Posts Tagged ‘ reviews

Cutting Room Floor – Age of Empires Online

My early review of Age of Empires Online went up at GamePro today, but there were a few things I didn’t have space to bring up in the main body. Here are a couple other moments from my review process.

“It Looks Like Fucking FarmVille!”

MK does not like the AoEO art style. She watched over my shoulder while I played it, and that’s when she delivered her verdict on what the graphics are communicating. I tend to agree. It’s too cute by half, all bright colors, and foreshortened models with adorably askew roof lines and frames. It’s so desperate to appear non-threatening that it’s grating.  It further underlines the WoW / FarmVille aesthetic to which AoEO is so slavishly devoted. Again, free-to-play is a business model, not a style, so why must the formerly resplendent AoEO dress-up like a casual browser game? It’s patronizing, it’s conventional, and it’s just kind of ugly.

Winning by Default

I finally started doing some serious PvP in my waning hours with the game before filing my review. I focused on other issues in the review, but I’m noticing major problems. I’ve beaten a number of people not by playing better than they have, but because I have siege weapons and they don’t.

It makes a huge difference. Taking down fortifications with infantry and cavalry takes forever, and in the meantime guard towers will slaughter the enemy in droves. The only practical way to deal with fortifications is to use siege weapons. That’s nothing new to AoEO and it’s part of good balance.

The problem is, siege weapons don’t become available until level 10, and not everyone picks them right away. So I have had a number of games where I was able to turtle up behind guard towers, and then go shatter the enemy base once he’d exhausted himself against my defenses. That’s not fair, and it’s not fun for either party. But that’s what happens when you take a holistically-designed RTS and chop it into a fine dice.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Because you only get to play with AoEO’s various pieces depending on your level, you would want to make sure that character are matched appropriately, right? Well, I’ve had a number of games where I’m fighting four levels down, which means my opponent is at a severe disadvantage.

The real kicker is, you only get XP for winning. So it’s a rich-get-richer situation, as high level players pound the daylights out of low-level players, then level up faster.

Community Spirit

The chat window in the lower left corner of the screen is full of the stupidest, most vile people I’ve ever encountered in a strategy game. There are new players who holler questions into the general chat, questions that could be answered with a few seconds of thought or experiment. There are trolls, who flood the chat with racist invective, or just random keystrokes, breaking up any conversation. There are veterans who endlessly complain about the new people who have showed up to play “their” game.

It’s a noise, unpleasant environment. Again, I think I would rather pay for a game that puts a wall between most of these people and me.

Happy Hour – July 1

A miraculous deadline extension brought my week to an end a few hours earlier than I anticipated, so now I find myself crashing after a week spent at nearly full-tilt working on a review and three columns. This was instructive: while I generally got my copy in on time, I didn’t allow sufficient time for the revision process to play out, which had a knock-on effect that came to a head today. This tells me that I’ve got the slack in my schedule in the wrong places. I need to look at the copy deadline as the halfway point in an assignment, not the conclusion.

Anyway, I got my extension at the best possible moment: right after I’d finished writing my copy. Since the piece is finished, I can actually use the extra time to polish and find better art to accompany my piece. This is the best outcome. Early extensions have been known to be squandered on such literary pursuits as drinking in bars with friends, going to the movies, or trying to make it through a few more minutes of The Star Wars Christmas Special.

Still, there is no rest for the freelancer. I must log a few more hours with Pride of Nations and work up a review this weekend, and go on a screenshot expedition deep into the heart of Alpha Centauri. I should also figure out what we are doing for this week’s 3MA, something I was too busy to deal with during the week.

Beyond that, I’m going to use the weekend to finish up V for Vendetta, something I got distracted from by a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I made the mistake of opening it, just to get a sense for what it might be, and the next thing I knew I was 50 pages in and utterly engrossed in the story. After V, I might move on to The Tombs of Atuan, or I might act on some of the excellent Terry Pratchett advice you guys supplied last week.

Anyway, while I try to lay the foundations for a great week, you should peruse this piece I wrote for GWJ on The Darkness and listen to a great conversation that Troy and I had with Ars Technica’s Ben Kuchera. The discussion with Ben, in particular, is worth your time. I wanted a discussion that got beyond the usual, “Scores are broken, we resent Metacritic” nonsense and discuss our work from a procedural angle. What do we take with us in to a review? Who are we writing for, and what do we try to keep sight of as we work?

One thing deserves some expanding on: rates. I have no idea what my peers are being paid per review, but with most places with whom I do business, bigger games get more space, and more space means a bigger payday. As a working writer, I have every incentive to chase after major releases and every incentive to pass on smaller games, because they are often not worth the time they would take to review.

Now I still do a fair number of small reviews because, hey, strategy is a small niche and I genuinely want to cover games that other people might not be talking about. But I have also had to pass on work from a few outlets who want me to cover a neat looking independent strategy game for ridiculously low pay. By the word, it makes sense, but with certain genres like sports and strategy, the time I spend writing is a scant fraction of the time I spend playing.

This creates an awkward middle ground. A lot of games that require some time-consuming work from a knowledgeable reviewer will not be lucrative enough for the people best qualified to discuss them. It also means that people who read review outlets are not getting the best service reviewers can provide: intelligent criticism of lesser-known games. A few times in the last year I have had to explain what my minimum rates are, and many outlets are unwilling to meet them for a minor title. They want the review, but not enough to pay for a considered, informed opinion. That’s a shame.

Closing out F1 2010

I spent my entire day doing Grands Prix in the 360 version of F1 2010 so that I can wrap up my review this week. I’ve had a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of the PC version, but I’m glad I took some time with the 360 version. I definitely needed to explore the easier difficulty levels and there are some definite buyer beware issues when you try to play this with a gamepad.

I’ll explain more in the review, but the bottom line is that I don’t think the higher difficult levels are even usable with a gamepad. When 75 percent throttle takes you through a corner at high speed, and 80 percent sends you into the wall, you really don’t want to be relying on the trigger buttons.

But there’s no getting around how gruesome this game, or any game, can become when you’ve got to start powering through it to hit a deadline, or to test some game elements that have seemed problematic. When I took this review, my goal was to bring it up to the same standard as Bill Abner’s sports game reviews, and now I realize how much effort that requires. Especially because, unlike an EA Sports game, a racing game doesn’t let you simply sim a racing season while you check the stats against reality. You want to see how a season plays out in F1? You drive.

But it’s worth it to me. There aren’t a lot of legit racing sim reviewers who can approach these games from a perspective that’s useful to the people most interested in them, and I feel like this is one game where I can provide a uniquely strong and informed perspective.

Still, I’ll be glad when I’m finished. I hear engines and gearboxes all the time now, and the room seemed to be spinning for like a half hour after Monaco. Man, fuck Monaco.

RUSE Roundup

It’s funny to think how unenthusiastic I was about 2010′s strategy prospects when the year began. I was indifferent to Starcraft II, had no idea a new Civilization was in the making, and had never heard of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. The only game that sounded interesting, and this was me really reaching for something to care about, was Ubisoft’s gimmicky-sounding RTS, R.U.S.E. But nothing beyond the deception mechanics sounded interesting, and the thought of a WWII RTS from a developer I’d never heard of was profoundly unappealing.

But here we are in the September of what has been a solid year of strategy gaming, and RUSE has proven to be one of the best entries so far, and an almost ideal cure for what ails the RTS genre. The beta showed that RUSE had a great interface and some good faction balance, and the final product confirms that Eugen Systems unexpected bridged the gap between wargamers and RTS gamers, and put the  casual gamer first.

My review is up at GameShark. It’s the highest score I’ve awarded a game yet, but I simply adore the genre blending at work in this design. I’m in good company. The gentlemen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun have said that, “It’s a game men should play.” And indeed they should.

However, my review would have been even more positive had Eugen Systems not created an utterly dreadful campaign. Almost against my will, I had to dock the game for making something so shoddy a part of this excellent package. Over at Gamers With Jobs, I explored some of the major sources of disappointment with this campaign, and some of the troubling things it, and other games, have revealed about the state of game development in France.

But really, there’s no limit to the nasty things one could say about this campaign. It’s sexism is utterly appalling, with a completely fictitious femme fatale introduced as a major player in shaping Allied strategy in WWII. Okay, we know that’s pretty much crap, women working for the War Dept. in the 1940s were more likely to be stuck in the typing pool than made an emissary to front-line generals, but we can roll with it. Except that the only reason this woman is a part of the story is to play the role of Lady Macbeth, using sex and manipulation to bring men to ruin and turn them against one another.

You know, like women always do.

But all of that is secondary to what RUSE is really about: multiplayer WWII combat. On those grounds, it’s a smashing success. Now go read my review and learn why.

Sympathy for Elemental

Even before I received the game, I had an idea about how I was supposed to feel. The trouble with reviewing anything in this era is that you cannot avoid having your views contaminated by the instant Twitter reaction, and I’m not willing to sequester myself from any and every discussion of a new game I’m reviewing.

The early word on Elemental: War of Magic is that it was a disaster, and Brad Wardell, the game’s designer and the principal over at Stardock, had thrown fuel on the fire with some early defensiveness. The moment I installed the game, I had to install two patches. I took a deep breath and dived in.

King Flitcraft and The Beard: Co-rulers of Man

I played it from Friday to Wednesday before writing my review. It left me ice cold for a day or so, until I bailed on the campaign, abandoned my games, and re-started with a custom character. Then it clicked.

In my review, I go into a lot of detail about certain aspects of this game. Perhaps too much. But there is almost nothing macro-level about this game that’s worth discussing. Broadly, Elemental is a fantasy 4X strategy game. Crudely, it’s Magic Centauri. But the places where it lets you down, and the places where it surprises, are all in the details.

Note how the capital, Hightower, stretches laterally to snatch up resources, but steers clear of its neighbor.

This was my first time writing for a new site, Gameroni. Given some of the other writers listed as contributors, colleagues and writers I respect like Tom Chick, Lewis Denby, and Kyle Orland, I hope to write there some more and am honored to be in the first wave of freelancers writing there.

The score I gave Elemental might raise some eyebrows. Gameroni uses a coarse-grained review scale. A, B, C, D, F. No pluses, no minuses. No hedging. The bottom line is that I actually like Elemental, despite all the ways it disappoints. It really satisfies some quirks in my own taste, and to assign it a score different from the one I gave it would be a lie. It would represent a clinical, Consumer Reports-style inspection. Such a score might be easier to justify, but it would not reflect my feelings.

Head over and read the review, and please leave any comments on the review itself at Gameroni. Yeah, you have to make an account there to post, but it’s a 10-second process and I haven’t received any spam.

Thank God, I Have Done My Duty

You may have heard something about me working on a review. The game was Making History 2, and the review just went up at GameShark.

This was a game I volunteered to review because I was interested in it, and I liked the guys making it. Had I known, going in, that I would dislike the game so much, I would never have volunteered for the assignment. With something like this, you go into it hoping you’ll have something to champion. Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that something you wanted to like will turn out to be a huge disappointment.