Scurge Hive

November 28, 2006 by  
Filed under DS, Reviews

The Nintendo DS is often seen as the platform of choice for quirky games and strange-sounding names. Scurge Hive makes an attempt to break this stereotype by offering a more traditional experience. This third-person isometric action game puts you in the shoes of Jenosa Arma, a bounty hunter sent in to retrieve some data from a top-secret laboratory on the planet Inos. Before her ship can land on Inos, an energy beam from the planet strikes her ship. The ship crashes onto the surface at which point she must find and enter the laboratory.

The premise of Scurge Hive is that a biological weapon or plague of sorts has overrun the research lab and Jenosa’s suit protects her from this infection but only for a short time. Coming into contact with any biomass will increase the infection level. There is an ever-increasing infection meter at the top of the screen to let you know just how quickly you need to find a decontamination room. These rooms remove the infection and also save the game. Decontamination rooms are placed fairly close to one another but far enough apart that you will occasionally have to frantically sprint past enemies in order to succumb to your infection. It’s an interesting system and easily facilitates gaming-on-the-go with your DS.

Aside from that little feature, everything else about Scurge Hive is simply tried-and-true action gaming. Over the course of the different levels, you will receive numerous weapon upgrades and special tools to help you defeat the different types of enemies and navigate through the laboratory. The weapon upgrades have affinities which make them particularly damaging to certain enemies but will strengthen others. Using the proper weapon type at the right time can mean the difference between life and death in some situations. The creatures are distinct enough from one another that you should immediately recognize their affinities after just a few encounters. Unfortunately, since you can only equip one weapon upgrade at a time, it sometimes seemed like I was doing more weapon-switching than weapon-firing.

Scurge Hive does not make any notable uses of the DS’ special features like the touch screen or the microphone. The action is limited to the top screen while the bottom screen displays your current location on the map. Jenosa’s level will increase over time as you accumulate kills but it’s hardly noticeable because the biggest impact in damage will come from the aforementioned weapon upgrades. The game is a little more difficult than I would like and does not offer much of an incentive to get to the next level. Scurge Hive does not pretend to be something that it is not; it is a traditional action game through and through.

The visuals are not all that impressive even for a lowly hand-held console. The levels are mostly bright and interesting enough but, because of the ever looming threat of infection, there is not much chance to gawk at them. A cooperative mode would have been a great addition considering the platform’s overall multiplayer capabilities. Ultimately, there is not enough in Scurge Hive to get you to play through it a second time after finishing it.

Bliss Island

November 12, 2006 by  
Filed under PC, Reviews

Every now and then, I will come across a seemingly shallow game in the bargain bin that actually happens to be an overlooked gem with tremendous appeal for people of all ages and addictive fun right out of the box. Is Bliss Island one of these rare jewels? In just one word, I would say: No.

Bliss Island is a tropical island inhabited by Zwoophs. Zwoophs are round, furry animals with powerful snouts that they use for making clouds. Cloud-making is their livelihood but it gets tiring and so they get to take a break once in a while. This is where you come in; you play as one of the Zwoophs during their recess.

The Zwoophs play some fun little games, all of which involve blowing puffs from their cloud-making snouts to control a bouncing (for lack of a better descriptor) sphere. Each of the games has its own rules such as directing the sphere onto ugly bugs that pop out of holes or knocking a sphere onto a flower upon which aphids have decided to invade. Every single one of these games involves the Zwooph, its puffs, and a sphere. All you need to do is aim your snout at the sphere and click to send it bouncing in the right direction. It couldn’t be any simpler and requires only the use of your mouse hand. There are variations of this theme but there are no surprises whatsoever.

The graphics are surprisingly good in terms of both effects and art. The colorful scenes make it less painful to endure the monotone gameplay. The sound is forgettable except for one effect that I quite enjoyed- the sound of two rocks smashing against one another. That was definitely one of the better rock-smashing clips that I’ve heard in a while. The game also doesn’t waste any time in getting you huffing and puffing to your heart’s content; the install lasted all of two minutes and the game is but a few clicks away from the main menu with hardly any load time.

There’s really nothing wrong with the gameplay per se; it’s actually quite fun at first and I could actually enjoy this game a lot- if I had a 15 minute memory span. After the first few rounds, the next few will simply cycle through the last game types albeit with higher difficulty levels such as adding moving obstacles or increasing the number of targets. This type of repetitive gameplay may have been wildly successful in the early days of video gaming but nowadays, it’s a mini-game at best.

Bliss Island has a good thing going but there’s just not enough content for it to be taken seriously. If only there were more game types thrown in rather than simple variations of puff-shooting- all of which quickly grow stale. There’s nothing wrong with simple but fun games. It’s just that no-one wants to play the same simple game without something else to look forward to.

CivCity: Rome

September 27, 2006 by  
Filed under PC, Reviews

CivCity Rome is a city management simulator by Firefly Studios and Firaxis Games. CCR puts you in the place of a governor with the tall task of transforming tiny towns into terrific testaments to Rome’s glory and majesty. Many should recognize Firaxis Games as the brainchild behind the mind-numbingly addictive Civilizations series – games which never failed to elicit those three simple words from our mouths: "One more turn". Unfortunately, CCR only succeeded in making me cry out, "Isn’t there more?"

Getting CCR up and running was generally problem-free. The game’s installation was quick and easy but the manual, which I read through from cover-to-cover, seems to be more of an afterthought written up by one of their interns. Not only were there obvious grammar and spelling mistakes, many sections were just blatantly copied-and-pasted to add volume. There’s an in-game tutorial by way of the first few missions as well as the provided tips and these generally do a good job of introducing you to the number of options available to you.

The proper game doesn’t really start until you meet Crassus. He gives you your first real task by instructing you to found the city or Tarentum. These missions are a lot longer and more involved than the first few but it soon becomes evident that it’s just more of the same. In order to improve the housing level, you must satisfy your residents’ needs by providing them with water, food, clothing, olive oil, and over a dozen other amenities. The problem is that so many of these goods are handled the same way with just different names. Grapes are turned into wine, goats are slaughtered for meat, and linen is woven into tunics.

The game touts a few key features such as the ability to look inside people’s homes, keep track of the families in your city, and wonders. Unfortunately, there’s not much reason to actually zoom into a house or follow a family around in its day-to-day activities unless you’re just curious or you want to follow some stalker fantasy of yours; and there aren’t all that many wonders to build. Please don’t let it be the latter. There’s also a military part that you can play on certain campaigns but even the game itself admits that war is "simple". In fact, there are only 2 units available: legionnaires and velites (javelin throwers).

Visually and aurally, the game is satisfactory but only barely. Simulations are almost always more heavily weighted by gameplay rather than pixel-shaded graphics and positional audio so it’s not terribly important. What is important though is the fact that there is a particularly nasty bug when you try to use any resolution higher than 1024 x 768- you won’t be able to click directly on buildings or citizens to select them. The interface is not very intuitive and takes some getting used to. Also- this isn’t really a gripe- why is it that Romans  in movies and games tend to have British accents?

CCR isn’t a terrible game but it could have been so much more. The production values were lacking in too many aspects and could have used a lot more polish. The premise was great but it just wasn’t executed well enough.

Command & Conquer The First Decade

September 26, 2006 by  
Filed under PC, Reviews

I was really looking forward to playing Command & Conquer The First Decade. I’m old enough that the C&C games were responsible for some of the most memorable times of my younger gaming years. A trip down memory lane might be a welcome breath of fresh air in the stale environment of rehashed releases.

C&CTFD is pretty heavy in content considering that all the C&C games ever released on PC — including their respective expansion packs- is included on one DVD. On top of that, the package comes with a bonus DVD holding about an hour’s worth of developer interviews, C&C history, and other goodies. Any C&C fan should find a lot to enjoy in the bonus DVD alone. Sadly, I feel that there could have been a lot more since the C&C universe has been around for a whole decade. Kind of hard to believe that all of that history could be compressed into one hour.

All the games have been preserved in their release states so anyone expecting a graphical facelift will be sorely disappointed. Even worse, the cheesy yet amazingly fun install screens from the earlier games are gone and are now replaced by a standard Windows installer that requires you to enter 6 serial keys. I miss EVA. On the flip side, the DVD is not needed to play C&C nor C&C Red Alert and the convenience of having all the games on one disc is a definite plus; just for this fact, C&CTFD is worth considering even if you are only interested in the 2 latest games, C&C Generals and C&C Generals: Zero Hour.

The older games definitely brought back some memories but unless you have been living under a rock, the ancient user interface will leave you more frustrated than nostalgic. Unit queues and waypoints were not created until C&C Tiberian Sun. Pathfinding problems and low ease-of-use especially plague the original C&C. At least I got to appreciate the advances in the real-time strategy genre by slowly moving from one game to the next (excluding C&C Renegade) and the full motion video cutscenes are as full of nerdy goodness as I remember them to be.

In terms of overall value and convenience, C&CTFD is hard to beat. It’s tougher to judge it by pure gaming content though because most of the games are just too old for anything more than a brief moment of gaming nostalgia. In the end, it boils down to whether or not you enjoyed playing any of the games in this series. Getting those older games to work on Windows XP can be quite a hassle and having them run natively is a big boon. The bonus DVD with its many features is just icing on the cupcake. It’s not quite a full-fledged cake though.

Micro Machines V4 Review

August 26, 2006 by  
Filed under PC, Reviews

The original Micro Machines was released over a decade ago. The concept of racing miniature vehicles on a track made of everyday objects was still nouveau and many lauded that game for its simplistic yet enjoyable gameplay. Sadly, Micro Machines V4 does not build well upon its predecessors.

My sorrows began when I first installed the game; I cringed as the installation menu notified me that it used some sort of copyright-protection that required a restart of my PC. I hoped that it would be a little less rough from that point onwards. I was wrong. The cheesy, choppy intro movies could not be skipped and the menu had "console port" written all over it. There is no mouse support to speak of and the game even supports multiple-input gaming like one would play on a console in their living room.

The visuals were not horrible- they were just bland and uninspired. The cars in particular have so little detail that I had trouble differentiating between all the different models (of which there are plentiful). Some of the tracks make good use of obstacles but more often than not, the bumbling camera will make you miss a turn or run right into a blow-dryer or a billiard ball. The default camera setting makes for some nauseating action but is much more preferable to the basically useless alternative, fixed view. Driving can be fun on certain tracks where the camera is more forgiving. The sharp turns on other tracks can lead to some very frustrating restarts.

The audio is, similarly, not quite horrible but it sure tries to be. Apart from a few explosions, most of the sound effects are boring. The tiny engine sounds are especially unwelcome to my ears. To emphasize how forgettable the audio was: I do not even recall if there was any music during MMV4′s races.

There is an included track editor which lets you choose from a number of set tracks where you can edit waypoints. Actually, it is more of a track customizer rather than a full track editor. The number of real options therefore are rather limited in scope. There is also an online component to the game where one can allegedly race against or trade vehicles with other players. I say allegedly because I could not actually find anyone online to play with. Maybe they got lost on account of the bad camera angles. To add salt to the wound, MMV4 crashed-to-desktop when I tried to quit.

Overall, MMV4 is not worth the money in its present incarnation. It is a budget-quality game that is currently being sold at full price. Fans of the series may be better off buying the actual toys and creating their own tracks with ordinary household items instead of putting up with a bad port of a bad console game.

New Super Mario Bros

August 6, 2006 by  
Filed under DS, Reviews

Ever since the original NES, at least one platformer featuring the Italian plumber has accompanied each of Nintendo’s consoles. I was but a wee gamer when the original Super Mario Bros was released. I remember that I was too scared to fight Bowser and my dad had to finish it for me. I’m a little older now and I figured that I could handle the Mario’s latest game on the DS.

The first thing that stands out about New SMB is that it’s so pretty. Technically speaking, many other games are much more graphically and aurally impressive but New SMB’s art style and direction are, like most other Mario games, on a totally different level. Having so little screen real estate seems to have forced the artists to (pardon the pun) think outside the box. Mushrooms look satisfyingly plump, Goombas look mighty squishable, and Mario, princess-rescuer extraordinaire, runs, jumps, slides and stomps with so much gusto that people who try out the game usually tend to "jump" with the DS.

Mario’s got a few new powers in New SMB including the Mega Mushroom (Mario fills the screen and can destroy pipes, bricks, enemies for a few seconds), Mini Mushroom (become really small giving access to small passageways, run on water, and lowered gravity), and- my personal favorite- the Blue Shell (can hide inside the shell and slide around like a Koopa shell). Those obsessed with 100% completion should make judicious use of the latter two power-ups. Overall, the new powers supplement the original powers quite well even though they don’t pop out that often.

Aside from the main game, New SMB includes a solid contingent of mini-games. Most are slight variations of popular games such as Pairs or Whack-A-Mole and aren’t very deep or engaging but it seems like they’re meant more for "waiting in line at the bank" rather than "waiting to board a plane". By the way, there’s nothing more satisfying to a geek than seeing the envious looks of strangers as Mario shouts, "WA-HOO!" as  he somersaults through the air to get a 1-up at the flag pole- while waiting at the doctor’s office.

Sadly, the game is now over. No, I don’t mean that I died and have to restart from my last save point. I actually didn’t die all that often. The game is really easy to get into and, occasionally, lacks any real challenge aside from going from left to right before the time runs out. Don’t get me wrong: the game is a blast to play but I was never too scared to enter Bowser’s Castle in New SMB. Ok, I was a little scared in World 8. And 5. And 6.

New SMB is a resounding success and a definite must-have for the DS. It scores on just about everything except as a challenging platformer. If you’re like me, that’s probably acceptable.

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