Monthly Archives: December 2016

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike

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Climb up a cash-covered mountain to enrich your company and save Christmas!

PC Release: December 18, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, this is it. The last, and 100th, video game review of 2016. Much like this year, the video game industry experienced a volatile mix of ups and downs. There were some great games, like Abzu and Firewatch, and some not-so-great games, like No Man’s Sky, Mafia III, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, etc etc. However, just because a year contained lots of ups and downs doesn’t mean there can’t still be some Christmas cheer! A year should end on a celebratory note, even if some of the notes preceding it could’ve sounded better. A year should end with each of us standing atop a mountain, screaming in victory and defiance at a bright winter sky. In that spirit, it’s time for Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike.

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Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike is a little holiday game created by Devolver Digital, the indie label best known these days for publishing Hotline Miami. The game’s titular star, Fork Parker, is Devolver Digital’s fictitious CFO, and is used by Devolver to promote everything from new games to unorthodox marriage advice. As the face of Devolver Digital, it only makes sense for Fork to star in his own video game, and it’s all about the money.

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike opens with Fork attending a board meeting with a few nervous-looking oligarchs. It looks like the company’s sub-par games have sent profits down the toilet, and the company is in danger of tanking! Before Christmas, of all days! Luckily, Fork is the CFO, and if there’s anything he has a peculiar knack for, it’s finding more money. He doesn’t take the board’s crap about finding no money in Q4 for long.

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This s*** will not fly! Especially not on Christmas Eve!

Luckily for this company, Fork knows exactly where to find the funds. A magical Christmas mountain, far far away, reputed to be covered in giant piles of cash. With a swig of his martini and a wipe of his sleeve, Fork jumps onto a helicopter and sets out to save Christmas!

So begins the newest journey of video gaming’s dirtiest CFO, of an old man who is determined to save his company, save Christmas, and kick some hiney all in one offing. After leaping dramatically from a helicopter, Fork lands at the base of the Profit Hike and begins working his way up the peak. The higher he can get, the more money he’ll find, and the more severe the Christmas party hangover will be.

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That right there is the face of no-nonsense.

Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike is a side-scrolling platformer decked out in old-school, pixelated graphics. The entire game is meant to be a satirical take on the games industry and its greed, much like the rival video game company segment in Postal 2: Paradise Lost. Rather than being the fictitious mascot of an indie darling, Fork is portrayed as the grumpy CFO of a giant, faceless conglomerate in the same vein as Electronic Arts or Activision. And, in their spirit, he sets out to find more money for his company, no matter the cost.

As Fork, it’s up to players to scale a giant Christmas mountain, collecting money and building base camps. The game works a lot like an obstacle course; Fork starts out at the bottom of the mountain and collects money as he goes. However, he loses some of his cash every time he dies, be that at the hands of giant icicles or from a variety of Christmas-themed creatures. Players can end up going deep into the red if they die a lot, as the game’s money counter doesn’t stop at zero. The game’s final outcome is determined by how much cash players manage to preserve on their ascent. The more money Fork keeps, the more lavish the company’s profits (and Christmas party).

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Let’s get some MONEY!

As Fork, players can move from side to side and jump up on vertical obstacles. As an homage to old-school platforming games, Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike also comes loaded with lots of tricky traps and floating platforms. Fork has no means of attack should he encounter an enemy (he can’t even jump on their heads), and must move to avoid their paths. Every so often, Fork will build pass a checkpoint and build a new base camp as he ascends the mountain. Players will respawn at base camp if they die (and they’ll probably die a lot, as Fork keels over with just one hit).

As awesome as Fork is just by virtue of being Fork, he does bring some mountaineering tools with him to help climb to the top. Players can throw pitons between two or more mountain walls, and a rope will spawn between them. Fork can slide along the rope to reach higher areas or speed out of the way of foes. Players can also cancel their piton throws if they need to re-aim, and can throw about 3-4 pitons before they automatically respawn. Not even Fork Parker can spawn infinite pitons.

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Rock climbing at its finest.

Although the piton mechanic in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit hike is certainly novel, it’s a bit clunky. There’s no sort of crosshairs or reticule for throwing a piton, so players have to manually judge their throwing distance as best as possible. Of course, this means that a lot of pitons will end up being mis-thrown, so some areas require a lot of experimentation to traverse. Additionally, this game works much better with a controller than a keyboard and mouse. That’s a pretty common rule of thumb for platformers, but it’s disappointing to see for a small indie game released on PC.

Being able to aim a piton throw accurately is vital in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike, because in addition to the aforementioned icicles, Fork also has to dodge some unfriendly Christmas critters. From flying Christmas sweaters to bouncy penguins and levitating ice cubes, there are a lot of dastardly creatures standing between Fork Parker and his profit hike. Some surfaces also won’t hold an anchor, forcing players to rely on good old fashioned aiming and jumping to get around.

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Holy crap that’s a lot of penguins.

The level that Fork is doing all this mountaineering and enemy-dodging and cash-grabbing in won’t be terribly unfamiliar to platformer fans. Floating platforms and lots of terrain elevation tend to be standard fare for this genre. Less common, however, is the game being a vertical platformer rather than a horizontal start-to-end run. The vertical setup of the game’s platforms and enemies adds a huge challenge to the game, as Fork has to worry even more about obstacles above and below him as well as to the sides. With icicles and enemies closing in from all sides, Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike becomes a pretty difficult little game. Much like the old-school platformers of old.

The world of Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike, small as it is, is also replete with Christmas cheer in the sound department. The game is accompanied by a funky electronica soundtrack combining various Christmas sound effects with a steady beat. It’s a bit short and loops a bit too obviously, but it ain’t bad. The other sound effects the game offers are crisp and loud, especially the sound Fork makes when he runs into an icicle and poofs into nothing. If nothing else dissuades players from trying to get Fork killed, the sound of an old man exploding like a balloon will.

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Steady… steady…

By now, anyone reading this has probably figured out that Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike doesn’t have a deep narrative with intricate character development. But that’s okay. This game never claimed to attain such things, and its simple premise lends it a lot of charm. This can be offset by the game’s punishing difficulty, but it’s nice to kick back during the winter break with something small and simple.

The game’s fealty to old-school platformers is also quite reminiscent of simpler times. The entire game features platforming visuals that are considered classic by contemporary standards. Fork and the Christmas creatures are all pixelated, but the background environments are much more richly detailed. Unlike a lot of old platformers, the colors in Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike are bright, and arranged to create contrast. It’s a pretty little game, combining the visuals of games past with the sophistication of current art techniques.

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Almost there!

The best part about Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike and the piece de resistance of its profiteering publisher joke is that the game is free. Yep. The game that glorifies gathering huge sums of money in time for a Q4 booze-fest doesn’t cost a dime. Sure, it clocks in at 40 minutes to an hour for first-time players, but its challenge factor adds some genuine value to the game. This isn’t a simple Flash game or tech demo like so many free games on Steam, but a fully fleshed out little bit of holiday cheer. Between its short but sweet satire, its challenging platformer gameplay, and constant barrage of Christmas spirit, gamers have little reason not to pick this up and give it a go during the holidays. LONG LIVE FORK!

And with that, Art as Games is shutting down for the holidays. As always, I want to give a huge shout-out to readers new and old for checking out my content. Your support is what motivates me to write these and what makes Art as Games possible, so really, thanks a ton. Please also be sure to check out GeekFactor Radio, the site to which Art as Games is now syndicated, for even more great content on games, comics, movies, and all things nerdy.

Happy Holidays from Art as Games! See you in 2017.

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You can buy Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike 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.

Sniper Elite III

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Prevent the Nazis from building a doomsday weapon.

PC Release: July 1, 2014

By Ian Coppock

So often, the Sunday retro review is used as a chaser to catch the shortcomings of Wednesday’s big reviews. It’s become a depressingly familiar pattern, especially during this year’s tourney of big-budget holiday releases. Today’s review of Sniper Elite III marks two chasers in one: a hopeful chance to get some real stealth tactics after StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops dropped the ball, and to build upon the mechanics of Sniper Elite V2, which were rough around the edges. Hopefully the developers of V2 were able to learn from their mistakes in crafting this new game, and move the series along in a meaningful way. That always happens with sequels! …Right?

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Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter created by Rebellion Developments, a cabal of English game designers with a flair for graphic head shots. Despite what the title “Sniper Elite III” implies, the game is actually a prequel to Sniper Elite V2, taking place a few years before the first game and in an entirely new setting.

Sniper Elite III takes place in 1942, when World War II was still in full swing and when the Axis still stood a massive chance of winning the war. The game shifts the Sniper Elite series’ focus from Europe to the war in North Africa, one of the most pivotal, and most underappreciated, theaters of World War II. The game features the return (or rather, debut) of Karl Fairburne, the gravely-voiced OSS sniper from Sniper Elite V2, and Sniper Elite III opens as he joins the British defense of Tobruk, Libya.

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Karl returns to snipe more Nazis and kick more German hinturn.

Although the Brits lose control of Tobruk, they’re impressed by the heavy casualties Karl inflicts upon the Germans, and he’s seconded to British naval intelligence to partake in a special mission. Franz Vahlen, a top-ranking Nazi general and one of Hitler’s proteges, has been spotted traveling around Africa under heavy guard. Given Vahlen’s outspoken support of super-weapon research, the Allies are worried that he’s building something big out in the desert. Karl is also convinced that Vahlen is up to something especially nefarious, and sets off across the burning sands of North Africa to find and kill him.

Although Karl has the tacit support of the British army, he is almost always just as isolated as he was (or will be) in Sniper Elite V2. Though he’s adept at using the terrain to his advantage, he’ll still have to contend with the Third Reich’s elite Afrika Corps and their Italian allies in his quest to find Vahlen. As always, though, one bullet has the potential to change history, and Karl sneaks off into the desert with precisely that goal in mind.

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Breathe in…. breathe out… breathe in…

Like its predecessor (or sequel, depending on how one looks at it) Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter that emphasizes stealth over shooting. Unlike many of its shooter contemporaries, Sniper Elite III sends players on lone wolf missions deep into enemy territory, with no backup and few options should they be spotted. Because Karl has no backup, is heavily outnumbered, and goes down in just a few shots, players who want any hope of success in Sniper Elite III will stay quiet. Sure, they can try to go in guns blazing, but they won’t get far.

With all of these factors in play, players have to look for means of mission completion other than SHOOT ALL THE THINGS. There are a lot of tactical opportunities out there in the desert, and taking advantage of them requires creativity and a keen attention to detail (something that linear FPS games usually do not demand these days). As such, stealth and shooter fans alike found common ground in Sniper Elite V2, but the question remains. What changes does Sniper Elite III bring to Sniper Elite V2‘s decent but roughshod production?

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What new challenges lie in this land?

Well, for starters, Sniper Elite III allows players to create and customize their own loadouts. As Karl, players can select from a wide array of sniper rifles, secondary weapons, and pistols. Whether it’s a Japanese bolt-action or the infamous Mosin Nagant from Russia, Karl has quite the reach when it comes to procuring firearms. Players can also choose from a wide variety of other tools, including health kits, hand grenades, land mines, and tripwire mines. Best of all, each weapon can be customized with different stocks, scopes, triggers, and other peripherals, allowing players to alter their rifle’s stats to suit their playstyle. Players who prefer total stealth, for example, will want to add peripherals that increase range and effective accuracy.

For Sniper Elite III to give players so much freedom in picking guns is fantastic. Anyone who’s detail-oriented enough to appreciate the game’s stealth will also appreciate being able to execute that in the manner that best suits them. Players will have a chance to pick and modify their loadout from each mission, and can maintain up to four concurrent loadouts for different mission profiles. For anything else that can be said about Sniper Elite III, it does a great job of allowing for an assassin’s greatest asset: preparation.

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Decisions, decisions…

Once Karl has selected his loadout and tools, it’s time to head out into the field. In significant contrast to the levels of Sniper Elite V2, which allowed for a few different paths but were still mostly linear, Sniper Elite III‘s levels are wide open. Karl will usually start at the bottom of each map, and complete various objectives that are scattered randomly around a circular map. This level design overhaul is a welcome change for the Sniper Elite series, as it grants players much more freedom in how they pursue their goal. Instead of being able to sneak through one of a few houses, as in Sniper Elite V2, players can use the versatility of Sniper Elite III to find many more paths. Does Karl sneak through a cave and take the Germans out from behind? Or snipe them from a tall cliff?

On that note, Sniper Elite III‘s levels also contain a lot more vertical variety than those of Sniper Elite V2. Karl can ascend up rocky hillsides or hunker down in oases; either route works for reaching the target. Each level also contains a lot of open and closed areas, from wide desert dunes to claustrophobic slot canyons. Karl will also wind his way through a diverse palette of ancient ruins, desert villages, military bunkers, and other structures. The sheer variety of terrain, buildings, and paths in Sniper Elite III comprises a remarkable improvement over that of Sniper Elite V2, one that players will be all too eager to take advantage of.

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Sniper Elite III’s levels are some of the shooter genre’s most diverse.

The gameplay of Sniper Elite III has also received a significant overhaul from that of Sniper Elite V2. The two biggest, most immediately noteworthy changes are that Sniper Elite III abandons its predecessor’s health regeneration system in favor of first aid kits, and also does away with any sort of cover system. Neither change may seem all that big at the outset, but they’re actually very clever implementations for a stealth game. With first aid kits, players can’t just charge into battle and take cover to regenerate when things get too hairy. Since Karl has to use first aid kits, and can only carry so many of them, this forces players to be much more careful about what fights they pick. Likewise, the lack of a cover system means that players have to manually duck behind objects instead of just magnetizing to a wall until a patrol passes.

The actual shooting gameplay hasn’t changed too terribly much, though. Karl can still tag enemies with his binoculars and, of course, squeeze the trigger to shoot fascists until their bodies are sufficiently riddled with lead. Sniper Elite III does afford the player more tactical opportunities, though, like loud noises to mask shots and the ability to make melee kills. The gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam returns with more detail and viscera than ever, allowing players to see the internal damage of most every sniper shot fired. This system does get a bit old after seeing it for the 100th time… but not that old. Sniper Elite III also includes a few multiplayer modes that pit snipers against each other rather than NPCs. They’re okay, but nothing to write home about, and the online community has died down a lot in the last two years.

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The x-ray kill-cam returns better and bloodier than ever.

Another major change Sniper Elite III makes to its gameplay is a complete revamp of enemy vehicle encounters. In Sniper Elite V2, vehicles made easy targets because one bullet to the gas tank would take it out and all its surrounding troops with it. In Sniper Elite III, most vehicles’ vulnerable points are heavily armored, requiring Karl to shoot them 3-4 times before he can pierce a gas tank or radiator. This change makes vehicles incredibly dangerous foes in Sniper Elite III, as they should be, and forces players to contend with a foe that will know their location with every shot. Sniper Elite III also introduces a wider array of vehicles, bringing Panzers back from Sniper Elite V2 but also introducing light tanks, turret trucks, and other vehicles.

Finally, Sniper Elite III‘s enemy AI has received a hefty tune-up after the overpowered omniscience of Sniper Elite V2‘s foes. Whereas one wrong move in Sniper Elite V2 would alert every German in Berlin, the enemy AI in Sniper Elite III is much fairer. Players have a bit more time to get behind cover if spotted, and enemies react with shock and surprise at seeing Karl instead of a half-second gun-sling. Sniper Elite III also does a better job of tracking enemies’ location of Karl, giving players more elbow room to slip away and try again after the alarms die down. This isn’t to say that Sniper Elite III is easy, but the challenge it offers has been polished down to a more fun, reasonable level.

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In a complete flip from Sniper Elite V2, getting spotted by a tank is now dangerous, and getting spotted by one soldier is no big deal.

Another thing that Sniper Elite III gets right is its setting. There’s nothing wrong with the bombed-out European ruins, per se, but that motif has been done to death in dozens of World War II games over the years. By taking the action to North Africa, Sniper Elite III avoids looking like another grimy European grind-fest and espouses a novel setting rarely discussed by historians, students, or the general public these days. The scorching African desert, and all the jungles, oases and savannahs it hides, are to the ruins of Berlin as day is to night, and what a nice change of pace it is.

On top of all of that, Sniper Elite III looks beautiful. The environments burst with color and contrast despite what a desert setting might imply, and each map espouses all sorts of different terrain, from canyons to villages to dunes. Character animations are smooth (Karl’s awkward prone animation from Sniper Elite V2 has been fixed), as are the animations of tanks and artillery. The world is coated with grit from high desert winds and incoming storms. The sound design accompanying this world is also in good shape; enemies speak at a normal volume (unlike in Sniper Elite V2) and the world includes noises from wildlife, machinery and warfare. All in all, it’s a compelling package of a world and a visual feast to boot.

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Ooooooh…

For all that Sniper Elite III has improved upon with its gameplay, visuals, and level design, the one area that it fails to elevate to that same height is the story. In Sniper Elite V2, Karl’s mission to find the scientists behind the V2 rocket program was less a narrative and more a series of checkpoints. Start a mission, kill a guy, end mission. Unfortunately, Sniper Elite III has the exact same problem. Karl remains just as unknowable and uninteresting as he was in V2, speaking only during the mission briefing and maybe a few times during the actual levels. In the case of the latter, it’s almost always Karl talking to himself about a better sniping position instead of, y’know, meaningful dialogue. Karl finds an object or kills a guy in one level, it leads him to the next one, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Sniper Elite III also fails to elicit an emotional connection from the player, and its attempts to do so are pretty pathetic. In Sniper Elite V2, the game tried to make players feel panic when the last scientist standing tried to launch the V2 rockets, but the tension only lasted one level, so the panic had died pretty much as it’d begun. Sniper Elite III tries to coax empathy from the player when a buddy of Karl’s dies during a mission, but he’s a buddy we’ve only known for that one mission. If Rebellion hopes to create a narrative worthy of remembrance, they’ll have to try a lot harder than a level-long arc of emotion. Indeed, the game’s premise makes little sense either. Why are the Nazis building a super-weapon in North Africa? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that in Germany, where there’s more infrastructure and security? For all the beauty afforded by Sniper Elite III‘s new setting, it and the narrative within it are completely disconnected.

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Come back! I have to murder you!

Even though Sniper Elite III‘s narrative is a bust, this game gets massive props for doing an uncommonly good job of improving over its predecessor. Rebellion’s story writing still needs a lot of work, but the studio did a fantastic job at overhauling and fine-tuning literally every other facet of their game design. From level design to gameplay, from audio design to graphics, there is no area of game development that Sniper Elite III doesn’t represent a considerable improvement in. Hopefully next February’s Sniper Elite 4, which will send Karl off to 1943 Italy, will complete the puzzle by adding a compelling narrative. For now, shooter and stealth fans will definitely want to check Sniper Elite III out. Its story ain’t no epic, but its gameplay makes it a great tactical shooter.

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You can buy Sniper Elite III here.

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

StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3

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Finish the fight against the Defenders of Man.

PC Release: November 22, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The end of the year is quickly approaching. 2016’s been a colorful year in the world of video games, with a variety of indie darlings up against a smattering of big-budget games. Some were wins, a lot were losses, but the overall variety of titles available to gamers continues to grow. In that spirit, the series of reviews on the strategy-heavy Nova Covert Ops series continues today, with a (hopefully) epic conclusion to be found in Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3. Blizzard has managed to tweak the StarCraft II formula with this campaign’s new focus on stealth, but reviewing Chapter 3 is the only way to find out if this shakeup sticks the landing.

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Chapter 3 is the third and final installment of Nova Covert Ops, a bonus StarCraft II campaign set years after the conclusion of the main StarCraft II trilogy. As with the previous two chapters, Chapter 3 stars inveterate psionic assassin Nova Terra, on a mission to save the Terran Dominion from a mysterious faction of dissenters. Although these missions retain the real-time strategy mechanics that the StarCraft series was built on, Nova Covert Ops also encompasses stealth missions in which Nova goes solo against bases full of baddies. It’s a surprising olive branch to stealth fans coming from StarCraft II, but Nova Covert Ops also emphasizes tactical upgrades to various units. Even more than in the main StarCraft II campaigns, tactics is king in Nova Covert Ops.

Chapter 3 comes hot on the heels of Chapter 2. After a harrowing trio of missions across Dominion space, Nova finally learns who the leaders of the Defenders of Man are and contrives a plan with Emperor Valerian Mengsk to bring them to justice. Nova finds them readily enough, but Alarak, leader of the Tal’darim, arrives to attack the Dominion and slaughter anyone standing between him and the Defenders. Alarak hasn’t reneged on the deal he and Nova made in Chapter 2, but he did promise to destroy the Defenders wherever they hide, even on a planet teeming with innocent civilians.

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Never bargain with snarky psychopaths.

Nova and her black ops regiment steel themselves for a battle on two fronts. With the Tal’darim mindlessly slaughtering innocents on one side and the Defenders of Man making their escape on the other, it will take all of Nova’s wits and resources to keep the Dominion’s enemies at bay. So begins the third and final Nova Covert Ops mission pack, one whose mission is to continue refining that which was introduced in previous chapters and bring this mini-narrative to a successful conclusion.

Like the previous Nova Covert Ops packs, Chapter 3 emphasizes a blend of solo stealth encounters and the more classic StarCraft II base-building and army-fielding mechanics that the game is best known for. Nova’s time is spent both infiltrating enemy facilities by herself, and commanding her battalion of elite black ops soldiers out in the field. To supplement these missions, Nova Covert Ops allows players to customize Nova with a variety of guns, grenades, stealth suits, and other equipment, as well as share elite spec ops technology with her troops.

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Nova is all about the stealth.

Not that Chapter 2 wasn’t a fun mission pack, but its abject lack of Nova stealth missions was a little weird coming from a miniseries that promised lots of, well, stealth. Indeed, there were only two such encounters in the entirety of Chapter 2, and both were optional side objectives about retrieving old equipment. Chapter 3 slits this problem in the throat by starting Nova off on stealth in the very first mission, as she moves in to apprehend the Defenders of Man’s leader. This mission is undeniably the best of Nova Covert Ops’ stealth’em’ups, scattering invisibility-shattering laser beams and hordes of sentry drones across a labyrinthine map.

After that, the cadence of the following two missions settles back into the wide-scale battles StarCraft II is known for. The second mission comprises repelling a huge army of Tal’darim invaders, and the last mission, a final, epic showdown with the Defenders of Man. Even though both of the latter missions are much more conventional StarCraft II fare, the tail end of mission three features Nova, alone against the enemy she swore to track down. That setup is quintessentially Nova Covert Ops, but how well does it bring the series to an end?

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The only thing better than a lightsaber is an INVISIBLE lightsaber.

To touch on the gameplay a bit more, the stealth odyssey in this mission pack is the best the series has to offer. It’s considerably longer than any other stealth mission in Nova Covert Ops, and encompasses a wider array of challenges and opportunities. Nova has a new power that grants her mind control over any one enemy unit, opening up the floor for some pretty fun sneak attacks. Forcing enemies to fight one another is also the stuff of subterfuge, so it’s nice to see the mission pack get a bit sneakier with Nova’s powers (it’s also fun to sick a Thor onto a squad of unsuspecting Marines).

Additionally, the Defenders of Man have tightened their security against Nova’s attacks, exponentially widening the arsenal of defenses she’s expected to tackle. There are no flame turrets, thank God, but there are laser beams that both alert nearby units and disable Nova’s passive invisibility. Not even Nova can stand against all the units crammed into the mission, so players have to be a lot more considerate of their stealth tactics. Couple this with an array of sensor drones in both unit and building forms, and the result is a mission that does a great job at forcing players to switch mental tracks constantly.

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Now you see me…

Indeed, switching tracks is the name of Chapter 3‘s game. After Nova completes her mission and the Tal’darim attack, mission two switches gears over to defending against Protoss invaders on six fronts. Not two, not four, six. Nova’s got some assistance from mainline Dominion forces, but this mission is a delectable exercise in multitasking. To escalate matters further, she has to slay over a thousand Tal’Darim before the mission ends, making the mission an exercise in endurance as well as versatility. Of course, this mission’s structure feels derivative of the Shakuras Zerg slaughter mission in Legacy of the Void. It goes without saying that Nova has no time for pensive stealth solos in this mission.

The last mission of Chapter 3 and indeed the mission pack comprises Nova’s final showdown against the Defenders of Man, a space platform brawl reminiscent of the maps from the original StarCraft. Like the previous mission, this last sortie deals with defending multiple targets against constant enemy attacks, all while fending off a giant baddie that keeps coming back for more. Like the missions of Chapter 2, this mission feels quite bombastic for a series built on stealth and tactics, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Or a lot of fun.

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Matt Horner even shows up to help Nova out.

Overall, the gameplay of Chapter 3 is fun, but it never quite gets to the core of what Nova Covert Ops promises to be about. Ironically, the very first mission pack of the series is the stealthiest of all. At least half of that pack is spent playing solely as Nova, with two solo stealth missions and even a classic high-speed highway chase with enemy agents. The second mission pack drops the ball by focusing exclusively on action, and though the stealth mission in pack three is great, it’s just the one mission. The rest is classic StarCraft II, albeit with more versatile mission and hero upgrades.

The level design in this pack is nothing that StarCraft II fans haven’t seen before. The stealth-centered mission is definitely the most maze-like that the series has yet produced, containing the most elaborate traps and trickery. However, the remaining two missions are big brawls that any StarCraft II fan will have fought. They might be a bit unfamiliar to players brand-new to the series, but that only begs the question: how would someone stumble upon StarCraft II and then Nova Covert Ops without first playing the main campaigns? There is no logical way these missions won’t look familiar to anyone.

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Nova doesn’t get nearly enough stealth time.

The other question at play with this mission pack is double that of its predecessors. Is its own narrative any good, and more importantly, does it manage to bring the overarching Nova Covert Ops story to a satisfying end? The pack’s own sub-narrative isn’t terrible, but it’s clear that the writers rushed things along to get to a speedy ending. No sooner does the player know anything about the Defenders of Man’s leader than they’re engaging the enemy in the final showdown. Valerian Mengsk’s subplot from Chapter 2 is barely extrapolated upon in Chapter 3, and the confrontation with Alarak is abruptly aborted without any explanation of why the Tal’darim hated the Defenders of Man. Presumably, the Defenders attacked the Tal’darim to force them into fight with the Dominion, but Alarak usually has more creative answers than that.

As for the overarching narrative, it, like so many video game narratives before it, is okay until the last five minutes. Nova engages in a satisfying standoff with the Defenders’ leader, but makes a decision at the very end of the game that needlessly implicates her and forces her on the run. Without divulging too many details, she basically makes a decision that makes no sense and had no running-up in the narrative preceding it. Perhaps this last-minute 180 was made to leave the door open for future StarCraft plots, but boy does it feel shoehorned in. One minute Nova is executing the emperor’s orders, the next she abruptly decides to do something different because “it’s better this way”.

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She just wanted to be a rebel…

It sucks to say it, but for all the fun to be had in its battles and sneaking, Chapter 3 is the worst of the three mission packs that Nova Covert Ops has to offer. Its gameplay is fun (if a bit stale by round three) but Chapter 3‘s gaping plot holes make Nova Covert Ops go out with a scratch of the head rather than a raise of the fist. There is an inherent challenge in squeezing a compelling story into three packs of missions released months apart, but that still doesn’t excuse this mission pack’s abrupt, confusing ending. Nova Covert Ops‘ writers started out strong on a wave of space-age intrigue, but it dwindles down to baseless changes of character at the very end of the series.

Overall, the Nova Covert Ops series is neither a must-avoid nor must-have for fans of StarCraft II. It toys with some new concepts here and there, but is otherwise another plate of missions that are quite derivative of the main campaign. Couple this with Nova Covert Ops‘ subpar writing and abundance of plot holes, and it comes up noticeably short in comparison to previous StarCraft II efforts. A few promised features, like being able to walk around Nova’s ship like Jim Raynor did the Hyperion, also go unfulfilled. StarCraft II fans considering a purchase would do well to hit Nova Covert Ops up much like Nova would herself; wait for a (sale) opportunity, and then strike. Otherwise… meh.

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You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3 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.

Spore

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Create your own creature and guide it from single-celled organism to ultimate space tyrant.

PC Release: September 7, 2008

By Ian Coppock

2016 has been a pretty rough year. Not “just” because of the vitriolic American presidential election, or the proliferation of war and disease, but because we’ve lost a massive slate of mankind’s most talented creators. From David Bowie to Prince, and Edward Albee to Leonard Cohen, humanity’s gallery of artists took a big dent this year. Therefore, perhaps it’s time to skip over to a video game that celebrates creativity above all else. No gritty set pieces, no visceral gameplay, just wild abandon in a literal galaxy of possibilities. The only game that this intro could possibly fit is Spore.

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Released in 2008 by an EA subsidiary called Maxis, Spore is a creature creator game that challenges players to, well, create their own creature. At least for starters. The game actually entices players to do a lot more; to not only create an alien beastie, but to guide it through five stages of “evolution”. Each stage encompasses a different type of gameplay and different challenges for players to overcome. In the end, what starts out as a tiny cell in a primordial pool could very well be the galaxy’s next alien overlord. Players are free to explore their species’ pool, then planet, then galaxy, ad nauseum.

Spore starts things off by presenting players with a slate of possible home planets to pick from. Each one has its own terrain and exists concurrently within an entire galaxy, allowing players to have a few species at once. After picking one, players start out as a tiny cellular organism in a pond somewhere. This stage of the game is pretty simple; just eat plants (or other cells) and grow over several generations. It’s a top-down game mode that revolves around eating things smaller than the player, and avoiding the things larger than the player.

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Aw, it’s so cute!

After eating their way to a more substantial size, players can add limbs to their creature and emerge onto dry land. This is one of Spore‘s more substantial game modes; players control their creature from a third-person perspective and wander the landscape in search of animal parts. These parts can be acquired through exploration and befriending (or murdering) the other animals around the player’s creature. Players can then add these parts, be they extra limbs or a longer tail, to each successive generation of creature.

The creature creation and modification mechanic is by far Spore‘s most iconic feature. While upgrading their beastie, players are taken to a special studio screen where they can make thousands of possible modifications to their creature. Players can add everything from wings for flying to poison spitters for fighting, and modify their creature’s body shape by toggling its vertebrae. Creatures can also be brightened up with dozens of paint and pattern options. Players can even test their beastie’s animations or make them perform funny dance moves. Though the number of possible combinations for creature design is practically limitless, players can only put so much stuff on their animal at one time.

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Spore is one of the most open-ended creation games ever made.

Gathering parts serves a more subtle purpose than creature modification; it’s also the primary means by which the player’s animal can advance. Spore has been called an evolution game by some critics, but it’s anything but. Sure, the creature develops new features, but those are according to the whim of a god-like player, not to better adapt to an environment. Regardless, gathering parts and modifying the creature is how it becomes more sophisticated. With better parts, players can become more adept at befriending other animals or slaying them for food. As with the cellular mode, Spore‘s animal mode is fairly simplistic: run around and either fight or befriend other creatures. That’s about it.

After sufficient time spent adding parts, the creature will gain sentience, and the third stage of Spore kicks in. The game shifts from a third-person adventure to an isometric real-time strategy game, in which players manage a primitive tribe of their newly sapient creation. In this mode, players can conquer or ally with other villages of their species, as well as hunt for food and build up settlements. This mode is stripped down to the point of being simplistic, but after all the other tribes have been conquered or befriended, players can move on to building cities.

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ME WANT PIZZA (pounds chest)

Spore‘s fourth stage again shifts gears, this time toward a city sim game with light combat elements. Players can built shining metropolises and vehicles with which to wage war against other city-states. The creation mechanic is largely abandoned in the tribal stage, but comes back in the city stage in the form of vehicle creation. Just like with their animal, players can craft an endless assortment of tanks, airplanes, and other vehicles in pursuit of world conquest. Similarly to tribal mode, these technologies are acquired via befriending or conquering other cities. Players will be expected to manage diplomacy, and their negotiation preferences as a tribe directly affects the industry of their city. For example, if the player’s creature was a complete dick to its neighbors in tribal, its city-state will feature a strong military.

Finally, after the world has been conquered by a combination of planes, trains and automobiles, the player’s creature can develop spaceflight and depart to conquer other worlds. This is where Spore really opens up; at stage five, players are given an entire galaxy to play with. This time the gameplay sports a mix of space economy management and third-person space combat, as players expand their empires and defend its borders from hostile species. Because this portion of the game is a literal galaxy in size, there’s little chance of running out of things to shoot, explore, conquer, or terraform anytime soon.

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Change the world. Change the galaxy.

There’s a lot to unpack with all those paragraphs of gameplay description, but Spore‘s chief takeaway is its potential for creativity. The game’s open-ended creature, building and vehicle design is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s so easy to pick up. With just a few simple tools, players can craft almost anything they want, from an eight-eyed sociopath to a tank with wings. Players can do this as part of upgrading their creature, or add as many creations as they want to the in-game library. In case all of that wasn’t enough, Maxis also enclosed a massive library of their own creations, encompassing hundreds of pre-made creatures, vehicles and buildings that are all ready to use.

The helpful factor about character and vehicle creation is how bubbly Spore looks. The entire game is decked out in bright pastel colors and lots of big, bubbly objects. Character animations can get a bit wonky (especially when lots of body parts are involved) but the game’s ability to animate creatures almost no matter their composition is impressive. Spore launched with some DRM that was ruthless even by EA standards, but it’s been absent from the Steam copy of the game for years. The game runs well on modern machines and, sans a couple of desktop crashes, is bug-free.

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Spore is a bright, colorful adventure.

The problem with Spore is that its penchant for creativity is only skin-deep. As countless critics have noted before now, this game’s gameplay is extremely shallow. In trying to be five different games at once, Spore stretches a handful of simplistic mechanics far too thinly. The result is a game that, while aesthetically pleasing and fun to toy around in, is exceptionally clunky and comprised of only 2-3 game mechanics per stage.

For example, the cellular stage can be completed in under 10 minutes by just swimming around and eating things. The animal stage’s only gameplay mechanic is diplomacy toward other animals, to say nothing of its clunky movement controls, tiresome cooldown-based combat, or limited exploration area. The tribal stage is similarly hollow, with players only able to attack or befriend neighbors, and tame certain animals. The city stage affords more variety in gameplay approach, but a lot of that is determined by how the player behaved in the tribal stage. As previously mentioned, a belligerent tribe results in a belligerent city-state, and gameplay options for diplomacy or trade are hamstrung for an entire stage of gameplay.

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…Please stop staring at me like that.

The one stage of Spore that has some depth to it is the space stage. Players can conquer worlds, wage war upon alien species, and gather valuable spices from across their empires. However, the fact that this stage of Spore has more content in it than the previous four stages combined makes the game feel dreadfully unbalanced. It doesn’t help that spice-gathering, the primary means by which players make money, is barely explained at all. Neither is terraforming, or exploring more advanced galactic formations, such as wormholes.

Spore also has an unfortunate tendency to punish players for exploring its galaxy. There are literally thousands if not millions of planets players can conquer, but do they have a mighty space fleet with which to defend these holdings? Nope. Just the one ship. Having a large empire is not worth the time spent fending off space pirates, especially if the player’s species is at war with several rivals. Like a certain recent space exploration game that will remain nameless, players can also race to the center of the galaxy. The issue with that, however, is that the entire main body of the galaxy is inhabited by the Grox. These ruthless cyborgs will, upon discovering the player’s species, try to pound it into space dust with their much more powerful ships. Players in the mood for something more pensive are therefore best off exploring around their worlds and avoiding the endgame. Don’t worry; the item one gets for reaching the galactic core isn’t all that great anyway.

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Oh God, not THESE guys again…

As previously stated, the most fun to be had in Spore is in the game’s creation studios. Its gameplay may not be all that impressive, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in creating entire fleets of spaceships, or a massive carnivore that has swords for testicles. Less fun is actually putting these creations through the paces of Spore‘s shallow gameplay. It can be fun to expand creatures’ space empires, but even this funnest part of Spore is wracked with tedium.

Hilariously, Spore also features two standalone DLC packs that appear as their own items in the Steam library. Each one is twenty dollars; the former adds a few dozen extra animal parts, and the latter makes it possible for space explorers to beam down onto a planet. The exploration pack adds some value to the main game, but asking $20 for it is a little on the nose, especially after eight years on the market. Electronic Arts might want to double-check their older games’ pricing.

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A perfect 10, huh? Feels too generous.

In the end, Spore feels less like a cell-to-space odyssey and more like an asset creation workshop with some floppy gameplay appendages stapled to it. The gameplay is clunky in too many places and shallow across the board. It’s a great way to express some creativity on screen, but actually taking that creativity and molding it into something more tangible is beyond Spore‘s ability. Spore will entertain kids, though, and sometimes there’s nothing more amusing than making a scary monster do the disco point. It’s just a shame that Maxis didn’t put that same amount of fun and creativity into the rest of the game.

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You can buy Spore 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.

Sniper Elite V2

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Kill or recruit top Nazi scientists before the Soviet Union makes off with them.

PC Release: May 2, 2012

By Ian Coppock

“One bullet can change history”. That sentence is the mantra of the Sniper Elite series. It suggests a mentality of finesse and subtlety, which is sorely underappreciated in the world of today’s shooters. Indiscriminately firing into crowds of bad guys is all good and fun, but today’s shooters bear immense, and often underdeveloped, potential for tactics. Crysis is a great shooter because it forces players to think laterally. It creates a much more immediate sense of danger and requires players to be smart about how they approach enemies. However, there’s another tactical shooter out there bereft of invisible nano-armor, making players rely even more on tactics than that venerable shooter. Sniper Elite V2 is its name, and tactics is its game.

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Sniper Elite V2 is a third-person stealth shooter made by Rebellion Developments, a British studio that also handled the task of publishing the game. Sniper Elite V2 is a half-remake, half-sequel to 2005’s Sniper Elite, refining that game’s shooter gameplay while also adding expanded levels and a narrative. Unlike most military shooters, Sniper Elite V2 is a stealth game, compelling players to be sneaky and smart about taking out enemies. The term “V2” is a nod both to this game being a remake, and to the German V2 rocket program that serves as its narrative core.

Sniper Elite V2 takes place during the final weeks of the European theater of World War II, when Nazi Germany teetered on the brink of collapse. Even before the death of Adolf Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union began angling for pieces of the Third Reich in anticipation of what would ultimately become the Cold War. Among all the Nazi secrets both sides wanted was to know how to build V2 rockets, the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles and the most advanced rocketry of their day. To that end, the OSS dispatches elite operative Karl Fairburne to Berlin to recruit top Nazi scientists as part of Operation Paperclip. Failing that, he’s to kill the scientists before the Soviets can get their hands on them.

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Time to hunt for German nerds.

Not long after arriving in Berlin (or what’s left of it), Karl obtains a list of five Nazi scientists who are associated with the V2 program, and makes recruiting or killing them his top priority. He’ll have to take care, though; the Wehrmacht and the Red Army are fighting for control of the city, and he doesn’t have the luxury of reinforcements should he be sniffed out. It is not for Karl to charge blindly into enemy ranks, shooting as he goes. Instead, he must be a ghost of Berlin, creeping through rubble piles and taking back alleys.

That premise also serves as the basic gist of Sniper Elite V2. As Karl, players start out each level in a different corner of Berlin and must take one of many possible paths to their target. Alerting the enemy will bring the entire Wehrmacht upon Karl, so players instead have to rely on stealth and subterfuge to navigate the ruins of Berlin. Indeed, it’s best to think of Karl’s sniper rifle not as a weapon to be used heavily, but a precise, surgical tool best used only a few times. Sniper Elite V2‘s infamous “kill-cam”, a mechanic that shows the player the precise skeletal and internal damage caused by each sniper shot, is gruesomely entertaining. Rebellion caught some flak for allowing players to watch an x-ray slow-mo of a Nazi’s skull exploding, but nothing is more cathartic after a long day at work than precisely that spectacle.

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I seeeeeee yoooouuuu…

As Karl, players start out each of the game’s 11 missions armed with a sniper rifle, a pistol, and a secondary weapon (usually an SMG or shotgun). Karl also comes with a backpack full of landmines, and the ability to regenerate health once behind cover for long enough. Even though Sniper Elite V2‘s armory sounds conventional for a military shooter, the game encourages tactics and trickery. It’s far better to kill a Nazi and booby trap his body with a landmine than try to shoot the entire squad with a shotgun. Karl’s secondary weapons are meant to serve as a Plan B in case of discovery. Otherwise, it’s best to take cover and avoid enemy patrols while sneaking toward the target. The fact that Karl will go down in a handful of shots adds expediency to this strategy.

Because of its furtive focus, Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay is set at a more thoughtful pace than other romps through Berlin. This is no Call of Duty: World at War, where the player has virtually unlimited ammo and dozens of troops backing them up. The sense of isolation emanates just as much from Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay as its premise or narrative. If Karl gets spotted, no one can help him, so patience is key to success in this game. Karl can mark targets with his binoculars to help keep track of enemies, or throw rocks to distract them, so Sniper Elite V2 isn’t as merciless as it might sound.

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Sniper Elite V2’s sense of isolation is profound.

Then again, maybe the game is more merciless than even the developer intended. The enemies in Sniper Elite V2 have that overly sharp AI programming that can make gameplay a frustrating bout of trial and error. Remember how the thieving in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is broken because guards can somehow hear the Hero of Kvatch sift through a desk? The soldiers in Sniper Elite V2 are similarly omniscient in their vigilance. Players who are even a microsecond too late to grab cover will alert every Nazi from here to Hamburg faster than split infinity. This doesn’t make sneaking in Sniper Elite V2 impossible, but it feels unreasonably difficult in more than one instance. It’s not exactly fun to signal every Russian on the next 10 city blocks because Karl wiped his nose too loudly.

Contrary wise, some encounters in Sniper Elite V2 are far too easy. Karl frequently has to deal with German or Soviet military convoys as he stalks the city, and they’re all protected by big ol’ tanks. Sounds terrifying, right? Wrong. Because each one can be blown to smithereens with one shot to the gas tank. Combine this with the tank’s slow aiming, and the result is a profoundly neutered heavy enemy challenge. To say nothing of how the explosion usually kills all the soldiers around it in one go. Indeed, a tank is usually a welcome sight, because all it takes is one bullet to blow it up and level every outpost on the city block.

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Tanks inspire relief and inner peace in Sniper Elite V2, rather than trouser-soiling terror.

The level design that hosts all of this sneaking and shooting is a curious blend of linear city streets and open, bombed-out buildings. Karl can take a few different paths to his objective, and nearly all of them will lead past enemy lines. Though there are several unique routes to uncover in each level, most missions in Sniper Elite V2 still feel quite linear. Each of the paths Karl can take still generally point in a straight line, and checkpoints placed in specific doorways and corridors further choke out any feeling of being open-ended. Still, the levels are serviceable for what the game is trying to accomplish, and are still head and shoulders more open than the set pieces of today’s linear first-person shooters. Some missions even force Karl to sneak over and under skirmishes between the Nazis and the Soviets, killing men from both armies as he goes.

The visuals used to flesh out all of these levels are surprisingly vibrant for a gritty war shooter. The game’s visage is bleak, but not dull. There are bright buildings in Berlin whose paint has faded under endless smoke, and impressive monuments that stand emergent from big mountains of gravel. Columns of smoke tower above the city, and stale wind pushes huge clouds of ashes across the broken cityscape. Sniper Elite V2‘s graphics have aged a tiny bit, and some of the rubble piles look too much like PNG images, but it all still looks just fine. Character animations are a bit wonky, though. NPCs just walking around in gameplay act natural, but are stiffly animated in cutscenes. Additionally, Karl’s prone crawl animation is a bit… twitchy. But, digression is called for. These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise suitable core.

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Sniper Elite V2 looks fine.

Less suitable than Sniper Elite V2‘s visual design is an exceptionally rough audio production. No element of Sniper Elite V2‘s sound design is without some eyebrow-raising hitches. For starters, the enemy troops’ voices echo very loudly, as if each level is actually taking place in a cave. This reverberation is so powerful that Karl can usually hear enemy soldiers from the next street over, even when they’re whispering. This may have been an attempt by Rebellion to make it easier to detect soldiers, but unless Karl is part bat, there’s no way he should be able to overhear how many bratwursts the Wehrmacht ate last night.

The other unfortunate design choice bringing down the audio is the soundtrack. The music is fine; that is to say, it’s a serviceable but otherwise unremarkable batch of horns and string music. No, the issue is how severely the music tracks loop. It’s not just a little bit, where the song fades into nothing and starts over. No, the songs accompanying each level abruptly end, clip out, and start up again. It’s very noticeable and does more than a little to break the game’s atmosphere. Thus far, the only workaround is to turn the music off, which would be fine if it didn’t make the enemies’ loudly echoing conversation even louder.

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Excuse me, could you please pipe down a bit?

The other factor that gives Sniper Elite V2 pause is its narrative, or more precisely, its relative lack of one. Sure, Karl has a mission to infiltrate Berlin, but there’s no character development and no compelling storyline. The entire game is simply Karl starting a mission, killing a guy, ending the mission, over and over until the credits roll. There’s a little tidbit of thriller toward the end when one of the last scientists on Karl’s list tries to launch the V2 rockets, but it’s over in a single level, so the tension has no time to build. Karl himself is pretty unknowable, speaking only during the mission briefing, and of no topic other than his mission objectives. All of this isn’t really a narrative so much as a series of checkpoints.

None of this makes Sniper Elite V2 a bad game, but it does make the production conspicuously hollow. There was plenty of room for a gritty subterfuge thriller in Sniper Elite V2, but the game is more interested in showing off countless kill-cam vignettes than telling a story. Nothing wrong with the kill-cam, but each mission’s short briefing and then the game’s abrupt ending make Sniper Elite V2 much less memorable than it could’ve been. It certainly doesn’t help cover up the poor sound design.

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There’s really no story in all of this?

Sniper Elite V2 isn’t getting out of here without a recommendation, but it feels less like a compelling war story than a meticulous study concocted by hardcore World War II nerds. Y’know, those military history enthusiasts who are more concerned with the precise trajectory of a ship’s cannon than the emotional brevity of whatever that cannon was firing at (see also: ARMA 2 fans). Though Sniper Elite V2 has its sound and AI problems, and its narrative is a far cry from a World War II drama, its competent sniping and sneaking will sate anyone looking for something different.

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You can buy Sniper Elite V2 here.

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

StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 2

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Race to save thousands of lives from a vicious Zerg attack.

PC Release: August 2, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Holy moly. The 2016 holiday season actually produced a well-optimized PC game. Watch Dogs 2, no less! In a rare showing for an otherwise dismal holiday season, a major publisher managed to produce a game that not only ran on its opening day, but runs quite well. Ubisoft is the unexpected savior in this situation, but let’s be fair, the year 2016 has been full of unexpected situations. Unfortunately, I had already given up on the prospect of Watch Dogs 2 being any good (the first one is not good) but we’ll still have a good time. Why? Because it’s time to return to one of gaming’s proudest sci-fi universes, and the continuing saga of Nova Terra.

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After this spring’s release of StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, the single-player saga of StarCraft II pretty much ground to a sudden, albeit satisfying, end. The game’s multiplayer ecosphere continues to rage with battles between Terran, Zerg, and Protoss, but the grand narrative of Kerrigan and Amon does not. Wanting to keep players invested in the StarCraft universe’s story, Blizzard released the first of three planned mission packs back in March, starring the psionic operative Nova. Nova may not have gotten her third-person shooter debut in the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost title, but Blizzard kept her around for their subsequent titles, and now she gets her own series over a decade later.

Set years after the events of Legacy of the Void, the Nova Covert Ops mission packs chronicle Nova Terra’s journey to defend the Terran Dominion against a new, human threat. The first set of missions saw Nova escape from the Defenders of Man, as they’re called, and take command of an elite black ops regiment to hunt down and destroy the dissenters. The mission pack sported a novel blend of the usual strategic gameplay that StarCraft II is known for, but also featured isometric, Diablo III-style stealth missions in which Nova sneaks around enemy bases ad furtim. Well, Nova finds out that the Defenders of Man are luring the alien Zerg to human worlds to make the Terran Dominion look weak. The second set of Nova Covert Ops missions opens as our heroine races to the Defenders’ latest target, to try to save thousands of innocents from overwhelming Zerg forces.

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Nova is intent on stopping the Defenders’ latest scheme.

Even as Nova fights to defend innocent civilians from the Zerg, she and her loyal spymaster Riegel fight to discern the identities of the Defenders’ leadership. Whoever they are, the group seems to think that Emperor Valerian Mengsk is too weak to lead humanity effectively in the Koprulu Sector, and seeks to discredit his reign by luring Zerg to heavily populated worlds. They can then take the credit for swooping in and saving the day, humiliating the Dominion. Nova spent some time prior to the events of the game working for the Defenders, albeit while brainwashed, and struggles to remember anything useful about them.

As Nova sets about defending cities from Zerg attacks, she receives an unexpected visit from Alarak, leader of the Tal’darim Protoss and by far the most interesting character from Legacy of the Void. Alarak also wants the Defenders of Man destroyed, and offers to strike a bargain with Nova: lead him to their base, and he’ll help her uncover her lost memories. Nova senses little good in trusting Alarak, but, much to his delight, agrees to help him. Hoping that she can trust the Tal’darim, Nova embarks upon a new leg of her journey aimed at defending the innocent from the Defenders, and then striking back against them. All the while, she’s left wondering if Alarak can be trusted.

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Alarak returns in Nova Covert Ops to gleefully bargain with Nova (much to her chagrin).

Like the previous pack of Nova Covert Ops missions, Chapter 2 comprises a set of three levels with varying challenges and gameplay. Unlike the more furtive level design of the first pack, the second pack boasts sprawling battlefields much more reminiscent of the main StarCraft II campaign. Nova and her covert ops regiment are forced to emerge from the shadows to fight hordes of feral Zerg, and be ready for anything that Alarak might have up his sleeve.

The two most noteworthy elements of Chapter 2‘s mission design are their mission variety and fealty to the design of the main game. Nova is thrown into some of StarCraft II‘s most chaotic situations with this pack of missions, from fighting off waves of Protoss and infected Terrans simultaneously, to actually being forced to protect a Defenders of Man base. Chapter 2 also features a mission set on Antiga Prime, which old school fans will remember as a turning point in the original StarCraft‘s Terran campaign. Indeed, though the gameplay in Chapter 2 is much more familiar than the stealth missions of Chapter 1, it forces players to contend with multiple enemy factions and side mission opportunities that must be acted upon quickly.

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Time to go nuclear. No pun intended.

Even though the gameplay in StarCraft II is more visceral than most missions in the main game, that didn’t stop some of them from feeling a bit derivative. The first mission pitting Nova against Zerg, Defenders of Man and the Tal’darim is a pure strategy thrill ride, but the next level is essentially a repeat of the race to gather Terrazine from StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Just like when Jim Raynor descended upon the planet Bel’shir, Nova has to gather gas and prevent Protoss from destroying it. Sure, the level throws in some infested Terrans for good fun, but these creatures fare poorly against most anything players can field. The last level is a good ol’ one-on-one brawl against feral Zerg, but it lacks enough novelty to make it stand out from all the other Zerg brawls out there.

These level design inconsistencies are due in no small part to the near-total lack of isometric stealth missions. Whereas Nova’s solo sneaking comprised most of one level and half of another in Chapter 1Chapter 2 only features two small, optional stealth vignettes within a single level. It’s a bit weird to see a miniseries that built itself up on covert ops revert solely back to grand tactics. The stealth in Nova Covert Ops is a bit clunky, but it’s in keeping with the mission packs’ black ops theme. Hopefully these jaunts into sneak-land make a comeback in Chapter 3.

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The missions in Chapter 2 do a surprising about-face back to conventional StarCraft gameplay.

Luckily for the gameplay, Nova returns with the ability to upgrade her units and suit for different playstyles. Unlike the human upgrades in Wings of Liberty, these pieces of tech come free, but each one can only be assigned to one type of unit at a time. Most upgrades make it easier to employ special tactics in StarCraft II or bump up certain stats to tilt the scales in the player’s favor. The Marines’ rifle extension and the Goliath’s biosteel upgrades are both must-haves for the conniving black ops spymaster.

Even though the unit upgrades in Nova Covert Ops remain cool as ever, the same cannot be said for all of the mission pack’s units. The Viking walker/fighter is swapped out for a new contraption called the Liberator, a supremely clunky unit that can attack air targets while mobile, but must become stationary to do anything else. It’s alright as a mobile turret, but not having the transforming Viking walker? Come on! That thing would be the epitome of black ops badassery. Alas, there are no Vikings in this cosmic longboat.

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Subtle? No. Furtive? No. Incredibly awesome? YES.

The art and level design in Chapter 2 remain as impressive as ever for a StarCraft II campaign. Each level has good terrain variation and plenty of tactical opportunities for the discerning space commander. Choke points are the name of the game in this mission pack, although constant attacks from enemy forces make building bunkers and turrets a challenge. Visually, the mission pack continues StarCraft II‘s proud tradition of sharp animations and big, colorful environments. The tropical city planet in the first mission is a refreshing change of pace from the gritty environments Nova traversed in Chapter 1, although the pack goes right back to those for the second and third levels.

The narrative that all of this informs hits a more admirable high than what Chapter 1 was starting out with. The race to defend the Terran Dominion takes a sinister new turn with the Tal’darim’s involvement, and Alarak’s sharp, condescending wit is a welcome addition to a story packed with stony-faced humans. Nova herself undergoes little character evolution, but does suddenly display a regard for human life that was ambiguous until this point. It’s just too bad that she spends every waking moment of this mission pack taking orders from Riegel, who seems to telepathically know every hidden item and every best tactic around. That’s a spymaster’s job, to be fair, but Nova never takes any initiative. Only orders. Isn’t she supposed to be in charge of this mission?

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Nova’s character development is stymied by writing that favors the convenient inventor sidekick over, say, the heroine.

Chapter 2 omits a few key notes, but it increases the overall value of Nova Covert Ops and adds some more mystery to a galaxy that’s become a bit devoid of it. It returns this miniseries to classic StarCraft level design, but remains fun despite giving up Nova’s stealth missions. It also turns up the narrative by adding mystery and suspense rather than high drama, and finds creative ways to streamline the Tal’darim and other StarCraft II tidbits into its narrative. Core fans and real-time strategy enthusiasts will enjoy this mission pack immensely. Hopefully Chapter 3 will reincorporate the stealth missions and the best of both packs.

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You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 2 here.

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

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition

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Investigate an attack on your home, slaying schemers and monsters along the way.

PC Release: September 16, 2008

By Ian Coppock

With the delay of Watch Dogs 2, the 2016 season of new holiday releases is pretty much over. As implied if not outright stated in previous articles, this year’s crop of big-budget titles was by and large a disappointment. Battlefield 1 was pretty good and so, apparently, was Titanfall 2, but every other major release from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on down to Dishonored 2 was not all that great. This state of affairs will not do for a cheerful Christmas spirit, and so it’s time to keep going back to an age when video games worked on day one, and their narratives were unafraid to tackle complicated subject matter. The Witcher has all of this, as well as the opportunity to slay lots of monsters.

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The Witcher is the first in a trilogy of third-person fantasy RPGs that have been released over about a decade, beginning with this game in 2007 and ending with last year’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The games feature characters and worlds from the The Witcher novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Contrary to popular belief, the video games are not adaptations of the novels, but instead entirely new stories starring characters from Sapkowski’s books. Sapkowski does not consider the video games canon, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the series’ following from growing wildly in the past 10 years.

Like the books, The Witcher takes place in a medieval fantasy world simply called The Continent. Unlike most epics that western audiences are familiar with, the world of The Witcher is inspired primary by eastern European folklore and traditions, giving it a different flavor than, say, The Elder Scrolls. Players assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, who hunts and slays monsters all over The Continent… for a price. Witchers’ aptitude for monster-hunting runs far deeper than swords and spells. As part of their training, each Witcher undergoes dramatic genetic mutations that grant them superhuman speed and strength, sore necessities for fighting monsters. Those Witchers who survive this process are unparalleled in their combat abilities, and Geralt is one of the deadliest.

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As a Witcher, Geralt is one of the few humans strong enough and quick enough to stand up to a monster.

The Witcher begins with Geralt waking up in the middle of a field, suffering amnesia. He’s escorted by his fellow Witchers back to their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, but can’t remember anything of his life prior to waking up. Not long after Geralt’s revival, the fortress is attacked by a cult of assassins called the Salamandra, led by the powerful sorcerer Azar Javed. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Witchers are overrun by the Salamandra’s superior numbers, and the cult steals the top-secret mutagens used to transform men into Witchers. Fearing what might be unleashed with the mutagens in the wrong hands, each of the four Witchers agrees to head in a different direction to find a trace of their new foe. Geralt decides to head south, toward the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, to see if he has any luck tracking the Salamandra.

Geralt has a considerable amount against him in his hunt. Despite being a dire necessity, Witchers are hated and feared by the human populace for their superhuman abilities. The Salamandra know how to hide in plain sight. Worst of all, the nobles of the Northern Kingdoms might be complicit in the conspiracy. Geralt has to become as much a politician as a warrior to find his prey, as he embarks upon the greatest adventure he’s ever faced.

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The Salamandra are a much more devious foe than anticipated.

Geralt’s adventure through the Northern Kingdoms is, in many ways, a classic third-person RPG. Players control Geralt using an over-the-shoulder camera, and can level up their character by completing quests and slaying monsters. Geralt is proficient with both swords and magic, and players can upgrade each tree of abilities in a spiraling array of menus. The enemies of The Witcher demand some amount of specialization; Geralt carries a steel sword to make quick work of human foes, and a silver sword for dealing with monsters.

The Witcher is fueled by a combination of wicked fast turn-based combat and deep choice-based gameplay. By night, Geralt engages entire groups of foes with his swords and his array of devastating spells. By day, he’s hobnobbing with the Northern Kingdoms’ royalty and trying to gain their trust via extensive conversations. As with Mass Effect, the blend of action and conversation-based gameplay is apt, but The Witcher takes it even further than that venerated RPG.

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Hey! I think we found a monster!

The combat in The Witcher is versatile, if dated. Geralt can draw his sword and attack enemy creatures at player command, or use his spells for more advanced combat. Combat in The Witcher is, unfortunately, somewhat turn-based, as each combatant deals their blows against a bewildering mess of weapon and proficiency modifiers. It’s nothing that players new to the series won’t get used to, but boy is it clunky. It feels like a slightly freer variation of the combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Because the combat in this game is turn-based, it makes no sense for players to try to dodge or skip past enemies. The only way forward in The Witcher is for Geralt to be a tank.

Hand-in-hand with the clunkiness of the combat is the game’s slew of menus, an un-intuitive and overenthusiastic mess of numbers, letters and colors that takes far longer to understand than it should. It’s a given that a deep RPG will have lots of menus, but The Witcher compounds its overabundance of menus with threadbare gameplay tutorials. The alchemy system, which is vital to finishing the game, is poorly explained, as is the fact that certain powers will be necessary (not just handy, but necessary) to finish the game at all. Make no mistake, the world of The Witcher is fascinating, but its underpinnings are all over the place.

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Area-effect spells are a must, but the game won’t tell you that.

Leaps and bounds better than The Witcher‘s combat is its deeply meaningful dialogue, whose nuances and conversation choices remain the most impactful of any video game ever made. Even more than in Mass Effect, conversation choices in The Witcher have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects. Whereas the conversation choices in Mass Effect usually bear immediate consequences, it can take the entirety of The Witcher for a conversation’s outcome to become clear. Geralt can talk to someone in the game’s first act and experience a consequence all the way at the very end, and that’s a fantastic design element. To further obfuscate the game’s world, most conversations do not enclose neat right-or-wrong decisions. Instead, players have to essentially gamble on two or more ambiguous choices and hope that things pan out okay. It goes without saying that this system has a profound impact on the game’s overall narrative.

Finally, this cog of game design informs the delightfully complicated political world of The Witcher. It’s not enough for Geralt to barge in and kill everyone; he has to sniff out the Salamandra’s leaders and sympathizers from among the Northern Kingdoms’ aristocracy. That means being extremely careful with conversation choices and manually inferring loyalty or treachery from each group of people Geralt encounters. Unlike so many games where the politics are pure backstory, the politics in The Witcher run to a depth comparable to A Game of Thrones. And like the characters in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, Geralt finds himself in a very complicated game indeed.

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Killing monsters is all well and good, but finding friends in the nobility may bear greater rewards.

Despite bearing themes endemic to many fantasy RPGs, The Witcher stands apart in its crowded field for a few important reasons. For starters, as previously mentioned, the game takes inspiration from Eastern European rather than Western European culture. Places and NPCs have Slavic names and the game’s folklore is drawn from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian traditions instead of the more traditional British or German sources. This change in inspiration is subtle, but very important, as it presents concepts that are novel to western audiences and ideas that are rarely encountered in fantasy works from North America and Western Europe.

Additionally, like A Saga of Ice and FireThe Witcher dirties its high fantasy setting with problems and flaws endemic to the real world. The Continent’s elvish and dwarven populations are heavily discriminated against, as one might expect of real-life human beings, and the kingdoms are rife with pollution of every stripe. Additionally, almost every character that Geralt encounters is quite multi-faceted, with their own fears, prejudices and secrets to hide. Geralt can rely on a small cadre of old friends for help, but beyond this, he is alone. Players have to decide for themselves what an NPC is hiding, and it can be surprisingly difficult to do so (even when playing a white-haired superhuman armed with two swords). All of this gives The Witcher a pretty bleak atmosphere, as even at the best of times, players can’t be sure they aren’t in terrible danger.

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Most NPCs are quite ambiguous in their intentions. These two, not so much.

The narrative that all of this is built upon takes Geralt on a winding journey, mostly in and around the capital city of Vizima. The game is split up into chapters that each take place in one new area. While each of these areas is quite open, Geralt can’t always go back once he’s finished up his investigation. Most regions get progressively bigger as Geralt unlocks them, and give him lots of questing opportunities. The main story quests, from lighting lamps for an old priest to putting down the ghost of a murdered bride, rarely disappoint. The side quests, however, are pretty mediocre. Almost all of them comprise killing five monsters, or gathering five flowers, really just five instances of any menial task. Money is not hard to come by thanks to the dice gambling minigame, but the extra XP can be helpful.

The Witcher‘s central story is as rich and complicated as its dialogue system. Geralt’s quest to retrieve the Witchers’ mutagens becomes bigger and bigger as he pierces into Vizima’s dark heart. As he progresses further, Geralt also gets spectral visits from the King of the Wild Hunt, a wraith who promises to bring a savage end to the world. This and other subplots are woven deep into The Witcher‘s story, presenting one of the most satisfying, far-reaching narrative experiences of any game. Characters evolve and change along with the plot, constantly keeping the player guessing as to who’s on their side. With its unclear choice-and-consequence system, decent writing, and elongated plot, The Witcher bears a narrative that was years ahead of its time. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders over the stories that came out this year.

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The Witcher is comparable to the works of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.

There’s a lot of good to be said about The Witcher; it brings out the best of the video game medium. Contrary-wise, though, it also represents some of game design’s less admirable tendencies. The Witcher‘s aforementioned combat design represents the game’s struggle between letting players run free and hemming them in with knowledge. Ultimately, it chooses the former, at an annoying price. There are powers and abilities that are absolutely necessary for finishing The Witcher, but the game does a poor job of hinting that to players. As a result, players might end up stuck with a Geralt who is too weak or unequipped to see the game through. Hardcore RPG fans might find this an unsurprising fact of RPG life, but no one should have to start a game over just because the game withheld helpful information. Players interested in tackling The Witcher would do well to consult a game guide first, as there’s really none to be found in The Witcher itself.

Additionally, for all its accomplishments in writing, atmosphere, and character development, The Witcher is one of the most sexist video games to be released this century. As a Witcher, Geralt has an unnaturally high sex drive, which the game uses as a convenient plot device for contriving some pretty messed up sexual encounters. Not just being able to solicit whores, but giving Geralt sexual entitlement that would make no sense in the real world. Some characters, especially the female elf rebel commander, just offer themselves to Geralt for no apparent reason. Creepily enough, The Witcher gives the player a special card with a painting of Geralt’s latest romantic “conquest” every time he successfully gets into someone’s pantaloons. Treating female NPCs like baseball cards is not only condescending; it devalues the oftentimes meaningful dialogue they bring to the game.

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The Witcher’s treatment of sex is pretty cringe-worthy. Whores were around in medieval times, sure, but collectible whore cards? Ew.

A fair few gamers and medieval fantasy enthusiasts might be turned off by The Witcher‘s bare-bones approach to adventuring and its disturbingly deep sexism. Fair enough. But, this still leaves the game’s engrossing fantasy world and some of gaming’s most impacting dialogue choices. The Enhanced Edition also includes a few tweaks to the base game, and it runs very well on PC. In the end, though, the legacy of The Witcher is much the same as that of Geralt of Rivia. Just as he represents some of the very best and very worst of humanity, so too does The Witcher represent the very best and very worst of modern game design. It’s up to the players to decide which one outweighs the other, which warrants at least giving The Witcher a shot.

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You can buy The Witcher 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.