Friday, December 28, 2012

Waking Mars Gameplay Review

I'm playing Waking Mars, an ecosystem management platform game by Tiger Style Games.

The objective in each section of caves beneath the surface of Mars is to establish a functional ecosystem by planting seeds and growing complimentary exotic plants. Controls are intuitive, adapted to the PC (WASD to move and the mouse to aim). The cave sections are somewhat open-ended in where you can plant, and you can certainly create a non-sustaining or overly hostile ecosystem. Waking Mars also occasionally relies on more traditional platform level design (jumping, shooting) that are less interesting overall. Your health can be impacted by hostile plants or other obstacles. Overall, Waking Mars is an innovative game that offers something different than a typical platformer.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Goodfolks Gameplay Review

I'm playing Goodfolks, a farming time management game by Hammerware.

The game involves running a farm: growing and harvesting food to make money and support your workers and animals. You are given several objectives, typically producing a specific resource or performing some other action on your farm. The land is divided up into tiles; first, you choose which crop to plant on each tile and then assign workers to clear the fields, plant seeds, and harvest the goods. You must click directly on resources when they are produced to add them to your inventory; you can easily miss items when your farm grows to several screens across. Workers and animals must be provided with food, which provide energy and happiness. There are some decisions to be made regarding which crops to plant and which tasks to assign workers to: sometimes you’ll need food, sometimes you’ll need to fulfill objectives, and sometimes you can use stockpiled resources to produce better-yielding crops. The interface is decent, highlighting idle and hungry workers, as well as available task locations. The game has a relaxed pace and offers a fast-forward option. Goodfolks isn’t the most original game idea and lacks advanced depth and tough decisions, but it is well executed for a casual time management game.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hairy Tales Gameplay Review

I'm playing Hairy Tales, an action puzzle game by Arges Systems.

The game features three environments with about twenty-five levels a piece (plus a tutorial), and you can skip any level that’s too difficult for your feeble brain. There are three goals in each level: you must clear corruption, collect mushrooms, and reach the exit. The in-game character will always run in a straight line, so you must place and rotate arrows, fences, and teleporters in their path to redirect them in the appropriate direction. You cannot rotate your view, which makes it difficult to see fence placement orientation. Rocks and trees are obstacles that cannot be moved, magic stones must be obtained before removing corruption, and enemies might be present that must be dealt with using various collectable items. You are allowed to adjust your layout while the character is moving, and you only have to collect or clear items once during your three lives (so you can purposely fail and clear the remaining items after a reset). The solutions are not as flexible as I would like, but the ability to fail and preserve what you have collected (and skip any level entirely) makes Hairy Tales more forgiving.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Eador: Genesis Impressions

I played Eador: Genesis, a turn-based fantasy strategy game, but the video recording did not work (twice). Nevertheless, imagine watching the game as you read my impressions:

The game was actually released in Russia in 2009, but only now has gotten widespread distribution with an English translation. Eador: Genesis is essentially a mix of Civilization, Disciples, and Master of Magic. A campaign with scripted objectives is present, along with single player games against multiple opponents utilizing randomized maps. Multiplayer is also available in hosteat and LAN modes. The interface isn’t terribly outdated, although some information is buried several menus deep and the low resolution graphics restrict the amount of data that can be displayed at one time. Hero units lead armies throughout the world, conquering new provinces and (hopefully) defeating other factions as well. Various buildings can be constructed in your stronghold province, unlocking specific units or upgrades. Your hero can also purchase weapons and items you have unlocked through constructed buildings, improving their stats. Troops of varying levels are also recruited based on which structures you have chosen to build. Heroes and their units gain experience during battle and can level up, giving you a choice of a permanent bonus to their attributes. Spells can also be researched and used in battle. Each province can be explored (which can activate tactical battle quests) or improved to bring in resources. Because of the randomized nature of the map generation, neighboring provinces can contain overly powerful defenders that can stunt your initial growth. The tactical battles are somewhat interesting with hex-based unit movement, spells, and special abilities coming into play. The AI is decent though not spectacular. Overall, Eador: Genesis is an enjoyable, feature-filled amalgamation of various turn-based fantasy themes at a very reasonable price.

Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lord Gameplay Review

I'm playing Age of Fear 2: The Chaos Lord, a fantasy turn-based strategy game by Leszek Sliwko.

This sequel is turn-based, using an alternating system. There are two campaigns, each offering branching missions (you choose which is next) and units that carry over to the next scenario. The missions are quite challenging on the “fair” difficulty setting, offering scripted encounters against lots of enemy units. You can recruit new units between missions and upgrade existing ones based on the experience they have earned during battle. Beyond the campaign, Age of Fear 2 has online multiplayer (though you have to know your opponent’s IP address in advance, as there is no matchmaking) and offers the campaign missions as single battles you can play from either side. You cannot create true skirmish battles on randomly generated or predesigned terrain using units of your choosing. Age of Fear 2 also lacks an interactive tutorial, although the text-based help is decent enough. Age of Fear 2 is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computer systems. The interface offers an icon-based list that displays units that can still move, allowing access to special abilities from said list. Age of Fear 2 does not support the mouse wheel for zooming in, nor does it have a minimap. Age of Fear 2 does feature an impressive array of units of varying skills and abilities, beyond simple health, attack, and defense ratings. Items can also be equipped by heroes when they are awarded after a skirmish. Each turn allows a unit to move then attack (if possible). Dice rolls and the attack and defensive values are used to determine damage success (a clearly displayed percentage available before you issue an order), so there is luck involved in the combat. Since the odds are almost always severely against you, a couple of poor dice rolls can mean the difference between success and victory. Age of Fear 2 features innovative moving restrictions that allow you to shield ranged or hero units from the enemy by placing stout protectors in between; this raises the tactical bar of the title and makes the combat more interesting. The AI continues to be solid overall as well. Still, Age of Fear 2 is not really a true sequel (more like an expansion pack), since it offers few upgrades (new campaigns, new units) for owners of the first title. That said, this incremental upgrade retains originality due to the movement-shielding mechanic.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Minion Master Gameplay Review

I'm playing Minion Master, a card-based board game game by BitFlip Games.

The game features both single player and multiplayer games for up to six players, taking place on a number of board layouts that can be increased with the level editor. While Minion Master comes with several pre-designed decks, you can build your own; the interface is poorly done, lacking advanced sorting and search options. Cards either summon a new minion (unit) onto the board, or grant a bonus to a one or several units. Minions include fantasy (archer, dragon, knight, sorcerer) and horror (spider, zombie, werewolf, shaman) themes, and vary in attack, range, movement, defense, and health attributes. Minions also have different combat styles (area attack, line attack, trample) and automated tactics (attack close or strong enemies). You have some limited orders over your units (attack specific enemies or defend certain positions), which was initially disconcerting but actually works out well because of the number of minions involved and the tedium that would be required if you had to move all of them each turn. As it stands, Minion Master is a fast-paced game with simultaneous turn resolution to quicken the games even more. You earn mana each turn by discarding cards, and must spend it all the same turn, which makes decisions more immediate and interesting. The AI seems to be solid enough to be a compelling opponent. The cards and tactics of Minion Master are just varied enough to make the game appeal to fans of card-based board games.

Friday, December 07, 2012

AirBuccaneers Gameplay Review

I'm playing AirBuccaneers, an airship combat game by LudoCraft.

The game is multiplayer-only, lacking a training mode, a decent tutorial, and a meaningful written manual. There is no limit to the number of players that can man a ship, which allows for varied boarding and defending strategies, and there are a handful of ship types that alter the speed and available weapon mounts. Experience earned during matches can unlock new perks and clothes, based on the role you play the most (though there are no specific classes). Respawning allows you to fly to any ship on the battlefield and join the fight quickly. It can be difficult to tell the red-and-blue teams apart, especially against a lit background. The pilot controls the ship, placing the gunners in prime position for an attack, using boost for quicker movement. The ship controls are poor at giving feedback (current speed and direction inputs) and imprecise overall. Cannons have a large firing delay and lack an aiming cursor, which makes successfully hitting an enemy ship very rewarding though less satisfying due to the imprecise nature of the mechanics. Three ammunition types are available, appropriate for different ranges. AirBuccaneers lets you board enemy ships, and each sailor has weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. You can also repair or buff, although your options here are limited and feedback (much like piloting) is poor. Overall, AirBuccaneers lacks compelling gameplay unless you are operating a cannon or driving the ship, but the boarding elements add some intrigue. I like the spawning technique, lack of classes or ship population limits, and the skill-based aiming of AirBuccaneers, but find that it’s more difficult on novices and has less to do during flight when compared against competing airship combat games.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Drox Operative Gameplay Review

I'm playing Drox Operative, a space action role-playing game by Soldak Entertainment.

Instead of playing a 4X strategy game, in Drox Operative, you are a mercenary that can choose sides and align with the victor. Victory conditions includes allying with any surviving races, accumulating a significant amount of money, or destroying lots of monsters to increase your notoriety. Each race has different starting bonuses for their ships, and the difficulty level can be adjusted by changing the level of the enemy units. Each universe is randomly generated, with planets linked by wormholes and jump gates. Once you win a sector, you get a reward (lots of loot) and dive in to the next one. Drox Operative also supports cooperative multiplayer: a great feature. Controls, like most action role-playing games, are mouse-driven: the left mouse button is used to move (although you can use WASD, which I found to be easier), attack, or select items, the right-mouse button fires a specific weapon of your choosing, and moving the mouse over an enemy will target them. The interface gives a lot of information through extensive tool-tips, and all of the informational screens (character stats, inventory, map, relations) are one keypress away. Defeating enemies rewards items, of which there are plenty to choose from and mount onto your ship. These include weapons (lasers, missiles, mines, EMPs) and items that increase your shields, armor, speed, or power load. You are restricted in the items you can use by their level (you must upgrade your ship’s capabilities to support more advanced items), size (light, medium, heavy), and power consumption, and cargo bays can hold items you’d like to sell to the various factions. Aligning with the best faction is accomplished by completing quests (of which there are several types), trading, and destroying nearby monsters. The monsters are very basic in behavior (they attack when you are near), but the faction AI plays the 4X game well and makes the game world interesting to interact with. The penalty for death is minimal (just a small XP decrease) as well. Overall, Drox Operative is a fine adaptation of the action role-playing game to a space 4X setting, providing varied quests, interesting diplomacy, randomly generated worlds, lots of items to equip, and multiple victory conditions.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Miasmata Gameplay Review

I'm playing Miasmata, an exploration and survival adventure game by IonFx.

Shipwrecked on a mysterious island, your goal is to find the cure to a disease by exploring the large, detailed island. The game is presented in a non-linear, relaxed fashion, giving you plenty of time to wander off on your own in any direction without restriction. Progress is automatically saved any time you light a candle, fire, or lantern, or sleep in a bed. Controls use the left-mouse button to pick up objects (items are dropped by crouching and looking down), and your character can hold up to three different plants in his left hand and one object (torch, stick, rock, knife) in his right (no option for a backpack to carry plants, which is weird). Miasmata utilizes a player movement momentum system that makes it far too easy to slide down hills, even gradual slopes. Plants are scattered around the island, which can be analyzed and manufactured into medicines that combat illness and enhance attributes (strength, endurance, perception). Miasmata also features a mapping system where you must sight two known landmarks (buildings, statues) to find your current location or locate new, unknown landmarks. While this system is innovative and somewhat realistic, it also means you can’t wander too far from previously spotted landmarks without getting lost. Exploring away from landmarks won’t reveal any new information (or even tell you where you currently are located), though pre-drawn maps can be discovered (usually at camps located along paths) to fill in some gaps. You also have to worry about a monster that gets progressively more dangerous as time marches on; you must either hide or run when it comes near. Miasmata is certainly something different, appropriate for those players looking for a relaxed exploration adventure with a couple of minor issues.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Miner Wars 2081 Gameplay Review

I'm playing Miner Wars 2081, a space adventure game by Keen Software House.

The campaign involves thirty-one scripted, action-heavy missions where you must fight the enemies that lie between you and an objective in impressively detailed levels. Missions are unfairly difficult (you are always greatly outnumbered by equally-powerful ships) and the save checkpoints are infrequent enough to be noticeable (long load times add to the frustration). You can play any of the missions cooperatively online, although this functionality has been hit-or-miss for me. Deathmatch is also possible, although I never observed anyone partaking in competitive games. The game’s physics are responsive (unrealistically quick deceleration) and the controls are intuitive using the mouse and keyboard. The HUD labels nearby ships and objects and displays a path towards the next objective, but lacks a futuristic sheen. The different ship types can fire a variety of weapons (mines, bombs, machine guns, missiles) and drones to attack the enemy. You can also drill into any of the game’s destructible asteroids and harvest rare resources, or take direct control of mounted turrets if needed. Ship armor and health depletes very quickly (thanks to numerous, deadly accurate enemy units), and ammunition stocks and oxygen supplies need to be replenished frequently (more often than there are pick-ups, of course). The persistent destructible levels honestly do little to enhance the fairly standard action-oriented gameplay: you don’t notice the asteroids slowly degrading when being repeatedly destroyed by the overwhelming force of the enemy. The linear mission design, unfair difficulty, and repetitive battles of Miner Wars 2081 make the game an also-ran in the realm of space adventure titles.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Good Life Gameplay Review

I'm playing The Good Life, a boating management game by immersionFX and Iceberg Interactive.

In the game, you make money transporting tourists around tropical islands and collecting rent on purchased equipment. You are competing against a number of NPC opponents to accrue the most reputation, primarily earned by accepting bids from potential customers and delivering them quickly to their desired destination. Bid prices are automatically calculated based on reputation, so there isn’t any bargaining process to enhance the gameplay. There is a time limit for each task, which is usually easily attainable, and actually traversing between islands is a boring process. Controls are very typical for a boating game, though the map doesn’t make it obvious enough where the destination is located. In addition to moving tourists around, you can partake in diving quests, take photos or rescue civilians (by simply clicking), and avoid pirates and storms. Money earned through your taxi service can be spent on new boats (of the motor, sail, and yacht varieties) or real estate, both of which bring in additional income over time. Still, the occasional tedious side mission or bar purchase does little to break up the monotony of shuttling tourists around the islands of The Good Life.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Blood, Grain, and Steel Gameplay Review

I'm playing Blood, Grain, and Steel, a turn-based strategy game by David Walters Development.

The campaign game takes place on a strategic map where you move armies around, with tactical battles when units invade enemy territory. The goal is to take the enemy fortress (the two sides (red and blue) are identical), capturing territories along the way that produce grain each turn. Grain is used to purchase units for the battles, and it can be transferred between a province and an army, a sort of innovative manual resupply system that works vey well. You pick your units before each battle, so you can alter your strategy every skirmish (you don’t have to use three soldiers if you did last battle). The size of your army depends on the amount of grain you have in store (and unit use grain each turn as well), so keeping your armies well supplied is a must, especially after battles when they are depleted. Battles are slow, since only a single unit can move and attack each turn. Unit types include the standard soldier, fast rider, powerful-but-fragile infiltrator, captain paladin, ranged catapult, or supply depot. You lose the battle if the enemy destroys all of your supply depots, all of your paladins, or if you run out of grain because of the per-turn supply requirement (which allows you to effectively starve a stationary defender). Blood, Grain, and Steel uses a specific set of tables to calculate damage between units based on the units involved and the terrain of the conflict. Memorizing (or printing them out) is key to victory, as is analyzing the potential movement radii of each unit on the map. The AI, although inconsistent at times, does flank vulnerable units and understands the game rules fairly well. While Blood, Grain, and Steel has a very intriguing use of supply and some distinctive tactical battles with the varied unit types, most of the game is fairly bland. However, the game could appeal to strategy fans looking for a lighter take on the genre.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scourge of War: Chancellorsville Gameplay Review

I'm playing Scourge of War: Chancellorsville, a real-time historical tactical strategy game by NorbSoftDev, Matrix Games, and Slitherine.

This is a standalone expansion to Gettysburg and includes twenty scenarios covering the battles, each averaging an hour in length. All of the skirmishes have historical orders of battle and take place on one of three huge (25 square miles), detailed maps. The new battlefields have been supposedly optimized to improve performance, although I did not observe any noticeable improvement. Scourge of War: Chancellorsville also includes six multiplayer scenarios and a sandbox battle mode for essentially infinite replay value. The very enjoyable tactical combat remains, and the intriguing courier message order system and near-commander camera restriction (both optional) offer a level of unparalleled realism. Still, Scourge of War: Chancellorsville lacks some needed improvements: feedback for the courier system remains murky, and the AI still exhibits questionable and erratic pathfinding. The admittedly robust new roster of battles definitely offers significant value, and the package as a whole is recommended to newcomers to the series, but the $30 price tag may be tough to stomach as an expansion to previous Scourge of War products.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cargo Commander Gameplay Review

I'm playing Cargo Commander, a platform game by Serious Brew and Digital Tribe.

In the game, you traverse large structures in space searching for cargo containers, eventually discovering a sector key to unlock an additional set of levels. The levels are generated based on their name, which allows for high replay value with online high score comparison. Gathering new cargo types unlocks new abilities and upgrades. While each set of structures will collapse after an amount of time, a “journey” mode allows you to explore with no time limit. Cargo Commander does not have any difficulty settings, so you can get stuck if you happen to choose overly challenging layouts. The control scheme uses the WASD keys to move and the mouse to aim, which works well. Your character can shoot various weapon types (nailgun, shotgun, mines) at enemies that populate each room, and you can drill almost anywhere to make your own path between structures. Each room also has its own gravity, which adds a unique sense of disorientation as you explore. You can also float in space (until you run out of oxygen), which allows you to skip around structures and enter where you choose. There are some stability problems (occasional crashes plus instances of not finding the online server, losing all of your hard-earned progress), but the unique elements of Cargo Commander make it stand out in the platformer genre. Cargo Commander maintains originality thanks to its gravity-bending, randomly generated, destructible level design.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Space Colony HD Gameplay Review

I'm playing Space Colony HD, a real-time base-building strategy game by Firefly Studios.

The game is actually a re-release of the 2003 title with enhanced graphics, a free upgrade for owners of the original. The campaign mode offers specific objectives and scripted events, and the design of your base carries over to future missions, adding a sense of persistence to the proceedings. The galaxy mode offers a number of single missions with varied starting conditions and objectives, and the sandbox mode starts you out with a bare design and no restrictions or goals. Map and campaign editors are included to expand the game, and the voiced tutorials do a decent job teaching the basics. The interface does have some areas that need improvement: the bridge screen, which displays colonist information, oxygen and power supplies, financial information, and trade controls, should have been incorporated into the main screen (now that there is plenty of room at HD resolutions). The tool-tips are also insufficient: the skill icons specifically are in desperate need of detail when you mouse over them. Your colonists can have any number of nineteen skills, which allows them to run a particular building on your base. They will also need to attend to a number of needs (food, sleep, hygiene, entertainment), some of which may be of more importance to them. Gameplay involves constructing your base to excavate resources and defend against alien attacks, while placing structures to fulfill the various needs of your habitants. More exotic resources can be used to construct enhanced items, such as robot workers or improved medicine, and alien attacks (that will destroy buildings they encounter) will need to be repelled. While Space Colony HD does feel like an old game because of the interface and sprite-based graphics, the colonist needs, varied mission objectives, and chaos during alien battles makes the game a worthy base builder, especially at a friendly price.   

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Game of Dwarves Gameplay Review

I'm playing A Game of Dwarves, an exploration and building management strategy game by Zeal Game Studio and Paradox Interactive.

The game comes with a campaign that includes set map layouts and specific objectives and a tutorial to teach the basics of the mechanics. The quests usually involve digging towards question marks, rooms that contain enemies that must be defeated to advance to the next mission. A Game of Dwarves also includes randomly-generated custom games for enhanced replay value, although the number of options are quite limited. The interface needs improvement: tool-tips are lacking pertinent information, specifically dwarf needs, tile information, food usage, happiness justification, and specific feedback (why did this dwarf die?). The multi-level layout is also very confusing: you must switch floors to build, but the entire map below your current view position is displayed. Most of the game involves collecting resources to build objects, as you must feed your dwarves while providing sleeping locations. Happiness can also be increased by placing decorations, and you can trade an overabundance of one resource for another. Dwarves come in six classes that determine their role; a digger cannot fight enemy units, so careful planning and balancing of your population is important. You do not directly interact with your dwarves, instead issuing dig, move, and build orders that an appropriate unit will execute. This method would have worked just fine, except the AI has several shortcomings that result in undesirable behavior: units exhibit erratic behavior sleeping, fleeing from hostile units, attacking hostile units, and eating. Military units love to eat and sleep as enemy units are attacking your base and killing your units, and there is no way to alter their undesirable behavior. The game’s slow pace also means lots of waiting: even on accelerated time, the frequency at which units need to eat and sleep makes for slow underground expansion, as your digging expeditions are constantly interrupted. Because of the shortcomings with the interface and automated unit behavior, A Game of Dwarves is difficult to recommend.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Natural Selection 2 Gameplay Review

I'm playing Natural Selection 2, an online first-person shooter / real-time strategy hybrid by Unknown Worlds Entertainment.

Natural Selection 2 is an online game (although there are tutorial videos and a solo practice mode) born from a modification, with fleshed-out mechanics and vastly improved graphics (the unit models and level detail are especially notable). The interface is informative (especially on the marine side), with on-screen icons indicating nearby structures that need to be built and friendly units under attack. The two adversaries are distinct (although some of the same themes are repeated, such as building and unit roles), offering more traditional marines and an esoteric collection of alien beings. Resource points and secondary bases scattered around each map can be captured to unlock new weapons or better lifeforms. Each side has one commander who plays from an overhead perspective (like a real-time strategy game), placing structures, queuing research, dropping supplies, and alerting players of in-game events. The aliens spawn from eggs and can only build in areas covered with green infestation, placing defensive whips, cloaking shades, healing crags, and various upgrade structures that grant new abilities. In addition to the default wall-climbing skulk, the aliens can evolve into the healing-building gorge, the flying lerk, the stealthy fade, and the tank-like onos. For the marines, their structures must be powered, researching new weapons (shotguns, flamethrowers, grenade launchers) or items (jetpacks, robotic suits), in addition to quickly warping between phase gates and placing sentry guns for defense. The end result is a very satisfying competitive game that requires teamwork and coordination; Natural Selection 2 is best when the commander is barking out orders and the other players move together towards the next objective. The strategy components add a lot more meaning to the objectives: it’s not just “stand at this flag”, rather you are trying to build your economy to afford the weapons required to take down the enemy base. The map layouts are varied enough where multiple build strategies can be used (offense, territory control, upgrades, stealth), and the game balance seems to be fair. The fast-moving aliens and slow-moving marines provide an interesting balance, especially when most shooters just feature men with guns for both sides. Those looking for a more thoughtful shooter experience need to look no further than Natural Selection 2.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Guns of Icarus Online Gameplay Review

I'm playing Guns of Icarus Online, a team-based online airship combat game by Muse Games.

The game features a handful of maps, each with obstacles such as clouds and grounded objects so you can hide from and sneak up on your opponents. Guns of Icarus Online features three classes for your airman: pilot, gunner, and engineer. You can choose three abilities in your class, and one from each of the other classes; this allows you to focus on a role but provide assistance if needed in other areas. There are several ship layouts (small, speedy, weapons-filled, balanced) and the captain can customize the ship’s weapons. Learning the ship layouts is part of the game: you run around in first person, manning guns and repairing systems, which increases immersion significantly. The game has a strong focus on teamwork, as one person cannot physically do everything on their own. The pilot at the helm is in charge of steering while controlling speed and altitude. He can also spot enemies (it is difficult to tell who is on which team) and give orders to assist the other players. The gunner is in charge of the weapons, which include rocket launchers, flak cannons, mortars, flamethrowers, and gatling guns. The engineer can also come over and temporarily buff weapons (or any other system) to increase performance. The engineer must also extinguish fires and repair the ship’s armor, engines, and balloon. The chaos of battle is exhilarating, as each person scampers around the ship, fulfilling their role and taking down enemy ships. Guns of Icarus Online is a brilliant idea executed well enough to have an engrossing team-play environment.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hotline Miami Gameplay Review

I'm playing Hotline Miami, a top-down puzzling shooter by Dennaton Games and Devolver Digital.

While the game certainly plays out as a typical top-down shooter, the map layouts and overwhelming odds means there are some puzzle-like attributes as well, as you formulate and execute your strategy for each chapter. The game features fifteen multi-story buildings you must clear of all enemy units, each with predictable (or semi-random) AI patterns and doors you can use to ambush the enemy. There is an odd story that is described between missions. Hotline Miami does not save your progress during a mission if you exit the game, which is really disappointing since it is quite difficult. Enemies spawn with a variety of weapons (knifes, pipes, bats, pistols, shotguns, rifles, bottles, swords, and more), and all of these can be thrown as part of your tactics. Since each non-melee weapon has limited ammunition, you’ll be switching items often. Melee kills do not warn nearby enemies of your nefarious deeds (the bloody, dead bodies aren’t enough of a giveaway, apparently), so usually you’ll go for silent kills until you can funnel the remaining opponents through a narrow doorway. Before each mission, you can choose a mask (additional masks are unlocked throughout the game) that grants a subtle bonus, like faster movement speed or lethal doors. The controls use the WASD keys to move and mouse to aim, a fine combination that would have been better with the inclusion of mouse sensitivity settings. The retro graphics are memorable and the gore adds a level of disturbing brutality. The soundtrack is very well done and marries well with the neon hues and fast pace of the game. Hotline Miami has very high difficulty since everyone is a one-shot kill (including yourself) and you are usually outnumbered fifteen-to-one. Still, the game doesn’t feel unfair, as there is always some way to dispose of the enemies, and the level design makes more than one plan plausible. However, the boss battles are tedious and out of place, slowing the pace of the game considerably. Overall, Hotline Miami is a great mix of top-down shooting and careful planning, though its high difficulty may discourage some.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress Gameplay Review

I'm playing Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, a fantasy role-playing 4X strategy game by Stardock Entertainment.

This is a semi-sequel offered for free to early adopters of the first Elemental game, War of Magic. It’s obviously similar in approach (a 4X game with role-playing elements) but much better overall thanks to streamlined mechanics, added content, and a more accessible interface, among other things. Starting a new game offers good hero customization and rules options; victory conditions include conquest, diplomacy, researching the top spell, or completing the final quest. While the tutorial is terribly short, there is extensive in-game help with short movies describing each game mechanic. The interface features plentiful tool-tips, a handy city and unit list, and event icons that need accompanying sound effects. Fallen Enchantress also has more varied graphics than War of Magic, although the ground textures are still blurry. The cloth map is a good way to play the game faster and figure out what all of the locations are. Founding a city is now restricted to locations that have grain, although you can construct an outpost near resource sites scattered around the map. Each city can specialize in population, defenses, or research, and will get a different selection of buildings based on your choice. On-map resources can be reaped by nearby settlements, so there is some planning in where to place your towns, rather than resorting to city spam. The technology tree has been streamlined and offers several paths in civics, warfare, and magic. Spell variety has also been drastically increased, and the spellbook is much more organized, placing magic into unit, city, strategic, and tactical categories. Diplomatic options remain the same, with specific values to assist you in getting the deal you want. The world of Fallen Enchantress is full of roaming monsters and loot, both of which can be farmed for experience, money, and items. There are also many quests to undertake, but they lack variety and usually involve defeating some powerful enemy. You will also encounter other champions you can recruit (for a price); all heroes level up with combat experience (unlocking a choice of skills) and suffer injuries when defeated in battle. Improved equipment can be purchased for your heroes once researched, increasing their stats. Fallen Enchantress also has many more default units to choose from, so you don’t feel like you have to customize a new soldier every time research is completed. Tactical combat is improved because of more interesting spells and unit abilities, but still a little bland. The multithreaded AI is strong and efficient and provides a capable foe. Though still complex and requiring trail-and-error to discover optimal strategies, Fallen Enchantress is much improved over its predecessor War of Magic and features a pleasant combination of role-playing and 4X conventions with enough variety to keep the game fresh.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome Gameplay Review

I'm playing Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome, a the latest DLC for the fantastic character-driven grand strategy game by Paradox Interactive.

This mini-expansion focuses on the Byzantine Empire by providing more events for rulers controlling that specific country. In addition, each Orthodox nation now has its own patriarch (like a Pope), so you can more easily influence religious favors (excommunication, for instance). The final major addition of Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome is a standing army: you can now have permanent troops and only have to pay for their reinforcement. The remainder of the improvements advertised for Legacy of Rome are actually included for free with the latest patch (1.07) for the base game. Most significant of these is the introduction of factions: organized pockets of rebellion in your lands. Instead of each vassal revolting separately, they can now become organized by supporting the same goal (a different succession rule, an elective monarchy, lower crown authority, granting a specific title, or independence). This results in more powerful rebellions you must contend with. Coupled with the standing armies, you are now limited to recruiting troops only from your direct vassals. On a more personal level, there are new self-improvement ambitions (increasing a specific trails through events) and you can now have one plot and one ambition simultaneously. Combat now emphasizes a new series of commander traits that give bonuses for battles on specific terrain types (flat, rough, mountainous, desert), so a little more thought must be done in assigning your leaders. But again, most of the improvements are free for owners of the original game, so the actual amount of exclusive content in Legacy of Rome is quite low. Unless you really love the Byzantine Empire, or really want to have standing armies, Legacy of Rome isn’t worth even a modest monetary investment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ravaged Gameplay Review

I'm playing Ravaged, a vehicle-focused online first person shooter game by 2 Dawn Games and Reverb Publishing.

This team-based shooter is online-only, as it does not have any single player content or a tutorial to teach the nuances of the combat. There are two game modes (capture the flag and conquest) that take place on eight maps of varied sizes. Each of the two factions get slight different weapons and vehicles, the latter of which include ATVs, buggies, trucks, 4x4s, tanks, and helicopters. Some require skill to pilot successfully (especially the helicopter) and all handle plausibly well. You cannot drive and shoot simultaneously in most vehicles, which emphasizes team play. There are five classes in Ravaged: the scout (with a light machine gun), assault (with a rifle), explosives (with a grenade or rocket launcher), sniper (a choice between a rifle or crossbow), and the heavy (with a machine gun). Using the rifles is straightforward, but the rockets experience significant gravitational drop that makes them require more skill to operate effectively. All classes get a secondary weapon, a melee weapon, and another item like grenades or mines. Ravaged doesn’t make you unlock weapons as there is no persistence or progression in the game (just old fashioned murder). You cannot “lone wolf” in Ravaged (again, placing emphasis on team play), as the rocket launcher is necessary to take out vehicles, but that class is useless against infantry. In addition, you can spawn on your squad leader to get in the action more quickly, so teamwork is definitely highlighted. Ravaged is fast-paced, thanks to speedy vehicles and low soldier health that makes for quick, deadly engagements. When the maps are populated, the gameplay of Ravaged makes for a refreshingly chaotic experience. Ravaged has found a nice middle ground between the “twitchy” Quake/UT shooters and the slower-paced Battlefield games, filling a comfortable niche between the two extremes.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Retro City Rampage Gameplay Review

I'm playing Retro City Rampage, a nostalgic open-world combat parody by Vblank Entertainment.

The game takes its cue from Grand Theft Auto, mixing in inspired mini-games and plenty of references to gaming and the 80's and 90's. The story mode is where the main part of the content is located, with over sixty varied missions that offer driving, shooting, and more esoteric activities like swimming and rhythmic exercises (among many others); between missions, you can taxi people around or play arcade adaptations of popular indie games. Shops can be used to purchase weapons, alter your appearance, or upgrade your vehicle. Also included in the story mode (or accessible from the main menu) are over forty arcade challenges that offer objective, weapon-specific, and story-based goals with online leaderboards. There is also a generally pointless free roaming mode that loses direction without missions to complete. Controls are terrible: the WASD and arrow keys are used for movement and shooting, a clear adaptation of a dual-stick system. It does not work well with needlessly cramped inputs and you cannot change any of the control settings; using the mouse to shoot would have offered a vast improvement in this area. Weapons include standard (pistol, shotgun, submachine gun) and exotic (the proton pack from Ghostbusters) options, and the vehicles, though occasionally difficult to control, are varied in their characteristics. You can also find power-ups to increase running speed or cloak from those pesky police officers. The game usually has a breakneck pace and offers the next mission in quick succession, always keeping you busy and wondering what wacky adventures await. Despite shortcomings in the control scheme, Retro City Rampage offers a lot of content (for the price), varied missions, and humorous references to expand upon the classic open-world formula.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Worms Revolution Gameplay Review

I'm playing Worms Revolution, a turn-based strategy game by Team 17.

The latest entry in the venerable franchise starts with thirty-two scripted campaign scenarios, including a slow, laborious mandatory eight-mission tutorial, and twenty puzzles where you must eliminate all of the enemy combatants with one unit. There are also deathmatch, fort, and classic modes (with none of the new features) that can be played against the AI or online. As before, your worms can be customized in appearance, and the map editor allows you to create custom layouts if the random maps aren’t good enough. New features in Worms Revolution include water that flows down hill, a worms receive damage if submerged. In addition, objects that can poison, flood, or explode when destroyed are present; they can also be moved around (using two of the new utilities in the game) for added variety and strategy. Also new are classes: in addition to the standard soldier, you have a scientist that heals the team, a fast-but-fragile scout, and the slow-but-robust heavy. New weapons are available that take advantage of the new features (like water bombs and UFOs to teleport objects), while the classics also remain (like the iconic holy hand grenade). The AI is deadly accurate at anything above brain-dead difficulty, so you must be precise with your shots. The sound design is noticeably improved, and while the worms and weapons have gone 3-D, the map textures are blurry and low-resolution. Still, Worms Revolution offers a slight step forward for the franchise at a reasonable price, as the new water, objects, and worm classes add just enough to justify purchasing the game.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

War of the Roses Gameplay Review

I'm playing War of the Roses, a medieval third-person combat game by Fatshark and Paradox Interactive

The game is light on features, with only two game modes (team deathmatch and conquest) and an atrocious offline training mode that features poor organization and tips combined with awful AI. When you join a battle, the first objective is to choose a class; at first, only default loadouts are available (footman, crossbowman, longbowman, and footknight), but you can eventually design your own class when you have logged a couple of hours of game time. The customization options are strong: you can select from a wide range of primary and secondary weapons (swords, axes, clubs, spears, polearms, lances, bows, crossbows), armor, helmets, daggers, and shields with varied options. You also get to choose perks that grant offensive, defensive, support, or movement bonuses, or benefits for your squad. Controls are typical for a shooter-type game, though the mouse wheel does not switch between weapons. Melee combat is performed by holding down the left-mouse button and then swinging the mouse in the direction you wish to attack (top, bottom, left, or right). You can hold down the button indefinitely (although you move very slowly while doing so), which makes for the mechanics more unrealistic. Holding down the right-mouse button blocks in the same four directions, and lowering your visor restricts vision but offers greater protection. The result of this method of attacking is a lot of random swinging by newcomers and successful blocking by veterans; landing a victorious blow (attacking from a direction that is not being blocked and landing the swing on an unarmored part of the body) is rewarding, although luck is some part of the equation. It usually takes several hits to incapacitate an opponent, so most battles involve slowly circle-strafing your opponent, holding out your shield, and waiting for help to flank them. The combat certainly takes practice, and without a serviceable offline component, most new players will be at a distinct disadvantage to experienced players. Using ranged weapons comes with their own liabilities: the bow is inaccurate and causes little damage, while the crossbow takes a long time to reload. Mounted combat is not very popular, likely due to the map design that lacks large open areas to gallop through. If you receive damage, you may bleed, which requires using a bandage for five seconds before you bleed out. If you are knocked down, you are not out: you may be executed by a member of the opposing team (a long five-second animation, during which the execution can be interrupted) or revived by an ally as you lay helpless on the ground. The executions are brutally effective, shown from a first person perspective as your opponent stabs you in the eye. The unorganized chaos of battle is not helped by the ability to spawn on your squad leader: you can be in a tense one-on-one battle, but then another opponent magically appears nearby and unbalances the contest. I did not care for the style of combat War of the Roses has to offer, as I felt that the limited control scheme makes aiming too difficult: the third-person perspective leads to confusion since you have to use the camera angle to both aim and see. The bare functionality, slow pacing, and combat shortcomings limits the appeal of the brutal, methodical battles of War of the Roses.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

MechWarrior Online Closed Beta Preview

I'm playing the closed beta of MechWarrior Online, a free-to-play robot shooter by Piranha Games and Infinite Game Publishing.

This is the shooter half of the new MechWarrior games that are in development (the other being MechWarrior Tactics, a strategy take on the BattleTech setting), which centers on online deathmatches where you attempt to destroy hulking metallic behemoths. Step one is to choose your mech: there are four starting configurations that new players can pick from. There are a lot of mechs that can be unlocked using in-game cash, but they are too expensive to purchase unless you invest a significant amount of time in the game or pay real money. Despite the large array of available mechs, there doesn’t seem to be any hands-on customization at this point. You can add abilities to your pilot using experience points, which somewhat offsets the apparent lack of mech design. Matches are short (under ten minutes); currently only the “assault” mode, which is deathmatch with a base that can be destroyed (although this never happens before one team is completely eliminated), is available. With only one life per game, pilots will generally use the terrain to hide and strike in groups. Enemy units are spotted for the entire team, which makes covert action even more important. The controls have a learning curve: your current view is independent of which way your mech is facing, and you determine speed and must manually slow down. MechWarrior Online has several weapon classes to choose from (lasers, machine guns, missiles), and you can assign weapons into groups so they all fire at one time for maximum carnage. The damage model is impressive, with individual parts (arms, legs) receiving harm and occasionally becoming removed completely. This also disables weapons mounted to destroyed parts of your mech, which can produce strategic aiming to immobilize specific enemy systems. Heat output must also be managed, so you cannot fire you weapons constantly when under enemy fire as your mech will be disabled for a significant amount of time. The graphics and interface are also done well, immersing you into the futuristic environment. Since the game is free-to-play, you can try it out for free when the open beta begins. Overall, the game delivers solid robot destruction, although some aspects of the free-to-play model are irritating and the game has a learning curve to overcome.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Skylight Gameplay Review

I'm playing Skylight, a procedurally generated jumping game by Moment Studio.

The randomly generated levels Skylight provides adds replay value, although the general layout patterns and steadily increasing difficulty stay the same; a bonus mode is unlocked when you complete the base game. The controls are typical for a first/third person game (WASD to move and the mouse to look), and you can toggle between first- and third-person perspectives. The goal is to bounce on each platform, navigating between them without falling. Landing on each platform produces a note, but the frequency of these sounds is not high enough to make memorable, user-generated music while you play. Piano notes bounce higher, cracked platforms can crumble, and glowing platforms grant an additional life. As you climb, the sky becomes darker and a head-mounted flashlight is used to see where to jump, adding to the high difficulty of the game. I found Skylight to be quite challenging; partially due to my ineptitude but also due, I think, to inexact, slightly inconsistent jumping physics. However, those interested in a challenging, casual, randomly generated jumping game will find their $2.50 well spent.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Blue Libra 2 Gameplay Review

I'm playing Blue Libra 2 , a real-time strategy game by Orator Games.

The game features a thirty-three level campaign where each mission clocks in under ten minutes in length. Each level has a scripted layout and you can’t repeat previously completed missions. A difficulty level can be chosen at the beginning of the campaign, but cannot be altered once you start. Between missions, you can unlock research options that award more command points, faster production, increased attack or defense ratings, or enhanced range. There is no single player skirmish beyond the campaign, although Blue Libra 2 features online multiplayer, but only if you know your opponent’s IP address in advance. The interface is clearly designed for touch screens, but it works well enough with a mouse. Unit paths are drawn on the screen, and splitting groups is accomplished by drawing while holding the shift button. Units are automatically placed in fleets for easier management, and rally points can be assigned to quickly move units as they are built. Units are built automatically as soon as the planet-specific resources are available, which also reduces micromanagement. Your planets and mothership can be upgraded, which increases damage and production speed, but prevents buildings units for a significant amount of time. Planets provide more units and asteroids automatically ship resources to nearby worlds. Units have specific roles on the field of battle and automatically engage any enemy unit in range. Game balance is almost ruined by the static defensive emplacements that cause too many damage and are captured too slowly. The AI is a competent foe, sending appropriately-sized fleets to vulnerable planets. While Blue Libra 2 is relatively simplistic, it is a fast-paced, streamlined, manageable, approachable, and challenging real-time strategy game.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD Gameplay Review

I'm playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, a skateboarding game by Robomodo and Activision.

This game is a remake of Tony Hawk 1 and 2, the latter of which originally came out for the PC in 2000. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD features some notable skaters, though fewer than the original versions and with no create-a-skater mode to expand the content. The game centers around the career mode, although there are also pointless single session and free ride modes, in addition to some more exotic rules unlocked during the career. There are seven levels culled from the original games, unlocked by completing objectives in each map. Unfortunately, unlocked maps are per-skater only, which is annoying but new things open up pretty quickly. The trick shop allows you to use money earned by completing objectives to purchase new moves. Most notably, the PC version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD does not feature any multiplayer: no LAN, nothing online, not even split screen. This is a very disappointing limitation that’s partially justified in the PC version’s lower price. The game also lacks the park editor, another missing feature of the original series. The controls are as they were: grinding, grabbing, ollies, and flipping are all a button press away. The game seems to progress at a slower pace, as I was unable to string together more than about two aerial tricks in a row; I am unsure whether this is due to slower skater speeds or sluggish animations (or poor skill on my part, of course). The level objectives involve attaining score levels, grabbing the elusive DVD, collecting the word “SKATE” and other objects, and performing specific tricks in precise areas. The map shows all of the locations of the collectables, which takes exploration out of the game if you want it to. While Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD runs at a fixed HD resolution of 720p, clipping and inconsistent collision physics and animations make it feel like an older game. The levels themselves look almost identical to their twelve-year-old counterparts, with no added effects to make the presentation more contemporary, and the soundtrack features a mix of old and new songs. While Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD does bring back nostalgic feelings about the original titles, it is a cheap (both in terms of price and quality) replica of those classic games. The lack of multiplayer and tedious unlocking of new content are significant shortcomings, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD feels archaic when compared against more recent Tony Hawk skating games. It is a mostly faithful remake of the first two games in the series, but it's missing several features found in the originals and adds nothing new to the formula to compensate.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Alea Jacta Est Gameplay Review

I'm playing Alea Jacta Est, a grand strategy game by AGEOD

The game covers an interesting period of history: the Roman Civil Wars. Each of the six scenarios (a satisfying amount of content) has two or three fighting factions, with the objective to earn the most victory points by killing enemy units and holding important cities. Compared to AGEOD’s last effort, Pride of Nations, Alea Jacta Est has a more manageable scale and much shorter turn resolution. The tutorial just teaches the basics and instructs the user to read the manual for more information, and multiplayer can only be played by e-mail. The interface is very familiar to any veteran of AGEOD games, receiving no major enhancements. As before, units are organized into large groups containing several to many individual units, and each element is very detailed in its attributes. Leading each group is a commander that also has very detailed attributes that affect movement and performance in battle. Taxes are spent recruiting new units onto the field, and a range of decisions can be made to influence specific territories. Supply lines must be kept, and combat is completely automated but detailed. The AI seems to play the game decently well and is aggressive when needed, while defending when appropriate. While Alea Jacta Est plays very similarly to other AGEOD games, those with an interest in the time period will find their money well spent.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

March to the Moon Gameplay Review

I'm playing March to the Moon, a role-playing action shooter by Califer Games.

This single player game has eight levels in each of four acts, each of which has scripted enemy encounters that reduces replay value. March to the Moon does have impressive customization options: twelve classes (like flame, alchemy, and runes) with nine active and passive abilities each are available, which gives a lot of freedom in choosing your particular skills. There are some repeated themes in the abilities (a basic attack, area attack, improved weapon damage), but some unique abilities are also seen in each class. Eventually, you can pick an additional class, creating a unique character exhibiting different strategies each time you play. The controls for the top-down game are intuitive, and the constantly scrolling screen keeps you moving. Mana must be managed, so tactical use of your most powerful spells is important. The varied enemies (rats, bats, orcs, snakes, robots, and powerful bosses) each have scripted behaviors, but come in high quantities to keep the action constant and the pace flowing. Difficulty can be very high, especially if you choose uncomplimentary abilities. Overall, March to the Moon provides solid value at a $3 price point for fans of a challenging top-down shooter with extensive role-playing skill options.

Monday, September 17, 2012

F1 2012 Gameplay Review

I'm playing F1 2012, a racing game by Codemasters.

Since I previously reviewed last year’s version of the game, this video will primarily concentrate on what’s new. First, the twenty-four drivers and twenty tracks of the 2012 season (including newcomer Circuit of the Americas and returning circuits Bahrain and Hockenheim, with Turkey being removed) are included. The game strives, and succeeds, to be more approachable, with a new Young Driver Test tutorial mode that is done well, and narrated strategy information videos accompany each track. The new champions mode offers multi-lap challenges to pass a specific past champion, and the season challenge cuts the number of events in half while giving you a rival driver you can swap rides with if you defeat him on the track. The multiplayer options remain the same, but the removal of Games for Windows LIVE is welcome. The races offer no noticeable changes to the AI, damage model, or handling, not that any were needed. The improved weather system soaks specific areas of each track, which can produce some interesting racing and important decisions regarding tires. The outstandingly detailed graphics remain and perform quite smoothly. The new game modes are meaningful additions, but owners of last year's F1 effort will find it hard to justify spending $50. Those drivers new to the series, however, will find a rich, approachable simulation well worth the asking price.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tryst Gameplay Review

I'm playing Tryst, a real-time strategy game by Blue Giant Interactive.

The game is more straightforward and more polished but less innovative than the developer’s previous RTS title APOX. The game’s focus is on multiplayer, but there is a three-hour campaign to learn some of the mechanics. The skirmish mode, which can be played against AI bots or online, gives standard customization options, but there are only a few maps and two races. While the humans are very typical in their approach, the alien race allows you to combine some units on the battlefield to produce a more powerful variant, allowing you to change your strategy quickly without having to fully invest in new troops. Tryst has a very fast pace, where you must capture resource points to afford new units and structures. Each map includes annoying environmental hazards, like hostile plants and lava, that cannot be destroyed. Buildings are placed to unlock new units, for defense, or to increase the population cap. The flexible research tree provides several bonuses for each unit in the game, which allows you to tailor your upgrades to the specific units you use the most. All units will run out of ammunition, so you must capture an energy resource location near the enemy base to have any chance at a successful assault. Resource buildings are way too easy to capture, done so quickly even with a single unit. Conversely, the enemy headquarters is way too hard to destroy; even if you have an insurmountable lead in resource and unit production, it is exceedingly difficult to take out an opponent, due to high HQ health and manual ammunition resupply. Tryst is very susceptible to stalemates, which needlessly increases the amount of time it takes to determine a victor. The AI is competent enough at the game, as I was unable to tell the difference between human and computer opponents during online matches. Overall, Tryst is an approachable real-time strategy game that features a number of questionable design decisions that reduce its appeal.