Monthly Archives: February 2014

Penumbra: Black Plague

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Continue the search for Philip’s father in a hellish underground laboratory.

PC Release: February 12, 2008

By Ian Coppock

As a general rule, the video games that declare themselves the first episode of a series tend to do very poorly. Hydrophobia and that god-awful Ride to Hell game are prominent examples. Usually, this is because you either aren’t Telltale Games, or because material fit for one game is sliced into several smaller, weaker installments. Frictional Games understood that the key to good episodic gaming is to give each episode its own unique theme and challenges, while using an overarching narrative to string them together into a better whole. Hence the kickassery of Penumbra: Overture and now, to a greater extent, Penumbra: Black Plague.

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Black Plague continues the story of Philip, a British physicist who received a letter from his supposed-to-be-dead dad at the beginning of Penumbra: Overture, and tracked its origin to uninhabited northern Greenland. In Overture, Philip braved an abandoned mining facility full of horrifically mutated creatures.

Black Plague begins after [SPOILER REDACTED], as Philip regains consciousness in a secret science facility beneath the mine.

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Alrighty then…

Philip can hear screams and fighting outside his cell, and so breaks out to find his dad and figure out what the hell this place is. The lab is run by a clandestine organization of scientists, but their connection to the events of Overture and Philip’s father remains unclear.

With all the commotion, I began to worry that whatever infection had seized the wolves, worms and bugs in Penumbra: Overture had spread here as well. I spent the first twenty minutes or so hearing strange growls and catching glimpses of gray things sprinting past doors, but I turned a corner and found that it was just a happy little leprechaun playing tricks on everyone and offering me a rainbow home to safety.

Just kidding. It was a chicken-fried zombie monster.

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AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!

Yup. Most of the base’s human staff has succumbed to the same mysterious disease that turned the animal enemies in Overture into giant, tumor-ridden monstrosities. These creatures are fast, smart and thorough. As with Overture, there are no weapons to be found, so Philip can only run and hide to survive the creatures hunting him.

Unlike most horror games featuring an insidious disease, the protagonist is not magically immune to the chaos around him. He succumbs to the plague himself, but rather than transform into a drooling freak, he begins to hear a maddening voice in his head, some sort of nebulous intelligence that is not at all friendly. Sounding somewhat like a cantankerous old man with a 13-year-old’s sense of humor, the voice takes the title of “guardian angel” as a sick joke, even calling itself Clarence after the character from It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Smarter foes. An infested facility. And now, split personality disorder. This game is just peachy.

Clarence is an asshole. There’s no other way to put it. When he’s not rooting around in your brain making fun of embarrassing memories, this ethereal consciousness is telling you to turn around and that your mission to find your dad is hopeless. I was beginning to believe him, until getting a video chat message from a surviving scientist who promised she could cure Philip and help find his dad. With time running about before he too transforms into a mutant, Philip steadies himself and sets out to find this mystery lady. Clarence is not into this idea though, and will alter your perception of the game world to keep you and her as far apart as possible. He’ll make it seem as though doors have vanished, corridors have ended, even that you’ve died horribly. DAMN you, Clarence.

Black Plague‘s narrative is quite more panicked and feverish then that of Overture. Though Philip’s mission to find his father remains largely unchanged, his problems have become compounded by an impending date with horrific mutation, which I’m sure would ruin just about anyone’s day. Philip remains a silent protagonist, but Clarence more than fills the space with his potty mouth and cynical musings about the stupidity of human beings. The game introduces a few other characters, almost none of whom are physically seen, reinforcing the sense of isolation.

Charming.

Charming.

Black Plague‘s narrative is supported by a series of silent observations about humanity’s pitfalls. To Clarence’s credit, his musings about how mankind can do the worst of things with the best intentions are reinforced by the havoc of the facility. Experiments gone awry, innocent lives sacrificed, all in the name of a progress that was never made manifest. If Clarence’s constant cynicism wasn’t enough of a reminder, the game’s scenarios and puzzles certainly were.

Though the story of Black Plague is bleak, to say the least, it is quite exciting. Whereas the main goal in Overture was simply to survive and press forward, Philip’s dad being so close made the game more compelling. You’ve almost solved the mystery of why Philip’s father apparently faked his death, and perhaps more curiously, his connection with both the secret organization running this lab, and the force that’s turning everyone into salivating meat beings.

Black Plague carries on with the well-written and oftentimes poetic dialogue seen in the first Penumbra and the later Amnesia games. Though annoying, Clarence’s quips about everything from bathroom humor to human existence were both hilarious and deep. Black Plague is terrifying, but the game is not without a measure of humor similar in flavor to that of Portal or Fallout 3. Ludicrous loudspeaker announcements about the “perks” of suicide, convoluted policies regarding employee safety, even a few jabs at Microsoft. This game will make you scream, but it also made me laugh.

I salute Black Plague for managing to throw in a few chuckles while keeping the game's overall tone dark and hopeless.

I salute Black Plague for managing to throw in a few chuckles while keeping the game’s overall tone dark and hopeless, and how psychotic do I have to be to salute THAT???

Black Plague‘s gameplay can be summed up by the phrase Run. Solve. Cry. Philip has no weapons or means of self-defense. The clunky pickaxe-swinging combat from Overture has been taken out of Black Plague, leaving you without even a poorly-executed smidgen of hope for fighting back. You’ll occasionally find first aid and other supplies for staying alive, but your best hope of perseverance is to run and hide, lest the monsters make short work of you.

Philip has a flashlight for seeing in the dark, but its batteries run down quickly and it lights you up like a Christmas tree. You have a glowstick for backup illumination, but a criticism I wish to apply to Black Plague and retroactively to Overture is that it never runs down, so the challenge of navigating an area before it becomes pitch black is rendered moot. It wouldn’t be such a flaw if the glowstick sucked, but it’s just as powerful as the flashlight. Part of what makes horror horror is the lack of resources, and Black Plague‘s glowstick made this suffer.

It wasn't until after I ran out of batteries that I tried the glowstick and found that it  never ran out.

It wasn’t until after I ran out of batteries that I tried the glowstick and found that it never ran out.

The monsters in Black Plague are smart, terrifying and armed to the teeth. The game’s main antagonists are human mutants, who stalk the halls sniffing for your blood. If things weren’t unfair enough, these beasties carry weapons and flashlights. I cried out in fear when a monster shined his flashlight on me, leaving me with nowhere to hide and a delicious new sensation of challenge. Monsters with flashlights means that you can only hide until being flushed out, and must run. This made the enemies of Black Plague an exceptional challenge. However, there’s only one kind of foe, making enemy navigation very predictable. You do get into a sort of boss fight with one of the mutant animals from Overture, but that’s about it. I feel like an opportunity was missed to have creatures break into the base, turning this game into even more of a shitfest.

The puzzles core to Frictional Games’ horror titles return in Black Plague. Most of them are quite intuitive but a few made me roll my eyes. There was one part toward the beginning where I spent an hour trying to figure out how to turn off a steam jet, only to learn from an FAQ that you have to press a random soda can against a freezer thermostat to turn off the steam. I feel no shame in looking that one up, that’s just ridiculous and random. Good puzzles are good puzzles because they reward logic and intuition, not rubbing random objects together and hoping for progress. This was an issue with a few other puzzles in Black Plague but, thankfully, not the majority.

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Excuse me? I need to light a can of congealed feces on fire in order to spark a generator and break a lock on a door, can you help me out?

Black Plague‘s visuals received a healthy graphical update from Overture, and the complete switch of palette from creepy mine to scary underground lab was a nice change of pace. Creepiness oozes from every inch of woodwork in Black Plague. You’ll find laboratories full of questionable experiments, constant signs of calamity, and coldly beautiful underground and surface scenery.

I do have one major and quite random sticking point with the game’s visuals, specifically the monster design. I’ve seen some awkward artwork in my time, but for some reason, Frictional designed the monsters to make it look like their schlongs are burrowing up into their stomachs. Either that or the small intestine has fallen out and become some sort of substitute penis. What is the line of logic behind this design choice? All it did was make me awkwardly laugh and then squint in confusion.

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See? What the hell is that supposed to be?

Despite some embarrassing artistic quandaries and a couple of puzzles that might make you tear your hair out, Penumbra: Black Plague is a competent horror game. It is an improvement in many ways over Overtureand its atmosphere is extremely chilling.

The combination of Philip’s race against time with the staggering implications of everything he sees and everywhere he goes is very effective. Add a bit of black humor and some challenging puzzles, and you’ve got something of a gem.

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You can buy Penumbra: Black Plague 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.

Gone Home

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Your family’s house lies empty. Investigate their disappearance.

PC Release: August 15, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Gamers and game developers alike consistently underestimate the power of story. In an age where games are judged by the number of polygons you can squeeze into a screen and by how many Russians you can decapitate with one kitchen knife, the element of adventure storytelling seems to be in decline. Luckily, this medium persists, and proves once again how engrossing video games can be with titles like Dear Esther, and now Gone Home. Mindless action seekers stray from these games at their peril. No, there’s no ridiculous action to be had. But what’s there instead may prove to be of far greater substance.

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Gone Home is a first-person game set in 1995. It’s driven only by its narrative and some light exploration, and contrary to what its eerie premise might suggest, it is not a horror game.

After spending a year away in Europe, player character Katie arrives to her family’s house in the Pacific Northwest. Thunder and lightning envelop the place, and there’s no sign of her loved ones; just a worrying letter taped to the front door.

Oh boy. This doesn't look good.

Oh boy. This doesn’t look good.

Katie ventures into the house, and it’s up to her/you to find out where her family is. She’s unfamiliar with the place, as the rest of her family moved in while she was away, adding a second element of exploration to this tale.

In Gone Home, Katie progresses by finding letters and objects hinting at her parents’ and little sister’s whereabouts. You’ll also find objects hinting at each character’s life and history, ranging from big important things like dramatic correspondence down to a TV schedule and one seriously embarrassing romantic novel.

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Since no one’s home, you learn about the Greenbriar family via objects left strewn around the house… or left well-hidden.

The focus of Gone Home is Sam, Katie’s younger sister. A rebellious and somewhat troubled teenager, Sam’s story is told through read-aloud narrations, triggered by finding unsent letters she wrote for Katie. Contrary to what you’ll find in this game’s Steam reviews, Sam’s story is plenty deep, and both tragic and heartwarming. It’s a moving story of her making her first true friend, and how the they became something closer, and much more.

I won’t spoil, but the story did, in fact, bring me to tears by game’s end. What we have is a narrative that combines the mysterious atmosphere of the house with an increasingly urgent and complex personal story, of a young girl trying to find acceptance and love in a society corrupted by fear. I was no in-crowd child myself, which is perhaps why I felt so compelled to find more pieces of Sam’s story, which you can only do by exploring more of the house.

Finding Sam becomes the focus of gone home. The depth of her story is admirable, and the developers used it to advance exploring the house.

Finding Sam becomes the focus of Gone Home. The depth of her story is admirable, and the developers used it to advance exploring the house.

Revolving around Sam’s story are subtle subplots dealing with Katie’s parents and a few other characters. Most objects will only imply, never tell, like a liquor bottle next to a rejection letter, or a restaurant receipt tucked into the couch. The open-ended nature of the narrative’s supporting structure not only made the rest of the game feel more mysterious, but added even more impetus to explore this giant, empty house.

I guess it’s fair to say that the main story of Gone Home is not exploring the house itself, but the combination of tales and hints that you get from exploring the house. This tale and the context of what you find will change depending on how thorough you are. There are rewards for the discerning housebreaker, like hidden codes for locked drawers, and perhaps even a secret passageway or two. Yeah, yeah. Just call me Freddie Foreshadowing.

DUN-DUN-DUUUNNNN! Seriously, I promise this isn't a horror game.

DUN-DUN-DUUUNNNN! Seriously, I promise this isn’t a horror game.

Gone Home‘s gameplay is simplicity at its finest. You can walk around, zoom in on objects, and pick up objects to examine them. Developer Fulbright Company found a good happy medium between freestanding items and static ones, in that you can select an item, examine it up close, and have it snap back into place with the click of a button. Boom. Katie also has an inventory and, thankfully, a map. Because if I haven’t said it enough already, this house is more like a mansion.

A game with this many objects to look at bears the potential for pixel-hunting, but not to worry. Items light up when you look at them, which will save your nerves and reward you for making even passing glances at furniture. There are still some items to search for, some locker codes to sniff out, but finding them is a matter of logic and attention, not minesweeping the granules of the game world.

I am the Anti-Indiana Jones when it comes to finding my way around. Thank God for maps.

I am the Anti-Indiana Jones when it comes to finding my way around. Thank God for maps.

The artwork and visuals in Gone Home are engrossing for more reasons than decent graphics. Any 90’s kid will find plenty to nostalgia at in this game.

Most of the brands and television shows referenced in this game are real, which made Gone Home more effective at drawing me in. A strong variety of color rounds off some exceptional art design.

Hahaha WOW!

Hahaha WOW!

Gone Home‘s atmosphere is equal parts creepy and intriguing. By its very nature, a premise like your whole family mysteriously missing packs some chills, but the humor behind some of the objects you find and the complicated though very human story of Sam balances this out. Shadows become inviting and mysterious rather than flat-out NONONONONONO. Music, a soft melody, plays only during Sam’s narrated letters, leaving you with only the creaking floorboards and the thunderstorm outside to accompany you.

I want to take a moment to single out Sam’s voice actress, Sarah Grayson, who infused emotions painful, hilarious and uplifting into the narrative of Sam. She might have been able to save at least part of Afterfall for me, and I commend her for her work here. And let’s be honest; it takes some serious skill to honestly portray a troubled teen.

(sniff)... no, I'm not frickin' crying, leave me alone.

(sniff)… no, I’m not frickin’ crying, leave me alone.

Gone Home presents a powerful and intricate narrative, wrapped into an atmospheric environment and salted with some humor, some sadness, and some humanity. Simple, workable gameplay never hurts either.

This game is available for $20 on Steam; I found it to be worth every penny. This game’s caught a lot of flak with a lot of Steamers. I can only debate the people who said the story sucked but you can safely disregard the people who cried “MOAR GUNNESS AND BLOODAGE”. Get the game. Two hours or so later you’ll have been absorbed into a great story, and be better for it.

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You can buy Gone Home 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.

Penumbra: Overture

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Follow a trail of clues left by your supposedly dead father.

PC Release: March 30, 2007

By Ian Coppock

My fascination with horror games borders on the obscene. It’s hard to explain, but I get a really primal rush out of navigating a dangerous environment, armed only with my wits and the mouse sensitivity jacked up all the way so I can turn around and flee at a moment’s notice. It perplexes my friends and has been called a disease, but screw it, I love horror games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favorite horror game and a penultimate title of the genre, so I decided to check the back catalog of Amnesia‘s creators, Frictional Games, for more content. To sum up how most horror games begin… I found something.

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Penumbra: Overture was the very first game made by Frictional, and it provides both a fascinating account of the studio’s experiments with horror mechanics and a solid game in its own right.

Set in modern times, the story follows Philip, a young physicist who receives a letter from his father right after his mother’s funeral. Funny thing is that his father supposedly died 30 years ago. Philip follows the letter’s instructions and retrieves a stash of documents from his father’s old bank. Rather than burn them, as the letter begs him to, Philip traces their origin to an unmarked location somewhere in uninhabited northern Greenland. He sets out to find the father he never knew, and what all the letter’s commotion is about.

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Map? Check. Booze? Check. Coat? Check. Goosebumps? Check.

Philip stumbles through the arctic wasteland and reaches the map’s destination, an old mine, and takes shelter inside rather than die from hypothermia. Letters and physical evidence indicate that the mine played setting for some horrible calamity, and you begin to hear strange noises around and below you.

And you see things.

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Woah… a dog? Nice doggie… nice doggie OH SHIT!!!

It takes little time at all for Philip to realize that he is not alone. The entire mine is infested with mutated creatures, twisted into evil, dangerous forms by some unknown force. As with Amnesia, you have no means of self-defense. Your only recourse with encountering a monster is to run from it, hide from it, or distract it. Philip can hide in the shadows to elude monsters, but if they spot you, don’t hope for a clean getaway.

Despite being hounded by giant spiders and dogs with glowing marmalade for eyes (among other creatures), Philip picks up the trail once more. All the while, I was beset by gnawing questions. Why did Philip’s dad fake his death? What’s his connection with the hell that is this mine and its monstrous inhabitants? Perhaps most importantly, where does this tunnel lead?

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Penumbra: Overture is a terrifying journey into the dark

Penumbra‘s mysterious narrative is quite gripping. Similar to Amnesia, you’re thrust into a dangerous environment with very little context and a single, simple goal, woven into a series of physics puzzles and hair-raising encounters. The narrative gains strength by being presented as nothing more than what it is: a silent, lonely journey into the earth, feeling at the pitch darkness and the nebulous tragedies within the mine.

Philip is a silent protagonist, but he is not alone in the mine. You’ll encounter a few other characters comprising a riot of agendas and personalities. You’re accompanied throughout most of the game via radio by Red, an insane miner who’s been trapped in these tunnels for decades. His disparate and insane monologues were some of the more interesting writing I’ve seen in a horror game. He’ll throw riddles at you hinting at the world’s end and questioning the line between sanity and insanity.

Red is willing to help you, but he's clearly insane, I spent most of the game wondering what his deal was.

Red is willing to help you, but he’s clearly insane, I spent most of the game wondering what his deal was.

Penumbra‘s gameplay is a mostly fine-tuned suite of mechanics built for stealth and speed. Philip can crouch in the shadows to become effectively invisible, and he can also lean around corners to see monsters before they see him. You’ll find medicine and other supplies but rarely, further prompting you to not be a hero. Philip also has a flashlight, but its batteries run down quickly and the light makes you easy to spot. Flares and glowsticks can help mitigate dead flashlights, and provide distractions.

What amazed me about Penumbra: Overture is that the game actually features combat. Philip can swing a hammer or pickaxe at an incoming foe, but it will only stun them for a few seconds. This feature is encompassed in Penumbra‘s less high-quality game mechanic. To use tools, you’re expected to click and drag in order to simulate swinging or hammering. The mechanic is clunky, to say the least. I spent much of the game having it faulted by a swinging camera or not gripping the mouse at the proper time. This, in turn, reduces combat to a series of lucky swings. Don’t get your hopes up, you’re still essentially defenseless in Penumbra.

You can stun enemies for a few seconds, but it is extremely difficult. I gave up after the first few tries and stuck with hiding. It's a lot easier.

You can stun enemies for a few seconds, but it is extremely difficult. I gave up after the first few tries and stuck with hiding. It’s a lot easier.

Aside from avoiding and sneaking around monsters, Penumbra‘s most important game element is puzzles. To advance into the mine, Philip will have to fix machinery, open doors and build tools. Most of these puzzles are refreshingly intuitive (yes, I’m still a bit butthurt over the puzzles in Half-Life: Blue Shift). Frictional is good at remembering that the simplest solution is usually the best one, and so you won’t spend hours groping in the dark for obscure tools or playing guessing games with one of several methods forward.

Occasionally you’ll find instruction manuals for machinery, but they’re densely written. This is the most trivial complaint I’ve ever indulged, but instruction manuals written like real instruction manuals made one or two puzzles a yawnfest. Constantly checking between one and thirty steps to fix a motor isn’t exactly my idea of fun. I’m not saying don’t put in challenging puzzles, just streamline the process a bit.

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Don’t worry, most of Penumbra’s puzzles are, though difficult, streamlined.

The game throws some amazing thrills your way. Horror junkies will relish avoiding the mutated dogs that stalk the halls, but you’ll also be expected to crawl through basements and tunnels infested with giant spiders, gasping for air and trying not to get devoured by swarms of the damn things.

Some encounters in this game were more heart-racing and terrifying than anything I’ve seen since Amnesia itself.

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GEEZUS, RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!!!

Penumbra‘s visuals are a little dated and rough around the edges, but this is an indie game, and one that’s nearly six years old at that. Even though the textures and objects are a bit low-res, the environments are of an impressive scale and their details are arranged in a manner quite conducive to shivers. Maps will help you keep track of the mine’s maze-like environments, and the assets are interesting to look at both for their variety of color and looking quite aged by time and neglect. For the best effect, I recommend playing this game alone in the middle of the night with headphones in.

I don’t have a problem, okay?! I can quit whenever I want!

I hate spiders. If you don't already, you will after playing this game.

I hate spiders. If you don’t already, you will after playing this game.

I give Penumbra: Overture a heartfelt recommendation. Though it has a few clunky mechanics and tiresome sequences, it is an overall solid horror game. Fans of Amnesia will fall in love with this game’s pacing and narrative, both similar in structure to those of that game. It was a great start for Frictional Games, and any gamer who calls himself or herself a horror fan needs this in their collection. For what you get, this game’s $10 price tag on Steam is a steal.

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You can buy Penumbra: Overture 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.

Half-Life: Expansions and Demos

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Gordon Freeman isn’t the only one fighting through Black Mesa.

PC Release: Various

By Ian Coppock

The Half-Life game brings with it a universe of good and not-so-good expansions and demos, some of which I decided to assemble into the diehard fan’s ultimate compendium. This lively mix of stories introduces new characters who, like Gordon Freeman, fight to escape the alien infestation overtaking the Black Mesa Research Facility. On that fateful morning, when Freeman tore the barriers between dimensions and monsters emerged from the ether, he sure as hell wasn’t the only one trying to stay alive.

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Half-Life: Blue Shift

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PC Release: June 12, 2001

Blue Shift is the latter half of a tandem expansion effort by Gearbox Software, who went on to create Borderlands. Player character Barney Calhoun is a security guard who must flee like everyone else before the alien storm engulfing Black Mesa. Like Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman, Barney is a silent protagonist who must battle both the goggly-eyed aliens and the marines sent to cover up the accident, i.e. shoot innocent people. It’s not long before the security guard is in way over his head, but not to fear; there’s a group of scientists holed up in a nearby trainyard with schematics for a way out of the facility. Get to them, and you can get out.

Blue Shift is an alright expansion, but it suffers several juvenile flaws. For one thing, it’s short. I beat the expansion in about three hours and was a bit exasperated when the end was suddenly thrust upon me like an exam the adjunct professor forgot to upload. I’ll give Blue Shift some credit for shaking up the level design from Half-Life, transiting from expansive but rather linear areas into more intricate, maze-like territory. This game will teach you to fear tight corners.

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Blue-Shift expands the tragedy of Black Mesa.

Anyway, Barney learns of some hotshot scientist being imprisoned by the military, so you spend most of the game fighting human enemies. Springing this guy out means that he can put together a ticket out of Black Mesa, which is handy, because the aliens and soldiers continue to increase in number.

Blue Shift has a workable premise and Half-Life‘s stiff gameplay returns in fighting form, but its puzzles are ghastly. For whatever reason, I had a soul-crushingly difficult time solving the riddles this game spewed at me. I’m guessing the complete lack of context coupled with the usage of random items did me in. I rolled my eyes after spending 547 hours trying to reconnected a wire, only to find that the two halves had to be bridged by a random barrel. Never mind the steel rods or other, more intuitive conductors I’d been experimenting with all afternoon. Ditto for the trial-and-error marathon that was lining up boxes across a pool I had to drain and fill over and over, and pixel-hunting for tiny ledges I was expected to jump between in a black room over a yawning chasm.

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Can you guys fix this puzzle while you’re at it?

The game also has some inconsistencies that run contrary to the first Half-Life. In that game, Gordon Freeman could swim through coolant no problem, but no sooner had I dived in expecting a refreshing swim than Barney had died instantly and I had to start over. Perhaps it’s because Barney didn’t have a hazard suit, and that’s fine, but changes to the game world have to be manually specified. I’m not telepathic.

Blue Shift doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. The plot is somewhat intriguing, but between the expansion’s shortness and the shirt-ripping frustration of the puzzles, I’d only buy this expansion if it’s on sale and you’re desperate to uncover every one of Black Mesa’s secrets. Graphics are by and large unimproved from the first Half-Life and the game only adds one new asset, a bearded scientist. To quote my friend Bret, “I enjoyed the beginning, but then it ended”.

You can buy Half-Life: Blue Shift here.

Half-Life: Opposing Force

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PC Release: November 1, 1999

I was surprised to learn that Opposing Force was the first of Gearbox’s expansion packs. From a logical standpoint, Blue Shift is the mediocre first effort from which Gearbox learned, in order to make the kickassery that is Opposing Force. Yet this is not the case. Again, shocking, because Opposing Force is about four times longer than Blue Shift and packs dozens of new assets and gameplay elements. The disparity between the two makes me wonder if the lead designer suffered a lobotomy between expansions.

In Opposing Force, you are Adrian Shephard, one of the marines dispatched to Black Mesa to contain the aliens and kill everyone involved with the accident. Shephard crash-lands into the place about 2/3 of the way through Half-Life, by which point most of the scientists are dead and the aliens have started to push the marines back. Shephard gets separated from his unit and must journey through the facility to rescue his squad and get out of certain death’s gaze, among other tasks.

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Sweeeet…

Opposing Force encompasses the brevity and fun that Blue Shift somewhat missed. As a marine, you have access to an expansive arsenal of weapons not seen in the original Half-Life. Combat knives, gatling guns, experimental explosives, you name it, Shephard has it, mixing up the gameplay and offering new ways to have fun for he or she who likes fun.

The story is also intriguing. As Shephard, you can choose to gun down the Black Mesa personnel as ordered, or pretend not to see them. As you progress, you attract the attention of a mysterious man in a suit, who redirects your progress seemingly for his own interest.

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If I’m going to be forced down a path of danger, at least I have this.

The somewhat wonky AI from Half-Life has been tweaked and spit back out in the form of squad commands. You’ll sometimes find other stranded soldiers in the depths of Black Mesa and can band together for mutual badassery, assuming you can keep them alive for an extended period of time. Soldiers can be commanded to heal you, break down doors and lay down supporting fire, which is just cool. It’s a good way to expand upon the follower option in Half-Life.

The game is subject to multiple plot twists, few of which I was expecting. There’s another layer to the government’s cover-up of the Black Mesa incident, and you’re in its crosshairs. Aliens plot to unleash a massive creature onto earth to destroy the last vestiges of resistance.

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Mother of God…

These missions left Opposing Force bereft of a strong overall theme, but by Christ were they interesting. Neatly sequenced and strung together to give the game the same consistent sense of chaos most fervent in Half-Life. To compensate for the lack of human enemies, Opposing Force also adds a cadre of new alien foes.

Overall, Opposing Force is a smashing expansion, and there are very few negative things to say about it. I got stuck once or twice, but the level design is competent and subtle gameplay fixes have solved most of the issues I had with Half-Life. Again, how such a great expansion came before Blue Shift is beyond me, but hey, just buy this on Steam and go wild. Opposing Force is an intelligent and varied expansion.

You can buy Half-Life: Opposing Force here.

Half-Life: Decay

D

PC Release: June 9, 2008

Sorry, I missed one.

Gearbox’s third and final expansion for Half-Life is one that I have yet to experience in its entirety. For one thing, the game started out as a PlayStation 2 exclusive, and for another, the PC port of Decay is buggy to the point of being unplayable.

D1

Decay introduces a few new characters and a plotline revolving more around understanding the aliens then escaping them.

But, the premise is interesting. Decay is meant to be played by two people, who assume the roles of Dr. Gina Cross and Dr. Colette Green. These two physicists must work in cahoots to escape the alien shitstorm just like everyone else.

I can’t really review more of Decay than the 20 minutes or so I spent playing it before the bugs convinced me to alt out. I can say that the expansion is much more fun with two people. It’s on me for running down a hallway, standing on a button, and then switching over to the other person so that she could catch up. I had high hopes for the PC port, but since it was released almost six years ago with no patch in sight, I doubt I’ll ever play it.

You can buy Half-Life: Decay here.

Half-Life: Uplink

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PC Release: February 12, 1999

This standalone Half-Life experience is basically a demo of the full game. In this bonus level, Gordon Freeman must activate a satellite and upload the release codes keeping him and a few survivors locked in a science lab.

The game adds nothing new in terms of assets or gameplay, but it does present an additional chapter in the Half-Life experience for diehards such as myself. I also downloaded this little gem because of nostalgia; I played it thirteen years ago at a friend’s house and loved it to death. I never realized what it was called or where to find it until I saw screenshots of Uplink.

U1

Oh Geezus, I remember this part.

The Uplink demo is available on Desura and a few places around the Internet for free. Just download and take off. It takes about 30-45 minutes to play through Uplink, and you’ll catch references to the main game as you go. Like I said, it’s little more than a bonus level with a single, simple objective, but if you want to add more to the baseline Half-Life experience, and for free, Uplink is for you.

You can buy Half-Life: Uplink here.

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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.

Mirror’s Edge

M

Clear your sister’s name in a citywide hunt for a murderer.

PC Release: January 13, 2009

By Ian Coppock

Before I begin the review of one of my favorite video games of all time, I have another content update. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I can barely manage putting out two reviews a week. I want to write articles of general industry interest, but I simply do not have time. If you’d rather see one review and one such article a week, I can do that, but until I hear otherwise, I’m sticking with reviews.

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Mirror’s Edge is a first-person adventure game set in a futuristic, gleaming city. The glory and beauty of this shiny city contrasts sharply with its government, a totalitarian regime obsessed with monitoring all forms of communication.

Faith, the player character, is a special type of courier who hand-delivers private messages across the city using parkour.

Faith is the game's player character. She uses parkour to turn the towers into the world's largest jungle gym.

Faith is the game’s player character. She uses parkour to turn the towers into the world’s largest jungle gym.

Most of Faith’s clients are underground figures resisting the city’s surveillance apparatus, but this premise is quickly glossed over when Faith’s sister is framed for murdering a mayoral candidate. As Faith, you must scour this nameless dystopia for the conspirators who framed your sister, and uncover their plot behind the assassination.

Although I love Mirror’s Edge, the plot and characters are both shaky and soup-thin. Faith is quite the badass, but not much penetrates or escapes her tough-girl exterior. She is fiercely devoted to her twin sister Kate (a cop, ironically), but though you spend the game clearing Kate’s name, this relationship is only explored extremely lightly.

K

Kate is Faith’s polar opposite, a law enforcer who believes in the promise of the city’s security measures.

To preserve some vague notion of honor, Kate stays behind to take the fall for an obvious set-up, leaving Faith with a few runner friends for help and some brutish adversaries to contend with. Faith is advised on where to go and what to do throughout the game by Merc, a grizzled runner boss, and occasionally Celeste, her fellow runner and best friend.

The background of Mirror’s Edge is kept frustratingly vague. This beautiful, nameless city clearly has a history, but Faith’s premise shoots itself in the foot by promoting her as a criminal messenger and then completely forgetting itself. Throughout the game, you’ll find hints that the city was once a more dangerous if more alive place, and references to “the November riots” but all of these interesting pieces of backstory take second place to a rather uninteresting and linear chase for the truth.

The story of Mirror's Edge is completely incongruent to its sweeping visual scale.

The story of Mirror’s Edge is completely incongruent to its sweeping visual scale.

The game is split into about nine missions that all go something like this: break into building, find clue, get out ahead of the police, follow clue into another building, so on and so forth. Sometimes the levels will begin with cop chases, but the game’s groove is by and large wearily predictable.

Sometimes, Faith will just pull clues and suppositions out of her own ass. She spends two levels chasing down one lead but then hits the jackpot by remembering a folder she saw in a minor character’s office. Sometimes you’ll find clues whose placement makes no sense, like security footage of a cargo ship inside the bowels of a police training facility. This made the game’s overarching narrative feel disjointed as well as random.

Sweet! A red pipe! This must mean that Kate's being held in the shopping mall downtown!

Sweet! A red pipe! This obviously means that Kate’s being held in the shopping mall downtown!

The cutscenes that play out after each level are animated in a stylish but unsophisticated Saturday morning cartoon motif, which begs the question as to why the they were not also rendered in the game’s beautiful 3D graphics. An interesting and questionable choice of storytelling.

As I mentioned before, there’s not a whole lot to Faith’s character. She’s not vulnerable like the overwhelming majority of gaming heroines are, but all you need to sum up her personality is the phrase “I must save my sister”. A good thing to do, assuming your sister is nice to you, but it’s hard to carry a game on that premise with so many random clues that jump the game around so many random times.

The cutscenes are more intimate in a character-building sense, despite their briefness.

The cutscenes are more intimate in a character-building sense, despite their briefness.

If this game’s story is so mediocre, why the hell do I love it so? Mirror’s Edge‘s simplistic plot and underdeveloped characters are hallmarks of a bad game, but its smooth gameplay and exemplary visuals are not. I was one of the few people who liked the action and jump buttons being assigned to my 360 controller’s bumpers and triggers, because I didn’t have to reach around the controller to execute complicated maneuvers. Usually you’ll just have to look and tap to perform impressive stunts. This made Mirror’s Edge very smooth, one of the smoothest gaming experiences of all, in my opinion.

I was also one of the few people who relished the combat. You’ll usually go up against multiple, heavily armed opponents, but I enjoyed the challenge that comes from hiding in wait for an officer and then punching and kicking the crap out of him. You’ll usually take on enemies one at a time and can also use guns, at the cost of dexterity. There’s a definite thrill to running and jumping to elude police squads, which you’ll be doing plenty of throughout Mirror’s Edge.

The game's combat is quick and satisfying. You can lug a machine gun around if you want, but don't try to lug it into a wall-jump.

The game’s combat is quick and satisfying. You can lug a machine gun around if you want, but don’t try to carry it into a wall-jump.

Mirror’s Edge‘s visuals are what I love most about the game. The city in which the game takes place is breathtaking in its scale and beauty. Miles of impeccably clean and beautiful skyscrapers, monoliths of white and silver decked out with usage of very strong color, like that blue in the picture above. If nothing else, the game was fun to play and extremely beautiful to look at.

You’ll also visit a good variety of places that each use a different color and layout. Corporate office break-ins are the chief order of the day, but as Faith you’ll also descend into subway tunnels, climb through shopping malls, and sneak around a giant boat.

I've said my piece about the game's story, but its environments are gorgeous.

I’ve said my piece about the game’s story, but its environments are gorgeous.

The environments in the game usually do carry a sterile quality with all that stark color and lack of non-police human beings, but I didn’t really care. The game utilizes EA’s admittedly impressive Frostbite technology to make Mirror’s Edge slick. The PC version of this game has significantly better graphics and added a few more visual assets to each level, as well as people who walk around the city. The PC controls are also quite good, but in my habit of getting really good at questionable control schemes, I used an adapter for my PC playthrough.

Mirror’s Edge is one of those games that carries both really good and really bad qualities. The story is nothing special and is pretty easy to forget, but the smooth parkour gameplay grants a sense of fluid freedom absent from most games. It’s really fun to run, jump and somersault hundreds of meters above the earth, constantly surrounded by some of the most beautiful graphics and visuals I’ve seen in any game. If you’re bored and looking for a simple and gorgeous action game, Mirror’s Edge is for you. I won’t use my love of the game’s visuals to proclaim it one of the greatest games of all time for everyone, but it was for me.

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You can buy Mirror’s Edge 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.

Papers, Please

P

Seal fates and determine the destiny of a nation… from the most unlikely place imaginable.

PC Release: August 8, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Some of the video games I respect the most turned a mundane setting into something powerful. Dear Esther did this by setting a journey for closure on an abandoned island, and Gone Home created a tear-jerking quest for identity simply by having you… well… go home. Papers, Please is no less extraordinary. It’s not a perfect game, nor the greatest game ever,  but for a toll booth simulator, it’s pretty damn unbelievable.

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No, this is not one of my crappy jokes. In Papers, Please, you are cast as an immigration inspector working a checkpoint for an oppressive government. It’s up to you to serve the glorious nation of Arstotzka by inspecting people’s documents and giving them a yay or nay.

Don’t worry; there’s quite a bit more to the game than that. But it all stems from that very premise.

GEEZUS, your hair, man!

GEEZUS, your hair, man!

In Papers, you’re given 5-10 minutes for processing as many people as possible. Using your suite of documents, you have to check foreigners’ passports for discrepancies and either send them away or let them into Arstotzka. If you’re quick and make few mistakes, you’ll have enough credits by day’s end to feed your family and pay the bills.

If you’re wondering how the hell this is supposed to be fun, bear with me a bit longer. Few jobs seem more ho-hum than that of a toll booth agent, but forces outside your cubicle change the game’s parameters almost daily. War, terrorist attacks, diseases and crises add additional challenges to the game. Citizens from Country A might be alright, but terrorists from Country B blew up a bus yesterday, so hell if you’re going to let them in!

OOOH. Oh, that felt good. Oh yeah.

OOOH. Oh, that felt good. Oh yeah.

Being in charge of who comes into the country will thrust you into moral dilemmas. Papers punishes you for screwing up and letting the wrong persons in (or keeping the right persons out) by chipping away at your daily income, leaving you with less money.

I immediately puffed out my chest and resolved to make no mistakes in order to keep my family safe, until a political refugee fleeing certain death in her home country came to my booth without a passport. That is a tough pill to swallow; save a life at the expense of your reputation with the higher-ups, or pocket some cash for your family while sending an innocent person home to die. That is but a taste of what makes Papers, Please far more than a mundane toll booth simulator.

You are taking a dump on my intelligence with this passport, I hope you know that.

Your crayon passport isn’t half as insulting as the credit you’re giving my intelligence.

Game creator Lucas Pope added other challenges to Papers, Please. At one point I was face-to-face with a notorious serial killer who had all the right papers and could legally enter Arstotzka. Another time, a prostitute who was seeking a better life at the expense of following the law. You’ll be faced with at least one or two of these challenges in each round of Papers, Please, and none of them are cut-and-dry.

At the same time, a larger story envelops your little job at the toll booth. As Arstotzka’s communist leaders become more extreme, a secretive order of freedom fighters returns home after a long exile. You can play a dangerous game, lying to the authorities or the order or both and getting away free (or not) in one of TWENTY possible endings. Will you remain true to the law and identify the rebel scum, or assist the order in their fight against tyranny? Neither choice is easy nor without consequences.

You’ll face similar dilemmas dealing with people smugglers, undercover agents, diplomats and others. Who knew a toll booth job could be so damn complicated?!

P1

Um… papers, please?

The gameplay in this game grows more complex as time goes on. As conditions inside and outside Arstotzka grow more chaotic, more documents, passes and cards are dumped onto the growing kindling pile you need to sort through. I managed to get checking passports down like a boss, but things got harder when work permits, medical cards, entry slips, visas and other artifacts accumulated. Papers, Please adds these items at a rate that allows for acclimation, but it is a challenging game.

In addition to checking documents, you’ll be expected to fulfill other duties at the booth, like searching suspicious individuals and even firing tranquilizer darts at nearby terrorists.

"Ma'am, you appear to have a firearm duct-taped to your secondary fat shelf, I'm going to have to say go away."

“Ma’am, you appear to have a firearm duct-taped to your… what is that, a girdle? I’m going to have to say go away.”

Papers, Please has a few gameplay issues that Lucas Pope might consider looking into, namely that the bonus abilities you can buy are not really bonus abilities so much as keyboard shortcuts that might shave a second or two off of dragging with the mouse.

Additionally, I understand that you need a way to punish me for letting in the wrong people, but an arbitrary write-up that basically says “you f***ed up” takes away from the feeling that I’m the real toll booth manager in this scenario. Maybe the person could commit a crime and I’d get written up more organically? I don’t know.

P2

This game’s atmosphere is nothing short of depressing. I get cold just by playing it.

The visuals of Papers, Please are retro for, I suspect, a few reasons. They’re obviously a loving throwback to older games, but they help reinforce the game’s sense of dread and oppression. Between the tired, ugly people, the deadening amount of gray, and the antiquity of your tools and methods, the artwork adds some serious gravity to the game.

This is expanded upon in the game’s sound design. The music is a steady, crushing anthem of deep horns and a few rippling strings, along with an ever-accelerating drumbeat hastening you to dispatch justice or mercy. The people don’t actually talk; they utter weird grunting sounds that, strangely, fit the game all the more. The music only plays during cutscenes and menus; all that accompanies you otherwise is the sound of bitter wind.

Indeed.

Indeed.

Papers, Please may still sound boring to you, but at the least you have to respect Lucas Pope’s transformation and expansion of a mundane concept. I love this game, for this reason and for its simple, elegant design. Papers, Please is, like many good things, available on Steam. Ten bucks to embark upon what might be the most surprising video game adventure you’ve had in a while. It certainly was for me.

Thanks for reading! Thursday is my birthday, so I’m reviewing one of my very favorite games. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I guess my birthday’s as good a time as any.

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You can buy Papers, Please 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.

PARANOIA

P

Investigate a terrorist attack at a forgotten Soviet complex.

PC Release: December 3, 2007

By Ian Coppock

When any one of my console-rearing compadres asks me why I dare shy away from the bedazzled VCRs that pass for consoles these days, my first response is “mods”. I don’t care how many pixels fit on the side of your race car; the PC’s access to indie content is not just impressive, it is unsurpassed. I’ve played mods that are better than most big-budget console exclusives, and by Christ do I relish that irony.

That, and any mod of Half-Life is something I’m likely to enjoy.

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PARANOIA!!!!! (gotta love those all caps), is a mod released a few years back by a group of aspiring Russian horror masters. Your character is an anonymous major in the Russian Spetznaz (special forces) who’s just recovered from a long stint in a war hospital.

Before I keep going, I must add that it’s so refreshing to see the phrases “Russians” and “military shooter” in a sentence that says something other than “military shooter, shoot the Russians dead yay”. One of my biggest gripes with modern shooters is the constant casting of Russians as villains (how many decades ago did the Cold War end?) I get the whole “geopolitical foe” bullshit but at that point there are whole hosts of nationalities that could be cast as enemies instead. Innovation is in short supply up in Triple-A land.

P6

The ludicrous amount of anti-Russian shooters made me wonder if I’d entered another universe with PARANOIA.

I spawned into a Spetznaz base and spent some time soaking up one of the dreariest atmospheres I’ve seen in a mod. The Russian military base is to be sipped, not chugged, faithfully replicating the philosophy behind Half-Life itself. I walked my character around the base, chatting with some guitar-playing soldiers, a friendly nurse and a grumpy armorer. The game’s voice-acting is in Russian, which, combined with the English subtitles, made for excellent immersion.

Anyway, after firing a gun and saluting the flag, my character got his squad together to liberate an old factory captured by terrorists. The initial stages of the game were fairly pedestrian; open room, clear out baddies, sneak down hallway, rinse and repeat. Everything went to shit a few hours in, though, when my character woke up miles beneath the earth in some pit.

Okay...

Okay…

Cut off from my men, and in an area that didn’t show up on any map, I started to get the suspicion that fishyness was abounding, and immediately confirmed that suspicion when a gentleman with no skin or lips shambled around the corner and proceeded to high-five my face with his claws.

GEEZUS CHRIST, WHAT IS THIS MADNESS???

GEEZUS CHRIST, WHAT IS THIS MADNESS???

Falling into a zombie-filled Soviet bunker isn’t my idea of a picnic, but your character is a Spetznaz soldier and quite the badass. Combat in PARANOIA!!!!! is fairly standard FPS mechanics, with some twists. For one thing, your character is actually good with a knife, a trait that many shooters neglect, apparently because just having the knife is awesome enough. It’s just too bad that the knife is about as deadly as a drawing of a knife.

PARANOIA!!!! adds a few realistic touches to its gameplay. For one thing, a headshot is a one-hit kill. No, not on the enemies, on you. Well, the enemies as well, but yeah. You can die from headshots. Not to worry, though, your character can put on a heavy-duty blast helmet that affords much better protection at the cost of visibility. The damn thing is clunky, but that’s alright, because the toss-up between visibility and a functioning cerebellum keeps things interesting in PARANOIA!!!!

Shooters that go for full realism are often a bit rough around the edges. PARANOIA adds elements of it without sacrificing fun.

Shooters that go for full realism are often a bit rough around the edges. PARANOIA adds elements of it without sacrificing fun.

Most of PARANOIA!!! Is spent deep underground. Guiding the Spetznaz major through pitch-black tunnels and blood-soaked laboratories is made challenging by the quietness of the monsters, who are fond of introducing themselves with the traditional Siberian greeting of shoulder-gnawing. Additionally, health and ammo are scarce. Most times you’ll be running quite low, forcing you to conserve resources and, consequently, pick battles. These two elements working in cahoots gave me a wallop of a shiver in PARANOIA!!!

Much like Half-Life, this game’s story is somewhat minimalist. There are no named characters, and your objectives are often shrouded in mystery until you’ve completed them. I like PARANOIA!!! because the story, while told from a minimalist perspective, is anything but bare-bones. It’s open-ended and vague, leaving you to draw your own conclusions on most of the plot points. Your character is a silent protagonist and all NPCs are only encountered a few times, so there’s not much room for character development.

Things start to go south quickly in this game.

Things start to go south quickly in this game.

The mod name of PARANOIA!!! is not a coincidence, nor just a case of perhaps a little over-capitalization. Your character is alone and trapped beneath the surface, and even as you meet other people, you start to get the sense that you’ve seen and done too much. Friends begin to become adversaries and your push deeper becomes as much a quest for the source of the monsters as for some sort of security. This mod’s groove comes from that very feeling, as well as the spooky environments.

There isn’t much more to say about this game’s plot without ruining it, but I will say that the story went places I wasn’t expecting. Odds are, you won’t need to worry about this being a Left 4 Dead ripoff.

P4

Hey there, sunshine.

PARANOIA!!! is an original game with some refreshing concepts, as well as a few that I thought had died in the 90’s. Because it’s a mod of Half-Life, this game has carried with it the wonky, crappily scripted AI of Half-Life. Your fellow soldiers will often stop following you or stare longingly at walls. Compounding this frustration is you failing the mission every time your squadmate dies.

Pardon me, but I don’t see how that makes any sense. What, so if my squadmate gets his head ripped off, I’m obligated by some military code to step out of cover with my hands up? Screw that. Escort missions are bad news bears.

P5

We might need a little more C4.

PARANOIA!!!! has some less than stellar visuals, but it has competent level design. Most of the game is eerily silent, but combat is accompanied by ridiculous rock music. Against human enemies, this felt appropriate, but for the horror sections it reduced the tension and made the sequence feel like an action film. A bit more selectivity with the music would have been nice.

But, I digress. PARANOIA is an intelligently built work of love and the best Half-Life mod I’ve yet played. This game has also redeemed the Eastern European gaming scene for me after that god-awful Afterfall. Even if none of this interests you, the mod is free, another reason why PC gaming rules. Go to Mod DB or Desura and give it a try. You have to have Half-Life to play it, of course, so if you don’t, buy it, play it, and THEN play this game.

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You can buy PARANOIA 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.