Micro Machines V4 (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Codemasters || Overall: 7.0/10

Micro Machines V4 from Codemasters is a follow-up to the somewhat popular mini-car racer Micro Machines V3. In a Micro Machines game, one races through courses that are a little bit unconventional to your regular racer, for the fact that you’re actually racing around on things like pool tables, kitchen counters, sand pits, gutters, and other locations of the sort. Quite simply being the best part about Micro Machines V4 itself, the courses are very interesting and arcade-like. However, an arcade racer wouldn’t be complete without power-ups and weapons, and Micro Machines V4 is no exception. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the game, but where it lacks is depth in the gameplay that will motivate you to keep playing the game. Not to mention it can get very frustrating.

Micro Machines V4 is a typical racing game in that you dive right in. Much of the game is focused on three different types of modes that can be played: Race, Checkpoint, and Battle. Race mode is your typical racing game; quite simply you beat your opponents doing whatever you can as you make it to the finish line after three laps. Checkpoint is more like a time-trial mode in that you try and get the best time you can going around a certain race track twice, except you have to make it to the next checkpoint before counter runs out. Battle is by far the most fun part about the game, and the goal is to simply beat the crap out of your opponents, laying traps, shooting missiles, and leaving them in your dust – you have to either eliminate your enemies or get far enough ahead of them in your race around the track to get a point. Once you get enough points in Battle mode, you’ll win. By playing through the game in a Tournament, you can unlock new modes, tracks, and collect more cars for your garage. The cars you keep in your garage can be used for trading with other people online so that you can get other kinds of cars. You can also play the game in an online multiplayer mode.

The graphics in the game aren’t too bad. In fact, the frame rate is almost a solid 60 FPS with very little slowdown. As you make your way through the track, the camera follows your car from far away and makes very smooth reframes, creating a cinematic sort of feel to the game. For some reason, the steady frame rate makes the game a lot more bearable than it probably should be, considering the gameplay itself is very unbalanced (even during the “Rookie” division!) and can be horribly frustrating, making the early stages of a race vital and requiring that you execute each race flawlessly. Though the game is on the PC, it’s clearly made for use with a controller, and can make things a lot easier, if not, more fun in the very least. Sound effects are quite annoying, there is always the high motor whine of the little Micro Machines as they zoom along the edge of the kitchen sink and get stuck in the blender, but with the sound off this problem will simply disappear. Music in the game isn’t very impressionable either.

There aren’t any “extras” that are actually included in the game right out of the box, the reason being that “microtransactions” do take their place in the game – at least in the PC version. To unlock certain bonuses in the PC version, you must go online and register your copy of the game with Codemasters, and proceed to pay a fee for the codes that are used to unlock the extras and different modes. Obviously, it’s kind of ridiculous to have to pay extra for things that are already on the disc, and clearly a way to squeeze the consumer’s wallet on this one. However, the extras that are available to be bought aren’t exactly vital, even though it would be nice to have them…hence their “extra” status.

Micro Machines V4 is a fun game to waste a few hours with every once in a while, but past that, there’s not much to enjoy. Balance issues make the game as a whole very disconcerting, giving a slant towards only wanting to play the Battle mode, as it is the more overly balanced mode in the game. Fans of the series might be a little bit disappointed, since not much in the formula was actually improved between each game. What MMV4 boils down to is your average arcade racer that has the unique status of being a game with miniature cars racing through everyday environments.

 

Red Jets (PC) Review

Developer: InterActive Vision | Publisher: Graffiti Entertainment || Overall: 2.6/10

Editor’s Note: the following article is our reviewer’s account of his attempts to install and play Red Jets. At the request of the publisher, GamersMark would like to clarify that at no point was our reviewer actually able to play Red Jets.

The least satisfying part of white-water rafting down the Nukutaku rapids 12,000 feet above sea level is when the guy right behind you in the raft gets sick to his stomach and vomits on you, and it drips down your life jacket and you can feel it every time you move. At least, that’s what I’ve been told, because I’m terrified of flying anywhere, and if I did manage to walk (not over any bridges) to white-water rapids, I’d be too afraid to hop in the raft for fear of drowning/vomiting on someone.

I’m much more the armchair type. I sit in a comfortable armchair, install Microsoft White Water Rafting Simulator ’98 (the apex of the genre, in my expert opinion), and hit the “vomit” button over and over again until my character passes out from dehydration. As an aside, I’m fairly sure that there are entire fetish magazines devoted to this very scenario in Amsterdam. Of course, why shouldn’t there be? Sometimes, a man just wants to vomit his way into unconsciousness.

And this is precisely what happens when he installs Red Jets, the hip new combat flight simulator (which, for my money is no MS WWRS ’98) from developer InterActive Vision. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I haven’t played this game. It might be great fun. The idea of pulling massive Gs and doing a barrel roll shortly before screaming “GOOOOOOOOSE!” and shooting down like thirty tangos with a slingshot is pretty thrilling. But installing Red Jets is an exercise in vomiting on the guy in front of you while simultaneously being vomited on by the guy behind you.

You see, upon inserting the CD into my computer, the autoplay mechanism started the install process. This is normal. The setup.exe file hard-locked my computer and I was forced to reboot. This is not normal. When I restarted and double-clicked on the setup.exe file, my computer locked up again. My third attempt was to copy the file onto my hard drive and try the setup file from a different location, because perhaps I had incurred some vile “bad mojo” (the technical term) that had secured itself in my CD-ROM tray.

Finally, I was able to run the installer, and I was greeted with the traditional EULA screen. For one reason or another, I skimmed the first paragraph, which I can only assume was written by a Nigerian scam artist, as it was of dubious grammar and unending capital letters. “MOST WISE PURCHASER,” it began, “WE WILL LICENSE THIS GAME TO YOUR PERSON ONLY UNDER ALL THESE TERMS.” It went on to say that if I did not accept all the terms of the agreement, I should return the unopened CD at once.

When my “oh god I’m surrounded by idiots” laugh subsided, I had enough presence of mind to check the manual: perhaps this was just making sure I had a chance to read the terms. Sadly, my first impression was correct. I had to insert the CD into my computer to find out the license terms, and if I did not accept those terms, I was to return the unopened CD. Of course, everyone ignores those terms, but after my problems just trying to run the installer, I felt like I had wandered into an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life.

The game was finally successfully installed; exhausted, I walked off to do something more entertaining than attempting to outwit a game into letting me install it, like hammering nails into my thighbone and seeing how many I could do before I passed out. When I awoke in a pool of my own blood, I went back to Red Jets like a beaten spouse who desperately wants children and says to herself “maybe he hits me because he really loves me; maybe when we have children, he’ll stop.” Maybe, just maybe, I would find happiness instead of an unwanted cameo on Cops, sobbing on my front lawn with mascara running down my face as Officer Moustache asks me over and over if I want to press charges.

I sat down at my chair, again, and double-clicked the Red Jets icon. SecuROM, the game’s copy protection tool, informed me that I was using a duplicate CD, and that I ought to insert the real CD into my drive if I wanted to play. I contemplated burning my apartment to the ground and painting pagan symbols of ancient woe on my body with the ashes of my computer, but then I decided it might violate my lease. So, I followed SecuROM’s instructions for making sure my drive wasn’t malfunctioning.

Sadly, the instructions were written for a different version of Windows, as my version of Device Manager had none of the options or tabs listed by SecuROM’s walkthrough. That’s okay – I was fourteen six months ago once, and I know where to find what are referred to as “crackz” and “warez.” Yes, that’s right, dear reader. Such is my devotion to reviewing this game for you that I ventured into that unseemly corner of the internet to hack my way into this goddamn game for you.

Of course, the crack was for version 1.0 of the game, and I have, well, not version 1.0. So I never did play Red Jets, but I did look at the box art and skim the instruction manual. What follows is my review for Red Jets.

Do you like to fly around and shoot down enemy planes in an adrenaline-fueled dogfight with tracers lighting up your plane like a piñata on Christmas Eve? Dodging missiles like they were phone calls from one-night stands and pulling so many Gs that your testicles touch your toes more authoritatively than you have since you were 8? Well, for the love of all that is good and holy in this world, buy something else, because this game is not for you.

The graphics in this game are probably pretty good, but the screenshots on the back of the box look kind of muddy, like someone didn’t know how to resize a JPG file or something. That’s a pretty easy concept, so I wouldn’t trust InterActive Vision to be able to do the complicated stuff like vertex shaders or volumetric smoke or installation. There were a lot of things the manual had to explain about the HUD, and I think the game would probably have been a little more fun if it were easier to pick up and start flying, but fighter jets are kind of complicated, so it’s forgivable. Still, the screenshots in the manual were even more fuzzy than the ones on the box, so that didn’t help their case.

There were a lot of files in the “sound” folder, so I’m going to assume that they put a lot of effort into the music and sound effects of missiles screeching by you. It was probably pretty exciting. As for the controls, well, those were just laughable. I mean, I kept hitting the “eject” button, but I still had to reach down and hit the button on my drive. I think I kept dropping F-bombs, which seemed to do a lot of environmental damage, because my dog keeps running away from me now. Overall, the game is a pretty lousy value, because installing games is the least fun part of actually playing them, even if that is the big challenge.

In conclusion, thanks for wasting my time, InterActive Vision. Your game makes a fine coaster, and your manual kept me and my family warm during the first cold snap of the new year – the cheap ink used on the pages burns long and brightly.

(Note: this game, while a triumph of incompetence, still receives a higher score than The Star and The Crescent, purely out of spite.)

 

Star and the Crescent, The (PC) Review

Developer: ProSIM Company | Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 2.5/10

Some guy in some movie with guns and really handsome actors pretending to be ordinary soldiers once said “war is hell.” Which, as I’ve been told, is pretty accurate. I mean, sure, it looks good when Matt Damon shoots some guy in the face, but any soldier who has been there will tell you that war is long stretches of boredom broken up by brief moments of sheer terror. Kinda like spending Thanksgiving with your girlfriend’s family: you can’t really remember why you signed up to be there, the person next to you won’t stop yelling, and some morbid part of your brain hopes that a lunatic in a fighter jet will drop napalm on your location and end your misery.

But I digress.

The Star and The Crescent is ProSIM Company’s newest tactical simulation for the die-hard war-game aficionado. Published by Shrapnel Games, it comes with the brazen proclamation that the realism of their game is such that both a helmet and flak jacket ought to be included in the package – fortunately for my local postal carrier, there’s just the manual and the installation CD. It zeros its sights, compensates for windage and bullet drop, leads it target, and shoots for realism: is The Star and The Crescent a hit?

Set in the Middle East, The Star and The Crescent offers players the chance to step into the boots of an officer in the Israeli army, commanding platoons, companies, and brigades of tanks and infantry in epic battles against a variety of foes. When you first start the game, you can begin one of the four campaigns ranging from the historic (like the Yom Kippur War) to the future (now try to imagine that there might be a war in the Middle East sometime this century). In keeping with the other Armored Task Force-engine games, when you’ve completed all the missions the game comes with, you can import new scenarios and continue the carnage; similarly, the included mission builder gives the game virtually unlimited re-playability.

The actual game boasts unparalleled realism. Before you even move your tanks, you have the option to set no fewer than eleven different formations, nine different ammunition types, and commit each of your units to ten different varieties of fire mission from “company attack to breach” to “platoon breach.” Your troops are arranged quite authentically in heirarchies denoted with real military abbreviation like “2/3 Bde / 11th Ugda,” and instead of graphics for any of the tanks or jeeps or soldiers, the actual N.A.T.O. symbols are used.

Cartographically speaking, you get your choice between a topographical or geographical map. You have your pick of eight different Standard Operation Procedures, governing how your units react to enemy contact. You can control each platoon separately, plotting out assigned paths down to the individual tank if you choose, or create custom hierarchies among your companies with brigades of units hand-picked to compliment one another, taking into consideration seemingly obscure factors like the reverse speed of a T72 Main Battle Tank, or the turning radius of a jeep when affixed with a 104mm rocket launcher.

Now, this next part is important. I have absolutely no idea what I said in those last two paragraphs. None. I spent hours trying to decipher the manual enough to follow along with the tutorial, but there’s a certain level of knowledge that is presupposed by the game designers. For instance, I had no idea which was bigger, a platoon or a company. The manual doesn’t bring it up at all. Further, that whole military abbreviation stuff, like “2/2 Bde / 12th Ugda” – I haven’t a clue what any of those numbers mean. I’m pretty sure that Bde stands for “brigade,” but the rest of it’s a mystery.

And while Wikipedia can be of some use for simple questions like whether a platoon is made of companies or vice versa, and while I don’t mind a game that’s going to teach me new things about stuff I’m not knowledgeable about (hello Gran Turismo), there’s only so much you can excuse from being absent in the manual. In a game that touts the ability to devise your own companies out of platoons and units from other companies, please, guys: don’t skimp on the explanation. Some of us didn’t go through boot camp. Now it’s not like these are all arcane concepts that are beyond comprehension: no military designs a command structure to be incomprehensible to those within it. The manual is, to put it bluntly, woefully inadequate.

If you’ve ever played one of ProSIM’s games on the ATF engine, you’ll be pretty well-prepared. For one, you may have already called your local armed forces recruiting office for some much needed explication. Or, if you’re halfway through a furious email to me, explaining the difference between an all-out enfilade and an entrenched defilade, you’re probably sleeping with a loaded AK-47 under your pillow more than ready to play this game. And hell, the manual isn’t completely useless – like the Rosetta Stone, someone of a keener intellect and sharper wit than myself could probably make use of it. But a game of this magnitude and complexity absolutely needs to have a much better helping hand for new players.

But really, you don’t play a game with your nose in the manual forever, so let’s move on to the other travesties of The Star and The Crescent. The next sentence is one that all the die-hard fans and the designers and the publishers and my grandmother who can’t even turn on a computer will see coming. The graphics are horrible. Now, I spent the better part of my afternoon today playing Final Fantasy for the original NES. I prefer the original X-COM to any other title in the series. I prefer an obscure and graphically sub-par boxing game to any Fight Night on any console. My last review was a glowing endorsement of a 2D side-scroller without a polygon in sight. I am not a 16x AA/AS diva, nor do I thump my chest and cry for HDR and the omnipresent Bloom in today’s titles. My point is that I firmly believe in gameplay superseding graphics. But oh. My. God. These graphics are horrible.

ProSIM has always focused their effort on creating sophisticated AI (more on this later), a ridiculously robust damage modeling system, and simply the deepest military sim I’ve ever seen. It was a monumental task, and all Armored Task Force-engine games bear the proud heritage of the process. But the graphics are unbelievably dated and present a further challenge in surmounting the already steep learning curve that poor documentation creates.

Blue boxes are the good guys, and red boxes are the bad guys. Got it. How do I tell all my blue guys apart? Some of them have ovals, some of them have ovals with dots, or ovals with a slash, or ovals with two slashes. Some other ones have three dots above the box, which probably means they’re captains or corporals or commanders or something. I dunno. To add to the realism, and so that the player may further appreciate the skill of the commanders in the actual historical battles represented in The Star and The Crescent, the icons you’ll use are the real N.A.T.O. symbols. This means they don’t make any sense.

Eventually, I got it down, but I’m a gamer. Call me a prima donna, but ever since 1988 or so, I’ve been spoiled by software that tries to represent an object’s function with its appearance. The Star and The Crescent thumbs its nose at this convention, and the learning curve suffers for it. That’s okay, right? Just remember that you’re the blue guys and you want the red guys to die, right? Sadly, no. Because the unit/formation icons, as unwieldy as they are, actually look good compared to interface. Graphically, the interface is a series of all but unintelligible 16x16px buttons lined up in a single bar that grows and shrinks when you press certain buttons. Confused? Wait till you actually try using it.

Firstly, as I said, the buttons are too small. The minimum requirements for this game are a 700 Mhz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and Windows 95. On a computer that old, the screen resolution would be adequate for 16x16px buttons. But on a computer built in this millennium, you’ll want to turn down your resolution while playing so you can actually see the buttons. Of course, you’d probably do about as well squinting like Great Aunt Gertrude doing needlepoint at the buttons: they suffer from the same sort of graphical malaise that your unit icons do. When you can see them, however, the buttons do a good job of representing functions for the most part. And really, I can’t blame ProSIM for not knowing how to express “defilade” in 256 pixels. Hell, I didn’t even know what it means, so even if they could represent it in a tiny little icon, it’d be lost on me.

This brings me to the least excusable facet of The Star and The Crescent yet: the interface. Say for the sake of argument, that you actually figure out which blue boxes are which, and you’re the world’s greatest tactical genius, who could actually pull off a land war in Asia. None of that matters, because the interface to this game feels like an afterthought. It’s a brilliant piece of work, really: there’s a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, and I’d love to take a peak at the source code and see what this tactical orchestra of precision calculation is doing while it’s busy destroying my tanks over and over. But when you play this game, you get the sense that all the programmers signed up to design the game engine, and afterwards, they realized that one of them might actually have to design and interface and they all drew straws to determine the unlucky sod.

Simply put, I have never played a game with more than sixteen colors that has a less intuitive interface, full stop. At some point, it’s probably true that I’ve played a game with an even more incomprehensible means of controlling the action, but I find it hard to believe it was in either of the last two decades. Here we are in the year 2006, I have 104 keys on my keyboard, I have 8 buttons on my mouse, and I have almost two million pixels of screen real estate at your disposal, gentlemen. Please, please, please spend more than an afternoon designing and implementing an interface.

I love the idea of being able to custom-craft missions for my units, and the ability to copy-paste unit paths amongst all your units is mercifully well thought-out, but the actual implementation feels like a cold, uncaring spouse that has slowly grown apart from you over the years; she no longer cares about what you want, because fifteen years ago you forgot to call before you were going to be late coming home from the office, and now she’s convinced you’ve been cheating on her, so she goes out of her way to “forget” that you asked her for whole milk, and not this skim milk bullshit every week for the last decade.

If it seems like I’m harboring a grudge, I am. The interface is beyond counter-intuitive, the manual was crafted in an alien tongue, and the graphics looked bad when I was still in puberty. If you’ve been paying attention, all of these are not problems for real generals experienced players. But if you’re new, by now the learning “curve” is about as curvy as Lindsay Lohan on a coke binge running the Boston Marathon (i.e. not), and you’re banging your head against your monitor, screaming “Why?! Why didn’t you shoot? Why did you just drive up to them? Oh god the agony!” And the game has one last brick through your living room window for you.

The A.I. is vicious. While you’re trying to learn how to actually play (not how to win, how to actually play), the computer is going to make the strongest possible case that you should never be drafted and put in command of anything more complex than a dishwasher. And a damn fine case it is. Remember that “land war in Asia” crack? I think the computer could do just fine where Napoleon and Hitler failed: there is an absolutely savage beatdown that it’ll place on your units. Get ready to write thousands of letters home to some very distraught ladies, and tell them why Little Johnny is coming home in a box, because this game is hard. Having defeated poor gameplay design, lackadaisical (at best) graphics, a manual that’s little more help than a solar-powered umbrella, and the toughest A.I. this side of Deep Blue, the satisfaction you get from beating even the tutorial is unparalleled.

The bottom line? This game is not for you unless you have never played a strategy game worthy of your clearly superhuman tactical forebrain. This game is not for you if you’ve ever put down a strategy game for having too many damage tables to remember. This game is not for you if you do not seriously entertain notions of enlisting for the armed forces and studying four hundred years of tactical theory and practice. But if you’ve played ProSIM’s games before, and you know what you’re getting into, this is more of the same (unpolished) gem that you know and love, with an authentic historical vibe that can’t be beat. Of course, if this is your first foray into the world of ruthless military sims by ProSIM, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Defcon (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer/Publisher: Introversion Software ||

Defcon is the newest game from UK developer Introversion Software. Introversion has already established a great reputation with Darwinia making Defcon a game to look forward to. Defcon is nuclear war on a global scale – you pick your country and your alliance with the intent of defeating those who aren’t aligned with you.

Defcon takes place on the world stage. While the game is real-time, it looks like it also integrates some aspects of traditional turn-based games to give the game a different flavor. The thing that instantaneously sets this game apart from other strategy games is the unique graphical style. Anyone who has played Darwinia, will instantly see the relation between the two games’ visual styles – which look like enhanced “retro” graphics.

The game itself takes place in a time where the world’s super powers are entrenched in all-out thermonuclear war. For those who have seen the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick, this game is basically based off of the idea in the movie in which Broderick’s character hacks into a military computer and initiates a “war game” simulation. When I saw that movie for the first time, I thought the prospect of being able to actually play a game that looks like what happened in WarGames would be an exciting experience – an experience that has become a reality with Defcon. Multiplayer gaming is pretty much the key to the game, though you can play the game against bots. A tutorial mode is included as well. The game promises to be easy to learn yet hard to win.

One of the main aspects of the game is that it is very minimal by nature. Your units, countries, missile silos and all other components of the game are represented by simple shapes. There are barely any real sound effects except for slight rumblings when nuclear bombs go off, all taking place while ambient music plays. The game feels like its quiet when it actually isn’t.

Defcon is currently scheduled to release in September 2006.

 

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.