Saturday, August 16, 2008

Monster Master

For lack of a better term, I'll describe Monster Master as Magic for dummies. (The comments say that it's even more similar to Yu-Gi-Oh, but not being familiar with that, I can't comment.) And when I say "for dummies", I mean that War (the card game) is to real war as this game is to Magic. In fact, it's barely more sophisticated than War (the card game).

So, you have a deck, and every turn you draw one card and play some cards. You can not play more than one monster per turn, but you can play as many spells (which just do what they say) as you have and want to play. Monsters take a certain amount of time to summon (longer for more powerful monsters), and cannot attack during that time (though they can be attacked). To attack an enemy monster, just click on your own monster and click on the monster you want to attack, and then the most fun thing in the game happens: randomness! Each monster has an attack and a defense value, and a die is rolled from 0 to that value for each monster. Whoever is higher wins, and the other monster loses an amount of health equal to the difference. There's a reason that CCGs tend not to have randomness in them, and that's because there's already an amazing amount of randomness in the draws from the deck. Can you imagine how irritating Magic would be if, after crappy draws, you finally managed to get a Force of Nature out, and then some Llanowar Elves managed to kill it? Well, you can experience that feeling in Monster Master! I suppose that, since all monster combats are one-on-one, it's the simplest way to prevent the most powerful monsters from steamrolling everything, but it's still deeply unsatisfying and often frustrating.

The graphics are very basic -- the cards don't have anything special in their design; while there's a bit of character art, it's very small. There's no sounds or music at all. The AI is competent, but not great. The card selection is pretty limited -- there's about 20 different types of monsters, and about 30 different spells, so there's just not much opportunity for diversification.

Overall, this is a game which might be diverting for a couple of minutes, but there's just not enough strategy or tactics there -- it feels liks it's pretty much all luck, and the lack of polish doesn't really help this game, either.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Age of War

Age of War is a game which reminds me most of all of the Mac classic Armor Alley, except without the most important part -- the part where the main battle isn't totally boring. In Age of War, you and you enemy each send out units from your bases at opposite sides of the battlefield; they meet and fight it out in the middle. Killing your enemy's units brings you gold, which you can use to buy more units, which you can use to kill more enemy units, and so forth.

The twist in Age of War is that you progress through five ages over the course of the battle: you start out at the Stone Age, with clubs, slingshots, and somewhat-anachronistic "Dino Riders", progress through several ages up to the current age, and then finally to a futuristic age. You can advance after accumulating the appropriate number of experience points, which you get both by defeating units and losing your own units, so you and your opponent tend to advance at nearly equal rates. In each age, you have one type of melee unit, one type of shooter unit (which is slightly more expensive, but of course are weaker in direct melee), and one super-expensive unit, which is also melee. You can also build three types of turrets, which are attached to your base and fire on any approaching enemies. You also from time to time get special attacks, which usually rain destruction of some form on your enemy.

The two shortcomings of this design become apparent very quickly. First of all, your units march out single file and always engage the enemy singly. So even if you try to do the obvious clever thing and intersperse melee units with shooter units, the melee units won't really protect the shooter units; as soon as the front melee unit goes down, the shooter will bravely march forward to take his turn (rather than, oh, say, letting the melee unit behind him step forward). This makes it very difficult to get an advantage in the unit combat. However, eventually you'll probably show that you're at least slightly cleverer than your opponent, at which point the second problem becomes painfully obvious: turrets are way overpowered. The first time you get within range of your enemy base, you'll immediately become severely outgunned; since your units and the enemy units tend to be pretty closely matched already, adding the turret makes the odds very strong against you. This makes it essentially impossible to mount a successful assault on the enemy base using your units alone in the early game -- with careful timing of your special attack and excellent unit selection, you might manage to do some damage, but killing the enemy base before you reach the last age is almost impossible.

This, naturally, opens up the degenerate strategy where you don't build any units at all, but just build a bunch of turrets, go off and have a cup of coffee, and return with hundreds of thousands of dollars in your coffer. And unless you manage to get lucky by sneaking into an age ahead of your opponent (which I did manage to pull off my first time through), this is the only way to win. (In the last age, you can build vastly more powerful super soldiers, and by building up your cash reserves you can finally overwhelm your enemy with these.) Needless to say, this is rather unsatisfying.

The graphics are average, but nothing special, as are the sounds. On the other hand, the music is excellent -- I really liked it. It had a very appropriate feel. On the other hand, the choice of units is quite ridiculous. The most egregious is in the "current" age, where the tanks are the super-powerful melee unit. This means that your tanks will roll straight up to an enemy and, apparently, attempt to poke them with their turret. Meanwhile, the enemy unit will most likely be attempting to attack the tank by stabbing it. (Or, more precisely, stabbing the air below the turret.) This doesn't quite make sense. The futuristic units are also a little disappointing -- where's the jet packs and laser rifles?

Anyway, this game has some fun features, and the trip through time is definitely a nice touch, but the basic strategy is so fundamentally flawed and unsatisfying that this really just isn't a very good game.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dark Cut

Are you tired of all those medical dramas with all of their fancy-shmancy technology? Do you long for a return to the days when bonesaws and leeches were principal players in the medical practitioner's toolkit? Well, if that's the case, then Dark Cut is the game for you. Here, you have to heal three patients using the best medicine the 14th century has to offer.

The game itself is very straightforward -- it tells you what you need to do at each step; most tasks are very simple timing or precision positioning tasks, and it's generally pretty clear how to reach your objective (there are a couple exceptions -- it's not at all clear during the sawing that you don't want the saw to go too far either way, for instance). The procedures themselves feel at least somewhat realistic, though I'm sure a liberal amount of poetic license has been applied, until you reach the third patient, which is a vampire that you have to kill (so much for the Hippocratic Oath, I guess).

This game is a jmtb02 production, which means the usual high production values (and stars!), but it's definitely, well, much darker than the typical jmtb02 game. There's plenty of blood and gore, so this game is certainly not for the squeamish; there aren't any sound effects (which is probably for the better, all things considered), but the background music is very ominous and foreboding. Overall, I felt a little queasy playing through this game the first time, thanks to the combination of the graphicness of the operating table and the spooky music.

The most frustrating thing about the game is that if you should fail, you have to go all the way back to the beginning, which is no fun, especially if you fail on the third and final patient. Other than that, it's definitely a very creative game, but the core gameplay principles are pretty basic, so it doesn't require any particularly creative thinking, just exacting execution. Overall, I would say this is a solid game, but not necessarily one you'll have fun playing, simply because it can be so unpleasant at times.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tactical Assassin

OK, I know what you're thinking: "Paul, I can understand why you played Tactical Assassin 2. After all, it had badges. But after discovering that it was pretty mediocre, why would you go back and play the first one, which doesn't even have badges?" Well...I don't really have a good answer to that question. Mostly it's because I was curious, since the Tactical Assassin games consistently rate high in their category, and for all of its flaws, Tactical Assassin 2 is not bad mindless fun, so I decided to try the original.

So, the basic concept is the same: find people, shoot them in the head. Unlike the sequel, there's no buying things in between missions; you just have one weapon, and no worries about accessories or ammo. The random jitter is also gone, which is kind of a relief. The game is a little shorter -- seven missions divided between two chapters. The spelling is still amazingly poor, and the missions are still as simple as before, if not simpler; one frustrating thing is that in several missions, you will lose if "an alarm is raised", but it is very unclear exactly what the trigger conditions are, so you'll need several tries to get through. Still, it's by no means a difficult game.

Anyway, playing this one second reveals just how unnecessary most of the improvements added to Tactical Assassin 2 are, and it's kind of a nice experience stripped down to the basics. Still, there's just not enough actual game there to make it really interesting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tactical Assassin 2

Tactical Assassin 2 is a very simple game. In many ways, the game it reminds me most of is Button Hunt (review here), except in this case, the button is someone's head. But other than that, they're pretty much the same: you have to find the target, occasionally solving simple puzzles to make it visible, and then click on it. That's pretty much all there is. Though in Tactical Assassin 2, your crosshairs do have a little random jitter, to reflect your natural body moving, which adds an element which I feel like I should praise for its realism but which, in practice, only adds a degree of irritation. You can counter this by taking diazepam, which for some reason is activated using the right-arrow key.

The missions are exceedingly simple -- none of them takes more than 30 seconds. I managed to horribly overthink this in my first real mission -- I had been informed that my target liked to smoke cigars outside, and looked briefly at the people inside; none of them was smoking a cigar, so I figured I just had to wait for my target to come out. I waited for a couple of minutes, and felt intrigued that the game was so accurately simulating the long periods of boredom in being a sniper. Then I waited a little more, and decided I was missing something. Turns out he just had the cigar in an ashtray in front of him. That's pretty much the level of difficulty you can expect from the game.

In between missions, you can visit the store to buy more ammunition (useful) and diazepam (also useful), as well as a variety of accessories which aren't really useful. There's a lot of detail on each of the possible sniper rifles you can buy, but none of these details really matter in the game itself, so you're kind of left wondering what the point is.

The presentation is not great. The artwork is passable (stick figures, simple backgrounds), and the music is a good complement. The music is a nice complement, and each rifle has its own distinct sound, which is also a nice touch. The interface is pretty bad, though -- the original version that I played had a horrible font problem which made nearly everything unreadable. This appears to be fixed now, but the interface is still pretty confusing and not well-organized. And while I've, alas, grown used to a certain degree of bad spelling in Flash games, the spelling in this game is simply atrocious. It stands out even among Flash games.

Overall, I can see why this game idea appeals to people, but there's simply so little substance in the puzzles that this is not a particularly great game. You might as well play it and get the badge; it's not like it'll take you that long, and you can feel moderately clever for figuring out the few small puzzles there are, but that's about all I would recommend.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Nano War

Nano War is like the opposite of the Holy Roman Empire: it's a real-time game, and it's a strategy game, but it's most definitely not a real-time strategy game. Rather, it's a very simple concept packaged in a very simple game, which is entertaining for a little bit but rapidly loses steam thanks to its limitations.

The basic system of Nano War is very simple. You and your enemy are in battle in a field of circular cells. Cells controlled by your side will gradually increase in population, as will cells controlled by the enemy. There are also neutral cells, which are held by neutral troops; these don't increase in population over time. To attack an enemy cell, merely click once on your own cell and once on the destination cell; this sends half of your troops in the source cell (but you can click multiple times to send another half, and then another half of this, and so forth). Combat is settled by removing equal numbers of troops from both sides; the side left standing occupies the cell. (It is possible, though of course rare, for mutual annihilation to occur, in which case the cell becomes neutral.) It's also possible for two competing forces to encounter each other in transit, in which case the conflict is settled the same way. Larger cells on the battlefield produce more troops more quickly; each cell also has a maximum population beyond which it will stop producing more troops, which is higher for larger cells. Thus, the large cells tend to be the most important strategic points.

That's really all there is. While a pleasingly simple system, the problem is that there just isn't much to distinguish one level from another -- some may have more large cells, and some may have more small cells, but it doesn't really change the game all that much. This limits the game's long-term value. But the second problem is much more severe: because you are naturally much smarter than the AI, in order to make it a challenging game at all, the AI has to be given ridiculous advantages to start with. In the first few levels, the AI is still ridiculously passive, allowing you to defeat it with ease despite its huge starting advantage. Only around level 12 does it really begin being more aggressive, which can be quite frustrating given its still large initial advantage; you'll need both some luck and some skill to beat it at this point. But playing against an opponent on such unequal ground is less satisfying and more frustrating than it would be against a more competent and skillful AI, especially given the natural AI advantages of being able to coordinate multiple movements more effectively than you can hope to.

I believe I've described many games here as "brightly colored", but this might be the first time I think a game is too dimly colored -- both your color and the enemy color are kind of washed out, and if you're in a real hurry it may be difficult to distinguish the color of a small, heavily-contested cell. The music is a little spectral, and kind of creepy, but it's not bad, either; the sounds are pretty basic.

Anyway, while the underlying concept in Nano War is rather nifty, the poor AI and the simplicity of the concept mean that this just isn't a game which is good for long-term play. Currently the game has 14 levels, which is already the point where it begins to drag. Getting the badge wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't want to have to play significantly more than that.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Fancy Pants Adventure: World 2

In case the name didn't tip you off, The Fancy Pants Adventure: World 2 is a sequel to The Fancy Pants Adventures (review here). By and large the game engine is the same, and the whimsical sense of humor very much intact, but World 2 adds a few features to add a little more flavor to the game.

In case you're too lazy to click on the link and read about the first one, World 2, like its predecessor, is a charmingly hand-drawn platformer. It adheres to pretty much your standard Mario platformer conventions (even down to Fancy Pants Man falling asleep if you sit idle at the keyboard too long), but its well-crafted levels and general cheerfulness more than compensate for any familiarity in the basic gameplay principles.

World 2 adds a few additional features. First of all, it's longer, with six levels, plus transitional levels between and a small introductory scene at the beginning. (Alas, there's still no level indicator.) A skeletal plotline has been added; there's not much to it, but it's cute, and it's definitely a nice addition, given that the original had no plotline at all. There's still a bunch of hidden trophies (none of them particularly hard to find, but each requiring you to go at least a little bit out of your way). More music has also been added; the new music provides welcome variety but is also excellent, so this is a quality addition. Also, the backgrounds have been spiced up, with lots of cute little tidbits hidden in the background of many levels, amking the game much less static. Furthermore, a whole new side game has been added: in addition to the normal progress of the level, each level now has a snail shell and a hole somewhere in the level; knocking the snail shell into the hole will grant you a new color for your pants! This is kind of a neat little addition, though as a game, it can be extremely frustrating getting the shell to go where you want it to go.

Anyway, this is still a very entertaining and charming game, and I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it. While the snail shell may not be a great addition, the basic gameplay is still wonderful. Like its predecessor, it's not a terribly long, nor a terribly difficult game; it's best enjoyed as a simple, well-crafted morsel.