Genre : Puzzle
Publisher : Ubisoft
Release Date : August 10, 2004
Chess is one of my favorite games, mainly because there is no luck in the game. No random dice rolls to stymie your army's marches; no crappy table to make your cue-ball take a 90-degree turn on its way to the 8-ball; no clunky interface to get the hang of; and last but not least, no quick-playing civilizations to rush you early in the game. Instead, Chess is all about you; you either got it, or you don't. The only luck is that your opponent isn't skilled enough to capitalize on your mistakes while committing enough blunders for you to take advantage of.
Despite its overall simplicity, Chess is a real bear to learn. Oh sure, the piece moves themselves are straightforward, but to understand what a fork, pin and skewer are; to see a mate in 3 or more moves; and to truly understand how to develop your pieces and control the board, well, now you are talking about the keys to the game. As the old saying goes: Chess can take but a day to learn, but a lifetime to master. Therefore, the brilliance to the ChessMaster series isn't how fast it can beat you, but in how great a job it does at teaching you how to play the game.
While CM10K brings about yet another upgrade to King AI engine, only a Grandmaster is likely to notice the improvement. If the old version schooled you, the new one still will. However, CM10k does continue the excellent learning tools that in my mind define the series.
Josh Waitzkin, the child prodigy who was the focus of the movie "Searching for Bobby Fisher", again provides excellent voice-overs to the vast learning tools, as well as giving real-life examples of how these lessons aided him in winning his World Championships.
The first lessons are fairly straightforward, where he walks you through how the pieces move. He then moves on to learning how to do forks, skewers and pins. Once you've got those down, it's on to the two main stages of the game, the opening moves and the endgame. While it's common for most beginners to simply memorize the standard opening moves, Waitzkin does an excellent job at helping students learn the strategies that are important to an excellent opening, and not just parroting moves. He explains the concept of controlling the central squares, when it's sometimes advisable to lose some pieces to get better position than your opponent.
While the subject matter could easily just become a cure for insomnia, Waitzkin's excellent voiceovers combined with the onscreen aids help keep your attention. Also, about half of the actually lesson is interactive, where you demonstrate how well you understood – or didn't understand – the lesson.
The learning tools aren't just limited to a tutorial, either. If you are playing in the "just for fun" mode (where your play isn't ranked), you have access to some Chess tutors: the Chess Coach and Advisor and the Blunder Alert.
The Chess Advisor is there to help you see what legal moves can be made, what pieces you could capture and what squares are controlled by whom. The adviser allows you to either get a quick hint or allow the AI to spend some time analyzing the game to recommend your next several moves. The Blunder Alert was my personal favorite, though. This handy feature is the equivalent to a big "doh" slap when you are getting ready to make a move that's truly horrible. Right after you commit one of these heinous moves, the Blunder Alert pops up a dialog box that politely says, "Boy-oh-boy, I think that move really sucks. Want to know why?" If you let it tell you, it'll illustrate why it thought that move was amongst the worse ever and lets you take it back and try its idea instead. This was a very handy feature that definitely helped improve my game.
I had mixed results with the Advisor, though. While it does a good job at planning out the next several moves for you, usually by anticipating what the logical moves for your opponent would be, very few of its suggestions actually panned out the way it prophesized. Usually after I made the recommended move, the computer would counter with a completely different move than it theorized, sometimes leaving me in a worse position. While I didn't expect the script to play out all the time, as a learning tool it would have been handy to actually have these scenarios play out sometimes, if for no other reason than to be able to go, "ohhh…. I get it now, thanks."
Once you've completed the game, there is an option to have the engine analyze your game. This is an excellent way to go over your best and worst moves. It's worth working your way through it even after a win, just to learn how you could done better, as well as giving you some insights into what your opponent might have been thinking.
Graphically, while the game is an improvement over previous versions, let's face it: this is a chess game, so you aren't going to get pixel-and-shader-modeled pieces with tons of particle effects. And to be perfectly honest, I'm a chess purist and if the series ever DID do that, I'd use the game as a coaster. While there are a ton of sets in the game, ranging from standard, medieval, abstract and animated, the tried-but-true Staunton set was still the one I used most often. If you aren't the purist I am, there's a whole slew of sets you can unlock by winning so many rated games – games where you can't have the extra help the adviser and blunder alert give you. While the challenge is nice to have, the requirement to win as many as 25 of these games to unlock the set is a little much.
One of the things I was looking forward to was the online multiplayer, but, sadly, there weren't a lot of people playing it online when I tried to test it out. The games are hosted on Ubi.com. In addition to Internet play, you can also play on a LAN, but unless you're sneaking in a game at work, the old-fashioned real chessboard will do just fine. I was able to get in one or two online games, though, and those were smooth from a connection standpoint.
There are a few other fun things here too. There are puzzles where you can solve for mate, figure out the best move, etc.
I thoroughly enjoyed Chessmaster 10th Edition. Whether or not you'll want to pick it up depends on several factors. The most important is, if you already have a version that works just fine on Windows 2000 or XP, and the learning tools are still working for you, you'll probably take a pass on this one (although, Ubi is nice enough to offer a $10 mail-in rebate if you own a previous version). On the other hand, if, like me, your version of Chessmaster is so old it simply won't run on a modern operating system, you'll quite enjoy the new learning tools.
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