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Monthly Archives: December 2010

World of Tanks | First Impressions

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

The look on my wife’s face said it all. “World of what?”

“Tanks.”

“Tanks?”

She’s had to put up with a lot over the years: me filling the living room with plastic instruments, my misguided foray into skateboarding after playing Tony Hawks 3, and even the dark period where WoW sunk its claws deep into me. Explaining to her that I was about to embark on another MMO I think may have filled her with dread, her mind casting back to the days of becoming a hermit as I sought the treasures of Azeroth.

Thankfully for our marriage, World of Tanks is something quite different. Although still containing RPG elements, the bulk of the game is represented by large scale tank battles that see 32 armoured beasts face off against the background of some equally huge maps – effectively DICE’s Battlefield with the on-foot element stripped out leaving behind just vehicular combat. Seeing your platoon of tracked warriors roll out as the battle begins is quite a sight, as engines rev, exhausts belch smoke and the whole force move out as one.

It’s very simple to jump straight in to proceedings, too. Despite an overwhelming help screen that lists almost as many controls as there are keys on your keyboard, handling your tanks is as easy as any standard PC FPS. In fact, in terms of controls, you may as well imagine Gordon Freeman has had tracks fitted to his feet. In no time at all I found my first tentative steps quickly translated into the nippy traversal of a ruined city and the easy negotiation of mountain pass, sending shells flying towards the enemy.

Though it may feel familiar, the environment this shooter operates in is a brutal one. Against the wrong opposition, your tank can be holed in a single shot, leaving you to wait out the rest of the battle with nothing to do but spectate. Gung-ho tank commanders will quickly find themselves spending more time on the side-lines than in the heat of battle and the realisation that caution exponentially increases your life expectancy is a valuable lesson to learn. In contrast, however, the feeling of exhilaration on destroying an opposing vehicle is suitably high. Whether it’s by catching them unawares, or amidst a hail of cross-fire, there’s a mix of relief and satisfaction that it wasn’t you that was left a smoking wreck.

Indeed, sitting watching your smouldering remain is a feeling that most will have to get used to early on, as the tanks you’re initially granted access to are pacey but small and seem to be as well protected as your average family car. In the grander scheme of things they play their part, and your initial role is that of a scout for the bigger guns on your team, identifying the enemies whereabouts which are then automatically broadcast to the rest of your side. It’s all too easy to want to get involved though, and as long as the right sized target it chosen then all is good. Taking pot shots at a similarly sized tank or a weakly defended artillery piece is worth the expenditure of a shell, but taking on a heavy with your pea shooter will do you no more good than poking a bear with a stick.

With each battle, kill, and scouting, both you and your tank’s crew earn experience. For the crew, this allows them to grow as individuals, their strengths in the theatre of combat reflecting upon the effectiveness of your tank. For you, it opens up the RPG-esque Tech Tree of World of Tanks. There are no spells to be learnt here, however, instead each branch sees the research of the various components that form your ride. More powerful guns, larger engines, faster turrets, hardier suspensions and alike can all be invested in to make your tank the best it can be. Beyond that, continued research will also open up a wider variety of tanks, each suited for a separate task. There are the artillery pieces that can rain down death from afar; the heavy tanks that can take a vast amount of punishment before succumbing; light tanks, suitable for nipping round the battlefield at speed; and the tank destroyers which appear to be no more than the largest guns conceived by man strapped to a pair of treads and an engine.

Whilst the heavy, light, and tank destroyers are a balance struck between armour, speed and destructive power, it is the long range guns that add a different twist to proceedings. Usually found camped in copses to avoid detection, these artillery pieces can switch away from the turret mounted third-person camera and switch to an option overhead view of the battlefield. Most effective when supporting a push by the heavier tanks, they can shell the enemy picked out by the spearhead of scouts. The change in tactics and slower pace is almost that of a sniper where patience is of the utmost importance as you may only get one or two shots, but when the trigger is pulled your aim must be true.

If I’m being completely honest, I was surprised at how much I took from World of Tanks. Having had past experience with some incredibly dry tank simulators, it strikes a balanced approach between the historical accuracy it wishes to push to the fore, the ease of play, and the depth it conveys by the vast Tech Tree that exists for each of nations represented. The battles I have experienced have ranged from cautious city fights, where machines pop out of cover for only a second to unload their armoury upon you before disappearing back into the maze of buildings, to desert warfare that sees long range shelling hoping to hit home with a lucky shot.

My only quibble is with time. Firstly, being knocked out early in a battle is punished by being denied use of your tank again until the fight has been resolved. Fair enough, but it means that you generally need to keep two or three tanks in working order and topped up with ammo to avoid having long stretches of downtime between games. And secondly, be prepared to put a vast amount of work in to access the higher grades of tank. Some seem incredibly expensive upon first glance, and although you can buy XP bonuses and in-game currency with real world money, those looking to advance without a credit card will see them paying with time instead.

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Greed Corp | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Behind the Catan-esque hexagonal grid that forms the landscape of Greed Corp, there stands a message. One that almost touches upon the environmental. When faced with the destruction of your land, would you defend it until the last or sacrifice it to stop the enemy getting their grubby mitts on it? Of course in videogames the chosen answer isn’t always the one that tugs on your heartstrings; when faced with a turned-based war, you’re probably going to choose the option that will crush the opposition under foot.

Set in a distant land, four factions bid for victory. The peace loving Freemen, the raucous Pirate, the nasty sounding Cartel, and the “they can’t be good” Empire. Most look for a nook of the six-sided world to call their own, but others seek domination. Your affiliation, however, will make little difference other than aesthetically as W!Games have created a polished turn-based strategy game where all forces have access to exactly the same simple set of abilities.

Resembling an adorable Chibi AT-ST, there is but one fighting unit used to colonise and control the hex maps encountered throughout the campaign. They fight with sheer weight of numbers; if one side has more units than the other in an engagement, then they retain/gain that hex. Initally the simple nature of the combat lulls you into a false sense of security, with the gentle nature of the early missions won by barrelling forward with more military might than your rival. This misnomer quickly become apparent though as strength in numbers is not everything; it comes down to strategic traversal and exploitation of the map’s tiles.

The twist with Greed Corps is that mining the land for resources will literally leave you nowhere to place your feet. As with Command & Conquer and alike, your army is funded by the extraction of natural resources but doing so will eat away at the ground itself. Each hex has a height and as harvesting continues it will eat away at the height of its own tile and those surrounding it. Come the endgame, verdant and broad pastures are reduced to a mere handful of rock columns standing in a void.

Though tacticians will have to gauge carefully where to build barracks and cannons, the destructive power of a harvester can be put to good use against enemy units. Should the ground collapse beneath their feet then your opponent can kiss them goodbye.

Each of the four factions has a dedicated chapter in the overall campaign, progressing in difficulty as you press forward. Although the intelligence of the opponents ramps up throughout, the main variety comes from the maps. From layouts featuring large open expanses to teetering, criss-crossing causeways, your environment is as much a challenge as the armies you tackle. As such, most encounters give the air of a puzzle game where key hexes present themselves as time goes by and prove the locus for the battle.

Despite none of the factions appearing as more than an alternate skin for your army, the art work and overall presentation does well to lift what could have been a fairly bland concept into one that exudes charm and character. The soft, colourful style does far more for me than any of Star Craft’s muscle-bound space marines.

But that’s comparing apples with oranges. Greed Corp is not going to attract the hardcore RTS masses, but instead it offers a barracks-full of tactical thought for those who prefer to consider their options rather than memorise build orders. Each loss rarely feels the result of some crafty AI, but down to genuine out-manoeuvring that you watch unfold in front of you. In as much as I described Blood Bowl as “angry chess”, this similarly wears that description… just with a playing field that fall apart quicker than Austrailia’s top order.

Part TBS, part puzzler, some may consider it too intense and hardcore to sit comfortably on Xbox Live Marketplace, and some equally may think it up against far greater opposition when found on Steam. I, however, think it marries the merits of the accessibility required for console play with the thought provoking qualities of a PC strategy game to a tee.

8 /10

Windows Phone 7 | Round-up

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Father Christmas visited me early this year. After seeing my old handset explode into its component parts when meeting my driveway at speed, I felt it was time to progress into the world of smartphones. For the last couple of years I have been sorely tempted to join the iPhone crowd with its Angry Birds and Paper Toss, but with the recent arrival of Microsoft’s new OS into the telephonic space how could I turn down the chance to pick up Achievements on the go. There’s something deeply gratifying about hearing that noise out in public.

Guitar Hero 5

The first impression of this app is “ouch”. Weighing it at £7.99 it’s by far the most expensive game to be found on the WP7 Marketplace, although I suppose that’s what you get when licensing 32 songs.

Although it bears the moniker of the flagship rhythm-action title, this portable game bears little resemblance to its big brother. Notes still stream down a fret board towards you, requiring you to tap each in time as they reach the end of their run, but past that there is nothing that pushes it past functional.

The horizontal frets/lines that used to mark out tempo are carelessly missing, meaning that certain streaks of notes have to be guessed at rather than inferred. Only three streams of notes are included and as such even on Expert the difficulty level never truly stretches players, whilst the surrounding trappings are those of a musician and crowd strumming, drumming and dancing along to their own beat rather than the one you’re playing. It just shows that little touches do make a great deal of difference.

Luckily the strength of the soundtrack does bring it back from the brink somewhat, with personal highlight appearances from Garbage and Blink 182; but what the portable version of GH5 serves to underline is the importance of instrument peripherals and the refinement of the overall experience. This stripped down basic edition isn’t a patch on its home console equivalent.

5/10

Flowerz

Nothing says “casual” like a match-three puzzle game, and attempting to bring in that audience is the MGS developed Flowerz.

Given a garden – read “board” – already covered with a light smattering of flowers, your aim is to plant similarly coloured blooms in a row. Doing so will both rid them from the board, and top your score up at the same time for good measure. Pretty standard fare then, with the added twist that the board slowly changes shape as you progress, limiting your options as to where you can plant new flowers in later levels.

An expert mode advances the concept by seeing your flowers take on a second colour once their first has been matched, and this seemingly simple addition can lead to huge headaches as your nicely placed trio of blue blooms suddenly are replaced by pink, white and red alternates. It requires thinking round corners, as even a regimented garden can swiftly descend into an explosion of unwanted colour.

It’s harmless fun that can draw you in for a long bus ride, although it does lack that spark that has turned Bejeweled (also available on WP7) into a worldwide classic. Not bad for free, though.

6/10

Flight Control

First appearing on the iPhone, Flight Control is the perfect example of a game that melds itself with its platform. If ever a game could only be done with a touch screen then this is it.

As the omnipotent flight controller you have the power to manage an airfield and all its traffic with the flick of a finger. Dragging any of the many planes that enter your airspace will allow you to sketch out their flight-path, which hopefully culminates in them landing in one piece. Runways get busy quickly, so a deft touch and constant vigilance is required to keep everyone safe. Although starting slow, the pace quickly builds until your fingers are flicking over all areas of the screen to handle all the differently paced planes. You quickly start to improvise holding patterns or your own little routines to keep the many winged plates spinning.

It’s an extremely simple concept executed superbly well. Surprisingly addictive and perfect for those five minutes gaps you have whilst looking lost outside the changing rooms in Urban Outfitters whilst your better half tries on a new dress. I speak from experience!

8/10