Monday, April 30, 2012

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe Review

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, developed and published by iosoftware.
The Good: Loads of maps, solid AI, retro gameplay, nice graphical style, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Completely derivative, spotty interface, no online play, no map editor
What say you? An almost exact replica of Heroes of Might and Magic 2: 5/8

They say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and computer gaming is full of copycats that come out soon after a major hit: a pioneering title is often succeeded by a deluge of substandard fluff, hoping to cash in on the new craze. A hallmark of fantasy turn-based strategy gaming was unleashed on the world in 1996: Heroes of Might and Magic 2. This title successfully combined heroes (that gain experience over time), might (with tactical battles), and magic, too. Plus, elements of 4X strategy (with exploration) was included for good measure. It’s been 15 (!) long years since the original series made its mark on PC gaming, so I dare say its time for a revisit. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe comes to the personal computer by the way of iPhone and iPad (whatever those things are), promising a healthy reinvigoration of a classic game.

Like pretty much everything in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, the graphics are strongly reminiscent of a certain classic fantasy turn-based strategy game. That said, I do like the relatively high-resolution 2-D sprites that are used. The map terrain, buildings, and other scenery features look nice (though they are occasionally too small) and create a pleasing backdrop for your adventures. The units also have a lovely level of detail, although the animations during battle could be more fluid. I also enjoy the paintings used for your castle strongholds, with new structures added in when they are built. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe certainly makes the case for preferring attractive 2-D graphics over a bland, blocky 3-D presentation. The sound design isn’t as enjoyable, however, with decent music overshadowed by basic, repetitive effects during movement and battle; the groan emitted when units are injured gets tiresome quickly. Still, Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe delivers some nice visuals that will evoke strong feelings of nostalgia.

Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does not feature a campaign, but does have over seventy maps where heroes will fight each other for domination. The maps are evenly divided between those offering more exploration and more action, and have a nice assortment of sizes as well. Usually, a map has a “kill everyone” objective, but occasionally alternative victory conditions are included, such as a time limit. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does not feature a map editor or randomized layouts (which probably wouldn’t have been as interesting anyway) to extend the life of the product, but it will take you quite a while to run through all of the map content the game has to offer. Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does let other humans join your game, but only if you are playing on the same machine, as there is no internet play to enjoy. The game is available on both Windows and Macintosh systems (plus obviously inferior mobile platforms), and has a tutorial plus plenty of messages to guide you in your early adventures.

The interface of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe leaves a lot to be desired, with shortcomings in several areas. The master list of heroes and castles utilized in Heroes of Might and Magic 2 is not present here: your only tool is the “tab” key, which only cycles between heroes. The map cannot be zoomed in or out or rotated, which can make finding some of the smaller location icons difficult. Some important items, like spells and resources, don’t come with tool-tips to explain what they are or what they do. The left-click heavy interface makes moving and selecting accidentally commonplace: clicking on a hero does not select it, instead issuing the currently selected hero to move to the other hero’s location. Units are not given health bars during combat (you must right-click on them to get detailed information), and it’s terribly difficult to gauge the relative strength of armies before combat: I can see that’s a pack of ghosts, but are they stronger than my army? You also can’t change the screen resolution, although I accidentally stumbled upon the ability to put the game in a window when I was trying to record a video (it’s the F11 key, by the way). I never did get the video to record, though. Finally, pressing the “quit” button doesn’t, which I think speaks volumes for the areas of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe that could be improved.

There are seven heroes in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe that can lead troops, which is only one more than Heroes of Might and Magic 2 (the Varagian is the only new addition, while the other heroes are exactly the same). Each hero is rated in several areas, including attack, defense, spell power, mana, travel points, morale, and luck. As you fight battles and gather treasure chests, your heroes will level up, unlocking two choices (again, identical to Heroes of Might and Magic 2) that can improve spell abilities, attack, or defense. You can also collect artifacts scattered on the map that generally do the same thing. The units you lead are plentiful, although they either perform ranged or melee attacks, and may fly if so inclined. It’s disappointing that something innovative couldn’t have been added in Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe.

Each of the game’s 70-or-so maps contain various things to find scattered around the map. These include treasure (which can be exchanged for experience or gold), artifacts, one-time or continuous resources, or buildings that offer stat upgrades. Most of these locations are free for the taking, but some are guarded by enemies that must be dealt with first. Resources (gold, wood, gems, iron, and others) are used to buy troops or buildings in your castle that produce specific units, unlock more spells, improve defense, or trade resources. You can build one structure per turn, and lower-level buildings unlock better versions. There is enough variety in building types to allow for different strategies when upgrading your strongholds. Units also need to regenerate over time, so you can’t simply recruit as many units as you can afford. The non-gold resources can be difficult to gather, so you may have to resort to the unreasonable trade the game offers, exchanging significant amounts of gold for one gem or iron.

You’ll need to fight things, and Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe includes tactical battles for this very purpose. During the battles, you’ll move units, attack enemy units, and use spells. Basically, you’ll screen your ranged or magic units with melee fighters and slowly wear down the enemy health. Like units are grouped together, but they have individual health (which is not displayed as health bars, requiring you to right-click on a unit to see how much health the most wounded unit has), which is a bit counter-intuitive. Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out how good your army really is: a 30-skeleton squad with only two health per unit is weaker than a 8-mage squad with twelve health per unit, but it doesn’t look like it at first glance. The spells only make a minor impact on the battle: slow mana regeneration only allows your commanding hero to cast one (maybe two) spells per battle until you increase his or her mana pool significantly. As for the AI, it plays the game well: it attacks vulnerable buildings, scopes the landscape for useful items, and will retreat from battle when appropriate. There are instances when computer-controlled heroes will simply stand there and not move, but these are relatively rare.

If you liked Heroes of Might and Magic 2, then you’ll like Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, because it’s essentially the same game. It has the same heroes (with one new addition), a lot of the same spells, a lot of the same map items, a lot of the same castle structures, a lot of the same units, and the same structure for tactical battles. Basically, the developers were trying to remake the original game on modern machines, and they succeeded. While this is a strike against innovation, Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does preserve what made Heroes of Might and Magic 2 so great. The few areas of the game that are actually different vary in quality. I found the AI to be quite competent at the game mechanics and behave intelligently throughout the game. The map count is satisfyingly high with over seventy creations to explore, though the absence of a map editor means the total will stay at that number. While Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe does feature hot seat competition, there isn’t any online play, which is disappointing. I do like the detailed art style of Palm Kingdoms 2 Deluxe, though I bemoan the inability to zoom or change the screen resolution. The interface is some messy combination of mobile and desktop conventions with a restrictive reliance on left-clicking and inconsistent use of tooltips that never feels smooth. In the end, I would like at least some improvements to be brought to the table instead of a constant, pervasive feeling of déjà vu.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

Risen 2: Dark Waters, developed by Piranha Bytes and published by Deep Silver.
The Good: Varied item types, buried treasure and voodoo
The Not So Good: Repetitive and dull auto-aimed combat lacks depth and skill, enemies routinely forget they are attacking you, occasionally vague quest details, linear mission order with lots of tedious mandatory sub-quests, slow character growth with expensive training that injures you, generally useless allies, unfair difficulty, imprecise item interaction, some graphical bugs
What say you? This pirate role-playing game is lacking in far, far too many areas: 2/8

Pirates and role-playing games are seemingly made for each other. Many people would like to be pirates, going on grand adventures around the seven seas, without having to worry about scurvy and alcoholism (though heavy drinking would produce a more authentic experience). We’ve seen several combinations in the past, such as (personal favorite) Sea Dogs and Risen, a convenient reference since we are looking at the second Risen game, entitled Risen 2: Dark Waters. So grab your rum and parrot (don’t confuse the two, or you’ll end up with a wet shoulder and feathers in your teeth) and let’s see if Risen 2: Dark Waters advances the role-playing genre.

Risen 2: Dark Waters is a mixed bag in the graphics department. There are some highlights: character faces look nice, and a majority of the buildings and ships are well designed and have high-resolution textures. Fire is also done well. However, the rest of the character models could use more detailed textures, and the animations alternate between being too stiff or overly dramatic. Characters also typically clip into themselves and other objects, ruining the immersion. Blood effects are underwhelming as well. In addition, there are some noticeable bugs, such as flickering shadows (especially with trees) and foliage that magically expands outward as you walk towards it. Background objects are also very fuzzy and objects pop in to view, even if the game is on the maximum graphical settings. On the sound side of things, Risen 2: Dark Waters includes uninspired battle effects and a wide range of voice acting quality. Humorously, the game tries to have NPC characters talk to each other as you pass by, but the game recycles the same conversations (so you hear the same thing every time) for a specific set of characters. Even worse, characters will stop mid-banter after you pass by and resume at the same point minutes later if you walk past again. It’s like the characters are saying “here he comes, start talking again!”, and then “he’s gone, let’s stand here and wait for him to pass again”. The game also relies on unnecessarily salty language (I get it’s a pirate game, but it serves no point) that is occasionally poorly translated. The music sits in the background and increases in volume when the inevitable attacks start, but it is instantly forgettable. Overall, Risen 2: Dark Waters is too inconsistent to provide solid graphical and sound design.

You are the nameless hero, doing pirate things in a pirate port of. The story has you infiltrating a really nice bunch of pirates (they are quite welcoming to anonymous newcomers such as yourself) because some important guy told you to. The campaign consists of a linear set of mandatory quests that must be completed in a specific progression, in order to unlock the next set of linear quests. There are commonly quests within quests within quests, usually involving fetching a thing to fetch another thing; indeed, Risen 2: Dark Waters features too many “go here and talk to this guy” missions (and “this guy” usually tells you to go talk to someone else first), none of which are fun. A small assortment of side quests may be activated by talking to other characters, although most of them are incorporated into the main storyline and must be completed eventually anyway (although you can finish them early if you stumble upon them). Typically, scripted conversations with other characters feature options (persuasion, for example) that you can’t even use because you haven’t leveled up enough yet; the game should know that, at an early point of the story, you can’t possibly have a 10 “silver tongue” rating and it should have removed that conversation choice altogether. Quests are usually given poor, vague descriptions in the logbook that lack detail to assist in completing them. To understand what you’re supposed to do, you must select a quest in the logbook and then select “set map marker” to place an “X” on the island map to see its location (it took me several hours of stumbling through the early game to figure that out). However, this location is not displayed on the compass, which seems to defeat the purpose of having one in the first place. You can also review the game dialogue to narrow down whom you’re supposed to talk to (if it was discussed), but the descriptions are still too unclear for my tastes. Quests can also seem finished (further instructions are not provided) but are not checked off your logbook, which is confusing. Risen 2: Dark Waters takes place on a handful of islands, none of which are very extensive. The game lacks a sense of exploration, as almost every building is directly tied to a quest in the main story. The islands never feel like a living, breathing realm, with animals (almost always in groups of three) appearing in scripted locations. You can save your progress at any time (highly recommended) and the game does frequently record your progress, so that’s a nice feature. Starting out in Risen 2: Dark Waters, though, is made more difficult by the inconsistent tutorial instructions that explain some game mechanics but ignore others (like the aforementioned “set map marker”).

As you kill enemies and complete quests, you earn “glory,” which work as experience points. Leveling up in Risen 2: Dark Waters is done very, very slowly: typically, a role-playing game lets you gain a level and unlock something in the first minutes of playing, but here it takes a good hour to assign your first attribute point. You certainly are not given constant rewards to keep you more invested in the game: the dangled carrot is too far ahead to see. Each time you level up, you can choose one of five areas to upgrade: blades, firearms, toughness (health), cunning (giving you more options in conversations), or voodoo (the game’s take on magic, featuring potions and dolls). Talents (three more specific attributes in each category, such as slashing weapons, pistols, thievery, or black magic) are automatically calculated from your base values, so you sadly can't tweak these to your liking. Beyond the attributes, there are many items you can equip, from armor to earrings and amulets, that increase your attack, defense, and attribute ratings. And beyond that, there are skills that can be earned by paying for expensive training, or more directed instruction where your helpful teacher injures severely you. While Risen 2: Dark Waters theoretically gives you several choices for upgrading your character, you really only get direct control over a couple of traits.

Besides the quests, there are some other things to do in the world of Risen 2: Dark Waters. There is a limited amount of things to trade, mostly items you purchase with gold earned by completing missions. The world of Risen 2: Dark Waters isn’t full of loot, just an occasional money purse or bottle of rum, so you won’t get rich quick as you wander the countryside. You might find some buried treasure, though, so that’s something to keep and eye out for. You can also learn how to make your own weapons (and improve existing ones) and steal goods by combining lock picking and sneaking skill sets. You’ll also have to interact with the colorful inhabitants of the game world, who will ignore you unless you talk directly to them. Conversation choices aren’t present, as you’ll always end up at the same result no matter which responses you choose. However, the game does remember who you’ve interacted with in the past and adjusts subsequent conversations accordingly, which is neat. Risen 2: Dark Waters does have some unpolished cutscenes with hyperactive hand movement, drastic camera cuts, and characters that occasionally face the wrong direction. This helps to further reduce whatever small amount of immersion the game had earned.

The third-person perspective (plus the lack of an aiming reticule) makes precise aim very difficult: when items or enemies are placed closely together, it can be impossible to select exactly what you want. You also can't pick up anything while weapons are drawn, adding another step when interacting with objects. As for combat itself, I hate it. There is both melee and ranged combat (plus stunning your opponent with sand, once you’ve unlocked it), and Risen 2: Dark Waters relies heavily on auto-aiming, where the game picks the closest opponent and directs all of your attacks towards them. The system doesn’t work well, however, as your character will frequently attack nothing but air as an enemy stands a short distance to the side. Blocking seldom works, making battles extremely frustrating, especially since you’ll be facing multiple opponents almost all of the time and you need to block something in order to survive. Combo attacks, automatically scripted once you hammer the left mouse button three times, cannot be interrupted, so you’ll routinely attack enemies that aren’t there or are too far away. The enemies themselves frequently forget they are supposed to be attacking you (they just stand there or circle around you, especially the animal units), which I guess is OK since you'll usually be fighting multiple enemies of similar or better rank than you. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, being outnumbered three-to-one (the game's favorite odds, as most animal packs travel in groups of three) usually results in quick, painful death and a reload. The islands of Risen 2: Dark Waters are absolutely teeming with unavoidable (they are placed along the paths to the next quest, and always spawn in the same locations), annoying monsters. I quickly learned to avoid just about everything that popped into view, just in case I got surrounded by a team of three. Of course, odds of success would be a lot higher if your occasional allies weren't as incompetent as the enemies, only occasionally offering assistance through an infrequent potshot.

Risen 2: Dark Waters adds nothing to the role-playing genre while being somewhat inaccessible and definitely frustrating. It starts with periodically vague quests, with bare descriptions in your logbook that do little to explain what it is you are supposed to do. You can click on a quest to place a map marker (something I figured out how to do far too late in my time with the game) or read the dialogue you skipped over by continually pressing the “escape” key, but the locations never show up on your compass, which leads to a lot of switching back and forth to the map view to see where you are supposed to go. The quests are linear and rarely interesting, never straying far from the main storyline and requiring prerequisites (usually several) that might not be obvious. Your conversations with the NPCs that populate the small islands do change based on who you’ve talked to previously, but the end result is always the same. Your nameless character has various attributes that determine his effectiveness in combat and negotiating with others, and he can undertake trade and forging, in addition to more pirate-y activities like sneaking around and searching for buried treasure. However, the third-person view gets in the way of targeting closely spaced items, an aspect of the game that’s poorly designed. In addition, you acquire new skills very slowly, as experience is gained at a glacial pace and training is quite expensive. Combat is bland: auto-aiming eliminates the need for actual skill, and having only two options (attack or block) gets old very quickly. Your AI allies, and the enemies you encounter, have very basic behaviors (run towards you, then attack) that are quite predictable, and sometimes they forget to do even that much. It’s just as well, since you are routinely, and unfairly, outnumbered. Finally, while there are some nice aspects to the graphics (namely the building and ship detail), clipping bugs and shadowing issues creep through. In the end, Risen 2: Dark Waters doesn't have a single great feature and plenty that are not.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Valley Without Wind Review

A Valley Without Wind, developed and published by Arcen Games.
The Good: Procedurally generated levels and worlds, adjustable difficulty, semi-random enchants for tactical character upgrades, varied spells with increased damage on different enemies, NPC jobs can improve your settlement, surmountable death penalty, persistent multiplayer, nice music
The Not So Good: Unique mechanics can be initially confusing, lacks an interactive story
What say you? This strategic role-playing platformer has procedurally generated content for high replay value and varied activities with room for future expansion: 7/8

The end of the world has been successfully foretold many times: 634 B.C., 389 B.C., 70, 247, 365, 400, 500, 793, 800, 806, 848, 995, 1000, 1033, 1184, 1186, 1260, 1284, 1290, 1335, 1351, 1370, 1378, 1504, 1524, 1525, 1528, 1533, 1534, 1555, 1585, 1588, 1600, 1624, 1648, 1654, 1656, 1657, 1658, 1660, 1666, 1673, 1688, 1689, 1694, 1697, 1700, 1708, 1716, 1719, 1734, 1736, 1757, 1780, 1789, 1794, 1795, 1805, 1806, 1814, 1836, 1843, 1844, 1847, 1856, 1862, 1863, 1874, 1878, 1881, 1890, 1899, 1901, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914, 1915, 1916, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1935, 1936, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1954, 1962, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and, of course, 2012. OK, maybe not successfully, but if you say it often enough, eventually you’ll be right. While the actual end of the world is 5-7 billion years away when the Sun transitions to a red giant and severe gravitational tides pull the Earth into oblivion, one still wonders what will happen when the world ceases to exist. A Valley Without Wind addresses the question with a cataclysm that rearranges the world both spatially and temporally. This role-playing platformer has you and other hearty survivors rebuilding society while fending off violent threats. The world is now filled with scattered survivors trekking through the harsh conditions in search of A Valley Without Wind (see what I did there?).

A Valley Without Wind uses a 2-D, side-scrolling approach to the game that works well. This allows for bitmaps with a higher level of detail to be used, producing a more convincing environment than what you’d expect to see in 3-D by an indie team. The characters and enemies look nice, with a near-future techno aesthetic permeating throughout the game. Animations can be a bit stiff and repetitive at times (does everyone always tuck and roll while jumping?), but overall they are done well. The procedurally generated terrain looks surprisingly good, thanks to some hand-crafted elements (the occasional room layouts, for example) and varied settings (desert, ice, forest) that produce nice results with lots of objects populating the landscape. The time of day and weather (rain and wind, because what would a valley be without wind?) effects look nice as well. Each spell in the game looks different and adheres to the visuals you would expect for its class (fire, air, water). The interface is pretty good, providing rectangular region and dungeon maps, a spell quick bar that doesn’t obscure the entire screen, and extensive tool-tips describing most of the game’s important attributes. The sound design comes with basic, repetitive sound effects but spectacular musical themes that change according to the climate and situation. Overall, the presentation of A Valley Without Wind is very solid.

Before you adventure out into the dangerous reaches of your lands, you must create a new world. This generates tiles, consisting of grass, desert, urban, snow, lava, and ocean environments, randomly scattered about (because of that tricky cataclysm) your continent. Before you begin, you can choose the difficulty level for both combat (which alters the health of you and your enemies) and platforming (adjusting the number of ladders that spawn) that is most appropriate for your ability level. The goal? To defeat the overlord and his three lieutenants, clearing the way for a more peaceful settlement. One side effect of the procedurally generated nature of the game is the dissolution of a master storyline: it’s simply you versus the elements and overlords, every game you play. Of course, the advantage is that you never know what you’ll see and what enemies to expect in each new location you explore. You can control (and freely switch between) a number of different characters that have semi-randomly generated names, stats (including health, attack, mana, and temperature tolerance), and races (human and robots offer varied movement abilities). A Valley Without Wind can be a large, scary game to newcomers, and the developers have tried their best to provide copious messages whenever something new is encountered. This softens the learning curve somewhat, but it still takes a couple of games to get a good handle on the unique mechanics. Still, there is a comprehensive encyclopedia of most things in the game, including what is required for the various spells and buildings you can craft, and where you can find those materials. Significantly, A Valley Without Wind includes persistent online multiplayer, which is a fantastic feature for a game like this. Simply peruse the browser and pick the server of your choice. Then, you can join others online in a cooperative environment, working together to free the citizens of the world. If multiple players are present in the same area, the enemy health scales accordingly, so the game never becomes too easy simply because you outnumber the bad guys. Or, you can venture to different parts of the world and help out the greater cause individually. While the game lacks a cohesive story, A Valley Without Wind more than makes up for it with procedurally generated worlds and online cooperative multiplayer.

Each tile on the world map consists of several (usually six to ten) side-scrolling areas that can contain enemies, buildings, and access to underground caverns. The above-ground buildings have rooms that are stocked with enemies, bosses, and items; it’s a waste of time to search every single room in every single building, so the best locations (stash rooms) are highlighted in yellow on the building layout map so you can quickly head towards them. Some rooms and areas also have warp gates that allow for instant access to another part of the same world tile, so you don’t have to walk too much through areas you have previously traversed. In addition to hostile enemies, you will also encounter friendly people (and machines) that will take residence in your community. Residents can have one of six professions, all of which have weird names like “Technozoologicalist” and “Forgician” that spell check simply hates with its angry wavy red lines. As you build structures for them (using resources collected out in the wild and rewarded during missions), they will increase in level, allowing them to cast more powerful abilities on the surroundings. These are called “guardian power scrolls,” and they can create new missions, build helpful structures on the world map, destroy roaming enemies, or provide large-scale buffs. Thus, one game objective is to improve your settlement, providing your friends with more powerful tools to help you fend off the hostile world.

Another requirement to increase your power, and eventually take on the overlord, is to complete missions. These appear on the world map and are initiated by visiting the tile they are located in. There is a good variety in mission types (more are planned for future expansions, I’m sure) that will satisfy most play styles. The more basic are boss battles in a giant tower, rescuing other characters (who are then recruited to your settlement), and large battles with allies against advancing foes. For the jumping experts out there is a rising lava challenge. For those who prefer combat are challenging one-shot, one-kill missions and one where you must only kill monsters from a specific time period. There is even a Missile Command-inspired entry. Of course, more are planned after release, and the level of diversity that’s already included indicates that even more exotic, interesting variations can and will appear. Successfully completing a mission usually gives rare resources required to upgrade your spells, or guardian power scrolls that can be used by other characters in your settlement, provided you construct the buildings they need to use it. In addition to the missions, you can also find puzzle rooms in some of the larger buildings (like pyramids). These are not mandatory to advance in the game (unlike the missions, which are required to level up), but will reward you with pieces of the background story. In the mystery puzzles, you must make all of the orbs in a room the same color by flipping them with spells. It’s a basic mechanic, to be sure, but the mission variety speaks well for what the future holds as the game continually expands. Thanks to the missions, A Valley Without Wind is not just about killing endless enemies room after room.

In order to take on the more advanced enemies that appear when you level up, you’ll probably want to upgrade your character. Upgrade stones, collected in buildings (mostly in the yellow “stash” rooms), can improve your health (the most dramatic upgrade), mana, or base attack rating. Since each character is limited to only ten total upgrades each, an appropriate strategy is to upgrade several characters in different ways, making them appropriate for different mission types (a heavy damage guy, a platform girl, et cetera). It’s like having a team of different classes at your disposal, but it is not a mechanic that is forced upon you. Even better would be having a mix of characters in an online match: a tank with high health, a sniper with high mana and ranged spells, and a medium range attacker. As you defeat enemies or explore locations, new enemies and spells are unlocked. These intermediate goals are outlined in the encyclopedia, so you can have something to shoot for in the short-term. In A Valley Without Wind, you will die. Thankfully, the penalty for death is small: you lose your character and his/her/its upgrades, but keep all of the spells and items, instantly transferred to any person in your village. Of course, the location where you died is now haunted by your ghost, which must be defeated if you choose to go back. That’s an interesting way of handling something that is usually cause for a re-load.

Spells come in varied forms. Most are attacks (melee, ranged, and area of effect) and all are divided into six classes: fire, earth, water, air, light, and entropy. This is important because enemies are usually vulnerable to one specific class (shown in icon form near the enemy’s health bar, with more description when the game is paused) and/or immune against another class. This means it’s usually good form to upgrade several classes of spells as you increase in rank. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a powerful meteor shower that does no damage to a fire bat. In addition to attacking things, spells can offer teleportation, shields, and summoned creatures. Each spell has a specific mana cost, cooldown, and power; more powerful spells have a higher mana cost and longer cooldown, for balance purposes. Spells can (and should) be upgraded using materials rewarded during successful missions; the game gives descriptions of how and where specific items can be obtained, so you can complete missions and visit locations for the spells you use the most. Much like traditional armor loot, A Valley Without Wind uses enchants that can be applied to the head, torso, arms, and legs. These give a wide range of benefits, the specific percentage values of which are semi-random: enhanced attack in a specific spell class, reduced spell cooldown, less damage, faster movement speed, reduced falling damage, higher jumping height, light emission (helpful for caves), no damage from acidic water, and getting specific enchant types. Since you can only use five at a time, but can carry many more, your abilities can be adjusted on the fly to adapt to the current battle and situation. The flexibility in both the enchant and spell systems in A Valley Without Wind make them intriguing parts of the game.

As described earlier, the various enemies in A Valley Without Wind are vulnerable, or immune, to certain types of spells. This adds tactics to the game and makes combat much more interesting than simply spamming your best spell over and over again. The enemies are quite varied, including things from different time periods and settings: rhinos, fairies, robots, clockwork probes, sea worms, dinosaurs, dragons, and more. Enemies have fairly simple behaviors: they either move towards you or move in a pattern (or move towards you while moving in a pattern), so once you figure out their manners, elimination isn’t far behind. Enemies can corner you, however (since you can’t move through them), so even low-level threats can kill you if you are not careful. Generally, though, enemies can be ignored unless they stand in your way or you need to farm them for the health they drop when killed.

A Valley Without Wind is a very solid platform game with role-playing and strategy mixed in for a unique feel. The game features a fairly standard assortment of spells, with ranged and melee options, that can be upgraded by completing missions and gathering resources. You can also unlock randomized enchants to buff your attack damage, walking speed, defense, or spell cooldown (among many other things). The various enemies in the game are vulnerable (or immune) to specific spell types, which makes combat more tactically interesting than your typical action role-playing game. The world of Environ (or whatever you chose to name it at the world creation screen) is full of other characters that can be rescued, upgraded (increasing health, mana, or attack), swapped places with, or given buildings so they can cast worldwide spells. There are many (infinite, really) procedurally generated places to explore: buildings, caverns, and lands filled with resources and enemies. People who like stories in their role-playing will be disappointed by A Valley Without Wind, which takes a more free-form approach, supported by its procedurally generated content. There is also a wide variety of missions to undertake, from platform-heavy tasks to boss battles to arcade-like defense, gradually increasing your experience until you are strong enough to defeat the continent’s overlord and his minions. Then, it’s time to save the next world. While the procedurally generated content does give A Valley Without Wind significantly more replay value than traditional platform of action role-playing games, you are still going to approach each new continent in the same way. The 2-D graphics are detailed in places, and the music is excellent. Finally, persistent multiplayer is a really neat feature, allowing users to explore and team-up online. As someone who usually avoids both platform games and action RPGs, the fact that I’ve spend a significant amount of time playing the beta of A Valley Without Wind should speak volumes of its unique blend, and the importance of procedurally generated content for unpredictability. It is a monstrous game with features you usually don’t see combined, but as you ease into the mechanics, A Valley Without Wind delivers a great mixture of platforming, role playing, and strategy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Train Giant: A-Train 9 Review

The Train Giant: A-Train 9, developed by Artdink and published by UIG Entertainment.
The Good: Features both transit management and urban development, custom map and scenario editor
The Not So Good: Inadequate or confusing feedback with an obtuse interface, tedious scheduling process, arbitrary road layout restrictions, same objective every scenario, oversimplified materials production, no tutorial, no multiplayer, lacks randomly generated maps
What say you? This train and city management game is lost in translation: 3/8

A city simulator is something you would think would be a niche product, but the wild popularity of the SimCity franchise has made it a well-known genre. The same thing goes for train simulators, such as the RailWorks series, which would seem to have narrow appeal, but $1800 worth of DLC would argue otherwise. Now in its ninth (!) iteration, the A-Train series is being brought to the West from Japan in the form of The Train Giant, a game that combines both city and train management into one package. Will The Train Giant successfully transport its load, or derail in a fury of ineptitude?

The Train Giant looks and sounds dated. While there are some solid aspects to the graphics, namely the decently varied buildings that light up at night, most of the game appears like it came out five years ago (it might have in Japan). The game’s scale doesn’t even approach the actual scale of a small city, with only a handful of high-rises and apartment buildings for each town rendered in the game. You never experience a truly dense city environment thanks to the complete lack of other cars (not directly owned by you) and people milling about. Even the original SimCity, with tiny white rectangles depicting traffic, creates a more bustling metropolis than The Train Giant. The textures in the game look fine when viewed at a distance but become blocky messes when up close. The trains look good, although the trucks and buses are far too small to notice details. The transition from day to night and the water effects look nice, but it’s far too late to salvage the graphics in The Train Giant. The sound effects are frankly rare, with only notifications of some in-game events and music that appears when the scenario loads but never is heard from again. You are certainly not going to purchase The Train Giant on looks alone.

The Train Giant gives you fifteen scenarios (including five not released in Japan, developed by members of the community) in which to develop a successful train company by laying rail and constructing buildings. Each scenario comes with a difficulty rating (which the list is sorted by) to access the level of challenge. Every scenario has the same objective: accumulate a lot of money. This makes each scenario play out exactly the same, although with slightly different starting conditions. I would have preferred some alternative victory conditions, like transporting citizens or goods, or developing certain types of buildings, but this level of sophisticated is beyond the scope of The Train Giant. The maps aren’t the most realistic, either: there are commonly “floating” roads that do no connect to anything, and a “large” city simply consists of a handful of city blocks. There is not an in-game tutorial: there is a really brief “getting started” at the end of the PDF manual and a link to a more extensive HTML manual, but nothing more hands-on to ease you into the game and teach the occasional odd conventions of the simulation. While The Train Giant lacks random maps, there is a custom map editor with eight starting templates, so you can create the city of your dreams…OR NIGHTMARES. Finally, The Train Giant lacks multiplayer for those who like to compete against others in the same city.

One artifact of being a foreign import is the unconventional interface used in The Train Giant. The camera controls are strange: the game uses the keypad (instead of WASD) to move your view (or by left-clicking and holding and moving the mouse) and you can’t move the camera by moving the mouse to the edge of the screen. The minimap must also be moved using the left-click-and-hold-and-drag method, which is fairly inefficient, and arrow keys are used to rotate objects (instead of Q and E). You can bookmark viewpoints, though, which can make it easier to find things. The game comes with a lot of menus full of data (budget, stock market) and object placement (roads, rails, stations, buildings) options, but no colored map displays to display demand or traffic. The Train Giant lacks useful feedback: what should I build, why isn’t anyone riding my trains, why aren’t my factories producing any goods, why aren’t my trucks loading any goods, do I need to purchase more buses? Most transit games give citizen-driven feedback to direct players towards success, but The Train Giant makes most of your decisions complete guesses.

Your primary task is to develop and maintain a mass transit network, and The Train Giant makes this task more difficult than most management games. You first need to place train stations, and then connect those stations using rails. You can choose the station size, length, and number of platforms based on the class (small, medium, large). Once that’s done, you click endpoints to lay rail, choosing elevation and adding switches if desired. A couple of rules make laying roads and rail less satisfying. First, tracks and roads must meet at right angles, which results in square, boring layouts. Second, you must place the rail lines before roads, as you can’t place a track on top of a road, even if you have the room for it. This makes adding rail lines to existing cities a real pain. It’s also difficult to tell if buildings are actually connected to roads; it turns out this actually doesn’t matter, as stations and loading bays serve a radius around them, no matter if they are connected by road or not. You can also change traffic light settings to give your trucks and buses the fastest travel time possible; since there are no other cars in the game to worry about, you can keep the light green for your direction of travel most often. Placing buses, trucks, and trains on a schedule is tedious process: you must define a timetable by following a vehicle in real time (ignoring all other aspects of the game) and choosing which direction to travel at every intersection. Without a guide map, this can be very difficult and truly dull, especially in larger cities with lots of roads. It would have been much easier to just draw routes directly onto the map (like in Cities in Motion), but I guess The Train Giant is passionate about making things as time-consuming as possible. Trains and trucks that are not given a specific schedule will wander aimlessly around the city and stop at any station they happen to encounter, which is a great way to lose money quickly. Beyond a vehicle-specific schedule, you can also define settings for individual stations (wait length, time of departure, wait for another vehicle) for each day of the week, if you are really obsessed with maximizing profits. While The Train Giant gives a lot of options to define your transit system, it does so very inefficiently.

The Train Giant does not stop at simply setting up mass transit. You can also place factories to build materials to construct new buildings like apartments, shops, hotels, offices, and attractions. A factory produces generic “goods” which must be transported to a warehouse (even if it’s next door) by placing a loading dock near the factory and one near the warehouse and then running a truck between them. Then, once a lot of time has passed and enough “goods” have been slowly transported, construction can start near the warehouse, allowing you to earn profits from areas beyond your transit empire. If you’d like to cut one step out of the good manufacturing process, you can also import goods from other cities if you send a road or rail to the map edge. With only one item to construct, interest and variety in this part of the game is very low.

Keeping tabs on your budget is an important aspect of any management game, and The Train Giant offers a needlessly complicated budget sheet with lots of constantly changing values. A lot of things go into computing your budget, which is fine, but the budget display isn’t useful: you can’t click on a budget item (like “multi-storey buildings”) to see where these things are located; you might be losing money on offices you didn’t even know you owned. Instead, you have to go to the market/real estate menu and tab through each category to find what you are looking for. This kind of disorganization makes playing The Train Giant too much work. If you’d like, you can also play the stock market to (hopefully) make some extra cash. Finally, there are apparently AI competitors in the game that will buy up neutral buildings, but I didn’t even notice if they were taking part in any of the scenarios.

The ability to adjust traffic light settings speaks a lot about the amount of detail that’s present in The Train Giant. Accessing, processing, and using this detail, however, is a tough, almost insurmountable task. While you can place rail lines, construct factories, transport goods, and make profit, finding the less efficient parts of your empire is more work than it should be, buried under a pile of number-heavy displays. I sorely miss the clear color-coded map displays from SimCity, where you can see buildings with no power, traffic jams, and other assorted minutiae clearly and easily. In The Train Giant, you are never explicitly told why people and goods aren't using your trains, trucks, buses, stations, and factories that are placed in locations where they should be turning a handy profit. Heck, you're not even told if you need to build more trains, trucks, buses, stations, or factories: there is never a “build more of this” suggestion at any time during the game, so many players will be wondering what exactly to do next (or first, for that matter). Contrast this to the obviously clear happy/sad faces from Cities in Motion and you can see that The Train Giant leaves a lot to be desired in the feedback department. There are also silly limitations in expanding your train business: roads can only meet at right angles and you can’t place track on top of existing roads, requiring you to bulldoze first. This results in a tedious process that removes most of the fun associated with layout out intricate designs to maximize the space you are given. Purchasing trains, trucks, and buses and assigning schedules are also important, as the vehicles will not automatically define their own route using the nearest stations. Instead, you must manually define which direction a bus must turn at every intersection it encounters: a dauntingly dull proposition. You can expand your wealth (supposedly) by manufacturing and transporting your own goods and constructing housing, office space, and leisure, although some businesses will never turn a profit or even do anything for unknown reasons. You can also play stocks or spend time starting at all of the numbers ticking away in your budget, where clicking on a specific value does not give you any detailed information. The interface is an odd import, with keypad scrolling (making the game annoying to use on smaller laptops) and other weird camera controls. The fifteen scenarios offer the same objectives in lifeless towns that have no traffic and no people. At least The Train Giant gives you a map editor to expand the game if you wish. Though you can forget about having a tutorial to explain the basics: instead, you’ll have to rely on the unevenly translated manual. In the end, The Train Giant seems to hate the player, giving insufficient feedback and using inefficient techniques in every aspect of the game; an interface overhaul would make The Train Giant a lot more approachable. You would think that after nine versions of the same game basic usability issues would be worked out, but that is not the case for The Train Giant.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Naval War: Arctic Circle Review

Naval War: Arctic Circle, developed by Turbo Tape Games and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Satisfying strategic gameplay, accessible interface, lots of realistic near-future military hardware, multiplayer
The Not So Good: No skirmish battles with user-defined or semi-random units, no mission editor, can’t save mission progress, uneven campaign difficulty, only four multiplayer scenarios, some stability issues
What say you? A real-time naval warfare strategy game with an approachable design: 6/8

On April 21st, 1908, American explorer Frederick Cook said he reached the geographic North Pole. He was probably lying. On April 6th, 1909, American explorer Robert Peary said he reached the North Pole. He, also, was probably lying. You simply can’t trust Americans. Leave it up to the Norwegians to actually do something right, as Roald Amundsen (who also was first to the South Pole, the greedy bastard) flew over the North Pole (which is kind of cheating) on May 12th, 1926. Flash forward to 2030: the Earth is warming and resources are depleting, leaving the Arctic Ocean as ripe ground for conflict. The United States, Russia, and surrounding nations stop being polite and start getting real. Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you command of the air and the sea around the northern reaches of the globe in a real-time strategic simulation.

The graphics of Naval War: Arctic Circle are dominated by the bland but functional 2-D map that displays units using identifiable bright green (or red) outlines against a simple background. I’m not sure if using satellite images would look better or not (it might make the display too busy), but I guess the map works well enough. In addition to that, each unit is shown in 3-D for increased immersion. The ship models look great, and clearly a lot of work went into making them look just like their real-life counterparts. The ship surfaces aren't animated with tiny men in brightly colored outfits running around, though, and planes magically lift vertically from the surface when launched instead of taking off. Aircraft models are nice, but plane textures could be more detailed. As much as the ships look really good, the terrain looks equally bad. While the open ocean doesn't look too atrocious, terrestrial areas look terrible, with bland surface textures, inexact terrain, and no trees, buildings, roads, or anything else you'd find on land. Explosions are quick and underwhelming (some smoke and fire), and the sinking animations are kind of cheesy. There are some stability issues to note as well: lag is significant enough to be noticeable when lots of units and missiles are on the screen at one time (something I did not experience in older beta versions of the game), and I have encountered instances when time advances but every unit simply stops moving (see this for video proof). As for the sound design, Naval War: Arctic Circle keeps things simple: appropriate but repetitive effects for each unit, distinctive warnings for incoming missiles and new enemy contacts, and repetitive but fitting music to accompany the on-screen. Coming from a world of wargames, the straightforward graphics aren’t disappointing, but those looking for a detailed 3-D presentation will be left wanting more.

Naval War: Arctic Circle features two campaigns, one for NATO and the other for Russia, set in 2030 around the Arctic. Campaign features are limited: twenty-three missions (plus five stand-alone offerings), divided into the two campaigns (though some missions are repeated for both sides), are presented in a set linear order with scripted unit rosters and no dynamic elements (units destroyed during a previous scenario will mysteriously reappear later on). I would also like to save my game, which Naval War: Arctic Circle does not allow; since a single scenario take can upwards of several hours to finish in real time (though you can (and should) accelerate time), this can a problematic limitation. The missions do give very specific objectives for victory and a tutorial is included within the NATO campaign. Most of the later missions in each campaign are pleasingly chaotic, with stuff going on all over the North Atlantic. However, balancing the scenarios in a game like this is tough, because of the effectiveness of the weapons involved: some scenarios are trivially easy, while others are much more challenging, and the missions don't progressively scale in difficulty. You can (and probably will) get stuck at some point during the campaign, and then must resort to playing out the campaign missions individually (disabling the ability to earn meaningless achievements) since you can’t skip missions in the linear order. Still, there is a significant amount of content thanks to the two campaigns and standalone missions. But while enemy unit positions are somewhat randomized, you are still going to find the same units in the same general locations each time you replay a mission. Because of this, the long-term viability of the product is reduced. I’d really like to see a quick mission builder and the ability to choose your own units using a point-based system. Something similar to, say, Combat Mission or Wargame: European Escalation would work quite well, I’d think. Those features would really make Naval War: Arctic Circle a special product.
Although you can edit XML files to alter scenarios, there’s still no replacement for a simple mission editor. Multiplayer can add some more variety since humans are more unpredictable, and joining a one-on-one match is straightforward, but there are only four scenarios that support two human players, which drastically cuts down unpredictability.

The interface of Naval War: Arctic Circle is one of the strongest aspects of the game, giving users lots of information in a friendly format. You’ll spend most of the time interacting with the 2-D map, where you can select and move your units and attack the enemy using traditional RTS controls (left-click select, right-click order). There are also several tools are available to give more specific orders to units under your command. First is the movement planner, which gives straightforward and extremely handy access to the altitude (or depth) and speed of your units, and also includes a waypoint tool and a “return to base” button. Speaking of movement, if you select a unit and then right-click and drag a box, the unit will patrol that area: very useful. Second is the battle planner, which allows you to specify ammunition use, engagement behavior, automatic evasion, and whether detections should be treated as hostile. Units can also be instructed to turn on sensors if they have already been detected. The flight deck lets you queue aircraft for launch from your bases and ships, giving an initial speed and altitude in addition to a destination. Finally, the sensors panel lets you activate or deploy radar and sonar, and the special orders panel lets you use jamming, sonobuoys, and mines. You can also design custom formations by dragging around grouped units and referencing pre-made plans. Information displays about your units include health, sensor range, current speed and altitude, current orders, time to their destination, and weapons (including ammo levels and range). Naval War: Arctic Circle also provides a list of your assets, recent enemy detections, weather conditions (including temperature, time of day, wind, and waves), and easy access to time acceleration options. In short (too late!), Naval War: Arctic Circle makes controlling the game as easy as possible thanks to the manageable interface.

Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you some nice toys to toss across the ocean, encompassing present and near-future designs of naval and air units. Ocean-going vessels include the Queen Elizabeth, Nimitz, and Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carriers, Ticonderoga and Kirov class cruisers, Arleigh Burke and Udaloy II class destroyers, Iver Huitfeldt and Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, and Virginia and Akula II class submarines. Fighting over the skies are the F-35, F-22 Raptor, and Sukhoi T-50 fighters, Tupolev Tu-160 long-range bomber, Boeing KC-767 and IL-78 tanker planes, SH-60B Seahawk and Kamov KA-27 anti-sub helicopters, X-47B unmanned combat aerial vehicle, and E-3 Sentry and Beriev A-50U reconnaissance aircraft. Combat in Naval War: Arctic Circle is all about missiles, and there are many famous varieties to choose from: the AIM-120 ARMAAM and Vympel R-77 air-to-air missiles, UGM-84 Harpoon and P-270 Moskit anti-ship missile, BGM-109 Tomahawk and P-800 Oniks cruise missiles, RIM-7 Sea Sparrow anti-missile missile, Mark 48 and APR-3E torpedoes, and the sonobuoy, which is not as exciting but very important. While Naval War: Arctic Circle is not as comprehensive as Wargame: European Escalation in terms of the military hardware, there is certainly enough to play with, and the interesting mix of units under development and those currently available puts a pleasing realistic tilt on the gameplay.

Because of the realistic lethality of missiles and torpedoes, success in Naval War: Arctic Circle is finding them before they find you. How? First, by sending out scouts, preferably high-altitude AWACS planes equipped with radar, though fighters can also provide this role. One important decision is when to turn on radar. The correct answer is “never,” or at least not until they spot you. Radar is a big sign that says “here I am, shoot missiles!,” so devoting one aircraft to scout for the enemy while silently pushing around the remainder of your fleet is a good tactic. Ships aren’t totally useless, as they can provide a mobile launching pad for fighters or engage nearby threats (anti-missile systems are effective). Since one missile hit destroys planes, and two can take down even the largest ships, surprise is your best weapon: if you can get close with submarines or planes, your objectives will soon be met. The AI in Naval War: Arctic Circle is good in most situations, engaging your units while remaining undetected and trying to vary its attack routes, despite the scripted nature of the mission design. However, it can also amble around with no clear purpose, or fly too close to units that can easily cause its doom. As for the friendly tactical AI, units will automatically engage hostile units within weapon range, but they can also occasionally forget attack orders, not engage additional nearby enemies after their primary target is destroyed, and generally become disorganized if assigned targets are destroyed or lost. Fighter groups also split up too often: I often found planes of the same group on opposite sides of the combat area after they had scrambled to evade incoming missiles. So while your units can fend for themselves in the short term, you do need to keep an eye on your forces and keep things organized.

Naval War: Arctic Circle provides a potent combination of worrying stealth, deadly attacks, and effective unit tactics that will satisfy gamers’ strategic desires. Sending out reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters for sub hunting, fighters for air superiority, submarines for stealth, escorting bombers for land attacks, and protecting your precious versatile surface fleets are all handled nicely. The internal game of deciding when to use sensors (never, if possible), while trying to detect the enemy, is tense, especially when enemy missiles appear out of thin air. Two shots per kill (one for planes) means sneaking past radar and sending in an array of fatal missiles is gratifying, but devastating when it happens to you. Naval War: Arctic Circle gives you the lion’s share of near-future military designs to play around with: aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, fighters, bombers, helicopters, recon aircraft, plus the missiles and torpedoes they carry. Pre-scripted missions are played out in two campaigns that present scenarios in a linear order; some enemy positions are randomized, but the lack of skirmish missions with more uncertainty is disappointing. The life of the product would be greatly extended by including an easy way to purchase units for skirmish battles set in any location of the Arctic; that way, you never know what to expect, especially in online battles. You also can’t save your progress during a mission, which may take several real-world hours to complete; while you’ll certainly spend most of the game on an accelerated speed, this is a baffling omission. The difficulty of the campaign is up and down, tending to err on the easier side of things overall. Naval War: Arctic Circle also doesn’t have a mission editor to expand the game, but brave souls can manually alter XML mission files. Multiplayer is available for two players: a nice feature, but limited with only four maps to choose from. There are some bugs (namely all units stopping while time advances) that crept into the release build (I did not experience this at all in any beta build) that hopefully will be fixed soon. Even nicer is the interface, which starts with 2-D maps and 3-D ships (we won’t speak of the terrain graphics) and ends with handy, accessible displays for directing movement, adjusting combat behaviors, deploying sensors, and launching aircraft. The AI is inconsistent enough in its shortcomings in navigation and continually engaging units to be noticeable, but challenging in numbers. All said, Naval War: Arctic Circle offers up pleasing, intelligible strategy at a reasonable price that would be even better with more flexible mission design.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire Review

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire, developed by Zeal Game Studio and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Weapon accuracy considers many factors, robust custom squad builder with varied units and abilities to choose from, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Moving units never come under fire, the entire squad must move if one member does and the entire squad must stay still if one member performs an action before moving, no indication of being behind cover, poor map size balance, no campaign, lacks a guided tutorial, uncompetitive AI
What say you? This tactical game is shackled by oddities of the turn-based gameplay: 4/8

UPDATE (4/5/12): A helpful reader has informed me that you can see if units are behind cover by pressing the "H" key. A guided tutorial would have really helped.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was just one World War II computer game? This has to be one of the most neglected wars in gaming history, constantly getting overlooked for yet another Spanish-American War first person shooter. Sure, we have a couple niche titles like Axis & Allies, Battlefield, Battle of Britain, Blitzkrieg, Brothers in Arms, Call of Duty, Close Combat, Combat Mission, Commandos, Company of Heroes, Day of Defeat, Hearts of Iron, Hidden & Dangerous, IL-2 Sturmovik, Medal of Honor, Men of War, Red Orchestra, R.U.S.E., Silent Hunter, Sudden Strike, War in the East, War in the Pacific, Wolfenstein, World at War, and World of Tanks, but nothing people have ever heard of. Thank goodness for Team Assault: Baptism of Fire, which finally brings World War II to the desktop in its tactical squad battles. Let’s dive between the hedgerows and see what strategy gaming lies therein.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is in 3-D and has some good and bad features. The maps are somewhat varied, taking place in urban and rural environments, and some designs have a lot of objects (sandbags, destroyed tanks, crates, fencing) that provide cover, but they are generally recycled from one location to the next. The maps are also devoid of animations (flowing rivers, wind) to make them feel more alive. Maps are very dark and foreboding, possibly a metaphor for the tragedy of war. Units have bland uniform textures, poor detail, and slow animations when moving, shooting, and being shot; they are best seen when zoomed out and certainly don’t look fluid. The sound design is much of the same: generic, non-distinct weapon sounds and the lack of panicked voice acting doesn’t immerse the player. There are very rare off-map battle effects to put you in the wargaming mood. The subtle music isn’t memorable, either; I actually had to reload the game to double-check there actually was music. All this said, while Team Assault: Baptism of Fire certainly isn’t immersive in terms of the graphics and sound, there is nothing that negatively impacts the gameplay either, which is maybe all you can ask for in a $20 game.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is the story of…well, nothing, really, since there is no campaign in the game, just a collection of ten maps you can play in skirmish mode. I don’t think it would have been too difficult to piece together a set of skirmish games masquerading as a campaign mode (of course, then I would complain that the campaign was just a set of skirmish games…you just can’t win) and add in some story elements to draw people in, but, as it stands, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is just a series of random battles in ten locations. The maps provide a lot of cover and objective locations to fight over, but the medium maps are too small and the large maps are too large. I was instantly engaged by the enemy in my spawn zone on some of the smaller maps, and it took several turns of running to reach the objectives on the larger ones. Games can use four victory conditions: area control (take some control points), blitzkrieg (take all control points), deathmatch (kill some enemies), or annihilation (kill all enemies). The game comes with a set of tutorial videos and an in-game HTML manual, but no guided tutorial to show new users how to do things more directly. Sure, the manual is comprehensive, but I still like to see instructions and then do them. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire comes with multiplayer and a server browser to find matches, but does not take advantage of the online play-by-email used by other turn-based Slitherine titles. Because of that, it can be difficult to find opponents that are online at the same time you happen to be.

Team Assault: Baptism of Fire comes with ten platoons of German and American heritage (even though British weapons are included). Luckily, you are not limited to these, as the force builder used to create your own squads is nicely done. You can choose the outfit for your squad (providing better armor or a parachute), the quantity of grenades that are shared amongst them, and any disciplines they may have (examples include a higher initiative, faster morale recovery, or more protection when behind cover). Then, it’s time to add soldiers. There aren’t classes, but rather roles that are defined based on what weapons and items the soldiers carry. Options are comprehensive, as soldiers can carry a pistol, submachine gun, rifle, sniper rifle, light machine gun, heavy machine gun, rocket launcher, or flame thrower. In addition, soldiers may be given a medical kit, demolition charges, or mines to use. Finally, you can assign a rank to each soldier, which increases the initiative of the squad. Creating mixed squads of soldiers with different weapons and items make the squad more versatile on the field of battle, so experimentation is both fun and necessary to create the ultimate killing machine. I really like the force builder and the flexibility it allows in creating your own army of soldiers.

The interface of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire is pretty standard stuff for a strategy-type game. Units are listed across the top of the screen in a handy display that gives one-glance access to morale, stamina, and ammunition levels. Icons also appear on top of enemy units that can be fired upon, which eliminates the need to hunt for targets. The game also provides a detailed hit-percentage breakdown, so you know exactly what the chance of success will be when the trigger is pulled. My interface complaint deals with cover: while placing your mouse cursor over objects will show their cover value, there is no indication of whether a unit is actually behind cover, or if moving to a specific location will provide cover. This small enhancement would make unit movement more tactically satisfying.

As you can tell from earlier, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has a good variety of weapons and items your unit can carry into battle: parachutes for more flexible deployment, grenades, machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, mines, and more. In addition, the various squad disciplines and leadership ranks can further determine the most appropriate role for a particular squad on the field of battle. The unit design also determines the statistics of the squad: weapon range, penetration, accuracy, recoil, and area of effect. Points are earned each turn (more when you hold objectives) and new units can be bought and deployed along your edge of the map (though parachute troops can spawn near any friendly unit). Units take their turns in order of initiative, based on the rank of the units in each squad (more experienced soldiers cost more). In general, you can move and then perform one action each turn. Orders include firing your weapon, tossing a grenade, placing mines, providing medical assistance to a friendly unit, taking cover by going prone, capturing an objective, or waiting to do counter-actions (returning fire, retreating, or taking cover) if the enemy attacks. Units can run to further destinations, but then their turn is over. Also, units carrying heavier weapons can cover less ground in a single turn. Squads must stay in close proximity to officers, which makes managing them easier.

The turn-based gameplay of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has some quirks. If one member of a squad moves before performing an action, then all members of the squad must move before performing an action. This causes an accuracy penalty, problematic if you didn’t want to move units that were already in good position behind cover. In addition, if one member of a squad performs an action before moving, then nobody in the squad can move. This mechanic doesn’t make sense to me, but I guess it’s an artifact of the turn-based gameplay. Still, I swear I saw soldiers in the movies simultaneously provide cover fire while others in the squad moved. There’s more: the I-go-you-go turn-based nature of the game means you can walk right in front of an enemy unit and then shoot them all dead without them being able to do anything about it, as counter-actions are only available after the attacking squad has finished their assault. In fact, you can run right past an enemy and they won’t do anything (unless you attack them and don’t kill them all and they have counter-actions available), since it’s not their turn. Just make sure you end up behind cover again and it’s like you were never there. Peculiar rules like these make Team Assault: Baptism of Fire less intuitive and more confusing to play.

Overall, Team Assault: Baptism of Fire has a slower pace because of abbreviated movement allowances on the large maps: it takes three or four turns of sprinting to reach the front lines on the large maps, which tires units and prevents them from performing actions. The game focuses on cover: always place your units behind something (which may be difficult because of the lack of direct interface feedback) to absorb some of the bullets. All of the weapons are one-shot, one-kill (or severe injury) if they hit successfully, which makes it deadly to be out in the open. Accuracy calculations are pleasingly stout, taking many factors into account: unit movement, range, weapon ratings, soldier disciplines, cover, and morale. The game displays a clear percentage chance of each bullet hitting its target, so you can focus on the most vulnerable opponents. Smoke grenades are very effective and must be flanked. Morale of units drops very quickly; you can have a very small chance of hitting someone but you can still cause them to rout. The AI opponent can be easy to exploit. The computer has the habit of ending their turn with units in the middle of the road, ready for easy pickings. The AI also forgets where your units are, sending new squads directly into the line of fire. The computer also does not retreat often enough when under fire, and it’s not aggressive enough attacking objectives, especially those located in the center of the map. Once the fighting begins, the AI will usually be content with keeping units in the same position for the remainder of the match, unless they rout and are automatically removed. The computer does, however, use smoke effectively, but I think most experienced strategy gamers will figure out how to regularly beat the AI quickly enough.

The way actions are handled in Team Assault: Baptism of Fire basically ruins the entire game. If one member of a squad moves, everyone else in the squad must move to a new location. If one soldier captures an objective or engages the enemy before moving, nobody in his squad can move that turn. It is tactically limited game design for no discernable reason. In addition, the enemy cannot counterattack until you have finished your turn moving and shooting. This means you can move right in front of the enemy and eliminate them all in one turn before they have a chance to retaliate. Sprinting, required to traverse to larger maps, doesn’t let you shoot, so you better be darn sure you won’t be in range of any enemy units. All of these shortcomings are unfortunate, since there are several aspects of the game that are done well. Weapon accuracy calculations are pleasingly complex, taking cover, morale, and unit ratings into consideration. Units also have a nice assortment of weapons, disciplines, and statistics, with leader-based initiative determining who can move first. I really like the force builder, which allows you to customize your own squads, specifying the weapons, abilities, and leadership values of your manly men. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire also has online multiplayer, although it does not utilize a play-by-email model so it’s difficult to find games. Team Assault: Baptism of Fire lacks a campaign that ties the various maps together and/or carries units over from one battle to the next. The skirmish mode features different game modes (namely killing enemies or capturing objectives), but there isn’t a guided tutorial as you must read the HTML manual. The AI is OK in spots, effectively using smoke and capturing their nearest objective, but stays in the open too often and doesn’t move when under fire; ultimately, the AI doesn’t provide a good enough opponent. The interface uses icons to show potential targets and makes finding friendly units easy, but lacks a clear indicator of being behind cover. In the end, concessions made in the turn-based movement of Team Assault: Baptism of Fire abstract the game too much, resulting in unrealistic behaviors and less satisfying tactics.