Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rigonauts Gameplay Review

I play Rigonauts, a ship-building puzzle game from Engient.

The features are very bare, with a linear set of levels, no sandbox mode, and no multiplayer. In addition, there are no difficulty settings that might increase (or decrease) the amount of damage the enemy receives, and you can't skip tough levels, so once you are stuck, you are essentially finished with the game. The objective is to destroy the enemy ship by eliminating all of their weapons or demolishing the cockpit. There is a good amount of components to use (once unlocked, of course) to construct your ship, and straightforward counters to enemy designs. The game rewards using less parts, so those looking to build outlandish designs will be penalized. The interface is obviously not designed for the PC, with extraneous features like a pop-up menu for item placement that is rendered useless by the right-mouse button. Battles are also hand-off, which would be less of an issue if your pilots and gunners weren't so terrible. Placing aim points is simply not enough to make the combat interesting, and the unflinching and unadjustable difficulty makes Rigonauts a very hard game to recommend.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Trouble With Robots Review

The Trouble With Robots, developed and published by Digital Chestnut.
The Good: Approachable gameplay, large number of varied cards, deck restrictions force specific strategic planning
The Not So Good: Scripted missions, needs a medium-high difficulty level, no multiplayer
What say you? This card-based strategy game thrives on plan variety: 6/8

As Will Smith can attest to, humanity’s reliance on technology can be problematic. What if our metallic butlers refused to serve, or rose up against us in a rebellion of silicon solidarity? This is…not exactly the premise of The Trouble With Robots, which actually involves robot invaders attempting to overthrow a fantasy setting full of humans, trolls, elves, and dwarves. Work with me, people! It’s a card-based strategy game where you play actions that call in units or spells, and then watch the carnage unfold, similar to but different from a tower defense game. Does The Trouble With Robots successfully merge disparate factions of strategy and card gaming?

The Trouble With Robots features 2-D cartoon graphics that work well in the game. The drawings look nice and are animated well, injecting life into the game that less detailed 3-D models wouldn’t add. The occasionally animated backgrounds also offer different settings for your escapades during the campaign. The card art is decent but not spectacular, not matching the visual splendor exhibited in real card-based games. The sound design is also good, with pleasing effects and background music that I’ve taken a liking to. The game lacks voice acting, which is really the only major misstep in the game’s presentation. The Trouble With Robots features a respectable level of polish for an indie game.

In The Trouble With Robots, your fantasy realm is under attack by robotic invaders, and its up to you to defend against the onslaught. The single player campaign is quite linear, presenting a series of missions with pre-scripted foes, along with some extra difficult optional side missions. New cards and concepts are gradually introduced, and the dialogue has a subtle sense of humor. A skirmish mode with less scripted enemy encounters would be nice to extend replay value, although the deck customization and randomized card distribution do make each play through the same mission slightly different. Each time you complete a wave with no losses, you earn a star that automatically unlocks new cards to add to your deck. While I might have wanted to manually choose which cards to unlock next, the order does correspond to events in the campaign story, so there is some reasoning behind the restriction. Playing a mission on a higher difficulty level earns more stars, but playing on “hard” is truly difficult; I wish there was something between the relative ease of “medium” and the trials and tribulations of “hard”. The Trouble With Robots lacks multiplayer (competitive and cooperative) of any kind, so you’re stuck playing against the computer and its preordained waves of attackers.

Before each mission, you can choose a number of cards (5-10, usually) from those that you have unlocked. There are forty in all, so choosing the best combination for the next scenario is half of the strategy. Cards can bring new units onto the battlefield (peasants, elves, dwarves, griffins, dragons, and trolls), heal units, increase attack ratings, or damage an area, and most come with an additional stipulation that works in concert with another card (like a ranged warden that gives a bonus to melee units, or extra peasants if you have a dragon). Each wave, you are given three cards drawn at random, and you simply click a card in order to play it. A magic wand with regenerating power restricts how often you can play cards, but you can save up power to unleash a flurry of activity. In addition to playing cards, you can use wand power to cause damage to a single unit, useful if you have no cards to play or there is a pesky unit bothering your defenses. Enemies include melee and ranged units, some more powerful (and annoying) than others. I felt that The Trouble With Robots provides a good amount strategy, from building your desk to playing the best cards at the right time. Failing a mission usually results in altering your deck and playing your cards more carefully. The Trouble With Robots takes an interesting take on card-based games and produces some good strategic gameplay.

The Trouble With Robots is a fine card-based strategy game. Successful gaming starts with choosing your deck with cards that compliment each other. There are plenty of choices to make, once you unlock them by progressing through the campaign, and each player will find their different style: ranged units, powerful melee troops, healing spells, massive destruction, unit buffs, or a combination thereof. The game is very easy to play: just click on the cards and the occasional enemy unit to zap it into oblivion. The deck size and casting time restrictions place the emphasis on strategy, saving up your best cards for just the right moment. The hands-off nature of unit control would be disappointing for micromanagers, but most of the missions are so chaotic that direct control would be tedious and impossible. The campaign features a series of linear, scripted missions; more uncertainty would increase the replay value, but the randomization of the cards you receive means the same scenario will play out at least a little bit differently each time. For me, the “medium” difficulty was too easy and the “hard” setting was too challenging, so more flexible options would be appreciated. The Trouble With Robots also lacks competitive multiplayer (either online or on the same computer), which would be a nice feature. In the end, The Trouble With Robots has some good gameplay and offers something different on the PC, with its card-based strategy focus.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hero Academy Review

Hero Academy, developed and published by Robot Entertainment.
The Good: Approachable game mechanics, cross-platform multiplayer, satisfactory unit variety
The Not So Good: Simplistic game mechanics, needlessly drawn-out games, bare settings options, abbreviated single player content, must purchase additional teams through DLC (or pay for the gold version)
What say you? This accessible online turn-based strategy game lacks the depth and PC-friendliness similar competitors offer: 5/8

The new online buzzword in turn-based games is “asynchronous multiplayer”: the ability to play multiple matches at one time, submitting turns when available to a central host. Of course, this feature has been around for quite a while in the form of play by e-mail, but most (if not all) gamers don’t like messing around with extra steps: why not have the game process the information for you? A handful of recent games, such as Frozen Synapse and Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue have used this kind of system with good effect. Next in line is Hero Academy, a turn-based tactical game from the Orcs Must Die! developer that was originally designed for mobile platforms but has now appeared on the PC. This particular entry features one-on-one battles with randomized characters of various classes attacking each other on a grid layout. Does Hero Academy offer satisfying tactical gameplay?

Because of the game's mobile heritage, Hero Academy features decidedly bland graphics in some areas. The character design is pretty decent, with cute 2-D portraits for each unit that are animated well during movement, attack, and when units are damaged. The maps are boring to look at, static backgrounds with poor detail serving as the battlefields for your destruction. The sound effects are basic and the music is generic. There is no voice acting, which is disappointing considering the Team Fortress license. Hero Academy does not let you change the screen resolution or alter the volume levels, two features so common in PC gaming that their exclusion is startling. Overall, Hero Academy looks and sounds like a $5 game.

The objective in Hero Academy is to kill the entire opposing team or destroy their crystals. Each team has twenty-eight units (twenty-four for the Team Fortress team) that randomly appear six at a time to be placed on the battlefield. Joining matches is easy: you can play against random individuals, people in your Steam friends list, Twitter followers, or search for a specific adversary. You can play multiple games at one time, and the game will let you know through the notification area (and the flashing taskbar icon) when it's your turn. The $5 game ships with two teams (the council and Team Fortress) and the rest can be purchased with the $15 gold pack or individually for $5 each. Yes, a single team is worth the same amount as the entire game. Oh, and you would like to change your team color? 99 cents, please. While the base price of Hero Academy is reasonable, the $15 required for unrestricted enjoyment is a bit steep for what you get. Each map layout (there are a handful that are recycled for each match) consists of deployment squares where new units may be placed and spaces that add attack or defense bonuses. The interface is straightforward, and helpful tool-tips describing each unit appear with a right-click. The tutorials describe the basics but are a bit too brief. Hero Academy focuses on multiplayer, but there are a series of single player challenges for each team (accessible even if you haven't purchased the DLC) that require you to eliminate the entire enemy team in five moves; they are exceedingly difficult and usually require one specific set of moves to complete.

There are five (if you buy them all) team in the game that focus on different strategies: you get the flexible Team Fortress and healing Council for free, and can buy the vampiric Dark Elves, area attack Dwarves, or offensive Tribe. Each team has the same types of units: melee, ranged, magic, healing, and tank, along with a couple of spells and items to buff or heal friendly units and damage enemy ones. Each unit has a movement and attack range, along with an attack type (physical or magical) and defense rating. Once a unit is knocked out, you have one turn to heal them, or the enemy can stomp on them to remove them immediately from the game. Overall, the unit variety is decent and allows for varied tactics during each match.

You get five action points to spend during your turn moving units, ordering an attack, calling in reinforcements, or using an item. This restriction requires very detailed planning so you don't waste moves or leave units in vulnerable positions. Key is using items that buff units at the right time, conserving them until you can eliminate troublesome units in one turn, and using the right units against the right opponents. Units cannot attack or move diagonally (that counts as two spaces), which is initially confusing (hex-based maps would have been more intuitive). Games last quite a long time, since there are so many units to go through, typically lasting one to two hours. This is certainly not the quick under-ten-minute matches of Frozen Synapse that I was expecting, and the game definitely drags on towards a conclusion. Getting stuck in healing loops (defeated units get revived the next turn by shielded healers) is a common afflicition, and the ability to stack units with several items can make powerful troops very hard to defeat. Five moves is just not enough most of the time to fully execute your plan, especially when both sides camp on their side of the map, not wanting to expose their units to powerful ranged attacks.

With only five moves per turn, Hero Academy really requires you to plan out what you want to do. You need to pay attention to the two types of damage in the game: each unit can deliver one type and sometimes defend against another. A lot of the planning involves fast math, calculating how far you can move and how much damage you can cause against specific units in the short time limit. A match can come down to using special abilities and items at the right time, and the map layouts, with their attack and defensive bonuses, can dictate where to camp. I found most games to last quite a while (longer than I had expected for a mobile title), and the propensity for some units to become overly powerful through stacked items can become annoying. Games certainly drag out longer than necessary, with stalemates developing when healing units are shielded behind strong attacking units. While the relatively simple nature of Hero Academy does make the game more intuitive (and ideal for those mobile devices), on the PC, increased depth is for long term enjoyment. Hero Academy works as a light strategy game, and the $5 price tag certainly warrants this level of involvement, but the priced DLC (or $15 all-included cost) is a bit distasteful. Hopefully DLC will be added that will allow you to change the screen resolution or volume within the game (only $20!). The online matchmaking works well and the single player challenges are, well, very challenging. While Hero Academy works as a good, inexpensive introduction to turn-based online strategy gaming, advanced tactics, quick game speeds, robust single player content, and PC-specific features are all lacking.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Symphony Review

Symphony, developed and published by Empty Clip Studios.
The Good: Uses custom music, extensive ship customization, interesting progressive damage
The Not So Good: Vague visual difference between enemies and pickups, irregular music-to-action matching
What say you? A music-based shoot-em-up with nice ship upgrades that could connect more with the tunes: 5/8

NOTE: I received a DRM-free review copy from the fine folks at, so, you know, give them all your monies.

Ever since Audiosurf blasted onto the scene in 2008, the music-based game genre has seen regular entrants. Allowing users to import custom tunes requires less development time making levels and avoids copyright violations. It's win-win! The latest attempt at adding music into our games is Symphony, which adapts the notes to the shoot-em-up arcade game. Not only does the game design its waves of enemies around your poor musical taste, but you also unlock new weapons and can customize your ship for future failures. Does Symphony sing a high note, or come out flat?

The overall graphical theme of Symphony is “glow bright”. The neon hues that dominate the game look futuristic and pleasingly chaotic when plenty of enemies and bullets are on the screen (which is most of the time). Of course, all of this bedlam comes at a price, as it’s really hard to differentiate between hostile enemy and friendly pickup when things are flashing across the screen. The distinctive enemy designs help, as you’ll instantly know their behavior pattern based on visuals. In addition, enemies exploding into music notes is a nice tough. Still, the visual overload is a bit too much for the strategic thinkers among us. Symphony has reasonable sound effects that accompany all of the rampant destruction, from enemies exploding to collecting power-ups. The boss also gets computerized voice work that’s infrequent enough not to become annoying. The music is, obviously, yours, and I must say it is really terrible. Overall, Symphony delivers solid, albeit confusing, graphic design.

In Symphony, you must liberate your music from five demons. Obviously. The game allows you to import any song from your library, filtering by artist or album (or simply displaying everything at once), and builds the levels from there. The on-screen action doesn't match the music as well as in some other music games: non-interactive elements to the side of the screen do mirror drum beats and the like, but the enemy movements have little to do with the ebb and flow of the music. You can predict when fast and slow sections are upcoming, but Symphony lacks rhythm with your music, tossing a seemingly semi-random assortment of enemy units at you. There are six difficulty levels that unlock gradually over time (as you defeat the aforementioned demons in a boss battle); they add more enemies at a faster rate, which can make the game very challenging. I like the inclusion of more diverse enemies at the higher difficulty levels, but their sheer numbers makes the game prohibitively difficult. The increased rewards for playing at a higher difficulty level are negated if you have to respawn every twenty seconds. Symphony also features online leaderboards, but I guess I have a really weird taste in music (or Symphony is just not that popular) because I lead every song I've played (except for one), no matter how badly I played it (on a related note, I'm still getting the occasional “dethroned” e-mails from Audiosurf, a good four years after I set most of my records).

Points earned during each song are spent unlocking and upgrading weapons and items. In fact, even if you don’t get the goal score, you still unlock something, although after the first ten or so songs you won’t need it (unless you want to double up on a specific weapon). There are several weapon types to choose from: missiles, spread, slow-firing-but-powerful, multi-direction, and so on. All of these can be upgraded as well, so there is something for everyone. The game doesn’t say what an item does (just the name) before you unlock it, so some of the musically-inclined items are a bit vague (care to guess what the “1812 overture” does?) and you may end up wasting your money. A strong aspect to Symphony is the ability to customize your ship with four weapons of your choice: you can alter their orientation and fire mechanism (left-click, right-click, or continuous). You can spend quite a bit of time tinkering with the perfect combination and alignment of weapons.

The enemy intensive is based on the music beat, and things definitely get more challenging as the songs get faster. You do not earn points directly for destroying enemies; rather, they drop musical notes (called “inspiration”) that you must collect to get your cash. This means you have to venture close to other enemy units to collect your prizes, a dangerous proposition when the screen is filled with fast-moving bad guys. The “inspiration” also heals your ship; as you get bombarded, the weapons on the damaged side of the ship get removed, which is a pretty neat mechanic. When you eliminate an entire wave of enemies, you get a bonus that upgrades your weapons, and a severe point penalty (plus a time delay for respawning) occurs when you die. As I mentioned earlier, it can be hard to differentiate between enemies and pickups amidst all the chaos, and the very fragile nature of your ship doesn’t help matters. Indeed, you’ll be seeing “RECAPITULATION” plenty as your ship respawns.

Symphony has a solid concept that falls just short. First off, the game difficulty is high on anything beyond the first two beginner levels because your ship is fragile and the screen is filled with enemies and things you have to collect. The confusing graphics do not help navigating through this chaos, and you'll accidentally run into things just trying to collect points. Your weapons (even when upgraded) also seem to lack the firepower required to dispose of the sheet number of enemies, though I like the ability to have auto-fire on the weapons of your choice. The fit of the game to the music is not as engrossing as in Audiosurf: things speed up and slow down properly, but the appearance of enemies seems to be somewhat randomized, and the connections to the beat are certainly not as obvious as in that other ground-breaking title. Symphony also has repetitive level design, despite the use of boss battles and (seemingly empty) leaderboards. The earned items and ship customization give incentive for pressing onward, and choosing your components and mounting them in the best directions is enjoyable. Still, Symphony needs to meld better with the music to create a more memorable experience.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy Review

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, developed and published by
The Good: Detailed units with realistic weapon ballistics and damage, authentic behavior and communication between units, lots of specific orders, real-time or turn-based gameplay, decent number of battles and campaigns, enhanced editor, capable AI, range of realism options
The Not So Good: Some cumbersome interface elements, bare multiplayer features, non-interactive tutorials, assorted graphical shortcomings
What say you? Satisfying strategic gameplay that lacks some feature polish common in contemporary titles: 6/8

While D-Day and Normandy get all of the attention, Allied forces invaded mainland Italy a full nine months before that other, more famous amphibious landing. The mountainous terrain proved difficult for the invading American and British armies, but a tough victory was eventually earned. This relatively novel landscape is the setting for Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, the latest entry in the series of simultaneous turn-based/real-time tactical strategy games. In addition to having locale-specific units to play with, new engine enhancements include improved graphics, moveable waypoints, and enhanced editing capabilities, plus a $55 standalone price tag. Is Combat Mission: Fortress Italy worth the investment for newcomers and veterans alike?

While the graphics of Combat Mission: Fortress Italy are improved over its predecessor, there are still several areas in need of improvement. The new version of the game engine has introduced better shaders and bump and normal mapping, along with better performance. While these are nice and all, far more noticeable problems are still present. The most common of these is clipping: units pass into the ground and through each other on uneven terrain and when moving near one another. It really hurts the immersion of the game, since the unit models are very detailed and the terrain is passable (the textures could be less “grainy”). Units also have occasionally spastic animations and can appear to slide across the terrain during animation transitions. The cowering animation is just plain silly as well. The command lines also pass through hills, which can make them difficult to see in Sicily’s mountainous setting. Weapon fire and explosions are canned, but sometimes effective during the chaos of war. The map detail is better than previous games in the Combat Mission series of games, but the maps still float against a monochrome background that looks terrible. On the sound side of things, the battle sounds are convincing yet repetitive, and the sporadic unit voice work adds some life into the game. The menu music is generic, but the background sound effects (distant gunfire and explosions) are done well. Overall, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy offers up some good graphics along with areas that fall short.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy covers the Allied invasion of Sicily during Operation Husky. Like previous entries in the series, the game features both real-time and turn-based modes; I prefer the turn-based mode where a minute of action plays out with no interaction, since it gives you an unlimited amount of time to plan between turns (useful for large scenarios) and you can skip through the replay if you wish. The standalone expansion offers three campaigns covering the U.S., Germany, and Italy; each campaign features five or six missions and occasionally offers variants based on user decisions and past performance. In addition, damage, ammunition, and morale values carry over for “core” units (the identities of which are not disclosed to the player) from mission to mission. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also has two three-mission tutorial campaigns; while it’s nice to have tutorials, you have to print out the documentation for them from the manual and read along, as none of the instructions are actually in the game. Seventeen standalone battles are also present, as are 250 quick battle map layouts, which is not as good as randomly generated content but close enough with so many options to choose from. Each battle can have a different environment (forest, rough, town), time of day, temperature, duration, size, and type (assault, attack, probe, engagement). Victory conditions include holding terrain, destroying or spotting units, and causing casualties and wounds to enemy soldiers. In the quick battle maps, you can also specify the units or have the computer pick random orders of battle for you.

Multiplayer options in Combat Mission: Fortress Italy are disappointing: there are hotseat, e-mail, and internet options, but PBEM is manual (there is no central service to handle transferring data like in Decisive Campaigns) and online play requires an IP address in advance, so matchmaking leaves a lot to be desired. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is certainly behind the times in offering painless multiplayer to the masses. The game features five levels of realism that alter friendly and enemy spotting, morale, healing, and artillery time. The middle setting (“warrior”) has realistic times without annoying friendly spotting rules, so it’s the option I choose. While having flexible realism is nice, the settings to not adjust the difficulty: you are still at the mercy of the scenario designer, who must give each side the right number of units for players of every skill level, obviously an impossible task. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy does allow you to make your own battles, however, and new features include the ability to use a map overlay for more realistic terrain and painting linear features like roads and fencing (no, not that type of fencing). Finally, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is available for both Windows and Macintosh, so that’s nice.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy has an occasionally cumbersome interface that hasn’t changed in five years. It starts with the obtuse camera controls that have become very obsolete. It took me a bit to figure out why I dislike the camera controls so much, and then it hit me: Combat Mission: Fortress Italy does not use the mouse wheel to zoom towards the cursor, a mechanic that most strategy games employ nowadays. This feature would make navigating the landscape so much easier, but instead you must rely on increasingly outdated and inefficient methods like the WASD keys and moving the mouse to the edge of the screen. You also have to shift-click to box select units and right-clicking controls the camera instead of issuing orders to units. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy places a floating icon above each unit that gives quick reference as to its type; it flashes when the unit is under fire, but the game never gives other pertinent information using the icons like the morale level. Also, the game never clearly shows where the bullets are coming from or if your units are firing, both of which may be helpful things to know in a strategy game. Accessing units can be difficult, as there is no master order of battle where you can select and zoom to units. You can click unit information boxes to zoom to their superior commander and vice versa, but that means you have to fine the unit or its HQ first using the aforementioned camera controls. The game is also very inconsistent displaying tool-tips: weapons and items have them, but ranks and leaders do not. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also lacks a minimap or easily accessible overhead perspective. Frankly, it’s surprising the number of areas that need improvement in the interface, considering the same game has had several expansions in the past five years of development since Shock Force.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features a wide range of orders to give to your units. The series is simply not satisfied with “move”, as there are a number of speed and organizational settings you can choose between: quick, fast, slow, hunt, assault, and reverse, along with marking mines and blasting gigantic holes in somebody’s house. “Attack” is also insufficient, as you can target, target light, set an arc for armor, deploy smoke, or change facing. You can also split infantry units into fire and assault teams, deploy weapons, bail out of a wrecked vehicle, or pause to coordinate actions. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy finally adds the ability to move waypoints (I can’t believe that wasn’t in there before), and you can stack orders of different types on the same waypoint, like moving fast, then targeting an arc while hiding. The tactical AI will also do some things automatically, like using nearby cover (very handy), healing wounded soldiers, sharing ammunition, and surrendering to the enemy (not handy at all). Artillery and air strikes are simple to use: pick a target (a point, area, or line), the rate of fire, duration, and a delay. Some scenarios have target reference points that can be placed before time starts for increased accuracy. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy certainly has an impressive array of specific commands to issue to your troops.

Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features all of the units that were involved in the invasion of Sicily. Highlights include the American M4 Sherman tank, M3A1 armored car, M1903A3 Springfield, and M1918 BAR, the German Panzer IVH tank, StuG IIIG self-propelled gun, Messerschmitt BF 109G6 fighter, and Karbiner 98K, and the Italian Renault R35 tank, Obice da 100/17 howitzer, and Breda M37 heavy machinegun. The game keeps track of individual rounds for every weapon each unit holds, adding to the realism Combat Mission: Fortress Italy offers. Units can have performance modifications based on their leader, current condition (tiredness), and morale. Combat Mission: Fortress Italy also features an impressive communication model: units outside of voice or sight range of their superiors will have reduced effectiveness and also be unaware of nearby enemy (and friendly, if you chose one of the higher realism levels) units they cannot see. The sporadic use (or complete absence, in the case of the Italians) of radios means keeping units organized is very important.

Morale is an important cornerstone of most strategy games, and Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is no exception: each unit can become pinned and eventually panic when under duress. Detailed damage reports are also available for armored units, informing you whether an incoming round penetrated the hull and what important piece of equipment is now destroyed. The visible bullet deflections when rounds hit the side of a structure is sometime most games do not model, and it’s effective here. The AI of Combat Mission: Fortress Italy continues to be solid, with pre-programmed strategy scripts (usually multiples per scenario) and on-the-fly tactical decisions. Units behave plausibly and the AI will sometimes use some nice strategies to break through defenses or encircle your forces. The computer will also surrender if you have a significant lead and destroy most of their troops, so you’re not stuck playing through thirty minutes of dead time.

While Combat Mission: Fortress Italy features minor enhancements to the game engine (moveable waypoints, armor target arcs, 2-D map editor overlays) that should really be patched in instead of being touted as new features, the amount of new content, in the form of the three campaigns, various battles, hundreds of quick battle maps, and the new theatre-specific units, justifies most of the standalone $55 price tag for fans of the genre. I say “most” because there is still room for improvement, starting with the increasingly outdated interface. The interface suffers from being essentially five years old, and I found the camera controls to be especially awkward: the inability to use the mouse wheel to zoom towards the cursor position really needs to be fixed. Finding specific units could also be improved by adding a master order of battle list. The graphics still have some areas of concern, and finding and coordinating multiplayer battles is difficult. Luckily for Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, the strong features of games past return: outstanding unit detail, accurate morale and damage, and realistic communication between units really make the game feel true to life. The AI is also strong, offering up varied strategies and plausible tactics during combat. While the amount of gameplay contained within the campaigns and battles is commendable (and can be expanded with the editor), the difficulty cannot be tweaked and the tutorials require a read-along with the manual instead of placing the instructions within the game. Overall, Combat Mission: Fortress Italy continues the strong aspects of the game engine but has several areas that need further enhancements beyond new content. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Death Rally Review

The Good: Shooting while driving with varied cars and weapons, winning not required to unlock new items, quick races, lots of in-race pick-ups
The Not So Good: Cars lack subtle control, very repetitive race format, poor online multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? This top-down combat racing game offers explosive, monotonous action with oversimplified driving: 4/8

In 1996, seminal shareware publisher Apogee released a combat racing game called Death Rally, the first title developed by Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment, who would later go on to develop obscure, niche titles Max Payne and Alan Wake. There’s always room for a reintroduction of combat racing games, so Death Rally has appeared on the PC after a soiree on mobile platforms. Sadly not featuring Jason Statham, Death Rally was, and still is, a top-down combat racer where you attempt to shoot the competition on the way towards triumphant victory. Does this reboot place on the podium when compared against contemporary racing simulations?

Death Rally features decent graphics for a top-down racing game. The atypical (nowadays) perspective limits the amount of detail you can show on the cars and tracks; subsequently, the cars aren’t animated well and appear fairly static during each race. The weapon fire is underwhelming (simple white lines, mostly), though explosions and vehicle damage can be decent. There is a digital effect when your vehicle health is low, which is both immersive and annoying. The track design is nice, with a variety of settings for each event and some obstacles and objects on and around each layout. The sound design is average at best, with appropriate (if repetitive) effects, sporadic voice acting that recycles the same sayings for each opponent, and a typical selection of rock music for the genre. Nothing is spectacular in the graphics and sound for Death Rally, but the results are what’s expected of an inexpensive casual title.

There is a story presented in Death Rally in the form of a comic book: you were **SPOILER** with a **SPOILER** and then **SPOILER** a **SPOILER** in the **SPOILER**.  The game is quite open ended, giving you a choice of seven races to choose from at any one time, in addition to longer “story” races that offer more specific objectives (like win or eliminate a specific competitor). The regular races are three lap circuits events that are over in about one minute, sometimes involving special rules (like only one lap, or head-to-head with a single opponent). There is also a loathsome deathmatch mode where you must rack up kills in an arena, but your computer opponent steals a lot of your kills with precise hits that are difficult to replicate. The races recycle the same set of tracks, but races are quick so you can switch locations often. Sometimes, you are offered a bonus before a race: you can blow up an opponent at the beginning of the race for a price, drive a better car for half the profits, or earn double cash for eliminating a specific racer. All of the races can be played online, and unlocks carry over between offline and online play. Joining an online match is difficult to impossible, as you have to select a specific track to race on and the game only matches you up with drivers searching for the same exact track. With so many specific track options to choose from, I never found anyone to play against. 

Yeah, I said unlocks. At the end of each race, you are awarded cash based on your position, beating a specific racer, number of kills, and setting a lap time record. Thankfully, you do not need to win to earn cash, as you can earn just as much (if not more) money getting kills (plus, you earn a small amount simply for participating). I routinely slowed down so that I could rack up more kills instead of floundering in second place. Oddly, all of the cash earned during a race must be spent immediately and entirely on your current vehicle, repairing damage incurred during the race and improving speed, handling, armor, and secondary weapon ratings. I’m not sure of the reason for this rule, as it removes the ability to use one car to earn upgrades for another; since new vehicles almost always start out being worse than your currently car (but can eventually be upgraded to higher amounts), you have to suffer through some poor finished with a new vehicle as you wait for the speed and handling values to steadily increase. Death Rally features a good assortment of new vehicles, tracks, and weapons you can unlock by collecting loot from destroyed vehicles (another incentive for destruction). I never felt like a large portion of the game was being restricted from me since you start out with a decent number of tracks, and the AI drives appropriately based on your progress through the game. Each car is equipped with a primary machine gun, one secondary weapon (shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle, flamethrower), and assorted tertiary items (mines, armored bumpers, laser sights), so you can choose (and upgrade) the weapon combination that best suits your driving style.

Driving in Death Rally is odd as there is no throttle control: you simply press the arrow keys or push a gamepad stick in the direction you wish to travel. You could consider the analog gamepad stick as a sort of throttle input (based on how far its pushed), but it certainly does not lend itself towards precise input. This method makes Death Rally easy to pick up and play, but leaves a lot to be desired in controlling your vehicle: I had a tough time slowing down and making tight turns, longing for the ability to drive with finesse. Buttons are used to fire your secondary weapon, use nitro, and drop mines. The primary weapon fires automatically if enemies are within range, which took me about an hour to figure out. The weapons add a meaningful layer to what otherwise would be bland racing. In Death Rally, it is inherently bad to have a small lead, since most of the weapons in the game are aimed forward. You can deploy some mines to keep those pesky stragglers off your tail, but it’s sometimes good tactics to slow down and surrender the lead so you can open fire on your opponents and remove them from the race. Pick-ups are scattered on the track that grant extra ammunition, cash, repairs, or nitro; since the cars are always driven at full throttle, nitro is a very important item that must be used to catch the leader. The AI drivers are fine opponents, firing at each other with good accuracy (though I would say unfairly so during the deathmatch mode) and not being noticeably robotic as they race around each circuit. The computer drivers don’t avoid incoming fire enough, making them easy targets, but the typically narrow track layouts make it difficult to do so.

Death Rally harkens back to the simple arcade games of yesteryear, with simple controls and fast races designed to be approachable and chaotic. Of course, these limitations means most races play out the same, and the dangling carrot of unlocking new content can only persuade so much. While I appreciate the fact that the races are short and you can choose between seven different events at one time to mix things up a bit, the grind of leveling up your cars and the sameness of the races do contribute towards tedium. I think that if the control scheme, which only relies on a direction for piloting your vehicle from a top-down direction, involved more finesse, then Death Rally would have increased longevity. Certainly, the lack of precise throttle control hurts. Death Rally has enough vehicles and weapons to keep things interesting, and the races feature lots of death amongst the rallying, although the matchmaking makes it almost impossible to find humans to race against. Overall, Death Rally is an update to the top-down racing game held back by repetitive races and the lack of nuanced control.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Miasma 2 Review

Miasma 2, developed and published by ESP Games.
The Good: Multiple characters to control with varied items and abilities, stationary units can be ordered to engage any nearby enemies, experience upgrades, $5
The Not So Good: Units cannot fire from behind cover, initially limited action points reduce tactical flexibility, very brief campaign, lackluster AI, no difficulty settings, no checkpoints and can't save mid-mission, can't customize controls
What say you? A turn-based tactical strategy game with a solid base that needs better use of cover and more content: 4/8

Rebellions against evil have been a stalwart of media since the dawn of the motion picture: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Bio-Dome. In the future, it’s just us verses the conglomerates that are bent on world domination. But what are we to do? Assault them in a turn-based format, of course. Miasma 2 is the sequel to…let’s see here…My Little Pony: The Runaway Rainbow. In it, you command an elite team of operatives who defeat the forces of evil by shooting them in the head. Justice has been served!

The graphics of Miasma 2 are pretty decent for a $5 title. The game is in 3-D, and the characters look good, with detailed textures and models. However, they move robotically with canned animations, and are far too expressive during conversation. The level design consists of outdoor environment that have some detail with recycled objects but are mostly too sparse to be a convincing urban landscape. Weapons are disappointing, as their designs don’t hold up next to the characters that are holding them, smoke trails from weapons are jagged, and death sequences are forgettable. The camera angles during turn resolution are terrible: they attempt to show the action from above but are simply spastic. The interface has some highlights: cover is clearly indicated in green and estimated damage is shown when selecting targets. The game shows whether you can still shoot after moving to selected locations, and objective locations are clearly indicated on the minimap. There are some areas that could have been improved: you can’t click on unit portraits or use the number keys to select members of your team (or use any other keyboard method to cycle through units; the game wants you to use a gamepad, apparently), and the game will tell you if there are units without orders, but not who they are or where they are located. Also, idle units should be given the “overwatch” command to automatically defend the area. The sound design is run-of-the-mill, with typical effects, generic background music, and no voice acting for a more convincing story. Overall, the presentation of Miasma 2 surpasses its asking price.

The turn-based action of Miasma 2 takes place over six campaign missions, each of which clock in at around 15-20 minutes. Doing the math, you can see the entire game can be completed in a couple of hours, which is much less content than usual in the strategy genre. You can replay the campaign and keep the upgrades you have earned over time, but since the enemy starting positions are scripted in advance, replay value is pretty low. Most missions have you attacking any enemy units along the way to an end waypoint, although the occasional defend mission does exist. You can choose between two main characters, and the other members of your team are also controllable during the missions. Between missions, the game is in first person as you wander around your base, engaging in conversation and purchasing upgrades for yourself and your teammates. The dialogue isn’t very interesting but you may (spoiler alert!) unlock things for your team (unconscious characters still talk at the end of missions, interestingly…the future is now!). Some of the upgrade locations are difficult to find, as there are no messages showing where things are in your base (I had to e-mail the developer directly to figure it out); I would be easier to navigate in menu format. Those upgrades include health, attack, defense, action points, and ability recharge, using points earned during missions. The game fails to inform you who is going to take part in the next mission, so you have no idea who to upgrade and you are likely to waste upgrade points. Cash earned can be spent on improved armor, fancy bullets, and iron sights to increase accuracy. The campaign mode lacks several needed features: you cannot save your progress during a scenario and there are no checkpoints, so you must replay the entire level if you fail. You are also given only one save game between missions, so you can’t have more than one active campaign or go back and retry previous missions. Miasma 2 is clearly designed with a console in mind, as you cannot alter the control scheme (or even figure out what they are, beyond the on-screen prompts) and the game refers to gamepad conventions on loading screens. Beyond the campaign, there is a survival mode where you eliminate waves of enemies; like the campaign, their placement is pre-scripted, but the large level gives you room to maneuver. To partially compensate for the lack of multiplayer, your best score in the survival mode can be uploaded online to compare your level of tactical awareness against the world.

As with most turn-based games, each unit under your control is given a number of action points that can be spent on various actions. Your options in Miasma 2 are fairly limited: move, attack, or use an item or ability. The interface clearly displays the limit of your movement each turn, so it’s fairly easy to get your bearings. There are no stance settings, and you can’t issue a move order to a place an ally is current standing. The attack order works as you would expect, although you cannot target enemies that are out of range or beyond line of sight at the beginning of the turn (although the might potentially move closer during turn resolution). However, Miasma 2 includes an “overwatch” command that allows stationary units to automatically fire upon any enemy that moves into their engagement range. This is a really handy tool that eliminates units staring at each other as they travel past, and prevents moving right in front of an enemy without any recourse. I’m glad that Miasma 2 figures out how to resolve this artifact of simultaneous turn-based gaming correctly.

Items at your disposal include healing and revival syringes plus grenades (frag, stun, EMP) for a more explosive approach. Each character also has a special ability that can allow themselves or a nearby unit to heal, camouflage, or stun. Sneaking behind an enemy unit allows for a one-shot stealth kill, and you get bonuses for shooting from the side or the back. Miasma 2 does not feature fog of war, so you can see exactly where all spawned enemy units are at all times. The cover system is odd: while you can hide behind the many objects scattered around each map, all of the characters stand when they move or fire. I’m pretty sure that you can both shoot and throw a grenade while still behind the relative safety of a wall. In Miasma 2, your units will receive damage as they slowly stand up, take a shot, and then slowly crouch back down. It looks silly and raises the question of having cover in the first place. The AI doesn’t help matters: it starts in set locations and follows seemingly scripted paths right towards your units, never using cover and usually displaying ignorance until fired upon. Miasma 2 works best when your team is together, using complimentary skills and providing cover fire. But despite some solid mechanics, the predictable AI makes for some bland combat where you just move from enemy to enemy, hoping you have enough health to survive their attacks as your units routinely expose themselves despite supposedly being behind cover.

Miasma 2 is a functional turn-based tactical game with a couple of faults that hold it back. The biggest flaw is the use (or non-use) of cover: units will automatically stand to move or shoot (even if moving to continuous cover right next to them), and nearby enemy units will immediately open fire. What’s the point of being behind cover if you can’t use it? The restricted number of action points available at the beginning of the campaign, before you can afford experienced-based character upgrades, means you can only do one thing per turn, which reduces the tactics you can successfully employ. While the game has a limited number of orders (move, shoot), there are a number of items and abilities that can be triggered, from grenades to healing to camouflage. The overwatch command, where idle units will automatically fire at incoming enemy units that start the turn out of range, saves Miasma 2 from a pitfall common to some turn-based tactical games. The lack of fog of war makes it easy to spot the AI, which usually follows scripted behaviors before you are spotted and makes semi-random decisions afterwards. The game’s features could have been greatly expanded: having only six missions and no multiplayer means you can burn through Miasma 2’s content rather quickly. The survival mode only offers mild additional thrills. Miasma 2 suffers from several forms of consolitis: you can’t save your game, and you can’t change the control scheme. The interface is halfway decent, however. In the end, Miasma 2 offers some nice tactical gameplay that is obscured by some questionable design issues and feature limitations.