All posts by Caleb

Orions 2 Review: a Deep and Engaging, if Somewhat Derivative, CCG

Orions 2, published by Chillingo, plays like what would happen if a bunch of Magic: the Gathering cards somehow combined their DNA with a deck of Tarot cards and a Risk board-game, and then spliced in a dose of resource management mini-games on top of that. Although Orions 2 boasts some multi-faceted gameplay, with quite a few different modes and options, it is a collectible card game at its core… So as a caveat, obviously if that’s not your type of game, this probably isn’t for you.

Orions 2 features a campaign mode, which adds on a lot of upkeep and planning to the gameplay, in the form of managing resources, capturing new territories (through card battles), acquiring new cards for your deck (which contains limited quantities of each card, each use counting for one copy out of your stash), and ultimately trying to beat your CPU adversary (again, in a card battle). It’s fun, but it can be quite lengthy, and some of the resource management bogs down the speed of gameplay. Campaign mode is a nice option, but not the best way to learn the game. Thankfully, Orions 2 can be played in single-round sessions that focus solely on the card game aspect of the gameplay. These can be enjoyed either versus the CPU, or against human opponents either with pass-and-play games, or in online matches over the Game Center or Crystal networks. In the campaign mode, however, you fight for territories on a game board, with an added element of managing and investing mana points to acquire new cards for your deck.

If this makes the game sound a.) pretty complicated, b.) a little derivative, or c.) pretty damn fun in spite of those faults– well, that’s because Orions 2 is all of these things. Overall, Orions 2 does a good job of providing different methods of gameplay, and in having a solid game mechanic for the card-on-card combat. While it won’t win any awards for originality, and it is not without room for a few adjustments I’d love to see in an update, the good far outweighs the bad, and for fans of the genre it will probably be worth picking up.

Likes

Good Card/Game Design: A collectible card game is only as good as the design that goes into the cards it features (although to be technical, this one eschews collectibility, since it gives you all the cards when you purchase the game). And this is one area where I feel that Orions 2 gets it pretty well right. As someone who plays a good bit of Magic: The Gathering every now and then, I can say without a doubt that the card design owes a lot of inspiration to Magic. And this is not really a bad thing in my book.

Orion 2’s card battles are essentially creature-heavy slugfests, and all of the non-creature spells in the game are either enhancements for your creatures, ways to gain life or add various-colored mana (your resource for playing cards) to your supply, or ways to kill or weaken your opponent’s creatures. The card battle rules are fairly streamlined and simple: Your objective is to reduce the opponent to zero life; you lose if you are reduced to zero life. Each player can play one card per turn, as long as they have enough mana for it. The mana for that creature or spell is then taken away from the player’s mana pool. There is no ‘hand of cards,’ each player may play any one card from their deck during their turn, provided they have enough mana. Many creatures also have abilities, which come in two basic types. Active abilities may be used once each turn (and sometimes require mana or some other payment), whereas other creatures have passive abilities such as giving their owner health or mana each turn, healing ally creatures, etc. At the beginning of each turn, a player gains one mana of each color. Creatures are played onto the playing field, which has five slots for each player. Each creature occupies one slot, so the most either player can have at any time is five creatures. At the end of each turn, the player’s creatures that have been in play for at least one turn attack the creatures in the slots opposite to them. They assign damage according to their power, either to the enemy creature or the opponent if there is none, and damage permanently subtracts from enemy creature’s health total. If it reaches zero, the creature dies…. And that’s basically it.

Although this sounds simple, the cards are really well-designed, and all of them have an application (although as always, some are clearly on a higher power level than others). Games tend to fluctuate fairly regularly, and it’s possible to pull out a victory when you thought you would be crushed… Or to have the rug swept out from under you by the opponent’s clever maneuver. Overall, the gameplay encourages fluid analytical thinking in a fun way, and the cards are pretty well balanced overall, so it doesn’t feel like there are really any brokenly unbeatable cards.

Game Center: Yup, it’s got it. Oh yeah, and Crystal too… if anyone still uses that.

Universal App: Yay!

Online Capabilities: Without a doubt, the game mode that I keep coming back to is the online player-vs-player matches. I do have a couple gripes about the online mode, which I’ll save for the “Dislikes” section, but overall I’m very happy that they included it. Online play is what gives Orions 2 its replay value, and I’ve found that with a couple minutes patience, I can pretty much get a game going with someone at any time of the day or night.

Smooth User Interface: Overall, the UI of Orions 2 is easy to use and intuitive… although there is one slip-up (namely the placing of buildings on the minimap in campaign mode, which feels pretty clunky). The game uses a tap-and-drag mechanic for nearly every action, from deciding which slot to play a creature in, to activating your creatures’ abilities. If you need to re-read a card, you just double tap on it. This kind of simplicity in the controls lets them slip into the background where they belong, and allows you to focus on your strategizing.

Dislikes:

Campaign Mode is a Little Clunky: I mistakenly tried to learn the game from playing the campaign mode, which can be a frustrating way to begin. There are just too many factors that are extraneous to the central card-game component, such as choosing which cards to buy for your deck, how many mana points to invest into building each turn, how many territories to try to claim each turn, how few cards you can get by on spending mana points on for your deck, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have the option of the campaign mode included, because it really does challenge the player with a lot of different things to think about… but I find I don’t end up playing it much.

A Few Gripes with the Online Matches: These are all fairly minor, since I still really enjoy the online versus mode, despite a few flaws. I’m just going to put them in list form:

-To me, the biggest problem with the online mode, is I want to be able to use the decks that I’ve built to fight against human opponents. For each online match, the game assigns a random assortment of cards of each color for each player’s deck. While this adds a fun element of chance, and I think it should still be an option, I’d really like to be able to use my home-brewed creations for online matches. After all, it gets a little old only being able to play with user-created decks either in pass-and-play mode, or against a CPU opponent.

-Another quibble with the online matches, is that it feels that no bragging rights are really at stake, since the game doesn’t track win-loss records. I can see how the designers might have left this out on purpose, since not receiving a loss for a match is usually as simple as rebooting the app when you see that you are too far behind to pull out a win. But still, somehow I feel like I’m missing out on the glory when I crush an opponent, only to be rewarded with… well, nothing really.

-A third, slight problem with the online matches is that you only get one minute per turn. This is usually enough time, but there can be particularly tough decisions where you want to reread a few cards to decide what to play. And there is nothing more soul-crushing than having the timer run out on you, and therefor missing your chance to play a card that turn because you were reading cards and analyzing what was on the board.

-Lastly, although the game gives you the option to do draft games against an online opponent, I’ve never ever been able to find anyone else trying to match up for a draft match. But I suppose this isn’t really any fault of the game designers on this one… I just thought I’d mention that it was an option, so hopefully someone reads this and we can get a bit of a draft game playing community.

Lack of Graphical Panache: Overall, the look of Orions 2 is clean and well-designed. But it’s a little bland and unexciting. The artwork on the creatures and spells is fairly small, and while it’s not bad, you can tell they didn’t invest too heavily in getting top-notch illustrations. The menus and maps are also not going to cause any eyesores, but they’re not exactly what anyone would call graphically stunning.

The absolute bottom line is that Orions 2 provides an engaging and entertaining experience for fans of the collectible card-game genre. I do hope that they add more features to the online gameplay (most importantly being able to use user-created decks). But this is a really good title at the end of the day, and the solid game-play mechanics, creatively designed cards, and the carefully weighed balance among the power levels of the various cards all make this a winning choice in my book.

Orions 2 was developed by Chillingo Ltd. and I played through version 1.0 on my iPod Touch, 2nd gen. The price is $2.99.


Bug Heroes Receives Massive 2.0 Update; Goes Free to Celebrate

Bug Heroes is easily one of my favorite iOS games of this year so far (click here for my previous review). The game is a clever, inventive, and just plain fun blend of dual-stick shooters, tower-defense games, and action-RPG character enhancement, in which you play as a group of bugs trying to defend its stash of food from the endlessly intensifying attacks of wave after wave of enemy creepy-crawlies. And it just got even better, with a massive version 2.0 update, which adds a new map in coliseum mode for free, as well as new abilities for the game’s original three heroes. Additionally, the game now features three new content packs, available as $0.99 in-app purchases. Each new content pack unlocks two new heroes, a new map for adventure mode, and six new types of enemies that go along with the map.

Also, the game is currently free in celebration of the 2.0 update. If you’ve been on the fence about the game, missed out on hearing about it when it came out, or just plain want a free game (and a very high quality one at that) — there really is no good excuse not to download it.

As far as the in-app purchase content packs, I found them to be well worth my own personal hard-earned $2.97. The new characters are all a blast. They are, in no particular order, a fly bandito, a ladybug fencer, a grasshopper fighting monk, a stick-bug wizard, an inchworm with a long-range rifle, and a termite who has a variety of turret skills. The new maps are also a blast, providing unique spins on the gameplay by offering creative enemy designs. All of the new characters have a lot of creativity which is evident in their overall design and especially their unique attacks.

Also, Foursaken Media, the game’s developers, have promised to unlock an exclusive preying mantis hero for free, once they receive 500,000 votes for the game. There are several ways to vote, all of them free, such as liking Foursaken Media’s profile on Facebook, liking their Facebook posts, following them on Twitter, and Tweeting about them… whatever that means 😉

You really, really should download this game and give it a try. And if you already own the game and enjoy it, I would recommend purchasing some or all of the unlockable content packs. I’ve been having a lot of fun with them for the past few days, for less than the price of a latte.

Kami Retro Review: Puzzle-Platforming Perfection?

Kami Retro, by Gamevil and Paw Print Games, is a psychedelic-looking little game which combines aspects of platforming games like Mario and ‘find the exit’ games like Lemmings (this description of the game has been done to death, but it really is the best way to describe it). The result is an original, addictive puzzle/platformer which is high on fun but not without its hair-pullingly difficult moments.

Like many of the most financially successful titles for iOS to date, Kami Retro is one part “pick up and play,” mixed with one part “wait, just one more time.” The goal is to guide your hero to the exit of each stage, using various placeable stage elements, such as trampolines, bounce pads, giant fans, cannons, and the like. Each level essentially has two parts: you must first solve the puzzle by positioning the provided set-pieces in such a way that you can have your hero navigate the stage and reach the exit. Next, you must guide your avatar through the stage, performing increasingly precise jumps and turn-arounds in order to avoid the many environmental perils which stand between you and victory. Your avatar will automatically move forward on his own, so the player’s task is to make him jump or turn around at the appropriate moment. To make matters more difficult, each stage provides the player with four little dudes to guide to the exit, who spawn from the entrance point at regular intervals. This interval of time remains constant, even as the levels become increasingly complex and demand more and more precision, so by the later stages you can expect to be frantically flicking and tapping the screen as you try to guide as many of your heroes as possible towards the exit. In order to pass a stage, you must only reach the exit once, but in order to achieve the highest possible score (earning stars which go towards unlocking subsequent sets of levels), you must guide all four avatars to safety.

I feel like I should put it out there: I’m no wiz-kid at puzzle games, and I tend to get frustrated with them fairly easily, especially ones that have linear solutions. I can get down on something like Tetris or Bust-a-Move, where play skill boils down to a factor of reflexes, simple geometric reasoning, and endurance. That’s because in those games, there is no “getting stuck”– you just hold on for as long as you can, until you inevitably succumb to the unbeatable odds. But I can get pretty discouraged in games like Kami Retro and its ilk when I reach a level I’m unable to get past, because I don’t like the feeling of bottlenecking too much before I’ve beaten a game… And although Kami Retro provided me with a few frustrating moments, I found it to be very enjoyable altogether. The level of challenge is pretty intense (especially if you want to get a three star rating on each level, an achievement which I honestly think I’m never going to even attempt), but the game does a good job of holding your hand at just the right points, so you never feel truly lost.

All in all, despite not being exactly my usual cup of tea, this game did a good job of winning me over. There were moments when I got so frustrated I had to take a nice long break from the game, but usually the level I was stuck on would seem much more beatable when I came back to it. Although in the end I have a few quibbles, I really enjoyed the way in which Kami Retro combines geometric puzzle-solving gameplay with old-school side-scroller platform hopping action.

Likes

Wacky Aesthetics- Kami Retro looks like an acid-trip-homage to 8-bit gaming, with just enough of a modern flair to keep it from being boring or overly familiar. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of ‘cute’ games, but Kami Retro nails this look right on the head, with bright vibrant colors, goofy pixel art, and maybe just a few visual references to the world of gaming’s favorite Italian-American plumber.

Unique Blend of Gameplay- I really enjoyed the way that Kami Retro combines puzzle-solving gameplay with good old Mario-esque platform hopping. Each level must essentially be solved and then played through, and your jumping skills are equally important as your puzzle solving chops, in your quest to collect the bonus stars and reach the exit with as many of your four men as possible. Also, the game’s platforming element serves to somewhat relax the demand to solve each puzzle with 100% precision, since you can sometimes jump your way to victory despite not having built a very good structure for your character to bounce his way along. There were a few levels where I wasn’t able to find the “correct” solution, but I was still able to ham-fistedly navigate one man to the exit door and move on to the next stage thanks to my platforming pedigree.

Dislikes

Cramped Controls- Although the game’s swipe-based controls are adequate to the task, they become somewhat burdensome on the later levels. Sometimes you will tap a springboard or a fan when you’re trying to get your guy to jump or turn around, which nearly always leads to death (and potentially having to reset the object you may have moved). When you’re tasked with trying to control two dudes at once (as is often the case in some of the later stages of the game), it becomes especially hard to maintain the level of precision necessary to make all your jumps. To some degree, this is the point. The developers were obviously trying to make a challenging game, and in this they succeeded. And overall, it’s still very fun. But sometimes I felt that between the frantic pace of the later levels and the high level of precision demanded in some stages, I was claustrophobically and frantically swiping around the screen without being able to get much control over the characters.

Questionable Replay Value- Whether or not you will want to replay this game honestly depends on what kind of gamer you are. If you love going back and continually trying to perform the same task more and more precisely, you will probably find yourself compelled to try for a perfect three star rating on each stage. Personally, I was just happy to beat them all. While for the most part, I had a lot of fun with the game, in no way do I feel compelled to go back to some of the hardest stages and try to ace them. I was happy to get one guy to the exit door on some of these levels; I can’t really fathom the level of perfectionism it would take me to get all four guys to the exit and collect all the bonus stars. On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of thing some people go in for, and you probably know who you are.

In short, Kami Retro deserves the critical praise it’s been getting. It blends some quite familiar styles of gameplay into a distinctive little treat of a game, that’s great for short sessions. The amount of time you spend with this title might ultimately depend on the level of perfectionism you apply to your gaming, but it’s appealing enough to get the nod of recommendation to anyone with a fondness for puzzles, platformers, or just plain old 8-bit nostalgia.

Kami Retro was developed by Gamevil, and I played through version 1.1 on my iPod touch 2G.  The price is $0.99.

Fight Night Champion: A Decisive Knockout, Despite a Few Sloppy Punches

Although the App Store has been host to a handful of boxing games (and I’ve tried most of them if not all), until now I haven’t seen a title which translates the “sweet science” to the iOS platform in a satisfying way. And even though EA Sports’ “Fight Night Champion” isn’t quite perfect, it still manages to be a very enjoyable game, and one that proves that this genre is entirely possible within the unique set of challenges and development parameters which iOS gaming provides.

Previous boxing titles for iPhone have usually been Punchout-style, cartoony types of games whose gameplay revolved more on memorizing enemy patterns than on dynamic, real-time responses to the opponent’s attacks, and on executing well-timed combos and power shots.  When the emphasis has been placed on realism with other previous iOS boxing titles (which has been fairly rare), the  controls and enemy AI have been lackluster at best. And obviously, you can’t have a good fighting game without adequate controls and with computer opponents who possess all the cunning and savagery of a sock puppet. However, Fight Night rises far above the rest of the pack, by translating the robust control system of the console titles to iOS, allowing for a wide range of movement, blocking, and attacks.  This transition, from a dual-stick controller to the confines of a small touch-screen, presents its own set of challenges which the control system must compensate for; however the developers have done an admirable job in porting the Fight Night experience to the touch-screen. Players who have spent some time with a Fight Night title on a home console system will undoubtedly have an easier time picking up this game’s controls than will the uninitiated, but despite a moderate learning curve, these are controls which any user can master in a few sessions.

Basically, the controls work like this: The left and right half of your screen control each respective fist of your boxer. A tap will make your fighter throw a jab or a cross, either low or high depending on if you tap the top or bottom half of the screen. Hooks are initiated by swiping horizontally in the quadrant of the screen which corresponds to where you are trying to attack, whereas uppercuts are accomplished with a vertical swipe. Moving your fighter around the ring is done by tilting your iDevice in the corresponding direction. You block by holding both thumbs on either the upper or lower half of the screen, and lean into your blocks by sliding both thumbs in the direction you wish to lean. The leaning is a little awkward, and definitely takes some getting used to.  It also makes it a little unnecessarily hard to successfully parry your opponent’s attack, meaning that a superior offense will usually be your best defense. On the whole though, the controls work remarkably well, and accommodate a variety of possible boxing styles which you may wish to employ. Just don’t count on being able to reliably pull off parry/counterattack moves without a lot of practice (but don’t worry, you can still inflict some punishment.)

Likes

Controls That Work: This is really the number one requirement on this platform, especially for a fighting game. Although I wouldn’t call the controls exactly seamless, I believe the developers have done the best job possible in making the control scheme work on this platform. It takes a bit to get used to, but with just a little perseverance I was able to get into the swing of things and hold my own. After two or three fights I was putting combos together and sucker-punching my opponents with haymakers quite satisfyingly.

Dynamic Brawling: To me, the fun of Fight Night titles has always been that they entail concentration and endurance, along with the ability to react to your opponent in the moment. Although it’s possible to come out of the gates swinging and achieve quick knockouts in some matches, for the most part you’re going to have to withstand a few rounds toe-to-toe with another fighter. The constant back and forth of trying to avoid your enemy’s attacks while looking for their openings with varied attacks is simultaneously exhilarating and hypnotically relaxing. In my best, most intense fights, I find myself slipping into a sort of Zen state. This isn’t to say the game is any cake walk. Even on easy difficulty the enemy AI is nicely engaging, and the level of skill required ramps up appropriately on medium and hard.

Satisfyingly Visceral: Although Fight Night Champion is probably not going to end up being that one game you show off to all your friends because its graphics are so amazing, they’re still pretty good. Fighters get bruised and banged up progressively over the course of the fight, and the character models look adequately realistic but not awesomely beautiful in their level of detail. There are twenty boxers in all, along with the ability to create your own customized fighter. The eighteen fighters based on real-life boxers look enough like their actual counterparts that it shouldn’t upset any purists, and there are enough options on the character creation menu that you can… sort of get your boxer to look how you want. The sound is satisfying, with your harder shots producing a nice hearty thud on your opponent. The prerecorded fight commentary (voiced by the venerable Joe Tessitore) is a little bland, but there’s a good bit of variety to the commentator’s script, and you can always turn him off in the audio options if the play-by-play gets irksome after a while.

Dislikes

Janky Training Mode: Even as hard-hitting a game as this one (get it?) is not without its occasional missteps and sloppy shots. And the slipshod training mode, which the game puts you through before each and every fight in career mode, is probably the most egregious of the small handful of blemishes on an otherwise great boxing game. Rather than on the console versions of Fight Night, where your performance in rhythm-based mini-games dictates the stat boosts which your boxer receives for training, the training in Fight Night Champion on iOS is entirely menu-based. Essentially, you choose whether to focus on increasing your fighter’s power, speed, or a balanced mixture of the two attributes. Then you select whether to train normally, confidently, or aggressively. Essentially, if you train normally you will have a 100% success rate, but you will only gain small stat boosts from each session.  Confident training gives greater bonuses, but with more risk of failure (which will lower your fighter’s stats in the areas you were trying to improve). Aggressive training brings the greatest risks as well as the highest rewards.

So, what’s the problem with all this? Well, essentially all you have to do in order to always gain the highest boost possible is reboot the Fight Night app, without advancing to the next screen after you fail a training. Just rinse and repeat until you succeed. This makes it so there is essentially no reason to use the confident or normal training modes, as long as you’re willing to waste some time fiddling around with rebooting the app and going through the menus to return to your training session. I don’t know if I just have an amoral streak, wherein I’m compelled to juke the stats of any game which presents me the opportunity to do so… But I found this aspect of the game really annoying (since it wasted time I could have spent playing), and simultaneously unavoidable (since I’d be damned if I was going to accept subpar performances from my boxers). It’s a relatively small nitpick, if you look at the larger picture and how enjoyable the game is despite this.  But it seems to me that the developers should have either eschewed the training sessions altogether, or found a way to provide them with greater depth and not make them so easy to cheat on.

Limited Compatibility for Older Devices: Here’s another bummer: The game will not run, period, on first-generation devices. And on second-generation devices, like my iPod Touch, the game runs smoothly… But does not support head-to-head multiplayer. Like, at all. Frankly, I can understand why this was possible, since I’m pretty sure the processors of the older devices in question simply aren’t up to these tasks. I’m a little amazed that the game runs beautifully on my iPod Touch 2G, but I still wish I could take on my friends for some Bluetooth or Wifi matches. This, to me, is a significant gripe, but all things considered the game is still worth the asking price if you are looking for a technical, in-depth fighting game on your iOS device.

All things considered, Fight Night Champion is well worth your time and money, provided that you’re willing to adjust to the learning curve and you’re looking for a fighting game that rewards persistence and technique over lightning-fast blitzkrieg victories and ridiculous special moves. Personally, between this title and “Street Fighter IV,” my iOS fighting game itch is good and scratched for the time being.


Gameloft to Develop Four New Games Using Unreal Engine 3

The following is an official press release from Gameloft:

‘Gameloft, the leading developer and publisher of digital and online games, announced today a long-term, multi-platform licensing agreement with Epic Games, Inc. that enables Gameloft to incorporate Unreal Engine 3 in four new games, two to be released in 2011 and two in 2012.

“Gameloft is very pleased to partner with Epic, especially with their ability to stay ahead of the curve and continually place the best game engine technology in developers’ hands at any given point in time,” said Julien Fournials, vice president of production, Gameloft. “Using Unreal Engine 3 allows us to push game visuals with remarkable lighting and high-fidelity environments. We are confident that players will enjoy the games powered by Unreal Engine 3.”

“There is no doubt that the four games running on Unreal Engine 3 will be visually stunning and take advantage of the powerful mobile gaming devices,” said Mark Rein, vice president, Epic Games. “We are thrilled to provide our technology to Gameloft and look forward to a lasting collaboration.”

Under the agreement, Gameloft plans to release games on multiple mobile and downloadable platforms, including iOS, Android, PlayStation®Network and set-top boxes.’

While this is one of those stories where the headline encapsulates nearly everything we know at this point about the projects in question, the news is exciting nonetheless.  With Gameloft, one of the most prolific developers for the iOS platform, adopting one of the most sophisticated game engines able to run on the hardware, the results are sure to be graphically impressive at the very least.

We here at No DPad will be sure to keep you informed as more details surface regarding these upcoming projects.