Monthly Archives: December 2017

Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale

COUB1

Kill hundreds of rival shoppers in the name of holiday consumerism.

PC Release: December 16, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Welcome one and all to the 2017 Art as Games Christmas Special! As usual, thanks to everyone who read the reviews that were posted all year, and a huge welcome to newcomers just stumbling into this particular corner of gamedom. Tonight’s title celebrates that most venerated of American holiday traditions. Family? Nope. Friends? Nope. Being thankful for things? Not likely! No, the holiday tradition being alluded to is, of course, un(hinged)bridled consumerism, with Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale!

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Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale (let’s just call it COUB, easier on the tongue and the eyes and the lips), is a high-octane shopping simulator that seeks to capture the quintessential American holiday spirit. Players spawn in as an everyday shopper whose goal is to get into the mall, find a list of randomly generated items, and leave the store. The game sounds like a perfectly innocent shopping trip on paper, until players consider that there’s only one TV left for dozens of shoppers to fight over.

COUB is far more than a trip to the mall: it’s a vicious battle royale in which dozens of shoppers bloodily compete for that last item on the shelf. Sure, players can find the item that they need easily enough, but getting out of the store ahead of the dozens of other customers who also want it is another story. Players who hope to escape the mall alive need to pack much more than a shopping cart. Luckily, being in America, this mall has plenty of gun stores.

COUB2

Santa baby, why don’t you go buy a new gunnnn, for funnnn…

Players control their shopper in third person and can meander around the mall at their leisure. Each round of COUB brings with it a different gallery of items for players to find. Players can bet that beer’ll be at the convenience mart and the TV’ll be at Not-Best-Buy, but sometimes COUB spawns its stuff in weird places. It’s probably not every gamer’s first thought to look for a VR headset in the women’s clothing department.

Grabbing a shopping cart and finding the items on the list is simple enough, but what about paying for them? In the event that the shopper forgets their wallet, players can find other ways to make money. Cash can sometimes be found in hard-to-reach areas of the mall… other times, it can be plucked from the bodies of fellow shoppers. Whatever it takes to get those gifts, right? COUB seems to agree.

COUB3

GET BACK! Or you’re all going on the naughty list!

Anyway, once players have the cash, they can purchase presents and leave the store. The catch is that, much like grabbing a key in a horror game, the purchase turns all the NPCs around the player immediately hostile. The more items the player collects, the bigger the angry mob that chases them around the mall. Sometimes the crowd can get alarmingly big; players who’ve crossed out their entire list can expect upwards of 40 customers to chase them to the exit. It’s social Darwinism meets ‘murican capitalism!

Even the most nimble players will find that outrunning rival shoppers is only a temporary countermeasure. The only way to truly deal with the throngs of crazed consumers in COUB is to mow them down with a gun or get choppy with a sword. The mall is loaded with plenty of melee and ranged weapons, allowing players to make quick work of bloodthirstily thrifty shoppers. Most customers jump into the fray armed only with their bare fists, but be careful; a few are packing some heat of their own.

COUB4

Two asscheeks full of buckshot and he’s still running like a champ… go Santa!

While COUB has no problem encouraging players to mow down swarms of shoppers, aiming is another story. It’s hard to tell if COUB‘s guns shoot directly forward or if they lock onto the nearest enemy shopper… perhaps a bit of both? In any case, aiming and firing weapons in COUB is much more of a chore than it should be. It’s certainly more difficult than it should be to hit a giant, hard-to-miss rabble of shoppers. Players’ best hope for killing bad guys is to wait until they’re almost brushing up against them before firing. Luckily, most shoppers go down in one hit.

Killing enemies with a melee weapon is marginally easier than using a gun. Players can jump into the fray with their fists if they want to get immediately killed by the horde, or keep their distance with a weapon and swat shoppers as they get close. No matter if players use a gun or a sword, they can count on COUB to cook up one hell of a bloodbath. The amount of gore that can be spilled in this game is comparable to Postal. Lord.

COUB5

You better not pout, you better not cry, you better say your prayers, you’re all gonna die…

It’s a bit jarring to see so much blood coat a cartoon aesthetic, but that’s what COUB goes for. The game’s visual design is all bright colors and block-shaped characters, with an impressive amount of object detail to boot. The mall is absolutely jam-packed with both colorful items and huge crowds of people, so good luck running out of things to glance at. The game’s character animations are a bit wonky (especially since NPCs ragdoll upon death), but remain serviceable.

COUB‘s sound design is a little less amusing than its visuals. Some of the game’s sound effects, like footsteps, come through just fine, but gunshots are extremely muted. COUB‘s “soundtrack” is a single, looping piece of elevator music that sounds alright the first time around, but quickly gets annoying the longer players are trapped in the mall. Hell, the music is probably what drives all the NPCs to such violence.

COUB6

I need your biggest frickin’ waistline, lotta cookies to eat tonight!

Much like a bearded fat man who’s had a hundred cookies too many, COUB struggles with running well. Players might find that the game chugs a bit on their machine, which is a joke considering its simple visuals. This problem also feeds into COUB‘s framerate, which has an annoying tendency to slow down even when there aren’t dozens of characters in frame. Most annoying of all is a bug that occasionally prevents players from leaving the store even when they’ve gotten everything on their list.

As is to be expected, these bugs weigh down the fun of driving a cart ’round the mall, collecting presents, and shooting bad guys. Even though COUB‘s been out for almost a year, the developers don’t seem to have done much to address these issues. Hopefully they consider a patch, because COUB‘s shopping adventure is bizarrely addicting. It is truly the tobacco of video games.

COUB7

Negotiations are breaking down…

Players should bear a few other things in mind when considering COUB. In addition to being slow with a patch, the developers are terminally Russian; ergo, the game has a few spelling and grammar errors (also, the devs’ names are listed in Cyrillic). Most of these comprehension errors, like “beer case” are funny, while others, like “system unit” are too opaque. Oh well; all the more reason to hit up (or shoot up) every store in the mall.

Additionally, despite its cute and cuddly appearance, COUB is not for the under-18’s. That should be a given considering how much gore is in this game, but there’s no shortage of other controversial sights in the mall. For some reason the game allows players to collect nudie cards, but that salaciousness is somewhat broken by the fact that all the models are also block people. It’s a random design choice but, frankly, so are nearly all of COUB‘s design choices. That’s what makes the game work.

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(inoffensive shopping mall music)

COUB is one of those games that was definitely built on the cheap and with a bit of duct tape, but that’s also what gives it its charm. It’s one of the weirdest games to come this way in a while, but it works as a title because of its absurd gameplay and painfully accurate satire of American consumerism. Sure, gun battles don’t break out every Black Friday (at least not yet), but COUB‘s humor works because it brings the real-life tension of the shopping season to a furious, hilarious boil.

And with that, this year of reviews draws to a close. As always, huge thanks to everyone who’s been along for the journey. As long as there are more video games releasing, players can always expect more reviews to appear on this page. Have a happy holiday (whichever one that might be), and don’t drink too much nogshine. Actually, scratch that; there’s no such thing as too much nogshine.

Or too many video games.

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You can buy Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale 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.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA

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Outrun a horde of ravenous aliens on a stylish space bike.

PC Release: September 19, 2017

By Ian Coppock

2017 has been a good year for games. Major titles came out on time and (mostly) bug-free, while the indie catalog produced no shortage of novel and fascinating titles. Even the Battlefront II fiasco was good in its own way; gamers united against the malice of microtransactions and dealt a savage setback to one of the industry’s most draconian publishers. The best way to top all of this video game goodness off is with a stylish ride into the sunset of 2017: SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

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Released in September by Desktop Distortions wizard Walter Machado, SWARMRIDER OMEGA is a fast-paced, twin-stick shooter set in the UBERMOSH universe. The game stars the Blade Saint, the protagonist of the UBERMOSH games, atop a motorbike that looks like it was pulled through a black hole. SWARMRIDER OMEGA is played in short rounds and challenges players to out-drive and out-gun an ever-growing swarm of aliens. The longer the player can stay alive, the higher their score.

Much like the original SWARMRIDERS, SWARMRIDER OMEGA lets players veer crazily around the screen while they kill the Naaru-looking things speeding behind them. Unlike the original SWARMRIDERSSWARMRIDER OMEGA lets players take more than one hit before dying. SWARMRIDER OMEGA also borrows class mods from the UBERMOSH games, allowing players to pick different palettes of powers like extra shields or an almighty lightning gun.

Omega2

So she’s basically the female Joker, if the hair’s any indication.

Because the Blade Saint never takes her finger off the trigger, players only need to worry about what directions they’re driving and firing in. The pursuing aliens all go down in one hit, but there are so many of them that players must pay constant, frantic attention to where they’re firing… or risk the swarm catching up to them. Similarly to the zombies in Left 4 DeadSWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s aliens ebb and flow from a trickle of enemies to an overwhelming tide.

Additionally, these aliens seem to have gone to driving school since their appearance in SWARMRIDERS. The creatures are faster and more nimble here than in SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s predecessor, resulting in a greater marksmanship challenge for the player. Sometimes the aliens even cut in from the sides of the screen instead of just running up behind the bike, so players hoping to hug the screen’s margins for the entire round are in for a nasty surprise. Constant movement is key to survival in SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

Omega3

I’m not sure swarming aliens are covered on my insurance…

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s twitch-happy bike rally makes for one of the most fun arcade challenges of the year. Players who thrive on high-difficulty, high-speed games will relish keeping the aliens at bay. Much like Machado’s previous games, SWARMRIDER OMEGA rewards players who have quick reflexes and a keen eye for sudden movement. SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s smooth, tight controls grant the visceral feeling of power that could only come with being a cyborg angel on a motorcycle.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA also does a better job of staying unpredictable than its predecessor. Whereas in the original SWARMRIDERS enemies came and went at a predictable pace, SWARMRIDER OMEGA keeps players guessing when the next big tide of aliens is coming ’round the mountain. This makes the game different every round, which is essential for a title whose rounds rarely last more than two minutes. What a two minutes, though!

Omega4

KICK IN THE TURBO!

SWARMRIDER OMEGA makes shooting aliens from a motorbike all the cooler with crunchy retro visuals. Much like the UBERMOSH games, SWARMRIDER OMEGA is built from the ground-up to look like an old arcade title. Character models, animations, even the clouds of smoke are all heavily pixelated to make the game look at home in a lineup of retro shooters. Combine this look with bright neon colors, and the result is a game that screams cyberpunk.

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s simpler aesthetic also results in smooth system performance. The game’s system demands barely constitute a ghost in the machine, meaning that the game can run on PCs new and old. While SWARMRIDER OMEGA gets props for running like silk, it’s a shame that the game has absolutely no options menu. It’s true that the game’s old-school setup precludes most performance problems that plague other modern titles, but putting in a few options to help players out in case problems do arise is never a bad thing.

Omega5

Where is the option for a seat belt?!

SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s visuals are a solid foundation for its gritty sci-fi atmosphere, but the game’s soundtrack is truly where that grit sinks in. Machado’s games feature an eclectic variety of sounds ranging from heavy metal to industrial, but SWARMRIDER OMEGA opts for dark electronica. With quick pulses and grimy textures, SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s soundtrack is an ideal companion for the half-human, half-machine road warrior. It’s also available as a separate purchase on Steam.

Though SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s soundtrack crashes in with enough force to topple buildings, its other sound effects are strangely muted. The sounds of the Blade Saint’s gun and of the aliens dying contrast starkly with the UBERMOSH saga’s much more forceful sounds. Machado should consider implementing a patch that makes SWARMRIDER OMEGA‘s sounds just as fierce as those of his other games; it would reinforce OMEGA‘s visceral vibe and make the guns feel far more powerful.

Omega6

Is the silencer on?

Luckily for SWARMRIDER OMEGA, the lack of an options menu and headphone-incinerating noise does little to dispel the fun of shooting aliens from a motorbike. Anyone in the mood for a few rounds of vicious, fast-paced shooting should pick the game up, especially since it’s only one lousy dollar. Walter Machado has once again proven his mastery of short-form fun, packing a lot of challenge and surprise into only a few minutes of gameplay. It’ll be worth seeing what he does next year, just as it’s worth staying ahead of the bad guys in SWARMRIDER OMEGA.

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You can buy SWARMRIDER OMEGA 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.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Ops1

Discover why your squadmates went rogue.

PC Release: November 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

The end is here at last. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the final installment in this quest to figure out where CoD came from and where it’s going. Like Black Ops IIBlack Ops III bears an uncommon dedication to twisting CoD‘s conventions into new and unfamiliar forms. The catch to change, though, is that deviating from the beaten path doesn’t guarantee newfound success.

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Developed by the longtime CoD-heads at Treyarch, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the twelfth Call of Duty in Activision’s long-running, bad guy-shooting series. The game is set 40 years after the events of Black Ops II, in which a Nicaraguan narco-terrorist nearly brought the world to its knees simply by hijacking a fleet of drones. The year is now 2065 (more future CoD, hooray…), and all the world’s countries now sport impenetrable air defenses in case the robots rise up again.

With everyone suspicious of so much as sparks from a toaster, the only way for nations to conduct warfare is to use teams of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. In a first for the CoD series, players can create their own character with a variety of cosmetic options, and can even choose to play as a woman (surprising for a series as seemingly gynophobic as CoD). Once they’ve created their character, players join up with their own squad to undertake hazardous missions in a dystopian future.

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Sweeeeeet…

It’s worth pointing out right away that the only thing Black Ops III shares with its predecessors is the name “Black Ops.” Most of the characters in this sub-series aren’t all that interesting anyway, but their absence from Black Ops III‘s story campaign makes this title feel isolated from its peers. Black Ops III seems to be insecure about this fact, because the game rather conspicuously shoehorns a plot device from the first game into the ending. That’s about all the shoutouts that Black Ops fans can expect.

The characters that Black Ops III introduces to fill those holes aren’t very memorable either. The player character speaks every so often, but they’re devoid of personality and restricted only to heavily scripted, soullessly delivered dialogue. The character’s NPC squadmates are dead ringers for past CoD niches: there’s the overly angry sergeant, the computer nerd, and the guy who waxes philosophical about freedom and ethics. Treyarch couldn’t be asked to make these gunslingers a bit more endearing.

Ops3

You might say that this game has a few… Crysis moments.

Anyway, after spending a few years as a half-human, half-robot, all-American killing machine, the player character gets a phone call informing them that the rest of their team has gone rogue. Their new mission is to find out why, with only the aforementioned angry sidekick and the shy gamer girl to keep them company. Apparently the AWOL members of the player’s team have been exhibiting weird behavior, such as intent to bring down the CIA from the inside. That’s probably worth looking into.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this review that Black Ops III tries to make some changes to CoD, and narrative is first up on that chopping block. Black Ops III‘s premise and moment-to-moment dialogue makes for some of the series’ most yawn-worthy exposition, but the game does get a few points for experimenting with abstract psychological horror. More than once, the player character is pitted against mind-shredding hallucinations set in weird nightmare worlds, which both deepens the atmosphere and comprises a far cry from CoD‘s usual chopper-running.

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Where are we?

The idea of running around in a robot nightmare may sound cool on paper, but don’t get that wallet out just yet. Even though the player character can dive into their rogue squadmates’ brains and play around inside their darkest memories, those exposes almost never serve the narrative. Black Ops III seems more interested in letting players fight through nightmare worlds for the sake of fighting through nightmare worlds instead of actually advancing the plot. Until the very end, these vignettes all end with “I actually don’t know why we’re rogue, but the NEXT person definitely will!”

Unfortunately for Black Ops III‘s notion of depth, it takes a lot more than fighting ghostly Nazis in a floating snow field to construct a heartfelt or sophisticated narrative. Set pieces by themselves do not tell a story; the game has cool dream worlds down pat but can’t be asked to give players a good reason for being in them. That question is almost guaranteed to burn in players’ heads, especially when the game’s mystery mantra of picturing a frozen forest gets repeated ninety billion times.

Ops5

Are we awake yet?

Luckily for Black Ops III, there’s much more rhyme and reason to the game’s waking environments. When players aren’t busy running around in their frenemies’ heads, they’re exploring some of the most engrossing cyberpunk environments that gaming’s produced in recent years. Whether it’s the flooded ruins of a post-apocalyptic Singapore or the environs of a futuristic Egypt, Black Ops III‘s gritty fusion of technology and dystopia is to be envied. Good that these environments are rendered gorgeously; better that they’re rounded out with lots of beautiful lighting effects.

Unlike their ethereal counterparts, Black Ops III‘s corporeal realms actually make sense to be in. Players are given concrete objectives with which to explore these environments, and these help keep the narrative on track. Unlike virtually every other CoDBlack Ops III keeps its story confined to just 2-3 locations around the world. This represents a welcome change of pace from the senselessly quick globetrotting that CoD is known for, with multiple missions set in (gasp) the same city. Who dreamed that notion up?

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How scenic!

Although Black Ops III‘s environments certainly look cool, Treyarch continues to lag behind fellow CoD studios Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games when it comes to sound design. Guns in this game sound relatively muffled, as do sound effects like running through rubble or smashing through glass. Treyarch needs to take a page from its buddies and put in some clear-cut sound design: something that doesn’t sound like it’s being listened to through a Styrofoam head-wrap.

Even though Black Ops III‘s gameplay sound design is nothing special, the game bears the unusual (for a CoD) distinction of having an awesome soundtrack. The game abandons the conventional string-and-horn action music of its peers in favor of darkly textured synthesizers that sound straight out of Blade Runner. That’s probably no coincidence given the game’s gritty cyberpunk vibe, but boy does it sound glorious. It’s definitely one of the best soundtracks big-budget gaming’s produced this decade.

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The future is retro.

Black Ops III‘s levels have more to offer than a cool aesthetic and some retro tunes: they’re where one of Treyarch’s most ambitious gameplay change-ups comes out to play. Unlike all of its predecessors, Black Ops III can be played in 4-player co-op. The game’s levels thus shed the linearity of their peers in favor of expansive, open environments that multiple players can fool around in. Whether playing solo or with friends, players can pick different paths to the same objective instead of the single hallway littered with chest-high walls.

While the change to a more open level format is refreshing for CoD, it also reveals that CoD doesn’t know how to do open. Most of Black Ops III‘s levels are confusing mazes that are easy to get lost in. These levels are short on environmental cues or tactical opportunities, but enemies continue to spawn in from all sides. Black Ops III‘s idea of open is simply to dump a bunch of different hallways on the player and say “have fun”, instead of creating a functioning combat space.

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You, sir! Do you have a map?

It’s a shame that Black Ops III‘s levels are such a mess, because they’re meant to be the playgrounds for the title’s biggest gameplay innovation: augmentations. While Black Ops III‘s first-person shooting and health regen are virtually identical to those of other CoDs, the game lets players enhance their character with cybernetic superpowers a la Deus Ex. Whether it’s thicker skin or the ability to run along walls, players can pick a few different augmentations to suit their playstyle.

These powers’ biggest problem is that opportunities to use them are seldom. Some are restricted to certain contexts instead of being free to use whenever, which is an ironic call-out to CoD‘s fondness for giving players five minutes with the shiny toys. Players can buy more of these powers by acquiring upgrade points and switch them out between missions, but their difficulty of use dampens their potential.

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GIMME MY UPGRADE POINTS!

Black Ops III‘s multiplayer is still kicking, albeit with a much smaller community than when the game launched two years ago. Most of the maps consist of the same small spaces and static environments that all CoD maps do, which the use of jetpacks only does so much to freshen up. The “specialist” mode, in which players pick from 10 pre-augmented soldiers, does confer some Iron Banner-esque thrill to CoD even if one of the classes is locked off behind completing a series of challenges.

Despite a new XP system and a horror-noir setting, Black Ops III‘s zombie mode fails to make much of a splash either. Players can count on seeing the same undead home invaders that they’ve already seen many times before. Players in the mood for something new might want to check out Black Ops III‘s parkour maps, which force players to run up and through abstract environments like the challenge maps in the original Mirror’s Edge.

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I just want to run…

Black Ops III gets props for letting players be a female character and for having a great soundtrack, but the game proves that changes have to be implemented for more than the sake of change in order to actually work. The game is more different than any CoD before or since, but it’s not actually better. Its open levels are a change, but they’re roughshod. Its augmentations are a change, but they’re stilted. Its narrative is a change, but it’s nonsensical.

These net-zero changes mean that players won’t miss much by skipping Black Ops III. Hopefully Treyarch figures out how to make its attempts at innovation more meaningful, because everyone knows that CoD could stand more innovation these days. Meanwhile, Black Ops III serves as a reminder that attempting change is not the same as achieving change.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Black Ops III here.

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