Monthly Archives: July 2015

Alien: Isolation

A1

Search for signs of your mother aboard an alien-infested space station.

PC Release: October 7, 2014

By Ian Coppock

It’s been a long time since I’ve played a big-budget horror game as enjoyable as Alien: Isolation. You don’t see many true horror games from Triple-A companies these days; big-name developers too terrified of isolating their audiences water down what might otherwise have been good terror titles. The result is less a horror game and more a generic shooter with some creepy sound effects. Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 are prime examples of this.

But, the guys and gals at Creative Assembly don’t seem to follow this policy. Alien: Isolation is not a perfect horror game, but it’s probably the best mainstream horror title we’ve seen since the first Dead Space. It has its problems, no doubt about that, but its adherence to true survival horror is uncommon in this era of cynically wrapping your game around audience sampling.

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Alien: Isolation has nothing to do with that god-awful Aliens spin-off that Gearbox put out a few years ago. What we have here is a direct sequel to the first Alien film, which seeks to embody all of that movie’s spooky motifs and then some. It focuses not on the military action featured in Aliens, but on Alien‘s suffocating atmosphere and sense of dread.

Isolation takes place fifteen years after the events of the film. Player character Amanda Ripley, the spitting image of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, takes engineering jobs from all over the region her mother disappeared in. Unaware of the events that transpired aboard the Nostromo, Amanda holds out hope that her mother is alive somewhere, and jumps at the chance to find out when she learns that her mother’s flight recorder has been found.

A mainstream game with a strong female protagonist? What will they think of next?

A mainstream game with a non-sexualized female protagonist? What will they think of next?

Accompanied by a polite corporate android and a frigid attorney, Amanda takes off for Sevastopol Station, a partially decommissioned space station on the fringe of civilization. Amanda comes aboard looking for the flight recorder, but instead beholds a space colony in the throes of chaos. Bloodstains, flickering lights, and the sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Hello? Helloooooo?

Hello? Helloooooo?

Separated from her team, Amanda moves deeper into the station by herself, and right away I took note of Isolation‘s excellent atmosphere. Creative Assembly is to be commended for so closely recreating the feel and visuals of Alien. We have a full suite of assets either borrowed from or inspired by the film, used to create a new setting that is also familiar to Alien fans. Alien: Isolation goes beyond mere object usage in its quest for Alien‘s atmosphere. The game includes old-school lens flares and a plethora of atmospheric effects mimicking a video cassette. These effects compliment the film’s visuals without taking away from its graphics, which, by the way, are top-notch.

Isolation and the universe it draws from are an excellent study in retro-futurism. Every device and object in the Alien universe represents what people in the 1970s thought space travel would be like. Even though the technologies are impressive, they’re still powered by green monochrome computers, paper documents and boom boxes. It’s a delightfully charming and refreshing take on futurism, though most of the credit for that goes to the film rather than the game.

Holy shit, are we sure this is the future?

Holy shit, are we sure this is the future?

After encountering some bloody wall-writings and a few people who are scared out of their minds, Amanda realizes that something on the station is systematically exterminating its populace. Suspecting a serial killer or malfunctioning androids, nothing prepares her for what’s really out there, what she finally beholds.

It’s at this moment that Amanda’s mission becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Retrieve the flight recorder with her mother’s last-known location? Sure! So long as you elude a fifteen-foot-tall, invincible nightmare creature from the depths of hell?

Nope.

OH CHRIST!!!!

OH CHRIST!!!!

Amanda’s got her work cut out for her on what was supposed to be a routine mission. There’s only one alien on Sevastopol Station, but it’s got your number, and it is hungry. In true survival horror style, the alien is invincible; even the giant shotgun you find early on won’t do shit against its hide. Your only hope for survival is stealth: hiding, running, and being quieter than a mouse. You have no recourse if this thing catches you, except a one-way ticket to a Game Over screen, and then grief counseling.

The alien isn’t the only threat Amanda faces on the station. Terrified human survivors dot the station in small camps, and they’ll shoot anything that moves. As if that wasn’t enough of a compounding issue, someone has reprogrammed the station’s android workforce to kill any human on sight. These spooky wax dummies roam between their work posts in search of intruders.

While not as dangerous as the aliens, Working Joe-brand androids are methodical, numerous, and relentless. And creepy as fuck.

While not as dangerous as the alien, Working Joe-brand androids are numerous, relentless, and creepy as hell.

Isolation‘s gallery of freaks would leave any sane person feeling outmatched, but the game brings a suite of mechanics to help you beat the odds. Amanda is an engineer, and she can craft anything from health packs to alarm clocks from the components scattered all over the station. Most of the items are useful, but three or four of them serve the same purpose of distracting the alien. While unintentionally redundant, it’s handy if you have parts for one type of noisemaker but not the other.

Amanda also finds guns on the station, but every decision to pull the trigger must be weighed carefully. Loud noises will draw the alien to your position, so the only situation precipitating gunfire must be one in which an alien chasing after you is the preferable option. You can craft smoke bombs to elude the alien, and even it has fears that you can exploit to your advantage. I was fond of using noisemakers to lure the alien into gunfights with human opponents. A useful, if macabre, distraction technique.

You can shoot human enemies all damn day. Just be ready to face the consequences.

You can shoot human enemies all damn day. Just be ready to face the consequences.

The visuals and mechanics of Alien: Isolation are mostly excellent, but the narrative that they serve to inform is sub-par. Amanda’s mission to find her mother’s flight recorder gets shot to shit almost immediately, and you spend about 90% of the game performing mundane tasks around the station. 2-3 levels alone are dedicated just to finding a first aid kit for your injured teammate, and this causes the game to drag on considerably. Isolation has that unfortunate System Shock 2 habit of giving you a goal, and then setting it at the very end of a kaleidoscope of other goals to complete first.

Additionally, this game’s PC port was bound by a maniac. Even routine functions require bizarre combinations of keys to complete. I was perplexed most by the lock-breaking mechanic, in which you have to press several alternating keys, hold down the mouse button at the same time as the space bar, perform three Hail Marys, make a rooster sound, and light a pink smoke signal.

I appreciate the enthusiasm for player input, Creative Assembly, but the F button is quite sufficient.

Do I really need to press six keys and a mouse button just to open a damn door?

Do I really need to press six keys and a mouse button just to open a damn door?

Before I got sidetracked with the control problems, the story. Yes, the story. Not great. None of the characters really evolve at all; even with the hell Amanda goes through, her voice actress and the team of writers failed at portraying the change a game like this would force on a person. In fact, all of the voice-acting is mediocre. Amanda only ever sounds like she’s turned into a flat robot or is about to cry, the latter of which is perfectly understandable in a situation like this, but sticks out like a sore thumb in the conversations over pre-mission breakfast cereal.

Again, the main plot of the game doesn’t really strike any deep chords. The quest to find your mother is shunted aside in favor of pure survival, which I would be fine with if Isolation had been marketed as a purely story-less survival experience. I was also disappointed to see that large portions of the game’s story literally copy-paste from the film, including a visit to a certain derelict spaceship. Not a bad story in and of itself, but to stomp around in the film’s storytelling makes this game feel like it’s re-hashing something old instead of being new material.

Casual gamers might also find themselves frustrated by the alien’s sophisticated AI. Easy difficulty on this game is the normal difficulty for most other games. The alien has been programmed to be wild and unpredictable, which I applaud for survival horror value but deride for its tendency to be a bit much. This issue really comes into play with the game’s manual checkpoints. I got frustrated a few times because the alien heard me exhale too loudly from the other side of the station and killed me on my fifth trip to the next save station. I don’t mind admitting that I had to turn down the difficulty a few times, but then again, I’m not the most patient person in the world. Complicating matters is the alien’s ability to hide around corners and in the ceiling.

Hey! You look familiar!

Hey! You look familiar!

My final complaint about Isolation‘s narrative is that its simply too long. My playthrough clocked in at about 26 hours, which anyone who plays a lot of linear first-person games will probably raise an eyebrow at. No character development and mundane goals stretched over that length of time made Isolation feel like an occasional grind, but its visuals, atmosphere, and scary gameplay are its saving graces.

The other issue I found with Alien: Isolation is that Amanda braves so many near-death experiences that they all become meaningless. Heroes in action movies can only motorcycle through so many explosions before we start to assume they’re vulnerable, and the same thing happens to Amanda. In one six-minute span, Amanda survives being struck by a train, nearly being hit by an elevator, several close alien encounters, and a huge explosion. When enough near-death experiences happen in that rapid of an order, they lose their significance. They make it hard to believe that our protagonist is vulnerable, and thus turn down the horror.

I

It becomes harder to believe that Amanda is just lucky, and easier to believe that the game’s threats are not real, with every rapid-fire brush with death.

Unlike most big-box games that come out these days, Alien: Isolation has some quality DLC, that’s actually worth its asking price. Most of the downloadable content is storyless, featuring different challenges to try around Savastopol Station. Some of them are reminiscent of the main mission, where you try to complete goals before the alien gets you. My favorite pack was the mission in which you leave your alien-proof room, gather supplies, and scuttle back in like a prairie dog.

There are two story-driven pieces of content that recreate the events of the original Alien film, and I want to highlight them because it’s almost unheard of to find a movie tie-in that’s actually good. Crew Expendable and Last Survivor, featuring voice acting from Sigourney Weaver, recreate a few key scenes from when the alien is aboard the Nostromo. The first mission is a recreation of the crew’s attempt to trap the beast, and the latter is Ellen Ripley’s race to find the ship’s escape pod. Both are decent missions that are unafraid to tweak a few things to suit a video game format, without damaging the feel of the original movie. I think fans in both camps can appreciate that.

B

You can play as Ellen Ripley or as one of the Nostromo’s other crew members. Except Ash, but screw that guy anyway.

In closing, Alien: Isolation is a decent horror game that’s rough around the edges in every way save its visual fidelity to Alien. I’d recommend only buying it on sale and being patient with yourself if the alien keeps killing you. Story-centric gamers will probably want to move on to other pastures, but the horror fans among you will find a worthy, if unpolished, horror experience here.

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You can buy Alien: Isolation 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.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode Two

B7

Search the ruins of Rapture for a desperate escape from the briny.

PC Release: March 25, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Oh boy. What a topsy-turvey schedule we’ve been on. I apologize for getting this out so late, but I wanted to go back and play this game one more time to make absolutely sure I know what I’m blathering about. Yeah, it’s not worth fretting over so much, but this is my favorite series. And Episode Two is quite the finale.

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Episode Two of the Burial at Sea adventure picks up immediately after the events of Episode One. Having guided an amnesiac Booker DeWitt through Rapture in search of a little girl, you now take control of things from Elizabeth’s point of view. Shit is not looking good; Booker has suddenly disappeared, you’re trapped in a sunken skyscraper, and the little girl you came to find is now in the clutches of gaming’s most infamous revolutionary.

Atlas. It's been too long.

Atlas. It’s been too long.

Atlas, whose working-class revolutionaries want to depose Rapture’s unfeeling capitalists, agree to hand little Sally back to Elizabeth if she can find them a way out of the department store you’re trapped in and back to Rapture. Easier said than done; the Fontaine Department Store is nearing the bottom of an ocean trench and is no less filled with the mutant maniacs you fought as Booker in Episode One.

Right off the bat, playing as Elizabeth is about as stark a contrast as can be to the gun-toting Booker DeWitt. To my delight, I found that Episode Two is geared for stealth. Players have to sneak around large groups of enemies, avoiding noise hazards like broken glass, in a quest to slunk about the department store looking for the exit. Elizabeth can still wield guns, but she’s weaker than a paper bag in a gunfight, so stealth is really your only option.

Huh. I must have fireproof nail polish.

Huh. I must have fireproof nail polish.

I jumped into Episode Two ready to “Tear” shit up with Elizabeth’s godlike multidimensional powers. In BioShock Infinite you can direct her to pull things into this world from the beyond; everything from health to ammo to giant George Washington robots armed with mini-guns. Conveniently enough, Elizabeth has these powers stripped from her just in time for her protagonist debut. You still have access to your genetic plasmid superpowers, but this is nothing new. You’re quite vulnerable.

Overall, I was impressed with how well Irrational nailed the stealth gameplay, but it’s hardly innovative. Elizabeth gets a plasmid that basically rips off of Detective Mode from the Batman: Arkham series; helpful, but unoriginal. I also didn’t appreciate the implication that Elizabeth was too weak to fight off Splicers who’d noticed her. I get that we’re supposed to be stealth, but Elizabeth is not supposed to be a damsel in distress. The gameplay, however, disagrees.

The stealthing here is fun, but the reasons for being forced into it are not really given.

The stealthing here is fun, but the reasons for being forced into it are not really given.

The gameplay also features the same go-here-and-press-button linearity of Episode One, but the environments are less linear in the bargain. You venture into an unexplored area of the department store, a sprawling neon bazaar of high-end shops. In addition to finding a way back to Rapture, you can complete additional treasure-hunting objectives akin to the storage chests in BioShock Infinite. Some of these have a lot of bearing on the plot, so it’s worth looking around to find them.

As with Episode One, exploration is key to survival. If Rapture was dangerous for a beefy dude with a gun, it’s triply so for a psychic lady with a crossbow. I guess. Anyway, looking around for water and toilet paper is helpful, and you’ll find more audio diaries as well. These tools provide background stories and have always been wonderful add-ons for the BioShock series. To this day, they’re the only video game collectible I’ve really ever cared to get all of. Those, and maybe the documents in Outlast.

There are some creepy foes out there. Explore for supplies any chance you get.

There are some creepy foes out there. Explore for supplies any chance you get.

Elizabeth isn’t alone in her mission to get herself and Atlas to Rapture. The gruff revolutionary keeps in contact with Elizabeth via radio, and Booker also chimes in from time to time. This time, the dialogue exchanges between the two are more cordial, and a lot sadder. They encompass a reflection on the whole crazy journey these two characters have been on, keeping that as much a constant character in this game as anyone else. Episode Two also features appearances from more of BioShock‘s original cast, including the vicious biologist Yi Suchong.

In addition, the game continues to feature the hallmark artwork of Rapture. Massive neon signs and unmistakable art-deco masterpieces are the orders of the day for Episode Two. Everything is beautifully colored and arranged; Irrational put a lot of effort into making these underwater stores and restaurants alien, yet so familiar. Each environment has also been layered with dystopia; bodies, empty bean cans and annihilated bathrooms. Those three things together are one of my worst nightmares.

Hey Splicers, I've got injections, who wants to party?

Hey Splicers, I’ve got injections, who wants to party?

This grim beauty perpetuates Rapture’s tragic atmosphere, and that reinforces the plot’s very tragic roots. Anyone who’s played BioShock games will know that these titles have bittersweet endings, and none more so than Episode Two. The game succeeds at packing a lot of fan service into a narrative while keeping it fresh. Through Elizabeth’s kaleidoscopic perception of time and space, we see the common threads between the story of the original game all the way to now. Episode Two excels at introducing new mechanics and narrative subplots while staying true to the themes of both games.

Staying true to both themes is a strategy Episode Two plays on quite literally. You’ll visit a few areas of the BioShock universe you may not expect. The weapons, the mechanics and the level design all reflect these constant changes, keeping things fresh and interesting.

Wait, is that...

Wait, is that…

In the end, Elizabeth completes her evolution as BioShock‘s most interesting character. Even when playing as Booker in BioShock Infinite, that game was really all about her. Protecting her, rescuing her, witnessing her powers, and watching her change and grow over the course of the game. That trend continues in the Burial at Sea duology, and culminates with Elizabeth’s ultimate test of will. Will, the very thing that Andrew Ryan holds so dear and founded Rapture with so zealously. Elizabeth’s journey from ignorant optimism to grim determination is something truly special. The entire production from BioShock Infinite until now is among the best character writing in gamedom. It’s also a great representation of a strong female character, something the gaming industry is lacking direly today.

The ending of Episode Two is the ending of the BioShock series. The true Bioshocks, anyway. Ken Levine let 2K have the series but we all know that a BioShock without Ken Levine is not a BioShock at all. The game’s climax features a tapestry of all the journeys, all the struggles, all the characters that this wonderful series has brought us. The iron will of Andrew Ryan, the religious zealotry of Zachary Comstock, the anguish of Booker DeWitt and Songbird. All of this combines into an ending that literally brought me to tears, something that maybe five games have ever done to me.

We did it.

We did it.

Burial at Sea‘s Episode Two is the best DLC content I’ve ever played. It clocks in at about four-to-six hours and its stealth-based mechanics lend it an identity all its own. Couple this with a story that condenses everything we’ve learned from BioShock into a single, tremendous finale, and you have something that I can’t really offer any more praise for short of a marriage proposal. If you listen to no other recommendation from me, DLC or not, get this game. Its gameplay has its flaws, but the narrative is stellar and the level design leaves a lot to explore in my favorite dystopian metropolis.

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You can buy BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode Two 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.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode One

B

Investigate a little girl’s disappearance in a beautiful underwater city.

PC Release: November 12, 2013

By Ian Coppock

The second panel of double-reviews commences with the BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea episodes released some time after the main game. If you’ve ever wondered whether BioShock Infinite has some connecting threads with its predecessors, those suspicions will be pretty much cemented with the release of these DLC. I would recommend that anyone who has somehow not played one of the greatest games of the last half-decade to go to Steam and immediately rectify that problem before reading this. If you’ve already played it, hot damn. Let’s do this!

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Burial at Sea: Episode One takes place some time after BioShock Infinite. An amnesiac Booker DeWitt awakens to the sight of a beautiful young woman, whom he’s never met, entering his ramshackle detective’s office. Calling herself Elizabeth, this mysterious femme fatale offers Booker a job: find a little girl who’s gone missing somewhere in Rapture.

Yep. You read that right. Booker and Elizabeth are in… RAPTURE!!!

SQUEEEEEEEE!!!

SQUEEEEEEEE!!!

With no apparent recollection of the events in BioShock Infinite, Booker reluctantly follows Elizabeth out of his hovel and into the streets of gaming’s most infamous city. He can’t help but wonder that this girl seems somewhat familiar, but surely the drinking has fogged his memory.

Rapture was recreated gorgeously, and entirely from scratch, in all of its anarchic glory. The first half or so of this episode comprises walking the streets, but rather than dealing with splicers, you get to see something very, very special: the city of Rapture, alive and well. The entire game’s artwork cuts between the brightly lit and strongly colored areas of the civilized parts of the city, and the morose dark green of the ocean in its more unpleasant areas. References to the first game are, of course, everywhere, from advertisements for the Kashmir restaurant to the sight of the Little Sisters.

(shivers)

(shivers)

One of the great tragedies of BioShock‘s story is that you arrive to Rapture after its downfall. You never got to see this city when it was thriving, at its full potential, but you get to see all of that in Burial at Sea. Citizens wander the gleaming corridors spouting Randian nonsense, shops hawk their wears (mostly booze and cigars) at passerby, and the entire affair is coated wall-to-wall with spectacular art-deco images and artwork. If fellow BioShock fans have ever wondered what Rapture was like when it was liveable, this DLC is an excellent answer to that question.

The first thing you see when you leave your office is a blue whale coming in for a peek into the city. It’s spectacular.

BioShock is my favorite game of all time, so to see the world of Rapture brought back to life was nothing short of glorious.

BioShock is my favorite game of all time, so to see the world of Rapture brought back to life was nothing short of glorious.

After spending about an hour wandering the high streets in search of Ryan Industries propaganda and Ryan Industries-brand whiskey, an encounter with a certain psychotic artist lands Booker and Elizabeth on a one-way trip to Rapture’s darker side. Here I was, having just sat at a German tobacconist for ten minutes, and now lying in a cramped bathysphere en route to the Fontaine Department Store. Once the domain of Andrew Ryan’s brutal rival, Frank Fontaine, the store is closed down after the latter’s demise and cast into an abyss off the edge of town. Time to find our little girl.

The nice thing about Burial at Sea is that it imports BioShock Infinite‘s gameplay mechanics into the world of Rapture. I loved the original game, but the lack of dual-wielding guns and plasmids was a significant drawback. Here, all of Infinite‘s powerful vigors show up again as drinkable plasmids, allowing you to cast the same sci-fi godliness. Most of Infinite’s gun arsenal also returns, having received a 1960’s spit-and-polish for the updated setting. Even the sky-rails make an appearance, although this time they’re said to be the pneumatic lines for the postal system. You can ride them all the same with a skyhook.

Alright you dirty bastards, where are ya?

Alright you dirty bastards, where are ya?

Burial at Sea returns BioShock‘s horror atmosphere to the franchise. BioShock Infinite was great, but that game’s horror was compacted into a single chapter, with no build-up or follow-through. And yeah, mental patients strapped into George Washington costumes is pretty damn scary, but it’s a single instance. Burial at Sea adds some good ol’ survival horror, with oozing shadows and a still, oppressive atmosphere. The horror is also enhanced via gameplay, which has been reworked to make health and ammo much more difficult to find. It’s a game that forces you to time your shots and consider your encounters, unlike Infinite, where you could shoot indiscriminately into a crowd and never have to worry about running low.

And of course, what would BioShock horror be without splicers? The game’s infamous plasmid-guzzling mutants return, creeping in the shadows and being uncomfortably clever at scaring the shit out of you. Most times you’ll find them scavenging corpses or screaming at inanimate objects, but other times? Well, just don’t turn your back on those department store “mannequins”.

The Department Store is a dangerous place. Enemies are vicious and resources are low, so this isn't something you can just gun-blaze through.

The Department Store is a dangerous place. Enemies are vicious and resources are low, so this isn’t something you can just gun-blaze through.

The most interesting part of Episode One‘s story is not its premise, but the character interaction that takes place along the way. In stark contrast to Booker and Elizabeth’s cordial, almost familial relationship in Infinite, this iteration of the pair share a tense, antagonistic partnership. Elizabeth seems angry at Booker for some past wrongdoing, and Booker grows more unstable the more he tries to remember the events that brought him here. His suspicions against Elizabeth are only heightened by her ability to use Tears, once again giving you the option to teleport in health, ammo, or a… samurai warrior? Elizabeth’s competent AI keeps her out of danger and lets you call in supplies on the fly. The dialogue is smart, of course, with terse exchanges and hints at a greater context, but even those of you who’ve played Infinite before will only grasp at what’s really going on.

The structure around which this dialogue takes place is pretty pedestrian. You first need to find a plasmid in order to deal with a frozen object, because Irrational Games can’t seem to get enough of that obstacle, and then you have to travel to five different places around the store and accomplish the same goal. Go in, fight some enemies, accomplish it, get out. I was a bit underwhelmed by a setup this basic. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunity and incentive for exploration. The beloved audio diaries return in Burial at Sea, and you can also scrounge around for special weapons and upgrades. Exploration for supplies is key, and not just because you’re trapped in a sunken skyscraper with dozens of angry drug addicts.

For all its unremarkable pacing, there's a lot to look at in Burial at Sea.

For all its unremarkable pacing, there’s a lot to look at in Burial at Sea.

Burial at Sea is a great little gem and a worthy continuation of the BioShock series, but even that doesn’t save it from a few eye-raising problems. This game had some major bugs at launch, including a rather conspicuous scripting issue that caused a quest-essential shopkeeper to simply vanish. I walked into a record shop to further the first half of the story, only to have to erase my save and start again because the damn guy wasn’t there. There were also a few problems with dialogue not happening. Unless Ubisoft had something to do with this game at some point, I’m not sure how those issues slipped the noose.

Additionally, Episode One is only about two hours long. For fifteen bucks, that’s a bit steep. I still recommend that you pick this game up and play it, since it finishes the BioShock story, but wait for a sale, would you kindly? Even Ken Levine doesn’t get to charge that much for 120 minutes of content.

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You can buy BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, Episode One 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 2: Episode Two

 H1

Stop an insidious alien foe from unleashing an endless army.

PC Release: October 10, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Half-Life 2: Episode Two has a somewhat messianic reputation in the video gaming community. It’s a well-made and charismatic game that solidified our faith in the franchise, but the Half-Life series has yet to return to earth and rapture us up to enlightenment. Still, we the Half-Life faithful await the return of one of my favorite sagas. In the meantime, there’s probably plenty of time for you, dear reader, to play the series and see why Half-Life 3 has been the most famous piece of vaporware for the last decade. A lot of it has to do with how good Half-Life 2: Episode Two is.

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We once again face an issue of describing a game without spoiling its predecessor.

Well, in the previous game you were outrunning a nuclear explosion, and in this one you wake up in a derailed train far away from said explosion. Any spoilers that you may infer from that information are proprietary to you and I cannot be held responsible for them. (Phew).

2

Close call right there.

Silent protagonist Gordon Freeman, who’s more inclined to test his knowledge of physics with shotguns instead of lab coats, ends up in the wilderness outside of City 17 with sidekick Alyx Vance. Hot on their tails is the Combine, a terrifying alien occupation force that rules earth with an iron fist. In addition to chasing after some mighty important data Alyx stole from them in Episode One, the aliens are also keen on opening a portal to their home dimension and bringing forth endless armies to crush the human resistance. Your goal is to regroup with the human freedom fighters and stop the Combine before they can re-establish contact with their forces beyond earth.

To that end, Gordon and Alyx take off into a beautiful wilderness that recaptures Half-Life 2‘s original level design. Valve apparently took the criticism of Episode One‘s linearity to heart, and built Episode Two with the wide-open, interconnected hub areas seen in Half-Life 2. I was happy to see such an excellent return to form; although a few levels of the game retain that tight linearity, most of them have been expanded back into their ambitious original shapes. You’ll be able to wander the pines in search of supply caches, or enemies, as the situation warrants.

This is more like it!

This is more like it!

Episode Two expands Episode One’s budding repertoire of team-based gameplay with Alyx, but also makes room for a few Vortigaunt buddies. Valve once again nixed modifying its solid arsenal of first-person shooting, this time adding environmental abilities. You’ll receive special weapons and tools for turning White Forest against the Combine, and run into situations where the objects around you may be more effective than that rapidly overheating SMG. It’s a great way to keep Half-Life‘s gameplay fresh and is more innovative than just adding more guns.

The gameplay receives some much-needed variety, too. Episode One was all run-and-gun, and therefore not as much fun. Episode Two has its own share of shootfests, but you’ll also scale cliffs to get the drop on enemy forces and drive a car, just like in Half-Life 2. Along your journey, you can hop out at any time to creep into the pine trees in search of supplies. There’s something oddly relaxing about wandering through a decrepit old mining town and spending a half-hour rummaging through its buildings, wondering after the stories of the people who lived here before the apocalypse. It’s what I enjoyed about Half-Life 2, and it returns in full form here.

What's in here?

What’s in here?

The plot of Episode Two is the most compelling Half-Life story we’ve seen so far. As I mentioned up top, the alien forces on earth have been cut off from their homeworld, and you have to prevent them from opening the portal back up and summing infinite reinforcements. These standing forces are still considerable, and there’s a long way for them to hunt you between where you stop off and where the resistance is headquartered.

The narrative as as well-written as ever, as we’ve come to expect from Valve games. Alyx undergoes some minor character development after a near-fatal injury hardens her heart against the enemy. As a silent protagonist, my character development lay primarily with my decreased reluctance to do ridiculous stunts with cars. You find ways to make it work.

21

Episode Two also re-introduces the full cast of characters. I got weary of the resistance’s solidarity, but Episode Two shoots this in the foot by adding a cantankerous old douchebag named Dr. Magnusson. Brilliant? Yes. Genius? Yes. Asshole? Absolutely. And he’s the first human we’ve encountered who dares to think that Gordon Freeman might NOT be the messiah. A bit of conflict between characters never made a story boring, and it helps turn Episode Two’s narrative from an us-vs.-them saga into something a bit… grayer.

Each stop in the story is another race against the Combine. Episode Two ups the horror by adding more zombies than ever, lurking in dusty old mines and abandoned houses. You can expect quite a few firefights in the woods, but they have less to do with completing an arbitrary objective and more with ensuring pure survival, which brought me as the player closer to the characters. It’s a very dark story, between its scenes of resistance fighters being massacred and the poignant march of zombies through toxic acid, but it’s a satisfying follow-up to the decidedly less-epic Episode One.

The look on Alyx's face says it all.

The look on Alyx’s face says it all.

I love Episode Two as much as I revile it. Not because it’s both a great and terrible game (though the vehicle controls need some work) but because it leaves the series hinging on a MASSIVE cliffhanger. I won’t spoil, but let’s imagine for a moment that the makers of Star Wars decided to end The Empire Strikes Back at the moment Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. Vader says his piece, Luke looks horrified, and the screen cuts to black. That’s pretty much where Half-Life 2: Episode Two ends, and where the series has left off for almost a decade.

Because that’s where we’ve come with this series, haven’t we? Eight years since the last Half-Life release and nary a word from the almighty Valve about the cliffhanger’s resolution, much less a new game. There was supposed to be an Episode Three, but it was never released. I suspect that the breakout popularity of Portal, which was released alongside this game, did something to shift Valve’s development priorities, but this is just speculation. Whatever happened, the longer Valve takes to release Half-Life 3, the greater the expectation will be that the game is nothing short of amazing. Rumors and whispers pointing at its return pop up every year or so, but nothing has been substantiated with hard, Valvy evidence. Hopefully we’ll see a Half-Life 3 sooner rather than later, but between Valve’s last game release being two years ago and its recent focus on developing hardware, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Some concept art for Episode Three. This was the last bit of media Valve released before cutting to silence on the Half-Life series.

Some concept art for Episode Three. This was the last bit of media Valve released before cutting to silence on the Half-Life series.

So yeah, Episode Two.

Get it, please. It’s worth experiencing. But I warn you; you’ll start clamoring for Half-Life 3 just like the rest of us, and though it’s a cool club to be in, the wait is starting to get on our nerves.

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You can buy Half-Life 2: Episode Two 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 2: Episode One

HL

Escape City 17 before it collapses into itself.

PC Release: June 1, 2006

By Ian Coppock

Hey Internet! Look at me reviewing another classic game! Go ahead and tell me how last-gen I am! Of course, being a PC gamer, the terms “current-gen” and “last-gen” mean nothing to me. I exist in a glorious tapestry where all video games are coalesced into a single set of media. None of this backwards compatibility bullshit for me!
On a more serious note, this is one of those classic games I somehow missed writing about in years past. I know, I know, how do you forget about a property like Half-Life?

Maybe we should ask Valve.

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Half-Life 2: Episode One is a direct follow-up to Half-Life 2, starting off mere minutes after the latter game’s conclusion. Players reprise the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, the crowbar-wielding physicist and humanity’s last hope against a totalitarian alien regime. It’s difficult to describe Episode One‘s beginning without spoiling the end of the previous game (for those very, very, very few of you who have somehow not played it yet) but suffice to say, the dystopian city you’re trapped in is about to explode. Time to haul asscheeks.

Gordon is not alone in his flight from City 17; the resourceful and ass-kicking Alyx Vance accompanies him throughout the entire episode. Gordon must work with the computer-controlled Alyx to devise an escape, setting the stage for a tense story not unlike a rougish prison breakout.

Time to go.

Time to go.

Right away, the first major difference I noticed after finishing Half-Life 2 were some improved visuals. The Source engine looks sharper, and new particle effects like falling ash enhance the game’s grim atmosphere. Episode One retains most of its predecessor’s visual assets, but a few new lighting effects, characters, and objects have been added to brighten the place up a bit. Like most Source games, Episode One‘s visuals have aged very well. The engine’s smooth, clean look coupled with silky world interaction has helped the game’s staying power even almost a decade after its release.

The game’s music continues Half-Life 2‘s mix of macabre and sci-fi, with synth-laden interludes and fast drum-and-bass sections for the combat bits. Like the first game too, Episode One includes lots of stark silence, which, when coupled with its postapocalyptic visuals, promotes a thought-provoking and deeply atmospheric experience. This isn’t like Neon Struct, where the absence of music only served to draw attention to its stark environments. Rather, the music-less sections here make room for the sounds of fire, the screams of dying soldiers, the drones of evil robots. It’s a good ole medley of creepy.

Human resistance members fighting alien forces, with a few wild bugs thrown in for shits and giggles.

Human resistance members fighting alien forces, with a few wild bugs thrown in for shits and giggles.

As countless critics before me have pointed out, Episode One‘s story is lackluster. That’s not to say that the dialogue is anything but well-written, thankfully, but the game’s short length combined with its simple escape goal lacks a grander point. You don’t get more specific on where you’re even escaping to until Episode Two. It’s just you and Alyx looking to hitch a ride out of the city. No character development to be found either. And yeah, a city that’s about to be sucked into another dimension is some epic shit, I’ll give Valve that, but two hours of running away does not an emotional and compelling video game make.

Oh yes, did I mention that it’s super damn short? When Episode One was released, Valve said that players could expect the credits to roll after about six hours. Uh-uh. In my first playthrough it took me 144 minutes. And I’m not that great at shooters, especially if my performance in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is any indication. The game’s price has been reduced in the decade since, of course, but it was a silly move by Valve to charge full price for something so short.

Episode One's story isn't bad, but anyone who goes in expecting a Half-Life 2-caliber story is going to be mightily disappointed.

Episode One’s story isn’t bad, but anyone who goes in expecting a Half-Life 2-caliber story is going to be mightily disappointed.

Gameplay in Episode One faithfully replicates that found in Half-Life 2, but there are new features I was impressed by. Rather than focusing on new guns or abilities, Valve put its energy toward improving your interactivity with Alyx. In the previous game she was pixels with a machine gun, but now she’s smartly programmed to work alongside the player, accomplishing team goals and fighting more resourcefully. I liked this part of Episode One because it not only made the player’s relationship to Alyx more tangible, but it also made the gameplay support the notion that we’re all gonna die unless we work together. Valve successfully programmed Alyx to help form a team, and that’s pretty rare in an AI sense.

The gameplay design in Episode One is also different from its predecessor. I liked Half-Life 2 because it was several hubs of open space. I enjoyed spending hours exploring the Lost Coast and rummaging through old houses, but in this game you navigate a very linear series of tight streets and corridors. Now, these are the people who made Left 4 Dead, so the linear level design is very damn good, but it’s still a far cry from the open, exploration-friendly worlds that Half-Life 2 encompassed.

What is a Half-Life game without zombies?

What is a Half-Life game without zombies?

 

For all its linearity and lack of open areas, Episode One does manage to stream together some intense firefights. There’s a survival horror element implicit in navigating dark tunnels under the city, filled with zombies and giant bugs. Areas like this are where teamwork with Alyx are most crucial, because the slightest misstep could leave you overwhelmed by an enemy horde.

Once you reach the surface, the Combine show off some new ambush techniques and harry you as you try to reach the rendezvous point. This cramped, close-quarters fighting is fun, but it’s nothing that wasn’t already in Half-Life 2‘s final chapters.

211

Oh balls.

Half-Life 2: Episode One isn’t getting out of here without a recommendation. To be fair, the game’s short length is the reflection of its part in a greater whole, but its linear design and pond-depth story will cause a noticeable umph of disappointment with hardcore fans. Its atmosphere is still present and accounted for, but I was disappointed to see that Valve deviated from the trail it blazed with Half-Life 2 in favor of a more generic type of design.

I recommend Episode One because it’s the precursor to the epic Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the penultimate Half-Life game. I promised double-reviews this week to make up for last week, so expect a review of Episode Two tomorrow, and another double-review this weekend! SO MANY GAMES!

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You can buy Half-Life 2: Episode One 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.

Neon Struct

Neon

Elude enemy agents and take down an international surveillance state.

PC Release: May 20, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Before we get started, is everyone okay with me de-capitalizing NEON STRUCT? I know that this format does it automatically in the title, but I hate it when people title their works in all-caps. It makes it look like I’m screaming at you throughout the article. So we’ll go with Neon Struct: a game that is more subtle in its narrative and gameplay than its font size might suggest.

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Neon Struct is a little indie game released only on PC about two months ago, and it derives from the godfather of stealth games: Deus Ex. Some might say the two games are almost identical. They both deal with themes of conspiracy, they both rely on stealth, they both take place in a cyberpunk future, and they both take place entirely at night. There are some minor differences, of course, but it’s immediately clear where this game draws its inspiration from.

Neon Struct puts you in the shoes of Jillian Cleary, a spy who travels across the country on clandestine operations. She gets air-dropped into alleyways, and your job is to sneak her in and out of enemy installations without alerting a soul. You have a handful of nonlethal gadgets like knockout gas and health stims, but your success will by and large hinge on timing your sneaking and leaning to see who’s facing what direction. The game robs you of any weapons to force you into stealth mode.

Does anyone else hear the Mission: Impossible theme playing, or is that just me?

Does anyone else hear the Mission: Impossible theme playing, or is that just me?

Jill has an easy time completing missions for “the agency”, an unnamed allusion to the CIA, but when one of her targets turns whistleblower, she becomes the victim of a vast international conspiracy between all the world’s intelligence bodies. It’s up to her to escape and to unmask the surveillance state forming behind the scenes, all the while being pursued by a riot of enemy agents.

Right off the bat, Neon Struct‘s plot sounds like something written by Edward Snowden. Before Snowden turned whistleblower, I’d call the idea of an international surveillance state ridiculous, but now… I’m not so sure. It’s certainly real enough in the world of Neon Struct, as Jill has to stay one step ahead of federal and state law enforcement. This gives Neon Struct a tense, gloomy atmosphere, one that Snowden’s revelations about our government gives me pause to reconsider.

Neon Struct's point about government surveillance becomes grander and grander and grander...

Neon Struct’s point about government surveillance becomes grander and grander and grander…

Despite the ambitions of Neon Struct‘s central plot, Jill and the other characters in the story don’t really develop. There’s lots of typed-out dialogue, but she remains pretty much the same person despite undergoing lots of personal anguish. She also doesn’t really make any decisions of her own; the narrative is driven by whomever is yelling into her earpiece to explore apartment A, or pick up underworld gadget thingy B. The plot is plot-driven rather than character-driven, and when the characters are vapid and forgettable, there’s a problem.

This game also contains a lot of typos, most of which could’ve been avoided with a simple spell-check. My friends get on my case when I criticize their grammar, and they might have a point when we’re just shooting the shit, but typos are surprisingly effective at breaking immersion. Neon Struct is a fun game to sneak around in, but bad grammar is devastating to a game’s atmosphere.

Oh Jill, you're much better at sneaking than storytelling.

Oh Jill, you’re much better at sneaking than storytelling.

As you’ve noticed from these screenshots, Neon Struct has an… interesting art style. It’s a big, blocky, colorful world, draped in shadows and fuzzy film grain. The characters are faceless mannequins that often stand completely still, which reminded me of the infinitely hilarious Jazzpunk. I like the artwork present here, especially the lighting, but there’s a fine line between being minimalist and being simplistic. All the same, it’s something that I find surprisingly engrossing. Like the complexities of the world have been stripped away in favor of the brutal nightscape Jill has to navigate.

And speaking of simplistic, let’s talk about the mission setups. On every single one, your job is to sneak into a location and either add an item or remove it. There are no animations or special effects when this happens; you simply remove or add whatever you came for and leave. It’s repetitive, it’s simplistic, it’s nothing to write home about. Missions alternate between linear, secured areas and open sections that let you explore the world a bit. Missions of the latter category let you talk to people, read news, and get a feel for the world. The game tells you that you’re traveling to new cities all over America, but each area is designed with the same gray blocks and the same damn items, so the attempt to create a big-feeling world really shoots itself in the foot.

Did anyone watch Imaginaria when they were kids? This is exactly what that was like.

Did anyone watch Imaginaria when they were kids? This is exactly what that was like.

But what about the actual gameplay mechanics, the meat of this stealth’em’up (as the kids call them). Jill has no guns, blades, or weapons of any kind, so if you’re looking for an explosive action sequence, you’re in the wroooooong place. Jill can crouch to go into stealth mode and use a few different tools to get around. Hacking doors is, laughably, a game of pong. You can also use stims to silence your footsteps, and you can throw these weird rubix cube-looking things that I guess blow up and knock people out. Nothing, though, beats a good karate chop to the back of the head. Be sure to hide those bodies! Guards will be alerted if they see someone sleeping on the job, a realistic mechanic whose challenge value I appreciate.

What I don’t appreciate is the enemy guards’ AI. I haven’t seen programming this wonky in a long time; there would be times a guard wouldn’t see me even though I was standing right in front of him in broad daylight, and other times I’d get the entire NYPD on my ass because someone heard me farting from the other side of Manhattan. It is a carnival of an AI show. Guards’ bodies can also be thrown right through the walls, thanks to a silly bug.

You'll have some fun with the enemies in this game, I can tell you that.

You’ll have some fun with the enemies in this game, I can tell you that.

Another thing about this game I took issue with is the lack of music. Or sounds. Every level’s sound design is an eerie void, pierced only by the footsteps of you and the enemy agents who bumble around the building. Some sort of ambience would help round the world out a bit and give some life to this stealth-thriller. In the open city areas that you can traverse between stealth missions, though, a beautiful synth soundtrack composed by The Home Conversion plays. The band has some nice melodies and a good frontman; most of the music’s subject matter had nothing to do with the situations Jill finds herself in, but it’s good music.

Despite its flaws, Neon Struct has somehow become one of my favorite stealth games. I like the atmosphere and world that the game presents, and I like the soundtrack. I wish that the enemy AI were better, and that the characters were more memorable, but the real novelty of Neon Struct lies in its stark portrait of a rapidly changing world. Even though this is a cyberpunk, alternate reality sort of world, there are a lot of parallels concerning the international scene and privacy of citizens. Jill may not be much more than a vapid means of completing objectives, but the world around her has brought me back several times.

Meh.

Beautiful. Simple, but beautiful.

So, what’s my conclusion on Neon Struct? Hmm…

If you like stealth games, get it. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting action game or a super-deep narrative, you probably won’t enjoy it as much. But the game does pack an inescapable charm that has drawn me back into its dark fold a few times now, and I recommend you give it a try as well. It’s a great place to begin for people who are curious about stealth games, since its simplicity also strips the genre down to its basest form.

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You can buy Neon Struct 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 V

A2

Shoot, stab, and explode your way across town in a series of dangerous heists.

PC Release: April 14, 2015

By Ian Coppock

I’ve started up a side project called the Arkham Knight Disaster Watch, in which I watch news feeds everywhere like a hawk for signs that the game will actually be finished and released properly for PC. Of course, with Warner Bros. taking the game off of store shelves to fix it, I get the feeling that we PC gamers are in for a long wait while Rocksteady does what it should’ve done months ago. The thing that excited me most about Arkham Knight was pancaking thugs into the dirt with the Batmobile. Bereft of being able to do that, I sought out another way to drive around a massive city, destroying lives and annihilating order.

The answer was clear immediately: Grand Theft Auto V.

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There’s a lot that Rocksteady could learn from how Rockstar handled its own prickly port situation. A lot of PC gamers were mad as hell when Rockstar announced that this would be the last version of the game to be released, and it only came out 60 days ago. I would’ve been perfectly happy if Rocksteady had taken a few extra months to properly optimize the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight, an outcome that we’re all going to have to wait for anyway.

But, even though Rockstar delayed the PC version of GTA V by almost two years, they optimized the shit out of it. They added 60 fps capabilities that consoles do not have. They added a host of new graphics and visual options. They added mouthwatering features like the Rockstar world editor to allow machinima and mods. And it took off onto the Steam store like a beautiful butterfly. Like the metamorphosis of one of those magnificent creatures, the wait was long, but it was worth it.

Yay!

Yay!

Before GTA V, I had played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and GTA IV, the former of which is a fun game with a surprisingly enjoyable story, and the latter of which is a hamstrung shitheap and one of the worst games I’ve ever played.

Given my experience with GTA IV, I was worried about the direction Rockstar would take with its sequel, but the studio implemented what made Red Dead Redemption so great and made this into the definitive Grand Theft Auto experience. Fun gameplay, interesting story, and only a few bugs here and there (which is a rarity for AAA PC ports these days).

Every once in a while a car would spin in circles for no reason. That was weird.

Every once in a while a car would spin in circles for no reason. That was weird.

GTA V takes place in 2013, the year of the game’s first release, and returns the series to the SoCal facsimile of San Andreas. Unlike the previous games in the series, the overarching narrative is split between three playable protagonists: a retired bank robber, a young hoodlum, and a crazy guy who huffs solvent gasoline. Right off the bat, this innovative mechanic triples the fun players will have with the game, though it doesn’t necessarily triple the content.

Anyway, middle-aged bank robber Michael De Santa lives in Los Santos (read: Los Angeles) with his wife and two kids, and events beyond his control collide him with Franklin, a young guy trying to get out of the hood, and Trevor, his former robbery partner-turned-unhinged psychopath. Despite a wealth of personal and interpersonal problems, the three make an effective heist team, and run jobs for various government and underworld elements. The story swings back and forth like a shopping cart with a bent wheel, between incredibly dangerous heists and encounters with wacky characters.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor (from left to right) are GTA V's three protagonists, and you control each of them throughout the game.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor (from left to right) are GTA V’s three protagonists, and you control each of them throughout the game.

GTA V is set in a vast open-world mirror of contemporary Los Angeles. The city of Los Santos is awash in celebrity worship, rampant drug abuse, materialism, and pants-shittingly terrifying cosmetic procedures. You’re also free to explore the vast tapestry of towns and wilderness orbiting Los Santos, and in a first for the GTA series, all areas are unlocked right from the get-go. Everything from the pretentiousness of its hipsters to the worthlessness of its greed is modeled after southern California.

How was I able to spot this so quickly? Because the world that Rockstar has cooked up is outstanding. This is the most “alive” city I’ve ever encountered in a video game, with hordes of people, busy lanes of traffic, bustling businesses and of course, underworld elements. Everything has been carefully built to deliver a scathing parody of American culture, one that I found to be only one or two steps from the real deal. They brought back the hilarious talk shows I loved so much in GTA: San Andreas, and JB Smoove’s performance as a clueless alternative healer had me crying with laughter. It all blends together to create a morbid atmosphere akin to a Tarantino film: macabre, but also comedic.

Los Santos is as alive an open-world setting as I've ever seen, and its city sprawls stretch outward for miles.

Los Santos is as alive an open-world setting as I’ve ever seen, and its city sprawls stretch outward for miles.

The biting social satire and beautiful environments are brought to life with sound game design. The game’s visual fidelity on ultra-high 60 fps settings is pretty goddamn awesome. Whereas GTA IV‘s environment felt morose and dull past the grittiness Rockstar was probably going for, Los Santos pops with both bright colors and grimy textures. From the gleaming corners of downtown to the rundown ghettos near the highway, everything has been meticulously detailed with color and props to create an absorbing environment. Rockstar’s attention to detail shines through well, and you’ll easily lose yourself driving around the city and countryside.

GTA V‘s level design includes the smart city grids that we’re all used to by now, but it also packs a lot of rural variety that San Andreas missed. Outside of the city, you can follow dirt roads into sandy hills, climb mountains, delve into forests, and visit small towns on the edge of civilization. The level design changes to reflect the new areas, but with no less fidelity than what Rockstar put into the urbanity it knows so well. Yet another lesson probably learned from Red Dead Redemption, and holy shit what a good game that is.

Much of this game's entertainment value comprises simply driving through the eye-popping world.

Much of this game’s entertainment value comprises simply driving through the eye-popping world. Although now that I’ve posted this picture, this field seems a little monochromatic.

The gameplay in GTA V is… pretty good. Rockstar knows the ins and outs of handling a car by now, and while the vehicles have a nice weight to them, they turn like shit, and the camera tends to zoom in way too far on the rear bumper, leaving me having to constantly reshuffle the mouse to keep the damn camera at a steady hover. Off-road driving or driving in rainstorms is also iffy; even in a 4-wheel-drive SUV, going offroad feels like piloting a buttered ham with fireworks glued to the ass-end. The on-foot controls are pretty conventional, except for the swimming, which is awful. How does it make sense to make WASD the depth controls? In fact, there are a few questionable key bindings, like tying flight controls to the number pad, but you can change these in the settings.

The gunplay is also nice, but it doesn’t really innovate; it’s the same third-person shooting mechanics that we all know by now. You duck behind cover to avoid damage, peep out to shoot a ho (is that what the kids say?) and mow down enemies and civilians alike with an alarming array of weaponry. GTA V shrugs off the two weapon-carry prevalent in games right now and lets you be a one-man wrecking crew, able to lug five or six weapons into the fray at once. Unlike GTA IV, these weapons are easy to obtain, because it’s not like the game is encouraging you to spread violence.

Jesus Christ, are we in Florida???

Jesus Christ, is this gun store in Florida???

With solid driving mechanics and standard third-person gunplay, are the gameplay elements in place for one hell of a narrative? The short answer is yes. The long answer?

Well, the game’s main storyline is a compelling journey between three people, two of whom have a history that goes way back. One has spent a decade eluding the authorities, and the other put himself up in a Hollywood (excuse me, Vinewood) mansion. We have a young gang member who wants to escape the ghetto and live a better life. The cast of supporting characters evolves along with the main characters, in a break for the series, but most retain some sort of wacky niche. You’ll encounter drugged-out politicians, fanatical paparazzi, and other characters that carry Rockstar’s uncommon writing talent. Of course, I’d be lying if African-Americans trying to escape the ghetto was not a common trope.

A1

Franklin is the most likeable of our three antiheroes, though he’s no less prone to violence.

Aside from the main storyline of robbing banks and appeasing mobsters, you’ll find characters scattered across Los Santos’s vivid landscape. There are lots of activities to partake in, like street races, and players can customize their characters with clothing, haircuts, tattoos and weapons. GTA V brings back the humor that was sorely missing in GTA IV; the main storyline contains most of the grittiness that modern GTA games pack, but the wacky humor can be found in the side missions.

These missions pop up only for specific characters and will appear as you progress through the story. All missions have that annoying GTA habit of baby-stepping you through the mission (go to car, get in car, get out of car, blow up car, walk away from where car used to be). Rockstar, I realize that a lot of your fans are probably perpetually high off of Ritalin and Red Bull, but give us some credit.

A2

The pro-legalization politician who was too stoned to attend his own rallies was one of my favorite side characters.

Most of the characters in the game are at least partially sympathetic. Michael is experiencing a mid-life crisis and hates what he’s doing to innocent people, despite his outer persona. Franklin sees the violence and money only as a means to a peaceful life, and the psychopathic Trevor just huffs solvent gasoline and goes murderfuck on the nearest group of people. That aspect was less sympathetic, but all three characters are fascinating. Some will be hardened by the violence you incite, but others will be unwound by it.

Another thing that’s less sympathetic? A handful of annoying bugs. In addition to spinning cars, the game has way too much pop-in. You’ll be driving down the road and occasionally bump into a car that wasn’t in front of you two seconds ago. Once or twice the game has gone into windowed mode, for some reason. I also noticed some framerate dips; none of these are acceptable on a quality gaming rig.

A3

Don’t interrupt my road rage, GTA!

Random encounters return after last being seen in Red Dead Redemption. You’ll be driving along and suddenly a woman gets robbed, or a gang of bikers jumps at you from the brush. These events keep you on your toes and make the liveliness of Los Santos jump beyond the audio-visual scope. Another means of keeping things lively is the ability to buy businesses and use them to generate revenue, but driving truckloads of wine out to a seaside restaurant gets old fast.

This is the most sexist GTA we’ve yet seen, and that’s pretty damn terrifying. You can go to a digital strip club and get digital lap dances (why?) and solicit prostitutes for twenty seconds of opaque camera angles and porno audio. Rockstar claims that this is to increase the gangster vibe. I say that it’s incredibly demeaning and a serious mark against the game. And yes, you can kill hookers with a baseball bat. I think that’s become Rockstar’s private joke.

Aw yeah... that's right... shake your, um... pixels?

Aw yeah… that’s right… shake your, um… pixels?

Grand Theft Auto V has a pretty good story that I would call repetitive if the heisting wasn’t so much fun. Switching between characters mid-mission, coming up with a plan, and getting away with a load of cash is a mechanic that is at once new to the franchise, but totally original considering its main theme. We have three complicated people in a very complicated city, and it’s a setup that puts the spotlight on driving around and screwing with people. This is the case with a lot of open-world games but none more so than Grand Theft Auto V.

If assing around in a giant digital playground with limitless cars, tons of guns, and zero police supervision sounds fun to you, than your Christmas just came in. The portrayal of women in this game is ruinous and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, so I would offer this as a caveat to those of you who like to be mindful of what media you support with your money. Grand Theft Auto V satirizes our culture, it maddens the senses, it features a plot that tends to whirlpool around the same themes but will leave you wanting to jump back in for more.

I had a lot of fun with it, you probably will too.

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You can buy Grand Theft Auto V 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.