The differences between various chess video games aren't always clear. Certainly you can expect that the rules, strategies, and nuances of the game will remain untouched. Rather, you have to look at the features wrapped around the core chess engine of games like Chessmaster on the PlayStation 2 to determine whether or not they're worth a look. If chess games do indeed live and die by their extra features, then Ubi Soft's Chessmaster is well equipped to enjoy a long life on the shelves of video gaming chess fans.
When you start playing Chessmaster, you'll be asked to create a player profile that the game will use to keep track of your performance and assign you a skill rating. Once you have an account, you can dive into a huge number of chess-related gameplay modes. Quick game simply drops you into a game as soon as you start it, squaring you off against one of Chessmaster's many AI opponents. In this mode, you can freely undo previous moves, switch sides mid-game, and otherwise bend the rules in the name of practice. The setup position mode lets you arrange an entire board to your liking and then start playing so you can test out new tactics and strategies. Unlike quick game, which doesn't affect your skill rating, the rated game mode tightens up the rules a bit and applies the outcome to your score. Puzzle of the day is a bit of a misnomer--in fact, you can receive new puzzles as fast as you can solve them, not just once a day. This mode will present you with a given board arrangement and ask you to achieve checkmate in one move or avoid being checkmated yourself. Finally, the championships mode lets you play through a virtual tournament against AI players of varying skill levels. Tournament structures available in this mode include swiss and round robin. The single-player modes are quite robust and make the game pretty worthwhile on their own.
Even given the varied gameplay in the single-player component, Chessmaster's online support is perhaps its most appealing feature, at least in theory. The game uses Sony's Network Adapter to connect to the Internet so you can match wits against actual human beings. "Great," you say, "but I can play online chess for free on a dozen different Web pages." This is true, but Chessmaster does provide a couple of advantages. For one, you're playing online chess from your couch, not at a desk. For another, the game gives you a persistent user account that lets you set up matches against players of similar ability. You have an online skill rating that's separate from your offline one, and when you set up games online, you can choose whether the match will affect your rating or merely count as a practice round. There are a few damning issues in Chessmaster's online component, however. For one, the interface for matchmaking isn't nearly as user-friendly as it could be--you have to access separate menus to see who's online and what games are available to you. The option to simply highlight a user's name and propose a match at the press of a button would have been nice. Another issue: Though you have a friends list that lets you be selective about who you offer a match to, there's no chat component or other easy means of communicating with other players. The final and most vexing flaw of Chessmaster's online component is that, as of a few days after the game's release, almost nobody is playing it online. Of course, this is entirely subject to the whims of people who own the game--a week from now, there may be hundreds of people playing (the game's two lobbies combined will hold 1,000). For now, though, it's not uncommon to log on to the Chessmaster server and find yourself alone.
Thankfully, Chessmaster on the PS2 contains a huge amount of supplemental material. The Pandolfini chess school mode contains more lessons relating to the game of chess than you might have thought possible. These lessons range from tutorials for absolute beginners, covering the way pieces move and basic chess terminology, to incredibly complex and cerebral treatises on strategy by well-known masters of the game. The lessons are written and narrated by players like Bruce Pandolfini, Larry Evans, and Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy and subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. Famous games are even displayed with running commentary by the players involved in the game. Further, the famous games mode lets you view the moves of more than 800 matches throughout the centuries, from a 1619 Giachino Greco match in Rome to Gary Kasparov's defeat at the hands of the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1996. Whether you're just learning the game of chess or you're a studied veteran looking to absorb an enormous amount of strategy and information, Chessmaster has something to offer.
Of course, graphics and sound aren't the focus of a chess game, but Chessmaster is a noticeably solid product in this regard. The chessboard is polygonal and can be rotated at will, and there are a number of alternate chess sets you can apply, like dogs and dessert dishes. One novel graphical addition to Chessmaster is the chess battlefield mode, which replaces the standard chessboard with a medieval scene in which you play as knights or orcs with animated pieces that fight when they take another piece. The game's menus are sparse but clean and easy to navigate. Finally, Chessmaster features a smattering of innocuous music tracks, as well as the extensive narration during the tutorial bits.
The PlayStation 2 version of Chessmaster certainly lives up to its pedigree. Of course, it won't change your mind about the game of chess itself--if you dislike chess, there's not a thing for you here. If you're a casual player or someone who's devoted to the game, though, you'll find a huge amount of meat in Chessmaster. The game's online component could have been implemented a little better, but it's still functional. And besides, Chessmaster retails for around $20, so the offline features alone make the game worth owning.