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Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword (Windows)

By Professor on April 24, 2012

Sword of the Stars (Windows)

Wonderful Idea Hindered by Execution

The Good
The best part of Sword of the Stars (SOTS) is its technology handling. The various races have different star drive technologies, which gives each peculiar advantages and disadvantages against the other races. Unlike so many games, this makes a very basic part - transportation - asymmetrical in its character and forces adaptation in tactics to cope. From there, the wide and deep tech tree contains a few low-level techs that are available, after researching, to each; these include such things as language skills, basic ship weapons, and ability to tailor planets to suit each race's preferences. (Planet hazards are never called out; they are are assigned a numerical rating relative to your race's sweet spot.) After that, the tech tree is based on hidden "die rolls" made by the game during the generation of the playing map. Each step on the complete tech tree is rated as a percentage chance to be acquired by each race. These percentages are unequal. Hence, a Human civilization has a 90% chance of being able to research Photonic Torpedoes, but the lizard Tarka civilization has only a 20% chance of having that weapon available to research. If a race "fails a roll" for a low-level branch of the tree, the higher-level ones leading from it are also shut away. The beauty of this system is that (1) each race has certain specialties where they can generally expect to have a lot to research and consequently specialize (Li'ir, for instance, have high probabilities of having various offensive plagues in their possible techs), and (2) since each game generated rolls against the tech tree to see which techs are possible, this forces the player to adapt, as he will not have the same techs to research, even playing the same race repeatedly. The game throws a bone to the player for the techs that he cannot research. If he can reverse-engineer debris salvaged from a successful battle, he may eventually be able to work out a tech the opponent had that is not on his own tech tree.

Another strong point for SOTS is the highly flexible configuration of space ships. Each contain a Command section, a Mission section, and an Engine section. Depending on choice, these contain mixes of small, medium, large, and special-purpose turrets that can be outfitted to the player's wishes. It's possible on the same hull to configure a missile-shooter or a ship bristling with lasers. As particular techs are researched, new variants of the sections are unlocked - for instance, after developing the first Torpedo tech, an Assault variant of the Command section and a Barrage variant of the Mission section are unlocked.

The Bad
The space battles still need work. Kerberos made the design decision to restrict Z-axis movement to a small amount, plus or minus, from the main plane, and these are used to allow ships to pass asteroids or each other. The player has no control of his ships in the Z direction; they adjust according to the obstacles they meet. In practice, this means that space battles are akin to playing bumper cars. Opposing fleets, when they encounter each other, generally run into each other and then the more maneuverable ships are pushed out of the way. When slipping over or under, they can still orient their hulls to maintain fire on their specified target.

While I'm sure there were sufficient and good arguments for not using full 3-D for space battles, Kerberos' implementation makes me think more of neighborhood bullies jostling each other than of sleek spaceships powering past each other for firing runs. Space fills up very quickly with ships, satellites and asteroids and when equals meet, they are both made to bob ineffectually against each other. There is no damage absorbed by all this ramming. It just slows the game down and tends to keep the tactical focus on a small area.

The AI is very predictable in battle. Almost every time, it will line its fleet up in a "V" with the command ship at the apex. (Once in visual sighting range, examining the ship's appearance will confirm this.) Taking out the command ship restricts the opponent's reinforcements, if he doesn't have replacement command ships available. As long as the AI is fielding warships, it will drive directly at you and mix it up at close range. And my observation is that even with equivalent engine tech, the AI's ships will always be faster and more maneuverable than yours. It's rare to be in a tail chase where you catch the AI ship or escape the ones chasing you. In one game with both Li'ir and Human using Antimatter engines with enhancements, my six destroyers were trying to evade four cruisers. The cruisers turned first and accelerated first, but the destroyers got up to speed just out of range of the cruiser weapons... until a minute later when three inexplicably slowed down and were burned by the pursuers. So some cheats for the AI appear active. The manual says you can target individual weapon stations on the opposing ships. You can, and it's fun to see hits scored, but the weapon will only stop firing when the entire ship section it's mounted on is wrecked. There is no practical outcome to detailed targeting. Now, about items that are really make no sense and ought to be fixed: In the Research Module, the stats of weapons that can be researched are given graphically (damage, range, accuracy, rate of fire). Some upgrades to weapon systems have no discernible difference in the length of any of the graph bars and thus seem to give no advantage or reason to acquire them. Only by digging around on the Internet ( can you find numerical values that prove the upgrades actually do something useful. This info ought to be in the manual.

When one race invades a colonized world of another, planet defenses are abstracted as planet-launched missiles that fire every 30 seconds, with the number of missiles depending on population of the world. These missiles go straight to the enemy ships, following them if they attempt to evade, even if the ships are not on tactical sensors and hence visible to the player. Surely if the planetary defenses knew exactly where to shoot missiles, they would pass along the sensor data to the fleet that is standing nervously nearby, waiting to see the enemy sweep into sight? Right? Sorry, no. If the enemy is not eager to join battle because they are just scouting, the only way to find them is run up the track of the missiles and hope to catch the enemy ships too occupied with swatting missiles to evade you.

Incidentally - kudos to Kerberos for making the planet defense missiles arc above and below the main plane of play; this presents targeting problems to the ships that are trying to shoot them down before impact. But this makes you realize that the ship design module has a major problem - firing arcs for the guns are only shown in two dimensions. There is no indication which, if any, weapons can swivel in the Z-axis to hit targets above or below the ship's own position. Consequently, it is really difficult for most ships to shoot down planetary defense missiles. The small weapon mounts suitable for point-defense lasers or guns do not usually have a decent arc of fire and are really challenged to hit approaching planetary defense missiles, which always approach from above or below. In fact, ships that adequately cover the area above themselves usually have a blind spot below - meaning half the missiles attacking the ship are unchallenged by the defensive weaponry. The designers of space ships really ought to place defensive turrets where they can counter the most common threats.

In playing the game, you will choose (many, many times) to play out tactical encounters that are so lopsided that you would wish to auto-calculate the results. The option to do so exists. With a really lopsided battle, generally one side will be annihilated with no loss or damage to the stronger fleet. But at some unknown ratio, the calculation starts to mete out damage to the stronger fleet. This is totally to be expected - but far too often, the game takes the damage against the support vessels, not the warships. It's as if you sent your repair and refueling ships out as bait and then shot the enemy fleet while they were killing the support vessels. No admiral would lead with his noncombatant ships. This kind of battle result is just plain broken. The only way to avoid it is to play out the tactical encounter personally. By default, that's 4 minutes by the clock. When you have three or four encounters per turn where exposing certain ships to this battle model can't be risked, you'll spend far more time in tactical mode than you'll want.

That need is exacerbated by the lack of any available command to your ships to "evade." In the early game, scouts will show up at inhabited worlds with formidable defensive fleets. In tactical mode, you might be able to manage the scout's survival, perhaps by hiding in an asteroid field from the planetary missiles. In auto-resolve, you will always lose the scout and get no look at what killed it. With that arrangement, the scouts are only good for finding where the enemy has not yet reached.

Finally, the concept of how the command ships work makes no sense. Destroyers are assessed 2 command points, cruisers are 6, and dreadnoughts are 18. Buying a command ship allows you to operate a fleet of a certain size. A Squadron handles 20 points, a Strikeforce handles 36, and an Armada will command 58. These arrangements mean, though, that the bigger the ships, the fewer can be handled. It's ludicrous to think that the lowly Squadron CNC destroyer can handle a fleet of 10 destroyers (9 plus itself), while the Strikeforce can only direct the operation of 5 cruisers in addition to itself, and the Armada CNC - the epitome of command staff size and efficiency - can only manage to say "go here and shoot that" to two other dreadnoughts. Kerberos should have come up with a better concept for fleet arrangements.

The Bottom Line
From the list of issues I have with the game you might think I would call it a waste of time. You could be right - I've certainly happily wasted hours and hours playing SOTS! In spite of its issues - it's fun! There is a community of enthusiastic players producing mods and making suggestions for the inevitable sequel. I'm with them. I like the game a lot. It plays differently with each race and even with the shape of the galaxy chosen for the game. Re-playability is vast. I can only hope that Kerberos will knock off the rough edges on the next iteration. For now, SOTS is probably the best 4X game ever made, with respect to the tech tree, real differences between the various races, and customizing the galaxy in play. With tweaks to ship design and tactical combat, it could be the best all-around.

By Professor on September 7, 2010

Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection (Windows)

By Professor on August 25, 2010

Silent Hunter III (Windows)

A Good Simulator... With a Grab-bag of Bad Thrown In

The Good
This is a seriously pretty game. Even though I began playing it 4 years after release, I was impressed by the visuals. The team that put this together wanted it to look good, and they succeeded. When you leave harbor on a campaign mission, a dockside navy band plays stirring martial music while an assortment of nurses and dockyard guards wave you away. A pretty nurse throws roses to the departing U-boat. While these figures look somewhat Lego-ish if you zoom in on them, they are animated smoothly and present quite a show with dozens of them in action at once. And if you take your camera far away from dockside, there are still interesting vignettes to discover. The world is not just your U-boat. At sea, the waves have natural motion, the sky takes on a broad palette of expressions, and even the moon rises and sets. The models of the Allied merchantmen and warships are as detailed as the 1/2400 scale pewter miniatures I use in wargaming. Cargo ships on their way to the bottom emit streams of bubbles, strew cargo crates, and have masts and derricks broken from their decks, and when they hit bottom they raise a plume of mud. I delight in taking screen shots to display just how realistic this game looks.

The game lets you tailor your experience, choosing realism levels that suit your abilities and interests. If you choose to let the game do your torpedo targeting, it will lay the fish dead amidships on a non-maneuvering target nearly every time. Or you can use target portraits at various angles to estimate the angle of your approach and do your own targeting with your estimates of angle, speed, and distance.

One item I get a kick out of is the tools for the map. An aircraft (presumably) radios in a contact report on a distant ship, giving a time, estimate of speed and direction, and an approximate location. I love working out my intercept vector, given whatever speed I can muster, and end up finding that ship inside three or four kilometers from where I expected after a two game-hour run. The ruler and compass lets you graphically work these intercepts out without much trouble (and a little math!) I wish, though, the map would indicate an approximate visual range in the existing weather. There is no way to know what parameters the game uses for visual sighting.

The Bad
One problem with this game is its insistence that you be the U-boat's nanny... not its captain. You think you have an XO who will see to the regulation of your crew's shifts so that everyone is awake enough to do their job? Think again. And again. When you suddenly sight a closing enemy destroyer and crash dive, and your boat's propellers whir to a stop just after submerging because everyone is asleep in the electric motor compartment - you've just been stabbed by the game. There is no excuse even for a realistic simulator to make you personally manage 51 souls on board to make sure each of them is fed, rested, and has gone to the head. After each successful patrol, you get a handful of medals, promotions, and qualifications to hand out. Pinning an Iron Cross on a guy improves his attention span, believe it or not, so you'll have to send him to quarters for rest less often. By your tenth patrol, everybody has promotions and a chestful of decorations, so it's less onerous... but then you're blind-sided because you expected SOMEBODY would reload that torpedo tube and nobody jumped to it. Unacceptable!

Another issue with your minions is having to repeatedly ask for information because your attention is on the map screen (see below about time compression). I wish someone would report a CHANGE in the weather to me, but no, I have to keep asking, or go to the bridge, which dumps my time compression. And, hey! If you make a mistake and draw a course through a small island or peninsula, no one warns you you're going aground - you just do it! Your bad!

Do you want to live through every moment of every patrol? You can! (You will.) In good simulator fashion, you must find your targets on the ocean; they do not line up in a shooting gallery. Ubisoft is commended for not making your patrol unreasonably target-rich. On some patrols you may see only one or two ships. That's perfectly reasonable. But you invest hours of your gaming time in a nonproductive patrol and feel unfulfilled. Sure, there's time compression up to 1024-to-1 to speed up the dreary slogs to your patrol station. The game will drop the compression when you encounter a ship. But beware! It may not drop you out of hypertime if aircraft sight you, and I've been bombed to the bottom by aircraft that only advertised their presence by your "stealth indicator" suddenly flashing red. Losing your patrol to this makes me mad, especially because THERE IS NO AUTOSAVE. It's easy to run up a string of well-fought fights, forgetting to save off, and get whacked by the game. I was once crisscrossing an area in a storm where I calculated I'd find a ship, based on an earlier sighting, and got rammed by it and sunk because my multiple lookouts didn't see 8,000 tons of steel coming their way (in such fights, you spend your time on the map screen, NOT the bridge, because you have to maneuver frequently to quarter an area, and anyway, compressing time while in the bridge view is unacceptable in weather, due to sped-up wave action). That's all well and good - but I don't intend to terminate my captain's career because his lookouts were asleep. So I resort to the last save point. Presto! Brilliant patrol erased. Last night I was refreshing my acquaintance with the game to prepare to write this. After two hours, I had had extraordinary luck in downing two destroyers and five merchantmen (two by deck gun), and a British bomber found me, at night, in heavy seas, 200 km offshore, and sank me - boom! Guess what? No backup. Patrol never happened. This game needs an autosave!

While many of the simulation aspects seem well-done to me, one thing doesn't that is very important. YOU can be sunk by progressive damage, if your damage-control team lets leaks get ahead of them. But it doesn't seem to work that way for merchantmen. I have put two solids hits on, say, a C3 cargo ship under the keel. (That often splits a ship.) There are nice fires going, pieces of above-deck equipment have fallen flaming into the water, the ship slows and... keeps going. Just to check, I have lingered in the vicinity of badly-hit merchantmen for hours. The fires burn, the ship keeps chugging. Wow! I would have thought merchant seamen would head for lifeboats when their hull was opened to the sea. I have even tried ramming a damaged ship to take it down. (If it's too choppy to man your deck gun and you're out of torpedoes, you don't have much choice.) No dice. I'm attaching a screen shot of a Ship That Would Not Die. It was down by the stern, dead in the water. I repeatedly rammed it without effect (I took no damage either.) Then I was inspired to see if I could ride up on the awash deck and force it under. I got astride that ship, but darn if it didn't hold my U-boat up just fine. Finally I reversed off and left it.

Did you catch that piece about time compression? The only place you're going to be while your sim runs at high speeds is the map screen. (The bridge view bounces badly at compressions above 2 and the max compression in bridge view is highly limited.) So nearly all of your patrol will be watching featureless ruled paper while your little circle (U-boat) crawls along the course you've plotted. All the beauty packed into the camera views is out of sight for most of your encounter with this game, and that's a pity.

You will need to refer to the target handbooks next to the periscope to identify your prey. Unfortunately, the titles are in German in the English version, so if you haven't studied German (I have), good luck finding what you're looking for. I would prefer there to be one handbook with the ships of all enemy nations in it. Anything not matching can then be assumed neutral or friendly.

One final gripe and then I'll leave off. Your missions are always of the form "go out to this map square and swan about a while, then come home." There is no rationale given for WHY you are going there. You almost never see anything there - so if you were being sent to intercept a convoy it would have made sense to tell you WHEN to be there. But your orders amount to "go there if and when you feel like it." I've had no reprimands for returning without visiting the map square, though I usually am a good troop and go there, damage permitting. So the game needs to give you a better reason for burning all that diesel fuel. If you collect some prizes on the way and radio back a patrol report, you always get a response "keep up the good work!" To be a viable simulator, you need to have a sense that you're affecting Germany's war effort in a positive way. Without better intelligence from HQ, you're back in an arcade, not a simulator.

The Bottom Line
Overall, I play this game because I like submarine actions and I don't have a better game. By version 3 of this series, I expected my quibbles above would be smoothed out. Version 5 came out recently and online reviews are panning it. I guess this developer is just working on the eye candy and not fixing the fun.

By Professor on May 21, 2010

Medieval II: Total War (Windows)

Major Downgrade from MTW

The Good
Well, for one thing, the introduction of Castles (and their upgrades) gives you places that seldom go nuts and rebel. (All of the games in the Total War series act like every city is seething with democratic elements, just aching to be free of monarchical rule. Hah. Read some history books. Rebels carving off their own enclaves were never so prominent, except in China.) Your penalty for settled rule of provinces with castles is less income.

The Diplomacy system LOOKS like a great new feature. You have more options for holding dialogue with other factions. Unfortunately, they don't care (see below).

The Papacy: I spent a campaign as a dutiful French Catholic. I joined crusades, talked nice to Papal couriers, didn't invade my neighbors. I soon learned that responding to an invasion of my kingdom by my neighbor earned me excommunication threats. (To be fair, the aggressor apparently was warned too.) I learned how to calibrate my response to eventually destroy the aggressor before the Pope could call a halt. When I grew very big, I learned I could stack the College of Cardinals and I could even wipe out the Papal States. I played my second campaign as a Russian and did what I wanted. So much nicer!

Learn this: Trade beats Farming. there, you've just learned how to make the most money.

I guess, grudgingly, I can list prettier battles than in MTW, due to the full 3-D treatment. But they screwed up things that were working in Rome: Total War, where they also had 3-D. (see below).

I'll give a thumbs-up for fortresses and citadels. These improved castles have layered fortifications. If you bang a hole in the outer wall, you'd better still have ammo for the inner one, or an intact ram to deal with the gates, or you're going home unsatisfied.

I will echo the other reviewer's comments about it being tough to manage a fight in the forest, but to me, this is reasonable and historical. There is no way to see everything going on under the boughs... and you shouldn't be able to. You takes yer chances in forests! Deal with it.

And I like shooting cow carcasses from trebuchets. A lot. This biowarfare sickens units near the impact and units that walk through the area of effect. (Funny, it never sickens the firing unit to have dead cattle handy as ammo.) Great fun when you're defending a mountain with only a single approach lane. Until you pursue your beaten enemy past the carcasses.

The Bad
My biggest gripe is that they took the 3-D combat of Rome: Total War, and broke it. Now, I don't mind too much that there is now a delay in getting units to follow a change of orders; asking a maneuver unit to change direction on a dime and give you change is asking for control commanders don't have even today. And I don't mind unduly that formations get messed up in pursuits, as another reviewer did; after all, if you are directed to capture fleeing enemy soldiers, who are throwing away weapons and running for their lives, you won't catch them by keeping your shield locked with the guy on your right. So what went south? A lot!

You always, in Total War games, fiddle constantly with your formations. I've always liked that I can change frontage and depth of units. This is real important, for instance, when the rulebook advises you that archers can only fire from the front two ranks, as Rome:Total War did. But in MTWII, your precious alignments disintegrate when you try to move a group of units anything other than straight forward. Not only will the units move at their own rates and arrive at different times, but often the AI shuffles their order, their facing, and their frontage. Wheel an army 90 degrees? You're asking units to interpenetrate as they swap positions along the line. (And when you check the planned final alignment you often see your artillery plan to stop in the front rank of the enemy.) Coordinated movements worked before, in other Total War games! Why did they break it here? And the problem was never patched! This problem alone robs 3-D combat of much of the fun.

What's with battle experience? If your unit killed its own weight in enemy and rounded up as many in prisoners, it will probably get an experience level. But if it had a tough fight, stood its ground, lost half its men and routed the enemy, it may easily not. And sometimes, units that took and inflicted no casualties get experience. I guess they just "saw the elephant."

Why do your missile units wait until in range of the enemy to load their first shot? If the enemy keeps marching and your missilemen have skirmish orders, they often start evading before firing a shot. When the AI immediately charges them with cavalry, as it often does, they can fail to fire AND get caught with their backs to the enemy. Great planning, that. It seems to me, if I could see the enemy a mile off and we are marching to engage, some captain is going to yell, "Load!" or "Nock!" before we reach charge range from the enemy line. Not in MTWII.

Siege battles have issues with wall defenders. When you post a unit on the walls, they'll clump about 5 deep next to a tower and gradually thin down their line along the wall. Since the siege towers and the ladders can only attack the middle of a wall section, there frequently are almost no defenders at the point you KNOW is going to be attacked. And no amount of finagling the formation will allow you to spread the men out. So now you've conceded a clear space on the battlements to the enemy, instead of killing them one by one as they come over the wall.

I was in my second full campaign before I ever noticed a timer running on a siege battle. A timer is there to force an end to a stalemate. In MTW, it was a reasonable time. In MTWII, it's just beginning to move after 45 minutes or so. Perhaps if you didn't need to micromanage each unit because of the flaws above, the timer would do its job. But I have spent 2 hours on a single battle and not had time called. So basically, the timer doesn't exist.

On to the strategic campaign:

Diplomacy: Is there any? Really? Factions have many shades of grey in their relations, and they can execute many kinds of agreements. But they don't act in their own interest. I typically play a Galahad type. I'm nice to my neighbors, but highly trained in war. In my first campaign, early in the game I was at war with SEVEN factions, none of whom I provoked. I gave each multiple opportunities to stop the bloodshed, but they just returned insults, even when down to their last city. Each of the three factions that allied with me during the game treacherously attacked me, for no discernible reason and with no declaration. I finished the game as the only faction remaining (not even any Rebels) without ever starting a war myself. My experience in my second campaign was similar, but - and this was funny - once I grew big I had many offers to call a ceasefire if I would pay them huge quantities of money (more than twice what any other faction made in any year of the game), and this, while I was destroying their military in large gulps. It's clear that diplomacy is only an idea intended to delay the trampling of Europe that clearly you are going to be forced to do by the game. Why is offering a ceasefire to an all-but-wiped-out faction termed "Very Demanding?"

The Creative Assembly is convinced you insist on many and varied units in your games. Apparently, that group of us who enjoy the historical period as it historically was is out of luck. MANY units appear in MTWII that were not in MTW, to give you the appearance of getting something for the money if you already have MTW. Where did they come from? I played Russia in one campaign and had dozens of Dvor and Druzhina units. What are they? According to Wikipedia, Dvor are "nobility" - the court of a prince. Druzhina are the bodyguards of a chieftain. (Hey! Generals already have bodyguards in the game.) So half my army or more was nobles and bodyguards. No wonder the home provinces rebelled - nobody was home in charge! MTW had "boyars," which are the highest rank of Russian aristocracy. MTWII adds "boyar's sons." Big deal. I'm holding out for "boyar's dogs." So if you like tons of different units, be advised that many of these are drawn from sources that never comprised whole units - let alone whole armies.

Next, examine how you recruit. Dvor and Druzhina are recruited exclusively at upgraded castles. No problem there. But when as a Russian I capture Nottingham in England, I can raise these units there. And I can't raise Welsh bowman or English billhooks. What gives? Mercenaries admirably adhere to the historical availability of troop types by province, but regular recruitment doesn't. Historically, conquerors incorporated the local troops into their armies. They didn't suddenly retrain the populace in foreign weapons and tactics. This gets really laughable when you raise cavalry units in places which had little or no access to horses.

In fact, access to cavalry has always been too free in Total War games. It is frequently the case that it makes no sense to recruit infantry if cavalry units are available. The expanded tactical usefulness more than compensates for cost. You can't run down a fleeing enemy with infantry. You can't easily provoke an advance from the foe and then hit it in the flank from another direction with infantry. Historically, cavalry was both limited by the availability of suitable mounts and by local traditions of how horses were used. Only peoples born to the saddle were effective in mounted warfare. But in any Total War game I can slap an unlimited number of urbanized citizens on horses and fight my battles.

In MTW, when you hired a mercenary company, it could never be recruited back to strength after taking losses. In MTWII it can. But where or when is not noted by the rulebook and in practice it feels random. Don't plan on keeping mercs up to strength.

Come to think of mercs - THEY never rebel, walk off, or change sides! You can't bribe the enemy's mercs with higher pay. Ah well - wait for MTWIII.

Princesses? A wasted idea. The AI has them and they waste a ton of your time. I've had 3 from a single faction proposition the same city every year for 20 years. Even on rapid animation, this takes time. What are they up to? A diplomacy screen never opens. The city may not contain a marriageable general, so what's the deal? And why don't they get discouraged and go away? Annoying. When your own royal ladies come of age, there is never a faction event to recognize it. Really, the only way you'll notice your women is by opening the agent summary screen. Then, good luck finding them. They aren't worth the effort, frankly.

Reinforcements: Generally, reinforcements in land battles are good. They USUALLY show up for the battle (sometimes they do not). But they sometimes enter the battlefield and just sit there while the army you are controlling is being pasted. Other times, when you have a huge advantage in missile troops and just want to pound the enemy at range, your reinforcements will immediately charge in. Then not only do they take big melee losses, your friendly fire is killing them too. Great plan. This despite the fact that almost every time, the reinforcements are a separate army of YOUR troops, not some ally's. You have a choice: give the reinforcements to the AI to (mis)handle as it desires, or control it yourself, which means that you only get enough to bring your total troops on the field to the unit limit. Then, if a unit routs off the field or dies in its boots, another will be fed in.

Reinforcements in naval battles are almost meaningless. They will never cause or receive a casualty. Never.

Where did hotkeys go? The manual only lists a few for handling groups of units in a battle: CTL-C for "all cavalry", for instance. Thankfully, useful keys available in MTW still work ("R" = "Run, for example) but the manual doesn't mention them. The critical one for the campaign screen, that color-codes all your provinces by happiness, does NOT work. So, each turn, your choice is to check dozens of provinces individually for problems, or just deal with the rebellion in your supposedly safe and far-from-the-front-lines capital. Dumb.

I could go on and on. But I'll just add one more, probably the worst problem that gets in the way of any historical result. You want to take an enemy stronghold quickly and cheaply? Show up with a clear advantage in troop quantity or quality. Either have siege engines along, or spend one turn building some. Then Assault, and let the AI determine the outcome. You'll almost always take the place and lose less than 100 soldiers doing so. (If you play out the battle, you'll almost always lose far more, even with big advantages in numbers.) The enemy would be better off only fighting you in the fields. The AI gives up even their citadels with basically no fight. Woo-hoo. Those of you accustomed to God cheats might like this "feature." I don't.

The Bottom Line
I wanted SO MUCH to love this game. I played the original MTW to death, and I wanted more/better. Unfortunately, MTWII is a downgrade. For the 3-D battles and a few minor changes (castles) you get a major downgrade to the play mechanics, a worse adherence to the period, and a clutter of new detail that does pretty much nothing.

Stick to MTW.

By Professor on April 11, 2009

The Horde (DOS)

Distress from who's coming to dinner!

The Good
The different type of Hordlings each have their own style of attack - big,brawny, and straight-ahead; hop-skip-and-spin around, teleportation (!), etc. One strategy won't see you all the way through this story, so it doesn't turn into more-of-the-same quickly.

Your performance in a given encounter determines what you have available in the next, so there is real incentive not just to survive, but to do it with class. If you do well, you can buy some help that will ease your load, but even the biggest, baddest purchase (a dragon as ally) won't carry the load for you. You still have to be good with your sword and run immediately to threatened parts of your village. Save the cows first!

The Bad
The economics are loaded against you. Not only can the Horde kill you or eat you out of house and home, but the evil High Chancellor is ready to increase your taxes and render you unable to meet the next wave of Hordlings. You might even beat the Horde and wind up in debtor's prison!

Another gripe is that the items you can purchase to enhance your defense simply take too long to deploy or convey too little benefit. When a dozen Hordlings converge from all over the map, there's no time to don your Boots of Boogie; you have to be looking for the one that is the biggest threat.

The Bottom Line
Wildly original and different game, lighthearted, and fun. You'll fairly quickly reach a level you can't get beyond, because the interface gets in the way.

By Professor on April 9, 2002

Warship (DOS)

Graphically challenged, but still a defining game for naval aficionados

The Good
It was built on very solid statistics for the 79 ships modeled in the game. The line drawings of the ships, along with their stats, were almost worth the price by themselves for naval enthusiasts.

The Bad
This was one of the ugliest games ever produced. It really couldn't handle land at all well, and you were better off playing in all-sea scenarios.

The Bottom Line
A game for the naval grognard - no one else could put up with the lack of visual appeal.

By Professor on April 7, 2002

RoboSport (Windows 3.x)

One of the first good network games, where skill and intuition triumphed.

The Good
Its robot scripting language was very easy to use, and by limiting the time for considering moves, you could raise the skill level to any level you wanted. This game reminded me of many board games, where orders were written in advance, then revealed, and the actions worked out according to sequence. If you could imagine the options open to your opponent, you could arrange ambushes - all very satisfying when they worked! I actually got this game to run multiplayer on a Windows 3.0 network at the company where I worked, and it was a great lunchtime game because a battle took only 20 minutes or so.

The Bad
What I didn't like is the fact that this title never got the respect and the play I think it deserved. It was extremely different from the majority of games in that day - therein lay its charm, and therein lay the reason for it being passed over. I STILL have my copy on the shelf at my computer, although my household has seen six new computers since I got it!

The Bottom Line
A charming, competitive, turn-based game of beating other teams of robots with your own team. It was the WORMS ARMAGEDDON of its day.

By Professor on April 7, 2002

Red Baron (DOS)

Wonderful, colorful air combat!

The Good
God, I loved this game! Where else could you get the multi-colored glory of those early fighters, and a chance to affect the Great War from the air? The plane models fly very differently, and you feel the differences in dogfights. Just like the real pilots back then, you really don't want to meet an enemy riding something hotter than the machine you're in. And what a sense of accomplishment when you score a victory!

The Bad
Just the old DOS problems of getting a stable setup that ran well with the game. In those days, there were only drivers for two or three video cards, and you soldiered on with the nearest emulation you had, if you didn't have the supported ones. So on some machines, you couldn't run the game. On a machine that would run it, I never found anything not to like!

The Bottom Line
This was the best air combat sim of its day... and for many days after. Dynamix made its reputation on this baby. Even it couldn't meet that standard when it set out to remake the game several years later. Only with the patched version of Red Baron 3D did they again reach this high plateau of gameplay.

By Professor on April 7, 2002

Lemmings (DOS)

Great.... up to a point

The Good
Psygnosis found wonderful ways to be creative with their little puzzle construction set called Lemmings (and its successors). I determined this was going to be the first game I actually finished (I don't usually stay with a given game very long). As I recall, I stalled out somewhere around level 64, where I hit a puzzle I just couldn't handle. A year later, I saw a strat book in a bookseller with the secrets to all the puzzles. I grabbed it and looked up my problem level. The book commented that this was the game's real stumper, where most people ran out of steam. Well - I object on principle to a game that has a stumper you can't get beyond. I figure I paid for all 100 levels, and I got cheated out of the last third of them. More modern games provide ways around "impossible" levels or situations, but Lemmings had no safety net. And that's the only strike I have against it.

The Bad
Well, I guess I said my peace, above.

The Bottom Line
Addictive puzzler with wacky mammals

By Professor on April 7, 2002