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StarCraft 2: Wings Of Liberty (PC & Mac)
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First off - the original StarCraft. I didn't like it, didn't 'get' all the hype surrounding it and constantly ignored request from my cousin to join him online with it. :P
What I found with the original game (despite the seemingly worldwide euphoria for it) was a rather bland, RTS Grind Game that simply centred upon on who could churn out the most units quicker and swamp the opposition in due course.
So I left the original game, on the shelf and gathering dust. On a whim, I thought I'd get StarCraft 2 - thinking that they should have moved the genre on somewhat since 1998 and the original games' release. And how glad I was that I did that.
Put simply, the production values of SC2 are superb. I'm not quite sure if naujok was playing the same game (?) as the names on the credits as the end scroll for several minutes. I think I have only seen Mass Effect 2 have a similar amount of staff working on one title. You can definitely tell that all the individual parts to the game have been crafted well and combine to make for a great RTS experience. Little additions like the Arnie-style voice of the Thor pilot and even the Thor walker itself being folded up to be transported by the air units shows some of the detail added to the game.
The single player campaign itself is a brilliant and varied selection of 25 missions (26 if you manage to unlock the Secret Mission) - most with diffierent objectives and goals to complete. There are usually bonus missions within the main mission itself that obviously are down to the player to choose whether or not to pursue. Key to these bonus missions are the chance to recover either Zerg or Protoss research items which can then be utilised to help and improve your units on future missions.
As for an RTS style? SC2 is much more like Command & Conquer of old, rather than the likes of Company of Heroes. There is the distinct rock-scissors-paper method of utilising units - some being exceptional at ground attack, but totally open to attack from the air. And vice versa.
The story does progress well indeed - certainly well enough that once I completed it, I was looking forward to the release of the future expansions.
Despite all that, it doesn't take top slot for my favoutite RTS. Company of Heroes still retains that title and I suspect that for me anyway, it will take something VERY special indeed to budge it from its throne. However, StarCraft is a superb RTS in its own right and if like me, you didn't like (or play) the original - don't let that put you off this time around.
Heroes Of Might & Magic V: Gold Edition
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Ok, so I'm a little biased. I've been a fan of the Heroes of Might & Magic (HOMM) series since trying out the demo for HOMM2 many years ago. While I didn't buy that, I did purchase HOMM3 and the expansion packs for it. Arguably, the high-point of the series, it came crashing to earth with the truly awful HOMM4 but has thankfully regained it's credibility with HOMM5.
So what is HOMM5 about then? It centres around two halves really - an adventure side and a combat phase. The adventure side sees you controlling your hero(es) by clicking them and sending them to areas of a map in order to capture resources, towns, items and of course, partake in combat. This stage is based on 'turns' - where your hero can travel so far in one particular day, or turn. Distance is not only affected by the terrain under foot, but also hero attributes such as pathfinding and scouting ability.
The combat phase is by far the most enjoyable of the two. Imagine if you will, a cross between a game of chess and Top Trumps. Pieces on your 'board' have varying abilities - some ranged, some melee, some have magical abilities and others are mere cannon-fodder - helping swell the ranks with their numbers.
What intiailly starts as a simple tic-tac-toe fare, rapidly expands into a throughly enjoyable and thought provoking tactical challenge. Take the Necromancer as a typical hero. At the start, he may have but a handful of skeletons and the odd zombie to represent his 'army' - backed up by the most basic of Level 1 spells in his own spell book. As the game progresses, your army expands into all manners of undead chraracters. Zombies become 'upgraded' with plague attacks, vampires switch to vampire lords, wraiths bolster the numbers - and not forgetting the liches and the very powerful bone dragon. As combat flows, your hero in turn becomes more powerful - learning spells all the way up to Level 5 and genuinely dealing masses of damage to the opposing ranks on the battlefield.
The 'jewel' of the HOMM series is hidden within this combat phase. Sticking with the necromancer theme, you can manipulate your hero to become the most potent death magic caster in the game. Or alternatively, have him cut through the enemy as a death knight - enhanced by weapons, armour, spells and other trinkets that all help your cause.
Naturally a necromancer has bonuses when attacking any opposing player of 'good' alignment. This cuts both ways as a group of liches unleashing their ranged attack on several angels, will suddenly face the bonused retaliation of the angels against the undead - should their initial attack not destroy them outright. The necromancer can still have the last laugh however as being a master of the dead, he can raise the bodies of the deceased and add them to the ranks of skeleton or zombie soldiers.
There is simply far too much scope and depth to HOMM5 to fully provide an indepth review here. It looks beautiful, scrolling in 3D the sort of which World of Warcraft players will immediately be familiar with. The music is very good (though HOMM3 was the best for that, I think) and as you can switch off the in-game timer - there is no 'rush' to complete anything quickly. Take your time and enjoy it - that's what its there for.
The HOMM series has never been mainstream, which means finding a copy to purchase has never been easy. The expansion packs even less so - some I've never even seen for sale in the stores. As a result, the complete HOMM5 Collection on sale here is an absolute bargain and a rare find indeed. A true classic in PC RTS-esque type fantasy gaming - one that evolves and builds upon all the previous titles in the series. Don't let this piece of gaming genius pass you by.
Warhammer 40000: Dawn Of War II
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First off - this isn't a updated version of the first DoW - and it's much better a game for it, in my opinion. I personally didn't like the first DoW games at all. They seemed messy, bogged down with as many units as the game engine could cope with and ultimately, quite bland.
However, I LOVED Relic's other series - that of Company of Heroes and I'm enjoying DoW2 just as much. I won't go into the campaign detail too much (you can find out for yourself!) - but essentially it centres around your chapter of Space Marines, fighting off various maps containing orcs, Eldar and the newcomers - the Tyranids. You start off with a handful of troops, but as the game progresses, you end up with several different squads under your control of which you can only assign a certain number to the forthcoming mission.
This is where DoW2 really, really shines. Do you take you scout team on the next mission? Will their satchel charge unlock be of much use? And do you give the scout leader an uprated shotgun or keep his sniper rifle? Maybe keep the scout team at a distance and back them up with a powerful team of melee fighters - equipped with power fists, power swords and bolt pistols? Later in the game, the extremely powerful dreadnought unit becomes available. Essentially a one-man walking tank, the dreadnought can dish out huge punishment at close range or rip apart waves on oncoming enemy with the autocannon.
Such choices are just the tip of the iceberg. As you progress through each mission, the dead foes sometimes will drop a unique weapon that can be equipped at the end of the mission - assuming your character has the level ability to equip it. At the end of each level also, you get a unique weapon, which is added to your inventory, ready for use when you need it.
It pays to read the mission intel before deploying your squads of troops. Going into an orc infested map, I swapped the autocannon on my dreadnought and replaced them with a pair of orc bashing fists. I also swapped my scout teams' more powerful rifle, for an orc-killing specific one - with much added benefits against the green-skin variety. Needless to say, my team performed quite well!
As in CoH - the unit animation within DoW2 is superb. Cases fly as they are ejected from various bolters. Dreadnoughts pick up hapless orcs and smash them to the ground and even more impressive, is the autocannon sweep - a unique ability that sees the said-equipped dreadnought sweep a wide of arc high velocity fire at the enemy. And your commander hacks through enemies with power-axe in hand - finally executing any survivors with a single shot from his bolt pistol.
Of course, as your squad gets tougher, naturally the enemies do too. Orcs end up with sniper teams, HMG units, grenade teams and heavily armed 'hack & chop' squads. The Eldar increase their abilities also - including ones that shift their position using warp technology, thus making them quite difficult to take down.
The enemy are also quite clever by taking the opportunity to use cover. The Hive Mentality of the Tyranids usually makes them charge forward and get cut down en masse. But the orcs and certainly the Eldar prefer to use cover and to their fighting advantage.
All in all, DoW2 is a rewarding, enthralling and enjoyable RTS game. As expected, it draws heavily on the WH40K universe and those players familiar with this background knowledge will pick it up in no time. But newcomers can look forward to a logical and easily approachable tech tree and unit abilities. There is little head-scratching to be had, here.
As a final note - if you're a fanatic base builder in your RTS games, then DoW2 maybe a let-down as there is no base building in the game, whatsoever.
Company Of Heroes: Tales Of Valor
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This, in my mind, is the swan-song for the current CoH series. Unless Relic decide to dramatically change the game's theatres of war - such as the Russian Front or various battles on the islands of the Pacific, then the series is likely to get tired, quite quickly.
As an avid fan of the previous games, ToV adds a few new units, some different game modes and of course, a sprinkling of new maps. To the veteran of previous games, these options are superb and work very well indeed. As others have said - if you intend to play this online or on a LAN, then ToV is most certainly worthy of 5*.
However, to newcomers - it maybe little more that a small addition to the already mighty CoH:OF. Also to newbies, it appears that the AI has been tweaked and is certainly more of a challenge now in skirmish mode than in the previous games. I was genuinely shocked at the competence of the single AI foe when set to Easy difficulty. The AI now uses a lot of layered attacks and defence - bringing in units of armour, backed by mortar teams and AT units. This of course, makes the game a whole lot more rewarding to play as a challenge - but again, to newcomers, it could be a little too much - even for those seasoned in the RTS genre. For newbies alone, I would rate this as 4*
Much has been mentioned about the short campaigns and I have to say, I'm a little disappointed too. While there certainly is no lack of quality and presentation in the campaigns, the same unfortunately cannot be said of the quantity. The Tiger Ace campaign being three quite short missions alone, for example.
What it does feature is a great 'direct-control' mode, where one right-click orders your tank to move, while moving the mouse and clicking the left mouse button fires the turret. It adds a whole new dimension to the CoH game, but arguably, makes it feel a little arcadey against the seriousness of the RTS backdrop.
Along with the previous CoH games, I would recommend ToV to anyone interested in the RTS genre. But I would mainly target this game to the online RTS fans. These are the players that will get the most out of ToV and realize what a shining example of RTS gaming that they are actually playing.
Left 4 Dead (Left For Dead)
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This game almost (very almost) harks back to the days of the original FPS games on the PC. The ones where you moved about with your arrow keys, maybe side-stepped a little but above all else, poured thousands of rounds into seemingly endless hordes of bad guys.
In these days on complex, multi-layered, multiple-ending action games, L4D offers a brilliant and frentic distraction. You and your three survivor buddies are left to get to your destination and survive. You are not concerned about how the infection started. You are not concerned in selecting skills trees or progressing and developing your character. You are not even focused on finding a 'cure' to the current situation. All that matters is reaching your goal - and escape from the hundreds of undead, relentlessly pursuing you.
Single player mode is good, but online the game really steps up a gear. From a basic arsenal choice of an additional pistol, Uzi, shotgun, assault rifle and hunting rifle, your quad team of survivors arms themselves to provide the best covering fire at different ranges. The knack is to get short, medium and long ranges covered off. And when that's paired with a capable and effective team that sensibly reload and protect each others' back - L4D really, really shines.
Rather than mere hordes of the same type of mindless zombie - there are also some 'special' units. Tanks, hunters, smokers, boomers and witches all add to the mix - each one proving to be a threat in their own way.
I think for the people who didn't really like L4D - they maybe looking for too much within the game. L4D is a simple, no-nonsence shooter that entertains in no other way from the current crop of FPS games out there. Tough day at work? Fire up L4D for half-an-hour and let those frustrations rip!
If I was to fault L4D slightly - then its clearly CRYING OUT for a supermarket/shopping centre escape map. This should have been included from the start really, but the other levels of maps design are crafted well enough to overlook this.
Highly recommended. Get ready for dishing out some instant high-velocity migraines to the army of infected!
Brothers In Arms 3: Hell's Highway
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The first two BiA games have long been favourites of mine and Hell's Highway is certainly a great addition to the series. If you have not played either of the previous games, then I'd strongly advise that you do. Simply because you get a much better understanding of both the background story and the who's who in terms of the characters.
The characters are what 'makes' BiA3. Various names from the previous two games appear again and you can't help but feel protective towards them during the many firefights in the game. This feeling is reinforced by plenty of cut-scenes that help to fill out the story as each scene usually contains a fair amount of dialogue.
So what is BiA3 like as a game? Well it focuses on you playing the role of Matt Baker during the latter stages of WW2, in a typical FPS-shooting-Germans-fare. However, the BiA series has made a name for itself by including squads. Sometimes one, two and even three squads are assigned to you during the course of each mission and its entirely up to you how and where you deploy them.
Typically, there is an assault squad which is a spearhead group of soldiers. Armed with light, rapid firing weapons, they are superb at keeping the Germans heads down while you move into a better flanking position. Another team that pops-up regularly is the machine-gun or bazooka team. Either team packs a hefty punch when used properly - the bazooka team especially as it has the power to blow up machine-gun posts and tanks with a well-aimed round.
Each mission involves completing a set objective such as destroying some 88 AT weapons or clearing out a certain area from Germans. If anything, the number of times you get to blow-up an 88 does get a little tiresome - a few different target types would be nice. Also, the Germans have a slightly daft habit of leaving their heads just visible from behind cover. With a well aimed Garand shot or certainly one from a K98 Sniper rifle - they are easy to take out from range.
What BiA3 excels at however, is the real sense of chaos and action that goes into any combat situation. With plenty of cover to order fire teams to hide behind, the knack comes down to leap-frogging them forward and providing cover while the next team moves ahead. Factor into this the fact that certain cover can be destroyed by fire and that the Germans regularly gain reinforcements and you have the recipe for an intense and thoroughly enjoyable FPS game.
It would benefit from a few different targets on the levels (as I already mentioned) and the option to personally pick your own team before each level would be a great addition.
But the story doesn't end with the third installment of BiA, so there maybe potential for future releases to expand on such ideas.
Essentially, if you like the WW2 setting and you would prefer your FPS game to be a bit more cerebral than out-and-out shooting; then there is plenty to like about BiA3. Just do yourself a favour and complete the first two games first. It really is worth it in the long run.
Finally for users with ATi graphics cards, there is a well-known system bug on the level called 'Black Friday' which causes the game to crash. There has been an official fix for this released and I can confirm that it works fine now.
Far Cry 2
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First off - let's get the plus points done. FC2 looks very, very good indeed. From fluttering leaves, to sun haze through the trees - it is a joy for the eyes. There is also very little in the loading times between sections - in fact, it's almost seamless - much, much better than the likes of Oblivion where loading times (no matter how short) hamper the play experience when moving about the land.
It sounds good too, from the atmospheric background noises, to the weapons firing, to the dialogue of people you encounter.
I also really like the jam/unjam situation with the weapons. Pick up a rusty 'ol AK-47 and you can almost guarantee that it will jam half way through a firefight. They are nearly always easy to unjam and it ranges from the characters hands bashing the mechanism to make it work to flamethrowers leaking fluid everywhere.
The fire effects are also great to watch (and utilise). Spot a small encampment nearby and its easy to lob an incendiary grenade into it and watch the grass, trees and shrubs catch fire and normally trap the people defending it.
As a game however, FC2 leaves a lot to be desired. As I said in the title, it seems really confused as to what it wants to be. Whereas the likes of Oblivion allows you to develop and grow your character's skills and abilities, FC2 does little other than allow you to buy experience and realiability upgrades for certain weapons. There is very little in the way of an RPG going on here.
But as an FPS game, it is severely lacking also. Enemies are too infrequent and when they do turn up, they are very easy to overpower and defeat. The rifles you pick up have 100% accuracy and have no deviation in terms of stamina, breathing, or whether or not you are crouched or fully stood upright. Spot an enemy at distance, simply aim with the rifle and line up the crosshair. It will ALWAYS hit.
I've now charged head-first into several areas of the game where I am severely outnumbered and have always come out the winner. Most smaller checkpoints have between three and five enemies manning them and are stupidly easy to beat. Pick off one or two men from a distance, then charge in and kill the remaining people with either an SMG or assault rifle.
The missions (so far) have been unoriginal and quite repetitive. Take on an assignment from an arms dealer to take out a rival's shipment and on your return, you get offered pretty much the same mission again, but in a different location this time.
And this travelling factor is by far the biggest issue within FC2. You need to travel everywhere to get anything done. So even when you are behind the wheel of a car or jeep, you have a lengthy drive ahead of you, through various checkpoints of dumb enemies. Made worse by the fact that they will normally jump into the their own vehicles and always give chase. Which in itself wouldn't be a problem, if the driving model 'felt' good. It doesn't. Basic car physics at best.
Then there is a malaria sub-story going on. What this actually involves is your character's vision being severely impaired unless you take an malaria tablet. If the developers meant this to be a 'neat' addition to the storyline, it offers little else than a frustration - especially when you run out of medicine.
FC2 is nothing like the linear story-based view of the original Far Cry. But in trying to make it extremely open-form and free-flowing, they have essentially made a game that is too few on its good points and full of many weak aspects that don't combine to make an engrossing and worthwhile game.
Once you have had enough of the pretty graphics and fought your way out of a dozen skirmishes - you realise that the FC2 experience is actually quite shallow. A shame.
Spore (PC & Mac)
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I can kind of see Maxis's thinking regarding Spore. They had a dabble with the 'create you own creature' game years ago with SimLife. Although it was popular, graphics technology was fairly limited back in 1992, so rather than being a fun game as such - it was more like a science lesson, glossed over.
Now with the much better graphics engines, maybe they thought it was time for a revival - with a little less emphasis on the science part and more on fun? Regardless, Spore does look pretty and the music is very 'dreamy' and functional.
The game starts with you creating your simple cell-based creature and effectively progressing up the evolution tree before you reach land mass. So far, so good - even if the gameplay has already become a bit repetitve.
Then when your creatures' race evolves to the Tribal Stage - the game just literally falls apart. It's almost like several offices at Maxis were involved in creating Spore - each one focusing on a particular stage of evolution. The downside of this is that there doesn't feel like there is much continuity between the stages of evolution and it feels very segmented.
When I started the Tribal Stage, my enjoyment in the game went out of the window. The usual right-click map movement that I had been so reliant on in the previous levels, now didn't work. My creatures had developed the ability to equip tools and for the first time, I was at definite odds with another creature race on the island.
But it just doesn't work as a game. Constantly hungry, your creatures (especially if carnivore) have to hunt and kill for food on a very regular basis. This makes them naturally 'unliked' by the other creatures who in turn either attack you at regular intervals or even try to steal some of your own food stockpiles when your creatures are away from home.
It's like you are constantly juggling food vs being attacked from the other creatures and it very quickly becomes tiresome. Slightly daft scenarios don't help either, like killing one particular creature right next to others in the same 'herd' - and they simply stand there and watch?
I've actually given up on Spore now - which is a real shame. As I have already said - it looks and plays good, but just doesn't gel as a game. The foundations were there to make this a true epic, but on the whole, it feels rushed and cobbled-together in order to hit the shelves.
Maybe they should have finished off the gameplay element of Spore and released it just in time for Christmas, instead?
Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization (4)
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Back in 1995, a strategy game pretty much came and went in a flash. A few people were aware of it and bought it, but for the majority of gamers at that time - their attention was diverted to the much more popular Civilization.
The original Colonization dipped below the radar of most gamers back then. The cynics literally claimed that it was a mere 'mod' of its bigger Civilization sibling and therefore nothing more than a money-making exercise on behalf of the developers. However, the gamers who took to Colonization, saw a totally different game.
Granted, even the 2008 version reviewed here looks very, very similar indeed to the current version of Civilization. But its a much more focused and maybe 'approachable' game than Civ 4 as a result. Think of it as a microcosm of Civ 4. Rather than covering the entire path of humanity from a few thousand years B.C. to space travel - Colonization centres solely on the discovery of the New World in time period between 1492 and 1792.
Now its easy to dismiss Colonization as being 'boring'. You'll never research and develop aircraft in Colonization. Nor will you be prowling the high seas in nuclear submarines. What you will be doing however, is amassing the trust and support of your expanding empire (and maybe the local population as well) - in order to take on the other Empires and ultimately - your own ruling monarch.
Colonization has a less militaristic feel to it than Civ 4. You will have fights and skirmishes along the way; but there's less temptation to wade into battle like there is in Civ. You almost feel compelled to help the local Indian natives in their requests and trade goods with them and I've never yet 'searched an Indian burial site'.... lol.
Colonization has a unique feel about it - something that the larger Civ 4 would seemingly brush aside as being trivial and insignificant. It has a different gaming pace and one that oozes atmosphere and charm. It's a 'nice' game to play - if there is such a thing. It plays well. It looks good and certainly sounds good with the accompanying music.
It may lack the scope and depth of the Civilization series. But it is a well crafted and very enjoyable game in its own right. A good starting point for those new to the turn-based strategy genre, or likewise, a welcome alternative to Civ-veterans who are after a far more specific challenge.
Star Wars: Republic Commando
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Yes, this game is getting on now (approx 3.5 years old) and uses the veteran Unreal 2.0 engine. But along with Medal of Honor : Airbourne - it's the only FPS game that I've played, completed and repeated several times over.
The key aspect aside from the story, is the brilliant dialogue between you (acting squad leader) and your three squad mates. Named Sev, Fixer and Scorch - each member has their own personality that you can't help but appreciate and sense that genuine feeling of comradery between the four. And while they bicker between themselves, they focus on the job at hand when the shots start firing.
I must have completed this game about five times now and each time I see or hear something that I've missed from before. The knack of the game is to utilise your squad in the best tactical means possible. There maybe a turret further ahead that you can issue a command for one of them to man - but it will do no good if the rest of you aren't there to back him up.
To this day, some of the 'hangar' levels of Republic Commando which see you massively outnumbered against a wave of droid generators - easily make it into my Top 5 of FPS moments. There's just something about the way the game gels when all hell breaks loose. One guy firing from a turret - another behind taking accurate sniper shots and you covering the back of the remaining guy trying desperately to splice the control panel so you can get out of there in one piece.
The game is short in all honesty and is slightly marred by the occasional 'boring' level like the one on the Star Destroyer. But those are minor gripes. What we have here is a great little story of four Commandos, born, taught and raised to act as a four-man unit - planted into a believable and enjoyable FPS game.
Definitely one of the few FPS games in recent years that is absolutely crying out for a sequel.