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published Monday, Jun 21st

Heroes Of Newerth Review

The PC and the strategy game were made for each other. California-based developers S2 Games have demonstrated this eloquently with their third offering for PC, Heroes of Newerth (HoN).

HoN is a fast-paced multiplayer strategy romp in the fantasy Universe of Newerth. The ultimate goal is as familiar as it is simple; to destroy the opposition base. HoN demands a different mindset to the average PC strategy title however; game play is shifted away from the time consuming tedium of resource collection and base building, and focussed sharply on development of the Hero.

Game content draws heavily upon the success of Warcraft III’s “Defence of the Ancients” scenario. The player and up to four team mates gain experience and gold by defeating enemy players and attacking waves of ‘Creeps’; bots dispensed from the enemy base. Gold accrued through successful battles can then be exchanged for items from the shop panel, or more specialised items from the “Secret Shop” and the “Outpost” located somewhere on the field of play. Experience enables the player’s hero to level and gain increasingly powerful talents, which make crushing the enemy that little bit more enjoyable.

Game play is fast, furious and at first somewhat overwhelming, the comprehensive tutorial and ability to set up practice matches is a great help, allowing the player to familiarise them self with different Heroes, controls and objectives. HoN is a tricky little game; the temptation is to send the Hero steaming into battle, usually resulting in endless deaths, aggravated team mates and cries of ‘Absolute Noob’ ringing around the battlefield. Getting your Hero well equipped and to a high level, as quickly as possible, seems to be the key to success. This game requires dedication.

There’s a wide variety of Heroes available to play as – 70 at present – ranging from ‘Pandamonium’ (a Warrior-Monk Panda) to ‘Balphagor’ (a corpse hungry demon). Divided initially into two, the ‘Legion’, representing the powers of good and the ‘Hellbourne’, being the darker characters of Newerth, the Heroes are sub-divided into three main character sets. Agility – Speed and Armour abilities; Intelligence – Spell Casting and Mana Regeneration; Strength – Mele Damage and Health Regeneration. Each Hero offers unique combinations of abilities and powers which helps to keep game play fresh.

The user interface and in-game menu structure of HoN are well thought out.  Menu progressions are logical and very clear making navigation smooth, even for a novice user.  Importantly for a top down strategy game, everything is highly customisable. If swarms of health bars littering up the screen drives you to distraction then you can scrap them at the tick of a box. The presence of a comprehensive and customisable hot-key system drastically speeds up commands and allows the more advanced user to make the game their own.

The server system is great. User-defined matches allow game play to be tailored to the player’s specification (Game title, mode, map, team size and game rules can all be altered) to create the desired scenario. If you don’t want to create your own game, all open matches are listed and you can opt to join that game’s lobby.  A matchmaking option is also provided by S2, but it is so refreshing to have the choice available. The K2 Engine which drives HoN is, to be frank, great. It deals remarkably well with connection issues, allowing the user to rejoin the game as soon as that issue has been resolved. Lag caused the poor connections of other players is dealt with and seems to have no effect upon game play. Well done S2!

Heroes of Newerth doesn’t really surprise visually. Animation is strong and smooth and delivers everything that you would expect, but does at times feel like a blast from the past. Go on a successful killing spree and ‘Bloodlust’ bursts onto the screen in big red letters accompanied by the standard ‘Unreal Tournament-style’ voiceover; old hat and head scathingly cheesy.

So, Heroes of Newerth does precisely what it sets out to do. It provides the user with a fun, punchy online fantasy strategy game. HoN isn’t going to going to set the world alight. It is essentially a re-hash of an already popular game format but this, along with clever online community based marketing, gives HoN an instant and faithful audience. If S2 deliver regular updates and keep the game running as smoothly as it has started,  No doubt that Newerth will be full of Heroes for a long time to come.


by
published Tuesday, Dec 09th

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 Review

After an extended hiatus Red Alert is back, on Xbox and (eventually) PlayStation 3 consoles. The Red Alert franchise is known for its excellent storytelling albeit through lengthy cut scenes and over the top characters and this title is no different. This, in addition to gameplay that spans the previous two titles have made Red Alert 3 one of the most anticipated RTS games of all time. The opening shows the Soviets on the verge of defeat as the Allies roll onto Russian soil. Thinking fast, the Russians employ the use of an experimental time machine, go back into time before all of the events of the Red Alert series, and eliminate Albert Einstein. With no Einstein, there’s no nuclear weaponry, and when the Russians go back to the future, they find that the Soviet forces are no longer on the verge of crumbling. Instead, the Allied forces are down and out. But the feeling of victory doesn’t last long, as a new threat emerges as a direct result of the timeline-tampering and the Japanese forces rumble onto the scene to create a three-way conflict.

The three different entities and a big focus on naval combat provide the beef of Red Alert 3’s gameplay. The good thing here is that the faction differences are meaningful enough to require you to employ different strategies, but similar enough so that no team has an advantage. The campaign mode takes you through all three factions and like previous C&C games, you’ll find bonus objectives to complete, and the story is told via full-motion HD video sequences that set up each mission. You’ll also get a lot of video during the missions in a window that doesn’t block your view of the action. This gives the missions a lot of personality and keeps you engaged in the Red Alert world at all times. All of the FMV and interaction between characters really makes the campaign a treat to see, as you’ll encounter a lot of great moments on all sides.

Another new feature of RA3 is that the game has been built from the ground up with co-operative play in mind. That means that you’ll always have a co-commander by your side, either a friend on Xbox Live or an AI-based partner that you can give limited commands to. In most cases this works great, as in some cases your partner will have a base in a different area of the map, making them better suited to attack immediate threats, or letting you double up on the offense. Unfortunately there’s no matchmaking for this, meaning you’re going to have to invite a friend every time you want to co-op campaign it up’. Probably a sensible decision, but it would have been nice to have it included in there for those without RTS buddies.

As said, there are large naval/water sections on the maps, in fact, every one of the game’s multiplayer maps has some water. This means you can now build most of your base at sea, with only the structures devoted to deploying ground units locked to land. This changes a lot of the strategy commonly found in real-time strategy games and really forces you to rethink the best ways to attack. But besides this rather notable difference to prior games, Red Alert 3 is still based on the classic C&C foundations. But this time you’ll find it difficult building gigantic forces and slowly evolving your base to completion before you even think about attacking the enemy. This is a fast-moving game, and pumping out small forces of multiskilled units and sending them off to fight seems to be the key to victory, rather than building up enough units to stomp around the map at will. As such, expect to see enemies heading your way pretty frequently, too. And sometimes managing your wide array of units gets to be a bit much. You’ll find yourself getting overwhelmed and even stressed when battles got hectic. But the game is rewarding. As you play more and more, you’ll learn when to employ each strategy in a more calm and collected fashion, and reaping the rewards as you go. During the course of the campaign mode, the cut scenes are more than entertaining and even humorous at times, with the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Gemma Atkinson on board as Tanya and a ranked Lieutenant respectively.

In addition to co-op play, you can also set up 4 player matches both online against humans or as skirmish matches against the AI. In terms of graphics, the game looks fantastic on a large screen HDTV, with some beautiful explosions to be viewed during campaign. For someone who hasn’t played a RTS before would perhaps find the Xbox 360 controls much more manageable than mouse and keyboard on PC. However it can be difficult trying to remember every single option and the different unit selection controls, adding to the stress that can be had during frantic battles. While there isn’t a great deal to be said about the music, fans of the previous two games will be pleased to hear many of the original themes and sounds have been re-worked for the third game. From the banging, upbeat theme of the main menu to the interactive in-mission music that picks up whenever battles commence, music is just about as good as it possibly could be.

For the hardcore Red Alert and Command & Conquer players, the changes made in RA3 (thankfully) haven’t abandoned the core of what makes these games so good, which makes this the best console RTS ever. Unfortunately, the excellent cutscenes won’t be quite enough to grasp a new audience and keep the casual gamer at the command post.


by
published Friday, Mar 23rd

Supreme Commander Review

To most casual observers the once monstrous RTS genre has been lying dead in the water for many years now. A lack of major innovation from even the biggest titles and a stubborn refusal to deviate from genre structure and overused clichés has left it stagnant and its appeal has withered in the eyes of the mainstream public. Some even argue that the genre reached its peak in the mid nineties with benchmark setting games like Command & conquer and Warcraft may never rise to those standards again. Of course there are those that would counter that, putting forward recent titles like Company of Heroes and Rise of Nations as a good indication RTS has a rosy future. Whatever your thoughts on the future of real time Strategy games the release of Chris Taylor’s Supreme Commander should make you and your left mouse button finger quiver with excitement.

While his name may not be instantly recognisable to most gamers but to RTS aficionados Chris Taylor is regarded in the same way as FPS nuts view John Carmack, and for good reason. During those early years there were only two RTS titles worth your money, Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation. C&C may have performed better at retail but it was TA that had the most passionate following, in fact, until recently servers hosting the original TA were still bustling with activity from hardened fans.

A true sequel has been in high demand ever since and other than a couple of expansion packs and the poorly received TA: Kingdoms there has been no sign of the TA brand even now. But fans can rejoice as Chris Taylor has returned to the universe, and genre, he helped kick-start a decade ago with the rather excellent Supreme Commander.

Set in the distant 30th century, humans are in the middle of a fiercely fought Galactic Civil War contested by three factions; the United Earth Federation, the Aeon Illuminate (Pro-active Spiritualists) and the Cybran nation (Androids battling against the chains of human oppression). After years of fighting ‘The Infinite War’ against the two other nations, the UEF are in ruins and on the brink of defeat. As a last resort they construct an almighty space-based weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. The weapon can be used against the UEF and now you enter the battle, attempting to turn the tide of war in you chosen faction’s favour. Ok, so the story may not win any prizes for originality but the fact that none of the sides are portrayed as clear-cut whiter than white good guys is a nice design choice. The story is probably the only big letdown as this is easily one of the best strategy games since the days of its half-brother.

It is a sequel in all but name; the game structure, battle units and overall presentation feel just like TA only with the extra polish you’d expect from ten years of technological progress. Like it’s predecessor, Supreme Commander will give even the most powerful PCs of it’s era a thorough workout and it is worth pointing out that the recommended specs on the box are not for not just for show, you will need to check your PC can handle it before considering a purchase.

The reason why Supreme Commander needs so much oomph soon becomes apparent as you get presented with some of the grandest missions ever contained in an RTS. Even in the first couple of ‘tutorial’ missions the scale dwarfs the epic battles from the Total War series. You would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about when you first take hold of your ACU (Armoured Command unit, essentially your on-screen character) you can barely explore the area around you but it does allow you to see your initial buildings from a small distance, a view you’ll barely use later on.

The game world slowly expands as you complete each task, until the map is so large individual units are little more than pinpricks on the screen. Finding particular tanks or aircraft from these distances would have been a nightmare were it not for one of Supreme Commander’s trump cards, battle icons, which make it simple to direct your armies quickly and effectively from any distance. As such, there is no longer a need for a separate map cluttering up the view screen as it is so easy to just zoom out, direct your units, and then return to ground level for more intricate commands.

In fact, the whole interface feels a lot simpler than other RTS games and there are a lot of shortcuts designed to aid you in your role as the ‘Supreme Commander’ on the battlefield. You can assign multiple commands to each unit, making it easy to set up patrols or organise a gun and run attack. As with its predecessor, resources are drip fed regularly through energy extractors and can be stockpiled for when it’s needed, energy can even be collected by your ACU during any short gap in the fighting by extracting it from nearby plant life or even from your enemies smoking remains.

The only other disappointment with Supreme Commander is the amount of single player missions, a paltry six per faction. Admittedly, they are much longer than you’d find in the average RTS and later missions require some pretty in depth strategies and lots of concentration to complete but you will see through them all within ten hours.

But the multiplayer options more than make up for this and online, this is honestly the most fun I’ve had on an RTS since playing Red Alert 2 on my Uni LAN network. Games are easy to set up and the amount of customisation on offer is terrific. It was a shame the full modding kit never made it to the retail version as it contained all the level editing software used by the actual development team. It would have been fitting to create the ultimate Mod package with the spiritual successor of the game that first kindled such passions in so many strategy fans way back when.

Supreme Commander is a fantastic game overall and as long as you have a PC powerful enough to do it justice this is an essential purchase, RTS fans might even want to consider upgrading your set up just for this game.


War Front: Turning Point by
published Thursday, Mar 22nd

War Front: Turning Point Preview

Real Time Strategy games are perhaps the biggest type of format game on the PC. World war 2 is perhaps the most over-used theme for a real time strategy game on the PC. So whenever a new strategy game based on world war 2 is announced, you can expect that the reception will eventually become quite sour. War Front Turning point, is set to challenge that perception. The difference between this and many other World war 2 RTS games; it tries to take an alternate history approach to the game. In War Front Turning point, the Nazis manages to get their super weapons into mass production in time for World war 2, in this way the game explores what would of happened if this was indeed the case.

We recently got a chance to play with the multi-player version of the game. The game has three sides to choose from, the UK and US coalition forces, Soviet forces and the German forces, pretty much typical of a WW2 RTS. However, each side has alongside traditional tanks and weapons of their time, special new age weapons and missiles. This does beg the question as to how different it really is to any other strategy game, new weapons and old ones create a weird contrast,, but only add variety to the gameplay, already in other games not strictly of the WW2 theme.

To fans of the genre, the game mechanics and style of War Front will be both familiar and obviously well polished. You start off by with a building unit and a command base, the basic formula which has existed for RTS games since their creation. From that point you have to build up your perfect base, using standard RTS buildings such as energy creators, factories and research labs. Like most Real time strategy games, it is important to have a well rounded and built base, before you start to churn out your units. The two key resources in the game are supplies (necessary for almost everything, such as constructing units and buildings), which are brought in by trucks and electricity which is powered by the generators.

The demo we played still seemed to have a few bugs to work, you notice when sending large amounts of units that they often get confused and in a tangle, I assume this will be worked out for the final version however, as it is almost essential they get this right in an real time strategy.

The graphics in the game are very sound, not entirely ground breaking, but the textures and animations are well done. I noticed the occasional drop in framerate, but I assume simply that this is because it is a demo, and this will be worked out in the final version. The sound is also pretty solid, which makes the game seem pretty well rounded from the impressions I got of the demo.

When first constructing units you are restricted to basic troops, another very generic feature of an RTS. You start off with very light infantry and tanks, you can use these to explore the map and defend your base until you are able to create and control the big boys. You have to raise your tech level before you can construct better units, this is done through research bases.

It might play as original as it sounds on the tin, but if you are a fan of RTS games and are a little tired of all the generic World War 2 games being released, then this might be one for purchase. The “alternative history”, might not be as alternative as it sounds, but it does add some spice to what looks pretty much like its set to be any other RTS game in existence, although that is not necessarily a bad thing. When all the bugs have been fixed and the game is finally released, it will probably be a fine example of an RTS, with the traditional elements of a WW2 game, mixed in with the explosive fire power, of the 21st century.


LOTR: Battle For Middle Earth II by
published Wednesday, Aug 02nd

LOTR: Battle For Middle Earth II Review

There are some things in gaming that remain certain, one of which is the belief that RTS games will never work on consoles. Perhaps excluding the more puzzle-based Pikmin, this has held true for years; controlling vast amounts of units in the midst of frenzied skirmishes is something console pads just aren’t cut out for.

Despite this, EA have released Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2 on Xbox 360 and inevitably this title is affected by the same pitfalls as so many before it. From the outset, the limitations of the 360’s pad are obvious; slowing down gameplay (despite the use of ‘hotkeys’) and making selections and commands needlessly difficult. In short, this is an unnecessary port of an unnecessary sequel.

The original Battle for Middle-Earth successfully married the RTS genre with Tolkiens fantasy world, creating an engrossing title that managed to recreate the spectacular and exhilarating battles from the books and films. While it couldn’t compete with the genre heavyweights like Rome: Total War and Warcraft III in terms of features, the locales and recognisable missions and characters propelled it above the average fare available at the time. Sadly the sequel doesn’t have this to fall back on, and no amount of supposed gameplay enhancements can make up for this loss. Without Aragorn, Gandalf and Orlando Bloom, this game is left exposed as a shallow Command & Conquer clone.

This game obviously lacks the structure afforded by the film’s timeline and the missions suffer as a result. There is very little variety beyond the usual search & destroy and siege missions that are synonymous with the genre, and without a Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith the designers have been forced to use some of the more obscure locales from Tolkien’s world such as Mirkwood and Dale which contain neither the grandeur or familiarity to make up for the generic campaigns available. It seems EA have raided Tolkein lore for appropriate locations and any hint of possible battles from the book’s lengthy appendices have been seized upon and turned into fully-fledged missions. Only Tolkein knows whether Rivendell came under attack while the Fellowship went about their business but EA certainly seems to believe so.

Without the heroes from the films, EA have focused the storyline on the possible battles that took place around the Northern areas of Middle-Earth, with Rivendell an early target for Sauron’s wrath. Locations name-checked in the books (including some from The Hobbit) provide the backdrop for most of the skirmishes between Good & Evil, and are shoe-horned to fit the story, in much the same way as Factor 5 managed to squeeze every conceivable battle out of the original Star Wars trilogy for their Rogue Squadron series.

The gameplay has seen more than a few changes from the original, most of which only make it harder to distinguish this title from the crowd. Structures no longer upgrade according to usage, instead you must order a builder unit to complete the upgrade manually in the time honoured fashion. The single player mode is structured more like a C&C game, with individual missions rather than the collection of battles in the original. It’s far too linear and there is very little scope or opportunity for players to utilise their own tactics. The only changes that benefit this title are the inclusion of Naval battles and more flexible structure placement (the original forced players to build on predetermined plots).

There are very few points that make this game worthy of your cash, the graphics aren’t up to scratch, with terrible slowdown in many places. Units and structures may look quite nice from a distance but upon closer inspection they look pretty basic. The presentation for the story elements between missions is good though, with in game graphics transitioning to some impressive hand drawn artwork in a similar way to EA’s LOTR action games from a few years ago. This is accompanied by Voice-overs from Bernard Hill who played King Theodan in the movies and recognisable music from all three films.

If the sixteen or so missions in campaign mode aren’t enough to satisfy you there are some online Multiplayer modes that are more than worthy of your time. The modes aren’t much different from what’s been seen in other RTS titles but they are still fun against real opponents, particularly as the AI in the main game is suspect at best. In fact if it wasn’t for the control issues, it may have been enough to recommend this game but as with the rest of it, you can find better on the PC. Everything in this game has already been done to a better degree elsewhere and there isn’t enough content to keep you occupied for long.

As a result this Battle for Middle-Earth 2 feels more like an expansion pack than a fully-fledged sequel and smacks of desperation on EA’s part. While the LOTR franchise is undoubtedly one of the biggest across any media, its popularity peaked with the release of the films and this game feels like a tired attempt to squeeze some last few pennies from fickle mainstream fans before they flock to the next big thing.

If you really want this game, you’d be far better off buying it on PC. The keyboard/mouse combo makes the Campaign modes bearable and at least lets you take pleasure in the rather enjoyable Multiplayer Skirmishes.


Battalion Wars by
published Tuesday, Dec 27th

Battalion Wars Review

When a version of Advance Wars was announced for the GameCube back at E3 2004 there was a huge outcry from the diehard fans of the popular strategy series. Their beloved games had been seemingly butchered before their eyes; its turn-based carcass ill fittingly draped with the skin of a real-time monster.

It was a pretty extreme reaction to what is actually a very playable game. Apart from some problems with controls and a highly erratic camera the early demo was still fun to play, perhaps the similarities between the 3D game and its predecessor where a little too subtle for some fans, causing most to dismiss it even without taking the opportunity to play it.

It’s with great pleasure then that I can announce the final game, now going under the name Battalion Wars, is a superb addition to the Wars series.

The story may be simple: two long term enemies, the Western Frontier and the Tundran Territories are sitting on an uneasy truce, after the Tundran army’s former leader strikes out against the Frontier (Led by the suitably over-the-top American General Herman), there’s a big war, a new enemy is revealed and the former enemies join forces to defeat the new threat. This isn’t a game that needs a deep and complex story and it revels in its simplicity, refusing to take itself too seriously, and it’s all the better for it. The characters are all obvious stereotypes without ever feeling anything but good-humoured; there’s a lot to love about this game.

Whether you are a fan of the rich tactics of the originals or just enjoy shooting things, Battalion Wars is sure to appeal to most Cube owners. Just as the GBA titles were the very epitome of a fine gaming balance, so too is this home version, it just takes a little while to realise it. Initially, this may feel like the brash American cousin of the family; full of large explosions, over-the-top violence and powerful military units, but when you get into it a little more, maybe four or five missions deep, you’ll begin to see that underneath the tough, bullet-proof exterior beats the heart of a tactical beast.

Kuju have done a terrific job producing a game that delivers on the promises of strategy and action, with a variety of missions that must be completed using a mixture of careful planning and all-out assault. They’ve even managed to iron out all the troubles from the E3 demo; the camera is now more responsive and gives a great view of the battlefield and the control system is nearly perfect.

The problem of picking individual units and giving them tasks feels like it should be more complicated than it actually is, it’s surprisingly easy to direct your Battalion; the X button tell your troops to fall in or stand guard, while the Y button gives them a target to aim at. With a quick flick of the C-Stick you can select individual soldiers or even a group and give them their own targets or commands. And switching from a soldier to a tank to a Bomber couldn’t be easier, you can either aim at the unit you want to transfer to and press Z, select one with the C-Stick or make your choice via the rather handy Map. The process is known as hot-swapping and rather than just switching immediately from one unit to another, you get a sweeping view from your current soldier to your new destination. It means you get a better sense of the conflict around you and will never be left with a confused state of disorientation when you make a long leap from one end of the Map to another.

Vehicles have similarly easy controls and in a nod to Halo, you simply point the unit in the direction you want to go and press forward. It’s the first of many examples of Kuju taking control methods or themes and integrating them perfectly in the game design; your troops follow you in a very Pikmin-like manner and even have souls leave their bodies when they succumb to enemy fire. Little touches like this only serve to bring you deeper into the whole Battalion Wars universe, and even though the theme of War is played out in a serious manner there is undoubtedly a level of charm that even rivals the GBA games. Speaking of which, the Art direction that Kuju has taken sits nicely between the cute squashed sprites of Advance Wars and something a bit more realistic, that not only pays homage to Intelligent Systems’ games but creates a wonderful style all of its own.

The graphics in general are amongst the best on Nintendo’s console, not only are the soldiers and vehicles highly detailed (the infantry run with a delightful bounce in their step, remaining upbeat even as they go to their deaths) but the battlefields have had a lavish amount of attention. There isn’t a single level that feels bland; even the seemingly barren wastelands of the Tundran Territories have plenty of background obstacles. Boulders and trees provide you with cover and even add to your units defence rating; enemy encampments litter your home turf and there are plenty of forts, bridges and assorted buildings to fight around or defend. Grass and trees bend and billow in the breeze and a light mist covers the battlefields providing spectacular views even in the middle of fierce combat. Each one of the twenty or so missions feels different from the last both in terms of visuals and mission objectives, creating a varied but solid set of campaigns.

It is a real shame that Battalion Wars doesn’t last longer. Sure there are bonus missions and the urge to get a higher rank is as great as it’s always been in the series but there could have been so much more. This game would have really benefited from a Multiplayer mode for instance, and it’s just crying out for online Co-op missions. If there was ever a game that deserves, even needs, a sequel it’s this. Perhaps the fact Kuju just focused on the single player ensured it was of the highest quality possible, which is something we can’t really complain about. Hopefully a second Wars game will make it to the Revolution; the possibilities it’s unique controller could give a game like this are mouth-watering.

Kuju wouldn’t even need to change much of the core game itself, the balance of strategy/action, fantasy/reality and the units available are near perfect already, all they need to do is pad it out a bit. Some of the Advance Wars features could easily make the jump to 3D: the factories, cities to capture and water vessels to name a few. Maybe they could take use systems from other genres like RPGs and RTS, adding a level-up system for units when they destroy enough enemies or providing the ability to make your own groups out of your Battalion (a la Command & Conquer). The Rev controller would also make picking out and directing your troops as easy as anything and it would be great to give individuals a set patrol or specific route to an enemy placement.

These, of course will remain thoughts for the time being, until Nintendo and Kuju see fit to bless us with an update. If they can remain as true to this game as the last one did to it’s own heritage then I think I’ll order a copy right away. But for now I’d suggest you go out and get yourself a copy of one of the Cube’s last and best blockbusters, show Nintendo you care and have a whole lot of fun in the process.