Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier
The sequel to Sandlot's Virtual Villagers-esque hit sim Westward has finally arrived! Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier continues the old west drama with a whole new batch of improvements, including 3D visuals, new buildings to construct, more scenarios to complete, and a brand new sandbox mode. Keep your townspeople happy, fed, and busy gathering resources as you expand across the uncharted territory in search of the elusive Copperhead Gang.
For those of you unfamiliar with Westward (hi, both of you), it's a casual strategy game in a similar vein to Starcraft or Age of Empires. Unlock buildings and skills, recruit workers and fighters, and battle natural disasters and bad guys in the wild west. You elect to play as one of three heroes who have the same abilities but different bonuses. For instance, if you play as Marion Morrison you get free farm upgrades, as Maureen Fitzsimmons you get access to a bank you can use to raise taxes, and as Terence Stevens you can build a trading post to trade gold, food and wood.
Once you've set up a profile, selected a hero and completed the tutorial, the main adventure begins. You only have access to a few buildings at this stage — as you gain experience, you unlock new buildings, such as a windmill to make your farm more efficient. To complete the adventures you need to complete the quests you are given, simply talk to the characters with a big exclamation mark over their head. You don't have to accept the quest until you have enough gold, wood, experience or whatever is needed to complete it successfully.
If taking on the challenge of quest after quest isn't your cup of tea, you can exit the main game and play in Sandbox Open Range mode to get a feel for how the citizens behave, what makes them happy, and what the buildings do. Open Range starts with all buildings unlocked, so you only need pay to build them, not to unlock them. If you've already beaten the game and want a greater challenge, or you want the challenge without specific quests, try Sandbox Natural Disasters. Buildings are locked as normal, plus as you gain experience, the likelihood of an earthquake, fire, typhoon or bandit attack is steadily increased.
Analysis: As we would expect, the artwork in this game is gorgeous. You can now zoom in to walk amongst the townspeople, the happiness-boosting fountains and the flowers. Characters change clothes to fit their jobs, so you can sack a gold miner, make them mayor, and they'll dress up and walk around in a top hat collecting taxes. Interactively speaking, the designers have heard our complaints about the click and drag method of moving characters. The method still exists, but you can now right click to get the character to go where you want them to. There's also trophies — some are clearly labeled, like the ability to ranch three different kinds of animals at once, but there's also several hidden trophies. Personally, I've been enjoying spotting the pop culture references contained in the dialogue and building names — that's another game in itself.
On the down side, Westward II can be mighty slow going, especially if you're new to the series. You may like to intersperse gameplay with real-life housework or tinkering, although this could expose you to unexpected catastrophes. The right-click method of movement generally works extremely well, but I managed to get Marion Morrison stuck outside a mine. He isn't even surrounded by anything — characters can walk around him, but he won't move! And if the soundtrack gets stuck, you can end up having to listen to a character saying "That's a blue-chip idea!" over and over and over. These technical quibbles are pretty minor, though — Westward II is challenging, gorgeous, funny, and a bargain.
When you consider the amount of artistry, humor and depth of gameplay that has gone into the Westward games, I'm amazed that they're so cheap. Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier offers gameplay rich as blockbuster titles costing four times as much.