Monthly Archives: June 2016

Overwatch

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Take control of zany characters and take part in even zanier battles to save a bright world.

PC Release: May 24, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Blizzard Entertainment is well-known for such giants as Warcraft and Diablo, and they’re also well-known for producing slick games that run well on the PC platform. What the company is not known for, however, is producing first-person shooters. The closest that they’ve ever come to such a feat is StarCraft: Ghost, a cancelled third-person shooter that was to be released in the early 2000’s before its premature demise. Overwatch is both the latest Blizzard game and its newest IP. It bears investigating whether the godfather of MMO and strategy games can deliver on something they’ve never done before, and what gamers can expect of the result.

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Overwatch is the first Blizzard game in a long time to not be a derivative of a pre-exiting intellectual property. Hearthstone is a Warcraft spin-off, and Heroes of the Storm is an arena melting pot for all of Blizzard’s major franchises. Overwatch, as previously stated, is also the first step in a new direction for Blizzard: multiplayer first-person shooter.

Like Team Fortress 2Overwatch tries to stand out in a crowded genre with bright, cartoonish visuals and simple gameplay. It is a far cry from the gritty military settings that Call of Duty and Battlefield have used to over-saturate the market in recent years. Overwatch is instead a bright, colorful shooter with ample amounts of fun, but its gameplay is also easy to understand.

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Overwatch bucks multiplayer first-person shooter convention with its big, colorful style.

What little backstory Overwatch has is narrated by an anthropomorphic gorilla warrior named Winston, who explains that the world was once plunged into chaos. The Overwatch, an alliance of superheroes, rose up and pacified whatever was causing this chaos, and faded into obscurity as the world returned to peace. But, this same mysterious force is returning, and now it’s up to the Overwatch to reunite and save the world once more. There’s some vague mention of evil robots, but that’s about it.

Narrative is clearly not the point of Overwatch, nor a strong suite in anyway. The game’s aforementioned heroes spend all of their time fighting each other instead of this unseen malevolence that Winston warns against. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any chaos in this bright, futuristic world except that caused by the heroes in each match. It’s a comical contradiction, but hardly a deal-breaker.

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The narrative in Overwatch is nonexistent, but that doesn’t take away from its characters’ personalities.

As of writing, Overwatch features 21 characters that players can use in matches. Although these characters can be grouped together into approximate offensive and defensive roles, each one has unique weapons, powers, and means of getting around the battlefield. Some characters get up close and personal with shotguns, while others fight from afar with sniper rifles. Still more can fall into the fray with massive melee weapons and even ninja stars. There’s a lot of variety to choose from.

It didn’t take long for Overwatch‘s first players to note some of the game’s imbalances. McCree, the cyber-cowboy in the screenshot, could easily murder the toughest enemies in little time. The Widowmaker, a sniper character, was similarly overpowering in certain situations. However, Blizzard has been very proactive about finding and patching these problems to make the game more balanced. For anything else that can be said about Blizzard, at least they’re attentive to detail.

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Blizzard has done a good job of balancing Overwatch’s characters against each other.

Overwatch starts off by introducing players to the basic mechanics of the game. The tutorial is not unlike anything offered by any other shooter, but it does feature a combat area where players can test out different characters against unfortunate robots. It’s a great way to become acquainted with various characters, and gives players a chance to practice away from the chaos of a match. Blizzard’s overture toward novice shooter players means that the game is truly built for everyone at all skill levels.

The issue with so many of the shooters out there is that they all expect their audiences to know the ropes automatically, or to “git gud” in matches if not. To be fair, most shooter players will figure out what to expect from game to game, but a lot of novice gamers who might otherwise enjoy these matches are intimidated away by the lack of an intro. Overwatch supersedes that setup, and thus the game is accessible to everyone.

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Overwatch’s kindness to new shooter players gives the game access to all gamers.

Although each character varies wildly in terms of loadout and abilities, they all share a set of common traits. Each character has a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and a unique means of getting around the battlefield quickly. Each character also has a special ability that charges up after a sufficient number of kills or completed objectives. Widowmaker, for example, has a sniper rifle as her primary weapon, a poison bomb as her secondary, a grappling hook transportation device, and an enemy-revealing visor power. Sure, other characters might have completely different weapons and powers, but this core setup is what newcomers to Overwatch can expect from all of them.

It is this simple arrangement of powers and weapons that makes Overwatch so easy to understand. Everyone has a gun, a bomb, some wheels, and a superpower. Figuring out how best to use them is one thing, but Overwatch does away with maze-like menus of guns in favor of this very simple, very pure, system. This also makes it relatively easy to pick up a new character, learn what they have, and go about shooting everything.

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Overwatch is easy to understand, which makes it more fun.

Most matches in Overwatch are objective-based. Players can capture a series of command points, fight for control of a rocket-powered railway, or simply wipe each other out. Teams obviously function better when each player serves an allocated role, but it’s also easy and fun to descend into the melee as whomever. The command point match setup is particularly fun, as two teams descend into battle to maintain control of more flags than the enemy. The first team to two won rounds wins the match.

From there, the gameplay is fairly conventional for a multiplayer first-person shooter. Kill all the enemies, kill them again when they respawn, complete the objective and win the match. Most matches in Overwatch are complete chaos, as players teleport or grapple around the battlefield, shooting off as many rounds as possible. This chaos helps to offset each match’s rather generic presence. Everyone knows how to shoot someone in a match. What no one knows is the fun of using a grappling hook to do so. That’s where Overwatch comes into play. It’s pretty fun.

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Overwatch is free-flowing anarchy.

Overwatch is a remarkably fluid first attempt at a shooter, coming from Blizzard. To be fair, Blizzard has the ability to throw enormous sums of money at whatever problems come up during development, but it’s impressive how well-made their first shooter is. Each character’s weapons go off with satisfying force and bombastic sound. Gunplay and movement are both very smooth, as players fire volleys at each other while zipping up and down the battlefield. Overwatch runs well too, with absolutely no glitches or technical hiccups to speak of. Matches are easy to find, and the community is amicable.

Indeed, aside from the aforementioned character imbalances, it’s difficult to find fault with Overwatch. It’s not a perfect game, but it makes a priority of being accessible to everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Overwatch also looks gorgeous, with big, bright visuals and a cartoony world that offers no foreboding to new players. At times, this setup feels quite derivative of Team Fortress 2, but Team Fortress 2 pioneered neither simple gameplay nor goofy visuals.

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COLORSOUNDGUNSBOOMYAY

At worst, Overwatch is an irreverent, cartoon-like melee. At best, it’s a refreshing take on the multiplayer shooter genre, bucking entrenched convention and opening its doors wide open to both novice and expert shooter players. Everyone, even traditionally shooter-averse gamers, will find something to enjoy in Overwatch‘s zany gameplay, beautiful worlds, and ease of accessibility. It’s the funnest multiplayer shooter to have been released in a very long time, and it’s something that everyone can have some fun with.

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You can buy Overwatch 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.

Postal 2: Paradise Lost

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Explore the ruins of a nuked town in search of a long-lost pet.

PC Release: April 14, 2015

By Ian Coppock

A number of controversial video games have been produced over the years, and none more so than Postal 2. This gory weekday chores simulator put players in the shoes of a red-haired psychopath, who must complete a list of his wife’s tasks while simultaneously battling a host of stereotyped threats. From armies of Al Qaeda fanatics to a boss battle with a man in a scrotum costume, Postal 2 contained no shortage of shocking content. Postal 2: Paradise Lost continues the series’s tradition of biting humor, all for a reason that few would suspect.

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Postal 2 was released in 2003, meaning that Postal 2: Paradise Lost is almost 12 years in the making. But, this was not always the plan. In 2011, a full sequel to Postal 2, Postal III, was released by Running With Scissors, the original Postal developer. For some reason, Running With Scissors decided to outsource Postal III‘s development to Akella, an obscure Russian studio, and boy did they do a terrible job.

Postal 2 was lambasted by the media and various politicians for its obscene content; Postal III couldn’t even get that far before crashing. Sure, it contains a similar if much weaker brand of offensive humor, but the game barely runs and Akella had little interest in patching it properly. Postal III is also infamous for dumbing down the Postal formula, introducing generic third-person shooting mechanics and a weak narrative voice acted by various porn stars. Sure, some low-brow skeeziness is to be expected from a Postal game, but most fans were upset simply because, again, the game does not work.

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Postal III is a failure in every sense of the term, and an awful video game.

For anything that can be said about Running With Scissors’ design sensibilities, the studio cares deeply for its small but adoring fan base. Studio head Vince Desi was quick to condemn the game, going so far as to admit that outsourcing Postal III‘s development was a mistake. He and other company officials vowed to turn the legacy of the Postal games around, but what he meant to do was not apparent until the spring of 2015, when Postal 2: Paradise Lost was released.

Paradise Lost takes place 10 years after the events of Postal 2. At the end of the main game, the player character known only as the Postal Dude wiped out the Arizona town of Paradise with a nuclear weapon. The events leading up to the nuke are hard to summarize, but suffice it to say, they involved legions of foul-mouthed zombies and a massive cow-demon-creature. A decade after the blast, the Dude wakes up after a “nuclear-induced coma” to find his car stranded in the vast Arizona desert. Somehow, the Dude is fine, but his beloved dog Champ is nowhere to be found.

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The Dude wakes up after a 10-year coma and just picks back up like nothing ever happened.

For all of the controversial things this DLC contains, Postal 2: Paradise Lost also contains the most gracefully executed retcon in all of gaming. In its opening cinematic, Paradise Lost confirms that the events of Postal III were all just a terrible nightmare, and the Dude wakes from his coma concluding that nothing more actually happened. All of the events, characters and locations in Postal III are stripped from the canon in the most beautiful way; it was all just a bad dream!

With all the reluctance in the world, the Postal Dude makes his way back into the town of Paradise. To his shock, the town that he nuked into oblivion still has people in it, albeit living in decrepit shacks where once there were, well, decrepit houses. The Dude starts asking to see if anyone’s seen Champ, but everyone he shows the dog’s photo to runs away screaming.

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Despite the nuclear explosion, many of Paradise’s inhabitants survived and built a post-apocalyptic society.

Before long, the Postal Dude is spotted by none other than Vince Desi, who appears as himself in the game. The Dude holes up with the Running With Scissors crew, and so commences video gaming’s most elaborate lost dog hunt. The Dude must take care; a lot of the zombies he battled in Postal 2 are still shuffling around, and if Paradise can still be counted on for one thing, it’s immediate and senseless episodes of violence.

As in the original game, Postal 2: Paradise Lost is an open-world, first-person shooter. The town districts that the Dude visited in Postal 2 have been reshaped by nuclear fire into new regions, from the bleak Ashen Skies to the undeniably punny Nuclear Winter. Just as he completed his wife’s to-do list in Postal 2, so too must the Dude complete tasks and chores around town, in hopes of finding Champ. The game incorporates the now-dated visuals present in Postal 2, but new lighting and textures help freshen up its aesthetic.

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Each zone of Paradise has become its own nuclear purgatory.

Each district in Paradise is ruled by a different faction of people. Running With Scissors has a lock on the church district, while the zombies occupy the junkyard. Other disparate groups, including a peaceful, pot-smoking branch of Al Qaeda, and an army of dwarfs led by the late Gary Coleman, are secreted throughout the landscape. Some will help the Dude, some will hinder him. All have a stake in controlling their own little slice of Paradise.

The Dude can find and wield a variety of weapons around Paradise. Classics like the assault rifle, shotgun and pistol return from the original Postal 2, but the developer also added sawed-off shotguns, fully automatic rifles and other new tools of destruction. How the Dude interacts with the town is up to the player; he can either be a paragon of bridge-building or a psychopath who might as well shoot fire from his eyes for how often he ignites things. Paradise Lost does provoke the player into violence quite often, but a lot of that is left to the player to decide.

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The Dude’s propensity for murder varies depending on who’s at his wheel.

It’s at this point that the DLC starts to feel too derivative of the original Postal 2. The environments and a good deal of the gunplay have been rebuilt, and that’s great, but Paradise Lost‘s basic gist is identical to that of Postal 2. Wake up every morning from Monday through Friday, and run around town performing tasks until the day ends. To be fair, the Dude is now looking for his beloved dog instead of his ex-wife’s favorite flavor of ice cream, but the player’s movement toward that ultimate goal is implemented in the exact same way. Get up. Do stuff. Go to bed.

To continue to be fair to Running With Scissors, the tasks in Postal 2: Paradise Lost are perhaps even more comically ridiculous than those in Postal 2. In Postal 2, the Dude would run a check to the bank just in time for a robbery, or brave book-burning activists to make a late return to the library. This time, he’s gathering marijuana plants during a full-scale DEA invasion, and fighting armies of urine-powered robots. Paradise Lost also pokes fun at everything wrong with the video gaming industry these days, including day-one DLC and consumer-hostile pricing schemes. In one mission, The Dude ransacks a rival video game company that is Electronic Arts in all but name, and the satire is spot-on.

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FOR COLEMAN!!!

This change to slapstick humor is not without some bumps in the road. Postal 2 was built on its controversial and offensive content, and to suddenly see that subdued in Paradise Lost is a game-changer, to say the least. Paradise Lost focuses less on offensive satire and more on absurdist comedy.

The issue with this change is that there’s not a whole lot of substance to the Postal series without the offensive humor. Because that’s what the original game billed itself on, there’s not much lore or storytelling beneath all of the Arab jokes and anti-social justice tirades present throughout the last game. Paradise Lost tries to invest players in the lore of the town, but even a nuclear explosion hasn’t made Paradise that much more interesting. What few racist or offensive jokes the DLC does have are just rehashes of humor from the last game, like poking more fun at Gary Coleman’s size, or at Al Qaeda. Regurgitating jokes from a previous game is not innovation, it’s just lazy.

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Postal 2 tones down its shock humor, but the crudeness and absurdity are still here.

Now; what point could there possibly be to lamenting a video game’s lack of offensive, racist content? Postal 2 has the humor it has not because Running With Scissors is actually racist, but to draw the shock and derision that it drew. Running With Scissors wanted to goad politicians and media moguls into condemning the game, if for nothing else than their own amusement and lots of free media exposure. Postal 2 was an excellent example of the Streisand Effect.

At the same time, though, there’s something to be said for the idea that, at some point, there is no difference between being a racist and only pretending to be a racist. There’s a constant debate in society and in the media over whether portraying racist jokes condones racism or is merely an observation. There are no simple answers in this debate, but Postal 2 proves that it’s a complicated issue that video games can bring to life just as viscerally as any other type of media.

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Who knew that fart jokes could ignite such a firestorm.

As for Postal 2: Paradise Lost, it’s fair to say that the DLC undid the Postal III fiasco in a surprisingly elegant manor, and restored the community’s faith in the series. Newcomers who enjoy older shooters and cringey, South Park-style satire should play the full Postal 2 and then get this DLC. Its comedy can get tired and some of its jokes make no sense (like a cameo from the guy who played Scott Farkus in A Christmas Story) but the new gameplay elements are implemented well. Despite the fact that Paradise Lost is a DLC, it has a good 8-12 hours’ worth of content, making it a good bargain for its $10 price.

Additionally, a modern remake of the original Postal game is now available on Steam, and it will be reviewed at some point in the future. For now, postal on. And don’t forget the cow head grenades.

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You can buy Postal 2: Paradise Lost here.

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

Dead by Daylight

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Work together to elude a serial killer and escape the night alive.

PC Release: June 14, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Slasher movies have become as much a part of the American cinematic lexicon as action and drama films. It’s gotten to the point that in recent years, the scenario of four teenagers alone in the wilderness is not only its own genre, it has its own spoofs of its own genre. 2010’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a prime example, as is 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. The slasher genre has made its presence known in the video game world as well, but there’s never been a game that so frankly replicates that cinematic formula as Dead by Daylight.

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Released just last week exclusively for the PC platform, Dead by Daylight is an asymmetric multiplayer survival horror game. Four players take on the role of scared survivors, who have to elude a fifth player gussied up as a bloodthirsty killbilly. Both sides have goals to accomplish (and very different methods of doing so), in the scariest multiplayer game since Depth.

Dead by Daylight‘s horror movie inspirations are obvious from the get-go. The survivor characters represent the most basic tropes of the slasher genre, from the geeky store manager to the skateboarding punk, and of course, the hot girl. Similarly, the killer characters draw inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Scream, Friday the 13th, and other films.

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Close the door close the door close the door close the door CLOSE THE FREAKING DOOR

Each match of Dead by Daylight takes place in a spooky nighttime environment, from the quintessential slasher woods to an old auto junkyard. The game is relatively simple to understand; the survivors have to find a way out of the map, and the killer has to murder them all before they can escape. Whichever side can accomplish their respective goal first wins the match.

Inveterate horror fans will know that as scary as computer-controlled monsters can be, nothing compares to being stalked by a human player. In contrast to their artificial counterparts, human-controlled monsters are unpredictable and much, much smarter. The horror of eluding such an entity is brought front-and-center in Dead by Daylight, making for a terrifying game.

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Human-controlled enemies make for a more visceral horror experience.

Although Dead by Daylight has an audacious goal, the game gets off to a rocky start. The options menu in this game is neither great nor terrible, it’s just weird. For example, the screen size resolution option is represented as a percentage, instead of a list of common resolutions. Such a mechanic is, to put it politely, a bizarre design choice. Why not feature a list of resolutions to pick from? What is the percentage in the option relative to? Additionally, there is no option to rebind the keys, which is sub-standard for a PC game.

Dead by Daylight also stumbles on introducing new players, which should be of obvious importance to a multiplayer video game. The tutorials consist of videos that new players are to watch and learn from. This is obviously less engaging than an in-person tutorial on a practice map. Additionally, though the videos demonstrate the specific tasks that survivors and killers can perform, they don’t list the actual keys used to carry out those functions. The video will tell players that they need to turn on generators, but fails to specify what key to press and what to be on the lookout for while doing so. The icing on the cake is that the videos are even labeled confusingly, with one killer video called “How to Hunt” and the other called “How to Find”.

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Now would be an excellent time to know what the escape key is.

Anyhoo, after enduring the horrors of a weird options menu and poor tutorials, players can jump into a game. Survivors have no weapons or other means of self-defense, and can only run and hide to elude the killer. Survivors will hear their own heartbeats quicken when the killer is nearby, but have to be prepared to run if they’re spotted.

The main goal for the survivors is to turn on generators and open a gate out of the map. There are a few generators scattered around the area, and survivors have to find and repair each one to open up the escape route. There’s no in-game chat, so survivor players can’t communicate with one another, but perhaps that’s fair. Victims in slasher films can’t just yell salutations to each other across a killer-infested woodland, now can they?

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The survivors have to find and fix generators to open the gates, but avoid blowing the fuse! Generators will get fixed faster the more people work on them.

The killer’s mission is to find and murder the survivors before they can escape, a task that they’re uniquely suited to. There are a few killer characters to choose from, and each one presents its own spin on terrifyingly murdering innocent people. The Hillbilly character goes after his victims with a chainsaw, while the Trapper strews bear traps all over the place to snare his unfortunate victims. Once he’s found and slashed his victims, the killer must sacrifice each one to “the Entity” a Satanic spider-thingy that looks like a daedra from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

The killer is armed with a weapon, of course, and can move faster than survivors, forcing the latter group to be unorthodox in their escapes. The killer cannot crouch, and climbs through windows much slower than survivors, but is otherwise relentless. This is especially true when a bloodthirsty human pilot is added to the formula.

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No amount of elk jerky or tractor magazines could bribe this fellow to let the survivor down.

Dead by Daylight incorporates RPG elements into its nightmare mix. Each kind of character gets points for certain actions throughout the match, and those points are accumulated even if the player loses. From there, upgrades like quieter running or first aid kids can be purchased from a pre-match menu screen. At the current time, the game is a bit imbalanced and forces a lot of playing, (or “grinding”) to level up even once or twice. The rewards players can buy vary between permanent perks and items that can only be used so many times.

The perks and items players buy help them move about the game’s large environments, which are beautifully spooky. The visuals are decent, minus a few texture errors on the characters’ clothing, and the environments look, again, out of a slasher movie. Muted sound effects from nighttime wildlife and the dull thundering of wind complete the setup, making each map an admirably spooky set piece.

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This concept art accurately captures the ever-present threats to a Dead by Daylight player.

Although Dead by Daylight is off to a spirited start, the game has a long way to go before it becomes truly accessible. Right now, the game needs patching, in almost all of its departments. To start off with, it is insanely more difficult to play as a survivor than the killer. It takes the killer no effort to catch up to and kill a fleeing survivor, and the killer’s ability to see survivors’ every footprint makes this a no-brainer. The developer claims that the killer actually has the tougher mission because there are so many survivors, but finding and killing all of them is a breeze. Right now, most matches don’t last five minutes.

In addition to the killer’s ability to track survivors, some of the killer characters are overpowered. The Wraith character, for example, has the ability to turn invisible. Come on. The thing’s already got a sword, now it can just come up and stab people from behind? The game encourages survivors to get away by tipping over trash or climbing through windows to obscure the killer’s path, but the opportunity to do either is rare. In these big, open maps, there are only a small handful of windows or collapsible garbage to take advantage of. This setup is not only frustrating for the survivor players, but it also makes playing a killer boring. There’s no challenge to murdering the survivors at all.

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Playing as a survivor is all challenge. Playing as a killer is no challenge.

Dead by Daylight also suffers from a number of questionable multiplayer design choices. Gamers who buy the game and want to play together cannot enter the same match together. Dead by Daylight forces each player to cycle through whichever lobby comes up first, forcing players to waste time searching for their friends and keeping everyone else twiddling their thumbs in the lobbies. Like this game’s options setup, the lack of an active match list is just… strange. It would solve a lot of problems and save players a lot of time waiting in lobbies, sifting through groups of people waiting to start. It’s perfectly understandable if Dead by Daylight‘s developer is too small to maintain dedicated servers, but finding the player’s friends should not be this difficult.

There is an option for people who want to play together: form a private party. But players can only do so if there are five people in the match, so any group of friends numbering less than five is out of luck. Once again, Dead by Daylight produces an anomaly of a design choice, for which there is no apparent logic. It shouldn’t be so prohibitively difficult to play with friends. Playing with friends and acquaintances is the lifeblood of any multiplayer game, much more so than playing with random strangers.

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What a mess.

Like so many things, Dead by Daylight is a great concept, but the execution needs work. Do not purchase this game yet. It needs a lot of refinement, from improving its tutorials to re-balancing its characters to undoing its weird multiplayer system. The game is not doomed to failure, though; Depth started out as a severely imbalanced game, and through tweaks and fixes has become one of the most popular multiplayer games on Steam.

Depth only got that way, though, because its developer listened to the community and integrated their feedback, and that’s what the people who made this game have to do now. The game’s approval rating is steadily declining as more players log on and discover these issues. Once they’re fixed, Dead by Daylight could be a great game, but right now, it needs to go back into the hangar for some refitting.

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You can buy Dead by Daylight 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 Battlefront

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Fight for the fate of the galaxy as the Rebellion or the Galactic Empire.

PC Release: November 17, 2015

By Ian Coppock

In 2012, Lucasfilm and all of its Star Wars properties were acquired by Disney for about $4 billion. Disney immediately set to work reigniting the Star Wars media franchise, announcing the production of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and putting Lucasfilm’s ducks into a row more to their liking. One of those ducks was the dissolution of LucasArts, Lucasfilm’s video game production studio, to the outrage of many longtime fans. To make matters more complicated, Disney handed all of the Star Wars video game-making rights to Electronic Arts, a firm that, much like Disney, is a monopolistic company with a record of shady business practices. Star Wars Battlefront, a reboot of the venerated Battlefront franchise, is the first product of this new partnership.

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The Battlefront series has been around for over a decade. Star Wars: Battlefront was released in 2004, and featured multiplayer battles set during the eras of the prequel and classic Star Wars trilogies. Players are divvied up into teams and set out to capture objectives or simply wipe the other side out. The original Battlefront received highly positive reviews from critics and fans, and is now available for digital download.

Star Wars: Battlefront II was released in 2005 and refined what its predecessor had begun, adding new gameplay and movement mechanics. Battlefront II also introduced hero characters, like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, as well as space battles. Like the original Battlefront, Battlefront II was received well by both the press and the Star Wars community. It remains one of the best class-based shooters of the early 2000s.

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Battlefront II is still adored by fans, despite its age.

The newest Star Wars Battlefront was released in November of last year and comprises the Star Wars universe as re-imagined by Electronic Arts. The game is set during the classic Star Wars era, and allows players to fight as either a soldier for the Rebel Alliance or a stormtrooper in the service of the Galactic Empire. Both teams can compete for a number of objectives, from capturing command points to simply wiping each other out.

Star Wars Battlefront has several stark differences from its LucasArts-produced predecessors. Battlefront is not class-based; players can simply pick a soldier and a custom loadout from the pre-match menu. There are no space battles and absolutely no content from the Clone Wars era. The game also nixed a story-driven, single-player campaign, which a lot of fans were not happy about. EA tried to placate its customers by explaining that it had to nix a single-player mode so that they could release Battlefront in time to coincide with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In short, this is a very different Battlefront game.

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Electronic Arts has reinvented Battlefront’s DNA, for better and for worse.

In Battlefront, players can duke it out in matches that support up to 40 players. Before each match, players can customize almost everything about their soldier, from the armor color down to the type of blaster they’d like to use. Each player can also choose three pieces of equipment, two offensive and one defensive, to use in each match. These range from thermal detonator grenades to personal shields to anti-vehicle ion torpedoes. During combat, high-scoring players can take control of hero characters who have their own powers and abilities. Boba Fett, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are but a few.

Once the load out has been determined, it’s time to put boots on the ground. In most matches, the goal is simple: wipe out all enemy combatants. Battlefront features a few other match modes, like capturing objective points. Players can also use vehicles like AT-ST walkers and speeder bikes to get around faster. Though Battlefront has no space battles, players can take to the skies in a variety of rebel and imperial craft. Air and ground combat occurs simultaneously, and both are vital to maintaining dominance on the battlefield.

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Battlefront allows for both ground and ship-to-ship combat.

Although Battlefront is a hit-or-miss game in virtually all aspects of its design, Electronic Arts did a good job at producing a high-end Star Wars experience. Battlefront looks absolutely gorgeous, sans the occasional lighting bug, with beautiful environments that feel like Star Wars set pieces. Even eight months later, it’s one of the best-looking games on the market. The sound design is outstanding, incorporating classic sound effects from the Star Wars films. Every blaster shot, every TIE fighter zoom, was painstakingly incorporated to make the player feel like they’re in a Star Wars movie. The cacophony of sound is constant, but not overwhelming, and it’s exciting to be at the heart of.

The gunplay in this game is quite smooth; blaster rifles go off with satisfying oomph, and artillery shakes up the ground and kicks up the dust with every salvo. Players can look up to the sky at any given moment to see star destroyers and the rebellion’s Mon Calamari star cruisers locked in battle in high atmosphere, though only the player-controlled fighters play any actual part in the air. For anything else that can be said about Battlefront, it manages to produce a high-end, visceral combat experience that looks right at home in the Star Wars universe.

B3

How would one write out the melody of the imperal march song? Dun- dun-dun, dun-da-dun, dun-da-dun….

Unfortunately, though Battlefront succeeds in creating a game that looks great, and feels pretty good, that’s about where the buck stops. Battlefront has a woeful lack of content. When the game released last November, it featured a mere 16 maps. Sure, they’re much more expansive and open than most multiplayer shooter maps, but sixty dollars for 16 maps is, to put it politely, a lopsided deal. To make matters worse, those 16 maps are divided across only four planets, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Electronic Arts threw in a few bonus maps set on Jakku, the desert planet in The Force Awakens, for anyone who pre-ordered the game, but one extra planet is a paltry offering. It’s also day-one DLC, which is a terrible business practice in and of itself.

Any reasonably dedicated multiplayer shooter fan will be done with 16 maps before long. Is there any other content? Well, Battlefront does feature six co-op missions in which two players have to last out against waves of stormtroopers. It can make for some great buffoonery playing with a buddy, but each mission only lasts about 15-20 minutes. Players can also fight bots, but who buys a multiplayer game to fight computer enemies?

B4

Battlefront’s beautiful aesthetic conceals an infuriating lack of content.

Battlefront‘s longevity would be extended if its multiplayer combat had any sort of novelty, but it really doesn’t. Electronic Arts banked on Battlefront‘s Star Wars aesthetic when building this game, but even a Star Wars game can get repetitive if its combat offers little innovation. Sure, the game is dressed up as a favorite galaxy from far, far away, but it’s a generic first-person shooter when it comes to mechanics. Inveterate shooter players will get bored by the combination of conventional gameplay and the lack of maps, as evidenced by the dramatic decline of active players on Battlefront‘s PC version.

Additionally, Battlefront requires very close coordination between its players, so casual gamers will have a hard time integrating into the combat. Each match in Battlefront also requires delicate balancing between air and ground theaters, and if no one wants to hop in an X-wing, the ground assault is screwed. Too many are the matches in which everyone just wants to play a stormtrooper, only for entire scores of players to get bowled over by aircraft enjoying no opposition. To be fair, that problem is more reflective of the gamers than the game, but Battlefront‘s air combat is little more exciting than its ground combat, offering no incentive to balance the game.

B5

Down, boy!

The most infuriating thing about Battlefront is that Electronic Arts considers the game to be finished. They’re releasing two more sets of maps (and not for free) and that’s it. When gamers asked if there would be any more content, Electronic Arts announced that everything else would be packaged into a full-priced sequel. That announcement is not only an outrage, it’s quintessentially EA. Release a full-priced game with as little content as possible for sixty dollars, and package the rest of what should’ve been that game into another game, also for sixty dollars.

It’s small wonder that Electronic Arts is a two-time recipient of the Golden Poo Award for Worst Company in America from Consumerist. Is Electronic Arts actually the worst company in America? No, of course not. But it says something about how agitating the company’s actions are when it motivates that kind of response from gamers. Want the rest of Battlefront? Buy the sequel. And don’t forget the day-one DLC!

B6

Curse you, Disney.

In closing, Star Wars Battlefront is like an eclair. It looks great, and it tastes great, but the entire experience is over in one small bite. An hour from now, the eclair eater will have forgotten what it tastes like and moved on to other, more substantive food items.No one would pay sixty bucks for an eclair, and so it should be with a video game that is this woefully shallow. Shooter fans will be pleased for a little while, but anyone looking for something one iota more substantive will want to search elsewhere.

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You can buy Star Wars Battlefront 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.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

M

Race across rooftops and fight ruthless foes for a chance at freedom.

PC Release: June 7, 2016

By Ian Coppock

In 2008, a video game called Mirror’s Edge was put out by DICE, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts. Mirror’s Edge featured something that video games hadn’t really covered in detail before: parkour and free-running. As a young runner named Faith, players were given the opportunity to take daring runs across a breathtaking, beautiful city. The gameplay wasn’t perfect, and the plot was weak, but Mirror’s Edge‘s novelty struck a chord with the gaming world. Finally, eight years later, that chord has resounded with the production of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a game that, like its predecessor, seeks to let players run wild.

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A follow-up to Mirror’s Edge has been in various forms of development since the original game’s 2008 debut. According to industry hearsay, the prototype of Mirror’s Edge 2 was in development for some time, but was scrapped by Electronic Arts because it failed to meet their quality standards. The rumor came as a shock to many gamers, because it revealed that a sequel had been worked on, and it revealed that Electronic Arts has quality standards.

Anyway, DICE went back to the drawing board and came up with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, which was announced at E3 2014 as a prequel to the original game. Though it was marketed as such for quite some time, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is actually a full-scale reboot.

M1

Now would be an excellent time to start hoofing it.

Like its predecessor, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a first-person adventure game set in a gleaming, futuristic city. Unlike in the original game, the city actually has a name: Glass. Wait… the city’s name is Glass? That’s… hmm. To be fair, perhaps there’s a law in the Mirror’s Edge world stating that each city has to be named after its most commonplace construction component, in which case Glass is a most fitting name indeed.

Glass is under the dominion of the Conglomerate, an alliance of 13 corporations that control every aspect of everyday life. Citizens in this totalitarian society either work for one of the corporations, or eke out an off-the-grid life on the rooftops. Faith falls into the latter category, and the game begins as she’s released from a brutal one-year stint in jail.

M2

Glass’s gorgeous, gleaming exterior hides a heartbreaking dystopia.

Not a minute after walking out of the prison’s front doors, Faith is rescued by another runner named Icarus, who takes her back to the runner HQ and her old boss, a man named Noah. Faith is happily reunited with her community, but takes issue with Icarus, the new guy, who’s determined to prove that he’s actually the best runner Glass has ever seen. Faith also owes a debt to Dogen, a major crime boss, for an unspecified failure, and he makes it clear that he intends to collect soon.

Faith’s first new job for the runners is a heist at a prestigious bioscience company, and she breaks into the building the same way she’s done many times before. This time, though, an altercation with Gabriel Kruger, head of Kruger security, sends her fleeing out of the building with hundreds of goons gunning for her. Whatever she stole from that building must be of great import, and sets the game’s main narrative into high-flying motion.

M4

Faith flees with half the city’s corporate cops after her.

Faith’s abilities as a runner comprise the core of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst‘s gameplay. The game is best summarized as a first-person action runner. As Faith, players can, well, run, but she can also perform wall-runs, rapid climbs and other stunts to get up and around the city. Just like in the original game, Faith must employ a combination of running and jumping to get around, especially since there will be bullets flying after her more often than not. Continuous running allows Faith to build up Focus; the more Focus she has, the more bullets will miss her. Not the most logical system ever devised, but it forces the game to remain reliant on its greatest mechanic: movement.

The implementation of these parkour tricks is smoother than that of the original Mirror’s Edge, in fact. It’s exhilarating to tear across a gorgeous city, performing half a dozen stunts in half a dozen seconds. Faith’s moves are all about getting up or down to somewhere as rapidly as possible, and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst does an outstanding job of not only making these moves flow together, but in granting a profound sense of freedom. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst also adds a new tool called the mag rope, which allows Faith to swing between skyscrapers like Spider-Man.

M5

WHEEEEEEE!

The original Mirror’s Edge had some great free-running gameplay too, but one area that it mishandled was the combat. In her 2008 debut, Faith dealt with metro-cops by punching and kicking at them, or stealing their guns and tearing things up. It wasn’t a terrible system, but it interrupted the flow of running and it was a little weird to go from hopping around on rooftops to lugging around a machine gun. Players had little choice but to resort to guns, since punches and kicks only do so much against Kevlar.

In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, the guns are bio-metrically linked to the cops using them, so melee combat is Faith’s only recourse when faced with an enemy. Fortunately, the melee combat is far superior to that of the original game. Instead of running up to an enemy and punching them until they (hopefully) drop, Faith can perform a variety of evasive and combat maneuvers to get the job done. She’ll have to, if she wants to survive; most enemies in the game are also melee combatants, and skillfully dodging their attacks is crucial to victory. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst makes the combat simple, but challenging.

M6

Players on the run can also clothes-line and bowl people over if Faith is in a hurry.

In stark contrast to its rigidly linear predecessor, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is an open-world game, with entire square miles’ worth of city rooftops to explore. In addition to making their way around the city to complete the story missions, players can also complete side jobs around the city. Faith can run clandestine deliveries for paying customers, or help her fellow runners out of jams with the law. Glass is also replete with timed challenges, in which Faith has to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Players can even create and run their own challenges.

The point of these challenges, aside from a few more bits of exposition, is to build up experience. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst introduces light RPG elements to the Mirror’s Edge universe. Faith can level up and spend points on new moves and gear. Though it’s an interesting way for players to make their own spin on running, most of the perks that are available offer only minor tweaks to Faith’s abilities. The ability to climb a ladder slightly faster than usual is helpful, but it won’t do much for players looking to get off of the beaten path.

M7

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s experiment with RPG elements comes up shallow.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst also starts to fray a bit when exploring the open world. Almost all of the side challenges are the same challenge: get from Point A to Point B under such and such a time limit. Sure, the game dresses it up as various things, but it all boils down to doing the same mission over and over. It doesn’t help that many of these missions have arbitrary requirements, like knocking out certain numbers of guards along the way. Why? What bearing does this have on Faith’s mission? It’s like asking the paper boy to smash every mailbox on his route because it somehow makes the newspaper better.

The icing on the cake is when the mission fails and Electronic Arts puts up a loading screen chastising the player for not avoiding the guards. So, suffice to say, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst‘s transition to an open-world format is rocky. It doesn’t help that many of these missions boil down to online community gimmicks, like putting a gamer tag on a billboard. Who cares about that? Like the corporations that run Glass, Electronic Arts cannot abide people who just want to stay off the grid.

M8

The city of Glass offers much more variety than DICE could come up with ideas for.

Though Glass’s side questing is mediocre, its artwork and visuals are most certainly not. As of its release, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst might just be the most graphically impressive video game ever made. The city bursts with strong color, the lighting effects are second to none, and the diversity of its buildings is outstanding. As much time will be spent just gazing into Glass as actually playing around in it, and deservedly so. The level design is an intricate maze, weaving long stretches of vista with opportunities for parkour. It’s all carefully coordinated to give Faith a great deal of freedom in her running, and that sense of wild abandon is thus passed on to the player. It’s a very fluid experience.

No game, though, is immune from launch-time bugs. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst suffers from strange texture bugs, in which the character models’ clothing will short out. This happens during both gameplay and in-game cutscenes. For some reason, the pre-rendered cinematics have a tendency to tank the framerate, even on powerful machines, though they usually right themselves about 10 seconds in. Shockingly, the game’s signage and lettering can look quite muddy even from some distance away, and it takes far too long for the textures to load and clean themselves up. Usually, Faith’s long gone before this has happened.

M9

Glass is beautiful, but it’s not without its flaws.

The story of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is significantly improved over that of the original game, but that’s not saying much. Innovative as it is, the narrative within Mirror’s Edge is soup-thin and replete with plot holes. The story of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst contains no immediate similarities to the old story, save the presence of Faith, but there are echoes.

At times, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst risks being too derivative of its predecessor. Though Faith’s not out to save her sister as she was in the last game, her discovery of a horrific plot the Conglomerate has for the city contains the exact same crescendo. Discover secret, get chased by the cops, run around the city solving the mystery. Players of the original game may feel underwhelmed by how similar the two narratives are.

M10

Faith is the only returning character from the original game, but the new characters and narrative are so similar to that of Mirror’s Edge that the differences can be quite difficult to spot.

Though Mirror’s Edge Catalyst employs the same type of story as its predecessor, that story is much better told in this game. Anyone who’s played a DICE game knows that storytelling is not their strong suit, but they did a good job crafting a dystopian thriller with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Each character has a believable story arc; Faith herself evolves from a selfish survivor into someone willing to take a stand for complete strangers.

It’s impressive how egalitarian the game is in its portrayal of women. Faith looks a bit more sexualized than in the previous game, but most of the game’s leading cast is female, which is nothing short of a complete rarity in the world of video games. Many of the cops you go up against are also female, which is a subtle but important touch. Each character is reasonably multi-dimensional, and they occupy complicated niches on both sides of the story. The narrative does rely a bit too much on the convenient inventor trope; Faith is assisted by a hacker named Plastic, who can just do everything from her computer; but the dialogue is better than average, especially for a DICE game.

M11

The story of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is not amazing, but it’s good. It contains enough inventiveness and believable dialogue to warrant a look.

Though Mirror’s Edge Catalyst mishandles its attempt at open-world gaming, and its narrative contains precious few new ideas for longtime fans of the series, it’s a welcome return for one of the most novel first-person action games in recent years. It’s not the sequel to Mirror’s Edge that many people wanted, but it’s much closer to what the original game should’ve been. If the original Mirror’s Edge has a failure, it’s that its story did not take advantage of its own premise. A dystopian future city should’ve been replete with much more than a conventional rescue story.

Here, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst comes much closer to a narrative worthy of that idea.  It takes the good but thin ideas offered by the original game and fleshes them out into their full potential. Its parkour running mechanics are unlike most anything else on the market these days, and it advances the glorious sense of scale achieved by the city in Mirror’s Edge. Get the game and enjoy it. Longtime fans will enjoy a smoother run as Faith, and newcomers will find a new type of fun.

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You can buy Mirror’s Edge Catalyst here.

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

Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic

T1

Stop a horrific disease and elude its murderous victims.

PC Release: November 1, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Penumbra: Necrologue is a decent horror game, but like many decent horror games, its narrative leaves a lot to be desired. The tale of Philip, the reluctant scientist who braves a monster-infested laboratory to find his father, ends on a pretty satisfactory note, but that did little to solve Necrologue‘s other plot holes. An entire group of characters mentioned throughout Necrologue, only for the game to end before their parts were played. It would seem that this was deliberate on the part of Necrologue‘s developer, CounterCurrent Games, because Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic is here to wrap all of those up.

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The Penumbra games are a series of survival horror titles from Frictional Games, a studio know for such horror greats as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, the scariest game made since Outlast. The Penumbra series is set in modern times and follows Philip, a young British scientist, who searches for his father in northern Greenland. Throughout the series’s three games, Philip braves environments full of monsters and can only run and hide when faced with one. The games rely on puzzles and stealth gameplay, as well as an undeniably spooky atmosphere.

The third and final game in the series, Penumbra: Requiem, ended the series on a low note, with a weak, surreal story and the monsters taken out in place of mediocre physics puzzles. Penumbra: Necrologue is a standalone game made by fans of the original series to give Penumbra a proper ending, an effort that it largely succeeds in. Twilight of the Archaic is a piece of downloadable content for Necrologue that serves as a prequel to the entire series. It seeks to depict the events that drew Philip to Greenland in the first place, and the genesis of the horrific monsters encountered throughout the series.

T2

Charming.

Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic is a DLC for Penumbra: Necrologue that adds a new, 4-5 hour campaign to the game. It’s free, and was automatically added to every copy of Necrologue in November, which is awesome. Free games may not always be good, but they’re always cheap.

The bulk of Twilight of the Archaic takes place before and during the entire Penumbra series. It’s the first Penumbra game to not feature Philip as its protagonist, instead focusing on a pair of female leads. Dr. Eleanor Loreid, a young scientist suffering from exhaustive nightmares, and Dr. Amabel Swanson, a cheerful researcher who will go on to appear in Penumbra: Black Plague as a major supporting character. Twilight of the Archaic‘s narrative is divided roughly in half between the two, and starts things off with Eleanor waking up screaming from her sleep.

T3

Anyone who works in a place this depressing would probably scream from time to time.

Eleanor and Amabel didn’t come to uninhabited northern Greenland just to hang out with walruses. They’re actually scientists in a secret facility, operated by a clandestine organization called the Archaic Elevated Caste. There are hints and clues as to the Caste’s inner workings in the main Penumbra games, but this is the first time players see the organization in-depth.

The Caste’s mission is to collect and preserve ancient knowledge, and the laboratory they’ve set up in Greenland is devoted to exactly that, as the scientists study a prehistoric ruin located deep underground. When they unseal the ruin, a strange disease sickens almost everyone in the facility. Twilight of the Archaic beings as Eleanor races to find a cure for her sick coworkers.

T4

Tainted walrus meat may have been the root cause of the malady.

Eleanor is a skilled scientist, but her efforts to cure the plague are ground to nothing as her coworkers are mutated into horrific, bloodthirsty monsters. To witness the genesis of the creatures in the Penumbra games is quite a shock, and Eleanor quickly flees the diseased tide lest she become a monster herself.

With the facility thrown into chaos and mutants running around killing everyone, Eleanor decides to make her escape. She has no weapons to strike back against the monsters and can only run and hide from any that happen upon her. Twilight of the Archaic is classic Penumbra, with a mix of intense, monster-avoiding stealth sequences and lots of puzzles.

T5

Footsteps. Big, thumping footsteps. Must hide.

Because Twilight of the Archaic assumes that players have already endured Necrologue, the game has a pretty brutal learning curve. Eleanor is thrown into the hairiest of monster encounters pretty much from the get-go. Twilight of the Archaic‘s monsters are more intelligent than those of Necrologue, particularly the Hunter, a ceiling-crawling human mutant that can see perfectly well in the dark.

As for Eleanor, there’s not a whole lot to say. Her background is left pretty much unexplained and she’s a silent protagonist, aside from the occasional grunt or scream. Her thread in this narrative is a short, noisy and terrifying romp through the base. Though most monsters are happy enough to just wander the corridors, Eleanor realizes that she’s being stalked by a particularly savage beast. Imagine a combination of Chris Walker from Outlast, and the Hunter from Dead Space.

T6

NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE

Eleanor’s segment of Twilight of the Archaic is one of the most exhilarating horror sequences in gaming. It has a few puzzles, and a few random encounters, but being pursued by that grotesque thing for nearly two hours makes for an emotionally exhausting experience. Creepier than its sudden smashes through walls or tremendous height is its attempts to coax Eleanor out over the radio. It only gets worse the further the scientist goes in. Though Eleanor herself undergoes little character development and the subplot remains vague, this is one of the tensest horror scenes in recent gaming memory.

The second half of Twilight of the Archaic picks up many hours later and focuses on Amabel Swanson, another researcher on the other side of the base from Eleanor. Amabel initially fortifies herself in a laboratory, but is forced to flee when a sadly familiar-looking creature bursts in, trying to kill her. She packs her things and sets out across the base’s frozen surface, like Eleanor, bereft of any weapons and only the goal of escape.

T7

Oh, finally, someone turned on a light!

Amabel may not have a zombified sumo wrestler with a sword for a tongue chasing after her, but she has problems nonetheless. By now, the base has been totally overrun by the monsters, and her only hope of escape is to run to the hangar and pray that a helicopter is still there. She’s done what she can to help Philip; now it’s time to help herself and stay ahead of the creatures roaming the halls.

Whereas Eleanor’s segment of Twilight of the Archaic is fast and tight, Amabel’s starts off pretty slow. The monster encounters are few and far between, and most of her time is spent fixing machinery and fashioning an exit through the labs to get to the chopper. It’s a natural decrescendo after the scary heights of Eleanor’s story, but some of the puzzles, like a ridiculous conveyor belt conundrum, drag the pacing down too much.

T8

Breaking rocks for hours. Is this a horror game, or a North Korea simulator?

Now, to be fair, this puzzle is not as tedious as the infamous computer chip puzzle from Penumbra: Black Plague, but a lot of the puzzles in Twilight of the Archaic are not that great. When their rules are not obtuse and make the puzzle take too long, the solution is often too obscure. One puzzle toward the beginning of Eleanor’s story took forever not because it was complicated, but because the key needed to proceed was hidden behind one of a dozen identical-looking panels. Panels that the game had made no indication could be smashed open.

Additionally, one major problem the game offers is that collectible items stay in the inventory even if the characters die and the game re-loads. It’s a curious anachronism. If Amabel adds an item to her inventory, it magically stays there even if she’s killed and the player loads a checkpoint preceding the discovery of said item. Most players would logically assume they’d have to go back and grab the item again, only to find it missing and get killed by the monster, leading to a huge waste of time and effort. It’s Twilight of the Archaic‘s only major problem, but it’s a doozy. Check the inventory frequently.

T9

There’s a monster in this picture.

Despite pulling back the speed of Twilight of the Archaic and getting bogged down in some truly boring puzzles, Amabel’s story is not without its heights and freights. Players finally learn the true fates of a few characters from Necrologue, including the search-and-rescue team that Philip tries to reach. Amabel herself is forced to reflect on all of the events that this entire series has thrust upon her, in powerful hallucinations if not in spoken dialogue.

Toward the end of the game, Amabel encounters an old foe from the original Penumbra games, a terrifying creature that’s finally been given his physical debut as a monster. More terrifying even than Eleanor’s encounters with her stalker, this creature is calculating, intelligent and has a terrible sense of humor. The segment is well-done because it accents a survival horror chase with some pretty gruesome torture and interrogation. It’s a successful implementation of psychological horror, then survival horror, all aimed at making the monster so scary that players will jump when they so much as hear his footsteps. It’s arguably the scariest sequence in the entire Penumbra series.

T10

Twilight of the Archaic goes to some pretty dark places. Uh, no pun intended.

All in all, Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic is an excellent horror game. All but one of its environments was built from scratch, the level design is fiendishly good, and the constant pursuit by monsters makes it feel claustrophobic and dreadful. Some of the puzzles are a bit long and a bit obtuse. Some of the environments are way too dark, as demonstrated by these screenshots.But Twilight of the Archaic does well at tying up what Necrologue left behind. It’s both a fitting accent to the series as a whole, and a heart-pouding, visceral survival horror game on its own.

Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic is now part of Penumbra: Necrologue, which is itself already free, so there’s no reason for horror fans to stave off grabbing it. Players would do well to play the original Penumbra games and the main Necrologue campaign, but those games are great experiences in and of themselves. Twilight of the Archaic ties it all together like a neat, gory little bow.

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You can buy Penumbra: Twilight of the Archaic 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.

Age of Empires II HD

A

Lead the kingdoms of the medieval world into ever bloodier conflicts.

PC Release: April 9, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Strategy games. They’re either the greatest gift gaming has ever garnered, or a quagmire of misery, depending on who’s asked. The 90s seemed to favor gamers of the former stripe, as the industry was inundated with an unprecedented boom of strategy games. Command & Conquer, StarCraft and Age of Empires were but a few of the real-time strategy games released during that time. The real-time strategy boom subsided in the 2000s as the market became swamped with first-person shooters, but now, it seems, gamers are in the mood for something a little more complicated again. The HD re-release of Age of Empires II is evidence of this trend.

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Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was originally released in 1999 by Ensemble, a now-defunct Microsoft subsidiary that would go on to develop such games as Halo Wars and, shocker, Age of Empires III. AoE II, as it’s commonly abbreviated, is a strategy game set during the Middle Ages, and tasks players with choosing and building up one of 13 civilizations. Players can pick from such medieval mainstays as the Britons, the Visigoths, the Vikings, and other iconic powers from the Middle Ages. An expansion pack called Age of Empires II: The Conquerers adds five more civilizations and a wealth of new units and maps.

Players can fight each other in multiplayer mode, or pick from over a dozen single-player campaigns that follow the stories of medieval warriors and kings. Either way, the game is played from an isometric perspective, and players must train units, build towns and create an army. The first person to destroy their opponent wins the match.

A1

Age of Empires II challenges players to build a thriving civilization and lead it to victory over opponents.

Age of Empires II is one of the most beloved video games in the real-time strategy world. Arguably, it competes with StarCraft and Command & Conquer for the title of most popular RTS game of all time. Age of Empires II‘s longevity was demonstrated in the spring of 2013, when an HD edition of the game was released onto Steam with overwhelming fanfare. Three years on, the game has garnered a massive community of new and returning fans, and its Steam Workshop integration means lots of user-created content is available.

Right off the bat, though, the name Age of Empires II HD is a bit of a misnomer. The game has been upgraded to work on modern systems, but that’s about all that’s “HD” about this game. The 90s-era graphics are still front-and-center, and they haven’t aged all that well. A few effects were added to the water to make it look more realistic, but just because one thing about the game is HD doesn’t mean that the entire game is HD.

A2

Palisades made out of sticks, and crappy thatch barns. Apparently, this game has a Utah County map.

Though the visuals might be a turn-off for new gamers, they’re the stuff of nostalgia for returning fans. Age of Empires II looks dated, but its environments are still surprisingly engrossing. Most maps have a lot of territorial variety, and the game’s use of strong colors prevents it from looking faded. The building models also have a lot of detail on them, especially for a 90s game. The leaves on that stable in the screenshot are a nice touch.

But, the overwhelming majority of strategy gamers don’t come to Age of Empires II for the graphics. They come for the strategy, and this game packs plenty of that. In a conventional Age of Empires II match, players start off with a building called the town center. This structure serves as each civilization’s center of commerce and governance, and also allows for the production of villagers. Villagers can be sent out into the wilderness to gather food, wood, gold, and stone, and combinations of all four resources are used to construct buildings, research technologies and of course, train soldiers.

A3

The more each civilization grows, the more sophisticated they become.

Now, things start off pretty small, with a handful of villagers and a pile of sticks that is only a town center in the most generous use of the term. Most games start off in the Dark Ages, the post-Roman period when the ability to read was rarer than gold dust, and pebbles were the main form of currency. Players can pay gold and food to advance through subsequent “Ages” of history, gaining access to better technologies and more powerful units as they go. Each civilization boasts an array of buildings to make everything better; build houses to grow the population, build a blacksmith to research better weapons and armor, and build a barracks to train troops.

Once a civilization has advanced and an army has been built, it’s time to go on the offensive. Players can build armies composed of a mix of units, ranching from swordsmen to spearmen to archers, as well as cavalry, siege engines, and ships for naval warfare. All of these must be used to crush the enemy forces and destroy their town center. Each unit is strong against one other type of unit and weak against another. Cavalry, for example, are great against foot soldiers but tend to fair poorly against artillery. To succeed in Age of Empires II, players have to build an army that can anticipate all of the enemy unit types and still lay siege to the opponent’s town.

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Anyone who’s ever dreamed of conducting a viking raid on England will want to buy this game.

The bulk of all of this gameplay happens in multiplayer, where single players or teams of combatants try to outwit and out-stab their opponents. The meat of the game’s content is a single-player series of campaigns, starring such medieval legends as William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Frederick Barbarossa and Genghis Khan himself. Each campaign packs about 8-10 missions of tight combat against vicious computer opponents.

It is the viciousness of Age of Empires II HD‘s artificial intelligence that constitutes a major problem. Age of Empires II is a tough game. Very tough. Like StarCraft and other games of that era, it does not hold hands, and it does not hold back on new players. To be fair, the game does include a tutorial campaign that introduces the basic mechanics of the game, but the artificial intelligence does not acclimate alongside the player. Once the tutorial is over, players are flung into a new campaign and the very first mission comprises defending a city from not one, not two, but three computer opponents, all of whom have already built up their bases and are sending units to attack the city the instant the match starts.

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For all the effort that was put into its gameplay, Age of Empires II treats new players like dirt.

It’s artificial intelligence this ruthless that calls into question Age of Empires II‘s tutorial. Teaching players how to find sheep and build walls is one thing, but the tutorial does nothing to truly prepare players for the onslaughts to be expected in single-player and multiplayer modes. It’s not fair to expect the game to hold hands, and veteran strategy gamers will appreciate this, but Age of Empires II‘s uncompromising difficulty serves as a deterrent to newcomers. It’s no coincidence that “cheats” is the most popular web search term associated with Age of Empires II.

Additionally, the single-player narratives in Age of Empires II are quite dry. Ensemble Studios is to be commended for closely following the historical events of the campaigns in its game, but each story reads less like a medieval epic and more like a dry history textbook. Each mission is preceded and capped off with cutscenes depicting the struggles of our heroes, and though they’re interesting, they’re not that exciting. There is no character development or interaction on or off of the battlefield, so gamers who pick this game up purely for the narrative are destined for disappointment.

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Age of Empires II has better gameplay than story.

With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that Age of Empires II is really only for inveterate strategy players, gamers who have fought and bled and won on dozens of digital battlefields before even arriving to this destination. Admittedly, Age of Empires II has some outstanding strategy gameplay, with resource gathering, unit production and research all neatly lined up for use. The AI of the game’s units is sophisticated for its age, and players can order their units to attack, defend, patrol between two points, and perform other functions. Of course, economies win games, so don’t ever slow villager productivity just because it looks like the enemy is on the run. Every unit, from the lowliest foot soldier to the mightiest elephant rider, will have a part to play in the battles ahead.

The gameplay feature of Age of Empires II that is less than outstanding is the diversity of its civilizations. Age of Empires II HD contains sixteen civilizations from all over the world. Each one gets a unique unit and a unique technology, but that’s where the disparities stop. The only difference between playing as the English and the French is that the former gets a longbow archer, and the latter gets an ax thrower. Other than that, they have the same roster of rank-and-file units and their buildings all look the same. Six civilizations from the same region of the world will all have the same-looking buildings and castles. So, logistically, Age of Empires II really only has 4-5 civilizations, with each sub-civ differed only by its unique unit. Some civilizations, like the Koreans, get two unique units… for some reason. This gives them a natural advantage over other civilizations and makes for some serious unbalancing.

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Hey! How come that guy gets TWO horses?!

Despite these problems, the enthusiasm of Age of Empires II‘s community is staggering. It’s culminated in the production of two pieces of DLC; two pieces of DLC for a game that’s almost twenty years old. The first DLC, titled The Forgotten, was made by a team of modders who felt that the original game had, well, forgotten, some prominent civilizations. The Forgotten features campaigns starring some lesser-known historical figures, but these missions are even dryer than those of the original game. There is no voice acting, leaving the game eerily silent, and the pre-mission and post-mission briefings are literal novels. The Forgotten does add some neat civilizations not in the original game, like the Italians, but is otherwise quite forgettable.

The second DLC, Age of Empires II: The African Kingdoms, was released in November of 2015 and is much more orthodox to the Age of Empires formula. This DLC introduces one new European and three new African civilizations, and campaigns that are fully voice-acted and generally a lot more interesting to follow. Not sure why the Portuguese were included as a civilization in a DLC about Africa, but that’s about all that’s to be found wrong or weird about this DLC. The African Kingdoms is so similar to the original game, it might as well have been there all along.

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Though The Forgotten is a bit dry, both it and The African Kingdoms are handsome additions to the main Age of Empires II game.

Age of Empires II HD is a well-made strategy game. It wouldn’t have made such a bombastic comeback otherwise. But the game doesn’t do nearly enough to introduce new players to its community. Even on easy mode, it’s a game that is nearly exclusively the domain of people who have played many, many strategy games before, and that’s a shame. Because despite the dryness of its single-player campaigns and the aged look of its units and environments, Age of Empires II HD is a decent game. It just does nothing to extend an olive branch to new players, and how can its community expect to grow under that condition?

The recommendation of Age of Empires II is therefore conditional upon any previous experience with strategy games. Gamers who are unfamiliar with the genre will want to start on something easier, and that’s okay, because real-time strategy games are the most difficult video games out there. Despite the duplicitous easiness of its tutorial, Age of Empires II is really only accessible to gamers with lots of RTS games under their belts. Its high difficulty may tempt the adventurous, but be cautious. Frustration is as ravaging and relentless an enemy as the Vikings, or the Huns, or some ungodly chimera of the two.

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You can buy Age of Empires II HD 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.

Gotham City Stories

A1

Continue the Arkham Knight saga with some of Batman’s closest allies… and deadliest foes.

PC Release: Various

By Ian Coppock

There are many PC gamers out there who will never forgive Rocksteady for the shoddy release of Batman: Arkham Knight last summer. While console gamers enjoyed uninterrupted smoothness from the Caped Crusader’s latest adventure, their PC counterparts were stuck with one of modern gaming’s worst ports. From new saves that crashed upon starting, to frame rates dropping into the single digits, there was no shortage of problems with Batman: Arkham Knight. The game needed patching, and needed it badly; it was over four months later before the game was re-released onto Steam. It runs as well as it should have upon release, and a wealth of downloadable content has been made available to compliment the main game. It’s time to sort out what’s worth playing amid dozens of skins, missions and other content.

A Matter of Family

B

The first major downloadable content release for Arkham Knight is a 3-hour mission pack, starring Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Years before a shot to the spine confined her to a wheelchair, Barbara Gordon was flapping about Gotham City in a bat costume not unlike that of Bruce Wayne. This DLC is set some time before Batman: Arkham Asylum, and hones in on Batgirl trying to save her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, from the Joker.

Right off the bat, A Matter of Family‘s premise is tired. The Arkham series is nothing if not a series of missions to rescue loved ones from villains, and it’s also the entire point of this downloadable content. Gordon has had to be rescued in several Arkham games already, so it was disappointing to see Rocksteady resort to such a worn premise for this narrative.

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Batgirl’s first appearance in the Arkham-verse deserved a much stronger story.

Anyway, the Joker, voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill, has holed up in a creepy amusement part that was built on an old oil rig. He threatens to kill Jim Gordon if Batman so much as sneezes toward the island, so only the Dark Knight’s allies can approach with any measure of safety. Robin shows up to help Batgirl out, which was annoying to see. If this is supposed to be a story about how skilled Batgirl is, why is there a male character there to chaperone her and warn her away from danger? The execution of the narrative sabotages its premise.

Once Batgirl makes it onto the oil rig, she has to travel around the amusement park fixing shit so that she can make it to her dad. It’s an unfortunate tendency of downloadable content to present a small, albeit new area, and fill it with only 2-3 objectives that can be completed in any order. To be fair, the content is reasonably long for its price, clocking in at about three hours. It presents a portrait of Barbara Gordon preceding her time as the Oracle, but that’s about all the innovation it brings to the table. She plays little different from Batman, but the game does try to exemplify her skills as a hacker by including more computer-based puzzles. It’s just a shame that she barely gets to develop as a character before the lights are out and the game is over. It’s a decent piece of content for fans of Oracle, but not much more.

Harley Quinn Story Pack

B2

The chance to play as Harley Quinn was hotly anticipated by Arkham fans prior to the game’s release. It was a piece of bonus content offered to gamers who pre-ordered Arkham Knight, and is now available to all on the game’s downloadable content menu.

Set shortly before the events of Arkham Knight, this DLC allows players to star as Harley Quinn, everlasting admirer of and sidekick to the Joker. Harley has arrived to Bludhaven, a city not far from Gotham, to spring the plant-wielding Poison Ivy out of the city’s prison. It’s difficult for crazy clown girls with baseball bats to blend in, and soon the entire police department is alerted to her presence.

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Harley Quinn’s romp through the Bludhaven PD is as irreverent as it is short.

Like all pieces of pre-order content ever devised by the video game industry, Harley Quinn’s little mission pack is soundly underwhelming. Sure, it’s interesting to poke around as one of Batman’s most infamous enemies, but the DLC offers no new gameplay. Harley moves through the police department in a series of encounters identical to those of Batman, even though she’s not Batman. From enemy brawls to predator encounters, this DLC offers nothing new in terms of gameplay. Even the frustrated radio banter between Harley and the Penguin only offers so many laughs.

The cherry on top of all of this is that the DLC is short. It can be completed in about 20 minutes, including all of the enemy encounters and a bruising boss fight with Nightwing. The most interesting piece of this content has nothing to do with the gameplay and everything to do with Harley’s version of detective mode. Instead of seeing in infrared like Batman, Harley sees in shades of bright pink, and all of the surfaces she sees are scrawled over with ramblings about how much she loves the Joker. It’s a novel way to express the insanity of the character, but not enough to make this DLC worth its price. If it’s to be owned, it must only be done via a sale.

Red Hood Story Pack

B4

The Red Hood is a fascinating character in Batman lore. He represents everything that is wrong with Batman, including his unwillingness to kill criminals who are clearly beyond redemption. To be the judge on such a matter is no small task, but where Batman fights with martial arts, Hood fights with lead. Both characters are on the side of justice, but have very different ways of going about it.

The Red Hood story pack features the titular vigilante as he takes on the crime lord Black Mask, who served as the main antagonist of Batman: Arkham Origins. Unlike the Dark Knight, the Red Hood has no qualms about killing criminals, and this is reflected in the DLC’s gameplay. Instead of punching and choke-holding criminals into unconsciousness, Red Hood shots them between the eyes and snaps their necks while their backs are turned. His moves incorporate a mix of melee fighting, but make no mistake; he’s in this to be lethal.

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The Red Hood reasons that criminals can’t live to fight another day if they’re dead.

It’s strangely cathartic to play as a lethal character in the Arkham-verse. All Arkham fans know that those criminals taken out by Batman will eventually wake up and live to stand in his way again. With the Red Hood, that problem is rectified with a few well-aimed bullets. The gameplay has been tweaked to suit Hood’s murderous nature, with deadly fighting moves and silent take downs from which there is no waking up.

Unfortunately, like the Harly Quinn Story Pack, Red Hood’s DLC is quite short, clocking in at a measly 15-20 minutes of content. The missions comprise a mix of open brawls and predator encounters, culminating in a fight against Black Mask himself, but none of that saves that the DLC is essentially over as soon as it’s warming up. The Red Hood Story Pack does warrant more interest from potential buyers because it tweaks the gameplay in ways that the Harley content does not, but still. Get it on a sale.

GCPD Lockdown

B6

GCPD Lockdown stars Nightwing, the very first student of Batman, in a new story set after the events of Arkham Knight. Paradoxically for a piece of Arkham content, the DLC takes place during the daytime, a first for the series that espouses a dreary nighttime atmosphere.

During a routine patrol in the city of Bludhaven, Nightwing overhears a group of criminals talking about a plot to break the Penguin out of Gotham City’s lockup, and after handing out some justice with his electric batons, decides to putz on over to his old hometown. Sure enough, Penguin’s crew are laying siege to the precinct, and it’s up to Nightwing to stop the intruders and keep Penguin on ice.

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Taste the justice of 10,000 volts, evildoers!

Nightwing’s gameplay is quite different from that of his caped mentor. Bereft of a cape, and therefore any gliding abilities, Nightwing must get around the levels using the acrobatic skills he learned from his childhood circus days. The writing in this DLC is more enjoyable than that of its counterparts. Nightwing’s trademark blend of humor and over-the-top optimism is front-and-center in this content, and it’s funny both on its own and in his taunting exchanges with the Penguin.

Unfortunately, once again, a piece of Arkham Knight DLC delivers a tiny fraction of what could have been. This DLC is a little longer than the others at about 40 minutes of content, but come on… why are these so short? The gameplay presented in each of these episodes is fun, so why can’t there be more of it? Still, Nightwing’s unique style of gameplay plus the lengthier, more challenging levels make this stand out in the Arkham Knight lineup. This one is a definite must-have, if only, once again, when it’s on sale.

A Flip of a Coin

R

While Nightwing is busy keeping the Penguin from getting out of GCPD, Two-Face has managed to break himself out of jail and returned to his lair deep under Gotham. Robin takes off in hot pursuit of the schizophrenic supervillain, armed with everything that Batman has taught him over the years. Like GCPD Lockdown, this content takes place after Arkham Knight.

Robin’s gameplay is much more similar to Batman’s than Nightwing’s. He can glide from perch to perch and silently take down foes using zip lines and other devices. He also has a shield built into his staff that can deflect incoming gunfire, giving him an edge over armed enemies that his mentor does not have.

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Holy frijoles, Batman! A quarter!

Once again, this DLC encompasses a mix of predator encounters and unhinged brawls against many foes, and once again, it comes up at less than an hour of gameplay. Robin enthusiasts will enjoy playing as the Boy Wonder, but the best time to do so is when this content is on sale.

Having said that, A Flip of A Coin‘s writing does a good job at portraying Robin’s insecurities. Throughout the DLC he becomes rife with doubt, about whether he’ll ever be as good as Batman, about whether he can stop one of his mentor’s most seasoned enemies. Brief as it is, the narrative includes more subtlety than any of the other content and doesn’t close out its uncertainty at the end. The DLC also features a few unique new puzzles, but how many Arkham fans are in it for the godddamn puzzles?

Catwoman’s Revenge

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The final piece of these tiny, episode-driven content packs stars Gotham City’s most infamous cat-burglar. Suffice it to say, Catwoman is out for revenge on the Riddler; he did some pretty shitty things to her during the events of Arkham Knight, and now she’s going to gut him for all he’s worth and then some.

Set some time after Arkham Knight, this DLC is much more stealth-focused than the combat-driven packs featuring Nightwing and Robin. Things kick off with Catwoman creeping around a creepy museum, as she silently takes key cards from guards without being able to knock them out. This type of mission has already been seen in Batman: Arkham City, but it was fun to see it again.

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(insert bad cat pun here).

Before long, Catwoman gains entry to the Riddler’s innermost laboratory, and begins looking for ways to clean out his bank account. Before she can get too far, the Riddler’s robotic army wakes up, and begins to surround her. After two missions focusing on stealth, the DLC closes out with a climactic battle against easily dismembered machines.

Though the writing is not as strong in this DLC as GCPD Lockdown or A Flip of a Coin, the stealth missions are more novel than the predator encounters seen in all previous episodes of this series. The final battle against Riddler’s machines is difficult, but not impossible, and the narrative closes out on a resounding high note. Despite its shortness, stealth fans will enjoy Catwoman’s Revenge for its emphasis on, well, stealth. It’s also refreshing to see that the developers de-sexualized Catwoman just a little bit. Seriously, she wore like 18 pounds of makeup in Arkham City.

The Season of Infamy

R4

The last and biggest piece of DLC for Arkham Knight stars the Caped Crusader himself. The Season of Infamy adds four iconic Batman supervillains to Arkham Knight. The missions take place during the main game itself, and are simply added to Batman’s queue of side quests. As if the Scarecrow drowning Gotham in fear toxin wasn’t enough, Batman must now contend with Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze and Killer Croc. Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of The League of Shadows, returns from Batman: Arkham City.

Each of these side missions contains about an hour of content, so players can expect an additional 4-5 hours of romping around Gotham City. It’s ironic that each individual side mission is longer than the episodic DLC discussed up until this point, and it begs the question as to why more time wasn’t put into the earlier content. However, back to the content at hand.

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What the hell does this thing EAT? Well, besides people.

If the Arkham fans out there could only choose one piece of DLC content from this series, The Season of Infamy is far and away the best. More than just adding content to the main game of Batman:  Arkham Knight, each mission offers a sense of closure with the side villains we’ve seen over the years. Some of these characters debuted in Batman: Arkham Asylum all the way back in 2009, and it’s fun to see their journeys come full circle in Arkham Knight.

Batman doesn’t get any new gadgets or abilities with The Season of Infamy, but he his thrust into new gameplay situations necessitating new creativity with what he’s got. The voice acting in each mission is excellent, and the DLC meshes into the main game as if it was already there. The Season of Infamy is a must-have for anyone buying Batman: Arkham Knight. Everything else, from the other content on this list to the myriad of skins and challenge maps, is optional. Arkham Knight is running well again, as evidenced by the “Overwhelmingly Positive” mark on recent reviews of the Steam edition. It really is the ultimate Batman game, so please, at least give it a try. It deserved the rap it got when it didn’t work last summer, but now that it’s fixed, it’s a true gem.

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You can buy Gotham City Stories here.

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

Penumbra: Necrologue

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Escape a monster-infested laboratory and make a break for the surface.

PC Release: February 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

It’s no secret among horror fans that the Penumbra series went out with a dang. The debut title of Frictional Games, who would go on to develop Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma, Penumbra was a series of three episodic video games that, at the time, was seen as a new benchmark in quality horror gaming. The first two games in this series were hardcore survival horror games, but the third was a… puzzle game? With no monsters? Fans of Penumbra were understandably disappointed that a horror game series had a horror-free conclusion, but a group of Russian game developers took such exception with the fiasco that they went and made their own ending to the series. Penumbra: Necrologue is the result of their efforts.

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Penumbra: Necrologue was created by CounterCurrent Games to serve as the “proper” ending to the Penumbra series. The story of the original Penumbra games focuses on a British scientist named Philip, who receives a letter from his father the day after his mother’s funeral. The thing is, his father is supposed to have died before Philip was even born. The letter also contains a map that the letter begs Philip to destroy, but he instead follows it to uninhabited northern Greenland.

Philip’s adventure to find his father quickly turns worse than his worst nightmares. Penumbra: Overture, the first episode, follows Philip as he descends into a pitch-black lead mine infested with mutated dogs, spiders and worse threats. In Penumbra: Black Plague, he finally gains entry to the research facility his father’s holed up in, only to find its human staff devolved into snarling monsters. After braving these threats and discovering a terrible truth, Philip is teleported into his own mind in Penumbra: Requiem, where he must solve a series of physics puzzles. Requiem had no monsters, was filled with strange dialogue, and left Penumbra ending on a cliffhanger.

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BORING.

To be fair to Frictional Games, the proper “third episode” of Penumbra fell apart due to a dispute with their publisher, but that didn’t alleviate Penumbra: Requiem‘s mediocrity. Necrologue sort of skims over Requiem and starts off as Philip wakes up the Shelter, the hidden laboratory his father had worked in.

Having braved dozens of monsters and having learned the truth about his father, Philip is in no hurry to stick around the dilapidated research facility. He fires up a computer and learns that the secret society that owns the Shelter has sent in a search and rescue team, and that rendezvousing with them is his only hope of survival. Gathering his flashlight, his tools and his wits, Philip braces himself for more hardship and a new goal: escape.

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Time to get the hell out of here.

Penumbra: Necrologue follows the survival horror gameplay of the original Penumbra games to the letter. Philip cannot fight the monsters of the Shelter, and his only recourse if he encounters one is to run and/or hide. Philip can see in the dark using his flashlight, but it gobbles up batteries like a beast, and they’re not exactly plentiful in the Shelter. Philip can also use flares as a backup light source, and can maintain his health with painkillers.

It’s worth noting that Penumbra: Necrologue is a full-conversion mod of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This means that the developers fully recreated the world of Penumbra from scratch, inside Amnesia‘s more advanced game engine. As a result, Necrologue imports Amnesia‘s sanity meter, which blurs the screen and debilitates the player’s ability to hide if they stare at a monster for too long. This makes the game a much more visceral challenge.

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Goddamn this is spooky…

Just like in the earlier Penumbra games, Philip can only move on to the next area by solving a series of puzzles. Typically, these involve gathering objects hidden around a “hub” area, and then returning to either fix something or build a new object with which to get to the next area. The developers dress this mechanic up in various ways, like repairing a radio or draining a flood, but it’s repeated throughout the course of Penumbra: Necrologue. It can feel a bit tedious, especially since this game clocks in at a whopping 10-12 hours of content. That is an eternity for a horror game, and the length of all three previous Penumbra games combined.

Of course, surviving in Necrologue isn’t as simple as working around a garage. Suffice it to say, Philip has pissed off forces that he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemy, and the mutated human enemies he avoided in Penumbra: Black Plague are out and about in force. The animals living in the old lead mine outside have also broken into the base, and they’re no less keen on picking up Philip’s scent. If Philip sees a monster, he can only run… and pray.

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JESUS CHRIST RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!!!

There’s no denying that Penumbra: Necrologue is a spooky game, but CounterCurrent Games overlooked a few problems when making this game as a mod for Amnesia. While the monsters in both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra: Necrologue are terrifying, they ain’t too bright. In Amnesia, players can hide from the monsters by holding up a barrel or box in front of the character’s face, and sure enough, Philip can do the same for the monsters in this game. CounterCurrent imported Amnesia‘s monster AI in making this game, which is fine, but made a tweak or two too few.

Necrologue was not afraid to fix some of the things wrong with the original Penumbra games, such as the puzzles. The quandaries Philip encounters in the first three Penumbra games are not terrible, but many of them are boring. There’s one puzzle in Penumbra: Black Plague that forces players to spend hours sorting through programs on computer chips, which is a boring puzzle in and of itself but also drags down the game’s pacing. Necrologue‘s puzzles are still challenging, but much less elaborate, which keeps the game moving at a speed more befitting of a terrifying survival game.

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Necrologue’s puzzles are much more intuitive than those of Penumbras past.

Despite freshening up the puzzles and making the enemies more formidable, there are areas of Necrologue that cross over from being faithful to the original games and become just plain derivative. More than once, Philip comes upon a puzzle that was copy/pasted from the original Penumbra games, lessening the amount of new content that Penumbra veterans can expect to find. Necrologue also inherits its predecessors’ clunky notes system, in which players pixel-hunt across the game to get Philip’s observations on objects and environments. Necrologue doesn’t need to resort to hand-holding, but a less dated mechanic would’ve been a welcome change.

Another area of Necrologue that quite literally borrows from the older games is its level design. Most areas of Necrologue are brand-new, but Philip will often stumble into places that players have already trod in the previous Penumbra episodes. Additionally, the developers copy/pasted entire level segments from Penumbra: Requiem, which was weird to see, considering the developer’s desire to move past Requiem.

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Hey… this place looks familiar.

But, though Penumbra: Necrologue steals some puzzles and some level segments from the older games, it threads an entirely new narrative and smoother gameplay through the production. The narrative does a great job at tying together most everything that Philip has experienced throughout the Penumbra series, from working with a crazed miner in Penumbra: Overture all the way down to facing off with supernatural forces in Penumbra: Black Plague.

As Philip traverses the Shelter and other areas he visited, Penumbra: Necrologue gives off a vibe of ascension. Philip has delved into the earth and found what he came for. Now it’s time to make sense of everything that’s happened and get out of this terrible place. For anything that can be said of Necrologue‘s goofy monster AI and derivative tenancies, there’s no denying that this game is what Penumbra: Requiem should have been. A story that concludes Philip’s character arc, from naive scientist to worn-down survivor, and that encompasses all of the tragedies that he’s witnessed and endured.

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Necrologue’s ability to not just adapt the original Penumbra games’ narrative, but to conclude it, is an example of talented storytelling.

Although Necrologue‘s central story has no love lost for Philip, the same cannot be said for the game’s other characters. Throughout Necrologue, Philip begins hearing voices from characters in games past, including some who are supposed to be dead. This element of design adds some mystery to compliment the monster-fleeing, but Necrologue ends before explaining even one iota what the voices were for or if they were even real. The ultimate fates of many Penumbra characters thus end up in limbo, as if the game forgets about them, leaving a massive plot hole.

The game’s voice acting also leaves something to be desired, including the fact that Philip, a Brit, has a Russian accent. At first this seemed to make sense; Necrologue was developed by a small Russian studio that probably isn’t swimming in money. It wasn’t until a cadre of British and American voice actors joined into the game that confusion began to seep in. Perhaps Philip’s dialogue was recorded before the studio hired these western actors, but wouldn’t it make sense to have one of them just re-record the dialogue on the side?

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“We do zis for Mother Britain!”

Necrologue‘s drawbacks with its story and voice acting do not detract from the atmosphere. This game is dreadfully spooky, and will have players spend hours creeping slowly through desolate hallways and pitch-black laboratories, always on high alert for the slightest sound, the faintest footstep. Necrologue excels at keeping players on their toes at all times, through a combination of eerie lighting and a soundtrack uncannily similar to that of the Penumbra episodes. Necrologue has better graphics and character animations than the first three games, though the scientist characters’ goose-step is a bit goofy. Necrologue also suffers from a disastrous sky box in the very last level that makes the sky look like a cube. A small, but trivially avoidable, error.

Necrologue also scares its players with content that was cut from the original Penumbra games. Philip visits areas and explores subplots that were removed from the first three games. The Hunter, a spider-looking mutant that was removed from Penumbra: Black Plague due to development issues, makes its long-awaited debut in this game. Between the cadre of spooky sound design, the mournful music, the chilly atmosphere and the plethora of monsters, there’s no shortage of scares in Penumbra: Necrologue.

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The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the rock redoubt. Down came the screams and washed the Philips out…

So what all is there to be excited about with Penumbra: Necrologue? For longtime fans of the series, it’s the conclusion that Penumbra: Requiem should have been and then some. It’s a game that adds some new ideas to the series without changing what made it so iconic to begin with. Sure, its voice acting is a little awkward. Sure, its tendency to get too fanboy-ish with how much it copy/pastes from the older games will annoy inveterate horror fans. But players will forget these things quickly when they’re being chased down a hallway by a swarm of worms with wings.

Penumbra: Necrologue is both a quality horror game and a fitting conclusion to the Penumbra series over all. Frictional Games has complimented CounterCurrent on the production, but has been mum on whether it’s considered canon. In any case, Necrologue is second only to Soma in terms of the best horror games that came out in 2015. Best of all, it’s free, so there’s no reason not to have at it. It’s quite graphic, and quite spooky, but that comes with the territory of survival horror games.

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You can buy Penumbra: Necrologue 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.