Archive for the ‘strategy’ Tag

Dungeons (PC review)   1 comment

Developed by: Realmforge Studios
Published by: Kalypso Media Digital
Out now
Reviewed on: 7th March, 2011.

Presentation: The graphics certainly do look an improvement over Dungeon Keeper II, but not by a huge amount and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was only a few years after Bullfrog’s classic that this appeared. The sound effects and voice acting, however, feel a lot more crafted which creates an uneven presentation.

Atmosphere: The atmosphere takes much of the dark humour of its obvious spiritual predecessor and, along with the high quality voice acting that the game has, represents the main saving grace of this game. It doesn’t save the game from its flaws entirely, though.

Control and Mechanics: This is ultimately the hurdle where Realmforge’s horse fell. The game is controlled by a fairly simple keyboard and mouse combination, but the controls feel a bit quirky and awkward at times and that really cuts into enjoyment of a game. The process of taking heroes on a tour around your dungeon before you harvest them gets repetitive and dull quickly, as you are left waiting for them to fill their soul energy meters before you strike a blow.

Who should buy this: Those who want a marriage of Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park and don’t mind gameplay that simply isn’t up to par. Those who don’t mind quirky controls that feel irritating at times. Those who need every Dungeon Keeper clone they can grasp, even if it means paying AAA game price for a low-budget game.

Who should avoid it: Those who expect a real Dungeon Keeper successor. Those who want fluid, easy to use controls. Those who want a game that doesn’t feel repetitive and monotonous quickly.

If I have to give a score: The humour and voice-acting is the one shining element to this otherwise for par experience. A good deal of potential drowning in poor execution. 2/4

Review

It was attributed to T.S. Eliot that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” and I think Dungeons is a clear example of how that holds true of video games as well. It doesn’t so much borrow, as plead after its spiritual ancestors and it really shows through. Viewing the intro sequence, the marks of Dungeon Keeper are all there. Just imagine that goblin at the start is an imp, even their personality and movements are so akin, and you’ll see what I mean. Remember the scene in the intro sequence of the first Dungeon Keeper where the hero is about to grab treasure only to be confronted by a bile demon? Picture that as you see the hero in this one gazing proudly at the treasure, only to turn and find a minotaur of somewhat similar appearance and stature as the demon bearing down on him.

When I first saw this, I was sceptical at the obvious borrowing, but I let a glimmer of hope that someone would take up the neglected genre and return it to one of its oldest roots. The result that I played was not an awful mess, but it cannot borrow so much and not beg comparison with the Dungeon Keeper games. It’s a very standard, flat experience that sparks and teases you with potential at points, but mostly drags you through monotony.

The player controls a dungeon lord, one of several and the most powerful of them all. At the very start, you are betrayed by your lover, the succubus Calypso, and cast to the bottom of the pecking order of dungeon lords. To top this all off, between you and climbing your way back to the top and extracting your revenge are your former underlings and new employers, who occasionally give you missions and make demands.

What immediately strikes the player is that, unlike Dungeon Keeper, your dungeon lord is a flesh and blood character within the dungeon who can fight, cast spells and interact with items you claim. There’s no gateways to allow your monsters to enter, you don’t pay them, they are just summoned through pentagrams on the ground and remain there until nearby heroes lure them into battle.

This is all because the emphasis is reversed here. You don’t care for your minions needs or desires, but those of the heroes. Each hero entering your dungeon has needs, whether it’s to raid your coffers, discover lost magic, or simply fight. By fulfilling these needs, the heroes get more soul energy that can be harvested by defeating them and having them sent to the prisons or torture chambers for the slow extraction of that energy.

What this means is that, unlike Dungeon Keeper where keeping the heroes out was the ideal and prisons and torture chambers existed to convert heroes into your minions or use them to train or entertain your minions in the fighting pits, you actually want to give your heroes time to explore your dungeon, grab some loot, raid a few occult libraries before you strike them down and claim that energy in your prisons.

This all seems like an interesting twist to the theme that changes the focus to resource management, but it fails in practice. The process of building an almost theme park dungeon for your heroes to wander through and then the methodical rate at which heroes enter through the gates leave you going through the same actions over and over again and you end up having to take quite direct action in harvesting these heroes. With as little as two gates open, you are left with heroes swamping your dungeon as you try to get busy with other quests and plots that don’t involve sucking them dry for soul energy.

Adding to this is that heroes seem to level up like clockwork in a way similar to the increase of the AI threat level in AI War, but in a much more simplistic way that lacks the grace of AI War. When you have a lot of other things to do, an average of four heroes pumped out every two minutes with an increasing level, you end up just rushing for the end of the level before they end up striking at your dungeon heart.

Another way in which it departs from its predecessor is that stat-building and talent-tree RPG elements have been added. It’s all an interesting idea and could be made a good combination with the elements the game absorbed from Dungeon Keeper and Bullfrog’s Theme games, but it ends up as more of an afterthought. On the one hand, the stat-building aspects uses a only few stats and derived attributes, and seems like it has so little real effect on the gameplay. I’ve seen games use very few stats and derived attributes to great effect (take Torchlight as a paragon here), but Dungeons simply fails in this regard. The talent tree is a bit more developed, but the skills are very bland and lack the sort of things you find in something like Borderlands, where make or break skills add interesting effects or bonuses; a few extra spells, a few stat, combat or minion bonuses, but that’s about it.

And I think that sums up a lot of my complaints about Dungeons’s mechanics. What we’re ultimately left with is a game that covers a lot of bases and mixes aspects of different genres into a single gameplay experience, but it does not show any real time or energy placed into any one of these aspects. It’s quite easy to play the game for a while and it will draw you in to an extent, but you’ll find it easy to switch it off at the end of the level.

The graphics themselves appear very dated and it gets very tiresome going from level to level with what is essentially the same dungeon in appearance. The fact that you have to claim certain chambers rather than build them into virgin rock means that dungeon design is often more restricted than in Dungeon Keeper and it makes building that ideal route for the heroes all the more irritating and repetitive.

What the game does have, however, is good voice acting and some genuine humour. Like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord, it revels in a lot of the same slapstick humour but unlike them it also directs a lot of its time at poking fun at RPG stereotypes by use of meta-game humour, breaking the fourth-wall regularly. I thought its humour certainly worked better than Magicka’s, but Magicka’s problems were all due to a lack of decent testing before release, not flawed design choices that leaves the experience lacking.

At the end of it all, if you play the demo and got an enjoyable experience past the design flaws, you’ll probably not be disappointed if you pick this game up in a deal or when the price has really dropped. It does carry, at the time of review, a hefty price tag for what is essential a low-budget game from a publisher known for churning out mediocre games. I’d invest my money elsewhere.

Dungeons is out now and available at retail outlets or on digital distribution. It costs £29.99 on Steam and has an RRP of £34.99 according to Amazon.

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AI War: Light of the Spire (PC review)   Leave a comment

Developed by: Arcen Games LLC
Published by: Arcen Games LLC
Out now
Reviewed on: 16th February, 2011.

Presentation: Arcen has a stated commitment to 2D games, but that should dissuade no one. The graphics look modern, the effects are very impressive and the interface is straightforward and easy to use. The music of the game also really shines and what Light of the Spire adds lives up to the precedence in quality set by earlier expansions.

Atmosphere: The atmosphere of the game is quite dark and serious as befits the setting. Humanity is on the cusp of extinction and as the AI attacks increase and wave and wave has been pushed back, the pressure is really felt and the necessity of making each victory, each conquest, a vital one is impressed on the players.

Control and Mechanics (for AI War generally): The game mostly poses no difficulty for any players who can manipulate the mouse and can press at least one key. The game does use a few multiple key and mouse click functions, which might prove a problem for some, but most players will never recourse to these functions. The game’s detailed tutorial shows one such example (requiring the combination of G, X and the left mouse button in order to give a certain set of, albeit rarely needed, orders to a group of ships). The learning curve is a lot milder than you might expect from first impressions.

Who should buy this: Those who want a complex 4X RTS game and don’t mind going through a few brief tutorials to get to grips with the game, people who want to try a game with more complexity but want the ability to run shorter missions or play without having to gather other players, people who want a good co-op 4X game with a sizeable community behind it.

Who should avoid it: Those who find complexity detracts from gameplay, those who bought and were happy with just the main AI War game, those who don’t want longer games or prefer games with a much more PvP-centric design, those who simply want a pick up and play game with no learning curve.

If I have to give a score: A great expansion which adds new content and new ways to play to a solid, well-designed game. 3.5/4

Review

AI War has been out a long while and is a real gem of the indie movement. The basic premise of the main game is that humanity has lost a devastating war to its own creations and now humanity’s hopes are all but gone as its mechanised children expand across the once vast galactic empire belonging to the human race. It’s a clichéd plot, sure, but AI War offers a few interesting twists to the tale that really makes it stand out.

Thinking about the way AI War plays shows that there are two kinds of strategy games out there. There is the uncomplicated kind like Command & Conquer and all its descendants up to games like Supreme Commander 2. These are games where you can switch on for about quarter of an hour, play through a mission or two and come back later. There are also games like Europa Universalis III to give another example. These are games that pull you in and offer a very deep, complex experience that takes a lot of mastering with a vast amount of variation and control. AI War seems to marry the depth and complexity of a grand strategy game like any of Paradox Interactive’s Europa games to the atmosphere and, to an extent, scale of RTS games like Supreme Commander 2.

And the real important difference between these two groups is that the former aren’t really strategy games, they are tactical games. You don’t have an overriding strategy to win a campaign or war, or even achieve a set of objections. In Supreme Commander 2, it’s simply a set of tactical choices and manoeuvres designed to win a battle or complete a few simple objectives.

This is a fine, tried and tested format and I hold no problem with it, but I can’t help feel that a game like AI War is more mature and more reaching for the level of complexity and variation that grand strategy games have. With all that said, let me turn to Light of the Spire.

Light of the Spire is the latest expansion to the game and is easily the largest. It adds several great features and makes the game more accessible to those who find AI War appealing, but can’t play co-op or want shorter games. The big feature I want to talk about is the addition of the defender mode. In defender mode, you can select a time limit for which you have to survive against waves of enemy attacks rather than the surgical strikes of conquest mode. This opens up the option of short games that can still be quite a struggle but doesn’t take the hours of play that conquest requires. It still can be up to 4 hours if the player or players choose, but 15 minute games are an option.

The other big feature is the addition of a new major faction. Alongside the Zenith and the Neinzul, the Spire make an appearance. Like humanity, they were a much younger race that the Zenith, at the height of their glory when the AI attacked them. Unlike humanity, they didn’t shatter as easily and regrouped. Driven by a hatred of the AI, they are potentially useful to the human protagonists but as they recognise the humans as the creators of their race’s fall, their position towards humanity is uncertain.

The major addition with this new faction is the story mode that comes with the Fallen Spire minor faction (each major faction in AI War is divided into smaller minor factions that might have conflicting goals). When the faction is active, players get events and an optional set of victory conditions besides the standard ones of taking out AI homeworlds. It allows the player to follow special events and start seriously threatening the AI rather than hoping to slip under the radar until it’s too late.

Beyond those two major additions, extra features fall in line with what previous expansions brought out. The AI system in this game, as you’d expected, is incredibly detailed and as well as AI difficulty, there are subtypes that define an AI’s personality. This expansion includes quite a few interesting ones like the moderately difficult ‘thief’ AI that concentrates on stealing player ships and converting them to the AI side or the harder ‘crafty spire’ AI that surrounds itself with stolen Spire technology, making it a lot harder to take down. As well as that, there are also AI plots that add special twists to the way an AI plays. New to this expansion is an AI variant that creates beachheads at some systems’ warp points, interrupting supply and reinforcements to an under siege system.

What you have alongside all this are new styles of map layouts, 180 new ships with several new types to account for Spire technology, new AI super weapons and more. The music is beautiful, as always, and LotS comes with several new tracks to add to the mystery and atmosphere of this strange new race of aliens. If you enjoy AI War, especially the free upgrades and the earlier expansions, then these standard additions more than justify the minor cost of the expansion. The two major features I outlined above alone make the expansion a must for any lover of the game.

If you enjoy complex, thought-provoking games that will challenge you, especially if you want something deeper than the standard RTS fare without turning to the vast complexity of grand strategy games, there is no reason not to indulge that craving with AI War. Anyone scared off by the drawn out nature of the game can ease their way in with the new defender campaign types offered by this latest expansion. All AI War expansions only require the base game to play and no previous expansions are required. Let AI War get a little wedge into your game collection, however, and the beauty, charm and style of the game will do the rest.

Light of the Spire is out now, available via digital distribution on the website and elsewhere, for $9.99 USD (around £6.33). The main game is available for $19.99 USD (around £12.46).