Rush for Berlin (PC) Review

Developer: Stormregion / Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 7.0/10

It’s not often we see a World War II game that is something other than a first person shooter. Rush for Berlin, developed by Stormregion, is a real-time-strategy game that strives to be a historically accurate and realistic rendition of World War II. Unfortunately for Rush for Berlin, it falls short of being totally enjoyable. Rush for Berlin will not be a game that makes waves through the genre; the game fails to be worthwhile, not only because of the extremely weak gameplay in the single player mode, but the absolutely non-existent multiplayer community. It’s incredibly important for a real-time-strategy game to have these basic values in place, even before any kind of innovation is attempted.

The thoroughly unimpressive single player mode in Rush for Berlin struggles to prove any kind of worth whatsoever. Unfortunately for the actual real-time-strategy elements of the game, they are not utilized properly to show the strengths of what the gameplay actually has to offer. The single player mode is based on World War II, obviously, but there is absolutely no revolving story to connect any of the missions you go on. After a cheesy cutscene to set up a certain scenario, you’ll begin your mission with a set amount of units and go on your way doing what needs to be done. What needs to be done usually consists of killing your enemies until there are none left, or capturing certain points of interest. Each mission is like a snapshot of history, and you jump around from time period to time period.

What brings down the experience of the single player mode the most is that there is little to no traditional base vs. base gameplay. Most of the missions are what I like to call “limited force” missions – you’re given a set amount of units and you’re on your way. Occasionally you are able to capture a factory to create more units, but you’re not going to be building factories or barracks like in traditional RTS games. Any and all buildings or structures you own have to be captured and can be recaptured by the enemy if you let your guard down.

The multiplayer mode is by far the biggest disappointment in Rush for Berlin. I was disenchanted when I found absolutely no one on the servers. Since the game used Gamespy, it was very easy to log in, but that was where the pleasant experience stopped. To give you an idea of how desolate the multiplayer community is, there are more people playing the demo of the game than the full game. And since you have to have the same version as who you’re playing against, it doesn’t even let you play with the two or three people that just happen to be online, if you’re able to catch them on at the same time as you are. I almost downloaded the demo just so I could play against someone. This is a serious devaluation of the game, especially since the single player mode is less than fantastic. If you’re turned off by the single player mode you will have nowhere to go when it comes to playing Rush for Berlin, unless you know someone personally to play against.

As for the actual gameplay, it is particularly solid. The game itself puts more value into each of the units you have, as they are not usually available in huge quantities – you can’t just build any anytime you want, and when you can, it takes a long time to build a unit. It can take especially long sometimes since there is absolutely no resource gathering, you’ll have to wait even longer for the resource counter to get to the point you want it to get to before the unit begins to build.

Needless to say, base politics play a very small role in the game, and it comes down to actually managing your units and being strategic in how you use them. Because the game puts more stress on the units, you’ll actually be aware of when you lose a unit, as it could make or break your push through enemy territory. The flexibility of the gameplay is also shown by being able to take over enemy vehicles (provided their occupants are no more) and use them for your purposes. Many of the blown out buildings in the game can also be used for your tactical advantage by making your infantry go inside them so they are able to shoot at whoever comes by.

By far the most impressive aspect of Rush for Berlin are the graphics. The maps themselves are enormously detailed – urban areas really show the best of what Rush for Berlin has to offer in this aspect. All the units look about as realistic as they can be –vehicles more so than humans. Everything looks incredibly akin to what it would have looked like in World War II, which should be applauded. There is also a 3D camera, so you can get all sides of the action. Unfortunately, they assigned the scroll wheel click to changing the camera rather than the right click, which can make it difficult to be as precise as you might want to be.

Sound effects and music are another couple strong points, but the voice acting is awful. The sound effects are cool, and they really help in making you feel like you’re in the middle of a battlefield. The music is empowering as well, and usually has a “march to war” feeling attached – possibly offering motivation to do what you need to do. Voice acting, however, is on the completely different side of the spectrum. The actors sound like Europeans trying to imitate an American accent, which end up sounding like they’re a bunch of pricks at the gym with surly voices – it doesn’t really cut it for what the game is trying to accomplish.

Rush for Berlin ends up being just another lackluster World War II game. Perhaps if the same gameplay mechanics were exploited better, and there were a multiplayer community to interact with, Rush for Berlin would have been a solid game, but unfortunately that was not what came to fruition.

 

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 8.4/10

If anyone has played Hearts of Iron II for the PC, Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday will feel all too familiar. Heck, it’s pretty much exactly the same game except with a couple new layers of situations to play through and a few more options. As a stand-alone expansion, it’s all that’s to be expected really, but if you are yearning for more Hearts of Iron II challenges, it could be worth a look. One thing is for sure though, if you are contested between having to chose Hearts of Iron II or Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, go with the latter.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is one of the most fleshed out strategy games that I’ve ever seen. Such a massive amount of information is presented to you, all of which you are able to manipulate. The game almost inadvertently creates a very overwhelming feeling when you first start to play. The tutorial mode will help in that respect, but even after that, you’ll have to think fast as you have to deal with military, political, and developmental needs of your country. Taking place on such a large scale, it’ll be a definite challenge to keep up with all the things that are happening even if you put the speed of the game on slow.

The gameplay screen is exactly like a tactical map from a war documentary, as you can see the paths of your units with large arrows. The color of the arrows show what a unit is doing. The world is split up into provinces, and practically every province can be taken over if you play your cards correctly, but it’s easier said than done. You can fight through the whole of World War II exactly as it played out, with the Axis powers losing, or the complete opposite, with the Axis powers winning. You can use your imagination here, I’m sure. What can be a turn-off to some people is that you don’t really see the action unfolding all that excitingly. There are animations of units showing that they are in battle, but you’re not going to be right in the action seeing how units die and stuff like that, so it can be a little boring at times.

However, you’ll be so preoccupied with so many of the other things happening, it’d be trivial to even have something like that included. Your units are also not all displayed on the screen at the same time, so it might seem like you only have two or three units when you really have something like twenty or thirty, just because they all stack on top of each other as long as they’re in the same province. Units like airplanes and naval craft are in ports, so you have to click on the port itself to activate that particular unit. You can view the map in different ways, through terrain, political boundaries, wealth, and others, to help you plan out how you go about moving your military. There wasn’t really anything that was noticeably improved from Hearts of Iron II in the expansion, but either way the user interface is about as good as it can be for what is accomplished.

History only sets up the platform from which you will take control of the game… depending on what year you start out in. This brings us to the main scenario that has been added to the game: Doomsday. I suppose you can call it science-fiction, but Doomsday takes place in 1945, directly after the end of World War II. The Soviet Union decides it’s a good idea to go ahead and start to take over the world, especially when they feel threatened by a couple of US-owned atomic bombs sitting in airplanes in Turkey. So when the Soviet Union starts advancing into the war-weary Western Europe, the US drops those atomic bombs on Moscow and another city in Russia and completely destroys them. Boy is Russia mad now. They’ve already got practically half of the world’s provinces under their control, especially with taking back many of the provinces that had been taken over by Nazi Germany. So now Europe, the United States, and the rest of its allies have a heck of a task ahead of them in defeating the Soviet Union when they’ve exerted so much of their power on defeating the Axis powers. The Doomsday scenario is a lot more fast-paced than others included, since so many things are happening at the same time. One could even say that the Doomsday scenario was what the Cold War could have been if things had heated up right after the war had ended.

Since Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is an expansion, a couple of gameplay features had been added to influence how the game can be played. Nuclear weaponry being the most apparent, there is also intelligence, and more technology to be researched. Intelligence will help in being able to steal technology from other countries, or cause some trouble in another country you don’t exactly like. The additions are welcomed, but they’re not nearly enough of a change from Hearts of Iron II to really worry too much about.

Graphics and sound are still the same as Hearts of Iron II. The graphics are nothing special at all — you’ll be looking at a very plain, but colorful, world and of course unique-looking units, but that’s about it. The music is nice to listen to, as it is a bit empowering in your military struggle against your foes. However, a good PC is a must for playing the game. I experienced a little bit of lag while playing the game and it isn’t even that bad of a computer. The processing power required running the complexity of the world and its huge amount of provinces and military movements across the whole thing is quite certainly a lot. Multiplayer modes are also included.

With plenty of dedication on your part, you can uncover a rewarding experience in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. Being able to play as so many different countries for the same scenario results in a large amount of replay time if you get so inclined to play the game for all its worth in that respect. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is one of the most advanced strategy games to date, and hardcore strategy gamers will find a great challenge in it.

 

Take Command 2nd Manassas (PC) Review

Developer: MadMinute Games / Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 7.9/10

Take Command 2nd Manassas is an interesting strategy game. Set during the American Civil War, It takes a middle ground between a real time strategy and a regular strategy game by allowing you to control your units as part of large groups rather than single individuals — all in real time. Through the use of different formations, you have to control your division effectively to overtake the Union or Confederacy in a battle in an open field. Take Command 2nd Manassas visually portrays the Civil War very accurately — it is a unique way to see how the battles in the Civil War had taken place, especially with a 3D camera, allowing you to see the fighting from all sides. History Channel, eat your heart out.

Take Command 2nd Manassas focuses more on a particular part of the Civil War, rather than the whole thing. Quite obviously, it’s the Second Manassas battle, otherwise known as Second Battle of Bull Run. During the time, Manassas was a strategic railroad crossing that lead to Richmond and Washington, DC. The battle itself is broken down into days, and further into multiple commanders for both sides of the battle. The battles before and after Second Manassas are also available for play.

You can manage your troops from the brigade level all the way up to the division level. Depending on the particular scenario you’re involved in, of course, it could vary how much command you have, with other soldiers on your side being controlled by the AI only. The AI assists you tremendously as well, automatically adjusting your soldiers in a fashion that they will line up facing the correct way to shoot at oncoming foes. You can control multiple brigades under a leader by selecting a leader and telling the troops to rally behind it in a certain formation. Rallying your troops behind a leader is a very effective way to move all of the troops connected to that leader as they march toward the battle.

Positioning is the key to winning a battle or skirmish. By placing your units in a line, your units will be able to fire on the enemy. Placing them in a double line or a column makes for some cool-looking marches down the battlefield, but you’ll end up having to revert back to the simple line to fire on the enemy. Once you position your troops, you just watch as they either become victorious or run away in fear because their morale is broken. One thing about the action that takes place is that you’re not as involved with what is going on as much as you might want to be. By restricting how much you’re able to control your soldiers, you’re forced to fight battles the same way they were done during the Civil War. The victor of the battle is basically the one who takes the least casualties.

Morale of your troops is important because it dictates how long a brigade will stay and fight as their buddies die next to them. As a unit’s morale drops lower and lower, you can see the brigade scattering out a little more, falling back. Once their morale reaches the “broken” status, that particular brigade will go into a full retreat and literally run away from the battle as they are still being shot at by the enemy. They don’t leave the battle entirely, as they will regroup, and once their morale gets back up will be usable for battle again. Positioning leaders behind your troops will give the brigades morale boosts as to divert the drop of morale just a bit longer. Though not every single individual person in a brigade is shown, a counter is displayed in the information bar when you click on one of them. The number can be anywhere from a hundred to a thousand, though it’ll usually be around three hundred. If a brigade gets tired, their morale will tend to get lower faster as well as not being able to move as fast. If they’re given time to rest, outside of any enemy fire, they’ll be able to get back to a rested state.

The graphics are okay. The cool visuals you can get with the full 3D camera are quite interesting as your troops are fighting. You can see it from a bird’s-eye view all the way to an almost-first-person view. The units themselves are low-resolution 2D sprites slapped on top of a large 3D terrain, which can make them seem a little bit out of place at times, just because of how flat they look, and even a little bit cartoony. The terrain could have done with looking a bit more realistic – same with the sparse buildings that are sprinkled here and there. Explosions don’t look anything more than flashes with smoke, and don’t leave any marks on the terrain as if there had been some. Sound is pretty good — there’s nothing that can be pointed out as really out of place or annoying as all the sounds of war are there in realistic proportions. There’s no speech at all, not even in tutorials, and all communications with other officers are done by courier, so there aren’t any briefing scenes where you talk with General Lee about the status of the battle or whatnot.

Take Command 2nd Manassas is the most accurate representation of a Civil War battle I’ve seen in a video game. Though it might not represent the battle of 2nd Manassas completely or even have a 100% realistic tone to it, the battles alone make the Civil War come alive in front of you. One thing is for certain, though: if you’re looking for a Civil War strategy game, give Take Command 2nd Manassas a whirl.

 

Horse and Musket 2: Prussia’s Glory (PC) Review

Developer: Boku Strategy Games / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 5.5/10

Does anyone remember Prussia? Well, besides the fact they’re not a country anymore, Prussia was a really powerful nation back in the 1700s, the era in which Prussia’s Glory takes place. Prussia’s Glory focuses on five important battles of Frederick the Great, a “military genius” who came to power in Prussia in 1740 and fought battles such as one against an Austrian army that outnumbered him severely, but still came up as the victor. Okay, so enough of the history lesson, time to talk about the game.

Upon first booting up Prussia’s Glory, the first thing I said was “ew.” To put it simply, the presentation of the game is horrid. The game just comes off as looking way too archaic for its own good; its in-game graphics aren’t pleasant to look at by any means. The game’s visuals give you this cluttered feel, especially when one unit is actually like nine-or-so indistinct people with flags and drums. Additionally, the font used to display various pieces of information is difficult to read. However, it should be noted that games like Prussia’s Glory don’t rely on their graphics to sell themselves to strategy fans as much as they do on gameplay… as for the gameplay itself, you may find out that it’s not up to snuff either.

It would’ve been a lot more fun if the game wasn’t so slow-paced, but it’s something to be expected in a strategy game that isn’t in real-time. The game moves in “phases,” starting with the bombardment phase in which you use artillery units to hit your enemy. The command turn phase, which occurs every four turns (which translates into an hour of game time), a command phase, and an activation phase among others. The last three phases basically boil down to this: you attempt to “activate” a group of units that are attached to a particular leader so you can move them. Sometimes the activation will fail, resulting in you not being able to move the units at all until the next turn where you can attempt to activate them again. This sort of methodology for moving units just seems to be kind of ridiculous, especially when it takes so long to even move your units into position in the first place to attack.

There are a lot of menial gameplay factors in Prussia’s Glory that aren’t too clear in how they affect any of its battles significantly, such as terrain, morale of the troops, leaders, cavalry, and stacking. Learning how to use all of them effectively will probably be the greatest time absorber, but if only the game made you feel compelled to truly understand them. Terrain will either limit or dictate the kind of moves and attacks your units can do. Cavalry can charge, morale of troops affects their performance — it’s all pretty complicated if you choose to really go into it.

Where the game really suffers is in its all around archaic-feel within the genre of strategy gaming. Mostly attributed to the user interface not being all that friendly, the game forces you to really have to look through the accompanied manual to learn how everything basically works. Instead of being able to attack with a unit in a traditional strategy-game way, you have to wait until the game allows you to use your units to attack where they stand (if they’re able to, to begin with). Seemingly unnecessary things like that bring the game lower.

There are a couple of multiplayer options, including play by e-mail to get some more longevity out of the investment in the game. For those who don’t know what play by e-mail is, it’s a gameplay mode which allows for two players to play a round of the game little by little, with the game sending an e-mail to your opponent after every move so that you don’t have to spend a large amount of time playing a round in one go. However, in the end, the gameplay just wasn’t fun enough for me to really want to put this mode to use. In fact, the game as a whole isn’t the type that will be redeemed by its multiplayer modes.

My experience with the Prussia’s Glory wasn’t very delightful. It didn’t appeal to me on any level, not in concept, gameplay, visuals, or really even sound. Prussia’s Glory is a very underwhelming strategy game, and most people would be ill-advised if they’re told this was a worthwhile game to sink their time into. Although, those interested in recreating history of Prussia in videogame form may want to give this game a chance.

 

winSPMBT (PC) Review

Developer: The Camo Workshop / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 7.0/10

WinSPMBT, otherwise known as “Windows, Steel Panthers, Main Battle Tank” is a PC turn-based strategy game with a simple premise: capture points on the map, and beat the crap out of your enemy… strategically, of course. WinSPMBT isn’t necessarily a bad game, but it has a horribly outdated feel through and through. Everything, including the user interface, the gameplay mechanics, all the way down to the graphics feel this way.

WinSPMBT feels like a trip taken in a time machine set to 1995. The game looks on par with the first Command & Conquer. There is a reason behind this, as winSPMBT is the Windows version of a mod for a game called Steel Panthers 2: Modern Battles. SPMBT was originally a DOS game, but it has been ported to Windows for compatibility’s sake and resolution. Fans of the original SPMBT would certainly appreciate this, since they can now play the game on modern-day operating systems. What’s even better is that people can download the game for free from the Shrapnel Games site, so it’s not like you’d lose anything by giving it a shot, but you can also buy the enhanced CD version for $39.95. Both versions are the same, but the CD comes with a printed quick start guide, higher resolutions and a map editor.

Gameplay is a bit less than enthralling, to say the least. When you’re not directing units around on the hexagonal map, you’re watching units attempt to destroy each other with tiny animations of flying lines, little orbs, smoke, and sparks all from a top-down aspect. Sad to say, but that’s about it. There are more advanced commands and different ways to go about it, but you’ll have to play out your strategy without any exciting explosions or things of that sort. There are many different types of tanks, infantry, artillery, and the like to use during the game, and each is accompanied by low-res picture to represent it. To win a battle you need to occupy as many “V points” as possible while eliminating your opponent’s units and keeping your units intact. V points are basically points of interest on the map that help your side if you hold, or at least occupy them at some point. At the end of eight turns, the battle is over and the results are shown to you.

The sound is boring and can even be annoying. All that’s heard are the gun and explosion sound effects with absolutely no music to accompany them. It gets irritating when you hear the same sound effects over and over. One of the worst cases was fifty seconds worth of air strike sounds in one mission. There’s also no music. The graphics follow the sound — as I said before the game looks like it’s from 1995 (in truth, it’s from 1996). Still imagery far outweighs any animations or any real noticeable movement, and really promotes the idea of the game being just another boring strategy game. The maps you play on can look quite complex in texture, like one level in Germany, but the map’s graphics can collide with the sprites of your actual units, making it hard to see where or what your units are, making you wish for a desert level with no textures at all.

WinSPMBT will really only appeal to nostalgic gamers, fans of the original game, and hardcore strategy gamers. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that anyone who isn’t in one of those niche crowds would have an interest in the game, but the possibility is greater since it is available for free. WinSPMBT really would have done well with a major overhaul, but in its current form it’s in the awkward position of being an outdated game made available again. But because it’s obvious that they wanted to keep the integrity of the original game intact as much as possible, winSPMBT is all it is and nothing more.

 

Guitar Hero (PS2) Review

Developer: Harmonix Music Studios / Publisher: RedOctane || Overall: 9.5/10

I’ve never been a fan of beat games, half the reason being that I completely suck at them. The other being I really had no interest in playing any — that was, until Guitar Hero. At first, the biggest factor for my interest had been the guitar controller that actually came with the game, since I play the bass guitar; I found the novelty of playing with the guitar controller appealing. When first playing Guitar Hero you don’t have to have any previous experience playing a guitar (though it could help), as the game slowly builds on difficulty as progression is made. There are plenty of awesome songs available to play, each with four difficulty levels. Not only is Guitar Hero fun to play, but it actually feels like you’re playing the song. Guitar Hero can be appealing to a lot of different people, just from my own anecdotal evidence, and gives people the chance to experience how it would be like to play a guitar without actually having a real one.

There’s no story involved with Guitar Hero, you dive right into the Career mode with nothing more than the name of your band and the guitar controller in hand. As you play through the career mode, more songs will unlock, allowing you to play them any time you’d like in the Quick Play mode or during multiplayer. In total, there’s about thirty songs made by famous artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Jimi Hendrix, and Incubus – all redone by a different band, not the original artists, but it could be hard to tell the difference at times. Once you master all the famous songs, there’s a ton of bonus songs recorded by lesser-known bands.

The guitar controller that comes with the game has numerous features to it. Five “fret” buttons are played by your left hand (if you’re right-handed), a wammy bar, a “strum bar” that is played by your right hand to actually play the notes, as well as start and select buttons that look like volume knobs. There’s a guitar strap that you can put on if you want to play standing up. The guitar is also tilt-sensitive, so when you tilt the guitar while playing the game you can activate something called “Star Power” which will be explained later on. The guitar controller is about half the size of an actual guitar, so it doesn’t take a lot of space while you’re not using it. The box that you buy the game with can actually be used as a guitar case for storing the guitar controller when you’re not using it, if you so desired. The guitar controller can’t really be used to play any other game except for Guitar Hero, since it doesn’t have all the functionality of a Dual Shock 2 – but it doesn’t hurt to experiment.

The basic functions of the game are quite simple. You hold down a fret button and strum the strum bar at the right time to play a note as it appears on screen. When you start the game on easy, it’ll only use three of the fret buttons, adding on a fret button for each difficulty level higher. As you increase difficulty level, more advanced techniques must be used, like holding notes, hammer-ons, and pull-offs — just like on a regular guitar. As you increase difficulty level, more notes are tossed into songs you’ve already become familiar with, making it feel like you’re playing the song a little bit more realistically, as well as making it seem like the song you played before is completely different from what you’re playing once you increase difficulty. This gives you incentive to go back and play the easier difficulties in the game to get perfect scores during Free Play, just to see how high you can get.

When you hold notes, you can use the whammy bar on the guitar controller to make the note distorted, and make the song sound a little bit different each time you play it. Using the whammy bar at certain times will also help increase your “Star Power” that, when activated, will give you twice as many points for each note you play while it lasts. The more notes you play without any error, the higher the multiplier is, as well. Without using Star Power, you can get up to a “X4” multiplier, and with Star Power a “X8” multiplier. Using Star Power at the right time will result in higher scores, especially when you use Star Power when there are a lot of notes to be played. Another way Star Power can help is when your Rock Meter is low. The Rock Meter is basically the approval rating the audience is giving you, which equates to how many notes you get right. If you miss a lot, your Rock Meter is going to be in the red. Conversely, if you get all the notes right, you’ll be in the green. Star Power helps you get back up toward the green by giving you a higher boost than normal for each note you get correct.

When it comes to aspects other than the guitar and actually playing, Guitar Hero suffers just a bit. The graphics are what you’d expect from a late-generation PlayStation 2 game, but there are better looking and more interesting games that have come along recently. The sound, quite obviously, is spectacular. Since all of the songs are not by their original artists, but redone for the game, it’s amazing how alike they can sound to the original songs. Another really cool thing about the sound is that when you miss a note, the song actually misses a note, so you hear what you actually play (or don’t play). There are a lot of songs to keep anyone busy with, and how the songs have been designed really helps with immersion. A multiplayer mode is included as well, so that when your friend brings over their Guitar Hero controller, you can “duel” by trying to play songs better than each other. Multiplayer games can be come pretty heated with one note being the difference between loss and win. Multiplayer mode really required a stereo TV/sound system, since one speaker will be one player and the other speaker will be the other.

Guitar Hero is one of the most fun games I have personally played on any console to date. I’ve played it so much that my left hand felt like it was sprained for a month because I couldn’t stop playing it for so long. Not only that, it takes a lot of skill and practice to beat every song on expert, so the game doesn’t get old as fast as other beat games might. The only drawback I felt the game had was the limited amount of songs it had, while there was a good selection to begin with, it would have been nice to be able to download more songs to play. Guitar Hero is also a bit more expensive than a regular game due to the guitar controller being included, but in the end it’s worth every penny you spend on it and more.

 

Marine Park Empire (PC) Review

Publisher: Enlight Software Inc. || Overall: 6.0/10

Marine Park Empire, developed by Enlight Software, is a simulation tycoon game for the PC. What Marine Park Empire sets out to do is provide another “build-your-own-thing” game, much like those we’ve seen before so many times. Unfortunately for this title, it isn’t nearly as compelling as games that have helped define the genre in the first place. It also doesn’t help that there’s a curious emphasis on land animals, which is really out of place considering the title and apparent main theme. At the end of the day, Marine Park Empire is just a basic zoo tycoon game.

As is common with the genre, there’s no overall story; rather the game is scenario-based. There’s a little background about why a park needs help or how it’s doing to create some conflict, thus giving motivation for the player to make a conscious effort in rectifying the problem with the zoo you’re trying to complete goals for. Each new scenario is pretty basic: you’re given a chunk of land to mess around with, and a trunk full of cash. After that it’s just you buying animals and putting up fences so you can watch little people walk around the park, stare at the animals, then walk around the park some more.

Buildings are important, as they are in any real life zoo. Concession stands and employee offices are just a few of the buildings that can be built. Some help you maintain the park while some help you build revenue. With the money you make or loan out, you can buy animals and customize their habitats. Animal habitats can be customized to your liking by placing trees, rocks, water, and of course animals, to make your park come to life. Unfortunately that life is pretty depressing all around, as the user interface is a lot more ineffective than it really should be. The management bars themselves take up about half of the screen making it very hard to do anything at all.

As with all other tycoon games of the sort, you try to earn money, keep customers happy, tend to your park as it is needed, and try and complete goals that need to be completed in a particular scenario. There’s also the option to take pictures with a “camera” in-game, as well as take video– I’d say it would be a useful addition if the game was actually interesting to look at, like Roller Coaster Tycoon, but Marine Park Empire doesn’t evoke that feeling. The graphics have a cartoony feel which are moderate at best, and the sound is on the same level. You can run the game in both 800×600 and 1024×768 modes, so it can be tailored better to what resolution your computer can run at.

Marine Park Empire has a lot of playability problems, however. It takes a very long time to load a new scenario — you can be waiting around two or three minutes at times. Even when exiting a game it takes a long time to leave. The game, being in full 3D, has to make use of a full 3D camera, but unfortunately it’s clunky and even a mess at times. For some reason, the game feels like making the camera do exactly what it isn’t supposed to do, like when trying to tilt and pan ever so slightly, it’ll fly into a tornado resulting in an unintended angle. One thing that is kind of nice about the camera is that you can zoom all the way into the “action” that’s happening in your park. Even though this is a zoo game, I couldn’t cage the lag that runs rampant most of the time, even with all the visual settings turned down.

Basically, Marine Park Empire comes down to being a generic tycoon game with an overly complex management system. It isn’t that exciting to play because most of what you do is watch animals mate and pay back the huge loans that you get dumped with in the beginning of a scenario. Being a budget title, Marine Park Empire could be right up the alley of tycoon game enthusiasts or even for a young kid who hasn’t played any other tycoon game yet, however, if you stick with a Roller Coaster Tycoon game, you honestly won’t be missing out on much at the end of the day.

 

Serious Sam II (PC) Review

Developer: Croteam / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 7.8/10

Serious Sam II is the latest from Serious Sam development company Croteam. Serious Sam II has a bit to live up to as the previous games in the series have earned it reputation in the genre they are a part of – the first person shooter (FPS). In a market saturated with FPSs, there are stand-out names that you’ll recognize as a “canon” FPS game; unfortunately Serious Sam just might never be as recognizable of a name as Half-Life, Quake, and Doom because of the unfortunate fact that it does little to really distinguish itself and lacks the quality of the top-rung FPSs out today. Serious Sam II is a step in the right direction for the Serious Sam series, but it’s just not enough to be considered anything more than second-tier.

Serious Sam II starts its single-player mode with Sam being summoned to destroy an ultimately evil guy named Mental, who is the commander of the evil forces that “came from nowhere” in the first Serious Sam. Basically, the goal is to blast your way through all of his minions that come your way on five different planets while in search of a piece of an artifact. When joined, the five pieces hold the key to destroying the seemingly invincible Mental. It’s not a very compelling story to say the least, but there is a sporadic amount of silly humor that can get a few laughs to break up the large amounts of action involved through the game.

So, what separates Serious Sam II from all the other first person shooter games out right now? Not much. The formula of Serious Sam II rides on the droves of cartoon-like enemies (characterized in the Hell motif) that are to be killed. Enemies will constantly appear in large groups and seemingly never-ending amounts. There are solid graphics with pretty scenery, interesting-looking enemies, and aside from the guns the game is full of weird sound effects. As said before, you’ll go through five different planets which will basically just be different in terms of particular enemies you’ll see and possibly guns you’ll pick up. It should be noted that every part of the game is fairly visually pleasing, and as a consequence very demanding on your hardware.

There are plenty of weapons available for use throughout the game. The standard issue radial chainsaw, plasma gun, and dual magnums have unlimited ammo, and at the beginning of each new planet you’ll be reset to the basics. Guns you’ll pick up along the way in each level include the single-shot shotgun, double barrel shotgun, plasma rifle, rocket launcher, and dual Uzis, among others. In first person mode, the guns look very nice, but in third person mode, they won’t be as flashy since you’re looking down from a few feet behind Sam. One thing about the weapons is that you don’t technically reload; you just have to keep your guns fed with ammo to keep them working.

If there’s one thing to say about Serious Sam II, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. Really really hard. If you play the game on normal or more, you’ll be wasting gobs of time retrying certain parts of levels over and over. I had originally played the game on Normal; about two hours into the game I couldn’t pass a part where an armada of enemies just kept coming and I would keep dying. I got so frustrated that I restarted the game at a lower difficulty and within twenty minutes I was stuck at the same place. If you’re looking for a challenge when it comes to testing your FPS skills, you’ll find it in Serious Sam II.

There is also the possibility of playing multiplayer. There’s not much to it, since you’ll just be playing cooperatively through the whole single player mode with unlimited ammo for all weapons. You can turn friendly fire on or off, but you can’t play a makeshift deathmatch-mode in this way since everyone’s lives feed off the same pile. Believe it or not, that’s all there is to multiplayer — Co-op.

There are parts about Serious Sam II that take a toll on the overall game. First, the frame rate will take a dive when you’re in the middle of huge battles with lots of enemies. What’s even worse is that when you’re NOT in huge battles and there actually are no enemies at all, you’ll still be suffering from a low frame rate. Thankfully, the frame rate isn’t so low that the game is absolutely unplayable, but it does get annoying. The reason behind it is probably because the whole level you’re on is loaded before you play since there are only load screens at the end of the huge stages. Another annoying thing is the sound in pre-rendered cutscenes — it hiccups or cuts out every couple seconds which is also very annoying to say the least. Thankfully, however, there aren’t that many pre-rendered scenes and the real-time cutscenes don’t have sound problems at all.

The level designs also don’t allow for much strategy in how you undertake certain areas such as hiding behind walls or the like. More often than not you’ll be in a somewhat open area fighting the onslaught of enemies rather than fighting a small amount of strategically placed foes. What the game basically comes down to is how good you are at surviving rather than relying on strategy with weaponry, and that gets pretty repetitive. At least there are a lot of levels to play through, however. At times, you’ll have to move items by “picking it up” and if you use certain things to your advantage you can get to certain areas you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Not to mention there is a bit of clunky platforming integrated into the game.

What’s presented here might be all that’s really expected from a Serious Sam game, but with weak multiplayer modes, a very lacking story, and difficulty levels that would put escaping from a natural disaster to shame, Serious Sam II ends up not being much more than a first person shooter with tons of enemies to kill amidst massive amounts of frustration. With all that aside, if the culmination of performance problems weren’t present, and it included some more multiplayer options, Serious Sam II could have been a very fun game.

 

Darwinia (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Introversion Studios || Overall: 9.2/10

It’s not too often that I play an innovative game on the PC. Especially since all the once-innovative games on PC have become old news. This has all changed with Introversion Software’s Darwinia. There isn’t one recently released game that I could name that has achieved the heights of innovation Darwinia has bestowed upon me and others who were fortunate enough to have played it already. In a presentation style that will remind everyone of a “retro” gaming look, you are immersed in a world of polygons and purposefully pixilated sprites, creating the feeling that you’re in a computer-generated world with a large amount of colors to bring it all to life; it’s a completely different approach to the recent trend of being as realistic as possible. Darwinia is made to look like a game. It’s truly a refreshing experience, not to mention it’s also fun.

Currently only released in the UK, Darwinia takes place in a world created by Dr. Sepulveda in which little green inhabitants called Darwinians live in communities, passing down their information into later generations. Dr. Sepulveda has managed to create tens of thousands of generations of Darwinians, allowing them to, in effect, evolve. But all is not well in Darwinia when a virus infects Darwinia, severely decreasing the population of Darwinians to drastic lows. The virus, in the form of bugs, must be exterminated to ensure the survival of Darwinia and its inhabitants. That’s where you come in. Not exactly sure why you’re there in the first place, Dr. Sepulveda asks you to help him as long as you’re there. Since the world of Darwinia is a computer, you’re given many computer-related techniques and weaponry to stop the virus and repopulate the Darwinians from utter extinction. Though the story is sparse, it works well enough to keep you going through the game.

While it is technically classified as a real-time strategy (RTS) game, Darwinia is far from the traditional RTS games you’ll encounter. First of all there is no resource gathering to build troops. You build all of your units (called “programs”) by going into a “task manager” and drawing “gestures.” There is no limit to how many you can make in the long run, but you can only have a limited amount of these programs running at the same time. Two of these important programs include the Squad and the Engineer, which will be used throughout the game. The Squad is your basic unit which allows you to clear out the viruses from Darwinia. Once the individual virus bugs are destroyed, you send in Engineers to gather up “souls” to bring back to an Incubator to give birth to Darwinians out of the information acquired. Engineers also allow you to take control of buildings you previously did not have control of before. As you progress through the game, all of your abilities will get better as Dr. Sepulveda researches/codes better things to do into the already existing programs. Later on your Squads can call in air-strikes, launch rockets and grenades, and your Engineers can gather more souls at the same time to bring back to the Incubator. The technology upgrading aspect is not new to RTS games, but you do not need to pool resources into making certain things better on account that there are no resources. You basically choose which technology to upgrade and play the waiting game. To utilize the different weaponry affinities your Squad can have, you must first have a squad selected on the map, and according to how to draw which kind of weaponry you want them to have, you can give them one of the more advanced abilities to use instead of the default grenades by drawing a gesture in the task manager.

Not only is what you see a throwback into what seems like 1980s-quality graphics in 3D, but you also get to enjoy an electronic-oriented soundtrack with an 8-bit-era flare to it. That’s when the music plays, though, because most of the time you’ll just be listening to the sound effects during the game. The main reason why they did this was probably because you’d be playing levels for a couple hours, and you’d listen to the same track over and over again.

What is unfortunate about the game is that the frame rate takes a dive once you begin going into huge levels with a massive amount of things happening at the same time. My computer well exceeded the recommended requirements to play the game, but I was still getting frame rates of less than ten or if I was lucky nearer to fifteen or twenty for a few seconds at a time. The latest patch available at the time (v1.21) didn’t help to remedy the problem either. This leaves to speculation whether or not the huge levels in the game should have been broken down into smaller stages or certain areas on the map were loaded at any given time rather than the whole map being displayed in real time. Even after putting all the graphics and sound options on their bare minimum and increasing the priority of the task in the Windows Task Manager to “Realtime” I still couldn’t hit the 30+ fps that was achieved in the very early stages of the game. The loss of frame rate impairs the way the game is played, making everything’s difficulty (even a simple click) ten times harder to do.

Just as a side note, if you have the Windows PowerToy that replaces your Alt+Tab switcher (like I do) to one that has a little screenshot of the program you want to switch to, you’ll have to disable it if you want to play Darwinia correctly, since it makes use of the Alt+Tab combination within the game and the PowerToy just messes it up. If you want to disable the PowerToy, you have to run “msconfig” from the “Run” dialog and uncheck the program called “taskswitch.exe.” This will disable the Alt+Tab PowerToy, and you can go back into it at a later time and re-enable it if you so desire. While using the keyboard combination in the first place is questionable to me, to say the least, there’s no way to change it, so you’ll have to adapt to it.

In the end, Darwinia really just is Lemmings on a grander scale. You have to use the Darwinians (which are more or less in a limited supply depending on how many souls you can get to incubate before they fly away after a certain amount of time) to complete certain objectives, and while you can use the programs at your disposal to complete the game, it really comes down to the managing of the Darwinians. If the Nintendo DS were powerful enough, Darwinia would be an almost-perfect game to make use of its touch screen.

I can’t stress this enough: Darwinia is an awesome game not only for the presentation alone, but also how unique the game is on its own. Hopefully developers/publishers will take Darwinia as an example and create games that go in a completely different direction from what is popular now and still make it an excellent game.

 

Dope Game, The (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: 89 Games || Overall: 7.0/10

It’s not too often that an RTS (real-time strategy) game can make a positive impact on the genre, and 89 Games’ Dope Game unfortunately lives up to that expectation. It’s not a game that is good to the innovation of the genre, especially when it brings a skimpy and boring “business management” aspect with it. In Dope Game, you are on a secluded piece of land on another planet. As the lone drug farmer, it is your responsibility to fend off policemen who feel that your entrepreneurial endeavors are ill-intentioned. With laser gun in hand, you’ll show the police that you’re just trying to make an honest living exporting marijuana, opium, hash, morphine, and heroin. Rather than being a theme that is interesting, it’s a theme that is meant to strike controversy rather than genuine interest. Given, there aren’t a lot of games based on drugs, but what you do in the game really doesn’t make it worth playing.

Almost too simplistic for its own good, Dope Game is technically an RTS/Action hybrid game. Unlike traditional RTS games, in which you amass units and send them at your enemies, Dope Game just uses a fairly simple amount of buildings and guard towers to build up a “base,” and when police attack you with laser guns and mechs, its up to (mainly) your defenses to thwart the threat, but until you can really afford to set up defenses, you’ll have to do the dirty work yourself (and later on, help your defenses out).

As soon as a police raid starts, the drug dealer will come out of the Headquarters and it’s up to you and how fast you can click your mouse to ward off the police. So what the game comes down to in the end is: build a base and shoot stuff. Sure there’s a little bit of strategy involved since you’ll have to increase your crops of marijuana and opium to fund your hash, morphine, and heroin production (and there isn’t too much space to actually build on for that matter), but the real challenge comes with how much money you can make in the time allotted to record the score on a high score list.

To really be rolling in the dough, you will have to play it smart, and as any RTS gamer can tell you, how you begin a new game is crucial, and Dope Game is no exception. To ramp up your cash flow, you’ll have to export as many drugs as you can so you can make enough money to make the more expensive drugs like hash, morphine, and especially heroin. All in all, it’s not too hard to get to the point, but the police raids can throw a kink in the system if you’re killed, your Headquarters is blown up, or a very important crop is destroyed in the process. Out of all the drugs available, heroin is the biggest pay off, and once you get two or three heroin production facilities up and supplied with enough opium, the rest will be simple. You can set up as many laser guard towers and missile guard towers to fend off those pesky police, more spaceships for exporting your goods, or even other heroin buildings with more opium plants to achieve money at even greater heights. The more guard towers you place, however, the more “expense” it will be to keep them running, and they will take a bite out of your profits. Of course there’s a simple solution to that, as you can just make more drugs to export each time along with more spaceships.

The goal of the whole game is to achieve the most amount of money you can in the in-game days that are given while minimizing police damage to attain that goal.

So what’s bad about the game? Not much, it’s just not anything more than a mediocre game. It runs well; the fps doesn’t have any noticeable decrease even if you have a ton of missile towers shooting at the same time. The music and sound effects aren’t horrible either, though there are only two songs, and the sound effects sound futuristic enough to believe them to be what they are. Graphics-wise, the game will not push your hardware at all, as long as you have a computer that isn’t horribly outdated.

Dope Game is OK. It’s not something that is going to make you say “wow” by any means, but if you’re in for a bit of what can be called a new experience, then it might be worth to give Dope Game a try. Though the game’s basis is all about drugs and futuristic shooting, I’d go as far as to say a kid might enjoy the shooting sequences, but it’s really nothing to get excited about.

 

Bet On Soldier: Blood Sport (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer: Kylotonn Entertainment | Publisher: Digital Jesters ||

For those of you who have yearned for a game that resembled The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger, wait no longer, as the futuristic FPS of your dreams is on its way to PC. Unlike The Running Man, however, instead of criminals fighting to the death there are famous mercenaries aiming to achieve victory for their respective corporation out to kill each other in planned matches. I think it’s safe to assume that in the future, war won’t be fought for political gains, but rather for ratings, making money, and all around entertainment for the family to enjoy. In the world of Bet On Soldier: Blood Sport, people make bets on whether or not a favored soldier can defeat another B.O.S. (Bet On Soldier) in a certain amount of time. Mercenaries hired for either side are as loyal to their employers as soldiers of the past had been to governments, and once they insert themselves into the B.O.S. TV show, they are paired off against other famous and experienced mercenaries which are reveled similarly to wrestlers. The winner will earn a sum of money according to who they defeat as well as being compensated for every other mercenary to die by their hands, not including bonuses for giving a more exciting experience by getting a head shot.

The ongoing war has no reason behind it, and is funded solely by the corporations that make money by exploiting the opportunities that arise from war. It may seem like a crappy existence for the world to be in, but it makes a heck of a situation to play a game in. Though the whole world is engrossed in this war, the game will end up taking place only in four places: Alaska, Europe, Nevada, and Cuba. It’s not so much of a loss, since it’s understandable that America and Europe would be the more “interesting” places to fight (lots of buildings and what have you). The preview copy that I played only had three missions available, and as the main character, Nolan Davenport, you proceed to kick the asses of the other Bet On Soldiers in your way. Before each mission, you are allotted with a certain amount of money to spend on equipping Nolan; a nice amount of choices are allowed for each armament. You can choose how thick your armor is, if you have a shield, type of grenades and up to four guns from different classes to carry along, all managing it within your budget (similar to CounterStrike). Instead of picking up the weapons of your enemies that are dropped to reload your stockpile, however, you have to find a reloading terminal that you can buy more ammo and repair your armor at.

Besides having to jump through hoops to get the preview to work on my computer (I had to find a missing DLL online for one), I did enjoy the game in its current state. The build that I was given had sound problems that would result in either the game crashing or the frame rate being severely impaired, and other minor problems with game play. Fortunately for me though, the game worked for the most part, even with the sound rendering on (they had a special way to turn off the sound rendering to prevent the game from crashing), which was supposedly where the problems were coming from. While the game play itself is pretty solid, it definitely needed some polishing to make it as good as the standard FPS, but the potential is definitely there. But what really impressed the heck out of me were the graphics, especially in such an early build. I judge that the graphics will definitely push the limits of your video card at its highest settings. I also predict the game will look even better by the time it’s finalized. Even as is, I’d give it a 9.9/10 for graphics — they’re that impressive. What is also very impressive is the use of lighting, and it all seems very natural. The lighting on your hands and guns will change as you change direction from the light source; “very realistic” is what can be summed up about it. Character models and attention to detail really push the game’s presentation into its amazing look. Faces look fairly real, given that they don’t really have any changing facial features or emotions to really notice, and pieces of armor fly off as they’re damaged.

Containing twenty different campaign missions (with the added bonus of what’s to be a strong story), forty different types of weapons, and forty different B.O.S. champions to challenge, the single player mode of the game should definitely satisfy an FPS fan. A multiplayer mode is also going to be included in the game which will boast for the allowance of up to 32 player games. The Betting system that is used in the single player campaign is definitely going to come into play in the multiplayer mode, as it can provide for a new multiplayer FPS experience. There will also be multiplayer-specific levels, and a lot of choices as to which weaponry to use and type of mercenary soldier you are.

In a market that has been seemingly flooded with FPS games as of late, Bet On Soldier: Blood Sport stands to emerge from the crowd with its more-or-less unique Betting system, solid game play, an interesting story, amazing graphics, and a multiplayer mode to boot. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the end product.

Bet On Soldier: Blood Sport is scheduled to be released in September 2005.

 

Battleground Europe: World War II Online (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer: Cornered Rat Software Studios | Publisher: Matrix Games

Where else is there to go with the first person shooter? EA’s Battlefield series touched upon the Massively Multiplayer Online direction that first person shooters could go in; cooperative teamwork is a major part of winning. World War II Online takes the idea of the MMOFPS further by introducing a world where a constant war wages on – at all times of the day. Everyday you can check the home page of the World War II Online website, and a new article will be displayed about the progress of the Allies or Axis, and other somewhat historical events that happened in the game world.

Although it’s still in beta, Battleground Europe boasts hordes of different vehicles and occupations to take on and help the cause of your team. With so many different objects, cities, and towns, plus the ability to travel pretty much anywhere you want around the world (which spans over 354,000 square miles), Battleground Europe seems like it could be the best MMOFPS ever created. Though right now it certainly seems that it could achieve that title, the game is still in beta, and is far from complete.

While the game seems to be coming along according to plan, the graphics are very skimpy; textures barely represent what they’re really supposed to look like. There are also aspects of the gameplay that sorely need to be improved by the time the final product comes out. First of all, the swaying action of the arms and guns really need to be toned down. Subtle motions, even if they’re unrealistic, are generally better and less distracting to the eye. Currently it seems exaggerated rather than realistic.

When it comes to vehicles, it’s hard to understand how to really even use them. You can’t just push forward; you have to switch gears or something along those lines. I couldn’t figure it out, however, because there are no help files or instructions that I could find. I see it as needlessly complicated. You also can’t get out of the vehicle you are assigned to without despawning and respawning as whatever you want; you basically are who you spawn as and nothing more.

You have to rely on others to commandeer vehicles and weaponry on the vehicles to go to the different parts of the battle, otherwise you’ll be running for quite some time without seeing any action. I also couldn’t figure out how to look at the vehicle in third person, which would make driving a lot easier.

What Battleground Europe aims to accomplish is quite possibly its strong point. If the end product ends up being as good as it seems like it could be, Battleground Europe could quite possibly be the best FPS (based in World War II at least) to come out for quite some time, moving the genre into new regions. The game could definitely appeal to those that can’t get enough of FPS games, and have an interest in how MMOGs work.

 

Absolute Blue (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Intermedia Ware || Overall: 5.5/10

Absolute Blue, seemingly a part of a recent movement by independent developers to bring back the side-scrolling space shooters, is just that: a side-scrolling space shooter made by an independent developer. Even though the game looks pretty, that doesn’t save it from the deplorable aspects of game play and absent improvements on the genre itself. While not touting the title of being a horrible game, Absolute Blue is just plain not good. Especially when there are superior space shooter-type games, like Jets’n’Guns, which is also made by an independent developer, Absolute Blue pales in comparison to the feats accomplished by such games.

For being an independent game, Absolute Blue looks excellent. However, while the screenshots for the game may give a false first impression about how good the game’s “fun factor” might be, what makes the game ultimately very frustrating and very tedious (and ultimately not very fun) is the game play and the basic controls. Maybe I was spoiled by the amazing game play and almost-flawless controls of Jets’n’Guns, but Absolute Blue really is a snore-fest to me. For the most part, there is nothing imaginative or “innovative” about the game to even consider it being anything more than an average game. The game is ridiculously linear, and in the fashion of the older games of this type from the 80s, once you die you start all over. While there is a save game function, you’re only allowed to save once you clear a full area (which contains separate levels within it), if you even get that far. Needless to say, if you have a hard time getting past the first area, you’re going to become very frustrated, as you will most likely die many-a-time, and then be forced to replay through the areas you had just gone through so that you can get to the point you had just died at before to try it again. Hopefully you won’t forget what you were supposed to do or die again, being forced to start the whole area yet again. When it gets really frustrating is if you keep dying in the first area; it seems like no progress has been done at all, as you basically restart the whole game constantly.

There’s no story. The game plops you in the middle of space, and off you go. There isn’t even any acknowledgement about what you’re supposed to do, collect, kill, or save. But, as always, it’s probably something to do with saving the universe from an evil alien race and you being the last hope. Why is it always up to us to save the universe? That’s a heavy burden to undertake if you think about it. And there are never any other aliens to help out, now that I think about it. I guess the goal of the whole game is to obtain enough parts of crystals to add up to three crystals, all done by visiting all these areas and blowing stuff up in the process (but its ridiculously easy to just not shoot everything and still get pretty far in a level). And then you use the crystals to save the universe. Maybe.

There are four areas to the game, each with their own set of levels. While you’re not able to select any of the levels to play that each area has (or even see how many there are), you must complete the levels in a linear fashion to get to the progressively harder levels, ultimately beating an area to go to another area. Only one area is available at the start, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s not good either. The selection of levels come in the form of a deep space/asteroid place, a weird black log (what I can only assume to be a spaceship), a brown planet, and one white planet. That sure is a scenic tour, considering the aliens who are attacking are attacking the whole universe. Of course, you can see the reason behind the aliens’ interest in each of the areas you fight them in, especially the deep space void that has a bunch of random spiked walls and floors randomly floating around or a big black log in the middle of space. Yes, I know it’s not supposed to be realistic, but I can’t help not thinking about it.

As I said before, the graphics are nice. However, the enemies you encounter aren’t very imaginative or interesting. The enemy’s projectiles, most being small red balls, can also be too hard to see since they are usually very small and blend in with the background too much. Even your enemies are hard to see because they blend in too well with the background.

The Dearth of Good Things

So, what else besides the graphics are actually good about this game? Well, they do get some things right when it comes to the game.

There are the usual things, such as a health bar, lives, and the purpose of the game being to obtain points. While you get points for just destroying an enemy, more often than not, they will release a floating orb with a number on it that, when collected, gives you extra points. There are obstacles in the game that utilize timing and the scrolling of the screen, or what I like to call “screen crunchers.” As levels progress, the scrolling speeds up, forcing you to think fast, or slows down, allowing you to deal with an obstacle/problem.

On the ship enhancement side of things, there are your standard power ups and speed ups. There are also power down and speed downs, so there are certain decisions you have to make (whether or not it’s worth it) to try and get a power up or if you should sacrifice one of your power levels to get through an area easier. There are also satellites that have different kinds of firing characteristics that can be found through levels so that you can kick ass easier. When holding down the firing command for the satellites, you can’t use your ship’s regular weaponry because they’re only used once for every fire key press. Unless you press the fire key a lot, you’re basically using one or the other, depending on the type of satellite, however.

The soundtrack is also a good part of the game, as it is very electronica-oriented, and goes well with the space setting, as well as the levels you’re in. Though there are crappy-sounding voices used in the game at random times, they sort of fit with the songs, almost sounding as if they are part of the song that is playing since they have a little bit of a European accent to them.

A nice part about the game is that it gives you the freedom of using a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, or even a joystick with force feedback. But these good control preference choices quickly turn into bad things.

The Abundance of Bad Things

Let’s start at the beginning. When you boot up the game, there’s a long start-up time. You’ll be sitting there for a while watching the load bar slowly fill up. There’s a lot of “decrunching,” whatever that means. Besides that, once you start up the game you’re not able to adjust volume while you’re in the game or it will crash. If your speakers have a volume adjustment, you can do it from there with no problem, but if you’re doing it from your keyboard and not in the options for the game, then it will most certainly crash. But, it could just be a problem that arises from the kind of computer I have and not necessarily so for others. The fact of the matter is that it happens, and that’s not good. Another slight annoyance is that there isn’t a quick exit from the game. The only way to exit is if you go to the title screen and select exit game. It can take up to around a minute to get to depending on what screen you’re at in the game. They also disabled the use of Alt-F4 for the sake of forcing you to go to the title screen to exit. How convenient is that? You can always go to the Ctrl-Alt-Delete box and end the program if it really comes down to it, I suppose. Aside from all of those issues, is the fact that the frame rate drops when a lot of explosions or actions happen on the screen.

First and foremost, however, the control issues drag this game down from being as good as it could (and should) be. Even on easy mode, the game can be challenging, mostly due to the control issues, not because of the difficulty of the game. Though you are given a wide array of options to chose to control your ship with, those of us without a joystick are left with either the keyboard or mouse control options. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The keyboard is harder to use than the mouse for shooting because of the simple fact that each time you push down the fire key, one shot comes out. That means you’ll be hitting your space bar or ctrl key a lot. However, switching the control preference over to your mouse brings up another problem, as it becomes very hard to move your ship fast enough and far enough to really warrant its use. This mostly happens because there is no mouse sensitivity gauge in the options. Unfortunately, there are no keyboard/mouse hybrid controls either, so you’re either stuck with one or the other, which will most likely be the keyboard because moving is a very important part of the game. This also leaves another problem, because even the keyboard isn’t perfect when it comes to controlling your ship, as one millisecond longer of holding the key could mean certain death for your ship. Even if you have full health, if you accidentally miscalculate and graze the floor or a spiked wall, your ship will blow up instantly, only adding to the frustration of the game, since there are many times where they have “screen cruncher” obstacles that will result in your instant death.

I also found it interesting that as you progressively got higher levels of weaponry, your back fire weapons seem to have more power than the front ones. The front weaponry itself isn’t very strong (unless you have a satellite with you, but that’s not very often) because the lasers shoot in almost all the directions you can think of except for what’s most useful: forward. Most of your shots will hit a wall rather than an enemy, making power ups not really as valuable as how fast you can hit the fire key. It leaves to the imagination why someone would make a ship that fired stronger, more concentrated blasts behind instead of through the front. It also left to the imagination why the programmers thought that was a good enough idea to put in the game.

Absolute Blue has no real redeeming qualities to it, and with a similarly priced game, which outclasses it in every way already out there (namely Jets’n’Guns), you shouldn’t waste your time with Absolute Blue, unless you’re really up for a frustrating challenge.

 

Close Combat: First to Fight (PC) Review

Developer: Destineer / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.8/10

With the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has recently been quite an upsurge of FPS’s that take place in the Middle East. Close Combat: First to Fight takes its place among the many recent FPS titles that allow you to shoot at radical Arabs. In this striving-to-be-realistic shooter, you take on the role of a Marine lance corporal (put simply, the leader) in a four person squad of America’s few and proud. The game is based on imagined “occurrences” taking place in Lebanon, in the distant year of 2006. You will play an important part in resolving the problems between Lebanese radicals and the Syrians who help them.

First to Fight will take you through building after building and street after street, gunning down these stereotypically radical Arabs with turbans and beards, who shoot at you with AK-47 bootlegs called AK-74s, all while yelling in Arabic, or rather what they try to pass off as Arabic; it’s mostly just incoherent yelling. With the help of forty U.S. Marines fresh out of battle from Iraq, First to Fight claims to be so realistic that the Marines use it as a training tool. Given this logic, however, one could say that Pac-Man could also be used as a training tool for the Marines. Fact of the matter is, I doubt very seriously that First to Fight is actually used for training; while it tries to be realistic, it’s really not. It even says on the box it’s not approved, endorsed or authorized by the Marine Corps or any other component of the Department of Defense, which isn’t surprising, because First to Fight is not realistic enough that it could be used as a “training tool,” despite it’s claims.

The main goal of First to Fight was to be a realistic representation of how real-life U.S. Marines operate in battle. With a few squad-based commands, you’ll go around shooting your 3-shot-burst rifle, raiding rooms, killing enemies using truck-mounted machine guns (realistically, with no recoil), all while being jealous at the fact the other member in your squad gets the cool gun. This is hardly a realistic representation. While the settings they put you in look fairly “realistic,” they also look like they could be the slums of a poor European city, especially after a few buildings were bombed out. If the Arabs were replaced with Nazis, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe this were a World War II game.

As mentioned before, First to Fight utilizes squad-based tactics as you make your way through the urban landscape. While it’s not purely command-based in the way you can utilize your squad SOCOM, in how you can send your team members to location points and all sorts of different advanced commands to complete the mission, you can give your Marines a few commands mainly consisting of Suppress, Cover, Take Down, and Frag Take Down. Suppress is usually used when you want to travel across a hot zone full of gunfire. When you enable this command, your Saw gunner (the guy with the really good gun) will start shooting in no particular direction, clearing the way for you to move across to another part of the area in conflict to get a better shot at the radicals. Cover is another tactic used to help you reposition yourself, but instead of firing in random directions, all of your squad members will stay in the place they are and make sure you make it across safely. Take Down and Frag Take Downs are used when you’re in a building, and is used very often when you want to clear a room you’re about to go in. In a regular Take Down, your marines will storm in and shoot everything they can. In a Frag Take Down, they’ll toss a grenade into the room, letting it explode and then charge in with guns-a-blazing. Using these four commands will be the only times you really have to control your marines. The rest of the time, the marvelous AI will take control of your marines, helping you shoot down those crazy radicals, most of the time taking more of the kills than you do. In the end, First to Fight tries to give off the impression that it is more complex than normal FPS games by having seemingly complicated explanations as to how your units work, but you learn within your first hour of playing that it doesn’t really matter you have a squad with you.

Starting a new campaign game will take you through “training levels” of sort in which tutorial videos are played to teach you about a particular aspect of the game. While there’s only a couple of these, the first one is fairly long, clocking in at about five minutes. The intro-tutorial video teaches you all about how the Marine squad operates, naming all the positions of the different people in the squad, and how they are automatically programmed to do things like Marines do (such as go down the sides of streets instead of down the middle). The tutorial video also makes it clear that your squad members are smarter than you when it comes to playing the game, so you really don’t have to help them every step of the way through your mission. While your squad-members do help out a lot, you tend to feel like a babysitter, healing your members when they need it, and always making sure they’re near you so you don’t risk losing two and failing the mission.

There is the option to request help from other Marine forces in the area, as you’re given a limited amount of times in which you can call in for an air strike or a sniper to help you out with a situation (as if they’ll only give you the favor a limited amount of times, not because they want you to finish the mission or anything).

The story is delivered through “news broadcasts” by the International News Network (which seems to be run by the British). This gives the feeling that you are playing the game on a “global” level rather than an individual level, while keeping up with the developments of what happens in the fictitious divergence. Consequently, you don’t actually have a story with the marines you impersonate. There is no drastic turn of plot events like the Marines disobeying orders and going into a dangerous part of town that hasn’t been secured yet in a valiant effort to be proclaimed as heroes, or anything that may have made an interesting story. Basically, all you do in the game is receive orders to go somewhere. After you get there, you shoot some guys to “secure” the area, then rinse and repeat. If you get a kick out of shooting people who pop out of doorways or from behind objects like a jack-in-the-box screaming fake Arabic, then get ready to have the time of your life, because that’s all this game is.

Even the most basic game play mechanics aren’t flawless. Too often when I walk around I feel like I’m tripping over something. The regular movement is very slow consequently, and if you decide to “sprint” there is an over-exaggerated swaying of the camera from left to right, making it difficult to really see where you’re going. You’re usually stuck with hobbling around with a floating gun. Although it is nice that they added it, melee attacks have no use at all. Using a melee attack grants no particularly advantage to its use, as you have plenty of ammo already to give out to the needy, and there are plenty of AK-74s lying around to pick up and use for yourself. There are also too many different commands on the keyboard for you to remember, probably more than what should have been necessary.

Keeping true to the games “realistic” approach, it doesn’t take too many hits for you to be killed. Also keeping true to this aspect, your enemies will randomly disappear! I wouldn’t have mentioned the enemies disappearing had it not happened more than four times (that I noticed) while I was shooting in their general direction, only to find that I had somehow vaporized them with my rifle bullets. I didn’t think the American military was THAT advanced. But the AI itself isn’t all that great to begin with. While the AI provides a fair challenge, (mostly due to the fact they look exactly like they’re surroundings) and because it doesn’t take much to kill you to begin with, you may run into some situations where you become careless, die and restart at the last checkpoint you passed. Quite often, the AI will stare at you for nearly a minute before deciding to do anything, making them very easy targets.

Despite all that I’ve said already, the presentation of the game isn’t bad. I found the music to be well-composed, lending a good feeling to the “modern-combat.” Even though this is a Middle Eastern-themed game, there is no Middle Eastern-sounding music in the background. Instead, it focuses on the triumphant “we’re-going-to-kill-you” feeling you should get from a FPS. The graphics also aren’t half-bad. While they definitely aren’t the greatest I’ve seen, they’re above average for a PC game. When you crank up the settings to their most advanced, you will have some nice visuals to look at. The settings show quite a bit of detail, and really make you feel as if you’re in a war-forlorn area. A downside to this; the minimum requirements to run First to Fight are quite demanding. With the requirements of a 1.3Ghz Pentium III, 256 mb RAM, 32 mb video card, broadband for multiplayer and 2.8 gb of hard drive space, your computer will have to be nearly top of the line to play without any slowdown with all the settings cranked up. On a side note, loading takes about an average amount of time, but most of the time it’s fairly quick.

I’m not sure how big of an importance multiplayer takes with First to Fight (even though it is an important aspect of all FPSes). Being squad-based, it doesn’t seem to me like it’d be realistic for people to follow all the rules your AI squad-members would adhere to. With two multiplayer modes, Four Man Co-Op and Head-to-Head, Four Man Co-Op seems to provide the only good mode to play this game online. If you like the single player missions included in the game, you’ll get through them about four times faster since there’ll be four guys running around the game shooting all the crazy Arabs they can find. If you wanted to play Head-to-Head, the urban settings found in the game could provide for some fun.

Oddly, I found the shooting of endless hordes of zombies in Deadhunt much more fun than playing this game. While First to Fight has a few good points about it, it does not live up to what it claims it is, and is “realistically” only a less than average FPS. Possibly the greatest fault of the game is the price tag it totes: an MSRP of $39.99. If the game were priced for a budget release, maybe half of what it is currently, this game could be worth a look to the FPS enthusiast.

 

Hellgate: London (PC) E3 2005 Preview

Developer: Flagship Studios | Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

I had the pleasure of being invited to an appointment to check out Namco’s new PC games today at E3. The games I had seen were Mage Knight Apocalypse, and Warhammer, and Hellgate: London. Namco’s goal in their expansion to the PC market is to create new franchises that aren’t featured on consoles, to give the made-for-PC attitude in their upcoming PC games. Mage Knight Apocalypse was available in a playable form, but Warhammer was just shown as a trailer. The only game I had actually gotten hands on with was Hellgate: London.

The version of Hellgate: London that is on the E3 floor was still in development, but it had a lot of elements already added in the game for playing. The actual story for Hellgate: London is fairly simple. Being set 20 years in the future, demons come from Hell and you have to stop them as part of the last surviving humans on the Earth. Similar to adventure games with RPG elements, Hellgate: London stresses character development and increasing the abilities of your character and his weaponry. In this respect, the game becomes very unique when it integrates its weaponry choices. There are many different kinds of guns and melee weapons, that you can create different combinations of in both of your hands. The only melee weapons currently in the game are swords, but a representative of the development team said that they will be including different kinds of weapons, such as a cricket bat, so that you can kill things in a style that you want. From what I’ve seen, there are rifles and pistols that have futuristic kinds of ammo/uses, some in an almost magical way. The rifle that I saw (almost similar to how a shotgun works) unleashes white balls of light that spread out among the area and create a lot of damage, though not very accurate. The rifle works really well when there’s a large group of zombies, demonic creatures, or other enemies. The pistols aren’t anything too out of the ordinary from what I saw, but the kinds of ammo they have are unique. You can upgrade your weaponry as you collect more weapons, and also equip more items to your body, changing your character’s appearance.

Hellgate: London is not a pure first person shooter; rather it uses a combination of first and third person views. It is useful in some cases to use the first person view, and also switch out of it to the third person view to get a look more at what’s around you. The first person view can only be used when you have only guns (meaning no combination of a gun in one hand a melee weapon in the other), because using melee weapons in first person is hard to use, and wasn’t included. I had asked the member of the developer team (who was the art director) whether or not that would be included. He said it might not be, because it was undecided whether or not they would put that in. Through my experience with playing a game called Thief, which used first person melee attacks, it was hard to function. In this regard, the ability to switch between perspectives is a very much welcomed aspect. He also mentioned that Shops would take a big part in the game, though they haven’t been included yet. Shops would be used to sell the items you gather and save your game when you visit. Some sort of a quest-structure is to also be included in the game, so that the game can move along when playing single player. The RPG elements, the concept of modding weaponry, and the beat-em-and-shoot-em-up feeling you get from the game can appeal to a broad audience of PC gamers, as it reaches a middle-ground between FPS and a game like Everquest.

While the game takes place in London, there are two parts to the game: above ground and underground. All the maps are generated randomly, so you’ll never go into the same area again, as the main purpose of the game is just to develop your character in classic RPG style. Upon the question of whether or not there would be multiplayer included in the game, the art director said they haven’t included it in the game, but they do want to put it in. If there are the standard types of competitive online game modes we’ve seen with most first person shooters and having some sort of a quest mode be played co-operatively.

The actual version that I had played was quite impressive. For being Flagship Studios’ first game and a part of Namco’s first wave of PC titles, I was very impressed by how good the graphics looked; the game was very fluid for being in an early stage of development. The development team did an amazing job in creating the settings and areas. The ruined look of a city ravaged by demons, gave the actual feeling that if a demon invasion happened in the real world, it would look just like they had portrayed it. The art director told me that as you progress through the game, enemies get tougher, weapons get better and more improvements are available for your character.

I have no doubt that Hellgate: London will not disappoint. I came out of E3 today looking forward to being able to play more of the game and to see how it turns out more than any other game I had looked at while I was there, mostly because of how well the development was going in such an early stage. The release date for Hellgate: London is to be determined, so whether or not it will be released this year or next year is left to question.