Monday, April 29, 2013

Battle Academy PC (ver 2.1.0) Review

Battle Academy (PC, iPad) is a WW2 themed tactics game, featuring historically accurate units and real world military strategies. It's not as complex or difficult as other military tactics games like Panzer Corps or Unity of Command, but serves as a good introduction due to its relative simplicity, accessibility and its stylized comic book presentation.

Battle Academy features 3 main campaigns totaling about 30 missions, with 4 separate DLC campaigns totaling about 40. User made campaigns and missions bump the total count well over 150. There are 3 difficulty settings for players of most skill levels. Skilled players can attempt to earn secondary objectives (called achievements). Achievements are usually given for feats such as capturing all victory points, minimizing casualties, or killing a certain number of enemies.

Each mission is prefaced by a comic book panel style briefing, giving you a bit of WW2 history. Maps are colorful and well defined, making it a bit easier on the eyes than the usual dull green and brown WW2 fare.

Battles are mostly a matter of tanks, infantry, turrets, and air strikes. Mission variety is generally limited to offensive sweeps or defensive survival. In combat, Fog of War plays a very important role. Infantry can see farther than vehicles and can hide in forests, houses, and other defensive spots to scout or ambush. Line of sight also extends vertically, so elevation can be used to flank the enemy by surprise. Reaction fire is extremely powerful, and moving a unit into an unsuppressed, unscouted position is very dangerous. Instead you use suppressive fire and air bombardment to suppress enemies and move in for the kill.

You usually have a very low percent chance of destroying an enemy tank from the front, but a higher chance if you fire at their weaker sides or rear. Even if you can't destroy an enemy you can force it to surrender by lowering its morale below -100. Since you're usually outnumbered 2-4 to 1 and facing superior enemy tanks, scouting, suppressing, and flanking are paramount. The mission turn counts are relaxed enough that you can play a slow and safe strategy most of the time and still earn all of the achievements with little RNG issue.

The presence of quicksaves is disruptive to game balance. In place of scouting and flanking you can substitute reloading until you get what you want. Reloading reduces a lot of the tension and punishment of mistakes or reckless play that would otherwise be there. There are a few achievements I felt were overly reliant on the RNG, but they're thankfully very rare. In a game where RNG and FoW are so critical, the absence of a "no quicksaves" option is disappointing.

As I played through the campaigns I got a bit weary of the combat depth and repetition. Unlike most WW2 tactics games BA is grid rather than hex based, and doesn't have any sea or air units. No unit fuel or limited ammo, either. Once you have the best strategy for sweeping or defending, there isn't much else to do but go through the motions. Even with the addition of suppressive fire, reaction fire, height and LoS, etc. I felt like BA came up a bit empty in depth and challenge compared to WW2 'lite' games like Advance Wars. You can find some user made maps that feature sea units and other custom units if desired.

The UI is pretty solid. Animations can't be skipped but they are very short. There are a few UI quirks here and there but nothing too bad. Even after years of patches (playing on version 2.1.0) I ran into a few minor bugs and typos.

Overall it's a pretty solid package, although the depth and level variety might wear thin on tactics vets. Battle Academy looks good, plays well, and is a great introduction to the WW2 tactics genre.

+Good introduction to WW2 themed tactics games.
+Well balanced combat that emphasizes real life military tactics.
+Multiple difficulty levels and secondary objectives cater to a wide range of skill levels.

-Lacks an ironman option despite the importance of RNG and FoW mechanics.
-No usable air or sea units. Some missions can feel routine and repetitive.
-Some bugs, typos, and UI quirks.

Reviewers experienced: Played the first 3 non-DLC campaigns. I might review the DLC campaigns at a later date.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

April 2013 News

The developers of the new Space Hulk tactics game have launched a kickstarter for Jagged Alliance: Flashback. It's a turn based tactics game unlike the recent Jagged Alliance: Back In Action. The kickstarter goal is $350k with 29 days left, which it looks like they'll easily meet and then some.

Slitherine Games has announced Panzer Corps: Allied Corps. It's a new Allied campaign using the Panzer Corps engine. Check out a trailer for the combined Panzer Corps DLC pack. Panzer Corps is still up on Steam Greenlight, go vote for it.
Battle World: Kronos has been greenlighted on Steam and looks to be progressing well. It's up to $219k on kickstarter with 4 days to go. In game footage here.

ARMA Tactics, a squad based cover shooter set in the military simulation world of ARMA. It looks like it's exclusive to Android platforms using Nvidia's Tegra 4 processor.

Blackguards, a single player PC tactics game with a strong focus on story. In game footage here.

Tears to Tiara II for PS3 has a release date of Oct 24, 2013 in Japan.

Devil Survivor 2: Break Record for 3DS has a release date of July 11, 2013 in Japan.

Project X Zone for 3DS has a release date June 25, 2013 in NA. It looks like a mediocre tactics game only worth playing if you like the fanservice.

Jeanne D'Arc developer Level 5 is working on a new SRPG called The Little Battlers Wars. Looks to be aimed at kids.

Super Robot Wars OE for PSP update at Famitsu.

Final Fantasy Tactics S for iOS and Android.

Tons of Indie Games, mostly sourced from Rui Castro's facebook group:

If you want your indie tactics game featured in more detail feel free to contact me.

Telepath Tactics' kickstarter has concluded at 41k. Check out a recent update and the developer's log. It's up on Steam Greenlight as well.

Just Tactics has a twitch livestream where they'll be broadcasting matches. Check their blog for updates.

March of War, a military themed cover shooter.

Arena of Heroes, a free to play online PvP tactics game.

Bootsnake Tactics, a "hybrid of a sandbox RPG with tactical turn based combat"

Wizard Ops Tactics, an iOS/Android async multiplayer game.

Combat Monsters, an iOS async multiplayer tactics game.

Dungeon Dashers, a dungeon crawler w/ multiple heroes.

Dark Quest, a dungeon crawler w/ multiple heroes.

Gravia Tactics, a new indie tactics game in development.

Leviathan: Warships, a WEGO (think Frozen Synapse) naval combat tactics game.

Kingturn RPG, an SRPG for Android and iOS.

Open Panzer, a free browser based remake of Panzer General 2.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Telepath Tactics Kickstarter at $35,000, 3 days left

Telepath Tactics, the PC SRPG with a promising campaign and map editor, has reached a monumental $35,000. That's a big deal for an indie tactics game. There's 3 days left to kickstart if you're interested, and $10 gets you the finished game. At $38,000 developer Craig Stern will slave away for us to design an "Extra Branch in the Main Campaign".

I've had the opportunity to try out the level editor and it's impressive so far. The GUI is packed with features and keyboard shortcuts. There are already extensive script editing features with more to come. I had a hard time thinking of things I wouldn't be able to script into a level if I wanted to.

I've also tried a few alpha test campaign maps and they look pretty well designed with an interesting story to follow. The campaign is planned to have multiple difficulty levels and a scoring system, always a plus imo. You can download a demo from the official website. Tactics games aren't dead, they're just getting indie-er.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Determining skill in single player games

When determining skill in a single player turn based tactics game, the problem and playthrough conditions/goal(s), amount of time, and number of people working on the solution should be equal or roughly equal to get an accurate result. It's no different than a standardized test or math competition.

The playing field is also imbalanced when one person has access to another person's strategies - the equivalent of peeking at someones notes or answers during a test. You can't accurately determine skill at solving a problem based on uneven playthroughs with varying goals, times, and number of people involved.

Yes you can take your general knowledge of how to solve problems into a test. But you won't know the questions or solutions beforehand - you have to figure those out in a specific amount of time, with a certain number of people, etc. In a tactics game most of the skill involved is figuring out the solution to a problem. Once you know the optimal solution to an Advance Wars mission, there isn't much left to do but move on to another. The question is how long it took you to figure it out

There is no inherent assumption that all players are given infinite time or infinite knowledge. In any competitive activity there are players who have invested a huge amount of time and have learned much of their knowledge from other people. But if someone can get similar results in that activity while investing relatively less time and with relatively less outside knowledge, you'd be able to make a tentative argument that they're more skilled. This is more in the realm of multiplayer games where more time is invested and more strategies are shared between players.

Those are some of the biggest problems with trying to determine skill with any highly imbalanced, ambigious RPG. It's easy to trivialize the difficulty of such games by using highly imbalanced features, so some players take it on themselves to do restricted runs as a band-aid balance fix or to make the playthrough more difficult. This unevens the playing field and makes it harder for players to compare because everyone is doing a different sort of run.

This leads to elitism where someone does a restricted run (no this, no that, no leveling, no upgrades, final destination, etc.), then claims it's proof they're better than other people who haven't bothered attempting such a run. A balanced game with a useful scoring system that accurately measures skill is preferable.

A good personal example of this is my Fire Emblem 10 guide. I played the import Japanese version for a couple weeks, completely blind without any data, charts, or advice from others, then finished up my guide and moved on. Little did I know that years later there were Fire Emblem players calling me bad, terrible, etc. because my strategies were somewhat outdated by that point.

So you've got one person who did a blind run over 2-3 weeks, and an entire fanbase of people who collaborated over the game over several years with the knowledge of every last byte on the game disc. Does that sound like a good way to determine who was more skilled? Of course not. The same situation has happened in other fanbases as well. No amount of name calling and pointing to incomplete metrics will change these facts.

Unfortunately my game guides, which I write to help other people, make me a big target for gamers who think my runs were played under conditions they disliked, or the conditions weren't difficult enough, or that I'm terrible at video games, etc. No good deed goes unpunished, especially when video game forumgoers are involved.

In other news, I've been playing through Battle Academy lately. It's a pretty good WW2 tactics game, although a few of the secondary objectives (called achievements) are somewhat RNG-ish. I don't often play tactics games that feature realistic military tactics like suppressive fire, soldier morale, height based line of sight, and air support. It doesn't have supply lines and fuel/ammo, so it's a bit less hardcore than a game like Panzer Corps or Unity of Command, but it's a good introduction to the sub-genre of WW2 tactics games. Take a look at a semi-playthrough log and screenshots.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Windows 8 is a portent of what to expect with Xbox Durango

Microsoft is facing some troubled times lately, both with Windows 8 and their upcoming console Durango. Windows 8 was a response to the market shift from PCs to touchscreen mobile devices. MS sees the PC market continuing to shrink and doesn't mind stepping on a few PC desktop users toes to try to make people familiar with its mobile touch interface. It could be a panicked market reaction, or hubris, or a mix of both.

Either way, Windows 8 has failed by most metrics. Even pushing as hard as they can with $15 upgrades and forcing OEMs into Win 8 licenses, Win 8 marketshare is awful. "At similar points in their roll-outs, Vista had a desktop market share of 4.52% compared to Windows 8's share of 2.67%." Win 8 tablets and laptops are being heavily discounted while the rare remaining Win 7 laptops are becoming more expensive.  The latest news is grim for Windows 8 sales.

This is a real e-book.

Despite this, MS seems to be forging ahead with its poorly designed, hideously colored touchscreen/desktop mash up with the next Windows 8.1 update. It would not be a stretch to envision a future edition of Windows without a proper desktop altogether. Eventually Windows OS will likely become an online service like Office 365 with a yearly subscription and mandatory updates. It will also follow the walled garden approach of only allowing approved apps, basically destroying the open hardware/software model outside of Linux. Steam is already trying to get onto Linux ahead of the locked down, online service Windows endgame.

So that brings us to MS's next big console codenamed Durango, likely called Xbox Loop. Just like Windows 8 was a reaction to shrinking PC marketshare, Xbox Loop seems to be a reaction to the market shift from dedicated gaming consoles that play single purchase games to convergence devices that offer games and other content as a service. In other words, the smartphone gaming and service model brought to consoles.

I think they'll go for a subsidized smartphone model where the console is very cheap (about $100) and tied to a 3 yr service contract. Xbox Live will add live streaming of some popular TV content to make it more "cable box" like. The bet is that they can squeeze more money out of fewer customers with a subscription model than they can out of offline gamers that buy at most a few $59.99 games a year and some DLC. It could end up being very profitable compared to the traditional console model.

It remains to be seen how far MS will take their mandatory online feature. Will they go for a Steam model where you only need to be online to activate a game once? Or will it be like Diablo 3 or SimCity where any disconnect or server issue will lead to an interruption? The former might be tolerable to those with spotty or infrequent internet, while the latter would be a PR disaster.

Steam has been a very reliable service, but it wouldn't be as respected if the servers were constantly going down and keeping people from their games. And of course, the Xbox Loop will be a brick if MS ever takes its servers down or refuses your console's connection. The rumored mandatory Kinect is another anti-consumer move that will be dressed up in embarrassing marketspeak.

As we've seen with Windows 8, MS doesn't mind cutting off its nose to spite its face. If they're going to fail due to traditional PCs and consoles dying off, they're going to fail spectacularly and upset a lot of their established customers in the process. Grab your popcorn because MS's reveal will likely be more delusional and entertaining than anything you'll be able to play on launch day.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Telepath Tactics 28k Kickstarter goal reached

Telepath Tactics is an indie SRPG for PC, Windows, and Linux with lots of combat features and a campaign/level/script editor. It's up to 28k on Kickstarter with 10 days to go. You can download a demo from the official site. I've given the demo a try and while I have a few issues with it, it's a promising first start. Telepath Tactics could be one of the better PC SRPGs to come along in quite some time. It will have both a single player campaign and multiplayer.

Telepath Tactics' editor should be one of the better SRPG editors out there. There are a few good PC tactics game editors like Panzer Corps or Battle Academy, but those are straight up tactics games and not SRPGs. The developer Craig Stern is friendly and receptive to feedback, just what we like in indie devs.

 Check out a video of the map editor below: