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Three Minireviews of Awesome

Currently free of the MMORPG yoke, I'm now having far too much fun. A few things I've been up to this weekend: Startopia, Smash Brothers Brawl, and Sins of a Solar Empire.
  • Startopia
  • Seeing it on GameTap, I gave Startopia another spin. Mucky Foot's one and only prodigy still plays absolutely fantastic. It is to your average real time managerial games what Descent: Freespace is to space fighter combat sims: unbeatable; simply the best in the genre, unable to be toppled even as technology has marched on. About the only negative note I see worth mentioning is that it's a tad easy... but, as a sandbox, that works out just fine. Startopia is a 2001 PC game about managing a circular space station in the future. You have three decks: Engineering, Entertainment, and a BioDeck. Your goal is to build a number of facilities that can attract, entertain, and maintain the nearby alien life. Your task is to turn a run-down station into a bustling space metropolis, one section at a time. Startopia presents this task in a pretty thoroughly entertaining manner, including one of the sleekest game GUIs in existence. I found a nice Startopia site (answering my question as to whether a berth was needed if I've a motel) but Startopia's overall web presence is unfortunately small. It's probably a repeat of the Psychonauts situation: they built it, but not enough people gave it a spin. Popular culture bites.
  • Smash Brothers Brawl
  • Nintendo's Wii release in the Smash Brothers series stays remarkably true to its roots. At the most base level, this is just a simple side-view platformer that involves pummeling your foes until they are so weakened that you can knock them off the screen. However, the gameplay has been buffed to a finely balanced sheen and suffused with so much artistic talent that you can't help but smile. The main differences I can see between Smash Brothers Brawl and its predecessors is that this one is bigger, has online functionality, and the adventure mode has been fully expanded into, if not a real adventure game, at least something close to it. Most of the characters included actually play identically to their Gamecube equivalents, and there's even an option to play it on a GameCube controller. A major selling point of the Smash Brothers series is simply seeing all these brand names in one game. Mario meets Sonic the Hedgehog meets Solid Snake meets Pokemon Trainer meets Ike meets ... and so on, there's playable characters from over a dozen games here, and additional props over a hundred. Supporting this is the adventure mode, expanded far beyond that of the previous game. It is now a long, disjointed epic of minimal canon accuracy supported by a plethora of pre-rendered cutscenes. The core enemies look so much like Heartless I almost expect Sora to show up as a playable character. Considering his thing is mixing Disney and Squaresoft characters, that would be an incredible double-dipping in your brand diffusion.
  • Sins of a Solar Empire
  • Sins of a Solar Empire's take on the 4X game genre is a sort of a "slow real-time strategy" take. Although it plays in real time, the action unfolds slowly enough that you'll usually have the time you need to have more control over it than at the usual tempo. The whole interface is remarkably well streamlined and allows you, with a little practice, to manage your entire economic and military juggernaut of an empire with remarkably few clicks. Further, the AI is quite adept, it doesn't cheat unless you set the difficulty above "hard" to "unfair." My main complaint about the game would be about the inability to set the speed of the game after it has started. Sometimes, you're just sitting around waiting for resources to accumulate, your fleets to jump, or something else to occur. Other times, you're hammered with attacks on several star systems at once. Fortunately, I kind of like it when things are slow, as it gives some time to relax, collect my thoughts and soak in the atmosphere. However, when things go too fast for me to manage, I just have to grin and hope that the fleet AI doesn't do something stupid while my attention is elsewhere. [edit: Apparently you can modify the speed of the game in single player mode with (default) the plus and minus keys if you've installed versions 1.02 or later.] Sins of the Solar Empire has disappointed some in that there's not a campaign mode where you can play through each of the three races. Instead, you choose a scenario, set the sides and difficulty, and away you go. A game title like that would seemt o demand a story. However, personally, I'm not too worried about that. I think the nice thing about a good 4X game is that you basically create your own stories through epic universe-shattering exploits. In a way, a 4X game can be like an incredibly open-ended roleplaying game, a kind of digital crack that keeps you up late into the early morning.
Overall, a great weekend. Unfortunately, finals are coming up down at the university, and I've enough work looming in the weeks ahead to keep me well away from these awesome games.

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