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Chessmaster: The Art of Learning

For: PSP   Also on: DS

King of the castle

Product: Chessmaster: The Art of Learning | Developer: Ubisoft | Publisher: Ubisoft | Format: PSP | Genre: Card/ board game, Strategy | Players: 1-2 | Networking: wireless (adhoc) | Version: Europe
Chessmaster: The Art of Learning PSP, thumbnail 1
There are a few phrases you should never say to a girl on a first date. 'You're almost as good looking as your mum,' is one; 'Do you want to check out my Babylon 5 collection?' is another; but, 'Would you like to come over to my chess club?' comes in a close third. Sure, chess may be one of the world's most popular games but it does have something of an image problem.

In an attempt to rectify this, Ubisoft's latest Chessmaster title (there have been practically more iterations than episodes of Babylon 5) has gone all Brain Training on us and is presented by Josh Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy who inspired the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, and comes with a number of gimmicks to give it that daily cerebral floss feel that Nintendo does so well.

Ubisoft isn't Nintendo, though, and unfortunately these extra work-your-brain features feel tagged on. After several sessions trying to increase one of three 'skills' (Memory, Analytical Reasoning or Focus) you'll give up and get down to the real work: the ancient game of chess itself.

It's not that the accompanying mini-games are terrible – in fact, skewering fruit with castles or revealing famous artworks by moving pieces across the chessboard can be mildly entertaining – but unless you're a complete novice you're not actually going to learn much chess strategy from doing them.

But what The Art of Learning lacks in comprehensive tuition it more than makes up for in a solid main competitive game featuring some of the best chess AI I've encountered on a handheld platform. CPU opponents can be selected from Easy, Medium or Hard players and each comes with a face and an individual mini-profile. We're not talking RPG levels of background here but you do get to find out what type of personality you're up against: one may be profligate with their pawns, while another may play a tight defensive game but may crumble under the pressure of a coordinated attack.

It's good to see such a range of play styles, too, and as you begin to pick each off and increase your rating you'll also uncover your own weaknesses and quirks. Personally I found the slow, defensive players quite tough because my own style is aggressive and cavalier.

And this is how it should be. Elo ratings have been introduced (these are based on those used by The World Chess Federation) giving the game an official flavour and spurring players on to reach ever higher up the ranks. And although the rating may suggest a CPU opponent is much worse than you, if their play style is at odds with yours you can find yourself struggling.

The only minor weakness in the game's AI is that introducing a timer puts the CPU under no extra pressure whatsoever. Computer-controlled opponents generally make their moves within a second or two, regardless of any time constraint. So why bother putting the option in unless you're playing another human opponent? It's also disappointing that amongst all the options there's no tournament mode.

Despite this Chessmaster leaves you in no doubt that it's a well researched, programmed and calibrated package. In terms of presentation there's nothing fancy here but the clean design and attention to detail is preferable to a wealth of weaker chess titles offering all host of board designs and customised pieces. This is a serious game for enthusiastic players.

There's also a range of chess puzzles to get your head around if you want to brush up on some of the game's basic strategies. These generally have you making one move to solve a particular chess problem, like finding mate, capturing a piece, moving to safety or avoiding mate. Played either casually or against the clock it's a good way to hone basic skills but won't do much to help experienced players.

On paper the wi-fi multiplayer also sound brilliant. There's Dark Chess, in which your opponents pieces are invisible; Progressive Chess, which increases the number of moves you get per turn as the game goes on; and Extinction Chess, which gets rid of check mate and replaces it with the win condition of capturing all your opponent's pieces. Problem is – and even after hours of trying – we never got to host or join a game. Seems there are just not enough PSP owning Chessmaster players around. Which isn't an encouraging sign when you consider the game has just been released.

That's not the game's fault, clearly, but there are other issues. The main problem we have with The Art of Learning is that as a chess tuition tool it's somewhat lacking. For new players it covers all the basics, true, but there's nothing here for intermediate players looking to improve their tactics. Some advice on openings or end games would have been desirable but, failing that, surely it wouldn't have been too difficult to include a few historical games and go over the finer points of their significant moments?

But criticisms aside, Chessmaster: The Art of Learning still offers an excellent range of AI personalities experienced players can use to test and hone their game. For those new to chess and who fancy a crack, this is probably the perfect place to start. And given that it's a budget price release, it's a far more convenient – and cool – option than joining a chess club.
Chessmaster: The Art of Learning
Reviewer photo
Mark Walbank | 8 May 2008
Don't expect much in the way of useful tuition if you're an experienced player but for the novice this is a superb place to start
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