Monday, 31 December 2012

Wario Land 4: Game Design Review

Released on the GBA, Wario Land 4 is an action platformer like the previous games and was the first proper GBA Wario game. In my Wario 3 review, I criticised a number of aspects of the game, mostly to do with the large confusing levels. Wario 4 Fixes many of the the problems I had mentioned of the Wario Land 3 game and is much closer to Wario Land 2 in terms of game design.

There are some very minor game design issues from my perspective:
Short game- Wario Land 2 had a huge number of short levels and alternative levels you can unlock depending on certain actions. Wario Land 4 on the other hand has very distinct levels but is extremey linear with only around 20 levels.

Lack of opportunities to use special abilities- For some reason, there are greatly reduced number of opportunities to use the special abilities/forms that Wario can transform into compared to other games. It's a bit of a shame really as that was often the most fun and unique parts of solving puzzles in previous Wario games.

Mini-games- Mini-games are okay but nothing to write home compared. You should probably just play Wario Ware instead.

Limited Lives- Wario now has hearts again and will have to replay the entire level if you lose them all. I think lives seem a bit like a step back from the precedent set by the previous games. The game was all about being invincible and being slowed down rather being forced to redo the entire game.

Wario Land 4 is a very fun game even today and a classic by my standards. It doesn't quite reach the standard that Wario Land 2 set but the fun levels, kooky graphics and solid gameplay makes it worth playing despite its age.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine: Game Design Review

Created by Relic that made the Dawn of War strategy games, Warhammer Space Marine is an action-shooter set in the Warhammer 40K universe where you play as Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. Here's my thoughts after playing it.

What I liked:
Set pieces and large battlefields- Some of the most fun moments in the game are when you fight alongside Imperial guard and fellow space marines some pretty cool looking set pieces and battlefields against hordes of Orks and Chaos space marine

Lots of shooting and strong action!- The action and shooting feels very solid and quite smooth. Especially when combined with the Xbox 360 controller where you can feel the vibrations.

What I didn't like:
Lots of empty corridors and walking around in large passages- Lots of games have quiet moments between action sequences to help break up the pace. It's good that Relic recognises the need for well timed breaks in-between large scale battles but the amount of walking around in sewers or passages is very noticeable particularly as Titus is deliberately slowed to a walk and the only thing you do in those scenes is listen to your marines and support characters talk.

What's even worse is that numerous checkpoints are placed before the dialogue meaning if you die you'll have to listen to them over and over again. It's just a waste of time unfortunately having to walk all the way back to the next combat area. It's twenty second of just walking around really.

Lack of health kits/stations- I appreciate the lack of regeneration but at the same time I do think that once a battle is over in an area you should be restored to full health or when you reach checkpoint. You are given full health when you die and respawn at a checkpoint so why not?

Enemy variation- Considering the large and varied lore, it's surprising that we only see Orks and later on Chaos space marines. There are about 7 or 8 kinds of units in total which is very disappointing.

Needs more jet pack action- The jetpack action sections were probably the best and reminded me strongly of Dark Void which I loved! In fact I'm convinced that if the entire game had been design around jetpack action as an assault marine it would be much more successful and exciting!

Lacks gameplay variety- There's a distinct lack of gameplay variety in the sense that it is a straight forward linear action shooter amidst static arenas. Melee is very simplistic compared to games like Devil May Cry and new elements such as new melee weapons, new enemies are introduced occasional game but somehow the repetitiveness just wears thin after a while. It feels like it needs to be more ambitious.

The best parts of the game as mentioned at the start is when you're fighting with the Imperial guard in large spaces with friendlies and enemies fighting. There should be more vast open spaces, more crazy fights and more races! Why aren't there large dreadnoughts and tanks fighting alongside you amidst scorching battlefields? Haven't we already seen enough of urban environments, sewers and underground factories in other games?

Squad AI- Throughout the game, you'll be accompanied by several squad members. Unfortunately, they are controlled by generic AI which you can't control. I thought it was a great shame that you can't give them weapons or issue them commands to help them cover you. A real missed opportunity here to introduce some interesting decisions.

As a whole I did enjoy quite a number of parts of Warhammer Space Marine. But the repetitiveness of enemies and gameplay soon drags everything down. Overall, it's a solid game that's worth a rental but not much else. It really doesn't take enough advantage of the source material to craft a unique experience and ends up feeling very generic.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth Game Design Review

Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a reverse tower defense game by 11-bit studios. Instead of building towers to fend off attackers, you control a commander with a convoy and have to attack towers to travel to the end of the map. Gameplay revolves around buying units or upgrades for your convoy, deploying your commander's special abilities and telling your convoy where to go using the strategic map.

Your commander's special abilities are absolutely crucial for ensuring the survival of the convoy. The commander is an actual unit on the map that will be attacked so you have to be careful when deploying special abilities. The game ends up feeling  more like an action game than a strategy game at times and can get quite busy when you're in the midst of action.

What I liked:
Solid graphics, sound and animation- The presentation is very well done and solid for an indie.

Usability- The gameplay is fairly easy to grasp and well explained considering its unusual concept. You use a map to tell your convoy which turn to take at each intersection and you also get a number on how long it will take to reach each point and the total time to the goal. The strengths and abilities and cost of each unit are well represented and overall easy to understand.

What I didn't like:

Needs more unit variety and strategies- The commander also has limited number of abilities and there are only a handful of units and a handful of slots in the convoy. The combination of fewer units means that the basic strategies are quickly learnt and it became a bit too repetitive.

Commander unit is limited- The deliberate introduction of an in-game commander that has health and can be attacked is clear game design move to improve the action in games like this. Your commander will often weave in and out of fire deploying support abilities while your units take out the towers.

I feel the commander is a bit under utilised because he can't attack directly and can only deploy a very limited number of support abilities. He's no different from your standard tower defence special abilities that a player can normally deploy except he's vulnerable. In other words, he doesn't add enough to the game play. The android version of the game does away with him completely and I don't think anything was loss in the process.

More interesting levels- In a game like this, the levels themselves start to get repetitive because of the nature of the game. There's only so many ways of street combinations and towers before it gets a bit stale. There are some minor missions and challenges but levels themselves are mostly static aside from the towers. I wonder if there's a way to make the levels more dynamic by introducing even more environmental effects, friendly units, optional timed objectives, multiple paths etc

Doesn't feel enough like a true tower defense- In a tower defense game, you'll often have lots of enemy units being thrown at lots of towers. Being a much more intimate game with very few units makes it feel a bit sluggish compared to games like Defense Grid: The Awakening. What I really want to see is a game where you have tens of units streaming past towers and you have to decide which group of units to assist.

Special effects in the upgrade menu- There's a strange 'pan and tilt effect' in the upgrade menu to make it feel more like a futuristic floating 3D menu. It's small but I thought it was a silly as it adds nothing to the game and ends up being distracting rather than cool.

Warzone Anomaly is an indie game by a small indie studio and it is important to acknowledge it for what it is. It is a solid well put together package but it feels like it needs more of something. I didn't have a great time with Warzone Anomaly after a while as I've never really enjoyed playing Tower defense games but if you like Tower defenses you'll probably enjoy this. If don't already enjoy the genre then you might want to check out the demo first.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway: Game Design Review

The third in the series, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway follows Matt Baker and his squad of men as they take part in Operation Market Garden. Like in previous games, it's a tactical squad-based FPS where you control Baker and yell out orders to your various squads.

As far as I could tell, there were only several real differences compared to its predecessors aside from better graphics. Note that this only applies to the single player, not sure how the multiplayer is any different.

Destructible cover- You can now blow up and destroy scenery with your bazooka squad or grenades. This is extremely fun actually and adds a bit of tactical variety. You can now force enemy squads into destructible cover and then blow up the cover!

Cover based shooting and healing- Like modern shooters you can now take cover behind chest-high walls and you heal slowly if you wait a little.

Grenading close targets- In previous game, sometimes the game would end up in a stalemate with your troops and enemy squads being several metres apart firing at each other behind cover. Now, if you're close enough you can order them to grenade the location instead which is much more fun and safer for your guys ending stalemates much more easily.

Otherwise the game and the tactics involved are the same. You still have to fix/suppress them with fire and then flank them.

Game Design issues
The main criticisms of this game are the same as in my review of the previous game in the series.

Lack of order queuing- In the game you can order people to provide cover fire and attack enemy squads  but you can't actually queue orders. I believe this was done quite deliberately to to make the game much more immediate and accessible for console players and also force you into action.

Missing tank control- In the previous games, you could order a tank around which acted as a powerful weapon and also as mobile cover. In this game, the tank has been removed from the main game. Instead you occasionally get to control a tank in an action sequence. The tank sections are okay but frankly ordering a tank around the battlefield is much more fun.

Squad situational awareness against explosives and threats- While squad members will take cover appropriately, they aren't particularly good at avoiding getting blown up by tank shells or explosives just like in previous games. They pretty stay exactly where they are and die regardless or how horrible the situation is going. You have to pretty much tell me where exactly where you want them to go.

Indoor gameplay- During the single player campaign, Baker will sometimes be separated from the squad indoors and have to shoot his way out. Unfortunately this is where the problems of the cover-based system are exposed. Because of the narrow corridors, all too often Barker's head often obscures your view and enemies also tend to run into you more often giving you little chance to react. There isn't a close range attack so it can frustrating at times when you die because you're reloading while the enemy is less than a metre way.

Linearity- This is a very linear journey from set piece to set piece and very short. There are no optional areas or missions which is a bit of a shame really. I think a couple branching areas would have livened things up a bit and added a bit of replayability.

A lot of my criticisms focused around the problems inherent creating a game like this. Who do you please? The action-orientated gamers or the more hardcore simulation gamers? This is not a simulation game, this a squad-based action shooter primarily for the consoles and it's hard to criticise the game on it's simple command system and controls because that's exactly what it set out to do. It's still an engaging if linear game and good for a couple of hours.

I enjoyed this entry into the series, and its a good solid action game. It doesn't stray far from the mould of the original games so if you enjoyed those you'll enjoy this but if you're looking for something different, it's best to look else where!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Vectorman: Game Design Review

Released on the Sega Megadrive, Vectorman was re-released as part of Sega's release of Retro games a couple of years ago. Despite people saying it's one of the better games on the Sega Megadrive, I really can't get into the game.

Vector was partly created to showcase the 3D capabilities of the Sega Megadrive and has very interesting early 90's visual style which is certainly very unique even if it hasn't aged as well as other 2D games. It's not quite Shinobi or Golden Axe on the Megadrive in terms of 2D Artwork but I think it measures up well in an artistic manner.

Most enemies and objects in the game are animated quite well in the game which is important in games like this. The actual controls of Vectorman are fairly robust. He only has one attack but he's fast, responds fairly well and has a double jump.

Despite all it's pluses, the design breaks down in the level design and gameplay department. Why? 

Speed- Simply put, everything is just too fast. Bullets are too big and enemies move too fast. When combined with the extremely fluid motion highly responsive speedy movements of Vectorman it ends up being very difficult. I was constantly running into enemies that were just off-screen or being blasted by the fast bullets.

Levels are a bit too big- The levels are fairly large and at times it can lead to accidentally missing platforms several levels. It's a minor quibble but tighter level design really would have benefited the game. When combined with the speed as mentioned above, I find it hard to recommend the game.

I liked the idea of Vectorman but the tight gameplay from other games like Golden Axe I, Golden Axe II and Shinobi III is simply missing and the high frustration factor completely diminishes any hope of me recommending the game. This is one game which has all the technical elements of a good game but where careful editing and thoughtful level design would have made all the difference.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Universe at War: Game Design Review

Universe at War by Petroglyph (a studio made from ex-Westwood studio employees) was an RTS released several years ago to mediocre reviews overshadowed by other games of the day such as Command and Conquer and Company of Heroes. Having the played the game, I'm going to got through and discuss what I loved about the game and where the game fails.

What I liked:

Each side has distinct and very unique gameplay- One reviewer commented that there's enough gameplay to fill three different games and he's right! Each side plays extremely differently and nearly all units have one or more abilities to bring into play.

For example the Hierachy has Walkers instead of buildings with hardpoints making them highly customisable. The Novus have the ability to 'flow' to any other node in the network extremely rapidly and a very flexible patch system that provides bonuses to all your units. The Masari generate their own resources and have the ability to switch between Light and Dark modes each with its own benefits. Even today, it's hard to find an RTS that combines such very different and innovative ideas in a single game!

Highly customisable abilities and tech trees- You can only research 6 slots out of the full tech tree which has a total of twelve slots but you can also take back research as well and develop it in another direction if need be. Also each side has different ways of customising their units to meet battlefield conditions such as patches for the Novus and walker hardpoints for the Hierachy. I really enjoyed the flexible tactics system of each side which allow on the fly customisation and wished more games would create games like this.

Artistically distinct with plenty of awesome moments- Both gameplay wise, the game is both artistically and graphically distinct. There's nothing quite like watching a walker fully equipped with weapons approaching an enemy base firing artillary shells from afar while your troops move along  it. There's nothing quite like watching Novus units zip quickly across the network appearing where they are required en masse. There's nothing quite like watching your Masari enter the fray with Dark Armour constantly healing or watching them in Light mode attacking and burning enemies even as the enemies try to retreat. The unique designs on every unit and building mean that you'll never mistake this game for any other.

Quick Move uses double clicking- Double clicking means 'priority move' or 'priority attack'. No need to clutter up the interface with a button for move or attack or having to hold down control or alternate keys. I think more games should consider this.

Easily accessible ability icons- Regardless of which units you select, all their abilities are displayed at the bottom allowing you to quickly select them. Just as importantly, if you want one unit to use the ability, you click once. If you want several units to use the same ability, you click the same ability as many times as needed.

What I disliked:
So where did the game go wrong? I think it suffers from what I term 'consolitis'. Developing for the console forced a number of gameplay decisions to adapt the game more easily for gamepad and the Xbox.

Global map isn't fun and very basic- Considering Empire at War by Petroglyph had sectors that granted bonuses etc and both space and planetary battles, the global map in Universe at War comes across as sparse. You can build a few buildings that provide some bonuses or the ability to produce units but that's about it really.

Campaign is short and not that fun- The campaign soon falls into mediocrity. There weren't enough exciting moments or plot twists and the campaign is very linear. This is particularly grating in the Masari campaign which gives you control over the global map enshewing any cut scenes when the global mode isn't very fun or complicated. Its actually possible to win nearly all the missions in the Masari campaign by having your flyers attack the enemy headquarters straight away as they rarely have flying or anti-flying units.

Healing/repair system needs revamp- Each side has their own way of healing things. For the Hierachy, they can repair infantry using radiation which is spawned by defilers while repairing vehicles and walker hardpoints by using the repair mode of Foo fighters/saiucers. For the Novus they can repair by ordering their constructor units to repair infantry, vehicles. For the Masari architects they can repair by ordering their architect to heal units and structure or by placing the architect in a sentry. Placing the architect in the sentry allows the sentry to heal all units around it.

However,  the idle builder units don't automaticaly heal damaged units near them so you have manually ask for repairs taking you away from the action. Also, for the Hierachy, there is no way to repair walker parts once destroyed and you have to order in a new walker instead. I assume this is for gameplay balance but I found it rather annoying.

Novus network nodes are hard to queue- Considering expanding your network is crucial for Novus' survival, there doesn't really seem to be a queuing function to build these. When extending your network, you have to wait for one to finish building before building the next one. It would have been better if the player could automatically queue them up so the player can focus on other things.

Limited Population- The maximum population caps is set at 90 per side which is very small considering some of the more powerful units can take up 7 units! It's clear from the beginning of the game that Universe at War is meant to be a fairly intimate game relying on unit abilities rather than numbers. The previous game by Petroglyph Empire at War had infantry squads to partially compensate for this but they decided quite deliberately to remove squads like that in this game.

Queuing units is limited- Along with the reduced population cap, queuing units is limited to only five per buliding if you're the Novus and Masari. For the Hierachy, up to 3 units are teleported in instantly so you can queue up to 12 at once. It's a rather strange limitation.

Slow start- Like most other RTSes, each game starts of with you having to build the equivalent of barracks and factories.

I personally found the Hierachy start really slow and a bit too open for attack. More so than required, leaving them open to rushing in my opinion. First they have to carve a glyph, then wait for the glyph to call the actual unit in such as walkers or reaper. If the glyph is destroyed during that time, the summoning of the unit fails. Why not have you start off with a Habitat or Assembly walker automatically? It might solve the problem of Masari flyers rushing the Hierachy as mentioned above.

Lack of explanations for advanced controls- Things like queuing waypoints etc and force move are in the game, but I think could use a bit more explanation how they work.

Size of the game- For a game which has giant hierachy walkers, it's a surprisingly intimate game as mentioned above. You control relatively small squads of units with a variety of powers. I wonder if it might have been better off as a Supreme Commander like game where you amass huge armies and units and attack.

This is particularly obvious for the Hierachy which has 3 walker slots in total and the only way to get more
walkers is to sell one or wait for one to get destroyed. I think some medium sized walkers would have been helpful instead.

Hierachy grunts don't automatically guard or follow your walker- Any units created from the Hierachy walkers just stand there rather than following the Walker that spawned it. There doesn't seem to be a option to have the Hierachy units move to a specified point either or automatically guard.

Oceania is completely ignored - Unfortunately neither Australia or New Zealand are part of the game. I can't believe they included the himelays etc but can't even create a map for Australia!

Overall, Universe at War is a very unique game. Despite its usability flaws as covered, I think it really pushes the envelop for RTS. It's hard to understand why it didn't suceed as well as Empire at War, Command and Conquer 3 or even Supreme Commander 2! Perhaps the problem was that is was too unique, too unfamiliar and certain aspects weren't quite polished enough as mentioned above. The small scale and console orientated development being I believe, the prime culprits. Considering you can get this game for less than US$10 it would a real shame if you didn't at least try it!

Universe at War Troubleshooting:
I found myself unable to play Universe at War because it would crash before starting when installing the latest patch. My crash was because I needed to get the latest Games for Windows Live