Review: Bang! Howdy

A long time ago on a laptop far far away, I chanced across a new game called Puzzle Pirates. It was from a new outfit on the block calling themselves Three Rings. It looked fun, and even better, ran on Mac, Linux, and Windows without problems due to the wonderous portability of Java. I was impressed then, but stopped playing after a year or so and moved on.
Now ThreeRings has done it again with a new game called Bang! Howdy. Lets take a look…

The Engine
From a geek standpoint, Bang! Howdy jumps right out with a few baseline tech points that really are worthy of noting up front.
First and foremost, it’s a Java application, which means without recompilation, it runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. In fact, it’s based around the Java Monkey Engine, defined, on that website, as “a high performance scene graph based graphics API”. As soon as you start the applicaton, you can see its roots in the GL graphics system. JME is layered on top of the LWJGL application layer, which has proven to be an outstandingly powerful and flexible system for getting GL performance into Java games and applications.
Second, JME, LWJGL, Java, and most of the development tools are all opensource and GPLed in one form or another. This means that your average developer can download all the libraries and tools and build a system just like this if you have the skills and the time. No license fees, proprietary libraries or secret handshakes needed. Just download and code. I admire a company that realizes the opensource community has a strong offering in tools and environments, and it is no longer necessary to kowtow to large corporate interests in proprietary systems.
Sociopolitical commentary aside, Three Rings has put together a slick, clean interface, using full 3d rendering and animation, that runs smoothly on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and I for one am excited to see such an attractive and elegant application running cleanly and smoothly on my desktop Linux machine.
The Game
Oh, right, the game! Almost forgot about that.
Bang! Howdy is at its core a series of realtime tactics games. There are several variants of a basic theme, with scenarios giving environmental challenges. The entire game is set in a ‘Western’ motif, with plenty of ‘pardner’ing and ‘yerself’ing tossed in for flavor. At times it gets a little heavy handed, particularly during the tutorials, but it’s easy to slip into the ‘fun’ aspect of the environment. The chat system will even translate your comments into western-talk if you like (a thankfully disableable feature).
The games themselves resemble simple tabletop ‘move the pieces’ boardgames. You’re given between 3 and 5 game pieces, with varying levels of skills, bonuses, and penalties. Your opponent (either a ‘bot’ or another player) also gets to select from a pool of available resources (both after viewing the playing field), and then the pieces are placed on the ‘board’. Each piece is moved simply by clicking on it and selecting where to move it to.
Long time gamers will feel echoes of Starcraft in the environment, though you’re not really managing large numbers of pieces, nor are you mining and building. This is a purely tactical game, as opposed to strategy. The crucial element that balances out gameplay are the timers. Once a piece moves, a timer starts (which is visible as a partial circle under the piece). The timer determines how long it is until the piece can move again. Some pieces move faster than others, and some can move a longer distance. While a piece is waiting to move, it can be given ‘orders’ telling it where to go when its timer allows. For me, this is where I felt myself in Starcraft mode, frequently saying out loud “You go there, and you go there, you shoot him, and then you go over there…” – then sitting back and watching it happen.
At first I was thinking in large unit numbers, frustrated that I only had 3-4 pieces to work with, but the game balances out skills well, and your opponents don’t have any more pieces than you do. The scenarios are simplistic in presentation, but even in the tutorials, it took me 4-5 tries for each game type to actually win a round.
The Graphics and Sound
The board view is isometric, though rendered in full 3d (you can change your ‘height’ of view, as well as viewing angle), but you don’t have full control over every angle and view position. There are 3 levels of zoom, and you can only view the board from the four compass points. Despite this, I found the interface pleasant to work with. Keyboard and mouse interaction is very good – the standard ASDW key arrangements moved or slid the board around, while the mouse was used to select and interract with game pieces. Rotation and zoom was also controlled with keys around the ASDW arrangements.
The rendering and environmental views are extremely well done, and not over the top by any stretch. The artwork, as in Puzzle Pirates, is first rate – and Three Rings obviously went to great pains to make sure each scenario, character, dialog, and room adhered to a very specific set of guidelines as to look and feel. I can’t imagine the hours spent drawing these views, but they’re fantastic.
The pieces and other features in the game area are all rendered similarly, but they’re animated as well. When a gunslinger whips out their six shooter and blazes away at another piece (for 4d6 of damage! [I just made that up]), the piece does it with the flare you’d expect for a gunslinger. When your steam cannon fires off a shell, there’s a great animation of a steam burst and the cannon jumps up appropriately. All of these details make the game a pleasure to interract with.
I have to make a note about sound. Sound under Linux has always been a challenge with various n sundry false starts over the years. It has always been the thorn in the side of many adopters.
Fortunately, coherence is coming to the environment, as everyone is agreeing that the ALSA project is the way to go when doing multi-source sound (and who isn’t nowadays). Unfortunately, many older systems still use OSS, and there are occasionally problems. Initially, I had problems with sound in Bang! Howdy, until I remembered an article I wrote about how to get Firefox working with ALSA, to view Youtube videos. Since Bang! Howdy is launched from Firefox, I figured it was worth a try, and LO! It worked! I now have full sound.
The sound and music in Bang! Howdy is outstanding. With the kaPWING of bullets, the background music, and the moo of cows, it all works smoothly. I frequently listen to music while at my desk, so I was happy to see a configuration screen that let me turn the music down while playing. Nothing like listening to a cannon fire over a Counting Crows song.
Compensation and Advancement
The game, in much the same way Puzzle Pirates did, encourages single and multiplayer interaction. Winning at games gains you ‘scrip’, (sort of temporary money), which lets you go to the general store or the bank or the ranch and purchase things like new clothing (‘Duds’), new henchmen (‘Big Shots’ or ‘Units’) or other items. Scrip can be exchanged for Gold Coins (and vice versa) which is the real currency in the game. Gold coins can also be purchased online (which is one of the ways Three Rings makes money on the game – no fault there :). I haven’t figured out all the twisty passages of the game economy yet.
Total Game Environment
Three Rings made an interesting choice with the game environment. Unlike the trend in other MMPORGs, you never actually see your character moving around between games. The only time you see them is in an actual match, and then just as a playing piece. There’s no “walk your character across town and into the general store” where you see other players moving about. Each ‘room’ is basically static. Interacting with other players can be done through the ‘Saloon’, where a normal chat system is in place. The Saloon is divided into ‘Rooms’ where you can link up with other players to play games. It’s quite a different feel, and has echoes of the game environment on Yahoo! Games.
Bang! Howdy seems like a win. Seeing a fully animated GL application running cleanly on a Linux box without jumping through hoops is enough of a reason to endorse the game, but it’s also just plain fun to play. The games are enjoyable and challenging, the environment is comfortable and pleasant to work in, and the application has a clean polished feel to it. I’ve certainly felt the pull of “I need to practice the Land Grab game more so I can get better at it!” – so by that measure, it’s definitely a success. But in particular, for those Linux folks continually frustrated about not having decent games for their platforms, go try Bang! Howdy, it’s worth it!


A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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