Friday, November 19, 2010

Top-Ranked Chess Player Withdraws From Competition

Every generation or two, competitive Chess grips the imagination of the world outside of chess circles, and names like Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Deep Blue, and Josh Waitzken start appearing in headlines. If that was going to happen again in this generation, the top candidate would have been Magnus Carlsen, a 19-year-old genius from Norway.

Carlsen earned Grandmaster status at age 13, and earlier this year became the youngest person in history to hold the number 1 chess ranking in the world. His ELO rating (the standard measure of skill level), is 2801. Only 4 other people have ever exceeded 2800. Add to this books, films, and a modeling career, and you have a perfect storm for Chess celebrity.

But when you also add in the remarkably mercurial personality required to become a Chess champion, things can get strange. Morphy quit. Fischer quit and went mad. Kasparov quit, entered Russian politics, and is now making a concerted effort to be assassinated by Vladimir Putin. Even Deep Blue wound up dismantled and forgotten until a piece of it landed in the Smithsonian.

And now Carlsen has withdrawn from the cycle of games designed to name the next World Champion.

As he states in his letter:
After careful consideration I’ve reached the conclusion that the ongoing 2008–2012 cycle does not represent a system, sufficiently modern and fair, to provide the motivation I need to go through a lengthy process of preparations and matches and to perform at my best.
Reigning champion privileges, the long (five year) span of the cycle, changes made during the cycle resulting in a new format (Candidates) that no World Champion has had to go through since Kasparov, puzzling ranking criteria as well as the shallow ceaseless match-after-match concept are all less than satisfactory in my opinion.
The man has a point. Similar irritations resulted in Kasparov splitting from FIDE, the organizing body for the World Championships, to form his own group, the Professional Chess Association. FIDE stripped Kasparov of his World Champion title, and the controversy sputtered until a "reunification match" in 2006. Now it's back again, and with the best player in the world opting out of the competition, FIDE stands to lose their credibility once again. After all, if the best doesn't compete, is "World Chess Champion" a valid title?

App O' The Mornin': Death Worm Review

Grade: A
Price: $1

I'll make this easy: every app and Flash clone of JTR's Death Worm is about 90% less entertaining than the real thing. Forget about Super Mega Worm, Effing Worms, and even the original Death Worm. Playcreek has created the definitive version, making one of the most unrelentingly addictive games in the app store in the process.

Death Worm is a bit tricky to describe. Think of it as Tremors: The Game. A giant, terrifying worm with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth burrows underground and occasionally breaks the surface to snatch people, cars, tanks, helicopters, aircraft, and UFOs from below. It moves in graceful loops through dirt and crest the surface like a dolphin ... deadly, disgusting, giant, man-eating dolphin.

You control this worm with your finger, directing its path in order to intercept targets. This isn't an automatic point-to-kill process. The worm has limits to its movement. It can only turn in certain arcs, and correctly lining it up with surface objects can be tricky. Most frustrating is the fact that you can't change your path once you've leaped in the air. This isn't a flaw, but part of the challenge. It just takes some time to get used to it and plan your surface jumps correctly.

Along the way, your worm can buy certain powerups, such as a fireball attack, a larger leap, thicker skin, faster movement, and so on. There are three environments, each with multiple levels of increasing challenges. Some of these can be pretty frustrating, such as the levels that require you to eat 10 people while remaining completely uninjured. Another level requires you to get 5 aircraft, but then runs out of the surface threats that provide the powerups which enable you to reach those aircraft. There's a workaround for this featuring underground snacks with some occasional powerups, but this particular challenge kills the intense pace of the game.

Those problems are rare, however. Death Worm is visually striking and  insanely addictive. Just get it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Godzilla: The Game?

Okay, Toy Vault, you got my attention. I don't know a whole lot about their upcoming board game Godzilla: Kaiju World Wars, but I know that I must have it.

Kaiju is the Japanese term for movies in which guys in rubber suits stomp on little models of tanks and buildings, and I'm about as big a kaiju fan as one can be short of actually owning a Jet Jaguar suit.

There isn't a lot of info on this one, but a kaiju site does have an interview with Paul Blake, the Toy Vault designer who's working on it.

They're also working on a card game called Godzilla: Stomp.


App O' The Mornin': Splinter Cell: Conviction Review

Grade: A
Price: $7

App versions of major console or PC titles always feel a bit like consolation prizes. They'll never be as flashy or as complete as their big brothers, but they can pack a lot of gameplay into a small package while still capturing the flavor of the original.

That's what the app incarnation of Splinter Cell: Conviction manages to do.  The full Splinter Cell: Conviction shattered the Splinter Cell stealth/action formula, and rebuilt it into something completely new. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends upon what you want in a Splinter Cell game, but it’s hard to deny that Conviction is a slick, fresh piece of work. 

Sam Fisher has been prowling the shadows since 2002, doing stealthy missions for Third Echelon, a “black ops” group working under the aegis of the National Security Agency. The game built upon mechanisms developed for Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project, requiring players to stay out of sight and complete their mission without using deadly force. This odd inversion of what seemed to be the heart of action gaming (violent confrontation) proved to be an enduring addition, resulting in a new genre: stealth-action.

The key to Splinter Cell’s gameplay was Sam’s careful movement through each environment, using increasingly complex techniques to quietly take down guards, and then hiding the bodies to avoid detection. It required a slower pace and a careful evaluation of each environment, but returned residual benefits with a more enhanced sense of suspense. 

Well, most of that is gone now, and the series is striking out in a bold new direction that may or may not appeal to fans. If Conviction was your standard action movie sequel, the clich├ęd tagline would be “This time, it’s personal.” Fisher is out of Echelon and trying to put that life behind him, but he’s dragged back in by the promise of avenging his daughter’s murder.

Sam can still sneak around, without detection, and disappear in the shadows, but the game no longer provides the sophisticated series of interactions that made those elements so much fun. Lockpicking, split-jumps, moving bodies, and non-lethal takedowns are gone, replaced by a covering fire and movement system that doesn't work as well in the app as it did in the full game.

Once in cover, however, Sam is far more likely to kill an enemy with a single shot to the than he is to sneak around him or knock him unconscious. Each time you take down an enemy with hand to hand combat, you power up a special ability to tag multiple targets, and then execute attacks on those targets automatically, all at once.

The new flanking mechanic is more in keeping with the stealth theme of the prior games in the serious. If you’re spotted by a guard, you can move away, leaving a white silhouette or yourself at your last known location. The guards will move on this location, allowing you to sneak up behind him for a silent takedown. This creates an interesting tactical element, as you deliberately reveal yourself draw an enemy into a trap.

The app version is a seriously scaled-back version of the full game, but still manages to pack many of the features into a small package. Movement is mapped to an onscreen stick, with look-around/aiming mapped controlled by touching anywhere on the screen. This is a little bit better than dual-stick, and frees up the right corner for attack and context-sensitive action icons.

App conversions of major action titles are the dancing dogs of game design: it's enough that the dog can dance at all, even if can't do a pirouette. Splinter Cell: Conviction is a nicely compressed version of the full game, and that's just what it should be.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GAMES Magazine Electronic Game of the Year: Super Mario Galaxy 2

So you clicked on this post today and thought, "Are you on crack, McDonald? A sequel to a Mario game as the best game for the entire year? You really need to lay off the pipe and get yourself professional help."

Actually, that was what one of my writers said, but I managed to bring them around with commonsense arguments and minimal use of force.

The answer is actually pretty logical. The original Super Mario Galaxy was a victim of poor timing here at Games Magazine. First, it shipped at an awkward point in the year (November) which means we didn’t get it in time for the 2007 awards. Second, a little masterpiece called BioShock (one of the best games of all time), shipped a couple of weeks later, and shut out all contenders for the 2008 Game of the Year Award.

So when 2010 rolled around with a sequel to a game-of-the-year caliber game which improved upon the original in every way, it seemed like a natural choice for the top spot. This isn’t just a consolation prize because we couldn’t give the original the award three years ago. Super Mario Galaxy 2 has earned its place at the top of the heap by the sheer mastery of its design.

Red Dead Redemption, StarCraft II, Mass Effect II, and Battlefield: Bad Company II were all considered, while late shippers like Fallout: New Vegas, Halo: Reach, and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood would have certainly been contenders had they arrived in time. In a depressing sign of the times, only one of the contenders was an original game, while the rest were all sequels.

All of the best elements of the original have been carried forward in this sequel. This is the same engine, visual style, control scheme, and design elements that made Super Mario Gallery such a breakthrough pleasure. The first game took Mario’s familiar platforming gameplay—the jumping, bouncing, spinning, and soaring traversal of puzzle-like levels—through a dazzling array of inventive landscapes in, on, and around planets and other celestial bodies

The sequel smooths over the rough spots, eliminates what didn’t work, and expands upon what did. Galaxy 2 begins in a the 2D world familiar to players of Super Mario Bros. for Wii, then gradually introduces more complex controls and environments until the player finds himself traversing lavish 3D worlds with shifting gravity, or soaring through space from one planet to another.

To accomplish this, Mario has some new abilities in Galaxy 2, such as a Cloud Suit that allows him to create fluffy, temporary platforms, or a Rock Suit that allows you to use him like a bowling ball. Yoshi is also drafted into the space program, where he can use his tongue to grab objects or his glowing power to illuminate hidden platforms. Players can even have a friend help out, with a more fully developed co-op mode that allows another player to hop in and help grab stars.

This is just a pure delight, with nary a single element out of place. Thanks to the more gradual learning curve, an in-game helper, and co-op play, this is a good pick for the whole family, even younger gamers. There is joy in here, and families with a Wii shouldn’t pass this one up.

App O' The Mornin': iTrials Review

Grade: B
Price: $1

No one, in either Flash or app form, has managed to quite capture the bike trials format as well as the original Trials series from RedLynx. Thes 2.5D games blending elements of racing, stunt riding, physics, and side-scrolling action to create a fresh kind of action/racing/puzzle hybrid.

iTrials is the first game to really nails this formula for the mobile devices. It's not as complete or polished as the products from RedLynx, but it's a darn good imitation and the best we've seen so far.

Trials-style games are 3D games played on a 2D plane. That is, they use 3D-style graphics, but the player can only move forward, backwards, up, or down. The player needs to navigate a course as fast as possible with as few errors as possible.

iTrials does it just right. Motorbike handling feels great, albeit just a little bit bouncy. Controls are go, stop, and a slider for lean forward/backward. I wound have rather seen the tilt slider on the side than on the bottom, but you get used to it after awhile.

Courses are terrific, with 27 levels spread across 3 difficulty sets. They with straightforward ramps and jumps, and soon add seesaws, walls, spinny-things, reverse loops, stairs, sliding blocks, and other crazy obstacles. Animations are smooth and professional, with some great ragdoll effects for the rider. Visually, the game delivers the goods, although some edges could use a bit of smoothing.

This is the best Trials experience in the App Store, and at $1 it's a steal.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

APP OF THE YEAR: Carcassonne

This was the first year we added mobile games to the Games Magazine Games 100 awards We chose to focus on Apps, rather than on other mobile devices, because only Apps can make a legitimate claim to being a new gaming format, with unique mechanics and design elements. Certain games are Wii games and can only ever effectively be Wii games. And certain games are Apps, and can only ever effectively be Apps.

To become a new format, a device must offer a unique language, a core vocabulary that it shares with every other item in that genre. There are distinct qualities to PC, Wii, DS, and Xbox/PS games, primarily based upon control, ergonomics, and aesthetics. Apple mobile software can make a similar claim, due to its unique blend of portability, size, multi-touch controls, and a 3-axis accelerometer (enhanced by a gyroscopic sensor for the iPhone 4).

Apps are of particular interest to Games readers because they are a natural format for all manner of puzzle, board, and card games. There are a huge variety of classic games, Eurogames, card games, and abstract strategy titles for the format, often with multiple versions of each. Many of these have multiplayer elements built-in, and also include teaching tools, variant versions, other features to give them added appeal. And all if this rarely costs more than a few dollars. It’s creating a mini-renaissance of classic gaming and puzzle play.

Our normal criteria for inclusion in the Games 100 is a title released within the current year (roughly October to September). For the inaugural edition of the App section of the Games 100, we choose the 25 best Apps in the App Store. The focus was heavily tilted towards the kinds of games our readers would prefer: heavy on board games and puzzles, light on action games and fart apps. If we'd done the list now, after having several more months of serious app gaming under my belt, there may have been some add/drops, but I'm pretty comfortable with the way the list turned out.

Had the awards come three months later, however, I might have considered Cut the Rope for the top spot of App of the Year, but it's hard to say. The winner, Carcassonne, is a time-tested favorite among Eurogamers in general and our readers in particular. The feature-set for the conversion of Carcassonne reads like a wish-list of everything you’d want in this kind of App. There are 8 different AI players, a new solitaire mode, local network play over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, Internet multiplayer via live-gaming sessions or email, a matchmaking service, an Elo ratings system, and in-game chat.

The implementation of the game itself is also quite strong. Carcassonne was always going to be a tough fit for the small screen of a mobile device. Its tendency to spread across the table makes it though to fit in a small space. The App version does a fair job of managing this by zooming in and out, and clearly marking any block where tile placement is legal.

The result is a pitch-perfect implementation of a complex boardgame design. This no small achievement, and clearly marks out Carcassonne as the App of the Year. Runner's up were Helsing's Fire and Catan.

App O' The Mornin': Finger Physics: Thumb Wars Review

Grade: C
Price: $1

Finger Physics never really knocked me out with its brilliant puzzle gameplay. It's okay, I guess, but the objects, their arrangement, and their behavior always just seemed to fall on the wrong side of the dividing line between "interesting" and "meh."

The first sequel, Thumb Wars, brings the "meh" in spades. This is a new mix of stacking and dropping puzzles that feels like an extended add-on for Finger Physics. As with its predecessor, the puzzles seem kind of random, with object behavior that requires plenty of guesswork. Even if a trial-and-error approach is fine with you, you may well find many of these just a bit stale. I'm not fan of stacking puzzles, but even if I was I'd like something a little more interesting that you'll find on display here.

I puzzled a bit over the title, assuming there were battling thumbs somewhere in the game, which would have made the experience 27.3% more interesting. No, apparently PressOK thinks that people play these games with their thumbs. Am I alone in thinking that's not really the case? I use my index finger for almost all puzzles, and I've never actually witnessed anyone doing puzzles with their thumbs. I understand that "Index-Finger Wars" isn't exactly a snappy title, but something called Thumb Wars should have, y'know, more thumbs in it.

The "Wars" title comes from the competition element that's been slathered across the surface of Finger Physics, much like old Hollywood cameramen used to spread Vaseline on their lenses to make aging stars look less wrinkly. It doesn't work as well here. The competition amounts to international leaderboards, so you can compare your "team's" scores to those of other countries around the world. I surely could care less how many stars were earned by Team Edward in Canada for solving puzzle #3.

By the way, there are some are thumbs in the game.  They're anthropomorphic little guys who occasionally introduce levels. Let me tell you something about a cartoon thumb with a helmet and a face: it bears an unfortunate resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy. And once you get that image in your head, the game either becomes unplayable ... or absolutely hilarious.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Battle Cry: Back in Print

Before Richard Borg's Memoir '44 (Days of Wonder), Command & Colors (GMT), or Battle Lore (Fantasy Flight), there was Battle Cry. Borg created Battle Cry for Avalon Hill back in 2000, introducing the appealing and accessible system for military gaming that would power those later designs.

Battle Cry has been unavailable for a few years, but Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast are republishing it later this month. That's really good news for gamers. And if you don't know what Battle Cry is, just think of this: Memoir '44 ... set in the Civil War. MSRP is $60.

Civilization: The Board Game

A few years ago, Eagle Games took a stab at converting the classic PC game into a tabletop experience with Sid Meier's Civilization: The Boardgame, and made a mess of it. It was flawed, unwieldy, and thoroughly unenjoyable.

Now Fantasy Flight is tackling this formidable task, and as this video shows, they have some intriguing design elements.

Shark Bites Helicopter

I'm sure some people might find Sydney Shark aggressively tasteless.  As for me, I have to appreciate a game in which a shark can leap from the water, bite a helicopter, and drag it into the water while an outraged, muscle-bound koala bear angrily shakes his fists. Also: you eat scuba-divers, cruise ships, and horses.

Mausland Entertainment also did a version of this called Miami Shark. Both are free flash games, but Sydney Shark does have a stylin' Panama hat. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.

App O' The Mornin': SteamBirds Review

Grade: A
Price: $1

Aerial strategy games usually have a niche appeal. Although there have been a number of board games tackling the subject, only a few computer games, such as Flight Commander and Over the Reich, spring to mind. That's probably because the tactical aspects of air-to-air combat are hard to capture quite right. We know how to take down the Red Baron when we're in control of a 3D sim and can perform an immelmann after a strafing run, but converting the knowledge into a turn-based tactical simulation can be tricky.

SteamBirds does a fair job of capturing these tactical elements, but it's not really a wargame or tacsim. This is a casual strategy game with an aerial combat theme. The premise offers an alt-history WWI/II in which steam-power aircraft do battle with a variety of souped-up tech and weapons. Frankly, other than giving it a nice veneer of steampunk, the alt-history aspect doesn't actually affect gameplay very much. Since all the aircrafts' powers are relative within the game world, you might as well be flying von Richthofen vs. Brown.

The gameplay itself is one of puzzle-like maneuver. You set a path or action for your planes with a little arrow, and then advance the clock a bit. The aircraft turn, speed up, reverse course, or perform other special functions in approximately 3-second intervals, and then you adjust the paths again.

Battles thus become a matter of choreography, as you jostle for the best position on an enemy six without overshooting them, or make slashing hit-and-runs on larger, slower-moving targets. It's a terrificly entertaining--and often remarkably challenging--combination of elements, and I can't really think of any other app quit like it.

The visual style is very appealing, and the designed translates almost perfectly to the iPhone format.The only tricky part is the occasional lack of precision when grabbing an arrow. They can fall fairly close to each other, making selection a little challenging. That's neither a large nor a widespread problem, but it crops up enough to be worth noting. The Java version, which has become something of an indie classic, is a more natural fit for the design, but the app works just fine.

SteamBirds is an easy one to recommend for strategy gamers, but if you have any doubts just play the game itself, for free. The entire thing can be found at