Windward (PC) Review

Windward (PC) Review

Windward is a game I’ve been struggling with for a few days now, both in the abstract and in the literal. In essence, it’s a sandbox RPG in which you control a ship on the high seas while fighting pirates and trying to help one of four factions to dominate a randomly generated map. You would be forgiven for thinking it’s a simple game, then.

Windward is one of the best kinds of games; one with a rich subset or core systems, cleverly disguised by their easily digested delivery. Thinking back on a game like FTL, it was never difficult to familiarize myself with, even though it is rich in clever mechanics. Windward is a gem that does many of the same things right.
windward2insert1Tasharen Entertainment has struck a gold mine of nostalgia within me. The notion of playing as an underwhelming, relatively ineffectual single ship within a larger world, all while multiple factions battle it out in a larger 4X strategy-style meta game is immediately familiar to anyone who’s played games like Drox Operative or Space Rangers. I positively adore games in which the player is not the be-all end-all to the game world, instead being just one of many cogs in a larger machine, helping others of a chosen faction to “win” the game. Of course, like any great game of the type, you are free to switch allegiance during your adventures, even opting to side with the pirates if you see fit.

In essence, the objective of Windward is map domination. A world is randomly generated at game start, and you must help reclaim it from pirates and competing factions in the name of your flag. All the while, you will earn experience, gain new abilities, purchase new ships, equipment and crew. You will inevitably complete quests for your faction, trade resources between port cities, establish new cities and defenses, conquer pirate-held ports, attempt to fend off pirate invasions, and generally have a blast with the fast-paced and frantic combat in the game.

As stated above, you are never a hero in the world of Windward. To the contrary, you will often feel at a disadvantage against pirates, and particularly against their numerical supremacy. This forces clever mastering of your ship’s strengths and weaknesses. Will you favour a light corvette and her hit-and-run tactics, or the massive ship-of-the-line and opt for unparalleled ability to stand and fight? These choices are all supported by the equipment and crew members you will come across. Will you focus on short-range broadsides, long-range harassment, penetration, raw damage, accuracy, or critical ability? More durable sails, or a stronger hull? Perhaps diplomacy is your route, affording you better trade prices and a chance to ignore pirates entirely. These all become even more relevant within the incredibly entertaining multiplayer, as team tactics will make everyone’s life easier and more enjoyable.
windward2insert5Where I struggle with Windward is that it’s not a particularly refined game. After a while, it feels like different zones are more of a gear check than a unique challenge, and constant and frustratingly challenging pirate invasions are inevitable unless you hold all cities in all neighbouring territories. I’ve also invested a few dozen hours on the fastest paced setting on offer, and have yet to dominate my first map for my faction, which leaves much room for improvement when it comes to the overall pacing of the game. Even with combat damage at 200% for both friendlies and enemies to speed up the gameplay, taking just a single zone can sometimes take several hours. Here’s the thing, though, I haven’t actually felt the tedium yet. Desperately fighting tooth-and-nail to capture and hold a zone is just as exhilarating as it was on day one. Frankly, I think that’s quite a clever trick for Tasharen Entertainment to have pulled off. Many a time in the last few days have I looked up to realize it was tomorrow. That, to me, says more than any review ever could.

 

Sim Sea-ty: Windward Preview

Sim Sea-ty: Windward Preview

Commandeering the open sea has long been the template for a seemingly great game. With areas to explore, deals to make, conversations to be had, and combat to engage in, it lends itself well to the mechanics and setup we like to see in games today.

Windward takes this idea and twists it in some interesting ways by making it more of a quasi-management sim than an adventure quest. While it has a number of impressive traits, it ultimately focuses more on the in-depth technicalities of its systems than delivering on any excitement or tension.
windwardinsert5As a ship captain, you’re basically responsible for keeping the peace and spreading your reign over a number of different locations. This is done through trade, completing quests, and capturing cities. The more you trade and the more successful you become, the greater increase you’ll see in the size and scope of your different cities.   Additionally, fellow NPCs will eventually follow you as you increase your rank as the ship’s leader, and upgrades can be applied to your ship to make it more durable in combat.

There’s a lot to dig through in Windward’s progression. Which is good, except it seems to get so caught up in its different mechanics that it becomes a bit more tedious than perhaps it could be. A bulk of the game consists of staring at trade screens, deciding what to sell, buy, or trade with different towns. Quests can be taken, but they largely consist of delivering items or people to another port or making trade/purchase decisions.

The ultimate loop of gameplay often drags because of two factors; one, it’s slow and plodding, as it apes the movement physics of a massive ship. Two, it doesn’t seem to deviate very often from merely traveling back and forth along coastlines.

Its procedurally-generated map does make for an interesting change. Having an all-new, completely unfamiliar landscape to traverse gives exploration an interesting edge, and difficulty gradually ramps up the challenge throughout.

Windward is more of a management game centered on the economics of cities than it is the adventure and exploration game so many have called for. There are elements of each, but they’re diluted to the point that they don’t feel interesting or engaging beyond their first two seconds.
windwardinsert4Of course, it is still an Early Access game whose alpha is far and away more impressive, beautiful, and technically sound than so many others in Steam’s preview program. The realistic water effects showing the movement of a candy blue ocean contrasted by a brilliant white beach and lush vegetation gives Windward a very calming, tranquil feel, particularly as you sail around the map. While they seem tedious, the trade systems and mechanics have clearly been very well thought out and considered, with each of them integrating and tying themselves in nicely with each other. Music is light and airy, sound effects mix nicely with the action, and the casual greetings of fellow NPCs in your fleet make Windward feel more like a pleasant walk in the park on a mild summer day than a high seas adventure. Since it is not a finished product, there is room for changes to be made and fixes to be implemented. Currently, Windward is an interesting game whose ideas seem grander and more interesting than their actual implementation.

Stardust Vanguards (PC) Review

Stardust Vanguards (PC) Review

Games are a lot more fun with friends and Stardust Vanguards gives players the opportunity to experience that. Unfortunately, if you are unable to play with friends and don’t have a game controller, then getting through this adventure will be a lot harder.

Despite those little setbacks it’s still a fun, addictive, retro-esque dueling game that you can easily put hours into. Stardust Vanguards places you in the centere of the action as you play one of four available Vanguards. Your responsibility as a Vanguard is to take out the groups of pirate fleets, and keep outer space safe.

starduct vanguards insert3
Each Vanguard can use a sword to ward off any incoming attacks, call reinforcements, put up a shield, shoot ammo, and even dash quickly to take out enemies.

Stardust Vanguards is best played with two or more players, as it adds more strategies to take down those pirate fleets and creates a more action- packed experience. However if you choose to play as a single player, then be aware that the game will be more difficult as the pirate fleets can easily surround you, and take you out in one hit. It is recommended that you use a game controller in order to play, because using the keyboard is tricky and can feel a bit clunky at first, making it hard to grasp the gameplay with ease. On the positive side, having two gameplay options available helps cater to the needs of players who have different gameplay preferences.

Stardust Vanguards offers a bit of voice acting for battle cries, and a catchy soundtrack that suits the flow of the game, while getting your adrenaline pumping as you take out the pirate fleets. Both of these elements are well done and pleasing to the ears.

Graphically Stardust Vanguards is reminiscent to your good old fashioned arcade game while mixing in anime style visuals, and having a more modernized retro feel to it. The graphics are also crisp, clean, and a pleasure to look at. It just goes to show that the graphics of a game doesn’t always have to be breath-taking to make it appealing to players. Going back to the roots of how games were designed way back when and putting a modern twist on it, can work out just as well.

starduct vanguards insert6
Players will be thrilled to know that Stardust Vanguards has replay value because of the unlockable content. You can unlock higher difficulty levels, and stages. While the game can be short if you are playing it on your own, those hours can add up if you have a few friends join in on the action.

Stardust Vanguards is not a perfect game, but it does its job well to entertain players with its one of a kind fun factor. If you are ever looking for a game to kill time with or just have a love for mechas then this game is for you. The setbacks that this game had didn’t weigh too heavily, as it provides players the opportunity to enjoy an action-packed multiplayer game, and that is where the game really shines.

Raven’s Cry Preview

Raven's Cry Preview

Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, and even Mr. Krabs, these are the images that come to mind when we think of pirates. Unless you’re a gamer, in which case Guybrush Threepwood, is probably your go to point of reference. We’ve seen pirates many times across all sorts of media, from the shimmering Caribbean seas of Sid Meier’s Pirates! toRobert Louis Stevenson’ssea faring epic Treasure Island. In almost all cases pirates are presented as a romantic, adventurous, and sometimes heroic band of merry men, who want nothing more than a fast ship, loyal crew, and mountains of plunder and booty. Octane Games and Topware Interactive aim to change all that with their upcoming dark and bloody tale of revenge on the high seas, Raven’s Cry.

Read moreRaven’s Cry Preview

Pirates of Black Cove (PC) Review

Pirates of Black Cove (PC) Review

Arrgh mateys, have ye grown board with life on the lan? Well then set sail for the Caribbean and pirate days of yore in Pirates of Black Cove.

Pirates of Black Cove is a blend of two familiar genres mixed with a healthy dose of salty seawater from the scallywags at Paradox Interactive. You play as one of three pirates in quest for plunder and the title of Pirate King. There are all sorts of mysteries for you to explore, and several missions to undertake as you try to become the saltiest scallywag in all the seven seas.

Pirates of Black Cove provides and excellent mix of adventuring and strategy. You’ll find yourself sailing around the Caribbean while collecting items and trading cannon fire with various other ships. Additionally, once you decide to enter a port the gameplay changes almost completely. Entering a port allows you to take control of your captain and his crew of soldiers. Soldiers are recruited from Pirate strongholds and feature various abilities that will aid you on your adventure. The items found on the open sea can be used by “The Mad Alchemist” to make useful items like “Wind in a bottle” or heath replenishing “Grog”.

The gameplay is interesting enough and the missions are decently varied but I found the sailing to be a bit on the slow side. The pace picks up once you engage another ship in combat. With the cannon balls flying these battles can become quite frantic and fun. I also really enjoyed the art. All the loading screens and character portraits are hand drawn and look amazing. While sailing, ships looked a little on then blurry side but the landscapes and water look great. The writing is snappy and full of pirate jokes and nautical puns. It’s not as snappy the classic pirating tale The Secret of Monkey Island but it is still clever enough to provide some chuckles.

I did have a few issues while playing this game. At first I couldn’t play for more than an hour or two without it crashing, I then managed to fix this by downloading two patches and updating my ATI display drivers. After that small challenge it was pretty much clear sailing. The music was cheerful and light, which I enjoyed, but since there are only two tracks played while on the open sea it wears on you like a bad case of scurvy after a while. There also appeared to be this strange bug that would cause the game to freeze when ever a song was loaded. Every five or six minutes the game would freeze for about two or three seconds. After the game resumed a song would begin to play. Since this loading issue only seemed to present itself while on the world map and never at a crucial moment in battle, I found it to be a rather small nuisance. Yes, I would like it fixed, but this small bug hardly ruined my experience.

All things considered, Pirates of Black Cove is fine piece o’ seafarin’ software. I really enjoyed how the game takes the act of pirating seriously but not itself. This allows for the fun of being a pirate to be framed by decently chuckle worthy dialogue and stories. Above all else I really think the best part of Pirates of Black Cove is the art. It’s unique, colorful, and really adds a sense of whimsy to the overall game. If you start to feel the captain’s itch and find yourself longing for the sea, then try the Pirates of Black Cove. I find it to be a bright shiny doubloon resting atop Paradox Interactive massive pirate hoard of PC games.

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game (PS3) Review

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game (PS3) Review

Pirates In Pieces

Traveller’s Tales has turned “LEGO-fying” major movies into something of a cottage industry, and they are back with yet another obvious turn. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is popular, family friendly and tackles one of the current popular caricatures of recent years, the eye-patch wearing, peg leg toting, parrot feeding pirate. Throw in some big budget action sequences and Johnny Depp, and you’ve got a potential game merchandise property that will leave most peope surprised at the fact that the LEGO touch didn’t happen to it sooner.

Pirates Sailing Blocky Seas

There’s not much to talk about in terms of the story. The game—like previous Traveller’s Tales adaptations—takes LEGO mini-figs and retells the story of the film franchise with slapstick, comedy twists. Here, all four Pirate films are represented starting with the original Depp/Bloom/Knightly trinity in the first three to the new Depp-only headliner that is the recently released fourth film. All the major plot points of each film are hit with the usual Traveller’s goofiness that has served them well in past titles like the Star Wars and Harry Potter games, so if you’re young, or young at heart, that same sense of safe whimsy is present here.

As with other LEGO titles, this isn’t a top-tier graphical powerhouse; the nature of the simple LEGO blocks lends itself well to that. However, there’s a surprising amount of decent art direction going on, with good lighting, reasonably detailed textures, and even a few frills like motion blur. The frame rate is steady, but there’s some noticeable screen tearing here and there, an unexpected disappointment considering this game isn’t exactly pushing the visual envelope. It’s a serviceable game in the graphics department, but considering the series has always been aimed at a younger crowd, it doesn’t really need to wow discriminating players with a hyper-attentive level of detail. There’s also an option to play the game in local co-op with an interesting, but ultimately problematic presentation. Most co-op games simply split the screen either horizontally or vertically for either player from beginning to end, but here, as long as players are close to each other, they “share” the same screen, and a split only occurs once they move away from each other. The split, however, “follows” the players, so if one character heads northwest, while another heads southeast, a diagonal split will form. Conceptually, it sounds like a good idea, but in practice it feels disorienting and it’s easy to get lost once it occurs. That one visual quibble aside, what’s here is not a beautiful game, but it’s not bad looking either.

The audio side of the game is similarly in line with past Traveller’s Tales games. As to be expected, the game borrows heavily from the soundtracks of the films represented, and this works enormously well to carry players into the LEGO-fied conceit of the movies. Generally speaking, the rest of the sound is safe, but not inspired. Don’t expect much use of the surround speakers in the same vein as a first person shooter. The emphasis on sword fighting and puzzle solving with LEGO blocks also tends to mean that aside from the occasional cannon fire from ships, there’s not a whole lot of work for the subwoofer to do either. There’s no dialog to worry about either as the slapstick nature of the story restricts human voices to grunts and squeals as various comical/terrible things happen to the mini-figs.

Stacks & Puzzles

At its core, LEGO: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game is a palette swap of previous Traveller’s Tales games in the LEGO franchise. All the conventions established in previous games are here; the family friendly tone, the co-operative local multi-player, the invoking of movie plots with a comedy twist and the combination of puzzle solving and simple combat.

The game is divided into four sections, each section consisting of five chapters that roughly lay out the plot of each movie. The game begins with the LEGO revisitation to The Curse of the Black Pearl and shows off the basic gameplay mechanics. Players—either singly or with a friend in local co-op—can choose from a variety of characters that vary from chapter to chapter, the one constant being that they have different abilities that will be required to solve the various environmental puzzles scattered about the chapter. Chapters consist of areas with various obstacles that need to be overcome, from giving a non-player character a desired item before being able to proceed, to opening up locked doors, or assembling a necessary gizmo from scattered LEGO blocks. In this sense, the game takes on undertones of the adventure genre, as the puzzles can sometimes be real head scratchers, asking players to use specific abilities, such as Jack Sparrow’s compass, which hones in on the heart’s desire—or in this case, hidden items—and combining them with other character abilities before being able to proceed. There’s nothing in here that is going to permanently stump a player the way some of the more fiendish adventure games of the past have, but be aware that for younger players the complexity of some puzzles may catch them off guard. There’s also a little bit of swordplay, but combat isn’t the focus of the game, so it’s a simple, button mashing affair that gets the job done quickly and is quite forgiving with younger gamers.

A central hub is also available for players that acts as both a gateway to choosing previously conquered story sections in free play, and a level in and of itself with its own puzzles that require solving. It’s here that the replay value of the game really begins to show itself. The LEGO games have always been monstrous collect-a-thons that tease players with treasures and hidden items impossible to gather with the available story characters alone. It is only by revisiting the levels in free-play, with the ability to choose any of the available characters acquired, that certain doors can be blown open, crystals shattered with singing, or chutes crawled into with dogs that allow completionists to finally access all the hidden items strewn about.

It is, as stated at the beginning, like every other LEGO game released. There’s nothing inherently broken with this game, but it’s a formula that Traveller’s Tales has religiously stuck to. If you’ve never played a LEGO game before, this is as good a place to start as any other title in the franchise. If you’re merely in the mood for a decent piece of interactive movie merchandise to enjoy with your family, this is definitely a safe buy.