PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

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Fight to be the last one standing in 100-person gun battles.

PC Release: December 20, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Never has a video game been so worthy of the phrase “needs no introduction.” Reviewing the most popular video game on the planet may seem unnecessary, but there’s nothing more fun than delving into the inner workings of a smash hit. It’s easy to lavish all sorts of “smash hit” and “sales-breaker” synonyms onto PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, but what exactly has made it worthy of those terms? (Besides the obvious promise of chicken dinner, that is).

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PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG, as it’s almost exclusively known) is a multiplayer shooter developed by Irish photographer-turned-developer Brandon Greene: the original PlayerUnknown. Inspired by the realistic combat mechanics of such titles as DayZ (the mod, not that piece-of-s*** standalone), Greene envisioned setting the conventions of multiplayer shooting on a far, far grander scale than the likes of Call of Duty provided. Greene popularized the notion of a grand-scale battle royale in video gaming, and if PUBG is any indication, the genre and medium meld well.

What exactly is battle royale? To hear PUBG tell it, battle royale comprises putting 100 players on a large island and letting them kill each other until only one person is left to claim the almighty honor of Winner Winner Chicken Dinner. Each player is given only one life with which to advance to the top, and the playable area of that island continually shrinks to force encounters between players. Picture The Hunger Games mixed together with George Carlin’s concept of the Slugfest and the result is PUBG.

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Time to move in!

It’s worth mentioning that even though PUBG needs no intro… that’s no excuse for its lack of a tutorial. A game about 100-person deathmatches is merciless by default, but even a quick primer on the controls would be better than the current, abject lack of orientation. If ever there was a game that embodied the phrase “git gud”, it was PUBG. The closest this game comes to teaching players how to play is letting them run around in a small staging area during the 30-second warm-up.

Now it’s time to jump into the heart of the game… literally! PUBG piles all 100 players onto an airplane that cruises above the game world. The plane flies a different path each game, and players have only so much time to settle on a destination and then skydive to the ground below. This stage of the game typically sees a lot of deaths, as players rush to loot-rich areas to grab guns and kill their opponents. Truly, all those Hunger Games comparisons are not without merit.

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Be careful what you wish for… punk.

It’s worth mentioning that each of PUBG‘s two maps is huge; in stark contrast to the smaller maps found in shooters like CoD and CS:GO, players are given a 5.0 mi x 5.0 mi wilderness to run around in. Each map sports a versatile mix of open wilds, buildings, and towns, most of which are rife with equipment like shotguns and body armor. Players can also get around the map in one of several vehicles; just make sure to stay topped off on gasoline.

As if 99 other players weren’t enough to worry about, PUBG‘s playable area shrinks every few minutes. Those players caught outside the force field denoting that playable area will gradually vaporize. Though it might sound a bit hair-raising, the force field is a great way to, well, force gunfights between players. It certainly prevents campers from hiding in the boonies and prolonging the match indefinitely. The force field brings each round of PUBG to a terrifying climax, as the last 2-4 players have to kill each other in what’s suddenly become a small area.

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QUICK! Out-drive the force field!

The tension of fleeing from cover to cover in search of guns and improvised body armor is what makes PUBG so damn addictive. The game is as much a survival challenge as a competitive one, as players have to rely on both their skill with a gun and their minute-by-minute tactical acumen to stay ahead of their opponents. Sure, being handy with a gun goes a long way in PUBG, but players also have to calculate how to stay ahead of the force field. That takes a lot of math: the kind of math that usually involves taking cover behind as many rocks and trees as possible.

Planning a route ahead of the force field is one source of PUBG‘s tension; the other is the game’s minute-by-minute surviving. The only way to get the best loot is to scavenge buildings, which means risking getting shot in the face by unfriendly occupants. The only way to travel from locale to locale is by sprinting across open ground, which means risking getting shot in the face by a prone foe with a sniper rifle. Few games put players at as constant risk of getting shot in the face as PUBG… that’s what makes it so fun!

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Who’s REALLY riding shotgun in this situation?

PUBG may sound intimidating to novices, but the title is actually one of the fairest multiplayer shooters on the market. While it certainly helps to be good at shooters, players in PUBG live or die largely by what loot they find out in the world. PUBG‘s maps are littered with a random assortment of firearms, body armor, mods, and other equipment. This match-by-match randomization helps level the playing field and gives even noobs a fighting chance. This system also punishes campers, as players who decide to sit in a building all day risk losing out on the best loot… and are thus far easier to kill.

PUBG‘s gameplay is elegant and pure of vision. More than almost any other shooter, it’s one of those games that’s easy to pick up but difficult to master. There’s a simple rhythm to picking a landing zone, looting it, and searching out other players among the wilds of the battle royale. Sure, most matches won’t end in Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, but PUBG‘s mix of firearms and tactics is deeply satisfying. The controls (while unexplained), are intuitive, and the UI can be learned in under a minute. These well-designed functions are probably why PUBG tops the Steam charts more days than not.

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You guys better not be going to Outback Steakhouse without me!

PUBG makes for a tense survival experience solo, but that tension doesn’t go away with the addition of teammates. Players can tackle the battle royale alone or in teams of 2-4 people, giving them additional support to lean on while also increasing their target profile. Players who enjoy tactical shooters will relish the teamwork opportunities that PUBG provides; just remember to never enter a house through one door and in a single-file line. That right there is a field day for stairwell campers.

PUBG‘s tension also stems in large part from its sound design. The game has almost no music, playing a few tunes in the menu but leaving players with nothing but the sounds of nature in-game. The stark mix of wind and occasional animal noises makes for a suspenseful audio backdrop and demonstrates that minimalist sound design can do wonders for a suspenseful atmosphere. Creeping through abandoned buildings never sounded so satisfyingly creaky.

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Using rainstorms to mask footsteps is a must in PUBG.

While on the subject of game design, it’s also worth mentioning that PUBG‘s visuals are bright, if a bit primitive. The game benefits mightily from the use of strong colors, but most of its environmental textures are rough around the edges (if not outright blurry). Hopefully Greene and the folks at the PUBG Corporation continue to sharpen those now that the title is out of Early Access.

PUBG‘s character animations also leave much to be desired. The characters’ movement animations (particularly the running) look a bit… amateurish. Whether it’s walking, crouching, or running, PUBG‘s combatants seem to have a hard time with bending limbs and waistlines. True, these animations have no effect on the characters’ actual (and smooth) movement, but these unpolished animations confer that Early Access stink upon PUBG‘s production.

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That woman appears to have her scope glued to her forehead. Most unusual!

A few wonky character animations can hardly blemish PUBG‘s user experience… but the game’s hacking epidemic can. As of writing, PUBG is suffering an unprecedented plague of hackers. Many of them are alleged to be from China, but these dastardly cheaters wreak havoc upon PUBG servers no matter their nationality. A lot of them such inveterate multiplayer shooter cheats as jump and invincibility hacks. Greene has pledged a fix even as thousands of American players clamor for region locking.

Less severe than PUBG‘s hacker problem (though little less annoying), is the game’s penchant for lag. Lag has been a persistent issue for PUBG throughout the game’s development, and it hasn’t gone away with the title’s full release. The problem isn’t so persistent that players can expect it in every match, but it can get gnarly in team-based matches.

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CHINANUMBERONECHINANUMBERONECHINANUMBERONE

PUBG promises a bounty of fun and suspense for players who willing to chance occasional lag (and slightly more numerous hackers). Greene has vowed to address both issues as he has throughout this game’s development and has been proactive about responding to problems through the game’s Steam forums. PUBG deserves a try from every gamer for its fair, suspenseful experience. The game succeeds in capturing a hunt-or-be-hunted sensation as few games can, and is immensely rewarding as players continue to improve. Get the game. Try a match. Go for that sweet, sweet chicken dinner.

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You can buy PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Far Cry 4

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Liberate your parents’ homeland from an eccentric despot.

PC Release: November 18, 2014

By Ian Coppock

This month’s tour of anarchic third-world dystopias continues with Far Cry 4, the most recent mainline installment in the Far Cry series. Though Far Cry 4 does away with its predecessor’s setting and shakes up the franchise’s storytelling conventions, there’s no doubt that this game is still pure, unadulterated Far Cry. How so? Well, grab a hang glider and a machete, because it’s time to dive into Far Cry 4.

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Far Cry 4 was the one decent title that Ubisoft released in 2014. Following the ho-hum debut of Watch Dogs that May and the disastrous launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity that November, players were suspicious that Far Cry 4 would be as buggy and unpolished as those titles. Fortunately, Ubisoft stepped up to the plate in the final weeks of 2014, releasing a game that both ran well on PC and was largely bug-free. That was certainly more than could be said for Watch Dogs or Unity.

Far Cry 4 continues its predecessors’ proud tradition of providing a lawless open world for gamers to go stark raving mad in. Players can explore a world teeming with enemies to kill and treasure to discover, with plenty of shooting and crafting to boot. Most of the world is also open to players from the get-go, though it’s probably a good idea to level up before tackling that impenetrable mountain fortress.

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DIEDIEDIEDIEDIE

Though the fundamentals of Far Cry‘s open-world design remain intact in Far Cry 4, the game trades out Far Cry 3‘s tropical island setting for the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat. Players behold this mountain nation through the eyes of Ajay Ghale, a Kyrati-American who journeys to his parents’ homeland to scatter his mother’s ashes. What should’ve been a simple pilgrimage becomes much more complicated when Ajay is captured by Pagan Min, Kyrat’s flamboyant and tyrannical king.

After being shuttled to the world’s most awkward dinner of crab rangoon, Ajay gets rescued by the Golden Path, a rebel movement dedicated to ousting Min from power. Ajay learns that his father was one of the Golden Path’s founders and is offered help scattering those ashes in return for joining the fight. Once again, it’s up to the player to liberate a beautiful albeit lawless land from the clutches of remorseless bad guys.

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Min (pictured left) is not the world’s most empathetic boss.

The Far Cry series teaches that there’s no better way to take care of remorseless bad guys than by remorselessly riddling their bodies with bullets. Far Cry 4 bursts at the seams with weapons, which range from suppressed pistols to powerful rocket launchers. Players can get their hands on all of this hardware pretty quickly. Just like in Far Cry 3Far Cry 4‘s guns feel satisfying and make for some of big-budget gaming’s best first-person shooting. Many of the weapons that were present in Far Cry 3 make a comeback, but Far Cry 4 adds plenty of brand-new rifles, LMGs, and custom signature weapons.

Of course, players who aren’t in the mood to make lots of noise can also sneak around stabbing people. Far Cry 4 has even better stealth gameplay than Far Cry 3, allowing players to slip from cover to cover in quick rounds of cloak’n’dagger. Distract a bad guy, sneak up behind him, and liberate his jugular from the rest of his neck. Players can also access all sorts of suppressed weapons for stealth killing at a distance. Sneaking might not always be as fast as shooting, but hey; better to take an extra five minutes killing five bad guys than to let one hit the alarm and summon 10 more of ’em.

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So much for training honey badgers to be sleeper agents…

Players can pick and choose skills that suit their play style thanks to Far Cry 4‘s RPG system. Ajay can level up by completing missions and killing bad guys, giving players points to put toward such perks as faster healing and better sneak attacks. These abilities are streamlined into two skill trees that generally reflect attack and defense power-ups, and some skills can be upgraded multiple times. It’s fun to experiment with different combinations of perks to nail down that ultimate mountain warrior skill set.

Finally… the animals. Far Cry 4 is overrun with even more hostile wildlife than Far Cry 3. A few animals, like tigers, return from the previous game, but Kyrat is also overrun with new critters like honey badgers, snow leopards, elephants, and rhinos. While it’s fun to encounter these animals out in the wild and their hides make for great ammo bags, one facet of Far Cry 4‘s wildlife design feels gratuitous: the birds. No joke, eagles swoop down and attack the player because logic. The constant bird attacks are as annoying as they are nonsensical, as players frequently get talon’d while trying to scope enemies or just enjoy the view. Someone at Ubisoft is clearly a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

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You cannot be serious.

If all this talk of guns and exploration sounds like Far Cry 3‘s talk of guns and exploration, that’s no coincidence. Far Cry 4 replicates Far Cry 3‘s gameplay nearly wholesale, from finding treasure to shooting baddies to capturing enemy outposts. The setting may have changed, but players can expect Far Cry 4‘s gameplay to be all but identical to that of its predecessor. At this juncture, the point of tonight’s review becomes less about how Far Cry 4 is “pure Far Cry” than about why players shouldn’t just give Far Cry 3 a second playthrough.

To be fair, the claim that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is a mirror-image of Far Cry 3‘s is untrue in at least two respects. Firstly, the game adds a grappling hook so that players can climb cliffsides and mountains like a pro. Given Kyrat’s excess of vertical space, this only makes sense. Secondly, players can now shoot from behind the wheel of a vehicle, which is a welcome change of pace from Far Cry 3‘s much more pacifistic driving. Far Cry 4 also introduces mini-helicopters, but they’re rickety things that can only fly so high before crashing. That thin Himalayan air is a real b****.

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Mayday! Mayday!

Far Cry 4‘s zeal to copy its predecessor seeps into the game’s art department. Though its graphics are sharper than Far Cry 3‘s, Far Cry 4 re-uses nearly all of its predecessor’s character and world animations. Everything from Ajay’s herb-gathering animation to bad guys taking a smoke has been recycled from Far Cry 3. That may not seem like a big deal on paper, but any sequel that reuses animations and assets from previous games has a much harder time establishing its own identity. Such is the case with Far Cry 4.

Players can also expect Far Cry 4‘s missions to be congruent to Far Cry 3‘s. Ajay is faced with the same bout of exotic animal hunts, outpost takedowns, and head honcho headhunts that Jason took on in Far Cry 3. All of these missions are fun, but Far Cry 4‘s reluctance to try new mission types is disappointing. If the point of these past few paragraphs hasn’t been hammered home yet, here’s the skinny: Far Cry 4 feels more like a DLC for Far Cry 3 than its own game.

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MIC DROP

…Or does it? It’s true that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is unambitious, but the same cannot be said of the game’s story. Plot, at least, is where Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 diverge, with the latter having a much more compelling story than the tale of Vaas and the Rook Islands. Though Ajay Ghale is an uninteresting character who speaks almost exclusively in quiet murmurs, he’s far more introspective and believable than Far Cry 3 point man Jason Brody. That the protagonist’s parents are from Kyrat also gives the player an actual connection to the setting.

Meanwhile, Far Cry 4‘s supporting characters provoke both mirth and cringe. Ajay gets some help from some complicated characters, including two British marijuana enthusiasts and an African warlord who found Jesus. Far Cry 4 also dabbles in choice-based narrative, forcing players to side with one of the rebellion’s two constantly feuding leaders. It’s not an easy choice: one is a religious nutjob and the other is an aspiring drug lord. This rift helps keep the story’s tension high and makes it difficult for players to see which leader is better to support in the long run.

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So you’re telling me that I have to pick between legalizing child marriage and getting the locals hooked on heroin? Good Lord.

Far Cry 4 is one of those games in which the villains are more compelling than the protagonists. This is almost certainly a minority opinion, but main antagonist Pagan Min is a funnier, more interesting character than Far Cry 3‘s Vaas. Min’s royal proclamations are darkly hilarious, as he rants about everything from the perils of lighting candles to how he’s a much better Asian despot than Kim Jong Un (“Why doesn’t Dennis Rodman visit me?!?”). Min also possesses an air of deep tragedy that Vaas lacked, which becomes apparent as players discover why the king has taken such a particular interest in Ajay.

Indeed, the whole of Kyrat is rife with much better lore, writing, and storytelling than Far Cry 3 possessed. Ajay can delve into several layers of the land’s history, which add to the fun of exploration just as much as the promise of treasure. Players even have the option to explore Kyrat co-op, so long as P2 is okay being stuck as the eternally unfunny Hurk. Far Cry 4‘s multiplayer mode is much more hit-and-miss, and isn’t really worth delving into now that it’s all but dead. Also… was it mentioned that players can ride elephants into battle?

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Charge, Stampy!

While it’s a shame that Far Cry 4‘s gameplay is in near-complete lockstep with that of a preceding title, the game is saved from feeling wholly derivative by providing much better storytelling than Far Cry 3. Players who get into Far Cry solely to shoot things might feel like they’re rerunning Far Cry 3, but other players might also be pleasantly surprised by how good the tale of Ajay Ghale and Pagan Min is. It’s worth it for gamers in both camps to at least try the title, especially since Far Cry 5 is still a few months away.

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You can buy Far Cry 4 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Hello Neighbor

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Discover what your weirdo neighbor is hiding in his basement.

PC Release: December 8, 2017

By Ian Coppock

2018 seems to be off to a spooky start! First, there was Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator, a game about managing a restaurant by day and surviving in it by night. Now, there’s Hello Neighbor, a title about sneaking into the house of a creepy man who, despite an impeccable mustache, gives off quite the nefarious air. It’s time to investigate what he (and this game) are concealing from fatally curious horror gamers (cough, cough).

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To say that Hello Neighbor was highly anticipated is an understatement. The game enjoyed attention from such big names as PewDiePie and Markiplier, both of whom played the alpha version on their YouTube channels and enjoyed the experience. Indeed, what horror fan wouldn’t enjoy a game about unearthing the dark secrets of a seemingly benign neighbor? That premise smacks of such great films as Rear Window, and to see it in a video game is awesome.

Even though Hello Neighbor enjoyed warm fuzzies from the gaming community, that didn’t stop a few red flags from poking through the proverbial basement door. Early builds of Hello Neighbor started out with a tutorial, but for some reason that was nixed from the game’s third alpha. Players noticed a few bugs that went unaddressed in new builds of the title. Finally, the game’s release date was pushed back from August of 2017 to last December. None of those are particularly good signs, are they?

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Bruh? Bruh? Where the game, bruh?

The final version of Hello Neighbor begins little differently than its preceding alphas. The game takes place in a cutesy, 1950’s-looking suburb that resembles the Milkman Conspiracy level from Psychonauts. The player character, a small boy, is out playing one afternoon when he suddenly hears bloodcurdling screams coming from his neighbor’s house. He then catches sight of the neighbor shoving something into the basement and, rather than tell his parents or call the cops, decides to investigate the noises himself.

The neighbor isn’t too keen on receiving visitors, and avoiding him is the game’s main challenge. Players have to take care in sneaking around the man’s house, lest he get his hands on the child and prompt a level restart. One of the big selling points that developer Dynamic Pixels tried to push was the neighbor’s sophisticated AI; for example, he can notice if a window’s been shattered and react by setting a trap or boarding it up.

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Hmm… those tomatoes weren’t there a second ago…

So far Hello Neighbor sounds like a pretty good deal for fans of suspenseful thrillers, but that deal becomes raw when all the game’s bugs enter the picture. Hello Neighbor is, without a doubt, one of the buggiest games of 2017. Seemingly every facet of this title’s design is broken as of writing. When the game does launch, it often does so at a wonky resolution. It corrupts save files. It withholds achievements. It frequently crashes to desktop or causes the entire system to crash with it.

Hello Neighbor’s bugs go beyond system performance and seep into the minute-by-minute gameplay. Its physics are floaty. Items frequently clip through walls or into the blue hell beneath the game world. The player character freezes. The world’s textures sometimes phase out and are replaced with a green-and-pink overlay. Finally, there’s the much-vaunted “dynamic” neighbor, whose AI is so broken that players can sometimes remain unnoticed even if they walk right in front of him. Alternatively, he can occasionally spot the player through walls or even from across the house.

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Phoning it in, eh buddy?

Dynamic Pixels vowed to fix Hello Neighbor and has released a few minor patches to that end, but the fact that the game was released in this state is absolutely unacceptable. It’s always disappointing when a game is clearly shunted onto the Steam store before it’s finished; worse still that players are charged $30 for it. A few die-hard fans have argued that the game isn’t so bad in comparison to its first alpha, but that’s a stupid argument. What the game was at one point is irrelevant; its “finished” state is what consumers are paying for and therefore all that really matters.

As many players are probably guessing by now, Hello Neighbor‘s options menu does little to nothing against this torrent of problems. Not that it’s a great options menu anyway; there are a few token toggles for graphical quality but no option to rebind keys or play in a windowed mode. It’s also a little strange that the game doesn’t have a Steam workshop page considering the dev’s announcement of a (presumably canceled) modding contest.

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You’re not even trying, dude.

The icing on this s*** cake is that even if Hello Neighbor ran flawlessly, it still suffers from some colossal (and juvenile) design flaws. For starters, the game drops players in without so much as a tutorial. Sure, it’s simple to infer that the goal of the game is to break into the neighbor’s basement, but Hello Neighbor doesn’t even provide a primer on what the controls do or how to use them effectively. Hello Neighbor gives no hints as to how to spot mission-critical items or even pick those items up once they’ve been found.

Additionally, Hello Neighbor can’t decide if it’s a horror game, a puzzle game, or a platformer. The title meekly glues elements of all three genres into a single roughshod mess, expecting players to hammer out solutions to opaque puzzles, engage in clumsy first-person platforming, and avoid the neighbor all in one meaty gulp. Hello Neighbor is little kinder with its hints for puzzles than its cues for platforming, so have fun figuring out where to go and what to do.

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Am I supposed to hide in the fridge or use it for a puzzle? Who knows!

None of these problems, though, hold a candle to Hello Neighbor‘s most frustrating flaw: its resets. Whenever players restart a level, the game simply respawns them at that level’s beginning while leaving their inventory intact. So, if the player loses a mission-critical item or alters the environment in an unhelpful way, that item will remain lost and the environment altered even if they hit that restart button. Here’s some news for Dynamic Pixels: putting the player back at square one is not a restart. That’s not going back to an earlier state of their gaming session, that’s just moving them away.

Oh, and as a quick aside, the controls in this game are clunky as all hell. Players can only throw the items they pick up, with no option to set them down gently (don’t worry though, because Hello Neighbor frequently disallows players from picking items up at all). Amazingly for a horror game, Hello Neighbor also lacks any sort of lean button, making it much more difficult for players to spot a prowling neighbor.

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I’d rather face the neighbor than this game’s bugs.

Okay, so does Hello Neighbor get anything right? The game’s sole positive quality is its aesthetic. It’s not nearly enough to save the game, of course, but Dynamic Pixels nailed creating a tense environment. The game does a good job of juxtaposing a rosy paint job with the feeling that something morbid is afoot. This setup lends the game a paranoid vibe in line with murder-mystery media and the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

Unfortunately, the visual aspect of that motif is all Hello Neighbor really gets right. The game’s sound design is amateurish; sounds abruptly cut in and out of the world and are not mixed or leveled properly. The neighbor’s grumbling can be heard from a mile away but the sounds of appliances around his house either loop conspicuously or suddenly stop mid-play.

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Mornin’, Phil.

The true pain of Hello Neighbor lies in its unfulfilled potential. For all the negative things written about it in this review, its concept could’ve made for an amazing horror game if it’d been executed properly. Unfortunately, Hello Neighbor was barely executed at all. The game is unfinished, unpolished, and replete with more bugs than an exterminator could shake a stick at. Players would be better off leaving a flaming bag of feces on their real-life neighbor’s doorstep than trying to navigate this half-baked trash heap of a title.

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You can buy Hello Neighbor here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Far Cry 3

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Rescue your friends from the clutches of an insane pirate lord.

PC Release: December 4, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Are there any gamers out there who are ready to feel old? No? Well, too bad, because Far Cry 3 is five years old. It released a half-decade ago as of last month. Crazy, huh? Feels like just yesterday Vaas was torturing McLovin on the pristine beaches of the Rook Islands. With Far Cry 5 only a few months away, now feels like a good time to stroll down that avenue of memory lane.

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Though few would guess it from looking at Far Cry nowadays, the series got its start as a linear sci-fi shooter. The original Far Cry was developed by CryTek, and dealt less with trying to survive in an anarchic open world than battling mutants and stopping mad scientists. After Ubisoft bought the rights to the series, the publisher used Far Cry 2 to reinvent the franchise as an open-world shooter grounded in more realistic enemies and obstacles.

Far Cry 2 succeeded in exploring open-world violence, but the game was a very rough cut of that concept in action. Far Cry 3 heavily refines what Far Cry 2 pioneered, doing away with the focus on ultra-realism in favor of an emphasis on player freedom. Far Cry 3 also focuses a bit more on story and narrative, with larger-than-life characters built to complement its wild world.

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Kitty!

Far Cry 3 begins when a group of rich kids from SoCal decide that it’d be fun to go skydiving in lovely southeast Asia. Unfortunately for them, the island chain they land on is ruled over by a psychopathic pirate named Vaas, who promptly imprisons all of them and plans to sell them into slavery. Player character Jason Brody escapes from Vaas’s camp and finds refuge with the native Rakyat people, who’ve also suffered greatly under Vaas’s reign.

Even though Jason is a rich American kid who’s never wielded a gun in his life, the Rakyat inexplicably believe him to be a hero whose coming was foretold in some ancient prophecy. As Jason, it’s up to players to travel across the Rook Islands, defeating Vaas’s pirates and freeing Jason’s friends one by one. Jason isn’t alone in his quest to liberate his pals, receiving help from such eccentric supporting characters as an expat botanist, a Liberian soldier, a crazed CIA operative, and an obnoxiously sexualized island priestess.

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I don’t have my seat belt on I DON’T HAVE MY SEAT BELT ON

Right off the bat, Far Cry 3‘s premise is difficult to take seriously. The game expects players to believe that a white Cali kid who probably grew up in the same neighborhood as the Bluth family can somehow succeed where dozens of battle-hardened brown people failed. The white savior complex is strong with this game, and it’s a complex that Far Cry 3 expects players to buy hook, line and sinker.

Jason Brody’s evolution as a character is similarly hard to buy without guffawing. Sure, the kid starts out timid and unsure of himself as he makes his first trips around the islands, but the game depicts him gradually tiring of a “civilized” life and becoming enamored with stabbing people in the jungle. It’s not impossible to buy that time in an anarchic hellhole could do that to a person, but Jason’s character change feels painfully forced even when accounting for that notion.

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Genocide is fun!

Fortunately, Far Cry 3‘s supporting characters are much easier to buy than the posh kid-turned-jungle killer. The Rakyat guy who earnestly believes that Jason is the hero is even harder to take seriously than Jason himself, but each of the other characters has his or her own believable air of tragedy. The aforementioned botanist is easy to feel sorry for between his being exiled and his daughter being dead, while the CIA agent stokes laughter with his over-the-top boasts of American greatness.

Far more fascinating than Jason’s allies, though, are his enemies. Vaas is easily one of gaming’s most entertaining villains, conjuring up a blend of laughter and cringe a la the Joker or Reservoir Dogs. Whether it’s pontificating on the nature of insanity or brutally executing a prisoner, Vaas is a fascinating character to watch and is believable as a product of Far Cry 3‘s environment. It’s just a shame that he’s not the primary antagonist; that other guy is way less interesting.

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Vaas is the jungle and the jungle is Vaas.

The narrative binding all of these characters together is much less memorable than the characters themselves. All players have to do is rescue their friends one at a time in a rinse-and-repeat cycle that feels conspicuously like the early Assassin’s Creed games (coincidence, Ubisoft?). Far Cry 3‘s story is built exclusively around prepping for and executing these rescue missions, culminating in one of the dumbest, easiest-to-make story decisions of recent gaming years. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that the choice is built up in apropos of nothing and is therefore easy to make.

Story enthusiasts won’t find much earth to till in Far Cry 3, but that might be because storytelling is not this game’s point. The story missions are meant to serve as beacons between which players engage in hours of adventuring fun around the islands. The true narrative highlights of Far Cry 3 lie not in its cutscenes or writing, but in jumping off of mountains and engaging predatory animals in the jungle. That might be part of the reason why so many critics compared Far Cry 3 to Skyrim.

Far6

Another lovely day in paradise…

Open-world adventuring is what Far Cry 3 does best, and the game still does it better than most of its contemporaries even five years after release. Players are given two massive islands to explore and can search every nook and cranny from the tallest mountain peak to the deepest depths of the ocean. Because this is a Ubisoft game, players can bet that there are plenty of collectibles and treasure chests to find out in the world, with loot that can go toward buying bigger and better guns.

What’s that? Guns? Far Cry 3 is so rife with firearms that players could be forgiven for thinking they’re the national currency of the Rook Islands. Players can wield everything from pistols on up to LMGs; no matter its class, each gun in Far Cry 3 feels powerful and is a pleasure to wield. Players can also go in loud with a variety of grenades or sneak around stabbing people with a cool tribal knife. Far Cry 3 packs light RPG elements, allowing players to level up and obtain upgrades for sneaking or shooting.

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This right here is an example of a “shooty” gameplay style.

Getting around the Rook Islands is a breeze thanks to the Rakyat people’s fondness for cars and boats. The game’s vehicle controls are a bit clunky (especially in rocky terrain), but players can adapt to that beat up old Jeep with some practice. It’s just crazy that Far Cry 3 disallows players from shooting while driving, which is especially inconvenient during high-speed chases. Players who are up for more scenic travel can hop onto a hang glider; just make sure not to crash into a cliff. Oh, also, bring a parachute, because there’s no other safe way off of a hang glider.

In addition to finding guns, treasure, and more guns, players can also explore the Rook Islands for side missions and conquerable outposts. The former comprise survival challenges like killing a set of bad guys with only a knife, while the latter make for some great gun battles. Capturing enemy outposts allows players to obtain gear and see new locations around the islands, as well as encounter fewer pirate patrols. Each of the Rook Islands has its own brand of bad guy, which staves off the feeling of repetition that might otherwise come with constantly capturing outposts.

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Gently does it… gently does it…

The final piece of Far Cry 3‘s gun-toting, jungle-sneaking puzzle is crafting. Players can make bigger and better ammo bags from the hides of the Rook Islands’ various animals… nearly all of which are man-eating carnivores. Seriously, any ecologist who says that tigers are endangered needs to go to the Rook Islands, because there are literal swarms of them prowling the jungle. The idea of tigers, Komodo dragons, wolves, crocodiles, dingoes, sharks, cassowaries and other beasties all coexisting in one ecosystem is laughable, but it also makes Far Cry 3‘s world a thrill to traverse.

Far Cry 3‘s gameplay requires some suspension of disbelief, but it makes for one of gaming’s smoothest open-world packages even though it’s five years old. It’s refreshingly easy for players to get into a Jeep, capture an outpost, switch over to a boat, dive into shark-infested waters, and then hang glide home for lunch with pockets full of doubloons. Couple this ease of exploration with no shortage of fun missions, and the result is a game with an uncommonly acute understanding of the phrase “open world.”

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DOWN, FISH!

The icing on Far Cry 3‘s cake of blood and violence is its presentation. Even a half-decade later, the game still looks pretty good. Players can expect lots of brightly lit, brightly colored tropical environments that are consistent in their quality… sans the occasional floating patch of weeds. This island paradise’s only other drawback is its draw distance, which causes objects to pop in a little close for comfort and can only be adjusted so much in the game’s options menu.

Far Cry 3‘s sound design is also top-notch. Guns go off with satisfying force and the island’s fauna produce no shortage of startling noises. The game’s voice acting, a category that Vaas actor Michael Mando wins handily, is believable and compelling even if the story could be more so. The Rook Islands might be a hellhole, but they make up one of the most beautiful hellholes in recent gaming memory.

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Paradise awaits for the cheap, cheap price of your soul!

Far Cry 3 is an easy title to enjoy as long as players ignore the narrative. This game’s story is a badly paced exercise in forced character development and white savior-ism, despite the admirable efforts of Michael Mando as Vaas. Its gameplay, by contrast, is a smoothly concocted round of open-world adventuring that is guaranteed to provide dozens of hours of fun. Come for Vaas, stay for being able to snipe a tiger from a mountaintop while high on strange herbs. That should be the Rook Islands’ slogan.

Oh, and… Ubisoft? Hurk isn’t funny.

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You can buy Far Cry 3 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator

Faz1

Manage your very own killer robot-infested pizzeria.

PC Release: December 4, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Hoooo boy, is it really time for another Five Nights at Freddy‘s game? Even by contemporary industry standards, the number of sequels in Scott Cawthon’s smash hit horror series is getting a bit gratuitous. Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator may not have a number in its name, but this is the seventh FNAF game to release in just over three years. Still, Cawthon’s accrued no shortage of fans with his series about possessed animatronics that murder unsuspecting night guards, so power to him for that. Meanwhile, it’s time to see what this game adds to the burgeoning Freddy-verse.

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Released at the beginning of December, Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator is a game that combines two strange bedfellows: management simulation and survival horror. Unlike in previous FNAF games, players have the opportunity in FFPS to manage their very own killbot-inhabited pizzeria. That’s right! Any hardcore FNAF fan who’s ever dreamed of franchising a demented pizza place can do so in this title. Whether it’s picking the paper plates or installing favorite arcade games Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator lets players do it all.

Well, at least during the daytime. For while the business sim portion of the game is replete with colorful little tasks like expanding the restaurant floor and building stages for animatronics, things take a sinister turn after the “We’re Closed” sign fires up. Players have to sit at a computer (conspicuously positioned between two open vents), and close out for the day while trying not to get murdered by Freddy Fazbear & Co. Who knew that signing off on time cards could be so dangerous?

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“YOU DIDN’T PUT IN MY OVERTIME, HUMAN!”

Don’t be fooled by FFPS‘s Steam store page. Beneath the veneer of pixelated mini-games and Cawthon’s cute little anecdote about starting a pizzeria lies a horror game that’s in lockstep with previous FNAF titles. Sure, managing the restaurant is a big part of this game, but players live and die by their ability to survive five nights alone in a monster-infested restaurant.

Not to say that the management portion of this game isn’t without its own challenges. Players start out with a bit of cash with which to buy attractions, and have to do so in a way that balances their restaurant’s atmosphere, fun, and a few other meters. Successfully evening these meters out will result in lots of happy customers (and lots of money), but screw something up and the restaurant might be liable for a lawsuit. The series’ cute little disclaimer about murder and dismemberment doesn’t apply here; if one too many kids breaks an arm in that discount ball pit, it’s off to court for the player.

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Eat the pizza, you little goblins!

Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator is a big believer in that old adage about spending money to make money. The only way to upgrade the restaurant is to buy more hokey junk to fill it with, which unlocks bigger catalogs with better items. As players build an ever better restaurant, they can accrue points that’ll go into the game’s final score. Any restaurateur who can guarantee good customer service and avoid getting eaten by the attractions will go far at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, Inc.

All told, the restaurant-building portion of FFPS is fun, if simplistic. Players simply pick items of varying quality from catalogs, then install them in one of a few pre-allocated spots. While longtime FNAF fans will probably have enough fun with this stage of the game, it would be so much better to be able to see actual people in the restaurant. Merely picking places for stuff to go and then peacing out for the day makes the management component of this title feel shallow. Even racking up a high score for good Freddy Fazbear feng shui only does so much to stifle the ho-hum of seeing a hollow restaurant.

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Don’t be fooled. This is just the opening minigame.

As previously mentioned, the other half of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator comprises not getting killed by the restaurant’s animatronics after everyone’s gone home. There’s not a whole lot to be written about this segment of the game that hasn’t already been written five other times about five other Five Nights at Freddy’s games. Just like in every other game, players are confined to a small, vulnerable spot and have to rely on quick reflexes to avoid getting jumped by murderous robots. Before anyone asks, the answer is yes: the game’s five nights get increasingly difficult.

Every FNAF game has its own obstacle that keeps players from watching the robots, and Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator is no different. Instead of monitoring electricity or office doors, players have to complete various end-of-day tasks on their PC while also being on the lookout for unwelcome guests. While ordering napkins and cleaning the oven seems simple enough on paper, the catch is that the player’s computer and ventilation system are both extremely loud. Turning off either will make it easier to hear monsters, but also prolong finishing up for the night.

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GAAAAAAAH

Although Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator provides one of the series’ smoother survival experiences, it really illustrates just how much of a one-trick pony Five Nights at Freddy’s is. As always, players are expected to watch out for monsters while also putting up with some truly ludicrous environmental hazards. Leaving the fans off for too long will cause the temperature to rise quickly and boil the player alive… because apparently this restaurant is in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert in July. This setup isn’t as egregious as that of the first game, in which the doors were powered by electricity instead of, y’know, gravity, but it cuts pretty damn close.

FNAF‘s total reliance on quick reflexes makes these games feel more akin to clickers or infinite runners than survival horror titles. A decent survival horror game relies on thick atmosphere to build the player up until that first encounter with a monster, whereas FNAF can’t wait to throw all the monsters it can at the player as soon as possible. This setup makes the game’s scares feel a bit cheap, and Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator demonstrates that Cawthon’s formula has not and will not change anytime soon.

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And what do YOU want?

If both of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzera Simulator‘s gameplay elements end up shallow, at least they’re well-connected. The animatronics comprise the missing link between managing the restaurant by day and surviving in it by night. At the end of each day, players are presented with an animatronic that some “charitable” soul left by the dumpster out back, and they can opt to adopt it. Successfully salvaging the animatronic can land the player tons of cash for daytime operations… if they’re willing to tolerate that animatronic trying to kill them the next night.

This element of the game isn’t FFPS‘s scariest challenge, but it is the game’s most interesting. Players have to judge how well they can get by with or without the cash that each animatronic brings. The choice is tough: do players take that cash at the expense of a tougher survival challenge the next night, or throw the animatronic back outside and forfeit that extra dough? Each would-be Freddy Fazbear superstar has to consider whether they’re better at climbing the corporate ladder through thrifty management or withstanding hordes of killer robots. Both scenarios present their own obstacles.

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Well now I’m just hungry.

All of these FNAF design choices, both new and old, are presented much the same way that FNAF games have always been presented. This game relies on its predecessors’ combination of crunchy pixels and Flash-style visuals to get its unsettling points across. For anything that can be said about Cawthon’s reluctance to innovate new gameplay, he does succeed in sharpening and refining FNAF‘s visuals with every new game. Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator also features much stronger colors and smoother animations than previous FNAF games.

Cawthon also gets credit for continuing to improve his games’ sound design. Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator‘s voice acting comes through crisp and clear… as do the creepy, creaky noises that the animatronics make. The cutesy restaurant music sounds a tad stifled, but that’s probably to reinforce the game’s retro feel. As always, Cawthon also insists on making the monsters’ screams about twenty times louder than the rest of the game just to ensure that those adrenaline glands kick in.

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Let’s get cookin’!

Despite the inclusion of a brand-new management mechanic, Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator doesn’t advance the FNAF universe in a meaningful way. Sure, the game’s generated the usual deluge of fan theories and little kid fandom that every FNAF brings, but the game’s reliance on formulaic jumpscares is a bit disappointing after Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location at least tried a few new things. Players who are already heavily invested in the Five Nights at Freddy‘s universe will no doubt enjoy the title (especially since it’s free), but everyone else can safely skip it.

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You can buy Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria Simulator here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale

COUB1

Kill hundreds of rival shoppers in the name of holiday consumerism.

PC Release: December 16, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Welcome one and all to the 2017 Art as Games Christmas Special! As usual, thanks to everyone who read the reviews that were posted all year, and a huge welcome to newcomers just stumbling into this particular corner of gamedom. Tonight’s title celebrates that most venerated of American holiday traditions. Family? Nope. Friends? Nope. Being thankful for things? Not likely! No, the holiday tradition being alluded to is, of course, un(hinged)bridled consumerism, with Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale!

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Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale (let’s just call it COUB, easier on the tongue and the eyes and the lips), is a high-octane shopping simulator that seeks to capture the quintessential American holiday spirit. Players spawn in as an everyday shopper whose goal is to get into the mall, find a list of randomly generated items, and leave the store. The game sounds like a perfectly innocent shopping trip on paper, until players consider that there’s only one TV left for dozens of shoppers to fight over.

COUB is far more than a trip to the mall: it’s a vicious battle royale in which dozens of shoppers bloodily compete for that last item on the shelf. Sure, players can find the item that they need easily enough, but getting out of the store ahead of the dozens of other customers who also want it is another story. Players who hope to escape the mall alive need to pack much more than a shopping cart. Luckily, being in America, this mall has plenty of gun stores.

COUB2

Santa baby, why don’t you go buy a new gunnnn, for funnnn…

Players control their shopper in third person and can meander around the mall at their leisure. Each round of COUB brings with it a different gallery of items for players to find. Players can bet that beer’ll be at the convenience mart and the TV’ll be at Not-Best-Buy, but sometimes COUB spawns its stuff in weird places. It’s probably not every gamer’s first thought to look for a VR headset in the women’s clothing department.

Grabbing a shopping cart and finding the items on the list is simple enough, but what about paying for them? In the event that the shopper forgets their wallet, players can find other ways to make money. Cash can sometimes be found in hard-to-reach areas of the mall… other times, it can be plucked from the bodies of fellow shoppers. Whatever it takes to get those gifts, right? COUB seems to agree.

COUB3

GET BACK! Or you’re all going on the naughty list!

Anyway, once players have the cash, they can purchase presents and leave the store. The catch is that, much like grabbing a key in a horror game, the purchase turns all the NPCs around the player immediately hostile. The more items the player collects, the bigger the angry mob that chases them around the mall. Sometimes the crowd can get alarmingly big; players who’ve crossed out their entire list can expect upwards of 40 customers to chase them to the exit. It’s social Darwinism meets ‘murican capitalism!

Even the most nimble players will find that outrunning rival shoppers is only a temporary countermeasure. The only way to truly deal with the throngs of crazed consumers in COUB is to mow them down with a gun or get choppy with a sword. The mall is loaded with plenty of melee and ranged weapons, allowing players to make quick work of bloodthirstily thrifty shoppers. Most customers jump into the fray armed only with their bare fists, but be careful; a few are packing some heat of their own.

COUB4

Two asscheeks full of buckshot and he’s still running like a champ… go Santa!

While COUB has no problem encouraging players to mow down swarms of shoppers, aiming is another story. It’s hard to tell if COUB‘s guns shoot directly forward or if they lock onto the nearest enemy shopper… perhaps a bit of both? In any case, aiming and firing weapons in COUB is much more of a chore than it should be. It’s certainly more difficult than it should be to hit a giant, hard-to-miss rabble of shoppers. Players’ best hope for killing bad guys is to wait until they’re almost brushing up against them before firing. Luckily, most shoppers go down in one hit.

Killing enemies with a melee weapon is marginally easier than using a gun. Players can jump into the fray with their fists if they want to get immediately killed by the horde, or keep their distance with a weapon and swat shoppers as they get close. No matter if players use a gun or a sword, they can count on COUB to cook up one hell of a bloodbath. The amount of gore that can be spilled in this game is comparable to Postal. Lord.

COUB5

You better not pout, you better not cry, you better say your prayers, you’re all gonna die…

It’s a bit jarring to see so much blood coat a cartoon aesthetic, but that’s what COUB goes for. The game’s visual design is all bright colors and block-shaped characters, with an impressive amount of object detail to boot. The mall is absolutely jam-packed with both colorful items and huge crowds of people, so good luck running out of things to glance at. The game’s character animations are a bit wonky (especially since NPCs ragdoll upon death), but remain serviceable.

COUB‘s sound design is a little less amusing than its visuals. Some of the game’s sound effects, like footsteps, come through just fine, but gunshots are extremely muted. COUB‘s “soundtrack” is a single, looping piece of elevator music that sounds alright the first time around, but quickly gets annoying the longer players are trapped in the mall. Hell, the music is probably what drives all the NPCs to such violence.

COUB6

I need your biggest frickin’ waistline, lotta cookies to eat tonight!

Much like a bearded fat man who’s had a hundred cookies too many, COUB struggles with running well. Players might find that the game chugs a bit on their machine, which is a joke considering its simple visuals. This problem also feeds into COUB‘s framerate, which has an annoying tendency to slow down even when there aren’t dozens of characters in frame. Most annoying of all is a bug that occasionally prevents players from leaving the store even when they’ve gotten everything on their list.

As is to be expected, these bugs weigh down the fun of driving a cart ’round the mall, collecting presents, and shooting bad guys. Even though COUB‘s been out for almost a year, the developers don’t seem to have done much to address these issues. Hopefully they consider a patch, because COUB‘s shopping adventure is bizarrely addicting. It is truly the tobacco of video games.

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Negotiations are breaking down…

Players should bear a few other things in mind when considering COUB. In addition to being slow with a patch, the developers are terminally Russian; ergo, the game has a few spelling and grammar errors (also, the devs’ names are listed in Cyrillic). Most of these comprehension errors, like “beer case” are funny, while others, like “system unit” are too opaque. Oh well; all the more reason to hit up (or shoot up) every store in the mall.

Additionally, despite its cute and cuddly appearance, COUB is not for the under-18’s. That should be a given considering how much gore is in this game, but there’s no shortage of other controversial sights in the mall. For some reason the game allows players to collect nudie cards, but that salaciousness is somewhat broken by the fact that all the models are also block people. It’s a random design choice but, frankly, so are nearly all of COUB‘s design choices. That’s what makes the game work.

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(inoffensive shopping mall music)

COUB is one of those games that was definitely built on the cheap and with a bit of duct tape, but that’s also what gives it its charm. It’s one of the weirdest games to come this way in a while, but it works as a title because of its absurd gameplay and painfully accurate satire of American consumerism. Sure, gun battles don’t break out every Black Friday (at least not yet), but COUB‘s humor works because it brings the real-life tension of the shopping season to a furious, hilarious boil.

And with that, this year of reviews draws to a close. As always, huge thanks to everyone who’s been along for the journey. As long as there are more video games releasing, players can always expect more reviews to appear on this page. Have a happy holiday (whichever one that might be), and don’t drink too much nogshine. Actually, scratch that; there’s no such thing as too much nogshine.

Or too many video games.

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You can buy Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA

Omega1

Outrun a horde of ravenous aliens on a stylish space bike.

PC Release: September 19, 2017

By Ian Coppock

2017 has been a good year for games. Major titles came out on time and (mostly) bug-free, while the indie catalog produced no shortage of novel and fascinating titles. Even the Battlefront II fiasco was good in its own way; gamers united against the malice of microtransactions and dealt a savage setback to one of the industry’s most draconian publishers. The best way to top all of this video game goodness off is with a stylish ride into the sunset of 2017: SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

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Released in September by Desktop Distortions wizard Walter Machado, SWARMRIDER OMEGA is a fast-paced, twin-stick shooter set in the UBERMOSH universe. The game stars the Blade Saint, the protagonist of the UBERMOSH games, atop a motorbike that looks like it was pulled through a black hole. SWARMRIDER OMEGA is played in short rounds and challenges players to out-drive and out-gun an ever-growing swarm of aliens. The longer the player can stay alive, the higher their score.

Much like the original SWARMRIDERS, SWARMRIDER OMEGA lets players veer crazily around the screen while they kill the Naaru-looking things speeding behind them. Unlike the original SWARMRIDERSSWARMRIDER OMEGA lets players take more than one hit before dying. SWARMRIDER OMEGA also borrows class mods from the UBERMOSH games, allowing players to pick different palettes of powers like extra shields or an almighty lightning gun.

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So she’s basically the female Joker, if the hair’s any indication.

Because the Blade Saint never takes her finger off the trigger, players only need to worry about what directions they’re driving and firing in. The pursuing aliens all go down in one hit, but there are so many of them that players must pay constant, frantic attention to where they’re firing… or risk the swarm catching up to them. Similarly to the zombies in Left 4 DeadSWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s aliens ebb and flow from a trickle of enemies to an overwhelming tide.

Additionally, these aliens seem to have gone to driving school since their appearance in SWARMRIDERS. The creatures are faster and more nimble here than in SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s predecessor, resulting in a greater marksmanship challenge for the player. Sometimes the aliens even cut in from the sides of the screen instead of just running up behind the bike, so players hoping to hug the screen’s margins for the entire round are in for a nasty surprise. Constant movement is key to survival in SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

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I’m not sure swarming aliens are covered on my insurance…

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s twitch-happy bike rally makes for one of the most fun arcade challenges of the year. Players who thrive on high-difficulty, high-speed games will relish keeping the aliens at bay. Much like Machado’s previous games, SWARMRIDER OMEGA rewards players who have quick reflexes and a keen eye for sudden movement. SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s smooth, tight controls grant the visceral feeling of power that could only come with being a cyborg angel on a motorcycle.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA also does a better job of staying unpredictable than its predecessor. Whereas in the original SWARMRIDERS enemies came and went at a predictable pace, SWARMRIDER OMEGA keeps players guessing when the next big tide of aliens is coming ’round the mountain. This makes the game different every round, which is essential for a title whose rounds rarely last more than two minutes. What a two minutes, though!

Omega4

KICK IN THE TURBO!

SWARMRIDER OMEGA makes shooting aliens from a motorbike all the cooler with crunchy retro visuals. Much like the UBERMOSH games, SWARMRIDER OMEGA is built from the ground-up to look like an old arcade title. Character models, animations, even the clouds of smoke are all heavily pixelated to make the game look at home in a lineup of retro shooters. Combine this look with bright neon colors, and the result is a game that screams cyberpunk.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s simpler aesthetic also results in smooth system performance. The game’s system demands barely constitute a ghost in the machine, meaning that the game can run on PCs new and old. While SWARMRIDER OMEGA gets props for running like silk, it’s a shame that the game has absolutely no options menu. It’s true that the game’s old-school setup precludes most performance problems that plague other modern titles, but putting in a few options to help players out in case problems do arise is never a bad thing.

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Where is the option for a seat belt?!

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s visuals are a solid foundation for its gritty sci-fi atmosphere, but the game’s soundtrack is truly where that grit sinks in. Machado’s games feature an eclectic variety of sounds ranging from heavy metal to industrial, but SWARMRIDER OMEGA opts for dark electronica. With quick pulses and grimy textures, SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s soundtrack is an ideal companion for the half-human, half-machine road warrior. It’s also available as a separate purchase on Steam.

Though SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s soundtrack crashes in with enough force to topple buildings, its other sound effects are strangely muted. The sounds of the Blade Saint’s gun and of the aliens dying contrast starkly with the UBERMOSH saga’s much more forceful sounds. Machado should consider implementing a patch that makes SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s sounds just as fierce as those of his other games; it would reinforce OMEGA‘s visceral vibe and make the guns feel far more powerful.

Omega6

Is the silencer on?

Luckily for SWARMRIDER OMEGA, the lack of an options menu and headphone-incinerating noise does little to dispel the fun of shooting aliens from a motorbike. Anyone in the mood for a few rounds of vicious, fast-paced shooting should pick the game up, especially since it’s only one lousy dollar. Walter Machado has once again proven his mastery of short-form fun, packing a lot of challenge and surprise into only a few minutes of gameplay. It’ll be worth seeing what he does next year, just as it’s worth staying ahead of the bad guys in SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

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You can buy SWARMRIDER OMEGA here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

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Discover why your squadmates went rogue.

PC Release: November 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

The end is here at last. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the final installment in this quest to figure out where CoD came from and where it’s going. Like Black Ops IIBlack Ops III bears an uncommon dedication to twisting CoD‘s conventions into new and unfamiliar forms. The catch to change, though, is that deviating from the beaten path doesn’t guarantee newfound success.

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Developed by the longtime CoD-heads at Treyarch, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the twelfth Call of Duty in Activision’s long-running, bad guy-shooting series. The game is set 40 years after the events of Black Ops II, in which a Nicaraguan narco-terrorist nearly brought the world to its knees simply by hijacking a fleet of drones. The year is now 2065 (more future CoD, hooray…), and all the world’s countries now sport impenetrable air defenses in case the robots rise up again.

With everyone suspicious of so much as sparks from a toaster, the only way for nations to conduct warfare is to use teams of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. In a first for the CoD series, players can create their own character with a variety of cosmetic options, and can even choose to play as a woman (surprising for a series as seemingly gynophobic as CoD). Once they’ve created their character, players join up with their own squad to undertake hazardous missions in a dystopian future.

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Sweeeeeet…

It’s worth pointing out right away that the only thing Black Ops III shares with its predecessors is the name “Black Ops.” Most of the characters in this sub-series aren’t all that interesting anyway, but their absence from Black Ops III‘s story campaign makes this title feel isolated from its peers. Black Ops III seems to be insecure about this fact, because the game rather conspicuously shoehorns a plot device from the first game into the ending. That’s about all the shoutouts that Black Ops fans can expect.

The characters that Black Ops III introduces to fill those holes aren’t very memorable either. The player character speaks every so often, but they’re devoid of personality and restricted only to heavily scripted, soullessly delivered dialogue. The character’s NPC squadmates are dead ringers for past CoD niches: there’s the overly angry sergeant, the computer nerd, and the guy who waxes philosophical about freedom and ethics. Treyarch couldn’t be asked to make these gunslingers a bit more endearing.

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You might say that this game has a few… Crysis moments.

Anyway, after spending a few years as a half-human, half-robot, all-American killing machine, the player character gets a phone call informing them that the rest of their team has gone rogue. Their new mission is to find out why, with only the aforementioned angry sidekick and the shy gamer girl to keep them company. Apparently the AWOL members of the player’s team have been exhibiting weird behavior, such as intent to bring down the CIA from the inside. That’s probably worth looking into.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this review that Black Ops III tries to make some changes to CoD, and narrative is first up on that chopping block. Black Ops III‘s premise and moment-to-moment dialogue makes for some of the series’ most yawn-worthy exposition, but the game does get a few points for experimenting with abstract psychological horror. More than once, the player character is pitted against mind-shredding hallucinations set in weird nightmare worlds, which both deepens the atmosphere and comprises a far cry from CoD‘s usual chopper-running.

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Where are we?

The idea of running around in a robot nightmare may sound cool on paper, but don’t get that wallet out just yet. Even though the player character can dive into their rogue squadmates’ brains and play around inside their darkest memories, those exposes almost never serve the narrative. Black Ops III seems more interested in letting players fight through nightmare worlds for the sake of fighting through nightmare worlds instead of actually advancing the plot. Until the very end, these vignettes all end with “I actually don’t know why we’re rogue, but the NEXT person definitely will!”

Unfortunately for Black Ops III‘s notion of depth, it takes a lot more than fighting ghostly Nazis in a floating snow field to construct a heartfelt or sophisticated narrative. Set pieces by themselves do not tell a story; the game has cool dream worlds down pat but can’t be asked to give players a good reason for being in them. That question is almost guaranteed to burn in players’ heads, especially when the game’s mystery mantra of picturing a frozen forest gets repeated ninety billion times.

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Are we awake yet?

Luckily for Black Ops III, there’s much more rhyme and reason to the game’s waking environments. When players aren’t busy running around in their frenemies’ heads, they’re exploring some of the most engrossing cyberpunk environments that gaming’s produced in recent years. Whether it’s the flooded ruins of a post-apocalyptic Singapore or the environs of a futuristic Egypt, Black Ops III‘s gritty fusion of technology and dystopia is to be envied. Good that these environments are rendered gorgeously; better that they’re rounded out with lots of beautiful lighting effects.

Unlike their ethereal counterparts, Black Ops III‘s corporeal realms actually make sense to be in. Players are given concrete objectives with which to explore these environments, and these help keep the narrative on track. Unlike virtually every other CoDBlack Ops III keeps its story confined to just 2-3 locations around the world. This represents a welcome change of pace from the senselessly quick globetrotting that CoD is known for, with multiple missions set in (gasp) the same city. Who dreamed that notion up?

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How scenic!

Although Black Ops III‘s environments certainly look cool, Treyarch continues to lag behind fellow CoD studios Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games when it comes to sound design. Guns in this game sound relatively muffled, as do sound effects like running through rubble or smashing through glass. Treyarch needs to take a page from its buddies and put in some clear-cut sound design: something that doesn’t sound like it’s being listened to through a Styrofoam head-wrap.

Even though Black Ops III‘s gameplay sound design is nothing special, the game bears the unusual (for a CoD) distinction of having an awesome soundtrack. The game abandons the conventional string-and-horn action music of its peers in favor of darkly textured synthesizers that sound straight out of Blade Runner. That’s probably no coincidence given the game’s gritty cyberpunk vibe, but boy does it sound glorious. It’s definitely one of the best soundtracks big-budget gaming’s produced this decade.

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The future is retro.

Black Ops III‘s levels have more to offer than a cool aesthetic and some retro tunes: they’re where one of Treyarch’s most ambitious gameplay change-ups comes out to play. Unlike all of its predecessors, Black Ops III can be played in 4-player co-op. The game’s levels thus shed the linearity of their peers in favor of expansive, open environments that multiple players can fool around in. Whether playing solo or with friends, players can pick different paths to the same objective instead of the single hallway littered with chest-high walls.

While the change to a more open level format is refreshing for CoD, it also reveals that CoD doesn’t know how to do open. Most of Black Ops III‘s levels are confusing mazes that are easy to get lost in. These levels are short on environmental cues or tactical opportunities, but enemies continue to spawn in from all sides. Black Ops III‘s idea of open is simply to dump a bunch of different hallways on the player and say “have fun”, instead of creating a functioning combat space.

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You, sir! Do you have a map?

It’s a shame that Black Ops III‘s levels are such a mess, because they’re meant to be the playgrounds for the title’s biggest gameplay innovation: augmentations. While Black Ops III‘s first-person shooting and health regen are virtually identical to those of other CoDs, the game lets players enhance their character with cybernetic superpowers a la Deus Ex. Whether it’s thicker skin or the ability to run along walls, players can pick a few different augmentations to suit their playstyle.

These powers’ biggest problem is that opportunities to use them are seldom. Some are restricted to certain contexts instead of being free to use whenever, which is an ironic call-out to CoD‘s fondness for giving players five minutes with the shiny toys. Players can buy more of these powers by acquiring upgrade points and switch them out between missions, but their difficulty of use dampens their potential.

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GIMME MY UPGRADE POINTS!

Black Ops III‘s multiplayer is still kicking, albeit with a much smaller community than when the game launched two years ago. Most of the maps consist of the same small spaces and static environments that all CoD maps do, which the use of jetpacks only does so much to freshen up. The “specialist” mode, in which players pick from 10 pre-augmented soldiers, does confer some Iron Banner-esque thrill to CoD even if one of the classes is locked off behind completing a series of challenges.

Despite a new XP system and a horror-noir setting, Black Ops III‘s zombie mode fails to make much of a splash either. Players can count on seeing the same undead home invaders that they’ve already seen many times before. Players in the mood for something new might want to check out Black Ops III‘s parkour maps, which force players to run up and through abstract environments like the challenge maps in the original Mirror’s Edge.

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I just want to run…

Black Ops III gets props for letting players be a female character and for having a great soundtrack, but the game proves that changes have to be implemented for more than the sake of change in order to actually work. The game is more different than any CoD before or since, but it’s not actually better. Its open levels are a change, but they’re roughshod. Its augmentations are a change, but they’re stilted. Its narrative is a change, but it’s nonsensical.

These net-zero changes mean that players won’t miss much by skipping Black Ops III. Hopefully Treyarch figures out how to make its attempts at innovation more meaningful, because everyone knows that CoD could stand more innovation these days. Meanwhile, Black Ops III serves as a reminder that attempting change is not the same as achieving change.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Black Ops III here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Star Wars Battlefront II

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Fight to save the galaxy and to achieve “a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

PC Release: November 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

What a s***show. That’s really the most succinct way to describe Star Wars Battlefront II. The players may not all agree on who messed up where, but the fact is that this is the biggest gaming controversy of 2017. What started out as a customer complaint on Reddit quickly ballooned out of even EA’s control, and now gamers are left sorting through the ashes and wondering if Battlefront II is worth the money. That question (and many, many others) are at the heart of tonight’s review.

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Even before the Reddit post that sparked the current controversy, Battlefront II got a bit of heat from the press and fans for its loot box scheme. Though EA is hardly the only publisher to put microtransactions in its titles, players who participated in Battlefront II‘s beta noticed that the loot box items were good… a little too good. Indeed, players who bought the boxes seemed to have a substantial advantage over their more cash-strapped peers. The simmer failed to become a boil, though, and business proceeded as usual.

Then, the November 12 Reddit post happened. A user who goes by the handle “MBMMaverick” posted a comment to Battlefront II‘s subreddit complaining that Darth Vader was locked off behind a paywall… even though they’d already paid $80 for the game. EA’s response was (to put it politely), tone-deaf. The company replied that heroes weren’t immediately available because it wanted players to achieve “a sense of pride and accomplishment” for having spent time grinding for them.

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RETREAT!

How much time, one might ask? The exact figure is unclear, but gamers and analysts calculated that each hero would require about 40 hours of grinding to unlock. Even in an industry replete with grind-walls, that figure is absurdly high. Faced with such a number, it didn’t take long for gamers and journalists to point out the obvious: EA was trying to make grinding prohibitively time-consuming so that gamers would pay money to unlock the heroes instead.

That realization is where the inferno really took off, as thousands of gamers immediately cancelled their pre-orders or changed their plans to buy the title at launch. EA responded by cutting the amount of time and money needed to unlock heroes. When that didn’t do anything, the company removed all microtransactions mere hours before Battlefront II‘s launch (though with a promise to restore them later). Even now, almost two weeks later, EA is still struggling to contain the damage caused by its greed, and Battlefront II‘s sales are only 60% those of its predecessor.

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This was NOT how things were supposed to go down!

There’s no mincing words here: EA’s microtransaction scheme is absolutely disgusting. It’s hardly uncommon for games to have microtransactions these days, but to implement them into nearly every facet of a paid title is particularly odious. For EA, it wasn’t enough that gamers were shelling out sixty dollars for the title; they also had to sink additional cash into the game if they wanted to play as the heroes who lightsabered their way through the commercials.

There is a difference, by the way, between what EA did with Battlefront II and what other publishers have done with their titles. A few sycophantic gamers who for some reason insist on defending EA claim that Assassin’s Creed Origins has microtransactions but isn’t getting any heat for them. While it is annoying that Origins has microtransactions, players don’t have to pay Ubisoft extra money for story missions or to play as Aya. Battlefront II, meanwhile, initially charged extra for comparable advantages.

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The dark side is strong in this game.

Even though EA rolled back the microtransactions (at least for now), this is but a temporary victory for the gaming public. Gamers should be worried that a publisher contrived this scheme at all. EA has maintained a relatively low profile for the last few years and even built up some goodwill through its promise of free Battlefront II DLC, but all of that work was wiped out virtually overnight. What gamers need to realize now is that this draconian firm hasn’t actually changed at all.

It’s never a good thing when this many paragraphs precede an actual description of the game being reviewed, but that’s the situation that EA has created for itself. What other outcome could the company have possibly expected from a scheme this nakedly greedy? Just like when Microsoft first unveiled the Xbox One back in 2013, EA seems to have its head in the clouds. The best thing the company can do now is listen (and actually listen, not just put on a polite face) to what gamers are screaming at them. Otherwise, this little fiasco will hurt its earnings for years to come.

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Fight microtransactions, we must!

Even though Battlefront II doesn’t currently feature microtransactions, the game was still built to assume that they were there, leaving a few conspicuous holes in the title’s design. As of writing, the game’s arcade mode actually stops players from playing once they’ve accumulated a given amount of in-game currency. Players have to wait a few hours before jumping back into arcade mode in order to suit EA’s vague notion of player progression. Even in a landscape as uneven as gaming, the notion of a game that punishes players for, well, playing it is virtually unheard of.

Not all of Battlefront II‘s problems are related to the microtransactions, but they’re no less problematic for it. The game doesn’t run all that well on PC; players who buy the title through EA Origins risk running into choppy framerates, random crashes, server disconnects, and lots of lag. Though Battlefront II has a good options menu, those toggles can only do so much against these performance problems. Maybe EA originally planned to lock decent system performance behind a paywall as well.

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We are experiencing some SLIGHT setbacks, over.

Players who can stomach Battlefront II‘s rickety arcade mode and avoid its performance problems might have more fun in multiplayer. Battlefront II features a plethora of game modes that, unlike in its predecessor, can be played in all three eras of the Star Wars universe. The main mode, Galactic Assault, is a 20-on-20 brawl in which players attack or defend a given position. Starfighter Assault takes that same format and puts it in space, letting players duke it out from the cockpits of iconic Star Wars spacecraft.

Even though the running and gunning in these modes isn’t anything new, Battlefront II occasionally captures the feeling of a Star Wars battle. The game does a decent job applying Star Wars‘ visual and audio effects to the chaos of multiplayer, making combat feel just like a scene from the films. In addition to the aforementioned assault modes, Battlefront II also features team elimination and capture the flag modes for players to try. The all-star Heroes vs. Villains mode makes for a particularly visceral team deathmatch, even if it’s loaded with anachronisms.

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Hold still!

In another break with its predecessor, Battlefront II features a single-player, story-driven campaign. Set immediately after the destruction of the second Death Star, the narrative follows an elite team of imperial soldiers on a mission to carry out Emperor Palpatine’s last wish. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure, but anyone who’s played a Battlefield or Mirror’s Edge game knows that EA isn’t much for storytelling. All of the characters, even the protagonist, are one-dimensional grunts who are much better off shooting than talking.

The story’s writing is similarly rote, offering players little more than some stiff dialogue, shoehorned jokes, and sudden changes of heart. Even the Luke Skywalker cameo does little to shake the feeling that this shallow military tale has been told a million other times in a million other universes. The story’s biggest flaw, though, is that it’s technically unfinished; the last three missions will be released as free DLC later on. It’s hilarious that not even the story escaped EA’s habit of milking games for “extra” content.

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This is not the story you’re looking for.

Battlefront II, like its predecessor, tries to conceal a lot of shallowness and mediocrity beneath the glitz of its visuals. There’s no denying that the game at least looks beautiful, with famous Star Wars locales rendered in EA’s powerful Frostbite engine. The problem, though, is that even these well-lit, gorgeously animated visuals can only do so much to conceal the odors of a so-so campaign and well-trod multiplayer conventions. Much like Battlefield 1Battlefront II relies on its visuals to convey a sense of novelty rather than its gameplay.

The problem with that approach is that beauty is only skin-deep. Only the most ardent scenery whores will be enraptured enough by Battlefront II‘s visuals to ignore all of the problems that the actual gameplay presents. Much like Tusken Raiders, the microtransactions will probably soon be back, and in greater numbers. The multiplayer is fun more for its sights and sounds than the feeling of shooting a gun or swinging a lightsaber, while the story’s attempt to link the classic and sequel Star Wars eras goes out with a dang.

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One day, the galaxy will be free of EA.

So, where does Battlefront II go from here? The sales are down, the memes are vicious, and there’s no easy path for EA to take out of its quagmire. As of writing, a few state and national governments have even launched investigations into the company’s business practices, citing concerns over predatory behavior. As Battlefront II‘s postmortem drags on, it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, those investigations dig up.

Ultimately, players are best off leaving EA to drown in its own vomit. What few standout experiences Battlefront II offers are crushed beneath the company’s outrageous consumer hostility. If this absurd saga has anything to teach gamers, it’s that the only thing EA truly cares about is money. Therefore, players need to vote with their wallets and stay far, far away from Battlefront II. Play the 2005 original instead.

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You can buy Star Wars Battlefront II here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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Use futuristic technology to neutralize a terrorist threat.

PC Release: November 4, 2014

By Ian Coppock

The title “Advanced Warfare” isn’t all that specific. What exactly is “advanced” about this Call of Duty‘s fare of war? Is it the tactics utilized by the righteous, one-dimensional protagonist? Or does it refer to the technology used by the good guys? Who is anyone kidding, of course it’s the latter. Advanced Warfare is definitely the blandest subtitle yet produced by the Call of Duty games, but if this game proves anything, it’s that a lot can be hidden beneath a bland exterior.

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Released in 2014 as a chaser to the much-maligned Call of Duty: GhostsCall of Duty: Advanced Warfare was the third CoD in a row to espouse the virtues of laser guns and killer robots. The game was also the first major CoD to be developed by Sledgehammer Games, whose most recent title, Call of Duty: WWII, is actually pretty good. Before shuttling CoD back to its World War II roots, though, Sledgehammer produced a CoD that, at least at first glance, is hard to tell apart from its peers.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare takes place decades into the future, in a world dominated by robotic warfare and cybernetic technology. Players step into the boots of Jack Mitchell, a fierce-eyed U.S. Marine who loses an arm and a best friend fighting North Korean forces in Seoul. Jack gets shipped back home short a limb and presides over that best friend’s funeral in the infamous “press F to pay respects” scene. That whole interlude wasn’t Sledgehammer Games’ proudest narrative decision.

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CoD managed to make player agency depressing.

On his way out of gaming’s most cringe-worthy “Press F” moment, Jack gets offered a job at the prestigious Atlas PMC by Jonathon Irons, the father of the deceased. Atlas is the largest, most well-equipped military in the world, putting even the U.S. armed forces to shame in terms of equipment and soldiers. Though Jack is initially hesitant to fight for a private army, the promise of returning to a soldier’s life (and getting a brand-new, cybernetic arm) entice him to sign on with Atlas.

Anyone who thinks that this whole setup sounds like a Deus Ex game isn’t wrong for doing so. Thus far, Advanced Warfare has already ticked a few Deus Ex boxes, including a horrible accident that results in cybernetics and the presence of unregulated PMCs. Now all that’s needed is an evil terrorist organization that mistrusts technology, and… oh wait, Advanced Warfare has that too. Yep, Jack signs on just in time to fight a cabal of Luddites who think that mankind has become too reliant on tech. Someone at Sledgehammer Games is a huge Deus Ex: Human Revolution fan.

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Now THESE are what I call augmentations!

Despite containing the same running and gunning sported in other CoDs, Advanced Warfare makes a few formula shakeups. The game does away with a heads-up display in favor of displaying holographic information on Jack’s weapons and tools, which feels a bit more organic. Additionally, Advanced Warfare allows players to pick different cybernetic enhancements (like extra jumping power or speed) to suit their playstyle. Apparently someone at Sledgehammer is also a huge Crysis fan.

Advanced Warfare‘s other “major” innovation is smart grenades. These little devils can be programmed to do everything from fly toward foes to emit EMP waves, and damn if they aren’t fun to use. Advanced Warfare also features an unusually large arsenal of both conventional and futuristic weapons, but the first-person shooting and automatic health regeneration informing the gameplay remain unchanged.

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Oh yes, and there are lots of drones.

As Jack, players learn how to use all of these gadgets and doodads over the course of an unusually long campaign. As the aforementioned techno-phobic terrorists strike at hot spots all over the globe, Atlas takes on an ever larger role in defending civilization. Most of the missions’ objectives don’t bleed into each other, which is typical of CoD but disappointing for a theme that has borne storytelling fruit for other games. Advanced Warfare tries to spice things up with a plot twist, but it can be spotted from a mile away, so good luck feeling the suspense.

Advanced Warfare tries to put most of its storytelling eggs into the character basket, with mixed results. There’s not a whole lot to say about Jack, mostly because he talks, like… five times throughout the course of the game. For some reason Sledgehammer Games hired Troy Baker, gaming’s bona fide male voice actor, to voice a character so quiet that players might forget that they’re playing as him. Not sure what the logic was there, Sledgehammer.

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Whojack?

No, the obvious star of Advanced Warfare‘s show is Jonathon Irons, the aforementioned CEO who’s voiced and mo-capped by Kevin Spacey. Spacey turned to his House of Cards performance for Irons, applying the same Machiavellian charm to the character that he does Frank Underwood in Netflix’s hit show. Like his Cards counterpart, Irons has a bit of a southern accent and a lot of ends-justify-the-means mentality. If Spacey can only play one type of political character, he does it well.

The writing in Advanced Warfare is about the level that most players expect from Call of Duty: heavy on shouted battle commands, light on exposition and character development. All of that said, the game does succeed in presenting a sliver of the futuristic dystopian atmosphere present in games like Deus Ex, even if that’s mostly because of the visuals and level design. The recent sexual assault allegations against Spacey also somewhat break the spell of seeing him in a video game.

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(Sigh)…

Advanced Warfare has a lot more going for it visually than with story. Sledgehammer Games took the unusual step of rewriting most of the CoD series’ IW engine for the game, and the result is a stunning world that threatens to cut eyeballs with how sharp it looks. With a high amount of powerful lighting and pixels so crisp that they almost look granular, Advanced Warfare might just be the most visually sophisticiated CoD ever developed. Even three years later the world still looks brand-new, as do the game’s gorgeous cinematic cutscenes.

Three years later, Advanced Warfare still sounds pretty damn good, too. The game’s music doesn’t stand out from CoD‘s usual gallery of fast-paced action songs, but the voice acting sounds just as good coming from Kevin Spacey as whomever played that one guy with the beanie. Additionally, Sledgehammer’s sound design is masterful; the sound of Jack stepping on broken glass in a Detroit meth lab might be the best footstep sound of all time. That may sound oddly specific, but those details matter a lot to atmosphere.

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Listen! Sounds like… dirt?

Apart from the campaign, Advanced Warfare offers up a bit of multiplayer and plenty of jetpack-wearing zombies. Advanced Warfare has managed to retain a small multiplayer community, but the game’s complete lack of dedicated servers has made it a hunting ground for hackers. Not that there are all that many new modes or changes anyway; this is Call of Duty multiplayer being discussed here.

As for the exo zombies mode… it’s zombies wearing exoskeleton armor. Enough said. The game’s presentation of armored zombies does warrant it a shred more novelty than the zombies modes in other CoDs, but the basic setup of defending an area from the undead remains untouched. Not even the voice acting performances of John Malkovich and Bruce Campbell help what little story there is to this mode remain memorable. The sight of a zombie in a jetpack, though, stays in the brain long after the fact.

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If only The Walking Dead was this exciting…

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare gets points for its occasional gameplay innovation and glitzy world, but its story campaign leaves a lot to be desired. On top of that, the game does have a penchant for making PCs chug a bit, so players who run rickety rigs might want to bear that in mind. Despite those problems, Advanced Warfare proudly bears the title of “substantially less mediocre” than the other CoDs out there. Players up for shooting a few terrorists while using a jetpack could do worse… but players up for a memorable narrative or solid multiplayer could also do a lot better.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.