Saturday, March 20, 2004

Shining Force (Genesis)

 
Rating:4 out of 5
Pros:A fun game with a nice blend of strategy and role playing Cons:Minor control & sound issues, no real story

Introduction

There weren't very many role playing games made for the Sega Genesis. The most popular of course being the Phantasy Star series, Beyond Oasis, and the Shining Force series. Many people credit Shining Force as being the first strategy/role playing hybrid of it's type. This is not entirely true, Nintendo's Fire Emblem holds that honor, though it was never released in the United States.

Other role playing strategy games may have came even before Fire Emblem, but that is not the point here. The point is not to say whether Shining Force or Fire Emblem did it first, the point is to say that they were both among the first to do so.

It seems that everyone either loves Shining Force, or hates it. Not very many people take the neutral ground on this one. I tend to side with the former, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it was one of the best role playing games of it's era. Not with so many other great games having been made around the same time, even if they were for the Super Nintendo instead of the Genesis.

Game Play

Well, apart from Fire Emblem or Ogre Battle, Shining Force isn't like most other role playing games. Ok, so that's not entirely true either, but at least it's not exactly like the rest of them. You still have your standard light versus dark, good versus evil setup. You still have the hero's home town being attacked and (somewhat) destroyed. You still have knights and mages and archers and all of your other, standard characters.

What sets Shining Force apart from all the Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger games of it's generation, was the strategy type battle sequences. Instead of lining up characters on one side of the screen and enemies on the other, your characters all can be moved around like you're playing a strategy game. Oh, and speaking of characters, unlike typical role playing games, you can have more than four of them.

There are about 30 different characters available in Shining Force, 12 of which can be used at the same time. You always have a "headquarters" where you can pick and choose which 12 of the characters you have recruited that you wish to have active, and they will stand in formation in the corner of the headquarters. Heading up this headquarters, is an old guy named Nova. He don't actually do any fighting, but will give you advice if you ask him.

There really isn't much of a plot or story line in Shining Force. The main character is a young swordsman in the kingdom of Guardania. One day an evil dark knight comes and kills your mentor, as well as the king. He is a dark knight of Runefaust, and they are trying to awaken the dark dragon that was put to sleep a thousand years ago. Unoriginal, uninspired, and underdeveloped.

The game does at least control well, aside from one minor annoyance.. you have to push a button to bring up a menu, then push it again to talk to someone. The C button, in fact, is rarely even used in Shining Force. They could have very easily used one button for talking, or if nobody was around, used the same button for searching. The remaining two buttons could be used for the menu to select spells and items and such, and the other to cancel.

The artificial intelligence is slightly lacking as well. Sometimes you can have one character standing by himself, and all of your other characters in one big clump, both the same distance away from a group of three enemies. Instead of going after the single character who is sitting all alone, the enemies will charge head first into your other eleven characters. It's not always quite this bad, but it's never all that great either.

Game Control

Most of the game controls like any other role playing game on the face of the earth, except that you fight no battles and no random battles while you wander about. The only time you enter a battle is when you leave a town, or go into a cave, or something of significance. When this happens, Nova gives you some lame dialog, your characters appear in a clump on the map, and the game shifts into strategy mode.

All characters from either side take turns moving, depending on that character's speed. One character moves and/or performs an action, then the next character moves and/or performs an action, and so on. The main character can also cast "Egress", which will teleport your team back to the previous town, and leave the battle. Since there are no random battles in Shining Force, if you want to do any sort of level raising, then you should probably make use of this.

One more annoying thing is a character's inventory. They have exactly four slots to hold things, one of which is obviously going to be their weapon. There aren't really any armor, helmets, shields or anything in the game, but there are rings that increase power or speed or whatever. Even if you have no rings, this leaves one slot for your weapon, and only three more for everything else.

You may have a lot of characters, so you have enough space.. but it sure is a pain when you try to open a treasure chest, but can not carry any more items yourself. You must open the menu, select item, select give, scroll down to another character to give the item to, then close the menu, then re-open the chest. Just way, way more complicated than it has to be.

Graphics & Sound

The graphics are pretty average. They are the short squished little sprites that are so common in these old console role playing games. You walk around in a top down kinda view during regular game play, and it's exactly the same during the battles as they take place on the same maps, not unlike Final Fantasy Tactics. They are cute and colorful, if nothing else.

The graphics aren't as bad as, say, Ogre Battle, but at the same time they can not compare with the likes of Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana. While I admit that these games are for different systems, the Super Nintendo and the Genesis are both 16 bit systems, and both have the ability to create pretty decent graphics for their age. It's not like I am comparing them with the Gamecube or Xbox.

The sounds, too, are a mixed bag. Most of the background music is exactly what you would expect to hear from any other role playing game, while some of it is rather annoying. For instance, the battle music is exactly the same for every battle.. even the final boss battle. Most of the music is very short, and set in a repeat loop. While this is pretty standard, the samples seem to all be too short, and become slightly irritating.

As for sound effects, they are little better than the music. The only bad thing that comes to mind, is the little doot doot doot blip blip blip sound that every single character makes when they talk. That is one of the most annoying sounds I have ever heard. The rest of the sound effects are average or better, matching the cute-ness of the graphics blow for blow.

Conclusion

As there weren't very many role playing games released for the Sega Genesis, if you still own one you need to get a copy of Shining Force. On top of being one of the few role playing games available, it is also one of the best. You should be able to find it at a pawn shop, or on eBay for a relatively low price, and it's certainly worth a few dollars.

If you beat it once, and never play it again, you will get a month's worth of decent game play out of it. However, if you are like me, you will pick it back up and play through it again a couple years down the road.

While Shining Force is not as good as some of it's Super Nintendo counterparts, it is plenty good enough earn a place beside them. Role playing and strategy fans alike will find something worth while this game. If you like Shining Force, you might also want to check out Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, Shining Force 2, or Fire Emblem.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Criticom (PSX)




Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Great cinematics, slightly varied characters
Cons: Graphics, sounds, difficulty.. just another fighter

Introduction

I must say, Criticom is the first game I have reviewed that I do not personally own. I rented it out of boredom from my local video store, and was completely and utterly disappointed. Not entirely because the game is bad, but also because I did not know what to expect. The video store here does not have boxes, nor instruction books for the games it rents out. In fact, until I actually rented the game, all I knew about it was the name that was listed on the sheet of paper taped to the bottom of the sales counter.

I seem to have a habit of doing that. I rent games that I have never heard of before, if for no other reason than to find out what the heck it is that I have missed out on. I do not like missing out, but I guess missing out on Criticom would not have shot holes in my sails. They say curiosity killed the cat, but in this case my curiosity killed a few hours of my time. That would be fine, I suppose, except that said time was killed slowly and painfully.

Criticom controls pretty well using the digital pad (no analog in this game). The R1 and R2 buttons are used for special moves, and the L1 and L2 buttons are used to roll. The four main buttons are used for kicks and punches, two each, and can be assigned in the game options menu. The only other game options let you set music and sound volume, and turn the timer on or off.

Story & Game Play

Since Criticom is a fighting game, the story itself is severely lacking. There is this relic.. and some clans of warriors.. and a lot of kicking and punching and jumping. This "relic" gets stolen, and a couple of warrior clans that have banded together strive to get it back. Supposedly this relic has mystical powers, and as such is greatly sought after. Wow, someone give the writer a Grammy..

The game play is a lot like Battle Arena Toshinden, except for one thing... Criticom is so damned hard! Holy crap, I could hardly believe it. Out of the first twenty matches, I lost nineteen of them. The one that I did win, was only because I was lying on the floor in a bloody heap, and the brilliant computer AI, in it's haste to jump on me while I was down, miscalculated completely and jumped out of the arena.

There is no difficulty setting in the options, it's just this hard. Think you can just cheat, look up the list of moves, and go stomp some butt? Wrong again. In a unique twist of fate, your head pounding warriors actually level up in Criticom, and learn new moves in the process. Such a novel feature would be most welcome in any other game, but in Criticom it just adds to the utter frustration you feel while being tossed around like a rag doll.

Fine, so I have finally given up and realized that I was not going to progress very far at this rate. I load up the 2 player mode, and force my brother to sit and kill his brain cells too. We proceed to knock each other around for a while, experimenting with the different characters. It's not a bad experience, but you can just as easily pound away at each other in any other fighting game on the planet. At the very least, we can now die a bit slower when we face off against the relentless computer.

In any case, the goal is to beat the ever loving crap out of your opponent, or knock them from the arena. In the latter case, they will fall God only knows how far down into the mist, and you will win the match by knock out. Good luck with that though, the computer does an excellent job of getting out of the way if you ever get them remotely close to an edge.

There are only eight different characters to pick from, but at least they are varied. Dayton is male, humanoid character that is selected by default. Every fighting game has one of these, and it just wouldn't be right if it didn't. Demonica is next, some weird purple demon with long hair. Then we have Sonork, who is a big-headed alien, also with a purple-ish hue to his skin.

Exene is another female character, and she is really butch looking. Crew cut, wearing army boots and sporting a couple of nightsticks, she looks like the kind of woman you don't want to run into in a back alley. Delara is next, yet another female character. She looks the part of a pirate, complete with eye patch.

Next comes Gorm, a big green monstrosity. The prodigal son of the Hulk and Swamp Thing, he is strong, slow, and most of all... ugly. Yenji is the seventh character, who looks like a cross between Wolverine and the Shredder, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame. Lastly, we have a goofy looking thing called S.I.D.. I guess it is supposed to be some sort of alien robot, as it looks like a Bionicle toy I seen the other day.

Graphics, Sound & Video

I could tell you that the graphics were pretty good... but that would just be a lie. Characters suffer from an extreme lack of polygons, and this all the more evident when they are zoomed in upon at the end of a battle. The demon lady Demonica, for example, has so much polygon flicker around the pelvic area, that she appears to have a penis flopping around in front of her. Must just be my wild imagination getting carried away. Or not..

Jump ahead to the next battle, where I am playing as the character Sonork. I knock my brother onto the floor, where he is lying there waiting for me to pounce on him. I jump high into the air, and to my surprise, Sonork folds in half with his head and his feet facing straight up into the air, and lands butt first on top of my brother's character. We spent the next ten or twelve minutes laughing our butts off, pun intended.

Anyway, the arena is fully 3D rendered. You have a full range of motion, including the ability to roll to the side instead of being hit, kicked, or whatever. You can go a full 360? around the arena. The camera will stay where it was for a few seconds, and after you have stopped for a moment, it will slide around to catch both characters in a side view again. It's not all that bad actually, I was pretty happy with it.

On to the music. While the quality of the background music is pretty good actually, the choice music leaves me wondering. Instead of high paced, rhythmic beats, we get some slower stuff that is just un-exciting enough to make you turn the volume down instead of adding suspense or heightening the action. It sounds like it belongs more in Age of Empires than it does in any kind of fighting game. It actually reminds me a bit of Bittersweet Symphony, by The Verve.

Sound effects are even worse though. Sonork is prone to say, in a whiney nasal voice "That didn't hurt". Exene's "Who's your daddy" comes in a close second for all time cheesy sound effects. Other characters follow suit, saying other equally lame lines when they win or lose a match. Do yourself a favor, and just turn the sound off completely.

One of the few places where Criticom shines, is in the cinematics. Too bad they tried to make a game out of it instead of a movie. The cut scenes do a great job of conveying what little story there actually is, and they do it in a nice Dune meets Star Wars kinda way. If there were a few more of them, I would have to recommend this game just to watch them, and skip the game playing all together.

Conclusion

Vic Tokai Inc's Criticom is rated "T" for Animated Violence. Since Criticom stands for critical combat, and it is a fighting game, that is probably the best rating you could expect. Not that I personally found it to be all that violent.

Aside from the low polygon count, everything else is acceptable. Decent use of textures, free range of movement.. if this game had higher polygon counts, it might look pretty good actually. Pretty good, but not great.. it wouldn't have been enough to save this game from the bottom of the stack, but it would have certainly helped.

While Criticom contains a bit of unique content, you would be much better off playing Tekken 3 or Battle Arena Toshinden. The overall game play is basically the same, and they are much better games in my opinion. However, if you can find Criticom for under $10, go ahead and grab it.

Monday, March 8, 2004

Beyblade (PSX)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Simple, unique, easy to learn
Cons: More suited to younger gamers, bad save game management

Introduction

I bought this game for just under ten bucks at my local Wal-Mart. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this game.. in fact, I didn't even know it existed. I usually pick up computer game titles for that price instead, but I figured I hadn't bought a Playstation game in a while, so I was due. If nothing else, my little brothers would probably enjoy it.

What the heck is Beyblade anyway? Well, it's a cartoon, an anime, an animated television show for children. In the ever popular style of Pokemon, you play the role of a child who wishes to become a champion, but instead of using little critters to do the fighting for you, you get to use a spinning top.

Granted, there are lots of different combinations of parts, so your top can be pretty unique, but it's still just a top. Each top has a "bit beast", which comes out of the top to perform a special attack. This is pretty cool in the anime, but practically worthless in the game. At least Beyblade is unique. I can honestly say that I've never played a spinning top fighting game before in my entire life.

Getting Started

The first thing you must do is create a character. Select the gender and name, and then choose which beyblade you will start the game with. You can either choose "Dragoon S", which has a kid dragoon bit beast, or "Dranzer S", which has a knight dranzer bit beast. It don't really seem to matter which you pick, they are about equal.

In the main menu you can choose from the two battle modes. You can also customize your beyblade parts, select sound options, and save or load data from a memory card. Once you have entered the main menu, you can not return to the title screen, so if you change your mind about which top you wanted to start with, or wanted to change your character name, you would have to reset the game.

As for memory cards, for some reason only the first memory card slot is used in Beyblade. If you want to play a two player game, you must first load a character off of the first memory card, then select whether to set him in the first player or the second player slot. After that, you can switch memory cards, and load the next player from the first slot. The same holds true for saving, you must select which player to save to the first memory card slot, then switch cards and save the other player.

Bey Battle

The concept is to take your spinning top and launch it into a bowl shaped arena. You do this by pulling a rip cord, and letting it fly. This is represented in Beyblade by a spin power gauge. Pressing X will stop the gauge and launch your beyblade into the arena. Different launchers will allow you to launch with more or less spin power.

Spin power is important in a bey battle. If your beyblade stop spinning, you lose a point. If you lose four points total, you lose the battle. Another way to lose points is to fly out of the arena. There are three holes in the arena, one at the bottom, one at the top right, and one at the top left. You lose two points for going out of the arena.

The last way to lose, would be for your beyblade to run out of hit points. If this happens, it will explode, and you will automatically lose the battle unless you have another beyblade to use. Don't worry if it explodes though, you still get to keep all of it's parts, but you must put it back together before you can use it again.

When the two tops are spinning around in the arena, you have a limited amount of control to shift your beyblade's path. If you have an analog controller, the analog mode is on constantly and can not be turned off. If you have a digital controller, you can still use the directional pad to shift your path in eight directions.

The point is to collide with the opponent's top, and either knock it out of the ring, or stop it from spinning. The more spin power your top has, the longer it will be able to last in the arena. Depending on what parts your beyblade is built with, and what level it is on, you may be able to out last an opponent with double the spin power though.

Hitting X when you collide will allow you to attack the opponent, decreasing his spinning power. The two tops will also fly away from each other when they hit, the same way that two normal tops would spin away. For each successful hit, you also gain five legend points. After you collect 25 legend points, you can let loose a special attack.

Special attacks vary depending on which beyblade you have, and are generally worthless in my opinion. Unless you are battling an opponent who's beyblade has very few hit points, don't bother, because that is all the special attack does. They are neat to watch though.

Well, that's not entirely true, there is one rather cheap use of the special attack.. if your opponent hits you, and you are flying towards the hole in the arena, you can use your special attack then. This will often times throw you back into the center of the arena to use your attack, and accidentally keep you from flying out the hole. Cheating? Maybe, but I won't tell if you don't.

Tournament

Only the first player can play in the tournament mode. Once you enter the tournament mode, you can not exit until you either win the tournament, or lose. You continue to use the beyblade you first select, unless it blows up, in which case you can switch if you have another beyblade to use.

Between battles you can do maintenance on your beyblade. This restores up to 15 hit points to your beyblade, but you suffer a loss of balance. Because of this, you will ultimately lose between 5 and 25 points of attack power, defense power, and/or endurance for the remainder of the tournament. When the tournament is over, all stats are restored.

You bet both "Bey Points" and experience points in Beyblade. Bey points are used to purchase parts to customize your beyblade. Experience points allow the bit beast of your beyblade to increase in levels, as well as yourself. You earn 10 bey points and 5 experience points for each win, and also 5 bey points and 3 experience points for each loss.

The tournament consists of seven rounds, with the sixth and seventh being the semifinals and the finals. From the fourth round on, you will battle against characters from the anime. If you win during the finals, you are the champion. You also get a new beyblade part for winning, or 20 bey points for losing. The part you receive is chosen at random from the 30 different parts.

Free Battle

In the free battle, both players can play, but only if the player data is saved on a memory card. If no data is loaded for the second player, then the first player can just battle freely among the eight characters from the anime, which include Tyson, Kai, Max, Ray, Lee, Michael, Tala, Robert, and Anthony.

As well as playing against the anime characters, you can also play as the anime characters. Tyson is the main character in the anime, and he uses a Dragoon bit beast with his beyblade. A fan of the cartoon will probably appreciate the ability to play as the characters, but I would rather use my own. Maybe it's the RPG lover inside of me.

Both players' data must be loaded from the first memory slot, but it still works fine. When you load data, it is registered to the first player. Then, insert another memory card and load the data, and it is registered to the second player. This is good, as the first player can not select the second player's character and vice versa.

You earn 10 bey points and 5 experience points for each time you win, as well as 5 bey points and 3 experience points for each loss. This makes the free battle a great way for two players to raise levels and build up bey points to customize their beyblade.

Customization

In the customize menu, you can purchase new pieces for your beyblades, name your beyblades, and change parts around. Each player has three "folders", and can register one beyblade to each folder. Each beyblade has a number of different parts, including the bit chip, attack ring, weight disk, spin gear, blade base, and launcher.

You won't know how a given part will effect your beyblade until after you purchase it and equip it. Generally, the more expensive parts tend to increase your stats better, but that is not necessarily the case all of the time. Some parts can not be equipped to all beyblades, such as the spin gear. This is due to the fact that some blade bases have a built in spin gear. Also, you can not use a left spin gear with a right launcher.

You start buy purchasing parts at the shop for various amounts of bey points, and then changing parts around and seeing how it effects your statistics. You can check the status (attack power, endurance, maximum spin power, etc) of your beyblade here in the customize menu, as well as your own level and win/loss record.

Graphics & Sound

I do wonder how they managed to model the physics of two spinning tops, ramming into each other over and over again. Regardless of how they accomplished it, it seems to work fairly well. Sometimes they can be frustratingly hard to control, but that is not the issue. They are not supposed to be controlled, only their paths altered, and Beyblade does a great job of modeling this.

The spinning tops look realistic, and everything is really colorful. Besides the beyblades themselves, everything else is stationary and motionless. A very simple game really, but still a little fun. The interfaces are all very user friendly, and easy to navigate.. the only exception maybe being the lame memory card management, which is a bit of a pain sometimes.

The background music was upbeat and catchy, and while it didn't hold my interest for very long, it wasn't bad at all. There wasn't much variety to it though.

The tournament announcer, D.J. Jazzman, is the source of voice overs, which are terribly annoying. He always says "What a great launch!" or "What a weak launch!" when you first launch your beyblade, and it is very annoying after a few battles. He also says other lame things like "Let it rip!" or "Unbelievable!" at random times during the course of a battle. To top it off, the battles are generally short, so you are forced to listen to him way, way to often.

Conclusion

Crave Entertainment's Beyblade is a pretty unique game, and while it's not the best game in the world, it should be fun for all ages. Younger gamers will probably enjoy Beyblade a little more than older gamers though. Whether that is because the simple game suits their playing style better, or because they like the anime and can relate to the characters, it really makes no difference.

Fans of the anime will probably like this game, as well as parents looking for an easy to learn game to play with their children. As an added bonus, this game is rated "E" for everyone. If you like Beyblade, you might also enjoy one of the various Pokemon or Digimon games.

Friday, March 5, 2004

Age of Empires: Gold Edition (PC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Polished graphics and sound, great replay value, very fun
Cons: AI could use a little work

Introduction

In Microsoft's Age of Empires (developed by Ensamble Studios), you are charged with the daunting task of building your own empire. This requires a balance of many factors, and with many things to be done you will find yourself needing to do a bit of micro management. If you have no patience for such things, you should probably pick a different genre..

Age of Empires is a game that you can jump right in to. You won't have to spend countless hours trying to figure out, as it is very simple and easy to understand. Beyond that, the game can be as easy or as hard as you make it. You can set the difficulty level, as well as set how many opponents you will face for a given map.

The gold edition is composed of the original Age of Empires, as well as the Rise of Rome expansion pack, which adds additional scenarios and civilizations, as well as a few extra units. There are also a whole bunch of extra cheat codes and novelty codes that are added with the expansion pack.

Gameplay

Age of Empires is an above average, but very standard real time strategy game. You gather various resources, build some buildings, and proceed to kick the collective butts of some ancient civilizations. It is not just a game of butt kicking though, there are many different victory conditions that can be set, and fulfilling any of them will result in victory. You can collect all the artifacts on the map and keep them for 2000 years. You could also build a wonder and keep it from being destroyed for 2000 years.

The whole game is your standard point and click real time strategy game. You start out with a couple of villagers, and must ultimately rule the world. First thing to do is start collecting resources. Food, wood, stone and gold are the four resources you will have to collect. Build various buildings to make an army, and research numerous upgrades on your way to world domination.

There are four separate campaigns included, as well as random maps for single player and multiplayer games. On top of that, there is a wonderful campaign editor and scenario builder included, that allows you to create your own custom scenarios. If you tire of that, you can even go so far as to edit the AI and personality files and create computer players that act how you want and do what you want.

Age of Empires is easy to learn as well. Even if you don't go through the easy to use tutorial that is included, you will have no problem understanding how the game works. I guess it is just how it was all laid out, but it works really well. My little brothers were both under 10 years old when I first got this game, and they love it to death.

Stone Age

You start out in the stone age. Your building and unit selections are rather limited here, so get moving and try to advance to the bronze age as quickly as possible. Build up a swarm of villagers, and have them start gathering as many resources as possible. It costs 500 food to advance to the tool age, plus however much you have to spend to create villagers (50 each). Keeping this in mind, gathering food should probably be your number one priority.

A close second would be to gather wood. You need wood for nearly every building that you can make during the course of the game. It is also used for ships that you must build at the dock. Stone is not very important during the stone age, and neither is gold. In fact, I would suggest not gathering any at all. If you wait until later, you can research stone mining and gold mining, and get more resources out of the same mines.

A house is the first building you should construct. Your town center only allows you to have a maximum of four units, and you start out with three. Each house you build increases your population limit by four more, up to the maximum of 50 (or whatever you changed it to in the map settings).

A granary should also be built right away, near some berry bushes. Villagers who collect berries will place them in a granary if it is closer than your town center, so use this to your advantage. Later on when you build farms, the harvest also goes into the granary. The same thing holds true for storage pits, which should be built where there is wood, stone, or gold near.

A barracks is the first military building you can construct, and should be done so right away. You will only be able to produce basic clubmen here for now, but they will provide helpful if you get rushed early on. The final building of note would be the dock. This should certainly be built right away, especially if your map contains a lot of water.

Fishing boats are a very good source of food, especially early on. Scout ships, which can later be upgraded to war galleys and beyond, are also very important to have on maps with lots of water. If you are on a small island map, for example, control of the seas is crucial to winning the game, so start building ships as soon as possible.

Tool Age

After you build a couple different buildings from the stone age, you can advance to the tool age. In the tool age, you get to build some better military units. As long as you have a barracks already, you can now build a stable and an archery range.

The stable allows you to now produce scouts. While they are slightly lacking in the attack and defense departments, they have a huge line of sight, and they ride horses. This makes for some fast exploration, which will be very helpful in determining where resources and enemies are at. Archers are obviously helpful in the event of an attack, and I suggest you always leave some archers standing around your town for just that reason.

You can also build a market now, and after it is completed you can start building farms. A market is very important for a number of other reasons too. Most importantly are the things that can be researched at a market. Increased wood cutting, gold mining, and stone mining.

Other things to research become available in the tool age as well. At your granary, you can research stone walls and watch towers. I suggest building a couple watch towers near your starting location, especially near the dock if you have water near. This will help prevent enemy ships from destroying your town from afar. At the storage pits, there are weapon and armor upgrades available as well. I suggest getting these for the type of units you use the most (infantry, cavalry, archer) as soon as possible. Save the least used units upgrades for sometime when you have extra resources to burn.

Bronze Age

Finally, costing 800 food and 300 wood, you reach the bronze age. Here you have a lot more research, and you finally get some good military units. You can now build chariots and chariot archers, as well as cavalry and cavalry archers. Which you choose should depend on what resources you have available, as the chariots require wood and the cavalry require gold instead.

You can also research additional weapons and armor upgrades, turn your watch tower into a sentry tower, upgrade your scout ships and fishing boats, and a ton of other pieces of research. The chariots and chariot archers mentioned above require the wheel to be researched at the market place, but the wheel is so useful for other things as well.. it makes your villagers move 30% faster.

This means increased productivity, as they can get to and from resources at a much faster rate. They can also run away if they get attacked, which can save you time and resources replacing them. This makes the wheel one of the most valuable technologies to research.

New buildings for the bronze age include temples, siege workshops, government center, and the academy. Siege workshops allow you to build stone throwers and ballistae, while academies let you produce hoplites. Hoplites are slow, but very heavily armored infantry units. They have awesome attack power as well, due to the fact that they carry huge lances. The government center lets you research lots of new things, which will increase the academy unit's speed, building hit points, cavalry hit points, etc.

The temple is one of the best buildings, and one of the most expensive to use. It allows you to produce priests, who can heal your damaged units, as well as attempt to convert enemy units. Priests cost gold, as do all priest upgrades that you can research. The upgrades are very handy, doubling the priest's health, increasing his conversion range, making him walk faster.. but if you plan to research them all, you had best have a hefty supply of gold ready.

The iron age is the final age that can be reached, and what all is available depends on what civilization you are playing. This is the age where they become the most diverse. Priests can be researched even further in the iron age, and be allowed to convert enemy priests and buildings. Other units can be upgraded further as well.. stone throwers upgraded to catapults, hoplites to legions and centurions, etc. Ultimate unit upgrades are very expensive though, and often not worth it.

Civilizations & AI

There are 16 different civilizations to play in Age of Empires Gold. Assyria, Babylonia, Choson, Greek, Carthage, Hittite, Egypt, Minoan, Shang, Macedonia, Sumeria, Persia, Phoenecia, Yamato, Palmyra, and Rome.

Each civilization has different bonus besides what can be researched. Some are obviously more useful than others, and some are more varied than others. Yamato villagers are faster to begin with, while Shang villagers are cheaper to produce, and Phoenician villagers can carry more.

Other civilizations have military bonuses, like being able to produce the armored war elephants, or heavy horse archers. Experimenting with which civilizations have bonuses that fit your style of game play will greatly aid you in conquering the world.

Some civilizations also have a down side to this, like being able to produce an ultimate upgrade to their heavy cavalry, but not learning to make chariots because of it. This means that if they ran out of gold, they couldn't make any chariots to pick up the slack (as they require wood instead), and would have to rely on lower units for a military.

The artificial intelligence in Age of Empires Gold is average, and it certainly could have used a little more work. You occasionally see characters bump into each other, then they pause for a few seconds while they figure out how to take a step to the side. Or, if you have three or four villagers collecting a resource from the same exact spot, you may experience some of them doing a little dance like thing, glitching back and forth as they stand there unable to move. This happens when they are trying to get to the resources, but can't manage it. Other times, a character will take the long way around a forest to get to his destination. While it don't happen all of the time, it does happen often enough that you will notice it.

Graphics & Sound

Age of Empires Gold features some pretty polished graphics. Though the game is growing old, you couldn't tell it from looking at it. Buildings are drawn wonderfully, with multiple tile sets for the different civilizations. Everything is full of detail, and generally looks great. Characters are well detailed too, you can see everything from the pile of fish a villager may be hauling back, to the archer firing his arrow from his mount on top of the war elephant.

The maps are textured well, and have realistic features. Grass, desert, oceans and rivers cover the maps. From hills to valleys, cliffs to forests, everything is diverse enough to add to the realism. Character animations are nice looking also. You see the villager chop down the tree, then see him chop the logs up. A hunter will draw his bow, fire at the prey, and after it's dead he will go kneel over it and proceed to hack it up. All of the character animations are this detailed.

You get your choice of resolutions, up to 1024x768. I feel that 800x600 is perfect though, because when I use the higher resolution everything is too small. I use 1024x768 on my desktop, but switch to play Age of Empires to the lower one. The nice top down view lets you see everything that's going on even at a lower resolution, so it's not really a sacrifice.

Background music is great, with a nice mix of tribal sounding tracks. Most of the tracks are just small samples played in a constant loop, but they are fluid and still sound good. Sound effects are plentiful, and very fitting for their situations. When you select a unit, he acknowledges with a word or phrase in an ancient-sound language, and while you can't understand it, it adds to the overall feel of the game.

Axes sound like they are really chopping down trees, spears splash into the water while fishing, bows twang as an arrow is released.. the same polish that is on the graphics is present on the sound effects as well. Swords clang against shields, horses trot and gallop as they move across the map, dying characters scream in agony. Music changes during battle to a more fast paced tune, ever still increasing the mood.

System Requirements

A 90 MHz Pentium processor, 16 MB of RAM, and 30 MB of hard drive space will suffice to play this game. Windows 95 or Windows NT (with service pack 3) wilol do for an operating system. Other requirements include a 256 color SVGA monitor, 1 MB of VRAM, a 2x CD-ROM, a sound card, mouse, keyboard, and speakers. A 14.4k modem is the bare minimum for multiplayer games, though I would not attempt to play with anything less than 56k.

I tested Age of Empires Gold on an AMD Athlon XP 2200 with 512 MB of DDR RAM, and 200 GB of hard drive space. I have a 48x CD-ROM, a CMI 5.1 channel sound card, and a GeForce 4 MX 440 graphics card with 64 MB of DDR VRAM. DirectX 9.0b is installed on my computer, along with Windows 98 SE. My 56k modem only gets 26.4k speeds due to some horrible phone lines in the area, but it was sufficient to connect and play, with only a little lag.

Extras & Cheats

There are many cheat codes for Age of Empires, and the addition of Rise of Rome adds others. Some of them are not exactly cheat codes, but more of easter eggs. For example, hitting enter and typing "KINGARTHUR" will turn all of the birds flying around into dragons. Cosmetic change only, but still neat.

Most of the cheat codes are neat like that. "POW!" gives you a baby on a tricycle, who goes around and shoots enemies with a gun. "BIGDADDY" gives you a Camaro that can shoot, or "E=MC2 TROOPER" gives you a shiny little nuke trooper. "ICBM" lets you fire projectiles across the whole of the map. "CONVERT THIS!" gives you a nifty little priest who calls down lightning strikes upon your foes.

The regular cheat codes are "PEPPERONI PIZZA" to get 1000 food, "WOODSTOCK" for 1000 wood, "QUARRY" for 1000 stone, and "COINAGE" for 1000 gold. Another nice code.. ok, maybe not so nice, is "HARIKARI", the suicide code.

Conclusion

Age of Empires Gold is a great game, and any real time strategy enthusiast would certainly enjoy it. If you only own one real time strategy game, make it this one if you can find it for a reasonable price (I got my copy for $9.96 at Wal-Mart). If not, just get Age of Empires II: Age of Kings instead.

With four different campaigns, a nice multiplayer game, great random maps, there is a lot of variety to keep you playing for a long time. Add to that, the fact that each of the 16 civilizations plays differently, and you end up with a lot of replay value. Count in the polished graphics and sound effects, low system requirements, low cost, and you have a game that can't help but be recommended.

There is also a version of this game for the Pocket PC. If you like Age of Empires Gold, might also like Majesty Gold, Seven Kingdoms, Age of Mythology, Homeworld, or Populous.

Monday, March 1, 2004

Majesty: Gold Edition (PC)


Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: A fairly original game, lots of fun, with loads of replay value
Cons: For the price? None..

Introduction

Cyberlore Studios' Majesty is a simulation game, where you get your chance to build the ultimate fantasy kingdom. Cyberlore is well known for its Mechwarrior titles, as well as Risk. Majesty was released by Infogrames Interactive in 2000, and spent a lot of time on the shelves of your local video game outlet.

Majesty: The Northern Expansion is a nice expansion pack that was released for Majesty, containing 12 new quests for the game, most of which are harder than the quests in the original. In 2002, Infogrames put the two together and released Majesty Gold Edition. A nice blending of Strategy, RPG, and Simulation, this is one title I will continue to play for a long time.

Characters & AI

When you think of a simulation game, images of Sim City or The Sims probably come to mind. While these games allow for control of almost every little detail, a lot of micro-management, Majesty takes the road less traveled by. You have absolutely no control over what the heroes in your kingdom do. What? Yep, you heard correctly. Your heroes have got more free will than the enemies in most other strategy games.

If you want one of your heroes to explore a section of the map, you will probably find yourself placing an explore flag there. Is there an enemy attacking your kingdom? Place an attack flag on the enemy. The flags are very useful for getting your heroes to do what you want, but only if the reward you have attached to that flag seems worth-while to them. You can set the reward for any amount you want, the greater the reward the more heroes may decide to go after the bounty.

It is money well spent however. There is no resource gathering in this game, so your only real source of income is to tax your citizens. The money you give out for rewards will come back to you in taxes later anyway, so spend away. You don't get it back immediately though, you have to wait for your tax collectors to make their rounds and bring it back to the castle.

There are many different heroes you can recruit, from rogues to rangers, paladins to dwarfs, mages to gnomes, and a variety of priests and monks. They can be recruited only after you have built their guild building, and you can only recruit a few of one type in that building until it is full. If you want more than four warriors for example, you will have to build a second warrior guild.

The artificial intelligence is extraordinary. Your heroes will spend any money they earn as they see fit. If you have built a blacksmith, and researched upgraded weapons or armor, heroes will flock to the place and buy whatever they choose. If you have built a marketplace and researched them, your heroes will go there to buy healing potions, teleportation amulets, and rings of protection.

If a hero is attacking an enemy, and realizes he has bitten off more than he can chew, he will run away and take cover in a building. That's right, he will often flee in terror rather than die a senseless death. Also, the collision detection and pathfinding are top-notch. You will never see two heroes or monsters bump into each other, or a hero get stuck behind a building, unable to figure out how to get around it.

Heroes gain gold for killing enemies, not just from collecting your reward flag bounty. They also gain experience, and their stats increase, much like a good role playing game. Another way of leveling up your heroes is to build a fairgrounds. Here, after you research tournaments, they can gather and compete against each other to earn experience outside of battle.

Gameplay

There are a sometimes different victory conditions for different quests. In one quest, you may have to seek out artifacts that were captured, and recover them. They are always placed inside of abandoned castles, caves, or other enemy-producing buildings on your map. The other main type of quest is your standard slaughter-the-masses game of killing every enemy.

Which ever type of quest you have, the most important thing to do is crank out some heroes right away, and build as many different buildings as you have gold for. During some of the advanced difficulty quests, you will often find yourself getting butchered very, very early on.

You must to ask your citizens to build buildings for you. You specify which building you would like built, and where you want it, and it will be built when your peasants get around to it. They have free will, just as your heroes do. Besides building, they will also upgrade buildings if you wish, and they will repair damaged buildings at their leisure.

There are many types of buildings in Majesty. Besides your castle, there are 16 different guild buildings to build, but not all of them can be built at once. Warrior, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard guilds can almost always be built, but after that it's more of a pick-and-choose. Elfs, Gnomes, and Dwarfs all have guilds, but none of them get along with each other. This means you must pick one, and the other two will not be available for that quest.

The same holds true for temples. Dauros, Fervus, Helia, Lunord, Agrela, Krypta, and Krolm all have temples available, but some of those religions conflict with each other. You will find yourself only able to build between one and four temples of the seven available during any quest. This is a welcome change from most games, where nearly every unit is available at any given time.

Besides training your various priests, monks and healers at the temples, a couple of them allow for upgraded units from your warriors guild. Building a temple to Dauros allows you to produce Paladins, while a temple to Fervus allows you to recruit Warriors of Discord. Both of these units are powerful additions to your roster of heroes.

Other buildings you may produce include a guardhouse, trading post, royal gardens, statues, libraries, and a wizard's tower. At the guardhouse, guards will be stationed to protect your castle. Unlike normal heroes, guards do not gain levels or experience. You can, however, research veteran guards with a level 2 guardhouse, which are stronger. Trading posts are handy to place along the outskirts of your kingdom, so that heroes will not have to travel all the way to your marketplace to purchase more healing potions. Statues and royal gardens are pretty worthless for single player games, but invaluable for multilpayer games, more on that later..

The library and wizard's tower both are tied to the wizard's guild. At the library, your wizard heroes can study additional spells, which will then become available to them. There are also spells that you can actually cast yourself, but you can only cast them within range of a wizard's tower, so you will find these handy to build all around your kingdom. A good flame strike spell will weaken a stronger enemy, making him easy prey for your heroes. On the other hand, a good healing or resurrection spell may just save the day.

Multiplayer games are very similar to single player games. The requirements are low enough, that even with my connection (half the speed of a 56k modem) I could still enjoy the game, and did not experience nearly as much lag as I usually do with multiplayer games. This was a wonderful thing for me, as my speed usually forces me to stick to the single player version of everything...

Statues and royal gardens increase the loyalty of your heroes by 5% and 15%, respectively. This determines whether your hero will buy items from your shops or another player's shops. It also effects whether your hero will heal another player's hero, or whether it will attack your own buildings if there is a reward flag on them.

Also, if a guild or temple is destroyed, the heroes that were recruited at that temple may not leave the game. They may instead, defect to another player's forces, if that other player has space available in their guild.

Graphics, Sound & Video

The graphics in Majesty are just great, in my opinion. While they may lack vibrant color and appear slightly grainy, they are all hand drawn and look pretty realistic. The animations are fluid and smooth, and I have no real complaints. Other than that, Majesty looks like your standard real-time strategy game. With an isometric perspective, you get a nice top-down view of the landscape, and control the action from there.

Every map in the game is randomly generated. Every single quest in either campaign, every multiplayer game, every free build game, everything. This means that even if you beat a quest ten times, the next time you play it, it will be different again.

One thing I really like is the bar on the left side of the screen. While it takes up roughly 20% of the screen, it comes in very handy, and is a nice change from the standard interface. It includes a tracking window, which is a small screen that follows a certain character or monster around. This allows you to keep track of characters, monsters, buildings, reward flags, you name it.

The side bar also has a zoom button that allows you to zoom out and see more of the map, or zoom in to the normal view. Unfortunately, these are the only two zoom settings, and you will often find yourself wishing you could zoom to a level somewhere in the middle. Either that, or have the left bar disappear with the push of a button, so that you can see a bit more of the map at once. Not a major issue, but worthy of note none-the-less.

The sounds are right on par, with realistic sounds for almost everything. The smack of a mace, the clang of a sword, they all sound just right. Heroes have wonderful voices, and they use them often. Your advisor, who gives you hints and tips through-out the game, sounds a lot like Sean Connery. While I'm not quite sure if this was a good or a bad thing, I will certainly not forget it.

The cinematics in Majesty are just beautiful. Everything is bold and vibrant, and generally very well done. Seeing the sun glint off of the knight's sword as it zooms in to him while he stands atop the castle, with the forest in the background.. just marvelous. The same Sean Connery sounding voice of your advisor also does the narration, and it is exceptionally well-suited for this task.

Additional Information

Along with the game, you get a nice handy chart that depicts building dependencies. It is about as wide as a piece of paper, and a couple inches longer when unfolded. It lists every building that you can build during a game, and the requirements for building that building. If you flip it over, it has a diagram of a keyboard, and lists all of the hot keys, and all of the buttons to which you can assign custom hot keys. It also has a few quick start tips for new players.

At the time of this writing, none of the extra downloadable quests that are available from www.majestyquest.com (the official website) are compatible with Majesty Gold Edition, only the original. I hope they decide to change this in the future, but seeing as Majesty Gold is already a couple of years old, and Majesty 2 is on the table, it's not likely to happen.

Also available from the website are sound files and character voices, a neat sound editor, various screen savers and wallpapers, and some collectible character cards, which are simply JPG pictures of wizards, warriors, monks, and all the various characters that can be recruited in the game.

The last thing of note about the website is the forums. There are tips and tricks, unofficial technical support boards, achievement & high score boards, as well as various discussions about many of Cyberlore Studios other titles.

System Requirements

Majesty is not very resource intensive. The minimum system requirements are a Pentium II 233 MHz with 32 MB of RAM, and 600 MB of hard drive space for the minimum install. A 4x CD-ROM drive, an SVGA video card with 2 MB of VRAM, a sound card, and DirectX v7.0 top off the requirements. DirectX v8.0a is included on the CD. Windows 95/98 is also required, though there is a Linux version in the works, as well as a Macintosh version available. A 28.8 modem is required for multiplayer, but 56k or broadband is recommended.

I tested Majesty on an AMD Athlon XP 2200 with 512 MB of DDR RAM, and 200 GB of hard drive space. I have a 48x CD-ROM, a CMI 5.1 channel sound card, and a GeForce 4 MX 440 graphics card with 64 MB of DDR VRAM. DirectX 9.0b is installed on my computer, along with Windows 98 SE. My 56k modem only gets 26.4k speeds due to some horrible phone lines in the area, but it was sufficient.

Conclusion

Take all the benefits from a simulation game, mix in the real-time strategy, and take out all the micro-management. Blend in elements from a good role playing game, and you get Majesty Gold Edition. A fairly original game, with two complete campaigns, multiplayer games, and a multitude of variety, you will be playing this game for a long time to come.

If you like any of the genres above, you should absolutely give Majesty a try. If you like Majesty, you might also want to try Age of Empires, Populous, or Seven Kingdoms.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Rugrats: Scavenger Hunt (Nintendo 64)




Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Simple game, easy for small children to understand, and not violent
Cons: Awful graphics, little replay value, boring design

Introduction

Rugrats Scavenger Hunt is not one of those games you sit down by yourself to keep you entertained when you are bored. In fact, you would probably never bother with the game, unless you have small children. It is based on the popular Rugrats cartoon, and thus contains characters children can relate to. Each game can have up to four players: Chucky, Tommy, Lil and Phil.

Rugrats Scavenger Hunt contains three games on one cart. They are really nothing more than board games - they even have a spinner to tell you how many spaces to move. You can choose from small, medium, or large sized game board, and you can also toggle hidden squares on or off. Hidden squares cover the square up so you do not know what it is you land on until you have already landed on it.

Control & Gameplay

The three games you can choose from are Angelica's Temple, Pirate Treasure Hunt, or Reptar Ralley. Each game contains a couple other characters, controlled by the computer, that may help or hurt your character. These characters include Grandpa, Suzie, and Angelica.

All right, so you spin the spinner, and move however many spaces the spinner says. Once you land, you follow the instructions on the square. You may end up receiving some cookies, taking a nap, or any number of things. Ideally, you want to land on spaces that allow you to search the room. When you land on these spaces, you get to pick one object from around the room and search it. They are placed obviously enough that even a toddler can tell which objects can or can not be searched. Searchable objects mostly include things such as paintings, plants, etc.

In Angelica's Temple, the objective is to find all of the pieces to the baby's statue before Angelica finds all the pieces to hers. You may also find it helpful to collect as many cookies as you can find. They can be exchanged for toy cards, or they can be used to let you rest. If Angelica runs into you though, she can take some of your cookies away. She can also steal a piece of your statue, or take one of her own statue pieces in the event that you found one of hers along the way. All four of the babies work together on this board.

Pirate Treasure Hunt is the second game. You and the other babies compete to see who can find all four pieces of pirate treasure first. Angelica is not in this one, but Suzy is. If you and Suzy bump into each other, she can help you find pieces of treasure.

In each of these first two games, there are a few objects that may help you win. The first of which is a screwdriver, which can help you enter the secret passageways. You can use these passageways to help you get into different rooms quicker. The second helpful object is the compass, which lets your character move backwards. The last item is the magnifying glass, which lets you search twice when you land on a search square instead of once. Also, bumping into Grandpa will be rewarded with four cookies, and landing on the dog will allow you to ride him for up to six spaces.

The third and final game is Reptar Ralley. The objective in this game is to collect three different kinds of candy. (There are four total, but each baby must collect only three - Licorice, Ice Cream, Chocolate Milk, or Pudding). You must collect Reptar Bars instead of cookies in this one, in order to go to where the candy is and collect the required amount.

Graphics, Sound & Video

The graphics in Rugrats Scavenger Hunt are just awful. Polygon counts that seem as though they number in the single digits, and disinteresting graphics all around make for a pretty low score here. Level design is bland, characters are blocky, what were the developers thinking? I've seen Super Nintendo games with a lot better graphics than this.

The video clips, or what there are of them, are a bit better than the graphics, but not by a whole lot. At the very least, the low polygon counts were a bit less pronounced, and the disinteresting graphics were replaced by an attempt to make the video look like a small segment of the television show.

The game is practically void of any music. What little bit of music there is, is so plain that you won't notice it being there anyway, so it really don't count for anything. The sound effects are at least mentionable, if only average. The best thing that can be said about the sound, is that the voice acting seems to have been done by the same actors who did the voices for the cartoon. If not, then they sure did one bang up job of finding voice doubles, because the characters sound exactly the same as the television show.

Conclusion

This game is rather bland in comparison to most other games on the market, but it is also one of the few I have seen that caters to the younger audience. While the game gets very low marks from me personally, I am sure it would be an excellent game for toddlers and younger children. If you have kids who are between two and ten, they may enjoy this game. If your kids are slightly older, I would pass on this and purchase Mario Party instead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Starflight (Genesis)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros:A fairly complex game, with great game play and tremendous replay value Cons:Sub-par graphics and horrible sound effects, this game hasn't aged well

The original version of Starflight was written by Greg Johnson back in 1986. Back then, it took him and four other people 15 man-years and a huge bankroll to complete the game. Greg also worked on Electronic Arts' humor award winning Caveman Ugh-Lympics. Starflight was converted for use on the Sega Genesis by BlueSky.

Starflight is mostly a space exploration game. There is some combat involved, especially later in the game, but it never tries to be one of those Wing Commander type games where you just shoot everything.

You start out with a ship, a terrain vehicle, and 50,000 MU (monitary units). You are not entirely sure what your whole purpose is, and instead get the rather trek-ish task of seeking out new life, new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before. You will soon find out, however, that your solar system's star is going to explode soon, and you must try to find other inhabitable planets to transfer colonists to.

Starflight really has three distinct sections. The first section is the star port. The star port itself is rather ugly. It is a very small hallway, with a handful of doors in front of you. You simply walk to whichever door you want, and push up to enter. The second part is in space, and the third part is a planet's surface.

The first door in the space port is where you get your mission briefings. All mission briefings you get will be received at the star port as well. These briefings are like hints or ideas, pointing you in the direction you must go next. You should usually try to read all of these, as you will find it a tremendous help during your journey.

In the second door, you can (and must) hire some sort of crew at the star port. You can have between one and five crew members, and you get to choose between the different races. Humans are your average all around race, and score highly in science. Veloxi are insect-like creatures, they start with high marks in navigation and engineering.

Thrynn are large bipedal lizards, who score high in communication. Elowan are plant people, who also score highly in communication, but also in medicine. These two races are at war with each other, and while you can recruit one of each on board your ship, it may hamper your progress later on when you are trying to communicate with other members of their species.

Crew members also must be trained, and each species will increase skills at a different rate. If you choose a raise that starts with high marks (50 points) in a given skill, it's maximum skill level will be 250. This is not very expensive really, and you should have each person to their maximum for their specialty very quickly.

Each specialty is very important to your mission. The science officer is responsible for scanning and analysis of planets you come across. You receive rewards if you recommend an inhabitable planet, but you are penalized if you recommend a bad planet and make them waste their time. Scanning a planet is also a good way to see what types of minerals are on it before you land. The science officer also scans alien ships when you encounter them, to determine which alien race the ship belongs to.

The navigation officer is in charge of landing the ship, reading star maps, and controlling weapons and shields. Raising and lowering shields, and arming or disarming weapons will effect how aliens react towards you, so the navigator is very important. If your navigator is not very skilled, it will also take you longer to find your place on the star map.

The engineering officer is in charge of repairing ship damage, as well as cataloging the cargo hold's inventory. He can use cargo to repair certain areas, such as weapons or engines, while you are deep in space. If you can wait, it is usually more cost effective to wait until you dock at the star port though. He also keeps a running list of any alien artifacts you may have acquired during your trip.

The communications officer does just what he should, communicates. When you stumble across an enemy ship, you can make the communications officer hail them, or respond to their hail. There are three different postures to take with an alien: obsequious, friendly, or hostile. Different aliens respond in different ways, depending on which posture you use.

Lastly, we have the medical officer. When a crew member becomes injured, make sure to have the medical officer treat them. Wounds do not heal immediately, but instead slowly heal over time. The rate of healing depends on the medical officer's skill level.

In the next door, you can buy and sell minerals. The majority of your income will be from traveling to other planets and mining them, then coming back here to sell your cargo. You might also want to keep a little bit of a few key minerals on board, to repair your ship with if it becomes damaged. Endurium is one of the most expensive minerals, and it is used as fuel to power your ship.

The next door is where you can upgrade your ship. Armor, shields, and engines are all available here. You can also purchase a variety of weapons, ranging from the cheap little pulse cannon, all the way up to a monstrous phaser. Cargo pods are another thing sold here, which you should max out as soon as possible. Your ship can carry up to 16 of these, and the more you have, the more minerals you can carry back to the star port in a single trip.

This is also the place to upgrade your terrain vehicle. You will be spending a lot of time in the terrain vehicle, as it is what you use after you land on a planet. You drive around in the terrain vehicle, looking for minerals to mine and bring home. Perform a "mineral scan", which uses up 10 fuel, and you will have an overlay of the map with red and yellow spots on it. These spots indicate where you can dig and find minerals. When you fill up the terrain vehicle with minerals, drive back and embark upon your ship, and they will be transferred to the ship's cargo hold instead, and you can go fill up the terrain vehicle again.

Terrain vehicle upgrades are important. Pontoons allow you to drive on water, and ice runners allow you to travel on ice. Turbo chargers allow you to move faster, and extra cargo... well, lets you hold extra cargo. You can also get a wide angle stunner, allowing you to fire projectiles in front of you like normal, as well as diagonally in front of you in both directions.

Shoot projectiles at creatures to stun them, then store them in your cargo hold. You will receive money for them, just the same as minerals. You would be surprised how much money you can get for some of them at the star port. Artifacts are also pretty valuable. These can be found by searching through any ruins you find on planets.

The last door in the space port is just the exit. It leads back to your ship, so that you may leave. Always remember to make sure you have some Endurium for fuel before you take off. Also make sure your ship is in good shape. If your engines die, it will cost you a lot of money to get towed back to the space port if you send a distress call.

If your ship is destroyed in a fight with aliens, it's game over. If you get destroyed by a creature on a planet's surface, it's over. If you land on a planet with crushing gravity, it's over. Realizing this, remember to save often! You can always move away from creatures, and scan planets to check the gravity, but why take a chance? There are two save slots, and they are there for a reason.

The Starflight universe is extremely large. When you leave the star port, you will be in your solar system. If you fly to the edge of the map, you will be able to fly to other solar systems. See all those hundreds of dots on the map? Yep, each and every one is a solar system. Each solar system has a handful of planets in it. You got it, this game is huge.

Luckily for us, there are "flux" locations scattered about. These are basically worm holes, and when you enter one, you will be transported to another flux location somewhere else on the map. These never change, and always lead to the same place. After you have used a flux location, a line is drawn on your star map depicting where it leads to. Use these to conserve time and fuel, and explore a lot more of the map.

The planet's surfaces are pretty wide open as well. They are extremely varied, from earth-like planets to gas giants, from lava encrusted planets to ice balls in the sky. Scattered across the planets are varied minerals, creatures, ruins, etc. Sometimes you will see a hammer symbol on the surface. This means there is a mineral out-cropping sticking up above the ground, so run it over to collect the minerals.

I've mostly explained the graphics already through the review, but I will summarize here. The space port is a small 2D hallway with very ugly pictures. Your big blocky character walks slowly from one end to the other to get to the correct door that you wish to enter.

Space is a vast and wide open area. You control a little ship, which is actually not too ugly, and fly around in any direction you want. It's still 2D, but you have complete freedom to go wherever you want. Gravity from planets and stars affects the ship when you get near them, making it more realistic.

The planet's surface is also pretty nice looking. You can see ice, lava, water, forests, and deserts. When a storm blows across the planet, you can see the wind blowing really strong, and your terrain vehicle gets pushed in the direction the wind is blowing. You can dig down into the sand with your mineral digging arm to keep yourself from blowing too far away from where you want to be.

The sound effects are where I have to give this game low marks. The sound effects are so bad, you will find yourself turning the television down or muting it. They were probably pretty good sound effects for the original Starflight, but since it was made in 1986, that's not saying much. The music.. well, there really isn't that much music in the game, so I'm not quite sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it's a good thing, if it was going to be anything like the sound effects.

There is also a short story by Robert Silverberg, inspired by his experience with Starflight. This accounts for 33 pages of Starflight's 143 page instruction book!

Overall I think Starflight is a really great game. It is an often overlooked classic that I believe everyone should own. If you have a working Genesis, make sure to pick this one up. If you like Starflight, you also might enjoy Freelancer or Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (PC)


Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Richly detailed graphics, great movies
Cons: Horrible interface, too much hack and slash

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor takes place in the Forgotten Realms universe, and features Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rules. The rule set was released in the summer of 2000. It includes some neat new character classes such as a monk or barbarian, and lets you choose a half-orc as a character's race. The 3rd edition rules also allow characters to advance to the 16th experience level and cast 8th level spells.

Ruins of Myth Drannor is the second installment in the Pool of Radiance series, taking place ten years after the original left off. Deep under the city of New Phlan, the Pool of Radiance has been re-activated by some evil presence, causing it to spew forth an energy that turns anything it touches undead. This means you will certainly encounter a lot of undead monsters as you traverse the dungeons of Myth Drannor, where the evil seems to be coming from.

The grand wizard Elminster gathers a team of adventurers to travel through the portal to Myth Drannor, and find out what evil resides there. Unfortunately, they disappear without a trace. With Athan and his companions gone, it falls upon you to take up their slack and travel to Myth Drannor yourself. You step through the portal and see what remains of the previous expedition. Their corpses litter the ground just this side of the portal, and the orcs that put them there await you. By the time you finish laying the orcs to rest, the portal has disappeared and you are trapped there.

Unlike most traditional role playing games, raising levels takes a long time in Ruins of Myth Drannor. Having a maximum of 16 experience levels may not seem like much after playing the likes of Final Fantasy, but rest assured, it will take you a long time to reach that point. To reach the first level alone is 1000 experience points, and your lucky to earn a dozen for one battle. The main place you will end up gaining your experience is the story related experience given to you along the way.

This means the monsters you fight will be hard at first. That, I'm afraid, is often an understatement. There are no inns to rest at and replenish your health and magic power, you must make camp and rest along the way. There is nothing wrong with this, but the places that you can stop and rest are few and far between sometimes. You have a little tent icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. When it turns green, you can stop and rest. When it's yellow, you can stop and rest, but will most likely be interrupted by enemies and attacked. This is usually not a good thing, as your characters (unless they are immune) will start the battle asleep! If the tent is red, you can not even attempt to stop and rest.

You can start the game off with one character, or up to four characters. Along the way, you will also come across two more who will join you. After they join you, you have full control over them, and they no longer talk or have any other kind of interaction beyond the characters you started with. This is fine, except for when you are doing a quest which involves that character, and he just stands around like a bump on a log, not bothering to contribute his two cents to what's going on.

When you first make your characters, you should choose their stats wisely. Instead of re-rolling stats until you get some that look decent, characters start out with a set number that depends on their race and class. You then have a certain amount of points to apply to each stat as you see fit, so choose wisely, especially if you plan to multi-class your character later. Multi-classed characters have a much better variety of skills, but will not be quite as strong with those skills as a higher level single classed character.

The dungeons you must explore in Ruins of Myth Drannor are huge. They are full of twists and turns, and many rooms all look the same. This is really annoying sometimes, when you end up walking for 10 minutes in one direction, just to turn around and walk all the way back... just so that you can walk 10 minutes in that direction. It really makes no difference which direction you take either, because there is fork after fork after fork in the dungeon path, and each fork goes on for 10 minutes and forks off again.. argh. Suffice it to say you will spend countless hours wandering around in the first dungeon alone.

The map at least helps a little bit here. When you click it, you get a 3D map of every place you have walked before. Not only that, but it is actually helpful and easy to use! This is a big bonus, especially when doing an hour's worth of back-tracking to explore some obscure fork in a path you passed earlier. The map looks just like a miniature version of the screen, and can be scrolled in any direction. You can also set a little flag icon on the map, and type text into it. This is very useful for marking certain places that you do not want to forget about for a later time.

The battle mode is terrible. You spend more time hacking and slashing than you do exploring or solving quests. This game is a lot like Diablo or Darkstone in that aspect. It uses a hybrid battle system that features elements of both real-time and turn-based systems. It is turn-based overall, but each character has a set amount of time to perform an action. This time is represented by a green bar, that slowly empties. When it is gone, the character's turn is over. This presents a bit of a problem sometimes, as the interface does a lot to inhibit your ability to perform the actions you want. As you raise to higher levels and learning more spells and actions, you will find yourself missing your turn as you fumble through the pop-ups to select the correct action.

That's right, pop-ups. The entire interface consists of Windows-style pop ups. Right click on the screen to get a list. Select one of the options, and sub-commands pop up beside them. If you accidentally move the mouse off of a command that was under 10 pop-ups, you get to start over, and all the while that green bar is emptying away into oblivion. Great, I just lost another turn, and now the skeleton knight is going to kill my ranger.

Nope, I guess he missed. Again. Characters and enemies alike will miss nine times out of ten while they are fighting. They can be standing practically on top of one another, and still miss a half dozen times in a row. It is not at all fun to stand your characters toe to toe with the enemy, and proceed to exchange misses with them for twenty minutes. The characters and enemies both move extremely slow as well, so pray that they do not have any amount of distance to cover to reach one another once the battle starts.

The graphics are one of the better parts of this game. Everything is rendered with the beautiful 3D graphics engine, and richly detailed. You get a 3/4 view of your characters, but only one camera angle. This works though, as there is rarely an occasion that requires an alternate angle. When a character or an enemy's view is blocked by a wall, you can see a stick-figure of that character through the wall. The stick figure remains as the character moves or fights, and stays as long as the view is blocked. Little touches like these go a long way.

The only real problem I have with the graphics is the lack of originality and customization. Sure, your characters have a couple of different outfits to choose from, but they basically look the same anyway. Putting on armor changes your character's appearance, but every piece of armor is silver, so they all look the same anyway. The variety of weapons and armor is really lacking, and there is only one place to buy the stuff in the first place. Oh yea, speaking of buying things.. after you purchase the limited amount of decent things in the beginning of the game, there seems to be nothing to do with all the gold you earn during the last 95% of it. Go figure.

The movie sequences do a lot to set up the story line, and appear to be designed very well. They look sharp and crisp for the most part, with just a touch of grain to add to the dark effect. They sound even better than they look, with great background music and excellent speech by the voice actors.

The music in the game is appropriate, with a multitude of strange and eerie scores to keep the mood up. The sound effects are good for the most part, but you will easily tire of the "chink chink chink" sound of an armored character walking through the dungeon. There is a very limited amount of speech in the game, and while it sounds terrific, there just isn't enough of it to have bothered with. All of a sudden out of nowhere, you will hear one sentence of speech, and then the rest of what that character was saying will appear on the screen. Utterly pointless.

Ruins of Myth Drannor also features a Dungeon Master, who acts as a narrator, if you will. The DM explains a lot of important areas and key points in the game by making a text box pop up on your screen. Too bad he don't actually speak.

Ruins of Myth Drannor features a multiplayer mode via the GameSpy network. This allows you to chat and play with friends over the internet. There seems to be only one single player game, instead of multiple 'campaigns' or 'scenarios' like in other games. While some of the NPC interactions might change if you play through it again, depending on what you say to them, the overall game will be exactly the same.

There are four (yes four) patches available for this game from the manufacturer's website. These patches should really be installed, as they fix a multitude of bugs in the game. Most of the bugs are rather minor, but annoying none the less. The most notable is probably the horrible virtual memory management, which caused my computer to run like a crippled turtle.

Minimum system requirements: Windows 95/98/ME, Pentium II 400, 64 MB RAM, 3D video card with D3D support, DirectX compatible sound card, 8x CD-ROM, keyboard, and mouse. 56k modem or faster also required for multiplayer games.

I tested this game on an AMD Athlon XP 2200 with 512 MB RAM, GeForce 4 MX 440 with 64 MB of DDR VRAM, CMI 5.1 channel sound card, DirectX 9.0B, and a 48x CD-ROM under Windows 98 SE. My multiplayer gaming experience was less than stellar, but my 26.4kbps connection is only half of the recommended 56k minimum.

Overall, this is a fairly good game, though it could have been so much better. Don't grab this game expecting it to play like Baulder's Gate, when it will really play more like Diablo. I would only recommend this game to real AD&D fans, and people who have either played everything else or are extremely bored.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Tara's Adventure (GBC)




Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Some fairly unique ideas, great gameplay, lots of replay value
Cons: Occasionally repetitive, barely average graphics and sound

During the bulk of this review, I will refer to Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Tara's Adventure as DWM2, even though two nearly identical games make up Dragon Warrior Monsters 2. The other game is Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Coby's Journey.

Whenever I refer to DWM2, I am specifically referring to Tara's Adventure, but it usually applies to both games. Tara and Coby are brother and sister in the first Dragon Warrior Monsters game, and you got to play as Coby, because Tara had been kidnapped.

DWM2 is the sequel to Enix's first attempt at cashing in on some of the success of the ever popular Pokemon games. DWM2 shares a lot of similarities with those games, but also brings some unique content of it's own. Most of this was present in the original Dragon Warrior Monsters game, but has been improved upon and given an over-haul for the second version.

You move to a magical island, which you previously visited in the first DWM game. After a little accident, the island's "plug" is removed, and it is in danger of sinking. A magical little critter hops in the hole to plug it temporarily, but it is up to you to find a more permanent fix.

You must travel far and wide to long distant lands looking for a suitable plug, and there are many dangerous monsters you must face along the way. Lucky for you, the monsters you control do all the fighting for you, similarly to Pokemon, and you just stand around like a lark.

You can have tons of different monsters, though only three can be with you at any given time. You must also give each of your monsters attention, or they will disobey you during battles. To make them like you and obey again, you must take them with you on some of your travels, and/or give them treats.

Monsters are fairly easy to catch. Sometimes a monster will join you after a battle, other times you must feed it treats during the battle to lower it's "wild" statistic first. In either case, only the last monster you have destroyed in a battle has any chance of joining you. So if you want a certain monster, make sure to kill it last, and consider feeding it treats before you kill it.

One of the absolute greatest features of DWM2 is the monster breeding system. This system was present in the first DWM game, and it is one of the things that got me hooked on it in the first place.

As your monsters fight battles, they will gain experience. After reaching level ten, they can be bred together at the Starry Shrine to create a new monster. When you breed two monsters together, they will disappear, but the new baby monster will usually be better than either of the parents.

This is the only way to get most of the rare monsters in the game, and one of the most fun things to experiment with. Also, since there are a few hundred monsters total in this game, it is something you can play with for quite a while without getting the same monster every time.

Tara's Adventure and Coby's Journey are nearly the same game, but there are a couple minor differences. If you are one of those people who has to find every secret and explore every part of the game, you will either need to find someone who has the other title, and a link cable.

Some monsters are only found in one game or the other, as well as some of the keys you will need to access different lands. They can be traded back and forth, much in the same way as Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow/Green.

There are a couple of other neat options for use with a link cable. You can battle head to head against a friend, trade monsters, or even breed monsters. When you breed a monster with a friend's monster, you both receive an egg with the new baby monster in it.

Gameplay is really fun, despite being a bit repetitive. There's a lot of walking through random maps and killing things, but the monster breeding portion helps you to maintain your sanity. With so many combinations of monsters to breed, this game will take a while, and sports some pretty good replay value to boot.

If you go straight through the game without exploring any of the bonus places or trying to breed ultimate monsters, it should take you between ten and twenty hours. If you aim for the stars, and try to explore the whole thing, you are looking at weeks or even months of gameplay.

Game controls are simple, with only a few buttons to use. Everything is done through a turn based menu interface, making it easy for even a young child to figure out.

The graphics are pretty good actually. The bulk of them are taken directly from the Dragon Warrior games for the NES. They look like it too, with the squished and deformed sprites on a 2D background; but what do you expect from a Gameboy Color game? It's a typical first person view in a typical role playing game setup.

Everything is well drawn and full of color. The distant lands you have to unlock and fight through are all randomly generated maps, and the few hundred monsters in the game boast mostly unique graphics rather than recycled graphics using a different color palette.

The sound is right on par with the Dragon Warrior games as well. If you have played any of those games, you will recognize most of the music and sounds in this game right away. Not all that great, but they certainly worked for me, as I loved those games. A bit catchy, but fairly standard RPG music. The battle theme is fast paced, while the town music is light and uplifting.

Overall, I would recommend this game to anyone. Especially if you like Pokemon or the original Dragon Warrior games. If you like Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Tara's Adventure, I would also recommend the above games, as well as the first Dragon Warrior Monsters game.