Ahhh...Chess. Did you know there are 318,979,564,000 ways of playing the first four turns in a game of chess? No? Well my dictionary did! As for me, my courtship with chess was brief and like so much else was ended prematurely by the arrival, one Christmas, of an ugly grey box known as a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I have since then managed only to retain the rudiments of the classic strategy game and these certainly came in handy when Fritz Chess 8 landed in my letterbox. I canâ€™t say I expected much upon inserting CD 1 of 2 but Iâ€™m pleased to say that my expectations were far exceeded. I feel like Iâ€™m preaching to the converted here, if youâ€™re into chess and games and therefore likely to be reading this review you are probably already into Chessbaseâ€™s Fritz Chess 8 but lets run through the many surprises that Fritz had in store for me anyway.
Itâ€™s strange to be talking about graphics and chess in the same context. Some might argue that graphics are irrelevant in such circumstances whereas others, myself included, believe that graphics and presentation are important even if they exist only to embellish or enhance an experience. Depending on which side of the fence youâ€™re sitting on you may or may not argue with my ensuing comments. I personally have mixed feelings about Fritz Chess 8 with regard to graphics and presentation. You have the choice of playing in either 2D or 3D, little imagination has been expended on the 2D chessboards and symbols, whereas the 3D rendered game experience is a good deal more refined. If you should choose to go the 3D route, you have the option of either a wood or marble set which are both rendered beautifully before your very eyes, the rendering is fully customisable, you have access to detail levels, the kind of lighting and shadows as well as an interesting piece collision modifier. Itâ€™s a minor gripe but I would have liked to see more options with regards to style, a glass or metal chess set for example would have been welcome and whilst Iâ€™m at it why couldnâ€™t they include a few different 3D chess piece styles. Ironically if you play in 2D you can choose such options.
Fritz Chess 8 runs through Windows and therefore bears all the familiar trademarks of any Windows program, i.e. the toolbar. Fritz offers the user a truly staggering level of choice when it comes to options and customisation. For example the user can choose between 4 top class chess engines: Comet b50, Crafty 19.01, Fritz 5.32 and Fritz 8. The chess engine is basically the program youâ€™re playing against and the latest engine included in Fritz is Fritz 8, which Chessbase boasts drew 2-2 with Gary Kasparov, who apparently is really good at chess. Iâ€™ll get back to the chess engine in a minute. For the moment lets concentrate on the sheer plethora of options at your disposal in Fritz Chess 8. You can mess about with engine management or create a UCI Engine and so on and on and on. There really and incredible amount of customisable commands. Iâ€™m all in favour of choices and itâ€™s refreshing to have access to a program that is so open to your control. The problem I have is that Fritz Chess 8 can be initially daunting, especially to somebody who isnâ€™t so computer literate. In truth one could happily play Fritz Chess 8 and never go near these options but their manifest presence does detract from the user-friendliness of the program. I donâ€™t want to scare anybody off, rather just issue a heads up; if you persevere youâ€™ll very quickly learn what you need to know and what you can disregard. The gameplay is easy as could be, you can either use your mouse to pick up and drop pieces or use the keyboard entry system.
Now getting back to the chess engine, aside from being able to whoop you at chess without so much as straining a circuit itâ€™s also capable of analysing and assessing your game. For every move made a huge chunk of data is produced in the bottom right corner of the screen, which is then translated into common English comments. I apparently am prone to, 'Unusual White Second Moves and Irregular openings,â€™ its funny my ex was always saying the same thing! During gameplay you can even ask the engine for a hint, a suggestion or even a threat assessment, even cooler is its ability to explain to you all the possible continuations of your current game. The game engine is also capable of altering its handicap level to suit your game, upon loading Fritz Chess 8 you are asked to enter your personal details including you approximate skill level, either amateur, hobbyist or club member. This will, combined with the coaching and training options, which include opening and end game training modules, no doubt improve your game significantly.
Itâ€™s impossible to concisely review each of the options in Fritz Chess 8, Iâ€™ve made no mention of the multiple notation options or kibitzers, but I hope Iâ€™ve given you a substantial taste of the single player possibilities available. I did allude to the presence of a CD 2 above, which may have gotten some of you thinking. Well just before I move onto the multiplayer mode letâ€™s address the small issue of this additional CD. The second CD is a talking CD, yep; you guessed it, its crammed full of really annoying and grating commentary that emanates from your imaginary partner. Itâ€™s not to my liking I must admit but then again I swear I was playing against C3PO. Fortunately this option can be turned off and probably should be.
The multiplayer is where Fritz Chess 8 really takes off. I was really quite taken aback by the sheer size and extent of the online chess community accessible through Fritz. Aside from the obvious ability to play chess against literally hundreds of opponents day and night, you also have the option of simply observing a game, which can be especially interesting when a VIP member logs on. To my surprise and disbelief the champion chess player Nigel Short logged on whilst I was pottering about, I was issued a message from the server that Mr. Short would be playing a game against another player and if I so wished I could spectate; now I personally couldnâ€™t care less but if do care this has got be a bit a treat especially since so many of chessâ€™ current top players, including Kasparov, use Fritz regularly.
Fritz is fully integrated with Internet Explorer so you can stay up to date with all the latest chess news and tournaments, fed directly to you from the Chessbase website. The online interface is similar to that of MSN Messenger, you can choose to enter personal details and even a picture of yourself, you are supplied with your own mailbox into which youâ€™ll no doubt receive many challenges from other players. There are numerous chat channels and also what appear to be online chess clubs for you to join. If like me, youâ€™re totally crap at chess there is a ranking system which should guide you in the choice of opponent, this system is ordered in accordance with the hierarchy of the chess pieces themselves so I was not surprisingly a pawn. Another cool if somewhat gratuitous feature is a virtual globe, which is of course fully customisable, and presents you with a 3D perspective of where all the players are hailing from, youâ€™re further aided in this by the flags that appear next to each player indicating his nationality and hey lets face it chess is more interesting when youâ€™re playing against someone in Brazil than some old geyser in the local park. One last thing about the online mode is the Ducats. Ducats are the currency, yes Fritz even has its own currency, which you can purchase at whatever rate applies to your neck of the woods and then use to buy things, for instance you may pay for the privilege of playing in a simultaneous exhibition match or for a private lesson by a grandmaster. I also gathered that you can win Ducats in the numerous tournaments run online or even 'earnâ€™ them, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, off other people.
So thatâ€™s it, thatâ€™s Fritz Chess 8 for you. If youâ€™re into chess youâ€™re into Fritz Chess 8 but even if youâ€™re only a casual chess player or perhaps someone who hasnâ€™t played in a long time I think you may be pleasantly surprised at just how much there is to be gotten out of this program. If youâ€™re not into chess its your loss as well as mine, I guess weâ€™ll just have to make do with Half-Life 2 and those other poor excuses for games.