Monthly Archives: August 2013

Super Meat Boy

S

Jump, dodge and platform your way to your girlfriend’s rescue.

PC Release: October 20, 2010

By Ian Coppock

Occasionally I find a video game of such outrageous properties that I promptly have to share it with everyone. This is true in the sense of bad games, like Brink and Binary Domain, but it’s also true of games that accomplish one trait or thing with impressive acumen. In today’s case, said trait and/or thing is exceptional platforming, in the game and/or good-natured swearfest Super Meat Boy.

____________________

 Super Meat Boy‘s titular character is a cutesy little creature that is indeed made of meat. I often refer to Meat Boy as PG-13 Kirby because of the character’s tentative cuteness and the game’s dark, albeit comical outlook. The game is a side-scrolling platformer.

The game explains that Meat Boy and his loving girlfriend, Bandage Girl, are a match made in heaven. Seems so, until the evil Dr. Fetus beats the crap out of Meat Boy and spirits Bandage Girl away. No one likes Dr. Fetus, so he intends to make everyone else’s lives a living hell.

S1

Woah! What the hell, dude? Leave Bandage Girl alone!

If you’re sensing that Super Meat Boy is a throwback to old-school platformers, you’re absolutely correct. Protagonist A must navigate levels B1-B1000 to retrieve significant other/favorite food item C.

Meat Boy gets himself together and chases Dr. Fetus across 6 chapters of platforming. The story is largely explained by cutscenes, in which body language rather than talking is the means of communication.

The game's cutscenes are short and sweet, with no spoken dialogue.

The game’s cutscenes are short and sweet, with no spoken dialogue.

The plot is a chapter-for-chapter rehash of showdowns and attempted rescues. The cutscenes feature a black comedy motif, and most of Meat Boy and Dr. Fetus’s antics made me laugh out loud. There’s little to no other extrapolation to be done here, and though the story isn’t super-strong, the quality the game pulls off exceptionally well is platforming. I’m willing to make an exception for games that do something, even if it’s not story, exceptionally well, like I did with Minecraft for its building mechanics. The true star in Meat Boy is the platforming. The story, while not bad, takes a bit of a second seat to this.

Like I said, Super Meat Boy is divided into six main chapters, with numerous bonus levels. In each chapter’s 20 or so levels, Meat Boy must hop and dodge his way to Bandage Girl, being held hostage at the end. Most levels take about ten seconds to do, but don’t worry; there’s tons of them, and the difficulty ramps up.

GAAAAAAAH!!

GAAAAAAAH!!

Meat Boy is fast, and he can also bounce off walls and jump pretty far. All of this, combined with painfully precise timing, is necessary to complete the chapters ahead. Though the game’s traps are merciless, Super Meat Boy respawns your character instantly after death, which is great, because I think long loading times in a high-pressure environment would cause me to lose my patience.

The game also features a creative way to remember your screwups. Being made of meat, Meat Boy leaves a trail of blood wherever he goes. The blood remains even 300 tries later, until you beat the level. It’s handy for remembering what not to do, and serves as a grim reminder of your failures.

Oh goody, moar blood. Now I can remember where I perished horribly.

Oh goody, moar blood. Now I can remember where I perished horribly.

Super Meat Boy is the best platformer I’ve ever played. It’s difficult as hell; in fact, this is the hardest video game I’ve ever played in my life. But though the difficulty ramps up rapidly, Super Meat Boy does platforming so well that the difficulty is purely intended, and not a consequence of  bad design. The controls are smooth and intuitive on both a console and a PC, and Meat Boy reacts to them immediately, giving you more control over timing and movements. The game’s framerate is also silky smooth; the developers left absolutely nothing to chance. The only thing guiding or hampering Meat Boy is your own skill. Well, that and the buzz saws.

The game is riddled with secret levels and collectibles. Meat Boy can collect bandages hidden in most levels, and access warp gates leading to old-style 8-bit levels that are exceptionally difficult. Meat Boy can also visit Teh Internets, a composite of fan-made maps and challenges. Some of these are even more difficult than the base game.

S2

Oh mother of God…

Super Meat Boy‘s artwork is detailed and colorful, combining the motifs of the old platforms with super-slick animations. Super Meat Boy‘s sound effects and cutscenes are deliberate throwbacks as well. The cutscene confrontations and battles are made with super-static-y sound effects, and some of them are pixelated. There’s one battle scene that I’m sure was a shoutout to Pokemon battles from back in the day, though Pokemon isn’t a platformer. The music is a curious blend of synth and drum overlays with heavy guitar, probably to go along with the visual element of buzz saws and other traps.

The animations are either tongue-in-cheek or outrageous. There’s a lot to be said for body language in this game, and the animations also make humorous use of awkward pauses and confusing situations between Meat Boy and Dr. Fetus. As characters, they adhere to the purely visual in terms of expression, but the animators succeeded in giving them firm if uncomplicated characters via this method.

The artwork in this game has a sort of dark cuteness to it.

The artwork in this game has a sort of dark cuteness to it.

I urge you to consider Super Meat Boy, if you’re at all into platformers. This game is, in my opinion, a great platformer, and it’s one of my favorite arcade games. Don’t be ashamed if you can’t beat it; I beat the final level after about 320 tries, and by then the routine was (and still is) ingrained in my muscles. The game is great because it collects the best elements of the old-school platformers and presents them in a format that fans new (such as myself) and old can enjoy. Go get her, hero!

____________________

You can buy Super Meat Boy 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.

Dead Space

D3

Escape a derelict space vessel teeming with undead creatures.

PC Release: October 14, 2008

By Ian Coppock

My introduction to horror gaming was not dissimilar to most people’s, I would think. Trembling in fear, too scared to push that control stick forward, or backing off the couch entirely but hanging in the doorway to watch your roommate go on, because you’re still interested. Before Amnesia and the denizens of Short Horror Week, Dead Space was my introduction to the concept of fear and terror in a video game. It wasn’t a bad starting point, and I intend to demonstrate that in this review.

____________________

Dead Space‘s futuristic setting means that the game can appeal to adventurous nerds as well as horror fans. I started the game on a cold October evening and assumed the role of Isaac Clarke, a 26th-century spaceship engineer, en route to a gigantic mining vessel putting out a weak distress call.

After the landing gear loses its s—, Isaac and his team find themselves in a vast hangar, with no one to greet them. The group is soon attacked by snorting, slashing creatures resembling cadavers with scythes for arms.

OOHHH! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING????

OOHHH! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING????

It’s at this point in Dead Space that things take an interesting twist. With no guns or gun experience, Isaac picks up the nearest cutting tool and starts hacking away at the monstrosities. Players must rely on Isaac’s skills as an engineer to build and modify tools into killing machines. This immediately made the game more than a zombie shootfest.

The game threw a second punch my way when I set to carving the nearest space-zombie to ribbons- only for them to keep coming after direct shots in the heart. Awesomely, disgustingly, the creatures can only be killed by dismemberment. Isaac has to shoot, cut, and tear the limbs off of the creatures in order to subdue them.

DS3

Oh man… ohhhhh man, that’s gross… but kind of awesome.

With the shuttle shithoused and communications out, Isaac and his few non-butchered teammates must find another way out. Even if there weren’t hundreds of snarly, hungry mutants to worry about, the Ishimura is falling apart. To make matters worse, Isaac’s two surviving chums don’t trust each other, each thinking that the other knows more about the disaster than they’re letting on. Naturally, the player is supposed to wonder at this divide, and boy did I.

With great trepidation, I descended into the dark bowels of the Ishimura. Isaac’s skill with cutting tools and his engineering know-how made him the obvious choice to traverse the giant ship, fixing systems and destroying monsters. Fixing machinery takes the form of puzzles, none of which are too taxing. I learned that the creatures plaguing the ship are called Necromorphs, but their origins are tied up in the deaths of the crew and the vessel’s current state.

D

The state of the ship and its crew raised an obvious question: what the hell happened here?

As Isaac hurries about the ship fixing everything from engine rockets to oxygen tanks, he begins to unravel the great, bloody mystery. Dead Space takes a Valve-esque approach in that it shows rather than tells, with wall graffiti and vague crew logs from which I, the player, was to infer much of the information. As the game progresses, though, your teammates start presenting you with more concrete findings.

Isaac is also hounded by more sinister antagonists, including deranged survivors and a massive Necromorph that hunts him throughout the ship. Bosses and minibosses create further complications in what are supposed to be simple repairs, and when Isaac discovers a mysterious artifact in the cargo hold, he begins to have second thoughts about his mission.

D1

So, the question must be asked, is Dead Space scary? The answer is yes*. The asterisk denotes a footnote, and in that footnote I intend to document a few issues, looking at the game from the prospective of a psychotic horror fan.

The first problem I saw after revisiting the game was an absolute lack of pacing. Isaac is beset by screaming hordes of Necromorphs from the very beginning, dashing a chance to let fear simmer up for a while. In Amnesia I didn’t see a monster for almost an hour, but by that point I was so terrified that I nearly wet myself upon seeing it. Dead Space‘s initial monster attack is certainly startling, but not disarming as with games that build up their atmospheres. The monsters pull the same tricks, like playing dead, over and over to the point where you’ll be able to see one faking it within the first hour of play.

Ambushes are unpleasant but their telltale signs become wearily predictable.

Ambushes are unpleasant but their telltale signs become wearily predictable.

The absolute biggest problem I have with Isaac, and information I’ve been deliberately withholding until now, is that he is a silent protagonist. Kind of surprising, right? You’d think designers wouldn’t miss a more obvious opportunity to project fear and terror than through the player character. Aside from a few grunts, Isaac gives no reactions or emotions in response to the trauma he endures, which is a shame. Yeah, the total silence makes the atmosphere murkier, but more could have been done with emoting. The only perspective we get on this guy is the over-the-shoulder camera.

It gets better; Isaac’s girlfriend Nicole is a medical officer aboard the ship, and he searches for her during missions. In that vacuous personality could have existed potential for conflict with the other teammates over mission priorities, or little side missions investigating clues. I learned that Nicole was on the ship but Isaac’s silence caused me to forget it for much of the game. Wasted chance, Visceral.

The lack of emotional response to monsters and situations was frustrating. I guess Isaac could have balls of adamantium though.

The lack of emotional response to monsters and situations was frustrating. I guess Isaac could have balls of adamantium though, rather than just titanium.

Gameplay in Dead Space is manageable. It’s fine. It’s alright. Isaac trudges through the ship as if he’s deep-sea diving, but can run and apply medkits on the fly when the need arises.

The game shakes things up with cool zero-G sections in which Isaac must hop from surface to surface. You also occasionally get to pilot a few machines, including space turrets. Neato.

D1

High score!

Though Dead Space suffers narrative and pacing pitfalls, the game achieves additional eeriness through its artwork and atmosphere. The Ishimura is a cold metal thing, floating adrift in space, and this is made extremely evident in the environments. Scariness can be achieved through effective level design, and I found this to be true as Isaac crept through claustrophobic corridors and cramped holds. Many of the ship’s areas have suffered a blackout, forcing players to rely on Isaac’s flashlight and their own reflexes to survive.

As Isaac goes deeper, the signs of disaster become more evident. Certain parts of the ship are coated with a slimy residue, and others tell whispers of a story through blocked-off doors, toppled furniture and scattered gore. The hospital wing in particular is not for the faint of heart.

D2

A prenatal clinic, huh? Guess Visceral is playing hardball after all.

Dead Space‘s score was composed by Jason Graves. Get it? But seriously, that’s his real last name. Graves did better with the unsettling atmospheric music, which mostly comprised monotonous human voices giving a steadily building “eeeeeeeeee”. Violins throw porcupine quills at you most times a monster shows up, especially at the beginning. A lot of the game is left in silence, with only distant creaks and crashes to keep Isaac company. Also scratchy vents and not-so-distant creaks and crashes.

The atmosphere remains clingy, like a corpse in rigor mortis. It’s occasionally marred by pacing and narrative problems, but Isaac’s quest remains haunting. In a way, the pacing issue could be seen as a plus, helping prospective horror fans make an easier transfer from more common shooter and action games. See? I’m not so proud that I’m a horror purist. CTHULHU REIGNS! (ahem).

Even five years later, Dead Space's graphics remain competitive. The lighting and shadowing is also quite dynamic.

Even five years later, Dead Space’s graphics remain competitive. The lighting and shadowing is also quite dynamic.

For those of you who do tend to side with the pure horror, you may not find Dead Space to be super-scary, but it’s certainly worth your time. I personally think it’s also the scariest of the Dead Space series, but that’s a conversation for another time, another review.

I said up top that Dead Space is a good starting place for budding horror fans, and I stand by that. Unlike in many other horror games, Isaac can defend himself, and the game welcomes a lot of crossover from shooter, action and even puzzle games. As an engineer, Isaac must employ many different skills in order to survive on the Ishimura, so anyone with some gaming experience shouldn’t have too much trouble. But, being a horror game, Dead Space has a lot of unsettling content, including but not limited to blood, gore, dismemberment, dead babies, and insane survivors conducting rituals. You have been warned.

____________________

You can buy Dead Space 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: Blood Dragon

B

Get the girl and save the world in this retro-style cyborg shooter.

PC Release: May 1, 2013

By Ian Coppock

I find myself in the unusual position of having played a standalone DLC before the main game from which it sprung. This was a conscious choice on my part, partially because it made me feel special, and also to give Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon truly standalone perspective, without any prior experience from Far Cry 3 to distort my opinion. The tables have turned on my future review of Far Cry 3, but Blood Dragon is nothing like the main game. If you bore witness to the Raw Deal, Crime Zone and Terminator era that was the 80’s, or want a chance to see what all the olduns look back on with fondness (or disgust), Blood Dragon is for you. Inspired by those and other 80’s films, this neon and synths-laden shooter is an unashamed shoutout to that era, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

____________________

80s media have extremely high expectations for what we’ve accomplished by the 2000s, and Blood Dragon is no exception. The game is set in 2007, in a grim world fueled by cybernetics and advanced robotics. After learning that his mentor Colonel Sloan has gone rogue, player character and cyborg kickass Rex Power Colt is dispatched to an unnamed island. He’s accompanied by his astonishingly stereotypical black sidekick (wow, didn’t I already use that line this week?), named Spider.

Rex confirms that Sloan has indeed lost his marbles, and must navigate an eerie, neon-laden island rife with cybernetic soldiers and animals. He teams up with the lovely Dr. Darling, one of Sloan’s scientists. She helps him by analyzing the island’s many dangers.

A1

Rex Power Colt is the ultimate badass, shooting and stabbing his way across a large island.

It doesn’t take long for Rex to run into the titular blood dragons, massive creatures that feed on cybernetic flesh. Though possible to kill, I employed the game’s far-reaching stealth abilities in avoiding them. Luckily they can’t see, but they do respond to sounds. And by respond, I mean scream, bite and maim.

In true 80’s fashion, Rex employs an arsenal of signature phrases. Each time I killed a round of cyborgs by ripping their hearts out, he’d say “time to put your heart into it,” or “it looks like the heart of the matter”. Shooting and sneak attacks will garner such assuredly timeless lines as “he was dead tired”, and “I call shotgun. hehehe”.

For any true badass, efficiency isn't enough. Rex employs catch phrases and so-bad-it's-good one-liners most every kill.

For any true hero, efficiency isn’t enough. Rex employs catch phrases and so-bad-it’s-good one-liners most every kill.

Guided by Dr. Darling, Rex shoots, stabs and explodes his way across Sloan’s island, fulfilling numerous objectives in order to take him down. All of these usually ended in a spectacle. 10% of the time it was something other than an explosion. The game is also full of some tongue-in-cheek references to 80’s geekdom. Rex can throw a Dungeons & Dragons 20-sided die to distract guards, and the game itself refers to scientists as Nerds.

Blood Dragon also aims to make itself more ridiculous as the game goes on. You encounter the standard ascending hierarchy of enemies, but even the island’s native fauna, including tigers, sharks and crocodiles, have become cyborgs. You also encounter zombies, referred to in-game as “the running dead”.

BD5

The game is sheer madness.

Despite having all of the hallmarks of a really cliche plot, Blood Dragon gets away with all of it because it’s fully aware of how ridiculous it is. Rex makes nuanced references to the cliches and obstacles he encounters, but these ironic observations make the game as much a dark comedy as an action shooter. The game makes it obvious that plot points that go unexplained have been left so deliberately, and then called my attention to that with a running gag or a subtle one-liner from Rex.

In addition to self-referencing its many plot holes, and then marking them with humor or a cliche, Blood Dragon’s plot is surprisingly engrossing because of the fun it pokes at 80’s action and stereotypes. Dr. Darling is the damsel in distress, Sloan is the mentor who’s gone mad, and Spider is the black sidekick who speaks of Rex in near-reverential tones. The game gives an I-don’t-care-how-many-explosions style of storytelling rather than minute attention to plot points. Because it is achieving these shortfalls deliberately, all the while never taking itself too seriously, Blood Dragon operates on a near-hipster level of irony, which makes the game more entertaining.

Games that are bad are just bad. Games that are deliberately bad to make a point or provoke laughter can turn out to be really good.

Games that are bad are just bad. Games that are deliberately bad to make a point or provoke laughter can turn out to be good.

Blood Dragon has some of the smoothest first-person shooter gameplay I’ve seen in a long time. As a cyborg, you can jog across the island and take massive falls no problem. The game balances stealth and shooting quite well; Rex can alternate between shooting up a base with a shotgun, or rapidly stabbing a succession of unsuspecting guards. As a stealth fanatic, I found the latter tactic a refreshing addition to a genre overladen with screaming gunfights.

You can use a variety of tactics to play how you want. Rex can distract guards with the dice, plant explosives, creep between walls, or just shoot his way to an objective. I employed a colorful mixture of all of these things that got me through the game alright. These tactics make me excited for when I get around to the main Far Cry 3 game.

BD8

Electric bow. ‘Nuff said.

To my great joy, Blood Dragon hearkens to more than just 80s movies. The game’s menus and cutscenes are 80s-style in their presentation. I knew this was going to be interesting when I opened the game and found myself staring at a menu not too different than those of the old arcade games I used to play. The cinematics are usually short, but they’re similarly old-fashioned in their animations and presentation.

The actual game’s graphics are detailed and pretty, much like, I would assume, the full Far Cry 3 game. The island’s dark theme is made evident with purple and black hues. The island is overcast with crimson clouds dotted with searchlights, and the various facilities are blueish with lines of neon. The outdoor environments are accompanied by no music, just the slight robotic whirs of the island’s cybernetic animals.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Neon and explosions.

The score is just as 80’s as everything else about this game. Lots of overlaying synths and great whooshing drums, often played at a fast pace to hurry the player along through a bunker of cyborgs or in search of a nerd needing rescue. The voice acting is deliberately overdone to provide a greater sense of place and comparison to 80s action film. Altogether, it’s effective at provoking laughs and even some sense of epic-ness.

Blood Dragon‘s gameplay is fairly straightforward, making it friendlier to first-time first-person shooters. The game is $15 on Steam. I finished the main story in about five hours, but there’s probably at least 5-10 more hours’ worth of side missions and exploration across the island. If you want to immerse yourself in a tribute to perhaps the most notorious 80s-dom in America, or if you just want to pull off some sneak attacks and wrestle a crocodile, you might consider Blood Dragon. As I said up top, the game is a complete standalone, and does not require the actual Far Cry 3 game in order to play.

____________________

You can buy Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon 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.

Binary Domain

B

Investigate attacks by robots disguising themselves as human beings.

PC Release: April 27, 2012

By Ian Coppock

I am mystified by Sega games, I just don’t get them. It’s a topic I can’t not broach after playing Binary Domain, because from my perspective, this game was overstuffed with bad design choices. It doesn’t help that it only sold 20,000 copies in the entire western world. It’s also no mystery that Sega isn’t the same company that brought us the Dreamcast and those glorious days of yore. I feel the need to investigate, because, quite frankly, this was one of the most mediocre games I’ve ever played. Let’s see if we can’t figure this out.

____________________

Binary Domain takes place in a dystopian 2080, when global warming has caused much of the earth to flood. Conveniently enough, robots are invented just in time to labor by the millions and build new cities above the waves.

Strict limits are placed on robot sophistication, and enforced by elite squads of commandos called Rust Crews. The game opens shortly after a robot disguised as a human attacks a corporation in Detroit, apparently so well-disguised that even he doesn’t know he’s a robot.

B2

G’MURRRNIN!

The reasoning behind the robot’s attack is kind of left unanswered, but the Americans conclude that only Yoji Amada, a Japanese robotics guru, could have produced such advanced androids. A multinational Rust Crew is thus dispatched to Japan to arrest Amada.

Players assume the role of American sergeant Dan Marshall, who, along with his astonishingly stereotypical black sidekick Big Bo (AW HEYYULLL NA!) fights through hordes of robo-cops. The cast is rounded out by two dry British agents, a cat-suited Chinese sniper, and Cain, a flamboyant French robot. Throughout the game Dan is cryptically referred to as “the Survivor”. You want to know why? So do I, but the game forgets about that plot point.

B1

Because Bo is the black guy, he gets injured and obstructed a lot more than our other squad members.

As with Brink, a lot of my disappointment from Binary Domain came from what could have been. I was hoping for a deep discussion on the ethics of robotics and artificial intelligence, but all I got for my hopes and dreams was a six-hour slog through endless waves of droids. The game is more repetitive than an escalator.

One of the biggest problems I had with the wafer-thin plot was a massive disconnect between spoken and silent dialogue. Dan Marshall talks, a lot, in this game’s overly long cutscenes. During the gameplay, players have the option to communicate with their squadmates. This mechanic was championed by Sega as the next great step in character relationship building, but it feels quite the opposite. When a squadmate asks Dan a question, players can choose one of two reply options, but there’s no spoken dialogue; just a little “beep!”, and the NPCs respond. This created a silent vacuum where true character building could have taken place. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue choices made no sense. At one point, I was asked “Should we take a shortcut?” by my British commander, and my only response choices were “you fool”, and “goddammit”.

Hey! Dan, you dumbass! Take the shortcut, it’ll make this game go by faster!

B4

Dan can’t shut up during the cutscenes but his in-game conversations are not voiced at all. This made dialogue and sense of character awkward.

The point of this little system is to build positive relationships with your team, so that they’ll more readily follow your suggestions. As long as you just give the nice response (when possible) you’ll be fine, so there’s no challenge to this mechanic. Your teammates will also shout the same recycled cheers and frustrations over and over again, which got old after the first half hour or so.

The next design problem I need to punch in the liver is the spoken dialogue itself, which is poorly written. Conversations are dragged out mercilessly in the cutscenes, and the script is riddled with enough cliches to satisfy an 80s action movie. Every character occupies a neat little stereotype. Charles and Rachel, the Brits, speak in Cockney accents and constantly refer to Dan as “Yank”, while French robot Cain cannot quit his insufferable French womanizer routine to save his cybernetic life. As with a lot of Japanese games and media, the characters often spend ten seconds staring at something and going “Ohhhhhhh” really loudly.  I’ve always found that to be funny.

B5

This is a regular gallery of stereotypes.

The only character not overly stereotyped is Faye Lee, the Chinese sniper. But, don’t worry, she’s plenty sexualized, with super-tight catsuit armor and big, childlike eyes. Her accent is only slightly Chinese. If it wasn’t obvious enough already, she’s the love interest, altered to better appeal to western teenagers. The game is also stuffed with laughable melodrama. There’s a section where you activate an elevator ahead of a robot swarm, but right before getting in and escaping, one of your teammates gets out, faces the robots, and says “so this is how it has to end.”

NO! It doesn’t have to end that way, you moron! You could have gotten away just fine! Creating drama out of thin air will make gamers laugh, not tear up. Christ…

B6

This game is melodramatic, enough to rival the infamous Yu Gi Oh cartoon, or an ABC soap opera.

The final nail in this coffin of a narrative is the cutscenes. The game has at least 10-15 painfully long pre-rendered videos that swallow whole battles and action sequences, while I sat there quietly, thinking “Damn, I wish I could actually be doing this!” This is a criticism I have of a lot of games, especially Final Fantasy, but cutscenes that are both too long and too numerous pull the player out of immersion and into tedium. We get bored, watching entire plot lines play out without any interactivity on our part.

Interactivity is what makes games more immersive as stories than other kinds of media, so having that taken away makes us feel frustrated and disconnected. Such is my biggest problem with Binary Domain; the dude who made this game seems to have slipped into a split personality in which he’s a film director rather than a game designer. Toward the end of the game, I suffered an agonizing 20-minute cutscene and FINALLY got to play again, but only managed to run down a short corridor before the game paused an ANOTHER 20-minute cutscene played. This is not good storytelling!

I didn't pay for a goddamn movie ticket, give me control and let's do this thing! PLEASE!!

I didn’t pay for a goddamn movie ticket, give me control and let’s do this thing! PLEASE!!

Though the plot is weak and riddled with open wounds, the gameplay is a workable if unexceptional round of third-person shooting. You can pick up sexy robot guns and blast away legions of metalheads.

Binary Domain also features tedious boss fights with gigantic robotic monsters. I often wondered how a big robotic ape that roars and pounds its chest fits into the police department’s security hierarchy, or a skyscraper-sized thing with spiked steamrollers for feet.

This giant patrol robot wouldn't be missed in a copy of 1984.

This giant patrol robot wouldn’t be missed in a copy of 1984.

Binary Domain does significantly better in the art department. Dan and his team navigate 2080s Tokyo from top to bottom, starting out at a giant seawall and moving in to a big metropolis. The visuals in these areas are impressive, but a lot of them are far away. They act more like skyboxes and backgrounds than an environment I can actually explore.

There’s one enjoyable section where you traverse some city ruins, and the pacing felt more organic, but the rest are pretty tedious slogs through steel corridors and walkways.

B9

A lot of the environments in Binary Domain are certainly good enough. I just wish they’d put as much effort into the story.

By 2080, Japan has devolved into a totalitarian state, but I don’t feel like the designers took advantage of this in the art design. Tokyo is a gleaming metropolis that does not at all reflect themes of dictatorship and loss of freedoms.

It’s pretty, but there’s no connection between it and the attempted darkness of the story. The voice actors weren’t bad in an of themselves; I blame the script.

These characters are very confined in their roles. There could have been a lot more to them.

These characters are very confined in their roles. There could have been a lot more to them.

I don’t really have anything else to say, at this point. The game’s environment is pretty much one big, glossy city with a few sewer bits that look pretty much like any other sewer. There’s one part where you have to jetski down a giant cistern, which was fun, but the rest of the game’s pacing is monotonous.

Binary Domain‘s plot is nearly incomprehensible, and there’s nothing in its gameplay you won’t find in other, better shooters, like the Mass Effect series and Spec Ops: The Line. I was kept from enjoying this game by bad plot and endless waves of robots. It’s clear that Sega is not the same company as the one that brought us the Dreamcast era of games. And as long as they put out works as crappy as this, they will never return to grace.

____________________

You can buy Binary Domain 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.

Assassin’s Creed II

AC

Avenge your family’s murder in a decades-long quest for the truth.

PC Release: March 4, 2010

By Ian Coppock

My quest to analyze video games’ story and artwork has brought me to WordPress and a new website, following the bug-riddled end of Belltow3r Gaming. It is my great passion and pleasure to welcome you to the first original Art as Games review, Assassin’s Creed II. Whether you’re a console gamer looking for something great at the tail end of generation 7, or a PC gamer for whom all generations are kind of woven into an ongoing tapestry, hi there. Let’s get started on the second installment in Ubisoft’s flagship series.

____________________

Assassin’s Creed II picks up literally from the last frame of the first Assassin’s CreedJust as our hero Desmond Miles is about to be minced up by his Templar captors, an Assassin pops out of nowhere and spirits him out of Abstergo to a safehouse. Desmond is introduced to a new Assassin crew, including the delightfully snarky Shaun Hastings, a British database expert, and Rebecca Crane, an engineer who administers the sexy Animus 2.0. This thing is a huge improvement over that concrete slab of the Templar’s.

The Animus is a device that could find the memories of ancestors locked away in Desmond’s DNA, and render them as a simulation. Having already assumed the role of his stoic Syrian ancestor Altair, Desmond uses the Animus 2.0 to jump a few centuries’ worth of ancestors to the Italian Renaissance, and into the shoes of Ezio Auditore. His mission? To absorb all of Ezio’s assassination skills directly into his own mind, and fight the modern Templars.

Can I just say that this is the ultimate... chair. Eating, sleeping, massage, computers, gaming, goddammit this chair is awesome.

Can I just say that this is the ultimate… chair. Eating, sleeping, massage, computers, gaming, goddammit this chair is awesome.

When I first played this, I had no damn clue how I was supposed to be an assassin. After being teleported into a beautifully rendered Florence, I saw that Ezio is a teenage rich kid who spends his time drinking and chasing skirts.

My first few side quests consisted of just these goals, including a button-by-button woo-hooing of the hottest girl in Florence. The only thing this dude assassinates is virginity.

It's possible that Ezio was the progenitor from which all Bros are descended. At least at first.

It’s possible that Ezio was the progenitor from which all Bros are descended. At least at first.

But, things take a drastic turn when Ezio’s father and brothers are hanged by the Florentine government  before his very eyes. Marked a fugitive and a traitor, Ezio skips town with his mother and little sister, all hints of that bravado I saw not twenty minutes ago replaced by grief and rage. Ezio stumbles into the care of his uncle, Mario Auditore, who reveals that he and Ezio’s late father were members of an ancient order of assassins. Ezio learns that the bastards who killed half his family (including a sickly six-year old, seriously, what the hell?) are those dastardly Templars, back for more after the thrubbing Altair gave them centuries ago. He trains under his uncle, and because it’s the “II” sequel, he starts wielding two of the iconic weapon instead of just one. This transition is a secret rule of video game sequels.

As Ezio travels between Florence, Venice, Tuscany and his new home base of Montoriggioni, he encounters a cast of strange and wonderful characters. These include a young Leonardo Da Vinci, who is almost obnoxiously high on life, the lovely Catarina Sforza, and Rodrigo Borgia. Better known by his later papal name, Alexander VI, Borgia is cast as the leader of the Italian Templars and the primary antagonist of the game. As with the first game, the Templars seek peace through psychic control, and as a guardian of mankind’s free will, Ezio must focus on this war as much as his quest for personal revenge.

The world's greatest control freaks return as a shadow organization in AC II, led by Rodrigo Borgia, AKA Spanish Emperor Palpatine. They are responsible for Ezio's loss.

The world’s greatest control freaks return as a shadow organization in AC II, led by Rodrigo Borgia, AKA Spanish Emperor Palpatine. They are responsible for Ezio’s loss.

I like Assassin’s Creed II because it is one of the strongest arcs of character development I’ve seen in a game. Ezio’s journey spans the course of decades (the game begins when he’s 16 and it ends when he’s 40). The game excels at portraying the character’s changing views and emotions as he kills his way across Renaissance Italy, and as he grows from a young, angry boy into a seasoned killer. He throws in a bit of existential philosophy from time to time, arguing with others and himself about which course is best for humanity’s future. Though the game takes only 20 hours or so to finish, these constant character tweaks made it seem as though it actually was 24 years long, in an engrossing sort of way. Though traumatized by the deaths of his family, Ezio retains the charm he had as a boy, and can turn almost any situation into an opportunity to get laid.

The game also explores how Ezio’s actions change the course of Italy over those decades. Entire regimes rise and fall, landscapes and political atmospheres change, and commoners become more aggressive about taking what is theirs. Ezio makes a few friends and a ton of enemies because of this, and though he welcomes the positive change, his primary focus is avenging his father and brothers. A lot of games don’t bother to portray the consequences of player actions, especially over such a long course of time. This made the game more immersive, because the ramifications of my actions became clear as the plot progressed.

E

The game excels at portraying Ezio and how his personality grows over years and decades.

Though Assassin’s Creed II is a wonderful game, it has a few plot problems. I didn’t like how nearly every historical character Ezio met (and he meets a lot of them) fall onto either the Assassin or Templar side of the war. Where’s the in-between, the shades of gray that make the story less polarized? In this way, the game failed to take true story advantage of the political chaos that was the Renaissance. I also thought that the game was too stuffed with historical characters, and you might wonder at how that could be a bad thing, but it left less room for the few original, more interesting characters. You even run into Machiavelli, who, despite his authoritarian views, is somehow an Assassin and not a Templar.

I think the game also leaned a bit too much on Leonardo da Vinci, one of its proudest selling points. He’s the convenient inventor archetype, who can build guns and decipher ancient Egyptian squirrel droppings without batting an eyelash, but do we question that? No, because it’s goddamn Leonardo da Vinci. His presence is just a little too convenient for the sake of the plot; he moves to whichever locale Ezio is hunting in, and he’s always on hand to build and decipher stuff, even though history tells us his schedule was a bit ridiculous.

Leonardo da Vinci is a major character in the game. He is constantly excited and can't get enough out of study and exploration.

Leonardo da Vinci is a major character in the game. He is constantly excited and can’t get enough out of study and exploration.

Also, the game’s timekeeping is confusing. I’d drop in, kill an Italian fatcat, cut to cutscene, and it would suddenly say “three years later”. I don’t understand. Did the mission happen over three years, or did Ezio spend three years drinking wine and eating pasta, or what? So that’s a bit rocky and jarring.

The biggest wrench ACII threw into my gears was just before the end sequence. I was all pumped and ready to go on to the final mission, when the game vomited a magical wall  into my path and said “whoa there, hotshot! You gotta collect those codex page collectibles before you can do the finale.” Oh, I see. A collectible you touted as a “get when you feel like it” deal is now essential to doing the final mission??? The dramatic tension could not have destroyed itself faster if it had confused hot dogs with dynamite. So I had to tear across the game world for three hours looking for the damn things. Take my advice; collect them as if they’re marked necessary (because they are necessary).

AC1

Damn things.

Combat in AC II is similar to the first game, but Ezio has a much more expanded arsenal than Altair. In addition to knives and a sword, Ezio also gets… um… well he gets a wrist-mounted gun, which is pretty badass. The game also has an economy, so I can actually throw coins to get those beggars to leave me alone (you’re also dogged by annoying musicians). As with the first game, your lifebar is dependent upon Ezio’s actions. Killing innocents will degrade it, and eating medicine will bring it back up to speed. A little unbalanced, but whatever. Ezio can also leap across buildings and scale the frickin’ Duomo without breaking a sweat. The series runs on parkour, so no surprises there.

Assassin’s Creed II excels in the art department. The game’s rendition of 15th-century Italy is gorgeous, and no subsequent AC game has succeeded in matching its visual majesty. Like the first game, AC II is open-world, and is divided into several zones that you can loaf about in. The first, Florence, is a beautiful collection of towers, market squares and villas. Vines creep down cream-colored buildings and people amble down wide streets with their goods and children in tow. Town criers announce everything from the latest works of art to punishments for defacing the local church, and beefy merchants war over whose wares are the best.

AC9

Florence is lovely. Most of the game’s structures are real, such as the Duomo.

Florence was my favorite location, but it was well-complimented by the Tuscan countryside. Ezio can wander the endless wheat fields under a golden sun, visiting the various farming estates, or meander through the small walled towns comprising the region’s beacons of civilization. Montoriggioni, Ezio’s new base, is a walled village that you can pay to rebuild and improve, adding an interactive element to the artwork that I really enjoyed.

The last half or so of the game takes place in Venice, and it faithfully replicates the city’s spectacular landmarks. Palaces and citadels that look like something out of an ocean myth line narrow avenues, while fishermen traverse the canals and artists capture the vista on their canvases. Ezio can survey all of this from a boat of his own or traverse the rooftops, though doing so risks angering the psychotic pricks otherwise known as rooftop guards.

Venice has a sense of scale unmatched by anything else in the game or series.

Venice has a sense of scale unmatched by anything else in the game or series.

The game’s score is sweeping and light, incorporating plenty of fast-paced Mediterranean strings and quieter, more contemplative violins. The voice acting is pretty good, but Roger Craig Smith’s performance as Ezio is the only one that stood out to me. I’m glad that, unlike the last game, they hired a guy who had an actual local accent to play the part. You’ll be surprised at how much Italian you’ll learn; characters will often speak common phrases and bits of sentences in Italian. Rebecca, the Animus engineer, passes this off as glitches.

As I said up top, there’s something acutely kickass about surveying the majesty of Baroque architecture from atop the Duomo, and subsequent Assassin’s Creed games haven’t been able to match that sense of visual power. Music, perhaps, but not the sheer artwork that was the highlight of the times. These gigantic pieces of art made the cities I visited seem more alive, and are good examples of how visual power can drive the sense of urgency and consequence in a narrative.

AC3

Glorious.

Assassin’s Creed II has some narrative stumbling blocks, but the game is well-put together. Even if you’re not interested in the larger mythos, I’d recommend getting this game. It’s by far the best and most epic of the series, and I think it’s also the prettiest. The game has a nice length, 20 hours or so of core gaming, plus more if you do the side missions. Experience it for yourself!

____________________

You can buy Assassin’s Creed 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.

Assassin’s Creed

AC4

Save the Holy Land, and yourself, through the art of assassination.

PC Release: April 8, 2008

By Ian Coppock

I was scrolling through my reviews the other day and brought myself back to Assassin’s Creed, which was the first review I’d ever written. I then realized that i haven’t reviewed the four games leading up to that one, and thought it would be a good idea to do so.

Long before the adventures of Connor, the Assassin’s Creed series began in another time and with another protagonist. Assassin’s Creed takes us to the Middle East, and not because we’re playing Call of Duty and have been dropped in to shoot the brown people. Rather, the game is a historical fiction narrative. My friend Bret introduced me to this series a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it contains novel gameplay and is worthy of your time to review.

____________________

Assassin’s Creed operates on a pair of interlocked story lines. The first takes place in 2012 and follows a bartender named Desmond Miles. Desmond has been kidnapped by the shadowy Abstergo Corporation for reasons he can only guess at, until an asshole scientist reveals that his DNA contains the memories of his ancestors.

Desmond is strapped into the Animus, a machine that can scan those memories and turn them into a simulation. He doesn’t know what Abstero is looking for, but it’s locked in his head somewhere.

D1

Desmond is a captive of this strange company. One of the scientists, Lucy, is empathetic to his situation.

In the Animus, Desmond takes command of his ancestor, Altair Ibn-La Ahad, a Syrian assassin who was active during the Crusades. The story begins as Altair and two assassins are exploring ruins beneath Jerusalem. Arrogant and overconfident, Altair breaks the assassins’ tenets in order to be more “efficient” at his job.

Altair’s aloofness costs the group dearly when they encounter a group of Christian knights, and he barely escapes without the treasure he’d been sent to retrieve. He returns to the assassins’ fortress empty-handed, infuriating his master. To make matters worse, the knights follow him to their fortress and lay siege, killing many innocents.

A2

This has not been a great day.

Though the knights are fought off and one of Altair’s buddies comes back with the treasure, he is berated in front of the entire order and demoted from master to novice. His master, Al Mualim, offers him a chance at redemption: kill nine men who threaten the peace of the Holy Land. He begrudgingly takes the job and leaves the fortress.

From there, Altair must kill these nine targets dispersed across three major cities. Assassin’s Creed does a good job of portraying Altair’s changing character, as he becomes less aloof and more willing to follow the tenets of the titular assassin’s creed. As he travels between cities and makes his kills, Altair begins to suspect that the nine men are working in concert, despite being on opposites sides of the war.

A3

Altair’s journey takes him across the Middle East, into areas held by both sides of the Crusades.

Altair begins to change his perception with his journey. Assassin’s Creed explores themes of murder and humanity with each conversation. Though the assassin order’s work is dark, they encourage themselves to stick with the guilt that comes with taking a life, as it makes them human. This type of writing is a rarity in a genre when lots of deaths are met with sassy one-liners from the protagonist, instead of a more realistic reaction.

In the modern day, Desmond is given breaks between Animus sessions and attempts to escape from Abstergo. Though he initially believes that Altair’s conspiracy was long in the past, he begins drawing connections between his ancestor’s targets and the company now holding him hostage. Desmond doesn’t evolve much as a character, beyond a sarcastic every-man, but he starts uncovering a scheme himself. All of it is linked to whatever Altair discovered centuries ago.

A3

Desmond plays ball with his captors by day, and seeks a way out by night.

Assassin’s Creed is an open-world game, in which Altair can roam freely in massive, gorgeously detailed cities. He can ride horses through the desert to reach his destination, and can explore city blocks filled with open-air markets, mosques and other landmarks.

Assassin’s Creed does a good job of portraying the hellhole that was the Crusades from a neutral standpoint, portraying the atrocities that both Christians and Muslims committed during the war. It makes for an interesting game when you hear Christian and Muslim preachers each hawking their idea of a God and of victory.

A4

Clues as to your target’s whereabouts are scattered in each city. Finding them all can be a challenge.

Altair’s gameplay mechanics are built around stealth and hiding in plain sight. Though he has a sword for getting out of hairy situations, Altair can assassinate enemies with a retractable hidden blade. Players must manually push past people, hide and look inconspicuous. The only issue is that combat in this game is a breeze; you simply wait until your opponent attacks, then counter-attack with lethal force. The game’s ease of combat makes running and hiding much less of a must-do.

Altair has other options if the guards get the jump on him. Players can elude local law enforcement by breaking the enemy’s line of sight, but must remain hidden until the danger passes. Altair can also take shelter at your friendly neighborhood assassin hideout, but only if he’s not being chased by guards.

A5

Altair is an expert swordsman who can cut down swarms of guards. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t do enough to reward discretion.

Assassin’s Creed‘s health mechanic is novel; it’s portrayed as synchronization with the actual events of the ancestor. You can lose health by getting hit by enemies, but you can also lose it by doing something that the real Altair wouldn’t have, like killing a civilian. You regain synchronization by completing a memory or hiding from danger, confident in the knowledge that the real Altair is much more of a badass than you.

The actual assassinations require planning and skill. Altair must gather the aforementioned clues on each target through investigating leads. These missions include pickpocketing intelligence, eavesdropping, or just beating the crap out of an informant. You only need so much information to start the assassination mission, but the more you have, the better prepared you’ll be. The PC version of Assassin’s Creed contains more missions and side activities than either console edition.

A5

Being a good assassin is all about detective work.

Now that we’ve got all the cool stuff out of the way, I have to do my job and tell you what’s wrong with Assassin’s Creed. The game is very repetitive. All nine assassination missions begin, operate and end in the exact same way. Go to city, gather info, kill target, go home for a pat on the head, rinse and repeat. Not once does the game deviate from this formula, and by mission five or six I was pretty sick of it.

The game’s controls are pretty smooth, even for a PC port, but they’re not without problems. Altair can seamlessly parkour over obstacles and perform other feats, but the problem is that the run and jump functions are tied to the same key. I lost count of how many times I ran near a parkour-able object and accidentally performed gymnastics on it. This can make chasing targets or fleeing from guards needlessly frustrating.

A6

No! I wanted to go for a jog, not ballet-hop to the top of a guard tower!

The other gameplay feature I took issue with were the beggars. Not to say that I detest homeless people, but in that they ask for money that Altair does not have. Assassin’s Creed does not have an economy, so to be badgered by beggars who won’t leave you alone unless you outrun them is irritating.

It’s not that I don’t want to give them money; it’s that I can’t give them money.

A7

Beggars can mess up your approach to a target if you’re not careful.

Assassin’s Creed‘s environments are wonderfully designed. Each city is done out in painstaking detail, down to the orange vines on the merchant’s villa. As in other Assassin’s Creed games, commoners and soldiers go about their business. They serve as more than a way to hide, or to fight. They make the environments feel convincing.

Altair’s outfit is purposefully designed to make him resemble a monk, but that won’t stop you from getting preached at by priests and imams. It also won’t stop awesomely bearded carpet merchants from insisting that their prices are the best in the Middle East. There’s a big, beautiful rural environment linking these cities together, but it contains no missions or much impetus at all for exploring it.

A8

Beautiful.

Assassin’s Creed has decent character animations and voice acting, but nothing truly special. The voice acting confused me because they hired an American to voice the Syrian Altair, which makes even less sense when all of his compatriots have Syrian accents. I get that this was probably done to make Altair’s dialogue more discernible to a western audience, but it broke immersion to hear him talk.

The music, though, is special. It incorporates the traditional western orchestra as well as eastern drums and chants. Brazen horns sound when you arrive to each city, which made me feel like a goddamn sultan. The music was carefully arranged to chime in at all the right moments, and that can make a game significantly better.

A10

HAIL TO ME

This first chapter in the Assassin’s Creed saga is not without some struggles and speed bumps, but it’s a good start to one of my favorite series. It does most everything well enough to stand out in a crowded field, and I recommend it to everyone from history nerds to stealth fanatics. Get cutting.

____________________

You can buy Assassin’s Creed 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.

Xotic

X

Save a beautiful planet from the clutches of an omnipresent monster.

PC Release: September 15, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Some video games are best played alone. Metroid Prime is the best example of this fact. For those of you who missed out on perhaps the greatest game released on the GameCube, Metroid Prime follows a bounty hunter as she explores a beautiful, abandoned world. Critics and gamers alike praised the feeling of isolation that came with Prime. It’s not loneliness, it’s wild reflection. I’ve found that same atmosphere lacking in today’s generation of games, until I discovered Xotic, a bizarre and colorful indie game. It’s no Metroid, but it carries that same spirit of exploration and exoticism that made that game great.

____________________

Xotic takes place on an nameless alien world. You are a bio-engineered creature who has been charged with saving the world from a merciless, god-like being called the Orb.

After eons spent as an intangible creature, the Orb wishes to feel alive again, but can only do so by choking the life out of its host planets. To that end, the Orb has corrupted the planet’s denizens into monsters, and seeded it with thousands of glowing red plants called scabs. Destroying the scabs and the monsters is the only way to kill the orb.

X1

The Orb is a tragic character, but it and its corruption have got to go.

Where your character comes from or what they are, exactly, is unknown. It’s implied that the alien you play has cleansed worlds of the Orb’s presence before. Your character’s primary weapon is the Macro Terra, a living, insect-shaped gun that has symbiotically bonded to you. As you level up, you can unlock different types of ammo for it.

Your character is guided by an unknown narrator whose synthesized voice sounds like the Reapers from the Mass Effect series. You and your Macro Terra must complete about 22 levels divided into four regions. Additional regions and missions are available as cheap downloadable content. In most missions, your only objective is to destroy all of the orb’s minions, and as many of its plants as possible.

X2

The Orb’s minions populate each level. A lot of them look like evil palm trees.

Xotic‘s primary game mechanic is a score and combo tracker. You can rack up tons of points for destroying as many enemies and plants in as little time as possible. The plants cause splashing damage when shot at, allowing you to take out entire rows of the things like a tumbling line of dominoes.

I don’t normally care about points and combos, but Xotic makes it fun. The game rewards exploration and creativity, which are traits I like to think I’m good with. In addition to the plants, there are floating gems that you can grab for additional points.

X3

Rows of plants garner the most points, but you can destroy floating “orb brains” for additional points.

I like Xotic because it brings the same element of solitary exploration endemic to Metroid Prime. You are alone against hordes of baddies and pickups, but it doesn’t carry the tone of a survival horror game. Rather, it’s like having a big, beautiful world all to yourself.

What breaks my heart about Xotic is that the gameplay is quite clunky. Your character jumps like the world has no gravity, making it difficult to judge distances and height. For whatever reason, it’s also next to impossible to move your gun as you’re shooting it. I died a few times because I had to move my Macro Terra’s path to match a speeding enemy’s, but couldn’t afford to stop firing because the hitboxes are so poor.

X4

YAAAAAAAH!

To be fair, your character can deploy a shield called the hard hologram for combat and platforming. Unfortunately, I found it getting in the way more often than actually being helpful.

It takes practice, but the headaches with the hard hologram are surmountable. With each level completed, your character gains points that can be used for upgrades. You can upgrade everything from hit points to ammunition.

X5

Xotic’s upgrades are simple to understand and implement.

Xotic‘s graphics are hardly top of the line, but they succeed in conveying the game’s colorful atmosphere, and that’s good enough. The level design suffers from being too linear, which takes away from the sense of adventure in exploring this alien world.

Enemies are laid out in a straightforward path between you and where the teleporter will arrive once they’re all dead. They also populate level segments replete with walls, making the shooting feel more conventional than the weird environments try for.

X6

Despite its level design issues, Xotic is quite beautiful.

Xotic‘s landscapes are, well, exotic. Your character visits underground temples, desert canyons, glass cities and other environments in his quest to free the planet from the Orb. The stark beauty of these environments and their relative uniqueness kept me interested throughout the adventure.

Xotic is also complimented by a contemplative, beautiful score. The music features overlays of electronica and dance, but remains quiet and cool in its sound. It was fitting for what the game tries to accomplish.

X7

I can’t photograph a contemplative music track, so here’s a picture of one of my favorite levels.

The feeling of solitary exploration is evident in Xotic‘s level and game design. With hidden caches of pickups and occasional but not overwhelming enemies, it pays strong homage to Metroid Prime. You don’t need to find all of the plants and pickups to progress, but you do need to find enough to prompt thorough exploration.

There are also bonus levels which contain nothing but the aforementioned plants and pickups, and challenge you to collect them all before time runs out. If you’re one of those people whose gaming is meaningless without a leaderboard, breathe easy, because Xotic has lots of them.

X8

Xotic is nothing if not a study in contrast.

Xotic is an interesting game, to say the least. It has a soothing world and environmental artwork seldom seen anymore. It’s marred by some annoying gameplay issues that were never resolved, but if you like to explore and shoot things at the same time, Xotic is for you. I beat it in about four hours on a diet of water and green tea, so it’s by no means impossible.

____________________

You can buy Xotic 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.

Sleeping Dogs

S

Topple a ruthless crime syndicate from the inside.

PC Release: August 13, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Too numerous are the gun games that are all steak or all sizzle. They’re either repetitive grind-heavy campaigns with a skeletal narrative (Lost Planet 2) or a series of set pieces that, while beautiful, are entirely linear (Call of Duty). People looking for a more in-depth alternative turn to violent open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, where you can kill legions of hookers with a rocket launcher. Sleeping Dogs contains something that all three of the aforementioned series lack: a deeply personal narrative. It’s been said that Sleeping Dogs is a clone of Grand Theft Auto, but its more intricate gameplay and deeper narrative force that assertion into question.

____________________

Even though I’ve finished the game and all of its downloadable content, I’m still not sure what Sleeping Dogs means. Given this game’s over-reliance on ancient Chinese proverbs, perhaps it’s a metaphor for dogs only being as dangerous as their sense of alertness… or something. At the very least, I don’t think anyone can deny that the name catches attention and raises eyebrows. Indeed, it was the question “what kind of name for a game is that?” that drew me to Sleeping Dogs in the first place.

Sleeping Dogs is an open-world, third-person game that takes place in modern Hong Kong. The game follows Wei Shen, a Chinese-American police officer who spent his childhood in Hong Kong but his teen years and early adulthood in San Francisco. Because of Wei’s firsthand experience with the triads, China’s crime syndicates, Shen is borrowed by the Hong Kong police for one mission: to infiltrate the triads and bring the whole thing down from the inside.

S1

Wei is an undercover cop, but the gang that he’s thrown in with is none the wiser.

Shortly after returning to Hong Kong, Wei is arrested and placed in the same cell as his childhood friend, Jackie Ma. Jackie, an errand boy for the Sun On Yee triad, promises to convince his bosses to let Wei join the organization. Shen’s status as an undercover cop is known only to a handful of other officers, including his by-the-book handler and a ruthless superintendent named Thomas Pendrew.

Upon release, Wei throws in with a Sun On Yee gang led by Winston Chu, a childhood acquaintance. From there, Wei must embark upon dangerous missions to prove his loyalty to the Sun On Yee.

S2

The Sun On Yee is suspicious of newcomers, having caught and killed another undercover cop recently.

As Wei shoots, steals and intimidates his way around Hong Kong, he becomes the victim of numerous inner conflicts. He’s torn between his loyalty to the people he ran with as a child, and his loyalty to the law. He also suffers guilt from the numerous assaults, robberies and murders he must commit in order to infiltrate the syndicate and serve the greater good. To be fair, the idea of a police superintendent condoning drive-by shootings and other acts is a bit depressing.

All of these conflicts make Wei more interesting than the protagonists of comparable series. In Grand Theft Auto, most protagonists are uncomplicated thugs who simply want to climb the ladder. Wei’s ascent up a similar ladder is dogged by his inner demons and his mission as an undercover officer. At the same time, he becomes attached to the gang as he gets to know them better. Winston Chu becomes less an angry street thug and more an aspiring family man, whose genuine care for his people makes him a more sympathetic character. The cohesion of Chinese organized crime makes it more interesting than its American counterparts.

S3

The Sun On Yee is guided as much by care for one another as the allure of profit.

Matters within the Sun On Yee become more complicated when a power struggle erupts. Wei is forced to navigate an increasingly unstable environment and build alliances with different Sun On Yee leaders, called Red Poles. His skills attract the attnetion of the organization’s top leadership, including the shadowy Broken Nose Jiang, and Henry “Big Smile” Lee.

It’s hard to go beyond that premise without major spoilers, but Sleeping Dogs is my favorite game of 2012 and perhaps the most underrated game I’ve ever played. Critics gave Sleeping Dogs positive reviews, but not the critical acclaim that I feel it deserves. Everything that Sleeping Dogs does, it does well. The story is neatly woven into core narrative missions and dozens of side activities around Hong Kong. It all makes for a very cohesive experience, and all of its characters evolve together.

S4

Sleeping Dogs has a quality story.

Luckily, the developers compounded Sleeping Dogs‘s impressive story with some seriously smooth gameplay. You start the game out with martial arts as your sole weapon, but you’ll branch out into guns as the game goes on. The melee combat borrows heavily from Batman: Arkham Asylum in that you can take on crowds of enemies and counter-attack foes in smooth combos. You can learn additional moves from your old Kung Fu master downtown. The gunplay is nothing more than conventional cover-based shooting, and Wei can’t aim for shit. Luckily, you’ll usually have enough ammo for precision to not be an issue.

Because this is a big, open-world game, you can’t expect to get around by walking. You can hijack and drive cars around the city. Sans a few camera issues, like the camera spinning wildly when you try to back up, the driving is pretty smooth. You can also buy cars off of the black market and build up Hong Kong’s most badass racing garage.

S5

Driving in Sleeping Dogs is always a pleasure. You can ram other vehicles or participate in street races.

Now, because this is a Square Enix game, Sleeping Dogs is replete with collectibles. Most of them actually serve a purpose, though. You can trade in jade statues to learn new fighting techniques, and some kind soul decided to leave lock boxes chock full of money just sitting around the city. I usually can’t care less about collectibles that are just there for the sake of being collectibles, but Sleeping Dogs doesn’t have this problem.

The problem that Sleeping Dogs does have is that there’s some racism implicit in a lot of what it does. For example, the game just assumes that all Chinese people know karate, because you’ll fight half the population of Hong Kong before long, and they’re all black belts. Additionally, Wei can gain health by praying at pagodas, and all of the characters have their stereotypical Chinese proverbs in the dialogue. I was sad to see this, because this game gets most everything else right and its reliance on Asian stereotypes was a bummer.

S6

Karaoke? NOW the caricature is complete!

Luckily, the Chinese characteristic that Sleeping Dogs does do well is its crowded cities. Having been to China myself, I can vouch for the attention to detail that went into everything from Hong Kong’s night markets to its mazes of neon signs. The character animations could stand to be less robotic, but the environment feels alive.

Having said that, there are some flaws with the world design worthy of note. The biggest and most obvious is the game world’s lack of traffic. It would’ve been more convincing if the streets had been packed with cars, which I understand is a lot to render but would’ve made this rendition of Hong Kong feel more authentic. It also made it much more difficult to find cars to hijack. In no universe should you have to wait on a Hong Kong thoroughfare for two whole minutes because no cars have arrived.

S7

Um…

Now, because this is a Square Enix game, Sleeping Dogs has way too much DLC. Beneath all of the useless skins and vehicles, though, are a few noteworthy gems of story-driven content.

The Zodiac Tournament, the first piece, follows Wei as he infiltrates a secret high-stakes martial arts tournament. The DLC pits him against the greatest fighters in Asia, and is produced to resemble an old movie from the golden age of Hong Kong Kung fu cinema. It clocks in at about an hour of content, but its exotic island locale and roster of new opponents will leave Sleeping Dogs fans happy they jumped on that boat.

Z1

Wei Shen’s adventures continue beyond Hong Kong.

The other two story-driven DLC of note are Nightmare in North Point, and Year of the Snake. The former is a non-canon horror-adventure in which Wei Shen faces off against demons from hell, led by a former Sun On Yee Red Pole who seeks revenge from beyond the grave. The DLC is a separate spin-off of the main game, of course, but even some ghoulish mist and fiery-eyed ghosts can’t disguise how short it is. Wei has to drive around Hong Kong defeating three mega-ghosts before facing off against the big baddie himself, and then it’s over. Nightmare in North Point is a short, if dumbly fun, foray into Chinese mythology brought to life, but it misses a lot of opportunities for both laughs and scares.

The second DLC, Year of the Snake, is set after the events of the main game. Wei embeds himself into Hong Kong’s riot response force as a group of religious fanatics seek to destroy Hong Kong. It’s a surprisingly story-free DLC that makes dubious fun as a riot cop simulator, but not much more. It’s certainly underwhelming after the bombastic energy of the main story.

Z2

Are beat cops allowed to flaunt tattoos like that?

Aside from a few other issues, like a glitch that sometimes made Wei look like his shirt was a Rubix cube, Sleeping Dogs stands tall in its genre. It stands out because of its dual cop-criminal gameplay system, a prestige system that increases as you complete tasks around the city, and a gripping story. It’s one of those rare games that has decent gameplay in every sector, and its transition to such an exotic setting makes it immediately recognizable. This game comes highly recommended.

____________________

You can buy Sleeping Dogs 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.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

E

Save a troubled northern land from being annihilated by dragons.

PC Release: November 11, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Like a lot of people who have too much time on their hands, I love role-playing games. I love the massive worlds they encompass, and I also love the chance to take my own character on my own narrative. Such is the reason I love The Elder Scrolls series and such is the reason I love Skyrim, its latest installment. More importantly, here’s why you should consider loving it as well.

____________________

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes place in a high fantasy world not dissimilar to all the other ones out there, bearing commonalities with the worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The game focuses on the titular land of Skyrim, a Scandinavia-like realm of mountains, tundras and mead halls.

As with the previous Elder Scrolls games, players begin as an unnamed prisoner who has been incarcerated by the Empire of Tamriel for an unspecified crime. This is where the character’s race and physical traits are chosen. Unlike past Elder Scrolls games, players don’t have to pick a class of character, like warrior or mage.

E1

Players can pick from 10 races and customize dozens of facial features when creating their character.

Just as your character is about to be beheaded, a massive dragon comes out of nowhere and begins destroying the town. No dragon has been seen in Skyrim for centuries, and you’re able to escape as it sets the village on fire. You can choose to escape with the rebels you were arrested with, or the imperials who just tried to execute you. I would assume that for most people, the choice is obvious.

After escaping, your character is free to do as he or she sees fit in Skyrim. You can go your own way and perform hundreds of quests around the land, or embark upon the main story line. I opted for a combination of the two, but we’ll stick with the main story for now.

E2

Hey, buddy? Before you cut my head off, you might want to look behind you.

Not long after escaping from the first dragon, your character finds himself/herself helping another city against another dragon. After slaying the beast, and absorbing its soul, your character is revealed to be a Dragonborn. Born with the bodies of mortals and the souls of dragons, Dragonborn can learn dragon shouts that can do everything from slow time to set things on fire. There hasn’t been a Dragonborn in centuries, and for one to appear at the same time as the dragons cannot be a coincidence.

Even if you choose to do some story missions early on, there’s nothing stopping you from wandering off to do other things. Skyrim is nothing if not an exemplar of open-world freedom.

E3

You can absorb the souls of the dragons you’ve slain and learn devastating powers.

As if dragons weren’t a big enough problems, Skyrim is also on the brink of civil war. The empire has fallen on hard times since the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It used to govern the entire continent of Tamriel, but most of its former provinces have seceded or been conquered by hostile powers. Trouble is brewing between the empire’s occupying forces and Skyrim’s natives. The Dragonborn can take part in this conflict on behalf of the empire or the rebels, shaping the story further.

If you don’t give a shit about any of that, that’s fine! You don’t have to fight dragons or rebels; you can take off into this beautiful northern landscape and do whatever you want. Kill the local bandit for some quick money. Get arrested for selling drugs. Break into every house in the nearest city! Skyrim is an excellent exercise in open-world gaming. There are various factions across the land that you can rise through and take command of, from the brave warriors of the Companions to the reclusive mages of the College of Winterhold. The Thieves Guild and the assassins of the Dark Brotherhood also return from previous Elder Scrolls games. You can do all of this however you want, whenever you want.

E4

The number of quests in this game is ludicrous.

The ability to choose so many different paths of adventure is Skyrim‘s greatest narrative strength. Role-playing games don’t always have an emotionally endearing central narrative or great character development, and Skyrim is no exception. The effort of Skyrim‘s narrative lies not in its writing, which is not amazing, nor its voice acting, which is pretty okay, but all the ways in which you can interact with the world.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I create an internal narrative every time I play a big role-playing game, and I think most other Skyrim players would agree. You become attached to your character in a way that games with scripted characters cannot provide. For a game to provide so many ways to interact with this big, beautiful world is outstanding.

E5

The world is yours to shape in Skyrim.

The size of Skyrim is the most beautiful thing about it, but it also leads to a lot of problems. A game of this size can’t be free from bugs, and Skyrim has loads of them. From a few minor quests that can’t be finished, to laughable physics bugs that tumble characters around like laundry, there’s no shortage of unintended hilarity in this game. Of course, not being able to drop a quest-essential item even after the mission is finished is a bit more frustrating.

Luckily, Skyrim‘s gaming community stepped up where Bethesda stumbled. There are patches available for download that fix hundreds of bugs throughout the game. There’s no such content for the console versions, unfortunately, but the patches are free and fill a lot of potholes. These patches are great, but it’s regrettable that Bethesda let so many problems slip through the cracks.

E6

You can steal things from a shopkeeper if you put a pot on their head. One of Skyrim’s many, many flaws that can be exploited for hilarious gain.

If Skyrim‘s bugs can break immersion, its artwork will draw you in immediately. I’ve played plenty of games that had large and beautifully detailed environments, but Bethesda has created the most alive landscape I’ve ever seen with Skyrim. Tall, snowy mountains encapsulate lush vales full of saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, and lots of other wildlife.

Salmon jump up river rapids and glowing mushrooms adorn cavern walls. The cities burst with sound and color, and everything has been carefully arranged around an ancient, Nordic motif. There’s a lot to see and hear throughout the land of Skyrim.

E7

Skyrim is alive in a way that most video games are not.

It’s one thing for a game’s environment to be detailed, and quite another for those details to all be interacting with one another so well. Skyrim‘s narratives may not be emotionally exhausting, like some other games I’ve played, but you’ll never find a better composite of high fantasy adventures in all of gaming. The central narrative is yours to craft and yours to internalize.

Skyrim also features some DLC to augment the main experience, adding new quests, characters and themes to the main production. The Hearthfire DLC allows players to build their own houses, if the homes available in Skyrim’s major cities aren’t up to scratch. It’s fun to build an elaborate mansion in the woods, but Hearthfire is incredibly buggy. From display cases that pop open to mannequins that teleport from place to place, one could mistake Hearthfire for a haunted house simulator. It’s fun, but don’t be surprised if the dining table spread explodes for no reason.

H

Building a house in Skyrim is fun, but Hearthfire is complicated by an unfortunate slew of bugs.

The first story-driven piece of Skryim content released after the main game is Dawnguard. The DLC introduces the titular Dawnguard faction, who invite the Dragonborn to help them stop vampires from destroying the sun. Along the way, players can join the vampires and even become a huge vampire monster, like the Dracula creature from Van Helsing. The DLC is most important, though, because it contains the character development that the main game missed. Serana, a vampire princess and companion throughout the DLC, is the rarest of Skyrim rarities in that she’s a fully fledged character who changes over time, not just some NPC with two canned responses to every conversation. Dawnguard goes to some dark places, but its emphasis of character strength and development makes it a must-have.

The second DLC, Dragonborn, opens up the island of Solstheim for player characters to explore. Solstheim hasn’t been seen since The Elder Scrolls III, but rumors of another Dragonborn running around killing people compel the visit. Dragonborn is much more akin to the main Skyrim game in that it emphasizes exploration and fighting over character growth, but Solstheim’s sandy terrain and the DLC’s main storyline are both novelties worthy of any Skryim fan. At the very least, Dragonborn can provide a sorely needed change in scenery.

D4

Dawnguard and Dragonborn are both substantive DLCs that come as highly recommended as the main game.

Skryim is the fantasy adventure game of a generation. It has its bugs, and its core narrative could use more brevity, but the vastness of its open world and the many different ways in which the player can engage that world make it a great game. It still looks fantastic years on, and it contains a wealth of content that players can enjoy for years on end.

____________________

You can buy The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 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.

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure

S

Guide three heroes on a hilarious parody of The Oregon Trail.

PC Release: October 17, 2013

By Ian Coppock

A lot of innovation has come out of indie games in the past few years. Devoid of cash, wily designers conspire in their mothers’ basements to produce something that can compete with big-budget studios at a fraction of the cost. They throw creativity at holes bigger studios fill with money. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a prime example of this indie innovation, and it’s also a throwback to the classic Oregon Trail game. As you’ll soon, see, though, it’s a bit… different… from those old games of yore.

____________________

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a side-scrolling game. It seeks to parody The Oregon Trail, a series of simulation games about an 1800s family trying to make it to Oregon. Just like in that game, players create a team of people for a trip across the old west, though the old west of Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a bit more eclectic than the cholera and banditry endemic to The Oregon Trail.

Players move about the world in a covered wagon, and can shoot at animals and enemies from the front. The game starts out relatively pedestrian; you gather animal pelts and shoot at pursuing bandits. Indeed, little to nothing seems out of the ordinary when Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is just starting up.

S1

Okay, this seems pretty normal.

It’s worth pointing out that although Super Amazing Wagon Adventure has an aesthetic similar to that of The Oregon Trail, the two have little in common when it comes to actual gameplay. In The Oregon Trail, players simply move their wagon along and respond as best they can to the situations that crop up. You have to carefully manage a variety of supplies and do your best to keep everyone alive during the trip to Oregon.

In Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, the only resource you have to manage is the health of your crew. You can collect animal pelts just in case a trader happens to be wandering by, but there’s also a lot of moving around the screen and shooting at bad guys. At least, that’s how the game starts, but things quickly escalate for the team of pioneers.

S2

What the hell? How did we get into space?

Yep. You think you’re just in for fighting against bandits, but soon Super Amazing Wagon Adventure unleashes everything from evil unicorns to mind-shredding hallucinations. Navigating each of these threats is hard; Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is the most difficult platformer I’ve ever played, even more so than Super Meat Boy.

In addition to these outlandish obstacles, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure pokes fun at the main features of The Oregon Trail. I had to laugh when I got to a river and, rather than have the option to ford the river, be given the option to jump over it. Even that absurd option can plunge the game into further madness, like battling pirate ships or trying to drive the wagon underwater.

S3

BISON BISON BISON BISON BISON BISON BISON

As I mentioned, each member of your team has health, and you can only win the game by getting at least one person to the other side of America alive. In addition to the more forceful threats of sentient tornadoes and caves filled with giant spiders, you’ll also encounter strange characters out on the road. Some will trade with you, some are duplicitous, all are unfair. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure doesn’t care about your hurt feelings.

Each playthrough of Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is completely randomized. Some factors depend on the choices you make, like which path to take on your way out west, and some scenarios just play out randomly. It makes the game’s replay value very high, because more so than any other game that claims to do so, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure truly makes it so that no two playthroughs are the same.

S4

DIE, UNICORNS!

To compliment the ridiculousness of the gameplay, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure introduces cut-ins with hilarious dialogue. Just in case what you see on your screen isn’t enough, the developers wrote candid, dry descriptions of all the absurd things that will happen to your wagon. These pop in between enemy encounters and before making critical choices.

The balance between the writing and gameplay is struck unusually well. The former reinforces the absurdity of the latter, and it helps that it’s all well-written. The developers take a lot of creative license with their descriptions, particularly of the characters’ deaths.

S5

Killed by narwhals, or pre-mortem dreams of bacon. I’m not sure which is funnier.

As players course through Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, there are a few bonus modes and wagons to be unlocked. Some, like the space shuttle, can move around the screen more quickly and thus serve a practical purpose. Others, like the princess carriage and invisible wagon, are just there for gags. Various survival modes can be unlocked in which you can contend against the game’s many vicious inhabitants, but don’t worry; there’s plenty of carnage to be had in the main game.

The thing I like about Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is that it knows exactly what it’s trying to do. In being an incredibly frustrating but also hilarious platformer, it seizes its own identity without being worried about how well audiences respond to it. It doesn’t try to pander to a large audience just to make money; it sits you down, shuts you up, and forces you through a cataclysm of hilarity. The game is a great example of how courage is the progenitor of originality.

S6

Cave spiders? Because that was a thing in the 1800s.

Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is not an easy game. I’ve played it dozens of times and only ever beaten it once, and that was by a thread. But the point of the game is not just to be conquered, because its high difficulty is a crucial part of its identity. Its difficult, hilarious situations are its core concepts, and because of that, it stands out in a very thick crowd.

I highly recommend downloading this game. I also recommend having a few drinks and taking turns with a friend or significant other to see who can get through it. Most rounds are short, and the sheer variety in all of them makes Super Amazing Wagon Adventure‘s staying power outweigh what its small price might suggest.

____________________

You can buy Super Amazing Wagon Adventure 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.