Monthly Archives: April 2015

Grand Theft Auto IV

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Arrive in America and hunt down the man who betrayed you.

PC Release: December 2, 2008

By Ian Coppock

Our Grand Theft Auto miniseries continues with a look at Grand Theft Auto IV, the first installment in the “HD” universe of GTA games. As with Wednesday’s review of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, we’re going to be looking at the controversies surrounding the series and whether GTA is an especially violent series of video games. Grand Theft Auto IV isn’t especially violent, but I do think it’s especially boring.

OOOOH! CRITIC BOMB!

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Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in 2008 and follows the exploits of Niko Bellic, a Serbian ex-soldier who arrives to Liberty City (New York City in all but name) at the behest of his cousin, Roman. Having heard so many great things about American prosperity and exceptionalism, Niko is disappointed to learn that America is even dirtier, greedier and more ridiculous than the eastern European homeland he departed from.

Niko has another reason for coming to America. He tells Roman that while serving during the Yugoslav Wars, his entire unit was led into an ambush by a traitorous squadmate. He’s learned that this man is hiding out in Liberty City, and has come to America to exact his revenge.

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Niko has arrived to America to avenge his dead comrades. He is Grand Theft Auto’s protagonist, and the first non-American protagonist in the GTA series.

So begins one of the grittiest and most compelling manhunts in gamedom. Or so I thought.

Despite having vowed to abstain from crime, Niko engages in it almost immediately when he discovers that Roman is indebted to Albanian loan sharks. Just like Carl in San Andreas, Niko is forced into a world of violence, taking jobs from Russian gangsters so that they don’t burn down his cousin’s taxi garage. Grand Theft Auto IV employs the age-old GTA technique of giving its characters no choice but to become criminals.

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Roman is a fat, greedy asshole whose cowardice is exceeded only by his love of strip clubs. I guess he’s a well-written character if he still pisses me off that much.

Despite starting off with a hunt to kill the man who betrayed Niko, GTA IV throws this premise out the window almost immediately and replaces it with a vague, unfocused plot. The entire game is spent performing crimes for a roster of various groups. You start off with the Russians, but then move into working for neat categories of Jamaican, Irish, Jewish and Italian gangsters. For a man who claims to be adverse to crime, Niko receives more phone calls and solicitations from criminals than anyone else.

While the missions had their own problems unrelated to the plot, my issue with GTA IV is that the game is nothing BUT these neat strings of missions for various groups. You don’t revisit Niko’s original purpose for having arrived to Liberty City until the very end of the game, when GTA IV seemingly says “oh yeah, that beginning part, I guess we’ll wrap that up now that you’ve spent 40 hours doing random odd jobs”. Each set of missions is basically self-contained and has no grander context beyond “hey, go kill these people and come back. Here’s your money.”

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YAWN

So we have a plot that’s shot its premise in the head and drags its feet with missions around Liberty City that lack any sort of grander meaning. As for the characters and character development, well, Niko remains a very likeable person. He’s one of those protagonists who’s keenly self-aware about the atrocities he’s committing. Some of them come close to taking a toll on him; a rarity for a GTA game. There’s a compelling scene where he admits to a mobster’s wife that he killed a group of children outside a church in Eastern Europe, and that he therefore must not have a soul.

Even Rockstar knows that most people who play a game want a likeable protagonist, and Niko is definitely in that category. What he does, he does for his family or for his dead squadmates. He dismisses the wealth and trappings that come with crime lord-dom as unimportant to the greater picture. He’s keenly driven by goals he sees as best for everyone, even if the game’s missions do not reflect that.

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Niko is a well-written character and one of GTA IV’s few redeeming factors.

The other characters in this game fulfill the same wacky niches that we’ve come to expect of GTA by this point. We have Roman, your portly stripper-addicted everyman, as well as a spiritual drug dealer, a steroid-obsessed megalomaniac, and a down-home family man. Grand Theft Auto IV evolves its side characters alongside its main ones, in a departure from San Andreas. However, because most of this game’s missions are self-contained, GTA IV falls short of its own characters’ potential.

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Brucie, a rich steroid addict, was my favorite side character, because he is literally insane.

If a meaningless, meandering plot were all that’s wrong with GTA IV, that would be one thing, but the gameplay elements in this game are god-awful. I’m not talking about the competent cover-based shooting, or the admittedly fun car-driving as you zip around Liberty City. I’m talking about some seriously tedious attempts at story-building that can only be the work of a madman.

Chief among these mechanics is a teeth-gnashingly irritating friendship mechanic. Once you gain friends and allies around the city, you are obligated to take them on 30-minute man-dates. I’m not joking. They’ll call you EVERY TEN MINUTES ordering you to pick them up for a helicopter ride or a trip to the strip club. If you refuse, they stop being your friends. When this happens, not only can you not access that character’s perks and services, but the main story becomes a lot more difficult to advance.

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The look on Niko’s face in this screenshot perfectly represents how I feel about this mechanic.

I don’t usually come down on video game elements like this, but this best-friends-forever activities mechanic is goddamn stupid. You don’t get any sort of reward for doing these little trips either, outside of your friends no longer holding their services hostage.

You have to spend 15 minutes driving across the damn city to your friend’s place, driving 15 minutes BACK to the venue they want to visit, and then sitting through what basically amounts to an interactive cutscene for 10 minutes. You then have to drive them BACK to their house, and before you can embark upon a real mission, OH SHIT! ANOTHER friendbuddy wants you to take them to that exact same bar! OH HOLY JEEBUS HOW WE LOVE BUSYWORK 😀

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Oh God, I thought I gave you a fake number…

I get that the point of this mechanic is to give the narrative some extra story material and flesh out the feeling that this is a living world, but the execution of all these well-intended ideas is very poor. Thankfully, this mechanic was reduced and then rescinded in GTA IV‘s episodes and in Grand Theft Auto V. Being forced to spend hours of playtime on something that does nothing to advance the game in any way is not fun; it’s tedious. Moving on.

As it happens, this mechanic is an excellent segway into the main missions themselves, which are both clunky and punishing. Grand Theft Auto IV has no mission checkpoints whatsoever. None. Meaning that if you spend 30 minutes driving from your house to the place you’re going to shoot up, and spend 15 minutes fighting bad guys only to get shot at the end, you don’t even start at the beginning of the actual mission. You start all the way back at your apartment, before arming up, before the pre-mission cutscene, before everything.

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Wait, I’m all the way back here?

My very favorite mission, and one that caused me to literally rage quit the game (the only other game that’s forced me to do that is BRINK) was as follows. I had to arm up at my apartment, spend 10 minutes driving my car around the city picking up my buddies, spend another 15 minutes driving BACK to the mission spot, spend 45 minutes completing that mission’s four stages, only for one of my guys to get shot and thus fail the mission. I was dropped NOT at the beginning of the mission, at the mission spot, but at my apartment, before even spending so much time picking up my buddies and driving around.

ARE YOU TRYING TO BE AS FREAKING FRUSTRATING AS POSSIBLE, GTA IV??? GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

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(heavy breathing) I’m okay… I’m okay…

I don’t need checkpoints every five seconds. In fact, I usually relish the challenge of a checkpoint-free mission. But does it really make sense to force players to do all of the mundane pre-mission shit, AGAIN, before re-trying the mission? Do players really want to be forced to spend hours of time buying ammo and picking up NPCs over and over?

That is clunky, lazy, frustrating-as-hell game design, and it caused me to nearly break my machine in half.

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Screw this, I’m out of here.

It was around the time I developed a hatred for GTA IV‘s game mechanics that I also noticed a radical departure in tone from the game’s previous installments. It’s no secret that the franchise has dropped its comedic absurdity in favor of gritty realism. Saints Row has since taken up the comedic absurdity mantle. There are a few hints of background comedy, like the Tw@t Internet cafes, but they felt token and out of place in this grim new world.

I think another reason GTA IV and I didn’t exactly get along was because the social satire present in San Andreas was mostly gone from this game. In its place were stern-faced, direct discussions about America’s problems between the characters, but you can get that in any game. The satire is what makes GTA GTA, and its absence in GTA IV just left the game feeling underwhelming.

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Another wasteland…

I suppose now we touch on anything that Grand Theft Auto IV is particularly violent about. From what I gathered, the mechanic in which you can drive drunk is what got most everyday consumers hopping mad about this game. I can empathize. I will say that it’s fun to attempt to drive drunk in the game while drunk in real life, but this is coming from somebody who hasn’t lost a family member or friend to drunk driving. I imagine their perspective on such a mechanic would be different, and I respect that.

All in all, I don’t recommend Grand Theft Auto IV. Not because it’s particularly violent; more because of its listing plot, god-awful game mechanics, and the abrupt transition from the dark absurdity that made GTA GTA to soulless realism. The icing on the cake is that this game’s PC version has out-of-control DRM. The game requires you to log into Games for Windows, of all things, and this is, to put it lightly, an arduous experience. Hundreds of PC gamers have had issues trying to make it work, but I advise you to skip this mess altogether and move on to better games. How Grand Theft Auto IV received critical acclaim is beyond me.

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You can buy Grand Theft Auto IV 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.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Andreas

Return home to bury your mother and discover the truth behind her murder.

PC Release: October 26, 2004

By Ian Coppock

It recently occurred to me that in my two years of blogging, I’ve never reviewed a Grand Theft Auto game before. Most will probably attribute this to an oversight on my part,and more still to the idea that Grand Theft Auto games do not have compelling narratives, and are therefore nothing I’d review anytime soon. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that Grand Theft Auto games do have compelling stories. They’re just buried in the violence, satire and gore that the series is better known for.

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My first review in a two-part series detailing my experience with GTA is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This installment is widely regarded as the greatest GTA ever made, at least until GTA V came out. It was my first foray into Rockstar’s infamous world of violent crime and biting satire. This and my review of Grand Theft Auto IV on Saturday will be written in the context of all the controversies these games have stirred up over the years, and my thoughts on whether they’re still worth playing.

San Andreas takes place in 1992 in the fictional American state of the same name, modeled after southern California. Carl “CJ” Johnson, a former gang member, returns home to the city of Los Santos to bury his murdered mother. After learning that she was killed in a drive-by shooting, Carl returns to the gang to investigate his mother’s murder and bring the guilty parties some pistol-popping, baseball bat-swinging justice.

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Oh God, those graphics are so…. um… unique…

San Andreas is an open-world game that Carl can traverse freely. You can carjack on a whim and trash the place up, or visit your friends’ houses and embark upon missions around the neighborhood. Carl is controlled from a third-person perspective. You’ll start out with baseball bats and 2x4s and will gradually upgrade your arsenal from there. San Andreas features dozens of cars and trucks modeled on real-world vehicles, and you can also drive motorcycles, construction vehicles, farm equipment, boats, helicopters, airplanes, pretty much anything with an ignition and a gas pedal.

San Andreas also encompasses light RPG elements. To keep your murderer healthy and happy, you have to eat food, work out at the gym, even swim laps. The game avoids the tedium such a system implies by upgrading your character rapidly through these mechanics. Cosmetic customization options include a wide array of clothing, haircuts and tattoos. You can even upgrade the cars you steal with jet engines, killer paint jobs and hydraulics. To top it all off, the cops in this game just do not give a shit. You can literally blow up cars and shoot people point-blank in the face, and evade the heat by hiding behind a dumpster for 60 seconds.

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Driving around Los Santos creating pure chaos is the order of the day.

While you have a lot of freedom over how to make your character look and live in this hellish SoCal ghetto, it’s all anchored firmly to a plot that I found surprisingly engrossing. As San Andreas progresses, so does Carl’s character. It’s not an amazing, in-depth progression, but it’s still more than I expected from a GTA game. Despite the murders he commits and the chaos he causes, Rockstar still manages to create a sympathetic character. Carl rather reminds me of Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad; someone who commits crimes and atrocities but at his core is still a good person.

Surprised? So was I.

San Andreas’s supporting cast is made up of characters that don’t really evolve that much alongside Carl. As with most Rockstar games, supporting characters are there to provide a specific service, and stick stubbornly to a given set of quirks, humor and traits. Carl’s older brother Sweet is a war-weary gang leader more concerned about his neighborhood’s well-being than his own, while top-tier members Smoke and Ryder offer some of the funniest offhand commentary I’ve seen in games. They’re all horribly flawed people, but they’re still likeable.

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San Andreas’s cast is more sympathetic than I’d expected.

As surprisingly compelling as the protagonists in this gritty world are, its antagonists make for some of the meanest bastards in gamedom. Carl finds himself up against a rogue’s gallery of crime lords and corrupt officials. Frank Tenpenny, a corrupt police officer voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, is determined to kill anyone who gets in his way no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.

Indeed, a lot of high-profile celebrities and comedians voice characters in San Andreas. James Woods takes the reigns of a steely, cynical CIA agent, and David Cross makes a cameo as a criminally inclined robotics expert. My favorite performance was from Andy Dick, who poses as a sadistic gardener and host of his own radio show, Gardening with Maurice. Hiring top-tier talent means that the game has high-quality voice acting, but it’s also a brilliant assurance of the game’s comedy.

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Tenpenny is one of San Andreas’s main antagonists, and one of gaming’s dirtiest cops.

Though there’s not a lot to laugh at in an investigation of your mother’s murder, San Andreas contains one of my favorite assortments of video game comedy. Sure, there’s the low-brow shit like Brown Streak Railroads and Juank Air (a play on “wanker”), but both the plot and the background comedy material contain some surprisingly deep social commentary.

The best source of this commentary is the radio. San Andreas is packed with some of the best that west coast hip-hop and new jack swing has to offer, but Rockstar’s writers also cooked up some hilarious and terrifying talk show programs. Programs like the Tight End Zone satirize America’s obsession with sports, while I Say/You Say parodies this nation’s political divide. When a caller phones in asking what to do with the murdered corpses of illegal immigrants, the liberal suggests using them for compost, and the conservative suggests using them in a scheme for tax evasion.

Dark? Yes. Depressing? Yes. But I promise you that few other sources of in-game comedy will have you laughing hard enough to bring tears to your eyes and puncture wounds to your lungs.

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GO FOR THE STREAK!

The reason why I bring up the comedy before more details of the plot is because the satire informs both the gameplay and the narrative. You’ll run into absurd scenarios while out on jobs. I myself barged into a Pizza Hut to rob the place blind, only to find myself facing both barrels of the in-store Pizza SWAT. Hell, at one point later in San Andreas, you’re using a jetpack to raid a train full of alien eggs. Grinding up fascist hillbillies in a combine thresher, or racing a blind Chinese guy through the back woods? Yup. Got those two.

San Andreas has an interesting formula that combines a serious narrative with comedy, and they play off of each other well. You’ll be told by a serious-faced man in a suit that you need to break into a casino, but the mission will have you beating a gas store attendant with a giant dildo. Oh CJ, I need you to go find some speakers for my record release party. Okay, I’ll just host a giant beach party and make off with a jet ski towing the sickest sound system you’ll ever see.

In this way, the game creates a surprisingly compelling story with some character development, but the comedy ensures that you don’t forget to have some fun.

No problem, buddy. I will gladly rip up more rednecks if you need me to.

No problem, buddy. I will gladly rip up more rednecks if you need me to.

Now we’re going to take a look at the controversies surrounding this game’s violence. Perhaps the most infamous is the ability to beat up prostitutes with a baseball bat after having solicited them. You can get your cash back and the cops apparently don’t care.

This was something I didn’t find funny or satisfying. I guess I’m not sadistic enough to think of that function as humor, especially when you consider the socioeconomic problems forcing girls and young women into such a dangerous, depraved “profession.” On that count, the angry parents and concerned sociologists who’ve brought this before Rockstar are correct. There’s no need to portray that violence, let alone offer an incentive for players to carry it out. Not okay. Very immature and callous.

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Don’t drink and drive, don’t let your friends do it, and don’t use it as a weapon against innocent hookers. #hookerlivesmatter

From what I understand, the other two aspects of the game people are most concerned about are its gang wars and ability to rob places. I can understand how people who’ve lost family and loved ones to gang violence might not want to see it represented digitally, but this is not a gameplay element unique to San Andreas alone. And in case you didn’t read my preceding review of PAYDAY 2, in which I basically proposed marriage to all heist games everywhere, robbery is another one of those things that GTA can’t be criticized for by itself.

These two elements of gameplay are endemic to the wider world of video gaming, to the medium as a whole. It’s not fair to isolate these things to GTA and use them to tear that franchise down by itself. If you criticize GTA for featuring gang violence, you must also criticize Saints Row, Hitman, PAYDAY, etc. on those exact same terms. In other words, if you don’t like video game violence, you’ve got a LOT more to worry about than just Grand Theft Auto.

So, in conclusion, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a few especially violent features that are unique to the series and in need of removal, but basically everything else, for better or worse, is nothing that dozens of other video games have not also included. The games are therefore undeserving of any sort of “especially violent” designation. For better or worse. Keep this in mind when you’re considering whether to try San Andreas out. I actually enjoyed it, mostly for the comedy and open-world gameplay rather than the story or guns. Take that recommendation for whatever it’s worth.

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You can buy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 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.

PAYDAY 2

A6

Descend upon Washington, D.C. for an epic crime spree.

PC Release: August 13, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Alright, fine, for shit’s sake, I’ll play PAYDAY 2!

No, no, this wasn’t anything you readers have been bothering me with. This damn game is for sale on Steam so often, you’d think Valve made it and is now obsessing over it like a soccer mom. After seeing PAYDAY 2 on sale for what felt like the billionth time, I decided to purchase the game and embark upon a journey of self-discovery. I have since self-discovered that I have a crippling addiction to heists.

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PAYDAY 2 is a co-op first-person shooter in which four players team up to rob banks, jewelry stores and anywhere else with money. Developed by indie studio Overkill Software, the game was deemed profitable from pre-orders alone, and has arguably dethroned Left 4 Dead as the epitome of co-op badassery.

After picking one of four clown mask-adorning psychopaths, players must team up to pick a heist location, case the joint, and then either conduct an under-the-nose stealth mission or bust in guns blazing. You can pick from an ever-growing list of locales to hit. Banks are the main menu item for PAYDAY 2, but you can also rob art galleries, diamond stores, shopping malls and nightclubs, to name a few places.

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Pick a map, a mask and a loadout, and you’re all set.

PAYDAY 2 has some of the most in-depth character customization system I’ve ever seen. Everything from the color of your suit to the pattern of your tie is fair game. You can also choose different masks, and customize those as well.

Aside from the cosmetic customization, you must also put together a loadout that suits your play style. You’ll have access to the whole board of weaponry, from pistols to LMGs and even RPGs, though most of these you can only buy with your heist money. Weapons can be further modified with scopes, extended magazines and other items.

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There’s almost nothing in this game that you can’t customize.

As you complete heists and gain experience, you can level up and put those points into your character’s skill build. PAYDAY 2 currently has five different skill sets to give players a chance to create their own niche.

Provide support and tactical expertise as the mastermind, plant EMPs and go in quiet as a ghost, or just blow everything up as an enforcer. You can pick and choose perks from within each skill set to make a class that’s truly your own. This amount of customization makes Payday 2 fun, because it doesn’t exclude your preferred method of gaming from some heisting fun.

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You’re not confined to a single robbing discipline with PAYDAY 2. You can pick different skills from different trees to create your own niche on the team.

Heisting is typically a two-stage affair. Players enter the area without their masks on to case the building, looking for entryways, security systems, arrangements of guards, etc. You won’t be accosted by law enforcement in this mode, but you can’t do anything deemed suspicious, That is to say… anything except walk around. Once you get the mask on, it’s robbery time. You can go in quietly by lockpicking doors and hacking security systems, or barge in through the front door with weapons brandished.

There are a few elements that go into heisting: you have to control the civilians in the building by taking hostages and making sure they don’t make any 911 calls, while another guy starts up the vault drill. Going in quietly usually means that violence is an option, not a mandate, but you’ll have body bags for the guards who just won’t move the hell out of the way. Payday 2 will punish players for killing innocent civilians, which seems a bit arbitrary when it encourages you to murder legions of cops.

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DRILL BABY DRILL!

The combat gameplay is what you’d expect from an FPS. Aim the shooty-stick at something and squeeze the trigger until a sufficient amount of blood and entrails has been expelled from whatever you’re pointing at. You have a health bar and a Halo-style regenerating shield (represented by your armor, which I guess just repairs itself). You can get shot up and fall down, but if a teammate can revive you, you’re golden.

As for the enemies you face, well, they’re many. Combat-heavy heists will start you off with beat cops and heroic civilians, but the longer the heist lasts, the heavier the reinforcements. You’ll pepper legions of SWAT enemies with your bullets, and occasionally go up against top-tier private security forces. The harder the heist is ranked, the stiffer resistance you can expect.

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Oh boy…

Multiplayer games don’t usually have a lot of story, and PAYDAY 2 is no exception. But, to pay fealty to the entire point of this blog, each of the four main characters (Dallas, Wolf, Hoxton and Chains) do have some background. In this way the game is a lot like Left 4 Dead; the story is revealed through the characters’ offhand comments and through clues hidden in the environment.

There are also a handful of NPCs who are aligned with the PAYDAY team. Bain, an enigmatic criminal mastermind with a dry sense of humor, is your guide through most missions. Gage, a wheelchair-bound Afghanistan war veteran, supplies you with the military hardware used in your heists. Through him, you can also pre-plan your heists on a map of the building, and arrange for dead-drops, like C4, to help you out once you’re in.

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Gage deals death and Founding Father quotes in equal measure.

Most of the rest of the cast are various underworld figures who hire you for more specialized missions, like blowing up cartel hideouts or dropping off cocaine. I was delighted to see that Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame stars as a criminally connected dentist. Each of these characters reveals their backstory through comments and missions, or at least pieces of them.

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OH SHIT IT’S GUS!!! I WANT CHICKEN

PAYDAY 2 has high-quality graphics, especially for an indie game, but they’re not absolute top-tier. Not that I really care; the whole debate over graphical power has become kind of asinine. I don’t need the watches in the jewelry store to be perfectly circular, and the people who do either suffer from OCD (my sympathies) or have been twisted by COD, Red Bull and Internet trolls into… I don’t know, graphics police? Once graphics hit a certain level I can just roll with it.

The game’s artwork also incorporates a large amount of live-action footage, which you don’t really see these days. In-game briefings and cutscenes are all live-action, as you might have guessed from that screenshot of our boy Gus Fring. It’s probably cheaper than Diablo III-level cutscenes and it still gets the job done. It also made the game’s story and character interactions more believable when executed with real people.

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Live-action footage is also incorporated into most of the menu screens.

So why review a video game that not only skimps on narrative, but is multiplayer-focused at that? Simple: because PAYDAY 2 does something unique, and does that unique thing so well that you can’t not have fun with it. Sure, the story is confined to commentary from the characters and a few environmental clues, but I honestly haven’t had this much fun playing a shooter since BioShock Infinite came out two years ago.

The other element unique and compelling to PAYDAY 2 is the immense satisfaction that comes with executing a successful heist. Working with teammates to case the joint and haul out the money is entertaining, and the sheer amount of in-game cash will compel you to just keep going. Combine the fast-paced, damn challenging gameplay with a pumping soundtrack, and you have something that will keep you compelled for a long time.

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Ballin’.

PAYDAY 2 doesn’t have a Gone Home-level narrative or any sort of groundbreaking storytelling, but its co-op gameplay, in-depth character customization, and fine-tuned robbery gameplay are the stuff of kids’ playground games made digital. So get some friends together and buy this game immediately. It’s on sale on Steam all the time, and new content is added frequently. These include new heists, weapons, and even characters. So get robbin’.

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You can buy Payday 2 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.

Kentucky Route Zero

A7

Shepard a delivery man through a summer night of magic and bluegrass.

PC Release: January 7, 2013

By Ian Coppock

I don’t have a lot of experience with magical realism, nor keeping my attention span rooted to the pages of a book for more than an hour or so at a time. Kentucky Route Zero gets two birds stoned at once by providing a fresh, atmospheric video game experience within that body of fiction, while also paying my laziness its due. Laziness and inexperience notwithstanding, Kentucky Route Zero is a bizarre little game that is ironically very akin to a book, both in terms of its depth and its ability to draw you in.

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Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic adventure game that comes to us from Cardboard Computer, a pair of indie developers fixated upon narrative and folk songs. The game puts you in the boots of Conway, an old truck driver running his last delivery for a local antique shop.

But, Conway soon finds that the address he’s after doesn’t show up on any map. His quest to find it, and the characters he meets along the way, are the backbone of KRZ‘s narrative. His journey begins at sunset, on an old Kentucky highway.

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Stopping for directions has never been so pretty.

Kentucky Route Zero is played from a variety of third-person camera shots, ranging from isometric to side-scroller, and players move about the world using a point-and-click interface. You’ll spend most of the game in charge of Conway, but as his strange little odyssey picks up more people, you’ll sometimes switch to these other characters.

Players interact with the world in classic adventure format: click on the object, read the text, and make your choices. Like Telltale’s The Walking DeadKentucky Route Zero goes light on the puzzles in favor of more story and atmosphere.

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The game nixes any voice acting or real cutscenes. You have to read the text crawl and use your imagination. Minimalist, or lazy?

It doesn’t take long for the elements of magical realism to kick into the story. Conway is told that the only way to get to his destination is via Kentucky Route Zero, a state highway he logically assumes is above ground. Turns out that the Zero is an underground highway threading beneath Kentucky, and that it’s traversed by all manner of strange people and creatures.

The interesting thing about this game is that the supernatural features are treated as just another mundane part of the world, which I guess is what the entire term magical realism is supposed to denote. One second I was driving along a darkened highway, and the next a giant eagle was carrying me to a distant forest. The binding of these elements into a realistic story made the game more surreal.

K2

Underground roads, soda machines, giant eagles, nature museums, enchanted moss, top-shelf whiskey. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

As the story progresses, we learn a little more about each of our summer night heroes. The game spares plenty of time for feeding us tidbits of the character’s backstories. Conway’s is something of a tragedy, having arisen from promising beginnings only to be derailed. The other characters who join you, including a stubborn mechanic, a genius schoolboy, and a pair of wandering folk musicians have similar tales unearthed with progressing further down the Zero.

Kentucky Route Zero is the first game I’ve played in a while that has very high-quality writing. The prose excels at evoking the feelings, sights and sounds that the game’s visuals do not give us. This minimalist approach is highly organic, and gives players more control over what the ultimate story looks like. Plenty of focus is given to the narrative, but just as crucial to me was the time spent writing the descriptions of each scene, the sights and sounds of nighttime Kentucky. It’s quite immersive.

K3

The game strikes a somber tone, with occasional bleak humor. It creates a relatable experience from within the boundaries of supernatural fiction. The game strikes a somber tone, with occasional bleak humor. It creates a relatable experience from within the boundaries of supernatural fiction.

The thing I liked most about Kentucky Route Zero is that the story contains overtones of a realistic situation. True, some situations are a bit absurd and giant eagles named Julian, to our knowledge, don’t actually exist, but the writing contains the tension and the weariness behind an old man’s desire to finish this last job. Attention paid to the subtleties of that realistic writing makes the unrealistic parts of the story more believable.

The game also gets creative with its perspectives. As I said before, you spend most of your time behind the wheels of Conway and his delivery truck, but you’ll also take control of the other characters. In one scenario, you’ll sit in with a bunch of guys watching footage of Conway through a security camera, and get that segment of the story through their eyes.

K4

KRZ keeps things fresh with regular switches between perspectives.

Kentucky Route Zero has an origami art style. The world looks like it was built from paper. Character faces are left blank, but their profiles provide enough details for you to imagine the rest.

The game is filled with colors both bright and bleak, creating lots of contrast, and the animation of the characters and world is also silky smooth. Most scenes comprise the various characters exploring an area against a series of spectacular backdrops.

K5

Ahhhhhhhh….

KRZ features a selection of old-school bluegrass tunes and some more subtle movements for the game’s general backgrounds. To reinforce the sensation of mysticism and storytelling, bluegrass musicians are often seen and heard playing their tunes in the background, while you run around exploring the world.

I wasn’t familiar nor partial to bluegrass before, but I’ve since looked up and enjoyed a number of tunes featured in the game. There was one particularly gorgeous tune sung by one of the characters that makes for one of the game’s emotional highlights.

K6

A beautiful song of love and loss, against a nighttime background with all the characters gathered.

 I do have a few complaints that Cardboard Computer need to address immediately. For one thing, the game has more than a few sound bugs. I’d be driving along the Zero only to hear the music suddenly cut out. The sound dipped in and out during regular gameplay as well. Big no-no. Get those bugs squashed ASAP.

Additionally, the few puzzles you do encounter have an unfortunate tendency to be tedious. I spent half an hour sifting through files on a supercomputer with not the foggiest notion of how to proceed. Cardboard Computer excels at narrative, but they need to make KRZ’s puzzles a little more intuitive.

K7

Uh… okay…

The other caveat I will leave you with is that the game isn’t finished yet. I don’t have a problem forking over $25 for this game, and neither should you, but Kentucky Route Zero started releasing in January of 2013 and is only on episode three.

At this rate, Cardboard Computer will hopefully have the fourth and fifth installments out soon, but they’re taking their sweet time. I won’t judge you if you want to wait for the game to be finished, but it’s by no means un-enjoyable three episodes in.

K8

Move your asses, you two!

I would recommend that you get this game, especially if you’re looking for a story-rich and atmospheric experience that will draw you in like a good book. The experience of playing this game is strikingly similar to staying up all night with a favorite novel, and it’s for that reason that, despite being not finished yet, I’ll give Kentucky Route Zero the benefit of the doubt and recommend it. One you put in your 25 bucks, you’re set for all five episodes. Just prepare to be patient.

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You can buy Kentucky Route Zero 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.