Monday, May 28, 2012

Nexuiz Review

Nexuiz, developed by Illfonic and published by THQ.
The Good: Many temporary player-chosen gameplay mutators, action-packed chaotic pace, fair use of experience points, $10
The Not So Good: Some extraneous weapons that lack innovation, only eight players per game, occasional stability and connection issues, regenerating health
What say you? An inexpensive arena shooter that relies on dynamic mutator variety: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Following the success of Quake and Unreal Tournament, a free, open-source online first person arena shooter was released in 2005 with an unpronounceable name: Nexuiz. It used a modified version of the Quake engine and was popular enough to spawn a considerable number of community-made maps and modifications. Then, in March of 2010, Illfonic purchased the rights to the game name and source code to develop a commercial product for the PC and consoles. Shortly thereafter, members of the Nexuiz community branched off and developed Xonotic, based on the original principles of open-source development. Now the commercial Nexuiz release is here, sporting shiny graphics and tons of mutators that vary the gameplay mechanics during a match. Does Nexuiz signal a revival of the arena first person shooter?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Overall, the graphics of Nexuiz exceeds the game $10 price tag. The nine game maps use two design themes: industrial interior and rocky exterior, but each map becomes distinctive enough with enough exposure to the nuances. The maps feel empty with no interior decoration to speak of: plain, metallic hallways connect plain, metallic rooms. The brightness of the level design, however, helps to offset the lack of decoration. The “pretty” levels can make it hard to spot enemy soldiers at a distance, especially because team coloring is faint on default settings. The soldier models are generic and the weapon designs are uninspired and indistinct, making them hard to tell apart when you have them armed (I relied more on the targeting icon than the weapon model). The weapon effects look good, though, with neon beams and shiny projectiles flying across the screen. There are also some fancy processing effects that give the game a comtemporary look. CryEngine is notorious for having high resource requirements and poor optimization, and Nexuiz falls into that camp as well. While I was still able to garner a respectable 40 frames per second on “very high” settings (and 60 on “medium”), the game could still feel more fluid (important in a fast-paced shooter such as this). As for the sound design, it has features nothing of note but no distinct shortcomings, with varied sounds for each weapon and cues for mutators and successfully hitting enemies. The music is way too loud on default settings, drowning out everything else; it was the second thing I tweaked (after the insufficient mouse sensitivity settings). Despite some performance issues, Nexuiz still looks better than a $10 needs to.



ET AL.
Nexuiz takes its cues from Quake and Unreal Tournament and is focused on online play, although a single player training mode is available. The bots are better than I had anticipated, putting up a good fight thanks (I think) to very accurate aim. They get a bit confused when a match starts, instantly engaging enemies all the way across the map (but within view), but soon enough they are capturing and defending the flag and killing others with aplomb. You can customize your bot experience by adjusting the difficulty, time limit, and available weapons. Online play grants access to ranked matches (where one player acts as host) and dedicated servers where things are a bit more fair. The inherent problem in ranked matches is that the host benefits from zero ping, which can be a significant advantage in a twitch shooter like Nexuiz. While I did not perceive any significant disadvantage of having a ping below about 100, warping did occur if a connection was any worse than that. The game also likes to select a terrible host where everyone else has poor (200 or more) pings and the host enjoys a zero ping advantage. Frankly, the game isn’t popular enough to ensure you’ll only be playing against nearby opponents, so poor connections, and an inferior game experience, are frequent. Thankfully, the experience points gained from playing ranked matches have small value (discussed later) so you can spend all of your time on the dedicated servers and not miss out on unlocking really important things. The server browser can’t be sorted by ping or filtered, but at least the developers support dedicated servers that make the game more fair.

Nexuiz only supports eight players. I suspect this low amount was designed for peer-to-peer console games in mind, the maps are large enough where more (twelve, I’d say) players could be integrated. The game keeps score, using a points system based on kills, assisting teammates, capturing the flag, and other activities. Players are ranked during a match, but I really don’t understand how the per-game rankings are done: it’s not by score and not by kills and not by experience. I’ve had the top kills and top score and been ranked 4th out of eight players. There must be some formula to determine the #1 player each round, but I sure can’t figure it out. The nine maps are reminiscent of Unreal Tournament, with multiple levels, jump pads, teleporters, and plenty of locations to fall to your death. Three of the maps are for capture the flag, while the remainder are reserved for team deathmatch. I thought the map design was decent, producing fairly constant action, and learning where weapons and power-ups are located was a quick process. I’ve encountered several bugs (already, or in the process of being, fixed) during my time playing Nexuiz: invisible soldier models, errors when going to the main menu or switching maps (with a cryptic “Deleting Reference Counted Object Twice” message), random crashes to the desktop, and incorrect server player population listings. All of these are indicative of a small development team dealing with unwieldy code; while most have been earmarked for correction, you should be aware that every new patch usually introduces a new set of issues.

The control scheme for Nexuiz is typical for a first person shooter, although fans of recent military shooters will notice the lack of a reload button. The explanation is simple: in the future, guns are advanced enough to carry an infinite amount of ammunition, duh! I did find that the default mouse sensitivity was set way too low and was adjusted as soon as possible. The weapon selection is decent, although several weapons do the same thing and the developers could have eliminated a third of them. The Hagar and Crylink do the same thing: throw multiple rockets or energy (respectively) outward simultaneously. These could have been combined into one weapon. The ClanCutter and Ravager also do the same thing, acting as quick-fire machine guns, and could have also been combined. The shotgun is one of the more effective default weapons I have encountered, although it still takes a while to eliminate an enemy using it. I did not care for the rocket launcher, which fires too slowly and has limited splash damage. The Electro is basically an electric form of the rocket launcher, and the Mortar is a rocket launcher that fires in arcs instead of straight ahead. Finally, the Nex is a sniper rifle. Each weapon comes with a primary and secondary firing mode (hello, Unreal Tournament) that behave somewhat differently, usually trading more concentrated firing for a slower rate. Overall, I felt the weapons lack innovation with no unique or memorable features. I also dislike the lack of a weapon preference list: a couple of the weapons I don’t care for (the Ravager and Nex, specifically) and I’d like to be able to prevent switching to them automatically when they are picked up, but still have the ability to switch to others on the fly.

Unlike Unreal Tournament, where the mutators are set before a match begins and are active for the entire game, in Nexuiz they are triggered by players during a match, so you never know what to expect as a game progresses. I found this mechanic to be quite enjoyable and some of the mutators to be innovative. If you pick up a mutator item, capture the flag, or start a killing spree, you get three randomized choices that can affect yourself, teammates, enemies, or everyone. There are exactly one hundred to choose from, and some of the more interesting examples include rapid fire, instagib, infinite ammo, jet packs, color blindness (the display is in black and white), invisibility, higher jumping, triple armor, magnetism (nearby pickups gravitate towards you), heavy flag, flag bomb, change the scoring limit, steal mutators, summon players to your location, kill everyone in a nuclear blast, more damage using a specific weapon, broken hit detection icons for the enemy, heal teammates by shooting them, invulnerability, faster running speed, increased team strength, instant melee attack on nearby enemy flag carriers, inverted controls, switching everyone to a random weapon every couple of seconds, reflectivity (bullets bounce off), respawn near flag, inaccurate enemies, and increased damage from falling. These temporary effects usually last under a minute (a game lasts for ten) and multiple mutators can be active at one time, although I’m not sure why sometimes mutators stack and sometimes they queue (maybe you can have one personal, one team, and one everyone at a time?). The variety here is staggering and it injects a healthy sense of randomness and replay value into the game, since you never know which mutator is coming up next.

Experience points earned by playing ranked matches are thankfully not used to unlock new weapons; instead, they are used to increase the probability of getting specific mutators during a match, which I feel is a very fair use of them. This also makes it so that playing on unranked servers isn't a waste of your time, since the experience accumulated from playing ranked matches isn't that important in the overall scheme. Plus, some servers let you assign preferences at no cost (the “free” mutator option), so you may still be able to guide the dice rolls your way a tad without having to log hundreds of hours of game time.

Nexuiz has a fast pace, which is refreshing given the methodical nature of many recent online shooters. Constant running and bunny hopping are the rules of the day, made more chaotic by the multi-level map layouts. Enhanced weapons (from specific mutators, or the “Nexuiz” double damage pick-up) are very dominant and serve as an easy gateway to multiple kills. You can also pick up armor, but there are no health pickups because health regenerates if you are not being attacked; I don’t think I like that aspect of the game mechanics. Nexuiz allows headshots from every weapon, which is fine: getting hit in the head by a gigantic electrical ball should hurt more. Friendly fire is also always on, which is necessary given some of the mutators in the game and not as big of a deal since regenerating health is also enabled. While Nexuiz is obviously not designed for competitive play because of the randomized (and inherently unfair) nature of the mutators, it is designed for fun play, and I did enjoy my time with the title.

IN CLOSING
Nexuiz stands out because of its huge roster of dynamic mutators, integrated into each match and shuffling the gameplay mechanics in a positive way. Players can choose between three randomly chosen mutators (out of one hundred) when they pick up a specific power-up or start a killing spree, and their brief effects range from silly to game-changing. It’s a fun, significant addition to what is otherwise a fairly standard arena shooter. The weapons could be pared down a bit, as some of the instruments of destruction are repeats of other options. Overall, none of the weapons offer too much in the way of innovation, offering up variations on themes found in older games. The pace of the game is fast and the level design involves lots of jumping between multiple levels, which can be disorienting (probably on purpose). This is not a methodical shooter, as you need to constantly move and shoot to survive. The bot training mode features surprisingly decent AI to practice against, and finding dedicated and player-hosted online servers is straightforward, although you cannot sort or filter the server list. The limitation to only eight players is disappointing, although most of the maps are small enough where you’ll usually quickly encounter a foe. The graphics are quite nice to look at, though the game could perform better, but that seems to be par for the course for CryEngine. Overall, the mutator variety helps Nexuiz stand out, and at a $10 price point, it is an attractive option for fans of arena shooters. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sniper Elite V2 Review

Sniper Elite V2, developed by Rebellion and published by 505 Games.
The Good: The x-ray cam is gruesomely awesome, customizable realism settings provide smarter AI and more advanced ballistics, cooperative online play with multiple modes (supposedly), nice visuals
The Not So Good: Linear level design is tiresome, checkpoint-only saves, lackluster AI, painfully boring competitive multiplayer (apparently), not really ultra realistic
What say you? This action-oriented score-driven third-person sniping game has a “killer app” and fast-paced gameplay, but becomes repetitive too quickly: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Snipers are annoying: hiding in the shadows, waiting for that perfect shot that seemingly comes out of nowhere, then running like cowards away from true soldiers. Yes, the sniper has been the disdain of many online gamers who actually try to achieve objectives instead of racking up kills from some obscure corner of the map. Of course, there have been several computer games that highlight the stealthiest of warriors, most of which are pretty terrible. Enter Sniper Elite V2, the second version of Sniper Elite (so the title says), developed by those fine chaps behind Alien versus Predator (and Alien vs. Predator). This time around, the game comes equipped with a badass slow motion x-ray view that shows exactly what type of damage your bullets cause. Is this compelling feature enough to maintain momentum throughout the title?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Sniper Elite V2 clearly exhibit the game’s high production values. The superfluous third-person view (ostensibly to showcase the main character’s design) doesn’t become too much of a hindrance during gameplay, since most of the time you’ll be looking down the scope of your rifle. The graphics are excellent across the board, starting with the convincing soldier models and animations. The infamous x-ray cam, which displays your bullet as it impacts the organs and bones of your targets, is very satisfying. Levels also include very detailed ruined buildings (though you can spot some recycled set pieces) placed in a couple of different environments. The sound design is also very solid, with dramatic effects when bullets slow down, decent voice acting, and theatrical music that, unfortunately, makes it obvious that enemies are around. Still, you certainly get your money’s worth from the presentation of Sniper Elite V2.



ET AL.
Sniper Elite V2 is set during World War II, because everyone likes shooting Nazis. The single player campaign takes place across ten missions (plus a tutorial prologue) with unskippable movies and cutscenes. Overall, I was disappointed in the linearity of the level design: there are few alternate paths to follow and hardly any times where stealth can be used. The game is clearly oriented towards action, and there isn’t a single level where you won’t have to engage a large number of enemies (usually near the end). The game does provide clear objective and route markers, so I was never at a loss of where to go next. Sniper Elite V2 really emphasizes scoring (higher points for difficult or painful shots) and tracks online leaderboards so you can compare your killing aptitude against others. This is meant to increase the replay value of the game, but I still found little reason to go back and replay completed missions (at least in single player) since most of the enemy soldiers spawn in the same locations, removing a lot of the suspense. Sniper Elite V2 also doesn’t give you access to quick saves, or manual saving of any kind: you’re going to save when the game does it automatically, and you will like it. This can be a problem if you get stuck halfway through a mission with a bad save (like right after you did something stupid), and I don’t like wasting ten minutes of my time on a hard section of a level and then having to replay it over again when the final enemy gets a lucky shot.

Sniper Elite V2 also comes with multiplayer, but I wasn’t able to sample any of it because my press review copy had it disabled. According to the manual and various reports across the expansiveness of the Internet, cooperative modes include the ability to play any of the campaign missions, engaging waves of enemies, searching for car parts to provide an escape, or having a spotter tag targets. All of these sound pretty engaging, so I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to test them out. Competitive multiplayer sounds much less interesting: can you imaging everyone on both teams camping for the entire match? No thanks.

While Sniper Elite V2 obviously focuses on the sniper rifles of the time (Springfield M1903, Mosin Nagant 1891/30), there are other weapons to equip yourself with, including submachine guns (like the Thompson) and silenced pistols. You can also bring grenades, land mines, dynamite, trip mines, and rocks (for distraction) into a mission. I never found too much of an opportunity to use trip mines, since usually you’ll be firing at enemies forward of your position, rather than backtracking or defending. You can also shoot explosives or tank fuel cells for bright, shiny explosions. Sniper Elite V2 also allows you to tag enemies using the binoculars and interact with objects (climbing walls, manning turrets, performing stealth kills, and dragging bodies), although the action-oriented nature of the game makes the opportunity to use the latter two stealth options few and far between.

Sniper Elite V2 comes with a range of realism options that can make the game more difficulty, covering the enemy skill, bullet ballistics, and availability of help spotting enemies and placing shots. Personally, I opted for a custom combination of the best AI, realistic ballistics, and minor shot assistance, and I thank the game for giving me the opportunity to do so. Several factors are taken into consideration when the trigger is pulled: bullet drop, wind, heart rate, and stance are all important. In addition, you can use “focus time” to slow down the game and carefully place your shots. Other tools are available as well: a threat indicator displays where enemies are located, and another display can inform you of loud noises (during which you can fire undetected). While Sniper Elite V2 doesn’t offer true realism, it is accessible to a wide range of skill levels.

Most skirmishes in Sniper Elite V2 involve finding cover or a high vantage point (or both) and staying behind it. Then, use the third-person view to spot enemies and pop out from behind cover, delivering the kill shot. Some enemies are equipped with grenades that can flush you out from behind cover, so don’t get too comfortable. Because most enemies appear in groups, you’ll need to move slowly and crouch-walk often: too much noise and nearby Germans will quickly converge on your position. Cover is also helpful since your health will regenerate, which is not at all realistic but makes the game easier to play. Some people won’t like the more action-packed pace of the game, but it fits well with the kill cam and pleasingly gory aftermath of your bullets.

The AI isn’t the greatest adversary, even on the most difficult setting. The level designers have placed the enemy in some tricky locations (rooftops, high floors in buildings) that can make finding them (at least until they shoot at you) difficult. In addition, the lethal enemy snipers only appear after you have advanced past a trigger on the map, which makes dealing with them even more bothersome. When on the move, the AI can run around aimlessly (strafing when there is no need). The AI also has the tendency to get stuck on objects (low walls, vehicles) and subsequently run in place. Enemies will head towards cover (even if there is open ground in between) and flank you if the level layout allows for it (which isn’t often). The doting AI does make it easier to line up double kills, however.

IN CLOSING
The x-ray kill cam is a huge draw for Sniper Elite V2, and if you don’t care for it, it’s very hard to justify buying the game. However, I do like it, and the game’s gritty nature and fast paced gameplay can be appealing. The game is certainly not a simulator, instead opting for lots of targets and points-based gameplay that emphasize attempting difficult shots. This is totally fine with me, but people looking for a slower-paced, more realistic approach to sniping will be disappointed, even on the highest realism setting. Sniper Elite V2 is certainly not geared towards stealth: you will be shooting people, and lots of them. That said, Sniper Elite V2 is a solid arcade-style shooter, with just enough realistic elements to make it more slightly difficult than point-and-shoot: bullet drop, heart rate, stance, and wind are all taken into account. For more novice players, a threat indicator, enemy tagging, and aim assistance can be used. Typically, a firefight involves choosing a remote location behind cover and popping out, taking out opponents one at a time (or two at a time if they are conveniently standing in front of each other). This can get a bit tedious at times, though, since you’ll usually be taking on a large number of enemies. While trying to line up perfect shots that explode several organs can be fun, the level design becomes tiresome too quickly, utilizing the same elements (lots of enemies, fixed sniper locations) over and over again. In addition, your progress is only saved at checkpoints, which are spaced apart far enough to become an annoying limitation; the lack of a quick save is truly irksome. Since the levels are so scripted and enemies spawn in the same locations, though, you will eventually be able to complete troublesome missions simply because you know where everyone will be. The AI benefits from hard-to-reach starting locations, and is not too smart when on the move. Although my press copy of the game did not have multiplayer enabled, I would imagine that cooperative play would be fun with a good partner and that competitive play would involve tons of annoying camping. The graphics are top-notch, and the awesomeness of the x-ray view cannot be ignored. I wouldn’t pay the full $50 price for what amounts to a novelty product, but it does deliver one unique, very notable feature that may be enough for some. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Street Fighter X Tekken Review

Street Fighter X Tekken, developed and published by Capcom.
The Good: Event-based customizable gems offer temporary stat bonuses, four-person tag team matches add some strategy, helpful tutorials and practice modes
The Not So Good: Lacks truly significant innovations, Games for Windows LIVE yet again
What say you? This tag team 2-D fighting game adds a couple of inventive features for fans of the genre: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m not the most experienced fighting game aficionado, since I do most of my gaming on the PC, a wondrous platform that’s been largely ignored by the genre…until recently. “Recently” would be Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition, a suckerpunch of fighting goodness that rocketed to the PC last year. Seeing that PC gamers like to get their fight on too, developer Capcom has ported their latest title, Street Fighter X Tekken, to the computer two months after appearing on those soulless consoles. This time around, we get tag-team events featuring combatants from two major franchises. Will Street Fighter X Tekken provide enough content and innovation for newcomers and veterans alike?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
If you played Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition, the visuals of Street Fighter X Tekken will be familiar, which is not a bad thing. This version features detailed character models with quick animations and varied effects for special moves. Along with the colorful, lively backgrounds, the result is an explosion in sensory overload, which works quite well given the fast pace and constant action Street Fighter X Tekken has to offer. Some of the models are a bit blocky (especially feet), but overall the hulking and petite (those are your two choices in any fighting game) fighters are pleasing to the eye. The game also runs fast: I was able to get close to 200 frames per seconds with all of the options cranked up. I guess that’s what happens when you play a game designed for antiquated seven-year-old hardware. The sound design is also very solid, with Japanese or English voice acting and a pounding soundtrack that fits the hyper-violent mood of the game. It’s hard to find fault with the presentation of Street Fighter X Tekken.



ET AL.
Street Fighter X Tekken takes place over eleven stages, where the world’s greatest fighters are beating the living daylights out of each other to stop a meteor or something. Learning the mechanics is made easier by the descriptive (if overwritten) guided tutorials that explain each aspect of the game. In addition, you can learn prompted moves of each character or train against dummies to hone your mad skillz. Specific fight stipulations are present in the mission mode, so inject a little variety into your beatdowns. The arcade mode returns with the same features (including fighting online opponents), as does the versus mode (although you can enable the option to have all four fighters go at once, instead of tagging back and forth). Games for Windows LIVE is back and pointless as ever, allowing you to create and join ranked, endless (where the loser of the match goes to the bottom of the opponent list and the winner takes on the next challenger), and four-player matches online with or without a partner. Online play is a constant reminder of how truly terrible I am at fighting games. While I didn’t have any overwhelming technical problems while playing Street Fighter X Tekken, I will not that in a very odd bug, some of the sound effects stop working when I fight online. While the features list of Street Fighter X Tekken is impressive, it’s also basically the same as before.

Street Fighter X Tekken includes a roster of nineteen characters from each series (for a total of…hold on…carry the one…ah yes: thirty eight). Being developed by Capcom means Street Fighter X Tekken has more similarities to the Street Fighter series, and that starts with moves input, which uses a six-button system. That said, the commands have been simplified a bit, eliminating double motions while introducing more combos (specific attacks chained one after another) in a nod to Tekken. Overall, commanding your team involves more buttons and less joystick movement overall. More powerful attacks in Street Fighter X Tekken follow the same pattern as Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition: basic attacks, unique combos, special moves, EX special moves, and super arts are the same as specials, supers, and ultras before. Street Fighter X Tekken also allows you to charge special moves by holding the attack button down and perform boost combos by selecting progressively more powerful attacks of the same type (a light punch, medium punch, and heavy punch, for example). A quick combo can also be executed by choosing a light attack and then a heavy attack of the other type. Street Fighter X Tekken adds in throws to complete a selection of attacks and combos that feel more developed but produce in the same result: unbridled violence.

The tagging mechanic has introduced a couple of new wrinkles to the formula: beyond simply switching characters, you can perform launchers (an attack then tag), cross rush (a combo that ends with a launcher), a cross cancel (a block that transitions to a launcher), a switch cancel (a tag in the middle of a combo), a cross assault (when both characters attack simultaneously), and a cross art (a tag-team super art). Finally, you can sacrifice low health for a partner boost in a pandora. Switching between characters isn’t simply a matter of resting the person with the lowest amount of health (although that’s part of it), as you can integrate a number of attacks while shifting to your partner.

I feel the most significant addition Street Fighter X Tekken makes is gems. Taking a nod from online first person shooters, players can now customize their characters somewhat by adding various boosts that activate under certain conditions. For example, Fortitude can reduce damage for twenty seconds if your opponent attacks you with an EX special move. There are a lot of combinations of prerequisites and effects available, divided into bonuses to attack, defense, speed, health, or the cross gauge. Novices can also choose some assist gems that make performing moves easier (like blocking and special moves) in exchange for a slight penalty (like lower attack damage). If the options are too overwhelming, the game can pick some semi-randomly based on a general strategy (well rounded, attacking, speed). Choosing gems can be somewhat tedious, though, as you have to set them for every character, instead of having one universal setting that can be used by everyone. Still, the gem system is a very nice and strategically interesting addition to the game (clearly not worth $45 on its worth, though).

The AI opponents in Street Fighter X Tekken fight well, as you would expect in a game that can read your input and instantly counter everything you throw at it. Just sayin’.

IN CLOSING
Beyond the gems and the tagging, Street Fighter X Tekken is (not surprisingly) very, very similar to Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition. So the question becomes: are those two features worth $45? I would say not for casual fighting fans (and maybe some hardcore players as well). That’s not to say that Street Fighter X Tekken is a bad game, just that it features more of the same polished fighting we enjoyed last year. Gems are the biggest addition and are handled quite well: choosing triggered, minor bonuses tailored to your play style can be fun and tactically interesting, if a bit tedious since you have to adjust loadouts for every character. Tagging is also a notable feature, and there are a couple of tactical uses for it (double attacks, recovering health). Of course, it means you have to remember two sets of controls each game (unless you partner up). The remainder of the game is familiar: special moves (with more button presses and less complex joystick movement), super moves, blocking, and combinations with nineteen characters from each series. The tutorials and training modes are done well (again), and the game options, including online play, are robust. Still, you can’t help but feel that Street Fighter X Tekken should have added something else significant to truly advance the genre. As it stands, Street Fighter X Tekken is a very solid fighter that feels too similar to its ancestors.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! Review

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear!, developed by Academy Games and Western Civilization Software and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined rules and a smaller size for relatively quick games, sides alternate moves for constant play and faster reaction, tactical commander points can enhance attack or movement capabilities, action cards grant special abilities, map and scenario editor, choose between classic board game or more computer-specific rules, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Inconsistent AI, no campaign mode, can't choose starting units on all maps, graphics could be better
What say you? A very approachable wargame with expedited battles and comprehensible rules: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Wargames originally appeared as physical board games, where players had to keep track of tons of coded stats on tiny cardboard squares. It was hard work, made more so by inevitably losing a lot of the pieces required to play the game. As computers have become more powerful, we’ve been able to let the zeroes and ones do the calculating and keep track of game progress, leaving the humans just the strategic decisions to worry about. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (you can tell it’s exciting because there is an exclamation point in the title) is a computer adaptation of the award-winning board game, adding an AI opponent and multiplayer matchmaking to the existing squad-sized turn-based strategy game, set on the Eastern Front of computer gaming’s favorite conflict, World War II. Does Conflict of Heroes provide a good computer version of solid game mechanics? Will I be able to go the entire review without calling it Company of Heroes?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Compan…I mean Conflict of Heroes accentuates the 2-D board game with 3-D graphics for both the maps and the units, if desired. You can play the game from a traditional overhead 2-D view with unit chits, but I preferred using the 3-D view with chits as it allowed you to look at more of the battlefield and simply felt “better” to look at. I did not find the 3-D unit models to be effective: they were hard to spot (especially clustered infantry units) and the sporadically animated models didn’t add to the immersion of the game. The subtle movement units exhibit when idle and falling over during death were underwhelming, and battle effects consisted of simple lines and smoke trails traversing across the map. The chits were much more informative (with unit information clearly displayed on them, once you learn the layout) and easier to find on the game map, so I much preferred using them over 3-D models. The maps are disappointing, as they consist of blurry, muddled ground textures and poorly detailed buildings. It is also sometimes hard to tell the difference between light woods and heavy woods, which is a significant tactical aspect to the game. The interface is good for a wargame, granting quick access to game components, including game length, turn history, statistics, camera view, unit representation, command action points, and action cards. The game also displays the chance of a successful attack when an enemy unit is moused over (handy if you forget what two divided by twelve is) and how many action points each unit has is indicated directly above their icon. When a unit is selected, you can also see all of the squares that are in line of sight (in yellow). Overall, I did not encounter any significant shortcomings in the interface that inhibited my ability to play the game in an efficient manner. The sound design consists of very dramatic background music, very loud battle effects, and some voice work that occurs when rallies happen and units are destroyed (I recognized some specific words from Red Orchestra 2). While Conflict of Heroes could definitely look and sound better, most wargamers will be able to look past the generally functional visuals.

ET AL.
Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! takes place on the Eastern Front of World War II during 1941 and 1942 (“the Bear” being awakened is the Russian bear, the most dangerous bear known to man). The game features only Germans and Russians, which is honestly fine with me since units of the same type behave generally the same way (plus, the rest of the Conflict of Heroes board game versions no doubt will eventually make their way to the computer). Three tutorials pop-up hints during three of the scenarios; while they are useful when learning the game, more guided instruction (click here, move this) would be better. Conflict of Heroes imports ten scenarios from the board game and introduces ten additional missions, plus five others played on sections of a large map. While the latter option sort of plays out like a campaign (although specific units don’t carry over), Conflict of Heroes does lack a campaign mode (scripted, dynamic, or otherwise) that ties the scenarios together, for those that like that sort of structure. The game includes one point-based mission where you can choose your own units (this can also be done on the five large-map scenarios), but I’d like to have the ability to choose your units on every available map to increase replay value. Conflict of Heroes comes with three difficulty levels; “normal” gives the AI a couple more units and 25% more command action points, which is seemingly compensating for low-quality computer opponents. If twenty-six battles aren’t enough, the somewhat unwieldy scenario editor will allow you to create more, including initial unit placement, terrain features, and AI strategy scripting. For easier map creation, the game can import a simple image file with color-coded hexes. Multiplayer is available, in hotseat, LAN, and online configurations. Internet play includes a lobby, a system that works well, allowing you to chat with prospective opponents and set up games efficiently. There is no play by e-mail, but it would be really tedious since you only move one unit and then it’s the other person’s turn. As a trade-off, you can save multiplayer games and resume them later, which is pretty cool. Finally, Conflict of Heroes allows you to upload your game results, which is an interesting way to help the developers improve the game AI.

Conflict of Heroes is a turn-based wargame, but it has one significant innovation to the usual formula: you perform one action with one unit (move, attack, entrench, play a card, et cetera), then the opponent makes a move. The action alternates back and forth until both sides are out of action points and pass their turns. This results in a significantly faster pace with quicker games and more interesting strategy: you able to react to enemy movement instead of having to sit and wait for them to move the rest of their units. It’s a pretty brilliant adaptation of typical turn-based fare, and it feels a lot less tedious since you only have to move one unit per turn. You have the option to use the classic board game rules or choose more computer-oriented options. These include fog of war (which I always turn on, but is obviously impossible for a board game), randomized action points, and random unit quality. In addition, the board game required you to use all of the action points for a specific unit before switching control to another unit (probably for easier tracking). This computer version lets you freely switch between units each turn, which I found to be more flexible by allowing for opportunity fire and quicker response to enemy action. Of course, the classic action points model forces you to stick with a particular unit until all of its action points are expended, which in turn allows the enemy to either directly engage that unit (since they know it’s going to be the only one moving the next several turns) or choose another unit and spring an attack on somebody you can’t counter with. Another option is the ability to roll dice in front of a webcam and then use the results in the game; I am clearly not nerdy enough to use this feature. Overall, the well-developed game mechanics of Conflict of Heroes make it interesting to play on both offense and defense.

Conflict of Heroes includes a smattering of units from the time period, including rifle squads, machine guns, anti-tank emplacements, mortars, trucks, armored cars, and various tanks. Each unit is given a set of attributes, displayed on the unit counter and the pop-up information display when a unit is moused over: attack cost, soft attack, armored attack, range, forward defense, flank defense, and movement cost. Units can also be given a quality rating (from green through veteran to elite) that gives slight bonuses to these stock values. By default, each unit is given seven action points that can be spent doing various things: moving, shooting, rallying damage, hiding, constructing defenses, entering or exiting a structure, and loading or unloading from a vehicle. Unit facing is an important concept in the game (because of the lowered defense towards flank attacks), so thankfully choosing your facing after movement is handled very well with clear arrows showing the result. Conflict of Heroes does not have any unit stacking limits, but all units in a hex will receive a single attack, so I tried to avoid stacking at all times. Units that are adjacent to each other can be grouped, which allows you to move all of the units in a group before your opponent gets a turn (great for reducing tedious advancing when you know the enemy is nowhere nearby), and also grants a small bonus when a group attacks. The game maps include varied terrain that should be used strategically: trees, hills, marsh, roads, barbed wire, minefields, bunkers, and buildings. While being behind buildings and trees does obscure line of sight (preventing direct attacks even if fog of war is off), being in buildings and trees only provides a defensive bonus. I found that the unit attributes and associated game mechanics in Conflict of Heroes were easy to understand and not as confusing as other tabletop wargame systems.

So, you want your enemy to die. Damage calculations in Conflict of Heroes are relatively simple: you start with the target’s defensive rating (either forward or flanking, if you are behind them), add any terrain bonus or adjustment for a long range or close combat attack, and then subtract the attack rating of the aggressor. Then, the attacker has to roll (using two dice) equal to or higher than that number. It’s that easy! Thankfully, the game handles all of the specifics for you, and displays a simple percentage over prospective targets to make your tactical decisions easier. If an attack is successful, the target is marked as damaged and receives a randomized penalty, such as the inability to move or shoot. If a damaged unit is hit again (or if an attack roll exceeds the target number plus four), it is removed from play. In all, the way damage is handled makes sense and it’s easy to track, with bright red-and-yellow icons denoting troubled units.

Two important game mechanics remain to be discussed. The first is command action points, which can be used to add action points to a unit or add to a dice roll attack. You only have a limited number of these per round and they do not carry over, so careful planning and use at the right time can break stalemates between units. Both sides also get a random assortment of special action cards, including the ability to take one action at no cost, gain random action points, a free rally attempt, reveal hidden units, making the enemy skip a turn, and (everyone’s favorite) remove all the action points from an enemy unit. Together with the command points, the action cards give Conflict of Heroes some added depth and additional strategy that can be used. Some scenarios include the ability to call in scripted reinforcements and place artillery attacks. Victory is earned by capturing victory locations and destroying enemy units, and most of the scenarios require the attacker to constantly be on the move towards the goal, or run out of time.

The AI in Conflict of Heroes is a mixed bag. It does utilize a number of scripted strategies, especially on the larger maps where variation is more noticeable. The AI is also good at using command points, action cards, and long-range units like mortars. The computer will occasionally throw out some interesting tactic you weren’t expecting, and the generally unbalanced nature of the scenarios (“normal” or higher difficulty gives the AI extra units) provides a degree of challenge. Overall, the AI is better on defense where it doesn't have to move units much, as movement is where most of the problems lie. The AI does not use large-scale flanking maneuvers frequently (although it does attempt to flank units in close proximity), instead heading straight towards an objective along the most linear path. The computer does not move fast enough when on the attack and routinely runs out of time, which is a significant problem since most of the scenarios require the offensive player to move and move quickly. The AI gets easily distracted by unimportant units it doesn't need to kill in order to achieve the objectives and doesn't like to pivot units when needed, making it easier to flank them. The AI sometimes fails to engage vulnerable units, doesn’t always move towards cover that provides defensive bonuses, and I've never seen it use group orders. The AI also occasionally does some really stupid things, like moving units into exposed positions where they can be instantly flanked. When the AI is put on even footing with the human player, without the benefit of extra units and command points, most scenarios in Conflict of Heroes become very easy. On the "normal" setting where the computer is given more units than a human opponent would, it can use those extra forces to cover up some of its tactical blemishes. The AI certainly isn't totally inept, but there is definitely some room for improvement.

IN CLOSING
Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! takes a solid board game foundation and creates a compelling computer wargame adaptation. Starting off, I really like how the game alternates control after each move: it makes the pace faster and allows you to react to enemy movement instantly, instead of waiting for the opponent to move all of their units and you not being able to do anything about it. The games may not actually last shorter than other wargames, but it sure feels like it, since you’re not sitting there for ten minutes waiting for the enemy to tediously move all of their units. Conflict of Heroes also has easy to understand unit attributes, with simple numerical values for attack, defense, movement, and cost to fire. The game also displays the damage probabilities, and the dice-based damage calculations are simple to comprehend. Units can be issued one order before control is passed to your opponent; these include moving, attacking, rallying to recover damage, or constructing defenses. Nearby units can also be grouped together so multiple units can move or shoot before the enemy has a chance to react. Significant tactical decisions are made regarding the use of command action points, which can allow units more actions or improve dice rolls, and special action cards that can provide other bonuses. Conflict of Heroes supports the use of the classic board game rules, or you can introduce computer gaming mechanics like fog of war, unit quality, and preserving action points. The interface allows for easy access to unit attributes, line of sight, and action point counts. My default view is 3-D terrain with chits, which gives easily accessible unit detail and a better presentation. The twenty-six maps cover a wide range of battle sizes, although I’d like to choose my starting units for every scenario. An editor is also included to expand the game even further. The AI is inconsistent enough to be noticeable (moving units into vulnerable positions, or failing to eliminate wounded or nearby enemies, for example), but does defend well and takes advantage of its extra units on “normal” and higher difficulty levels. You can also join a multiplayer match through the game’s matchmaking software that provides forums for discussion about how awesome you are. And, of course, we must mention the dice camera that allows you to use a webcam to capture actual dice rolls to compute game results: the ultimate in nerd. Overall, Conflict of Heroes benefits from the simplicity required for a board game, and the computer version is definitely approachable and appropriate for novices and veterans alike.

Friday, May 11, 2012

ORION: Dino Beatdown Review

ORION: Dino Beatdown, developed and published by Spiral Game Studios.
The Good: Tumultuous cooperative class-based survival, decent selection of class unrestricted weapons and vehicles, upgrades isolated to a single game, $10
The Not So Good: Light on content (for now) means repetition, poor game difficulty balance due to overly expensive weaponry, no allies in offline mode, inconsistent dino AI, repugnant voice acting, recycled map design, some rough edges
What say you? A frivolous, chaotic, inexpensive cooperative shooter in need of more dinosaurs and other assorted improvements: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Jetpacks. Dinosaurs. Need I say more?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
ORION: Dino Beatdown features excellent dinosaur models and terrain, and below average everything else. First off, the models and textures for the three dinosaurs in the game are done well and look great in screenshots. However, dinosaurs exhibit abrupt changes into canned animations that lack realism. Dinosaur damage is also disappointing: just spats of blood and falling over (though the ragdoll physics can be entertaining). The solider models don’t exhibit the same level of detail as the dinosaurs, with slightly lower-resolution texture work and basically the same rough animations. Firing weapons involves quick animations that aren’t as satisfying as in other shooters as well. The map terrain looks great, especially rocky mountains, but each map tends to follow the same basic design mode (narrow canyons separating the bases) with different lighting and ground textures. In addition, dinosaurs occasionally clip through game objects and the player (players can also occasionally pass harmlessly through vehicles); seeing a dinosaur head floating in a wall breaks some of the game’s immersion. Being picked up by the flying dinosaur also looks wrong. Despite some areas that could use improvement, the texturing buoys the graphical side of ORION: Dino Beatdown. The sound design is less impressive, with basic effects for weapons and dinosaurs (whom don’t growl as often as I would like). Even worse is the annoying and constant voice acting, which spouts an unfunny quip after every kill. The music is inoffensive and generic, although I will admit that some of the themes were memorable enough to get stuck in my head for several days. I think that ORION: Dino Beatdown delivers an acceptable presentation for the $10 price tag but definitely has room for improvement.



ET AL.
ORION: Dino Beatdown is designed as a cooperative game to play online, but there is a single player practice mode to acclimate you with the game. However, there are no AI helpers to play with, and the game is really balanced for a full five-person squad: the number of dinosaurs does not scale according to the number of players, so a team of two has to contend with the same number of enemies as a team of five that has two-and-a-half times more firepower. There is a difficulty setting provided that adjusts the rate of income and dinosaur spawn counts, but generally single player should be avoided once the basic controls and mechanics are learned. ORION: Dino Beatdown features three maps that all have the same general layout: hilly, narrow pathways between mountains separate five bases. This means the desert, night forest, and grassland biomes all play out the same. There are some hidden areas to find and the occasional dinosaur between bases, but exploration is a small part of the game thanks to the restrictive pathways. Joining a game is made more difficult thanks to the somewhat buggy server browser (although it isn't as bad as before the patch). While the server browser finds servers quickly, it does have a couple of problems. First, the server player count is incorrect (although not as bad as before the patch, where it said all the servers were full) and you can’t sort the server list by ping. Sometimes the server list does not refresh when the appropriate button is pressed (usually after joining and leaving a match). You also cannot see the other players’ classes when you join a sever (the “TAB” scoreboard is disabled initially), so you have no idea if everyone else is playing recon and you should pick something else to help out the team. As more evidence of the uneven nature of the game, when transitioning from the main menu, some random person's Steam ID replaces your own as it scrolls away; I bet its a developer and someone screen-captured the main menu and made an animation out of it. Also, loading screen hints sometimes have punctuation displayed as empty boxes. So ORION: Dino Beatdown has some areas in need of attention.

Your objective: clear five waves of dinosaurs at each of the five bases. You start at a random base (all of them have the same components in a different layout), and once all of the dinosaurs are destroyed, you move out to the next base of your choosing. The HUD is useful to get your bearings (bring it up using the “F” key) by displaying base locations and buildings, but needlessly obscures your view. Each base has a barracks where you respawn and can purchase character upgrades, a garage for vehicle buying, and an armory for weapon resupply, purchases, and upgrades. There is also a generator that needs to be active for any of those things to work (reminiscent of the Tribes series of games); the dinosaurs love to attack it (must be its shiny green hue), so it must be repaired often (using the recon soldier’s EMP grenade is the fastest method).

ORION: Dino Beatdown features three soldier classes, each with specific advantages and disadvantages. The assault class gets a jetpack, which allows for easy escape and dino sniping from hard-to-reach areas. The recon class (fast becoming my favorite) gets the cloaking ability, and the support class gets a medical gun for healing allies (and yourself). Each class also gets their own grenade type (frag, EMP, and smoke, respectively) and ability upgrade (jetpack hover, ninja (faster cloaked movement), and engineer (repair vehicles)). Credits earned during a game by killing dinosaurs can be spent on weapons and upgrades. Thankfully, credits are not persistent, so you don’t have to spend weeks grinding through the game to unlock a shiny new rifle. Another good thing: any class can unlock any weapon, and since you start out with pistols (the support class gets a marginally better shotgun), you’ll need more powerful weaponry to deal with multiple T-Rexes roaming across the landscape. You can choose between a submachine gun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, light machine gun, rocket launcher, high damage energy carbine, or a laser rifle. Some weapons come with a firing mode selector (the “H” key) and a zooming capability, but you must hold down the zoom control (the right mouse button) continuously as the game lacks a toggled option. Four vehicles are also available for purchase: a hover bike, combat jeep, mech (with extremely useful missiles), and VTOL aircraft. While ORION: Dino Beatdown doesn’t have a super large collection of weapons and vehicles, all of the basic types are included to support a variety of tactics.

Unfortunately, weapons (and vehicles) are very expensive, usually requiring survival across two or three waves to purchase the lowest quality rifles; the best weapons and vehicles require survival basically through all five base waves, which is impossible using the starting pistols you are given. Fighting multiple T-Rexes with a pistol is, frankly, a bunch of crap and a waste of time: the only viable tactic is to hide in a building and pop out to take a couple of shots, which is extremely tedious and not fun in any way. While the server can alter the initial cash value, death is common within the first couple of waves simply because you lack the firepower needed for success. It can take hundreds to thousands of bullets to take down one T-Rex, let alone three at a time (animals routinely wander in to the base that are not part of the scripted wave). Even more insulting is the fact that you lose your expensive weapon when you die (you can respawn after a round is finished by your allies), adding more salt to the wound. There is also not enough downtime between waves to purchase items, so you will routinely attempt to interact with the upgrade kiosk while getting bitten in the rear by a velociraptor. In addition to buying new weapons, you can upgrade their capabilities (increased damage, rate of fire, ammunition, or faster reload time) for a price. In addition, you can upgrade your character with additional strength, armor, or agility values. While ORION: Dino Beatdown does provide several upgrade options through weapons, vehicles, and upgrades, they are expensive enough where you’ll only be able to afford a couple (if you make it that far).

Ironically, the content that ORION: Dino Beatdown lacks the most is dinosaur variety. The game only ships with three scaly enemies to contend with, each exhibiting specific behavior. First, the raptors are the small, fast dinosaurs that are only a problem if they pin you in a corner. Second, the Rhamphorhynchus (they couldn't just say “Pterodon”?) is a flying creature that picks you up, which might actually be good when being attacked by other dinosaurs. However, they cause damage when you are in their clutches, so you should hammer the melee key (“V”) to get dropped as soon as possible. The T-Rex is just a big freaking tank that throws rocks (instantly killing you) and topples vehicles. The best tactic is to hide in a building (preferably the armory, where you can heal, resupply, and purchase new weapons): only raptors can attack you, as T-Rexes will only clip through the walls and the flying ones can’t swoop down. Cloaking works well against dinosaurs, since they will only track you if they can see you. Using the jetpack also works, giving you access to cliffs and roofs to shoot from. Only the support class is out of luck when it comes to quick dinosaur avoidance, so he must be protected by members of the other two classes. The free vehicles provided make attacking raptors a lot easier, but since T-Rex will flip them over and the flying pterodon will snatch you out of the gunner’s seat, they are not an option unless you have a competent, fast driver.

The dinosaur AI isn’t very strong, as it exhibits some questionable behaviors. I realize the enemy consists of “dumb lizards”, but more should be expected. Exhibited behavior includes missing jumps, completely ignoring soldiers, getting stuck on trees, rocks, and buildings, and colliding into each other (especially the flying ones). Dinosaurs will, by default, simply run straight towards the generator or the person that is shooting them, sometimes moving in a crisscrossing pattern for no discernible reason. ORION: Dino Beatdown works best when lots of dinosaurs are present and their behaviors aren’t quite as obvious, since you’re too busy scrambling to shoot them.

Considering all of the complaints I have levied against the game, ORION: Dino Beatdown is fun if you have a coordinated team consisting of several upgraded classes with non-basic weapons: an assault soldier in a mech, a recon with a rocket launcher repairing the generator, another assault soldier using the jetpack and energy carbine to distract the tougher enemies, a recon sniper up on a hill, and a support soldier healing everyone while piloting a VTOL plane makes for satisfying team-based gameplay. But the combination of powerful dinosaurs and expensive weapons makes ORION: Dino Beatdown too difficult, and most groups simply won’t advance far enough to unlock all of those items.

IN CLOSING
The first issue with ORION: Dino Beatdown is the lack of content, which the pre-release videos promise will be expanded for free following release. Still, having only three dinosaurs (ironically the most significant limitation, given the game's title) and three classes means gameplay becomes repetitive quickly. That said, the action is so fast paced that you might be too busy shooting numerous giant lizards to care. The fast, plentiful raptor, gigantic, hulking T-Rex, and annoying, flying however-you-say-it all offer different challenges that work well together overwhelming uncoordinated human players. The dinosaur AI is pretty simplistic: the raptors go straight for the generator, sometimes ignoring you along the way, the T-Rex loves to topple vehicles, and the Rhamphorhynchus picks you up at the earliest convenience. The solider classes work well in concert: the jetpack-equipped assault and camouflaging recon soldiers can avoid contact, while the support soldier heals everyone back up. Points earned by killing dinosaurs and clearing levels can be spent on a nice variety of new weapons and vehicles, and upgrades only carry over for a single game (so you don't have to grind for a month to unlock one assault rifle). I also really like that the unlockable weapons are not class-specific, but I wish that everything wasn't so darn expensive on the default settings: forcing each player to fend off multiple T-Rex attacks using only pistols makes the game unfairly difficult and downright frustrating (made even more so by losing your expensive weapons when you die). ORION: Dino Beatdown could have greatly benefited from better balance that would offer chaotic gameplay without taking ten minutes to shoot down one T-Rex using a pistol. The base defending objectives (and encountering the same three dinosaurs repeatedly) can get monotonous after a while, although frequent episodes of constant action make this less of an issue. The environment graphics are dinosaur models are both excellent, although some clipping problems detract from the experience. And turn off the commentary the first time you boot the game; you’ll thank me later. In the end, ORION: Dino Beatdown online could be a riotous, hectic fight against gigantic dinosaurs, offering some fun for $10, if you look past the content shortcomings, unwarranted difficulty, and a handful of technical issues.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Warlock: Master of the Arcane Review

Warlock: Master of the Arcane, developed by Ino-Co Plus and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Fight plentiful creeps for experience upgrades, varied spells, multi-level random maps, multiple victory conditions
The Not So Good: Mostly derivative, trivial economics, very basic diplomatic options, unoriginal quests, some interface limitations, no multiplayer
What say you? A fantasy version of Civilization that offers a bit more than its obvious inspiration: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I would argue that the most influential turn-based strategy computer game of all time is Civilization. The classic take-over-the-world, just-one-more-turn series has spawned a significant number of real-time (Rise of Nations) and turn-based (Call to Power) successors. Nowadays, you must inject a unique flavor into the traditional formula, or be cast aside as yet another copycat. Adapting tropes from fantasy role-playing games, Warlock: Master of the Arcane hopes to combine the additive gameplay of Civilization with magic spells and roaming monsters. Adding a bit of fantasy has been attempted before, with disappointing results. Does Warlock: Master of the Arcane triumph where others have perished?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Warlock: Master of the Arcane has pretty decent graphics, especially for the price ($20). The visuals are highlighted by the pleasing tile graphics that incorporate high-resolution textures: they are both easily identifiable and bring a varied, bright look to the map. The 3-D unit models are varied as well, covering a wide range of races, but most are too small to notice much detail from an appropriate distance. Some spell effects are better than others, ranging from rings to fire to wimpy flashes of light, and combat animations leave a lot to be desired. As for the sound, unit acknowledgements get repetitive very quickly and the tutorial voice acting recycled from Defenders of Ardania is much too over-the-top. The sound effects for combat are nothing special, and the music is a generic assortment of fantasy tropes. Still, the graphics are solid enough to produce a satisfying package.



ET AL.
Your task in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is to defeat all the other great mages by founding cities, raising troops, engaging neutral monsters, researching spells, and winning. Starting a new game allows you to choose the difficulty setting, which gives the AI better units and an improved economy. Personally, I found the "normal" difficulty to be too easy and the next higher setting ("challenging") to be too difficult thanks to significant bonuses handed to the AI; I'd like to see some option in the middle. Additional new game options include map size, layout type (the frequency of water and whether the map edges connect), number of enemy great mages, and use of additional worlds, which are map layers (entered through a portal) crawling with tons of monsters. However, you cannot customize the frequency of monsters on the map; I've gotten stuck with "unfair" starting positions surrounded by monsters on many occasions (numerous enough that they were able to capture all of my cities except for the capital), so it's a bit surprising this area of the game is static. Before you begin, you must also choose your great mage, either from a list of pre-scripted options or customizing the starting perks (giving additional resources or a faster gathering rate) and initial spells. Victory is earned by destroying all of the rival mages, capturing all holy grounds, casting the spell at the top of the research tree, or defeating a god. However, the game never says how close any player is to any of these goals, so the game can abruptly end without advance notification. In place of a traditional tutorial, Warlock: Master of the Arcane throws a bunch of narrated messages whenever you do anything, which are initially helpful but soon become annoying (but can be turned off). Warlock: Master of the Arcane doesn’t have any multiplayer: not on the same computer, not over a LAN, not online. There are plans to add multiplayer later this year, but not having it at launch is disappointing. The game also fails to save my resolution settings, requiring me to select them each time I load the game.

The interface of Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a tale of two extremes. First, a lot of the aspects of interacting with the game will be instantly familiar to Civilization players. I really like the available action list that displays useful icons when units can upgrade, cities can build something, research can start, enemies are near your cities, and when units can move. In addition, the game will give approximate battle results before an attack starts, so you can gauge when to go on the offensive. However, the interface is not without its problems. While the spell list can be filtered to show only healing or summoning spells, you cannot sort the list by power or cost (it just places things in the order you researched them). Warlock: Master of the Arcane also lacks a simple list of your cities or units that would display what they can recruit and where they are. The game also lacks a building tree, so you can have no idea how to construct specific buildings related to quests. You also cannot undo your move orders. While this makes it more “fair” when you accidentally encounter powerful monsters, it would be nice to have when you accidentally issue a move order you never intended. With a bit more polish, the interface of Warlock: Master of the Arcane would be a complete success.

Your magical empire relies on three main resources: gold, food, and mana. These are collected by building specific structures in your cities, and spent on units, other buildings, and spells. You can also increase the rate at which you research new spells. In addition to accumulating resources, buildings can also recruit new units and take advantage of special resource hexes contained within the city limits. I found it trivially easy to keep your economy humming right along: just build the right structures for each resource and everything will be fine. Buildings don’t cost anything to construct, which means it’s very hard to crash your economy, unless you recruit a bunch of units at one time without planning on supporting their per-turn gold and food cost. I commonly had more mana than I could spend on spells (especially since most of the high-level spells take multiple turns to cast), although I did have to keep an eye on gold since better units cost significantly more money to recruit. There is also no upkeep penalty for spamming cities near every special resource location you find; as a result, the side with the most cities will have a significant advantage.

Units in Warlock: Master of the Arcane run the usual gamut of ranged and melee options, although there are specific types of magical attacks in the game (death, life, elemental). The range of races in the game means there will be some unit variety on the battlefield, but most races still get a cheap melee, cheap ranged, and more expensive version of each. Units will automatically morph into naval transports if you have a harbor in any city (much like Rise of Nations), which is quite helpful. As units defeat enemies, they gain experience, and when units level up, you get to choose one of three upgrades, increasing attack or defense against melee or ranged action, movement speed, sight range, or a number of other attributes. A lot of experience can be racked up by fighting the monsters that roam the lands looking for something to attack. Monsters spawn from specific locations that can be captured, and they can be a very serious threat for single units. If monsters (or anybody you are at war with) comes knocking at your door, towns can defend with ranged weapons, which is usually enough to beat back a single unit, but insufficient against an organized assault. Having monsters and neutral towns on the map makes the early game of Warlock: Master of the Arcane far more interesting.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane allows you to research a large variety of spells that can be cast onto the field of battle. These are divided up into attacks against hexes, healing friendly units, faster movement (teleportation or flying), summoning monsters of your own, or improving unit attack ratings. While there are a nice number of spells to choose from, with the game’s easy economy, I ran out of options by the mid-to-late parts of a game. The more powerful spells can take more than a single turn to cast, so some planning must be made in order to use the right magic at the right time. The more powerful options, used at the right time, can alter the balance of a fight, so the inclusion of spells in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is not a trivial addition.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane also assigns you quests every once in a while. These are fairly standard, usually involving building something or attacking a monster or enemy stronghold. Successfully completing a mission awards money or mana, which can be significant in the early parts of a game. The game’s eight gods might also assign some tasks during a game, which will unlock god-specific spells and units while improving relations with other mages that have completed missions for the same deity. Diplomacy in Warlock: Master of the Arcane is very, very basic: non-aggression pacts, alliances, and declarations of war are the only options available. While you can sweeten those deals with a little gold or mana, you cannot trade any spell technologies, units, cities, or share map information. I was pretty disappointed at the limited nature of diplomacy.

With no humans to play against, Warlock: Master of the Arcane must rely on the quality of its computer opponents. The AI is average, having the basics of the game down. The computer mages will grow their cities appropriately and accept most reasonable diplomatic proposals (although usually you need to kick in some gold) and send some demands of their own. However, the computer is a bit slow in responding to attacks (even when you mass units within their line of sight) and usually (but not always) sends units piecemeal instead of massing a more effective offensive. Still, Warlock: Master of the Arcane can be a challenging game and battling creeps, using spells, and undertaking quests add some unique aspects to the classic formula.

IN CLOSING
There is no denying that Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a lot like Civilization, which is OK if it offers enough differences. So, does it? Well, the major features start with the role-playing-inspired creeps that populate the world, dangerous to single units but also farmable for unit experience. There are also more monsters in parallel worlds; enterprising great mages can enter a portal and fight the demons for even more bonuses. The spell selection is good, offering attacks, healing, summoned units, shields, and other abilities, though you run through most of your options by the middle of the game. Your units are also varied (although they really just fall into melee or ranged categories), spread among different races and offering assorted attack values at different costs. Quests are nice in theory, offering short-term goals and minor rewards for completing them, but they lack variety in the long term. Diplomatic options are disappointing, offering only basic choices. The economy is very easy to master: since buildings cost nothing to construct, you can plan ahead and construct the right resource-producing items, always having enough gold, mana, and food to support your troops. There is also no penalty for having a lot of cities, so whoever can found the most towns will have a considerable leg up in resource collection. While some aspects of the interface are done well (the available action list and battle results preview), others could have been improved (the spells and cities list). The lack of multiplayer is also lamentable, but there are plans to add it to the game later this year. The AI has its shortcomings but plays good enough to provide a challenge. Despite the overwhelming similarities between Warlock: Master of the Arcane and the Civilization series, the game is a solid turn-based strategy game that feels just different enough with the inclusion of spells and creeps. Overall, people who really like this style of turn-based gaming should take a look at Warlock: Master of the Arcane (certainly for $20), but overall the game doesn’t add up to a truly unique experience.