Thursday, June 30, 2011

Battle Slots Review

Battle Slots, developed and published by Phantom EFX.
The Good: Large variety of spells and attacks, enemy resistances require different tactics, slot probability customization
The Not So Good: Repetitive and tedious drawn-out battles, some unbalanced spells and attacks, one-note campaign quests
What say you? This slot machine inspired role-playing game offers a unique approach with dull and occasionally lopsided combat: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Before computer games (remember? Me neither), role-playing games were handled with pen, paper, and dice of different shapes and colors (the more sides the nerdier!). But with increased computing power, all of these combat calculations are now done under the hood, letting the user concentrate on the battle at hand instead of having to do simple math. But dice aren’t the only chance-based method in gaming: enter the slot machine. Yes, these addictive devices that suck quarters out of Grandma have proven to be very effective in both real life and computer form. Now, the power of slot machines has been combined with a role-playing game in Battle Slots. Does this mix hit the jackpot?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Battle Slots features some relatively simple 2-D graphics. The focus is on the slot machine, which consists of different weapons and items that spin by. When matches are made, highlights shoot across the screen, which give a dynamic feel to the game. While each particular weapon and spell has a specific animation directed towards the enemy, the damage it causes is underwhelming: just a simple slash and a slightly redder enemy portrait. The pictures used for the enemies are varied and visually distinctive. Overall, though, this plain approach to the graphics is fine, but it isn’t memorable either. Combat is accompanied by appropriate sound effects for receiving damage and casting spells, some of which are done well. The game features no voiced dialogue during combat or the early tutorials, and the generic fantasy music is, well, generic. In the end, both the graphics and the sound of Battle Slots deliver exactly what I was expecting: no more, and no less.

ET AL.
Battle Slots combines slot machines with role-playing. The single player campaign has you traveling around the map, visiting towns and completing quests. All of the quests are exactly the same: travel somewhere and defeat whatever enemy happens to be there. This makes the campaign obviously repetitive and quite linear: the only choice you have is the option to hunt (battle) local animals in rural locations to capture their attacks for future use. The difficulty is poorly balanced: you can get stuck quite easily early in the campaign as you face enemies with powerful and annoying attacks. There is no severe penalty for death (just a do-over), but you’ll have to hunt animals between quests to level up and unlock more powerful abilities.

The strongest aspect of Battle Slots is the customization. First, you can choose six techniques (spells and attacks) to bring into battle, along with one from a defeated creature. You’ll quickly have to make tough choices in determining which attacks are best, and the available attacks and spells have good variety. Coupled with this is the ability to customize the slot chance for attack and magic items: if you use a lot of spells, you’ll want to alter your slots to display mostly magical items to build up mana. You can also adjust the probability of earning cash or experience with each spin. Additional customization options include bringing up to five runs that provide small bonuses and an ally to provide the occasional helpful spell into battle. Money earned in battle can be used to purchase new attacks, runes, techniques, and symbols for the slots. Clearly, the custom aspects of Battle Slots are quite strong.

Battle Slots, not surprisingly, involves a lot of spinning. On the slot machines there are several items that can be matched across twenty-five paylines: weapons (swords, clubs, axes), magical items (scrolls, potions), treasure, and weird things that give experience (bread?!). When the same item is matched, your enemy is attacked (if you matched a weapon) and an amount of attack or mana is built up. The attack and mana points are then used to employ techniques, the six attacks and spells you assigned earlier. You can only use one technique per turn, so even if you make multiple matches in a single spin, your opponent still has time to prepare some defenses. Once health is reduced to zero, the battle is over and the victor collects all of the money and experience earned by both parties. While it’s usually prudent to simply choose the most powerful spell or attack you can afford, damage resistance to the five attack types may alter your strategy a bit (although you’ll end up just picking something else in another category). Battle Slots is highly dependent on luck, and the opponent’s slots seem to be “better” than yours: I found a tendency towards more gold and experience for my hero and attacks for almost all of the enemies. This makes them really tough to defeat, as they get small attacks almost every turn and really powerful attacks every couple of spins. The enemies also tend to have some really annoying abilities you simply don’t have access to. It’s irritating when I earn gold and the enemy earns attacks, especially when you lose all the gold you earned when you die from all the enemy attacks.

IN CLOSING
Battle Slots is inherently more interesting than a typical slot machine game, but it isn’t quite up to the level of contemporary role-playing titles. The customization options are quite nice: you can choose different spells and attacks, and then customize the slot machine items to give you more spells and attacks (whichever you prefer). You are also limited in your choices, leading to tough decisions. The rest of the game, though, is (obviously) left up to chance, and the enemies you fight always have more attacks than you do, making them tough to defeat and leading to some balance issues. Strategic choices are dependent on which damage types the current enemy is resistant to, but beyond that, you’ll always simply choose the most powerful spell or attack you can afford. The campaign offers the same repetitive quests over and over again: battles against yet another foe. Your enjoyment of Battle Slots will depend on how much you like slot machine games. While the role-playing elements make Battle Slots more interesting than a typical slot machine game, traditional role-playing fans will be turned off by the repetitive nature of the combat.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Breaking The Rules Review

Breaking The Rules, developed and published by BTR Studios.
The Good: Frantic authentic combat, large chaotic battles with up to eight fighters at one time, online play, competitive fair AI
The Not So Good: Difficult to block or counter attacks, some game options must be unlocked
What say you? This 3-D fighting game offers a brutal take on realistic combat with numerous concurrent combatants: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One detriment of the PC gaming platform is the lack of a multitude of fighting games (another being that we don’t have the honor of paying a monthly fee for multiplayer). Sure, we get the occasional fighting game that isn’t heavily pirated, but we simply don’t get the large swath of titles that those evil consoles do. Sounds like it’s time to rely on indie developers to fill the void. Enter Breaking The Rules, a physics-based fighting game where multiple opponents engage simultaneously, which may or may not be breaking the rules. See what I did there?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Breaking The Rules is a visual mixed bag. The character models are done well and exhibit good detail, but everyone’s butt looks weird (either too big or too small): a strange complaint, but in a third-person game, that’s what you stare at the most. The fighting moves are well animated and convincing, but running looks silly, like everyone has a stick up their butt (again with the butt thing). The fights produce some humorous and painful ragdoll results: it’s slightly unrealistic, but still rooted in reality enough where hit by a chair looks like it really hurts. Each of the game’s eight environments are detailed, plausible locations (though the pit arena is drab), but ground textures could be better as some are noticeably blurry. Still, for a 3-D indie game, Breaking The Rules comes out on the positive side of things in terms of graphics. The sound design is quite basic: you get your fighting grunts, punches, and kicks, which work well but are a bit repetitive. The generic music is unmemorable, but overall I found the graphics and sound of Breaking The Rules to be decent enough.

ET AL.
Breaking The Rules is a 3-D fighting game, but unlike a majority of its competition, it can involve up to eight players offline or twelve online. At one time. Breaking The Rules features three tournaments that are unlocked in order upon successful completion (I just turned down the difficulty to “newbie” to get access to more options): the roman tournament features eight players fighting for points (earned for knockouts and strikes) across the game’s eight maps, the classic tournament has a series of one-on-one battles (like a traditional fighting game), and the custom tournament allows you to change the number of rounds per map and customize the number of human and computer opponents. While you can’t save your game in the middle of the battle, progress is automatically saved between rounds. You can also enjoy quick matches, with up to four players, or team battles with balanced matches (2v2 to 4v4) for a more friendly approach (too bad you have to unlock the latter option by beating the classic tournament). Breaking The Rules also features online battles (using Gamespy…remember that thing?) so you can embarrass yourself against real competition. The eight arenas don’t offer many tactical differences, although some have pits, weapons, and stairs in addition to the visual distinctions of various locations around Rome. While most of the options are standard fare for the fighting genre, the large battles make Breaking The Rules stand out.

Controls are typical for the genre. Breaking The Rules is best played with the Xbox controller where the four standard buttons are used to punches and kicks from the left or right. The directional keys are not used to determine attack types, just for positioning during battle. In addition, you can block low or high attacks, move freely around the map to engage other foes, or grab opponent or objects (chairs, bats, and tables can be used). Each of the game’s eight characters has subtle differences in their attacks, and there are certain button presses that will produce a series of more advanced attacks. For example, playing as T-Dog (he’s Canadian, obviously) and pressing X, X, B, X, and then A in succession will do a left punch, right forward punch, right low kick, spinning punch, and double kick. The ragdoll results are powerful and startling: I smiled more than once at the results of a successful combo attack. As you can see, the fighting in Breaking The Rules is much more realistic than in many fighting games, and that realism makes it a much more visceral brawler.

Continuing with the realism theme, Breaking The Rules doesn’t have a HUD or health display, although you can gauge your fighter’s stamina based on how fast they move and how hard they are breathing. I actually have no problem with this method and I think the minimal approach works well. Changing the focus of your attacks (which will need to be done often with so many opponents) is done by holding the left trigger and then turning which way you are facing, and the current opponent is indicated with bright green triangle. It takes some practice to get this method down, but it becomes intuitive after a while. In addition, you don’t need to be locked on to someone in order to attack them: a wayward kick has often taken out multiple opponents (or unintended ones) during the heat of battle. The game features very slow movement when you are locked on so that you can fine-tune your attacks: being at the appropriate range for punches and kicks is very important. Running away (by holding the left trigger) and moving back for a better position is a good tactic, especially because blocking is ineffective: while it does remove the damage caused by an attack, it still pushes you back and stuns you, making you unable to attack until the enemy hits air. This is done to prevent simply holding down the block buttons, but the lack of counter-moves makes Breaking The Rules very offensively-focused. The game’s battles are generally lengthy, although you can adjust the health parameters in the game options to satisfy your preferred battle duration (I like them short and brutal). The AI is very capable without cheating or feeling cheap: they will successfully chain together effective attack combs, especially on the higher difficulty levels. The computer usually doesn’t start attacking unless you are in-range (good), and although they seem to preferentially choose the human player as their personal punching bag, they will gang up on each other when there are more than three people left. It takes some skill to learn the ranges of your attacks so that you can assault the AI before they assault you.

IN CLOSING
Breaking The Rules is a good fighting game. The controls are straightforward, and mashing the four attack buttons results in some neat special attacks. Blocking is generally useless (it still stuns you, but removes the damage), which helps to speed up the action and produce some action-packed fights with relatively quick resolutions. The game is a matter of timing and range: choosing the right attack at the right time and engaging the enemy at the appropriate distance for the attack. Changing your focus between enemies takes some practice and precise facing, but with the subtle indicator used by the game, it’s not too bad. The lack of a HUD means health is a mystery (I have no problem with this, as it adds to the realism of the combat), though you can gauge it through breathing and movement speed. I feel the characters have a bit too much health by default, leading to some drawn-out fights; luckily you can adjust the stock values. The AI is a competent opponent, stringing effective attacks together. The large chaotic battles involving up to eight people at one time are a signature of the game and make some distinctive action. The online options are nice, providing some long-term enjoyment beyond the quick matches and tournaments. Those looking for a realistic fighting game featuring multiple simultaneous opponents will be pleased by Breaking The Rules.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Star Shipping Inc. Review

Star Shipping Inc., developed and published by Corbomite Games.
The Good: Clearly displayed dynamic prices for goods, fast games, only $3
The Not So Good: Random events affect game results too much, low replay value with only three planets and goods per game, upgrades and ships are not permanent despite costing permanent currency that accumulates slowly, completely automated combat
What say you? A repetitive quick trading game that relies entirely too much on luck for success: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Mobile games are all the rage. You can now enjoy a little fun in your pocket wherever you go, on Android or any of the lesser operating systems of choice. Of course, games are always better on the big computer screen, so many mobile games eventually make their way to the PC. One of those is Star Shipping Inc., a popular request amongst the people, which has now made its way onto the Mac and PC for all of our high resolution needs. This trading game has you zipping across the galaxy in your cargo ship, keeping profits high and the amount of holes in your vessel low (hopefully). Does this low-priced title translate well to the computer?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Star Shipping Inc. is clearly designed for the limited computing power of mobile devices, as all of the game is played from the cockpit of your ship, which looks decent enough. You’ll be starting at a couple of things: the map of the universe or pleasing images of planets and monsters you encounter. There are subtle animations of stars flying by as you travel, but overall Star Shipping Inc. is very low fidelity. The sound design only includes background music that changes according to in-game events. So while the graphics are functional, they lack a distinctive feel.

ET AL.
Star Shipping Inc. is a trading game, where you shuttle goods across the universe in an attempt to maximize your profits. Games are quick: the fuel limit restricts games to about ten minutes or less. While there is an extensive list of “funny” planet and goods names, you will always get only three planets in the same locations and only three goods with generally the same price ranges. This, obviously, reduces replay value significantly. At the end of the game, you earn “space chips” based on the profit margin you have achieved. These can then be spent on new ships or upgrades to existing ships in the next game. In an extremely odd move, upgrades and ships do not carry over from game to game, meaning you permanently lose any space chips spent on upgrades or ships; since space chips accumulate so slowly, this restriction is frankly baffling. It’s like if Call of Duty made you repurchase all of your weapon upgrades each round. The six available ships vary according to speed, firepower, armor, and cargo space, and the upgrades improve the same areas. Still, the temporary nature of the upgrades and ships means their appeal is very limited.

Your primary mission in Star Shipping Inc. is to trade, and the game makes this process very straightforward: prices for all three goods at all three planets are clearly displayed on the galaxy map, so you never have to write down prices manually. While the prices are dynamic, they never change while in transit (thankfully), so a good deal when you leave will still be a good deal when you arrive. But despite the upfront nature of trade in Star Shipping Inc., only having three planets and three goods makes planning trivial.

Space is full of danger (like poison gas from Uranus), and Star Shipping Inc. will usually trigger a random event during transit. Encounters while travelling involve meeting monsters or pirates who want your cargo and/or money. You are given several options: fight (a fully automated process), flee (a good option if you have high ship speed), or bribe (with a lower amount of goods than if you lost the battle). The game displays a difficulty rating before you make your choice, although results are still somewhat randomized: the game said these pirates would be a “piece of cake,” so I fought and lost $2,000 worth of goods. Screw you, dice rolls. Drones can be purchased to offer some protection during travel, but since encounters are never guaranteed, this might be a waste of precious cash. Still, it’s random how difficult the enemies are, so it’s simply luck whether you encounter “easy” or “hard” opponents. Random events when at your base or a planet offer no choice, simply a (usually negative) change in goods or cash. These events impact your success too much: you can plan the most efficient routes, but if bandits steal half of your cargo while sitting in port (and there is, of course, nothing you can do about it) or you encounter completely overpowered enemies in transit, then you just wasted your time.

IN CLOSING
Star Shipping Inc. will get the inevitable comparisons to Weird Worlds, another fast-paced space adventure game. This game, however, fails to deliver (so to speak) in many aspects of the game. First, the good news: Star Shipping Inc. makes trade easy by making the current prices plainly visible. The dynamic pricing also makes sure you can’t repeat the same trade route over and over. However, with only three goods and only three planets, Star Shipping Inc. is low on strategy. You can upgrade six ships with improved speed, cargo space, armor, or firepower, but these upgrades don’t carry over to a new game despite using currency to purchase the upgrades that does carry over, always putting you at a disadvantage if you choose to improve your ship. Encounters during travel with aliens and pirates offer choice in how to deal with them (fight, flee, or bribe), but you are at the complete mercy of the random events, which have a huge impact on your results (stealing money and/or goods with no repercussions) and can’t be prevented. You can spend the whole game maximizing your profit, but if the game decides that a powerful enemy is along the path to the base on your last turn, then you lose a significant portion of your cash and goods, negating an entire game’s worth of careful planning. Losing $4,000 just because the game said so is really, really frustrating. Star Shipping Inc. is fully dependent on luck, and the low variety of goods and planets means most people will tire of the space-based trade quickly.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

DiRT 3 Review

DiRT 3, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Online party mode and hardcore races, stunt-based gymkhana competitions and non-racing challenges, secondary objectives for campaign races, more cars and new tracks, slightly better graphics feature varied weather
The Not So Good: Additional content appropriate for an expansion or DLC, slick menu transitions removed, poor weather insignificantly affects handling, some mandatory races for campaign advancement
What say you? Incremental changes make for a disappointing full-priced sequel: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
DiRT 2 is one of my favorite racing games of all time. I like rally racing, so a game that featured a decent mix of simulation and arcade racing, a variety of game modes, robust multiplayer, and a slick presentation still holds my attention, even earning a coveted place on my desktop as a permanent shortcut. It’s been a long eighteen months since that game’s release, so it’s obviously time for the publisher to cash in once again. DiRT 3 includes the typical advertised improvements for a racing sequel: more tracks, more cars, more modes, more graphics. But is it worth more money?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
DiRT 3 enhances the generally stellar graphics of DiRT 2. The new environments have an awesome amount of detail, complete with plentiful trackside objects and easily identifiable regional features, like trees in Kenya, snow in Colorado, or boredom in Michigan. The cars are still excellent, looking just like their real-life counterparts and complete with incremental damage. DiRT 3 also features different weather conditions, like rain, snow, and night, complete with drops of water on the cars and snow thrown up around tight corners: neat. Nobody will fault DiRT 3 for its graphics. The sound is also marginally improved: convincing engine sounds are intact, and the crowds are much more noticeable as you drive around. Also, your co-driver is much more detailed this time around, giving specific gears for corners instead of “medium,” assuming you enable that option. The music has taken a back seat (so to speak) in DiRT 3 and is less emphasized. Overall, DiRT 3 features reasonable upgrades in both graphics and sound.

ET AL.
DiRT 3 is a racing game. Shocking, I know. The campaign tour has been revamped: instead of traveling around the world in your RV and choosing the events you like the best, you are hired by various racing teams one race at a time. The campaign is separated into four seasons, each with four championships of several races. Unlike DiRT 2, each season has a mandatory final event that must be completed (with a top three finish) in order to advance to the next season; this restriction goes against the freedom offered by the previous game, and I actually had to decrease the difficulty to pass the first season’s gymkhana final event (luckily, you can adjust the AI skill on a per-race basis). DiRT 3 also removes the neat loading screens from DiRT 2 that displayed stats while you waited, instead opting for boring static images of your car and random triangles. With good finishes, you earn reputation that unlock new events; you also gain additional reputation for not using flashbacks during each event and for completing side missions like a margin of victory or attaining a top speed. Still, I prefer the old single player campaign.

DiRT 3 adds two new racing modes. The old options are all here: traditional rally (the focus of the game), trailblazer, rallycross, raid, and landrush. New are the head-to-head mode, where competitors race on adjacent tracks, and the gymkhana stunt mode. In gymkhana, you perform tricks in an arena setting to earn points: spins, smash blocks, jumps, drifting, and donuts. It requires a lot of finesse and, subsequently, is quite difficult. Each new race is preceded by a boring, lengthy introduction that can’t be skipped; I want to race, not to hear British people talk. Like before, races are short: only a couple of minutes per event, so not approaching their real-life counterparts in length. Difficulty can be adjusted, changing the AI ability and driving assists like anti-lock brakes, racing line, stability, braking, and auto-steer. DiRT 3 also includes a number of arcade challenges where lots of points earn medals: smash attack (where you destroy robots, obviously), drift showcase, and speedrun (pass through gates as quickly as possible). You can also play time trials to practice each rally event, and compare your times to others online.

Speaking of online, DiRT 3 returns to the multiplayer realm with generally the same features. Yes, Games for Windows LIVE is back, and occasionally not saving my progress and locking up the game (awesome!). All of the single player race types are available online, and you can choose to try them all, or specifically do only rally or circuit events. New is a hardcore mode that removes the HUD, removes all driving assists, and forces all drivers to a cockpit view. There are also a number of party modes: transporter (capture the flag), invasion (destroy robots), outbreak (one driver is infected and must chase down the others), and cat ‘n’ mouse (get a slower car to the finish first). The party modes are decent fun, but the car is too powerful for the tight, small layout used for the matches. The matchmaking could be better, as there is no indication of how many games or players are in each category (a host browser would be quite helpful). Although not important for the PC, as we lack actual friends, DiRT 3 also includes split-screen multiplayer. You can also upload videos to YouTube from inside the game, but they are limited to short, non-HD clips.

DiRT 3 features over fifty cars spread across fourteen classes. This time around, there are more rally cars from many time periods: the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, the infamous Group B, 90’s, Rally America, Super 2000, and current WRC models. You also get SUVs for raid races and buggies and trophy trucks for landrush mode. In DiRT 3, you don’t have to buy your cars anymore: instead, you earn them automatically with experience. In fact, the more recent additions always award more experience for side missions during races, so there’s no reason to pick any older models. This makes you much less attached to your vehicles. There are give options for setting up your car: gear ratio, downforce, suspension, ride height, differential, and brake bias. They produce very minor differences in performance and can usually be ignored completely. The car damage is still quite arcade: running head on into a tree barely impacts your vehicle’s handling.

The new tracks are similar to the old tracks: Aspen is just like a snowy Baja with bumps and tight, banked corners, and Finland could just as well be Croatia. The layouts, a mix of tight and fast corners, are really interchangeable, so I’m not too excited about venturing to Michigan instead of China. Maybe if DiRT 3 incorporated actual rally stages that WRC fans would recognize it would be better, but the generic circuits are, well, generic. Weather effects are now in the game, offering snow, rain, and night conditions that frankly don’t affect the handling as much as they should. The handling is the same mix of arcade and simulation that requires skill without being too difficult to handle. The AI is also the same, performing much better in rally events than circuit races at the same difficulty level. I found that a setting of 4/6 for rallies and 6/6 for circuit races provided a good challenge (not winning, but placing in the top three to five) for a DiRT veteran such as myself. Flashbacks remain an excellent feature that allows you to re-drive the last ten seconds (or so) of a race, just in case: it’s way better than having to start from the beginning just because you happened to drive off a cliff.

IN CLOSING
DiRT 3 simply doesn’t offer enough improvements (like DiRT 2 did over the original version) to justify a full retail price. The campaign is essentially the same: finish well to unlock new races and cars. The cars and tracks don’t offer new tactics or abilities. The gymkhana and drifting events require some different skills (which I sadly seem to lack), and the online party mode does offer some unique thrills for a racing game (capture the flag, anyone?), but these are small consolations. The remainder of the online component of DiRT 3 is the same (including the constant insanity that is Games for Windows LIVE). While I normally don’t care at all about menus and loading screens, the ones in DiRT 2 were so great (offering personal stats and achievements while you wait) that their removal in DiRT 3 is very disappointing. The graphics have some new effects (rain, snow) and more detailed objects to race past, but overall I was quite disappointed in how similar DiRT 3 is to its predecessor: it’s more like an annual sports game than a true sequel. While DiRT 2 has been removed from my hard drive in favor of DiRT 3 (as this new version has the same content plus the handful of minor new features), I don’t feel good about doing it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

DETOUR Review

DETOUR, developed and published by Sandswept Studios.
The Good: Unique construction-based gameplay, online multiplayer with multiple game modes, explicit item counters, plenty of maps with an editor
The Not So Good: Inefficient interface makes it difficult to respond to enemy items quickly, fairly shallow strategy with common bomb-induced stalemates, weak AI, very fast pace leaves little time to plan, repetitive single player challenges
What say you? This chaotic light real time strategy game is handicapped by its lousy interface and constant bedlam: 5/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I am a road geek. Exhibit A: I take pictures of the ends of U.S. routes. So it should come as no surprise that a strategy game where you build roads has an added amount of interest for yours truly. DETOUR (more effective if shouted) is such a game: you are trying to allow convoys to traverse across the map by building the routes, and then using typical highway maintenance items like bombs and air turrets to prevent others from doing the same. No wonder the federal government is in debt: they are issuing powerful explosives to the Department of Transportation! I guess that explains all of the potholes.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
DETOUR utilizes simple graphics presented in an isometric perspective. Each map tile has an easily identifiable, but repetitive, design laid out in a square arrangement. The trucks are animated slightly as they traverse the map, and buildings show some signs of life. Nighttime maps are dotted with truck headlights, giving a different feel to the game. Explosions and the blurry EMP effects are done well, and round out a solid, plain package. As for the sound design, DETOUR has repetitive effects and very subtle background music: nothing too exciting or notable. Overall, though, I feel DETOUR delivers a decent presentation for the price.

ET AL.
In DETOUR, you are attempting to lay roads to allow trucks to reach the opposite end of the map. To serve as an introduction, the game features twenty-seven single player challenges. These include unnecessary pre-mission dialogue, and fail to incorporate the alternative game modes from the multiplayer aspect of DETOUR. It took me just under two hours to beat all of the challenges, and was only really “challenged” twice: the first medium mission with multiple enemies, and the very last one where everyone gangs up on you. Multiplayer is where it’s at, and DETOUR features an in-game browser to find opponents (although I was never successful at doing so). Games support up to four players, and AI bots can be used if you can’t find anyone else to face. In addition to the standard free-for-all mode utilized in the single player campaign, multiplayer also includes team modes, a shared mode (where everyone on a team uses the same roads, factories, trucks, and resources), a timed survival mode, and turret defense against a convoy bent on your destruction. Match rules can be adjusted, including the time limit, trucks needed to win, starting credits, and income per second. DETOUR features almost forty maps and includes an editor to expand the content even further. Despite the brief nature of the campaign, the multiplayer portion of DETOUR offers the potential for long-term enjoyment.

One of the biggest failings of DETOUR is the interface. For whatever reason, the items are segregated into categories displayed one at a time and can be only selected through two methods: using the mouse wheel to cycle through all of the items one at a time, or using keyboard hotkeys (numbers and function keys). You cannot click on an item to select it, as left-clicking always executes the currently selected item. The means you must memorize all of the hotkeys in order to preserve some sort of efficiency (required since the game’s pace is so quick). Personally, I would have simply listed all of the items at one time and allowed the user to click to select (and then click again to place, and shift-click to place more than one), just like every other real time strategy game ever made. I shouldn’t have to remember that “scan” is F2 and “upgrade truck speed” is 5. Overcoming the interface is truly a difficult task.

DETOUR offers a pleasing number of items you can place on the game map, purchased using credits which stream in at a constant rate (about a credit per second). The first are roads, the means of getting your trucks to the other end of the map. You can connect the roads to gold mines, which increase your income, or garages, which act as mid-map spawn points for trucks. Obstacles such as trees and rocks must be removed (using a right-click), and tunnels and bridges can be used to traverse through hills and over water. Maximum truck speed can be upgraded to speed up the delivery process.

There are a number of methods to prevent competing trucks from reaching their destination. The first is simply blocking their paths with roads of your own: a two-deep block of roads would prevent the completion of a bridge over your highway system. You can also place various weapons around the map: invisible nails to disable trucks, dynamite to blow up a single block of roads, bombs to destroy several blocks at a time, and EMPs to disable trucks and turrets for a bit. The scan feature is very helpful, allowing you to see the entire map for optimal bomb placement; it also makes the scanner tower obsolete, as it only reveals a small portion of the map. Bribes will stop trucks for a period of time, while donating funds will prevent building in wetlands. Ground turrets will destroy any enemy object in a given radius, while air turrets will destroy incoming bombs. These weapons can be defeated: shields protect trucks from incoming weapons and street sweepers defend against nails. Overall, DETOUR features a good balance of offensive items and appropriate counters.

DETOUR is played at a breakneck pace, which makes the dreadful interface even more detrimental. You will be quickly building roads across the map, and then attack the enemy while defending your highways. The best strategy seems to be road proliferation: sectioning off large portions of the map and augmenting your transit system with ground and air turrets. Since you can only build adjacent to existing roads, cutting off the enemy from their goal is the best policy. The cooldown timers and resource costs are small enough where, once you place a bomb, dynamite, nails, and turret, you can do it again and again, leading to a lot of stalemates where everyone’s stuff is blown up and people are scrambling to rebuild. You have to be quick and build the roads first after the carnage has cleared, as there is a small delay between when a bomb goes off and roads can be replaced. Of course, the interface makes being quick to react to dynamite, turrets, and bombs entirely too difficult: the pace of the game is in direct opposition to the speed at which you can navigate the interface. The AI is simply average: it can win if left alone and allowed to make a straight path towards their goal, but it’s generally slow to react to human plans and doesn’t use powers as much as it should (also occasionally picking really dumb places for bombs). The computer seems to get “stuck” when surrounded: if you place two-deep roads and a turret near the end of the AI system, it simply stops doing anything useful, and refuses to call in effective bombs or dynamite to clear your impediments.

IN CLOSING
DETOUR is a real-time strategy game that isn’t quite “there,” for several reasons. The biggest issue with DETOUR is the interface: it requires you to memorize the shortcuts for all of the game's items in order to be efficient, as scrolling through each item with the mouse wheel on the way to the one you want is highly tedious. You can’t point-and-click on any of the items to place them, and scrolling wastes precious seconds in a fast-paced game. The hurried pace involves a lot of harassment as the opponents attempt to cross the map and deliver their goods, countered through the use of bombs, dynamite, turrets, nails, and laying your roads down directly in the way. The problem is that these interdictions are so frequent that everyone gets stuck in the center of the map and can’t bypass the others. The AI is easy to defeat (even on the highest difficulty level): once you block their path with two layers of roads and a turret or bomb, they get confused and simply cease building. If you ignore the computer they will win, but once it’s surrounded it basically gives up and just lobs bombs and dynamite for the remainder of the match. There are plenty of items to place on the map to slow down your competitors, and each item has another item to counteract it. Because of the AI, DETOUR is better online, provided you can find someone to play with using the in-game host browser. The game’s multiple game modes and adjustable victory conditions are welcome features, especially since the single player challenges are short in duration. DETOUR can be frenzied fun, but the constant item usage and awkward interface make it hard to fully enjoy.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Pride of Nations Review

Pride of Nations, developed by AGEOD and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Detailed yet controllable international trade and economic production, meticulous unit and leader attributes with automated garrisons, innovative diplomatic crisis mini-game, variety of colonial actions, optional assigned missions, population satisfaction triggers regional events, play by e-mail, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Lengthy boring turn resolution makes for a very slow pace, bland research options, only eight controllable nations with one campaign start date, four smaller battle scenarios disable economics, limited traditional diplomatic options to affect relationships
What say you? Manageable production and trade with supreme military detail, abundant colonial actions, and intriguing international crises highlight this typically fantastic turn-based grand strategy game, offered at a budget price: 7/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I like grand strategy games: getting control of an entire country and leading them towards economic and military victory on a large scale is a fine way to spend countless hours of your time. Two of the dominant forces in the genre are Paradox Interactive, known for their Europa Universalis series, and AGEOD, of Birth of America fame. Recently (well, a year and a half ago), they joined forces in an unholy alliance for grand strategy dominance. The latest title is Pride of Nations (originally entitled Vainglory of Nations, but nobody knows what a vainglory is), a grand strategy epic covering the Victorian period from 1850 until 1920. While this treads the same ground as the ultimately disappointing Victoria II, Pride of Nations hopes to combine AGEOD’s strong military pedigree with a substantial economic model and other auxiliary features in a more relaxed turn-based format.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Known for their high-quality 2-D maps, I was a bit surprised that the latest entry into the AGEOD canon lags behind its predecessors. Perhaps it has to do with the larger game scope (the whole world, instead of just Europe), but I was not impressed by the game’s blurry textures and lack of surface detail. The terrain is certainly less accurate than previous efforts on the small scale, with more squared rivers and fewer elevation changes utilizing subtle shadowing. It’s not all bad news, however, as the animations for ships and trains are a nice touch, but overall the map is not as good as I expected. The unit and leader portraits continue to be seemingly realistic and quite varied, placing you in a great historical context.

As with all grand strategy titles, the interface is an important aspect of the game design. Pride of Nations features over twenty map filters to highlight pretty much any aspect of the game: supply, strategic cities, weather, claimed regions, relations, colonial penetration, trade region, and more. There are also four map modes to cover the main parts of the game: military, economic, colonial, and decision. Building something in each mode (troops, factories, colonial actions) is accomplished by pressing the large gear icon next to the large map mode button. Pride of Nations also includes large displays for national attributes, military units and production, resource balance, population data, research, colonial targets, diplomacy, and overall objectives accessed using the F-keys, although there are no on-screen icons to serve as an alternate method. The “B” and “T” keys also lead to extremely helpful resource balances and trade controls. Pride of Nations maintains the intuitive tabbed unit organization method and features a ton of detailed tool-tips and messages to keep you informed.

Pride of Nations has basic sound effects for clicking on stuff and battles. More significant is the immense library of period-specific music (almost 150 songs) to put you in the mood for global domination. That’s about it for the sound, so…short paragraph!

ET AL.
In Pride of Nations, you control one of eight countries during the Victorian period from 1850 until 1920. There are only eight nations to choose from (the United States, Great Britain, France, Sardinia/Italy, Prussia/Germany, Austria, Russia, and Japan), although you can manually choose (though the console, the ~ key) to play as someone else. This, of course, begs the question: if you can change it, why not just list second-tier nations on a different page? Yes, the other countries lack events, but I'd still like to try out the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, China, the Ottoman Empire, or any of the other countries around the globe. Pride of Nations also limits you to one start date (1850), which means the grand campaign lasts 1,680 two-week turns. Turn resolution is also lengthy for me (between two and four minutes per turn), so even if all I did was press “end turn,” it would still take me almost one hundred hours to complete the campaign. Everyone’s orders are executed simultaneously, but you can’t do anything while the game processes each turn, except go grab a sandwich or something. The winner is calculated by prestige points that are earned through a variety of methods, including colonies, diplomatic crises, capturing cities, and missions. The game also adds various plausible, semi-random objective cities (up to twenty per nation) that are different for each game; this may alter your overall strategy in subsequent campaigns even if you play the same nation.

In addition to the grand campaign, Pride of Nations includes four battle scenarios: the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, the 1859 Risorgimento, the 1899 Boer War, and the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. These battles are varied in length, but only involve the military portion of the game, so they play out just like previous AGEOD titles. Learning Pride of Nations takes some time, and the tutorials do just an average job of teaching the basics to newcomers (unlike the fantastic multi-tiered tutorials of Victoria II). You can customize the game rules to your liking, adjusting the leader activation rule, use of randomized generals, attrition, sphere of influence for colonization, extending claims (so you can claim any adjacent province in a peace treaty), and AI behavior (including difficulty and bonuses). Pride of Nations allows you to play by e-mail, although it would be nice if they were centrally hosted like Frozen Synapse or Battlefield Academy. Pride of Nations continues to support user modifications, and the game is only $20. Wait, what?

One of the strongest aspects of Pride of Nations is the economy, something that had only been a simplified component in AGEOD’s previous efforts. Pride of Nations differentiates between state money and private capital. Basically, state money is earned from taxes (census, corporate, excise, tariff, income, and maritime) and used to purchase military units, while private capital is accumulated from trade and used to construct factories. The game features over thirty resources and goods that can be produced, manufactured, and traded. In general, goods are made to make your people happy (and make some money in the process), supplement the production of more advanced items, and trade those goods to other nations for a handy profit. The most important item to produce is manufactured goods, required to raise troops, build factories, and place most colonial or provincial actions; make sure you have a steady supply of it available. Pride of Nations assists in balancing your economy through the confusing commerce screen or the much more streamlined asset balance screen, which displays color-coded graphs depicting which goods have a biweekly deficit or surplus. Tool-tips displayed while hovering over each good shows trade areas that have the product for sale, which makes acquiring needed materials much easier. It’s usually a better idea to produce the most desirable goods yourself, so you can construct buildings to do so. It can be a bit daunting to choose which particular factory or farm to queue in which province, so the AI can make suggestions, shown in a tool-tip by hovering over the “total value” number in the asset balance window. If you can't produce a particular good domestically (say, tropical fruits in Russia), you can even place a factory in another country (as long as it's linked with a merchant ship and you sign the appropriate diplomatic treaty) and export the goods directly to yourself. Each building needs specific raw materials; if they are not available, the factory will temporarily shut down until you manually reinstate it and make sure the required goods are provided. The efficiency of the structure depends on the quality of available labor, regional satisfaction, available technologies, and local infrastructure. Overall, the assistance given by the asset balance window allows the player to make intelligent, informed decisions guiding their nation’s economy.

You won’t need to keep all of your produced goods domestically, and most countries will be deficient in at least a couple items, so trade important. Goods from several provinces are grouped into a trade zone; if you enter economic map mode and double-click on a resource icon, you’ll see a list of all the goods available in that zone and then simply click to increase values to add your goods to the international market or ask for items from neighboring nations. If several nations are competing for the same goods, technology levels and relationships determine the “winner”. While you can’t control who buys your goods (or if anyone will actually purchase them), Pride of Nations strikes a great balance between letting the user tweak the trade requests and automating the purchases each turn once the demands have been established. You can trade with any zone that’s a couple of zones away from your capital; reaching further zones is accomplished by using merchant fleets. These vessels park in special sea zones (inside an oval rope) that are connected with a number of trade zones and allow for trade with those regions. Since several trade zones are connected with a single merchant zone, there is significantly less micromanagement than if the relationship was one-to-one. Also, the goods availability seems to be pretty constant, so you’re not spending minutes each turn adjusting request levels. A cool thing is that you can use your navy to destroy a rival’s merchant ships (since the AI nations use the same system) and cut off their overseas trade. I like the system very much.

Like in most grand strategy games, you are a magical, mystical national overseer, rather than the actual head of state, which changes over time because (spoiler alert!) people die. Your head of state is rated in three areas that affect different parts of your nation: imperialism (changing the military force pool and cohesion), administration (affecting production), and diplomacy (modifying prestige). Your nation is rated in eleven areas like technology, religion, education, and bureaucracy; unlike Europa Universalis, these attributes are mostly static, only changing through special events. There are also political factions at play in your nation; if your government type (there are four) supports elections, you can promote a specific candidate, although your people will generally vote for whoever is most desirable to them. Pride of Nations also includes decrees, laws, and industrial options that work like events triggered by the player that grant small bonuses in specific areas. Lastly, there are missions: accomplish various tasks like having the largest army or exporting cattle and earn a significant prestige bonus.

Keeping your people happy is important, as riots are generally bad things. The more goods you provide, the more satisfied your country will be. The people require food, consumer goods, and luxury goods; there are many choices in each category (eight to ten), so you don’t need to provide every single good in the game. National morale can also be improved by capturing objectives and winning battles. Each citizen is assigned a social class (slave, peasant, worker, middle class, upper class, or aristocracy) that determines where they can work, and rated in terms of satisfaction, militancy, education, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Citizens can change class over time and cities can grow. Twice a year, each province undergoes a satisfaction check that can trigger an event (there is, of course, a table showing the probabilities): improved (or reduced) productivity, or riots that can result in destroyed goods and rebel units spawning in the province. This mechanic gives concrete, and somewhat randomized, consequences for your economic ability. The satisfaction-driven events highlight the population dynamics portion of Pride of Nations.

Pride of Nations features a lot of technologies that can be researched in several areas: army, navy, commercial, social, and industrial. However, this process is totally automated and subsequently not terribly interesting: you can speed up specific techs if you choose (for a large monetary investment), but I rarely ventured onto the research screen and discovered new technologies just fine. Of course, some would argue that this hands-off approach is more realistic, and the specific areas are influenced indirectly by what you build on the map (for example, more ports means more naval research). Plus, research is one less thing to worry about in an already complex game. Far more interesting is colonization, accomplished by using thirty or so different actions on prospective provinces. You can choose between exploration, military action, diplomacy, or development; all of these will increase your colonial penetration in the area (while some might result in a native revolt), eventually turning a protectorate into a formal colony or dominion. Pride of Nations also features a sphere of influence rating in each province (conveniently listed in a handy register of all potential colonial targets), which offers colonization bonuses in specific areas; this is meant to somewhat script where certain countries colonized historically. If you are the sneaky, underhanded type (and who isn’t?), you can even send military expeditions to rival colonies, hoping to cause a native uprising. The resource requirements for placing each action cuts down on the repetition, and requires you to decide where to best place each available action. Overall, the action-based colonization of Pride of Nations offers a lot more choices than simply sending a colonist every month until the settlement reaches a specified population level.

Despite your best efforts, there will be other countries in the world. Your diplomatic relationship with other nations is quantified as a numerical rating, and you are given a number of options for dealing with your neighbors: defensive treaties, alliances, and declarations of war are the typical choices. You can also promise support in a diplomatic crisis, grant (or request) military movement through their country, or start a loan. If another nation sends a request of their own, you can agree, disagree, or simply ignore the demand. There is a realistic delay for bilateral agreements, so you’ll have to wait a turn or two to see if the trade agreement goes into affect. Pride of Nations does not show the likelihood of acceptance before you send a request, nor does the AI provide any counter-offers, so you will get a lot of rejections without explanation. There is only one option to directly increase or decrease relationships, so you have to rely on secondary effects more often; this is a bit disappointing, making it tough to anger or please the nations of your choice. You are also somewhat limited in the number of diplomats at your disposal, so relationship ratings will not drastically change from turn to turn. You will need a casus belli for declaring war on other nations, a result of them having regions you claim as your own, or a diplomatic option that forges one. National territory changing hands was not a typical outcome during the time period, so most new lands will be colonies or claimed provinces (which are fixed). Surrounding that, there are five peace treaty options you can request: land (which must be designed as a claimed region), colonies, a monthly payment, a nation to be freed, or a decrease in army or navy size. Overall, the standard diplomatic options are a bit disappointing. So, how are you supposed to anger your neighbors enough so you can invade them? A crisis, that’s how.

Crises are a new adaptation for diplomacy, important enough to earn their own paragraph. So here it is! During each turn, the game automatically checks for places of friction (usually nearby troops, or a disputed province or colony, plus bad relations) and might trigger a crisis. The two sides then fight over the region and a large pot of prestige; other nations can join a side (using the “promise local support” diplomatic option) and earn a share of the prestige if their side wins. Whichever side is more “just” in the conflict (usually the defender) contributes less prestige to the pot, and whoever earns three dominance first wins. Every turn, each side picks an agenda from the following list: delay (good for the defender), debate (same as delay but with a possible dominance change), propose congress (attempt an end and increase in dominance), silver tongue or pressure support (get third parties on your side), call press conference (win dominance), conciliation (resolve crisis), or contest on legal points (prolong the crisis). Essentially, each side attempts to either lengthen the crisis or add dominance to their side. After six turns are completed (or one side earns three dominance points), the victor is determined and prestige is awarded. A diplomatic crisis is a neat little mini-game that is far more interesting than simply going to war.

War it is! Good thing Pride of Nations has a veritable cornucopia of military units at your disposal. The military side of the game is very similar to previous AGEOD efforts (this is a good thing), so veterans will know what to expect (and can probably skip the next three paragraphs of this review). Military units are placed into containers, usually corps or army-sized empty units that hold a number of different elements. Most controllable elements in Pride of Nations that can be moved between containers are corps, division, or occasionally brigade size, so most nations have a limited number (around ten) of units you must handle (stationary, automated garrisons not included), reducing military micromanagement significantly. Each unit is composed of smaller elements that cannot be altered, consisting of various things like air units, ships, armored cars, artillery (both light and heavy), cavalry, engineers, and infantry (line or elite). Each unit is rated in many areas: initiative, range, protection, discipline, damage, cohesion, movement speed, detection, hide value, weight, and combat values at various ranges. Units may also be given several special abilities (from a list of over five hundred) that further affect combat and movement. Leaders are similar: also given special abilities, they are rated according to their experience and leadership skills, and can be promoted or demoted over time (senior officers are intended to be promote first, even if they are not as good as a younger choice).

Unit construction is straightforward: choose a unit from a filterable list (only corps-sized units, only artillery, only cavalry), and provinces in which it can be constructed are shown in green. Then, simply drag and drop and recruiting will commence. Reinforcement of existing units involves a mix of manual and automatic actions: you must specify which kinds of units will get reinforcements (line infantry, support, engineers) and assign reinforcements to those groups on the war ministry screen, but then the game actually delivers the units automatically. This strikes a nice balance between giving the user control and removing some of the tedium involved in the process. Overall, Pride of Nations gives you plenty of flexibility with your military unit composition, while still remaining manageable thanks to the increased minimum size of the units in play.

Pride of Nations gives you plenty of orders to give to your units. First, you must decide on a posture for each unit: passive (always avoids combat), defensive, offensive, or all-out assault. You can also specify retreat rules, from “never” to “always”. Moving units around is drag-and-drop, although you can specify to use rail or naval transports for faster travel (though this does use coal or oil). A number of special orders can also be given to your units: seek shelter, forced march, sortie (attack the assaulters outside the fort), evade, build forts or depots, or synchronize a move between several corps. You can also hide units in enemy territories to perform raids, more likely if a small unit has a high hide value. Options here are pretty typical, but welcome in their scope.

There are many factors that affect combat other than the units themselves. Climate (rain, snow, harsh, and very harsh) affects movement, attrition, and combat. Units will lose strength as they move, especially through bad weather or desert, or when they run out of supplies. There can also be epidemics that can destroy some of your units. Having military control over a region will enhance cohesion between units and increase the likelihood of neighboring friendly units joining a nearby battle. Combat is entirely automated, using all of those fancy attributes discussed earlier to determine a victor. While this is a bit abstract, on a game of this scale, it’s the only practical way of doing things and at least the results involve detailed calculations. Supply is an important ingredient for continuing an effective attack: ammunition and other items are automatically distributed from cities, depots, harbors, and forts to your troops in the field. The game will actually use rail lines if you have the rail points left to transport goods even faster. You can also place a supply wagon in a container for a temporary solution just in case. The supply system is meant to discourage operations deep behind enemy lines where you’ll quickly run out of the basics. While the process is quite sophisticated, I found it a bit confusing in some situations: for example, I had some units garrisoned inside cities run out of supplies (I guess in Russia, getting those goods to Siberia and Georgia is tough). A little more explanation as to why units are out of supply would be helpful (the units in question were in “green” supply areas, so I don’t know what the specific issue was).

Your computer opponents in Pride of Nations seem to be pretty competent, especially when you consider the relatively complex nature of the game. The AI handles each of the game’s aspects in varying degrees of activity. The computer is the liveliest diplomatically, drawing up proposals frequently and developing plausible responses to human-made offers. The AI also likes to enact new laws, adjust trade, and trigger crises with neighbors (especially over colonies). The computer is a bit slower colonizing and they are a little cautious in battle, failing to invade territories defended by inferior units on occasion. Still, overall I was pleased with the level of competence exhibited by the computer. Of course, since it takes so long to run a single turn, all of that computing time had better be used to make a decent AI opponent.

IN CLOSING
Pride of Nations is a detailed yet manageable grand strategy game thanks to a happy compromise between giving the user control and automating the truly menial tasks. Between adjusting trade, constructing factories, expanding colonies, negotiating diplomatic crises, enacting new laws, and producing and moving military units, there’s almost always something to do each turn in Pride of Nations, and you never feel like the game is playing itself entirely. A large part of the game is managing your economy, made easier by a predictable, straightforward trade system where you can request and sell goods in trading zones free from every-turn tweaking. You can access distant trade areas by simply placing merchant ships in specific sea zones, a great system that allows you to mess with competitors’ economies through naval combat and consolidates the many sources of goods into distinct locations. You can also attempt to manufacture additional goods yourself and consider the AI suggestions for the best provinces to construct in. AGEOD’s detailed military returns, as each of your leaders and units are rated in many areas and exhibit a host of special abilities to assist in combat. Military units are easy to manage thanks to a reduced number of large armies, and garrisons are automatically formed and disbanded in towns and forts when needed. The AI offers up a proficient foe and ally, and I could not identify and specific areas of exploitable weakness. Your country will change over time as new heads of state and political factions come to power. You must also satisfy the population with plenty of goods and low taxes while gaining prestige by completing missions, winning battles, and colonizing the world. New colonies are established by sending expeditions, improving the province, and (of course) bribing the local chief. Diplomacy is different thanks to a unique crisis game where international tension is resolved by each side playing actions to gain dominance in the disagreement. Research is almost entirely automated and generally can be ignored. The grand campaign only includes one start date along with lengthy turn resolution; additional battle scenarios only highlight the military portion of the game. The interface is decent overall, giving access to tons of data to direct your nation once you learn how it's organized. Finally, Pride of Nations is only $20, a significantly low price for such a large amount of content. Overall, there are only two things I would change: more start dates for the campaign and more user input into research (plus a faster CPU for quicker turn resolutions). The remainder of the game is outstanding and Pride of Nations should immediately be in any grand strategy gamer’s library. Containing some brilliant game design, Pride of Nations is definitely a grand strategy game of note.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Frozen Synapse Review

Frozen Synapse, developed by Mode 7 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Combat rules remove chance, simple but effective units and commands, brilliant server-based multiplayer, multiple game modes, randomly generated destructible levels, truly challenging AI, lengthy varied single player campaign, distinctive graphical style, multiplatform
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings for campaign, minimal sound design
What say you? One of the finest turn-based tactical strategy games: 8/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As I’ve gotten older, my aptitude for twitch first person shooters has steadily decreased: I’m simply not as good at Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament as I used to be. While slower-paced shooters are still enjoyable, I simply can’t keep up with the youth. I still like the underlying strategy of first person shooters, but can’t execute my tactics with the same precision as before. If there was only a way to experience the planning of tactical shooters without relying on my steadily degrading reflexes. Why, hello Frozen Synapse! This tactical turn-based strategy game was highlighted on this very site over a year ago while in beta, a rare feat for any game. Featuring a great mix of non-random combat results, randomly generated destructive terrain, and online matchmaking, I couldn’t resist taking an early taste. So, how has the game turned out?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Frozen Synapse has a distinctive visual theme that compensates for its lack of detail. Very reminiscent of DEFCON (must be a British thing), Frozen Synapse uses a computerized setting to implement blue hues and neon colors in a minimalist, but effective, manner. The unit animations are passable, and the weapons all have unique effects that look powerful. Frozen Synapse utilizes occasional blood effects (odd for units that are supposedly digital in nature, but whatever) to accentuate the combat. The interface is generally well-designed and has some slick transitions. The sound design also follows the minimalist theme, and while it’s not detrimental to the game, it doesn’t stand out, either. There are only a few repetitive audio sounds for each weapon and in-game events, and the background music is decent but too generic to be memorable. Still, the indie developers did as well as expected and ran with a unique theme.

ET AL.
Frozen Synapse is a turn-based tactical strategy game where you issue orders to little green men and hope they kill all the little red men. The game is played in a simultaneous manner: you give orders to each of your units and then they are executed in five-second intervals. Then, you can change or tweak the commandss for the next five-second round. It’s a good system that gives you time to think and allows for some robust multiplayer features. Turns for multiplayer games are stored on a central server, so there’s no need for manual e-mailing or saving; it’s a fantastic feature that really streamlines the process and eliminates all tedium from online competition. The game will send you an e-mail (or notify you in-game) when a new turn is ready to be played, so you can play multiple games at a time and switch between them as new turns are submitted by your opponents. Frozen Synapse will also search for opponents based on the game modes you favor, and you can issue challenges to specific individuals in need of a whooping. Keeping all of the games in a central location also means that stats are saved, using your wins and losses to track overall rating and daily leaderboards. You can also easily export your best efforts to YouTube. The multiplayer portion of Frozen Synapse features an amount of elegance not usually experienced in indie games.

There are five game modes to choose from in Frozen Synapse. There are more conventional options like extermination (classic team deathmatch) or hostage, where one team attempts to lead hostages from the center to the edge of the map. In addition, you can try to collect boxes scattered around a large map in disputed mode. There are also two betting modes: secure (how much area can you defend?) and charge (how far across the map can you go?), and the team that bets more has to do it. All of the modes can be played either “light” or “dark,” with all enemy units being shown at all times in “light” mode. The maps are randomly generated and destructible; you can seed the randomness with specific values for room sizes, object density, doorway and window count and width, lighting, and room shapes. You can also practice against the stellar AI in an offline skirmish mode, where you can tweak the map size, player squad composition, and turn limit. Finally, Frozen Synapse features a brief but effective tutorial that teaches the basics of the control scheme, and the game is available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Don’t want to embarrass yourself online? That’s OK, as Frozen Synapse also features a lengthy single player campaign. Consisting of fifty-five missions presented on a map, each scenario has a specific objective: eliminate all enemy units, rescue a hostage, defend an area of the map, escort a unit, or infiltrate the enemy base. Your goal must be completed within a time limit and each level layout is semi-random, which drastically increases the replay value of the campaign. The level designs are open, supporting a wide variety of tactics to achieve your objective; the availability of explosives further increases the mission diversity. Allied units might also be available to distract the enemy, although they are controlled by the AI and can't be counted on for much. The missions are tough (you are usually outnumbered, in addition to the AI being quite the competitor) and very challenging, but not impossibly so. Although I strongly suggest playing Frozen Synapse online (because it’s fun), there is certainly enough single player content to keep you busy.

There are five units in the game that are randomly assigned in the skirmish and online modes, each with different abilities and uses. The machine gun is the standard unit, useful for medium-ranged combat. The shotgun is deadly up close, but useless from far away. The sniper can kill things in one shot across the map, but takes a while to lock on to its target. Rocket launchers can take out walls, and grenade launchers can affect a large area. Overall, the units are well balanced in their specific roles and none are overpowered. Interacting with your units is accomplished using a series of commands, accessed by right-clicking on a unit or a portion of their path. First, movement waypoints are issued by double-clicking on a destination on the map. The game will automatically route units around walls and through doors, although you are free to adjust these paths if so desired. There are several orders to choose from: aim in a direction, check for enemies, continue without engaging (useful for quickly traversing past snipers), ducking behind cover, or ignoring specific enemies or sections of the map. You can also include time delays to coordiante movements between units. These relatively simple options give you wide flexibility in issuing your orders, and you are given the option to tweak things to the level of detail you desire.

Frozen Synapse features specific game rules for calculating the winner of each battle. Units who are closest to cover (windows, boxes) will win, then units that are aiming, then units that are stationary. This lack of chance makes the results predictable and satisfying. The game allows you to preview the results of each five second turn before submitting your orders, and you can even give spotted enemy units orders as well to predict how your opponent might move, and how best to respond to such actions. Each match takes place on large maps with many tactical options, from multiple paths to objects used for cover, and you’ll never play the same map twice (or even once, with destructible walls). Frozen Synapse also features a disturbingly good computer opponent (without resorting to cheats or superior numbers) that is quite skilled at varied strategies and is tactically aware of its surroundings. You can customize the AI intelligence and play style (aggressive, defensive), and I would say you’d have a better chance at victory online. I was pretty impressed by the AI, usually an afterthought these days.

IN CLOSING
Frozen Synapse is a fantastic game. The turn-based gameplay allows time for planning, and the clever server-saved matches can be continued at your pace. There is no luck in the world of Frozen Synapse: the use of cover, aiming, and clever positioning wins the day rather than reflexes or dice rolls. There are only five unit types, but they all serve their roles: the short-range shotgun, the long-range sniper, the all-purpose machine gun, and the explosive grenade and rocket launchers. Orders consist of waypoints accentuated with aiming, stance, and engagement commands that are simple but effective. The five game modes each carry a slightly difference pace and strategies, and the randomized, destructible levels ensure a long shelf life. If playing against humans is not your thing, Frozen Synapse also contains a diverse single player campaign and challenging AI for skirmish matches. Everyone even remotely interested in tactical games should immediately start playing Frozen Synapse.