Saturday, August 23, 2008

Duck: Think outside the flock

Duck: Think outside the flock is one of the few games on Kongregate that I played in its entirety without a badge to reward me. I saw it on the New Games list, and noticed that it was by the same designer as Factory Balls (review here), and hoped that it would be, like Factory Balls, a fun if somewhat insubstantial diversion. And indeed, that is exactly what it turned out to be.

Duck consists of 25 duck-based logic puzzles. Figuring out exactly what the puzzle is is part of the challenge, but generally the puzzle itself is pretty straightforward and self-evident. Some of the puzzles require a bit of careful mouse movements, while some require only brainpower, but none of them is particularly difficult -- you may get hung up on one (perhaps the last one) for a few minutes, but there aren't any particularly sneaky tricks that you need to employ.

The presentation is nothing special -- the ducks are cute, but they all look the same (or almost so). Similarly, the quacking that you get on a successful puzzle completion is cute but repetitive. The music is a selection of tunes from the Nutcracker (why not Swan Lake, I wonder?), which is definitely a step up from the typical Flash game music. Overall, this game is neither difficult nor long, and I wouldn't say it has a huge degree of replay value, but it is charming and fun enough that you should enjoy playing it through once.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dog Eat Dog

Dog Eat Dog was the first game in Kongregate's Buried Treasure Week, a series during the week of August 11 created when Greg (the Kongregate person who creates badges for games) decided that it would be a good idea to shine the spotlight away from the highly-rated popular games which normally get the lion's share of badges, and give some less-popular games that were still interesting and deserving of attention a day in the sunshine. Apparently, though, Greg has a weakness for mediocre dodgers, since that's what Dog Eat Dog is (Tangerine Panic, which was also considered for the week, also fits into this category). By the reaction of people in chat, you'd think that he had picked Hitler's Bunker: The Game [*] as his selection; it's certainly not that bad, but aside from the silliness of the central concept, there's absolutely nothing that makes this game stand out.

Anyway, Dog Eat Dog is a very simple game -- you are a dog, and your job is to eat (i.e. run over) smaller dogs while avoiding being eaten by larger dogs. One plus for this game is a feature that I wish more dodgers would have: the choice of keyboard or mouse control. The dogs always move in horizontal or vertical straight lines, so avoiding them (or eating them, depending) is not exactly the world's hardest task; however, they can eat you even without coming into direct contact, which can be rather unpleasantly surprising the first time it happens. As the game progresses, your dog becomes larger, and eventually it becomes large enough to eat dogs that would have eaten it before; however, since there's not any clear visual indicator that you've now gotten bigger than other dogs, and trial and error is out of the question given that you only have one life, this feature is not as useful as it could be.

The graphics are pretty basic -- the dogs are not particularly detailed, and what I assume is the grassy field is pretty blah. There's only two sounds, a bark when you eat a smaller dog and a whine when you get consumed, and you'll get pretty tired of the first. The background music is a bit of techno which isn't bad intrinsically but which feels a little bit out of place in this setting -- it seems more suited to something involving clouds.

Anyway, you'll hopefully be glad to hear that the rest of Buried Treasure Week contained more interesting games, because this game simply didn't bring anything new to the table. Fortunately, getting the badge was pretty easy, because it meant I didn't have to play this game any more.

[*] I'm imagining a simple point-and-click adventure, where you have one room (the bunker, obviously, which shakes periodically as bombs and artillery impact above) and a few things you can click on: you can rant at your staff, draw up fancifully unrealistic battle plans, and canoodle with Eva. When each of those options loses its pall, you can click on the pistol in the corner, and then it's Game Over. Sounds like fun, huh?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bubble Tanks 2

Bubble Tanks 2 is a sequel to Bubble Tanks (review here), in case the name didn't tip you off. The gameplay is nearly identical to its predecessor -- it's a pretty straightforward shooter (keyboard moves, mouse shoots) where you move from bubble to bubble defeating enemies and picking up their bubbles to add to your own tank to make it more powerful. Being hit, on the other hand, will cause you to lose bubbles.

As far as I can tell, Bubble Tanks 2 adds three features to the original. First, there's a map, which is quite convenient for telling where the heck you're going. Second, there's one huge overall boss (which is quite an epic battle), and then also four fairly powerful subbosses, which appear randomly from time to time, so that occasionally you'll get a pretty severe challenge (especially if you're just starting out; it seems like they can appear anywhere, although the boss doesn't seem to pop up until you've already upgraded your tank a fair amount). Also, the enemy bubble menagerie has been expanded somewhat, as there are now minelayers and enemy bullets which slow you, but they're still all basically built along the same lines. Third, instead of your tank just randomly gradually getting more powerful as you collect bubbles, you have a bubble progress bar at the bottom, and when it fills up, you can choose the next form for your tank. Generally you get two or three choices, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. This is a nice feature and adds a tangible feeling of accomplishment to your bubble conquest. Unfortunately, once you've chosen, you can never change your mind -- even if you lose enough bubbles to knock you back to your previous level, you still go back to the form you chose the first time around the next time you level up again. This is kind of a disappointment -- if you choose an upgrade and decide you don't like it, the only way to change is to restart the whole game.

The background music is is still very peaceful and unintrusive, and the sounds are still pretty basic. The graphics are just bubbles, though clearly whoever drew the tank models was having a lot of fun, since there's a lot of creativity in the tank designs -- as a practical matter, it doesn't affect the game much, though. Overall, this is a little more substantial than its predecessor, and it's fun to play for a little while, but I still feel like it's lacking a bit in the way of goals to encourage you to keep playing for longer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Amorphous+ is a game with much in common with Dino Run (review here). It's a game with relatively simple basic mechanics, but with those mechanics very well crafted, and with lots and lots for you to do, so that you can play for a very long time without getting bored. Like Dino Run, there's a huge set of achievements and an Impossible badge for getting them all; at first I thought there was no way I was going to remain interested long enough to get the badge, then I found myself continuing to play and accumulating more and more achivements, and then pretty soon I was almost there, so I went through and got the last few that I was missing, and it was an enjoyable experience all the way through.

Anyway, Amorphous+ is, at its base, a pretty simple game. You have a top-down view of yourself and a variety of nasty enemies (called "Glooples"). You also have an incredibly huge sword; clicking the mouse will swing the sword and splat most things in about a 120-degree arc in front of you. It's a pretty basic formula, but the first thing that makes Amorphous+ an engaging game is the bestiary. A game like this needs a variety of well-distinguished, interesting enemies, and Amorphous+ provides these in spades. (I tend to think of Crystal Quest as the gold standard for this, if you're curious for a reference point.) The enemies range from the simple green Glooples, which are almost entirely harmless -- if they bump into you, you can be knocked off-balance for a moment, which provides an entry for another, more harmful gloople to get you -- up to the fearsome Razor Queens, which are an incredibly challenging boss, but each enemy brings its own abilities and dangers to the table -- there aren't any thinly-disguised carbon copies of other enemies; each is quite unique.

The game modes are quite simple -- first is the single nest; nests come in three sizes, each with a certain fixed number of Glooples to kill. The smaller nests also don't include some of the most difficult Glooples. The other main play mode is the bounty mode, where the goal is simply to survive as long as possible and accumulate as many points as you can. There's also a practice mode, where you can face off against Glooples you've already seen; this is very useful for the Glooples that you encounter later in nests, so you can get some experience in fighting them so you don't always just die whenever you encounter them again. Again, though, what makes Amorphous+ engaging is that there's so much to do beyond simply try to beat the nest or survive. There's a total of 110 achievements (called "awards") for accomplishing tasks from the very simple (splat a single green gloople) to the silly (change the music five times in a level) to the quite difficult (clear an entire nest without being touched by anything). The variety of these awards mean that you'll always have something to do, and (with a few exceptions) they tend to be pretty tedium-free.

There's a tangible bonus for picking up awards, too -- for every 10 awards you accumulate, you earn a reward (the nomenclature is rather confusing), an item that you can take into battle with you to help you out on your quest. Indeed, to get some of the harder awards and beat some of the larger nests, these rewards are pretty much of a must-have. Once you reach 55 awards, you can take two rewards into battle with you, which is even more useful, and careful reward selection is obviously an important part of strategy in trying to accomplish a particular goal.

There are two and a half things that I find frustrating. First is the mouse control -- this is always a problem in a Flash game that involves fast movements, since it's very easy to click outside the Flash pane, and then you will almost certainly meet your demise while frantically trying to scroll back or hit your original tab (and God save you if your missed click happened to hit a link on the page). I'm not sure if the game would necessarily adapt well to keyboard control, but it would have been nice to at least have the possibility available. Second is the fact that the game doesn't tell you what the awards or rewards are until after you get them. For awards, this is not an uncommon practice, although it's one I kind of deplore -- why not tell people what they need to shoot for? It's true that a lot of the awards you'll get in the course of normal play anyway, but there are definitely some you simply won't get unless you know what to look for. But for the rewards -- they're hard enough to earn in the first place (the first few are easy, since there's a lot of low-hanging fruit in the award list, but they get progressively much more difficult to earn); why should you be forced to pick your reward blind without any idea of whether it'll be good or not? Really, the only effect of this decision is to drive people to FAQs, and that's kind of pointless. The half complaint is that you only get one life (there is one reward which gives you a second chance, but only sometimes) -- it's frustrating when you're working your way through a long nest to make one small mistake and be dead in short order. I think the game would overall be less irritating if you had multiple lives (with presumably a corresponding increase in difficulty). This would represent a pretty major game change, though, so it's not something I would demand.

The graphics are pretty simple, but when you're just dealing with different shapes of blobs, it doesn't really matter all that much. The sound effects are not bad, although the sound for the box gun can get kind of grating after a while. The one thing that really sticks out like a sore thumb is that the author always uses "it's" even when "its" is required. This is extremely grating to me. The music is very good -- it's nice background music, and there's a variety of tunes (yay!), most of which are good, and you can always switch if you don't like the current music, so it does an excellent job of providing accompaniment.

Anyway, overall Amorphous+ is an excellent game -- it's a perfect illustration of how to get a lot of depth out of relatively simple gameplay concepts, and the bestiary is so well-crafted that there's rarely a dull moment while playing -- there's always a dangerous Gloople ready to spring out and cause trouble, and dealing with each kind will require you be on the top of your game and well-prepared. An entertaining game from top to bottom.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tangerine Panic

Tangerine Panic is another very simple dodger where you play a man suddenly attacked by a shower of tangerines and have to avoid them as long as possible. The tangerines come out of a pipe at the top left of the screen and bounce entirely unlike tangerines -- more like solid orange balls (which, perhaps, not coincidentally, is also what they sound like when bouncing). In contrast to a normal dodger, you actually have multiple lives, which is kind of nice -- it makes the overall outcome of the game a little less random and more skill-dependent.

I find the mouse control to be a poor choice for a dodger like this -- I think keyboard control would have been better. The music is nice and peppy, while the sounds (as mentioned above) are a little incongruous with the alleged theme of tangerines. In a cute touch, your character will spout various phrases of exasperation while he's running around, complaining about the tangerines. This is mildly amusing for at least a little bit, although it wears off pretty quickly.

Anyway, this is a very silly game, and you should have no trouble quickly getting the badge, but like so many other dodgers on this site, there's really not enough substance to make you want to keep playing after acquiring your shiny prize.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pandemic 2

Pandemic 2 is an interesting study in contrasts. As a sandbox, it's great fun -- who amongst you hasn't wanted to try to give everyone in Western Europe bloody vomit with some horrible new disease? But as a game, it's a miserable failure -- if you try to play to win, you'll be bashing your head against its design limitations in no time.

I'm going to digress a moment and talk about the original Pandemic, which I played long before I saw Kongregate (indeed, it's not on Kongregate even now). It was an interesting little germ (ha ha) of an idea -- you controlled a disease with the goal of wiping out humanity. You gained points by infecting more people, which you could use to increase your transmission (for instance, by making yourself airborne) or increasing your lethality (for instance, by adding hemorrhaging as a symptom). It was a cute little game, but very simplistic, egregiously so in its geography (there's a total of 8 regions, including an "Eastern Europe" which stretches from India to Burma), and the optimal strategy becomes blindingly obvious early on: don't develop any lethal symptoms until you've infected everyone, and then once you do, bring the hammer down with as much lethality as you can and patiently wait for everyone to die. (That's right -- once you develop new symptoms, everyone who already has the disease also gets them. Don't ask me how that makes sense.) Anyway, it was a neat idea, but a little too simple to be much of a real game.

Pandemic 2 attempts to address many of these shortcomings and make the basic idea into a more substantial game. The result is a product which is vastly improved in some areas, retains some of the flaws of its predecessor, and takes a very large step back in one respect. Let me talk about the last of those items first. In the original Pandemic, there wasn't that much that happened in the very early stages (when your disease had only infected a handful of people) and the very late stages (when you have already infected everyone and were just patiently waiting for humanity to hurry up and die). That was OK, because you could just hammer the "next day" button until something did happen. Pandemic 2 has basically the same dynamic, except that the designers decided to make it a real-time game. This means that you can see the airplanes and ships niftily flitting about the globe. Unfortunately, it also means that you spend an inordinate amount of time (even with the game speed set to its fastest) just sitting around and waiting for something interesting to happen. This is not fun at all.

So, in Pandemic 2, you have a relatively detailed world map, with 21 different regions. Many regions have one or more airports and seaports (although, realistically speaking, every region should have an airport and seaport, but I suppose the designers took some artistic liberties), which can very quickly spread your disease from region to region. The game seems to overemphasize these modes of travel as opposed to overland travel, though -- is it really the case that a disease is more likely to make it from the US to Mexico via an airplane than a car? I doubt it, somehow. Your disease can be a virus, bacterium, or parasite, each with its own advantages and disadvantages; as time goes on, you acquire "evolution points", which you can use to buy new symptoms, means of transmission, and resistances. (Somewhat perplexingly, you gain evolution points very quickly early on, when your disease has only infected a few people, but the rate decreases sharply as time goes on, which can leave you just sitting around waiting for points to accumulate in the late game.) The symptoms are a double-edged sword: they increase your infectiousness and lethality, but they also make your disease more visible to authorities who can take countermeasures. Some symptoms are, on a net basis, more trouble to your disease than they're worth, and it actually costs more evolution points to get rid of these symptoms than to acquire them. Your disease can also have some traits, which are generally entirely random and affect your disease in various ways. There's also a wide variety of natural disasters which can hit countries, which may speed or slow the progress of your disease.

Now, for the two big flaws in Pandemic 2. First of all, the aforementioned authorities have a dizzying array of countermeasures they can take to combat your disease, ranging from handing out bottled water to declaring martial law. As far as I can tell, none of these countermeasures matters one whit once you've infected a region. They may slow the progress of your disease, but I have never seen a case where a disease has gotten a toehold in a region and then been stopped by these countermeasures (with one exception, which I'll discuss below). Conversely, countries can close their borders, seaports, and airports, and these measures are 100% effective at keeping your disease out if it hasn't yet gotten in, which is just as unrealistic. If you're trying to kill everyone in the world, then as soon as Madagascar closes its seaport (which is the only way in), you might as well pack up and go home.

The other flaw arises from the fact that, to avoid the easy win strategy for the original Pandemic, countries will crazily overreact. You can have a virus which is entirely asymptomatic and nonlethal, and yet as soon as it's infected a few hundred million people, countries will start shutting their borders, declaring martial law, and so forth. This is obviously quite unrealistic; from a gameplay perspective, it arises from two basic issues: first, that lethality and transmissibility are completely decoupled, and second, that when your virus acquires more lethal symptoms, that everyone who already has the virus will get these symptoms too. The obvious solution from both a gameplay and realism perspective is to eliminate these -- if you have a virus that infects 200 million people, some of them are going to die from it regardless of how harmless your virus is. The symptoms having good and bad aspects is already a step in the right direction; the game just needs to take it a bit further. And maybe make it so that your virus acquiring new symptoms isn't retroactive? It would change the game greatly, but I can't say it would be for the worse.

OK, last complaint. After a while, the humans will start working on a vaccine. Usually, you kill people too rapidly for them to finish the vaccine in time, but occasionally they'll finish and deploy it. When this happens, you get a coin flip! Sometimes it works and you lose. Sometimes it doesn't work and they'll try again (almost certainly they won't have enough time, though). And sometimes your virus mutates and becomes invincible to all vaccines. This is a hugely random swing (it can be affected by your acquiring drug resistance, but there's still, as far as I can tell, a coin flip underneath), and adds another element of annoyance to the game.

On to the presentation. The graphics are clear and crisp, though the automatic messages displayed in the information panel (which could really use a scrollback bar) occasionally are kind of nonsensical; a little editing would have helped. The background music is pretty good, and makes for a nice complement to the game. The game offers two different modes, "realistic" and "relaxed", which in practice aren't terribly different; your disease appears to be faster in relaxed mode, and a few things aren't included, but most of the gameplay is entirely the same.

Anyway, if you're just messing around with the game, it can be fun to see how much of humanity you can kill. But when you're trying to beat the game, you'll get very, very frustrated when you play 20 times, Madagascar closes off every time, and then finally on the 21st time (without you changing your strategy at all) you manage to get in before the close and win. This amount of dependence on luck results in a very frustrating game. While Pandemic 2 is definitely an improvement on its predecessor, it still has a way to go to really turn its potential into an enjoyable challenge.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Johnny Rocketfingers

Johnny Rocketfingers is bad! He's got attitude! He's the Duke Nukem of stick figure, point-and-click adventures, and he wants you to know it! Indeed, pretty much every part of the game is devoted to telling you just how much of a badass Johnny Rocketfingers is. The result is a product which I'm sure is incredibly appealing to 15-year-old guys, but which as a game is really not that terribly interesting.

So, as I said before, this is pretty much your basic point-and-click adventure. The actual opportunities for player interaction are pretty limited -- you spend most of the time watching just how awesome Johnny is, or at least is supposed to be (some of the quips which I'm sure are supposed to be cool and witty come off more as terrible puns). When you are confronted with a puzzle, solving it is invariably pretty simple, since there's never more than about three things you can click on. As you might expect, there's plenty of sex, violence, and drugs, or at least as much as the designer could cram into the game given its length.

The artwork isn't bad, at least within the standard hand-drawn stick-figure constraints; on the other hand, the sound effects are pretty basic. The music fits well with the game, although somehow I doubt that Crystal Method, Fatboy Slim, etc. actually licensed their music for the game to use. The game itself is quite short -- assuming you don't deliberately do all of the wrong things (which you can do in the hopes of seeing more entertainment), you'll get through it quite quickly.

Anyway, overall, I don't find the extreme attitude enough to compensate for the fact that, as a game, this is really not that challenging or entertaining. It's short enough that getting the badge wasn't a horrible experience or anything, but there are so many better games out there.