Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nintendo Wii



Rating:  3 out of 5

Pros: A few nice console-exclusive titles, cheapest of the 7th gen systems
Cons: Most good cross-platform games never make it here, too many casual games

Introduction

I remember when I was a little kid and my best friend got a Nintendo Entertainment System. Before then, my experience with video games consisted of playing Burger Time on the Intellivision II and Combat on an old Atari 2600. I remember sitting there and playing the Super Mario Bros pack-in game for hours and marveling at how much video games had changed with this new Nintendo console.

Since then, I've made sure to pick up every Nintendo home game console released in North America. I have loads of Nintendo and Super Nintendo games that I still enjoy playing to this day. We even had a Virtual Boy, but that came from a flea market or a yard sale or something for only a few dollars and the only game we had for it was Mario's Tennis. While I've got a Gameboy and a Gameboy Advance, I never bothered picking up a Nintendo DS yet (I'll crawl out from under my rock soon, I promise).

I didn't care as much for the Nintendo 64. While I collected a small number of games for the system, and it had a few good ones such as Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Super Smash Bros, I found the overall selection much less to my liking than the offerings on Sony's PlayStation. The same thing happened with the GameCube... I collected a few good games such as Zelda Wind Waker, Metroid Prime and Super Smash Bros Melee. Once again Sony's PlayStation 2 featured more games I was interested in, so my GameCube collection is somewhat lacking. I'll get to the Wii games in a bit.

Details

The Wii weighs in at 2.7 pounds (1.2 kg) and measures 1.73 inches (44mm) tall, 6.18 inches (157mm) wide and 8.49 inches (215.4mm) deep when placed horizontally. This makes the Wii smaller than Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PS3, and all previous Nintendo home consoles. Mine is black, but it's also been released in red and white, with a blue edition forthcoming. It uses 18 watts of power when turned on, 1.3 watts in standby mode, and 9.6 watts in standby with the WiiConnect24 feature enabled.

It uses 12cm Wii Optical Discs, and is backward-compatible with the 8cm Nintendo GameCube Game Discs from it's predecessor. Unfortunately, the Wii is unable to play DVDs, let alone Blue Ray discs. It uses an IBM "Broadway" processor, about which few official details have been released. The processor is (unofficially) reported to be clocked at 729 MHz, but that's totally unconfirmed by Nintendo or IBM. It is obvious, however, that the computing power of the Wii is not even in the same league as the Xbox 360 and it's 3.2 GHz PowerPC Tri-Core Xenon processor or the 3.2 GHz Cell Broadband Engine of the PS3. The same hold true for the graphics processing unit, ATI's "Hollywood" chip. It, too, is unconfirmed but reportedly clocked at 243 MHz and is no comparison for the Xenos GPU in the 360 or the "Reality Synthesizer" GPU in the PS3.

The Wii features 88 MB of main system memory and 3MB of GPU frame-buffer and texture memory. It has 512MB of NAND flash memory built in for storage and game saves, which can be extended up to 32 GB with SD or SDHC memory cards. It requires a separate GameCube memory card for GameCube games however. In addition to it's dual GameCube memory card slots, it also features 4 GameCube controller ports behind a semi-hidden panel on the left of the device (on the top if using the vertical stand) to enable connection of GameCube controllers or peripheral devices. While there are various controller options for the Wii, GameCube games are unable to be played without an actual GameCube controller.

There are 2 USB 2.0 ports on the back of the machine, along with an air vent, a port for the sensor bar, and the AV Multi Out port. The AV port allows video to be output as composite (cable included), component, or S-Video, at a maximum resolution of 480p. It has built in 802.11b/g wireless internet support through a Mitsumi DWM-W004 module, and is optionally compatible with a USB to Ethernet adapter.

The sensor bar is an 8 inch (20cm) long bar that can be setup either above or below your television and allows the Remote to work with all sorts of different televisions and other displays. The cord is 11 foot 7 inches (353mm) long, allowing ample room to position it where you need it to be.

My black Nintendo Wii came with Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, a single controller, nunchuck and a Wii Motion Plus accessory. The newer black Wii bundle comes with Mario Kart and a Wii Wheel instead of the Wii Sports games, and it includes a Wii Remote Plus. This is simply a standard Wii Remote with the Wii Motion Plus built in to save the 1.5 inch bulk that would otherwise be added by the accessory, and allow you to plug in the Wii Wheel accessory without having to first remove the Wii Motion Plus.

Remote

The Wii Remote, unlike traditional controllers, is held in one hand like a television remote control. The standard Wii Remote from Nintendo is 5.83 inches (148mm) long, 1.43 inches (36.2mm) wide and 1.21 inches (30.8m) tall. It features a power button at the top, a directional pad underneath and a big A button below that. Central to the remote face is a home button, with a Minus and Plus button to the left and the right of it respectively. Below that is a speaker, followed by the "1" and "2" buttons and then a series of 4 LEDs to indicate which player the remote is set up for.

There is a "B" trigger button on the bottom within reach of your index finger. Removing the battery cover from the bottom leaves you with room to install 2 "AA" batteries (included!), and uncovers a red synchronization button to sync the Wii Remote to the console. There is a small cutout below the battery cover to attach the wrist strap to the Wii Remote, and at the very bottom of the remote there is an external extension connector to connect accessories like the nunchuck or the Wii Classic Controller.

There's a silicone rubber jacket that slides over the remote to provide a minimal cushion in case it's dropped. It's also supposed to help grip the remote, but it's such a pain if you use the Wii a lot and have to replace batteries on a daily basis. Not that it's hard to remove, but you have to remove any accessories plugged in, pull the wrist strap through the slot in the back, pull the jacket off... if you have the Wii Motion Plus installed it's even more annoying, and I just haven't felt the need to bother with the jacket because of these things.

The remote has an optical sensor that tracks light from the sensor bar to figure out where it's pointing. This, combined with the accelerometer, provides the unique control system of the Wii. Some type of simple speaker is integrated into the remote, as well as a rumble ability. There's also a tiny little memory chip in the remote that allows you to store your Mii avatar to, for example, bring it to a friend's house and use your Mii on his Wii.

Menu

The Wii Menu is a grid of "channels" that allow you to do different things. The Disc Channel lets you load game discs, the Mii Channel lets you create a custom "Mii" avatar for use with some games, etc. There are channels available for many things, from browsing the internet with the Opera 9 web browser, to playing videos on Netflix to checking your local weather forecast.

Games

The Wii has some spectacular games that are exclusive to the system. Monster Hunter Tri, Epic Mickey, Animal Crossing: City Folk, and Donkey Kong Country Returns to name a few. Combined with the usual Nintendo staples like New Super Mario Bros Wii, Super Smash Bros Brawl, Super Mario Galaxy and it's sequel, you've got some pretty substantial reasons to want a Wii.

For the PS3 we have a few games such as the Uncharted series, Infamous 2 and God of War 3. While they're all great titles, both the number and variety of quality exclusive titles is still lacking. Microsoft's Xbox 360 has some terrific exclusive titles like Halo: Reach, Gears of War 3, Fable 2, Saints Row and Project Gotham Racing. Much better variety of quality titles than the PS3, and a few more of them as well, I'd say the 360 is about on even footing with the Wii here.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of the outstanding non-exclusive titles are available for both the 360 and the PS3, but not the Wii. Final Fantasy XIII, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Dragon Age: Origins... You'll see them on both of the other systems, and most of them on the PC as well.

The Wii is more suited to the casual gamer. They have gobs and gobs of casual games and party games. Standard party games are well represented like Wii Party, Mario Party 8 and Guilty Party, and then you have hybrids like Dokapon Kingdom that try to add some variety. Even the regular games like Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros Brawl and New Super Mario Bros Wii are going to be a lot of fun with a group of people.

There's a number of good RPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles, Arc Rise Fantasia, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, Rune Factory: Frontier and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Sports games are also well represented, but the vast majority are smaller dumbed-down games of bowling, golf, tennis or similar. There are some notable major sports titles though, including Madden 12, NBA 2k12, MLB 2k11, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12. Some of these may be the same across platforms, some may have totally different controls or inferior graphics on the Wii, while others yet may require additional peripherals such as the PlayStation Move or the Microsoft Kinect to be purchased in order for them to function on the 360 or PS3. Positives and negatives here.

The Wii does have many classic games available through their Virtual Console, a separate part of the Wii Shop Channel. These can be purchased with "Wii Points"", which cost around $10 per 1000 points. The games cost anywhere from a few hundred points each to over 1000, so expect to pay between $5 and $15 per game. There are many games from the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, etc. It's a little expensive for my taste, but there's a few games I want to play that I haven't located or picked up yet for some of those old systems, so I may get a few one of these days.

Final Thoughts

Overall the Wii is a great system, but it suffers greatly from the giant flood of terrible casual game collections. If 90% of the titles look like they belong on Facebook instead of on a home game console, you really need to rethink your gaming platform.

Thankfully the other 10% of the games are good, and there's some terrific console-exclusive titles. Since the Wii is cheaper than either of it's direct competitors, it's worth buying for the good games alone - but only if you have money to burn or if you don't already have an Xbox 360 or a PS3.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro



Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Familiar design and layout, works great for titles that support it
Cons: Many titles (including all GameCube titles) not supported

Introduction

The Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro was a great decision on the part of Nintendo. I'm all for these new ways of controlling games like the Nintendo Wii Remote and the Microsoft Kinect, and maybe one day we'll have advanced far enough to plug a cable into our temple and play the game in a dream world. In the mean time, however, some things just tend to work better with a normal controller. Whether that's because the games for the last few generations have been designed with the same basic controller types in mind, or whether we as gamers have just become accustomed to controlling games in a certain way, the end result is the same. Most of the Nintendo Wii titles are either cheesy casual games that only support the Wii Remote in a very basic way that would work equally well with a classic controller, or they're higher production games that throw in various motion controlled gimmicks to justify the new controller. Either way, I find myself letting my Wii collect dust because the Wii Remote just doesn't offer many distinct advantages over the regular controllers of other consoles. Even when it does manage to get something right, it's either not quite accurate enough to make it worth bothering or suffers from just enough latency to make it useless.

The most use my Wii Remote gets these days is to browse around on Netflix. I still try out games here and there that require the Wii remote, but I almost always rent them before I buy them to see if it's worth attempting to play with a ridiculous control scheme. I keep buying a game here and there that specifically says it works with the Classic Controller, and most of those games have been decent... but many are virtual console games that were previously released for the earlier Nintendo game consoles or the Sega Genesis.

Description

The Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro looks and operates similarly to any other current generation console controller. It features a directional pad on the left and four digital buttons on the right in a diamond pattern similar to a SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) or Playstation controller that are labeled X, Y, A and B. It also features two analog control sticks at the bottom of the controller, and these are spaced out similarly to a Playstation controller. The original Wii Classic Controller also had two analog sticks, but they were closer together and uncomfortable to use. The original Wii Classic Controller also had L and R shoulder buttons, as well as ZL and ZR buttons beside them placed closer to the center of the controller top. The Classic Controller Pro moved these ZL and ZR buttons underneath the L and R to form two rows of shoulder buttons like all the other current generation controllers have. This makes it easier and more convenient to play multi-platform games that were also released on one of the Playstation or Xbox consoles.

The power cord on the original Classic Controller stuck out of the bottom of the controller instead of the top. I really never liked this, and it's one of the things I always hated about the Sega Dreamcast controller. Thankfully the Classic Controller Pro fixed this problem as well by making the cord come out the top of the controller. This controller is also comparable in size to a standard Playstation or Xbox controller, where as the original Classic Controller was flatter and lacked the ergonomic handles/grips/wings of the Classic Controller Pro. It is a little lighter than the Sony or Microsoft competitors, but it's light weight does not come at the expense of durability or make it feel cheap.

The Classic Controller Pro isn't wireless, but it's the next best thing. The three foot cord that comes out the top plugs directly into the bottom of your Wii Remote just like the Nunchuck, which at least allows you to sit across the room without stretching a cord across the floor for people to trip on. My only problem has been accidentally standing up, forgetting the Wii Remote was in the chair next to me and leaving it dangling in the air by the cord while I was holding the Classic Controller Pro. Oops.

Games

Sadly, most Nintendo Wii games do not support the Wii Classic Controller Pro. All Virtual Console games support it, as well as some WiiWare titles. Thankfully a few of the Role Playing Games on the Wii support it, which was my main concern. Arc Rise Fantasia, Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Monster Hunter Tri, Rune Factory Frontier, Tales of Graces, Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga... all good to go.

While RPGs may seems an obvious choice for Classic Controller support, there are other genres represented by titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, Madden 12, Need for Speed: Undercover, Samurai Warriors 3, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and WWE All Stars. Unfortunately the Classic Controller Pro does not work at all with Nintendo GameCube titles, so if you were thinking of picking one up to play through your GameCube library semi-wirelessly, think again.

Final Thoughts

I love the Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro, I only wish it supported more titles. Not liking the gimmicky motion-sensitive Wii Remote nearly as much as I initially thought I might, I'm thankful that Nintendo came out with a decent classic controller with a familiar design and layout so that I can play as many titles as possible with it instead.

If you have a Nintendo Wii and don't care for the Wii Remote, or if you plan on playing a lot of Virtual Console titles, definitely pick up a Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro. If you don't use the Virtual Console much, make sure to check your games for Classic Controller support before you waste your money.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

School Tycoon (PC)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Simple, kids may enjoy it for a while
Cons: Simple, natural disasters are frequent and annoying

Introduction

School Tycoon was developed by Cat Daddy games and published by Global Star Software, and it's just another face in the crowd of tycoon and simulation games. It's a few years old now, but even in it's heyday it didn't bring anything original or new to the table. That is not to say that it's a bad game either, it simply fails to differentiate itself from the masses of other games in the genre. These days it can be had for a couple dollars at places that sell used games and software. I had my copy given to me in a box of unsorted, pre-owned computer discs so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Gameplay

There really is no story in School Tycoon. You become a school principal, and for some reason this puts you in charge of building the whole school from the ground up. That's really all there is to it. The whole game game revolves around you creating and running a school. You can do this in an infinite sandbox mode, or complete a series of 24 challenges. These challenges are separated into 8 beginner, 8 intermediate and 8 difficult challenges. The challenges are varied, and all have some sort of time limit in which you must complete them. You can continue playing that particular map in a sandbox mode after the challenge is complete if you wish.

Beginner challenges are obviously easy. In one you will have to acquire 20 enrolled students and hire a teacher for each building, and in another you need to get student morale up to 75%. One challenge in particular, "Fitness Fanatic" requires you to obtain a 70% athletic rating and a 60% academic rating. When I started it, all I did was throw a fountain in the middle of the map and hire a couple teachers, and I randomly won in the first 2 minutes before I even started looking at what I was going to need to work on first.

The intermediate challenges are a bit tougher, for example enrolling 40 students and obtaining a 2 Star Rating out of 5 for your school, or keeping your facility conditions up to 90% while retaining at least 60 enrolled students. The difficult challenges are the hardest; one requires you to maintain a 95% athletic rating, 95% academic rating, and 95% facility conditions. Another requires you to earn $100,000 in 4 weeks, which often times involves playing right and then mass selling all of your buildings at the last minute to push yourself over the mark. Completing all the challenges does... well, nothing. You can try them again, or play the sandbox mode instead.

The sandbox mode allows you to start from scratch on a fresh map. You can choose to start on farmland, at the beach or in the city. You choose which buildings you wish to place, what staff members you wish to hire, and try to successfully manage your school. You need to make sure your students maintain good grades to keep your academic rating high and do well at sports to keep your athletic rating high. You also must have landscaping, janitorial and maintenance buildings along with their staff to ensure your school stays in good working order and stays clean.

The game is pretty easy for the most part, but as you get better and better it gets hard to keep up. I constantly find myself running out of money and going bankrupt for one reason or another, even if I was doing really well just a few minutes before. Natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes are the biggest factor in this, and they tend to happen way too frequently later in the game. If you go into the negative balance for 3 days, you go bankrupt and it's a game over. This can make the game pretty challenging sometimes -- but only in the annoying random way that no amount of playing better can fix.

There's a school newspaper that you can click on at the bottom of the screen that gives you some vague indication of how well the students think you are doing. Periodically there are also "coupons" in the paper that, while expensive, are really helpful if you can afford them. They allow you to have things such as parent-teacher conferences, pep rallies or science fairs. These events increase your academic, athletic or morale when you have them so the coupons can really help.

You have a report card in the bottom right corner of your screen where your school is judged on various criteria. These include academics, athletics, morale, discipline, as well as an overall rating. You get graded from A to F just like in school. In addition to the grade, your school is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars at the top of the screen. If you want to get a 5 star school, you're going to want to build every building, staff them with good teachers and coaches, and try to keep an A grade in every category on your report card.

You can click on individual students or staff members to see more details about them. For students, you can check on their progress in academics, physical fitness, obedience and happiness. You can also give each student individual commands, telling them to go to the nurse, detention, expelling them or telling them to goof off. It also tells you if they are healthy or not. Another tab tells you their general proficiency in athletics, their IQ, how friendly they are, whether they're good looking and how rowdy or clumsy they are.

The last tab is for students and staff alike, and it tells you their general comments. A student may say something like "Dude, there's nothing fun to do around here." or "My teacher is really cool!". Teachers may say "Someone control these students!" if the students in her classroom aren't well disciplined, or "Does no one like my class?" if her classroom is relatively empty.

This is handy, because when students leave the school they get red exclamation points over their heads. If you click on one, and his comment says "If I stay here I'll starve to death!", then you know you probably need to place more food buildings. A number of comments are stored, and there are up/down buttons at the bottom of the comment tab to scroll through them.

Academics

For academic buildings, you can only build portable versions of some of the classrooms. These include a library, English, math, social studies and biology buildings. They are basic classrooms that can teach a limited amount of students and only improve your academic rating a small amount, but they're very cheap and each different one you build will increase your school's rating to an extent. As you build, you unlock the portable versions of chemistry, computer, workshop, art and music classrooms that cost a hair more and improve your academic rating a hair more. They still only hold a limited amount of students though.

After building the portable versions of different classrooms, the medium versions are unlocked. They cost a lot more, can support more students at once and raise your academic score by an even larger amount. After the medium versions come the deluxe versions of the same buildings. They are far beyond the medium classrooms, supporting the largest number of students and raising your academic rating by the largest amount. They're pretty expensive, but worth it -- especially in a sandbox game where you're not being timed and can more easily spend enough time to collect the money to build and staff them all.

Athletics

To balance out the students' academic needs, you also need to address their physical fitness. You can build a gymnasium from the start and it produces a pretty decent boost right from the get go. As you progress into the game you can augment your athletics rating by building a sports field, tennis courts, baseball fields, basketball gym, large tennis courts and football fields.

The football field is the penultimate sports building, boosting your athletics rating by quite a bit and also supplying a morale boost to your students by having a school football team. The large tennis court is probably the most efficient because it holds a lot of students and also boosts your athletics rating by a large number. However, it doesn't provide the morale bonus of the football field.

Administration

Another important thing to consider is the basic upkeep of your school. A small janitor's office lets you hire 2 janitors to keep your school campus clean. Without janitors, trash builds up on your pathways. Students aren't happy walking through trash for some reason, so they'll start leaving your school if it gets too bad. You can upgrade to a medium janitor's office that houses 4 janitors, and there's a deluxe janitor's office later that is quite expensive and I haven't had the need to ever purchase at all.

Maintenance buildings are also important, as your other buildings will fall into disrepair, catch fire and burn to the ground. There's no way to put out a fire once it starts, you just have to wait it out and then rebuild a new building where the old one stood. For that reason alone it's important to have at least a small maintenance building. Like the janitor's offices however, through all the challenges and a few hours of sandbox mode, I've never had to build more than one small maintenance building in the entire game.

Small, medium and deluxe nurse's offices requires no teachers or staff. They tend to injured students and boost student morale. The medium and deluxe versions can tend to more students at once and provide a bigger morale bonus. Detention centers are another helpful building that boost your student's discipline. Without one, students get expelled from your school occasionally. With one, they get sent there to try and fix their problem first. The medium and deluxe detention centers can help solve more discipline problems to keep more of the students at your school instead of being expelled.

The last maintenance buildings are the teacher's lounge and the landscaping office. There are 2 teacher's lounges, the medium and large versions. They help keep your teachers happy so they don't demand extra salary. There's only one landscaping office, and it's useful for keeping your lawns, trees and bushes clean and maintained.

Other

Entertainment buildings don't need teachers or staff, and they hold a decent amount of students. They cost a bit, but they raise student morale at the school. You can build an arcade, small and regular half-pipes, a mini golf course, a go-cart track and a roller coaster.

Students will sometimes leave the school because they're hungry, and food buildings are the remedy. There are 2 different candy machines and 2 different soda machines, but they don't seem to help much. The more useful buildings are the classic cafe, a pizzeria and a burger joint. The burger joint costs the most, but provides a student morale boost as well.

The last important building would be the restroom. There are portable toilets that allow hold one student at a time, but like the vending machines they don't seem to help much. You can unlock medium bathrooms fairly early that help out a lot, and later large bathrooms that are practically required because they hold a lot of students.

Objects

You can also place various objects in addition to buildings. Trees and bushes make your school look better and students like them. A big fountain in the center of your school is a great boost to your reputation. Picnic tables (along with benches and chairs) give students a place to sit outside, which is especially useful near food buildings. Trash cans cut down the litter so your janitors aren't overworked.

You can also lay down paths of different designs to act as your sidewalks, which helps guide students to the various buildings. There's also a semi-useless terrain tool that lets you place grass and flower beds and stuff, but it didn't seem to do anything for student morale.

You must sell any buildings to get rid of them, but you can destroy any objects in the game for free with the clearing tool.

Staff

Teachers are the most obvious and most important staff members. They earn the most money (along with coaches) of any of your staff, and you have to choose carefully. They have 3 statistics that are randomly generated on a scale of 0 to 10: fun, discipline and skill. Skill is by far the most important stat, as it allows them to teach better and garner you more academic rating. Putting highly skilled teachers in deluxe classrooms where they can teach the most students is a sure fire way to make your academic rating skyrocket.

A teacher's discipline rating boosts your students' discipline and makes them less likely to be expelled. You can skimp out on the stat though, as building discipline centers will accomplish the same thing and they only have to be built once, where teachers must be paid salary. The same holds true for the fun stat, it keeps students happy with a morale boost -- but the various entertainment buildings will accomplish that goal. Teachers with higher stats tend to want more money, so balancing them is key.

Coaches are a close second and work in the same manner as teachers do, except that they go to athletic buildings instead of academic ones. You need a teacher for each academic building for the building to be useful, and a coach for each athletic building. Cooks work in the cafes, pizzerias and burger joints. If your cook isn't very skilled, your students can get food poisoning. I was a few hours into a sandbox game where I skimped out and used a low skilled cook, then my students got food poisoning and half of them left so I went bankrupt. Don't be too stingy! If you don't like the stats on any of the staff, you can close the menu and when you open it back up all the staff will have changed and had their stats randomized. Take advantage of this to get people you can afford with stats around what you're looking for.

Janitors, maintenance workers and landscapers require less salary and have no stats. Janitors are the most important, because they are the only way you can clean up the trash on the ground, and ground litter delivers a big hit to student morale. Maintenance is next, as they keep your buildings, vending machines, etc. in good repair. They're most important during natural disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes where multiple buildings take damage and need repaired before they catch fire. Landscapers are least important, usually 1 or 2 is plenty for the whole game. They keep the grass cut and take care of statues, fountains, etc. to help with morale.

Graphics & Sound

At the beginning of the game there's a quirky little animated sequence about a school principal who's fed up with managing the school and leaves the job to you. It's pretty neat, and the voice work was spot on. Unfortunately, it's the only place that had any voice work. There's also no background music in this game, leaving it a little lax in the audio department. The sound effects were decent and fitting, but forgettable. A bubbling sound when you click on the chemistry lab, cash register sound when you click on the cafeteria, toilet flushing sound when you click on the restroom, lots of school bells all around, etc.

The game is presented in an overhead isometric view. The graphics are nice looking and cartoony, but nothing spectacular. They are reasonably clear, but some buildings I have trouble telling apart unless I click on them and read what it is. When you click on a building you can see a small square at the bottom right of the screen that shows you a 3D peek inside the building (except for the bathroom). If you click the full-screen icon at the corner of that little square, it takes you inside the building full-screen where you can look at the occupants and click on each person inside to see what they're thinking. There are 3 different camera views of the inside that you can toggle with an on-screen button. I think the inside view looks better than the main part of the game.

Most of the game functions such as hiring staff or building classrooms is done from drop-down selection menus in an icon bar at the top of the screen, and the menus are easy enough to read and operate. I just wish there were more tool-tips to explain the individual bonuses each building gives in greater detail.

You can scroll around by moving the mouse to the any edge of the screen. You can also use the mouse wheel to zoom all the way in to an individual student, or all the way out for an overview of the whole school.

System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
128 MB RAM
500 MHz CPU
500 MB free space
DirectX 9 compatible 16 MB graphics card
DirectX 9 compatible sound card
8x CD-ROM drive
Keyboard & Mouse

Final Thoughts

School Tycoon is a decent game, it just doesn't stand out from the crowd of other tycoon and simulation games on the market. Since it's a bit of an older game you can usually find it for next to nothing, but unfortunately that's about all it's worth anyway. While not bad, it's merely an average game, so I'd say pass on this one and pick up Transport Tycoon, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital or any of the Sim City games instead.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (PC)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Complex, rewarding game
Cons: Fairly steep learning curve, terrible audio

Introduction

Always on the lookout for new games, I stumbled upon a YouTube video featuring a game called Mount & Blade: Warband. I had never heard of this game before, but it looked pretty interesting so I picked it up and boy was I glad I did. I played the heck out of Warband, and I liked it so much that I picked up the stand-alone expansion, Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword. Mount & Blade: Warband is itself a stand-alone sequel to the original Mount & Blade, but I do not have the first one. While I don't enjoy it quite as much as I enjoyed Warband, With Fire and Sword is still a terrific game and definitely worth playing. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is developed by TaleWorlds and published by Paradox Interactive, who also published Majesty 2.

Gameplay

Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword is predominately an action role playing game and takes place during 17th century Eastern Europe. Like Total War: Shogun 2 however, there are two pretty distinct game modes built into one game. First of all, there's a world map overview where you move your character with his army around, visiting villages and castles, fighting other units, escorting caravans or hunting down bandits. There's a day/night cycle, and units travel slower at night as well as having the distance at which they can see other units decreased. All units on the map move simultaneously, and when you stop moving the game automatically pauses and the world stops.

Then when you enter any type of battle, the other game mode kicks in. This is a third person (toggleable to first person) mode where you control your main character and use whatever weapons, armor and horse you may have equipped to engage in an epic battle with sometimes hundreds of opponents. This can take place anywhere on the map, and the terrain in different areas really effects the outcome. If you have a lot of cavalry troops, you're going to have a rough time in a hilly area because your horses move really slowly while moving up and down hills. Archers standing on top of a hill have a distinct advantage firing arrows down, etc. The battles can also take place in castles, whether you're sieging the castle to take it for yourself or whether you're defending it from an opponent.

There are 5 different factions, and you can join any or none of them, or even start your own. You can accept quests from village elders or castle lords to gain reputation with them and their factions or can send out caravans to earn money. Kill roaming bandits for experience and loot they equipment they drop, use some of it, sell the rest to markets. Characters level up and can improve their base stats of strength, agility, intelligence and charisma. They can also learn and improve a variety skills such as Trade, Shooting from Horseback, Prisoner Management, or use of a Shield. You gain proficiency with different weapons as you use them, allowing you to become better with them. You can also spend proficiency points with every level up to make them go up even faster.

You can recruit basic troops in towns, or go to mercenary camps to recruit better troops. They gain experience as they level, and advance from recruits to veteran troops, etc. You can equip them with better weapons, armor, horses, etc at the camps as well. You must pay your troops wages every week out of your available gold, and more experienced and more useful troops cost more money. You can issues orders to your troops via the function keys, telling them to charge or to hold this position, spread out, follow you, etc. You can give these orders to only certain groups of troops so your archers hold position on top of a hill, your cavalry try to flank the enemy and your infantry charge up the middle, etc. It takes some getting used to as the interface is a lot of text-based commands with different function keys, but if you can get the hang of it, it works well enough.

There's a pretty steep learning curve, and the addition of firearms to With Fire and Sword (they weren't present in Warband) makes the beginning a little tougher. In Warband, a well equipped player could charge into a group of enemies and dispatch many of them single-handedly. With the firearms in With Fire and Sword, I found myself often getting one-shot by an enemy gunman and losing the battle right away. Even if you have a good sized army, when you die and your troops fight without you they kind of suck and never do well at all against superior numbers. In Warband, I often took 30 or 40 heavy cavalry troops with me and took on armies 200 strong and usually suffered only 1 or 2 casualties. This game is quite a bit more difficult, but in a way it makes the game a little more realistic and requires more strategy to do well.

One game I started, I had only recruited 10 troops so far and I was attacked by 40 bandits. They immediately killed me and my troops and took me prisoner. They wandered the map for a while with me in town, until I "found a chance to slip away" but I lost some gold and my horse in the process apparently. I was stuck alone with no troops, and there were more bandits in the area whom immediately recaptured me and wandered the map for a while again. My character's map travel speed was slower than the bandits, so I could do nothing to get away. Finally after 4 sets of bandits captured me, I was able to make it to a town and slowly start working my way back to a playable state.

A lot of people really like the multiplayer mode, where you can have epic battles between hundreds of players, but it's just not for me. It only uses the action battle portion of the game, and lets players hack it out amongst themselves without all of the army building, reputation gaining part. Multiplayer features a number of different game modes, including Captain, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Conquest, Capture the Flag, Battle and Siege.

Graphics & Sound

The graphics look a little dated, some things being worse than others. Character models look great, and the textures on them are outstanding, but the animations look a bit clunky. Whatever equipment your character and troops are wearing is visible in the battles, and even a group of all the same troops may be wearing different gear for some variety. Towns and castles have decent textures, but the buildings look like they have a polygon count of about 5.

I was hoping With Fire and Sword would have an improved graphics engine over the previous Warband game, but alas it's the exact same. Not to say that's an entirely bad thing, as Warband was a really great game, but With Fire and Sword would have truly benefited from updated graphics and a better user interface.

The sound is a bit worse, feeling cheap and dirty across the board. Sound effects like swords clanging or hitting, guns firing and powder exploding are all the most generic things you've ever heard. Background music is way too short and if it wasn't so annoying that it was ground into your brain it would be utterly forgettable.

System Requirements

Operating System: Windows 7/Vista/XP/ME/2000
Processor: 2.1GHz or higher
Video Card: 128 MB+
Memory: 1 GB
Hard Drive: 900 MB
Sound: DirectX-compatible sound card
Other: DirectX 9c, 3 button mouse, keyboard and speakers
Internet: Required for multiplayer and online activation

Final Thoughts

Despite it's flaws, With Fire and Sword is a fun game. If you can get past the steep learning curve and the terrible all-around audio, there's a complex but truly great game underneath.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun to play, really polished, Avatar Conquest mode is awesome
Cons: No single player Avatar Conquest

Introduction

Total War: Shogun 2. The previous titles in the Total War series were all named the other way around -- Rome: Total War,  Napoleon: Total War, Empire: Total War, etc. Even the previous game, Shogun: Total war, was named this way. Why they decided to switch this one to Total War: Shogun 2 is beyond me, maybe they just wanted to confuse people.

The game takes place in the Sengoku Era of medieval Japan, the age of the samurai, where every Daimyo (leader/king/ruler) is struggling for power and control of the nation. It's a great setting for a game of war such as this, and it works well. You take control of one of the 9 different clans and fight your way, kicking and biting, to complete control of Japan.

Gameplay

There are two distinct and separate gameplay mechanics to Total War: Shogun 2. The first is the turn-based world map, where you focus on managing your clan, building up your provinces and training troops. You deal with researching Bushido or Chi arts, finances, diplomacy, religion, etc. You must train troops, organize them into armies, and bring them into battle where they all gain experience and get stronger. As you upgrade your provinces they gain additional building slots where you must choose which of the different buildings would benefit you the most in a given town. You may dedicate a town to earning more gold for you, while you may dedicate one entirely to producing swordsmen. Some provinces have special features like increased wood production or the ability to train warhorses, and leveraging these features by making a town that fits in with them is mighty beneficial.

In fact, if you desire, you can play through the entire campaign mode using only the turn-based portion of the game and never do the real-time combat at all by using the auto-resolve battle option. I've played through the campaign once this way myself, and it was really fun. It made the game considerably shorter, but let me focus all my attention on the turn-based strategy portion. Granted, you'll be missing the best looking half of the game...

The other mechanic is the real-time combat. It's like an entirely different game in the middle of the turn-based portion. Here, the turn-based portion of the game is completely replaced with a real-time strategy/tactics mechanic where you can deploy your various troops in different formations around the battlefield. Each unit is individually controllable, and strategic use and placement of them is key to victory. These battles can take place on the land with your troops against enemy troops on the open field, sieging enemy provinces or defending your own, or even at sea with your naval units. The battles are intense and incredible, and there are a few gameplay mechanics that help make them exciting. The topography and terrain really come into play during the battles. Cliffs to prevent direct assaults in some areas, forests to hide your troops in ambush in other areas. It just adds an extra level of complexity and strategy to the battles. Archers have limited ammunition, troops must climb castle walls to get inside, it's a lot of little details that make the difference.

The artificial intelligence is truly great. You can wholy expect the AI controlled factions to take advantage of anything you do wrong, especially on the world map. In the battles, it's also pretty good but not perfect. One game I was attacked by an overwhelming force, and all I had was a general, a unit of spearmen and a unit of archers. All general units are on horseback. My spearmen and archers were completely decimated right away, but the enemy had no cavalry except for their own general. Instead of splitting their huge army up and trapping me in, they just stayed clumped together and chased me around the map. I was able to circle the outer edge of the battle map for the duration of the battle timer and avoid losing the battle. In order to win, the attacker must destroy all the enemy forces or rout them before the timer expires. Granted, it was a 60 minute timer and probably not worth all the trouble, but still.

The Historical battle mode lets you replay a few famous battles from the past. There are only 4 battles though, I would have liked to have seen a few more. These battles are Kizugawaguchi, Sekigahara, Okehazama and Kawanakajima.

In Avatar Conquest mode you get to create an avatar that gains experience and levels up. You get to skirmish against other avatars online in the conquest map of Japan, which is a zoomed-out version of the campaign map. Each province in Avatar Conquest mode contains a bonus such as unlocking units or giving you a new retainer that provides a bonus stat. Both the winner and loser gain some experience after each battle that you can use to upgrade your avatar. Even your normal units can level up and become veteran units, which lets them learn skills as well as making them permanently deployable units. Units cost different amounts, and there's a limit to how much gold you can use so it doesn't become too imbalanced... though newer players will have a rough time against seasoned veterans because the veteran units are a lot better.

There is also a multiplayer campaign mode, which lets you fight with or against a friend. If your playing against a friend, you even get to control any of the AI troops that your opponent has to face. If you're playing with your friend, you can both fight at the same time or you can let your friend control some of your units. Still, if I'm going to play online anyway I'd rather play the Avatar Conquest mode personally.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics in Shogun 2 are beautiful. Incredible detail, even during the real-time battles when zoomed right in on your army at close range fighting and cheering. The models are terrific, the textures are crisp and clean and everything fits well together. The seasons change, rain coming down obscuring the battlefield, snow covering the ground, etc. The environments feature vast mountains and rolling plains, and these features not only look great but can have an impact on battles because they are fully interactive. Your armies even lose troops due to attrition while traveling outside of your territories on the world map during the winter.

The interface is beautiful and easy to navigate. It looks great, responds great, and doesn't appear to be missing anything. It's fully featured and complete, showing what you need when you need it; but at the same time it's unobtrusive and mostly stays out of the way.

Rome: Total War made pre-battle speeches famous, and the this feature remains present in Total War: Shogun 2. There are over 100,000 possible speeches that your Daimyo or generals can deliver to inspire your troops on the battlefield before battle. The voice acting is great, except for the accents being a little thick so some parts are occasionally hard to understand. At those times however, you can simply read the accompanying text. The ambient music is filled with flutes and strings and really sounds like what you'd expect from a game taking place in Japan. It brings a real sense of atmosphere. The sound effects are good too, consisting of your standard swords clashing, bows firing, soldiers yelling or cheering. They work well, but it's nothing we haven't seen in a multitude of other games.

Downloadable Content

There are three DLC (downloadable content) packs optionally available for Total War: Shogun 2

The Ikko Ikki Clan Pack (Currently $4.99) - This DLC pack adds the Ikko Ikki, clan of warrior monks. It works for all game modes and has new specific unit variants and skill trees. It includes a new hero, an armor set and retainers to use in Avatar Conquest, and a Warrior Nun unit that other clans can train.

Sengoku Jidai Unit Pack (Currently $3.25) - This DLC pack only contains 10 new "elite" units for you to use in the different game modes, but only one of the elite units is available to each clan. In Avatar Conquest you only get one total because they are hero units. Some of these, such as the Wako Raiders gained by the Mori clan are pretty decent. Others like the Takeda clan's Fire Cavalry aren't really worth bothering with.

Rise of the Samurai Campaign (Currently $9.99) - The biggest DLC pack yet, this one features an independent campaign that takes place during the Gempei War 400 years before the regular campaign. It a number of new land and naval units, heroes, agents and special abilities. It also includes a new historical scenario, the Battle of Anegawa.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Total War: Shogun 2 is a terrific game that will keep you occupied for a long time. It's really fun, has a high degree of polish, and is being actively worked on further by the developers. There are a number of different things to do so the gameplay doesn't get stale too quicky, especially if you participate in the multiplayer game modes.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Majesty 2 (PC)


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Different from your cookie-cutter strategy games
Cons: Not quite enough depth, heroes sometimes difficult to control

Introduction

Majesty 2: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim is a strategy/simulation game developed by one of the largest Russian game developers, 1C Company, and published by Paradox Interactive. It's a sequel to Cyberlore Studios' original Majesty game released in 2000, and it keeps most of the basic gameplay traits intact.

The single-player campaign missions range from novice to expert difficulty. Completing earlier missions unlocks additional missions for you to attempt, but there are only 16 in total. The game also features a few single-player individual missions, and multi-player over a Local Area Network or over the internet via Gamespy. There are 8 different multi-player maps, and half of those are 1v1 maps. The other maps are 2v1, 2v2, a 3 player map and a 4 player map. Slightly lacking and kind of disappointing, but at least there's a multi-player option in the first place.

You play as the king of Ardania, the latest of a long line of kings. Your ancestors were all great heroes who rid the land of terrible evils. Maybe they were a little too great, as the previous king Leonard had no major enemies left to kill and get his portrait up in the hall of kings. To prove his worth, he had a great demon summoned from Hell, bit off a little more than he could chew, and was killed by it. As the last descendant of the ancient kings, it's your job to free the world from this rotten beast and restore your family's kingdom.

Gameplay

Majesty 2, like it's predecessor, puts a different spin on your standard simulation/real-time strategy game. It's still the same basic type of game, but with just a couple very important changes that set it apart. First of all, there's no resource collection in Majesty 2. No chopping wood, farming, picking berries or mining stone. The one and only resource is gold, which is collected automatically from the marketplace or hauled in automatically from trade posts. So what is the other, and most important, difference from other similar games? You don't control any of the units yourself.

You place buildings, such as a Ranger's Guild, and then queue up some heroes to be recruited. After they appear, they just walk around doing their own thing and are completely uncontrollable. In order to get them to do what you want, you must place different flags for different purposes. To get them to attack an enemy camp, you place an attack flag on it, and then set an amount of gold from your treasury. Any hero who thinks it's worth the reward will go and try to destroy the camp, and those who don't find your offer tempting will continue to do whatever they feel like. In the first game there were two types of flags, an exploration flag and an attack flag, but in Majesty 2 they've added two additional flags to help you guide your heroes a little easier. The new defense flag rewards your heroes for defending specific targets, and the warning flag keeps them away from areas you may not want them to go yet.

Building a marketplace and then researching potions will allow your heroes to go buy potions from the marketplace if they want, spending some of that reward money they've accumulated. A blacksmith building with the proper research will allow them to go in and buy improved weapons and armor, but it's up to the individual heroes what they purchase. The peasants that come out of the castle and build your buildings do so when there's anything to build, but they do build their own houses wherever they feel like around your castle.

Different enemies come out of specific enemy camps around the map, and give your heroes something to fight. In addition to this, there are annoying sewer entrances that appear randomly in your town that spew a slow but steady stream of rats to attack your buildings and harass your peasants. These sewer entrances are indestructible, and while that provides you with an endless stream of weak enemies to kill constantly, it really makes it incredibly annoying to protect your town if your also fighting enemies in other areas. Not being able to directly control your heroes does have it's disadvantages.

You can recruit multiple types of heroes. Rangers, rogues, warriors and clerics to start with, and as you continue the game you unlock wizards, elves, dwarves and can upgrade many heroes to new classes as well. Most heroes also have additional attacks that can be researched at their respective guild buildings, as well as a couple spells that you can use directly (like a healing spell and a lightning bolt) that can also be researched there. You can also party like-minded heroes together so they can operate as a group instead of trickling in a few at a time and dying to overwhelming numbers. You can also click on individual heroes to see what they are currently doing. They might be searching for adventure, going to buy new gear, collecting an exploration bounty, etc.

There's really not much else to the game. Supposedly heroes have their own personalities, but really they're all about the same. The ranger supposedly enjoys exploring, but late game you can't get one up to explore the corner of the map without putting tons of gold as a bounty. He'd rather stand in town by his guild doing nothing. Warriors are supposed to respond quickly to attack and defense flags, but they don't seem to get there any quicker or more often than rangers and rogues do. Mostly the game boils down to a balancing act between throwing enough gold at your heroes to get them to respond to flags, and not spending every last coin you have getting them to do simple tasks. When they're just wandering around and left to their own devices, they'll occasionally kill a wandering wolf or skeleton that comes near them, but mostly they'll just walk circles around the explored map area doing nothing.

Heroes have slightly varied stats, one ranger may have 12 agility and the next may have 20. 20 Is the best, so if you get a warrior with 20 strength and 20 stamina you may want to make sure you keep him -- especially in the campaign. At the end of a campaign mission, you can choose a hero to promote to a lord. You can then create a hall of lords building during the next mission and recall any of your lords. It's a little expensive, but if you get some heroes with terrific stats it's definitely worth it. If a hero does die, a little gave marker appears on the map where they died at. If you have the spell to resurrect them, it's cheap and they come back the same level with all their gear intact. Rogues can rob the grave markers, but they can only steal the gold and not the equipment and potions heroes may have been carrying. If you don't resurrect them in time, a bigger graveyard will appear by your town and you can resurrect them there at a higher cost. Useful if your best hero bites off more than he can chew and you'd rather pay the added expense than lose him.

The game difficulty ramps up pretty quick, and there's no way to change it in the options. Sometimes this makes it hard to play more than half way through the campaign, and is slightly annoying, but with some patience and perseverance you'll eventually get through it. Make sure you party those heroes up!

Controls

The controls were pretty standard, except for camera movement. The arrow keys scrolled around the map, the mouse wheel zoomed, clicking a unit selects it, etc. However, there were a couple minor things that I didn't really care for. Holding the middle mouse button allows you to rotate and tilt the camera, while holding the left and right buttons together allows you to scroll around the map. While there was nothing wrong with the controls, I couldn't really seem to get used to them so I used the arrow keys to scroll around and just didn't bother rotating the camera very often. Unfortunately, there wasn't any way to remap your hotkeys or mouse buttons to make them more to your liking.

Graphics & Sound

Using the GEM3 game engine from Best Way, Majesty 2 features crisp and colorful 3D graphics and uses some basic physics. The graphics are nothing top of the line by any means (think Age of Empires III), but they're rendered very well and the textures are terrific. They are pleasant to look at and fit well with the overall theme of the game. The game is presented in a 3rd person view like most other strategy games, and it all works well together overall. While there's nothing groundbreaking, it's a tried and true formula that works. One of my only complaints is that while you can zoom way in have a nice close look at everything, you unfortunately can't zoom out all that far and sometimes it feels a little cramped.

The sounds of peasants building or heroes fighting are pretty average and just what you'd expect to hear. The soundtrack is pretty good and was scored by Andreas Waldetoft, a Swedish composer who is known for his work on the World War 2 game Hearts of Iron. The voice of your royal adviser is done by a Sean Connery sound-a-like.

The minimum system requirements include Windows XP or newer, a 2 GHz dual core processor, 1GB of RAM, a GeForce 6800 GTX 512MB or better video card that supports Pixel Shader 2.0, DirectX 9.0, a DirectX compatible sound device and 4GB of hard drive space. The recommended system requirements upgrade that to a 3 GHz dual core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 280 1GB or better.

I tested Majesty 2: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim with a triple core 3.6 GHz processor, 8GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon HD 6850 1GB video card running Windows 7 64-bit. Obviously it ran perfectly at the highest settings without a hiccup.

Final Thoughts

Personally I like the game, but I like the idea of the game even more. I like when something different comes along, if I wanted something cookie-cutter I'd just go play something I bought 20 years ago. The occasional frustration at not being able to get your heroes to do anything you want them to, and the fact that the difficulty ramps up a lot midway through the campaign do detract a little from the game, but not enough to negate my recommendation to buy it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Zombie Driver (PC)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Inexpensive, fun, easy to get into and play
Cons: Short, not many different weapons or vehicles, no multi-player

Introduction

So, one day I was out robbing stores and beating up random strangers on the street for cash. My previous ride had blown up, so I went to steal a taxi from the intersection... but as I hopped in the seat and turned the key, I suddenly fell through the earth into another dimension. I still felt like I was in the Grand Theft Auto universe, but something was... different.

I had only driven a short distance in this new world before I heard an explosion. I looked at the green cloud of gas rising ahead of me and knew this was going to be a bad day. Before long zombies started filling the sidewalks and buildings, and there were almost no humans to be found. I seemed to be safe in my vehicle, as long as I didn't stop for too long...

Gameplay

Zombie Driver is a top-down 2D zombiefest. Basically the game revolves around rescuing survivors from various places on the free roaming map, bringing them to the safe house, and killing hordes of zombies in the process. It's a formula that's simple and fun, despite being recycled from 2 very overused parts.

Survivors hole up a few here and a few there in buildings spread around the map. The story mode consists of a series of 17 missions that all involve rescuing a certain number of some type of survivors. Not much variety here, but thankfully the game is rather short. There are at least submissions for each one, but they don't offer much more variety than the main objectives. These all tend to include finishing the main objective in a certain time limit, killing all the zombies in a certain area of the map, or killing a certain number of zombies in total while completing your rescue mission.

You get little icons on your screen pointing the direction to the places the survivors are holed up in, and you follow them like beacons until you get there. Once you reach the building with survivors, there's a white circle on the ground outside and red outlines on all the zombies in the area. When you kill all the nearby zombies, the white circle turns green, you park in it, and all the survivors (or as many as will fit in your vehicle) hop in so you can take them to the safe house.

There are a few different types of zombies. Big ones that explode and damage your vehicle when you get near them, some that are really fast, some will throw stuff to hit you from a short distance away. They all, however, only have one objective in mind: kill you. If they get close enough they will detract from your vehicle's health meter until it's gone and you die and fail your mission. Ramming through them at high speed causes you no damage though (strangely, you also take no damage from smashing through lamp posts, boxes, or other vehicles), so get to smashing...

Aside from just ramming through the zombies, there are also a few different weapons you can unlock to help you out. The machine gun, flamethrower, rockets and rail-guns all get unlocked at various points in the story. They can also be upgraded between levels if you have the cash. There are multiple upgrades for each weapon to increase their range, power, amount of ammo/uses, etc.

Killing many zombies in a combo nets you cash, as does destroying stacks of boxes or other cars parked along the sidewalks. There are also power-ups spread around the map, often down alleys or tucked into corners. These power-ups can repair your vehicle, give you money, or switch to a different weapon as you can only use one weapon at a time. They are pretty obvious, as the money power-up looks like money and the flamethrower power-up looks like some red tanks of liquid, etc.

The last "weapon" is nitro, which isn't really a weapon but is functionally similar. It boosts your vehicle speed when you fire it, and lets you more easily ram through zombies. Not my favorite, but situationally acceptable.

You also unlock additional vehicles during the story mode, but there are only a few in total. The Taxi you start out with, the Sports Car, the Limo, Ambulance, Police Car, Bus and the Super Car. They are not just cosmetic changes however, as different vehicles have different speeds, armor ratings, ramming abilities, and can carry different amounts of passengers. A vehicle that holds 3 passengers for example, isn't going to be all that useful on a mission that requires you to rescue 16, because it would take 6 trips to collect passengers and return to the safe house to drop them off. The vehicles can also have their various attributes upgraded.

Later patches to the game added a couple of additional game modes, namely Slaughter and Blood Race. In the Slaughter mode, you drive around in smaller enclosed maps with an endless zerg of zombies chasing you. Your goal is to destroy as many as possible and rack up as high of combos as you can to get a high enough score to earn a medal and unlock the next one. Power-ups can periodically be picked up and an additional power-up is dropped on the map after each wave you survive.

Blood Race has a couple different modes. Endurance places a bomb in your vehicle, and you must hit checkpoints to increase the timer. In Eliminator, you have a time limit to destroy as many other vehicles as you can. Then there's the regular race mode where you can race against other vehicles but with weapons and zombies. These add a little needed variety to the game, but unfortunately are still only single-player.

The main story may take you 2 or 3 hours to complete, and when you finish the game you just start over. There are, however, 51 Steam achievements, global leader boards, as well as the previously mentioned Slaughter and Blood Race game modes to help extend the play time.

Controls

The controls couldn't be simpler as there are really only a couple of buttons used. You can steer with either WASD or the arrow keys. If you prefer the keyboard, Space is your handbrake while you can use Control, Shift or Alt to shoot. If you're more of a mouse person, the right button will be your handbrake and the left will shoot. Pretty complicated stuff.

Graphics

Like previously mentioned, Zombie Driver is a 2D game viewed from a top-down perspective. When you turn your car, the camera rotates the map so your vehicle is always facing up on the screen.

While the style is very much like the older Grand Theft Auto games, it's really polished and nice looking. Everything is shiny and detailed, with abandoned smoking vehicles and skid marks when you make fast turns. When you smash into a stack of boxes, they all go tumbling and bouncing away before they just disappear. When you smash through a car on the sidewalk it blows up into a bunch of pieces, when you run over a zombie you can watch it splatter on the ground and come apart.

Sound

The background music was unremarkable and forgettable. The sound effects were hit and miss. Most of the weapon firing sounds were decent and the vehicle sound was decent, but knocking over lamp posts resulted in a couple different ding-like sounds you'd expect to hear in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The 1.2.5 patch thankfully added some pretty good voice overs to the mission briefings and character dialog.

Final Thoughts

There are a few mods available for the game as well, but you can likely count them on your two hands, and most of them are simply graphical mods. There's a tutorial for creating your own mods, but you can't really add anything new to the game. Replace existing models or sound effects, modify rate of fire or ammo count? No problem. Add a completely new vehicle or new missions? Not possible. Disappointing.

Zombie Driver is a fun game despite the length and lack of story. Who actually expects much story in a game about running over zombies anyway? It's inexpensive, polished, and a fun way to kill a couple hours here and there.