Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Warfare: 1917

Ah, the tactical richness of World War I. Should you send your men "over the top", where they will certainly be gunned down in a hail of machine gun fire, if the mines don't get them first? Or should you leave them in their trench until a poison gas attack comes and suffocates them all? Well, with Warfare: 1917, the choice is yours! You, too, can be Douglas Haig, sending millions...well, this game is a little smaller-scale than the whole war, but at least hundreds of brave British soldiers to their doom. Fortunately, the game is a little more forgiving than reality, so you can actually win the war in an afternoon.

Warfare: 1917 is set on a side-scrolling battlefield, with trenches, barbed wires, and mines all throughout. The trenches are, naturally, the focal points of the battlefield; nearly all of your efforts will be focused on capturing or defending them. Troops arrive with a timed release mechanic -- each unit type available to you is on a timer, and more powerful units are on a longer timer. When the timer finishes, you can deploy that unit. However, deploying a unit resets the timers for all units, so you'll often be caught in a tricky choice: should I deploy a rifle unit now, or hold on and wait to get a machine-gun squad? It's a simple, but effective, mechanic. You also have various types of fire support available, which run on their own separate timers (that is, using one type of fire support doesn't reset the timer for others). The objective is, obviously, to capture the whole battlefield. Your units also have a morale bar -- as you might expect, losing units depletes your morale, while killing enemies improves it. If you run out of morale, your side will surrender. In practice, morale doesn't generally play too large a role, but there was one time when I was mounting a victorious but bloody offensive and ran out of morale, which was quite frustrating.

The controls are very simple, and perhaps a little too simple. Units advance until they reach a trench. Once they're in a trench, they will stay there until you order them out to advance again. (You can't change your mind and order them back to the trench -- they'll continue until they either get killed or reach the next trench.) A trench can only hold three squads, so if a unit reaches a trench which is already full, it'll just continue on. You can also lock a trench so that units will just continue on past it, which is useful for trenches in your back lines. One disadvantage of this system, combined with the time-release system, is that it's very hard to mass troops for an attack -- if your front trench is already filled with machine-gunners, then every squad you build after that will simply go forward to attack the enemy, and there's nothing you can do to stop them, which means that your attacks will be pretty ineffectual. (If you have a secondary trench at the back, you can mass troops there and then send them in all at once, which is much more effective.)

The game offers a campaign, in which you start out with only the most basic units and progress through nine levels; over the course of the campaign, more advanced units (snipers, officers, and finally tanks) are gradually introduced. You also gain XP in the campaign which you can use to purchase various upgrades for your units. Unfortunately, the tanks are kind of unbalanced -- once you get them, it's not really worth it to build anything else; just keep sending tanks at the enemy and ultimately you will prevail. You can also play a skirmish mode in which you can choose the parameters of the battlefield and available units.

Warfare: 1917 is by Con Artist, the designer responsible for the Last Stand games, and a few of the gun noises do sound a little familiar. The graphics are very high-quality (ooh, rain, pretty!) and the sounds do a pretty good job of making the action sound like a battlefield, although it's undoubtedly much quieter (and somewhat more repetitive) than a real World War I battlefield. Still, it's a solid gameplay experience. Annoyingly, like so many Armor Games products, the Kongregate version is crippled in that you can only play the British side; you have to visit Armor Games to get the German campaign. This isn't too much of a loss, since the British campaign gave me all the World War I action I felt like, but it's still annoying on principle.

Overall, Warfare: 1917 is a little too simple to make for a really engaging game -- there's just not quite enough strategy to really make the game interesting, especially in the later levels when tanks just roll over everything. Of course, one could claim that this is actually really realistic! I somehow doubt that was the goal, though. Still, it's well-programmed and pretty-looking, so it's worth playing a few missions at least until you get tired of it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

More Bloons

More Bloons is a perfect example of a very simple concept which could very easily be a terrible game, but because of the obvious care and attention put into crafting the levels, it is instead an entertaining challenge. Probably one that will have you tearing your hair out at some points (at least, if you play without unlimited darts), but one that will give you quite a feeling of accomplishment for finishing it.

In More Bloons, you control a dart-throwing monkey. You move the mouse to aim and hold down the mouse button to set your throwing power. There's a number of balloons scattered around the level, and your goal is to pop a certain percentage of them. At the beginning, most of the balloons are your garden-variety ordinary balloons, but as you proceed through the game, you'll see a dazzling array of balloons which do various special things, some helpful (for instance, the dart balloon which sends off eight thumbtacks in all directions), some not-so-helpful (for instance, the ice balloon which freezes nearby balloons, making them unpoppable), and some which are a mixed bag (for instance, the bomb balloon, which blows up everything nearby, including your dart). There's also blocks, including metal blocks, which stop your dart, rubber blocks, which your dart can bounce off of, and wooden blocks, which can be broken by your dart (or other objects) hitting them.

Anyway, as I said, what really makes this game solid is the level design. In each level, you have a very limited number of darts, and the level is constructed so that reaching the necessary percentage to beat the level in the number of darts you have is not an easy task, and often requires a lot of careful thinking and precision aiming. (Actually, this brings up one of the weaknesses of the game. You can also enable unlimited darts mode, which does what the name says, but the game doesn't track whether you've beaten a level with unlimited darts or not. As a result, the final badge for beating all the levels is only a medium, since it is pretty trivial with unlimited darts, although without unlimited darts it is quite a challenge.)

The later levels require quite a few attempts to beat (and I admit that I had to look up strategies for a couple, since I couldn't quite figure them out). You'll often find yourself resetting a level after a botched first shot; it's kind of frustrating that there's no way to do this using the keyboard, since if you're just a little bit off you might not want to have to move your mouse. There are 50 levels in total; each level shouldn't take you too long, but the total time spent does add up if you're trying to beat them without using unlimited darts.

The graphics are pretty simple; the monkey is cute, but the balloons are, well, pretty much just balloons. There isn't any background music, and the sounds are also pretty basic, though the sound of a whole bunch of balloons popping in rapid succession is pretty satisfying.

Overall, there's perhaps a little too much frustration in getting a level right in More Bloons to make it a truly great game. Still, the very fact that the levels are that well-designed makes this game a solid challenge and a game worth playing.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Talesworth Arena: Death Watch

Talesworth Arena is an interesting game. When I first tried it, I thought it was ridiculously simple and not worth playing, but then I kept on playing it (because there was a badge, alas) and discovered that it's actually pretty interesting. The game doesn't end up having quite as much strategy as it would like to you believe, but it keeps things moving along quickly enough that it stays fresh as you battle your way through the ten levels of the Arena.

The battles in Talesworth Arena are not quite like anything I've seen before. You have up to 12 buttons for your various skills on your side of the screen; your opponent also has a set of skills. At the top of the screen are bars showing your current health and your opponent's. Each skill has a casting time (how long it takes to cast) and a cooldown time (how long after it's been cast you have to wait before you can cast it again). Some skills damage your opponent (either immediately, or gradually over time), some protect yourself from damage, some speed you up or slow down your enemy, some stun your enemy, and so forth. The current skill being used is displayed at the top of the screen, so if you notice your enemy doing something particularly nasty, you can use a skill (if it has a shorter casting time) to protect yourself or possibly even interrupt your enemy's skill. Overall, it's kind of like a console RPG in real time, but much faster and with a greater emphasis on tactics.

Winning battles gets you gold, which you can spend in town between battles to acquire more skills (or upgrades of the skills you already have) and improved equipment. There are also a few sidequests which grant you various useful things. (Losing a battle costs you gold and/or XP, so it's just a temporary setback.) After you've accumulated enough XP to gain a level, you have to fight the boss for that level in order to actually level up; if you don't think you're ready, you can continue to fight normal fights to get more gold for equipment and/or skills, but the game nicely discourages you from doing this too much. The boss fights, as you might expect, are pretty tricky, and the goal is to defeat Krax, the level 10 boss and boss of the whole Arena.

You can play as three different classes, each of which has a rather different method of operating -- Psionics fuel their spells with mana, which gradually regenerates over time; Engineers use gas to power their gadgets, which can be regenerated by a skill (but if that skill gets interrupted, you're in trouble). Juggernauts operate somewhat differently -- they have a Power bar which builds up (rather than depletes) as they use their skills, which they can then turn into a new source of damage. In practice, though, the three classes don't play as differently as you might think; since a lot of the skills do more or less the same thing, there's only a few really unique skills to each class, so the strategies you develop for one class don't have to be changed all that much. Similarly, the game makes a big deal about how you have to carefully plan your strategy against each different opponent, but once you have your basic strategy figured out, you don't need to change it that much for different foes; usually all you need to do is notice you opponent's most annoying skill (usually his stun/interrupt one) and then prevent him from using that.

One thing that's worth noting about the game is that the presentation is excellent. The graphics are very pretty, and there's clearly a lot of care put into the various interface elements, the kind of thing that you don't often see in a Flash game. (The writing is also blessedly free of awkward grammar and spelling errors, a sad rarity. Well, there is a typo or two, but it's still way above your typical Flash game.) The sounds are pretty basic, but at least they're nicely varied. The music is excellent -- the battle music adds the right level of action to the proceedings without being distracting or annoying, and the town music is very pretty. (It would probably get repetitive if you spent a lot of time in town, but usually you won't be in town that long.)

Talesworth Arena is not a really difficult game -- you may struggle in the beginning as you get the hang of how your skills work and how to best string them together, but once you've figured out how to use the character you should find yourself winning nearly all of the time, except when you make the occasional careless mistake. Because an individual battle goes by so quickly, it doesn't really feel too tedious, although sometimes in the middle levels the process of just leveling up feels a little repetitive. The last badge for the game requires you to beat it with all three classes, which I feared would be a dreary trudge, but it's actually not too bad; though it's not quite as fun the second or third times through, it still retains a good bit of entertainment value (though once I finished the third class, I felt I was pretty much done with the game).

Overall, I enjoyed Talesworth Arena. It's an interesting battle system, but one that is well-thought-out, has a good assortment of skills, and does a good job making sure that nearly every skill that you have can be useful at some point. It requires you to do at least some thinking on your feet, manages to keep a brisk pace throughout, and is presented in a very nice package. It may require a bit of effort to get started, but once you've figured it out, it's pretty rewarding.