Saturday, March 31, 2012

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare Review

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, developed by Radioactive Software and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Lots of units you can directly control, usually constant chaotic action, $10
The Not So Good: Severely crippled interface, no RTS controls or unit purchase in deathmatch mode, only one weapon per infantry unit drastically reduces tactical flexibility, can't reconfigure controls, can't host your own game, throwaway single player content
What say you? Very rough around the edges, this online third-person shooter and real-time strategy mix is full of partially realized potential: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As everyone knows, the American Civil War (or, as people, like myself, from the South call it, “VryheidsoorloĆ«”) was handily won by the French and Indians at the Treaty of Versailles. But what if irate Southerners went back in time, bringing machine guns, tanks, and zeppelins (because they are way better than stealth bombers) to bring the Confederacy to victory? This is the scientifically accurate basis of Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, which combines third person shooting with real time strategy, pitting sixty-four players and thousands of controllable units on the battlefield simultaneously. Is this madness, or brilliance?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a $10 game, so some shortcomings in the graphics and sound design are to be expected. That said, there are some nice areas to be seen in the game. Some of the unit models, such as the dual-chaingun-wielding heavy and the APC, have nice textures and a high level of detail. However, the animations can be stiff, or completely missing (in the case of some infantry units that eerily float across the battlefield), when movement is required. The maps are OK, complete with hilly landscapes, muddy ground textures, trees, and fencing that evoke the historic setting. Tracers and cannonballs screaming across the battlefield show the chaos of war well. Units do clip into and through each other, though, which hurts the immersion. The worst effect in the game is fire, which frankly looks terrible. Still, the graphics are passable as a whole. The sound effects are decent enough as well, with appropriate battle effects, funny (if repetitive) sayings spouted by the combatants, and fitting music for the period. Overall, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare looks like you would expect a $10 to look like.



ET AL.
Oh, those wacky physicists: they opened up a wormhole in 2065 to the past, and an enterprising Southerner sent tanks back in time to turn the tide of the Civil War. Gettysburg: Armored Warfare takes place across four maps from the Civil War (Gettysburg, Antietam, Seven Pines, and Shiloh), although there is no campaign that links the scenarios together. There is an offline practice mode where you can customize unit types (using 1860 designs, 2060 units, or both) and set unit points limits, which actually do nothing as you can recruit twelve units no matter what the limit is in army skirmish mode. Joining an online game is easy thanks to the in-game server browser, but you can’t host your own matches. Gettysburg: Armored Warfare also lacks a tutorial for those who like learning how to play.

The interface of Gettysburg: Armored Warfare makes playing the game a constant wrestling match (which is bad, since this is not a wrestling game). Using the mouse wheel doesn’t zoom toward the cursor position. You can’t use the minimap to issue orders (right-clicking on it sends units to the bottom-left corner of the current view), and the minimap consists of an unnecessarily zoomed-out view with tiny squares for units and objective locations. Units sometimes ignore orders, moving for a couple of seconds and then stopping, and attack orders do not work at all. You are never given notification that your units are under attack. While the army skirmish mode provides a handy list of all your units (good), double-clicking a unit in the list doesn’t center the camera on it. The number keys do not select units in the list (even though the manual says it does). Placing the mouse at the top or the bottom of the screen does not move the camera. Unit indicators (triangles showing whether they are friend or foe) sometimes disappear or don't show up at all, making identification difficult. Weapons (especially tanks and artillery) do no shoot where the aiming cursor is located. Objective location flags are blocked by the terrain (causing frequent disorientation), and the range to objectives is not provided. While the controls are typical (WASD to move, interact to scale walls, double-click to directly control a unit), you can’t reconfigure them for alternate keyboard layouts or personal preferences. In short (too late!), the interface is a gigantic liability.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare includes a number of different units to command and control on the battlefield. Some are historical units, like the cannon that’s best used on high ground, cavalry that runs fast but only gets a sword (and, thus, is completely useless in battle), and the ironclad ship that has limited use in the small bodies of water near each battlefield. Some are futuristic units like the dominating tank, artillery (used primarily for anti-air operations), armored personnel carrier (for carrying infantry), and zeppelin (for area bombardment, but a juicy, easy-to-see target). Infantry units include a mix of 1860’s and 2060’s units, but a single unit is limited to only one (one!) weapon: an assault rifle, sniper rifle, gatling gun, repair kit, medic kit, RPG, grenade, or mine. This means your role on the battlefield is one thing and one thing only, making infantry susceptible to every other kind of attack. It's tiring to take five minutes walking across the huge maps (because nobody using an APC actually waits for infantry to load up) with an RPG, ready to take out an enemy tank, only to get gunned down by an assault rifle with no way to counter. Plus, I don't even know if some weapons actually do anything: I've fired countless RPGs and heard them launch but I've never actually seen them; missing animation or broken weapon? As it stands, all infantry units are just there to look nice and get blown up by tanks. Thing is, there is a really easy fix to this problem: just give each infantry unit one rifle (assault, sniper, or 1860’s) and two support items (RPG, mine, grenade, repair kit, medic kit, knife, or pistol) that the player can choose. This would give infantry flexibility on the battlefield to at least make them somewhat important to the outcome of the battle. Hey, there are three weapon slots, so why aren’t they being used? This kind of confusing limited design permeates throughout Gettysburg: Armored Warfare.

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare comes with two game modes: deathmatch and army skirmish. The deathmatch mode supports 64 players, but the large battlefield spreads out the action somewhat. That said, battles can be chaotic fun when several to many evenly-match units are hammering away at each other near the objectives. In the deathmatch mode, there are no RTS controls, odd for a game that advertises RTS controls. In addition, you can’t buy specific units to place on the battlefield (the game spawns a predetermined selection). Instead, units just stream from the base towards the closest objectives until a human double-clicks on them and takes direct control. Because of this, deathmatch becomes a mad dash for tanks and zeppelins, and everyone who loads up the map seconds too late is stuck with useless infantry and cavalry. This game mode would be vastly improved with a commander (or two) that could give orders to units not under direct human control. This would integrate the game’s RTS features into the deathmatch mode, and drastically increase the organization of deathmatch games. As it stands now, deathmatch in Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is really just a third-person shooter.

Army skirmish is the more interesting game mode that plays out more like I envisioned Gettysburg: Armored Warfare to be, although it only supports four players unlike the sixty-four of deathmatch mode. Each person can field twelve units a piece, then give orders and directly control their units. Orders include the usual RTS nassortment of move, attack, attack ground, formation (square, circle), and stance (aggressive, defensive, hold). These are basic options to be sure, but enough to get your units moving towards the objectives you desire. The long objective capture time and lengthy travel time means that army skirmish battles last considerably longer than their deathmatch counterparts, but this allows for counter-attacks and flanking. Of course, the issues giving orders and other interface limitations I mentioned earlier make this mode tough to manage, but it’s still more interesting than the deathmatch option from a strategy perspective. In the army skirmish mode, you have greater control over your army, specifying which twelve unit types to use and sending appropriate units to counter the enemy forces. It’s more thoughtful than the chaotic (albeit frequently enjoyable) mess of deathmatch mode. As for the AI, I found the computer opponent to be sufficient: they attack objectives and will fire at you when you are spotted, although they do not coordinate attacks using units that move at different speeds. Curiously, the AI will not drive any vehicles in offline deathmatch mode, pitting you at an instant disadvantage unless you can drive six tanks at once (spoiler alert: you cannot). Ultimately, I’d really like to see the army skirmish mode expanded (supporting more players that control less units), or integrated somewhat with the deathmatch mode (by using the commanders feature I mentioned earlier), to combine the strategy of the army skirmish mode with the action of the deathmatch mode.

IN CLOSING
Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a good, incomplete idea. I can see glimpses of fun, exciting gameplay in the online battles, but it’s tough to see through all the shortcomings. First, there are so many things wrong with the interface in its current state that playing Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a chore: zooming to units, successfully giving orders, correctly identifying enemy (or friendly) units, finding objective locations, controlling units, using the minimap, and moving the camera are all hit or miss. The deathmatch mode is crippled for unknown reasons: you can’t use any RTS controls (instantly removing half of the game) and can’t purchase units, which puts you at the mercy of your computer’s loading speed: which unit you can grab first at the beginning of the match? Some of the unit choices are inspired, although I’m not sure why the future would use zeppelins instead of jets, but whatever. However, it’s a terrible idea to give infantry units only one weapon, offering a choice between carrying a grenade OR an assault rifle OR an RPG OR a sniper rifle OR a medic pack, instead of utilizing the secondary slots that are clearly in the game but locked from use. This is a huge limitation that makes fielding and controlling infantry, especially in deathmatch mode, a grave mistake. Much more interesting is the more organized army skirmish mode, which only supports four players and you can't make your own server. This structured setting plays out better with a true mix of strategy and shooting, and you can try it out online against the inconsistent AI. I'd like to see where the game stands in another six months or so of development when the interface, infantry weapons, and game modes have been (hopefully) more fleshed out. As it stands now, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is a rough $10 experiment that the truly curious might consider checking out.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Omegalodon Review

Omegalodon, developed and published by North Of Earth.
The Good: Interesting team-based gameplay, numerous vehicles to use, destructible city setting
The Not So Good: No single player content, inconsistent physics, insufficient interface, no in-game help
What say you? This indie online action game could use some more features and polish: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
With the international popularity of Godzilla, it surprises me that a computer game hasn’t been developed using the license. Sure, there have been plenty of console adaptations, but nothing gracing the PC. That is, until now! Omegalodon (a name, when translated, that means “rolled sushi”) pits a gigantic monster and his hippie allies against the city and its military, with lots of explosives at their disposal. Will they stop the creature from destroying the city?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Omegalodon uses “retro” graphics, which usually means “crappy”, but here it works pretty well. The computerized, blocky font is the starting point. Next, the pixilated nature of vehicle and building design, which maintain a square theme throughout the game. That said, there is some good detail in the buildings (specifically the windows and lack of repetition). However, the building destruction leaves a bit to be desired, as buildings just move downward towards the ground and then turn into a grey pile of dust: pretty anticlimactic. Omegalodon himself looks like a giant blue walking lizard and could have had more varied attacks animated. The 3-D graphics are limited in one area: you can’t tilt your view. Other than that, though, I found the graphics to be designed well. The sound is much more basic, with repetitive effects and underwhelming voice acting that accompany a radio station occasionally broadcasting the in-game events. Overall, though, Omegalodon delivers $10 worth of graphics and sound design.



ET AL.
Omegalodon wants to destroy the city. His anger towards humanity is not explained, but the nuclear reactor at the city center is the target. The city itself is quite large, and the monster’s path is restricted by laser walls to increase the game round time. It takes about fifteen to twenty minutes (of the thirty-minute round) of constant walking to reach the reactor, which cannot be adjusted for shorter, more intense games. The game is online only, supporting thirty-two players; this means you must find others to battle against (a tough task for any indie game) as there is no AI in the game. Games are generally unorganized, but sometimes people actually balance the teams and go after the objectives. Joining matches is easy thanks to the server browser, but there doesn’t seem to be any server balance options and you can't see how many people are on each team before joining the mayhem. Omegalodon also lacks a mini-map (though there is a full-screen map, that (obviously) obscures the whole screen) or an arrow pointing to the monster’s current location to get your bearings. Omegalodon also lacks an in-game tutorial or reference to the game controls, for those that forget to consult the readme file first before playing.

Players are divided up into two teams: Omegalodon plus environmentalist wackos that can heal the monster by staying close by, and the military and police, armed with rocket launchers and mines (respectively) to take down the monstrous threat. Omegalodon’s health is constantly reduced, replenished by causing damage to any buildings or trees from any player. Because of this, the police and soldiers must be careful in placing their destruction, as if they tear down a building the monster will benefit. Controls are typical: WASD to move, various primary and secondary attacks with the mouse, and enter vehicle. What’s that, “enter vehicle”? Oh yes, Omegalodon includes a wide range of vehicles humans from either team can enter (Omegalodon himself is a bit too large to use a pickup truck). These include cars, tanks, helicopters (both transport, which can pick up objects, and attack varieties), boats, planes, and jets. All of these utilize the same questionable physics: most everything (including the players when walking) moves as if they are on glass, sliding across the ground. Things are also unpredictable when cars slam into each other or a building. Helicopters also bounce when they attain their maximum height, which is a very odd sight. I don’t mind exaggerated physics, but the results need to be predictable within the game world. Because of friendly fire, destruction needs to be directed at Omegalodon (or his attackers), made more difficult by the lack of a aiming cursor. It’s really hard to kill other players unless you crash into them or cause their vehicle to explode (by crashing into them). That said, a large game with numerous players can really be chaotic fun, with planes and cars and mines and rockets exploding around Omegalodon as the two teams attempt to protect or destroy him.

IN CLOSING
Omegalodon is a simple action game with a nice theme that carves a small niche in the online market. While one player controls the gigantic protagonist, other players will either assist Omegalodon on his mission of destruction, or attempt to stop him at all costs. Available to both sides is a large array of vehicles with varying abilities, from jet fighters to police cruisers. These exhibit arcade, exaggerated physics, which would be fine if they were more consistent when things start to collide. The city can (and will) undergo significant destruction, with large skyscrapers tumbling down to replenish the health of the hulking beast. While the graphics have a nice retro style, Omegalodon lacks features in several areas. First, the game is online only, so you can’t practice against the AI. Also, the interface could use some fine tuning, as Omegalodon lacks all of the following: an aiming indicator, an arrow showing the current monster location, and a minimap. You also cannot tilt your view or access in-game help. So while Omegalodon could use some improvements to make the game more user-friendly, there is a good amount of online mayhem for a reasonable $10 fee.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Orbitron: Revolution Review

Orbitron: Revolution, developed and published by Firebase Industries.
The Good: Constant action, informative HUD, only $5
The Not So Good: Distinct lack of weapon and ship variety, very little strategy involving when and whom to shoot, one level layout with disorienting background graphics, few enemy types, can't customize controls, no multiplayer components
What say you? This score-based side-scrolling arcade shooter has a severe lack of deep tactics and diversity: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
As we expand human influence beyond our world onto others, we must secure our new holdings with defensive emplacements to keep the aliens at bay. What aliens, you say? I’ve watched enough of The History Channel to know that aliens are real and a severe threat to humankind. Training simulations for dealing with this future threat have been around for some time, starting with a detailed simulation of rock-based attacks and a haunting documentary of alien abduction. Next in the government-approved lineage is Orbitron: Revolution, where you and your trusty spaceship must orbit a circular space station and shoot any enemy comers. What will Orbitron: Revolution add to the genre? Will you be able to defend Uranus?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Orbitron: Revolution features some nice graphics for a $5 indie game. The futuristic space setting is full of metal, starting with the detailed ships exhibiting nice texture work and minor animations. The enemies are somewhat varied (considering their limited count) in design, and the few weapons are plausibly powerful. Explosions will fill the screen as enemies are destroyed, although things blow up and removed from the display quickly, so you never see a lot of on-screen wreckage. The single level layout is full of details that look great running in the background. The problem is, everything is metallic, which means the ships in the foreground and the station in the background visually interfere with each other, making it difficult to spot enemies and successfully engage them. Maybe that’s the point, but I would much rather have had a simple space backdrop to fight against where you could easily see what you are doing. The sound effects are appropriate, although since you’ll be holding the trigger down more often than not the shooting sound tends to get repetitive. Explosions are a bit understated, but voices warnings for incoming waves blend well into the game. The techno music fits the theme of the game, although some might find it annoying after a while. Still, given the price, Orbitron: Revolution offers good value in terms of graphics and sound design.



ET AL.
Orbitron: Revolution is a 2-D shooter that takes place in a 3-D setting: a circular space station. And I should emphasize a circular space station, because there is only one level in the entire game. It works quite well within the confines of the game, allowing you wrap around the action, but having only one setting is quite limited. There are occasionally two obstacles (boosts and laser defenses), but other than that you are free to fly without any inhibitions. Orbitron: Revolution lacks difficulty settings so you can adjust the game to your skill level. There are three game modes to play: a countdown mode, where you eliminate waves of enemies within a three-minute time limit, a guardian mode where you must protect four locations from enemy drills, and a survival mode (called “extra” for no discernable reason) where you only get one life. Each of these modes takes right around three minutes, so you can see the entire game in ten minutes. Replay value is low: the “point” is to chase higher and higher scores, but Orbitron: Revolution lacks an online high score list. There also isn’t cooperative play (either on the same machine or online) to enjoy with a friend. The game is only $5, but it sure is light on the features.

Controls are meant for a gamepad, although you can use an odd keyboard setup as well (the WASD keys plus enter, equals, and right shift). If you don’t like the controls, too bad: there is no way to change them. In fact, the controls are flashed up during a loading screen and never seen again; I still can’t remember which button is for “wavebomb” and which button is for “powershot”. You also cannot use the mouse (for a more traditional PC control scheme). The best part of the game (sadly) is the interface, namely the minimap along the bottom of the screen that displays colors for different enemy ship types. It’s really handy.

There are two ships you can choose from with absolutely no differences between them (so why have them?). You also get only one primary weapon: a laser. You can’t customize or upgrade weapons and don’t have to worry about conserving power while firing: just hold down the fire button the entire game. Tactics haven’t evolved in thirty years, apparently. You are given two special weapons (a powerful single shot and an explosion around your ship) that can be used once you collect enough power cells dropped from killed enemies. Problem is, it takes such a long time to accumulate enough power to fire one special weapon that they really don’t matter in the tactics of the game. The enemy types are basic: fast ships, slow ships, and exploding ships make up the generic shooting gallery. The most challenging enemy is the fast mover, but since you can track them on the minimap, you can avoid them if you’re paying attention. Death is a minor inconvenience: just a short respawn and possible reset of your score multiplier that doesn’t really matter since there isn’t an online high score list to compare against.

IN CLOSING
Sadly, Orbitron: Revolution isn’t much of a revolution, offering standard arcade shooter fare devoid of variety. The good news: I like the HUD, as it shows the positions of all enemy units so you can fly towards the areas of greatest concern, and the graphics are nice. However, Orbitron: Revolution has limitations in too many areas. First, the controls cannot be customized and you can't use a mouse. There are two identical ships with only one primary weapon, and you can simply hold down “fire” for the entire game as there is no energy management. The two special weapons (an area bomb and powerful shot) take too long to earn, making their strategic use very limited. The enemies are also very generic (fast, slow, exploding) and the single level only has occasional obstacles restricting your path. The level is nice, but the background is too distracting, making it hard to pick things out when the going gets tough. Each of the game's three modes takes about three minutes each to complete and are all played generally the same (shoot everything). In essence, you experience everything the game has to offer in ten whole minutes. In order to stand out in a crowded genre, you have to offer something unique, and the circular levels of Orbitron: Revolution simply aren’t enough.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Save My Telly Review

Save My Telly, developed and published by Behold Studios.
The Good: Really varied objectives, free-form construction
The Not So Good: Few levels with repetitive hazards, exaggerated physics makes item placement difficult, stability issues when full-screen
What say you? This objective-based physics construction puzzle game could benefit from more features and less sensitive physics: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Before the depths of the Internet rotted our brains, a sinister idiot box was responsible for lowering intelligence across the globe: television (movies, too, I guess, but this is my introduction!). What would we do without television? Spend time with our families? Enjoy the great outdoors? The horror! No, television must be protected. And protected it shall be, by you, of course. Nature is trying to ruin our fun through rain, earthquakes, wind, and alien attacks. Save My Telly has you constructing makeshift buildings to keep the elements away from the precious. And then we take the precious...and we be the master!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Save My Telly utilizes simple 2-D graphics, clearly rooted in the game's browser-based pedigree. All of the game's graphics consist of plain bitmaps that may exhibit some nice, albeit repetitive, animations (such as the main character's reaction to the various disasters). You can see informative visual damage to items as well, and the backgrounds flow well with the theme of the game. The interface makes it easy to understand what's going on without a reliance on text. I should note that I suffered many stability issues (crashes to the desktop) while playing the 64-bit version full-screen (thankfully the game saves your objectives as they are completed), but did not encounter any issues when playing in a window. The few sound effects are appropriate for the on-screen action, and the musical themes for each map are almost memorable and not annoying. Overall, $4 is an appropriate amount to describe the graphics that Save My Telly has to offer.



ET AL.
The goal of Save My Telly? To save your telly, of course! And no, not the one that loves triangles. The game features only four levels that feature flat, hilly, icy, and small island terrain. Each level also recycles the same handful of hazards as well (snow in the icy level, aliens in the flat level) so things get repetitive quickly. You always start with the same items on a single map, but from there it’s up to you, so after a couple of levels things will look quite different for different players based on the disasters that are presented. What saves Save My Telly from sheer monotony are the fun objectives. You are given three at a time, and they may include surviving a specific number of rounds, destroying your TV a certain way, only using specific types of items, or surviving by using no items at all (which just becomes a matter of luck, depending on which hazards randomly spawn). You must complete all three objectives to unlock three more, and completing objectives unlocks new items and levels. Some of the later objectives are very difficult (requiring perfection over several levels), so you could potentially get stuck with one last objective in each group of three and unable to progress any further in the game. Still, the objectives make Save My Telly a far more interesting game than simply surviving each round, which gets repetitive and frankly boring.

You are given sixty seconds between rounds to order and arrange your items, which is plenty of time to alter your design for the next threat. Things are moved by clicking and dragging with the mouse, and rotation is accomplished using the A and D keys (I will note that Save My Telly lacks a “quit” button; I assume the developer thinks you’ll be playing the game forever and ever). Items are varied and intuitive: hay bales, crates, wood, rocks, and metal beams are provided to shelter your television. You are given income between rounds based on the number of survived items, and newly purchased items are airdropped in (which can damage the things they land on). Each hazard the game throws at you has an appropriate counter: wood stops rain, steel stops wind, straw stops earthquakes, rocks stop grasshoppers, snow stops snow, a tall stack of things stops rising water, and a bunch of stuff on top of your television stop aliens and meteor impacts. As you progress through a single map, more damage is caused by these disasters, and eventually you will lose your T.V. Your character is able to repair, glue together, or screw together items every couple of rounds, so you can progress a while with the same items. The physics in the game are…interesting, a little too “bouncy” for my tastes. Placing objects with precision is difficult because things bouncy off each other too easily, as if they weight next to nothing. You can easily knock expensive items off the screen as you try to rearrange your defenses, and getting things to fit together just right can be a pain. While some might find the over-the-top physics to be satisfactory, I would like to see an option to tone things down a tad.

IN CLOSING
Save My Telly is an interesting puzzle game thanks to freedom in constructing your defenses against the elements and the assorted objectives the game provides. Success isn't simply survival: in order to progress through the game and unlock new levels and items, you must complete a series of objectives with specific conditions like only using a specific item type, not purchasing new things, or destroying your TV during a certain turn. This adds a lot of variety to the game and makes you replay the same four levels over and over and over again. While there are eventually a number of different conditions you must combat and items to combat them with, the hazards repeat themselves quite often. Once you figure out which items are best for every hazard (which takes about five minutes to do), Save My Telly becomes easy. Dealing with the wacky physics may not be easy, though, as items have little to no weight, easily jostling around while you are attempting to carefully place protective structures. I thought this part of the game could have been toned down significantly to make item placement less annoying. I did have some severe stability issues when playing in full-screen mode, but these were remedied by going to a window. At $4, Save My Telly offers just enough replay value, thanks to its objectives, to appeal to physics-based puzzle fans.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Defenders of Ardania Review

Defenders of Ardania, developed by Most Wanted Entertainment and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Simultaneous attack and defense, tower placement can dictate enemy (and friendly) unit movement, good unit and tower strategic variety, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Poor scenario balance provides too many resources and not enough units and towers, occasionally inert AI, few differences between races
What say you? This competitive tower defense game adds variety by protecting your castle while storming the opponents’: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Classically, tower defense games have entrusted you (yes, you) with placing turrets, lasers, machine guns, and other assorted hardware to stop a seemingly endless horde of enemy units. But what if you are attempting to storm an enemy stronghold at the same time? This is the question raised by Defenders of Ardania, a tower defense game where you must place the defenses while ordering units to attack the castle of the opposition. This competitive tilt gives you more to do and keep track of as helpless soldiers meet their untimely doom. Does this unique approach deliver solid strategic gameplay?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Defenders of Ardania takes place in the world of Majesty 2 but offers nothing special in terms of graphics or sound design. It’s all generic fantasy stuff, from the unit designs to the towns and the towers. While the three races in the game fundamentally look different, there is not enough detail up close (with fewer polygons than I’d like to see) to produce plausible fantasy characters. The maps show a variety of terrain elements (farms, castles, towns) that do convincingly evoke a fantasy setting. The towers look, well, like towers, that stand out against the background (possibly on purpose so you can spot them more easily). The weapon effects are occasionally neat, especially those that use fire or electricity. Things do get pleasingly chaotic when multiple teams are fighting on the same map, but normally you're zoomed out too far to appreciate some of the visuals. As for the sound design, things are at their most basic: the sound effects are repetitive but effective, the voice acting ranges from average to annoying (the poor Sean Connery impression was grating from the start), and the music utilizes recycled dramatic themes. Overall, Defenders of Ardania comes right in at budget-level in terms of graphics and sound.



ET AL.
It’s time to defend Ardania, you Defenders of Ardania. The campaign has you traversing the various environments of Ardania, beating back foreign threats with towers and units. The eighteen maps do offer some varied layouts, but generally the objective remains the same: destroy the enemy castle. The scenarios also last too long due to high castle health and suffer from poor balance due to low unit and tower limits. You also cannot save your progress mid-mission, which can be a problem in the longer scenarios. The tutorial is plodding as new items are gradually introduced during the campaign, though the dialogue can be skipped using the “enter” key. Given the game’s competitive nature, you can play any of the campaign’s maps online. With support for two or four players (depending on the map), you can play a free-for-all format, two-on-two, or team survival against the AI. Instead of waiting for castles to be destroyed, you can introduce a time limit with a victory condition like sudden death, the highest score, or ending in a tie. Everything is unlocked online, so you are not at a disadvantage taking on humans before finishing the campaign. While I’d like to see more maps (and maybe an editor, too), there is enough replay value in the larger maps to extend the life of the game.

The interface of Defenders of Ardania is mouse-driven, but units, spells, and towers are only listed three or five at a time, requiring you to unnecessarily scroll to see the rest of the available items. You can access unit production, spells, upgrades, and combat focus quickly by using the right-mouse button, which is a handy feature. Still, the game doesn’t fully take advantage of higher resolution displays, but that’s my only (admittedly minor) complaint levied towards the interface. During the game, you’ll need to deploy towers and send units to destroy the enemy castle. There are three races in the game (humans, animals, and dead things) and they all basically have the same stuff, with the exception of a couple of special units for each side. Your first task will be to place towers. These are generally designed to combat a single unit type (swarmers, air, tanks, sprinters) or provide support (repair, blocking paths). A handy grid shows where you can place towers, and you must place towers within a specific radius of other towers, slowly expanding your coverage away from your base. Most maps allow for flexible placement of towers, and you can place things to obstruct and re-route enemy unit movement, which is pretty interesting. However, the tower limit is never high enough to cover all of the possible paths, and on the really large maps, significant stalemates can result as each side can only control a small portion of the grid. Still, playing off the enemy tower placements and altering your plan during a mission is certainly an intriguing dynamic.

While you are carefully placing towers for defense, you will also queue offensive units to attack the enemy castle. Each of the unit types (from basic to tank to flying to fast, plus a couple of race-specific variations like invisible and anti-tower units) must be sent in waves and can’t be interacted with directly. Thus, it is a good strategy to send slow units first and faster units later, so they arrive at the enemy castle at the same time (overwhelming the enemy turrets). You can set rally points for units to pass by during their march towards the enemy, or place a bounty on an enemy unit or tower to concentrate your attacks. Unit classes gain experience points over time, which gradually improve their stats (and increase their cost) and eventually unlock a powerful hero unit that can heal others and deal more damage. Between the tower and unit types, there are many different strategies you can employ as you attempt to take down the enemy stronghold.

Money used to buy units and towers slowly trickles in over time, but you also gain a chunk of cash by destroying enemy units (it’s like recycling, but deadlier!). In addition, you can place towers on resource zones to further accelerate your income. Cash can also be used to cast spells on the map, destroying enemy units and towers or repairing your own. Even with building towers, recruiting units, and casting spells, the low tower cap, low unit cap, and high resource levels means you’ll have to accelerate time more often than not, as you sit around unable to construct any more towers, waiting for your units to slowly move across the map and slowly destroy the enemy castle. You can purchase upgrades to your towers and economy while you wait, but the game pace is still too slow. The AI is occasionally competent, especially at the beginning of each game, sending out waves of units before you are prepared and placing effective towers near their castle. However, there's a point in each game where the AI just kind of gives up and fails to adjust their tower placement while spamming the same units over and over again. Because of that, the game becomes pretty easy to beat once you unlock enough different components to counter any of the AI’s plans that will remain static after a couple of minutes into each mission.

IN CLOSING
Is the two-part gameplay of Defenders of Ardania enough to make it stand out? Besides the uniqueness provided by being on both offense and defense simultaneously, the game offers other innovations to the genre. Most significantly is the ability to place towers to block enemy paths, effectively funneling units towards your more powerful towers and away from the enemy’s. There is also nice variety in the types of towers, allowing for different complimentary strategies. Units are also varied in their abilities, and you must coordinate your unit production so forces converge at the same time and overwhelm the enemy towers. While you don’t interact directly with your units, you can place rally markers and bounties to highlight important places to attack. Defenders of Ardania does suffer from some poor mission design: typically you are given too many resources and nothing to spend them on, especially during the early missions when you don’t have everything unlocked. There are also low caps for towers and units (until you spend the cash to slightly expand them during a scenario), which restricts your strategic freedom. The high castle health drags games out too, so you will need to accelerate time and wait for the enemy stronghold to slowly crumble. The AI can place effective towers and mount successful attacks, but it can also fail to update its placements when alternative strategies need to be employed. The eighteen map campaign offers some challenging scenarios but rarely sways from the same “destroy everyone” objective. Multiplayer is great fun, although I’d like to see more maps that offer varied paths towards the enemy (or a map editor so the community can get involved). Overall, Defenders of Ardania offers a unique take on the tower defense genre with competitive play and tower placement that dictates unit movement.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tropical Stormfront Review

Tropical Stormfront, developed and published by Noble Master Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, robust skirmish mode with multiple options, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Terrible interface, inconsistent AI, completely unfair campaign missions, arbitrarily slow default resource collection, no online play
What say you? This real time strategy game is held back by a wholly tedious, limited interface and extremely unbalanced mission design: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Just what are you supposed to do with hundreds of billions of dollars and 1.5 million active personnel? Fight a war, of course! Computer games allow aspiring military generals to blow things up, without all that inconvenient death and destruction. Tropical Stormfront is such a game, recalling the simpler times of Command & Conquer with basic units clashing on the field of battle. Offering a single player campaign that tells the tale of international leaders fighting over tropical islands (and possibly a storm front), does Tropical Stormfront successfully revive lost feelings of nostalgia?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Tropical Stormfront are bright and colorful, something different in the usual gloom and gritty realism of real-time strategy games. Some might not like the visuals used for the game, but I enjoyed them, finding them strongly reminiscent of Empires of Steel. The maps consist of bright blue oceans and bright green land with bright yellow beaches. The trees and rocks are less bright, but you get the idea. The units are detailed enough to be visually identified and exhibit some detail, but you can tell they are 2-D sprites erratically rotated as they traverse the map. Explosions are repetitive but effective, and units exhibit smoke when damaged. Overall, I didn’t find much fault with the graphics of Tropical Stormfront. The sound design is another matter. While the battle effects are OK (though as repetitive as the graphics), the repetitive voice commands and overly dramatic music do annoy after extended periods of play. Still, the overall presentation of Tropical Stormfront is good enough for its $10 price tag.



ET AL.
The real-time strategy of Tropical Stormfront starts with a twenty-five mission campaign presented in a linear order. In it, you’ll find extremely difficult, unbalanced scenarios that commonly place you against two or three AI opponents with significantly better resources. The lopsided mission structure gets old quickly, although there is some mission variety with capture the flag or defend scenarios with the usual “kill everything” tasks. Still, a challenging game is fine, but challenge should stem from a competent AI opponent, not trying (and failing) to fend off superior numbers of equal units. On the flip side, the skirmish mode is very well done and feature-filled. You can choose from several game rules, from deathmatch-oriented supremacy mode to capture the flag to a timed defense, each of which generates a random island-based map. You can also choose to play any of the campaign missions (even if you haven’t unlocked them), allowing you to effectively skip past the tougher scenarios and customize the options somewhat. Those options include your nation, the number of players, players per team, fog of war, the presence of a commander unit (which, if destroyed, instantly eliminates that player), starting money, income rate, and time limit. You can also press the “randomize” button to come up with really crazy combinations. The only limitation in the skirmish mode is the lack of online play, which is always disappointing in a strategy game. Tropical Stormfront comes with a very brief tutorial, with text at the end explaining things they forgot to make you do during the introductory mission. Finally, Tropical Stormfront is available for several computing devices: Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and mobile operating systems. Despite the annoying nature of the campaign missions and lack of online play, the skirmish flexibility and multiplatform compatibility of Tropical Stormfront are great.

The interface is a huge area of concern, which is a significant problem in a strategy game where all you do is interact with the interface. Allow me to elaborate. First, you can’t change anything, a problem if you prefer alternative control schemes in your strategy game. Second, selecting units that are near each other can be impossible. Double-clicking a unit, normally used to select all units of a certain type, doesn't do anything, which is initially confusing for gamers raised on PC strategy games. Even worse, there are no keyboard shortcuts whatsoever (you can’t even press escape to bring up the game menu). This means you cannot shift-select or control-select specific units and place them in a group, as Tropical Stormfront only allows for imprecise box selection. This becomes an even bigger issue when you attempt to tediously load and unload units from bases and transports. Each base can hold up to eight units (a transport can hold four), and all units are spawned within the base that produces them. Since you can’t select specific, multiple units with the shift or control keys (or unload all units at once), getting those units out is truly time consuming: click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, click the destination, click the base, click one unit, and click the destination. As you can imagine, this is a huge problem when you are under attack or trying to coordinate an assault. Tropical Stormfront also lacks tool tips (so you just have to guess what each unit type is based on its icon). I suspect that Tropical Stormfront was most likely designed for touch-screen mobile devices first, and then barely ported to the PC. I detest the interface and it almost renders the entire game unplayable.

Tropical Stormfront is an approachable real-time strategy game thanks to its relatively simple roster of units and buildings. Units are produced at bases (for land units), shipyards (for naval units), and airfields (for air units), each of which provide a small amount of income every so often when under your control. Units are generic representations of typical military hardware: tanks, anti-air units, artillery, planes, helicopters, destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, and transport units. The units behave as you would expect, producing predictable counter-strategies. Slow unit movement reduces the game’s pace to manageable levels, and units will attack enemies automatically (most of the time) while moving. Planes can be placed on automated patrol and attack, which is a nice feature. Coupled with the sluggish unit movement speed is really slow resource collection. I had to wait around for money too often; I would have rather seen a more gradual introduction of income rather than the large, infrequent amount the game provides. This is part of the reason why I suggest playing the campaign missions through the skirmish mode, where you can customize the initial cash cache and the rate at which income is earned. The AI is a mixed bag: sometimes the AI will actively achieve the objectives and attack you with a massed force, and other times it will just sit there in a defensive position and put the game in a stalemate. I did find the AI to be aggressive, but I wish it was more consistently aggressive in taking the player down.

IN CLOSING
I think there’s a decent real-time strategy game buried somewhere within Tropical Stormfront, but it’s obscured by the lackluster interface and unfair difficulty. First, the interface simply falls short in pretty much every area of usability. Absent customization, a lack of keyboard support, the inability to select multiple units using the shift or control keys (or double-clicking), and the tedious nature of unloading units ruin the game. The interface simply should not be something that gets in the way of playing a strategy game, but it is a huge shortcoming in Tropical Stormfront. The campaign is very difficult and lazily designed, pitting several AI opponents against you that will simply outmuscle your production instead of using advanced strategies. The slow default resource collection speed during the campaign also means a lot of waiting around to construct new units; I just played most of the scripted missions in skirmish mode where I could customize the resource rates. Speaking of, the skirmish mode is a bright spot, allowing several tweaks (or a random assortment) to the game rules to create a custom situation. The lack of multiplayer is sad, however. The relatively straightforward nature of Tropical Stormfront means it is an approachable strategy title, with sensible combat using standard units. Finally, while the AI can be aggressive, it also can stay put and fail to mount a successful attack. Overall, I found the usability issues of Tropical Stormfront to be too much to overcome, requiring more polish for the PC version of the game to become a notable entry in the genre.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Bridge Constructor Review

Bridge Constructor, developed by Clockstone Studio and published by HeadUp Games and Meridian4.
The Good: Some challenging missions, straightforward interface
The Not So Good: Not distinctive in the genre, lacks complex components, can’t skip troublesome scenarios, graphical and physics issues when bridges collapse, no online scores or design sharing
What say you? An engineering game that fails to innovate: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
About the craziest video ever is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I mean, look at that thing! They just don’t make them like the used to…thankfully. For those of us not graced with a degree in civil engineering, computer games can let you replicate the experience without the needless loss of human life. Bridge building games have graced the PC in the past (this trifecta comes immediately to mind), but with the recent explosion of off-the-wall simulations, additional entries were bound to appear. Like Bridge Constructor, a fantasy action role-playing game where…oh, wait, no, you construct bridges.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Bridge Constructor are not terrible. The bridges are set in several environments (city, snowy mountains, desert) that have some detailed backgrounds and subtle animations like flowing water. The bridge components themselves have simple and easily identifiable textures with color-coded force loads for easier inspection. There is a car and a truck that will cross your creations (they must really like your bridges) and contribute to their impending collapse. When things do go awry, the shortcomings become apparent, as objects commonly clip into each other and/or disappear into the ground. It’s a break of immersion in what otherwise is a solid game graphically. The sound design in Bridge Constructor is very, very basic: some background music, noises when you click (you can tell how few sounds there are when I must comment about clicking), and cars enthusiastically beeping their horns when they successfully cross the bridge. Still, the visuals are up to date enough to make Bridge Constructor at least look competent.

ET AL.
Bridge Constructor gives you thirty levels arranged in a somewhat linear campaign (some scenarios are optional, but most must be completed in order). You cannot skip past designs you can’t beat, so the possibility of getting stuck and not being able to finish the game is high. There are no hints or suggestions to completing each of the designs, so it’s off to the Internet for help if you run into a problem. The game also lacks an editor to create your own situations, so once you are done with the thirty levels, Bridge Constructor has run its course. Overall, the missions are tough without being unfair, and most involve perfecting a general solution based on fixed locations you can attack your bridge to, rather than trying to figure out some “trick” the developer has in mind. The missions are both distinctive and repetitive: you always place a flat bridge, use a couple of supports, and fill in the rest with load-bearing crossbeams. Your limited budget and attachment points restrict your designs, making the game more exigent (thanks for that word, thesaurus!). The appeal of a game like this is the freeform approach: you might not get the exact solution the developers intended, and certainly alternatives are usable.

You are given four materials to use: wood, steel, concrete, and cable. You can make some crazy designs, but you can’t help but feel that with bridges limited to linear, boxy orientations, truly unique creations are beyond the scope of Bridge Constructor. When the road is limited to being completely flat, you can’t really have outlandish or pioneering blueprints, and everything consists of straight lines instead of sweeping curves. The interface is easy to use: point and drag between attachment points. The goal is to allow for two cars to traverse the bridge without collapse, but you can also send two trucks across to obtain a higher score. There is no online high score list for you to compare your feats of engineering, and you also can’t upload and share your designs. The physics are plausible, clearly indicating stressed areas with redder hues. The different materials can withstand varied amounts of forces, and you get some wacky physics when things do break. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it does look weird when you have randomly floating cars and bridge pieces clipping through each other. The physics interactions are calculated in real time (which may be part of the problem), as collapsing the same bridge twice results in slightly different carnage.

IN CLOSING
With a name like Bridge Constructor, you kind of know what you’re going to get. You’re building bridges with wood, steel, concrete, and cable, trying to stay within budget and conform to the lay of the land. The interface is straightforward and easy to use and the physics are plausible, as long as the bridge doesn’t break (which results in hilariously terrible flying debris). The campaign throws different limitations at you that offer some challenge, although you see about all of the game’s tricks about halfway through the campaign. The mandatory flat road means innovation is at least a little restricted, and you do end up using the same general strategies over and over again. So, why get this instead of any of the previous entries in the genre? Since Bridge Constructor fails to deliver a distinctive hook, there is really no reason. It’s a solid enough game, but not innovative or varied enough to replace already existing titles in the genre.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Star Hammer Tactics Review

Star Hammer Tactics, developed and published by Black Lab Games.
The Good: Wreckage can screen enemy attacks, short games with a quick pace, hot seat multiplayer, only $4
The Not So Good: Very limited weaponry vastly decreases strategic possibilities, tedious end-game cleanup, lacks ship customization and variety, no online multiplayer
What say you? This turn-based tactical space combat game has simple thrills but lacks depth and variety: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The explosion of mobile devices has given rise to a proliferation of cheap, inexpensive indie games. Providing simple thrills for a low cost, these titles are occasionally ported over to the PC, where they (of course) make a lot more money. Enter Star Hammer Tactics, a tactical space combat game originally released for the both the iPad and PSP. Attempting to bring the hammer down on some stars (using tactics, no doubt), how does this fast-paced, turn-based game stack up?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Star Hammer Tactics utilizes a simple presentation that is 2-D during movement and transitions to 3-D during combat. During most of the game, you’ll be interacting with flat ship models that are distinctive for the two sides and various ship classes, but a step behind Gratuitous Space Battles. More significantly, destroyed ships don’t look damaged enough (just a bit darker and slightly rotated); it should be really clear that a ship has been destroyed, and it’s not. I do like the subtle animated trail behind missiles, though. The backgrounds are pleasing, not distracting but still providing a nice backdrop to the on-screen action. In the 3-D battles, the ship detail remains generally the same as the 2-D view as the camera slowly rotates around the carnage. The weapons and explosions are repetitive but decent enough. The interface is clearly designed for a touch-based interface, with large buttons and a slider to select ships that must be dragged instead of clicked on. There are some limitations as well: you can’t zoom, and you can’t cancel a missile launch if you don’t like who the closest enemy target is. Sound effects are basic stuff: some battle effects and background music accompany the action. Overall, the graphics and sound design of Star Hammer Tactics slides comfortably into its $4 price range.



ET AL.
Those wacky aliens! Always trying to conquer Uranus. And who could blame them, with its copious amounts of methane. Anyway, Star Hammer Tactics includes a fifteen-scenario campaign that contains the usual mission assortment of eliminate everyone, protect a fragile ship, and defend for a number of turns. The first few scenarios are quite easy, giving you superior numbers, but soon you are matched and later outgunned by the alien horde. There is nothing terribly innovative in the campaign, but the unbalanced missions are challenging and offer more variety beyond the skirmish mode. Speaking of, you can play against the AI or a human on the same computer in the skirmish mode, where you can specify a time limit (which I found to be unnecessary, making the game feel too rushed) and choose which units to deploy based on a points system. However, you can’t take Star Hammer Tactics online, as there is no support for Internet multiplayer. Between the scripted campaign scenarios and the more free-form skirmish missions, Star Hammer Tactics should keep your busy for at least a little while.

The humans (whom you control in the campaign) come with four ships: fighter, heavy fighter, corvette, and destroyer (the aliens get basically the same ships). The differences are very straightforward: bigger ships have more missiles and more armor, but slower speed. There are no unique abilities or characteristics, which is disappointing. Each ship can do one of three things each turn: move, fire a missile, or (in the case of larger ships) repair. Movement is a bit weird: each ship has a set radius it can move from its initial location (clearly highlighted when a vessel is selected), but that radius does not take into account objects like destroyed ships or asteroids. As long as all of the movement takes place within the radius (whether it is 3 squares in front of you or 15 squares up and around an asteroid), then your ship can get there. This makes conceptual sense and it’s easier to understand, but it’s not really realistic.

The second option for your turn is firing a missile. This is the only type of ranged weapon in the game, and it goes straight from your ship towards the enemy you designate. This opens up several tactical options. First, you can send dispensable fighters ahead of your main fleet and try to intercept enemy missiles. Second, you can hide behind asteroids and destroyed ships, especially since missiles usually take two or three turns to reach their target. Finally, missiles give splash damage to surrounding ships (making them a great tool against massed enemies) and they can damage your fleet, so caution should be exercised. You don’t get very many missiles to play with: even the largest ships only get three missiles for the entire battle. Still, there are tense moments as you try and guess which ship the enemy missile is destined for, and try to move your ships behind things to absorb the projectile. While using missiles are limited in number and I’d to see more missile types effective against different enemies, there is some hidden depth in this aspect of the game.

There are a few more things you can do in the game. Large idle ships can spend a turn repairing a portion of their health. The only other tactical decision available is whether to devote more energy towards the weapons or the shields; if both sides go full shields, there will essentially be a stalemate every round, but I found this option to be lacking in significant strategy (basically, you go full shield until you are ready for close combat, then go full attack). Overall, the most interesting part of Star Hammer Tactics is the ability to use destroyed vessels, asteroids, and other ships (preferably fighters) to absorb attacks. The lack of a fog of war means you’ll always know where the enemy is located, and can use your ships and various obstacles to deflect enemy attacks and surround ships with certainty. When ships are placed next to each other, automated combat results, with each ship firing their weapons over several rounds. The results seem to be highly randomized dice rolls, and the best strategy seems to be to surround the enemy with as many ships as possible. There is no penalty for camping (and with the repair mechanic, it’s encouraged somewhat), and since both sides run out of missiles quickly (too quickly, in my opinion), the end-game usually is a slow, methodical march across the map using handful of slow ships to track down one pesky enemy. The maps are large enough where you can spend a lot of time simply moving ships forward, which can get quite monotonous. The AI is decent enough: it attacks weaker ships and aggressively goes after objectives, but doesn’t mass units for attacking well enough and uses the limited missiles too quickly at the beginning of the game when you have a chance to avoid them.

IN CLOSING
While Star Hammer Tactics has the base for a solid tactical game, some key features are lacking in areas required for increased replay value and longevity. First, the good news: the game’s simple mechanics make it approachable for a large audience, and I really like the tactical use of map objects and destroyed ships are barriers to attack. While at the start of a battle the map is wide open, soon it is filled with obstacles that must be dealt with if you are to defeat your sworn enemy. That said, the limited classes of ships and use of one ranged weapon type restricts your options. You can designate more power for shields or weapons, but this is generally a small and straightforward decision; far more interesting would have been a mix of different weapons and corresponding shields to expand tactical flexibility. The odd radial movement (you can move anywhere within a specified circle around your ship, no matter how many squares it takes to move there) is a strange simplification, and the highly randomized combat could use more depth. Games can also become overextended in length as you try to intercept the last enemy unit. The campaign is standard fare, and while the inclusion of skirmish matches against the AI and hot seat games are nice, but I’d like to see support for Internet-based action as well. The AI seems to be a competent opponent that suffers from occasionally inconsistent behavior. Star Hammer Tactics certainly has room for feature improvement, but for only $4, tactical fanatics and casual passers-by could do worse.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Lunar Flight Review

Lunar Flight, developed and published by Shovsoft.
The Good: Authentic physics, multiple camera views, nice graphics
The Not So Good: No automated piloting systems to ease in new players, repetitive mission design
What say you? Challenging, realistic control will appeal to enthusiasts and deter everyone else: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
4.52 billion years ago, a large object approximately about the size of Mars slammed into the Earth, breaking off a piece of our home planet which then coalesced into a sphere, forming the Moon. Unlike most planets that feature captured asteroids as their moons, the Moon is a piece of “us”, so it is our solemn duty to conquer it for economic benefit. According to outlandish proposals by the certified insane, it's about time we colonized the Moon and use all of the natural resources it contains. You know, the same exact resources we have on Earth where they are a whole lot easier to obtain. But it'll be fun! Exhibit A: Lunar Flight, an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of moon-based flight in your trusty lunar lander. Does Lunar Flight found a new world, or just make another crater on the surface?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a $10 game, Lunar Flight has some impressive visuals. The Moon has detailed terrain, high-resolution textures, and rocks strewn about the landscape for an immersive feel. The bases could have more distinctive designs (they all look identical), but overall your flight environment looks fantastic. The lunar module itself is quite detailed, looking like it was lifted from NASA’s space program. The smoke and fire effects are plausible as well. In space, no one can hear you scream, but they can hear your radio chatter, which gives Lunar Flight a more plausible setting. The music is also fitting for the environment, rounding out the package. Lunar Flight far exceeds its price tag with solid graphics and sound design.


ET AL.
In Lunar Flight, you complete three types of missions on the Moon’s surface: transporting cargo, finding lost cargo, or surveying an area. The three missions offer very limited variety: you’ll take off, fly somewhere, and then land. You can also try to attempt the fastest transit time between two bases, but more mission types with different characteristics would be greatly appreciated. You can compare your scores and progress against others online, just to see your relative level of incompetence, but there are no cooperative missions. Money and experience points are earned as you successfully complete each mission; XP is spent unlocking upgrades for your lander (improved thrust, fuel capacity, stability) and money is spent purchasing items (extra fuel, in-flight repair) or restoring your lander to optimal flying conditions. You’ll start out in an introductory area, but two additional maps (with more difficult terrain) will unlock as you gain experience. I would like to see more variety in mission design to increase the replay value of Lunar Flight, but overall the game’s features fulfill its $10 price.

The controls of Lunar Flight are typical for a flight simulator. You can use a joystick, gamepad, or the trusty keyboard to pilot the lander’s pitch, roll, yaw, and thrust. Precise thrust control is very difficult using the keyboard, although the rest of the controls are intuitive. There is an option to lock thrust at a specific value (allowing you to easily maintain the same vertical velocity), but Lunar Flight lacks any other aids for controlling your craft. There are online video tutorials that teach the very basics to controlling your craft, but no auto-pilot features to ease you into the physics of landing. While I certainly commend the seemingly authentic nature of the simulation, the developer should still allow more casual users to enable some help as they learn the game.

The cockpit view is certainly a plausible representation of what the interior of real lunar lander might look like. Filled with data displays (for fuel level and speed in all directions) and multiple view screens that show pertinent information, you are not at a loss of information while playing Lunar Flight. The navpoint and velocity cameras show the current waypoint and destination based on your current trajectory respectively, and a helpful target cross is superimposed on the former camera view to allow for knowledgeable adjustments to your velocity. This makes it easier to get near your destination: just put the cross near the landing pad by making subtle adjustments to your vertical thrust and forward/backward/left/right velocity makes landing is easier (though still not easy). A chart showing the amount of thrust required to maintain vertical velocity is also provided. If (when) you come into contact with the Moon’s surface at high speeds, the hull, engine, or displays may suffer damage. The game uses a high-fidelity physics model that delivers realistic movement with the Moon’s low gravity and lack of atmosphere. And despite the several displays and thrust lock, Lunar Flight is very difficult to pilot. I still don't have a complete handle on how to slow down and land properly, which is half the game. Flying a plane is at least somewhat intuitive, but piloting a lunar lander is something completely different. The lack of auto-pilot settings means you’ll have to learn by trail and error (mostly error). Worst of all, if you miss your landing, you might run out of fuel, crash your vessel, and then have a negative balance in your career file. Lunar flight is not for the faint-hearted, that's for sure.

IN CLOSING
Lunar Flight is a truly authentic simulation of moon-based navigation. It's just too darn hard. The controls are not exotic, using the same translation, pitch, roll, and yaw as a traditional flight simulator. However, once you add in the moon physics where there is little gravity and no atmosphere, flying exponentially increases in difficulty. There is a helpful thrust lock to keep you at the same altitude, but Lunar Flight lacks any other assistance to level or slow down the lander: an auto-pilot would go a long way easing new pilots into the game. As it stands, you'll have to learn the hard way, crashing into the landscape more often than you'd like. There are plenty of displays to show how terrible you are doing, but they aren't helpful if you can't recover from an undesirable trajectory. I had to reset my profile more times than I care to remember because I didn't want to be stuck with the cost of a new lunar lander after each unsuccessful landing attempt. Lunar Flight can have all the visual and navigational computer aids it wants, but if newcomers can't figure out how to slow down and land, all is lost. The missions are repetitive (fly here), but there are a number of upgrades you can purchase, assuming you complete a mission. The graphics are quite nice and detailed, successfully mixing the barren gray of the Moon with the detailed technology of the lunar lander. Ultimately, people who can overcome the extreme learning curve will be the only ones that will enjoy Lunar Flight, but a potentially satisfying, realistic simulation lies within.