Fritz 8 Deluxe Review
By Jeremy Vancleave |
I've been a casual chess player for almost twenty years now. Though I've gone through a few studious phases in my long fascination with the game, I've always been a bit of a casual player. Sure, I've poured over the odd game of Botvinnik with a roommate and I've even worked a few lines from Searching for Bobby Fisher in at odd moments but chess still remains more of a pastime than a passion. Over the years the Chessmaster series has provided convenient and frequent reminders that push me into more serious analysis of the game itself.
That tendency is even more pronounced in Fritz 8 Deluxe. Though it does have some features to ease beginners into the game, Fritz 8 Deluxe is, to borrow a term from Confederates in the Attic, "superhardcore." Not surprisingly, experienced chess players will find more to love here than the more casual crowd. This version of Fritz seems a little more user-friendly than previous versions, but it still lags behind Chessmaster in terms of usability.
As I've said with the Chessmaster games, I've never been able to tell the difference between the strength of the AI at the higher levels. The simple fact is, given enough search depth, even a rudimentary AI is better than most human players. So while I can't say that this AI is more challenging than other versions, I'm happy to say that Fritz offers up a variety of AI engines including an older version, Fritz 5.32, as well as the Comet b50 and Crafty 19.01 engines.
Though each of the AIs are easily capable of beating you without breaking so much as a sweat, there are a few ways you can scale the challenge down to your level. There aren't the preset AI personalities that you'll find in many other chess games but you do have some interesting options. Apart from entering an overall skill level when you start the game, you can make use of a "Friend" mode that will scale the AI's strength to your own as exhibited through play. A sparring mode simulates a human opponent's chance for making errors by introducing a significant mistake at some point during the match.
There are still more tools you can make use of to shift the advantage in your favor. At some levels, the game will offer hints when you've made a bad move and offer you the chance to take the move back. A separate kibitzer window lets you play out a chain of moves before trying them on the board. Beyond these options, there's also a wide variety of analysis tools and a fairly large database of games that you can use to see how else you might respond to certain positional problems. A small training video featuring Garry Kasparov talks about the Queen's Gambit opening. There's a variety of game modes that also helps to offer you a new perspective on chess.
But with the focus on substance, Fritz lacks style. The game doesn't quite have the same level of presentation that you'd find in a Chessmaster game. Though it relies on the familiar Windows interface, navigating through the various options and sometimes even just knowing what the hell is going on is a bit more difficult here.
You also won't find all the fanciful boards that you'd see in Chessmaster. Sure, there are enough boards to break up the monotony but you won't have the seemingly endless options that came with the Chessmaster series. To be honest, most players I know usually stick to a relatively plain board anyway, so, unless you're just craving tons of board variety, the number of boards isn't too limited. Thankfully, you can set up a variety of options to add a more realistic look to the boards. Should you require it, options for reflections, shadows and three-dimensional depth add that extra layer of believability. The 2D boards are the easiest to read, of course, but the view controls for the 3D boards give you a variety of perspectives.
The graphics for Fritz 8 Deluxe aren't quite up to the level of flash and appeal that you'll see in Chessmaster, but they're just as functional. Chess games are never known for pushing the envelope in this regard, so it's no big loss that the graphics here aren't terribly impressive.
The sole concessions to personality are the often condescending, context-sensitive remarks the AI makes as you play. While it's uncanny how accurate and varied the AI responses are -- he'll comment on specific moves and trends from game to game -- the presentation is pretty obnoxious. Broad accents and outright insults definitely add an edge to the game, but it's one you'll prefer to do without after the first few games once the novelty wears off. Beyond these voiced-responses, the sound in the game is pretty much a non-factor.
One final note for serious players: The game comes with a year's subscription to playchess.com. Not only does it offer thousands upon thousands of online games every day, it also grants access to live coverage of significant chess matches around the world. If, like me, you're not a superhardcore player, you'll probably find yourself stuck in the "beginner" room as the competition elsewhere is stiff. I have no doubt that many of the players in the more advanced areas could possibly tell a difference between the strengths of the various AIs. Luckily, you can spectate games between masters.