vehicles, variety of race types, ability to create or join clans, earn and bank money performing stunts
The Not So Good: Unbalanced arcade driving physics feature exaggerated braking and cornering abilities even on “hardcore” setting, tedious mandatory license system, boring story mode with terrible unskippable cutscenes, no difficulty settings makes early races trivially easy, minimal car damage, robotic AI, initially limited roster of multiplayer races
What say you? A predominantly online racing title with impressive features but very questionable driving and laborious progression: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While driving around in my reasonably priced compact car, I always wonder what it would be like to drive that car, as I out-accelerate them with my boxer engine and all-wheel drive. Well, thanks to the awesome power of computer driving simulations, you need to wonder no more! Take to the streets or the track in the car of your dreams…or nightmares. One of these simulations was 2007’s Test Drive Unlimited, a continuation of the franchise that stuck you on Oahu with everywhere not covered by water to race and explore with other human players. Or, at least, that was the plan, as the multiplayer functionality provided by Gamespy (who?) left a lot to be desired. Time for a sequel! Test Drive Unlimited 2 adds in a new island, Ibiza, and a host of multiplayer options and other features to hopefully complete the perfect driving experience.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Test Drive Unlimited 2 looks nice. The game features two detailed island environments with plenty of varied buildings and roadside objects like signs and trees to stare at as you accidentally drive into a fence. I’ve never been to Ibiza, but the island of Oahu seems to be a fairly accurate recreation, at least regarding the placement of roads and major landmarks. Test Drive Unlimited 2 also has nice weather and time-of-day effects (rain drops, particularly, look very wet). The cars, as you might expect, are also quite detailed, exhibiting a reflective sheen usually reserved for the showroom floor. The in-car view is decently detailed, although only the speedometer and tachometer displays actually work. The cars rarely display dramatic damage, though, remaining in their original shape even after tumbling end-over-end thirty-seven times. Still, I was pleased with the overall graphical presentation. The sound, however, is a different animal: while the engine effects seem to be realistic, the voice acting is atrocious and there are only two radio stations to listen to (I have not observed an ability to import custom MP3s). It’s clear which avenue received more development time: screenshots sell games.

ET AL.
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a racing game. In it, an apparently homeless valet (that’s you) is given a spot in a prestigious racing series, a car, and a mobile home by someone who initially wanted you fired for daydreaming while parking their car. This is pretty much representative of the game’s nonsensical “story” that you’ll try your best to ignore; unfortunately, ignorance is mostly impossible because you can’t skip the terrible cutscenes to avoid the painful dialogue. The game takes place on two islands: Oahu from the original game and Ibiza. The game worlds are populated with lots of locations to visit using the map (which features a slick zoom in, zoom out animation): races, shops, homes, cars, and other players. If you have previously visited a location, you can instantly teleport to it; otherwise, you must jump in your car of choice and use the GPS. In either case, you never have to get gas: the future is here!

The main motivation of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is to gain experience, unlocking additional cars and features, and there are four ways of doing this. The most traditional is entering races; more on that later. You can also earn points for collecting vehicles, homes, clothes, getting a haircut, or undergoing plastic surgery. Additionally, exploring the island (previously surveyed roads are highlighted in blue), taking photos, or finding wrecked cars gain points. Finally, you can make friends, join clubs, or undertake challenges uploaded by others. It’s nice that Test Drive Unlimited 2 gives you more things to do than simply race.

A big selling point of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is persistent multiplayer: the game automatically adds human players that are near your location and at a similar level in the game for competition and cooperative play. The upper limit seems to be around thirty players at a time, though a single race is always limited to eight participants. You can join an organized club that can challenge other clubs to race events, a nice integration of clan-like features. Another promoted feature is the ability to walk around shops, but this is an insignificant addition: the developers could have simply listed your options at each location in a menu, but I suppose this is marginally more immersive at the expense of taking more time. Test Drive Unlimited 2 doesn’t suffer from severe console-related limitations: I was able to fully configure my gamepad and use the mouse, though the game immediately started without letting me change the default widescreen windowed resolution.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 has a variety of races you can undertake during your time on Oahu and Ibiza. If you spot another human driver or an AI boss, you can flash them (using your headlights, you pervert) and wager on a quick race. You can also participate in championships and cups, divided according to which cars are allowed to compete. First, though, you have to do a tedious racing school that tests basic skills (cornering, braking, driving in a straight line) for each new car class: boring and repetitive, a deadly combination. Test Drive Unlimited 2 has five basic race types: traditional races around a circuit, eliminator mode (where the last place racer is abolished after each lap), timed races, speed mode (where you must maintain a certain threshold), and speed trap (where you must record the fastest speed passing by a set of radar detectors). There is a time penalty for going off-road during certain events, but for the most part it’s just a matter of following a predictable checkpoint-laden path to the finish. Test Drive Unlimited 2’s lack of difficulty settings makes the first few championships really easy for anyone who’s driven a virtual car in the past.

But wait, there’s more! Events are randomly spawned races where you must transport someone or something to a destination. Some like a smooth ride, some want thrills, while others want to lose a tail or maintain a minimum speed. These quick affairs are a nice diversion from the more traditional races. Competitive multiplayer contests are limited to the speed, speed trap, and race modes; joining one is a confusing process, where you must join a ranked or unranked host, or create your own. The game interface shows the number of games at each location, but doesn’t display what type they are (ranked or unranked). Test Drive Unlimited 2 also has a limited selection of races at the lower experience levels. The game does feature cooperative multiplayer modes that are a bit interesting: “follow the leader” has one assigned driver who must pass through each checkpoint first, and “keep your distance” specifies both a minimum and maximum gap between teammates. Another intriguing entry is the chase mode: if a human player commits too many traffic violations, you can take the role of the police and attempt to pull them over. The final notable feature is a challenge mode: you can create custom races for other drivers, adjusting the number of laps, minimum speed, amount of traffic, and eligible car classes. You then put up a cash prize from your own account, and specify the entry fee (which you keep): pretty cool.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 features a large roster of vehicles to purchase: Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Subaru (my personal favorite) to name a few. The game also includes SUVs for off-road events (because everyone who owns an SUV uses it for off-road racing, right?). You can make very small upgrades to your car at the appropriate tuner shop, adjusting the acceleration, top speed, and handling. These minor upgrades usually add one or two ratings points, which is insignificant for the price. You can also deck out your vehicle with cool stickers, because nothing says “hardcore” like placing a giant pink heart on your rear bumper. While driving around the island, you can earn cash for doing stunts (jumps, drifting, and dodging cars): once you earn enough cash, you can bank it or save it and attempt to accrue more money. If you crash into anything, the bank is reset; a nice little diversion that gives you something to do on those long car trips to new parts of the islands. If you run into too many cars while near the cops (apparently, speeding is not frowned upon), you may get chased by the cops, some of which might be nearby human players as noted earlier.

The most annoying aspect of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is, unfortunate for a driving game, driving. The physics are on the arcade side of things, not as mindless as something like Split/Second, but certainly not up to the level of GTR Evolution or even DiRT 2, which seems downright sophisticated by comparison. While the cars in Test Drive Unlimited 2 accelerate as they do in real life, they brake and corner at outrageously inflated rates. This lack of balance means that if you brake too early or too much (likely if you’ve played any other racing game where you actually have to anticipate upcoming turns), you are screwed since you’ll accelerate back up at realistically slow rates. This is true even on “hardcore” setting, which turns off all driving aids but doesn’t make things any more realistic. I didn’t even want to see what full driving aids is like. The cars of Test Drive Unlimited 2 also have poor jump physics and really weird results when hitting roadside objects. Hit a curb? You might flip into the air! Hit a tree or bush? You might come to a dead stop! Hit another car head-on at 170 miles per hour? No damage! Yeah, the game description says it has damage, but I haven’t seen anything other than dirt on my cars after lots of crashes at very high speeds. You can certainly have an entertaining blend of arcade but challenging racing, but Test Drive Unlimited 2 falls way short in this area. The game also lacks good AI competition: they are outrageously robotic in their racing, following the same line in the same order. Just trying to spin them out is an arduous task, as they are stuck like glue to their pre-programmed racing lines. Traffic on the roads might change their plans slightly, but they are still far from convincing opponents.

IN CLOSING
Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the definition of dichotomy: the game has excellent features, especially in the multiplayer realm, but fails to deliver satisfying driving physics. That’s unfortunate, since most of the time you will be racing, since it’s, you know, a racing game. So, good news first: Test Drive Unlimited 2 has two large and detailed island locations to earn experience though varied activity like racing, collecting cars, discovering new locations, or interacting with others. Alas, you’ll have to pass dull racing schools to unlock new championships and earn the big bucks, but at least the races are varied: lapped, timed, and speed events all make appearances. You can also challenge other cars you spot on the road to quick battles, and undertake small events that randomly appear on the map. A big draw of Test Drive Unlimited 2 is the persistent multiplayer, and it’s handled well: human drivers who are nearby and close to your experience level will appear in the game world (up to around thirty at a time), where you can challenge them to a variety of competitive or cooperative racing modes. You can also create custom challenges for anyone: just trace out a path, set an entry fee, and whoever gets the best score earns your prize. You can also join auto clubs and challenge other clans for fun and profit. Test Drive Unlimited 2 also features nice graphics and a variety of real-world cars to parade around the islands. The story is laughably terrible, and so are the physics: the developers passed on realistic braking and cornering, completely disregarding the mass and inertia of actual cars, resulting in an unbalanced mess of driving. Driving the game takes considerable more skill than full-on arcade games like Split/Second or Death Track, but those expecting a simulation or even halfway decent racing will be terribly disappointed. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Test Drive Unlimited 2 will depend on whether you can stomach the car handling, as the rest of the game’s features are remarkable.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cities in Motion Review

Cities in Motion, developed by Colossal Order and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Impressively detailed citizen itineraries and traffic data, robust feedback, freeform routes and layouts using a variety of transit types, challenging, numerous optional scenario objectives, map editor, generally accessible interface, $20
The Not So Good: Only four cities included, some waiting for profits or objectives, tedious multi-step route creation and vehicle assignment, can't manually control vehicle spacing
What say you? A meticulously thorough transit simulation: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
SimCity is one of my favorite games, successfully combining my nerdy interest in computer with my nerdy interest in roads. There have only been the occasional feeble attempt at a remake, so the hole in my soul has yet to be filled. Along comes Cities in Motion: while it doesn’t allow you to place residential zones and power grids, you do have complete control of each town’s mass transit system, shuttling passengers to their destinations in an efficient and (hopefully) profitable manner. The game takes place across some major cities in Europe, partially because the United States shuns any notion of mass transit. Does this management simulation provide entertaining transit planning?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Cities in Motion features some nice graphics. While it doesn’t strive for total realism (there is a slight cartoon slant here), the result is a fine assortment of crisp, detailed elements. The high level of city detail permeates throughout the presentation, from the varied buildings to the selection of cars and tiny people who inhabit your town. Of course, the buildings don’t change much visually from 1920 to 2010, but that might be the case in the older European cities. Also, the cities are more caricatures of their real selves than super-detailed satellite replicas, so a lot of the towns look entirely too square. The shadow effects are done well, and the animations are noticeable without being overstated. There are no time-of-day or weather effects, as Europe is permanently bathed in perpetual sunshine, but this is a small omission in an otherwise solid graphical presentation. As for the sound, there are a lot of ambient sounds and traffic effects that are done nicely, as long as you are zoomed in far enough. The music is the usual assortment of inoffensive tycoon-style tunes that are neither memorable nor annoying. Overall, I was pleased with what Cities in Motion brought to the table.

ET AL.
Cities in Motion places you in charge of mass transit in four of Europe’s major cities, tasked with making an efficient and profitable system that will be talked about by nerds for years to come. You’ll start in the tutorial, which does a decent job teaching the basics of the game’s interface. The campaign mode presents twelve missions covering one hundred years of mass transit; once you are successful in each five-or-so year period, the scenario will be available for isolated play (with the same objectives). Cities in Motion also comes with a sandbox mode, free of structured play (very reminiscent of SimCity). The campaign missions contain plenty of specific optional objectives to complete, which usually involve linking a particular building to your mass transit system. Completing these doesn’t impact your success in the overall scenario; rather, they reward cash and raise approval ratings. Each scenario comes with three difficulty settings: these control starting funds, loan flexibility, and refunds for demolishing things (easy difficulty also adds funding from the city), and I found “normal” to be quite enough challenge. Sadly, Cities in Motion only ships with four cities (Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki, and Vienna); while this is technically enough, I always crave more, more, more. Luckily, there is an extensive map editor included with the game that lets you plan out the city of your dreams (or nightmares). Why spend months carefully crafting another setting when the user community will do it for you?! Joking aside, the features of Cities in Motion eclipse the very modest $20 asking price.

One of the most important aspects of any simulation game is the interface, and Cities in Motion does a great (and almost fantastic) job presenting lots of information in a consistent and accessible manner. Your main tasks will be laying track, placing stops, designing lines, and assigning vehicles. This process can get a bit tedious and repetitive: since each process is independent of each other (meaning placing stops will not automatically make a new line or assign a new vehicle to those stops), you’ll have to retrace your steps multiple times to get a new route up and running. The game uses a different highlighted color for each transit type (blue for buses, red for trams, and so on), making routes easy to identify on the map. Hovering your mouse over a stop will also display the average satisfaction level of your customers for each line serviced at that particular place. More detailed information is also available: usage, profit, wait times, and happiness can all be sorted in the handy stop and vehicle roster spreadsheet. Cities in Motion also gives you lots of graphs and numbers covering your budget, loans, energy usage, wages, advertising, route coverage, popularity, monthly profit, reputation, debt, company value, economic growth, electricity price, fuel price, population, unemployment rate, and individual customer data. There is no shortage of information here, but the data isn’t so detailed that the game is trivially easy. In addition, while setting the rates for each transport type, colors are used to indicate low, medium, and high fares, making it easy to determine at a glance if you are charging too much. A news ticker reports important events, and the mini-map and mini-camera are useful to looking far away and close up (though the game needs to zoom out more in the main display). There are a number of color-coded map modes available, displaying the location of homes, workplaces, shopping, leisure, government buildings, and traffic for each citizen group. The game removes the colored map display when layout down stops; this requires you to either memorize where heavily used buildings are or back out and activate the colored maps again and again. In general, though, the interface is excellent and makes accessing a ton of information easy.

There are five forms of mass transit you can utilize across your cities in motion. Buses are cheap but are subject to traffic, while trams are more expensive (plus restricted to tracks laid down in the streets or medians) but carry more passengers. The subway (including elevated rail) is probably the best method: high capacity and accessible anywhere, but very costly. More exotic means include ferries and helicopters (helicopters? really?). Each transportation class has a variety of vehicles to choose from that vary according to capacity, attractiveness, fuel consumption, repair frequency, speed, and (of course) cost. While you can add the vehicles of your choice to each line, you actually have no control of where they appear in the route: you just have to luck out and hope the buses are evenly spaced. The stops can be upgraded to offer covered or luxury queue areas, handy for high-wait areas. While not a comprehensive selection of mass transit methods, the public transport options are many and cover all strategic and planning situations.

The quality of your system determines the company’s reputation. There seems to be a pretty obvious relationship between wait times and customer satisfaction, so the key of Cities in Motion seems to be to create efficient lines that service a wide number of individuals. There are seven customer classes, each with different needs: blue collar, white collar, business people, students, tourists, retirees, and dropouts. Each individual in the game has a specific home and destination (they will actually drive if it's a better option); this level of detail is quite appreciated (and a bit impressive) and makes the congestion encountered in Cities in Motion not seem arbitrary or pre-scripted. The residents of each city seem eager to hop on a bus or train: I never had to wait long for my stops to become very overcrowded, and as long as you place routes in areas of heavy use, then most months you’ll be able to turn a profit. While it is fairly easy to make money, it is quite difficult to make everyone happy: long waits are very common when starting out, and simply adding more buses doesn’t work if the surface traffic is jammed. When buses only carry eight people and there are 112 people waiting at a stop, you have a problem. Thus, good planning is required to maximize both the efficiency and profitability of your mass transit system. Cities in Motion involves some waiting for funds to accumulate or the next objective to appear, but time can be accelerated. Overall, Cities in Motion has a great combination of design flexibility, detailed customer attributes, data presentation, and challenging difficulty.

IN CLOSING
Cities in Motion is a very good traffic and transit planning simulation. It starts with design freedom: despite not being able to change anything about the roads or buildings (other than bulldozing them), you can create routes for buses, subways, trams, boats, and even helicopters where you wish, giving the user complete control over their transit dynasty. The varied vehicle types all have their plusses and minuses, typically exchanging efficiency and capacity for cost. The mostly user-friendly interface provides a ton of information, organized into sortable charts (like satisfaction and average wait times at each station) and graphs. Cities in Motion also features very detailed stats on your citizens: each resident has a specific itinerary, and chooses their form of transit based on what you have provided nearby. The game is challenging if you don’t design efficient routes and keep track of your finances: planning bus routes to utilize your busiest roads might not be the best idea. The twelve-mission-long campaign offers a lot of optional side missions that reward players who bother connecting outlying portions of the town with additional cash and approval. The sandbox mode is also available for those who like a less structured experience. The most disappointing aspect of Cities in Motion is the small roster of cities: there are only four, but the developers have included a map editor, so get crackin’! Finally, your cities in motion look nice while they are in motion. Overall, fans of transit simulations will be quite pleased with Cities in Motion, and for only $20, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dungeons Review

Dungeons, developed by Realmforge Game Development Studio and published by Kalypso Media.
The Good: Design dungeon layouts to satisfy hero needs before causing their violent death, dungeon lord earns additional skills and spells with experience, automated workers reduce micromanagement, optional campaign challenges reward one-use spells
The Not So Good: Mission strategy becomes very repetitive, arduous pace, no difficulty settings, linear objectives, no multiplayer
What say you? This dungeon design strategy game has some pleasing, but tiresome, planning elements and role-playing features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Why is Dungeons a highly anticipated release? It probably has a lot to do with the popularity of its inspiration, Dungeon Keeper, a 1997 strategy title that let you build your own dungeon, leading those goody-goody heroes towards an appropriate demise. So many games promote prosperity and good feelings, so it’s nice to take the evil side for once. The setting and general premise are where the similarities end, however, as in Dungeons you want the heroes to survive and prosper until they are extremely joyful, and then kill them off and steal their happiness. Makes sense to me! Let’s see if the developer behind M.U.D. TV has improved their management design skills.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Dungeons features very underwhelming graphics and sound design. It starts with the (unsurprisingly) dark graphics (you are in a dungeon, after all) that offer little light and a static color palette. The dungeon layouts all look very much the same: dank corridors carved out of solid, uniform rock. Also, you are usually zoomed out too much to see the decorations you can adorn your abode with. Heroes and other units have poorly detailed, blocky models and animations for movement and combat are sporadic at best. Combat is visually unimpressive, and spell effects are very basic. Dungeons is on the same graphical level as some indie RPGs (maybe even worse), but without a distinctive look. The sound effects are similar in quality: they are basic, though I did like some of the hero dialogue they spout while exploring your dungeon. The game also features appropriate music for the setting. In all, Dungeons does not bring notable graphics or sound.

ET AL.
In Dungeons, you lure unsuspecting heroes into your lair with promises of gold and other trinkets and then kill them, harvesting their souls to expand your evil empire. The campaign contains two tutorials and sixteen missions that gradually introduce new components to the player. The missions are presented as annoyingly good towns that need to be taught a lesson from an underground dungeon. The towns come in a linear order with specific, simple objectives that are occasionally vague. Competing AI lords are sometimes present, fighting over the same crop of juicy heroes ripe for the picking. The most interesting aspect of the campaign mode is the numerous optional challenges you can complete: presented like achievements, success earns you a one-use spell that is particularly handy when battling the bosses common at the end of each scenario. Unfortunately, missions become extremely repetitive after a while since the basic mechanics remain the same throughout your journey. Additionally, Dungeons does not offer difficulty settings, and the challenge level steadily increases until it may become insurmountable for most users. At least the game features frequent autosaves to preserve your progress. After you are finished with the campaign, you can try out around ten sandbox scenarios, though Dungeons lacks multiplayer, an add omission considering some scenarios feature AI opponents.

Your primary objective in Dungeons is to make heroes happy, at least temporarily. Each hero that enters your dungeon has one to three needs: gathering treasure, getting new weapons, increasing their knowledge, bypassing traps, healing others, or engaging in combat. Each time a need is met, their soul power increases. Then, once it is full (or close enough), you move in for the kill. Heroes spawn at predictable intervals from gates, and will leave once their needs are completely met. Champion units are only interested in destroying your “dungeon heart,” a large heart in the heart of your dungeon (heart). Once it’s gone, you lose, so don’t let that happen.

The first of three resources in the game is gold. It is carried by heroes when they enter the dungeon (I guess they can’t leave their wallet at home) and also mined as you expand the boundaries of your lair. Gold is used to buy most things: monsters, prisons, books, weapons, and stock treasure. Soul power, earned once you kill a hero, is used to buy prestige items. These decorations unlock higher-level items, although disappointingly their placement does not matter at all (you prestige increases by a set amount no matter where an item is placed). Pentagrams can be placed around the map to claim territory and spawn a variety of monsters: bats, rats, skeletons, slime, and other assorted gross and/or scary things. Since you can only build in areas under your control, placing pentagrams only in high-traffic areas isn’t always the best strategy: you will also need to claim additional monster shelters to increase the monster population cap and access new scary guys. Finally, you can place prison cells to extract extra soul power, traps to trap things, and armories (for weapons) and libraries (for knowledge) to satisfy odd hero needs.

You are actually always controlling the dungeon lord, and this is where some role-playing elements enter the equation. The features here greatly expand the appeal of the game, almost making up for the linear nature of the design strategy (almost). Your dungeon lord is mainly used to dispose of heroes when they are ready (their soul power is close to being full). Most of the time, you’ll want to keep him hidden: if a hero spots your lord, he’ll automatically attack, and if the hero is low on soul power, it’s simply a waste of energy. Combat experience will unlock attribute and skill points. The typical attributes are present: strength, agility, intelligence, and constitution, and they grant incremental increases in the appropriate areas. The skill tree in Dungeons is quite extensive, offering a mix of new spells, cheaper items, and improved abilities like speed, attack, critical hits, and workers. The spells are typical fare: weapons like fireballs, impediments like freeze, and protection like shields and healing. Each spell uses a significant amount of mana (especially before you level up a lot), so much so that most of the time, you’ll only be able to use one or two per battle. Dungeons offers a quick spell bar where you can click (or use the number keys) to access your spells; you can actually bind buildings to the quick bar, too, if you’d like. Luckily, the ever-important dungeon lord does not need to keep the dungeon running at a basic level as summoned goblins will perform tasks automatically, like transporting defeated heroes to prison, filling up treasure chests, and mining. This significantly cuts down on micromanagement, though it does result in a lot of waiting around for heroes to maximize or resources to accumulate. Still, the RPG aspect of Dungeon adds some interest to the campaign.

Unfortunately, it only takes about two missions to see everything Dungeons has to offer. The game is plagued by repetitive strategy: line the hallways with artifacts, add some monsters and treasure and libraries and armories, and kill the heroes on their way out. The intermediate objectives add some variety to the gameplay, but once you’ve figured out the same basic flow to each level, Dungeons becomes quite dull. Coupled with this is a very, very slow pace: heroes take quite a long time to fill their needs, and you’re just waiting (and waiting (and waiting)) in the shadows to reap the maximum amount of soul power. The game could benefit from some accelerated options. Constant combat is not preferred, especially since your health and mana will automatically regenerate while resting. Death is also temporary: as long as your dungeon heart remains intact, you’ll always respawn back there instantaneously with full health. Dungeons features some inconsistent difficulty: while most heroes can be easily disposed of, when massed they can be difficult to kill successfully, especially when champions are involved. It’s better to try to take on one or two at a time with the help of some of your monsters. I almost feel bad for the heroes. “I’m going to use the gold to buy new equipment!” they enthusiastically say right before you kill them. Oh well, all in a day’s work. In the end, Dungeons has some nice ideas, interesting gameplay, and robust role-playing features, but fails to provide the variety required for long-term enjoyment.

IN CLOSING
Dungeons takes an noteworthy premise and cooks up repetitive tactics and tedious gameplay. The strategy for each level is the same: let heroes walk around a bit, kill them off, and then invest their soul into prestige, unlocking more efficient items. Dungeons does offer a variety heroes that will want different things: treasure, weapons, knowledge, monsters, traps, or saving others. Simply placing one room with each of those items somewhere near their spawn points is good enough; then, it is a waiting game as their satisfaction slowly (and I mean slowly) grows. Finally, swoop in for the kill, have your minions take their unconscious body to the prison, and let the soul power roll in. Soul power lets you place decorations around your dungeon: their placement does not matter and putting them anywhere will increase your prestige by a set amount, unlocking better items to more efficiently increase your prestige. Once is frankly enough to see how it works, so the campaign (and, by extension, the sandbox games) quickly become quite repetitive. Dungeons fails for a lot of the same reasons M.U.D. TV did: too much repetition. The linear campaign does offer some optional side missions that will give some spell rewards, so that’s a bit interesting. Breaking the mission monotony a bit is the role-playing aspect of Dungeons: experience will give your dungeon lord better attributes, more skills, and new spells. You are really controlling him in the game, and in this aspect Dungeons controls like a classic action RPG, although with the added ability of placing buildings. Still, with the lack of multiplayer (odd since you’ll routinely take on AI dungeon lords), static difficulty, and limited strategic variety, Dungeons only remains interesting for a short period of time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest Review

Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Enemy fleets downloaded automatically from other players, static planetary structures motivate attack choices, unpredictable enemy encounters force fleet balance, ships retain damage from previous battles, useful auto-range setting, only $7
The Not So Good: Limited campaign interaction with no control over planetary improvements, only one map with no randomization, few strategic decisions, enemy attacks bound by threat levels
What say you? A bare campaign mode makes this a very optional expansion: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I liked Gratuitous Space Battles. The large (some would say “gratuitous”) interplanetary (some would say “space”) conflicts (some would say “battles”) offered nice tactical ship design and pleasing multiplayer features, where you could easily test out your plans against other human-made strategies. But, as with most things, there is always room for improvement, namely a reason to have such gratuitous space battles. Despite my usual aversion towards expansions, constant clamoring has produced a revival of the game, now that additions have gone beyond just new races. Is the campaign mode that Galactic Conquest offers reason enough to return to the vast expanse of space, or is it reserved only for ardent fans of the series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The main graphical changes of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest obviously involve the campaign mode. The campaign map is pretty basic stuff, planets connected by lines, but the paths are animated with tiny ships that provide a glimpse of interplanetary activity. The planets are not animated or in 3-D, something which could have been a possibility since there is only one layout recycled for every campaign. The background is also very basic, though the interface provides easy access to a list of your fleets, factories, and shipyards. Overall, the graphics for campaign mode servers a purely functional role. Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest features some new music, but the remainder of the sound effects seems to be the same. You never expect drastic graphical enhancements in an expansion, and Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest generally continues that trend.

ET AL.
The universe needs genocidal extermination, and it’s up to you to do it! Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest adds a turn-based campaign mode to offer some structure to those battles of spacey gratuitousness. There are fifty-two planets in the universe, connected by wormholes in a manner similar to Sins of a Solar Empire. Unfortunately, the map is exactly the same each time you play: same planets, same places, same buildings. Now, enterprising individuals have gone in and modded the map for some variety, but this is no match for automatic randomization. Each planet can contain several structures, but they are all pre-determined and can’t be changed during the campaign, increasing to the static nature of the universe. I suppose this restriction is one way of imposing strategic decisions regarding which planet to invade next (based on your current economic needs), but you could allow for personal customization of each newly acquired planet and still require interesting decisions to be made. Building uses are predictable: repair yards repair, academies provide crew required to pilot your vessels, factories provide cash for purchasing new ships (and upkeep for existing ones), and shipyards build new ships. There are several classes of each building type, and only the higher-class structures can construct the largest vessels. Still, the stagnant nature of the universe is disappointing.

One thing the campaign of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest forces you to do is vary your forces: since you are not provided with advance information on enemy ships encountered during planetary invasion, you must outfit each fleet with a variety of weapons designed to take on any threat. This is partially because the enemy fleets are downloaded from other players on demand, an extension on the challenge mode introduced in the original product: a nice substitution for multiplayer features (this also means that Galactic Conquest requires an Internet connection while playing). Planets may also have anomalies that disable certain ship systems, adding another layer of interest. Once a planet is taken, you must keep ships there until the loyalty increases and threat decreases. This is the only way the computer attacks the player: the AI will only take back planets, and they don’t have an active military moving around you must deal with: disappointing. The game’s three difficulty levels will increase the capabilities of the AI fleets, providing an ever-increasing challenge to all skill levels.

Managing your ships is straightforward: you can drag-and-drop fleets to guide invasions, and manage ship members using the control key. Damage incurred during a battle carries over and must be fixed at a repair yard, unless you like losing very large, very expensive ships. Battles remain the same as before, although with a couple of new features. First, you can have the AI adjust the engagement ranges (based on the weaponry) automatically for each ship; this makes setup much faster, and since you’ll be doing a number of battles during each turn, the reduced micromanagement is welcome. You can also order all ships to retreat; those ships left behind after the countdown timer reaches zero are lost to the enemy. Conversely, you can capture enemy ships that surrender once victory is assured, incorporate them into your fleet, or scrap them for better models.

IN CLOSING
The limited nature of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest’s campaign mode makes this expansion only hold mild interest. There is very light strategy involved: your only decision is which planet to attack next, and since every planet cannot be improved upon, your choice is driven by which resource (money, crew, ship repairs) is needed most. You do have to field a balance of ships in each fleet capable of engaging a wide range of threats, though, as there is no advance knowledge of the alien vessels you will encounter. In fact, the enemy fleets are downloaded automatically from other players, taking the challenge mode from the original game a step further. There are other automation features as well: since you’ll be playing out a bunch of battles each turn, you can choose to have the AI place and set appropriate engagement ranges automatically to cut down on micromanagement before each conflict. Replay value is low: the universe is the same each time you play, with the same planets with the same improvements (that can’t be changed) in the same place. In addition, the AI will only attack planets you’ve taken: planets with high threat levels are the only targets, and they are easy to combat with garrisoned fleets. The low price tag ($7) makes it so that you can’t expect to expect that much out of Galactic Conquest, so the resulting bare-bones campaign shouldn’t surprise. The campaign adds a minor amount of purpose to the conflicts of Gratuitous Space Battles, but it’s ultimately not that interesting, especially when compared against the detailed planning required for the automated battles.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Breach Review

Breach, developed and published by Atomic Games.
The Good: Detailed realistic building damage allows for really unique tactics, slick active cover system, purposeful suppression, multiple game modes, variety of weaponry and gadgets, $15
The Not So Good: No single player content, special gadgets and perks must be unlocked, no terrain deformation, few maps
What say you? Incrementally destructible buildings adds a new tactical dimension to the multiplayer military first person shooter: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For the longest time in first person shooters, any time an explosive hit a wall, nothing happened. It’s been that way for so long that people feel safe behind seemingly impenetrable concrete, sheltered from the enemy in a cocoon of safety. Now that computers have gotten sufficiently powerful enough, games are now breaking down the walls that surround us, and not just in a metaphorical sense (that was almost philosophical). Shooters have begun to advertise destructible environments (notable entries include Red Faction and Bad Company 2), but you couldn’t help but feel like things were just a bit pre-scripted (Bad Company 2) or overly exaggerated (Red Faction). Breach hopes to end those limitations, offering combat in a modern military environment where individual bricks and planks react to bullets and explosions in a dynamic yet realistic nature. This game is the result of using the technology intended for Six Days in Fallujah (and software developed for military training) and applying it to a less specific setting. Does the developer of the Close Combat series do its military tradition proud?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Breach features acceptable graphics for a budget shooter. The four environments are fairly detailed: while certainly not quite up to the level of, say, Bad Company 2, there is plenty of cover to find and subsequently destroy in the outdoor arenas. The buildings exhibit gradual damage as they are shot up, and watching the dynamic explosions take out corners, walls, ceilings, and floors never gets old. The character models that you will see in third-person view when cover is entered look fine, though they have some animation issues when firing around corners. The weapon models are realistic, producing tracers that fly majestically across the battlefield. The sound effects are seemingly accurate as well, though the bullet ricochet effect gets tiresome and the constant insults automatically spewed by your avatar are childish. Overall, Breach delivers a decent package for $15.

ET AL.
Breach is a multiplayer military shooter that lies somewhere between the insane realism of ArmA II and the accessibility of Fish Simulator. The first emphasis is multiplayer, as Breach lacks any sort of single player content: no campaign, no bots to practice against (and no tutorial, either). Since the game can only be bought online, I suppose this isn’t much of a problem as long as people keep playing for the long term. Breach supports sixteen players on four maps (plus one nighttime variant); this isn’t obviously a lot of selections to choose from, but each map is fairly large and contains enough buildings and passageways to make things interesting (also, the ability to destroy bridges and walls makes each map change slightly during a match). There are five game modes to choose from, starting with typical team deathmatch, Battlefield-style conquest, and a “sole survivor” deathmatch mode with no respawns. More interesting are convoy, where one team must escort an automated jeep (with a mounted gun) through a map while destroying blockades along the way, and a capture-the-flag alternate where one radioactive canister randomly spawns on the map and each team tries to bring it back to one of two collection points for their team (carrying the canister means you can’t shoot…teamwork, people!). You can play any of these modes in hardcore mode, which removes the minimap and ammo count from the HUD and allows for two-shot kills (almost every server I've played on has used this option, which is fine by me, except that you have to remember whether your gun is set to full auto or semi). The game modes play as expected, though in infiltration (conquest) and retrieval (capture the canister) modes spawn points are seemingly random, sometimes placing you near the frontlines but sometimes way back in a corner of the map or deep in enemy territory; in either case, the first few seconds are really confusing as you attempt to get your bearings. Breach features an in-game browser, dedicated servers, and LAN play, good news for PC gamers. There have been issues when joining a dedicated server (getting permanently stuck at the loading screen), but these seem to have been solved and only appear on servers that haven't updated their files. You can adjust the number of rounds per map and lethality of friendly fire, but not the time or score limit (maybe you can on a dedicated server).

Pet peeve time: unlocks. I dislike putting new players at an immediate disadvantage (one of the reasons I grew to abhor Bad Company 2: I could not get any kills until I unlocked a proper scope), and Breach continues the sad trend by preventing new players from using any of the game’s twelve gadgets and fourteen perks. It took me around ten games to earn my first unlock; you earn experience points shooting people in the face or capturing things, around 5-10 XP each (you get more experience for killing players ranked higher than you). The lowest-level unlocks cost 500 XP, and it increases from there up to 2,500 XP each for the swankiest toys. Thing is, once you earn 500 XP, you spend it and it’s gone, so it takes another 10 or so games to get another 500 XP to earn one more entry-level unlock: getting access to everything will take quite a long time. Weapons are class-specific and automatically unlocked, though they do take a decent amount of time to get. Luckily, an unlocked perk or gadget is usable by any class, so you don’t have to unlock the rifleman’s sticky bomb and the gunner’s sticky bomb separately. And things are actually spaced out well: as long as you don't play too many of the game's classes and need every scope and grenade attachment, new items come at a quick enough clip (every couple of hours). In addition, a lot of the unlocks are frankly optional: while some gadgets are very cool and useful, I did just fine taking out snipers using iron sights on a rifle (the occasional RPG helped, too), so I didn’t feel like I had to scramble up the technology tree for the ACOG like in Bad Company 2. I also think cover has a lot to do with keeping you alive longer with substandard tech.

OK, enough soap box: let’s talk about the tools of destruction in Breach. Gadgets are really interesting, and each of them is appropriate for a different situation. Annoying sniper? Equip the IR detector. Annoying vehicle? Take the SLAM charge. Someone camping in a building? Use the sonic imager. Predictable enemy paths? Place a motion sensor. And so on. Perks are less exciting, giving the usual slight advantages like longer sprint, a larger explosive radius, reduced headshot damage, throwing grenades farther, less recoil, no suppression, higher movement speed, more accurate blind fire, and faster reloading. For balance’s sake, you are only allowed to equip one gadget and one perk at a time, and you must decide on each class’s choice before joining a match; I suppose this is intended to prevent crafting the perfect combination every time you spawn and limiting the extreme advantage already given to experienced veteran players, though it is very annoying and tedious to have to exit a server if you want to switch perks mid-game. Honestly, with the use of cover and anti-cover explosives, the advantages gained by having more perks aren’t terribly significant (and it’s almost fun deciding what to spend your XP on…almost). So, yeah, I like the gadgets and the perks, but I wish I didn’t have to spend time unlocking them.

Breach starts with four classes and culminates with five wielding a variety of weapons, each of which is adept at a different tactical setting. The rifleman gets (surprise!) an automatic rifle, like the M4A1 or HK 416, and a breaching charge to take care of those pesky walls. The gunner excels at suppression with his M60 or M240 light machine gun, and also gets grenades to lob haphazardly at the enemy (though they do not get thrown very far at all). The support class is your short-range specialist, equipped with a M1014 combat shotgun or MP5 submachine gun and smoke grenades for cover. The dreaded sniper comes with a M40A3 or M107 rifle and breaching charges, while the fifth class, recon (which is unlocked once completing both the rifleman and sniper classes) gets an AK-103 or MK-14. Each class also has a third cutting-edge special-ops weapon: see, told ya. All classes also get a pistol, access to ammo boxes equipped with additional rounds and RPGs (a limited number, so each game doesn’t quickly devolve into a plethora of destroyed buildings), and various attachments like sights, grenade launchers, and silencers that can be purchased with experience points. The usefulness of the gunner class seems to be dependent on how well your team works together: the weapon can take out some cover with a bit of work and suppress enemies, but the bullet spread is too large to engage enemies at long distances on your own. Because of this, the rifleman class seems the most diverse: it can engage enemies at any distance, and once you purchase the grenade launcher, those that cower behind cover can be quickly eliminated. The support class is only useful indoors, which is an infrequent setting on most maps but it is highly effective there. There are (thankfully) only a couple of map locations that make sniping worthwhile, so annoyances here are kept at a minimum (especially if you have the personal-favorite IR sniper scope detector equipped). Breach features a strong suite of weaponry, and the classes are well-balanced and cover a wide range of combat situations.

Breach features typical controls for a first person shooter. It’s nice that both crouch and run are toggled controls (you don’t need to hold them down), but looking down the sights or scope is not. The game also does not support prone (not missed, honestly) and health seems to be regenerated over time, but melee combat is available. A significant aspect o Breach is the use of suppression: when you are fired up, the screen turns red and you can’t return fire or move much, meant as a simulation of real-life conditions. Though this effect is not overly dramatic, this does make the gunner class much more important than in most first person shooters. The HUD is minimal, offering a small map in the upper left (in non-hardcore modes), weapon information in the bottom right, and on-screen indicators for gadgets and objective locations.

Up until now, Breach would be just another average first person shooter. Not so fast, my friend! It’s “killer app” time! The first is level destruction: you can incrementally destroy buildings and some other objects. This is different from Bad Company 2 in that it’s not pre-scripted: instead of an entire wall coming down at once, you can take out corners, individual bricks, or planks. It’s also more realistic than what’s seen in the Red Faction series, which always tended to be overly dramatic (where a hammer took down an entire structure…uh huh). Options in Breach include blowing up ceilings and floors, shooting supports to collapse buildings and roofs with people on them (handy for dealing with snipers), and collapsing buildings onto the enemies below; your first debris kill is always memorable. You can also create your own cover by shooting individual bricks, destroy the cover of your opponent, and create wider (or new) entries into buildings for safer movement. Not only is it impressive technology, but the destruction in Breach is also very useful from a tactical perspective. The destruction, however, does not extend to solid rock (you can't take out chunks of a cave or tunnel), trees, or the ground, so there are some limitations to encounter.

Breach also includes an intuitive cover system: simply face a wall, barricade, rock, or other obstacle and press “X”. You can then move laterally along the cover from a third-person perspective, and peek and shoot around either side or the top by holding the appropriate direction key. You can also blind fire by pressing the fire button with no direction button (I've never found a use for this). The cover system will automatically snap you back behind the cover if you need to reload while dealing with enemies, which is quite handy. It is quite impressive that it works with dynamic destruction, and it’s a smooth transition in and out of cover. This makes for fluid movement across the battlefield, as soldiers use cover and then run for the next bit of cover: it’s almost like what real soldiers do. I also much prefer this method to simple crouching behind something, which always leaves you more exposed and doesn’t really serve as true cover. The third-person view does let you see around corners even if your character can’t (because he is facing towards you); while this is not really realistic, it’s nothing beyond what you could see by simply looking forward, so I don’t have a huge problem with it. You are also given an armor bonus when behind cover, so people who play Breach without taking advantage of cover are dumb and soon to be dead. Anybody who thinks that run-and-gun tactics will work in Breach is simply wrong: running in the open is suicide. Now, you may be thinking: doesn’t cover make it completely impossible to kill anyone? Well, this is where the dynamic destruction comes in: simply blow it up with a well-placed RPG, grenade, or high-caliber round. Fantastic. The combination of active cover with viable ways of defeating active cover using distinctive world destruction makes Breach an intriguing shooter.

IN CLOSING
The allure of Breach is destructible environments, and they mostly deliver. Being able to blow out walls, floors, ceilings, and bridges adds a new host of tactics not seen in any other modern military shooter: shooting building supports, removing cover with a well-placed RPG, restricting enemy movement, eliminating that sniper’s post, and making custom mouse holes for surprise attacks and more covert movement. This amount of freedom makes Breach truly unique and each game plays out a little bit differently based on what’s been destroyed. Sadly, the destruction is not complete, as trees, rocks, and the ground are left unharmed. Coupled with the destruction is the intuitive active cover system: just face a wall or other form of cover (rocks, barricades, sandbags) and press “X” and you’ll stick to it, able to move laterally or peek over the top to make a quick shot. While in most games this might be totally annoying since units behind cover are obviously difficult to kill (that’s why it’s called “cover” and not “target practice”), in Breach any bit of cover can be destroyed with the right amount of high explosives: just aim that RPG or unlockable grenade launcher and let ‘er rip. Breach also features a wide range of classes, each with an appropriate role: the all-purpose rifleman with breaching charges, the suppression-inducing gunner, the long-range sniper, and the support class for close-quarters combat. Breach features unlocking (insert disappointed sigh) of additional weapons, gadgets, and perks with game experience, but it’s not totally slanted against the new player like in some games. Since you can only equip one gadget and one perk at a time before the match begins, each of them has a limited strategic use, and they are quite expensive (restricting their proliferation), newcomers are not at a significant disadvantage (just a slight one) when starting out against more veteran players. Finally, Breach comes with some compelling game modes, a hardcore mode for those into that sort of thing, but only four maps (with one nighttime variant) and no bots to play against. Still, the game’s low price, building destruction, useful cover system, and satisfying combat make Breach a fine choice for fans of online shooters.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Magicka Review

Magicka, developed by Arrowhead Game Studios and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Innovative speedy spell casting system, chaotic four-player cooperative play with friendly fire, no arbitrary mana or cooldown restrictions, all spells available from the start, only $10
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings and very challenging by yourself, can’t save (or join) mid-mission and infrequent checkpoints, no penalty for spamming the same couple of spells, tedious spell casting makes you wish for macros, currently sporadic online performance
What say you? A flexible instantaneous spell creation system without impediments is the focus of this cooperative action role-playing game: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One thing that has always bothered me about role-playing games is mana. I mean, you are a freakin’ wizard: how the heck can you run out of mana? Can’t you just make more out of the ether or whatever it is that gives you magical powers? And what’s with cooldowns? What, is a magical being tired of summoning fireballs? Developer Arrowhead Game Studios said the same things, and in their new action RPG Magicka (in the mystical past, everything got extrra lettterrs) you are not bound by such limitations. This fast-paced cooperative game features quick, immediate spell casting and open-ended on-the-fly recipes for maximum destruction and/or humiliation. That’s enough to get me interested in a genre I usually ignore, so let’s see if it provides enough novelty to actually make me enjoy a role-playing game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Magicka has decent graphics for a $10 game. The highlight of the presentation is the really nice spell effects: with brightly-colored lightning, fire, beams, and explosions racing across the landscape, you do feel like a powerful wizard in digital form. The character, enemy, and map designs exhibit some detail (like clothing on the enemies or various objects in each level), but lack the overall high level of immersion typical for a role-playing game: the world of Magicka feels generic. In addition, most units have animations that fail to produce fluid movement (especially for enemies). The game is played from an overhead perspective, and there are definite camera issues during combat: the perspective locks (to prevent you from running away like a coward), but it typically places enemies off-screen, and the placement of your character can be entirely too close to the edge of the display. On the sound front, Magicka features nice effects, especially for spells, and Sims-like gibberish speech during dialogue events (easier to translate, I suppose). The game is also accompanied by dramatic adventure music that fits the theme well. Overall, I feel you get good value in terms of graphics and sound.

ET AL.
Magicka is an action role-playing game that focuses on four-player cooperative play. You can join a host using the in-game browser, although the choices can’t be sorted by ping (yet). The connections were initially very unpredictable, but performance has been steadily improving since release. You still can't join a game mid-mission, cutting your options significantly. The main story-based adventure takes place over thirteen levels, which presents good value for a $10 since most levels clock in at around twenty to thirty minutes a piece (longer if you die a lot, like I did). The game maintains a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor during the adventure, referencing a lot of typical RPG features. There is also a challenge mode on two maps, where successively stronger waves of enemies are introduced into an arena, but there is currently no versus mode for competitive play (previews for Magicka hinted at it). Features are lacking in some areas: you cannot save your game at any time, as your progress is only preserved if an entire level is completed successfully. There are occasional checkpoints you respawn at if (when) you die, but this is simply not good enough. If you are going to restrict when I can save my progress, you’d better do it after each and every enemy encounter, and Magicka does not. I hate having to grind through low-level enemies multiple times simply because I can’t beat the boss at the end of the section. Magicka also is very inconsistent about skipping dialogue and cut scenes: sometimes pressing “space bar” will work, and sometimes it will not. There is certainly some work to be done to make the features of Magicka more well-rounded.

The intriguing spell system of Magicka is the main attraction. There are eight basic elements to choose from: water, life, shield, cold, lightning, arcane, earth, fire. In addition, you can combine water and fire to make steam, and water and cold to make ice. What you do is queue up to five of these elements and then cast your spell, the result of which is determined by what elements you used. For example, lightning+arcane+lightning+arcane sends out a large beam of destruction, whereas lightning+arcade+fire sends out a different large beam of destruction. The possibilities are many but not technically endless: while you can make a bunch of different combinations, you’ll generally end up with sprays, projectiles, shields, beams, or area effects, just with different components. You'll have to press a lengthy combination each time you want to cast a spell, so it can get tiresome. I would like to have seen a system where you can save a couple of key spells to a number key for easy access, instead of having to pressing a five-letter (or more, if it uses steam or ice) combination every...single...time you want to cast it. Spells can be cast as often as you’d like: there is no mana conservation or cooldown periods to worry about. You can also discover Magicka spells, which are scripted recipes you can reference by cycling through them with the mouse wheel. You can right-click to cast in front of you, shift-right-click to cast around you, middle-click to cast on you, or shift-left-click to enchant a weapon. It takes some practice to become effective in the heat of battle, so your first few hours with Magicka will be spent dying a lot while pressing the wrong mouse button or spell combination.

Magicka features a lot of enemies with some variation in their attacks (ranged, melee, area) and the occasional boss fight. Unlike most role-playing games, Magicka doesn’t have an inventory: you can only have one weapon and enemies don’t drop loot. Also, you don’t have to worry about experience and leveling up: you have access to every spell from the moment you start playing; it’s just a matter of discovering the most useful combinations. Unfortunately, the tactical decisions in Magicka leave some room for improvement. Once you find a good spell, you can use it over and over again since most enemies are vulnerable to any type of attack. Sure, the components you choose and the order in which you queue them up does matter, producing different effects, but a beam attack is a beam attack, no matter what color it is. This is where cooldowns or mana (Magicka has neither) would force you to be more innovative in your tactics. Still, you can counter some enemy strengths to an extent, like using lightning against units in the water. Team play is where Magicka really shines: you can combine effects in a Ghostbusters-style cross the streams attack. It’s also important to note that friendly fire is always on, so you must exercise extreme caution when casting spells. The result is a comedy of errors as your “friends” blast each other away with poorly placed spells. The freedom the spell system grants you allows for custom classes decided on the fly, like focusing on healing and shield spells, long-range attacks, or melee fighting. Magicka is really tough for one player, as the game fails to adjust the number of enemies for the number of human players. You would think that with unlimited shields and healing buffs that Magicka would be fairly easy, but there are still a lot of enemies to deal with that engage your wizard at a variety of ranges simultaneously. But the strength of cooperative multiplayer makes Magicka a recommended title for fans of action role-playing games.

IN CLOSING
Magicka takes a really neat idea, making your own spells in real time, and runs with it, almost to the top. It is quite fun banging out spells on your keyboard, using up to five elements from a list of ten, and then using them on enemies, yourself, your weapons, or the adjacent area. The results are some nice, somewhat open-ended combinations, producing sprays, beams, projectiles, shields, and other assorted chaos. While destroying an enemy with a beam rather than a projectile essentially accomplishes the same task, making the spell creation options a bit extraneous (not to mention tedious), there are some enemies that are more susceptible to certain elements so there can be the occasional tactical decision on which element to use. There are some advanced spell combinations that are either learned by accident or spelled out in books you discover during the campaign, but there are relatively few of these to choose from. You aren’t restricted by mana and don’t need to level up to cast better spells: everything is available from the beginning and you can throw out bolts and healing buffs as often as you’d like. This, of course, can lead to a lot of spell spam, just throwing out the same combination over and over again, which takes some of the fun out of it. It also takes a lot of time and energy simply casting spells, since you must tap out the correct combination every time; sometimes I yearned for the more restricted but less tedious method of simply pressing one button to cast a spell. The game is fantastic in cooperative multiplayer, where you and up to three of your friends cast spells together; since friendly fire is always on, you need to be careful about where you aim and when you use area spells. This is how the game is supposed to be played: there are too many enemies to deal with by yourself, and the game fails to adjust the difficulty based on how many human players there are. You must also complete an entire level in one sitting and can’t save your progress wherever you’d like; this wouldn’t be as significant of a limitation if Magicka gave you more frequent checkpoints, placed after every battle. The adventure mode lasts long enough, and finding players is easier now that the initial multiplayer issues have been sorted out. Despite some limitations, for $10, fans of action role-playing games can’t go wrong.