Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amazing Zombie Defense Review

Amazing Zombie Defense, developed and published by Marcin Draszczuk.
The Good: Action packed, defense construction, custom turrets, online score list, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Imprecise aiming, lacks level variety, basic AI, can't rebind keys, no cooperative play, pedestrian graphics and sound
What say you? This zombie combat game offers somewhat unexpected, if repetitive, thrills for $3: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Zombies! Yeah, I know, we’re starting to get a little tired of the undead, with this being the third zombie-inspired game review in a row. But, clearly, zombies are the new World War II (as dinosaurs are the next zombies) of computer gaming, so much so that I’m struggling coming up with unique, hilarious comments for the beginning of this particular review. So, yes, Amazing Zombie Defense: it went to the land of consoles first, and has now come to the PC for the low, low price of $3. This game takes a cue from the tower defense genre, giving you the tools required to fend off the incoming horde. Does this budget-oriented offering actually deliver amazing zombie defense?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For the price, you might not expect much to come out of Amazing Zombie Defense in terms of graphics and sound design, and you'd be right. The game takes place in an empty gray surface populated by you, zombies, and one streetlight. The zombies use the same model with different shirts and pants, and while detailed, offer simple animations. Weapons are easily identifiable and fire bullets and fire (some of the effects are well done for the higher-end weapons), and the gore is present but not overwhelming. And that's about it for the graphics. As for the sound, you get repetitive, subdued effects for the weapons (the shotgun sounds like somebody farted) and no noticeable zombie sounds. The music during combat I found to be annoying, but the purchase menu song is haunting and far less grating. In short: it's $3.

ET AL.
In Amazing Zombie Defense, you are defending against zombies. Who knew?! This is a single-player only affair, where it’s just you against the horde. The game does feature an online high score list where your efforts are automatically uploaded and compared against other players so everyone can laugh at your incompetence. The game is divided into nights, and each evening the zombies increase in toughness, speed, and damage. The game escalates quickly (especially between levels one and two), though I found the balance between their capabilities and the weapons you can afford to wield to be well done. Amazing Zombie Defense features the same level layout (a single streetlight) each time, though it is subject to user-made defenses. There are some control issues: you can’t remap the controls and can’t reload your weapons manually (though reload times are generally quick and unnoticeable). Also, aiming is a bit off: you must place the red targeting reticule directly on the zombies’ heads, as aiming for their body results in a miss. It took me a couple of levels to figure this out, and it think it’s due to the third-person perspective of the game. Overall, though, Amazing Zombie Defense has an expected roster of features for a cheap game.

Money is earned by killing zombies: each murder gets you a small amount of cash, while the occasional zombie drops a significant amount of money (or ammunition) that must be manually picked up. These funds are used between levels to purchase weapons and ammunition for those weapons, and Amazing Zombie Defense features a good selection: pistols, uzis, shotguns, flame throwers, miniguns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and even tesla coils and freakin’ laser beams (no sharks, though). The game also features random sales on items, which offer significant discounts. You’ll need to keep ammunition stocks for all of your weapons except for the pistol, but since the zombies usually drop significant amounts of extra ammo, you’ll only need to maintain about twenty rounds for each weapon you employ. Any weapon can be mounted on a stationary turret; this is a really cool feature that allows you to customize your defenses much like a tower defense game. Turrets fire automatically, allowing you to concentrate on areas of concern while your flame and shotgun turrets deal with less pesky foes. Turrets use your supply of ammo, so you must make sure you purchase enough beforehand. In addition, you can surround yourself with walls that will slow down the advancing horde so you and your turrets can pick them off. Walls cannot be removed, so make sure you don’t completely enclose yourself, as then you can’t venture out and get those cash and ammo pick-ups (I speak from experience). Walls are surprisingly effective, funneling the enemy and allowing you to create some neat forced paths past your turrets. I would like to have an indication (visual or a health bar) of barricade damage so I know which areas to fortify between levels, and having more traps (like mines or pits) would also be a good additional feature.

The AI is bland, running directly towards you at all times and offering no special abilities or attacks. Their simplicity allows you to manipulate their movements, hopefully right towards your turrets. The game only gets tough when there are a lot to deal with and you will die if surrounded, so it is quite scary to venture outside your carefully placed walls to pick up the ammo and cash needed to keep pace with the incoming horde. There are no medic packs, but your health automatically fully regenerates once each level is over. The game does get very repetitive since the enemies and levels are all the same from the beginning to the end, but once you discover all of your options (about the third time through), Amazing Zombie Defense delivers some good action with customizable options that fulfill its $3 price tag.

IN CLOSING
Amazing Zombie Defense has a couple of notable features that set it apart from the horde (pun intended) of zombie games available for the personal computer. The strong sense of customization the game provides makes each time through a unique experience (if you allow it): the ability to place barricades (despite their limited capabilities and square nature) lets you try out different arrangements and funnel mindless zombies to their deaths. Customizing the turrets, by attaching any weapon that you have purchased, is another cool feature. I did have some issues with aiming (go for the head!) and you can't customize the controls. Also, there is no cooperative play, but Amazing Zombie Defense does feature an online score list. The graphics and sound aren't the best, but the tense periods of time where you venture outside your stronghold to gather cash and ammunition, away from the light and power of turrets, easily rival any other zombie game. Yes, the game is repetitive since you play the same empty level and encounter the same limited zombies every time, but the foundation for a good time is certainly here. I would like to see more varied walls and traps, but overall Amazing Zombie Defense offers surprising value for the price, and I found the game far more interesting than a linear story-driven title. It's not quite amazing, but Amazing Zombie Defense is certainly a competent action title and a good choice for zombie hunters on a very tight budget.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Atom Zombie Smasher Review

Atom Zombie Smasher, developed and published by Blendo Games.
The Good: Procedurally generated content, quick levels, custom game settings and mod support, themed music and cutscenes
The Not So Good: Limited randomized units hamper strategic options, extremely difficult, insignificant unit upgrades, no online multiplayer
What say you? Defend against the zombie apocalypse with inadequate forces and high difficulty: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The well-documented zombie apocalypse is coming, and what are you (yes, you) going to do about it? Team up with four people and use guitars to smash their brains? Run them over? Become a horticulturist? All of those sound too much like work. How about we just send in the military and nuke the zombies into extinction? That’s the easier path Atom Zombie Smasher brings to the table. In this tactical strategy game, you and up to two others send in the grunts to take care of the menace.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Atom Zombie Smasher are a disappointing aspect of the game. The cities you are defending consist only of simple, repetitive rectangular shapes separated by paved streets. In addition, both the people you are defending and the zombies you are killing are represented by plain colored dots, as viewed from your high perch in low Earth orbit (or wherever you are). Some of the explosions exhibit some neat 2-D effects and a couple of the weapons come with small details, but visual eye candy is sporadic at best in Atom Zombie Smasher. However, the cutscenes work well within the retro context of the game, along with a fine selection of music. The sound effects are functional and serve as the occasional audio cue for in-game events. Overall, Atom Zombie Smasher looks like an indie game.

ET AL.
The zombies have come to Nuevo Aires (not as tasty as its neighbor, Huevos Aires), and it’s time to blow them up into oblivion. Oh, while rescuing some civilians, of course. Atom Zombie Smasher centers around the campaign, which features a map dotted with cities that are randomly infected by zombie outbreaks. Ignoring a territory might increase its level next turn, making it more difficult to clean (but awarding more points). The first side to a specified points threshold wins, based on how many territories each side owns; it’s almost impossible to claim one territory per turn by rescuing all civilians before nightfall, while the zombies usually get four uncontested new claims each turn. In addition to this imbalance, level four outbreak territories spread the infection to adjacent provinces, claiming even more land for the zombies each turn that passes. Even if you attain victory in every single city you attempt to rescue, you will still trail by a massive margin if you don't win by a significant margin because of the zombies' inherent advantage. In Atom Zombie Smasher, it’s just a matter of time before you lose.

You can customize each campaign, setting the victory point limit, available unit roster, availability of level restarts, and zombie speed,; while this might have a minor effect on difficulty, the zombie levels seem to adjust to whatever options you choose to have enabled. Rescuing scientists awards research points that can be spend upgrading things like cannon rates and helicopter capacity, while individual units gain experience and receive very minor upgrades over time (yes! it reloads one tenth of a second faster!). While Atom Zombie Smasher features cooperative multiplayer for four players, you can’t experience teamwork online as the feature is limited to the same computer. The game does feature the ability to modify basic game values, so the entrepreneurial end user can alleviate the difficulty on their own. Finally, I should note that Atom Zombie Smasher has yet to run without immediately crashing on two different MacBooks, although the game did function on my Windows machine once a patch for ATI video cards was released.

Your primary goal in each city is to save sixty (usually) or more people, which is equal to at least two helicopter loads out of the city. Atom Zombie Smasher features procedurally generated city layouts; higher outbreak levels feature larger cities and more incoming zombie paths. Once a zombie touches a yellow citizen, they turn purple and the disease spreads at an alarming rate. You are given four to five randomly assigned units to deploy before the zombies arrive to slow their advance; while this gameplay choice certainly keeps you guessing, your options are kept very small, almost assuring certain defeat. Every unit is limited in some significant way: artillery and snipers are slow, infantry is sluggish, landmines and roadblocks are limited in number, dynamite only works once, and the beacon has a small radius. Even the nukes you can call in (the titular Atom Zombie Smasher) barely destroy a city block. You must get lucky with your selection of units since all of the options are underpowered and ineffective. Most of your units fire or move painfully slow, requiring significant prediction of enemy movement to place an effective shot. Since the zombies move somewhat randomly, this can be quite tricky. At least you don’t have to wait long for defeat: each level ends quickly (typically a minute or less), especially once night falls and zombies pour in from all sides. Time acceleration is also available to speed things up. While I certainly respect the strategy involved when dealing with severe limitations in your arsenal, Atom Zombie Smasher isn’t balanced enough to become enjoyable. I mean, what are you going to do with two barricades and three mines? Lose, that’s what.

IN CLOSING
I think Atom Zombie Smasher is supposed to be unbelievably difficult on purpose (like a real zombie apocalypse would be), but you have to throw players at least a little glimmer of hope every once in a while. This is one game where randomization really hinders the enjoyment: given a generally ineffective, uncomplimentary, and inadequate assortment of items, you can’t possibly protect your citizens well, so it’s a mixture of some planning and mostly luck (which way the zombies end up moving) to survive two rounds of helicopter rescues. Maybe it’s because we’re used to moderate success in these zombie games that the challenge level of Atom Zombie Smasher is off-putting, but I didn’t have fun gradually losing each campaign. That’s not to say Atom Zombie Smasher is a total loss: the random elements do bring the unexpected, and the game has support for user modifications and four-player cooperative play on the same computer. Planning is strategic fun, but you can’t feel like things would be more interesting with access to additional units with better abilities in each level. You can also upgrade those units during the campaign, although their improvements are insignificant at best. When even the nuclear weapons are woefully ineffective, barely disintegrating a city block, you might want to ease up on the difficulty. Atom Zombie Smasher is simply too random and too hard to appeal to a mass audience.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Trapped Dead Review

Trapped Dead, developed by Crenetic Studios and published by Headup Games and Meridian4.
The Good: Multiple characters with separate inventories and varied abilities
The Not So Good: Excruciating slow pace, one-click automated combat is very boring, ineffective weapons, linear missions, sporadic checkpoint only saves
What say you? A tactical zombie game with dull fights and a sluggish tempo: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The zombie apocalypse has replaced World War II as the go-to setting for computer games. I don't need to list all of the games involving these undead beasts, but I will because it will make my review longer: Left 4 Dead, Zombie Driver, Plants vs. Zombies, and Larva Mortus, just to name a few I have reviewed (with more on the way...don't worry!). Trapped Dead, an import from the strong PC playground that is Germany, combines the thirst for hunting decaying humans with an old-school tactical game. That seems enough to separate it from the ever-growing pack, so let’s see if fending off the horde results in a good time.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Trapped Dead are serviceable at best. The environments are varied and occasionally exhibit a nice amount of detail, placing your characters into a plausible setting. The characters could be better animated, and, for a zombie game, the gore is toned down significantly (possibly due to the German developmental roots). Special combat effects are rare: most of the time, you’ll just see a health bar trickle down and zombies fall over. The overall presentation is very reminiscent of those classic tactical games, although Trapped Dead does come in all three dimensions. The sound design is below average: middling effects during combat are coupled with generally terrible voice acting, which is honestly not surprising for a foreign title. Overall, there is nothing to write home about on the graphics and sound fronts.

ET AL.
Everyone’s a zombie! Uh oh! Trapped Dead is a tactical strategy game played from an overhead perspective, where you must lead an intrepid group of characters towards safety. The single player campaign offers a number of levels but in very linear, restrictive layouts. In addition, the game lacks difficulty settings and you can’t skip the opening credit sequence. The game also restricts when you can save: there are only very occasional save points where you will respawn if you die. Must be the extreme lack of disk space on the PC. Trapped Dead offers cooperative multiplayer that is so popular in other zombie titles, although I was never able to find another game in the server browser (I wonder why). With limitations in several areas, Trapped Dead’s features list could use some enhancements.

The controls of Trapped Dead are a bit odd, freely switching between the left and right mouse buttons to accomplish tasks. You left-click to move and right-click to interact, but use the right mouse button to box select enemy units. At least the game hints at the correct key in the lower-right portion of the screen when mousing over various objects in the game. The camera view can be locked to your characters or moved freely using the WASD keys, and you can easily toggle between walking slowly and walking very slowly. The function keys are used to select the different people that become a part of your team. You’ll eventually meet six characters (though you’ll only have four at a time) that exhibit a nice variety in abilities, specifically agility, accuracy, strength, and stamina. While the differences aren’t too significant, it does allow for some consideration when planning the next attack. Characters do not improve their abilities over time, however, and you cannot customize their skills or add new talents during the campaign. Each character has an inventory where they can carry weapons, ammunition, and items like grenades and health kits. Trapped Dead features a good-enough selection of weapons: chainsaws, bats, axes, swords, pistols, shotguns, rifles, and crossbows.

Unfortunately, fighting in Trapped Dead is outrageously boring. All you need to do is right-click on an enemy (or box select a group of enemies and then click) and your characters will do the rest. This does cut down on having to click the mouse every second, but it doesn’t make for scintillating gameplay. It’s like an action RPG where the game does all the work for you. Of course, in role-playing games, you are also given spells to vary up the action, but Trapped Dead lacks any sort of variety in the fighting. Most of the weapons also have terrible accuracy and low damage, making close melee fighting the better option. The game usually does a terrible job selecting the most appropriate target if more than one enemy is box-selected. But as long as you don’t alert too many enemies at once, you’ll do fine. Coupled with the bland combat is the glacial pace of the game: walking (and even running) everywhere takes such a long time, and you see your enemies long before you can walk over to them, removing the suspense common in zombie games. The game lacks transparent walls, so your view is routinely obscured by the level layouts, although you can miraculously see into rooms you have yet to enter. Also, opening a door holsters your weapon (apparently it takes two hands) and changing a weapon stops your movement and erases any commands you might have issued. The game is difficult not because of the AI, but because the weapons are so terrible: it seriously takes twenty shots to land enough bullets to take out a low-level enemy. In addition, only two of the six characters can actually use health packs: an insane design decision. The small glimmer of hope Trapped Dead offers is when you have to compensate for the deficiencies of your characters (like the wheelchair guy not being able to use stairs), but these instances are few, scripted, and obvious. The AI is quite simple, only becoming a threat when present in large numbers. In short (too late!), Trapped Dead is an uninteresting chore to play.

IN CLOSING
Trapped Dead is a good idea on paper translated into a tedious game experience. The problem is two-fold: the game’s slow pace and hands-off combat. Simply walking around and engaging zombies is a drawn-out process because everyone moves so slowly (even when running), from the survivors to the zombies. While this might add time to make important tactical decisions, the combat doesn’t require any thinking: all you need to do is select an enemy and your characters will continuously hit them on their own until the zombies fall over. Thus, Trapped Dead simply becomes a matter of not getting overwhelmed, isolating a couple of zombies at a time. The weapon variety and different character attributes add some spice to the mix, but it’s not enough to save the title as a whole. While the game does offer cooperative multiplayer, I never found anyone to play with, and the use of fixed checkpoints that are not preserved if you exit the game are an arbitrary and annoying limitation. The somewhat unconventional control scheme also doesn’t help matters. Simply put, the zombie invasion of Trapped Dead just isn’t interesting.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Total War: Shogun 2 Review

Total War: Shogun 2, developed by The Creative Assembly and published by SEGA.
The Good: Large tactical battles, persistent multiplayer supporting strategic campaigns and clan competitions with new items and abilities unlocked through quick tactical battles, online human players can replace AI opponents in single player campaigns, ten clans with varied bonuses and difficulties, comprehensive selection of province improvements, agents and units gain experience and unlock new skills, delegate family members to specific roles, conduct believable diplomacy and trade with other clans, intermediate missions give subtle direction, AI not completely terrible, interactive tutorial, looks very nice
The Not So Good: Simple chaotic combat, one campaign objective, superficial economics and province morale calculations, only four historical battles, recycled tactical maps, all clans forced to declare war on you when victory is near, multiplayer connections can't be canceled once established as you wait for more players, no earned experience if opponent quits while losing
What say you? Enhanced multiplayer accompanies the usual mix of strategic and tactical gaming with streamlined gameplay and usually interesting decisions: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Partial war is for weaklings. What we need is TOTAL WAR. Thankfully, the very British folks at The Creative Assembly have provided exactly that over the past ten years, visiting such exotic locations as Japan, Europe, Rome, Europe again, the World (but mostly Europe), and France, and allowing you to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them. Now it’s time for the Total War series to go back to its roots (because, frankly, there are only so many countries in Europe), Japan, accompanied by flashier graphics, more robust multiplayer, and an inane name change. Has the series run its course, or is there still some strategic and tactical life left in the aged carcass of Total War?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Total War: Shogun 2 features some impressive graphics, starting with the massive battles the series is famous for. The individual units have a remarkable level of detail, with distinctive armor and period-appropriate clothing that firmly establishes the setting for the game. The game takes advantage of motion-captured combat animations produce a dynamic, fluid battlefield that looks great up close. Particularly notable are the close-to-death animations for defeated units as they roll around on the ground in agonizing pain: pretty cool/disturbing. Total War: Shogun 2 also features good effects for flaming arrows, gunpowder weapons, and catapult impacts. The environments are mountainous vistas with authentic architecture that, along with the distinctive Japanese art style incorporated into the game, definitely feels like medieval Japan. The strategic map isn’t too shabby either: there are some nice textures and small details on the large map of Japan, and unexplored areas reek of Elemental (using a cloth map for fogged regions). Plus, you can now rotate your view of the map...yay, I guess. The sound design is pleasant as well: chaotic battle effects, fine voice acting, and suitable background music to accompany your bloody campaigns. Overall, Total War: Shogun 2 looks and sounds great.

ET AL.
The Shogun needs to be replaced. Vote him out? No, kill everyone instead! That’s how they do things in medieval Japan. Your objective: slash and burn your way across the islands of Japan and take the city of Kyoto. You can choose between ten clans with different trails (like more income from farms, increased trade income, or reduced upkeep for specific units) that alter your general strategy slightly. Each clan offers a different difficulty based on where they are located, and the victory conditions are also changed slightly based on who you choose, taking different provinces on your way to Kyoto. Total War: Shogun 2 starts with the tutorial, which offers a campaign that walks you through the basics of the strategic mode and tactical battles. There are also three standalone tutorial battles plus two naval encounters that are incorporated into the campaign. The game features a comprehensive HTML encyclopedia that offers much more information than the trite, useless manual. In addition to the single player campaign and multiplayer options (which will be discussed at length shortly), Total War: Shogun 2 features historical battles (only four, disappointingly) and a custom battle mode that takes place across eleven maps against the AI, where you can specify size, season, time limit, and army composition.

The strategic campaign is a turn-based affair, where each season you can move troops, construct buildings, and accomplish all the varied tasks the leader of a medieval Japanese clan must undertake. Total War: Shogun 2 gives you short, long, and “domination” length campaigns that change the number of provinces you must conquer in addition to taking Kyoto. Because of the sheer number of AI-controlled clans, turn resolution takes a while, and you can’t do anything while you watch the colorful logos pass by, as the task does not run in the background. Total War: Shogun 2 gives you a grand selection of buildings to construct; they generally allow you to recruit troops or special units, collect resources (food, gold, iron, timber), put up defenses, or affect trade and movement. Once certain technologies are researched, you can upgrade your structures to better versions. Each city has only a limited number of slots available for structures, which makes you specialize in each community and think about your choices, a far better alternative than being able to build everything everywhere. This also tends to lengthen the campaign as you wait for reinforcements to make their way from your rear, established cities with the advanced buildings. Taxes are collected from each province and used (primarily) for military upkeep. You aren’t given very many options for tax rates: there’s a level that makes everyone happy, most people happy, some people happy, and nobody happy. Keeping your constituents content is easy: choose the “most people” setting and garrison troops at the trouble spots, which are color-coded on the clan management map. Trouble usually takes the form of religious differences (assuming you keep tax levels reasonable) that can result in riots and rebellions, but generally keeping everyone satisfied is trivial.

Total War: Shogun 2 comes with an extensive technology tree consisting of over forty “arts” you can study, divided into military and domestic fields of study. These unlock new buildings and offer small national or unit-specific bonuses. Usually you have a number of options to choose from, letting you pick the most appropriate art for your current strategy. You will also spawn family members: sons that can become generals commissioned to a specific role (warfare for reduced recruitment costs, supply for a higher replenishment rate, development for lowered construction costs, and finance for increased tax income) and daughters that can be married off for diplomatic purposes (just like real life!). You can also recruit special agents that will gain experience and earn upgrades: the ninja and geisha (assassin and spy), monk and missionary (religious conversions), and metsuke (eliminate enemy agents) are available for covert operations that cost gold on top of the unit’s initial price.

Honor is important: every time you violate an alliance, lose a battle badly, or become (gasp!) Christian, relationships with your generals and other clans will deteriorate. Speaking of other clans, diplomatic options in Total War: Shogun 2 are comprehensive. You can choose from trade agreements, military alliances, vassals (50% of income in exchange for mandatory military protection), war, peace, hostages, and marriage. The AI does a good job with reasonable counter-offers (best I’ve seen in a game in a long time). Unfortunately, diplomacy becomes a non-issue when the current shogun decides you are too much of a threat and unites all of the remaining clans against you. I actually wish that you could attain an alliance victory, and it's sad when all of your former friends and trading partners are forced to rally against you. Overall, I was pleased with the competency of the AI, moving armies around in a plausible manner, engaging adjacent enemies intelligently, and amassing balanced force counts in relation to human players. Finally (whew!), there are dilemmas, events, and missions to decide on and undertake that add a bit more flavor to the campaign. While there are certainly a lot of choices to make (force composition, unit upgrades, character traits, et cetera), with a focus on all-out war, the campaign mode can get repetitive as you slowly march across Japan, waging war against most you encounter.

Multiplayer has gotten renewed emphasis in Total War: Shogun 2. Now, several of these features were apparently in Empire and/or Napoleon, but they are new to me! First, you’ll start by creating an avatar: your in-game general who will lead your forces to utter defeat (at least in my case). With battle experience comes points you can spend on new skills (melee combat, leadership), which will in turn activate new traits to define your character. You can also collect armor that, when all the pieces for a set are earned, rewards a retainer, a small bonus in the form of an advisor or item. You can then decorate your avatar with armor and clothes to look like a total dweeb. You can select several veteran units to carry over from battle to battle, who will also earn skill upgrades over time. Total War: Shogun 2 features interesting clan support: using Steam groups (meaning any existing Steam group take part in the game: neat), whichever clan earns the most victories in a particular province claims it, earning the participants special skills for their units. Clans are organized in a pyramid league with promotions (like soccer), so it’s an interesting diversion. Matches can be found browsing for opponents, supporting up to eight combatants. Once a connection to an opponent is made, you can't cancel or exit the game while you wait for other players that may not even show up: I have sat at the matching screen for upwards of five minutes simply staring at the screen, not able to do anything. At first I though it was connection problems, but I'm pretty sure the matchmaking system is waiting for four players before starting the game, which sometimes is not a good idea. In addition, players can freely quit right in the middle of the battle without any repercussions, robbing you of experience points that you should have earned: this is really annoying, and the game should automatically award you with victory when this occurs. You can also drop-in to other player’s single player campaigns, taking the role of the AI during tactical battles; I think that’s really cool (and fun to ruin other people's campaigns), although it looks like you don't gain any experience this way (sad). Finally (whew!), you can start two-player cooperative or competitive online campaigns, saving and resuming your progress at a later time, although the popularity of this feature seems to be quite low.

Tactical battles use where armies on the campaign map meet to determine the layout of the battlefield; the maps do not seem to be randomly generated (I played the same map twice in a row), but I can’t find a map count because all of the files are zipped up together (plans foiled!). The first step is to deploy your forces, and then march across the field of battle. Even though the battles are pretty quick (less than fifteen minutes, I’d say), you can adjust the game speed to make time pass even faster (or slower, if you choose). Each army should have a general, who can use several special abilities to inspire and rally their troops. Units in Total War: Shogun 2 include swords (katana, samurai) for close-quarters combat, cavalry (sword and bow) for charging, spears (yari, Britney) for cavalry, bows and rifles for ranged attacks, and siege weapons for really far ranged attacks against castles. Each unit has several attributes and may have special abilities like stealth, mines, rapid volleys, or unique formations that can be triggered during combat. Experienced gained on the battlefield will improve attack, reload time, accuracy, morale, and fatigue. Ordering units is easy: Total War: Shogun 2 uses a right-click-on-the-left-and-drag-across method to specifying your troops facing and spacing, which works well. There are a number of pre-defined starting formations for all of your units with fancy (crane’s wing, reclining dragon, bark of the pine tree) but very vague names. Grouped units will retain their relative spacing when issued orders (instead of simply going in one long line). While sometimes this is useful, it can be annoying when starting a new battle and your units begin in weird, nonsensical arrangements that must be manually sorted.

The combat is relatively simplistic, thanks to the decreased unit count of the period. In general, swords beat spears beats cavalry beats swords, plus ranged units. This means that your tactical options are pretty limited: just make the right troops attack the right enemies without allowing them to do the same. Things are a bit more varied with veteran units and special abilities, but the general guidelines still apply. You must be wary of unit morale (clearly displayed above the unit flag) and fatigue, and take weather effects (reduced range and movement during rain or night) into consideration. Forested areas can be used to hide units, and river crossings and fortifications tend to funnel units. Total War: Shogun 2 makes it almost impossible to retreat units once they are committed to battle, so must be careful or throw more troops into the fray. This results in messy, chaotic combat that lacks the subtle adjustments present in more contemporary war games. Battles are over quite quickly thanks to fast movement speed and small battlefields that don’t add empty space just for dramatic effect.

Battlefield engagements aren’t the only warfare you can engage in. Sieges against enemy fortifications are interesting because of the design of Japanese castles: they are a series of large battlegrounds separated by walls that allow for successive engagements against the defending forces. You don’t need artillery to break down the walls, however, as most units can scale or burn down gates on their own. The result is something you won’t necessarily want to auto-resolve each time. Naval battles are less interesting, involving light, medium, and heavy ships that rotate slowly around each other until they get close enough to board. Since the ships use rowers and not wind, boats can become tired over time (though battles rarely last long enough for that to occur). Naval units are used to pirate trade routes and speedy unit transport, and a single ship can transport an army of any size: not exactly realistic, but an OK simplification. Finally (whew!), the battle AI in Total War: Shogun 2 is decent, and provides a challenge on “hard.” As a defender, the AI will simply stay put on advantageous terrain, a smart strategy but something I found kind of annoying in quick battles but realistic nonetheless. I guess that’s why the defenders have the advantage. The AI uses their units well: pulling cavalry for flanking maneuvers, engaging your units with the appropriate counters, and keeping ranged units out of harms way. At least on hard, they do; I wish there was an option to play the campaign and tactical battles on different difficulty settings (medium, hard would be my choice).

IN CLOSING
Total War: Shogun 2 features an effective combination of strategic planning and tactical battles. While this is (obviously) very similar to every other game in the series, this time around the expanded multiplayer features and streamlined gameplay make Total War: Shogun 2 a recommended title. Multiplayer gives you a persistent character that earns new skills and items with every battle you win, outfitting him with armor and sidekicks for minor bonuses. The online aspect also includes clan competitions using Steam groups: whichever group wins the most battles in each territory claims it. You can play others in quick battles, supporting up to eight combatants, or online campaigns for two players in competitive or cooperative modes. Because of the setting, the tactical battles lack some depth, as the unit relationships are quite straightforward (swords beat spears beat cavalry beat swords). Still, there are some considerations to be made regarding veteran units and special abilities, but generally combat eventually devolves into a gigantic mass of humanity, but you can decide which units to throw into the mix. Sieges are appealing, alternating between taking down fortifications with catapults and open field engagements. The AI seems to be more competent this time around, especially when playing it on high difficulty. The strategic campaign features a number of interesting decisions regarding the research tree, diplomacy and trade (infinitely more enjoyable thanks to good negotiating AI, at least until all-out war erupts), and jobs for family members. Your clan choice also grants a number of minor bonuses. Solving unrest is too straightforward (lower taxes, garrison more troops, or send in a missionary), but intermediate missions and events mix things up a bit. I like how the limited number of buildings allowed in each province allows for specialization, not simple spamming of every structure in every city. However, because of the combat-only overall objectives of the campaign, each game plays out generally the same, despite variety in clan abilities and other choices. What really spices up the campaign, however, is the ability for other human players to “drop in” and take command of the opposing army, another fine multiplayer feature. Other auxiliary features disappoint, however, as there are only a few historical battles and eleven maps for custom battles. In the end, a revisit to Japan works well, retaining the solid tactical and strategy components and offering plenty of decisions to make along the way towards shogun. While Total War: Shogun 2 lacks the depth desired by strategy veterans, there is enough here to interest most gamers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Theatre of War 3: Korea Review

Theatre of War 3: Korea, developed by 1C Company and published by Battlefront.com.
The Good: Dynamic strategic campaign, unique setting, detailed weapon characteristics, comprehensive tools for user modifications
The Not So Good: Terrible formation choices lead to outrageously unorganized units, questionable tactical AI may or may not engage the enemy, no use of cover, outdated interface, only nine maps for all game modes, lacks scripted standalone missions, poor game performance, substandard sound design
What say you? This once-notable real time strategy series has been clearly surpassed by better rivals: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While World War II has obviously received a large amount of coverage in the realm of computer gaming, the Korean War has been largely ignored. The first major divide between American democracy and Soviet communism, this conflict erupted as North Korean forces invaded the South. I direct you towards this animated GIF for a complete historical summary of the entire conflict. Anyway, somebody has to tackle this notable event, and that honor has fallen to the Theatre of War series. This tactical military game started with a fine first edition followed by a disappointing second iteration where the interface, AI, and brevity all significantly hindered enjoyment. The level of detail and control that defined the early series has been replaced by quality alternatives (interestingly published by the developer of this game), so it’s time see whether Theatre of War 3: Korea can regain some of the luster.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Theatre of War 3 are largely the same as Theatre of War 2 from almost two years ago. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as the game features striking landscapes with rolling hills, entrenched positions, and sporadic urban areas. The explosions are OK: not overstated but able to be noticed. The infantry units are small when viewed from the most utilized perspectives, and the tank models are recognizable without being overly detailed. Tracers and bullets scream across the landscape, but Theatre of War 3 offers nothing that we haven't seen before. It's a bit surprising, then, that game performance is so poor: I routinely experienced game freezing for seconds at a time during combat using the same general quality settings as with comparable RTS titles. Load times are also lengthy enough to make me think the game crashed. The sound design is generally disappointing: the battle effects are repetitive and not detailed and the voice acting is sparsely used. There isn't even any music: there is a music slider in the options menu, but it's disabled, which is both funny and sad (the manual invites you to import the music of your choice!). In all, Theatre of War 3 has progressed very little from previous iterations.

ET AL.
Theatre of War 3: Korea takes place in the theater of war known as Korea. This is a different setting that allows for World War II-era American and Soviet hardware (plus helicopters!) to duke it out. The game starts with a very bare tutorial that teaches only the very basics of combat, movement, and planting mines. Theatre of War 3 features two campaigns, one for North Korea’s initial assault, and one for South Korea’s (well, really those meddling Americans) counterattack. Instead of offering pre-canned missions in a linear order, Theatre of War 3 gives you a dynamic campaign where you order battlegroups around and then play out the battles whenever paths intersect. New groups can be called in at a home province, and groups can move one province per turn. Since only one group can occupy a province at a time, this keeps the strategic mode manageable. Before each battle, you can choose the difficulty level (toning it down when outmanned) and pick units to represent your righteous side. While not the deepest strategic mode on the planet, I prefer it to a static series of simple scripted missions. Of course, it would be nice if Theatre of War 3 actually featured at least a couple of standalone, scripted missions for those who like a more structured single player experience.

Unfortunately, the campaign battles take place across only nine maps; not even the same map is used for the same location, as the game does not preserve damage from previous battles in the same province. I guess nine is the magic number, as it’s exactly the same number of maps used in the previous game. At least Theatre of War 3 has a nice set of tools: the game includes quick campaign and mission builders, where you can customize such things as the forces involved and weather conditions, and mission and map editors for more detailed creations. Finally, multiplayer is available for four to eight (supported on one map) humans through LAN play or the server browser. Despite the nice scenario generation options and dynamic campaigns, the features of Theatre of War 3 are limited in other areas.

You can pick your units before each battle within strict guidelines based on the regiment or division type of the group (for example, infantry divisions contain mostly infantry units). Theatre of War 3 features the usual arrangement of forces available during the appropriate time period: infantry, trucks, armored cars, tanks, self-propelled guns, heavy machine guns, artillery, howitzers, mortars, anti-air guns, and helicopters (which is the only unit that really differentiates this game from a World War II title). Like many comtemporary military RTS games, Theatre of War 3 treats an infantry squad as one unit, although individual attributes are tracked for each soldier. There are detailed weapon stats, from rate of fire and armor thicknesses to ammunition levels and morale. Theatre of War 3 does a good job creating realistic roster of units with which to shoot other people.

The interface of Theatre of War 3 is becoming archaic. While in general it is pretty typical for the genre (minimap, mouse commands), there are some areas that could definitely use some improvements. The orders are typical: stop, attack, attack ground, assault, ambush, retreat, defend, hook/unhook, smoke, disembark, movement (free, crouch, sneak, hold), firing mode (free, turret, chassis, suppress, hold fire), and plant or remove mines. The first area of concern is formations: when a group of units is selected, they will arrange themselves in an organized pattern at a specified destination. While this is great in theory, in practice it fails horribly. The problem is that you are only given three choices: one long line, one long column, and one huge “V”. If you have, say, your entire army selected, they will make one gigantic line instead of automatically going into, say, two or three rows. Units will also fail to travel in their assigned formation, becoming an incoherent mess on the way towards their destination. This shortcoming is inexcusable (especially since the same problem happened last time); Rise of Nations got formations right eight years ago. Theatre of War 3 also lacks a unit list for easy access, a must-have feature in my book. The tactical map is useful: an overhead view of the battlefield that works as a gigantic minimap you can issue orders from. Messages can be double-clicked to move to the area of concern, and time acceleration options are available. It can be difficult to choose the direction a tank faces when not selected as part of a group, and visible units cannot always be attacked: the game never says why the “attack” order icon is crossed out, giving no useful feedback to the user. As you can see, the interface of Theatre of War 3 needs significant work.

Destroying enemy units during battle earns victory points, which can then be spent on reinforcements or bombardments (or saved for a better mission score). Sadly, the combat of Theatre of War 3 is unrealistic because of the lack of cover and terrible unit cohesion the idiotic “formations” bring about. Units will attack on their own (good), but it’s hard to tell if they are actually doing anything by watching them (bad); Men of War flashed the ammunition icon during reloading and Combat Mission used color-coded lines, but such useful feedback is not available here. In fact, sometimes your units will simply sit there getting shot at, or drive backwards or in circles while failing to rotate their turrets and engage the enemy. The enemy AI rarely puts up a challenge, exhibiting random movement and dubious tactics. The game also features some poor pathfinding (tanks routinely charge directly through ditches, getting stuck in the process) that makes dealing with the limited formation options even more difficult. Theatre of War 3 is also not very challenging: I was able to win some missions by simply issuing one move order to the objective location, leaving the room and coming back to a victory screen. Theatre of War 3 would have been a decent game five years ago, but it’s antiquated and limited features do not compare favorably to recent strategy titles.

IN CLOSING
Theatre of War 3 is stuck in the past, a game that’s essentially the same as two and four years ago, which is an eternity in the realm of computer gaming. The problems are varied and numerous. First, the formations are dreadful: you can place your units in one giant line, one giant column, or one giant “V”, with no possibility of making any of these selections take up more than one row, spacing your units so far apart that they are eliminated quickly by the opposition. It’s completely unrealistic and laughably incompetent. Secondly, Theatre of War 3 doesn’t use cover, making infantry movement entrenched in fantasy. You are also given insufficient access to your roster of units, with no single list of all your units. Finally, the subpar friendly and enemy AI makes fighting frustrating and trivial. It’s not all bad news, however, as the units have detailed attributes, the dynamic campaign mode holds promise, and online multiplayer is available. Of course, there are only nine maps for all game modes (a seemingly arbitrary number eerily identical to last time) and the campaign recycles the same handful of maps over and over, not even preserving the same map for future encounters in the same location. Theatre of War 3 features a nice assortment of quick and detailed mission and campaign editors, but does not support scripted missions for single player action. The saddest thing is that Theatre of War 3 has almost the same exact list of complaints as before. I hoped that 1C had learned from their previous shortcomings, but apparently they have not, and the strategy world has moved on.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fate of the World Review

Fate of the World, developed and published by Red Redemption.
The Good: Several viable avenues towards victory, seemingly detailed internal data analysis, rooted in a real-world setting with near-future technology integration, only $10
The Not So Good: Predictable policy effects and a lack of randomness make the gameplay trivial and repetitive, limited game interaction, few scenarios unlocked in a set order, no difficulty settings, no scenario editor
What say you? An interesting concept, but not an entertaining game thanks to transparent relationships, repetitive choices, and limited replay value: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Global warming is a hot-button topic. If you were to believe shortsighted climatologists and Al Gore, we are all screwed thanks to human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to actual science (geology, of course), we are currently experiencing some of the coldest temperatures in the history of the Earth. In fact, for more than half of Earth’s history, there have been no glaciers whatsoever, and sea level should be drastically higher than it is now. Still, humans tend to think current conditions are “normal” (despite the fact that we are significantly below average in terms of average global temperature), so Al Gore gets his government funding and endorsement deals while people are fed exaggered lies. Debatable science aside, Fate of the World is a simulation where you must coordinate international efforts to decrease the impact of global warming, or die trying. Supposedly.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Being a management game, Fate of the World relies heavily on its interface, and overall it is a mixed bag. The game does offer easy access to each of the regions, and a green light indicates whether all of the card slots are utilized in each area. You'll be switching back and forth between the card and news displays often; it would have been nice to combine both of these screens to produce much more efficient gameplay. Fate of the World comes with a number of graphs for population, temperature, and contribution to global warming, but these are far less useful than the specific news items generated in each region. The policy cards offer usually clear descriptions of their effects, although I'm still unclear whether El Nino is classified as a storm event or a drought event. The 3-D globe is simply eye candy, serving no purpose and lacking direct interaction; events are displayed here, but they are much more organized in the regional news view. Two of the most important pieces of information, the global tally of emissions and regional relationships with you, are shown at the beginning of each turn and never seen again unless you want to tediously click through all of the world headlines again. Despite the generally easy access in Fate of the World, it still seems like things take one or two more clicks than they should. On the sound front, effects are minimal: news items are not given video or voiced commentary (maybe this is a good thing), and the music is generic and instantly forgettable (enough so that I had to go back and listen to it again to remember what it was like). Overall, Fate of the World features an expected presentation for a $10 management game.

ET AL.
Fate of the World involves enacting policies to combat global warming, while having to worry about regional conflicts in other areas (health care, unrest, supplies) as well. Each of the game's four scenarios are unlocked in order (boo!), so you must start out with the African tutorial. This short mission gives some short, brief, inadequate instructions: I needed four attempts to figure out how to win (hint: go hard with the education, environment, and security cards). After that, you get (in order) a medium-sized scenario, a large one, and an interesting variant where you are actually trying to cause global warming. Still, I was really disappointed by the limited scope of the scenarios: there are no small missions restricted to a couple of regions (other than the very brief tutorial) and no randomized sandbox options (each mission starts out with the same realistic characteristics for each region). Plus, Fate of the World lacks an editor for users to expand the game's content. The game does offer some clear winning and losing conditions, but even these cannot be changed or altered for a more varied experience. Also, Fate of the World lacks difficulty settings: these should always be present, no matter how much the developer thinks they know the capabilities of their audience. Finally, you are given no regional news information when starting a scenario, so you have no idea where to concentrate your first moves; it tries to make you waste your first turn, because apparently nobody knows what problems the world has when a new game is started. Bah, humbug, I say. At least the game is cheap: $10 is all it takes to potentially cause to downfall of humanity.

The game world (you know, Earth) is divided into twelve regions (easier to handle than individual countries) like North America, Europe, China, Japan, India, Djibouti, and Uranus. You can place agents into each region, which provides an influx of cash and allows you to play policy cards to hopefully bring about positive change. The cards are divided into several categories, based on what they affect: the environment, technology, energy usage, health care / education, and security. While the game uses cards, you aren’t dealt a hand of possible options and must make hard choices: your deck is solely based on what cards have been played (basic-level cards unlock more advanced options), so each game plays out the same way with the same alternatives. A sense of randomness here would be quite welcome: what if you couldn’t introduce biofuels as an alternative to oil? Fate of the World never lets you find out. That said, the cards to offer clear information on what will be affected, and whether the population with like the changes. Some cards are only active for a single five-year turn, while others repeat forever with a set maintenance cost. There are a lot of strategic options here, concerning which specific cards to play, which helps to alleviate some of the boredom caused by always having access to the same cards.

Basically, your job in Fate of the World is two-fold: slow global warming, and prevent negative news events. Sadly, the events are not as random as I would have hoped: they are very repetitive (you get the same type each turn until you enact the correct reform) and occur in the same regions (Africa and Middle East unstable? What a surprise!). Additionally, events do little to make the game interesting because they are all preventable. Drought? Play the anti-drought card. Political instability? Play the military card. Disease? Play the health care card. Water shortage? Play the card with the faucet on it. It’s all very straightforward and, subsequently, not terribly interesting. Gameplay is reactive instead of proactive: just watch the red news items and fix them next turn. You don't want to try and predict upcoming problems, because you’ll potentially waste money on unnecessary policies and the game gives you several turns to right the ship anyway. Playing cards is the only way you can interact with the game, so some users fill find this pretty limiting. Hard decisions are rare: you’ll have to pick and choose which areas to save (bye, Northern Africa!) in the beginning, but if you simply choose the most appropriate cards for each region, victory will soon be yours. Still, I wouldn't say the game is really easy, just that it's not interesting due to a lack of complexity involving the decisions that must be made. Things get more complicated when reducing global warming is involved, but there are still pretty obvious steps you can take to alleviate the effect. Fate of the World offers little replay value due to predictable conundrums with obvious solutions and a lack of randomness.

IN CLOSING
I certainly like the idea of Fate of the World: adapting a hot-button issue to produce an educational and entertaining computer game. However, the execution is lacking in several key areas. First, I felt the relationships between the policies you enact and the results they bring about are too simple. If there is illness, you play a health care card. If there are riots, you play a security card. If there are floods, you play an anti-flood card. It's just that simple for almost all of the game's areas of conflict, and that means there's no challenge in a lot of the aspects of the game. Playing Fate of the World is very reactive: watch the red news items in each region and enact the appropriate policies next turn. There's no real reason to predict things ahead of time, as the game gives you plenty of time to turn things around before you are excommunicated from a region. The game could benefit from some varied difficulty settings, to be sure. That said, the game does give you a lot of cards to play, and choosing the best pathway can be daunting on occasion given your many options; the result is that many people will find different ways to win. Still, the same events crop up in the same regions game after game, decreasing the need to replay a single scenario more than once. In addition, the cards you have access to remain the same every time: there is no randomization to what policies you can endorse, which ultimately makes Fate of the World much less interesting. Plus, Fate of the World only comes with three full-length scenarios and no way to expand the game with smaller, more varied missions. And with only the ability to play cards, actually playing the game can get quite monotonous. Ultimately, Fate of the World is interesting to play once or twice, but once you beat it, there's no reason to try to save the world again. Of course, for some people, maybe that's all you need for a $10 investment. In the end, Fate of the World falters due to excessively straightforward choices, limited scenario selections, abbreviated interaction, and a lack of random events.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 Review

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945, developed by 2by3 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Realistic battle results using many factors, detailed tracking of unit equipment and supply, good selection of large to gigantic scenarios, decent interface makes most information easily accessible, competent AI opponent, online game lobby and play by e-mail, customizable difficulty settings
The Not So Good: Tedious move-everything gameplay will be overwhelming to many, lengthy AI turn resolution if defending, terrible brief tutorial
What say you? This old-school wargame will have great appeal to those who love to manually position hundreds to thousands of units each and every turn: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For me, the name “Gary Grigsby” means “really scary complex wargame.” My introduction came with Uncommon Valor, which morphed into War in the Pacific, the Admiral's Edition of which was too complex for me to stomach. Additional entries include Steel Panthers, which spawned not one but two remakes, World at War, War Between The States, and Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich. The next entry is Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 (a very succinct title), a game I was intimidated by enough to ignore upon release. But, thanks to some inspiration and a poll, I’ve decided to take the leap and see if this tactical simulation of the Eastern Front is worth an $80 asking price.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 features nice graphics for a 2-D wargame. The game is played in a window at a fixed resolution, or at least I can’t find the option to alter this setting. The map is dotted with different colored tiles that represent varying ground conditions. While this results in the map looking “hexy” (most map elements feature 45o turns), it does look pretty nice when zoomed out. When zoomed in, however, things get less spectacular, especially mountain ranges which look like a hot brown mess. As with most wargames, units are presented as simple square counters, and battle effects are minimal to non-existent. One of the most maligned aspects of most wargames is the interface, and I have to say that War in the East does a good job making pertinent information easy to reach, especially because there is so much of it. Most is accessed from the menu bars along the top of the screen, where you can toggle displaying information on the map like units, forts, supply, factories, and victory points. The information tab lets you retrieve the order of battle, production queues, and weather report. Detailed information on each hex on the map is available by right-clicking: terrain, victory points, and the presence of forts, railroads, or ports. Each unit counter includes the NATO symbol, combat value, and movement points. In addition, the upper right corner indicates if a unit has moves, and the upper left can display experience, supplies, fuel, morale, or support units in living color. Finally the border of the unit counter indicates its headquarters, peer units, and any subordinates. The massive commander’s report contains sortable lists of everything in the game: units, HQs, air groups, leaders, battles, locations, and equipment. Overall, the interface serves War in the East well. As for sound design, things are predictably basic: typical effects for the genre and overly dramatic music I quickly disabled.

ET AL.
Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 is an in-depth strategic simulation of the War in the East. You know, the German-Soviet War that took place from 1941 to 1945. As presented by Gary Grigsby (and others). The game features four gigantic campaigns that have over one thousand units per side; as you might expect, completing even a single turn takes quite a long time with that many units to worry about. The game also includes nine “smaller” scenarios that still feature a lot of units: the smallest scenario in terms of turns still had over 300 units per side. Still, it’s nice that War in the East has a variety of scenarios for both the experienced wargamer and the very experienced wargamer. The game also includes an editor, so you can alter existing scenarios or create new ones if you so choose. War in the East also features nice multiplayer options, giving players both play by e-mail and an online lobby where you can send open challenges to any comers who happen to log in (it uses the same login information as Battlefield Academy, I think). Other wargames take note: this is how you grow a community: by having in-game matchmaking. War in the East has a range of customizable difficulty options that determine morale, fortification, building speed, supply, transport, and administration points for both the AI and human players. Additional options include fog of war, locking HQ support, and random weather. Unfortunately, scaling the learning curve for War in the East is difficult, due in large part to the awful print-out-and-read-along tutorial. It says: here's some numbers, here's how you move, here's how you attack, have fun! There are a lot of significant aspects of the game (supply, air units) that are simply ignored, forcing you to read the 377 page manual to figure out what the heck is going on. War in the East doesn’t help the image that wargames are difficult to learn.

The over 1,000 units of War in the East consist of regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps sized units (plus air groups). With the hex size at 10 kilometers, units don’t get too small in scale, which is definitely a good thing considering how many freaking units are present along the Eastern Front. War in the East also includes air groups, which are relegated to a support role and can be automatically integrated into battle plans, where they can bomb or transport units. War in the East features very detailed tracking of equipment and ammunition, down to individual bullets for every soldier across Russia. The game also has a seemingly accurate order of battle; I am certainly not going to argue with its authenticity! Leading your units are leaders, each of which are given a range of ratings to determine their effectiveness; they are automatically promoted or dismissed based on performance, although you can contribute some input to this process. Units have morale, experience, and fatigue, which establish their usefulness on the battlefield. Units must be less than five hexes away from their headquarters unit in order to receive supplies, and the HQ must be able to trace a path to a railroad station or supply city. Units that are poorly supplied will suffer attrition over time, especially if they are located in enemy territory. Administration points earned each turn can be used to modify the command structure or, in the case of the Soviets, buy new units. Factories can produce replacement vehicles, and reinforcements for your infantry can be brought up to the front lines. Finally, support units (artillery, mortars, rockets, et cetera) can be attached to existing units to assist during combat.

Each turn has two phases: a logistics phase where things like weather, withdrawals, air units, and recruitment are calculated, and the action phase where you actually do stuff. Most of your actions in War in the East will consist of either moving or attacking. There are several modes of transport in the game: traditional walking (or driving, in the case of motorized vehicles), rail, naval transport, and amphibious transport. When placing units, it is important to remember that only three units are allowed in each hex at a time, regardless of size (why you can have three corps but not four regiments in the same hex is beyond me). Each unit is granted movement points, clearly displayed on their counter, for traveling around the map. The remaining movement points after traversing to a highlighted hex is also clearly displayed: a nice touch. Attacking comes in two flavors: hasty and deliberate. Hasty attacks are useful against obviously inferior opponents: they don’t use as many movement points, but you can’t call in surrounding units for support. A deliberate attack, performed by holding “shift” while clicking, can incorporate units in adjacent hexes but essentially end the turn for the involved forces due to their high movement cost. How can you tell if you are going to win? The game calculates a combat value, based on many factors like fortifications, terrain, weather, support units, reserve units, morale, fatigue, and leaders, and displays it on each unit. This creates a rough estimate of how favorable certain maneuvers might be.

Playing as Germany or Russia in War in the East offers very different experiences. While Germany has the initially superior army, Russia grows over time, and if you can survive long enough to spawn some reinforcements, the sheer size of Russia will eventually dominate. The clear goals are a quick victory for Germany, and a slowing of the German advance for Russia. The AI, I felt, provided a good challenge appropriate for the audience this particular game appeals to: it will attack intelligently, maneuver towards vulernable areas, and generally behave in a historically accurate manner. The AI turns, though, take a really long time if they are on the attack, even with the message delays disabled. Despite a high level of detail in the game, the size of War in the East will prove to be daunting for most. The German High Command didn’t have to individually control every single unit in the army, so why should I? Personally, I would trade a little less control for a lot less micromanagement, but in War in the East, you are given no such choice.

IN CLOSING
The best thing about War in the East is the sheer scale of the game, almost perfectly simulating in intense struggle for Russia during World War II. The worst thing about War in the East is the sheer scale of the game: controlling hundreds to over one thousand of units individually each turn is something few will enjoy. I’m all for authenticity, but not at the expense of playability: the game is simply too big. Even when treating a stack of three units as a single entity, you are still moving at least a couple hundred things each turn. I'd would rather issue orders to ten HQ units and have all the subordinates move automatically than have to worry about over 1,000 units every turn. The bare tutorial doesn’t help matters. And that’s too bad, because there's a lot to like about the game. It automatically combines many factors together to produce a combat value, clearly displayed on each unit’s counter, that gives a good estimate of success. You’ll also need to worry about movement points, keeping units in supply by keeping their HQ close, and managing leaders to maximize victory. The AI provides a good challenger that manages their units well, especially when you consider the inherent complexity of the game rules. If you prefer taking on actual humans, War in the East features robust online options: both traditional play by e-mail and an online lobby system are included. War in the East comprehensively covers the Eastern Front, offering four colossal campaigns and nine “smaller” scenarios that are still quite large in scope. The interface also places most information a click away, a fine accomplishment for an intricate game. Still, I simply prefer the more user-friendly (thanks to smart automated subordinate units) Command Ops, especially for $20 less. If you ever wanted a game that simulates the enormous size of World War II, then this is your calling. However, the massive scale of War in the East makes the game generally unapproachable for novice wargamers or those who prefer a more hands-off approach.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Men of War: Assault Squad Review

Men of War: Assault Squad, developed by Digitalmindsoft and published by 1C Company.
The Good: Cooperative skirmish mode features escalating offensive battles against the AI, well balanced rare hero units, improved ballistics and damage beget realistic tactics, custom infantry squads, more maps and an editor, direct control remains extremely useful, marginally easier difficulty
The Not So Good: Still lacks AI bots for human replacement in competitive modes, somewhat pricey for previous owners, no verbose tutorial
What say you? This multiplayer standalone expansion delivers notable content thanks to spirited cooperative missions and more complete competitive online games: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the most interesting real time strategy games of recent memory is Men of War, a game that combined realistic combat, destructible terrain and buildings, and direct control of units. The multiplayer portion of the game was quite enjoyable, but could have benefited from a little more polish. Enter Men of War: Assault Squad, a standalone expansion that features enhanced multiplayer games and a cooperative skirmish mode. Add in new hero units and the empire of Japan, and we have a good reason to go back to World War II…again.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics and sound of Men of War: Assault Squad are generally the same as before; I did not observe any noticeable differences or improvements. Obviously, better hardware installed since the original game’s release two years ago will result in improved overall performance. The graphics still hold up quite well, as each of the units and environments are finely detailed, and the destructible terrain looks great. Explosions and weapon effects are nice as well, evoking the feeling of burning chaos. The voice acting has gotten better: none of the mission briefings contain heavily accented caricatured characters (say that five times fast), though the unit saying remain the same. Overall, little has changed in Men of War: Assault Squad, but the game still provides a great assortment of eye candy.

ET AL.
Dust off your Gamespy user account, because it’s time to head back to World War II with Men of War: Assault Squad. This standalone expansion places the emphasis where it should be: multiplayer. The new skirmish mode features a suite of fifteen missions that pits you and up to seven of your friends/random people against the AI in a cooperative setting. You have to start with the first US mission (which serves as a very bare tutorial; reading the manual is strongly suggested), but then the first maps in each three-mission campaign open up. Luckily, all of the maps are unlocked for online play, so if you are itching for the third Japanese mission, you can simply host a LAN match. Of course, you can’t save during a LAN game, so that’s the tradeoff for accessing all of the missions. While you can tackle the missions alone, it’s clearly intended to be enjoyed online working with others (three people seems to be the suggested minimum based on the objective locations, although it supports up to eight). The missions are long (hour to hours), but you can save your progress in a single-player setting. Capturing flags across the map unlocks more units and air strikes to assist with your attacks. The game gives you all of the objectives at once and tasks you with fighting towards the finish, clearing all of the flags in an order of your choosing. Reinforcement points are shared in co-op play: the players who has the least number of units gets the new recruits, though you can transfer units if you don't want to get blamed for losing that precious tank. Men of War: Assault Squad features infrequent auto-saves: while the game should save after each captured point, it does not. Joining the fray is Japan, complete with their selection of units and vehicles. Men of War: Assault Squad also features the same suite of competitive modes are before: assault zone (conquest), combat (deathmatch), and frontlines (one-sided assault). The game comes with a lot of maps that support up to sixteen players (eight in cooperative play): fifteen missions for the cooperative skirmish mode (three for each of the game’s five combatants: US, UK, Russia, Japan, and Germany), five frontlines maps, and thirty-two maps for the assault zones and combat modes. Men of War: Assault Squad also includes a map editor to expand the game even further. You can join the fray online using the Gamespy server browser (which works well) or over a LAN. Sadly, AI bots (still) will not replace human players who have dropped from a game, putting their team at a distinct disadvantage.

Men of War: Assault Squad features some minor tweaks and improvements to the basic gameplay system. First, ballistics and damage fidelity have been improved, including better balancing to incorporate the new ammunition types. The method of obtaining reinforcements remains the same: points are slowly accrued over time and spend purchasing new units. Other key features that remain intact include direct control of any unit (moving and issuing orders manually), vehicle repair, picking up weapons or gun emplacements, and accurate inventory tracking like ammunition and fuel usage. The interface continues to do a good job (considering how many options you have), allowing quick unit access and the ability to add abilities (heal, grenades, repair, reload, stance, place mines) to the quick bar permanently and in an order of your choosing. The game also uses cover in a fantastic manner, displaying a shadow where you troops will line up and incorporating the destructible terrain (like fallen trees or destroyed tanks) as options for cover. Of course, there’s always room for minor improvements: I would like the ability to spread out my troops more automatically using the mouse wheel (instead of placing them around the same rock), and it can be hard to tell units to enter buildings.

OK, new features time. First: hero units. Yeah, I know what you are thinking, but they are actually handled quite well in Men of War: Assault Squad. You are given ten points you can use to purchase more powerful units (like assault infantry, paratroopers, or the best tanks) that do not regenerate. New units are unlocked every couple of minutes, and it’s up to you to decide when to use your precious points. What this does, in effect, is decrease the likelihood of having really powerful units on battlefield, which results in more realistic conflicts. Another new feature is the ability to customize your infantry squads when you order them, choosing the specific members of each team (rifle, machine gun, anti-tank, et cetera). “Normal” infantry squads include a leader, two submachine guns, six riflemen, and one machine gunner, but you can alter this lineup if the tactical situation warrants it. Because of the high cost of tanks and versatility of infantry units, you can’t ignore the men of war (see what I did there?), which is how it should be. You can also call in off-map naval bombardments or aerial assistance to supplement your attack plans.

Normal competitive multiplayer has undergone subtle changes: overall, the game just feels better, smoother, more balanced. Infantry is much more useful thanks to significantly increased sight ranges, and cheaper tanks put up more of a fight as there is less of a difference between them and the more pricey versions. You have to approach Men of War: Assault Squad more like a simulation than a traditional RTS: just because you can see the other tank doesn't mean you can destroy it, as you must worry about armor angles, penetration amounts, and other factors that more simplified games simply ignore. Armored units are also very expensive, making their preservation important; this makes taking out an enemy tank even sweeter, since it really sets back their economy. The general strategy (which took a number of games for me to figure out) is to place infantry in the front to scout and put tanks behind cover (buildings, preferably) until they can flank or out-range the enemy. This is a rare RTS rooted in realism that gets the balance of infantry and armor roles right. Artillery now fires a barrage of shells at one location instead of one a single shell at a time for a more realistic adaptation that removes the capability of using long-range artillery to snipe opposing armored units.

The skirmish mode is the big draw of Men of War: Assault Squad (though, honestly, I find the competitive battles to be more fun), offering large maps with many objectives to capture, so you can unlock the additional units necessary to fend off the increasingly dangerous capabilities of the AI. You must also hold the objectives, as the AI will (given enough time and ignorance) sneak around and retake them. Putting the human players on the offensive is when Men of War works better, so the cooperative missions are great fun, despite being a bit repetitive due to the always-attack mindset and an identical assortment of units available each game. Reinforcements always come from the back of the map, making slow, methodical, measured movement across the map a must for victory. It’s always prudent to let your long-range assets (mortars, artillery) soften the enemy first, and then come in with a mix of infantry and armor on the flanks. This is where the cooperative options work well: you can split up the responsibilities, since the scale of the skirmish scenarios are a bit too large for one person to handle effectively. Dividing the units also forces you to work together with your allies, since you each have a relatively small but equal amount of units.

As always, direct control is great for picking out specific targets; while infantry units are usually fine to give generic movement orders to, controlling armor and support units yourself is recommended to keep them out of harm’s way (plus, pathfinding for tanks is suspect: they will happily drive through a house (or three) on the way to their destination). Men of War: Assault Squad features visceral combat, very intense and chaotic, like real war or something! The AI isn’t the best, but it is good enough to be a challenge in numbers: it uses cover, attacks at ranges appropriate for each of its units. It does, however, exhibit some really dumb moves at a noticeable frequency, especially moving units through exposed terrain (though a lot of human players do this, too). Still, the AI is a tough beast when they have the right weapons in the right place, and it knows where you are the most vulnerable. Overall, Men of War: Assault Squad is not as impossibly difficult as before (a definite improvement, since that was my major complaint of the original game), even when going at it alone: I was actually able to win most skirmish battles on “easy” using careful tactics, and some on “medium,” too. However, don’t ask me about “hard” or “heroic”: I am not a sadist. Overall, the addition of cooperative offensive skirmish missions, polished competitive multiplayer modes, more approachable difficulty, and other notable features makes Men of War: Assault Squad clearly superior to the original.

IN CLOSING
This standalone expansion to Men of War improves what I like most about the series: offensive missions and multiplayer. I’ve always felt that the game worked best when you are put on the assault, and that’s what’s clearly highlighted here (it’s in the name, people!). Men of War: Assault Squad retains the highly detailed ballistics, damage, and attention to realism that has defined the series. Infantry is always a force to be reckoned with, thanks to vulnerable tanks that can be disposed of quickly when dealt with using plausible tactics. Assault Squad adds the ability to customize your infantry squads by ordering individual units, further increasing their flexibility and usefulness on the battlefield. Another new feature is hero units: while they are more powerful and versatile versions of infantry and tanks, they are appropriately rare, as you can only order a couple of them per round once a specific time limit has passed. This actually makes the game more balanced overall, especially late in the match when before everyone would be fielding an unprecedented amount of high-end hardware. The new skirmish mode takes the best parts of the single player game, attacking enemy positions, and morphs it into a cooperative mode with increasingly more violent encounters as you slowly advance across the map, capturing locations to bring in more powerful reinforcements. Men of War: Assault Squad retains the high level of difficulty the series is infamous for, but it’s slightly easier than its predecessors and direct control of units allows you to attack specific targets and maneuver in a precise way. Of course, you can still just order troops around using more conventional methods and they will intelligently carry out your commands. The game still lacks AI bots to replace dropped human players online, but this is really the only significant area in need of improvement. I’d feel even better if it was $10 cheaper, but Men of War: Assault Squad remains an increasingly rare expansion that adds meaningful content and adjustments to an already spectacular real-time strategy game.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Inside a Star-filled Sky Review

Inside a Star-filled Sky, developed and published by Jason Rohrer.
The Good: Numerous item combinations gathered then absorbed at level exit, procedurally generated levels, enter enemies and powerups to alter them, flexible pricing, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Unflinching difficulty reached quickly, insufficient instructions, no explicit goals, lacks sound effects, no multiplayer
What say you? An action shooter where swapping powerups before exiting random creatures, combined with alterations made by entering items, enemies, and yourself, provides unique fun for a while: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Indie games are a constant source of interesting ideas. And by “interesting,” I mean “weird.” Take, for instance, Jason Rohrer, who rose to prominence with Passage and continued an upward trend with the excellent two-player storytelling game Sleep is Death. He’s back with another oddly-named game: Inside a Star-filled Sky. Curiously, the game does not feature stars or skies, but instead is an infinite recursive shooter that has you traveling through creatures, collecting and altering their powerups along the way. Or something like that.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Inside a Star-filled Sky features some low-resolution, pixilated graphics, but they actually work well given the context of the game. You’ll be entering (and exiting) procedurally-generated creatures, whose body shapes define each level in the game. While each level consists of colored squares, when zoomed out, it looks like a cute little creature of some kind. The bright colors serve up some nice variety as you venture through increasingly larger beings. The game also has a nice subtle highlight for the shortest path towards the exit, and smooth transitions when exiting a creature. So, despite the relatively simple presentation, it is effective. Sounds design is less so: while the game features some dynamic background music that adjusts based on the chaos on the screen, there are no sound effects for bullets or enemies whatsoever.

ET AL.
Inside a Star-filled Sky is an action game where you shoot enemies. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The gist of the game is that you are trying to escape the creature you are in: find the exit, and then you become that creature, trapped in another creature. Each of the game’s levels are procedurally generated on the fly, based off shapes used for enemies since you can enter and exit enemies for each level. There is no end to the game (there are technically over 2,000,000,000 levels) and no scoring involved, so people who need an overarching goal will be disappointed. I suppose you could set a personal objective of an arbitrary level to reach, and there’s always the motivation of collecting a badass assortment of powerups. Your character is moved using the WASD keys and aiming is accomplished using the mouse cursor: typical controls for any top-down shooter. While the game displays some basic instructions while you move through the first couple of levels, there’s no substitution for an extensive manual, something Inside a Star-filled Sky lacks. For about the first hour or so, I was really confused about a couple of game mechanics, but eventually figured it out (turns out you can’t enter anything until you pass level nine). Still, for a game that is this odd, a lack of specific documentation is a problem. Your progress is automatically saved, starting you out on the same level upon reentering the game, though with a different selection of creatures. This is actually OK, because if you get stuck (very likely, especially if you are greedy and start entering powerups), you can exit the game and come back in and hopefully fare better. There is no cooperative play, which is slightly disappointing. Lastly, Inside a Star-filled Sky currently features flexible, name-your-own pricing starting at $1.75 to cover bandwidth and credit card fees and is available for WIndows, Mac, and Linux.

In Inside a Star-filled Sky, you shoot things and collect powerups on the way to the level exit.

Oh, but it’s more complex than that! First, there are many (around ten) leveled powerups you can collect that affect your bullets, like bounce, distance, size, speed, firing rate, spread, and sticky. You can only carry three powerups simultaneously, so there is a Magicka-like combination mini-game here: you can add, say, level five cornering, level three sticky, and level four spread to create some zig-zagging mines with shrapnel. Or level six size, level four speed, and level two distance for a huge torpedo of death. Or level seven spread, level three fire rate, and level four burst for a crazy chaotic cone of manic destruction. I am still stumbling upon wacky combinations. In addition, the order matters (a cornering-burst-spread will behave differently than a spread-burst-cornering) and the level design (both corridors and large rooms) supports different solutions. The possibilities are many, and experimenting to find a combination you like is part of the fun. Thing is, you can’t get too comfortable with a single recipe, because each time you go up a level and exit a creature, your least powerful item is downgraded. Health powerups are also decreased every time you are hit. So, Inside a Star-filled Sky is a game of constant replacement, collecting powerups that will be given to you once you exit the creature you are currently in. Luckily, the game sorts your powerups by quality (making the poorest ones replaced first), making the overall goal to advance to the next level.

Here’s where the game gets really weird/interesting (if it hasn’t already): in addition to simply exiting yourself, you can enter anything you encounter by holding down the shift key. Why? Well, entering powerups lets you switch what its value is: you can queue up to three powerups inside the powerup at a time, but identical abilities will add together, effectively increasing its overall capabilities. This really lets you customize your loadout to feel like a total badass, at the expense of encountering some very, very, very difficult enemies inside the powerup. In fact, entering powerups is almost never worth it because of the drastically increased difficulty, unless it's a lowly level one item you can convert into a much better enhancement. You can also enter challenging enemies you meet, though you can only swap out an enemy’s powerups with ones of similar power they have inside, so this tactic is pretty limited in its appeal. It would be nice if you could enter enemies and steal their powerups, rather than simply switching them out with ones of similar power. It seems like the intent of entering enemies is to swap out their powers with other ones, like trading range for health, so you can get past them. Another viable tactic may be entering the powerups of the enemies you enter, hopefully swapping their attributes with less effective ones, but that seems like a lot of work when you could just shoot them in the face. You can also enter yourself and make a quick swap of powerup: if an upcoming enemy is far away, trade cornering for range and send him to his untimely death.

The AI is typical for arcade shooters: they move in predictable patterns (at least until to get to some higher levels, then they will hunt you down), and a crafty player can time their maneuvers to get past them. That’s not to say that Inside a Star-filled Sky is an easy game: some enemies are quite difficult, spewing out tons of bullets pointed in your direction, and when they are present in large numbers, rooms can be littered with enemy fire that can be impossible to bypass. Death is pretty common, but the penalty is thankfully slight: you simply go down a level and hearts replace the left-most powerup (the next one to be replaced). You will have to go back and defeat the same enemy that just killed you, but hopefully you'll equip some better powerups along the way first. Still, the game can be frustratingly difficult, as some enemies are placed at inconvenient locations; most players will reach a "glass ceiling" based on their skill, beyond which they will not advance. You will likely grow tiresome of being "stuck" on the same set of levels, and your personal limit might be reached rather quickly as the difficulty spools up fast after the tutorial messages end (I'm permanently hovering around level 20). You will also routinely get stuck with a terrible weapon combination, and suffer the consequence of getting knocked down several to many levels before you can right the ship. Still, the combination of powerup manipulation with entering and exiting your opponents (and yourself (and powerups (and powerups within enemies (and enemies within powerups within enemies (you get the idea))))) makes for a weird, but appealing, arcade shooter.

IN CLOSING
Inside a Star-filled Sky takes two novel, overarching concepts and combines them to produce an effective action shooter. First, there are over ten powerups you can collect inside each creature, holding three at a time that will be transferred to your arsenal once you exit your host (who you will then become in the next level). You can also enter any powerup, enemy, or even yourself to alter the powerups they (or you) contain. If this sounds kind of confusing, it is, at least for the first hour or so of playing the game: specific documentation would be really helpful in this regard. The end result is swapping powerups around, picking up increasingly better combinations to deal with the more powerful (and more numerous) enemies encountered at higher levels. You'll need to change your loadout constantly, as powerups degrade in quality over time. Inside a Star-filled Sky is like Inception: you’ll be shooting an enemy in a powerup in an enemy in yourself, ten levels up from where you began the game. Unlike a movie, however, Inside a Star-filled Sky has no end, as each level is procedurally generated based on the randomized shapes of each enemy, and you can keep going and going until you reach the upper limit of your skill (which happens way too quickly). This, coupled with the lack of a scoring system, means Inside a Star-filled Sky lacks a “point” or “goal” to reach for, other than trying to pass a certain level. Still, the varied level layouts and constantly shifting powerups means you'll be having fun until you reach your talent limit and the insurmountable hordes of AI creatures with superior weapons and numbers become too much. The game is best when played in short bursts, as the gameplay can become repetitive and getting stuck is a common problem best solved by exiting and coming back in with a new set of levels and enemies. Inside a Star-filled Sky is a very interesting idea, and shooter fans will find its unique mechanics rather intriguing.