Chessmaster Review

Chess is one of the oldest games in the world.  A game of skill and strategy, it has been used to test the prowess of supercomputers, as well as the thought process between humans and computers.  While simple to learn the moves, the game can take a lifetime to master.  Some play the game methodically, while others play for speed.  Some enjoy a friendly social match, while others are so intense the tension can be cut with a knife.

The Chessmaster series has been a staple in the PC gaming world.  While not as elaborate or powerful as the PC game Fritz, the Chessmaster series has produced several sequels that all could be considered a commercial success.  With a tutorial and coaching mode, the Chessmaster series has always been accessible to the newcomer while offering a challenge to the veteran.

Recently the Chessmaster series has moved to the consoles.  Is this move a positive one, or a move meant to cash in on the name made famous by the PC games?

While the graphics for a Chess game doesn’t need to be elaborate, they do need to be functional and clear.  This doesn’t sound too difficult to fufill, but unfortunately the graphics usually disappoint in this case more often than not.  Chessmaster does come with several 2D and 3D piece graphics.  The 2D ones are fairly standard, but they are easy to read and useful.

The 3D graphics are another matter.  While a few are useful, most are too artistic for their own good.  Particularly disappointing is the animated Chess set.  The characters actually do battle while capturing another piece.  While this is more a slash of the sword than something as elaborate as Battle Chess, it is a nice touch.  However, the pieces are so indistinguishable from each other, even while tilting and changing the view of the Chess board, that you are better off either going by memory or by changing the Chess pieces instead of using this set.

Also, when selecting pieces during gameplay or the tutorial, the color of the highlighted square isn’t very different from the squares on the board.  Sometimes I had to move the square around just to figure out which square was being highlighted.  Something like that is inexcusable, especially for a Chess game.

Chess doesn’t need much for sound.  In fact, the game takes a fairly minimalist approach as far as sound goes.  You aren’t going to hear much during gameplay, but the audio clues given during the game are all useful.

Unfortunately, the tutorials leave much to be desired.  While playing Chess is more exciting than watching it, you shouldn’t give the impressions that Chess will lull you to sleep.  While the people used for the tutorials are highly skilled Chess players, they need more inflection in their voices so they don’t sound like a boring college professor.

I thought that there was no way to screw up the controls in a Chess game, but Chessmaster proved me wrong.  The D-pad highlights menu options, and the A button selects menu items or Chess pieces.  The right analog stick rotates the Chess board when in 3D form.  There are two problems that I have with the controls.  First, the A button didn’t seem to always work when I selected a piece.  The A button had to be held down to actually select the piece.  Secondly, Chessmaster requires you to use the left analog stick to move the highlighted square on the board.  This feels imprecise and unnatural.  The D-pad would have been a much better choice.

Chessmaster has a nice tutorial that teaches newcomers to the game how to play, and gives tests to make sure the newcomer has learned the lessons taught.  Also, classic games are able to be studied in the tutorials for more advanced learning.

The Chess engine behind Chessmaster will be able to handle most of the players out there.  It has hundreds of levels as well as playing styles, from defensive to aggressive.  This is great to tune the game for when you want a mind-bending challenge or for a quick relaxing game.

After each game, the style of play is revealed and it evaluates what you did wrong and what you did right.  Instead of using a code, it explains in plain English what happened.  This can help you with your approach in the next games.

Chess ratings are used to figure out how good of a Chess player you are compared to another player.  Chessmaster allows you to find out what your rating is.  This can be useful information for those interested in meeting up with other skilled Chess players.

While Chessmaster is good, the other issues hinder the game.  Also, Chessmaster seems to lack personality.  The opponents you face have different strengths and weaknesses, and they also have names and a picture.  However, that is all the information that you are given about your opponent.  Even some voices or a little interactivity during matches would have added some personality to the game.

Chessmaster has a seemingly infinite number of difficulty levels and styles of play, as well as the ability to choose whether to play white or black.  Also, different moves can be made, so each game plays out differently.

Chessmaster also has online play available through Xbox Live.  The voice communicator is also available to chat with your opponent.  Finding another player shouldn’t be too difficult.  The $20 price tag is easy on the wallet though.

The Chessmaster series is a good game and has a lot going for it.  Unfortunately, a lot of issues hamper the game from being a great game.  From the graphics to the dry commentary to the awkward controls, Chessmaster could have had a lot more going for it.  Since older versions for the PC can be found, and the mouse interface is more intuitive, I’d have to recommend one of those versions over the Xbox version.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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