Saturday, July 28, 2012

Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue Review

Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, developed by VR Designs and published by Slitherine and Matrix Games.
The Good: Dynamic objectives from high command, varied action cards can increase unit abilities or alter goals, centrally hosted play by e-mail, automated supplies and replacements, detailed unit attributes, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Large scale means tedious unit management, needs more smaller scenarios, very brief tutorial
What say you? Intermediate goals and leader action cards elevate this turn-based operational wargame: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Advanced Tactics stormed onto the strategy scene in 2007 with streamlined (for the genre, at least) force management, simple unit production, random maps, and an engine that could simulate more than just World War II. So, of course, the developer follows up this title with a game set in…World War II. I missed out on the first entry in this series, as I was clearly too busy reviewing Ship Simulator Extremes, but I’m not neglecting the haunting call of wargaming this time around with Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue. The setting is the German invasion of the Caucasus (yes, during World War II), and this new entry purports “tons of new features,” which I can only assume means this version comes with a tank. Where’s my tank? I want my tank!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue are typical for the wargame genre. The decidedly bland hex map serves as the backdrop; it could have been enhanced with better ground textures and more realistic detail. The units have nice hand-drawn art for each unit type, which adds some flavor to the game. Animations during combat consist of numbers next to unit silhouettes counting down: nothing flashy but the hard numbers are there for the statistical gurus among us. The interface is above the average, placing most everything one click away from the main screen and designed for high-resolution displays. Unit counters can be large with all pertinent information (readiness, integrity, morale, supplies) displayed, or made smaller with no stacking. Units are also color-coded according to the headquarters unit in charge of them, which makes organizing much easier (keep the purples together!). I would have liked the handy unit power rating to be displayed on the smaller chits, but the icons simply run out of room. The top bar provides easy access to the mission briefing, order or battle (with collapsible trees where you can select specific units), turn reports, a minimap, a strategic map (which can display unit HQs and find cities) and action cards. The order buttons are along the bottom, where you can move units, assign a new HQ, destroy bridges, zoom in, or access the officer pool. You must select a target to attack first before assigning units, which is the reverse seen in most wargames, but it becomes intuitive quickly. When a unit is selected, detailed information is also displayed. Movement range can be difficult to see, especially during winter (white highlights on a white background do not work well). Action cards could be better: you need to select a card before seeing how many points it costs, instead of displaying that information at the top of the card along with the name of the action. Finally, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue has a bevy of hotkeys at your disposal. The basic sound effects and music round out the package. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue takes advantage of modern computing in designing a wargame with a generally accessible interface, although the eye candy could be enhanced.



ET AL.
In Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, the Germans are too ambitious and the Soviets repel their attempted invasion of the Caucasus during 1942 and 1943. OR DO THEY? It’s up to you to decide! The game includes several large campaign scenarios that take place on the entire map of the region, and they offer different starting and ending dates to suit your needs: Trappenjagd in May 1942, Case Blue in June 1942 (ending either in August 1942 or April 1943, depending on which length variation you chose), and Operation Uranus in November 1942 until January or April 1943. There is also one linked campaign where you play as the 1st Panzer Army and units carry over to the next scenario, and two short mission that take place in May (2nd Kharkov) and June (Voronezh). I am a huge fan of smaller scenarios that involve, say, one or two armies on a reduced map, so I am disappointed that Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue doesn’t include more of them (or any medium-sized samples). The developer certainly could have just adapted some battles from the larger campaigns, giving you control of a more manageable quantity of units. For a game that purports accessibility, I’m shocked more smaller scenarios were not included. There is an editor included with the game that can be used to alter any existing scenarios; it crashed when I clicked on it so it’s not exactly super stable at the moment.

As you win (and lose) battles, prestige and strategic position change: zero prestige means “game over”, and a more offensive strategic position could result in more objectives from high command. While the major orders are scripted based on previous victories, minor dynamic objectives (take or hold a specific town) throw some uncertainty into the game. The meddling of your superiors makes Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue more interesting and slightly more varied, since you may get different intermediate objectives on your way to total victory (or defeat). While the Germans have to worry about overconfident commanders, the Soviets start with a loss of action points due to their relative disorganization when compared to the Germans; this results in early German victories that even out over time. Special units like Cossacks, partisans, and militia can appear when certain towns are captured. If you enjoy playing with others, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue offers play by e-mail where the games are automatically saved on a server. Finding opponents is easy (you can issue a challenge for a specific scenario, or accept someone else’s), and having the system transfer all of the files for you is fantastic. The tutorial is too short and only covers the very basics; there is a walkthrough in the manual, so why couldn’t that have been incorporated into the game in an interactive manner?

It’s World War II, so the roster of units should not surprise: infantry, engineers, staff, artillery, armor, trucks, anti-tank guns, fighters, dive and level bombers, flak, and naval ships all make appearances, with detailed historical descriptions to increase immersion. Each unit has several attributes that determine their effectiveness: action points (for movement and combat), supplies, integrity, readiness, experience, and entrenchment. The game also combines all of these values into a single number, which makes it easy to find powerful (and vulnerable) units on the field of battle. Units gain experience through training and combat, and become more effective over time. If needed, you can create new divisions or headquarters, and you can manually set replacement, retreat, and supply request percentages. The large scenarios give you a lot of units that you have to move each turn, but the use of group moves and attacks for units in the same division reduces some (but certainly not all) of the micromanagement. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue automatically sends replacements where they are needed (based on the percentages you define), which is very nice. Historical reinforcements also show up, and can be placed in any friendly city. Axis minor nations are also involved in the war, but poor German performance can remove them from the map.

Moving units costs action points, the amount of which is determined by the unit type and the terrain you are moving across. You can also utilize strategic rail transfer to quickly send units to another part of the theatre. Although it is designed to cut down on tedium, group move doesn’t work as often as I would like: units need to be of the same type and in the same division to move as a group, even if they start in the same hex. You will commonly still have to move one unit at a time when things get hectic and disorganized, which, considering the size of the normal campaigns, can become annoying.

Leaders play an important role in Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue, more than a simple attribute bonus for the units they lead. Each officer is given a set of cards that can be played every couple of turns (command points, required to play cards, regenerate each turn), the type of which is determined by the leader’s stats (audacity for offense, determination for defense, charisma for morale, and intuition for reconnaissance). Cards give a bonus to one of the units under their command of your choice, and include enhanced attacks, defense, speed, entrenchment, courage, recon, bombardment, promotions, or morale (among many others). The right card at the right time can turn the tide of battle, and I think it’s a fantastic abstraction of the effect that leaders had on their units.

Units on the battlefield are subject to morale, a numerical value that decreases during battle and if undersupplied; units will retreat, panic, or break during combat, depending on their attributes. Supply is also very important in the game. Thankfully, it automatically flows from cities through the HQ to the units, and a color overlay shows where supplies are thin. Artillery units must stockpile ammunition over time, so you cannot continually hammer enemy positions every turn. Oil is used by motorized units, and you can capture on-map fields to boost production (this is the primary goal of the Germans). If you are desperate, you can use air supply to refuel your units, although I don't see how an Australian soft rock duo would help with that. It’s also important to keep units near their HQ, as their organization (and effectiveness) will drastically decrease if they move out of command range. Fog of war can restrict the amount of information concerning the enemy, although you can assign air units to conduct reconnaissance and most units have a fairly large detection range (a couple of hexes, but outlying data might not be totally accurate). The weather (namely snow and mud) and blown bridges can also restrict your movement.

Combat is automated, providing a simple display showing how many units are destroyed and routed as the numerical attributes of the units are evaluated. Concentric attacks, readiness, supply levels, experience, leaders, and entrechment values are all considered when deciding a victor. There is also a stack limit that negatively impacts your attack if you send too many units (too crowded!). Beyond the typical land-based attack, you can also assign artillery barrages, air strikes, naval attacks, and shore bombardments. Unlike most wargames, you actually pick the target first and then assign units to take place in the battle second. It’s initially counterintuitive but Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue actually requires less work: in other wargames, you usually would have to pick one unit, then a target, and then additional support units, adding an extra step in the process. If the defenders put up a good fight, there is a penalty for moving units into the contested hex, which simulates defending attacking troops.

I found the AI opponent to be capable, especially when it is given bonuses for movement, combat, and transfer. You see, the AI cheats on every level above easy, and on higher difficulty settings the game is inherently unfair. The AI performs better in the smaller scenarios where it has less units (and no action cards): the computer opponent will cut off stranded units from supplies, move units to more important areas, use air and artillery strikes, and stack and attack only when appropriate. Frankly, the big scenarios seem to be too complex for the AI, as it is less adept there to counter large-scale strategic actions. You can adjust the AI processing time: it takes about five minutes per turn on the “extra slow” setting during large scenarios (it’s basically instantaneous during the smaller ones), but I feel it’s worth it for a better opponent.

IN CLOSING
Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue offers three main features that make it more than just another wargame. First, leaders are given cards that can be used every couple of turns to provide significant bonuses to specific units under their command, from attack to defense to movement. You can also use cards to influence the orders from your superiors, who give you new major and minor objectives based on your performance (or lack thereof). This makes a single scenario play out just a bit differently each time. I would like to see medium-sized scenarios included with the game, since the scale of most of the missions is quite daunting. Hopefully, the editor will mean user-generated content in the near future. The PBEM+ system works quite well, giving you a central place to automatically store online matches and making it easy to find opponents. The tutorial is lacking, requiring study of the manual to get a grasp on the game mechanics. The interface helps learning the game, though, as it makes all of the information accessible from the main screen in an intuitive format for the genre. Units are detailed, with plenty of stats that determine effectiveness during combat. A lot of simulating takes place under the hood as well: supplies and replacements are handled automatically, giving the player the ability to worry about large-scale strategy instead of the minutiae of running a military. Though it can take a while to make up its mind on the most thoughtful setting, the AI is a solid opponent that will attack weak areas, pull units for reinforcements, mass units for significant assaults, and handle its large army well. Due to its scale, Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue is mildly complex, but it’s still approachable thanks to necessary automation and the interface, and the handful of unique features makes it stand out in the genre.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Salvation Prophecy Review

Salvation Prophecy, developed and published by Firedance Games.
The Good: Large land and space battles, dynamic setting, faction command with colony and station development, competent AI
The Not So Good: No trade or mining activities for supplemental income, mid-game repetition, no multiplayer
What say you? This space adventure game brings impressive engagements in a living universe: 6/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
While the big publishers may be ignoring the space adventure genre, indie games are (as always) picking up the slack. Why, I have reviewed two of them this year alone. If that doesn’t say “trend”, then I don’t know what does! Next in line is Salvation Prophecy, a game that promises epic epicness in epic quantities. Featuring both land and space battles and a dynamic universe where battles happen without being scripted in a campaign, does Salvation Prophecy provide a satisfying space adventure?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Salvation Prophecy features pretty decent graphics for a $20 indie game. The ship models are detailed enough, although the texture work could have been better and less black. The weapons look great as colorful lasers fly across the screen during the game’s large-scale conflicts. The space backgrounds are colorful without being distracting, and the asteroids are appropriately rocky. On land, you get decent character models that make for easy identification in the heat of battle; they could have more varied animations, though. The various worlds you will assault (or defend) are varied with interesting terrain and scattered cover. The space station layout, though, is recycled over and over again (which does make it easy to find things). As for the sound design, results are typical: average effects during combat, canned voice acting snippets, and setting-appropriate music. Salvation Prophecy certainly is not the best looking (or sounding) space game, but it holds its own and the graphics never negatively impact the gameplay.



ET AL.
The universe of Salvation Prophecy is populated with four races, one of which you can lead towards ultimate victory: the slow but powerful Drones, well-rounded Free Nations, quick Salvation, and explosion-oriented Wyr. As you play, missions will pop-up that you can choose to join, and completing them will earn money for upgrades and experience points for new skills and abilities. There are five mission types in the game: a land-based planetary invasion, space battles, bounty missions against a team of pirates, investigating an unstable wormhole, or charting a new galaxy. In the first two types, it’s not just you and maybe one other ship up against waves of magically spawning enemies (*cough* *cough*). Rather, it’s twenty ships or soldiers against twenty enemy ships or soldiers, which tends to produce very exciting, chaotic battles. The battle size in Salvation Prophecy is something I tried to achieve in other games, but to no avail, and countless space adventure games feature your rogue pilot up against impossible, frustrating odds. It’s nice that Salvation Prophecy actually goes a more realistic route and gives you plenty of allies to help you along the way and balance out the odds. I am less of a fan of the later missions that are inherently unfair, where it is you against a team of enemy units. But, the game allows you to avoid these types of missions altogether and wait for the next group endeavor. Of course, with only five mission types, and the fact that the missions all play out the same, variety leaves a lot to be desired, until you earn the ability to guide your faction. You see, as you play the game, Salvation Prophecy gradually unlocks new things to do over time. When you start out, you can only complete land missions. Eventually, space battles, bounty missions, and solo planet invasions become available, ultimately culminating in the ability to command your entire faction. The faction commander can build new colonies and space stations, erecting buildings to extract resources, placing defensive structures, and establishing fighter wings. The commander can also coordinate attacks on enemy strongholds; it’s like a light strategy game that gives you greater variety in the late game. As you unlock new mission types, skill upgrades also become available, allowing for improved offense, defense, or new stims (items to use during land battles), plus a unique skill for each faction. In this sense, Salvation Prophecy allows you to slightly tweak your character towards your play style. There are some areas of Salvation Prophecy that could be enhanced. As I alluded to earlier, all you do is missions, as the game does not feature any trade or mining to earn extra money. This is disappointing for those who like those types of activities, and it would give you a break from the stern combat focus of the game. Salvation Prophecy also lacks multiplayer, which would have made the battles even more impressive. The tutorial covers the basic control schemes for the inexperienced computer gamer (and can be skipped over, thankfully).

The controls in Salvation Prophecy are typical for a space game and third person shooter, utilizing mouse aiming for the ship portions, number keys for weapons, and function keys for items. The HUD is informative, displaying data on armor, ammunition levels, current speed, and friendly troop status. You can also zoom in on an enemy unit to displays its health level, and a “target nearest enemy” button is available for quicker destruction. A rotary menu also gives easy access to mission briefings, equipment loadouts, ship attributes, a galaxy map, local sector scanner, and skill tree. Overall, I was pleased with the interface in Salvation Prophecy, as it presents most information on the main screen or in easily accessible displays.

One notable aspect of Salvation Prophecy is the living universe it presents: it’s not just you checking off a series of scripted missions. Instead, the other factions (and your own, for that matter) complete missions without your direct intervention, creating a dynamic galaxy where colonies and space stations change hands after successful invasions. Other races will even attack your bases, so you’ll need to periodically jump into your fighter and join the defense. Each station features a hanger for ship storage and upgrades, a drop ship hanger where land battles are coordinated, an armory and medical lab for weapon and item enhancements, and mission control to get new missions. As you navigate between destinations, you’ll encounter two control-based minigames: during in-system jumps, you’ll have to avoid lightning bolts in a tube (this has been an entire game before), and you’ll have to carefully stay within a wormhole when shuttling off to distant worlds. These two minigames are both short and interesting enough diversions from the rest of the combat-heavy game.

In space, no one can hear you scream, but they can get shot by your lasers. The space battles feature physics that makes it feel like you are piloting a heavy ship: a lot of space adventure games allow you to turn on a dime and maneuver unreasonably quickly, but Salvation Prophecy requires skill and planning to successfully defeat those pesky enemy ships. Strafing is possible (using the “A” and “D”, naturally), which is an easy way to avoid oncoming enemy fire. The game uses a modest amount of auto-aim (if you enable it), which I found to be necessary to preserve any sense of accuracy, since Salvation Prophecy lacks a lead indicator for targeting assistance. There is also friendly fire, which can be a problem in the game’s massive battles; I have “accidentally” destroyed several friendly ships that got between me and my target. As you complete missions, you can spend money to upgrade several aspects to your ship: energy, weapons, and shields. It seems that the enemy ships also improve over time, so both sides become more deadly as the game progresses.

On land, Salvation Prophecy transitions to a third-person shooter. There is a small assortment of weapons to choose from: a ranged laser, a melee weapon, and a rocket launcher that’s meant for destroying buildings and groups of enemies. I would like to see more exotic options for weapons, considering the alien factions that are present in the universe. The land battle levels feature undulating terrain and plenty of objects behind which to take cover. You can equip yourself with items (called “stims”) that can heal, improve accuracy, enhance speed, or reduce damage. Just like in space, all weapons can cause friendly fire, although in the generally 2-D land battles, allied units are easier to keep track of. Taking an enemy planet involves destroying all of the buildings, and the battle continues until that happens or you die (which requires loading of a previous saved game).

I was quite satisfied with the AI in Salvation Prophecy. Your computer opponents (and allies) are competent pilots and ground troops. In space, AI fighters will engage nearby enemy units and fly in unpredictable patterns when under fire. On the ground, the computer uses special skills (shields, bombs), runs away to cover when healing, and engages nearby enemies. The AI has access to the same items you do, and it is adept at using them at appropriate times. I found both the land and space battles to be challenging without being unfairly so.

IN CLOSING
Salvation Prophecy knows its limits, and what it does it does well. The setting is compelling, with missions going on in the background and changing the dynamics of the world, with colonies and stations switching hands and news of unsuccessful invasions ticking across the screen. Instead of being the focal point of the game, and taking on countless enemies by yourself, you are an integral part of your faction’s success, present to break the stalemates between evenly-matched AI opponents. Both the land and space battles are chaotic, enjoyable messes of dangerous lasers darting across your display. Salvation Prophecy has some of the best non-scripted battles in any space adventure game: forty-ship (or –person (or –alien)) battles here seem more convincing than in some other space games where success is only up to you and your scripted mission objectives. The colonies and space stations provide these missions, and navigating between these waypoints involves non-annoying minigames performed during high-speed travel. Experienced earned by not dying is spent unlocking new skills and additional aspects to the game, as Salvation Prophecy opens up something new as you become more adept, ending with control of your entire faction. The game does get repetitive between the time when you unlock all of the mission types and before you can command the entire faction, as each basic mission type plays out the same (with some new wrinkles as new defenses are introduced) every time. The faction management aspect of Salvation Prophecy is certainly enticing, as you develop your colonies and send out attack orders on enemy space stations. I just wish it didn’t take so long to progress that far, as it feels like too much work to get to the strategic aspects of the game. The AI is thankfully intelligent and not a liability on either side of the battles, piloting and engaging in ground combat effectively. Besides the mid-game repetition, Salvation Prophecy also falls short in a couple of other areas: there is no optional mining or trade to supplement your mission income and experience, and multiplayer battles are not present. Still, Salvation Prophecy provides some successful space adventuring that fans of the genre will likely enjoy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre Review

Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre, developed by Sakari Indie and GriN and published by Sakari Games.
The Good: Online play with lots of shootin’, only $7
The Not So Good: Constant defending quickly becomes stale, health regeneration limits difficulty, spotty hit detection, few enemy types with poor AI, weapons must be slowly unlocked and can’t be picked up from fallen enemies, only three maps
What say you? A cooperative third-person shooter heavy on repetition and light on content (and everything else): 2/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
In 1831, the French Foreign Legion was established to allow Non-French citizens to fight for the Kingdom in Algeria. This proud military operation was tasked with keeping the peace in French colonial holdings around the world. Thus, it’s only proper that the fine soldiers who gave their lives are honored in a game…where you blow up dolphins covered in dynamite. I bet they never had to deal with that in Algiers! This is a sequel to 2009’s Buckets of Blood (the title of which should immediately tip you off to the level of gritty realism in the series) and featuring (mostly) cooperative battles against waves of advancing foes. Does this inexpensive product march gloriously under the Arc de Triomphe?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre attempts a cartoon aesthetic, and the result is an uneven presentation. The graphics look generally unchanged from the three-year-old original (or, at least, they are outdated), with blocky character models that exhibit rough animations and a low level of weapon and model texture detail. The 2-D explosions are unimpressive, and the details feature a bland, sandy brown color palette. For gore being so heavily advertised, the game doesn't provide as much as I had anticipated. Sure, heads explode and things get bloody when you use shotguns or explosives (and, even then, results are canned and repetitive), but you don't see limbs flying off or gruesome animations for more traditional weapons. The third-person view is also a hindrance, with a restrictive camera and obstructive soldier. Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre also tries too hard to be funny, with misplaced “jokes” in the form of billboards and exploding dolphins: calling everything “WTF” doesn't classify as humor. The sound design isn’t any better, with typical sound effects, very sporadic (and repetitive when it does occur) voice acting, and a generic musical score. Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre clearly doesn’t impress in any aspect of the graphics or sound design.



ET AL.
Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre is a tower defense game without the towers, where you must shoot all the enemies that are attempting to storm your base. Although designed as a multiplayer title, you can still host a server yourself for a spot of single player action (and still gain experience), although you cannot pause the game at any time. The server browser needlessly separates games by map (although since there are only three, it doesn’t take much scrolling to find all of the hosts) and doesn’t display game options before you join. Matches can be customized according to the difficulty level and game mode: a five or ten minute game, waves of enemies (instead of a constant stream), and endless mode, or domination where you must capture a baguette, cheese, and wine (see, French Foreign Legion, ha ha!). At least the game seems to adjust the number of enemies based on the quantity of human players, so that's something. Online play, in my experience, features lots of lag whenever a large explosion occurs; whether that is due to a peer having a slow system or the netcode not being able to handle the physics is anyone's guess. There are only three map designs, and one is initially disabled: you need to unlock and equip the flotation device, and all you do is shoot explosive-laden dolphins. Yes, that's a game mode. The other maps offer all the same thrills (or lack thereof), producing repetitive gaming where you defend, defend, and defend some more.

Playing Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre rewards you, the player, with money and experience (much like the real French Foreign Legion, no doubt); these are spent to unlock weapons and decorative items. The eleven weapons in the game are divided into three categories: primary (pistol, submachine gun), secondary (assault rifle, shotgun), and “special” (RPG, sniper rifle, machine gun). As you level up, you can unlock new weapons by paying for them; having enough money is never an issue, but waiting for experience to slowly accumulate is. While my irritation with weapon unlocks has been well documented, Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre takes it two steps further: you can only carry one weapon of each type per game (even if you’ve paid a lot of money for other items), and you can’t pick up any weapons from defeated enemies. See that shiny rocket launcher? Sorry, can’t have it. Ammunition is also persistent, so each bullet costs money and you’ll need to tediously refill your weapons between matches (which, of course, means you have to leave the server you were playing on). I routinely forget to rearm and enter the next game with no bullets. Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre takes everything that’s not fun about weapon unlocks and adds several more layers of annoyance. Finally, you can pay to customize your character with different colors (including blue and purple), outfits, and accessories (like the proud French symbol: the duck inner tube).
Controls in Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre are typical for a shooter: the right-mouse button zooms in a bit, and you are given the ability to “honk clown nose” for no discernable reason (other than annoying other players). The game keeps track of your score (next to a bucket of blood, of course), pompously displaying the number of headshots, body shots, and explosions you have caused after each kill. The speedy health regeneration makes Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre a very easy game on anything but the highest difficulty level (which drastically increases the number of enemies and the damage they cause), especially if you have four semi-coordinated human players with some of the better weapons unlocked. If you do happen to die, you must wait fifteen seconds to respawn in a terrible location that’s almost always right next to (or in range of) an enemy unit. There are health and ammo pickups on some of the levels, the latter of which you will need constantly. Since there is no melee attack, if you run out of ammunition, you can't do anything (a significant issue on the dolphin level, where there are no pickups to be found). Shooting is not very satisfying, as the hit detection is inconsistent enough to be noticeable. There are only three enemy types: a suicide bomber, a rocket launcher guy, and an assault rifle guy (plus the dolphins, but they don't shoot back). The AI is not an intelligent foe, as it follows scripted, predictable paths, stops immediately upon sighting you, clips into nearby soldiers, and routinely runs into walls and other objects. Of course, when the human players can get stuck on dismembered body parts lying on the ground, maybe the AI isn’t completely to blame for its shortcomings.

IN CLOSING
Defensive games can be fun, but the uneven AI, weapon unlocks, few maps, and low difficulty makes Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre far too monotonous. The enemy soldiers are never a real challenge, due to health regeneration for you and idiotic behaviors (getting stuck on objects, following the same paths) for them. The weapon unlocks prevent new users from accessing the complete arsenal, and you can't supplement your loadout with weapons from fallen soldiers. Only having three maps (two for novices) and a single objective (except for the one instance of domination) also contributes to dull gameplay. The poor attempts at humor and limited (for most weapons), repetitive gore round out an uninspired package. Even for only $7, Foreign Legion: Multi Massacre offers little to make it a recommended title.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Gratuitous Tank Battles Review

Gratuitous Tank Battles, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Tower defense plus attacking, flexible map and unit editor with online sharing, chaotic battles
The Not So Good: Insufficient interface with poor information regarding weapon use and strategy, unnecessarily lengthy missions with elongated stalemates, high difficulty, few campaign missions
What say you? Offense is added to a tower defense game with very inadequate feedback: 4/8

NOTE: I am dumb. Holding shift can box-select units and you can filter out units using a division tool; both of these are mentioned in the manual and I simply missed them. I apologize to any gratuitous tanks I may have offended.

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Trench warfare during World War I caused both sides to sit and wait. Infantry charges were too costly because both sides lacked the tactics and the technology to counteract the powerful machine gun. It wasn't until tanks entered the battlefield that the stalemate was broken and a victor was determined. Imagine, if you will, a Great War that never ended, and now in the future mechs and lasers have been added to break the centuries' old conflict. Gratuitous Tank Battles is a tower defense game where you place defensive turrets or queue up tanks and infantry to fight those emplacements. We know there will be tank battles, but shall they be gratuitous?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Not surprisingly, Gratuitous Tank Battles features graphics similar in style to Gratuitous Space Battles, Positech’s previous offering. The game is in 2-D, with detailed unit sprites that show damage (though not as dramatically as a 3-D version would) and look nice, though a bit static, when zoomed in. The unit animations are a bit lacking and very basic, but the amount of weapon effects, with shields, bullets, and lasers flying across the screen, cover up the shortcomings here. Explosions could have been more violent, instead of units degenerating into a simple black heap. The maps are varied in appearance, with different biomes and time of day effects giving a distinctive feel. While some won’t care for the visual approach of the game, I didn’t find any major faults with it. The sound design is underwhelming. There are plenty of chaotic battle effects when units are being shot, but Gratuitous Tank Battles lacks campy voice work and memorable music to accompany your violent escapades.



ET AL.
Gratuitous Tank Battles starts with the campaign, a series of twelve missions where you can act on offense or defense: the attacker must funnel a set amount of units towards one of the map exits, while it is the defender’s job to stop them. The game features several difficulty levels, but I found all of them to be quite challenging. Most maps feature multiple paths to the exits, which allows the attacker to vary their tactics while the defender must guard all possible roads. Since only twelve missions are not enough, Gratuitous Tank Battles thankfully includes online challenges, where you can upload your best efforts for others to compete against (there are currently over three hundred challenges to try). Not only can you upload results from the campaign missions, you can also challenge others to custom map layouts designed using the included editor. The map editor is easy to use, allowing the designer to specify available paths, deployment locations, and eye candy to make each locale appear more war torn. Even better is the robust unit editor, which allows you to easily create offensive units and defensive turrets. Choose a chassis (tank, mech, turret), components (armor or shields, a weapon, an engine, and targeting assistance), and augmentations (increasing the rate of fire or damage against armor, for example) and off you go. The unit cost, speed, weight, and other ratings are automatically calculated and placed into the game. Additional components are unlocked with experience, and I felt things unlocked quickly enough to not feel restrictive. The unit and map editor should drastically increase the life of the product, as any ability to include community-made content is positive.

There is a rock-paper-scissors system to the game of Gratuitous Tank Battles, but the proper counters are buried by the woeful interface. In essence, lasers destroy armor and bullets (from cannons and guns) destroy shields (plus flamethrowers for infantry units), so it’s a matter of placing the right turret or sending the right units. The problem is that the game never explicitly says this (it’s concealed within the unit editor), and certainly not while you are playing a battle. The vague unit descriptions aren’t enough to quickly determine on the fly which units are best, and the weapon tool-tips display the name only, rather than pertinent stats. You can’t even see any information about enemy units (just the name might offer a clue), so you can be at a total loss while your units die again and again. I would like to see improvements in several areas. First off, units need better and automated descriptions based on their weaponry (like “good against shields”). Secondly, weapon icons are really terrible and indistinct: I cannot tell the difference between a laser and a cannon when I mouse over different units. Solid color-coded backgrounds (say, red for both bullets and armor) would aid in selecting the right units for the right job. Lastly, a filtered list of units (displaying only turrets or tanks with lasers and shields, for example) would make placing things a lot easier. The functionality of the interface in Gratuitous Tank Battles is basic at best and gets in the way of efficiently playing the game at worst.

Gratuitous Tank Battles gives you a quantity of supplies that regenerate over time (until a time limit is reached) to purchase new units. There are only a handful of areas that new units on both offense and defense can be placed, so there is definitely some strategy in using the prime real estate for your best units. You are limited in having a certain number of units of each class (only four heavy tanks, for example), ostensibly for balancing but I never really saw a need for that particular restriction. While units will automatically march to the other side of the map and engage nearby units, you can specify particular targets and explicit paths to follow. In yet another interface shortcoming, orders can only be issued to one unit at a time, instead of being able to box-select several units of interest; this makes for added tedium, especially when many units need your immediate attention. I felt that games in Gratuitous Tank Battles last about twice as long as they need to: the high number of dead units on both sides in the beginning and middle of a game serve no purpose, since you can’t explicitly see what attributes the enemy units have anyway and they will be dead before the end of the match is reached. While you can accelerate time, games are still too long: I always had to significantly accelerate time in every match to cut down on the boredom as I watched my units helplessly get slaughtered one after another. Gratuitous Tank Battles is a difficult game, thanks in large part to the obstructive interface. Your AI opponent can follow pre-scripted placements or dynamically adjust to your units, and it does both of these things well. Still, Gratuitous Tank Battles can be very frustrating to play, since you can have absolutely no idea how to improve your tactics thanks to the absence of useful information.

IN CLOSING
The lack of meaningful feedback (with all-too-brief tooltips) and a slow pace (even with accelerated time) hurt Gratuitous Tank Battles. It's really hard to figure out exactly why your units are dying; there is a system in place (bullets penetrate shields while lasers destroy armor) but the game tries to make this information impossible to find. Placing units and turrets in the heat of battle is not the time to hide pertinent data from users, but Gratuitous Tank Battles succeeds in this dubious goal. Color-coded unit icons and a filtered list of units would work wonders in making the game more accessible. The games also last a bit too long for my tastes, and considering all of the customization options Gratuitous Tank Battles provides, I'm surprised game length isn't more flexible: I'd really like to tighten up the action and have less units and faster matches. Despite the very short length of the campaign, there is a map and unit editor that has spawned several hundred user challenges, giving the game life beyond the initial battles. Creating this content is straightforward and fun; I just wish the actual gameplay caught up with this level of accessibility. Ultimately, the lack of tactile feedback will relegate Gratuitous Tank Battles to cult status, an “also ran” in the ever-expanding world of tower defense games.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Endless Space Review

Endless Space, developed by Amplitude Studios and published by Iceberg Interactive.
The Good: Outstanding user interface, meaningful flexible ship design, extensive non-repetitive technology tree, recruited leaders gain experience, streamlined colony management, distinctive races, humans can replace AI players online, multiple victory conditions
The Not So Good: Uneven AI, little interaction during battles
What say you? An efficient, user-friendly 4X turn-based space strategy game: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Endless Space exploded onto the strategy gaming scene when the “alpha” was released in May. I say “alpha” in “quotes” because it was a very polished, almost feature complete version that wasn’t really a true “alpha” (if you’re used to looking at early preview builds like I am, the first Natural Selection 2 build was a true alpha: a barely functional tech demo). I guess “alpha” now means “beta”, and “beta” means “demo” (Battlefield 3 and it’s “beta” demo comes immediately to mind), when things are turned over to the public. In any case, the game made a lot of noise thanks to its streamlined features and slick interface. Now, the game is officially released (after a two month alpha and beta period? uh huh) and we can take a critical eye towards the heavens and see whether Endless Space offers endless joy or endless sorrow.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Endless Space are good for a space strategy game. The map is not cluttered or dominated by distracting backgrounds (common in space games), placing the visual emphasis on what’s important. The planets are nicely animated and visually distinctive, as are the extremely detailed ships employed by each race. The battles are also very nice to look at, with lasers and explosions aplenty. All of this visual splendor means nothing if the game is unplayable, so thankfully the interface of Endless Space is likely the best I’ve seen in a strategy game. All of the important information is accessible from the main screen, and small icons display the most pertinent values (cash flow, happiness, leaders, diplomatic relations) at all times. On the main map, you have one-glance access to the number of planets in each system (with color-coded indications showing whether they can be colonized), plus the population size, hangar fleet, and current production in each owned system. The game displays a handy list of game events, showing finished production, research, or heroes that have leveled up. You can also press a button to move ships before the turn ends (useful if they will reach their destination this turn), but I would also like to have an idle system and idle ship icon and the ability to auto-explore. The empire screen provides a spreadsheet for all of your systems, which can be sorted according to population size, approval rating, any of the four resources, current production, hangar size, AI governor setting, hero availability, and whether they are being invaded. The research tree includes a search box so you can find specific technologies (why didn’t people think of that before?), although I’d like the search keywords to be expanded to include the actual benefits (so I can type in “speed” and it will cycle through all the techs that increase ship movement rate). Still, the interface in Endless Space makes accessing information very easy. The sound design is dominated by the fantastic music and distinctive effects for notifications. There isn’t any voice acting, but you won’t notice as you push your ships across the galaxy. Simply put, Endless Space has an interface of a quality other strategy games can only hope to meet.



ET AL.
Endless Space is a 4X turn-based strategy game, where you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXhibit eXtreme Xenophobia by killing numerous alien races (also known as eXterminate). The game features eight races that come with different starting tech and attributes that roughly define their overall strategy: the human United Empire has higher ship hit points and an increased income rate, the scientific Sophon specialized in research, the militaristic Hissho gets damage and production bonuses after victories, the diplomatic Amoeba has the galaxy explored from the start, the populous Horatio enjoys mass cloning, the machine Sowers have specialized improvements, and the happy Pilgrims enjoy system retreat. You can also create a custom race using any of the starting attributes available to the eight default factions. The galaxy composition can be defined by the user, setting shape, size, age, density, planets, resource, and connection attributes. In addition, higher difficulty levels give bonuses to AI opponents, higher game speeds can increase movement and research rates, and neutral, hostile pirates cause earlier ship construction (pirates can be unbalanced enough, throwing outrageously large fleets at you early in the game, where I simply disable them for all my games). Several victory conditions are available: expansion, scientific, revenue, supremacy, diplomatic, wonder, and overall score if the 300-turn time limit is reached. Endless Space can also be enjoyed online, played in real time against human foes. Interestingly, you can join a game in progress and replace any AI player, and resume games later if you have coordinated players. Tutorial messages pop-up the first time you play; while not as good as an interactive introduction to the game, they do serve their purpose. Overall, the features set of Endless Space is pleasant and fulfilling.

There are four resources to worry about in Endless Space. Food is required to grow your population, and is the resource you’ll worry about first. Industry determines how quickly improvements and ships are produced in your systems. Dust is used to pay for ships, leaders, and most improvements. And science determines research speed. In addition to these four basic resources, you’ll also encounter special luxury and strategic resources on some planets; once you have researched the appropriate technologies to unlock their use, luxury goods provide income or happiness, and strategic resources enable better weapons or ship hulls. Each system actually comprises of a number of planets that can be individually colonized; the resource amounts derived from the individual plants, based on their planet type (undesirable types come with a hefty negative approval rating) and randomized attributes, add up to determine the overall resource values for the system as a whole. Each individual planet can have one exploitation that increases production of one of the four basic resources; some planet types have an additional bonus, and better exploitations can be researched. System-wide improvements can also be constructed, which usually exchange dust for more food, industry, science, approval, trade, or other effects. Since improvements act on the system as a whole, you don’t need to worry about placing new items on the “correct” planet, which is a helpful simplification. There are some improvements that should be built in all systems (the basic ones that improve food, industry, and science output for little cost), but the later improvements usually have a high cost and should not be spammed in locations that would not fully benefit from them; this strategic choice makes improvement construction more interesting. It is very important to keep your systems happy: approval rating directly effects production, and ecstatic systems are the only ones that maximize their output. Happiness is primarily increased by lowering taxes, but approval-raising structures can also be built. If there is nothing suitable to build, you can convert some of a system’s industry output into science or dust to balance the checkbooks, and if you have many systems, and AI governor can be assigned with an area of focus (but I found system management to be controllable in all but the largest games). Thanks to diverse planet types, a straightforward economy with exploitations and improvements, and a dynamic approval system that impacts production, colony management is an intriguing part of Endless Space.

Of course, what’s the point of having all of these resources if you’re not going to use them to build a massive navy? Other than the low-level starting ships, there are no pre-designed vessels in Endless Space, but thankfully ship design is a painless process. First, you pick a hull and then click to add weapons and defenses. The game uses a clear countering system: deflect stops kinetic rounds, shields stop beams, and flak stops missiles. So, it’s simply a matter of finding out what the enemy is using (the pre-battle display shows the designs of all the enemy ships involved in the upcoming skirmish) and then designing your ships (and guiding your research) to counter that strategy. For example, if the enemy is using missiles and shields, you should opt for kinetic and missiles, with flak for defense. Larger ships can also be equipped with additional power modules, planetary invasion weapons, armor, improved engines, enhanced scouting range, or repair capabilities. Ships must be organized into fleets (although you can have a fleet of one ship), which makes finding and managing your military easy. Each fleet can move, guard, invade, attack, or merge together. Overall, the ship design and management aspects of Endless Space are easy to grasp.

A number of leaders can be hired to lead fleets or manage planets. They start with two classes, a mix of military and production persuasions, that determine the starting bonuses they will provide. As they gain experience through battles or management time, you can choose new skills that add significant bonuses to your fleets or systems. Although there is a large selection of skills to choose from, Endless Space does not provide a skill tree to figure out the best path to the most desirable skills for your current strategy. High-level leaders become important parts of your empire, as their bonuses can be very significant.

The research tree in Endless Space is very extensive, and I found myself opting for different techs in each game, depending on my current situation (at war, trade-heavy, colonizing, production enhancement, et cetera). There are a lot of choices, including planet terraforming, improved weapons, faster research, enhanced industry, alliances, trade, faster movement, new ship hulls, and a host of system improvements. Each new technology usually unlocks two new things, like an empire improvement (such as faster movement speed), hull type, star system improvement, strategic resource, ship module, improved exploitation, or new battle cards. While individual techs become memorable over several games and your starting research strategy seems to play out the same each time, there are certainly a lot of options to choose from.

Diplomatic options in Endless Space are pretty standard, although some wrinkles are introduced. To start, every alien race your encounter starts out in a “cold war”: you can attack their ships and even invade colonies that are not within their sphere of influence. Beyond that, you can declare war, make peace, enter a cooperation agreement (for trade), or initiate an alliance. Other options include trading dust, strategic or luxury resources, technologies, or entire systems; these are useful in sealing an important diplomatic deal. The game displays a clear indication of who benefits more from a particular agreement, and the AI will agree to things that are near neutral (or on their side, obviously). While Endless Space fails to bring drastic innovations to the diplomatic table, all of the appropriate options are present.

While combat is completed in real time, you don’t take direct control of your ships. Rather, you play three battle action cards that give different bonuses, each of which can cancel the actions of another type of card: offense (more damage) counters tactics (a mix of offense and defense) counters engineering (repair) counters sabotage (less accuracy for the enemy) counters defense (uh, better defense) counters offense. Some cards are more appropriate for specific ship loadouts (no need to improve your missile accuracy if you don’t use missles), and more options are present through research. I feel the battle action system in Endless Space is innovative, and while some users will bemoan the inability to choose specific targets and interact with your ships during combat, I think those features are beyond the scope of the game. Really, ship design plays a much larger role in determining the victor than playing the right cards or choosing the best target. The cards really only become significant when two evenly-matched fleets are duking it out, but it is fun to see which tactics the enemy employs during battle, and attempt to counter them.

The AI in Endless Space is a mixed bag: there are things it does quite well, and things it does horribly. The AI knows how to run the economy, maximizing production and out-producing experienced strategy gamers (namely myself) in the early game. The AI loves to build system improvements, even ones that it doesn’t really need, which can lead to a mid-game economic crash when the AI cannot afford the upkeep required to keep all of those structures (and its military) running. The AI is very good at building large, impressive fleets, and then not using those imposing vessels effectively, haphazardly invading systems with a single fleet, if at all. The AI is simply not aggressive enough, especially when it has a vastly superior military force: it will park several to many huge fleets in one of their systems while you invade their border systems, even if you leave your adjacent systems complete undefended. The smallest military force can still beat the AI because the computer isn't intelligent enough to use its massive forces effectively. The computer does change or vary ship designs on occasion, giving you a sense of uncertainty when you do engage in battle. The AI colonizes too many bad systems early on (gas planets, barren worlds, and asteroid belts), which leads to low approval ratings until the appropriate structures are built. The AI shortcomings are really evident when you join an online game and replace a computer opponent: you spend the first handful of turns just cleaning up their mess, selling back unnecessary structures and managing their poor economy because of a large military it doesn't use. I suspect that, on higher difficulty levels, the AI players are given significant bonuses to compensate for some of their poor decisions. No amount of economic bonus, though, will make up for poor tactics. While the AI can play well on occasion, there are several deficiencies that add up to less than satisfactory overall performance.

IN CLOSING
Endless Space is very successful at bringing streamlined gameplay and user friendliness to turn-based strategy. It starts with the almost perfect (just missing a couple of small notifications) interface, which provides an accessible game, always important in the strategy genre; the sorted empire display and technology search feature are just two of the highlights. The economy is easy to grasp and provides flexibility as you choose your colonies and improvements; while the most prudent strategy is to focus on food first, industry second, and research last, choices can be made to nudge your empire in the desired direction. The research tree is extensive and provides many options: I never repeated the same path twice, always adapting to the current game situation. Leaders can be recruited and attached to any colony or ship, providing significant bonuses to either assignment and allow for further customization. The diplomatic options are fairly routine (although the initial state of “cold war” is unique) but allow for trade and alliances. When peace talks fail, it’s time to roll out the hardware, and simple but important ship design utilizes a classic rock-paper-scissors format for weapons and defenses, as each gun has one counter. You do not interact directly during combat (which, honestly, is fine with me), but do choose cards to enhance your abilities or counter enemy actions. The AI, the biggest issue with the game, is all over the place in terms of competency: it starts out well, but eventually implodes by building large, expensive fleets, making poor colony choices, exhibiting ineffective tactics, and investing in unnecessary system improvements. Game options provide for customization, and multiplayer matches allow you to join during a game and replace AI nations. In the end, Endless Space is a very notable entry in the 4X genre, and should be earmarked by all strategy gamers, if you can forgive the occasionally wonky AI.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Fray Review

Fray, developed and published by Brain Candy
The Good: A variety of weapons and items, good interface, the fog of war looks cool
The Not So Good: Units must be told to shoot even if enemies lie within their line of sight, must unlock most equipment, no single player content, bare tutorial, basic matchmaking options, restrictive non-random maps, stability issues
What say you? This simultaneous turn-based online tactical game lacks basic reactive intelligence and is missing several other key features: 3/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
My favorite game of 2011 (though I had been playing it for a year prior during the beta period) was Frozen Synapse, a perfect blend of fast, approachable tactical action. So it should come as no surprises that hundreds, nay thousands, of copycats have sprung up since that title’s unbridled success. Or, you know, one: Fray. Coming straight out of France is this simultaneous turn-based tactical game, where you give little orders to your little men to go shoot other little men. Just like my army of bloodthirsty hamsters that I…have…said too much about. Moving on.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The best part of Fray (sadly) is the graphics, which overall are just average (that should be a clear indication of what we are in store for the remainder of this review). The unit detail could be crisper with higher-resolution textures, and there are some noticeable animation glitches and artifacts (soldiers like to randomly dance after turns are resolved). The weapons range from convincing to silly, and the game doesn’t quite decide between realism and cartoonish sensibilities. The level design is futuristic, which means heavy doses of metal and neon: not exactly innovative but acceptable. The digitized fog of war is a really neat effect, the most memorable part of the game as a whole. The interface is also done well, with typical left-click select, right-click action conventions. You can also hold the right mouse button down for an order wheel, and the game provides a handy list of your four units for easy access. Fray also has a slick graphic representation for action lengths during a turn (also displayed beneath each unit name in the master list). The game does not make ammunition levels obvious enough, though. The sound design is very basic, with recycled effects for guns and movement, repetitive unit acknowledgements that sound more like grunts than actual words, and moody background music. While the graphics have some points of emphasis, the total package could use a bit more polish.



ET AL.
In Fray, squads of four soldiers vie for domination in an assortment of small arenas. The game only features deathmatch: the first side to seven kills (or after thirty rounds) wins. Games can support two or four players, either 1v1, 2v2, or a four-player free-for-all. Fray ships with thirteen two-player maps and seven four-player maps, all of which feature restrictive layouts that don’t leave much room for tactical flexibility. You can create a game or join one using the browser, but cannot play multiple games at once time (as in Frozen Synapse) as the time limit makes things move quickly enough to prevent multitasking. Fray does not have any single player content, which is massively disappointing (especially since it can be difficult to find opponents online) and tough on new players, as the only way to practice is to challenge people online. The “tutorial” is not interactive and not voiced, instead relying on lots of boring reading. Additional issues include support for only 64-bit operating systems, not saving the account password (so you have to type it in every time you log on), and occasionally locking up during turn resolution.

Your squad of four can have one of each of the game’s six classes: the short-range tank, medium-range assault, long-range sniper, camouflaged shadow, healing medic, or item-filled support. This restriction makes for a more interesting game, as you must enter the contest with a specific plan, and there is less flexibility in changing that plan once the enemy is sighted and the bullets start flying. The class determines the attributes (speed, accuracy, health, sighting) and weapons (shotgun, light machine gun, heavy machine gun, grenade launcher) of each soldier. You also pick a corporation to work for, which provides a very small additional bonus. Different classes also get specialized items to deploy on the field of battle: shields, reconnaissance, teleporters, fog of war generators, sentry guns, orbital strikes, mobile spawn points, and health. Problem is, experience-based upgrades lock out a significant portion of the game: you slowly earn new items and weapons over fifteen levels, and you can be up against squads that simply have access to better weapons. In addition, Fray does not extra bonus points for losing to a more experienced foe, so veterans continue to rack up the new weapons while novices lag further and further behind. This convention basically ruins the game for new players, removing all sense of competitive fairness.

Unlike most tactical strategy games I have encountered, units in Fray respawn after sitting out a turn, so the game plays out more like a frag-based first person shooter. Fray also has a timer (from 60 to 120 seconds) for each turn, so things move at a relatively quick pace. Units can be told to move, attack, use an item, switch weapons (or firing mode), change stance, or heal nearby units. Stances include normal, sprint (faster movement but you can’t shoot), offensive, or defensive. While it’s usually pretty easy to target enemy units, you can only choose foes that are within your line of sight, and since turns are resolved simultaneously, enemy units will routinely appear and disappear during a turn, so you’ll routinely shoot the wall the enemy moved behind. Confusingly, pretty much any object will provide cover, even if it’s a low wall that normal humans would be able to easily shoot over. Standing near specific units will also provide bonuses (damage absorption near a tank, ammunition supplies near a support, healing near a medic), and bonuses on the map can provide attribute boost and ammunition.

Just like in Team Assault, the first time opposing soldiers meet on the field of battle, they react just as they would in real life: complete ignorance. You see, units will only attack if you’ve specifically told them whom to shoot, and you can’t select any targets unless they lie within your line of sight. So your battle-hardened troops will walk right past newly-spotted enemies, finishing their move order as you instructed instead of actually doing something intelligent on their own. It just looks silly. A better game would have allowed the soldiers to shoot any enemy they see on contact, while allowing the user to specify certain enemies to engage (or ignore, if you so choose) once sighted. This level of flexibility and realism is simply not present in Fray, which instead relies on brain-dead units that must be hand-held through a match. A significant part of the game is guessing which enemy units will stay in your line of sight next turn (the answer usually is: none of them): since you must specify which units to shoot, and each action takes time, you have to guess and guess correctly, especially since your units will fire on enemies that are no longer viable targets (as they moved behind an object), and look really stupid doing so. Fray usually devolves into a game of chicken, with units moving in and out of cover while taking a quick shot at enemies that aren’t there. I usually close the main portion of a review by commenting on the AI, but since there is no AI to grade, our turn is over and we hit “submit”.

IN CLOSING
The lack of unit initiative really hurts Fray. When you watch two opposing units walk right pass each other and neither takes a shot, something is amiss. The game’s unflinching reliance on user input and lack of artificial intelligence definitely has some significant negative side effects, and the result is truly unconvincing gameplay. The game never feels fluid: while turn-based gameplay is intended to allow for careful thinking and uninterruptable consequences for your actions, Fray lacks the former (due to the turn time limit) and has robotic results for the latter, due to the mindlessness of your units. Soldiers can be told to move, attack, change their stance, or use some specialized class abilities like healing, but will never do these actions on their own and routinely do these things to invalid targets that have moved out of range. The classes are varied and carry an interesting array of weapons and items to turn the tide of battle, but only once you have unlocked them in the unfair experience system that rewards veterans with even more powerful weapons and penalizes novices for not playing enough. The handful of maps become repetitive and lack tactical flexibility in their designs. Fray also lacks a single player mode to practice with (more damning since the tutorial is a joke), features only online deathmatch, and prevents switching between multiple games. Bugs and animation issues also indicate an unfinished game. The problems are many in the near-future world of Fray, a fray I would not recommend becoming a part of.