It's impossible to write an article about Facebook games without mentioning FarmVille. And as you'll know if you read our feature on that game, it's almost impossible to write anything at all if you're playing FarmVille. But Zynga's blockbuster isn't the only game on Facebook, so what else is out there? Are all Facebook games about collecting stuff? Do they all involve spamming your friends? Are any of them any good?
Surely there's no one better to answer these questions than Eurogamer's Ellie Gibson. More to the point, there's no one else willing to. So she picked a bunch of Facebook games to review, based on recommendations from friends and what's riding high in the charts. (For the record, FarmVille-style games such as Mafia Wars, Cafe World and FishVille were excluded, due to the fact they're basically FarmVille with mobsters / burgers / kippers, and we've all had quite enough of that thank you.)
As all these titles exist on a unique platform and are free to play, we decided not to award scores in the traditional manner. Instead, we're weighing up whether each game is "Worth it" - as in, worth spending your time on. And worth alienating your entire Friends list with constant updates, of course.
Match Defense: Toy Soldiers
This is a spin-off of XBLA game Toy Soldiers, which scored a healthy 8/10 on Eurogamer and was praised as being "the best tower defence game on Live". The Facebook offering shares the same vintage military stylings, but belongs to the match-three genre. Think planes and tanks instead of rubies and sapphires - Bejeweled for boys, in other words.
Enemy units appear on a map above the playing grid. Matching up three symbols or more launches missiles, air strikes, ground attacks and so on, depending on which symbols you've clicked. You can select any two symbols in the grid to swap them - they don't have to be adjacent - and you don't have to make a match every time. This means it's dead easy to set up big combos.
The idea is to make you think strategically about which enemies you're facing on the top map. In practice, things don't quite play out like that. It's easier just to click away furiously, eliminating as many symbols as possible as fast as possible - like you would in any other match-three game. But because it's so much easier to make matches, this game isn't as challenging or addictive as the likes of Bejeweled, and certainly doesn't have the depth of Toy Soldiers XBLA.
Serious fans of that game might be motivated to give Match Defense a go by the presence of Xbox Live integration. There's a virtual war going on between the Allied Forces and Central Powers across both games, with occupied territories shown on a frequently updated map. You pick a side and then contribute points to the war effort when you win rounds - regardless of whether you're playing Toy Soldiers on Live or Facebook.
This is a neat enough feature but it doesn't add a great deal to the gameplay experience, or make up for the fact that Match Defense is rather simplistic and repetitive. It might have helped if you could battle against human opponents, or earn Achievement Points for your Facebook efforts, but as it is this feels like a starting point for Live integration rather than an exploration of its full potential.
Only if you're into Toy Soldiers, puzzlers and blowing stuff up without having to think too hard.
With 1.3 million monthly active users, this is one of Facebook's fastest-growing games. It's based on a US TV quiz show and a concept which will be familiar if you've ever seen Family Fortunes - contestants try to guess the most popular answers given by respondents to a series of stupid surveys. A viewing of both programmes swiftly dispels the myth that Americans are thicker than English people.
The Facebook game works much as you'd expect. Survey questions appear at the top, answers are typed in a box at the bottom, and then you're shown how many people picked the same answer as you. An excitable man shouts "Survey says" all the time. At the end of the round the answers you didn't get are revealed, and after each one a huge crowd shouts "Oh yeah," again and again, in exactly the same way, until you feel like you're at a Stalinist rally.
It's hard to see the long-term appeal. The surveys are generally daft and dull. You can spend the "Feud Points" you win on a bizarre collection of virtual prizes, such as gorillas, sushi, AIDS ribbons, weasels, salt, the Sydney Opera House and the Canadian province of Manitoba. No idea.
There's a time delay system in place which means if you want to play more than two games every 20 minutes, you must pay for the privilege. Prices start at $1.99 for two episodes and go up to $39.99 for 100. Or you could just wait for more free episodes to become available. Or you could just do something more exciting and rewarding, like arranging all the tins in your kitchen cupboard in order of expiry date.
Maybe, if you really like Family Fortunes, and you're desperately bored and easily entertained. But only for the first two free goes.
PopCap has just released a PC version of Bejeweled Blitz priced at £14.95. Which seems a bit odd, considering it's been available as a free Facebook and iPhone game since last year.
For those who aren't familiar, the gameplay works just like it does in regular Bejeweled - match adjacent gems of the same colour to make them explode and disappear. Extra points, multipliers and power-ups are awarded for racking up combos.
The twist is that you only have one minute to score as many points as possible. The hook is that your scores are instantly uploaded to Facebook. You can see at a glance how you compare to other BB players on your Friends list, and spend the next six weeks desperately trying to outdo them all, before you give up because you can't work out how that person you went to school with who left with two GCSEs (Food Technology and Child Development) keeps scoring 432,000 points.
As an iPhone game, Bejeweled Blitz works brilliantly - it combines intuitive touch-screen controls with polished presentation and a classic gameplay mechanic, throws in the thrill of competition, and is perfect for short bursts of play.
All of the above applies to the Facebook version, except the controls are mouse-based. There's also the added bonus of Blitz Coins - virtual currency used to purchase unique power-ups. You can buy Blitz Coins with real money or earn them as you play. This feature doesn't change things dramatically, but it's a neat twist which adds an extra layer of depth to an already excellent game.
Yes, especially if you haven't yet exhausted the delights of Bejeweled Blitz on iPhone. And at £0, it's much better value than the £14.95 version.
The Crazies Tower Defense
The clue is in the title. This top-down strategy effort is based on recently released zombie movie The Crazies. You must stop waves of undead enemies getting from one side of the screen to the other and infiltrating your base.
This involves purchasing soldiers with cash you've earned for defeating zombies. To begin with you can only select troops armed with pistols and shotguns, but as you level up you unlock soldiers with sniper rifles, grenade launchers, flame-throwers and so on. You can also buy upgrades, ammo and environmental objects, such as sandbags and razor wire.
As with so many Facebook games, you can invite people from your Friends list to play and get bonuses by sending each other gifts. And as with so many Facebook games, you can level up faster by purchasing virtual cash with real-world money, or being rewarded for taking up advertising offers - such as buying something from HMV or Pizza Hut. These elements don't enhance the gameplay much and can be easily ignored.
So putting the social networking and economic aspects to one side, The Crazies is a solid but unspectacular tower defence game. The presentation isn't brilliant - maps are grey, sprites are teeny-tiny and the sound effects are lame. There is nothing in the way of gameplay innovation here, no humour and no real horror. Compared to recent tower defence games like Plants Vs. Zombies, it all looks a bit dated and scruffy.
Unlike better-looking, more original games, however, it is free. And it is enjoyable, being based around an excellent gameplay concept and featuring a reward system which is finely tuned enough to keep you playing. It's surprising how quickly the minutes tick by as you click quietly away, taking down wave after wave of zombies without really thinking about it. As Facebook games go, this may not be the prettiest, but it's a pretty decent time-waster.
Sure - just don't expect the same level of polish and innovation you'd want from a paid-for tower defence game.
In the winter of 2008, I wrote about being struck by the similarity of the emotions described in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea and those engendered by playing Hasbro Family Game Night. Since then I have noticed no parallels between great works of existentialist literature and contemporary videogames, despite being forced to review Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust and Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad.
Until now. For Sorority Life, the Facebook game based around the American college campus experience, proves once and for all one of Sartre's most famous suppositions: "Hell is other people."
It all begins innocently enough. You create your character, choosing from a limited range of poorly drawn hairstyles, clothes and accessories. Your Confidence, Energy and Stamina meters are full. You can refill them and earn extra cash, Brownie Points and Influence by Doing Events. These include things like holding a costume party, and playing a point-and-click mini-game to find various props for it.
You can shop for extra items of clothing, and new ones are unlocked as you level up. You win Achievements for things like "owning 25 accessories, each with a Charm or Popularity rating of at least 4". Your News Feed becomes peppered with cheerful snippets of information such as "Jessie needs a Mochaccino" and "James received a free pair of Sapphire Ankle Strap Heels".
Best of all, you can buy men. They have names like "Fletcher the Frat Boy", and once you've purchased one you can go on dates. "To keep him, pamper him everyday to convince him to ignore your friends' attempts to steal him," the game tells you, like a kindly great aunt who's not keen on all them bra burners and that Geremy Greer. The News Feed starts to feature updates such as "Ellie locked up her man for the day" and "Tom got a Serge the Foreign Exchange Student".
Naturally, you are at this point convinced that Sorority Life is the best game ever made. Then you click on the "FIGHT" button.
This aspect of the game allows you to launch unwarranted attacks on other Sorority Life players. The more Sisters you have in your House, the more powerful your assaults will be. You can choose to "Slap" people or put them on your "Burn List", which means they are "publicly listed for attack".
Winning fights reduces your opponent's Stamina and Confidence, earns you money and gets you additional bonuses. You might be invited to "Celebrate your sweet victory with a house party!", for example. You can view your fight stats and those for other players, some of which are truly terrifying. Take these for 'Chinki Forester', a Level 195 Pre-Med Major: "Fights won - 277,357. Fights lost - 4245. Depressions - 105. Girls Destroyed - 135,918."
In short, Sorority Life encourages online bullying and rewards you for launching virtual physical attacks on other players. Mind you, so does every game with a Deathmatch mode ever made. At least this one lets you try on different shoes.
Sorority Life is a deeply unpleasant, sinister and sexist game. So yes definitely. Much better than some boring old French play.