Monday, November 28, 2011

Minecraft Review

Minecraft, developed and published by Mojang AB.
The Good: Randomly generated worlds to explore, destructible blocks can be mined and placed to construct almost anything, impressive array of items to make and improve with experience, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: No in-game help, lacks an automated server browser and competitive modes, poor mod support
What say you? A fantastic randomly generated world to explore and alter, greatly hindered by an extreme lack of documentation: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Minecraft has held the banner for indie development ever since it burst onto the scene during the summer of 2009. Allowing users to explore randomly generated worlds, mine and collect blocks, and then place those blocks to make whatever crazy designs they desired, the game has proven that a good idea can flourish on the vast expanses of the Internet. Over four million people have purchased the game before the actual release, carefully tracking its progress through alpha and beta versions and scouring each version for new features. Now that the game is no longer a “beta” product, we can now evaluate it fully and see if Minecraft has made a successful transition from inventive demo to full-fledged computer game.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Minecraft has a truly distinctive visual style. Displayed in a window, you can resize the screen to display a larger game world, although the textures will retain their low-resolution attributes. The blocks and items are made of large pixels that give Minecraft a decidedly old-school look (and makes it easier to design in-game items). The biomes are varied and give different areas diverse appearances. Enemies are memorable as well, and their animations are a bit stiff but it works in the low fidelity theme that permeates throughout the game. The sound effects are basic but effective, giving all of the weapons, enemies, and other creatures unique sounds that helps you identify them even if you can’t see them; hearing monsters outside of your house at night is very creepy. The music is a pleasant arrangement of tonal sounds, reminiscent of MIDI, that, again, works well within the confines of Minecraft’s theme. While Minecraft certainly won’t win any awards for cutting-edge graphics, it certainly does have an easily recognizable style.

ET AL.
Minecraft is a sandbox role-playing game where you collect resources, build and make items, and defeat enemies on your way to the dragon boss. The game comes in three flavors: the more traditional survival mode, a hardcore mode where a single death ends the game, and a creative mode that lets you build anything with no threat of death. Minecraft can be played by yourself or online, joining a server by using…other websites to find IP addresses. Yes, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, so you must resort to outside assistance to find online games and then input the IP addresses yourself (the game then stores the servers you provided for future reference). The game may look like it’s from 1994, but that doesn’t mean the features have to be. That said, the online worlds people have created are very impressive, and everything is more fun with friends (or complete strangers) involved (and less lonely).

Minecraft is very open-ended: there are no quests, but an end-game is present for those who survive long enough. In fact, the game is a bit too open-ended, as the game is bereft of any help. You are thrown into the randomly generated world with no instructions, either inside the game or in provided documentation. While allowing the user to discover things is an argument for exploration, Minecraft is such a large game with many things to do that a complete lack of assistance is inexcusable. Want to know how to make a bed? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how to enchant things? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how circuits work? The game won’t tell you. I don’t want an in-your-face tutorial system, but a series of optional notes or an in-game help system (using F1, for example) would ease new players into the game and allow veterans to remember crafting recipes without resorting to the Internet. I would have never figured out that you could tame wolves if I didn’t visit the wiki to see what bones are used for. Minecraft has relied on the Internet for tutorials during its lengthy beta period, but that simply isn’t enough in a fully released commercial product. Another area that needed attention but did not receive it was mod support: Minecraft has been fertile ground for user-created modifications, but the game lacks an easy way to import them. Texture packs can be added easily, so why not mods? This is yet another feature you would expect to be completed in a released game.

All right, enough complaining about ancillary features, as the remainder of Minecraft is brilliant stuff. One highlight of the game is the semi-random, essentially infinite, destructible environment consisting of blocks that can be mined and then placed elsewhere (or smelted for resources). Part of the fun in Minecraft is exploration: discovering new islands, mountains, deserts, and caves that are generated on the fly while you walk around. There are many blocks to find: wood (used to craft basic items), stone (primarily used to build things), iron (for better weapons and armor), coal (for lighted torches), dirt (which takes up space in your inventory), water, lava, gold, glass (made from sand), redstone (for circuits), diamond (the best and more rare resource), and many more. The better stuff is located deep underground, so a common activity in Minecraft is digging deeper to find underground caverns where it is easier to search for valuable blocks. The use of blocks makes it really easy to make massive structures: houses, towers, castles, and anything else that can be assembled with cubes. The world of Minecraft consists of different biomes that offer distinct visuals: forest, taiga, swamp, mountains, desert, plains, ocean, and tundra all provide different benefits. You might also encounter NPC villages, dungeons, strongholds, and mineshafts, although these things are quite rare. You can also experience rain, thunderstorms, snow, and the day-night cycle. Minecraft capitalizes on the creative fun of Legos, and the blocky environments work quite well and allow for high imagination.

Blocks are used to create many items in the game that are used to harvest more blocks and defeat enemies that appear during the night. Basic tools include pickaxes, shovels, hoes (the farming kind), shears, axes, fishing rods, and buckets. More advanced objects consist of clocks, compasses, maps, beds, bowls, doors, paintings, signs, ladders, jukeboxes, pistons, fencing, and bookshelves. Various vehicles can also be fashioned: boats and minecarts (that travel along tracks and can be powered) make travel faster. You’ll also need to grow or find food: pork, beef, chicken, fish, and bread will fulfill your need to eat. As I stated before, the game never says how to actually make any of these things, so you’ll need to consult the the wiki or stumble upon them with blind luck.

Your weapons to combat enemies are pretty limited, although I suppose all weapons either fall under melee (the sword) and ranged (the bow and arrow) categories. You can improvise some traps using TNT, pressure plate triggers, doors, and redstone circuits, but having more straightforward mines and grenades would be easier to deal with more imposing foes. Sturdier resources (leather, iron, and diamond) can be used to make armor: helmets, chestplates, leggings, and boots can protect you from the bad guys. These bad guys come out at night (or dark places in caves) and include spiders, skeletons, zombies, “endermen” (which move blocks and teleport, attacking you if you make direct eye contact) and the iconic exploding creeper. There isn’t much variety here and you’ll tire of encountering the same handful of enemies every night, so hopefully more will be added in the future. Having a full stomach from eating (pork, beef, bread, cake, cookies, melon, milk, mushrooms, apples, or fish) will automatically regenerate your health diminished by attacks. There are also more friendly animals to encounter: chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, squid, and the wolf, who can be tamed (using bones) to accompany you and attack enemies. You can also breed animals (using wheat), forming a farm-like community. Minecraft certainly gives you enough to do, if you can figure out how to do it.

An exciting part of the game is enchanting items: experience earned through combat can be spent adding attributes to any weapon or piece of armor by using an enchantment table (which requires both diamonds and obsidian to build, both rare materials located deep in the ground, unfortunately) surrounded by bookshelves. For example, a diamond sword can be enchanted with smite (extra damage to zombies and skeletons) and knockback, or you can create a metal shovel with increased durability. Using more points will result in a more powerful enchantment, so you’ll have to decide whether to save up for more powerful attributes. This gives the player a reason to kill enemies (instead of simply avoiding them every night), since you use the experience to better your inventory. You can also brew potions to restore health, increase attacks, or move faster (plus negative effects you can throw at enemies). Obsidian can be used to enter The Nether, a fire world with unique enemies and blocks that are required to reach The End of the game. While there is a conclusion to Minecraft, exploring the randomly generated terrain, collecting blocks, making buildings, crafting and enchanting items, and fighting enemies will keep most people busy for quite a long time.

IN CLOSING
Minecraft excels because of the use of randomly generated terrain, easy-to-manipulate blocks that can be used to create almost anything, and plenty of items to make and enemies to encounter along your way to making the world your own. The use of cubes is genius: you can easily excavate and place blocks in any arrangement your mind can think of, creating houses, castles, towers, and gigantic Pikachu. You can make a variety of tools to gather blocks to make more tools, including axes, buckets, doors, dynamite, fencing, bowls, beds, and many, many more. You’ll also need to eat food (chicken, pork, bread), make weapons (swords, bows and arrows), and craft armor (helmets, boots) to survive the nightly attacks from a mixture of distinctive enemies (spiders, skeletons, zombies, and the iconic creeper). While the ongoing development of Minecraft has seen many new items introduced to the game to give the player even more things to experience and explore, little in the way of actually helping players figure out how they work, without the assistance of the Internet, has been provided. I’m sure there are features I am missing simply because there is no documentation for them. Allowing the user to explore at their own pace is one thing, but providing absolutely no assistance in figuring out how things work is another. Another area needing improvement is multiplayer: while witnessing (and helping to build) the amazing creations made by others online is a great feature, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, and competitive modes that could have capitalized on the game’s destructible block world. The addictive nature of Minecraft cannot be denied, as exploring, manipulating, and constructing your world is a fascinating experience. However, common features expected in a released product are missing, such as extensive in-game help and more rounded online components.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades Review

Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades, developed by Unicorn Games Studio and published by 1C Company.
The Good: Outstanding unit detail with very exhaustive attributes, strong AI uses varied tactics, somewhat dynamic campaign with mobile enemy units and straightforward trade and diplomacy, unit and hero upgrades, large skirmish and online tactical battles with generated maps
The Not So Good: Few low-level enemies in campaign, little experience gained outside of main missions
What say you? This medieval combination of tactical battles and campaign strategy delivers detailed, challenging gameplay: 7/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The unbridled success of the Total War series of games no doubt sprung several imitators. From the fantasy world of King Arthur to the crusades-based Lionheart, we’ve seen several series try to capitalize on the popularity of the popularity of combining strategic and tactical gameplay. Another, relatively overlooked (at least by me), series comes from Russia (I assume…Unicorn Games Studio is scant on the details), a fertile ground for PC development, highlighting the medieval time period and the violence contained therein. Starting with XIII Century and continuing with Real Warfare 1242, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades relies on a dynamic campaign game world and accurate tactical battles to stand out from the pack.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades holds its own when compared against similar large-scale tactical warfare titles. The game features lots of units that will eventually evolve into lots of dead bodies that exhibit decent (not great) animations while fighting it out over domination of the battlefield. The terrain is varied, with forests and hills of different settings serving as a nice backdrop to the chaos of combat. The grass and trees look nice up close when you choose to zoom in on the carnage. Real Warfare 2 does apply way too much bloom, however, rending almost everything on-screen blurry from a distance. However, overall the graphics are quite solid. The sound design delivers as expected: appropriate battle effects and music that seems to be specific to different nations, which is a nice touch. Overall, Real Warfare 2 fulfills its sub-$40 price tag in terms of the game’s presentation.

ET AL.
It is up to the Teutonic Knights to rid Prussia of its pagan scourge, and the campaign of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades tells this epic tale of epic epicness (caution: epicness may cause vomiting). The campaign’s structure borrows heavily from Mount & Blade: you are given an army and allowed to roam the lands in search of enemy troops and towns to invade, missions to undertake, and trade to profit from. The missions are unoriginal, as most of them simply involve engaging a specific unit on the map; thankfully, you can also choose your own adventure and take on any threat you see in the dynamic game world, as neutral and enemy units move around Prussia as you do. It is harder to gain experience through skirmish battles alone, however, as a significant XP bonus is granted to completing the main story missions. The game displays the relative strength of the enemy as you mouse over them, so you can assess whether the peasants, merchants, brigands, patrols, and lords offer a fair challenge. It can be difficult to target enemy units in real time (since everybody moves), and there are few easy “cannon fodder” units to rank up your initial paltry army. Once you discover how to make significant amounts of money through trade, however, the campaign becomes a lot easier.

The world of Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is populated with towns, villages, and castles, all of which can be invaded. However, you don’t actually get control of conquered villages, and the goods you reap from victorious battles aren’t aligned with the goods that the village actually produces (a hunting village does not give you lots of meat upon victory, for example). In friendly settlements, you are given options to talk to the mayor for no reason whatsoever, trade resources, and recruit or upgrade troops. Real Warfare 2 features over forty goods that are produced and consumer in villages across the map; there is a production chain buried within the game world (a village produces bread from wheat) and you can take advantage of buying what a village produces and then selling it to the village that needs that particular item. The interface does a fantastic job highlighting the best goods, with clear “thumbs up” icons and a map view that highlights where goods are needed and produced the most. There’s no writing down prices in Real Warfare 2, which is a great thing indeed. Simple diplomatic options are also present: changing stances with a rival nation (alliance, friendship, wary, hated, war) and having negotiations (gifts, trade, alliances, insults, or demanding money) are all part of the game. Experience on the battlefield can be spent upgrading your troops, either by raising their attributes (strength, weapon ratings, morale) or morphing them into a higher-class unit. The hero (that’s you) gains experience as well, and leveling up grants points that can be spend improving sixteen skills: higher trade income, greater spear attack, or more loot from battles), to name a few. Veteran heroes can also field larger armies of more advanced units, allowing you to take on more threats as the campaign progresses. Overall, the campaign is entertaining and the free-form (to a point) nature is far more interesting than the more restrictive or totally linear campaigns of Lionheart or King Arthur.

Beyond the entertaining campaign mode lies comprehensive skirmish battles. Six players can duke it out on a number of maps, or you can utilize the map generator to produce seemingly random battlefields. The AI behavior can be adjusted (attack, defend, or a mix), and units are selected based on a budget. Multiplayer games over the Internet also support six players in tactical battles; competitive campaigns would be a fun feature as well. Finally, Real Warfare 2 comes with an editor so you can edit maps and create scenarios.

Real Warfare 2 is highlighted by its astounding attention to unit detail. The typical range of medieval military options is present: cavalry, archers, swords, spears, and assorted castle storming equipment. However, the game goes into great detail calculating and showing unit performance during battle, using fifteen attributes to determine attack, morale, and firing values. Weapons, armor, morale, fatigue, formation, terrain, discipline, speed, and whether the front, flanks, and rear are under attack are all used to gauge how effective a unit is in combat, and all of these numbers are shown clear as day to the player. Now, maybe there is just as much detail in other games of this ilk, just hidden from the user, but Real Warfare 2 makes the smart move and presents all of its data directly and transparently to the player. The result is that you can figure out why a unit is panicking (it’s under fire from archers, it has low-level armor, and is being attacked from behind) and move support units into position instead of just guessing and blindly throwing more forces at the enemy. It’s detail that strategy gamers crave, and Real Warfare 2 delivers.

Commands are typical for a tactical game: move and attack are what you’ll be using the most. You can customize unit behavior (aggressive or avoidance) and set formation (line, column, wedge, circle) and density. You can also utilize the very handy army formations, which organize everybody in one of eight configurations, such as archers in front, infantry behind, and cavalry on left. It’s nice you can choose the overall formation for your army, instead of the game magically selecting one based on where you order your troops to move. Battles can also be accelerated, to cut down on transit time between your spawn location and that of the enemy. Combat itself is interesting enough: the key is to engage the enemy from the front, but keep units in reserve (especially cavalry) to flank the enemy from the sides or (even better) the rear. Add in varied terrain in each battlefield and Real Warfare 2 can be an intriguing medieval warfare simulation. I noticed early on that, during combat, units like to stand around and ignore nearby enemies. I then discovered that this is working as designed, as each unit is given a “self-control” rating that determines how much the AI will guide your unit and how much you need to micromanage it. This makes battles less certain and requires more personal attention, which is more appealing that just selecting everyone once and ordering a single attack on the nearest enemy and then taking a nap while the battle plays out for you. The AI is very strong, using the terrain to hide units and sneaking cavalry behind your army to spring the trap. It gets to the point where the AI does this pretty much every battle so you learn to expect it (and protect archers with pikemen), but it’s so much better than the usual tactical AI of simply heading right towards you and whoever has the larger army wins.

IN CLOSING
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much from Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades. I figured it would be just another cheap rip-off of Total War, hoping to cash in on yet another unoriginal replica. How wrong I was. This game excels thanks in part to its detailed unit attributes: clear data, from armor ratings to attacks on the flanks, is used to determine when units will rout, resulting in more authentic battle results and interesting tactical gaming. All of these variables are displayed directly to the player, allowing for appropriate action to be made with predictable results. The medieval style combat emphasizes engaging the enemy directly with low-level fighters while using cavalry, ranged, and experienced units to flank and subsequently panic the enemy. While this does produce some predictable, repetitive conflicts, the rapid, devastating cavalry units and mixed unit attributes does make the tactical battles as captivating as possible for what was available during the time period. The user interface allows for easy control of large numbers of units by listing all of your forces along the bottom of the screen and providing several formation options to easily organize an entire army. The AI is impressive: it routinely hides units out of range, using the terrain to its advantage, and then flanks vulnerable troops (archers, namely) with fast mounted cavalry or other appropriate counters. The campaign allows you to undertake missions against scripted enemy foes or engage any opponent in the living, dynamic world where battles take place and goods are transferred without your direct intervention. Trading for profit, recruiting and upgrading units, and checking out the current diplomatic situation is easy, and the campaign makes it seem like you are taking part in a medieval setting, rather than checking off the next mission on the way to the end. There aren’t enough “easy” units to engage in the beginning and I’d like the game to reward you with more XP for taking on enemies of your choosing, but overall the campaign is a good envelope for the tactical battles. You can also engage the AI or online opponents in massive tactical battles, and only a multiplayer campaign would add more value. In all, Real Warfare 2: Northern Crusades is a great combination of a notable campaign and meaty tactical battles suitable for any strategy gamer.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dungeon Defenders Review

Dungeon Defenders, developed and published by Trendy Entertainment.
The Good: Enjoyable local and online co-op with distinct classes, upgradable items can be equipped, unique challenges and rules
The Not So Good: Limited arsenal of weapons and traps must be unlocked, repetitive combat with insufficient strategic options, offline character can’t be used in ranked multiplayer matches, can’t save progress mid-level
What say you? A tower defense role-playing game with fun cooperative play but restricted weaponry: 6/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Tower defense games have certainly taken on a life of their own. What started out as a niche extension of the strategy games has blossomed into a full-fledged genre. Now that the basic tenants of tower defense games have been laid out in conventional titles like Defense Grid, more experimentation has been injected into the formula by adding competitive features (as in Rock of Ages), reversing the game mechanics (like Anomaly: Warzone Earth), or taking inspiration from other genres. We’ve seen the first person shooter adaptation Sanctum and the third person shooter take in Orcs Must Die, but now it’s time for some role-playing. Dungeon Defenders has finally been released, adding experience, loot, and classes to the typical tower defense game. Does this mixture work?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Powered by the Unreal engine, Dungeon Defenders has an interesting art style that trends towards the “cartoon” side of role-playing tropes. The cell-shaded graphics look nice and work well with the theme of the game, giving you some fanciful environments to fight in and exaggerated enemies to fight against. There is also no shortage of bright colors in the game. The levels and characters could use a bit more texture detail and smoother models, though. The effects are suitable for the game, with minor amounts of blood accompanying numbers displaying damage like a traditional RPG. The level designs are a bit repetitive (you are defending dungeons, after all), but they exhibit some unique elements to differentiate each map. On the sound front, things are kept quite basic: combat is chaotic with slashes and magical powers abounding, but there are few instances of voice acting (mostly restricted to the tutorial) for immersive purposes. The music is fitting but not memorable. Overall, Dungeon Defenders delivers average results for your monetary investment when compared against an increasingly competitive indie classification.

ET AL.
Although Dungeon Defenders is primarily designed as a four-person online cooperative game, you can play the game offline. However, this is strongly discouraged as the game is extremely difficult for one person and your single player character cannot be used in ranked online matches. Dungeon Defenders features thirteen campaign missions where you must defend crystals from the incoming horde. Additional rules are available for more variety: a survival mode, where waves will keep coming until you die, a pure strategy mode where you can’t attack, and a mixed mode that spawns random enemies. The game also features over ten challenges that introduce some unique, interesting rules, such as a constantly moving crystal, specific enemies, or putting you on the offensive. All of these features add up to more replay value, despite the fact that the missions on a single map play out the same way as you utilize the same chokepoints. Joining a multiplayer game is easy using a quick match system or the host browser; you can also join matches in progress during the build phase, which is neat. A difficulty setting is available to increase the enemy count for more experienced foes, although the number of enemies does not seem to adjust based on the number of players. Your progress cannot be saved in the middle of a game, which can be a problem when a single level lasts upwards of thirty minutes, deleting all of your hard fought progress. Finally, the tutorial serves as an extensive but laborious introduction to the game.

Like most role-playing-type games, Dungeon Defenders features classes of varying abilities. Each class gets two standard attacks (usually either melee or ranged), two special attacks that typically affect an area, and five traps that are gradually unlocked with experience. Each class starts out with only one trap, which makes the first handful of missions very, very boring as you are greatly limited in what you can do. A variety of items can be found and equipped (helmets, weapons, armor, gloves, and boots); these are dropped by enemy units, and boost attack and defense ratings against fire, lightning, poison, or in general. Classes are pretty standard: the apprentice is the magic ranged guy equipped with tower traps, the squire is the melee guy with blockades, the huntress is the ranged girl with proximity traps, and the monk is the support guy who can boost nearby allies. During each battle, you can earn experience that is spent to improve your abilities: health, damage, attack rate, and movement speed. You can also choose to expand the capabilities of your turrets, increasing their health, damage, attack rate, or area of effect. New traps are also unlocked as you level up, and if you play enough, and you’ll have access to all of the traps, and there will be little reason to go back and use weaker options. Additional options include the ability to purchase really expensive pets to accompany you into battle or trade in useless weapons for mana used to upgrade better items in your inventory.

Each map throws waves of enemies at you, and you can build defenses and trade in items between each wave (you can also building things during invasion, but it’s a lot slower). There is a hard limit to how many structures you can place in a map, even if you have the mana to afford more (killed enemies provide a constant supply of mana), although you can upgrade existing defenses. Dungeon Defenders features repetitive combat: you start out with only a primary and secondary attack, and even when you level up and unlock two additional abilities, your strategies remain very limited. Your role on the battlefield is to repair structures and eliminate the stragglers that have wandered past your stout defenses. Traps are quite effective, and intervention is only needed to remedy places of the map that were overwhelmed with enemy forces. The slow default movement speed makes this an arduous, tedious process, and the maps are just large enough to make walking from one side to the other a chore. The enemies consist of basic, ranged, magic, flying, exploding, and boss variations to require slightly different tactics (blocking, slowing down, or attacking at range). Still, if you clog the pathways with enough things, most enemies will meet untimely death. Dungeon Defenders also clearly displays how many enemies of each type will spawn at every location, so there is little guesswork involved in placing your defenses in the “correct” locations. Still, taking on a huge number of enemies with your friends is undeniably fun, despite the minimal tactical options available to you.

IN CLOSING
Dungeon Defenders is a solid combination of role-playing and tower defense that suffers from too much repetition through the limited means with which you can engage the enemy. Giving each class only five total traps and two special powers really reduce your strategic options, making each scenario play out the same. Add in the fact that you only start out with one of the five traps, and things can get boring. However, Dungeon Defenders is good fun online, where you can enjoy the game’s chaotic cooperative action with other human players (hopefully) using each class effectively. However, your single player avatar cannot be used in ranked matches online, so you must start over with limited options. The game’s four distinct classes each play a role on the battlefield: the melee squire, the ranged huntress, the magical apprentice, and the support monk. You can see the possibilities for great teamwork online, and battling it out alongside your friends is a blast. While items can be upgraded over time, I’d like to see a lot more variety in the traps, spells, animals, and items. The enemies are also very basic variations (melee, ranged, magic, flying, and powerful bosses) on common themes. Dungeon Defenders has a fair number of levels with varied layouts, and some of the challenges have interesting rule restrictions while the alternative game modes are welcome. While Dungeon Defenders is an admirable attempt at a happy marriage of role-playing and tower defense, more content is needed to completely round out the package.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Review

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Ships must be organized into fleets for (theoretically) easier management, semi-random technology tree, government type based on player actions, a manageable economy, distinct races, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly limited interface in many aspects of empire management, budget ignores ship construction costs, unnecessarily confusing ship design, tedious research tree, no list for fleet locations and tasks, shallow and abrupt tactical battles, unpolished with poor performance and missing features like diplomacy and objective-based scenarios, very slow pace, no tutorial, lacks truly random maps, only one victory condition per game
What say you? This 4X turn-based strategy game is far from a finished product: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Originally, I had a traditional introduction written for this review, referencing the original Sword of the Stars, its pitfalls, and its place among other 4X strategy games. But then Release Day Armageddon happened: first, an old beta version of the game was released on Steam, and then the “proper” version was released with a lengthy list of its own troubling issues. Clearly, the game wasn’t ready to be released on its designated date, and improvements have been slowly trickling in from the development team to hopefully subdue the angry, angry Internet. Has Sword of the Stars II returned to its hyped and desired status of a 4X game to be reckoned with?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Strategy games start and end with the interface, and the one featured in Sword of the Stars II is frustrating to deal with. The unimpressive 3-D map is loaded with shortcomings: surveyed systems are not indicated, ships sometimes can’t be clicked on directly during a mission, the view doesn’t zoom towards the cursor position, and the escape key does not open the menu. Also, I’m not sure why the game has a list of all your planets and stations but does not have a list of all your ship fleets. The 3-D interfaces for ship design and research do more harm than good, making each process more arduous than needed because ship components aren’t listed in an intuitive manner and endless scrolling is required to view each research path. While the tactical battles have very nice ships with detailed textures and impressive weapon effects, the bland backgrounds are filled with low-res stars. Overall, Sword of the Stars II has very poor performance: the game lags when you access and close any full-screen display, which is pretty much all you do in a strategy game such as this. Additionally, the game occasionally crashes and throws up error messages. The sound design is subpar, with the same voice acting as the original game and forgettable, subtle background music. While I don’t expect the graphics in a niche strategy game to be top-notch, I do expect some semblance of efficient functionality in the interface.

ET AL.
Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter (not to be confused with the Dukes of Autumn or Kings of Leon) is a 4X strategy game, the 4 “X”s being “Nina,” “Pinta,” “Santa Maria”, and “eXterminate”. The game consists of the main turn-based mode where you manage your empire, and real-time battles against the foes you will encounter around the universe. There are six distinct races that move differently throughout the universe: the Humans are confined to linear nodes, the Hivers use gates, the Tarka warp, the Liir move small distances very quickly, the Zuul use temporary nodes, and the Moorigi move fastest as a group (like migrating birds). Sword of the Stars II features sixteen non-random maps (the planet resources are changed around, I think, but the star locations are not), and you can choose a single victory condition such as conquering all of your foes or being the first race to build a specific number of special objects. However, you cannot have two (or more) simultaneous objectives in the same game, which is an odd limitation. You can, however, customize the planet size, turn time, and economy and research rates. There are also goal-oriented scenarios that have yet to be added to the game (the first of many things promised that are not actually present). Sword of the Stars II does feature multiplayer if you like that sort of thing, and the AI can play your role when you leave and use one of three strategies (maintain, defend, or expand) until you return. Sword of the Stars II does not feature a tutorial (yet), so everyone will have to read the manual to figure out what’s going on.

Space has stars and stars have planets, and it’s your job to find the most hospitable worlds for your race and then befoul nature for valuable resources. Development is budget-based, adjusting the amount of terraforming and infrastructure expansion done on new colonies. Although the cost of transforming new worlds into fully-functional parts of your empire can be expensive based on the climate, there’s little reason not to colonize everything within range (especially since other races will be trying to do the same). You can discover neutral, independent worlds and bring them into your empire by promoting good relationships. Beyond simple tax and production income, various stations can be constructed around each planet, supplementing research, trade, diplomatic, or naval attributes. Systems can also be organized into a province, which provides increased trade revenue but is accomplished through (like most things in this game) a cumbersome interface.

Running your economy is pretty easy. First, you designate how much of your income will be used for research, and then rest is divided among government operations: security (operations against corruption, intelligence, and counter-intelligence), stimulus (mining, colonization, and trade in your empire), and adding more funds to your savings to purchase ships and stations. Expenses include colony development, fleet and station maintenance, loan debt, and corruption resulting from insufficient security funding. Poor funding could result in low morale and rebels taking over your fringe colonies. Your research investment can be split between your current project, “special projects” (which, no doubt, are special), and salvaging research. Neither the game nor the manual actually describe what the latter two options are for, but I funded them anyway!

Ships in Sword of the Stars II are comprised of three hull modules that can be swapped out to form new vessel types. Each module contains a number of places where weapons or vague components (what does a “Hannibal” do, exactly?) can be attached. This is all done in a 3-D interface that works quite poorly; it would have been a lot easier to swap things from a list and see the changes in the background instead of having to hunt around the ship for icons. The starting ship types are not intuitive (did you know the Revenge and Teacher are colony vessels?), which adds to the confusion that permeates throughout ship design.

Individual ships must be organized into fleets, and each fleet must contain a command ship (this took me a while to figure out) for an admiral. This makes controlling large numbers of ship easier, at least in theory. Fleets are issued missions instead of simple “move” commands common in most strategy games: survey, colonize, build, transfer, patrol, intercept, strike, and invade. While I do like the idea of organizing ships together and giving concrete commands to your fleets, Sword of the Stars II does not provide a list of all your fleets, so finding idle ships or busy admirals is nearly impossible. What's the point of organizing things into fleets if you have to hunt for them on the 3-D map? Even if you find them, you might not be able to select them to change their orders if a more pressing need arises. Ships must also return home after a mission, which can extend a simple survey mission to a distant star into a long undertaking. Admirals must be assigned to each fleet, and they contain both good and bad traits and are rated according to loyalty, reaction, and evasion, which would seemingly affect their performance in the tactical battles, although I haven’t seen any dramatic differences in capabilities.

While reading through the manual, I was looking forward to using the many diplomatic actions described: varied relationships, requesting resources, demanding slaves, signing non-aggression treaties, limiting the use of weapons, and spinning diplomatic actions to avoid penalties. Imagine my surprise when I come to find out that none of things are actually in the game yet. Yes, potentially the strongest aspect of the game is nowhere to be found. However, government types are in there: one of nine stances (socialism, anarchism, junta) is automatically assigned based on the player’s decisions regarding morale, money, growth, and production. That’s a much better system that manually choosing one from a list and gaining its bonuses. Another thing that’s actually in the game is research, which is essentially a carbon copy (with one enhancement) of the system used in the original game. Technologies are randomly given a percentage of success, so you’ll end up having to vary your strategy if your favorite tech is not available in the current game. You have to undertake a feasibility study to determine the percentage of success, which adds another step to the process that isn’t indicated from the main interface (the research icon still says you aren’t researching anything during a feasibility study). The 3-D interface used in the research screen also takes too long to cycle through the different types, which slows down an already slow-paced game even more.

Unlike a majority of 4X games, Sword of the Stars II features tactical battles involving ships of warring factions residing in the same sector. You can choose to fight out the conflicts yourself, or allow the computer to simulate the result. Battles are only five minutes long, which is far too short for any type of meaningful resolution involving large fleets of ships. Thus, most battles will take several to many turns to resolve. You are given access to very simple orders: move or attack. You can adjust the stance (attack, defend), movement speed, combat plane, or roll the ship, but these options are quite limited in depth. Shields for the ships are, if the interface is any indication, actually fairly sophisticated, breaking down the three parts of each ship into many small portions that can be damaged individually. Still, most battles in Sword of the Stars II simply involve moving ships within range and waiting until somebody blows up. Units also occasionally forget which enemy ship they are targeting (especially if the enemy ship moves), so you have to keep and eye on your navy and make sure they are actually returning fire.

The AI in Sword of the Stars II seems to be up to the task. The computer develops their colonies well, forms formidable fleets of ships, and attacks vulnerable parts of your sprawling empire. I did not experience any significant shortcomings in the AI for the parts of the game that are currently included. The slow pace of Sword of the Stars II is a real turn off, though, as most everything simply takes too long to complete: research, moving, colonization, ship construction, and battles could all be shorter and contribute to a more action-oriented game. There is really no reason why things need to take so long; I was frequently advancing to the next turn with no input, as all of my fleets had missions, my budget was set, and I was waiting for shipbuilding and research to finish their lengthy durations. This may be partially due to the fact that Sword of the Stars II is currently an incomplete game, but I suspect that even with diplomacy added to the game, things will still advance at a sluggish rate.

IN CLOSING
It’s a shame that Sword of the Stars II was released in this state. Much like Star Ruler before it, this 4X game comes with half-baked ideas and unrealized potential, which is surprising considering it’s a sequel. The interface is a mess: the 3-D ship design and research trees are difficult to navigate and the lack of a master fleet list makes finding ships too difficult. Plus, slow game performance makes using the full-screen menus a tedious chore. Expanding your empire is simple: just colonize every hospitable planet while keeping an eye on the colonial management part of your budget. The rest of the economy is fairly easy to manage (assuming you remember how much your ship construction costs are), thanks to intuitive sliders to adjust the distribution of funding. Diplomacy could be a strong part of the game, if it ever gets implemented. The semi-random technology tree makes things less predictable, but having to investigate a tech before actually researching it just adds an unnecessary step of management. Modular ship design would be intriguing if the game made finding and swapping out parts easier. Likewise, placing ships into fleets is a great idea held back by the difficulty in actually finding those fleets. The tactical battles are very simplified and too brief to determine a victor. The AI seems to handle the game well, putting together effective fleets and invading weak parts of your empire. However, the slow pace of the game makes everything (from surveys to research) take too long, arbitrarily lengthening the game and leading to one “end turn” button press after another. Multiplayer is available for those who desire it, but the lack of a tutorial makes learning the game difficult, especially as you try to wrestle with the occasionally informative interface. Could all of these problems become fixed in the future? Maybe: patches are planned to slowly add in all of the missing features and functionality you would expect at release. But all we can evaluate is what lies in front of us, and Sword of the Stars II is currently a broken, incomplete game that offers nothing over the original version but problems.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cities XL 2012 Review

Cities XL 2012, developed and published by Focus Home Interactive.
The Good: New buildings and maps
The Not So Good: Zero gameplay improvements, 3-D building import utility requires expensive 3ds Max 2008 program
What say you? A modification tool and new maps do not make this edition of the city building series worth it with no major changes
For owners of any Cities XL game: 2/8
For newcomers to the series: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Cities XL tried to combine the online features of a MMO with a city builder, and it failed miserably. Its simplicity blended with a $10-a-month fee for a chat room spelt early doom, and doom it was. The pieces were picked up by Focus Home Interactive, which bundled a handful of new features in a 2011 version (while removing multiplayer), and the series returns with Cities XL 2012. This newest iteration adds even more buildings and maps with modding tools for the aspiring tinkerer. In addition, owners of Cities XL 2011 won’t feel completely ripped off, as they can get the game at a discounted expansion. New maps and buildings are nice and all (I guess), but has the fundamental gameplay been enhanced enough to make this a notable city builder series?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Cities XL 2012 uses the same engine as previous Cities XL games, which still holds up after two years. The varied maps consist of different environments that look impressive from afar and up close. You can still see significant pop-in (especially with traffic, turning from brown boxes into cars as you zoom in) as you come closer to the ground, but the street-level view is still immersive. The 2012 edition adds 300 new buildings to existing types for an overall total of 1,000, making your city appear more varied as the same building models are recycled less frequently. Performance leaves a lot to be desired: significant pausing when placing newly zoned areas is common. The reason for this is that Cities XL 2012 (like its predecessor) uses only one core, which is insane in an age of multi-core processors. The sound effects and music appear to be identical, if similar, to previous offerings, bringing your city to life in an appropriate manner. While the buildings add more diversity to your town landscape, the rest of the visuals remains the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

ET AL.
So, what do you get in Cities XL 2012? First: fifteen new maps, for a total of sixty. While I would like to see randomly generated maps or at least a map editor, sixty large maps should keep you busy for a while. Next: the aforementioned 300 new buildings that make your cities look more diverse. Finally: “mod tools.” Now, when I heard this, I envisioned an in-game (or executable) program that allows you to edit maps and create your own buildings. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that it’s just PDF instructions and an importer tool that allows you to bring in 3-D models from 3ds Max 2008, a $3,500 modeling program. In addition, the mod tool is free, anyway. Seriously, go ahead and download it right now. I'll wait. Crazy, right? Suffice it to say that this tool (plus the maps and buildings) is not worth a $15 expansion upgrade price.

The remainder of Cities XL 2012 is identical to previous iterations of the game, for better and for worse. The subpar (for a subscription-based service) MMO aspect of the game has been removed completely; now, you trade with phantom AI cities instead of human-run towns that will always have every good available to purchase and sell. Other than simply building a massive city, there is no objective in Cities XL 2012, as the game does not give you intermediate goals to shoot for. Cities XL 2012 continues to make it easy to zone large non-square areas for a more European layout, but I’ve been seeing more empty zones than previously. The citizens complain about the lack of houses or jobs when I already have them zoned: is this added complexity or simply a bug? You decide. The interface does a nice job telling you what people of each class need, and helpful color overlays are available to graphically highlight any available data. Cities XL 2012 continues to be a trivially easy game thanks to the uninteresting economy: service buildings have a fixed maximum cost, so you simply wait until you have that amount of cash coming in monthly before placing that hospital or police station. Cities XL 2012 never offers resistance to continual expansion. There is a complex economy buried within the game, where specific goods are required to run different buildings, but it’s mostly hidden from the user and completely automated, and any deficit can be easily traded for.

IN CLOSING
I think the most telling piece of evidence against Cities XL 2012 is the fact that there isn’t really a true developer for the game: Focus Home Interactive (a publisher) picked up the rights to the game after Monte Cristo folded, but all they have done is added new maps and buildings, leaving the basic gameplay alone. While the new maps and buildings are nice, and the mod support is potentially helpful (although I suspect the “new” tool is just the importer used by the original developer released into the wild), this isn’t a new game, and it barely qualifies as an expansion. This is the reason that owners of Cities XL 2011 can get 2012 for $15, but even that price is steep for what you get. The mod tools are much less comprehensive than I anticipated, only offering the ability to import 3-D buildings made in a third party program by using a free downloaded utility. Certainly this, new buildings, and maps do not qualify for a $15 price tag. Areas of the game that needed improvement (the trivial economy, absence of objectives, lack of multi-core support) are simply untouched. This exact trend happened with City Life, releasing eerily similar mediocre content masquerading as a yearly update. If you have avoided the Cities XL franchise until now, Cities XL 2012 offers OK value for $40, but I would simply suggest getting the original game for a fraction of the cost.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Review

Battlefield 3, developed by Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: 64-player frantic action in destructible environments, streamlined classes, multiple game modes, variety of vehicles that can be disabled, several ways to earn experience, spawn on squad or aircraft, scope glint a great balance for annoying snipers, delay or refuse revives, machine guns deploy for increased accuracy, prone behind cover and mantling over objects, outstanding visual and sound design
The Not So Good: Smaller maps compared to Battlefield 2, basic items shouldn’t need to be unlocked, terrible minimap, regenerating vehicle and player health devalues suppression and repair, no commander role
What say you? The noted series returns with a very enjoyable multiplayer experience: 8/8

Care about the single player campaign? You are silly. Here is why.

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The first person shooter series I’ve probably spent the most time with is Battlefield (other personal time sinks on the shooter front include Wolfenstein 3-D, Quake, Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars). Its combination of not-forced-but-important coordinated team play, large maps with multiple objectives, and numerous vehicles anyone can control proved innovative and addictive from the first title in the series. The Battlefield games have seen their ups (Battlefield 2) and downs (2142), but have returned in glory to its home on the PC after a hiatus to console-focused drudgery. 64-player maps? Check. Destructible scenery? Check. Tanks and helicopters and jets? Check check check. Unlocks? Sigh.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Battlefield 3 uses a revamped version of the Frostbite engine implemented in the Bad Company series of games, and it is impressive. Each of the game’s maps show off a detailed environment, complete with diverse terrain, high-resolution textures, plenty of vegetation, flowing water, buildings, and animated backgrounds. I also like how trees sway in response to a nearby explosion: an excellent, immersive touch. Buildings could have some more detail in the interior (the majority are mostly empty concrete boxes), but overall the maps seem authentic enough. The much promoted destruction engine works well: almost all walls can be taken out with tank rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, or C4, and a whole building can collapse when enough structural damage has been wrought. Machine guns can also chip away at concrete barricades, giving you a nifty hiding place to snipe at enemy units. Soldier models are equipped with all of their real-world gear intact, and vehicles are detailed as well. There are also some special effects: being near fire turns the screen a reddish tint, and your view blurs while being suppressed. For all of this eye candy, Battlefield 3 runs well on relatively modest hardware at widescreen resolutions (1920 x 1080) on “high” settings. The sound design continues DICE’s strong pedigree in this area: immersive gunfire, explosions, and radio chatter fill the air as jets scream overhead. It’s not as groundbreaking as Bad Company 2 (maybe because we’re used to it by now), but it still works quite well. Overall, Battlefield 3 has a strong presentation that easily competes with and likely exceeds any game on the market.

ET AL.
As you are probably well aware, Battlefield 3 requires the use of EA’s proprietary download service, Origin. It offers more use than, say, Rockstar Games Social Club, and it’s about on par with the much maligned Games for Windows Live. I will say that I haven’t experienced any issues attributed directly to Origin (unlike those other two services): so far, so good. Also used for Battlefield 3 on the PC is the Battlelog, a browser-based service used to track stats, find friends, and join games. You now join games outside of the program, looking through a list in your Internet browser and the game starts up in the background once a free slot is found. This process doesn’t make joining a game any slower than before, although it’s more difficult to switch servers since you have to exit the game and then start it up again. I really like the plethora of stats that’s available to peruse from any device that can access the Internet, but Battlelog isn’t perfect: I don’t know if I completely believe all of the server pings and hardcore servers aren’t correctly identified. Still, it’s a much better browser than anything that’s been in a Battlefield title previously. There is a comprehensive amount of server customization options: bullet damage, player health, respawn time, 3-D and minimap spotting, regenerating health, and the kill cam can all be adjusted by the admin. However, I have experienced some crashes while joining a server (usually the first time I attempt to connect), the inability to join when the map is changing, the sporadic hacker, and the occasional overload of EA’s servers, but overall the process is tolerable.

Battlefield 3 features three main game modes: conquest, rush, and deathmatch. Conquest is familiar to Battlefield veteran players: flags are scattered around the map, and you can choose which one to conquer next. Rush only offers two objectives at a time that must be blown up by the attackers before their reinforcements expire. Personally, I prefer the more open conquest mode, where you can take multiple avenues to each objective. In Rush, you are forced down two or three linear paths towards a couple of close objectives, which concentrates the action but reduces tactical freedom. It can be tough to balance a Rush map, with the defensive side always gaining the inherent advantage of going prone and waiting for attackers, so most matches end with zero or one MCOM stations detonated. Deathmatch is, well, deathmatch, which doesn’t really fit too well in Battlefield 3’s open map design: spawn points seem to be scattered too far apart, instead of concentrating on one corner of the map to ensure constant action. Squad-based modes are also available for rush and deathmatch, pitting teams of four against each other. And you can’t forget about hardcore mode, which reduces player health by about half and removes some elements of the HUD (like the ammunition display). Although conquest is clearly the most popular game mode online, I’ll commend the developers for adding different options for different players.

Battlefield 3 takes place in Paris and Iran, and the game’s nine maps vary from small infantry-based urban locations to slightly larger, more open terrain. Every map can be used in every game mode. The two largest maps, Caspian Border and Kharg Island, are the closest to approaching Battlefield 2’s expansive nature with a complete selection of vehicles, while Operation M├ętro and Grand Bazaar are hallway-driven infantry battles (the remainder of the maps are in between in terms of scale). Overall, the maps are certainly not as terribly tiny and linear as the ones featured in Bad Company 2, but the scale of Battlefield 2 has all but been eliminated: even the largest maps in this version are roughly about two-thirds the size as before. A couple of the designs have judicious use of funneling chokepoints (I’m looking at you, subway and tunnel) and they are clearly designed for the consoles’ limitations rather than full-scale sixty-four player battles. We’ll see if the expansion maps from Battlefield 2 retain their original layouts. However, the smaller map size certainly does one thing: combat in Battlefield 3 is constant, as all of the players are in closer proximity to each other. This does make for some chaotic conflicts and removes the relaxed (boring?) transit time of Battlefield 2. The more I play, the more I am used to the contracted map layouts and I do enjoy the more frantic gameplay that results. Finding your way around the maps can be difficult as the minimap is appalling: everything is either blue or light blue, making it difficult to ascertain the terrain. There also isn’t a usable larger version of the layout when you are alive, and the spawn map can get cramped and is too subtle in indicating the selected spawn point. You really have to rely upon the 3-D map icons to figure out where to go. 3-D spotting has returned, which works fine: if the target ducks out of view, the red triangle of death disappears, giving potential victims a chance to avoid the expected incoming enemy fire. Icons are also displayed to indicate people who need ammunition, repair, or medical assistance, though the difference between a deployed ammo or healing pack (a circle) and someone who needs ammo or healing (a square) is a bit understated.

You’ll quickly notice that the classes of Battlefield 2 have undergone an overhaul and simplification, with the medic and assault classes and the anti-tank soldier and engineer combined. This is fine with me as it leads to more flexibility: you’re no longer stuck with a useless RPG and submachine gun if the tank you were hunting blows up right after you respawn. You can’t change classes during a single life, though, which is a bit disappointing: I’d like to be able to alter my strategy if I stay alive long enough (you can, however, pick up a dead soldier’s kit). In addition, you can run out of ammunition if you survive long enough, so being near support soldiers and your other teammates is recommended. You’ll also notice that there is not a commander; instead, all of those abilities have been moved to the evil recon class in the form of unlocks. Overall, I like the balance that has been struck with the classes, and each has its role on the battlefield. Each class gets a primary weapon, sidearm, two gadgets, and a specialization like faster sprint speed, more grenades, or reduced suppression. The combat medic gets an assault rifle, medic kit, and a choice of the defibrillator or grenade launcher when you unlock them. The engineer gets a carbine, rocket launcher, and repair tool. The support class gains access to sub and full machine guns, ammunition supplies, and C4 explosive (which is great fun to use when you unlock it, making your own doors into buildings). Finally, the recon class gets a sniper rifle and unlockable items like a motion sensor, artillery marker, and UAV. You are placed into four-person squads, and you can spawn near any squad member (or a plane, which should, in theory, reduce the people waiting on the runway for the next jet) to get to the frontlines faster. The Battlelog lets you voice chat with friends (but not members of your squad), and the game includes a half-assed command rose clearly added in at the last minute; where are my “need ammo” and “need medic” and “bail out” orders? Finally, Battlefield 3 includes an array of vehicles: jeeps, APCs, tanks, anti-air vehicles, helicopters, and jets are all found on the battlefield in their specific roles. The vehicles control well enough and are fun to drive, but the mouse sensitivity for machine gun positions (but, oddly, not main turrets) is really low and cannot be adjusted. The availability of vehicles leaves a bit to be desired: while there are enough tanks, more jeeps would be nice at the home base and intermediate control points, especially when sixty-four players are in a game. Of course, most of the maps are small enough where you can simply run to the next objective, which takes some of the epic feel (and, conversely, tedium) out of the game by removing the requirement to mount up and use motorized transportation between capture points.

To say that there are a lot of unlocks in Battlefield 3 is a vast understatement. While you play, you gain experience for all sorts of things: kills, reviving, repairing, resupplying, spotting, suppression, and kill assists. You get the same number of points for a kill than reviving an ally, which is nice, and more points are earned for helping out squad members. Weapon-specific attachments (a sight and two additional items) must be earned only with kills, however. What types of things can you unlock? Additional weapons, the aforementioned defibrillator paddles, plus scopes of varying magnifications (3X to 12X), holographic sights, and the soon-to-be-infamous infrared scope. The IR attachment highlights enemy soldiers in bright yellow, allowing you to see through foliage; it’s a terrible cheat given to players who have one hundred kills with a specific weapon. Less offensive attachments include foregrips, bipods, tactical lights (useful indoors to blind enemies but not so nice for friendly soldiers), laser sights, suppressors, and extended magazines. Vehicle upgrades are also present: smoke, additional machine guns, visual zoom, radar scan, laser guided missiles, and jammers. Having unlocks are OK: I have no problem with extra guns or unlocks that offer tradeoffs (like increased accuracy for decreased damage, for example). But I do have a problem with having to unlock basic class items (like the defibrillator paddles for the combat medic) and the scopes that are required for the medium-to-long distance engagements common on the larger maps. Granted, you only need ten kills to unlock the first rifle scope, but that’s still ten kills you have to get using the iron sights while everyone else is using a scope. Brink had it right: give newcomers all the basic tools for each class from the start.

Battlefield 3 features less soldier health than previous titles in the series: typically, three decent shots are enough for a kill this time around (less on a “hardcore” server). To counter this, soldiers are given essentially infinite sprint and prone. While obviously not realistic, sprint does make it easier to traverse the larger maps, and it’s more difficult for camping snipers (and other classes) to hit you, so it’s not all bad news. Prone is a welcome feature after playing far too many shooters (past Battlefields included) without it; used in combination with the abundant foliage present on most of the levels, you can sneak undetected into a base, assuming the enemy is not equipped with an infrared scope. In general, cautious, planned movement between cover is usually a recipe for success. Mantling over low walls is also present, but it’s not really any different than jumping (you just get to see your legs). Going prone and then immediately being able to shoot has been removed with the addition of a pause through additional frames of animation, which is nice. Grenade spam has also been reduced as soldiers can only carry one (until upgrades are unlocked) initially.

It can be annoying to be revived by a medic and immediately killed. Because of this, Battlefield 3 (like Brink) allows you to refuse or slightly delay a revive, so you are not immediately in harm's way. The support class gets an enhanced role in Battlefield 3 thanks to suppression. If you constantly fire towards an enemy position, their view blurs. Red Orchestra 2’s black-and-white effect is much better, and it’s usually easier to just kill them, but suppression does play a significant enough role when your teammates are smart enough to flank the enemy who is under fire. Machine guns can also be deployed on the ground, low walls, and windows, which improves accuracy (but obviously decreases mobility). Other minor features include a white scope glint so you can pick out snipers (really appreciated), significant RPG drop where it’s harder to hit tanks at a distance, and regenerating health. Ah, yes, regenerating health is in for both soldiers and vehicles: stay still for long enough and your health will slowly creep back up. However, you can disable a tank and prevent it from moving while it can still fire and kill you dead. Still, this makes the medics and engineers less important, and the overall experience seems less plausible (because jumping out of a moving tank uninjured is totally realistic). If you knife someone from behind, you get a canned animation and their dog tags, which I suppose shows the world how l33t you are. Lastly, default servers include a killcam that shows where your assailant is for future reference: handy to find campers.

IN CLOSING
Battlefield 3 is a great addition to the proud series, a combination of past themes and current innovations in the first person shooter genre. My primary complaints are two-fold: unlocks and the reduced size of the maps. The unlocks inherently make the game unfair to newcomers, as people who bought the game day-one will have access to more powerful scopes (including the hated infrared attachment) and extra tools to dominate the battlefield with. Much-needed items come quickly, but you still have to suffer through a number of rounds where you can’t do much to help your team. The maps are smaller than Battlefield 2 (but much larger than Bad Company 2), a couple of the designs rely too heavily on clogged chokepoints, and the minimap is awful, but the more concentrated design does put you in the action faster. The gameplay is quite entertaining: the guns are deadly and battles are quick, while the reduced player health makes going prone near cover and advancing with your squad members very important. The ability to deploy machine guns for added accuracy, suppress enemy units, locate snipers based on their scope glint, and delay or refuse medic revives add to the more polished and rewarding gameplay experience. The ability to sprint for long distances makes traversing the maps on foot plausible, especially when the availability of basic transit vehicles might not meet demand. The tanks, helicopters, jets, jeeps, and anti-air vehicles that are included are all fun to play and a worry to opposing infantry, but they can be countered by RPGs or C4. Four-person squads can spawn on any member or in a newly built aircraft, but coordination is reduced with the inability to communicate with squad members through voice coupled with the crippled command rose. Origin and Battlelog are experiencing some growing pains, but finding servers and perusing stats through a web browser works well overall. The three game modes have something for everyone, and the graphics are outstanding. Simply put, any fan of online first person shooters should ensure Battlefield 3 is installed on their hard drive.