Ubisoft
Ubisoft
Strategy
1-2
10.26.04

Chessmaster


Without doubt, Chess is among one of the oldest games in human history, so it's only natural that the game would be brought to the Xbox. Reminiscent of older games like the Battle Chess series, Ubisoft has thankfully injected some personality into the game, which can spice up the experience for players who are less enthusiastic about the traditional Chess theme or those who are new to the game. The game features Xbox Live support, different themes of Chess (modifying ambiance), variable levels of difficulty to help you improve your skills and a comprehensive set of tutorials for beginners. The tutorials are presented by Josh Waitzkin and Larry Christiansen, respected international Chess champions.

Gameplay

Anyone who has ever played Chess, or even observed only a single game, pretty much knows what to expect about the core gameplay. What sets Chessmaster apart from other run of the mill chess games is the thoroughness of the package given to the player. Given that this is the tenth iteration in the Chessmaster series, a lot of work has gone into making, for the most part, a highly refined game.

If you're a novice player, the best place to start is at the Josh Waitzkin Academy, where you will learn every rule of Chess necessary to play the game. The tutorials do a superb job of teaching the player how the game works, and also add a dash of interactivity by challenging the player to become involved in the lessons. This keeps it from feeling like a lecture, though some sections of it can be a little bit long (but thankfully, you can come back to them right where you left off).

No stone is left unturned in the game and every notion of Chess is covered; from castling to en passant, Chess piece movements, strategies such as pins, skewers, and forks, opening and endgame strategies, and a plethora of other material. It would be an understatement to say that the game has a wide array of topics to discuss. Some of the questions that are posed in the tutorials can be difficult at times, depending on the experience the player has. While hints are given that will usually help the player solve the problem at hand, there may be times where you simply don't know - and the game doesn't always give the answer prior to continuing forward. Again, this all depends on the player's skill level. Also included are tutorials from previous Chessmaster games, which tend to be more cut-and-dry lessons, rather than some of the theory that Josh Waitzkin gets into.

Chessmaster features other offerings of Chess beyond the normal style of play. For starters, there's the puzzle mode, in which the game will randomly generate certain situations in Chess, along the lines of Chess puzzles shown in newspapers. These are the type where you're given a particular setup of pieces, a color, and a given situation ("Black to move, get checkmate," "White to move, find the fork", etc.). Chessmaster takes this a step further by allowing the player to edit an empty game board with pieces of their choice, and to play the remainder of the game as if it had just started at that point. For those interested in famous matches in Chess, there are approximately 800 annotated games that have been played among Chess greats throughout the years, which the player can follow along with, move by move.

Chessmaster's level of difficulty varies across the spectrum, with AI-controlled opponents that have certain personality traits and playing styles. For instance, some players, according to their bios, won't have a firm understanding of the game, so they will be more likely to make game-ending blunders, or to play preferred pieces more often. Others will simply beat you to a pulp, and there are also a whole cluster of players varying in skill in between. The one aspect where the game suffers is with difficulty in timed games. It can be frustrating to know that you've spent a significant chunk of your time calculating your moves throughout the game, yet, perhaps 30 moves into the game; you're down to one minute on your game timer, while the opponent has barely used 10 seconds of hers - regardless of whether she's a child or a grandmaster. Ubisoft has compensated for this by allowing the game times to be adjusted accordingly.

Graphics

Not much can be said about the visuals of Chessmaster (which isn't a bad thing!). For the most part, they're nice to look at, and the 3D Chess themes show a good amount of creativity. However, the 3D part is where the game falls a bit short, in a way. The greatest fault is the camera: it seems to be either too far or too close. The user interface that complements the 2D view of the game has remained in 3D space, and if the board is zoomed far enough in to have the four corners of the board close to the four corners of the screen, the pieces on the lower portion of the screen will be obscured by the interface. The board can be rotated 90 degrees (and all the way around, in fact), but this doesn't do much to compensate for this shortfall. After all, it might be a bit challenging, to say the least, to play from such an unusual perspective.

The only other issue is that it may require several games for the player to fully understand which piece is which in the 3D games. Everyone will know right away what a pawn is, though some of the more powerful pieces will be harder to distinguish, and this'll hinder the player for maybe a game or two when first using the theme (though there are a few 3D themes, this mostly applies to the more colorful styles, such as the fairy layout). Also, the short battle encounters between pieces aren't unique among all pairs of pieces (meaning every piece has solely one attack against all other pieces), so this may make some themes a bit more forgettable than others.

Everything else is well done. The experienced players will be more apt to use the newspaper style Chess board (creatively themed, "expert"), though there are many variations on the 2D chess boards. What will be used most depends solely on player preference, all of which have a sleek feel to them.

Sound

Chess is a game which should have little to no sound, and Chessmaster respects that rule. In the 3D themes, you'll hear certain battle cries and sound effects from piece movements and captures - if you're playing in such a theme, it's likely the player would want these effects to begin with. However, they can also be turned off as well. The announcer's voice is thankfully relaxed, though at times may sound a little robotic. Still, until John Madden is hired for Chess commentary and move announcements, there isn't much to complain about. It's also nice to have these announcements when the opponent makes a subtle move that might otherwise leave the player looking for a change in piece positions.

Multiplayer

Naturally, Chessmaster allows the player to have a human opponent sitting beside her to play a game. What makes this important to highlight is the fact that the game will allow the player to change the perspective of the board, 2D or otherwise, depending on whose turn it is. In many other Chess games, the black color was assigned to the top of the screen, even though the perspective in with every player is to have the pieces closest to you, i.e. the bottom. Through a single button, Chessmaster will reorient the pieces based on your liking - very nice to have. This also applies to single play, as well.

With Xbox Live, you're given the opportunity to seek out and play with real opponents. The matching system is a bit flaky; I wasn't able to find games based on criteria I gave (rated or not, categories of play time length), but if I created a game with the intent of waiting for an opponent to be matched with me, it wouldn't be long until I was in the game. This would normally happen within a few minutes, so you're not kept sitting around for too long.

The rating system used in Chessmaster parallels that of most other Chess ranking systems: you're given a starting rating, deemed a provisional player (meaning, here, less than 20 games played), and a clean record of zero wins, losses, and draws. The numeric rating is determined from this record of wins, losses, and draws. Chessmaster keeps a separate rank for games played against the AI and those of real players, so you don't have to worry about your rank if you lose against the computer. The players that the game matches you with are usually that of a similar ranking to you; a player ranked at the top of the ladder is very unlikely to be pitted against a player who just started his Chess career on Live. Like all Chess games, there are penalties to resigning in the middle of a match, which counts as a loss against your record.

Despite the flaws of the finding a game, the matching system does a good job in making sure that you're matched up almost as soon as you're connected. If you want to be spared the awkward process of finding players in the "Bunny Hutch" or "Pit Viper Pit" and setting up a game on Yahoo, Chessmaster on Live is a welcome solution.

Replay Value

The replayability of this game is nearly innumerable - if you like Chess, it'll be tough to grow tired of this game. This is compounded with the inclusion of the Chess puzzles, the ability to replay hundreds of games from professionals, wide variations on themes, and to go online and play on Xbox Live. Getting around the game's interface is easy, so it won't take long to be up and running.

Bottom Line:

This is a fine model of a Chess game that will appeal to all skill levels of Chess players. Buying this game is akin to getting a highly customizable Chess game, a set of Chess brainteasers, a detailed guide on how to play Chess from beginner to advanced, and the ability to replay professional Chess games without searching Google. For about $20, it's a good move (pun intended). The game won't make you a grandmaster overnight - not that any Chess game or book could - but it's a great place to start learning. Hopefully, the subtle flaws from this version will be corrected in the next installment.

Related Links:

Official Chessmaster Website

-Arthur Baczyk




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