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Graphics: The game could only be played in full screen or in windows mode at 640×480 resolution. The clarity and crispness of everything was solid and clean. Pixelation was minimal and the color was good, although I would like to have seen what the game would look like at higher resolutions and 16-bit graphics. During the game, everything ran without glitches or delays, for the most part. The units and buildings were interesting enough. Weapons fire and explosions also looked good, although they were nothing spectacular. I liked some of the little things, like when I had an enemy priest chained to an altar and he would struggle to free himself (to no avail). Options were available if I was having problems with the graphics, and an option to zoom in and out on the action would have been most helpful. For the most part, the graphics were solid, but could have been better.
Interface: NetStorm was easy enough to install. The game automatically changed resolutions when it loaded and quit, so I didn’t have to adjust my monitor settings. Within the game, the screen layout was simple but easy to use. My right and left mouse buttons let me issue all the necessary commands and pull up option menus for certain units, like my priest. A simple menu running down the left side showed me what bridges I could place and what units were available. Clicking on any unit showed its range of effectiveness, whether attacking or providing power. Lots of options were available in a menu at the top of the screen that I could call up by hitting the “escape” key. This allowed me to trade resources with allies and make or break alliances. In the multiplayer arena, joining a game was as simple as finding a circle with an open spot and clicking on it. Multiple levels were available if I wanted to find other players that were at my level, and each indicated how many players it had, and their ability ratings.
Gameplay: NetStorm was designed to let me focus on macromanagement issues. That is, I couldn’t order units to attack other units or structures. Essentially, units each behave in a certain manner and attack the closest enemy unit or structure. So, I had to keep this in mind when placing them. Other than that, once I put a unit down, I was done with it and it would perform until it was destroyed or I salvaged it. A number of hot keys allowed me to configure my view, including a great option to make everything but the terrain invisible. This was particularly helpful when laying bridge pieces in an area obstructed by a unit or storm geyser. Laying the bridges really added a unique element to the game. In fact, I don’t remember playing a game quite like NetStorm. It was almost like a blend of Tetris with a strategy war game. The use and place of bridges served a number of important purposes. It allowed my golems to gather important storm crystals, enabled my offensive units to get close enough to attack the enemy, and even served as a defensive tool. I liked the tutorials, which taught me a lot about playing the game in a short amount of time. Multiplayer play was simple, and free, using Activision’s server. For the most part, the server seemed pretty stable, but I did have a few games crash because of glitches, which was particularly annoying in games that had been taking place for a while. There should have been an option to boot off players that were holding up games but not being able to reconnect. Maybe, after a certain time, say 1 1/2 minutes, the server should have just dropped anyone who still couldn’t reconnect. On three occasions I sat watching my screen as 5 players were ready to play, but a sixth one was having trouble connecting. We just had to sit there and wait until the player connected or aborted, which they never did. Overall, I thought the gameplay in NetStorm was quite good and very different from most games on the shelves. It definitely succeeded in differentiating itself from the rest of the market.
Sound FX: Most of the FX were rather simple. I liked the ambient sounds of thunder that helped set the mood for the battles in the sky. Priests would respond when ordered to build or do something, while golems would just grunt, “Yes Master.” Weapons fire and explosions made the appropriate sounds. The one place I thought the FX might be really cool was when a priest was sacrificed. However it wasn’t quite the blood-curdling, soul-wrenching scream I was hoping for. I didn’t like the fact that the computer would announce when a unit was destroyed, regardless of whose unit it was. That didn’t help me much, since the explosion sound told me something had been destroyed. I would rather have had an announcement for only my units, or maybe two different voices, one for mine and one for any of my enemies’ units. Still, the FX were good overall.
Musical Score: The musical score was rather simple, but fit in well with the overall theme of the game. The idea of tribes battling, and each player taking the role of a priest, was well executed through some simple, gothic-sounding classical music. It’s much like the music heard during any typical action movie (i.e., Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) during particularly dramatic moments. It fit in well with the FX and didn’t become bothersome or overbearing. It got so I barely noticed that music was playing, which I liked. Volume controls were available if I wanted to hear more of it, or turn it off altogether.
Intelligence & Difficulty: The difficulty of this game comes from several sources. First is the inherent difficulty of having to rely of connecting bridges to do much. Another part of the difficulty was learning to use the units effectively and relying on the inherent strength and abilities of each. Once I figured those two things out, life got a little easier. The three different campaigns offered a nice challenge and were increasingly difficult to win. They provided a solid challenge when I didn’t feel like playing multiplayer. From an AI perspective, the main way to judge the computer’s ability was to look at how it placed units and bridges. It seemed to do fairly well at putting units in advantageous locations, instead of sticking them in an established line-of-fire. The one thing that I noticed throughout the game was that the computer played rather defensively, and did not seem to use its bridges as much as it might have. Now, part of this is due to the fact that in many of the campaign scenarios, the objective was to remove or unseat the computer from its location. Still, there were ample opportunities where some simple offensive moves would have wiped me out. Instead, it seemed to wait for me to come to him. Otherwise, the inherent traits of each unit really dictated the gameplay on both sides, even in multiplayer.
Overall: One thing’s for sure, NetStorm is certainly different. Not only is it different, but it does a good job of delivering a solid product without a lot of unnecessary extras. The tutorials help with the learning curve, the campaigns provide an interesting challenge, and the multiplayer play provides a chance to play a different game each time. The dedicated Activision server means free multiplayer all the time. This is a strong title that definitely is worth adding to your holiday wish list. Any strategy gamer looking for something new (where your previous experience in other strategy games doesn’t necessarily carry over, and make the game too easy from the beginning) here you go. The limited number and type of units means that games are often won on other merits, such as quick thinking and good strategy, and not brute force or stockpiled resources. NetStorm is a refreshing change. Give the demo a try and experience something really good and very different.
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