Category Archives: Driving

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Project CARS 2

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Blast down realistic tracks in fine-tuned super cars.

PC Release: September 22, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Coming down the track now is Automobilista, a Brazilian racing sim that—oooh, right into the barriers! Coming up behind Automobilista is Assetto Corsa, an Italian competitor that looks to be doing quite well and—agh, it looks like the driver’s AI has shorted out! That’s okay, because Gran Turismo Sport is speeding down the track and… oh. Looks like it’s a PS4 exclusive. Disqualified! What’s this new vehicle sneaking up and stealing first place, though? It looks like Project CARS 2!

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After two years in the body shop, Project CARS 2 has finally released onto the racecourse. Created by the one and same Slightly Mad Studios that developed Project CARSProject CARS 2 is the developer’s latest attempt at snagging first place in the world of racing simulators. Like its predecessor, Project CARS 2 is a glossy title that lets players get under the hood (literally), and race dozens of super cars across a plethora of detailed tracks. Project CARS 2 emphasizes both customization and close attention to realism.

Project CARS 2 is a right and proper racing sim; anyone looking for a stunt racer or an experience more akin to, say, Trackmania 2 is in the wrong place. Trackmania is a great game, but it’s an arcade racer. Project CARS 2 is a game for the hardcore motorhead. The title boasts advanced car physics and features a lineup of real racing machines from prestigious manufacturers. The game also makes quite a few upgrades over the original Project CARS.

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Let’s do this!

Before going any further on Project CARS 2, the answer is yes: the sequel has Ferrari cars. For all the amazing driving that Project CARS offered, the title also offered a conspicuous lack of famous manufacturers. It’s hard to picture a racing sim that shows up to the track without the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche in its motor pool. Project CARS 2 rectifies that issue right away, sporting cars from all three of those companies as well as Nissan, Jaguar, and other new additions. It makes for an impressive gallery of cars.

Of course, this also means that players have more vehicles to choose from in Project CARS 2 than most other racing sims out there. With all of these manufacturers each featuring diverse classes of vehicles, Project CARS 2 offers up a delectable (and enviable) garage of possibilities. Players can access these vehicles at any time for offline test runs or multiplayer matches. It’s worth testing each vehicle out on the track first; no use getting into a high-stakes race with a vehicle that has unfamiliar handling.

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(creepy drooling noises)

Another improvement that Project CARS 2 makes over its predecessor is that it has even more customization options. In Project CARS, players could make a few suspension and tire pressure adjustments, but Project CARS 2 flings the toolbox wide open. Players can continue to customize tire pressure but can now make new adjustments to their car’s suspension, dampeners, and gearing. The amount of customization available in this title marks a significant improvement over that of the original Project CARS. Players who mouse over different functions can get a pop-up window explaining how they work.

Additionally, Project CARS 2 features a new “Race Engineer” utility that allows players to select queries about car performance and get the game’s take on them. The feature is a thinly disguised troubleshooter, but it’s a great way for players new to racing sims to get the facts on car performance, as well as recommendations for fixes and improvements. The Race Engineer is a great olive branch for both newbs who have no clue what they’re doing (ahem) or vets that want the game’s opinion on their setup.

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‘Scuse me, how do I activate the cup holders?

Though Project CARS 2‘s customization improvements are a boon for all racers, the game’s willingness to provide information makes it one of the most user-friendly racing simulators on the market. Racing sims can overwhelm and unsettle players new to the scene with all the customization options, but Project CARS 2 circumvents intimidating newbs by going the extra mile to provide detailed, concise information on how race cars work.

Project CARS 2 also makes itself user-friendly by streamlining its menus. The menus in Project CARS were a bit of a jumble, but Project CARS 2 benefits from a simple, clean UI. Race modes and configuration options are all neatly arranged inside just a few menus, making it simple to navigate the game, pick modes, or tinker with system performance. Like Project CARSProject CARS 2 features an incredible options menu with dozens of in-depth toggles. Just don’t try to run this game on anything but a big rig.

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This is a well-oiled machine.  So is the game!

After selecting a car, a paint job, and a racing setup, players can take to the track. Project CARS 2 features a variety of race courses from all over the world. A few, like the Azure Coast track, return from Project CARS, but the game also features entirely new courses. In addition to customizing weather, players can now choose which season to drive in, among a few other new toggles. The courses are where players can see Project CARS 2‘s most dramatic graphical improvements, as the photo-realism (especially of the tracks’ backgrounds) is stunning.

Less dramatically improved are the cars themselves. Project CARS 2 doesn’t look all that different from the original Project CARS, but let’s be far; the original is a gorgeous game. Project CARS 2 doesn’t feature dramatic graphical improvements on its vehicles, but that’s not a big deal when the first game was already one of the most graphically sophisticated racing simulators. Players can expect more lighting, more gloss, and more impressive weather effects.

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Game? Or real life?

Project CARS 2‘s vehicles also don’t handle all that differently from their counterparts in Project CARS. Players accustomed to arcade racers might have some trouble getting used to this game’s more realistic driving, but few feelings are more rewarding than nailing down a super car’s handling. Project CARS 2 pays close attention to how a vehicle would handle in real life, and players should also remember that tire pressure and physical damage can alter its performance. Different tire pressure affects driving, different damage affects steering and alignment, so on and so forth.

One of Project CARS‘ biggest drawbacks was its draconian penalty system. Project CARS was infamous for having a system that would commonly ignore players totaling each other’s vehicles but bestow life bans for brushing against a barricade. Project CARS 2‘s penalties are a bit more consistent; players now get disqualified no matter what object they brush up against. Additionally, players that execute an illegal move like cutting through grass are now given the chance to return to their position in the race instead of being disqualified outright. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s definitely a bit fairer.

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You can’t put my car in the corner! LOOK AT IT!

Even though Project CARS 2 runs well on high-end PCs, the game is not without a few conspicuous issues. One of the silliest bugs causes cars to clip through race handlers as they emerge onto the track. Another issue is long stretches of time spent waiting for a game when a server is visible. There are also allegations that the game doesn’t register tire heat, but thus far these accusations are being made infrequently and by forum posters who are angry that they just lost a big race, so… take those with a grain of salt.

By and large, though, Project CARS 2 runs like one of its high-end vehicles. Even the most jam-packed races still achieve a silky smooth framerate. Players also won’t spend all that long waiting for a race to load, even if they front-load events with all sorts of changes and specialized adjustments. Running Project CARS 2 on a potato machine is still not recommended, but players who have a decent rig can expect decent performance.

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Woot!

Project CARS 2 distills all of this racing awesomeness into a few simple modes. Players can create a Custom Race, choosing everything from the number of opponents to the number of laps, or give different vehicles a spin in the Private Test mode. Most players are going to be found tearing it up in the Online mode, where racers from all over the world can gather. Players can also create their own events and make them public or private as they see fit. All of these modes are neatly arranged and concisely explained.

Project CARS 2 also features the return of the single-player Career Mode, in which players create a racing persona and take part in tourneys on behalf of fictitious driving clubs. The mode gives players more flexibility in choosing a starting point for their career, but otherwise remains about as dry as Project CARS‘ Career Mode. Indeed, it could be argued that the sequel’s Career Mode is even drier, as the game strips out the names and personas of the player’s racing crew (shallow though they may have been). Still, the driving AI is greatly improved, and players can now adjust its aggression.

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Coming up behind ya!

Project CARS 2 is best enjoyed with friends and human opponents, both of whom are plentiful as the game basks in the glow of its release honeymoon. Project CARS 2 represents a significant improvement over the original Project CARS and is one of the most customizable, user-friendly racing sims available. Players of all skill levels can expect to attain some success in the game thanks to its emphasis on fair penalties and thorough explanations of car functions. Get the game and enjoy some of the most fun high-gloss racing this side of PC gaming.

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You can buy Project CARS 2 here.

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

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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Liberate Victorian London from an authoritarian cabal.

PC Release: November 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Even in an age of unlimited sequels, Ubisoft’s devotion to churning out Assassin’s Creed games felt particularly gratuitous. Another year, another assassin running around killing people in an exotic locale. It wasn’t until the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, one of the worst big-budget games of the decade, that the studio checked its ego and realized that maybe, just maybe, fans’ patience was not unlimited. Before putting the series on a year-long hiatus, though, Ubisoft had one more card to play: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

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Released in the fall of 2015, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is, like its many predecessors, an open-world, third-person game that’s all about stabbing people. It’s the 10th Assassin’s Creed game released on PC in just eight years, making this series even more sequel-happy than Call of Duty. After the demise of Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014, Ubisoft released Syndicate a year later in the hopes of putting its flagship series back on track. Whether those hopes ever materialized is the subject of tonight’s review.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes the series’ secret war between freedom-loving Assassins and control-obsessed Templars to Victorian London. The game portrays the British capital as having been a bastion of Templar power for centuries, with the Assassin presence in the city all but obliterated. Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins living out in the boonies, decide (quite literally on a whim) to go to London and liberate it from its Templar masters. Whereas most Assassin’s Creed games take place over years or even decades, this title’s narrative takes place just in 1868.

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Time to go to merry old London!

Jacob and Evie unite with London’s last surviving Assassin and realize that the Templars do indeed run everything from banks to bilges. They control a good chunk of the British parliament, have a hand in all of the city’s most powerful industries, and rule the criminal underworld with a gang called the Blighters. In case all that wasn’t enough, the Templars are also searching for a Piece of Eden, one of those prehistoric mind control devices (because of course they are. That’s the premise of, like, every one of these damn games).

Jacob and Evie decide that the only way to liberate London is from the ground up, so they start the Rooks—the game’s titular crime syndicate—as a means of taking back power one city block at a time. Jacob decides to go after the Templar bigwigs running London’s various rackets while Evie looks for the Piece of Eden. Thus begins the latest battle in the millennia-old war between stab-happy freedom fighters and aloof control freaks.

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I think it’s time for a right proper slashing, eh wot?

Like all of its predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a third-person game that encourages players to explore a vast open world. Indeed, some might say that AC games are more about exploring than, y’know, assassinating people, especially considering all the collectibles. Players can pursue main story missions (which thankfully still involve assassination) or run around London gulping down tea and opening treasure chests as they see fit. Being a Ubisoft game, Syndicate is also rife with side activities like taking down enemy fortresses and stealing cartloads of crumpets.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does break away from its predecessors in some regards. It’s the first game in the series with two playable protagonists, allowing players to switch seamlessly between Jacob and Evie a la Grand Theft Auto V. Syndicate‘s marketing made a big noise about Jacob being a bruiser and Evie a sneaker, but both twins are pretty much identical when it comes to abilities (which calls the necessity of multiple protagonists into question). The game also introduces street vehicles and a few new gadgets for players to toy around with.

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‘Ello guv’na! *stab*

What’s that? New gadgets? Yes, Jacob and Evie get toys that scream steampunk. These include electric grenades great for making a “shocking” entrance and a line launcher that lets both twins grapple around London like Batman. That latter tool makes getting around the city both fun and easy, and it gives the series’ aged climbing gameplay a break. Jacob and Evie can also fall back on more conventional weapons like throwing knives and, of course, the hidden blade. Owing to the Victorian era’s open carry restrictions, most of the twins’ weapons are concealed inside canes and under cloaks.

Despite these new weapons, Syndicate‘s core gameplay remains little changed from that of previous AC games. Players can still hop around buildings, sneak along corridors, and stab unsuspecting enemies with speed and style. Syndicate also retains Unity‘s parkour-up and parkour-down utility (perhaps the one thing Unity did well) allowing players to hop up and down surfaces with ease. Unfortunately, Syndicate insists on tying the running and jumping functions to the same button, so inveterate AC players can look forward to more of the same free running snafus. It’s both fun and frustrating.

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Mistakenly grabbing a ledge is just as endemic to AC games as assassinations.

Syndicate‘s combat is much more forgiving than that of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Players have a small window with which to execute counter-attacks or exploit holes in an enemy’s defense, but that window isn’t minuscule like it was in Unity. As in previous games, players go toe-to-toe with several classes of foe, each with his or her own weapons. This system ultimately results in combat little different than the button-mashing of AC games past, but it is one of the series’ smoother instances of this system.

At the end of the day, Syndicate does Assassin’s Creed gameplay better than most of its peers… but it’s still Assassin’s Creed gameplay. The free running is still a bit clunky, the combat is still a bit too reliant on button-mashing, and traveling around the open world is more or less the same. Players can also count on occasionally missing the haystack when they leap off of a building. It’s the same set of core issues that’s been hounding the series for years, buffed to a slightly less problematic shine.

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Slow down slow down slow down SLOW DOWN

One major improvement Syndicate makes over past Assassin’s Creed games is its menus. This game has an even more in-depth options menu than past AC games, no doubt an attempt by Ubisoft to smooth things over with PC gamers after Unity‘s downfall. Players can adjust anti-aliasing and other functions to the tune of their own machine, and the game’s other utilities are easy to find. It’s a sad commentary on Assassin’s Creed when a game gets props just for having a decent menu, but that’s where this series is at.

Syndicate‘s aptitude with menus goes beyond options. Players can easily adjust Jacob and Evie’s appearances and arsenals from the game’s streamlined character menus. Managing the Rooks is also made simple with a one-page menu, which allows players to select upgrades like better weapons and increased revenue. This feature may not sound all that exciting on paper, but anyone who’s put up with Assassin’s Creed III’s economy menu or the mess of menus in Assassin’s Creed Unity will appreciate it.

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Just checking for options, sir, no need to be concerned.

Syndicate is a video game worth taking some time in the options menu for, because when it runs well it offers a gorgeous presentation. Ubisoft did well in bringing Victorian London to life on the small screen; the city is awash with thousands of sharp textures and beautiful lighting effects. The game fluidly combines pristine royal palaces and rotted slums into a single tapestry, one that players will want to explore. The game’s apt use of both dour and bright lighting, as well as the aforementioned textures and object placement, result in a world that feels alive.

Being an Assassin’s Creed game, though, Syndicate‘s character models could stand to gain some… life. NPC movements still look a bit stiff, and it’s sometimes easy to spot a clone-stamped character that was just in another crowd. Thankfully, Syndicate avoids creating huge crowds of people like Unity did, keeping the game safe from all of the performance issues that that decision caused in Syndicate‘s predecessorThough Syndicate‘s NPCs look like wax dummies, the game’s cutscene animations and facial capture are much more impressive.

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Them’s some good shadows.

While on the subject of performance, how well does Syndicate run on PC? The answer is that it runs better than Unity, but that’s not saying much, is it? Though Syndicate benefits from a steady framerate and alright optimization overall, the game is still awash with lots and lots of bugs. No facet of the Syndicate experience is bug-free; sometimes the HUD disappears, other times enemies don’t react to the player’s presence. Some objectives don’t feature an interact prompt. By far the weirdest bug is the one that both causes the audio to short out and the player character to walk around of their own accord.

The list of bugs goes on and on, and that’s a real shame for both Syndicate and the Assassin’s Creed series. After Assassin’s Creed Unity met its demise from an ungodly flood of bugs, Ubisoft had an opportunity to prove that it had a quality assurance department, even a quality assurance guy, somewhere in its corporate apparatus. Syndicate‘s slew of bugs, while not as bad as that of Unity, is still substantial, and indicates that Ubisoft didn’t adequately test for these problems before Syndicate shipped.

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Looks great, but why did the sound just cut out?

The amount of inconsistencies in Syndicate‘s system performance is outdone only by the amount in the main story. The game carries the Assassin’s Creed series’ adorable bastardization of historical figures to new lows, portraying Charles Darwin as a sneaky thief and Alexander Graham Bell as a guy who invented poison bombs when he wasn’t busy inventing the telephone. The game even finds a way to shoehorn a nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle into some side missions, which is just… why?

Not that Syndicate‘s fictional characters are all that great either. Jacob Frye is written as an irritating frat boy who dispenses arrogance at a teeth-grating clip. By contrast, his sister Evie is a far more likable character and the only one who seems to be taking this jaunt into merry old London seriously. Her level-headed demeanor and sarcastic wit contrast painfully with Jacob’s poorly written overconfidence, to the point that players may leave a cutscene having suffered a small stroke.

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These two couldn’t be more different.

The plot that all of these characters pursue is the same plot that almost every other Assassin’s Creed game shares: an assassin kills his or her way to a Piece of Eden. Syndicate‘s narrative suffers from using this same tired premise, but benefits from having a lighter, much more upbeat tone than recent AC games. This helps give Syndicate one of the better Assassin’s Creed narratives and proves that these games are at their best when they don’t take themselves so damn seriously.

Players who were hoping for a grim Victorian tale in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will find it in the game’s Jack the Ripper DLC. Set 20 years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper follows the Frye twins as they pursue history’s most infamous serial killer. The DLC allows players to even play as the Ripper in certain sections, and these are executed with an unexpected affinity for horror. The DLC’s side quests, like liberating prostitutes and protecting innocent suspects from being killed by mobs, are similarly morose. It’s a surprisingly fun DLC, one that demonstrates that horror can work in an AC game.

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Why so serious?

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a mixed bag. It has a decent narrative and a streamlined open world, but its gameplay is badly aged and it has a ton of bugs. Syndicate‘s narrative also doesn’t move the series forward in a meaningful way, continuing recent games’ frustrating habit of hinting at new concepts while ignoring hints introduced in other titles. It’s better than Assassin’s Creed Unity, but again… that’s not saying much. Maybe Assassin’s Creed Origins will provide the reboot that this series needs; might be better just to wait for that game instead.

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You can buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate 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.

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.

Audiosurf 2

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Race on zany tracks made from your favorite music.

PC Release: May 26, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Music is often compared to a drug, with good reason. It can have a profound effect on mood, outlook, and the desire to thrash one’s head back and forth like someone receiving an exorcism. How fitting, then, that Audiosurf 2 combines music with the psychedelic visuals associated with hard drugs. It also allows players to choose how those two media interact, for just as the atmosphere and composition of a song can affect mood, so too can those qualities of a game. Audiosurf 2 seeks to join music and gameplay together in creative ways.

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Created by Dylan Fitterer, developer of 2008’s AudiosurfAudiosurf 2 is a game that lets players ride their music. Simply upload a favorite song, plug in a visual theme, and ride a futuristic car along a road paved with that song’s notes. All the while, that tune is playing in crystal-clear quality. Players can also collect points that pop up along the track and execute combos to drive up their score. Just like in Audiosurf, players can select different vehicles and from a palette of different visual themes.

Once players have picked a song, a ride, and a theme, it’s time to hit the road. Audiosurf 2‘s music-seeking software makes finding a song on the hard drive easy as pie. The game comes with a few pre-packaged songs, but they’re not all that great. Besides, Audiosurf 2‘s best selling point is hitting a digital road to the tune of the player‘s favorite song, and it executes that function smoothly. That the game can build a track out of any song means that Audiosurf 2 has as much variety as the entire spectrum of music. It’s a cool feature whose novelty is matched only by that of the original Audiosurf.

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(furious headbanging)

Audiosurf 2 has single-player and multiplayer modes. Whoever can rack up the most points littering each track gets a spot on that song’s worldwide leaderboards. More popular songs have a lot of competition for spot no. 1, so uploading an obscure song is a great way to earn worldwide prestige on the cheap. Success in multiplayer requires knowing the ebb and flow of the song, and maximizing a vehicle’s points-earning ability. Similarly to Audiosurf, points take the form of blocks called “cars” and mosey along the road for players to speed through.

How cars are laid out and how the track flows depends entirely on the song. A slow or tranquil song makes for a straight shot of a race, while a fast song can produce one heck of a bumpy road. The faster the song is paced, the more difficult the track. Players can swap between three lanes of traffic to pick up points and fill three points meters at the bottom of the screen. Players may be expected to collect points while going over a series of speed bumps or even through a loop-de-loop, depending on how intense the song is.

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Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuchino in road form.

Although Audiosurf 2‘s track-building software seems little-changed from that of Audiosurf, the game features a larger palette of visual themes. Whereas players were previously restricted to a small handful of themes, Audiosurf 2 has a much wider selection of stylized racing worlds. Players can stick to the game’s signature Tron-esque racing corridors or opt for dusky cities, winter wonderlands, etc etc. Audiosurf 2 also has a thriving modding community, and players have created dozens of additional tracks to choose from. The Knights of the Old Republic swoop racing level is particularly fun.

On top of that, Audiosurf 2‘s visuals have received a serious overhaul over those of the first game. Audiosurf is a beautiful game, but its textures are blurry and its objects occasionally hard to define. Audiosurf 2 opts for much sharper visuals and brighter, more interesting lighting effects. The vehicles have much more defined textures, and some tracks feature reflective, well-lit surfaces.  The other elements of the racecourse, like the track itself and the in-game visuals that spawn and bloom around the player, are also significantly more beautiful.

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Audiosurf 2 is lookin’ sharp.

One of the issues plaguing Audiosurf was the game’s vehicle selection, which gave players a huge roster of different musical buggies and vaguely defined special abilities. Some vehicles might be better at gathering points arranged in a row, others might force false point blocks onto the track, so on and so forth. Audiosurf 2 nixes this issue by reformatting the different vehicle perks as racing modes. Now, players simply pick a mode where points are gathered in clumps instead of having to pick a vehicle that executes that effect. Players can now select a vehicle for how it looks, not what it does.

Even though Audiosurf 2 also does a better job of explaining each mode than the first game did, this title’s loading screens are peppered with weirdly written advice, like gathering points during “big moments” in a song. It’s possible that Dylan’s referring to loop-de-loops or something, but everyone’s idea of a “big moment” in a song is different. That’s the beauty of music, but it also obfuscates the meaning of the in-game advice. Players are better off sticking to the stated goal of the mode they’re in. Those tidbits, at least, remain clearly written.

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I’m supposed to do what now?

Audiosurf 2 also benefits from improved menu design. The options menu is a far cry from the barebones sliders and buttons in Audiosurf, with more ways for players to tweak their in-game experience. The menus for selecting races and songs have also been heavily streamlined and are broken down into three simple selection windows that make getting out onto the course a piece of cake. (By the way, my recent dieting is responsible for all these baked good analogies. About to hit day 90 of the diet and am hallucinating that everyone is birthday cake or a piece of pie. Maintain a safe distance).

Although Audiosurf 2‘s core menus are a sight for sore eyes, not all of the game’s interfaces are well-implemented. The YouTube streaming option is a crapshoot; at one point that mechanic’s implementation broke the entire game and made it impossible to play without streaming. That problem was eventually remedied, but the patch has since resulted in sound issues for many players. Gamers who buy Audiosurf 2 have noted, with alarming regularity, a complete lack of sound across all operating systems. A steady stream of patches hasn’t done much to stem the flow of these complaints.

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This game has a few glitches in the matrix.

More than a few Audiosurf 2 players have also taken the game to task for its inability to stream music from services like Spotify and Pandora, but making that kind of arrangement with the music industry can be murderously difficult. These companies guard their music with enough jealously to make a French lover balk, and that’s no hyperbole. Dmytry Lavrov, developer of 2010’s The Polynomial, mentioned to Art as Games that current industry laws make it very difficult for music games to stream songs and even use certain file formats. Truly, music execs are the Scrooges of the digital age.

So yeah, while only being able to use music stored on a hard drive may seem like old hat these days, Dylan deserves a bit of a break for not cracking into the most curmudgeonly segment of the entertainment industry. Music executives and industry leaders have guarded their holdings for decades, and it’s most likely that obstruction, not Audiosurf 2, that’s responsible for the game’s lack of streaming compatibility. Overbearing restrictions and copyrights are probably why Audiosurf 2‘s Soundcloud compatibility was abruptly stripped out a while back. Hopefully the situation will change someday, but in this age of overzealous DRM, it’s unlikely.

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The music rights are in another castle!

Audiosurf 2 offers a streamlined, reforged music racing experience over its predecessor, but players would do well to watch out for those aforementioned sound bugs. Give the game a go; if the sound still works, keep the game and give that music library a whole new meaning. If not, return Audiosurf 2 to sender and dive back into the first game. When Audiosurf 2 runs well, it takes the freedom and fun introduced by the first game to dramatic new heights. It makes racing on favorite songs a cinch and customization of the overall experience easier. Hopefully Dylan will continue to work on the game and address its rough spots, as he’s done diligently since its 2015 release, but Audiosurf 2 is worth at least trying in the meantime.

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You can buy Audiosurf 2 here.

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

Mass Effect: Andromeda

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Find a home for humanity in another galaxy.

PC Release: March 21, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Given the immense, well-deserved popularity of the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the most anticipated games of the decade. Releasing nearly 10 years after the original Mass Effect, the game’s been the subject of a lot of hype from both core Mass Effect fans and sci-fi enthusiasts in general. Speculation abounded following the announcement of a new game after Mass Effect 3; would it continue the tale of Commander Shepard? Would it be set before the Mass Effect trilogy?

What Bioware actually produced is an entirely new tale set long after and far away from those games, but how does Mass Effect: Andromeda fare with the bar set so high? The answer, much like conversation options in Mass Effect, is anything but black-and-white.

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Like its predecessors, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an epic space adventure game that takes place in a highly original sci-fi setting. In a galaxy where humanity is not alone and everything is powered by an element that can adjust an object’s mass, a group of human and alien explorers found a program called the Andromeda Initiative. Not content with “merely” exploring their own well-trod galaxy, the Andromeda Initiative’s leaders resolve to cross all the way over to the Andromeda galaxy to study and find their fortune there.

The bulk of Andromeda is set long after the events of the Mass Effect trilogy, but the Andromeda Initiative departs the Milky Way during the events of Mass Effect 2. The Initiative’s participants are put into suspended animation for the 600-year crossing to Andromeda and wake up on the outskirts of a whole new galaxy centuries after the adventures of Commander Shepard. By transporting Mass Effect to an entirely new galaxy, Andromeda provides a new playground for its sci-fi concepts and sidesteps any mention of the infamous ending to Mass Effect 3.

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Time to explore.

With a new setting and time period afoot, Mass Effect passes the protagonist torch from Commander Shepard to Pathfinder Ryder, the new player character. As with Shepard, players can create their own Ryder from a variety of facial features, though the options for doing so are surprisingly limited in comparison to the original games. Ryder wakes up alongside his/her fellow humans 634 years after departing the Milky Way, and after a few snafus, ends up becoming the Pathfinder, the individual charged with finding a new home for humanity in Andromeda.

Ryder and the other new arrivals from the Milky Way soon discover that Andromeda isn’t as peaceful as they’d hoped. The planets that the pioneers had hoped to settle have degraded into hellish landscapes unfit for life, and the cosmos are choked with a bizarre coral-like growth called the Scourge, which snags spaceships like bugs in a spiderweb. To make matters even more complicated, a hostile race of aliens called the kett is on the prowl in Andromeda, and they seem much more interested in shooting the colonists than talking to them. Faced with all these and other obstacles, Ryder has their work cut out finding humanity’s place in Andromeda.

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Ryder’s default male setting (center) and a few squadmates flanking him.

Although the challenges facing the Initiative are many, Ryder is not alone. Similarly to Shepard, badass squadmates with remarkable abilities seem drawn to the Pathfinder, and players will have a team of dangerous, capable buddies at their side before long. To explore the galaxy in style, Ryder is also given command of the Tempest, a sleek frigate that, much like the Normandy in the Mass Effect trilogy, serves as a mobile home for Ryder and his team. Ryder also has access to the Nexus, a space station that functions as the headquarters for the Initiative and is basically to Andromeda what the Citadel was to Mass Effect.

As with the original trilogy, Mass Effect: Andromeda incorporates elements of third-person shooting in its design, but the game is much, much more like the first Mass Effect than the second or third installments. Delightfully, Andromeda returns Mass Effect to the first game’s open-ended RPG focus, with lots of skills to nab, environments to explore, and items to find. The game does away with the more linear environments of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 and reintroduces the open, explorable planets that made the first Mass Effect feel so big. Ryder can explore these worlds on foot or in the Nomad, a space-tank-buggy thing that handles quite a bit better than Mass Effect‘s Mako.

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Andromeda restores the magnificent sense of scale lost in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3.

Players can equip Ryder with a wide variety of arms and armor, and further customize those accessories to suit specific playstyles. The Andromeda galaxy is chock full of mods like scopes and reinforced plating, giving players lots of options for customizing their loadout. Players can also do the same for their squadmates. Additionally, because this is an RPG at heart, Ryder levels up and can assign points to different abilities. Mass Effect: Andromeda does away with the classes of the previous games in favor of a Skyrim-esque, open-ended system that lets players pick and choose pretty much whatever skills they want. Though players are now free to pick all sorts of combinations, the game comes with a “profile” system that takes the classes of the original games and assigns extra benefits for using their powers in battle.

Combat in Andromeda feels pretty similar to Mass Effect 3, though the focus on staying behind cover has been somewhat reduced in favor of using jump jets to fly around wreaking havoc from above. Staying in cover is still a good idea, as Andromeda’s beasties are dangerous, but it’s not the only recourse for dealing with this game’s smart, persistent enemies. Unlike the Mako in the first Mass Effect, the Nomad buggy doesn’t come equipped with weapons, reflecting this game’s greater emphasis on exploration. Because he’s part explorer himself, Ryder comes with a scanner that can pick up nifty items in the environment and net rewards for players.

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I spy with my little eye something beginning with… an s.

Even though Andromeda‘s gameplay does a great job of balancing between exploration and combat, the game suffers a few alarming problems that go beyond shooting and sightseeing. For a start, Andromeda seems much more interested in exploration than storytelling, which is a bit of a problem for a series that built itself up on compelling sci-fi narratives. It also translates into a game that is absolutely drowning in pointless little fetch quests. Setting up a colony? Go mark 20 dead bodies or hit 10 rocks or plant five survey stations. Some might say these are similar to the radiant quests in Skyrim, and fair enough—but, they comprise the majority of missions in Andromeda, which is disappointing.

Additionally, even the game’s main and side quests leave a lot to be desired insofar as mission structure. In transitioning to a starkly open environment, Andromeda made its missions a bit too uniform. Most times players simply land, go touch an object, and then either escape or get into a firefight. The lack of mission variety in Mass Effect: Andromeda is disheartening, and it almost feels like the game has transitioned the Mass Effect series from tight sci-fi narrative to a big but empty MMO. This setup is further hindered by the game’s cumbersome menus, which Andromeda throws at players en masse with little explanation of how best to use them. The squad management screen in particular is one of the most badly designed options menus since Assassin’s Creed III‘s Davenport economy tool.

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Calibrate THIS, you swine!

Even if Andromeda‘s planets feel empty and full of fetch quests, at least they’re pretty to look at. The Mass Effect saga has never shied away from creating impressive worlds, and Andromeda contains some of the most gorgeous vistas the series has ever offered. Even the relatively desolate worlds are full of things to look at, with top-notch lighting and atmospheric effects to make it feel like more than a painting. The natural environments are the best-detailed that Andromeda has to offer, with the colonists’ prefabricated structures feeling fuzzily detailed by comparison.

For all Andromeda‘s skill with a brush, though, the game’s environments and characters suffer from a ton of bugs. Andromeda got a lot of heat for its awkward facial animations (everyone having apparently forgotten that Mass Effect has always had awkward facial animations). But that’s nothing compared to watching characters suddenly teleport from one side of a room to another, sink into the floor up to their thighs, or have their limbs twitch unnaturally during conversations. Sometimes NPCs will just wander out of the shot when Ryder’s in the middle of talking with them. Objects that characters hold will frequently disappear from cutscenes, unless that beer mug Ryder was carrying a second ago can turn invisible. Much more serious bugs and crashes have been reported by many players on multiple platforms.

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Bugs can’t live in the cold. The more you know.

Environmental concepts and funny faces aren’t the only things that Mass Effect: Andromeda borrows from its predecessors. The story, the thing that’s supposed to be the meat and potatoes of any Mass Effect game, feels like a retread of the previous three games. To provide a few examples, the Andromeda galaxy is riddled with ancient ruins left behind by an ancient alien species that died out under mysterious circumstances (like Mass Effect‘s Protheans), everything is being invaded by a warlike new species not known for inhabiting this part of space (like Mass Effect‘s Geth), and the antagonist is a genocidal maniac who wants to harness the ruins’ power for himself (like Mass Effect‘s Saren). These and other examples make Andromeda feel way too derivative of past games.

It also doesn’t help that Ryder’s squadmates feel like clone-stamps of previous squadmates. Peebee, the Asari squadmate, was promised to be nothing like Mass Effect‘s Liara, but she’s an excitable scholar interested in extinct alien races. Sounds an awful lot like Liara. Drack, the Krogan squadmate, is a shameless copy/paste of the same cantankerous bloodthirst that made Mass Effect‘s Wrex so popular. Cora and Liam, the two human squadmates, are almost instantly forgettable. Vetra, the female Turian, is by far the most interesting squadmate in the mix.

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System failure.

The force that’s ultimately responsible for this mix of re-used concepts and uninteresting characters is sub-par writing. Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the sci-fi epics penned under the masterful hand of Drew Karpyshyn, Bioware’s original lead writer. Dialogue in Mass Effect games has never been natural, to be fair, but it’s taken to awkward new extremes in Mass Effect: Andromeda. No matter what personality traits the player picks, Ryder is a deeply unlikable protagonist, cracking forced, awkwardly written jokes at the worst possible moments. Players will have genuine difficulty understanding some of the conversations that happen in this game.

Of course, mediocre writing also makes for slipshod and inconsistent character development. Characters will throw mini tantrums and then calm down within a split-second. Some characters will express admiration for some traits only to admonish them a few hours later.  None of this is to say that some characters don’t have interesting moments, like the Irish scientist’s discussions of her faith or the Andromeda native’s take on Milky Way culture, but those moments are few and far between. It was interesting of Bioware to do away with the Paragon/Renegade conversation choices, but that formula change does little to ameliorate the situation. In the original Mass Effect, interesting conversations, despite their occasional awkwardness, were the rule, not the exception.

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Do you have anything interesting to say?

Between the plethora of fetch quests, the bewildering options menus, the derivative main story, and the mediocre writing, Mass Effect: Andromeda can’t help but feel like a step back for this beloved sci-fi franchise. All of these problems seem to have less to do with a specific design philosophy and more with not knowing what to do with the game’s composite parts. Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like somebody poured the Mass Effect trilogy’s various bits and pieces into a big bowl, slapped a label on that bowl, and shipped it off to be sold for $60 a pop. Everything is just so… messy. So unrefined. There are a ton of ideas screaming for attention in this game, but the production is so unorganized that they never quite come together.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will sate hardcore fans looking for any sort of sortie into one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, but newcomers are better off playing the original series and perhaps just staying there. Even the very first Mass Effect game, for all its admitted clunkyness, feels more streamlined than Andromeda. This game’s design issues run too deep for any patch to fix, and the emphasis on exploration, while welcome, is disappointingly unwieldy. In short, it’s by no means a must-have for fans of sci-fi RPGs, and at best is probably better off purchased during a sale.

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You can buy Mass Effect: Andromeda 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.

Real Life

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I’m throwing in the towel on game reviews.

PC Release: February 6, 1991

By Ian Coppock

Hi folks,

This is a difficult post for me to write. As many of you know, I’ve been reviewing video games for over four years now. It’s hard to believe. But with the onset of several new developments and a general desire for change, I’ve decided that I’m going to stop reviewing video games for the foreseeable future. Instead, I’m going to start reviewing and discussing things that happen to me in my daily life, and Art as Games is going to become the page for those observations. To get things started, I decided to take a look at my waking, everyday life as if it were a video game. So sit back, relax, and let’s take a glimpse at what’s happening out in the real world.

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Real Life is set in modern-day Salt Lake City, Utah, and follows the exploits of, well, me. I’m best known in my local neighborhood for drinking beer, writing creatively, playing video games, and drinking beer. Originally I’m from a small rural community up north, but I’ve been drinking and gaming in Salt Lake for the past few years. I try to make visits up north, but you need a piece of cheese and a farming implement in order to gain entry into Cache Valley, which makes things annoying.

My skills and abilities? Geez, I dunno, um… amazing liver? Decent aptitude with the words? Oooh! An unparalleled ability to give people a “really?” face. I wielded a gun once and probably did a better job nearly shooting at myself than hitting targets, and I regularly get my ass kicked in sword fights with my toddler godsons. Sooo… I guess that the cynical writer with the drinking problem is who our protagonist is going to have to be.

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Geeeeezus, this alcoholic nerd is seriously the protagonist of the story?

The plot of my life is set in and around Salt Lake City, with a few forays into Provo and Logan but not much more than that (I don’t like to budge from my game and beer-filled roost). After coming to Salt Lake, surviving college, and starting up Art as Games, I worked a variety of odd jobs ranging from advertising planner to editorial assistant to part-time taco chef. At these jobs I became known not only for drinking a lot and writing a lot, but also being a single man who owns a cat, which apparently means that I’ve given up on both love and life. But I don’t care about society. My cat’s a chill dude.

Everything changed in the summer of 2016, when I met up with a gaggle of kooky characters who called themselves “GeekFactor.” Everything about them seemed a bit off; there was the overenthusiastic, Five Nights at Freddy’s-hating CEO, the Editor in Chief with the really unhealthy Harry Potter obsession, and most of all, the curly-haired maniac who understands audio equipment much more than I understand his acceptance of No Man’s Sky. They took me prisoner and forced me to write content for their website, an arrangement that continues to this day. Please help me.

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Not only is the nerd our only protagonist, this little cat is his only squadmate.

So, how does the gameplay of Real Life stack up to the titans of the modern gaming world? Movement is pretty simple, I can walk around (running is another story) and use a car to drive to points on the map that are further away. Unfortunately, the cars in Real Life require gasoline, which is a level of detail too far. The game also seems to be stuck in permanent survival mode, as I have to eat and drink regularly in order to maintain my HP. Worse still, I can’t just eat endless quantities of food without consequences; eating 20 sweetrolls makes me gain weight! Too much realism, devs. Too much realism.

There are a few perks to this game’s gameplay though. For a start, I live in a pretty beautiful area. The graphics outside look spectacular, even on snowy days. Salt Lake has its drawbacks, but it’s a small, gleaming city set against spectacular mountains, and there’s a fair amount to do (besides drinking). The lighting setup is pretty good when the pollution isn’t out in force, and the atmosphere is usually pretty light and friendly. This isn’t a horror game, but that’s probably for the best. It’s nice to get out and walk around from place to place.

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Hey, look! A tavern! Wonder if there are any side quests or bounties in there…

I give the GeekFactor staff a lot of grief, but to be honest, they’re a decent group of NPCs. So are most people I encounter in my waking life; my friends have undergone believable character development arcs. Coworkers are generally pretty good too, though the developer made their conversation options a bit too limited. Sometimes that’s okay, like when I’m just getting into the office and haven’t had coffee yet. Of course, everyone encounters NPCs who aren’t so great, but there seems to be a believable balance of allies and antagonists in this world. Things are generally peaceful, there are no pandemics or great wars (at least at the moment) like in other games, so that’s good.

Real Life is set in a world-sized open world. I usually keep to myself in my player house in Salt Lake City, but occasionally I’ll scrounge up enough rupees to travel elsewhere. The one major drawback with this system is that traveling is outrageously expensive, and money is hard to come by. You can’t just pull gold coins out of barrels or rupees from cut grass (if that were true I would’ve made millions as a lawnmower and retired at age 16). Nope, characters actually have to spend their days toiling for cash to go do fun things. The key to beating this system is finding a job that’s fun to do. For me that’s definitely anything having to do with writing.

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NO WAY! The health potions in this game make you evolve?!

But you can’t just stay at a day job and refrain from spending money all the time. Fiscal responsibility counts for a lot in Real Life, but eventually, some questing is called for. Quests come in many forms that go beyond doing the same job day in and day out: maybe travel somewhere you’ve never been, try a restaurant for the first time, etc. In my case, I decided that since games are what I know best, I’d venture into a locale teeming with danger to seek my fortune and beat back monsters.

After wandering around Salt Lake for a while, I found what seemed to be a great location to do battle: the Salt Palace Convention Center. Yeah, yeah, it’s called a convention center, but it has Salt Palace in the name, which sounds like a dungeon you’d see in The Legend of Zelda. With fist drawn and coffee at the ready, I ventured into the palace to seek out foes and find a big ole chest of gold.

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C’mon! It said PALACE in the name! Where are the Emperor’s Royal Guardsmen? The orc raiding party? Hellooooooooooo?

Unfortunately, despite being a cool building, the Salt Palace had little in the ways of foes to dispatch or treasure to reclaim, so I just drank my coffee and left.

Sometimes Real Life can feel dull and frustrating. Sometimes jobs get lost, people turn out to be rude, and the world at large feels a bit scary. Other times, though, Real Life does a decent job of churning out little springs to your step when the player least expects them. Plus, things could always be worse; there could always be an actual pandemic like in Plague Inc, or an actual huge, pointless war like in Call of Duty. Yes, though Real Life isn’t a perfect game, it’s not terrible by any means. Sometimes the game is best played just sitting back and thinking about it instead of charging headfirst into a convention space looking to fistfight the nearest custodian. Just a pro tip.

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Real Life isn’t too shabby.

There’s one more little detail about this article that bears mentioning: April Fool’s!

I’m not actually giving up game reviews. I don’t actually have any plans to turn this site into a review of daily life. In fact, in the next few months, I might be looking to write even more content, and potentially star in a YouTube show with that aforementioned curly-haired maniac. This joke review was written for your viewing pleasure, to commemorate this most holy of April Fool’s days, and as a thanks to you for reading my stuff. I’m going to keep reviewing video games probably until I die, so don’t sweat these disappearing anytime soon. I’ll be here… I’ll always be here… mwahahahahaha (ahem).

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You can buy Real Life 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.

Kona

Kona1

Investigate a deserted town and the whereabouts of its inhabitants.

PC Release: March 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Horror games can be a great way to beat the heat. That assertion may seem premature with the first day of spring having only been a few days ago, but between summer’s rapid approach and the appalling disinterest in combating global warming, hot temperatures will be here quicker than split infinity. Ideally, though, a horror game’s thrills and chills should be much more than a means of temperature control. They should be the result of a spooky world with a thick atmosphere, something that gamers can get rapidly sucked into. It’s time to see if Kona, the subject of tonight’s review, has a spooky world going for it.

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Kona is a first-person mystery horror game developed by a small French Canadian studio called Parabole. It’s the rarest of video games in that it started out in Steam’s Early Access program and was actually seen through to completion. Few are the Early Access games that actually make it through the front door instead of being left to languish in a half-completed state. The first 30% or so of Kona was available in Early Access for the better part of a year, but with the finished product now on the market, it’s safe to review.

Kona is set during the winter of 1970 and casts players as Carl Faubert, a private investigator. The game begins as Carl makes his way to a remote village in northern Canada at the behest of local businessman William Hamilton. Someone has been vandalizing Hamilton’s businesses, and Carl’s been hired to catch the culprit and bring them to justice. Carl eventually makes it to the town, but when he gets there, he finds it abandoned. The townsfolk have vanished from their village and from what Carl can tell, they left in a hurry.

Kona2

Helloooo? Bonjouuuur?

As he travels around the village, Carl makes a far more disquieting discovery: a few villagers flash-frozen in ice as they were fleeing from an unknown threat. Indeed, unnatural formations of glowing ice dot the entire village, and are incredibly cold to the touch. With his investigation into vandalism having grown into something much more serious, Carl sets out into the fierce Canadian winter to solve the mystery of the missing townsfolk, and what they were fleeing from.

Kona‘s icy tale is a suspenseful story that combines elements of adventure, horror, and survival gameplay. Players progress in Kona by exploring the village, gathering clues, and solving simple puzzles. It’s up to Carl to figure out why the town is abandoned and how the flash-frozen villagers he encounters met their fates. He can also spend time learning the villagers’ stories and investigating buildings off the beaten path. Carl doesn’t talk much, but the story is narrated by a grandfatherly Canadian whose wit and suspense-building are well-written.

Konaa3

You have a dead body, but no jerky or Crown Royal. Worst Canadian convenience store ever.

As one might expect of a game that has such an eerie premise, Kona is a spooky title. The entire production is cloaked in an atmosphere as claustrophobic and foreboding as the blizzard that rages through its town. The game’s horror comes from investigating the blacked-out buildings and who knows what awaits inside, as well as avoiding the ravenous wolves that patrol the wilds outside town. Of course, wolves can’t freeze people in ice or drive an entire town to flee, so players can bet that there’s something far worse skulking around in the trees.

Kona also incorporates light survival elements into its production. Players have to stay alive by lighting fires and scrounging for supplies, as Carl can easily freeze to death or succumb to injuries if players aren’t careful. Supplies are usually pretty close at hand, though, so while playing Kona does require some survival aptitude, the game isn’t a hardcore wilderness simulator like The Long Dark. No, Kona‘s focus is much more on story and atmosphere than ransacking cabins for granola bars (though players can do that too).

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I’m going to be honest for a sec, I don’t want to go in there.

The meat of Kona‘s gameplay comprises exploring the village for clues. Kona is set in a small but vibrant open-world map, about the same size as that of Firewatch. It’s easy to get lost or freeze to death out in the snow, but luckily players can also drive from house to house in Carl’s truck (be sure to gas it up first). Investigating surroundings is usually pretty simple; just walk up to the item of interest and touch it or take a photo. It’s not the most interactive of gameplay setups, but similarly to Firewatch, the point is more what the item or narrative step represents than the gameplay involved.

That said, Kona still has lots of gameplay to offer in and around the story points. The exploration of abandoned homes is definitely the tensest part of the game, especially when Carl’s in the bedroom sifting through drawers and hears a loud crash from the kitchen. Carl has an inventory that players can slowly fill with the tools and weapons necessary for getting around, and can store excess supplies in his truck. Combat in the game is pretty straightforward; pull out a weapon, pray hard, and aim low. Usually, it’s best to avoid confrontations with wildlife and… whatever else is out there. Apart from these core components, players can also expect to have to solve a few puzzles.

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And people wonder why I’m a cat person.

Kona‘s exploration-heavy gameplay will sate fans of open-world and mystery games, but there’s something a bit tedious about how it’s all set up. As the game unfolds, players may need to return and re-comb the same areas over and over to pick up items they now need. It’s a bit dull to get to a certain point, realize Carl needs a previously overlooked item, and then spend hours combing houses the player already spent hours combing to find that now-essential item. The best way to head this little issue off is just to be as thorough as possible and leave no stone unturned. Don’t have room in Carl’s pockets? Pop the extra item in the truck.

Apart from that potential snafu, exploration in Kona makes for some spooky fun indeed. There’s an unbeatable tension in driving through blizzard weather, pulling up to an abandoned house, quietly opening the door, and creeping from room to room in search of supplies while wind and wolves howl outside. More than that, Carl’s after a story, and the game does a good job at leaving tantalizing clues behind. Carl picks up on everything from the minutia of everyday life to major clues about the mass disappearance, and all of it is masterfully narrated by the aforementioned grandfatherly Canadian.

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Oh God. I’m not going in there.

Kona‘s mysterious atmosphere is further reinforced by smart art direction. The entire game was built in the Unity engine, but it has an actual in-depth options menu instead of that pitiful little resolution panel players usually get when booting up a Unity game. Some of the visuals look dated, especially the clone-stamped patches of dirt, and the textures could be sharper, but the game’s blizzard weather is absolutely beautiful. Parabole’s designers did a good job of creating a foreboding winter landscape, where winter winds rip realistically through pine trees and one can almost “see” the cold inside every abandoned building. The interior and exterior lighting are both very well done, though character animations on both animals and… other things… need a touch of work.

The open-world map sports a mix of buildings and open wilderness, both teeming with dangers unseen. Carl can make his way up and down the map and weave through both deserted houses and copses of pine trees in relatively quick order. Straying too far from the road can be hazardous, what with all the wolves running around, but there are rewards out there for the discerning private investigator. In addition to the plot-essential areas needing exploration, Carl can deviate to “side locations” and uncover optional treasures and story points. The map is in pretty good shape; the one drawback is that it seems to have an awful lot of loading screens. Four or so loading screens over a relatively small open world isn’t exactly seamless.

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I feel colder just playing this.

Despite ending on a rather abrupt note, the central narrative of Kona does an apt job of tying several subplots into an overarching, terrifying story. Carl doesn’t exactly abandon his original assignment of investigating vandalism when he arrives, as it seems to be tied up in the disappearance of the townsfolk. As Carl makes his way through the village, Kona introduces more characters and plot threads at subtle, well-paced intervals. Even though these characters are being introduced post-disappearance by the narrator, Kona ensures that the player feels some remorse for their disappearance through a combination of well-written documents and more physical show-don’t-tell exposition.

Kona also provides a plethora of exposition on the local area. The village holds a lot of history on Quebec, and makes most of it relevant to the plot in some way (especially the spate of Quebec independence movements that were active at the time). Much like the documents and other exposition helps tie players to the characters, this material similarly provides some endearment for the setting (even though it’s a grim, forbidding, cold, and quite possibly haunted setting).

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WTF IS THAT

In the end, Kona largely succeeds at providing that grim atmosphere that both delights and terrifies. It offers a haunting setting and forbidding central mystery to chase after, and it taunts players with deathly obstacles all the while. Cap it all off with a heart-pounding, climactic encounter with an insidious foe, and Carl’s assignment to investigate graffiti becomes one of the most suspenseful capers since last year’s Firewatch. Horror, mystery and adventure gamers alike will find much to enjoy in Kona. In an industry teeming with developers who misunderstand subtlety, Parabole’s new game (and future productions) bear watching with great interest.

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You can buy Kona 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.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands

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Destroy a ruthless drug cartel from the inside out.

PC Release: March 7, 2017

By Ian Coppock

What would Tom Clancy think of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands if he were still alive? It’s little secret that the author, perhaps the great military fiction writer of all time, had nothing to do with this title beyond his name having been licensed to it. The same goes for Tom Clancy’s The Division and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, the other Tom Clancys titles bouncing around right now. Despite what his all-military subject matter might imply, Clancy’s prose is actually more subtle, and complicated, than the “get to the chopper, brah!” vibe that the games carrying his name give off. It’s time to find out if Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands goes beyond that vibe and approaches the subtlety, complexity, and enjoyment of the late author’s written work.

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Created by the folks at Ubisoft’s Paris studio, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a third-person shooter and, unlike previous Ghost Recon games, features an open-world setting. Set in 2019, Ghost Recon Wildlands follows the exploits of the Ghosts (no, not Call of Duty) as they’re dispatched to Bolivia to dismantle a ruthless Mexican drug cartel called Santa Blanca. The cartel’s led by El Sueno, who styles himself as a “modern-day Moses” that led his people to a promised land. In other words, he and his buddies arrived to Bolivia, seized all of the country’s coca production, and have turned Bolivia into a destabilized narco-state.

The Ghosts are called in to deal with El Sueno after Santa Blanca kills an undercover agent and bombs the U.S. embassy in Bolivia. Players can create their own point man from a variety of facial features and accessories, and are accompanied by three other operators. Their mission is simple: dismantle the Santa Blanca cartel from the inside out. Players will also have help from a local faction of rebels intent on taking Bolivia back from the cartel.

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Let’s do this!

Armed with cutting-edge military technology, player character “Nomad” and his/her buddies take off into the Bolivian wilderness to destroy Santa Blanca. As the title “Ghost” implies, Nomad specializes in stealthy combat, and is adept at quietly taking out enemies up-close or from afar. Players can customize the character to be a bit louder, but it only takes a few bullets for Nomad to go down in a blaze of glory, so caution is still a must in Ghost Recon Wildlands. Players can receive in-game assistance from the rebels while Karen Bowman, the team’s CIA handler, distributes mission objectives.

One more fun fact before we get into the meat of the game: Bolivia’s ambassador filed a complaint with the French government over Ghost Recon Wildlands‘ portrayal of his country. Bolivia’s interior minister even vowed to take legal action. Couple things to note real quick, guys: coca leaf production has been legal in Bolivia since 2009, and, oh yeah, the French government isn’t the one developing video games. Ubisoft responded by saying that their game is this new thing called… a work of fiction. Obscure concept, but check it out.

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And people wonder why I seek solitude from other people.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a very “safe” combination of all things third-person shooter. Players can look over their character’s left or right shoulder, sneak around, take cover behind walls, that sort of thing. Players come equipped with some state-of-the-art weaponry, but can find more out in the game world. The basic gist of each mission is pretty simple: sneak around tagging targets with either Nomad’s binoculars or the drone, then systematically take everyone out until the enemy base is devoid of enemies. Enemies in Ghost Recon Wildlands ain’t too bright, but they have quick reflexes and will start shooting pretty much as soon as they see the player.

After rescuing the rebel leader at the start of the game, players can destroy the Santa Blanca cartel pretty much however they want. Wildlands‘ vast open-world map is completely unlocked from the get-go, so players can drive (or fly) from province to province shooting bad guys and running jobs for the rebels. In addition to clearing towns and fortresses of enemies, players can tag supplies for the rebels, help them with firefight missions, and gather critical enemy intel to help them track down cartel bosses. When enough intel has been gathered, the team can drop in for a showdown with El Sueno or one of his lieutenants. Repeat until all the narcos are dead, and the game is won.

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Is it too soon for a get-to-the-chopper joke?

When the first trailers for this game rolled a few years ago, they portrayed a dynamic world that responded to how players completed missions. They showcased a game whose narrative might change depending on if the player went in quietly or with a salvo of mortars. Whether Wildlands actually ever had that or if this was just more marketing BS from Ubisoft, the ambitions the game seemed to have were scaled back. Each mission is the exact same setup: kill the narcos, touch the objective for a minute, then leave. The vehicles handle like bars of soap, and attempting to fly an aircraft is usually a death sentence.

Yes, though Wildlands might’ve turned some heads with its open-world setting and focus on tactics, it’s actually a pretty bland game. Even with four player co-op, doing the exact same mission over and over again gets old fast. Play the game for a few hours, and players have seen pretty much everything that Ghost Recon Wildlands has to offer. Approach a location quietly, use the drone to tag people, kill them before they can radio for help, repeat ad nauseum. Sure, Ubisoft’s known for pulling this sort of repetition with most of its games, but Wildlands is their purest expression of dull, repetitive mission design since the first Assassin’s Creed.

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Congratulations, Ubisoft. You made blowing s*** up boring.

Wildlands‘ narrative is little more exciting than its missions. Because the vast majority of the game is spent out in the wilderness gathering intelligence, the actual story-driven missions are few and far between. Bear in mind that the term “story” is being used in the most liberal sense possible, as even the missions deemed crucial to the plot consist of little more than some token military jargon, killing someone, and then leaving. Wildlands‘ plot is only even somewhat interesting at the very beginning and the very end of the game. Between those two points is dozens of hours of… nothing.

It doesn’t help that this game’s writing is atrocious. Even by Ubisoft standards, this is some of the most forced humor and outlandish dialogue seen in a big-budget game so far this year. For starters, the team speaks almost exclusively in tough-guy military acronyms… just like in every low-grade military shooter ever produced ever. The dialogue’s forced attempts at humor are laughable, and not in ways Ubisoft intended. The golden line “when life gives you lemons, kill everyone and go home”, is just… really? Is that seriously the best dialogue a team of so-called writers could conceive? The final nail in the plot coffin is that none of these generic dudebros undergo any kind of character development. Sure, the AI squadmates are supposed to be stand-ins for real-life players, but what about the protagonist? No? Alright then.

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Dude, bro, brah, bruh, broheim, check out that cactus brochacho.

If the existence of Assassin’s Creed Unity has a silver lining, it’s that it taught Ubisoft what happens when games release full of bugs. Since the fall of 2014, the company has done an uncharacteristically good job of making sure its products ship in at least working condition, with last fall’s Watch Dogs 2 perhaps the best PC port they’ve shipped in years. Unfortunately, while Ghost Recon Wildlands runs okay and has a fantastic options menu, a fair number of bugs and glitches came clung to its underside.

To give prospective buyers just a taste of what to expect, characters sometimes teleport for no apparent reason. Occasionally, AI-controlled squadmates just stand there instead of getting in the car with the rest of the team. Random crashes and server errors are also not unheard of. Most annoyingly, the game sometimes fails to load the next objective in a mission, leaving players stuck without a path forward. For example, the player can spend half an hour killing bad guys in order to steal a drug lord’s car, but even after getting in the car, the next objective may not load, necessitating a restart. Yeah, that’s not frustrating at all.

Wild7

#brolo

The one outstanding achievement Wildlands brings to the table is its environmental design. This open-world rendition of Bolivia is one of the most beautiful landscapes that Ubisoft has ever cultivated, and the developer’s cultivated its fair share. Though its accuracy is debatable, this big wild playground packs lots of environmental variety and eye-popping features. From the pink salt lakes full of birds to the steppe-like environments in the center of the map, Ghost Recon Wildlands is easy on the eyes.

Although the game’s lighting and atmospheric fog effects are also impressive, the game’s character models are much less so. The animations are particularly stiff, making in-game cutscenes look like weekly meetings of the Wax Dummy Society (another potential name for the band). The pre-rendered cinematics are nice, but they’ve got that generic military film quality to them, with lots of quick cuts and that overused classified document background.

Wild8

Oooooh.

Unfortunately for Ubisoft and its landscaping acumen, the studio has fallen for one of the oldest development fallacies in video gaming: mistaking spectacle for substance. Even though Wildlands‘ map is beautiful, it’s pretty empty, with each province containing about a dozen discoverable locations. It’s difficult not to drive through literal kilometers of uninhabited wilderness and, in spite of its beauty, wonder why it’s all here. What’s the point? Why spend years crafting this landscape if it has nothing in it?

More to the point, why spend years crafting this game when its gameplay is repetitive and its plot is soup-thin? Four-player co-op does little to ameliorate either of these issues, or the numerous bugs that Wildlands is still crawling with. Though this game’s scenery is beautiful, Ubisoft has failed to recognize that scenery alone is insufficient for a great game. A game world can’t just look pretty; it has to engage with the player. It has to compel them to fight for it for more reasons than just looks. Wildlands comes up empty on anything more than looking pretty, though. It’s a stale, generic shooter that amalgamates old ideas instead of innovating new ones, and is patently unworthy of anything having to do with the late, great Tom Clancy. Give it a miss. A very wide miss.

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You can buy Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands 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.