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Preview: Elemental: War of Magic

We were recently granted a preview of Stardock's Elemental: War of Magic by none other than CEO Brad Wardell. While many know this company as the developer of Object Desktop, they've also had success with their Galactic Civilizations series and their publishing ventures Sins of a Solar Empire and Demigod.

It would be a mistake to simply categorize Elemental as just a fantasy-based 4X title; the gameplay offers much more than the assumptions contained within that genre. Read on to find out why you should look forward to this game`s August release.

Continue reading Preview: Elemental: War of Magic

Preview: Elemental: War of Magic, continued

Units roam the map in groups, and they're not merely represented by a number indicating troop strength. Each individual is represented, making it easy to gauge relative combat outcome when going against enemies. Combat itself is simple, which is fine, given the complexity of the rest of the game. Victory in Elemental can be achieved through various means, including diplomacy, conquest, fulfillment of the Master Quest, and the use of the Spell of Making, which essentially indicates overall mastery.

While it can be a slight against a game to say that it may be played entirely from the overmap, in this case there may be times when you will want to zoom far back to get a good view of the entirety of the situation. This is where the graphical style really comes in handy, as the all-at-once view grants the player a strong sense of the bigger picture.

For example, trade routes between cities are assessable at a glance, as are the dispositions of various troops, wandering hero units that can be enticed to side with the Sovereign, and the locations of important Shards, the nature of which tie into the Elemental of the title.

Using spells depends on control of a Shard, which will grant access to a number of useful spells -- attack, defense, and support. Learning a spell requires spell points, which are generated by cities. Spell point generation is governed by research in a particular city. Ultimately, taking care of one's network of cities is important to victory. There are high-level spells that do incredible damage that can only be accessed by the proper maintenance of one's resources.

For example, one of the Fire spells causes a volcano to grow up from the ground, no matter what might already be in that area of the map. Not only will this wipe out any cities or units at ground zero, but it will also make that immediate region permanently impassable to wandering units. The offensive and defensive benefits of this are obvious.

Elemental is definitely a Big Picture kind of game, right down to the concept behind Dynasties. Throughout the campaign, players will be offered opportunities to marry and generate children, who will themselves grow up and become playable units themselves. Not only that, a Sovereign's children may also be married to the children of other rulers, thus creating opportunities for diplomatic negotiations.

Finally, we were shown a brief look at the modding tools that will be made available to players right out of the box. These tools are as robust as could be desired, offering control over props, people, landscape, particle effects, and many other in-game mechanics. Not only can players create detailed maps and locations, but items themselves are customizable, right down to attributes like moral backlash upon use. What players create can also be made available on Stardock's own service, for use in anyone's campaign.

So much was revealed during our short time with Elemental: War of Magic, that we feel we'd hardly scratched the surface of what's possible. All too briefly mentioned was the multiplayer mode that will offer Myth-like combat. There's even a novel on its way, to be released on the same date as the game, written by Brad Wardell and edited by some of the same people who had worked on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Stardock is ahead of its own game with Elemental, and we can't wait to get our hands on it when it arrives in August.

Continue reading Preview: Elemental: War of Magic, continued

Hands-on: Mafia 2

It's been eight years since Illusion Softworks and Gathering of Developers released Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. Fans of the gritty, 1930's crime setting have had to wait quite a while for a sequel, but soon their wait will be over. We were given a hands-on look at 2K Czech`s Mafia 2 a few weeks ago, and we're pleased to report that the game is coming along nicely. Our impressions follow after the jump.

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Hands-on: Mafia 2, continued

The action in Mafia 2 feels smooth. There are a variety of weapons to use, and it's another press of the Action button to do so. For the most part, this is run 'n' gun style combat with a cover mechanic. Vito can jump or slide into cover, hiding behind the nearest object large enough for the purpose. Cover is a toggle; you'll remain behind cover until you choose to leave it with a second press of the appropriate key. This is useful, if only to avoid accidental exposure, but even better, it allows the ability to fire at opponents while remaining mostly hidden. Some weapons are better suited to this action than others.

There are also health pick-ups in the form of food, and these are left lying around the current location. During the firefight in which we participated, our teammates operated on their own recognizance, fanning out and calling encouragement to each other. We kept up with the squad, but it did seem possible to be left behind to an extent, though it's likely that there are checkpoints beyond which your fellow mobsters won't travel until you've caught up with them.

The developers pointed out the application of Nvidia's Apex tech, which allows for some convincing clothing movement, particle effects, and physics. For example, we were tasked with shooting up a rival's old diner using machine guns. As the team opened fire, each splinter of wood and shard of glass that fell remained on the ground instead of disappearing into nothingness. This was real-time destruction and it looked amazing.

Furthermore, explosions created shockwaves that propagated outward and affected characters caught in the blast. The ripple effect was easily seen in the fabric, and the knockdown appeared realistic.

In fact, the entire world looked really sharp. As Vito strolled along a street on his way elsewhere, incidental passersby performed their own "business". We watched a man slip on something on the sidewalk and check himself to see what had happened. While not critical to gameplay, moments like these really help to imbue a world with a feeling of verisimilitude. The only graphical bit that stood out, and this is common in many games, was the facial animation. Characters gesticulated as they spoke, but their faces didn't accurately reflect emotion. Somewhere around the eyes there was a dead zone that betrayed the naturalness of the dialogue. Again, this is minor, but given how strong the voice acting is, it's something that could stand to be fixed.

Mafia 2 is enjoyable even without the story element, but enough attention to detail was paid to the era and the environment that the entire package will please fans of the original game who have been waiting for a long time for a sequel. The game ships on August 24th.

Continue reading Hands-on: Mafia 2, continued

Feature: Steam on the Mac stumbles out of the gate

Valve's lauded games download service, Steam, has finally arrived for the Mac, having launched last week on the 12th. Touting a ready library of over 60 titles, with the inclusion of Portal for free until the 28th, the future would appear to finally be a bright one for Mac gamers.

However, at this early stage of the platform's existence, there are only a few titles to grab, and the much-hyped Steamplay feature falls short of its advertising. Out of the gate, Steam for the Mac is hard to recommend, and we'll tell you why after the jump.

Continue reading Feature: Steam on the Mac stumbles out of the gate

Top 10 PC/iPhone Games

Though many have derided Steve Jobs's claims that the iPhone is a gaming device, that hasn't stopped a large number of developers from having a go at it. What might be a surprise is the number of large publishers and developers that have also hitched their wagon to the iPhone's -- and now the iPad's -- rising star. Many of them are testing the waters by choosing to create spin-off games based on existing titles in hopes that the popularity will transfer over from one platform to the next. Here are 10 mobile games that extend your PC gaming experience, for better or worse.

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Top 10 PC/iPhone Games, part 2

5. Mirror's Edge
Electronic Arts
The original Mirror's Edge came out to mixed reviews. A lot of these had to do with the nature of the camera and how much of Faith's (the main character) body it displayed. People found moving around the 3D environment challenging, and not always in a good way. The iPhone version changes all that with a mostly fixed 2D viewpoint, and simple, swipe-based controls. Faith runs, and the player makes her jump, wall run, slide, etc. As a game it's not terribly complex or challenging, but it makes a decent diversion. Fans of the first game might want to grab this for completeness' sake.

4. Need For Speed Shift
Electronic Arts
There will probably always be a Need For Speed game out there somewhere; the series has been around for quite a long time. No surprise, then, that it's come to the iPhone. For the most part, the game plays the same on the iPhone as it does on the PC, until you account for the tilting mechanic, which is how the player's car is steered. It may be possible to get a decent sense of how precisely to tilt to control the movement, but it will likely take a while to master. Once that's handled, however, you'll be thrilled by the sheer sense of speed the game delivers, and the number of car options is nothing to sneeze at.

3. Spore Origins
Electronic Arts
Will Wright's Spore was a huge success, and has spawned a couple of expansion packs. Spore Origins is essentially the first level of Spore, which concerns itself with the player as a single-celled organism floating around in the primordial soup. Players tilt the iPhone to move their creature around, which is a terrible thing to do to someone who is trying to watch the action on the screen. Like Spore, your creature may be upgraded in various ways, and there are some great customization features available. This is a great little time waster for both fans of the series and new players alike.

2. The Sims 3
Electronic Arts
What's most surprising about The Sims 3 for the iPhone is how much like its big brother it is. The gameplay is nearly identical, and the controls feel fine. If there is any lack, it's in the number of choices. For example, there are only a few job options to pursue, as opposed to the dozens of the PC game. That aside, the game is refreshingly full-featured, right down to the appearance creator, the personality traits, and the ability to modify one's home. It's definitely possible to spend far too much time playing this little gem, but if you're looking for a good value for your money, pick this up right away.

1. Civilization Revolution
2K Games
Sid Meier's venerable Civilization series has made the jump to the small screen with Civilization Revolution. Though the series has always been available to PC owners first, the Revolution brand is the first of its kind to come out for the iPhone and iPad, not to mention the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo DS. The point-and-click nature of basic Civilization function translates fairly smoothly to poking at the iPhone with a finger, and the typical issue with one's hand obscuring the action is ameliorated somewhat by the relatively static turn-based strategy gameplay. While not necessarily as complex as the PC games, Revolution is rich enough to be more than worth the cost, and is the best game on this list, hands down.

Continue reading Top 10 PC/iPhone Games, part 2

Mac Monday: Osmos/Guns of Icarus

Welcome back to Mac Monday, where we take a look at interesting titles available for the Macintosh platform. We took a month off to have a look at the state of the industry as it relates to Apple, and it must be said that things are as they've always been -- popular PC games arrive late, if at all, and Apple itself seems to just want to focus on the iPhone.

However, the indie games sector remains healthier than ever, and it's with pleasure that we use Mac Mondays to focus on games that might otherwise slip mainstream notice. Read on for the latest picks!

Continue reading Mac Monday: Osmos/Guns of Icarus

Mac Monday: Osmos/Guns of Icarus, part 2

And for something completely different, take a look at Muse Games' Guns of Icarus. You play the part of a privateer, inhabiting a steampunk future where airships travel the atmosphere, ferrying goods from place to place.

As an original, it works out nicely. What it lacks in scope it makes up for in its frantic style. You control a single pilot who's trying to deliver his cargo while fending off airborne attacks in the form of pirate airships. You're responsible not only for shooting down enemy fighters but also making repairs to your airship.

You'll start off in front of the tiller, navigating the skylanes. In your lower left, a radar that displays the movements of enemies as they wheel around and attack. In your lower right, a series of damage indicators for each of the destructible elements of your ship: left and right engines, which control your forward movement -- if your engines get destroyed, it's game over, as you'll never be able to deliver your cargo; cargo bay, which holds the goods you need to deliver -- if this goes to zero, you won't be able to deliver anything, so you lose; zeppelin, and rigging, both of which destroy the ship when they're destroyed.

To make repairs, you have to physically run to each particular area of the ship and click the mouse button when you draw near enough. A repair meter slowly fills up -- accompanied by animation of your character ratcheting things and sometimes smacking the machinery -- and when it's done, you're back to normal. However, while repairing your ship, you continue to take fire from the enemies, so you have to decide when to repair and when to fight.

Running your character around is accomplished by the WASD control scheme, and you'll use the mouse to look around. Unfortunately, you can't look straight up, which would have been helpful now and again when trying to make your way around the ship. It's not a terribly large craft, but your guy doesn't run too quickly, so it can be nerve-wracking to maneuver around. Especially when trying to make a jump to a platform and missing, necessitating having to run back around and up the ladders.

To fire at enemy aircraft, you'll approach one of your mounted guns, stationed both fore and aft, two to a side, and one at the front, and one at the back. To fire one, you need to run up to it and click the mouse button, which will put you into the targeting mode, where you'll line up your aiming reticle to lead the enemy aircraft a bit while you pepper them with shots. A few hits, and they're down for good. It is possible to run out of ammo, but it recharges in a few seconds -- of course, the aircraft are all wheeling around the sky at the same time, so it's not wise to wait for a recharge.

There are multiple paths to take on the map, and you can upgrade your weapons after each victory. Guns of Icarus is lively fun, and it's well worth the price of the game.

Continue reading Mac Monday: Osmos/Guns of Icarus, part 2

Big Ideas: When was your golden age?

Do you remember your first video game? I do; it was Space Wars, or a version thereof, where two spaceships do battle around a central sun or black hole. It was graphically crude, but there was nothing else like it at the time, and that was enough to set me on the path of a lifelong pursuit of gaming joy.

Fast-forward some thirty-odd years later, and that joy is still going strong. However, if I'm being honest with myself, I'll admit that my passion for the genre will probably never approach the strength of what it was from the late 70's to early 90's. There was a kind of persistent evolution occurring in games during those decades that was exciting to watch and play that doesn't seem to be in effect these days. It was a golden age of video games for me, and I'm still waiting to re-experience that "wow moment". Let me explain what I mean.

Continue reading Big Ideas: When was your golden age?

Big Ideas: When was your golden age? part 2

It might have been the increased volume of coverage the games industry was receiving. More and more magazines were hitting the stands, offering pretty much the same news and previews as every other publication did. The advent of the Internet made it even easier to get access to that coverage, and from such a deluge of sources -- both professional and amateur -- that there was no want for immediate gratification concerning whatever game one was most interested in.

Or it might simply have been that I was experiencing a kind of games-related burnout. By the late 90's I had already amassed a library of games that I wanted to play but couldn't afford to. As the years went on, that list of titles simply kept growing, and I couldn't keep up. I developed a means of being comfortable with simply reading about the new games coming out, experiencing them vicariously through the news and blogs and word of mouth of others.

To be fair, I am this way about a great many forms of entertainment. There are just too many books, movies, games, tv shows, and music constantly appearing on the scene for any one person to keep up with, so it takes something remarkable to make me sit up and take notice.

The point is this: I have passed my golden age, the period of time in which the allure and sparkle of video games held the most promise and delivered the greatest satisfaction. I'm still very into playing, and that will always be the case, but playing games is no longer the consuming passion for me that it once was. I can list on the fingers of one hand the games that I'm most excited to play that are coming out in the next few years, and I'm happy with that. I no longer feel the need to be playing the latest and greatest, and that's a comfortable position for me to inhabit.

I think most of us can look back through time and pinpoint a few games that were life-changing experiences. From discussions with friends and colleagues, the golden age does seem to coincide with a range of early years -- say, from 12 - 15, just to pick an example. Those years seem to contain the elements necessary for that perfect anticipation/satisfaction ratio -- free time, imagination, disposable income, greater access to people of like mind, relatively few similar experiences, etc. It's very likely that those games I might dismiss as being inferior to the "classic" games that I grew up with are the exact same games that others will claim as their everlasting favorites. It's all subjective, and it's nothing that can really be debated. Some things just hit you at the perfect time, and you never forget that.

When was your golden age? Are you still experiencing it? Do you feel yourself slipping into that jaded weariness that comes naturally with time? Is each new release still a cause of excitement? Whatever else you might do, don't worry. You will come to these states in your own time, and when you do, you won't mind it at all. After all, your favorites are still there for you, awaiting your replay. But can you go back?

Continue reading Big Ideas: When was your golden age? part 2

The state of Mac gaming, part 4 of 4

Welcome to the final installment in our look at the state of gaming on the Mac. We started out taking a good look at what the problem is, identifying the factors that led us to where we are today with video games on the Apple platform. Next, we made an earnest plea to developers, stating why they should seriously consider developing for both PC and Mac simultaneously. Last week, we examined the alternatives available to Mac users who want to play PC games but don't want to actually buy a PC.

This week, we'll try to prognosticate a bit and guess what the future of Mac gaming might look like. Will it get better, worse, or limp along as it currently does?

Continue reading The state of Mac gaming, part 4 of 4

The state of Mac gaming, part 4 of 4, continued

As it stands, then, the viability of Mac gaming relies heavily upon bringing new users, hungry for games, to the platform. At this point, the only way that will happen is if Microsoft somehow manages to seriously offend PC users, to the extent that they all give up in disgust and switch to Macs out of spite. And even then, that audience won't find games for them to play that they haven't already beaten multiple times over.

Apple has always touted the creativity of its users as one of its greatest strengths, and certainly this is apparent in the homebrew games that do come out for the Mac. Certainly the PC games crowd has something over the home console market, and that's the power and flexibility of its modding community. Imagine if Apple made modding tools available to its gamers, what an incredible asset it would be. Presumably, the Mac release of Torchlight will be able to make use of such tools the way that the PC Torchlight players already do. This is something that Apple could easily do if it cared at all, but it doesn't.

Small wonder, really, when a couple of the biggest PC game houses are already present on the Mac: Electronic Arts and Blizzard. These two companies will probably keep developing for the Mac, and their titles sell well. Apple is probably satisfied with that, feeling that at least on the Big Guns level, they compete with the PC just fine.

Add to that the "our way or the highway" attitude that Apple seems to give to developers and fans alike -- remember how long it took for a two-button mouse to arrive? -- and the outlook for Mac gaming is bleak. At least, it's dark if you don't like the existing state of things. Maybe Mac users are content with the current crop of games. Maybe there is no seething disdain for the way things are run, no yearning toward greener -- and more diverse -- pastures. Maybe this whole thing is a wash, and we should be happy with what we have, especially as it doesn't seem likely to change.

In short, it would take a radical change in paradigm for Mac gaming to catch up with what PCs do. Apple would have to step up and throw its marketing behind the idea. A Steam-like service would need to emerge, making digital downloads a serious concern. Game developers would have to get over their disdain of Mac culture. And this would all have to happen at pretty much the same time, a perfect storm of opportunity and attack that will in all likelihood never occur. For better or worse, what we have now is that way it will probably always be.

Continue reading The state of Mac gaming, part 4 of 4, continued

The state of Mac gaming, part 3 of 4

Last week, we asked developers to reconsider the idea of creating games for simultaneous release on both PC and Mac platforms. However, we cannot control what others do; we can only ask. So let's concede for the moment that things will continue as they are now -- very few games coming out on both systems at the same time, and Mac getting ports of popular PC games much later than their original release. What's an avid Mac gamer to do?

Short of actually buying a PC just to play games -- and it must be said that the cost of a decent PC has dropped dramatically over the past few years -- there are a few options available, and they all contain the crazy voodoo called virtualization. Bear in mind that these are only the applications that I've personally tried myself. Check 'em out after the jump!

Continue reading The state of Mac gaming, part 3 of 4

The state of Mac gaming, part 3 of 4, continued

CrossOver Games works the same way as CrossOver Mac, but its focus is to play specific games: Counter-Strike, Prey, Team Fortress 2, and World of Warcraft, among certain others. I was able to install and play Guild Wars with no problems whatsoever. However, if you venture beyond those supported games, you might run into problems. There is a way to attempt to install unsupported games, but it's a trial-and-error process. Some games will install properly but refuse to run, others might not install at all. The tentative nature of this process makes purchasing CrossOver Games an iffy proposition -- it seems unlikely that you'll want to play the PC versions of some of these older games badly enough to buy the program, especially since some of them already have Mac clients.

Boot Camp
Possibly the best experience in playing PC games on my Mac comes from running Boot Camp. Installing Boot Camp is very easy, though it does require you to own a valid copy of whichever flavor of Windows you want to run, which is something the other two virtualization programs mentioned above don't ask of you. However, the benefits of using Boot Camp are immediately obvious: it's an actual copy of Windows, running directly on your Mac. With one exception, everything I installed and ran on the Boot Camp partition worked very well, both applications and games.

The one issue with Boot Camp is that you must reboot your machine to access it, which almost seems beside the point to an extent. If I can't use my Mac at the same time as playing these PC games, then why wouldn't I just buy a PC and have done with it?

There have also been mentions of strange video card issues. My iMac holds an NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT, which has its PC analog, so I haven't necessarily run into any issues, but some PC games certainly optimize for cards from other vendors, so sometimes that issue rears its head. To be honest, the reboot process is a pain, but it boots into Windows XP (on my machine) fairly quickly, so it's not as onerous a complication as it might be. My personal wish for future Macs is that eventually Boot Camp technology will follow Parallels Desktop, and make Windows available directly within the existing environment without the need for a reboot.

There are other options -- VMWare, Cedega, Cider, Transgaming, to name a few -- that may work as well or better in certain cases than what we've discussed here, but you'll have to try those out yourselves. I'm not that adventurous. The future seems bright for virtualization, however, and these apps are a good start.

Join us next week for the final installment of "The state of Mac gaming", when we take a look at that future directly and try to prognosticate a little bit. Is it possible that more game companies will resolve their inner conflicts and commit to simultaneous releases? Will Apple take the hint and make a singular drive to promote Mac gaming on something other than the iPhone?Let's play pretend, next week.

Continue reading The state of Mac gaming, part 3 of 4, continued

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