Friday, September 30, 2011

F1 2011 Review

F1 2011, developed by Codemasters Birmingham and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Approachable handling, KERS and DRS make for more passing, cooperative online championships are neat, range of driving aids, race and season objectives appropriate for your team, AI tries to avoid accidents
The Not So Good: Not a simulation even with all assists disabled, unrealistic damage on any setting, online lag common with player hosts and high pings
What say you? A fine half-arcade, half-simulation adaptation of the world’s most popular racing series: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
My first exposure to “realistic” PC racing was World Circuit, known as Formula One Grand Prix to the rest of the world. This game simulated Formula 1, the most European of all racing series (short races and few passes, much like soccer with short games and few scores), in all of its polygon glory, with detailed 3-D tracks and realistic handling and setups. It was pretty much awesome. Jump ahead several years and developers later, and the official F1 games are now handled by Codemasters, of
DiRT and GRID fame. Their initial outing (not reviewed here) was received positively, yet there is always room for improvements, notably in the AI and online aspects of the game. Let’s see what the (now) yearly racing game has to offer this lap around the track.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
F1 2011 looks like a nice racing game, because it is! It starts with the cars themselves, which look just like their real-life counterparts, down to the individual sponsor stickers that adorn the fast-moving billboards. That said, damage is poor: the bodies of the cars never receive a scratch, while the wings and tires take all of the harm. Also, some of the textures aren’t too crisp up close (even on the highest settings), especially on the driver suits and helmets, but overall the cars are impressive. The tracks are also detailed, with recognizable buildings to assist in driving, and seemingly accurate in their layouts. The rain effects are especially impressive, creating a wet environment where you can’t see a darn thing when trailing behind a pack of cars. Your pit crew is also animated, from inside the garage to pit stops. I was also pleased with the performance of the game, even in the rain, and only experienced the occasional hiccup, a definite plus in a game where the cars are moving so fast. The graphics go a long way towards immersing you in the world of F1. The sound effects are what you would expect: the high-pitch whine of the engines, sliding of the tires when grip is lost, and blunt hits when crashes occur. The very British engineer gives you the occasional advice during the race and a member of the press gives interviews, but this is the only voice work done in the game as there is no race commentary, even when spectating a race. There is only a small collection of voiced names to choose from, unlike previous Codemasters titles, so unless you happen to have the same name as a past F1 champion, you’ll have to stick with “iceman.” Still, F1 2011 delivers a very solid package overall.

ET AL.
The career mode of F1 2011 lets you start in one of the “lesser” teams and work your way up to international man of mystery. During your career, you’ll race the F1 calendar, conduct pointless interviews with the press, bump rivals into the wall, and (thankfully) skip repetitive cutscenes showing you dramatically climbing into your car. You are given specific objectives for each practice, qualifying, and race session, based on the capabilities of your team. Attaining these appropriate goals unlocks better equipment for your car; not exactly realistic, per se, but it gives bad teams something to shoot for. Apart from the career mode are customizable grand prix, where you pick a real driver and a race schedule of your own desire. You can choose from specific percentages for the race length (1 lap, 3 laps, 7 laps, 10%, 20%, 50%, or 100%) and opt for dynamic weather, which, I think, defaults to rain so often just to show off the graphics. You can also choose to enable rules, flags, and tire and fuel use. Further game modes include the proving grounds, where you can upload your fastest lap times to the Internet, or attempt to earn medals in specific track and weather challenges. F1 2011 also has multiplayer, the most notable feature of which is the new cooperative championships: you can a friend pick a team and then race for the constructors’ championship, while also trying to best each other and earn the #1 position on the team and get access to upgrades first. Additional options include quick matches, with qualifying-only, 3-lap, 7-lap, or 20% length events, or custom grand prix where you can decide the rules. F1 2011 uses the much maligned Games for Windows LIVE, which, honestly, is getting less noticeable and consequently less annoying: I input my multiplayer key once and it logs in automatically, no problem. Weird. The multiplayer games only support up to sixteen players and fill out the remainder of the field with AI drivers because a single player hosts the races. This user-induced lag results in the more-than-occasional hiccup in online performance, like the time I was disqualified when the safety car warped into my current position due to lag, or when cars float above the track (playing against drivers in Europe has its disadvantages). Finally, F1 2011 rounds out the package with some humorous achievements, like the one that suggests you play DiRT 3 if you slide the car too much.

F1 2011 puts a good amount of information on your screen: a track map (which can rotate based on your orientation), current running order, car status (damage, temperature, fuel), and arrows to indicate nearby cars. You can also adjust your strategy on the fly, opting for different fuel usage rates to balance horsepower and pit stop frequency or alternative tire compounds. The controls are very typical for a racing game, and force feedback is nothing special, as you get gentle feedback when tires are gripping and curbs are run over. The first thing I did (as a somewhat experienced virtual racer) was disable all of the driving aids (anti-lock brakes and traction control), except for the 3-D racing line as I learned the tracks. I found that the cars in F1 2011 are pretty easy to control, as long as you don’t floor it coming out of the corners: they have good grip and excellent acceleration and braking abilities, and the handling feels like you a controlling a heavier car that cannot simply be whipped around corners with fast, quick turning. This said, I don’t feel that F1 2011 falls on the simulation side of things (trying to appeal to a larger audience, no doubt), even if you turn off all of the aids, as the cars never felt as “twitchy” as I have experienced in similar vehicles in similar games. So as long as you’re willing to give up some realism in the name of drivability, then F1 2011 is a good effort.

A couple of new features have been added to the 2011 Formula 1 season. The first is KERS (yeah, it was used in 2009, but not in game form), which stores energy used during braking. It’s basically a turbo boost that can be used at any point on the track, for seven seconds each lap. The goal is to make passing easier, and I’d say it succeeds, as you can see a subtle yet noticeable increase in acceleration. At first, I thought it was very “gamey” that KERS recharges instantly right at the start-finish line instead of when you brake, but apparently that's how it works in real life: shows what I know. Less dramatic is DRS, which allows you to open your rear wing, therefore decreasing downforce and drag, at specified points along the track. This method of boosting your speed is much less dramatic and it’s restricted to certain places that are not clearly labeled, so I found it much less helpful. Also new is Pirelli, the tire manufacturer: apparently, this alters how the tire wear works in the game, although I did not see any huge difference. You are given the option of using soft “option” tires, hard “prime” tires, or wet tires during practice, qualifying, and the race. There are several color-coded types of each (like red super-soft tires and blue intermediate wet tires, for example) that can be equipped for different track conditions in a strategic manner.

You can opt for simplified or more detailed car setups. The basic version gives you five choices based on weather (from fully dry to fully wet), and I really appreciate the range of quick setups; I’m simply not good enough to need super-specific tweaks to how my car performs. You can, however, adjust around twenty specific values for things like front wing angle, brake balance, ride height, gear ratios, and camber. The damage model in F1 2011 is very unrealistic: while real F1 cars disintegrate with even the slightest contact with a butterfly, a head-on collision with a wall will only damage your wing and possibly a wheel, instead of transferring all that force to other parts of the car like the suspension or body. Even the results of putting the game on the “full” damage setting are disappointing: I rolled the car three times and received no damage whatsoever. Speaking of wrecks, the safety car is now included in the game, which bunches up the pack at a slow pace while debris is cleaned up. If you’d rather not crash, flashbacks have returned, so you can re-start from any point in an instant replay. However, the replays are very limited (only about ten seconds in length), so at lot of the time I forgot to use the flashback until it was too late.

The AI is apparently (didn’t play last year’s version) improved, and overall it provides good competition. The qualifying and race speeds seem to match, negating a problem I’ve seen in numerous racers where the AI is (usually) really fast in qualifying and terrible during a race. The AI tries to avoid accidents and will back off when you “accidently” cut them off as they attempt to pass; I never felt that the AI was ramming into me on purpose, or if they did, it was my fault. This is best seen at the beginning of the race, and their performance is certainly better than a lot of human drivers I've seen online. It is easiest to gain track position in the first thirty seconds of the race when the field is bunched up and the pack goes slowly through the first couple of turns. Typically, I gain a lot (ten or so) of positions on the first lap and then spend the rest of the race holding up the pack behind me while trying to block. You can tell the AI is artificial, as it adheres to the racing line almost all of the time and rarely makes mistakes. Though, one could argue, that the actual drivers in F1 are robotic in nature, too. You have to choose a difficulty setting (instead of the game dynamically adjusting the AI capabilities based on your performance), and I found the middle setting to be a bit too easy and the next highest setting to be a bit too difficult, a common problem when you only have five difficulty options at your disposal instead of a range of percentages. The difficulty setting basically changes when the AI cars brake: the lower the difficulty, the sooner they slow down. Hopefully, most drivers will be able to find an appropriate difficulty setting that’s challenging without being unfair. I’ve noticed some errant behavior, especially during practice or qualifying (slow cars in my way), but for the most part, the AI in F1 2011 is definitely capable.

IN CLOSING
F1 2011 is a pleasing adaptation of the racing series. This is no simulation as the simplified handling makes the fast cars more approachable to a wider audience, especially when you enable the driving assists. The handling is handled (ha ha!) well, if you don’t mind some concessions for user-friendliness, with a drivable car that never feels totally out of control unless you mash the gas exiting every turn. You are given the option to use one of the quick setups, which work great, or tweak specific aspects of your vehicle. The new additions of KERS and DRS make races more exciting thanks to more passing and an added strategic element regarding their use. The damage is entirely unrealistic and inadequate, even when set to “full”: the car body is always left unscathed and minor (and even some major) contact is never penalized. The use of flashbacks is appreciated to redo the occasional mistake, and the addition of the safety car that bunches up the field during large wrecks is welcome. The AI drivers are good enough, avoiding contact with you can each other, which can make them easy to pass at the beginning of each race. While I’d like to see either a dynamically adjusting difficulty or more options (like a percentage value) to tailor their abilities, they are generally smart and fun to race against. The career mode is interesting as you work your way up to the better teams, and the race objectives are nice goals that give even the terrible teams something to aim for. Multiplayer lets you race up to sixteen players online, but is subject to lag due to high pings and a single client host. The graphics and sound are generally impressive (though wrecks could look better), especially the rain effects. While I’m not sure if F1 2011 offers full value for owners of the first game in the series, it is a polished, enjoyable experience for those looking for a slightly relaxed take on open-wheel racing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad Review

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, developed and published by Tripwire Interactive.
The Good: Authentic weapons and ballistics emphasize cautious movement, intuitive cover system, useful suppression, range of realism settings, detailed environments and tanks
The Not So Good: Terrible AI, lack of polish, small maps and quick respawn times reduce tactical flexibility and increase stalemates, no accuracy penalty for aiming while standing, limited dynamic building destruction
What say you? This World War II first person shooter sequel retains most of the realism of the original with some tradeoffs to make it more approachable, but it is painful offline and not totally ready to be released: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
World War II first person shooter. If that doesn’t make you quiver with excitement…well, that’s understandable. The glut of online shooters have moved into modern times, seemingly fed up with the grand wars of history and the untold millions of computer games covering the era. But, there is always room for one more, as Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad hopes to offer an update to the mod-derived hardcore shooter, where realism is chosen above the arcade concessions found in other shooters. Does this sequel deliver the goods for both the realism fanatic and newcomer?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Red Orchestra 2 uses the third version of the Unreal Engine with decent results. Its starts with the character models, which are detailed up close, complete with all of the objects real soldiers come into battle with (hanging grenades, shovels, etc). The soldiers of each side run differently, too, which makes them a bit easier to distinguish at range (Russians always grasp their weapons with both hands). However, there are some instances of clipping into objects and other soldiers that detract from the realism of the title. The gore effects are nice when grenades are in use (limbs go flying), but a bit understated when headshots are involved (no chunks of flesh). The weapons are detailed and seemingly realistic in their designs, and tank rounds glow as they soar through the air. Watching bullets impact a wall is also neat. Smoke is impenetrable, providing excellent cover for advancing troops. The maps are quite detailed, with plenty of objects in reach room and destruction already in place: holes in walls, piles bricks on the ground, trenches. You’ll rarely find an empty room, and this goes a long way into making Red Orchestra 2 feel like it’s taking place in a real location. The game supposedly features destructible buildings, but I’ve only seen tanks occasionally take out small chunks of walls; you can’t, for example, shoot out a wall or use explosives to create a new access point, which is pretty disappointing. Speaking of tanks, the full 3-D interiors are impressive and very immersive. The game’s HUD provides limited information on suppression and stamina, plus a small minimap and useful tactical overlay to get your bearings.

Red Orchestra 2 has solid sound design: you can pinpoint enemy locations (and which weapon they are using) using sound alone. The characters use accented English voice work, which is a bit disappointing in a game that purports authenticity, but at least they have some amusing things to say. In addition, cries during the throws of death are effective, if a bit over-the-top. Red Orchestra 2 advertises dynamic music, and it ends up being less varied than I would have thought: there’s a small piece of music that occurs when objectives are captured and a change in tempo when the countdown clock is low, but overall it’s the same songs over and over again. Still, I found nothing overwhelmingly offensive about the sound design in the game.

ET AL.
Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad features a series of battles over the city of Berlin. No, wait, Stalingrad. The single player game consists of two campaigns, one for the Germans and one for the Russians, that take place around the city of Stalingrad. The missions are unlocked in a specific order, and you must win a battle in order to move on to the next scenario. This includes the tutorials, which, while informative, do not change the on-screen directions if you reconfigure your commands (no, left-control is NOT used for cover anymore). All of the missions have you attacking or defending specific objectives (usually a sub-set of those used in the multiplayer portion of the game), and the unique feature is the ability to take over other allies when you die. However, you do not get a choice as to which soldier you get next, and the game seems to stick you with machine gunners while attacking and the assault class on defense. The scenario is only lost if everyone is eliminated, but reinforcements come every minute or two. So, if you are the last soldier left, you can just camp and wait for the next reinforcement wave, the timer for which is handily displayed on the tactical view. Exciting! The AI is absolutely awful, one of the worst I’ve seen in any recent first person shooter (Brink’s AI is almost scholarly be comparison). Granted, it’s difficult to make a decent AI in a team-based shooter, but things should be better than this. The AI is hopeless as an attacker: they never deploy smoke, charge out in the open, and don’t work together. As a defender they are more competent, but during assaults it’s you against the enemy while the rest of your teammates run around, failing to actually defend the objective. Red Orchestra 2 lets you see the next soldier you will control before you swap bodies, and this is where the shortcomings of the AI become most apparent: soldiers nowhere near the objective, using cover but aiming away from the enemy, being trapped in trenches, running back and forth in the open, and so on. The AI also seems oblivious as to what class they are, with machine gunners running around in the open and submachine gunners laying back behind cover. It’s a comedy of errors, except nobody is laughing. Using commands (once you get promoted) makes things slightly better, but the AI will still ignore your orders and avoid taking objectives until you clear out all the enemies yourself. In short, do not buy Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad for the single player campaign.

On the multiplayer side of things, Red Orchestra 2 has up to sixty-four players fighting it out over several game modes. The first is territory, where two or three objectives are given at a time and must be conquered before moving on to the next set, in order to concentrate the violence. Countdown is similar, but each person is limited to one life per objective: this makes the games more tense, but the short time limit reduces the tactical caution you can exercise. Finally, firefight is a team deathmatch mode that features spawning near friendly units (but not necessarily out of harm’s way) and some large maps not suitable for this kind of unorganized chaos. Each of the modes allow you to adjust the realism setting for the server, turning off the minimap and friendly soldier names for a more authentic experience if you prefer. Playing online can be fun, but not if the server has PunkBuster enabled: this easily doubles everyone’s ping, which results in less-than-smooth gameplay. I’m not sure why the developers opted for this antiquated anti-cheat program when VAC is already used by default, especially when it seems to cause significant performance issues. In addition, the server browser sometimes does not refresh if you quit an online game, it seems to display a random assortment of servers every time, spawning on the squad leader never seems to work, and I've experienced crashes often enough to become annoying. Plus, unlocks are not working. These types of annoying issues would be sorted out if the game has a couple of months more development time before widespread release.

The game’s ten maps each feature a mix of open areas, narrow streets, and multi-story buildings to sneak around. Machine gun nests are semi-randomly spawned before each game, so you never are quite sure where they will appear. The maps in Red Orchestra 2 are much smaller than their original counterparts, which leads to quicker fights but less tactical freedom and smaller engagement ranges. In addition, the short 20-second default spawn times means reinforcements reach the objectives way too quickly, leading to stalemates and tie games on most maps. Finally, being a derivative of a mod itself, Red Orchestra 2 features support for user modifications, so it’s fair to assume custom-made maps will appear quickly after release.

Red Orchestra 2 features a couple of enhancements to the typical first person shooter control scheme. The most noticeable is the new cover system, which I found to work well most of the time. When facing a wall or other object, an on-screen prompt suggests entering first-person cover by pressing a specific button. As you crouch behind an object, you can do several things. Looking down your iron sights will peek above cover (or around a corner if you are in that situation); leaving iron sights or pressing the reload button will duck back down. You can also blind fire your weapon or grenades from behind cover, and moving laterally behind cover is easy to do. It can get a little dicey when walls aren’t exactly the right height or objects are in front of windows, but generally cover works as it should. Other options include the ability to mantle (jump) over low objects; and sprinting while prone will return you to a prone position when you are done running.

Guns. Lots of guns. Well, at least the guns used during the Battle of Stalingrad. They generally fall into several categories based on class: submachine guns for the assault class, bolt-action rifles for the riflemen class, a sniper rifle, a semi-automatic rifle, and a machine gun. You also get grenades, squad leaders get smoke grenades, engineers get explosives, and anti-tank troops get rocket launchers. The game restricts how many people can be in each class at a time, to provide a realistic balance and stick all of the n00bs with bolt-action rifles. Red Orchestra 2 is one of the only games to compel you into playing your class: rifles are useless directly assaulting an objective, while submachine guns are more ineffective at range (but still too effective, in my opinion). This requires people to work together to achieve the next objective (and significantly more experience points are awarded for capturing objectives compared to kills). The game does not provide an on-screen aiming cursor, so you must use the iron sights (just like real life!). In another nod to realism, you must keep track of your ammunition manually, as there is no on-screen indication of how many rounds remain in your clip (though you can hold down the reload button and get an approximate count). Little touches like these make Red Orchestra 2 feel more authentic. You and hold your breath to zoom in a bit more (restricting your peripheral vision), or adjust your sights to the range of your enemy. Iron sights are also present on the sniper rifle, so marksmen can engage enemies that are close by. Machine guns use bipods (automatically deployed when behind cover or prone), and anybody can use cover (windows, low walls) for supposed added stability when firing. However, I have not seen a big difference between aiming accuracy while standing, crouching, prone, or using cover as support as there is no noticeable gun sway in any situation, even after sustained sprinting.

You can pick up weapons from killed soldiers, but you are limited (by weight) to how many objects you can carry at once. Being fired upon does two things: first, an indicator shows which direct the bullets came from (for friendly fire, too), and being suppressed by enemy fire makes your vision more blurry and monochromatic. It’s a successful effect: you can still fire, but you can’t see very well. You can also experience suppression if nearby allies get killed, which is neat and quite realistic, I would say. Bullets to the head or torso will result in instant death, which works well for the bolt-action weapons that don’t fire quickly. You can also receive damage to specific body parts (arms and legs) that can be bandaged: this isn’t very realistic (how many people can repair a bleeding leg themselves in three seconds?), but I guess it’s a concession to game must make to let inaccurate shots be less effective. Red Orchestra 2 also delays kill notifications, a nice touch that means you’re not really sure if the enemy is dead initially: better fire a couple more bullets to be sure. Bullet ballistics is seemingly accurate: high-speed rifle rounds can penetrate some walls and objects (wood, namely), so safety is not assured when behind cover.

While Red Orchestra 2 is mostly about the infantry, there are two tanks that are featured on two of the game’s ten maps. Each tank has a 3-D interior complete with crewmembers in their actual locations and working dials (a small thing, but good for immersion). The AI will do a decent job manning the vacant positions in the tank: the AI gunner isn’t so great, but you can order the tank around from either the commander or gunner position, so being the driver is unnecessary unless the tank is full of human players. The tanks in Red Orchestra 2 experience damage to individual systems and crew members: if the gunner is shot, you can scramble over (in real time) from another position and take his post. That’s pretty cool. Tanks also exhibit realistically limited visibility out into the world, and the weapon ballistics seem to be accurate in their difficulty. Finally, the commander can call in fire support onto the map, aerial reconnaissance, or force soldiers to respawn early: pleasing support options that all come with a time delay to prevent spamming.

IN CLOSING
Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad has a series of features that make it feel more authentic than a majority of first person shooters. The weapons require the use of iron sights, and you can adjust them for different ranges and deploy bipods automatically. However, submachine guns seem to effective at longer ranges, and there is no significant gun sway: go ahead and aim while standing, even after sprinting for large distances. Smaller urban maps means more action, but less flanking as most of the designs feature well-defined choke points and head-on engagements. Additionally, destructible buildings simply are not. The cover system is done well, allowing you to blind-fire your weapon or grenades and peek over walls with ease, assuming the object isn’t irregular or near an obstruction. The suppression system blurs your vision while under fire, making it more difficult to differentiate between friend and foe. One-shot kills (if aimed at an appropriate body part) force careful movement across the terrain, and lead to tense, slow navigation through the heavily damaged maps. The 3-D tactical display and minimap make it easy to find the next objective. Multiplayer is fun with a full sixty-four-player server, while the single player campaign should be avoided by everyone due to the horrific AI that likes to run in circles, avoid objectives, and get killed. The graphics are quite nice, effectively displaying a war-torn region. Tanks are neat as well, with fully detailed interiors. The game does suffer from a lack of polish, from laggy online servers due to (I think) the use of PunkBuster to graphical artifacts to random crashes to other things that add up to a less than smooth launch; I suspect things will improve with further development, but Red Orchestra 2 does feel like it was pushed out too early. Still, Red Orchestra 2 is a good, if somewhat simplified, sequel and a fine entry into the realm of realistic first person shooters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sengoku Review

Sengoku, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Enjoyable political positioning with many people to interact with, extensive personal attributes and relationships, perpetual war keeps you busy, nice map and music
The Not So Good: Shallow province management, small clans are easy targets due to their military and income restrictions, generally useless plots, typically static inter-clan relationships, lacks missions, only one starting date
What say you? Highlighted by the character management, this grand strategy game gives you just enough to do: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Japan, historically a tiny island that isolated itself from the rest of the world, has had its share of internal strife. Most notable was the Sengoku period, where clans from all corners of the land fought for the Shogun crown. The first major computer game to touch on this conflict was Shogun: Total War, which recently had an enjoyable sequel. Taking another crack at the period is Paradox Interactive, in an attempt to adapt their grand strategy gameplay to the management of a clan. Instead of focusing on the tactical battles that highlights Total War: Shogun 2, Sengoku resides solely in the strategic realm, as you move troops, interact with other characters, and manage your domain. Does Sengoku triumph in victory, or commit seppuku?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sengoku starts with the map, and it’s a beauty: a pristine, 3-D, slightly exaggerated facsimile of Japan, completely with varied terrain and textures that bring the game world to life. Of course, I spent most of the time using the alternative map modes, so I didn’t really get to see the beautiful textures all that much. Units are very small and it’s hard to see their detail without zooming in to unhelpful levels; animations are repetitive (endless stabbing during assaults, for example), typical of Paradox grand strategy games. The character portraits do repeat themselves with so many people in the game, but for the most part you can identify people visually. The relatively small island of Japan means Sengoku loads and run much faster than some of Paradox's previous grand strategy games, which is nice. The sound effects are basic, with low, subtle notification volumes that you might miss. However, the music is great: it fits the theme well and I remember it after I’m done playing, always a positive sign. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics and sound of Sengoku.

ET AL.
Sengoku is a real-time grand strategy game where you attempt to control 50% of the islands of Japan, then fend everyone else off to become Shogun of the realm. The game features four scenarios…sort of. They are actually just four sets of suggestions for powerful or interesting starting clans, as you can only start on May 26th, 1467. Like to start later on in the campaign? Too bad. However, in a neat twist, you don't have to play as the clan leader: instead, you can choose any land-holding male and attempt to claw your way to the top. While a subordinate role gives you less to do, you can still raise some personal armies and engage with other characters. Sengoku features multiplayer in addition to the single player option, if you’d like to duke it out with other humans online. Instead of opting for a set of comprehensive tutorials (which were a fantastic part of Victoria II), Sengoku has pop-up messages that appear whenever you open a new menu; they work well enough. The interface is standard Paradox fare: all of your options on the left, notifications along the top, and the handy outliner along the right. Plentiful map modes are also present, the most useful showing clan borders, your demesne, and diplomatic relationships. New is message consolidation (into low and high priority groups) into two inboxes, instead of incessant pop-ups in the middle of the screen. This is a nice feature, but possibly important diplomatic offers are way too subtle, appearing at the lower corner of the screen. You also have to redo character searches too often, and the filters leave a lot to be desired: some of the sorting options (by clan or opinion, specifically) only work partially (you can sort by your opinion of them, but not their opinion of you) or not at all (it’s really hard to find members of specific clans, as the alphabetical sorting is inconsistent).

In Sengoku, you control one character (and later his first male heir…hopefully) in a quest for island dominance. There are three main resources in the game: wealth, demesne, and honor. Wealth is collected from monthly provincial taxes and spent to construct specialty buildings called manufactories and hire mercenary troops. Your income and expenses are vague (one of the rare times Sengoku skimps on the tooltips), but balancing your budget is simply a matter of having less troops and more land. Honor is used to perform any diplomatic action in the game and earned by conquering territory and slowly accrued during peacetime; characters with no honor should commit suicide. Your demense is the land you directly control; you are limited to only five provinces (owning more will cause revolts), so you must delegate additional land to other members of your clan (preferably your heir, to elevate their position within the clan). All of the characters in the game are also rated in several areas that can be improved based on the ratings of your wives: health, martial ability, diplomacy, and intrigue. In addition, characters can earn traits (both positive and negative) over time that further influence their abilities. The other members of your clan might become pretenders to the throne, automatically nominated by land-holding clansmen based on inter-personal relationship values (thus, it’s important to maintain positive relations with your clan’s high-ranking members). Of course, you can always form your own clan and ignite a civil war if your heir is not in position for clan leader.

Managing your provinces is accomplished through your court: you nominate three individuals (hopefully based on their skill ratings) from your clan to supervise your lands. It is a straightforward process: pick the court member, pick the action, and pick the province. The first is the master of arms, who can improve the castle, hire troops, or restore order. The master of ceremonies can improve the village, improve relations, or collect higher taxes. Finally, the master of the guard can improve guilds (allowing for another special manufactory to become construction), sow dissent (increasing the possibility of a revolt), or hire ninjas. The options here are all disappointingly limited. The castle, village, and guild improvements are all very linear: simply the next level opens up, providing better defense or higher taxes or another construction slot. Affecting relationships, either positive or negative, seems ineffective at best (and really slow) and a waste of time at worse. Plus, since you only have direct control over only five provinces, land management becomes very repetitive, performing the same actions in the same places over and over again. There is very little strategy here, which is sad for a strategy game.

Diplomacy was a bit different during the Sengoku period. In order to found a temporary alliance with another clan, you must exchange hostages (actual family members) for five years, which is slightly more interesting than simply increasing relationships to a certain value (and relationship values are pretty fixed, based mostly on attribute values). Sending gifts is still there, but since you never need to declare war, you don’t need to destroy relationships before launching an attack. Peace options include conceding defeat by offering a hostage, or becoming a vassal of another clan. Sengoku features plots, where you can plan to overthrow your clan or gang up on a common enemy, but it’s hard to recruit people (even if they have a good relationship) and you can just attack whomever you want at any time. Moreover, you can ignite a civil war with a single, instant action in the clan management screen instead of wasting time messing with plots. Marriage is required to produce heirs and keep playing the game. There is a handy button next to each character that will bring up bride choices (it’s the ancient Japanese match.com!), so pick one with good stats (just like real life!) and hopefully she will accept. You can choose spouses for yourself and any of your children, and arranging marriages (especially for your daughters) is a great way to increase relationships with neighboring clans. It's a good idea to pair up all of your kids while you still can, though, as the AI seems to be pretty lax in this area.

Religion plays a small role in the world of Sengoku: building a specific type of temple gives you different bonuses, which I’m sure is how it worked in real life (Look! A Buddhist temple! We must reinforce more quickly!). The game fails to give you missions (other than “kill everyone”) in the short-term, so new players can be directionless. In addition, decisions and events are rare enough to be ignored. But war is not, as the island of Japan is in a constant state of conflict. Troops are recruited directly from your provinces: the clan leader can raise military units instantly with the push of a button, so the largest clan owning the most land will always have the biggest army. However, you can also hire a limited number of retinue to act as personal guards in the army you lead, and ronin mercenaries can be hired to compliment the native province-based troops. Combat is the same as with other Paradox grand strategy games: automatically calculated based on the fire and shock phases of the units involved. You can tip the balance of warfare prematurely by placing ninja clans in provinces, where they can assassinate characters, take hostages, weaken defenses, burn buildings, or cause others to lose honor. Still, the largest clans will have the most troops and win the most battles, leading to an ultimate showdown between the biggest groups in the game. Constant war keeps things moving, and I was rarely just sitting there with nothing to do. The AI seems to be competent enough: they manage provinces and move troops well, attacking and defending in appropriate places. I did occasionally get annoyed while playing as a subordinate at the clan leader’s choices in assault locations, but in general I did not experience any completely boneheaded moves.

IN CLOSING
Sengoku is a character-based game, and in places it shines as a multifaceted political simulation of ancient Japan. There are lots of people to deal with in the game, and finding spouses, exploring family trees, scouting rivals, negotiating with other clans is almost fun. Plots aren’t effective, but the relentless state of war means you can attack anyone at any time. Raising a sizable army is easy and instantaneous, and you can compliment them with personal troops, mercenaries, and ninjas. However, since the military is recruited directly from all of your provinces immediately, small clans will always be easy targets simply because they can’t field as many troops (or support their maintenance with tax income). But there is certainly more to do here than in Victoria II: I like delegating lands and positioning your heir as the next choice for the clan leader. Province management is really disappointing, as your court actions are quite limited and you can only do things in five provinces. There’s only one scenario, and no missions or goals other than taking over everyone and everything. The graphics and interface are generally nice, and the AI provides decent competition. Overall, Sengoku provides a different, personal take on the grand strategy game, and its threat of war coupled with political activities keeps you active throughout your time in Japan.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rock of Ages Review

Rock of Ages, developed by ACE Team and published by ATLUS.
The Good: Simultaneous defense construction and platform gaming, quick matches in multiple game modes, interesting art themes, tense online matches, capable AI opponent, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Inconsequential damage and minor penalty for falling, skeeball score bonuses are too significant, split-screen requires two gamepads, annoying boss battles
What say you? This competitive tower defense game has a distinctive style and solid gameplay with some balance issues: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So, how do you follow weird (think “explosive parachuting squirrels”) melee combat game Zeno Clash? With a tower defense game, of course! While this genre has seen an explosion of popularity, ACE Team hopes to inject their own flavor of “strange” into the equation. How so, you ask? Imagine a huge, smiling boulder smashing through Renaissance and Greek art. This tower defense game takes a competitive edge, with both players constructing defenses and piloting their rock through the opponent’s carefully planned resistance simultaneously. Does Rock of Ages combine theme and gameplay well, or does it roll away to obscurity?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Rock of Ages grabs your attention with its awesome graphics. The game’s five artistic themes (Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, Rococo, and Romanticism) each come with stellar track designs and animated background images that make many references to their inspiration. The ground textures, track elements, and buildings are all fantastically designed and look wonderful in motion. There is some pop-in when approaching some parts of the map (no doubt a limitation of the consoles creeping in to the hardware-superior PC), but it’s rarely noticeable on the game’s usually twisty layouts. The game does not support 5:4 displays (like mine) and does not save resolution settings when you exit the game, so I had to tell the game to run in a window every time I started up: annoying. The sound is also excellent, with some great effects for weapons and pleasing background music to accompany your crushing. Overall, Rock of Ages clearly exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphics and sound design.

ET AL.
In Rock of Ages, the goal is to roll down a hill and smash through the doors of the enemy castle using a giant boulder (obviously). Along the way, your opponent constructs defenses meant to slow you down. The main single player feature is the story mode, which features a series of one-on-one battles against historical AI opponents. The levels themselves feature multiple paths with fixed obstacles and the occasional shortcut, accessible by skilled boulder pilots. Games are quick, clocking in just over five minutes, with three solid shots against the enemy castle doors enough to win the game. The mix of platform and tower defense gaming is peppered with tedious boss battles that are unnecessary and annoying: I hate them.

Rock of Ages is not just about the “war” mode, however. There is also a throwaway timed mode where you try to finish a level as quickly as possible (taking use of those shortcuts mentioned earlier), complete with online leaderboards. More interesting is the skeeball mode, where you must smash targets on the way down the map and then put your boulder in a scoring multiplier. While this is a nice twist on the game, getting the multiplier is far too important: whoever finishes first two out of the three matches will win, unless they completely missed all of the large targets on the way down. Rock of Ages also has comprehensive multiplayer features in both the “war” and “skeeball” modes: you can quickly search for a match or browse available options. Local split-screen is also available, although you must have two gamepads, as support for one person on the mouse/keyboard and another on a single gamepad is not available, much to the dismay of myself and my daughter. Finally, Rock of Ages is only $10, which is a great price.

The first thing you’ll want to do in the “war” mode is build some defenses. You’ll start out with some cash that you can spend placing objects in specific, highlighted areas of the map: towers, cows, catapults, explosives, and wind are all meant to slow down your opponent and/or push them off the map (incurring a small time penalty for a reset), and there are three types of each with increasing strength and cost. You can also place resource collection points and balloons to automatically fire your castle cannons (you can also manually target the opponent, but it’s very difficult to do). Money is also earned by smashing into things as you roll your boulder down your opponent’s maze. Clearly, the key to success is to find the chokepoints in each map and then place complimentary defenses; for example, towers to slow a boulder down, and wind to push it towards elephants, who will charge it off the map. You can rotate objects like trebuchets, but only in the four cardinal directions, which is problematic considering most of the maps feature angled sections. Not only are you restricted as to where objects can be placed (for no apparent reason), but things can only be placed on a particular square once, so make sure you plan ahead. You are also time-limited: once your next boulder is ready to roll, you must go to stay ahead of your opponent.

Controlling your boulder feels “right”: using the WASD keys in concert with the mouse-driven camera, you are given a level of precision while retaining a heavy feel with high momentum. Your boulder can jump over obstacles (just like real life?), and timing your controls is important. You can spend leftover funds on one-time rock upgrades, like increased armor or the ability to double jump. Unfortunately, Rock of Ages suffers from some balance issues. There is only a small time penalty for falling, and I’ve never had a boulder completely destroyed during a run. Since it always takes exactly three runs to destroy the other castle, no matter the health or speed of your boulder, whoever is fastest wins. While this does make for more exciting games (since both players are likely to be neck-and-neck), it doesn’t make the defensive game as important as simply not falling off the map. The AI is good: while it may get stuck against stout defenses every once in a while, it plays like a medium-skilled human, placing effective defenses and piloting well. I wonder how scripted the defenses are in advance, since they are well placed in almost every level. While I only lost to the AI once during the story mode, it did offer some close, entertaining games.

IN CLOSING
Rock of Ages features a nice mix of tower defense and platform gaming. Controlling your weighty boulder feels intuitive and works well on the PC, and navigating the terrain while avoiding your enemy’s defenses is challenging, tense, and enjoyable. The small downtime between rolling rounds is spent hastily placing a wide range of defenses: towers, dynamite, fans, and elephants. There are placement restrictions and natural checkpoints that should be taken advantage of. Multiple paths means that no defensive plan is foolproof, however, and you can always simply jump over poorly placed obstacles. It always takes the same number of hits to destroy the enemy game, no matter how fast you’re going or how much damage you’ve received, which is disappointing. While this does make defenses less important, it does make the games very close and amplifies the small penalty for falling off the track, since seconds do matter. The story mode features very competent AI but boss battles are tedious and out of place. The time trial mode isn’t very entertaining, but skeeball provides some good head-to-head racing, although being first is the key to victory due to high scoring bonuses. Online multiplayer is quite fun and finding opponents is easy; split-screen is also available, but you’ll need two gamepads to play it. And you can’t mention Rock of Ages without citing the unique art and music. In the end, Rock of Ages is a fun take on the tower defense genre.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Achron Review

Achron, developed and published by Hazardous Software.
The Good: Time control leads to truly innovative strategies, commander-based unit control, three distinctive sides, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Lacks immediate feedback on past or future orders, tedious and linear single-player campaign, dreadful lack of documentation and instruction
What say you? Unique mechanics give way to confusion: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So you are playing your favorite real-time strategy game, and you make a really stupid move. Oh, how you wish you could go back in time and undo that errant command and save your troops! But, what if you could? Enter Achron, a RTS that centers around the theme of time manipulation: you can change past orders, or transport units to an earlier (or later) time and ambush the enemy. Obviously, this type of unique mechanic requires an easy way to remember what the heck you changed in the past while you’re in the future. Is Achron a landmark shift in strategy design, or a timeless mess under the weight of its own rules?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Achron are very simplistic, an artifact of its independent roots. The best visual aspect of the game is the unit design: they are nicely detailed and animated well enough to be believable. Explosions and combat effects are repetitive and generally unimpressive. The maps are very bland outdoor environments with commonly dark textures and little detail, save for the occasional tree or mountain, appearing mostly as stark desert-like settings. Some of the layouts, especially in the single-player campaign, are obviously scripted with unnatural ramps and walls to dictate your movement. A little more life added to the maps would go a long way. As for the sound design, things are typical: generic combat effects, decent background music, and acceptable voice acting that’s impressively throughout the entire campaign. Overall, Achron looks like an indie game.

ET AL.
Humans have discovered how to manipulate time, and use this awesome knowledge to blow things up. The single-player campaign is quite extensive: almost thirty lengthy levels covering all three major races in the game, complete with voiced dialogue. However, the missions fall under two categories: completely linear with specific objectives that must be met in succession, or vague objectives that require precise timing (avoiding enemy patrols, for example). Achron apparently thinks you can forgive trial-and-error mission design by allowing the user to go back in time and fix their numerous mistakes. Really, this just makes the game more tedious by requiring you to hit the right timing and surpass the next checkpoint. The campaign is not hard because it involves advanced tactics, it's difficult because it requires exact timing to survive many of the game's scripted encounters. Not helping are the occasionally vague objectives: while locations of interest are plainly indicated, units that must be preserved are not. In addition, Achron lacks difficulty settings of any kind. Now, balancing is tough, which is why you add difficulty levels to appeal to all skill levels. Of course, it might not matter, as most of the campaign missions are linear and scripted scenarios that require narrow solutions in order to advance. I didn’t find anything terribly innovative in the scenario design: the gimmick of going back in time to perfect your movements grew tiresome after the third or forth level, and the high difficulty became stifling on several occasions. Beyond the campaign is the skirmish and multiplayer modes, which support up to four players on seven maps; this is where the game’s unique strategies are more open to flexibility. Learning the game can be difficult: while the campaign features one or two new things to play with in each level with a short text introduction, Achron really needs a standalone tutorial for each race (plus one for the time elements) for those who want to try out skirmish battles and multiplayer first (or learn the races without having to complete the entire campaign). Finally, Achron supports Windows and 64-bit Macintosh and Linux, and mod support is strong.

Achron lets you tie units to a commander in a hierarchy, which makes controlling large numbers of units much easier. All you have to do is issue an order (move, attack, patrol, teleport) to the commander and all of its subordinate units will follow: pretty snazzy. Unfortunately, it can be a bit tough to find the commander when all of the units are bunched together, and I wish there was a list of all the commander units along the side of the screen for easy selection. Also potentially helpful is the ability for units to automatically perform useful tasks when idle (if the appropriate building is placed first), like repairing nearby units or moving towards ammunition or teleporters. This has the most use when you are observing another time period and units in the past/future need to do maintanance stuff on their own.

Achron features humans and two alien races that have drastically different technology trees for building essentially the same types of units (infantry, light vehicles, heavy vehicles, and air units). The two basic resources everybody uses are L-crystal for constructing basic units and Q-plasma for more advanced units; these are gathered automatically by each race’s worker unit. The humans are the most typical side: traditional building-based upgrades provide three levels of units. The squid-like Grekim rely on time travel, and can morph and combine into other units. Lastly, the insect-like Vecgir use teleportation and place infantry pilots into vehicles. The three races are different in their approaches to constructing units, but the results generally fall into the same categories.

Time for time. Achron allows you to control units into the past (around five minutes) and the future (around one minute), which allows for all sorts of strange tactics. The bottom of the screen indicates events taking place in the surrounding time period: attacks, resource levels, units being created, and chronoports (units being transported to another time). The way the game works is that changes in the past are slowly (about twice the normal time rate) propagated forward to the present by time waves (meaning that a change one minute ago will appear at the present in about thirty seconds), rather than all changes happening instantly. You can’t go all crazy issuing orders in the past, though, as each command uses up energy, and the further back you issue an order, the more energy is used up. This makes you a little more careful in selecting which orders to issue deep in the past. I’ve found that, while the time game makes “sense”, it’s still bewildering when you are dealing with orders. Confusingly, issuing orders in the past do not automatically cancel orders in the future from that point, so units can have conflicting instructions that won’t be resolved until the time wave sweeps through. You can, in essence, have the same unit doing five different things (one for each time sweep) at five different times during a game. The game does not project orders fast enough, in my opinion: you can issue orders, and jump one second later, and your units remain stationary until a time sweep moves through and resolves the order you issued a second ago. Any orders effectively “disappear” until they are picked up by a sweeping time wave, so you can easily forget what you did if you are quickly bouncing around viewing different time periods. I routinely had to sit there waiting for the orders to sweep through time so that I could remember what exactly I did.

Confusion aside, there is a lot of really cool things you can do with the time controls. For example, you can send a unit on a scouting run, see where the enemy is, and then go back in time and cancel that scouting run, sending the same unit on a different mission. You can also spend resources in the future, destroy buildings in the past (eliminating the units that were produced there in the process), or teleport units into the past to fight alongside themselves, effectively doubling your army size for a while. I’m sure there are plenty of other strategies I haven’t even thought about. You can imagine the various oddities that the game can produce when humans are involved on both sides: your enemy moving their army in the past so that the current battle they are losing never takes place, for example. Still, the potential of time manipulation is limited by just how confusing it can be to keep strategies straight when things are changing all the time at multiple times. Maybe there is a reason nobody has made a time-based strategy game before.

Actual combat is pretty traditional in nature: classic rock-paper-scissors counters to other units. There are some advanced abilities that units can be upgraded to possess, like jamming communications, controlling enemy units, cloaking, and invulnerability. Generally, the pace of Achron is quite slow: even though you can move around time, you still have to wait for units to slowly move and resources to slowly accumulate. You really need to invest in teleporters (for both space and time) to make the game more dynamic. I’ve found the skirmish AI opponents to be pretty good, especially when you consider how foreign the time mechanics are. I have experienced some pathfinding issues when moving friendly units in restrictive terrain (they like to block each other in a giant traffic jam), but otherwise the game is issue-free.

IN CLOSING
In theory, Achron is a very intriguing game. In practice, the difficulties of handling multiple timelines becomes readily apparent. Namely, issuing orders in the past or the future becomes an absolute mess as old (or is it new?) commands aren't automatically overwritten, and if you change times, your new (or is it old?) orders might not be executed yet. The confusion is a direct result of the game's primary draw, and I'm not sure of a way around it. While I certainly commend the game's ability to introduce new, novel strategies thanks to time manipulation, the act of issuing a simple move order in the past and then having to wait to see the results sweep to the present will frankly befuddle a lot of players, especially as you are trying to issue different orders at other times. Still, there’s a host of strategies that you’ll only find in Achron. For a game where you are able to move forwards and backwards through time, though, there is certainly a lot of waiting for troops to move, resources to accumulate, and orders to refresh down the timeline. The game's three races play differently, at least in terms of building units and structures (all have the same basic types of units). I like how Achron allows you to organize your units into a hierarchy by specifying a commander, but it doesn't provide a list of commanders in a handy location for quick reference. The single-player campaign is painful: specific, mandatory objectives and lots of scripted events are meant to make you manipulate the timeline, but usually they just require trial-and-error repetition to navigate past whatever tough obstacle comes next. Achron also has a dearth of documentation; the game really needs brief, to-the-point hands-on tutorials for all the races and the unique time mechanics of the game. Achron features skirmish and multiplayer battles that are more appealing, and I found the AI to be decent enough to substitute for human opponents if you can't find any. In the end, though, Achron is a bright idea that falls short of enjoyable execution.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Stellar Impact Review

Stellar Impact, developed and published by Tindalos Interactive.
The Good: Several ship classes with a variety of skills and persistent upgrades, requires tactical positioning to orient weapons towards the enemy
The Not So Good: Lacks AI opponents, obtuse controls
What say you? DotA enters space with a solid foundation and room to grow: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Defense of the Ancients, the exceedingly popular Warcraft 3 map, basically created a genre: action multiplayer strategy games where you control a single character and defeat towers and waves of enemies while upgrading your skills. This basic design has been adapted in a number of games, such as Demigod, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Dota 2 by Valve, and Blizzard’s own sequel. More clones can be expected on the horizon, and Stellar Impact is one of them. Set in space instead of the typical fantasy setting, Stellar Impact features large ships invading the enemy base with automated allies instead of powerful wizards and mages. Does this somewhat unique take on the genre result in a compelling game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Stellar Impact features acceptable graphics for an indie space strategy game. The ships are nicely detailed, although most of the time you’ll be zoomed out enough where you won’t notice. The game takes place on a 2-D plane with various objects scattered around the maps that have some pleasing animations. Missiles fly around the map and cause progressive damage on ships and turrets, with subtle but effective explosions. The backgrounds are colorful and provide good contrast to the action. The sound design is very subtle, with minor explosions accompanying the in-game action. In addition, the background music played during the menus doesn’t extend to the actual gameplay (or it’s so quiet that I can’t even hear it). Still, Stellar Impact provides good enough value for the game’s budget-level price in terms of graphics.

ET AL.
Stellar Impact pits two teams, the Allies and the Axis (how unoriginal), against each other in a game to defeat the other’s base. First, the intermediary turret emplacements must be taken care of, and the human-controlled ships are helped by automated computer escort ships. The game supports between four and twelve players; the conquest mode has nine maps that offer simple but decent variety in objectives and obstacles like gas clouds, asteroids, and plasma storms. There is also a battlefield king-of-the-hill mode, but it’s only available in practice mode and experience cannot be earned. The game is entirely 2-D, which is fine with me: the 3-D of space usually just results in more confusion rather than significantly more complex strategies anyway. Stellar Impact is online-only, which means you have to find human opponents online through the easy-to-use browser. This was a tall task, at least during the times that I tried (afternoon in the eastern U.S. seems best). Sadly, Stellar Impact provides no alternative, as the game does not include AI bots to play with or against. Even a poor computer opponent would have offered at least something to do when nobody else is online. As it stands, you simply have to stare at a game lobby and wait for other people who might not even show up.

There are five ships to choose from in Stellar Impact: the frigate, corvette, destroyer, cruiser, and dreadnought. Each ship has slightly different attributes (speed, hit points, weapons) and can equip four skills at once: there are twenty to choose from (all initially unlocked, thankfully), covering maneuvering, recon, attack, defense, and command. The big difference between each ship type is that there is a limit on how many skills of each type a ship can have, sort of like a hard-coded way of representing their classic strategic role. Now, you can still place any skill on any ship, but you can’t load up on skills that are inappropriate for your class. Still, the system gives you great freedom in customizing the ship to your play style. In addition to the skills, you win items at the end of each game (even if you lose) that can slightly improve your hull, ammunition, and weapons. Ships are limited to using seven of these at a time, so veteran players are restricted in using all of the loot they have earned after battle. In addition, medals can be redeemed to activate passive skills. I’ve found that these bonuses aren’t too significant (just small compliments to existing abilities) and don’t drastically skew the balance of the game.

The controls for Stellar Impact are…odd, and definitely take some practice to master. In some weird mix of strategy and shooter gaming, right-click sets a destination, but you need to move using the W and S keys, changing your speed from “full stop” to “full steam ahead”. Left-clicking chooses a target, and spacebar fires your weapons. It really takes some practice to get a handle on using the mouse and keyboard to move effectively in the game, adjusting your course while choosing targets and avoiding obstacles, all in real-time. Weapons must turn towards the enemy before they fire, and like any historic naval combat game, most of your guns are pointed out of the side of your ship, so you must navigate accordingly. The game projects helpful green and red lines towards your target to indicate when weapons are ready to fire, which takes some of the guesswork out of the equation. It definitely takes some practice to master the controls of Stellar Impact, and the lack of an AI opponent doesn’t help matters.

As with any good space-faring vessel, the ships of Stellar Impact feature shields and a hull, the latter of which takes damage in stages, and each additional stage disables another system on your ship: pretty cool. In order to tip the balance of the game, each map contains several objectives that can be captured: planets award more command points, singularities more research points, crystal fields double the number of automated escort ships, and vortexes can act as instant teleports. You can build a temporary force field around each objective to lock it down for a period of time. Command points are used to improve your ship or those of your automated escorts, improving the armor, shields, radar, damage, or firing rate. Research points are used to upgrade your skills; those who have more experience in the game receive more research points and can unlock more higher-level skills, the only significant bonus veterans receive in the game.

The overall gameplay is similar to other DotA games (obviously), but the naval-style combat adds an additional layer of complexity and tactics. Stellar Impact is still about working together with your teammates, using complimentary skills, and taking out turret after annoying turret. You usually don’t have enough health to take down a turret by yourself in one go, so teamwork is a must. This slows down the game a bit, but the time penalty for death is large enough where the other team can chip away at the defenses (or capture an additional objective) and turn the tide of battle. I do like that the combat in Stellar Impact is a bit more complex than a typical DotA game, since you have to be mindful of positioning your craft effectively. There are lots of turrets that must be dealt with on the way to the enemy base; since the winning side can usually be determined after about fifteen or twenty minutes of play, extending the game through the tedious destruction of turrets seems extraneous (although there is a “surrender” button available). Stellar Impact can be an interesting tactical exercise, but it needs more well-rounded features, namely AI opponents or a larger online player base, to stake a claim in the ever-expanding DotA marketplace.

IN CLOSING
Stellar Impact takes the now-familiar DotA game mechanic and adapts it to a different setting with decent results. Success requires more slightly talent than some other DotA games, since you must position yourself so the brunt of your weapons is facing the enemy. The control scheme makes this a little more difficult than it should be, with its mix of standard strategy and shooter mechanics, but you’ll become accustomed to it after a couple of matches. Skills are useful and nicely varied, and recharge times are long enough where battles don’t become unorganized chaos with tons of skills being used constantly. The skills also allow for a variety of strategies, from offensive juggernauts to support classes. Items earned after each match can be used to further customize your ships; although veteran players will obviously have access to more passive bonuses, the advantages are not too extreme. Stellar Impact features traditional DotA-style maps littered with objectives that grant small bonuses meant to break the mid-game stalemates. Unfortunately, the biggest slight against Stellar Impact is the lack of AI opponents to practice against: the relatively low online population of the game means it’s sometimes difficult to find a match, and playing against the computer would have provided at least some consolation. Still, Stellar Impact can be entertaining when you can find opponents of equal skill, providing an alternative in the DotA genre.