Friday, May 25, 2012

Warlock-Master of the Arcane: Review

Version Reviewed:
What I like: Unit perks and leveling, numerous special resources and spells, combat, multiple races.
Not So Much: City management a little too streamlined, some minor UI quirks, a bit easy, end game slog.
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer in future patch?
The Verdict: B (Good)
About my reviews

Official site:
Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Paradox Interactive

If you’ve played any turn-based 4x strategy game, the following scene will be very familiar. One city, accompanied by a unit or two surrounded by blanket covering the unknown. These are the starting conditions of most games in this genre. For those unfamiliar with 4x strategy games, the game play consists of exploring the unknown to expand your holdings by building cities. Your cities exploit the resources of the land to fuel your war machine so you can exterminate your rivals. Comparisons are unavoidable, especially when looking for material to fill an introduction. Visually, Warlock shares much with Civilization V, but instead of a world filled with people - vampires, dragons, trolls and other mystical creatures share the landscape with humans. Much of the usual management that comprises a typical 4x game has been trimmed or eliminated from Warlock making for a much faster-paced game. Combat is always a major part of 4x games, but Warlock’s focus on battle is even sharper.

Currently the game is single-player only, but I believe multiplayer is planned for a future update. The lack of multiplayer is not a big deal for me, but I’m sure others will be disappointed.

Getting Started
The manual for Warlock is sorely lacking much of the information I expect to be included for a strategy game. There must be some agreement, because the developer also published a beginner’s guide after release. This fills in many of the holes, but there are still some explanations lacking, such as the mechanics of non-aggression pacts. There are also in-game hints that cover some basics which can be turned off once the player is comfortable. Since this is a familiar genre much can be gleaned from the tooltips and some experimentation, but I would have liked to see more comprehensive documentation.

Warlock provides randomly generated worlds to conquer. There isn’t any story-based campaign or handcrafted scenarios to provide specific challenges. While I do enjoy story-based campaigns, this is a $20 game, so labor-intensive extras can’t necessarily be expected. My favorite aspect of 4x games is to start with nothing and make my own way, so Warlock has me covered.

There are 5 different difficulty levels, but anyone with experience in the genre could probably start out at ‘challenging’ - the second hardest level. ‘Normal’ was too easy from the get go. The player can also control how much water and land they want in their world by choosing 1 of 4 world types. I would suggest going with the more land-based options since the AI isn’t always careful enough with their troops when deciding where to invade. There are 4 world sizes available. In general, the larger the world the more time it will take the player to conquer it. In turn, this leads to more time to research spells and get access to upper tier troops. The downside is that the end game can turn into a bit of a slog while working your way to the last enemy’s capital. Up to 8 enemy mages can populate the world, depending on the map size. There are a few other options to help tweak the experience.

Premade mages are available for your in-game persona, each specializing in a different aspect of the game. One mage may excel at providing food, while another can cast spells more rapidly than normal. Mages may also start with some spells in their spell book. The player can create custom mages by using a point-based system to select the desired perks and spells. This is a nice touch to tailor play for your particular style. I suppose the player could also select perks that don’t enhance their style of play for a self inflicted penalty too. There is enough variety in the mage perks and spells to create mages with varied abilities.

Game Play
Warlock is geared for a quicker pace than most 4x games due to streamlined play and rapid build times. In a game such as Civilization, it may take 20+ turns to build a building or recruit a unit. In Warlock these actions typically take between 2 and 5 turns. Whether this is a good thing depends on your preferences. I will highlight some of these aspects later in the review.

Some say love makes the world go round, but others argue it is the economy. Warlock employs a simple system. If your empire produces enough food, your cities grow at the normal rate. If not, a starvation penalty is applied. As your cities grow in size they consume more food. Food is also used for some units’ upkeep. Any food above and beyond what is needed is sold for cold hard cash. Undead cities don’t require food and aren’t affected by starvation penalties. Flesh to eat is easy to find if you don’t mind feasting on people.

Gold is used to purchase units and pay for some units’ upkeep. Unlike food, you can accumulate gold if more is produced than spent. Mana can be accumulated like gold, and is used to cast spells. More powerful spells typically require more mana. Again, some creatures’ upkeep is paid with mana. The last resource is research, which is used to unlock spells.

The above resources are gained by developing your cities with buildings. One of the simplifications of the Warlock economy is that for the most part it really doesn’t matter where you develop your buildings. A farm built on desert is just as productive as one built on plains. There aren’t any terrain improvements either, such as irrigating a farm. There are features on some hexes that enable a special building to be erected on them. This can add strategic choices to the game because some resources have multiple buildings to develop them. There are other considerations too, such as what hexes should be reserved for defensive towers, and travel is faster on developed hexes within your lands, but the system is simplified. I prefer a little more depth to the economic portion of 4x titles. Buildings can’t be destroyed even though there is reference to such a feature in the manual, so make sure you are happy with your choices. The buildings can be disabled, so the upkeep doesn’t have to be paid for unnecessary buildings.

Cities are very much a part of the economic model, but I thought they deserve their own mention. Every time a city acquires another 1000 citizens, another building slot becomes available. So while buildings are built rapidly (typically 2-4 turns), there is a limit as to how much can be built. There aren’t ‘productive’ cities that build at faster pace like in Civilization. The build times are standard for each building. City population growth is also standardized and not based on food production. The only way to speed up the population growth is by casting spells on the city

Let’s Get Started
The first 10 turns provide a pretty good opportunity to see many of the mechanics in action. As you can see our starting city (our Capital) is surrounded by unexplored lands. Our first task will be to remove this shroud so we can locate unoccupied land with valuable special resources to exploit. The capital is the most important city because if lost, the game is over for its owner. Once a Warlock is eliminated all of his cities will turn neutral. Once capitals develop they become pretty strong and are not trivial to conquer.

Our units have uncovered some special resources, so I think we have found a good site for our second city. After a city grows it can develop hexes up to 3 hexes away, so these resources are out of reach for our starting city. We have also encountered one of the obstacles to early expansion – monsters that roam the land. Some hexes have lairs - monster generators – that periodically spawn monsters. If a player can move a unit onto the lair they recover some treasure (usually gold or mana) and remove the lair from the map.

Our capital also has an available build slot, so we get to plan how we might develop this city. There is a silver resource north of the city which will provide 1 of 2 benefits depending on which building we choose to build. Currently it is out of our radius, but once our city hits level 5 our radius will expand to 2 hexes in each direction so it doesn’t hurt to consider it for future plans. Many special resources can either provide an economic benefit (generate resources) or provide a perk for our units (such as an improved attack). I selected the Ratsman Guild for my first building since it leads to the tax office which will improve gold generation for my city. Since I have a silver mine by my capital, I may focus it on money generation. The ratsman guild also allows the recruitment of some rat-based units.

We also need to select our first spell to research. Research is handled a little differently in Warlock and is one of the more streamlined elements. 6 spells are randomly selected to occupy our research wheel, each having its own research cost. In general spells get more powerful as spells are researched. Our cities provide research by building particular buildings. As you can see in the above screen shot our capital is generating 5 research points (the books in the top bar).  Once our research is complete, the spell is replaced with another random spell. On the positive side, this randomized spell availability forces the player to adapt while still giving them some control. There isn’t a huge tech tree to memorize because the possibilities are not predictable. I prefer a bit more control and like the typical Civ-style tech tree, but Warlock’s method isn’t without merits. I decided to select the Heal spell to help keep my troops alive. I already have the lesser fireball to inflict damage.

I decided to cast a lesser fireball spell on the spider to weaken it. Each spell has a mana cost and a certain amount of time needed to cast it, expressed in number of turns. Since my mage has the archmage perk he can cast spells 20% faster than other mages. I have the available mana so I hit the spider with 2 lesser fireballs in the same turn. I couldn’t do that without my archmage perk. The spiders don’t have elemental resistance, so my fireball does normal damage.

There are 5 different types of damage and resistances (melee, missile, life, death, spirit and elemental). It pays to try and get favorable match ups where your enemy doesn’t have resistances to your damage type and / or you do have resistances to theirs. Units have several other attributes too; one or more damage types, movement type and speed, hit points, sight range, and upkeep. They may also have special perks or abilities that affect their performance. An important aspect of combat is that a unit’s attack gets scaled by their remaining hit points. A unit at 50% hit points will cause 50% of their normal damage. Also, melee attacks get counter attacked so be prepared to also take some damage on the attack.

Turn 2
My archer finished off the spiders and received 4 experience points for his efforts. Once a unit acquires enough experience, they level up and a perk can be selected. These perks improve some aspect of the unit’s performance, so it pays to keep your units alive. That is why I like to get a healing spell pretty early on if I can. My unit loots the spider hole to eliminate the spider threat and finds some gold for his efforts.

I would really like to build some settlers so I can claim this resource-rich piece of land, but the city needs to grow to size 5 before settlers become available. Requiring a city to be a certain size before producing certain units or buildings is a simple but effective way to throttle back their production in certain areas until they experience enough growth.

After scouting a little bit further south I uncovered a bear. They are susceptible to missile attacks (like all beasts are) so I would like to get my archers in position for attack.

Turn 3
The UI provides some reminders along the lower right side when certain events occur. The top small circle notifies me that my unit recruitment is complete, the 2nd that I can now build settlers since my city grew to level 5, and finally that I have 3 units to move. You can end a turn at any time by pressing the enter key, so you don’t have to address each alert. My settlers are now in the recruitment queue. Normally I would also be able to start creating a new building since the city grew a level, but the city is still finishing the guild. Build times are only based on the building or unit being constructed. One city isn’t more or less productive than any other. This is one illustration of the simplified city management. There are no workers to improve the terrain or to build a road network between your cities.

I’m going to hold off attacking the bears until next turn so I can weaken them with some fireballs, arrows, and then melee since the bears get a defensive bonus for occupying a hill. My units are also on a hill so they will have some protection if the bear attacks.

Turn 4
The bear did attack my ratmen robbers and scored a critical hit. The manuals don’t give any indication how critical hits are calculated or what the effect is. It’s one of the places the documentation is a bit weak. Critical hits cause more damage, but I have no idea how the frequency of critical hits is determined.

Since my building finished, I can now construct the building I’m entitled to when my capital grew from size 4 to size 5. Notice how the city’s radius is now 2 hexes, so the silver mine can now be developed. The radius will eventually increase to 3 hexes after more growth. There are essentially 5 ways I can improve my capital at the moment:
- Increase its protection by building a fort or tower. These provide a ranged attack from the hex they are built in.
- Increase its money production by building a silver mine, tax office, or craftsmen district.
- Increase the food production by building a farm, pub or granary.
- Provide access to unit perks by building a smithy or silverwork brewery.
- Increase mana production by building a mana trap.

Most buildings can only be built once per city, but towers and some economic ones can be built multiple times in a single city.

Even though I would like to develop the silver mine, I decided to build a pub for food production so I don’t slow down my city’s growth. As you can see in the top bar I only have a small positive net amount of food. I will have a tough choice to make when it comes time to develop the silver mine as I will have to choose between a building that provides more money, or one that provides access to a unit perk.

It would be suicide for the ratmen robbers to attack the bears at this point. Since the ratmen retreated they now occupy the plains and receive an additional uphill attack penalty if they attack the bears on the hills. Some fireballs and an archer attack finish off the bears. Since the bears are dead and the ratmen robbers don’t have any adjacent enemies, they can rest to recover some of their hit points. There are 2 lost caravans on the map now, 1 by the bears and the other several hexes to the left. They are the ‘goodie huts’ of Warlock. Looting them will be my next objective.

Turn 5
Yeah, my settler is produced! Boo I now have negative food production so people are starving. This will be quickly remedied when my pub is built and my settler is used to create a new city. The two looted caravans added some gold and mana to my coffers.

I don’t have as much room to expand as I would like as I found another great mage to the south. I did add one more AI opponent then the default amount for my normal map size, so things are a little more cramped than usual. We start off at peace, but if this is like my other games it won’t be long before he demands resources. I could comply to maintain peace, but I typically opt to destroy him. I could initiate some diplomacy on my own too. The diplomacy options are fairly limited. By fairly, I mean very. On the peaceful side I could gift some mana or gold, or propose a trade if I am short on one. I could also propose a non-aggression pact, but I would have to part with some resources to do so. Mouse over the blue bar to see what is affecting your relationship with the other mage. Relations and diplomacy are only briefly covered in the manual. This area could use much more explanation. From what I have observed, diplomacy is only really used to try and delay the inevitable, war.

Turn 6 & 7
My pub is complete so food production is back to normal. My new friend is sending out a settler, which is definitely going to put a damper on our relations because I feel I have to kill it. My healing spell is also researched and my new option is wind walking, which provides travel benefits. Instead I select the lesser shadow bolt in case my neighbor has units with elemental resistance for my fireball. What is the Boy Scout saying? Be prepared to kill your enemy in as many ways as possible? War is declared and the settler is eliminated. My units back off because I’m not ready to take his capital, which now has 250 hit points. I need more firepower for that, something which gets a bonus to city attacks would help.

Turn 8
My spot for a new city is even better than originally thought. In addition to the magic field and magic nodes, pigs and donkeys will also be in range once the city expands. Resources such as these are always fun to find and develop.

Turn 9 & 10
Finished my research and now lesser heal is available even though I have already researched the more powerful heal spell. I wish the random spells came up in a more logical order sometimes. The less powerful spell uses less mana and heals less, so it can have its uses, but seems backwards to learn after heal. I decide to learn summon imp so I can whip up a unit in a hurry if need be. It’s getting a little crowded with these neutral cities, so I think the one closest to my capital will be the next target. At 50 hit points it shouldn’t be too difficult with the addition of the archers I just produced.

And Now For Something Completely Different…
Well not different at all really. Time to touch on some of the game play not covered above.

Each mage leads one of the 3 races – human, undead, or monster - which determine the available buildings and units in their starting city. Many buildings are common between the races, but each has their own unique ones. The unique buildings allow each race to raise an army different from the others, providing a somewhat different play experience. You can take over other races’ cities by force giving access to those buildings and troops, but resource production will receive a penalty due to the racial tensions. I would have preferred some type of troop penalty too for mixing the races to keep each player more distinct. By the end of the game a player can probably field troops from any of the races which eliminate some of the uniqueness of your starting race.  

Other Worlds
In concept a cool idea - provide portals to other worlds which have powerful creatures and untold riches. The other worlds can provide unique resources to exploit providing some worthwhile benefits. There are some issues with the implementation. First, I haven’t ever felt I needed these resources to defeat my foes. Second, the other worlds have so many strong units inside them that I would need to divert my forces away from the enemy to gain a foothold. So far focusing on the enemy has been a good strategy. Third, I haven’t seen the AI take advantage of the other worlds.

The game throws frequent quests at the player. Some don’t inflict a penalty for failure, but some do. If the gods offer a quest and you don’t comply, your relation with them suffers. Make them happy and you may receive rewards. The quests are not interesting in and of themselves – kill monster A, build building B, settle a city. The quest system also has some quirks. I received a quest to kill a monster and never did so. I’m assuming an AI player killed it because I eventually got credit for the task.

I’ve talked about spells and their research, but haven’t covered the variety of spells available. Spells are a nice mixture of direct attack, unit buffs and curses, city buffs and curses, etc. There are over 50 spells to research and have a significant effect on the game. Spell cast times keep magic from getting too crazy.

Victory Conditons
There are several ways a warlock can defeat his rivals. Probably the most common method is to kill them all! So far all of my victories have been acquired with this method. The second way is called domination and involves seizing the majority of the holy grounds – a special resource where a temple can be built. The third involves researching the Unity spell and casting it. Researching the Unity spell can be started only after researching the other 50+ spells and then takes another 10-20 turns to cast. During this time the casting can be interrupted if a rival mage casts a relatively cheap counter spell. This makes it a tough way to win, but I did lose this way for my first loss. I never researched the counter spell and couldn’t conquer his capital fast enough. The last way is to anger a god enough so he sends down his avatar to squash your mortal being. If you can defeat this avatar, you win. I haven’t ever angered a god enough to see what this is like.

The AI & Difficulty
I found the difficulty setting needs to be set to at least challenging (second hardest) to well, get a challenge. I may need to try the hardest setting. I haven’t seen a lot of absolutely dumb moves by the AI, so I’m not sure where the problem lies. The AI pulls back units to heal, blasts you with appropriate spells and can protect his cities well with towers. The biggest failure I have seen is when the AI relentlessly makes aquatic assaults into areas protected with towers. It occasionally passes up on a target of opportunity too.

Graphics and Sound
I find the game to be attractive, but readers can decide for themselves with all of the screenshots. It can be difficult to distinguish similar looking units when zoomed out, but tooltips help in that regard. The terrain is attractive and identifiable. Music and effects are appropriate.

Technical Performance
I didn’t have any performance issues, but experienced some minor bugs. The mini map sometimes remains black, but other times it works. You can see this in my screen shots. The early ones are black, but start working towards the bottom. I don’t recall if they started working when I restarted Warlock. There were times the interface didn’t properly reflect the correct information. During setup, I had the AI opponents set to 4, but the text still stated 3. When I disabled building within my city, the display of the amount of resources produced got out of sync and didn’t reflect the proper values.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a wordy title to a worthwhile game. Those looking for a more combat oriented 4x title will appreciate the streamlined city management and research while those looking for something a bit more meaty may find Warlock a bit light. I tend to like a bit meaty, but still found Warlock fun. Magic has a significant impact on play and gives the game much of its flavor. The variety of unit perks, both from leveling up and special buildings lets the player have a significant effect on how his units perform. In my opinion, combat is more enjoyable in Warlock than in Civilization 5, but I do enjoy the greater number of options in Civ when it comes to managing my empire. Warlock also does a better job at managing its troops.

All isn’t rosey. So far the game is a little easy. Some units and skills seem over powered - the vampire ability (absorb health with attack) let me create a killing machine. The other worlds don’t have the impact they should for reasons I mention elsewhere. As I mentioned, the documentation can still be improved, even after adding the beginners guide. A strategy game should really take the time to explain the mechanics.  The player can reduce the end game slog by choosing a smaller map, but this is at the cost of researching less and getting less access to higher tier units.

The developer has shown an interest in improving the title with several patches, so I am hopeful it will continue to be improved. The recent DLC shows work is still being done on the product. For $20 you get quite a bit of game even if it doesn’t have the legs of some other 4x titles. Hopefully some expansions will take the game to the next level.

Score: B (Good)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear!: PC Review (Part 2)

Version Reviewed: 1.1 (release version)
What I like: Approachable but detailed rules, engaging back and forth turns, manageable number of units and map size. As a whole the UI is good.
Not So Much: Some trouble determining line of sight from unoccupied hexes.
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer via lobby, tcpip and hotseat. Editor for user-created firefights.
The Verdict: B+ (very good) – Potential to become an ‘A’ level game with an update
About my reviews

Official site:
Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Matrix Games.

Part I
If you haven’t read Part I, now is a great time to do so! Part 2 only adds a little to my original review.

It’s very rare that I give multiplayer a try, but I accepted the offer of James Allen from Out of Eight. We only had 30 minutes to play as I had Dad duties to get to. Connecting to the multiplayer lobby took a couple minutes, which seemed rather so. Once we were in it was smooth sailing. James set up the game and I joined in. The turn system in Conflict of Heroes shines in multiplayer since the back and forth action keeps the players engaged and not idle for long. Chat messages display in the log and also in large font at the top of the screen to get the player’s attention. Being able to engage a human instead of the AI should be a perk for those who play online more frequently than I do.

I typically don’t create content for the games I play and I’m sure Conflict of Heroes won’t break that tradition. After a brief glance the editor seems powerful, but don’t expect to jump right in and start pumping out custom firefights. The user must create a basic map in a paint program, with each pixel representing one map hex. Colors define the map features. The editor then will import the map to generate one that can be manipulated by the user. I feel that someone reasonably computer literate and motivated to create content could do so using this process after a moderate learning curve. Remember that this opinion is only based on a brief look.

In The End...
I have spent a bit more time with the game and feel I have exercised the complete array of mechanics. Conflict of Heroes is derived from an award winning board game design which gives it a different feel than many other tactical level wargames. I enjoyed playing a game which approaches a much visited period in a slightly new way. The tutorials do an excellent job introducing the game. Don’t let the Monsters tutorial campaign discourage you as it is very difficult. If you can’t crack that nut, which I haven’t, feel free to move on to the main firefights. The mechanics are simple to pick up, but the scenarios require some smart play. I only noticed a handful of AI moves that I thought were questionable. The biggest was when it shelled its own units multiple times with planned artillery strikes in the General Petrov firefight. Artillery strikes instill a sense of fear as they can wreak havoc in an instant. Managing your units’ APs, your forces CPs, special action cards and the order in which you perform actions give aspiring leaders much to consider.

Conflict of Heroes was very close to joining Unity of Command as my top rated game. A couple UI niggles held it back. The biggest problem I have is the inability to check the LOS from hexes my units don’t occupy. Mainly due to changes in altitude I sometimes had difficulty predicting the LOS my units would have if they moved to a hex, or the line of sight an enemy unit has to a particular hex. I also have some minor difficulty selecting infantry units when stationed in forests or occupying the same hex as another unit.  This problem can be mitigated by toggling off terrain features with the T hotkey, or using the +/- keys to cycle through units. Still, it would be nice if the player didn’t have to do this.

Even with the above niggles (how often do we get to use the word niggles in everyday conversation?) I recommend Conflict of Heroes to players enjoying tactical battles. Due to the excellent tutorials and manageable unit counts, even players new to this type of game probably won’t feel overwhelmed. Some of the scenarios start to get up there in unit count (20-40?), which is more than I prefer, but after getting comfortable with the mechanics shouldn't be too overwhelming. If the developers are able to add a line of sight tool (and I think it likely they will in a future update), this may join Unity of Command at the top of my current review heap.

Score: B+ (Very Good) Potential to become an ‘A’ level game with an update

Friday, May 11, 2012

Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear!: PC Review (Part 1)

Game: Review
Version Reviewed: 1.1 (release version)
What I like: Approachable but detailed rules, engaging back and forth turns, manageable number of units and map size. As a whole the UI is good.
Not So Much: Some trouble determining line of sight from unoccupied hexes. 
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer via lobby, tcpip and hotseat. Editor for user-created firefights.
The Verdict: B+ (very good) – Potential to become an ‘A’ level game with an update
About my reviews

Official site: 
Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Matrix Games.

I’m not exactly sure why, but Conflict of Heroes (CoH) has been one of my more anticipated games in a while. The promise of a detailed but approachable tactical game seems right up my alley.  I’ve never played the board game, but since I became aware of CoH’s impending release my anticipation grew. Since I don’t have prior experience with the game, my review will treat it for what it is – A tactical platoon-level wargame in which you command squads (infantry, crewed guns, or vehicles) in a turn-based fashion to meet objectives. The scenarios, called firefights contain conflicts between the Germans and the Soviet Union during WWII. The firefights are not tied together in an over-arching campaign and can be played in any order.

The game can be played vs. the AI or multiplayer through the lobby, over a tcpip connection, or hotseat at the same computer.

Getting Started
The 53-page manual does an excellent job explaining the game mechanics. I recommend starting there. The 3 tutorial firefights also do an impressive job and impatient players can probably start there.  I feel I may miss some of the finer points if I don’t read the manual, but players can probably use it as needed to fill in any detail not picked up from the tutorials. The tutorial presents information in static text windows while the user plays the firefight. The windows do allow the user to return to previous instructions in case they need a refresher.

The firefights are grouped into 6 different areas: 3 tutorial firefights, 10 from the board game Awakening the Bear, 10 Frontier Firefights fought in the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa, 5 Commanding Heights set in the Crimean Peninsula, 1 point buy firefight in which the player spends points to requisition their choice of units, and support for user-made scenarios constructed with the included editor.

There are several options to customize your play which will be covered later.

Game Play
The goal of each firefight is to earn more victory points (VP) than your opponent within the allotted number of rounds. Victory points are earned by controlling locations on the map and killing enemy units. VP conditions are defined on a round by round basis for each side. For example, the Germans may receive 2 VP for holding a location starting on turn 3, while the Soviets receive 3 VP for the victory location starting on turn 2. Each firefight begins with a map overview and some general background for the upcoming battle. This is accompanied by a blurry, brief back and while video clip of war footage. I suppose the video is there to set the mood, but without context didn’t do a lot for me.

Turns are a little different in CoH than in most games I have played. Firefights are made up of rounds, and within each round are a number of turns. Action points (AP) are the currency spent by units to complete actions during a turn. Within each round, each side alternates taking one action (a turn) by playing a special action card, moving a unit, attacking with a unit, etc… until both sides pass. Then the next round begins. This system has some benefits. First, a player isn’t waiting for a long time between turns. Second, each side can constantly react to his opponent. In a typical turn-based game, one player moves all of their units, and then the next player moves all of his. This leads to unusual behavior since many units can move and attack without the opponent responding. In CoH a unit typically is taking small actions each turn so the action is at a more granular scale. The system works well and creates a more fluid feel to the battles.

A round may start with an initial planning phase that occurs before fighting begins. The planning phase may include placing reinforcements in deployment areas, targeting artillery strikes, placing fortifications – such as bunkers and barbed wire, and hiding units so they are more difficult to spot then the typical line of sight (LOS) rules define. It would be nice if the game displayed the unit stats during the unit deployment stage as I have a hard time memorizing the stats.

Throughout the review I am using the default rules.

I have a tendency to delve into the details of game mechanics which tend to be a little dry. This time I am taking a different approach. I’m going to present a basic AAR for the first tutorial mission. I chose the tutorial because I can illustrate the mechanics without giving away the secrets of one of the ‘real’ scenarios.
Game Play – Let’s Play
This let’s play illustrates the first tutorial as I didn’t want to give away one of the main scenarios in a review. The purpose is to display some of the rules and decisions a player must deal with. You can click on the screen shots to get a better view. The computer resolves all dice rolls by rolling 2 six sided die (2d6).  Screen shots follow the text describing the action.

Victory Conditions
The scenario lasts for 5 rounds (the clocks at the top represent the number of rounds). Each round, the side that controls the crossroads (hex with the star) earns 1 VP. 1 VP is earned for each unit destroyed. This information can be viewed by clicking on the commander circle in the upper right corner.

The Plan
I marked the hexes containing the visible Soviet troops with a red dot since the 3D models can be difficult to spot when in a forest. This is probably even more difficult in a screen shot. The counters are much easier to see, but I prefer the models. I will switch to the counters later. Pressing T toggles the terrain on and off, which is another easy way to make sure you don’t overlook any enemy units. The top Soviet unit is a Maxim MMG with a range of 9, allowing it to hit the approach via the road. Since our infantry doesn’t gain any movement bonus traveling on a road over clear terrain, we will make our own way. Our troops will swing to the south and use the trees for cover.

The other visible Soviet unit is a rifle squad, with a range of 5. Units can attack up to 2x their range, but anything over their range results in a -2 long range penalty.

Let’s Roll (Round 1)
I didn’t move my light machine gun (LMG) unit cautiously (hold Crtl key while issuing move order) which resulted in injury from the Soviet Maxim MMG. If you don’t move cautiously into a hex that doesn’t provide a defense bonus, such as clear terrain, the unit receives a -1 defense penalty. The cost of moving cautiously is 1 extra action point (AP). If I had moved cautiously, the attack would have missed. Note: Cautious movement is a rule that can be turned off, but I like it so I didn’t.

The wound he received is unnerved, which was selected randomly. There doesn’t appear to be any attribute penalties for unnerved, but one more wound and the unit is eliminated. Wounds can affect the unit’s attack, defense and movement ratings and would be displayed in the unit stats window . For example, a pinned unit can’t move.  The only way to remove a wound is to rally the unit. This is a fairly expensive action (5AP) and its chance of success is based on the wound type.

Note on combat: Units, except for mortars need direct LOS to their target. Mortars can take advantage of the LOS of virtual spotter units. The attack calculation is fairly abstract and heavily influenced by die rolls. The attack value is the sum of two 6 sided dice + the unit’s attack value (vs. armored or unarmored) + any attack modifiers. The defense value is the sum of the target’s defense (vs. frontal attack or flank-rear attack) + any defense modifiers. Having separate front / flank-rear defense ratings allows the game to model units with armor in the front, but not in the flank-rear. The UI displays that chance for a hit, so the player doesn’t need to guess at his chances.

I chose to move my injured unit one more hex because the forest will shield him from further Maxim MMG attacks. Hopefully there are no other Soviets waiting. After moving my injured LMG, the Soviet Rifle Squad is no longer in sight. A unit can see double their normal attack range unless blocked by terrain or smoke. Yep, some units will be able to place smoke on the battlefield to obscure the view. The UI does a nice job illustrating what hexes are within your entire forces LOS, along with the selected unit’s. At least one of your units can see into the light colored hexes, the selected unit can see into the yellow shaded hexes, while none of your units can see into the dark hexes. The log displays a message stating when the opponent moves a unit which is out of line of sight (LOS). I don’t think the player should be privy to this information. 

I spent several turns getting my healthy units with the injured one since each healthy ally gives a +1 chance to rally from a wound. There is a danger in stacking multiple units in one hex. If any unit in the hex is attacked, they are all attacked. This seems a little harsh, but the designers are probably trying to avoid stacks of doom. It seems a more realistic approach would be to check for an attack’s success against each unit until one is successful, or have each successive attack receive a small penalty to its success. The current implementation doesn’t decrease the enjoyment of the game, but it still seems slightly heavy handed. As long as the player is aware of the rule, they can properly consider the ramifications. Note: It can be beneficial to station a tank with an infantry unit in the same hex as the tank will provide cover from some attacks.

So far it seems there are no Soviet units with LOS to my stacked units, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The Soviet Rifle Squad was last seen moving towards the crossroad victory point location (VPL). My plan is to move into the trees and try and capture the VPL.

My rally succeeded and my LMG unit is no longer wounded. The Russians have been passing their turn as I move my troops into the forest. Does this mean they are out of AP or are they waiting for a more opportune moment to act? I’m not sure if the crossroads have been captured. If I also passed my turn, the round would end and round 2 would start, but I have more to do.

Now I’m in position and see that the Soviet Riflemen are outside the VP. I have a decision to make. His defense is 12 with a +1 bonus for occupying a forest. My LMG attack is a 4, so I would need a 9 (13 – 4) to hit. His unit would be impossible to destroy with 1 hit, because the attack roll needs to be 4+ more than the defense to destroy a healthy unit. Even a roll of 12 wouldn’t achieve this.

There are two features which represent the effects of command on the battle. The first are command action points (CAPs). These can be used to give units extra AP for the round. CAPs can also be used to improve dice rolls, such as improving the chance for a successful attack or rally. The use of CAPs adds some interesting strategic choices to combat. Deciding whether to use the CAPs for extra movement or attacks, or nudging combat in your favor isn’t always an easy choice. CAPs are replenished at the start of each round, but as you lose units the amount you receive are decreased. The second feature is special action cards. Each round a player may receive special action cards, which grant bonuses.  There are 15 different effects the cards can have on play. Each card I received at the start of round 1 can be used to grant one of my units a free action (requires no AP). My special action cards are represented by the two small square icons on the left side of the screen, about halfway down. Hovering the mouse over the icons gives an enlarged view with an explanation of their effect.

Another interesting feature is the ability to group adjacent units. Grouped units represent coordinated action between squads. All units in the group can act before the enemy gets a chance to react by taking their turn. There are additional benefits too. Adjacent group members can give an attack bonus to another group member, providing they have a valid attack opportunity on the target (in LOS and have the AP). When you use CAPs to assign additional APs to a unit in a group, all group members get the additional AP. The downside of grouping units is that at the end of the turn group members AP are reduced to match the lowest member of the group.

I decided to use some CAPs and a special action card to move my riflemen squad up to support the attack by my LMG. I grouped the 2 units together and used 2 CAPs to improve the attack roll of the LMG. My rifleman will be exposed, but I take the risk. The attack has a 72% chance for success.

I roll a 2 and missed. Bad luck. To add insult to injury, the Soviet riflemen still had enough AP to attack and wounded my exposed riflemen. Now they are unnerved.

I really want to take care of the Soviet riflemen, so I use my last special action card to perform another attack with my LMG. Using 2 CAPs to improve my attack I raise my odds to 58%. This time I hit to wound the riflemen. The Soviets had a special action card of their own to automatically rally their wounded squad. My wounded riflemen are my only units with AP left, but they only have an 8% chance for a successful attack (16% if I use my last CAP). Prudently I decide to move the injured soldiers to safety instead, occupying the same forest hex as my LMG. The terrain and the healthy friendly unit will both give a rally chance bonus the next round. The Soviet riflemen move closer to the crossroads. I don’t have any more actions so I pass. The Soviets are only done after they grab the crossroads.

Push To Take the Crossroads (Round 2)
The APs and CAPs are restored, and I receive a new special action card, which removes all AP from an enemy unit. That will be very useful. Their Maxim MMG isn’t an immediate threat since they don’t have any LOS to my units.

Note on movement and terrain: Units are assigned a movement type (foot, wheeled or tracked) along with the base AP cost for movement. Typically a unit can only move one hex, but some faster units can get extra moves when traveling in suitable terrain. Terrain affects the cost of movement, with separate modifiers for foot, wheeled and tracked travel. Some terrain is impassible for wheeled travel, while some terrain may immobilize tracked vehicles. Roads negate these modifiers making them quite valuable.

I want to eliminate the riflemen. I group my LMG and injured riflemen for a group attack, but only after using 2 CAPs to boost my attack roll to get an 83% chance of success. The Soviet riflemen are wounded, the first step to gaining control of the crossroads. The Soviets pull out another special action card, rally attempt. This one is not automatic and doesn’t succeed. Since my units were grouped and both started with 7 AP, they both are down the LMG’s cost of attack (2AP) to 5AP. Still enough AP for a second attack and with 2 CAPs to improve my roll the chance for success is 83%. The Soviet riflemen are no longer.

The Maxim MMG is no longer visible and I’m not sure where they went off to. I’m going to leave my busy LMG and riflemen in place in the forest to respond to any threats and move my rear riflemen to the crossroads. After getting them in place, the Maxim MMG decides to show up, but shouldn’t have LOS for an immediate attack. Now it’s time to take care of my injured riflemen and move them further into the forest. Since the move was towards the flank / rear it cost him an extra AP, but for now he is safe.

After my move the camera swung to the lower right corner, probably due to the Soviet reinforcements. I’m not sure why I get this indication as to where they are (or if it really is an indication). It is time for the rear LMG to move up to help protect the crossroads.  As my LMG was positioned, a Soviet rifle squad showed up and took a potshot at my riflemen guarding the crossroads and missed. It’s time to turn on the chits, which will be much easier to see. The chits can get obscured by the forests, but pop to the foreground if moused over. Unfortunately the chits get slightly fuzzy when moused over, but still readable. I hope the effect isn’t intentional because it isn’t friendly.

The chits do display a lot of information. The AP cost of attack - upper left, movement cost - upper right, flank / rear defense value and frontal attack defense value – lower right, unarmored and armored attack values – lower left, attack range – lower center, and unit icon in the middle. The unit facing is displayed with the handy arrow in the green section.

I plan to hold the VP and try to eliminate the threat. Next round I hope to build a hasty defense at the crossroads to give my riflemen +1 defense. My CAPs can be used to give them some AP to rally if hit. My top LMG has LOS to the new enemy riflemen, but my lower one doesn’t. I have enough CAPs to provide APs to my upper LMG for an attack and do so, but they only have a 16% chance to hit. Bam! Soviet riflemen are now injured.

The Soviets made fine use of the forest and surprise me with another riflemen next to the victory point location. My only action is to attack with my lower LMG with a 27% chance. Missed. Even with a +3 close range attack bonus the Soviet riflemen missed with a roll of a 3. I hope they are out of AP.

We have trouble; the Soviet riflemen moved into the crossroads with me and follow up with an attack. This is a close combat situation, giving the Soviet riflemen a +4 bonus. Not all units are better in close combat. Machine guns, mortars, and others like to keep some distance. My men are now injured. Some unknown Soviet rifle squad is moving in the distance. I can tell from the message log. I don’t think I should be privy to such information. More close combat occurs in the crossroads and I get lucky; the Soviets roll a 3. I last through round2, but there are still 2 unknown Soviet riflemen lurking. Somewhere.

Stand Tough (Round 3)
I receive my first and only reinforcement, a pioneer, in the upper right. They are tougher than the riflemen, both on the attack and defense, but have a lesser range. They are also equipped with smoke which might me handy.

Since an enemy is in the same hex as my injured riflemen, they can’t rally. If my other units attack the location, they risk hitting (and killing) my riflemen. To top it off, they are stunned and can’t move or attack. I’m beginning to think this is the end of the line for them. At least I’ll make the enemy use AP to attack him. When the Soviets are alone in the hex I’ll launch my attack. The 2 LMG group up and take out the Maxim MMG. The Soviets return the favor and put my riflemen out of their misery. Time to take the crossroads back!

The Soviets play the dual attack card, forcing me to lose a turn. The injured Soviet riflemen fail to rally and move to cover the approach of the pioneers. The riflemen’s range doesn’t pose a significant threat to the pioneers, but will make me take a safe route. One of my LMG units attack the crossroads, using 2 CAPs for a roll bonus .I missed, so my advance is delayed. My pioneers now have company – Soviet Riflemen #4.

My pioneers pivot to face the new threat. Once the enemy is eliminated, the pioneers can use the forest for cover to approach the south. The Soviets miss the pioneers, who only have a 25% chance to successfully return the attack. The light forest is providing some shelter. I miss and the Soviets move to the SW. I’m not sure why.

I just remembered that the pioneers have smoke, so I could use it to reduce the risk of getting hit. I decide to stay on the offensive and attack. I hit him, but another Soviet riflemen appears from the S; the second and last of their reinforcements.

The pioneers try to eliminate the immediate threat and fail. They are now out of AP and the new riflemen move closer. I need to get the crossroads to accumulate some VP. My LMG attack with the help of +2 CAPs for a 72% chance to hit. Got’em! I successfully rally my injured riflemen, so my troops are back to full force. Once again, the Soviets attack the Pioneer and fail. There are no Soviet units with a good shot at the crossroads, so I use a free action special card and 1 AP to take the crossroads. My pioneer finally gets injured with the Soviet attack.

Stand Tough – Part 2 (Round 4)
My first attempt at standing tough didn’t go as planned, but I have a better feeling about this. The Soviets get the initiative and try to rally the riflemen who have been harassing my pioneers, and fail. I received a new dual attack action card, so I play it. The plan is to rally the pioneers and counter attack. This time I use 2 CAPs to improve my rally chance, so I only need a 5 instead of a 7. They are good as new. Another +2 CAPs for my attack and the Soviet riflemen are dead. I’m up 6 points to 2 and hold the victory point location in round 4.

I prepare a hasty defense at the crossroads, just in case the Soviets position themselves for an attack. My riflemen move to flank the Soviets near the crossroads. The defense penalty for a flanking attack wasn’t as great as I would have expected. The other riflemen manage to close on my pioneer and wound them.

My riflemen squad needs 2 CAPs to acquire enough AP for a flanking attack. This will be against the flank defense value, which is lower than the normal frontal attack defense. My chance is only 41% so I use 1 CAP to bring it up to 58%. They are eliminated! I would like to clear the table, so I move my LMG to attack the remaining enemy squad.

They are now damaged and the round is over. Stand Tough – Part 2 is a success.

Mop Up (Round 5)
The Soviets gain the initiative and rally, making it more difficult to kill their remaining unit. After several attempts I only managed to wound the last unit, but achieved a 9 to 2 victory. This was only a tutorial scenario so I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be challenging, but it was surprisingly fun for a tutorial. Conflict of Heroes is off to a good start!

The User Interface
Whoever designed the user interface for CoH deserves to be commended. CoH uses a logical method to select units with the left mouse button and issue move orders with the right. The camera can be manipulated with mouse or keyboard commands. Rotating the map by clicking and dragging the right mouse button wasn’t always responsive, but the other methods worked well. If you wait for the cursor to change to a camera, the rotate function works as expected. As a whole, the UI does a great job providing information and easily allowing the player to manage the battle.

All relevant information is at the players fingertips. The terrain is clean and uncluttered, but the 3D units can be hard to spot. I believe this is going to be improved in an update. There is one oddity regarding LOS. I learned from a helpful forum member that LOS rules draw a line from the center of the unit’s hex to the center of the target hex. Sometimes terrain features, such as trees can lead to unexpected LOS. It is clear where your unit has LOS, but it can be confusing as to why it is the way it is. There are also situations where it would be nice to check LOS from unoccupied hex so you can determine what you would see before committing to the move.

I prefer the look of the 3D unit models, but they are a little difficult to select sometimes.

Some additional improvements could be made. Before an attack the % chance for success is displayed. It would be helpful to also display the % chance for success for rallying a unit, with applicable modifiers included. Unit action buttons are disabled when the unit can’t perform the action, but there isn’t any information as to why. For example, the hide button was disabled when I didn’t have enough AP, but became enabled as I converted CAPs to APs for the unit. A tooltip would have been nice to inform me that I needed more AP to hide when I didn’t have enough. A message or two in the message log was a little misleading until I asked a question on the forum. The developer said they would improve the message in an update.

There was also a bug loading a saved game from within a scenario, so your best bet is to load the game from the main menu. The player may get extra AP and action cards when loading from within a scenario.

Customizing Your Experience
There are several options for players to tweak the rules of the game. Fog of War can be toggled on or off. I prefer on but everyone is free to choose. 4 difficulty levels are available. I already mentioned the cautious foot movement rule. The troop quality of regular quality units can be randomized to provide more variety to the firefights. By default, units receive 7 AP at the start of each turn. The player can change the default behavior so units receive a variable number of AP each turn. Many players of the boardgame complained when the handling AP was changed for the computer game. In the computer game a unit’s AP are retained in a round even after the unit is deselected. This allows the player to order unit A, then use unit B the next turn, and return to using unit A. The last option isn’t fully implemented yet, but if turned on a unit loses all remaining AP whenever they are deselected. If this option is turned on, the player can’t give any orders to the unit until the next round once they are deselected.

Graphics and Sound
Other than some of the graphical oddities mentioned in the review, the game looked very nice for a hex-based war game. The look was clean and clear. I sometimes surprised myself when I realized I was enjoying some of the music. Typically I don’t care one way or the other and my only hope is that the music in strategy games isn’t annoying.

Technical Performance
I didn’t experience any slowdowns or crashes, but I did encounter a few bugs. None of them seriously hampered my enjoyment of the game.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

Some Thoughts
The terrain can also contain interesting features which were not used in this tutorial. Some scenarios contain structures which some units can enter to gain an additional defensive bonus, but may also put restrictions on the unit’s facing. Bunkers, gun pits and trenches grant defense bonuses. Barbed wire and roadblocks impede movement. Landmines decrease your turn times because you’ll have fewer men to move around. Boom.

I was tempted to hide some units in the forest early in the scenario, but I opted not to. If a unit is out of LOS for all enemy units it can go into hiding. Units hidden in clear terrain are spotted by enemies within two hexes, but if the unit is hidden in a hex that provides cover, such as a cornfield, they aren’t spotted unless an enemy enters the same hex. This is a nice way to set up some ambushes for the enemy. A unit can still move after being hidden, but at an extra AP cost. If you suspect that a unit is hidden in a particular hex, the player can target it for an attack without being aware of the unit. Hey, sometimes it pays to follow your instinct.

The unit attributes are detailed enough to provide a deep experience without needing to know the different muzzle velocities of each weapon used during the war. Planning for the use of CAPs and special action cards adds to the fun. The rules have enough depth so the player has to constantly make interesting choices. Many times I use the word gamey with a negative connotation but with Conflict of Heroes I use it in a positive way. It does feel very gamey, but in the same way a game like the card game Dominions does. The rules feel elegant and the many abstractions don't feel hokey. I didn’t notice any bizarre moves by the AI in the tutorial, which remained competitive for most of the scenario. Unless the scenarios take a huge turn for the worse, I expect to enjoy Conflict of Heroes very much. I am refraining from assigning a score until I play more scenarios and will have more to say in Part 2.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Toy Soldiers PC: Review

Version Reviewed:
What I like: Great atmosphere, lots of content for $10, good enough tower defense game play with a twist, leaderboards.
Not So Much: While fun, taking over weapons makes it more difficult to keep track of the big picture.
Other stuff you may like: Action junkies will probably appreciate manually controlling the weapons more than I.
The Verdict: B- (Good)
* I can definitely see more action-oriented players scoring this game very highly.
About my reviews

Official site:
Toy Soldier's for PC
I was pretty late to the tower defense party, but have found many enjoyable games in this genre. Defense Grid and Unstoppable Gorg have been my favorites, but there have been other worthwhile entries too. After a very popular showing for the Xbox 360, Signal Studios decided to share their creation with the PC crowd. Toy Soldiers is a tower defense game with an interesting twist. In addition to the standard placement of towers on available locations, the player gets to control the towers and even drive and fly vehicles to cause more personal destruction. Instead of an ultra realistic presentation, toy soldiers, complete with wind-up tanks populate the battlefields, just as the title implies. Even though the soldiers are toys, there is plenty of excitement, punctuated by explosions, to be had.

The Xbox 360 version had a multiplayer mode, but none exists for the PC version. This is OK by me since I only play single player, but I’m sure this will disappoint some players.

Getting Started
There isn’t a manual, but instructions can be found within the game under Help & Options. This is adequate since game play is simple.

The main campaign has 12 scenarios and the player can select the starting difficulty level (casual, normal or hard). The difficulty level can be adjusted later if you wish. Victory must be achieved before progressing to later scenarios. With success in a scenario, an elite difficulty level for that scenario is unlocked. Once unlocked, any scenario can be replayed using all unlocked weapons. Winning the campaign in full opens up campaign+ mode (fight for the German side) and survival mode (survive as many enemy waves as you can). Six additional scenarios are also available in the two included DLC campaigns, along with the requisite survival mode.

Winning the main campaign on normal difficulty took around 10 hours. The 6 additional campaigns, campaign+, and survival mode make for a pretty good deal at the current $10 price. The Invasion DLC takes a bit of turn with spaceships, so if you don’t want scifi mixed with your WWI, Invasion may not be for you. Since this isn’t a historical game I don’t have any strong objection.

A Games for Windows Live login is required, which I didn’t find a big deal, but may be a turn off for some. This is true even for the Steam version of the game.

Game Play
Each scenario has the player building defenses to protect their toy box (or boxes) from enemy invasion. If too many enemies make their way into your toy box, it is game over and time to try again. The map defines the valid locations for your defenses, with only some accommodating your large defense platforms. Money is earned for each enemy killed. The enemy takes multiple routes to get to your toy box, so it isn’t as simple as protecting a linear path. Just as you have different weapons, so does the enemy. There are basic infantrymen who are easy to kill, but some of them may be wearing gas masks to protect against your chemical weapons. Cavalry move faster and can jump over some obstacles. Armored tanks need heavier weapons to take down and planes force you to protect the skies.

As mentioned earlier, Toy Soldier’s twist on the tower defense game is allowing the player to jump in and command the various defenses. This is encouraged by giving the player extra money for kill streaks – killing multiple enemy within a short period of time. The kill streak bonus is reset if the player doesn’t manage a kill within a couple seconds. I’m not sure if the campaign can be won without this hands-on approach as I always commanded my defenses at some point in each scenario, but it may be possible. Once vehicles are introduced, they can be entered in the same manner.

When zoomed out, the player is treated to a birds-eye view of the battlefield, typical of tower defense games. When manning one of the defenses your view is zoomed in for a close over the shoulder view. While the hands-on action was fun, it’s more difficult to keep track of the big picture. I prefer the more cerebral aspect of tower defense games. Since Toy Soldiers handles the action so well that I am glad it exists, but I wouldn’t want all tower defense games to go in this direction. All wasn’t perfect for me as I found targeting with artillery a little difficult in some of the terrain and the planes slightly tricky to control. Neither of these is a big deal and could very well just be me.
Zoomed out

Zoomed in

Your defensive structures can take damage from the enemy and are repaired by spending a little cash. Structure upgrades are unlocked during the campaign, boosting firepower and / or range. Like repairs upgrading a structure requires spending cash. During a repair or upgrade, your structure goes offline for a short time, so time your repairs wisely. Structures can also be sold off if you need the cash or decide a different structure would be more advantageous in that particular position.

The tower defense portion of the game didn’t feel as strategic as some of the others I played. It felt like the map layout and approach routes were optimized for the action aspect of the game. Whether this was a good choice will depend on your gaming preference. While the action is fun and a nice change of pace, I prefer a stronger strategic focus.

There is an adequate, but not a large variety of items to build – machine guns, mortars, chemical / gas weapons, artillery, anti aircraft, and barbed wire. Each has 2 upgrades except for the barbed wire which doesn't have any. Even though they behave differently, they don’t feel as different as the towers in Defense Grid and Unstoppable Gorg.

Every 3 or 4 scenarios are punctuated with an enemy boss battle. They keep you on your toes because they each have their own unique behavior and add some variety to killing of the usual troops. They were a welcome diversion.

Online leaderboards exist for total score and individual scenarios, so competitive or curious players can see how they compare to other players. I enjoy this feature because I like to try and get within the top 25% or better. The greatest component of the score is based on how many enemy troops entered your toy box. Unspent cash further increases the score, along with a time bonus. The time bonus is achieved by releasing the next enemy wave before the timer counts down by pressing the F key. If you are ready for them there isn’t any point in waiting.
A nice extra is the Display Case, which shows all unlocked weapons, along with a brief description. For those interested it provides a close up of the weapon artwork.
Display Case
User Interface
Defenses are built by clicking on a deployment platform to open a menu of choices and then clicking on the desired defense. The same method is used to repair, sell, or upgrade towers. Hotkeys can be used to expedite the procedure, but as far as I can tell they can’t be customized. They were easy to pick up, so I had no issues with this limitation. They are laid out for quick access, but don’t always make sense from a language perspective – i.e. sell (z), repair (x).

The user interface is minimalistic due to the simplistic nature of the game play. The two most important bits of information are how many enemies need to enter your toy box to trigger defeat, and how much money is available to purchase weapons (upper left). The next 3 types of enemy waves are displayed in the center to allow the player to plan their defenses along with the timer alerting the player how much time before the next wave attacks. The player is reminded they can press the F key to release the wave early, increasing their score. In the far right upper corner, the player can monitor the number and type of enemies on the map.

The WASD keys are used to jump from one defensive structure to the next while manning them to avoid forcing the player to exit, scroll to the next one and enter it. The WASD keys are also used to control the vehicles.

The interface works smoothly and never got in my way, easily allowing me to build and control my weapons. A scenario can’t be saved while in progress, but they don’t take too long. I didn’t time them, but the scenarios probably ranged from about 10-30 minutes or so.

Difficulty and AI

The player can choose one of three difficulty levels when they start a campaign, but can change to a different one later. At the normal difficulty level I had to replay 2 scenarios one time and 2 scenarios 2 times. By the time I figured out how to beat some bosses, it was too late and required another try. In the casual difficulty level, the enemy units have less hit points, more cash is awarded for kills, and more enemies must enter your toy box to trigger defeat. Enemies have more hit point on hard and fewer enemies need to enter the toy box to hand the player defeat. The elite difficulty places much more importance on the action portion of the game as the AI no longer will fire your unmanned weapons for you. The player must take control of the defenses and fire upon the enemy. I only attempted the first 2 scenarios at the elite level and beat them very easily. I did have all of my unlocked weapons and the first couple scenarios are very easy, so I’m sure this is not an indication of the elite level on later scenarios. The number of enemies needed to enter your toy box to trigger defeat is increased with the elite difficulty level, so the player does have more leeway and the opportunity to score more points.

The AI does a respectable job at manning your defenses, but I did see some enemies sneak through when I thought they should be stopped. I would think in most cases the player is better off commanding the defenses, but you can’t be everywhere at once. Enemy soldiers seem to fire and throw grenades in random directions, but enemy tanks seem to fire intelligently.

Graphics and Sound
I found the graphics were well done and very immersive. When zoomed out, it is obvious the game takes place in a tabletop diorama. When zoomed in the level of detail is impressive, craggy terrain, trenches, barracks, explosions all very well-done. The available resolutions only range from 800x600 to 1680x1050, but the game still looked great on my 1920x1080 native resolution LCD monitor. A small portion of my display remained unused.

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Toy Solders is an interesting take on the tower defense genre, perhaps pleasing the action-oriented gamer more than the strategic one. I didn’t feel there was quite enough strategy involved and the game was more focused on the action than I prefer. Both aspects are done well enough to make Toy Soldiers a worthy purchase for both types of players. The artistic presentation of the game is very attractive and really adds to its personality.  This will temporarily be my game of choice when I want something quick to fill in some time, but won’t have the legs Defense Grid has had for me. Scores represent the amount of enjoyment I got from a game. Even a well-made game, such as Toy Solders doesn’t automatically get a top-tier score, but it does get my recommendation to purchase it if you’re a fan of this genre.

Score: B- (Good)
* I can definitely see more action-oriented players scoring this game very highly.