Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SOL: Exodus Review

SOL: Exodus, developed and published by Seamless Entertainment.
The Good: Near constant action, a few ship upgrades, some nice graphics, only $10
The Not So Good: Brief campaign with very repetitive and boring mission design, really precise short-range shooting required, limited 2-D radar, no difficulty settings, no custom skirmish battles, can't save mid-mission, questionable AI, distracting scanning mini-game, limited weaponry, no multiplayer
What say you? Tedious missions, repetitive gameplay, and missing features abound in this space shooter: 4/8

As mainstream gaming seemingly ignores space-based combat games in favor of horse armor and an endless parade of military shooters, the indie developer must continue the tradition of destroying many things in the vacuum of space. As the second such game in the span of two weeks, SOL: Exodus could signal the rebirth of the space combat genre. Or it might be coincidence. Whatever. Anyway, SOL: Exodus brings large-scale battles with capital ships and fighters around our solar system, reminiscent of classic titles like Freespace. Does SOL: Exodus become master of the universe, or get stuck in Uranus?

The graphics of SOL: Exodus are the highlight of the game. The ships are nicely designed with high-resolution textures, and the weapons scream across the map with futuristic fervor. Explosions are a bit repetitive and capital ships break apart in scripted ways, but overall combat looks good. The various backgrounds utilized in each map vary in quality: while asteroids and planets are nothing special, space stations are notably impressive in their level of detail. Overall, SOL: Exodus far exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphical design. Sound is more average, with forgettable but not atrocious voice acting and background music accompanying the chaos of battle. Still, I was pleased with the overall look and sound of SOL: Exodus.

Your job: fighting “religious nutjobs” (a redundant term), after the heroic suicide (complete with “NOOOOO!!!” from your character) of your commanding officer, around the hotspots of our solar system. It's never really explained why you pilot a fighter even after being promoted to commander of the capital ship, but there you are, buzzing around in a tiny ship. The campaign only consists of eight short (around 20 minutes each) missions and SOL: Exodus resorts to lazy mission design, as you are up against lots of inferior fighters. I guess some people think blasting mindless enemies is fun, but I'd rather have less, but more intelligent, opponents myself. The tedious missions send wave after wave of fighters and bombers that mystically appear in mid-air (mid-space?) until the scenario designer decides enough is enough. When a glimmer of variety appears, it is quickly extinguished by yet another wave of enemy fighters. And then, oh look, another wave of enemies. Hooray. The objectives (other than “kill everyone”) are occasionally vague and leave out key instructions (like engaging capital ships with cannons) that may cause you to fail and repeat the entire mission. You can’t, of course, save your progress during a mission, and you can’t, of course, adjust the difficulty. The lack of difficulty settings really irks me, as you could easily increase or decrease the number of enemies. Not all players have the same skill level, so why do developers assume they do? You can make slight upgrades to your guns, hull, and afterburners between levels, but the options are limited there. Once you are done with the campaign, SOL: Exodus is over: there is no customizable skirmish mode and no multiplayer to enjoy. Even for only $10, I would expect more flexibility.

SOL: Exodus lets you control the game using the mouse and keyboard, a gamepad, or a joystick. The game seems to be designed primarily for the mouse and keyboard, though, which is my preferred method of control anyway. Controls are pretty typical, though the thrust is bound to the mouse wheel instead of using WASD for movement (“W” is for missiles, which I kept launching by accident…oopsy!). You can also target the enemy nearest the center of the screen using the spacebar and cycle through enemies using the “2” key; though I did not find a button to choose the closest enemy, the game automatically picks it when your current target is destroyed (although it might choose someone behind you). Your fighter is (only) equipped with three weapons: the machine gun, missiles, and a cannon. The machine gun requires really precise aiming, and a lead indicator for enemy units only appears when you are dangerously close to the enemy. Overheating also commonly occurs, slowing down combat at the most inopportune times. I do like firing missiles, however (hold down “W” until it locks on), but it’s just luck whether the missile hits or not as there are no countermeasures. You can occasionally (when the scenario allows you to through heavy scripting) scan enemy ships and disable or switch systems (missiles, engines) to your side, but in order to do so, you must input a code that slowly appears in the corner of the screen. Excuse me, but I am kind of busy shooting enemies, I don't have time to read and remember a four-letter code.

Engaging enemies in SOL: Exodus is not enjoyable, partially because of the crippled machine gun and partially because of the substandard AI. The 2-D radar makes it really hard to pick out enemies that are located above or below you, and it will quickly become something to ignore. SOL: Exodus is only difficult because of the sheer number of enemies you have to engage simultaneously with little to no help. Luckily (I suppose), the enemy AI is really dumb. They are seemingly given an objective when they spawn and they head straight towards that ship, ignoring you along the way. This is meant, I think, to cover up some odd behavior that AI exhibits when left up to its own devices: enemy pilots like to run into things, don’t return fire or scramble effectively when engaged, and seemingly just waits to get shot. You aren’t given enough missiles for the number of enemies you have to personally dispose of, so you must go back to your mothership occasionally to repair and rearm. If you do happen to come too close to an enemy ship and it shoots you by accident, an escape pod is automatically deployed, giving you another ship after a short delay. How nice! Although, after dealing with the second-rate gameplay, you might not want to respawn.

SOL: Exodus could have delivered massive, impressive, large-scale space combat. Instead, it delivered repetitive missions against lots of magically spawning enemy fighters. Each mission is the same: you start, a certain number of enemy waves come one at a time, and then you move on to the next planet. You are rarely given any meaningful assistance (and if you are, they don't do anything of note), although the fighters are so inert that it doesn't really matter: rarely will they engage you effectively, instead going after their primary objective in a linear flight path. Combat is not fun, thanks to a useless aiming reticule that doesn't appear until you are right on top of an enemy and frequent overheating that is frankly unfair when engaging with so many enemies at once. The 2-D radar is atrocious and disorienting, a grave sin in the 3-D of outer space. The scanning minigame is misplaced and distracts you from fighting all those enemies. The shortcomings don't stop there: there is no skirmish mode, no multiplayer, and you can't even save your game in the middle of a mission. Sure, the graphics are nice to look at, but pretty pictures can only distract you for so long from a space shooter that falls short in so many areas. When the shooting is poor, the AI is poor, the mission structure is poor, the interface is poor, and the features are poor, there's no reason to save the solar system, even for only $10.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oil Rush Review

Oil Rush, developed and published by Unigine Corp.
The Good: Easy control of forces, strategic base capturing with automated unit production, good interface, research tree supports varied tactics, challenging campaign, multiplatform, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Few units and defensive towers
What say you? This fast-paced streamlined real time strategy game features little micromanagement, focusing on larger tactical decisions: 7/8

As a precious limited natural resource, oil is constantly being fought over around the globe. Whether through peaceful diplomatic means or more hostile methods, he who controls the oil controls the world, at least until alternative energy sources become more profitable. Oil Rush is a real-time strategy game that centers on naval battles for black gold, as ships and planes fight over oil platforms scattered throughout the ocean. This game hopes to differentiate itself through more streamlined controls and strategy centered on capturing the aforementioned oil platforms to produce defenses and new units. Does this novel approach still provide strategic depth?

The graphics of Oil Rush are impressive. Being a naval title, you would expect the maritime graphics to be pretty good, and Oil Rush delivers with choppy waves and translucent water where you can see the drowned land below. The few areas that are still above sea level are also quite detailed, with varied environments (desert, arctic) poking out of the water. Bases are animated, with little workers shuttling boxes back and forth for no discernable reason, and the units have a good level of detail when you are zoomed in close. Battle effects are decent enough, although the same death explosion animations are used every time. The sound design is less remarkable: while the combat effects are good, the forced voice acting and occasionally annoying music selections aren’t so stellar. Still, the beautiful graphics carry the high-quality presentation of Oil Rush.

In the future, the Earth is drowned and everyone is fighting over oil. I blame Al Gore. The single player campaign consists of around twenty missions; usually these involve a generic “capture everything” objective, but some time-based defensive or alternative objectives are sporadically offered. The campaign missions can be quite challenging: it occasionally took me a couple of tries before I formulated a successful strategy, thanks to some unbalanced starting conditions and a competent AI opponent. The tutorial is integrated into the campaign, explaining a couple of new units, bases, and abilities with each new mission. Beyond the campaign lies a skirmish mode against the AI: fifteen maps supporting two to four players. You can also play those maps online, using the game’s browser to search for opponents. Finally, it should be noted that Oil Rush works on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems, so all PC users can enjoy the unbridled mayhem.

One of the most important aspects of any strategy game is the interface, and Oil Rush mostly delivers on this count. The technology tree and researched abilities are easy to access, and purchasing and upgrading towers is accomplished by double-clicking on a base. You can send all of your units, a percentage of the available forces, or specific units to an enemy (or friendly) base. Most of the game is actually played from the minimap (where units are moved), and while this method is straightforward, I’d like the minimap to be a bit larger and have icons for different unit types (triangles for planes, squares for heavy ships, et cetera). Because units can only be ordered to other bases, it can be impossible to intercept enemy units, but you can guess where they are headed as units will always travel in a straight line. Oil Rush also features a good number of hotkeys, where you can select your weakest platform or all platforms to send a massive attack. Overall, while there is some small room for improvement, the interface for Oil Rush is solid and implemented well.

Units are automatically produced at your bases, removing one tedious aspect of strategy games (you’re going to build as many units as you can anyway, right?). There are only five types of units in the game: light, medium, and heavy naval units, and light and heavy air units. While this limited variety doesn’t compete with other strategy games that feature more units with nuanced differences, researched upgrades can expand your tactical options. The population cap is determined by the number of bases you have captured, so the side with the most platforms will produce the most units. Units can only be ordered to move to other bases; while some might argue this reduces tactical flexibility, it works well within the confines of the game’s fast-paced, streamlined mechanics. Those bases produce the variety of units, and while it takes some time to capture an enemy or neutral base, a single unit can do it (assuming there are no defenses constructed), so devious tacticians have some choices. Each base should be surrounded by turrets for defense, since you’ll never have enough forces to cover all of your bases and still assault the enemy. The options here are even more limited than the unit selection: one tower for light units, one tower for medium and heavy units, and one tower for air units. However, you can upgrade existing towers to increase damage output and engage more varied units. Towers are constructed using oil, collected at oil platforms that offer no defenses and must be covered by military units alone. Oil can also be spent using special abilities, which are researched using points earned from attacking the enemy. There are several branches on the technology tree you can unlock, including unit and tower upgrades, increased or decreased damage, speeding up production, raising population cap, radar, mine fields, and nukes. Some upgrades have several levels that multiply the effects of the ability. The abilities help to break the mid-game stalemates that are so common in RTS games, and are a welcome addition that offer more strategic options.

Oil Rush features fast-paced, Galcon-style gameplay where bases swap quickly and units die swiftly. The simple unit and turret balance makes it easy (potentially) to counter the enemy: machine guns beat jet skis, and SAMs beat helicopters. Of course, it takes some time to construct these defenses, but you can see the types of bases the enemy owns and then make an educated guess at which units they will use. It is almost impossible to defend everything, which makes the games more interesting overall, as there is almost always a place you can attack your enemy, giving those who are trailing a chance to come back if they attack where their opponents are not defending (especially on larger maps with lengthy transit times). The streamlined nature of Oil Rush makes maneuvering and constructing defenses important, with the use of the right ability at the right time able to tip the balance. The AI opponent is usually quite good: they will routinely attack vulnerable bases where you forgot (or could not afford) to construct bases, crippling your production. There are some oddities when units are attack (running into each other or not engaging enemies immediately), but units do organize and move in formation automatically.

You would think that automating production and individual unit movement would lead to a boring game, but the fast pace of Oil Rush means you’re always busy doing something. You will need to constantly shuttle forces between your bases, engaging incoming threats and taking new objectives. Panic is common in the game because of the ease at which undefended bases can be captured by only a couple of units. This can lead to a cascading effect where the enemy will prevent you from producing new units for a counter-attack by easily capturing undefended unit-producing bases. Towers must be constructed at each newly acquired base, since the enemy could sneak around your heavily fortified front lines and attack from the rear. These towers require oil, and since oil platforms cannot be defended with towers, the most intense conflicts usually involve these structures. The bases you hold produce a variety of units automatically: light, medium, and heavy naval units, plus a couple of flying units. These isn’t much variety here (same with the towers), but it does follow the simplified nature of the game. Units can only be ordered to move to other bases, which greatly reduces confusion during the hectic skirmishes. Researched abilities break stalemates, reducing mid-game tedium and quickening the overall pace of the game. The AI opponent is very competent, repeatedly going after vulnerable bases, and the interface allows you to manage your forces efficiently. The campaign is tough, and skirmish and multiplayer games extend replay value. Finally, Oil Rush looks nice, which is always a final selling point. Oil Rush takes the ideas of real time strategy games, cuts out the fluff, and produces an intriguing streamlined title.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Steel Armor: Blaze of War Review

Steel Armor: Blaze of War, developed by Graviteam and published by UIG Entertainment.
The Good: Includes direct tank control with tactical battles and strategic campaign movement
The Not So Good: Confusing interface, vague tactical orders, questionable AI pathfinding, very insufficient tutorial, only two controllable tanks, no multiplayer
What say you? This strategic tank simulation has good ideas that could have been executed better: 5/8

The military technology of the 70’s and 80’s is largely ignored in strategy and simulation gaming. If it’s not from World War II or modern military hardware, finding an in-depth computerized dissertation is tough. There have been the occasional title that spans these decades (Strike Fighters and The Star and the Crescent come to mind), but these are rare indeed. Hoping to fill this historical gap is Steel Armor: Blaze of War, the latest title from Achtung Panzer developer Graviteam. This combination of direct tank control from inside the metal beasts with dynamic strategic campaigns highlights the Soviet T-62 tank and American M60A1 that were utilized during the Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, and Angola Wars of the 1980’s. Does this simulation drive towards victory, or explode in a blaze of war?

The graphics of Steel Armor: Blaze of War start with the two tanks, which are modeled well. The interiors are 3-D, offering more than just viewpoints, allowing you to look around at the other positions in the tank and subsequently immersing you into the game more. Passengers also bounce up and down as the tank travels over uneven terrain, which actually makes me a little motion sick (especially when looking down weapon sights). The exteriors could use slightly higher texture resolutions, but the models are detailed and the tracks travel convincingly over the ground. The landscapes for the battles include varied foliage and buildings that act as obstacles to engaging the enemy tanks, and the terrain is also a factor. Damage is appropriate: tanks billowing smoke and flames will soon dot the landscape, and buildings collapse when an errant shells impacts their walls. Steel Armor: Blaze of War does have some clipping problems with tanks and the terrain, but overall the graphics are passable. The sound design highlights the fact that tanks are very noisy, as your ears will be pummeled by the constant whine of engines running and turrets rotating. The game also features occasional voice acting (for the Russian tank positions) and really out-of-place music when a battle is loaded. Overall, the graphics and sound aren’t spectacular, but they do not detract from the overall experience either.

Steel Armor: Blaze of War covers three wars from the 1980’s in Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan, and Angola. Each war has its own campaign where you lead your battalions against those of the opposition, taking place in maps that are indicative of the terrain seen in each theatre. The game seems to love to place water-filled trenches in the maps, causing tanks to get stuck more frequently. In addition to the campaigns, you can set up quick battles using the game’s terrible options menu. Steel Armor: Blaze of War also includes a scenario editor (although all of the documentation is in Russian). You can only directly control two tanks in the game, the Russian T-62 and American M60A1, and the game auto-resolves battles involving other units. The features could be more rounded overall: Steel Armor: Blaze of War lacks multiplayer of any kind and the tutorial (which pops up information on each screen) and manual are woefully deficient, increasing the learning curve.

Rather than featuring scripted scenarios in specific locations, Steel Armor: Blaze of War has a dynamic campaign where you move units around a sectioned map and engage the enemy. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are red and the enemy is blue, contrary to Western-developed games. There isn’t really that much strategy to the campaign mode: just move units and attack the enemy. Further decreasing the strategy is the obscene fog of war implemented in the campaign mode: most units cannot see what’s in the next square (just that there may be an enemy), so you usually have to attack simply to see who the enemy might be. Of course, this makes the game more unpredictable since you rarely know what types of units you’ll encounter when the battle begins. The campaign AI is very aggressive and will attack most anything in an adjacent square. I like the dynamic, user-directed manner of the campaign mode, but more strategic decisions would be nice.

Once two units attempt to occupy the same space, a tactical battle is born…if the battle involves one of the two player-controlled tanks, that is. The goal of the tactical battle is to control a majority of the flags, which will give you command of the square on the main campaign map. The first task is to deploy your units, and the game gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the best area to start from. Although you can only directly control two tanks in the game, other types of units may be involved in the battle: anti-tank guns, APCs, infantry, and mortars, to name a few. You can then issue all units simple orders, usually telling them to attack or defend an objective location. There are additional options where you can customize the formation (line or column), unit density, movement rate, and target priorities, but overall the command options are not specific enough. The game fails to display orders on the map, so coordinating your units can be tough. The lack of waypoints also makes coordination difficult, so more options in this area would be appreciated.

As I mentioned several times, you can take direct control of two types of tanks in the game. You can freely switch between any allied tank that can be controlled directly at any time (you can also issue generic movement orders to other tanks in your squad), assuming one of four positions: commander, gunner, loader, and driver. The commander is responsible for spotting targets using his binoculars and range finder (which is hard to use), and can also issue orders to make simple repairs on the tank. The gunner shoots, with the ranges calculated by the commander, using the gun sights and specifying the ammunition type to the loader. The loader is also responsible for manning the exterior machine gun when the tank is opened, and the driver drives. Manning each of these positions is pretty fun, although the mouse-based interface is awkward. You must hold down “control” to select things on the interface or use obscure hotkeys, like “L” for dismount, in order to do stuff with the tank. Add to it the uninformative manual and tutorials and there is a significant learning curve to overcome. That said, the tank aspects of Steel Armor: Blaze of War are done well, with seemingly accurate weapon attributes and damage modeling. The AI is very inconsistent: while it is very good at spotting and engaging enemy targets (it will routinely destroy tanks I can’t even see), the pathfinding is atrocious: the AI driver will go right through trees, houses, and get stuck in ditches unless specifically ordered to stick to the roads (and even then results may vary). This ruins some of the immersion of the sim, as the computer drivers will haphazardly navigate the terrain. It’s a better option to take the wheel yourself and assume the driver role in the tank, since the AI is very competent at engaging the enemy on its own.

I like the idea of Steel Armor: Blaze of War, but the product is lacking in some key areas. The game as a whole is fairly unfriendly to new users, thanks in large part to the unwieldy interface used in each aspect of the game: driving a tank and commanding your troops is much more complicated than necessary. The campaign offers dynamic battles as you maneuver your platoons around the map, capturing objectives and clearing the map; this results in much more replay value in the game’s three wars, plus quick battles for added flexibility. Sadly, you can’t take the fight online, so it’s just you and the computer. The tactical mode allows you to deploy and give basic commands to your troops, but there isn’t enough direct feedback to keep track of all of your units and their orders on the battlefield. The tank simulation aspect of Steel Armor: Blaze of War is decent enough, with accurate weapon characteristics and fully modeled interiors that put you right into the action. However, that interface gets in the way of fluid control and the AI makes some really bad navigational decisions. The learning curve caused by the obtuse interface and lack of comprehensive tutorials will ensure that Steel Armor: Blaze of War will remain a niche entry into the tank strategy and simulation genres.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wreckless Review

The Wreckless, developed and published by Duct Tape Games.
The Good: Massive large scale battles, challenging Newtonian physics, custom skirmish mode
The Not So Good: Usually unfairly outnumbered, limited variety of ships, very brief campaign, lacks multiplayer, lacks polish in some areas
What say you? This combat space flight simulation delivers impressive arcade battles, but is a bit rough around the edges: 5/8

One of the most renowned space combat flight simulations was TIE Fighter, a pleasing mix of stirring battles and movie licensing. Many (well, at least several) games have tried to recapture that spirit, but nothing approaching universal acclaim in the PC gaming world. Leave it up to the independent developers to fill a niche: Duct Tape Games have produced The Wreckless, a space combat game that focuses on large scale battles where you gently influence the outcome with subtle means. You know, by using big freaking lasers. Does this combat-heavy simulation obliterate the competition, or is it simply stuck in drydock?

The Wreckless has opted for cell-shaded graphics, using thick borders for ships (and bright red for enemy vessels for easier identification) and bland textures otherwise. While the choice does make for a distinctive look, it's not that visually impressive as the ship models could have used better textures than the monochrome gray and occasional line of paint. The weapons consist of dots with glowing tracers that do look impressive during large battles, common in the title. Explosions, however, are impressive, with most ships disappearing into a fireball and the larger capital ships breaking up into two or three pieces that disappear soon thereafter. Scenario locations involve the occasional asteroid field and space port with backgrounds that include planets and stars; nothing too notable here. The sound design is fairly standard: understated sound effects and electronic background music accompany the mayhem. The Wreckless does include voice introductions to each level, somewhat impressive for an indie game. Still, The Wreckless delivers an appropriate amount of graphics and sound quality for the $10 price tag.

The Wreckless has you protecting the titular capital ship around the universe of the course of around fifteen campaign missions. While the missions have different objectives, most boil down to attacking all the enemy ships while defending all the friendly capital ships. Being a combat-only title obviously limits the variety The Wreckless has to offer, since there are no mining or exploration elements to be found (though asteroids are commonly present as obstacles). The missions are also very short (on the order of five minutes or so) and you can’t save mid-mission, but since most of the scenarios are so short, it really doesn't matter too much. The game could also supply some better instructions in some scenarios, as I am sometimes on the attack too early or too late, leading to early defeat by not fulfilling occasionally vague objectives. You can customize the difficulty by adjusting friendly and enemy ship populations…to an extent. Even when setting the enemies at the minimum and friendlies at the maximum value, you can still be greatly outnumbered. If you’re going to give the player the ability to adjust the number of enemy and friendly ships, make it so they can change it to completely unfair populations in either direction, instead of restricting them within small windows. Your ships include fighters and bombers; although most scenarios have capital ships present, you cannot directly control them, which is a bit disappointing. “Research” can be conducted between missions, but it is simply unlocking a new ship class for the next scenario. The Wreckless also offers a skirmish battle simulator for campaign-free combat. You can customize four different ship squads and one capital ship type, with up to eight vessels in each squad, but while having more ships leads to more impressive battles, it also makes for more chaos, as the default (and unchangeable) initial spacing is clearly not designed for so many ships, with most vessels running into each other for the first seconds of a skirmish battle. You can’t have better results online, as The Wreckless lacks multiplayer of any kind.

The Wreckless relies on tradition first person shooter controls: the WASD keys, plus boosting (using shift) and braking using the spacebar. Given the chaotic nature of the game’s battles, this method works well and is intuitive. Ships are equipped with shields, which regenerate very slowly, and the hull. It only takes a couple of direct hits to destroy a vessel, and capital ships have a surprisingly low amount of health and can be easily defeated by a squadron of fighters (which is part of the reason why it's so easy to fail the missions, since your capital ship also has low health). When your ship is destroyed, you can thankfully continue the scenario in any ship from your squad. Ships are equipped with cannons, missiles, and bombs; a lead indicator is provided to assist in targeting, and a missile lock is eventually granted if enemy ships are kept in the crosshairs. You can press the “R” key to target the closest enemy unit, useful in the heat of battle. Because most combat involves guns (due to limited supplies of missiles and lengthy lock-on times), The Wreckless emphasizes strafing during battles to avoid the incoming hail of bullets, a tactic employed most commonly in first person shooters. The Wreckless employs a physics model that preserves momentum; although you can apply brakes (which fire rockets in the opposite direction), you’ll keep moving even when you let off the gas. The result is interesting flight combat with plenty of ships and bullets screaming past your view. While the AI holds its own during battles, producing a spectacular array of lasers and missiles, the computer-controlled ships aren't quite as adept at holding position or avoiding environmental objects when they have been given strict scripted commands by the scenario designer, constantly running into each other or asteroids until they become spaced out. The AI also seems to attack the closest enemy ship, rather than prioritizing the current objective. Because of this, success in most missions is highly dependent on your actions, which can be difficult to complete due to the typically high number of enemy ships to contend with.

The highlight of The Wreckless, the battles, are done well, but the rest of the package lags behind. Utilizing a physics-based momentum system, the battles are large and dogfight-heavy, using guns more than missiles, producing delightful combat. The first person shooter control scheme works well in this context, and it's my preferred method of engaging the enemy. The Wreckless includes fighters and bombers that the player can control, and large capital ships that are less than formidable. The AI, while it attacks well, does a poor job prioritizing targets based on current objectives, leading to a lot of failed missions as you simply can't engage and defend every important target simultaneously. Shortcomings in the AI are also evident when enemies are not present, with the various ships running into each other and flying out of formation in strange directions. The campaign is short and repetitive, offering up the same “attack everyone while defending” objectives each time out. You can customize the difficult by increasing the number of friendly ships while decreasing the enemy's, but in some cases it's not enough to offset unfair odds or poor instructions. The skirmish mode is a bit limited and multiplayer is not present. Still, I think fans of action-packed space flight sims will overlook the unrefined aspects of the game and instead will focus on the pleasing combat, which, for $10, does deliver some space-bound thrills.

Friday, January 13, 2012

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction Review

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction, developed by Team 6 Game Studios and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Multiple game modes
The Not So Good: Unpredictable physics with inconsistent damage and poor car handling, annoyingly stupid AI drivers, most innovative stunt modes removed, uninspired track design, nearly impossible to place first and unlock new content
What say you? The latest entry in the arcade racing series is a sad shadow of its former self thanks to truly atrocious racing: 2/8

One of the better arcade car racing game series of the past was FlatOut. The combination of fast speeds, lots of environmental destruction, online multiplayer, and highly entertaining physics-based minigames (my personal favorite was the poker game where you had to eject your driver through the windshield towards playing cards to make the best hand; curling is a close second) produced a unique title. Well, the series is back, under the direction of a different developer, in FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction. Well, the game certainly promises both chaos and destruction; let’s see if it delivers on both counts.

FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction manages to have worse graphics than Ultimate Carnage, which came out three years ago. Overall, this entry lacks the crispness seen previous games in the series, through the overuse of bloom, imbuing all of the tracks and cars with a soft fuzziness that doesn’t work well. The car models are quite poor, especially when damaged, lacking crisp textures and decent effects when crashing begins. The repetitive explosion effects become tiresome, and the bland track designs lacks the varied trackside detail of before and are also inundated with inadequately detailed texturing in some cases (although some locations, such as Rome, don't look too bad). The sound design is along the same lines: grating, repetitive sound effects and forgettable music accompany the on-screen mayhem. The switch to a different developer certainly didn’t keep the graphical fidelity of the previous games intact.

Following in the footsteps of its ancestors, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction is an arcade racing game with fast speeds and destruction a-plenty. While the game lacks a career mode following a single character, there are plenty of game modes to choose from: the standard race, a series of specific challenges, a damage-based offroad mode, nightshifts (a one-on-one mode in rain that makes the handling even worse, if that was ever possible), speed (fast cars without a handbrake, where you go just as fast in the sand as on the track), monstertrucks (all one word), demolition derby, and a stunt mode that removes all of the entertaining minigames found in the previous games. There are six locations (in exotic locations like “Vienna” and “Detroit”), usually with two tracks and two reverses of those two tracks each. The tracks are nothing special: layouts occasionally feature crossovers like a figure eight race (a great idea in a game such as this), but then require you to drive a car up stairs (a terrible idea in any situation), so it all balances out in the end. Unfortunately, you have to finish first to unlock the next race, something that is next to impossible (unless you put the game on easy with four AI opponents) given the number of cars per race and the propensity of the AI drivers to continually run into you. You can join and host races online, which is easy to do thanks to the game browser, but (not surprisingly) the online population is quite low and thus races are tough to come by.

Racing games would be quite boring without cars, and FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction has some, divided into several classes and rated according to handling, acceleration, speed, and strength, although I did not see any noticeable differences between cars in the same class. You can also automatically tune your car for added speed or strength, further customizing your ride. One significant problem for FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction is that the cars are not fun to drive. At all. The problem is cornering: every single car in the game grips the ground at all times (except when airborne, of course), requiring you to go really slow or use the handbrake when turning. There is absolutely no drifting (unless you equip the "drift" tuning kit, and then the cars are impossible to control) without manually pressing the handbrake button, and even then it’s pretty understated. This goes for any of the game options: the slower "classic" mode, the fast "chaos and destruction," and the setting in the middle. I realize it’s an arcade game, but when I crank a wheel all the way to the left when going 150 miles per hour, I might spin out just a bit. Or actually turn. So much for going “flat out”.

The physics engine is just as bad. Running into things (a goal of the FlatOut series) is not recommended, as it might send you spinning or crashing in some seemingly random direction. Jumps are also inconsistent: sometimes landing will be fine, but most of the time you'll fly off at some insane angle. It used to be fun running into stuff along the track. Now, you'll probably flip over or go airborne, so it's best to avoid everything you see. Boost now is mainly gained by passing checkpoints rather than causing damage to the environment: boring. You’ll probably want to avoid running into other cars, too. In previous FlatOut games, the car that was traveling faster would deliver more damage: very predictable. Here, it seems to be completely random: you might broadside a stationary car and deliver 1% damage while getting 30%, or gently scrape another vehicle and completely destroy it. The woeful AI doesn’t help matters: the first thing the computer drivers do at the start of any race is head towards the closest car and instantly explode. Seriously: I started a “speed” race and half the field blew up three seconds into the race in a gigantic heap at the center of the track. The AI would rather run into each other than actually drive towards the finish line, which is not the best tactic during a race. Demolition derbies become a mass of cars in the center of the track, running into each other in a gigantic heap, causing randomized damage to each other. In the objective-based monstertrucks mode, your teammates have no idea what an "objective" is and would rather run into you the entire time. When AI cars are away from one another, they are competent drivers, staying on the track and driving at appropriate speeds. However, get two cars near each other and all bets are off. You really have to see this stuff to believe it. It borders on comical how inept the AI drivers are in FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction.

When a racing game has poor AI and random driving physics, what are you left with? A whole lot of nothing, that's what. First off, the AI is terrible: they would rather ram into each other than actually race to the finish, which is detrimental in a racing game. You can very easily get stuck against an AI car or any number of alleys by the track side, plummeting your position in the race. The physics are unpredictable; I certainly don’t mind over-the-top jumps and flips common in arcade racing games, but the results have to be consistent or the game loses all validity. FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction actually discourages chaos and destruction, as the consequences of running into exploding barrels and other objects are random at best: you might be fine, or you might flip over and have to respawn. One of the best aspects of the series, environment damage, has been essentially removed. And since the game requires you to finish in first place to unlock the next event, it's better to simply avoid everything instead of having fun making a mess, part of what the series was all about. Damage is woefully inconsistent: slight crashes may cause little damage or completely total your car, and slamming into the competition seemingly involves random dice rolls to determine who gets destroyed, instead of relying on predictable methods like who was traveling faster. Car handling is weak, as high grip makes cornering impossible without constant use of the handbrake. Cars will never break loose when taking a corner, and staying glued to the track means each car in the game is outrageously painful to drive as you must take each corner very slowly. In addition, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction actually looks worse than its predecessor. It’s not all bad news: FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction comes with eight racing modes, some of which aren’t direct copies from the previous games (although my favorite stunt modes are curiously absent). Also, online racing is handled well, if there were more people to race against. But, in the end, there is absolutely no reason to get FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction instead of FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage, as it adds nothing new and actually offers significantly worse racing. In short, FlatOut 3: Chaos & Destruction does not deserve the once-proud moniker of the series.

Monday, January 09, 2012

X-Plane 10 Review

X-Plane 10, developed and published by Laminar Research.
The Good: Impressive clouds and terrain with accurate roads and fully 3-D buildings, authentic implementation of air traffic control, improved flight model features for plane designers, human-voiced AI planes
The Not So Good: No new planes, some AI plane issues, expensive, erratic performance, steep learning curve for newcomers
What say you? A better version in a solid flight simulation series, but a very hard sell for casual users of previous versions.
For owners of X-Plane 9: 5/8
For newcomers to the series: 7/8

It’s been 3 ½ years since X-Plane 9 was released, which still stands as my preferred flight simulator. Why, you ask? First, it uses actual physics to determine how the planes perform (instead of pre-set values in a text file), allowing actual aeronautical engineers to test fly their designs before actually building them. This also allows for a wide range of aircraft to be developed by the community using the game’s design tools, behaving as it should in the sky. As with most things, improvements can also be made, so now it’s time for X-Plane 10 to taxi to the runway. Earmarked at a pricey $80, the newest version promises better scenery, more frightening weather, improved air traffic control, an improved flight model, and the ability to use multi-core processors. Grab your joysticks and let’s see if the new version has enough to offer.

As in most flight simulation sequels, the majority of improvements in X-Plane 10 are visual. Most apparent is the use of full 3-D scenery, not just the ugly-looking occasional building seen in X-Plane 9, that follows the roads as they snake through the landscape. The result is very plausible cities: it's really neat to fly over fully 3-D houses in residential areas, and generated skyscrapers in more urban locales. X-Plane 10 also includes real roads, culled from the Open Street Map Project, that look a whole lot better than those previously offered in the simulation. Included are overpasses at expressway intersections, bridges, and traffic that careen down the highways and byways. It looks pretty great, although it seems similar surface textures are used, which look good from a distance but lose some of their crispness up close. In addition, airports still lack terminals (even when on the maximum settings), which reduces some of the immersion (except for Seattle, the location of the demo, of course). Also improved are the clouds, which are now made up of individual puffs of smoke to create some fantastic looking visuals. All of these impressive visuals come at a price, however, as I found performance to be all over the place. While the game doesn’t run as fast as I would have liked (it never does), the disparity between rural locations and urban environments in terms of frame rates is quite high; you need a pretty monstrous machine to crank X-Plane 10 at the highest settings. And I don't know what “asynchronous loading” is, but it sure takes a long time to finish. The sound design is mostly the same, except for the ATC and AI plane voices, which are actual humans this time around. Sure, there are only about two different voices used, but it sounds a lot better than the stock text-to-voice computer.

So, what else is new? Ironically, one area of X-Plane 10 that seems to be untouched is the actual planes themselves: I did not find one new airplane model that was not present in X-Plane 9. While the game still offers an eclectic, well-rounded selection of thirty planes, they are the same thirty planes as before, lacking even subtle improvements to the instrument panels or textures. Even though the scenery got marked improvements, the interiors and exteriors of the planes in the game sadly remain the same. I guess the developer is now relying on the community to design content to expand the game. Speaking of, I had about a 75% success rate importing planes from X-Plane 9 using the included Plane Maker. And speaking of, the editing software do have some improvements for aspiring airplane designers: features describing the weight balance, landing gear angles, and other flight statistics are now included to produce more accurate models.

And speaking of (the flight model), X-Plane 10 has a lot of technical stuff that casual users won’t even notice, but plane designers will like as it will result in more authentic creations. What types of things, you say? Noticeable wing deflection, improved jet engines, an enhanced hydraulic system, and more detailed electrical systems, among others. So that’s nice.

The other major feature of X-Plane 10 is much improved air traffic control. Instead of using computerized voices and offering only occasional clearance and landing instructions, the system has undergone a complete overhaul. Now, you have to dial to the correct frequency (which you can look up by clicking on an airport on the local map), file your flight plan, and request clearance. Then, ground control will give you directions to the active runway (complete with arrows superimposed onto the ground) and hand you off to the tower when you approach the runway. The tower will then had you off to center, and they will give you vectors when landing at the airport of your choice. Sure, this is all stuff that was present in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series eight years ago, but it’s a welcome addition here. The ATC is not without its problems: some of the gates and ramps used on the ground are bugged (showing programming code instead of calling them by name), occasionally the runways switch and the clearance controller forgets to approve your flight plan, and the air traffic controller is very impatient if you don’t descend immediately when instructed. Still, overall the system works.

The addition of AI planes with their own flight plans makes interacting with air traffic control even better, since you will routinely have to wait for other planes to land and take off. It goes a long way towards making X-Plane 10 more authentic, even with only a handful of other planes in the air. The AI planes undergo the same physics calculations as your plane does, handled on different processors. I don’t know if that’s really necessary, but it does mean that they will be subject to the same windy conditions you are when appropriate. The AI planes can be bad at holding altitude or staying on course, and they will be subject to constant reminders from the air traffic controllers, spamming the radio frequencies and becoming annoying to listen to rather quickly.

X-Plane 10 has two big features: improved scenery and air traffic control with AI planes. The use of 3-D buildings, accurate roads, and detailed clouds offers a definite visual improvement over X-Plane 9. Despite that, the planes remain untouched, and hopefully new designs using the improved editing tools will be uploaded shortly by the extensive community. Performance can always be better and more consistent; most flight simulators significantly push hardware, and X-Plane 10 is no exception. The enhanced air traffic control makes for a more genuine experience, requiring you to manually dial in to the correct frequencies. The addition of AI planes also makes for a more interesting game, as you must wait for and fly past computer-controlled aircraft. There are some issues with the AI planes (constantly being corrected by the air traffic controller, for one), but these are minor and should hopefully be eliminated in future patches. Is X-Plane 10 a better product? Certainly. Is it $80 better? Not for most users. While dedicated virtual pilots can justify investing $80 into a new version every three and a half years, the improvements are really not that significant for casual users. X-Plane 10 isn’t the most novice-friendly flight simulation, lacking explicit tutorials and in-game flight planning instructions, but it is the most flexible. While new scenery and ATC alone might not validate an $80 investment, the product as a whole is still my preferred choice for virtual piloting due to its flight model and overall feature set.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Time of Fury Review

Time of Fury, developed by Wastelands Interactive and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined approach better for novices, interesting events, can control multiple countries of your choosing, some alternative scenarios, central play by e-mail server
The Not So Good: Excruciating slow pace with long turn resolutions, tedious unit movement and combat, inefficient interface, oversimplified diplomatic and research options
What say you? This World War II turn-based grand strategy game is simplified, sluggish, and sometimes unwieldy: 5/8

World War II, it seems, is still hot property. While the first person shooter has turned its attention towards Modern Battlefield Warfare, strategy games still cling to the 70-year-old global conflict. Whether it is familiarity, or the fact that there simply hasn’t been an interesting-enough war since then, World War II is here to stay, at least until World War III. Whereas some strategy games lets you control individual units in small battles, the grand strategy featured in Time of Fury focuses on the larger picture: guiding your country towards ultimate victory. By maneuvering units, researching technologies, and conducting diplomacy, each nation hopes to be on top at the end. Does Time of Fury stand out in the grand strategy class?

Time of Fury features one of the better looking maps for a grand strategy game. The hex tiles are nicely varied in appearance, with forested locations blending well into the rest of the landscape. Even the more barren tiles are still textured, instead of being painted with a single color. Although you can tell the map is hex-based (especially around the coast), it's not as obvious as in some other hex-based titles that consist of flat edges and single painted-on icons for terrain. The unit sprites also look good; although they are not in 3-D, they are easily identified based on appearance. There are subtle differences between divisions and corps and units of different experience levels. There are no combat animations, however, as defeated units simply disappear, which is a bit disappointing. The interface isn't the slickest thing on the market (icons seem to be haphazardly placed along the side and top of the screen, sometimes overlapping), but it gives instant access to all of the pertinent game screens. Finding units is a bit tough: you are given a large list of all your military units, which is nice but basically unusable; I'd like to have a “next unit” button to cycle as well. Also, most of the screen displays unnecessarily obscure the game map, especially because most of them have a lot of empty space that could have reduced the size of the windowed overlay. Still, Time of Fury keeps most information only one click away. The sound design is pretty basic stuff: some generic battle effects and orchestral background music to accompany your domination of Europe. Overall, Time of Fury gives an above average presentation for the genre.

The grand campaign of Time of Fury starts at the onset of World War II, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The game is turn-based, featuring week-long turns that are resolved one country at a time. Victory points are earned for holding strategic cities, and the game ends when time runs out or only one alliance is left standing. Not only does Time of Fury feature a historical grand campaign, but a number of variants and smaller (but still huge, 300-turn adventures) scenarios are available. For example, one setup places Germany's forces next to France instead of Poland, or you can join the action later in the war in 1940, 1942, 1944, or during Operation Barbarossa, with a choice of placing Germany's plan in northern or southern Russia. There are also two small scenarios that just concern the invasion of Poland or Operation Overlord in Normandy. All of the campaigns are inherently unbalanced: the German units are much more powerful at the start of each front (thanks to extreme bonuses in efficiency), so the strategy for the Allies and the Comintern is the same: delay. While it might not be historically accurate, I think a more evenly-matched game would be more interesting (and certainly more fair online). What is interesting, however, is the ability to control one or several of the thirty nations in the game. This means you can control, say, Finland and Sweden, or Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, giving you more to do as minor nations helping the major powers. While Time of Fury is fairly basic in terms of mechanics, the tutorials only offer a very brief glimpse into the game and could have been more comprehensive. Multiplayer uses the same system as Battlefield Academy: play by e-mail hosted on a central server. It works quite well for a turn-based game such as Time of Fury, and makes it so that the players don't have to worry about e-mails saved turn files, as it's all handled internally. Overall, Time of Fury offers generally well-rounded features for a grand strategy game.

Taking place at such a large scale, Time of Fury features only divisions and corps of units, divided into infantry, motorized, and armored types. Air fighters, strategic bombers, and tactical bombers, along with a host of naval craft (carriers, battleships, cruisers, subs, transports, and landing craft) are also included. Even with things kept at this level, you still have a lot of units to deal with spread out over a large area. Each unit is rated in overall strength, derived from experience and efficiency. A commander can be placed in charge of important corps, although their affect is very minimal and only make a difference in really close battles. Production points earned by holding cities are used to purchase new units (deployed at any friendly city after a lengthy construction time), repair existing units, or upgrade the type (from basic infantry to a motorized division, for example) or level (increasing the strength) of a unit. While Time of Fury does not allow you to customize or mix unit types (you cannot stack units, either), the simplified approach makes it easier to get a handle on your army's capabilities.

Time of Fury features fog of war, preventing you from scouting units beyond a couple of hexes from your borders. You might see gigantic question marks marching around the map, but you won't know what they are until an attack is made. Weather and supply can also affect your troops. Supply isn't anything to normally worry about: just keep an open path from each unit to a city and things will hum along nicely. Things are more complicated for nations that rely on goods from overseas (namely Great Britain), as convoys can be raided by naval units. The three alliances will be vying for additional international friends, and the crux of the diplomatic game is spending points persuading nations to join your cause. This, sadly, is the limit of diplomacy in Time of Fury: you can delay or hasten your own entry into an alliance, and the same for other countries, but that's about it. Research is equally limited: you can invest production points to accelerate research in a specific area (infantry, tanks, aircraft, subs, navy, and nuclear), but gaining levels to unlock better units is all automatic and ultimately not that interesting. Countering these limited features are events, which are great. Usually every turn, one or several decisions will happen, and you must decide on a choice. The nice thing is that most choices have tradeoffs (more defenses in exchange for less production points, for example), so events aren't always “you get an extra unit”-type outcomes. This is a solid and enjoyable part of the game.

Because of the limited nature of the diplomacy and technology, most of your time in Time of Fury is spent moving units and ordering new ones. Each unit has a number of action points that can be spent on movement and attacks; units can only attack after moving if they traverse a short distance. The copious amounts of rail lines can be used to move units instantly to any other rail-connected location, limited by the number of transport points available. Transport is also available over the ocean, but it takes an extra turn to load and unload units. In land combat, units in surrounding hexes can engage a single foe, and since you need an overwhelming force for a successful attack (at least 5:1 odds), you have to surround enemy units on multiple sides to execute a successful attack. This means you have to plan out your attacks, even if you have a vastly superior force. Sea battles are not automated, allowing you to move, attack, or withdraw with any of the ships in your fleet on a set of ocean hexes. The AI in Time of Fury is good at picking appropriate places to attack and going after important cities, using the game rules to go after victory. I did not observe any questionable behavior during my time in Europe.

Time of Fury tries to take a somewhat more simplified approach to the grand strategy game and the result is a mixed bag. The huge game map features large-scale division- and corps-sized units, but you still have a lot to keep track of in larger countries. Adding in air and naval combat and things get even more complex. This is simply the nature of the beast, as a game at this scale must feature lots of units to recreate the historical battle lines. It's not on the same mammoth scale as, say, War in the East, but it is still a lot to absorb and the interface does no favors in locating units in peril. The units themselves are rated in strength, experience, and efficiency, and production points earned from key cities can be used to order new units, call in reinforcements, or upgrade existing ones. Success in combat needs almost overwhelming (5:1) odds, reducing the effectiveness of non-Axis nations until the German war machine simply gets ground down by constant battles and marching. Turns take a while to resolve, several minutes per in-game week, as the AI attacks vulnerable flanks of your army with decent efficiency. Diplomatic and research options are quite underwhelming, exchanging depth for simple alliance-based coercion and money-based technology acceleration. Time of Fury gives you a number of starting dates and alternative setups for the war, from Germany invading France first to a more northerly attack on Russia. Interestingly, you can choose more than one nation to command (even from opposing alliances), allowing you to control several minor nations and influence the war in more subtle ways without being completely bored. Events are, I think, the most intriguing part of Time of Fury, giving you important decisions with no “right” choice, so the game can develop ahistorically if you so choose. While the tutorials are too brief, play by e-mail is hosted on a central server to eliminate any manual file swapping, a continuation of the brilliant feature seen in other Slitherine titles. While Time of Fury is approachable, the user-friendly nature of the game is offset by the large scale, slow pace, and some oversimplified features.