Reviewed: January 26, 2005
Released: December 1, 2004
Fritz 8 Deluxe is the first computer chess game I’ve played since Battle Chess came out in the early 90s. I’m a sucker for such cheap gimmicks as animated pieces, so at first I wasn’t sure what to make of Fritz 8 Deluxe. Booting up one of the most powerful chess engines ever created, I was disappointed to see the interface resembles Microsoft Word. Where are the cool chessboards, blaring orchestra music, rooks that change into giant golems and rampage across the battlefield?!?
The Deluxe edition offers the following options:
There’s a reason why the developers claim Fritz 8 is the engine world champions prefer. Fritz shows as much mercy as a 12-year-old waylaying his dad in Halo 2. The computer trounced me in less than 20 moves in tournament setting.
Fritz 8 has so many customizable options, a new player may feel a little confused at first. Fortunately, the learning curve isn’t too steep. Moving pieces is fairly straight-forward, and you can take back a mistake with a flick of the mouse wheel. In addition to serious timed and tournament play, you can chose to play either in friend mode (the easiest) or in sparring mode, where the computer will fail to take advantage of certain opportunities in the same way a human would. You can further tweak the game’s performance by selecting a set playing style which determines how aggressive or defensive the computer will play. I preferred playing on the drunk, fraidy cat or moron settings.
There are several help options that will at least even things up a little. The coach option allows the computer to warn you if you are about to make a disastrous move, as well as give you tips on what would be the best possible move. You can select the threatened squares option, which highlights safe squares in green and squares where you will likely be captured in red. The ultimate tool in the cheater’s bag of tricks is the Fritz spy, which shows where the computer will make its next move. For all the help it provides, the coaching function can also be overzealous. I became annoyed when the “that would be disastrous” warning sign appeared every time I tried to force the computer into an exchange.
There is plenty to do in between matches. You can ask the computer to analyze your last game, complete with suggestions on where you made mistakes and even colored arrows showing alternative moves. You can practice hundreds of opening moves ranging from the Budapest Defense to the Queen’s Gambit, or search through the enormous historical database. Garry Kasparov also gives some interesting commentary in a 30-minute bonus video that true chess lovers will probably find fascinating. Novice players will have a hard time keeping up, because as Kasparov talks about different moves the camera never actually shows those moves on a chessboard. That’s too bad, since the Kasparov training videos are supposed to be one of the bigger perks in the deluxe edition.
As I mentioned before, Fritz 8 is all about simple elegance. The 3-D boards are mostly variants of traditional wood, metal or marble, but they all look great. You can zoom in to look at the board from every angle. If you want some unusual looking boards, you can select the Egyptian board featuring ancient gods and goddesses, or the Greek classical board featuring classical sculpture as pieces. For a truly interesting experience, you can play with pieces that look like ice sculptures or hot-air balloons.
The only background that caused my computer to sputter was the Spanish room, which features a stunning virtual study complete with a time clock and an empty chair facing you. After I shut down some other programs running in the background, I had no problems finishing a match in the Spanish room setting.
The major complaint I have about this title is the annoying verbal commentary and lack of any musical score. Music I could live without, but the computer taunts you with annoying voice-overs unless you disable commentary. You can choose to listen to the British blow-hard make snide comments like “another take-back! A billion calculations, all for nothing.” Maybe you prefer the voice I swear is Robin Williams doing an atrocious French accent. Some might find the Sean Connery impersonations or the “Fritz to Starship Enterprise” references charming. It amazes me a game that takes such a serious approach to chess uses cheap nerd theatrics when it comes to voice acting. I preferred playing with the audio turned off.
Fritz 8 Deluxe is no bargain-bin chess game. With a $32-$36 price tag, this title is as expensive as many top-feature games. Those who want to buy it first decide if they are willing to also invest the time and patience to improve their chess skills. You get to choose from the Fritz 8 engine and three other chess engines - Comet b50, Crafty 19.01, and Fritz 5.32. These engines will offer different styles of play and plenty of challenges for amateur players. The deluxe edition offers some new and beautiful boards as well as an expanded historic game library, which will be a big plus for those who love chess theory. The Kasparov training videos are interesting but will probably only be helpful to the true aficionados.
Fritz also offers online play that rivals battle.net in terms of stiff competition. Chess Online has a wealth of information on what’s happening in the chess world, including streaming audio featuring top chess players and commentators. Within seconds you can create a profile and challenge somebody in Europe to a match, join an online chess league, or try to advance in the worldwide rankings. A virtual globe shows opponents from Tokyo to London to Seattle. If you feel a little awkward at taking on a chess expert, you can always “kibitz,” or shadow, two other players. Since champions regularly make appearances online, you might be lucky enough to watch a famous personality in action.
Fritz 8 Deluxe has many features that will appeal to the true chess lover, yet is mostly accessible to newcomers. The coaching and analytical tools can help players of every skill level improve. While other titles may have a larger variety of chess boards to chose from, Fritz 8 offers some brain-twisting game play even on the lowest settings. There is also a strong online community who swear by this title, which is something not every chess title can offer.
When I began playing Fritz 8, I figured a jeans and T-shirt guy like me would hate it. While I’ll never be a regular at the local chess club, this game let me experience the old world sophistication of the game of kings.