Posts Tagged: Reviews

Review: TurtleStrike

The main menu screen, featuring my preferred robot turtle skin.

I did not realize that robot turtles are a thing before writing this review.

eeGon’s TurtleStrike indeed has quite a lot of strikes — although some of them are against it. It’s multiplayer-only, freemium, and its central innovation (which Eegon seems to think so original they dub it “live turn-based”) is really just wego with a short turn timer. But TurtleStrike does have a fantastic pitch to a broad audience: approachable rules, focused battles with few units, rapid pacing, and an artistic style which is both pleasing to my eyes and appropriate for all ages.

The game consists of battles between some decidedly unlikely armed turtles organized into three formations a side. Formations are given orders as a unit and you only have three units to consider, so the game maintains a fast pace. Floating barrels of explosives and toxic waste join more prosaic terrain like islands and fishing nets in complicating your approach to your opponent. Between battles, TurtleStrike offers some light customization options.
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Review: Spiral: Episode One

Our hero has taken the "I'm crushing your head" goof to the next level.

Our hero has taken the “I’m crushing your head” goof to the next level.

Sometimes, when the rain pours and the sky darkens and the winds… blow, I guess, a body’s liable to get introspective. For some, such a soul-searching humour might bring with it a night full of rum and existentialist literature. For others, it might be more like, “Wow, Oni was a hell of a fighter,” and “You know, friggin’ every game should look like Timesplitters. Why am I always so right about things?!” (Also, it might be more like off-label vodka mixed with Flavor-Aid.)

Point being, Spiral: Episode One, from Pixel Hero Games, is the perfect game for both those hypothetical evenings. It’s a sci-fi actiony RPG that does a sort of spectacle fighter thing with touch controls and gosh it’s just all so interesting.

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Review: Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy

The iconography is mutually reinforcing, which makes it easier to learn than you might expect.

Slide-out trays for the tech tree, diplomacy, ship upgrades–check, check, and check.

Several iOS games have attempted to follow in Master of Orion‘s 4x (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) footsteps: Ascendancy, Starbase Orion, and the ill-fated Empire of the Eclipse have all trod this territory with big, long-haul games of galactic domination designed to be played over hours and days.

In bringing award-winning phenomenon Eclipse to the iPad, board game digitizers extraordinaire Big Daddy’s Creations have delivered a 4X game that can be played in about an hour. It’s a proven tabletop design from a similarly proven developer, which has made it one of the most anticipated releases of the year. There’s more about what makes Eclipse so special after the jump.  Continue reading…

Review: PWN: Combat Hacking

Mr. Glitch, your tests results are back. It doesn't look good...

Mr. Glitch, your tests results are back. It doesn’t look good…

Looking at the characters in PWN: Combat Hacking, you get the idea that hacking all day may not be the best career choice. Every hacker in PWN looks about as happy as someone who just found out they have a terminal illness.  At first, I wasn’t sure what everyone’s problem was, as I found hacking in the PWN universe to be far more exciting and enjoyable than these Matrix wannabes were letting on. A few hours later, however, I was just as dour as the rest of them. Turns out PWN: Combat Hacking is a very good game stifled by a heavy dose of repetition and a lack of replayability.

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Review: Fieldrunners 2

Yet another perfect round.

Yet another perfect round.

Fieldrunners 2 makes me feel a little lonely. Fieldrunners is one of those games with a fervent, obsessive following – if you search Twitter right now you will find a legion of fans howling with joy at the sequel’s long-awaited release.

I’m not a misanthrope – I like joy. I want to be excited, too. But I didn’t get Fieldrunners, and I don’t quite get Fieldrunners 2. Its production quality is undeniable, and the gameplay has its moments – but for the most part it’s a boring, non-interactive experience.

To wit: I’ve left the game running whilst I write. I’m playing a level that seems to be about a quarter of the way through the game – “Home on Derange”, it’s called. I set up a pretty decent maze of towers to route the enemy fieldrunners through in the first ten rounds, and for the last thirty-odd rounds I’ve just left the game going – glancing over at the iPad every so often, occasionally upgrading a tower but usually not. I have hundreds of in-game dollars that I could spend, but why bother? My towers haven’t leaked a mob yet. This is the “tough” difficulty – I can’t imagine how soporific the “casual” difficulty is.

This is what I was afraid Fieldrunners 2 would be – a screensaver. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice one. It’s bright and colorful to look at, and the writing (what little there is) is good-natured and jovial. There’s little touches that charm you – the fieldrunners have impressive ragdoll animations that they go into when you kill them, for example. But it’s still a game that – after some initial setup – essentially plays itself. Your most meaningful interaction with Fieldrunners 2 is when you drop $2.99 on it.

Fieldrunners 2 rewards the persistent with unlockable towers, consumables, and achievements.

Fieldrunners 2 rewards the persistent with unlockable towers, consumables, and achievements.

The most frustrating thing for me is that it doesn’t have to be like that. In the level I described earlier, there are seventy (yes, seven-zero) waves of mobs. At regular speed, it’s going to take twenty or thirty minutes for all of those waves to go by – and for the majority of that time I can do literally nothing and maintain a perfect score. That’s not a fundamentally flawed game – it’s just a flabby one. Compress that action into ten or fifteen interesting waves (as Radiant Defense does) and that screensaver becomes a proper game – and one much better suited for mobile. I pity the fellow whose subway commute allows for an entire round of Fieldrunners 2.

What I’ve been describing is Fieldrunners 2 at its most banal – it’s not all like that. Subatomic Studios had been promising a game that would reinvent tower defense for the better, and while that might be overstating the case, they have definitely added some interesting new wrinkles to the formula.

Fieldrunners 2 adds levels with different objectives into the mix: time trial levels where your goal isn’t necessarily to prevent mobs from reaching the exit of the maze, but rather to kill a target number before time runs out. There’s also puzzle maps, which give you a fixed set of resources and force you suss out an optimal solution before time runs out. These modes are actually challenging, interactive, and creatively demanding – I only wish I didn’t have to slog through the regular levels to get to them.

The biggest games of the last years have been typified by idleness: “social games” like Farmville, freemium games with energy systems designed to soak up microtransactions, and tower defense games. Even mainstream shooters have become scripted amusement park rides where your participation is optional. John Romero probably cries himself to sleep every night. But the triumph of these games is that they’ve brought a once-niche hobby into big-tent accessibility. Maybe minimally interactive games are gateways into more complex games, so that more Fieldrunners players today means more Panzer Corps players later  – a rising tide that lifts all boats. I hope so.

"Trench" levels where the maze is pre-defined are Fieldrunners 2's nadir.

“Trench” levels where the maze is pre-defined are Fieldrunners 2′s nadir.

For aficionados of tower defense, Fieldrunners 2 will be a must-have. Subatomic have made an attractive package with lots of meta-game content like unlockables, scoreboards, and collectibles. It’s a proper shame that they’ve decided to release the iPad version as a seperate app (it’s not as if the larger form factor requires a redesigned UI for a game like this), but for owners of the 3rd-gen iPad, Fieldrunners 2′s Retina graphics are just as good as an “HD” app. But if that seems like a cynical, commercially-driven decision, consider that Fieldrunners is a game devoid of IAPs. Subatomic have made a game that you pay for once and only once – a refreshingly old-school proposition in this age of nickel & dime microtransactions.

If you were hoping for a game that would turn the tower defense genre on its head – Fieldrunners 2 is not that game. But if you want a self-assured game that is largely content to play itself while you watch TV, then Fieldrunners 2 will fit the bill nicely.

SCORE

out of 5

 

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Review: Uplink for iPad

Meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and hack them.

Meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and hack them.

There is a single point of failure where the immersion of almost every game breaks down: the interface, which holds a crucial position that a game’s fiction must attempt to outflank. Tropes like iron sights in shooters and minimized GUIs have gone a long way towards making games less obviously ludic, but it’s ultimately that’s a controller or a mouse in your hands, not a Heckler & Koch or a Scottish claymore.

Uplink takes a different approach to immersion. Instead of trying to lighten the load on your suspension of disbelief, Uplink minimizes the distance your suspension needs to carry it. The implement you wield in the world of Uplink is the very keypad underneath your fingers. The player isn’t a role you put on like a Halloween costume – it’s you, or maybe your hacker alter ego.

When you enter the world of the game, you do so by enlisting with the eponymous Uplink Corporation, a organization that provides services to a loose network of freelance hackers. This enrollment happens the first time you launch the app – everything from the main menu onward is in-universe, even the tutorial. As an Uplink agent, you have access to a job board of hacking bounties and Uplink’s company store, from which you buy the software tools you need to crack security systems and hardware upgrades for your rig.

Lifehacker.

Lifehacker.

The genius of Uplink is that the you have learned all of the principles that govern the game’s world in the first ten minutes of play. Everything in the world plays by the rules that you’ve been taught, which adds to the feeling of inhabiting a real space. Hacking follows certain rules and patterns, once you’ve learned them (and acquired the right software) you can hack anything. The first few available missions are relatively simple: a company wants you to access a rival’s mainframe and delete a particular file, or a businessman needs you to hack an academic database and grant him a diploma he didn’t earn. But after that, the world is your oyster. Want to hack a bank account and siphon money out of it? Go right ahead, if you’ve got the chops. But if you get sloppy – failing to cover your tracks or attempting a high-security system without the right tools – the police will come knocking and Uplink Corp will disavow you.

The hacking in Uplink is highly stylized Hollywood hacking – what technical complexity there is is thematic bunting. You are cracking security systems in the same way that you’re bringing the house down at the Budokan when you play Rock Band. Realistic? No. But it’s verisimilitudinous and easy to believe. Walter Mitty would have loved Uplink.

Uplink’s immersion is so complete that you can play it anywhere – it is absolutely perfect for the iPad. When you’re playing Battlefield 3 and your girlfriend walks between you and the telly, you’re reminded that you’re playing a game. When you’re playing Uplink and you have to run into the kitchen to turn the steaks over, you’re just a hacker with a culinary bent.

Uplink is almost entirely a text game, and has aged extremely well as a result.

Uplink is almost entirely a text game, and has aged extremely well as a result.

There is a plot in Uplink, told entirely through in-game emails and message board posts – no jarring cutscenes or fades to black. The story goes on with or without you, and the level to which you engage with it is down to you entirely. If you’re enjoying the life of a mercenary hacker, Uplink just points you to the storyline’s trailhead but doesn’t force you down the path. You can go on taking hacking assignments and climbing to the top of Uplink Corporation’s rankings indefinitely.

Games need not necessarily strive for immersion to compel – cf. Angry Birds. But of games that attempt escapism by conjuring a world for you to inhabit, there is no better, deeper experience than Uplink. It might be more than a decade old now, having been originally released for PC in 2001, but its minimalist aesthetic (which takes cues from Tron and Wargames) is as striking as it was at release – lovelier, even, if you have a 3rd-gen iPad with which to appreciate the crispness of the game’s text.

Uplink is a true classic that every gamer should try. If you have an Apple wireless keyboard and a stand for your iPad, I recommend their use with Uplink wholeheartedly, along with a Macallan 12-year and a comfortable seat. You might be hacking for a while.

SCORE

5 out of 5

Links

iPad only, Uplink, $4.99 US, £2.99 UK

Review: Defender Chronicles II

Things that polarize, partial list: The films of M Night Shyamalan. Marmite. A Million Little Pieces (after the big mea culpa). Tower defense games.

It's morning in Athelia.

It’s morning in Athelia.

There are many skeptics who won’t give a tower defense game a second look. I’m not one of them, but I understand where they’re coming from. The whole genre is not at fault – but TD games are very susceptible to a particular flaw.

When tower defense games fail to entertain (and most of them do – look at the wreckage of dreadful TD games strewn about the App Store) it’s when they leave the player idle for long periods of time: place your towers, then sit passively for a good stretch whilst all the action happens. A good game is one that regularly presents the player with interesting decisions. Do I build a temple or a settler in Rome this turn? Do I reload now or after I’ve turned that corner up ahead? Poor TDs clump all of the interesting decisions into the scant moments between rounds. At their best, they’re like playing a JRPG full of unskippable cutscenes. At their worst, they feel as though you’re watching a BBC documentary about beetles – but without David Attenborough.

By this rubric, Defender Chronicles II is a good tower defense game. A great one, even. The Defender Chronicles games like to pretend that their side-on vertical layout is what sets them apart from others in the genre, but this is just a presentational gimmick. What makes Defender Chronicles great is the way it constantly forces you to reassess your strategy and the way that it provides you with the tools to approach each challenge differently. To put it more briefly: lots of interesting decisions.

In this screenshot: wizards, halfling thieves, and lady ninjas. Let no one say that DC2 lacks for variety.

In this screenshot: wizards, halfling thieves, and lady ninjas. Let no one say that DC2 lacks for variety.

Just as in its predecessor, Defender Chronicles II takes place over a long campaign of unique levels where you must position defenses to prevent enemy units from reaching the exit. In addition to a variety of different guilds (the “towers” in this particular tower defense) you also control a hero, who gains experience like an RPG character. There are four heroes in DC2 (twice as many as in the first game) and a loot system that rewards you with stat-enhancing bits and bobs. The loot flows much more freely than it did in the original, and there is are entirely optional in-app purchases of item packs for the impatient and the well-heeled. After playing for a few hours you’ll have a hoard of trinkets and the ability to adjust your loadout for a number of different tactical situations.

You’ll have many opportunities to experiment with different combinations of towers, heroes, and equipment, too -  the Defender Chronicles devs subscribe to the Tarn Adams “Losing is fun” school of game design. Play DC2 and you will lose. A lot. That corner of the map where you’ve neglected to place any towers until the 19th wave? The 20th wave of enemies will use that corridor exclusively. You’ll start over a bit wiser, but you’ll still have to start over.

For many players, this will be the moment that you test the durability of your iPhone. But Defender Chronicles was never meant for that kind of player. Tower defense is about efficiency and repetition, and as true as that is about every game to some extent, the TD genre elevates to a Teutonic level. It was impossible to play the first game straight through without grinding the various heroes and difficulty levels for experience and gold – that goes double for the sequel. For the completionist, DC2 will provide dozens of hours of play.

One improvement made by the sequel is the addition of a foreground graphics layer, which in this case means seagulls.

One improvement made by the sequel is the addition of a foreground graphics layer, which in this case means seagulls.

Defender Chronicles II is not a broad church built to convince TD skeptics to give the genre a second chance – it is a second helping of Defender Chronicles for people who love Defender Chronicles. Fundamentally, nothing has changed from the first game – there is just more of it. More heroes, more levels, more enemies, more story. You could call DC2 an expansion pack, but that belies how much work is in evidence. The original DC is a museum piece at this point – while it’s all presented in a familiar way, Defender Chronicles II overhauls every centimeter of the UI and gameplay and presents the whole package in a new, high-gloss 2012 sheen.

Perhaps by merely slapping a new coat of paint onto Defender Chronicles the devs are playing it safe – going with what they know. But maybe the bold move, in fact, was jumping into the breach again with a three-year-old game design. I’m still left wishing that DC2 shook things up just a bit more – but Defender Chronicles hasn’t worn out its welcome yet.

SCORE

4 out of 5

Links

iPhone/iPad Universal, Defender Chronicles II: Heroes of Athelia, $2.99

Review: Ascension

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My first few plays of Ascension reminded me of reading Haruki Murakami as a teenager. It was unmistakeable that there was something great going on, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. With Ascension – as with Murakami – there are rewards for the patient.

Supernatural System.

Supernatural System.

Ascension is a fantasy-themed deck-building game: a contest in which players draw from a common pool of cards to build the most valuable point total before the end of the game. The deck produces heroes and constructs for you to acquire, as well as monsters to defeat. You can choose to specialize in acquiring valuable cards, or make a less expensive deck that specializes in killing monsters, or try to blaze a middle path between those strategies. Meanwhile your opponent (or opponents – the game features a wicked AI and supports asynchronous multiplayer for as many as four) can see what you’re doing and will do his best to subvert your strategy.

If it sounds complex, that’s because it is – at least a little. Ascension starts you off with a thoughtfully written tutorial, and matches are so short that you’re suddenly a veteran before you know it. I never played Magic: The Gathering or any of it’s ilk (at my school lunch table we mostly talked about Star Trek, thanks) but I picked up the ins and outs quickly.

Some experienced players that I’ve talked to about Ascension have told me that the game is more luck-driven than it is dependent on skill; this certainly true. But the level of time investment is so modest (10 minutes per game, perhaps – even if spread out across a few days) it’s hard to get too worked up over a cold run of cards that runs counter to your deck-building strategy. Even taking that randomness into account – there’s certainly skill involved. If your experience is anything like mine you’ll find yourself improving steadily as you play, which discredits the idea that Ascension is just about luck.

Mostly lions, and tigers, and bears.

Mostly lions, and tigers, and bears.

The game has a love-it-or-hate-it fantasy art style that others have called beautiful. To my eye it’s more enthusiastic than accomplished, but there’s no denying that there’s quite a lot of it. The music is good, but after a dozen or so multiplayer matches you’ll beg for an additional track or two, just to mix it up a little. Nothing about the game feels white-label, though – and you can feel the of amount of work that’s gone on under the hood. The game engine is really polished, from way the cards feedback your input to the seamlessness of the in-game multiplayer match browser.

Ascension shouldn’t discourage a strategy gamer who is unfamiliar with card games. If you think that card games are collectible money pits in which your competitiveness is pegged to your willingness to part with cash – Ascension isn’t one of those. There is just one IAP in the game, an expansion pack that adds more cards (another should be arriving this week). It is entirely optional – in multiplayer matches you will only be paired with those who have the same expansions enabled as you do, meaning you’ll never be at a competitive disadvantage for being frugal.

Ascension’s game mechanics make it equally appropriate for a 10-minute subway ride or a languid three-day-long asynchronous match with a friend. Most important of all, the learning curve isn’t as steep as it looks from outside. And once you’ve gotten good, pick up A Wild Sheep Chase, you should have no trouble with it.

SCORE

5 out of 5

Links