Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bastion Review

Bastion, developed by Supergiant Games and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
The Good: Neat visuals and narration, cool abilities and weapon variety with upgrades
The Not So Good: No lowered difficulty settings, angled level design annoying for keyboard controls, imprecise aiming doesn't attack where you click, linear level design, arbitrarily limited inventory, lacks mid-mission saves
What say you? A uniquely colorful art style and memorable narration elevate an otherwise average role-playing game with an underwhelming PC port: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Against my typical agenda, I’ve been playing or reviewing a disturbingly large number of action role-playing games lately (meaning one of them in the past six months). While standard fare in the genre doesn’t interest me, a unique hook will, like hilariously incompetent co-op or inspiration from a different genre. As another example, take Bastion, which has recently graced the PC after originally being released on something called an “XBOX”. This game features vibrant art and narration that describes everything you do. Do those unique features advance this action RPG beyond the typical?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Easily the best part of Bastion is the great artistic style. You've seen the screenshots, and they are a sight to behold. The PC allows the game to live in its high-resolution glory, and live it does. The hand-drawn, bright, and colorful world of Bastion shines through, creating a stark contrast to the typically dark and gloomy world of action RPGs. The ground fills in as you walk, creating a neat effect of exploration, and the fuzzy backgrounds provide a subtle backdrop to the floating island levels. The enemy design is also good, although I'd like to encounter more enemy types, and the animations are top-notch. Bastion truly is a beautiful game. Not to be outdone is the sound design, which notably includes narration as you progress through the game. It's not quite as dynamic as some would lead you to believe, as it repeats the same dialogue at the same points in each level (I would know, since the difficulty required me to, ahem, repeat several of the levels). The music fits the game well and the battle effects, though generic, round out the package. Nobody will fault Bastion for having a bland presentation, that's for sure.

ET AL.
Bastion tells the tale of The Kid, whose world has disappeared overnight and must be put back together again. The game features twenty levels in the story mode that are all on the short side: each clock in at around ten minutes each (you can do the math for total game time). While the game does give you the occasional choice regarding which level to do next and which building to construct, eventually you’ll have all the levels completed (hopefully) and all of the buildings constructed, so it really does not matter. The levels are very linear: there is little side exploration to be found, and triggered events occur at the same time every time. Bastion also lacks lowered difficulty settings: while you can increase the enemy skill through the shrine (which grants an experience bonus), you can’t decrease it below what the developers have considered to be the entry-level skill level. This isn’t a problem most of the time, but some of the boss fights are tough as you are learning the game. You are given one chance per level to continue when you die; otherwise, you must go back to the beginning of the level and tediously completely everything all over again. Bastion also lacks the ability of saving your game at any time: it only preserves your progress when you enter the bastion (your home base), but if you’d like to save and pick up the game later at any other point, you are out of luck. Thanks for dictating when I can quit your game, developer: sorry, the fire alarm must wait, as I am in the middle of a level. Aaaaaaaaahhhhh it burns!

The PC version of Bastion features keyboard and mouse controls in addition to using a gamepad. The WASD keys are used to move, but the angled, isometric level design means you’ll have to routinely hold down two of the keys simultaneously in order to navigate the terrain; obviously, the keyboard was an afterthought. There are a limited number of advanced moves available: evade, shield, and canceling the use of the special move. The mouse is used to fire your primary and secondary weapons, but Bastion has terribly imprecise aiming: if you place your mouse pointer directly on top of an enemy unit, it may or may not actually fire your ranged weapon there. Instead, you have to refer to the aiming line on the ground to figure out where you’ll shoot. With constant hints to use the “auto-aim” tool, it’s clear that Bastion was not designed with the PC in mind, nor was a lot of work put into making the controls better on the computer.

Bastion features two types of weapons: melee and ranged. Usually (but not always), the most recently unlocked weapon is the best, and in general things are varied according to firing rate and damage delivered. The weapons are pretty bland to be honest, and nothing innovative sticks out. Far more interesting are the almost thirty abilities you can find in the game. In addition to a suite of passive skills gained by drinking potions at a distillery, you are given choice of active skills: spinning attacks, multi-shots, fast attacks, grenades, blocking, and more. Each use consumes a black tonic, so they must be used only in special situations. For some reason, you are limited to only two weapons, one special ability, and three tonics of each type (health and black) at one time. Why? No idea.

Fragments scattered around each level (and dropped by enemies) are used to purchase weapon upgrades, which breathes a little life into the generic instruments of destruction. Experience earned during combat also increases your maximum health and unlocks one more passive ability of your choosing. Changes to your arsenal are limited to the bastion (your home base), where buildings are placed to change abilities, upgrade weapons, raise the difficulty, perform achievements, or buy additional items for weapon upgrades. The inability to change your loadout in the middle of a level has one annoying consequence, as the game auto-switches to any newly acquired weapon or ability whether you want it to or not: I really hate that. I guess the developers feel that anything new always fits your play style; this is typical of the host of arbitrary limitations that permeate throughout Bastion. The gameplay is typical RPG fare: attack things at range, attack things up close, and learn the talents of each new enemy you encounter. The AI is generally just there to smash into little bits, although there are occasionally some special attacks that get used by boss-type enemies.

IN CLOSING
The two hooks of Bastion, the art style and somewhat dynamic narration, are undeniably awesome, but the remainder of the game is just OK. First, the good news: the graphics are fantastic, from the hand-drawn levels to the characters and backgrounds. Secondly, the almost constant high-quality narration adds significantly to the overall game experience. Unfortunately, things are bland from there on out. I'm not a huge fan of the control scheme: the levels are designed for angled movement, something that the keyboard doesn't excel at, and the mouse aiming doesn't shoot exactly where you click, leading to a lot of misfires and untimely death. The ranged and melee weapons are pretty standard fare, which means combat is as well, although the upgrades that are slowly unlocked let you customize their abilities a bit. Experience earned from combat unlocks new special abilities, some of which are quite cool. Sadly, no amount of cool abilities can save you from the sometimes distressingly difficulty, which cannot be decreased; I don't like it when developers assume the skill level of their players. In addition, you can't save your progress in the middle of a level, making the game that much harder. The game's twenty levels are over too quickly, and their fixed solutions and lack of exploration reduces replay value immensely. Ardent fans of action role-playing games will get grabbed by the graphics and narration, but the rest of us will be underwhelmed by the limited PC port and linear level design.

Friday, August 26, 2011

King Arthur: Fallen Champions Review

King Arthur: Fallen Champions, developed by Neocore and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Three heroes gain experience and unlock unique skills, looks nice
The Not So Good: Short linear ten mission campaign with no strategic mode, tiresome story elements, lengthy and tough missions with vague objectives can’t be saved mid-battle, no skirmish options or multiplayer, same iffy AI
What say you? This standalone expansion treads the same ground with new limitations: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So how do you differentiate yourself from Total War? Add crazy ass fantasy units and spells, which is exactly what King Arthur did two years ago. The formula seemed to work quite well, and it was repeated in the ultimately-disappointing semi-sequel Lionheart. Neocore is back again with another standalone expansion-type game with King Arthur: Fallen Champions, which follows the tale of three fantasy leaders in their quest for…marshmallows? I’m not sure, I wasn’t really paying attention to the introductory movie. In any case, this title can serve as a consolation prize to hold you over until King Arthur 2 comes out next year. Does Fallen Champions fall, or succeed with its blend of real-time tactics and role-playing?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
King Arthur: Fallen Champions is, not surprisingly, graphically similar to the previous titles in the series, which is a good thing. The game thrives with great detail in almost every aspect, starting with the beautiful environments: England never looked so good, with majestic mountains, dark forests, and shimmering creeks present in every map. The terrain is varied in each location as well, giving you a different look at the countryside every time you play. The units look great as well, with good animations and detailed textures when viewed up close. The spell effects are a little cartoonish, but effective in their scope. The sound design is passable, with pleasing background music and appropriate battle effects. There is no voice acting for the story mode, however, which is somewhat of a disappointment. Still, overall the presentation of King Arthur: Fallen Champions is favorable within the strategy genre.

ET AL.
While using the same setting as the original game, King Arthur: Fallen Champions is a completely linear game where the strategic map is simply used to select your next mission from a wide selection of…only one choice. Each of the game’s three heroes has three missions that must be completed in order, although you can switch between heroes between battles. The game culminates in a final battle royale with everyone involved, using their skills and units earned along the way. You must be victorious in every mission, as there is no room for error. Each hero has varied skills and plays differently; the units under their command are also diverse in their abilities. Heroes gain skill points after each battle that can be used to improve several skills in their arsenal, giving the user a bit of customization freedom.

King Arthur: Fallen Champions also includes story elements in “adventure quests”: a very uninteresting mode where you click actions in a series of locations. While you might potentially meet different people and gain allies along the way, ultimately you’ll end up at the main battle, assuming you don’t get lost in the circular options: particularly disorienting are the directional movement options (go north, south, east, or west), where you can literally keep going in circles with no assistance from the game. The story is a very poor replacement for the strategic mode: I found the stories lacked engaging plots or anything else to keep me interested in what I was clicking. Frankly, after the first couple of stories, I simply wanted to get to the next battle as quickly as possible. Also removed are skirmish and multiplayer options: all you get in King Arthur: Fallen Champions are ten linear single-player battles, which drastically reduces the longevity of the game.

Most missions involve engaging the enemy one group at a time as you move across the map. While the overall objective might be slightly more complicated than that (like rescuing a specific unit, or defeating the enemy boss), King Arthur: Fallen Champions does a terrible job explaining this to you: the final objective is never indicated on the minimap, and you can’t refer to the mission goals in the middle of a game. Some missions do have some innovative special rules that make things a bit more interesting than “kill everyone,” but these are rare exceptions to linear level design. Most of the battles pits your tiny forces against numerous enemies, offsetting that imbalance with your magical abilities and tactical prowess. The scenarios are also very long, which makes the lack of a save game option distressing.

Units are interesting: although the fall into the standard categories of infantry, cavalry, and ranged, some come with special abilities (positive or negative) which makes you treat them a little bit differently. Each map is also dotted with victory locations that can grant bonuses to your army. Ordering your troops around is standard fare: formations, attacking, control-grouping, the usual. Different terrain is better for different types of units, and time acceleration is available to speed up the boring parts (which is most of the time). The AI continues to be a mixed bag: the scenario designers are partly to blame, never amassing them to become a real threat unless you charge directly towards the main base without picking up reinforcements along the way. The enemy AI does engage the appropriate opponent when available, but it never executes any sophisticated tactical strategies. The battles in King Arthur: Fallen Champions still suffer from the “large mass” problem, where most units just engage each other in a gigantic chaotic circle of death. The tactical AI does a poor job dealing with this: units will routinely just circle around the outside of the mass, scouting for a way in. It’s funny (in a sad way) to watch a powerful hero with a glowing sword walking around in circles trying to find the enemy to fight in the middle of the pack. Ultimately, any player of Neocore’s previous games will not see anything new or different when it comes to the tactical battles of King Arthur: Fallen Champions.

IN CLOSING
At $10, King Arthur: Fallen Champions is priced as a small standalone expansion for the original game, and it doesn’t even live up to those lowered expectations. First off, the game is short, consisting of only ten missions. Now, the missions are lengthy, but they usually involve the same tactics (engage groups of enemies one at a time with your outnumbered squad on the way to the objective) and you can’t save your progress in the middle of a mission. While time acceleration offsets some of this limitation, I’d still like to save my game after undertaking thirty minutes of challenging strategic work. The objectives in each battle are very unclear: your goal isn’t indicated on-screen, and you can’t access the mission briefing during the actual mission. The tactical battles are the same as before (with the same up-and-down AI), except you get fewer units and more enemies to deal with: not exactly fair, and a little tedious as you defeat wave after wave of inferior opponents. The role-playing elements are entertaining, if a bit limited, with several skills to choose from between missions. King Arthur: Fallen Champions doesn’t have a strategic mode, instead replacing it with tired “adventure quests”: choice-based text stories that are boring, repetitive, and overly lengthy. King Arthur: Fallen Champions also lacks skirmish battles and multiplayer that was present in previous titles, although the graphics remain intact. Because of the limited, linear content, I’d rather just pay twice the price and get the original King Arthur, or wait a couple of months for the true sequel, instead of settling for the Fallen Champions.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mactabilis Review

Mactabilis, developed and published by Blazing Bit Games.
The Good: Truly extensive weapon customization and editing, background/foreground mechanic leads to some clever level design, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Lacks mid-mission checkpoints, sluggish default ship movement, limited interface, new weapons are very expensive which restricts experimentation and fun, lacks online matchmaking
What say you? A capable arcade shooter highlighted by its flexible weapon editor: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of the oldest types of computer games is the arcade shooter. New independent titles always want to add something new to the classic formula of shooting everything in sight, from a polished game experience to innovative weapons and level design. Next up is Mactabilis, which attempts to shoot its way out of France and onto your monitor, featuring an impressive custom weapon editor and non-stop action. Is Mactabilis a must-shoot entry in the genre?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Mactabilis employs a 2-D, hand-drawn aesthetic that works well enough. The game falls behind modern arcade shooters that use fancy 3-D effects or appealing retro graphics, but there is a good variety in visuals between each level. In addition, the levels are extensive enough where the relatively simplistic nature of the graphics takes a back seat to the chaos of battle. The weapon effects are well done, with satisfyingly varied beams and bullets that fly across the screen. The enemies also exhibit a pleasing variety, and some distinctive designs are found. The sound design is typical, with the sound of bullets and destruction filling your ears. However, Mactabilis has one of the most annoying grating damage sounds I’ve encountered, and I quickly learned to avoid running into things simply so I would not have to hear it again. Mactabilis also graduated from the generic techno school of arcade game background music, which adds nothing but white noise to the proceedings. Overall, Mactabilis has a basic presentation that is elevated a bit by some enemy and level diversity.

ET AL.
Mactabilis is an arcade shooter where you shoot things, arcade style. There are two game modes most will encounter (plus a special mode for the hardcore player): the “regular” mode with temporary ship upgrades, and an “arcade” mode where you pick up weapons on the fly instead of purchasing them between levels. Each mode features the same ten levels and three difficulty levels: easy, normal, and hardcore (where one-shot-kills rule the day). The ten levels switch between top-down and side-view perspectives, and each map has some specific restrictions or rules like removing movement to the background or various obstacles to avoid. Once you finish the ten-level set, you can restart the series with harder enemies, retaining the weapons you have purchased along the way. I found Mactabilis to quite difficult on the “normal” setting, so the lack of mid-missions saves is quite distressing: you lose all of your progress and any cash you have earned, which makes purchasing the weapons you need to beat the levels that much more difficult. You don’t have to go it alone, however, as Mactabilis features online multiplayer for two players, including both cooperative and competitive modes, but only if you know the other player’s IP address, as the game doesn’t offer any in-game matchmaking to find opponents.

Controls are typical for the genre: movement in all four directions, a fire button, and one to switch between four weapons. Movement is really sluggish unless you gather temporary speed upgrades, which makes it really difficult to avoid the various obstacles the game throws at you and take out all of the enemies to maximize your points. Your ship has shields and hull health to absorb damage, energy used to fire, and stimulants to slow down time. The weapons in Mactabilis are exceptional, as you can choose from a roster of over forty or create your own using a straightforward menu system. You can customize firing direction, speed, aiming, spacing, movement, and appearance. For example, you could create a weapon that fires three decelerating bullets forward, two backwards, one up, and one down with a slight delay at an incrementing angle that explode in a wave pattern. Pretty sweet, right? You can even combine weapons so that they fire simultaneously. You can also test out any combination before buying it, which may be your only chance to see what it can do, since the prices for weapons are prohibitively expensive. It took me two full levels (that’s a fifth of the game) to get one measly additional bullet added to my arsenal, which is far too limited in my opinion. Still, the weapon editor is pretty impressive and a whole lot of fun to mess with.

Mactabilis really takes place in two parallel planes, as you can switch between the foreground and background to avoid enemies and other objects. While this is initially really confusing, you do get used to it after a couple of levels. The game highlights objects in your plane in red, while those in the background are blurred. Still, the interface does a really poor job telling you whether you are in the front or the back, and in the heat of battle, this may mean the difference between victory and untimely death. In addition to the various obstacles you must avoid, Mactabilis features a fine assortment of enemies with different behaviors; each level does feel like a slightly different experience. Destroying those enemies quickly will unlock combos that will grant energy regeneration and the occasional powerup. As I alluded to earlier, Mactabilis is very difficult: the combination of a lot of enemies and a lot of objects, coupled with significant damage for hitting large objects, means I spent all of my play time on “easy” (I couldn’t even beat the introductory level on “normal”). Maybe if the game was more generous with handing out cash and I could afford better weapons, then the difficulty would be more appropriate, but in general most people will want to stick to “easy”, I would think.

IN CLOSING
Mactabilis has two unique things going for it: the weapon editor and front/back movement. I really, really like the weapon editor, where you can tweak to your heart’s content, adjusting almost any value ever conceived for an arcade shooter weapon. You can come up with some really crazy, unique combinations, so it’s too bad that Mactabilis really limits your imagination by providing only a modest amount of funds for destroying enemies. Beyond the fun weapon customization, the foreground/background level design works well once you get beyond the initial learning curve (and overcome the interface), and the levels are designed with multi-level navigation in mind, presenting various obstacles and complex enemies to deal with. Beyond this, though, Mactabilis is pretty generic. Your ship moves very slowly, which makes clearing each level and avoiding incoming barriers almost impossible. The two main game modes are only marginally different, and while the ten levels do offer unique challenges, they are over quickly. I found the “normal” difficulty to be too, well, difficult, and spent all of my time on “easy”. You can join a friend in online battle, but only if you know their IP address in advance. I think fans of arcade shooters will appreciate the fantastic weapon editor and level design, but the full package has just enough limitations to deter less dedicated gamers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thunder Fleets Review

Thunder Fleets, developed and published by Orator Games.
The Good: Straightforward regional control-based economy, online multiplayer supports Windows, Mac, and iPad players in the same game, variety of ships with different uses that gain experience, capable AI opponent
The Not So Good: Online play lacks matchmaking and has iffy real-world results, automated combat removes subtle tactics, only five skirmish maps, minimal interface and graphics
What say you? This casual World War II real time naval strategy game offers simplified territorial economics and cross-platform multiplayer: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Naval warfare in the Pacific during World War II was a major aspect of the conflict that commonly takes a back seat to the land-based affairs in Europe. Large ships threw thick, metallic shells at each other while fighting over tiny islands in a huge sea. A few games have attempted to simulate this elegant ballet to the death, and the next in line is Thunder Fleets. This real-time game has a couple of notable features: conquest-like conflicts similar to the Battlefield series of first person shooters (where your primary mission is to capture territory rather than simply eliminate the enemy force), and cross-platform online multiplayer that can be played between Windows, Mac, and iPad devices. That’s enough to warrant a closer look, and that’s exactly what Thunder Fleets shall receive.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Thunder Fleets has very simple graphics designed to run on mobile platforms. The overhead 2-D perspective, however, works well enough to make the game functional, although none of the aspects of the graphics are outstanding or even average. The ships lack fluid movement while turning (they are clearly made up of eight rotated sprites), and while the smoke and fire while damaged looks decent enough, sinking a ship is very disappointing as the ships slowly turn more blue without any dramatic explosions to accompany your victory. The ocean is slightly animated, but the terrain is very bland and generally featureless. You also cannot play the game windowed, or alt-tab out of the game to the desktop without it crashing. The sound design is even more minimal, with a couple of effects for combat and just sporadic background noise as a replacement for music. The basic nature of the graphics and sound in Thunder Fleets will certainly not win any awards, but at least the game is playable.

ET AL.
Thunder Fleets lets you take to the seas and blast the stuffing out of the competition. The content starts with two campaigns for both the United States and Japan, although the same nine missions are experienced from either side; they consist of a tutorial of general strategy and essentially skirmish maps with some starting forces and (later on) unbalanced maps. The first couple of levels were difficult as I learned the game (I had to play the “tutorial” three times; hint: don’t use your torpedoes until you’re told to do so), but later levels were significantly easier, then harder as the deck got unfairly stacked against you. Beyond the generally uninteresting campaign are only five skirmish maps that can be played with two or four players; there are also no team options. The potentially awesome feature of Thunder Fleets is something that I haven’t gotten to work yet: cross-platform multiplayer. Yes, you can potentially play online against people using Windows, Mac, or something called an “iPad” (I think it’s some kind of menstrual apparatus) using any of those devices. However, the IP-only hosting leaves a lot to be desired, especially in an age of wireless routers and NAT nonsense that complicate things. What Thunder Fleets really needs is a server browser or other matchmaking utility inside the game. As it stands now, the host isn’t even shown their IP address, so you have to figure it out through other means and then tell the people who are going to join you (before you run the game, as alt-tabbing out of Thunder Fleets is a recipe for disaster). If you are going to have cross-platform multiplayer as a major selling point, you have to do better than IP-only hosting. This aspect of the game needs some additional work, but if it ever does function as intended, it would be an impressive feature.

The interface of Thunder Fleets, an important aspect of any real time strategy game, is generally designed for a smaller touch interface, but works decently enough for the mouse-driven computer systems. The sides of the screen are adorned with large icons for accessing groups (which can also be done using the number keys and control) and issuing orders to stop or cease-fire. There are no tool-tips for anything: just health bars and small colored icons (for weapon availability) on each ship that are hard to see when zoomed out at any useful level. The range circles are definitely helpful when trying to stay out of the reach of the enemy, and rally points for buildings cut down on some of the micromanagement. While I suspect the interface works well for a finger-driven device, a bit more information given to the player would be helpful.

The name of the game is territory control: each map is divided into several rectangular regions that, once captured, speed production of your units, leading to ultimate victory. Production in Thunder Fleets is continuous: ships will always be produced at each of your factories (additional ones can be captured), but it’s up to you to decide which ships. Larger, more powerful vessels will take longer, and you can decide to switch the production order at any time with no penalty: a helpful abstraction. There are basically three types of ships to choose from: small torpedo boats, medium destroyers that carry small guns and torpedoes, and large cruisers that lug the big guns. Each ship has a different construction time and armor rating against guns and torpedoes; it seems that every ship has the same attack rating, as it were, and damage is calculated based on the defensive ratings. Ships gain experience over time, which grants bonuses like faster reloading times.

The ships of Thunder Fleets move very slowly, and this allows for a couple of things: time to think (too much time in the beginning of a match, actually), and not enough time to avoid torpedoes. The general strategy is to hit the big ships with torpedoes and clean up with guns, while keeping your ships out of the range of the enemy. All of the attacks are automated: you never have to calculate torpedo firing angles or click on a specific spot for your ships to be effective. Personally, I’m on the fence regarding the automated attacks: it’s nice that your ships can take care of themselves, but you’d also like to direct the guns and torpedoes more accurately than your AI captains do on occasion. It’s kind of annoying that your torpedoes sometimes miss the target completely when both ships are stationary, especially when it takes so darn long for the torpedoes to reload. Still, the sight of torpedoes in the water is stressful as you slowly maneuver your ships (hopefully) around them. There is definitely some luck with torpedo and shell placement, but the long, drawn-out battles do allow for reinforcements to arrive, supplementing a battle. That said, your only real choices are positioning and when to use torpedoes, so people looking for a tactically deep strategy game will be disappointed. Thunder Fleets lacked mid-game stalemates for the most part: once somebody got over half of the territory, they were able to out-produce the enemy rather quickly. That’s not to say that comebacks aren’t impossible, however, as the map design usually allows for more than one path to centrally located bases. Finally, the AI was better than I expected: it’s not super-aggressive, but it does actively capture territory and usually moves ships in groups of two or more vessels, instead of a useless drip of single ships that I’ve encountered in too many strategy games. I can win if the AI isn’t given a production bonus on a higher difficulty level, but it’s certainly no pushover.

IN CLOSING
Thunder Fleets has some simplified strategy elements that I think will appeal to a more novice crowd. First, controlling territory leads to faster production and, ultimately, victory, so it’s clear this is your goal. Some regions also have buildings that can give additional construction points or research improving specific weapons or defenses. The three main ship types are balanced, and the combination of torpedoes to take down large, slow moving ships and guns to eliminate faster, smaller vessels works well. The slow, methodical movement of your ships makes torpedoes nerve-wracking, as you attempt to maneuver your fleet out of harm’s way. There is some luck involved in combat, as you have no direct control over where your ships fire; I have been on the end of a defeat to a smaller force on more than one occasion. The interface could be more PC friendly: while the basic options are there, the lack of tool-tips and small icons for each ship remove the amount of information we expect in a strategy game. The game has a challenging campaign and a skirmish mode against an adept AI opponent, although there are only five maps to choose from. The cross-platform multiplayer between Windows, Mac, and iPad is a definite selling point, but it has limited functionality at the moment (I was never able to successfully join or host a match), especially without in-game matchmaking tools provided; I can’t recommend a game where the most important feature doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure how much long-term appeal the game will have with possibly broken online features, but I think Thunder Fleets could potentially find an audience in the more casual crowd.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pirates of Black Cove Review

Pirates of Black Cove, developed by Nitro Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Variety of character skills and ship abilities, some scripted item crafting, nice waves
The Not So Good: Land and naval battles lack tactics, tedious movement at sea and on land through sparse game worlds, superfluous town management, loot magically reappears in the same locations, repetitive quests, no difficulty settings, questionable enemy AI, little difference between starting character choices, some technical issues
What say you? This pirate adventure is boring and tiresome with little reward: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Pirates have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance, kicked off by those Caribbean-themed movies in 2003. I guess there’s something alluring about diseased criminals fighting on large wooden boats. Whatever. Computer games have been touched by this strange fascination, with many games involving the scurvy dogs: Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Sea Dogs, Tortuga, Swashbucklers, Buccaneer, Age of Booty, the list goes on. Always up for a seafaring adventure, the latest attempt at capturing the rough and tumble nature of the time period is Pirates of Black Cove, where you and your loyal crew search the open sea for treasure, trinkets, and a bottle of rum.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The best aspect of Pirates of Black Cove is the water (seriously): it looks very nice, with detailed, shimmering waves and plenty of sea life in the abundant seas: dolphins, whales, and birds that appear way too far off the coast. The lands that dot the Caribbean are just average, with palm trees and green hues in abundance. Ships, which are tiny unless you zoom uncomfortably close, exhibit visible damage (fire, torn sails) but aren’t overwhelmingly detailed. The towns use the same recycled designs for several locations, noticeable if you play the game for more than twenty minutes. The tiny land characters have decent battle animations and look lively enough. Sounds during battle are canned and don’t exhibit the chaos you would generally attribute to pirate attacks. The game features some extensive dialogue on occasion (more towards the beginning of the game), but the voice acting is terrible enough to make you skip past them quickly. The music selection is period-specific but forgettable. While the presentation of Pirates of Black Cove is generally appropriate for the $20 price tag, there are some highlights to be found.

ET AL.
Pirates of Black Cove is a single-player game where you assume the role of a newly-appointed pirate captain, and take to the Caribbean in search of riches. There are three characters to choose from, and the differences between them are miniscule: they are rated according to melee damage, speed, and toughness, but there aren’t any hard choices to make as every one of them is too well rounded. As you gain experience throughout the game, new skills and additional ability points are unlocked. The skills involve very basic things like increased damage, more health, improved range, decreased loading times, or faster speed: nothing too exciting or dramatic, but there is the potential to develop your character somewhat as you would like. There are three factions in the game (pirates, buccaneers, and corsairs), and your task is to unite them against the evil Pirates of Black Cove (it’s in the title, people!). You do this by completing missions that run the same course for each faction: go here (clearly indicated in the game world, thankfully) and shoot someone (though the occasional puzzle element does appear). While Pirates of Black Cove promotes itself as an open world game, the Caribbean is surprisingly empty: there is the occasional ship to fire upon a colonies on some island, but there are large stretches of uninhabited land and open sea that’s frankly boring to navigate. Pirates of Black Cove is not a vibrant world by any stretch of the imagination. The in-game tutorial is OK, explaining some basic mechanics of the game, but not great, and there are no difficulty settings for Pirates of Black Cove, making the early game entirely too easy. I have also experienced several bugs: crashes to the desktop (which, coupled with infrequent auto-saves, is a problem) and missions that break halfway through. I’ve also had my saved games crash the game upon load (both the manual save and the auto-save), losing all of my progress up to that point. Oops.

As a pirate with a boat, you’ll take to the seas in search of booty. Your starting ship isn’t the greatest, but each faction has two additional choices you can purchase. Money is earned by destroying ships and raiding colonial villages. You can attack any ship you see, as all nations are enemies, although no opposing ships will attack you first (I guess the gigantic pirate flag wasn’t enough of a hint of a threat). As soon as you fire upon a ship, combat begins on the main sea map. Ship combat in Pirates of Black Cove is a game of turn and shoot, where you must position your cannons to hit the enemy while avoiding their fire. You use the WASD keys to move, with Q and E used to fire; “E” is used to fire right-side cannons, even if you are sailing down the screen, so you have to mentally keep this straight during combat. You can alternatively use the mouse and right-click on the enemy ship to fire the appropriate cannons automatically, which I found to be a bit easier to handle. The combat is not terribly different from most of naval warfare games of the game period, but the faster pace of Pirates of Black Cove makes the combat less tactical than the competition. In addition, there is only one cannon ammunition type, so you’ll only do overall damage to a ship instead of targeting sails, crew, or the hull. You can use toolkits easily gathered from other ships or land areas to repair your damage instantly at any time: no tactics here. Each ship does have one special weapon, like rockets, mines, or mortars, which makes things a bit more interesting, but it’s not enough. Finally, while the AI does a decent job getting into good firing and defensive positions, it runs into things and gets stuck on islands far too often if combat occurs near the shore.

Not only can you engage in combat at sea, but you can take on all comers on land as well. This is done at colonial villages, where you will take members of your crew and right-click your way to victory. All you need to do is box-select everyone and right-click: there are no advanced formation options or any tactical or strategic depth here. Defenses are very modest, as few enemy soldiers seemingly appear out of thin air. There is also a building that can be destroyed (the only one that you can click on) for a fabulous cash prize. You can also dock at the stronghold for each of the game’s main factions. Here, you can get quests from the main building, or spend money to construct recruitment offices. You can lead your main character and up to three hired units into land-based battles, and having a full crew makes completing the missions trivially easy. Each faction has a melee, ranged, and artillery unit, such as the pirate scallywag, buccaneer marksman, and corsair stink bomber (really). There are few real choices to make in building up the strongholds: just earn money from sunken ships or destroyed colonies and unlock all of the buildings. There are also a lot of buildings you can’t interact with at all, so you spend a lot of time just moving your mouse over things to see if you can do something there. It also takes too long to walk around each village; it would have been easier (and less time-consuming) to just have things listed in a menu. Villages (as well as the open sea) also have loot that appears in random locations, ready for you to pick up without a fight. Thing is, if you leave a village or the ocean and instantly return, all of the loot will regenerate, meaning you can easily stock up on everything needed for combat for free. The loot includes artifacts (some special abilities), consumables (more health), collectables (for show, I guess), and ingredients that can be combined at an alchemist’s shop into consumables (pretty cool). I didn’t see any way to actually sell these things and their variety is fairly limited, though, so loot has narrow value and interest.

IN CLOSING
Pirates of Black Cove is a decent idea that’s executed poorly on all counts. Both the land and sea battles are simple, trivial affairs that lack depth. The game’s easy (and predetermined) difficulty makes the combat even less interesting. Movement around the Caribbean and through each settlement takes too long, lengthening the repetitive quests considerably, and the game world is surprisingly bare, with only the occasional town, enemy ship, or item spaced far apart. Plus, scouring the map for potions and artifacts is just plain dumb, since items spawn in the same locations as soon as you re-enter the same town or ocean locale. Buildings must be constructed using your spoils to hire units for land battles: hardly scintillating town management. The three characters are too similar in abilities, despite there being a nice selection of skills they can acquire over time. The AI offers no challenge, and bugs are frequent enough to notice. With strong historic competition from the likes of Pirates!, there is simply no reason to sail the seven seas with Pirates of Black Cove, a title that’s destined to walk the plank and spend eternity in Davy Jones’ Locker.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Six Gun Saga Review

Six Gun Saga, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Many varied actions and choices for each card, poker-based combat fits theme well, quick games, several victory conditions
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, no tutorial to explain complex rules, uninformative interface, some balance issues exacerbated by chance, inconsistent AI
What say you? This single-player card game requires study, wrestling with the interface, and an acceptance of luck: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The Old West, a classic setting for movies, has been largely ignored by computer games. Instead, we enjoy shooting (virtually, I hope) Nazis in World War II, or casting spells in a mythical setting, or shooting terrorists (who are possibly also Nazis) in present day. Save for one notable recent non-PC game that, for that reason, shall remain nameless, the Old West in untapped territory ripe for expansion (possibly using railroads). Enter Six Gun Saga, a side project by Solium Infernum developer Cryptic Comet. This, like all of their titles, is a card-based game where you must accrue victory points without getting shot in the face.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Six Gun Saga is visually similar to and real-world card game, as the graphics consist of the cards themselves and the game board where the cards are played. The cards, like previous Cryptic Comet efforts, are a treat, featuring nice art that certainly contributes to the theme of the game. They also contain informative descriptions of special attributes and alternative actions that can be performed. Unfortunately, the interface as a whole is terrible. First, there are no tool-tips: all information is displayed in the same area to the left, so the information for the currently-selected item is removed when another item is placed under the mouse cursor. However, if a posse is selected, you cannot mouse-over anything else to see its properties (like, say, the combat value of the enemy posse you might attack): a questionable restriction. The posses themselves are represented on the game board by simple monochrome circles, giving no indication on relative strength unless you select them. Currently selected items are highlighted in a very subtle manner (a slightly brighter yellow outline, the same color as the cards themselves). The game also doesn't explain why you can't do certain things: if I have five cash, why can't I hire an outlaw that costs one cash? The interface certainly doesn’t help newcomers scale the learning difficulties presented by the game. The sound design is forgettable: the period-appropriate cowboy music is a nice touch, but there are hardly any effects (just selecting things) to make battles come alive. Overall, Six Gun Saga gets by with rudimentary graphics and a limited interface.

ET AL.
Six Gun Saga is a card game for two to four players where your posses attempt to accumulate the most victory points by being placed on story cards and eliminating enemy units. The game can also end when a predefined turn limit is reached or a specific number of units are killed. You can adjust all of these settings, in addition to starting cash, before the game begins. Six Gun Saga provides no difficulty settings to make the game more challenging. More significantly, it lacks multiplayer: there is no hotseat mode, no LAN play, no online play, nothing. For a card game that is inherently multiplayer, this is a major limitation.

There are four card types in Six Gun Saga. You’ll start out by choosing a boss (or have the game randomly choose one for you): he determines the number of cards you draw per turn, the maximum hand size, the maximum number of posses, the size of your bunkhouse, and any special restrictions (like the lawman can’t hire outlaws). Some of these limitations are more noteworthy than others, and can alter your overall strategy somewhat. “Dudes” are your units, organized into groups called “posses”: they have an initial cost, per-turn upkeep (which must be balanced before each turn), gunfight value, health, leadership ability (how many people can be in their posse), victory point value if killed, and subtype that determines which action cards their posse can enter. Townsfolk also come with a special ability that can provide an income bonus, bonuses for owning specific buildings, and drawing more cards per turn to offset their lack of combat value. “Deeds” are buildings that, like townsfolk, provide additional income or a special ability. “Ambushes” can be placed on enemy staging areas as a one-time attack against posses; these discourage sending out single-unit posses. Finally, story cards award significant victory points, but require a specific subtype in a posse to enter first.

Cards start out in your hand (dealt after each turn), and there are four things you can do with them initially. You can buy the card, which adds dudes to your bunkhouse (who can then be added to posses), activates deeds, or places ambushes. You can attach the poker card listed on the item to an existing posse, to (hopefully) produce a better hand in the poker combat part of the game. Each card also has one of seventy actions listed on it that can be applied if certain conditions are fulfilled; these include things that affect victory points, upkeep, and skill levels, such as “if you have at least one posse containing a gambler that has occupied a story card for at least one turn then select an opponent and
take a random deed card from their holdings.” And if you don’t need it, you can cash a card in for a specified value (a good option for offsetting dude upkeep).

Posses, which cost three money to form, start out in your boss’s card and then pass through a staging area (where ambushes are placed) on the way to entering a story card the following turn. This is where the majority of victory points are earned, but story cards can only be entered by a specific dude type (lawmen, outlaws, gambler, military, et cetera); this makes you focus on specific dude types based on what story cards are currently on the table. When two posses meet in the same story card, a gunfight ensues. The game uses a Texas hold ‘em poker game to add value to existing gunfighting ratings; this means the superior posse won’t always win (though they usually will), especially if specific poker cards have been introduced. Overall, it’s balanced well, giving a semi-random bonus to keep combat a bit unpredictable. Plus, it’s a neat way to handle combat, and certainly fits the theme of the game well. After combat, hits are assigned to enemy units manually, so you can take out the units worth the most victory points.

Six Gun Saga features great card variety and varied special abilities, which means strategy will be slightly different each time. The combination of your boss, the cards you get, and the story objectives on the table will determine which cards you’ll keep, which ones you’ll cash, and which abilities you’ll use. Six Gun Saga depends on more luck than I’d like to see, like getting specific cards at the right time (I was Wyatt Earp, which means you can't recruit outlaws, so, of course, I drew almost all outlaws for the entire game). Additionally, one action (which are free to place) can really screw you, especially ones that result in the loss of expensive cards or a significant boost in upkeep for a particular unit. Either of these actions occurring in the beginning of a match results in a lot of early quitting. I think the more powerful actions should cost some amount of cash (or some other kind of limit), as there aren’t any repercussions for their use. While the actions allow for the trailing players to catch up, they are still annoying and poorly balanced. The AI doesn’t provide a good enough competitor: while they are good at pestering you with actions and then attacking vulnerable units immediately after, they also engage in battles where they are clearly outnumbered. The AI also likes to occasionally sit and do nothing, giving the human the opportunity to extend their lead. The computer simply can’t keep up with a competent human player, and I was able to easily double the computer’s victory points on a consistent basis after three or four “practice” games.

IN CLOSING
Six Gun Saga is an interesting idea for a card game that suffers from a couple of shortcomings. I do applaud the variety of cards available in the game: while you will encounter the same items in multiple games, the different attributes lead to varied strategies. You can choose to reap cards for their special abilities, cash them in to balance your upkeep, use them to form posses, stock up on deeds to provide bonuses, or accentuate existing posses with bonuses during combat. Striking a balance between all of these actions while accumulating the victory points earned from the missions at the center of the table is an appealing dynamic. The poker gunfights add just a pinch of luck to vary the combat values just enough to make confrontations in objectives unpredictable. Overall, however, Six Gun Saga relies on a significant amount of luck: getting the right (or wrong) cards at the right (or wrong) time determines the winner more often than solid strategy. If there are victory locations only for outlaws and you don't have any, the other players will reap the early benefits of getting to the story cards first. Plus, when you get the precious outlaw, you can bet that the AI will use an overpowered free ability to render that dude useless. Generally, the lackluster AI simply cannot keep up with a decent human player: once the basic rules are learned, victory is usually assured (unless they keep eliminating your best units with cheap abilities). Because Six Gun Saga lacks multiplayer modes of any kind, this is a problem that significantly affects longevity. The final nail in the coffin on Boot Hill (or whatever cowboy analogy you'd like to use) is the horrendous interface, which makes Six Gun Saga generally inaccessible to newcomers. In the end, the reliance on luck and overpowered abilities, uncompetitive AI, lack of multiplayer, and poor interface makes Six Gun Saga destined to hang for its crimes instead of riding into the sunset.

Monday, August 01, 2011

A.I.M. Racing Review

A.I.M. Racing, developed by SkyRiver Studios and published by 1C Company on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Sixteen tracks
The Not So Good: Extremely poor handling, overpowered AI opponents, LAN-only multiplayer, uninspired graphics, must unlock content, control assignment limitations, no alternative racing modes
What say you? This futuristic racing game lacks tight controls and notable features: 2/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Hey, remember those pod racers from the first (fourth?) Star Wars movie? Wouldn’t it be sweet if you could drive them? I wish there was a computer game that did that. Oh, wait, there was, but that was ten (seriously) years ago. Time for a shameless retread! Enter A.I.M. Racing, which surprisingly does not involve driving AOL’s Instant Messenger service. Apparently, this game is based on a series of role-playing games (I can see the obvious transition). Piloting hovercraft at unsafe speeds on foreign landscapes is enough to get my interest piqued, so how does the racing fare?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
A.I.M. Racing has decidedly outdated visuals. Most everything about the game is bland apart from the racer models. The environments are not detailed and only contain the scattered obstacle to impede your progress. The racing circuits fail in a couple of areas: both the layouts and the textures lack variety to make the game memorable. The special effects suffer from the same fate: boulders and other objects magically disappear when you run into them, and weapon damage is understated. This is not a game that pushes the limits of your hardware, and it shows. The music is also quite uninteresting: a generic mix of uninspired techno beats. The weapons also lack the punch you would expect. Everything about the presentation of A.I.M. Racing has a very generic and forgettable feel to it.

ET AL.
A.I.M. Racing features typical racing options: a four-tiered championship of increasing difficulty, quick races with unlocked tracks, and network play (but only over a LAN). There is nothing unique here, and the choices are actually quite limited once you examine the features more closely. First, you must unlock additional cars and tracks (boo!). While you can choose the number of laps and lives and opponents, you can only race in traditional circuit events. Also, you cannot assign an axis to the throttle and brake, eliminating the use of wheels or analogue gamepads. There are sixteen tracks to choose from, but, again, you have to unlock them in the championship mode. Boo!

Racing in A.I.M. Racing uses gliders that hover a couple of feet above the ground. While you might think that this would lend itself to some unique racing, it does not: other than being able to jump a short vertical distance over objects, it’s the same as any other arcade racing game and pretty disappointing. Each glider is rated in five attributes: strength, acceleration, max speed, maneuverability, firepower. A particular glider usually has one area of very high rating, while the others are significantly lower. You cannot customize your own racer: a disappointing missing feature. You can, however, earn modifiers after some races, but this is a small

The physics of A.I.M. Racing are quite terrible: most of the hovercrafts handle like they are moving through heavy syrup with no cornering ability at all. I realize the vehicles are hovering above the ground with no physical contact, but they should handle better than this, especially for an arcade racing game. Even turning the mouse sensitivity to full doesn’t result in the turning radius I desire. This wouldn’t be an issue of the AI drivers played by the same rules, but they can take corners at speed with ease, leaving you quickly in the dust. Making things worse is the seemingly random placement of objects designed to impede your progress, stuff that the AI never, ever runs in to. The only thing to even the playing field is the use of weapons, but even shooting at foes is a confusing affair. The game targets other cars automatically, but the game doesn’t explain when you are “locked on” and when you are no, as the reticule says green all of the time and there is no auditory cue to indicate when to fire. I don’t even think the “normal” weapons use the reticule, as you must be horizontally lined up with your enemy in order to score a hit. So why have the target marker in the first place? While the controls are not as complex as the other combat racing game, you still have to deal with the extraneous acceleration booster that must be applied every ten seconds after recharging. Tediousness does not have a place in a racing game. As you might expect, there are pickups to pick up that grand temporary bonuses for acceleration, shields, guns, and other assorted weaponry. You’ll need them, too, as the AI is too dexterous and never makes a mistake. The game tries to explain this as you racing against robots, but it still doesn’t make for exciting racing. You might as well make A.I.M. Racing a rally game since you are racing against a perfect foe influenced only by weapons, assuming you are in range, which you will not be.

IN CLOSING
A.I.M. Racing lacks that “hook” that you need to grab your attention and make the game stand out against the horde of racing titles. It's tough to say anything good about the game, as everything reeks of average to below average quality. The sixteen tracks seem like a lot, but they suffer from repetition of layout and setting. The cars handle quite poorly, not cornering as effectively as you would like. This would not be a problem if the AI played by the same rules, but your superior opponents take the turns with ease. This may be partially due to controller issues, but since A.I.M. Racing doesn't allow you to bind an axis to the throttle or brake and increasing the mouse sensitivity doesn't result in better maneuverability, then you must blame it on the game's physics. Add in limited multiplayer options, the requirement to unlock content, and only one race type, and we have a limited and ultimately uninteresting racing title. If you are looking for an arcade combat racing game, Death Track Resurrection is far superior to the bland driving of A.I.M. Racing.