Reviewed: October 10, 2002
Released: September 10, 2002
I know, I know, how can I be giving Chessmaster 9000 an overall rating of ten when everything else is just above average? Well, to answer that you all have to know a little something about chess, and like the game (of course if you donít like chess you probably arenít reading this review right now, so this whole parenthetical statement is pretty much moot, but Terry Prachett would be proud).
Hereís the actual explanation for those of you who are interested. This game is an improvement on playing chess on a board in the real world, because why spend a thousand dollars on a computer and then $29.95 on the game when you can mosey over to the store and pick up a board for under five bucks. This game is the reason, and Iím not talking Battlechess reasons here, though seeing that queen getting eaten by the rook again certainly wouldnít hurt.
No this game is basically like being tutored by a Grand Master to improve your chess game. Thatís what makes this game completely worth every penny. Not only are there over 150 different personalities to hone your skills against, and donít take them lightly. Iíve had a 12-year-old hand me my head on a platter, and Ubisoft pitted the Chessmaster personality and a few of the Grand Master ranked personalities against the current U.S. champion. He lost. Yes you too can turn your computer into the chess equivalent of a Ginsu knife, just donít cry to me when you get cut.
Hereís where things start to get messy. There are a lot of windows for this game, if you have everything toggled on (Blunder Alert, move list, Visual Thinking, Advice, the list goes on) there is hardly enough room on the screen for the board. However, every last one of those windows is not only useful, but a neat little feature in itís own right; the Visual Thinking and Blunder Alert being at the top of the list.
Blunder Alert is obvious as to what it does - the computer tells you when the move youíre about to make is a bad idea. Visual Thinking isnít quite so obvious as to function, though the name tells you exactly what it does. It shows you all the moves that the computer considers before making a move, visually showing you the process of the calculations itís going through.
There are also a lot of other options for you to choose. You can back track moves to correct mistakes youíve made, or just to see how a different move would affect the game. You can analyze the game you just played, telling the computer how long to consider each move. Thereís advice, chat (for online play), hints, and you can even switch sides.
There are only a few things that bother me. The first is that itís really easy to grab the wrong piece because everything is just a little too close together. Sometimes the pawns are too small and get lost between other pieces. Fortunately you can take back moves as Iíve stated, but Iíd rather not have to go through the hassle of all that just because I meant to click on the pawn and actually got the bishop.
What really bugs me however is that regardless of which personality you chose to play against you are still playing a computer, and a computer cannot play bad chess. It can play flawed chess or incorrect chess, but it simply cannot play poorly. There is a subtly difference between the computer and say, me. Iíll miss moves (ok, Iíll miss moves a lot) and the computer cannot.
The other thing is that this game is just too damn hard. Iíve been humbled so many times since Iíve installed this game itís pathetic. Everything that I donít know about chess this computer has in four different places and is more than willing to show me all of them. I have to actually learn everything I can before I play the computer and the tutorial is virtually endless. Iíve spent about 3 hours just running through the instructional lessons, and am not even through a fourth of them.
Thereís an opening movie. Itís a chess game, and thereís an opening movie. Ridiculousness aside, itís actually not bad, kind of a chess across time thing, which is actually not just so they have something pretty to show you in this case, but Iíll explain that later.
On to the meat of the game: the board. There are over 60 different boards to choose from in Chessmaster, most of them in true 3-D. The rendering is a little boxy at times, but for the most part it looks excellent. You can rotate the board pretty much anyway you want, and leave that as the angle you play at. Also, there light sources and shadows based on the position of the pieces and light. So they went pretty much all out on making a realistic 3D chessboard on your screen.
For those of you tired of the same old boring pieces, you can choose from a variety of not quite so traditional boards, ranging from dogs, heads with a few different themes including India, Medieval, and Halloween (Yeah, go ahead take that rook, I dare ya!), to nuts and bolts, and my personal favorite newspaper.
However, even with bump mapping on, it still doesnít look that spectacular and it is just a chessboard. The thing is graphics arenít really the thrust of this game, so why waste space when there are infinitely more important things to do with it.
Here is one reason this game takes almost a gig on your hard drive. Thatís right a full install of this game is only a gig; you get all this and the system requirements are nothing spectacular too. I do digress though, moving on, the sound is mostly recorded voices that either provide reminders of what can and cannot be done on the board (illegal moves are frowned upon) or is part of the instructional courses for the game. The best of these are by Josh Waitzkin about the psychology of competition, some annotated games of his own, and a course on endgames.
These recordings are nothing special, just some guy talking, but the quality is good, and their content is more important anyway. Additionally there are a few (like maybe three) sound effects for menu actions such as opening and closing, and they are exactly what they should be, unobtrusive.
This is where this game shines. If you know absolutely nothing about chess and are just interested in learning how to play, ignore that nerdy looking friend of yours whoís been hounding you about it for the last three years, and get this game. This can teach you not only how each piece moves, but also how best to apply that movement and some of the strategy for each piece.
Intermediate players who know a little about the game, but want to improve should get this game. There are rules and strategies for castling, pinning, guarding, as well as endgame and opening tutorials.
Or perhaps you ARE that nerdy guy whoís been hounding his friends about learning to play chess for the last three years. Get this game. There is a dictionary of chess terms from the Abonyi Gambit to Zwischenzug. There are actually opponents here to challenge you, and do you know the rules for taking pieces En passant? Theyíre in here, and though itís not very practical in application, you can at least impress your friends.
In short this game is perfect for players at every skill level. It can take you from knowing nothing about chess to being a threat on the field, and can provide you with opponents to test your skills at every step of the way, or let you find your own opponents online at ubi.com and get shellacked by actual people. Thereís also a chat option for online play, so all that trash talk youíve been practicing can be put to good use (ďGet outta my face with that pansy assed Queenís Indian Opening bullshit and come back here when you got game.Ē)
Also, this is a game that will stay on your computer forever, or at least as long as youíre interested in chess. With all the instructional and reference material it will take you upwards of 100 hours just to churn through all of it . Oh, and did I mention the truly disgusting number of classic games archived in here. The earliest being from 1619 and they continue up until this year.
There are literally hundreds of hours of tutorials and gameplay in this title and all of it is at your discretion. All of this for $29.95, thatís a drop in the bucket by todayís standards, and itís even better if you already own a previous version of Chessmaster because Ubisoft is offering a $10 rebate to upgrade from any previous version in the series.
If you like chess youíll love this game. If you know nothing about chess but you want to learn, youíll be intimidated as hell, but this is nearly the best tool for the job, unless you have a spare Grand Master lying around the apartment unused. If you hate chess, well why in the hell did you read all the way through this article then?
Thatís about the size of it folks, desk reference, tutorial, and skilled opponent, with more bang for the bite and all of it in a handsome yet modest package. Now, if youíll excuse me, Iíve got a match with Ben that we have to get in before his afternoon nap.