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D Michael @malignantpoodle

Reviews

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (Windows)

Would be great, if it were not broken.

The Good
Warhammer Online, WAAAGGH as the orcs might say, is the latest, ambitious endeavor into the Warhammer universe. As for myself, I’m completely new to this long running fantasy realm, but not to MMORPG’s. So having said that, forgive me while we trade my lack of knowledge in regard to Warhammer in exchange for solid MMO experience when compiling this review.

This game is the epitome of the love/hate relationship. In many aspects the game is remarkable, but unfortunately, it’s also broken. What we do see is experience in design marred by technical annoyances that will keep all but the most dedicated (or lucky) playing for a long time to come.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For all practical purposes Warhammer Online does not take a step backwards. This is obviously a game that has built upon the successes of pioneers in the MMO industry, and learned from those that had failed implementations and have steered clear of those pitfalls, for the most part.

It’s important to take into account that this game has the most to offer two types of players; those that like pvp, and those that like to solo. While there is a little bit for everyone, if your forte is raid style pve ala end game World of Warcraft, you will be seriously let down. Many MMOs are a pve experience first, and a pvp experience second. As we’ve seen in times past, pvp function in MMOs is often a small piece of the pie, or at best, an afterthought. There are exceptions of course such as the case with DAOC and other less successful MMOs, but generally speaking, pvp is not the center of attention in most MMO experiences. Sure, there are battlegrounds in WoW, and the original EQ did offer various coin loot and even player item loot servers, but generally speaking, this is the exception rather than the rule. Everquest 2 had even gone completely in the opposite direction by not allowing even consensual pvp (you couldn’t even challenge one to a duel) at launch… an endeavor that they found to be a grave mistake. Many companies in years past had this funny idea that all players hated pvp and were annoyed by it, and as a result much of the design left pvp out of the picture except for strict, exceptional circumstances where the “minority” pvp crowd could somehow be satisfied.

Apparently, they had it all wrong. Now the vast majority of MMO games are released as pvp friendly and generally, pvp servers retain higher populations. This majority should be pleased with the design perspective of Warhammer Online (WAR), where pvp IS pve, for the most part.

I say that pvp IS (or can be) pve because one can advance their character with both experience and loot rewards all the way to end game. Just as one may do the typical “grind” to level or advance their characters in traditional MMO fashion, this can be accomplished by doing nothing but pvp. Or, if you’d rather grind pve you can do that as well, however the item and cash rewards aren’t as lucrative.

Speaking of World of Warcraft, that’s what WAR looks and plays like. Yes the graphics are the same style but let’s not forget that WoW stole from the Warhammer universe to begin with, or at least, that’s the argument made by long time fans of Warhammer. The play style is mostly the same as well, with action points and a multi-tiered attack system being the standard method of dishing out the punishment. But WAR goes a step further and has a very wide variety of tactical moves that serve better in some situations than others. I could for instance, decide to take more damage and dish out more damage, or perhaps I could change my style to do a little less damage but have a higher defense rating. Even using a 2 handed weapon vs. a 1 handed weapon involves utilizing completely different play styles as what you can do with one you might not be able to do with the other.

And aside from the typical moves that spend action points, there are also tactic and morale abilities. In short, tactics are largely passive abilities that offer some benefit, such as extra damage on an attack, or perhaps more hit points. You get many tactics, but there are a limited number of active tactic slots. Therefore, you must make hard decisions on which tactics you select depending on the situation. This is good stuff!

To add, morale is similar, but instead of being passive the abilities must be activated. You receive a morale “bar” and the bar starts filling up the longer you are in combat. Once it reaches a certain point, you can activate your morale ability which could be anything from an area affect attack, to being able to block all attacks in your direction for 10 seconds, and the like. Like tactics, morale has a limited number of slots so one must choose both tactics and morale abilities based on their situation. Because of this, the style of play, and the action movements themselves, SKILL rather than level or equipment is the biggest factor in playing a class effectively.

And what about the classes? Well, they are your typical classes, although there is one big difference here; the classes are race dependant. So for example, only Orcs can be Black Orcs, only Dwarves can be Ironbreakers, etc. You cannot play say, a human ironbreaker. No, the class is race dependant, and there are differences to the classes on each side that are meant to play the same role. However, the consensus is that the Destruction side is terribly overpowered, and playing a Black Orc I can see this.

But before going on to that, let’s talk about how the factions work out. Well, there are two, Destruction and Order, constantly fighting one another. To add to the environment, if you’re playing Destruction in a pve environment, you’re typically killing Order themed characters, and vice versa. However, the problem presents itself halfway through one’s career in that this game has very little variety in the way of “mobs” or computer controlled opponents. At higher levels, you’re killing the same type of mob you were killing at level 1. I remember starting my Black Orc and my first quest ever was to kill some dwarves, otherwise known as “stunties”. I just got a quest today at level 22 to kill more stunties, and for the most part, that’s all I’ve been doing on the pve end. It gets really, really boring.

For this reason I’ve done most of my leveling through pvp (well, that and the fact that I like pvp). Where pvp is concerned however, it can happen in the “overworld”, or in “scenarios”, the latter of which you enter a queue to compete in a themed game such as capture the flag or capturing territories types of environments. The overworld involves pvp that can happen in select “RVR” (their term for pvp… by the way, everything is called something different here, which we’ll get to in a moment) zones which have keeps and outposts that the warring factions can try to hold. By holding a keep there is a bonus to players in the zone, say, more xp on kills and the like.

But along with traditional advancement there is “renown” xp, which is earned through pvp endeavors. It is a separate leveling bar that by increasing dictates the types of rewards you’re allowed to purchase from renown vendors. More on this as well, in the “bad” section.

Another relative innovation is that of public quests. Public quests are a fantastic idea, where anyone, at any time with a group or without one can jump into an area where a public quest is happening and earn rewards. For starters, killing mobs associated with public quests earn you “influence” (yet another xp bar, yes, we’re working with 3) for that particular quest. As you advance the bar, you can select influence awards. If and when the public kills the boss mob at the end of the quest, a random lottery is drawn for loot. Here’s the best part; you get a bonus to your random number based upon your contribution to the quest. Therefore, if you started the public quest at the beginning, you have a mathematically better chance to get raid loot than someone that joined at the end or even half way through. It gets even better; HEALERS are awarded points for healing, just as the melee and spellcasters are given for doing damage. This is fantastic! Finally, healers can be equally represented among the classes that actually take down the mob. While I don’t play a healer, this was a much needed innovation, and it furthermore gives incentive for healers to keep their party members alive. Good stuff! Better still, public quests reset every few minutes and should not take more than half an hour to complete. Therefore, you can jump in without having to spend 8 hours on an end game raid, and if you missed it, you can just wait for it to reset and try it again!

The sound for the game is mostly par, while the music is very good, although you don’t get to hear it much except for logging in or changing zones. Speaking of zones…

The world is massive. It’s huge. You could and probably will get lost. There are vast tracks of land wide open that give the feel of being on a planet, rather than a section of the world. Interestingly enough, most of the space is wasted. I’ve been in sections that don’t have relative quests requiring that I go there, and furthermore there were no overworld pvp objectives, so this is just vast open space that isn’t being used except by people that just wanted to wander around. I did so, for a couple of hours. Deep in the woods, I found a cave and went to the back and discovered a chest that had a couple of potions in it. I thought that was pretty fun. Truth be told the potions were rather weak and not worth the time I invested in stumbling upon them, but it did spark my imagination to realize there are little hidden gems out in the middle of nowhere, places where neither NPCs or even another player could be seen. However, the real heart of the game is pvp, which is quick and accessible in the scenarios. The overworld sieges are another matter, but when people do congregate around them, a sweet amalgam of tactics, strategy, and teamwork are imperative to successful raids. Did someone bring oil to pour on the people attacking the front gate of your keep? Is the front area of the keep secured so that siege weapons can be used to get in or destroy players high atop the towers raining fire down on your invading force? The options and strategies relevant to overworld conflict is where the game really shines, and is where I fell in love with WAR.

The Bad
If only I could say three words to sum up the Achilles’ heel of this game; stability, performance, function. All three get an F, an F- if that were possible. The technical issues often bring the fun to a screeching halt, and none but the most determined (or as mentioned earlier, “lucky” enough to not have technical issues) will be around for long.

But before I tear this game a new ass over my frustrations on the technical side, let’s talk about the leveling, which is one of the inherent, troubled design flaws. In short, it’s too slow. Leveling takes a very long time at higher levels, similar to EQlive leveling. Granted, the level cap is set at a meager level of 40 so we’d expect it to be slower between ranks, but in turn this means that there are longer times between advancement, and fewer advancements overall. Many of the tactics that you earned at a particular level will be in use 10 or 15 levels later, and beyond. Given this, grinding xp is less rewarding and gets boring really fast.

Then there’s the issue of renown rank, which makes no sense in its application. You would think renown rank at level 20 means using renown rewards at level 20. Nope. You typically must have more character rank (or level), than renown to use the renown rewards. So, if my level is 22, and my renown rank is level 20, guess what, I’m not high enough to use some of the gear I’ve EARNED by working up my renown level. The sick part is, this changes later on, and you must have a higher renown rank than character level. Why? Because renown rank is capped at 100 where as character level is 40. Why did they do this? Why do they have 100 pvp levels but only 40 characters levels? Would you think because renown climbs faster? Nope, it doesn’t. You can level your character easier (even though it’s slow) than you can move your renown. This makes no sense whatsoever.

And if you focus primarily on leveling up your character on pve instead of the xp and renown earned at pvp, then you will go for very long periods of pvp action (later when you decide to do it) without any reward that is better than any gear you’re using. So, pick your poison.

What’s more is that the influence system makes grouping or completing public quests irrelevant. For example, I don’t need to complete the public quest to get the rewards, rather just kill enough mobs related to it to build up enough influence. As a result, almost nobody messes with completing the quest or grouping up for the boss mobs at the end of it, rather are content killing the yard trash until they max out their influence bar. This is good in the sense that you can receive the public quest rewards as a solo player, but it also means that there is no incentive to group up to tackle the harder aspects of it. The end result is that you’ll spend your time just grinding these out, rather than participating in a raid to win.

But the technical issues do it for me. I love this game with all of my heart, but as I write this review, I’m considering leaving the game over the technical issues.

First and foremost, the graphics are too laggy. This is a very widespread problem that a quick Google verified is well established. My system is a 5600+ dual core with 4 GB ram, running a 9800GT video card. With ALL of the settings turned down, the graphics set to “fastest framerate”, and even going into the nvidia control panel and turning off or down EVERYTHING, only then is the game playable. And I say, “Playable” as in just that; it’s playable. Constant dips to 2-3 fps are not uncommon, and in large RVR battles it’s a slideshow, a slideshow that looks like total shit because all of the textures and effects are removed. I’ve talked to many people that have this same problem, even on much more powerful systems. I know my specs aren’t a supercomputer, but they aren’t exactly chopped liver either. I can run Fallout 3 and CoD World at War with high settings on and it runs flawlessly. The slowdown with WAR however is so apparent, that that alone is almost enough to make me quit playing.

Then there’s stability. Crashes requiring a hard reboot are bordering on common, and everyone in my guild that’s I’ve spoken to gets them at random. You’re playing and then boom, it freezes, the sound stutters, and the only way out of it is pressing the reset. ARGH!

Even if you can get past the slowness and are having a crash free adventure, random glitches tend to happen which require logging out and back in to fix. For example, for no reason at all, your attacks may be interrupted by being hit. This is not the norm, you can take hits and still attack, but when this bug rears its head, you can’t beat a mouse; because anytime you take any damage it will reset your actions. Logging out and back in resolves it for a time.

Then you may start to notice that mobs stop dropping coin and loot. Hmm, at first you might think that they just didn’t have anything on them. Wrong, log out and try again, it’s there. Good grief!

Oh cool, I just earned a new passive tactic that will increase my health by 880 points. I’ll use that for this big fight. How did I die? Oh, I see, the tactic didn’t give me the hit points, that makes total SENSE NOW DOESN’T IT!?? Here, let me log out and back in. Yep, it seems to be working now. Oh and by the way, there are NINE SCREENS from desktop to getting in game, only one of which can be skipped with the esc key. WTF WERE THEY THINKING!?

The sound… the quality is good, but it’s buggy. Suddenly, your own battle sounds and the sounds around you will become very quiet, almost inaudible, yet, you’ll hear sounds from other area of the map as if they’re right next to you. I recognized this because I could hear the sounds that NPC’s were making in town, while I was out fighting in the woods and could hear nothing in regard to the sounds of my area. Oh but you can always exit the game to fix it, and sit through 9 screens to get back in, then hope everything else is working, and you don’t crash, and the mobs drop loot, etc. Get everything set up to be working, have any of the aforementioned issues rear their head, and then hopefully you can reboot to fix the problem, and hope that something else doesn’t go wrong which it invariably will.

Moving on to other issues, the factions are not balanced very well, and the server populations show this. On almost every server there is an overwhelming number of Destruction characters to Order ones. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that the Destruction classes are simply more powerful. As a Black Orc (pure melee class), I regularly crush the corresponding Order class, the ironbreaker, in one on one fights even with them being several levels higher than me. I attribute some of these wins to having more experience in pvp and MMO games in general, but many times I can tell I’ve gone against really good players that despite being levels above me, are simply lacking in the tools or firepower to take me down. It must be frustrating for them. Furthermore, the Destruction side is just simply more attractive, with nitty gritty and hardcore looking character types, as opposed to namby pamby looking high elfs in conical hats. The “good” side is good in the wrong way, that is to say, not like a troubled vigilante out for justice, but more like the “play dress up Barbie” type of good.

One thing that also annoys me but is invariably overcome by familiarity with the game is the unique naming of various attributes. For example, “hit points” or more commonly, “health”, is referred to as “wounds”. How many “wounds” do you have? Come on. Mitigating damage is called, “toughness”? What? Oh and speaking of that, melee damage is first mitigated by armor, and then again by toughness? That seems a little unfair, until you look at magic resistances (corporeal, elemental, and spiritual… huh? What happened to fire, cold, magic?) in which damage is mitigated first by resistances, then by toughness. However, all clothing has armor, but not all clothing has resistances. This seems rather unfair as it ends up meaning that melee damage is heavily mitigated two times and magic based attacks are mitigated lightly and then heavily, or only one time as opposed to melee damage.

The Bottom Line
My patience is wearing thin. I really love this game and its potential is phenomenal. There is a good foundation here, a few innovations unique to WAR, and hardcore pvp action which I love. But whether the technical issues will be addressed before I lose patience only time (and a very short amount of time at that) will tell.

By D Michael on December 11th, 2008

Diner Dash 2: Restaurant Rescue (Windows)

It's like a really good flash game

The Good
Diner Dash 2 spells the return of Flo, the waitress on a mission to serve up food and keep customers happy to generate revenue for failing restaurants.

While the gameplay is pretty much identical to the original Diner Dash, the story (if nothing more than a distant backdrop) is halfway plausible. "Mr. Big" (how unimaginative) is set to foreclose on the property of 4 different restaurants which he will then demolish to build his restaurant megaplex. The only thing stopping him is Flo, and that's if she can come in to rescue these restaurants by providing such outstanding service as to increase their revenue and provide the needed capital to pay their mortgages to Mr. Big.

One does not need to have experience with this franchise to jump right in. The tutorial level covers the basics in about 3 minutes time, and although you learn only the very basic mechanics of the game, this is enough to take you to the end should you decide to stick around that long.

The gameplay consists solely of the mouse and the left click button. No other buttons are used or needed. Your duties involve seating customers, taking their orders, bringing them their food, providing for refreshments in between at times, desert if applicable, taking payment, and then clearing tables of dirty dishes. Where things get hectic is when you have several tables all at different stages in their meal, and you're trying to juggle various tasks back and forth. If you take too long to deliver on a request, the customer happiness decreases thereby lowering the amount they will tip, and eventually if you neglect them long enough, they will run out leaving you a deficit for the benefit of having them enter your restaurant.

Once you gain a higher level of skill, you can more or less do each task for each table all at once. For example, you may have 5 tables and you have arranged it so that you can take all of the customers' orders at once, serve all of their food at once, clean off dirty dishes in one shot, etc. When you perform the same task over and over, you get a point multiplier which in the later stages of the game is absolutely required in order to advance. If you aren't "chaining" as it is called, no matter how happy your customers are you may not pass the level.

But this is not as easy as it sounds, because there are different customer types that operate differently. Business women tip the best, but order and eat fast and are not patient. Seniors on the other hand will wait for a very long time before becoming unhappy, but take long periods of time to eat and tip very little. Because different types of customers progress at different speeds, chaining can become a real challenge and timing is everything.

To further complicate matters, some customers will be unhappy if they are sitting next to another that makes them unhappy. For example, guys talking on cell phones will make people reading books angry. Babies crying annoys everyone but the cell phone guys and families, etc. So not only is chaining the key to high scores and completion of the game, but strategic seating is also. To add another strategic element into the fray, there is also the issue of colored seating. If you consistently seat people wearing certain color clothes into a matching colored seat, you'll receive another point multiplier. The later stages of the game demand seating people away from one another, while matching colors consistently, all the while timing it so that you can chain for enough points to go to the next level. Thankfully, the difficulty in the game progresses slowly enough so that once you reach this point, it's not as daunting as it might sound.

The Bad
This game is surprisingly fun for what it is, but it's barely a commercial product. This plays like a really well done flash game, but has enough quality and content to pass into commercial status by the skin of its teeth.

Diner Dash 2 is also very short. Having never played in the series before, I went from level 1 to level 50 (the final level) in about 6 hours worth of play time. That is hardly enough product to warrant a retail purchase. At the same time however, by the time it's over you'll likely have had enough. I know I couldn't have played it much longer than I did, so the story and fun factor end at the same time. This could be good depending on your disposition.

Lastly, this game isn't for everyone. For many it will feel like work. A waitressing simulation might have been a good idea, but I find it to certainly be a niche market. What's next, a mechanic game where you manage a lube shop doing oil changes? Hmm...

The Bottom Line
Diner Dash 2 is decent and enjoyable to an extent. It's simple but can require complicated strategies to play successfully (kind of like Tetris). If someone gives you this for free (was a second hand gift for me), give it a go. If you are chomping at the bit to play Diner Dash and think you'll love it with all of your heart, don't spend more than five bucks or so.

By D Michael on October 17th, 2008

Spore (Windows)

Quite a let down, but still good

The Good
First and foremost, this review will contain some spoilers. If you want to play through the game having absolutely no idea what you're in for and like surprises, then beware of this review.

The long awaited, "Spore" is here. Does it measure up to the hype? Well, yes and no.

First of all, I had difficulty getting the game to run. It flat out refused to cooperate with an 8800 GT SLI arrangement. As a matter of fact, when the game would fail to start it would ask me to update my video drivers (already done) and then to DISABLE SLI. Yep, disabling SLI got the game to work. Why a new release has this problem is beyond me.

So anyway, I begin at the cell stage and I have to say that this looks really promising. Out of all of them, the cell stage is the most realistic, and the environment is perfect. Early on you notice the world zooming out more and more as you grow and evolve. I really enjoyed this part. However, it was over way too quick. You can even get an accomplishment merit for finishing it in under 8 minutes. I'm not saying I did that, but just the same knowing that it's possible to complete an entire stage in under 8 minutes is a little disappointing.

Moving on to the creature stage, I did not like it much. At first it's kind of fun, but this stage is a grind and unfortunately way too long. This could have to do with the path I chose, which is to befriend other creatures and to be a herbivore. This requires you to charm other animals which takes quit a bit of grinding in order to build up the sufficient DNA to spend on the required parts. On top of that, because you're putting resources towards non-combat related characteristics, you're a sitting duck for anything bigger than you. Perhaps playing this stage as aggressive would be more fun, but here's the catch (we'll get more into this later); you receive attributes and various penalties depending upon how you acted in a previous stage of the game. Therefore, if I wanted to play aggressive in the creature stage, I'll be equipped with more offensive capabilities and less economic/social abilities which is NOT the path I desire.

And therein lies another problem with the game. While it's quite possible to change how you treat others and survive, it's very difficult, because one stage builds on how you acted in the last. Act militant in one stage and you're terribly ill-equipped to be a diplomat in the next. Moving on...

In the tribal phase, I have to say that this was like an RTS mini-game. I say "mini-game" meaning dumbed down, simplistic, and with lack of variety. Nevertheless, at this point you control various tribesman (all are identical except for the chief which has some special abilities) and the goal is to either live in peace with everyone, kill everyone, or live in peace with the remainder of tribes left after you've killed a few.

There is pretty much zero in the way of tactics here. Befriend tribes which are close (which involves giving gifts and putting on performances), and kill those that are raiding you or non-cooperative. Given that there is no variety in units, the bigger numbers almost always win. As you progress and get tools you tend to get an edge. A spear wielding tribe will do better in combat against a torch wielding one. But numbers are king and there is a very humble population cap (12 units at the height of your tribe). Furthermore, there are specific places to build buildings which further eliminates strategy and the only resource you have to manage is food, which is so widely available that nobody can cut you off from it. All in all, the tribal phase is a rather forgettable one.

Progressing to the civilization phase had me really ticked off. Because of my previous actions and by trying to trade or be otherwise altruistic, my civilization was a religious one. No, I did not choose that, I was automatically assigned that by the game. Because of this, I could not establish trade routes and my military force was extremely weak. Now I'm surrounded by competing empires that hate me because I'm a religious nation on top of that (the game tells you which factors are responsible for friendship or conflict between competitors). What's worse, modifying my creature has completely stopped, and you come to find out, are you ready for this, that none of the physical traits or tribal outfits you have assigned to your creature make one damn bit of difference in gameplay. How could they do this?

The good is that you get to design your own buildings and vehicles, but unfortunately it's mostly just for looks. In the civilization stage you must conquer, convert, or buy competing cities. Once you take over a city of a different discipline (for example, a religious city converting an economic one), you will then have the option of employing the tactics of that city. Again, this stage is like an RTS minigame. What I did find laughable is that combat units are created instantly. In other words you can just stockpile your cash with no military present, and then if someone happens to raid you, you can just spam click the vehicle button and instantly reach your population cap out of nowhere. Bad, bad design for an RTS. You RTS players can only imagine if you applied that ability to ANY RTS out there.

Overall it's too simplistic in so many ways. I conquered the globe, first time playing, in one sitting that was probably well under the 3 hour mark. So again, another forgettable stage.

Moving on to the galactic stage, I have to say that the game really shines here. This could almost be a standalone game, except for the fact that there are too many repetitive missions. Many of the promotions are based upon repetition, and almost all of the missions used to establish good relations with other species are fetch and bug hunt missions.

But the terraforming and planet manipulation parts are rock solid and there is nothing else out there like it. It's especially cool to populate a planet with your friend's own creations to see how they interact in your worlds. I could go on and on about this final stage, there is so much to do, so much to explore, and all kinds of content that you leave the computer after 5 or 6 hours of play feeling like you just didn't get enough done. Good stuff.

I'm sad to say however that there is a bug in the game that is unfortunately, a show stopper. There is an event when your home world gets raided and you must defend it. After vanquishing the enemy, when you try to leave your planet the game crashes. I've been pouring over forums and there are literally thousands of users experiencing this problem, spanning the globe. If you avoid going to your planet to stop the invasion, your homeworld will be destroyed. If you go, then you'll not be able to continue due to the crash after the fight. It's a show stopper, and since there is no fix (yet), my fun with Spore has ended there.

The Bad
See above, it's all mixed in.

The Bottom Line
All in all Spore is a good game. It's not as fun to play as I expected it would be, but nevertheless it is a heavy hitter and worth the money. I hope that Will Wright or the gaming community in general however, will learn from the mistakes that Spore has, and eventually make the game that we were hoping to get these past two years in waiting.

By D Michael on September 10th, 2008

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Windows)

Great fun, provided you have the hardware...

The Good
Let me say that I compile this brief review from the perspective of having never played any other game of this type. I've never played any other GH installment, Rockband, or even DDR. For me, Guitar Hero 3 is my first experience with this type of game.

I was very hesitant to purchase this game for the PC mainly on the grounds that there are several reviews which claim that the PC version is flawed in that there is a ridiculous amount of stutter, lag, and the like making it less enjoyable than its console counterparts. Well, I did my homework and went on YouTube and found quite a few recordings of the game in action. Truth be told, there were a LOT of videos showing the lag and choppiness of the game. However, I did notice that most of these examples were played out on machines that were borderline to system requirements and such (which are themselves quite steep).

I endeavored to put off playing, until I played the xbox 360 version at a department store and decided that I had to have it. Well, being that I’ve committed to wait for a Wii (none are available right now), the only way I could play TODAY would be to buy the PC version. What the heck I took a chance.

I was delighted to see that none of the criticisms about lagginess or unplayability were present when I took my first go at the game. My machine however, is a bit above the specifications for those that drew issue with the game. Running on an Athlon 64 x2 5200+ with 2GB RAM, Windows XP sp2, and 256MB 8600GT x2 (in SLI) mode, I have zero technical issues.

The game is just plain fun, and like other guitar hero installments there are a wide variety of popular songs that are fun to jam out to. I quickly found that being completely new, any difficulty setting above “easy” was a waste of time on me. Like a real guitar hero, I needed to practice and build my skills before moving on to bigger and faster riffs. For the really serious player, you can also practice sections of songs at reduced speed, so that you can learn the proper keys and chords without having them thrown at you at light speed.

Playing the guitar actually produces an effect. If you’re hitting the notes, you can hear the guitar prominently represented in the song. Miss notes, and it sounds like crap. This gives one the feel of really playing a guitar.

The career mode is of course the meat and potatoes of the experience. You start off by picking a character, playing a few gigs, and working your way up the ladder of fame. At one point, I had Tom Morello of “Rage Against the Machine” challenge me to a guitar battle. The way to win was to get power-ups by hitting the right notes at the proper time and then tilting the neck of the guitar upwards (the controller detects being tilted) which makes you hit Tom and messes up his playing. Beat him down enough, and you can be a guitar loser and still win. Seems silly, but adds to the variety and I like it. Once he’s defeated, you can play “Bulls On Parade” with him. Nice.

Multiplayer is present, but you aren’t missing a whole lot if you pass on it. Really this is the kind of game that one can really get into all alone, or can appreciate an audience of people watching you jam out. Multiplayer just mainly allows for you to compete against another player’s skills, but so much of the game is based on competing against oneself and one’s own abilities that it seems silly to involve other people.

The PC version was a full $20 cheaper than the other versions where I live!

The Bad
Some of the flaws are inexcusable here. For example, nothing that you buy for your characters really does anything. All of the upgrades in the world won’t make you a better player, or allow you to really do anything that you can’t at the start of your career. What’s the point of allotting me cash if nothing I buy with it makes any difference?

Some of the songs are too long and just plain annoying. I understand that there are a variety of tracks in an effort to appease just about every kind of guitar fan, but it amazes me how some of these ever made it into the game. For example, why do we have “Story of My Life” from Social Distortion in there, where I can hit the same key over and over for what, 6 or 7 minutes? Not fun. Some songs just don’t translate well to Guitar Hero as they just aren’t fun to play. I was disappointed to see that some songs I really liked are absolutely no fun at all to play, while others that I don’t really care for work out much better.

I got to thinking, how does the guitar controller detect when it’s tilted? I can only think of one answer; a mercury switch. While it’s probably pretty safe under normal circumstances, a mercury switch could pose a problem should the kiddos decide to take apart their guitar, or worse even, a drunk friend smashes the toy guitar against the ground after an encore performance, potentially scattering highly toxic material over your entire house.

I must comment on the technical issues of this game even though I have experienced none, simply because there is an overwhelming crowd of highly dissatisfied gamers that experience trouble with the game running smoothly. Make sure that if you want to enjoy smooth play here that you have a high end machine. A dual core processor is required at minimum. You’ll want to be well above recommended specs and probably running SLI to avoid problems. For this reason, if you have an alternative (such as an xbox 360 or Wii), go with that and avoid the PC version.

The Bottom Line
Guitar Hero 3 is so much fun, I feel that I wasted time writing a review when I could have been playing, “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam. Go for the game on other platforms if you can, but if you do have a high end PC and no alternative, this version will work out for you.

By D Michael on January 5th, 2008

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Windows)

Good, but still just shy of being legendary

The Good
Call of Duty is back! After an awesome introduction with CoD 1, a nice addition with CoD 2, and a rather forgettable third installment that missed the PC platform altogether (makes ya think, doesn't it?), CoD is back with the fourth installment subtitled, "Modern Warfare".

Instead of the tried and true (some at this point calling it cliche) WW2 environment, we're treated to, you guessed it, modern warfare with a rather plausible story. For example, in the single player campaign, you play as a Brit Special Air Service commando and as a US marine involved in foiling a terrorist organization's plans to be terrorists. Hmm, do you think this could take place in real life? Truth be told, I appreciate themes that coincide or at least resemble real life events, especially events that are currently underway. This adds a nice level of immersion.

About that single player campaign; it is VERY well thought out. You get only a little bit of story for a lot of action, but those little bits are well executed. The environments are completely awesome, and blow any other CoD installment out of the water. Graphics on the PC are very nice, and run at light speed. I appreciate that the level of detail can be very high, without much sacrifice in speed, even with a moderate system. The action is just beautiful, environments engaging, and story just so good I want to cry with excitement. People, this is good stuff!

Now having completed the single player (haha, and without giving you spoilers as well), let's talk about the multiplayer action; it's fast, low latency, and best of all you get to build a character (or as they call it, "class").

You see, fighting online gives you experience that goes towards leveling up. There are various things you can do to earn this experience such as killing your enemy, but also by winning matches you can add to your character's progression. Furthermore, there are challenges such as killing X number of people while crouching, or shooting down a helicopter that will allow for class progression. This experience goes towards unlocking more features in the game such as certain weapons and better still; perks!

Perks allow your character special abilities. For example, you may choose "extreme conditioning" as a perk which allows you to run further. Or perhaps you might choose, "martyrdom" which will drop a live grenade when you are killed, so if your attacker is close he will likely be taken out with you. If you've ever played a game in the Fallout series, then you'll know what I'm talking about.

Other unlockable features include special additions to certain weapons such as scopes and silencers. Completing various challenges and leveling up will open doors that allow you to design a fighter based on your playstyles and preferences. The result is that there is real incentive to play the game here. There are a plethora of full servers with players "grinding" to level themselves up. Even if you reach the maximum rank of level 55, there is still plenty to unlock in the way of weapon customizations. Never before has a first person shooter allowed for this MMORPG style character build up. One of the cool perks gives you added power for shootin through thin walls made of sheet metal and wooden fences.

The good thing is, even if you're just starting off, it will not be extraordinarily impossible to compete with the established players. Suffice it to say, the perks and customizations complement existing playstyles and add just a tiny advantage. They do not, as you might suspect, equate to a ridiculously unbalanced advantage that would occur when say, a level 55 warrior crushes a level 2 caster in an MMO. In other words, if you can aim straight and fire some bullets into your target, they're going to die regardless of their level.

Acquiring things like radar and airstrikes is based upon kill streaks i.e. number of enemies one can kill without dying. All in all, the multiplayer aspect is not only good mechanically speaking, but these are new concepts being implemented here, and with great success!

The Bad
Now comes the rants. There really isn't a big crippling flaw in the game, but there are a lot of little things that really piss me off. As good as it is, this game could have been better, and I personally believe that some of these "mistakes" were entirely intentional so that there is room for an expansion pack. Again, the practice of intentionally leaving out features to get to my wallet is happening, and this is seriously irritating.

For example, no vehicles and no CTF. WHY!? Why not allow server administrators or player votes decide if there were to be vehicles or not, and why not include CTF? I mean come on, other than deathmatch, CTF is the standard among FPS multiplayer options. The failure to include this could not simply have been oversight. This was on purpose!

Sound... ok the sound is decent, except for weapons sounds. The weapons all sound like little cap guns, it's disgusting. The heavier machine guns make decent noise but the rest are pathetic. The AK-47 sounds like a cork gun, and the M-16 sounds like those little snap pops that you get from the firework stand that "pop" when you throw them on a hard surface. Take an amazing story, throw in remarkable graphics, have the rumbling bass blow your windows out as bombs explode, and then put into the hand of our hero... a toy gun that makes cute little sounds. ARGH!!!!

No exclusive weapons. Any side can use any of the weapons, so it's hard to differentiate between unseen friend or foe based on weapon sounds (which seasoned players could do in the original CoD). Oh hey, that doesn't matter because now you can just use your radar to see where your team AND where your enemies are at (if they're firing)! This also means that all sides are identical and have no special traits! I mean, yeah we get to build our own class, but how about offer special strengths and weaknesses to the various teams? That isn't done here, so it doesn't matter if you play good guys or bad. Bummer.

Multiplayer environments are way too small and mostly look the same and not only that but extreme camping is rewarded and even REQUISITE for winning matches. The result is that you have these tiny maps with a million places to hide in them. Just as you've searched every nook and cranny for the enemy, you get gunned down from a position that looks impossible to hide in. Oh yeah, forgot to mention; the players blend in so well with the background that often times you can be looking square at an enemy and if they aren't moving, you can't see them. Because of this, it's just better to camp and look for movement.

In the cities, there is movement, sometimes in the form of a piece of paper, a newspaper, or some kind of trash that is blowing in the wind. I don't know exactly what it is, because it is a super low res. graphic imposed on a 3-d background. It's hard to explain, but imagine a Duke Nukem 3d sprite showing up in the middle of your high res, texture rich environment. WTF!?

There are a couple of technical issues as well. They haven't gotten the sound settings right (at least not for my rig, 7.1 might be ok, I don't know). For example, I have quadraphonic speakers. If I put the option to 4 speakers, sound only comes from the front two. If I set it to 5.1, I get sound on all speakers. One problem though; my speakers are not 5.1, and the voices echo and I'm missing sound on that setting. The answer? Set it to plain old "stereo", yep now I have sound on all four speakers, but it's not positional. Furthermore, the sounds are front heavy (loud in front, quiet in back). Boo.

I wasn't able to bind keys to the number pad. Sure, I can set certain functions to the number pad keys and I can get acknowledgment for doing so, but when hitting the bound keys in game, they are dead... regardless of the number lock position. Oh well.

Individual player skill comes down to who can hide/camp better. Often the result of a firefight favors who saw the other person first. In other words, luck is a major (perhaps the biggest) factor in multiplayer gaming.

Another think that irks me is that servers will randomly crash. First you think you're lagging or disconnecting, then a minute or so later you find out that the server went down. Happens everywhere. Do a /reconnect and you find that the server is empty. No, it's not you. Yes, it went down. Not to mention, sometimes servers that you regularly play on will simply not allow you to connect. Try 20 times in a row and watch it time out, then on try #21 you get in after 8 or 10 seconds of waiting, the whole while the server population being well below maximum. I believe this has something to do with punkbuster (and to date, PB has been such a pain in the ass for so many people that I think I speak for the majority when I say that us gamers would rather deal with the occasional cheater than deal with punkbuster).

Finally, the single player campaign is inexcusably short. It is, I'm sure, the shortest EVER for any FPS. Irritating to say the least.

The Bottom Line
Yes, CoD 4 is worth every penny, but it's not without flaw. Why can't I have cake AND ice cream? Removing good features to replace them with good features doesn't make sense, especially when the features in question can and should co-exist, but this is what happens when commercialism has its ugly hands in game design. Nevertheless, groundbreaking concepts being executed successfully are the shining points of this installment. It would behoove any FPS'er to show up for this one.

By D Michael on December 13th, 2007

Age of Empires III (Windows)

A good game, but not a worthy successor

The Good
By playing AOE3, one can easily tell (if they didn't already know) that this isn't Ensemble Studios' first game. No, this title bears the mark of experienced game design peppered with tiny improvements over the previous titles in the way of presentations.

I welcome the improvement in graphics (looking at AOE2 now almost looks DOS like in graphical quality) and sound, and to my personal tastes, I appreciate the time frame that AOE3 takes place during. Instead of catapults we have cannons. Factories can crank out canned goods to supplement your food supply, and the difference in nations' abilities is enough to allow for entirely different strategical and tactical approaches as they are quite varied in their individual strengths and weaknesses.

But perhaps the biggest improvement is the notion of home cities and customized decks of cards. As you play through the game with your profile (I have not bothered with the campaign, I only play multiplayer games on LAN), you earn experience for things like number of kills, resources gathered, and the like. These experience points go towards earning your home city "levels" which can then be used to purchase cards to build a deck with.

These "cards" allow your civilization to have special abilities. For example, in game you could play a card that gives you an extra 600 food. Another card gives you say, two cannons for free. There are all sorts of cards, and you can have up to 20 in your deck. However, as you progress you will be able to choose from more than just 20, so the player must choose carefully which cards they will take with them to a game, and which to leave behind. This allows for extra fine tuning in play styles. Coupled with the civilization differences, various players can have an entirely different approach to gameplay here. Good stuff.

As your city gains levels, you'll be able to customize its features. In the main menu screen, one can see their city while people walk around in it at real time. As levels are gained, your city grows and you are able to add new features like adding decorations, people, idols, and the like (if you play England you can add Jack the Ripper and he wanders around with a knife). These additions are purely visual and have no part in the gameplay, but it's still fun as it gives some incentive to level up your city and play more.

The environment seems a little more alive here as well. There are Native Americans which are neutral at the start of the game, and by building tradeposts nearby it's possible to get access to their technologies and warriors. Animals of all types roam the landscape, each with their own relevant amount of meat to feed your population. Buildings have shingles and chunks fly off of them when hit by cannons. A mortar round from a Monitor ship will send a villager sliding across the ground, their lifeless body hitting rocks and such along the way. Trade carts have been replaced by stagecoaches and steam locomotives that ride on rails sprawling through the map delivering supplies. The world is just much more alive here than in AOE2.

Furthermore, I appreciate that the resources now consist of simply food, wood, and coin. What's more is that there are different ways to produce all three types of resources. You can hunt, farm, and/or mill for food (among other things). Coin can be gained through mining, plantations, whaling, and other endeavors. Wood must be chopped down from trees by hand, but you can supplement your supply by having it delivered in tradeposts or produced from a factory.

AI is pretty decent. If you're producing lots of cannons they'll marginalize infantry and produce other types of units. In other words, the AI will adjust unit types throughout the game depending on the challenges you face them with.

The Bad
Unfortunately, there are some giant steps backwards with this title when compared to previous installments of the series.

For one, there are NO wonders. None at all. No wonder victory, no special abilities from wonders, nothing of the sort. Why?! I feel like this is intentional. I mean, AOE and AOE2 had wonders from the start, but with AOE3 they don't exist. Well, the Asian Dynasty expansion released in October of 2007 has them. I feel like the designers intentionally left them out so that they could sell an expansion pack with them later on. The practice of strip mining this franchise is starting to interfere with game development, and it shows.

Another step backwards is that there is really only one game type; kill your enemies. You have supremacy where you have to focus on building up your empire along with defeating your enemy, and you have deathmatch that just has you crank out units to throw at your enemy. There is no regicide, wonder victory, idol victory, timed game, or anything else. Again, they have lowered the number of features in the game. This is a huge let down for me as I play LAN games daily with AOE, and I find it disgusting that a newer installment is sporting fewer features.

In addition to that, the map options for multiplayer are pathetic. They've gone mostly from map types, to map styles. Teams islands are gone, replaced mostly by Amazonia that has a giant river separating teams. Furthermore, you can't play with two players on a four player map, four players on a six player map, etc. If you have four players, you MUST play on a four player sized map. The game will not start if you have open spots (which by the way cannot be closed in the drop down window as a player must join or a computer opponent must be added), so if you like doing a 1v1 on a giant sized map, forget it.

This game also fails to offer up options that many other RTS titles have already done. It's not possible to vary the difficulty with more than one AI opponent. For example, say you have 3v3 against the computer. You can't have say, two expert opponents and one medium. They're either all easy, moderate, expert, etc.

Combat is too much like rock/paper/scissors. Cannons are good against infantry, calvary against cannons, pikemen against calvary... it just seems old hat at this point to make a combat model based on this concept. Furthermore, there are some pointless units. For example, what is the difference between an anti-infantry cannon and an anti-artillery cannon? Why should an anti-infantry cannon be terrible at taking out another cannon, especially in reality during this time frame the way you take out an enemy cannon is by killing the infantry operating it, not by focusing on destroying the hardware itself?

Other little annoyances are present as well, like villagers that remain idle after having built a structure. Take a villager off of resource gathering to build a house, and once the house is done they just stand there. They do not go back to resource gathering as in the previous installment. I also don't appreciate that this game runs like shit on a LAN. There is no excuse for it. One player games do just fine. On a LAN, it's choppy as hell. This shouldn't be the case with a 5200 x2 with 8600GT in SLI and 2GB RAM. I don't have problems with performance issues on any other LAN games, and this one is fine in single player, so I blame the coders here.

The Bottom Line
Had this game been released as a standalone title with a new name, it might be a smash hit. But by passing it off as an AOE installment leaves me a bitter taste. I also don't appreciate the fact that important features were intentionally left out just so they could be included in an expansion for more money. I'll pay top dollar for a good game, but I don't like attempts to manipulate the product to get to my wallet. I will not be buying any of the expansions on principle alone.

By D Michael on November 27th, 2007

World in Conflict (Windows)

I really wanted to like this game...

The Good
I really did...

Yes there is something about seeing the statue of liberty and the Soviet hammer and sickle on the front of the box with nuclear explosions on the back.

The story to the game (as if we really care with an RTS) is that the Soviet Union did not fall in 1991, rather got organized and launched a surprise attack on the United States by invading US ports while transporting military hardware disguised as cargo vessels. A sudden and surprise attack on American soil by Soviet forces was covered (rather ridiculously) in a movie known as, "Red Dawn", but instead of having to rely on high school kids to defend America, we have the US military.

The graphics in the game are probably the best of any RTS, and will likely remain that way for a long time to come. The camera angle and positions is an entirely new and breakthrough approach. For those of you familiar with Virtus Walkthrough Pro, it's something like that perspective but with better graphics. You can even go down to street level in first person and enter some buildings and walk alongside troops and armor. While it was possible to do this in Company of Heroes, the big difference here is that the game can be played from this perspective, where CoH could not. You could force a top down view, but it's actually harder to play the game that way, and the maps can be very large which further makes that perspective impractical.

There are a wide variety of off the map attacks and strikes as well. From mortar attacks, artillery, and chemical agents or nuclear strikes, to air dropping in tanks, infantry, or other supplies, a large part of the game is deciding on how to spend your "resources" (well, the game doesn't really have resources, you earn points that can be used for off map strikes by killing enemies) on which type of attack will be most effective against a certain type of enemy.

The sounds are decent, nothing new, but the nuclear explosions are the best and most realistic I've seen. The action is hot and fast moving, especially when you play online and have an 8 vs. 8 match with everyone dropping in units, firing artillery at hard targets, or conducting operations based on their roles.

In multiplayer, you can decide the type of role you wish to play. Support has access to artillery and anti-aircraft equipment. Air has helicopters, infantry is self-explanatory. What's more is that each individual unit typically has a special attack and defense which can be used and has a cooldown timer. Tanks have a smoke screen making them hard to hit, Bradley vehicles have a TOW missile which is good against other vehicles, infantry can sprint, etc.

Lastly, the multiplay is smooth, easy to connect to, responsive, and well executed. Rare in a brand spanking new release.

The Bad
Shock and awe! Have you ever heard the term, "if you can't win 'em with words, baffle 'em with bullshit?". That would describe this game, for me at least. There is no doubt that the graphics, camera angles, and level of intensity as 16 people lay down airstrikes and artillery barrages is unmatched. But when we take a look at the actually gameplay, a lot is left to be desired...

For one, there are no bases and no resources per se. You have an unlimited number of units to call upon, although limited in the number/type you can have on the battlefield at once. This means that you can never be knocked out of the fight unless all of your territories are captured or the game timer runs out and the side with the most points wins. I am just as strong towards the end of the game with your army controlling the map as I was at the beginning of the game.

The combat is less reliant on tactics, and more reliant on the type of role you and your partners are playing. For example, everything is basically set up as a rock/paper/scissors type thing. Choppers destroy tanks, tanks destroy anti-aircraft, anti-aircraft destroys choppers. With rare exception, if you don't have your rock vs. their scissors, you will lose. If your team focused at the beginning of the match on air defense, and they went for ground offense with tanks, you lose. Too often the game is determined before it starts.

Units do not move quickly enough, so once someone decides to attack your units, it's pointless to try to move them out of harms way. They'll never be able to get away. I even chase down choppers with my AA and can stay in range as I shoot them down while they run. Poor. To make matters worse, you can see enemy units approaching, long before they are even in firing range. There are no sneak attacks, everything is out in the open, it's just a spam fest (spam is a term sometimes used in video gaming to describe random chaos).

What's more, there is zero defense against off target bombardment. If you can be seen, you can be hit, and you can be seen almost everywhere on the map.

Micromanagement is possible, but not rewarded. Sure, infantry moves slowly but I can move them into transports to get them into the action quicker right? But that's a moot point. The time it takes to move the infantry into and out of transports, I could have just changed my drop zone to where I wanted to be and drop more units there.

On the third multiplayer game I ever played, I took the very top spot in a 16 person game, over people that were ranked very high. What did I do? Just run units into the dogpile of enemy units at the center of the map. I didn't use strategy, tactics, or any kind of thinking. I just clicked on units to attack at the center.

The campaign? There is only one, and its hindered by all of the voice acting. You spend more time listening to reality TV type drama between officers bitching about this and that than you do actually playing the campaign. There is even a button to skip dialogue, the designers must have known it was that cumbersome. I like a little story with my action, but the campaign is silly and ridiculous.

The worst mistake with this game? All sides be it NATO, US, or USSR are pretty much identical. A terrible error! In reality, there are stark differences between US, European, and Soviet battle strategies, and the equipment varies greatly as a result of this, but not in WiC. All sides have access to the same arsenal that has the same strengths and weaknesses that do the same things. The only difference is the name of the unit and its graphic. How could they make all of the sides identical!?

The Bottom Line
I wanted to like this game. The concept and the graphics along with the unique yet playable camera perspectives was a cut above. The rest however, is pure rubbish that is random spam at best.

By D Michael on September 26th, 2007

Fight Night Round 3 (Xbox)

Great multiplayer, but otherwise flawed

The Good
Fight Night Round 3 for the Xbox is one of the few truly remarkable boxing titles considering all platforms. Most boxing games either blow us away, or are complete trash and there is no in between. But with this latest installment of the series, we get both.

I write this review from the perspective of someone that has not experienced the earlier titles. It may be considered better or worse than its predecessors but I'm judging it on its own merits having not played the others.

Most people will want to jump right into the game and this means picking a boxer among many of the greats. Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, Gotti, Duran, there are plenty of big name boxers here. If you're not a boxing fan you probably won't recognize many of the names except for the heavyweight champs (yes Holyfield is here too). Each boxer is different and their stats all reflect their real life counterparts. What's more is that they each have their own signature move which is a haymaker punch of sorts unique to their character.

But being self-centered, I had more fun creating my own boxer from scratch. While the system is simple, it's very versatile and I was able to create my doppelganger on screen with the customization options. The match was so perfect to my real life look that it was uncanny, almost bizarre to watch myself fighting Holyfield on the television. Even my 2 year old daughter watched and pointed at the screen during a closeup replay and said, "Daddy!".

So as you might have imagined, the graphics are superb. The Xbox shows that it is still a strong platform in the graphics department. The boxers have almost a photo or television quality look to them. You know how when you see an action figure of a real life person and the face is off a bit or it just doesn't look like the person in question? Not the case here. But it's obvious that they had to tone down the rest of the rendering as the crowd is extremely low res but you're not looking at them during the action anyway.

The technical aspect of the gameplay is rock solid. It really pays to understand boxing concepts here with pacing oneself, counterattacking, clinching, combinations, and the like. If you're a button masher you will always lose to a technical, precision player. Unlike many fighting games, excessive ineffectual punching will tire you out, slow you down, and prevent you from defending yourself. Furthermore, taking on injury is a snowball effect. A fight can be stopped if you're cut too bad, or you'll take extra damage from small punches if you're wounded. Thankfully, your trainer can heal some injuries in between rounds.

The multiplayer side of the equation is the shining experience in this game. Even if you're not a big fan of boxing, this game is just plain fun due to how realistic it is. But I can't imagine what it would be like to have a big group of hardcore boxing fans sitting around taking each other on, screaming and yelling the entire time. And while the better boxer will tend to win most of the time, there are special haymaker moves that are executed with a combination from the analog controls that can land and change the course of the fight in one punch. This means that even a disadvantaged player has some chance of winning with a lucky punch.

Another positive aspect of this game is the punching. The right analog stick in the default configuration is used to swing jabs, crosses, hooks, uppercuts, and perform combinations or special moves. Rather than just mashing a button to perform the punch, you swing the stick in a similar motion that would be executed by the punch being executed. Because of this, the throwing takes on a more natural feel.



The Bad
Unfortunately there are some very serious drawbacks to this game.

For one, there are way too many loading screens. I can usually overlook this when playing console games (I'm primarily a PC gamer) but I just couldn't ignore the fact that the majority of the time spent sitting in front of the TV with this game involves looking at a loading screen. In the single player mode, from the end of one fight to the beginning of the next, I counted 12 loading screens. Yes, 12. You cannot even change into a menu sub-directory without a long load time. Awful design, and there is no excuse for it other than sub-par programming. The Xbox is perfectly capable of running a single main menu application.

POTENTIAL SPOILER

The single player game starts off ok, but soon you find that the AI is ruinous. That left hook to the body lands almost every time, and once you learn this and practice the timing, well, the game is over. I fought 30 fights straight throwing only one punch. The first (and last) single player career, which by the way is the first time I ever played the game and without reading the manual, left my record at 35-3-0 with 35 KOs. For someone that has never played the game before, that's too good of a record.

END POTENTIAL SPOILER

The fight store is a little unrealistic. For a game dedicated to realism they really shoot themselves in the foot charging you $300,000 for a mouth guard.

For whatever reason, the designers fail to include enough big boxing names which results in some boxers being in 2 different weight classes to fill the gaps. Perhaps Lennox Lewis wouldn't sign on so they had to include Holyfield in light heavy and heavyweight classes. I don't know, but there aren't enough names to fill all of the spots and provide for enough variety.

The training minigames are pathetic. After signing a contract to take on a fighter, you are given the chance to select a form of training to increase your stats before the next fight. Choose weightlifting and you build strength and stamina, the combo dummy will build speed and agility, etc. When you choose a training method, you are sent to a very simple minigame, and the better you do the better your stat increase. The problem is that the games are mundane the third or fourth time around, and never change throughout your career, resulting in a cumbersome experience that stands in the way of you, and fun.



The Bottom Line
If you have friends that will play hours on end with you, this is an exciting and fun experience that brings life to the Xbox. But as a single player experience, it falls short thereby effectively eliminated half of the content.

By D Michael on August 1st, 2007

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar (Windows)

A great addition to an fantastic game

The Good
Being a fan of 4x and Galactic Civilizations especially, I could not pass on the opportunity to experience Dark Avatar, the latest (at the time of this writing anyway) addition to the Stardock library.

Stardock is a rather independent software developer that makes all kinds of applications for the Windows environment, while endeavoring to create a few great gaming titles as well. Dark Avatar, which is the expansion for GalCiv II is no exception.

Veteran players can jump right into the action, as most of the changes are best experienced and learned through gameplay as opposed to reading the manual. At first glance, it might appear as if you're playing the same game. The early planet rush is still the same, the interface is the same, the game options are mostly the same. However, as the game progresses, new little details come up that have a profound impact on one's strategy and tactics.

I've heard others talk about this game, citing that the improvements are many, and even G4's X-Play review stated that the volume of new material is so vast that this product could have been a standalone sequel. I could not DISAGREE more. The volume of changes is in fact, quite small, but it is their implications that are vast. For example, say you were to add two new chess pieces to a game that had unique movements. The actual change or addition to the game itself is small, but the number of changes in how the game is played would be enormous. Dark Avatar is a lot like that.

Asteroid fields are one of these "chess pieces". You may now mine asteroids for manufacturing bonuses that can be directed towards neighboring colonies under your control. The manufacturing bonus provided here will allow for faster build times, which can be critical for jump starting your empire, or cranking out ships should your colony fall under an unexpected attack. This improvement is small, but it does change the way the game is played to an extent.

Espionage is another addition, where you may purchase agents to put on enemy colonies to spy and slow production by disabling certain planetary improvements. The counter to this is to produce agents of your own to nullify any enemy agents that might be on your colonies. The addition to the game is small and quite simple, but again it adds an entirely new strategical element to the gameplay.

Perhaps the most profound addition that comes with Dark Avatar is the ability to design and fine tune your opponents. The player is allowed to create a profile for his/her opponents, and then tweak their playstyle. Perhaps you'd like to populate your galaxy with militant AI that has a bonus to production, but perhaps is lacking in the diplomacy area. The possibilities are endless. While the average player may not take advantage of this feature much, the hardcore players will be absolutely delighted at the idea that they can create the exact gaming experience that they wish to have.

Another improvement is that the AI is probably the best in any game of any genre. In my review of GalCiv II, I mention the bone crunching capabilities of the AI. Well, the designers have made it even harder, so I expect that veteran players of GalCiv II will want to tone it down a notch when jumping into Dark Avatar. In any case, the AI is very thoughtful and often reacts like a human player. Rather than using numbers or cheats to overwhelm human counterparts (as is the case with most turn based and RTS games), the AI implements fantastic insight into the tough decisions that you force upon your enemies. For example, I was expanding my empire militarily and had a front line of offense spreading outwards. I was able to leave my inner planets undefended because no enemy ships would be able to penetrate my line of defense. The AI's response was to purchase a war ship from one of my allies that they were not at war with that happened to have ships on the inside of my circle, thereby being able to launch an attack on my undefended colonies. This is just one example of excellent strategy used by the AI.

There are plenty of new technologies and events that take place, as we'd expect in an expansion. The shipyard also has a few new extras for more exact customization of your ships. Furthermore, a lengthy campaign has been added.

It also appears that the occasional crash to desktop that I had with the original GalCiv II is no longer an issue.

System requirements are negligible. It will run on a P3 600 mhz with 128 mb RAM. To release a game today that runs on those specs is a testament to the confidence that the designers have in the content of this title.



The Bad
Dark Avatar is great, probably as good as 4x gaming can get, but I can find fault if I look hard enough.

For one (and again as mentioned in my GalCiv II review) there is no multiplayer. Stardock also mentions that they have no intention of EVER adding multiplayer to the GalCiv II line. While multiplayer action would make this game absolutely legendary, it would be kind of impossible. The game is designed from the ground up to be single player, and a large section of the tech tree and other features such as AI customization would be a red herring in the face of multiplayer action, so I can forgive this.

The diplomacy is still a little flaky. Often it's too easy to get an opponent to do something like attack another player or trade a valuable technology with you, but having them give you a ship (even a worthless one) or a planet that you're about to destroy is like pulling teeth. The good is that weak races don't just roll over for you when you become very powerful as in GalCiv II, the bad is that the game gets exceedingly long as you mop up helpless colonies in the far reaches of the galaxy because the AI will not surrender.

A couple of times I've had a massive military starbase destroyed even though it won the fight against attacking ships. It's annoying when you've had a star base upgraded to the absolute maximum, which by the way takes a very, very long time only to lose it to a bug.

I have to fault the new campaign for being rather ho-hum and boring. Creating your own games allows for much more freedom and a higher level of complexity in gameplay.



The Bottom Line
It's difficult for me to give Dark Avatar a perfect score as I did with GalCiv II simply because it's not an entirely new experience, although it is a better experience. Nevertheless, there is something for all fans of the series here, from the casual player, to the artist, to the hardcore perfectionist.

The bottom line is that this title belongs in every strategy gamer's library.

By D Michael on July 5th, 2007

Space Empires IV (Windows)

The way 4x games were meant to be played

The Good
It would seem that there is no shortage of 4x space themed games. From Emporer of the Fading Suns, to MOO, to Galactic Civilizations (the list goes on and on), we have a smorgasbord of titles to choose from if this genre piques our interests. Despite this, Space Empires IV sticks out above the plethora of other titles.

So what makes this game better than most others in its class? Early on, the game makes more mundane aspects of play rather simple, while the more fun parts have a higher level of complexity. This makes getting started easier. For example, there are only three different types of resources in SEIV This works just fine, do we really need twenty? Ship creation on the other hand allows for open ended type flexibility that allows for personal styles, tactics, and preferences to be fully realized (more on this in a bit).

The options for starting a game are varied and fully customizable. Victory conditions can be based off of total victory, score, technology level, among other things. There are several different galaxy sizes, from relatively cramped to hopelessly gigantic. Number of enemy players may be selected, and there is TCP/IP multiplayer option.

The menu system is verbose yet simple. With one click you can see every ship you have deployed and their relative locations, every colony you have established, extraterrestrial contact information, etc. You might notice a large colony that has no ships protecting it by switching through the menus. This allows for you to easily put out fires so to speak, in places that you aren't looking directly at during that moment in time.

The technology tree is vast, and midway through the game it is impossible to be proficient in all areas. This creates for a nice check and balance system that ensures that all players have some type of weakness that can potentially be exploited. Ship design is at the forefront of success in SEIV, and this main feature is both an integral part of being proficient in the game and lots of fun as well. Based on resources and technologies available, you may design ships as you see fit. Perhaps if you find yourself very close to a hostile enemy, your ships will be weapon heavy. However, if you find yourself in the far reaches of empty space, design from a logistical standpoint is a more practical approach. Maybe you need a mix of the two? Whatever the case, you have the ability to design ships based on your needs and specific play style. Good stuff!

Combat can be manually turn based or handled by the computer. I have much better success by conducting the battles myself. While the combat actions are somewhat limited, they do offer for choice and some simple turn based fighting strategies. Ships can have certain components damaged during a fight, such as an engine which results in limited speed, or perhaps a cargo bay is destroyed resulting in a loss of a commodity that was being carried. It is sometimes possible to capture a disabled enemy vessel which can allow for a new, instant technological discovery if there are unresearched items on board. It is also possible to install self-destructive devices on your ships to prevent your enemies from getting an easy technological "freebie" in the event that your ship is captured. Again this goes back to ship design, and the options are limitless. I just cannot stress how important and exciting this aspect of the game is in a simple review.

There are many diplomatic and espionage options. What I like is that there are several different types of alliances. Instead of just being allied or at war, it's possible to have varying degrees of disposition towards other empires. You may also trade, beg, or threaten from other empires. While the AI doesn't really respond how I think they should in regards to diplomacy, this is useful in multiplayer games. You may also induce pain on your enemy's colonies by sabotaging their colonies in certain ways. Perhaps messing with citizen loyalty before attacking is advantageous in reducing your attacking forces' losses, or maybe spying on their colony to see what type of items they are producing can reveal if they are planning an attack. I had one enemy reduce the loyalty of one of my distant worlds so much that they actually broke away from my empire, and as a result became an entirely new player introduced half way through the game!

I have to say, even though the music is simple and homemade, it works well to suit the mood of the game. The various tracks range from peaceful and serene to upbeat, but never harsh. As a matter of fact, there is a commercial on Current TV that borrowed a piece of music from this game. I recognized it immediately the first time I heard it.

The system requirements are basically non-existent. If you have a windows computer, you should be able to play this. If you aren't able to play this game due to system requirements, then it's likely that you aren't even able to read this review.

There are few bugs in this game, and I've yet to meet one that resulted in a crash.

The Bad
Unfortunately, this game is not flawless, and some of the design issues are enough to keep me from being a long time, hardcore fan of this series.

First and foremost, 4x games are most fun in multiplayer mode. However, the games are prohibitively long and all it takes is one person to lose interest and stop playing and this can really ruin the game for everyone else due to the way multiplayer is carried out. You basically play everything client side, save the file, and then have it sent to the host. Once the host receives everyone's file for that turn, it basically processes the data and produces a result, sending out the new files to the client players. Because of this, there is a weird kind of delay with some of the actions you might take. It's hard to explain, but think of it like this; you make a move based on another player's "circumstance". Other player's "circumstance" changes on the next turn because they corrected it on the previous turn, therefore your action due to circumstance is no longer relevant. It's frustrating.

The computer does cheat quite a bit, producing resources, ships, and colonies at a rate impossible to that of human players. This is to offset the AI's inability to really think and react to issues like a human being. What this means is that the early game usually consists of nothing more than holding out against the computer, until you happen to get on a level playing field where you can use almighty human intelligence to thoughtfully destroy your enemies that have no chance once the playing field is otherwise equal.

Lastly, the number of colonies and ships that are present in the game grows steadily (unless of course you're losing). The list gets bigger and bigger. It gets to the point where you can have literally hundreds of ships and hundreds of colonies. Despite the menu system being good, the player becomes hopelessly overburdened with empire management to the point where turns can take hours with the majority of time spent sifting through countless colonies and ships, only to find out next turn that you missed taking care of an issue with one anyway. This is a huge turn off as the game shifts from being a varietal 4x fanfare to a logistics simulation.



The Bottom Line
SEIV is one of the better 4x games out there. If you have a lot of patience and pride yourself on strategical creativity, then pick this up right away.

If on the other hand you need a quick fix or a low impact gaming experience, look elsewhere.

By D Michael on June 27th, 2007

Just Cause (Windows)

Just Cause? Lost Cause...

The Good
I have to admit this game was attractive at first glance. From the Guevara-esque cover to the GTA style freedom of play, it was hard for me to pass on this game, especially considering the fact that I obtained it from ebay at the whopping price of one dollar.

The story is of course something that many tend to dream about; being at the forefront of regime change in a corrupt third world country (or maybe that's just me), where the cause, the "just" cause is good, even though the methods are bad. How many games place the main character in the leading role of revolution where gun toting, car stealing, and drug dealing violence is an amalgam of methods for justice? It's hard not to like the idea.

The graphics are par for the course. I wouldn't call them superb, but they serve the purpose.

That's it for the good. Yep, that's it.



The Bad
Where do I begin?

Let's start with controls. First and foremost, there are too many of them. Controls for walking, driving a boat, a car, an aircraft, swimming, they're all different. Why? Sure, you can change the control options but it's long and tedious. As a matter of fact, there are so many controls that you'll find yourself changing them on an as needed basis. I for one don't understand why the forward button for driving a boat, walking, swimming forward must be different for every activity. Even after I change all of these in options, guess what! I pull up the map and moving the map forward, backward, etc. is all different as well. Ridiculous. Why do the pick up item and swap weapon (as in a weapon that is on the ground) have to be different? With my grappling hook, why does shortening or lengthening my distance have to be different keys than forward and back? Argh...

Combat is terrible. I have never once died in combat. As a matter of fact, early on in the game I was a gunner on a truck as helicopters and other vehicles chased us. The targets would be hit whenever I fired the weapon. I closed my eyes, and made it through the rest of the mission while destroying all incoming enemies. While this autoaim does not continue through to shoot outs, it's almost impossible to die in this game unless you're hit by a car. Furthermore, enemies appear out of nowhere. Have a empty road ahead of you? Turn 360 degrees and you'll have new enemies that appear out of nowhere.

You're always wanted. The cops never give up. In GTA you could lower your wanted level and cruise the streets in peace if you wanted too... however in this game, even though your wanted level drops down, the cops are always after you. To make matters worse, they all say the same thing; "stop right there citizen!". This is all you hear throughout the entire game. Well, there's that and the fact that a helicopter is chasing me everywhere shooting rockets at me. It never stops because I never die, and they never run out of ammo or people.

89 vehicles to command? Yeah, if you consider a VW lookalike bus and a VW lookalike station wagon to be 2 different vehicles. You actually have boat, car, plane.

Saving your game is an outrage. We're confined to console style saving tactics where the game can only be saved at key locations and not during missions or other events. Bleh. Too many times I've played longer than I care to play because there were logistical problems preventing me from saving.

The graphics seem a bit blurry and washed-out. The sound works ok, but the voice acting and cutscenes are rock-bottom terrible.



The Bottom Line
If premise alone made for great games, Just Cause might be at the top of the list. But that isn't reality, and I'm forced to accept the fact that good idea met bad design and this game won't be remembered for anything except for what NOT to do in game design.

By D Michael on May 18th, 2007

Crazy Machines: The Wacky Contraptions Game (Windows)

A very unique, if short, experience

The Good
This game could not be more accurately named, as the title just about says it all. In Crazy Machines we have the opportunity to experiment, design, and solve various Rube Goldberg style puzzles.

Rube Goldberg was a very famous cartoonist that was known for creating machines which were extremely complex, yet performed simple tasks in indirect ways. Various Warner Bros. cartoons featured some of these, and the hotly debated "Honda Commercial" is a great example of the type of contraption we're talking about.

The game starts off rather simple and direct. Each puzzle gives you a goal which often has arrows displayed in the lab which point out what item needs to go where. You may be instructed to knock a stack of boxes over, or perhaps pop a balloon. Of course, doing any of this requires creating a complex machine for the simple task. As the puzzles progress, the goals become more complex and the solutions less obvious.

You'll have a select reserve of machine parts, each that perform various functions, available to complete each puzzle. The parts range from something as mundane as a flat piece of wood, all the way to electrical outlets and machines, explosives, and even anti-gravity devices. What's more is that these parts interact with each other as you'd expect they would in a real life situation. Electrical wiring can get complicating, but the accuracy of function is so good that a real life electrician could probably provide electrical solutions on the first try while others will have to experiment with trial and error.

What really makes this game shine is the fact that there are many ways to solve one puzzle. By contrast, most other puzzle games have one solution, and you must discover the solution that the designer wants you to use. In Crazy Machines this isn't the case. You may even have parts left over, or solve the puzzle by accident. When you have placed your machine parts, there is a switch you hit to turn the machine on, and you can watch as the cause and effect of the entire contraption play out. If it doesn't work, you can make adjustments to problem areas. I had one puzzle which I solved completely by accident. I was supposed to knock a stack of boxes over by running into it with a hard object, but a balloon got loose and knocked them over. This was a completely unforeseen solution, but nevertheless was a solution which allowed me to continue on to the next puzzle. Furthermore, once the puzzle is solved, you have the option of viewing the "right" way of solving the puzzle and can compare what you did with what the designers had in mind. Sometimes the solutions are similar, and at other times not even close. I really like the fact that personal creativity and insight can be rewarded.

There are 103 puzzles. Sometimes you might complete 2 or 3 puzzles in a row, and other times you might work on a single puzzle for a long time. Eventually, you'll get to see what appears like every possible scenario for these crazy machines. Once you finish the puzzles (or before that if you like) there is a mode where you can play around and build your own experiments, or even make puzzles for other people to play. While I haven't gotten into this part of the game much, I would be very disappointed in the design if this feature were absent.

The Bad
There are some minor flaws with the game, but nothing too serious.

For one I didn't like that progress is recorded for only one person. There aren't multiple save slots, and you can only load the most recent puzzle. In other words, several people on the same computer will be playing each others' games, and not have their own.

There is sparse documentation to the game on CD. It's a mystery as to the function and/or purpose of some of the contraptions in the game which requires trial and error just to discover what something does. One of these machine's function was so vague that I had to actually cheat, solve the puzzle, and watch what it did in order to understand its purpose. There should have been a more verbose description of parts when you mouse-over them.

If you play the game regularly, you can finish all of the puzzles in a relatively short period of time. While this is forgivable because of the very low price of the game (less than half the cost of a big release retail title), if you're not into building your own experiments there is little reason to return. Replay value just isn't there.

There is some very slight stutter in the sound and graphics at times. I've tried the game on several different PCs this is present on all of them. It's not a major issue, but you will notice it.

The professor is very annoying, as are some other sound features, but thankfully these issues can be corrected through the options menu.



The Bottom Line
This is a very unique game that is a delight to play. Wonderful for children and adults alike, Crazy Machines delivers a solid PC gaming experience with an "outside of the box" approach to game design.

By D Michael on April 6th, 2007

Company of Heroes (Windows)

Deep and engaging, but not flawless

The Good
In case you haven't heard, Company of Heroes (here on out referred to as CoH), is a real-time strategy game of the WW2 flavor. Having played every major release RTS game from Warcraft to Rise of Nations and beyond, and also having experience with WW2 games like Call of Duty, Metal of Honor, and countless others, I figured I had seen it all. Wow was I mistaken!

Starting off with the tutorial because I refuse to even look at a manual, I was very well pleased with how straightforward the game controls are. Moving units around, having them take cover, perform special attacks, garrison buildings, and do everything else they are capable of is surprisingly easy and simple. Units confirm when they are selected, and confirm the orders you give them. Learning the game controls is as easy as RTS gaming gets, but using your units effectively and efficiently is another matter.

I noticed that the graphics even at middle of the road settings looks beautiful, and the game runs very nice for a modest system. Zooming in on your units reveals an unprecedented level of detail. Before I knew anything about the game and just looked at some random screenshots, I thought that this was a first person shooter (if that's any indication to the level of detail present).

Realism seems spot on. Physics are amazingly genuine, and the environment is almost entirely destructible. Blow up a big building with some artillery and watch as the structure falls apart like a real building would, all the while garrisoned troops go tumbling out of the windows. This level of realism puts you right into the battle. I even found myself feeling bad for a rifleman squad that got cut off and fell to German tanks because I couldn't back them up.

The sound is amazing and if you have a good speaker system, crank up the noise and make the neighborhood think that WW3 is upon us.

Your units have real personality and tell you what's going on when they're fighting. Infantry units can get pinned down and when they are, they'll usually say so and then be unable to fight. The option here is to have your men retreat back to base. I especially like some of the sayings your men voice, such as, "let them f** krauts eat a god grenade", or "eat s* you 'mf'" You get the idea. Quite profane at times but it only adds to the realism. I'm surprised that there was no language warning on the box, but not in any way disappointed at its presence. It is rated M+ if that's of any clue.

While there is not a gigantic variety of units to the game, there is a wide range of unit uses. Most units can be upgraded and may perform several functions. For example, engineers can be used to build structures, use flamethrowers on infantry, destroy buildings and bridges, salvage wrecked vehicles, deploy antitank guns, cut through barbed wire, the list goes on. For every type of unit there are several functions the unit may be capable of. Infantry can use grenades, sticky bombs, satchel charges, machine guns, upgraded weapons, the works. Furthermore, if a mortar or machine gun team is killed, the opponent can pick up and use the weapons left behind. VERY detailed.

When fighting, there are many factors that can determine whether or not an assault is successful. Outnumbering an enemy with superior weapons doesn't guarantee victory as is the case with almost every other RTS game out there. Let's say you attacked with 2 squads of infantry against 1 squad (you control squads, not individual soldiers) and lost. You must then examine contributing factors such as types of weapons used, veteran status (surviving many fights has units promoted making them more effective), cover (with there being 3 types, no cover, semi-cover, and cover), position, the works. It's not enough to just throw troops or tanks against an enemy with the odds in your favor and expect to win by brute strength, rather you must micromanage all of these things mentioned in order to provide for the most effective attack. In other words, you don't just order units, you control the very minute details of HOW they fight. Truly remarkable design.

Improving and acquiring new units is based upon resource acquisition. There are three types which are manpower, munitions, and fuel. Manpower is the most basic and abundance resource which is needed to make a new unit. You start with a good supply of manpower. Munitions are used to create some units but also to upgrade others or perform special actions. Want your infantry unit to grenade a building? It costs munitions. No munitions no special attacks, grenades, satchel charges and the like. Finally, fuel is used mostly for armored vehicles and tends to be the least available. This is balanced by the fact that armored vehicles can be very difficult to dispose of.

Vehicles are very detailed and interesting. Shooting a tank in the back is much more effective than in the front. Furthermore, certain parts of a tank can be damaged or destroyed. If the engine is damaged the tank moves slowly, if it's destroyed it's a sitting duck. Of course engineers can repair it over time, but this is provided that the tank survives the attack that damaged it to begin with. The vehicle's gun can be damaged, or if moving at high speed and running over a mine the tank can be out of control for a few seconds.

Early in the campaign I was directed to set up an ambush for an incoming German convoy. I set up some mines in the road, strategically positioned some machine gunners on the side of the road in bunkers, and then watched as the convoy came through, running into mines, spinning out of control, while the drivers and passengers bailed out only to be subject to unforgiving machine gun fire. Awesome!

The AI is excellent. The computer opponents do not mindlessly attack you, and instead makes what seem to be coordinated and intelligent moves against you. I deployed some engineers to repair a building that was being attacked by two tanks, and the computer responded by diverting one tank's fire to the engineers while the other continued to attack the building. The game responds intelligently to what you do, and is good at making common sense decisions along with attacking you in your weak spots. Countless other RTS games seem to just build massive armies and then try to overrun you. CoH expects you to play a smart game, and it's nice that in return it provides you with one.

Multiplayer is a load of fun, and the games can go on for a very long period of time. It takes awhile to be able to mount a strong enough attack to overrun your enemy, but usually the road to victory is traveled by those that mount multiple, simultaneous attacks at various areas. Players vie for control of various strategic and resource points to gather more munitions and fuel. Much of the game is spent fighting at various hot spots around the map, not laying siege to your opponents HQ. The game requires a high level of attentiveness over a long period of time during multiplayer. My first multiplayer game ever was against a guy that had played over 50 games and even though he destroyed me it took him a good two hours to do so. Time well spent though.

Multiplayer is done via an in game program that will allow you to connect and play without much effort at all. Ranked games exist and a record of your victories and losses are present for others to see. Good stuff.

The Bad
I wasn't looking to find the bad in this game, but I didn't need to. Although I have not read another review of this game, I did notice that many game sites gave it a perfect score. I find it hard to believe that there are those that found this game to be perfect.

If I had to rate on how exciting and good the gameplay is alone, of course I would give it the maximum rating possible, however in reviewing the whole package, there are a few things that strike a nerve with me.

For one there is no way to remap controls. Not a big deal until you find that the default (and mandatory) control setup is totally backwards. The game is best experienced with multiple camera angles, but to change the camera angle you must hold down Alt while you move the mouse around. To make matters worse, resetting the camera involves hitting backspace twice. While you're doing all of this it is near impossible to control your troops or progress the gameplay, so I've found that many have resigned trying to use the various camera angles because of the awkward, unalterable controls.

There are not enough options, of any kind. There is an awful lot of horizontal tearing, but no option in the game to sync the frames. Reviewing the readme file explains that you must use third party software to force a vsync, but the problem with doing that in such a manner is that it tends to be cpu intensive, thereby reducing the speed of gameplay. Either bog down or deal with the tearing, it's up to you.

There aren't enough game options. You can win by annihilation (destroying all of your enemy) or points acquired by holding strategic positions. That's it. Furthermore, the skirmish mode is lacking in that you cannot have woefully uneven teams. Not a big deal, but there are also only two teams. A four man free for all? Forget it. You are either Axis or Allies and there is only ever one side fighting the other. This was a disappointment for me.

The system requirements are very high, which means that the majority of gamers will not be able to experience the very high detail graphics at speed which is playable. Even still the requirements are high enough that other groups of gamers may not be able to play the game at all, while others will be so bogged down that they may choose not to play.

Press any key? After a scenario is loaded you get this message. You can't just hit the mouse, you must actually press a key on the keyboard or click directly on the message. Is this DOS or something?

Upgrades and special actions require too many resources. On smaller maps and especially in single player mode, even controlling half or better of the map has you starving for resources. I had to back off of a building and wait almost a full two minutes until I had enough munitions to throw in a grenade, all the while not making any new units. You do get upgrades to your command giving you further special abilities as we've seen in C&C Generals, but often times they require so many resources that you can find yourself earning rank only to gain special abilities that you can't afford to use.

In very long multiplayer games, this is not as big of an issue. But in skirmish games with small or medium maps it is a constant pain in the ass.

It's rarely possible to come back from a heavy defeat. Once you've had a decisive battle mid-game and lost a resource point or two, it's extremely difficult to recover. You are starved for resources while your opponent gets wealthy. The alternative you have is to generate more units rather than spending on unit upgrades or special moves, but the problem this generates is that your opponent will gain more and more veteran units while you're throwing fresh meat at him. There is too much of a snowball effect once you've taken a big lump. As a result, it is often clearly visible who the winner is going to be, even hours before the game can be ended. That's a real drag.

UPDATE! There has been some patching going on and the dynamics of the game have seriously changed. Most notably, online game matching is more buggy than ever. It often takes a very long time to have a ranked game begin, even with several people in queue, all waiting. Furthermore, the statistics system is not working properly. Some people aren't having any of their wins counted, others aren't having their losses counted. This results in the rank which is displayed being completely inaccurate. You might go up against a rank 1 player that is a professional CoH player, or you might go against a rank 6 player that can't play worth squat. Furthermore, most of the match making is based on rank, which means that if your losses aren't being counted, you will consistently be paired with high ranking players (which may, or may not have earned it).

I personally have 63 wins that haven't been counted, so my official record is 21-20 for 2v2 games, when it should be 84-20. Huge difference. This was brought up on the official forums, and the response from the public relations people was, "the ranking system is far from flawless, don't expect there to be a fix anytime soon."

For others, the ranking system means nothing. However, in the latest patch they made the allies so strong that the game is horribly unbalanced. It takes an exceptional axis player to beat a humble, casual allied player now. Whereas the axis had their strength in armor previously, with allies having powerful infantry squadrons, the allied tanks are now superior, leaving axis players at a disadvantage on all fronts. Couple this with the ranking issues and poor speed with game match making, and CoH's multiplayer online option has become an almost complete disaster. I must change the rating for the game in light of this.

The Bottom Line
Despite some minor flaws this is simultaneously the best RTS and WW2 game ever made in my opinion. It's truly amazing that the developers could take two of the most tired genres in the industry and make a game that will impress even the most jaded gamers. I look forward to more games like this!

By D Michael on February 23rd, 2007

Jane's Combat Simulations: F-15 (Windows)

One of my all time favorite combat sims

The Good
Janes F-15 puts you in the cockpit of one of the most well respected jet fighters of all time. The Janes people are well respected for their role in documenting military weapons information. I would expect a game of this caliber, delivered by an icon in these circles to be top notch. They do not fail to deliver.

First of all, the cockpit interface is truly remarkable. Just about every button or switch performs a function of some kind which is accurate to it's real life application. You could play this game, learn the F-15, and then be able to sit in a real F-15 cockpit and point to a switch and say, "this does x" or "that does y". Furthermore, as in real life, one cannot view all of the switches, knobs, and buttons by staring directly forward. Fortunately, a view change is as simple as a key press away, or you may switch to a free look mode that allows you to look all over the cockpit and even in various directions around your aircraft (up, left, right, back, 45 degrees forward, whatever). Using the mouse you can activate the various switches or buttons for the desired effect.

Various control schemes are widely supported and customizable. If you only have a keyboard, or if you have a fully decked out flight control system, you'll be able to configure the game to work for you.

Gameplay consists of two single player campaigns, training, and a skirmish mode where you may select the types of targets to engage, their skill level, and the like for those that require instant satisfaction. The atmosphere of realism provided for in the cockpit doesn't stop there. You get a sense that you are really a part of a much bigger operation. The Iraqi campaign contains real missions that were flown during operation desert storm, and the fact that you can call and command wingmen, talk with an AWACS, and other parties makes you feel that you're not alone, even though you're in one player mode. What's more, different parties to the war sound differently. For example, your co-pilot's voice sounds like he's right next to you, a wingman may communicate with a flat sound like he's on a radio, and the AWACS, far away tells you about potential enemies while radio interference makes them hard to understand at times. Really good stuff.

The missions are quite varied, and you'll find yourself playing multiple roles involving air superiority, bombing runs, interception, or just plain recon where little or nothing happens. Also, there is quite a bit of explanation behind each mission. It's fun to read the lengthy text before taking off, as it makes you familiar with the task ahead while developing some level of rapport with your instructors which in turn makes you want to do well. You get a good sense of purpose by taking the time to read the background behind the missions.

This is not an arcade style flight game. Rather, you'll have long periods of boredom seasoned with short bursts of excitement, just like a real war or a live combat patrol may be like.

I just can't begin to explain all of the things that make this game so realistic, from the computer systems and functional switches inside the aircraft, dropping a bomb while your altitude is too low which results in causing damage to your plane, to the real life gulf war missions and awesome flight model which accounts for real life physics, to the capability (or lack) of the Mig 23 when compared to the F-15 while factoring in enemy pilot skill, this game is a testament to the desire and success of the game's developers to make a truly accurate combat flight sim. If I was an intelligence agent for another country, and I was assigned to get information about the F-15, I'd just hand deliver this game to my superiors.

Communication with your wingmen and other entities is also a nice addition. You can tell your wingmen to cover you, attack specific targets, fall back, change formation, the works. You may also communicate with other entities for information and planning purposes. Wingman get shot down? Ask for a search and rescue to the area. Sometimes you get a response saying that it can't be done, other times they say a search and rescue team is being dispatched. When you receive this message, you can hear the sound of the propellers from the communicating aircraft in the background. So exciting!

The graphics and sound are superb, the level of realism rich, and the replayability excellent.

The Bad
Having said that, this game is for the F-15 and military enthusiast. Button mashers, action junkies, most console gamers, or those that want quick fix gaming should look elsewhere as you'll spend the large majority of your time flying to a location. Probably less than 1% of the mission times involve any hair raising combat, and some provide 0%. This can be a negative or positive attribute of the game depending on your perspective.

On flying to a location, it can take a very long time to get there. Remember, this game is about realism, so if a target is 400 nautical miles away, and you're going 200 knots, it's going to take two hours to get there. Along the way there are waypoints, and you have the option of instantly jumping to the next waypoint. The problem with this however is that there may be an encounter on your way to the next waypoint, and you'll either arrive at the next waypoint lacking wingmen, with damage, or dead.

POTENTIAL SPOILER Finishing the campaigns is not rewarding. You expect for there to be some big finale for all of your efforts. This doesn't happen, and it's a let-down. END SPOILER

This game only supported 3dfx cards. If you didn't have one, you were out of luck. You could play the game in 2d mode but it was buggy, especially on the interface screens. There is a patch now, I hear, which allows the game to be played in D3D but I haven't done that as I have multiple systems and just play the game on a voodoo 2 card.

The Bottom Line
If you want combat flight realism, accuracy, and excitement, Jane's F-15 is for you. I can't think of another combat flight simulator that can do what this title has done.

By D Michael on February 21st, 2007

Top Gun (NES)

A flight game with no flight model!

The Good
Top Gun was one of the only flight games available for the NES at the time of its release. Because of this, and my desire to play some kind of flight themed game that contained a cockpit view, I happened upon Top Gun.

I appreciated the cockpit view, along with the landing and take-off sequences. There is actually a level of skill required for landing that takes quick yet steady reflexes to accomplish effectively. A feature that console flight games generally lacked during this time.

Furthermore, you have two types of weapons; missiles and the cannon, but we'd expect that. It was fun to mix up the attack a bit, fire a missile or two and then lay on the gun.

When flying above the clouds the view is a bit hazy, which adds a tad bit of realism making one feel that they are really way up in the air.

Honestly, I can't think of any other positive thing to say about this game.

The Bad
The way I see it, there are two types of flight games. One is the simulator, the other is of the arcade style. Top Gun is the exception in that it doesn't even come close to resembling either of these, rather it fails at delivering either experience.

The game is as unrealistic as the movie is, which may not bother some but I'd venture to say that if we're going to throw realism out the window, we should at least be treated to arcade style action. We aren't.

My biggest complaint about this game is that there is absolutely no flight model. You cannot perform a barrel roll, a loop, or any other kind of acrobatic maneuver. As a matter of fact, your movement is so restricted that you are only limited to very gentle climbs and dives, and some insignificant left and right turning (or banking). You cannot change direction, and what's worse is that you can clearly tell after playing this game only once, that moving the plane around is nothing more than viewing a different part of a much larger screen. That's right, the only thing that changes is the viewable area of the screen when moving around. For example, take a roll of paper towels, and sit about 5 feet away from your television. Look through the center piece at the TV, and you'll only see a small section. Move it around, and that is what maneuvering in Top Gun is like. Problem is, the viewable area is only a couple of inches larger than the screen itself. Want to crash into the ground? Forget it, you're not allowed below a certain altitude. You really are that restricted. Truly awful design.

The music is repetitive and annoying. It's a very short piece that loops and drives you mad. You can't get it out of your head after playing either, like a bad, yet catchy song you hear on the radio that makes you regret having ever tuned in on the day you heard it.

You may select from three different missile types, hound, wolf, and tiger, each more powerful than the last. The stronger the missile, the less you can carry. Choose the largest and most powerful missile and you can carry 10 of them, the least powerful and you can carry 40 (very unrealistic in both cases). The problem is that missile effectiveness is really only noticeable on hard targets present at the end of each mission which is involves about 1% (or less) of total gameplay time. This means that weapon selection is largely irrelevant and the only real choice is to choose the option that allows you to carry 40 missiles so you can have plenty of ammunition for the trip to said hard target.

The only redeeming value to the game is the landing sequence. You come in for a landing and must make minor adjustments to make it safely onto the carrier. Problem is, once you get close to landing, the view switches to a side view animation showing your aircraft either A. landing on the carrier or B. crashing. During this animation you have no control at all, so bringing the plane to a halt or making adjustments after you're on the flight deck is not an option.



The Bottom Line
To me there is no side of the flight genre that can make any viable argument for this game. Top Gun can't be considered a simulation due to its blatant disregard for physics and complete lack of a flight model, and can't be considered an arcade style game because the action is slow, boring, restricted, and just downright unexciting. But hey, I guess the designers figured that if the movie can be such a huge success without substance why should the game have to be any different?

By D Michael on February 15th, 2007

Maze Craze: A Game of Cops 'n Robbers (Atari 2600)

By D Michael on February 15th, 2007

Quake II (Windows)

A let down

The Good
Quake II wasn't all bad, there were some very big improvements over the first installment, even if the game as a whole didn't live up to its predecessor.

For one the graphics engine was phenomenal. Again we're treated to fantastic graphics that run extremely fast even on poor systems of the time. It amazes me how fast and smooth the game would run, while just about everything else out at the time looked worse and ran half as fast.

The single player was a big improvement. Enemy AI was much, much better, the story (although lacking by standards of the time) was better than the first installment, and the level design while not as good in my opinion, offered a wider variety of colors and environments over the first. Furthermore, the lighting effects were much, much better than the first and the character models far more detailed (but we'd expect that with a newer game).

The Bad
Unfortunately everything else is lacking. While Quake 1 gave us fantastic multiplayer action while failing to deliver on the single player campaign, Q2 is the opposite. The single player is decent, but the multiplayer was atrocious.

The state of the online community surrounding Q2 reflected this. This was a game that outsold its predecessor, but still there were fewer ladders, competitions, and online servers.

Some designer got the bright idea that the rocket launcher in Q1 was too powerful, so they dumbed it down, they nerfed it BIG TIME. Not only did the rocket launcher produce a minimum amount of damage, the rockets traveled so slow after being fired that it could take 4 or 5 seconds to reach your target. Not only that but the blast radius was so small that only a direct hit would really do anything, but even so that was dumbed down as well and it would take multiple direct hits on an unarmored opponent. Worthless.

But then they introduce the rail gun. A one shot instant fire, instant kill weapon. This wouldn't be so bad because many FPS games have a weapon of this sort, but to shoot themselves in the foot, the designers slowed player movement to a crawl. The result is everyone using rail guns; the instant kill weapon while players move around at a snail's pace. The result is that newbish, unskilled players are now on level playing field with seasoned veterans, and the game comes down to excessive camping with those that have the faster computer to get into the level first usually ending up the winners.

The multiplayer was slower and buggy. There were crashes, and super low pings were less common than in the first installment. Lots of activity in game would cause slow down, even if your machine is 10x the recommended specifications. The DM was slower, required less skill, and there were fewer customizations available to the end user.

Furthermore, the multiplayer level design was not as good as the previous installment, and the game generally lacked the hard core multiplayer experience that the first offered.

The Bottom Line
If single player goodness is what you're after, and you feel that the original Quake failed to deliver, then this one is for you.

If you're a hardcore multiplayer competitor, then you're out of luck with this title.

By D Michael on February 6th, 2007

Quake (DOS)

Best deathmatch, hands down

The Good
This game is a legend, and anyone that even remotely loves online deathmatch, CTF, or other FPS type games should know what I'm talking about.

First of all, the graphics for the time period are simply amazing. I can remember running this game on a 4 meg Diamond Monster 3d card and it was blazing fast and quite simply beautiful. The sound and music are top notch as well, and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) takes credit for that.

Next, the level design is fantastic. Playing deathmatch and arena or other mods reveals just how well thought out the levels are. American McGee among others are responsible for very well planned environments. You can tell that this game wasn't just thrown together, and one can even imagine Id's offices a big mess with drawings and print outs in regards to level design posted all over the walls.

Furthermore, the game is fully customizable. Quake is either the first, or one of the first games to feature the use of the console in game (something that is now standard on all FPS games). With a little instruction one could enter commands into the console to alter the settings of the game in real time. There was so much versatility and control given to the user, that you could even manipulate the way your online connection functions (like eliminating delta from the tcp/ip function with commands like cl_nodelta 1), what information is given to the player, which models are drawn on the screen and which aren't, the list is exhaustive and goes on and on. The level of customization afforded to the end user was so powerful that Quake could run on just about any machine, and not only that but look and play entirely different on different PC's.

The multiplayer is unbelievably fast. I used to ping 16 with an ISDN connection, and had a friend on 56k that could ping 90. Yes, with some in game tweaking ultra low pings were possible. Furthermore, you could be in a big deathmatch, rockets flying all over the place and 6 or 7 people on your screen with the settings maxed out, and never have your ping move or your framerate drop, all while playing on a p133 with 64mb RAM and a 4meg video card. Phenomenal!

The deathmatch modes are the real meat an potatoes here. I've yet to find any DM type FPS games that are as fast or as hardcore as this game. There isn't much in the way of fancy items or powerups save for some armor, extra health, and occasional quad damage or invulnerability. This game requires raw skill, precision aiming, and knowledge of map layouts all of which take months or even years to perfect.

There are lots of user created maps and add-ons. Clan Arena and Rocket Arena, along with QuakeWorld were my favorite mods, but they also had Team Fortress and other ambitious mods. Now that the game is open source, the sky is the limit.

The Bad
The single player game is weak and mostly worthless. I had first played in single player mode and this made me quit the game for a couple of months until I started hearing from everyone about how untouchable the multiplayer was.

Learning console commands might be discouraging to some, but then again knowledge of their function is not a requirement for play. On the other hand, to have any chance of success during serious competition a working knowledge of the commands is a must, and a .cfg file must be tested and tweaked ad naseum in order to achieve one's full potential. This can be good or bad depending on your disposition.

Some complained that the colors were drab and got old. Lots of shades of brown and gray throughout the levels.

The Bottom Line
Quake is the single best DM game hands down, even today. Even though it was released in 1996, people are still playing it regularly, although the online population is only a fraction of the size it used to be. I played the game from 1996 to 2004 when I finally retired, and there were still big clans, ladders, competitions, and public and private servers available. The speed of the game, multiplayer code, meat and potatoes deathmatch, and customizing options have made this game one I'll never forget.

By D Michael on February 6th, 2007

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (Intellivision)

Lots of fun for its time

The Good
I played this game when I was young. It was impossible to convince my parents to purchase an Intellivision so my experience with the system was limited to only a few games that a friend had. What made AD&D exciting was not just the early 80s fantasy RPG craze, but the fact that it was somewhat taboo, especially to my folks. My 'friend' that had this system and game was annoying to me, but nevertheless I spent many nights at their place just so I could play the game. I know that's bad, but hey a gamer's gotta do what a gamer's gotta do.

The story is quite simple really. You must make your way to the big mountain on the far right of the screen and get two pieces of a crown that you connect together to end the game. Getting there is half the fun.

Part of the game is on the overlay map, the other part is in mountains. On the map, movement is simple in that you can move in one of four directions. Some mountains are impassible, the forest requires an axe, the gate a key, and the rivers a boat. Other mountains can be passed by fighting your way through the interior.

There are various difficulty levels, with 'Hero' being the hardest. You begin on the map and plot your way through to the large mountain on the right. Since the layout of the map is different in every game, considering your path is required each and every time you play. It is possible (sometimes) to complete the game without getting the key, axe, or boat but where's the fun in that?

Obtaining any of these items requires entering certain mountains and fighting through monsters for the reward. I like that the game control inside of the mountain caves is handled by using the disc for movement, and the numberpad for the direction of firing your arrows. As a result, you can be moving in one direction while shooting arrows in another. Arrows can also ricochet off of walls, and a skilled player can stay well out of harms way while deflecting arrows at his enemy. Alternatively however, your own arrows might backfire and hit you.

Like the map, the caves inside the various mountains are different every time, being randomly generated. The various monsters are in different positions as well. Among these are some that annoy you by slowing you down, steal your arrows (you do have a limited supply and can run out if you use too many without finding more), or just flat out try to kill you. Once you make it to the final cave, there are fast moving demons found nowhere else in the game guarding pieces of the crown needed for completion and it takes a whopping 3 arrows to kill them.

Upon completion of the game (which shouldn't take more than 20 minutes at a time), there is a sound played that is the best sound I've ever heard in retro gaming. It is a blissful, yet powerful tone, and I can't even begin to describe it. Ever go to the movies and see the THX stereo demonstration at the beginning? If you know what I'm talking about, yeah it's kinda like that.

The Bad
The game is a little short, but thankfully offers some replay value via varied maps and randomly generated cave passages (think diablo type randomness).

Keeping inventory of your arrows is so annoying. You can often run out of arrows being completely defenseless. There is no number on the screen reflecting the number of shots you have in reserve, rather a button that you push on the controller that makes the game sound off with a rapid succession of 'ticks'. Think of a metronome on the fastest setting and then speed that up a bit. Every 'tick' represents one arrow. The count is fast enough that you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between 15 and 20 arrows. If you have too many arrows, then the sound takes forever to go away, even at its rapid pace. I counted arrows one time, waited awhile for the count to finish, got up, poured myself some juice, went to the restroom, came back and it was still ticking. Very annoying but still kinda funny.

The Bottom Line
For its time, there was no other game like this one. Not because it was better than anything else, but because it was more original than anything else out there. I seem to remember this being my favorite Intellivision game. Highly recommended if you're a fan of Intellivision, but if you are a fan, I sure you already know about this one.

By D Michael on January 2nd, 2007

Wizardry 8 (Windows)

Fantastic finale which leaves us hungry for more.

The Good
(Some minor spoilers)

Wizardry 8, the final addition to this 20+ year old series does everything that made the classic games a success, while adding so much more.

For the first time, we are treated to free flowing movement, 3d graphics (DirectX and OpenGL both supported), an entirely new combat system, and characters with real personality.

Fans of the older games should not be put off by the free flowing movement. Step by step tile based movement was the norm with the previous games, and more than a few Wizardry lovers were skeptical about the change to movement, worried that the traditional gameplay would be thrown off, perhaps resulting in a game that resembles more modern RPGs than the Wizardry series. I can say for certain that this isn't the case. The developers did an excellent job of revolutionizing movement all the while staying true to the classic feel. While the graphics are not as good as other first person games of the time, they are way, way above standard for Wizardry games. Besides, it was never graphics that made the series a success, so the 3d is just gravy. Not to mention, it runs very smoothy on relatively older systems. I for one would rather have average graphics that run awesome, rather than awesome graphics that run slow.

The combat system is new to the series, and quite unique. With six members in your party, you have the option of strategical placement of each member. Fighters and melee up front, casters and ranged attackers in the middle or back. Should monsters end up behind you though, your melee classes will be out of range and your more delicate characters will be subject to melee attack. Nevertheless good placement is key to keeping characters alive.

As far as the fighting goes, there are many options for various characters. Melee, ranged attack, use of items, spells, defense (allowing you to recover stamina by passing on an action in combat, useful if you're character is about to go unconscious during battle), even protection of other party members are all individual actions each member can take. A party member is close to death? Have a couple of members offer to defend them until your healer can cast a spell. Lots of strategies and various play styles are allowed giving the player a sense of individuality in their tactics. Good stuff.

There is no real wrong way to build a party. Just about any combination of characters can win. I've even read about hardcore players that could solo the entire game with one party member. This isn't to say that the game is easy, far from it. All party configurations will be put to the test.

Creating characters is fun, and not too daunting. While there are a load of stats, the interface serves to make creation friendly and simple. You can also assign personalities and voices to your characters. This is great fun, as various statements made by your characters throughout the game will correspond with their personality. What's more, if you get tired of a particular voice or personality, you can change it at any time during the game. In traditional Wizardry fashion, you may also import characters from the previous scenario (Wizardry 7).

The story is excellent, and while it continues on eventually giving conclusion to the Dark Savant saga, new players would not need to play the previous versions.

The mix of fantasy and technology began with DW Bradley in Wizardry V, and in Wizardry 8 it's more apparent than ever. I enjoy fighting with swords, bows, and spell casting all the while being blocked by force fields controlled by computers. It's a nice touch that lends yet more uniqueness to the series. That's not to say that no other game or series has incorporated technology with fantasy, but Wizardry does it best.

In addition to your party members, you're also able to take some people along with you at certain times. They have their own personalities and skills. NPC interaction is also good, as diplomacy returns, along with the ability to pickpocket, shoplift, do quests for and align yourself with various NPCs.

There is plenty to do in the game, and you do not have to complete every little side quest or explore every single area.

Also, there are some nice twists such as a party member being eaten by a monster and you have to kill the monster to get your member back. On one occasion, a party member got kidnapped and I had to rescue him. All good stuff.

I really could go on and on about this game, but honestly I feel that words cannot describe the atmosphere and level of immersion this game has. You can't be told what Wizardry is, you must experience it for yourself (kinda like the matrix).

The Bad
There are some flaws with this game, and I believe that the level of complexity in comparison to other Wizardry installments is what brings this about.

There are too many fights, and often the combat lasts way too long. Even when fighting relatively easy enemies that you're going to annihilate, it may take a couple of minutes to hack and slash through them. Boo. I had a fight against three groups of monsters totaling around 20 opponents, but they were all little bugs that would die in one hit. The majority of the time was spent waiting on the computer to move the bugs around into position. I timed it and it took 8 minutes to finish combat without a scratch. After it was finished, I immediately got into another fight with monsters that wanted to fight at range, and when closing the distance they'd run. That took another 6 minutes or so to kill low level monsters. After that, I got in a fight with what was an even match. That took about 5 minutes, but I had to camp in order to restore my characters. While camping, I was interrupted and had another fight that lasted 3 minutes. Then I finished camping. In total, I spent about 22 minutes walking about 10 feet. Ugh.

There are quite a few bugs. While there is a patch available, it is supposedly only for discs that don't have 1.2.4 printed on them. The older discs will wear out requiring a replacement, and the newer discs while not needing the patch, still have bugs. Sometimes NPCs that join the party become buggy or invisible. Having done quite a bit of research online however, there are almost always work-arounds for these bugs, so if you have a problem google is your friend.

The worst part about this game isn't about the game itself, but the fact that this is certainly the final wizardry. Sir-Tech is out of business, and if we did see some other company endeavor to continue the series I would bet dollars to cents that the new company wouldn't be able to give the series a proper revival when considering the same company designed these games for 20 years.

The Bottom Line
The best Wizardry ever, highly recommended for fans and newcomers alike. If you can get past the long combat, this game has so, so much to offer.

By D Michael on December 31st, 2006

Super Punch-Out!! (SNES)

Much better than its predecessor

The Good
Super Punch-Out takes us back into the ring to fight a variety of opponents on the SNES. Originally, "Punch Out" was an arcade game by Nintendo that paved the way for "Super Punch Out" (arcade), and then finally on to Mike Tyson's Punch Out for NES and Super Punch Out for SNES.

This is not a technical boxing game, rather an arcade beat 'em up. Unlike it's ancestors, Super Punch Out has excellent and precise controls, a wider variety of opponents, and a time attack mode as an alternate type of gameplay.

While Mike Tyson's Punch Out for NES was celebrated as one of the best boxing games of all time, this sleeper goes way beyond that game in terms of control, practicality, everything. For instance, there is a difference between the left and right handed punch. In Mike Tyson's Punch Out (MTPO from now on) you could play through the entire game using just the left or right punch. There was basically no difference between the two. In Super Punch Out however, this isn't the case. If your opponent dodges to his left, you may only be able to hit him with your right hand. Rather than a mostly stationary opponent, in Super Punch Out your opponents move around the ring quite a bit and depending on which side of the screen they are on, you would need to use the correct hand to punch effectively.

I also prefer the way super punches are handled. In MTPO one needed to gain stars to throw an uppercut. Stars were at times hard to get as only hitting your opponent at very specific times would award you one. In Super Punch Out you have a power meter, and every time you land a blow it begins to fill up. Once you have maximum power, you can throw super punches, and as many as you want so long as your power meter is full. If you super punch to the body you'll throw a hook, to the head an uppercut, and if you double tap the super button you'll throw a series of rapid punches. Each type of super punch has its own strength and weakness, along with appropriate times for each to be used for maximum effectiveness.

Another good thing about this game is the fact that it plays more like a boxing game, rather than a timing game. In MTPO, you basically did counter attacks to your opponent, whereas in this game you do not need to wait for a specific time to land a hit. As a matter of fact, there are times when you and your opponent can hit each other at the same time. So instead of waiting for the computer player to do his special moves and then counter attack as the sole focus of the game, this one plays more like a beat 'em up where close up brawls take place. You might smack each other back and forth, hit each other at the same time, or even stun your opponent allowing for you to get in some good shots while he stumbles around the ring. This type of thing never happened in MTPO.

The variety of characters is awesome. Some will be familiar to Punch Out fans, some are making their debut. You also don't have to bother fighting the same opponents again as you progress through the various boxing circuits (an annoyance in MTPO). Some characters are obviously boxers, while others will use kung fu, magic, and just straight up dirty fighting by spitting in your face causing you to lose focus as the SNES goes into mode 7 and disallows you from punching until you recover. All good stuff.

There are no rounds in Super Punch Out. You have one round to beat your opponent. This is good though, as in MTPO you had up to 3 rounds but this resulted in spending just as much time outside of the ring as in. When you play Super Punch Out, you are in the ring 99% of the time. No long intermission screens or other garbage that slows down the progress of the game. It's all action and it's all good.

Ducking and dodging punches are different. Some types of punches you can only dodge, others you must duck. Aside from that you can block low and high. If you play to the end of this game, you must master all moves.

In MTPO, there was an entire storyline created about this small boxer named "Little Mac". Really though, the designers implemented the "Little Mac" story simply because it was difficult to make a boxing game in third person where you could see both you and your opponent, and therefore had to make your opponents two or three times your size so you could see all of the action. In Super Punch Out, "Little Mac" is gone and instead they made the top half of your boxer transparent as in the arcade versions but with better results.

Finally, the game starts off with very easy opponents and very slowly raises the difficulty until you are faced with some hardcore boxers. Players of all skill levels, from the complete novice to the master will be satisfied with the wide variety of challenges. Did I mention you can also configure the controller buttons to your liking? More console games need this feature.

The Bad
Hmm, there is nothing not to like about this game. It's all action, all fun. If I really had to nit-pick, I guess I'd have to say that I hate battery backed games because the batteries go out and you cannot save your game. Emulation with saved states is an option for the tech-savvy.

There isn't much of a story here. You box, that's it.

The Bottom Line
This is by far the best Punch Out game ever. It feels, plays, looks, sounds, and does everything better than any arcade style boxing game around. I highly recommend this one.

By D Michael on December 28th, 2006

Outlaw Golf (Xbox)

Golfers and non-golfers enjoy!

The Good
I consider there to be three types of golf games. The first type is the technical, realistic kind, the second is the silly, low impact kind, and then there's Outlaw Golf.

Outlaw Golf has done an excellent job of combining attractive and entertaining comedy with realistic and technical gameplay.

It's called "Outlaw Golf" I assume because of the characters with which you play the game. Most of these folks are bikers, ex-cons, or just quirky in general. They are all character types you wouldn't expect to see out on the course. Most have witty sayings and practice risque behavior out on the course, and the announcer is right there with them with rude and suggestive comments.

Nevertheless, the gameplay side is highly technical. For one, strokes are executed by holding directly back on the R analog stick, and then pushing directly forward to make a straight swing. If you are just a hair off in either direction, the ball will hook or splice. This swing style takes lots and lots of practice, and even after completing and unlocking the entire game, there were many instances in which I'd mess up hitting the ball. I liked this, because even Trevino, Woods, and (especially) Muriyama hit the ball out of bounds from time to time. Of course you can select the point of impact on the ball for spin, and make numerous other adjustments that factor into your shot aside from the use of the R analog swing system.

Another thing I liked is that your character will be affected by both bad and good shots. For example, if you make consistently good shots, it will become easier and easier to hit the ball straight. Land in the rough or out of bounds, and your character will become upset and it will be extremely difficult to hit the ball straight. I liked this level of realism, in that when things are going good out on the course, your confident rises and the game gets easier.

Putting is no joke either. If you are trying hard to sink the ball once you're on the green, you'll find yourself taking a lot of time to plan out your shot. You can view the green from multiple angles, examine the grade of the ground, and make adjustments accordingly. Then once you have decided on the best approach and made your adjustments, you're still going to need to use the back to forward analog function effectively to make your shot play out effectively. Easy to learn and hard to master, the putting system in Outlaw Golf is one of the best I've seen.

Every player has a caddy, and what's funny is that if you are playing well such as scoring a birdie, eagle, or just make good shots, you'll have the opportunity to beat up your caddy which is a simple mini game in and of itself. Beating up your caddy effectively will allow your player to become focused and driving or putting becomes easier. This is best done when you have gone into the sand or landed in the rough and need a focused character for your next tough shot. What's more is that each character has their own fighting style. One might beat their caddy down with a golf club, while another might do a pile driver on him and then break his arm. The harder you beat your caddy, the more focused you become.

This game also has high replay value in that there are many things to unlock. New courses, new characters, and most importantly better quality clubs and golf balls. Aside from this there are many options for different kinds of games like skins and casino (where you make money wagers on each hole). You can also do a co-op team game against the computer, play heads up, or do a 2v2 with you and a computer character vs another human and computer character. There are lots and lots of options.

Everyone has their little dance, sayings, or personality in the game. Furthermore different characters possess different specialties in that some may be good at long drives, while others have better control.

The physics in the game are excellent. Wind is factored in accurately, and the roll of the ball and the effects of different surfaces hold up with real life golfing. On top of that the camera angles are excellent and you get to see everything that's going down from impact of the ball, through its flight, and finally to where it rests.

The Bad
There are some minor issues I had with the game. While it's fun at first to watch the little cutscenes of various characters acting up on the course, after awhile it gets old. Furthermore while there is a wide variety of remarks made by the commentator, after about 4 or 5 18 hole rounds you've heard it all. Thankfully you can turn commentary off, but when you do the game suddenly feels very quiet with a minimal of sound effects.

Sometimes when playing against the computer it gets old waiting for the opposition to drive or put, but fortunately holding down the buttons speeds up the process substantially.

This game is especially hard on the xbox controller. Usually hitting the ball straight is easier when the back to forward on the R analog is done in a quick and hard flick o' the stick. After a period of time, I've noticed that in playing other games that the R analog was damaged slightly.

The Bottom Line
Outlaw Golf has everything for the golf fan, and a lot of other features that will attract those that haven't had an interest in video golf. No matter which side of the fence you're on, I recommend this game due to its realism, quirkiness, and high replay value. Aside from any of that, it's just plain fun.

By D Michael on December 18th, 2006

Wizardry Gold (Windows)

By D Michael on December 17th, 2006

Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (DOS)

A very rich and complex classic

The Good
Originally known in Germany as 'Das Schwarze Auge' (the black eye), Star Trail was released in the United States only after huge success in Europe in 1994. Sir-Tech was behind the release, a company known for being a pioneer in the PC RPG genre. Having been told about the successes of the series (vol. 1 being Blade of Destiny and the final volume 3 being shadows over riva), not to mention the fact that many hardcore RPG'ers have laid claim that this is one of the best rpg's of all time, I figured I'd have to look into it and see what the hype was about. Now I can see why this game is such a big deal.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, and I hate spoilers, so I just discuss some of the basics here. You begin by forming a party either through the existent computer made characters or building characters from scratch. Your party will consist of up to 6 people. I highly recommend using all 6 spaces thus creating a full party because you will need a wide variety of character abilities to play the game.

While the computer characters aren't bad, you'll want to create your own for several reasons. The main reason is the number of different statistics for any given character. There are a LOT. By building your own characters you tend to remember who is good at what, which makes decision making throughout the game a little easier for when you're starting off.

Character creation is no joke. You will likely spend a couple of hours creating and fine tuning your characters before seeing any adventure (that is, if you're serious and meticulous, otherwise casual gamers can have the computer assist with character creation). The downfall here is that you may perceive to need a certain ability over another only to find out later on in the game that you were wrong. For example, who would take the skill of 'geography' over the 'sword' skill? At some point or another, and often over and over again, each various skill will be used. Although not all are REQUIRED, there is opportunity to use any special trait. A good thing to remember is that this attention to detail in the creation and logistics of your characters doesn't stop once you have your party formed, you must maintain a high level of awareness to every little aspect of what is going on in your environment and with your characters. For example you need to remember to have your best nature skilled person in front when traveling. Make sure you have warm clothing before going into the mountains. Oh yeah, it's a good idea to check the hunger and thirst level of each of your characters and remind them when to eat. Yes, you even manage something as minute as food and water. Don't forget to buy supplies when the market is open, because they are only open certain days of the week...

Early in the game, you are given a quest to retrieve the salamander stone from the dwarven pit. At this point the thing to do is get supplies (the market is open on the first day) and head south. You'll have an amazing amount of adventure and frustration before you even come close to the dwarven pit.

Travel outside of the cities/dungeons (and first person view) is quite interesting. You basically select which direction you wish to travel in and set off. Of course you can do route planning but I usually don't mess with this as at times I find myself changing directions. As you travel around the map, various random events will pop up. You might find a group of knights asking for directions during which you are given multiple choices for responses. Perhaps you'll find other travelers doing their own thing or that need your assistance. There is a wide variety of scenarios that pop up requiring your attention, and it seems that each of these promise the possibility of reward or punishment for your party. It's quite interesting.

The combat in Star Trail really sets it apart from other RPG's of this time. Where as in most RPG's you select the appropriate action for each member of your party and then watch them attack a picture of a monster, star trail is worlds apart. A high level of strategy is required in order to conduct combat effectively, even against relatively weak opponents. Your characters' position, movement points, and abilities must all be considered in order to prevail with minimum loss in combat. In combat, your are set up on a grid system with tiles comprising the battle area. To move to the next tile requires 1 movement point, attacking requires 3 movement points, and other various actions require their own amount. You may not move or use melee diagonally but can use missile weapons or magic in this fashion. The monsters follow the same rules, and you must take care to keep weaker opponents strategically situated as to remain out of harms way. A nice twist is that the developers have, at certain points in the game, made the battlefield cumbersome to require the player to use higher and higher levels of tactics in order to carry out battle effectively. Because the battle system is so advanced and dynamic thereby leaving a world of possibilities and approaches, the more powerful character or team does not always win the fight. You may elect to have the computer complete the whole fight for you, but having experimented with this in the past I find that I either lose fights I would have won or come out seriously hurt from a battle that should have bothered me little.

It is rather difficult to review the game while at the same time giving almost nothing away about it. I for one really hate spoilers especially in an rpg. I find that the less I know about a storyline or secrets, the more enjoyment I have with the game. The same holds true for movies. Nevertheless I will disclose one event. After leaving the starting town, there is an opportunity to help an npc that is engaged in battle against a few monsters. I opted to help this individual and it was the first combat experience to be had in the game. The fight took a good 7 or 8 minutes! Finally vanquishing the foes, there was a huge xp gain which put all of my characters at level 3. When a character levels up, you go through the same sort of ordeal encountered with character creation; deciding how to advance the character, which stats to improve, etc. Being that there was 2 levels gained for each character, this took a really long time. I spent about an hour carefully improving each character manually. There is the option to allow the computer to assign the stat increases but this is a bad choice. I allowed the computer to delegate the 'points' to one character, my warrior, and it made horrible decisions like improving wisdom instead of strength and improving skills in a field that my warrior was seriously lacking on that I had assigned to another character to excel at instead. The bottom line is, you never want the computer to automatically improve your characters.



The Bad
I have few complaints about this game, but the gripes that I do have are of issues that rear their head throughout the entire game. For one the visibility is poor. You can never see more than 2 steps in front of you in first person mode. I understand this is an old game that can play on a 386, but still the view distance could have been better. Lighting in a dungeon means little other than making what you can see already a bit brighter, but will not increase how far you can see ahead of you. This makes getting lost much much easier. Another thing that didn't sit well with me is the inability to see any real stats on weapons or armor. The best way to see if one dagger is better than another is to have a character use the evaluate skill to see how much it can sell for. If one weapon will fetch a higher price than another, then it is PROBABLY more powerful. With armor you can find the better piece by equipping it on your character and seeing if it improves AC. Another thing that is frustrating is the inability to see spell effects on a monster. For example if I use Lightning to blind a foe, I have no way to tell when the spell wears off other than observing the actions of this foe. This makes for difficulty when fighting multiple enemies and trying to keep a few on ice, or determine which ones you have already casted a detrimental affect on.

The Bottom Line
PROS: Rich story line, unparalleled level of depth and intricacy, unique combat system for its time, high level of character customization, few if any bugs, has a very open ended feel, wonderful atmosphere.

CONS: Too complex for all but the most hardcore rpg players, inventory management consumes far too much time, extremely high difficulty level, low visibility makes you feel as if you're walking around blind, weapon and item effectiveness often a mystery.

Bottom Line: Star trail is a very complex and mentally demanding rpg that stands in a class of its own. This game should be very rewarding to the serious gamer. Casual rpg players may not enjoy the frustrations that accompany this level of complexity. This game separates the true rpg'er from the dabbler.

By D Michael on December 15th, 2006

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (Windows)

Phenomenal!

The Good
First of all, let me point out that I've never played MOO (Master of Orion) or Galactic Civilizations I, although I've had some experience with other titles in this genre such as Space Empires IV and Emperor of the Fading Suns. Being a jaded gamer that is hard to impress, I didn't expect much from GalCiv2 and for this reason I put off purchasing the title for a few months. Boy was I missing out!

GalCiv2 is a game of the 4x genre, the 4x being eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate as the overall objects of the game. Based in outer space, you begin your humble civilization with 1 planet and its up to you to build your civilization from there. However, before this happens there is the setup of parameters for the type of game you wish to play. GalCiv2 does a great job of providing for diversity in game options and therefore creates almost limitless replay value. You may select the size of the galaxy, the frequency of habitable planets, anomalies, number of opponents (up to 9) and so forth. A wide range of difficulty levels also provide for fine tuning to allow for beginning players of various levels, all the way to advanced bone crunching difficulty levels for the seasoned veterans.

One of the most important options when beginning a new game is to determine which kind of parameters are enabled that can provide for victory. In other words, there are multiple paths to winning the game be it through technology, conquest, alliances, or cultural influence. You can disable all of these options except conquest, or activate any combination of the other three choices. Being that most games require you to destroy your enemy, I like to turn on all of the other options and work towards winning the game by means other than pure conquest.

Having selected game parameters, it's time to choose your race. Your race can be one of the pre-defined included in the game (there are 9 of them) or you can create your own. Creating your own race is exciting, and you're able to tweak everything from starting technologies, political parties, to racial attributes. There are probably millions of combinations that exist to suit strategists of all alignments and backgrounds. With these options, never have I seen a game that offers almost unlimited replay value such as this one. To top things off, there is also a campaign mode although I haven't tried it yet as I've been consistently playing in 'new game' mode, starting one as soon as I finish the last.

In starting off the game, it's important to build your first colony as to be efficient in civilization growth. Focusing on military expenditures at this point will only set you back, and you'll need to focus on social and research projects to gain enough momentum to build you treasury, establish your research and manufacturing base, and expand your population levels. Early in the game you'll have a planet close to you of a lower quality that you can settle on to as well. Aside from colonizing your neighboring planet and taking care of the aforementioned things, there isn't much to do early in the game, and you'll find clicking the 'turn' button to start a new turn and speed the research and population growth along.

When settling planets, they are rated as Class 0-15+. 0 is uninhabitable, 10 is like planet Earth, and 15 is like a utopia of sorts. It is possible to go higher than Class 15 but only through planetary improvements which require a high technology obtained later in the game. With each of your planets you're able to focus on either research, military, or social endeavors. Focus on social and new structures get built really fast, but it takes forever to build ships. Focus on research and you speed up the discovery of new technologies but at the cost of social and military production. You can tweak these settings for each individual planet or you can tweak your entire civilization at once by dictating civilization wide spending on any of these three categories. On the same screen you can determine things like spending towards industrial capacity and the tax rate. These are important especially when considering that each planet also has an approval rating that you must keep high in order to avoid revolts or lost production should you advance to a form of government other than dictatorship. Military spending lowers approval, and while lowering taxes is a quick fix, chances are that you'll need to improve the planet's conditions for long term approval. What's great about this is that you can treat each planet as an individual colony or you can control the dynamics of your entire civilization from one screen. Being that no two colonies are really the same, I find far more success in controlling each individual colony rather than making a blanket policy for my entire civilization.

From time to time you’ll also be presented with decisions to be made about randomly occurring events. These decisions can help determine your ethical alignment, which can play a role in diplomacy with the AI. If you tend to be more evil, good civilizations will dislike you, and vice versa. These random events often have a level of humor involved which add some personality to the game.

While you do not control what happens during combat, you are in control (usually) of what is happening prior to combat. The important decisions and skill in the game are picking your battles, or preparing for them. Once the fight starts, you have no control over the outcome. However, you do get to watch the battle unfold on the screen with multiple viewpoints and camera angles. Watching the battle can help you determine which upgrades for combat ships are effective, and which aren’t. But hey, it’s a strategy game, not a shoot’em up.

The Bad
There are some minor annoyances that come to mind, but nothing too serious.

For one diplomacy is weird. If a race is much more powerful than you, they will usually have little to do with you in terms of trades or research swapping, even if you have something they need. On the other hand if you are a very powerful race smaller, less threatening empires will roll over for you. I’ve had smaller empires that I was friendly with suddenly retire and relinquish to me all over their colonies. This was annoying. To make matters worse, if you and an opposing computer player were the top dogs competing for control, often the balance of power shifts suddenly because some smaller empire will spontaneously surrender to you, or them throwing the balance all out of whack.

There were a few crashes to desktop, but after 50 hours of play I only experienced 3 and it seemed to be random as I could not duplicate the crash when I tried to.

My biggest complaint of all; NO MULTIPLAYER. This is almost unacceptable. Even a PBEM or hot seat option would be spectacular. The fact that the game mechanics are so solid, and the replay value so high, I am forced to overlook this, begrudgingly (hey even Emperor of the Fading Suns had multiplayer).

The Bottom Line
The bottom line? The bottom line is this; GalCiv2 is one of, if not THE best turn based strategy games I’ve ever played. With scalable AI, solid game mechanics, and remarkably sophisticated strategy elements, I challenge fans of the 4x genre to find anything else that comes close. Enjoy this one!

By D Michael on December 15th, 2006

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