Friday, July 29, 2011

2nd Super Robot Wars (Famicom) Review

Dai-2-Ji (2nd) Super Robot Wars is the second SRW game to be released. 2nd SRW was a great game for its time in 1991, and certainly one of the best NES turn based tactics games. Despite being released in 1991, it bears a lot of similarities to modern SRWs. Major differences from the 1st SRW include named pilots, repair robots, motherships, quicksaves, revamped seishins, and robots surviving a battle if defeated. 2nd SRW picks up the SRPG standard of a steady cast of characters that progress through story based missions. There are 26 missions with no branching paths, making it a relatively short game for tactics vets.

2nd SRW sticks to the fundamentals of ranged vs melee, healing, focus fire, efficient seishin use, and carefully placed AOE attacks. All units are limited to only two abilities or attacks, although later in the game most of your robots can transform and use a different set of weapons. Unlike 1st SRW, almost none of your units get ranged attacks for the first half of the game, so they are frequently taking damage. This also makes it more difficult to surround an enemy for a fast kill. To make up for the extra damage you're able to use repair robots, motherships, or seishins. About half way through the game you'll get more ranged units, but they have their own drawbacks as well. Enemy AI isn't very good at focus fire or acting in a group, so it's pretty easy to divide its attention to avoid casualties.

You'll occasionally face large numbers of enemies attacking at once, making it tricky to keep everyone alive. It's fairly difficult to avoid repair bills while keeping a low turn count in some late game missions against bosses with very high stats and frequent double attacks. In several missions it's possible to finish before certain scripted events are supposed to happen, which I doubt the developers intended. The difficulty curve is fairly uneven, which probably owes to the development teams inexperience. You'll often find yourself surrounded and/or facing nasty bosses right after a bunch of relatively easy missions. Most maps can be completed in 7-9 turns. Quicksaves are available so it's much easier to recover from mistakes than in 1st SRW, or reload for better combat results if you are desperate. There's no grinding available, so if you play poorly you may find later missions difficult if not impossible.

Items and funds are not implemented effectively in 2nd SRW. You barely get any funds and items cost a ton. Even if you avoid repair bills you'll only be able to pick up a few items throughout the game, and they are more or less insignificant anyway. Your pilots levels are far more important than upgrades.

Controls are better than 1st SRW with an added unit list, quick stat screen button, and better menus. You still can't turn off battle animations or tab between units, unfortunately. Graphics are decent, but not animated. They could certainly have put more effort into it, considering there are Game Boy SRW games with better animation.

2nd SRW is a good representation of SRW's transformation halfway between a simple Game Boy game towards a modern franchise that has spawned dozens of releases. Note that while the Famicom version shares the same name with the Playstation version, that version is a remake with altered maps and gameplay.

Strategic Depth: Low.
Strategic Difficulty: Medium-high. If you speedrun and avoid repair bills, you're in for some fun.
Overall Score: 6.8
Reviewer's experience: Finished the campaign with no units destroyed, 243 turns.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Super Robot Wars (Game Boy) Review

Super Robot Wars is the first entry in the venerable Super Robot series of games. You'll find many of the series hallmarks including seishins (special abilities), transformations, recruitable enemies, willpower, and air/land/sea attack and movement types.

Players start out by choosing one of three robot teams. You'll then choose one of those robots to be the leader, granting them stat boosts and SP to use seishins. You'll see the other robots you didn't choose scattered in various missions, ready to be recruited. Successful recruiting depends on the enemy's HP level and the recruiters charisma and series relations. You can only have up to 8 current party members, so no recruiting the whole robot army. Ideally you want to have 8 of the best robots on your team, so strategically sacrificing weaker units to recruit better ones is an option.

There are 13 missions total, usually with a boss that must be defeated to progress. Items can be found in capturable towers and secret locations scattered around each map which are used to bolster your stats during intermission. There is usually a group of initially aggressive enemies at the start of a level, but the rest are fairly passive, letting you heal up and search for items if desired. It's usually best to dump your stat boosts on your leader robot since you can't lose them without facing defeat.

Gameplay tends to be somewhat unforgiving as healing is limited to seishins and captured towers, there are no quicksaves, and defeated units leave your party (but may be found as enemies later and re-recruited). This leads to a heavy reliance on uncounterable ranged attacks in order to preserve health. Whenever you open the seishin menu, you'll get your pick of 3 randomly selected seishins, so you never know if you'll get something useful or not. It's a surprisingly above average difficulty game that may throw SRW fans for a loop, since you can't spam quicksaves or grind to get out of trouble, and death comes quickly for your robots if ganged up on. One unusual feature is that player units cannot pass through other player units. I rarely see this in tactics games and it makes bunched up situations more tricky since it's possible to box in your own weakened units that need to retreat.

Graphics are surprisingly good for a Game Boy game, with well detailed map icons and good looking battle sprites. Music is limited to one battle loop. Animations can't be turned off so if you are on an emulator using the turbo button is advised.

Controls are a mixed bag. The cursor can't move diagonally, there's no button to switch between units, some menus can't be backed out of, and there's no quick button to check a units stats. And yes, they could fit that into the Game Boy's control scheme if they wanted to.

Overall Super Robot Wars is a good first entry to the famous robot series and shouldn't be missed by fans or anyone looking for some retro tactics action.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jul 2011 Tactics News

Final Fantasy Tactics for iPhone has been submitted to Apple for app store review.

Some new Devil Survivor 2 screens.

Two big releases this month: Devil Survivor 2 in Japan and Panzer Corps. Panzer Corps plays a lot like the classic Panzer General and has been getting great reviews. PC and iPhone continues to be a great source of tactics games in English, although most of them are indie games.

Many recent console and handheld tactics games don't seem to be getting an official English release. This is especially true of the PSP which seems to be abandoned due to poor sales and rampant piracy. No Valkyria Chronicles 3, Gungnir, Blaze Union, Gloria Union, R-Type Tactics II, or Blue Roses, just to name a few. And as usual we won't be seeing Super Robot Wars, SD Gundam G, or Daisenryaku titles in English anytime soon. Not all hope is lost, though. The latest Fire Emblem for DS has an unofficial translation project underway.

In non-video gaming fun, a strategy for solving a Rubik's cube of any size has been developed. This is on top of being able to solve any 3x3 Rubik's cube in 20 moves or less regardless of pattern.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (3DS) Review

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is a turn based tactical level strategy game for the 3DS. Its main claim to fame is that Julian Gollop, creator of X-COM, served as the games creative director. Shadow Wars' strategic content and depth is passable, if a little generic, but it fails to get the fundamentals right. The UI is bare bones and awkward, combat speed is painfully slow, and there are far too many bugs and crashes.

At Shadow Wars base you have a typical turn based shooter with cover, suppression, return fire, lots of guns, and a few AOE attacks. Unit types don't do enough to differentiate themselves, mostly carrying some variation of a gun and some grenades. The added features like medics, stealth units, super moves, command points, and turrets are nice, but overall I felt the game was too shallow. Enemy variety is more or less non-existent. You don't even face off against enemy recons, and the enemy engineers don't drop turrets. As the game progresses, it becomes too easy to use AOE attacks to obliterate large groups of enemies. I would have liked to see limited medic healing instead of infinite use, which would discourage turtling and inefficient play. I also find it disappointing that units don't block line of fire, so everyone can shoot through everyone else. I'd compare Shadow Wars' depth to a simplified Front Mission 4 or 5.

Campaign missions vary widely in complexity and length. Each chapter typically has a few short missions where you mow down some scattered resistance and complete a few objectives. Near the end of the chapter you'll get longer missions with several scripted events, enemy reinforcements, and objectives. You'll almost never run across unique enemies or bosses. Most of the campaign involves mowing down generic grunts on the way to a glowing tile, then mowing down more generic grunts and heading for another tile, etc. Quite a few missions have too much dead time where nothing is going on except either you or the enemy slowly moving across the map for minutes at a time. The campaign can feel repetitive and boring at times, especially considering the games middling depth.

Some of the skirmishes can be entertaining, though. They're usually more structured and puzzle-like than the campaign maps, offering specific or unique challenges based around mastering the games depth. And yes, there are two maps that pit you against a horde of zombies. A few skirmishes are more challenging than anything found in the campaign.

Shadow Wars provides 3 difficulty settings. The easiest mode is suitable for casual players. The hardest mode has some room for error, and strategy vets won't have a problem with it, but your average gamer will likely be squashed. Getting a perfect score requires clearing the campaign and all skirmishes on Elite. If any of your main cast dies during the campaign you fail the mission, which is a nice way of ensuring the player can't be too reckless.

The scoring system in Shadow Wars is decent, but leaves loopholes for less skilled players. Quicksaves are available which makes variable damage irrelevant. This is especially true of gunner units that have damage ranges where the maximum is 4-5x higher than the minimum. The lack of turn count rating allows the player to sit around collecting command points or healing before triggering the next part of the mission. it also allows players to turtle and play poorly as long as they complete the mission eventually. On the plus side, there's no level grinding available and levels are capped by chapter, ensuring you can't dump every point you get into one unit.

The pace of combat is unnecessarily slow and frustrating, even when animation speed is set from "normal" to "fast", which should instead read "slower" to "slow". Unit movement and action is very slow, with deliberate pauses after every unit moves or attacks for no particular reason. No combat animation or movement can be skipped. The CPU can take up to a minute to take its turn when it has 10 or more units and sometimes wastes time by shuffling units back and forth for no reason whatsoever. This is especially aggravating during the many missions where enemy reinforcements appear on the opposite end of the map and spend several turns moving towards your forces. Turn based games already have the stigma of being slow and boring, and deliberately designing your game to be even slower than it has to be with no options to skip animation is unacceptable.

The user interface is spartan, missing features you'd expect from a modern tactics game. You can only press R to switch weapon types at certain points during the target selection menu tree. Sometimes you have to back out entirely just to switch their weapon. You can switch between squad members with L, yet R is unused when not selecting an allied unit, and you can't switch between enemies at all. There's no button to hold to temporarily speed up the cursor movement. The cursor trail doesn't follow the typical 'chart your movement path' style where you can make as many loops and twists as you like. Instead it follows a simpler logic that always follows the most direct route. This makes it more complicated and tedious to approach a unit in melee range from a particular direction. I found myself wrestling with the UI far more than I would have liked during my playthrough. There are also a lack of options, with only the ability to turn music on/off or adjust animation speed.

You can tell that Shadow Wars was the development teams first attempt at a tactics game engine. Slowdown usually happens when there are smoke or fire effects or too many units on the screen. The engine doesn't feel strong enough to handle some of the stuff thrown at it by the developers. I've experienced repeatable crashes, random crashes, and several critical bugs just in the process of a normal, non-bug testing playthrough. There are also plenty of reports on the net of bugs, crashes, and saved games being erased. It's probably the buggiest tactics game I've played since Age of Empires: The Age of Kings.

At this time (Jul 2011) it's hard to recommend Shadow Wars if you don't already own a 3DS, which is still $250 USD. The 3DS is hardly what I'd call a mature platform for strategy titles, especially considering that systems are region locked. However if you do own a 3DS it's worth picking up since it can be found for $20 USD or less already.

Strategic Depth: Low. Not a whole lot going on here. Generic cover shooter with a few frills thrown in.
Strategic Difficulty: Low-Intermediate. Even on 'Elite' difficulty, Shadow Wars doesn't pose much of a threat to vets.
Overall Score: 6.3/10. Slightly above average game, but too many downsides to recommend unless you are desperate for a handheld tactics game.
Reviewer's Playthrough: Played through campaign and skirmishes on Elite