Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Valve Variety

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Take a glimpse into the creativity of Valve, and what’s been done with their classic shooters.

PC Release: Various

By Ian Coppock

Valve Corporation. The name evokes a feeling of pride from most PC gamers. The studio that created the groundbreaking video game Half-Life, and whose subsequent products are seen not just as games, but as game-changers. Though Valve has spent most of its history developing and publishing video games, it seems to be abandoning this focus in favor of new gaming technology, like the HTC Vibe virtual headset. Before Valve jets off into this new frontier, it’s worth taking some time examining some of the games the studio put out. Some were great, some were okay, all contained some element of novelty that make them worthy of preservation. Some of these games are available individually or bundled together. All are part of the Valve Complete Pack.

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Counter-Strike

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Counter-Strike is the quintessential team-based shooter. Released in 2000, the game is a mod for Half-Life that became a Valve property when its creators were hired and its IP purchased. Counter-Strike sets up a team of terrorists and counter-terrorists, respectively, who combat each other across the globe in various objectives. Most matches involve either gunning everyone down or rescuing hostages. In all of them, players only have one life per round, making the game much more tense and reliant on strategy than other shooters.

Despite its advanced age, Counter-Strike still has a very active community, with players in conventional matches and on a variety of mods. A few months ago, a cadre of Mexican players were attempting to jump through a Sonic the Hedgehog-style ring. Another time, there was a match that incorporated Left 4 Dead into Counter-Strike gameplay. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is by far the best team-based shooter out there, but this game is a great way to see how all of that started. Be warned, though; the people who are still playing this game have been playing it for ages and are a force to be reckoned with.

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero

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Counter-Strike: Condition Zero is a bit of a black mark on Valve’s otherwise sterling record. Despite being the sequel to Counter-Strike, Condition Zero is basically the same game as the original. The biggest differences are that players can compete against computer-controlled enemies, and compete in single-player missions with randomized objectives.

Condition Zero was released in 2004, and was taken to task by critics because it has literally the exact same visuals as the original Counter-Strike, and has few marked improvements over the original. The game had a troubled development, being passed around by several studios and started from scratch more than once. Condition Zero‘s community is also not as active as that of the original game, but it’s a good way to practice against bots if you want to get into Counter-Strike. Both games are bundled together along with some deleted levels from pre-release versions of the game.

Counter-Strike: Source

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Counter-Strike: Source was one of the first Source engine remakes of classic Valve shooters. It was released in 2004 to great fanfare, as gamers who’d spent half a decade patrolling corridors in the GoldSrc engine were allowed to putz around in a new graphical update.

The trouble is, getting prettied up is about all Counter-Strike: Source achieved for its series. It introduced no new concepts or mechanics to the Counter-Strike series, and was little more than a copy/paste job onto a new engine. Purists defend this game to the death because it preserved the original Counter-Strike maps for a contemporary audience, but Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is where the series truly innovates. As such, unless you’re a longtime fan of the series, just skip over to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Day of Defeat

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Day of Defeat is a class-based shooter set during World War II. Players can sign on with Axis or Allies teams and pick from different types of trooper. Players can go with the conventional bolt rifle infantryman for a classic feel, or the best of the best, the sniper, in levels with little cover and long battlefields. Day of Defeat was released in 2003, and, like Counter-Strike, was originally a mod that Valve purchased and re-issued commercially.

Day of Defeat requires some teamwork to get by, especially since it’s class-based, and its community is still active even 13 years after release. It’s a great little game, but has since been passed up by Day of Defeat: Source, a remake of the game made on Valve’s more powerful Source engine. Just skip ahead to the smoother, prettier game, which I will devote a full review to at… some point. Additionally, World War II buffs seeking a more realistic experience, like Red Orchestra, might want to look elsewhere.

Deathmatch Classic

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Deathmatch Classic is a 2001 multiplayer shooter that Valve released as an ode to Quake, the classic horror shooter from id Software. The game incorporates the same weapons and playstyle as Quake, as players face off against each other in big, multilevel maps. Players can jet up to a new floor on a little anti-gravity geyser, and upgrade their arsenals by finding bigger, better weapons that some careless soul left lying around.

Unfortunately, Deathmatch Classic‘s community is dead as a doornail. There have been no other human beings on this game for the seven years or so it’s been owned. It’s a bit creepy to wander around abandoned multiplayer levels, but that’s hardly a compelling reason to get it. Give it a miss. It’s a neat little piece of gaming history but it’s no longer thriving.

Half-Life Deathmatch: Source

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Imagine everything that’s remarkable about Half-Life, from its labyrinthine environments to its satisfying gunplay, and put all of that into a multiplayer setting. That’s basically what Half-Life Deathmatch: Source accomplishes. The catch is that the game is not a true Source engine remake, but rather the original GoldSrc game prettied up with better lighting and water. Be aware that Half-Life: Source, a version of Half-Life with similarly underwhelming tweaks, is floating around out there on Steam. Just get the Black Mesa mod instead.

Because it’s still in the GoldSrc engine, the game’s title of Half-Life Deathmatch: Source to be a bit of a misnomer. The community is still active despite the game having been released over a decade ago. Half-Life is a great game, but this multiplayer game incorporates everything that’s great and mediocre about the original title, including its clunky controls. The game is still a great way to reminisce with my friends about Valve’s first golden age, and you could do a lot worse if you’re of a similar mindset. It’s also a sterling tribute to the glory of the GoldSrc engine, which was used to make a ton of games in the late 90s and early 2000s, like James Bond 007: Nightfire.

Half-Life 2: Deathmatch

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Just as Half-Life Deathmatch: Source dumps the core game’s content into a multiplayer setting, so too does Half-Life 2: Deathmatch adapt Half-Life 2‘s gameplay into that format. With all the weapons and tools from Half-Life 2, players can take the fight to other players gussied up as the bright-eyed Lambda Resistance or the insidious Combine.

Half-Life 2: Deathmatch still has a lively community, and players can expect to find a select group of active people on every match. If Half-Life‘s gunplay was fun, longtime fans know that Half-Life 2‘s is even better. There’s nothing more satisfying than that game’s magnum pistol, and to employ that against enemy players never gets old.

Half-Life 2: Lost Coast

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Lost Coast is a free demo included with Half-Life 2, comprising a bonus level of Half-Life 2 and some developer commentary. It’s not a multiplayer game like these other titles, but it sheds insight on how Half-Life 2 was developed and what makes the guys and gals at Valve tick.

The level’s objective is to destroy a Combine cannon that’s been built into an old church, and players can bet that there are plenty of enemy troops and monsters on the climb up. As you go, commentary bubbles that activate upon being run through will play in the background. Members of the Half-Life 2 development team will comment on the situations players face, and the design principles behind every scrap of path and every enemy ambush. It’s fascinating to listen to, and the level can be beaten in about 20 minutes. Players who are purchasing Half-Life 2 will get this for free, and should add it to their libraries. Lost Coast contains no great narrative, but its information on game development is interesting.

Ricochet

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A truly innovative multiplayer brawler, Richochet was spawned from some combination of Frisbee golf and Tron. Basically, a group of players suit up in high-tech gear, and bounce around a big, bottomless arena throwing laser-discs at each other. Players have to bounce between a few floating platforms, all while taking care not to get hit and, of course, not to fall into the abyss below. Ricochet is by no means a complicated multiplayer game, and it obviously draws from platformers in its design.

Ricochet was all the rage when it released in 2000, but sixteen years later, its community barely rattles with even a whisper of life. Players no longer inhabit these brightly colored arenas, save the occasional maniac who’s gotten so inexplicably good at the game that it’s little worth fighting. Of course, one player is also a far cry from a full match. Ricochet is the most novel game in this list, but its lack of human activity is disappointing. Don’t bother.

Team Fortress Classic

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The original Team Fortress is a far cry from the goofy, cartoonish Team Fortress 2. Originally conceived as a Quake mod in 1996, Team Fortress was bought out by Valve and re-released in 1999. Unlike its successor, Team Fortress has a bleak visual design and its characters have a very sci-fi vibe, as opposed to the more comical personas of Team Fortress 2 characters.

Team Fortress Classic‘s community is sporadically active. Players can pick from one of several classes (sniper:all day:every day) and compete against enemy teams to capture flags or kill opponents. Private servers feature a variety of mods, like medics that have chainguns. The penultimate Team Fortress Classic experience was battling aliens in a 1930’s Italian village, all while Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees was playing in the background. It was all quite jarring, but so much fun, and the people. If any combination of random themes and gameplay with team-based matches sounds fun, risk Team Fortress Classic. Its activity alternates between totally dead and as alive as ever.

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You can buy the Valve Complete Pack here.

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

Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance

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Take on the galactic empire as a rebel X-wing pilot.

PC Release: February 28, 1999

By Ian Coppock

As I continue to explore games outside of my conventional genres, I find myself returning to a childhood joy: flight simulators. Before my primary interest in gaming was story, flight simulators were a great way to live out my childhood dream of being a TIE fighter pilot. You read that right. I enjoyed the Star Wars flight simulators released throughout the 90s, from Tie Fighter all the way up to today’s game: X-Wing Alliance. Like so many classic games, Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance was recently re-released on Steam, and I’ve decided to take it to task. How does it compare to games like it today, and would it prove compelling to a contemporary audience?

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Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance is a flight simulator that casts players as a pilot in the Rebel Alliance. Ace Azzameen, the game’s silent protagonist, starts off running jobs for his family’s shipping business but eventually gets sucked into the Alliance’s fold. Players can pilot various rebel craft in their tours of duty, and a host of other ships on missions for the family.

In its heyday, X-Wing Alliance was regarded as both an excellent Star Wars game and a great flight simulator. I haven’t paid much attention to subsequent developments in the latter genre, because they tend to be very dry games that have absolutely no narrative. My standing on how this game compares to modern flight simulators is thus compromised, but the general idea of taking off in some sort of craft and flying from point A to point B still seems to be the norm. X-Wing Alliance is no different.

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Damn imperials!

The nice thing about X-Wing Alliance is that it does have a narrative, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be talking about it. The game is set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and its principle cast of characters is a shipping family who try to stay neutral but are eventually forced to pick a side.

The narrative begins when Ace’s father Tomas returns from delivering goods to the Rebel Alliance, a mission that divides the Azzameen family between those who want to help the rebels and those who want to avoid incurring the wrath of the empire. It is against this backdrop that players learn the basics of the game, aided by Ace’s older siblings Aeron and Emon. Aeron is the stereotypical sarcastic older sister. Emon cracks the occasional joke, and has an Irish accent for no apparent reason.

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The Azzameens are sympathetic to the rebel cause but don’t want to bring the empire knocking on their door.

After running a few deliveries for the family business and facing off with the rival Viraxo Industries company, Ace barely survives an imperial ambush and half of his family is killed. The surviving Azzameens escape the empire’s seizure of their business and seek asylum with the rebels. While Aeron and Emon are left to pick up the pieces of the family company, Ace decides to enlist with the rebels as an X-wing pilot. He’s a silent character, but I would imagine anyone in that situation would be eager to blow some imperial shit up.

With the family mission tutorials behind Ace, players join a Rebel squadron and spend most of the rest of the game hitting Imperial targets. As a general rule, most missions involve a few dogfights with TIE fighters, and blowing up one imperial station or another. Officially, your designated craft is a rebel X-wing, but you can pick whatever starfighter you want for the battles ahead.

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The more missions you complete, the more spacecraft will be open to you.

Most missions in X-Wing Alliance are flown for the rebellion, but the family still needs your help setting the business back up. During his down time, Ace hops into one of the Azzameen YT-1300 freighters and undertakes missions with his siblings. Occasionally, missions for the family and the rebellion will happen within close proximity of the same objective. You could spend one mission as an X-wing pilot, attack an imperial communications channel, but then return the next mission as an Azzameen to hack the facility. It’s a small detail, but the balance of rebel and family missions keeps X-Wing Alliance feeling fresh.

Most missions in X-Wing Alliance are completely unrelated to the events of the films. You spend most of your time foiling nefarious imperial plots that aren’t elaborated on in the original trilogy. From finding and killing imperial spies to stopping a fleet of remote-controlled TIE fighters, X-Wing Alliance‘s tours of duty all revolve around stopping imperial weapons projects. Toward the end of the game, the focus shifts toward preparing for the Battle of Endor.

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Ohhhhhhhh damn!

X-Wing Alliance does not skimp on any of its flight simulation content. The tutorial marches you through an army of buttons used for picking up and dropping cargo and adjusting speed. Don’t worry; it doesn’t take too long before you start shooting at enemy craft. I was impressed with the breadth and depth of X-Wing Alliance‘s attention to flight simulation, though many gamers might find the sheer amount of options a bit much. Most times you’ll be fine as long as you know where the laser cannon and throttle buttons are, but a few missions do require pulling off some tricky maneuvers.

X-Wing Alliance missions are not difficult to understand. After picking a craft, you’ll hyperspace off to where the action is. Dogfighting against enemy ships is easy because the artificial intelligence in this game is… we’ll just say basic. As in, enemy TIE fighters will fly in a perfectly straight line even if you’re shooting the seat out from under its pilot.

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Apparently the empire is hiring crash-test dummies as TIE pilots.

Eventually, a few enemy craft will lock on and try to take you down, but they have a hard time comprehending any flight plan more complicated than straight lines. Alternatively, they’ll follow behind you like a magnet and you’ll have to fly in sharp circles until you can finish them off.

The other issue with X-Wing Alliance is that it can take a while for the action to heat up. Once you arrive to your destination, it can take most of 3-5 minutes for the enemy fleet to jet in and scurry toward you. Levels in X-Wing Alliance are needlessly huge, and cast their opponents on opposite sides of a huge chasm of space. This is made all the more frustrating on difficult missions, when long waits to take out the enemy result in immediate death.

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I’ll just set an alarm on my phone for when the imperials actually GET here.

Missions in X-Wing Alliance are a little dull because of the poor AI and the time it takes to ignite and conclude battles, but a little patience goes a long way. Missions are usually pretty short and easy, and you can adjust the difficulty with a labyrinth of options, from turning off friendly fire to making your ship invincible. I found the latter option handy for missions that were too tedious.

These options have been faithfully transferred over to the modern port of the game. X-Wing Alliance has been optimized to run on modern systems and I experienced no bugs to speak of. To further flesh out its piece of the Star Wars universe, the game contains a library of all the dozens of craft you’ll encounter in the game. It’s fun. Especially if you’re a nerd.

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X-Wing Alliance contains a mix of original starships and iconic craft from the original trilogy.

The sound design is a solid mix of tracks from the Star Wars movies and some original soundbits added to the spacecraft. The voice acting is… workable. No one delivers their content with what I’d call memorable effort. I still can’t get over how weird it is that your character’s older brother has an Irish accent when everyone else sounds middle American.

The characters, though, are what make this game’s narrative endearing. Throwing the family dynamic into the mix was a good way to make the story feel novel when dozens upon dozens of Star Wars stories were being put out. Of course, with Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars universe, X-Wing Alliance is no longer considered canon. But hey; you can pal around with some roguish smugglers, shoot TIE fighters, and fly an X-wing. Good enough.

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Cooooooool……

What’s not all that great about X-Wing Alliance is that you need a joystick to play it. It’s a shame that the people who ported this game didn’t make it compatible with an Xbox 360 controller or another gamepad, because playing a flight sim with a keyboard is… not fun. Joysticks usually run for about $50-100, same as a controller, but I wouldn’t recommend picking that up if you’re not already into flight simulators.

The other issue is that, as of writing, X-Wing Alliance has to be constrained to an 800 x 600 screen resolution, which is why some of the screenshots in this review have black borders. Devs, if you’re going to make X-Wing Alliance work on modern systems, take the extra time to add some modern resolutions! So yeah, that’s obviously a major problem.

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800 x 600? Aside from I AM YOUR FATHER, this is the saddest revelation in Star Wars.

X-Wing Alliance is not a game that tries to pander to a wide audience. It knows exactly who its aiming for and presents a production aimed at a crossover of flight sim and Star Wars fans. The trick is, gamers who don’t play a lot of flight simulators will find this game to not be their cup of tea. Flight simulators have a well-earned reputation for being a bit dry, and though the narrative in X-Wing Alliance is passable, you may find that it doesn’t compensate for the lackluster gameplay.

Compound this with needing a joystick, and the small resolutions the game is available in, and we have something of a half-port. It works great on modern computers, but doesn’t take a few crucial more steps to be truly accessible to fans. Give it a miss if you don’t already have a joystick, but if you’re a flight simulator aficionado, give it a go. X-Wing Alliance is reputed as gaming’s last great space flight simulator, and it’s Star Wars. Fans of both of these things can do a lot worse.

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You can buy Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance 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.

Kinetic Void

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Build your own spaceship and explore a procedurally generated galaxy.

PC Release: Early Access

By Ian Coppock

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t review more Early Access games. With such great titles as The Long Dark and the recently completed Kerbal Space Program floating around out there, surely there’s something in the Early Access field worthy of my blog? Maybe so, but the unfortunate reality is that only 25% of Early Access games actually reach completion. For every one game that gets a full release, three others float around on the Internet, permanently incomplete. Kinetic Void fits into the latter category, and encompasses everything that is wrong with the Early Access system.

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Kinetic Void is a space exploration simulator with a focus on building a custom spaceship. Players can use a shipyard to construct their own space-faring vessel, customizing everything from the paint job down to the engines. Almost no facet of the process is hands-off.

Once you’ve built a spacecraft, it’s time to jet off into a huge, procedurally generated galaxy in search of adventure. You can team up with your friends or search the stars by yourself; either way, there’s a wide galaxy full of danger and action. Or at least… that’s what it says in the advertisement.

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Kinetic Void tries to give players the freedom to explore a universe.

Kinetic Void has a lot of other exciting features listed on its Steam page. It promises a grand adventure in which you can shape your destiny however you wish. You can ally with in-game factions to war for control of the galaxy. You can also be a merchant, the commander of a fleet, or simply be left to explore the stars.

To underlie all of these features and branching adventure lines, Kinetic Void also promises thousands of customization options, including hundreds of parts, weapons and engines. You can also expect to find galactic trade routes and “epic” space battles. Seriously though, doesn’t all of this just sound great? Perhaps a little… too great.

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That… is actually pretty cool.

Right off the bat, Kinetic Void has no kind of tutorial. The game just dumps you into a labyrinth of menus and parts options and expects you to figure it all out yourself. The game doesn’t even tell you which parts are necessary to fly a ship, and which ones are purely cosmetic. It’s a big mess that the developers expect you to have the time to sort out.

In my own particular experience, I spent a half-hour putting together a ship akin to the A-Wing starfighter from Star Wars, one of my favorite spacecraft ever. I assembled the ship and decided to take off into space… but my ship wouldn’t go anywhere. Kinetic Void would not tell me why my ship stalled like an old semi-truck. It would not tell me what parts I needed, and it was only through checking the game’s online forums that I found it needed a space battery. I’d just assumed the engines would’ve gotten the job done. Guess not.

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Turns out that space gasoline is rare.

As you can imagine, Kinetic Void had pissed me off pretty much from the get-go. First you just drop me off at a space garage, and then you don’t tell me what I need to do to make my spaceship actually work. You don’t tell me what I need to do to access all the amazing content you’ve promised me.

Kinetic Void did not help me. I spent a few more hours trying to figure out what I needed to do before abandoning the game in frustration. I added my voice to the chorus of frustrated customers yelling at the developer to do something, and promises were made that tutorials would be added to the game. Those promises, for tutorials and so many other things, were never carried out. And then, in a cynical attempt to cash in on a dead project as much as possible, the developer marked the game as fully finished.

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Thanks, assholes.

Kinetic Void, and games like it, are the reason I never purchase Early Access games anymore. I don’t care how many glowing reviews they have, I don’t care how many people are playing them. Unless the game is marked as “finished” at some point, I will not even look at it.

Now, to be fair, not every Early Access game ends up like Kinetic Void: hollow, unfinished, and now abandoned by the developer. But far too many games do end up in that state. Far too many for me to believe that the Early Access system is an effective method of game development. Kinetic Void started out with great promise, but the developer ceased working on it and it’s somehow still on the Steam store. There is absolutely no indication that it will ever be completed, making its “full release” badge all the more vexing.

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Look at all that stuff that will never happen…

So where does this state of affairs leave Kinetic Void‘s customers? The people who forked over their hard-earned money for a chance at a great space adventure?

Well, unless your playtime falls within the 2-hour limit of the Steam refund system, it leaves you up shitter creek without a paddle. Customers who fall victim to this kind of nonsense have almost no recourse when a developer abandons work on the project that they paid for. We have the Steam refund system now, and praise Lord Gaben for that, but that system was only put into place relatively recently. For who knows how many years up until that point, Early Access customers who got screwed over by lazy or duplicitous developers got only a shrug as consolation from Steam.

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What a cool ship! Oh what, it doesn’t work? Good luck figuring out why!

There are a few examples of developers who went far further than merely abandoning their project. The Stomping Land, an Early Access dinosaur survival game, was pulled from the Steam store in 2014 after the developer took all of the money he’d made and disappeared for 2 months. The guy returned from his hiatus and claimed that the game had been taken off the store to be remade in a new engine, but this was small consolation to the people whose money he’d effectively stolen.

The Stomping Land has yet to be re-released.

The absolute worst abuser of the Early Access system is probably Peter Molyneux, leader of the 22Cans studio and creator of the game GodusGodus was a civilization simulation game first released in Early Access a few years ago, but recently Molyneux decided to pull the game from Steam and release a different game called Godus Wars. Though Godus Wars was provided to Godus owners free of charge, gamers everywhere were outraged that the project they’d paid for had been cancelled and the money re-allocated to a different game. The icing on the cake is that Godus underwent very few changes in its years as an Early Access title.

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Molyneux’s bait-and-switch tactic with Godus is despicable.

I could go on about other abuses of the Early Access system by other developers, but I’m quite confident I’ve made my point. Assessing the promises of a game developer is the same as assessing those of a politician, or a spouse. They may talk a pretty game, but they need to follow their words up with action to match them.

My concluding thoughts on Kinetic Void and Early Access is that no Early Access customer has any idea what their purchase will ultimately turn out to be. Sure, many developers are quick to say that they’ll work with the community and be completely transparent, but only a select few actually follow up on that promise. Censorship and Steam moderator abuse is rampant, like when I got banned from ARK: Survival Evolved‘s page for asking about Chinese hackers. Wait until the project is done before actually buying it, because what the game turns out to be could be a far cry from what it is now. Hopefully Steam will institute some kind of quality control, because games like Kinetic Void are befouling its reputation as the ultimate PC gaming platform.

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You can buy Kinetic Void 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.

Blade Symphony

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Choose a blade and slay your enemies in frantic, free-flowing sword fighting.

PC Release: May 7, 2014

By Ian Coppock

As I venture out of my comfy single-player shell into the wider world of multiplayer games, I take it upon myself to find games more novel than first-person shooters. Sure, Call of Duty gets a lot of players, but I find its kill everything-spawn-repeat gameplay boring. One thing I do not find boring is the concept of swordplay, and though I’ve crossed blades with thousands of computer enemies, never once have I dueled a human player. Blade Symphony allowed me to experience a novel multiplayer game and fight human enemies in a single stroke. No pun intended.

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Blade Symphony is a multiplayer sword fighting game presented in a third-person format. Players can choose from a wide selection of characters, blades and fighting styles, and compete against each other in an array of open-world maps. There’s a short tutorial to help new players nail down the basics of blades.

Blade Symphony‘s look and feel evokes fantasy games rather than a dry sports simulator or medieval fact book. After choosing from a group of characters whose bizarre armor and masks looked like something out of Infinity Blade, I chose a sword and sat down to fight some people. Blade Symphony goes for a fusion of different visual and historical styles. You can fight anywhere from a stereotypical Chinese temple to a futuristic shopping mall.

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Who said the sword had to be the only pointy end?

Blade Symphony allows its players to traverse these maps in search of a fight. Once you’ve found an opponent, you can choose from a light, normal or heavy sword fighting style and get to work chopping them to pieces. You can use everything from heavy slashing attacks to acrobatics in breaking your opponent’s defense, and put up a defense of your own with well-placed parries.

Blade Symphony‘s gameplay is remarkably smooth. There’s a lot of chaos implicit in jumping around trying to stab people, but the clashes between opponents work well and give you room for both attack and defense. The developers stated in an interview that Blade Symphony was heavily inspired by the lightsaber battles of Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and boy does it show. The same wild-flying saber battles I experienced in that game are alive and well again in Blade Symphony.

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Hi-ya!

The problem with fighting enemies in Blade Symphony is that there are so few to choose from. I’ve had this game for almost three years, and in the time I’ve spent playing it, I’ve only found human players about 10% of the time. I don’t log on as religiously as, say, Russian players, who seem to have taken to this game with the same zealotry that they have Dota 2, but I was disappointed to find the community so prohibitively small.

Here’s the thing; even if your game is as novel as Blade Symphony, you have to do some marketing to promote it. Multiplayer games are unlike single-player games in that your ability to enjoy them depends entirely upon other people doing the same. Shark Attack Deathmatch 2 is a fantastic multiplayer game and one of my favorites, but its community is dead in the water because the developers have done no marketing. Blade Symphony suffers the same problem, and most of its maps are empty as a result.

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Hellooooo? Is anybody hoooome? Echo! (echo, echo).

Despite the fact that Blade Symphony‘s community is small, I have a pleasant time playing with what few humans I do manage to find. Most everyone is polite, and, ironically for a sword game, abides to an unspoken code of honor. This is a rarity in multiplayer’s bleak, hateful landscape. Most players I encountered bowed before fighting me, and the customary “gg” sign-off evolved into much more elaborate and helpful compliments.

Multiplayer games are made stronger by an amicable community. Dota 2 has one of the largest communities on the internet right now, but most people I encounter in that game are assholes. Maybe it’s the stress associated with putting together a perfect strategy, but I have almost never encountered friendly, hospitable people in Dota 2Blade Symphony, by contrast, has a great community. Perhaps it’s because the objectives in this game require a single player, and thus no one has cause to chastise a teammate? I honestly don’t know.

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Blade Symphony players are gracious, and friendly to newcomers. “You should try the fast style next time” is infinitely more helpful advice than “you suck”.

Though Blade Symphony‘s maps are empty more often than not, they pack a lot of good design. Levels contain many areas alternating between massive battle arenas and smaller, more personal dojos. The range of maps contained in the game are eclectic; European castles, Asian temples, and a riot of medieval and contemporary settings in-between. At their height, these maps are a hive of activity, with duels happening all over the place.

Though its small consolation to a game whose community is so sporadic, Blade Symphony‘s visuals are also quite beautiful. They feature a lot of bright color to draw the eyes and keep players engaged in a vibrant world. The only issue is that the game’s anti-aliasing is as sporadic as the community’s engagement, and at one point there was none at all. I think they’ve since fixed that.

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Blade Symphony’s maps have a lot of good design and color.

Blade Symphony‘s primary game mechanic is its private duel tool. You find another player, challenge them to a duel, and fight cordoned off from the rest of the players. In other words, you don’t need to worry about your opponent’s buddy cutting into the match (literally) and finishing you off. Just as an aside, though, it would be cool to create a 2-on-1 duel in the same vein as the Darth Maul fight scene in The Phantom Menace. The last time I checked, though, the only swords you can pick are single-bladed.

If you are indeed more of a team-based fighter, Blade Symphony has a group sword-fighting mode, where teams move from objective to objective battling any that oppose them. It’s in this mode that I suspect more of the vitriol endemic to team-based multiplayer games arises, but I haven’t tried this mode yet. So far I’ve stuck to the private duels against friendlier, single opponents.

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Blade Symphony has its own Steam workshop with mods, allowing you to download community-made characters and swords.

Blade Symphony could’ve done with an inkling of narrative. It’s true that narrative is by no means necessary for a multiplayer game, but if you’re not going to market your product, at least create a world that players will want to get sucked into. A lot of the games on Steam that have found huge success with no marketing have such a novel world or premise that it spread purely by word-of-mouth. Blade Symphony is certainly novel, but it needs something more than the occasional people in its community if it hopes to attract more players.

The other concern is that though there’s a huge variety of characters and blades, a lot of them are just skins. You can also switch between different fighting styles no matter what sword you pick. It’s great to be able to pick up unique weapons, but giving them their own special abilities or advantages would also increase the novelty.

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HAVE AT THEE!

I can discuss all day how amazing a game looks and how beautiful it is, but unfortunately, these things don’t matter if there’s no one around to share them with. Multiplayer games with no players are like a seashell; beautiful on the outside, hollow on the inside.

It is because of this game’s tiny community that I hesitate in recommending it to you. I’d rather your hard-earned money not go toward wandering through levels looking for someone to cross swords with. If what I’ve written inspires you, though, you’re welcome to chance the money, because the few duels I’ve had have been fun to play. Blade Symphony is ten bucks on Steam. Hopefully some of that money will go toward marketing.

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You can buy Blade Symphony 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.

StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 1

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Investigate a mysterious terrorist group and their plan for mankind.

PC Release: March 29, 2016

By Ian Coppock

What’s this? There’s more StarCraft II content floating around out there? Ian, I thought you said Legacy of the Void was the final chapter? I thought that it was the end-all for the StarCraft II trilogy? So did I, but Blizzard has decided to release new stories in the StarCraft universe to keep us engaged with the series. This year they’re going to release a series of episodes focusing on the human character Nova Terra, and a new threat she’ll have to combat post-Legacy of the Void. The first episode in this new story was released about a month ago; let’s see how it holds up good ole scrutiny.

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Nova Covert Ops is a series of StarCraft II episodes set long after StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. In that game, the entire universe was imperiled by the return of the dark god Amon, and the Protoss rose up to pave the way for his demise. I won’t spoil, but obviously if we’re reviewing a new story after all that, it follows that not everything went to shit. Just wanted to point that out before anyone accuses me of spilling too many beans.

Anyway, Nova Covert Ops is set four years after Legacy of the Void. The central character of the story is Nova Terra, a psychic covert operative in the employ of the Terran Dominion. Nova is a complicated character in the world of video games; she was set to star in a third-person shooter called StarCraft: Ghost in the early 2000s, but Blizzard canceled the project and focused on releasing World of Warcraft. Though Ghost never came out, Blizzard decided to save the character, and now Nova gets her long-delayed moment in the sun.

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Nova is the Terran Dominion’s most accomplished covert operative and a deadly assassin.

In the months preceding Nova Covert Ops, a clandestine organization called the Defenders of Man crops up on the Dominion’s radar. Emperor Valerian Mengsk sends Nova in to investigate, but she vanishes outside a Defenders compound and is listed as MIA.

Months later, Nova wakes up with amnesia and is addressed as “agent” by a Defenders of Man admin. With the help of a few other incarcerated operatives, Nova breaks out of the Defenders’ custody and returns to Dominion space, intent on figuring out what the group is up to.

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The phrase “detective work” usually brings a magnifying glass to mind. With Nova, it’s a sniper rifle.

Nova’s return to the Dominion has come at an uncertain time. There have been reports of Zerg attacks on outlying human colonies, and the populace is becoming fearful of a third human-Zerg war. Emperor Valerian believes that the return of the Zerg could be tied up with the rise of the Defenders of Man, whose central point seems to be that he is a boy-king too young and too unwise to defend humanity.

After helping the Dominion repel a Zerg incursion, Nova is entrusted with finding and destroying the Defenders of Man. To that end, Valerian assigns her a Dominion spymaster named Riegel, as well as the Griffin, a black ops frigate designed for stealth. Now at the helm of her own starship and a small but deadly contingent of special ops soldiers, Nova jets off into the stars after the Defenders of Man.

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Oooooh, I LIKE that!

In case it wasn’t obvious by now, the Nova Covert Ops missions are a human campaign. Nova’s cutting-edge task force is committed to her mission, and each unit receives a sleek black ops makeover (though this change is purely cosmetic).

Between each mission, you can purchase upgrades for your troops that improve their performance on the battlefield; equipping your infantry with scopes will increase your units’ range of fire, and so on. You get to pick these upgrades between missions, but you can only apply them to one group of soldiers at a time. Curious, isn’t it? We’re working for the biggest human military in history, but we have to pass around the armor-piercing bullets? Which class of soldier gets to receive bacon?

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Nova’s combat group is a cut above the rank-and-file. You can get equipment that normal Dominion troops only dream of.

Like Kerrigan in StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Nova is a playable unit who fights alongside her soldiers. She can shoot guns with the best of ’em and them teleport away if the battle gets too hairy. Nova has her own armory replete with sniper rifles, shotguns, jetpacks, all kinds of crazy gadgets. Whether you prefer playing as a silent sniper or a rip-roaring shotgunner, you can customize Nova to match your playstyle.

Now; all of this customization sounds awesome, but the issue with it is that Chapter 1 of this Covert Ops business… only has three missions! Thus far you only get two chances to upgrade your forces and their commander. It says “three missions” right on the package, I know, but we have yet to see this system reach its full potential. Hopefully it will be fleshed out in subsequent episodes, but for now it remains embryonic.

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Sniper rifle, turbojet jumpsuit, Camelbak… okay I’m ready!

Even though Nova Covert Ops only has three missions so far, I’m pleased to announce that they’re all far and away better designed than in Legacy of the Void. Legacy‘s underwhelming, military might-based maps were a far cry from the creativity we saw in Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, but Nova Covert Ops is here to put StarCraft II back on track.

Two of the three missions in Chapter 1 are a mix of conventional real-time strategy combat, and linear levels featuring Nova going solo. In these latter areas, Nova’s left to explore Defenders of Man facilities by herself, but she’s hardly imperiled without her troops to back her up. Nova’s a Ghost agent, so she can turn invisible and use a few psychic powers. Her sniper rifle and grenades can make short work of human foes, but watch out for traps. Defenders of Man bases are loaded with enough security cameras and wall-mounted flamethrowers to give even the Dominion’s best agent pause.

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Oh I can’t wait for summer barbecue!

It’s important that Nova Covert Ops contains these sequences. I had my doubts at first that this would feel like StarCraft II and not Diablo III, but aren’t we playing a secret agent, here? Having played through these levels, I have no qualms about seeing more of them in future updates. Blizzard even created a high-speed highway chase right out of an action movie to further reinforce the spy-thriller theme.

Purists need not worry, though; Nova Covert Ops has plenty of conventional real-time strategy content where you build bases and train units just like the good ole days. There’s one fun level where you have to fend off a two-pronged Zerg invasion from atop a mountain fortress, showing that StarCraft II is getting its mojo back when it comes to innovative level design.

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Nothing says covert ops like gray on top of dark gray.

Right now, the overall plot of Nova Covert Ops is in its infancy. We barely get a glimpse at the bigger picture before Chapter 1 is over and we’re stuck waiting for a few months until the release of Chapter 2. Having said that, the story does bear some promise. Nova is written as an assertive and innovative female protagonist in a medium sorely lacking either type of character, though I don’t understand why she doesn’t wear a helmet.

We also get a few fleeting glimpses of the StarCraft universe post-Amon. Nova Covert Ops bears the responsibility of making the stakes feel high after a galaxy-wide invasion by an evil god, and thus far it’s a responsibility still in the making.

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Nova’s off to a good start as an interesting character.

Even though Nova Covert Ops bears some promising signs, like a blend of stealth and strategy gameplay and a character who gets her long-overdue spotlight, I wouldn’t recommend picking this up quite yet. The narrative has been sewn, but it has yet to grow into something fully worth your time and money. On top of that, there are only three levels, and I finished Chapter 1 in about an hour.

So yeah, hold off on buying this until future updates are made. I will continue to review new chapters of Nova Covert Ops as they are released. It’ll be interesting to see if Blizzard will be able to capture the same sense of urgency and scale with Nova Covert Ops as they did with their main series, but right now it’s too early to tell.

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You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Opts, Chapter 1 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.

Minecraft

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Experience joy and wild abandon in a big pixely world.

PC Release: November 18, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Right off the bat, I know it seems a bit silly to review a video game as ubiquitous as Minecraft. I speak no hyperbole when I say that everyone knows what Minecraft is. If you haven’t played it, you’re at least familiar with the gist of it. But, until recently I’d never touched the PC version of the game, and as this is a blog about PC games, a title as momentous as Minecraft deserves a spot in my review catalog. I also want to take a look at Minecraft nearly five years after its full release, and see if, even now, we can get the full measure of this game’s impact on on my favorite medium.

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Funnily enough, this is the fourth review I’ve written of Minecraft. The first one was something I wrote for Belltow3r Gaming, my old Xbox 360 review site. One was for my college newspaper, and another was for ARPGamer. All of them were reviews of the Xbox 360 edition of Minecraft, so I decided to download the PC version and see what, if anything, I’ve missed in omitting it until now.

Minecraft was released almost five years ago, and since then has grown into the best-selling computer game of all time. Over 20 million copies have been downloaded since the game’s initial release, and that’s just the PC version. An additional 50 million copies have been sold across other platforms. Minecraft‘s developer, a small Swedish outfit called Mojang, has more awards than staff.

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Good ole Minecraft.

Minecraft‘s appeal is so broad because the game is easy to understand: get plonked down into a big world made of crunchy pixels and do whatever you want. Minecraft has several different gameplay modes, the two best-known of which being Survival, where you have to gather all your own materials and not starve to death; and Creative, where you can build whatever you want without worrying about health or food.

To navigate this array of features, we’ll start with looking at a basic round of Minecraft. The game creates a randomly generated world for you to inhabit, and you spawn in with nought but the shirt on your back.

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Survival mode is what most first-timers play.

From there, it’s up to you simply to survive. You have health and hunger meters to maintain, but the former will recharge if the latter is topped off. Minecraft‘s worlds are all built out of big blocks of material, which you can gather and appropriate for whatever function you wish. Gather a few blocks of dirt to make a rudimentary shack, or build a mine and dig for rare minerals. Whatever you want to do, Minecraft allows you to do it well. Gravity doesn’t apply to the blocks you harvest, and you can leave them floating in midair.

The most obvious danger to a player’s well-being is his or her hunger, but that all changes once the sun goes down. Take shelter, because all sorts of creepy things come out to play after nightfall. Skeletons, zombies, spiders, the whole potpourri of ghouls. Creepers, one of gaming’s most infamous enemies, will be the absolute bane of your existence if you can’t keep them away.

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NO! GODDAMMIT STAY AWAY FROM ME!

Nightfall is one of the main reasons it pays to have a shelter, but you can adventure at night if you’ve crafted the tools to do so. Minecraft allows you to create hundreds of items, from swords to spells to basic machinery. Subsequent updates and content packs have added more items, animals and materials to the mix. It’s a lot to work with, but it gives you more freedom to build how you want, and that’s important for a game like Minecraft.

I suppose you could sum that up as Minecraft‘s most essential mechanic. Harvest materials from the world around you and use them to make houses, tools, crazy fortresses, whatever you’d like. Some substances are obviously rarer than others, necessitating more work to find them, but whatever you make will be worth the extra effort. Some materials can only be gathered with certain tools. However you get your materials, Minecraft makes it simple to build some amazing things out of them. The game’s been compared to LEGO toys, and for a good reason.

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Minecraft makes it easy to build beautiful houses and monuments with simple tools.

The problem with Minecraft is that none of these things are explained to you when you’re first spawned into the world. Even five years later, Mojang has not seen fit to put in a basic tutorial on anything. You can consult the wiki for all the tutorials and then some, but that’s lazy game design. Too many developers these days expect gamers to check a wiki, instead of taking the time to put the information into the game themselves. I don’t know for sure if that was Mojang’s intent, but the end result is still the end result. Minecraft is hard on newcomers.

It’s a good thing that the rest of the game is so goddamn addicting, because what you can’t find on the wiki you will find through experimentation. My first time playing Minecraft, I stumbled upon an uninhabited village. I decided to shack up in one of the houses for starters, and four days  later I was busy combining all of the houses into a single mega-mansion. Projects like this are what make Minecraft fun; you need to make a goal for building some sort of home or life for your character. I preferred doing this on Survival Mode because there’s an immense satisfaction that comes from taking the time to get all the materials yourself.

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The world is your pixel.

Creative Mode does away with your character’s need for survival and allows you to spawn in limitless amounts of whatever items or materials you want. Your character is also given the ability to fly, so that you can buzz around building castles, citadels or other monumental works. Creative Mode allows you to do in a few minutes what might take weeks in Survival Mode, and its versatility lets your imagination run wild.

As most of you have probably seen over the years, some amazing things have been done with Creative Mode. People have built everything from Windsor Castle to a scale replica of the USS Enterprise. I myself have done nothing so audacious, but I have built a few small cities on a map I share with two close friends. A lot of video games will let your imagination run wild, but Minecraft is one of the few games that gives you tools to match your ambition.

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This scale recreation of the city of Solitude from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is but one of thousands of wonderful things done with Minecraft’s Creative Mode.

Again, you can see why Minecraft gets compared to LEGOs.

Minecraft has added a few more modes and a wealth of additional content since its release in 2011. Adventure mode allows a team of players to adventure through maps created by someone else, while Spectator mode lets you fly around the world and clip through objects as a ghost. Thousands of third-party mods have also been released over the years. The Voltz pack, made popular by the antics of the Yogscast group on Youtube, adds such technology as nuclear reactors and antimatter bombs. Dozens of other mods that tweak Minecraft‘s farming, survival and aesthetic are also floating around out there.

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With the Voltz mod, you can build ballistic missiles, radar systems and lots of other advanced technology. You might need a physics degree to understand it all, though.

Mods are an obvious advantage of the PC version of Minecraft over its console compatriots. Like virtually everything else on consoles these days, the content of Minecraft is strictly controlled and updates are made markedly slower than to the PC version. For my part, I can say that the PC version of Minecraft certainly runs smoother than the console version, but that’s the norm for most games. I was happy to find that the game still contains a gentle, ambient soundtrack of synth and piano, to accompany you as you move about the world. Minecraft‘s soundtrack makes its world feel more peaceful and matches its game perfectly. For what it seeks to do, it’s one of gaming’s best soundtracks.

I appreciate Minecraft because it stands in stark opposition to a lot of what the gaming media would have you believe. A truly good video game is good not because of its graphics, or because of its sound effects, or any of the other “next-gen” marketing buzzwords that get thrown around. A truly good video game accomplishes something novel, and with a lot of love. Minecraft‘s graphics are not competitive, and its gameplay mechanics are clunky, but the sheer power of its imaginative gaming blows everything else out of the water. That’s what makes it a good video game: it’s an interactive experience that anyone can enjoy, and that places you at the helm of a memorable experience. Minecraft is truly art as games.

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It is Minecraft’s simplicity that propelled it to the top of the PC gaming world, not graphics or audio.

If you still need reasons to consider purchasing Minecraft, I will once again play the edutainment card I played with DroidWorks and Zoombinis. This game is an absolute blast to play with children, who are one of, if not the biggest, audience for Minecraft. It doesn’t eschew any particular lessons like DroidWorks or Zoombinis, but it does allow their imaginations to go free, which I think anyone of any age can appreciate.

Minecraft is one of video gaming’s greatest achievements and a beautiful little work of art. Everyone can, and should, enjoy this game. I highly recommend it.

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You can buy Minecraft 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.

Zoombinis

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Help the Zoombinis find a new home in a puzzle-filled journey.

PC Release: October 28, 2015

By Ian Coppock

My review of Star Wars: DroidWorks led me to realize that there’s a hole in my reviews. The overwhelming amount of content I have is fit only for mature audiences, but especially as the age of the average gamer rises, I forget that many of you have kids. It’s never been explicitly asked of me, but I’d like to continue this week’s theme of edutainment with another review of a child-friendly game. Whether you’re looking to start out a child on video games, or find something fun to do together, Zoombinis is the way to go.

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Zoombinis is an isometric puzzle game loaded with logical conundrums. Originally released in 1996, the game was known by the much clunkier title of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. The version that I’m reviewing now, simply known as Zoombinis, is the one and the same game updated with newer graphics and fit to run on modern systems. This new version was released on Steam last fall.

The titular Zoombinis are a race of small, blueberry-looking things whose home gets conquered by the evil Bloats. The little creatures band together to escape their home island and reach the mainland, where they hope to find a new haven. It’s up to the player to guide them inland in small batches, solving puzzles to reach the mythical Zoombiniville.

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Solving puzzles is the only way to free the Zoombinis.

Zoombinis come in dozens of designer options. You can have your Zoombinis get around on roller skates or propellers, and customize them with different accessories, noses and hairstyles. Customizing your Zoombini is no mere matter of cosmetics; it’s actually one of the core mechanics of the game.

In each of the puzzles between you and Zoombiniville, each Zoombini’s feature corresponds with a feature of the puzzle. Zoombinis with propellers, for example, might be able to make it across a certain bridge, but Zoombinis with roller skates have to find another path. The preferences in each puzzle are purely arbitrary, and players have to logically deduce which Zoombini features are acceptable for which path. A few other puzzles deal with deduction in a different way, like figuring out which toppings to put on a grumpy troll’s pizza.

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The pizza trolls were my nemeses in elementary school.

The further inland you get, the more difficult the puzzles become. It starts out pretty simply, with a pair of stone cliffs that will sneeze on certain Zoombinis who walk on their bridges. The Zoombinis also suffer encounters with hostile wildlife, grumpy pizza addicts and obsessive-compulsive ferrymen. Most puzzles contain a few different paths that only certain Zoombinis can tread safely. Experimenting with different paths is the only way to deduce which Zoombinis can go where, but be careful; make too many mistakes and your Zoombinis will start getting punted all the way back to the start of the game.

For the Zoombinis who make it, though, Zoombiniville is a pretty bitching place. As more Zoombinis immigrate here, you can build a new town replete with pizza parlors and swimming pools. The more Zoombinis you can escort, the bigger the town becomes.

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Aw, look at the little tree houses!

Each puzzle, even the ones at the beginning, become more difficult the more Zoombinis you bring in. The infamous pizza troll puzzle, where you have to discern a grumpy highwayman’s favorite toppings, grows from one troll, to two, to three, as you progress through the game. The puzzles later in the journey become similarly difficult, until even an adult player might have a tough time getting every Zoombini to Zoombiniville.

Players must also keep an eye on their Zoombinis’ physical traits. Early on, it’s easy to create a bunch of Zoombinis with similar characteristics, but the game deliberately prevents you from making the entire group identical. Eventually you’ll be stuck escorting a bargain bin of misfit Zoombinis who were snipped off the backs of a dozen other expeditions. This, when combined with the puzzles’ escalating difficulty, makes Zoombinis challenging for anyone.

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It takes balls to brave that abyss on roller skates or propellers, let alone feet.

I appreciate that the developers of this Zoombinis update kept the game faithful to its original content. Too often, kids’ games released these days focus less on educating a child and more on distracting them. Contemporary kids’ games seem to focus on bright colors and loud noises instead of substance and subtlety.

Zoombinis is truly a game of a bygone era, towering above its peers in terms of the logic lessons it has to offer, and the charm of its content. Nothing in the game has been dumbed down for a contemporary audience, which is outstanding. The graphics and interface have received hefty refits, but that’s about all that’s changed since I played this game back in the day.

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Talking rocks. We’re screwed.

Though the graphics of Zoombinis have been polished up while retaining their cartoony charm, the audio has not been touched up at all. I’m glad they didn’t re-record the maniacal narrator or the little sounds the Zoombinis make, but 90s video game sound design was not great. Every sound effect and bit of music sounds dulled down, and you can still hear the heavy static from whatever toaster they used to record this. It will sound nostalgic to the adults among you, but it might make today’s tech-savvy children scream in terror.

Apart from the sound design, there’s really nothing wrong with the rest of Zoombinis’ production. The game is very tightly wound around the concept of logical deduction, and neither the original version I played in the 3rd grade nor the updated one I played last week had any bugs or glitches.

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I miss the days when day-one glitches were the exception instead of the norm.

If you’re a gamer out there who has a small child, why should you consider Zoombinis? Well, if teaching your child about the wonderful world of logical deduction ain’t enough reason, Zoombinis is a great game because it teaches its players how to think critically. Each deduction puzzle revolves around this theme and gets tougher the more you go in. The charm of the Zoombinis and their little world serves as the catalyst for your kid’s interest. It’s also a game that they can play themselves or with you.

That’s about it for tonight, folks. Zoombinis is not a narrative masterpiece or the latest masterwork of some indie story studio, but it’s the best edutainment game I’ve ever played, and I played a fair share back in the day. The modern Steam remake retains all of the original game’s charm and challenge, but your computer won’t have an aneurysm trying to run it. I highly recommend Zoombinis, especially if you’re looking for a place for your kid to start their own video gaming journey. Give it a go and see how well you do making pizza for trolls.

Word to the wise: trolls love mushrooms.

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You can buy Zoombinis here.

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

Star Wars: DroidWorks

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Build droids and solve puzzles across the desert world of Tatooine.

PC Release: October 28, 1998

By Ian Coppock

Because I seek and play video games the same way a drug addict seeks and opens unlocked pharmacy windows, a lot of people have asked me what my very first video game was. With how avid of a gamer I am, surely my journey into the digital realm had audacious beginnings? Well… my first video game was actually an edutainment game set in the Star Wars universe. It’s a game whose legacy lives on in the video game choices I make to this day. And wouldn’t you know it, today is Star Wars Day! Clearly, the fates have aligned.

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Star Wars: DroidWorks is a third-person puzzle game released in 1998, by a little-known subsidiary of LucasArts called Lucas Learning. I think this might have been their only project. Now, before a bunch of you click away because I said that this is an educational game, I implore you to stick around. DroidWorks is the rarest of education games, in that it’s fun and novel enough to make you learn without realizing it. The education aspect of the game is delivered not through dry physics lessons, but through fun puzzles and moving around in a big environment.

The narrative of the game is pretty cut-and-dry, which one would expect from a children’s game. The Rebel Alliance has learned that the Galactic Empire has built a hidden droid factory on Tatooine, the desert homeworld of Luke Skywalker. Here, the empire has begun production on a new line of assassin droids, the latest in its long line of tools for silencing dissent. You, a rebel agent, must disguise yourself as one of Tatooine’s hooded Jawa creatures, and build droids to destroy the factory.

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Building droids and sending them out on missions is the only way to stop the assassin droids.

Because DroidWorks assumes that you’re a small child, you have no problem fitting in among the diminutive Jawas. Their leader, Wimateeka, starts giving out lessons on how to build droids and what basic physics puzzles you can expect. Jawas in this game speak English, rather than the rapid-fire gibberish they speak in the Star Wars films, though most of them sound like Alvin & The Chipmunks with lung cancer. The game’s sound design is not all bad, though; the soundtrack is nothing but tunes from the classic Star Wars films, a facet of design that is immune to criticism.

Before each mission, players have to assemble a droid from a variety of parts. You can pick between two archetypes: legged droids and wheeled droids, and add various tools, limbs and headsets from there. Once you’ve cobbled your machine together, you can pick from eight training missions scattered around Tatooine. You can also test your droid by running around inside the Jawas’ sandcrawler.

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You can mix and match droid parts into whatever funny abominations you want. Whatever it takes to complete the mission!

Each training mission takes about 15-30 minutes to do, and focuses on a different aspect of basic mechanical science. From force and motion to magnetism, DroidWorks subtly teaches its young audience about these concepts by employing some simple puzzles. You’ll solve conundrums dealing with pulleys, giant magnets and mass launchers, among other devices. Most puzzles require you to pay attention to the weight of whatever you’re working with. Once you’ve completed the mission, you’ll be rated by how many objectives you completed.

Each of the eight training missions has three tiers of difficulty, giving you 24 objectives in total. You’ll receive a new droid part for each mission you complete successfully, giving you greater versatility in how you build your droids. Some of these parts will be necessary for later missions.

D3

PUUUUUSH

Once you’ve beaten each of the training missions on at least its basic difficulty, it’s time to take the fight to the empire. You’ll unlock four additional missions that challenge you to remember what you’ve learned in the quest to find the hidden droid factory. The aforementioned assassin droids are on the loose in all of these levels, so DroidWorks demands extra caution. This is an old game, so you can rest assured that the enemy AI is ruthless.

Ironically, DroidWorks was my first brush with survival horror. Because this is a children’s game, you can’t equip your droid with weapons, so your only means of defense is to run and hide from the assassin droids the same way I run and hide from monsters in horror games. DroidWorks also doesn’t tell you when the encounters with assassin droids begin, so the first time I played, I had no idea I was about to be attacked. I can clearly remember sitting in my computer room, in our little house in England, running around with my droid and getting the shit scared out of me when a hideous war droid entered my screen from the right side and attacked. That was my first horror adrenaline kick.

I had no chance, you guys. I was doomed from an early age to be indoctrinated into horror games.

D4

These things are fast, and very unfriendly. Even now I get a bit of a chill from this picture.

After completing the four challenge missions, the final mission to infiltrate the droid factory opens up. From the first mission to the last, every part of DroidWorks requires your droid to have certain traits. You can only use wheeled droids on a mission where using a legged one would be too easy, you need a droid that can see in the dark on underground missions, etc etc.

Looking back now, I noticed that a lot of DroidWorks‘ design was arbitrary, if not downright flawed. Some missions require you to have your droid built a certain way for no apparent reason. Even missions that I don’t think would’ve been a lot easier with a legged droid will flunk you if your droid isn’t wheeled. Worst of all, DroidWorks will let you go into a mission even if your droid doesn’t meet its requirements. So, you can spend an hour playing through the mission and actually finish the objective, only to get a failure screen because you didn’t have the proper coat of paint.

D5

I GIVE YOU…. FRANKENDROID!!!!

DroidWorks was also built on the Sith Engine, which LucasArts used to make some of the Jedi Knight games back in the day. It was a great engine in its prime, but it hasn’t aged well and it’s glitchy as hell. Countless times throughout my childhood, my droids would get stuck in walls or suddenly get crushed to death for no apparent reason. It makes no more sense to me as an adult than it did then.

I think DroidWorks also could’ve benefited by having more action-oriented missions. When you add up the training missions’ tiers of difficulty, there are 24 training levels in total, much more than enough to get the point across about basic physics and puzzles. There are only five action-oriented missions, making the late game feel very short. To be fair, though, some of them take the same length of time as 3-4 training missions.

D6

Oh goody, more inclines.

I have to take a step back and remember that this is a game made for children learning about puzzles, not for adults yearning for a fight. Even though there are not many of them, the action missions do a good job of tying together what the training missions teach. The action missions combine concepts and puzzles from 2-3 training missions apiece, and it’s up to you to remember what you learned and try your best to replicate it.

The action missions also feature their own sequences and puzzles not seen in the training missions, but these run the risk of confusing young players, especially since, more often than not, there’s no one nearby to explain it. You can interact with Jawas and friendly droids that you find out in the world, and hopefully they can fill you in on what needs to be done. Because this is a child’s game, a lot of this dialogue is quite cheesy. Cheesier than a Wisconsin countryside, in fact. But, we’ll cut DroidWorks a break. Can’t go over a child’s head with dry or sarcastic humor.

D7

Most droids you encounter out in the world are friendly, and some of them will be needed in order to finish the mission.

Despite the bugs of the Sith Engine and some questionable mission balance design choices, DroidWorks is a good game. It’s a good game because it teaches children mechanical science and physics through fun puzzles and a familiar setting. The game is set in the most beloved sci-fi universe of our time, and you can tell that it was crafted with love.

In a grander context, though, DroidWorks is resounding evidence that video games can be an excellent learning tool. They are proof that you can take concepts as intimidating as machines and mechanical physics and present them in a format that children will absolutely love. They can be an effective way of instructing a young audience by engaging with them in a way that television and classroom lessons cannot. I believe that video games are a more intimate form of media because they put us at the center of their stories; so too are they good learning tools, because they can put children at the center of an educational experience.

D8

Where’s that damn gear?

While DroidWorks is a good little game, especially if you have kids, it unfortunately is not available in a usable format. There are no stable downloads of the game that I’ve been able to find in years of searching, and the disc is obviously incompatible with modern operating systems. A lot of older Star Wars games have been getting released onto Steam recently, and I keep hoping that one day I’ll open up the Steam store and DroidWorks will be there. If it is, I’ll post an update to this review with a link to the store page.

Even if DroidWorks never gets re-released, I at least wanted to let people know that this game happened. It was a huge part of my childhood and the first video game that I can clearly remember playing regularly and getting invested in. This is where my interest in video games started, and I hope it gives the parents among you hope that there are great games for children out there. DroidWorks is one of them.

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

 

 

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

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Summon warriors and defeat your opponents in a simple but challenging card game.

PC Release: March 11, 2014

By Ian Coppock

This has been quite a month, has it not? We created a hero to save the world of Warcraft, and got pretty bored in the meantime. We embarked upon three epic quests across the galaxy to stop it from being destroyed by Amon. Hell, we even took up arms as demon hunters to stop Sanctuary from getting set on fire. Engaging in so much battle is thirsty work, so let’s take a seat, open some beers and settle down for a basic card game.

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Hearthstone is a little card game featuring creatures and worlds from the Warcraft universe. I’ve never reviewed a card game before, but I will do my best, because despite my unfamiliarity with its genre, I quite enjoy Hearthstone.

As with Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone doesn’t have much of a story. There are a few practice rounds where you play as Jaina Proudmoore, a human sorceress, but most times you’ll be pitted against human players. Hearthstone is a game that strikes a rare balance between being simple to understand, and difficult to master. Such games are, in my opinion, almost always good games.

W1

(sound of beer cracking open)

Hearthstone is a one versus one card game employing some concepts that are endemic to card games in general, and others that are entirely novel. Players begin by selecting a class of hero to anchor their game. The type of hero you pick can have a bearing on the cards in your deck, but you can also use a pre-assembled deck that operates independently of the hero you choose. Each player starts out with 30 cards.

The overall gist of the game is simple: both you and your opponent’s hero characters have 30 life points, and whoever kills the enemy hero first, wins. Heroes are not represented as cards, and stand separate from the main playing area, but they do have abilities that allow them to attack your opponent. Jaina Proudmoore, for example, has a fireball ability that you can use to damage your opponent’s hero directly, or the monsters they’ve summoned to battle.

W2

To attack your enemy’s hero or their minions is a decision that must be weighed carefully.

Generally, cards in a basic Hearthstone match can be divided into three categories: minions, spells and equipment. Minions are monsters that you can place on the field to wage war against your opponent, and each one has an attack value and a health value. The attack value is the damage dealt to an enemy’s health, which you can deal out in one fell swoop or in several attacks, depending on its strength.

Spell cards are single-use cards that allow for an instant effect. Typically this is damage to the enemy hero, but you can also use them to react to a player’s card. You can’t interrupt an enemy’s turn, but you can play cards that automatically respond to their actions when your turn comes up. Equipment cards can be used to enhance your minions’ stats, or give them special abilities. Each turn, you’ll receive a mana crystal that you can use to power your creatures. The more turns go by, the more mana you get.

W3

Whose minions are more minion-y?

Hearthstone‘s core goal of killing your opponent’s hero is not hard to understand, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity that goes into fielding your minions and using spells. There’s an additional challenge element in deciding whether to use your hero’s power on the enemy hero directly, or to help your minions out in their own battles. It’s similar to the real-time strategy game dilemma of whether you can finish your opponent early on, or have to dig in for a drawn-out battle.

I appreciate that Hearthstone bears consequences at each stage of the game. Depending on your strategy, you’ll want to bulk up with monsters and spells in the early game in case you need them, prepare for a drawn-out match throughout the mid game, and then deploy any hidden cards or secret weapons toward the end game. I tend to employ a strategy similar to the Gwent mini-game featured in The Witcher series, where I hold a few heavy-hitters in reserve unless my opponent is being extremely aggressive, extremely early. That’s my best advice on playing a sustainable round of Hearthstone.

W4

Ooooh…. I could have some fun with this thing.

Hearthstone is much more similar to physical card games than I’d anticipated. You start out with a pretty basic deck of cards, and can get better cards by winning tournaments or buying booster packs at the in-game store. I’m generally not a fan of micro-transactions because of developers’ tendency to turn them into a “pay-to-win” mechanic, but in this context it makes sense.

A few of the players I’ve talked to have played Hearthstone since its inception, and their decks are proportionately badass. As I mentioned up top, Hearthstone‘s rules are pretty easy to understand, but there’s an intricacy to minions and spells that even after many matches I’m still trying to nail down.

W5

Beneath this cartoonish veneer is a game of kings and ruthlessness.

Because it’s just a card game, Hearthstone‘s visuals are simple without being ugly. Most of the interfaces look cartoonish, but I think the same can be said of most Warcraft games. I appreciate that Hearthstone contains subtle references to older Warcraft games, including the “job’s done” peasant soundbit from Warcraft III. The illustrations on the cards are beautiful, and consistent with the high-fantasy theme that Blizzard goes for with Warcraft.

Hearthstone is not an emotionally riveting epic, or one of the narrative-rich games that I try to find and review, but it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. It’s free, so there’s no reason not to grab a buddy and at least try it out. If you wish, find me at Art as Games on Battle.net and I’ll be happy to sit down and play with you.

I’m quite bad at it, so don’t be bashful.

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You can buy Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft 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.