Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Albatross18: Realms of Pangya review

Hi once again and welcome to another review, this time for the relatively unknown game Albatross18: Realms of Pangya.

Format: PC
Developer: Ntreev Soft
Publisher: Hanbitsoft, GameFactory Inc
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Golf RPG
Region: US and Europe
Where to buy: Sign up and download for free at

There have been many quality golf games over the years, from Leaderboard back on the Commodore 64, through the Links series, to Mario Golf, Everybody's Golf (aka Hot Shots), The Tiger Woods PGA series and beyond. With the odd exception (such as EA's Tiger Woods games or Nintendo's Touch Golf on the DS) the basic controls and the way each game works has remained the same. Except this game melds the traditional golf game with ideas borrowed from Japanese RPGs. Intrigued? So was I...

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The graphics in Albatross18 are extremely impressive considering this is a free game. The courses are all very well designed and there's quite a bit of variety between them, including sunny tropical beaches, snowy festive landscapes, huge battleships and windy valleys. In Korea, where the game originated from, they have additional courses that haven't been released here, which include a desert region, an icy course and a hellish volcanic area. This will no doubt eventually make it to our version of the game, but Korea is already in Season 3 of the game and we only have Season 2, so we have some catching up to do.

Considering how good the graphics are it's surprising how little loading time there is, and lag is also noteable by its absence. This really is a slick package. Characters are all drawn in an anime style, featuring big eyes and other exaggerated features. They all look like something you'd find in a typical traditional Japanese console RPG (except of course this game was made in Korea).

Sound & Music: 7 out of 10
Now I must admit that when it comes to the music in Albatross18, you will either love it or hate it. It's very catchy, upbeat, cheerful and cute, not to mention bordering on annoying. I love certain tunes (including one of the ones that plays in the background of Blue Water, but I really can't stand others (the music of North Wiz comes to mind). You'll either be tolerant of it, or you'll turn it off straight away.

There's not a lot of sound effects, but what is there is decent enough. There's the shout of "PangYA!" whenever you pull of a perfect shot (which apparently means bang in Korean), the whistle off the ball as it flies through the air, the thwack as you hit it and other small, unobtusive sounds. Again, considering that this is a free download, the production values manage to outstrip expectations quite easily.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
If you're familiar with other casual golf games such as Mario Golf, you will be able to pick up and play Albatross18 without any problems whatsoever. The same style in swing bar that has been featured in golf titles for close to two decades is in place. Basically, you have a bar at the bottom of the screen with the maximum yardage of your selected club displayed on it, and measurements in between. The first click of the left mouse button (or press of the space bar) starts a small bar moving from left to right. You then have to click again to decide how hard you hit the ball, and the bar will start heading back towards the left. Finally, you have to stop the bar as close to the middle of the pink section at the start as possible, to decide the accuracy of the shot. If you miss a little to the left or right your shot will go to the left or right respectively. If you miss by a lot the shot will be a complete mishit.

You all also have a small picture of the ball in the bottom left with a blue dot in it. You can move this dot to the top to put top spin on the ball, or to the bottom to apply backspin. You can also move it to the left or right to curve the ball, which is very useful if you have a tree directly in front of you which you need to avoid, for example. The controls don't end there, as special moves can also be pulled of by keying in various combinations of the arrow keys as the shot is taking place, including super topspin and backspin, the tomahawk shot and the cobra shot. While the game is very easy for newcomers to get used to, these extra moves and advanced features give the pros plenty of flexibility and depth.

Speaking of depth, you character starts off at the Rookie F level, and moves up to Rookie A where they will then become Beginner E. This pattern then carries on all the way through Junior, Senior, Amateur, Semi-Pro, Pro and National Pro, with the amount of experience needed to advance increasing exponentially from one level to the next. Moving up ranks gives both advantages and disadvantages. For example as a Rookie player you will have a special necklace that increases your accuracy, but as soon as you reach Beginner you won't be able to wear it anymore. Instead Beginner players get an additional Power slot to spend on their character.

Characters can be powered up in various categories, including power, control, spin and accuracy, usually by equipping certain items and sometimes when leveling up. There are two ways of powering up, the first increasing certain attributes by equipping an item, the effects of which are lost when you equip something else. However, some items also come with "slots" which you can spend Pang (the games main currency) to upgrade, which are then permanently part of your character (or at least until you downgrade them).

Pang is earned by playing skillfully, in a similar manner to the way that Kudos is earned in PGR3. You get certain amounts for completing a hole at par (typically 3 to 10 Pang depending on the difficulty of the course) with significantly higher amounts being awarded for Birdies, Eagles, Albatrosses and a Hole in One. You also get pang for hitting the ball further than the clubs typical range (either by using a slope, spin or the wind), very difficult chip-in shots, long putts and for pulling off the special moves. An extra 1000 Pang is awarded every time you beat your personal best on one of the courses, but considering that the really useful stuff in the Shop starts at 5100 Pang minimum and goes up to around 300000 for the really good stuff, expect to be saving for a while. Extra characters and caddies also have to be bought with pang, or with Cookies, which is the way that Hanbitsoft make their money.

Cookies can only be gained by buying them with real money on the web site, with prices ranging from about $10 to $50. Certain items of clothing in the shop, or extra charters can only be bought with Cookies. Now, I know what you're thinking, what's to stop rich kids from just buying tons of Cookies and then just buying all the good stuff?

Well, they can... but in most cases the Cookie versions of clothing and items are only a little bit better than the Pang equivalents. Plus if you buy an item of clothing with slots on it you still need to pay out a load of pang in order to upgrade them. So while you gain a slight advantage buy paying out some cash, it isn't really that much of a big deal. If you don't want to spend your money on this game, don't bother. Chances are however you'll find yourself enjoying yourself so much you'll actually want to support the developers by reinvesting some cash into the game.

There are several modes of play. To start with you will only have access to the VS room, where you can play Stroke or Match games with 2-4 people, with each person taking turns. This is the best way to earn experience and to have a more personal game with just a few people. Once you advance past the first level, you will unlock access to the Tournament server. Here, up to 30 people play a full 18 hole round of golf at the same time, with a maximum time limit (usuallly between 30-40 minutes) for everyone to complete the course. Scores are updated in real time and the wind and weather are hard to predict, giving a different experience every time. Then we have the new Pang Battle mode, which is basically like Skins in traditional golf where you put a certain amount of Pang on the line per hole and the winner takes the pot. Finally, there's Family mode - which lets you and other real life friends or family play on the same computer.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While casual golf games have been around for a long time, and even a golf RPG has been done before (the Game Boy Color version of Mario Golf) the way that Albatross18 fuses the two genres together makes it a rather unique playing experience. When I've mentioned the idea of a golf RPG to some of my friends they have been both confused and a bit disgusted by the idea, but you really should give the game a chance. There is practically no risk involved seeing as the game costs nothing to download and runs smoothly on modest PC's - in fact I'd say the only risk is that you will become addicted to the game and spend the next few months of your life playing golf with strangers on fantasy islands. There are those who will never "get it" and will remain content to just waste away their lives playing Halo 2 until the end of time - their loss in my opinion. If you fancy something different then don't be afraid of giving it a try.

I would also like to mention the Clubstar Calendar system as something I found particularly innovative. On your account page on the Albatross18 web site, you will find your very own Clubstar Calendar page. For every day that you play a full game and then log out, you will earn a sticker on the calendar. Prizes are then awarded for those that manage to play on 7 days, 15 days and full month, with the prize getting better each time. Furthermore, there are 5 additional randomly selected days where you will also earn an item just for playing that day. This gives you an incentive to keep coming back, and the better prizes are really worthwhile. At the moment you can earn a special ball for playing everyday in a month - the Golden Phoenix, which is only available this way and can't be bought with Pang or Cookies, although this could change at any time. It's really not that difficult to play everyday, because a 3 hole, 2 player VS game only take about 15 minutes at the most.

Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Being a free game, Albatross18 is of course exceptional value, but there's a ton of things to do in the game as well. To start with there's 8 courses in the game at the moment, all of which have their own little quirks, so these will take a fair bit of time just to get used to and improve your score. Then there's the leveling up system, which will take you a fair old while to get all the way to the top. It takes most people an average of 30 hours just to get from Rookie to Beginner, so you can imagine how long it will take to get to National Pro. There's also the items, character upgrades and random variables such as the wind and weather that ensure you never experience the same game twice, even on the same course. This guarantees things will never become boring. Finally, you have all the real people that you will meet and talk to as you play, which have to be one of the nicest on line communities I've yet come across. Golf is a much more gentle game than an FPS and I can't help thinking that this has some effect on the attitude of the people on the servers, there much less aggressive and less likely to swear at you. There's also a fairly high percentage of female players which makes a refreshing change.

Overall: 9 out of 10
At first I only downloaded this game out of curiosity because I heard that a version of it was coming to the Nintendo Wii (Super Swing Golf PANGYA) but it didn't take long for me to be hooked. Now it has become one of the best games I have played all year and I sincerely recommend it to anyone who isn't afraid to try something a little different, or is strapped for cash and want a good new game to play. With Albatross18, Ntreev have scored a hole in one!

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