Ripstone, the UK-based publisher of Pure Chess, has just developed its own follow-up called Chess Ultra. With realistic graphics, cross-platform multiplayer against the Steam version, and plenty of puzzles, Chess Ultra really has nearly everything chess players could want – though a few choice features are restricted to the Steam version.
A serious chess simulation
Chess is a two-player board game dating all the way back to sixth-century India. Each side has six different types of pieces, each with different movement styles and values. The object is to take as many of your opponent's pieces as possible and eventually put his or her king into checkmate, a position from which there is no escape.
By now, most of us have played chess at some point in our lives. If you're new to chess or not an active player, you could probably use a brush-up on the rules. Thankfully, Chess Ultra has an extensive tutorial mode with short tutorials dedicated to the individual pieces, different styles of openings, and other fundamentals of the game. You'll get several Achievements as you work through the tutorials, so they're certainly worthwhile even if you know your chess.
As a single-player game, Chess Ultra offers a Single Game mode with plenty of options, as well as a robust set of Challenges. Some of those options include selecting between four gorgeous locations, four sets of pieces (including a Checkers-style set for overhead play and a fantasy set that I find too difficult to make out), six color themes for the non-fantasy pieces, five timer options, and ten AI difficulty levels. I'm completely rusty at chess and can still beat the lowest difficulty, so that's a plus.
The Challenges menu features eight sets of challenges. The Historic matches consist of ten real-life games starting with a famous 1912 match and going all the way to a big 2008 game. The other seven sets of challenges play out like puzzles in which players must reach checkmate in a certain number of moves. If you play these without cheating, you'll get hours out of Challenges mode.
Chess Ultra's multiplayer options consist of single games and online tournaments. When playing locally, both players must share a controller. There doesn't seem to be an option to use separate controllers, unfortunately.
Online games seem to be largely asynchronous in nature. After choosing to start a new online game, the system will match you up against another player who has presumably done the same. The online game will then appear in your list of games (you can have six games going at a time). It's worth noting that the game doesn't do a great job at notifying players that the match has actually started, so you just need to check back every now and then.
The option to start a matchmade online game in which the other person is actually present and watching the screen when you join would have been really nice. As it is, it takes some patience to get a game going. But playing against friends is always an option, should you want a more controlled and/or real-time experience.
Online tournaments offer a promising alternative to single games. Players can join large-scale tournaments hosted by Ripstone or create their own. You can watch the replay of any match in an ongoing tournament, so spectating even after you get knocked out can still be fun. The player-created tournaments suffer the same issue as regular player matches, though – you have to wait around and hope the other players realize they're even in a game with you.
Matchmaking issues aside, Chess Ultra has one big feather in its cap: cross-platform multiplayer! The Xbox One version can play against the Steam version but not the PlayStation 4 release (due to Sony's restrictive policies). You can turn off the cross-platform feature in options, but since there's no chat feature, I can't see any downside to playing against Steam users.
Steam versus Xbox One
The Xbox One version is missing a few features from the Steam game:
- Virtual reality support.
- The grim reaper opponent.
- The ability to play against Twitch viewers.
- The ability to export moves lists to text files.
The lack of virtual reality support is a non-issue, given the Xbox One's current lack of a virtual reality solution. But the grim reaper opponent can only be experienced in VR – you don't see your opponent outside of VR. Games like this need all the personality they can get, so not being able to play against Death on Xbox is a drag.
The missing Twitch multiplayer feature is less excusable; there's no technical reason the Xbox game couldn't connect with Twitch too. If you were a popular Twitch streamer and wanted to incorporate Chess Ultra into your channel, the Steam game would be the way to go.
The Xbox One version of Chess Ultra has 38 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Many of these are quite easy; I got 22 after a few hours of play. You'll have to complete all of the single-player challenges, which will be time consuming but doable.
Online multiplayer presents the real trouble. One Achievement requires you to win 20 tournaments and another involves winning a 32-player tournament. There is a boostable method of doing that, but it involves creating 31 alternate accounts – yikes!
I didn't play Pure Chess, so I can't compare Chess Ultra's improvements to that game. But Chess Ultra is a really solid game of chess. It looks beautiful and has some quality tranquil music that varies by the locations elected, including a few songs with lyrics. The robust tutorial and vast number of challenges ensure that solo players can learn the game and have a great time, and cross-platform multiplayer is awesome too.
The only area in which Chess Ultra falls a little short is its asynchronous matchmaking system. Not that asynchronous play doesn't have a place in chess games, but the game should have an option to instantly start playing with someone who is actually present at that moment, too. Waiting around on another player for an unknown period of time is not the most exciting way to enjoy chess.
Chess Ultra costs $12.49 on Xbox and $12.99 on Steam. Whether you're a novice or expert chess player, the sharp looks and wealth of features make it a great buy.
- Almost photorealistic graphics.
- Lots of single-player challenges to puzzle over.
- Cross-platform play between Xbox One and Steam!
- Matchmaking is entirely asyncronous.
- Some piece colors and sets are too difficult to distinguish.
- Sterile games like this could benefit from some personality.
Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.
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