The level of pattern recognitiion required for a being to play Go is so high that rather than judging an AI by its ability to enslave us on its production lines to make battle drones to hunt down our still-free brethren or to zap us into its insides to play Pong with the bloke off of Babylon 5, many consider the ability to play Go to be the ultimate benchmark. MMV's entry into the market is simply (read: pretenciously) named AI Igo, so obviously they reckon they've cracked it. Don't turn your nose up just yet though - in creating the series they've acquired the rights to the works of David Fotland, one of the most famous Go experts and AI programmers in the world. Believe it or not, AI Igo for the PSP purports to be a conversion of Fotland's "Many Faces of Go" AI. One of the most notorious man-made intelligences ever created, in your pocket, on the bus to work, and all for less than the price of a night out at Pizza Hut.
When we turned it on, it started speaking like Stephen Hawking's voice synth and said "SHALL-WE-PLAY-A-GAME," and we all screamed and ran from the room. After a few stiff drinks and some furtive checking that nobody had accidentally left the PSP's LAN cable plugged in (and, god help us all, maybe given Many Faces access to our nation's defence network), we decided we'd better stop messing about and review the game with a bit of respect if we knew what was good for us.
AI Igo has a surprisingly sparse set of options. You can play on three board sizes (9x9, 13x13 and 19x19) at five different difficulty settings. The difficulty curve depends entirely on your own personal level and the size of the game - Many Faces seems to have trouble with smaller boards. If you already play and want some indication of what we're talking about, the strongest Go player on the NTSC-UK team is about 15-kyu (lower quartile) and was kicking the poor thing around the goban left right and centre. That said, of course, small Go setups are just for fun and one would hardly ask a Kyudo master to give an archery display in a cupboard.
When you start playing on bigger boards, things start to get a lot better. It's not that Many Faces is staggeringly smart. Fotland estimates that at best it plays on 8-kyu level, so there are still eight ranks to go before it can even hold its own against the weakest professional. What makes AI Igo a solid game is that the thing doesn't go all out to ruthlessly rape your strategies like other Go games have a tendency to do. It plays a well thought out, slow burning, satisfying and above all interesting game. This in itself is not what makes AI Igo such a great package - what makes it genuinely shine is the amount of messing around the player can do with the games options and menus.
It is possible, with a bash of a button or a stroll through the settings, to backpeddle and replay a move any amount of times you like to observe Many Faces' reactions. Other facilities divide up the board into projected territory which will remain in the endgame, while others give you coaching and advice. The game will also allow you to save your matches to the PSP's memory stick and review them one move at a time. When you take into account the fact that any of these features can be used in conjunction with each other at any time, you realise that what you have isn't just a great game of Go: It's the ultimate tool for taking high level battles and deconstructing them for the mistakes, the stragegies and the logic which take have taken place, move by move, play by play.
On the downside, one or two features are missing from this incarnation of Many Faces. For one thing, it doesn't talk so there's not much point taunting it. For another, most of the support material has gone AWOL except for the game's only Go-paedia (which is going to be little use to anyone who can't fluently read Japanese and understand Go terms). Admittedly it would have been a little half to expect MMV to recreate the PC version's Joseki Library which allows the player to input opening moves whereupon it calculates the likely endgame and searches an online library of every recorded professional match ever for an example of this happening (smartarse). However, it would have required no work at all to fit a puzzle mode - given the amount of text and pictures on the disk, even adding a hundred Go problems with one sentence of explanation, one puzzle picture and one solution picture would have been a snap (and the PC version knows over two thousand of them).
Quibbles aside, however, AI Igo is not only a great game - it's a sublimely designed package and an invaluable portable tool that no serious Go player can afford to be without. The only question is whether or not it can really be recommended to beginners. Personally I would suggest that those coming fresh to the game hunt down a copy of Hikaru No Go 2 on the SP, for the following three reasons.
1) It's not as smart as Many Faces and it's extremely dogged with a terrible habit of playing for heart failure, so it's a very good tool for building endurance and concentration. It's easy to beat, but if you make one mistake (and you will), it will turn round and have you.
2) The (HILARIOUSLY unskippable) tutorial mode covers all the same material as AI Igo, but whereas the latter explains everything in dry text, Hikaru No Go 2 has a ghost explain every strategy play by play with you and then gets you to do it yourself, so even without Japanese knowledge it soon becomes apparent what the game is trying to communicate to you.
3) The game was sold with an exclusive collector's card. Due to the number of people buying the game, keeping the card and then returning it to the shop, there is a huge number of copies floating around sans card for a handful of change.
So make your choice. Beginners, don't expect an easy time of AI Go. Experienced players, try to remember that the best of men is only a man at best, but computers just can't play Go very well so tough titty. In final analysis, though, there's not one feature of AI Igo's design or gameplay that we can find to criticise. Bravo.
Text by: Simon Dominguez