Monthly Archives: August 2017

Half-Life 2: Episode Three

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The script of history’s most famous vaporware has been released.

PC Release: Canceled

By Ian Coppock

A few days ago, retired Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw released a story outline for Half-Life 2: Episode Three, the most famous video game to never have been released. Laidlaw, who retired from Valve in early 2016, insists that the material is unofficial, but it’s probably the closest thing anyone will get to a Half-Life 2: Episode Three release. It’s also the most information released about the game in years, so let’s crack into what could have been (fair warning: this summary contains massive spoilers for previous Half-Life games).

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The story of the Half-Life saga is a tale of both outstanding triumph and mysterious tragedy. After transforming the world of first-person shooters with 1998’s Half-Life, Valve released Half-Life 2 to similarly universal acclaim in 2004. The studio’s next plan was to release a series of three episodes set immediately after Half-Life 2Episode One released in 2006, followed by Episode Two in ’07. Episode Three was originally slated to hit store shelves soon after, but… well, that never happened, did it?

Episode Three‘s failure to launch remains a mystery nearly 10 years later. Valve seemed proactive about the project at first, setting a release date and putting out some concept art, but that hullabaloo slowly turned into silence. Fans held out hope, but years passed with nary a word on the title from anyone at Valve. Though the script that Laidlaw released contains some fascinating details on the game’s story, none of it elaborates on why Half-Life 2: Episode Three suffered such a long and silent demise. The cancellation is especially bitter given the cliffhanger than Half-Life 2: Episode Two ended on.

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WHY, GABEN?!

According to Laidlaw’s script, Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve seen series protagonist Gordon Freeman (the world’s most crowbar-proficient physicist) and longtime companion Alyx Vance off to a frozen wasteland to find the Borealis, a marooned ship containing experimental portal technology. Longtime fans will remember that the pair had just discovered the ship’s whereabouts in Episode Two, and the Borealis is also alluded to in Portal 2 (with whom Half-Life shares a universe, albeit very loosely).

The script goes on to reveal that the Combine, the evil alien empire lording over earth, would’ve beaten the pair to the ship, forcing them to fight their way through cyborg soldiers and probably a few headcrabs. Gordon and Alyx would’ve eventually made it onto the ship only to be captured by Combine forces. They would then confront a revived Dr. Breen, whose consciousness was indeed copied into one of the Combine’s overlords before his human form’s death in Half-Life 2. Breen’s fate has been the source of countless discussions for years; feels weird to finally (sort of) know, doesn’t it?

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So he DID survive that battle!

Following this confrontation (whose outcome the script implies the player can choose), Freeman and Alyx would’ve reunited with Dr. Mossman, whom Alyx would blame for the death of Eli at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two. The team would set aside their differences long enough to get aboard the ship and discover that it contained the Bootstrap Device, an experimental piece of tech that would allow its wielder to travel to any time and place in history. The ship’s crew used the device to transport the ship far away, where they hoped the Combine would never find it.

Alyx and Mossman would’ve then debated on what to do with the ship; the former would want to blow it up and the latter would want to save its tech. Alyx would then shoot Mossman dead (probably still mad about what went down at Nova Prospekt in Half-Life 2) and elect to use the ship as a bomb to destroy a Combine facility. Before the plan would’ve been executed, though, the G-Man would show up with his usual ramblings about time and space. Here’s the kicker, though: the G-Man would’ve been talking to Alyx, not Gordon, taking off with her and leaving him to die on the Borealis.

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S*** just got real.

Before Gordon could perish from the cold or an explosion, though, who should show up but the Vortigaunts, who would’ve rescued him from the cusp of death right as the Borealis exploded. The game would then end with a lengthy statement from none other than Freeman himself, who would’ve implied that a lot of time had passed and that it’s now up to the player to decide what course to take for the future. Laidlaw declined to clarify whether this summary would’ve been a written statement on-screen or if Gordon would’ve actually spoken aloud for the first time.

And that’s it.

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Farewell, old friend.

It’s worth remembering to take Laidlaw’s summary of Half-Life 2: Episode Three with a few grains of salt. As the author himself was quick to clarify, this material is not Valve’s official script for the project. Even though Laidlaw was the main writer for Half-Life and this script is probably the closest that fans will get to an “official” Half-Life 2: Episode Three, it itself remains somewhat unofficial.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that this story would’ve left the stage vacant for future Half-Life productions. Longtime fans may have been hoping for this summary to provide a more concrete ending, but Half-Life has never been a fan of those, has it? Half-Life 2: Episode Three ending with the G-Man’s arrival and a vague epithet about the future seems pretty consistent with the endings of past Half-Life games. It would’ve also preserved the mysteries of the Half-Life world, such as the presence of the G-Man.

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We pass now into legend.

It’s hard to know how successful Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve been, but the story presented in the script sounds pretty captivating. Gordon and Alyx’s race to the Borealis seems to tie up a bunch of the series’ plot threads: the ultimate fate of Dr. Breen, Alyx’s grief over the death of her father, and Aperture Science’s place in the Half-Life games. The script’s implication that certain outcomes would’ve been player-decided is also quite interesting, as Valve would’ve allowed the player to evolve beyond a silent observer of the narrative and become a much more active participant in it.

The Half-Life series’ other active participants are also worth wondering about. The script that Laidlaw released makes no mention of Isaac Kleiner or Barney Calhoun (the latter of whom hasn’t been seen since the end of Episode One). What of them? More importantly, how would the death of Eli Vance have changed Alyx as a person? Would she transition from being quietly optimistic to angry and vengeful? Given that she would’ve apparently gunned down Dr. Mossman in cold blood, it’s possible. How would this hypothetical character change have affected the relationship between Alyx and Gordon?

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(sniff)

It’s worth contemplating what other changes Valve would’ve made to the Half-Life experience. What new gameplay might the game have contained? It’s fun to picture Gordon ripping across Antarctica on a futuristic snowmobile, taking potshots at Combine positions with a sniper rifle or sawed-off shotgun. Perhaps Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve let players have some dalliances with technology from the Portal games; probably not a full-blown portal gun but maybe some static portal puzzles? We’ll never know, but it’s still fun to wonder.

It’s also fun to wonder how Half-Life 2: Episode Three would’ve looked. There’s no doubt that the game would’ve been built in the Source engine, but what new visuals and textures would the game have presented? Would there have been new character models and types of environments? Would the level design transition from being rather linear to being more open-ended? It probably would’ve all looked sharp and clean; the Source engine isn’t young, but recent games like Infra are proof that amazing things can still be done with it.

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Other studios have done some jaw-dropping stuff with the Source engine.

These musings are proof that Laidlaw’s script won’t stop Half-Life fans from wondering what could have been. Whatever happened behind the scenes at Valve, it remains a shame that Half-Life 2: Episode Three never came out, and it’s a mishap that will probably haunt the studio for the rest of its existence. Still, it’s nice to know how the narrative would’ve played out after so many years of wondering and waiting.

There’s another, far grander reason that longtime Half-Life fans should not despair or get angry. Even though this game is never coming out, the influence of the Half-Life series can still be felt in dozens of other games. The original Half-Life birthed first-person shooters as we know them today, and Half-Life 2 was a pioneer in environmental storytelling, which countless other titles adapted in their own design. The legacy of Half-Life lives on not in sequels, but in game design. In this way, the series is never dead; in fact, it’s currently thriving.

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How far we’ve come.

An unofficial written summary is not the ending that the Half-Life series deserved, but hopefully it provides longtime fans with some amount of closure. There’s some sweet relief in finally seeing what narrative was being worked on at Valve, and how events played out in the Half-Life universe after that heart-stopping cliffhanger in Episode Two. With this script, Half-Life 2: Episode Three can finally pass into the sunset, leaving some fantastic games and a legacy of great game design in its wake.

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You can read the summary of Half-Life 2: Episode Three 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.

Project CARS

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Win high-stakes, high-speed races with a variety of stylish super cars.

PC Release: May 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

When it comes to sports that bind the world together, motorsports are superseded only by soccer in terms of global popularity. Whether it’s watching a NASCAR race here in America or a Formula One tourney in Europe, audiences from across oceans are drawn together by the spectacle of watching cars go really, really, really fast. Racing enthusiasm is one of the foundations of the video game world, with racing games having been around just as long as titles in most other genres. In recent years, that enthusiasm has manifested in the form of ultra-realistic driving simulators such as Project CARS.

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Project CARS is a community-assisted racing simulator (hence the acronym CARS) developed by a cabal of racing-obsessed Brits called Slightly Mad Studios. True to its name, Project CARS was developed with funds raised by the game’s community, allowing Slightly Mad to initially bypass using a publisher. Project CARS is but one of many racing sims released in recent years that seeks to create a driving experience as true to the real deal as possible. This game ain’t no arcade stunt racer (though those are fun too).

Though few would guess it from looking at the game now, Project CARS had quite a turbulent development. Despite spending four years in the garage, the game shipped with a ton of bugs; the exact number is impossible to approximate, but it was undoubtedly way too high for how much time and money had gone into the game. To make matters worse, studio head Ian Bell decided that the best way to address complaints was to belittle and insult his own backers, infamously typing “shut up you idiot” in response to a concerned buyer.

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We seem to be having a spot of car trouble.

Eventually, Bell and his cohorts realized that being censor-happy and rude to their paying customers was probably not a great idea and decided to devote that time to fixing their game instead. To their credit, they succeeded; Project CARS shot out of the gate with lots of rusty lug nuts and a faulty transmission, but now it runs like a dream on PC. True, the game does require a high-end machine, but its system requirements are thoroughly advertised on all of the game’s store pages.

Players who do have an issue running Project CARS can check out its options menu, which may well be one of the greatest options menus of all time. There’s no facet of the Project CARS experience that players can’t adjust, whether it’s how sharply the car’s surfaces render or how slick rainy roads look. Project CARS is also designed to run with any controller and makes setup easy with its fluid key and button binding menus. A gamepad or racing wheel is always better for driving than a keyboard and mouse is.

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NOW we’re on the right track!

Project CARS features a variety of game modes that each have different rules and conditions, but their common goal is to create a racing experience that’s as realistic as possible. The game does away with the vehicular invincibility afforded by arcade racers like Need for Speed (as players who are accustomed to an arcade racing experience will quickly realize). Project CARS‘ adherence to realistic physics is to be commended; cars can’t turn on a dime if they’re speeding (unless it’s an F1 car) and tires heat up as the race progresses, altering how vehicles handle.

Project CARS seeks to replicate other features of real-world racing experiences. Players who are in it for a long race can create their own refueling and pit strategies, which are both handy for endurance runs. Damage realistically hampers vehicles; shouldering a road barrier, for example, is likely to throw off alignment and give players an extra headache until the next pit. Players can receive advice from an in-game racing crew, who can hint (rather emphatically) when it’s time for a trip to the body shop.

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This thing feels lighter all the sudden… must be hitting turbo mode!

All of this realism demands some familiarity with the world of motorsports, so players who buy Project CARS for a casual racing experience are likely to feel bewildered by all the options, modes, and stats. To be fair to the newbs, Project CARS could do a better job of introducing novices to the world of racing sims. The game gives a lot of great customization options, like being able to determine how much air goes into each tire, but never provides a detailed explanation on how that choice impacts driving.

Motorheads and racing sim veterans, on the other hand, will immediately warm up to Project CARS‘s in-depth customization. The ability to adjust tire pressure, pick tire type, and choose between a manual or automatic transmission does provide a delectable challenge, as does editing pit strategies. All of this customization also allows for endless experimentation with different cars and handling. The base version of Project CARS comes with 74 vehicles and more are available as DLC, so anyone who wants to sink hundreds of hours into comparing and customizing cars will enjoy this title.

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Connect the ubulus to the upper dorsenisk, and the hyperdrive to the flux capacitor… see? I know what I’m doing!

Although Project CARS is nigh unparalleled when it comes to vehicle detail, the same cannot be said of the races. Anyone who’s considering buying this title should do so for the online mulitplayer, because Project CARS‘ AI is… primitive. Computer-controlled cars do everything from bunch together at corners to drive in a straight line. Amusingly, they’ll often swerve as far away from an approaching human racer as possible, as if the player has a deadly disease or something.

Additionally, Project CARS is highly inconsistent at penalizing bad driving. Sometimes the game disqualifies racers for so much as looking at a traffic cone, but if they should careen off the road and take out a family of onlookers? No problem. Project CARS has a similarly unpredictable attitude about hitting other cars; if this game is to be believed, totaling an opponent’s car is okay, but brushing its bumper is grounds for a lifetime ban. Because realism.

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“For the high crime of staring at your AC dial the wrong way, Project CARS sentences you to death.”

So how exactly are all these cars and racetracks organized? As previously mentioned, Project CARS features several racing modes. The most basic is the free practice mode: pick a car, pick a track, go drive. Solo racing is virtually identical to the practice mode… come to think of it, it’s hard to spot what the actual difference between the two is. Online mode comprises the meat of Project CARS, where players can join ranked and free-end racing tournaments against other human drivers.

The last, and arguably biggest, mode in Project CARS is the career mode, in which players can create a fictionalized version of themselves to compete in racing tournaments all over the world. Players can pick whether to start out small as a kart racer or skip straight to the big leagues driving F1 supercars, and partake in races that span a season. This mode is alright; it’s endlessly entertaining to see fictional racing fans tweet about how awesome a racer the player is… but much less so to undertake the same tournaments over and over again.

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Winning millions of NPC hearts with each and every race!

It’s understandable for gamers in this day and age to be skeptical of screenshots, given how often devs airbrush the living hell out of them (cough*Ubisoft*cough). The screenshots in this review, though, are barely airbrushed. Project CARS looks gorgeous, with vivid colors and textures on all of its cars and courses. The game also features impressive lighting and weather effects to drive home the notion that this game seeks realism in its world as much as its mechanics.

Project CARS‘s attention to detail also extends to its lineup of vehicles. 74 cars isn’t all that many to choose from, but the game counts vehicles from such big names as Aston Martin, Renault, Audi, and McLaren in its garage (commence the flame war over which of those aren’t actually big names). Project CARS also misses vehicles from a few big names, like Ferrari and Porsche, but this could be due as much to licensing issues as any mistake made by Slightly Mad Studios.

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Apparently I forgot to mention BMW.

Project CARS is relevant to the modern racing sim fan for a few reasons: for starters, playing against other humans in a sim as realistic as this one is quite the adrenaline rush. The game also features a wide variety of tracks based on courses from all over the globe, as well as a mid-sized range of high-end cars. Additionally, few sims give players as much control over their racing experience as Project CARS does, from its near-endless options menu to all the vehicle customization.

Ultimately, though, racing fans in the market for an exciting sim might as well wait for Project CARS 2 to drop in mid-September. The sequel promises more cars, more tracks, and even more customization. Slightly Mad has also pledged to fix Project CARS‘s mediocre AI and its schizophrenic penalty system, both of which also warrant holding off on buying this title. Even though Slight Mad Studios got more than slightly mad during Project CARS‘s development, the studio demonstrated eventual maturity by fixing nearly all of this game’s bugs. Here’s hoping they pay similar attention to Project CARS 2.

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You can buy Project CARS 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.

Rayman Legends

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Save the Glade of Dreams from a quintet of malicious magicians.

PC Release: September 3, 2013

By Ian Coppock

This month’s platforming fun continues with a look at Rayman Legends, the much-anticipated sequel to Rayman Origins. After Origins was released to critical acclaim, series creator Michel Ancel immediately started making a follow-up: a game that seeks to preserve Origins‘ carefree fun but also makes a few formula shakeups. Rayman Legends is the result of that effort; how fun is it, and what shakeups does it make to Origins‘ platforming brilliance?

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Like its predecessor, Rayman Legends is a side-scrolling platformer whose format evokes the titular character’s early years. 1995’s Rayman was a side-scroller, but the series wouldn’t see that format again until Origins launched in 2011. Rayman’s return to form was met with widespread acclaim by critics and players, who praised Origins‘ fluid gameplay and level design. No doubt giddy with excitement, Ancel returned to his gaming workshop (a building that, given the design of the Rayman games, is most likely a bubble-emitting castle or a flying pirate ship) and released Rayman Legends in 2013.

After kicking Darktoon hiney in Rayman Origins, Rayman and his buddies celebrate by taking a 100-year-long nap. They wake up (no doubt feeling quite invigorated), and discover that a gaggle of evil magicians has been corrupting the Glade of Dreams during their snooze cruise. Once again the Glade is overrun with monsters, and once again, it’s up to Rayman and his sidekicks to defeat them and save the world. Because this is a platformer, players can also bet that there’s a princess or two to save.

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LET’S DO THIS!!!

Rayman returns to center stage with the same abilities he had in Rayman Origins. Everyone’s favorite limbless hero can run and jump around, as well as punch the living daylights out of any dark beastie that stands in his way. He can also utilize his trademark helicopter hair to drift to new areas. Just like in Origins, players can choose to play as Globox or one of Rayman’s other buddies, and they too have these platforming powers. Players can also team up and fight together with Legends‘ seamless co-op function.

Like Rayman OriginsRayman Legends’ levels are set up in segments. Rayman can only take one or two hits before he’s dead, but he’ll respawn at the beginning of that segment instead of the entire level. Players can extend Rayman’s longevity by picking up hearts, which are offered as a reward for executing certain moves or for defeating the right opponent. The goal of each level is to rescue as many Teensies as possible; the more Teensies players rescue, the more levels they can unlock down the road.

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This should be fun to watch.

This entire gameplay setup is virtually identical to that of Rayman Origins, albeit with one small tweak. While Rayman Origins is fun, it’s also a challenging game, one whose later levels have the potential to drive novice platformer fans bonkers. Rayman Legends is a formidable game too, but the difficulty has been reduced just enough to make the game more accessible for newcomers. Not to worry, platformer aficionados; Legends doesn’t sacrifice the challenge that more inveterate fans relish.

A few other smidgen-sized adjustments have been made to the Rayman formula too. Whether Rayman is jumping or running, the controls are a bit more responsive than Origins‘. This makes the game’s reflex-driven challenges not only more doable, but also more fun. When it comes to gameplay, Rayman Legends does what a good sequel to a good game should do: make a few adjustments here and there without sacrificing the core mechanics that made its predecessor popular. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

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Right!

Rayman Legends builds a charming world around these gameplay mechanics. Players are given five colorful worlds to liberate in pursuit of cleansing the Glade of Dreams, as well as numerous bonus levels and even a hidden sixth world (not so hidden now, is it?). Rayman Legends also includes a selection of mini-games that players can compete in in local or online co-op… the Kung Foot game is particularly lively. The game even features all of the levels from Rayman Origins re-engineered with Legends‘ gameplay, but these can only be unlocked at random by the game.

The best thing about all of this content is how fluidly it’s organized. Players can access these worlds and challenges via a series of paintings, and moving from gallery to gallery is a cinch. Rayman Legends aptly categorizes an otherwise bewildering array of levels, challenges and minigames to make it as simple as possible for players to find what they want to do next. It’s one thing for a game to simply have a lot of content, and quite another for all of that content to  be easy to find. Legends succeeds on both counts.

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This is the liveliest gallery stroll of all time!

While on the subject of menus and choices, let’s go over Rayman Legends‘ options menu. The game runs mostly on 2D visuals, so it’s not a huge surprise that the menu is as small as it is. Players can expect to find the usual roster of basic resolution and sound options, but there’s not a whole lot more to this title’s roster of toggles. Since Rayman Legends does contain 3D objects, more in-depth options for visual fidelity are called for with this title.

Then again, all of this seems like nit-picking in the face of how well Rayman Legends runs on PC. Thanks mostly to its 2D presentation, Rayman Legends runs brilliantly on potato laptops and monster rigs alike. As with most platformers ported to PC, Legends‘ keyboard & mouse controls are serviceable, but a gamepad works much grander wonders. Gamers weary of glitching, freezing, and crashing rejoice; Legends produces no such performance issues.

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This skeleton’s only options are punching and kicking! Hi-ya!

What was all of that hullabaloo about 2D visuals? Well, Rayman Legends has tons of them, and they’re significantly more sophisticated than those of Rayman Origins. Make no mistake, Origins is a beautiful game, but Legends displays noticeable improvement in object and character detail, coloring, and textures. Michel Ancel and his team succeeded in giving Rayman and his buddies more realized character models without sacrificing their cartoon-like veneer.

The worlds of Rayman Legends display similar improvements, with much sharper backgrounds and foregrounds than Origins had in its worlds (again, not to say that Origins didn’t also look jaw-droppingly awesome). Legends’ biggest break with its predecessor is the use of 3D models, which are seamlessly integrated into the 2D world. Legends tops all of this off by avoiding sexualizing its female characters as Origins did, which makes them more visually consistent with the world.

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Girls can defeat bad guys too!

Rayman Legends‘ enthusiasm for good art extends beyond the visual department and into sound and music. The game’s score is a lively mix of string-driven songs that sound right out of a lighthearted adventure film, as well as some grander horn-driven tunes that play during the game’s most intense sequences. Rayman Legends also includes some not-so-subtle adaptations of classic rock songs that play in certain levels, including a goblin-sung rendition of Ram Jam’s Black Betty.

With a gameplay and art arrangement this solid, Rayman Legends doesn’t quite need a heavy-hitting narrative. The game’s story is told non-verbally and is essentially the same as Origins‘: a group of monsters are out to conquer the Glade of Dreams, and oh boy, Rayman comes out swinging. In spite of not tapping into deeper narrative territory, Legends still benefits from cutesy presentation and laugh-out-loud nonverbal humor. Gamers of all ages can giggle at watching a bad guy get shot into space.

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Wheeee!

Rayman Legends‘ art, gameplay and humor culminates in a great title, one that is both a loving improvement upon Rayman Origins and also one of the greatest platformers of all time. It may not have sold quite enough copies to warrant a proper sequel, but Legends stands unchallenged as perhaps the best platformer of the decade four years after release. It’s for that reason that gamers everywhere (platforming fans and otherwise) should immediately buy this game. Rayman Legends is a fluid, feel-good romp through a colorful world, and damn if it isn’t a ton of fun.

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You can buy Rayman Legends 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.

Agents of Mayhem

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Bring the ruckus (and some mayhem) against a ruthless super-villain.

PC Release: August 15, 2017

By Ian Coppock

What could Volition do to take the Saints Row franchise any higher? Saints Row IV gave players godlike abilities and virtually unlimited freedom; how could Volition up the ante from there? More than a few inveterate Saints Row fans loudly suggested taking the series back to the grounded grittiness of its early installments, but the brand as it’s known today was built on silliness. Volition kept silliness in its pocket when it went back to the drawing board, which may explain why its newest game, Agents of Mayhem, is several degrees sillier than the studio probably intended.

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In case the purple fleur-de-lis symbols weren’t enough of a clue, Agents of Mayhem is a spin-off of the Saints Row franchise. The game follows the exploits of M.A.Y.H.E.M., a super-cool spy agency battling the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations (or L.E.G.I.O.N. for short). Led by the diabolical Dr. Babylon, L.E.G.I.O.N. has gotten its hands on a deadly dark matter device, prompting the titular agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. to spring into action.

As one might expect of a game with this premise, Agents of Mayhem has a campy, ultra-light atmosphere consistent with Saturday morning cartoons. That motif is evident in everything from the game’s animated cutscenes to the main plot; the name “Dr. Babylon” certainly sounds like something out of Freakzoid! or Animaniacs. Just like those cartoons, Agents of Mayhem prefers to keep its premise simple: retrieve the doomsday device and defeat Dr. Babylon in a futuristic rendition of Seoul.

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Oooooooooh…

Players control the agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. from a third-person perspective, and each agent has his or her own weapons and combat specialties. Some characters get up-close and personal with a shotgun, while others keep the fighting at a distance with a sniper rifle. Most characters have powers befitting their personalities; the team’s resident frat boy douchebag, for example, can pelvic-thrust grenades at foes. Players can also upgrade each agent’s stats and unlock new abilities with every level up.

Players can send a team of up to three agents into the field, but Agents of Mayhem only allows control over one character at a time. That said, players can instantly switch to any character in their squad (even during firefights) which is handy for alternating between combat skillsets or in case one agent is on the verge of death. It’s convenient to be able to use the shotgun character for close-quarters combat, then switch over to the sniper class to hit foes who are far away.

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I cause the mayhem around here!

Agents of Mayhem‘s squad mechanic is novel, but it’s the only novelty the game brings to the table. Its gunplay is some of the blandest third-person shooting of recent years. Anyone who has spent hours running in little circles shooting bad guys can look forward to doing more of precisely that, and only that, in Agents of Mayhem. While it’s true that each character has his or her own special power, they’re not all that cool to look at. They certainly could do a better job of hitting the bad guys.

Agents of Mayhem also lets players drive cars around the city, but the cars handle like ass. No, seriously, they handle like trying to speed down a highway on nothing more than an unclothed posterior. Acceleration and braking are both incredibly abrupt, while turning the vehicle feels more like trying to turn a big-bottomed yacht. The vehicle camera also insists on facing the rear of the car at a flat angle instead of an elevated one, so good luck avoiding obstacles and pedestrians.

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“Hey! Who put a boat hull on my Sedan?!”

Alright, so Agents of Mayhem‘s gunplay is a snore-fest and the cars handle drunkenly even if the driver is sober… is there anything fun to do in Seoul? In real life, probably, but in Agents of Mayhem… not really. There are two types of side activities in Agents of Mayhem: the first is street racing, which, given how poorly the cars handle, isn’t all that great (although certain missions allow players to race on foot). The other activity is taking over enemy outposts, which involves a lot of…. gunplay. Agents of Mayhem dresses shooting missions up as different types of firefights, but they’re all firefights.

With Seoul apparently being a bust, the only other place for players to hang out is aboard M.A.Y.H.E.M.’s futuristic airship. It’s a cool-looking set piece that divvies up various agent activities and utilities like a shopping mall, but that’s about it. Players can travel back to the ship between missions to hear other agents’ take on current affairs or to buy upgrades from various armorers.

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Apparently the M.A.Y.H.E.M. ship has a Sunglass Hut.

If Agents of Mayhem can’t play cool, at least it tries to look cool. Character actions ranging from jumping to shooting are smoothly animated, though the agents seem to suffer a literal stiff upper lip when talking. The game’s world is also quite lively, utilizing a blend of bright colors and just a touch of cel shading to achieve a stylized aesthetic. Agents of Mayhem‘s rendition of Seoul also benefits from neat object placement (though the game could stand a few more objects).

The big downside to all of these visual achievements is that Agents of Mayhem‘s open world ain’t all that open; in fact, it’s tiny. The entire game world is maybe the same size as one London borough in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Size doesn’t matter if a game can make its world feel lively, but Agents of Mayhem‘s Seoul also feels empty. The map has only a handful of cars and NPCs moving around; sometimes players will stumble onto a street that’s completely devoid of either. Because of these design missteps, Seoul is wasted as an open-world setting in Agents of Mayhem.

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Let’s blow this joint.

If Agents of Mayhem had more vehicles and characters swarming its streets, that might help to explain why this game has so many bugs. As of writing, the PC version of Agents of Mayhem is rife with a few peculiar performance problems (say that five times fast). Players should be on the lookout for everything from the sound randomly cutting out to NPCs walking through solid objects. Agents of Mayhem is also fond of crashing, and crashing frequently. The game’s options menu, while thorough, can only do so much against these issues.

Let’s be generous for a moment and pretend that Agents of Mayhem doesn’t randomly go deaf or send its NPCs off of cliffs; the game still doesn’t run all that well. It has a nasty penchant for unstable framerates that can flare up for no apparent reason. That problem makes some sense when the game gets gummed up over lots of on-screen explosions and characters, but who knew that a stroll down the sidewalk was cause for a game to panic? If the game’s constant freezing is any indication, Seoul’s a lot chillier than it looks (ba dum tssss).

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DAMN YOU GLITCH WIZARD!

The final nail in Agents of Mayhem‘s purple-glossed coffin is the writing. While it’s true that the Saints Row games aren’t as laugh-out-loud hilarious as core fans say, the writing in Agents of Mayhem is several notches below the humor in the mainline Saints Row games. The jokes just aren’t funny; characters say lines like “home-sweet-temple-turned-field-office” and pause like that’s the most rip-roaring punch line of the century. No, the real punch line is that this game thinks that that’s a punch line.

At the end of the day, it’s also hard to know who Agents of Mayhem‘s intended audience is. The game’s cheesy dialogue suggests that it’s trying to appeal to children who enjoy similarly cheesy cartoons… but its liberal use of profanity and adult humor implies that it’s gunning for adults (as does the M rating). While it’s hard to know who Agents of Mayhem tries to please with its writing, it’s easy to see that it ends up pleasing no one.

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Agents of Mayhem’s confusion is unknowable, and possibly diabolical.

Agents of Mayhem is both a disappointment in its own right and a shocking step back from the fun of Saints Row. There are a lot of video games out there that do one or two things blandly, but Agents of Mayhem is one of those rare titles that does everything blandly. The game is just so mediocre; the writing falls flat, the gameplay is rote, and its system performance leaves a lot to be desired. Gamers looking for a new open world to play in and Saints Row fans emerging from hibernation both need to stay far, far away; there’s better mayhem to be had in other, better games.

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You can buy Agents of Mayhem 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.

Minerva

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Investigate what the Combine is up to on a remote island.

PC Release: September 2, 2005

By Ian Coppock

Half-Life 3 is never coming out. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but between the retirement of series writer Marc Laidlaw and Valve’s seeming disinterest in developing new video games, Half-Life fans are best off accepting what we’ve already known for years. This fact—sad as it is—has not stopped legions of Half-Life enthusiasts from developing their own maps and mods. Some of them are even worth playing, and the one most worth some playtime is Minerva.

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Minerva (often stylized as MINERVA) is a Half-Life 2 mod created by a developer named Adam Foster. Although a Half-Life 2 mod ostensibly sounds like a love letter to the series, Minerva is actually Foster’s way of taking Half-Life 2‘s level design to task. To hear him tell it, Half-Life 2 fails to create architecturally realistic environments, making its levels focus entirely on gameplay instead of being more than “a series of unconnected boxes.” Foster’s critique may sound incendiary to Half-Life fans, but don’t click away from this review just yet; this guy might have a point.

Even though the main purpose of Minerva is to criticize Valve’s level design, the mod is far more than a mere tech demo. The game features a story set in the Half-Life universe in which players investigate an island at the behest of the titular, mysterious Minerva. As a nameless agent, it’s up to players to descend into a hidden facility and find out what the big bad Combine is up to. In that regard, at least, Minerva is pretty similar to the Half-Life 2 games.

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(Mission: Impossible music)

Fans who are defensive about Half-Life 2 are probably wondering what Foster’s idea of “good” level design is, if the original game’s is allegedly so flawed. Minerva‘s level design is indeed a far cry from that of Half-Life 2; rather than relying on a series of linear environments, Minerva explores vertical space. It features level design that gives players several options for getting to the next objective instead of confining them to a single path. One method of level design is not objectively better than the other, but Foster’s use of open-ended environments still makes for a lot of fun.

As an example, suppose the player reaches a junction leading to the next level of Minerva‘s island base. Players can take the most direct route by using the stairs, or perhaps circle around the side of the chamber. Maybe that balcony over there is a way down? It’s unfair to say that Half-Life 2 completely lacked sections like these (Highway 17, anyone?) but it is true that open-ended level design was the exception rather than the rule in that game. It’s the other way around in Minerva.

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Decisions, decisions…

Minerva‘s more open level design makes it a fun mod to play. The possibilities afforded by the multiple paths forward allow for different playstyles and enemy encounters. Players who prefer short and brutal confrontations can mow their way through Combine soldiers head-on, while players who prefer strafing the fight rather than being in the middle of it can pop shots off from the sidelines. At the very least, this design presents a fresh new experience for Half-Life fans weary of replaying the series.

However, just because Minerva‘s level design is different doesn’t mean it’s flawless. By providing players with multiple pathways, Minerva inadvertently makes it easy for players to get lost or turned around. This problem is compounded by a lot of the game’s rooms looking too samey. Not all of Minerva‘s segments suffer this problem, but players looking for the next route deeper into the base might find themselves heading for the door instead. If all else fails, just keep trying to head downward.

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Can I leave a trail of jelly beans, or will headcrabs eat those?

One thing that Minerva‘s levels do share in common with Half-Life 2‘s are the objects and textures. It should go without saying that a game seeking to resemble the Half-Life universe is built in the Source engine and uses many of the same objects, textures, and other props found in those games. For all of the noise Foster made about Half-Life 2‘s visual design, there’s no denying that he studied it down to the tiniest detail. Half-Life fans can therefore look forward to seeing all of the alien machinery and dilapidated textures found in the main Half-Life game, as well as the same masterful use of lighting.

Games built in the Source engine tend to age gracefully, but that doesn’t mean that they look ageless. It’s been twelve years since the first segment of Minerva hit stores; the game still looks pretty good, but time can only do so much to stop the telltale signs of a beloved game getting older. The surfaces’ edges look a bit serrated, the objects look a bit polygonal… Minerva still looks a hell of a lot better than other games that first hit shelves in 2005, but as the years go by it’s easier to tell that it came out in 2005.

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Them’s some sad trees, man… (blows on harmonica).

Minerva also borrows the gameplay of Half-Life 2, which has aged a lot better than the Source engine’s oldest visuals. Just like in Half-Life 2, players can take on glowy-eyed enemy soldiers with a colorful variety of weapons. The Half-Life series’ trademark crowbar is present in the player character’s inventory, as are the beloved pump-action shotgun and the deadly-as-Dillinger .44 Magnum. Half-Life 2 fans should have no trouble adapting to combat in Minerva.

In addition to all the same guns and other weapons, players can expect to find Half-Life 2‘s lineup of bad guys waiting for them in the island base. Combine soldiers comprise the bulk of enemy forces in Minerva, but players can also count on finding plenty of synths and other war machines. As always, Half-Life fans should prepare to use that shotgun on headcrabs… because this island is absolutely lousy with the little bastards. For better and for worse, Minerva‘s combat is pretty much the same combat experience afforded by the Half-Life games: fluid, if a bit clunky by modern standards.

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Back, you little freaks! Back, I say!

Even though Minerva was intended primarily to be a response to Half-Life 2‘s level design, the mod ended up getting a lot more attention (and praise) for its story. Just like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life games, the protagonist of Minerva is a silent character who verbalizes no observations about the world around them. Unlike Gordon Freeman, this person doesn’t even have a name. They’re just really, really, really good with guns.

Minerva, the aforementioned entity guiding the player’s actions, does drop a few hints here and there about the character’s background. She communicates with players exclusively by text chat; it’s never made clear if “she” is a person or an AI. Critics lauded the character for her admittedly well-written dialogue and a snarky sense of humor not unlike that of Portal‘s GLaDOS. Like that humorously sadistic robot, Minerva takes breaks from giving objectives to make wry remarks about the player. Foster’s character writing is comparable to Valve’s in that regard.

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Thanks, Minerva.

Minerva‘s story is not the avant-garde literary masterpiece that some critics seem to believe it to be, but it does present a thrilling tale that raises more questions than it answers. Minerva never quite discerns why she wants the player to break into this base; only that she wants them to. The game’s writing presents an even rotation of black humor and eyebrow-raising implications about the player, culminating in a raucous, penultimate confrontation done out in the style of all Half-Life narratives.

Unfortunately, Minerva is too good at emulating the pattern of Half-Life 2‘s story. Like Half-Life 2: Episode TwoMinerva had planned follow-up games and episodes that ended up never being released. How ironic; Adam Foster is so good at imitating Half-Life‘s nuances that he too ended up never releasing a highly anticipated sequel. Let’s be fair, though; Minerva resolves its story and doesn’t end on a pulse-pounding cliffhanger like Half-Life 2: Episode Two does. It’s just funny that a mod for an unfinished series ended up becoming an unfinished series itself.

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The Half-Life Curse: All games having to do with Half-Life are damned to remain unresolved.

One reason why Foster never finished Minerva might be that Valve hired him. Rather than take offense at Foster’s constructive criticism, Valve brought him on as a level designer and encouraged him to share more of his ideas. He went on to work on the unreleased Half-Life 2: Episode Three at one point, as well as a few levels in Portal 2. Given that Valve has moved out of the game production space (at least for now), Gaben only knows what he’s currently toiling away at.

Valve was smart to not throw a hissy fit at Foster’s critique of Half-Life 2, and fans of the series shouldn’t either. Minerva is a sublime game whose take on the Half-Life series isn’t perfect, but it is different. It puts a familiar universe through the paces of vastly different level design, preserving the essence of what makes that universe great without re-treading what previous games have already done. Foster’s take on open-ended level design is worth series fans’ time to experience; download Minerva and see what mysteries (level design and otherwise) are hidden in its depths.

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You can buy Minerva 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.

Deadlight

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Search for your wife and daughter in a Soviet-era zombie apocalypse.

PC Release: October 25, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Zombies have oversaturated pop culture to such an extent that musings about this fact have themselves become oversaturated. The shambling undead are everywhere: on TV, in video games, even tattooed on people’s bodies. Zombies have become so popular that people can now go to Singapore and LARP in a zombie apocalypse. Separating the good zombie media from the bad has become quite a meaty responsibility, which is why Deadlight is getting a turn in the review spotlight this evening.

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Deadlight is a side-scrolling horror platformer created by Tequila Works, the Spanish studio behind two of 2017’s biggest indie hits: Rime and The Sexy Brutale. Before making games about exploring islands or solving murder mysteries, Tequila Works debuted a very different game back in 2012: a side-scrolling platformer about fighting zombies and exploring the ruins of civilization. Despite receiving generally positive reviews, Deadlight couldn’t compete with the likes of Dead Island and State of Decay. 

Deadlight‘s narrative is set in the 1980’s and follows Randall Wayne, a Canadian park ranger toughing it out with a group of other zombie apocalypse survivors in the ruins of Seattle. Randall came to Seattle in the hopes of finding his wife and daughter at the Safe Point, a rumored refuge at the heart of the city. The game begins as Randall becomes separated from his group by a zombie attack and is forced to strike out on his own.

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Time to get choppy.

Deadlight‘s gameplay is pretty standard fare for a side-scrolling platformer: just keep walking right until the game says “stop.” Randall can also leap up to high ledges and crouch into tunnels to find hidden areas and items. Despite shouldering heavy gear during the entire game, Randall has near-superhuman acrobatic abilities; few ledges and items are beyond this spry Canadian’s reach. Though Randall has an Olympian physique, his health is far more finite, so jump and roll with care.

Deadlight also throws the occasional environmental puzzle at players. Most of them, like pushing a box to be able to clamber up to a high ledge, have been done a million times in other games. Since Deadlight is a zombie game, players can also expect to find a few of those puzzles where the power box has to be shut off to de-electrify an inconveniently placed puddle. Players can also use objects in the environment to kill zombies; the best way to pass time in the zombie apocalypse is by flattening walkers with suspended cars.

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Kaboom!

Deadlight‘s mix of running, jumping and puzzling is perfectly serviceable… until the game introduces combat. Although Randall starts things out with no weapons (forcing him to either sneak around zombies or use environmental kills), he eventually finds a fire ax! Surely, such a mighty weapon can fell many a flesh-eater, right? Wrong. Combat in Deadlight is a joke. It’s hard to tell if the zombies even have hitboxes, meaning that players have to keep taking swings at zombies until they happen to take its head off.

Additionally, even though Randall can parkour across Seattle until the cows come home, taking 1-2 swings with the ax completely tuckers him out. Given that Randall can run, jump, and roll to his heart’s content, it’s a bit weird that swinging the fire ax once takes out half his stamina (that’s what he gets for skipping arm day). This problem becomes somewhat nullified once Randall finds a gun, but ammo is quite scarce, so don’t count out still having to use the fire ax throughout the game.

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I’m gonna… (huff) kick… (puff) the crap outta you!

For players who are up for braving subpar combat or skilled at avoiding it altogether, Deadlight‘s world has a lot to offer. The game’s visuals have aged well for being a half-decade old; character animations are fluid and textures look quite sharp. Deadlight also makes fantastic use of muted light and atmospheric effects to really bring the creepiness out of the zombie apocalypse. Additionally, the backdrop vistas of post-apocalyptic Seattle are absolutely stunning and give players plenty to look at as Randall wanders the landscape. None of this is to say that the game’s foregrounds aren’t intricately detailed as well.

Deadlight‘s sound design is a win, too. Every sound is designed to keep players on their toes: objects break with frightful force and rain patters on dilapidated rooftops with a tense tempo. The zombies carry the same cadre of hisses and growls that all zombies in other media do, but this doesn’t make them any less creepy. Deadlight‘s soundtrack is similarly morose, with somber piano melodies and deep, dark strings. Deadlight even samples symphonic metal, playing a bit of Mechina’s Cryostasis Simulation 2632 01 during a level set in an abandoned hospital. Creeeeeeepy stuff.

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Terrifying, but also what was that noise?

Deadlight‘s spooky design decisions make for a more open world than some players might think possible of a side-scrolling platformer. The game’s backdrops make the world feel a lot bigger than it actually is, which also makes roaming across the landscape all the more engrossing. Deadlight has a Rayman Origins-esque penchant for hidden areas, so players up for some exploring and zombie fans looking for show-don’t tell environmental storytelling (why does that wall have blood on it?) can rejoice.

Deadlight‘s atmosphere is also reinforced by tidbits of written exposition hidden throughout the game. Players can unlock pages of Randall’s diary as they advance through the story; most of it doesn’t stand out from other zombie fiction writing, but it’s a great option for players who crave backstory. Explorers may also stumble upon ID cards that belong to famous serial killers, just in case the zombie apocalypse didn’t already give this game a morbid enough atmosphere.

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Apparently Ted Bundy lived in this apartment. I know it’s true because I saw it in a video game.

The thick, mysterious atmosphere clouding Deadlight is by far the game’s most compelling feature, more so than the narrative. While the story that Deadlight presents isn’t bad, it doesn’t tread any new ground for zombie fiction. How many zombie apocalypse stories star a grizzled man looking for his family? How many of these narratives feature the trope of the rumored safe zone? Deadlight‘s dalliances in these conventions are given weight thanks to some decent, if occasionally overly poetic, writing, but that doesn’t stop them from being devices that no zombie fan is a stranger to.

Deadlight‘s preference for well-trod notions of the zombie apocalypse is consistent from the game’s beginning until its end. In addition to the aforementioned tired premises of finding family and a safe zone, the game features the token group of good humans-gone-bad. Each member of Randall’s group also draws clear inspiration from past zombie fiction: there’s the hyperventilating young girl, the increasingly cynical police officer, and even an old man who owns an RV (*cough*Walking Dead*cough*). Even the game’s ending can be spotted from a mile away.

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Watcha doin’, Dale—I mean—Kale.

Deadlight‘s narrative—derivative of past works though it may be—is saved from total irrelevance by presenting itself at an even pace and making good use of cogent voice acting. Even though Deadlight tells the same story that a dozen other pieces of zombie media have already told, it’s presented with convincing emotion by the game’s voice cast. Some of the dialogue writing is strange, especially the part when Randall claims that some girl’s saliva is “all we have left” (???), but it’s otherwise serviceable.

Deadlight also scores some originality points for presenting the zombie apocalypse as a side-scrolling platformer, something that few other games do. Even if Randall’s story to find his family has been overdone, presenting that story as a platformer does give the whole production some freshness. It also provides a way for players to see and experience that narrative in a format other than a shooter or an open-world game, which is the structure that most zombie games rely on.

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Welp, the housing market has literally gone to hell.

Zombie and platforming fans should consider giving Deadlight a try. The weariness of its narrative is largely cancelled out by its presentation; as a result, the game fits into the “good” side of zombie media. The game’s combat isn’t great, but its cadre of platforming and parkour is otherwise pretty sturdy. Just one bit of advice: do not get the Director’s Cut edition of Deadlight that Tequila Works put out last year. It’s buggy, it’s glitchy, and it only features an endless survival mode as its chief upgrade. Stick to the original version to get the 80’s Seattle zombie experience in all its gory glory.

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You can buy Deadlight 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.

LawBreakers

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Fight across colorful arenas in high-tech rounds of cops and robbers.

PC Release: August 8, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Overwatch has enjoyed a healthy reign as king of the zany multiplayer shooters since it released just over a year ago. It’s no hyperbole to say that the game is a cultural phenomenon; no comic con in this day and age is complete without a legion of Tracer cosplayers. Many, many games have tried to unseat Overwatch only to end up adding to the pile of dead competitors propping up its throne (oh Battleborn). LawBreakers is now swinging for that throne; time to see how hard.

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The reason why this review opened with Overwatch grandstanding is because LawBreakers is Overwatch. It is hilariously Overwatch. It is so blatantly Overwatch that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for Overwatch from a distance. Even at a closer glance, the two games share obvious similarities: they’re both set in bright, futuristic worlds and star a cast of colorful characters armed with all manner of exotic weaponry.

LawBreakers doesn’t bother with giving its characters any sort of exposition; all players really need to know is that theft is alive and well in the future. Two teams, the Law and the Breakers (ba dum tssss) duke it out for glory in glossy environments. Though LawBreakers bills itself as a futuristic cops-and-robbers game, none of its modes really have anything to do with robbery (or at least their objectives don’t).

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I’ll say this, the law looks way more badass in the future.

Like OverwatchLawBreakers is a class-based shooter whose characters each occupy a specific niche on their teams. Both teams have the same classes of characters occupied by physically different (though functionally identical) characters. Unlike OverwatchLawBreakers gets more specific with defining the roles of each character, labeling them “medic” or “assassin”, etc. It wouldn’t be difficult to discern each character’s role without these labels, but they do help, especially since some classes share conspicuous overlap (especially the wraith and the assassin).

LawBreakers‘ penchant for Overwatch-style character design goes beyond the colorful clothes, oversized guns, and ethnic and gender diversity. Each character in this game comes with a streamlined handful of abilities designed to be as easy to use and understand as possible. Characters have a primary weapon, a movement ability, and a few secondary powers like grenades or increased movement speed. These powers vary depending on the weight and class of the character (assassins move quickly, juggernauts not so much). Even though the game doesn’t say so, characters can shoot behind themselves as they run (Ctrl).

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Prepare for takeoff!

Unfortunately for LawBreakers, it doesn’t succeed in implementing its gameplay mechanics as fluidly as Overwatch does. As in Overwatch, each characters’ powers are on a cooldown timer, but the cooldowns in Lawbreakers take forevvvver. Some characters’ abilities take upwards of an entire minute to recharge after use, which is an eternity in a game as fast-paced as this one. These cooldowns vary from character to character but are always shockingly slow; usually too slow to be used before the player gets killed and has to respawn.

There’s something inherently dysfunctional about how slow LawBreakers‘ cooldowns are in comparison to the rest of the game. True to developer Boss Key’s marketing material, matches in LawBreakers are fast-paced. Players can quickly move around maps taking out foes and completing objectives at a speed far outstripping the recharge of character abilities. This unbalanced dichotomy forces players to ration each character’s power, making LawBreakers a lot less fun than it could be with quicker cooldowns.

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Alright, there goes my once-per-match gravity bubble; back to shooting.

Some folks might say that LawBreakers‘ slow cooldowns aren’t a big deal in the face of the game’s most marketed novelty: anti-gravity. Yes, it’s true that characters can shoot into the sky to take each other out… but only in certain areas of the map. It turns out that LawBreakers‘ marketing depicting each battleground as a purely vertical gunfight was quite hyperbolic. On top of that, trying to move around in anti-grav is pretty clunky. Players have to jam shift and space to attain altitude, and can only do so on a limited fuel bar. When that runs out, it’s just floating around in space and praying for a lucky shot.

LawBreakers‘ missteps with anti-gravity seep into more than just the gameplay; they also homogenize the game’s map design. Though each map in LawBreakers bears its own aesthetic, the design structure underlying those bright colors and sharp textures is the same in most of the title’s eight maps. Whether it’s a futuristic boardwalk or a high-altitude weather station, players can expect the majority of LawBreakers‘ maps to be circular perimeters of corridors around single anti-grav rooms. This sameness in level design makes LawBreakers‘ already small supply of maps even more redundant.

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(sigh)

There may not be much variety to be found in LawBreakers‘ maps, but the same thankfully can’t be said of the game’s modes. As of writing, LawBreakers features a few diverse modes for players to shoot up: there’s Overcharge, a capture-the-flag mode in which players take batteries back to their base, as well as a king-of-the-hill analogue called Turf War. Uplink is pretty much the same as Overcharge except that progress is measured by how well the team defends the collectible instead of how much time it’s spent at their base. Finally, there’s Blitzball: grab a glowy ball and deposit it in the enemy base to score.

For any drawbacks LawBreakers suffers with its slow cooldowns and clunky anti-gravity, these modes do make for some fun gunplay. Each match is a fast-paced bout of first-person shooting and stabbing. The modes have all been done in one form or another in other video games (who hasn’t heard of capture the flag or king of the hill) but Blitzball is arguably the most original… and fun. Matches are usually pretty easy to find in LawBreakers, but be warned: as of launch, it’s not uncommon to spend upwards of 10 minutes waiting for one.

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I guess we’ll just stare at each other while we wait for more people?

LawBreakers manages to avoid any major design flaws when it comes to visual fidelity. The game looks absolutely gorgeous; every environment is brightly lit and brightly colored. The game masterfully mashes different textures and materials together into a composite without making the larger map they’re in feel random. Players can expect to encounter a riot of different shops and establishments aptly blended together into each map, which can draw players’ eyes even as they’re avoiding bullets. Between its detailed textures and bright colors, LawBreakers leaves little to be desired in the visual design department.

Not only does LawBreakers look pretty, it actually runs quite well. The game is refreshingly bug-free and glitches during actual gameplay are rare. Plus, LawBreakers has a ginormous options menu; players can use the game’s comprehensive list of options and toggles to adjust everything from the sharpness of shadows to whether a character speaks. The game’s other menus, from character customization to player profiles, are also quite streamlined. The sound design is competent… the guns could sound a little louder, but no big deal.

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Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it… (evil cackle).

LawBreakers can look and sound pretty ’till the cows come home, but its aesthetic only does so much to conceal its many gameplay flaws. As previously mentioned, the length of the characters’ ability cooldowns needs to be shortened… well, not “shortened” so much as “cut in half.” Even the coolest character powers aren’t that cool when they can only be used once per minute, and a lot can happen in 60 seconds (deaths, rebirths, existential crises, wins, losses, eating an entire pizza, all kinds of things).

Additionally, LawBreakers‘ anti-gravity controls need to be overhauled; randomly pressing the shift and space keys while praying for upward movement doesn’t cut it. A tutorial devoted entirely to moving around in anti-gravity would also not go amiss. Honestly, it feels a bit cheap that a game that made so much noise about being able to fly around in anti-gravity confines that feature to one or two relatively small areas within each map. Trailers and marketing material should never be trusted as a general rule, but LawBreakers‘ own teaser now feels especially inflated.

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Quick! We have five seconds to do something novel!

LawBreakers gets credit for its bright world and decent PC performance, but it feels like a mere Overwatch clone without a greater, smoother emphasis on anti-gravity gameplay. At this point the title is less a game trying to establish its own identity and more an “Overwatch plus anti-gravity sometimes.” If Cliff Bleszinski and the folks at Boss Key don’t take steps to re-balance character cooldowns or refine the anti-gravity comprising LawBreakers‘ key selling point, this game will probably be dead in the next 4-6 months. Hopefully the studio gets cracking on these drawbacks, because Overwatch doesn’t need any more fallen competitors in its body pile.

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You can buy LawBreakers 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 Evil Within

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Escape from a terrifying, ever-changing nightmare world.

PC Release: October 14, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Welp, there’s no more putting it off; it’s finally The Evil Within‘s turn for a review. I’ve been getting bombarded with requests to review this game for years (and given my oft-professed love for horror games, it’s no surprise), but with The Evil Within 2 right around the corner, what better time to finally visit this most curious horror-verse than now? The Evil Within bills itself as a horror game that focuses more on action than survival; it’s time to evaluate that and other claims right here, right now.

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The Evil Within is a third-person horror game directed by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil. Released as the debut title of Mikami’s studio, Tango Gameworks, The Evil Within‘s stated mission is to return horror games to being about survival instead of action. Tango Gameworks is wrong to imply that no one makes survival-horror games anymore, but to be fair, nearly all of the proverbial Amnesias and Outlasts are indie productions. If games like Dead Space 3 are any indication, bigger-budget devs have indeed forgotten how to do horror. So go forth, The Evil Within; go forth.

The Evil Within casts players as Sebastian Castellanos, a down-on-his-luck police detective who couldn’t be anymore the stereotype of the hard-drinking noir gumshoe if he tried. The game begins when Sebastian and his partners get a call about multiple homicides at the local insane asylum; when they arrive, a disfigured man in a white robe teleports behind Sebastian and knocks him out cold. When Sebastian wakes up, he beholds an unfamiliar world teeming with blood, gore, and all sorts of creepy monsters.

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This I did not sign up for.

After eluding a particularly tall butcher who has a particularly strong enthusiasm for chainsaws, Sebastian realizes that his partners and a few of the asylum staff have ended up in this world as well. Between him and them stand an army of horrifically disfigured ghouls that are only too happy to try to take a chomp out of the detective. Armed only with his wits and what few weapons can be found in this nightmare world, it’s Sebastian’s mission to find out what this place is and, more importantly, how to escape from it.

As Sebastian sneaks his way through the world stabbing monsters and avoiding danger, he can’t help but notice that certain portions of the place seem familiar. What few friendly faces he does find make similar observations. They all agree, though, that this world is not a realm friendly to them. Meanwhile, the aforementioned man in a white robe watches from a distance as Sebastian and co. try to find a way out… if there’s even such a thing.

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‘Scuse me, ma’am, I—please stop hissing—I’m looking for an exit?

Like most of the Resident Evil games, The Evil Within is a third-person shooter. As Sebastian, players can run (or sneak, sneaking’s better) around a foreboding landscape in search of resources and in avoidance of enemies. Sebastian can find guns and grenades out in the world but ammo is a finite resource, so it pays to either avoid enemies entirely or, if that’s not possible, be a headshot afficionado. When weapons aren’t an option, Sebastian can always find a bed to hide under or a wardrobe to silently weep in. He can also heal himself with syringes, but players are best off saving those for when he’s seriously hurt (they don’t exactly grow on trees).

The Evil Within also incorporates featherweight role-playing elements. Every so often, Sebastian can whisk himself away to a medical ward not unlike the Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne. Players can use this hub to heal themselves, upgrade their weapons, and strengthen Sebastian’s abilities. Everything from Sebastian’s sprint duration to the damage he does with certain weapons can be beefed up using this system, provided players can find enough jars of brain goo. Brain goo can be found in everything from ceramic jars to the heads of monsters, so go wild for those upgrades.

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It pays to be stealthy.

A lot of critics are quick to point out how similar The Evil Within is to Resident Evil 4, and with good reason: the game features similarities ranging from the over-the-shoulder camera down to the creepy doctor with a Hispanic name. For all those similarities, though, The Evil Within actually feels much more like The Last of Us. Think about it; the protagonist sneaks around, has limited ammunition, and can throw bottles or bricks to distract monsters so that he can stab them. The resemblance is uncanny, and given The Last of Us‘s huge success, it’s probably not a coincidence.

Funnily for a game designed by the creator of Resident Evil, The Evil Within also shares many design similarities with RE‘s arch-rival, Silent Hill. Creepy nightmare dimension? Check. Worlds that shift randomly between different paradigms? Check. Monsters that, for all their spookiness, have a grotesque beauty to them that is worthy of appreciation? Check. There’s even a metal-headed creature wielding an over-sized weapon that pops up every so often to chase our hero around.

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Oh no! It’s Pyramid He—I mean—Trapezoid Head!

Even though The Evil Within doesn’t really pioneer any new horror mechanics, it can be a fun package for players who like The Last of UsResident Evil 4, or the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. There’s nothing new in The Evil Within‘s tourney of third-person shooting and sneaking, but the game does manage to clothe those old bones in silky smooth new flesh (don’t cringe at that metaphor, this is supposed to be a horror game review). The Evil Within is also quite a challenging game; players can expect plenty of bullet-resistant foes and to be introduced to new, scarier monsters at a steady clip.

Unfortunately, players can also expect some much more frustrating design decisions that The Evil Within 2 will hopefully correct. The first is the game’s camera, which is god-awful. The Evil Within takes the over-the-shoulder camera to a whole ‘nother level, putting it so close to Sebastian that it feels like the player is resting their chin on his shoulder. Not only can this make the game nauseating to watch; it’s often difficult to tell where Sebastian is whenever he gets mobbed by enemies. Over-the-shoulder camera? More like over-the-ear camera.

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Danger (camera) close, danger (camera) close!

The next fumble in The Evil Within‘s lineup of design missteps is its frustrating placement of traps. This game is absolutely lousy with trip wires and bear traps, to the point where players have to maintain a schizophrenic level of vigilance to avoid getting blown to smithereens. It’s a prime example of the “bulls***t death” phenomenon, in which the game tries to create environmental tension but ultimately ends up punishing even reasonably careful players. Dark Souls fans will do well in this game.

Finally, there’s the boss battles. Japanese games have an unfortunate habit of including overly long boss fights whose order of difficulty is completely scrambled, and The Evil Within is no exception. Sebastian faces giant creatures with several bars of health and a retinue of frustrating attacks, making such confrontations in The Evil Within a test of patience rather than skill. What’s more, this game’s boss battles are arranged in a random order of difficulty; one big baddie toward the middle of the game is teeth-gnashingly difficult to kill, while the game’s final boss is basically a glorified cutscene.

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Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

A lot of Japanese games also tend to skip out on essential story details. The Evil Within‘s plot is only barely comprehensible; as a study of how people would navigate a series of horror environments, it’s not bad, but as a coherent story it’s pretty messy. There’s no meaning behind most of the environments that Sebastian visits. Indeed, The Evil Within‘s levels could be shuffled into any order and the game’s plot would not suffer for it. Not to get too spoilery, but The Evil Within doesn’t even really explain why Sebastian is in this world to begin with! Sure, it explains why some other characters might be there… just not the main one.

Oh well; it’s not like any of the characters in The Evil Within are all that memorable or interesting anyway. Sebastian’s character has the alcoholic cop stereotype down to a T. He spends most of his time musing about the weirdness of the world or kicking back whiskey instead of developing as a person. Even the voice talent of Anson Mount (Cullen Bohannon on AMC’s Hell on Wheels) can only do so much against such mediocre character writing. This game’s other characters fill similarly stock niches; Sebastian’s partner Joseph, for example is the stereotypical straight-edged detective keeping his partner afloat.

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In a world… where cops drink alcohol… and talk in movie trailer voices…

If The Evil Within can’t provide memorable characters or a coherent story, at least it looks cool and runs pretty well. The game’s visual design presents a steady series of hauntingly beautiful worlds ranging from destroyed cityscapes to bleak countrysides. Since this is a horror game, players can also count on finding plenty of gory laboratories and an antiquated church or two. The Evil Within relies on a diverse palette of muted colors to telegraph its haunted atmosphere, as well as some admittedly well-placed lighting and fog effects.

The Evil Within runs pretty well on default options, but players can always tweak any performance problems with the game’s outstanding options menu. Some players may find that The Evil Within has an unsteady frame-rate, no doubt a by-product of porting this game to PC and doing away with the 30 frames-per-second cap endemic to consoles. The Evil Within also features those stupid black widescreen bars for a more “cinematic” experience, but players can learn how to turn those off right here.

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Come on, I just wanted to admire the tessellation on your chainsaw!

The Evil Within is not the horror opus that its small but dedicated fan base claims it to be. It has fluid third-person shooting and an interesting world, but its boss fights are awful and its story is incomprehensible. None of this means that that game doesn’t have its moments of fun or an absorbing atmosphere, but the title is ultimately brought down by a handful of massively consequential design mishaps. It’s a game that’s bursting at the seams with interesting ideas… but those ideas have no organization whatsoever.

Additionally, players who are interested in The Evil Within but want Amnesia-style survival should check out The Assignment and The Consequence, two DLC packs that force players to sneak around sans weapons. Starring character Juli Kidman isn’t all that interesting and it’s cringe-worthy to watch her run around this nightmare world in six-inch heels, but the DLC’s gameplay is much more in line with hardcore survival horror games. Meanwhile, players in the mood for something a bit more lively should check out The Executioner, a DLC that lets players smash heads and take names as the aforementioned Trapezoid Head.

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Now THIS is what I call Hammer Time!

To recap, The Evil Within is a meh game, one that horror fans won’t be lesser for missing out on. The universe that the game presents is fascinating, but it’s just so… jumbled. Hopefully The Evil Within 2 will introduce some much-needed refinements to the series: putting the boss battles in a gradually ascending order of difficulty wouldn’t hurt, and neither would including some more interesting characters and a more focused plot. That over-the-shoulder camera also needs to be pushed back; way back. And please, Shinji, for the love of Cthulhu… cut back on all those damn bear traps and tripwires. Please?

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You can buy The Evil Within 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.

Rayman Origins

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Stop an army of monsters from fouling up the world.

PC Release: November 15, 2011

By Ian Coppock

Ah, it’s nice to finally return to the fold of everyone’s favorite limbless hero. It’s been a while since a Rayman game was reviewed on this page; Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc were both covered in… what, January of 2016? So yeah… it’s been a while. The time is ripe, though, to turn to one of video gaming’s zaniest worlds: a world where the colors are as bright as the prettiest summer days and fun platforming is in abundance. Obviously, we’re talking about Rayman Origins.

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The Rayman series has had a strange journey. The franchise debuted in 1995 with a self-titled 2D platformer before swapping over to a 3D action-adventure format in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After that, the property got lost in the weeds, with Rayman hanging up his platforming chops to go party with a bunch of goggly-eyed bunnies in 2006’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. Rayman went dormant for the next five years (sans the occasional handheld game) before roaring back to life with Rayman Origins in 2011.

As its name implies, Rayman Origins is a reboot that takes the series back to its original side-scrolling roots (though it doesn’t disclose the actual origins of everyone’s favorite limbless hero). The title also marks the return of series creator Michel Ancel, who hadn’t directed a Rayman game since 1999’s Rayman 2: The Great Escape and played only minor (if any) role in the development of subsequent Rayman titles.

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This way to the adventure!

Rayman Origins begins with the titular hero soaking up some peace and quiet… until his buddy Globox’s snoring wakes up an army of evil Darktoons. Because snoring is apparently a felony in the underworld, they put Rayman & co. behind bars and start trashing the Glade of Dreams. To make matters worse, they lock up all of the cutesy little Electoons and give one of Rayman’s friends nightmares about becoming a chicken (oh the horror). Once again, it’s up to Rayman to save his friends and the world.

As Rayman, players can save the Glade of Dreams by journeying to each of its eight eye-popping worlds and rescuing the Electoons from the monsters. Electoons can be found in cages hidden throughout each level and are also given out as prizes for scoring enough points. The more Electoons Rayman collects, the more worlds he can unlock. Rayman Origins also features co-op, in which teams of up to four players can seek out Electoons together. Origins‘ gallery of sidekicks includes Rayman’s best friend Globox, a couple of Teensies, and various re-skins of all four heroes.

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Whee!

Rayman Origins‘ gameplay is pure side-scrolling platformer, and damn if it doesn’t run on a hardy diet of running, jumping, and punching. Players can sprint through levels punching foes and discovering secrets, or use Rayman’s trademark helicopter hair to hover to hard-to-reach areas. Rejoice, classic platforming fans; there’s a whole lot of jumping around on floating platforms and kicking the crap out of cartoony foes to be had in Rayman Origins (not to mention lots of hidden treasure).

Origins also benefits from intricate level design. Though each level in Rayman Origins is played from left to right, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of hidden alcoves and alternate paths to find. As Rayman, players can venture into dark caves and through curtains of vegetation in search of more treasure. Indeed, being up for some exploring is a must in Rayman Origins, as the amount of Electoons needed to get to the next area is usually too high for players to obtain by just by speeding through stages. The game’s level design varies from world to world; players can expect to spend one world swinging through trees and the next swimming to the deepest depths.

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Running and jumping and running and jumping and running and jumping…

Rayman Origins‘ apt combination of fluid gameplay and multilayered level design is what gives the game its platforming punch. The fact that it took the platforming world by storm in 2011 is evidence that, while platformers hadn’t necessarily forgotten how to do good platforming, they’d still simplified their level design and removed the intricacy once endemic to the genre. Most Mario games, for example, feature only a single path forward in their levels while Rayman Origins has several.

The other gameplay element that Rayman Origins recaptures from the golden days of platforming is its high difficulty level. Rayman can only take a single blow before it’s back to the beginning of that segment of the level (though he can sustain two hits if he finds an extra heart). Couple Rayman’s fragility with Rayman Origins‘ plethora of enemies and obstacles, and it makes for a challenging game. Its high learning curve won’t suit everyone, but old-school platforming fans looking for a new challenge will absolutely relish this design element. 

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More friends equals more adventures.

Before anything else can be said about Rayman Origins, hows about that eye-popping artwork? If Rayman Origins wasn’t celebrated for its fluid gameplay or back-to-basics design philosophy, it won gamers’ hearts with its colorful aesthetic. Comprising hundreds of in-game objects and thousands of shades of color, Rayman Origins‘ take on the Glade of Dreams is one of the most vibrant platforming landscapes of the decade. The game is unafraid to use bright colors in every environment from jungles to giant Mexican kitchens. Rayman Origins also has fun with a wide palette of textures.

Additionally, Rayman Origins features fantastic character animation. Everything from Rayman’s punching to his running is fluidly animated, as are the movements of the worlds’ flora and characters. The only problematic element of Origins‘ character design is how sexualized the Glade of Dreams’ nymphs are. Not only is this an obnoxious design choice on its own, but these busty fairies draw a conspicuous contrast with how cute and innocent the rest of the game looks.

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Suddenly this game feels dirty..

Even though Rayman Origins‘ world is visually and musically complex, the game’s 2.5D setup and visuals means that it has little trouble running on PC. The options menu could stand to be better (as always) but players should have no problem running Rayman Origins on monster rig desktops or little potato laptops. As is common with platformers ported to PC, the game’s keyboard & mouse controls are a little… unrefined; not so much as to make the game unplayable, but just enough to warrant using a gamepad if possible.

If Rayman Origins has a flaw, it’s that Michel Ancel invested much more effort into the game’s art and music than he did the story. Sure, each character has some cutesy dialogue, but the game is much more about completing levels than following along with a narrative. That’s not a bad thing for a game to do if it’s fun enough (and Rayman Origins certainly is) but the property has proven to be an ample storytelling franchise in games past, especially Rayman 2. Players shouldn’t come to Rayman Origins for an involved narrative, but they should stay for how fun and funny the characters are despite the lack of one.

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Swim away, swim away!

Rayman Origins is a fun game; it’s a challenging title, but it’ll love players that brave depths and heights to find those Electoons. The game is solid evidence that love for old-school platformers is still alive and well today, even though most modern platformers have moved away from difficulty and intricate level design. Rayman Origins espouses both of those things, though, and players who do the same should pick this title up and give those nasty Darktoons a (literal) run for their money.

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You can buy Rayman Origins 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.

Tacoma

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Discover what happened to the crew of an offline space station.

PC Release: August 2, 2017

By Ian Coppock

At first glance, Tacoma‘s premise of investigating the whereabouts of a missing space crew doesn’t sound novel for a sci-fi narrative. Hell, how many dozens of other video games begin with the protagonist following up on a distress signal? Even though Tacoma‘s starting point sounds as pedestrian as can be for a science fiction story, that doesn’t mean that the game should be overlooked. A studio that picks a common story starting point can still breathe fresh life into the concept by changing its conventions. Tacoma is many things, but conventional is not one of them.

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Tacoma is the sophomore effort of Fullbright, an Oregon-based studio that debuted onto the indie scene with 2014’s Gone HomeGone Home remains one of gaming’s most polarizing titles (both for its design and its taboo subject matter), but Fullbright still succeeded in creating an alluring mystery game. Gone Home had a strong atmosphere, masterful voice acting, and is arguably the most refined “walking simulator” on the market.

Fullbright has built upon what it innovated with Gone Home in its production of Tacoma. Like its predecessor, Tacoma is much more focused on story and atmosphere than action, and also prioritizes letting players explore every nook and cranny of the game world (kleptos take note). Unlike Gone HomeTacoma is also more focused on science fiction than nostalgia (what with its rather conspicuous, super-cool space station) but is no less adamant in its attempts to evoke emotions from the player.

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Space…? Space! SPAAAAAAACE

Tacoma begins when player character Amy Ferrier arrives to the titular space station Tacoma to investigate the whereabouts of its crew… all of whom seem to be missing. Her main objective is to explore Tacoma and retrieve the brain of ODIN, the station’s resident AI. Because ODIN doesn’t really feel like talking to strangers, the only way for Amy to find out what happened to Tacoma’s crew is to look for clues in each of the station’s modules.

At first glance, players could be forgiven for labeling Tacoma as “Gone Home in Space.” Like Gone Home, Tacoma begins with the player character arriving to a new location and discovering that its usual inhabitants are missing. Like Gone Home, it’s up to the protagonist of Tacoma to explore her surroundings in a particular order and piece together the story of why no one’s around. For all of the visual difference afforded by Tacoma‘s shift to space, the Fullbright formula is still at this title’s heart.

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Apparently Cali will be its own country in 2088.

Amy’s main means of Sherlocking around the station are to tap into its surveillance tools and listen to recorded conversations. Most rooms on the station allow players to see a past conversation between Tacoma’s crew and pause, rewind, or fast-forward the chatter as necessary. Amy can also hack into each crew member’s holo-smartphone device to retrieve documents and private messages. Once Amy’s gathered as many past conversations as she can find, players can move on to Tacoma’s next module.

The conversation tool is a neat little novelty for witnessing past interactions. Crew members show up in the tool’s viewfinder as neon mannequins, and players can find out what they need to know by following them around and listening in. Sometimes players will need to witness several conversations happening simultaneously. The only drawback to this mechanic is that because Amy is apparently deaf in one ear, any character she’s listening to will immediately mute if she’s not right behind them.

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Past interactions between crew members, a.k.a. the progeny of EDC and the Blue Man Group.

Tacoma‘s voice acting is legendary. As with Gone Home, Fullbright succeeded in finding some top-notch voice talent for each of the game’s characters. Between the game’s voice acting and its solid character writing, each of the station’s six characters feel quite human (despite showing up in Amy’s viewfinder as glowing golems). Players who also feel like doing a little gray hat gumshoe-ing can learn the secrets, hopes, and fears that each character hides behind their high-tech veneer. The Tacoma’s crew is not video gaming’s first space crew, but it’s an especially lovable bunch of humans.

The one voice acting decision that’s surprising about Tacoma is how the game uses the talents of Sarah Grayson, who returned from voicing Sam in Gone Home to lend her voice to Amy in Tacoma. Unfortunately, she gets, like… three lines of dialogue in the entire game. Perhaps that’s all she wanted to do or had time for, but it’s a shame that the actress who delivered such a tear-jerking performance in Gone Home didn’t get more audio time in Tacoma. Oh well. Good thing the rest of the cast is still stellar.

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“I believe I can flooooat…. anti-gravityyy makes me blooooat…” (TM)

Besides listening in on conversations between space ghosts, the other leg of Tacoma‘s gameplay is good ole’ rifling through drawers and reading embarrassing anecdotes from personal diaries (y’know, the usual for mystery games). Tacoma is not the biggest space station in the galaxy, but each of its environments are flooded with interactive objects and hidden notes. Tacoma borrows Gone Home‘s item mechanic of being able to examine an item and then let it snap back to its resting place, rather than having to throw it and hope that it doesn’t break a lamp. Item physics; who needs ’em?

Each environment in Tacoma is also replete with bright colors and well-honed textures. The game looks sharp and sleek; not just because it’s a space station, but also because Fullbright successfully leverages contrast and gorgeous lighting. The game’s level design is the International Space Station on steroids; sure, there are some constricting corridors, but players can also explore neatly packed complexes of offices, living quarters, and even a tea garden. For all the talk that’s been made of Fullbright borrowing from Gone Home for this game, the studio succeeds in leveling up its level design.

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Solid break, Ms. Ghost.

Tacoma looks nice and its level design makes for a fluid package that no player will get lost in… but the options menu underlying all of that niceness could stand some fleshing out. There are some token options for resolution and graphical fidelity, but they make the error of tying several visual elements together under one option. These options don’t stop players from having a backup plan in case Tacoma doesn’t run, but they may also experience the occasional crash while playing the game; especially during the transitions between modules.

Crashes and limited options are about all that can be said against Tacoma‘s performance on PC, though. The game runs well. It keeps an even-keeled framerate and its module transitions (conspicuous as they may be) are pretty quick. Hopefully Fullbright has been quick to patch any other issues that have come up; the company has been active on Tacoma‘s Steam community page and worked diligently to bring the title to Linux (rejoice, Linux Ultra Race).

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The only thing missing is the Mass Effect elevator music.

Between Tacoma‘s dialogue design and its strong emphasis on exploration, the game is an exemplar of what Fullbright calls “environmental storytelling.” Rather than playing an active role in the narrative, players get to explore its aftermath and piece together their own conclusions from the many clues strewn about. It’s a design style that initially flies in the face of the idea that players are at the heart of video game narratives, but ends up still letting them be a part of the story after the bulk of it has played out.

This style of storytelling doesn’t suit all tastes. It can invoke the feeling that the player is just a passive observer rather than the driver of the story. Something to consider, though, is that players can still piece together a played-out story at their own pace, which can alter what conclusions are drawn about the narrative. Besides, especially in the case of Tacoma… who’s to say that the entire story has already played out by the time Amy’s arrived? The narrative certainly doesn’t hurt for emotional weight, either.

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I’ll have a Holo-Libre, please.

Because of its ambitious voice acting, believable character development, and preference for environmental storytelling, Tacoma successfully shakes up the distress call trope endemic to so many other games. It stands out from its sci-fi peers because players still get to make their own conclusions about the narrative even though they’re arriving after the bulk of it has already played out. Tacoma‘s storytelling style also lends it a thick mystery atmosphere, one that players everywhere would be remiss to not try for themselves.

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You can buy Tacoma 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.