Reviewed: August 2, 2003
Released: July 7, 2003
The only chess game on the PC, aside from Chessmaster, that I thought was ever actually made was Battle Chess, which was awesome in its own right, because it was about as close as you could get to that game Chewie and 3PO were playing on the Falcon. That is of course until LucasArts finally decides to release one. Hint…hint.
Anyway, I have recently been disabused of this notion. Apparently German developer, ChessBase has been making quite a name for themselves with Play Chess: Fritz 8 (and seven other games besides the one in this review). The eighth installment is, well… chess, with most of the extras that you’ve gotten so used to from games like Chessmaster. The only problem is that it just doesn’t live up to the gauntlet that Chessmaster 9000 threw down.
Here's some Fritz Trivia to get you warmed up:
I don’t think you can ever say that a chess game has bad play control. There aren’t any fifteen-button combos (though what I wouldn’t give for a few well placed shoryukens to wipe that smug grin off the computer’s face), or insane jumping puzzles, or even bad camera angles. Make a bunch of 3D chess pieces scoot around a board, and that’s all you’ve got. There were a few times where the computer made a short move and I missed it was my turn, or a piece I was thinking about moving to one square couldn’t be set down where I got it from, but nothing too major. At least nothing that couldn’t be explained by a momentary glitch, or me not paying attention.
No, game play is broadly good for this game. They include all the pertinent hint, opening, and clock functions, so there’s nothing lacking. What bothers me is that there are only about 9 or so different opponent AI’s so there is a rather large series of steps to surmount. It is amusing that they named them things like Assassin, Patzer, and Drunkard, but how dispiriting is it if you can only beat the Drunkard (I can deal with up to the Tit-for-Tat player, maybe a step above that on a really good game). The kind of strange thing is that I think that I beat the Assassin the first time I turned it on (that seems to be the default, so every time you start a new game remember to change that difficulty setting). Way to go dumb luck!
Speaking of hints, they basically come from Fritz himself, and they are worded like a superior opponent admonishing a wayward pupil. So much for thinking you were a good player. Worse, they are often just something like: “Moving there is the beginning of the end for you,” or “That move will cause you no end of trouble.” You’ll get that and nothing further. Just what I need a smug AI. At least he never mentioned me being assimilated as he picks my pieces up.
Also, the other various functions for the game are all located elsewhere, in pull down menus, or some rather inopportunely located buttons. Essentially you can play chess in a window while doing something else, unfortunately that means that all the navigation in the game is done by those pull down menus, or the tool bar. While this isn’t a bad thing, things aren’t necessarily where you’d expect them to be. You have to hunt for everything, and I’m sure there are still some things that I haven’t discovered yet, but this again makes for a frustrating experience.
Also despite there being tutorials, etc you still have to come to the game with a pretty good knowledge, or at least being able to decipher chess short hand. While there are concessions for you absolute newbies, I still think you’d get a better education out of Chessmaster.
What’s here is good. You can have a 2D or 3D board, and they both look like chessboards (go figure). There aren’t too many extras in this department though. There are about eight different boards to choose from, though this is a little misleading, because a couple of those are the same boards just with different colorations. The most interesting is the sepia balloon board, but you’ll probably just end up back at the good old marble. There are some paint or effects options in the tool bar, but I have yet to see them have any visible effect (though I could have screwed something up, or have a defective copy, or just not have noticed it). Otherwise you can rotate and tilt the board, and zoom in and out so you can have a nice pawn’s eye view if you’d like as the knight lands on your head.
There’s also a nice picture of an old guy at a chessboard representing your opponent, but aside from that there’s nothing much else. It’s nothing too amazing, but very well done, and you must remember that it is a chess game, not EVE Online. Special effects are not very much involved (though you do get nice shadows and reflections, if you turn those on).
Surprisingly this is one of the best aspects of the game. No, you get no music. I know, I know, just once you want a chess game to include a good selection of classical music, perhaps some opera, but no such luck yet. You can however break out that “Flight of the Valkyeries” mp3 and have that playing in the background as you stomp all over the lower level AI’s.
What this does have though, is a really good recording of chess pieces being dumped out of a box and set up, bounced around, etc. Also, if you have the CD in you can hear Fritz spout several phrases at you over the course of the game, and at the beginning and end. It is rather amusing and does much to enhance the atmosphere. Fortunately you can play the game without the speech CD, or just tell him to shut up when you start, so if you get tired of your computer gloating, or broadcasting your impending doom there is an escape. I wonder how Kasparov would have handled it if before winning Deep Blue started taunting him. I would have thrown chairs. Maybe shoved a pawn into a USB port. “Oh, yeah? Now, who’s your daddy?”
Alright, well firstly you get a year subscription to Playchess.com which they say is a $24.99 value, so at least you’re getting something, and when you get tired of computer opponents you can turn your eye to wide world of human opponents and get beaten even worse. You can challenge people from all over the world, so you can really never run out of opponents, and yes you can even chat to your heart’s content.
Aside from that there is a massive amount of extras to be had, but again it just can’t compare to the comprehensive package that the folks at Chessmaster put together. You will probably get more than your money’s worth out of this game, just because if you like chess, you can play this pretty much forever, and there are options aplenty to liven up the experience (the Easter egg hunt you’ll have to go on to find them all may be quite amusing as well).
Fritz 8 is an excellent if not slightly demoralizing game. It is a little barebones in some of the extras departments, but ultimately they’re just icing on a fairly good cake. I still prefer Chessmaster, just because the menus are a little more intuitive, and it has a better instructional tone, and just some plainly more interesting options.
However, if you’re looking for something that you can get away with screwing around on at work, or want to play your impressive list of mp3s as a soundtrack to the game, then this works well. Also if you just want a simpler chess game this is where I’d go. It just misses being the best I’ve played, and the differences are telling. It is almost perfect, but we all know what games “almost” counts in, and chess isn’t one of them.