The Chessmaster 9000 Review
By Chad Montague |
Sometimes it seems that the cycle of abuse will never end. Offering the most complete and comprehensive chess program available on the PC makes yearly updates seem completely unnecessary. While the big boys at EA Sports can get away with releasing new versions of their various football and hockey franchises every year, such frequent updates aren't necessarily called for in the world of chess. Player rankings may change somewhat from year to year, but there's little need to keep so up to date with changes in the chess world.
But, reasonable as that might seem, Ubi Soft's back with Chessmaster 9000. Like previous versions, this latest edition of Chessmaster is the best chess game currently available on the PC. But the improvements over previous versions are incremental rather than revolutionary. In some cases those improvements are compelling enough to warrant the upgrade for those who already own older versions of Chessmaster. A lot depends on how important the new features are.
Let's start with the basics of chess. As always, the AI in Chessmaster is first-rate. De Koning's The King AI system is reportedly as good it's ever been but, without putting myself down too much, it's long been beyond my ability to register these differences. It's like one day waking up and finding out that the sun is five miles further away. It might make the astronomers all giddy but it won't be something the rest of us wouldn't bother to notice.
The real acid test for the AI is its performance against other top-level chess programs and it's match later this month with US Grandmaster Larry Christiansen. Whether or not The King can stand up against the merciless attacks of this US champ is still up in the air as far as we're concerned but the tactical and strategic depth of the AI will provide for a stirring match in any case. You can drop things down a bit and play against any of 150 lesser-ranked opponents most of whom are still quite tough. You can even opt for an immediate quick match against an opponent who shares your same rating. (Chessmaster 9000 finally lets you input a player rating at the start rather than relying on earning rating points through play.)
The unforgiving AI stands in contrast to the game's appeal towards inexperienced and mid-level players. With all manner of tutorials, detailed analysis and exercises, the game helps ease newbies into the experience. The series has always distinguished itself with first-rate chess teaching tools. In addition to the regular courses and tutorials, Josh Waitzkin offers a first-rate session wherein he discusses the Psychology of Competitive Chess. This combination of written essays and annotated games has a lot to offer the serious student of chess. It's primarily focused on the idea of tension -- how to preserve it and maximize its negative effects on your opponent while simultaneously minimizing your own. Waitzkin shares his thoughts on handling fear and pressure and how to ignore distractions. The International Master also discusses the philosophy of systems-oriented approaches to the game.
There's also an endgame quiz from US Grandmaster Larry Evans. Larry sets up 50 positions illustrating problems you're likely to encounter late in the game. You're asked to provide the next best move for a given side in each of these positions. At the end of the 50 questions, you're assigned a rating based on your performance. Speaking of endgames, this version of Chessmaster comes with a brand new endgame database that covers virtually every endgame position you can imagine. There's also a huge library of games including many matches fought in the last two years.
As is usual for the series, the interface is the still a weak point. Numerous windows clutter up the screens and some (like the captured piece window) take up far too much space for their own good. All the info is helpful and you can tailor the displays to give you as much or as little info as you'd like.
More boards have been added as well to improve the graphics but, as with previous years, poor textures tend to minimize the "wow" factor of playing with a fully movable, rotating board. The new pieces and sets are well done but, again, some of the more fanciful sets are merely distracting or confusing. Playing with a set of gnomes might be cute but it certainly isn't going to make or break the game.
Sounds are minimal but effective and you can customize them to a great extent. Since the game runs in a window, it's more likely that you'll switch off the sounds entirely and run in the background.
What did you think of Chessmaster 9000?
Finally, Chessmaster 9000 offers up a fairly attractive multiplayer option with the return of Chessmaster Live. These games, supported through ubi.com, provide a convenient (mostly) in-game service. Still, this will do little to weaken the appeal of the countless free chess games available online from Yahoo, MSN and the like. This seems the likely explanation for the shortage of players on ubi.com. Since we've had the final, it's been hard to find more than a handful of players on at any given time. And "handful" is me being polite. Naturally the game will be played more and more online the further we get from the launch date (the international release will help as well).
Finally, Ubi Soft has provided full support for Windows 98/ME and XP but specifically mentions the lack of support for other versions of Windows including 95, 2000 and NT. The verdict seems divided on this in some of the forums but lots of folks find the game runs fine on an unsupported OS. Since we're all running XP exclusively at home and at work, we didn't have much chance to test the reliability of other operating systems firsthand but the game worked perfectly well when installed on Windows 2000.