When it comes to games, chess is one of the classics. Computer-based chess games have also been a natural fit, especially as graphics and processor power has improved steadily. As far as computer-based chess goes, the Chessmaster series has a distinguished pedigree, and the most recent incarnation (now the XI/Grandmaster Edition) continues in that long-standing Chessmaster tradition. Of course, chess has been done before, and players who own Chessmaster 10 may not find much value in this latest version. Still, it does a good job on its own merits, and it’s ideal as a first chess program for players looking to improve their skills.

How much do you demand of the graphics in a chess game? After all, there are many ways to display a chess board, ranging from the traditional 2-D symbolic visualizations to fully-animated 3-D chess sets. Chessmaster XI/GME has them all. The 2-D sets include some very nice “tournament-style” versions, as well as a few cute ones like the “newspaper-style” set. There are also some novelty sets, with minor color variations and art styles, like the chalkboard or neon-colored variants.

There is also a good selection of 3-D sets, ranging from very nice “House of Staunton” wood sets to some more unusual ones, like the ones made out of mechanical parts or Egyptian figurines. Some of the variants are unlockables, requiring that you play a certain number of rated matches, but most are available right away. Regardless of what style pieces you like, there’s a good chance that you’ll find something that suits your tastes.

A handful of 3-D animated sets are also included, ranging from a more traditional high-fantasy set, to a wacky version based on the Raving Rabbids franchise. Sadly, the animated sets don’t have much variety in the animations, with maybe one or two capture, movement, and idle animations per piece. Maybe younger kids would find them entertaining, but otherwise the animated sets are novelties rather than sets you would want to use for regular play. The overblown animated sets might detract from a game with less variety, but since there are so many excellent 3-D sets to choose from, the animated sets are just another extra bonus feature that you can enjoy or ignore as you prefer.

In addition to the pieces and boards themselves, the game really excels when it comes to using visual aids during the instructional portions of the game. Highlighted squares and arrows make it easy to visualize what’s going on. In fact, this is probably the best graphical feature of the game, more important than just the way the pieces are rendered. In this case, interface is everything. For the full effect, the game also includes a “stereoscopic” vision mode, so if you have a pair of those red and blue 3-D glasses around, you can add a sense of depth.

My only real quibble with the graphics is the lack of anti-aliasing (which was removed from the game), so the 3-D pieces have a bit of a rough edge. Really though, that’s a small complaint about the otherwise excellent graphics.

Well, it’s a chess game, so there isn’t a whole lot to be said for the sound and music. Background music is sort of unnecessary, although because of the way the game engine works, you can’t play MP3 files in the background (the game uses MP3 audio). Otherwise, the sounds are limited to minimal interface effects and voice tutorials. The voice tutorials are actually quite well done, with a complete set of high-quality voiceovers from the well-known chess player Josh Waitzkin to guide new players through the tutorial exercises.

There’s not a whole lot to be said about controls in a chess game, and in this case, that’s definitely a good thing. The interface has been refined over time, which makes sense now that the series is in its 11th incarnation. The only interface trickiness is with the 3-D animated sets, which incorporate non-standard cursors and piece models. Otherwise, the controls are completely intuitive; simply pick up a piece with the mouse and move it to a new location on the board. The interface is uncluttered, and players are free to think about the intricacies of chess rather than the interface.

The chess engine is a refinement of the “King” engine, and no doubt it plays a good game of chess. I’m not nearly good enough to gauge how well or poorly the AI plays, especially at the upper end of the spectrum, but it certainly seems like a competent opponent for mid-level players (like me). Chessmaster XI/GME makes multi-player fairly straightforward, with the ability to play on a LAN, via Ubisoft’s online service, or via correspondence. However, the emphasis is very clearly on solo-play and training, and here’s where the engine excels. The AI can offer hints and guidance in the training mode, with easy to understand instructions and tactical advice. This can help to de-mystify the game and help players refine their skills.

The game also includes some cute little mini-games like “Fork My Fruit” in addition to the core game and training section. These extra games are a fun way to practice various tactical skills and provide extra variety. They’re also good for casual play, when you want to practice a little bit without committing to a full game. They also help to round out the complete package, and when you’re dealing with a game like chess, the extras are what set the title apart from other chess offerings out there.

If there’s one area where this title falls short, it’s probably in the value. This is clearly the best Chessmaster game on the market, but there’s not actually a lot of room for improvement over previous versions. There are some mini-games to help mix things up, and the tutorials are excellent, but it all comes down the core game itself. Maybe more a powerful processor and graphics hardware would allow for photorealistic graphics and AI that can make small-talk during a match, but otherwise they’ve pretty much topped out with what they can do with chess. One last quirk is that the game may not work on all DVD drives—I had to try it on two machines before the game would install properly. If there’s one area where Chessmaster XI/GME is a step backwards, it’s the copy-protection. Let the buyer beware!

Chessmaster XI/GME is a really great chess game. The presentation values are excellent, and it has a wonderful training mode which includes fully-voiced tutorials from Josh Waitzkin. If you want a title that will help you improve your game, this is a fine choice. Its only shortcoming is that it’s pretty much an incremental improvement over Chessmaster 10, so it may not be a great value for owners of the previous version. For everyone else, this makes for a great (re-)introduction to the Chessmaster series, especially for new and mid-level players hoping to refine their skills.