Reviewed: November 17, 2004
Released: November 1, 2004
When I was first offered the opportunity to review Chessmaster, a chess game for the Xbox, with Xbox Live capability, I felt a twinge of excitement. I mean, as silly as it sounds – in this age in gaming where action, excitement and eye candy rule – all gamers must give props to the granddaddy of all strategy games, especially considering that video games probably wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for chess.
Now I often get ribbed by the Game Chronicles staff for giving out long-winded history lessons, but if ever there were a review deserving of a history lesson, Chessmaster is it. Not only to pad a review that could be wrapped up by simply saying – "Affordable chess for the Xbox with full Xbox Live support, yet marred by mediocre sound and graphics" – but because chess really is the pinnacle of video game logic.
You see, back in the early-to-mid 1940’s when computers were the size of city blocks and consisted of rows and rows of vacuum tube cabinets, engineers needed a standard upon which to judge the quality of the logic functions they developed for their electronic behemoths. In 1945, an engineer named Alan Turing decided that the universally appreciated game of chess, with its infinitely strategic concepts, would be the perfect yardstick for measuring the validity of the logic programming, and soon after coined the term “machine intelligence” to describe this achieved logic.
What followed Turing’s momentous decision was a half a century of neck-and-neck racing between international engineering groups to program the most extensive, most powerful, chess computer – which laid the framework for the International Computer Chess Association which would later become the International Computer Games Association which still holds World Computer Chess Tournaments to this day.
Turing’s concept of “machine intelligence” is the basis for what we now refer to as “artificial intelligence” or “AI” – upon which nearly all of today’s games rely so heavily. If you’ve played any videogame ever, you can thank both Mr. Turing and the game of chess.
Well, chess is chess, isn’t it. After fifty-some years of people programming chess, you can bet that Chessmaster plays the game pretty much like an, eh…, well a Chess Master. The AI opponents (more than 180 of them) in Chessmaster are hard – not impossible – but hard.
Cycling you through a series of AI opponents simply represented by static photos in the corner of the screen, you point and click your way through a standard chess game. Make a stupid move, or outright mistake, and each click of the left trigger will back up one move. Every now an then, the AI opponents will make a mistake or get backed into a corner – but that’s few and far between. Out of the dozen or so games I played (about three hours worth of gaming), I would say that I legally (without using the left trigger) beat the AI about 25% of the time.
Chessmaster is definitely a difficult game – but that is what chess fanatics are searching for. I, for one, was surprised at how exciting the actual chess play was. My only real complaint with the gameplay is that the overall presentation is just dull, dull, dull. I know that there’s only so much that can be done with a chessboard to liven things up, but some excitement would be nice.
I wish I had the opportunity to give the online portion a try, but sadly over the two week period I’ve had to review the game, there have never been any competitors online – and that’s with me checking on a nightly basis. I can say that while Chessmaster seems to integrate a lot of the features of Xbox Live – voice, friends, etc.. – which is appreciated, they sure dropped the ball when it comes to creating a session, which somehow is devoid of any options to quit, go back, or end session once you’ve chosen to create one.
Seriously, if you create a session, hoping somebody – anybody – will join you, the only way you can get back to the original game once you realize that the online is dead is to hard reset the machine. Needless to say, rather than sit through another Chessmaster bootup, I generally swapped it with Halo 2 and spent the night having fun with a game people were actually playing online.
If you'd rather learn or study chess than play it you can loose yourself in the extensive training mode that provides quick hints, comprehensive advice, in-game coaching, game analysis and blunder alert warnings. Or how about checking out more than 500 famous chess games with commentary, spanning five centuries of chess, or tackling an unlimited number of brain-teasing chess puzzles. There is something here for everyone including the kids who will be facinated with three special chess sets with whimsical animations that might just get them addicted to the game.
The graphics are sufficient. All the pieces are in 3D and you have a variety of themes, but with little animation and static photos for your competition – there really isn’t much more to be said for Chessmaster graphically.
Like the graphics, the sound takes the minimalist approach; the silence broken only by the frequent clicks and piece-sliding sounds and random brainy-sounding orchestral crescendos.
At only $20, it’s an affordable chess for the Xbox with full Xbox Live support, yet marred by mediocre sound and graphics (you’ve read that somewhere before, haven’t you…). Still, if you own an Xbox, chances are you own a PC – for which there are zillion of free chess games available for download.
The Chessmaster gameplay is great, but probably not worth dropping a twenty-spot on unless you are a true chess fanatic. If the online play picked up, it would bump the value up significantly – until then, stick with the free stuff.
The game of chess is truly awesome, and the developers deserve respect for their programming skills. But in reality, putting chess on a console is like putting strawberry jelly on a garlic bagel – definitely a change from then norm, but nothing you’re going to want every morning.
As chess games go, Chessmaster is top notch. I was surprised at the challenge and excitement I felt playing Chessmaster. But after a while, it becomes work to play against the AI and until the Xbox Live portion begins to build steam, it’s not going to keep me coming back.