Friday, June 29, 2012

Gemini Wars Review

Gemini Wars, developed by Camel 101 and published by Iceberg Interactive.
The Good: Building cap eliminates base spam, can capture crewless ships, fast intrasystem movement trigger chokepoints, fairly extensive research tree, combat can target unit subsystems, decent ship selection
The Not So Good: Simplifications reduce strategic variety, heavily scripted campaign missions with no randomized maps and no diplomacy, assorted interface shortcomings, no multiplayer (yet), no skirmish games (yet)
What say you? A space real-time strategy game with streamlined mechanics for easier command but decreased depth: 4/8

UPDATE (8/4/12): Skirmish mode has been added.

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Space serves as fertile ground for strategy gaming. The ability to colonize new worlds and produce ships that fight in a 3-D environment has captured the imagination of computer gamers everywhere, spawning both real-time and turn-based strategy titles too numerous to mention (although naming them would make my review significantly longer). The next entry in this long line of heralded gameplay is Gemini Wars, a real-time adaptation where you command ships and bases, conduct research, and invade colonies in several star systems connected by wormholes. Does Gemini Wars provide unique, compelling real-time strategy?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
I was occasionally impressed by the graphics of Gemini Wars. Space is a fertile ground for nice graphics, and Gemini Wars is no exception. First, planets and bases rotate, which breathes live into the empty static of space. Ships and buildings also have nice textures when viewed up close, although the black palette obscures some of the detail. Weapon and shield effects are repetitive but generally effective, as you can clearly see shots deflected and damage taken. The ship destruction animation is better than most games, where you can actually see 3-D pieces of the ship float away. Building construction is also animated, although it occurs in stages rather than a fully progressive visual. Gemini Wars also has very pretty backgrounds to serve as a backdrop for the action. The sound design is more typical, with appropriate battle effects and voice acting of varying quality, but usually at least average. Event voice notifications are misleading: every ship is a "capital ship" and the game never says whether it's a friendly "capital ship" or an enemy "capital ship" that has been destroyed. The music fits the genre but is nothing special in a genre that usually offers up dramatic scores. Effort has been made to make Gemini Wars look decent in a setting that essentially requires notable graphics, so that is to be commended.



ET AL.
The story of Gemini Wars unfolds across a sixteen-mission single-player campaign. The objectives are varied, with defend and escort missions, elevating the campaign above a simple collection of skirmish maps (a popular choice in strategy games), although the objectives are also quite linear and leave little room for varied strategy. Each mission lasts a while, usually between thirty minutes and one hour, so it can take some time to finish the campaign. Of course, some of the time is spent simply waiting, for a countdown timer or watching lengthy battles resolve, with no user input, so the time investment could have been reduced. Mission objectives could have also been more clear: you are told what to do but not where to do it, as objective location indicators are never used on the map (occasionally mission objectives name the location of interest, but not always). Missions are accompanied by fairly extensive CGI exposition and mission briefings, for people that enjoy that sort of thing. They are frequent enough to interrupt mission flow, but because of the heavily scripted nature of mission structure, this amount of disturbance is required. This obviously reduces replay value, and the release version does not include skirmish games or multiplayer, although they are planned for release in the future.

Missions in Gemini Wars can involve multiple maps that are linked by wormholes, and the maps also feature lots of planets and asteroids to capture and build upon, although the enemy starts in specific areas and behaves predictably during a single mission. In terms of difficulty, some missions are too hard, and some missions are too easy, and all have significant waiting at some point that I alluded to earlier. Missions last a bit too long, a combination of a slow game pace, overwhelming enemies, and arbitrary mission requirements (like defending for an entire hour for no discernable reason, or constructing exactly ten ships (even though you need many more to defeat the sizable enemy navy)). One reason why I don't like solo campaigns in strategy games is because it's so hard to get the difficulty just right: one extra enemy ship can mean the difference between success and failure, balance and imbalance. Gemini Wars introduces new actions gradually during the campaign (which confusingly disables major gameplay mechanics for a majority of the campaign, like colonization) and in two tutorials; the tutorials provide decent information (although keyboard commands are not explained) but have voiced instructions you can’t quickly skip through.

The interface for Gemini Wars is pretty typical for the genre, with no truly innovative features and some areas that could use significant improvement. The “strategic map” button allows for instant access to a zoomed-out perspective. The game is played on a 2-D surface, which makes it easy to navigate; while 3-D space is obviously more realistic, I’ve found that using it in games like Sword of the Stars is ultimately more confusing. There are several places that could use some work: there is no idle ship button, or a way to box-select (or not box-select) construction ships (you can de-select them from a selection, but that adds an extra step). Military bases and shipyards do not have rally points where newly constructed vessels can be sent automatically. Units always default to close attack, for some reason, even though ranged attack is always the better option (especially for units with missiles, and assault units will close in automatically anyway). When multiple units are selected, the icons in the bottom left of the screen never show specific health or shield information, only turning red when a unit is near death and displaying numerical hyperspace fuel levels. Those icons really need pop-up tool-tips, as I don't have the ship icons memorized and constantly forget which shape is a battleship and which is a cruiser. Unit health bars also disappear when you are zoomed out at a usable level. You also can't reconfigure the controls, the few that there are in the game. The game tells you when a new unit is built, but not where (you can't click on the notification to move the camera) or what it is (other than a tiny little icon). In addition, there is a twenty-second difference between when a ship is finished and when you can select it, which is extremely annoying in the heat of battle. Issuing a move order to a unit several systems away does not use the hyperspace drive. Placing build orders does not use resources immediately (that's good), but the construction is canceled (instead of being put on hold) if the required resources are not available when the construction starts (that's bad). While you can queue ships, you cannot queue research. Gemini Wars could also use a master ship list (though the strategic map view allows you to see all of your units) and more detailed tool-tips (displaying things like resource gathering rates). Strategy games, especially real-time ones, require an efficient interface to play the game, and Gemini Wars needs several improvements.

There is just one primary resource to worry about in Gemini Wars: crystal. It’s used to build ships and construct buildings, and collected by placing a single mining base on an asteroid field. Planets will also need to be colonized, once a colony ship has successfully visited a neutral world. Colonies provide marines for troop ships (so you can invade other colonies), increase the unit cap, and enable the construction of massive large ships. Military stations can also be placed in orbit around a friendly colony; these allow for small ships to be constructed, in addition to other buildings, like the shipyard (for buildings larger ships), turrets (of which there is no limit on, curiously), shield generators, and long-range cannons. Gemini Wars restricts you to placing one mining base, one military station, and one shipyard in each location, which cuts down on spam but reduces tactical flexibility. There is also a population cap, which is increased by founding new colonies with military stations. The building variety in Gemini Wars is quite limited: while a straightforward build order makes the game easier to learn, I’d still like to see more options (like weapon or defensive attachments or completely new structures) added to this portion of the game.

Like the building selection, ships in Gemini Wars are basic and generic, but they cover all of the options present in your typical strategy game. Military options include the missile frigate, assault frigate, destroyer, cruiser, battleship, and carrier, while colony ships and troop ships are provided for founding and attacking colonies. Battleships get one special ability of your choice (like a devastating shot or shield recharge), unlike other ships with static weaponry. However, because these special abilities take so long to recharge (twenty real-time minutes, I’d say, on average), their use is essentially meaningless. Gemini Wars does not allow you to design your own units or add different weapons to the designs, but research is available to improve different aspects of your ships across the board. Those aspects include the hull, shields, speed, and weapon attributes (damage and range). In addition to research, combat experience also increases a unit’s damage. An enemy ship can be captured if the crew is eliminated, which is a nice twist not usually offered in strategy games. As with the buildings, I would like to see more varied ship types that take advantage of simple weapon countering methods (as in Galactic Civilizations).

In addition to typical slow movement around space, Gemini Wars features localized jump movement between planets and asteroids using hyperspace fuel. This works like nodal movement in Sword of the Stars or Endless Space, but with more freedom in choosing your specific destination. This movement method has several advantages: predictable movement (you know the enemy will appear at planets or asteroids) makes setting up defenses easier (and concentrates the action), and waiting for the jump power to recharge forces both sides to stick around for a fight. It’s a nice system that works well. Wormholes to different stars on the same map are controlled by one side and not usable by the other until they destroy the enemy warp gate, which is a neat way of cutting off a portion of the map and isolating enemy units.

Units can be given orders beyond “move here”: rotate, stop, attack, ranged attack, and defend (which keeps units in formation). You can't specify unit facing when issuing a move command by holding down the right-mouse button, and you must wait to define it after the destination is reached (the rotate command is confusing anyway). Units have a hard time consistently staying at maximum range: the “ranged attack” option keeps on switching off for me (defaulting to “attack”) frequently when units are selected, which brings the missile units close enough to get shot by melee adversaries. While units are smart enough to engage nearby enemies on their own, their movement tactics leaves a lot to be desired. On larger ships, subsystems (life support, weapons, engines) can be targeted, but I found this method to be unreliable as well: too often, right-clicking on a specific component would end up attacking the hull anyway and subsequently destroyed the ship I wanted to disable and capture with shuttle-launched marines. You also cannot flank units and attack weaker side or rear shields, as in Starpoint Gemini. Gemini Wars has a slow pace, with units moving slowly and weapons causing minor damage: large battles can take a significant amount of time to resolve, and time acceleration is not an option. The streamlined nature of the game has some disadvantages, as fewer decisions make for duller games. Just choose the biggest ships you can research and afford, establish the closest colonies (when you are able), construct defenses, research improvements, and destroy. Gemini Wars lacks the depth found in competing space strategy games, which makes the game more approachable, but potentially too simple for veteran strategists.

It’s hard to gauge the quality of the AI in Gemini Wars, since most (if not all) of the campaign missions are completely scripted, with defined starting conditions and locations for your computerized opponents. The AI will produce units and send them to where you are, but I’m not sure if these tactics are thought of on the fly or scripted by the scenario designer in advance. As I stated earlier, difficulty in the game can be erratic, and the AI certainly does not play “fair”: it’s usually given many more units at the beginning of a mission, and it’s up to the human player to outproduce the computer from there on out. Until Gemini Wars gets the promised skirmish mode, it’s difficult to tell just how intelligent the artificial intelligence may be. Rounding out the package is research: you can unlock hulls and structures and improve engines, armor, shields, and weapons for all of your units by constructing a research station (one per planet) and spending the points they generate. All of the research options are not available until the end of the campaign (you usually get one new thing to discover per mission), however. Finally, Gemini Wars does not have diplomacy of any kind, since the single-player campaign is story-driven.

IN CLOSING
The simplified nature of Gemini Wars is a two-edged sword: it makes the game very approachable, but also limits the long-term strategic variety. Limiting each base to only one major building of each type means you’ll encounter the same basic design every time. In addition, only six military ships means you’ll run into the same fleets over and over again. Research options do expand the specific attributes of units you’ll see, but continually using the same effective, simple plan that lacks the nuances of other space strategy games reduces replay value. Gemini Wars has a nice combination of real-time mechanics with 4X elements, like planet colonization and movement between specific points. Like almost everything in the game, the economy is simplified: just build a mining station near each asteroid field to gather the game’s only resource. Each planets can be surrounded by one military station, which allows for additional buildings like shipyards, turrets, and research stations. Since you are limited in the number of buildings you can construct at each base, you’ll have to colonize new worlds to expand your influence. Shipyards produce six different types of military units (plus construction and colonization craft), which may seem disappointing but cover all of the options present in most real-time strategy games. Unit attributes can be further customized through research, so there is still some choice, albeit indirect, in building your military. During combat, you can target specific subsystems of the larger vessels and capture enemy ships that have a deceased crew. Gemini Wars lacks diplomacy, relying instead on heavily scripted encounters during the sixteen-mission campaign, set on fixed map layouts. The AI benefits from these scripted force allocations, and difficulty can be inconsistent, but at least there is a mission variety beyond a series of skirmish matches. The graphics look nice, but the interface has several areas in need of enhancement. Still, Gemini Wars needs the inclusion of skirmish games and online multiplayer to earn a full recommendation. $40 is a little pricey for sixteen campaign scenarios (I would have preferred, say, $20 or $25 now with a $10 DLC for skirmish and multiplayer whenever they are finished), but fans of streamlined real-time strategy games set in space could take a gander at Gemini Wars.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Strategic War in Europe Review

Strategic War in Europe, developed and published by Wastelands Interactive.
The Good: Streamlined and simplified wargame mechanics with manageable unit counts and a smaller map size, $15
The Not So Good: Too similar to Time of Fury, basic diplomatic and research options, lacks alternative scenarios, no multiplayer matchmaking
What say you? A smaller, more easily controlled version of Time of Fury fails to bring any other improvements: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Six months ago, Time of Fury was released, which sought to provide a comprehensive look at World War II from a strategy gaming perspective. While the game did streamline a number of wargame conventions, it was still unwieldy thanks to a large map and lots of units to control. As if they listened to my feedback, developer Wastelands Interactive have created Strategic War in Europe, enlarging the map and subsequently decreasing the unit count by combining the military into corps and armies. This $15 budget-level release hopes to continue to march towards accessibility that started with Time of Fury. Does Strategic War in Europe march on Berlin, or march on Paris (you can decide which of those options is better)?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The simplification of Strategic War in Europe starts with the graphics: a less flashy 2-D map with 2-D unit counters replace the 3-D models from before. Honestly, I actually prefer the informative counters in Strategic War in Europe to the 3-D models in Time of Fury. In addition, the hand-drawn attack circles and destination indicators look neat. The World War II unit portraits return, as does the interface, which provides sortable unit lists and reports that make all of the game’s information accessible, although not as efficiently as I would like. The sound design is quite basic, with occasional battle effects and decent music to accompany your attempts at world domination. Strategic War in Europe doesn’t provide any groundbreaking innovations in terms of graphics and sound design (and recycles a significant portion of Time of Fury), which is what you would expect for $15.



ET AL.
Strategic War in Europe lets you take command of any of the European (plus the United States) nations during the Second World War (also known as The War Between The States). The alliance that earns the most victory points (earned by holding cities) is declared most awesome. The game comes with six scenarios, giving you the starting conditions for each year between 1939 and 1944. Games are played with one turn representing one month, so the longest game lasts a manageable seventy turns, which is a far cry from the 300-turn behemoths of Time of Fury). You can choose to control one or multiple countries (even those from opposing sides) and allow the AI to take the helm of the remainder. Strategic War in Europe lacks the alternative scenarios provided in the previous title, which is a bit disappointing. Strategic War in Europe also lacks matchmaking or centrally hosted multiplayer; I suppose that, with shorter games, the developers figured players could handle play by e-mail on their own. Still, the smaller map size (presented at a larger scale), reduced unit count, and shorter game length makes Strategic War in Europe much more approachable than its predecessor.

Units in Strategic War in Europe consist of corps and armies (instead of divisions and corps), which is appropriate for the increased scale of the map. Like before, ground units include infantry, motorized, and armor types, while fighters, tactical bombers, and strategic bombers take to the air, and carrier group, battle group, patrol group, and submarine group rule the seas. Each unit is rated according to strength, a health value that also determines attack and defense, and the effectiveness, a combination of battle experience, commander values, and supplies available. A selection of commanders can be assigned to important units, which generally increases attributes according to the rating of the commander. Supplies are automatically ferried from nearby cities to your units, the amount of which is inversely proportional to the distance from the city. While you don’t have to worry about managing supplies directly, the system does allow you to control rail lines and cut off supplies through flank movements.

Each unit has a number of action points (determined from the type of unit) that it can use to move and attack each turn. In addition to conventional movement, units can take advantage of strategic rail movement, sea transport, amphibious invasions, and paradrops. Air units can rebase, scout, and nuke targets, while naval vessels can raid supply convoys. Units can join an attack once per turn, adding to the strength of the assault and allowing you to take down powerful armies by surrounding them and simultaneously attacking them. The victor of a battle is determined from the unit strengths, terrain, and weather conditions. This system is intuitive while allowing for large-scale tactics. I found the AI nations in Strategic War in Europe to be fairly intelligent (artificially, of course), surrounding and attacking important units it can beat, avoiding combat when appropriate, moving towards city objectives, and attempting to keep units in supply. Units will get damaged, so you can spend production points earned from cities under your control to reinforce existing units (preserving the experience they have earned) or purchase new units that can be placed near any city once completed. Existing units can also be upgraded to a higher experience level or changed to a new type, if they are in friendly territory and you have the production points to spend.

Diplomacy and research in Strategic War in Europe is very basic. Diplomatic points can be spent delaying or hastening your country’s entry into an alliance, triggering an election, or changing political parties. You can also pressure other nations into a specific alliance, attempt to change their political affiliation, or declare war. And that’s it: no trade or dealings other than pure alliance. Research is even more primitive: you invest money to increase the focus in six areas (infantry, tanks, aircraft, submarines, navy, and nuclear weapons), allowing for more unit upgrades. Neither of these areas get much focus during a game of Strategic War in Europe, so most of your energy will be spend moving units and attacking your foes.

IN CLOSING
Not surprisingly, Strategic War in Europe is very, very similar to Time of Fury, except with less units on a larger-scale map. The bigger unit sizes, represented as corps and armies, do make the game much more manageable, and Strategic War in Europe is subsequently more approachable and serves as a good introductory wargame. Units move, attack, and gain experience over time, increasing their strength as the war progresses. Attacking from multiple directions on a single unit is the best strategy, surrounding the enemy as you march towards city objectives that contain the production points necessary to recruit new units and repair old ones. The diplomacy and research aspects of the game remain underdeveloped, and things will generally play out as they did historically. Strategic War in Europe features the same decent computer opponents as before, who play competently as they attack vulnerable units and capture important objectives. The simplifications of Strategic War in Europe have resulted in less scenario diversity, as the historical variations of the past are mysteriously absent this time around. The longest scenario in Strategic War in Europe is a fourth of the size of the largest offering in Time of Fury, allowing you to actually finish a game in a reasonable amount of time. While I do like Strategic War in Europe more than Time of Fury because it is more manageable without sacrificing strategy, I wish innovations were brought to the table along with the reduced size. The smaller price helps to lessen the sting of Strategic War in Europe essentially being a direct copy of Time of Fury with more streamlined features, though. I think that if I was overwhelmed by Time of Fury and wanted a quicker, easier experience (as I do), then I would take a look at Strategic War in Europe and its $15 strategic gameplay.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

DiRT Showdown Review

DiRT Showdown, developed by Codemasters Racing and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Chaotic crash-filled racing modes, easier to master trick modes, wrecking awards speed boost
The Not So Good: Restrictive campaign advancement requirements, robotic pack AI racing with little room for success, poor online matchmaking, usually meaningless health, some frustrating racing modes
What say you? A peculiar tilt for the off-road racing series retains several shortcomings: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
After the slow start of DiRT, lofty heights of DiRT 2, and crash back down to Earth of DiRT 3, one wonders what it next for the venerable off-road racing series. Will a new edition fix the issues of the last installment, namely the lack of significant content and annoying mandatory racing modes? Well, we’ll have to wait a bit to find out, as the DiRT has taken a detour towards exotic racing events, such as figure eight races and demolition derby. This is certainly a different approach from the more traditional races, like rally and pack events, seen in previous DiRT titles. Does this diversity make for an intriguing game?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
As expected, the graphic of DiRT Showdown are as good as ever. The car models are detailed at every turn, with vibrant paint schemes and decent damage. The circuits are set in distinctive environments with plenty of trackside variety to distract as you try to drive. The game employs a lot of fancy slowdown effects and lighting tricks to accompany your demolition exploits (the fireworks budget for those tracks must be through the roof). The sound design is fairly average, with appropriate engine sounds and alternative background music. The announcer commentary gets annoying and repetitive very quickly, and lacks the name recognition of past DiRT titles. You can choose a nickname (no first names like in DiRT 2, again) that the game will call you when you sign on: I chose “cupcake”. The power of the graphics results in a solid presentation capable of comparing favorable with any racing game.



ET AL.
Like previous DiRT titles, DiRT Showdown primarily has you progressing through a campaign to become the DiRTiEsT racecar driver around. The “showdown tour” is divided into four tiers, where you must finish third or better in all but one event (of your choosing) in each tier. This high level of required competency is carried over from DiRT 3, and I still hate it. As is always the case, there were two events I could not beat in the introductory campaign, so I was stuck for a significant amount of time, replaying the same two races over and over and over again. Forty-seven times. I’m not exaggerating: I counted. At three minutes per attempt, that’s two and a half hours of playing the same two races I could not defeat until I got lucky. That’s simply not fun. Assuming you finally beat a campaign race, you can challenge your Steam friends to best your time, which is a decent social feature. Apart from the campaign, there is the “joyride” mode, which is somewhat innovative: you have a series of stunt missions to complete (jump here, slide here) and packages to collect. While some of the objectives are vague and I wish they would give you several at a time, I did like the idea of the mode and it offered a nice break from the frustrating campaign.

One thing I immediately noticed when starting up the game was…oh joy of joys: Games for Windows LIVE is missing! But, out with the old and in with the new, as Codemasters’ Racenet service is used, and it honestly has just as many connection issues as the previous online component: sometimes it would connect immediately, sometimes it would take half a minute (during which you can’t cancel and return to the main screen), sometimes it would say the servers were down. So, obviously some improvements need to be made. Despite the removal of Games for Windows LIVE, DiRT Showdown still uses the same terrible method of joining games. The mode selection does not display how many players are in each race type, so you have to potentially join and disconnect from each of the five groupings as you manually search for opponents. Seriously, how hard is it to place a number next to each game mode showing how many people are playing it? Frankly, I’m fed up with a game that, in its forth iteration, still has basic usability issues like server browsing and campaign advancement. There is simply no excuse at this point. Rounding out the features is two-player split screen mode, online Racenet events that offer specific challenges (car, track, race type), and in-game YouTube uploads so you can show your friends just how totally awesome that wreck was.

DiRT Showdown takes place in scenic destinations like Miami, San Francisco, Japan, London, and…Michigan?! The game features a range of racing modes revolving around annihilation. The first are variations on destruction derby, either awarding points for big hits or taking place on a platform, where you can push competitors off sumo wrestling style. Oddly, there is no penalty for wrecking out (just points for whoever did it), which in actual destruction derbies would disqualify you. The difficult “hard target” survival mode throws lots of enemy cars at you and sets a target time you must achieve; the best strategy seems to be driving in large circles, so the enemy cars slip past you. The best game mode, in my opinion, is the figure eight (called “8 ball” for some reason…to appeal to billiards fanatics?): cars are designed to cross paths several times a lap. This mode retains the driving skill of the traditional racing modes and adds in some elements of luck to keep you stressed out every time you meet oncoming traffic. DiRT Showdown also includes more traditional racing modes, like basic circuit events. The “domination” mode, where you earn points by setting the fastest sector times, is completely out of place in this game. The strategy seems to be alternating the sectors in which you use boost, while completely avoiding any contact with opposing cars (which, you know, takes away the whole point of the game). The “elimination” mode is more at home here, since you can use crashes to your advantage when the last place car is eliminated every fifteen seconds. Stunt modes return, much to my chagrin, although the stunts seem to be easier to pull off this time around. And in the head to head obstacle course stunt mode, it’s really easy to place third and progress in the campaign because there are only two cars. Finally, there are three multiplayer-only modes to enjoy (if you can find anyone to play against, of course); capture the flag, hold the flag, and drive through six checkpoints in any order. So, DiRT Showdown is not short on race modes, and a couple of them are even fun.

DiRT Showdown controls as you would expect: an arcade racing game. The game features mostly fictional cars adapted for high-collision racing: buggies, trucks, buses, and old cars (there are also rally cars for the stunt modes). There are noticeable differences between the cars, each rated according to power, strength, and handling. Those ratings can be upgraded to an extent with money earned from racing, and the game uses a letter system to remind you which ones you’ve improved. You’ll have to switch between cars based on the event type (high strength for destruction derbies, high power for races). The physics are fine: while collisions are satisfying, I found that cars get stuck a lot, probably because the AI keeps accelerating into me and other racers. The speedometer from games past has been replaced by a health and boost meter. Health is meaningless during races, as you’ll never do enough damage to eliminate yourself or someone else from a race. It plays a larger role during destruction-based events, but when you wreck out, you simply respawn seconds later. The boost is more interesting, as it’s earned by running into other drivers. This gives you more power to cause wrecks in destruction modes, and an incentive to crash cars during races (especially if you are in the back). The AI is robotic: as a famous NASCAR driver once said, if you ain’t first, you’re last. The cars travel in a conga line, weaving between obstacles like a metallic serpent. Only the occasional field-clearing wreck breaks the monotony (which is probably why I like the figure eight races so much). The time between first place and sixth place is usually half a second, which means you usually either win the race or finish worse than third, requiring you to restart the race yet again. The AI drivers certainly feel artificial, and more work could have been done to spread out the pack and make the races more authentic.

IN CLOSING
DiRT Showdown has the same frustrating feature problems as DiRT 3, but it’s buoyed somewhat by its take on crash-filled racing. The crash-filled racing spectacles, though repetitive, are a nice change of pace. The use of car health (which only becomes an issue during demolition derbies) and boost changes the game from pure racing skill to a more tactical approach, which is more appealing to a casual audience. My favorite is the figure eight, with cars criss-crossing in the middle of the lap: it has the right combination of luck and skill that makes for great arcade racing. The demolition modes also take some skill with maneuvering, and the stunt-based modes are more forgiving this time around. The traditional racing modes (especially the timed circuit “domination” type) seem out of place amidst all of the wrecking, but can still be enjoyable if the AI didn’t resort to close pack racing almost all of the time. This style of close racing makes it exceedingly difficult to advance through the campaign, which continues to have arbitrary constraints on your enjoyment: once again, your progress is locked until you can finish third in all but one of the missions at each difficulty level. Beyond the frustrating campaign is an interesting objective-based joyride mode and challenges you can send to your Steam friends that play DiRT Showdown. Multiplayer is much of the same, despite the addition of Codemasters’ own Racenet servers, and the game still does not show which modes other people are playing so you can join the most populated servers. I like DiRT Showdown more than DiRT 3, certainly, but I wish the campaign modes, multiplayer, and unnatural AI were fixed once and for all. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dungeonbowl Review

Dungeonbowl, developed and published by Cyanide Studio.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, quick matches, teleporters add uncertainty, level editor, $15
The Not So Good: Lacks a single player training mode and AI opponents, only three schools, no tutorial, deficient interface, significant reliance on luck
What say you? A multiplayer-only, stripped-down, more randomized, accelerated adaptation of Blood Bowl: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Games Workshop is most famously known for the Warhammer series of tabletop wargames, which have been licensed into several successful computer games. The board game design company is also responsible for Blood Bowl, a strategic American football-inspired game based in the Warhammer universe, which was also adapted into a computer game in 2009 (which I played but did not review). Branching off of that game is Dungeonbowl, which takes the turn-based/real-time sports action and adds treasure chests that may contain the ball (or a trap) and teleporters, with a single touchdown winning the game. The much quicker matches should result in wider appeal, so does Dungeonbowl speed up the game while preserving the strategic depth?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Dungeonbowl are essentially identical to Blood Bowl, which is not surprising. The games take place in dark dungeons that recycle the same elements over and over again: dark stone walls, fire, violent decorations, and caged dancing nymphs (for some reason). Different maps are not distinctive visually, but vary only according to the specific layout. The character models cover a wide range of races, but you usually can’t tell the difference from the far distance you’ll typically be playing from. The units could have more detailed models and less jerky animations. The battle effects are repetitive, with simple “falling over” animations when players get hurt: none look painful enough. The interface is a hindrance: there is no list of players on the main screen, displaying helpful information like who has moved. It’s also very hard to tell who is on which team, as the red and blue backgrounds are too vague; I routinely moved the camera to obscure the characters, so I could view them through a wall and see the bright outline for team identification. You can cycle through players using the page up and page down keys, but there is nothing on the GUI that lets you perform that action. There is also no prompt to remind you to teleport a new player into the game each turn; I had to condition myself to call in reserves first thing. In addition, the minimap is too small to be usable, with tiny dots showing the locations of players and chests. The sound design is very basic, with sporadic effects for in-game events. The occasionally humorous announcers from Blood Bowl have been completely removed, and the music is generic for a fantasy setting. Clearly, Dungeonbowl uses the same graphics and sound as Blood Bowl, with some features taken out and the interface not improved.



ET AL.
Dungeonbowl is Blood Bowl with sudden death (the first score wins), teleporters, and the ball hidden in one of six chests. The game features twelve dungeon layouts that offer good strategic variety; all contain narrow hallways (for easier blocking) and pits that opposing players can be pushed in to. The editor also allows you to create you own maps, which can be shared online once approved by the developer. Dungeonbowl provides online matchmaking, LAN play, and hotseat modes, but no single player. It is very surprising that you cannot practice against the AI, especially since there was an offline mode in Blood Bowl that could be farmed for player experience. The hotseat mode doesn’t even let you play with your online teams, restricting you to three templates for each school in the game. As it stands, you are at the mercy of the online population to play Dungeonbowl: sometimes finding an opponent takes seconds, sometimes it takes minutes, and sometimes it takes much longer. Dungeonbowl also lacks a tutorial, relying on a manual. Interestingly, there are actually sound files in the game directory for a tutorial, probably copies over from Blood Bowl but not used here. I am greatly disappointed by the lack of single player content in Dungeonbowl.

The first step in dominating the dungeons of Dungeonbowl is to create your team. Each team has between eleven and sixteen and can take its player from one of the three colleges of magic featured in Dungeonbowl (Light, Bright, and Rainbow). Of course, the board game features ten different schools, so I suspect some future DLC is in order. You can supplement your team with an apothecary (to decrease injury severity) or bribes (so the referees ignore fouls). Each college has access to three races that essentially change the base stats of your players (plus some visual differences): dwarfs, orcs, goblins, high elves, norse, trolls, minotaurs, skaven, undead, and humans. The ratings used in the game are movement, strength, agility, and armor. These players must be bought (to prevent you from choosing all high-level players initially) and divided into different roles that basically boil down to throwing, catching, running, blocking, or all-around. Each player also has a number of different skills based on their position, such as tackle, block, dodge, thick skill, strong arm, strip ball, sure hands, and diving catch. New skills are added each time a player levels up, as experience is earned by the best players in each match. This adds a nice sense of attachment with your team (just like any good sports management game) as you watch your players grow over time.

Dungeonbowl is sudden death: first score wins. The turn-based game allows one team to make all of their moves during a two-minute window, and then control passes to the opponent. Players must be moved in succession (you must complete all the moves of a single player at one time), and your turn ends immediately if you get tackled or lose possession of the ball. The ball must be brought to your opponent’s spawn zone, and it is hidden in one of six chests scattered around the map. If you open a chest and it does not contain the ball, the player blows up and your turn ends. This is the first or many interjections of luck into the game that significantly impact the gameplay. The second is the teleported: there are six placed in the dungeon, and you end up at a randomly chosen destination. There is also a 1:6 chance of the player being completely removed from the game, so teleporter usage is not without hazard. The random nature of the teleporters makes it really difficult to keep your team together, and it leads to a lot of luck: you might end up right near the ballcarrier, or on the opposite side of the map, or out of the game. I like some element of randomness in strategy games to keep things unpredictable, but too much luck negates good tactics.

Each team starts with six players in their zone, but an additional player can be brought in each turn, appearing randomly at one of the teleporters. Players can be injured when tackled, and you can also block players into the lava/water/openings next to the pathways, although I found the actual number of instances of this happening during games to be quite low. Each player can move a number of squares according to their stats, and dice rolls can be used to move two additional squares. If you move by an opponent, an automatic dice roll is made to see if they tackle you (again, based on stats). This means you should position defenders so that the enemy ballcarrier (and other players) must move past you on the way to the goal; this is a large part of the strategy in Dungeonbowl (and, by proxy, Blood Bowl), partially negated by the use of teleporters. When players are attacked, dice are rolled to determine the outcome: the attacker can get hurt, the defender can get hurt, both could get hurt, or the defender might be pushed. Pushing someone into lava or a teleporter is an intriguing tactic. Additional options that require dice rolls include picking up the ball, passing the ball (and catching it), blitzing (which is a move then an attack), and fouling someone who is knocked down. There is a lot of luck in this game, much more so than regular Blood Bowl. For example, my ballcarrier was sent to a teleporter (because the direct path was blocked by enemies) and was killed (a 1/6 chance). The very next turn, the enemy spawned a reinforcement at the very same teleporter (another 1/6 chance), picked up the ball, and carried it into my goal. With that much luck in a strategy game, I think most purists will be turned off by how much chance may influence their tactics.

IN CLOSING
Dungeonbowl is a simplified, quicker version of Blood Bowl, and the random teleporters, traps, obstacles, and sudden death scoring result in a more hectic game. Some might not like this amount of unpredictability, however, as the teleporters send your players to a random location (or vaporize them completely) and five out of six of the ball-holding chests will explode in your face and end the turn. As a result, Dungeonbowl games are chaotic and unorganized, with team members spread around the expansive maps, and since a single score means victory, a single mistake (or bad roll) can cost the entire game. The teleporters make it exceedingly difficult to organize a plan, which may be the point. Luck also plays a large part in the game, beyond the randomness associated with attack roles: where will the teleporter send you? The best strategy with all of this instability seems to be to keep defensive players near your end zone and to move conventionally most of the time (unless the ball carrier is far away and the risk is worth it). The turn-based mechanics means you’ll have to wait for the opponent to complete their turn, but the two-minute limit keeps things moving quickly. I might suggest alternating control after every player, but that might result in an even more chaotic game. The basics of the gameplay remain intact, and the narrow passageways means blocking is even easier: just stick people in the middle of the hallway and the opponent is required to roll to dodge past them. The team customization options are typical, although only having three of the ten schools in Dungeonbowl leads me to believe the developer is purposely withholding content for a future date. The biggest disappointment is the lack of a single player mode (I guess the AI from Blood Bowl could not be taught the new rules) and removal of a tutorial. With no single player and no tutorial, I had to learn the game by playing with myself (not that I don't enjoy playing with myself). The interface could also use some additional work, as it was too difficult identifying teams and finding players. While Dungeonbowl is a unique version of the Blood Bowl system, the lack of single player content and high amount of randomness negatively impacts the game’s appeal. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion Review

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Additional victory conditions, new units, rebel factions with unique research, improved game balance, enhanced AI
The Not So Good: Not worth it for previous owners, still no campaign
What say you? The fantastic real-time 4X series continues with a standalone expansion that doesn’t offer enough for veterans of the series:
I own previous Sins games: 4/8
I’ve never played Sins before: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In 2008, a monumental game was released that combined real-time strategy and 4X conventions. It was called: Dora the Explorer: Lost and Found Adventure. No, wait, it was Sins of a Solar Empire. The inevitable expansions followed the initial success, and now it’s time to keep the gravy train moving, this time with a standalone expansion. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion adds rebellion to the sins that are in the solar empire, introducing alternative factions, more ships, and additional victory conditions. Is this $40 game a wise investment for newcomers and veteran players alike?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion purports improved shadows and lighting, but I didn’t really notice them, to be honest. The game also gets an hour of new music and some additional voice work, which is nice. I don’t think you could reasonably expect much more from an expansion, especially when you consider that Sins of a Solar Empire looked good to begin with.

ET AL.
As the general awesomeness of Sins of a Solar Empire has been well established, this review will focus solely on the improvements contained herein, as I think we can safely assume that most discerning strategy gamers already have some version of this game permanently installed on their hard drive. So, on to the new stuff. First, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion introduces rebel factions for each of the game’s three races. The rebels and the loyalists both have six unique research options (clearly highlighted on the technology trees, to show that they are shiny and new) that align with the backstory. I found most of the new research options to be valuable, adding supplementary strategies to each game. Also notable in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is new victory conditions. Before, you had to align with all of the remaining sides or opt for total conquest, but Rebellion gives you more options for triumph. First, you can enable a single ship or home planet that needs to be destroyed to eliminate a side; this makes tedious clean-up a thing of the past, as you can quickly head towards the capital when you have numerical superiority instead of having to take out each and every enemy colony. There can also be a hostile, neutral planet that can be captured and held for a win, or a tech resides at the end of the civilian research tree that can grant victory once you’ve researched fifty other technologies. This makes Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion tend to move away from a pure military focus and reward other approaches to the game. The new game mechanics have produced two new tutorials, and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion requires Steam but allows for achievements and cloud-based saving as a consolation. Both the faction-specific research and additional victory conditions are fine additions to the base game.

Each of the game’s (now) six factions gets three new units: a corvette, a capital ship, and a titan. The cheap corvettes allow for “zerg rush”-type tactics, something that’s different (but not necessarily effective if prepared) for the normally slow-paced game. Each race also gets a new capital ship and the experience cap has been increased to level four, enabling more specialized operations for your largest ships. Finally, each faction gets a huge, slow-moving, outrageously expensive Titan-class ship that requires multiple research steps and lots of money to build; personally, I would rather spend the resources on mobile battleships (plus, Titans are fairly weak until they get experienced-based upgrades). The new ships are typical new features for an expansion and, while they do offer new options for players, they do not significantly alter the general strategic approach to the game. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion also offers balance changes and the AI has been taught to play the game with the additional features; I was not able to exploit a specific strategy to consistently defeat the AI, so it remains as strong as before (especially on higher difficulty settings). Of course, playing up to nine other humans online is the ultimate in competition.

Sins of a Solar Empire is generally a streamlined 4X game, so only having a few new ships and techs aligns with the theme of the series, but you could always want more. More important than more, though, would be the addition of some meaningful innovations to make the game play differently, something that Rebellion lacks and would justify a standalone price. This would have been an excellent time to add a story-driven campaign to the game, highlighting the new rebel factions and why they broke away. But, alas, the developers opted to keep skirmish-only battles, which further reduces the value of Rebellion. Those who, for some unknown reason, have not played Sins before should purchase this particular version, as it provides the most well-rounded gameplay of any in the series. But for veterans of the Sins games, it’s difficult to recommend spending $40 on what’s included.

IN CLOSING
Is Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion a good game? On its own, yes: it continues the highly-rated strategy gaming of the original. But as a $40 expansion? No, as it fails to provide enough content to justify a standalone price for owners of the previous games in the series (even with a $10 pre-order discount for owners of Trinity or the Diplomacy expansion). The most important addition, I think, is the new victory conditions: no longer do you have to ally with everyone or obliterate all comers, but you can focus on research or defeating a specific neutral planet. There are also quicker options for victory, like destroying a capital or important ship; this makes end-game clean-up a lot easier. The rebel factions introduce some unique research options that inject new strategic choices, and the new ships give additional options for composing your fleet. The AI has been updated to handle the new features, and overall game balance has been improved. Still, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion certainly doesn’t bring any significant, innovative changes to the formula (like a campaign, for instance), which is I why I feel those who have already played a game in the series can avoid this pricey expansion. I would rather see the game cost half what it is, considering the improvements offered.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming Review

Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming, developed by ActaLogic and published by UIG Entertainment.
The Good: User directed farming and animal raising, multiplayer
The Not So Good: No tutorial, lacks guiding optional objectives, monotonous mechanics, obtuse controls, insufficient interface, stability issues
What say you? Absent assistance and repetitive methods wilt this farming simulation: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
The PC is a great resource for weird, strange games from all corners of the globe. A perfect example is the series of niche simulators created by Slovene developer ActaLogic and German publisher UIG: Mining and Tunneling, Snowcats, Airports, Woodcutters, Tow Trucks, and, of course, Bungee Jumping. Wanting to check out the appeal of these…interesting…products, I decided to head out to the farm with Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming, a semi-sequel in the Agricultural Simulator series that moves the “action” to the 1950’s through 1970’s in the northern Alps and Tuscany. So, let’s spread our seeds and see what sprouts!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The presentation of Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming is a mixed bag overall. The animals and farm equipment both look nice, as you would expect in a game that focuses on animals and farm equipment. The tractors, plows, harvesters, and other assorted mechanical devices are detailed replicas of their real-world counterparts. The animals also look good (though only one model is used for each type, so all cows look identical), although the animations are a bit repetitive. Your farm buildings aren’t intuitive (the barn and cellar could have been interchangeable) and are recycled in each game setting. Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming also has significant issues with clipping, with animals and equipment commonly passing through doors and fencing, which obviously breaks immersion. I also experienced a rather strange bug: climbing up a ladder threw me into the air on occasion. In addition, buying a second item from the machine shop crashed my game. The sound design is very basic, with few effects that lack a sense of nature and campy music as you till your fields. Overall, Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming has an acceptable set of graphics and sound effects that do not hinder the gameplay.



ET AL.
Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming simulates historical farming in an agricultural motif. You are given a choice of two farms (Tuscany or the Alps) that are basically the same (even with identical buildings, although in a different layout) and no objectives. Intrinsically, you are driven to make lots of money by growing food and animals, but I would still like to see some optional goals to shoot for (like breeding pigs or meeting a quota of corn) beyond a simple sandbox scenario. Conversely, the lack of objectives means the player is free to do as he (or she, although in the game your avatar is male) chooses. The game options allow you to adjust the game speed (you can play in real time, if you are insane) and working day length, and you can join other prospective farmers online in multiplayer, which would be a potentially interesting feature if there was more variety in the game mechanics.

Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming tries its hardest to make farming as unintuitive as possible, as the game features no tutorial and the HTML manual is in German. Part of the difficulty for newcomers can be attributed to the interface, which uses icons to display where nearby things can be found or placed, but never explains what the icons actually mean. Now, I can figure out what an egg stands for, but what about a triangle? Your first exposure to the game is also spent learning the layout of the farms and which doors open and which ones do not. There is no minimap and no building labels, so finding your way around can be difficult. The game and manual really fail to explain where things are supposed to go, and trail and error is spent figuring out where to place empty milk jugs, breeding cattle, seeds, hay bails, tractor attachments, and every other aspect of farm living. The game provides several camera views, but I would like to use the mouse to change my perspective in more than just the first person tractor view. The “tab” key pulls up a menu for advanced actions (like lowering plows) and the “control” key gives stats describing the current time and stockpile of goods and their locations (if you can figure out which buildings are which, of course). A lot more time could have been dedicated towards making Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming accessible.

There are two things to do in Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming: grow crops and raise animals. The former involves attaching various tools to your tractor and then driving across your fields, which can be any area you designate. While this may be realistic, doing the exact same thing, only with different attachments, is not riveting: attach the plow, then attach the cultivator, then attach the fertilizer, then attach the planter, then attach the sprayer, then attach the harvester. The four tractors with twelve attachments (which must be bought in town, a short tractor ride away) do give you some toys to play with, but Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming is an exercise in tedious repetition. The animals require even less work, as they are almost completely automated: just place a box near the chicken coop and an empty milk jug in the barn and you’ll get eggs and milk, respectively. The only time you’ll have to directly interact with the animals is leading them into the barn for breeding (two at a time) or loading them on a carrier to bring them to town for a handy profit. This is probably a good thing, since leading them involves holding down the mouse button and walking very slowly towards your destination: a very boring process. I guess that could be said for a majority of Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming, which has an uninformative interface and lack of variety, two things to kill general interest in a computer game.

IN CLOSING
Unintuitive controls, no tutorial, the lack of objectives, and repetitive actions mean Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming will only possibly appeal to a very small niche. While I like the idea of the game, the tedious duplication of collecting goods and disdain for in-game help ruins any appeal the title might have offered. Farming involves doing the same thing (driving over your fields) with different attachments (plow then cultivator then seed spreader then pesticide then harvester), and that’s it. Animal raising involves placing food in specific locations and bins in other locations to collect milk or eggs, and that’s it. Animals can be bred by locking them in the barn, or you can sell them in town, but the restriction and repetition of the actions you are allowed to do makes for some dull gameplay. The game is also very unfriendly to new players, just providing a bare manual (in German, no less) and no in-game feedback to serve as any sort of direction. While the lack of objectives makes Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming more open and freeform, it also makes you wonder what exactly to do next. I do like the prospects of multiplayer, if it weren’t so easy to keep things running on your own. Only the truly curious that don’t mind infinite reiteration will discover enough value in Agricultural Simulator - Historical Farming.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City Review

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, developed by Slant Six Games and published by Capcom.
The Good: Online cooperative and competitive play with multiple modes, nice variety of weapons and abilities, frequent objective waypoints, zombie and military opponents to contend with
The Not So Good: Woeful AI, terrible interface not adapted for the PC, really short linear and repetitive campaign lacks manual saves, obstructive third person view, uninspired graphics
What say you? A cooperative zombie survival game with significant faults: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
I’m not that familiar with the Resident Evil series (being a PC-only gamer), but apparently it involves Milla Jovovich being in skin-tight leather and doing….something…it really doesn’t matter as long as Milla Jovovich is in skin-tight leather. The survival horror game series has had a large number of installments, appearing annually in one form or another since 1996. A fork of the series has appeared in the form of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, adapting the setting to a cooperative zombie adventure, in the vein of Left 4 Dead. Does Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City operate successfully in a city of rabid mammals?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City features generally bland, gloomy graphic design. It starts with the levels, which can contain some memorable elements (city hall, a gas station, a hospital) but more often than not are just a collection of hallways with doors that zombies burst out of. The poorly detailed textures and sporadically empty rooms don’t help to increase the immersion. The character models have poor animations and blocky weapon design. Zombie deaths aren’t gory enough (most limbs are missing before you fill them with hot lead) and fire is simply passable. The third person camera view is also too close to your character, obscuring a significant portion of the screen. Overall, I was generally unimpressed by the graphics featured in the game. Sounds consist of understated zombie effects, typical battle chaos, stereotypical and repetitive voice acting, and generic music. I certainly felt Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City falls short of its $50 price tag in terms of the presentation.



ET AL.
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City has you patrolling the streets of Raccoon City, eliminating those who oppose whatever evil corporation you work for and shooting some zombies along the way. The campaign mode can be played cooperatively by enabling the option when you start or resume (or joining others that are in progress). Clocking in at twenty minutes a piece, the campaign consists of seven missions; you can do the math and figure out how long the campaign takes to complete (two to three hours). The linear level design rarely features alternate paths and cuts down on replay value; the scripted events also become tiresome the second time through. I also noticed a distinct lack of raccoons. You can’t pause your game (ostensibly because of the mandatory inclusion of cooperative play) or save your progress, a significant problem in longer missions. Games for Windows LIVE also rears its ugly head yet again, requiring too many steps to join a game, segregating people too much by difficulty level or online game mode, lacking a server browser to see what people are playing, and saying my install was corrupt if I chose to place the game into a custom directory (it took me three install attempts to figure that one out). All that said, the competitive modes Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City offers can be enjoyable, although all center around the same idea: you are competing against another team of four for kills, items, or escape on a helicopter (get to the choppa!!!), while having to contend with zombies that attack both sides. This provided some light fun once I was able to find a game to join buried within all the menu choices, although the sheer chaos of most games, coupled with really annoying melee attacks, removed some tactical .

The interface is downright terrible, constantly referring to gamepad-specific controls, which makes it really hard to learn the obscure control scheme Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City employs. There is a handy listing of grenades, first aid spray, and antiviral spray icons in the bottom left: useful, right? Except the display never says which keys to press to use any of those items, just which direction to press on the gamepad you are not using. The default controls just crowd everything on the left side of the keyboard, using obscure choices like the left control key for using abilities and the “C” key for quick time events (of course there are quick time events). Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City also disables the mouse wheel for selecting different weapons, instead relying on the number keys for some reason. A lot of time was spent changing around the controls to something more PC-friendly, and even then limitations on what you could change greatly hindered the enjoyment of controlling the game.

As you complete campaign or competitive matches, you gain experience you can use to unlock weapons and abilities. There are six classes in the game, each with three active (one of which you can use per game) and two passive (both of which can be used if unlocked) abilities: assault gets incendiary rounds and more damage, the surveillance soldier can detect nearby enemies, recon gets a motion detector, the medic class can reheal allies, the field scientist can attract zombies and view infected, and the demolition man can place trip mines and wear blast armor. The experience cost for unlocking new abilities is not very high: after a handful of online matches or campaign missions, you can have one active ability unlocked in each class. You can upgrade abilities with more experience as well, sticking with the class you like the most. Weapon upgrades, however, are much more expensive, divided into several groups: assault rifles (burst, militia, heavy, suppressed), submachine guns (tactical, mini, suppressed), machine guns (light, heavy), shotgun (pump action, assault, riot), and sniper rifles (precision, semi automatic). The differences between weapons of the same type isn’t dramatic, but at least the guns are not class specific, which is nice. In levels where you fight a lot of military, numerous weapons can be picked up from fallen enemies, but zombie-heavy levels usually result in running out of ammo quickly, as it takes an inordinate amount of bullets to bring down even the most basic zombie. Grenades are usually better options for taking out large groups, as you must be conservative with your ammo.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City wants you to use cover (based on the number of armed and zombie enemies you’ll encounter), and the cover system to be easy to use: just approach any flat object and you’ll immediately duck behind it without having to press any additional buttons. Of course, this means you might end up behind cover without actually wanting to be, but that problem usually didn’t result in immediate death from my experience. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City features both zombies and military opposition, which might have been an interesting mix if Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City didn’t have such terrible AI. The computer opposition is so clearly dumb from the outset, and the only challenge is the sheer number of enemies and the limited amount of ammunition the game provides. The AI fails to use cover effectively (typically leaving a significant portion of their body in the open), routinely turns it back to you, and ignores your presence too often. While these behaviors are acceptable for a zombie, they are not for a supposedly highly-trained military operative. Teammates aren’t any help either, getting shot, surrounded, or going off on their own, making the single player campaign something to avoid. For difficulty, the game simply throws a lot of enemies at you, instead of relying on “advanced” maneuvers like flanking or returning fire.

IN CLOSING
Left 4 Dead this is not. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City fails in two main areas: AI and the interface. When the zombie AI is more convincing than the enemy soldier AI, whatever small amount of immersion you had is immediately lost. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City features some of the dumbest enemies I’ve encountered in quite a while; while this can be expected for mindless zombies, the intelligence of the enemy soldiers never even approaches the bar set by, say, Half-Life (which came out in 1998). The AI shortcomings effectively ruin the campaign, coupled with the linear level design and scripted enemy encounters that reduce replay value. On top of that, the campaign is outrageously short (two to three hours) for a $50 game. I like the idea of having to fight both hordes of zombies and armed enemy soldiers, but the executing is definitely lacking. Competitive online play is more enjoyable than the cooperative campaign mode, where you not only have to contend with zombies but with enemy human players as well, but these diversions aren’t enough to carry a full-priced title. The problems continue with the control scheme: a restrictive third person view is bad enough, but coupling it with an uninformative, console-driven interface is double trouble. I simply could not keep the controls straight, as the on-screen interface fails to tell you which unintuitive keys are used for individual items (but does note the appropriate directions to press on a gamepad). The graphics are underwhelming at best, however, and signify development geared towards inferior hardware. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City isn’t all bad news, as the game features a large range of weapons and abilities that are unlocked fairly quickly with experience, but this is a lone highlight in a game dominated by mediocrity. Despite the inherent appeal of a known license, I would much rather fire up Left 4 Dead 2 again than play a console port with bad AI, short and linear campaign, and an unmodified interface. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City feels more like a $20 experiment than a $50 product.