Tuesday, October 09, 2007

UFO:AI pre2.2 Review

Want to know what's worse than a dog breaking wind? 2 dogs doing so... the Free Gamer hounds are gassing the place and making it very difficult to... oh god... no... not again! ARGH!

I will try my best not to faint but I can't promise I will survive the nauseating stench that keeps filling the room whilst the two hounds sit quietly satisfied under my desk.

I gave UFO:AI a try, the SVN version. It's really rather good - spiffy graphics, lovely sound, and very well presented. The music especially is excellent. Support for my laptop resolution of 1440x900 made me happy and is only the second Free/freeware game I know to do that - the other being Astro Menace. Whilst some people reported the beta as a bit unstable, the SVN verson has been as steady as a rock for me although I have only played it perhaps an hour in total so YMMV.

Overall it is shaping up nicely and is definitely one of the best Free games around. However, there were a few things that bothered me.

There's No Underwear!

The micro-management is too excessive and is pervasive throughout the game. I really don't think it's necessary to have the level of detail in terms of managing ammunition for individual soldiers that there is. It's difficult enough when you only have 1 set of ammunition to cater for (think any FPS game e.g. Half-Life) let alone having to be aware of 8 people's ammunition. Making sure stocks are there is one thing but having to give your guys and your space ships spare ammo and mess around rearming inbetween missions is not fun. If I wanted to manage stock, I'd go sign up at my local supermarket and count baked bean cans.

Your scientists have stats. Your workers have stats. Everything seems to have stats. And that means you spend far too long trying to understand and/or balance them. You assign production queues which take a certain number of hours, and you assign priorities to items in the production queue. This aspect of UFO:AI is less game and more factory management. They have a system probably not far off commercial CRM and ERP in terms of the depth of detail.

In my opinion, unless something is really meaningful, it should be automatically handled. Chalk it down to sensible management i.e. assume you hire the best scientists and workers, assume you're not being ripped off by buying stock - you are the "first and last" line of defense, I'm sure the world wouldn't be too picky about making a profit on selling you stuff! This is a game, not HR. Soldiers will rearm themselves if stocks are there, they shouldn't need to be rearmed by the player, etc etc. I would make basic weapons and ammo (i.e. everything available at the start of the game) naturally limitless (assume the world's military provide it) and leave the production / weapons management to only the alien stuff you research yourself.

I know this all was in the original UFO games but just because a game franchise is really good doesn't mean the gameplay is perfect. I think the amount of fiddling required with these things and the consequences if you forget them (e.g. going into missions without ammo) are a negative for the game.

Also I couldn't seem to intercept UFOs. Having to arm the ships at the start of the game seemed like needless administrative overhead (surely they should be armed by default). After arming them, no matter what order I clicked on the UFOs and my own ships as presented by the UI, I couldn't get my interceptor to go more than about 1 pixel away from the base before it turned back, which effectively killed the game for me. Hopefuly they'll have this sorted for the 2.2 release.

Argh! Aliens!

The FG Hounds Are Near

I think the isometric view (toggled in graphic options) is both true to the original franchise and also more usable as it's easier to visually understand the scene in front of you. I'd like to see that enabled by default.

I would also like to see the soldier buttons also carry some information about the soldiers. Perhaps partially fill them with a lighter blue to represent how many movement points a soldier has. Make the blue go red if they are injured, stuff like that.

There was only one thing that trully bothered me, and that's how the UFO:AI team have their SVN laid out.

You check out the ufoai module from SVN. This module contains both the game source (ok) and the map source. To play the SVN version of the game, you must run 'make maps' which takes 6 hours on a fast machine, probably more on mine (I left it overnight). These 'compiled' maps are in a platform independent format. Why include them as source in the main module? Surely you have a different 'maps' module for the map source and commit the 'compiled' maps to the main module or even another module. That way only 1 person ever has to compile a particular map (i.e. the person working on it) and everybody else gets up-to-date maps without messing around (svn up, and hey presto). I'm pushing them to do just that.

It's important to organise your SVN properly. Why? SVN is the 'starting point' for your most useful members of the community - addicted players and contributors. If your source layout causes problems for them, it means you'll have less people playtesting or trying to contribute because they'll get frustrated trying to get the latest and greatest version.

It's also important to ensure your dogs have a good diet because otherwise they'll kill you with biological warfare. Incidentally, talking of good diet, we did upgrade their dog food due to this problem. Unfortunately upgrading dog food also upgraded power and intensity, so I think I might find the cheapest stuff I can next time out in a desparate measure to reduce their emissions.