Monthly Archives: August 2016

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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Investigate a series of terrorist attacks and their implications for a decaying world.

PC Release: August 23, 2016

By Ian Coppock

In the world of PC gaming, there are three video games generally accredited as the holy trinity of modern computer games: Half-Life, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex. The last of those three, even more than the former two, is often hailed as the greatest PC game ever made. While the Half-Life and System Shock series have been dormant for many years, the Deus Ex series got new life breathed into it with 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the original game. Well, five years on, that game has gotten a direct sequel in the form of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, continuing the new prequel arc and filling gaming’s most famous cyberpunk universe with new tales. (It should go without saying that this review contains major spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If anyone hasn’t already, go read Art as Games’ review on that game, buy it, play it, come back, and read this. Pretty please.)

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Like its 2011 predecessor, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set decades before the original Deus ExMankind Divided continues Human Revolution‘s critical analysis of a world in which people can augment their bodies with cybernetic enhancements, ranging from mechanical arms to brain chips to eyes that can see through walls. As one might expect, this creates a societal divide between people who are augmented and people who are not, spawning debates about playing god and the ethics of human modification. While all of this is happening, the world is slowly crumbling beneath the rise of supra-national corporations and conspiracies perpetrated by cabals of the wealthy elite. It’s a pretty grim picture at best.

Human Revolution also tells the story of Adam Jensen, a heavily augmented covert operative who investigates an attack against Sarif Industries, the augmentation firm for whom he runs corporate security. As Adam globe-hops from one piece of the puzzle to another, he realizes that powerful figures in the shadows, the Illuminati, are trying to discredit human augmentation as a means of controlling the populace. This scheme comes to a head at the end of Human Revolution, when these shadow brokers broadcast a signal that makes augmented people go insane, killing everyone in their path. Jensen succeeds in beating them back and deactivating the signal, but not before millions of lives are lost to the augmented’s induced psychosis. The world is left even more broken and more divided after the “Aug Incident.”

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Adam’s investigation changed the world.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set in 2029, two years after Human Revolution, and features the return of Adam Jensen as the main protagonist. In the aftermath of the Aug Incident, human augmentation is made illegal, and those who’ve had any measure of the procedure are heavily discriminated against. Augmented citizens worldwide are rounded up and sequestered into ghettos by a populace of non-augmented people fearful of a second Aug Incident. The “augs” face a slew of police brutality and live in squalor. Though such destruction wasn’t exactly the Illuminati’s plan, their goal to cordon off augmented humans is largely a success.

Against all this, Adam quits his job at the now-bankrupt Sarif Industries to sign on with Task Force 29, an anti-terrorism unit within Interpol. Despite being augmented, Adam’s past experience with police work and covert operations gives him wide leeway within Interpol, even if his coworkers treat him with fear and loathing. Though the world is even more broken and dysfunctional than it was in Human Revolution, Adam is no less eager to bring the Illuminati to justice for what they’ve done to humanity. Unbeknownst to his Interpol buddies, Adam is secretly working with the Juggernaut Collective, a group of hackers he briefly encountered in Human Revolution, to that end. When a group of golden-masked terrorists interrupts a routine mission, Adam seizes an opportunity to continue his investigations and finish what he started.

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Adam remains resolute in a world that despises his kind.

Just like Human RevolutionMankind Divided is a first-person, open-world adventure game that emphasizes different play styles. Players can pick from a wide variety of weapons and augmentations to shape Adam how they will. Gamers who favor a more audacious approach can give Adam high-powered guns and combat-oriented augmentations. By the same token, players preferring a more subtle, merciful approach can outfit him with nonlethal weapons and augmentations suited for stealth. Mankind Divided preserves Human Revolution‘s open-ended level design, allowing players to tear or sneak through each level as they will.

The gameplay in Mankind Divided introduces a few key improvements over that of Human Revolution. Adam can now grasp onto ledges that are just out of reach, which is crucial for getting around a level and exploring all its nooks and crannies. The third-person cover system introduced in Human Revolution also gets a major revamp, giving players much more control over which cover they can sneak to, and allowing Jensen to vault over walls. Guns feel much more powerful than they did in Human Revolution, and they can once again be extensively modified to suit almost any mission profile. Mankind Divided also introduces a crafting system, in which Adam can build new components and gun mods from parts left around the game world.

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Niiiiiice…

In addition to newer, bigger and better guns, Adam’s augmentations have received an overhaul as well. The augmentation interface has been stripped down and streamlined to be a bit more intuitive, and the info page does a much better job at explaining what each augmentation actually does. The energy charge readout for Adam’s augs has also been simplified, though, paradoxically, he still needs to eat a Snickers bar every time he takes down an enemy. Seriously, if he needs to recharge after every take-down, then he must get worn out every time he lifts a box or shakes someone’s hand. Madness.

Jensen also gets access to a series of new augmentations, after his doctor discovers that his body is laced with top-secret, experimental gear that no one’s ever seen before. Though rattled by this discovery, Adam’s pretty quick to take advantage of his new, overclocked powers, like spawning a metal body shield or even firing his arm-mounted blades at enemies.

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BOOM!

Even though all of these revamps and new powers definitely warrant a challenge, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a pretty easy game, even on the highest difficulty. The enemy AI hasn’t improved that much since Human Revolution, and Adam can still sit in the open for like five seconds before someone notices him. Mankind Divided is also much easier to play as a stealth game. As a shooter, it packs a few challenges, forcing Adam to mow down waves of enemies to get to his objective. Players who pick the stealthier option will have a much easier time. Each environment is replete with hidden paths, and the enemies’ stupidity is quite forgiving if Adam accidentally sneaks into them.

The game’s espousing of a stealth approach works at cross-purposes with the new augmentations, only two of which are truly useful for stealth players. The new augs allowing Adam to hack computers remotely and quickly dash between cover are great, but everything else is geared toward making as much noise as possible. Stealth players will have absolutely no use for the metal shield, shoot-able swords, or other over-audacious powers made available in Mankind Divided. Because of this, players who enjoy stealth will find Mankind Divided to be a very similar experience to that of Human Revolution. Given that Mankind Divided‘s level design encourages subtlety, this will be a fair amount of returning fans.

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Only a few of Mankind Divided’s new augs are useful to stealth players.

So yeah, Mankind Divided is better played as a stealth experience. Adam can use these powers and weapons to explore the world around him. Most of the game is set in Prague, the city in which Task Force 29 is headquartered. Mankind Divided is played on a much smaller geographic scale than Human Revolution, which took Adam to diverse open-world hubs in North America and China. Only a few brief missions are set outside the Czech Republic, and usually last only a half-hour before Adam’s jetted back to Prague. It’s disappointing to see the globe-trotting reduced in Mankind Divided, especially since travelling all over the globe has been such a hallmark of the series. Sure, Adam gets to go to London, Dubai and the Swiss Alps, but all three of those visits are linear missions, not expansive hubs.

That being said, though, Prague is one heck of a hub. The city is well designed from the sewers on up to the corporate towers to be an area rife with secrets. Adam can explore entire city blocks of apartments, coffee shops and other locales, making this a game of choice for explorers and kleptomaniacs. Just like Detroit and Shanghai in Human Revolution, Prague contains a lot of goodies for the curious explorer. Prague is also about the same size as Detroit and Hengsha Island put together, so even though there are less locales visited, the actual amount of playable area isn’t that much smaller. Just be sure to upgrade Adam with the abilities to move heavy loads and jump really high, and no area of Prague will be out of reach.

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Even if Prague’s the only hub in the game, at least it’s big and well-designed.

The artwork in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided continues Human Revolution‘s novel fusion of cyberpunk and renaissance themes. Prague in particular is a stark example of the past colliding with the present. As Adam explores the city, he’ll find modern skyscrapers plonked down next to old Czech palaces, and antique storefronts outfitted with biometric scanners. It’s a stark, well-designed motif that, while not quite retro-futurism, suits a game that’s trying to present a rapidly changing world. The entire game also benefits from the use of strong color, and some of the best lighting and atmospheric effects on the market. From hazy strip clubs to dark sewers, no area of Mankind Divided went untouched by impressive atmospheric tricks.

The character models in Mankind Divided have also received a hefty retrofit. They emote much more realistically than they did in Human Revolution. Adam’s expressions are hard enough to read behind those magnetic sunglasses, so it’s refreshing to see him actually react to the things people tell him instead of just standing there. The look of shock on his face (and more specifically, his eyebrows) when a Czech mobster tries to shake him down for $35,000 is both impressive and hilarious. The sound design accompanying the art is pretty good, adding some rich sound effects to the world, but the score is infinitely less memorable than that of Human Revolution.

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See? Tin men do have hearts! Oh boy… that was augmentist.

Despite being crafted on a smaller scale, the world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does an admirable job at exuding a dark atmosphere. As Adam explores Prague and other areas in the game, players will routinely witness the stark divide crafted between “natural” humans and augmented ones. Police brutality and augmented people shivering in alleyways are the order of the day in Prague. As Adam, players will also be subject to slurs from passerby and routine frisks from suspicious cops. All of this is a subtle but effective means of painting the segregated world that Adam lives in. It also exacerbates the stresses of the other characters in the plot.

Having said that, Mankind Divided is occasionally a bit too brusque in appropriating real-world discrimination for its game world, especially its use of Jim Crow-esque discriminatory measures. Prague is replete with “augs only” entrances, drinking fountains and benches. Adam has to sit in the back of the subway. There are “Augmented Lives Matter” posters everywhere. All of this makes sense for the dreadful atmosphere that Mankind Divided is trying to create, but taking license from real-world social justice movements is usually a sticky road to go down. Taking the language used to protest the murder of unarmed black people by police and sticking it in a video game is cringe-worthy. The issue isn’t that Mankind Divided is discussing segregation, because that’s definitely a positive. The issue is that these hallmarks of segregation are scattered around the game world, and the actual plot doesn’t really bring them up that much.

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Mankind Divided is obtuse in its mimicking of social justice movements.

The central narrative in Mankind Divided is a mixed bag. It does a good job of presenting a bold new world for Adam to navigate, but it treads the exact same path that was blazed by Human Revolution. The game starts out the exact same way; Adam’s just minding his own business, when all of a sudden something blows up and he has to investigate. He goes down the rabbit hole, consorting with everything from obstinate superiors to organized crime, and uncovers a conspiracy that had the exact same goal as the conspiracy in Human Revolution. Even the story missions play out the same way. Adam has to break into a crime scene, then go find someone hiding out in a massive ghetto, then go investigate a company, so on and so forth. It’s a plot-point-for-plot-point rehash of Human Revolution. The names and locations are different, but the themes are nearly identical.

None of this helps the story’s abrupt ending. Mankind Divided allows more than a few conspiracies to steep throughout the course of the game, but way too many of them receive no closure before it cuts to black and the credits roll. Just like the game world, the narrative of Mankind Divided also feels like it’s built on a smaller scale, and the game ends up being significantly shorter than Human Revolution. None of the supporting characters have any chemistry, either. Adam had a close friendship with his pilot in Human Revolution, and a snarky rivalry with the IT guy. There’s no such rapport in this game; everyone is a stone-faced special ops guy who communicates very gruffly with an already deadpan Adam Jensen. Adam himself manages to retain the quiet charisma he commanded in Human Revolution, but his character is apparently done evolving, and stays in that niche forever.

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(sigh)

As of writing, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided‘s PC release is also suffering a slew of nasty bugs. The game’s recurring problems aren’t terrible, aside from an occasional lighting bug in which Adam’s item menu lit up like a rave. Far more problematic are the frequent crashes to desktop, and a particularly nasty bug that crashes the game and prevents progress toward the very end of the game. Far too many players are experiencing these issues, and Square Enix is dragging its heels fixing them.

On top of all of that, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has micro-transactions. Yep. A single-player game has micro-transactions for everything from ammunition to augmentation kits. It’s not a huge surprise coming from Square Enix, but it’s still disappointing to see this industry practice continue to gain ground. The studio has basically put play-to-win mechanics into, again, a single-player video game. But let’s not forget, Square Enix is the same studio that charged an extra dollar for a targeting dot in 2013’s Tomb Raider.

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Pay an extra five bucks and this guy will get knocked out cold!

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is pretty good. Not great, not terrible, just pretty good. It’s certainly a few notches lower than the excellent Human Revolution, even with all of the gameplay refinements it introduces over its predecessor. Between the bugs, the micro-transactions, the smaller game world, and the story being basically the same as that of Human Revolution, there’s not a whole lot of new things for Deus Ex fans to find here. Those same fans would probably be best off waiting for a patch and a sale, and that’s if they can stomach supporting micro-transactions in a single-player game.

I never asked for this.

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You can buy Deus Ex: Mankind Divided 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.

Watch Dogs

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Hack your way through an unforgiving city in search of justice.

PC Release: May 27, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Hype trains are dangerous for both the consumer and the company. That’s one of the overriding conclusions to be had of the No Man’s Sky incident. Far too often, gamers are presented with a tiny sliver of an idea, fill in the rest of the idea in their heads, and are inevitably disappointed when the finished product is not up to scratch. But No Man’s Sky is hardly the first over-hyped game that turned out to be a burning pile of pixels. A few years ago, there was another game, another supposed pioneer of the industry, that used a combination of artful deception and consumer excitement to push what was ultimately a disappointment. That game, Watch Dogs, is the subject of today’s review.

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Watch Dogs is an open-world adventure game from Ubisoft, the self-proclaimed king of such games, best known in recent years for their Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series. Watch Dogs espouses the concept of cyber warfare, and places it at the heart of everything the game is about. Well, it tries to. Watch Dogs is the latest major new IP in Ubisoft’s burgeoning catalog, and when Ubisoft showed off images of a guy stopping cars and hacking traffic lights with his iPhone, the game became widely anticipated.

Following its initial announcement, Watch Dogs became the subject of a hype train. Just like with No Man’s Sky, a studio presented a very dolled-up crumb of what the game would ultimately become, and thousands of gamers ran with the idea. Watch Dogs was one of this decade’s most anticipated video games, but when gamers finally got their hands on it, they found a product very different from what had been shown off at E3. The game received lukewarm reviews, for reasons that will be explored in just a moment, but these would later be overshadowed by the colossal failure of Assassin’s Creed Unity that fall.

2014 was just a terrible year for Ubisoft. It’s probably illegal to say “2014” in the company’s offices. They probably say “It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

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Don’t push me, bro.

Watch Dogs tells the story of Aiden Pearce, a stoic 40-something hacker who lives in Chicago. In the universe of Watch Dogs, a powerful corporation called Blume has supplanted Microsoft and Apple as the king of all things computer. A few years before the beginning of the game, Blume embarks upon an ambitious endeavor to make Chicago the world’s first “smart city”, installing a mega-computer called the Central Operating System, or CTOS. The CTOS connects everything with everyone, linking public utilities, transportation, smart phones and security devices into one giant ecosystem. Entire sections of the city can now be managed with the press of a button, making Chicago the most technologically advanced city on earth. Blume plans to pilot the program here, and to install CTOS systems in other cities if the project proves successful.

Unfortunately for Blume and for Chicago, connecting everything in the city to a giant computer makes everything in said city easy to hack. Such is the career of Aiden Pearce, who hacks into the CTOS to open bank accounts and steal personal information, usually at the behest of shady clients. Watch Dogs begins during one such job, when Aiden and his partner Damien are attempting to hack a bank account at a swanky hotel.

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Just act casual… just act casual…

Aiden and Damien find the information easily enough, but their intrusion alerts another, unknown hacker in the system, and the pair are forced to flee the scene. Not long after, a peaceful drive Aiden takes through the city is rudely interrupted when some dude on a motorcycle shoots out his tire, trying to kill him. Aiden survives, but his six-year-old niece, Lena dies, in the crash. Heartbroken that an attempt on his life resulted in her death, Aiden descends back into Chicago’s underworld, determined to use his hacking skills to find out who ordered the hit.

Aiden enlists some help to get the answers he needs, allying himself with a hacking collective called DedSec. This Anonymous-esque group of hackers is convinced that Blume is up to something nefarious with the CTOS, and Aiden helps them out with the occasional job in return for their continued support. To help him navigate Chicago’s seedy underbelly, Aiden procures the assistance of Jordi Chin, a local crime boss whose sarcasm is a direly needed foil to Aiden’s stoic seriousness. Together, the pair will maraud through a rogue’s gallery of Chicago’s worst cops, gangsters, and public officials. To make matters worse, Aiden’s old partner Damien resurfaces as a particularly unhinged antagonist.

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Time to get some answers. In style.

In typical Ubisoft game fashion, Watch Dogs is presented as a sizable open world, with a mix of story missions and lots of side quests. Every Ubisoft game has landmarks that need liberating, be they Borgia castles or Rook Islands radio towers. In Watch Dogs, Aiden can hack Blume’s signal towers to uncover more about the area. The map contains a rendition of the entire city of Chicago, as well as a few suburbs and a sizable section of rural wilderness. For anything else that can be said about Watch Dogs, its map doesn’t hurt for size or variety.

What does hurt for variety in this game is how the cars handle. Aiden gets around using cars, whether he’s had them delivered from Jordi or “borrows” them off of the street. It’s no surprise that a modern open-world game utilizes cars to get around, but even more than the vehicles in Grand Theft Auto V and Mafia II, the cars in Watch Dogs are terrible to drive. One flick of the W key sends the dang thing careening off at 120 MPH. It takes a while to get used to such hyper-reactive controls. It doesn’t help that the in-game radio is full of some pretty uninspired choices for contemporary music, with no in-game option to add songs from a personal library. Anyone who doesn’t like listening to Kid Cudi and MGK all day is in for a rough time.

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Getting around Chicago neither feels nor sounds smooth.

Fortunately, Watch Dogs‘ on-foot gameplay is a bit more intuitive. The primary element in the game is hacking; Aiden can use his smartphone to make systems all over the city go haywire. He can open and close security gates to startle bad guys, cause car accidents by sabotaging traffic lights, and even open and close city bridges to stem the flow of vehicles. He can also take control of cameras to survey hidden areas and deactivate distant security systems. Many of these functions can be performed on-foot or in the car; in the car, they’re Aiden’s only recourse, since he can’t shoot and drive at the same time.

By far the most prolific hacking activity in the game is snooping on other people’s phones. As Aiden walks the streets of Chicago, he can use his phone to eavesdrop on other people’s texts and calls. Sometimes these media are critical to finishing missions, other times they’re just funny or weird chats that everyday Chicagoans have. A bit more useful is Aiden’s bank account hacking, when he can walk up to a person, hack their phone, and empty their life savings out at an ATM. It’s a cool little feature, but it inadvertently breaks the game’s economy by making money incredibly easy to obtain. Don’t have the scrip for that assault rifle? Just walk around for a few minutes on Navy Pier.

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Uh-oh.

Of course, Aiden isn’t the only hacker in Chicago, and it’s at this point Watch Dogs serves up a novel, if potentially annoying, multiplayer gameplay element. After disguising themselves as an everyday citizen, players can leap into other people’s sessions of Watch Dogs and literally just mess with them. Players can attempt to hack each other’s bank accounts or just follow them around Chicago. They can even kill each other.

Now, a lot of this sounds fun and funny, and to be fair, it is the first few times. That moment when Aiden realizes that the Chinese baker trailing him is no baker, but a hacker, is both funny and a bit spooky. But this system quickly becomes annoying when other players barge in to interrupt city hacking or side missions. More than a few times, players will be on the cusp of retrieving an item in the city, only to have to furiously backtrack and kill another gamer who’s trying to steal all of their money. Love it or hate it, it’s an interesting idea, and one that can (thankfully) be disabled in the options menu.

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GIMME BACK MY MONEY, SWINE!

To complement his hacking skills, Aiden is also a crack shot. In case he needs to storm a gang hideout, or if he’s spotted during a hacking mission, he has a few firearms to rely on as a plan B. The gunplay in Watch Dogs is surprisingly fluid; players can easily make Aiden transition from one cover point to the other. Aiden can kill swarms of enemies with an assault rifle or take them out quietly with a silenced pistol. Watch Dogs was built to accommodate either playstyle. It’s not any type of gunplay that third-person shooters haven’t presented before, but it has one of the best cover systems of recent years, so that’s something.

To revisit the hacking for a moment, the hacker-god fantasy allowed by being able to hack anything is also somewhat ruined by the unrealistic nature of it all. Aiden can hack literally anything with the press of a button, including objects that aren’t hooked up to electronics. In one mission, Aiden has to pursue a boat onto a lake, and hacks open a pair of old barn doors. How on earth does that make sense? The barn doors are not electronic. And even if they are, what’s the point of installing a CTOS motor on barn doors in rural Illinois?

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Hi-ya!

The plot that ties all of this hacking, driving and shooting together is nothing that Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry fans haven’t seen before. Just like in every major Ubisoft production since Assassin’s Creed II, a man with brown hair has some bad things happen to him, and he sets out for revenge. Aiden’s murder-mystery motivation is hardly novel, and it makes the entire plot of Watch Dogs soundly underwhelming. It doesn’t help that any of the characters don’t undergo any development throughout this tale. Aiden Pearce in particular is one of modern gaming’s most boring protagonists. He speaks in the same soft, gravelly voice and never cracks any jokes or smiles. He’s a brooding man whose tendencies for violence seem a bit hypocritical when one considers his mission. It’s no surprise that he’s not returning to headline Watch Dogs 2 this fall.

Indeed, all but one of the characters in this production are not particularly great. Aiden’s supporting cast fit snugly into predetermined niches and don’t budge one iota. Jordi Chin serves as the aforementioned comic relief, though his humor feels forced. Clara Lille is the stereotypical tough girl with a secret soft side, and the game does a terrible job at disguising some of the nefarious things she gets up to. The only character who’s remotely interesting is T-Bone Grady, a sarcastic, redneck hacker who, while the star of his own story-driven DLC called Watch Dogs: Bad Blood, would’ve been a much better protagonist for the main game as well. The plot of this game lurches all over the place, between Aiden’s quest for revenge and a mission to prevent the citizens of Chicago from becoming slaves to the Man.

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T-Bone is by far the best product of Watch Dogs. It’s a shame he wasn’t the main man.

Watch Dogs’ greatest sin goes way beyond occasionally fun hacker gameplay and a plot with attention deficit disorder. The version of the game that Ubisoft advertised at E3 looked absolutely beautiful, and there are echoes of that in these screenshots. The finished product, much to customers’ outrage, looks terrible. It looks like the E3 version after a really bad hangover. The textures in this game are shockingly muddy, with heavily pixelated typeface and surfaces on even the highest resolution. The lighting in this game is among the worst of any modern video game; everything is bathed in a single shade of pale light, with absolutely no contrast or atmospheric effects. It looks like God put one of those sterile hospital ceiling lights over Chicago and just left it there.

On top of all that, the game runs like garbage. Even on high-end systems, Watch Dogs suffers dramatic frame drops and hitching during routine missions. It gets especially bad during high-speed driving, which is a problem for players who are trying to get away from the cops or mobsters. The character models look archaic, though the animations are passable. Just like Assassin’s Creed UnityWatch Dogs also suffers from character pop-in, when people will suddenly spawn out of nowhere, usually in front of Aiden’s speeding car. None of this amounts to anything close to what was presented by Ubisoft.

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LIES!!!

Watch Dogs suffers still from a full slate of smaller problems. The side missions are repetitive and without any sort of narrative. The hacking, while admittedly fun, also gets a bit old after a while. Additionally, the game fills Aiden’s phone with some pretty creepy information on passerby in Chicago. Why on earth did Ubisoft put that Citizen A was into bondage pornography, and that Citizen B was abused as a child? It doesn’t matter if such trends are accurate… no one wants to know that stuff!

Ultimately, Watch Dogs is an okay game. It’s an okay amount of fun to explore the world. The plot is an okay amount of action and exposition. It does an okay job of dealing with the ethics of electronic surveillance. The whole thing is just… mediocre, and it’s made worse by its poor performance on PC. If No Man’s Sky didn’t hammer the lesson home, Watch Dogs is yet another piece of evidence that hype trains are to be avoided. It’s okay to be excited for new games, but be skeptical. Because in the end, the marketing material doesn’t matter. The only way to know if a game is any good is to play it. Watch Dogs is probably not worth the time needed to do so, because it’s definitely not the game Ubisoft lied it up to be.

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You can buy Watch Dogs 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.

No Man’s Sky

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Discover aliens and mine minerals in a procedurally generated universe.

PC Release: August 12, 2016

Ian Coppock

There’s a lot to be said for the enthusiasm of the gaming community. It has the most bombastic trailers and some striking pieces of art. It also has the greatest penchant for hype trains, wherein overzealous fans take a few crumbs of marketing material and run with them. These super-fans create a grand, near-religious level of fantasy for what a video game will be, and are inevitably disappointed when a studio made up of mere mortals fails to deliver. Of course, whether No Man’s Sky is a failure is a matter up for debate, but with a video game this anticipated, dissecting what went wrong and who’s to blame is no less contentious of a venture.

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No Man’s Sky is a first-person exploration game set in an entire universe. Literally. The game runs on a combination of algorithms and procedural generation to create a universe that, according to developer Hello Games, contains an excess of 18 quintillion planets. That’s a number that bears repetition: 18 quintillion planets. Each planet is a self-contained world with its own environments and ecosystems. Players can explore each planet at their leisure, before hopping into a spaceship and taking off to another one. There’s no chance that a human player could see all the game’s planets in one lifetime, which is one of No Man’s Sky‘s most awe-inspiring and yet pointless qualities.

Following its unveiling at a 2013 expo, No Man’s Sky became one of the most anticipated video games of all time. The hype exuded by both the press and the game’s proto-fan base was unmatched by most, if not any, other video games. Indeed, it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if No Man’s Sky was the most anticipated video game of all time. Hello Games was certainly happy to ride all the positive buzz, as millions of gamers became swept up by the prospect of exploring an entire universe. And to be fair, the concept sounds great. The idea of spending hours exploring vibrant worlds appeals to the wonderment in all of us. The execution, however… leaves a lot to be desired.

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Oooooh…

As No Man’s Sky opens and the universe is generated, players awaken on a random alien planet, with nothing but the “exosuit” on their back and a heavily damaged spaceship not far off. The player’s dilapidated encampment is rounded off by a few other pieces of equipment lying around and a mysterious red orb sitting next to the spaceship. No Man’s Sky doesn’t have a central narrative, per se, but the player’s suggested goal is to try to reach the center of the universe. It sounds like a herculean task, but the red orb in the player’s camp is confident that they can see the endeavor through.

Most gameplay in No Man’s Sky revolves around gathering resources, which is how the game begins. Players start out armed with a mining laser, a tool that can be upgraded with more attachments and power as the game progresses. Resources like iron and carbon can be gathered from the environment around the player. Most minerals can be gathered from certain rock formations, but more carnivorous players can also harvest materials from planets’ alien wildlife. Players can do whatever it takes to gather some materials, craft some tools, and fix some spaceships!

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There are worse places to be stranded in.

Almost immediately, No Man’s Sky‘s gameplay is derivative of Minecraft. Gather resources, craft items, and build one’s way up from there. The environment looks a little less blocky, but the core concept of harvesting materials to build bigger and better items is front-and-center in No Man’s Sky. There are a few noteworthy differences that help promote exploration, because while players in Minecraft can plonk down in one area no problem, No Man’s Sky is a little different. Harvesting too many resources from one area will attract the attention of sentry robots, little flying machines that buzz over and shoot the player for exhausting a given area. This forces players to get out and explore.

The beginning of No Man’s Sky is certainly conventional, but the tutorials are not very helpful. The game will briefly flash a few keys for a few basic functions when the player character wakes up, but everything else is lost in a jumble of poorly designed menus. The crafting and inventory screen, for example, are merged together into an awkward facsimile of a workshop. Players have to craft their items inside of an inventory slot, which, while not a deal-breaker, is not exactly intuitive. No Man’s Sky attempts to streamline its item menus by dividing them up between the exosuit, the spaceship and the mining laser, but a lot of this effort is put to waste by the strange menu design. It doesn’t help that the options menu for No Man’s Sky contains precious few options for getting the best PC experience. Some options even require starting the game over to see the effect, though No Man’s Sky won’t admit it.

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(shivers)

Although the scale of No Man’s Sky is certainly impressive, its central gameplay gets very dull, very quickly. Aside from mining, players can visit each planet and catalog its various features, uploading them to a central index fittingly called the Atlas. Players can notate a planet’s weather and topography, as well as catalog its alien wildlife and come up with a name for each space-rock. Again, because No Man’s Sky is so huge, players could invest hundreds of hours into the game and not even explore a tenth of a percent of all that’s out there.

The problem with this approach is that scale is no substitute for substance. It sounds cool at the outset to spend all of one’s time cataloging wildlife, but a game can’t be built solely upon approaching an animal, pressing a button, and going to the next animal. The same can be said for uncovering every planet’s last radiation pit or ocean. No Man’s Sky bills itself on being as wide as a universe, but the game is about as deep as a penny. Ironically, most of the animals on different planets end up sharing more than a few features, further diluting the diversity that exploring an entire universe would imply.

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Does anyone else hear the Jurassic Park theme?

To be fair to No Man’s Sky, the game does have something of a central narrative, though players are certainly free to just explore. What little backstory the game has confirms a war between a few alien species. The player can become bound up in this war on the quest to reach the center of the universe, or leave it be. The problem is that the narrative and lore aren’t particularly interesting. The player can’t speak and the aliens all talk in gibberish, so there’s no sort of dialogue or interesting character development. Indeed, the aliens are basically just wonky-looking item kiosks. Everyone exists to trade, not to talk.

Most missions in the storyline revolve around acquiring more and more advanced equipment, rather than advancing any kind of narrative. So really, to call No Man’s Sky‘s story a story is disingenuous. It’s clearly just a device to help players explore more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but gamers who enjoy stories or who were expecting a deep sci-fi narrative will want to check out a different universe.

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This game could’ve had an amazing story.

In addition to the aforementioned bugs, No Man’s Sky looks nothing like the screenshots being posted throughout this review. Even on high settings, way too many of the planets simply look unfinished. The textures on grasses and wildlife are hideously muddled, and the colors used to paint each world are muted. Sounds come through subdued and popping with static. The wildlife’s simplistic programming causes animals of all sizes to clip through each other, run into walls, and display nothing of the sophisticated behaviors shown off in the trailers. It’s a far cry from what the game was made out to look like.

It’s just… Good Lord.

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Not representative.

Thus far, at worst, No Man’s Sky is a middling zoology/mineralogy simulator with unprecedented scale. If that were its only or biggest problem, that would be one thing, but anyone who’s paid attention to the gaming press this last week knows that boring gameplay is the least of No Man’s Sky‘s concerns. The game’s initial launch on PC was a disaster, with most players unable to even launch the game without it crashing back to desktop. Thousands more experienced every problem from lag to hitching framerates to audio bugs. These bugs are the main reason that No Man’s Sky is being reviewed this week instead of last week. This game runs very poorly on PC.

To be fair to Hello Games, a lot of these problems may have been caused by a quarter of a million gamers trying to access the servers at once, but there’s no question that No Man’s Sky was not ready for launch. The red flags were there for anyone not blinded by the hype. No Man’s Sky was delayed many times throughout the course of development, culminating in a four-day delay that pushed the game’s first PC launch from August 9th to August 12th. Unfortunately for Hello Games, 96 hours wasn’t nearly enough time to remedy the situation, and the outcry has been steady ever since.

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Please don’t crash, please don’t crash, please don’t crash, please don’t crash…

If boring gameplay was No Man’s Sky’s only problem, that would be one thing. If the fact that this game is the shoddiest major release since last year’s Batman: Arkham Knight was its only problem, that would be one thing. But the most damning indictment of No Man’s Sky to be found is how very different the final product is from what Hello Games said it would be. Ever since No Man’s Sky‘s announcement, Studio head Sean Murray has been frustratingly vague on nearly every aspect of this game’s design. He, at various points, confirmed that the game would have multiplayer, only to walk that claim back in the days before the game launched. Similar claims were made and then changed in regards to everything else from the game’s scale to its basic mechanics.

And sure, any game under development is going to be subject to some changes, but Hello Games’ firm commitment to being mysterious does a grave disservice to its customers. Telling someone how a game works is not the same as, say, spoiling a major plot twist, but it’s hard to say if Sean Murray & Co. are aware of that. Many gamers pre-ordered No Man’s Sky with the hopes of playing with friends. And who can blame them? For Sean Murray to say that the game would feature multiplayer and then retract that claim only after millions of pre-orders is lazy at best. No Man’s Sky is also missing dozens of other features that Hello Games promised would be included, such as rocky planetary rings, different classes of flyable spaceships, and huge fleet battles.

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Alert! Explosion in the hangar!

Although Hello Games is ultimately to blame for their woeful under-delivery of No Man’s Sky, the game’s zealous fans have themselves to blame as well. Far too many gamers allowed a relatively tiny bit of marketing to overcome their judgment. They saw the prettied up concepts that Hello Games presented and allowed themselves to believe every single thing produced to build up the hype. When this happens, gamers inevitably expect the game to be a messianic product, one that Hello Games never could’ve delivered even if No Man’s Sky ran properly. Any gamer who sees five minutes of marketing material and infers a divine revelation has only themselves to blame for such a colossal abandonment of common sense.

There’s nothing wrong with being excited for a video game. But everyone should know that trailers and marketing material are not representative of the final product. If that were true, every film would win an Oscar, every book would be a magnum opus, and every video game would be on the level that everyone thought No Man’s Sky would pioneer. Instead, be skeptical of marketing material. Don’t buy into hype trains. Because while not every widely anticipated game is doomed to fail, consumers have nothing to gain by proclaiming a game to be perfect before it’s even been released.

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It was all just a dream…

At best, No Man’s Sky is a horribly under-polished snapshot of all the amazing trailers Hello Games presented. At worst, it’s a skin-deep mining simulator whose gameplay holds little lasting power. Hello Games is apparently hard at work producing a patch to address many of the aforementioned issues, but even at full capacity, this game is not worth sixty bucks. Would-be explorers would be wise to wait for both a patch and a sale before getting this game, but anyone with that itch should probably just play Spore or Elite: Dangerous instead.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this fiasco. One, never jump onto hype trains, and two, wait until after the game comes out before proclaiming it the Lord and Savior of video games. No Man’s Sky had that aspiration, but ultimately, its reach falls woefully short of its grasp. Do not purchase this title.

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You can buy No Man’s Sky 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.

Mafia II

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Rule the streets and the underworld in a take on classic crime.

PC Release: August 24, 2010

By Ian Coppock

The time for niceties is over. The reprieve from Lethe – Episode One is over. Everyone’s had their fill of comedy from South Park: The Stick of Truth, and of serenity from Abzu. It’s time to descend back into what video games do best: visceral narratives and an astonishing amount of violence. With those two objectives in mind, Mafia II is an obvious choice for this week’s Sunday review. Although, it might contain a bit more class than either of those points would imply.

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Mafia II is a period crime thriller set in the 1940’s and 50’s. Like so many other video game crime-fests, it’s an open-world game with lots of guns and lots of violence. Unlike those other games, Mafia II places its emphasis on narrative rather than the absurdities of open-world gameplay. Not to say that GTA V doesn’t have a decent narrative, but let’s be fair; there are a billion Youtube videos of GTA stunts for every one video offering a plot analysis.

Mafia II follows the life and times of Vito Scaletta, an Italian-American pretty-boy who moonlights as the human incarnation of trouble. Vito starts out from humble beginnings as the son of impoverished Sicilian immigrants, but rather than ascend the criminal ladder as most rogues do in these games, he takes a baseball bat to it. It’s a refreshing deviation from the path-to-glory archetype prevalent in Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.

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Vito is the protagonist of Mafia II.

Vito spends his formative years on the streets of Empire Bay, a fictional metropolis that combines the best, and worst (mostly the worst) of Chicago and New York City. After getting busted for robbing a jewelry store, Vito endures a brutal stint in the Italian campaign of World War II, working as a soldier and translator for the U.S. army. When he’s sent home to recuperate from taking a bullet, Vito meets up with his old buddy Joe Barbaro, who uses his “connections” to honorably discharge Vito from the military. He’s a free man once more.

Initially intent on making an honest living, Vito is hamstrung by the hardships of living in Empire Bay. It doesn’t help that his family got in deep with some loan sharks during his time away, and the prospect of solving his problems via a day job becomes less and less realistic. Before long, Vito comes knocking on Joe’s door to meet the “friends” who sprung him out of the military, and embarks upon a dark, bloody journey to make something of himself… no matter the cost.

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Vito and his buddy Joe (pictured left) start getting into capers of their own.

Mafia II doesn’t contain any gameplay that GTA or Saints Row fans haven’t seen. Players are presented with an open-world metropolis across which narrative and chaos are pursued in equal measure. Players can customize Vito with different outfits unlocked or bought throughout the game, and arm themselves with a riot of mid-1900’s weaponry. All of Empire Bay is open to Vito from the outset. The city largely remains the same, sans seasonal weather and a few… landmark changes.

Anyway, Vito and Joe set out to make a quick buck before too long. Vito became skilled at killing Italians during the war, and Joe’s mob buddies send the duo out to do just that. Vito also earns cash on the side selling extra ration stamps and breaking into public buildings. He’s hesitant, at least at first, but quickly jumps into the ways of the Mafioso to help his family as much as to make money. Besides, it’s not like he got the chance to learn any other skills.

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Oh, that guy? Nope, never met him. Probably just had a gas leak.

So wait; if Mafia II is so edgy and cool, how come it’s not more well-known? How come it’s not as popular as the games that it’s proclaimed to surpass? Well, admittedly, Mafia II‘s gameplay is exceptionally ordinary. It’s a perfect amalgamation of all the generic cover-based shooting that’s saturated this industry for years. Vito and Joe equip their guns, and slowly mosey through a corridor of chest-high walls until they’re the only ones left standing. Take too many hits, crouch down to regain health. None of this is bad, per se, but it’s certainly nothing that even casual gamers haven’t seen before. Aim the gun, fire the gun, rinse and repeat until all is quiet. The combat can be a bit challenging, especially since Vito only typically wears suits, but hiding behind a wall to regenerate will solve that problem in a cinch.

The other element endemic to the open-world crime-fest, cars, is about the same. Vito can drive all sorts of stylish rides straight out of the 50’s, but even for cars of that era, they handle like bathtubs. Worse still, Vito can’t shoot from the driver’s seat, meaning that he can only ever ram other cars if Joe’s not riding shotgun. Getting away from the cops can be a hassle, especially since the cops in this game are actually fairly smart. Players can’t just walk around with weapons out or even drive too fast without catching the cops’ attention. It can be frustrating at first, but the mechanic ultimately teaches players to be subtler, which is when Mafia II becomes really enjoyable.

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“Ahooga! Ahooga!”

The narrative that’s being underpinned by all this gameplay is substantially more interesting than the shooting or driving mechanics. For one thing, the voice acting in Mafia II is absolutely top-notch. In an industry inundated with “professional” voice artists who can’t even emote properly, it’s refreshing to find that some people haven’t forgotten how to speak with emphasis. Robert Costanzo, Joe Barbaro’s voice actor, is easily the standout performance of the whole bunch, making Joe one of gaming’s best sidekicks. There’s little negative press for even the game’s minor characters. Everyone knows their role and sticks to it, much like when lying to the cops about the “accidental” shooting behind the bar.

This, in turn, lays the groundwork for several compelling character arcs. Vito goes from unsure rookie to unhinged rebel at a steady clip over the course of the game. Each character has his or her own subplot in relation to Vito’s major goings-on. Vito and Joe evolve in response to each other as well as the game’s driving plot. Mafia II has some exceptional writing for a video game, writing that, when combined with the voice-acting, puts Mafia II‘s plot on par with the best silver-screen Mafia flicks. Maybe not The Godfather… but close.

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Mafia II’s narrative is lavishly produced… and bloodily executed. No pun intended.

Ultimately, what makes Mafia II‘s story so good is that it’s a tragedy. Most crime games are pretty simplistic in their portrayal of opportunistic rogues. Some desperately uncomplicated protagonist shows up, kills a bunch of people, bags a ton of money, and rules over Los Santos or Steelport from that day forward as king incarnate. Not in Mafia II. Sure, the player will get tons of money and even more kills, but like the ultimate arc of The Godfather films, Mafia II seeks to portray the forsaking of Vito’s humanity. He’s a complicated character motivated by emotions evil and benign, but not even his skill with a gun can keep the criminal world at bay. Mafia II‘s most endearing motif is that, no matter how many enemies are killed and money is bagged, the violence and sadness never goes away. Never gets old. Violence and sadness are as much Vito’s companions as Joe Barbaro.

Gamers and nerds who enjoy highly political universes will also find something to enjoy with Mafia II, as Vito and Joe become drawn into the mob’s hold over Empire Bay. Mafia II offers fascinating insights into the culture of Italian-American organized crime, with actual rules and rituals represented in the game. There are three mob families that uneasily coexist in a fragile peace, to say nothing of the black, Jewish, Irish and Chinese gangs also running rampant in the city. Vito and Joe will eventually encounter almost all of them, becoming intimately familiar with the lore of their own mafia in the process.

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Empire Bay. Where the people are… enthusiastic.

Mafia II‘s well-written and well-paced story is enmeshed into a luxurious 1950’s set piece. Empire Bay is leagues and fathoms smaller than other open-world metropolises, but that doesn’t make it suffer for lack of character. The city is decked out in period decorations and advertisements. Some of the scenery can look repetitive; pretty sure a few city blocks were straight up copy/pasted; but, it’s far from a big deal. The visuals have aged a bit since 2010, but the character models are animated well enough to get their points across, and the lighting and shadows are decent. Good enough.

Mafia II also benefits from period sound design, including legendary songs from the times that can be heard throughout the city or on the radio. Mafia II offers its own take on ironic, satirical radio, by presenting a DJ who spins off falsehoods that decades later would be proven false. It’s a clever way to exploit the attitudes of the 1950’s while also allowing for a few laughs. With a story this dark, laughs may be sorely needed.

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Maintain the line, boys.

There’s very little bad to be said about Mafia II. Its gameplay is basically a refurbished version of the generic cover-based shooter formula, but its narrative is the best of any open-world crime game, even Grand Theft Auto V. It’s refreshingly bug-free, and it runs very well on contemporary systems. Anyone who enjoys open-world mayhem and gritty narratives will want to pick this one up, especially with Mafia III due to drop in early October. Mafia II may not have the world’s most memorable gameplay, but its believable characters and strong story leave a much more lasting impression.

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You can buy Mafia II 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.

Abzu

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Discover secrets serene and sinister in a big, beautiful ocean.

PC Release: August 2, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Every so often, geeks everywhere need a game that doesn’t necessitate higher brain functions. Many turn to the cavalcade of chaos that is multiplayer games, but others still require something a little less loud. Fortunately, there are a select handful of games out there that, while not overtly difficult, can still leave everyone in awe of something simpler, yet no less impacting. Abzu is the latest game that, while bereft of an intricate plot and incredible character development, is not shallower for it.

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Abzu (the ancient Sumerian word for “deep ocean”) is a serene underwater adventure game from the art director of Journey, a PlayStation-exclusive game whose narrative is legendary in that gaming community. Fortunately, Abzu is a PC game, one that seeks to embody certain artistic motifs of Journey while also establishing an identity of its very own. The game is set in the ocean, and follows a man in a gold-and-black diving suit as he traverses the depths in search of… something.

Abzu is set up as a sequence of large oceanic areas, and each one contains its own assortment of geographic features and underwater wildlife. Players are to explore each area at their leisure, whether to search for hidden seashells or gaze in awe at the huge schools of fish. There’s a lot more to the game than that, but Abzu‘s first foothold in the mind of the gamer is its beauty, and by God does it assert itself.

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Oh my God…

Abzu does not shy away from building itself up on spectacle. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful games released this year, perhaps even the last few years. The game’s aesthetic is a blend of bright colors and just a touch of cel shading, resulting in one of the most vibrant game worlds since at least Firewatch. At no point does the game feel monochromatic, even in the more morose areas of the sea. Even the most hotheaded, objective-driven gamers will give pause at Abzu‘s sheer beauty.

Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into Abzu‘s art than color. Each area of the ocean is overloaded with fish and other underwater wildlife. Thousands of fish populate each area, swimming in huge currents and schools all over each map. As can be seen in the screenshot up top, Abzu saturates its environments with animals. These thousands of fish are further divvied up into dozens, if not hundreds, of different species. The sheer amount of biodiversity in Abzu is staggering, and if the point hasn’t been hammered home by now, the game’s initial reaction is one of overwhelming awe.

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(drool)

Abzu‘s visuals are complemented by strong environmental sound design. Every animal is given an arsenal of sounds to whistle, growl or flurry at the player with. Each area in Abzu is replete with a chorus of wildlife, from the chirping of dolphins to the sudden whoosh of a big fish swimming by. It’s an array of sounds that works together well, especially when given the foundation of gentle waves or strong underwater currents. Sound design is key to creating an immersive environment, and in Abzu‘s case, the sound and visual design is almost perfectly synchronized.

The final layer atop the sound design is one of the best video game soundtracks in months, if not years. Created by inveterate video game composer Austin Wintory, the soundtrack is a bombastic orchestral whirlwind. Abzu‘s music alternates between slower, string-driven melodies for exploring wide areas, and faster, more excited music for riding currents and interacting with imposing creatures. The soundtrack was composed with a full orchestra and, though perhaps a tad too similar to that found in Planet Earth, is one of the best video game soundtracks in recent memory.

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Outstanding.

Although the spectacle in Abzu is very much part of the substance, the game is not without a subtle narrative to accompany each stage of the oceanic journey. As far as can be discerned, the diver is equipped with the ability to restore life to devastated areas of the sea. Players spend most of Abzu journeying through the ocean to these lifeless regions, and using a blue energy ball to light the place up and reintroduce wildlife to the area. Most maps in Abzu are already plenty populated with fish, but it’s through these areas players will go to reach the more desolate zones. Hieroglyphics left behind by some ancient civilization hint at an ancient calamity befalling the ocean, and the player’s role in reversing it. This premise is not novel by any means, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting.

Abzu features no dialogue, spoken or written. Players are left to infer some pretty substantial chunks of the story from either the writing on the wall (no pun intended) or a few key events that happen throughout the game. Most of these are clustered into the game’s last third or so, as the first 66% busies itself with wowing players visually. So while the narrative is nothing bad, it does feel a bit stretched in some areas and rushed in others. There’s one part concerning a submerged spacecraft that felt entirely disjointed from where the rest of the story was going, but it quickly picks itself back up and gets on track.

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Nice fish… nice fish…

Although Abzu‘s narrative is a bit too subtle in places, it doesn’t detract from the game’s overall charm. Between the busy, well-constructed environments and the enthralling sense of wonder presented by the visuals, even the most story-driven gamers will find something amazing in Abzu. Indeed, a stronger or spoken plot may have detracted from the game’s focus on its living, breathing environments, so the lack of dialogue is not necessarily bad.

What is a little on the nose about this game is that it practically requires a controller. For reasons unfathomable, the design team didn’t take the time to create a comprehensive control scheme for PC players, instead putting up a notice that a controller is “strongly recommended” (read: necessary) to play the game. For a lot of PC players and console defectors out there, the gamepad shouldn’t be an issue, but purists or gamers simply uninterested in using a controller might have some frustration with Abzu- not so much that they should give up on the game, but some frustration nonetheless.

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Abzu’s gameplay is fine… if you have a controller.

As for the gameplay itself, it’s pretty simple. The diver swims, the diver dives. The diver gathers seashells, the diver looks at fish. Fish are love, fish are life. In most areas, the diver can sit on a rock and ponder the meaning of existence, and in so doing, the camera will pan out and hone in on fish. Players can watch fish remotely and switch to other animals with the press of a button. Its staying power usually depends on the animal being surveyed (a humpback whale is much more interesting to watch than a flounder). The animals usually engage in a small routine that can be observed in just a few minutes, but considering the sheer number of fish, there’s no way fish-watching enthusiasts will run out of something to do.

This gameplay may seem simplistic at the outset, but Abzu‘s expansive ocean environments leave a lot to be explored. Players who enjoy uncovering every nook and cranny of a game’s world will find Abzu to be an absolute delight. There are a few fixed sequences allowing for more fast-paced fun, like swimming with orcas in an undercurrent. None of it sacrifices Abzu‘s spectacle.

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Wheeeeee!

Abzu is not a complicated game to understand. Some may call it simplistic, but in simplicity there is tranquility. The point of Abzu is not to get wound up in a deep story or brave visceral combat, but simply to explore. Abzu seeks to emulate the sense of childlike wonder everyone had when first learning about the natural world. It provides a giant ocean full of wonders to explore, one that any gamer will appreciate. Whether players are weary of violent shooters or just looking for something refreshing and relaxing, Abzu is the solution. It’s one of the most mesmerizing video games ever made.

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You can buy Abzu 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.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

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Take part in an epic quest to save the town of South Park.

PC Release: March 3, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Even the most hardened of horror fans can get worn out by hours of puzzles and being chased by monsters. When this occurs, a good chaser is in order, typically something with a completely different tone and maybe some humor to bury the emotional scars. After such a game as Wednesday’s Lethe – Episode One, it’s time to shift gears to something a little lighter. A little funnier. A little more… South Park.

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South Park: The Stick of Truth is a game set in everyone’s favorite quiet mountain town. It’s also the first in a long line of licensed South Park games to actually be any good. Why is it good? Because the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, served as creative directors for the game. Parker and Stone are gamers themselves and huge fans of epic role-playing games like Oblivion and Skyrim. They wanted to apply that love of fantasy adventure to their TV show, so they teamed up with Obsidian Entertainment to craft a game no less surreal and no less ridiculous than the TV show that preceded it.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is evidence that for a licensed or movie video game to be any good, it needs the involvement of the people behind the original project. King Kong: The Official Game of The Movie was good because Peter Jackson was involved. Alien: Isolation and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor were good because the minds behind the Alien and The Lord of The Rings movies were involved. Games that are rushed out to coincide with movies and TV shows, but without any involvement from said movies and TV shows, are almost certainly destined to fail. Not South Park.

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Cooooo….

South Park: The Stick of Truth is a comedy fantasy game. Players can insert themselves into the South Park universe as the New Kid, a custom-created 4th-grader who moves to South Park with his parents at the beginning of the game. The New Kid is ordered by his overbearing parents to go out into the town and make friends, and discovers that the other boys in the town are locked in an epic struggle for the Stick of Truth, an artifact that can apparently control all space and time. The boys are divided into two teams: the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK) led by “Grand Wizard” Eric Cartman, and the Elves, led by Kyle Broflovski. The New Kid is drawn into this mighty war as a recruit, befriending such series regulars as Butters, Stan, and Randy Marsh/Lorde. Nearly all of the TV show’s regular and recurring characters appear in the game, all voiced by the original cast.

As the New Kid, players can pick one of several classes, ranging from the warrior Paladin to the magical Mage to the mischievous Jew (oh South Park). Just like in classic role-playing games, players craft their New Kid from the ground up with a variety of hair and cosmetic options, and then add weapons, armor and other equipment found throughout the game. South Park: The Stick of Truth contains a central  narrative surrounded by equally humorous side quests. The New Kid can traverse the town of South Park on a quest for the Stick of Truth, or help the town’s wonky denizens with other matters. Whether it’s finding Jesus at the church (no, literally, he’s hiding in the pews) or helping Al Gore track down the terrifying Manbearpig, there’s no shortage of hilarious shout-outs to the TV show in this game.

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The battle for the Stick of Truth is all too real.

Most of the gameplay in South Park: The Stick of Truth revolves around battling enemy kids and nefarious monsters, and these play out in quick turn-based matches. Most turn-based combat is slow, but in South Park it’s so fast that the game almost acts like it’s ashamed of it. Players can battle other kids with physical weapons and an assortment of class-based powers, and use potions (read: candy bars) to heal or restore mana. Regardless of his class, the New Kid also has the ability to use farts in battle, leading Cartman to proclaim him as the Dragonborn.

Despite being turn-based, the combat in South Park: The Stick of Truth is really fun, relying on a combination of quick strategy and funny powers to get the job done. The New Kid can journey across South Park with a buddy, starting out with Butters and adding more kids to the roster as the game goes. Winning battles in South Park: The Stick of Truth requires careful management of potions and resources, especially against the game’s many bosses. The New Kid can also summon a third warrior, like Jesus or Mr. Kim, to aid in battle.

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They want to destroy my City Wok…

Apart from combat, there’s a lot of fun to be had in walking around South Park. Players can transition from scene to scene fluidly, and visit every locale in the town from Tom’s Rhinoplasty to Skeeter’s Bar. Most of these places have hidden treasure and quests to be found, and players can rifle through containers for items just like in countless fantasy RPGs. A lot of the items found throughout the game come from the TV show; Randy Marsh’s Creme Fraiche, from the hilarious episode of the same name, can be found in the Marsh house’s fridge. The “Margaritaville” blender Stan tries to return can be found in the bank, right next to the “Aaaaand it’s gone” bank guy, who’s become a meme of his own in Internet culture.

Walking around the town of South Park is surprisingly engrossing. It’s easy to get from one end of the town to the other, and there are many buildings to explore and many South Park references to laugh at. The game’s world was crafted with an attention to detail that only the creators of the show could bring, and bring it they did. Fans of the show will find no shortage of things to point and laugh at while walking around in South Park.

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There’s a lot to see, and a lot that cannot be un-seen, in South Park.

The main plot of the game plays out like an episode of South Park; a mysterious event happens in the middle of otherwise normal affairs, there’s an overblown, ridiculous response, and everyone gets swept up trying to clean it up. Though a game about elves and warriors seems innocent on the surface, strange events are happening throughout South Park. From alien sightings to the federal government apparently building a giant Taco Bell, something is definitely up in South Park, and the New Kid’s arrival to the town might not be a coincidence.

Though the plot of the game is certainly funny, it doesn’t deviate from the South Park formula at all, for better and worse. The situations may be new, but the themes are the same. South Park: The Stick of Truth utilizes the same blend of wit and cringe humor in its approach to storytelling, creating one of the funniest games ever made. Parker and Stone have a lot of fun with this new storytelling medium, forcing the player to participate directly in the wit… and the cringe. Obviously, a game like this is not exactly for the under-18s, but inveterate South Park fans and adult humor enthusiasts in general will find a lot to puncture a lung at.

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Every group of adventurers needs a bard.

Between its fluid combat, engrossing world, and apt application of the TV show’s humor, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a strong debut game for Parker and Stone, but the game does have a few design flaws. The most glaring one is that players can’t play as a girl; South Park has plenty of female fans, and denying them (or anyone) the ability to be female inadvertently alienates a lot of the audience. Sure, “the girls” play a huge role later on in the story, but being able to play as a girl could’ve opened up new narrative paths for the game. It would’ve been really interesting to see the core four boys of the TV show have to regularly interact with a new female character, but alas, no such luck.

Additionally, the DLC for this game is a complete ripoff. To be fair, this almost certainly has nothing to do with Parker and Stone and everything to do with Ubisoft, the game’s publisher and current challenger to Electronic Arts for the prestigious “Worst Video Game Company To Ever Exist Ever” award. Five bucks for a collection of equipment that becomes useless right after the game’s prologue? Even by Ubisoft standards, that’s pretty low. Do NOT get the DLC for this game. Despite what Cartman implies to the New Kid, it’s barely worth a dollar, let alone five. Worst Ubisoft DLC since the “bonus” weapons for Assassin’s Creed Unity.

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Say “No” to DLC. True champs don’t need it.

Apart from these glaring flaws, there’s really little else to be said about South Park: The Stick of Truth. Hardcore RPG fans might find the role-playing a little light, but the game’s quick combat and hilarious content makes it a great game. Any fan of South Park who also games will want to pick this up immediately, especially with the sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, due out this December. South Park: The Stick of Truth joins Alien: Isolation and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor as a triumvirate of evidence that licensed games can be good, if the same passion and drive that helms the original media is present.

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You can buy South Park: The Stick of Truth 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.

Lethe – Episode One

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Discover your true birthplace and the horrors it hides.

PC Release: August 1, 2016

By Ian Coppock

A good survival-horror video game is rarer than gold dust. The new games list on Steam would imply otherwise, with dozens of “horror” titles constantly pouring forth, but nearly all of these are either a five-minute tourney of cheap jump scares, or an asset flip that barely runs. The remaining 1%-2% of horror titles are the ones that require effort; a steady hand to procure a dreadful atmosphere, rife with danger and a good story to boot. With Outlast 2 still a few months away, horror fans everywhere could use an unexpected reprieve from all the Five Nights at Freddy‘s clones and cheap Unity Engine parlor tricks. Lethe – Episode One might be that reprieve. An exhausting, terrifying reprieve.

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Lethe is a first-person horror game and the debut project of KoukouStudios, a Greek indie developer. Like other video games in this vein, players have to navigate a spooky environment, solving puzzles and avoiding monsters. With no guns or weapons of any kind, being quiet and being fast are players’  best hopes for survival. The puzzles can be hard, the monsters are always unforgiving, and the dread is always thick. Episode One is the first installment of a planned Lethe series, one that, like the Doorways series from Saibot, will hopefully only get better with each release.

Lethe – Episode One begins the story of Robert Dawn, an unassuming British man whose father suddenly dies shortly before the game starts. After the funeral, Robert starts going through his late father’s paperwork, and discovers an old letter sealed and buried beneath the rest of the possessions. To Robert’s shock, the letter reveals that he was born not in Britain, as he’d been told his whole life, but on an obscure island home to a once-thriving mining community. The letter implies that Robert was taken away from the island as an infant to avoid some sort of disease that had stricken the town, though any other details are vague at best. Intent on discovering the truth of his origins, Robert charters a boat to take him to the island and discover what exactly happened there years ago.

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Yeah, this place isn’t foreboding at all.

Robert washes up on the island after a fierce storm, and immediately sets about exploring the island for clues. He discovers that the entire island is indeed abandoned, and looks to have been for some time. Letters secreted throughout a dusty shore house indicate that the island was once a thriving community, but all of that changed when the town’s miners accidentally unearthed a wellspring of a strange black liquid. The liquid unleashed a disease that killed most of the island overnight, but a group of survivors managed to hole up in the mine itself.

Against his better judgment, Robert decides to descend into the mine to solve the mystery for himself, initializing a horrifying chain of events and discoveries that, in the grand tradition of horror game protagonists, he wishes he’d left well enough alone. For what lies in the mine is no mere pathogen and no mere trail of destruction, but a chilly tale that will take all that he is, and then some, to survive.

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An army of interior decorators couldn’t make a dent in this place.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that Lethe is a love letter to the works of Frictional Games, the studio that created such horror greats as Penumbra, Amnesia, and Soma. Love letters are great, but inveterate horror gamers will immediately wonder if this game isn’t too derivative of those other titles. For one thing, the game’s premise is virtually identical to that of Penumbra; a very British man receives a letter after the death of his parent, and descends into a spooky mine to learn the truth about his origins. Though Lethe – Episode One takes a few creative liberties with this premise, there’s no denying the similarities between the two. The game is still fun to get into, but there’s no denying the “I’ve done this before” whispers creeping into the back of the skull.

The game borrows more than a few ideas from Amnesia: The Dark Descent as well. Though most of the game takes place in the mines, players will also traverse an underground dungeon eerily reminiscent of Castle Brennenberg. To be fair, it’s not like Frictional has a copyright on spooky castle dungeons or anything, but a few scenes from the game bear an eerie resemblance to the events of Amnesia. It’s not totally fair to write Lethe off as a combination of Penumbra and Amnesia, but it’s also not totally inaccurate.

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Lethe’s similarities to other horror games are impossible to miss.

Despite borrowing heavily from the motifs of other video games, Lethe – Episode One is still a competently delivered horror game. The game has dreadful pacing, timing out monster encounters well and leaving players wondering when something will be around the corner. The atmosphere in Lethe is intoxicating; whether Robert is trudging through the dusty mine tunnels or sneaking through the tables of a laboratory, the sense of isolation is almost suffocating. For anything that can be said about Lethe‘s reliance on what other horror games pioneered, it does what those games did expertly.

The atmosphere in Lethe relies chiefly on lighting and sound, two sorely underestimated design elements in the world of video games. The lighting in Lethe is an absolute masterpiece; from the dour glow of mine lights, to the sterile shine of the labs, to the morbid flickering of dungeon torches, every bit of lighting was put into this game to convey a sense of despair. The interplay between light and shadow is arguably more important in horror games than any other genre, and it’s superbly executed here. Combine the lighting with excellent flare effects, and Lethe – Episode One becomes one of the best-lit horror games in recent memory.

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Good use of lighting is integral to a horror game’s atmosphere.

Insofar as the game’s sound design, Lethe – Episode One comes chock-full of spooky noises. The sounds in this game are rich, from the creaking of an old oak door to the distant crash of mine equipment, and they all work together in the background to keep players on their toes. A lot of Lethe‘s sounds induce cringe as much as the sight of a monster, like when Robert has to traverse a catacomb and step on skulls as he goes. The soft, squelchy crunch of bones breaking will haunt Lethe players long after the fact. Hopefully KoukouStudios was ethical in their sourcing of that sound effect.

Too many horror games these days rely on cheap jump scares to convey terror, but not Lethe. The game aptly balances between hair-raising encounters with monsters and long, solitary treks through abandoned areas. Players have no idea when a monster might show up, which, when combined with the sounds and lighting, keeps the tension high. The game has a mournful soundtrack, with low sounds for the walking parts and frantic horns for the running parts.

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Lethe is self-confident in its ability to scare through isolation.

The gameplay in Lethe – Episode One is nothing that horror fans haven’t seen before. Robert can’t arm himself with a weapon, despite being in a mine replete with power tools, and can only run or hide to avoid the mine’s less amicable denizens. He also has a very finite health meter that he has to maintain, though it can be replenished with food and medicine found around the island. In a rarity for a first-person horror game, Robert also has a stamina meter, meaning that he can only run from a monster so long. Amazingly, such a feature is absent from the horror games that Lethe tries to emulate, and it makes Lethe, in some respects, scarier than those other games. A stamina bar means that players have to be very strategic in how they move about the environment, lest they be out-chased by a monster. No infinite running for Robert.

Lethe – Episode One includes another gameplay element that becomes crucial to solving puzzles and moving about the world. Robert accidentally comes into contact with the black liquid that killed off the town, but instead of making him sick, it gives him psychic powers. Players can use telekinesis to open locked doors and distract monsters, though the mechanic is clunky in its execution. Items will immediately get sucked to Robert’s hand as if they’re magnetized, and the mechanic can only be used so often before draining Robert’s mana bar. The puzzles in Lethe – Episode One can usually be solved by a combination of psychic awesomeness and good ol’ human ingenuity.

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Niiiice…

The puzzles in Lethe – Episode One are also more difficult than in most horror games. They comprise a combination of simple physics puzzles and more complicated door-and-lever puzzles. Although the methods may vary, like using telekinesis to pull a lever through bars, or making a bridge through acid with barrels, most every goal comprises unlocking a door.

Some of these puzzles can venture from hard to plain old obtuse. There’s one puzzle at the very end that requires levitating rocks over some bars, but most puzzles in the game are reasonable. Just don’t be surprised if a few require some deep thinking to get past.

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Oooh boy…

Though the puzzles are the most difficult part of Lethe – Episode One, by far the most dangerous part is the monsters. The mines running beneath the town are home to a few unfriendly creatures. As it turns out, though the black liquid killed most of the town, it had different effects on a few of the townsfolk. Robert managed to touch it and get psychic powers, but a few people who touched it were turned into something less than people, and are very dangerous.

The monsters in Lethe – Episode One are arguably the smartest of the survival-horror genre. The creatures are adept at quickly backtracking to catch players who try to sneak behind them, and they move quickly; there’s no question that this game was created with experienced horror gamers in mind. Each monster is prefaced with a lot of spooky buildup, like seeing them in a distant hallway, which finally culminates in a confrontation that will see Robert either barely escaping with his life, or hanging from the business end of the creature’s weapon. Sometimes, the creatures are a little too good; a particularly gruesome one can somehow see Robert through walls, but typically their intelligence is within reason. Just don’t underestimate them.

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OHMYGODRUNRUNRUNRUNRUNHELPMEMOMMY

Although Lethe – Episode One is rather unabashed in how it borrows from other horror games, it still executes those motifs with deft competence. The game is a far cry from the cheap Unity Engine jump scares that overload the Steam store. Rather than being a crappy game made for a quick buck or for Youtubers to obnoxiously overreact to, Lethe – Episode One is a thoughtful, visceral journey. It’s not interested in gamers whose attention spans are too short for detail, but it rewards adrenaline junkies more powerfully than those Unity flips ever could. Its writing is clear and remarkably error-free for a foreign-made game, and its atmosphere is sound.

Lethe – Episode One doesn’t do much that other horror games haven’t done already, but it’s fallacious to say that it doesn’t do those things almost or just as well. Its plot is nothing new and has a few holes, but it’s still good. Its mine setting is nothing new and has a few holes, but it’s still good. Its monsters are no less terrifying than those of this genre’s pioneers. And despite the fact that it’s marketed as an episode in a longer series, it packs 8-10 hours of gameplay. As such, any horror fan looking for something to do until Outlast 2 comes out will want to buy this game immediately. Fifteen bucks on Steam for the first episode; the more copies get purchased, the more resources the developer will have to develop Episode TwoLethe – Episode One may not be the most original horror game in the world, but it’s one of the scariest to come this way in a long time.

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You can buy Lethe: Episode One here.

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

The Walking Dead: Michonne

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Fight the dead and the living as The Walking Dead’s most capable hero.

PC Release: February 23, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Typically, the review schedule on Art as Games comprises a review of a new game on Wednesday, and an older one on Sunday, but this month’s schedule is different. With a few major releases set to hit shelves this fall, it’s time to take a look at a few series’ most recent installments, to give everyone a good idea of what games might be worth it or not. Sure, a new game doesn’t necessitate playing the one that came before it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hidden gems and interesting backstories to equip oneself with beforehand. The Walking Dead: Michonne is one such example.

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The Walking Dead: Michonne is the latest installment in Telltale’s venerable The Walking Dead series of episodic adventure games. The series’ The Walking Dead debut is widely regarded as one of the greatest adventure games ever made. The game helped establish Telltale as one of gaming’s strongest storytellers, and sparked the revival of the episodic format in video game development. The idea is simple; pay for a season of 2-hour-long episodes of game, and they’ll be delivered to your digital doorstep over the course of, say, six months. The strategy has certainly worked well for Telltale, and has since been adopted by other studios.

The Walking Dead: Michonne is a miniseries comprising three episodes. The game was originally meant to be a DLC for The Walking Dead: Season Two, but was eventually expanded into a standalone title and project. The story’s protagonist and titular character is Michonne, the one and same katana-wielding, zombie-decapitating warrior featured in The Walking Dead graphic novel and in AMC’s hit TV show. With season three of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series due to debut this fall, the time is right to see if Michonne’s adventure will help tide fans and adventure gamers over for the next few months.

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Michonne’s video game debut comes as the main protagonist of her own series.

 Like Telltale’s previous The Walking Dead games, The Walking Dead: Michonne takes place in the universe of the graphic novel, which stands apart from the TV adaptation. In the comic books, Michonne decides to take a break from hanging out with Rick Grimes and his group of survivors, and takes a job aboard a cargo vessel ferrying supplies between coastal survivors’ colonies. Michonne takes this respite to collect herself after a few very hard months, and to deal with the loss of her two little girls to the zombie apocalypse. The details of this hiatus are not portrayed in the comic books, so Telltale took it upon themselves to see what Michonne was up to during her time away from the group.

Michonne settles into a life at sea readily enough, acquainting herself with the ship’s friendly crew, and helping to move cargo between settlements all over the Chesapeake. She hopes that the experience will prove a good change of scenery, and enjoys being on a boat away from the zombie-infested mainland. She can’t seem to catch a break, though; her crew realizes that the other boats usually traversing these waters have vanished, and that they’re suddenly the only boat sailing around in Chesapeake Bay. When Michonne’s captain picks up a faint distress call on the radio, she and her team decide to investigate the disappearances of the other ships.

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Michonne and her crew decide to see what’s going on. Of course, some of them would rather just stay aboard and play more poker.

Michonne’s detective work takes her to a shipwreck that wasn’t there a week ago, and into contact with a mysterious group of survivors from across the bay. The meeting isn’t exactly peaceful, especially since it turns out that zombies can swim, and Michonne is suddenly beset on all sides by enemy forces. Though her circumstances and choice of friends are different, her skill with a blade is not, and she soon wonders if that’s all she can trust in this terrible, terrible world.

It is thus that The Walking Dead‘s fiercest, bravest character is thrust into a long-overdue video game spotlight. Despite her near-universal popularity with fans and critics, Michonne has never featured in a video game adaptation of either the graphic novel or the television show. Picking Michonne to be in a game should’ve been a no-brainer; not just because female black protagonists are rarer than gold dust in the world of video games, but because she’s arguably The Walking Dead‘s most acclaimed character. This is also the first time a Telltale game has starred a character from the original graphic novel (although Glen make a brief appearance in the first season).

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Michonne is a natural choice for a game’s hero.

As with all of Telltale’s adventure games, The Walking Dead: Michonne is played in third-person. The game emphasizes narrative and puzzles over action, though as a game full of zombies, it can’t not feature a little fun. The game is advanced by a combination of dialogue choices and puzzle-solving. Although solving puzzles is also necessary to move the storyline, the dialogue will ultimately determine how that storyline will end. Telltale is one of the few developers out there whose games sustain massive changes due to dialogue. Even Mass Effect‘s choice-based system pales in comparison to how many outcomes there can be with The Walking Dead.

This substantive philosophy is no less applied in The Walking Dead: Michonne, even though the game is a great deal shorter than most Telltale adventures. As Michonne, players have an opportunity to shape the legendary character’s personality, outlook, and relationships with other survivors. Players are also given fleeting glimpses into Michonne’s life pre-apocalypse, back when she defended her fellow man with the law instead of with swords. And as everyone knows, swords are much more interesting than courtrooms.

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Time to start out the day with a hearty serving of decapitation.

Because the meat of Telltale’s effort was put into the narrative, that’s obviously where the game shines brightest. Throughout The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s three-episode arc, Michonne undergoes a believable progression of character development. Michonne starts out as the fierce yet reserved warrior everyone knows from the comic books, but players can fill the rest of the blanks through conversations with other members of the crew. Because of this dialogue input, Michonne can be impatient and bloodthirsty, brave and compassionate, or any other of multiple choices. Of course, picking one way or the other will influence Michonne’s relationships with other survivors. Some might appreciate a callous approach to the apocalypse, while others crave mercy. Players can decide whether to survive the zombie onslaught by friendship, or by the sword.

Anyhoo, not long after catching the distress signal, Michonne and her captain are taken to a waterborne settlement full of ruthless survivors. Though players should take care in how they shape relationships with Michonne’s allies, it’s just as critical how she interacts with her enemies. A good rule of thumb in The Walking Dead games is, just like in the show, finding a path that results in saving the most lives. At least, if those lives are on Michonne’s side.

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The dead are no joke. But the living are much, much worse.

Players are given a limited amount of time in The Walking Dead: Michonne to pick their dialogue responses, though letting time run out and remaining silent is also a viable option. Again unlike Mass EffectThe Walking Dead: Michonne is far more than a choice between two relatively simplistic paths. Players will have to juggle between being hostile and friendly to make the best of Michonne’s many tough situations. It’s a great way to keep players guessing as to the plot, and it keeps the game feeling fresh. It’s a technique that Telltale has already mastered in its other adventure games, and no less so here.

That said, though, the narrative is not without a few issues. For one thing, The Walking Dead: Michonne is short. Even though three episodes isn’t much less than Telltale’s usual five-episode full season of content, each individual episode can easily be completed in about forty-five minutes to an hour, significantly less than the 2-3 hours of playtime each mainline The Walking Dead episode can rack up. The Walking Dead: Michonne never claims to be a full-length game (the word “miniseries” is in the subtitle) but the narrative is ultimately not given the room it needs to grow.

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Much like this legless zombie, The Walking Dead: Michonne comes up a little short.

Although Michonne is a fascinating character and it’s a lot of fun to play as her, the other characters in this production aren’t given enough screen time to care about them. Some characters will dip in and out for entire episodes, which, for a three-episode series, is really not ideal if Telltale wants gamers to care for them. They have their little arcs, their little backstories, but the game is too short for players to care about them the same way as Clementine, or Kenny, or other characters from the full-length games. Ultimately, it’s more a drawback of the short format than of Telltale’s writing, but it’s a drawback all the same.

In that same vein, one of the main means by which The Walking Dead exudes its horror is the deaths of longtime characters that everyone loves. It’s a powerful way to evolve the remaining survivors, and it gives the series the addictive emotional exhaustion that has made it such a hit. In The Walking Dead: Michonne, the only characters that die are ones that were introduced to Michonne about two minutes before their demise. The game’s emotional brevity is thus neutered, because Michonne’s only barely known the dude’s name before he’s in the ground. It goes without saying that people care more for the deaths of loved ones than the deaths of strangers, and in The Walking Dead: Michonne, it’s really only the latter that happens. It’s very uncharacteristic of a series that’s unafraid to suddenly kill series regulars.

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No one important dies in this game. And that’s a bad thing.

As for the core narrative itself, it’s certainly suspenseful, though not particularly innovative. It’s nothing that inveterate The Walking Dead fans haven’t seen before: a group of survivors comes into conflict with another group of survivors, with a ton of zombies strewn between the two sides. Each side has its upstanding heroes and its shockingly depraved villains, but none of them occupy a new niche in The Walking Dead mythology. Gamers and fans well-acquainted with the source material will enjoy this game’s story, but it won’t carry any themes or character archetypes they haven’t seen before.

Despite these problems, though, Telltale still succeeds in honing its aforementioned character relationship mechanic. Players are given a lot of freedom in determining relationships with other survivors, and those can create genuinely, starkly different endings between playthroughs. This won’t come as anything new to Telltale fans, but it’s nice to see that this mechanic doesn’t suffer for The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s shorter length as everything else about the plot does. Even the tantalizing glimpses into Michonne’s former life start to feel a bit tired.

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Players will choose how they want Michonne to behave.

When players aren’t busy chatting up survivors, they’re looking for supplies and solving puzzles around the environment. Nothing that this game throws at players will break their brains; Telltale stopped focusing on puzzles long ago, and the conundrums it throws out these days are usually just a matter of button-pushing. Though puzzle fans might be a bit down over this, these simple conundrums do nothing to detract from the game’s sense of tension. One door-opening puzzle that Michonne completes is hard to do not because of its logical difficulty, but because of the undead hand chained to the other side of the door. The challenges in this game are a hybrid of puzzle and story, and narrative fans will be suited by these just fine.

Despite the focus on narrative, The Walking Dead does feature some combat. The only problem is that it’s almost exclusively played out as a series of quick time events, with a gruesome death scene promised for anyone who doesn’t mash the “W” key fast enough. Quick-time events are annoying, needless to say, and the combat is made unintentionally humorous by The Walking Dead: Michonne‘s dramatic slow-motion kills. Just like when Gerard Butler slays Persians in the film 300The Walking Dead: Michonne enters a dramatic slow-mo sequence every time she kills a zombie. These sequences aren’t a deal-breaker, primarily because Michonne has a sword, but they do come off as a bit garish.

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“Neck bone connects to the-” SLASH

The Walking Dead: Michonne is a decent game, but not innovative. It’s a narrative that would be for naught if not for the presence of Michonne. Though her dialogue is well-written and her character arc is compelling, everything else about this game’s story treads a safe, well-explored path.

It also doesn’t help that the game has more than a few bugs, from lip syncing gone awry to terrible loading screen lag. Telltale and adventure game fans will want to play the first two, full-length seasons of The Walking Dead game before embarking upon this adventure. It’s fun enough, it’s well enough written, and it’s the most visually impressive Telltale The Walking Dead game yet, but don’t expect the narrative to stick around long after the game’s conclusion.

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You can buy The Walking Dead: Michonne 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.

Quadrilateral Cowboy

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Hack your way through dozens of heists in a 1980s cyberpunk adventure.

PC Release: July 25, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Between last week’s The Real Texas and this week’s Quadrilateral Cowboy, one could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is on a wild west kick. Art as Games makes no such claim to a sudden yearning for the cowboy days of yore, despite what the titles of recent reviews might imply. For as The Real Texas turned out to have little to do with the traditional notions of the Old West, neither does Quadrilateral Cowboy, a game that has much more to do with computers than six shooters or getting the rickets.

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Quadrilateral Cowboy is the latest release from Blendo Games, a developer known for making wacky, eccentric narratives presented with no context or transitions. The studio’s previous efforts, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, are both amusing games, though they’ve received mixed reviews for their surreal, scattershot narratives. Quadrilateral Cowboy adopts the same brightly colored, blocky aesthetic as used in the previous two games, though it takes more of a puzzle game bent than its predecessors.

Quadrilateral Cowboy is a hacking game set in a cyberpunk rendition of the 1980’s. Players assume the role of a nameless hacker, who is armed with the best computer in the world. Rather than turn this powerful machine to an altruistic cause, the hacker decides to put her skills to more nefarious means. Whether it’s stealing a rival firm’s data, or photographing secret documents, there’s no job the hacker won’t do if the price is right.

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Aw yeah, bad-A hacking lair…

In Quadrilateral Cowboy, players use their hacking tools to enact a virtual recreation of an upcoming heist, the idea being that the hacker will know what to expect when her fellow agents break in to do the thieving. The game is a first-person adventure, in which the hacker gal is immune to most types of physical damage. The game’s challenge lies in its hacking-based puzzles.

Although she gets more tools as the game goes on, the hacker starts out with her trusty computer, which she can take with her on missions. Players can use this computer to disable security systems via console commands. For example, the hacker can disable cameras to allow access into vaults, or open doors for a classic breaking and entering. All of these machines are susceptible to this deck, and players will have to manipulate almost all of them to reach the objective.

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(Mission: Impossible theme music)

Although Quadrilateral Cowboy sounds like the dream of computer geeks and stealth players everywhere, the game is shot down almost immediately by its high number of bugs. The game’s levels are not, shall we say, watertight, and the hacker is prone to fall through the floor and out of the game world for no apparent reason. Additionally, when setting the deck down to do some hacking, it’ll occasionally fly off of the table as if swatted by the hand of God, and soar to the other side of the galaxy. These bugs can occur at anytime, and, needless to say, make Quadrilateral Cowboy a challenge in more ways than the developer intended.

It also doesn’t help aspiring hackers that the tutorials are piss-poor. Although the game does a good enough job at introducing players to moving around the physical world, any gamer who doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of coding and console commands is in for a rough start. For some reason, the hacking tutorial is tied up with a bunch of mini-games that have no clear correlation with, well, hacking. None of this is to say that Quadrilateral Cowboy doesn’t have any reference material, but it can only be found in a handy dandy notebook that’s only slightly less dry than an actual computer manual.

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Good Golly Miss Molly, what is all this gibberish?

To be fair, Quadrilateral Cowboy‘s gameplay is alright, once these basic lessons are inferred. There is something admittedly satisfying about hacking through security systems to reach an objective. The developer’s stated that one of the game’s goals is to make players feel like a cyber heister, and it does succeed in that regard. Navigating through dark hallways, opening doors with a flurry of keys and then getting out before anyone notices is fun. This game rewards players who are quick at typing; those with deft fingers are obviously going to fly through the missions much faster.

The core puzzle element at play in Quadrilateral Cowboy is not just hacking individual machines, but manipulating the entire environment in such a way as to get the job done quickly. Using the deck, players can type enough commands to operate everything in the heist simultaneously. Typing them out can be tedious, but there is something satisfying about lasers turning off and doors flying open all on a whim. That is, assuming the deck doesn’t randomly get sucked into the 10th dimension by the aforementioned physics bug.

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For anything that can be said about Quadrilateral Cowboy’s bugs, the gameplay can be decent.

The death-knell of Quadrilateral Cowboy is that there’s almost nothing to be found in the game outside of typing code. The story, if one could call it that, is nonexistent. Missions are presented as a standalone affair without any context. All the player has to do is break into a building and perform nefarious task X, but there’s not an iota of grander context to be found outside of these mission objectives. The developer’s love of randomness is taken too far in this game, as players are shunted from one garishly lit skyscraper to the next. There’s no dialogue, spoken or written, and though there’s nothing wrong with games that imply their narratives through other means, there are no other implications here.

To be fair, however, it could be argued that the set pieces in this game each tell their own sub-narrative, but the stories they try to tell are not clear at all. Between jobs, players will randomly end up in different environments, from a gun shop owned by a cat to a computer containing a story about nightmares on airplanes. Any potential for humor that these scenes have is ruined by, again, the absolute lack of a greater context. In Jazzpunk, for example, the random humor was presented as tidbits against the backdrop of a central narrative. In Quadrilateral Cowboy, the game alternates between hacking missions and these random scenes for no apparent reason. At best, the game feels lost. At worst, it feels pretentious. At least in Thirty Flights of Loving, there was a narrative to be discerned behind all of the randomly assorted scenes. Here, there’s just… nothing.

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What is all of this for?

Quadrilateral Cowboy is further sunk by some glaring issues with its art and sound design. The entire game is presented as a big, blocky world, with colorful environments and cartoon characters with giant square heads. As can be seen in the screenshot preceding this paragraph, the textures and skyboxes in Quadrilateral Cowboy can look quite muddy. The game runs smoothly when it’s not busy crashing, but the visuals in this game teeter on the very thin line between minimalist and underdeveloped. Quadrilateral Cowboy also features little to no music, which would be fine if there were some ambient sounds to fill the eerie void in each level. Just like last year’s Neon Struct, the stark absence of any kind of sound effect outside the character’s grunts is very noticeable.

Overall, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a disappointment. What it gets right as a hacking simulator is vastly outweighed by its high number of bugs, lackluster artwork, and random, story-less levels. Anyone who’s interested in hacking games and cyber-punk adventures should play Uplink. It’s 15 years old, but it’s still by far the best hacking game out there. Whereas that game feels cohesive and draws all of its other elements around the core concept of hacking, Quadrilateral Cowboy feels like a hodgepodge of random ideas held together by typing console commands. Randomness in games is never a bad thing, but without some sort of anchor, Quadrilateral Cowboy‘s design elements shoot off into the sky just like its physics bugs.

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You can buy Quadrilateral Cowboy 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.