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Spy Tactics Review

Let me start by stating unequivocally that I am a fan of puzzle games and inspired spin-offs. Every great game usually has a cluster of kissing cousins, throw a stone and find one. Bearing this in mind, most mobile gamers remember the recent HitmanLara Croft– ‘Go’ series of games, as much for their taut level design as visual polish. Well, Spy Tactics is supposed to be a dead ringer for Hitman Go, and it soullessly succeeds. It’s an incredible value, and has clearly been a labor of love, but it is irredeemably marred by confounding controls and an ultimately derivative design.

Just like in the Go series, each level is presented like a diorama representing a small objective. The spy moves along a series of nodes, silently disarming patrols whilst picking up that eternal McGuffin briefcase. Counting steps and cycles becomes paramount, as does establishing a causal sequence. Take out Guard A to open the door, extending B’s patrol such that my agent can grab the briefcase. So on and so forth, ad nauseum, unfortunately. As far as spatial puzzles go, the format is decent but also rather exhaustible, for each level can usually be solved by splitting it into chunks and simply experimenting with every possible move. To get around this, new levels frequently introduce new mechanics, like snipers or single-use weapons, which Spy Tactics uses to wrinkle what is otherwise a very uniform play experience. This by itself isn’t a fatal setback; Sudoku puzzle books are similarly predictable in progression but still compelling.

spy3

Nevertheless the level design feels boilerplate. Yes, it is at times vexing and challenging, but Spy Tactics as a whole lacks that spark, the galvanizing ‘aha’ moments which punctuate what at times can be a tedious and difficult experience. A good puzzle games taunts and leads its player to wider understanding. Spy Tactics does teach rules of thumb and tricks of the trade, but it does so haphazardly and mostly through rote repetition. Good design means intentional traps and breadcrumbs, basically creating what is very much like a mental dialogue with the player. Puzzles functioning like riddles, asking for specific insights to proceed and refusing entry to the unwitting. Well, some puzzles just ask you try again and again, and will give inches of progress as a reward for mute persistence. Spy Tactics is more the latter, asking for minor experiments and variations on the theme. Nothing to totally stump the player, nothing to totally delight them either.

String the levels together and you have something like a campaign, with an animated introduction to drive the narrative, like the first series of levels, which are ostensibly about ousting a corrupt police chief. The writing here is wonderfully punchy, brimming with do-or-die intensity. It is accompanied by the requisite espionage jazz. The flavor is welcome but nonetheless a little cheesy, especially as divorced as it is from the actual puzzle experience. As set dressing, though, it’s distinctive and shows an imaginative, if deadpan, take on domestic spycraft. Points for flair.

spy1

Because so much of puzzle-solving involves minute variations and experimentation, the lack of an undo function is nonsensical. It adds an arbitrary hurdle to the proceedings, especially when a puzzle is some forty-odd moves long to complete successfully but one miscalculates or misclicks at the finish. Some frustration actually builds concentration and engagement, but an excess really kills the buzz. In effect, the lack of an undo function means players must have a razor-sharp memory and foresight since any plan is set in stone from the get-go. It’s an odd limitation.

The controls are accurate but over-sensitive so that it is trivially easy to send your agent in the totally wrong direction. While the board and view can be rotated freely, the movement is tied to swipes along an invisible compass rose, and so even if you rotate the field 180 degrees, the movement stays the same, which is just begging for trouble. Also, the animations on enemies are a bit of a drag on the flow of play. None of these alone is a serious drawback, but taken together they make for a puzzle game that is harder to play than it is to solve, and this imbalance leaves an unpleasant impression. Ideally the controls and interface should be as transparent and smooth as possible, but this sadly isn’t the case here. More’s the pity, for the free rotate does actually show off the clean visual design in a rather nifty way. It’s actually pretty crucial to see past some terrain using rotation, so the fact that it jars with the static movement inputs is just maddening.

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Then again, I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment, both from a mobile standpoint (Darkest Dungeon, Cultist Simulator) and a puzzle one (Baba Is You, English Country Tune). So a little pushback is good game philosophy, gets the creative juices flowing in the player. But here Spy Tactics runs into another mismatch: its puzzles are clear-cut and straightforward, if admittedly decent, but the physical act of solving them is the convoluted, protracted, time-consuming, unforgiving part. So the overall effect is a drag. Then there’s the clone issue to mull over. While the thematic dressing is original and piquant, the actual mechanics of Spy Tactics are lifted pretty much copy-paste from Hitman Go, which tiresome at best if not downright problematic.

Spy Tactics does indeed boast 40 levels and its gameplay is just like that other game you might also like, but in an age with a glut of affordable entertainment I would urge a little more discernment. It’s technically well-made and has some points in its favor, but overall does not merit a try unless there’s been a Franchise-Go-sized hole in your life.

Unity Release Spaceship Visual Effect Graph Demo

Unity just released a new sample “Spaceship” that demonstrates the new Visual Effect Graph showcasing it’s ability to create elaborate UI or in game special effects.

Details of the demonstration from the Unity blog:

The spaceship demo features many effects during its walkthrough. All these effects have been authored and optimized in-game production conditions with performance in mind, targeting 33.3 ms (30 fps) on Playstation 4 (base) at 1080p. All the effects are taking advantage of the many optimization settings we implemented in Visual Effect Graph and High Definition Render Pipeline.

Half-Resolution Translucent Rendering renders selected transparent particles at a lower resolution, increasing rendering performance by 4 (at the expense of little blurriness in some rare cases). We used it mostly for big, lit particles that are present in the foreground as their texel/pixel ratio is rather low, the loss in resolution is not noticeable at all.

Octagon Particles is an optimization of quad particles and enable the corners of the particles to be cropped.  where the pixels are often found transparent (invisible cost). Particle corners are often transparent, but the overlapping of these transparent areas result in unnecessary calculations. Cropping out these sections can optimize the scene up to 25% in situations where there is lots of overdraw. There is also the benefit of reducing the resolution of the translucent sections when they can’t be cropped away.

Simplified Lighting model: Simple Lit for HD Render Pipeline enables disabling properties of the BRDF – Diffuse Lighting, Specular Lighting, Shadow and Cookie Reception, and Ambient Lighting. By selecting only the features you want to see, you can decrease the lighting computation cost to close to none. For instance, particles can be lit using only Light Probes by selecting a Simple Lit Translucent Model, then disabling everything except ambient lighting. This optimization was chosen for many environment effects that did not require a lot of high-frequency lighting.

You can download the project from GitHub however you need to have git LFS support enabled.  You can also download a pre-compiled version as well as a zip of the complete source archive right here.

You can learn more about project as well as a complete capture of the Spaceship demo in the video below.

GameDev News


8Bit Workshop

8BitWorkshop is perhaps the most approachable way I have seen yet for beginning retro game development, specifically for 8Bit systems such as the Atari VCS/2600, various arcade systems and now the Nintendo Entertainment System.

8Bit Workshop is a complete IDE and emulator that runs entirely in the browser.  You can launch it directly by clicking here.  8Bit Workshop supports the following platforms:

  • Atari 2600
  • NES
  • Verilog
  • VIC Dual
  • Midway 8080
  • Galaxian/Scramble Arcade
  • Atari Vector
  • Williams
  • Apple ][

In most systems you can code directly using C or assembly language.  It also comes absolutely loaded with examples in a variety of languages.  Additionally they have several supporting books Making Games for the Atari 2600 and Making Games for the NES.

Even better, the entire thing is open source under the GPL v3 license on GitHub.  You can also download several samples to get started right here.  Finally, version 3.4.0 was just released adding NES support, a new book and more.

GameDev News


Humble Book Bundle: Python Programming by No Starch Press

A new Humble Bundle of interest to game developers, specifically Python programmers.  This one is the Humble Book Bundle: Python Programming by No Starch Press, a collection of programming books on a variety of Python related topics.  If you regularly purchase Humble Bundles, be aware some of these books were part of this earlier No Starch bundle.

As always the bundles are arranged into tiers, where if you purchase a higher value tier, you get all of the lower tiers as well.  The tiers in this bundle are:

1$ Tier

  • Automate the Boring Stuff with Python
  • Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python
  • Black Hat Python
  • Python For Kids
  • Code Craft

8$ Tier

  • Cracking Codes with Python
  • Doing Math with Python
  • Gray Hat Python
  • Python Playground
  • Teach Your Kids to Code

15$ Tier

  • Serious Python
  • Impractical Python Projects
  • Math Adventures with Python
  • Mission Python

You get to decide how your purchase funds are allocated, split between the publisher, humble, charity or if you choose (and thanks if you do!) to support GameFromScratch using this link.  If you are interested in checking out Python for game development, be sure to check out or Python GameDev post.

GameDev News


Unity Visual Scripting

One of the most requested features in Unity, beyond dark mode in the free edition, is some form of Visual Scripting language like Blueprint in Unreal Engine.  Unity have been working on an experimental version of Unity Visual Script and earlier this week dropped the 3rd experimental version as well as a sample to demonstrate how it all works.  Keep in mind, this is extremely early and in no way is it for use in production code, nor is it documented… at all.

Another thing to keep in mind is the Visual Script in Unity is only for their new DOTS system, meaning it wont work with existing MonoBehaviour code.  It was explained why in the 2nd drop:

In this particular case we realised that there are quite a few mature solutions that most of the community is using successfully for visual scripting. We didn’t think that what we can build on top of MonoBehaviours in terms of visual scripting would have been a massive improvement over solutions in the asset store.

On the other hand we saw an opportunity to focus VisualScripting on DOTS. Specifically enabling artists & level designers to write incredibly efficient multithreaded game code, by expressing their intent simply and the code being generated taking advantage of DOTS. The data centric nature of DOTS opens many new opportunities for visual scripting and interop with other code based systems.

We think a combination:
* Generating high performance visual scripting code out of the box (C# job + Burst + great memory layout)
* A UX language that reduces noodle graph-ness, by supporting stacking and other dedicated UX paradigm
* A straightforward path to transition from Visual Scripting -> well organized DOTS C# code
* Amazing debugging tools deeply integrated into DOTS & Visual scripting

If you are interested in a Visual Scripting system that works with existing Unity code be sure to check out Bolt or PlayMaker on the Unity store.  Check out the new Visual Scripting system in action in the video below.

GameDev News


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The Best Word Game Apps on iOS and Android

Like puzzle games, word apps are synonymous with ‘gaming on the go.’ They are often designed with a life on the move in mind. Any given round of word finding, or letter stacking can last just long enough to span the wait for a morning coffee. This sort of quick convenience has led to a devaluation of word games. We don’t respect them like we should. We are wrong.

Want to check out some non-word puzzle games? We’ve got you covered!

There are some incredible word games available in the palms of our hands, but with the massive crush of content that hits the App Store and Google Play store every day, it’s very difficult to find them. Fret no longer, we’ve curated a list of the must play word games available to mobile platforms, so you don’t have to.

Reader Recommendations

We don’t get a chance to play every game, especially ones released prior to a list’s first creation, but that’s where our readers come in. Here’s a quick summary of some reader recommendations, in case you’re looking to anything beyond what we’ve got below:

  • W.E.L.D.E.R.
  • WindWord (pictured)
  • V Words

TypeShift

Developer: Zach Gage
Platforms:  iOSAndroid
Price: Free with IAP

TypeShiftWG

One of Zach Gage’s unique creations, TypeShift focuses on redesigning the good old crossword puzzle. Columns of letters can be slid back and forth to create a series of words among them on a central row. Every time a letter is used in a word, they turn green. You pass the stage when all of the available letters are turned green. Sounds easy enough, but of course it’s not. Other modes, like Clue Mode, bring it further in line with the traditional crossword.  Either way, a few rounds of it, and you’ll be scratching your head in the best possible way.

Alphabears 2 (Review)

Developer: Spry Fox
Platforms: iOS UniversalAndroid
Price: Free

alphabear 2 header

Following on from something as a sequel isn’t always an easy experience – it can be quite easy to lose sight of what made the original great in the first place. Alphabears 2 has no such issues however, and is comfortably a better game than its predecessor in almost every way. It has an in-game dictionary, more interaction and play modes and it’s only real draw-back is its monetisation.

It’s definitely fairer than the original game, but even buying the full version doesn’t remove the timers or other freemium-like mechanics. Still, this is an incredibly smart word app that any puzzle aficionado should at least try, if not out-right purchase.

Developer: Fowers Games
Platforms:  iOS Universal, Android
Price: $4.99

Hardback best wrod games

This deck-building word game would feel just at home on our list of best card games as it would here, but since Hardback’s central twist is that cards are only playable in a Scrabble-esque system of dictionary-friendly sets, we feel it’s apt to list is here. The sequel to 2016’s Paperback, the key thing to remember about this game is that you can’t play it as ‘just’ a word game.

The beauty of Hardback is that you’re not just out to score long, multi-lettered words, you’re out to play cards that combo well together to acheive high scores. This can be as simple as collecting a great set of cards that just say ‘OFF’, or indeed bagging a great collection for a longer word. The limitations to playing cards as words adds a challenging yet interesting twist to a classic game-type. Main changes over the first iteration include tweaks to Wild Cards, Special Abilities and additional card draw.

Supertype

Developer: Philipp Stollenmayer
Platforms:  iOS, Android
Price: $1.99

Supertype

We get accustomed to the sort of word games that have us finding and planted letters to make words. If we’re feeling particularly creative, we find word games that are just complex versions of word finds or crosswords set in some other sort of puzzle motif. In Supertype, words are tools. After typing a word, the letters fall through the obstacle course below, the goal being to find the right letters to roll or slide through the right nooks and crannies in order to burst the target dots below. On harder puzzles, making sure your word has skinny enough letters in the right places is key to shimmying into victory.

Wordgraphy

Developer: Alper Iskender
Platforms: iOS
Price: Free with IAPs

WordgraphyWG

Wordgraphy takes the old trope of unscrambling arrays of letters to make new words and crosses it with some Sudoku elements. Words line the outside of the table, and letters can only be switched with letters in the same position as other letter groups on each side. For example, the second letter in a five letter array at the top of the square board can only be swapped with the second letter of another of the other for arrays lining the other side. The result is a clever word construction gimmick that keeps you guessing and tests the depth of your own vocabulary very quickly.

BAIKOH

Developer: Mum Not Proud
Platforms: iOS, Android
Price: Free with IAPs

BAIKOHWG

Take the pressure of a gradually filling space that has to be emptied by you, the intrepid player, a la Tetris. Combine the added bonus stress of each falling piece being a letter that needs to be used to create words as fast as you can. Then sprinkle on top a narrator that has an aggressive ire towards you, and you have all the ingredients for BAIKOH. Falling letters can come with added attributes as well, like frozen ones that will gradually freeze other letters, making them harder to remove. Unlockable badges can help even out the playing field, but this is a hard game meant to push your reflexes and critical thinking skills to the limit and break them on rapid occasion.

Sidewords

Developer: Milkbag Games
Platforms: iOS, Android
Price: $2.99

SlidewordsWG

Taking words and making other words out of them is nothing new in the genre, but Sidewords commands a new, brain-bending approach to the concept. On the top and to the left of a grid are two words. The size of those words determines the size of the grid, which each letter creating a row or column. Using the letters of the two words, you must make new words of course. But the twist is that the words you make take up the spots on the grid where those letters intersect. You have to fill the whole grid with words to move on, so using a lot of letters to make a word can take up a lot of real estate in the grid, making it hard to create words with the scraps. Strategy and spatial awareness are key.

Spelltower

Developer: Zach Gage
Platforms:  iOS
Price: $2.99

SpelltowerWG

Before Zach Gage was upending billiards, he was setting the word game world one fire with entries like Spelltower. Take your average Sunday paper word finding puzzle and add that block-crushing Tetris mechanic that we all know and lover. New letters file in from the bottom, and you must find words with adjacent letters to removed them from the ever growing pile. Different game modes alter the many mechanics at play, including a clever multiplayer mode that burdens your opponent with your current tower of words when you score.

Puzzlejuice

Developer: Sirvo LLC
Platforms: iOS
Price: $1.99

PuzzlejuiceWG

A brainchild from Asher Vollmer, of Threes! fame, Puzzlejuice takes the best parts of Boggle and Tetris and slaps them together to make something that is much more challenging than the sum of its parts. Colorful shapes drop into the field like Tetris, and as you form lines or match colors, they turn into letters. To remove the blocks, you must turn those letters into words. There’s a lot going on at once, and as difficulties unlock, and different play modes open up, this becomes one of the most brain-turning games on the App store.

Hall of Fame

This list is a little smaller than others, so we’re not in a place where we need to think about rotation just yet. Still, there are some previous great releases that deserve remembering, even if they’re not going to make it onto the list itself.

What would your list of the best word-puzzle games look like? Let us know in the comments!

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The Weekender: Civil War Edition

I’m still unnecessarily upset over the fact that Gundam Battle: Gunpla Warfare still isn’t available in the UK. I mean, gacha nonsense should all get in the sea, but if I’m actually willing to try one out for the greater good of mankind, the least it could do it be available in my region. Oh well, guess I’ll have to settle for Pokemon Masters instead whenever that comes out.

It’s been another list-heavy week this week, so apologies for that, although we did review Beholder 2 and learn that Company of Heroes is coming to iPad. Also, make sure you catch up on what games are still due to release this year. Next week is GamesCom so I’ll be out in Cologne – it may be I’ll need to do some more placeholder content mid-week but I’ll be able to work as normal by and large so if a review or feature does come in, I’ll still put it up.

Out Now

Orc’s Civil War (iPad) – Full Review In Progress

This game came out of nowhere – I have to tip my hat off to Touch Arcade’s round-up for this one as I’d honestly never heard of it until it was released. The game claims to be “the best” iPad RTS game, and it’s a claim I’m eager to put to the test.

It seems very much like a passion project made by a single person, and that person may not speak English as their first language. Still, the graphics aren’t too bad all things considered, and it seems to mix elements of RTS and Tower Defence, with some advanced unit behaviour mechanics thrown in there too. We’ll get a review out as soon as we can, since the price point is unusually high. There’s an official website you can check out too.

Spy Tactics (iOS & Android) – Full Review in Progress

This is the other game of note this week – while it’s listed as ‘free’ there’s actually an IAP to unlock the full game. Spy Tactics caught my eye as it reminds me of the GO titles that Square made, which were pretty excellent puzzle/tactics games. This one has a spy/cold war aesthetic which some may enjoy, and boasts over 40 levels with multiple routes to completion.

The trailer is from the PC version on Steam, although admittedly it doesn’t serve as the best advertisement. We’ll see what Michael thinks when he’s done with his review.

That’s about it as far as interesting new games is concerned. I took the liberty of trying out Warhammer Combat Cards after it released this week. It’s… well, not really sure how to describe it. Utterly harmless, but also very skippable. It’s essentially a collect-em-all battle game using cards. Except they’re not really cards they’re just pictures of really nicely painted Warhammer 40K miniatures with some stats. You can have up to three on the board at once, and you fight it out. Winning battles gets you more cards, and if you get a dupe you can use it to upgrade a card… and the cycle continues. That’s it. That’s all you do.

There may be some tactical depth in terms of building your mini-deck and how different cards synergies together, but to be honest it feels like a subtle plug for the table-top game. Another RPG card battler released this week is Traitor’s Empire Card RPG. The graphics aren’t amazing, but it’s got a lot more to it and so might be more worthy of your time.

Updates & Other Junk

There’s been a few updates worth looking at this week:

Six Ages: Ride like the Wind received its first update since last November. It introduces a new interactive scene, some gameplay tweaks and fixes, and then improves compatibility for specific devices like the iPhone 4, and the large iPads.

Now that there are several major Auto Chess contenders on mobile, we’re finally starting to see some more creative updates and new modes. Chess Rush is the latest game to try something new with a new 4v4 mode called Squad Clash. It’s similar to the already introduced Co-op mode, just with more people. You can send your pieces to other people’s boards to help them out in their fights. Once Squad Clash has had some time to settle in, it will be put into a rotation with co-op mode where they will alternate.

Pokemon Masters’ impending release can be seen on the horizon, and there’s apparently going to be a lot of us that will be jumping on board when the collect-and-battle game gets its global roll-out. Recent news suggests 5 Million of us have pre-registered for the game across iOS and Android. That’s a lot of trainers.

While we’re sharing trainers, how about looking at some Commandos 2 HD footage? If you’ll remember, we posted up just after E3 about how Kalypso Media are doing remasters of both Commandos 2 and Praetorians, both of which are classic strategy games. While this is mainly a thing for PC audiences, Commandos 2 HD is also coming to iOS and Android. Kalypso recently shared some new gameplay footage (albeit, PC) which I thought you’d all be interested in.

Sales

There’s quite a few more sales this week than usual, so let’s run through them. Unless stated otherwise, assume both platforms:

  • Lost Portal CCG (iOS Only) is down to $0.99 for the first time this year.
  • Pocket City has also had its priced reduced for the first time this year on both platforms, but it has been cheaper.
  • Mystic Vale was only released in June, but it’s already been discounted by a couple of dollars on both platforms, probably to coincide with the release of some new DLC.
  • Clarusvictoria are doing a sale on their entire catalogue on both iOS and Android. You’ll remember them recently from Egypt: Old Kingdom.
  • Cosmic Express has had its price reduced for the first time this year, but it’s been cheaper.
  • If there are any Baseball fans out there, R.B.I. Baseball ‘19 is down to $3.99 on iOS and Android.
  • Last but certainly not least, Titan Quest HD is also reduced to just below half price.

Seen anything else you liked? Played any of the above? Let us know in the comments!