Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Archive Review: Company of Heroes

(PC review)

Flank that MG!

Another WW2 game... is that what we really need? With North Korea currently blowing up mountains with newly finessed nukes, China working hard to outnumber the Empire itself, and Bush clearly setting his Texan eyes on Iran. The world is a dangerous place. That's all I'm saying. So Company of Heroes certainly seems suited for this rock. We clearly all love a bit of war after all. CoH is Relic's latest creation, the studio that gave us the brilliant Dawn of War and even better Winter Assault expansion.

I never used to be into RTS games. For many years I refused to branch out of the world of FPS games. I would experiment, sure, with other genres but they never stuck (except for exceptional titles like Oblivion). However this all changed earlier this year when I got into Dawn of War. I became attracted to it because I used to collect Warhammer 40k. And no that doesn't mean I am a socially inept dice roller. It was just a childhood craze. I fell in love with DoW and WA. RTS games suddenly appealed.

There is little chance here of me comparing CoH to a string of other RTS titles from C&C to old school legends like Total Annihilation, like some RTS expert freak. I can only review CoH from the perspective of a guy who loved DoW and thinks he knows what constitutes a good game. Right, that's that clarified then.

CoH is an RTS game set in the Second World War. In the single player campaign you play as the US and take on the Axis forces from the beaches of D-Day to the outskirts of Germany. I'm going to sum the single player game up quickly here. In my opinion its a glorified set of training levels designed to get player familiarised with RTS elements and the units and command structures this game offers. The early few levels play out like this. Although they do get better it all feels very scripted and unnatural. It feels a bit like taking the pool game seriously in GTA: San Andreas. Sure its fun but just go out into the city, you moron! However lets be clear. The campaign is great fun. It's also very cliche'd. It is effectively another Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers hybrid of a loose storyline and inspired settings. All very American hegemonic too.

Expect sentimental drivel for dialogue in the cutscenes and a sense of ,"I've seen this all before, twice!" Anyway whiz through the campaign, its fun regardless, so you can then play CoH, because CoH is ALL about skirmish mode - like any RTS game. Here you can play against the very smart and challenging AI offline or go online and play with up to 8 players in standard one on one's or utterly chaotic team games! This is "potentially" great... if you could connect.

The online side to CoH has serious issues. It's all done through Relic's own server platform which is a very simple interface showing available games and lists some IRC rooms. There seems to be real problems here with ye old internet foe, lag. Also its just a challenge to get in a game, any game. The amount of times you try to connect to a server only for it to hang and fail to enter the lobby make the process of "having a quick game" an episode in striking it lucky and finding a good host. It's rare. I also find myself continually connecting into games, starting to play, and then getting kicked for lagging (I assume). This seems bizarre considering I only ever try to connect to European games and have a very fast connection. I get the impression that off the bat CoH will be a nightmare to play online for European players who don't have mates they can privately set up a game with. Most of the action seems to be happening in the US and I'm sure its some great action, just hardly that accessible for many.

So far I've shunned the single player and positively knocked down the multiplayer. So where does this leave CoH? I'll tell you where. In the skirmish mode, offline. Sound familiar? Playing an RTS in skirmish mode against the AI?

As soon as you get into a battle CoH hits you. This is the RTS many have been waiting years (a decade?) for. For a start we have the resource system. You need to take fuel and ammo points that must be linked to your HQ via a supply line, or a linkage of captured areas. If a point isn't linked it won't contribute towards your resources. Ammo and fuel also count for different things. Also victory and strategic points need to be captured but the nature of these depends on whether you are playing victory point control mode or my fav, annihilation.

CoH is effectively a standard RTS on paper in this regard. Resource gathering is only one factor though. Sure you also need to build stuff with the engineer/pioneer class and also upgrade units with eventual gains in HQ updates etc but these elements are really only the frameworks for the true experience CoH offers, the combat.

The feel of battle in this game is just stunning. It's cinematic and also realistic in many ways. You really get the sense of the true nature of combined arms battles here. The tactics and strategy required to win are unlike most other RTS games. They are more realistic. This isn't one of those games where bunkering in and building up an army will work that well. However it might work, depends on your skill. There is a requirement here for micro management of units too. Sometimes you will need to make sure tanks are facing forward so they are less exposed for example. Also it is common to direct infantry units to throw grenades, apply sticky bombs (yep they are in it), or fire a recoilless rifle at a tank. Anyone who has played DoW will feel at home with these factors.

CoH is not one of those games where you can just build five AT guns, send them into a field, and expect that to act as a powerful deterrent against tanks. This is because of the combined arms element. Those AT guns will pwn advancing tanks for sure but they will also get easily flanked by infantry. The AI will flawlessly do this too, flank you and poke your defenses for weak points. So you need to think more here. If you send two MG squads to cover those flanks the AT guns will instantly be less vulnerable to assault in this manner. But then there comes the artillery factor, and enemy mortar fire. It might just be best to place those AT guns in separate, hidden, and inconspicuous positions after all. This all depends on the ebb and flow of any particular battle.

This brings me to a vital factor when deploying AT guns and MG squads. They have an arc of fire which you must set. If an enemy flanks them they will have to re position first and this arc must be reset if they are to survive. They are vulnerable so infantry must often back them up as well. Every unit compensates another in this manner. Tanks are simply superb in CoH too. They are tough and won't easily blow up. They realistically turn the tide of battle and often force retreats.

I tend to play Axis more than Allies so have been having fetishistic drooling sessions over the German armour here. It's kind of like Red Orchestra done really well. The armour is sloped and shells often bounce off. You've got all the usual killing machines here. Name the WW2 era tank and its likely in CoH - unless you want to get real geeky. The German Panther and Tiger tanks are particularly powerful and sometimes will prove indestructible if the battles play out accordingly. The allied Sherman's rarely stand a chance but, like in the real war, their advantage is often in the numbers. You can build more for less resources. Also the allied M26 Pershing can be called in for the armour commander (I'll get to that) and this tank tends to stand it's ground against Axis armour but, still, without being truly superior.

A nice touch to CoH also comes with the doctrine/command system. For either side you can play (Axis/Allied) you effectively get a three way split. You earn command points for various reasons and these give you access to special powers, like a tech tree, in one of three commands/doctrines. You must chose one of the three before spending the points and they all effectively cater for a certain style of player. For example the Allies have an Airborne command which gives you access to paratroops, airdrops, and P-47 strafing/bombing runs. I love this command myself as it suites my run and gun, ambush the bastards, style when allied. However this command won't give you access to the better allied tanks (part of the Armour command) or the heavy artillery support of the Infantry command. The Axis system is rather more sophisticated still. The Defensive doctrine is for those of us who just love bunkering in. You get access to the formidable Flak 88. This is a powerful big gun that once deployed by a pioneer cannot be moved. It will take out tanks from across half the map and bring down P-47s. The Allies have an equivalent in the Infantry doctrine, the 105 Howitzer, which is more an all round artillery piece that can barrage an area. If you prefer the more traditional conception of the German tactics of WW2 then the Blitzkrieg doctrine is for you. Think quick mobile assault teams backed up by powerful tanks. Lastly there is the Terror doctrine. This is like the alternative style if you will. It's more about abilities than units. For example you can target an area of the battlefield to receive a blast of propaganda which will terrify the enemy units and force them to retreat back to HQ. This is not my style, personally, but what I love about this doctrine is the fact is gives you access to the V1 rocket. This is essentially the ub3r weapon of CoH. In a huge explosion it will end an enemy base or lay waste to an assault.

At first I wasn't sure about the three way split deal but after playing CoH a heck of a lot I love it. It's a great way of making two sides seem like more. CoH is one awesome game. It's the kind of battlefield experience I've wanted for a long time and never found with any FPS. It is in this RTS game that my search has come to an end. There is so much about this game I never even mentioned too. The totally destructible environments are just a thing to behold, like some piece of programming beauty. This is no half-assed destruction either (like many games). This is the works. Buildings topple into rubble and block roads, houses catch fire, explosions create craters which can then be used for light cover, and in a nice touch destroyed tanks etc won't vanish. This means they themselves can in turn be used for cover and slowly start scattering all over the mostly vast maps. Maps! I never mentioned how great they are. Everything from bombed up cities like Lyon to do CQB in to hedgerow infested farmland. CoH is just one hell of an addictive, intense, and downright fun experience and for all us war game obsessive's this one is something special. My only gripes come with things like the fact this is another American made product that simply fails to acknowledge that the US was just one of the nations that made up the Allies. I think its bordering on irresponsible to see this so often in games such as this and movies alike. But then again I'm sure expansions will see more of everything CoH related. This is likely just the start.


+ Very realistic RTS experience

+ Totally destructible world

+ Very good AI for offline action

- Lag/connection issues

9.4 / 10

RTS at its finest

by The Critical Alien
© 2006

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Archive Review: The Eldar Scrolls IV: Oblivion

(PC review)

What do you want to do today?

There has been a serious lack of real masterpiece titles recently. We have seen a constant rollout of average games and whether they be for the PC or consoles nothing since Halo and Half Life 2 has had much impact. Gaming has been in a state of limbo as the standard fails to grow or decline, just stay put. This period wasn't that harsh for gamer though as we have seen some great titles, just nothing next-gen. The future was a thought and we could only imagine it... then Oblivion was released.

Oblivion is a single-player only RPG that comes from the developers of Morrowind and that old classic, Daggerfall. Both these former games offered an insane level of freedom and little in the way of linear story telling. The problem with them was this freedom came at the expense of not feeling any sense of depth or quality to what you could do. Everything could be done but in little detail. In this respect it felt like the GTA: San Andreas of RPG games in that you had lots to do but it all felt like a taster of some deeper game based in each area.

Oblivion gives us something very special. It offers the same level of freedom in a world so detailed and realised that you feel as if you are in some crazy multiple game land. One minute its Hitman as you find yourself completing contracts and sneaking around houses at night with potions to get sneaky kills. The next minute you are in Fable, focusing on killing monsters in dungeons to gain skill levels. All of a sudden you are reminded of good old King's Quest as you have lengthy chats with friendly townsfolk. Every area Oblivion lets you play is detailed and rivals any other game that specialises solely in that genre.

To sum this game up is to paint a picture in your head. Relax and get comfy on that crappy office chair of yours as you read this review and imagine this world. Picture a game where you can create a character in what is probably the most in-depth and natural system ever computed. Give them a name, gender, profession, star sign, race, and customise the face and hair to achieve a final result that rivals The Sims 2 for downright excellent results. Now with your ideal char made imagine being put into a world of expansive and beautiful wild scenery where leaves fall from trees and deer's play in groups deep within pine forests.

Watch butterflies flicker by and realise it was just a microcosm of the world you are in. A world where around one thousand NPCs get on with their daily lives. A world where every other char is driven by an impressive AI system dubbed Radiant AI that means every individual char lives a life. They hunt for food, work, pray, sleep, chat, walk around, get killed by bandits, and even commit crime. Never before has a game created such an immersive world.

The only comparison to this game comes with the GTA series. Where that game offered freedom and lots to do Oblivion offers the same but only in a way that is simply a hell of a lot more detailed. GTA games are linear in the sense that progression only comes with completing the missions/answering the phones. Oblivion lets you do whatever you want and you will never feel the need to do something you don't want to do. Whatever road you take the world is at your fingertips.

Of course the game has a main quest. It starts with you in a prison where you escape through what is effectively a simple training section before you are let loose on the Province of Cyrodiil. I won't go into the quest as I believe its best to discover it for yourself and in my Oblivion experience I am not even remotely doing it! Many players will pursue it and have an awesome gaming experience but many, like me, will kiss goodbye to all that as soon as you have reached the outside world beyond the prison sewers...

So far I have helped a man fish to meet a quota, watched arena battles and considered becoming a fighter (maybe when I'm a little tougher), helped a paranoid elf called Glarthir spy on those he was convinced were following him, and become an evil assassin for the Dark Brotherhood and kill a pirate captain in his cabin aboard a large fully crewed ship! I have friends who have never seen any of this, opting for a totally different path... and we are playing the same game!

Going back to Glarthir, he represented another awesome element to the game. Each char you meet comes over unique and with a strong personality. All dialogue is convincingly spoken by chars and you hear a very varied mix of lines, phrases, jokes, etc etc. This all seems location specific which makes sense. Along with this we have one mesmerizing orchestral score continually in the background.

The world you play in is vast and nothing repeats itself. It is hard to explain how stunning this world is. Graphically it is inconceivably awesome. Woodland, rivers, towns, castles, all look real and somehow right. I have often just walked around dense rich forests purely to take in the visuals and listen to the inspiring sounds of nature. For those of us living in drab urban sprawls Oblivion actually offers escapism in the sense that the natural world gives you a feeling of awe and wonder.

This is a game where if you play Pink Floyd whilst moving around the rural realm you start forgetting the real world... this one is better! These are the kind of graphics where you spot things and actually get the "take a pic" sensation you would get in real life when around such visuals. Screenshot folders will build up as will your frustration at the fact you can't set the graphics any higher to get even better visuals! This is where my gripes sneak in.

This is one hell of a demanding game! Clearly the XBOX 360 crowd won't have any problems but for the PC gamers I suggest you only try this game if you have a certified ub3r rig. Don't go thinking that mid-range Dell will cut this diamond as it won't and you will be left in 10fps hell (even at 800by600 res). I don't consider this a problem with the game as this is seriously next-gen and its a case of catching up or holding up till you can.

When I first played Daggerfall back in the day I wasn't aware of the ability to teleport to a location on the map instead of traveling in real time. I put a paperweight on my up cursor and went AFK for an hour only to find I had been clipping a tree for 30 mins! Oblivion offers the ability to travel to locations without having to constantly ride or run. All it means is the time will reflect how long it took to travel as this game evolves around a fully realised time system of days and hours.

This is UO in terms of the skill developing and shear amount of items you can find, buy, collect, and make! You are free to wear all sorts of armour, clothing, and misc items. The skill system like everything in this is deep. However it all feels intuitive without a steep learning curve. This is another element to Oblivion that makes it so impressive. In this vast world you feel confident with how to play it and how to go about your gaming within an hour tops. This gives you all the rest of your time to explore and generally play as you will!

My only issues with this game come with the problems groundbreaking programming give us. The Radiant AI does odd things like fail to acknowledge you have broken into their house in the middle of the night and instead greet you normally as you wake them up. Enemy monsters etc will also never give up the chase meaning a quick ride to Skingrad stables will mean 3-4 bandits on your tail. However every city has guards who will defend you and everyone else. Guards can be annoying... until you reach level 20 and find yourself pwning them if they try to take you on ;) The cutscene of them confronting you is annoying though as it always relates to stealing items.. even if you have murdered someone! I can let these minor issues pass as they are merely slight imperfections on this emerald. I love Eldar Scrolls IV: Oblivion and I want you to know that.


+ Is this real? Am I dreaming?

+ Fully realised world

+ Stunning graphics/sound

+ A new level of gaming freedom

9.6 / 10

This is something special

by The Critical Alien
© 2006

Thursday, 30 March 2006

Archive Review: Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45

(PC review)

The clash of ideology

We've all seen World War Two done before in games and movies. In fact it's been done so many times it's often hard to remember that the war itself was over 50 years ago! As an audience and consumer it's clear we mostly still crave WW2 games, whether they be realistic FPS titles or era themed RTS franchises. There is clearly something still intriguing about this war, it's armies, the weapons, and the general history of it all that appeals to almost every action junkie gamer out there.

Another interesting, yet hardly surprising, trend is the fact most of these WW2 games place you in the boots of a G.I taking on the Germans from the perspective of either a Ranger or Marine. It has become very clear that the more a WW2 game steers away from Saving Private Ryan / Band Of Brothers territory the more alternative it is automatically seen by the gaming community. Those FPS kids get a little tense when they can't get hold of an M1 Garand and hear some Sgt. yelling out that they need to take out "That damn MG42"!

I used to be a big fan of all these WW2 games until I realised 90% of them didn't add up either historically or in terms of combat realism. Most of them sucked on so many levels. I am talking here about the Medal of Honor franchise that EA milks like an udder. Battlefield 1942 was great but we all knew it was an arcade fest with little realism. The Call of Duty series was fun, cinematic, but clearly also a frag fest as opposed to some simulation style FPS. In fact I can't ever recall playing a realism based WW2 FPS game... until Red Orchestra.

RO came from a mod for UT2004 and has received a very extensive paint job. For once we see a WW2 game set on the Eastern Front. It's the mighty showdown of ideology between the Soviet Red Army and the bulk of Hitler's forces. It is only available on Steam which many of you may instantly consider a handicap right away. However Steam has seen some improvement since the release of HL2 and it now seems as good a platform to roll out games as any. The game can either be downloaded or purchased however I have not seen any copy of the game in stores so am guessing the retail side of things is hardly priority. Basically if you want this game you should have broadband anyway, so get downloading.

We have a game here that is really a mixture of FPS action and Tank simulation. I was excited by the tank aspect, being a WW2online vet, and was very attracted by the games armour modeling and physics. In RO shells will bounce off tanks if they hit from the wrong angle. Armour is sloped in all the right places and each tank has it's own weak points where you should be aiming for a kill. This is easily the most detailed attempt at armour penetration but it's far from perfect.

Within a few hours of playing the game I could tell all these fancy armour factors meant next to nothing when players realised each tank had it's weak spots modeled in exactly the same places. Once you memorise the 4-5 weak zones of tanks it's very easy destroying them with either another tank cannon or an infantry anti-tank weapon such as a Panzerfaust or Russian PTRD.

It's interesting to note that in WW2 Germany lost 80% of it's war machine on the Eastern Front. In reality the Western Front was a skirmish compared. I am not surprised by this when I play RO and watch Tiger tanks get destroyed by people firing bipod mounted 14.5mm anti-armour weapons. In reality such weaponry was a waste of time against anything that wasn't a car or truck. In effect the tank combat in RO is about as realistic as Battlefield 1942 with additional armour physics that amount to very little when you are taking on players with a few hours game time behind them.

Where RO shines is in the infantry combat sector. This is intense, realistic, stuff. You get no crosshair and must use your iron sights to effectively fire your weapon at the enemy. Incoming fire will blur your screen, making retaliation impossible and forcing you to seek cover and hit the dirt. Loud explosions rock your eardrums and artillery strikes throw you up into the air like a ragdoll. The physics are neat here with tracer rounds from MGs bouncing off metallic surfaces and shooting up into the sky. Bodies will realistically fall dead, dangle from rooftops, droop over terrain, and twitch as entry wounds bleed.

Killing an enemy in RO feels horribly real. One shot is all it takes and they will fall dead and lifeless. This isn't CoD or BF where a frag feels worthy of praise. Here killing is not really considered as much a skill as it is a way to survive the battlefield. The points you get are for all sorts, including supporting the capture of control points, and the amount of times you die does not show up on the scorelist. In truth a player at the top of the room may have not killed a living soul, instead always being on the front line and taking ground slowly and cautiously.

The maps are large but not vast as boasted by initial pre-release info. They feel like nothing compared to the BF series, or the old school legend that is Operation Flashpoint. They play more freely than most WW2 FPS games though, notably more so than the linear design of Day of Defeat: Source. The real problem with the maps is the stupid invisible walls and instant death/mine field zones that prevent you straying away from the edges of the map. In most games these edges of your gaming world are blocked off via terrain or at least a 10 second warning before death. RO is too harsh and the edges do not really show up clearly on the grid based map you can view.

With a mixture of city/urban maps and open country for the tank combat you get a mix but that mix is not remotely varied enough. You will find when playing RO on public servers the same 3-4 maps are constantly voted for in an integrated players voting system. The name Arad will particularly infuriate you. It's all about capturing ground DoD style. Some maps include objectives too but these are generally the unpopular maps. DoD tried this once too and soon gave it up. In other words get used to the "flag zone" style of gameplay.

Weapons wise it's all here... without the obvious American variety. Please don't spam public servers with "FFS where is the Thompson" or "I want my BAR". All the Axis guns are here so Kar98 ownage is an option. The Russian weapons are neat and very SMG orientated. You will find it pleasurable drilling your ammo drums dry. However there is no ammo count displayed in RO and you simply go on the note "mag heavy" or "light". Get used to memorising your firing rates.

Little elements to RO give a nice unique touch. For example you must manually work the bolt for the rifles, often change the barrel for MGs, and also have the ability to rest your gun on any flat surface. This lessens the weapons recoil rate and is vital for accuracy. However the implementation for this is not quite right and it would be nice to have a proper animation representing resting a weapon on a surface as opposed to an icon on the screen telling you it's resting. I am being picky in this respect though as the actual feature is awesome and unique to RO.

I never review games allowing the fact they will likely be continually updated influence me. It's a review based on an "out of the box" product. RO needs a lot of work. Many features are not here that need to be. If the game is meant to be realistic why no medic class able to heal minor wounds? Why no penetration system that enables certain cover to be shot through? Why no destructible environments? In OFP tanks could happily knock over bushes instead of being forced to drive around them! As it stands RO is an interesting development but feels lacking. All players do in it is call artillery strikes, snipe (or spam they want to snipe), hunt tanks, or hide on the front line in what is in reality an overly realistic battlefield. It's not fun, you feel like a very unlucky squaddie who can't do much with his bolt action rifle. This is great to begin but grows too frustrating... the balance is not quite there, yet.


+ Stunning warzone atmosphere

+ Realistic

- Too realistic for a game?

- Tanks are steel coffins

8.5 / 10

Should have been much more

by The Critical Alien
© 2006