Saturday, April 28, 2012

Game Dev Story (Android)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun and addicting with nice pixel artwork and a little humor thrown in
Cons: Middle to end-game could use a little fleshing out

Game Dev Story is a wonderful gem of a simulation game from Kairosoft, the same company that makes Dungeon Village and Pocket League Story. This is one of those games that is both simple and complex at the same, with addicting gameplay that keeps you coming back for more. It's hard to tell what's updated or different between versions as the game doesn't appear to have any type of change log, but the current version being reviewed here is 1.0.7, which is 5.4MB in size and requires Android 1.6 or later.
In addition to the Android port reviewed here, Game Dev Story is available for Apple iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. I play Game Dev Story on my Motorola DROID 4 where it works flawlessly. If you would like to test the game out before buying it, you can find Game Dev Story Lite on Google Play (formerly the Android Marketplace), and that will let you play the first two years of the game for free. You can't level up your employees very far or unlock many of the game types in that short period of time, but you can kind of get a feel for the game before forking over the rather modest cost of $2.50.
In Game Dev Story you assume the role of the president of an up-and-coming game company. You get to hire and fire various staff members and train them, advertise your company and it's games, create various types of games and eventually even make your own game console. It's all fairly simple to accomplish, but gets increasingly complex as you attempt to master the intricacies involved with it all. Nearly everything is done using the simple but effective touchscreen menu system, and the menus aren't really deep or unwieldy.
You start off with a couple of low quality staff members and $500k. You get to name your company, maybe hire a couple of staff members to fill your two empty seats (highly recommended) and then get started. There's not really much of a tutorial, though the game does present you with a few informational pop-ups to point you in the right direction. You start off with 5 different genres of game you can create, and 8 different game types. These numbers increase dramatically as you progress through the game and unlock additional genres and types, and combining the right combinations to create amazing games is the key to success.
Some combinations of genres and game types will be more successful than others. A Fantasy RPG for example is a good combination, while an F1 Racing Shooter game is probably not going to do as well. Of course late in the game after you have a lot of really highly trained staff, pulling off an odd combination is no longer an issue. It seems like no matter what kind of game you make, it always ends up as the #1 seller, gets rave reviews from the critics and sells a lot of copies. That's my only complaint about Game Dev Story -- when you make an Audio Novel about Golf or a Card Game about Architecture halfway through the game, you really shouldn't be bringing in Game of the Year awards.
In any case, after you chose the genre and type of game you get to choose a staff member to write the game proposal. 40% through the development cycle the game reaches Alpha testing and you choose another employee to focus on game graphics. When you reach 80% it's time for Beta testing and yet another employee choice to focus on sound. You can choose different employees for each, or choose the same one for all three if that staff member meets the requirements. Only employees that have started the Writer job can write game scenarios, only someone who has been a Designer can focus on graphics, etc. Note that this is only for the main choice points, as any character can work on any part of the game during the normal development cycle.

The names of things are a little bit humorous as well. Take the original Nintendo (NES) for example; one of the consoles in Game Dev Story is called the Intendro IES. You also have the Sonny PlayStatus (Sony PlayStation), the Senga Exodus (Sega Genesis), the Microx 480 (Xbox 360), etc. Characters are the same way, examples being Gilly Bates (Bill Gates), Donny Jepp (Johnny Depp), Walt Sidney (Walt Disney) and Lady Googoo (Lady Gaga). The bits of parody and humor in the game add a little something special, and it's something Kairosoft has continued in at least one of their other games (maybe more, but the only other one I currently own is Dungeon Village).
Every character has points in each stat; programming, scenario writing, graphics and sound. As your game is developing they all sit at their desks plugging away at finishing the game, and as they do so little icons appear over their heads. If it's the sound icon then your game gets some extra points into sound quality, if it's the gamepad icon then it gets extra points into fun, etc. Creativity and graphics are the pieces to your game development puzzle. Some jobs have higher innate stats in certain areas than others, but the effects add up as you master more and more jobs. Eventually all my employees were Hackers with hundreds of points in each stat.
The more points a staff member has in a stat, the more he contributes to the game. While a novice code writer with 18 points in programming may toss a point into your game's fun rating every so often, a hacker with 600 programming may toss in 20 points at a time sometimes. This is why dumb game combinations can become huge hits and rake in piles of money; the end game needs a little work. Your employees won't only contribute to the game though, they can also introduce bugs and develop research data. Bugs just sit there accumulating until your game is finished, and then your employees squash them and develop an additional point of research data for each one. You can ship your game out before all the bugs are gone, but it's nearly always pointless as the bug squashing doesn't take long and it's nice to have the research data anyway.
Research data is used to level up your employees, and it costs varying amounts depending on which level of which job the employee currently has. Leveling up employees can unlock new game types or genres, and can increase their stats a bit, but it also increases their salary by like %20. The most important reason to level up an employee is to max out their jobs at level 5 to unlock new jobs. This is how you get a Hardware Engineer job so you can develop your own game console later in the game. After mastering Hardware Engineer, you also unlock the Hacker job -- which allows a lot of stats in all four categories for your employees. In addition to leveling up your employees, you can also train them by spending cash to make them watch anime, go to a concert, sit in meditation or even take a trip somewhere. This also nets them stat improvements, but the benefits cap out at different points depending on which training method you use, what level they are, etc.
After completing your game, a little pop-up appears with scores from four different game critics. This should give you some idea as to how well your game will be received, but like I said earlier you'll get great scores from any random thing with enough stat points for your employees. Getting an average score of 8 out of 10 (32 points total) will make your game enter the Hall of Fame, which means you can produce a sequel for it later. Sequels begin with additional points in the game stats to start with, so they're usually a little easier to get high scores with. You can keep making sequel after sequel as long as each one makes it into the Hall of Fame.
You can also invest money into various forms of advertising. These range from simple magazine ads, to sponsoring a blimp to writing on the moon. The cheaper forms of advertising will raise your company's fame with different demographics. It even keeps track of your fan base in a nifty chart with 5 different age groups for males and females. Every so often the chart even changes as the oldest age group (41+) falls off the chart and a new group (5-12) appears at the top. The more fame you have, the more people look forward to your games being released and the more copies they will buy. Getting each demographic into the 900 range will go a long ways towards making sure you sell a lot of games.
Each week in Game Dev Story takes like 10 seconds in real time, so playing through the 20 year main portion of the game doesn't take an exceptionally long time. The first time I played through it I was just killing time in the waiting room at the dentist's office and I got about 5 years in, but by that point I was hooked. I played it during my next couple half-hour car trips and then finished off the last couple of years when I got home. You can keep playing indefinitely after year 20 but it no longer adds to your score. The main point in this would be to level up the different game genres and types, as those will carry over when you start a new game.
There's more little things to this game that I could sit and ramble on about for another few pages, but suffice it to say that if you're a fan of simulation games then you are going to love Game Dev Story. Even if you're not a fan you may like it anyway, it's really quite fun. I wish they would have done something about the end game though, because after a few play-throughs with every random Action game about Checkers selling like hotcakes, you really start to lose interest. It's absolutely terrific for the first few play-throughs though, and unlocking all of the different genres and types of games will take you a while.
The sound effects are simple and the background music is mostly the same piece looped over and over again, but I usually have the volume turned all the way down anyway so it didn't effect me one way or the other. The graphics are kind of nice with the entire game boasting some unique looking old school pixel art. Game Dev Story is presented in an isometric view and the graphics are pretty clean and detailed. My only complaint here is the fact that there is no landscape mode when I turn my phone on it's side, and even in portrait mode there's a lot of empty space on the screen both above and below the gameplay area.
At the beginning menu, you have the option to turn a virtual gamepad on. If you do this, it moves the gameplay area up to the top and eats up all of the empty space. There's really no point though, as the gamepad just controls the menu navigation which is just as easy to touch as the pad is. I would have much preferred a larger gameplay area, but it's just a minor quibble. Maybe the small pixel art wouldn't look as good if it were blown up to a larger size, who knows. In any case Game Dev Story is one of my favorite games to play on my phone, and is actually the very first paid game I ever purchased for it. If you're undecided, play through Game Dev Story Lite for free a couple of times and you'll be hooked in no time.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage (SNES)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Tight and smooth controls, great comic cutscenes
Cons: No co-op mode, limited variety of enemies

Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage is a surprisingly decent game (considering their track record) developed by LJN/Acclaim for the Super Nintendo (SNES). Like most of the games based on comic books (Batman Forever, The Death and Return of Superman), it uses a standard side scrolling beat-em-up format. While you get to control Venom as well as Spider-Man in this game, you can only do so one at a time. There is no multiplayer co-op mode, which is a little disappointing. Spider-Man is slightly faster while Venom is slightly stronger, but other than that there's basically no gameplay difference between them. I find it noteworthy that my game cartridge is completely red in color, though I have also seen it in the standard grey cartridge as well.
The gameplay is pretty standard. Defeat all the enemies in the screen, and follow the indicator arrow to the next screen, then repeat the process until you reach the end of the level. There are only a handful of different enemies, but at least they're all distinct. There's a random thug with a trench coat, another who looks like a skater punk with sunglasses, some fat guy, a random guy with an umbrella, another guy with a gun and finally some chick with long hair. Enemies are also given random names (Mike, Tony, Lizzie, etc.) instead of just being called thugs or punks, which is a nice touch.
You have the standard assortment of kicks, punches and throws, as well as flips and a special attack. You also have a power attack that you can use periodically if your attacks are accurate enough. In addition to these, you have some attacks specific to the game. These include slinging webs to swing from, pulling enemies to you, tying an enemy up for a moment or even creating a shield with your web to block attacks. The different moves aren't too hard to pull off, mostly requiring only a couple of buttons to be pressed, which really makes the controls feel fluid and responsive most of the time.
Most power-ups aren't real common, but they include hearts to refill your life bar, extra lives, extra continues and some nifty super hero summons which are quite useful. Picking up a super hero power-up lets you summon that hero to aid you twice for each one you pick up. The super heroes perform differently depending on whether you're playing as Spider-Man or as Venom, but nearly all of their attacks damage multiple enemies on the screen. There are exceptions however, such as being healed if you summon Iron Fist while playing as Spider-Man. There are 7 different super heroes in total, plus Spider-Man and Venom (which can summon each other this way but obviously not themselves), bringing the total to 8.
Half of the stage bosses are just slightly stronger versions of the few generic enemies in the game, and the rest of the time you're fighting Carnage, Shriek, Doppleganger, Carrion and/or Demogoblin. The difficulty level is just about right for them in my opinion; a couple are a little bit hard, and others are ridiculously easy if you have the right strategy or have a super hero to summon. The stages are also linear, so you can't really get lost or do anything out of order. On the other hand there are a couple of really annoying parts...
Like stage 2, "The Climb". Shriek sits on top of the building shooting down energy beams at you, and if they hit you they take away a lot of health and knock you off the building back to the street. It's actually a pretty short level, but it annoys me to no end. You do get an icon over your head as your spidey sense goes off and you have time to move, but I get hit half the time anyway. Since you have a limited number of lives and continues, messing up this early in the game is pointless and you may as well just start the game over and try again. After you figure out the correct strategies and get the timing right for everything, you can probably run through the game in about an hour, though it usually takes me a couple.
The graphics are actually decent in Maximum Carnage. Granted, there weren't many different characters or enemies so there was more time to spend on each one, and they had pre-existing comic work to derive from, but still everything was mostly detailed and distinct. There was enough color to be visually appealing, but it was toned down and muted enough to give a darker feeling to the game. The story cutscenes were really nice, some of the artwork taken directly from the comics the game was based on. The sound effects were average SNES fare; thwacks, bumps, etc. The background music was actually a pretty nifty rock piece from the band Green Jelly. It was a bit overused, but I enjoyed it and it fit the game quite well.
Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage is a decent but average game. It lacks some customization and co-op gameplay found in other beat-em-ups, has very few different enemies to fight, and does have a few annoying parts that seem impossible until you figure out the exact strategy and get the timing down, but it's not bad overall. On the other hand, it's going for about $15 online right now, so I wouldn't rush out to buy it. Find it at a flea market or yard sale and it's worth a couple play-throughs though.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Death and Return of Superman (SNES)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Smooth controls, balanced difficulty, pretty easy to get into and play
Cons: Music, distance attacks, enemy and level variety

The Death and Return of Superman was developed by Blizzard Entertainment and published by Sunsoft for the Super Nintendo (SNES) in 1994. It uses the standard side scrolling beat-em-up format that was pretty common back then (Battletoads, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, etc). This means you can walk left and right around the screen, and a limited distance up and down to give the game world some depth. It also typically involves a lot of punching or kicking, throwing enemies and/or objects around and moderate use of some sort of distance attack (missiles, guns, throwing knives, etc). Well, The Death and Return of Superman is no exception.
You can punch an enemy up close, walk into him to grab him and then throw him in any direction, shoot a projectile, or use your special attack. You have a limited number of charges for your special attack, but you can pick up a few additional charges via special power-ups to use them a couple of extra times. The special attack kills every regular enemy on the screen, so they are handy for times when you've got a bit too many of the wrong type of enemies to defeat without losing too much life. You can also jump, and while jumping you can attack to perform a quick jump kick or hit the jump button again while you're in the air to fly (jump again while in the air to drop back to the ground).
The game mostly follows the story arc of the Death of Superman comics, though it skimps out on many details and grossly emits some others leaving a few holes in the story line, but lets face it... beat-em-up games aren't played for their story lines anyway. You do get to control Superman as well as the other four Supermen: Cyborg, the Eradicator, Steel and Superboy. There's really not much difference between the characters beyond the cosmetic, each moving and fighting in the same manner, but at least it's good for a little variety.
Saddening is the fact that you take quite a bit of damage from being punched, so that kind of detracts from the immersion factor a bit. I mean wow, when an enemy walks up and punches superman a dozen times and kills him it really doesn't make you feel like Superman. I don't know how they could have remedied this without changing the game entirely to not be based on the man of steel, but still. Also, your distance attack (energy blast from the hand, lasers from the eyes, etc) is really weak and nearly pointless to ever use. Three or four blasts from your deadly laser eyes does as much damage as one punch? Sigh.
In the regular beat-em-up levels you fight your way one screen at a time, and after killing all of the enemies you get an indicator arrow pointing you to the next screen. Rinse and repeat until a boss fight. There are a few health power-ups, extra lives and special move power-ups available (some of them hidden in the destructible background), but it's all pretty linear and pretty standard. There are no weapons to equip or armor to pick up, and you can only use each character during their designated portion of the game. There are usually bosses at the end of these levels. Most are pretty easy, but a few seem tough. They attack really quick, have a long reach and seem pretty hard... until you realize that jump kicking them over and over can usually get you through the level unscathed.
There are a few side scrolling shooter segments mixed in to try and alleviate some of the repetitiveness of all the beat-em-up segments, but they're all pretty simple and easy. In these you just fly from left to right shooting enemies who die easily, and while you occasionally do take damage there seem to be plenty of health power-ups in these parts so you usually end up finishing these sections with nearly full health. There also aren't any boss fights during these levels for some reason.

All the levels feel a little repetitive, and all the enemies seem recycled. Most of the stages are basically the same but with different backgrounds, and many of the enemies are just recolored versions of previous enemies -- complete with identical health, damage and attacks. This was pretty common in a lot of games back in the days of the SNES, but was never that great in any of them. It may be easier to add more enemies this way, but it always feels like a cop out.
The graphics are pretty good, with the Supermen and the enemies being fairly well detailed. My main gripe about the graphics is that the characters are a little too big. While this leaves more room for detail, it makes them take up a lot of screen real estate and when you get a number of them on the screen at once it seems a little cluttered. Transitioning from one screen to the next also gets a little muffled because you can occasionally get hit by an enemy as he's walking into the screen, but since everything is so large you barely have time to notice him appearing in front of you, let alone time to react to it. It's not a huge deal, but it's mildly annoying.
The sound effects aren't that bad, but they're nothing to write home about. A pretty standard assortment of punches and smashes, they're perfectly acceptable and sufficiently varied to add to the gameplay rather than detract from it. The background music, however, is obnoxious. With only a couple of different tracks heard during the entire game, the lack of variety alone is disheartening, but when you add in the fact that the main piece sounds a lot like a broken alarm clock, you're just glad that televisions have mute buttons.
All in all The Death and Return of Superman is a pretty average beat-em-up game. Since I'm not a huge fan of the genre it's not a game I would go out and buy unless it was mighty cheap, but I got my copy in an assorted box of SNES games at the flea market along with some other games that I wanted. It's going for around $17 online right now, which is a little steep for a fairly easy beat-em-up game with limited replay value... but if you can find it cheaper somewhere it may be worth picking up. An average game overall, it's worth a single play-through for the right price.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Orcs Must Die! (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A fun spin on a tower defense game with great audio and visuals
Cons: No multiplayer or endless mode to keep you playing after finishing it

Orcs Must Die! is an action/strategy tower defense game from Robot Entertainment where the goal is to go through each level killing and destroying "The Mob" of Orcs and their allies. You play as an apprentice of "The Order" who is tasked with protecting fortresses built in the dead world of the Orcs and the magical rifts inside. The Orcs wish to use these rifts to travel to other worlds so they can plunder and ravage them, and it's up to you to stop them using any means necessary. I picked the game up because it looked a little bit similar to Dungeon Defenders, which I really like, and I was not disappointed.
To accomplish this hefty feat you can use a number of different devices -- including up to 6 different weapons; 17 various floor, wall and ceiling traps, and 2 distinct guardians to aid you. You start off with a magical crossbow, a bladestaff, a tar trap and a spike trap. You also start out with 4 empty places in your spell book (basically your quick action bar of hot keys), which allows you to add all of your available weapons and traps to it and use them right away; you can only use devices that are added to your spell book at the beginning of a level. Every level you finish unlocks an additional device, and sometimes adds another empty spot to your spell book (to a maximum of 10, mapped to the number keys 1-0).
Since you can't have everything available all at once for most of the game, you have to pick and choose what you want to bring into each level. Some levels don't have much in the way of ceiling space, for example, so you would naturally want to avoid wasting your space by bringing any ceiling-mounted traps. Likewise, if you fill up your entire spell book with traps then you have no room left to bring any other weapons or guardians to the fight (though you'll always have the crossbow, as it's locked into the first slot).
As you progress through the game, you are awarded skulls based on how well you do in each level. You can obtain up to 5 skulls at the end of a level, and these skulls can be used to permanently upgrade one of your devices to make it cheaper, stronger, or have some type of additional effect. Since there are a limited number of skulls in total you can not upgrade everything, so upgrading what you use most based on your play style is key to getting the most use out of them.

The weapons can do various things like shoot fireballs, ice bolts or chain lightning. Weapons also have an alternate fire mode that you can use with a right click rather than the usual left click. The alternate fire mode of the regular crossbow is a small area of effect stun attack, while the alternate fire mode of the bladestaff is a frontal knockback attack. These alternate fire modes are pretty varied between weapons, and one even lets you pick enemies up and throw them at other enemies. I most often find myself using the fire gauntlet to throw a fireball at a group of enemies, but the alternate mode lets me lay down a small flame wall that incinerates enemies who walk over it for a brief time and it's a godsend in certain situations. Most weapons cost mana to fire, except for the crossbow and bladestaff which only require mana to use their alternate fire modes. Mana does regenerate itself over time, but not exceptionally fast so you have to make sure to save some for when you need it.
The traps you can use are pretty diverse and fun, and while there are too many to talk about specifically I'll list a few examples and some of my favorites. Floor traps include spikes that pop out of the floor, magma that burns enemies, or even giant springs that can launch enemies over a ledge into some lava. Wall traps feature arrows that fly out of the wall, grinders that suck in enemies, or axes that chop enemies up as they walk by. The grinder and the axe trap are both short range, but you can use the barricade floor trap to force enemies to walk beside them and put slowing tar traps on the floor underneath them to make the enemies stay there next to them for an extended period of time and take a load of damage. Ceiling traps can swing a giant spiked mace back and forth or even spew lightning at incoming enemies.
Guardians are totally different than traps. While there are only 2 different guardians to choose from, they both fill different roles and you can place some of each if you have them both in your spell book. Granted, there's a limit of like 10 or 12 guardians you can place on any given level, but I almost always max them out just for their utility. The archer guardian will shoot down flying enemies before it will plink away at the normal ground enemies your traps will take care of, and it's nearly ridiculous to have a pile of archers on a ledge overlooking a large portion of the map. While they're not as strong as you are, in numbers they are quite lethal. The paladin guardian is nearly as good, but he is a melee tank type of guardian who will stand there and fight a number of Orcs at once and keep them busy for a while.
I like to take a choke point where the enemies can be funneled into, and line it with grinders or axes on the walls. I put tar along in front of them to keep the enemies there for a while, and place brimstone just before it to catch the enemies on fire. A swinging mace on the ceiling, and maybe a turret/ballista trap off to the side on the ceiling and not much can make it through. Just for overkill though, I like to use a pile of archer guardians behind my trap setup to pelt everything with arrows while it's already getting demolished (unless it's a map with flying enemies, in which case my archers are positioned somewhere that allows them to clean those guys up for me while I focus on the ground).
Placing traps or guardians costs various amounts of money. You start off with a fixed number of coins and earn more by killing Orcs. Getting kill streaks by killing many Orcs in a row increases the amount of money you earn, so it's important to try for them -- especially early when you don't have many traps set yet. Sometimes an enemy will drop a coin on the map in addition to the coins you get from killing him, and picking it up also gives you additional money. This happens most often with the bigger enemies like Ogres, who take a lot of damage before dying and also hit pretty hard should they get near you. In addition to the coin, enemies can also drop health potions that restore your health when you step on them.
A little while into the game you also obtain "Weavers", which basically serve as the tech tree in the game. They are some type of magical creature that will allow you to spend coins to upgrade certain abilities or traps. There are 3 different Weavers which are like different skill trees; the Elemental, Steel and Knowledge Weavers. The first lets you increase your weapon abilities -- like adding flame to your crossbow shots or making your frost spells last longer. The second upgrades your traps and guardians by allowing traps to reset faster or guardians to have extra health and regenerate any they lose. This one is my personal favorite; I always purchase the ability that allow me to gain extra coins from Orcs killed by my traps and guardians, as well as the one letting my archer guardians gain flame arrows.
The last Weaver is probably the best all around one, even though I don't use it often. It has some nice abilities like gaining 20% run speed or letting trap kills restore 5% of your mana. Each of the Weavers has 3 tiers of abilities, with 1-4 abilities in each tear. While you can only use one of these 3 Weavers at a time, the abilities you purchase from them only last for one level so you can choose a different one every time if you like. Using the right Weaver for your play style and trap usage is immensely helpful, especially later in the game.
There are 24 different fortresses to defend. They all feature different layouts, some with stairs and multiple floors, some with cathedral ceilings so there's limited room for ceiling traps, etc. Some levels also have natural traps such as suspended logs that you can knock down to roll over enemies or chandeliers that you can shoot off of the ceiling to crush enemies. One annoying thing in some levels is the fact that you can fall from a ledge into oblivion and die, which really irks me sometimes. Maybe I should just pay more attention to my surroundings, but I always hate things like that in games.
There are a couple of DLC (Downloadble Content) packs available for Orcs Must Die!, which are only a couple dollars each. The Artifacts of Power DLC adds 2 additional weapons as well as 2 additional traps with upgrades. The other DLC is the Lost Adventures, and it adds 5 new fortresses, 2 new enemies as well as a new wall trap that can restore a player's mana. The DLC packs, as well as the game itself, are reasonably priced -- but if you're patient you can find them all on Steam for sale for %50 to %75 off. That's when I picked up my copy, and I paid a whopping $4.99 for the game along with both expansion packs.
Unlike traditional tower defense games which are often played using a top-down overhead view, Orcs Must Die! brings you closer to the action by using a third-person view from behind the main character (much like Max Payne or Syphon Filter). Everything is well modeled in 3D, with crisp and colorful textures and the entire game looks terrific. Animations are fluid and smooth, every trap looks totally distinct and there are a dozen different types of enemies. The limited amount of story is portrayed as comic book style still images, and is pushed along by some decent narration. The game has a pretty unique sense of humor which I rather enjoyed -- like your master initially dying by slipping in Orc blood and cracking his head open on the stairs.
The sound effects are equally good, with the traps all sounding great (and different from each other), and Orcs squealing as they get torn asunder or lit on fire. The background music was pretty thrilling during intense portions of the game, and more laid back and mellow between waves of enemies and before starting. I really enjoyed both the graphics and sound in Orcs Must Die!, and they really added a lot to the already fun gameplay.
The replay value may be a bit low since it's a single player game with a limited number of fortresses to defend, but with so many different traps and weapons to try out you can at least try out different combinations in different levels for kicks and giggles. It looks like Orcs Must Die! 2 is going to have a multiplayer co-op mode, which is one thing that I wish this game would have had. I would have even settled for an endless mode of some sort, where you could keep playing forever until you were overrun by enemies. As it stands though, once you get all 5 skulls from each level and all 28 Steam achievements there's really no incentive to play further as you will have likely exhausted your curiosity about different trap combinations by then. Still a really fun game that will last for quite a while. A good value for the price, especially if you catch it during a sale.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Minecraft (PC)

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Expansive open world gameplay that encourages imagination; extensive 3rd party mod support; frequent updates
Cons: Mods tend to quit working just about every update

Minecraft is one of those games that you have to play to truly appreciate. Created by Markus "Notch" Persson in 2009, this indie sandbox game had sold over a million copies before it ever reached a beta testing state and has continued to do well ever since. Version 1.0 was released in November of 2011, and currently (April 6th, 2012) the most recent version is 1.2.5. Not only is it being actively worked on and developed, but they even release weekly pre-release versions for users to download and play with.
Minecraft is the epitome of an open world sandbox game. You start out dropped randomly into an immense procedurally generated world and you can pretty much do whatever you want. There's no real direction or prodding you forward, except in the limited sense that the tree of achievements is usually a nudge in the right direction. Invariably you will end up building some type of make-shift shelter the first day (or the first night, when you realize monsters come out with the darkness and would like nothing more than to kill you). This usually consists of dirt squares stacked into walls surrounding you to wait out the nights until you can build a more permanent shelter, but a hole dug into the side of a mountain or into the ground works just as well.
The world is made up entirely of blocks or cubes. Dirt, stone, trees, water, lava, diamonds... there are tons of different blocks that comprise the world around you. Blocks can be destroyed, picked up, moved around and reassembled to your heart's content. Plants and animals, even your character (and those around you in multiplayer) are made up of blocks -- many of them animated. It's a rather simple art style, but it's kind of unique and really works wonders in Minecraft. There are also many different texture packs you can download that are created by users and enthusiasts that can change the look of the blocks. I'm a big fan of the LB Photo Realism Pack myself, with the Dokucraft texture pack being a close second. Thankfully you can easily switch between the different texture packs so I can alternate using my favorites and trying out new packs.
You walk around in a first person view, with whatever happens to be in your hand visible -- whether it be a sword, pick, torch, fish or even a block of sand. You can toggle a couple of additional camera angles with the F5 button, including a third-person view and a camera in front of your character. You move with the WASD keys, and can sprint by double tapping W. You can also jump with the space bar, and since the world is very tall you will be jumping a lot as you climb out of caverns, climb up mountains or just navigate around the world.
You start off with nothing but an empty inventory and your bare hands, but you can collect resources and then craft them into objects to help you along. For example, you punch a tree block to destroy it and pick up the wood that falls to the ground after. When you bring up your inventory screen (by pressing I), you are presented with 27 empty item slots, 4 slots for equipment (helmet, armor, leggings and boots), 9 inventory quick slots, and a 4x4 square crafting grid. You can place a piece of wood into the crafting grid to turn it into 4 wooden planks. Take those 4 wooden planks, and place them all in a square to fill up the grid and you can create a crafting table. Place the crafting table somewhere in the world and right click on it, and you're presented with a 6x6 square crafting grid which allows you to make a great variety of different items.
Take 2 of those wooden planks and arrange them one over the other, and it creates a stack of 4 wooden sticks. Take a wooden stick and place 2 stone blocks in a line above it to make a sword. Place 3 planks across the bottom row with 3 pieces of wool above them to make a bed. There are many, many things that you can make with different combinations of the various blocks -- and I'm not just talking about the standard things you would expect to see. You can make a record player or a block that plays a musical note. Boats. Pistons and pressure plates. Mine carts and tracks to use them on. The possibilities are staggering. Just try arranging all kinds of different materials in different patterns and see what you can come up with.

Many of the items you can craft have various versions based on what materials you use to craft them as well. For example, a pick axe may be made of wood, stone, gold, iron, or diamond. Higher quality versions have more durability so they last longer, and they also are quicker at what they do. A diamond pick will last a long time and will tear through stone like nothing, and it also happens to be the only pick of sufficient quality to mine obsidian. Diamonds are rare however, so you wouldn't want to waste them if you were only digging through stone. I usually keep a diamond pick in my inventory along with a pile of stone picks while I'm mining. Stone is abundant, so I just use stone picks to mine stone -- but if I come across some diamonds I can break out the diamond pick to mine them with, as destroying them with a stone pick destroys them completely instead of dropping the diamonds for you to retrieve. There are similarly different quality versions of hoes, shovels, axes, swords, armor, etc.
Not only that, but after creating all these wonderful items you can make use of them in the world as well. Digging deep into the earth, you can uncover rare deposits of gold, diamonds, redstone and other things. Redstone is particularly noteworthy because it can be used as a sort of electrical system in Minecraft; mining the redstone drops redstone dust which is used like wiring when you place it. This is substantial, as it allows insanely complex creations to be made. Like what? Think big... calculators, cannons, elevators, etc. Granted many of these things are complicated to make, take up a lot of space and use a lot of resources in their creation, but that's half the fun.
In addition to the redstone dust that you can use as wiring, there are other pieces that can be crafted to aid in creating complex devices. Switches, levers, pressure plates, buttons, repeaters, and redstone torches themselves which actually provide power. Using the various pieces and blocks, you can create multiplexers, logic gates, circuits, relays and just about anything imaginable. There are countless tutorials on YouTube or the Minecraft Wiki to detail various designs and implementations or give you some ideas.

You have a health bar and a hunger bar. If you lose all of your health you die and lose half your experience, and the other half gets dropped as experience orbs at the place of your death. If you only lose a little health, it will slowly regenerate itself as long as your hunger bar is full. On the flip side, if your hunger bar is empty you will slowly lose health. Eating different foods will fill up your hunger bar by different amounts, and there are many ways to get food. Killing pigs, cows or chickens is a quick and easy way to get pork, beef or chicken. Throwing this meat into a furnace and cooking it before eating makes it heal more of your hunger bar though. You can also fish, plant wheat and harvest it to make bread, or even bake a cake.
The randomly generated world is practically limitless in size. Granted, there's a hard limit, but it's many times the size of the planet Earth if you count each Minecraft block as 1 square meter... which is pretty limitless as far as I'm concerned. You could quite literally if you desired, wander the map for your entire life and probably not manage to explore it all. The world is made up of "chunks", which are generated as you explore, otherwise your hard drive would be entirely filled up with useless area that you would likely never play in. I have created a few different worlds that I play on; one takes up 28MB on my hard drive, another takes up 52MB, and the last one takes up over 1GB of space. The last one, however, is one that I host multiplayer and play with my brothers most of the time, and we've gone off exploring and building massive mine cart tracks connecting each of our towns to each other which is why it is overly large. I don't imagine anyone could have enough hard drive space to fully explore the world, but 20 people could all hop on a multiplayer game and explore all year and it would probably still fit on a common 2TB hard drive.
Minecraft is not all about crafting things and exploring however. The game features day and night cycles, and when night time rolls around hostile creatures spawn in the world who are bent on destroying you. Skeletons, zombies, exploding creepers, spiders... which is why building shelter during the first day is kind of important. They won't spawn on top of you nor will they spawn if there's enough light around, so creating torches and placing them on the walls of your shelter is immensely helpful. After you've got a shelter though, hunting these creatures can be rewarding and helpful. Creatures not only drop common crafting ingredients and experience orbs, but they also rarely drop other items such as picks or bows. You must kill spiders to collect string so that you can make a bow or a fishing rod, for example.
The experience orbs let you "level up" in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Really you just take all of your levels and spend them once you make an enchantment table to enchant your items. Stronger enchantments take more levels to enchant, and using a level 50 enchantment on an item while you are level 50 brings you back down to level 0. Most equipment has a durability or number of uses before it is destroyed however, so I find it best to use low level enchantments on equipment because it's much quicker to replenish a few levels of experience than it is to replenish 50. You lose a lot of experience if you die as well, so saving up 50 levels worth is often difficult to start with. While it only takes 59 experience to get from level 0 to 5, for example, it takes 4625 to get from 0 to 50.
In addition to hostile creatures, there are also docile creatures that you can interact with. Killing cows, for example, can drop pieces of leather or raw beef. You can also use an empty bucket on a cow to milk it, or feed a couple of cows wheat to make them have a baby cow. Pigs, chicken, sheep and squid, there are a number of these creatures that have varying degrees of usefulness -- and more are always being added in updates, or can be added via 3rd party game mods.
Some of the 3rd party mods are pretty simple but really nice, like adding in a mini-map, new items or creatures -- but some are much more complex like allowing you to make your own crafting recipes or adding another entire dimension to the game that you can travel to through a portal. There's even a mod that allows you to build and fly air ships!
Along with the main game world, there is also another area of the game called the Nether, which can be created by lighting a fire in a 4 block wide by 5 block tall obsidian portal frame. The Nether is a hellish area filled with lava and brimstone, zombie pigmen and ghasts that shoot fireballs at you. Every step you take in the Nether is equivalent to 8 steps on the surface, so creating a portal here and traveling a long distance before making another portal back to the surface can allow you to travel a much further distance than you could by surface travel alone. In recent updates fortresses were added in the Nether as well, along with new creatures and items.
There's also one more area to the game, The End, that consists of a large empty area with some obsidian pillars in it and a large dragon flying around overhead. This acts as the "end" of the game and the dragon as the "final boss", though the game never actually ends. Killing the dragon does give you some nifty ending text and scrolling credits before you continue playing though, as well as completing one of the in-game achievements.
There really isn't much in the way of background music in the game. Some light ambient music plays a few times per game "day" that, while good, you really won't notice. You can also craft a jukebox and obtain a number of different records, but they're only a few minutes each and only audible if your character is near by. The sound effects are pretty good, and some of them (like the hiss of a creeper or the groan of a zombie) are downright eerie, and really help with the atmosphere of the game.
Overall Minecraft is one of my favorite games released in the last few years, and it gets a lot of play time around my house. Being so open ended and letting do pretty much whatever you want and build whatever you can imagine, it's like Legos for the soul. Combined with the ability to play with other people online, it makes for an excellent title with a lot of longevity and immense replayability. It's currently priced at a reasonable $26.95, which is less than some other games I've picked up recently that I rarely play.
Minimum system requirements include a Pentium 4 or equivalent processor, 256MB of RAM, an ATI Rage or GeForce 256 video card with OpenGL 1.2 support, 90MB of hard drive space and Java Runtime Environment (JRE) 6 or above. It will probably run a little slow with this setup, especially on 32-bit systems, but it's playable. Minecraft works beautifully in Windows XP, Windows 7, FreeBSD, Linux, and supposedly in Mac OS X. It will likely run on anything since it's written in Java.
Since the Minecraft Server application is a separate program, I set it up my dedicated server so that I could play with my friends and family over the Internet. My dedicated server has a single core 2.6GHz processor with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive, and it could easily handle the 4 or 5 of us who usually played at the same time. Once in a while the games would crash with an out of memory error, but reconnecting brought us right back into playing again without issue.