Monday, March 31, 2008

GNOME Breakout


This appears to be a day for playing inferior versions of games I've already played. Pity, that. GNOME Breakout is, rather obviously, a Breakout clone. Unfortunately, while it's barebones-competent, it's a bit unplayable, and certainly not as good as Briquolo (review here).

The controls for the keyboard can't keep up with the speed-increases that occur pretty damn swiftly in the first level (which I couldn't beat), making mouse-control the only real option. Unfortunately, GNOME Breakout doesn't grab the mouse - when the game starts to get faster, you inevitably move the mouse out of the window. Catastrophic in Circus Linux! (review here), it's annoying and only occasionally game-breaking here because the game pauses automatically whenever this happens. Usually, you can react fast enough to wherever the ball was when it paused to save it. That doesn't erase the stop-and-go nature of the gameplay, though. I'm uncomfortably reminded of driving downtown in Richmond and being annoyed by the oddly out-of-sync traffic signals.

So with gameplay that reminds me of one of the more annoying aspects of the town I call home, we're already off to a rough start. We could fix the problem with the mouse by going fullscreen, but GNOME Breakout only operates in windowed fashion, and it's probably a good thing. Graphics that look amateurish in their tiny window would probably really suck blown up to full-size. While not as lo-fi as the Atari version, it's pretty bad. Early 90s shareware level, at least.

So, the controls suck and the graphics are crappy. Next? No sound. Probably would have had crappy sound that got annoying if they had included music, but some kind of impact sound-effect would have been nice.

Moving right along, there's the levels. While the game 'ships' with three level-packs, and has the capability to import more, there's no level selection. This means that, if you're like me and can't beat the first level, the only way to experience another level is to delete the level-pack that it defaults to starting you with. Yay, I can play a completely different level that I still can't beat! I did come closer, however. If you can play this game at all, the extra levels will extend the replayability. I was basically non-functional at the game, so extra levels for me to suck at weren't very appealing.

A quick refresher on Briquolo: functional keyboard controls, functional mouse controls, expandability, decent soundtrack, fully in 3D, great graphics, unique and interesting gamplay modes, and the ability to select levels and level-packs. The fact that GNME Breakout works at all is a testament to the developer's ability; he did a decent job creating a fully functional piece of software. Unfortunately, a little bit of tweaking would have made it actually fun to play (or, to my mind, playable), and he didn't go that extra mile.

I should note that, despite the fact that the game was last updated in 2001, this version is the next-to-most-recent available on the net. No idea what changes were made. I recommend Briquolo to anyone looking for a Breakout-style game for Ubuntu. There's no reason to bother with this GNOME Breakout.

glTron


If I hadn't already played Armagetron Advanced (reviewed here), I probably would have been impressed by glTron. Unfortunately, they essentially offer the same gameplay, and while glTron has a few nice touches, Armagetron Advanced is a more feature-rich and solid production.

Like Armagetron, glTron is a lightcycle game, based on the scenes from the sci-fi Disney classic film. It captures the look of the film, and the controls are simple and intuitive, but... so does Armagetron.

Differences? First, the positive: the mini-map that shows the whole playing field is a nice touch; you can tell at a glance exactly what's going on and plan your strategy around that.

The other big difference is the booster-button. Pressing it gives you a speed boost, and in one game mode allows you to power through walls. Armagetron allows you to gain extra speed solely via a weird wake-system, where if you're close to a wall, you gain a bit of extra speed. It's very unintuitive and I never quite got the hang of it. In glTron, the booster button allows for a simple and highly intuitive method of gaining extra speed, which can be very useful. Huzzah for that!

A minor difference that may make all the difference to you is that glTron has a simple method for adding your own music to the game. You just drop your music files into the appropriate directory, and select them from the internal menu. While you could play Armagetron with another music player running in the background, in-game support theoretically means less processor overhead and is just a nice feature.

Negatives? As far as I could tell, glTron runs only in a window, and only at one resolution (technically, you can change the resolution from the command line, but can't go into full-screen even from there). The graphics aren't quite as nice looking, even at a comparable resolution.

glTron does offer different artpacks - you just download the artpack and plop it in the appropriate directory, and it becomes available within the game's menu system the next time you start the game. Some of the artpacks may make up for the game's innately lackluster look - I didn't install any. Their screenshots showed them to be better done than the graphical themes available for Armagetron, which is an amusing quandary: better game, with better graphical engine, or lamer game with more creatively styled graphics? You decide. Out of the box, Armagetron is more appealing.

Biggest drawback? No network support, yet. You can play up to four players locally, sharing a keyboard, but uhmmm... yeah, that's not ideal. Armagetron offers 16-player networked games, which is in fact ideal. With no story and limited AI, these games depend on their multiplayer to make them fun once the mechanics have been figured out - without the added dimension of intra-human competition, there's just no real reason to play very much. The FAQ on the website says that network play is planned - for 2004. Obviously, they didn't make that deadline, but glTron was still being updated as of October of '07, so there's still hope.

Those are pretty much the only differences. glTron isn't a bad game - it's a solid implementation of the lightcycle game from Tron. But it's not as good as the other lightcycle game available from Ubuntu's default sources, so I don't see any reason to mess with it. If they get around to implementing network play, you may want to revisit this one and see if the alternate artpacks make it more aesthetically appealing, but until then, I'd pass on it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

glpuzzle


While glpuzzle is good enough at the very limited thing that it does, I suspect gCompris (reviewed here) offers a similar 'game' that, at the very least, offers a few more pictures. glpuzzle is a jigsaw-puzzle program; it comes with twelve photos, ranging in difficulty from 4 - 25 pieces. It was hard enough to take me a whole minute and a half to finish the one with 25.

Obviously, I'm not the target market for the software - I hesitate to call it a game - but even for five-year-olds, it's a bit lackluster. It works perfectly, but with only twelve photos total, someone with basic motor-skills and decent vision/pattern recognition would maybe be able to kill thirty minutes with this. A few of the photos are so busy I suspect the uber-young, who are the only people who could benefit from the game, would have difficulty solving them.


It seems like you should be able to add photos, and create your own puzzles, but there's no mention of that on the website and the photos are in some proprietary-to-the-software format that Gimp doesn't recognize. To nit-pick and add insult to this poor programmer's injury, the sound it makes when you connect a piece made my nerves crawl. I may have had the volume up too loud.

In short, throw it on our PC if you want to amuse your pre-school aged children for a bit, but don't expect it to hold their attention for long. As mentioned, gCompris has a gazillion things that would serve to sharpen the same skills, in a more aesthetically pleasing package that also offers tons more. I don't recommend glpuzzle for anyone over the age of four.

Globulation 2


Having not yet reached a full-release version, Globulation 2 is still one of the most polished and interesting games I've played in Linux. While there are areas for improvement, if they stuffed it in a box and put it in a GameStop it would totally be worth 20 bucks as it is, and probably be superior to anything else in that price range (new, for the record).

At its heart, Globulation 2 is a different take on the real-time strategy genre. Most RTSs involve direct manipulation of units, sometimes in a frantically fast-paced manner that gives the same sort of feel as an intense action game. Rather than trod that well-worn route, the makers of this one elected to combine RTS mechanics with management-style games, and ended up with a beautiful hybrid that plays like an incredibly deep take on Desktop Tower Defense.

As a player, you don't order your 'globules' to do things, you just sort of proclaim 'Let it be done!' by placing something on the map (a new building or a rally point) and your globules respond by... trying to make it happen. If you give an order that taxes your poor critters to the breaking point, it'll happen very slowly, and you might even end up with some losses due to starvation (I'm not sure, but I think that's how I brought about the cataclysmic downfall of my first non-tutorial empire).

Basically, you never give commands; the only thing you give orders to is the architecture. If you want something specific done - lets use an attack on a specific building for example - you place a marker on the building called a 'war flag' and if you've got any warrior types, they'll all rally 'round the flag, if they can get there. They automatically attack the enemy, so once they get in range of the target, they attack it. Delete the flag and they'll return to your defensive areas.

Which is how everything works... you define goals, and your people make it happen. Want to make sure they're defending your HQ? Paint the area with a defensive marker, and they'll be sure to keep the area patrolled. Trees in the way? Paint them with a 'clear' marker and your workers will harvest lumber from that area first. It sounds like a mere difference in semantics, but it plays out as a substantially different beast from your standard RTS.

It's very intuitive, and while you may occasionally be reacting just as frantically as a player in a standard RTS, you're usually busier strategizing than real-timing. Deciding what to do first, what needs to be upgraded, how large your army should be, how you want to manufacture units... that's the gist of the game. Set your architecture up correctly and defense will take care of itself; when you're ready, wipe out the other guys.

It most resembles Desktop Tower Defense in that you can build defense towers. And walls. And if you like, you can build them in such a way as to channel enemies into specific areas, and slow their progress, creating kill-zones and... you see where I'm going with this? If you haven't played Desktop Tower Defense you don't, but if you haven't played that, then you should click on the link up towards the top of this review and do that. It's a Flash game, and it's rather ingenius even if I do suck at it.

Of course, if you want to build intricate structures you're going to need workers, and workers need food, so you'll need more workers to harvest food, and you'll need inns for workers to eat and so on. Globulation 2 is an expanded and uber-deep implementation the basic mechanics of that game, combined with the resource gathering and population management of the RTS genre and ends up something else altogether, with the potential to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

It's not quite there yet. On the handful of maps I played, it seemed too easy - I never played a map where I didn't just build all the useful structures, max out their upgrades, build an army, and go to town. Some of the smaller maps may have played out differently, with constant skirmishing redefining the pace and prioritization, but that wasn't my experience.

Most damning is the lack of a campaign. The version offered by Ubuntu's package sources has a tutorial that's quite short, and no campaigns. The most recent release (again with this complete out-of-sync thing going on; there have been three releases since the one the packages are distributing) has expanded the tutorial into a four-part campaign, but it's still just a tutorial. For single-player fun, a campaign is (IMHO) essential for this game.

There are a decent number of varied and interesting maps, for the record. This makes online multiplayer sound very appealing, as it's almost certain that human opponents would not only make victory more appealing, they'd offer up surprising and entertaining strategies compared to the rather blasé experience one gets from the AI. Thankfully, there is networked multiplayer support (LAN or internet), and so all is right with the world.

The graphics are nice, and actually remind me of the style you get from some of the better Flash games (possibly just because I was thinking of Flash games as I played it). Crisp, but also cute - I seem to have neglected to mention that the game centers around competing tribes of 'globules', gelatinous-looking faceless creatures. I mention it now. They're amusingly cute, almost relaxing to behold, and the art-direction goes with the trend. Everything has a sort of pastoral, innocent vibe.

Well, except for the combat music. It's whimsically menacing, if not exactly impressive, making for a vaguely edgy vibe when one of your globules encounters a combat unit of the opposing side. There isn't a lot of variety in the sound-track, but it never gets insanely grating despite the repetition.

As it stands, the game's a bit limited as a single-player game, but still capable of providing hours of enjoyment to the lonely gamer. Should you be inclined to rock it all multiplayer-style, you'll find it even more rewarding. This is among the most enthusiastic thumbs-ups I've given in this blog: Check it out. Even if you're not a big RTS fan (I'm not) you might find that it wins you over.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

gLife


gLife is another non-game. It's an artificial life simulator. You can alter a few characteristics via the preference menu, but the gist of it is very simple: you click 'start' and these dots start to move around. There are male dots, female dots, and terrain dots. Watch. Be engaged.

Honestly, it's not that engaging, but it was sort of sad. Around 220 turns in, all the dots stopped reproducing, leaving unoccupied yellow terrain dots behind as they died of old age. Finally there was only one little guy left (I was amused that it was a guy; considering that women have longer lifespans in virtually every society, you would think the last person alive would be female) and he bounced from square to square, a hopeless dot in a wasteland of yellow.

What does it all mean? Beats me. This is an interesting-for-thirty-seconds novelty unless you're going to dig into the source-code and alter bits n' pieces of the rulesets to run experiments on artificial life systems or what-have-you. It hasn't been updated since 2000, but the elephant's graveyard that is SourceForge still has the page up for it. The messageboard there is almost as sad as the last blue dot on earth, scurrying about the desert.

GL-117


This makes the second flight-sim we've looked at here, and while GL-117 is bunches less realistic, it's also bunches more fun. It appears to be a few versions out of date, which is a bit odd considering that the last version released was released in '05, but even in this state it's completely playable.

There are four training missions that give you the hang of controlling the aircraft and blowing stuff up, but the meat of the game lies in its campaign mode. There doesn't appear to be any sort of 'story' per se, at five missions in; each mission is arbitrarily defined, and not related to any of the others.

GL-117 is an arcadey combat flight-sim; prior to each level, you pick your plane and your armament package, and then it plops you into the mission a few hundred feet above the ground. While taking off and landing are not the important bits of combat, the fact that you never take off and that it just cuts to the mission-select screen after you finish a mission certainly make the simulation a lot less immersive.

Where GL-117 really shines is in the controls - I've never played a flight-sim with mouse controls so intuitive and streamlined that they feel perfectly natural. I wasn't even tempted to pull out the joystick, which is a first for me as far as flight-sims go. Huzzah!

Graphically, it's got the Linux-3D look. You know how everything is sharp and well-defined, but doesn't look photo-realistic, it just looks 3D? If retail games are using oil-paints, your average open-source game is rocking crayons or colored pencils. This falls at the upper end of colored pencils, but it's certainly not as impressive as that game for the 360 I keep seeing ads for.

The machine-gun and explosion sounds are a bit too tinny and empty for my tastes, but the throttle sound is fun. The music is decent and oddly dancy, but it only plays in the title screen, so it doesn't really matter.

Flaws? The most glaring issue I had was that I couldn't create new pilots or delete a pilot or anything; this resulted in my playing through everything as 'Pilot AB', and only having one slot I could play with. Couldn't find any mention of the problem elsewhere, so I'm going to assume it was fixed in a release after the one installed via Ubuntu's packages, and that I would have had no problem if I'd compiled from source.

The campaign, as mentioned, doesn't have any sort of narrative to it, so you are going to play solely for the joy of the mechanics. Thankfully, the mechanics are well-conceived and well-implemented, so it's still fun, but it doesn't have the pull to push further that a connected series of campaign missions would have had.

It's greatest strength is probably its largest flaw to a lot of people: it's not an accurate simulation at all. It's a fun simulation, but you only have to know five buttons and that includes the three buttons on your mouse. What it offers the casual player in terms of instant fun and accessibility, render it useless and unsatisfying to the hardcore flight-sim player.

There stands the verdict: if you're looking for a light n' fluffy pastry of a combat flight-sim, GL-117 is exactly what you need. It's simple, fun, and fast-paced. If, on the other hand, a hearty meal full of minutiae and realism is all that will satisfy you, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ghextris


Somehow, I don't think the world is ready for Ghextris' hexagonal-Tetris gameplay. Mostly due to me being finicky about the actual physics of my Tetris games. See, in real life, due to the nature of a hexagon, pieces wouldn't slide in perfectly like they do in the game. They'd stack. It would be impossible to ever get a line cleared because they'd catch whenever there was just one space left in a row.

Ignoring that admittedly anal-retentive complaint, Ghextris is a serviceable if decidely un-featured take on Tetris with hexagonal pieces. There tend to be more piece-configurations with the hexes, and there's also a lot of variability in how you can play them, so it's actually a fun concept.

The graphics are uber-simple; no 3D effects here. None are really needed, but it's not even as pretty as Tetris was on the GameBoy, so... you decide. If the graphics don't matter at all, they don't matter here, and it's fine. If you like your games to please the eye as well as the brain, you're not going to like what you see.

There is no music; generally I would say this is somewhere between a good thing and a completely unimportant thing. Sure, Tetris had a great soundtrack, but virtually every other puzzle game ever made has a soundtrack that just gets irritating. I'm fine with the lack.

If you're an OCD Tetris player searching for a new kick, give it a spin. If you just want a fun real-time logic-puzzle sort of game, there's loads of better ones out there, even ones with multiplayer and high-score lists. In short, pass on this one unless you're a fetishist for Tetris variants.

Gamazons


Weird game. Gamazons is a chess-like game, played on a 10x10 chess board where you get five pieces that move like queens. I'll never play it again, but people who like playing chess on a regular basis should probably check it out, as it's a very different sort of game but it relies on the same sort of tactical thinking, perhaps moreso.

You see, not only do all of the pieces move like queens, they also all have to shoot an 'arrow' at the end of each turn. So the board slowly fills up with these permanent 'arrows' that can't be moved over. You don't take pieces, you eliminate squares. The winner is the last person who can move a piece. Your goal is to trap the opponent's pieces with arrows while leaving your own pieces with mobility. It's just as brain-stressing as a game of chess, but with different strategies.

Graphically, as you can see, it's a bit simplistic. Outside of one or two of the 3D chess games and a handful of other exceptions, graphics haven't been very impressive for any of the logic-puzzle/strategy games we've looked at, so I wouldn't take off too many points for that. Gamazons has no music or sound effects.

There is an AI opponent, so you can play against the computer, watch the computer play against itself, or play against another person locally. There is no network support, but the website states that network support is planned, so just hang in there. Maybe.

If you're a fan of turn-based strategy board-gaming, you should probably check this out. If you're not - and I'm guessing you're not - you should probably not bother. If you don't dig playing chess, you're not gonna dig this any more.

Fyrdman


What can I say about Fyrdman? It's ugly, I can't make it do anything, and I think it's multi-player only, which puts it outside the mission of this blog. It has no documentation: it was designed to run under KDE, not Gnome, and so trying to use the help command just gets you a 'There is no documentation' error in some KDE help-file system thing.

This is a game from the 'GGZ Gaming Zone Project', which "makes free online gaming possible." Or at least, the website says it does. It doesn't seem possible for me.

Frozen-Bubble


As I am always in the mood for Puzzle Bobble derivatives, Frozen-Bubble sounded like it might be a good time. Despite its polish, Frozen-Bubble suffers as a single-player game. The fact that it offers multiplayer support both locally and via network saves it from being a completely skippable title.

First, the good: it's a clone of Puzzle Bobble, and it's very cute n' pretty. The theme is penguins (someone, please explain to me who thought it was a great idea that Linux and penguins be forever entwined? Honestly, it's just weird), so there's a cute little penguin at the bottom of the screen cranking your little aiming-turret thing left and right according to your will, and there's an arctic vibe to everything.

The graphics are really sharp-looking windowed; I couldn't find an option for full-screen. They're also consistent - the artists had an aesthetic in mind, and stuck with it, making everything look very nice with everything else. I love it when that happens.

The multi-player mode has an interesting chaining effect where bubbles that are dropped but not part of the color that was exploded can return to the field of play and pop more bubbles. It's hard to explain, but easy to figure out once you see it in action. I thought it was cool; it was probably ripped off from some other game, but if they invented, props to them.

Downside? Scoring is inscrutable. I couldn't find any info on it on the website, or within the game. It's non-existent for the single-player game, which is bad enough. Half the fun of Puzzle Bobble is getting massive amounts of bonus points for finishing quickly or for dropping lots of bubbles at once, and they eliminate that fun by having your level and time serve as your score in single-player mode.

That seems doubly pointless when you take into account that they have implemented scores for the multiplayer mode - why take them out of single-player? But even in multiplayer, it's not a fun scoring system because I have no idea what earns me points. It wasn't just dropping balls; that would give me points sometimes, and other times not. I dunno.

The music is unimpressive. Every Puzzle Bobble game that has music, has music that eventually gets really old. So that I got tired of this perky electronic stuff rather quickly doesn't mean it's bad. The sound-effects are nicely remeniscent of the source material, as far as high-pitched squealy voices go.

Basically, this is a solid game that works well and looks great but isn't very fun in single-player mode. I'm sure it's great for multiplayer, but that's not very hard to do, as you bring fun with you when you're gaming with your friends. All a game has to do is not get in the way. I wouldn't recommend this even to fans of the genre, unless they've tried every other option available and are just desperate for more levels, as far as single-player is concerned. For intercontinental bubble battles, it's a go.

Frets On Fire


Hrmn, this one was disappointing but I think it's because my computer sucks, not because the game does. Frets On Fire is sort of an open-source version of Guitar Hero, which I've never actually played. But I've seen people play it at parties, which qualifies me to judge it, right?

The guitar-controller of Guitar Hero and Rock Band looks a lot more intuitive than using the F-keys of the keyboard, especially my keyboard with its weird gap between each set of four function keys, making my life difficult. That said, I'd think that anyone who was into the game could quickly get used to his or her particular keyboard, and you can re-map the keys if you're so inclined.

I couldn't really do a good test of this game, however, because it ran so poorly. Even at 640x480, there was horrible lag in the menus and in the game. I couldn't tell if my low scores were because of the lag, or because of my own ineptitude combined with the lag, but the lag was definitely a problem. Actually, my ineptitude was probably just as big a problem, but I'll never be certain, thanks to the lag. Sometimes it's better not to know.

Still, it's kind of a shame, as I would have liked to get into the game. It was worth the download just to go through the tutorial, voiced by a hilarious German accent that perfectly captures the personality of the sneering metal snob. Kudos for that!

On the downside, every time I tried to change video settings, it crashed to desktop with my resolution changed to 640x480, which was a major drag. I just had to log off and log back on to fix the resolution, but crashing is uncool. Thankfully, it did save my changes each time. Unfortunately, disabling anti-aliasing didn't help with the lag.

Also of note is the fact that the default package installs just the game. You can use Synaptic to download the default four-pack of songs, or you can search the internets for others. Torrent sites seemed to be full of them, as they were virtually all that came up when I googled for song-packs. As installed, it doesn't have any songs, so it doesn't work. But the tutorial works fine, and that was the best part for me, anyways.

Don't trust this review's negativity - others speak very highly of the game. If your hardware exceeds mine (almost everyone's does), it's probably very playable. It's a free Guitar Hero-clone that, according to the website, even accepts input from a guitar-controller, so it adds free extensibility to your console guitar games, if your PC runs it well. I have no valid opinion to express.

FreedroidRPG


What a pleasant surprise. While in an obviously incomplete state, FreedroidRPG is a surprisingly functional and full-featured attempt at blending a Diablo-clone with a more traditional RPG. I'd definitely recommend it to fans of Diablo-style RPGs or fans of sci-fi humor, without a second thought.

The plot is just weird. You're on a far away planet, where bots were the friends and helpers of humanity until just recently; they revolted and are out to slaughter all the humans. You play the part of Tux, a Linerian (read: a penguin). Linerians are an ancient and wise race said to be able to communicate with computers via their minds, and they came from an unknown galaxy for an unknown reason centuries ago. Tux was in cryogenic sleep until he was awakened by a human who was hoping he could save the world.

Yeah, it's really that bizarre. It's actually got a decent amount of depth; there's a city run by the tyrannical Red Guard, who offer folks security at the cost of outrageously high taxation and lack of personal freedoms. The city is well-populated with a diverse and unique cast of characters. The surrounding countryside, as well, is peopled with bizarre personalities that are a joy to interact with.

And that's the best thing about FreedroidRPG: its personality. The game is full of amusing jokes about Linux culture and geekdom in general, making it a delight to uncover new characters. While the writing is occasionally clumsy, it's usually witty and clever.

Unfortunately, there's not as much personality or cleverness in the general plot progression, as quests inevitably devolve into going into the same type of place (a dark and cramped dungeon) and doing the same type of thing: killing all the bad bots.

Its lineage is partially to blame for this; you could say similar things about Diablo, but Diablo did feature unique and varied locales which contained unique and varied creatures to kill. Here, everything looks pretty similar, and the bots are mostly derivative and unimaginative. This could change as more art assets are created for the game, but at its current state, outside of the city there's an awful lot of awfully similar terrain.

The graphics are a slapdash mix of aesthetics, with romantically pastelled post-apocalyptic trees surrounded by futuristic classic sci-fi looking buildings - it's Star Trek-meets-Fallout, competently done to varying degrees of success. It's never ugly, but it's occasionally boring.

The music is pretty but it gets old really fast. The music changes whenever you hit a different area, which makes for grating rapid transitions whenever you're near a border; this isn't the first game where I've noticed this, and it's a bit annoying.

Everyone's played Diablo so the basic game mechanics should be easy to pick up. Click to move, click to attack. Unfortunately, the pathfinding blows in constrained spaces and there's enough of a problem with item-finding that to pick something up or to attack something sometimes requires a bunch of random repositioning to find the sweet spot where the game will recognize what you're trying to do. It's manageable, but annoying. A little work on the part of the dev-team could fix it.

The only other real problem I found was that quest items are not indicated as such. This directly led to me quitting the game, as I discovered that I'd inadvertently sold an item needed for the completion of a quest, before I even got the quest. After wandering around the game world for hours, some Googling revealed that I had been wasting my time, and that I would have to start over to finish the quest. Game-breakers like that suck.

Outside of those faults, however, it's a fun romp in a geektastic post-apocalyptic world. Forewarned is forearmed (don't sell the energy crystals!), and keeping the flaws in mind, you should have a good time with FreedroidRPG. If it ever makes it to 1.0, it will be favorably comparable with any of the commercial Diablo-clones of the past few years. Open-source games, like ugly people, prove that personality goes a long way. FreedroidRPG has personality in spades.

Monday, March 17, 2008

FreeDroid


Apparently, FreeDroid started out as a clone of the game Paradroid, but morphed into FreeDroidRPG. This is a review of the former; the latter will be reviewed next. This 'classic' version of FreeDroid hasn't been updated since 2003, so it's safe to say that it's been abandoned, I think.

The game begins with an introductory story, explaining that two ships have turned on distress beacons indicating that the droids on board have gone wacko. They're in a contested border region of your galactic empire or whatever, and therefore the ships must be boarded and the droids must be destroyed, to keep their technology from the enemy.

I had a really hard time figuring this one out, because to have any staying power at all you have to play a minigame where you take control of other robots, and it's not documented at all within the game or on the website. I got enough of it to feel like I half-ass know what I'm doing from the man page, but I still feel like I'm missing something.

The basic play is simple; use the awsd keys to move your little guy around, blasting droids. Unfortunately, your little guy is constantly losing juice, and to refuel you have to take over other droids via the mini-game described above. The graphics in the menu and the death screens are all really nice looking, in a two-dimensional hand-drawn way. The game itself is pretty low-fi.

Your speed seemed to depend on what you were controling, and there's a bit of physics implemented as far as momentum goes, when you crash into other droids, which is fun. Mostly the controls were responsive, but they get clumsy in the minigame (adding insult to injury), sometimes overshooting or doing nothing, in the same way Gnometris did.

The sound is low-key and the music, while quiet, is soothing old-school style electronica. In all, I'd say its sound design was its strongest feature. The core game mechanics were decent enough, but inscrutable enough to be frustrating for quite a while.

Mostly, I'd give this game a pass unless you were a fun of the original Amiga 'classic' I'd never heard of. There are better real-time games out there, and it's not much of a strategy game, though it seems to try. FreeDroid tries to do two types of gameplay but does neither very well. The result is unimpressive, though it's not actually bad.

FreeCiv


Firstly, I just want to mention that the version of FreeCiv that Ubuntu installs is out of date. This is going to be a negative review, and a few of the issues I had may have been fixed with later releases. The release I'm reviewing is 2.0.9, released in February of last year; the latest stable release is 2.1.3, released in January of this year (2008, if this blog is still around in the future).

When I started this quest, I was looking forward to FreeCiv a lot. Since the first Civilizations! game came out, there's been some form of Civ on every PC I've owned; right now, I have CivIII installed on my XP partition. I figured I'd be wading through a lot of alpha-level, poorly designed and coded crap. FreeCiv was going to be my reward for getting through all the games from 'A' to 'E'.

After trying to get into it for over a week, I just can't stand to play it. I could write an epic monologue on all the problems I had with it, but quite frankly, I'm ready to move on. So here's the gist:

The biggest problem is that it's sluggish. It's just very unresponsive on my machine, and it shouldn't be; the graphics are about at the level of CivI. There's a split-second of delay whenever I do anything, and an awfully long - sometimes a full second - pause whenever I re-center the map, or try to drag the map to a different view.

A second is not a very long time. But it's something you're doing anywhere from a handful to a few dozen times per turn, depending on the action. Those seconds and fractions of seconds add up to make gameplay a source of annoyance and irritation.

The other big problem? I don't expect this one to be fixed by a further release. The controls are clunky and un-ergonomic. I have a list of a thousand tiny little complaints, but what they all add up to is that neither the keyboard nor the mouse is very good at anything; you have to use both, constantly.

And switching back and forth is just obnoxious, when it wasn't much of a hassle in the retail games that inspired FreeCiv. I don't know how or why they decided to break the game-control, but they did, and as someone who's played tons of retail-Civ, FreeCiv is just full of things that irritate me to no end.

Quick example of an annoying feature: the 'City Management' screen has five tabs. You can't change what you're producing from the default one. In Civ I-III, you can, from one screen, see all the production you're doing, the buildings you have, the units that are stationed in the city, and all the other stats... and you can change them all, from that one screen.

In FreeCiv, I can see what I'm building from the main screen, and even after a week, I'm still absently clicking on that, and then remembering it doesn't doing anything, and then clicking the 'Production' tab, and selecting what I want to build from the list. There's no reason at all for production to be altered on a separate screen. I can envision the arguments made in support of it, but everything that's added to flexibility doesn't make up for the huge sacrifice in ergonomics. Especially to someone who's familiar with the retail versions.

Graphically, the game's not pleasing. Not only is it not pretty (in any of the default tile-sets), it's a weird mish-mash of default window-elements and graphical-elements that is offensive to the eye, if you care about such things. Generally, I would say that what's important about a Civ game is the gameplay, but since they broke that, it would be nice for the game to at least be as aesthetically pleasing as the first Civ game. I should also point out that I occasionally got artifacts and glitchiness when scrolling the map, so the graphics aren't just ugly, they're broken.

For the record, I keep seeing screenshots of a prettier setup for FreeCiv but I can't figure out what it is. If you go to this page, the first and last screenshots show a GUI that's very nice looking. I think the difference must be that it's the SDL version, as those are the only screenshots that mention being the SDL client. That version isn't available for Linux. Oh well.

I couldn't get sound working. No idea why. There were no additional soundpacks or anything to download, ala Abuse, and the game gives two options for sound engines; both work in other games, just not in Civ. Again, sound's not a huge part of what's attractive about Civ games (though I do like the sound effects in CivIII a lot), but it would be nice for it to work.

There are some neat things about FreeCiv. Customizable rule-sets and themes are a cool idea, and the number of nations you can play as is awe-inspiring; you can be Mordor, for god's sake. It's playable multi-player in a weird real-time turn-based combination that sounds quite interesting. FreeCiv is very feature-rich.

Unfortunately, it's also a pain in the ass to play, ugly, clunky, and poorly designed. Just out of curiosity, I dusted off my surprisingly-without-bad-sectors copy of Civilizations! and got it running under DosBox. It looked better, it ran better, and it controlled better. The same is true of Civilization III which is currently available for five bucks from most major retailers with a discount-software section. I'm sure it plays fine under Wine, and five dollars is close enough to free that I don't see why you'd bother with FreeCiv, except for the multi-player.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

FooBillard


It's impossible to perfectly replicate a game of pool on the PC - enough complexity to satisfy someone who regularly plays the real thing inevitably results in an overly complex and thoroughly unwieldy set of controls. FooBillard manages to reach a near perfect balance, offering most of what you'd want in a game of pool but also offering simplified systems that allow for the best of both worlds.

This is not to say it's not occasionally clunky, although if you want to play without utilizing english or using the mouse to set the velocity of your shots, it's pretty streamlined. Rotate around the cue ball until the dotted line indicating the ball's path is where you want it to be, adjust the power via a slider bar, and hit the space-bar. Repeat.

If you want to add english to your shot, however, you've got to switch camera modes. Then hold down 'shift' while also holding down the right mouse button, and you can alter where the cue will strike the cue ball. It's not intuitive, but it becomes natural after just a few games.

If you prefer an analog system for making shots, you must be in the same camera mode. This time you hold down 'ctrl' and the left mouse button, moving the mouse down to pull back on the cue, and then back up, determining in the process how hard you strike the ball. It works well enough, but there's no way to aim the direction of shot in this camera mode, so you'll end up switching back and forth at the end of each shot, which is a bit of a drag.

Even that becomes second nature after a bit, and it's a good system, offering as much control as you could want if you're willing to take the time to adjust to it. Clunky systems of input have been around since Rogue, if not longer, and this is at least a case of a necessarily clunky system that has been streamlined as well as can be expected.

The physics are generally great, for the balls that the cue-ball hits, but the cue-ball itself doesn't seem to behave quite like they do in real life, after it impacts a ball. It sort of feels like it's not losing as much kinetic energy as it should in the impact, and bounces around a lot more than it should. I'm not an expert at pool, however, so it's possible I'm just imagining it. Either way, taking it into account wasn't a problem, and outside of that one quibble, everything has a very good feel to it.

The inevitable graphics paragraph: the graphics look nice, if not overly impressive. At 1024x768 in full-screen, with all the highest detail settings, it performed well on my machine but didn't seem to look quite as slick and perfect as BillardGL did. BillardGL was missing virtually all of the features necessary to make it a decent game, however, so any tiny points it gets for slightly better graphics don't matter in the long run.

There is no music, and the sound is just what you'd expect it to be. Clickin' and clackin' as the balls strike. No more, no less. Nothing more needed, or even expected, so all is well here.

Though I didn't test it, it features networked as well as local multiplayer. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the AI player to work, so it suffers a bit as a single-player game. The key to toggle between AI player and human player never seemed to change anything, nor did the 'AI shot suggestion' key, although pressing the latter did prevent me from actually making a shot. It's possible I just didn't understand how the system worked.

There are actually four pool games on offer in FooBillard: 8-ball, 9-ball, carombol, and snooker. I only played the former two, as I wasn't familiar with the latter games. One minor detail that was a bit odd: in 8-ball, it didn't always rack the balls properly.

Rather than having a solid at the top of the pyramid, it was often a striped ball, and sometimes it didn't follower the alternating-stripes-and-solids-around-the-perimeter rule, as a result. The eight was always in the proper spot, so I suppose it doesn't matter much in the long run, and it's possible that in Germany (where they do, in fact, spell the game 'billard') the rule is different.

FooBillard is unquestionably superior to BillardGL and very much a playable game. I had fun with it. It's pretty to look at, with a solid physics engine, and offers the flexibility of a fully-featured aiming system. Add in the network play, and this is definitely a viable option for those who wish to get their pool game on via some open-source software.

FloboPuyo


FloboPuyo is sort of a more traditional, less insane, but also less clever version of the game Cuyo I reviewed a while ago. Both are vaguely Tetris-esque, but while Cuyo depended on different rule-sets and wildly variant graphics on each level, FloboPuyo simply ramps up the opponent's AI with each level. I think.

The gameplay is simple: a single 2x1 colored 'puyo' block drops from the ceiling; position it where you want them. Match the colors in series of four to make them vanish, sending a 'ghost puyo' to your opponent's screen. Removing more than four in a series or performing a chain reaction exponentially increases the number of ghost puyos you send to your opponent's screen, and they're harder to get rid of than the regular ole' puyos. The point is the same as Tetris and Puzzle Bobble and every other game where stuff drops down from the top: don't fill up the screen. Outlast your opponent, you win the level.

There's nothing really unique about the gameplay - it's directly inspired by the game that was titled Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine in the U.S., and doesn't add any depth or complexity that wasn't there. If you like these sort of real-time puzzle games, you'll find it satisfying.

It has an interesting look, but the levels aren't very differentiated; I think there are three backgrounds and they just cycle through them over and over again. However many unique backgrounds there are, they're all pretty similar: they feature a spy/private-eye looking guy in comic-strip style art in between the two players' fields of play. The puyos themselves are sharp and colorful, but they don't have any neat effects or animations. That's not important for the gameplay, but it makes the game compare unfavorably to its peers.

The sound effects get a bit irksome after a while. The music undergoes a sharp change when either of the players is nearing defeat, which is useful. However, the transition is very abrupt, and based solely on blocks reaching a certain height, so it can be discordant when someone's hovering around the transition-point.

There's local multiplayer, and the game also features a decently challenging AI. Network support, as always, would add a lot to the fun-factor and replayability of the game, but the website doesn't mention any plans for implementing it.

FloboPuyo is competent, and aesthetically coherent, but very limited. I'm sure there are better titles out there, featuring the same type of gameplay, so I can't heartily recommend it. For my money, Puzzle Bobble-style mechanics are more enjoyable anyways. After a three year hiatus, it seems to be in active development again, so maybe it will differentiate itself from the pack in the future.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Flight of the Amazon Queen


Our father that art in heaven, hallowed be they name, thank you for letting Flight of the Amazon Queen finally be over. I have been playing this game literally since a few minutes after my last post. I took breaks for sleep and work, obviously, but I've just been slogging through this wretched piece of adventure-gaming history in virtually all of my down-time for the past week. I had been looking forward to it, but anticipation quickly turned to dismay, and dismay didn't take long to turn into agony.

At its essence, Flight of the Amazon Queen plays a lot like its demi-sibling, Beneath a Steel Sky. They were released by the same company, I think they use the same engine, and since they're both adventure games, they both conform to the standards and conventions of that genre. Unfortunately, while Beneath a Steel Sky is a pleasure to play, Flight of the Amazon Queen magnifies its flaws and creates a bunch of new ones, while neglecting to have any of the positives of the former.

The story isn't a dark dystopian view of the future, which is fine. I don't demand dystopias in all my diversions, and a change of pace sounded great. But the story for Flight of the Amazon Queen is also retarded, which is less than fine.

You're an airplane-pilot for hire who is supposed to fly a movie-star to the Amazon jungle; unfortunately, you crash-land and to escape, you have to rescue an Amazon princess from the clutches of an insane German scientist named Dr. Frank Ironstein, who is plotting to turn all the women of the Amazon tribe into dinosaur cross-breeds and use them to take over the world. He plots to do this with the aid of a magical crystal skull, and a DNA dino-raygun which he has developed. It sounds laughable but fun; it's implemented in such a way as to be laughable, but also mind-numbingly stupid, without an ounce of fun.

The writing itself sucks, but the voice-acting is painful. I was screaming for mercy from the vilely-fake Jersey accent the protagonists uses within minutes. And it just kept going... and going... and going... like some Energizer bunny of dialog suckiness. Your main rival's accent is supposed to be Dutch, but instead sounds like the worst Sean Connery imitation you've ever heard. The best voice-work in the game comes from the Germans, because even though they're supposed to sound like over-the-top caricatures, they're still the most accurate and least flat portrayals. And they're not any good either, for the record.

For all intents and purposes, you can't skip any of the dialog. And Joe King (more on the bad humor, next paragraph) has something to say about everything. Maybe when this came out, voice-acting was so new that it was cool even when it sucked. I've been listening to bad voice acting in video games for over a decade, and this is the worst voice acting I've heard, except for Blue Stinger on the Dreamcast. Painful things you can't skip are par for the course in this game.

Ridiculously juvenile humor is a constant. Twelve year-old boys would have cringed playing this; it must have been written by seven year-olds. I was involuntarily grimacing every minute or two; groans were so constant my room mate asked me if I was okay, a few hours in.

You spend a lot of time going back and forth in the same environments. By the end of the game, I was going back and forth between reading Kotaku and RockPaperShotgun, and playing the game. I would click on the exit, then alt-tab to my browser to read while I waited for the character to actually get there.

Yes, I could have sped up the game, but I didn't know until the end that there was never anything time-sensitive; in most adventure games, you sometimes have to slow the game down because there are real-time interactions that result in certain death. In this game's favor, as far as I know, it's impossible to die. Every adventure game should adopt that philosophy, and most of the good ones did. Playing at its default speed sucks, regardless.

Even playing at a higher speed, you're re-treading the same screens so often that it's just boring. They tried to do a bit to ameliorate that in the jungle portions of the game, by having a central point from which you could get to the main areas. But they messed it up by designing the locations poorly.

For example, take the crash site. It's where you start the jungle portion, and you'll be returning to it quite a bit. But getting back there always requires you to go through two screens that only have something to do on them the first time you visit them. Every time you have to go back to the crash site, you have to walk through those screens. Why? For no reason whatsoever, except that they didn't think the layout through at all.

The credits listed around 30 QA people - I can't believe they actually played the game all the way through; anyone with a brain would have been annoyed by the needless treking about that could have easily been fixed. They would have been annoyed by the horrible dialog. They would have been annoyed by the stupid humor (unless they were less than ten years of age). They would have hated the game, and made constructive criticisms that could have been used to make the game not suck.

The puzzles are, for the most part, not only painfully obvious but painfully contrived. Normally, adventure-games are so obtuse that they have you banging your head against the wall, so kudos to these guys for not going down that route, but they went way too far in the opposite direction. Example: girl says she needs perfume. Cue cutscene, where a character just happens to throw her perfume in the lake, for no good reason, and stalk off.

That happens constantly. Just once in a while, it's totally forgivable. You have a neat idea for a puzzle, and can't make it flow smoothly, so you make a coincidence. I'm fine with that. But every frickin' time? There are just too many utterly laughable coincidences taking place. Again, the writers must have been pre-teens to think that wouldn't make the experience a lot less immersive.

If you're an adventure-game fan, and you've exhausted all other free options, feel free to take this one for a spin. It works, and it's longer than Beneath a Steel Sky. That it's longer only in an artificial way because it makes you go back and forth between the same old environments, and that it has the most juvenile story-telling I've encountered in an adventure game not coded by Roberta Williams, make it a game I could only recommend for an obsessive-compulsive player of the genre. All others, steer clear. Very clear.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

FlightGear


I can't say I enjoyed FlightGear much at all. I enjoyed it so little, actually, that I ended up booting into XP and installing it there, to see if it sucked as bad in Windows as it did in Linux. While some minor issues were a bit better, it was basically the same thing, and therefore not any more fun.

Mind you, a lot of the problem with FlightGear is just part n' parcel of what it is: it's a flight-sim that wants to be everything to everyone, and completely simulate every aspect of flying a plane. And I suspect that it's pretty gosh-darned difficult to learn to fly a plane; there are lots of manuals n' tests n' whatnot, anyway. Learning to fly in FlightGear is probably not quite as difficult as learning to fly in real life, but it's as close as they could come.

Add in the insanely un-user-friendly controls, and it might actually be harder. I don't have a flight-stick with pedals, so right off the bat I've got a less intuitive control system for the basics of flight than anyone in a real plane. Or anyone who really loves flight-sims, which is the real target audience for this game - those guys are likely to have a completely different play experience, because a.) they already know all the minuscule basics, and b.) they already have the specialized gear.

Outside of the joystick/pedal issues, which were relatively easy to make better (turn on an automatic thingy that eliminates the need for you to use pedals, making turning a bunch easier in general, if costing you a bit of realism and - presumably - control), there were the rest of the controls.

Playing FlightGear is more like playing NetHack than anything else I can compare it to. There are tons n' tons of spots where both the capital and lowercase versions of a character are mapped, so you have to remember that 'g' raises the landing gear, and 'G' lowers it - or is it the other way around?

Realism's all fine, well, and good, but if they really have two separate buttons on an air plane, one for raising the landing gear, and one for lowering it, they need to talk to their engineers. That's stupidly redundant in real life, and obnoxious in the game - the gods made toggle switches for a reason. Those reasons? A combination of ease of use and efficient use of space. Neither of which do the minds behind FlightGear know anything about.

Now that we've dealt with the fact that the keyboard is unintuitively and often ludicrously set up, on to the mouse. Surprise, it sucks too. Right clicking alternates between three different mouse modes. 'Flight control', 'Camera View', and 'Interactive'. I think the theory here was that, rather than memorizing 255 keyboard commands, you could just click on stuff on the control panel to make things happen.

The reality is a confused, jumbled mess.

Right-click once to go to camera-view mode, so you can find the starter. Press 'x' to zoom in so you can actually see the starter. Right-click again to touch the starter, and cut the plane on. Shit, now we want to push in the throttle. Right-click again, and you're in control-mode, and right-click again to get back to camera-mode. Guess what? Although you didn't notice it, you juggled the mouse just a bit while you were in control mode. Your plane is now set to go hard right. Find the throttle. Right-click to go to interactive mode and push it in.

We're moving! Shit. We're moving in circles because the flightsticks got nudged hard-right. Right-click again, to get back to control mode. Try to nudge it to the left a bit, not too much, that's right, just a bit. What happened? The sky is brown. Right-click to go back to camera mode. Find the sky. There it is, underneath the plane. You've toppled your airplane.

Now, that's what happens if you try to use just the mouse. No one would do that. Unless they had to. Why would they have to? Well, in both XP and Linux, the keyboard controls for throttle and flight-yoke would randomly just stop working. They'd come back after I quit and restarted, but since it happened virtually every time I played, I gave up on using the keyboard controls completely.

The mouse controls are actually quite responsive, compared to the keyboard, but since other random features of the keyboard would also cut out, I would have to toggle between the many modes of mousiness on a regular basis, leading to the scenario I just described. Worst-case it is, but... worst-case was pretty common. Pretty inevitable, actually.

The front-end for the Windows version let me set some parameters that were very useful before launching the game. This wasn't available in Linux, but it never is, so that's no big surprise. It still hurt the play experience - I was playing in a lower resolution because I couldn't be bothered to find the config files and/or launch it from the command line with a page full of switches.

Graphically, the control panel looked sharp, but the ground was icky, which is a shame. They appear to have the whole earth mapped out n' ready for you to fly over it, realistically simulated. Only it's so fuzzy, even at 1024x768, that San Francisco might as well be Dallas might as well be Richmond, for the most part. The sky was pretty.

Sound was pretty monotonous, but that's to be expected. Engine sound, and an occasional beeping caused by I-have-no-idea - it tended to happen whenever I was flying straight, leveled off, and not about to wreck my plane; maybe I was flying over restricted airspace? In Linux, the sound was choppy and would cut out for half a second every ten or twenty seconds. Not sure what's up with that; probably a configuration error on my part, but since the package manager configured it, not me, it's not actually my fault.

For the record, FlightGear is an amazingly ambitious project. And if you have the right equipment, and want to spend the time configuring it, it may be actually playable. If so, it's probably a lot of fun. It's got multiplayer support, the whole world with literally hundreds of airports n' airstrips (you have to download them, for the record), and tons of planes. It even has a few helicopters. I didn't want to try and resolutions higher than 1024x768, as my machine was already taking forever to load the scenery - maybe my issues with the graphics would have been eliminated, had I run it at 2048x1536. I wish the developers the best of luck, and I'll re-visit this whenever I upgrade my PC.

Their current version number is 1.0, which I think is amazingly optimistic/ridiculous. In both XP and Linux, I had technical issues and playability issues that made a mockery of the idea that the game was full-release worthy. Ignoring the fact that my play-experience may have been improved by a superior computer, I'm well within the recommended system requirements. It's so still in beta.

If you want to make the investment of cash n' time, please let me know how it works out for you. I can't recommend this game to anyone that's not obsessive about their flight-sim experience, and even then, I suspect there's better software out there. Sure, it's free, but sometimes you get what you pay for.

Fish Fillets NG


Hrmn... bizarre. The best way I can think of to explain Fish Fillets NG is Finding Nemo meets Klotski. I can't believe I just said that. Great puzzle game, though.

You're in control of two fish (fish secret agents, even) who have been given a number of missions, by a self-destructing mission-disc in a briefcase. Anyone else remember James Pond? That was an action game. This one's a logic puzzle.

You solve the missions by advancing through tiered sets of levels, each consisting of one screen. In each screen are movable objects. You have to manipulate them in such a way as to allow both fish to get to the exit point. If you manipulate them improperly, a fish dies, and you have to start over or restore from a save-point.

The levels get pretty hard - don't let the kiddy graphics fool ya. Your performance is scored by counting the number of moves it took you to complete the level; lower score = better. So it's also like golf, only not really at all. :)

Graphically, it does look like a kid's game, but it looks like a well done kid's game. It's 2D, but everything looks hand-drawn, and very nice. I believe this was initially a shareware/for-profit game, that was released under the GPL a few years after it came out, and it's got a more consistent and professional looking aesthetic than your average open-source project. Which is to say, rather than focusing on function and ignoring form, you get both.

Sonically speaking, I found the music to get a little annoying on the levels I had problems with; I just got sick of hearing it. But that's probably due to the fact that I have a non-functional brain, and I was playing the levels for longer than it would take a normal, non-hungover person to beat them. Good music, and varied in style, from typical video-game sounding music to classical piano.

I don't have much at all to say, as far as negatives go. The controls feel a bit wonky - there's delay between when you press the button and when the fish you're controling moves - but it doesn't cause premature death so it's not a big issue.

The method for saving within a level is a bit weird. Rather than doing some kind of save-state that captures where everything is, it records all your moves. When you tell it to load your save, it starts the level over, and then does everything you'd done prior to saving, at a relatively fast speed. If your last save occurred near the end of a complicated level, you end up waiting for what seemed excessive amounts of time, but only because I'm impatient.

If I were to pick something to change, that save system would be the one thing I could think of, but it only irked me in very rare circumstances. I suspect that people who love puzzle-games would be better at them than I am, and probably not need to resort to as much savin' and loadin' as I did, so it wouldn't be an issue.

In all, I have to say that this is a really good game for fans of the genre, and an enjoyable time-waster for people just looking for something to play around with. Your progress through the levels is saved automatically, and it's really easy to pick up and put down at your leisure. The levels are bite-sized enough that you can quit at any time without having to go through a painful amount of retreating, even if you didn't get a chance to save. Thumbs up!

FCE Ultra


Another emulator, here. FCE Ultra emulates NES games. It works, and works well. There's really not much to say. The only thing I noticed that was a bit annoying was the input-configuration. I was using the GUI frontend for GNOME, and it wanted 3-4 different buttons for each NES button being mapped to my joypad. It was different for each button; the directions got two, the A button got 3, the B button got 4, and so on. Just a bit weird. More annoying was the fact that it didn't save the config, so after closing the GUI, when I restarted it, it had forgotten the controller info. If you were to be un-lazy and play it from the command line, you'd have to edit the config files, and that wouldn't be an issue. So while the emulator is dandy, the GUI has issues.

Falcon's Eye


In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention something here: I don't really like rogue-likes. They're boring and frustrating to me. Falcon's Eye is a graphical engine for playing the most famousest rogue-like of all, NetHack. As such, it's not my cup of tea. Is it a good game, however?

Sort of, if you like rogue-likes. But sort of not. Let me explain: There are two issues with NetHack that people who don't like it, don't like. Every complaint with the game falls into one of these two categories: the gameplay, and the graphics. Falcon's Eye does nothing to fix the former - it's still NetHack. If you don't like the way the game plays, throwing graphics on top of it won't help. Trust me, I know.

But replacing the ASCII graphics of the original with some well-done if not exactly impressive 2D-isometric tiles does a lot to make it easier on the eyes. Gamers who didn't come up on text-based games and old-school low-res graphics tend to dismiss rogue-likes out of hand because they're so unapologetically low-tech, graphically, and Falcon's Eye does a good job of eliminating that, at least as far as independent/open-source games go. It certainly doesn't match current retail-gaming graphics, and it's not even as pretty as the best of the independents, but it does alright.

I said that it doesn't fix any of the problems people have with the mechanics of rogue-likes, but that's not entirely true. Mouse support had the added consequence of getting rid of the need to remember a bazillion keyboard commands - since the game is supposed to be playable with a mouse, clicking on things brings up option menus that allow you to select the command. I suspect that not all commands are represented in these menus, but the vast majority of them are.

Admittedly, one of the (many) reasons I don't like rogue-likes is the insane number of commands, many of which are useful only in very rare and specific circumstances. So kudos to Falcon's Eye for ameliorating that issue. But it just adds its own set of issues, as it's a bit annoying to have to navigate through these long lists of commands every time you want to do anything. What the mouse adds to ease-of-assimilation, it detracts from ease-of-usage.

Those perks come with a further price. Say what you will about how lame ASCII graphics are, as far as map-reading goes, they have a benefit: it's very simple to understand the layout of the level you're moving around in. The 3D isometric nature of the graphical overlay makes differentiating between different corridors problematic, when they're very close to each other (which is common), and the mouse-support makes it even worse. Click a teensy bit to the whatever-direction-you-like, and instead of moving a single square, you're walking five miles through a bunch of corridors to get to a tile right next to it.

And basically, that's the downfall of Falcon's Eye. Not that, specifically, but the reason it's a problem, and the reason there are others. Falcon's Eye isn't a graphical rogue-like, it's a graphical overlay on top of a text-based rogue-like. It wasn't written from the ground up to be graphical and mouse-driven, it just had a graphical and mouse-driven coat of paint slapped on top.

For this reason, I can't really recommend it, even to fans of rogue-likes. Rather than opening up the world of rogue-likes to players who like graphics, it's more likely to annoy players of rogue-likes who don't mind the ASCII. It's still not super accessible, and you're still going to have to scour the code, or FAQs on the internet, or both, if you want to come anywhere near actually surviving to the endgame. It's not the best of both worlds, or the worst of both worlds. It's the mediocre of both worlds.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Exult


Ultima VII was one of my favorite games, back in the day. Despite the fact that it ran for crap on my 486SX, and I didn't have a CD-ROM at the time, and had to go with the floppy-disc version, it was awesome. Exult is awesome too. I'm remembering middle-school, and my friend Dave who moved to Vermont, n' being drunk for the first time... Those were the days!

They weren't really all that grand, but Ultima VII remains a favorite, and Exult is essentially a replacement game-engine that fixes some of the flaws, adds some features, and works on a modern-day machine. Cross-platform, even, as evidenced by the fact that it's working perfectly on my Ubuntu machine.

It's a 2D game, but the view is 3D-isometric, kinda like Diablo, for all you kids out there. You play the part of 'the Avatar', who visits Brittania in times of need and embodies all the virtues that the magical land of Brittania holds dear (because you set up their religion in a previous game, basically). You point n' click to do everything, the plot's great, and playing it on Exult is a much less frustrating and bug-filled endeavor than the original was.

For a review of the game itself, check anywhere that has reviews from the early 90s. This was the best game of the Ultima series, which was a very important series for the evolution of the RPG and defined a lot of the things we take for granted with RPGs today. Basically, Ultima, Wizardry, and maybe Might & Magic, are the series that defined the genre for a few decades. Even now, some entries in each of those series do it better than anyone else ever has. Unfortunately, some of them suck large donkey-balls, but such is the nature of series, I suppose.

Exult just lets you play the game now, on your monster machine that would laugh at all the PCs Ultima VII was designed for. As such, a review boils down to: Does it work, or not? The answer is a resounding 'yes' - it works so well that it actually has a version number higher than 1, which is almost unheard of in the open-source development scene. More people are crushed by toppling vending machines every year than open-source projects leave beta.

There are a few gameplay improvements, and much like your average console-emulator, a few graphical filtering options. They work pretty nicely, making the game look alright, if not gorgeous, but have their drawbacks. All of the ones I tried tended to have issues displaying the text in the various books which are scattered about Brittania. They were readable, but missing letters n' whatnot, a lot of the time.

The downside - there always is one, isn't there? - is that it's just the engine. You have to find the data files from the original game in order to make it work. I'm not sure if they're still in print. They ought to be; there have been a number of collections that included it, over the years, and whoever owns the rights to Origin's software is a total effing retard if they don't have a version of the game modded to run under XP for sale.

If they don't, however, the game is readily available for download, apparently. Not all 'abandonware' sites are as concerned with technicalities as Home of the Underdogs. I actually still have a copy from one of those collections I mentioned, that I don't pull out as often as I should, but I checked Google and didn't have a problem finding it for download. It's probably completely illegal though, since I definitely saw some stuff on Amazon. In print or not, it's available for purchase.

Epiphany


I remember playing Boulderdash on my old XT in CGA. Epiphany is supposed to be a clone of Boulderdash but... well, it's a bit broken and inconsistent. I had a devil of a time beating level one, due to some issues discussed below. Read on!

The concept is simple: run into squares on the field of play to 'eat' them (i.e. make them disappear) if possible, or push them if they're inedible. Or, alternately, if they're part of the level's structure, they're neither edible nor movable. If something falls on you, it kills you, so you have to dig in such a way as to gain access to all the edible gemstones without having anything fall on you. The level is over when you consume the requisite number of gems, and make your way to the exit.

The first level seems to randomly load in one of two ways: the less common way is depicted above. See all those red dots? If you make a rock fall on one of them, they all blow up, which opens the path to the exit. That way, the level is solvable. It started loading like that after a good dozen tries the other way it loads: without the bombs, and without the brick wall which needs to be blown up and without the right number of gems. I would run through it, pick up all the gems, and just wander around waiting for time to run out, so I could die and start again.

I was about to quit, and call the game completely and utterly unplayable, when it inexplicably started loading that level the right way, and I was able to solve it. I have no idea what caused it to start loading properly, and no idea why it still sometimes doesn't load that level properly. Given that there's a good chance, as far as I know, that any given level will load in an unsolvable state, the game is still unplayable as far as I'm concerned, but more forgiving and patient folks who just have to play a Boulderdash clone may derive some amusement.

Of course, even without that problem, there's still the issue of controls. The game requires precision, and the controls don't allow it. Epiphany seems to suffer from a problem reminiscent of Gnometris: it sort of keeps a record of repeated keystrokes when you hold down a movement button, but does it in a flawed way which will randomly leave you stopping short or going to far. Sure, it adds to the challenge factor, but in an arbitrary way that leaves the player wondering why he's bothering. If games don't play fair, they're no fun to play.

Fix that, and whatever wonky issues it has with loading levels properly, consistently, and you've still got an ugly game with crappy sound, but by today's standards, the original was an ugly game with crappy sound. The core mechanics are challenging and fun, and they do bring back memories, so the graphics aren't that big an issue. But if it's going to be ugly, it should at least work, and if it's going to play crappy, it should at least be pretty. Don't bother with this one until the kinks are worked out.

NOTE: The version the Ubuntu packages install is 0.5.0 - there are four newer versions available on SourceForge, so some of these issues may have been fixed. This blog reviews games as available via the packages, not as available to compile - if I did every game available for free on the internet, it would be infinite. This is the second time I've encountered this issue, though, and while this is not as bad as the first one (the newer version of that had been out for a year or two), this is still kinda crappy. It's been 4 months since the most recent version was uploaded.