Sony Developing Social Games for PS4's VR Headset

Sony Developing Social Games for PS4’s VR Headset

Nothing will separate you from other people in the real world more than a virtual reality headset, but Sony doesn’t think that means we can’t get more social virtual reality games. The company recently revealed that its in-house London Studio, which created the EyeToy camera, SingStar, and The Playroom, is working on social experiences for the PlayStation 4’s VR headset Project Morpheus.

“Look at our studio history—we’ve done a lot of social games,” SCE London Studio Director Dave Ranyard told Digital Spy in an interview. “Having that social screen is really important to us. There’s actually quite a lot you can do with that. We’ve been doing lots of companion apps as well—you can interact, you can see what they’re seeing—you can imagine that with a haunted house, and you can totally see it—the payoff is brilliant.”

Ranyard also said that the current demos that Sony is using to show off the device, Street Luge (watch Conan O’Brien play it here), and The Deep (which puts the player in a shark proof cage), are cool experiences, but it’s too soon to say whether they’ll evolve into full games.

“[Morpheus is] still a prototype, we don’t have a date on hardware. We’re very pleased with some of the things that we’ve done, so it would be lovely to get out there to an even bigger audience than the people that just go to shows,” he said.

PlayStation executive Shuhei Yoshida recently revealed Sony has completed 85 percent of the work necessary to release the consumer model of Project Morpheus.

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

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Five Nights at Freddy's Review

Five Nights at Freddy’s Review

The story happens every few years. A parent attempts to sue some family establishment (like a theme park or a restaurant) because a child was traumatized when he saw a wandering mascot not wearing its massive cartoon head. Those kids are lucky. At least there’s an actual, live, profusely sweaty human under Mickey’s cool exterior. But imagine if there weren’t. Imagine that underneath Mickey Mouse’s exterior was nothing but a soulless, poorly programmed automaton, and that it might toss the first person it sees into an empty cartoon suit full of grinding metal and gears.

Now imagine your job is to watch over those creepy mascots at night. Five nights, in fact. And instead of having all of Disney’s power and money to shut down any attempted Electric Parade uprisings posthaste, you’re working at a second-rate Chuck E. Cheese called Freddy Fazbear’s that has just enough electrical power to keep the desklight and the security cameras running between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. (And that’s if you decide you’re safe enough to keep open the metal doors that you can lock down if you detect any threats.) This is Five Nights At Freddy’s in a nutshell, but even that explanation doesn’t begin to express just how nerve-wracking an experience it is.

It’s nerve-wracking even before the real terror starts. The game is well aware of just how unsettling the bright multicolored fantasy objects we hoist onto children on a regular basis are in the right light, and your first look around at Freddy Fazbear’s Funtime Palace–empty, dimly lit, and derelict–is a little chilling. Before anything out of the ordinary even happens, every synapse in your brain is sending the message that you do not want to be here. But for a few minutes, all is well, thanks to a recorded message left for you each night by your predecessor, a guy with a business-casual midwestern lilt who gives you a basic rundown on your duties and the morbid history of the place. And even then, this man’s reasonable tone when talking about people being stuffed into the metal suits, or when describing a disturbing incident called “The Bite of ’87,” puts you on edge.

But then his message is over, and the real game begins. Your job is to flit back and forth between the security cameras, ensuring all the wacky animatronic characters are where they’re supposed to be, which is in the back room. When they’re not–and the fear instinct that comes with realizing that will serve you well here–your job is simply self-preservation. Close the doors, turn on the lights outside your office, and wait for Freddy or one of the others to wander away. The trick of it all is the battery bar at the bottom of the screen. Every action you take drains it, and drains it quickly, so keeping the lights on or the doors closed for half of your shift means the power to the whole place gets killed about 20 seconds before you do, in one of the most sudden and terrifying jump scares ever executed in any medium. Survival is a matter of conservation, observation, and timing.

This is fine. Everything is perfectly fine. Nothing to worry about here.

Five Nights at Freddy’s may not seem like much of a game, and indeed, aside from the appearance of Foxy, the animatronic beast that awakens on night three, there are no real surprises once you’ve mastered the particulars and have died frequently enough. Only one of the animatronics actually moves while you are directly watching it, telling when you need to be on the ball, and hitting the lights or doors is easy until the later chapters. But the devil is in the details. Five Nights At Freddy’s works its terrible magic because of contrasts. The part pizzeria’s daytime atmosphere is replaced with desolate, looming shadows at night, rending the happiness with an ominous pallor. There’s no music outside of the main menu, so anytime the oppressive silence is broken by footsteps, or random humming, or a sudden sting when one of the animatronics is right outside your door, is cause for sheer panic. In addition, while most of the story is imparted by the nightly phone call, if you’re observant, you might notice how a particular sign you see changes its message from time to time. It starts with a warning against running or pooping in the pizzeria, but later morphs into a newspaper clip reporting on dead children. The print is so small that you have to squint to see it, which means ignoring your actual duties. And hello, you’re dead. Being observant might save your life in Five Nights at Freddy’s, but being too observant will get you killed.

The real miracle here is that the game communicates its gut-wrenching horror without a single drop of blood, yet still belongs in the upper echelon of horror games. You could describe Five Nights at Freddy’s as consisting of mostly still pictures, but it’s that stillness that causes you to sit there, hands shaking, with less than five-percent power left, praying the clock ticks over to 6 a.m.

Forza Horizon 2 Review

Forza Horizon 2 Review

Some guy is standing next to my Lexus LFA at the end of my racing triumph. He doesn’t seem to be as excited as I am, even though he apparently represents me. He’s the generic guy behind the wheel, the catatonic crash-test dummy whose presence at the end of every championship win mystifies me. I call him Gary.

Fortunately, Forza Horizon 2 isn’t about Gary. For that matter, it isn’t about me, either, but instead about the cars, those marvels of engineering, those occasional works of art. I approach the rarest vehicles in Horizon 2 as I might in real life: with careful reverence, taking caution not to blemish its high-shine finish. It seems a natural reaction to me. I just spent over a million dollars on this Bugatti Veyron Super Sport; a single fingerprint would be a real shame.

Of course, cars like this aren’t meant to just be ogled: as beautiful as they might be, both in real life and in the remarkably attractive Forza Horizon 2, they are wild metal beasts, and you are their tamer. Like any game with the Forza name, this one understands that to appreciate the joy of racing, you have to first know the animal, hear it purr, and know what draws its ire. You aren’t going to be hugging curves in that Camaro, but you can drift sweetly into them, after all. And once you wrestle this hulking creature of steel and fiberglass into submission, it is yours to command. Victory in Horizon 2 is sweet not because you beat the other racers, but because you and the vehicle overcame your differences.

As in its predecessor, the game’s tracks are carved out of an attractive open-world, this one based in the French and Italian countrysides. You’re here to participate in the Horizon Festival, a typical driving-game framing device that leads you from one race to the next, and puts you in control of one car class after another. The chatty narrators grow tiresome in their attempts to hype you up, especially considering there’s no real reason to do so: Horizon 2’s atmosphere bursts with adrenaline and enthusiasm. At festival hubs, laser lights flash across the sky, ferris wheels brighten the horizon, and throngs of celebratory crowds cheer your arrival loudly enough to provide lift to the helium balloons hovering above. “Cars are awesome and you’re awesome!” proclaims Forza Horizon 2, with so much earnestness that you can’t not believe in its confidence.

Planes (not pictured), trains, and automobiles.

The festival’s showcase races are even more exultant. You’re speeding alongside a hypertrain, or accompanied by roaring fighter jets. You pass one hot air balloon after another while an operatic aria warbles from the soundtrack. This is the life! And what a life it is, to give you access to so many wonderful vehicles. The credits you earn as you race and explore the overworld come in quickly enough to ensure you can usually afford the vehicle you require to compete, and many activities, such as the bucket-list challenges that have you catching air for points or drifting with abandon, temporarily provide you with the car you need, free of charge. Each vehicle feels and looks so right. Even a seemingly unimpressive vehicle like the Subaru WRX STI has its delights; I’m in love with the common but irresistible pops from its exhaust. It’s not a difficult vehicle to come to grips with, however–not like the Ariel Atom 500, an extreme track toy whose lightweight slipperiness demands the utmost patience and finesse.

And thus we return to the taming of the beasts. The curvy, multi-terrain tracks require a subtle touch and forward thinking. The easy-ish AI doesn’t put much pressure on; no, it’s the car/track system that you overcome, not the computer drivers. Horizon 2’s liberal rewind system allows you to erase silly mistakes during this process. There are places to enjoy the open road, but in festival races, the fun comes not from the breeze rushing through your hair, but from the tension of a demanding course, and the resulting relief of having effectively manipulated a two-ton machine into winning position.

This is Ben. He’s like Gary, but a snazzier dresser.

Races take you off the pavement and into the fields and dirt, where you must learn new ways to control your mount. It’s here that Forza Horizon 2 gets in its own way, encouraging you to rush over hills and through meadows towards your destination, only to throw that all-too-common knee-high stone fence in front of you. It happens as you crisscross the open worlds as well; that sudden roadblock can put a real damper on the fun, given how little warning there often is. Luckily, a good road trip can put you back in the right mood. As you rush from one destination to the next, you’re accompanied by AI representations of your friends called Drivatars. It’s difficult to tell just how well Drivatars mimic the behavior of their real-time counterparts, but given the aggressive approach of a friend’s Drivatar–a friend that drives in a similar way in direct races–I’d say that’s a good sign.

You may also conduct road trips with friends or strangers. Doing so requires you to endure some loading screens; given the inroads made by games like Need for Speed: Rivals, it’s disappointing that the single-player progression and online racing aren’t better integrated. But the playful banter of friends, and even the silly behavior of strangers, makes a road trip a gleefully good use of the open world. Heading to your goal, like all of Horizon 2’s travel, means watching a continued smattering of rewards appear at the top of the screen. Near misses, trading paint, a little bit of air: the game thinks these mundane events are so cool you deserve a reward! Hurray… you bounced a few times in a row, you crazy kangaroo! But how can I be mad at Horizon 2 for celebrating the tiniest of victories? Mechanically, your reward takes on the form of experience points, but the perks you earn are marginally useful; how much victory can you feel knowing your vote for the next destination location counts you twice rather than once? No, the fun here is in the congratulation itself, not in the reward. “Cars are awesome and you’re awesome!”

I wear my sunglasses at night. In my purple car. Don’t judge.

Online events involve racing with an occasional dash of king of the hill, where drivers earn a royal title by crashing into the current kings, and then try to retain it as long as possible. This is all in the name of chaotic fun, and it’s fortunate that Horizon 2’s online launch troubles, which made connecting to others and creating clubs of like-minded drivers a crapshoot. As of this writing, however, online races are running smoothly; downloading cosmetic designs created by other players, however, does not always go according to plan. Luckily, I have still downloaded a number of wonderful paint jobs that show off talents that far exceed my own.

Forza Horizon 2 is hardly lacking in stuff to do, though the best events extol the driver/car relationship, either by demanding precise control, or by reminding you, once again, of its virtual mantra: “Cars are awesome and you’re awesome!” Forget the forgettable jams emanating from the various rock and electronica radio stations you can tune to; that’s music for Gary, but not for me. No, Horizon 2 is about careening into the sunset while Beethoven symphonies blast from your speakers, as if you might leap off the edge of the Earth and straight into the arms of God.

Alien: Isolation Review

Alien: Isolation Review

It’s the first step towards the Alien game you’ve always wanted. But it’s a tiny, uncertain step.

Given the poor showing of the last few major games set in the Alien universe, however, it’s a welcome one. Developer Creative Assembly understands that an Alien game is nothing without fear, nothing without suspense. A burst of gunfire is all the more effective when silence precedes is, and the sight of a halitotic extraterrestrial is only meaningful if it represents danger–for where there is danger, there is thrill. And Alien: Isolation occasionally captures both that gut-wrenching sense of fear and the momentary comfort of escape. Every breath could be your last. And so you savor each one.

Oh, but how I wish these moments were more common in Alien: Isolation, which isn’t to say that your encounters with the iconic xenomorph aren’t themselves problematic; I will get to those problems later. No–it’s the endless meandering in between that proves troublesome, much of it intended to build tension, but most of it falling victim to a neverending sameness. I say neverending, but in reality, Alien: Isolation limps to its frustrating ending after many hours more than it can support. This is four hours’ worth of a great idea stretched into 14-plus hours of messy stealth gameplay, creaky video game cliches, and limp exploration.

Sometimes you don’t pull levers. Sometimes you cut open door panels.

What makes Alien: Isolation so ultimately disappointing is that when it’s on, it’s on. You are Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, seeking information about your mother’s fate aboard the Sevastopol, a derelict space station home to a remaining population of skittish survivors and a snarling, salivating xenomorph drone. The game reaches its zenith within levels structured as a game of cat-and-mouse, casting you, of course, in the role of the underpowered mouse. You crouch, slink, and peek around corners and above crates from a first-person perspective, avoiding the sideways glances of the fearsome creature that gives the franchise its name.

When all mechanics are working as intended, alien-evasion is dread distilled into its purest form. You are equipped with a couple of standard firearms and a few helpful gadgets, such as noisemakers for distracting the beast, and a flamethrower that acts as a temporary safeguard in later levels, but the motion tracker is the most vital tool you possess. Hold a button, and the tracker’s dot shows you the relative location of nearby entities, friends and foes alike. The tracker does not tell you, however, if the alien is above or below you, scurrying through the ventilation ducts. If your sound system is lacking, you should don a good pair of headphones if you desire precise situational awareness. Hearing the xeno’s clawed feet can paralyze you with fear, and you must battle your basic fight-or-flight instincts when you hear the alien’s shuddering exoskeleton. To fight is to perish; to flee is to directly gift your flesh to the pursuer.

Human enemies are uncommon, and if you kill a friendly assuming he’s a foe, it’s an immediate “game over.”

Actually, running might save you if there’s a locker close enough to hide in, though your best bet is to stay crouched, stay hidden, and stay aware. These are the moments when Alien: Isolation weighs heaviest on your soul. Within said locker, you see the alien enter the room. It sidles up to your hiding place, and you hold your breath–in real life, and in the game. If the xeno hears your gasps, or if you fail to lean into the rear of the locker, it snatches you from your shelter and you peer into its two gaping maws before succumbing to death. Weirdly, holding your breath causes your health to deplete after a few seconds, so if you’re nearing death when the alien comes calling, it might nab you even if you follow the game’s instructions to the letter. The mechanic is strange: not only does it not make sense that you lose health when holding your breath for a few scant seconds, it doesn’t make sense that the alien would be the cause of death. The game never informs you of the possibility, so should it occur, you might assume the game doesn’t abide by its own rules. After all, no amount of logic would lead you to believe that the alien grabbed you because you ran out of health while holding your breath.

Nevertheless, I can’t deny the appeal of dodging the murderous menace. There were moments in which I was Ripley, impulsively sprinting away from the xenomorph when I heard it fall to the floor from a vent just behind me, and crying out when its barbed tail plunged into me from behind and emerged from my torso. I would peer from around corners to see it scanning the area just 20 feet from me, and follow quietly behind it as it slithered down the hallway. But these moments, these game-defining high points, account for only a few chapters out of many, and Alien: Isolation doesn’t even make the most out of them. At one point via radio, your comrade encourages you to rush, the game thus prompting you to run towards your destination. And over the next few minutes, you confront several of Alien: Isolation’s annoyances, compacted into one bite-sized space for your displeasure.

When all mechanics are working as intended, alien-evasion is dread distilled into its purest, simplest form.

There’s the issue of the command to hurry, for instance, because following the game’s lead means you will quickly die. You see, the xenomorph now waits for you to cross under a vent opening from which it can attack–a mechanic that the game introduces when you are under duress. (As it happens, though, there is no actual reason to hurry; the level gives you all the time you need, even though the game itself has insisted you rush.) Your motion tracker is little help here; your cue to the alien’s presence is the cascade of saliva and goo dripping from the ceiling’s openings. This is a neat idea, but the mechanic’s sudden appearance isn’t foreshadowed, making your first death at its hands one of Alien’s multiple “what just happened?” events. The game is fond of introducing new rules in this fashion, leading to head-scratching trial and error and the occasional pounding of fist upon desk when you realize the game’s limited save system is making you repeat the last 15 minutes of slow, careful sneaking.

Bear in mind, however, that alien encounters are limited to just a few levels. Typically, you’re walking, pulling levers, riding elevators, and walking some more. This is the downtime, the time for building atmosphere, and Alien: Isolation wisely embraces that 1970s retro-futuristic style that characterized Alien, with its monochrome computer monitors and its cathode-ray technology–the kind of datedness Douglas Adams called “zeerust.” Perhaps it’s fitting that the game itself looks rather dated, its character models in particular, whose elbows look as though they could cut glass when they bend, and whose blank faces are always covered with a bizarre sheen of sweat. The visual weaknesses would be easier to overlook had they not interfered with the game’s attempts to build tension, but having the alien’s head clip into the locker you’re hiding in dispels any anxiety the scene has established. The alien itself looks fantastic, at least; death may prove frustrating, but it’s the best way of admiring the xeno’s two sets of razor-sharp teeth.

Viewing the motion tracker causes the background blur, but you can focus on the background and cause the foreground to blur instead. It’s a slick effect.

The exploration ultimately falls flat, a victim to backtracking and simplistic gameplay elements lacking in creativity. Many video games feature security cameras that alert the enemy to your presence–but in Alien: Isolation, the camera off-switch is often located directly beneath the camera. Sometimes, you must log into computer terminals to find codes that unlock important doors–but the email with the code might be on the same terminal that does the unlocking. The rewiring stations that allow you to disable cameras may also allow you to manipulate the Sevastopol’s air-purification mechanism and other systems, but rarely to any meaningful end. The cameras, the rewiring stations, the codes–it’s as if they are here because that’s just what video games do. Even the story beats fall victim to by-the-numbers claptrap: the game leads you from one section to the next, always making it clear which characters exist to serve as alien fodder, and predictably mirroring the original film’s themes and plot.

Androids serve as your most frequent foe in Alien: Isolation, and they’re common enough that it’s tempting to bash them straight-on with a stun baton. A typical synthetic turncoat won’t take too kindly to a direct attack, however, and will aggressively fling you at a nearby wall, if not outright whack you. The first-person perspective makes becoming a synthetic’s personal yo-yo frighteningly disorienting, another notch in the game’s favor. Here, again, I feel as Ripley does: helpless and afraid as I desperately scan the environment, seeking a clear path through impending danger. Some gadgets prove mostly useless when dealing with synthetics; they seem wholly unfazed by flashbang grenades, for instance, making a shotgun blast to the head the most appealing option when there’s nowhere to run.

This is four hours’ worth of a great idea stretched into 14-plus hours of messy stealth gameplay, creaky video game cliches, and limp exploration.

Other synthetic encounters are simply ridiculous, however. A dozen-plus hours in, you ride an open-air elevator downward, taking in one of Alien: Isolation’s most striking views, one that intimates that the game’s finale could be at last drawing near. A synthetic is waiting for you at the bottom, and there is no mechanic in place allowing you to veil your presence from him, or his three robotic friends that follow. A number of cover locations just beyond tell you that stealth was meant to be an option, but the manner in which the keen-eyed synthetics are spaced, the nature of a lift ride that deposits you into danger, and the narrowness of the walkways you traverse make for a cluster of madness. To deal with synthetics is often to engage in a silly game of tag, in which you lead a few androids around in circles until you buy yourself enough time to turn and toss a molotov cocktail at them.

That elevator ride signals the moment the hopes for Alien: Isolation shatter–the moment it tries and and mostly fails to mimic a more straightforward action game on its way to a frustrating conclusion. At least the ending brings with it a sense of relief. Some of this relief stems from the lingering fear of the alien’s presence. You have left the game and its creature behind, never to smell the alien’s putrid breath, never to witness its syrupy saliva, never to seek refuge in a claustrophobic locker and wish the beast away. More relieving is that you won’t have to trudge through the same duct-lined corridors for another however-many hours, or have to repeat ten minutes of switch-pulling and keycard-searching after firing a bullet into a friendly’s head because you presumed she might attack you, as so many dwellers do. Alien: Isolation provides us a glimpse into a future that holds the Alien game you’ve always wanted. It is not, however, the vessel that carries you there.

Stronghold Crusader 2 Review

Stronghold Crusader 2 Review

Ah, the humble real-time strategy soldier. Alone, he or she is nothing but a tiny dot on a vast map. But a mass of soldiers forms a blob of incisive power that can cut a swath of blood and destruction across the countryside in whatever direction you see fit. Stronghold Crusader 2 embraces this blob warfare, offering a plethora of different units you can choose from to form your attacking force while your personal castle–the Stronghold series’ signature element–hopefully stays safe from harm. But though its parts come together to form a solid strategy game, the uninteresting options at your disposal never raise the game above being one where opposing blobs crash into each other until one splatters.

Stronghold Crusader 2 puts you in the shoes of either King Richard’s or Saladin’s forces during the Crusades, as you square off against the other in self-contained battles raging across the desert landscape. The goal is the simplest one in strategy game history: defeat the enemy Lord and take his castle. But lest you think you’re merely expected to churn out soldiers and crash them into the opposition, the game requires you to establish an intricate economy so you can actually afford these soldiers and build structures that will let you make different kinds of units. So far, so familiar.

Where the game gets a bit more interesting is when it asks you to attract people to your castle to live and work. You start out with a set population that increases as you become more popular with your subjects. You can make them happier by decreasing taxes (even going so far as outright bribing them), increasing their rations, or building them inns and places of worship so that they can drink and pray. Likewise, you can adjust consumption in the other direction to conserve resources and gain more gold, but you’ll be less popular as a result. These concerns are controlled with a convenient panel that lets you change values and tells you the popularity bonuses or penalties you get from each adjustment. Tying popularity and population growth to troop production gives the game a simulation element, and lends the flow of your economy extra texture. At the same time, the fact that you only need to keep track of one statistic ensures that the sim portions don’t bloat and consume the rest of the game.

The speedy horse archers let you perform hit-and-runs.

The downside to this simplification reveals itself once you build your castle. As you start becoming more popular and more people come to live in your keep, you need to build houses to accommodate them. This is in addition to the structures that produce resources like wood and stone, food buildings, and other luxury services (which also require people to run). By the time you’re prepared to march an army towards the enemy, you’ll want to construct a wall around your precious production plant. Then, voila, you have a working, living castle.

Given how castles are the main draws of the Stronghold series, it’s odd how little attention they require once your economy is running. In most strategy games, forward momentum is key. You get set up, and then you try to make inroads towards your objective, eventually busting through enemy lines. You only ever turn your eyes back to your starting base to quickly make more troops, and some games don’t even require that. Stronghold Crusader 2 tries to put a lot more focus on its eponymous stronghold, but the simplification of its simulation elements means that you can build a base and forget about it here, too.

Castles as an assortment of buildings that become a bustling community.

Without a compelling reason to continually manage your stronghold, what you’re left with is the stark, bread-and-butter, blob-on-blob action the RTS is commonly known for, and Stronghold Crusader 2 executes on it fairly well. You can pick many different kinds of units with varying specializations like ranged attacks, speedy movement, or heavy armor. Unfortunately, most of the troops you can employ are really boring. In fact, the Crusaders are all traditional infantry and cavalry, which makes for a painfully vanilla experience. The Arabic forces are a fair few degrees more interesting, thanks to units like the flame-hurling oil pot thrower, and the stealthy wall-scaling assassin. My favorite is actually the horse archer, which fires at enemies while moving, making micromanagement a rare joy as you weave in and out of less-mobile squads. Still, aside from those few bright spots, the game’s units aren’t particularly exciting.

You get precious few proactive resources beyond the troops themselves. You can construct turrets and traps to keep enemies out of your castle; you can even pour boiling oil on them! But cool as these might be, they’re all reactive insurance that comes into play only if you’re losing, yet another element you build and forget about. But then there’s the siege weaponry, quite possibly the game’s biggest success, and the one way with which your castle walls actually change the way you play. Though castles aren’t something you particularly care about tending to, you still must defend them, and their walls serve as a giant target for the opposing teams to breach. Your army can’t breach walls without spending an eternity hacking away at them, so siege weaponry is often necessary to break the stalemate that the walls provide. These weapons give you the power to knock down walls, but you can also load them with fire or even diseased cattle that explode in a cloud of plague.

Skirmish maps often are small enough that you can see your opponent build as you do.

Make no mistake, Stronghold Crusader 2 is foremost a multiplayer skirmish game. Its single-player campaign is labeled as a “learning campaign”, and though it tries to ease you into the game’s mechanics, it fails to teach you the rudimentary strategy necessary to be successful. The missions punish you with progressively-increasing waves of enemies that quickly outpace your production. The game also provides you with a large amount of skirmishes that challenge you to beat the computer in games closer to multiplayer matches that are arguably more fair than the campaign, though you still aren’t eased into the game’s mechanics by any means.

You can tailor the games as you see fit by changing starting gold levels and picking from a large selection of maps. The different dynamics each map creates varies–choke points, resource placement–create different enough game conditions, but the one thing they all share is that they’re all fairly small, so you are vulnerable to rush strategies and getting caught with your pants down. You might end up feeling unnecessarily constrained if you’re used to a bigger setup buffer, and you need to act quickly and build the right sequence of buildings if you want to stand a chance.

Stronghold Crusader 2 understands the art of the troop blob, but that alone doesn’t make it a good game. Its lack of interesting units, underdeveloped castle-building options, and terrible tutorials hold the game back. Blob warfare is still fun, and directing an army never gets old. But man cannot live on blob alone.

Spacecom Review

Spacecom Review

Considering the complexity and hybridization that’s en vogue in the games scene these days–where role-playing games are being grafted onto online arenas, and shooters are also looters–it’s not so surprising to see a sort of reactionary minimalism begin to appear at the fringe, its adherents calling for a trimming of fat and a renewed focus on more pure genre experiences. Spacecom is just that sort of endeavor, and it angles for a simpler sort of strategy game, divorced from superfluous abilities and special effects.

Spacecom presents a flattened galaxy in abstract: ringed orbs for planets, and lines to string them into daisy chains of interstellar travel. The goal is simple: occupy, defend, and destroy as necessary en route to the opponent’s homeworld. Modus operandi stays true to strategy game traditions here: amass resources and production centers to churn out units as efficiently as possible, maintain your supply lines, and simultaneously command your units in the field. It’s a two-button affair: left click to build a unit or select an existing one, right click to set a destination. The gory bits–hat is, the ship-to-ship combat, annexations en force, and planetary bombardments–are all handled in abstracted automations where damage is done by one side or the other when their respective meters fill.

At a glance, there’s a lot to like about Spacecom’s trim look.

The design of the units themselves is characteristically restrained. They look like little Imperial Star Destroyer wedges, trisected into highlighted parts to show which of three roles they fill. A highlighted prow means a battleship, which fares the best in ship-to-ship combat. A highlight at the stern signifies an invasion unit, which can seize planets and convert itself into stationary defenses. Siege units, ever the awkward middle child, straight-up destroy planets, rendering them unusable by anyone. Seeing one of the latter sneak into one of your undefended manufactories is a real downer, let me tell you.

Problem is, it can take some squinting to figure out which unit that rogue ship actually is. The little, mutely colored buggers can rotate every which way, so at a glance it’s hard to identify which part of their thorax bears the telltale highlight. It’s just one small example of a broader inscrutability, inscrutability that’s particularly disappointing in a game with such simple visual elements.

Spacecom presents a flattened galaxy in abstract: ringed orbs for planets, and lines to string them into daisy chains of interstellar travel.

For one, units stack, appearing as a single ship with multiple sections highlighted. An adjacent number gives you only the sum total of units therein. So when you eventually deduce that the single wedge advancing on your frontline is not one, but seventeen units, you’ll still need to click it for a more detailed breakdown and count the battleships, invaders, or siege units by hand so that you can plan accordingly. Even at slow game speeds, the seconds this takes are precious, and sometimes delay your response long enough to turn what might have been a battle won into terrible loss. Planets themselves are similarly coy about their contents, and if you direct your fleets to battle over one, they disappear; you’ll have to click the red circle that forms in order to witness the proceedings.

The delays mount. You need to watch the battles play out, because it’s frequently unclear who’ll win until the deed’s actually done. There’s a ribbon of text above the battle abstract that attempts to predict the outcome, and the way it flits about is comically capricious–from “everything is lost” to “winning slightly” to “losing slightly” to “victory at hand.” That’s because while units in Spacecom damage one another at regular intervals, their targets are chosen at random. So the enemy’s three ships might beat your five, if yours happen to spread out their fire while your opponent’s concentrate theirs.

That little bit of unpredictability might normally have an appreciable effect of keeping battles from becoming rote, but there are more engrossing strategic concerns that you’ll want to devote your attention to. That’s particularly true if you’ve roped in a friend or two, because there’s a strong board game quality to Spacecom–I’m reminded of Othello’s old mantra “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” Or the board game Twixt, with its supply lines of points and bridges that, when broken, would see your best laid plans thrown off kilter. With a human opponent, there are plenty of strategic gambits to play–feints, distractions, and tactical retreats are all effective, and I’ve got one particularly nefarious opponent to thank for learning the horror of that lone siege infiltrator. Units are excruciatingly slow to respond, but this keeps the focus on the right skill: the ability to see three moves ahead.

“Stacks of doom” make an unwanted appearance.

That’s only the case if you’re playing against a fellow human, however. After being humiliated in a few matches, I decided to try my hand against five expert-level AIs, with the hope of honing my abilities. I figured I’d get a workout, hard-pressed on multiple fronts. Imagine my surprise when I stormed through all five in rapid succession, finding the opposition milling about, producing only intermittent siege units–and not at their production centers, but at their homeworlds, in apparent disregard for the rules I’d understood to apply uniformly.

That sort of thing just won’t do. When systems reach a certain level of complexity, they start prompting greater expectations. Why can’t you set rally points to automatically ferry your newly produced units where you need them? Why can’t you specify hotkeys for fleets or production centers? Why does everything need to be clicked in order to see what it’s doing? Auralux, Galcon…these games do minimalist space strategy better. Perhaps the hard constraints of a mobile device are more conducive to pared-down design than any self-imposed rigor can be.